Spring training doesn't mean anything. We're all aware. Or we should be aware. What a player does in March has no bearing on what he will do once the season starts. It's the same for the guy raking day after day as it is for the player struggling to get going. It doesn't matter.
And, at the same time, that's the beauty of spring training—especially when you're down there. Yes, none of it matters, but can we pause a minute and consider things contextually? We're talking about baseball. Just baseball. It's a children's game played by grown men for unconscionable sums of money. It's all absurd, and getting upset at those who enjoy positive spring moments is completely non-sensical in the grand scheme of things.
So yes, when you're down there, the fact that none of this matters is the best part. You enjoy the highlights and you brush off the negative moments, fully aware that both mean little. You're watching just to watch, and in that way, it's baseball at its purest.
This was my first spring training. I flew out Friday afternoon, arriving at a cheap hotel late that evening and heading out the next morning for the first of what would be seven games—concluding with Wednesday's extra-innings win over the Cubs.
Here are my thoughts, having now nearly recovered from more sun than my pale Irish skin can bear and a night spent on the floor of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Again, I know none of this matters—but here are my impressions, here's what I enjoyed.
Brad Miller can play. Everything I say here may well be confirmation bias, as I enjoy Brad Miller's play as much as any Mariner I've seen, but I saw nothing to dissuade anyone's running optimism that Miller could explode for a 4 or 5-win season. He put on 15-20 pounds of bulk, and it shows. No longer the long-legged gawky shortstop, he's now built like Troy Tulowitzki. And though there were concerns this could slow him down in the field, everything I saw made me believe he'll be better defensively this year. He doesn't have the range Brendan Ryan did (who does?), but he has a quick first step to the ball and the arm is looking real strong. Also, I just don't buy the "Miller is better on defense, Nick Franklin is better on offense" narrative. Miller is always in control at the plate, where Franklin can look quite defensive up there against big-league bendy stuff. In the night game against the Diamondbacks, Miller fell into an 0-2 count against a lefty before stinging a triple into the gap. The dude exudes confidence at all times, whether it's during a game, in the cage, or pulling out of Chik-fil-A at 9:30am in his beemer (yeah, that happened).
Robinson Cano is so smooth. Lloyd McClendon described his game earlier, during the Kevin Long flap, as "elegant." That's exactly what it is. During the radio call of yesterday's game, Mike Blowers noted how quiet and still Cano is up there at the plate, and it's spot-on. The guy can hit in his sleep. His first extra base hit didn't come until Wednesday, but I wonder if that was by design as he was just working on squaring pitches up and lining them back through the box.
And oh God, the defense. It looks so damn easy. I feel like his style on defense played a huge factor in supporting the "Robinson Cano doesn't hustle" narrative on a subconscious level, but the reality is that this is all so easy to him. Whether it's during a game or doing extra work and fielding a bucket of balls after the rest of his hitting group left for the half of a split-squad doubleheader (that happened too), he's casual-but-flawless out there.
Oh, and he happily signed for several people multiple times while I was there. Of all the players recently handed lengthy mega-deals by other teams, I'm so glad we have our guy over them.
This coaching staff is constantly teaching. One of most enjoyable parts of spring training, and sneaking down to good seats in the late-innings, was watching this staff go to work with the younger guys. Whether it's Andy Van Slyke whistling out to the outfielders and positioning them just so, Rick Waits constantly carrying conversations with pitchers or just Lloyd McClendon giving daps to Mike Dowd after he fouled a ball off his foot, took the next one off his elbow and then muscled a fastball out to center for a sac fly—it was all great.
These are baseball men, and they're all business. The quotes from Lloyd and others had me encouraged early on, and that optimism has only grown having seen them in person.
After everything shakes out, I really like James Paxton as my #4 starter. With all the concern surrounding the rotation, what's happened with James Paxton isn't getting nearly enough play. Does everyone fully comprehend how amazing this transformation has been? Just last July, Paxton was a could-be reliever, a guy who couldn't get past the fifth or sixth because his control was so spotty. And now he's a ground ball machine.
