10 spring days in Arizona
Sights, sounds and observations from the Cactus League
We've just finished 10 days of spring training in Phoenix. Is this a great job, or what? Here are some observations from the desert. Some of them are important, while others are not.
Thursday, March 5Brewers camp, followed by White Sox at Dodgers. Trevor Hoffman sure looks strange in another uniform. His workout schedule is maniacal as always, and his new teammates are amazed by him. Brewers manager Ken Macha also is saying, "554 saves, he can do it any way he likes." It took 12 minutes to drive from Brewers camp to Dodgers camp. You can't get anywhere in Florida in 12 minutes. The new Dodgers/White Sox facility in Glendale is huge. Manny Ramirez sure is happy. Dodgers second baseman Orlando Hudson has a nasty scar on his wrist from surgery. He says it hurts when he takes a lot of extra swings some days in BP. Taking some time to talk to Dodgers backup catcher Brad Ausmus, 39, is as good a 15 minutes as there is in spring training. "Everyone here is so young," he said, looking around the clubhouse. "This team has a chance to be good for a while." Veteran Dodgers infielder Mark Loretta has the most hideous bruise you've ever seen just above his left hip after being hit by a pitch during the game. He doesn't complain. "Now I have a love handle," he said. If people don't understand the danger involved in this game, see the bruise. It will still be there in a month. I did a TV stand-up in shorts and a coat and tie, easily the stupidest look in spring training history. "Put on some pants," Dodgers GM Ned Colletti yelled, then drove off.
Friday, March 6Rockies at Padres. The Peoria, Ariz., ballpark, which is beautiful, is practically empty. This could be a sign of things to come in the major leagues unless the economy changes real soon. A scout friend has seen the A's. "Their three best pitchers are all kids, [Brett] Anderson, [Trevor] Cahill and [Vin] Mazzaro," he said. "I hope they put all three of them in the rotation and see what happens. All three of those kids are going to be great." Padres second baseman David Eckstein's wife has landed a part as one of the voices in a "Star Wars" cartoon. "Do you know anything about 'Star Wars'?" he asked. No, I say. I know more about Luke Hochevar than Luke Skywalker. Whatever. Eckstein's wife, I believe, plays the role of the young Darth Vader before he went to the dark side. Speaking of which, it's going to be a long year for the Padres. "They have to trade [Jake] Peavy," one scout said. "He's throwing great. He's way ahead of anyone else this spring because of the WBC. They can finish last with him, or last without him minus $11 million. He's really good. He could really help a contender. And he can bring the Padres some of the things they need." A scout said Rockies left-hander Franklin Morales "threw as well as I've ever seen him." Another scout on left-hander Brian Matusz of the Orioles: "He might have been the best pitcher I saw in the Arizona Fall League." Bart Kennedy, 23, is training to go to Afghanistan, where he will lead a platoon. He's the son of Terry Kennedy, manager of Padres Double-A affiliate San Antonio Missions. Proud but worried Dad will monitor from San Antonio in the summer. Ted Simmons is a coach for the Padres. Said former pitcher Tom Candiotti, "When I was a young pitcher in Milwaukee, he gave me a homework assignment to name the five best counts to run on. He said, 'And you can't use 3-2!'"
Saturday, March 7Rockies at Giants. Scottsdale Stadium is packed. A good sign Giants pitchers Matt Cain and Barry Zito are in great shape. "Best shape I've ever seen Barry in," one Giant said. So is Randy Johnson, who is in a great mood. "Tim [Lincecum] wore a hat to the ballpark today; he looks like one of the Jonas Brothers," Johnson said. Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper, who is one of the best in the game, told this story about a really long game he did in spring training seven or eight years ago: "The kid around the corner, Danny Navarro, had just got cut from his high school baseball team. He felt so bad. So, the next day, I put him in left field in the ninth inning in our broadcast. I couldn't put him at the plate, but when a guy hit a fly ball, I said, 'And left fielder Danny Navarro makes the catch.' No one who was listening knew. And no one who was listening cared. He took the tape back to his high school coach and said, 'I might not be able to make your team, but I played in a major league game.'" Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval is 5-foot-11, 246 pounds. Who knows whether he can play defense, but he's going to hit. No one knows whether Giants first baseman Travis Ishikawa can hit, but he sure can play first base. Emmanuel Burriss likely will win the Giants' second-base job. He is some athlete. Rockies first baseman Todd Helton didn't make the trip, but the ball is jumping off his bat this spring, which is a good sign. Rockies manager Clint Hurdle went dogsledding in the winter. "We got to mush our own dogs," he said. "It was great."
