I don’t know about you all, but I will never be so happy to read “He’s in the best shape of his life!” stories as players filter into spring training as I will be this year.
I will never be so happy to see that first video of players stretching and playing catch.
This isn’t the usual “winter bad, baseball good” attitude that creeps up this time of year, especially for those of us who live in areas of icy driveways and slush-filled sidewalks. This is about talking baseball and not the offseason mess of free agency. It’s talking about great plays instead of place of play. It’s talking about who is in camp instead of who isn’t. It’s about watching Judge and Stanton break car windshields and seeing if Ronald Acuna can make the Braves and how Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria look in their new duds.
The Yankees report to camp on Tuesday as pitchers and catchers get their physicals. Aaron Boone will have his first news conference since he was introduced as the team’s manager, and one of the questions he’ll be asked will be about his batting order. He can’t go wrong no matter what he does, but it’s fun to speculate about that Opening Day lineup. All I know is that once Judge and Stanton check in, I want to see the numbers — not just their projected home run totals but also their body-fat percentages.
Of course, the number that will come up time and time again is the number of free agents still out there; somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 remain unsigned. That list includes J.D. Martinez, who slugged .690 last season with 45 home runs; 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta; Eric Hosmer, who is coming off his best season; and Mike Moustakas and Logan Morrison, who both slammed 38 home runs.
Baseball has a way of doing this, of punching itself in the face, of drawing criticism instead of celebration. We had a remarkable 2017 season that included Stanton and Judge topping 50 home runs, Jose Altuve winning an MVP Award to further show baseball is for anyone of any size and an exciting postseason that culminated in the Astros’ first championship in franchise history. The star power, especially all the young stars, means the game’s future is in good hands.
Instead, we’ve spent the winter wondering why billionaires aren’t sharing more of their money with millionaires. Whether some teams are “tanking” or just merely “rebuilding.” About the sad state of the Marlins after Derek Jeter traded away an All-Star-caliber outfield in Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. About the economics of a sport that saw the Pirates and Rays trade away the long-time faces of their franchises.
To which I point out: The Yankees released Babe Ruth, the Giants dumped Willie Mays, the Mariners traded Ken Griffey Jr.
The fact is a lot of this stuff is inside baseball. It’s interesting to the die-hards like us. The average fan just wants to go to the park, eat food that’s bad for you and not feel guilty, soak in the sun and hopefully cheer for a winning team. In these days of social isolation and political division, the ballpark still brings everyone together.
Anyway, baseball is back, and given the way this winter unfolded, spring training will feel like less of a slog than ever. Here are some camps worth paying extra attention to:
New York Yankees. I think we’ll have to get rid of the Baby Bombers nickname for 2018. Judge is now a wise old veteran who turns 26 in April. Gary Sanchez is an All-Star coming off a 33-homer season. Stanton is the reigning NL MVP and major league home run champ. The record for home runs by three teammates — 143, by the 1961 Yankees (Roger Maris 61, Mickey Mantle 54, Bill Skowron 28) — could be in play, along with the record for home runs by a team (264 by the 1997 Mariners).
Atlanta Braves. Acuna has been pegged as the game’s next great star, the No. 1 overall prospect, after he hit .325 with 21 home runs and 44 steals across three levels of the minors. The most amazing part of his season: He hit .287 in Class A, .326 at Double-A and then .344 in 54 games at Triple-A. He didn’t turn 20 until December. Along with Acuna, the Braves have a slew of pitching prospects to monitor — eight of them made it into Keith Law’s list of 100 top prospects. Giant Brazilian lefty Luiz Gohara debuted last September, while others such as Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Kolby Allard, Ian Anderson and Max Fried will push for midseason call-ups.
Los Angeles Angels. Welcome to America, Shohei Ohtani. His attempt to play both ways begins in Tempe, and spring training is the perfect time to get him as many at-bats as possible. At the same time, Mike Scioscia’s first priority is to get Ohtani on schedule to pitch in the rotation. If Ohtani doesn’t hit well, will that doom his chances of getting some DH time in the regular season?
San Francisco Giants. The Giants collapsed to a 64-98 record — on the heels of a terrible second half in 2016 — and will have to prove that their roster isn’t too old to compete in today’s youth-centered game. They’ve added Longoria (32 years old) and McCutchen (31 years old) to help an offense that ranked next-to-last in the NL in runs scored, but the back of the rotation and bullpen have to improve as well.
New York Mets. The Mets hope to throw last year’s soap opera of a season into the trash and start over, but all scrutiny will be on the health and production of Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz. Besides the rotation, it will be interesting to see how youngsters Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith respond after their initial big league trials.
Chicago Cubs. It was already an interesting spring for Chicago. Kyle Schwarber is going to show up in really good shape. The World Series hangover year is over, but the Brewers and Cardinals should be better in the NL Central race. The Cubs already had a lot riding on 2018 — and now, Yu Darvish is headed to Chicago.
So, yes, it’s time to talk some baseball.
P.S.: Heard anything new on J.D. Martinez?
Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera hopes to reach 500 home run, 3,000 hits in 2021 season
Specifically, Cabrera has an opportunity to reach two major milestones in 2021. He is 13 home runs shy of 500 and 134 hits short of 3,000. And yes, he’s aware of those numbers.