The other night, after the Diamondbacks game, Paxton said he didn't have his best control—and he didn't walk a single guy. He hasn't walked a batter all spring. It's unreal. James Paxton is a different pitcher, and we're nearing the point where we feel really excited about him.
Don't sleep on Erasmo Ramirez. Erasmo isn't necessarily a guy you can bank on, especially given the funky injury last year, but it's best not to forget that this is a talented kid. Just 23 years old, he can hit 95 on the gun and can twirl some nice breaking stuff up there. I saw him in the first game I saw, in Scottsdale against the Giants, and he fanned Brandon Belt twice, making him look foolish in the process. At practice, as he was on his way back from some quick conditioning work, I asked him about it and, in his best English, he said "Ah, yah—the good hitters, sometimes they strike out too."
You're not crazy to be hopeful about Dustin Ackley. He looks different. A lot different. What's apparent on the video was even more clear in person, he's carrying himself with confidence and, at the plate, powering off his back foot. I don't know exactly how many extra base hits I saw him hit when he was there, but it was more than a couple. He was able to pull pitches into the gap and, in Tuesday's game against the Angels, a 2011 Ackley staple made an appearance—the opposite-field liner for a double. It's been a circuitous route for Dustin Ackley to end up in a place, left field, where many thought he'd play anyway, but if he keeps up this approach at the plate, it could work and work well.
I like putting a priority on defense in the outfield. Whether it's the double knee surgery or just the way he's always been, Corey Hart is a bit balky out there in right field. It isn't disastrous, but I think leaving a guy like Logan Morrison out of the lineup (he isn't having the best spring, not that it matters) is worth going Ackley-Abraham Almonte-Michael Saunders across the outfield. Move Hart to DH and let him focus on hitting, then start whoever's playing the best out of Smoak and Morrison. Speaking of which,
Justin Smoak is looking pretty decent. Spring stats are spring stats but five of Smoak's eight hits have gone for extra bases (four doubles). And he could've had another double the other day if not for a leaping robbery at the wall by whoever was playing center for the Royals. McClendon's hope that Smoak could lead the league in doubles is ridiculous, and the organization reportedly counting on a breakout year from him is concerning—but I like the idea of him focusing less on power and more on hitting, and based on what he said in this week's Cactus League Report, so does he.
Abraham Almonte is raw. This was already pretty well-known, but it was captured anecdotally in the game against the Dodgers, in which he had strong but errant throws on consecutive balls hit to him. He's unfinished in the field, and he's unfinished at the plate. That said, I do still think he'll be the Opening Day center fielder. As raw as he is, there's a lot of talent there. His routes are rough, yes, but that speed—and oh, that speed—can mask a lot. Of course, he hasn't hit much this spring (or, at all), but spring stats are spring stats and I'd remind you to refresh yourself on how much of a monster he was at the plate last year.
This bullpen could be real good.Fernando Rodney didn't stand out in the couple times I saw him, but there were some noteworthy performances from Danny Farquhar and Tom Wilhelmsen. Farquhar was throwing heavy fastball after heavy fastball low in the zone agains the Angels on Tuesday, looking every bit of the top reliever he is. On Wednesday night, against his last batter, Wilhelmsen got ahead against whatever poor minor leaguer he was facing and then froze him in place with a curveball that caught the bottom of the zone. It was beautiful. Oh, and did you see Stephen Pryor is throwing a live bullpen today?
There's more I could say, but there's always more to say about the Mariners. I liked what I saw, but how could I not when the team only lost one game of the seven I saw? This is spring training, and it's the time for optimism.
I'm happy to answer any questions anyone has, whether they're about baseball or spring training in general. But I'll say this, spring training is as great as everyone says it is. If you're the type who's been thinking about heading down to Arizona one year, but haven't yet, get on that. It's worth it.
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