Wednesday, April 1, 2009

What we've learned from spring training

A particularly long spring training is in the books. Here are five observations I took from Tampa.

The WBC is an admirable but fatally flawed concept.

Full disclosure: There were times when I was kind of feeling the second edition of the World Baseball Classic. I was into the opening U.S.-Canada slugfest (by into I mean I was in a bar watching the SportsCenter highlights), I enjoyed that excited walk-off win against Puerto Rico when the nice baseball men were nice to that one Iraq veteran for like 45 minutes. But when the U.S. was mercy ruled -- seriously -- in a semifinal game against those same Puerto Ricans, I essentially cashed out. The U.S. team was loaded -- even with injury issues and bushels of big stars opting to sit out the tournament -- and to see Jake Peavy get wrecked over two innings and the offense muster two runs on seven hits, it shows you that these guys simply aren't ready for the competition. March is too early for an event that's goal is to crown the world's best baseball country. If you want actual American baseball fans like me to take it seriously, you have to take it seriously, MLB. Every four years, shut down the regular season for 10 days around July, name your All-Stars and have them play in the tournament, and knock this thing out when your stars are in playing shape. Otherwise, fans like me will continue to see the WBC for what it is, a gigantic marketing ploy to corner the Asian market. I like Asian chicks as much as the next guy, but let's up the effort level here, okay Bud?
A-Rod should be separated from teammates in a Hannibal Lector-type prison cell when not on the field this season.

One of the odder subplots of this very long spring has been the numerous stories we've read about the newfound camaraderie in the Yankees clubhouse. The starting pitchers are all watching each others side sessions and cheering (which is funny in an uncomfortable bromance kind of way), Nick Swisher is a wacky cut-up that makes everyone realize that baseball really is just a game, man, and meanwhile, CC Sabathia is supposedly like the best dude ever, befriending teammates and basically being the exact type of dude you'd want to tailgate with. All of which is even funnier when you remember that Alex Rodriguez has been essentially shipped off to rehab Siberia, aka Colorado. I can picture a scenario on May 10 where Hideki just served an amazing dinner cooked on the new Yankee Stadium hibachi grill, Swish just told a particularly good howler that has everyone slapping their knees and CC just ripped a big one that even cracks up Girardi when all of sudden A-Rod walks in and ... everything ... gets ... quiet. Then the Yankees will lose in the ALDS.

Joba Chamberlain may or may not be a horrible disappointment this season.

Does anyone else have a weird feeling in their stomach regarding Joba? The Yankees' No. 5 starter is about to begin his first full season in the rotation, but I have a nagging feeling this is going to be a difficult year for hoss. There are, of course, the velocity concerns, though on Tuesday he was said to have hit 94-96 MPH consistently. But I'm also worried about his inability to finish hitters, and how he doesn't seem like he's ready to pitch late into games. Add the fact that he was shut down for a month last summer with shoulder problems and the random stories you hear that his dad Harlan may actually be a dick, and I'm not so sure that Phil Hughes won't be pitching in Joba's spot at some point this season. Of course, now that I've written this, Joba will go 17-5 and throw seven shutout innings in the World Series clincher. Perhaps this was my plan all along.

Mark Teixeira doesn't seem like he'll be affected by the dreaded New York Transition Period.

A unifying theme of many big ticket Yankees acquisitions in recent memory has been early struggles to get comfortable in baseball's biggest fish bowl. Guys like Giambi, Sheffield and A-Rod all initially struggled to adjust, while stiffs like Kenny Rogers, Randy Johnson and Carl Pavano were swallowed whole. Perhaps there's a link that the latter three names are pitchers. It kind of makes sense; everyday players have more opportunity to get comfortable while pitchers get one shot every five days with the spotlight shining directly on them. Mark Teixeira will get the benefit of playing every day, and robot that he is, I expect him to put up numbers representative to previous seasons. He just has that look. And back to the robot thing, I'm dead serious in my belief that Teixeira is a T-800 model Terminator. I guess we'll know for sure on opening day if smoke and electric current surrounding first base clears to reveal a totally nude Tex in a weird crouching position. To Cody Ransom: "I need your uniform, your bat, and your glove."
Joe Girardi's newfound mentality toward players, media will be tested quickly.

Joe Girardi didn't make many friends in his first season as Yankees manager, running a tight clubhouse where candy and ice cream was outlawed (it was kind of like Footloose) while being short, and at times, untruthful with the media. So it may not be coincidence that the second-year skipper entered camp this season with a new, sunnier disposition. There was the team field trip to play pool, and the mini-golf/baseball-putting thing, all while initiating a noticeably more open dialogue with the same media that wanted to wring his neck by last September. I kind of see the transformation having been played like this:

Hal: Hey skip, you got a minute?
Girardi: Affirmative.
Hal: You did a good job last year, but you're going to have to stop being such a dick or we're going to fire you. Understood?
Girardi: Affirmative.

Girardi's seat may be hotter than some people realize. With a new team, a new stadium, and huge expectations, heading into July at 38-38 may not cut it. He's kind of like the non-tenured elementary school teacher who all of a sudden is super nice and attentive because the principal is sitting in on the class. Once the season starts and the pressure builds, it will be interesting to see if his nice guy shtick holds up.

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