Last week in this space, I discussed some observations of spring training in Arizona. Today, I cross the country and take a look at a few teams I got to see in Florida.
The two spring training areas are as different as the East Coast and the West Coast. They are totally unalike. It would not be fair to say one is “better” than the other. They are both great.
Some of the differences are very obvious. For example, it takes effort and time to get from point A to point B on the Florida highways. If the Strawberry Festival on Interstate 4 doesn’t get you, the traffic accident on Interstate 75 will test your patience. Plan for it. It happens.
In Florida, most of the parks are old and many are used for minor league baseball. Each is beautiful in its own way. Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Tampa Bay, the New York Mets, and Toronto play in vintage venues. They are quaint and each has unique character. The Phillies, and the Red Sox are in the next wave of parks. The Cardinals and Marlins share a home in a newer park as well. The Braves will move to a new facility in the Sarasota area that will open next year. Houston and Washington share a facility that is only a couple seasons into use. One of the most popular places is the Yankees home in Tampa. It seemed liked it just opened, but it, too, is showing some age. I haven’t been there in years.
For three seasons now, I have parked myself in the Sarasota/Fort Myers area where I can see Baltimore, Boston, Minnesota and Tampa Bay at home. I don’t get to see those American League clubs very often. The trip to the Pirates and Blue Jays spring homes are a bit too far.
So here my observations of the teams I saw on my 10-day trip to south Florida.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
Capsule Comment: Even though the Rays have added depth to their pitching staff with the addition of Charlie Morton, I still see them having to use the “opener” for the 4th and 5th spots in their rotation. I’m not sure this team can win 90 games again, even though they are better. The AL East looks better overall.
Meadows is a left-handed hitter who started his career in the Pirates organization. I think the Rays are pretty happy to have him. He is barreling the ball well and he could be a real force in a lineup that may come up short on pop. Indeed, he may platoon with Guillermo Heredia, a right-handed hitter. I do think this is the year that we will see and hear Meadows make some noise at the plate. He may have a good number of doubles, and the home runs will come. I liked what I saw of Meadows in Rays camp.
I certainly remember when Tommy Pham was Tommy Phenom with the St. Louis Cardinals. Traded over to Tampa Bay in mid-season, Pham may become a bigger fish in a smaller pond. He will play in a full-time role. A right-handed hitter, Pham has some power in a big swing. It remains to be seen if Pham will totally hunt home runs or try a more measured swing to increase his contact rate. I wouldn’t bet on that, but Pham has some offensive juice. He’s a bit behind in his conditioning due to a spring injury.
Diaz was traded to Tampa Bay from Cleveland for first baseman/outfielder Jake Bauers. Both are line-drive hitters. I think the Rays are really going to like the hard contact and hitting prowess of Diaz. The Indians didn’t like his lack of power, but he could certainly hit the gap in right-center with excellent bat speed. I saw Diaz play first base for the Rays, a position I would guess he will play fairly regularly. He and Ji-Man Choi could platoon at first, or they could share the designated hitter role. Regardless of where he fits, Diaz is a fine major league quality hitter who will likely get his first full-time chance to play.
Matt Duffy may not be ready to play baseball by the time the season begins. Since he came to Tampa Bay from San Francisco, Duffy has struggled to stay healthy. He did get 503 at-bats in a healthy season last year, but he is out injured again. He is dealing with hamstring issues that have kept him from playing day after day. Scheduled to be in a lineup early last week, Duffy was scratched an hour before the game.
When he first went to the Fall League as a raw rookie, Mike Zunino told me he was the best catcher on the Mariners roster and that he should be their starter. Well, he wasn’t and he wasn’t. Now traded from the Mariners to the Rays, he can make a huge difference as a potential power hitter for Tampa Bay. A right-handed hitter, Zunino does, indeed, have some pop in his bat. Now in his prime at 28, Zunino should not be threatened for playing time from left-handed hitting Michael Perez-as long as Zunino hits.
Capsule comment-There are several ways to say it. This Orioles team is dreadful. Awful. Abysmal. And I’m not trying to be unkind. I’m reporting what I see. The club will be hard pressed to find quality starting pitchers. They face a loaded American League East that has solid hitting up and down every lineup. I can’t see a way for Baltimore to lose less than 100 games. Again. And they may exceed the 2018 total of 115.
