DUNEDIN, Fla. – Manager Joe Girardi received a bag of grapefruit from his bosses one spring when his Marlins posted the best record in the Grapefruit League. In Arizona, handing a manager a prickly pear for winning the Cactus League would be just plain cruel.
As useless accomplishments go, finishing atop spring-training standings is right up there with a degree in medieval history and sinking a wadded-up paper ball in an office trash can from 20 feet with no one watching.
The Toronto Blue Jays are 22-5 this spring, by far the best record in Florida or Arizona. They have the best winning percentage of any team since 1997. After a 2-2 start, the Blue Jays won 10 in a row. Then they lost two split-squad games in one day before embarking on another 10-game winning streak. They got beat Friday, and the clubhouse joke is that it’s the only thing that kept them from a berth in the Final Four.
“Winning means we are prepared and playing well, not just the big-league guys but the minor-league guys who played the second half of these games,” said right fielder Jose Bautista, the Blue Jays’ best player. “But the wins don’t count. We all know that.”
The Jays’ minor-league talent is ranked No. 5 overall by Baseball America. General manager Alex Anthopoulos is beginning his third year, and he’s already restocked the farm system with solid prospects through trades and the MLB draft. Toronto’s stockpile of young pitchers is especially impressive.
Third baseman Brett Lawrie, one of the best young hitters in the game and already a fixture in the lineup, is batting .545 this spring. Yet not all of Toronto’s spring performers are spring chickens: Omar Vizquel, a 24-year veteran who will turn 45 in April, made the team in an infield utility role after batting .452.
Whether 22-5 or 5-22, the Jays would still be pegged to finish fourth in the highly competitive American League East division. They’ve been baseball’s best fourth-place team each of the past four years, which might even exceed a Grapefruit League title in the pantheon of useless accomplishments.
But two 10-game winning streaks do make the Jays unmistakable spring winners in our accounting. Here are others, as well as some spring losers:
• Miguel Cabrera and Hanley Ramirez: Two of baseball’s biggest names and biggest egos were asked to do something extraordinary: change positions to make way for equally big names. Both embraced the challenge when they could have sulked. Cabrera moved from first base to third because the Detroit Tigers signed Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract. Ramirez moved from shortstop to third because the Miami Marlins signed Jose Reyes to a six-year, $106 million deal. Cabrera played third in 2006 and 2007 at a slightly below-average level, and he reported to camp in good condition, eager to relearn the position. He missed 10 days when a ground ball took a bad hop and fractured his right orbital bone, but he hit two doubles Friday in his first action since. Ramirez and Reyes have become fast friends. The athletic Ramirez has had no trouble adjusting to third, is hitting .375 and (most importantly) has approached the season with an upbeat attitude. • Royals hitters: Twelve MLB players hit .400 this spring. Four are on the Kansas City Royals’ roster: first baseman Eric Hosmer, left fielder Alex Gordon, designated hitter Billy Butler and center fielder Lorenzo Cain. The Royals have had one winning record in the past 17 years but, with a complete emphasis on young talent, are poised for a breakout season. And even if that breakout is delayed a year, it will be fun to watch the talent develop. Kansas City’s roster was far younger than any other team in 2011, averaging 26 years old. New pitchers Jonathan Sanchez, 29, and Jonathan Broxton, 27, qualify as old-timers. More youth is on the way. Baseball America ranks the Royals’ farm system No. 3 in baseball, although several of the top pitching prospects appear to be at least a year away. Gordon, the Royals’ first-round pick in 2005 and a disappointment for several years before breaking out in 2011, deserves special recognition because he capped the spring by signing a five-year, $50 million contract extension. • Brandon Belt: A year ago, Belt was handed first base by the San Francisco Giants and butchered the opportunity, getting sent back to the minors after posting a .192 batting average in 17 games. He was better after being called up for the last two months of the 2011 regular season, but he still didn’t provide the production needed from an everyday corner infielder. Top prospects are granted second chances, and this spring Belt has tightened his game a notch. He’s batting .397 with a sky-high 1.086 OPS while playing nearly every day. Belt might not make the team out of spring training – only because the Giants want to try a different approach and quietly promote him after a month or so rather than anoint him again as the opening-day savior of a subpar offense. But make no mistake: Belt will be a fixture in San Francisco soon enough. • Frank McCourt: Many consider him the biggest loser in Los Angeles, but he’s leaving town with his pockets stuffed with hundreds of millions of dollars after selling the Dodgers for $2.15 billion. McCourt and his ex-wife, Jamie, ransacked the team coffers, enjoyed the fruits of a bountiful farm system that provided cheap talent for years, then had their nefarious ways exposed in an ugly divorce. McCourt was humiliated and is despised. All the other owners turned on him. Yet he more than quadrupled his 2004 purchase price, which from a strictly business point of view makes him the most successful owner in baseball history.
