It's been over a month since I cam back from my 12 day trip to Florida for Spring Training. The regular season has started and I've even seen Gwinnett play a 4 game series here in Norfolk. But, mostly because I'm lazy and have trouble meeting goals, I haven't shared that many of the great pictures I took down there with all my lovely, creepy internet friends. Sure, I made some posts about what I saw in ST (3/13, 3/14, 3/22), but those lack the person touch you all deserve.
Most people like Spring Training because it gives you better access to Major League players than you could ever get during the regular season. While this is true, the access to the Big League guys is still a lot more restricted than I'd care for, which is why I spend nearly all of my time in ST at the Minor League complex. Sure, if I run into a Major Leaguer that's great, and I'm typically very happy, but everyone who ends up on the Major League side of the complex starts out on the Minor League side. When I came home from my trip and everyone asked, "Did you get Jason Heyward's autograph?" my response was, "No, but I got him plenty of times the last two years before you'd ever even heard of him." Plus, there's just something neat about seeing 150 or so players in one place at one time:
The best thing about Minor League Spring Training is being able to get your first look at some of the young players, guys who haven't been around long, maybe haven't even played an official professional game. This year I got a real treat because I got to be the first fan to ever see Edward Salcedo. I met him on his way into the clubhouse and welcomed him to both the US and the Braves.
Edward is an incredibly nice kid with a surpisingly good grasp of English and though I didn't get to see him do much more than take some ground balls and hit in the cage a little I was impressed. He's a big kid who's got plenty of room to put on some muscle and he obviously knows what he's doing around a baseball field. And he's fortunate enough to be in a good organization with both great coaching and outstaning teammates who go out of their way to make each other better. Here's a shot of Cory Harrilchak helping Edward out with the rundown of how they cycle their batting practice rounds:
I was also lucky enough to spent a little time talking to the man responsible for brining Salcedo to the Braves, the team's head of international scouting, Johnny Almaraz:
Johnny, who was formerly a scout for the Braves, and then the head of Latin American scouting for the team, has been a huge part of why the Braves have been so successful in international scouting in recent years. The thing that always strikes me when I'm at the backfields in Orlando is how open and friendly the members of the Braves' front office are and Johnny is a perfect example of that. He was happy and willing to talk about any and all of the young men he's brought into the organization. Hopefully sometime soon I'll be able to work out an interview so we can get some more first-hand knowledge of our younger players.
One of those fine young players that Almaraz had a hand in bringing to the organization is Christian Bethancourt, and I just love this picture:
The kid is only 18 and he's a beast. He's a top notch defender and unlike pretty much every Braves' catching prospect not named Javy Lopez or Brian McCann I'm convinced he's going to be a top notch hitter.
I'm going to stick with the Latin theme for a little while, so if you're some kind of horrible racist you're probably going to hate all this. Of course, if that's the case, I'm glad you hate it. Jerk. Here's Randall Delgado:
We all know how good Randall is and he's showing it by starting out well as a 20 year old at Myrtle Beach. I've been lucky enough to see him throw in actual games a few times, including a few years ago when he was an 18 year old at Danville and I've always been impressed with both his stuff and his makeup.
The Braves are flush with young talent and they seem to just keep coming up with more, including Robinson Lopez, who's throwing darts for Rome in the early going:
I only got to see Robinson throw a bullpen session, and it was obvious he was working on things so I wasn't seeing his best stuff, but still, his talent was shining through. The kid has a big arm and some great break on his pitches, so it's going to be fun to see what he can do in the future, particularly next season when he's able to throw more innings.
I also got to watch Carlos Perez throw in the bullpen:
Carlos didn't exactly pitch great in the GCL last year, and he didn't make the Rome team out of ST, but the lefty has some serious stuff, including a great curveball. He's probalby going to go to Danville and I'm guessing that in a few years he'll be right in the conversation with guys like Delgado, Teheran and Vizcaino.
Speaking of Arodys Vizcaino, I got a chance to see him for the first time too:
Through friends of friends I had heard some stories about Arodys being like a lot of Yankee prospects, kind of an arrogant jerk who didn't think much of fan interaction. I mentioned a story in my 3/14 notes about how Julio Teheran was taking him under his wing to show him the Braves way of doing things, on and off the field, by making him stay and watch as he signed about 30 baseball cards for one person. I think July's having an effect because when I returned to camp a week later you could see that Arodys seemed a lot more relaxed around everyone, perhaps proving my theory that the actual Yankees players aren't bad guys, but the situational insanity of the Yankees sort of forces them to be. Anyway, I'm glad we have Arodys with the Braves now because he's a big horse of a kid and can throw the hell out of a baseball.
