SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Know what? A cactus is more prickly than you think it is…
1. Zack Greinke Changes Face of NL West
A.J. Pollock, Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder, walked into a nearly deserted batting cage the other day and waited for the one player to finish his swings. It was Zack Greinke.
Mike Butcher, Arizona pitching coach, surveyed the dugout and noticed Greinke talking even more on the days he pitches than on the other days. He huddles frequently with his catcher to develop communication and strategy.
Chip Hale, Arizona manager, said there is an entirely different tone this spring than last for the Diamondbacks.
It is an air of confidence, the tone of a team that not only knows it is good, but also knows it has an identifiable ace who can carry it to the promised land.
And here's the thing: As Madison Bumgarner battles a sore right rib cage and sore left foot, and Matt Cain plays catch-up in San Francisco's camp after removal of a cyst on his throwing arm, and as the Los Angeles Dodgers' rotation depth has taken a hit with Brett Anderson's back injury and Hyun-Jin Ryu's continued slow return from shoulder surgery, it is easy to see a shake-up in the NL West this summer.
"Our identity as a team developed last year," Pollock told B/R early the other morning. "The exciting part about this year is we're not searching for our identity anymore. We know what kind of team we're going to be."
Only Colorado scored more runs in the National League than Arizona last year, and the Diamondbacks led the majors through this week with a spring .317 batting average, a .373 on-base percentage, an .890 OPS, 144 runs scored, 230 hits and 375 total bases.
"It seems like we score at least five runs a game and the pitching staff's better than it was last year," Greinke said. "All the good things that were going on are still going on, and the things that needed to be improved have been improved."
Meanwhile, Arizona led the NL with 71 defensive runs saved in 2015. The D-backs have young, skilled players who can produce in the field, too.
"[Jean] Segura's looked amazing, [Nick] Ahmed's looked really good, [Chris] Owings has looked good, [Phil] Gosselin's looked good," Greinke said of the abundance of shortstops/second basemen general manager Dave Stewart has collected. "That's more middle infielders than you probably need.
"You've got Paul Goldschmidt at first base, you're not worried about anyone else playing there. [Welington] Castillo has been playing incredible; he looks really solid."
Arizona is depending on Greinke, who signed a six-year, $206.5 million deal here after opting out of his Dodgers contract last winter, and Shelby Miller, acquired in a trade with Atlanta, to tie it all together.
Greinke is assimilating as quickly as he can, particularly with catchers Castillo and Tuffy Gosewisch.
"I haven't had any trouble with that in the past," he said of the learning curve with a new catcher. "It's tough in spring training because some days you're working on stuff and it's tough for the catcher to get a feel for what you like to throw because you're more working on pitches than you are going through your normal process to get guys out."
He does not shake off catchers very often, although given the cerebral nature of Greinke's approach, sometimes that changes.
"It probably depends on how my mind's thinking that day," he said. "Some days I would rather not think about it at all, focus on executing pitches. And other days my mind will be working more and I'll shake off more."
That's the stuff Castillo and Gosewisch will learn as they go.
Butcher, who was the Los Angeles Angels' pitching coach when Greinke was there for a brief stop during the second half of the 2012 season, said the ace made a change "for the better" with his front side when he was with the Dodgers. His glove side stands higher than it did a couple of years ago, and that's part of what factored into his 19-3 season last summer with a phenomenal 1.66 ERA.
"Coming in before the season starts isn't that challenging," Greinke said. "When you get traded in the middle of the year, it was a little tougher, I thought. Because it's the middle of the year, there's game action right away, there's different pitching coaches and scouting reports you have to get used to. That was a little trickier.
"But during the spring you have a lot of time to iron out those things."
2. Old Legs, Big Bat and Albert Pujols
There was a time when Albert Pujols went out of his way to make sure people knew he preferred playing first base over serving as a designated hitter.
Now, at 36, coming off of his third injury in four seasons, Pujols is simply happy to have two good legs under him as the Los Angeles Angels look to put another disappointing season in the rearview mirror.
