Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Ohtani pitches, Honeywell doesn’t

The weather gods clearly have been reading this column.

After I rejected the meteorological season’s definition of when winter turns to spring last week, in favour of the baseball season version, it looks like we’re going to get a ‘big freeze’ this coming week with snow storms and temperatures down to -8C.

Sorry about that!

Let’s take a positive from it though; it will make watching and listening to Spring Training games from sunny Arizona and Florida all the more appealing.

Ohtani debut

You don’t get many big events in Spring Training, but the first appearance of Japanese star Shohei Ohtani counted as one on Saturday.

Ohtani was on the same plan as the rest of his Angels starting pitchers: two innings or 30 pitches, whichever came first.  He left after 1.1 innings and 31 pitches, one batter after the Milwaukee Brewers’ Keon Broxton took him deep and on to the grass mound behind the left-field fence.

With so little else going on so early in spring, every little last detail was bound to be obsessed over by beat writers and columnists, all whilst accepting that a first start of 31 pitches doesn’t really tell you very much at all.

Watching the Angels’ FWS coverage via MLB.TV, Ohtani showed off one of his fabled splitters in striking out Minor Leaguer Nate Orf (“orf” being the sound some made as the pitch went by) and a big slow curve for a called strike in another at-bat.  His command of his pitches was a bit shaky at times, but that’s to be expected early in the pre-season.

More insightful than Ohtani’s performance was news from the Angels’ camp reported by Terry Smith and Jose Mota about Ohtani’s transition to being an MLB pitcher and also the adjustments the Angels will be making.  The six-man rotation plan seems to still be in play and, with Ohtani also being an option with the bat, it looks like the Angels’ bench will consist of just a back-up catcher, infielder and outfielder.

At first glance that would seem a short bench, not knowing quite how much Ohtani will be used as a hitter in 2018; however, it’s becoming increasingly common for American League teams to only roster three bench players. That allows most teams (i.e. those that don’t have a pitcher who can also hit like Ohtani promises to do) to have an 8-man bullpen to go alongside the 5-man rotation.

‘Bullpenning’ is en vogue in the play-offs and being used more during the regular season too and is one of the key reasons why the length of games has being going up in recent years (time taken for pitching changes, relievers traditionally being more ‘deliberate’ with their pace of play etc).  Whilst limits on pitching changes have not been introduced for 2018, it was mooted as an option being considered by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred in his quest for increasing the pace of play and will be raised again if the trends of 8-man bullpens and lengthening game times continue.

Roth off to a good start

Although it didn’t get the fanfare of Ohtani’s debut, understandably enough, Great Britain pitcher Michael Roth got his spring off to a good start by pitching two score-less innings for the Chicago Cubs against the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday, giving up only one hit in the process.

Roth’s unlikely to make the Cubs’ Opening Day roster given the pitching depth that Chicago has, but some good performances in spring can only help his stock.

Non-roster invitee

Roth is classed as a non-roster invitee for the Cubs and is one of many NRI players across the 30 MLB clubs this spring.

If you’re new to baseball, a non-roster invitee is essentially as the term suggests: someone who is not on the club’s 40-man roster but gets an invite to come to their Major League Spring Training camp.

In Roth’s case, he’s an example of a player who signs a Minor League contract with a club over the off-season and then gets given an NRI to try to earn a spot on the roster or at least to impress enough to either remain in the organisation as a Minor League player or to be picked up by another team.

The other main type of NRI is a player who is already part of the club’s farm system and gets given the opportunity to spend some of spring with the Major League team before being sent on to Minor League camp.  Whilst some of those players will be in a situation of trying to earn a roster spot, in the main they will be there to give the Major League coaching staff a chance to work with them for a few weeks and also to help fill out the Spring Training line-ups.

As you’ll notice, Major League regulars often only play four innings or so at the start of spring – or may not play at all if it’s a road game – before being replaced by Minor Leaguers.

One quirk of the transaction rules is that Ohtani, as a non-MLB free agent, technically signed a Minor League contract with the Angels so he is as an NRI currently as he hasn’t yet had to be added to the Angels’ 40-man roster.

More Rays woes as Honeywell heads under the knife

It seems to happen every spring that a top pitching prospect on the verge of making their Major League debut has their progress cruelly halted by an elbow injury that requires ‘Tommy John’ surgery (named after the pitcher the experimental surgery was first tried on in 1974).

Last year it was the St Louis Cardinals’ Alex Reyes, this year it is the Tampa Bay Rays’ Brent Honeywell.

The pitcher took a pragmatic view to the situation, as reported on MLB.com: “We sign up to be pitchers. Bad things happen every now and then. There’s a couple of things that you can prevent, but I don’t think this is one of them. It’s either going to go or it’s not, the way I look at it”.

It was yet another blow this off-season for Rays fans, coming in the same week as Steven Sousa being traded away to the Arizona Diamondbacks in a three-team trade that also included the Yankees.

If we go by Baseball-Reference’s flavour of WAR (Wins Above Replacement), the Tampa Bay Rays’ most valuable players from 2017 were:

  1. Kevin Kiermaier – 5.1
  2. Steven Sousa – 4.2
  3. Logan Morrison – 3.6
  4. Evan Longoria – 3.6
  5. Corey Dickerson – 2.7
  6. Alex Cobb – 2.3.

The best you can say is that at least Kiermaier is still on the club, at time of writing at least.

Cobb and Morrison are free agents and clearly not coming back to the Rays, Longoria and Sousa have been traded, whilst Dickerson was recently Designated for Assignment (DFA’d) and picked up by Pittsburgh.

There’s an argument that when you add it all up, the Rays might not lose too much performance when additions are factored in and that they were unlikely to challenge the Red Sox and Yankees in the AL East this season even with those players.

Such logical thinking doesn’t make it less jarring for a fan who hangs on the results of all 162 games in a regular season.  Honeywell was one of the reasons Rays fans could look at the off-season departures and think ‘well at least we can enjoy watching him starting his Big League career’

Sadly that’s now going to be put off until sometime in 2019.

The Grandyman Can – and did

The first home run of Spring Training came courtesy of all-round good guy Curtis Granderson. He got off to the perfect start by taking a 1-1 pitch into right field whilst batting lead-off for Toronto.

Granderson signed a $5m contract with the Blue Jays over the off-season after spending time with the Mets and Dodgers last year.  He’s a fan favourite wherever he goes and has a place in the hearts of British baseball fans due to his Ask Curtis appearances on Baseball on 5 years ago.


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