I definitely want to see a lot of these two for the next 15 or 20 years:
Because as good as I think Arodys is, I know for an absolute fact how good July is:
July is still just 19 and he can get his fastball up to 97, or let it sit between 92 and 95 with a ton of movement. His changeup is solid and he's got a great slurvey slider. But, best of all he's got a great head on his shoulders and knows what he wants to do on the mound. And it doesn't hurt that he's one of the nicest and most down to earth kids you'd want to meet.
Sticking with the foreign theme for a bit longer, I also got to see James Linger play a little:
The Australian isn't exactly a big guy, so it's easy to see why the team moved him from shortstop to second base. When we were making our offseason top prospect lists I put Linger at the top of my second basemen, really because nobody else in the organization at second struck me as much of a prospect, so I figured at least Linger was young and had a chance to develop. If I had a chance to make the list again, I'd probably still put him at the top, but again, because of the lack of depth. He's got some talent, but, like most Austrailians, he's very raw and definitely needs a lot of refinement.
Another guy, who's technically a foreigner, is Riann Spanjer-Furstenberg:
I say technically only because I was bummed out that RSF didn't have the South African accent that I expected to hear. I think he's been here in the US since he was 6 years old or so and his accent has reduced enough over time that he just sound like an American. But, he's an incredibly nice guy; in fact, he was nice enough to not mind that I had to be rude and ask who he was. He came into the complex in street clothes with Robby Hefflinger, who I knew from Danville last year, and while I was talking with Robby RSF started chatting with us. I felt bad, but I wanted to know who I was talking to. Fortunately he wasn't offended at all and we talked for a few minutes each day I was down there. I asked if he ever gave an autograph with his full name (he writes "RSF" and adds a cross when he signs) and he said, "Heck no. I can't write all that nonsense out."
We all know RSF had an outstanding year last season and we tend to fall in love with those guys before we know anything about them, so when we meet them we feel like we already know them. It only helped that feeling that he treated me like we'd been friends for years. Another guy who fell into both of those categories was Adam Milligan:
Adam is just a big fun loving kid who seemed happy as hell to be playing baseball. He's built like a mac truck and I got a chance to see him show off his power when he hit an opposite field home run in a AA game against the Tigers. It was hard not to become a fan of his last season watching all the great stats he was putting up and after getting to meet him I'm definitely rooting for this kid.
Another guy who made a huge impression on me, both on the field and off it, was Kyle Rose:
Kyle is is as fast as anyone I've seen with the Braves. Unlike a guy like Matt Young who's fast cause his little legs are working so hard, Kyle is tall and lean and he looks like it takes about three and a half strides to make it from first to second. And off the field he's always smiling. Literally. I didn't see the kid do anything other than smile the whole time I was down there. I can't get enough of that attitude; baseball is a fun game and the Minor Leagues do everything they can to make it stop being fun, so you really need to go in with the right attitude and Kyle has it.
Another guy I saw for the first time was in camp with much less fanfare, but not without a neat story of his own, Ryan Query:
Query was all set to be an assistant at his alma matter, Catawba College, this spring when the Braves offered him a pro contract. He put his job on hold and came to camp to see if he could make one of the teams. Unfortunately, he didn't make any of the full season teams, but as far as I know the Braves haven't released him so there's still a chance he could find himself on Danville's roster come July. No matter what happens I think it's great that he was able to get the opportunity at a professional career.
There were a ton of other guys that I met for the first time this Spring, more than I could even take pictures of, though I did my best. Here's Caleb Brewer, Jake Hanson, Ty'relle Harris, and Ryan Weber:
I only met Caleb and Jake for a second but they both seemed like very nice kids. Anybody who's paid attention knows that they're both very talented so I have no doubt I'll be able to see them around plenty in the future. I got to talk to Ty'relle and Ryan a bit more and they're pretty interesting guys. Ty'relle is just big kid, literally. He's a hoss of a guy and can really pitch; honestly he's just someone you want to root for. Weber seems like the opposite, he's a wee little guy and seems mature beyond his years. The Braves have so many young players to get excited about it's not even fair.
