Position players arrive early to get a leg up at camp
Whether it's to rebound from injury or make a good impression, it's become the norm
The first few early mornings of Spring Training are all about pitchers and catchers. It's their arrival, after all, that signals the dawn of a new baseball season. But, for a variety of reasons, many position players show up and begin working out ahead of the first official full-squad workouts.
Some are there because they're working through injury rehab at their club's facilities, while others perhaps are wanting to get a head start on meeting new teammates or acquainting themselves with new spring homes.
There's an additional reason this year, as some players look to make up for the time in camp they will miss while playing in the World Baseball Classic. But many more are just trying to make good impressions on their team's decision-makers.
It's the latter reason, in the opinion of Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, that should have prompted early arrivals by Jordan Schafer and Tyler Pastornicky in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., earlier this week. It isn't about whatever conditioning or mechanical benefits a player might gain with a few extra days in camp. In many managers' minds, checking in early reveals more about a player's effort and commitment -- important values, especially for those vying for roster spots and playing time.
The Mets' Ruben Tejada, chided by manager Terry Collins a year ago, took the hint and vowed to be in Port St. Lucie, Fla., for early workouts this year. Schafer and Pastornicky, both Florida residents vying for backup jobs, showed up early Thursday morning, but not before hearing from Gonzalez, although his words were laced with humor.
"Schafer is probably having a tough time with his travel," Gonzalez said. "He's another one I'm going to grab. He only lives two exits up the road, and I haven't seen him yet. But maybe he has a five-year deal with [general manager] Frank [Wren] that guarantees he will play center. Frank hasn't told me that Schafer has signed for five years and is guaranteed to get one of the three outfield spots."
While it's laughable to think that position battles are won or lost in the days before full-squad workouts begin, quite a bit can happen in the time leading up to the scheduled report date.
The media descends upon Florida and Arizona and the season-long storylines and narratives begin to develop. After all the winter's predictions and second guesses, holdover and offseason acquisitions come together on the field, like Atlanta's outfield trio of Jason Heyward and Justin and B.J. Upton taking batting practice as a group for the first time. Teammates take time to bond in the initial, lower-stress spring atmosphere before the grueling, 162-game grind of the regular season sets in.
"We have quite a few of them that came in early, and that's always a great time," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said Tuesday. "We don't open up until Saturday, but this is as good a place as you can have a workout, with the cages and the workout room. A few of them we wanted to come in early to get an early start, but most of them came in on their own."
Rays third baseman Evan Longoria arrived early for a number of reasons. Among them was that, by being in Port Charlotte, Fla., Tampa Bay's training staff could keep an eye on the surgically repaired left hamstring that limited him to 74 games last season.
But Longoria, whose $100 million contract extension could keep him with the Rays through 2023, also showed up in hopes of taking on more of a leadership role. So he did something new this year. Before Spring Training began, he scanned the Rays' roster, taking note of all the new names and thinking about how they'll impact the team.
"The quicker I could get back here, the easier it is to settle in and see the new faces and just enjoy the spring," Longoria said. "It was good to see. The further you get along in your career, the more when we sign free agents, you know a lot more about these guys. ... I'm excited."
Derek Jeter won't have to learn many new names in Tampa, Fla., this spring, but he's already spent plenty of time at the Yankees' facilities, as he works his way back from surgery on his left ankle.
Jeter, who lives in Tampa during the offseason, began working out at the Yanks' Minor League complex as soon as he took off his walking boot in mid-January. Since then, it's been a steady buildup, first walking on an underwater treadmill, then hitting and fielding ground balls, and most recently running on a treadmill for the first time since undergoing surgery in October.
In that regard, Jeter didn't go out of his way to report early the same way so many players across baseball did -- he simply continued his scheduled rehab work while early-arriving teammates, like center fielder Curtis Granderson, filled in around him.
"It's a normal progression," Jeter said. "Even if I didn't break my ankle, there's steps. This is just another step in the process that I would be doing anyway."
Of course, some players set off early toward the warmer weather of Florida and Arizona for an even simpler reason, one that has nothing to do with rehab schedules or offseason homes or impressing executives.
Baseball season arrives with the words, "pitchers and catchers report." So they will, too.
"It's just kind of time to focus on some baseball, which is the fun part," Justin Upton said. "We've done all the talk about it. It becomes fun when you get here and get around the guys."