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by Derek Smart
Sunday afternoon treated me to the Cactus League game between the Cubs and the Giants, so as a way of giving back to the universe, I thought I'd go ahead and fire a few shots in the air.
Maybe it was the decidedly minor league character of the Giant's lineup, or perhaps it was the funky camera angle, but Rich Hill's fastball had more life in it than I remembered. Not that it had exceptional velocity (he was working consistently around 88-89 according to the WGN gun, with occasional offerings in the low nineties), but it just seemed like there was a little more zip.
Of course, he still had issues controlling it, particularly when he dialed it up a notch, so that's still something he needs to fix in order to make that curveball a really effective out pitch against Major League hitters. That, and as was noted by the broadcast team, he needs very much to improve his change-up to the point where he can use it without fear. A great curveball is a great thing, but unless he has three good pitches, he's destined for either the bullpen or a lifetime of AAA.
One of the items that has come up repeatedly, and justifiably, from people offering up critiques of Todd Walker's fielding abilities has been his lack of alacrity when turning the double-play, which is why Jerry Hairston's play in the top of the first was so important.
Rich Hill had walked the first man he faced, so when the second man at the plate hit a grounder to Neifi! at short, it was a great opportunity for Hairston to illustrate what separates him from Walker in the field, and he did just that. The turn was smooth, quick, and easy, and while the runner was a long way from interfering with the proceedings, there's no question that it was far more artfully turned than anything Walker did last year. Whether that's worth the dropoff in offense is another question entirely.
Speaking of Hairston, here's hoping he comes back quickly from the beaning he received in the head during his first at bat. He got up relatively quickly, despite seeming for a moment like he might be unconscious, so hopefully it wasn't serious. Still, it looked initially to bear a striking resemblance to the shot Adam Greenberg famously took last year, with the ball caroming off the back of his helmet as he turned to avoid it. Whether he starts regularly or not, he's got a chance to be a big help to the club in 2006, so for his sake and the sake of the team: Speedy recovery, Jerry.
I've not seen much of Felix Pie in the past, so know when I say this it's essentially a first impression, but that kid has a freakin' huge swing. Not quite Sammy Sosa, or Russell Branyan big, but sizeable enough to make you worry. Of course, with that comes some nice power, and the double he hit in the second really jumped off his bat.
The statistical comparison that gets made with Pie, particularly when one is weaving a cautionary tale, is to Corey Patterson, and after seeing him swing, I'd say that while I think it's apt when looking at their numerical profiles, that it doesn't hold up as well in looking at the players' at work.
Yes, Pie's swing is large, and yes, he doesn't appear to have much in the way of discipline, but Patterson's swing always appeared stiff to me, like he would never have even a remote shot of changing the trajectory of his bat once it was set in motion - like his wrists were set in stone - where Pie, while having a big stroke, looks like he's a lot looser in the wrists, and that if he has the hand/eye coordination, he might be a good bad ball hitter. Or maybe that's the residue of the patently ridiculous comparison made by Gene Clines and passed on by the broadcasters, implying that Pie looks like a young Vlad Guerrero. Take your pick.
In any case, if I were forced at gunpoint to pick a comp after watching a couple of Spring Training at bats (a dubious occupation, at best), I'd say he looks a lot like a lefty version of Alfonso Soriano, which, depending on which version you're talking about (the Yankee edition was actually pretty valuable) could be very, very good or very, very bad. However, it helps immesurably that he's already agreed to play the outfield.
You could see Jim Hendry watching the game in the first row behind home plate, spending a decent amount of time on his cell phone, which got me to thinking: why doesn't the man have a Bluetooth earpiece? We're all worried about the shoulders of Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, and Wade Miller, but the man in charge must be cruisin' for his very own repetitive use injury. Prevention, Jimmy boy, prevention.
When Marquis Grissom drilled a double in the first, my immediate thought was that he could go 0 for the rest of the Spring and Dusty would simply point to that hit as proof that he was ready and able to contribute. It may not be fair (and in the interest of said fairness, it was a nice at bat from Grissom), but I'm just working with what I've been given the last three years.
Scott Eyre, for as unfortunate as I think his contract is, looked impressive. Good fastball, and a fairly deceptive slider and change-up. Again, this is against inferior competition and it's only one inning, but I'd rather see that than a giant pile of steaming goo.
Bob Howry, on the other hand, looked fairly pedestrian. Not bad, just not anything special.
I still love Matt Murton's stroke. Frankly, my fascination's starting to get a little sick.
Oh, and I just fell in love with Sean Marshall.
Perhaps the most disappointing moment of the day was learning that Angel Pagan's name is, in fact, pronounced pa-GONE. The No Fun Police must have been out in force the day he was born. Or would it be the day his father was born. Or his father's father. Oh, hell, I was just happier when he was a pagan.
I nearly had seventeen consecutive heart attacks in the bottom of the fifth when the man I thought was Aramis Ramirez churned, stumbled, and bumbled his way into an incredibly awkward slide and out at third after Brian Dopirak hit an RBI single.
Turns out he'd been replaced on the basepaths immediately after drawing his walk. Now, I realize it's Spring in the booth as well, and that they don't have the same resources at their disposal, but as a suggestion to the gentlemen with the mics, making sure this type of information gets passed on to the masses would go a long way toward extending the lifespans of us poor shlubs still stuck up north.
The Cubs won 5-1, but Cactus League doesn't matter, and it was just fun to see some baseball and some sunshine - particularly with the mild snowstorm that started up mid-afternoon - although in the end, like any good thing, it just left me wanting more.