I had hopes for Bundy at one point. Now 26, Bundy has not turned a corner where he can be effective game after game. He can be rolling along, I can go to the bathroom, come back and the opposition has put a three spot on the board. Why? He has trouble repeating his delivery and throwing strikes. He’s big and strong, but he fades quickly during the game. In the start I watched, his fastball was straight, his breaking balls didn’t break and he got hit very hard. It is frustrating to see him pitch into trouble and not get himself out.
The Milwaukee Brewers had seen enough of Villar last season. They traded him to Baltimore, and the results weren’t really good. Now he is playing on a team with little to no pressure. He still has the speed to steal bases, and he has some power. If ever there was a player who dropped out of the offensive world, it was Villar. I’m thinking he is not going to try to rip the ball out of the park with every at-bat, and so far I like the more measured approach I have seen. Villar really chokes up on the bat, just as I did when I was a kid. I think he is looking to get on base, not hit home runs. I like it. I think he can come back in a nice way.
After a year sitting around with injuries, Hays seems to be back to claim a role in the outfield. I have seen him playing center field here in Florida, and so far, so good. His bat plays. He is a line drive hitter capable of hitting the ball out of any park. I do see some Mitch Haniger in Hays, so maybe he will be a slow starter who finds his stroke somewhere in this age 23 season. In the past I have seen a strong arm capable of playing right field. Regardless of where he ends up, and I think that will be in right, Hays is a guy to watch. I wouldn’t sleep on Hays, as I see him being a bright light on an otherwise dimly lit offensive team.
The Orioles have two prospect players that intrigue me. One is Mountcastle. In a game I saw, he was dominant at the plate, barreling the ball all over the field. He is capable of doing that. I saw the same type of stroke in the Arizona Fall League. It wouldn’t surprise me that Mountcastle will be heard from before the year concludes. I wouldn’t count him among the elite of the prospect class, but Mountcastle, 22, a right-handed hitter, was a first round draft pick. The team likes him. They are playing him in spring training games. You will see him in Baltimore, but maybe not this early in the season.
While I like Mountcastle, I believe the best prospect in the Orioles organization is Yusniel Diaz. From Cuba, Diaz was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers and traded to the Orioles in the Manny Machado deal. Still only 22, the right-handed hitting outfielder has a very strong arm and good outfield instincts. He can barrel the ball, but he is still feeling his way through stateside baseball. Diaz is an outstanding athlete. He looks like a baseball player and acts like a baseball player. He has excellent baseball instincts and knows how to play the game. For me, Diaz and Mountcastle are major components of the Orioles future.
BOSTON RED SOX
Capsule comment-I think the Red Sox should be worried about their pitching depth, especially in the bullpen. A very good offensive club, I can see games getting away in the later innings. I also worry about the health of starting pitchers Chris Sale and David Price.
Last spring Mookie Betts struggled at the plate. This spring training, J.D. Martinez got off to a slow start. Betts had a great season, and I believe Martinez will have a great 2019. He’s a professional hitter who studies hitting and makes the proper adjustments. At times, I think it would help if he played defense, but face it, defense is not his forte. With Betts, Benintendi and Bradley, Jr. in the outfield, designated hitter is the best place for Martinez. Using a measured swing, Martinez can hit vicious line-drive home runs with little to no effort. I think he will once again be a team leader of an offense that allows an opposing pitcher no breathing room.
I don’t think there is any doubt this is a critical season for Rafael Devers. The left-handed hitter is still just 22, but he has been expected to hit like he’s 27. Frankly, he’s still making adjustments to major league quality pitching. A dead fastball hitter, Devers has to figure out breaking balls and learn an approach to left-handed pitching. For now, I see him as a platoon player at third base with Eduardo Nunez or even Brock Holt upon occasion. I saw Devers make a tremendous play diving to his left to rob the hitter of a single. The crowd at Jet Blue Field loved it. Living within a puffy frame, he’s quick on his feet. His frame is deceiving. And at the plate, he has plenty of power. I would hope the Red Sox don’t panic and trade him.
