That didn’t stop me from watching a few spring training games. I saw two in person and three or four on MLB.tv, depending on whether you count the parts where I fell asleep.
I also saw some backfield practice sessions, although not as many as I’d have liked. If you ever go to spring training, be sure to hit those and watch the prospects do drill after drill as they hone their craft. For me, the practices are better than the games.
Anyway, I took notes:
- Rymer Liriano looked good the one time I saw him. After missing all of 2013 recovering from Tommy John surgery, the young right fielder smoked a James Paxton pitch about 400 feet to the warning track in center field in the Padres’ Cactus League opener. Liriano’s swing was quick and generated hard contact. He struck out in his next at-bat, which will happen, but the fly out was fun to watch and hear, even if it didn’t result in a hit.
- I love seeing Xavier Nady in camp. It’s fashionable to hate on marginal veterans, but as a marginal veteran myself, I am increasingly drawn toward these guys. You kind of have to love what you do to take a minor-league deal after having spent a decade in the big leagues. Plus I have fond memories of Nady’s MVP season for a great 2001 Lake Elsinore Storm team. And he once saw me on the trolley while I was wearing my Storm gear. He pointed at me and had a big grin on his face. It was cool. That being said, I don’t know that he brings much to the table beyond clubhouse presence. This is probably more useful than people think, but at the same time, you don’t want a bunch of Mark Kotsay at-bats.
- I thought right-hander Leonel Campos might sneak into the bullpen picture, but he hasn’t had a good spring. He got shelled in the opener and currently sports an 11.57 ERA. Not that you want to place much stock in Cactus League numbers, but eventually a guy needs to get hitters out. Campos will do that at Triple-A, and I still think he could see action in San Diego before the season ends.
- Joaquin Benoit’s changeup is a nasty pitch. Trevor Hoffman nasty? I don’t know, but he made Endy Chavez and Nick Franklin look foolish–way out in front and off-balance. Those guys aren’t great hitters by any stretch, but they are big leaguers. As Corey Brock noted, “Benoit was clocked as high as 96 mph and showcased his plus-changeup at 86 mph, providing a nice differential in speed from the fastball.” Yep, that’ll do. For what it’s worth, Hoffman praised the pitch on TV a couple weeks later, noting the good arm speed and that he’ll throw it in any count.
- Austin Hedges works hard. I’ve talked about him before, but what impressed me in Peoria were his practice habits. He was working with El Paso Chihuahuas manager Pat Murphy on receiving technique. Murphy threw him pitches for a few minutes and the two had a running dialogue about what Hedges should be doing. Afterward, Hedges stood off to the side and talked with Padres Vice President of Professional Scouting A.J. Hinch and bullpen catcher Justin Hatcher for 15-20 minutes. I asked Hinch about their conversation, and he said they wanted Hedges to be quieter behind the plate, to give his pitcher and the home plate umpire a steadier target. Hedges is a smart kid. He’ll get it.
- Cody Decker took over while Hedges was off chatting with the brain trust. Decker looked rough behind the dish, but I applaud him for doing whatever it takes to reach the big leagues and the Padres for giving him the opportunity. I’m skeptical that he can catch well enough to add significant value, but the guy can hit. It’s worth a shot.
- How does Eric Stults get hitters out? I watched his March 9 start on TV, and the gun had his fastball at 79-84 mph. Even if that’s 2-3 mph slow, which I believe it was, you’re still looking at low- to mid-80s. Being left-handed helps. So does having balls of steel. My favorite sequence came against Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt in the third inning. Stults threw him four straight changeups, getting Goldschmidt to ground out to shortstop on the last one. Stults never broke 80 mph. It’s one at-bat in spring training, but this is against a guy who led the National League in homers, RBI, SLG, and OPS+ last year. Even if it means nothing, it was fun to watch.
- Tommy Medica has impressed. The numbers are nice, but even when balls aren’t falling in for hits, he’s making loud outs and being a general pain in the ass. My notes from the same game: “Makes pitcher work, doesn’t give away at-bats.” The Padres have stuck him in left field this spring to try and increase his utility. Fans will be upset if Medica doesn’t make the team. Hopefully Medica will be upset, too, and destroy baseballs at Triple-A so he can get back to the big leagues before long. Like Decker, the kid can hit.
