This week I made my first pilgrimage to the festival known as Spring Training. There is no better excuse to get out of town, find some sun and get a taste of things to come.
aig first caught my eye playing for AA Springfield two years ago. I liked him immediately, and I am pulling for him to make the club.
off for the Cardinals, second baseman, Skip Schumaker!
until a month or two ago, no one would have dreamed of hearing those words
Opening Day 2009. Or, ever. Least of all, Skip Schumaker.
Skip Schumaker came in to Spring Training with a crowded class of
young talented outfielders. He needed to find his
niche, the skill that differentiated him from the pack and would earn him a roster spot and keep him in the lineup.
bats left-handed. Great! Problem solved. Wait, not so fast. St. Louis may be the one place
where being a left-handed outfielder will not give you an advantage. Instead, you just get in line with the likes
of Rick Ankiel, Chris Duncan and Colby Rasmus.
So, Skip Schumaker looked around and saw the Cardinals
needed a lead-off hitter. He worked
his tail off and won the spot. He had a great 2008 season. Finishing with 8 HR’s, 46 RBI’s, 8 SB’s, 87
runs, batting .302. He was healthy,
too. Not many Cardinals could say that
only criticism thrown Schumaker’s way was that he struggled against
left-handed pitching, only hitting .168.
His average against right-handed pitching was an amazing .340. So, over the off season, Schumaker went back
to California thinking the only thing
he had to work on was hitting lefties.
the last two off-seasons, Schumaker has worked on his swing with the now
reclusive, Mark McGwire. McGwire
also works with Matt Holliday, Chris Duncan and Bobby Crosby at an undisclosed
location in California. Oh, it might be disclosed, but I did not
track it down. I am not a very good
stalker. So, we were all looking forward
to seeing if Schumaker had figured out left-handed pitching over the winter,
FAST-FORWARD TO 2009
Skip Schumaker came in to Spring Training with an even more
crowded class of young talented outfielders. Five
or six serious contenders for three spots.
A nice problem to have if you are a manager. Not so nice for major league ready players
that might find themselves back in Memphis.
the crafty Manager looks around. Sees the crowded
outfield and turns his gaze toward second base.
Hmmm…all of outfielders hit better than anybody we have that can play
second, maybe we could bring an infielder in.
might have forgotten to mention this to Schumaker, because when asked a
question about it at Fan Fest, Schumaker basically laughed off the idea. He said that he played shortstop in
college, but there is a good reason he is an outfielder.
soon as he realized the idea was legitimate, Schumaker immediately had his dad
hit him ground balls. In the rain. He arrived at Spring Training camp early to
get in as much work as possible with Jose Oquendo before Oquendo would leave to
manage Team Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. No one works harder than Skip Schumaker,
perhaps this is why LaRussa chose Schumaker to make the transition.
the world of work, I call this “punishment by performance”. There are always those people at work
that are the most productive and competent.
How do we reward them? With more
work, of course, because we know they can do it.
great “experiment”, as the transition was first billed, drew criticism. When you have a pitching staff that does not
rely on the strike out, but pitches to contact and counts on the ground ball
out, it is critical to have a middle infield that can field cleanly and turn
two. The early errors made by Schumaker
were not comforting, in particular the errant throw that pulled Albert Pujols
dangerously into the path of the baserunner.
Schumaker has a good outfield arm.
Harnessing the cannon for the short throw to first has been the
hardest part. Fortunately, we do
have a Gold Glover at first base with great range to pick him up.
year on a televised game, fellow outfielder, Joe Mather, was asked to read the
lineup on air. He described Skip
Schumaker as “the most intense guy on the field.” When I go to a baseball game, I enjoy getting
there early and seeing the players go though batting practice and their warm-ups. It is most telling. I knew what Joe Mather was talking about, not
because I had watched Schumaker play, but because I had watched him
prepare. My favorite thing is that he finds
a quiet spot away from the others, often with a bat in hand. He seems to clear his mind, visualize success,
lock and load. Watching Schumaker
prepare is like watching a thunderstorm form overhead that is going to unleash
its wrath on the next town over.
comparisons could be made between Schumaker’s move to second and Rick Ankiel’s
conversion from a pitcher to an outfielder.
