SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- There's a lot of good stuff happening in the Cactus League, which should come as no surprise considering this is the first year since 2003 that the two World Series participants are training in the desert. The champion Giants' rotation still looks ridiculously good (and will be even better once Matt Cain is at full strength, as is expected soon), and the runner-up Rangers can really rake. But those aren't the only camps worth watching. Here is a rundown of the some of the best, biggest and brightest in the Cactus League:
Hosmer, 21, served noticed that he isn't far away from reaching the majors with two absolute bombs in Surprise, Ariz. "Those balls are still traveling,'' said one scout who saw both homers, one against the Cubs, one the Rangers. One competing GM said, "He's very agile for a big guy. And he has incredible balance at the plate. You just don't see that in someone that size.'' Hosmer, who is batting .474 with a 1.000 slugging percentage, is a former No. 2 overall draft pick who was signed to a $6 million bonus, so his performance isn't necessarily a surprise. He looks like a pretty slick fielding first baseman for his size (he's 6-foot-6), further fostering the belief he is a star in the making. "He's come very quickly,'' Royals GM Dayton Moore said. "Last year he had his breakout year. The scouts and development people did a tremendous job.''
It appears likely, though, that Hosmer will begin the year at Triple-A, along with roommate and top third base prospect Mike Moustakas, who seems back on track after an earlier weight issue, one competing GM said. Hosmer said the big leagues are the goal, but he also said, "I am not going to question anything Dayton and the guys do. It's up to them. The Royals have a great development staff, and they are here to make us a better person and a better player.'' Hosmer seems as polite as he is powerful, and he has enjoyed his experience with the team, whatever happens. "It's been a blast,'' he said. Good choice of words.
Trout beat out a routine grounder to shortstop the other day, just flat beat it out. His secret? "As soon as I hit it on the ground, I started running.'' Sounds simple, huh? Trout (5 for 19 so far this spring) is quick, no doubt about that. And he hustles. He even hustled his way to MLB Network studios for the 2009 draft, and was there to celebrate the Angles taking him No. 23 overall out of high school in New Jersey. He was fairly quick to sign, and some suggested he was only picked that high because he was an easy, cheap sign. But the Angels knew better. Then scouting director Eddie Bane (he's since been fired and is now with the Tigers) had him No. 2 on the Angels' board, to only Stephen Strasburg, the consensus No. 1 pick. Now, nearly two years later, folks finally agree with them. These days he is No. 1 overall on some prospect lists. He'll begin the year at Double-A but he shouldn't take long to be in the majors (2012 is a fair projection), even though he's only 19 and two years out of high school. In the meantime, we see flashes of incredible quickness.
Pineda is flashing a 98-mph fastball, which means he's throwing about 5 mph faster than Seattle superstar Felix Hernandez at present. "He should make that rotation. Who else do (the Mariners) have?" one scout said. Pineda (2.57 ERA thus far this spring) is so good than when King Felix was asked whether he gives him pointers, he answered by suggesting that Pineda has nothing to learn. The reality is that Pineda could still stand a bit of improvement in his "secondary pitches,'' according to the scout. But that's about it.
Cramer, 31, is vying for the fifth starting spot with Oakland, which has a very good front four but possibly some room at the end of the rotation, maybe even for a slow-throwing righthander (88 mph) who was out of baseball in 2005-06 after being dropped by the Tampa Bay Rays, who had signed him in 2003. Cramer, who has a 3.00 ERA in spring so far, spent those two years making "pig runs,'' which he explained has to do with pipeline maintenance while working for Shell Oil in Carson, Calif., near his hometown of Long Beach. After losing that job, he went back to pitching, resurfacing with the Orange County (Calif.) Flyers of the independent Golden League, tantamount to a Single-A league. After stints in winter ball and an elbow operation, he made it to the A's, where he went 2-1 with a 3.04 ERA last September. A's executive Grady Fuson calls Cramer "the magician'' for his ability get hitters out without a real fastball. "If he's locating (that) fastball, he runs right through them,'' said Fuson. Cramer's bread and butter is a great breaking pitch, which gives him a shot at the fifth job, especially with Rich Harden once again hurt and Josh Outman struggling. His main competition will come from young Cal-Berkeley product Tyson Ross, who has allowed no runs in 9 2/3 innings and may well knock Cramer back to the minors, at least for now. "It's an opportunity, I couldn't ask for more,'' said Cramer. "I never get big opportunities. I get a crack, and I have to kick the door open. I've never been a prospect. I've never been expected to do well. So I have to do twice as good.''
