Spring Training 2007
Spring has sprung again, and the Red Sox are giving a World Series run another shot. Theo made some potentially huge moves this past winter.
More friends and great teammates have moved on as is the case every year, and new ones are here to try and get us back into October baseball.
J. D., Julio Lugo, Daisuke, and a few others are the newest members of the team. The young core of the prospects continues to either knock at the door (Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Bucholz), or kick it down (Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon).
Every spring you sit back and look at your team, trying to realistically assess your chances to win a World Series. That was always easy for me — up through 2004. With the exception of 1993 with the Phillies, there was never a spring training when any of us looked around the clubhouse and thought, “Wow, we can go all the way.” Not in that division with the philosophy that was building that team. Every year seemed to be “Phase 2” of a rebuilding project with no timeline. Every spring it seemed we had a Rule 5 player and six-year Minor League free agents in spots that championship teams usually fill with experienced and talented big-league players.
In Arizona it was drastically different. To start off we had R. J., which meant instant credibility. On top of that we had Mr. Colangelo, who made it very clear that he had no issue whatsoever paying the salaries he paid, as long as we won the World Series. That team, for my 3½ years there, was built to win. Every spring we knew if we stayed healthy we’d most likely be playing in October.
In Boston in 2004 the short-term commitment and goals were very obvious. That team was built to win a World Series on Day One. The X factor was the AL East. No other division (at that time) boasted a team like the Yankees, who have the most committed owner in sports. Mr. Steinbrenner doesn’t give a crap about his payroll but, much like Mr. Colangelo, he shows up on the first day of camp and wants to know two things:
1) How many games will the Yankees win the division by?
2) Who will the Yankees play in the World Series?
That’s baseball heaven for players — playing for ownership that is every bit as committed to winning it all as it expects the players to be.
There’s been a shift over the last four seasons here in Boston. When I arrived it seemed that the owners were every bit as committed to winning a World Series as anyone, but there was also some serious concern about fiscal responsibility. Even though they had the money to outspend their mistakes, the goal was to not make the mistakes in the first place.
This spring is no different. The one big change I see in the equation is the AL Central. I predict that the East will be a heavyweight fight to get to the playoffs, but I also think the AL Central will be a knock-down-drag-out fight similar to last year.
There isn’t a team in either of these divisions you can look at and say, “Oh, man, I can’t wait to play X, we should sweep them.” That only adds to the grind of the season because it always seems that two or three teams each year either can’t field the talent or they throw in the towel so early that you look forward to playing them.
If it’s possible, this year’s AL is better than last year’s. That’s saying something.
So here we are about five or six games in, and guys are starting to get their game legs a little bit at a time. We’ve had a chance to witness some pretty special stuff already.
I don’t know if I’m in the minority or the majority, but Daisuke Matsuzaka is legit. This guy is going to win games — a lot of games over the course of his Major League career. I had a chance to watch him on video before he arrived, but it wasn’t the same as getting to see his stuff in person.
This kid is polished. Pretty safe to say that you can take velocity — for power pitchers, anyway — and add anywhere from 2-5 mph at this point and get a feel for where they’ll be when it begins to count. He’s working at 90-92 with exceptional command, and I’ve seen three or more pitches in addition to his fastball.
When I watch guys in the spring, I always look first to see if they have good-to-great command. Misses tell you as much as strikes do about command (and this goes for Josh and J. P., too). Does the pitcher miss on the side of the plate where he’s throwing? These are always good misses. Daisuke and Josh both do that. Josh is getting better each time I see him. I’ll take time to talk more on the entire rotation as time permits before we open the season.
Regardless of what happens performance-wise between now and the end of camp, we’ve already seen what may be the coolest thing to happen this year: Jon Lester healthy and pitching again. After speaking with him all winter, knowing what was on his mind and what he was looking forward to, Sunday was by far the best day we’ll have in camp this spring. He was nervous as hell, had some trouble breathing, which was awesome to hear. He was throwing 88-90 his first time out with good command, which was all icing on the cake for me. He’s another one who has some great stuff ahead of him. Power lefties are an extremely rare commodity, especially ones with his makeup. The best part of Jon is his makeup: he has a deep-seeded desire to be great, and that’s going to make him something special as he continues to progress.
