Tagged: Spring Training

Opening Day 2010

Well, well, well… I’m finally back, just in time for the season to start. I graduate from the University of Tampa next month and I have been caught up in all the pre–graduation work. Then I expect to move in July, likely out of my lifelong hometown of Tampa, for graduate school and possible employment. So updates here will likely be even more sporadic than they were last season

Back to baseball, we are just about in full swing. The Braves debut with most other teams on Monday and the Rays host their opener Tuesday night. (The night I happen to have a late can’t–miss class.)

I checked out Braves Spring Training on March 13 when they hosted the Blue Jays. Ricky Romero owned the Braves and Toronto won 3–0 behind untimely errors against Tim Hudson. The slightly–improved Champion Stadium looked great as usual, and we sat in the lower level for the first time. I was about four rows behind Frank Wren, right behind the plate. It was a bit hotter than expected due to the concrete and steel, but nothing like it would be today. That didn’t stop me from having chicken noodle soup catered to my seat. It was good too.

After the game we stayed at the Best Western Lakeside (my first night ever in a hotel room all to myself) and ate at Colorado House of Beef. I recommend the Colorado’s Best, a 14–ounce center–cut portion of New York strip steak. We may go back again next year.

Now on to the regular season. The Rays added both Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac to the Opening Day roster. I like the idea because both men are versatile and did very well this spring. Rodriguez particularly killed the ball. Hopefully Rodriguez carries it over into the regular season and earns some playing time. It seems like Brignac will get most of the second base appearances while Ben Zobrist will play right field. These three should get all the time they can because they are all better than Gabe Kapler. Nothing personal against the Jewish muscleman, he’s just past his prime.

Mike Ekstrom narrowly beat Joaquin Benoit for the final bullpen spot. This surprised me quite a bit; I see Benoit as the better pitcher. But Ekstrom was said to have better fastball command and he didn’t just miss a season injured. So he should hold over in a mop–up role until J.P. Howell comes back. I also like Andy Sonnanstine in the long relief spot, and I love former Brave Rafael Soriano as the closer.

The Rays are expected to possibly drop their payroll by $20 million next season. That’s quite sad for this market. As Tom Verducci said, we “failed the litmus test” last year when our attendance only rose by less than 1,000 fans per game. I’m as guilty as all of us, only having gone to two games. In our defense, the economy in this area sucks and only nine teams saw any increase in attendance in 2009 — ours was the sixth–best increase. In terms of cutting payroll, if we get Pena, Soriano and Burrell off the books, that’s about $25 million right there. If Crawford decides to unfortunately depart, that’s more than $10 million extra. We could actually sign one or two good players next offseason. Combine that with the rise of Desmond Jennings and other prospects, and we can still contend. Don’t count us out.

I wrote a spring recap/season preview for the Rays for my school newspaper. I basically talk about everybody there, and it would clog a lot of space on this blog, so the link is here.

On to the Braves, their starting rotation looks like the 1990s, chock full of stars: Lowe, Jurrjens, Hanson, Hudson, Kawakami. When Tim Hudson is the fourth starter on an underrated staff, you know you have something special. Tommy Hanson could win a Cy Young Award soon, and so could Jair Jurrjens. If they just keep up the pace and Derek Lowe stays in shape, the Braves could sneak into the postseason.

The talk of Braves camp is Jason Heyward. What an amazing talent. He has rocket power, a great batting eye, good speed and a cannon arm. He can be the next Ken Griffey, Jr., hopefully without the injuries and slowing down. He can make Braves baseball its most exciting since the late 1990s. Now if only Chipper Jones and Troy Glaus can rebound and Nate McLouth starts to hit.

The Yankees and Red Sox begin the season tonight. I’ll be cheering for the weather and the medical staff. Now we wait impatiently for our teams to begin the 2010 season. Every team — OK, maybe about 25 out of 30 — has hope for a championship. Let’s bring one down south.

Until next time, go Rays and Braves.

Braves News: Anderson Traded, Jones Signed For Life, Plus Rays News

There has been major news out of Atlanta Braves camp in the past 24 hours.

