While it is folly to make too much of performance on the sun-soaked spring fields of Arizona and Florida, there are important developments that can play out in March. The spring is a time for players to explore and experiment in a relaxed atmosphere where their play does not affect the standings or their future earning potential. The following are 10 things ESPN wants to see players show in spring training before the games count.
1. Whether Shohei Ohtani falls out of love with his fastball. The legend of Ohtani begins with the fastball. The pitch averaged 97.5 mph last year — with a max reading of 101.6 mph — in an injury-shortened season in Japan. For reference, Luis Severino, James Paxton, Nathan Eovaldi, Stephen Strasburg, Noah Syndergaard and Luis Castillo are the only starting pitchers who averaged 96.5 mph or better with their fastballs in the PITCHf/x era, which dates to 2007. Ohtani leaned on the pitch heavily in Japan, throwing it on 59.6 percent of his offerings last season, according to NPB pitch-tracking. Only two major league starters — Kevin Gausman and Ty Blach — threw four-seam fastballs at a higher rate last season, when the MLB average was 37 percent for four-seamers. Despite the radar gun readings, Ohtani should rely less on the pitch.
Albert Pujols reiterates he’ll decide future after season with Los Angeles Angels
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Albert Pujols woke up from a nap last Monday in Arizona to find several hundred messages and missed calls on his phone.
While he was sleeping, the Los Angeles Angels slugger’s wife, Deidre, had put up a complimentary Instagram post about her husband that was widely interpreted to mean Pujols had decided to retire after this season, his 21st in the majors.
“Hey, that’s the life we’re living on social media,” Pujols said Saturday with a chuckle. “It’s sad that everybody just had to run with it.”
The 41-year-old slugger quickly reiterated what he has been saying for months: He hasn’t decided whether he will continue playing after the conclusion of his 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels this fall, and he won’t make or announce a decision until after the season.
“I think our organization, my friends, people that follow my career for 21 years deserve better than just me or her posting something on Instagram,” Pujols said in his first interviews of spring training. “This thing just got blown out of proportion. My mind is not even there. My mind is on staying focused, healthy, and hopefully trying to help this ballclub win this year, and that’s it. If I feel at the end of the year that that’s it, I’ll announce it [and] go home. But I’m not even there yet.”
The fifth-leading home run hitter in major league history says he has more pressing concerns on his mind, primarily the chase of his first playoff victory with the Angels. Not playing in October will never stop grating on Pujols, who begins the new season with 662 homers along with 2,100 RBIs, third-most in baseball history.
“I don’t even get to watch [the postseason], because I get so mad because we should have been there,” he said.
Pujols has at least one more chance to get the team success he craves alongside Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon and Shohei Ohtani. The 10-time All-Star is in the midst of five consecutive losing seasons and six straight non-playoff campaigns with the Angels, but there is cautious optimism around the big-budget franchise heading into manager Joe Maddon’s second season in charge.
Even if Pujols attempts to play in 2022, he knows he is close to the end of the underwhelming second act of his career after 11 stellar seasons in St. Louis. He batted .328 with 445 homers while winning three NL MVP awards for the Cardinals, but has been a .257 hitter with 217 homers over nine years in Anaheim.
Last season, Pujols batted .224 with a .665 OPS — both the worst marks of his two-decade career — while playing in just 39 of Los Angeles’ 60 games.
This season also brings the distinct prospect of even less action for Pujols, who has remained injury-free and fairly effective as a fielder at first base over the past two years.
He’s certain to split playing time at first with Jared Walsh, who batted .337 with nine homers and 26 RBIs in 22 games as a rookie last September, and with Ohtani as the Halos’ designated hitter.
Pujols says he’s fine with whatever role he gets in 2021 from Maddon, who praises the veteran slugger for his maturity and leadership.
“It’s going to be a meritocracy always, and he gets it,” Maddon said. “We’ve had the conversations. Of course he wants to play. Of course when he doesn’t play, he might not like it. He’s wired that way, and that’s how you want him to be. But he understands what’s going on. He accepts it well. Regardless of the role we put him in, I know he’s going to react to it well.”
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.”
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