World, Yes; Baseball, Yes; Classic, Maybe
The World Baseball Classic still has light years to go before raising its status to the level of soccer’s World Cup, but at least the second tournament has beheld some wondrous moments. First there was the Netherlands’ stunning two-timing of the heavily favored Dominican team, and this past week the U.S. teamwhose players and fans seemed to have been all but dragged into being a part of the scenedramatically rallied in the bottom of the ninth to push past Puerto Rico, a team which a few nights earlier had laid such an embarrassing hurt on the Americans that the game had to be automatically stopped at ten runs’ difference owing to the WBC’s “mercy” rule. The American players, as well as the few American fans who attended the game in Miami, emotionally got caught up in the moment as if the World Series had been won. As manufactured as the WBC may be, the feelings were real.
Still, the WBC remains subservient to MLB, and that remains its primary weakness. As we saw with many U.S. players this past week, any injury to a WBC player would likely prompt a call from his MLB team to immediately come “home.” And the format remains confusing; every time the U.S. lost, many assumed they were automatically done with, leaving the question to be asked: When does elimination really become elimination?
...If Not, We're Bringing Back Jim Palmer
The Baltimore Orioles asked the American WBC team to give pitcher Jeremy Guthrie back to them. It’s easy to see why. In terms of quality, Guthrie isn’t the Orioles’ best thrower; he’s their only thrower.
One Stays Active
Last week we produced a list of former stars who were still willing to playso long as anyone was listening. This week, the Houston Astros were willing to listen to Ivan Rodriguez, in part because they’re horribly weak at the backstop and desperately need someone with good experience to play the part. Although Rodriguez’s productivity has waned in the last few years, he still represents an upgrade in Houston at the catcher spot, which until I-Rod’s signing had been reserved for Humberto Quintero (.226, two homers and six walks in 168 at-bats last season).
Whitey Lockman, in Memoriam
He was a baseball lifer, with experience as a player of 15 seasons, followed by stints as a coach, manager and scout. Whitey Lockman, who passed away this past week at the age of 82, was more than just the guy who scored ahead of Bobby Thomson famed “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” in 1951. He began his career with a .341 average in 32 games for the New York Giants in 1945, baseball’s last wartime season, then after a year in the minors came roaring forward with his best statistical campaign in 1947, setting career highs with 117 runs, ten triples, 18 homers and 68 walks. He hit a career-high .301 the following year, and he remained a stable and reliable everyday presence in the Giants’ lineup until a trade to St. Louis in 1956. Lockman’s career began to fade in the late 1950s after his return to the Giants when they moved to San Francisco, and he took up coaching in the 1960s; he managed the Chicago Cubs in the early 1970s and was involved in the merry-go-round NL East race of 1973 from which the Cubs finished fifth out of six teams. Lockman made one All-Star Game appearance in 1952 and owned a championship ring courtesy of the 1954 Giants.
Go East, Young Cubs
Going against the grain of momentum, the Chicago Cubs are thinking of moving their spring training site to Florida while most other teams are headed westward to Arizona. It could be a scare tactic to force the City of Mesa to make improvements to the Cubs’ longtime spring facility of Hohokam Park, but the word is that the Cubs are looking at Sarasota, Florida, where the Cincinnati Reds are spending their last year before moving west to Arizona in 2010. The Cubs have been a springtime fixture in the west for over 90 years, stationed in Arizona since 1952 and, largely before that, off the Los Angeles coast on Santa Catalina Island, then owned by the Wrigley family which, also, ran the Cubs.
Sharing the Glory
The Cubs are retiring uniform number 31 in honor of not one, but two legends: Pitchers Ferguson Jenkins and Greg Maddux, both of whom wore the number. Our first question was why it took so long for the Cubs to honor Jenkins, but maybe his drug issues of the 1980s had something to do with it. Our second question was how many other pairs of players have been retired by one team under the same uniform number? We looked it up and found two such instances: Number 5 for the Reds (catchers Johnny Bench and Willard Hershberger, who killed himself in the course of the Reds’ 1940 championship season) and number 10 for the Montreal Expos (Rusty Staub and Andre Dawson).
Can We Start Spring All Over Again?
With their 4-2 win over Cincinnati on Friday, the Houston Astros snapped a 19-game winless streak in spring training. During this wretched stretch, the Astros lost 16, tied three, were outscored 131-53 and notched two or less runs 13 timesincluding the last eight games of the slump.
A Little Bit of Something for Everyone
Sunday's spring training action saw a diversity of results, to say the least. In Florida, the Marlins no-hit the Tigers, 2-0, behind starter Ricky Nolasco's seven hitless innings and two more from Florida relievers. Across the country in Surprise, Arizona, it was a much different story in a exhibition between the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Kansas City Royals; aided by gusty winds that were blowing straight out, the two teams combined to smash 15 home runs, which would have shattered the existing major league record had the game counted. The Angels won the home run derby, 18-12.
