It can be the difference between infield chaos or cohesion, the most underrated aspect of being a first baseman: the ability to scoop up bad throws.
That’s precisely the crossroad the Red Sox find themselves at midway through spring training. Can Hanley Ramirez perform that task, or will he create chaos that jeopardizes the entire infield?
“You can work on it a little bit,” said Marlins manager and nine-time Gold Glove winner Don Mattingly, one of the best scoopers of his time. “It’s fairly instinctive. There is a mechanical side to it as far as having your feet in the right position so you’re not off balance, which always helps your hands work better. That’s part of it. And also getting some reads where there’s long hops, that short one which is kind of hit or miss, and that tweener one which is the toughest.”
When you’re as good as Mattingly was, the entire infield benefits.
“It’s one of those things you feel good about because the infielder knows if they get a ball in the area that they’re going to get an out. It’s a boost for their confidence that the first baseman is going to get them an out even if they’re not perfect with the throw,” said Mattingly. “You watch J.T. Snow, and Adrian [Gonzalez] is good at it. If you don’t play it well there are things you can do offensively against it against a certain team.”
Mattingly managed Ramirez in Los Angeles, when Ramirez was primarily a shortstop. Mattingly said he would be surprised if Ramirez can’t get it done at first base — though he said he was surprised Ramirez couldn’t handle left field last season.
“I think Hanley can do anything — he’s really athletic. I thought he could do well in the outfield, but I wasn’t there for that,” Mattingly said.
Former Red Sox first baseman Sean Casey, now an MLB Network analyst, said scooping balls is “a very underappreciated” skill.
“I think it’s so important,” said Casey. “First basemen take pride in having great footwork in picking the ball to save bad throws. It’s difficult because you have to work at it. If you don’t work at it, it will show up 100 percent in the game. The ones who do it well are underappreciated.”
The Twins’ Joe Mauer moved from catcher to first base full time in 2014 and calls his ability to scoop “a work in progress.” Those who see him on a daily basis say he’s “solid but not spectacular” at scooping.
“You want to be good because it develops confidence from the infielders,” Mauer said. “You don’t want to give up that out. It helps the pitchers if you make the out and they don’t have to throw so many pitches.”
With the Red Sox, there isn’t as much concern about Ramirez’s ability to field ground balls or execute a 3-6-3 double play as much as there is about whether he can save an off-the-mark throw from Pablo Sandoval or Xander Bogaerts.
The Sox could be in for a long year if Ramirez can’t save his infielders. As a former shortstop whose throws weren’t always on the money, Ramirez knows the value of a first baseman who can save the infielders and pitchers from extra work. As a Dodger, Ramirez threw to Gonzalez, who scooped up everything.
“If [Ramirez] can’t be effective in saving some bad throws, it’s going to hurt the team,” said one American League scout. “You see first basemen saving infielders all of the time. Look at the Royals. They had Eric Hosmer saving their infield. A good shortstop like Alcides Escobar knew he could bounce one once in a while and Hosmer would save him.
“When an infielder has to think that he has to make every throw pinpoint to make the play, that gets dangerous because you can’t be thinking about the perfect throw when you have to field the ball and throw it in a hurry. You’ve got to have the confidence that your first baseman is going to save you.”
Sure, the Red Sox can replace Ramirez late in games with Travis Shaw, a much better fielder. But if Ramirez is unable to consistently save bad throws, it could mean the difference between winning the division or making the playoffs altogether. It could disrupt the entire pitching staff.
“In a perfect world, Ramirez hits like crazy and you just put up with the defensive deficiencies and hope it doesn’t kill you,” said one National League scout. “Everyone thinks anyone can play first base, and it’s true, anyone can, but how well is another story altogether. If the first baseman can show his infield that he has their back, what a relief. It’s such an important aspect of playing first base that’s often overlooked.”
Mike Napoli got really good at it with the Red Sox in 2013, but then regressed.
Sox infield coach Brian Butterfield has worked with Ramirez and feels Ramirez is making progress. But will he be a finished product by the time the season starts?
Bonds confident in Marlins’ hitters
Barry Bonds made the 2½-hour trip from Jupiter, Fla., to Fort Myers Friday as the Marlins faced the Twins. While many are skeptical as to how long Bonds will last as Miami’s hitting coach, three weeks into the job he seems to love it, and the Marlins love him.
