Ah, spring training. Endless strip malls in Viera, Fla. Eight-pound fish lurking in murky ponds around Space Coast Stadium. Fourteen-pitcher games that transform scorecards into hieroglyphs. Sunscreen smeared on pasty white legs of visitors from up north. Road trips across the state past the Jesus Miracle Chapel and Reptile World.
And hope, spilling through the Grapefruit League like an overturned tub of Gatorade. Everyone feels, well, good. Everyone is in The Best Shape of Their Life. Good feelings are unbridled (well, save for the M*A*S*H unit that’s become New York Yankees camp). Even Bo Porter, new manager of the hapless Houston Astros, who are expected to lose 100 games for the third straight season, refuses to use that awful rebuilding word and fires grins in every direction.
Spring’s promise extends inside the cramped clubhouse the Washington Nationals call home. Near bags of Bisquick piled in the makeshift kitchen that serves breakfast each morning sits Anthony Rendon’s locker.
The quiet spot, at least when there’s not a World Baseball Classic game on the nearby big-screen television, belies the obsessive interest in his right-handed swing that looks as if it could deliver a future batting title.
Sure the infielder is talented, gifted, whatever adjective you want to heap on his slender frame. Baseball America’s No. 30 prospect ripped up the Arizona Fall League and already smacked three home runs in 27 at-bats this spring.
The hyperventilating that has followed acts as if Rendon has already arrived.
But how quickly we forget he is just 22 years old with 133 professional at-bats to his credit, thanks to last season’s serious ankle injury.
Those are easy numbers to shove aside when our relentless search for the Next Big Thing collides with spring’s relentless optimism. The spew of hyperbole neglects the deep and experienced roster that also occupies that Nationals’ clubhouse, the group that, you may remember, rolled up baseball’s best record in 2012 and is a trendy World Series pick this time around. There isn’t a home here for Rendon yet.
But we’re suckers for potential, even if it that comes at the expense of the known quantity in front of us. The same phenomenon accompanies college football recruiting, where the speculation about a 17-year-old’s university choice can dwarf what actually happens on the field during fall Saturdays.
Gratification is instant and patience is an obstacle these days, but that’s not how you develop baseball players. At least not in successful organizations.
Manager Davey Johnson is effusive in his praise of Rendon. Even hits him No. 3 sometimes. Joked that Ryan Zimmerman wondered if Rendon could play a position other than third base. Johnson is just as adamant Rendon won’t make the team. No chance. A start with the Double-A Harrisburg Senators is more likely.
The manager isn’t averse to pushing prospects. Go back to his campaign last spring for Bryce Harper to make the team. That didn’t happen until late April, but the point remains. Even Harper managed 536 minor league at-bats before moving to Washington.
While Harper is a generational (or multigenerational) talent, Rendon is a different player in a different situation. There’s no infield vacancy on a team with few, if any, glaring weaknesses. There’s no reason to rush an inexperienced player who needs to prove he can remain healthy for a full season. Rendon’s mistakes, of course, don’t draw the same breathless excitement as his smooth-swinging home runs. Not the base-running gaffe in Kissimmee or the ball that trickled under his glove in Viera. He’s still learning.
And spring isn’t exactly a harbinger of future success. Last spring Munenori Kawasaki led the American League in hitting. Yes, Munenori Kawasaki. That amounted to a .192 average during the regular season. Or back in 2011, Jake Fox smacked 10 home runs during the spring and has had exactly 61 big league at-bats since.