Spring Training provides an opportunity for fans to view the lesser-seen pieces and dream upon the futures of players yet to take a single at-bat for the big league squad, but could dramatically alter the franchise’s trajectory. It’s escapism from the realities of an organization that has branded themselves as “snake-bit,” and that fans have seen as underwhelming. So, just hours from first pitch and the beginning of the 2014 season, here’s a look back at five days of (mostly) rampant optimism in the desert.

When parents plan their son or daughter’s first trip to Spring Training, they likely envision parcels of perfectly manicured grass. Sun-kissed mornings where millionaire ballplayers and long shots share a field and play a game with the same childlike wonder and enthusiasm that they hope, one day, their own child will possess. My son’s first Spring Training started a bit differently, as a complete stranger challenged me to a fight at Terminal 4 of Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport. In the end, it’s all about creating memories. So begins our journey.

Thursday, March 13th: No more than a couple hours after dropping our bags in North Phoenix, we headed south for (in order of importance):

  1. The Oakland Athletics.
  2. My first/last A’s Spring Training game at Phoenix Municipal Stadium.
  3. A much-needed night game to beat the heat.

It didn’t hurt to be seated only a few rows back down the left field line, providing front-row seats for Yoenis Cespedes. It was no shame that Oakland fielded what one would imagine closely resembles the big league lineup that’s taken them to the postseason two years running. And, despite the outcome, it certainly wasn’t unfortunate that the A’s were starting San Diego product and Geoff Young favorite, A.J. Griffin. The icing on top was getting an early glimpse at a division rival and a couple of their promising young arms. As for those Rockies, Tyler Chatwood started and although he had a mild bout with control issues, he still managed to spin a few good sliders and do what he does best – get opponents to beat the ball into the goddamn ground. In 2013, Chatwood had the third-highest ground-ball percentage at 58.5% (min. 100 IP). It goes without saying that keeping the ball on the ground is a key to his and any other Rockies pitcher’s success and, on this Thursday in mid-March, 6 of the 9 outs he recorded were on the ground. After a shaky inning from Matt Belisle, the Rockies sent Jonathan Gray, their first-round pick and third overall selection from a year ago, to the bump. Gray made quick work of the A’s in his first inning, getting three outs in just 10 pitches and showcasing a fastball that was reportedly just shy of triple digits. While the wheels came off not long after as Oakland’s regulars had little trouble timing misplaced fastballs left up, Gray very seldom struggles with control and appears to have the sort of stuff that could make him a formidable foe in the division for years to come. Another Rockies player of note was one fighting for a job: 1B/OF Kyle Parker, who showcased his arm in another way. Coming off the bench as a defensive substitution in the 7th, the former Clemson quarterback wasted little time showing off his arm in left field, diffusing a possible scoring opportunity by freezing a runner at third on a potential sac fly and gunning down another at the plate. For an encore, he made a diving catch on a sinking liner to end the inning. While the Rockies have recently entertained the thought of transitioning Parker to first base, he had no trouble putting on a show in the outfield this night.

Friday, March 14th: Turns out that even early risers struggle against the demands of a needy infant, and coordinating the breakfast plans and commute for five family members. Arriving late gave us a good look at ball- and autograph-hawks, a stream of minor leaguers to the locker room, and front-row parking for the afternoon game at the main field, but very little time on the backfields. Here’s a brief synopsis of the day’s activities and notable players:

  • Cory Spangenberg: I don’t know what to tell y’all – at this point, I’m less and less convinced he’s anything more than a role player. We rushed over at the request of my brother, who fails to be reasonable and still whispers his name in hushed gasps of amazement. Second basemen stick together, I suppose. Offensively, he still showcases those lightning-quick hands and sneaky power during backfield BP sessions, not to mention above-average speed on the bases. However, I’ve seen little in-game performance over the years that points to consistent production, and each stop seems to provide a little bit of an early-season speed bump that he has yet to successfully avoid. More importantly, at least when it comes to his future role, is whether or not he has a permanent role at second base. And, well, I’m not convinced he does. What was evident during a cursory viewing on television hundreds of miles from home, becomes even more apparent when watching him live. That’s not say he hasn’t put in a ton of hard work there or that his defensive skills haven’t improved – he most certainly has. But the performance is inconsistent. He looks incredibly stiff and flat-footed to both sides, especially up the middle, and takes every grounder with his heels planted. Now, this is not to say that he won’t continue to make strides and fight his way to the big league squad. It’s just that the inevitable departure of Chase Headley and Jedd Gyorko‘s subsequent migration back across the diamond to third, second base is shaping up to be a huge question mark for the 2015 season. The hope is that this is the season Spangenberg shrugs off the slow starts offensively and starts piecing it together with the glove so that he can compete for the starting role a year from now.
  • Jordan Paroubeck: Man’s body, man’s swing, teenage prospect’s discipline. Not entirely unexpected given that Paroubeck has spent most of his time since signing with the Padres last year rehabbing from shoulder surgery, or because of pre-draft scouting reports indicating that he was a tad insulated playing Bay Area high school ball. But it’s clear that he brings a physical maturity and approach that, if given the right seasoning, could develop into a solid all-around player at a core outfield position.
  • Casey Kelly: Great hair. More on him later.
  • Draft House Eatery and Lounge: Decent beer selection, cavernous, dark, and – most importantly – air conditioned. If you don’t mind squinting at a far wall to watch the game of your choice, this is the place for you. In fairness, the prices weren’t bad and this is a step up from The Moon, but this place has turned over so many times it wouldn’t surprise me if it has a new name and layout when I visit next year. All in all, it’s a good place to grab a local beer (or a few San Diego favorites, for you nostalgic folk) between morning workouts and the afternoon games.

As for the afternoon game against the Angels, it can be appropriately summarized by pointing out that lawn seats require approximately one tube of sunscreen per nine innings (that’s “1 T/9,” if you’re scoring at home), Four Peaks Peach Ale is delicious, and both Nick Hundley and Jedd Gyorko brought the boom sticks. This was also the second time in as many days that I was in the stands for a replay challenge, and this one happened to be overturned. Personal opinion: this is not going to be a major impediment for game pace and, at least in this case, they ended up reversing the call and getting it right. That’s all you can ask of the new system. Now as for the manager challenges… Despite what wasn’t his crispest outing, I’m still glad the Padres no longer have to worry about Tyler Skaggs as a division opponent. If the 22-year-old can curb the occasional bouts with wildness and pound the zone like he did today, he’ll make for a tough match-up every fifth game.

Saturday, March 15th: If there’s one thing I’ve learned the past several years in Peoria, it’s that Corey Brock is a busy man. More so these days with twin boys, and we run into him refueling on caffeine before heading back to the complex. It is here that he reiterates the two biggest news items in Padres camp: that Casey Kelly will be throwing his first live BP session of the spring, and that Andrew Cashner and Huston Street will be on the minor league side. We thank him, promise to catch up later, and Corey reminds us that repayment for insider tips can be made in the form of Starbucks gift cards.

Early morning workouts and batting practice brought out some of the heavy hitters in the Padres’ farm system. Rymer Liriano, despite losing a year to Tommy John surgery, continues to do what he does best – punish a baseball.  While the upward trajectory towards assumed stardom has flattened a bit, there’s still hope that Liriano continues to piece things together and brings the legitimate five-tool approach to Petco Park sometime soon.

Speaking of helium, Austin Hedges did nothing to prove he wasn’t deserving of his rise in organizational prospect rankings. Unlike last year, where Hedges spent a good deal of his time on Field 4 trying to push the ball to the opposite field, he had no trouble squaring up pitches to the gaps with authority. The swing looks shorter and more deliberate in practice, and he’ll get a chance to prove that his approach has evolved when he goes to San Antonio to start the year. At this point, it’s the only thing keeping him from a big league invitation.

The appetizer to the afternoon’s main course was Casey Kelly throwing a live BP session to recovering starters Yasmani Grandal and Chase Headley – both of whom spent the day taking swings almost entirely from the left side. While Kelly didn’t uncork his whole arsenal, he did display good repetition in the bullpen and showcased those same fluid mechanics facing live batters. A mixed bag, as would be expected during a rehab outing, as a solid change got Grandal to roll over a couple pitches destined to be 59-footers, while Headley was able to drop the hammer and drive heat low-and-inside to the base of the wall in right-center. A work in progress, but it’s notable that Kelly’s surgery and recovery has been atypical when compared to some of his other teammates. Given his athletic background and where he was before he got injured, it will be interesting to watch the rest of his recovery.

