By Bernie Pleskoff
I just returned from watching 10 days of Spring Training in the Grapefruit League. Believe me, Florida was chilly and windy for most of that time. I’m grateful I packed a sweater and jacket, not to mention an umbrella.
Unlike the Cactus League where all games in Phoenix are an hour away at the most, Spring Training in Florida is spread out on both the east and west sides of the state. I was unable to travel to both areas. As a result, I concentrated on the Sarasota area. I was able to see the Pirates, Orioles, Red Sox, Twins, Rays, Tigers, Phillies and Yankees. I did see some of those teams several times.
It was important for me to take several looks at some teams. That gave me a much better overall view of that particular club.
I really like to base in the Sarasota area so I can get to the parks of the American League East teams. In my ten days, I was able to get a glimpse of the Red Sox, Orioles, Blue Jays, Rays, and Yankees. The bonus was being able to catch the Twins, Phillies and Tigers. So all in all, it was a great trip.
Several of my “take away” impressions are noted below.
BOSTON RED SOX
Let me begin by stating that watching games as a member of the media at JetBlue Park was a fantastic experience. I can’t be more positive about the hospitality, warmth and congeniality of the staff.
From those in the parking lot to those in the dining room and every place in between, I was made to feel comfortable and welcome. And let me say that most of the people I met are originally from the Boston or New England area. Most have moved to Fort Myers and now call South Florida home.
On the field I saw a Red Sox club that looked far more energetic and exciting to watch than those I have seen in the past. New manager Alex Cora ignites his team with energy. He seems like he wants the team to run more and put pressure on the defense. He knows what he wants. He wants to create opportunity rather than react to opportunity. Cora will not tolerate sloppy play or lackadaisical play.
I saw Cora use Hanley Ramirez much more than I was led to believe by reading articles in the offseason. I think we were told that Ramirez would be very limited with the arrival of both J.D. Martinez and presence of Mitch Moreland to threaten his playing time. The talk was the Red Sox do not want Ramirez to earn his option by playing enough innings. I’m not at all sure that’s true.
Ramirez looks like his shoulder is doing better and he looks healthy. He hit the ball hard.
J.D. Martinez is as good or better, taking pitches to the opposite field than anyone I have seen in a while. He takes pitches where they are thrown. That’s what I saw this spring. He looks very comfortable hitting in a deep Red Sox lineup. He also made good plays in the field, which conflicts with his reputation that he is a liability in the outfield. While I believe designated hitter will be his primary role, we should be seeing some of Martinez in the outfield. He has unquestioned power. However, I do think the Green Monster in left field at Fenway Park may convert a few home runs to doubles.
Mookie Betts was scuffling at the plate when I saw him. He had gone several games and at-bats without a hit. Finally, he was credited with an infield hit that could have been called an error. He was so happy he hugged his first base coach
I did see Dustin Pedroia hang around the batting cage, but he still didn’t play in any games I saw. I believe he will be on the shelf a while and yield second base to Eduardo Nunez.
The catching job may still be up for grabs, but I would put some money on Christian Vasquez getting the job out of the gate and keeping it until Blake Swihart rips it away. Swihart has had a great spring. But Vasquez hits as well. The Red Sox are nicely positioned behind the plate. Sandy Leon, an effective catcher himself may be the odd man out. Leon is out of options. But so are Vasquez and Swihart. It is not likely the Red Sox will keep three catchers. But Swihart is versatile, so they may keep them all. I think that’s to be determined.
My concern with Boston rests with their rotation. The team is really, really solid in both the infield and outfield as well as behind the plate. It is the pitching that may end up providing Cora with acid reflux.
I’m not a huge fan of Brian Johnson. I saw the lefty pitch in Fort Myers and at best he was…meh!. If David Price suffers another bout of arm and shoulder issues, and if Drew Pomeranz is not healthy, the Red Sox will come up short in the starting pitching department. For me, either Eduardo Rodriquez and Steven Wright, but currently recovering from injuries help the rotation add depth and quality. Both are recovering from serious knee issues and surgeries.
The David Price I saw start in his first spring outing looked outstanding. He reminded me of the David Price of old. If he keeps it up, watch out.
