BONITA SPRINGS, Fla.—Palm trees, beaches, tract housing as far as the eye can see and slow-going retirees in Buicks holding up traffic for miles at a time. For many, these are the enduring symbols of South Florida.
For baseball fans, the Sunshine State offers something else: spring training, and lots of it. Here in Florida’s southwest corridor, inland from the Gulf of Mexico (and its beaches where hordes of spring breakers gather), fans flock to the training sites of the Red Sox and Twins in Fort Myers and the Rays up the interstate about 40 miles in Port Charlotte.
Being my first spring-training sojourn, I looked on everything with fresh eyes, and in this space I’ll try to convey the sights and sounds of minor league spring training camp.
Sunday, March 26
Twins Minor League Camp
Lee County Sports Complex, Fort Myers, Fla.
The Yankees ventured south from Tampa to play the Twins in a major league matinee, making for the day’s big event. Being New York’s only visit to Hammond Stadium this spring, the parking lot filled rapidly and traffic slowed to a crawl outside on Six Mile Cypress Parkway.
I’m here for the minor league action, though, so I make my way to the back of the complex, where the Twins have three full-size practice fields and a separate diamond for infield drills. Today is camp day, so Minnesota minor leaguers will play intrasquad games only, with the matchups breaking down as Triple-A vs. Double-A, high Class A vs. low Class A and a general Gulf Coast League team workout.
All three backfields fan out in wedges, with the clubhouse in the fourth quadrant and an elevated tower at the epicenter. Here Twins coaches and executives can oversee all the action—and find shelter from the midday sun. The close proximity of the fields makes every crack of the bat a visceral experience, and every foul ball an adventure.
In the advanced, Rochester vs. New Britain scrimmage, righty Deolis Guerra makes the start for the Double-A squad, and while he surrenders a line-drive home run to outfielder Rene Tosoni in the first inning, he settles in to pitch well the rest of the way. After he exits, Guerra continues his day’s work in the bullpen. The Twins say his breaking ball is much better this season, and that he's ready to move away from his exclusive relationship with his fastball/changeup past.
Righthander Mike McCardell got into the game late for the Triple-A squad and showed an occasional tight curveball with depth. Velocity is not McCardell’s forte, despite that he appears every bit the 6-foot-5 he’s listed at, and opposing batters got some good swings off him. Five-foot-three middle infielder Chris Cates tripled to deep right-center field, and Steve Singleton followed later in the inning with a towering home run to the same general part of the field. (This would turn out to be McCardell's final outing as a Twin. Minnesota released him on Monday, March 28.)
Rochester center fielder Ben Revere showed off his feel for hitting by singling sharply to right field against towering, 6-foot-8 lefty Mike Tarsi. A lefty hitter, Revere batted .319 versus same-siders last year in Double-A, and he knocked southpaws around for .333 and .397 averages in high and low Class A, respectively.
Flitting from field to field, I caught only bits and pieces of the Class A action, but most of the game’s highlights occurred at the end. Reigning Appalachian League MVP Oswaldo Arcia lined a short-hopper that completely ate up the shortstop. (Twins players and coaches in the stands spoke reverently of Arcia’s batting potential.) He came around to score on a line-drive home run to left-center by 2010 25th-rounder Andy Leer, the pride of Mary University in Bismarck, N.D.
As to Arcia, the Twins intend to start him with low Class A Beloit, but he will miss the first few weeks as he battles through elbow and shoulder woes. He served as DH in spring-training games.
Lefty-hitting Puerto Rican outfielder Danny Ortiz, a 2008 fourth-round pick, showed impressive bat speed, too much almost, in turning around any fastball thrown his way. He missed all of ’09 with a torn ACL, but he hit 11 homers and slugged .498 for Elizabethton last season, and he could be poised for bigger things this year—but only if he keeps his aggressiveness in check. He carries a .312 on-base percentage through his first 110 pro games.
On Field No. 1, the GCL workout notably put Twins youngsters through fielding and situational-hitting drills. The infielders (Miguel Sano and Niko Goodrum took their reps at third base) practiced rotating to and throwing to different bases on slow-hit choppers and bunts, while in the outfield, the remaining players fielded grounders and came up firing.
Next came the situational-hitting drill in which each batter stepped in against the pitching machine and got one swing to try to hit the ball to the right side of the infield, advancing runners from either first or second base. A screen covering the first baseman’s swath of dirt blocked off that region, the no-fly zone. Participating in the drill were a handful of the Twins brightest teenage prospects, like Sano and Max Kepler and 2010 draft picks like Goodrum, J.D. Williams and Kelvin Mention. One group took their hacks while the other acted as baserunners, lighting out for the next base with each pitch.
