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Thursday 8th Dec 2016

Ah, spring has sprung (well, ok, almost) and baseball is here, and in Phoenix, the wonderfully young and fun Cubbies took the field for the first time this year, facing the Brewers in Maryvale.

For the first game, we were treated to a nice compendium of players, including Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber (batting leadoff), Kyle Hendricks, Jonathan Lucroy and Rymer Liriano.

Here is the box from the game, but ten observations:

1) Javier Baez is probably not a centerfielder. Jonathan Villar smacked the first pitch off the center field wall, and Baez was turned around twice while backpedaling and tracking the ball before it bounced off the wall just above him and bounced back for a triple. Two hitters later, Jonathan Lucroy smacked a sinking liner to shallow right center which bounded off Baez' glove for a two-base error. Baez does have some speed but judging the bat off the ball seems to be another question. Either that, or a team should stack their starting lineup with "Jonathans."

2) Miguel Montero can hit, banging a double and then a single, but he was hung out to dry on a come-backer. OK, the ball was hard hit, but Will Middlebrooks dropped the throw from Chase Anderson, and had Montero been aggressive running towards third rather than scrambling back to second, he might have been safe. Worst case, Baez might have made it to second during the potential rundown. As it was, Montero was tagged out by Middlebrooks trying to get back to second.

3) I have to rethink my view of Kyle Hendricks, who did give up a run and a couple of hits but whiffed four batters over his two innings.

4) Keep an eye on Josh Hader, swapped by the Astros as part of the Carlos Gomez trade. The reliever has 398 minor league whiffs over 363 innings along with five saves since being drafted in 2012. He went two innings, with a hit and three whiffs.

5) Kyle Schwarber lined a sharp single in his second at-bat.

6) Kris Bryant blooped a single in his second at-bat.

7) Jorge Soler has a big swing and needs to learn to control it some before he can expect the success we anticipate.

8) Jonathan Lucroy did take advantage of Baez' misplay, but his second at-bat produced a single as well.

9) Catcher Jacob Nottingham started at DH and clobbered a pair of doubles, the first of which meant a run when Lucroy dropped a hit just beyond Villar's grasp. The catcher bounced back and forth between the Athletics and Astros before it seems finding a home with the Brewers, and he has a minor league .804 OPS to go with a .284-23-130 line over 211 games.

10) Chase Anderson got the win and looked fine over his first two frames, allowing a hit while striking out two.

It was a lot of fun seeing the "new" Cubs have at it at Scottsdale Stadium Thursday, as a split squad team--featuring Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Arismendy Alcantara--took the field against the defending champions.

It was Kyle Schwarber, the North Siders first pick in the 2014 draft, who made the mark, hitting a slam under unusual circumstances.

After home plate umpire Dale Scott was hit by a pitch during Norichika Aoki's first at-bat, he had to leave the game, so, to keep the flow, Jim Joyce called balls and strikes from behind Ryan Vogelsong while Mark Ripberger went below to don the mask and accoutrement of umpiring.

Soler smashed a single, as did Wellington Castillo, and following a walk to Kris Bryant, Schwarber celebrated his 22nd birthday by depositing a pitch over the right field wall.

The big fuss of the game, however, came when Hunter Pence was hit in the left forearm in the sixth by Corey Black. Pence was removed for a pinch runner, and was sent for as yet undetermined X-rays.

After the game, Bruce Bochy tried to remain optimistic, noting it "was still early enough that we have a safety net," noting that Gregor Blanco, Justin Maxwell (who started, walked, and swiped a base) along with Juan Perez would pick up the slack. (Note that the Giants announced post-game that Pence suffered a non-displaced fracture, and will be out 6-8 weeks.)

San Francisco did turn their deficit into a win in a game that featured a lot of noteworthy items, including a massive homer by Giants outfielder Daniel Carbonell, as well as a line shot by Billy McKinney (reminded me a lot of a couple of AFL lasers hit here by Joe Panik) that just cleared the wall.

Hurler Chris Heston (#12 Giants pick in 2009) tossed two excellent innings, allowing just a hit while whiffing a pair. Heston turned in fine seasons at Richmond (9-8, 2.24) and then Fresno last year (12-9, 3.38) and could nab a spot in the SF pen.

Finally, Hunter Strickland threw hard, surrendered a homer (to McKinney), but won the game as the beneficiary of a five-run eighth inning rally that took away a little of the bitterness of losing Pence.

