LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Spring training is often a time for phenoms.
Yet while Jose Bautista, Jacob deGrom and Bryce Harper certainly don’t fit into that category as established stars, they have scouts in the Grapefruit League buzzing.
Bautista, the Toronto Blue Jays right fielder, said earlier this spring that he was not upset about having to settle for a one-year contract in free agency last winter. Yet last spring, he talked of looking for a five-year contract before going on to hit .234/.366/.452 with 22 home runs in 116 games during an injury-marred season.
Bautista has looked like a man trying to prove himself this spring. He was 9-for-16 (.563) with two home runs before joining the Dominican Republic team in the World Baseball Classic.
“Usually, older guys kind of ease into spring training but he was hitting every ball on the screws from his first at-bat,” said a scout from an American League team. “He’s always in great shape but there isn’t an ounce of fat on him this year. He’s ready to return to elite status.”
Meanwhile, deGrom is one of the many New York Mets starting pitchers who entered spring training with physical question marks after undergoing surgery last September to remove scar tissue from his right elbow.
However, deGrom has hit 98 mph with his fastball this spring while allowing only one run in 10 innings and striking out 13. He is looking like the pitcher who was 14-8 with a 2.54 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in 30 starts in 2015, though he still had a fine 2016 with a 7-8 record, 3.04 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 24 starts.
“It’s hard to tell he is coming off surgery,” a scout from a National League team said. “The ball is coming out of his hand well and he’s throwing free and easy. For me he’s been as good as any pitcher I’ve seen all spring.”
Harper had a big drop-off last season after winning the National League Most Valuable Player award in 2015. He hit .243/.373/.441 with 24 home runs in 147 games after posting a .330/.460/.649 line with 42 homers in 153 games in 2015.
However, Harper has belted six home runs in 29 at-bats this spring while batting .310.
“Whatever it was that was holding him back last season has been fixed,” a scout from an NL team said. “He’s absolutely scorching the ball, just like he did two years ago. He’s already locked in for the regular season.”
One United States player, who asked not to be named, has an idea of why the World Baseball Classic is not as important to fans in the U.S. as in other countries.
“The one thing that has really struck me is how much the guys on the other [teams] care about winning and show their emotions on their sleeves,” the player said. “When guys are jumping over the railing of the dugout to greet guys when they score a run, it gets the fans up. I wish we could do that but we can’t.”
The “unwritten rules” of baseball prevent American players from showing such exuberance. It would be considered showing the opponent up.
“That’s a bunch of BS,” the player said. “Why not be able to show your excitement? It makes us seems like we don’t care as much and that’s not the case. We just can’t show our enthusiasm like the other teams and it makes us look indifferent when we really aren’t.”
FanRag Sports’ Kate Morrison asked recently whether catcher Jonathan Lucroy should re-sign with the Texas Rangers or test free agency at the end of the season.
Lucroy isn’t ready to answer that question yet. However, he does allow that the experience of playing with the Rangers has been better than he could have imagined since being traded by the Milwaukee Brewers last July.
“It’s a first-rate organization and they’ve treated me well,” he said.
Lucroy is also a big fan of manager Jeff Banister.
“He has such a great passion for the game,” Lucroy said. “He’s very inspirational. You want to give it your all for him every day.”
Oakland Athletics right-hander Sonny Gray will begin the season on the disabled list with strained lat muscle and that hurts his team on two fronts.
It takes the ace of a team that finished last in the AL West. It also further damages Gray’s trade value following an injury-marred season in which he was 5-11 with a 5.69 ERA in 22 starts.
And then there is this from an AL scout on the 27-year-old: “I bet he’s never going to be the same pitcher again. He’s only 5-foot-10 and he throws with max effort. Guys like usually flame out as starters and wind up in the bullpen. I hope I’m wrong but I don’t like what I see.”