Pitchers and catchers began workouts around Florida on Wednesday and the Houston Astros started about three hours ahead of the Miami Marlins.
The Marlins won’t be catching up anytime soon, folks. Matter of fact, everyone else in baseball is playing catch-up with the world champion Astros.
You could hear it in the comments of Houston manager A.J. Hinch on Wednesday and you could see it in the caliber of athletes that emerged from his clubhouse at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches to do the first stretching, throwing, spitting and scratching of spring training 2018.
Dallas Keuchel, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole all were opening-day pitchers in 2017 with the Astros, Tigers and Pirates, respectively. How will Hinch set the order of his rotation in April? Oh, the problems he has.
“It’s not a plug-and-play operation,” Hinch said when asked about what must be accomplished by him and his staff this spring. “Last year was not a magic carpet ride. We earned every bit of our 100-plus wins, the division title, the run in the playoffs.
“I want to maximize. I want to be perfect. It’s hard.”
Meanwhile, just five exits up I-95 at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium, Marlins manager Don Mattingly was having a hard time, too, trying to come up with names to follow Dan Straily and Jose Urena in his starting rotation.
“I don’t see any Kershaw’s on our roster,” said Donnie Baseball, who did have three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw on his side while managing the Los Angeles Dodgers.
That was then and this is ouch, but if new Marlins CEO Derek Jeter needed a manager whose one true valentine in baseball itself, Mattingly is his man.
There were, for instance, only smiles during Mattingly’s 15-minute media session. He took no questions about Giancarlo Stanton or Marcell Ozuna or Christian Yelich or Dee Gordon, because they were shipped elsewhere during the offseason. He took few questions about the Marlins’ full squad in general, because there are more than enough pitchers and catchers to learn, both their names and their games, before moving on to other mysteries.
“I know the Miami Marlins have been around for a while,” said Mattingly, “but we all look at it as if this is the start. This is brand new. This is the beginning. This is the first part of the foundation.”
Sounds more like an expansion team than anything else. Then you see former Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez walking by in Marlins uniform No. 33 and it feels like one again, too.
Back in 1992, before the franchise had even fielded a major-league team, Fredi managed the first collection of professional prospects signed by the Marlins. They played in the Class-A New York-Penn League as the Erie Sailors. Now Fredi is in his second season as Mattingly’s third-base coach, with new ownership this time but the same old mission of re-inventing the wheel, or the diamond, or something.
Palm Beach County is blessed with four major-league training camps, with the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals included. Sometimes they will be good and sometimes they will be bad but really, did anyone ever guess that any two of them would arrive at spring training as if touching down from entirely different planets?
Funny thing is, Hinch can probably relate to what Mattingly is dealing with now. Hinch was fired in 2010 after losing 123 of 212 games as the manager of a last-place Arizona Diamondbacks team over parts of two seasons. When any organization goes through a reboot, there is much dirty work to be done, and somebody has to do it.
The Astros won’t spend any time worrying about Miami, though. They are focused on becoming the first repeat World Series champions since the Yankees, Jeter’s Yankees, strung together three in a row from 1998-2000.
“We believe in this team,” Hinch said. “We feel like we’ve made it better. It’s hard to make a team like last season’s better, but our front office did a really good job of addressing some holes.”
The Marlins front office, of course, voluntarily blew holes through a roster that finished 77-85 last year and trailed the Nationals by 20 games in the National League East. The overall idea is to strengthen the farm system and eventually send a cadre of champions to the major-league level, but that grand notion must begin over the next six weeks in Jupiter with Mattingly scrambling just to find starting pitchers to send out there in 2018.
“There’s a lot of guys we’re looking at,” Mattingly said. “There are non-roster guys that are competing for that spot. There are guys that were here in the past, and young guys that are just coming aboard.”
Pitchers and catchers and dreamers. They’re all back and working in Palm Beach County, and they’re all thinking there’s way too much to be done before spring training ends in late March.