Exploring ups and downs at Florida camps
PHOENIX -- There's always something nostalgic about leaving Florida for Arizona. Yeehaw Junction. Alligator Alley. Fort Lonesome. Then there is the driving, especially if you're on the East Coast of Florida with lots of two- and three-hour journeys.
In a month, two names were mentioned more than any other. The first was Yankees lefty phenom Manuel Banuelos.
"He'll be in Yankee Stadium come June," said one National League scout. "He has presence, great stuff, command ... everything."
Stick to Alex Rodriguez's comparison to a young Johan Santana with a curveball. Trenton will be a nice place to visit.
The second was Bryce Harper. It should not be surprising that Harper was not in the first set of cuts made by the Nationals on Friday. No, they're not rushing him, of course, because he's an 18-year-old who needs to start in Class A ball. But Harper's power and bat speed were evident, and more important, not only does he bust out of the box like George Brett and run the bases like Kirk Gibson, but he was so respectful of the veterans that they accepted him. Naturally, the media is curious about him, and while some think they have to make fun of that attention, he took it in stride.
2010 Spring Training - Major League Baseball
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"Some players may have wondered considering the fact that so much had been made of him," Jayson Werth said. "But he's fit in."
When Harper proclaimed excitement about the possibility of playing both ends of a day-night doubleheader and said, "Hey, two games are great," he won over the coaching staff.
There were some very impressive young players. Tampa Bay catcher Robinson Chirinos has wowed scouts after coming over from the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal. Maybe he is not quite Carlos Rios as a receiver, but likely will be an offensive force in the Rays' order.
Jesus Montero has really worked hard on his flexibility and defense, and is going to hit. Freddie Freeman will be in the National League Rookie of the Year race, and so will Washington second baseman Danny Espinosa.
Brett Lawrie is going to hit for the Jays someday, whether it's at third base or the outfield. When J.D. Drew retires at the end of the year, Ryan Kalish will be a Fenway Park favorite, and J.P. Ricciardi believes Kalish "will be a star." He's a great athlete, Rodney Harrison in a baseball uniform.
Jim Leyland loves Andy Dirks, maybe not as a future All-Star right fielder, but a role player who can hit. Julio Teheran has Mariano Rivera athleticism.
Seven things I really liked:
1. The fact that Albert Pujols, by his and most estimation, is in "the best shape I've been in three years. I had elbow and other surgeries in other off-seasons, but I feel the best I've felt in several springs."
Pujols set his contract talk deadline "because I don't want any distractions," a premise that is entirely honest. Pujols is one of the 10 greatest players ever. Remember, his 408 homers and 426 doubles in his first 10 seasons make him the only player in history to do 400/400 in any 10-year stretch -- and his ability to climb into a cocoon and never be distracted is one of the myriad reasons for that.
There are a lot of concerns about the Cardinals, but Albert says, "I think we're going to be very good," and Tony La Russa says the same. No one knows what they'll get out of the infield, but the consensus is that if Colby Rasmus matures into an All-Star center fielder, Pujols may have a lot more support around him.
2. The Rays will succeed if B.J. Upton has a consistent season, Matt Joyce keeps improving and Manny Ramirez can keep Evan Longoria from being walked like Pujols. Manny looks great; he's lost 10-15 pounds, he's redefined his body, and while his power may not be what it was in his prime, he's going to be a major comeback candidate.
3. The Braves looked like the best National League team in Florida. Now, granted, the Phillies have had some injuries, and with their starting pitchers, they can win any postseason series if they get to the playoffs as expected. But even if Chipper Jones can't play 130 games, the Braves' pitching is deep, Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters are really good at the end, Dan Uggla brings power and grit, and they can enjoy best friends Freeman and Jason Heyward growing up together. Brandon Beachy had 163 strikeouts in 134 1/3 innings last year. Some in their organization think Mike Minor can win 12-15 games. They have so many big arms in their system that they can go out and trade for what they need in July.
