Back from Desert: Only Thing Brighter than Sun was Future

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I’ve returned from the arid desert landscape and pleasantly returned to an unseasonably warm Midwestern March.  That has me in such a good mood that I need to share some of my sunniness with all of you.  This was my first time attending spring training in Mesa.  I had been to Cubs spring training games in Las Vegas before, but I can tell you that it just wasn’t the same.  The Mesa environment is intimate and the ‘player path’ from the clubhouse/training center to the Sloan Park player entrance is accessible to the fans which enhances that intimate vibe.  I’m not one that feels comfortable calling people I haven’t been introduced to by their first names or addressing dudes fifteen years my junior as “Mister”, so I convinced my wife (who doesn’t doesn’t possess those hangups) to charm a few players her way so we’d have a souvenir for our boys when we returned:

If you remember, my excitement for this trip revolved around seeing Kyle Schwarber.  I was hoping to get to see him catch in person and after I saw the lineup last week Monday I had a pretty good feel that he’d get in the game.

He did.  I am definitely not a scout.  I play amateur baseball and coach little league.  That’s the limit of my expertise.  For me, I just wanted a look at him to get a feel for how comfortable he looks in there, a glimpse of his athleticism, and hopefully some assessments from others with knowledgeable eyes.  Schwarber seems to have left an impression on people that he’s a “bad body” guy.  He’s not.  Does he have the slender gazelle-like physique of Dexter Fowler?  No.  If we’re limiting it to the animal kingdom of Africa, he’d be more like a lion.  A head that meets a beastly chest, shoulders, and traps with nearly no discernable neck.

One can imagine the former Middletown, OH football standout maxing-out his physical gifts and combining that with cunning to cut-off and prey on opposing gazelles…like Braxton Miller (archived article on Schwarber in high school for upcoming game against Miller).  That’s right, Schwarber was Middletown High School’s leading tackler as a senior and Ohio State had interest in him as a linebacker – so much so that they invited him to a spring game (he was already committed to play baseball in Indiana).  So it’s not a surprise that the Cubs are betting on that athleticism which poked up its head in a recent game (also take a look at Patrick Mooney’s recent piece on Schwarber):

I only had a handful of innings to watch Schwarber in person.  What I did see was a guy that managed to catch a clean inning from Strop (including handling that killer slider)

and a dominant inning from C.J. Edwards.  The only assessment I have after seeing him in person and a bit on television is that the experiment ain’t over and I’m still searching for some good objective assessments of his work behind the plate so far this spring:

 

As far as other guys in which I had a particular interest, Javier Baez was all over the place in the few at bats I saw, but he has made improvements since my time there last week.  In person, it’s striking how much leaner he appears, but that swing that’s built more on speed than strength, hasn’t lost any swiftness.  I was a bit perturbed with some of the fan reactions to Javy’s day of poor plate appearances.  After a strikeout where he swung at one that ended up at the backstop and finally one that landed about six inches in front of the plate, a fan yelled “JAVY, YOU’LL LOOOVE IOWA”.  It received quite a bit of encouraging (to him) reactions from the crowd surrounding the gentleman.  1) it misses the mark as a joke because Javy has already spent many months in Iowa, I think he’s familiar, and 2) this is a 22 year-old who is working his ass off (you don’t get that lean without working your ass off) and is going through the process of addressing the holes in his game and 3) Javy is a young growth asset that can become extremely valuable, is under team control, and is not some overpaid free agent whose contract everyone resents – how is it helpful at all to poke at a developing player like that?

Mike Olt was very impressive during my trip and henceforth.  He may be a strikeout target like Javy, but his approach is much more refined.  He worked counts, like he has in the past, and punished balls deserving of punishment:

And he made one of the most ridiculous plays I’ve ever seen in person.  Olt had to dive to his right and pick a one hop liner with his backhand near the third base line.  He didn’t have time to get back to his feet, so he sort of hopped from his right hip, and with an exaggerated overhand motion, tossed the ball with remarkable velocity – without looking – to Rizzo at first.  The ball just barely pulled Rizzo off the bag.  Though the runner was ultimately safe, it’s pretty obvious that Olt can glove it and that remains a reason to keep Olt in the third base discussion…even with Bryant mashing the ball [ducks].  I don’t have video, so you’ll have to settle for this play that Olt said was his “most memorable play” yet in the majors:

 

We’ve all managed to get a good look at Addison Russell on TV and in the box score.  He has been spraying the ball around, controlling the strike zone, and making plays in the field all season.  His “he’s special” status has only risen in my book:

 

I had a request to get a gauge on Edwin Jackson.  I was only there to see his first start, which was rough.  It’s frustrating to see Jackson get hit so hard.

His velocity topped at about 93 and we know he can tick it up more than that.  He also didn’t repeat his “fastballs only” spring debut of last year.  He was throwing some nice looking breaking balls.  His fastball-slider combination can be a good one and with a promising start last time out, he remains in the mix for the fifth spot in the rotation.

Next up, I’ll play travel writer regarding my experience in Mesa and Sloan Park and a bit on some old media chestnuts I overheard regarding a certain player that are still being repeated by fans.

Other highlights:

I didn’t get to see Soler play, so I had to settle for some drills on the backfields

Schwarber nearly hit the wife with one over the centerfield wall

I was too slow with my phone to snap a pic, but if you ever see it happen in person…Bryant is the one wearing pants.

About jrayn

A displaced Cubs fan stranded in the Great Plains perpetuating a life of self amusement. @jjrayn.

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