2015 baseball season, Adrian Gonzalez, Al Lang Field, Alex Guerrero, Andre Ethier, Bill Murray, brutally cold, catchers, Clayton Kershaw, Dee Gordon, Glendale Arizona, Hanley Ramirez, harbingers of spring, Hot Stove League, Howie Kendrick, Jimmy Rollins, Joc Pederson, Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers, Matt Kemp, New York City, NL West Division, pitchers, Spring Training, St. Petersburg Florida, Vero Beach Florida, winter, Yasiel Puig, Yasmani Grandal, Zack Greinke
In the New York City area, winter can get pretty tiresome by the end of February. And this winter has been especially brutally cold. We have been describing it as a break in the weather if the daytime high has gotten above freezing. I can’t remember the last time the overnight low was above freezing. Nighttime temperatures have been routinely falling below 20º. Single digits have been frequent and we have even seen a few nights below zero.
At least one creature has confirmed the harshness of our winter. Snowy owls have been seen in New York City. They rarely venture this far south.
By this time, people in my area are grasping for signs of spring. Groundhog Day is a somewhat nonsensical reminder, even if one of Bill Murray’s four homes is in the same county where I live. Is it better if the groundhog sees his shadow or doesn’t see it?
Some people look to the calendar for the vernal equinox. (But don’t fall for that bit about balancing the egg on end. If you have the right egg and a steady hand, you can do it any day of the year.)
Others look for the first robin, or the geese flying north, or the first flowers pushing through the snow or the first buds on the trees. As a professional tax preparer, I know that tax season also means the coming of spring. But I have seen 80º weather in my area in early March and ten inch snowfalls in early April. So I need to have at least some of the entire spectrum of my wardrobe handy throughout.
When I was growing up, there was one sure sign that spring was coming. That was the day you knew your favorite team’s pitchers and catchers would report to spring training camp. Football season ended with the bowl games on New Year’s Day, and then eventually with the pro football championship games in early January. Hockey and basketball were something to tide you over. And since the Rangers and Knicks generally had losing teams in those years (in the old Madison Square Garden on 8th Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets), there wasn’t much to cheer you by February. Even the NYC area racetracks were closed and the races were being reported from places like Hialeah, Gulfstream, Fair Grounds, Hollywood Park and Santa Anita.
But there were always stories about baseball. The Hot Stove League was what they called it. Would that big trade help the team in the upcoming season? Did it fill a big hole in the lineup without giving up too much in return? Could that kid in the minors who had a great season make the jump to the majors? Could the veteran star player do it one more time? What about the players trying to come back from injuries?
But then it was time for the pitchers and catchers to report. And the sportswriters who covered your team, lucky stiffs, traveled south to follow and report on the team. Stories were filed from exotic or otherwise little known places like St. Petersburg, Fort Lauderdale, Tucson, Vero Beach, Clearwater, Palm Springs and Winter Haven. Snow, slush and ice might still lurk outside your front stoop and you still had to bundle up with scarf, gloves and heavy coat. But every day in the newspaper, there were pictures of smiling, athletic young men in the sunshine with palm trees or cacti in the background. Soon, on a Saturday in early March, there would be the sounds of the first exhibition game. For years, that meant Mets vs Cardinals at Al Lang Field, the spring training home they shared in St. Petersburg.
Then the teams started sending players down to the minors or releasing them outright. Most were expected but there were always a few surprises. Those last few cuts generated speculation and discussion between knowledgeable fans. And finally, the teams were heading north. Opening day was coming! The season would start with only two games: one in Cincinnati for the National League and one in Washington, DC for the American League (where the President of the United States traditionally threw out the first ball). The regular season and the games that counted in the standings were finally here. And in sweatshirts, sweaters and light jackets, we were starting to play ball outside, too. But it all started with “pitchers and catchers report.”
By the way, no one seems to know why it came to be believed that pitchers need a longer time to get ready for the season. It’s simply been done that way for a long time so they keep doing it that way. And of course, if you have people pitching, you need catchers to catch them. As if they needed any more wear and tear on their knees.
I was never able to get to Florida or Arizona for Spring Training. In the summer of 2007, I drove past the Dodgers complex when it was still in Vero Beach, but didn’t see a way to enter and tour it. Ironically, I have a client who moved to Glendale around the time the Dodgers moved their spring training facilities to that city in Arizona. But with only two clients in Arizona, it doesn’t justify making a trip during tax season to visit them personally.