As for me I’m two outings in, and so far so good. I threw a whopping 19 pitches my first time out: 15 strikes and four balls. Three of the balls were intentional, so I felt great command-wise. Fastball command was better than I anticipated, but I threw exactly zero changeups which was not the game plan. Eighteen fastballs and one split comprised my entire repertoire, so I’d have to wait a few days to break the changeup out. I’m feeling much better about getting the ball inside on LHH and commanding that portion of the plate this year, which is huge this early in camp.
Four days later I get the Twins again. Fifty-pitch limit I’m hoping to turn into four innings. Bartlett leads off the game hitting a curve ball off the end of the bat into left. Rest of the inning goes OK.
Things go well through the first three innings, and I throw ten changeups in that time. I literally feel like I’m throwing the first two left-handed. This is such a different pitch for me, and it’s taken three years to convince my body and arm to sync up. It’s still a work in progress, but after the first two changeups I feel as if the next five or six are very good. I even get a swing and a miss. Twenty-one years into my professional career, and I get my first swing and miss at a changeup in spring training. It feels like a national holiday.
So we’re into the fourth inning, and the inevitable happens. I start Cuddyer off with a curve ball–strike one. My thought as the pitch is being called is, “OK, anything but a fastball here.” Tek puts down fastball in, I shake no. Tek puts it down again, which means he feels great about the pitch. At this point the ONLY thing to do is commit to the pitch and throw it as I called it or step off. I do neither. Mentally I think no, but physically I nod yes. In the middle of my windup I’m thinking, “OK, you idiot, why the hell are you throwing this pitch?” About ten seconds later, when the ball lands over the left-field wall, I’m dropping words I’d put soap in my kids’ mouths for saying.
Tito is strolling out now, and my outing ends on a misplaced, CRUSHED fastball.
I’m noticing some things after only five innings. I’m getting a lot of early-count contact. I’m getting less solid contact and getting inside on RHH more because of the two-seamer I’m starting to throw. My split has yet to even show itself from a movement standpoint. My curveball feels very good. My slider, which has basically been absent since last September, showed up on the very first pitch I threw. I’ve never had a great feel for my slider to RHH — it feels flat and short and always has — but I feel like I could throw the back-door slider to LHH with my eyes closed. I screwed up by wasting what could be the best one I’ve ever thrown by throwing it in spring training. I’m not serious, of course, but these are the kinds of things that cross your mind down here.
So that’s where we stand today. I have the Twins again on Thursday, and then we’ll move to four days off between starts. I’m pretty sure I won’t see any AL East teams on the schedule, which means I’ll get to see Major League hitters for all my starts. That’s a good thing.
I’d like to close this post by sending my family’s thoughts and prayers to a few very special people.
John Vuckovich, my first real father figure in baseball after I lost my own father, was then the third base coach for the Philadelphia Phillies. John is extremely ill right now, and I pray that somehow, some way, he can grind through this, as he so often reminded me to do when things got tough.
I also had the incredible pleasure of meeting an inspiring young man named Peter Despain. Pete is undergoing chemotherapy. I implore anyone who loves kids to stop by Pete’s blog at: http://www.peterdespain.com/blog/index.php. Please drop him a note to say hello. What an amazing kid!
Another cool part of this story is that my introduction to Pete was made possible by a classmate of Pete’s, a young girl named Natalie Close. Natalie is the daughter of Brett Close, president of 38 Studios. Natalie knew Pete was a fan and had the kindness of heart to ask her dad to ask me to get a hold of Peter. Pretty special little girl.
George Kerr and Keith Moegle are also two very special people. George and I exchange emails the nights before I pitch. Keith is a valued employee of 38 Studios and dear friend. Both of these men are afflicted with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. If you’d like to learn more about ALS and how you can help, check out the links above to the ALS Association and Curt’s Pitch for ALS.
Next up: The Sox and Non-Retirement