Ankiel’s story is an amazing one, made even more legendary by the
fact that Babe Ruth made that transition as well. But, Ankiel got to do it in the minors, under
the smaller lights with less of a sense of urgency placed on him by
others. (I have no doubt he placed a
huge sense of urgency on himself.)
Schumaker got a month in Spring Training at the Major League level to
make it or break it.
has made it. On Opening Day, we will hear the words: “Leading off for the Cardinals, second
baseman, Skip Schumaker. The beauty of his performance this spring is that
even with all the extra work in the field, he has stayed strong at the plate
batting .301. Sadly, because Spring
Training stats “don’t matter”, I could not find splits to see if he is hitting
lefties better or not.
transition has not been seamless. He has
made errors, and he will make errors. “Average”
in the field and a repeat of last year at the plate is the expectation. Nobody expects Schumaker to win a Gold
Glove. At least, not this year. If he can be an “average” infielder in a
month, I can only imagine what he might be in a year.
Photo Credit: Skip Schumaker preparing for a game against the Astros in 2008 by me.
SPRING TRAINING UPDATE
While taking a couple days off from the World Baseball Classic, I realized that I had been severely neglecting my Cardinals. It is an easy thing to do when only about half the games are broadcast on the radio, even fewer are televised and most all take place while I am at work.
Work is like a sacrifice fly. I do not get on base, but I score the funds to live in an enclosed space, eat ballpark hot dogs and wear clothes adorned with the birds on the bat.
Just because the opportunity to savor Spring Training games has been sadly lacking, do not think I have not been paying attention to my beloved Redbirds. Thanks to the fine beat writers at stlcardinals.com and stltoday.com, I get the daily scoop.
Blessedly, for the most part, I like what I hear. The starting rotation is shaping up. The headline is a healthy and sharp Chris Carpenter that has yet to give up a run. Kyle Lohse has pitched the most innings and has a 3-1 record. Joel Pineiro has a low 1.29 ERA. Adam Wainwright is has good command of his fast ball. Todd Wellemeyer has been burned by the long ball, but I know he will work that out. How do I know? Well, I will tell you in a bit.
Jason Motte has excelled in the bullpen going 4-4 in saves vs. save opportunities, with an ERA of 1.08. Josh Kinney is 2-2 in saves with a 1.29 ERA. Chris Perez has struggled with shoulder soreness, but he still has time to come around. Ryan Franklin, the bullpen veteran, is coming along nicely. As is lefty, Trevor Miller.
At the start of Spring Training, positional player questions were plentiful. (Try to say that 5 times fast). Now, it seems we have options. Many young players have made a strong case for themselves. Joe Mather seemed a lock for the temp job at third base. Now, Brian Barden, batting .419, is coming on strong.
The innovative idea to take one of the plenteous outfielders and turn put him in the open slot at second base is working out. Skip Schumaker is making a go of it at second. He had some errors, mostly on throws. He seemed to have a little too much arm for the position. But, he is turning double plays and getting the job done. All the extra work in the field has not taken away from his hitting. He is batting .345.
Also garnering attention as a possible utility infielder is Joe Thurston. He has some speed with two stolen bases. Brendan Ryan is another possibility. One more infielder worth mentioning is Craig Allen. Allen played at Double-A Springfield last year. I watched one Springfield game last year and Craig stood out. He is projected to be at Triple-A Memphis this year, which is rather sad since he is batting .444 and slugging .667. What more could a guy do in Spring Training?
The final question mark is tattooed on the forehead of one young highly touted prospect. Fine, Colby Rasmus’ forehead is tattoo free, but the question gets asked over and over and over: When will Rasmus get the call-up? The jury is still out. Rasmus got off to a slow start, but after a little sit down chat with the skipper, he is hitting very well.
Overall the Cardinals are 14-6, which puts them in second place in the Grapefruit League. I know, it means nothing. But, it is positive. Very positive. Which is the opposite of a negative like this one: Houston‘s 3-16 record. It makes for a happy, hopeful spring for Cardinals fans.
