Saturday, March 24, 2007

Things Get Clearer in Clearwater

The Philadelphia Phillies have held their Spring Training in Clearwater, Florida since 1948. For many years they played their spring games at Jack Russell Stadium, which I had the privilege of visiting a few times. It was a great old-time ballpark. The Phillies now play at Bright House Networks Field, which opened in 2004. It is a charming setting for a baseball game. It just feels old-fashioned. A grass berm extends along almost the entire outfield wall, which is covered with advertising. There are lots of palm trees. It is a beautiful facility. The seats offer more leg room than any other stadium we visited this week and each seat has a cup holder, which is a nice convenience, especially for increasingly clumsy middle-aged men such as I.

We went to Clearwater on Friday to watch the Braves play the Phillies. Kyle Davies started for the Braves. The conventional wisdom is that he is slated to be the #1 starter for the Richmond Braves, the team’s AAA affiliate, although apparently that decision has not been made. The conventional wisdom also says that Lance Cormier has outpitched him for the fifth spot in the Atlanta rotation and that the Braves would not have signed veteran left-hander Mark Redman had they not intended to use him in Mike Hampton’s spot. Hampton, incidentally, is reportedly recovering quickly from his strained oblique and may be back earlier than expected. Very soon, if all goes according to plan, the Braves will have seven starting pitchers any one of whom most teams would be glad to take. That’s a nice luxury. Davies pitched well yesterday. He went six innings and gave up one run on three hits to lower his spring ERA to 1.93. He walked one and struck out four.

Mike Gonzalez pitched a scoreless seventh. Chad Paronto gave up a three-run homer in the ninth to Greg Dobbs after the Braves had two defensive miscues that put two runners on base: left fielder Doug Clark and center fielder Willie Harris had one of those “I’ve got it, you take it” moments and let a fly ball fall between them while third baseman Yunel Escobar misplayed a hard grounder. An error was charged on neither play. Left-handed pitcher Steve Colyer struck out the side in the eighth.

The offensive highlight came from Brayan Pena, the young catcher who is slated to be Brian McCann’s back-up. He hit a pinch-hit two-run homer.

My one regret for the day was that I bought two hot dogs at a concession stand and only later saw that they were selling Italian sausage at another stand. The hot dogs were good, though. And now an important note about condiments. They do it right at Bright House Networks Field. They have a condiment station from which you can spoon all the pickles, relish, and sauerkraut you want onto your hot dog. Most places now have condiments in those little packets. Do you have any idea how long it takes to open enough packets of relish to cover a foot-long hot dog? Too long. The “dip your condiments from a container” method is much better.

Based on what I saw, heard, and read this week while on our Spring Training pilgrimage, I think I can accurately predict what the Braves 25-man roster will look like, barring injuries or trades.

Pitching staff:

John Smoltz
Tim Hudson
Chuck James
Mark Redman
Lance Cormier
Bob Wickman
Mike Gonzalez
Rafael Soriano
Macay McBride
Chad Paronto
Tyler Yates
Oscar Villarreal

Starting Eight:

C Brian McCann
1B Scott Thorman
2B Kelly Johnson
3B Chipper Jones
SS Edgar Renteria
LF Ryan Langerhans
CF Andruw Jones
RF Jeff Francoeur


C Brayan Pena
IF/OF Glenn Wilson
IF Chris Woodward
IF Willie Aybar (if he starts the season on the DL, it looks like Martin Prado would get this spot, since Tony Pena has been traded to Kansas City)
OF Matt Diaz

It looks like a solid team, with the bullpen improvement being the most significant development. Is it good enough to finish ahead of the Mets and Phillies? We'll see.

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