I’ll have more to say about the Red Sox in my team previews, but for now, I would say the team will have to pound the ball and score runs in bunches if they hope to catch their rival New York Yankees in the AL East.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
Last year I came away from Port Charlotte raving about the hospitality and quality of the food in the press dining room. It was so good it could compare with most restaurants in the area.
This year, the same food purveyor has pulled the plug on the elegance. Did I like the food? You bet. But they spoiled me last year. It wasn’t the same this spring. Face it folks, part of working game day is the surrounding environment. Food is a huge part of the equation. That’s why I’m overweight.
There were two really exciting aspects to the Rays that I want to highlight here. One is Kevin Kiermeier. The other is Matt Duffy. I also came away interested in Mallex Smith and C.J. Cron.
Kiermeier plays with his hair on fire. He runs everywhere. He runs in the outfield. He hustles from home to first. He hustles around the bases. He is so much fun to watch. Nothing gets by him in the outfield. And he has the wheels to get some infield hits and some stolen bases. He’s a winner.
For me, seeing Matt Duffy on the field was a joy. Duffy is the type of guy that doesn’t mind eating dirt. He’s a gamer. Even though he risks injury again, he dives for balls. He won’t quit running until he’s in the dugout. He’s playing like a guy excited to get back on the field after being injured for most of two seasons. And he’s playing like he owes the Rays because of the faith they had in trading for him. He’ll produce.
If Mallex Smith plays, I believe Mallex Smith will steal lost of bases and score some runs. I’m not sure he’ll get on base with any regularity. He’s likely to be hitting in the nine-hole for Tampa Bay. But he can motor.
C.J. Cron was never really given a chance for regular at-bats with the Angels. I can’t help wonder what the guy has in his tank? I saw him hit a monster home run to deep left field with an effortless swing. I’m thinking he can be a very productive hitter and sneak up on people this season.
The pitching staff is more than an issue. It really is the issue. How do the Rays cobble together a credible starting rotation? Both Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon are suffering from elbow injuries that require surgery. Jake Odorizzi, and Alex Cobb aren’t there any longer. In their stead, the rotation will include Chris Archer, Blake Snell, Jacob Faria and Nathan Eovaldi. That doesn’t garner much confidence in my BASEBALL WORLD. And Eovaldi is an injury risk every time he steps on the mound.
Instead of naming a pitcher like Anthony Banda the fifth starter, the team is opting to use a relief brigade on the normal fifth day of the rotation. Four starters followed by a relay team of relievers will come to the mound on a given five-day plan. I’m not a believer.
Because I believe the pitching to be woeful behind Archer, I think it will be very hard for Tampa Bay to win many games.
The Orioles are not unlike other teams in their division with a weak starting pitching staff. They join the Rays in being highly dependent upon their offense to feed the bulldog. However, if some of the Orioles pitchers step it up this year, they could hurt a couple other east division clubs. Specifically, Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman are being counted upon to lead the rotation by pitching solid, credible innings and keeping their teams in games long enough for the bats to dictate a positive game outcome.
Andrew Cashner comes in to help stabilize the rotation. But his track record is rather spotty as well. After Cashner, it falls apart for the last two rotation spots.
I got to see what might be the 2018 version of Chris Tillman. It doesn’t look much better than the 2017 edition. In fact, in his start in Sarasota, his first of the spring, he was woeful. Beyond walking batters, he didn’t have any mustard on his fastball and his breaking pitches weren’t much better. From what I have seen, Mr. Tillman still looks hurt and if I’m the Orioles I don’t count on getting much from him this year.
The offense still boasts thunder. I think it’ll be tough for any pitcher to navigate the likes of Jonathan Schoop, Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Trey Mancini, Colby Rasmus and Mark Trumbo. That’s a tall order for any pitcher. There are lots of strikeouts in those hitters, but lots of doubles and home runs as well. Proceed with caution.
Of note to me was the arrival of Colby Rasmus as the potential new right fielder. It seems Austin Hayes will at least begin the season at Triple-A.
The bullpen holds some promise and the team is fortunate to have Brad Brach and Darren O’Day to hold down the fort until Zach Britton returns. I have my doubts about Britton’s use this year at all.
