Mr. Smith Goes Back to Arizona
Spring Training is a wonderful experience to watch, a fun blend of veterans and rookies, a loose atmosphere in comfortable environments. I am not sold on the fact, however, that Spring Training provides any real indication of the upcoming season, even from a scouting perspective.
But that has not stopped me for trying. Last year, I looked flat-out stupid by criticizing the likes of Barry Zito, Lyle Overbay, Bartolo Colon, Jon Garland, and to an extent, Derrek Lee. There were some guys that swayed me opinion too positive: Jamie Moyer, Jason Schmidt, Chin-Hui Tsao, Ryan Drese.
I was not all wrong, however, and that is what brings me to you today. Keith Ginter, J.J. Hardy, Rich Harden, Howie Kendrick, Russ Ortiz and Tadahito Iguchi are all players I had good reads on.
If nothing else, this proves that I am more than a baseball fan than a scout. However, a fan can sometimes see things just as a scout would; we see positives and negatives from every game. In the last week I saw five baseball games in my return to Arizona, featuring four American League teams and four from the National League. In the next two days, we will be going over the impression I was left with from all eight.
Chicago White Sox
Seen: 6-7 loss to Colorado
Let's start with where the news is. Two days after I saw the White Sox play, Tracy Ringolsby wrote that Bobby Jenks "has lost up to 10 mph off his fastball." His comments came days after the appearance I saw in which Jenks gave up three runs in just one inning. The big right-hander walked three batters in the inning, while also allowing two hits.
Shortly after the game I mentioned to someone that Jenks looked awful. His fastball control was awful, as he threw just 13 strikes in a 31-pitch inning. His fastball velocity wasn't the same, and while I didn't have a radar, I will venture that Ringolsby's reports seem exaggerated. Jenks problem was that he hardly flashed a curveball that he threw often in warm-ups, a likely indication that he isn't quite ready for the season.
With Dustin Hermanson in pain, a leftie spot up for grabs and uncertainty from the closer, the White Sox bullpen could be the team's most discernable April weakness. Until he proves otherwise, I suggest you pass on Jenks.
If there is some underlying issue in regards to Jenks, I would suggest Neal Cotts be named closer. After allowing a home run to the first batter, left-handed hitter Cory Sullivan, Cotts settled down and looked fantastic. He retired the next six hitters in order, striking out three batters in a combined 13 pitches. The home run was a startling beginning, but Cotts proved that a relief role is perfect for him.
The game's star was Joe Borchard, who had an RBI in his first two at-bats, and a double to lead off the seventh inning. During the game, I posited that the White Sox should really keep Borchard ahead of a Pablo Ozuna type. The Florida Marlins need outfielders too bad for the White Sox to be flirting with Borchard's future. Turns out the Marlins are interested. Borchard struck out in his last at-bat, unsurprisingly, but if he gets 500 AB in Miami, the outcome could be better than we think.
Ozzie had Brian Anderson in the leadoff spot, and it just did not fit. In three at-bats, Anderson saw a total of eight pitches, never coming particularly close to a hit. On the opposite side, he looked great in the field, reading balls well and making a great catch (a la Aaron Rowand) running into the centerfield wall. Bad offense and good defense isn't what the scouting reports read on Anderson. The White Sox are hoping for average offense and good defense. I'm not buying any preseason support he's receiving for AL Rookie of the Year.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Seen: 6-7 loss to Cubs
Let's start with the only other player I saw from the week that could have underlying injury troubles: Vladimir Guerrero. The former MVP looked really bad in this game, reaching base once in three at-bats via a hit by pitch off his foot. Guerrero, a guess hitter prone to looking bad, looked really bad thanks to a few Rich Hill curves. However, this was not retro Vlad as he failed to ever have great timing, and he also looked hurt running around the bases.
First-round picks in fantasy baseball are very important, and back problems have a history of lingering. Put these two together, and I suggest you pass on Vladimir Guerrero in the first round of your draft. Let someone else make that mistake.
Juan Rivera is an interesting player. At the plate he looked fantastic, collecting an RBI in each of his first two at-bats. He does not have a lot of patience at the plate, but he seems to be a solid contact hitter. In the field however, Rivera is awful. He reminded me of vintage Carlos Lee in left, taking disastrous routes to a Todd Walker double. Rivera then dropped the ball when going to throw out Matt Murton later. Rivera has the potential to be a good player at the Major League level, but to do so he will have to make up for being in the red defensively.
Mike Napoli impressed me for the second straight year. In his one at-bat, Napoli homered to left field. His approach at the plate and his subsequent home run led me to believe that Napoli is a big-time pull hitter. This would seem to be the reason why he strikes out a lot, but also indicate why his power is so great. Jeff Mathis had two hits in the game and looked ready for the season, but the Angels shouldn't be placing him on a pedestal above Napoli. In 2007, I hope the two have a chance to battle evenly for the catching position.