I had a doubleheader here on Saturday with the Diamondbacks playing the White Sox in the afternoon contest and the Mariners taking on the Dodgers in the evening game.

In the first matchup, White Sox starter Jose Quintana gave up two hits and then was hit on his left leg by a line drive off the bat of Diamondbacks shortstop hopeful Chris Owings, forcing the hurler out of the game (day-to-day with a shin contusion). All three baserunners scored on a sacrifce fly, followed by a two-run double by Andy Marte (yes, that former prospect).

The Diamondbacks added a run in the fourth inning on a home run to left field by centerfielder A.J. Pollock, now hitting .409 for the spring. Pollock is somewhat under projected but a nice buy low in both mixed and NL formats (well at least as of now).

The White Sox were hitless for the first two innings but put together four straight hits off Brandon McCarthy in the bottom of the third inning, good for two runs. But, the rally was aborted by a strikeout/caught stealing double play with no outs.

The Pale Hose tied the game in the sixth inning on a triple by Avisail Garcia, a walk to Paul Konerko, and then back-to-back singles by Alexei Ramirez and Jordan Danks but ended that rally with another caught stealing with Tyler Flowers in the batter’s box.

The game would stay tied until the top of the ninth inning, when Arizona catcher Tuffy Gosewisch hit a two-run double off Chicago reliever Deunte Heath to win the game.

McCarthy looked very good in the first, second, fourth, and fifth innings, with only two runs, and four of six hits he allowed occurring in the third.

Potential closers J.J. Putz and Nate Jones had rocky innings, although Jones did not give up any runs while Putz, who was tagged for a pair of runs, got a blown save for his efforts.

In the night game, things got off to a strange start in the top of the first inning when the first two Mariners singled off Josh Beckett, who only faced three batters in the inning. Abraham Almonte lined a single to right field and was promptly picked off. Then Kyle Seager followed suit with a single to left field but was doubled off first base when Nick Franklin drilled a ball to right fielder Scott Van Slyke who then fired to first base, catching Seager off-guard.

In the bottom of the first, Dee Gordon was safe on an infield single and then stole second base. Gordon took third on an errant pickoff throw by Beckett and after Carl Crawford walked, scored on a single to center by Van Slyke. Both Crawford and Van Slyke then crossed the plate when Mariner first baseman Jesus Montero errored on a sharp one hopper by Clint Robinson that rolled far into right field.

But, the Mariners quickly tied the game up in the second on a walk to Justin Smoak, a two-run homer to Jesus Montero (his first of two on the night) and a solo shot into the left field bullpen by Stefen Romero. Smoak added a long two-run homer in the third inning.

Dodgers outfield prospect Joc Pederson narrowly missed a big fly to center field in the fourth inning. He got a double after the ball bounced back off the wall, but persevered and lined a two-run homer over the center field wall in the sixth.

* * * * * 

On Friday, the Texas Rangers visited Camelback Ranch to play the Dodgers and L.A. prospect Zach Lee pitched two scoreless innings to start the game, giving up just a pair of hits while striking out one Ranger and getting the win.

Martin Perez pitched well in his second and third innings but gave up two runs in the first inning on a walk and a long home run to dead center by Hanley Ramirez that traveled over 410 feet from home plate.

Former closers Brian Wilson and Chris Perez both threw scoreless innings for the home team while Ranger pitcher Michael Kirkman pitched three hitless innings, giving up just two walks while striking out two Dodgers.

* * * * *

On Thursday, White Sox starter John Danks pitched three scoreless innings, giving up just one hit while walking two. Scott Baker, who started for the Mariners, was not as fortunate, allowing one run on three hits in his three innings. The good news is that Baker didn’t walk any Rangers but the bad news is that he didn’t strike out any either.

Offensively, Adam Eaton continued his hot hitting with three singles in three plate appearances and added a stolen base. Eaton for the spring is hitting .600 with an OBP of .714.

I was at Surprise Stadium on Monday night to watch the Texas Rangers against the Kansas City Royals along with thousands of fans and quite a few scouts and prominent journalists, and probably many fantasy baseball players. We all got quite a show.

Not with the hitting or the famous Surprise fireworks – the player who lit up the scoreboard was 22-year-old pitcher Yordano Ventura, who limited the vaunted Ranger offense to just four singles and no runs while striking out six in six innings on a tremendous display of fastballs, curve balls and changeups. The Surprise Stadium scoreboard has a small window that shows the mph of all pitches and it was bright red on Monday with Ventura hitting triple digits on many occasions, topping out at 102 blazing miles per hour.