Anything For Money
The Detroit Tigers, who could use some bucks to pay off what’s still a pricey player payroll, have dreamt up some interesting new ways to gather in more revenue. For $750, for instance, you and your kid can go out onto the Comerica Park outfield and play catch before the real players and security detail shoo you back to the seats. For $1,000, you can stand behind home plate and watch batting practice (that’s rightnot participate, but watch). Or the infield dirt crew can put you to work and have you help smooth out the infield during the third inning; for that, you pay $1,250. But the most glamorous (and expensive) packages allow you, for $1,500, to sit in the press box and spend an inning with the Tigers’ radio and TV announcers, or to walk out with manager Jim Leyland to deliver the lineup card to the umpires. All deals do come with some free goodies such as box seats and food, but we’d imagine that folks living in Detroitwhere homes are literally being given awayare not likely to bite. But just in case you’re interested, the number to call is 313-471-2550. Operators are standing by, and probably will continue to nothing butunless you just received an AIG bonus.
Anything For Money, Part II
When the folks at DeLea Sod Farms in Bridgeton, New Jersey found out they had grown far more grass for the new Yankee Stadium than needed, they had to figure out what to do with the extra stuff. After some head scratching, the light bulb went off: Parcel it off and sell it to the masses as “Yankee Sod.” With approval from MLB’s licensing branch, you now can own a piece of Yankee Stadium turf at $7.50 for a 48x16-inch strip. Home Depot stores in and around New York City will be among the first to sell it.
A Real Twin-Killer
Delmon Young has a roster spot secured for him on the Minnesota Twins, but any other player fighting for a place on the team would have suffered a major setback in that quest had they emulated Young this past Wednesday in an exhibition game against Pittsburgh. The 23-year old Young hit into four double plays, an obvious factor in the Twins’ 4-3 loss to the Pirates in ten innings. Young has something of a knack for hitting into double plays, leading the AL in 2007 with 23.
Terror at the Bottom of the Order
Cub pitcher Carlos Zambrano continues to show that’s he not only one of the best pitchers in the game, but one of the best-hitting pitchers as well. As of this writing, Zambrano has three hits in four spring training at-bats, including a double and a home run. Four at-bats may not be a lot of proof from a doubter’s point of view, but consider that in the past four years, Zambrano has hit .262 with 13 homers and 36 RBIs in 317 at-bats. Not bad for a guy hitting in the nine spot.
Falling Off the Cliff?
Reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee will certainly embrace the notion that spring training results mean nothing. In 6.2 innings of exhibition pitching through this past week, Lee has allowed 16 runs (14 earned) on 19 hits for an ERA of 18.90.
The Best of Last Year's Call-Ups
Listen up, all you fantasy seamheads. The group below represents those players who impressed in their early taste of the majors late last year. Will they carry their momentum into the 2009 season? We’ll come back at midseason to check on this group.
Daniel Murphy, New York Mets. He’s technically not a rookie this year (his 131 at-bats in 2008 was one more than needed to qualify) and didn’t look like one anyway after hitting .313 for the Mets. The joke at spring training is that Murphy’s been kidnapped by the batting cage, that’s how much time he spends there. The Mets are impressed enough that he’ll likely start the season in left field.
Cameron Maybin, Florida. One of the key components netted by the Marlins when they gave up Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to Detroit, Maybin’s 2008 audition16 hits in 32 at-bats with four stealsfared much better than his late 2007 call-up with the Tigers, when he batted .143 with 21 strikeouts in 49 at-bats. The Marlins hope he’s ready to take center fieldand center stage.
Mike Hinckley, Washington. Despite a minor league ERA that has hovered around 5.00 for the past four seasons, the 26-year old southpaw got a shot at the big league level late last yearwhy not, the Nationals will try anybodyand suddenly threw 13.2 scoreless innings in 14 appearances. Hinckley’s been anything but flawless in spring training, so whether he makes the Nationals’ final cut is still up in the air.
Micah Hoffpauir, Chicago Cubs. It’s pronounced “Hoff-power,” and given that he hit 25 homers in 290 Triple-A at-bats last year before hitting .342 with a couple more jacks at Chicago, maybe that’s the way it should be spelled as well. The 29-year old first baseman has already been guaranteed a spot on the Cubs’ roster for 2009, but his playing time will be limited given that Derrek Lee currently owns that station.
Jason Motte, St. Louis. A catcher-turned-pitcher, the 26-year old struck out 110 batters in just 66-plus innings last year at triple-A Memphisthen struck out 16 more in 11 innings of startlingly good work at St. Louis to finish the year. With a fastball close to 100 MPH, Motte is considered the favorite to become the Cardinals’ closer this season.
