WTNYMarch 21, 2005
Mr. Smith Goes to Arizona
By Bryan Smith

My father neither worked for a baseball team nor managed a Spring Training game. His managing was confined to a league in which stealing home is as prevalent as third, and the worst player is always thrown in right field.

When pitching, my delivery was learned from him. My fastball grip was a product of his baseball knowledge, as was my swing. He had grown up in a time with no ESPN and no Internet, yet was just as much a fan as I. He bought me the first pack of baseball cards I had come across, and taught me the statistics on the back. He, not the men on the cards, was my hero.

Together, we have gone to hundreds of games. We saw the first Comiskey, the second, and the renovated U.S. Cellular Field. We've seen games as far west as the Kingdome, and as far east as Fenway. Games as meaningful as a Cubs playoff game, and as meaningless as an A-ball game in the summer.

What we hadn't seen - save a few games in Ft. Myers, Florida - was March baseball. It was proposed we do so this year, with schedules that matched for a week trip. Past vacations to Phoenix made us relatively familiar with the state that we would travel across. Four days, five stadiums, six games, ten teams. To echo Mastercard, it was priceless.

With programs and notebook at my side for each game, I came up with lots of notes on the stadiums and games we attended. Let me reiterate that I am far from a scout, so be sure to take my comments with some salt. Come away with me...

Game One: Athletics at Mariners- Peoria, Arizona

First visible from Peoria Sports Complex is an impressive one. Coming off the highway (110 W), you see a very well-built area of Peoria. Surrounding the complex are various impressive restaurants: Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Cheng's and Buca Di Beppo to name a few. There are also a few nice sports bars and a huge movie theatre, giving the area some surprising surrounding life.

There is no question in my mind that the complex is the best Spring Training facility we saw. Mind you, not the most impressive stadium by any means, but the numerous fields around the stadium give a good instructional feel. Since the Padres and Mariners share the complex, both have buildings around the stadium that serve as an administrative office/clubhouse, and probably split the fields.

As for the stadium itself, it is as generic as any. Like all of the ballparks, it was constructed to give a Native American feel and also supports the grass seating behind the outfield fences. The park seats 9,000, and on that day drew 8,965. There were more retirees in attendance -- perhaps a telltale of the town -- at this game than the others.

I would guess that the field favors neither pitchers or hitters, with rather basic dimensions: 340 feet down the lines, 389 in the alleys and 410 to straightaway center. In center there was a huge wall - over which I heard no one has hit - that guards a concession house right behind it.

Peoria Stadium's most unique nuance is the food. In my notebook I described it as a "carnival concourse" offering everything from turkey sausages to gyros to fried twinkes. The booths were built very colorful and unique, with tents that made me feel I was at the circus. Pluses in the food and surrounding area departments made the first park a positive experience.

Player Notes

  • Barry Zito was a mess. With seven hitless spring innings coming into the start, he hardly looked to be in midseason form. His curve was a mix between rarely being implemented and seldom finding the strike zone. And his fastball is just not good enough to get by hitters without the threat of his trademark hook. Two walks in the first frame, followed by four baserunners in each of the next two. Blez tells me that this was his problem last year, which isn't good news for an A's team dependent on his regression to Cy Young form.

  • On the other hand, Jamie Moyer looked fantastic. In the first two innings he threw 20 pitches, striking out three. After falling behind 3-1 to Erubiel Durazo, Moyer threw six straight strikes to get out of the inning. The A's looked thrown off by his style, which is pretty unique to Moyer. But I can't help watch Moyer and wonder had he not been in Safeco the last five years, might he be a pitching coach somewhere right now?

  • My dad accused me of coming into the game already sold on Shin-Soo Choo, but I thought he looked fantastic. Big, strong legs and a sweet left-handed swing. After being fooled by a curve against Zito on his first pitch, Choo stayed back well and drove the next curve up the middle. He later took an Octavio Dotel fastball to right. A poor defensive play coupled with his ugly Futures Game performance tells me Safeco centerfield will be too much. He'll hit enough for left, though.

  • Awful day for Keith Ginter. Two strikeouts, and some terrible defense up the middle. I've always liked him, but I wonder if the Bellhorn/Giles comparisons are far too much. He is slow to his right and botched a play that went down as a hit. Blez also tells me Mark Ellis has become the favorite for the second base job. Ginter is a swallowable infielder on a bad team but a bench player on a good one.