The young Dominican fireballer was told after the game that he had not only made the Royals team this year for opening day, but manager Ned Yost added that he would be the Royals' #3 starter behind James Shield and Jason Vargas.

One of the hitting stars for the Royals was third baseman Mike Moustakas, who continued his outstanding spring with a line drive double off the wall in right center field in the second inning that scored Alex Gordon, and a line drive single to right field in the fourth. Moose would score in both those innings, in the third on a single by Lorenzo Cain, who also had two hits, and in the fourth on a two out single by leadoff hitter Norichika Aoki. The Royals won the game 6-0 and the only thing that salvaged the night for the Rangers was that Matt Harrison made his first start of the spring and felt fine afterwards. Harrison will start the season on the DL but hopes to get back on the mound later in April.

With the Diamondbacks and Dodgers both leaving for Australia on Sunday night, here is a collection of notes about players on both teams as they get set to open the 2014 MLB season on Saturday from down under.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Sadly, you have probably read that Patrick Corbin has UCL damage in his left arm, and while he will get a second opinion from James Andrews, it appears as though Corbin will join the line of hurlers for Tommy John surgery.

That does not necessarily mean that the D-Backs will start the year with heralded prospect Archie Bradley in the rotation, as they do have five starters without him. But, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kirk Gibson and the Arizona management did insert Bradley into the rotation when they return to help energize the club, who does feel a big loss with Corbin out for months if not for the season. Bradley, it should be noted, is with the club on the trip to Australia and will pitch their exhibition game against the Australian team.

D-Backs minor league pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith, a native Aussie, is also on the trip and will pitch for Australia on Thursday against the Dodgers and turn around and pitch for the Diamondbacks squad on Friday.

One other note about the Diamondbacks has surfaced in several places, although yet to be confirmed by the team, but it appears that Chris Owings will open the season as the team’s shortstop. Both Didi Gregorius and backup middle infielder Cliff Pennington are with the team in Australia but, absent a trade, it is unclear whether Gregorius will be sent to Triple-A Reno to play every day.

Los Angeles Dodgers

The mash unit grows larger in Dodgertown as starting pitcher Josh Beckett remains in Arizona and is now likely to start the season on the disabled list. Carl Crawford did not make the trip down under as his wife is expected to deliver by the end of this week and he will be placed on paternity leave.

Speaking of Crawford, he was forced to leave Tuesday's minor league game early due to a shoulder injury, but as of now, the injury is not considered serious.

Both Chone Figgins and Justin Turner have made the Dodgers' 30-man roster and are in Australia. Turner is likely headed for the Minors once the Dodgers reset their active roster back in the states but Figgins still has a chance to be with the team on their second opening day.

Other Dodger roster moves included veteran pitcher Javy Guerra being designated for assignment while veteran catcher Miguel Olivo was reassigned to minor league camp but is free to leave if he receives a call from another major league team. LHP Onelki Garcia was placed on the 60-day DL after left elbow surgery.

Alex Guerrero is on the squad in Australia and no further word on whether he might open the season in the minor leagues to work on his defensive play at second base. Dee Gordon looks like he will open the year at second base for the Dodgers.

The Mariners visited Camelback Ranch on Tuesday to play the Los Angeles Dodgers and I got my first look at Felix Hernandez, who started for Seattle.

Hernandez, like most pitchers, is still working towards the season, so he didn’t look great giving up two hits and a walk and one wild pitch in his two innings. But he didn’t give up any runs, thanks to a double play in the first inning and two ground ball outs against non-starting Dodgers in the second inning. Not saying he looked bad – it is just a March 4 tune-up.

The Dodgers had a bullpen pitching staff leading off with Brian Wilson, who put a new curl in the beard arsenal as he delivered a surprise knuckleball to start the game with a clean inning with one strikeout. Kenley Jansen pitched a 1-2-3 second with two strikeouts before J.P. Howell gave up three runs, two earned on four hits to take the loss for the home team.

Chris Perez also pitched a 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts in the fifth inning. Chris Withrow pitched two scoreless innings, going 1-2-3 in the sixth while giving up just two walks in the seventh inning.

The Dodgers managed only five hits against Hernandez, Hector Noesi and five Mariner relievers, including a loud line drive double to left center field by Yasiel Puig leading off the Dodgers first inning and a fly ball poked over the Dodgers bullpen fence in left field by the leadoff hitter in the eighth inning, Dodger minor leaguer and former Mariner fly-chaser Trayvon Robinson.

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