“He’s added so much already,” said Marlins assistant GM Mike Berger. “He’s already brought out insights to the players that they never thought about, not only about hitting but about outfield play, base running, all the things that Barry was a student of.”
Bonds said he’s getting to know his hitters and that it’s too early to make individual assessments, but overall he said, “I think the potential here is very good. Very promising. The thing I see is that they were very good together. They work hard. They get along very well. They root for each other to do well. That’s a lot of good things going on.”
With top talent in Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, and Dee Gordon, Bonds just wants to help the Marlins get to the next level.
He watched tons of video before spring training, and from what he sees in person, “I think some [are] even better now than last year.”
“I don’t read too much into film and that stuff. I read into the person,” Bonds said. “It’s a tough challenge because spring training is one set of mind and the regular season is another set of mind. You can have guys super relaxed right now, and pushing the panic button as fast as they can when the season starts. I don’t know how that’s going to play out. You don’t stop learning until you take the uniform off.”
Bonds said his father, Bobby, and godfather, Willie Mays, were the best hitting coaches he ever had. And he acknowledged that he had no desire to get back in the game after being away for nine years until Dexter Fowler and Alex Rodriguez, two players he gave private lessons to, made him feel he could do a good job as a hitting coach.
“Once I thought Alex and Dexter had a positive outcome, I felt I could do it with the group. [Marlins owner] Jeffrey [Loria] called me and asked me if I wanted to do it,” Bonds said.
And so he wears his familiar No. 25 and stands behind the cage during batting practice. He works with players individually before games. Every now and then he’ll take a few swings. When asked if he could still hit a home run, Bonds said, “Sure. Do I want to do it? No. I don’t need to and nobody is paying me to do it.”
At 51, Bonds, likely the home run king for all eternity, looks smaller but fitter than he did as a Giant. He felt he left the game too soon. He wanted to play longer, but the steroid allegations made him radioactive and nobody went near him.
Apropos of nothing
1. Commissioner Rob Manfred’s brilliance in the Aroldis Chapman suspension (30 games) really hasn’t been accentuated enough. Manfred set a baseline, benchmark, call it what you will, for domestic abuse cases that did not result in arrest, while not receiving any opposition from the Players’ Association or Chapman himself. This does two things: It creates good will between MLB and the union with CBA talks soon to start, and it gives Manfred the ability to come down harder on Jose Reyes, who was arrested on domestic violence charges.
2. Maybe it’s just my hang-up, but Red Sox prospect Yoan Moncada flaunting his expensive car collection in the parking lot of a Fort Myers hotel isn’t very becoming for a player who hasn’t played one inning in the major leagues. Yes, we know he has a lot of money and we all love expensive cars, but have the good sense and be humble enough to tone it down. Moncada’s agent should be advising him that this isn’t a good look.
3. If Bronson Arroyo makes the Nationals’ roster, he and David Ortiz would be the last active players from the 2004 Red Sox. So far, so good this spring for Arroyo, a favorite of Washington manager Dusty Baker from their Cincinnati days. Baker loves Arroyo’s leadership qualities.
4. Thought it was neat that the Twins’ Korean import, Byung-ho Park, gave Marlins first baseman Justin Bour a big hug during Friday’s game and the two conversed in English. Looks like Park is going to hit some home runs this year. He has three this spring, one a grand slam.
5. Don’t think I’d admit to being Pablo Sandoval’s personal trainer.
6. Marlins center fielder Marcell Ozuna and Bour each lost 20-25 pounds this offseason. That’s commitment.
7. One baseball sage said to me recently, “Every time there’s an incident on the field, do we have to come up with a new rule or change the way the game is played? Isn’t baseball just great the way it is?”
8. In a few years, Hall of Fame voters will ask, does Andruw Jones belong? Depends how you value a center fielder with 10 Gold Gloves, 434 home runs, and an .823 career OPS.
Updates on nine
1. Justin Morneau, 1B/DH, free agent — Nothing has materialized for the former AL MVP. He still hasn’t announced his retirement, either. The Indians had interest prior to signing Mike Napoli.
2. Carlos Quentin, 1B/OF, Twins — It’s going to be tough for Quentin to make the team out of camp. The Twins will go with 12 pitchers on the Opening Day roster, leaving room for just four bench players, a group that will include Danny Santana, Oswaldo Arcia, and catcher John Ryan Murphy. The Twins like Santana as a super-utility type and Arcia has power potential. Quentin, 33, could get squeezed out.
3. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Rangers — Beltre wants a three-year deal from the Rangers. This is going to get interesting. Beltre, of course, is the heart and soul of the team, but three years for a third baseman who turns 37 in early April? The Rangers obviously have a replacement third sacker in power-hitting prospect Joey Gallo, but there’s only one Beltre. The Rangers could always do what the Red Sox did with David Ortiz and keep offering a series of rolling options, but that’s usually not Scott Boras’s modus operandi.
4. Michael Kopech, RHP, Red Sox — Nobody saw any signs of his immaturity when he was drafted. “A conscientious kid really dedicated to wanting to be a major league pitcher” is how one team’s area scout described Kopech during the draft process. The Red Sox gave him a $1.5 million signing bonus after taking him 33rd overall in 2014. But last July he was suspended 50 games for testing positive for a banned stimulant, and last week he fractured his pitching hand while fighting a teammate. Sox GM Mike Hazen called Kopech’s actions “disappointing” and “stupid.”
5. Nick Ahmed, SS, Diamondbacks — Ahmed, from East Longmeadow, is one shortstop the Cardinals have their eye on to replace the injured Jhonny Peralta. The Cardinals are just starting their search process outside the organization. They will really miss Peralta, who had some pretty big hits last season and may miss the first half of this year.
6. Hyun Soo Kim, LF, Orioles — Orioles vice president of player development Brady Anderson has spent a lot of time helping the South Korean acclimate to the big leagues. It hasn’t been smooth — Kim started 0 for 23 — but Anderson really believes Kim will be fine, indicating that he has a nice swing and that he will take off once he gets his rhythm and timing down.
7. Steven Wright, RHP, Red Sox — A few teams are watching Wright’s camp with great anticipation, since he is out of options. Teams love Wright’s flexibility and the fact the knuckleball offers a different look. Wright could break camp with the Sox as a reliever or perhaps the fifth starter should Eduardo Rodriguez open on the disabled list.
8. Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins — One of the game’s true superstars, there’s growing suspicion by baseball evaluators that Stanton will continue to have physical issues. That would be a shame for both Stanton and the Marlins, given the money committed to the slugger. Stanton has battled knee soreness in camp and was scheduled to return to action Sunday.
9. Jesus Montero, 1B, Mariners — Montero is out of options and must either stay on the Mariners’ 25-man roster or be subjected to waivers. We all know his story. Traded from the Yankees for Michael Pineda, the highly touted catching prospect gained about 40 pounds, was suspended twice, and saw his career spiral out of control. Montero has lost the weight, and at age 26 could be the righthanded complement to Adam Lind at first base. But the Mariners are also considering Korean Dae-ho Lee for that role as well.
From the Bill Chuck files — “Goal for David Ortiz: The record for most RBIs by player age 40-plus in their final season is held by George Brett, who had 75 in his age-40 final season in 1993; 41-year-old Ted Williams is next with 72 in 1960.” . . . Also, “Days lost to injuries in the AL last season dropped to their lowest level in the last four years: in 2012, 18,538 days were lost, but by last season just 16,683 days were lost.” . . . Happy birthday, Sandy Leon (27) and Mike Aviles (35).
Chris Colabello has a chance to stick with one of baseball’s best-hitting lineups, the Blue Jays, in 2016. A long shot? The Milford native went undrafted after playing at the baseball hotbed of Assumption College. He played seven seasons in the unheralded Canadian-American Association before getting a chance with the Twins in 2013, at age 29. A glimpse at Colabello’s unusual path to the big time.
Yes, he’s the only Assumption player to have reached the majors. His 202 hits rank seventh all time in school history and he’s one of five Greyhounds to have a three-homer game. Otherwise, his stint in Worcester earned little notice.
The Can-Am dates to 1936 but it’s hardly a storied history. It closed for business in 1951 and didn’t reopen until 2005. Colabello played seven seasons, mostly with the Worcester Tornadoes. Where he stands:
The Canadian connection
Although only nine Can-Am players have gotten a taste of the majors, Colabello was one of three alums to play for the Blue Jays in 2015:
P Andrew Albers: A 10th-round pick of the Padres in 2008, he played one season in the Can-Am. A free agent, he has made 11 appearances with the Twins (2013) and Blue Jays (2015).
P Steve Delabar: Another late bloomer, the righthander was a 29th-round pick in 2003 but has found a home in Toronto’s bullpen. An All-Star in 2013, he has pitched for the Jays for three-plus seasons.