Spring Training Road Report

 Ed Smith Stadium Complex in downtown Sarasota, Florida (photo credit: Tim Cooke)

Ed Smith Stadium Complex in downtown Sarasota, Florida (photo credit: Tim Cooke)

Paul:  I worked for a public accounting firm for about six years right out of college.  So taking a couple of days off to go down to Florida during tax season was pretty much impossible.  Then different things came up the past two years (me having a new job in 2012 and Tim not having a job in 2013) to delay a Spring Training visit.  Finally we bit the bullet this year and planned out a four day trip during which the O’s were scheduled to play a home game each of the four days.

Tim:  Most but not all of 2013 was spent without a job.  So in landing a new job in September, it made sense to take a short vacation in March, when my vacation time would begin to kick in.  Everything kind of aligned right in making 2014 our first Spring Training.  

Paul:  Uneventful plane ride down.  We get to the car rental place and begin searching for Payless Cars.  It is nowhere to be found.  Turns out they are off-site.  As we walked to catch a shuttle, I read the Yelp reviews and they weren’t pretty.  The reviews on there made it sound like we were going to be renting from a guy on the corner who will rent you his 1971 Ford Pinto in exchange for holding onto your ID and all major credit cards for a few days.  In actuality, the place tried to upsell you to death but otherwise was more than reputable.  Apparently people on Yelp are unaware that you can say “no” when they try to sell you on a better model car or taking their gas fill-up scheme.

Tim:  It ended up not being a huge deal, as Paul said above, but it is the last time I will just book a car through the airline, without being able to at least pick which rental company I want to use.  

Paul:  Thursday weather looked bad all week and by that morning, it seemed certain that we were going to get some sort of rain.  I was up early and we were psyched to get doing anyway, so we headed to breakfast around 9 AM while tracking radar.  Breakfast was at the Toasted Mango – a nice spot in between our hotel on Lido Beach and the Ed Smith.  Yelp got this one right – this place was really good.  I had the two egg breakfast special with French Toast and Tim made his own wrap.  Food was very good, prices were affordable, and the staff was very good.   By the time the trip was over, we would make two more trips there for breakfast and try out a good portion of their menu.

Tim:  The Toasted Mango was excellent.  It wasn’t a southern food place or even a specialized seafood restaurant that you sometimes only find in beach and resort towns.  I’m not sure what the equivalent to the Toasted Mango would be in Baltimore.  Maybe Miss Shirley’s, but at a much better price, with just as high quality food.  

Paul:  Worst part of the rain wasn’t necessarily that the game was canceled but that the weather kept us from doing much of anything else we could have done in Sarasota (the beach, the pool, just walking around, etc.).  We killed the afternoon with a nap, the gym, and the hotel bar before heading to dinner.  Dinner was at Caragiulo's on Palm Avenue.  The appetizers were probably the best part with great calamari, sauces, and really high quality (and still free!) gourmet bread. 

Tim:  A cloudy day would have been fine, but then again, if it was just cloudy, they would have been playing. 

Paul:  Having lost a day, we headed out earlier around 8:30 for round #2 at the Toasted Mango (a great breakfast banana split this time for me) and then off to the stadium.  At Ed Smith, we took a tour around the perimeter of the facilities and stopped to watch some infield drills on one of the back fields.  You can see why everyone raves about the Ed Smith complex.  Even from afar, you can tell how top-notch of a baseball facility it is.

Tim:  We are waiting for the gates to open at 11.  I’m trying to take some video of the outside of the stadium when an older Oriole fan, in his mid-60’s, starts chatting with us.  It starts off with the standard, “where are you guys from” and “it’s so great to be down here and not in the never ending Winter in Baltimore.”  But after a few minutes, the true message starts to come out.  The guy is a big fan of WNST because, “they tell the truth about the Orioles that most people don’t know about or want to hear.”  I imagine if Paul and I had telepathic skills, we would have seen each other groan inside once this was said.  He rails against Angelos and his lack of spending money, despite the opposite occurring so far this offseason. 

Paul:   The guy was fixated on how Angelos cannot “take his money to the grave”.  No, but he can pass it down to his family.  He seemed blissfully unaware just how much the team actually did spend the past few weeks.

Tim:  The guy liked to talk (and hear himself talk), so he plowed straight through the conversation.  At one point, he asks if either of us is married.  We tell him no and he starts going on about loving Fort Lauderdale and all the women (he called them girls) down there.  He then proceeds to tell us that he usually pays for sex while he is down there.  I heard it as he paid for sex six times this year but Paul thinks he just said six times in general.  Regardless, it makes perfect sense that a hardcore WNST fan who seems to hate the Orioles as much as he loves them pays for sex.  You can’t make this stuff up.

Paul:  Unfortunately – since it is my alma mater – it turns out this guy was a former long-term employee of Loyola of Maryland.  When I said I went there, he got all excited and asked if I recognized him.  I apologized that I didn’t, thinking he was a professor or something.  Turns out he was on the grounds crew for many years.  The name sounded somewhat familiar, but I felt less-bad that I didn’t remember the guy that mowed the lawn outside of Newman Towers.