    Quick Hits:
    - Poor day for the A's defense overall. Eric Byrnes made a horrid throw to third from right, and Eric Chavez missed second on a would-be double play. Adrian Beltre could very well be the league's best defensive 3B.
    - Bobby Crosby is huge, with some of the longest legs I've seen for a shortstop. He's very fluid in the field, and showed a good eye with a powerful swing. Crosby and Khalil Greene are two of my favorites.
    - Also impressing me was Miguel Olivo and Justin Leone. Olivo should have a good season, and Seattle fans will like that he does everything (even run) pretty solidly. Justin Leone sure deserves a shot somewhere, I would think he could be far more productive in KC than Crhis Truby.
    - I was underwhelmed by Jose Lopez, who I later read might become the Mariners starting shortstop. He struggled against offspeed pitches, which validated by disliking of him in the past.
    - "Watching him hurts my shoulder." That's what my Dad said of Huston Street's 5/8 delivery, though his pitches were impressive. Seeing as though Billy Beane compared him to Dennis Eckersley while we were flying back, I wouldn't be too concerned. But to one Little League coach, he's a surgery waiting to happen.
    - Looking back at the box score, Nick Swisher's 3/4 day grades very positive. He didn't show any of the power that makes me drool over his future, and his crouched stance seems a mix of Jeff Bagwell and Mo Vaughn. Bags hardly did as well in the minors as Nick, but a smaller Mo could serve as Swish's running comparison.

    Game Two: Brewers at Giants- Scottsdale, Arizona

    Home to the Arizona Fall League Hall of Fame, Scottsdale Stadium was built far more like a professional baseball park than Peoria. The teams had clubhouses, and the field was the only one in sight. Trees formed a nice background beyond the outfield walls.

    Constructed by the same man that designed Camden in Baltimore, Scottsdale was a pitcher's park. The left field wall was 360 feet, and it was 430 to center. Barry Bonds has it the easiest with it only 340 feet down the right field line, but the outfield was very spacious. Given the AFL's propensity to be a hitter's league, this surprised me.

    Unlike Peoria, the food options here were terrible. There are very limited options beyond a hot dog or cheeseburger, neither of which were particularly good. The nuance here was music, which was more targeted for the younger crowd that filled the bleachers.

    We were also lucky enough to show up on the Navy themed day, which included a Navy band, jugglers in the concourse, and most exciting of all, the Parachute team. The "Leapfrogs" presented the colors, diving in as the national anthem was being played. While the anthem tends to get quite bland at Major League stadiums across the country, this colorful touch was refreshing.

    Player Notes

  • The second batter of the game was the one I was most excited to see: Rickie Weeks. At the plate, Weeks looks like a smaller version of Gary Sheffield, with a very similar stance. He also has a batting eye like Gary, he walked in his first two at-bats and watched some close pitches go by. Later in the field, he saved Lyle Overbay who missed a ball to his right, and Weeks came all the way over and got it to the pitcher. He's an exciting talent, and should be pushing Spivey off soon.

  • I saw two other members of Milwaukee's "Big Five" that night, both Dave Krynzel and J.J. Hardy. Krynzel did nothing noteworthy, though I liked what I saw from his swing and arm. I've drawn criticism for my dislike for J.J. Hardy in the past, and I'll admit that Royce Clayton comparisons might be too much. His swing proved to me that twenty home run seasons are probably too much, but he looks like he makes tons of contact, runs well and has a great arm. I underrated him.

  • Chris Capuano had a Jekyll and Hyde game. In the first inning, he walked three straight hitters and had thrown twenty-seven pitches after four batters. His stuff looked mediocre, and his curve was flat. But then something turned on, and Capuano started hitting his spots and showing some good breaking stuff. From that point on he pitched 3.2 innings, allowing three hits and striking out six against three walks.

  • The surprising stars of the game were Brian Dallimore and Chad Moeller. Dallimore is fighting for a utility spot, and with this game should have won it. He had a double in the second that would have been a home run in Pac Bell, and then fought off a tough pitch for a single in the fourth. Later, he saved a single in the field making a great play against Russ Branyan. Moeller homered, walked and threw out a batter all before the end of the fifth.

    Quick Hits:
    - Jason Schmidt looked pretty flawless in his four innings, striking out seven. I've already decided he's my second-round draft choice in fantasy baseball this year, and some would argue he might as well be given the NL Cy Young already.
    - I've talked about the Brew Big Five a lot here, but have neglected numbers six through eight: Corey Hart, Nelson Cruz, Ben Hendrickson. I saw the first two of those playing the outfield corners, and was pretty underwhelmed. In my opinion, Melvin would be best off to hope Cruz has a big year at AAA, and use him in a trade when the opportunity arises.
    - One of my predictions for 2005: bad things for Lyle Overbay. I was bummed that he made the trip to Scottsdale and not Prince Fielder, who is primed for a big year. Overbay might hit a flat .280, but even that I would question. Selling before his value is too low might be the best philosophy here.

