I was in Surprise in 2010 the morning that Ron Washington issued a shocking statement about a very big mistake he’d made the previous summer.
I was in Surprise in 2011 the morning that it was announced that Chuck Greenberg was leaving the Rangers, less than a year after he’d officially arrived.
Having scheduled just a weekend trip to spring training this year, I figured the odds were pretty good I’d get there and back without any drama.
Maybe next year.
As soon as we landed in Arizona on Friday, we headed to the back fields, ecstatic about our good fortune that Yu Darvish’s start that afternoon had been rerouted to the AAA game, which would take place on chain-link-fenced Field 5, where we’d be closer to the action than the first row of any stadium in Major or Minor League Baseball, among what would probably be an audience in the double digits.
I didn’t get the greatest night’s sleep Thursday, waking before 5 a.m. to make the early Friday flight, but mine apparently went better than Darvish’s. He woke with a stiff neck and was scratched from the back fields start — and eventually from his Opening Day assignment.
Jump ahead two days. Waiting at Gate 6 to board our flight home, news popped that Jurickson Profar had torn a muscle in his throwing shoulder, and would miss up to three months getting it back into playing shape.
Everything between was basically perfect.
Darvish didn’t make it to Field 5 on Friday, but we did anyway, and got another reminder that things don’t always go as expected.
Back in 2010, Elvis Andrus and Robbie Erlin had breakthrough baseball seasons. Andrus, in his second big league campaign, made his first All-Star Team at age 22 and had an outstanding playoff run, hitting .294 and stealing eight bases in nine tries. Erlin, age 19, in his second pro season, dominated at Low A Hickory (89 hits and 17 walks in 114.2 innings, with 125 strikeouts), and was tabbed by Baseball America as the Rangers’ number four prospect, behind Martin Perez, Profar, and fellow 2009 draftee Tanner Scheppers.
At the end of that 2010 season, among the possibilities of where you might have found Andrus and Erlin (who was traded to San Diego in 2011 with fellow pitching prospect Joe Wieland for reliever Mike Adams) on March 21, 2014 was probably not an entry that had them facing each other in a AAA exhibition game.
But injuries happen, and as a result of a couple of them, Erlin (auditioning for a rotation spot in San Diego due to Josh Johnson’s strained tendon) was making a back fields start and Andrus (still nursing forearm soreness and in need of at-bats) was leading off the bottom of every inning.
Andrus doubled the other way off Erlin in the first inning, singled the other way off him in the second, and doubled the other way off him in the third, but that’s not the story.
In a camp in which Prince Fielder and Perez have been virtually the only projected starters to have a clean run in camp, it’s actually pretty good news that Andrus is playing baseball every day, even if it’s not on both sides of the ball and involves every-inning plate appearances on the back fields. He’s at least expected to be ready to go by Monday’s Opening Day.
Alex Rios and Mitch Moreland appear to be past early-camp oblique injuries, but now Geovany Soto is expected to miss the same 10-12 weeks as Profar, with a torn meniscus in his knee requiring surgery. But Matt Harrison’s recovery from his latest lower back thing should delay the start of his season by only a few weeks, Colby Lewis should beat him to the active roster, and Adrian Beltre’s quad and Shin-Soo Choo’s elbow will be fine. Probably.
I don’t want to write another sentence about injured ballplayers, or complain about the state of the Rangers’ overall health with the opener around the corner — national writers like Ken Rosenthal and Buster Olney have joined the local beats and columnists in focusing on all of that — but I will say this: Right now is exactly when you most want Ron Washington to be the manager of your baseball team.
And as little interest as I have in post-season awards, things are teed up at this point for Wash, who once finished second in the Manager of the Year vote, and third another time, to win the trophy in 2014.
For that matter, as dark as the baseball cloud appears to be right now, there’s no sense in assuming that Wash’s team can’t win its own trophy this season. The odds may get longer with every press release, but I kinda like when this team is put in a corner.
With Profar and Soto out until the middle of the season, second baseman Rougned Odor and catcher Jorge Alfaro — number 1 and 1A on the club’s top prospects list — aren’t going to be in Arlington next week. Odor is slated for Frisco and Alfaro (almost certainly) for Myrtle Beach, where the two finished their 2013 seasons after second-half promotions. But if Odor translates another strong camp to another quick start, and if neither Josh Wilson nor Kensuke Tanaka nor Adam Rosales nor Brent Lillibridge (nor someone Texas acquires in the next couple days) holds things down at second base early on with Texas, Odor may be gone from the RoughRiders by time Alfaro arrives.
