Todays spring training games look like regular season games. The players are ready. The managers are scratching their heads figuring out the final spot or two on the roster. The execution is becoming mid-season sharp. Double plays are looking sharp. Sliders are breaking at the last moment. Hitters are squaring up with nails. Nearly everyone is ready…especially these guys.
While the business of baseball will not make it possible to make it on the opening day roster, Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs set the attention-meter to 100 over in Mesa. He is the phenom of the spring. But because of loop holes in Major League Baseball’s Player Agreement, he won’t make his first Show appearance in a Cubbies uni until April 20th in Pittsburgh. If he can hit in the lights of the Bigs, his spring flourish won’t go to waste. Flash in the pan or destined for greatness? That’s the beauty of spring.
The Chicago White Sox are comers. They have the horses to take them to the Central Division top rung. And Jose Abreau is the main man to take them there. He is a star. The only problem he has is that he will be showing his wares on the South Side. This is not flash. It is the real deal. The Cubs may have all the talk back up in Chicago but the White Sox are a legitimate Central Division American League power. This could be a big year for ‘Bill Veeck’s Dream’.
Moving north, Michael Blazek has looked as sharp as a pitcher can look this spring for the Milwaukee Brewers. A team loaded with offensive power, their achillies heel has been their pitching. While Lohse and Peralta set up one of the best one-three punches in the game to stop prolonged losing streaks, Garza is Garza and the combo of Fiers and Nelson still have to prove themselves to complete the rotation. A-Rod is simply one of the best coming out of the pen. But Blazek is the surprise of the spring. In his last start against the D’Backs, he allowed only 1 hit and proved he could move up and replace Fiers and Nelson if needed, and perhaps even Garza.
The Oakland A’s really do prove that you can’t tell their players without a program. Only Billy Bean can manage to use a mix-master in putting a team together each and every year. Some call it ‘Moneyball’. Perhaps it is ‘Crazyball’. But this year add Billy Burns to the surprise package. Hitting .381 this spring, this is a center fielder to watch. With an OPS of .950, this is another key on Bean’s chess board of winning magic.
Across the Bay, this is an off year…in other words it is a year when they may not win the whole thing again. Besides Bumgarner and their all-world catcher, Buster, they finally have a star back at first base in Brandon Belt. He is making Scottsdale Stadium look like a tinker-toy park. Not since McCovey (sorry Will the Thrill) have the Giants had the big man day in and day out at first. Look for a big year from Belt.
The wealthy kids on the block, the Los Angeles Dodgers, are the team you love to hate. For any kid who wasn’t born with a silver spoon in their mouth, the Bums are the antithesis. They simply have more money than….everyone except the New York Yankees. But the one guy you have to love is Clayton Kershaw. This spring he looks just like he did last year….fantastic. He is ready to go and deliver. Problem is…can the rest of these overpaid prima’s do the same? And can the guy who married the Dallas Cheerleader actually smile? Or is that another snear as they finish second again?
The real star in the greater Los Angeles area is Mike Trout of the Los Angeles of Anaheim in Orange County California Angels. The ‘LAAOCCA’ are fun to watch but most of all because of their great Center Fielder and the new face of the game, one Mr. Trout. There is simply nothing he cannot do. Yesterday, in a meaningless spring training game against the cross-So Cal Dodgers, he made a spectacular catch robbing the Dodgers of a home run. IN SPRING TRAINING. If you haven’t seen Mike Trout play the game, do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Get to the ballpark and see a future Hall of Famer in action.
The San Diego Padres spent like a drunken sailor on shore leave after pay-day. Now the question is…are they in the clink? Not if a team has James Shields. The other day he fired a 5 inning no-hitter. When is the last time a Padre’s starter was that dominant? There is a lot of talk about this team being the favorite in the National League West. But, can they take on the World Champion Giants and the Dodgers for 38 games and still come out on top? Can they win on the road? Don’t know yet but they do have James Shields.
Tony LaRussa is in the stands, scratching stuff on paper, making moves in his mind which are analytical mixed with moxie to produce winners. He has begun to assemble people he can trust around him. This is a hint of better things to come in the dry air of the Cactus League. But they still have the same owner. The Arizona Diamondbacks need a lot of help but they do have one legitimate star and he is Paul Goldschmidt. There is no better player in defeating the over-shifting defense in baseball today than Goldschmidt. He is worth the price of admission any day in the week. And he IS the All-Star National League First Baseman.
Rocky Mountain High may be a song to be sung but the Colorado Rockies might have a chance if they play all of their games in Coors Field this coming season. At sea level, they become just another team. But they do have Nolan Arenado who is their best hitter. This spring, he is looking absolutely solid and may well be the best third baseman in the West. With 4 dingers this spring, and batting .313, he is a reason to watch the Rockies and is one of the most underrated players in baseball.
Up in the greater Northwest, there is a team with a lot of hope. The Nintendos have Cano, The King and now a Cruz. Nelson Ramon Cruz is a blaster of the ball. Out of the legendary Milwaukee Brewer farm system which produced Weeks, Fielder, Hart and Braun, then onto the Rangers and the Orioles, he is now ensconced in Seattle and looks like a rejuvenated power this spring. He is bringing people to the realization that he banged 40 home runs last year in crab-cake land. Will he be enough to win the American League West? Hitting is for show. Pitching is for all of the dough.
Speaking of Seattle, Mr Russell Wilson entered the building in Surprise. But the Texas Rangers are a mystery of a team. Prince is back at first but is he back to his former Milwaukee Brewer form? Yu Darvish is not. And that is a major problem. But the surprise of the season is Ryan Rua, a left fielder who is hitting the cover off the ball. This Amherst, Ohio, native has won the left field spot once held by Mr Hamilton, by banging .306 and driving in 8 RBI. He has been the most pleasant surprise in Surprise this spring.
Last year they finished a couple of innings short of being the World Champions. The Kansas City Royals look like a totally different team this season. No more is there Aoki leading off and getting on base. No longer is there the top of their pitching staff featuring James Shields. Billy Butler…has left the building. But they still have Ned Yost. Ouch! Prediction is that he will be gone in 1 & 1/2 years. But they do have one of the great center fielders in the game, Lorenzo Cain. Another of those great Milwaukee Brewer farm system developed players, Cain along with Trout of the Angels, the two best center fielders in the league, are worth every bit of money they receive. Cain is amazing.
Zach McAllister is the real deal in Cleveland. This is a masterful right-handed pitcher who heads up a terrific pitching staff that will give the Chicago White Sox a run for its money in the AL Central Division this season. And McAllister is the reason. This spring he is as sharp as sharp can be. One of the best pitchers in baseball. You will pay to go to the ballpark and see this guy play. That’s called a star.
Over in Cincinnati, there is a player that this spring has sprung who needs a close look. Christopher Negron in 18 games in Goodyear, AZ, is hitting over .400. That’s Ted Williams territory. And his OPS is 1.098! This is what spring is all about. Sometimes someone just gets totally on fire. And this spring there is a fire called Negron. But the Reds have the Cardinals, Brewers, Pirates and the Cubs to deal with in one week.
So, what do we have to look forward to this coming season? Plenty. As the Cactus League winds down and baseball and its fans prepare for another great season, it is time. They are all in their places with smiles on their faces. Time to get real.