The Week Ahead: Let the games begin
On-field preparation, competition to commence as spring contests get under way
We started the week late to honor presidents, but beginning Friday, those of us who love baseball and have been waiting not so patiently for it to get started again might have some other presidential names on our minds.
There's Washington, as in Ron Washington, who's trying to manage his Texas Rangers back into the October dance. There's Lincoln, a.k.a. Brad Lincoln, who might figure into the Blue Jays' bullpen mix. There's even a Jefferson or two. Jefferson Olacio, for example, is a 19-year-old left-handed pitching prospect in the White Sox organization who stands 6-foot-7 and needs to cut down on the walks.
So it's finally here, or very close to being here. Actual baseball games where there will be hot dogs and cotton candy sold in the stands and seventh-inning stretches will be practiced will be played starting Friday. That's when the Detroit Tigers will meet the Atlanta Braves in the Major Leagues' first Spring Training game of 2013. First pitch is to be thrown at 1:05 p.m. ET at Champion Stadium at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Kissimmee, Fla.
Friday will also feature games between the Reds and Indians, Royals and Rangers and Padres and Mariners in the Cactus League in Arizona before Saturday arrives and a full slate of action comes along with it both states.
The games begin earlier than usual this year because of the upcoming World Baseball Classic, so fans will likely see the usual from the first batch of games: short outings by established starters who are ramping up their workloads, late swings from hitters who haven't yet found their timing, and the beginnings of the battles for roster spots that always seem to make the balmy weather even hotter.
There's nothing like good competition to answer questions about which 25 players will break camp in any given organization. One example is Oakland. The A's might have won the American League West last year, but they don't know who's going to be their Opening Day second baseman. Right now it's probably between Jemile Weeks, Scott Sizemore and newcomer Jed Lowrie.
"It really is going to take a good portion of spring and games to figure out who plays where and what the formula's going to be during the season," Oakland manager Bob Melvin said, and he could have been talking about many of the other 29 teams' situations this spring.
The Tigers, for example, will see how their anointed new closer, Bruce Rondon, might pan out once he starts pitching to Major League hitters, something he's never done in a real game.
The Nationals and their fans will finally get to see what Stephen Strasburg can do if he's healthy to pitch 200 or more innings in a season. Strasburg, who underwent Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery in September 2010 and was curbed by the club at 159 1/3 innings in 2012, therefore missing the postseason, will have no such limits this year. The Nationals' first spring game is Saturday against the Mets in Port St. Lucie. Fla., at 12:10 p.m. ET.
"It's going to be a challenge. It's going to be a test, and I think I'm ready for it," Strasburg said. "I trained really hard this offseason. Hopefully, I'll answer the bell, throw 200-plus innings and be the guy in the rotation that can be reliable -- go six, seven, eight, hopefully nine innings every time out this year. ... I want them to know that I'm going to be 100-percent ready. If you want me to go out there and go for another inning, I'm your guy."
Elsewhere around the Majors as spring games get into gear, more news is happening every day. Sunday brought unfortunate injuries for the Brewers, who have lost first baseman Mat Gamel for the season because of a re-torn knee ligament, and the Cubs, who are having veteran starter Matt Garza undergo an MRI to determine the extent of a lat strain suffered during his first live batting practice session on Saturday. Garza hadn't pitched to hitters since last July because of elbow problems.
"The good news is his arm felt really strong and he was throwing really well," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Monday. "It's unfortunate, for sure, and it's going to set him back a little bit, but we're still really confident."
The Mariners seemed confident that they can alleviate a bit of a logjam at first base by working a deal to trade Mike Carp, who no longer has a viable roster spot with Seattle, so look for that this week, maybe even with Milwaukee in lieu of Gamel.
"I would say there's a good chance we get something done in the next 24-48 hours," Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik said.
Meanwhile, several good free agents remain available on the market, including starter Kyle Lohse and closers Jose Valverde, Francisco Rodriguez and Brian Wilson.
For Lohse, who was considered by many to be one of the top starters available, especially after a 16-3 record and 2.86 ERA for St. Louis last year, it's been a long winter but one that could end with a new Spring Training home soon.
"[Lohse is] a good player and has been through this a couple of times," said Lohse's agent, Scott Boras. "This was kind of anticipated with his Draft-compensation dynamic. Because he's the type of player that will go to an instantly competitive team, those teams knowing they'd have to give away a Draft pick and Draft money, we understood it would probably have to be something that there was definitely a feeling it was necessary to have him on the team to be competitive to win."
Starting later this week, "instantly competitive" will take on a whole new meaning as actual games are played.