First off, Josh Anderson has shockingly been traded to the Detroit Tigers.  Anderson, expected by many to start in center field, was given away for Minor League sidearm pitcher Rudy Darrow.  He was out of options and, at age 26, not the most attractive prospect.  He had been surpassed for the center field job by incumbent starter Gregor Blanco and top prospect Jordan Schafer, who has hit .373 this Spring.  Anderson’s inconsistency and limited batting power likely drove him out of Atlanta.  Blanco has a good skill set of speed, range and getting on base, while Schafer is a possible five–tool star of the near future.  I think Schafer should start this year at AAA Gwinnett because his lack of higher–level experience calls for more seasoning.  Blanco can hold down the fort until he is ready.  But the Braves may start Schafer from day one based on his play so far in camp.  Who knows?  Only time and the legendary Bobby Cox will tell.

Atlanta also signed its franchise player, third baseman Chipper Jones, to a three–year contract extension with an option for 2013.  This keeps him with the team through his 41st birthday, at which point his career will likely be over.  With the defection of John Smoltz to an enemy camp, it was important for the Braves to sign Chipper for the rest of his career.  He will forever be a Brave, figuratively and now literally.  Now let’s see him play at least 130 games and win another batting title.  That will send him straight to the Hall of Fame, where he belongs.

In Rays news, the team has made no decision yet on the future for reliever Jason Isringhausen, who was signed to a Minor League deal coming off of some injuries.  He does not want to go down to Durham and has the option to leave, placing the ball in his court.  Joe Maddon wants to keep him with the team by any means necessary.  I think he should stay, at least at the beginning of the year.  That kind of veteran depth is critical in the bullpen.

My idea of trading either Jason Hammel or Jeff Niemann may be coming to fruition.  Multiple teams are interested in each pitcher.  They are both out of options and one will likely be expendable before the season starts.  The San Diego Padres are interested in either one of them.  The Colorado Rockies have been after Hammel since last year’s trade deadline.  The Pittsburgh Pirates have talked about bringing in Niemann.  Why not?  They need some kind of help.  As long as we get something in return (first baseman of the future?), it is a great idea.

Despite a late–inning implosion leading to an 8–7 loss to Boston, three Rays who needed home runs smashed them today.  Matt Joyce, Gabe Gross and Jon Weber all went deep in the narrow defeat.  Joyce needed to start proving himself worthy of a Major League spot in B.J. Upton’s place at the start of the season, and this is a good start.  Meanwhile, Weber has done exceptionally well so far in Rays camp.  I think they should consider him for the final roster spot.  He is 31 years old, so what more can he do in the Minor Leagues?  He has decent speed and power, and has been bringing it for a month straight.  If Joyce starts at AAA and Weber begins with the Rays, I have no complaints.  Weber can finally try proving himself to MLB teams and Joyce can touch up his game a little more.

I also believe that Adam Kennedy would make a nice addition to the team if there is an open spot.  He can play multiple infield positions and bring a variety of talents and leadership to the Rays.  The shocking Tigers release of Gary Sheffield, who has 499 home runs, to make room for Anderson has sparked discussion of the Rays bringing him in at a $400,000 price.  It’s a nice deal, but he is past his prime and there is no room left.  That’s about all that is fit to blog today, but more will definitely come soon.  I will be posting my lineup and pitching rotation predictions before Spring Training ends.  Until next time, go Rays (and Braves).

Price, Four Others Sent to AAA

It has now been confirmed that 2008 first overall Draft pick David Price and four others have been sent down to AAA Durham to start the season.  My reaction to this, and likely the fans’ reaction as a whole, is not as negative as that following Evan Longoria’s trip to the Minor Leagues last season.  Here is the rundown of those who are going to the Bulls:

–John Jaso, C: No surprise here.  He barely saw AAA or the Rays last season, so he should be sent down for more seasoning.  Up through AA, he had phenomenal walk/strikeout totals and had decent natural power.  If he elevates his game one more level, there may be a spot for him on the big stage someday.

–Elliot Johnson, IF/OF: Little surprise about this one.  Here is a guy with big tools, especially in the speed and defense departments, but still dealing with several flaws (too many strikeouts, low on–base percentage).  At age 25, his time is starting to run out, but a little more seasoning wouldn’t hurt.

–Reid Brignac, SS: This guy is good right now, but he had a subpar Spring Training with the Rays’ Major League team, though he did get a few big hits.  This is not a player that the Rays need languishing on the bench.  He missed part of 2008 in AAA, where he had a bit of a down year.  So he needs another year, and since he is only 23, he can still grow by leaps and bounds.  He can eventually either move to second base in case Iwamura gets injured or leaves the team, play shortstop if anything happens to Bartlett, or become serious trade bait with Tim Beckham moving up the ranks behind him.