Sunday, March 8Diamondbacks at Mariners. The Peoria ballpark is packed. More good news New Mariner Ken Griffey Jr. got a huge ovation from the home crowd before each of his at-bats. After he made an out in his final at-bat, he ran through the first-base bag, then kept running down the right-field line and into the clubhouse. The Mariners have a new manager and a new general manager, and 11 players at the WBC. Not a good situation, but all signs say new manager Don Wakamatsu and new GM Jack Zduriencik are doing a very good job so far. The Mariners need to find a closer. Miguel Batista, Tyler Walker and Roy Corcoran are among the candidates D-backs pitcher Max Scherzer's shoulder still isn't 100 percent ready, but if he's ready by Opening Day, he could be a terrific No. 3 starter. Check out his 2008 numbers: 56 innings, 66 strikeouts, no wins. He became the first pitcher in baseball history to make 16 appearances, start seven games, throw that many innings, average 10 strikeouts per nine innings and not win a game. The D-backs lost Adam Dunn, Juan Cruz, Orlando Hudson, Randy Johnson and Brandon Lyon in the offseason, and replaced them with Jon Garland and Felipe Lopez. Not a good trade, but the D-backs had little money to deal with. The Diamondbacks play their first nine games and 18 of their first 21 at home. "I've never seen anything like that," veteran first baseman Tony Clark said. As a high school basketball player, Clark averaged 44 points a game his senior year. His daughter is in middle school. She is 5-foot-9. She can palm a basketball with either hand.
Monday, March 9Royals at Cubs. It was nearly packed in Mesa, a good sign for a Monday. "We have a waiting list for 100,000 for season tickets [at Wrigley]," Cubs GM Jim Hendry said. Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez looks a lot trimmer and a lot better this spring. The Cubs lost a lot of leadership and clubhouse presence in Kerry Wood and Mark DeRosa. They are looking for replacements. One possibility is catcher Geovany Soto, who last year went 0-for-5 with five strikeouts in a game but was the life of the party on the bus after the game. A teammate asked how he could be so happy after punching out five times. Soto said, "We won, and I caught a shutout. That's the most important thing." Cubs reliever Jeff Samardzija will start the season in the bullpen at Triple-A Iowa to be a part of the starting rotation. The best bet to win the Cubs' fifth-starter job is Sean Marshall, whom Hendry called "our unsung hero last year." Marshall was a very useful guy last season, and when told partway through the year that he had to go to the minor leagues to stretch his arm out in case the Cubs needed him to start, he went without complaint. Ryne Sandberg, a minor league manager in the Cubs system, doesn't quite understand why major league teams don't take infield practice before games anymore. His minor league teams take infield practice "five or six days a week." Second baseman Mike Fontenot is a strong little guy. He hit nine homers in 243 at-bats last year. The Royals are the most improved team in the AL Central Division. They traded two relievers (Ramon Ramirez and Leo Nunez) for offense (Coco Crisp and Mike Jacobs), but "our bullpen might be even deeper than it was last year," manager Trey Hillman said. Jacobs on the strength of third baseman Alex Gordon: "Unbelievable. The balls he hits are unbelievable." Hall of Famer George Brett threw a round of batting practice. "I threw two balls today!" he said angrily. "I had a stretch of two days in a row this spring where I didn't throw one ball. And today I had two! I can't believe it."
Tuesday, March 10Carl Pavano likely will be the Indians' third starter. He is so happy to be in Cleveland and out of New York. "For eight years, I was a good guy," he said. "Then I got to New York and I'm a bad guy?" Indians first baseman Ryan Garko played right field. He has played left field this spring. "He has done well," manager Eric Wedge said. The manager said he could mix and match almost daily with his catcher, first baseman, DH and corner outfielders. He's looking for as many at-bats as possible for Garko, Victor Martinez, Kelly Shoppach and Travis Hafner. The Angels lost closer Frankie Rodriguez to free agency, but manager Mike Scioscia said the bullpen still "is really deep" with Brian Fuentes, Scot Shields, Jose Arredondo and Kevin Jepsen, "who is nasty, 92 [mph] with a real heavy ball." The fortunes of the Angels may rest with three young, everyday players: first baseman Kendry Morales, second baseman Howie Kendrick and shortstop Erick Aybar. The Angels say Morales is especially ready to blossom. He was so raw when they got him years ago that he didn't know how to take a secondary lead. Ervin Santana, a 16-game winner, will miss at least a month with tightness in his elbow. Nick Adenhart, 22, will have a chance to show his stuff. He's a Brad Radke type, with a good changeup and a good curveball. Kelvim Escobar, who missed all of last season with a shoulder injury, says he's three months ahead of schedule. He said he would pitch in a spring game in 10 days. He was supposed to be ready July 1. When asked whether he could make it back by May 1, he said, "I think I'll be back in April." Look for Angels infielder Brandon Wood, who still has tremendous talent, to start at Triple-A. But he's learning how to hit. New Tribe closer Kerry Wood's first outing of the spring was great, as he threw one overpowering inning. Then he told us that he had seen Nolan Ryan's seventh no-hitter thanks to free tickets from Minyard's, a grocery store chain in Dallas-Fort Worth in Texas.