Chris Dickerson, Cincinnati. Needless to say, it’s typical to see one’s productivity take a hit when he reaches the majors for the first time. In Dickerson’s case, it was the opposite; his .304 average in 31 games at the end of 2008 was higher than anything he hit in six minor league years, and his six homers with the Reds was unusually high for a guy who’s never hit more than 14 in a full season at the lower levels. Dickerson will likely platoon with Jerry Hairston Jr. at the left field spot.
Pablo Sandoval, San Francisco. Of all the players on this list, the 22-year old Sandoval is the closest to being the real deal. In 2008 alone, he went from Class A ball to the majorsskipping Triple-A along the wayand hit well over .300 with bruising power at each level. He’s killing the ball this spring, and he’s likely to get a starting spot on the Giants, who could really use a hitter of his ilk.
Josh Geer, San Diego. Like Dickerson above, Geer looked better in his short September stint with the Padres than he ever has in the minors. He’s been iffy so far this spring but he has a fair chance of locking up a spot in the San Diego rotation.
David Price, Tampa Bay. The tall (6’6”) 23-year old from Tennessee is the most familiar name on the list, thanks to his exposure to the masses during last year’s postseason run in Tampa. Price’s first year in the pros last season validated his phenom tag, registering a 12-1 record and 2.31 ERA before an impressive cameo with the Rays, which included a win and a save in the ALCS against Boston. Price is all but certain to be in the Tampa Bay rotation this year.
Phil Coke, New York Yankees. Is Coke the real thing? After producing a 0.61 ERA in 12 late outings for the Yankees last season, it can’t be ruled out. Coke’s shining September followed a brief and unimpressive appearance at the triple-A level, but he’s continued to throw well in the spring. Who knowsmaybe the Yankees have found the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera.
Travis Snider, Toronto. Here’s another guy who ascended quickly from Class A to the majors through one seasonand the Blue Jays, desperate for good hitting, are praying that the 21-year old is real and ready. Snider hit .301 with a pair of homers in his short time in Toronto last year, and he’s already penciled in as the team’s main DH.
Jose Mijares, Minnesota. The Twins may be envisioning Mijares, who pitched 10.1 scoreless innings while allowing just three hits and no walks at the end of 2008, as Joe Nathan’s successor at the closer spot. But he’s been wild so far in spring training, so such enthusiasm may be temperedfor now.
Dusty Ryan, Detroit. The 24-year old from Merced, California is not likely to see much duty on the Tigers this season in spite of a nifty little 2008 performance, hitting .318 with two homers and seven RBIs in 44 at-bats; he also threw out six of 13 attempted base stealers. If he continues to play at that level in the minors, it won’t be long before he convinces the higher-ups that he belongs in the majors for good.
Taylor Teagarden, Texas. Now go figure this: The local kid from Dallas hits .169 in Double-A, .225 in Triple-Aand .319 for the big-time Rangers, with six homers and 17 RBIs in just 47 at-bats. Maybe the bigger the challenge, the better the effort for a guy whose last name sounds like it belongs in an Ivory-Merchant film. Teagarden is slated to platoon at the catcher spot with an even more dizzying name, one Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Wounded of the Week
Also this past week, it was learned that the Minnesota Twins will likely be without catcher Joe Mauer (back) to start the regular season, a crippling blow given Mauer’s overall package of hitting, leadership and backstop sage. Also unlikely for Opening Day are Florida closer Matt Lindstrom, due to shoulder tightness developed at the WBC; Detroit reliever Joel Zumaya, still trying to overcome shoulder problems of the past few years; and San Francisco starting pitcher Noah Lowry, himself still trying to overcome elbow issues that derailed his entire 2008 season. Finally comes word that Corey Koskie, trying to make a comeback with the Cubs after dealing with the aftereffects of a concussion suffered while last playing in 2006, called it quits after experiencing moments of light-headedness in exhibition play.
The MLB medical ward is crowd up with ailing patients as Opening Day nears. The most eye-opening news this past week came from Houston camp, where it was learned that veteran third baseman Aaron Boone, 36, will undergo open heart surgery. Although his current condition is not life-threatening, the procedure will certainly end any chance of Boone playing in 2009and leaves his baseball career in doubt.
Now Playing at TGG
Our 2008 Yearly Reader page is now uploaded along with its accompanying Leaders+Numbers page dissecting the most productive hitters and pitchers of 2008, final standings and the "It Happened In..." installment highlighting the recordbreakers and events of the season that was.
This Great Game’s Ed Attanasio and Eric Gouldsberry are working up their vaunted fearless forecasts for the upcoming major league season. Look for it on our opinion page on March 29.
The Comebacker’s Greatest Hits
Click here to look at the TGG Comebacker archive going back to the start of the 2007 season.