Spring Training: New York Mets

Bucs' first-base platoon options

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Emptying the notebook after spending a spectacular Tuesday morning and afternoon in Pirates camp:

• Are the Pirates done shopping? Maybe not.

We know they were willing to offer A.J. Burnett $12 million, so they clearly still have money to spend. We also know they never could find a left-handed-hitting platoon partner for Gaby Sanchez at first base this winter. But clubs that have spoken with them believe they’d still like to acquire one.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh Pirates
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Pirates' internal options at first base include Andrew Lambo, center, Gaby Sanchez, left, and Chris McGuiness.

There doesn't seem to be much substance to rumors connecting them with free agent Kendrys Morales. But the Pirates continue to monitor Ike Davis' status in Mets camp. And when Morales and/or Nelson Cruz sign, that could result in players such as Justin Smoak or Mitch Moreland becoming available.

In the meantime, GM Neal Huntington said Tuesday, the Pirates remain "confident in our internal options" -- which would include converted outfielder Andrew Lambo, who hit 32 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A last year, former Rangers prospect Chris McGuiness and nonroster invitee Travis Ishikawa.

But Huntington also said: "That doesn't stop us from looking elsewhere. It’s just that now, our bar has been set a little bit higher, as to 'How do we make the club better?' And 'How do we make the club better at the right situation for us?' … If there's something that makes us better, and makes sense for us, we'll still look to do that."

• A year ago, Francisco Liriano was an enigmatic mystery man trying to get healthy. Now, amazingly, he’s about to become the Pirates’ Opening Day starter.

After seven often-exasperating seasons in Minnesota, Liriano was "fixed" by the Pirates' pitching gurus last year and went 16-8, with a 3.02 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and 163 strikeouts in 161 innings. But the true measure of how far he has come is that his manager, Clint Hurdle, used a word to describe him Tuesday that you never heard in Minnesota -- "dependability."

“The greatest ability you can have, day in and day out, is dependability,” Hurdle said. “We have that in Francisco.”

[+] EnlargeEdinson Volquez
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Pirates hope to unlock Edinson Volquez's potential.
• So who is this year’s Francisco Liriano? The Pirates are betting on Edinson Volquez, signed as a free agent to a one-year deal for $5 million.

Volquez had the highest ERA (5.09) and WHIP (1.53) in baseball over the past three seasons, among pitchers who worked as many innings as he did. But the Pirates look at his strikeout rate (8.4 per 9 IP over his career) and ground ball rate (which was once as high as 1.26 ground balls per fly ball in Cincinnati) and think they can make this work.

"The challenge is command," Huntington said. "Staying in the strike zone and attacking the strike zone. But analytically, we saw a guy who can strike people out and get ground balls. It's the walks (4.8 per 9 IP) that are the challenge."

The Pirates already have tweaked Volquez's delivery and believe he's in tremendous physical shape.

• The Pirates also feel they're on track, so far, to get Wandy Rodriguez back into their rotation after a season in which they had to shut him down after 12 starts because of forearm tendinitis. Rodriguez has thrown two bullpen sessions and said: "I don't feel nothing. I feel good. A lot different than last year."

• Finally, closer Jason Grilli, who also missed time last year because of forearm issues, caused some alarms to sound over the weekend when he skipped what seemed to be a scheduled bullpen session. But Hurdle said Tuesday -- on a day when Grilli threw 15 pitches off the mound and five more on flat ground -- that the blueprint was always for Grilli to take it slowly this spring.

"We have a plan in place for him to get involved at a particular time and then add to that as we move forward," Hurdle said.
As there are every spring, there are great baseball stories everywhere -- from Tampa to Tempe, from Jupiter to Space Coast Stadium, from Goodyear to Surprise.

Which teams will have a good year? Which teams will surprise? The questions are what make spring training so great, so fascinating. They are what define this time of year, along with warm weather, hope and the belief that March 29 will be the last useless evening that we'll have to spend.

[+] EnlargeSpring training
Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesNothing beats the look and feel of spring training.
It all begins, as so many spring trainings have before, with the Yankees in Tampa. We will get our first look at Masahiro Tanaka, who the Yankees made the fifth-highest paid pitcher in major league history before he ever threw a pitch in the big leagues. Is his splitter as good as everyone says? We will see Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran in Yankee uniforms, and we will see Derek Jeter in the final year of his career play shortstop at age 39; only five players in the game's history -- Honus Wagner, Rabbit Maranville, Luke Appling, Luis Aparicio and Omar Vizquel -- have played 100 games in a season at shortstop at Jeter's age. He'll turn 40 three weeks before the All-Star break.