Monday, March 27
Rays Minor League Camp
Charlotte Sports Park, Port Charlotte, Fla.
Early-morning thunderstorms briefly knocked out power at the Rays’ minor league complex. As a result, the Orioles opted not to make the drive from Sarasota to partake in the scheduled minor league skirmishes. But with the fields drained and dried in time for 1 o’clock game time, Tampa Bay carried on with . . . more intrasquad action, just at they had the day before.
Taking his regular turn for the Double-A squad was lefty Matt Moore, the organization’s No. 2 prospect and the top lefty pitching prospect in the minors this side of Aroldis Chapman. I had never before witnessed a Moore start, missing him when he pitched for the Appy League’s Princeton Rays in 2008, but the wait proved to be well worth it.
In this tune-up start, Moore seemed to toy with batters every time he worked ahead of them. If he successfully pinned two strikes on them, he could go to either one of his plus secondary offerings to record the strikeout, some swinging and some looking. Facing an experienced Triple-A lineup, Moore by one account struck out 10 batters in his four innings of work.
In the first inning, Moore quickly dispatched with lefty-hitting Matt Sweeney (whom the Rays say came to camp in great shape after another injury-plagued season in 2010), striking him out on a curveball that seemed to vanish as it entered the strike zone. Rays pitchers watching in the stands voiced their approval. Moore then set down catcher Robinson Chirinos on a changeup that had him out on his front side, lunging too early at the pitch. He then froze veteran Chris Carter, he of the Diamondbacks, Red Sox and Mets, on a perfectly placed curve to punch out the side.
Moore sets up his curve and change with a strong 92-94 mph fastball that he often located at the knees and on the black. At other times, though, his release point wavered. Case in point: Brandon Guyer worked a five-pitch walk leading off the second inning, when Moore alternately bounced fastballs low and in and up and away on the righthanded hitter. When he’s in sync, though, Moore does it easy—scouts have that exactly right. To complete his second inning, he fanned Russ Canzler on a changeup and struck out J.J. Furmaniak and Rey Olmedo when they swung defensively at fastballs.
Kyle Farnsworth started for the Triple-A team, working a rehab inning after a pair of injury scares last week. He worked around a leadoff walk by inducing Tim Beckham to hit into a 5-4-3 double play. Speaking of Beckham, the 2008 No. 1 overall pick carried forth his positive conditioning habits from last season into this year. Though he’s not a burner, he looks more like a shortstop than he did in ’08 or ’09, and the Rays believe he has the tools to stick at the position.
Tampa Bay gave B.J. Upton ample time to work through his issues at shortstop, and while that ultimately proved fruitless, the organization’s patience does provide a template for how they may develop Beckham. The two players feature different strengths, however. Upton drew raves for his speed, strike-zone management and surprising power, tools that have served him well as a big league center fielder. Beckham’s strongest tools are above-average power and arm strength, giving him more of a third base/right field profile if he doesn’t pan out at shortstop.
Righthander Dane de la Rosa worked a relief frame for the Triple-A squad and he showed a potent fastball-curveball repertoire that could make him a sleeper for the big league bullpen if he throws enough strikes. At 28, he’s late to the prospect party, but it’s easy to see why Tampa Bay added the 6-foot-7 Golden League vet to its 40-man roster last offseason. The Yankees signed de la Rosa as a draft-and-follow in 2003 but released him after two seasons. Prior to signing with the Rays in November ’09, his only other affiliated ball experience amounted to one Pioneer League game with the Brewers late in ’07. He spent the majority of ’05 through ’09 in independent leagues.
Tampa Bay has called Charlotte Sports Park home for three years now, and it’s easy to see why the Stone Crabs have been one of the Florida State League’s top draws. The facility appears to be lovingly cared for, with Rays blue accentuating the ballpark’s façade and the organization’s script logo and familiar colors strewn all about the minor league complex. But while the minor league complex features three full-size diamonds, their layout is not entirely conducive to keeping an eye on all three fields at once.
The main field, where the Triple-A vs. Double-A game took place, stands alone from fields two and three, which are divided by a paved, palm-tree lined path. On this day, the two Class A teams squared off on one field, while on the other transpired a lengthy batting-practice session, featuring pitches from the mound and later about 10 feet in front of the rubber.
Burly 2010 second-rounder Jake Thompson, a righty from Long Beach State, started for the high Class A club and had little trouble with the much younger low Class A squad, which featured the best from last year’s Rays rookie clubs, such as Luke Bailey, Todd Glaesmann, Hector Guevara and Kevin Kiermaier. Thompson rolled to a 1.35 ERA in 10 New York-Penn League appearances last year, and he relied mostly on his fastball and slider to work through the would-be Bowling Green batters.