Wednesday, March 11Brewers at White Sox. The White Sox are thrilled about the progress made by two of their rehabbing pitchers, Jose Contreras and Bartolo Colon. Contreras is in terrific shape, having lost nearly 30 pounds. "I saw him throw," White Sox reliever Octavio Dotel said. "Wow. Wow." If Colon and Contreras are healthy and ready to go by mid-April, the White Sox will have the best pitching in the AL Central. Colon is the wild card, but he trusts the White Sox's staff, and it trusts him. When he says he'll be ready, the White Sox believe him. The Sox have position battles at second base with Chris Getz and Jayson Nix, and in center field with Brian Anderson and Jerry Owens. Best guess for today is that Getz and Anderson will win those jobs. Josh Fields is the front-runner at third base over 19-year-old Cuban Dayan Viciedo. Fields can hit, and his defense is improving. Viciedo is ready to hit in the major leagues; his power is remarkable. The young player to watch in camp has been shortstop Gordon Beckham, the Sox's No. 1 pick in last year's draft. "He is so impressive, he is so polished," White Sox DH Jim Thome said. "He has great balance at the plate. And I mean this in the most positive way: He's just cocky enough to think that he belongs here." Beckham likely will start the year at Double-A, but there has been talk of moving him to second base or third base because the White Sox have their shortstop of the future in Alexei Ramirez, whose natural position is shortstop. Ramirez will have much more range than Orlando Cabrera, Chicago's primary shortstop last season. The Brewers are encouraged that third baseman Bill Hall (left calf) will be ready for Opening Day. He is expected to play in a game in the next few days. White Sox reliever Bobby Jenks is throwing so well, and he jokingly says he's worried. "I'm not a spring training pitcher," he said. "I have five strikeouts in four innings. Last year, I think it took me 20 innings to get my first strikeout." Thome recalled a trip he took with his father to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown this past summer. "It was one of the best days of my life," he said. "If I could freeze a day in time, that would be the day."
Thursday, March 12South Korea at the Dodgers. One Dodger on the Yankees without A-Rod: "He's so good, but they can play no one at third base -- leave the position open -- and still win. That's how good they are. I mean, really, the Yankees in trouble without A-Rod for a month? Please, cry me a river. They have [Jorge] Posada, [Derek] Jeter, [Johnny] Damon, [Hideki] Matsui, [Mark] Teixeira, [Robinson] Cano. Robby Cano is one of the best hitters I've ever seen, and he's hitting eighth. They have a guy [Nick Swisher] who hit 35 homers three years ago sitting on the bench. And he's not 40 years old; he's 28. And look at their starting pitching: CC [Sabathia], [A.J.] Burnett, [Chien-Ming] Wang, Joba [Chamberlain] and [Andy] Pettitte. They have five starters that can match up against any team's No. 1, and have a chance to win. Burnett may go 12-12, let's say, but every fifth day, he has a chance to throw a no-hitter. That's how dominant his stuff is. Wang throws shot puts for nine innings. And, oh yes, they have the best closer in the history of the game for the ninth inning. But they won't need Mariano [Rivera] very often. He might only get 13 saves because they're going to be ahead, 8-1, every game." One general manager said this about the WBC: "I had a pitcher who was going to play in the WBC, but he didn't. If he had played, and gone deep into it, I would have shut him down for three weeks when he got back. He would have missed a couple of starts into the regular season, but I don't care. It's too big of a workload this early, especially with a shorter offseason and a week longer spring training. People would have called me crazy. I don't care."