The slugger had surgery to relieve pain near the arch in his right foot following the 2015 season. He also suffered from plantar fasciitis through most of the 2013 season and underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee after the 2012 season.
So while C.J. Cron oils up the first base glove, Pujols steams forward ahead of schedule, looking very much like he will be in the Angels' Opening Day lineup.
"As long as I'm in the frickin' lineup, DH or first base, it doesn't matter," Pujols said.
He smashed two home runs in one inning against Milwaukee starter Wily Peralta the other day, and coming off a season in which he hit 40 homers with 95 RBI, and with six years and $165 million remaining on his contract, Pujols is still too focused on today to think much about retirement.
"I love what I do," Pujols said. "I love being around my teammates. It's entertaining. It's fun.
"And I love to win."
3. Panda’s Not Smiling Much Anymore
He took the money in Boston, but you wonder whether Pablo Sandoval's future lies elsewhere. For both himself and the Red Sox, this might be a situation of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Sandoval's weight always is going to be an issue, and when I was in Fort Myers, Florida, earlier this spring, it was as if someone had clicked out the light in his eyes. He was more grim and less joyful than I've seen him in years, and at the time he told me he wasn't speaking with the media.
Now, manager John Farrell hinted this week that Travis Shaw could start at third base in place of Sandoval.
This is a guy who thrived on having fun, and while the atmosphere in San Francisco was conducive to his carefree ways, the pressure of Boston is not. He seemed a perfect fit to play third base in Fenway Park for a couple of years and then replace David Ortiz as designated hitter, and maybe that can still happen when Ortiz retires after this season.
But reaching that point could be tough, and if Sandoval doesn't fully commit to getting himself in better shape, it's hard to see things working out there for him. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe had these interesting stats in his Sunday baseball notes column the other day:
There were 17 instances last season when Sandoval was on first base when a single was hit, and all 17 times he made it only as far as second base. There were seven times when Sandoval was on first when a double was hit, and six times he made it only to third, and he never scored. And in the 11 times he was on second when a single was hit, he scored just three times. His “extra base taken percentage” of 9 percent was half of David Ortiz’s. Dustin Pedroia was at 32 percent and Mookie Betts 44 percent.
4. Is It Me, or Are the Cubs Getting Hotter?
So funky Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon met with 11 of his "lead bulls" Sunday to determine some 2016 club rules.
Maddon-speak for team leaders.
And they came up with the best dress code ever.
"If you think you look hot, you wear it," Maddon said. "That's the dress code."
Really, as you might have guessed, Maddon prefers things loose and free over tight and starched. Take, for example, shirts.
"The previous generation really frowns upon noncollared shirts, which I've never understood," Maddon said. "They've always been in favor of the collared shirt, and that being more acceptable than the noncollared shirt.
"I've never understood that logic. For me, there's no such thing as having to have a specific shirt on."
Biggest topic of discussion? Whether the Cubs will wear shorts on the road.
"If you wore shorts on the road, I would never recognize that, so you'd get away with it," Maddon says. "The $5,000 suit on the airplane ride makes no sense to me whatever. I don't know who you're trying to impress."
5. Mr. President, Do You Have Time to Play?
Great Moments in Tweeting over the past few days from Tampa Bay Rays ace Chris Archer, whose team is playing a historic exhibition game in Cuba on Tuesday.
One that will be attended by president Barack Obama and wife Michelle Obama.
So Archer tweeted this to the president:
Good morning, @POTUS. Since we will be in Havana at the same time lets grab some Cubano cuisine together, my treat!— Chris Archer (@ChrisArcher22) March 5, 2016
Left hanging with no response, Archer lobbed this tweet to the first lady:
Well, @FLOTUS, your husband didn't respond about hanging out in Cuba. Maybe you and I could get a café or something? Lmk if you're free.😀— Chris Archer (@ChrisArcher22) March 19, 2016
So if Archer shows up at a state dinner anytime in the near future, you know where that groundwork was laid.
6. Talking Stick and Talking Johns
No spring complex is more beautiful and first-class than Talking Stick, shared by the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies.
Yet, apparently, nothing is perfect.