In addition to all the players I got to meet for the first time, I also got to meet some of my creepy internet friends. I'm sure you all remember jmorris811's fanposts full of pictures, which are way better than mine because his camera is way better than mine (I also have the sneaking suspicion he's just a better photographer than me too). Of course, one he and I talked for a few minutes we came to the conclusion that we had met before in Orlando. That's the funny thing about ST, as big as it is, you do run into the same folks year after year, especially if you spend most of your time on the Minor League side. I was also very lucky to be able to meet rbraves fan and her wonderful family. She keeps us up to date with Rome, both by getting some info to us quickly and by showing us lots of great pictures. She and her husband brought their young son down and it was as much fun watching how good a time he was having, and how much fun his parents had watching him have that fun, as anything else I did down in Florida. They were also kind enough to bring their 20 year old ex-cheerleader friend Kayla with them. Wowza. Kayla is the on-field host for the Rome Braves this season and trust me, if watching the Braves of the future play isn't enough of a reason for you to get to Rome this year, then she certainly should be. Plus, aside from being super pretty she's just a very nice girl.
As much fun as meeting new people is, it's also nice to see some guys you've known for a while, and I got to see several former Braves playing around Florida, including Wes Helms, Josh Burrus, Merkin Valdez, and Tyler Wilson:
I first got to see Wes play back in 1997 when he was a 20 year old playing for AAA Richmond and while his career hasn't turned out to be what it looked like it would be back then, he's still done pretty well for himself, now in his 12th season in the Majors. And, he's stayed the same humble Carolina boy all through it, which is as impressive as anything.
Josh was a first round pick by the Braves in 2001 and was a total bust, getting cut after playing for Mississippi in 2007, hitting .213 with a .643 OPS. He's spent the last few years playing in independent leagues but hooked on with the Tigers this Spring. It had been a few years since I'd seen him so it was nice catching up for a minute. Back when he was playing for Myrtle Beach I actually got to throw his warmups between innings with him during one game when the Pelicans' backup catcher Alonzo Ruelas let me, so he was part of one of my cooler baseball experiences.
Merkin the Magician, as he was named by Baseball America back in 2003 when he dominated their first year of the BA Hot List, was Neftali Feliz before Neftali Feliz was Neftali Feliz. Formerly named Manuel Mateo, Merkin was traded to the Giants with Damian Moss for Russ Ortiz. As good as Ortiz was as a Brave Merkin's dominance and near 100mph fastball made it look like a terrible deal early. But after making his Major League debut in 04, he had some arm troubles and eventually, like a lot of hard throwers, succumbed to Tommy John surgery. He rebounded and actually spent all of last year with San Francisco, before moving on to the Blue Jays this year. Still, he's a good example of why crying every time Feliz strikes out a few guys might just be a waste of your energy.
Tyler was a Brave the most recently of these guys, getting cut from Myrtle Beach last year and finishing the year in an independent league. He hooked on with the Red Sox this ST, but unfortunately wasn't able to make one of their teams and was released at the end of camp. I like Tyler a lot and hopefully he can continue his pro career somewhere.
I saw a few other former players, including the Marlins' Dan Meyer, who still hasn't grown much of a personality, and the Nationals' Luis Atilano, who made a succesful Major League debut this week, but I did see a lot of former Braves working as coaches, especially on the Marlins' staff, that included Freddie Gonzalez, Carlos Tosca, was Richmond's manager for a few years, Jim Presley, who had a so-so season at Altanta's third baseman in 1990, and AAA hitting coach Greg Norton. I saw Presley's former teammate Derek Lilliquist coaching for the Cardinals in the Minors and Tony Tarrasco coaching in the Minors for the Nats. George Lombard is in his first year as a coach, working with the Red Sox, and it was interesting hear him talk about how he was relieved that he wouldn't have to worry about having sleepless nights over going 0 for 4 anymore. I ran into Mike Mordecai and Sal Fasano at the Blue Jays Minor League camp, and both are still great guys, though Mordy isn't a morning guy. Sal's not rocking the Fu Man Chu anymore, but he does have one heck of a mustache. At on the Blue Jays Major League side I had the pleasure of meeting Jays' manager and former Atlanta outfielder Cito Gaston. I got to tell him how he broke my heart in 1992, which he was very happy to hear.
I ran into a few other old timers at the Nationals Minor League camp, former Braves second baseman Davey Johnson and former bench coach Pat Corrales:
Johnson, who was on deck when Hank Aaron hit his 714th home run, had by far the best season of his career as a Brave in 1973, hitting .270 with .916 OPS along with 43 homers and 99 RBI. Of course, most younger folks like myself probably only remember him as a manager. Current Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell, who I also ran into on the Braves' backfields this year, was a member of his 1986 World Champion Mets. Corrales, who is one of the crustiest old bastards in the game, spent 9 years with the Braves as their bench coach, but also played in the Majors for 9 seasons, hitting .216 as a catcher mostly with the Reds, and managed 9 years in the Majors, mostly with the Indians. They were both nice enough to sign a few baseball cards for me, the first time I've gotten Corrales to sign anything in over a decade, even though I've been within arm's reach of him at least twice each year during that span. Frankly, it was just great to sit and listen to their conversation during the game; both have been in baseball a long time and they were sharing some crazy and hilarious stories with each other. Of course, it was a good thing there weren't any kids around cause those guys were dropping F-bombs like crazy.
