Thoughts about our National Pastime and occasional thoughts for the Good and Welfare of the Reader (and maybe the writer)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Spring Training Has Arrived

The game was a gift to the players struggling to find a roster spot, thanks partly to the World Baseball Classic. With Melvin Mora and Cesar Izturis leaving for the WBC, the O’s decided to go whole hog and field a second string team, a rarity on opening day. Ty Wigginton was at 3rd for Mora, Chris Gomez at short for Izturis, Ryan “Fragile” Freel at 2nd for Brian Roberts, and some forgettable stranger at 1st for Aubey Huff.

Fragile Freel did OK. He singled, stole second and scored in his first at bat. Later he went into the hole for an “all pro” stop and he did not get hurt.

Many of us who play Strat-o-Matic or who otherwise participate in some fantasy league or another know all about Freel. We draft him in the hope that we were going to enjoy his break out year, and watched him he lose 30 games here and 60 games with various ailments, breaks and blisters..Maybe the air in Baltimore and the heady atmosphere in the cellar of the AL East will be just what he needs. For Strat players, he is not a good choice. He had 131 at bats for Cincinnati last year and his card projects to be only about at the top of the third third, based on productivity. Wigginton saw about three times the number of at bats and his rating puts him much higher, just below the top 30%, but well behind Mora. His versatility will ensure him a lot of playing time.

Dave Tremblay said afterwards that he sent the starting infield to a back field to practice together more intensely. He thought they need more time together before the left side of the infield leaves camp for the WBC. I guess he had no confidence that his pitchers would force enough ground balls. He was right – the first three Oriole pitchers were candidates for the 4th and 5th rotation spot. Brad Hennessey tightened up and complained about elbow soreness, so he had to be pulled in the 2nd inning (after walking the first two batters) and both David Pauley and Chris Waters did not, I am being charitable, show their best.

The commissioner’s office is looking at the trend of not playing a full roster of starters in spring games. He wants MLB to show their best even if the games do not count. Wait, maybe he plans to award a wild card spot to the teams with the best Cactus and Grapefruit League records. A league official told me that the problem is that the $17-million dollar auto salesman turned team owner turned owners’ commissioner cannot police and punish, so it is not the toughest rule they have.

And, knowing that, the Mets did not bring Reyes, Wright, Beltran and Delgado to Fort Lauderdale. I guess they did not want to charter a second bus nor risk having their big money guys on I-95.

Nevertheless, you would have thought that the Orioles were the visiting team, even if the infield had played. There were many more Mets fans in the stands than there were Orioles boosters. And, despite the more or less plausible explanation for changing the infield, there was no explanation for the missing outfielders – Pie and Markakis. Only Adam Jones (two strikeouts, a walk and a nice catch) and Greg Zaun started. Zaun is going to feel his aches and pains – he is the only catcher on the 40-man roster. There are seven others on the invitee list, so Zaun got the rest of the day off after three at bats.

One of the seven, Robby Hammock, hit a major league double and then huffed and puffed his way into a tag at third. Not the sort of thing a 31-year old who was commuted between Phoenix (the Diamondbacks) and Tucson (AAA) since 2003 wanted to do in his next best shot at more than a cup of coffee.

Actually, it is sort of bittersweet to watch those Spring Training Invitees. Some of them have real futures – younger minor leaguers who are not yet on the 40-man rosters but are invited to at least start the spring season with the big team and show what they can do before getting their minor league assignment. Mike Antonini, a 25-year old pitcher in the Mets camp is one of those – he was drafted out of college in 2007 and reached AA last year.

The other categories are the older guys with the minor league contracts who are trying to find their way onto the 40-man roster, if not among the 25 actives, for one more payday. Most of them should be home looking for a high school coaching job or, if these were normal times, a gig selling cars. But, here they are, taking their cuts and hoping to hang on. When you see a familiar name, with a number on their uniform in the sixties, it is hard not to root for them. On the Met’s side there were Bobby Kielty, trying to get back to the majors despite hitting .228 at Pawtucket last year and Rob Mackowiak, trying again after hitting a robust .132 with Washington. Familiar names like John Parrish and Jolbert Cabrera were in Orioles white. But, the most stunning was Danys Baez who has not started a major league game since 2002.

Every team has its older guy mascot – someone who shows up every year to help with the coaching and to give the fans a twinge of nostalgia. A few years ago, Johnny Pesky was autographing his book before a Red Sox spring game. Red Schoendienst is a fixture in Jupiter when the Cardinals are there. The O’s long time legend Elrod Hendricks used to fill that role until his death in 2005. It was nice to see Mike Cuellar sitting with pitching coach Rick Kranitz. Kranitz must have been wondering if Cuellar had some heat left.

Tomorrow, I am off to Ft. Myers to see the Twins and whoever the Yankees send down I-75 to play them.

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