One player stood out to me. I had never seen middle-infielder Engelb Vielma play. Wow! He is one fantastic defensive infielder. His bat flat lines, but any team needing defense at shortstop or second base would love to have a guy like Vielma. It was pure poetry in motion watching this guy play. Hands soft as velvet and range and quickness that are outstanding.
Ed Smith Stadium is beautiful. It is a great place for fans to watch a game. The staff and stadium people are wonderful, as has been the case in every park I visited in Florida.
The Cleveland Indians and the rest of the American League Central division best take notice. The Minnesota Twins have an outstanding baseball team. The additions of pitchers Lance Lynn and Jake Odorizzi have helped repair the only remaining weakness from last year’s surprising edition of the Twins.
Without question, Lynn had the best start of any pitcher I have seen in Spring Training. He was awesome in his first start the day after signing his contract. Lynn has command, control, and outstanding repertoire and he knows how to pitch.
Odorizzi gives them a bit more reliability as they await the return of injured Ervin Santana. And lest we forget, the Twins have Michael Pineda “on ice” for a year as he rehabilitates in preparation for his 2019 Twins debut.
The offense is beyond impressive. The offense is balanced and waiting to bust out.
I watched a more focused and more disciplined Miguel Sano terrorize the baseball with great force. He may be suspended however due to domestic issues from his past and he is taking it easy now with a bruised knee.
But he can carry a team on his shoulders when he’s hot.
Brian Dozier brings power and speed to the Twins leadoff role. Joe Mauer can still hit and set the stage for the thunder of Sano, Logan Morrison and Eddie Rosario, who is currently returning from injury.
Byron Buxton began to bloom last summer and we may be in for even more stolen bases and a better on-base percentage than we’ve seen. But the strikeouts may still haunt him. Improvement? Yes. Superstar? Not yet.
I’m not a huge fan of new closer Fernando Rodney who came from giving his Diamondbacks manager consistent heartburn. But if Rodney can’t cut it at his current age 40 season, Addison Reed waits in the wings. He has closed before and can help when needed.
So watch out for the Twins. They did what they had to do to get better. They bought some pitching. Now they have to play the games and see what they paid for this offseason.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
The Blue Jays have made significant strides in the offseason. While I don’t see any way they can compete with the Yankees or the Red Sox in their division, I think it really is possible for the team to continue to improve enough in the next several years to be competitive.
Consider that Vlad Guerrero Jr., my No. 1 overall prospect, and highly regarded prospect Bo Bichette continue to develop their skills and prepare for life as major contributors. Until then, the Blue Jays have added some spark to their lineup.
Even though I don’t think he will make the opening day roster, I believe outfielder Toescar Hernandez will make his presence known on the parent club at some point this season. I saw him smoke the ball in an away game in Fort Myers against the Red Sox. He is one very strong guy with a loud bat. I don’t see how he can be kept off the field. But the additions of Curtis Granderson and Randal Grichuk could send Hernandez to Triple-A for a while.
With shortstop Troy Tulowitzki still hurt and in decline as an everyday player, the Blue Jays should be happy they have Aledmys Diaz to play shortstop. While he isn’t great, he can fill the bill until Tulo returns.
Kevin Pillar is an outstanding defensive outfielder, but for the first time ever I saw him make an error this spring. Allegedly his hitting is improving. I would hope so for his sake. Anthony Alford (currently injured) Dalton Pompey and Dwight Smith Jr. are three prospect outfielders waiting in the outfield wings.
I was fortunate to see lefty Ryan Borucki pitch in the game I scouted. He came right after the Red Sox hitters with good stuff and lots of poise on the mound. He was aggressive until he got two strikes on the hitter. At that point, he began to nibble and didn’t put the hitter away. I like his future as a potential lefty rotation starter.
Pitching depth, or lack thereof is an issue for the Blue Jays. Like many teams in MLB, the Blue Jays could certainly benefit from one more starter as they head into a new season. Maybe that will be Borucki down the road. For now, it looks like Marco Estrada, J A Happ, Aaron Sanchez, Jaime Garcia and Marcus Stroman (shoulder inflammation) should form the rotation.