Jackie Bradley, Jr.-CF
With the offense of the Red Sox, can they afford to have a world-class center fielder like Bradley, Jr. in the lineup? I think they can. He’s just a tremendous center fielder with a quick first step, great reads of the ball of the bat and a nice arm. His bat is another story. He will hit pitcher’s mistakes that get too much of the pate. However, he may leave some men on base from the bottom of the batting order. Most teams would love to have a center fielder as capable as Bradley, Jr. Whenever and whatever he hits may just be a bonus.
I saw David Price here in Florida and he rolled along using his entire arsenal. If he stays healthy, of course the Red Sox will have a quality starting pitcher behind Chris Sale. I’m not sure that Price will be able to complete an entire season without heading to the disabled list at least once. Maybe he will need a “time out” to regain and refresh, but I see time away from the mound. He made a remarkable 30 starts last season, but he is now 33, and the wear and tear may be taking a toll. I hope I’m wrong. In the start I saw, he went three innings, yielded two hits and two earned runs. He also gave up a homer and walked two. He was rusty. He did strike out four with all his pitches moving, but the sharpness is yet to arrive this spring.
In the games I saw at Jet Blue Park in Ft. Myers, no Red Sox player got a bigger ovation than 35-year old Dustin Pedroia. He really is the heart and soul of the team. After missing so much time with injury, it appears Pedroia has fully claimed second base as his own. If he hits, he can stay. His defense is not what it was, but he is acceptable. The Red Sox shifted more in the infield than I had seen them in the past, and maybe that’s to help Pedroia a bit. But if the Red Sox hope to overtake the Yankees, it would seem every player will have to contribute some on offense. That, of course, includes guys like Pedroia, Bradley, Jr. and the rest of the lineup. I think Pedroia may press a bit to prove he still belongs.
Moreland will get the large side of the first base platoon, sharing the role with right-handed hitting Steve Pearce. Together, they form a pretty good offensive pair with some gap power and home runs as well. Moreland takes a big uppercut on most fastballs. He does try to lay off breaking balls, but he sees a steady diet of sliders and changeups from right-handed pitchers. Moreland can be very streaky and there are times when he alone can carry a club. But now 33, Moreland’s best days may be in the rear view mirror. But every right-handed pitcher facing Moreland must be aware of his loud bat.
Capsule comment: I don’t get it. For the life of me, I don’t understand why the Twins didn’t fix their starting pitching staff? They spent plenty of money on the offensive side of the ball, but if there is a hole on the club, it’s on the mound.
The new right-handed hitting first baseman, Cron was placed on waivers by the Rays and claimed by the Twins. He’s just one of several guys that can take the ball out of the park, as I saw him do in the Grapefruit League. He’s now 29, so it really is his time to step up and prove that he belongs on a major league roster. He can keep the job all year, because he is better than bench players Mitch Garver and Tyler Austin. He gets a big boost in Minnesota as he’ll be hitting in a lineup that features the likes of Eddie Rosario, Nelson Cruz and Jorge Polanco, each a solid hitter.
Hurt most of last year, Buxton was beyond a disappointment for the Twins and his fantasy team owners like me. This spring, I am watching Buxton play with some enthusiasm. He’s always been a terrific center fielder with speed and excellent baseball instincts. But the ball seems to be jumping off his bat now. If he is healthy, he may once and for all be the player as advertised when he was a prospect. He has the power to hit the long ball, but I find his speed as a base stealer to be a compelling reason to root for a comeback. I don’t buy that he’ll be a big home run stud. I do buy that he’s a terrific center fielder and a solid runner. So far, so good for a comeback.
Marwin Gonzalez was a late free agent sign for the Twins. He can play everywhere in the infield and outfield. So far, I’ve seen him do just that in Florida. But he isn’t hitting. In fact, he’s striking out at an alarming rate with a slow bat. He is actually looking overmatched at the plate against both good and mediocre pitching. He didn’t get into games until this week, and he is behind in his preparation. I’m a bit concerned about Marwin, but not yet worried. He still has a couple weeks to iron out the wrinkles and get his game in shape. Count me a believer.