While Headley and Grandal took cuts off of Kelly, new bench coach Dave Roberts, was working on getting Spangenberg and Jace Peterson more comfortable with their secondary leads at third. While it was nothing more than drills, it was nice to see Roberts – who has helped make the Padres one of the more intimidating teams on the base paths the past several seasons – imparting his wisdom on some of the young players who were in camp. After a 30-plus pitch session from Kelly, Grandal and Headley BP moved to Field 1 to continue their cage work. Headley seemed a bit cautious to cut loose entirely, instead working on structure and repetition, but didn’t appear physically limited either in the cage or during fielding drills. As for Grandal, he continued an extended BP session that, unlike when we saw him Friday, was almost entirely from the left side. Grandal, who is working on retooling his leg kick to ease the strain on his knee, makes very loud contact while also intent on reinventing his approach from this side. He was the first person in the cage and the last to leave, which is a testament to the effort he has given to put his past behind him and permanently establish himself in the lineup as the team’s starting catcher. 

After the morning workouts broke, the attention shifted to Fields 4 and 6, as Huston Street and Andrew Cashner took to fine-tuning their approach against the Texas Rangers as opposed to the prying eyes of today’s big league host, the division-rival Los Angeles Dodgers. It’s hard to explain the buzz surrounding the appearance of an established big leaguer in minor league camp, but it’s not just fans that flock to the backfields for the ringside seats. Players not destined for afternoon games made it a point to show up, basking in the electricity of his pitches and intensity. This was no more evident when Street cursed himself for wasting a put away pitch by burying a 57-foot change, or when Cashner barked at an umpire for a missed strike three call. Both elicited whispers among players and fans alike. As for the stuff, both seemed ready for prime time. Street kept hitters off-balance by mixing pitches (and bouncing others), while Cashner brought a sharp slider and a more consistent change than we’ve regularly been treated to. The secondary pitches are taking shape and the fastball is still electric.

The only player Cashner didn’t seem to lord over was the Rangers catcher, Jorge Alfaro. A top catching prospect in the Texas organization, Alfaro squared up pitches to the opposite field and handled himself well against the likes of a major leaguer like Cashner, but it was his defense that surprised. Last year, fans were treated to Brad Ausmus imparting his wisdom on Austin Hedges, mentoring him on all things defense on the backfields of Field 6. This year, former Rangers great Ivan Rodriguez was doing the same for Alfaro. They sat next to each other in the dugout, talked between innings, and the results soon followed. While Alfaro’s footwork is still a bit sloppy and is nowhere near as gifted as Hedges is as an all-around defender, he has an absolute cannon of an arm – cutting down a runner on one knee after collecting a ball in the dirt. While the Rangers aren’t a team the Padres will see too often, it’s nice to see former greats contributing to the development of the franchise’s future stars.

After Cashner made his exit and the crowds thinned, a solitary figure starts taking warm-up swings at Field 5. We decide to investigate further and find that Hunter Renfroe, recovering from a nagging injury, is about to engage in a one-on-one BP session. This is one of those things you don’t seek out but aren’t upset to stumble upon…or to keep to yourself. With only a half-dozen people in the stands, we watched Renfroe take downright violent swings for what felt like at least an hour. Renfroe has a beautifully violent swing that’s capable of putting the ball into orbit, and Padres coaches were trying to reel it in, telling him to be “selectively aggressive.” Bucket after bucket, Renfroe worked to scatter balls evenly to the left- and right-centerfield walls and then collected them to repeat the process. Over time, frustration boiled over and Renfroe would step out of the box to compose himself, but when the coach told him to open it up, he smiled and started launching pitches, pull-side, over the fence. I hope to see a lot more of this in Lake Elsinore this year.

Sunday, March 16th: Heat and dust and sun and wind. Today was our off-day; the refresher for Monday’s Phoenix finale.

Practice isn’t always exciting, but sometimes you’re treated to a performance so crisp or telling that it feels as if it spoils what will unfold on the field later. Today was one of those days. While most of our time had been centered on the minor league side or Field 2, we decided to watch the Padres take infield/outfield on the main field. There’s nothing like watching major leaguers take a structured practice round to remind you there’s a reason why you’re relegated to beer league softball. This was our first opportunity to see Xavier Nady in right, and he routinely threw strikes across to Headley at 3B. It was also our first time seeing Austin Hedges in the field, the only player catcher wearing full gear, who unleashed a couple uncharacteristically wild throws into centerfield only to effortlessly snap a one-handed, off-balance throw to second the next.

