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Mudville: June 16, 2024 10:46 pm PDT

Spring Has Sprung

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Another winter has passed and we’re ready for spring training. But this spring training will be unlike any other spring training because of the Dr. Frankenstein experiments done on baseball by Rob Manfred.

I’m ready to see it all in action, beginning this week when pitchers and catchers rush into camp following the Super Bowl. Many players have already arrived at their team’s spring training facilities, and it was always fun for me to escape to Florida early to visit the players when everybody was still in a good mood.

With that in mind, here is a BallNine spring training primer. I’m not going to go with one of those standard “winners and losers heading into spring training” pieces, though. Here are some other thoughts on what spring training and the season will bring.

Which hitter will be the first to complain about the new pitch clock? Which baserunner will be the first to trip over the bigger bases? Which manager will complain about having to keep his infielders glued to their positions but will complain in a passive-aggressive way?

Let’s start with something super positive: The Padres continuing to act like big boys on the block with owner Peter Seidler making like Steve Cohen.

Peoria, Arizona will be the place to be this spring. Signing Xander Bogaerts (11 years, $280 million) will add experience and a level head to the Padres, and the same goes for aging slugger Nelson Cruz. It seems to me both will try to teach Fernando Tatis Jr. something about showing a bit of humility (good luck) and just doing your job. That would be nice. It also would take a little of the pressure off Manny Machado; who not only had to be the Padres’ best player, but had to be their in-your-face leader to try to reign in Tatis.

I’ve known Manny for a long time and he can lead by example – but asking him to be the guy to keep Tatis under control and be a superstar at the same time is too much to ask, and that would eventually affect his own game. Smart move, Padres, to get good free agent leaders on board.

Yu Darvish at the age of 36 got a six-year, $108 million extension, too; so this is an example of having to spend money to make money. I’m all for it. In baseball you have to live in the here and now – especially when you’re not a major market team. Go big or go home when the window of opportunity is open. That is something most owners don’t understand.

You’re not in Yuma anymore, Padres.

This is also the most interesting spring training in the NL, even though there really isn’t an AL or NL anymore.

The Padres Peoria ballpark partners, the Mariners, are a must-see team, too, for anyone heading to Arizona (I hear the hotel rates are really high this year). Teoscar Hernandez is a gamer, and the same for Kolten Wong. Another example of a team going a little old school without letting the Nerds in the organization really know that they are going old school.

On the other hand, the Red Sox and Chaim Bloom, with the blessings of John (who me?) Henry and Tom Werner, continue to take their fans for an expensive ride. As one top talent evaluator said: “Who got worse? The Red Sox are at the top of the list.’’

This is a reversal of roles because when Werner owned the Padres he tore it all down, and now it is the Padres who are building up and the Red Sox cutting costs. Red Sox fans are loyal, though, and will sign up for the hard lesson, bitching all the way as they continue to shell out even more money for Red Sox games. I’m curious to see how this all plays out for the Red Sox. Scouts insist they overpaid for their Japanese outfielder Masataka Yoshida (five years, $90 million, plus a $15 million posting fee). “He’s just average,’’ one scout said.

Here is my bit of simple wisdom for all teams, not just the Blue Jays: Focus on the Focus.

There are some wild experiments going on in Boston, with Kiké Hernandez at shortstop among other moves. The bullpen needed to be fixed; Alex Cora said that was the team’s biggest problem last year. He will soon learn he has other problems over the course of a long season with this team. In Tampa you could get away with wild baseball experiments, because if they worked you were a genius and if they didn’t work, no one noticed. Trevor Story was supposed to give the Red Sox some Bogaerts’ protection – and then he couldn’t throw. Oops.

Pro tip: Clearwater, FL is a great place to see a game; but even more so this year with the Phillies coming off a World Series appearance and Dave Dombrowski spending gobs of money to sign Trea Turner to that 11-year, $300 million deal. This will be a tough lineup when Bryce Harper returns; and the Mets will have their hands full trying to win the NL East with the Phillies and Braves doing their thing. “Taijuan Walker is a pretty solid starter so Dombrowski bolstered the rotation,’’ a scout said of the four-year, $72 million deal. Keeping Walker healthy is the challenge. For intrigue, Dombrowski also signed Craig Kimbrel (394 career saves) to theoretically strengthen the bullpen. Clearwater and the original Frenchy’s are a must-stop this spring – but be aware the WBC will shake up the lineups.

Over the bridge in Tampa, “The Yankees got better because they kept Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo,’’ one top talent evaluator said. Imagine where the Yankees would be without Judge. Adding Carlos Rodon helps take some heat off Gerrit Cole. The intrigue for the Yankees will be when they decide to trade Gleyber Torres after the shortstop competition between Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe shakes out. Aaron Hicks is the left-fielder for now; but someone needs to point out that Hicks hit .164 at Yankee Stadium with a .230 slugging percentage last year and the Yankees paid him $10.7 million for that. Bullpen battles will be interesting, too; and here is some advice for Yankee relievers: throw more fastballs. Attack the hitters. That is the No.1 thing I would advise all pitchers in 2023, “Especially now that you have the clock on your side,’’ said the scout. Good advice, fellas.

Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo do the elbow pound.

Anthony Rizzo #48 of the New York Yankees celebrates with Aaron Judge #99 after hitting a two run home run against Cal Quantrill #47 of the Cleveland Guardians during the sixth inning in game one of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium on October 11, 2022 in New York, New York. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

I can’t mention the Yankees without mentioning the Mets. Too bad they couldn’t sign Carlos Correa, that would have been interesting; but any time you come away with Justin Verlander and re-sign Edwin Diaz, Brandon Nimmo, and Adam Ottavino, it’s been a good winter. The Mets still need a bat. Buck Showalter’s second year in Port St. Lucie will be fun, though; and unlike others who criticized the Carlos Beltran hire, I applaud it – the Mets need more baseball people in their front office.

