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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

February 24, 2009 at 5:20 PM

Grapefruit League leftovers

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It’s great to be back in Seattle, drizzle and all. I realize now that I accumulated a lot of interesting tidbits from my Grapefruit League tour that fell through the cracks, mainly because of my obsession with the Griffey story.

That’s one of the beauties of blogging: It’s a perfect resting place for this kind of potpourri of info. So here goes:

1) I’m not going to delve into the world of Fantasy Baseball in this blog — it’s just a Pandora’s Box I don’t want to open — but if I did, I’d advise people to keep an eye on Atlanta right-hander Tommy Hanson (pictured above). What an impressive kid — he’s 22 years old, and he has the stuff to be a staff ace. And soon. The Braves will probably start him out in the minors, because he hasn’t played above Double-A, but I’d be shocked if Hanson wasn’t in their rotation by June.

A bunch of us were talking to Chipper Jones during the whole Griffey saga last week, and the subject turned to Hanson. Jones was practically salivating. Jones said that he wanted Hanson to dominate in spring training so management would have no choice but to keep him in the major leagues, because he feels he’s one of the five best arms on the team right now.

“He’s probably got the best stuff of anybody in this clubhouse,” Jones said. “[He throws] 93-94 with good movement. Great slider. You’re talking about a kid that young who can command four pitches. To do what he did in the Arizona Fall League, which has never been done … pretty impressive kid.”

The reference was to Hanson’s showing in the AFL, which features the top prospects in baseball. He went 5-0 with a 0.63 ERA, striking out 49 in 28 2/3 innings, becoming the first pitcher ever named MVP. That’s on top of going 3-1 with a 0.90 ERA in Class A last year, earning a promotion to Class AA Mississippi, where he was 8-4, 3.03 with 114 strikeouts in 98 innings — and a no-hitter in his ninth Class AA start. That was just his second professional season, mind you.

“This kid is going to be the No. 1 starter in Atlanta soon,” Jones said. “There’s no holding him back. Even if you have to go to a six-man rotation to do it, I would do it. I, by no means, think Bobby would do that. I’m just saying, he’s that good.”

2) I had a long interview with Jim Riggleman in Viera, Florida. I posted much of what he said about Ichiro, but he also had some interesting revelations that I never got around to sharing. Remember when Riggleman yanked Jose Lopez out of the lineup in the middle of a game with the Rays? Turns out it stemmed from a stolen-base attempt in which he felt Lopez didn’t make enough of an effort to block the throw.

“Things had been building a little bit,” Riggleman said. “I had a meeting the night before about focus and bearing down. It’s a pet peeve of mine, always has been back to my days with the Cubs. The catcher throws to second, the ball goes into center field, the guy goes to third. The catcher’s pissed off, he gets an error, the runner goes to third, now a sac fly scores him.

“I know he could block that ball. I felt, I’m going to get his attention here. It’s like not running a ball out. Sometimes you just have to set the guy down, and that’s the only way you can get his attention. Whether it had any effect or not, I don’t know. He played good.”

And here’s Riggleman’s take on Erik Bedard:

“I felt it was just a matter of, he was hurt. I think he gave us what he could. When you’re arm’s hurt and you try to throw, it’s got to be a son of a bitch to try to compete like that. He tried, but he never expressed that to anybody, and all these negative things are built up, so by the time he can’t pitch…

“Again, he wouldn’t talk to you guys, and he didn’t say much to me or Mel (Stottlemyre) either. I didn’t have any particular feelings about it, other than, he’s an injured player, and we have to get that straightened out one way or another. It was going to be a difficult decision — do we tender him or not tender him? We were just going to have to get a good read on it, and it looks like he’s made a lot of progress.”

3) Remember Fernando Perez, who as a rookie made an impact in the postseason for the Tamap Bay Rays primarily as a pinch-runner (he scored the winning run against the Red Sox in Game 2 of the ALCS)? I had no idea, or at least I had forgotten, that he’s a graduate of Columbia University. I interviewed Perez at Rays’ camp in Port Charlotte and discovered he was every bit as articulate as you’d expect an Ivy Leaguer to be. Here’s what he said about the difference between last season and this year for the Rays:

“Last year in camp, we casually spoke about imperatives, and tried to brand ourselves with rhetoric. We’re doing the same thing this year, but we have the precedent of it working this year.”

