After spending the past month in Florida, Arizona, and at the World Baseball Classic championship round in San Francisco, I’ve made plenty of observations:
- I had a hard time warming up to the World Baseball Classic until this year. Most of the games this time around were interesting, and the fact that emotions in the Canada-Mexico reached a point where a near-riot ensued can only be a good thing for the future of the WBC. It shows people do care, regardless of the United States’ lackluster 10-10 record through the first three WBCs. And if you think players don’t take the WBC seriously, you should have seen the looks of sheer joy on the faces of the Dominican Republic team after it won the title on Tuesday night.
- Many American fans seem put off by the Dominican Republic’s histrionics during the WBC, including piling out of the dugout like a Little League team each time it scored a run and Rays closer Fernando Rodney shooting an imaginary arrow each time he recorded the final out of a game while the rest of his teammates pretended to see how far away it landed. It’s considered showing teams up in the major leagues, but I kind of like it. Baseball is supposed to be fun and it is clear the Dominicans enjoy playing the game.
- Here’s hoping Puerto Rico’s surprising run to the WBC championship game spurs more interest in baseball in that island nation and United States territory. Just 11 Puerto Ricans were on major-league rosters on Opening Day last season. It was touching to hear manager Edwin Rodriguez speak from the heart when he talked about how much the semifinal victory over Japan might mean to the future of the sport in his country.
- Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens should begin to draw some interest for major-league managerial openings after the job he did in guiding the Netherlands to the WBC semifinals. Meulens is an impressive guy—smart, personable and bilingual. “I’m perfectly happy with the job I have, but if anyone wants to call me about a manager’s job, I’m here,” he said with a grin.
- Of the teams I saw in spring training, none was more optimistic than the Phillies, who seem determined to put last year’s 81-81 season behind them after winning the National League East title the previous five seasons. First baseman Ryan Howard and second baseman Chase Utley are healthy, and manager Charlie Manuel believes outfielder Domonic Brown is ready for a breakout season. And as far as the Phillies being picked to finish third in the NL East behind the Nationals and Braves by many analysts, Manuel just shrugged. “If everyone wants to forget about us, well, that’s fine with me,” Manuel said. “Let them talk about Nationals and the Braves. We’ll just go about our business. That’s kind of the way I look at it.”
- It might seem like everything is falling apart in the Yankees’ world after third baseman Alex Rodriguez underwent hip surgery in January and first baseman Mark Teixeira and center fielder Curtis Granderson suffered significant spring training injuries. However, what struck me the most about being in Yankees camp is how they always remain unflappable. If there is any panic, general manager Brian Cashman, manager Joe Girardi, and veteran players such as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and CC Sabathia aren’t showing it.
- Tigers manager Jim Leyland had a great line about would-be rookie closer Bruce Rondon: “I know he’ll throw the ball hard. I don’t know if he will be able to throw it in the ocean, but he will throw it hard.” After watching Rondon throw on the side one day in Lakeland, I wholeheartedly agree. I have no idea how Rondon will fare if put into the closer’s role, but he certainly looks like one at an imposing 6-foot-3, 265 pounds. However, his dimpled baby cheeks take away some of the intimidation factor.
- It seemed odd to walk into the Blue Jays’ spring training clubhouse in Dunedin and see a gaggle of media hanging around. Following a winter in which they traded for Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, and Emilio Bonifacio and signed Melky Cabera and Maicer Izturis as free agents, the Blue Jays are big news in Canada—and the United States. It has been a really long time since you could say that.
- Entering the Dodgers’ clubhouse at Camelback Ranch felt like walking into one of the locker rooms at the All-Star Game—or the Yankees’ clubhouse. The Dodgers might have the most star power in the game following their spending spree of the last nine months. It will fascinating to see how everything comes together this season. “Pretty much the whole baseball world will be watching us,” second baseman Mark Ellis said, “and justifiably so.”
- I had an interesting conversation with $137-million right-hander Zack Greinke on how he felt sabermetrics had a negative effect on his pitching after he won the American League Cy Young award with the Royals in 2009. I’ll save that for next week’s On The Beat, though. They call that a tease in television.
- It was tough to watch Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum struggle in a Cactus League start against the Padres. It is difficult hard to understand how a two-time Cy Young winner has taken such a sharp downward turn at a young age. Though Lincecum insists he is getting things worked out, that thought was belied by the frustrated look in his eyes.
- Indians manager Terry Francona is recharged after taking a year away from the dugout to work in the ESPN broadcast booth. His energy and enthusiasm are back to full levels after getting worn out by the fishbowl atmosphere in Boston. Hiring Francona was a masterstroke by Indians president Mark Shapiro and GM Chris Antonetti.
- In a time when professional sporting figures seem to answer every question as if they are reading responses off a cue card, Cubs manager Dale Sveum is refreshingly honest and candid in his assessments. “We’re better than we were last year,” Sveum said. “Considering we lost 101 games last year, it’d be hard to be worse.”
- After getting flushed out by the Mets, outfielder Jason Bay is healthy and happy as he tries to restart his career with the Mariners. Yet he is not taking the something-to-prove angle. “It’s just best to put it all in the past and look forward,” said Bay, who signed a four-year, $66-million free-agent contract with the Mets during the 2009-10 offseason. “I know I’m a better player than I was in New York.”
- One of my favorite moments of the spring came when Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas, after taking batting practice on one of the back fields in Surprise, took it upon himself to shake the hands of the handful of fans that were watching and thank them for their interest. In 26 years of covering spring training, I had never seen that before. What a wonderful gesture.
The feud that has been quietly simmering within the Reds’ brain trust for months is about to come to a head; a decision on whether left-hander Aroldis Chapman begins the season in the rotation or returns to the closer role that he filled so well last season should be coming soon. General manager Walt Jocketty’s plan from the time he signed Chapman was to have the Cuban works as a starting pitcher. However, Chapman became the closer out of necessity last season when Ryan Madson blew out his elbow in spring training, and he pitched so well that manager Dusty Baker doesn’t want to take him out of that role.
“It’s a classic case of the general manager/manager divide,” said one NL front-office type. “The GM has to balance the present with the future in order for the organization to have long-term success, but most managers are only worried how they can win today’s game. I have a feeling this is going to get ugly if Walt decides to keep Chapman as a starter. Walt and Dusty have always struck me as kind of an odd coupling, and this could really strain their relationship.”
The main focus on the Braves this spring has been the off-season addition of the Upton brothers—left fielder Justin, acquired from the Diamondbacks in a trade; and B.J., signed to a five-year, $75.25-million contract as a free agent. However, catcher Brian McCann is quietly rehabbing from October surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. One scout who regularly covers the Braves thinks if McCann returns healthy in mid-April as hoped, then the Braves could overtake the Nationals in the NL East.
“I think people sort of overlooked that he was basically playing with one arm last season, but he still hit 20 home runs,” the scout said. “If he’s healthy, that’s another big bat in the lineup, and he makes them that much better. There is some concern because he has caught a lot of games in his career, but he’s one of the most underrated players in the game. He’s a really good offensive catcher.”