The hardest thing to do in baseball is hit that little round leather orb with the wooden stick. If that is true, then MLB 2K9 is very realistic. I had a little time to play today, and I finally figured out how to swing, but offensively, I stink. I have mastered the groundout to third, as well as the groundout to short. Through no fault of his own, Yadier Molina struck out more times today than he did all season last year. I am ridiculous.
My fielding is getting better. Of course, the only way to go is up when you start with 16 errors in one game.
However, I can really pitch. Todd Wellemeyer is going to be just fine this season. I know this because Welly and I pitched an amazing game today. Complete game, no-hitter, with 23 K’s. Yep, it is a new Major League record.
Our first pitch slider was un-hittable. Then a changeup would usually get strike two. Finally, the payoff pitch: a little high, inside fastball to finish the hitter off. We were dominant. We were efficient, finishing the game on 82 pitches.
But, we still lost. Our pinpoint control vanished just long enough to allow a walk, a stolen base and two wild pitches, which scored the runner. I think Molina could have blocked the wild pitches, but he was mad at me for making him look so ghastly at the plate. Pirates win 1-0. Maybe, we will get ’em tomorrow.
World Baseball Classic
I enjoyed a couple days off, but I am excited for the finals. With no baseball on TV this afternoon (well, there was a cubs game, if that counts), I am embarrassed to admit I watched a Lifetime movie. I am a sucker for John Corbett, no matter how bad the movie. Baseball will be back on tonight to save me from myself!
I have good news and bad news. Let us start with the good news.
The Cardinals played an exciting game yesterday in Jupiter, FL against the Boston Red Sox. The good news is Chris Carpenter pitched four scoreless innings. He is pitching strong and healthy. After his injuries, it is great to see him back to 2006 form, because we all know how 2006 went down.
In other good news, Josh Kinney came in a pitched a perfect ninth with two strikeouts. He picked up the win when Joe Mather hit a 2-run walk-off homer. Cardinals win 4-2.
Bad News from the World Baseball Classic
This is not the bad news: The World Baseball Classic has taken over my life. I loved the marathon of games last weekend. Baseball from before the crack of dawn in to late in the night is pretty cool. During the week, the games overlapped and I mastered the art of watching two games at once. However, last night, I did enjoy the fact that there was only one game to focus on, and I am going to enjoy the off day today. But, I will be anxious for the games to start again on Saturday.
In the one WBC game last night, Cuba faced Mexico. Although Cuba had pulled ahead 7-4, it was a game, until the 7th. The announcer might have said: “Now pitching for Mexico, newly signed Cardinals lefty, Dennys Reyes.” It would have been in Spanish, so I do not really know.
So, Reyes takes the mound. It was like a very sad song that goes something like this:
First Verse: First two batters hit hard up the middle.
Chorus: Wild pitch, both runners advance (the pitch was a foot over the umpire’s head)
Second Verse: Double to left, two runners score
Bridge: Reyes has been hit hard. Now he hits back. If a quarterback hits a guy in the numbers, it is a good thing. If a pitcher hits a guy in the numbers, it is a bad thing. Reyes nailed Leonys Martin right between the two and the six on his back. Ouch!
Chorus: Wild pitch, both runners advance (again over everyone’s head)
Repeat Chorus: Wild pitch, both runners advance. Lead runner scores. (this one was at the batter’s feet…just to mix things up)
Tag: The next batter walks.
Finally, Reyes is yanked, but the bleeding continues for Mexico. The inning ends due to the mercy rule when Cuba is up 16-4. Only one out was recorded.
I know, I know. It is only one inning. It is early and Reyes, newly signed, has not been in camp and is not in season form. He was pitching in dismal wet conditions. But still, it was not something an optimistic Cardinal fan needed to see.
Announcer, Charlie Steiner said it best, “Boy, Dennys Reyes has nothing. Not tonight.” And, he is all ours for two years.
I just peeked at my calendar for the weekend. I would like to tell you it was full of interesting social engagements. Wine-tasting. Jazz concert. Museum opening. Or, at least a kegger. Opening a bottle of wine, putting on Harry Connick, Jr. while browsing Art.com is as close as one gets to high culture in rural Oklahoma. A kegger could be had, but that is not the sort of thing that needs a calendar entry.
