Spring Training Report From the Cactus League

Let me introduce my friend William Johnson. A Freelance writer by trade and a baseball fan for life. William has covered MLB and NBA for the Bleacher Report and put together a book called Medusa and Other Short Stories. This book includes four short stories that will scare the living daylights out of you. William a native of Tampa, Florida now resides in Phoenix, Arizona. William has graciously offer a spring training report from Surprise, Arizona where the Texas Rangers and the Kansas City Royals hold their Spring Training. Thanks again Will and we hope to hear from you again!

                                                                                                                                                                      

Rangers vs. Royals 3/4/2012 (Surprise Stadium)
 
If you ever have the ability to watch spring training baseball on a regular basis and even get paid for it, then count yourself lucky. I, for a short period, became one of these lucky folks. For one entire week, the insurance company I work for paid me to watch baseball. They didn’t know it really, since it was vacation time and all, but watching the greatest sport known to man in beautiful weather while collecting a full day’s paycheck without seeing a computer just makes it all the sweeter.
            My big vacation week began fittingly enough on a Sunday, the day of rest. I travelled far and wide because, as a 12 year resident of Phoenix, Arizona, the Valley of the Sun is forever growing connected.
            Previously separated by miles of farmland and desert, the majority of the Valley (a term used to describe all the towns within the greater Phoenix area) is becoming one cohesive unit. The problem? It takes about 45 minutes to an hour, without traffic, to get from one end to the other; north and south, east and west.
Surprise Stadium is in the city of, you guessed it, Surprise which is in the west valley. Portions of Surprise are occupied by very old people, refugees, if you will, of Sun City, the ‘official’ town of old people that is directly to the east of Surprise. Surprise Stadium, a beautiful facility celebrating it’s first decade of existence, houses the two time defending AL Champion Texas Rangers and the upstart, generally awful Kansas City Royals.
            In any other year, the drastic difference between the two ‘home’ teams would be laughable. You could imagine the pathetic, feeble Royals players staring across the field at the giants of success that is the Rangers, glaring in envy. But this isn’t such a year. The Kansas City team is something to behold: a team full of youth and expectation.
            Will they be able to compete with the Rangers anytime soon? Probably not. The Rangers are one pitcher away from being World Series Champions and, when looking at their All-Star line-up (and the no-slouches bench players), it is shocking they haven’t won one already.
            No, these Royals are not ready for the Rangers yet but they are setting themselves up to be. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Kansas City is the king of all farm systems. Farm systems don’t win you trophies at the major league level until they integrate themselves into the elites, but they do serve as a beacon of hope.
            The Royals won’t stare at the Rangers as a source of dismay this spring training, wishing they could be even a fraction as good. No, the Royals can look over across the field and see themselves becoming the Rangers. It might not pan out, but it seems like there is at least a chance this time around. And that’s better then nothing.
***
            And the one thing better then spring training baseball is spring training baseball on Opening Day. It’s Sunday and it’s sunny and the stadium is packed. And, to make things exciting, it is packed with actual Rangers and/or Royals fans. Going to see a bunch of prospects in a split squad game in the middle of March is one thing. But seeing the big guns bust out the bats on a sunny afternoon is something to take a vacation for. I did it this year and loads of folks from Texas did it too. In fact, the amount of Texas fans is a bit numbing since my hometown Tampa Bay Rays have fell at the hands of the former jokes of the AL West two years in a row in the playoffs by a score of six games to  three (and 0-5 at home).
But the Rangers are hard to hate. They are led by media darling Ron Washington who despite documented evidence of being a foul mouth drug addict, is beloved by seemingly all. And he has taken Texas from being one of only three teams to never win a pennant to a back to back League champion. And while the Rangers bizarrely disappeared in 2010 when they lost in five games to the Giants, they can only blame a seemingly sent-from-heaven-and-it-is-our-fate Cardinals team for getting hot at the right time in 2011.
            Royals fans are hard to find but I chalk that up to distance and interest. The Rangers fans range from the ‘I’m here to see Josh Hamilton’ to the ‘I’m wearing my Nolan Ryan jersey and contesting every throw ball’ variety. The Royals fans in attendance are ALL hard core so, despite being out attended three to one, their presence is felt.
***
The other presence that is felt is the Japanese media. Yu Darvish, the Iranian/Japanese pitcher who cost the gross domestic product of a Micronesian collective to negotiate with and sign, is not schedule to pitch on this beautiful day nor for the next few days. But this doesn’t stop the young men and women with their notebooks and massive cameras from recording any move Darvish or his teammates make.
            As I take my seats in Section 102, Row 1 (right behind home plate), I hear a rumor that Darvish may be around. Before I know it, seventeen members of the Japanese press are running back and forth screaming at each other and taking snapshots of seemingly nothing. It’s truly madness. . .but it adds to the energy of the loaded ballpark and the stars, both young and old, who are about to make their appearance.
Once again, the Rangers are a ridiculously stacked line up and, for some reason, the depth chart is a bit bare when it comes to many of the positions. All-Star stalwarts like Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, and Michael Young will likely be playing every game this spring. As my friend Tony says, ‘they’ve got to get into game shape’, but an extra month of baseball, for a team who already is accustomed to extra baseball at the end of the year, worries me a bit. . .well, if I were a Texas fan.
