Impressions from Cactus League

My Off Base colleague Zac Tomaszewski and I left Los Angeles for Arizona Spring Training in the middle of rush hour.  After escaping the heaviest traffic, we ran into a few bumps along the road, also known as two truck fires on the I-10.  At 2:30 in the morning we arrived in Phoenix, throwing me off my sleeping cycle.  Zac, however, was comfortably awake, aware and primed when we pulled into town, as he normally doesn’t fall asleep until most people start waking up for work and eats his breakfast when others are just finishing up lunch.

If you are a little envious of Zac’s sleep schedule, don’t be, as he was irritably thrown off by the 1pm start times for all the games.  Luckily it was baseball’s preseason, so the accessibility, pace and laid back attitude of the Cactus League worked out for two twenty-somethings deprived of their beauty sleep.

Originally we set out to Arizona to see ten teams in five days.  Unfortunately, we cut the trip short by a day and only saw eight teams.  Looking back, this may not have been a bad thing as the layout of Phoenix is one, big outdoor shopping mall, tempting us with brand name stores, restaurants and Dairy Queens.  One large vanilla cone for me and one small Oreo Blizzard for Zac was enough.

Most of the games had between 6,000 and 8,000 fans.  Most of the fans were die-hard about their teams, knowing the in’s and out’s of the players and following every pitch and swing with the most attention we’ve ever seen at a baseball game.  Tickets were inexpensive and the smaller crowds allowed us to move around the stadium with ease.

Most of the facilities were small and put us very close to the action.  So close that the players, our television superheroes, were turned back into regular human beings.  Their talent became almost tangible and the action really proved for us that the game is one of inches.  Grabbing an autograph from a star seemed easy, and running into MLB analyst Peter Gammons shouldn’t have been so unexpected.

I suppose, regardless of the cones and Blizzards, it is regrettable that the trip wasn’t extended.

DAY 1: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Seattle Mariners at Peoria Sports Complex in Peoria, AZ

The Mariners have a few new offensive pieces with Seth Smith and Nelson Cruz.  Neither performed too well, however their track records show that they can be positive pick ups.  Smith, batting in the second spot, is more suited down the lineup.  The energy of prospect Gaby Guerrero was the highlight of the day for the Ms, making a solid hit and an excellent diving catch in left field to end an inning.  Although it is still early Seattle may still have trouble scoring runs like it did last season, but overall a solid team with nice talent, including free agent Rickie Weeks.  Weeks hit a towering blast to straight away center over the batters eye.

The Diamondbacks made solid contact off Mariners starter Hisashi Iwakuma, taking most of his pitches to the opposite field.  Unfortunately, nothing dropped for a hit.  Yasmany Tomas, the Dbacks new Cuban third baseman, was underwhelming.  His body type is reminiscent of Pablo Sandoval and his swing is very similar to fellow Cuban Dayan Viciedo: wild with a lot of power.  He swung at a lot of pitches high in the zone, however he connected in his third at bat with a scorching double to left center.  Mark Trumbo came out swinging, hitting a home run and very big single.  There is some obvious Major League talent on the team, but the pitching depth seems weak and most of the players don’t seem very good.

DAY 2: Chicago White Sox vs. Oakland Athletics at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa, AZ

Our friends in the White Sox radio booth allowed us a rarely experienced vantage point for our second game.  Seeing newly acquired pitcher Jeff Samardzija from the press box was impressive, although the pitcher seemed to be holding back a bit.  Adam Eaton was fascinating, working counts and making things happen while on base.  A sophomore slump for Jose Abreu doesn’t seem to be in the cards as his swing and power were remarkable for it being so early in Spring Training.  The pitching depth for the Sox may be a problem, as the Athletics showed patience at the plate in later innings and the game went nearly four hours.

Although the Athletics don’t have big names, there seems to be a good sense of community among the players, all of them pulling for one another and paying attention to every pitch and swing.  Billy Butler, the free agent pick up from the Royals, belted a home run and as he trotted around the bases, we remembered he’s getting $10 million a year to do just that.  It was wonderful to see switch pitcher Pat Venditte start off throwing from his left side, then alternate pitching arms depending on the batter.  He seems to be better as a left handed pitcher, but his switching ability may not be enough to land him a spot on the Major League team.  Overall the pitching didn’t impress, but the A’s seem to always be pitching rich.

DAY 3: San Diego Padres vs. Chicago Cubs at Sloan Park in Mesa, AZ

Kris Bryant is for real.  His athletic build and Derek Lee-like swing should make him a force to pair nicely with first baseman Anthony Rizzo.  What position will he end up playing?  He’s projected as the Cubs third baseman, but as of now Mike Olt is stationed there.  Olt displayed a valiant defensive effort as well as solid contact at the plate during the game.  With Jorge Soler in right field, Bryant could possibly come up and play left field, as Chris Coghlan is a defensive liability.  Dexter Fowler was impressive defensively in center, although he lacks a strong arm.  Edwin Jackson was the same Edwin Jackson, giving up lots of hard hit balls that avoided defenders.  The rest of the Cubs pitching did not impress, so there may be a lot of high scoring games this year on the North Side of Chicago.

The Padres don’t seem to be jelling as a team quite yet, although there is talent.  Andrew Cashner turned in a solid effort and the infield defense behind him, including Alexi Amarista at shortstop and Jedd Gyorko at second, will suck up a lot of ground balls.  The outfield defense seems to be a liability, although we did not get to see Matt Kemp in right or Wil Myers in center.  Cameron Maybin is the team’s best defensive outfielder, but he will be sitting on the bench for a lot of innings as his offense is not quite up to snuff.  Will Middlebrooks looked solid at third base, however he looked lost at the plate.

DAY 4: Colorado Rockies vs. Los Angeles Dodgers at Camelback Ranch Stadium in Glendale, AZ

The Dodgers were the best of the eight teams we saw.  They carried themselves with confidence and had a veteran professionalism that seemed lacking in the other teams.  First baseman Adrian Gonzalez was fascinating to watch at the plate, working the count in his first at bat by fouling off pitches and eventually drawing a walk.  An MVP-type season would not seem to be out of the question for him.  Andre Ethier had a solid stroke, but his power seems to have vanished.  Clayton Kershaw wasn’t overly impressive, making him a prime candidate to have a down year.  A. J. Ellis, the Dodger’s former starting catcher and replaced by Yasmani Grandal,  may now be the game’s best back up catcher.  Austin Barnes, the third string catcher, showed a lot of poise behind the plate, and some great base running ability on the base paths.  Many of the relievers the Dodgers brought in seemed to be working their pitches low.  Throwing ground balls may be key for the Dodgers bullpen this year, as the infield defense should be great.

The Rockies were by far the worst team we saw.  Although most of the players that played in the game will not be making the Major League roster, the Rockies lacked any sense of energy, emotion, or talent.  The one saving grace was Nick Hundley, who impressed as the newly acquired back up catcher by hitting a home run off Kershaw.  The rest of the team seems to be made up of the same player who can’t hit nor pitch very well.  It should be a long season for manager Walt Weiss.

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