As the offseason finally is over, we can debate one of the issues where both sides truly have a case: Does spring training matter?
For a player like David Wright, the answer is a resounding no. Wright comes to camp in great shape, comes early, and clearly loves the game. He’s a star, and has nothing to prove. A player like Wright might spend days simply using his ST at bats to work on hitting sac flies, or hitting the other way, or even something as specific as hitting behind the runner in the hole between the 1st and 2nd basemen.
A pitcher like Mike Pelfrey is another example. No, he surely is not as accomplished as Wright, but he also stays healthy and comes prepared. His rotation spot is secure, and as he did in 2010, Pelf might use ST to simply work on the splitter, or to experiment with it in certain spots.
But with few other exceptions, the next 6 weeks in Florida actually will mean a great deal.
One needs look no further than 2B or the rotation for easy proof of this.
Daniel Murphy is probably the favorite of the fans, the team’s brass, and even his teammates to win the 2B job. But he will indeed have to win it—or Castillo and Emaus will have to lose it.
If Murphy shows adequate or better fielding, the job will be his. But if he is clumsy and error-prone, the offense of Emaus and the physical condition of Castillo will start to be closely examined. Emaus is no slick fielder, but should he show the offense he did in AA and AAA last year while Murph struggles in the field, it could be a battle. If Castillo—who the team is committed to paying millions this year—is healthy, thin, and legging out infield hits while showing some range, it could be a very serious battle.
Looking from another perspective, Emaus has never played an MLB game and turns 25 in March. Castillo could be seeing his last chance to be an everyday player, or maybe even a major leaguer.
So for these three players, spring training means a lot.
The team has made it clear that Pelfrey, Dickey, and Niese are the first three starters. But other than that, we will see a battle royale among youngsters, injury-prone veterans, and Oliver Perez.
For a pitcher like Gee or Mejia, being cut clearly does not mean the end. But for Oliver Perez, should he continue to fail as he has everywhere he has tried to pitch in North America the last two years, he might be seeing his last proximity to MLB fields for a while.
Every start in the spring will be huge for many starters. It is not unrealistic to consider Gee, Capuano, and Young to be the favorites for the two spots. However, should Bonser or Misch clearly outperform two of the previously mentioned starters, things could be very different. Finally, should Mejia or Ollie seriously impress, they too could be considered.
Try telling any of these guys that spring training doesn’t matter. Think they’d agree?
Finally, clear-eyed fans who follow the team closely surely should remember the last two springs.
In 2009, spring training was a festival of injuries—large and small, to veterans and youngsters. What did this mean? Well, it was a clear precursor to an injury-riddled season for the ages, which followed the 9—12 start.
How about 2010? There was much debate here about the pitching stats; but spring performances certainly did—in almost every case—presage what we were to see in the regular season. Just about every pitcher who threw more than a handful of innings and was either fighting for a spot or having injury issues performed in Florida much how they did during the season. The team was sloppy and inconsistent in Florida, and roared out of the gate with a 4—8 start, which was followed by sloppy, injury-riddled, uninspired play just about the entire year.
While the team’s record in Florida is indeed meaningless (the best record in the Cactus League in 2010? The Giants. The worst? The Rangers) the performance of certain players is hugely important—to the players themselves and the team.
After what the Mets have done on the field recently—and the time spent on the disabled list the past two years—it would be questionable at best to deny the importance of seeing the team fit, hustling, and staying healthy over the next six weeks.
Jerry Manuel in retrospect was less of a manager than some of us thought; this is clear. He definitely did not command respect or motivate his players at all. And many of them took clear advantage of this; it can be argued pretty successfully that this was the true downfall of the team, which began to manifest itself during the injury-plagued spring of 2009, from which the team has yet to recover.
Poor spring performances from Wright, Pelfrey, Dickey, Pagan, KRod, and some others will mean nothing. These are established veteran pros who come to camp in shape and use the time to hone their games.
But poor springs from the rotation and 2B candidates would be very discouraging. As would unhealthy springs for any of Reyes, Bay, or Beltran.
And the entire team must reflect the no-nonsense approach of Collins which we are all hoping materializes. The listless play of the last two years surely must be shown to be a thing of the past as soon as spring games start. The record means little; the tone of play could mean everything–as it clearly did the last two springs.
The feeling here is that depending on how one looks at it, spring training can be irrelevant or hugely important.
But for a team full of kids and injury-plagued veterans, recovering from a terrible, injury-scarred two-year disaster, some spring training results will be very important indeed.