            The Rangers are such an interesting animal. Having never won a post season series in their history when 2010 rolled around, they beat the best team in baseball, record wise, my Tampa Bay Rays 3-2 in a series in which the home team lost every game. Then they knocked out the defending champion Yankees.
            The ‘barely-made-it’ Giants, with their slim hitting, looked like easy pickings for the Texas bombers yet, somehow, they lost in five games. The Rangers barely made it a series. I chalked that up to experience. But 2011 was virtually the same. They beat the upstart, 90+ win Rays again, this time without trouble, and knocked out Cy Young/MVP led Detroit thanks to perseverance and, maybe, some help from the weather gods. Yet it was the ‘barely-made-it’ Cardinals who, while not exactly sweeping Texas out of the park, decided to make history, three times perhaps, on their way to the big trophy.
            What does 2012 hold? Another face off with the Rays? Another, third straight AL Pennant? And will an opponent become beatable for them in the throes of October? We shall see. . .but looking at the lineup today, on Opening Day of Spring, I can’t help but think, “why aren’t there two World Champion banners hanging up in Arlington right now?”
***
            The other good thing about Opening Day is that you WILL see the big stars (mostly in cases not involving the Rangers who have stars playing every day.). The Rangers will be starting their ace, Colby Lewis. I mean, the ace they have anyway. Darvish may become the ace but Lewis is probably the best option they have now that CJ Wilson went to Los Angeles/Anaheim/California.
            The Rangers come out as expected: Kinsler, Andrus, Hamilton, Beltre, Young, Cruz, Napoli, Moreland, Gentry. Ridiculous line up. And as excited as that is to see, the Royals bring out their ‘brat pack’, including Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, and Alcides Escobar.
            The Royals are a team that has to test their youth with a trial by fire. Loaded with almost no veterans, the Royals were simply the youngest team last year and, with a starting line up on Spring Opening Day (a day usually reserved for the established vets or for-sure rookies) consisting of five of 2011 Baseball America’s top 15 prospects, not to mention the non-prospect minor league grinders, like Johnny Giavotella and Vin Mazzaro, the Royals were sending out, what seemed like, a minor league team in itself.
But the previous prospects who are now considered ‘old hands’ are no joke. Alex Gordon, in his first full year last year, hit .303 with 23 homers and 87 RBI. Eric Hosmer, in his first major league year ever (after progressing from low A to AAA in only two years), hit .293 with 19 homers and 78 RBI. Salvador Perez, the catcher of the future in Kansas City, made his first call up last year and, in 158 plate appearances, hit .331 and slugged at a .473 clip. And, of course, there is BIlly Butler, a grizzled veteran by Kansas City standards, who approached 100 RBI last year and had an isolated power rating of  .170 (the 19 homers and 44 doubles helping).
            In other words, they aren’t lacking in star power. It’s just no one knows they’re stars yet. But the Royals decide to make an impression right away. Butler, a very corn-fed country boy who looks like he should be in the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, approaches the plate in his first at-bat and blasts one out of the park on only his second swing of the entire season. Hello spring!
            The guy that impressed me the most on the Royals though was Giavotella. Worth exactly 0.0 wins last year (according to Baseball Prospectus’ WARP stat), Giavotella came out on this Opening Day and looked as if he was playing Game 7 of the World Series. In his first at bat he drew a walk, stole a base a bit later, and scored on the Butler homer. He also got a hit his next time up and scored a run later because of his base running during that inning. In two at bats, the young second basemen, who committed no errors, really made an impression. That’s the glory of spring though. Before Opening Day, and had not one iota of thought about Giavotella. Now he is someone I will watch out for all year and, perhaps, in the future.
   On the Rangers side, there seemed to be a little malaise. Ian Kinsler committed two errors and the Rangers outfield looked confused on a shallow blooper to center field, letting it drop between the three players (two outfielders, shortstop). The exchange of ‘what just happened’ was fairly comical.
            But this is just rust. To read into any of this would be foolhardy. Though the dumb snow-bird Rangers couple behind me, after watching Kinsler commit two horrendous errors, ripped the Royals for a dropped ball off a sharp liner to third (which was still made for an out) with the comment, “so the Royals have offense but no defense”, their arrogance is deserved. These are the defending AL Champs (two time defending for that matter) with a stacked line-up. The Royals, on this day, just wanted it more.
            The Rangers, who had a large number of spring invitees without contracts, showcased a surprising amount of them late into the game. The first surprise was Conor Jackson. Jackson, a former Diamondbacks player with potential, succumbed to Valley Fever awhile back, got traded to the Athletics and then the Red Sox in the same year before going unclaimed. Now he has a shot again to do something. Of all the prospects and career minor leaguers that surrounded him in the later innings, Jackson looks good. He cracks a liner for an eventual out but the sound he makes when he connects is a pro-sound. Maybe someday he’ll bounce back.
            The Rangers also stock Beltres in storage I guess. The ‘other’ Beltre, Engle Beltre, a former revered prospect by Baseball America who has dropped out as of the 2012 BA Prospect handbook, looks decent in the field but goes 0-1 on the day. Julio Borbon, formerly a starter years back, also goes 0-1 for but shows the Rangers depth.
           
