Punxsutawney Phil be damned, spring is officially here. At least, for those who are involved in Major League Baseball or are fans of the game. That’s because pitchers and catchers start reporting to outposts in Florida and Arizona today. Spring training workouts for many begin Thursday morning.
In every spring camp, there is at least one interesting player to keep an eye on, whether it is a veteran trying to hang on for one last season or a hyped teenaged prospect looking to make an impression on the major-league staff before being shooed to minor-league camp. Last time, we looked at one player to watch from each team in the American League. This time, let’s look take a team-by-team look at the National League clubs:
Braves: Jesse Chavez took a circuitous route to Dixie, as the Pirates traded him to the Rays for Akinori Iwamura in November, then Tampa Bay traded him to Atlanta for Rafael Soriano in December. Chavez, like most players who began their careers as Pirates, is anonymous. However, he throws very hard and the Braves think he can be one of the primary set-up relievers for Billy Wagner.
Brewers: Chuck Lofgren‘s performance didn’t always match up with his talent when he was in the Indians‘ farm system, but the Rule 5 draft pick has a chance to make his new club’s opening day roster as a left-handed reliever.
Cubs: Sam Fuld has quietly compiled a .403 on-base percentage in 124 plate appearances in the major leagues, which gives the faithful BP reader a shot at winning the fifth outfielder’s job and getting an occasional start as the leadoff hitter.
Marlins: Outfield prospect Bryan Petersen tore up the Arizona Fall League and could make a long-shot bid to be the opening day left fielder if Chris Coghlan, last year’s NL Rookie of the Year, is moved back to the infield.
Nationals: Drew Storen, their other first-round draft pick last season, was dominating as a short reliever in his professional debut and could prove ready to pitch in high-leverage situations in the major leagues.
Reds: Left-hander Aroldis Chapman received a $30-million contract in the offseason after fleeing Cuba, and while he seems destined to start his professional career in the minor leagues, he has the type of talent, highlighted by a 100 mph fastball, that could allow him to force his way onto the opening day roster.
Rockies: Lefty Greg Smith, part of the haul from the Athletics in the Matt Holliday trade, will try to re-establish himself after a rough 2009 that saw him battle the flu throughout much of spring training then have elbow problems in the regular season.
Jack Zduriencik, the man who spent a lifetime in baseball only to become an overnight industry sensation, gets much of the credit for the Mariners improving from 61-101 to 85-77 last season, his first as their general manager. His astute player moves have made the Mariners contenders to win the American League West this season.
However, a man who has also played an important role for the Mariners in a more behind-the-scenes way is Tony Blengino, a special assistant to Zduriencik. Blengino, then a Philadelphia accountant, was one of the innovators in using minor-league statistics to forecast potential major-league performance when Zduriencik hired him to work in the Brewers’ scouting department. Blengino was the first person Zduriencik hired when he landed the Mariners’ job.
It was Blengino who urged Zduriencik to acquire such players as center fielder Franklin Gutierrez to strengthen the defense, which the Mariners thought was the quickest way to turn things around. Blengino recently met with various members of the Seattle media to talk about the role statistical analysis plays in the Mariners’ decision-making process and Seattle Times veteran ball scribe Larry Stone reported some of the highlights.
While developing defensive metrics has become all the rage in the sabermetric community in recent years, Blengino said he does not rely on one magic number to determine a player’s defensive worth.
“My stock answer is that hitting is more of a science and defense is more of an art,” Blengino said. “With hitting, you can get a lot more granular with the data. We may get to the point where you can get as granular with the defense as you can with the hitting but I don’t think it will be quite that granular. I think the UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) is a great metric. I like on the Hardball Times site, the RZR and the Out of Zone plays because you can kind of split it into reliability and the ability to make a spectacular play. At certain positions, the ability to make the spectacular play determines whether you’re a plus fielder or not, whereas at certain other positions, reliability is what determines whether you are a plus fielder. Second base, you’ve got guys that make two or three errors a year. Reliability is huge. Center field, you’ve got guys who make one or two errors a year that aren’t very good because they don’t get to a lot of balls. The ability to make the spectacular play is what really comes into play out there. Right now, I still think it’s kind of in the emergent phase.”
The Rays showed that improving the defense could make a different. They went from worst in the major leagues in defensive efficiency in 2008 to the best in 2009 while also going from last place in the AL East to the World Series. After the Mariners and Rangers both made runs at the eventual AL West champion Angels last season in large part because of better defense, seemingly all the major-league clubs are now taking a harder look at fielding stats.
