Monday, March 19, 2007

Spring Training 2007 - Home at Last

It took me almost 13 hours, but I got home without incident. Yeah, yeah, looks like flying is less time, if not easier, than driving. But I had a good time driving, and I enjoyed the scenery.

I skipped the last game at Phoenix Muni, but I don't regret it. Yes, I miss those great seats, but I didn't miss the 100-degree heat. Or rather, I did miss the heat.

So, this is kind of, what do I think about the A's now that I've seen spring training?

First of all, the heat made all the difference this year. Unfortunately, I hit a week where the projected average was 95 -- but the mercury hit 99 or 100 each day I was there. Not pleasant, and couldn't have been pleasant for the players, who start working out an hour and a half prior to game time. It's a huge consideration, and one I'll have to think more about in future years. In other words: Do I really want to subject myself to that misery?

As for the A's, I think you have to realize that spring training isn't going to total everything up for you nicely. You automatically know that the roster players will play the first few innnings, usually, with the fill-ins at the very end. But sometimes that's not true. Piazza could come up to hit in the 7th inning, for instance. Or, as in the case of the A's on Sunday, they could have a split squad and you don't know who you're gonna get.

A note about that last: spring training is no cheaper than the regular games. It cost me $24 a ticket on a group rate for my seats. And $5 for a lemonade that almost tasted lemony. They charge you, but they don't guarantee you players worth your money. It's big business.

Okay, down to our business here. Let's break it down into the (obvious) three categories.

The relief corps looks genuine. In fact, the A's have so much treasure in the form of relievers that they really could afford to part with one or two or more if a good deal comes up. I'm not worried about long- or short-relief. I'm worried about the starters.

Rich Harden (if he stays healthy) could be dominant, no doubt. Every time he goes out there, we could possibly see a no-hitter. Dan Haren, I'm predicting, will have a break-out year; the guy has four pitches, and several versions of each. After that, we're less sure. Esteban Loiza is a very decent starter, but has had some questions raised about his health in spring training. Joe Blanton has had nothing but trouble in March. Joe Kennedy at this point is, I'm afraid, a joke. We'll see how it all plays out.

There are a few holes in the line-up when it comes to hitting. First baseman Dan Johnson will make the squad, or at least have a couple of months to see what he can do. Surely since he solved his vision problems, he should have a higher average, but that's not saying much. His spring training results are pretty good (read: better) in the hitting department, but I think he also lacks something defensively. (Nick Swisher on first, however, looks even better than last year, and his bat is solid. I hope to see more from Nick when runners are in scoring position - RISP.) I look at Johnson as trade bait, not real-solid-roster type. And let's not forget Erubiel Durazo, who is still a great hitter (now that he's solved his elbow problems); defensively, however, he is less than Johnson. Much less.

Mike Piazza was a genuine, rather cheap find. He's 38, so relieving him of his catching mask is going to help him tremendously. (Curious, isn't it, how he hung onto that mask until he finally had to let go...) Let me just say that he's a hitting machine. Seriously. The guy can hit any pitch, any time he wants to. Don't expect Frank Thomas numbers in homeruns, but do expect hits, many for multi-bases, and RBI's. And Milton Bradley is just about to reach his prime -- if he can stay healthy (not a small thing since the guy throws his body around with abandonment); expect great things from this guy.

Shannon Stewart, another Billy Beane acquisition during the off-season, and another brilliant move. Nobody would touch him when he had plantar fascitis, but now he looks terrific as a hitter in the 2nd or 3rd slot.

Eric Chavez, unfortunately, is less sure. He had a brilliant spring in 2006 and then went and injured, well, everything. Now his spring is less inspiring. And shortstop Bobby Crosby hasn't even stepped up to the plate, recovering from injuries he sustained last year.

DEFENSE. The thing that's going to hurt the A's the most in the defensive category is the loss of coach Ron Washington, who became the Texas Rangers manager. However, that loss won't be felt for, maybe, another year. Defensively the A's look really good, with six-time Gold Glover Eric Chavez at 3rd and shoulda-been-gold-glover Mark Ellis at 2nd. Catcher Jason Kendall is redefining the position on a daily basis. Shortstop Bobby Crosby isn't playing a real game yet, but we believe he'll be ready in April and perform well. Super sub Marco Scutaro fills in nicely, too, for Crosby or Ellis. Depth-wise, however, that's it; once you get to Antonio Perez, you're dipping into adequate but not awe-inspiring defense. And we'll be curious to see if others like Lou Merloni make the squad.

In the outfield, centerfielder Mark Kotsay is out until mid-season, replaced by Milton Bradley, who loves playing the position, and Nick Swisher, who is improving every game in right. Stewart will play left -- his arm isn't great, but he's a veteran player who can read the carom. Again, depth-wise, we're in trouble, however. Except for Bobby Kielty, there's no one else.

So, if I were going purely by numbers, I'd place the Angels first, with the Rangers second. The A's would only come in third. But baseball is everything but a series of numbers slung together. The Athletics will take the American League West again....but, again, it won't be easy.

Obviously you can tell I'm really looking forward to the games really starting in April. Like my friend George says, spring brings optimism about relationships and baseball. We think great things are just around the corner. I believe that.

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