Saturday, February 23, 2013

Watching Spring Training - Competition Starts Today

The competition for roster spots starts heating up today with the Twins first spring training day. Here are some basic pointers of what to watch for.

Established Veterans

There are a number of veteran players who aren't competing for a spot on the roster. They are just getting themselves ready for opening day. During the first couple weeks of spring training that may mean working on some part of their game, but mostly it just means shaking the rust off and getting in game shape.

Mauer, Doumit, Morneau, Carroll, Plouffe and Willingham fit this description. They are all locks to make the roster. Plouffe was supposed to have competition at third base, but it does not appear that is the case any more. Carroll is in a sort of competition for an everyday position, but it depends less on what he does than on whether the young players competing for second and shortstop are ready to play in the big leagues. Perkins and Burton roles are set in the bullpen. Duensing, Burnett and Swarzak are probably set as well, but they are in competition for what roles they will play.  Worley, Pelfrey, Diamond and Correia are set in the rotation, assuming they are healthy. Whether these players have good games or bad games in spring training won't effect their places on opening day. The competition is really for the other 8 roster spots and to some extent which roles some of those veterans will have.

Its How you finish, not how you start, that matters

For players competing for positions the most important time is the last couple weeks before opening day. That's because, during the first couple weeks of games in spring training the level of competition is much lower. Veterans aren't in game shape yet. There are a lot of young players who will be assigned to AA and even A ball who are still in camp. So no matter how impressive a player is early against weak competition, the real tests will come in the last couple weeks. Almost every year someone looks like a lock to be on the roster and then falls apart in the last week as rosters are narrowed, players are sharp and the competition starts to be major league quality. This is one of the reasons that spring training statistics are basically pretty meaningless. So the real competition starts in mid-March, after the minor league camp has opened and spring training rosters shrink.

First six innings more important than last six

Just as spring training can be divided into two parts, so can spring training games. Most games start with a good portion of a teams expected major league roster in the lineup. They often end with guys who are slated for the minor leagues. Even  during the last half of March, the Twins will often give players who from the minor league camp a chance to play in the late innings.

So games start with major league players and players teams are most interested in seeing play against major league competition. Then as the game progresses the competition gets weaker. For an observer, this pattern gives two pieces of information. The first is that players who play early in the game are often those the team manager things are ahead of players who come into the game later. That is especially true for the bullpen competition.  The second thing is to be very careful not to read too much into pitchers or hitters who perform well at the end of games.

Home Games are Different Than Road Games

Because spring training games require bus travel, teams often leave veterans home and take younger players on the road. In fact, there are some rules requiring a minimum number of major league players be included on road trips.  Travel rosters are often include young players competing for jobs or minor league players taken to fill positions and play as late inning replacements.

There is a wrinkle to this for the Twins to this pattern. Since they are in the same town as the Red Sox, they tend to schedule a lot of spring training games against them. That reduces the travel requirement, but it also means they are to some extent competing for fans. As you can imagine, both teams prefer that their stars play on their home field, rather than attracting fans to their crosstown rivals. 

What his means is that teams playing at home are often facing weaker competition than they face on the road. Managers know this and will put players they want to evaluate into roles where they can see them compete against tougher competition. But it also means that guy pitching at home who has a good game is not facing the same quality opposition as the guy who pitches on the road.

In short, home teams are heavier on proven veterans and regulars while road teams are heavier on prospects and backups.

Twins Competition

The Twins have competition for 8 spots on the roster: Outfield (2), Middle Infield(2), Starter(1),  Bullpen(2), 25th Player(1). That assumes Parmelee is not a lock in right field, but he will probably need to play his way out of the job rather than someone else taking it.  Of course, injuries may open additional spots. Swarzak, Diamond and  Pelfry are all players whose existing health issues may prevent them from being ready opening day.

The waiting is over, the competition starts today and we will have baseball to watch until next November.

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