What? You were expecting a pic of ZZ Top? Have you been paying any attention at all? Sheesh leweez, I feel like I should issue memos and stuff.
First off goodbye and God Speed to Devin Hester. Never the brightest light in God’s chandelier he was still a class act and the greatest return man I ever saw. And, yes, I saw Neon Deion. I’m sure that Hester will break those records this year and look good doing it in a Buccaneer’s uniform.
Secondly, a big thanks to the Blackhawks for last night. I sat with friends and watched the game and saw them all put away their razors. Feel free to continue winning if you don’t mind. And, to my demented hockey fan friends I ask this again; “While anyone can beat this team at any time, have you seen anyone who can take a best of seven from them?” I haven’t.
Thirdly, DA BULLS. I surrender. There’s no way this team takes the Heat in a best of seven series in the playoffs but the playoffs is where they’re headed anyway. And since the East is Godawful, Hollywood as Hell excluded, I can see the Bulls making it through two rounds, making a lot of money on T-shirt sales and turning Noah into a demigod in Papua New Guinea. Why there? Well, why not? He’d blend there. We may as well grant him some days of normalcy and peace. God knows he’s done all he can for this team and its fans.
Lastly, to Chicago’s other, non-baseball, teams. Continued mediocrity and hostility towards fans are unacceptable. As far as I can see you have three choices; (1) sell the team to someone who gives a damn; (2), put a competitive team on the field/floor/etc.; or (3), just say screw it and turn every game into a kid friendly tourist attraction with balloon animals.
I like balloon animals.
Even when I have a sharp object I won’t pop them. They make me smile. You don’t destroy those things which make you happy.
Unless your the Cubs.
We’ve considered the Jeff Samardzija affair from every angle and keep coming back to the fact that he’s gone and the team will be set back another three years in development. That’s added to the two still pending according to Team Theo. So, think 2019 at the earliest. Now I don’t want you to get mad at me but there’s one other pitcher on the Cubs who won’t be back in 2015 and no one’s talking about him. So I will. Travis Wood has a contract for this year and this year only. In the real world he would be the team’s ace. So, naturally, he’s the #2 starter on the North Side. His contract is geared towards a trade. Reasonably priced, no bells or whistle and all of it attached to a guy who just wants to win.
Why does that sound familiar?
Anyway, Jordan Bastian of MLB.com was at Wood’s outing yesterday and was very impressed. As were the 18 scouts in attendance.
Justin Masterson took the mound at Goodyear Ballpark on Thursday afternoon amidst ongoing contract talks with the Indians. The big right-hander turned in three shutout innings to set the tone for Cleveland’s 1-0 victory over the Cubs.
“I was very distracted,” Masterson joked. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I was very nervous.”
In his second Cactus League outing of the spring, Masterson ended with no runs allowed on three hits and three strikeouts against one walk. The sinkerballer worked out of a one-out, bases-loaded jam in the first inning and avoided further damage in the remainder of his performance.
Masterson is focusing on building up for Opening Day on the field, while his agent discusses a multi-year extension with the Indians behind the scenes. Masterson’s camp presented Cleveland with an offer—one that could pave the way for a three- or four-year deal—last weekend, but the Indians have yet to counter the pitcher’s proposal.
“We’re still talking through it,” Masterson said. “I’m sure they’re looking through it and seeing what they smartly want to counter back or just say, ‘Hey, yeah, sounds great. Let’s do this.’”
As for his outing, Masterson said there is plenty of room for improvement.
“I felt OK,” Masterson said. “Nothing over the top, but it was nice getting out there, making some pitches. I was mixing in some more sliders. We were getting around those a little bit and underneath the sinker every once in a while, but for the most part I was pretty happy.”
The Cubs gave the start to Travis Wood, who also turned in three scoreless innings and finished with three strikeouts, no walks and one hit allowed. Chicago hit a bump in the road in the fourth inning, when Justin Grimm took over on the hill.
Nick Swisher and Jason Kipnis opened with back-to-back singles off Grimm, who later loaded the bases with one out by hitting Michael Brantley with a pitch. Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrerathen drew a walk with the bags full to force in a run, pushing the Indians to a 1-0 lead.
Aaron Harang and Trevor Bauer -- two of the four pitchers vying for the only opening in Cleveland’s rotation—followed Masterson out of the bullpen. Harang turned in two shutout innings with two strikeouts and one walk, and Bauer added two scoreless frames of his own. Bauer struck out four batters and avoided any runs after loading the bases with one out in the sixth inning.
Up next for Cubs: Edwin Jackson and James McDonald will each start on Friday as the Cubs play split-squad games. Jackson will be on the mound for the game at Cubs Park against the Indians, making his second spring start. Javier Baez, who leads the team with two home runs, will start at shortstop with another top prospect, Kris Bryant, starting at third. McDonald will start in the Cubs’ game in Tempe against the Angels. Mike Olt will be the designated hitter in that game with Junior Lake in center and Luis Valbuena at second. The Cubs’ game in Mesa against the Indians will be broadcast on Cubs.com.
People have asked me why I have used MLB.com writers instead of Carrie Muskat for Cubs articles. Because all I can find is her blog and it’s not clear if she’s even in Arizona. Well, she’s only been covering the team since 1981 so it isn’t like she could bring any insight to the proceedings.
In the meantime, Cubs fans should try to catch the Samardzija / Wood 2014 Goodbye Tour as early as possible, I’m not guaranteeing that either will be at Wrigley by Independence Day.
On the South Side they tossed out a rehabbing John Danks. I have already reported that initial observations said he looked better than ever. And, at his best he didn’t look too bad. Yesterday he sported a cutter that I had not seen him throw before. It did naughty things to gravity. If he can control that beast in the more humid air here I may smile in public.
Our pal Scott Merkin was at the game and has the 4-1-1. Cuz that’s how we cool sports scribes talk.
Thursday’s three-inning scoreless effort for John Danks against the Mariners simply marked the southpaw’s first 2014 Cactus League appearance, with his scheduled debut rained out last Saturday.