The world champion Red Sox mostly will be without their beards this spring, but they will have a new catcher (A.J. Pierzynski), a new shortstop (Xander Bogaerts) and several candidates to be their new center fielder, including Grady Sizemore, who hasn't taken an at-bat in the big leagues since 2011. The Rays will have David Price, who hasn't been traded and now, it appears, might not be traded this season. The Orioles might start the season without Manny Machado, who is coming back from a serious knee injury. The Blue Jays will open spring training without the hype of last spring, which is good for them.

The Tigers, under new manager Brad Ausmus, will open the spring with a different infield from the one that took the field last spring, including Ian Kinsler at second base and rookie Nick Castellanos at third. Even more important, they have a real closer this spring in Joe Nathan. The Indians have a new closer, John Axford, as well. The Royals have a new leadoff batter (Norichika Aoki) and second baseman (Omar Infante). Meanwhile, the White Sox have a new first baseman (Cuban Jose Abreu) and the Twins' new first baseman is their old catcher, Joe Mauer.

The A's added to their bullpen, acquiring closer Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson and Eric O'Flaherty, and welcomed Scott Kazmir to their rotation. The Rangers gave Prince Fielder a fresh start at first base, found a position (second base) for Jurickson Profar and showed Shin-Soo Choo what a great country this is, especially when you reach free agency. Great country? The Mariners gave Robinson Cano $240 million, but is there protection around him in that lineup? The Angels made significant changes, none of which will really matter if Albert Pujols isn't healthy enough to play first base and produce something close to the Pujols of St. Louis. And if the Astros lose 128 games (they are not nearly that bad), they'll tie the Mets (1962-65) for the most losses ever during any four-year period in history.

The Braves have a new catcher in Evan Gattis, and they'll have to figure out how to get the batting averages of B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla back over .200. The Nationals, under rookie manager Matt Williams, need a healthy Bryce Harper (knee) if they're going to win the NL East; in mid-January, he sprinted for the first time without pain. We know the Phillies are in Clearwater, but nothing else about them is clear. The Mets have Curtis Granderson and Bartolo Colon, but not having Matt Harvey for perhaps the entire season will be a bummer. The Marlins still have Giancarlo Stanton. How long before that situation changes?

The Cardinals have almost an entirely new infield, a new center fielder (Peter Bourjos) and maybe a new right fielder if rookie Oscar Taveras is healthy and productive. The Pirates have hope again following a playoff appearance in 2013, and with Gerrit Cole for a full season. The Reds have a new manager in Bryan Price; now they need to find a center fielder to replace Shin-Soo Choo: Is this the spring that Billy Hamilton steals a job? The Brewers have a new right fielder in Ryan Braun; no questions about Biogeneis will be taken, however. The Cubs have a new spring training facility and a new manager, Rick Renteria.

[+] EnlargeMatt Williams
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsExpectations are once again high for the Nationals, who have a new manager in Matt Williams.
The Dodgers have four outfielders for three spots; one of them, Matt Kemp, is coming back from shoulder and ankle injuries -- his health and production will be one of the big stories of the spring. The Diamondbacks have a new left fielder, Mark Trumbo, who might hit 40 homers in their ballpark. The Dodgers and Diamondbacks will open the season March 22 in Australia; let's hope there isn't a major brawl Down Under. The Giants added Tim Hudson, and Pablo Sandoval subtracted 42 pounds. The Padres signed Josh Johnson to pitch in a rotation headed by Ian Kennedy -- here's hoping they play a doubleheader this year, and go with the Kennedy-Johnson ticket. The Rockies will open camp with Troy Tulowitzki, but, for the first time since 1988, they'll begin a season without Todd Helton.

