Ten Things I learned from my trip to Spring Training

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Today is my first day back at work in the fortified compound and I’m just now starting to feel back in the swing of things. It’s a good time, then, to look back at my ten days in the desert and talk about some of the things that stuck out, for better, for worse, for important and for not. So here’s what I learned, in no particular order:

1. Yasiel Puig is a big young (?) man

source: API saw the Dodgers four times. Just a quirk of the schedule, I guess. Cuban import Yasiel Puig played in all of those games. And he generally looked pretty good. He’s a big, big fellow who hit a home run against the Indians a week ago Sunday that may still be flying someplace. Just impressive power and I’m rather high on his chances to make an impact. But something else notable: at the risk of breaking my “don’t make accusations unless you have some proof” rule, I will say that if Puig truly just turned 22 years-old like the Dodgers say he did he’s the most mature 22 year-old I’ve ever seen. Maybe I’m totally wrong — and I’ll admit I’m just speculating off the old eyeball test — but the guy looks like he could have teenage children of his own. Maybe it doesn’t matter. And I’d say a much bigger problem for him and the Dodgers is his tendency to swing at fastballs in his eyes. But I don’t know if I’d be giving this guy seven year contracts.

2. Jurickson Profar looks overmatched

A guy who is more reliably young, the Rangers’ infielder and baseball’s top prospect Jurickson Profar, looked pretty overmatched in the early going. I saw him play twice and his at bats looked … unplanned. When he did have a decent idea of what was coming he didn’t handle it well. And this was against pitchers who were still working on stamina and things and weren’t trying to be too fine. I know spring stats should be ignored, but it’s hard to ignore how ineffective Profar has been so far. To the extent Rangers fans are hoping for him to have a big impact, their hope may be better saved until he’s had a bit more seasoning down on the farm.

3. My heart is going to be broken by Nate Robertson and/or Scott Kazmir, I can just feel it.

I got to witness two potential comeback stories in Arizona: Nate Robertson, who is remaking himself as a sidearmer after so much time away, and Scott Kazmir, who is trying to come back from friggin’ oblivion. Both looked good when I saw them. Robertson was downright inspirational when I talked to him.  But part of me — the very pessimistic part of me that I wish wasn’t there sometimes — keeps saying “everything seems great the first week of March, don’t get your hopes up.”  There are stories about guys on these sorts of comebacks every year. I always want them to work. Sometimes they do. I hope these two do.

4. It’s spring training for fans anticipating home runs, too.

I think every single fly ball I saw in Arizona was met by a host of fans going “whooo!” or making some other noise that suggested they thought it was a home run when, most of the time, it was a mid-range fly ball. People in Arizona are dedicated fans to be sure. But they’re not necessarily as informed and savvy as the folks back home. Well, this guy was, but he was a wonderful exception.

5. The World Baseball Classic is a lot of fun if you’re actually at the games.

source: Getty ImagesI saw two WBC games on Friday: Canada vs. Italy and Mexico vs. USA. The former featured a near empty Chase Field, the latter a nearly full Chase Field with a raucous and crazy crowd. The former was a mercy rule game, with Canada getting its clock cleaned, the latter a closer game for a while at least, but not really a barn burner. Though it wasn’t the best baseball ever and though I have been generally lukewarm about the WBC, the games were better than all of the spring training games by a longshot because there was a greater intensity about them and a clear sense that, yes, the players cared if they won.  That doesn’t mean the WBC is great, but it does suggest that the whole “the games are too early and should be moved to a different part of the year” criticism isn’t necessarily the best one. Good baseball can be played in March. Oh, and if you play your cards right you can get yourself on national television, looking silly, while at one of the game.

6. It’s way more interesting to talk to baseball players about non-baseball things.

I interviewed more players this year than I ever have. And though I’m still a total novice at the clubhouse beat compared to just about every reporter out there, I’ve realized that for the most part I am not all that interested in talking to ballplayers about baseball. OK, that’s an exaggeration. Talking specifically about their craft and their career arcs and things are interesting, but (a) “how ya feeling after today’s start;” (b) “tell us about the pitch from Shlabotnik in the fifth; and (c) “how do you think the ballclub is going to do this year” jive is boring.  I want to hear more about Corey Hart and Batman, thanks. Or ballplayers’ other random interests. Or stuff from the periphery of the game. The on-the-field action almost always speaks so much better for itself than someone involved in it does two hours after the fact.

7. Spring training parks are weird.

This kind of speaks for itself. They all have their own little quirks. Except the music. They all play terrible, terrible pregame music.