• Ryan Braun: Yes, the reigning National League MVP was exonerated of taking performance-enhancing drugs by a three-member MLB panel. And, yes, his bat has been hot of late. But fans booed him all over the Cactus League. The public clearly is not convinced that Braun didn’t avoid a 50-game suspension simply on a procedural technicality. He’s resigned to the treatment. “It's unfortunate and disappointing that people would make judgments or form an opinion without actually knowing what happened,” the outfielder told MLB.com. Braun steadfastly refuses to provide details of “what happened.” “I'm not going into it. It's not good for baseball, it's not good for [the Milwaukee Brewers], it's not good for me. It's not good for anybody. … I've already been exonerated. Nobody else's opinion is relevant to me.” • Chipper Jones: Another year, another leg injury for a classy ballplayer who had the season mapped out: He’d play every day, bat in the middle of the lineup, enjoy a farewell tour, help the Atlanta Braves to the playoffs, then retire. A meniscus tear in his right knee foiled at least the first chapter. Jones, who will turn 40 in April, hopes to return shortly after the beginning of the season. But this is his sixth knee surgery, and six months of injury-free production might be wishful thinking. • Mike Trout: In just about everyone’s estimation, Trout is in the conversation along with Bryce Harper and Matt Moore as the best prospect in baseball. Power, speed, defense – Trout has it all. Except that he hasn’t handled pitchers in the major leagues well so far. The center fielder hit only .220 with a .671 OPS in 40 games with the Angels last season, and followed that with a spring that never really got started. Shoulder tendinitis has kept him from throwing, and a lingering virus caused him to drop nearly 20 pounds. He’ll begin the season at Triple-A Salt Lake City. • A.J. Burnett and Joba Chamberlain: The “Freak Injuries of Spring” awards go to a pitcher discarded from the New York Yankees to the Pittsburgh Pirates and a pitcher still hanging around the Yankees. In the “On the field” category, Burnett fouled a ball into his right eye during a bunt drill on Feb. 29, fracturing the orbital bone and requiring surgery. He is back working out and could be ready to join the Pirates’ rotation by the end of April. Chamberlain is the less fortunate recipient of the “Off the field” distinction. He dislocated his right ankle playing on a trampoline with his son and had surgery that will sideline him most of the season. The right-hander was already on the mend from Tommy John surgery last June. • Aaron Rowand: Every year at this time, a veteran is struck by the realization his career might be over. Rowand, part of World Series championships with the White Sox in 2005 and the Giants in 2010, was cut by the Marlins two days ago. He was hoping to catch on as a backup outfielder, but Chris Coughlan and Austin Kearns made the team instead. “I’ll go somewhere else if another team needs outfielder, but if not I’ll take it to the house and call it a career,” he told The Miami Herald. “Not everybody gets to decide when they are going to hang ’em up.” It’s hard to consider Rowand too much of a loser: He’ll be paid $12 million this year by the Giants whether he plays or not, the end of a five-year, $60 million contract. • Michael Pineda: A heated battle for the last spot in the Yankees’ starting rotation appears to have ended the way so many spring battles do – with an injury making the decision easy. Pineda, an MLB All-Star as a rookie last year with the Seattle Mariners, was acquired in a trade for top hitting prospect Jesus Montero and is expected to bolster the rotation for years to come. But his velocity was down this spring, his confidence wavered and, after getting shelled Friday, he reported stiffness in his right shoulder. He’ll begin the season on the disabled list, enabling Ivan Nova,Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes to line up in the rotation behind CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda.
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