But Danks already noticed a significant difference in comparison to his 22 starts from 2013, when he was making a comeback from arthroscopic shoulder surgery in August 2012. That difference centers on his cutter.
“We actually worked on throwing it to both sides of the plate, and that was effective,” Danks said. “It was around the zone, had a sharp break on it. That’s where I expected to be at this point. Keep on improving, but I’m really pleased with how it was so far.”
As far as specific refinement with the cutter, Danks said it was about strengthening and “being able to get my arm where it needs to be, and have enough behind it to spin it right and make it move.”
“Last year, I had trouble spinning it, and it was backing up on me and getting hit,” Danks said. “This year, I’m able to drive the ball where I want, and that was proved being able to throw it to both sides of the plate with the sharp break on it.”
Harrelson pays tribute to Fregosi
GLENDALE, Ariz.—When White Sox television play-by-play announcer Ken “Hawk” Harrelson first heard about Jim Fregosi’s untimely passing, he admitted that, “I cried.”
“Jimmy and I were really close, obviously,” said Harrelson of Fregosi, who passed away on Feb. 14 after experiencing a stroke on a cruise. “But on one side of the page, I’m just glad he didn’t have to suffer loss of quality of life. That’s the good thing about it.
“Baseball is going to miss him. Everybody loves Jimmy. He always had, he had more b.s. than I did. That was one of the reasons we got along so well.”
Harrelson was general manager of the White Sox in 1986 when he hired Fregosi in-season to replace Tony La Russa as manager. One of the reasons for the hire was that Fregosi understood pitching about as well as any manager Harrelson has ever witnessed. Fregosi managed through the 1988 season with the White Sox, compiling a 193-226 record.
“He was a terrific asset to the game, and that’s the way you judge people. Was he a negative or a positive?” Harrelson said. “He was a positive. He was very instrumental in the success of the Braves. I don’t think they made a move without him. I know [Braves president John] Schuerholz adored him. So I’m just going to remember him for all the good things.”
There was a lot of good living put into Fregosi’s 71 years by his friend’s estimation.
“Let me tell you what, he did,” said Harrelson with a smile. “He put about 120 [years] into 71.”
Closer uncertainty to remain until options healthy
GLENDALE, Ariz.—Ask White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper about the team’s closer situation and he quickly features an incredulous look, as if such a question makes no sense with three weeks left in Spring Training.
“It’s a real long way to go,” Cooper said. “And we haven’t had our guys out there.”
Nate Jones, who has been sidelined since the start of camp with a moderate left glute strain, officially made the list of Cactus League pitchers for Saturday’s home game against the D-backs. Daniel Webb, who returned home because of a death in the family, is expected back in the coming days, while Mitchell Boggs allowed two runs in his one inning of work against the Mariners on Thursday.
Matt Lindstrom was shut down after aggravating a left oblique strain while playing long toss Tuesday. But Cooper pointed out what manager Robin Ventura has already mentioned in that there’s still plenty of time for Lindstrom to get healthy.
“We are taking precautionary stuff with Lindstrom,” Cooper said. “Prior to him having trouble, he was throwing the ball extremely well, but we want him out there when he’s right.”
“I just want to get them all back and get them going on a regular basis. That’s what they need, first and foremost. The naming of jobs, that’s going to come last.”
Ventura understands that there won’t be a large closing sample size to choose from because of their lack of work.
“At that point, you try to figure that out when they get healthy and they start throwing,” Ventura said. “Right now, I would say I don’t have a large sample size for everybody.”
Third to first
• Courtney Hawkins, the team’s first-round pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, made his Cactus League debut Thursday at Camelback Ranch. Hawkins played left field and struck out looking in the eighth against Tom Wilhelmsen during the Mariners’ 7-4 victory.
• Danks threw to catcher Adrian Nieto for the first time in a game situation Thursday at Camelback Ranch and gave the Rule 5 pickup high marks.
“There were a couple of times we kind of got off-kilter together, but he’s willing to move around, willing to call anything,” said Danks. “He talked to me before the game about what we wanted to work on and made sure to keep going back to that if there was any doubt. He helped me out a lot today, and he’s a good ballplayer.”
Ventura said that Nieto looks good catching, while the switch-hitter looks a little stronger hitting from the left side at this point.
• Ventura joked about Jose Abreu hitting his first home run, against the Royals on Thursday, without him in attendance.
“Apparently I need to go away and he’ll hit homers,” Ventura said. “But I do plan on being at every game, so hopefully he can hit them when I’m around.”
Word among the learned, that’s a two syllable word by the way, is that Danks will earn his keep and then some this year. More importantly, give the plethora of choices when everyone returns, the Sox could be knee deep in closers in two weeks.
Sadly, one thing God has denied me is an evening listening in at a bar when Hawk & Fergosi were together. I have heard from friends that those conversations were the stuff of legends.
Well, I can’t be everywhere everywhen.
The lady on the left is Nabilla Benattia is sometimes referred to as the “French Kim Kardashian.” As such you may have deduced that the uniform she is wearing is actually nothing but body paint. As far as anyone knows she has never set foot in Wrigley. The lady on the right is Rachel Pomplun who was the first Mexican American to win Playboy’s Playmate of the Year. She accomplished that in 2013 and her clothes are real. She’s an actual Sox fan. So you can tell there are advantages to both the touristy fans of the north side and the home grown ones to the south. I got to thinking about this when Tom Ricketts was giving one of his notoriously rambling interviews and mentioned how important visitors were to the Cubs. He cited that as a main reason why there were going to be so many attractions at Wrigley, in 5 or 10 years, when they get done doing whatever it is they’re going to do. Oddly, later that day Rick Hahn, the Sox’ GM, must have said the phrase “our fans” about 50 times.
Different points of view and different goals. As a marketer I know succinctly put it, “For the Cubs baseball is one part of the picture. For the Sox baseball is the picture.” I won’t judge which is better.
That being said, the players on the field for both teams just want to win.
They really do. It is not for lack of effort that the Cubs have lost 197 games in 2 years. That fact is why I limit my barbs for the owners and management. How is it a player’s fault that he belongs in 2A and they have him on the big league field?