OK, it’s not Winston Churchill, but it’s a cut above what you usually get in a major-league clubhouse. Perez, who wasn’t called up to the major leagues until Sept. 5, is well aware of how flukey his post-season run was. Perez was standing on second base, representing the tying run, when the Phillies wrapped up the World Series in Game 5.

“I felt extraordinarily lucky to be on this team last year,” he said. “From my point of view, I’ve already had an illustrative career, and I’ve had 60 at-bats in the major leagues. I try to keep myself hungry. Just because I was the last person on the field when we lost the World Series, doesn’t mean anything. I still have fight to make this team.”

I pointed out that a Hall of Famer like Ernie Banks never played in a single post-season game.

“And I have 60 at-bats and I waltz in. There’s a lot about this game that’s being in the right place at the right time. For me, that was an over-hackneyed little idea that your preparation and luck is meeting. That was a really great example of that: With a lot of hard work and luck you might find yourself in the World Series.”

4, I was surprised to see former Mariners’ pitcher Eric O’Flaherty in the Braves’ clubhouse. I guess I had forgotten that the Braves snapped him up when the Mariners took him off their 40-man roster in November. They like him a lot, and O’Flaherty may have a chance to make the team as a left-handed setup guy. He just wants to forget last year, when the Mariners envisioned him being a key late-inning reliever, and O’Flaherty self-destructed, putting up a 20.25 ERA in seven games before heading off to Tacoma, never to be seen again. erico.jpg

“Anytime you have a year like I did last year, it’s nice to go somewhere and get a fresh start,” he said. “Everyone has treated me really well. I feel welcome and appreciated here. I’m just looking forward to having an opportunity to make the team.”

Here’s O’Flaherty’s take on what went wrong in 2008: “I tried so hard to make the team out of spring, I didn’t really work on locating my fastball in the spring. I was throwing 2-0 sliders the first week of spring instead of just locating my fastball and working on that. That might be something I’ll do during the season, but I really didn’t have good fastball command when I started the season, and I had to resort to a lot of off-speed stuff.

“It came back to hurt me because guys figured out…they had faced me last year and knew I’d throw a slider any count. They were more ready for it last year. It just kind of hurt me not having fastball control. Not getting off to a good start, it kind of snowballed from there.”

The funny thing is, most people close to the Mariners believed O’Flaherty already had the team made coming into camp, but he never felt that way, he said.

“I felt like it was up in the air. I was going to do whatever I had to to make it. Had they told me right away, the first couple of weeks of spring, you’re definitely making the team, I might have taken a step back. But until you know…when you’re in that position where you’re an up and down guy, and you’re in a position to make the team, you’re going to do everything you can to do it.”

In Tacoma, things just got worse.

“I hurt my back,” he said. “My back flared up actually in spring training. I had some history with it, so I thought it was regular flareup. It was off and on until June, when I had a bad flareup. It kind of went out on me. I took some time off, and based on how the season was going, they just said be ready for next year, don[‘t push it. That was it for the season. I shhut it down, did my rehab, did some bullpens in Seattle in November.

“I think I was leaving Safeco from a workout. I turned on my phone and I had like six voice mails. In the morning. I’m like, all right, these aren’t my buddies. Something bad has happened.”

He was right: the Mariners had taken him off their 40-man roster on Nov. 20 to clear room for the Rule 5 draft. It was one of the first roster moves executed by new GM Jack Zduriencik.

“I knew anything could happen after a year like that. A year like that plus an injury, that’s a pretty bad recipe for not keeping your stock high. But I’m happy now and I feel good and I’m ready to go. The Braves were the second or third team in the (claiming) order. The Mariners took me off, and that day the Braves claimed me. It’s nice someone still believes in you. Bobby (Cox) told me when I came over that they tried to trade for me in ’07.”

O’Flaherty said he learned his lesson last spring.

“I’m taking the opposite route this year,” he said. “I’m trying to get ready for the season. I got a little too wrapped up in trying to make the team. This year, just make sure when the season starts, I’m ready to go.

“I made the team last year and it didn’t do me any good. This year, I don’t care if I start the first month or two in Triple-A, and when I get called up, I’m ready to perform. Or if I make the team, either way. I’m just going to try to be ready to go this year.”

I’ve got a few more tidbits, but this is getting long, so I’ll save them for another day.

(Photos by Associated Press)

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