The first rule about extended spring training is you don’t talk about extended spring training.
Just kidding, but it’s not like people talk about it, anyway. You have to do some persistent digging to come across a Minor League Spring Training or Fall Instructional League schedule; but I have yet to come across an extended spring training schedule.
I was able to gather some useful information: Weekday games typically start at 1:00 pm; Saturday games typically start at 10; and Sundays are off-days. The key word here is “typically.”
Game times are subject to change, which I found out first hand on Saturday. It’s lucky that I insist on getting to the fields around 9 am despite the fact that I know that all the players do is stretch and throw for what seems like an hour.
This stubbornness saved me from being insufferably late, and I arrived at the Twins complex with enough time to be treated to my fix of stretching and throwing.
Extended Spring Training is essentially the same as regular spring training, except there are far fewer players. The players who populate the lineups are likely ticketed for Short-Season Lowell, the Gulf Coast League, or the Dominican Summer League.
There were two games on Saturday, but it was a bit more difficult to garner with whom each lineup was affiliated. For what it’s worth, here were the lineups:
The most interesting name in this lineup is Mark Wagner. Wagner, a ninth round pick in the 2005 draft and former top-catching prospect in the Red Sox Organization has spent the last few weeks in extended spring training. The catch: he’s healthy.
Wagner was on the 40-man roster, but was designated for assignment to make room for Michael McKenry, whom the Red Sox got in the Daniel Turpen trade. (Turpen was selected by the Yankees in the Rule 5 Draft. He did not remain on the 40-man roster, so he was returned to the Red Sox, and they traded him to the Rockies organization).
I spoke to Wagner briefly after the game. He is very polite, and he had a good attitude about everything. He said that he was just playing games, but I got the vibe that he didn’t really know what his status was with the organization. There is really no room for him at this point in the organization. Christian Vazquez and Carson Blair are in Greenville; Dan Butler is the primary catcher in Salem; Ryan Lavarnway and Tim Federowicz are splitting time behind the plate and as the designated hitter in Portland; and Exposito and McKenry are splitting time in Pawtucket.
If anything, I think Wagner is a guy that some of the younger catchers can talk to.
I picked a great day to go because I was able to see Jennel Hudson take the mound for the first time in two years. He has been plagued with arm injuries for the past two seasons, and has been recovering from Tommy John surgery.
His father, Frank, was at the game, and I found out that Jennel has taken a rather unique path. He didn’t actually play baseball in high school or college. He played little league, but not at a young age.
He only threw one inning because it was his first time facing live batters in over two years. He faced four batters in the first inning; though the first batter would have been out had the defense made the play.
He threw 14 pitches, nine of which were for strikes. He hit his second batter, but it seemed like his concentration was broken because of the runner. Obviously, I’m not too concerned with his command or anything like that because it’s his first start in two years. The only reason I included his strikes/pitches ratio was because it was so impressive. I just wanted to see him throw; but the fact that he was throwing a lot of strikes was encouraging.
Jason Garcia piggy-backed Hudson, and he threw at least five innings (I don’t have the exact number because I was walking back and forth between the fields). It seemed like he was leaving the ball up in the zone a bit because hitters were tagging the ball when they hit it.
Garcia was kind enough to speak with me after the game, and the interview will be up on the SoxProspects website within the coming weeks. I knew this before, but talking to him extensively confirmed my thoughts on him. At this point, I couldn’t care less if he gives up one run or 14. He was a guy that dominated in high school: he could miss his spot and hitters couldn’t catch up to it. But Garcia is adjusting to a completely new level; he is more evenly matched. Hitters will take advantage of his mistakes now, and he has to learn how to adjust, which he will. He has already added some velocity to his fastball, and he is very coach-able.
Henry Ramos, a fifth round pick in 2010, injured his knee when he crashed into the fence trying to make a leaping catch in center field. He didn’t get back up, and he was carted off the field. He had an ice pack on his left knee, and he was limping for the rest of the day. The trainers kept mum about the injury, only telling me stuff I already knew: “he crashed into the fence and injured his knee.” At this point, I don’t know the extent of his injury, but SoxProspects’ Jon Singer reports, “his knee is swollen, but it looks like he avoided a major injury.”
A couple of other notes from the hitting side now:
Xander Bogaerts is going to emerge onto a lot of people’s radars this year. He plays shortstop, and he is absolutely fantastic defensively. In the Dominican Summer League last year, he hit .314 with an on base percentage of .386. One thing I was a bit skeptical of was his swing. It seemed like he wasn’t following through, and that he was almost stopping short.