    Game Three: Angels at Rockies- Tuscon, Arizona

    With our hotel in Phoenix, our farthest drive was to Tuscon, nearly two hours away. The town has two stadiums, Hi Corbett Field and Tuscon Electric Park. After the Cleveland Indians spent Spring Training in the former for tons of years, the Rockies took over in Hi Corbett recently.

    The stadium was built in the 1930s, and you can tell. Fans were complaining about the stadium around me, and I overheard that a replacement might soon be built. The stadium's best feature is free parking, as they share a complex with a golfing course, zoo, and an elementary school.

    As for the stadium itself, if any of you have ever been to a game in Clinton, Iowa, you will understand what it looked like. The field has a lower level that goes only five rows back, with an elevated upper level behind it. It seats only about 6,000 people, and the attendance of 4,633 was the worst of the trip.

    Don't let me complain too much, the vendors were plentiful and friendly. The food was good, with options such as a foot-long brat and some ultimate nachos that will knock your socks off. With a state containing such a large Hispanic base, it was no surprise to see the Mexican food options were so good in each park. A good surprise, mind you.

    Player Notes

  • After getting in our seats, I noticed Bartolo Colon was playing long toss in the outfield. What I found odd was that he was still throwing within 15 minutes of the game's start. Seemed unusual, because he didn't get a lot of time on the bullpen mound. It still amazes me how easy Colon throws in the mid-90s, but last year and in this game it seems that his fastball has flattened out. Anaheim has one concern, the rotation, and it is essential that Colon finds his old form. I should also say that Colon doubled in the second, struggled in the bottom half of the inning, and was removed after. He's in no shape to be running to second.

  • I was luckily enough to get to see both club's closers in this game, Chin-Hui Tsao for the Rockies and K-Rod for the Angels. Needless to say, both impressed. Tsao continuously threw his fastball, seldom showing his slider that is also a plus pitch. But his fastball was enough, as he blew hitters away consistently. Hitters were late again and again, as there was more than five fouls in his one inning of work. You could say the only way to prevent runs in Coors is to not allow contact, and given that, Tsao might be the stadium's best pitcher yet.

  • One player listed on numerous sites as a good Rule 5 pick prior to the draft was Mike Napoli, a catcher in the Angel system. When Napoli came up, his build and stance immediately reminded me of Aaron Rowand. I mean, to the tee. Reviewing their builds later that night, I found both are listed at 6-1, and their weights are within 5 pounds of one another (200 and 205). As a proud six-footer, I can say there is no way that either player is over six feet, but that both are extremely well built. We'll see if the California League masked Napoli's numbers in the Texas League, but I do think there could be a future for him.

    Quick Hits:
    - Maicer Izturis and Erick Aybar were both extreme slap hitters. Izturis looked like a great defensive player, while Aybar did not so much. Erick immediately reminded me of Luis Castillo, which might not be too far off. But Aybar walks less and doubles a lot more than Castillo, so statistically, it doesn't work out perfectly.
    - Joe Saunders, an Angels former first-round pick, pitched in the game. With our Baseball America Prospect book in hand, my Dad opened to BA's critique of Saunders' curve. The pitch was on when I saw him, and despite a less-than-fantastic effort, I like him. Anaheim has a system full of hitters parks, and Saunders could sneak up as a good prospect.
    - Francisco Rodriguez threw a ton of curves in the inning he pitched, far more than he threw his fastball. That's about all I have to say about him, other than he grunts extremely loud when he pitches.
    - Two of the people that just missed the Honorable Mention on this site were Howie Kendrick and Jeff Baker. Kendrick was dynamite in the Midwest League last year, and I was impressed with both his lateral movement at second and the pop in his bat. Baker showed a great eye, and I found it interesting that each ball he hit was to right field.

    Tomorrow, I'll be back with the second half of the trip, including two Cubs games, the best stadium yet, and lots of veteran starters.

  • Comments

    And for those wondering, yes, I did find the first sentence of ESPN's recap of the A's-Giants game funny. Here it was:

    PHOENIX (AP) -- Barry Zito looked ready for Opening Day, and Jason Schmidt seemed several outings away.

    Funny what a difference a week makes.

    What was it about Nelson Cruz that underwhelmed you? Build? Tools? Plate discipline?

    i've also watched a ball game with your father. cubs/marlins double header last year. had a great time and was impressed with how much he knew about the game, and how much beer we consumed. he's a good man.

    A reference to the Clinton Lumberkings! Very glad I picked up that ballpark last year.