Friday, March 13Rangers at Dodgers. Rangers catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia has had a good spring in part because the Rangers told him in the offseason that it was his job to lose, perhaps taking some pressure of a guy who has a tendency to press. His backup, Taylor Teagarden, hit .316 in 16 games in the big leagues last season, and he can really catch and throw. Third baseman Mike Young is adjusting well to his new position. He still doesn't have much range, but he can catch the ball when it's hit to him and has a very good arm. "The toughest play so far is the in-between hop," Young said. "You don't get that hop at shortstop." New shortstop Elvis Andrus, 20, has played terrific defense this spring, basically guaranteeing he will start on Opening Day. Wherever Young and second baseman Ian Kinsler go, Andrus is right behind them, trying to learn about playing in the big leagues. Andrus has struggled offensively this spring, but Young told him, "Play the entire game. Don't settle for being just a defensive shortstop. Don't settle for hitting .250. Go for it. Take it to the hoop." Andrus also has benefited from having future Hall of Famer Omar Vizquel playing the same position. Vizquel has an out in his contract that would allow him to pursue another team that would give him a chance to play every day. Right-hander Brandon McCarthy, who has been hurt for most of the past two years, has thrown very well this spring. He will be in the starting rotation if he keeps it up and stays healthy. Scott Feldman will be in the rotation for sure. He struck out 83 in 63 1/3 innings last year in 58 games in relief. He is fearless. Manny Ramirez walked twice and singled in his first spring training game. "I've seen Manny not even get the ball out of the infield in batting practice, then knock a wall down his first at-bat," Dodgers backup first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said. "He has a game plan, and he never deviates. He writes things down all the time. He'll circle one thing that he saw, and it didn't even have to happen to him, but to another hitter, like 'Look for slider on 2-1.' What people also don't realize is how hard Manny works. I've seen him take 100 fly balls off the wall at Fenway a 1 o'clock in the afternoon. And, by the way, Fenway killed him. His greatest power is to right-center field. And right-center is huge there. But he still put up huge numbers anyway."
Saturday, March 14Orlando Cabrera on new A's left fielder Matt Holliday. "Oh my god," he said. "He is so unbelievably strong. He is Vladimir Guerrero with great technique. He hit 25 straight pitches for home runs in batting practice the other day. Pitches in all areas, home runs to all fields. It was incredible." Another reason to love A's pitching prospect Trevor Cahill: He could have gone to Dartmouth, but signed with the A's instead. It's a tremendous advantage in baseball to be really smart, and Cahill is. A smart pitcher gets in trouble; sometimes he can think his way out of it. Another reason to love A's pitching prospect Brett Anderson: He is the son of a coach. A lot of sons of coaches have a good idea how to play the game, including Holliday. Anderson's father replaced Holliday's father as a high school baseball coach. "Some guys play baseball, and some guys are baseball players," A's manager Bob Geren said. "Matt Holliday is a baseball player." And so is Brett Anderson. Perhaps the best pitcher in A's camp has been right-hander Vin Mazzaro, who has yet to allow a run. The A's have to decide what to do with Anderson, Cahill and Mazzaro. It's unlikely, but they might keep them all if Sean Gallagher doesn't start throwing better. Plus, Justin Duchscherer is unlikely to be ready for Opening Day because of an issue with his elbow. Or they might keep one, perhaps Mazzaro, and start him out in the bullpen. Or they could send all three out to the minor leagues. All have options. Third baseman Eric Chavez had a minor setback in spring training in his comeback from back surgery. The A's are counting on 115 games or so from him this season. That's why they signed Nomar Garciaparra. He can play third, and he still hits left-handers. The A's may trade Bobby Crosby, but for now, they're trying to make him into a super utility guy like so many teams are using these days. The A's are very left-handed. Crosby could play third base or first base to give a rest to the left-handed hitters there and might even be used in right field against a tough righty, resting Jack Cust or Travis Buck. Holliday worked this winter with Mark McGwire, whom he called "one of the best hitting coaches I've ever been around. His big thing is a strong base. My first time in the cage, he said, 'Do you have a strong base?' I said, 'Yeah, I think I do.' Then he pushed me in the chest, and I fell back into the netting. I said, 'Well, maybe I don't.' He did the same thing with all the other guys. They all fell back into the netting. I really like working with Mark. What a great guy." Holliday on switching leagues: "I won't miss [Tim] Lincecum and [Brandon] Webb."
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May. Click here to order a copy.