One of the most unfortunate things about ST is that within a week or so of getting home each year I see the transactions informing me that a slew of players I talked with while I was down there, guys I know, guys I like, have been released, often meaning the end of their careers. There were about 30 guys this happened to this year, and unfortunately some of those were Braves, including Clayton McMillan, JR House, Mikey Mehlich, Antoan Richardson, and Cody Railsback:
Richardson and House never even got to play a regular season game for a Braves team. I've known JR a long time, from way back when he was a top prospect in the Pirates organization, and he really is one of the best people in the world so I hope he can catch on somewhere becuase he still has plenty of talent left in him. Clayton, Mikey, and Cody are great guys and I've always enjoyed talking with them because they're each interesting people with unique perspectives on the game and life. I know these guys are going to be great at whatever they end up doing, but hopefully they can catch on somewhere and continue playing for a while. Cody especially deserves a chance, his fastball is crazy good and he's been very unlucky with some injury issues, including catching mono of all things.
Speaking of former Braves, I got an amazing treat this year, when Phil Niekro was around helping out the Minor Leaguers:
I know he looks old and grumpy in this picture, but he was actually a wonderful guy who made sure to take time to sign autographs for everyone. I actually got this video of him signing my baseball card:
Yeah, it's not the most interesting video. In fact, it's actually sort of creepy. So I've got that going for me. That was actually the second card I'd gotten him to sign that day. He accidentally smudged the first one a little bit when he handed it back to me, but this one came out perfectly, making me pretty happy:
The young guys always crowd around when a legendary player is around and it was no different with Knucksie:
Again, he looks cranky and old, but I think he was just surprised to see me there taking pictures. He spent the whole workout talking with various groups of pitchers, which, for most of them, was the highlight of their camp. Afterwards I was talking with David Hale about it and he said, "It was great; I'm gonna go call my dad right now!" Speaking of David, here he is:
There's a picture I took of David in the 2010 Talking Chop Annual and he told me that was his favorite picture because it was the first one he'd seen of himself as a pro, which made me feel pretty good. David's a great kid, he's incredibly smart and I have little doubt that he's going to develop as the Braves think he will. My guess is he ends up in the bullpen, but there's nothing wrong with a smart power arm out of the pen.
Another young guy who really impresses me and who I got to talk with a bit was Chris Masters:
Chris is just a good old country boy who loves playing baseball. Of course, he's also an incredibly intelligent kid who's got a great outlook on life. I got to meet him when I saw Danville last year and I'm hoping at some point I'll get to watch him do more than light throwing.
Another guy who I've seen play a ton of times but would now like to see pitch in a game is newly converted pitcher Van Pope:
Van was unquestionably one of the best fielding third baseman I've ever seen, but he really wasn't much as a hitter, so it's great to see that his career is getting a second life. He seemed pretty excited about the opportunity, though it was obvious that he rather would have succeeded as an every day player.
One of the things he didn't have to deal with as a hitter is the most common of all ST routines, PFP, or pitcher fielding practice (Tyler Stovall, Ryan Weber, Brett DeVall, Robinson Lopez, Brett Oberholtzer, Chris Masters, Steven Figueroa, Julio Teheran, and Steve Kent):
It is a pretty boring and repetitive drill, but you can usually tell a good bit about a guy's makeup based on how he approaches it. The coaches even set up something to make sure the guys took it seriously: If a pitcher missed the play he was forced to run a lap around the field. Not only that, but he was forced to take another player with him. It kept guys giving their full effort, not only to keep from uneccessary running, but also to keep from upsetting their teammates.
