Lessons learned at spring training

After a month-long trip through Cactus League and Grapefruit League camps, Sporting News’ Stan McNeal reviews some of the biggest trends, story lines and injuries to track heading into the regular season.

The return of small ball will benefit players like the Yankees' Curtis Granderson.
The return of small ball will benefit players like the Yankees’ Curtis Granderson.

1. As the steroids era fades, small ball has returned. Scouts, catchers and basestealers agree: "The real game of baseball is coming back," Nationals speedster Nyjer Morgan said. "It’s a beautiful thing."

Look for more teams to imitate the Angels and Rays with aggressive baserunning. Last year, the Red Sox, Rangers and, in the second half, Athletics picked up their paces. The Mariners, White Sox, Padres and Rockies figure to be among the clubs that join the run fun in 2010.

Beating the best, however, will take balance. The Yankees will run more with Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson in the lineup, but they still will feature power. The Phillies have the game’s best mix of power and speed with two players, Chase Utley and Jayson Werth, capable of 30-homer, 30-steal seasons.

2. Pujols is the best (here’s more proof): When Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols first was sidelined with a back issue this month, he said one reason for the injury was because he was feeling so good. That’s right. Because his surgically repaired elbow felt strong, Pujols spent even more time in the batting cages. He thought too much swinging so early in the year could have caused his back stiffness, or at least contributed to it.

Pujols pledged to take it easy for a day or so and not swing the bat. But bright and early the next morning, he was back in the cage. At least Pujols wasn’t swinging the bat. He was watching pitches, trying to get used to game speed. Three weeks later, however, his back still is bothering him.

3. Damon fits in: Not surprisingly, Johnny Damon has had no trouble fitting in with the Tigers. The guy’s a pro. If he feels any disappointment about the Yankees and his offseason, he hides it easily. A shorter spring training commute has helped. Damon said the daily drive from his home outside of Orlando is about 45 minutes to Tigers camp in Lakeland, compared to about 90 minutes each way from the Yankees’ base in Tampa.

Staying at home in spring training is a big deal to Damon, too. "I had an offer from one team in Arizona (White Sox), but they would have had to pay me a lot more money," Damon told me one day in the Tigers’ clubhouse, his son hanging out near him. Damon even invited teammates to his home when the Tigers visited the Braves at nearby Disney last week. He had no trouble accommodating them: His house is more than 22,000 square feet.

The Brewers' Jeff Suppan could find himself out of a job if he doesn't improve.
The Brewers’ Jeff Suppan could find himself out of a job if he doesn’t improve.

4. Suppan is struggling: One of a beat writer’s chores each day is to talk with the starting pitcher after he puts in his work. No matter the results, the pitcher is satisfied if he is able to put in his work. Early on, it is about fastball command. Then it is about working in breaking pitches. Then it is building arm strength. Rarely is all about getting out hitters.

Brewers starter Jeff Suppan is an exception. "Every time I’m out there, no matter what time of year it is, I am concentrating on getting out the hitter," he said.

When you are fighting for your job, you must have results. Suppan isn’t faring too well. His ERA this spring is 7.71, and that is down after allowing two runs in 4 1/3 innings in his most recent start. He will be relegated to the No. 5 spot in the rotation—at best—a year after starting on opening day.

Three strikes

1. Don’t expect Lance Berkman to be 100 percent for a while. The Astros first baseman took his first batting practice swings just two weeks after March 13 surgery on his left knee, but the knee remains swollen.

2. I had a feeling Jason Heyward was different when, a few weeks ago, he said this offseason was the same as any other for him. "I used the same batting instructor and the same conditioning guy that I have since I was 14," he said. A conditioning guy at 14? Heyward, 20, has known what he has wanted for a long time. He didn’t get his childhood number, though. He said No. 24 has been his number, but the Braves issued him No. 22 after they told him he had made the club. Veteran Nate McLouth sports No. 24 in Atlanta.

3. Two Orioles to watch: lefthander Brian Matusz and outfielder Felix Pie. With Nolan Reimold dealing with a foot problem, Pie—a favorite of manager Dave Trembley—could see more playing time than most so-called fourth outfielders. Matusz, 23, has shown this month that he has the stuff to be a No. 1 starter.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

After a month-long trip through Cactus League and Grapefruit League camps, Sporting News’ Stan McNeal reviews some of the biggest trends, story lines and injuries to track heading into the regular season.

