Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ah, the dog days of spring

Bored players sleepwalk through seven weeks of camp

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PHOENIX -- Snow fell on the Valley of the Sun shortly after the major leaguers arrived in February, covering the cacti and turning the Diamondbacks' diamond white. Hefty hailstones pelted the Giants' cars in Scottsdale, and freezing winds howled outside the Dodgers' clubhouse in Glendale.

Crazy things can happen when spring training starts before spring.

With the latest World Baseball Classic taking dozens of players away from their teams in March, the majors again supersized their annual rite of renewal, adding a seventh week to spring training. Teams reported several days earlier than usual, and they began exhibition play well before the February calendar flipped to March.

All of this extra time in camp is a blessing to some, a monotonous annoyance to others -- and there's still a month to go.

"I can't believe we're already playing games," new Dodgers right-hander Zack Greinke said last week. "I feel like we just got to spring training. If we just pace ourselves out, it'll be fine. But it's definitely different. I don't know what I think about it yet."

This early start has led to unusual occurrences, whether it's that freak Cactus League snowstorm or Grapefruit League lineups loaded with minor leaguers and fringe prospects for much of February. Since many stars sitting out the WBC don't want to peak too soon in their preseason preparation, they've got extra time to spend working on their golf swings, playing clubhouse pingpong or idly counting the days until March 31, when the Rangers and Astros open the regular season.

"Everyone knows that spring training is at least a week too long, and probably two weeks too long just on a regular basis," said Texas slugger Lance Berkman, who skipped the first week of games to avoid starting too soon on his injured calf. "And this year it's even longer than that."

Indeed, the Dodgers will play a head-scratching 40 exhibition games this spring. The San Diego Padres are setting a franchise record with 38 games, and several other teams are clocking in with similar numbers.

Managers have worked out detailed plans to pace their teams for the long haul to opening day. Many players are voluntarily holding back on their normal spring routines, particularly when they're coming back from injuries or off-season surgery.

"Basically it's a week longer," Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke said. "So those guys, it's usually the last week or two of spring where we're having the boredom, and those regulars want to start the season ... and now you've got to add another week onto that."

But that's leaving fans holding tickets to spring games featuring watered-down lineups with almost no recognizable names. For instance, the Angels' split-squad roster for its spring opener against the Giants had maybe one player with a chance to make the major league team -- and certainly not Albert Pujols, who won't play until mid-March to give extra rest to his surgically repaired right knee.

While the Dodgers put Clayton Kershaw and Greinke into their first two exhibition games, the Angels, White Sox, Royals, Orioles and several other teams held back their starting pitchers for the first week or more, trying to keep their rotations on their typical ramp-up to opening day.

"If you think about it, it's basically a quarter of a full season in training camp," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who kept Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and his other three starters on the shelf. "I think it's counterproductive. It's kind of a softer spring in how you're going to step up. We've got more time, and we're going to take advantage of that. If we got to them earlier, it might ruin their edge for opening day."

Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte acknowledges the long spring schedule changed his approach.

"It's slowed me down in a big way," the 40-year-old said. "It's a long spring training, so they give a few days off in between my bullpens, stuff like that. You've got so much time down here, it's like, 'Why rush?' We work backwards. You work from the opening day of the season and figure out what you need. It's definitely impacted me."

Others are grateful for every extra week. Players returning from injury or surgery -- everybody from Pujols and Detroit's Max Scherzer to the Yankees' Mariano Rivera and C.C. Sabathia -- have all the time they need to get closer to full strength.

"We don't want them to start too many games down here, because then you're using innings that you would use during the season," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who's limiting Sabathia in his return from elbow surgery. "You can control their pitch count easy. The key is to get them built up and just ready for the season."

And the teams that played deep into October last fall welcomed the extra time in spring. With a shorter off-season after sweeping the Tigers in the World Series last fall, many San Francisco Giants didn't get as much work done during the winter, instead giving their bodies a needed break.

"I'm glad that spring training (started) earlier so we can make sure these guys are ready," San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy said.

After the Tigers' second straight trip to the post-season, manager Jim Leyland is balancing his concerns about Detroit's long seasons against the demands of a seven-week spring.

"We're not going to baby them, but we're not going to kill them, either," Leyland said.

Bochy thinks players who took part in winter ball had a head start going into spring training, particularly with a shorter gap between the dates when pitchers and catchers report and when position players arrive. Many pitchers had fewer bullpen sessions than normal before facing live hitting this spring.

Oakland manager Bob Melvin also planned spring training to account for the extra time, but the A's are more familiar with it than most teams. They opened with two games in Japan last season, forcing them to report early in 2012 as well, and Melvin knows how to make sure players are ready when needed.

"Some will be just be slower into games," Melvin said at the start of spring training. "So you might not see some our guys that were taxed a little more, certainly the relievers, in games early on."

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly thinks the extra-long schedule only exacerbates the baseball world's tendency to read too much into spring training. With so many games to play, particularly without the WBC-bound players, Mattingly knows many teams will be forced to use lineups and pitching combinations that won't matter much in the regular season.

Mattingly and Toronto manager John Gibbons both urged their fans not to worry about what happens in March -- and don't draw too many conclusions about what's waiting when these players finally escape the longest spring training of their lives.

"These are our guys, regardless of how their spring goes," Gibbons said of his starting pitchers. "When it's all said and done, even if a guy has a bad spring, there's a good chance he'll still be with us."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 3, 2013 B12

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