Mr. Smith Goes Back to Arizona (Act 2)
To repeat, there are significant perils in Spring Training analysis. Sample sizes dilute both statistics and scouting. Behind-the-scenes factors make the whole picture hazy.
In other words, this is a dangerous game. But that isn't about to stop me, so long that each reader takes my comments with a few handfuls of salt. My trip to Arizona last week allowed me to watch eight Major League Baseball teams, four in each league. I was left with dozens of impressions quickly scribbled into a notebook, some of which I wrote up yesterday.
This is a compilation of the rest of those visceral opinions. One note before moving onto the National League...
Yesterday, I noted that Joe Borchard looked impressive against the Rockies, and insisted he deserved a spot on the White Sox bench over Pablo Ozuna. However, since then the Sox traded Borchard to the Mariners for Matt Thornton, where Joe will become a fifth outfielder. On a day in which Wily Mo Pena and Borchard were traded for two below-100 ERA+ pitchers, one has to wonder whether Larry Beinfest has lost his cell phone.
San Diego Padres
Seen: 3-5 loss to Rockies
Chris Young, all 6-10 of him, was the day's starter, and he pitched very modestly. Young seems to succeed on two pitches, a solid fastball that he can control pretty well (it's not quite there yet), and a change-up that was probably the best I saw on the trip. However, I'm afraid to be really successful, he needs to show a better curveball. His attempts at throwing the breaking pitch during this game were pretty atrocious, and as a result, the Rockies didn't struggle against him. I was not a fan of the Eaton trade for the Padres like most, simply because I believe Adam has a lot more potential than Chris. While PETCO Park will help make me look wrong, I'm still not convinced Young will be more than a mid-rotation innings eater.
Everytime I watch Khalil Greene play baseball, I'm shocked that he isn't a star yet. This thought continued in this game, where Greene showed his fluid swing off with a few base hits. He does everything very well, making a play to his right in the field that few shortstops could. His speed isn't great -- he was thrown out at the plate once -- but it's hardly a weakness. I am a big believer that the Padres would be best suited to bench Dave Roberts, start Ben Johnson, and make Khalil Greene their leadoff hitter. My guess is that it would jump-start two careers at once.
One of the most impressive relievers I saw all trip was Steve Andrade, the Padres' Rule 5 pick from the Toronto Blue Jays. Andrade faced five hitters in his appearance, and struck out three of them. Andrade is a heavy right-hander that produces good fastball velocity thanks to some massive thighs. He pitches off the fastball, using it to set up his strikeout pitch: a vicious, late breaking curveball. One strikeout was also via a change that he rarely threw, but will have a nice effect as a show-me pitch. I'm convinced that Andrade could relieve somewhere, and on a team like the Padres -- a little light in the bullpen -- holding onto Andrade makes perfect sense.
Seen: 4-8 loss to Royals
Looking over the Brewers boxscore, I see two errors: Tomo Ohka, Corey Koskie. Apparently, Prince Fielder escaped. But every Brewers fan in the stadium realized that one will have to hold their breath on every play that the big guy is involved in this year. In the first inning, Fielder allowed a single to his right that most first baseman would knock down. He later was unable to catch a Ohka pickoff attempt that I do believe many would. Finally, to cap off his disastrous inning, Fielder failed to convert a 3-6-3 double play when he dropped the ball, ending up in my scorebook as "3, unassisted."
With J.J. Hardy not in the lineup, the Brewers bad infield defense was exposed. Koskie is an improvement over Russ Branyan, but not over Jeff Cirillo, who will receive less playing time this year. Bill Hall wasn't great at second, and is still light years better than Rickie Weeks, who might even be worse thanks to an oblique injury. But the worst of all is definitely Fielder, who will have a lot of hitting to do to overcome his inefficiencies. Luckily, few players looked better with the bat in this game than Prince.
Question: why is Tomo Ohka promised a rotation slot while players like David Bush and Dana Eveland fight for the fifth spot? I have seen Ohka pitch (coincidentally) about as often as any MLB pitcher, and I have never been impressed. He was awful in this game, allowing nine singles (as well as 2 XBH) in four innings. The hits against him were all hard, and it was clear Ohka was laboring on the mound. Tomo has the chance to succeed against teams that struggle with breaking pitches, but that is about all. In a full season of work, I have no doubts that both Bush and Eveland would greatly outperform Ohka. Even Mike Maddux can't save him.
My confidence in my Brewers prediction has severely faded since the Arizona trip, especially with lingering concerns of Weeks' health. Rickie's time off will open a slot for Bill Hall, who struck out in two of his three at-bats. Hall had a great season last year, but the Brewers were right in leaving him without a spot on Opening Day. In fact, Doug Melvin may have been best off trading Hall while his stock is high ... I'm not sure it will get any higher than this. Furthermore, Carlos Lee continues to look bad, not hitting the ball out of the infield in three at-bats. After his bellyflop against Cuba in the WBC, and this poor performance, predicting Lee to have a great contract year seems foolish.
