(Ed. note: On the heels of
Derek Zumsteg’s jaunt through Arizona,
Jeff Hildebrand is making his way around Florida. He’ll be filing periodic
reports during his trip.)
One of the reasons teams have trained in Florida for years is because there
isn’t much in the way of consistent, heavy rain to disrupt the spring
schedule. However, despite much of the state being in a drought, this March
has seen a lot of problems due to bad weather.
Monday brought more. The storm that had been threatening for several days
finally rolled in late in the morning and caused the cancellation of the
entire Grapefruit League schedule. Two weeks ago this wouldn’t have been
much of a problem, but with only a couple of weeks left before the season
starts, teams are starting to worry about pitchers getting enough work to
be able to go later into the games when the season starts. As a result,
there was scurrying all over the state as managers tried to figure out how
to set up simulated games for the pitchers in indoor batting cages. For the
fans though, there wasn’t much to see, so it was mostly a lost day.
Tuesday morning looked like it might be more of the same as a few heavy
showers moved through, but in Clearwater the rains subsided by noon and the
game between the Phillies and the Rangers went on, albeit under some fairly
chilly conditions by Florida standards. The players took various approaches
to dealing with the weather. Some players huddled in the dugout under
jackets while Bo Porter was spotted bringing a large cup of coffee
in from the clubhouse. Shortly before the first pitch, the sun finally
started to peek out and was met with loud cheers from the crowd.
The crowd was somewhat larger than usual for a midweek game, because this
was the first appearance ever in Clearwater by Alex Rodriguez. As
usual, the visitors only brought some of their regulars with them. A-Rod
was joined by Rusty Greer and Rafael Palmiero, but Ivan
Rodriguez, Andres Galarraga, and Ken Caminiti were
nowhere to be seen.
One irritating similarity between spring-training parks and regular-season
parks is their insistence on displaying silly stats on the scoreboard.
During the first time through the Phillies’ lineup, messages such as
"Doug Glanville has hit in six of his last nine games"
would be displayed. Well, assuming three at-bats per game (pretty typical
for this part of the spring) you would expect a player to get a hit about
60-70% of the time, so these messages, which seem to be intended to sound
impressive, are fundamentally quite uninteresting.
Once again, being very close to the field proved useful in observing the
pitchers. Bruce Chen throws a variety of pitches at different speeds
and the changes are quite noticeable from up close. So, too, is the fact
that some batters are fooled badly by him. Since I wasn’t behind home
plate, it was essentially impossible to tell whether or not the umpires
have stuck to their pledge to call a narrower strike zone, but it is quite
clear that they are indeed calling higher strikes. The players are still
adjusting to this; several players from both teams frequently looked back
at the umpire with "Uh oh, that wasn’t a strike was it?"
expressions on their faces. Right now, they are not complaining too much
about the calls, but once the season starts, I expect to see squawking
about some called strikes.
Many spring games have a tendency to get sloppy, and this game was no
exception. A 2-2 game through five-and-a-half innings turned into a
slugfest thanks to poor defense and highly combustible bullpens. Tim
Crabtree, who appears intent on challenging Tim Wakefield for
the shortest leg kick of any pitcher in the majors, got smoked in more ways
than one in the sixth inning. He first gave up a long home run to Scott
Rolen, then was hit by a line drive off the bat of Pat Burrell.
Images of Bryce Florie must have flashed through everyone’s mind,
but fortunately the ball had hit Crabtree’s glove hand and he seemed to be
fine. Burrell eventually came around to score.
In the top of the seventh, Wayne Gomes gave the runs right back. The
first batter reached on a throwing error by Jimmy Rollins that
pulled Brian R. Hunter off first base. (Several people in the stands
commented that now that they’re on the same team, the two Brian Hunters
really need nicknames to keep people from being confused.) Then,
consecutive balls sliced into left field scored two runs.
Next was the obligatory "We must have lefties in the bullpen so we’ll
try these guys!" parade. Texas brought in Mike Munoz, who
managed to sneak through an inning without damage. The Phillies then
trotted out Eddie Oropesa, who struck out the side.
As Jayson Stark
pointed out Wednesday at ESPN.com, Oropesa is starting to look like another
example of a player getting a break by playing really well at just the
right time. Signed as a minor-league free agent this off-season, he has
never been in the majors and spent last year in Double-A. He has a strange,
hunched-over stance on the mound (picture Snoopy imitating a vulture in the
old Peanuts cartoons) which serves to deceive batters, at least for
now. Because he’s been doing well this spring and because the team wants
two left-handers in the bullpen, Oropesa may very well start the season in
the bullpen. After teams start to figure out the goofy motion, this will be
revealed as a bad idea.
In the ninth, Jose Mesa pitched about as well as he pitched last
year for the Mariners, which is to say not well at all. Bo Porter doubled
with one out, scored on Mike Lamb‘s home run, and then Kelly
Dransfeldt nearly put one over the high center-field wall before
scoring on a single by a “not listed on the roster” special. (The name in
the box score is Monroe.) By this point the fans who had been opening the
inning with "As long as it isn’t [Ricky] Bottalico out on the mound we
don’t care" were now saying "Bring in Bottalico, he can’t be any
worse." The boo birds in Philly are going to have ample fodder this
year, most of it in the bullpen.
On the other hand, the folks in Arlington may not be too thrilled with
their bullpen either. Chris Haney took a three-run lead into the
bottom of the ninth, got two outs with only one runner reaching, but then
gave up a single and a home run to tie the game. After a scoreless top of
the tenth another mystery player (Randall according to the box score) gave
up a double to Burrell and then watched Lamb boot a routine grounder that
allowed the winning run to score.
Tomorrow is a bit of a road trip to a park I’ve never seen, down to Fort
Myers and the Red Sox. While I can’t find any announcements about starting
pitchers, I don’t think I’m going to be lucky enough to time it so I get to
see Pedro Martinez.
Jeff Hildebrand is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.