“I hope so. We can do both,” Cabrera said Friday with a laugh. “I hope I can get to 500, 3,000 this year. It’s one of my goals this year. Mentally, I feel good. I feel mentally strong. I’m trying to go day by day and trying to play hard.”
It’s been a while since Cabrera resembled the player who was the American League MVP in 2012 and 2013. The last time he was really impressive with the bat was in 2016, when he hit .316 with 38 home runs. From 2017-19, he played just 304 games as an assortment of injuries limited his availability.
In the meantime, the Tigers entered a major rebuild, trading away many of their top players. Cabrera, who turns 38 in April, is still on the team, which says a lot about his declining production and huge contract.
Only a half-dozen players have reached both 500 homers and 3,000 hits: Hank Aaron, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Willie Mays, Rafael Palmeiro and Eddie Murray.
Cabrera certainly has a chance to reach both this year. He did manage to play in 57 of his team’s 58 games in the shortened 2020 season, and he hit 10 homers. In 2019, he had 139 hits in 136 games.
“I want to be healthy, and I want to do my best, and I want to do whatever I can to help the team to win games,” Cabrera said Friday.
Cabrera didn’t play in the field last year, but new manager A.J. Hinch said he’s open to him playing some at first base.
“He wants to play first. I didn’t know he voiced it near as much as I learned after I even said it,” Hinch said. “My plan for him is to make an opportunity for him to be a little more of a complete player, and not just fall in the DH category.”
Cabrera said he’s talked to Nelson Cruz about some of his work habits — the 40-year-old Cruz is still one of the game’s top home run hitters.
“I love playing baseball,” Cabrera said. “I love having fun in the field. I love going out there every night.”
Chicago Cubs’ Joc Pederson, Javy Baez both have something to prove, but for different reasons
The lefty-hitting Pederson wants to show he can be an everyday player instead of just a platoon guy against righties, while Baez wants to erase last season and get back to improving his game.
“I felt in a rush,” Baez said about 2020. “I didn’t have time to make adjustments. I’m not the guy that shows you everything I have in the first half. I can have a bad half or a decent first half and my second half. I can make my first half disappear. I was not mentally ready for what happened last year.”
Baez cites the lack of fans in the stands and his inability to watch his at-bats with in-game video as contributing factors to a down season. His .599 OPS was the lowest since he broke into the big leagues. The high-energy player didn’t want to make excuses, but plenty around him say he missed the fans in the stands more than most. He concurred.
“It was the worst,” Baez said. “It was worse than facing a pitcher in spring training in the back fields.”
Baez went deeper with his concerns about his own game, claiming he lost focus soon after the Cubs won the World Series in 2016. Players were treated as rock stars, and Baez was pulled in many directions.
“I got away from baseball because all this other stuff that we did. People saw me in different ways,” he said. “I wanted to play baseball and people didn’t see me as a baseball player. I wasn’t trying to get better every day. Now that I’m into it again, I have more confidence. I’m letting the game teach me what I can do.”
Baez was down the road on signing a long-term deal with the Cubs before the pandemic hit last spring, so those negotiations will pick up again soon, according to sources familiar with the situation. He could be in line for a deal that pays him around $200 million.
“We had a good conversation [last year],” Baez said. “I want to stay here. I don’t want to play for another team.”
Pederson is in a similar rebound situation after hitting just .190 in 43 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers last year. But his postseason opened some eyes after he hit .400 in 34 at-bats last October. He said he turned down multiyear offers this winter because he wasn’t guaranteed playing every day, choosing the Cubs for one year at $7 million.
“I don’t feel like I’m respected as an everyday player,” Pederson bluntly stated in his Zoom call with reporters on Friday.
After going through team rosters in the offseason, Pederson landed on the Cubs, who had an opening in left field. He had his agent called Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer, who subsequently talked with manager David Ross, assuring Pederson he would play against righties and lefties.
“Obviously, the Dodgers have a ton of depth which allows them to do certain things, which allows them to be successful,” Pederson said. “You do what you have to do to win, and you play your role, and it was awesome. But I’m excited for a new opportunity.”
Pederson has a career .191 batting average against left-handers and expects some leash to start the season. But that playing time will only last so long if he’s not producing. Cubs’ manager David Ross told him as much.
“He said ‘Hey, if we come to July and you’re not cutting it and you’re hitting .150 against lefties, we’re still here to win ball games,'” Pederson recalled. “I understood. I just want a real opportunity.”
Los Angeles Angels re-sign veteran right-hander Jesse Chavez to minor league deal
Chavez will join the Angels’ spring training camp in Tempe, Arizona, after he clears their intake protocols, the team confirmed Friday.
Chavez appeared in 38 games for the Angels in 2017, including 21 starts. He left for Texas as a free agent after one season, and he excelled after being traded in July 2018 to the Chicago Cubs, where he was managed by current Angels skipper Joe Maddon.
Chavez spent the past two seasons back with the Rangers, struggling last season with a 6.88 ERA in 18 appearances.
With experience as a starter, a long reliever and a late-inning reliever, Chavez could provide experience and versatility for the Angels, whose long-struggling pitching staff can use all the depth it can get.
Chavez is a native of the Los Angeles area, graduating from high school in Fontana before pitching in junior college in Riverside. He has also pitched for Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Kansas City, Toronto, Oakland and the Dodgers.
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