Liquor, cockroaches, grand hotels, old ballparks, national anthems and more spring training fun

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LAKELAND, FL — As this post goes live on Monday morning I am somewhere on I-4. Or I-75. Or I-275. I don’t know, I’m heading to Sarasota to check out the Twins-Orioles game and as I’m typing this I don’t know which way I’m going. Just that I’m going early. Because this is the Grapefruit League and to get from one place to another takes time and miles and after three years of spending spring training in Arizona I’m quite frankly spoiled.

The weekend contained a lot of driving too, but a lot of fun as well. After I checked out of the Tigers game on Friday afternoon I found some local culture in Lakeland:

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Fun fact: in Florida, if less than 10% of an establishment’s income is derived from food, smoking is allowed. This place sells no food. It does sell strong drinks for low prices, however, and as long as you can transport yourself back to the early 1990s and deal with the smoke, you’re all good.

On Saturday I took a trip to Tampa and watched Masahiro Tanaka’s debut. In case you missed it, here is a summary of that day. It was a day of big things. Steinbrenner Field is a big park by spring training standards. I spoke with baseball’s biggest star of the past two decades, though only for a brief moment. The media horde which descended on Tanaka was as big as it gets. Then, when I got back to Lakeland, I found something small:

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In my hotel room bathroom. Which meant that my hotel room immediately became my former hotel room because, no, no way. I won’t say which hotel it was because perhaps it was a freakish, isolated incident and I don’t wish to cast aspersions, but dude. So I packed up my stuff and went where I should’ve gone in the first place: The Lakeland Terrace Hotel. Much more civilized. At least as long as you can deal with the trains that go by pretty frequently, but I can deal with such things. Bygone age stuff, you know. Really, all of Lakeland is civilized and noble.

With accommodations sorted it was back to baseball on Sunday. The Blue Jays home in Dunedin, which I liked very much:

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Like the Lakeland Terrace it is old, at least by spring training standards. It’s unassuming. Small, sitting comfortably in a neighborhood, not drawing too much attention to itself. Easy to get from one side of the park to the other quickly. A nice beer selection. Good sight lines. In this day and age it is a dinosaur and I’m sure for the players it’s shabby and cramped compared to all of the latest fancy facilities, but it’s a ballpark in every sense of the word and I kinda loved it.

One of the things I loved about it was that there wasn’t constant music blaring. Not having a jumbotron or video board of any kind to speak of probably goes into that, but it was welcome. Although there was one instance in which having some audio would have been helpful: when the U.S. and Canadian national anthems were sung. A children’s choir was on hand to do the honors, but there was no microphone or musical accompaniment. So this happened:

A nice effort by most involved. And yes, that’s a Dunedin Blue Jays cap I’m wearing. When you’re bald and you show up to a sun-drenched ballpark without a cap, you have to do — and buy — certain things to protect yourself.

As for the game, I got the Yankees for the third day in a row. Just dumb happenstance, I suppose. The only two starters they brought with them were Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury and they still cleaned the clock of an almost-all-Opening-Day Blue Jays lineup in a pretty sloppy game. Heck, it was March 2. That sort of thing happens.

And spring training baseball happens the rest of this week. I’ll be updating later this morning from Sarasota. And a different park every day this week. If you find yourself in or around Sarasota, Orlando, Clearwater, Bradenton or Fort Myers, by all means, say hello. Otherwise, keep checking in here to HBT.

Jose Canseco to join NBC Sports California as an A’s analyst

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Hey, I have a new coworker: Jose Canseco has been hired by NBC Sports California as an Athletics pregame analyst.

OK, maybe he’s not technically a coworker, as the folks at NBC Sports California — formerly CSN Bay Area — and I do not hang out at the water cooler, have potlucks in the conference room or exchange secret Santa gifts at Christmas time, but dang it, I’m gonna TELL people I work with Jose Canseco. The only downside will be people assuming that, because he and I are on the same team, my performance is something less than authentic. Or, perhaps, Canseco may write another book and tell all of my secrets.

Anyway, Canseco will be part of NBC Sports California’s A’s Pregame Live and A’s Postgame Live shows. Live TV can be hard. I’ve done a bit of it, and there is certainly more to that gig than meets the eye. You can’t always prepare for what happens on the fly. I’m sure Canseco will do well, however, as he’s great with coming up with the best stuff off the top of his head.

2017 Preview: Cleveland Indians

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Cleveland Indians.

The Cleveland Indians almost won the World Series without their best hitter for the whole season and two of their starting pitchers for the playoffs. This year that hitter — Michael Brantley — is back and the starters — Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar — are healthy. Oh, and they added arguably the best free agent bat available in Edwin Encarnacion.

Baseball teams love to downplay their expectations, but given where the Indians are at the moment, anything less than another American League Pennant will have to feel like a disappointment, right? Fortunately for the Indians, they stand as the favorites to do just that.

They didn’t lose much in the offseason. Yes, World Series hero Rajai Davis is gone, but the Indians outfield will be fine if Brantley remains healthy. Mike Napoli‘s loss will be felt but it will be made up for with Encarnacion’s bat and probably then some. Coco Crisp left too, but he was not a key part of the equation.

The biggest losses are guys from last year who will start the year on the disabled list, most notably Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall. Kipnis is just starting to work out following time off to rest his sore shoulder. Chisenhall ran into a wall the other day and is being evaluated. There is no sense that either will miss extended time, however.

Otherwise, the lineup should score a lot of runs, with on-base machines Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor setting the table for Encarnacion, Brantley and Carlos Santana, who is entering his walk year. The Indians trailed only the Red Sox in runs scored in the American League last year and they should score a lot of runs this year as well.

The strength of the club, however, remains its pitching. Corey Kluber looked like his old Cy Young self last year, particularly in the playoffs. Danny Salazar built on his excellent 2015 season in the first half before falling prey to injury. Carlos Carrasco posted an ERA+ of 141 before breaking his hand and Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer both stood out for fourth and fifth starters.

The bullpen is excellent too, as relief ace Andrew Miller is joined by Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and newcomer Boone Logan make up one of the relief corps in baseball.

Pitcher health is probably the biggest uncertainty for any contender, but the Indians have the best pitching in the AL if everyone stays healthy. And maybe even if one or two guys don’t.

It’s hard to find much fault with the 2017 Cleveland Indians. They are the class of their division and, while the slog of the regular season turns a lot of surefire contenders into hash before it’s all said and done, there is no reason to look at the Indians right now and think of them as anything other than the best team in the American League.

Prediction: First place, American League Central.