With the NFL season done, and the sun melting (albeit slowly) the snow on my lawn, that can only mean that America’s pastime is right around the corner — that right, baseball is right on your doorstep. This past week I got the opportunity to travel down to Arizona to take in a few spring training games.
If you have never had the chance, I would recommend leaving the sub-artic weather of Western Wisconsin to fly down to the 80-degree home of your favorite baseball team. The ballparks are gorgeous, the mood is relaxed, but that does not mean that the play on the field is lacking. You might see a few players that you did not know existed, but with these players having to fight to fulfill their major league dreams, these guys work hard. Plus, if you are a sports nut like me, you have to love getting a first glimpse at the players who will make take your team to the next level a year or two down the road.
Spring training is not only about making the regular season roster, but also earning a role. If you are a fan of the Crew, you know this team is full of talent. That means that this spring holds plenty of competition for not only starting spots, but for backup positions. While players like Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, and Ben Sheets always are impressive, here are a few players who are fighting for a roster spot who really impressed me this week:
Tony Gwynn Jr., CF
There is a lot in a name. Gwynn will probably never be able to live up to the career of his father (and really, not many could), but this young guy plays the game with a passion that is sometimes lacking in professional players nowadays. Since being drafted in the second round in 2003, Gwynn has struggled to find playing time in a crowded outfield. Last season Gwynn appeared in 69 games batting .260.
However, don’t be surprised to see him get more time this season. The outfield is still stacked with starting spots going to Corey Hart, newly signed Mike Cameron, and last year’s Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun, but Gwynn is seriously making a case for himself this spring. He’s batting an impressive .353 with three steals, two triples and a homer. His bat might be hot, but it can be argued his glove his better. Against the Royals on Thursday (3/20), he caught a ball over the shoulder that made you think you were watching Willie Mayes.
Character wise, Gwynn is a class act. He signed autographs before and after each game this week, spending a few moments sharing stories with fans. In spring training, it is common for the starters leave and board a bus during the seventh inning stretch. To watch Gwynn take the time to sign autographs speaks volumes about his character. He probably won’t win a starting role, but he’s definitely deserves some more at-bats this season.
Seth McClung, RP
McClung has been in the league for a few years, including appearing in 14 games with Milwaukee last year. This spring, he’s has a 2.35 ERA in five games. Against the Royals (3/20), McClung pitched three innings. Through the first two, he looked dominant at times. He does a great job of mixing his pitches, including some incredible power (he topped out at 97 mph), and some finesse (his changeup dropped all the way down to 73 mph). The impressive thing is that his arm motion is so similar; batters looked like Elmer Fudd swinging at Bugs Bunny. They would swing, then sit and wait for the ball to finally cross the plate. The Brewers spent some big money this season on relievers (Salomon Torres, Eric Gagne), but McClung has the stuff to be an effective bridge between the starters and the end of the bullpen.
Manny Parra, SP
Prior to the game I watched, Parra had a 2-0 record with a .64 ERA. He was roughed up a bit against the Royals, giving up 8 runs in just 3.2 innings. Even in the defeat, this kid flashed some major potential. The left-hander is just 25, but already has some major league experience appearing in nine games last season in limited work. However, now with LHP Chris Capuano appearing all but gone, there is a need for a strong lefty in the rotation. Parra showed off four effective pitches, including a 95 MPH four-seam fastball that really has some zip, a two seam fastball that averages around 90, an effective slider that he can throw between 82 and 85, and a changeup that dips down to 74.
It’s obvious he has the makeup to pick up the ball every fifth day, but he has to be careful about tipping off his pitches. His leg kicks much higher when he’s throwing hard. On his slider, his arm motion is noticeably different from his other three pitches. Also, he struggled getting back into the game after giving up four runs in the first inning, and appeared frustrated on the mound. The latter should change as he gains more experience on the mound. I think he can be very effective this year, and the Brewers will need to rely on him.
Others who impressed: Alicides Escobar, SS; Mitch Stetter, RP; Gabe Kapler, OF; and Mike Rivera C.
Spring wasn’t kind to every player; here are a couple people who did not shine:
Gabe Gross, OF
He played in both games I attended this week. Gross is an experienced veteran who is savvy at the plate and gets a good jump in the outfield. But this spring he’s batting just .238 and hasn’t looked good in the field or at the plate. Against the Angels (3/18), he was fooled badly by pitchers such as Darren Oliver and Jason Bulger. He has showed some pop, hitting four home runs, but he swings for the fences too often. Not helping his cause is the fact that the outfield is loaded this season.
Derrick Turnbow, RP
It just seems like yesterday that the shaggy haired pitcher was tearing up the mound as the Crew’s closer. However, Turnbow has really struggled the past four seasons. Maybe it’s because he can’t see the field (Honestly, it’s hot out. A haircut wouldn’t kill you) or he is trying to become comfortable with the setup role, but he’s had a hard time getting people out. He gave up three runs in an inning of relief against the Angels (3/18). He has an ERA of 9.0 this spring. The Brewers need the Turnbow of a few years ago to make a playoff run.
Eric Gagne, Closer
It’s never good when two of the pitchers with work to do are the setup man and the closer. Unfortunately, Gagne has struggled even more than Turnbow this spring. An 11.25 ERA is excessively high for a man who holds the record for most consecutive saves in MLB history. On top of if, teams are batting .450 against Gagne this spring. Gagne needed a strong showing in Arizona after severely fizzling down the stretch for the Red Sox last season.
He looks to be forcing some pitches. They would have worked few years ago, but with his velocity now in the high 80s, it isn’t fooling anyone. He’s still has a few pitches that are very effective, but they don’t work if he can’t set them up with the heat. Gagne has been around for awhile, so look for him to figure it out as the season goes on, but I can’t help but be concerned for the Brewers in tight games.
Others who struggled: Jason Kendall, C; Rickie Weeks, 2B; Jeff Suppan, SP; Dave Bush, SP
The experience in Arizona was fantastic. The ballparks are gorgeous, the people are all very friendly, and it’s amazing to see the turnout for a Wednesday afternoon game. Baseball fans are truly some of the most devoted fans in all of sports. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the first pitch and the months of baseball ahead.
Posted under Sports
This post was written by bbradovich on March 24, 2008