JUPITER, Fla.—The Marlins and Astros are coming off last place seasons, two teams promising ticket customers and media partners that they can see clearly, now, and yesterday, when the winds and the rains blew out into the Atlantic, the sun came out for a hot, clear East Coast Florida day.
It was, in many ways, the sort of spring training game one wants every day. Because of Giancarlo Stanton, at 24, potentially one of the great sluggers in the game, a free agent three years from now, a figure that because of his power and his fearless right field defense and thoughtful, civil earnest persona is one of those men every team wants as its face, especially the Marlins, for whom his longterm future is vital to Miami’s longterm acceptance of an ownership that—fairly or unfairly– has the image of a Bahamian registered yacht.
Because of George Springer, soon to be the here-go-face speed/power/energy poster boy of the new Astros (even though he was drafted in 2011 by the former management), also in the starting lineup.
Because of Carlos Correa, 19, the first pick in the 2012 draft, growing past 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds and blossoming in the major league environment of spring training so much that one veteran scout guarantees “that when this season is over, he will be the number one prospect in the game.”
For those of us who not only enjoy the skills and competitiveness of baseball players, but enjoy the who as much as the what, these are three people MLB should be promoting along with Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, Jose Fernandez, Clayton Kershaw and several others as the present and future of baseball, zigging away from discounting the current product by the sport’s obsession with a past that too often is found in bookstores under Non-Fiction, especially when one realizes how few people under the age of 19 can be found in bookstores.
Stanton is a story in that every major market writer and national analyst wants to guess where he’ll be playing in 2015, with a national assumption that if the Marlins cannot sign him, he will be traded with two years of service time for three top prospects and the Island of Jost Van Dyke. This spring he has said all the right things, and the words “I have a very good feeling that we are headed in the right direction.” He means it. The Marlins have added several veteran players who take can a load off Stanton, like Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Garrett Jones, Rafael Furcal and Reed Johnson. They will be trotting out close to 10 starters between AA, AAA and A1A that throw in the high 90’s. When they did his contract renewal, instead of nailing him, as in the past, they added a healthy incentive for 600 plate appearances; hey, if Giancarlo gets 600 plate appearances, they’ll get their money back, many times over.
After leading the National League in homers and slugging in 2012, Stanton was limited to 116 games in 2013. In the off-season, he worked hard on conditioning, stretching, flexibility and agility exercises, and hopes that keeps him on the field; at 24, there’s no reason he won’t. “No one,” says Baseball Operations Pres. Mike Hill, “is going to work harder. No one is going to care more. “
“I didn’t know what to expect when I signed here, all I knew was that Giancarlo is one of the most incredible figures in the game,” says Saltalamacchia. “It turns out he’s very quiet, very humble and a workaholic. I think the young players who are in camp look at him and think, ‘that’s the way a big league star is supposed to act.’ That really means something to a developing team.”
Stanton has had a good spring (.350 OB, .961 OPS) as he hones his swing. Tuesday, after the Public Address announcer introduced him as “number 27, Jeff Baker” (are you kidding? The guy’s close to the best player in the history of the franchise), Giancarlo hit a home run that was somewhere between 450 and 475 feet.
Granted, the Jupiter park is a neutral site between the Cardinals and Marlins, but, ok, he’s not Lebron James, but Giancarlo Stanton should be the guy they pay to see. He’s great about the optimism, and, honestly, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen. “How would I know?” he says. “There’s nothing to say right now. There’s no story. I’m playing this season the best way I know. I want us to do well.” He gets asked about being pitched around, and gently says, “let’s let the season play out. Let all of us play.”
In reality, Stanton likes Miami. But he also loves to win. When the Marlins were in Panama, he got a taste of the energy that surrounds the Yankees. “It’s hard when a lot of nights there are less than 10,000 fans in the park and most of them are rooting against us,” says one teammate. “We all know how badly Giancarlo cares. But this franchise has to show it can win, and the city has to get into it.”
In a market that has been burned, the fans and the media have to believe in ownership’s authenticity. Can it happen by the first of November? That isn’t in Stanton’s control.
We all know Stanton could have gone to USC as, at worst, a hybrid H-back, with the academics and personal skill sets to have succeeded in any university environment. In many ways, Springer, born seven weeks after Stanton, could have gone the football route. He is 6-2, with explosive speed and agility that traces to his mother’s insistence that he train in gymnastics as a child. The son of a prominent Connecticut attorney, Springer attended Avon Old Farms School—best known for the Juan Nieves/Brian Leetch duo in the 1980s—and the University of Connecticut (where three of his teammates—Matt Barnes, Mike Olt and Nick Ahmed—will also probably play in the big leagues this season). If someone made a movie about the St. Grottlesex New England preppies, Springer could be cast in the lead, or the cover boy for GQ and a Brooks Brothers catalogue. He is soft-spoken, highly intelligent, and scary-skilled.
In his second full pro season, Springer rose to AA, hitting 37 homers and stealing 44 bases. Critics have pointed to his 161 strikeouts. “How about the .411 on base percentage and potential gold glove defense,” mocks one rival pro scouting director. “He can be an impact player for the next eight years.” He will begin the season in the minors because of the Super Two shadow, but Springer gets that.
In three minor league seasons, his on base percentage has risen from .303 to .383 to .411, his OPS from .696 to .908 to 1.010. “This game is a about learning, and learning to make adjustments,” says Springer. “I am still learning about going deeper in counts, in walking more, but there may come a point where (as Trout has said) I have to go back and be more aggressive in counts. I feel I have learned a lot this spring, because I’m facing major league pitchers. This is an educational process. I’ve worked hard at at-bats, at seeing pitches, in being disciplined.” The spring totals of 8 walks and 10 strikeouts reflect his understanding of how he deals with those adjustments.
Finally, there is Correa. “Spring training with the major league team is pretty good,” he says. This is a person with unusual poise. The morning of the 2012 draft, we had breakfast at the Secaucus Embassy Suites, and as a 17-year old, the only comparable teenager I could think of in terms of looking one in the eye and conversation was Stanton; hmmm…their mothers each grew up in the same neighborhood in Ponce, Puerto Rico and Correa’s brother is named Giancarlo…
Carlos Correa graduated from the Puerto Rican Academy first in his class. The story goes that his SAT score was 1560, which he denies, saying it was really around 1360—and he was graduating at 17, a year early. Last week, when the Astros had a ceremony honoring their Midwest League champions in Kissimmee, Correa asked to say a few words and spoke for all his teammates. He speaks fluently in two languages. His coaches point out that he is very serious about his diet (no red meat), does not drink, is the first player to the park every morning and the last to leave the weight room each night. “He is beyond belief,” says hitting coach John Mallee, who was Stanton’s mentor with the Marlins.
Tuesday, after his round of batting practice, Correa asked manager Bo Porter if there were anything he should know about his approach in the field, off the field or in the cage. “Anything you think I need to know, I want to hear,” Correa told his manager. “This was the first pick in the whole draft less than two years ago, and that’s the way he thinks,” said Porter.
In 117 games in the Midwest League last season, Correa had 33 doubles and 9 homers at the age when most 18-year olds are seniors in high school. He also made only 15 errors for the whole season.
“Carlos never has looked out of place against veteran big leaguers,” says Porter. “He plays like he should be here.”
Correa will not be going to Houston to open the season. He will start way down the line.
But it will not be long before he is the Astros shortstop, sharing the lights with Springer. And about then, when Stanton is making a run at 60 homers, this is a day we’ll remember, a day well spent with baseball and the best of the people who play it.