A “veteran American League scout insists,” according to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, that “Odor is so talented [that Texas wouldn’t] miss a beat with Profar out three months.” But Jon Daniels said the club will prioritize Odor’s development over any temptation to rush the second baseman, who turned 20 last month. Rangers announcers will have a little more time to ramp up on the pronunciation of his name, and for now might focus instead on the rule we learned back when Akinori Otsuka was closing games here that the “u” is silent.
And speaking of closing games, it didn’t take much on Friday to see that Neftali Feliz, who couldn’t keep the ball down and whose 90-92 on the scoreboard velocity-meter probably wasn’t a miscalibration (given Ryan Feierabend’s subsequent 93), wasn’t doing a whole lot of inspirational work to lay claim to his old role, especially when Joakim Soria has been so efficient in camp. Feliz had reportedly hit 97 in winter ball, encouraging the Rangers that his heyday velocity had returned. He never approached that this month, sitting low-90s and touching 95 on maybe two or three pitches. He didn’t exceed 92 on Friday.
Wash said Saturday morning that Soria was now his man in the ninth inning, and Feliz wasn’t. And that Alexi Ogando and Neal Cotts would get the chance to hold things down in the eighth inning, and Feliz wouldn’t. Asked to give an assurance that Feliz would break camp with a big league job . . . Wash wouldn’t.
Yesterday afternoon, the Rangers optioned Feliz to AAA. To rebuild arm strength.
And the organization’s trust.
The last time Feliz was a minor leaguer (not counting very brief rehab assignments) was 2009. In Oklahoma City.
The eighth inning was a discussion point since, that same morning, Wash confirmed that Scheppers — who had thrown 75 pitches in Friday’s efficient six-inning start (95-100 pitches if you count the extra work he got in the bullpen after being lifted), fanning six and walking none and hitting 96 on that same gun — had won a rotation spot.
Scott Feldman (2008), C.J. Wilson (2010), and Ogando (2011) set examples here as relievers who made successful transitions to the rotation.
Feliz (2012), not so much.
Get it done, Schep.
You, too, Robbie Ross. Hard to imagine that seven scoreless innings yesterday — after Scheppers had just become the first Rangers pitcher this spring to log six frames (four outs more, incidentally, than he’d ever recorded as a pro, at any level) — isn’t a prelude to the lefthander, who was nothing but a starter in the minors but has been nothing but a reliever in the big leagues, joining the beleaguered rotation himself. While nothing has been made official, that seems to be a near-lock at this point.
We all could have imagined, a month ago if not a week, a perfect scenario in which Scheppers took the ball on Opening Day, perhaps on the back end of a Darvish-to-Wash handoff, tasked with holding an eighth-inning lead against the Cliff Lee Phillies as Feliz began to stretch in the bullpen.
Instead, Feliz will be in Frisco, sizing up his Express road threads for Tuesday’s exhibition against the RoughRiders (when he’ll perhaps relieve Lewis), and waiting for Thursday’s opener in Round Rock, as Oklahoma City — now an Astros affiliate — comes to town. Somewhere in that span of days he’ll meet Chris Snyder, his new catcher, unless the two shake hands today as Snyder arrives in big league camp on his new non-roster deal while Feliz prepares for his first day of minor league drills.
And Scheppers may get the ball Opening Day anyway, only it would be in the first inning. Whatever number he occupied on the potential rotation depth chart this winter, Monday’s start won’t go to number one (Darvish) or number two (Harrison) or number three (Holland). It could go to Scheppers, or to Perez.
In 2011, the Rangers’ second World Series season, they used seven starting pitchers all year, with those aside from the top five making only five total starts.
In 2014, Texas could exceed both numbers in April.
And that’s whether or not veteran righthander Scott Baker, reported last night to be on the verge of signing a non-roster deal with the Rangers after refusing a AAA assignment with the Mariners, works his way from Round Rock to Arlington sometime in the season’s first month.
Coming back from spring training, what I really wanted to write about was Nick Williams stinging the ball with regularity and driving it with authority the other way to left field, which incidentally was almost exclusively his defensive home in 2013, while, at least on the two days I saw him this weekend, he was working in center field, which is a very cool development if it sticks.