Yonder Alonso and Carlos Quentin put on a show, launching pitch after pitch like lasers over the fence. Only later, on our way south down the 101, are we treated to a play-by-play replay of what we had witnessed earlier. Nady getting the assist on a throw to the plate; Hedges throwing one wild and nailing a potential base stealer shortly thereafter; Alonso going deep. Perhaps this was coincidental or this was all some mirage created by the desert heat, but we all smile as we listen to the broadcast nonetheless.

As for our afternoon arrangements, we were fortunate to choose the same weekend to visit Phoenix as my brother’s old college teammate. While we were spectators, however, his teammate has since become an umpire in the Northwest League and was spending a week on the backfields in Goodyear. After a couple phone calls, he was able to secure passes to view the High-/Low-A backfield game between the Reds and Indians. As this was a last-minute decision, we went with no expectations and nobody to see – so we decided to watch my brother’s teammate – who happened to be the crew chief for the day’s game. Players are quick to point out when they are working on things during spring games, but it’s easy to forget that everybody on the field is. This was time for an umpiring crew to get familiar with their positioning, their communication, and their in-game performance. To my untrained eye, this umpiring crew appeared to be in mid-season form. Only borderline call that could have gone the other way and, best of all, no ump show.

Monday, March 17th: Eschewing morning workouts for a Whataburger chicken biscuit breakfast (and the game of Tetris that is packing our station wagon to the brim with baby stuff) pays off in spades, as we are able to secure Club Level seating – in the shade – for the afternoon showdown between the Padres and Rockies. A Four Peaks Sunbru Kölsch-Style ale in the shade later, our getaway game awaited.

Unlike Thursday night, when he was held out of the lineup after getting a Troy Tulowitzki-Kevin Towers Revenge Train Express in the leg, Troy Tulowitzki started this game. And he was a complete non-issue, both at the plate and in the field. We seem to have all the luck. As for the rest of the game, the notable performance was from starter, Tyson Ross, who continued the same dominance he showed at the end of last season. Ross brought his A-game and wipeout slider to the afternoon showdown with the Rockies, the same dominant pitcher we saw at the end of last year, and the player all Padres fans are hoping he’ll continue to be…at least for the first few innings. After allowing only a couple hard hard-hit balls and collecting five strikeouts in his first three innings, the wheels fell off in the fourth. The inning began with four consecutive doubles, and after collecting a couple of outs (one of which came via a gift-wrapped sacrifice bunt), Jason Pridie continued the party by driving a ball only a couple feet shy of clearing the massive batter’s eye in center for the fifth double of the inning. What would have been a quick hook if it weren’t for getting Ross to his spring pitch count, the end result wasn’t much different from what we’ve seen from Ross at other times during his career, or last spring. He has immense talent and his physical makeup is the perfect blueprint to produce easy velocity and movement. As he’s struggled with consistency in his delivery, once the mechanics start falling apart, the straight stuff stays elevated as does the bite on anything off-speed. Many have mentioned broadcasters referring to his delivery as “easy-going” or “effortless,” but it’s more a result of him failing to use his 6’5″ frame to get any real drive on his pitches. What looks effortless results in his upper-half, especially that troublesome throwing arm, flying free and producing inconsistent results. There is evidence that Ross cleaned up his mechanics a bit last season, taking greater advantage of his frame by getting his drive leg higher for a more consistent downward plane to the plate. The problem is that his stride is still criminally short for his height, leaving him to drive to the plate, oftentimes erratically, with his top half. The hope is that these problems are able to be ironed out and Ross solidifies an already hurting rotation and keeps the Padres competitive through, at least, the summer.

Before injuries sidelined one of their top free agent acquisitions and their highest-paid player, the Padres went into Spring Training as the darling franchise who could sneak up on the league this season. More than a couple sportswriters ticketed them for a wild card spot, while others held more mild optimism and predicted a .500 season – something they haven’t enjoyed since the surprise 2010 club. The roster has set and things have changed since we got back from Peoria – the club is already two games back in the standings. Practice is over and it’s time for baseball that matters.

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  • Billy Lybarger

    Welcome back, Bryant!
    Great stuff here. Keep it coming.