4. Justin Morneau's comeback is a study in courage. Two weeks into Spring Training, he admitted that he got so tired that after he worked out, he had to go home and take a nap. The Twins and GM Bill Smith never set timelines or pressured Morneau, and allowed him to come back this week on his own schedule when he was comfortable. Morneau is a perennial MVP candidate, and it appears he and Jason Bay are on their ways back from serious concussion issues that no one but they can understand.
5. It has been interesting how easily and quietly Carl Crawford has fit in with the Red Sox. "He's a workaholic who practices perfectly every day," says one Boston front office official. "That's who he is. He's driven. The fact that the Red Sox have so many high-profile players like David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis allows him to be who he is and not be in the spotlight."
6. The American League East is going to be ridiculously strong. The Red Sox and Yankees are both mega-lineups, albeit with questions at the end of their rotations. Toronto is going to be dangerous if Adam Lind, Aaron Hill and Travis Snider leap forward as they seem to be doing. John Farrell has brought his considerable presence to make this camp the most energetic in the state, and Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil and Kyle Drabek can be a dynamic rotation. Tampa Bay still has an exceptional rotation, a lot of flexibility and simply has to construct a bullpen.
7. And don't sleep on the Orioles. They are going to hit a ton of homers, this is going to be the breakout seasons of Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters, Buck Showalter may cobble together a decent bullpen (Mike Gonzalez was back up to 93 mph Thursday) and behind Jeremy Guthrie's 200 innings they need Brian Matusz, Jake Arrietta and Zach Britton to be solidly in the rotation come August. It's a whole different world after 13 seasons averaging 91 losses.
But for all the sunny optimism, five things to worry about:
1. Chase Utley. Everyone appreciates that he is one of the best players in the sport and the lynchpin of the Phillies' everyday players, and now that the knee that bothered him at times during the winter is still not right, one begins to ask if this is related to the hip surgery he underwent in November 2009. One orthopedist suggests that because that surgery is so new, the medical community doesn't know all the ramifications. A-Rod has had a myriad of related problems. "That surgery may alter an athlete's gait," says one orthopedist. "If one changes gait, the body may feel it." Hopefully, doctors will determine some way Utley can return to normal.
2. Daisuke Matsuzaka. He came into Fort Myers in better shape and with high hopes, but it's been the same inconsistent Dice-K his last three appearances. With Felix Doubront slowed by an elbow problem and Andrew Miller a work -- a very promising work -- in progress, if Matsuzaka struggles, the only April alternative at the end of the rotation might be Tim Wakefield.
3. Johan Santana. He has worked very hard, but it is evident that he will not be back at top-end speed until August, if then, which puts a lot of pressure on Mike Pelfrey and makes Chris Capuano and Chris Young very important.
4. Francisco Liriano. Neither the stuff or the command he once flashed has come back. Yet. The Twins need someone with Carl Pavano at the front end of the rotation, especially if Jake Peavy makes the White Sox pitching as good as it seems and the Tigers rotation is as good as it looks; Brad Penny has been a very encouraging story for Detroit, his velocity and stuff up, his body weight down.
5. How does St. Louis replace Adam Wainwright coming off a season when his numbers mirrored those of Roy Halladay? La Russa says, "We can do it." After Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook and Kyle Lohse have thrown well, and La Russa is trying to figure out whether or not the bullpen can spare Kyle McClellan's 75 1/3 innings. "McClellan can do the job starting," says La Russa. "But do we need him more in the 'pen? That's something we have to determine in the next two weeks."
Elsewhere, Mike Stanton hit balls over the corner of the building that Mark McGwire never cleared.
Then there's Pudge Rodriguez, beginning his 21st season at the age of 39.
"Three more years," Pudge promises.
Hey, he may have caught more games than any catcher in history, he's made 14 All-Star teams and won 13 Gold Gloves, his total range factor is the highest of any catcher ever, but he admits "I want 3,000 hits," which means 183 hits in those three years.
"I'm not tired yet," he says.
Finally, there's Marlins catcher John Baker. He is, of course, a well-known actor for his role in "Summer Catch," and since he was part of Billy Beane's "Moneyball" draft and that movie is being shot, he says he doesn't know who he wants to play his role.
In the meantime, Baker and Burke Badenhop are working on a script for another baseball movie. And their concept is really good.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.