- It seems like every time I’ve seen Everth Cabrera at the plate, he’s worked the count full. He did it on March 14 against Angels southpaw Tyler Skaggs before doubling to deep right field in the third inning. And again in his next at-bat before grounding to third. Then he did it three times on March 18, twice after falling behind former Padres left-hander Randy Wolf 0-2 (resulting in a ground out and a walk), once against Seattle closer Fernando Rodney (walk). If Cabrera keeps this up, teams are going to hate seeing him in the batter’s box.
- Speaking of March 18, right-hander Josh Johnson looked good that night against the Mariners. He served up a bomb to Seattle shortstop Brad Miller, but mostly kept the ball down and snapped off some sharp curveballs (struck out Justin Smoak looking and Franklin swinging–both batting from the left side). The fastball was reportedly running 92-94. Final line: 4.1 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 BB, 5 K. You’d like to see him go a little deeper, but that’s nitpicking. For as dubious as I was of the Johnson signing, if he pitches like this more often than not, it’ll be fine. Then he got hurt about two minutes after I started writing this, so maybe not.
- I’ve come to appreciate Yonder Alonso’s approach at the plate. He is a disciplined hitter, and with the wrist injury behind him, hopefully he returns to driving the ball like he did in 2012. He’s had some nice at-bats against lefties, including a booming single to right off Paxton to lead off the second inning on March 21. Alonso missed going yard by maybe a foot. Why didn’t he end up on second? Well, he’s still slow and there’s no fixing that. This spring I’ve seen him thrown out by 10 feet trying to stretch a single into a double (most would’ve made it easily), held to a single on a ball hit off the top of the wall, and thrown out on a chopper to second that many would’ve beaten out for a hit. Alonso may never hit for much home-run power, but his swing is pretty. The only thing keeping him from being a perennial .300 hitter is that damn piano on his back. If he could figure out how to run like he’s not up to his knees in honey, he’d be a stud. But that ain’t happening. On the other hand, he stole a base in this game. During the regular season, he’s 9-for-9 in steal attempts in his career. Go figure.
- Right-hander Ian Kennedy started the March 21 game. He had a shaky first inning–three full counts in the first four batters–before settling down and pitching well until the fifth, when he lost the zone again. Kennedy battled through it and finished with a respectable line: 5.2 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 7 K, 95 pitches. As Brock said afterward, “Delicate stuff living at the top of the strike zone like Ian Kennedy does. Easy place to make mistakes. This will play well at Petco.” Yep, everyone hopes so.
- Last year’s first-round pick, Hunter Renfroe, got two late at-bats in this game. He hammered a Danny Farquhar offering to the warning track in the seventh, then lined sharply to center to end the ninth. Farquhar is a legitimate big-league pitcher who closed for Seattle last year. Renfroe’s approach is raw–grip it and rip it–but the talent is immense. He could be something, but don’t expect to see him in San Diego anytime soon.
- Johnson’s injury, meanwhile, opened a spot in the rotation, with righty Matt Wisler and lefty Robbie Erlin being the primary candidates. Wisler started on March 23 against the Rangers and pitched like a 21-year old who needs more seasoning, which is what he is. His final line of 2.2 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 2 BB, 2 K tells the story of a kid who struggled with command. However, there were good signs. In the first, he got Prince Fielder swinging after falling behind 3-1. And Wisler’s sequence to Adrian Beltre the next inning was beautiful. Fastball for strike one, knee-buckling slider that just missed inside, slider out off the plate that Beltre chased, then a pitch I forgot to identify that he lofted lazily to left field. Wisler fell behind everyone in the third, but he also fell victim to a defensive shift against Fielder, who grounded a ball right to the shortstop position that went for a single but would have been an easy double play if not for Cabrera’s standing on the other side of the bag. Wisler’s command was not sharp, but getting a 6-4-3 right there would have helped. After the game, manager Bud Black praised Wisler for his poise. That’s nice to hear, but Erlin has pitched more than twice as many innings in the high minors, has big-league experience, and has sharper command. In terms of player development and helping this year’s team, I can’t imagine Wisler being the better option, but maybe that’s just me.
I could go on, but I’ve already taken enough of your time. As always, thanks for reading.