What I found on my calendar was baseball and lots of it. With the World Baseball Classic and Spring Training underway, baseball will be on all day, all weekend. There is so much baseball that games actually overlap. Tomorrow afternoon, I will be listening to the Cardinals Spring Training game, while watching USA take on Canada in the first round of the WBC. After the long winter drought, I am suddenly overwhelmed by the possibility of an entire weekend of baseball.
There is plenty of talk that the WBC games really do not mean anything. Neither do Spring Training games, for that matter. Maybe, they do. Maybe, they don’t. Nonetheless, I will be watching, because it is baseball. And, it is on. All weekend long.
So, like an alcoholic in need of a drink, I am going on a baseball bender this weekend. But, I think I can handle it. I do not think it will be too much. Unless, of course, my copy of MLB 2K9 shows up in my mailbox tomorrow as Amazon.com says it should. In that case, I am going to have one raging baseball hangover on Monday.
Ah, spring! A time of hope and renewal, where anything is possible and the sky is the limit.
So much good news has filtered out of the St. Louis Cardinals camp in Jupiter, Florida! Adam Wainwright looked good in live batting practices. So, did a HEALTHY Chris Carpenter. Of course, when pitchers look too good in live BP, I worry that there’s something wrong with our hitting. It’s only the first week, so maybe, I worry too much.
The Cardinals also made it through the first week without a player logging a season ending injury. Woo-hoo! The two pitchers (Mitchell Boggs and Matthew Scherer) that experienced soreness early in the week are healing nicely.
Redbird Migratory Paths
Two former redbirds have roosted in the Tampa Bay Rays camp: Adam Kennedy and Jason Isringhausen. If the Rays repeat this year, they may both look at their last rocky days in St. Louis as a blessing in disguise. Seeing Izzy not in a Cardinals uniform is beyond weird. As the all-time Cardinals saves leader, he has earned his place in Cardinals history. It is “unfortunate” (a word Tony LaRussa used) that Izzy could not finish his career with a strong year in St. Louis.
Cooler Heads Did Not Prevail
The controversy of the week involved Jose Oquendo, Cardinals Third-Base Coach and Manager of Team Puerto Rico, not choosing Joel Pineiro for Team Puerto Rico’s starting rotation. For Team Puerto Rico, the starters will be Javier Vazquez (Braves), Ian Snell (Pirates) and Jonathan Sanchez (Giants). Looking at last year’s numbers, I could not see a clear cut reason why these pitchers, except for Vazquez, were picked over Pineiro:
Javier Vazquez 12-16, 4.67 ERA, 61 BB, 200 K’s 208.1 IP
Ian Snell 7-12, 5.42 ERA, 89 BB, 135 K’s 164.1 IP
Jonathan Sanchez, 9-12, 5.01 ERA, 75 BB, 157 K’s 158.0 IP
Joel Pineiro 7-7, 5.15 ERA, 35 BB, 81 K’s 148.2 IP
Joel Pineiro did pitch well in the 2006 WBC (2.08 ERA, 4 BB, 5 K’s, 8.2 IP). So, perhaps there is another reason. The manner in which Pineiro took the news, venting his displeasure to reporters, claiming he was “disrespected”, and giving in to his emotions made me wonder if Oquendo’s pick had more to do with temperament than performance. Pineiro is an emotional player, and when things start to go badly in a game, his emotions can get in the way.
Or, perhaps it was Pineiro’s mindset. Maybe because he and Oquendo are teammates and he started in the in the 2006 WBC, he thought he was a lock for the rotation. He already purchased tickets for his family to the WBC. He thought Oquendo was joking when he first suggested that Pineiro would be in the bullpen rather than the rotation. Did Pineiro take too much for granted?
Coaches typically do not appreciate players who assume too much. One of the few starts I got in all my years of playing basketball came when the coach overheard some of the starters use the word “indispensable” in regard to their value to the team. Of course, after about five minutes of my stinking up the court, they were in and I was back on the bench where I belonged. Still, we learned a valuable lesson. Work hard. Be ready. Assume nothing.