Garin Cecchini seems like he has really good mechanics, and he has a solid swing. He waits for his pitches, but he isn’t afraid to be aggressive. In his first at-bat, he launched a stand-up triple, which was nearly an inside the park home run. In his second at-bat, he hit a deep fly ball, which was caught, on the first pitch he saw. I feel like his mechanics are good enough for Greenville, but I don’t blame the Red Sox for taking it slowly with him considering he didn’t see pitches for a year after tearing he ACL. I think he is really going to impress a lot of people in Lowell this year.
Trygg Danforth, a 49th round pick, possesses a lot of power potential, but the mechanics aren’t fully there yet. He has a really big swing, and he doesn’t keep his hands in. Nevertheless, he connected for a home run.
I noticed a similar issue with Beau Bishop, who was signed as a catcher out of New Zealand. Interestingly enough, he was playing third base. I wonder if the Red Sox are considering switching him to an infielder.
Speaking of Oceania, I had the pleasure of meeting Brad Tippett, an Australian native and a pitcher in the Twins organization who is currently rehabbing. He had a nerve problem in his arm, and he ended up having to get a rib removed. He had pitched well in the minor leagues so far–compiling a 3.04 ERA over the last five seasons–and is now hoping for a spot to open in the Fort Myers Miracle, the High-A affiliate of the Twins.
One more thing in general that I noticed. At this level, outfielders don’t know how to read trajectories yet, so they have really odd approaches to fly balls. At the upper levels, outfielders have to be able to read and adjust to the spin on the ball, but these guys are still developing that skill.
I swear, every time I go to a baseball game, I don’t really have any idea what I’m doing. I go to baseball games with the sole purpose of interacting with at least one player, but it’s not like I have some strategic plan that I follow each time I go to a baseball game. To be honest, going to baseball games has become kind of a stressful experience (in the absolute best of ways) for me because I never know what to expect going in. The outcome is certainly worth the uncertainty.
The Fall Instructional League is essentially a rookie league populated by guys from the Dominican Summer League, the Gulf Coast League, and the Lowell Spinners (short season Signle-A ball). In other words, there are a lot of draft picks. This is absolutely raw, unrefined baseball talent, and this league serves to refine essential baseball fundamentals. Many of the draft picks signed late, so they have little to no experience in professional baseball–maybe nine games in the Gulf Coast League (a rookie league).
Here is a brief look at the 2010 Red Sox Draft:
-Kolbrin Vitek (20th overall)
-Bryce Brentz (36th overall)
-Anthony Ranaudo (39th overall)
-Brandon Workman (57th overall)
-Sean Coyle (110th overall)
-Garin Cecchini (143rd overall)
-Henry Ramos (173rd overall)
-Kendrick Perkins (203rd overall)
-Chris Hernandez (233rd overall)
-Jacob Dahlstrand (323rd overall)
-Lucas LeBlanc (353rd overall)
The only guys who weren’t at the Fall Instructional League on Sunday when I was there were Anthony Ranaudo and Brandon Workman. Workman was to arrive the next day for a slightly different strength conditioning program.
There was very little information regarding the Fall Instructional League. There were some rumors regarding who would be there. Casey Kelly, Ryan Dent, and Ryan Westmoreland all confirmed via their Twitter accounts. An actual roster was posted a few days before the league began by Sox Prospects. This helped me out because I was able to do some basic research, and perhaps more importantly, figure out where these practices (and games) were taking place. The only thing it didn’t tell me was what time everything was taking place. I basically had to blindly assume that the practices would start some time between nine and ten. All I could hope was that I was not embarking on a five hour round trip for nothing.
As I drove into the Red Sox Minor League Complex–a place I had not been to for five months–I noticed a sea of red uniforms a couple of fields over. The grueling two-and-a-half hour drive over boring alligator alley suddenly became a small price to pay.
I was absolutely enthralled from the moment I set foot upon the complex. The majority of the players were gathered on one field, focused on an intricate drill that focused on what I would call situational fundamentals. The coaches would yell out a situation. “One and two with two outs,” for example. The pitcher would pretend to throw home, and then the coach would hit the ball somewhere. It was up to the players to adjust accordingly, and make the call as to what should happen.