Anyway, the last couple of years have seen the Cubs sign guys who were damaged in one way or another. This year they may have accidentally struck gold.
Richard Justice of MLB.com has the story of Mike Olt.
Looking back on how it has all gone down these past two years, Cubs third basemanMike Olt resolutely sees the glass as half full. When he sat on the bench for days at a time, he called it a chance to watch how veterans go about their business. When Olt got hurt, he said adversity can be an important learning tool.
For a guy who surely wondered if his career might be over before it even began, that approach speaks volumes about Olt’s attitude, and it reveals why so many people are rooting for him.
“I think a lot of my years were smooth sailing,” Olt said. “To get that wakeup call probably was good for me. It was good to deal with adversity. I think it makes you a stronger player.”
Things finally appear to be working out they way they were supposed to. Still only 25, Olt is completely recovered from concussion-like symptoms that derailed his career, and he is competing for a spot in the Cubs’ Opening Day lineup.
Watching Olt now is a reminder that two short years ago he was one of the top prospects in baseball, a guy who was about as close to a can’t-miss talent as anyone. On Tuesday, he launched a towering pinch-hit two-run home run, and in that one moment, he showed the quickness, instincts and power scouts have seen in him since his first days at the University of Connecticut.
“He came in off the bench after sitting all day and put a really good swing on it,” Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. “He’s very confident and feels very good about everything that’s occurring with him now.”
Renteria offered one of the highest compliments one baseball guy can pay another, saying, “He doesn’t panic at the plate.”
In other words, Olt believes he belongs.
Olt hasn’t played a game at third base yet this spring because of a sore shoulder, but he is expected to be back on the field soon, perhaps by the end of the week. Regardless, he should have plenty of time to win a job.
“It’s definitely exciting for me,” Olt said. “This offseason was a little bit different. I definitely have a mindset to work as hard as I can and know there’s an opportunity out there. I wanted to make sure I gave it my all and was really prepared for the situation.
“This game is all about being healthy. All these guys, we’re all at the same talent level. It’s a matter of when you get up there, staying healthy and staying in line and all that.”
The Rangers made Olt the 49th pick of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, and he flew through their system, making his big league debut in ‘12 in just his second full professional season.
That’s where Olt encountered his first bit of adversity. Rangers manager Ron Washington, loyal to his veteran players, gave Olt just 10 starts in two months. Olt didn’t make the most of his limited opportunities, hitting just .152.
“It was tough not to play,” Olt said, “but I was able to sit back and watch our veterans and [see] how they go about their daily routine. They did everything the same every day. I really didn’t have a routine. It’s something I started to pick up on, and I think it’s going to help me.”
Things got worse when Olt went to the Dominican Winter League after the 2012 season and got hit in the head with a pitch. Concussion-like symptoms followed, then he began to experience blurred vision.
“It was very scary,” Olt said. “I didn’t know what was going on with me, and the doctors didn’t know either. I knew something was wrong. It’s scary not knowing. But when we found out exactly what could be done, it was an easy fix.”
That is, Olt needed time for the concussion symptoms to dissipate and then more time to treat the blurred vision, which doctors believe was caused by allergies.
Asked how he got through it, Olt said: “The biggest thing was getting to the field. Whenever I get to a field, I’m able to block out everything that’s going on outside. Even if I wasn’t playing, just being in the locker room with the guys, it gets you away from all the crazy things that are going on.”
Olt was still experiencing the blurred vision last season when he hit .201 for three Minor League teams. On July 22, he was included in a package of players the Rangers sent to the Cubs for veteran right-hander Matt Garza.
Now healthy again, Olt is part of a player development system on its way to becoming one of the strongest in the game. He is aware that Cubs used their top pick in 2013 on University of San Diego third baseman Kris Bryant, who probably won’t be in the Minors long.
First things first.
“If you start letting all the outside things bother you, you’re not going to be able to play to your potential,” Olt said. “[Bryant is] a very talented player, too. You just keep going forward, and it’ll all figure itself out. My confidence level when I’m healthy is always high. I know I can play at the highest level. It feels good to know I’m healthy. It’s just more fun now.”
If it all works out, who’ll remember that he lost a year of his career? Maybe Olt will always see it as part of the growth process.
Olt, when healthy, is the kind of player that you could trade straight up for a Matt Garza. And maybe get a prospect too. He’s great on defense and projects to hit around .280.
Yeah, I know. He’ll be flipped in July for some stunning left fielder who may be able to shave in 2020.
Oh well, if you’re a Cubs fan, and not a tourist, I strongly suggest you catch him live if you can.
On he South Side the must-see player is Chris Sale. Yesterday, against the Padres, he decided to enjoy Spring Training. He simply said “I’m going to work on my slider today. Hit it if you can.”
He got shelled.
He gave up 6 runs on 6 hits in under 3 innings. But, and this is the important part, as the time wore on the hits decreased and were less productive. Even knowing it was coming they couldn’t hit it any more.
Still, I bet Sale doesn’t do that again.
Scott Merkin took some time out of his day to anoint Sale the new face of the franchise.
Sale was having none of that.
The area in front of Chris Sale‘s locker at Camelback Ranch has been a popular stopping point during the first three weeks of Spring Training.
It doesn’t hurt that Sale’s is situated on the same bank as Paul Konerko, Gordon Beckham, John Danks and Adam Dunn, who are frequent interview topics themselves. But people want to know about the White Sox ace on a daily basis.
Sometimes two or three times daily.
Cy Young-caliber performances during the 2012 and 2013 seasons coming at the top of the White Sox rotation, coupled with an intelligent, outgoing demeanor, have thrust the 24-year-old into the spotlight. Overwhelmed doesn’t quite describe how Sale has felt during his fourth stint in Arizona, although it’s part of the descriptive picture.
Sale readily admitted to noticing the change when he sat down recently for a conversation with MLB.com.
“You come and bother me a little bit more now,” said Sale with a laugh. “My first two springs, I was over in the corner, minding my own business, getting my shoes laced up and going to work.
