Thoughts from spring training

If you’re a baseball fan and haven’t taken a week off in March and spent a week in Florida for spring training, then you need to make it a priority. Put it on the Bucket List. In fact, drop what you’re doing right now and get in the car. There’s still a few weeks left for this year.

I spent last week in Florida, visiting a number of sites. As a prospect guy, I went to see the back fields as much as the Grapefruit League games, although I took in plenty of them as well.

Here are a few of my thoughts:

On facilities

It’s not like free agents in baseball make their decisions based on facilities the way we’re hearing they apparently do in football, but the disparity among facilities is obvious. The Red Sox’ facilities, for instance, are newly renovated and beautiful. In fact, if there’s one place you need to hit on a spring training trip, its JetBlue Park at Fenway South, which they have re-done to replicate Fenway Park almost perfectly. They even have a Green Monster you can sit in, or on top of, without going broke the way you would in Boston.

Other newer facilities, such as the Phillies’ and Braves’ locations, are both player and fan friendly. Others, like the Twins’, for example, are outdated and boring, much like the Metrodome was.

From Braves camp

Andrelton Simmons is their best defensive shortstop. Not for the future, not next year. Right now. And it’s not that close. I broke down the Braves decision between Tyler Pastornicky and Simmons, which wasn’t a decision they thought they were going to have to make when camp broke. But Pastornicky has struggled, and Simmons has shined this spring.

Simmons is certainly not ready to hit at the major league level, but he is much more the Braves shortstop of the future than Pastornicky, so the Braves could be tempted to make that future this year. If they do, Simmons will struggle at the plate, but he is a smooth defender and can handle that part of the job just fine today, if need be.

Joey Terdoslavich, who moved back across the diamond to third base after playing first base last season, was smoother than I expected him to be defensively. The former college third baseman has plenty of arm for the position, and moves his feet better than I had imagined, which makes me wonder why the Braves moved him off the position in the first place.

From Rays camp

The Rays have a decision looming: where former first overall pick Tim Beckham will ultimately play. It’s not going to be shortstop, but not because he can’t do it. In fact, he didn’t look terrible taking ground balls at short. He’s a little stiff and too upright, but he could handle it in stints, if not for a whole season while he’s still young and athletic.

But Hak-Ju Lee is much better. He’s smooth and fluid and makes tough plays look routine. Assuming he hits, and I believe he will, he will be the Rays’ shortstop of the future. As for Beckham, I could see him in a super-utility mold (assuming he hits, which is a bigger question for him than it is for Lee), and the Rays will give him some time at second base this year. Third base would be a more natural move for him, and he’s clearly blocked there by Evan Longoria, but don’t be surprised to see him learn that position as well to give him more versatility.

Ultimately, I see Beckham as a backup who gets 300-400 at-bats per season, playing multiple positions, in a Wilson Betimit-type role, which manager Joe Maddon is excellent at using to its greatest extent.

From Phillies camp

—The most impressive player on the back fields of Phillies camp was third base prospect Maikel Franco. He moves well for a big kid who is still growing into his body. He looks like he has plenty of athleticism to stay at third base, but his hands will ultimately make the decision. He has plenty of arm to stay at the position, but he needs to stay on top of his throws. He drops his arm slot and slings the ball when he gets lazy.

If his hands force a move, or if he outgrows the position, he has plenty of arm for right field. At the plate, he has natural raw power. I saw him get jammed pretty badly on one swing in batting practice and still one-hop the center field fence.

—Catching prospect Sebastian Valle looks like the real deal. He has a smooth swing and great swing path. He needs to watch wrapping his bat around his head in his load, which tends to lengthen his swing from time to time, but as long as he gets his hands in the right position and gets his foot down in time, he will hit. He has good natural power and a solid frame to grow into. He’ll be the Phillies’ catcher as soon as they need to move on from Carlos Ruiz.

—There are a number of different ways to do a spring training trip. If you want to take your son or daughter, there is a ton to do (especially for young kids). If you have a teenage son or daughter, I recommend the back fields where they can see the practices, especially if your son or daughter is an aspiring baseball or softball player. They’ll get to see some of the drills major league players are doing, which can be a great experience.

But if you’re going with your buddies and are into things like drinking beers (which happens to be a favorite pastime of mine), there’s no better spot than BrightHouse Networks Field in Clearwater. The Phillies’ spring training home has the best atmosphere for those who enjoy the party aspect of a ballgame. Phillies fans come down in droves, and the tiki bar in left field not only creates a nice watering hole during the game, but doesn’t close at the typical last call in the seventh inning; it stays open (and crowded) hours after the game.

A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

From Pirates camp

Gorkys Hernandez, one of the pieces the Pirates got back in the Nate McLouth trade and who is now playing alongside the player he was traded for, can’t quite figure out what type of player he’s supposed to be. He’s got a small-man’s game in a bigger body than you’d think. He’s a speed guy with a power-hitter’s swing. He takes monster hacks at the plate, but doesn’t produce the power to go along with his swings and misses. He either needs to shorten up his swing and make more contact or figure out how to produce more power. Given his speed, I’d choose the first option.

Josh Bell is a grown man. Just standing on the field next to big leaguers, he looks imposing. His swing looks good, although I got to see o0nly a brief round of batting practice before rains cancelled the rest. But the most impressive thing was just how big, and developed, he is for a recent high school draft pick.

Overall, a spring training trip is a wonderful experience for a baseball fan, and one that I recommend to anyone who enjoys the game, no matter how you enjoy it. If you’re a serious fan, it’s your best chance to see an entire organization in one place, and most facilities give you access to the back fields. If you’re an autograph hound, you won’t be alone, and most players are pretty gracious with their time in March. If you’re more into the social aspect of the game, there’s plenty of places and people for that as well.

It’s a trip that every baseball fan should do at least once.

References & Resources

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Frank Jackson
Frank Jackson
A couple of tips from my 12 years of spring training experience: Don’t just hang around your home team’s complex.  Get out and visit others.  You will meet people who are knowledgeable about these other franchises and you will find it very educational. Also, the latter half of spring training often features exhibition games between minor league affiliates.  Typically, these are played on the practice fields and are free.  Sometimes, you can even witness three games being played simultaneously! And, unless you’re going to a night game, always ask for a seat in the shade! As one author (can’t remember… Read more »