There will be lots of stories, questions and sunshine this spring. It is the best time of year. It is a time for optimism: No one has lost a game, the rookies all have promise and the veterans believe it will be their best year. It is baseball in its purest form, a time for wind sprints, fundamentals, split-squad games on a back field where only the scouts are watching. Millionaire players are humanized and humbled in spring training. They are not receiving enormous paychecks every two weeks, and they're getting the same meal money as the rookie in his first big league camp. No one is exempt from the three-hour bus rides, playing on fields that aren't manicured to major league standards, and facing anonymous Class A pitchers who throw really hard, but have no idea where the ball is going. It is the one time of year that Justin Verlander and a 20-year-old kid are on equal ground. It is the one time of year that a player gets on the bus in uniform, just like in high school.

Eleven years ago, Indians pitcher Brian Anderson boarded the team bus at 8 a.m. for the two-hour drive to Vero Beach, Fla., for a spring training game. Thirty minutes into the trip, Anderson realized he had forgotten his hat, his spikes and his glove back in Winter Haven.

"I was running late that morning because I knew I was going to get to hit in the game, so I was looking for the really important things: batting gloves and a bat," Anderson said. "When we got to Vero, I was in full panic mode. I borrowed a car and went to a mall, but there wasn't one glove in the whole mall, but I found some adidas spikes. On the way back to the ballpark, I saw a WalMart. I thought, 'Hey, WalMart has everything ... tires ... produce ... it must have a baseball glove.' I found one: $29.95, already broken in. It was a softball glove. A Wilson. It was awful. I borrowed someone's hat and pitched in the game. Of course, I got three comebackers to the mound, and I caught them all because my new glove was as big as a butterfly net, it made [Greg] Maddux's glove look small. That day reminded me of when I was 17 playing Legion ball. That is spring training to me."

Only in spring training could this story happen. The Twins signed infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka in the spring of 2011. He didn't speak much English, and didn't know anyone on the team. Several teammates convinced Twins outfielder Denard Span to introduce himself to Nishioka, to make him feel more a part of the team. Only they tricked Span -- they told him that Ray Chang, another infielder, was Nishioka. So Span, ever respectful, approached Chang, bowed gracefully, introduced himself, and asked him if he spoke English.

"Sure I do," Chang said. "I'm from Kansas City!"

The whole team howled.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY SportsDerek Jeter, who played only 17 games last season, enters the final year of his career hoping to stay healthy.
Only in spring training could then-Rays first baseman Carlos Pena make a mistake in a baserunning drill, then justify it by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. "My first baseman is quoting Dr. King," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "I love it."

Only in spring training would pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, now with the Royals, ride his bike to work. "It was only five miles," he said of his daily ride two springs ago to the Rockies' facility. Then-teammate Michael Cuddyer said of Guthrie, laughing, "He once pitched in a game in Scottsdale, then got on his bike -- still in full uniform, with his glove on the handlebars -- and rode back to our facility. It was like a scene from 'The Sandlot.'"

Only in spring training would then-Padres pitcher Chris Young and Will Venable pick teams for a free throw shooting tournament because both guys played basketball at Princeton. "That's as nervous as I've ever been for an athletic competition," Young said with a smile, "because I'm not a great free throw shooter, and my team was depending on me to be good." Only in spring training would the Twins hold a bowling tournament behind the KFC in Fort Myers and, said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, "Joe Mauer would be high-fiving his teammates, guys he's never met in his life, after they rolled a strike." Only in spring training could Jeff Stone get thrown out at all four bases in one game, and only one of them was a forceout (think about that). Only in spring training could Rockies pitcher David Lee, in an emergency, drive the team bus on a night trip, then earn the nickname "Diesel" when he stopped the bus and announced, "We've got to get some diesel!"

Only in spring training is time taken to get in baseball shape. "We're always inventing drills and conditioning programs in spring training," said Rich Donnelly, now the manager of the Mariners' Triple-A team. "Years ago, we'd do 10 jumping jacks, touch our toes twice, then play. Today, these strength and conditioning coaches are always coming up with new stuff: rubber bands, parachutes, cones. I just can't imagine Ted Williams going to spring training and running with a parachute on his back, or Babe Ruth jumping over a bunch of cones."

It is a time for the fans, especially kids. Families take vacations to spring training. Getting a player's autograph is easier because everything and everyone is more relaxed than during the regular season. Well, except for when the Red Sox and Yankees played for the first time in spring training 2004, their first meeting since Aaron Boone's home run had sent the Yankees to the World Series, and sent the Red Sox home. Tickets were scalped for $500 for an exhibition game! Before the game, there was a fight in the parking lot at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers between a Yankees fan and a Red Sox fan ... both fans were women!