The coaches would get angry if the players weren’t communicating with each other. The players would switch out nearly every play, and then would wait in line until next time. This was far from fundamentally sound. In fact, first base was overthrown more than once, and the cutoff man was occasionally missed. This observation is not meant to criticize–far from it. This observation made me realize the point of this league: to refine the fundamentals. As I said before, a lot of these guys have little to no experience with even the lowest level of professional baseball. This league is to prepare them for it.
On the other fields, the pitchers were working on pick-off drills. This was perhaps my favorite drill of the day because I had never seen anything like it. Even though I have heard from more than one pitcher that pitching from the stretch is something that is far from natural, I had no idea that this was how they learned. I assumed that it just came from in-game practice, but these guys were working on both how they turned and their pick off throws. It was absolutely fascinating.
I was very patient when it came to talking with players. I did not want to be rude and interrupt their practice, so I waited until they were at least en route to another field. I was familiar with names, but unfortunately I was not as familiar with faces. I decided not to risk embarrassing myself by addressing somebody by a name that was not his own, so I ended up asking for everyone’s name. I hope that they weren’t offended that I didn’t know exactly who they were or what they had done up to this point. Most of them were extremely friendly. I suppose the chocolate peanut butter cupcakes didn’t hurt.
The first guy I talked to was Garin Cecchini. I did not get a chance to talk to him for a long time because he was en route to another drill. He said he was really happy to be there, and I could tell that he was absolutely thrilled. He had only played about nine games in the Gulf Coast League, so he was clearly there to get more experience under his belt. He was wearing a brace around his knee, and I noticed that he was experiencing some pain during the infield drills. He said that he had had surgery recently, but he felt fine. I’ll ask him more next weekend.
Then I talked to Lucas LeBlanc. He hasn’t played in any GCL games because he signed so late, but he had played in a summer league. He was committed to LSU following the draft, but chose to play professionally. He said that he still had some angry voice messages and text messages saved on his phone. He had no regrets, and he said that he was really happy with his decision so far.
I had the longest conversation with Sean Coyle, and we spoke for about five minutes. He is a utility infielder, but projects to play second base in the organization. He likes to hit first or second in the batting order, and is confident with his speed on the base paths. He is projected to go to Greenville next year, and played very briefly in the GCL. I asked him the biggest thing he has learned so far and he said to just stay relaxed. He said that he anxious a lot this year (understandably so) and that he just needs to relax and take it easier. He also mentioned that he had played in summer leagues for the past four or five years with wooden bats, so the transition hasn’t been too hard. His brother is currently at UNC-Chapel Hill, which is one of the schools I’m applying to.
I missed a couple of the players going in after batting practice, but some stayed behind to kill a snake and tie it to a bat. Miles Head was kind enough to pose for a picture with his prize.
The last guy I talked to was Bryce Brentz. He is a pretty funny guy. Since he was drafted out of college, I also brought up the difference between aluminum and metal bats. He said something to the effect of that the outfielders are able to position themselves better when it comes to hits off wooden bats. That’s something I had not heard before.
On my way home, I f
ound it kind of odd that I had bought an audio recorder the day before, yet I didn’t use it once that day. I didn’t even ask for a picture with any of these guys. I guess it just did not feel right at the time, and I’m glad that I didn’t. Sunday was a day for me to put myself out there, and merely introduce myself to the players. It would have been awfully awkward to whip out a recorder and tape these informal interviews. I’ve decided that I only want to use the recorder during a formal interview or a press conference. Otherwise, I feel like the presence of a recorder would take something away from the conversation.
Overall, I was impressed–not with their fundamentals, but with their attitudes. From what I could tell, they were all very driven and ambitious. I could tell that it was absolutely surreal for the guys who didn’t have professional experience yet. I’m sure this feeling wares off after a while, but it was just a pleasant ambiance to be a part of.
They have a game against the Twins (at the Twins) next Saturday, and I will be going back. I plan on scoring the game, and I will sit next to somebody with a radar gun and track pitches. I would also like to conduct a formal interview with one of them (or all of them), if they oblige. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to look into the strength conditioning program as well.
I am also hoping to get a chance to say hello to Ryan Westmoreland, who is also rehabbing. I didn’t see him on Sunday because I think he had gone in relatively early. I think it is absolutely remarkable that he is there, but I have to say, I’m not surprised. The second he got out of surgery, he pretty much had himself convinced that he was going to be back on a baseball field, and he has worked hard to make it happen. Judging from his tweets, he seems absolutely thrilled to be there, and that’s all that matters.