In addition to his fondness for prostitutes, he also talked a little too excitedly about the Loyola girls and how he makes sure to stand arms-length away.  I didn’t ask what would happen if he stood closer.  My skin was crawling after a few minutes of this guy, but unfortunately he rambled on for about 15 minutes until we were saved by the gates opening.

Orioles vs. Phillies (Friday, March 7, 2014)

Tim:  Besides the excellent hitting display we saw here (and all weekend), there were two major take-a-ways from the Phillies game.  

 Matt Wieters in the bullpen prior to the Orioles taking on the Phillies at Ed Smith Stadium (photo credit: Paul Cooke)

Matt Wieters in the bullpen prior to the Orioles taking on the Phillies at Ed Smith Stadium (photo credit: Paul Cooke)

Nick Markakis looks a lot bigger than he has the last few seasons.  It makes perfect sense since he has been hurt the last two off seasons, limiting his ability to work out.  He went 4-4 with two doubles against the Phillies and looked like 2008 Nick, none the less 2012 Nick.  Paul and I have felt he will bounce back because what we saw in the second half of 2013 was not your typical Nick Markakis.  After seeing him in person three times over the weekend, I’m more confident than ever that he bounces back and possibly in a bigger way than anyone could hope for.

Friday was the first time seeing Eddie Gamboa live.  Without the knuckleball, he is a AAA depth guy, who could be okay in the bullpen but nothing really stands out.  He sits around 90 mph with his fastball, to go along a slider, change, and curveball as his off speed offerings.  Again, his off speed stuff is okay but doesn’t stand out as much more than organizational depth.  Last year, Gamboa started to experiment with a knuckleball and had mixed success in his first season with it.  The knuckleball is a hard pitch to throw and takes a lot of time to even get the fundamentals down.  

Gamboa faced the heart of the Phillies line up on Friday, which included Ryan Howard.  For all of his issues against lefties, Howard is still pretty good against righties, posting an .878 OPS in 2013 compared to his .539 OPS against lefties.  Gamboa was showcasing two different knuckleballs against the Phillies, one in the mid 60’s and one in the low to mid 70’s.  Whether he was commanding the speed on purpose isn’t known but it was highly effective as he got swings and misses from Jimmy Rollins, Dominic Brown, and Ryan Howard, making effective big league hitters look like little leaguers.  The ability to mix in a solid fastball is the big key.  Knucklers, with an 89-90 mph fastball sprinkled in along with two other off speed pitches, could keep hitters completely off balance.  Gamboa showed the potential of this on Friday and it’s something to keep an eye on.

Paul:  Tim covered the highlights, but it was also nice seeing Ubaldo in action.  We got a lot of footage of his pre-game bullpen that we will figure out how to scale down from the huge file size it currently is and upload it at some point.  Despite sitting in the upper 80’s and lower 90’s, Jimenez controlled the Phillies hitters nicely.  The velocity doesn’t concern me a ton.  Ubaldo specifically mentioned he would hold back a little and location is a bigger issue the velocity for him anyway.

And even though it is only the Grapefruit League, it was hard not to get some level of satisfaction out of AJ Burnett getting shelled while Jimenez threw two scoreless.  Essentially, Burnett’s decision to stay in the NL and spurn the Orioles’ offer paved the way for Ubaldo to land with the Birds so it was nice – at least for one day in a ultimately meaningless game – to get the better end of that exchange.

Paul:  We headed back home and then walked less than a mile to a nice shopping area on Lido Beach with a ton of shops and restaurants.  Kind of hit me as something that Harbor East in Baltimore aspires to be.  We ate at a decent pizza place but the highlight was great ice cream at this candy shop nearby.  The ice cream was homemade and delicious.  The fudge looked amazing as well but we never did end up trying it.

Saturday morning, it was breakfast at the hotel before hitting the beach for a little while.  It was a little “cool” (and by “cool”, I mean upper 60’s) but a completely clear day and a beautiful view of the water from the beach.  We both decided sometime during this trip that a weekend through weekend trip (maybe Friday night through the following Sunday afternoon) might have to be in the cards for next season.  Not only can we see more baseball then, but hopefully we’ll also get a longer chance to enjoy the weather and beaches.

Tim:  It was around this time during our brief stint on the beach that I decided internally that we would have to come back next year for at least 7 days, maybe 9-10 if we crunch a five day work week in between two weekends.  Our hotel, the weather (minus Thursday), the need to visit Twin Lakes and actually see some minor league games going on down there, and getting to some “away” games makes more time next year a necessity.

Orioles vs. Red Sox (Saturday, March 8, 2014)

Paul:  Initially I wanted to go to both ends of the Saturday split squad versus the Red Sox but Tim nixed the nightcap in Fort Meyers because two games of Red Sox fans were too much for one day.  After about five minutes of being around the Red Sox fans at Ed Smith, I had to admit he made the right decision.