Tuesday, March 28
Red Sox Minor League Camp
Boston Red Sox Player Development Facility, Fort Myers, Fla.
Unlike the Rays and Twins, the Red Sox have split camps, one for minor leaguers and another, City of Palms Park, for big league workouts and games. Minor league camp is about two miles down Edison Avenue, located at a dead end in an "industrial" part of town. As I bore left to make for minor league camp, the DJ on my rental car’s radio cued “Paradise City.” An ironic fellow, that guy.
With good reason Boston intends to move to a new Fort Myers-based facility for 2012, one that will accommodate both major and minor league spring training. The proposed site lies 11 miles away, with plans calling for six practice fields and a big league park featuring authentic Fenway dimensions, down to the Green Monster.
The current home of Red Sox minor league ops features five full-size fields, and four of them saw use this day. The Rays Triple-A and Double-A clubs made the drive from Port Charlotte to play their Red Sox counterparts. Likely Red Sox rookie leaguers (and extended spring training participants), such as Garin Cecchini and Xander Bogaerts, played an intrasquad scrimmage on the third field.
Later in the day, the fourth field hosted a batting-practice round featuring Luis Exposito, Jose Iglesias and Che-Hsuan Lin. Lin put on the best show, hitting the ball with authority to his pull side.
The day’s marquee matchup pitted 23-year-old Venezuelan lefties Felix Doubront of the Red Sox against Alex Torres of the Rays in the Triple-A game. The two have distinctly different builds—Doubront is tall and lean at 6-foot-2, while Torres is listed at 5-foot-10 and carries a thicker lower half—but they shared a similar pitching style this day, emphasizing fastballs and breaking balls and consistently working ahead of batters.
Doubront worked just two innings and peaked at 93 mph with his customary tailing and sinking action. He seemed to favor his slower, mid-70s curveball to his mid-80s slider in this outing. That makes sense, seeing as Doubront made great strides with his curveball last season, and it now ranks No. 2 in his arsenal.
Torres ranged from 88-92 mph with fastball action similar to Doubront’s. He favored a harder breaking ball in this game, one with 79-80 mph velocity and tight, late spin. Torres worked around a double by Ryan Kalish but otherwise cruised through his early innings.
Over in the Double-A game, the Rays sent Chris Archer to the hill to face the home-team Red Sox. (Yes, I count myself lucky to have seen Archer, Matt Moore and Alex Torres, Tampa Bay’s top three minor league arms now that Jeremy Hellickson and Jake McGee are in the big leagues, in the span of two days. That’s the way the cards fell.) Archer appeared to be in midseason form, sitting comfortably at 93-95 mph and throwing two tantalizing secondary pitches in his hard slider and changeup—he appeared to be kind of a righty analogue to Moore.
Charting pitches for the Triple-A Rays was former Baseball America diarist and current best-selling author Dirk Hayhurst, whose recent “The Bullpen Gospels” cracked the New York Times’ bestseller list. Tampa Bay signed Hayhurst to a minor league deal in late January after he had shoulder surgery and missed the 2010 season.
Hayhurst said that he has successfully sold movie rights to Gospels and that he has to turn over his forthcoming book’s manuscript to the publisher by April 15. The new book will push 500 pages, he said, and cover thematically darker material. Hayhurst reached the big leagues with the ’08 Padres and ’09 Blue Jays before losing all traction with his injury.
The cadre of Red Sox pitchers gathered behind the plate envied Hayhurst’s pitch-charting device, a modified IBM ThinkPad laptop with a touch-screen monitor and stylus. Armed with a radar gun and his computer, Hayhurst tracked each pitch’s velocity and then entered that velocity as well as pitch location (using the familiar three-by-three grid), pitch type and outcome (strike, ball, foul, hit, 6-4-3 double play etc.). The Rays this season plan to send pitchers to games to collect pitch data using their ThinkPads and proprietary software.
The Red Sox also plan to move forward with their own charting application this season. This day, Boston pitchers got their first look at their organization’s pitch-track device, a much smaller, sleeker tablet—albeit one they complained comes with a less intuitive user interface. Red Sox farm director Mike Hazen said the program will produce a cleaner game chart, saying, "Instead of taking handwriting in pencil that our staff has to enter after the game, we'll now have pitch-by-pitch data for all levels."
Comments will be monitored prior to being added to the site. Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be rejected. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed.
We have chosen to open up commenting to everyone, so comment away! We want to hear from each and every one of you! Leave a comment.
About This Blog
Syndicate This Blog
Search This Blog