"They don't have bathrooms in the bullpens," Angels closer Huston Street told Bleacher Report the other day, alerting us to a story that had yet to break until now. "What are the odds of 12 grown men not having to urinate in a four-hour period when they're hydrating?
"That's an oversight. Bullpens always are an afterthought.
"We're forever failed starters."
7. Weekly Power Rankings
1. Child Care: The White Sox ask Adam LaRoche to "dial back" his son's presence in the clubhouse and all hell breaks loose. Using orange baseballs during games wouldn't be as bizarre as this story.
2. Cuba: Once again, baseball helps lead the way in bringing together countries and cultures. If only Kramer, with his love of Cuban cigars, could throw out the first pitch.
3. NCAA brackets: Might be the only thing that keeps some clubhouses going as the dog days of spring are in full force and Opening Day now is nearly close enough to reach out and touch. Quick, who has the Badgers?!
4. Bryce Harper: Smashes two home runs Sunday in Lakeland, Florida, and even old Detroit Tigers power hitter Willie Horton was genuflecting. OK, we can start the season now.
5. Jacoby Ellsbury dodges big injury: Thankfully for the New York Yankees and for his own sanity, X-rays revealed no damage when a pitch struck him in the wrist. Question is, can he stay in one piece for the summer? Ellsbury has played in more than 134 games only twice in the past five seasons.
8. Suitable for Framing
During a discussion on his transition from the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Zack Greinke had high praise for Yasmani Grandal, his old catcher in Hollywood.
Specifically, Grandal ranks high among the best pitch-framing catchers every season.
"I don't even know what he did sometimes. I just noticed he would get calls," Greinke said. "Even if it didn't seem like he caught it that great, umpires loved calling strikes when he was catching. It was amazing. His talent's also pretty impressive. He's really good at it. It's easy to see when you're pitching to him that he's good."
On a staff without Greinke, and being that he's currently recovering from left shoulder surgery, Grandal has his work cut out for him right now. He again figures to split time with A.J. Ellis behind the plate, and after ace Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers' pitching is a little dinged up right now.
• One more on pitch-framing: From his observations of San Diego since he's been in the NL West, Greinke thinks former Padres manager Bud Black and executive A.J. Hinch, the old catcher now managing Houston, worked some magic with their receivers. "I think they did something there because a lot of their catchers have been really good over the years," Greinke said. "And [Derek] Norris has improved a lot since he's gone over there too, I think."
• He was sick, and then rain wrecked his return to the Minnesota lineup Sunday, and now the race is on for the Twins to make sure Byron Buxton, their prized prospect, is ready for Opening Day. He was only 4-for-20 this spring heading into this week.
• At 35 and coming back from shoulder surgery, Angels left-hander C.J. Wilson is reinventing himself this spring, coming up with a new delivery and a different arm slot. "It's a career adjustment to where he is physically right now," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. Wilson is expected to open the season on the disabled list.
• The Angels are worried about one-time ace Jered Weaver, whose velocity has been even lower this spring than it was last year. An MRI on his neck revealed no significant new damage, though he does have some degeneration. The hope is that with regular work in that area of his neck and shoulder he can still remain relatively productive.
• Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. has been in Seattle Mariners camp since Saturday. He says he hasn't yet started writing his Hall of Fame speech. Of course, he's got until July.
• When the New York Mets open the season in Kansas City, it will be the first time in history that the previous season's World Series opponents open the following regular season against each other.
• Congratulations to statistics guru Bill Chuck, whose work I periodically reference, who is moving on to MLB Network.
9a. Rock 'n' Roll Lyric of the Week
What a cool thing, the Tampa Bay Rays playing the Cuban National Team on Tuesday in Cuba….
"Ceilin' fan stirs the air
"Cigar smoke did swirl,
"A fragrance on the pillow case
"And he thinks about the girl
"Spillin' wine wine and sharin' good times
"She sure could make him smile.
"He pays her well but what the hell
"He'll be movin' in a little while
"Oh he'll be dreamin' his life away"
— Jimmy Buffett, "Havana Daydreamin'"
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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