Tim:  We closed 2011 in fine fashion against the Red Sox.  We had to close the 2012 home regular season against the Red Sox, which wouldn’t have been nearly as great if it wasn’t for the playoffs being right within reach and the horrible season the Red Sox were having.  We had their home opener for 2013, closed out the regular season at home against them, and are now opening 2014 and closing the home schedule against them.  I’ve had more than my fair share of high leverage games with their terrible fans.  I didn’t need that in Spring Training.

Paul:  The offense continued to look mid-season form in this game but the pitching was probably the takeaway.  Norris looked good getting the start.  He hit 94 and was sitting in the low 90’s the entire outing.  The slider looked good like usual.  

Tim:  Darren O’Day pitched and usually that isn’t a story.  But this was O’Day’s second appearance since working on a change up with former Major League submariner Todd Frowirth.  O’Day is a well above average reliever, who strikes guys out and over his career has not had any splits.  The above average relief and strike outs continued in 2013 but there was an issue with lefties.  Going back through video tape didn’t show much.  For example, an April home run at Camden Yards by Tampa Bay first baseman James Loney was left up and over the plate.  It wasn’t Loney making an adjustment; it was simply a poor pitch.  Other video I watched in the off season tended to show the same.  O’Day was also hurt down the stretch, which could have started earlier but with the O’s in contention, O’Day didn’t get a rest until the end of August when he was out for a couple of weeks.

Regardless, adding a third pitch to his submarine fastball and excellent slider won’t hurt.  From our third base line view at Ed Smith Stadium, we couldn’t make out the differences in most of O’Day pitches.  When we got back to the hotel, we watched the inning on the MLB.tv archive of the game.  With a much better view, it was easy to see the difference between the 85 mph fastball, 79 mph slider, and 76-79 mph change up.  Pitching is hard, pitching submarine style is even harder.  So far, O’Day has done well with both.  There is little reason to doubt that O’Day won’t rebound from his non-career like splits in 2013 and the change up could help make that bounce back a lot easier.  

Paul:  Saturday evening was a miss dinner wise.  Places we wanted to go to weren’t open so we ate at a normal pizza place that was okay, but not anything you can’t get in any city in the world.  To make up for it, more ice cream was bought.

Orioles vs. Pirates (Sunday March 9, 2014)

Paul:  Sunday morning saw us back at the Toasted Mango for (sadly) the final time before packing to head the stadium and then the airport immediately after.  With a 6:40 flight, we figured we could see about half of the game before driving back to Tampa.  Walking around the stadium looking for the stand that sells Chick-Fil-A menu items (we never found it so it may or may not actually exist), we spotted a fan we call “Reimold” because of his slight resemblance to the Oriole left fielder/designated hitter.  He has had season tickets near one our plans in section 336 and has for years.  He is ways at the games by himself, but he is always there.  We have also spotted him at every Fan Fest the past several years, random games where we aren’t sitting in that section, Nationals Park last season, and now here.  He’s definitely a dedicated fan.  Probably should talk to him at some point, but I am not sure if that would make this more or less stalker-ish.

 A view from the corner in left field at Ed Smith Stadium (photo credit: Tim Cooke)

A view from the corner in left field at Ed Smith Stadium (photo credit: Tim Cooke)

Tim:  After an average first start against the Red Sox last Sunday, Wei-Yin Chen made his second spring start against the Pirates on Sunday and looked fantastic.  He commanded his fastball really well, keeping it down in the zone for the most part, which allowed him to use a high fast ball to get a swing and a miss late in the count.  His off speed pitches were crisp, with the slider and curveball looking as good as we have seen.  Chen’s change up, a pitch that hasn’t been particularly good in the past, got a swing and miss and looked like above average.  As we were heading back to Tampa to catch our flight, I remarked to Paul that Chen’s outing may have been the best he has ever looked as an Oriole and with the Pirates bringing most of their A-squad, that bodes extremely well for the future.

Paul:  Chen looked great.  Except for one instance when he wanted to go up (and got a strikeout in doing so), every fastball was located down.  He looked very good.  The hit parade also continued and we were able to leave for the airport with a comfortable lead which was nice.  We saw the O’s put up 31 runs over three games (44 over 4 games if you count the Saturday night away game we skipped).  I doubt they are going to score 10 or 11 runs per game during the regular season, but you can see how this team has a potentially potent offense with strong minor league depth behind it.    If everyone stays healthy, I would be surprised if they don’t equal or even surpass 2013’s run total.

Tim:  I am already very excited for next years trip, hopefully to celebrate the first World Series in 26 years.

Paul:  Overall, it was an enjoyable first trip down the Spring Training and we definitely want to plan a bigger trip for next time.  The offense looked great and there weren’t many things to complain about anywhere else on the diamond.  You can’t beat three wins and 31 runs score in three live spring games.