One of the more interesting teams will be the Texas Rangers. Jacob deGrom, in my book, is a terrific signing. Rebuilding the pitching staff was desperately needed and GM Chris Young, a former pitcher, did some heavy lifting. To me, the most interesting thing the Rangers are doing is that they’re changing the analytics culture of the previous administration to a baseball-first culture with the hiring of Bruce Bochy as manager. And he will manage. Chris Woodward, unfortunately for him, was one of those younger managers who was just a bridge between the analytics department and the dugout. “Here is what you do in this situation.’’

Bochy will manage – and if you look carefully, the Rangers made some nice minor league hirings in their coaches with experienced baseball people to help guide the younger managers, which in turn will help guide the younger players coming through the ranks. You have to start somewhere. They are one of the few teams that will take infield on a regular basis, too, so there is that; and you will begin to see this all take shape in spring training, if you watch closely.

Texas’ other AL West team, the defending World Champion Astros, continue to make wonderful baseball moves like signing pitcher Cristian Javier to a five-year extension for $64 million. He was a postseason beast. They added a power-hitting, aging first baseman in Jose Abreu to replace their aging first baseman, an upgrade. Dusty Baker has the troops in order (“The players respect Dusty,’’ noted one evaluator) and Dusty knew he was looking at a playmaker when he was looking at Jeremy Pena at shortstop and batting him second – and Pena delivered. Baseball wisdom.

Jeremy Peña of the Houston Astros poses for a photo during the 2023 BBWAA Awards Dinner at New York Hilton Midtown on Saturday, January 28, 2023 in New York, New York. (Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

There are plenty of teams that haven’t done much, however; and that is the fatal flaw for MLB, bad teams not even trying to improve. The Marlins look like they will feature a lineup with players in new positions, a curiosity worth taking a spring training look at one day in Jupiter. Their spring training ballpark partner, the Cardinals, will be better with catcher Willson Contreras escaping the Cubs. The Cubs, meanwhile have made a series of under the radar moves that could hit. I’ve been a Dansby Swanson fan when he decides not to strike out in practically half of his at-bats. Put the ball in play Dansby.

Another team worth talking about (if they focus a little more on winning and not on celebrations) is the Blue Jays. Chad Green could be a power addition late in the season. I also like Don Mattingly as bench coach. There is a little too much sideshow to the Blue Jays approach; it is too often Celebration City. As one longtime baseball wise man told me, “Celebrate when you have something to celebrate like winning the division, winning a playoff series, something like that, not every time you hit a ball over the fence.’’

Once again I point out the difference in how Aaron Judge celebrated his 62 home runs and how all these other teams celebrated home runs with either a Home Run jacket, a Home Run football helmet, or a Home Run ride in a laundry cart. Be happy, don’t go over the top. There is work to be done.

Here is my bit of simple wisdom for all teams, not just the Blue Jays: Focus on the Focus.

The Giants tried to get better this season but could not convince Judge to come home, which tells you a lot about the Giants. They have to hit on Michael Conforto coming back strong to have any chance of success. The mighty Dodgers are counting on their farm system for help before they go out and sign Shohei Ohtani next off-season

A lot of people have fallen into “the Orioles are so much better” trap; but I warned you a while back ownership has to want to take the next step. The Orioles’ owners are not about to do that. Yes the Orioles have improved and everyone in baseball knew catcher Adley Rutschman was the goods in the 2019 draft, so don’t give the Orioles too much credit for that No. 1 selection –  but they must step up financially.

Adley Rutschman #35 of the Baltimore Orioles throws the ball to second base against the Toronto Blue Jays during game one of a doubleheader at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on October 05, 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)

Others worth a mention are the Twins, getting Carlos Correa back in the fold after he twice ran away from home only to realize home is where the heart is, plus the guaranteed $200 million. Cleveland stayed ahead of the AL Central and added solid citizen Josh Bell and catcher Mike Zunino; but it’s not like this franchise goes over the top in the pursuit of greatness. They know they are in a bad division and make the most of it, kind of like the Brewers in the NL Central.

As for the Angels, who signed one of my favorite players Gio Urshela, at least now when Anthony Rendon gets hurt they have backup. I’ve heard great things about young catcher Logan O’Hoppe, acquired from the Phillies, so let’s see him develop. As Casey Stengel once said, “You have to have a catcher, otherwise you will have a lot of passed balls.’’

The Braves made a good move with the trade for catcher Sean Murphy from the pathetic A’s. I can’t wait to see if Ron Washington can build a shortstop in Vaughn Grissom with Swanson’s departure. The Braves know how to fill holes.

I’m keeping this column as positive as I can; after all, it’s spring training, you’re supposed to be singing the praises of baseball, so in order to do that I will have little to say about the White Sox, whose talent never seems to blossom – but I do like signing Andrew Benintendi. I’m interested to see the development in Gabriel Moreno, the young catcher the D-Backs acquired. As far as the Pirates, Rockies, Rays, Royals, Nationals, Reds, and A’s (just move to Las Vegas already) are concerned, there is not a lot new.

If you haven’t been to Lakeland, Florida to see the Tigers, go, it is a wonderful spring training environment. As for the Tigers themselves, their young players are a bit overrated and there is not a lot there, especially on offense where the 557 runs scored in 2022 marked the lowest total in MLB.

Forget all the numbers, though, and just enjoy spring training.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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