SweetSpot: Carlos Villanueva

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- One last game in Arizona before heading back to Connecticut ... no jokes about the weather back home, please.

Salt River Fields is the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, a beautiful $100 million complex that opened in 2011. It includes an 11,000-seat stadium surrounded by 12 practice fields and the grass on the diamonds was baseball-green perfect, immaculately maintained and smelled like spring. A building beyond the right-field fence and seating area houses the Rockies' executive offices and clubhouse (the Diamondbacks are down the left-field line). The lobby looked like you were walking into a Fortune 500 company and the clubhouse opulence matched anything you'd see in a major league ballpark. On this night, attendance was announced at over 12,000, including the fans sitting on the grassy hill in the outfield.

I'm not sure the facility actually makes the Rockies or Diamondbacks any better but it's a great place to watch spring training baseball.

A few thoughts on the game ...
  • The highlight came when Cubs prospect Javier Baez slammed his fifth home run of the spring, a titanic shot to center field in the eighth inning off Rob Scahill, a right-handed reliever who appeared in 23 games for the Rockies in 2013. ESPN Stats & Information estimated the blast at 452 feet as it landed in the second row of bushes, about 30 feet above the top of the fence. That doesn't even begin to explain the impressiveness of the blast. The crowd had thinned out by the eighth inning so it was quiet when Baez connected, sending a resounding "CRACK!" echoing throughout the stadium and drawing audible gasps from some of us in the press box (similar to the home run Baez hit off Randy Wolf last week). You don't hear sounds like that in big league ballparks because there is usually too much noise or you're too far away, but when they say "it just sounds different when he hits it" about certain players, in this case that was absolutely true.
  • The most impressive part of the at-bat was that Baez had flailed at two breaking pitches -- presumably sliders since Scahill throws a lot of sliders -- pulling off both pitches. The count was 2-2 but based on the earlier swings I was sure Scahill would ring up Baez with another slider. So give the 21-year-old credit for adjusting within the at-bat. Baez told ESPNChicago's Jesse Rogers it was the longest home run he'd ever hit.
  • Baez is slated to start at Triple-A, where he'll play some second base along with his usual position of shortstop. Baez is far from polished as a hitter -- while he's hitting .308 with five home runs and three doubles in 39 at-bats, he's also struck out 12 times without a walk -- but his performance indicates he's probably not that far away from the majors. You wonder if Darwin Barney becomes trade bait a couple months into the season. Barney doesn't provide much at the plate, but he's a plus defender and a team like Baltimore that may not get much offense from second base anyway could be interested.
  • Both teams ran out what will essentially be their Opening Day starting lineups, minus Starlin Castro for the Cubs, who is still resting a hamstring injury, so it was a good test for starters Carlos Villanueva and Franklin Morales. Villanueva, fighting for a rotation slot (he'll pitch in relief if he's not starting), struck out eight in four innings, making one mistake that Carlos Gonzalez hit for a three-run homer. Morales could win a rotation slot with Jhoulys Chacin out until May with shoulder soreness. He missed a lot with his fastball and walked three batters in his four innings but gave up just one hit and an unearned run. He's the same Morales, with a high-effort delivery that leads to control problems. Morales, of course, came up with the Rockies during their World Series season of 2007 and made two postseason starts that year after starting just eight times in the regular season. But injuries and inconsistency have plagued him throughout his career and he's never started more than nine games in a season in the majors, doing that with Boston in 2012. He's had a good spring, however, and it appears he'll start the season in the Rockies' rotation.
  • The Rockies lineup will run Michael Cuddyer, Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Justin Morneau, Wilin Rosario and Nolan Arenado in the second through seven spots. The leadoff position will change depending on who plays center field -- Charlie Blackmon, Drew Stubbs and Corey Dickerson are all candidates. Dickerson is the best hitter but regarded as the weakest fielder. Stubbs can't hit right-handers, so maybe it ends up as a Dickerson-Stubbs platoon. It also will be interesting to see if manager platoons Morneau at first base against lefties (Cuddyer could slide to first with one of the outfielders moving to right). Morneau hit .207/.247/.278 against left-handers in 2013 and .232/.271/.298 against left-handers in 2012. The Rockies may want to "justify" the Morneau signing by playing him every day but it's pretty clear he's useless against lefties these days.
  • Mike Olt entered late in the game as a pinch-hitter and drew a walk. He's hit well this spring but hasn't been able to play the field because of a shoulder injury. He's slated to make his first start at third base today. If he proves the shoulder is OK don't be surprised if he makes the Opening Day roster.


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