In the comments of Tuesday's post Hinkster noted that it would probably take an entire thread to give proper voice to the myriad Spring Training clichés about to be loosed from the sportswriter quiver. I'm always up for a good organizing structure, so with that in mind I present the first annual Best Shape of Their Lives awards.
"I'm in the best shape of my life." The perennial favorite; if players were in the best shape of their lives as often as they said they were, in aggregate they'd be so much exponentially stronger on a year-to-year basis that baseball would now involve 300 mph fastballs and 500 yard bombs—not home runs, but actual bombs. (The more pressing concern would be accommodating all the players, since nobody would ever retire.)
In any case, this maxim usually goes to a disappointing player who's got decent prospects for recovery. The league-wide winner is probably Jeff Francoeur, who's made the best-shape rounds for the past few days, but in St. Louis I'd have to give this one to Khalil Greene or Chris Duncan, two guys who have a lot to—but I've gotten, already, to this cliché's bookend: "I've got a lot to prove."
"I'm just going to take it one game at a time." This could go to Khalil Greene too, on some level; by coming to a new organization, being well known as an intelligent baseball player, and following up a terrible season, Greene has managed an enviable Spring Training cliché trifecta. But even he has to defer to a player who actually must take it one game at a time: Chris Carpenter.
Years from now my children will ask me if I saw Chris Carpenter during his rumored four 2008 appearances, and I'll tell them that there are some times when what you're seeing so defies explanation as to make you question the things you see—the things you believe to be incontestably there. Watching Chris Carpenter pitch, since 2006, is that time. Having pitched, allegedly, in five games in the last two years, if Carpenter takes it even two or three games at a time he is liable to find himself in August.
"I've been working on my timing." I've got to hand this one to Colby Rasmus. If he'd come up in 2008 he'd have arrived to find the outfield barren and ready for its young savior, reliant on a platoon first baseman, a former pitcher with three professional seasons as a hitter, and an ex-prospect whose primary contribution to the Cardinals, to this point, was having a brother who was traded for Mark McGwire.
But timing is everything, as every hitter who struck out more than 100 times last season will tell you, and hopefully Colby's spent the winter working on his. Just one year later he's got to deal with no fewer than five outfielders who, job security-wise, are in the best shape of their lives. Suddenly there are scenarios in which it makes baseball sense to keep him in Memphis at the start of the season, where he would, presumably, work on his timing.
"The best 25 players head north." This one was all Hinkster—I'd never have considered this La Russa trope myself. Here the Golden Grapefruit has to go to Brian Barton, who took to the Rule 5 active roster requirement remarkably well and played like a perfectly competent fourth outfielder. For his troubles, he enters 2009 with the most distant of outside shots at a Major League job.
He might make more sense than Schumaker in an outfield that could conceivably open the season with three starters weak against left-handers, but as long as Skip's around Barton will be the rare Rule 5 alumnus who doesn't need minor league seasoning, but is getting it anyway.
"I'm working on something new." Pitchers are constantly tinkering with new pitches; on the Cardinals it seems, from newspaper accounts, to be that every pitcher who has a good month has begun throwing a diving sinker. But during Spring Training every struggling pitcher in America takes the time to throw ten or fifteen knuckleballs in the bullpen, just to see what happens. Tinkering is one thing, but Spring Training is a time for experimentation.
Honorable mentions go to Joel Pineiro, who had better be working on something new, but this award has to go to the St. Louis Cardinals, who have somehow upgraded at that long-term keystone hole by picking up... Adam Kennedy.
Going into 2008 it seemed like the Cardinals had the chance to set an all-time futility record in the middle infield, and for most of the season Kennedy's hitting flirted with those historic 2008 levels. He quickly cemented himself as one of the team's most unpopular players, and capped it all by demanding a trade.
But one good month and a series of sterling defensive statistics later, he's the New second baseman, solidly enough in charge of the position to deflect attention back toward the tail end of the rotation. Will the new pitch change things, or have the Cardinals switched out their forkball for a splitter?
That's what I've got. What cliché awards are you ready to hand out?