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Letter from Springfield I

[This is the inaugural post in what's going to be an ongoing feature here at VEB. Matt Lemmon (aka "itsalemmon") will be filing periodic reports from Springfield about the Double A farm team. He found out some cool stuff during the big-league team's visit to Springfield this past weekend ---- see especially his inquiries about "classic mechanics" and the very frank comments from Adam Ottavino about his first season and a half in the St. Louis system. ---- LB]

My name is Matt, and I’ve been hitting this site on pretty much a thrice-daily basis for the better part of three years. I don’t comment often, but I read every day. Over the winter I approached Larry about being a regular Springfield Cardinals correspondent, and he took me up on the offer. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to keep VEB Nation up to speed on the AA Cardinals.

For this initial post, I get to write about not only the AA Cards but also the big-league Cardinals, who wrapped up their exhibition season with two games in Springfield. It was the big-league club’s first visit here since 2005, a very big deal. The stadium holds 9,000-something people, but I’ll bet they were pushing 10,000 in attendance, at least for the cold-but-dry Friday night game.

Before that first game, I managed to chat briefly with players from both teams. A few of those exchanges are below ---- but first let me tell you how I happened to get down onto the field.

I’m the editor of an alt entertainment/news tab here in SpringMO --- GO Magazine. I pretty much singlehandedly keep GO’s daily blog going, as well as much of the magazine. It’s a labor of love, but I’m proud of it. Give it a click. Here’s a story previewing the 2008 Springfield Cardinals for the layperson. And here’s an essay I wrote for our sister mag, 417 Magazine (for which I serve as web editor), about why Springfield is so crazy about the Birds on the Bat.

Note: I am not a stathead. You won’t find me talking VORP or PECOTA or anything like that. Larry and the gang do a great job of that. I would just butcher the numbers, though I will try to link out to applicable stathead pages when it’s appropriate. What I do know how to do is put together an interesting interview and, on a fan level, evaluate players’ performances. This is what I, my media pass, and my grandfather’s bequeathed half-season tickets will try to provide for you.

Now on to the stuff you really want --- the interviews. (Access and time with players was limited --- I promise the length of the interviews will increase in subsequent posts.) I happened to be part of Tony LaRussa’s press roundtable. Our local media is pretty solid, but these Cardinals visits are, mainly, a time to lob softball questions at the big-leaguers, especially for the TV types. Here’s a very brief sampling of LaRussa’s PR-approved answers:

On most in the media picking the Cardinals to finish third or fourth in the Central:
"Well, I think a lot of you guys picked us first last year. All you’re doing is guessing. I certainly don’t blame anybody who has a question about our club, but based on what I’ve seen, I think we’re going to be very competitive."

On Colby Rasmus (a Springfield fave after his 2007 season):
"Well, he’s going to Memphis, we have just a real good situation in the outfield [Ed. Note: Really Tony? Skip and Ludwick starting is a "real good situation in the outfield?"] and he played well. But we have a bunch of other guys playing well. I think Memphis is the right next step for him, but he showed that it’s not a question of if he’s going to play in the big leagues, just a question of when. He’s an exciting young player."

On the rotation: "If the rotation gets healthy, it could be one of the best. But until then?"
"The games still count. We might be one of the best right away; we’re not conceding anything to anyone."

Then I asked Tony about "classic mechanics," an initiative of new minor-league pitching coordinator Dyar Miller and his assistant, Brent Strom. (Miller and Strom ran a special camp on classic mechanics early in spring training.) The answer was a classic LaRussa mix of sarcasm and ambiguity:

Me: "This spring you’ve had some of the younger pitchers working on things like classic mechanics. What’s that all about, and how have the young pitchers looked?"
LaRussa: "We have a guy who coaches our major-league pitching staff named Dave Duncan, who’s been here a long time and is very flexible and knows all about everything, He doesn’t make any drastic changes and has been communicating with some of the guys in the minor leagues. You said something about ‘classic,’ but it’s really what’s effective, productive, what gets people out. So there’s a combination that works, and that’s what we’re involved in."

The next big-leaguer I tracked down was Izzy, who was actually recruited to Missouri State University (then Southwest Missouri State University) to play college ball in the late 1980s but instead signed with the Mets.

You’re one of the longest tenured Cardinals, and there’s change absolutely every year, but more this year, it seems, with some of the guys who left. You yourself could have left a couple of seasons ago. How does it feel in camp now, and how’s the locker room?
"Everything’s good. Change is good sometimes. When you lose guys the way we did --- I mean, they’re superstars, but we’ve got some young guys back in camp now. They’ve got fresh legs, fresh minds and they’re always willing to learn. Maybe that little bit of extra energy might help us out, we never know."

Next up: Dave Duncan, doing a second round of interviews with just a few reporters.

On Wainwright: "Adam Wainwright has a lot of physical ability, and he’s had some success at the Major League level so far, but time will tell exactly how good he will be. But just because you’re an Opening Day pitcher, you don’t automatically become the ace of the staff. You earn that over years of pitching and being successful."

On Kyle Lohse: "He’s looked very good, he has a lot of ways to get you out. He’s a pitch maker, with above average stuff. I have a real good feeling about him."

On Anthony Reyes’s role: "That’ll develop. We’ll see. He’s a long reliever, middle-of-the-game type when we need someone to throw more than one inning."