“Now, everyone wants to know what I’m doing, how I’m doing, how I tie my shoes or whether I’m playing golf or not. This Spring Training was a little overwhelming the first week or so. The first day I walk in and there’s a bunch of people lined up. It’s overwhelming, but it’s something that comes with the territory.
“Obviously leaning on guys like Paul and Adam, they’ve done that kind of stuff before,” Sale said. “Just handle it the way I’ve always handled it. Try to be the same person and not change at all with this and that. Play the game the way I’ve always played it.”
Let’s move away from the baseball side of Sale for a moment, because to be honest, people have grown familiar with his high level of accomplishments in just a short time. Here’s a quick refresher for those who have forgotten.
Two All-Star appearances. A sixth- and fifth-place finish in Cy Young voting. A fourth- and second-place standing among American League WAR for pitchers at 5.9 in ‘12 and 6.9 in ‘13. In 405 1/3 innings as a starter, Sale has fanned 417, walked 96, allowed 350 hits and produced a 3.06 ERA.
That’s certainly nothing to overlook for a southpaw with one of the funkiest but effective deliveries in the game. So what about Sale the person?
Married to Brianne and with a son, Ryland, this native of Florida also is devoted to his alma mater, Florida Gulf Coast University, which won its opening game of the Atlantic Sun conference tournament on Tuesday. That devotion runs so deep that when Sale was asked to pick between taking a perfect game into the seventh and finishing with a one-hitter on May 12 against the Angels last year or FGCU men’s basketball stunning NCAA Tournament run, Sale easily picked FGCU basketball.
“FGCU without a doubt. That was so out of the blue. You are talking about even a bigger underdog story than anything that ever happened to that school,” Sale said. “What that brought to our community, what that brought to our school. You are talking about enrollment going through the roof.
“People trying to get into that school and the community growing. You are talking about selling out our arena now, and we couldn’t have sold that out six or seven years ago if we gave away tickets. It’s fun and exciting and something that was great for our community.
“Everyone is like, ‘Where did you go to school? Where is that? Where’s Ft. Myers?’” said a smiling Sale. “That will be a fun story to tell down the road to my kids or grandkids.”
FGCU’s underdog status first belonged to arguably its most famous athlete.
There was no Draft selection out of high school for Sale. He carved a niche at a small, unknown institution baseball-wise that ultimately left him as the 13th overall pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft and in the Majors as a reliever two months later.
His talent caught the eye of scouts. His desire has made him one of the game’s best pitchers. It’s a desire even seen in hobbies such as ping pong, video games and golf.
Jesse Crain humorously talked about Sale’s anger over losing a ping-pong battle between the two at the end of the ‘12 season. Sale won’t deny reports of his need to succeed.
“Without a doubt. There have been a couple of times where there’s almost been an Xbox controller through the TV playing Call of Duty,” Sale said. “Getting quick sniped or something stupid like that, they throw some C4 on me.
“John [Danks], playing ping pong, there’s a lot of competitive heat going on there, a little bit of trash talking. It’s always fun.”
Ryland understands that dad plays baseball, and loves the clubhouse, according to Sale. He just doesn’t understand the grand scheme of things, such as the White Sox moving from Konerko’s team to Sale’s team in the estimation of many.
That point in particular evokes a laugh from Sale, who knows what Konerko has meant to the franchise and knows he has just begun. Ten years from now, he just wants to be part of a championship like the captain.
“This is a sports city,” Sale said. “You are talking about the Bulls in the ‘90s, the Blackhawks now. Holy cow. The history with the Bears.
“We won’t talk about the North Side. But with the history of the White Sox in ‘05, it would be nice to almost do our city a service and do it justice and bring another championship back with baseball.”
There you go. Look how neatly he associated himself, and his team, to legendary winners. Why care about history if history is riddled with defeat? I mean, sure, he cherry picked specific teams and eras, but that’s just his way of saying “I want that.”
And, as a Sox fan, I want it for him too.
My buddy’s a Cubs fan. One of the nicest people I know. He’s also gone completely insane. If he even hears Javy Baez’ name he’s like Pavlov’s starving dog. Well, 197 losses in two years will tend to do that to a season ticket holder. And, while I’ll be the first to admit that Baez’ swing is a thing of beauty, his defense is atrocious. He racked up 44 errors last year. In the minors. Where things are slower. And right now, while he’s knocking the snot out of the ball, he’s also facing limited amounts of major league pitching. Pitchers at this time of year tend to work on one or two pitches. So he’s not seeing an arsenal in as much as he’s seeing 6 fastballs in a row. That doesn’t make them any easier to hit, but you get my point.
In another two weeks when pitchers are stretched out and the guys who will never sniff a major league park are sent to get tacos in some small town then you can assess him.
But my buddy doesn’t want to hear that. He puts his fingers in his ears and screams NEENER NEENER NEENER when anyone tries to point this stuff out.
I get it, I really do. But this kid’s not the answer. At least not now.
But, let’s just say the Cubs say “screw it” and bring him up now, what happens then? Well, one of two things: (1) he platoons on the infield or, (2) the Cubs trade Castro.
Gordon Wittenmyer says that Castro prefers option (1).
Four years ago, when teenager Starlin Castro arrived at spring training as the next big shortstop prospect, incumbent Ryan Theriot threw down the gauntlet:
“He’s going to have to come and get it.”
Barely two months later, he did.
Now Castro is the incumbent, though he’s sidelined for the next week or more with a hamstring injury, and Javy Baez, the Cubs’ top-ranked prospect, is off to another strong start. He’s raising eyebrows and cries from Chicago to Mesa to give him a job out of camp.
Castro’s response to the potential drama: Let him play; there’s room for both shortstops in the lineup.
“To help the team win, if you’re there and I’m there, whatever. I don’t care,” Castro said. “Some people don’t have a good relationship because they’re at the same position. But me and him, no. We’re good friends. We talk a lot.”
