Of The D-backs, Cactus
League And WBC
The Phoenix Metro Area Will Be The Center Of The Baseball Universe For A Month As Traditional Storylines Merge With National Teams — Keep An Eye On The Italians — That Might Surprise
Martin Prado. Photo by Keith Allison and used under a Creative Commons license.
By Wayne Schutsky
Modern Times Magazine
Feb. 1, 2012 — In a few weeks, Arizona will become a baseball lover’s mecca when the Cactus League and World Baseball Classic converge on the state.
With all of the activity in the off season and the added drama the WBC is sure to arouse, this year’s annual pilgrimage to the desert will not be short on traditional story lines: Which Los Angeles team will get more bang for their hundreds of millions of bucks? Will the United States squad play up to its potential against inferior competition in WBC Pool D, and which top prospect will get off to a hot start and immediately over-excite his fan base?
Yep, just like a Kirk Gibson scowl, these storylines are sure to pop up over and over again during the course of the spring. Every major sports outlet covering the west coast will be all over these headlines from February to April.
Behind the major headlines, though, a few interesting local tidbits lay in wait. The hometown Arizona Diamondbacks will be in every discussion driven by the Justin Upton trade.
This spring is chock full of intrigue.
Arizona Diamondbacks — New Faces, New Places
General Manager Kevin Towers has put the Diamondbacks through a mini-makeover of sorts, cutting ties with a slew of lineup staples including fan favorites Justin Upton and Chris Young, in hopes of shaking off the malaise that marred last season. His quest to concoct a winner will go through its early paces in Scottsdale, and hometown fans will have an early chance to see how the pieces fit together.
OF Cody Ross, IF/OF Martin Prado, RHP Randall Delgado, SS Cliff Pennington, OF Eric Hinske, IF Eric Chavez, SS Didi Gregorious
OF Justin Upton, RHP Trevor Bauer, OF Chris Young, 3B Chris Johnson
While many fans are understandably upset by the losses of Upton, Young and former can't miss pitching prospect Trevor Bauer, the additions the team made may quietly prove more valuable immediately and in the long run.
Veteran signees like Cody Ross, Martin Prado and Eric Chavez could have an immediate impact on the Diamondbacks' lineup. While Ross is a considerably smaller ‘name’ than Upton, the former Red Sox right fielder (22 HR, 81 RBI in 2012) is an underrated defender who can play all three outfield positions and, depending on your statistic of choice, had a more productive 2012 at the plate than Upton (17 HR, 67 RBI).
Prado and Chavez look to fill the chasm that has developed in Chase Field around third base, with the former also seeing time in the outfield as well. Prado, praised by many for the leadership role he took on in Atlanta, plays top-notch defense and hits for a high average. His combination of speed, smarts, and plate discipline (striking out only 69 times in 2012) should give Arizona a solid hitter to sit at the top of the lineup most days. Chavez will most likely play third periodically and against right-handed pitchers only and provides a powerful left-handed bat off of the bench. If he can mimic his 2012 season (.281 AVG, 16 HR, 37 RBI), the D-backs will have a formidable hot corner combination.
If all three veteran additions can use the spring to mesh with the team and develop chemistry, they could prove to be valuable additions on the field and in the clubhouse.
The Diamondbacks also brought in several prospects during the offseason, none more intriguing than shortstop Didi Gregorious. The slick-handed Dutchman was a key piece in the Bauer trade with Cleveland and will compete immediately with Willie Bloomquist and Cliff Pennington for the starting job, but his bat may prove too light to crack the big league lineup. However, since those two veterans have combined to hit 35 total home runs since 2008, Gregorious might just need to put together a decent Spring at the plate in order to be in the opening day lineup.
As Cactus League play gets underway, Arizona baseball fans may notice several familiar faces competing for spots on the roster. Outside of big league staples like Bloomquist and the Dodgers’ Andre Ethier (both former ASU standouts), several lesser-known players with ties to the state will be fighting for playing time.
One Arizona native with an outside shot to make the big league roster is Buckeye native and former ASU Sun Devil, Kole Calhoun. The outfielder, a member of the Los Angeles Angels organization, had a cup of coffee with the big league club last year, batting .174 in 21 games filling in for some injured regulars. Calhoun put up above-average numbers in the minors last year (.298/.365/.507), but will probably begin the season at Triple-A due to the logjam in the Angels outfield. But if Calhoun shines during the spring and the club finally decides to part ways with the dead weight that is Vernon Wells, the former Sun Devil could crack the roster as a reserve outfielder.
Another former ASU ballplayer with something to prove is Phoenix Thunderbird product Eric Sogard, now playing with the Oakland Athletics organization. He has seen consistent time with the big league club over the last two seasons, but his inability to hit consistently in the majors has prevented him from holding onto a regular spot with the A's. However, his above-average plate discipline and versatility in the field have kept him in contention for a roster spot. If Sogard puts up a batting average around .250 to go with his normally stellar on-base percentage, it will be hard for manager Bob Melvin to leave him off the roster. Look for Sogard to produce this spring, as he has consistently proven to be a Cactus League over-achiever. It might have something to do with the home cooking.
Baseball fans in Central Phoenix may also remember Sogard's younger brother, Alex, who starred as a lefty pitcher and first baseman for Thunderbird. While he will not be seen in the Cactus League, anyone traveling to Florida for Grapefruit League action may see the tall southpaw logging innings for the Houston Astros. He has struggled at times with a high ERA in the minors but has several unteachable qualities (read: big-bodied left-hander with velocity in the 90s) that every team covets, especially the talent-thin Astros. Sogard also played with the Czech Republic team (his mother is Czech) that lost out during the World Baseball Classic qualifiers last fall.
For fans in southern Arizona, the name Cory Burns might ring a bell. After pitching for Glendale Mountain Ridge, Burns was a consistent reliever for the University of Arizona Wildcats. While he has bounced around from organization to organization since he was drafted in the 8th round in 2009, the current Texas Rangers farmhand projects as a middle to backend reliever. His funky delivery makes up for the lack of a dominant fastball. Even if Burns fails to make the big leagues out of Spring Training, fans should enjoy watching as batters try to figure out his unorthodox delivery. The windup is equal parts Chan-Ho Park, Paul Byrd and Luis Tiant.
World Baseball Classic
With its great weather and baseball-centric atmosphere, Arizona will play host to Pool D in the first round of the World Baseball Classic. With Mexico, United States, Canada, and Italy competing in Pool D, Arizona fans will have a chance to see former and current Diamondbacks at work. Rod Barajas, who played backstop for the D-backs from 1999 to 2003, will suit up for Mexico. Current Diamondbacks Bloomquist and reliever Heath Bell, whom Arizona acquired in a deal with Florida early in the offseason, will play for the United States.
If fans are looking for a really interesting storyline to develop out of Pool D, though, they should root for Team Italy. With an underrated lineup that includes a few major leaguers, Italy could be this year's Netherlands. MLB veterans Nick Punto and Chris Denorfia lead a roster that includes a smattering of minor leaguers and Italian players who have not made it to the states. One intriguing player on the roster is the Mariners’ Alex Liddi, who is one of the first Italian-born players to make it to the majors. Liddi made it to the bigs last season and has the talent to stay there.
For baseball enthusiasts looking for a genuine underdog to root for, Italy is the go to choice in Arizona. The team will split its time between Chase Field and Salt River Fields as it vies for a spot in the second round.
Wayne Schutsky is a freelance writer living in Phoenix.
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