Gibson is much like Robbie Ray of the Dbacks. He’s rolling along and then boom-balls just come screaming off the opposing bats. He’s so big and so tall that he can throw downhill at the hitter and almost shake hands. A former first round draft pick, Gibson changed his delivery last spring to be more compact with less extraneous motion. I think it has paid dividends, as he is throwing strikes and getting ahead of hitters. But for the one big inning every game, Gibson is a solid starter. And he’s getting better.
When I saw Berrios pitch this week, I finally figured out what concerns me. He tries to nibble too much and be too cute. Berrios has great stuff, but in working the corners of the plate, he gets too much of the middle. When that happens, Berrios gets hit and hit hard. Like Gibson, he can be rolling along and then watch as a walk here and a couple hits in a row set him back. He’s still very young at 24, but I think he would really benefit from the wisdom of a master pitching teacher. It makes me wonder if Twins Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven has ever been asked to work with Berrios. I think he’ll have a fine season, but I’m guessing 2020 is when he really makes his mark.
Jonathan Schoop- 2B
Schoop is in the same boat as the Orioles Jonathan Villar. Both were once very good offensive players. Both are now in relatively new team environments and both have to reinvent their offensive games. Schoop still looks like he is struggling. He looks like he still wants to hit a five-run home run every trip to the plate. I would like to see him barrel the ball and use his speed. I would like to see him take some bases on balls and use his speed. I would like to see anything but a long, empty swing. Maybe that’ll come with the Twins. He certainly has the potential to be an important component of the new Twins lineup. If he gets the chance to use his speed.
Capsule comment: The Phillies sent the same group of minor league players along with Rhys Hoskins to the games I saw in south Florida. Therefore, I didn’t get to see most of their big offensive guns.
Nola is a true craftsman. He doesn’t throw hard, using a fastball that sits at 89-91 with movement. He does, however, have an arsenal of breaking balls and off-speed pitches that make me think of a younger Greg Maddux. While Nola doesn’t always hunt the corners and isn’t as umpire dependent as Maddux, Nola has the knack of staying away from the hitter and using the outside corner as if he is paying rent there. Very few pitches of Nola’s are met with the barrel of the bat. Staying off the sweet spot, Nola gets his share of swings and misses as well as weak contact. He’s a very impressive command/control tactician.
There really is no place to play for Kingery in this edition of the Phillies. He isn’t better than Cesar Hernandez at second base. He may be able to supplant Maikel Franco at third base if Franco gets off to a bad start, but he isn’t better than any of Andrew McCutchen, Odubel Herrera or Bryce Harper in the outfield. That leaves him on the bench. And that’s pretty much where I think he fits on this club. I have graded him either a 45 or 50 whenever I have seen him play. At times I’ve seen him make good contact. At other times I’ve seen him scuffle at the plate. When he was a prospect, people raved about Kingery. He was in the Futures Game and was the center of some buzz. That has quieted now and he will have to fight for a role with the club.
Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr-OFs
Williams is one of the players impacted by the arrival of Bryce Harper. He and Aaron Altherr could be headed for the Phillies bench, with Harper playing left field, Odubel Herrera in center and Andrew McCutchen in right. Williams is a left-handed hitter and if a 4th and 5th outfielders are needed, they could be the tandem. Williams is still only 25, with Altherr being 28. I think the Phillies have the right three guys in the outfield, as I think McCutchen will add a great deal at the top of the batting order. However, there are lots of clubs that would value either Williams or Altherr as regulars. So again, the Harper signing added much more depth to the Phillies than might initially meet the eye.
Knapp represents another Phillies bench candidate that I saw plenty of in Florida. Make no mistake, Knapp can hit. I think he will win the back-up catcher’s role behind newcomer J.T. Realmuto. That would mean he would beat out veterans Drew Butera or Rob Brantly as the spare catcher. Last season the Phillies brass raved about Knapp’s bat. He started the regular season slowly and found himself buried. He’s hitting again this spring, but can he carry that to a 25-man, regular season roster? I think he is a better defensive catcher than advertised by some. However, with Realmuto now on board in Philadelphia, the back up catcher’s role might mean he is available only when Realmuto must come up for air.