–Justin Ruggiano, OF: Some fans certainly saw this as surprising.  Ruggiano, who turns 27 on April 12, was seen as a strong candidate for the fifth outfielder spot in B.J. Upton’s absence.  Even with decent Spring Training stats and playing time, he still got the shaft.  I think it may be good for him, as while he has proven to be a 20–20 threat in AAA, he still has holes in his game one could drive an 18–wheeler through.  He needs to cut down on the strikeouts and become a more polished product.  He may do that with a touch of Durham.

–David Price, LHP: And of course, the big one.  When I heard that Jeff Niemann and Jason Hammel were out of options, and that Price was still mastering his changeup, I knew this had AAA written all over it.  I think this may be a positive experience for him.  He can get back into shape against lesser hitters and perfect that changeup that will elevate him from setup man to staff ace.  With less than a year’s worth of professional experience, there are still things he can learn to get better.  Meanwhile, I think Niemann should be the fifth starter to begin the season.  I don’t know what to do with Hammel… trade him?  Well, if the Rays can get a better deal for Niemann, they should pull the trigger on that and take their chances with Hammel.  It’s more than likely that Price will be with the Rays for most of the season anyway, so they should not be losing too much.

Speaking of Niemann, he made a strong case to be the fifth starter last night against the Pirates, pitching four innings of one–run baseball with zero walks.  This is a relief after his atrocious nine–run outing last week.  A rare Adam Kennedy home run put the Rays in the lead early, and a strong bullpen led them to victory.  If every possible reliever on this team does as well as he can, the Rays have as many as eight frontline relief pitchers.  (Percival, Balfour, Howell, Wheeler, Shouse, Nelson, Isringhausen, Bradford.)  Could we have any more depth?  Well, there is always Lance Cormier.  Until next time, go Rays.

Braves vs. Mets, 3/21/09

Saturday was the day we made our annual journey to Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex near Kissimmee to watch the Atlanta Braves, a trip my family has made every year since 1999.  This one turned out perfectly, as the Braves slaughtered the New York Mets 12–1 in front of over 10,000 fans, including my Braves–loving parents and myself, who all have an intense dislike for the Mets to say the least.

Josh Anderson hit the game’s only home run, a surprising eighth inning pinch–hit three–run shot over the right field wall, where it was caught by a Braves relief pitcher.  Jeff Francoeur had that new batting stance working, going 2–3 with a three–run double into the 385–foot power alley that nearly went over for a grand slam.  Left fielder Brandon Jones went 2–4 with a walk, two RBI and two runs, though he did slow down defensively during the late stages of the game.  Top prospect Jordan Schafer progressively improved, striking out his first two times up (on a total of five hard swings and zero contact) before drawing a walk and driving a single to center field.

Of course, the pitching was all about future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine, who made his first Major League start in this year’s Spring Training.  After his well–deserved standing ovation prior to the game, he hit on all cylinders and corners, throwing strikes to everyone he saw.  He pitched three scoreless innings, allowing two hits and striking out Daniel Murphy looking at a vintage Glavine changeup.  It was also great looking at Peter Moylan in live action after he missed most of last season.  He threw one inning, giving up one hit and nothing else.

Some personal notes from this game:

–In the later innings, a group of Mets fans in the back row (I was in row J of section 215, which runs through row M) tried starting a “Let’s Go Mets” chant.  I shouted them down with “Braves!” everytime they went to say Mets, until they just gave up.  Even when one told me to “shut up,” I fired back “you shut up, you’re in my stadium!”  Which perfectly echoed my sentiments.  Go to Port St. Lucie or Citi Field if you want to chant the Mets up.  Not in our house.

–The “Let’s Go Mets” chant later started on a larger scale, but it did nothing to fire up that team (which put up less effort than the fans did) and some scattered Braves fans shot it down.

–There were, as we expected, probably a few thousand Mets fans in attendance.  I believe the majority supported the Braves, but the turnout for both teams was significant.  I have never seen Champion Stadium that full of people.