8. A lot more adult fans bring gloves to the game than I thought.

I highlighted one leather-toting grownup in Scottsdale and many of you crawled out of the woodwork to tell me that you still bring gloves to games. I had no idea. I feel like this changes our relationship.

9. Diversity in baseball is not merely a black and white issue.

Early in my trip I visited the Giants, who have no U.S.-born black players on their roster. Which is odd. But which is not, contrary to what so many people like to say, indicative of a problem. Baseball may not look like it once did, but it is unquestionably more diverse than ever.

10. Everything is wonderful and everyone is happy and this will remain the case until about April 5th or so.

I guess the biggest takeaway from spring training is that there isn’t really a ton to take away. At least not early. Every team and every player, no matter how bad they were last year, thinks they’re looking good now. Every team and every player expects to remain healthy and for best case scenarios to reign supreme.  I’m sure there is some realism behind closed doors, and I suppose it’s a particular joy of baseball to have optimism return every spring. Renewal. The Song of the Turtle. All that jazz.  But logic and history tell us that half of these teams are gonna be terrible, a lot of these optimistic players will struggle and that no battle plan in recorded history has ever survived much beyond contact with the enemy.

That contact begins on the evening of March 31 for two teams and in the next couple of days after that for everyone else.  The results of that and the changes and adjusts made in response thereto are what’s going to matter. Almost nothing that happened in the Greater Phoenix Arizona area in the first couple of weeks of March will.

Reds sign catcher Tucker Barnhart to a four-year deal

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Mark Sheldon of MLB.com reports that the Reds have signed catcher Tucker Barnhart to a four-year contract extension. The terms: $16 million total, with a $7.5 million club option for the 2022 season that has a $500,000 buyout. He also received a $1.75 million signing bonus.

The deal buys out all three of his arbitration years — he was going to be eligible for the first time this offseason — and the first year of his potential free agency. The club option buys a second. Barnhart made $575,000 this season.

Barnhart, 26, is finishing his second season as the Reds primary catcher. This year he’s hitting .272/.349/.399 with six homers and 42 RBI in 113 games. For his career he has a line of .257/.328/.366 in 330 major league games. His real value is defensive, however. He leads the National League in caught stealing percentage and number of base stealers caught (31-for-70, 44%) and leads all players at any position in the league in defensive WAR according to Baseball-Reference.com.

Dodgers owner Mark Walter is involved in a scandal

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The Dodgers last owner, Frank McCourt, was a mainstay of the gossip pages. The new administration has been pretty drama free since taking over five years ago. That is, until now.

Multiple outlets, ranging from the New York Post to the Wall Street Journal, have been reporting on a scandal brewing at Guggenheim Partners, the multi-billion investment firm led by Mark Walter, its CEO. Walter is also the head of Guggenheim Baseball Management, the offshoot of the firm which owns the Dodgers. Walter is the Dodgers’ named owner — the “control person” — as far as Major League Baseball is concerned.

The scandal does not directly relate to the baseball team. Rather, it involves allegations that Walter bought a $13 million Pacific Palisades home for a younger female executive named Alexandra Court:

In the past 24 hours, the company has pushed back on multiple reports that CEO Mark Walter will step down; its chief investment officer has claimed on CNBC that there’s “no tumult” at the company; and Guggenheim has denied reports on a real-estate blog and in the New York Post that Walter bought a California mansion for a younger female executive at the company.

The denial regarding who bought the mansion is a bit too cute, though, as the company only denies that Walter bought it or owns it. In fact, the mansion is owned by a holding company that also bought Walter’s personal residence in Malibu. Billionaires don’t go to closings at title company offices, of course. They buy houses through companies and LLCs and trusts and stuff. As such, the claim that Walter didn’t buy the house may be technically and legally true but entirely misleading all the same. For what it’s worth, The Wall Street Journal has reported that Walter and Court have a “personal relationship.” Walter, who is married, and the company deny this. Court is on an extended leave of absence.

Walter and Guggenheim are denying that Walter is going to step down as CEO. That remains to be seen. The question for our purposes is whether, if he steps down from Guggenheim Partners, he would necessarily have to step down from Guggenheim Baseball Management and thus relinquish control of the Dodgers. I suspect not — they’re distinct legal entities, and his departure from Partners would be unrelated to stuff having to do with the baseball team — but you never know. It’s not like he put up $2 billion of his personal dollars for the team. There are likely a lot of strings attached and contingencies involved to the arrangement.

Something to watch.