Rhys Hoskins-1B- Last year, the brain trust of the Phillies had the bright idea to bring in Carlos Santana to play first base. Of course, they had a perfectly solid first baseman in house in Rhys Hoskins. Hoskins was moved to left field, where his defense couldn’t cut it. He took his defensive woes to the plate with him. Well, he’s back at first base this spring and Santana is playing back in Cleveland. Hoskins was one of the only regular players to make the road trips in games I saw in Florida. His bat looks slow to me so far. I’m not worried, but something doesn’t look the same. I do think having Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto in the lineup will give Hoskins a real boost. He may see better pitches and he may have many more opportunities to drive in runs. So for those reasons, I think Hoskins will have a big, big year.
Capsule comment: The Tigers will likely have very little success due to very mediocre starting pitching. I just don’t see their rotation eating innings.
After being released by the Twins last year, Niko Goodrum found a home with the Tigers. He had an outstanding start to his 2018 season and Goodrum looked like a steal. But the second half was less impressive. He finished hitting only .245. He did hit 16 home runs. The great part about Goodrum is his Ben Zobrist, Marwin Gonzalez type ability to play anywhere the manager wants. He does have some power, and he’s a switch hitter. That should keep him in the lineup. He is penciled in be the team’s DH in many lineup projections I have seen. Those projections have Josh Harrison at second, Jordy Mercer and short and Jeimer Candelario at third. Enter Goodrum at DH. He’s a very valuable guy to have on the club.
I’m not sure the Tigers wouldn’t be better off playing Niko Goodrum at second and letting Harrison DH. Harrison is a fine contact hitter from the right side of the plate. However, as I watched him here in Florida it looked like he has lost a step or two on defense. I think shortstop Jordy Mercer will be cheating a bit towards second base on many hitters. The two played at Pittsburgh together and know each other well. I think having Harrison at the top of the order is a good move for Detroit, where he can make contact and set the table for bigger hitters. But he is also valuable hitting further down in the order. Harrison and Mercer are changing leagues and there could be an adjustment period to different pitching, but I think he can succeed in Detroit.
Miguel Cabrera is back in the lineup with the Tigers after injury sent him to the sidelines in 2018. He did make a road trip to south Florida and I was at that game. He struck out three times. In fact, he was fooled on a couple pitches and had some unkind words and glares for the umpire. I’m not writing Cabrera off. Not at all. But he has to get that powerful swing back, recognize pitches quicker and drive the ball to the center of the field. I am thinking it could take Cabrera until warmer weather comes to the Midwest in mid-May or early June for his offense to return to being even close to his dangerous past.
Based upon what I saw in Florida, Tyson Ross should break camp as one of the Tigers starting rotation. That became even clearer after Michael Fulmer had to be shut down with injury. In the start I saw, Ross was very efficient. Very effective. He didn’t overpower any hitter, but he used a solid arsenal and very good command and control to retire hitters. He will get his strikeouts, but he is showing more finesse and deception than I have seen from him in the past. Ross could be a good sleeper for the Tigers. Especially if he starts the season well and gains confidence in his ability as he goes along. It seems Ross has pitched forever, but he’s only 31. He has a history of injury and missing time on the disabled list. Now we have to see if he can get through a season by repeating a good delivery and avoiding injury.
Daniel Norris started a game I saw in Florida and I was really surprised. I was surprised because the lefty threw strikes, something I have found him struggle to do in the recent past. Like former Tigers pitcher Robbie Ray, there was never a doubt about Norris’ arm, his desire, or his ability. There was doubt if he could repeat his good mechanics and get strike one. That first strike was, indeed elusive. In the start I saw, he was pounding the strike zone and fooling hitters with a nice arsenal of breaking balls in addition to his fastball. I think Norris will get another chance to make the Tigers rotation if he pitches the rest of the spring like I saw in mid-March.
Next week I will begin to provide my predictions. I will start with the National League and list my predictions for the divisional standings as well as the number of wins I think each team will achieve
Also next week, I will list my fantasy baseball closer and reliever rankings. The role of closer is in such flux that I thought it best to wait until I posted my thoughts
I welcome you to follow me on Twitter @BerniePleskoff.
If you are interested in joining me as I host a fabulous tour to Cuba January 6-13, 2020, please email me at BerniePleskoff@aol.com. I will send you all the details, including pricing.
Have a great week.