I wanted to write about what middle infielder Yeyson Yrizarri (who turned 17 last month) did against Royals blue-chip lefthander Sean Manaea (who turned 22 last month) in a AA game on Saturday — an assignment Yrizarri got because Odor was with the big club that day, contributing a ringing pinch-hit double down the right field line — and about what Ronald Guzman (age 19) has been doing against all pitchers in what’s become a shocking number of looks with the big club (and about the impact this Guzman opportunity has to have had on Nomar Mazara and Lewis Brinson and Drew Robinson). About the work Joey Gallo still has to do, in spite of a raw power tool that Baseball Prospectus’s Jason Parks calls “the best I’ve ever seen at the [minor league] level.”
I wanted to write about a Chris Bostick-Sherman Lacrus moment on the back fields Saturday afternoon and about Ryley Westman’s backstory and about what Bill Stein’s kid is doing these days — and how it might impact the Rangers’ minor league hitters — and about an awesome 15-minute session in the bullpen involving Lewis, Mike Maddux, Andy Hawkins, and Brad Holman.
I really wanted to write about Alfaro and about what he did to that poor Royals runner straying off third and about what he did when his shortstop’s throw to first was wide and up the line and about how he nearly Blake Griffin’d that popup over the first base dugout and about what he can do with a bat in his hands and about how 1.82 + 4.18 equals not only six but also, in Alfaro’s case, something very cool and super-unique and about how confident I am that Pat Cantwell will play catcher in the big leagues, maybe for a long time as Alfaro’s sidekick, eventually, with both of them learning from Yadier’s big brother, which would be pretty great, all of which, you might have noticed, I can hardly contain myself about.
And about how extra-cool this picture of Jorge and Landry and Max and Preston and Dominic and Jake will be when they’re in high school and he’s in his prime.
But real life — in a baseball context — intervened, and instead I’m writing about unwelcome assignments to the disabled list and to Round Rock, and a growing pile of headaches stacking up for the Rangers, days before a new season gets unwrapped.
I suppose there’s a lesson in there for the five nine-year-olds who just got two very busy days in on the back fields, that they may never play with or against a player as good at baseball as the 215 that they saw suited up as Rangers this weekend, yet more than 150 of them may never get past AA and never make any money playing the game, and others who have made it to the big leagues will miss time because they threw too much or threw not enough or got run over by a motorcycle or tripped by a dog, or because they suffered a surgically indicated knee injury triggered during the catcher’s crouch, or slept wrong.
It’s hard. Bad things happen to athletes, and to teams.
And to fans, I guess. I know it feels that way now.
But when it comes to sports I’d much rather be frustrated, even despondent, than apathetic. If the bad stuff ever got to be too much, it would easy enough to cauterize the whole sports thing and move on, but that’s not me and that’s not most of you. Sports isn’t always Candy Land, and winning is a lot sweeter when it’s hard to do.
It’s been the worst spring training in Rangers history from a health standpoint. But it was the best spring training ever for Landry and Max and Preston and Dominic and Jake, and I bet for Jorge, too, as his picture continues to come into hi-def, rock ’n’ roll focus.
Those five kids, and that young catcher, are reminders to me of what’s so good about this game, even when it’s bad.
Because for those kids, on Field 5 and the rest of the diamonds fanned out around it, and in the stadium a few hundred yards and, for the fortunate ones, maybe just a few years away, amid all the long odds and the invariable setbacks there’s plenty of hope to dream on.
Texas hosts Seattle this afternoon and then busts tail for the airport with all the force and purpose of Elvis going first to third. Those guys, you can bet, can’t get out of Arizona soon enough.
And I can’t wait for Monday. It will be the final day of an ugly baseball month, and the first day of what we hope is another 162+. I’m fired up about Michael Choice, I’m fired up about Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross and Joakim Soria, I’m fired up about Jorge Alfaro and Rougned Odor and Yeyson Yrizarri and the Nick’s, Williams and Martinez.
That’s the type of stuff I expected to write about on my return from Surprise. Not the other stuff. The bad news has trampled the good news coming out of Surprise the last couple weeks, but that in no way disables — in fact it probably adds fuel to — my sports instinct to demand that yet another season of ball come on in, man, and go ahead and bring it.