Castro, who said Tuesday the hamstring he hurt Sunday is already much better, has seen enough of Baez — and enough undermanned Cubs teams in his four big-league seasons — to encourage the kid to get to the majors as quick as possible.
“I tell him, ‘Play hard, and you’ll be up there no matter what,’ ” Castro said. “ ‘I don’t know where, but you’ll be there because you’ve got great talent and you play the game the right way.’ ”
Castro has the luxury of knowing he doesn’t have to worry about a challenge to his position anytime soon. General manager Jed Hoyer said it the day camp opened, calling the idea of moving Castro from shortstop “off the table.”
Cubs officials also have repeatedly said Baez will open the season at shortstop at Class AAA Iowa.
“Obviously, for us, the idea of Baez is in the future,” manager Rick Renteria said. “So right now I’m glad Starlin feels that way, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual. They both respect each other immensely. Somewhere down the road, when that happens, I’m sure it’ll be nice to see.”
The consensus among evaluators — and, apparently, guys in the Cubs’ clubhouse — is that Baez’s much anticipated debut is coming this year.
“I don’t make that decision, but that can be good for us, if he’s here,” Castro said. “He can hit, no doubt about it. He’s a good player. Everybody knows that.”
Baez will see time at second and third before he’s done this spring, team officials said. That likely will give them an idea of where he’ll play when he makes his debut.
Renteria said the kid whose bat speed has been compared to Gary Sheffield’s still has adjustments to make with big-league-caliber off-speed stuff and work to do on defense.
Others who know the big leagues well believe Baez should get a shot to prove he can’t do it.
“I’ve seen enough of Baez to enjoy watching him play,” veteran pitcher Jeff Samardzija said. “My thing about teammates is I like guys who put everything out on the field and leave it all out there — controlled reckless abandon, I guess you can say I like. And I see that in Baez. He plays with a chip on his shoulder. He has something to prove. I love watching that swing, too.”
Baez, 21, dismisses the so-called drama with Castro — “We need Castro on the team,” he said — and downplays his desire to be in the big leagues on Opening Day.
“I’ll be ready when they tell me,” he said.
The only two things for sure right now:
Castro won’t need any more than 10 exhibition games to be ready for the season.
“Maybe eight games,” he said.
And, regardless of Castro’s health, the Baez Buzz isn’t going away.
Yeah, about that Theriot thing. It does seem fair to note that he went on to win two World Series rings with two different teams. I really don’t need to point out what life has been like here for the last four years.
Okay, so Castro had a rough year last year. It’s important to note why. Theo Epstein issued an edict last April that all hitters had to take pitches and hit for average. For Castro, and to a slightly lesser degree Rizzo, this approach was anathema. But Dale Sveum stuck to the company guns and got fired for his efforts. Oh, and Castro and Rizzo went from potential, perennial, All Stars to potential, perennial, bench warmers. Now, suddenly, they are being told to go back to what works best for them. And guess what? Balls meet bat and go boom. That won’t save this dismal season that’s coming, but it should do wonders for their careers.
On the South Side nothing gets a Sox fan dribbling on their shoes faster than a discussion involving Tyler Flowers. I’ve seen otherwise rational people turn purple and vibrate at the thought of another year of him behind the plate.
Daryl van Schouwen says that Rick Hahn looked around the league and realized there wasn’t an upgrade out there. He also had a nice visit with reality.
Tyler Flowers is grateful for his second chance. He knows the White Sox didn’t really owe him one after last season.
Handed the starting catcher’s job last spring, Flowers responded by hitting .195 with 10 home runs in 84 games in a season cut short by a right shoulder injury that had bothered him since the fall of 2012 and required surgery in September.
So there’s your built-in excuse: If you’re not healthy, you’re not going to be at your best. The other one is that the Sox’ dreadful hitting woes last season called even more attention to his lack of production, added pressure and caused Flowers, who had a track record of being a good hitter in the minors, to press.
But Flowers isn’t into playing the excuse card. He’s just happy to be the catcher to beat in a race with Josh Phegley and perhaps Adrian Nieto. And he’s happy to be healthy again and hopeful that a more relaxed stance and approach will help him be the hitter he wants to be.
‘‘I’m glad to be back, first of all,’’ Flowers said Tuesday. ‘‘Glad to be back in a situation where I have a good opportunity to win a job. I can’t say I necessarily I expected it. I hoped for it.’’
It’s no secret general manager Rick Hahn covets a long-term solution to the Sox’ catching situation. After free agent Brian McCann signed with the New York Yankees, Hahn looked around for top young catchers but couldn’t find a good match in a deal. For one thing, there aren’t a lot of good, young catchers. For another, Hahn thought Flowers was worth a second look.
So there you go, Flo.
‘‘Understandable either way from their position,’’ Flowers said. ‘‘I’m just glad to be feeling good. I feel like a new player, so to speak, when you don’t have to deal with significant pain.’’
The Sox like the way Flowers, 28, calls a game, handles pitchers and thinks through pitching plans. They also think his blocking, receiving and throwing are adequate.
‘‘He’s a guy that I trust the way he runs a game,’’ said bench coach Mark Parent, a former catcher. ‘‘I’ve said this before: If everyone else is hitting last year, we don’t worry about his offense as much and he doesn’t worry about it as much and he has a decent year.
Everyone starts looking at your weakest link, so to speak. It affected him behind the plate.’’
Flowers had a rough day offensively Tuesday, going 0-for-3 with two strikeouts against the Cleveland Indians, but he likes the way he has felt at the plate this spring. He homered to center field against the Texas Rangers’ Neftali Feliz on Sunday and did so on a 2-2 count.
A new stance, which Flowers said took him some time to find, is more comfortable and keeps him in a better mental state to hit.
‘‘Stance is kind of underrated,’’ Flowers said. ‘‘There is a level of comfort for every guy in their stance, and it sets the stage for a guy in his at-bat, being comfortable in seeing the ball, being confident and relaxed.’’
Flowers describes it this way: ‘‘A wider base. Hands are definitely relaxed. I’m doing a better job getting a good load. Just really focus on trying to be on time, getting my foot down in a fashion that gives me a chance to swing the bat when I want to. That’s a big aspect for me — to not panic with two strikes and give myself a chance to hit the ball.’’