OK, this isn't exactly going out on a limb. The guy was fabulous as a first-yar player, winning NL Rookie of the Year honors and helping lead the Giants to the championship. And by all accounts, he can only get better. "He hasn't even learned to pull yet. Once he does, watch out,'' one scout said. "The guy's going to be a monster.'' One thing, the guy works constantly. He isn't much for interviews, limiting them to fit in more time for work. "You have the opportunity to play in the big leagues, it's not something I'm going to take for granted,'' Posey said. As for whether he can duplicate last year's heroics, he said, "I don't think I'd go out with the mindset, 'Can I repeat it?' I need to do better and not be complacent with what I did last year.''
He said he's dropped 38 pounds with better dieting and more working out. Word is, he hired a dietician to replace his mother's home cooking. He uses the former decathlete Dan O'Brien plus one of Barry Bonds' old training bobos (Greg Oliver) for training help. He is down to 242 pounds, according to the media guide, and looks it (he was listed at 262 last year). Out on the back fields he is often seen running wind sprints, having taken to heart the Giants' threats to demote him if he came into camp looking like a blimp again. "It's hard to do,'' he said of the weight loss. But he did it
This team can really rake. Their batting practice on Field 1 at Surprise is downright scary. Balls fly to the walkway that connects the field to the clubhouse so often a netting was put in to limit the chance of injury. The BP rounds by Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and David Murphy impress even team president Nolan Ryan, who isn't easily impressed. They have so many hitters it doesn't appear they really needed Adrian Beltre, who's been out until Monday with an early calf injury, as Michael Young and Chris Davis have filled in and torn up the Cactus League. Beltre is a terrific player, though. He and manager Ron Washington really hit it off in their offseason meeting, when general manager Jon Daniels asked Beltre why his two best seasons came in his contract years. "I wish I (bleeping) knew,'' Beltre is said to have responded, going on to speculate that his last year with the Dodgers and one season with the Red Sox represented the last two years he played before packed houses and that perhaps that got him going a bit. If that's the issue, he should do fine in Texas, which should draw well as an AL West favorite. The only question for the Rangers is in the final two spots in their rotation, and there are lots of decent candidates behind C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter, such as Matt Harrison, Michael Kirkman, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando and last year' closer Neftali Feliz.
Go see the Royals. That was the word throughout the Cactus League. And especially see them after the fifth inning, when all their kids, who should make them extremely dangerous in a couple years, would enter. Besides Hosmer, third baseman Moustakas, pitchers Mike Montgomery and Jeremy Jeffress, outfielders Lorenzo Cain, Wil Myers and Jarrod (pronounced like juh-ROD) Dyson and catcher Salvador Perez, who's 20 and been timed in 1.85 throwing to second base. Hosmer was the youngest player last year in Double-A, Myers the youngest in the Carolina League. But the GM Moore has been around long enough to know there are no certainties. He pointed out that he was an executive with Atlanta when a ridiculous 18 Braves rookies made it to the big leagues and only one became an All-Star (Brian McCann). He hears all the praise for his young phenoms, but Moore said, "I'm cautious about it. It's a man's league.'' Moore also said "we need another wave to blend in'' to compete consistently.