Meanwhile, it is with hopeful apprehension that I await the 2015 baseball season. Despite winning the NL West Division with 94 victories, the Dodgers made major changes in the off-season, hoping to improve team chemistry for the post-season contests and deal with what was seen as a glut of starting outfielders. It is likely that half of their starting lineup will be different in 2015. Their top three starting pitchers, the rival of any team in baseball, will return. But their number four and five starters will not only be different, they are question marks because of a history of injuries. And not only has there been a major overhaul of the bullpen, their closer, Kenley Jansen, recently had foot surgery and will miss the first three to seven weeks of the season.
Significant players leaving the team were free agent Hanley Ramirez, still a powerful bat when healthy but becoming a defensive liability at shortstop (he is expected to play leftfield for the Red Sox); 2014 All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon who led the National League in stolen bases last year and whose speed will be missed; outfielder Matt Kemp who recovered from injuries as a hitter in the second half of the season last year, but was taking longer to recover on the base paths and in the field. The loss of Ramirez was expected: the Dodgers had no place for him in the field and his frequent injuries made him too big of a question mark. The trade of Gordon to Miami was unexpected and I will miss him. His speed will not be replaced (it is the one thing you can’t teach) and I felt he was a ballplayer with a rising future. While it was known that the Dodgers were looking to trade any potential starting outfielder other than Yasiel Puig, my biggest concern over the trade of Kemp was that he was dealt to division rival San Diego. With the other off-season moves they made this winter, I expect them to battle for the division crown this year and Kemp could come back to haunt the Dodgers in the process.
Veteran shortstop, Jimmy Rollins (acquired from Philadelphia), and steady second baseman Howie Kendrick (picked up from the Angels) are expected to be the new double play combination. With Rollins being 36 and Kendrick having only a year left on his contract, it could be a very short-term answer. Yasmani Grandal, the key player received from San Diego in the Kemp trade, provides a major upgrade to the Dodgers catching position. He will face competition from holdover starter A.J. Ellis. And there are still question marks in the outfield as rookie Joc Pederson hopes to win the centerfield spot. If he falters, the Dodgers have to look for a rebound year from former All-Star Andre Ethier, while returning Scott Van Slyke and newcomer Chris Heisey are in the mix.
These are the people that the Dodgers hope will be the supporting cast for Puig, last year’s NL RBI champion, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, reigning NL MVP and Cy Young Award winner (third time in four seasons for the latter), Clayton Kershaw, and 2014 All-Star and former AL Cy Young winner, Zack Greinke. Other key players are returnees, pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu, third baseman Juan Uribe, outfielder Carl Crawford, and utility infielder Justin Turner. Newcomers Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson are expected to round out the Dodgers starting rotation, but there is little depth behind them should the injury bug strike any of the starting pitchers. Other than returning veterans J.P. Howell and Brandon League, the rest of the bullpen spots are up for grabs with at least ten pitchers competing for the remaining four positions (plus one who will take Jansen’s place until he returns).
I am hopeful that the team will benefit by not diverting their preparations for the season as happened last year with a trip to Australia for their first two games scheduled games of the regular season. I am also hopeful for a good year as a reserve player from infielder Darwin Barney and for Alex Guerrero to justify the big contract he received from the Dodgers before spending most of his first year of playing outside Cuba in the minors. Critics claim that a defensive position cannot be found for him. But I find it hard to believe that someone who could play shortstop on the Cuban national team and was an All-Star in the best Cuban league cannot play defense at some position in the major league. Perhaps just as important, I was looking forward to him being a stabilizing influence on Puig, his multi-talented but mercurial countryman. I am also hopeful that the team will benefit by not diverting their preparations for the season as happened last year with a trip to Australia for their first two games scheduled games of the regular season.
The Dodgers’ first exhibition game will be against the White Sox (with whom they share Spring Training facilities) on March 4. And then the regular season starts with their home opened on April 6, when they face San Diego. That’s when all the pre-season predictions no longer matter. It is what happens on the playing field for 162 games over 6 months that counts.
And Abner said to Joab, Let the young men now arise, and play before us. And Joab said, Let them arise. – 2nd Samuel 2:14