The return of small ball will benefit players like the Yankees' Curtis Granderson.
The return of small ball will benefit players like the Yankees’ Curtis Granderson.

1. As the steroids era fades, small ball has returned. Scouts, catchers and basestealers agree: "The real game of baseball is coming back," Nationals speedster Nyjer Morgan said. "It’s a beautiful thing."

Look for more teams to imitate the Angels and Rays with aggressive baserunning. Last year, the Red Sox, Rangers and, in the second half, Athletics picked up their paces. The Mariners, White Sox, Padres and Rockies figure to be among the clubs that join the run fun in 2010.

Beating the best, however, will take balance. The Yankees will run more with Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson in the lineup, but they still will feature power. The Phillies have the game’s best mix of power and speed with two players, Chase Utley and Jayson Werth, capable of 30-homer, 30-steal seasons.

2. Pujols is the best (here’s more proof): When Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols first was sidelined with a back issue this month, he said one reason for the injury was because he was feeling so good. That’s right. Because his surgically repaired elbow felt strong, Pujols spent even more time in the batting cages. He thought too much swinging so early in the year could have caused his back stiffness, or at least contributed to it.

Pujols pledged to take it easy for a day or so and not swing the bat. But bright and early the next morning, he was back in the cage. At least Pujols wasn’t swinging the bat. He was watching pitches, trying to get used to game speed. Three weeks later, however, his back still is bothering him.

3. Damon fits in: Not surprisingly, Johnny Damon has had no trouble fitting in with the Tigers. The guy’s a pro. If he feels any disappointment about the Yankees and his offseason, he hides it easily. A shorter spring training commute has helped. Damon said the daily drive from his home outside of Orlando is about 45 minutes to Tigers camp in Lakeland, compared to about 90 minutes each way from the Yankees’ base in Tampa.

Staying at home in spring training is a big deal to Damon, too. "I had an offer from one team in Arizona (White Sox), but they would have had to pay me a lot more money," Damon told me one day in the Tigers’ clubhouse, his son hanging out near him. Damon even invited teammates to his home when the Tigers visited the Braves at nearby Disney last week. He had no trouble accommodating them: His house is more than 22,000 square feet.

The Brewers' Jeff Suppan could find himself out of a job if he doesn't improve.
The Brewers’ Jeff Suppan could find himself out of a job if he doesn’t improve.

4. Suppan is struggling: One of a beat writer’s chores each day is to talk with the starting pitcher after he puts in his work. No matter the results, the pitcher is satisfied if he is able to put in his work. Early on, it is about fastball command. Then it is about working in breaking pitches. Then it is building arm strength. Rarely is all about getting out hitters.

Brewers starter Jeff Suppan is an exception. "Every time I’m out there, no matter what time of year it is, I am concentrating on getting out the hitter," he said.

When you are fighting for your job, you must have results. Suppan isn’t faring too well. His ERA this spring is 7.71, and that is down after allowing two runs in 4 1/3 innings in his most recent start. He will be relegated to the No. 5 spot in the rotation—at best—a year after starting on opening day.

Three strikes

1. Don’t expect Lance Berkman to be 100 percent for a while. The Astros first baseman took his first batting practice swings just two weeks after March 13 surgery on his left knee, but the knee remains swollen.

2. I had a feeling Jason Heyward was different when, a few weeks ago, he said this offseason was the same as any other for him. "I used the same batting instructor and the same conditioning guy that I have since I was 14," he said. A conditioning guy at 14? Heyward, 20, has known what he has wanted for a long time. He didn’t get his childhood number, though. He said No. 24 has been his number, but the Braves issued him No. 22 after they told him he had made the club. Veteran Nate McLouth sports No. 24 in Atlanta.

3. Two Orioles to watch: lefthander Brian Matusz and outfielder Felix Pie. With Nolan Reimold dealing with a foot problem, Pie—a favorite of manager Dave Trembley—could see more playing time than most so-called fourth outfielders. Matusz, 23, has shown this month that he has the stuff to be a No. 1 starter.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

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