The Angels entered the ninth inning with a very imposing three against Scott Williamson: Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar and Kendry Morales. The outcome was unimpressive (1-2-3 inning), but it provided a nice glimpse of the future. Kendrick didn't do anything of note, neither did Morales, though he looks stronger than a year ago. Kendry looked foolish on a low and away pitch, but if he solves the holes in his swing, has the swagger of a big league player. Aybar seemed to equal his scouting report, showing a cannon from shortstop and some rawness to his game. After drawing a sixth inning walk, Erick had a horrible jump on a stolen base attempt and was thrown out. His speed is an asset, his baserunning has never been.
Seen: 4-2 win vs. Cubs
This comes as no surprise to Mariners fans, but outside of Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre, power could be an issue to this team. Sexson hit a home run, and while the team hit three doubles besides that, no one looked to have anything other than gap power. This team sacrifices power from its RF-slot for Ichiro, but makes it up nowhere else. Carl Everett, Raul Ibanez, Jeremy Reed are all good, smart hitters, but none will provide this team with a big power boost. This will be the downfall of their offense, and inevitably, their chances in 2006.
Before long, Yuniesky Betancourt could be the most fun player to watch in the game. He will never be a good hitter, striking out twice, but his first inning double showed the promise of an average one. In the field, it seems as though everything makes sense to him. The one ball hit to me was an easily converted 6-4-3 double play, but it were the other plays that led me to this conclusion. On one single up the middle, Betancourt almost reached a ball that was right of the second base bag. It looks as though the Cuban gets reads off the bat that few players every generation do. Pray his offense doesn't lead to a bench career.
I just don't see an offensive talent in Jeremy Reed. I have been in the seller's corner for most of his career, and this game did nothing to sway my opinion. In the sixth inning, Reed looked great, doubling to center and almost legging out an error-ridden inside the park homer. In his other four at-bats, Reed grounded out four times. A quick look at Studes' charts shows that last year, Reed grounded out 4% more than the average hitter. This weakness must be rectified by a hitting coach, because Jeremy does have potential when the ball gets in the air. Until I see that happen a little more often, I will continue to yawn in Reed's direction.
Another flaw on this team is a problem with depth. Any reader of U.S.S. Mariner will know the organization has long-term experience with having an awful bench. This year should be no exception. The game did allow me an up-close view into the battle for the Mariners bench spot: Greg Dobbs vs. Mike Morse vs. Cody Ransom vs. Roberto Petagine. Thrilling. Petagine looked awful before singling in his one at-bat, but Dobbs and Ransom were worse. Morse should win the competition, but expectations should be pretty low. If he can play better in left this year, and maybe pick up third base, a career on the bench isn't too far-fetched.
Kansas City Royals
Seen: 8-4 win vs. Brewers
For what it's worth, I am warming to the Royals idea of bringing in some veterans this year. I still think they overdid it, but I did see some semblance of a baseball team on the field. One reason is Reggie Sanders, one of the most positive influences in baseball. The outfield veteran reached base in each of his four plate appearances, including three singles. The man knows how to hit.
The other reason is that the KC defense should be much, much better this year. This was evident at the end of the second inning, when a Corey Koskie would-be-single up the middle was snared by Mark Grudzielanek and then thrown to Doug Mientkiewicz, who made a fantastic swoop. With Angel Berroa and Mark Teahen on the left side, this infield will be very good. Royals pitchers might benefit if their numbers were better, and this infield has that potential.
Denny Bautista looked better than his numbers indicated. His boxscore reads just three strikeouts and two earned runs in five innings. A good start, respectable, but far from great. Watching him from the stands, however, I think Bautista looked very solid. The skinny right-hander threw a total of just 54 pitches in five innings, pitching for contact more than I had seen him do in the past. His fastball was 94-97 mph on the park's radar gun, and he pitched off that. While that was impressive, his breaking pitch obviously needed work. Solid at 86-88 mph, the slider was just not breaking late, resuling in a lot of high misses. Once that gets tightened up, Bautista could be in for a solid season.
Still, after watching him struggle a bit in the fifth, I have to wonder if Bautista would just be better in the bullpen. Trying this out, however, is a luxury the Royals cannot afford.
The world's deepest fantasy league should notice John Buck is an ultra, super sleeper. After hitting .321/.341/.556 in September last year, Buck reached base in his three at-bats in this game. Buck actually doubled twice, showing power that he hadn't really displayed since the minors. He did hit four home runs in the final month last year, so it's possible that Buck has a 20 HR season in him. It's also possible he's merely a platoon player.
Tomorrow I will be back with the National League teams on the trip. Feel free to leave any spring impressions of your own below.