In Stroman’s absence, they may be moving Joe Biagini to the starting rotation.
There are few closers in the league as efficient and as effective as Roberto Osuna.
Until the arrivals of Guerrero Jr and Bichette, I can’t get too excited about the Blue Jays.
I stood around the batting cage while the Tigers were taking batting practice. I couldn’t help keeping my eyes on Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera, clearly one of the most dangerous right-handed hitters I have seen in my life looks incredibly good. He has lost weight, he looks fit, and he is driving the ball to center field. I am not sure I see anything close to the bat speed I used to watch in disbelief. In games, Cabrera’s decline seems evident to me. I hope I’m wrong. The same can be said for Victor Martinez.
Martinez looks fit, but his bat appears to have slowed. I hope I’m wrong about that, too. Perhaps the will is there, but age and lots and lots of at-bats are catching up with both icons.
I think Cabrera and Martinez can still hit. I don’t think they can destroy the opposition day in and day out as they have done in the past.
I was surprised that to this point I may have been giving short shrift to the power of Nicholas (formerly Nick) Castellanos. He looks to be stronger than any time I’ve seen him. That goes back to his days in the Arizona Fall League. I think he will be hitting behind Cabrera as the cleanup hitter with Victor hitting behind Castellanos.
While the Tigers have a much softer roar than in the past several years, it really is the pitching that could spell doom against the American League Central. I just don’t see how they can hang in games with a rotation that includes Michael Fulmer, Francisco Liriano, Jordan Zimmerman, Mike Fiers and Matthew Boyd. I think the opposition will be into the Tigers bullpen early and often.
The great Tigers franchise still draws loyal fans down to Florida from Michigan every spring. A huge financial commitment has been made for renovations at Joker Marchant Stadium. The place looks as great as ever.
The Tigers are now in a period of regrouping. Money will not flow as it did in the days of owner Mike Ilitch.
Mr. Ilitch poured millions and millions of his Little Ceasars Pizza fortune into a club that never delivered him a World Championship.
Including 2018, the Tigers have trained in the same Lakeland location for 82 years, 53 in the same stadium.
That really is incredible in this era of bigger and better stadiums with bright lights and lots of fan amenities. But Joker Marchant has everything a fan could ever want or hope for.
Some things have changed. They no longer give fans the local Lakeland Ledger as they enter the park. That newspaper was a favorite of mine.
Some things never change. There still is no hot water in the press box bathroom. And the two wonderful sisters who dish up the food in the right field media dining area are still there smiling and enjoying life. I think I’ve seen them there half my life.
I did get to see a split-squad Phillies squad that included the likes of J.P. Crawford, Scott Kingery, Rhys Hoskins, Aaron Altherr and Nick Pivetta. Andrew Knapp, a catcher I am watching carefully was in the lineup.
Without question, the acquisitions of Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta help to put the Phillies on a faster track to reaching their ultimate goal. Being in the National League East may actually hasten their arrival as a contender. They are building a very solid team around a core of excellent young players like Hoskins, Crawford, Kingery, Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.
A pitching staff that includes Aaron Nola and Arrieta as their two front of the rotation horses intrigues me. Vince Velasquez is another one of their rotation starters I view from a very positive lens.
The arrival of Carlos Santana may very well help third baseman Maikel Franco. Franco did not have the best year, as he hasn’t really realized his potential. With Santana mentoring him, I think we will see a rejuvenated Franco.
I can’t help be concerned that moving Hoskins to left field to accommodate the presence of Santana might be a mistake. A brilliant young power hitter, Hoskins may scuffle a bit in his new full-time outfield role. But he’s such a good athlete I think it will work out well.
The young and hungry Phillies under the leadership of Gabe Kapler will be fit, energetic and likely well-schooled in fundamentals.
Phillies fans may be watching the beginning of a long-term contender as the team shapes its way to future with youth, a sprinkling of veterans, speed, power and good management.
And so I return to Phoenix to finish Spring Training in the Valley of the Sun. Watch this space next week for my reflections on some of the teams out west.
Follow me on Twitter @BerniePleskoff where I communicate with my followers during games I attend.