–Dale Murphy, the two–time MVP and Hall of Fame–caliber Braves legend, delivered the lineup card for his old team prior to the game.   He took in the largest reception of the afternoon, needless to say.

–After the game, I ate first at Stadium Bar & Grill, where I had a quarter pound burger with fries and apple juice.  It was better than I expected, but I still went on up the road to Old Town and Flipper’s Pizzeria, of which I have heard rave reviews.  One six–meat pizza later, and I had a rave review of my own.  Then I stayed at Best Western Lakeside, which was surprisingly quiet, and returned home today.

The Mets turned the tables today and beat the Braves 12–1 in Port St. Lucie, while David Price and the Rays soundly defeated the Yankees 5–0 in Port Charlotte.  The Rays have announced that, as expected, B.J. Upton will not be available for the first week of the season.  In perhaps worse news, Fernando Perez will now be out 4-5 months with ligament damage in his fielding wrist.  Injury bugs aside, it looks like the Rays and Braves may both have good seasons on the horizon.  Until next time, go Rays, Braves and whoever beats the Mets. 

Fernando Perez Out Three Months

Ladies and gentlemen, the announcement nobody has been waiting for… “Heeeeere comes the injury bug!”

Fernando Perez, the blazing fast outfielder expected to make the Opening Day roster, is making a trip to the Opening Day disabled list.  He will be sidelined for about three months due to a dislocated wrist suffered in the Rays’ March 11 win over the Blue Jays.  His glove was caught in the grass as he dove for the ball, pulling the wrist out of its socket and creating this worst–case scenario.  Had the wrist been broken, a plate inserted between the bones would have healed it in about one month’s time.

Perez will now be out until June, taking the one fast reserve outfielder the Rays had out for the season’s first few months.  We are now thankful that they signed Gabe Kapler and kept up their solid outfield depth.  (Kapler, by the way, hit a home run in today’s 3–2 win over the Phillies.)

So with Fernando left to strengthen those running legs until he can swing the bat, the Rays started their road to recovery with the aforementioned win over Philadelphia.  James Shields pitched four outstanding shutout innings, and Carl Crawford stole third base to give us the idea that the lightning speed of Carl has returned.  All of those hamstring workouts are starting to pay off.

I would like to once again announce that I will be in Kissimmee on March 21 to watch the Braves destroy face the Mets.  I am still searching for Rays games that I actually have the time to get to.  So until next time, go Rays.

Decent Start For the Rays

The Rays have been up and down when it comes to winning and losing throughout the early portion of 2009 Spring Training.  But at this point, records are not the most important factor.  The performance of regular players and top prospects is what is most important to teams and their loyal followers.  So far, many Rays have been impressive.

On the pitching side, Wade Davis has proven that he can hang with Major League hitters.  The 23–year–old right hander who put up strong totals at AA and AAA in 2008 has rolled through big lineups so far this Spring.  He pitched two perfect innings against the Yankees’ everyday lineup, striking out three, two of them being Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira.  He later pitched 3.2 more shutout innings against the Cardinals, and has not allowed a run yet.  Jason Hammel (0 runs in six innings) and Jeff Niemann (1.80 ERA, seven strikeouts in five innings) are both making strong cases to stay with the team into the regular season.  With both pitchers out of options, this is exactly what they need to be doing.  Brian Shouse has also pitched well in limited action.  He will need to be this effective holding down the fort in the late innings of big regular season games, and he is proving that he can.

The hitters are swinging well too, posting big multi–run innings on a regular basis.  Carlos Pena made his return from injury today and promptly smashed two doubles, good for three RBI.  Evan Longoria has been exceptional against both MLB and World Baseball Classic opposition, hitting home runs against teams from both places.  Jason Bartlett is 7–11 (.636) against MLB teams.  Even Elliot Johnson has two home runs and two stolen bases.  Finally, even though he is only 1–5 (the hit coming in his first plate appearance), Tim Beckham has shown good potential for a 19–year–old prospect and is learning more now than in all previous seasons combined.  I can see him starting with single–A Bowling Green, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him back in Port Charlotte with the high–A Stone Crabs before too long.

On the flip side, Gabe Kapler (0–12) and Reid Brignac (1–16, HR) have been lackluster, but they still have time to adjust and get back to hitting like they should.  What we have seen so far is only a sample size.  Hopefully the top performers stay on top and the bottom feeders catch up.  The way this team functions, I think this is very much possible.  Check out the great new facilities in Port Charlotte whenever you can, come up to St. Petersburg all throughout the upcoming season, and go Rays.