Flowers still thinks he can have a nice career in the majors. Confidence is essential, and he has that.
‘‘I definitely think I’m capable of being an above-average catcher in this league, without a doubt,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a matter of doing it, being consistent.’’
I’ve seen Flowers for a few at bats this spring and have been impressed. But I’ve been working off a very small sample. The two guys I know who do this kind of stuff for a living and who are down at Camelback now both say that Flowers looks like a new man. They say that he’s bought into what Todd Steverson’s selling and he’s not the only one. They note that Steverson doesn’t care if you get an out but he hates strike outs. And the Sox have been striking out a lot less as of late.
But back to Flowers.
After talking to my buddies at length and seeing what I could of cell phone video and limited game action, I’m going to hop out on a limb and make a prediction. I say he’ll hit .265, have 20 homers and continue to be one of the best defensive catchers in the league.
Yeah, I know, from my keyboard to God’s monitor.
Before we begin today allow us here at Jay the Joke to pass along our prayers and sympathies to the Reinsdorf family. Losing a loved one is never easy. Losing a child, no matter his age, is unfathomable.
Today, since I’m still doing this diet thing, the many glorious pastries passing by my desk must continue their journey unmolested. That doesn’t mean that I miss all the fun. After all today is Chicago’s 177th Birthday. That link takes you to a poorly made web page, courtesy of our tax dollars (what is it with the government not being able to find qualified web designers?), that lists the events that will be happening at Daley Plaza. One quick glance showed me that I will be a much better human being if I miss that by a country mile. Which means I get to see some of my friends, not make an ass out of myself and then contemplate the great mysteries of life.
Currently I’m wondering why there are no blue squirrels.
Now you are too.
Oh, just for giggles, the Cubs carefully phrased a soundbite to let everyone in the universe know that Darwin Barney is a member of their core going forward. Until, that is, the right offer comes in since they are so deep at 2nd. The current flavor of the week to replace Barney is Javier Baez. A .934 fielding second baseman is exactly what the Cubs need to cover the hole left by a Gold Glove winner. Yes he’s a better hitter than Barney but he’s going to give up a run or two a game. And I remind Cubs fans that, the Milton Bradley experiment aside, there is no DH in the National League. There’s a reason that Baez never has been higher than AA. And it’s a good one. Unless he improves his defense dramatically, and he didn’t look bad yesterday, he’s more of a bane than a boon to his teammates.
Another piece of trade bait, Jason Hammel, has made it clear that he’d rather not be traded if it’s all right with you.
Gordon Wittenmyer doesn’t seem to think the Cubs care what Hammel wants.
Jason Hammel already has become a favorite of pitching coach Chris Bosio in just a few weeks as a Cub.
“We’re unleashing somebody, to be honest with you,” Bosio said as Hammel made his Cubs spring debut, starting a “B” game against the San Francisco Giants on Monday.
Hammel also happens to be this year’s annual project for Bosio, a veteran upside guy on a buy-low one-year contract who figures to be worth a couple of valuable young players near the midsummer trade deadline if Bosio is able to coax that upside out of him.
Bosio helped Scott Feldman find it last year before the Cubs shipped him to the Baltimore Orioles for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. He did it the year before with Paul Maholm (Atlanta Braves for Arodys Vizcaino). And his influence helped Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza have strong starts the last two years that led to trades with the Texas Rangers.
“It’s never easy to see any of our guys traded, especially in the position we’ve been in the last couple of years,” he said, “getting competitive [just before the sell-off starts] as the team’s starting to play well. But in our division and in our situation, when teams come calling offering some big prospects, you have to listen.
“Who knows? Maybe things change this year where we extend this thing. I don’t know.”
Don’t bet on it, say oddsmakers, who have projected the Cubs to win fewer than 70 games.
“The last couple of years, we’ve been able to get our starters hot, all of them,” Bosio said before flashing on the bittersweet ending to those stories.
“But we’ve been able to get a hell of a return, as well, on those guys.”
The guys in the clubhouse have nothing else to go on but the “who-knows” part. That’s where the low-budget rebuilding process is as the Cubs enter their third season under president Theo Epstein. They are already on their second manager and conspicuously short on big-league star power.
Hammel, 31, knows the “sign-and-flip” drill, if for no other reason than the talks he had with onetime Baltimore teammate Feldman before signing with the Cubs.
“Oh, yeah, I’m sure [the media is] going to talk about that all year,” Hammel said after a two-inning debut in which he got peppered by three infield hits but held the Giants scoreless.
“I honestly could care less. That’s the answer you’ll get from me every time. I’m here to win ballgames, and that’s it. That’s my bottom line.”
Hammel had knee surgery that limited him to 20 starts in 2012 and had a negative impact into 2013, wrecking his mechanics and leading to a 7-8, 4.97 ERA season. He has never pitched more than 1772/3 innings in a season, never won more than 10 games and only once had an ERA below 4.00.
But the right-hander has enough talent and just enough experience with rags-to-riches teams that he seems to believe this Cubs team can compete well enough to avoid the sell-off and surprise the world.
“I did it with the Rays, did it with the Rockies and with the Orioles,” he said of teams that went from losing seasons to the playoffs in 2008, 2009 and 2011.
“You need a little bit of veteran leadership, you need some young guys that kind of don’t give a you-know-what and then other guys in the middle that are at that level where they’re becoming professionals. And we have that mix.”
He means it. No matter what Las Vegas or the media or a look at this roster says.
“I like proving people wrong. I like the out-of-nowhere-type stuff,” Hammel said. “It’s kind of the way my whole career has been. I had a lot of naysayers, a lot of guys saying, ‘He’s pretty good but not one of the best.’
“That’s just fuel, and that fuels this whole clubhouse.”
Chris Bosio has the strangest job in sports. He is tasked with making players good enough to play for other teams. When all is said and done, that really is his only job. And, yes, Hammel is correct that he’s been on a few surprising teams, but those teams had some real MLB level depth, not some guys who couldn’t get out of 2A on a bet.