“I think defensive statistics have become a very significant factor in a number of clubs’ planning, and the way the free-agent market has played out,” Blengino said. “I think we’re still in the emergent phase, but if defense becomes fully valued at some point along the way in the marketplace, then something else will become undervalued, and we’ll just try to be one step ahead.”
However, there are still many baseball people who insist the only way to truly judge a player’s defensive ability is by observing him. Blengino was asked how the Mariners make decisions on players if their scouts’ reports do not match up with the numbers.
“Some decisions will ultimately be driven by what we see with our eyes, and what the scouts see with their eyes, and occasionally a decision will be driven a little more by the numbers,” Blengino said. “But there is still input from every aspect of the organization. And there are times when there’s a little bit of a, I wouldn’t say clash, but there’s a little bit of a discussion that needs to take place. And neither side is right or wrong. Usually there’s a shade of gray in between where the truth lies. Our objective is to find where the truth lies and to make the best decision for our organization.”
Jim Tracy will go to spring training with a team coming off a post-season berth for the second time in his eight-year managerial career. However, the 2010 Rockies will be a lot different than the 2005 Dodgers.
Former GM Paul DePodesta made major changes to the Dodgers after they won the NL West in 2004. The Dodgers fell to 71-91 in 2005 as just 18 of the 43 players who appeared in a game in 2004 remained in the organization. Tracy was fired at the end of the season and has never quite gotten over having his division-winning club dismantled.
“We had a 93-game winner in 2004 and I was really looking forward to coming back with a similar nucleus,” Tracy told the Denver Post‘s Troy E. Renck. “We were young and athletic, just like the team I have now. I walked in the clubhouse that first day of spring training and was shaking hands with three-quarters of the guys because they were all new.”
Tracy won’t have that problem this time when the Rockies’ full squad assembles in Tucson after winning the NL wild card last season. The Rockies return basically intact, with the most significant change being that catcher Yorvit Torrealba left for the Padres as a free agent, which means holdover Chris Iannetta will now see the bulk of the playing time behind the plate.
The biggest change of all is that Tracy is now the man in charge from the beginning of spring training. He was elevated from bench coach last May after the Rockies got off to an 18-28 start then fired manager Clint Hurdle. The Rockies went 74-42 under Tracy before losing to the Phillies in the National League Division Series.
“I am not going to ask the players to do anything in spring training that I won’t ask of them in the season,” Tracy said. “That’s the key with all of our players. There won’t be any kind of surprises. They will know what I expect of them.”
Diamondbacks manager A.J. Hinch also took over his club last May. Hinch was the surprise choice to replace Melvin as he was serving as the club’s vice president of player development and had no managerial experience. However, the change didn’t work for the Diamondbacks nearly as well as it did for the Rockies as the Diamondbacks went 58-75 under Hinch after compiling a 12-17 record for Melvin.
Hinch expects this season to be much smoother. The novelty of having a 34-year-old step out of the front office and into the manager’s chair is gone and the players seem to have accepted that Hinch is the boss.
“We, as a team, are past that,” Hinch told the Arizona Republic‘s Nick Piecoro. “One of my focuses was if we could just get to the baseball we’ll be a better team. That’s what we all need to be talking about. It’s a completely different vibe now and I wouldn’t doubt this team.”
Hinch was put into a difficult situation of learning his job on the fly and admitted he traded lightly through much of his first season. However, he called a team meeting in Chicago before the Diamondbacks’ final series of 2009 against the Cubs and felt like he completely cleared the air. Pitcher Dan Haren believes that year-end talk will set a good tone for 2010.
“He couldn’t come in here and just lay down the rules or whatever, because that would really push it,” Haren said. “He just kind of had to let it be. It will be interesting to see spring training, because he’ll be able to really come in and establish himself and the way he wants to do things. He can run it the way he wants to run it and go from there.”
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton says he will not experiment with his batting stance this spring, as he believes making changes last spring led to a sub-par season. … Blue Jays right fielder Travis Snider, on the other hand, says he will be more receptive to the advice of manager Cito Gaston and hitting coach Gene Tenace after admittedly tuning them out last year. … Dodgers manager Joe Torre says he plans to give Ramirez, catcher Russell Martin, and third baseman Casey Blake more days off this season. … Free-agent infielder Rich Aurilia is still hopeful of signing with his hometown Mets or Yankees, but that appears doubtful.