If I’m being honest with y’all, I don’t really care for Spring Training. It seems like it would be very fun to go to under normal circumstances, but the television experience does almost nothing for me, especially this deep into it. At the beginning of camp, the mere presence of baseball sights and sounds re-entering my life is enough for a quick dopamine hit. Watching the Mariners go through the rhythms of a baseball game, studying the players’ faces, and re-familiarizing with the roster is a fun springtime ritual.
But then I remember how long Spring Training is.
Nearly every time I watch a Spring Training game, I’m basically checked out by the fifth inning. Unlike a regular or postseason game – where the intensity ratchets up in the later innings – Spring Training games fade out like a dying lightbulb. Sure, you’ll get some flickers here and there (today’s was a Cal Raleigh double off the meaty part of the bat), but it’s mostly just waiting for the darkness to come and the charade to be over. In a few weeks, most of these guys will be assigned to various minor league affiliates and we won’t have to think of them until next spring, when we inevitably find ourselves asking why they’re getting at-bats over the actual prospects.
I certainly understand why people enjoy watching Spring Training games. Baseball is baseball, after all. I also understand the anger that arises when games aren’t televised. But tonight’s game, for me, only reinforced my belief that Spring Training is mostly nothing. The players are in shape by now. Ninety percent of the roster decisions have been made. If an injury happens this late into the exhibition season, we’re all left wondering why the injured player was even in the game. For those of us watching from home (and those of us choosing specifically not to watch from home), a Spring Training game in late-March is little more than happenstance. Some things may happen, but a lot of things won’t, and whether you were tuned in or not, there’s a chance those things will go entirely blank.
Last time the Mariners had a full Spring Training, outfielder Tito Polo made 23 plate appearances and hit .348. He’s the same age as Jake Fraley and had a better on-base percentage than Fraley that spring. The difference is, Fraley is still very much a part of the Mariners’ plans while Polo was released by the organization after not making the big-league roster, going to Tacoma, and spiking a first baseman while trying to beat out a hit. You probably don’t even remember Tito Polo or that incident ever happening, which brings us back to my point. Unfortunately, by the inherent nature of exhibition games between players ticketed for the minor leagues, so much of what we see in Spring Training ends up being insignificant.
Now, the inverse of that is when you get a buoyant glimpse of the team’s future. While a lot of the second and third stringers in these games end up vanishing into obscurity, some of them are actually carrying bits and pieces of their team’s expectant fortune. Take Justin Dunn, for example. On paper, this is the exact guy who would make you watch a Spring Training game. Dunn was a former first round pick and one of the enticing prospects in a trade for a superstar. He’s gotten his feet wet in the majors but hasn’t yet unlocked all the things that scouts, fans, and the front office hoped to see. The ex-Boston College Eagle has always had good stuff, and he showed up for 2021 with a slimmed down physique and a revved-up fastball. Dunn told Dave Sims during the broadcast that some of this can be attributed to his discovery of vegetables, specifically mentioning sweet potatoes, peppers, and the concept of greens. All that is fine and dandy, but everyone invested in the Mariners would certainly like to see Dunn throw some more twos, ones, and nones.
He did not do that tonight. To his credit, he did show some gnarly bite on his breaking pitches, and was able to overpower hitters with the fastball on occasion. The radar gun had him around 94 for most of the night with a high of 96. Getting the good Cubs to chase his slider out of the zone was a great sign too, as Dunn sometimes needs an out pitch in the worst possible way. That pitch showed up tonight against David Bote, Anthony Rizzo, and Jake Marisnick, who struck out in order* to end the third inning.
More Justin Dunn Breaking Ball Filth. pic.twitter.com/BonnFhRclF— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 25, 2021
The walk issues that follow Dunn like vultures showed up yet again on Wednesday to swarm and torment him into an ugly line. Dunn faced 20 hitters in what will assuredly be his last Spring Training start of the year. He struck out seven of them (good!), but walked three (not so good!) and let two of them go deep (it happens!). Ugly innings come for every pitcher, but with Dunn they’re coming a little more often than planned. The war for the sixth spot in the rotation added another battle tonight, and it ended for Dunn in the fourth inning after 70 pitches.
This presents another yearly dilemma with Spring Training games. If a young player does well, it’s a sign that they’re closer to stardom than we may have thought, and they should maybe even accelerate their way on to the big boy roster. If a young player makes a mess of things, though, it’s a necessary reminder that being good at baseball takes a lot of time and nobody does it right away. Taylor Trammell has occupied both of those spaces recently. The .289 average he brought to today’s game represents the verdant future of this sprouting flower. His 16 strikeouts in 38 at-bats tell us that maybe he needs more watering. At least for today, Trammell folded back toward the sun, showing the world that he can grow taller and mightier despite some stalling.
The Mariners lost this game. I cannot stress enough how little that matters. A pitcher they needed to see got his work in, as did Trammell, Jake Fraley, and Sam Haggerty on the offensive side. But as Mike Blowers chuckled into his headset, at this point of their desert vacation, the guys are ready. The only thing they’re thinking about is getting on a plane to Seattle and not getting hurt anywhere in the process. While none of us plebs were worried about injury, hopefully, during tonight’s action, I think we can all relate to what Blowers is saying.
Let’s make the final casting decisions and get this thing started for real. Nobody has ever won an Oscar during rehearsal.