Seen: 7-6 win vs. Angels; 2-4 loss to Mariners
There is something to be said for aggressiveness, I know. But there is a lot more to be said about patience. This principle is not one the Cubs follow, and it was really evident in their win over the Angels. In the first inning, the Cubs forced Jeff Weaver to throw 27 pitches, 12 of which were balls. Ronny Cedeno would single in a run on a full count. After this at-bat, the Cubs would go 21 hitters without reaching ball 2. Step back and read this sentence again: 21 straight.
The streak ended with Ryan Theriot in the seventh inning, and the Cubs would have far more success the rest of the game with minor leaguers exuding patience. The first innning, and after the seventh, the Cubs were impressive. From innings 2-7, they were no better than a last place offense. 21 straight hitters.
The two starters for the Cubs I saw were Jerome Williams and Rich Hill. Neither was impressive, though Williams calmed a bit as the game went on. Jerome was missing low a lot, a good sign for a groundball pitcher. His mistakes high were hit hard, starting in the first inning, when he allowed three hard-hit balls. Williams' velocity looks down a bit and his control isn't great, but the sinker is working. Seven groundball outs in four innings ain't bad.
Rich Hill was far worse, allowing five runs in two innings of work. Vladimir Guerrero aside, the whole Angel team hit (or walked) Hill pretty hard. Most surprising to me was the Angels aggressiveness on the bases against a southpaw like Hill. It worked however, which was less an indication of catcher Geovany Soto, but instead Hill's weakness to hold runners on. Until he gains control his fastball, Hill has a long road ahead.
Another weakness of the Cubs this year will be their outfield defense. Matt Murton is simply not a good defensive outfielder -- and while I might have exaggerated his power inadequacies -- consistently making bad reads on balls. Pierre and Jones both seem pretty average, but Juan's arm is really bad. Third base coaches should be waving, waving, waving this year against Chicago. Jones and Murton looked very solid offensively, going a combined 5-for-8 in two games. Pierre isn't quite there yet, but he's hitting a ton of groundballs, the only way he knows how. Bronson Arroyo was the cost for Wily Mo Pena, but the Cubs gave up three pitchers for Pierre?
Impressions of young Cubs: Angel Pagan looks like Moises Alou at the plate, and performed like him, too. In four plate appearances, Pagan homered and walked twice. For a 25-year-old with a spotty minor league history, Pagan could have doubled as a successful fourth outfielder... Jake Fox is another who seems better than he's given credit for, unbelievably left off Baseball America's top 30 Cub prospects. Fox showed good power and a solid arm behind the plate against the Angels... Two consecutive plays against the Mariners encaptured Felix Pie's skillset as a prospect. On the first, Pie made a great read on a Cory Ransom liner, using his fantastic speed to get to the ball, and making a diving play for the out. On the next, Felix had a horrendous read on a Jeremy Reed double which almost ended up an inside-the-park home run. Consistency is needed... Brian Dopirak went 2-for-4 in two games, showing opposite field power and an improved approach. I'm buying his stock while it's low.
Seen: 7-6 win over White Sox; 5-3 win over Padres
For better or worse, Aaron Cook is an exciting player to watch pitch. Any hitter must begin his at-bat knowing that his pitch is coming, as Cook does nothing but throw strikes. Cook threw 62 pitches in five innings of work against the White Sox, throwing just 12 balls. As a result, the Sox hit Cook pretty hard, as he gave up four runs (three earned). It's amazing he ever strikes anyone out. In my opinion, a pitching coach needs Cook to throw his pitches a little lower for more success. When down in the zone, Cook continually provoked groundball outs (seven in the game). His breaking pitch was thrown rarely, and needs tuning.
Utilizing Coors Field is a strength that any good fantasy owner should have. Therefore, it would not be stupid to use your draft's last pick on Cory Sullivan. The leadoff hitter against the White Sox, Sullivan homered against southpaw Neal Cotts. The former Wake Forest stand-out should garner quite a few stolen bases this year, and Coors will help push up his other offensive numbers. While most people love the prospect of Matt Holliday having a big 2006, forgetting Sullivan completely could turn out to be a mistake. In Coors, Sullivan is on the same plane as Corey Patterson, if not favorable.
To recap, guys I liked this trip: Neal Cotts, Joe Borchard, Mike Napoli, Denny Bautista, John Buck, Khalil Greene, Steve Andrade, Jake Fox, Brian Dopirak, Cory Sullivan. Guys I didn't: Bobby Jenks, Brian Anderson, Vladimir Guerrero, Jeremy Reed, Chris Young, Tomo Ohka, Bill Hall, Aaron Cook. Mix together with salt.