I did manage to find a little bit of time to see some of the Major League guys working out. I really only like going over there either on an off day or on a day when the team is on the road, because there are fewer people and the players are more likely to talk and sign some autographs. I wrote in one of the notes about how Tim Hudson spent a lot of time talking with the young pitchers. It really is great to see a guy with his experience, who's under no obligation to help anyone else, go out of his way to try to make other guys better. Of course, as nice as that is, I couldn't pass up showing off this picture, where he seems to be showing Erik Cordier where Mike Minor's junk is:
Speaking of Minor, I got a chance to meet him and was very impressed:
He seemed like a very down to earth kid and actually a little uncomfortable with all the attention he was getting. Of course, that's how he was that day when I met him; I'd heard a number of stories from other folks who'd been around the camp about how unfriendly he'd been to the fans, often not even bothering to look at them or respond when they talk to him. Apparently this helter-skelter routine has been a trend of his. Hopefully it's something he gets over and realizes that being nice to the fans can only be good for him in the long run. It never hurts to have people's support. And also it'd be nice because if he's really the guy I met then he's a nice guy and it's always good to have one more nice guy around.
While Tim Hudson was spending all that time talking with the young pitchers there was another veteran who wasn't doing anything remotely close to that, our de facto ace, Derek Lowe:
The pitchers were forced to wait around for their turn in the bullpen and while Hudson spent his time acting as a mentor to the younger players, Lowe spent his basically goofing off by himself, pitching against a wall. Lowe is an interesting guy, I've talked with him a few times each of the last two years, he's very funny, but also very standoffish. I'm just not sure what to make of him, either as a player or a person.
They started off throwing with Jurrjens out in the field, throwing toward the right field foul wall and Lyman throwing out toward him, but Lyman had a few throws get away from him, forcing Jordan Schafer, who was working on his play in center field, to have to chase the balls down for them. They switched positions, so that Lyman was throwing toward the foul wall, but it didn't help as much as they though. The picture of Lyman on the right is actually from a throw that got away from him. As he said, "I got a case of the yips for a few days. We were throwing and I let it go and it just got away. Then it kept going and it was heading right for you and I thought, 'Crap, I'm gonna kill CB'." Yep, that ball hit the railing just in front of me, a good 10 feet from the ground where they were throwing. I immediately yelled out, "Come on, Jeff! I thought we were friends!" which caused a round of laughter from the fans and players. It was a little scary but it really wasn't that bad, though I kept needling him because it was funny; "How long have we known each other?" I was fine and everyone got a good laugh out of it:
I mentioned Jordan Schafer working out on the field. I actually ran into him a few times on his way back to the Minor League clubhouse, where he was going to get extensive work done on his wrist:
His wrist still isn't healthy, obviously because he hasn't started playing yet, and it's going to be a process for him getting back to full health. Even in just a few minutes it was obvious how much Jordan has matured in the last year. If he can get back to 100% it might end up that hurting his wrist was one of the best things that could have ever happened to him, because it forced him into a great deal of maturity. I've been a big fan of Jordan's for a long time and I can't wait to see him get back onto the field and prove the haters wrong.
Jordan was working with former Major Leaguer and current roving outfield coach Lynn Jones. Lynn is a great guy and a very very good coach, but the most impressive thing about him is his mustache:
As someone who can't grow hair in the middle of his stache, I can't even begin to tell you how ridiculously jealous I am of this.
As cool as Lynn's stache is, the neatest oddity I saw in ST was an armadillo running around in the Braves' players' parking lot:
I had no idea that armadillos were anywhere west of Texas so I was pretty shocked to see one. Of course, I shared my sighting with rbraves fan and her faimly and they were nonplussed. Apparently armadillos are all over the South, so they'd seen plenty of them. Way to take the air out my sails guys.
Spring Training is amazing and I've been very lucky to go down there for the last 11 years. I wish I could mention each and every player that was good to me, but I'd end up just listing the entire Braves' Minor League roster. I get baseball cards signed and every card I brought of every guy who was there (at least on the Minor League side) came home autographed. That's nothing short of crazy. If I didn't mention a guy here it's probably only because I didn't have a picture of him worth sharing. Of course, I do have to make sure to mention my boys LV Ware and Myke Jones:
These guys are fantastic athletes and top notch baseball players, but above all they're just outstanding people. I really can't say enough good things about these guys. I spent a long while just hanging out with LV and that was honestly more fun that meeting Phil Niekro. The thing I love about baseball and about meeting players and getting autographs is that I get to meet so many people that I would never otherwise get a chance to. The players come from all over, from places that I'd never go to, from situations that I'd never put myself into, but because of baseball I get to meet them and get to know them and that's something that I'm so grateful for.
I dont' know for a fact that this is the longest post in TC history, heck, I may have made longer ones myself, but if you had the fortitude to read through it all I certainly thank you. Hopefully you don't need a nap like this Tigers player:
CB Wilkins is the author of the baseball novel Four-A.