Today was my second and, unfortunately, final day at the Braves complex in Orlando and I was once again fortunate enough to spend my time at the most magical place in Florida; no, not Disneyland, the Braves Minor League facility. Today was the first full day of workouts, where every player who will be present in this year's Spring Training, was in uniform and working out. Unfortunately, it wasn't exactly a full workout because the dual road game split squad scenario with the Major League team led to around twenty-five of the Minor League players being taken on the road. Of course, that was fortunate for the guys who got to go and experience Big League Spring Training, most of them for the first time. Like yesterday, I was really just an extended session of BP and PFP, so there's only so much I could glean from things, but I'll share what I saw, and can remember.
One of the most interesting conversations I had all day was with the Braves' Director of International Scouting, Johnny Almaraz. He was incredibly friendly, as all the Braves front office folks are, and very proud, rightfully so, of the work he and his scouts have been doing at bringing top international talent to the Atlanta organization. Because so many of us here at TC have been curious about him, I asked Almaraz about left handed pitcher Andy Otero, who dominated the Dominican Summer League as a 17 year old last season. Otero wasn't in camp; Almaraz said that he and the rest of the international players who aren't in camp, and are likely to end up with a short season team, will arrive in Orlando April 9th to take part in Extended Spring Training. I asked what type of pitcher Otero is and Almaraz said, "he's a great pitcher" and "he has an unhittable curveball". I guessed that Otero was slight of frame, but Almaraz corrected me, calling him "stout" and adding, "he's going to end up being like Mike Hampton as far as his body goes." I know, I screamed inside my head when I heard him mention Hampton, but what he was really saying is the kid is a pretty solid athlete. So, I think it might be worth getting even more excited about Andy Otero.
The new batting helmets that the Minor Leaguers are now required to wear are ridiculous. I had this strange feeling the whole first day out there that the hitters all looked strange, but I couldn't put my finger on it until I got back to the hotel and looked at my pictures. The helmets are comically huge and they really do make everyone look like a bobble head. Ironically enough, a few of the players told me the helmets are actually a lot more snug than the old ones, maybe even too snug.
I'd never seen the players so split up before. All the infielders were on one field taking grounders, the catchers and outfielders were on another, running their drills at home and in the outfield respectively, and the pitchers were rotating between doing PFP on two different fields and running bunting drills in the cages. It takes a good amount of time to run so many drills with so many players and the Braves were incredibly thorough with each guy, taking balls straight on, to the left and right, and over their heads. One of the intersting things about the PFP was that if the coach hitting to the pitcher was able to get the pitcher to miss the play, the player had to run a lap around the field. What's more, he had to choose another player to run with him, which was a pretty good incentive for all the players to push each other to field well and not make dumb mistakes or lose focus. I'm sure there were other things like this going on, but that was the only one I was made aware of.
Today was the first day of throwing live BP for all the pitchers and everyone I saw looked pretty good. I got a great look at a few of the young foregin players, including lefty Carlos Perez and righty Robinson Lopez. It was very obvious that both of them were working on things, heck, they just got back into the country yesterday, and this was their first time throwing this Spring, but their talent was also very obvious. Anyway, I was able to get this great shot of Lopez:
Arodys Vizcaino is getting lessons in the Braves' way on and off the field. The Yankees organiztion doesn't exactly pride itself on being fan friendly and I had heard some talk that Vizcaino hadn't had the best relation with the fans so far in his career. What I'd seen of him sort of confirmed this, as he did sign a few things for the handful of folks who actually knew who he was, but didn't seem very happy about it. He's been spending all his time with Julio Teheran and it appears Teheran is taking it upon himself to make Arodys more like a Brave. At the end of the day the guy I'm traveling with asked Teheran to sign a small stack of cards (ok, it was a fairly sizeable stack of cards, my friend is a little nuts with the autographs), Teheran is one of the nicest and fan friendliest players you'd ever want to meet, so he had no problem doing it. But, before he started signing, he hollered at Vizcaino, who was slinking away when he saw my friend start talking to Teheran, to come over. They had a quick conversation in Spanish that amounted to Vizcaino saying, "All those? Crazy", with Teheran's response as "Shut up". Teheran proceeded to spend a good ten minutes slowly signing the cards while Vizcaino watched in silence with dumbstruck amazement. It was an impressive show of leadership on Teheran's part, particularly if you realize that if he's that willing to set a player straight for something as trivial as signing autographs he's going to go to unparalleled lengths to set them straight with on field issues.
I did spend a little bit of time over at the Major League field in the morning and was fortunate enough to meet Mike Minor. He seemed like a nice kid and actually a little bit awestruck of his whole situation. I'm really looking forward to getting a chance to see him pitch at some point in the Minors this year, because I believe he's a lot better than folks are giving him credit for. It was nice to see Tim Hudson spend about fifteen minutes giving an impromptu coaching session to Minor, Mike Dunn, and Erik Cordier. Huddy knows his stuff and has no problem helping anyone smart enough to listen to what he has to say. Fortunately, the Braves constantly go after high quality people and these guys were smart enough to pay attention:
When I tell people I'm going over to Minor League camp I get a lot of condescending looks and responses, and I always chalk that up to a huge amount of ignorance. Frankly, the Minor League side of the complex is a lot more fun and interesting than the Major League side, and it's not like you can't get some Major League flavor over there. The Braves have several coaches, including Leon Robers, Sixto Lezcano, and Lynn Jones, who had substantial Major League careers, and every now and then you see some special guest come over, such as Hall of Famer and Braves legend Phil Niekro:
I know he looks old and grumpy in this picture, but Nucksie was actually incredibly nice and was very friendly to the few fans who were back there. The card he signed for me instantly became one of my favorites in my entire collection. I wasn't sure if his nephew Lance was still attempting to pitch with the Braves, so I asked but apparently Lance wasn't asked back and won't be playing this year. Knucksie spent about thirty minutes talking with a large group of pitchers, all of whom were listening with rapt attention, rightfully giving the man the respect he deserves. Not only was the talk edifying, it was just plain neat for the players. As David Hale told me, "I'm going to call my dad right now!"
My Spring Training trip will continue for another nine days, but unfortunately I won't be around the Braves' complex any more. It's all downhill from here, because nobody can come close to beating the Braves. When I get all the way back home and get my pictures straight I'll make up a nice post with a lot of fun stuff.
CB Wilkins is the author of the baseball novel Four-A.