I suppose you could argue that anyone who is on a baseball blog daily (or writes for two blogs year round) doesn't really ever take time off from baseball and in some ways you'd be right. Every spring training, however, I remember that the season doesn't really start off with a bang or the emotional highs and lows of September and October. It's a steady process; a pressure that builds as the regular season approaches. Each year I have to emerge from a sense of hibernation to re-engage with baseball.
Usually we meet each other half way. Tony LaRussa says something dumb about a player early on in spring training or raises my blood pressure by shifting Skip Schumaker to shortstop. Tony was always good for things like that -- there's nothing quite like a proper villain to move the dial. This year, with it's lack of controversy and relatively set roster, feels different. It feels more subdued and the players seem, in whatever feeling you can glean from newspaper stories, to be a bit more relaxed and jovial. That's probably biased reading on my part but I'd almost rather it wasn't. I need the villainy in my baseball. Alas, it isn't there right now. Anyone know when the Brewers come into town?
So with the lack of a good villain, I asked myself what players I find most intriguing. I came up with three names, three players to follow this spring, to get myself ready for Opening Day.
Beltran is one of three players including Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman who, from my perspective, is capable of carrying the team offensively by himself. It is almost ancient history at this point but we'd be remiss to forget entirely the show that Beltran put on in 2004 during the NLCS. In 7 games he hit for a .417/.563/.958 line against the Cardinals. He walked 8 times and struck out just 4. He hit four home runs and swiped 4 bases. The man was an incredible beast. (Poor Lance Berkman was completely overshadowed despite compiling a 1.150 OPS himself. That was nearly 400 points lower than Beltran's.) Obviously, Beltran is older but his bat is still capable of impressive offense.
Whether he'll be able to keep up his defense remains to be seen. Once a respected center fielder, his knees have robbed him of range and speed as they've aged. He's no longer the player that can steal 40 bags in a season but can he at least be the guy who stretches from first to third on singles? The next two years would appear to be Beltran's last best chance to reach the post-season (as more than a role player).
Drafted in 2008 as a player who could move through the system quickly, Lynn did just that. Utilizing his sinker, he raced through the organization to arrive in Memphis a year after being drafted. A funny thing happened in 2010 though. Lynn struck out a Memphis franchise record 16 batters during a post season game. With help from the coaching staff, Lynn had tweaked his mechanics and gone from a player who topped out at 93-94 to a player who topped out at 96-97. It's hard to overstate how significant an additional 3 mph is to a player's fastball; simply put, it is a big deal.
Given that Lynn maintained that velocity in 2011 and featured it out of the bullpen, this is no longer the same prospect as the one who was expected to be just a back of the rotation hurler. This is player development in action. While I hope Chris Carpenter a speedy recovery, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't intrigued to see what Lynn could do with a starting rotation slot. Would it be so hard to see a rookie Jaime Garcia performance from Lance Lynn? With 7K per 9IP and half that rate for walks? That may be tall order in fact but Lynn seems poised to do big things this year.
What can you say about a player that has been with the organization for 7 years and failed to crack the ranks of the Majors? How do you get excited for a 28 year old player who is just 229 plate appearances beyond rookie status? Consider that if his career major league statistics were viewed as a single season, Tyler Greene would have lead the team in stolen bases. Further, if his 359 PAs are extended to a full season, Greene would be on pace to swipe 30 bases.
It's a modern conundrum. Very few players have the speed and abilities to steal bases proficiently enough to justify the act. Sabremetrics has shown that the break even point for base-stealing (in a neutral leverage situation) is around 70%. If you have a success rate higher than that, you are likely adding value on the bases. If you are below that, you are likely depriving your team of runs over the course of the year. Tyler Greene is 16 and 0 in the majors.
He's also a .218 hitter in the majors and that's something even his walk rate has a hard time covering up with a .307 OBP. If 2010 was the year that Lance Lynn made strides in the minors, 2011 was Greene's. It was his fourth year in Memphis but it was also his best by a wide margin. Greene would do it all at the plate hitting .323/.422/.579 with 19 stolen bases at AAA. Yes, he was aided by a BABIP that is clearly lucky and yes, he struck out more than you'd like but that's Tyler Greene. At 28, he is what he is. In 2011, he showed what that can be at Memphis. Now I have to wonder if he can show that in the majors. And even if he can't, can he at least show some of the jaw dropping defense or elusive stolen bases that make watching even mediocre players fun? Not everyone has to be Carlos Beltran to be a fan favorite.
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Who did I miss? Who is the player that you're most excited to see this coming season regardless of the rationality or their importance to the team? Are you desperately waiting to see Marc Rzepczynski again? How about Kyle McClellan? If you're waiting to see Kyle McClellan, you're on the wrong blog but all other players are welcome!
As much as we like to understand and talk about baseball, at it's core, it's still about the enjoyment and entertainment that the game provides. That is the fundamental aspect of fandom.