For $1.5 million, the Cubs brought home one of the majors' best set-up men. "He's throwing real well,'' one scout said. And being a teammate of the Yankees' Mariano Rivera for the final couple months of last season didn't hurt, either, as Wood picked up a cutter, which looks pretty good, if not Rivera-like. He also brings a bit of maturity to a clubhouse that could probably use it. And he may be around awhile. That oddly low salary indicates the probability of a personal services deal, so he'll likely stick around long after his pitching career is over, providing the possibility he could teach Rivera's cutter to future Cubbies.
Van Mil, a 7-foot-1 fellow from Oss, Netherland, only got into baseball when his mother misheard his desire to sign up for "basketball,'' and drove him out to the ball fields. He was slowed early in camp by shoulder tendinitis (only 1/3 of an inning so ar, with one run and two walks allowed), but no less than Torii Hunter said Van Mil looks like he has the potential to help. If he makes it, he will be the tallest player ever in the bigs, beating 6-11 Jon Rauch. He looks downright gigantic standing next to Angels infield prospect Alexi Amarista, who is generously listed as 5-foot-7. Van Mil's fastball has gone from high 80s to mid 90s since Twins minor league manager Jim Shellenback suggested he should use his height for leverage and velocity and his height has another advantage. "I'd like to think it's a bit intimidating,'' he said.
• Jonathan Broxton (10.80 ERA in spring) has not been throwing well in Dodgers camp, but Dodgers people felt a little better when pitching coach Rick Honeycutt went back and looked at the charts from 2009 and found Broxton was also throwing only 92 mph in March of that year. Broxton will get a full chance to close, and the Dodgers are hoping the motivation of impending free agency will help him. They are best with him as closer, but Hong-Chih Kuo has the stuff to do it if need be.
• The Dodgers aren't counting on Ronald Belisario this year. He's had trouble getting a visa, and there doesn't seem to be optimism he'll be acquiring one anytime soon.
• New Dodgers manager Don Mattingly seems at ease despite the team's 5-14 start. Though he played for the Yankees in the George Steinbrenner era, he seems to understand the meaning of spring training records: zero. Incidentally, the Rangers had among the worst Cactus League records last year.
• Meanwhile, Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson suggested he wasn't pleased with their Cactus League record (5-15).
• Cain said he isn't worried he's a bit behind, and no one else seems to be worried, either.
• It's hard to understand the rumors about Barry Zito possibly being released. At the very least, he is an innings-eater and certainly not as bad as Ollie Perez or a Carlos Silva, two other veteran starters with big contracts who have struggled mightily.
• The Mariners would benefit by releasing Milton Bradley, who needs to get his life in order. Revelations that he is accused of hitting his wife with the glass part of a glass table are not pretty.
• New Cubs pickup Matt Garza hasn't been throwing breaking balls yet, which probably explains why he's been hit around this spring.
• Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said big second base prospect Dustin Ackley has "a shot'' to make the team. He is certainly ready as a hitter (.500 on-base percentage so far) , which is what the Mariners need most. But he still has some nuances to learn as a second baseman, scouts say, after spending his college career at North Carolina as an outfielder and first baseman.
• The arrest of ex-Hendricks Brothers employee Rodney Fernandez for allegedly swiping a bit over $300,000 from ex-client Morales is the latest bit of bad publicity for the Hendricks Brothers. Longtime client Roger Clemens is scheduled to go to trial on perjury charges in coming months.
• Randy Wells has basically locked up a spot in the Cubs' rotation and prospect Andrew Cashner has looked the best of the other rotation hopefuls. Carlos Silva looks like he's earned a release with his early performance, but he does have a $12-million salary (coincidentally, the same as Ollie Perez)
• The Mets have expanded their second base competition to include Luis Hernandez, making it a five-man battle, a sure sign they aren't sold on any of the four. Folks say embattled veteran Luis Castillo has looked the best of the first four, which isn't necessarily what the team was hoping for.