Speaking of bets, the Vegas odds on the Cubs have them going 70-92 or worse. Just FYI Cubs fans, this is the 3rd annual “Avoid the Sell Off” campaign. In other words, if you see Baez at 2nd this July plan on a few more years of this, allegedly popular, program.
On the South Side fans seem to be easing off the ledge. Watching Jordan Danks start a double play from center will do that for you. Even so, another second baseman that everyone wants to trade, this time it being Gordon Beckham, seems to be slowly, but surely, making his case to stay. Daryl van Schouwen has the whole story.
Almost overnight, it seems, Gordon Beckham went from being the young second baseman with the bright future to a veteran presence in the White Sox’ clubhouse.
Accustomed to being the kid with the lofty expectations, Beckham looks around and sees only three players — Paul Konerko, John Danks and Alexei Ramirez — with more tenure with the Sox than he has. When he looks on his ring finger, he sees a wedding band.
Times, they are a-changing.
‘‘There’s no newness anymore, which is kind of nice,’’ Beckham, 27, said Monday. ‘‘It’s definitely a better feeling than coming into camp in the past. There’s a calmness that I have now, having been around long enough to understand the ups and downs of it.’’
Ups and downs? Beckham could write a book. A first-round draft choice in 2008, he was named the Sporting News’ rookie of the year in 2009. In 2011 and 2012, he hit in the .230s with on-base percentages of .296. After a good start last season, he missed time and lost power because of hand surgery and a quadriceps injury. Overall, he managed improved numbers (.267 average, .322 on-base) in 103 games.
‘‘All things considered, with the injury he had early, he had a good year,’’ Konerko said. ‘‘He really did.’’
Beckham’s tinkering with his stance and swing has been the subject of much scrutiny and debate. It caused a heated exchange between then-general manager Ken Williams and then-hitting coach Greg Walker in 2011. After answering lots of questions about his stance and swing, Beckham said he’s done talking about it.
‘‘I don’t want to have that conversation,’’ he said. ‘‘My swing and everything is what it is. I don’t worry [about] what it looks like, what people see. ‘Hey, you got taller [in your stance], and you’re doing this.’ I know what I feel, and what I feel is good. I don’t really worry about what it looks like.’’
‘‘I think he knows there’s no benefit from [talking about] it,’’ Konerko said. ‘‘To be an absolute open book every day and have to go over every swing, that can get a little bit . . . you know.
‘‘He also understands that part of that is how good he was when he first came up. Ultimately, he’s a much stronger person and player because of that [scrutiny]. He’s on a good track from last year. If he continues doing that without an injury, he’s going to have a good, solid year that everyone will be happy with.’’
With above-average and occasionally dazzling defensive skills, the Sox know Beckham is only an offensive uptick or two from being a valuable piece of their future or a valuable trade chip. With Micah Johnson, Carlos Sanchez and Marcus Semien, who started Monday because Beckham rested with tightness in his right leg, the Sox are stocked with prospects at Beckham’s position. So, one way or another, this season might shape Beckham’s future in Chicago.
‘‘Gordon is certainly young enough and has enough upside that he very well could be part of [the long-term core],’’ GM Rick Hahn said. ‘‘But we have other options that are knocking on the door. A year from now, if all goes to plan, we should have multiple options that could force the issue, and we may well have some decisions to make during the season or after the season. But we certainly haven’t ruled out Gordon being part of that going forward.’’
Understanding all that, Beckham is going about his preparation for 2014 without losing sleep.
‘‘I don’t worry about stuff I can’t control,’’ he said. ‘‘I understand who I am a lot better.
‘‘I’m in a good spot mentally and physically. It’s a matter of getting on the field and making it happen. The swing feels real good, and I’m seeing the ball really well. Now it’s a matter of playing and doing my job. I feel like last year was a good steppingstone toward this year.’’
As Hahn noted, unlike the Cubs, the Sox do have some viable options behind Beckham. While I like the guy and would hate to see him go, he could bring a couple of good players on the open market.
Here’s where Beckham projects from those who pay attention; they see him hitting around .275 with a .350 OBP. If they’re right, and I think they are, that makes the Sox bottom third of the order one of the most dangerous around. If that plays out I would be reluctant to mess with success.
But, it’s too soon to be talking about this.
Well, it should be anyway.
I’ve been tossing the games up on the office system and letting them play in the background. Even our non-baseball fans seem to like it. After all, it is the first true sign that summer is coming.
A week ago today I ended up in an extended email thread with a group of people about music history. The conversation tumbled around between emails, Facebook and Twitter. It was fun, it was interesting and it inspired me to collect it all into an article. That, in turn, inspired a radio show which is now a free podcast for you to listen to. It was a running comparison of music then and now and it was raucous and profane, just the way the internet should be. Anyway, since I had so much fun with it I’m sharing it all with you today. To keep this sports related allow me to point out that of the participants two work for the Sox and one works for the Cubs and the radio station that aired the original show is the local Fox Sports affiliate.
Yeah, your favorite leaping liberal does a radio show on Fox and hell has not frozen over. See? There’s hope for the universe after all.
In other news, a gentleman I know just put $10,000 on the Bulls to make the Championship round. If he wins he’s promised to take four of us and our significant others for a weekend at his cabin in Wisconsin. I’ve only seen pictures of the place but it has two boat docks and a small helipad so it could be fun. I plan on attending right after I become a male model. Man, the East is so bad they’re making everyone look good.
And then making others make bad decisions.
Kind of like that hot red head in a bar at closing time.
Well, if you have a few bucks, the odds are 80:1 against.
Which is better than the Cubs or Sox are getting right now.
But, on the off chance that baseball might be interesting this year I’m going to take a gander at them anyway.
Gordon Wittenmyer says that the Cubs are so deep in gold glove winning second basemen with experience that they are looking to trade Darwin Barney.
If Darwin Barney doesn’t have something to prove this spring, then how do you explain his check-this-out debut Friday?