On Kyle McClellan: "He’s fought through some injuries. He’s very exciting for me. He has a tremendous arm, great stuff, good makeup, and a good approach to the game. I’ve been excited for him all spring long. He’ll eventually be a starter in the Major Leagues. Right now need to get him into games whenever we can, and let him realize that he’s got the stuff to pitch in the big leagues. He has the makeup and ability to control the stuff he has."

It’s interesting that you could --- and many on this side would say, should --- substitute Duncan’s quotes for McClellan as quotes about Reyes. But Reyes isn’t going to get that chance any more, it appears.

OK, now for my chats with the Springfield Cardinals. A lot of the players were here last year, but there are some key additions --- guys I’ve never met before. When the media was allowed in, the AA boys were taking BP and warming up, and I only got access to them through the frantic, hard-working efforts of PR guy Mike Lindskog. I was able to catch a few of them in the locker room afterward.

The most interesting conversation I had was with Adam Ottavino, the 2006 first-rounder who’s starting his first stint at Double A. Last year Larry had a fairly lengthy talk with Ottavino about the much-discussed organizational (read: LaDunca) hype for "pitching to contact." I thought I’d catch back up with him on that:

"My mindset this year is to be really aggressive. Nobody’s really talked to me anymore about that type of thing [ie, pitching to contact]. I’m just trying to be aggressive in the zone, and if I can get ahead of hitters, try to put them away. If I’m fortunate to get ahead of them 0-2 or 1-2 then I’m going to go for the punch-out, but I’m not going to be stubborn about it in certain situations. If I get too deep in the count, I’m going to try to pound the zone. That’s my main concern."

There were a lot of changes over the off-season. Did you notice any tangible differences this spring as opposed to last?
"Yeah. I’d say coming in this year we didn’t know what to expect, with Walt being out and Mo being in. I’d say the main change is just a new sense of optimism. Everything’s new, and everyone feels good about the upcoming season."

Did you take part in the classic mechanics camp early this spring?
"Yeah I did. That was really big for me. I was so happy and thrilled when Jeff Luhnow told me I’d be a part of that. I got so anxious that I arrived ahead of time to try to get a little jump-start on what I should be working on, so that I could get back to some of the things I do well and eliminate a lot of the problems I’ve fallen into the lat year and a half. Brent Strom worked with me individually, and with the other guys. The individual work was very crucial . . . . . For the first time in a year and a half I’m throwing and thinking about getting the hitter out rather than thinking about my delivery, which is just huge."

Can you tell me what the classic mechanics camp consisted of?
"They taught us how to do things a little more efficiently. The thing was a better long-toss program. They taught us not to be afraid of long toss. ‘You gotta let your arm eat,’ as Dyar said. And there were video sessions where they break down things that you do well and maybe things you used to do well . . . . they had some college tape of me. It was huge seeing the difference . . . . and knowing that if I could go that far in the in wrong direction, it must be easy for me to go back to what I’d always done and felt comfortable with."

Who else participated in the camp? "Myself, Chris Perez, Clayton Mortensen, P.J. Walters, Jamie Garcia and Dewon Brazleton. Everybody seemed to pick up on it pretty quickly. I mean, some of the videos they showed us, it’s pretty hard to argue with."

I also managed to grab short conversations with a number of other Springfield players. The short bites:

  • Tyler Greene says he’s healthy, though the former first-round pick appears to be blocked on the Springfield infield by Allen Craig, Jose Martinez (who it a ton against St. Louis pitching), and Dan Nelson, who has also looked good this spring. Greene did start at short (Martinez at 2nd) in both games, making a run-allowing throwing error in Friday’s game and not hitting very much. We’ll see what they do with him before opening day.
  • John Jay also looks healthy and could very well be a solid leadoff/CF guy at AA this year. Dude is ripped. I’m definitely keeping my wife away from the center field area this season.
  • Cody Haerther (who calls himself the "the mayor of the team" because he’s spent parts of three years in Springfield) on his 48 hours as a Blue Jay this off-season: "That was tough. It was kinda like they called and told me my dog died the first day. I was upset and loved being a Cardinal. But then I looked at the situation, and it was a good fit for me and the organization. But things happen; [Toronto] made a roster move and I had to go through waivers again, and I was fortunate enough that the Cardinals took me back. That they took me a back means they must have some plans for me."

Finally, here are a few observations from Friday night’s game. (I was supposed to go Saturday, as well, but my 85-year-old grandfather just couldn’t be out in the very cold, extremely wet weather, so we followed much of the game on TV and radio.)

  • A newspaper buddy of mine noticed that Ankiel is the ringleader of the team, keeping guys loose during warmups and in the dugout. He’s a player, but has one of those grins that just tell you he’s up to no good. If he were a Cub, we’d hate the guy’s guts. On the field, he looks much more comfortable in centerfield than he looked in right last season, imo. And, not that I’m reading a lot into where guys’ lockers are on the road, but Ankiel and Reyes’s lockers were next to one another, which is interesting.
  • Jamie Garcia, who started Friday night’s game, looked good, but had some trouble locating his breaking stuff.
  • Troy Glaus is BIG. A bit skinnier than Rolen, but just as tall.
  • Albert still cares, and can still hit.
  • P.J. Walters gave the big club fits on Saturday. Expect more problems with soft-tossing Jeff Francis today.
  • Jose Martinez is ripping the cover off the ball. Right now he might just be the best middle infielder in the system --- and I’m including St. Louis players in that statement.