It's spring training. Finally. We can't wait.

Adam RubinIke Davis arrives at Friday's voluntary workout with Josh Satin.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- When Ike Davis left the visitors’ clubhouse at Turner Field in early September to head home for the offseason after straining his right oblique, he said goodbyes as if his Mets tenure were over. But Davis, despite the Mets’ public shopping of him this winter, remains a Met … at least for now.

And he acknowledged Friday he is surprised.

“The articles would say I wasn’t going to be here, so a little bit of shock I didn’t get traded,” Davis said. “But I’m happy I didn’t. Just because it seemed like we were pretty adamant about going somewhere, but obviously they had to make the right deal for them, and no one offered them what they thought enough, so I’m back.

“You know, it’s all hearsay until something happens anyway. Obviously, just knowing that you’re not going to play with your guys again, the friends that you made, it’s tough. But I never was once off the team. So it’s kind of like: article every day, except that there was no trade ever.

Adam RubinDavis

“It’s not a big deal. I wanted to be back. I’m back. So I’m happy about it.”

As for his ex-Yankee father’s Jan. 21 comments that the Mets “screwed up” being so public about wanting to trade the first baseman, Davis said: “I think that he probably is a dad. And he’s played baseball. And he’s a fan. I would never have said it. My dad has his own opinions. And he’s a pretty smart guy. I’m not really mad he did. He shouldn’t be asked those questions anyway. … He’s entitled to his own opinion. I haven’t had anyone yell at me about it yet.”

Davis maintained he did not personally have an issue with the public nature of the trade discussions, which included Milwaukee Brewers GM Doug Melvin openly acknowledging talks with the Mets.

“It’s not that big of a deal, because that’s baseball,” Davis said. “Getting traded is part of the game.”

Terry Collins has indicated he wants to get Davis 90 to 100 at-bats during spring training, roughly double last year’s total, in order to guard against Davis having another slow start. Davis was hitting .161 when he was demoted in June last season. In 2012, he was hitting as low as .158 at the same point in the season and needed David Wright and other teammates intervening to stave off a demotion.

Davis said the extra at-bats will not entirely come in Grapefruit League games, though. He might instead get eight at-bats in a day on the minor-league side.

Davis and Collins are due to meet soon, although forgetfulness by Davis caused him to miss his first appointment with his manager.

“I kind of blew that one, because he told me early in the day,” Davis said. “It was like six hours later and I just went home and forgot about it. So that was my fault. But I’m sure we’ll talk about it soon.”

As for at the plate, Davis feels like he finally has found a mostly undetected glitch in his swing.

“I started hitting a lot earlier this year. I started hitting in like November instead of January,” Davis said. “Hopefully that will allow me to be a little farther advanced.

“Who knows? Not changing my swings 65 times might help,” the first baseman dryly continued, referring to his penchant for constant tinkering amid struggles.

“I looked at a lot of film and there were some things that I saw that I wanted to change. … There was one little thing that I kept doing wrong that no one really could see, or didn’t come out right, or wasn’t said in a way that I could understand it.

“You guys aren’t going to understand it, but my back leg, instead of going down, was coming up. It was causing my shoulder and my hands to drop and stuff like that. So I’m working on that to keep my back leg from coming up.”

Technically, Davis and Lucas Duda are in a competition for the first-base job. Still, the most likely scenario -- assuming Davis is not traded before Opening Day -- would seem to be Davis being the first baseman and Duda a lefty bat for the bench, part-time outfielder and DH when the Mets play in Anaheim in mid-April.

“It’s always a competition,” Davis said. “It’s been a competition since we were drafted. It’s been a competition every single time you step on the field. It’s not like we can control anything. You’ve just got to go play and see what happens. I love Duda. He likes me. It’s just whatever, you know? You’ve just got to go play.”

As for his confidence level about whether he will remain a Met on Opening Day, Davis said: “Once again, that’s always up in the air. Nothing has changed from the spring training I got here until now. You don’t know you’re going to be on the starting [roster]. You don’t know you’re going to be a starter. You don’t know where you’re going to be. You just have to go out and play and see where they put you.”