The most apparent prospect was Mike Olt, a 6’ 2” third baseman who is ranked #3 on Baseball America’s prospect list. The former UConn grad was playing first, which makes me think either Mitch Moreland is going to be used as trade bait since he has been ‘disappointing’ to many (he helped score the Rangers only run in the game with a massive homer) or Olt is being prepped for a trade himself. Third base is pretty well stocked as it is with Beltre and mega-prospect Jurickson Profar (not on the 40-man) eligible for third if needed in the future since he is currently positioned as a SS.
            Olt is bigger then his height on paper suggests and he has a good arm. He only gets one at bat and strikes out pretty quickly, if memory serves. Overall, I only saw four of the Rangers major prospects. The other is Robbie Ross, a left handed pitcher ranked #14 in Baseball America’s Top 30. I give his performance a B+ as he strikes out two but allows two hits that get him in trouble. However, a 0.00 ERA is always a good way to start.
            Towards the lower end of Baseball America’s prospect rankings are left handed pitchers Michael Kirkman (#28) and Miguel De Los Santos (#29). Kirkman was previously ranked #6 by Baseball America in 2011 but has dropped immensely in prestige despite some major league showings. He has the worst day of anyone, allowing five hits, four runs (three earned) with only one K in two innings of work. De Los Santos left me no impression thought he did get a K.
            On the Royals side of things, I see even less prospects, both surprising and unsurprising considering the Royals are teeming with youth and the prospects are mostly even younger! I do get to see the upside though. First off was OF Wil Myers who played DH for the game. Ranked #3 in Baseball America’s Top 30, I can see why he slotted in at the DH spot. . .power. Everything about his swing and connection screams power to me despite the fact that in his 1 for 1 appearance, he hit a single. Like many of the young studs on KC, Myers looks ready to bat with the big boys. This is, of course, an Opening Day impression. He could go 1-93 for the rest of his life.
            I see #7 Prospect Kelvin Herrera at the end of the game in a non-save situation. He pitches lights out, striking out two and allowing absolutely nothing in one solid inning. It’s early but there was a confidence there that impressed me and has impressed scouts for some time. Lastly, I saw BA’s #30 prospect David Lough play right field. Like Myers, Lough does what he can in limited time, going 1 for 1 with a single. Both hitting prospect go a combined 1.000 while the pitcher throws a perfect inning? Sounds all perfect to me. No matter what happens for the rest of their careers, these kids have today to remember.
***
            Overall, this beautiful barely-70 degree day was well worth it. I saw stars, I saw non-stars, homers, singles, base on balls, and plenty of Ks and, to add humor to the day, I heard of a bee attack at another spring training game far away. No one died so it still is pretty funny. And even if it isn’t, it was at least fun. And this was just Sunday. . .I had a week more of games to go!
William Johnson
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