I wanted to talk to you today about the deeper meaning of spring training. With the Dodgers starting the regular season with their two-game series in Australia the club has an abbreviated exhibition schedule. Instead of having 35 exhibition games like a normal spring, the club has just 19 before thy head down under.
Because of this, the club has a shorter window of time to get everyone ready for the games that count. It’s normal for players to show up to camp with minor ailments, which tend to change quickly from day-to-day.
We’re learning that Paul Maholm now has a sore low and may even have to start the season on the disabled list. The Dodgers are waiting for him to throw a bullpen session on Saturday before they make their next evaluation on him. Brandon League has a mild Lat strain, and is slightly behind schedule, and Zach Lee super prospect also has a strained Lat muscle, and the Dodgers are using extreme caution with his progress. Nobody knows when or if Matt Kemp will ever be ready to play in regular games again. Clayton Kershaw is experimenting with a killer changeup, and Josh Beckett of all people is facing live hitters and could surprise us all.
As you see spring training can change from day-to-day. But what is the real reason of spring training? What’s the meaning behind it all? Do players actually need the entire 6 weeks to be ready for opening day? The answer can vary depending on your outlook.
One of the popular topics this spring has been infielder and Cuban sensation Alexander Guerrero. The Dodgers signed him to a 28 million dollar contract during the winter, and many people are still questioning whether he’ll be ready or not for Australia let alone opening day. You all already know how I feel about this situation. However many people think he will need more time than the abbreviated exhibition schedule the Dodgers have this spring.
Which brings me back to my question, what is the real meaning of spring training?
Back in the old days of the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s, spring training was a tool for the players to use to get into shape for the regular season. They literally had to get themselves into shape. I mean they showed up to spring training 20 pounds overweight, and had to actually train. (No comments on Yasiel Puig’s Pablo Sandoval impersonation please)
But back to the topic at hand. In those days, the players were as concerned with shedding pounds, and working out almost as much as taking batting practice and throwing bullpen sessions.
That was because some of the players came into spring training out of shape. Nowadays players are already in shape once they show up to camp. Well most players anyways. Most players already workout during the offseason, and instead use spring training to work on other stuff.
Every manager handles spring training differently. Most managers will get the regulars as much playing time as possible in order to get them ready for the regular season as quickly as possible. Unfortunately Don Mattingly hasn’t done that the last few years.
The way that Mattingly handles spring training is he tends to give too much playing time to non-roster players and minor leaguers over the regulars. Sometimes this is necessary if you need to evaluate certain players that are competing for roster spots, but it’s a fine line to walk.
Last season we saw Mattingly not play the regulars until about ten days before opening day. I still believe this was a big reason for the club’s slow start to the 2013 season. I think if Mattingly had let the regulars play in more exhibition games instead of playing guys like Brian Barden, and Ramon Castro, guys who had no chance in hell of making the roster, then the regulars would have been more prepared come opening day. The hitters need the full exhibition schedule to get their timing at the plate, and the pitchers need the full scope of spring training to build arm strength. Which is why I thought it was really poor strategy to keep playing the NRIs until a week before opening day. Think back to how many times we saw the Brian Bardens’, and the Ramon Castros’ starting spring games last year? Too many times.
I hope we see something different this spring. I don’t want to see Miguel Rojas starting every spring game, nor do I want to see the Seth Rosins’ eating up too many spring innings. Of course there is a balance to this. You don’t want to overwork the regulars in spring and risk injury.
For example if Alexander Guerrero only gets 1-2 at-bats per exhibition game and Miguel Rojas gets 3-4, then don’t be surprised if Guerrero performs poorly at the plate in April. The injuries weren’t the only reason the club couldn’t score any runs in April, and May. The regulars hadn’t had enough at-bats to get their timing right. Remember the entire team didn’t hit at all in April, with the exception of Adrian Gonzalez.
I hope I don’t see Mattingly giving at-bats to Miguel Rojas or Chone Figgins over Guerrero, and I hope I don’t see Seth Rosin stealing innings away from guys like Josh Beckett, or Dan Haren. Rosin will have plenty of time during the season to get innings down in Chattanooga.
The point of this article isn’t to point out Mattingly’s foibles, the man has grown on me. The point is to demonstrate the true meaning of the exhibition season, and the importance of making sure the regulars get the necessary practice time in those games to be ready by opening day.
If Mattingly can play his hand differently this spring, and make sure the regulars get the required plate appearances, and innings, then we should see it pay dividends for the club in April. What do you think the true meaning of the exhibition season is for? Weigh in with your thoughts in the comments.