Spring training, one of my favorite times of the year, provides a good opportunity to look for trends that will affect the upcoming season. Some are similar to those of past springs, while others reflect ongoing changes in the game. Some can be explained by the current philosophies of front office and management, while others are a bit more indefinable.
For whatever reason, injuries to closers have become a common theme to this year’s spring training. With a few days remaining in the preseason, three closers have gone down with significant injuries. The Twins have lost premier relief ace Joe Nathan to season-ending Tommy John< surgery, a major blow to a team that fancies itself a contender in the wide-open American League Central. Another Central Division team, the sad sack Indians, have lost the oft-injured Kerry Wood for up to two months with shoulder trouble. And then there are the Rockies, considered by some the favorites in the National League West. Colorado will have to make do without talented closer Huston Street, bothered by shoulder stiffness, for at least the start to the new season.
In each case, the affected teams have decided to address their bullpen holes from within, hoping to solve their ninth inning needs with unglamorous organizational replacements. (The Twins will use a closer-by-committee, at least for the short term.) None of the teams have responded by making a trade, and none are expected to do so in the near future.
The reactions of the Twins, Indians and Rockies reflect another industry-wide trend: the lack of spring training trades. The spring used to be a fertile time for teams to seek remedies through the trade market. Bad teams used to actively seek spring trades as a way of patching holes that had sprung up over the winter, or during the early weeks of spring training. I remember in particular the 1989 Yankees, who lost Dave Winfield, their starting right fielder, and Rafael Santana, their No. 1 shortstop, to season-ending injuries during the spring. Already lacking in other areas, the Yankees tried to fix the sinking ship by trading for Mel Hall, Steve Balboni and Tom Brookens, among others. The constant dealing made for an eventful and entertaining spring, but did little to improve what would be an awful team. The ‘89 Yankees finished in fifth place at 74-87, well out of the running in the AL East.
Bad teams in today’s game rarely attempt the Yankees strategy, instead hoping to solve problems from within, or by signing a discarded player from the waiver wire scrap heap. Look how few trades of substance have been made this spring. Earlier this week, the Tigers made the biggest trade of the preseason by sending No. 5 starter Nate Robertson to the Marlins for a pitching prospect. Robertson is a name player, well known to rabid fans of the game, but hasn’t really pitched well since 2006. At best, he’s a second-tier starter.
Other spring deals have involved the Red Sox, who acquired infielder Kevin Frandsen from the Giants; the Rangers, who picked up second baseman Andres Blanco from the Cubs; the A’s, who acquired reliever Edwar Ramirez from the Rangers; and the Orioles, who just made a trade for Julio Lugo. Frandsen, Blanco, and Ramirez are hardly earth-shattering names, even lesser known than Robertson.
Here’s the bottom line when it comes to spring training trades that generate headlines and big-time buzz: They have become a thing of the past. Perhaps it‘s a smarter way to run a ball club, but it’s a trend that has made spring training a little less interesting.
While spring trades have become nearly obsolete, the waiver wire and the unemployment lines remain busy places. With teams increasingly willing to give roster spots to young up-and-comers, name veterans are becoming an industry casualty. The Nationals caused arguably the biggest the stir of the spring when they made the surprising decision to release their talented but troubled outfielder Elijah Dukes. Despite his athletic skills and relative youth, Dukes remains unemployed, his future in professional baseball in doubt. Other big name veterans have been axed, including Kevin Millar (by the Cubs), Doug Mientkiewicz (Dodgers), Scott Schoeneweis (Brewers), Eddie Guardado (Nationals), Chad Gaudin (Yankees), Ryan Garko (Mariners) and Joey Gathright (Blue Jays). Schoeneweis has already been signed by the Red Sox, Gaudin has inked a deal with the A’s, Gathright has found a minor league home with the Oriole, and Garko was just claimed by the Rangers. But some of the others could have trouble finding gainful employment. Mientkiewicz is contemplating several options, which include retirement and a tempting offer to work as a coach with the Dodgers. Millar, who is limited in terms of defense and versatility, could be looking at the end of a career that reached its peak with the Red Sox in 2004.
Some of the notable out-of-work players are holdovers from this winter’s free agent class. Former White Sox outfielder Jermaine Dye remains unsigned, principally because his bat disappeared during the final two months of 2009, while his defensive play has degenerated badly the past three seasons. Though he’s 36, Dye probably deserves a shot with someone based on his 27 home runs and 64 walks last season, but is facing the stark reality that his career has ended unless someone signs him between now and May 1. Another name free agent is Jarrod Washburn, who could have signed with the Twins but turned down their offer of one year at $5 million. More recently, Washburn rejected an offer from the Mariners, one of his 2009 teams. The finesse left hander would like to play near his home in Wisconsin, but may have to broaden his choices unless the Brewers or one of the Chicago teams show him some interest.
Finally, the 12-man pitching staff now seems etched in stone as the fashionable way of constructing a roster. In recent years, we’ve seen more and more teams go to the 12-man staff, but some clubs have at least considered the possibility of staying with 11 pitchers. Now they’re all pretty much in lockstep. Earlier this week, Baseball Prospectus published its projected Opening Day rosters for all major league teams. According to BP’s projections, 29 of the 30 teams are committed to 12-man staffs, with only the Dodgers considering the use of 11 pitchers (so as to give Joe Torre more flexibility with his second base conundrum).
With the 12-man staff now a permanent fixture, National League teams have only five men on their bench, and American League teams have ridiculously small four-man benches. In my mind, this is a sad trend in baseball, one that has rendered platoon players almost obsolete, while severely limiting pinch-hitting opportunities. The lack of a legitimate bench is hurting the quality of play—along with the quality of strategy. It’s worth keeping in mind the next time you see a manager put in a pitcher as a pinch-runner, or watch him sit on his hands when he wants to pinch-hit for his light-hitting backup catcher but can’t do so because he has no one else available to catch.
Baseball’s landscape never stops changing. In the absence of extra position players and major trades, and without a few injured closers and several name veterans, Baseball 2010 is on the verge of happening. Let the games begin.