In the end, it is Jose Oquendo’s team and his decision. Pineiro has every right to feel “disrespected” or disappointed or upset, but it is not cool to unleash those emotions outside the clubhouse and express your displeasure with your coach to the media. If he wants to be respected, then he should know that his comments made him look like a spoiled, petulant child rather than a man worthy of respect that he insists he is due.
Crash Davis School of Clichés
You remember the scene that went something like this:
: It’s time to work on your interviews.
: My interviews? What do I gotta do?
: You’re gonna have to learn your clichés. You’re gonna have to study them, you’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends. Write this down: “We gotta play it one day at a time.”
: Got to play… it’s pretty boring.
: ‘Course it’s boring, that’s the point. Write it down
: (Writing) …one day at a time
Following Crash’s guidelines of “boring is good”, I tried to rework Pineiro’s statements.
Original Statement: “[Oquendo] said if I went, it was going to be in the bullpen. Everybody knows that’s not my role. I was very disappointed, very heartbroken…I felt disrespected. I mean, everybody knows there’s only been two pitchers in Puerto Rico which has 8-10 years [as a] consistent starter, which is Javier Vasquez and myself….everybody knows if I go out there as a bullpen guy, I’m going to get setback here…if I would have been there as a starter, it would have been my normal exhibition game starts…But, after I was informed that I was not going to be a starter, I was not happy about that.“
Boring Statement: “Oquendo said he had a spot for me in the bullpen, but not as a starter. If I went as a starter, I could prepare for the season the same as I would here. Unfortunately, I can’t do that pitching out of the bullpen, so I made the tough decision to stay here, work hard and be ready to go in April. I am disappointed that I will not be representing my country in the WBC, but Puerto Rico has other great pitchers to take my place. And, I’m happy to be here. I hope I can help the ballclub. I want to give this season my best shot and the good Lord willing, things will work out. Instead of playing in big games this spring, we’ll be playing in big games in October.
Of course, if he said that, there would be no controversy, and what would I write about? This may all work out for the best for Pineiro. He was both injured last year and not particularly sharp. His hold on the fifth spot in the Cardinals rotation is tenuous at best. He should be hearing the footsteps of capable young arms gaining on him, ready to take his spot.
In one of his statements he said, “I felt, I’m a veteran guy. I’ve been around long enough to know that I should be there representing my country. I deserve that respect. That’s the way I look at it.” A sense of entitlement, does not typically get one the respect they feel they deserve. Actions do. If he wins a dozen games, gets his ERA under 4.0 and learns how to control his emotions so he can pitch himself out of a jam, then he will have my respect, the respect of his teammates, and, I dare say, Oquendo’s too.
Pitchers and Catchers reported to work on Saturday, but they were not the only players working out at the Cardinals camp in Jupiter, Florida. Since the moment Jason Isringhausen faltered in 2008, the biggest question in Cardinals Country has been, “Who’s going to close?” The oldest question is, “Will Chris Carpenter ever return to the rotation?”
Now, there are other questions. With both Miles and Kennedy gone: “Who is going to play second?” With Troy Glaus rehabbing from surgery until May: “Who is going to play third? Then, the glut of able-bodied outfielders begs the question: Who will fill those outfield spots, who will be on the bench, and who will be back in AAA Memphis?”
Barring injuries, the only certain positions are Albert Pujols at first, Yadier Molina behind the plate and Khalil Greene at shortstop. Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick will most likely find themselves some spot in the outfield on opening day, and Skip Schumaker will lead off somewhere.
So much uncertainty means competition. Big time competition. The players know it, and they are there early to get any edge they can. Everybody in the running for 2B, 3B or an outfield spot is already in camp working out. No one is taking anything for granted.
Many of the 2009 Major League teams will be defined by the free agent they signed or did not sign in the off-season. The 2009 Cardinals will be defined by the strength of their farm system, a system that has come through in the past.
I like it. I like it a lot. Most fans would be more comfortable with fewer questions and more proven veterans, but I like the kids. The young, hungry, talented kids with something to prove. The 25 men on the opening day roster will be young warriors. They will have earned their spot. They will know what it takes to win.