Rays Headlines

First off today, the Rays closed Al Lang Field as a Spring Training site today with a 6-3 loss to the Cincinnati Reds.  Matt Garza allowed two runs, zero earned, in five innings pitched, with four different relievers each allowing a run.  (We don’t want to see more of that in April, like 2007.)  Carl Crawford had three hits and his sixth stolen base of the Spring, and Dioner Navarro had two hits.  More newsworthy, however, is the fact that Al Lang Field, which has been a Spring Training stadium since the Boston Braves used it from 1922-37, has now hosted its final preseason game.  I’m not sure how many fans nationwide have heard about this or understand the significance of this event, but it was a top headline all over the local news here throughout this week.  The Rays named The All-Time Al Lang Field Team today, including such names as Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Babe Ruth.

Scott Kazmir still moves forward in rehab, throwing about 70-80 times from around 120 feet today.  The team, in its ultra-conservative approach, says that Kazmir will throw a bullpen session on Sunday, then pitch in three Minor League Spring Training games, progressing in time and pitches thrown.  Then, finally, he may return sometime in April at a low risk for any setbacks or relapses.  As much as I would like to see him go ahead and pitch from day one, he has had no time so far this Spring, and even as good as he is, throwing him to the lions (or in the case of the Orioles, maybe Siamese cats) out of the starting gate could backfire.  And we should also have him ready and going late in the season should there be a little thing called a playoff race.

Speaking of conservative approaches, according to my dad, a baseball columnist online actually said that there may be an on-field reason for Evan Longoria’s demotion to AAA Durham: he can’t hit breaking balls.  Thus, so says this guy, Longoria could spend two or three months in Durham if he doesn’t adjust quickly.  It is true that many young players have this problem, but if it was that pronounced, wouldn’t somebody have said it sooner?  He’s just learning more of the game with age, I think he’ll get it soon.

The Rays have acquired outfielder Nathan Haynes off waivers from the Angels and placed Rocco Baldelli on the 60-day disabled list.  According to stats that I have looked up, Haynes appears to be a light-hitting all-around outfielder who runs well and could be a good fourth or fifth option.  He stole four bases for the Cactus League’s Angels earlier this Spring, so maybe he can be a good pinch runner who fits into the Rays’ baserunning system.  We didn’t give up anything to get him, so it’s certainly a good move if there is a place for him.

With the Atlanta Braves, sources have said that they picked up utility infielder Ruben Gotay off waivers from the rival Mets to start the season while Omar Infante is injured.  First baseman Scott Thorman actually cleared waivers and is off to AAA Richmond once again.  I think he’s on his last strike here…his continuous disappointments are only further motivation to re-sign Mark Teixeira.  Meanwhile, with the Mets, former Tampa Bay relief pitcher Brian Stokes may squeeze onto the roster and start the year in the Mets’ bullpen after Rule 5 Draft pick Steven Register was waived.  I hope they do use Stokes so the Braves can use him for batting practice.

In surprising news from the other Class of 1998 MLB team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, starting pitcher Doug Davis has been diagnosed with thyroid cancer.  He could still pitch tonight, and even into April, before having surgery to have it removed.  This probably means they, thankfully, detected it early before it became life-threatening.  So he should get well soon, as all of us fans hope he does.

Elsewhere in baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers host the Boston Red Sox at the L.A. Coliseum for an exhibition game tonight.  It may be seen by as many as 115,000 fans, which would destroy the baseball record and the all time American team sports record, which were both set in the same stadium.  The only problem with this would be the Red Sox playing exhibition games after their regular season already started, but this still looks to be a huge historic event.  But from what I’ve read about the stadium’s baseball dimensions, Manny Ramirez and others will have a difficult time hitting into the power alley, as the left center field fence goes back at least 450 feet.  Maybe if they moved that in, they could expand the seating capacity even further.  (And maybe they have.)  The awkward dimensions were actually the main motivation for the building of Dodger Stadium in the first place.  But I can only imagine if the Dodgers had hosted more World Series games there.  They would have drawn unbreakable record crowds, just like they’ll do tonight.

That covers most of the news, until final roster cuts are made and the season starts.  Until next time, go Rays.