Storylines From 2012 Spring Training

(originally written 3/6/12)

⦁    Livan Hernandez, perhaps best known for his umpire-assisted heroics as a Marlins rookie in the 1997 World Series, has gone on to forge a nice career most notably with the Giants and ExpoNats. The latter franchise employed Hernandez from 2003-2006 and again from 2009-2011, and their fans supplied a classy sendoff when he departed his final 2011 start (the team had announced its' desire to audition younger arms in Livan's slot), almost certainly his last as a Nat and possibly his last in MLB. During 2011 the burly right-hander was revealed to be in massive debt to a bank, nearly $500,000. He was court-ordered to pay the debt in late October, and his wages to be garnished accordingly. It is unclear if Hernandez would have signed a minor league deal with MLB's worst team and chosen retirement were it not for his finances and/or the judgment; either way it makes for an interesting exhibition subplot. So far this spring Livan is holding his own—three starts, nine innings, two runs, two walks, and according to MLB.com, a hit with the young Astros' staff. 


⦁    Among his competitors for Houston's 5th-starter spot is Zach Duke, the former Pirate. 
⦁     This past off-season, the Tigers, Angels, and Marlins each imported big-name free agents who play positions already manned by stars—no doubt huge ego boosts to three men who don't really need them, as talented as they are. While the Tigers' and Angels' respective incumbents Miguel Cabrera and Mark Trumbo have kept private any reservations about switching to third base to accommodate Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols, respectively, Hanley Ramirez was reportedly less than thrilled about relinquishing his shortstop position to newcomer Jose Reyes.

 

So far this spring, Ramirez appears to be holding his own at the hot corner, and Ozzie Guillen has publicly praised his work ethic (he wouldn't do that if he didn't mean it.) The true test comes when the season opens, and Ramirez is playing in a brand-new ballpark with 40,000 pairs of eyes on him nightly rather than a few hundred in the Grapefruit League every other day. As Spring 2012 winds down, we'll see if Hanley can transition smoothly a la Alex Rodriguez, or if he develops Michael Young or Alfonso Soriano-level disenchantment. 


⦁     Manny Ramirez is one of those guys who might have made this column even if he were still retired. Shoot, he could make national headlines over buying Raid ("Is Manny a murderer? PETA demands legendary slugger be arrested!"). His inclusion in this column? A foregone conclusion. Manny endured a very tumultuous beginning to the '10's, on and off the baseball diamond. Two short years after "Mannywood" took Los Angeles by storm. its namesake's suspensions, injuries, and finally, unprofessionalism earned him a one-way ticket out of town. He stunk as a White Sock and even worse as a Ray, then retired rather than face punishment for his 2nd PED offense. During his down time, Ramirez was arrested for domestic violence. In late 2008, being Manny rocked. By late 2011, it sucked.

 

Deciding to un-retire in early 2012 (as I expected), Ramirez became the Oakland A's latest "wouldamade" acquisition (the acquisition "woulda made" big news five years ago). Now weeks from 40 and humbled by his declining skillz and the PED damage to his legacy, Manny claims to have a new outlook on life. I've scoured many books and sources over the years, and the overwhelming majority of Manalysis is positive—he has done lamentable things but is generally a good guy, well-liked wherever he's been. Even Terry Francona, who once referred to him as the worst human being he'd ever known, backed off that stance given an ample cooling-off period. Ramirez started spring 0-for-8 but cracked his first homer on March 14th.


⦁     Pitcher Jamie Moyer made his MLB debut in 1986, the same year as Will Clark, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Ruben Sierra. Pete Rose was still in baseball--playing. Summary: Moyer's been around a long time. He's won 267 career games on slop and wits, the epitome of the crafty left-hander. He also once made a dugout catch that honestly should have killed him. He was a teammate of Cal Ripken when he played game #2,131 in 1995. He was the ace of the 116-win Mariners in 2001. He was a 2008 World Series champion with the Phillies.

 

But in mid-2010, he blew out his pitching arm, and sat out all of 2011 recovering. Now, at age 49, Moyer is in camp with the Colorado Rockies, who do have an opening for their 5th starter's spot. Battling the likes of Tyler Chatwood and Esmil Rogers—who combined are still younger than Moyer—he has been effective thus far, but was scratched from his most recent scheduled start with a leg issue. Moyer, who turns 50 in November, remains our best shot to see a 50-year-old major leaguer since Julio Franco (who missed by a few months.)


⦁    Omar Vizquel, along with Moyer, is one of two players remaining in MLB active in the 1980's. He signed a non-roster deal with the Toronto Blue Jays--whose newly-restored retro look was actually their active look when Vizquel made his MLB debut. Translation: Omar's pretty old. 45, to be exact. We know the story of his career—light hitting, but slick-fielding SS who did develop as a hitter while (deservedly) winning 11 Gold Gloves with the Mariners, Indians, and Giants, He's been a reserve infielder for the Rangers and White Sox the past three seasons but is on his first minor-league deal. If Omar makes Toronto's roster, he can inch closer to 3,000 hits (currently at 2,841)—the 29th of which came against his current manager, John Farrell. Vizquel is 5-for-13 so far this spring. 


⦁    Johan Santana, the brilliant left-hander for the Mets (and previously Twins) with few, if any, peers on the mound from 2003-2010—even if his win totals didn't always reflect it—lost all of 2011 to major shoulder surgery but so far in '12 has been healthy (three starts). Santana is 33, 133-69, 3.10 lifetime with two Cy Youngs, three ERA titles and three K titles. He was all kinds of dominant during the mid-2000's and I'd personally hate to see him not end up in Cooperstown one day...but he's got work to do to reach the (unofficial) minimum 200-win threshhold. 


⦁    Needless to say, every step taken and every word breathed in Boston will be under intense scrutiny (surprise). But this is different—no Red Sox team (or team in MLB history) disappointed and collapsed like the 2011 Red Sox, and if Bobby Valentine fails to establish, for lack of a better term, "order" right away, it won't be pretty in New England. This may be a new era, with Theo Epstein, Francona, Jason Varitek, Tim Wakefield and Jon Papelbon out of the picture, but the rabid, unforgiving Sox fan base and media contingent will never change. 


⦁    Vlad Guerrero, Ivan Rodriguez, Johnny Damon, Derrek Lee, Hideki Matsui, Magglio Ordonez and Roy Oswalt remain free agents. None of them have publicly expressed retirement leanings, but neither had Jermaine Dye, to cite one example. Damon and Rodriguez have 3,000 hits within reach; I'd be very shocked if they pulled a Sam Rice and voluntarily quit so close to the milestone. (Rice, who played in the 1920's, retired 13 hits away. He gave a somewhat valid reason, but I'm not here to talk about the past.) 


⦁    Other stories to keep an eye on: Andy Pettitte is back with the Yankees, signed to a minor-league deal at age 39 just today. Roger Clemens is expected to also sign by Monday (not really. Mercifully.) Jason Heyward, whose star has fallen dramatically in two years and reportedly isn't a lock to open 2012 with Atlanta, is 6-for-34 this spring. Joel Zumaya, ex-Tiger flamethrower repeatedly beset by major injuries—including one this spring—may retire. Dontrelle Willis, Zumaya's ex-teammate similarly beset by (fill in the blank) was just released by Philadelphia and might have used up all nine lives...