“It’s baseball,” the 2012 Gold Glove second baseman said. “You’ve got to come out and do it again tomorrow. That’s the name of the game.”
With trade rumors swirling and manager Rick Renteria suggesting Thursday that newcomer Emilio Bonifacio could challenge the incumbent for playing time, Barney responded.
He stole a page from Bonifacio’s playbook in the first inning, beating out an infield hit. Then, after the next eight Cubs were retired, Barney homered to left.
“It’s Day 1,” he said. “There’s a long spring ahead and a lot of work to do.”
If it comes with the wrinkle of rumors involving the Yankees and a challenge from those wanting a piece of his job, well, that’s why Barney worked all winter after he hit .208 last season, which ticked him off more than anyone else in the organization.
“You’re fighting to stay in this league every year,” said Barney, the Cubs’ starting second baseman since soon after his big-league debut in August 2010. “The game doesn’t owe you anything, and that’s the way I’m looking at it. I’m trying to prove that I’ve made strides, trying to prove that I’ve gotten better.”
If Barney can hit somewhere between the .254 he hit in 2012 and the .276 he hit in ’11, it might be hard to knock him out of the starting lineup even part-time.
“But I’m not going to put any extra pressure on myself,” he said. “I’m going to come out and try to prepare for Opening Day and focus on the things I need to focus on to get ready. And that’s not worrying about stuff like that.”
The fact is, Bonifacio probably isn’t as much of a threat as some might think. The biggest reason he’s a career utility player is he has struggled to play well enough defensively at any one spot to keep a starting position.
As a guy who can create havoc on the bases and has played six positions in the big leagues, he’s a major asset to National League team. He also has been traded by four teams and released by a fifth in the last 5½ years, despite a reputation as an upbeat, positive influence in the clubhouse.
“I don’t see Bonifacio as anything but a teammate,” said Barney, who ranked second among NL second basemen in defensive wins above replacement (WAR) last year. “He’s someone who can help us win no matter where he’s playing, whether it’s second base, shortstop or left field.
“He’s a great guy. I love having him around. He works hard, and he creates things on the bases that are exciting.”
Barney has been nothing but a class act. I liked him in the minors and I like him now. The fact that his career seemed to hang on a pre-season homer in a 15-3 loss tells me that the Cubs not only no longer care about the team or the fans but that they are going to milk this poverty thing for another 4 or 5 years if they can.
They disgust me.
And they should disgust any baseball fan. I don’t really care about the tourists.
On the South Side my palette was cleansed. In pre-season baseball, especially this early, pitchers are ahead of hitters in development. That means you should expect to see a lot of defense. Well for over 6 innings, until it truly was scrub time, the Dodgers and the White Sox delivered just that. Stellar pitching, aggressive defense and heads up play all the way around by both teams made me a happy Billy. When the Dodgers finally broke it open to win 5-0 there were guys in White Sox uniforms who will never actually wear one after April 1. And, even so, they played hard. A couple of those late inning pitchers all but guaranteed a longer look in 2A. But, that’s what Spring Training is for.
Jose Abreu was getting his first taste of major-league pitching, and he didn’t want to push himself away from the table.
The prized free-agent first baseman, who had two at-bats from the cleanup spot during the team’s Cactus League opener Friday, showed patience at the plate and a little pop, too, lining out deep to left field before grounding out to second in a 5-0 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers at Camelback Ranch.
“I’m trying to see a lot of pitches right now,’’ said Abreu, who signed a six-year, $68 million contract. “I want to get a feel for the strike zone, and I want to be able to see a lot of pitches so I feel comfortable swinging the bat.’’
It was only a spring-training game, but not for Abreu.
“I wasn’t that anxious, but it’s the first at-bat and it meant a lot and you do feel a certain level of anxiety,’’ Abreu said through a translator. “It was a very quality at-bat for me, and I was glad for that at-bat.’’
Abreu saw six pitches from left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu in the first and five from right-hander Kenley Jansen in the fourth. Against Ryu, Abreu lost control of his bat, throwing it high off the screen near the on-deck circle on the third-base side.
“That first at-bat I felt was a very good one,’’ he said. “I was able to come back from a so-so swing to a better swing, and I connected.
“I want as many at-bats as I can prior to the season so I can be ready. It’s a matter of seeing the ball when you’re out there. I haven’t seen live pitching in a while.’’
Chris Sale pitched 22/3 innings of one-hit ball, throwing only one slider and emphasizing his fastball and changeup command, he said. He got four strikeouts in the process, including Chone Figgins and Hanley Ramirez swinging in the first and Drew Butera and Alex Guerrero swinging in the third.
Sale said a couple change-ups slipped out of his hand but he commanded his fastball on both sides of the plate.
“It felt good,’’ he said. “I felt like I wasn’t quite as jittery as normal. I just tried to stay as calm as I could and not overthrow. Not try to make anything too nasty and that kind of stuff.’’
NOTES: Right-hander Matt Lindstrom was scheduled to pitch an inning but was scratched with a mild left oblique strain. In the mix as a possible closer candidate, Lindstrom could resume throwing Saturday according to trainer Herm Schneider.
◆ Another closer option, rookie Daniel Webb, left the team because of a death in the family and could miss a few days.
◆ Upcoming starters: John Danks on Saturday, Felipe Paulino on Sunday, Jose Quintana on Monday, Erik Johnson on Tuesday.
◆ Ventura had no update on right-hander Ronald Belisario, who is still dealing with visa problems in Venezuela.
BTW, that Chone Figgns strikeout made Bill Melton just ooooh. And rightly so.
One of those changeups that slipped for Sale broke across the plate at a 45 degree angle and left the hitter staring at his shoes. He can slip like that all year as far as I’m concerned.
What was fun yesterday was watching the effort both teams put in. It was night and day compared to the North Side games. Diving for grounders, great catches in the field, all the real starting pitchers aiming for corners (you remember, it’s called “pitching”), actual double plays that required skill and so on.
It wasn’t as good as sex but, BY GOD, it was a close fourth.
Hey, it’s spring training, not even I get that excited about it.