Get Back: MLB spring training

Torrin Thatcher

As the baseball season approaches, we look to try to identify which player will have his breakthrough year or be able to assist the team in pushing over the top.These players may be acquired via free agency, the draft or a trade. In other instances, other non-roster players are invited to spring training for the possibility of them making the big club, showing other teams what they have to offer or receiving a minor league contract.

Some guys have to prove they belong in the bigs, whether they are new to baseball or they have been around for some time. The following men have either been invited to camps around the league to prove that they can “get back, get back, get back to where they once belonged” or to prove that they still have it.

Juan Gonzalez has 434 career homeruns, 1,404 RBIs, a .295 batting average, two MVP trophies and three other finishes in the top-ten of MVP voting. One would assume that this guy would have a welcome chance to make any roster in the league, but there is one problem; he has not played more than 82 games in a season since 2001 and has one more at bat than I do in the last three seasons.

A multitude of injuries has kept “Juan Gone” from displaying the dominance at the plate he showed while roaming right field for the Rangers. He, now 38 years old, is in camp with the St. Louis Cardinals and, along with 25 other non-roster guys, is vying to make the team and help Tony La Russa win his third World Series ring.

Hideo Nomo has 123 career wins, 4.21 career ERA, a Rookie of the Year trophy, and two finishes in the top-5 in Cy Young voting. Nomo also has two career no-no’s. This sounds like a solid career stat line worthy enough to get the ball every fifth day or be a solid option out of the pen.

There is a problem with Nomo; he is 39 and last threw from an MLB hill with the Rays in 2005 when he had a 7.24 ERA in just over 100 innings. Since this time, he has attempted to make a return to the MLB with multiple teams and has pitched in Venezuela.

This spring, he signed a contract with the ever-losing Kansas City Royals. The Royals do not have much to lose, and Nomo could be a welcome addition to their much-maligned team, let alone their pitching staff.

Bret Boone has 252 career homeruns, 1,021 RBIs, four Gold Gloves and two top-ten finishes in MVP voting. During a four-stretch in the beginning of the century, Boone was one of the best hitting second basemen the game had to offer and helped the Mariners earn 116 regular season victories in 2001.

What is wrong with the elder Boone brother, you ask? He has not played since 2005 when he batted .221 in 85 appearances with the Mariners and Twins. Boone is now 38 years old, and is in camp with the Washington Nationals. Boone is known for the flip of his bat after hitting a long ball, but he is hoping to flip his recent fortune around and continue on with his family lineage.

Kent Mercker has come out of the bullpen the majority of his career and has just over 1311 innings logged, a 4.16 career ERA, and more wins than losses; seems pretty solid for a guy with 677 appearances over his career. The problem? His career has spanned 17 seasons, and he last pitched sparingly with Cincinnati in 2006. Mercker recently took a hit when his name was mentioned in the Mitchell Report, but that has not affected his drive to pitch again against the top hitters in the world.

Each of these players wants to prove that he can make a big return to the big leagues, and there are some other players who have reached their golden years who are hoping to continue with their golden careers.

There are six pitchers, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez who show what an upper echelon career looks like. Here are some impressive stats. These guys’ careers combine to give 1,566 wins, 178 saves (all but 24 from Smoltz in his four-year stint as a closer), 19,580 strikeouts, 22,501 innings pitched, 15 Cy Young awards, 21 other top-five finishes, 17 Gold Gloves, all from Maddux, an average ERA of 3.26, and most importantly, eight World Series Rings.

These six men have been some of the most prominent pitchers in the history of the game and are still striving to continue that theme in two different ways. Johnson, Pedro, Curt and Smoltz have always been known as power pitchers who attempt to dominate their foe physically.

Recently, injuries and age have caught up with some of these guys and forced them to change their game. Pedro and Curt are becoming more dependent on their off-speed material, and Johnson and Smoltz always have their nasty sliders and splitters to turn to.

These difficult times are catching up to these guys. Johnson, a 44-year-old southpaw, has to conquer his back problems if he is going to earn the 16 victories he needs to become the 24th member of the “300 win club.”

Schilling is on the injury list to start the season with a throwing shoulder injury. Luckily for the Mets and Braves, Pedro and Smoltz are ready to go. Glavine and Maddux are the quintessential finesse pitchers who pitch to contact.

This is evident by the following two stat lines. Throughout their careers, Glavine and Maddux average the fewest number of strikeouts per nine innings and are the only two of these six men to average less than 100 pitches per game started.

I read an interview with Greg Maddux explaining the amount of preparation he does before he steps on the mound. If he wants to look back at a batter he faced in ’93, he can because he has every opponent he has faced on a laptop.

Each game, he revisits important at-bats and takes notes on the way he has set up batters for showdowns to come. In this interview he explained that he did not get a change-up called his way against Vladimir Guerrero one time and how upset this got him because he had been setting him up for that pitch for 6 years; I suppose he had his reasons.

As you can see, it takes more than just a strong arm or a strong bat to succeed as a major leaguer — just ask these guys. I am not one to give speeches on diligence, commitment and hard work, because sometimes luck and skill do play a major role. You cannot tell me that Randy Johnson being 6’10” has absolutely nothing to do with his major-league success.

The main reason why I thought these individual stories intriguing is that this is what we love as sports fans. America fell in love with the revitalizations of Josh Hamilton and Rick Ankiel last year, and the media are always looking for the next sports story to regurgitate repeatedly.

Hopefully, some of these men are leaving their spring training homes in Tucson, Arizona for some MLB ballpark grass.

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