ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.:
Some observations and hopes regarding the new season:
• Maybe Ubaldo Jimenez is starting to figure it out, just in time to avoid becoming the kind of free agent that nobody signs until late January.
Jimenez is in the last year of his contract with the Indians, unless both parties agree to exercise a mutual option clause, which is most unlikely. So it is probable that Jimenez will be free to sign with any club that chooses him, if the price is right. It won’t be right (for him) unless he turns around his awful season of 2012.
I know he has made only one start, but there was something at least semi-transformational about his workmanship.
He threw harder than usual, 94-95 miles per hour at times, which he seldom did last year. He commanded his secondary pitches and walked only two in six innings, and not once did Carlos Santana have to stroll to the mound for a conference. Pitcher and catcher seemed to stay on the same page, another significant difference from last season.
Maybe the time Jimenez has spent with pitching coach Mickey Callaway has been helpful. Maybe it’s a combination of factors, including Jimenez realizing that it’s time to make a contract drive.
On the negative side, Jimenez gave up a run immediately after the Tribe had taken a lead Wednesday against the Toronto Blue Jays, an annoying habit he developed into a fine art in 2012. Also, the run he gave up was a homer to Maicer Izturis, who had gone deep only 34 times in his nine-year career.
• Once a baseball addict, always a baseball addict. Don’t expect Indians manager Terry Francona to change.
“I took a year off to get perspective,” he said. “But I have no perspective. I love this, and who in their right mind. … I got up at 3:30 in the morning and had a sandwich. I tried to sleep but I couldn’t. That’s just the way it is. I don’t sleep much, but I nap.”
Francona wasn’t talking exclusively about the night before Opening Day. It’s like that for him every night.
“When we have an off day, and I don’t have to do anything, I hibernate,” he said. “I collapse for a day.”
Francona had other thoughts just before the start of the season opener.
“It hit me how much I like these guys [players],” he said. “And I don’t want to let Chris [Antonetti] down. That’s when I got nervous.”
• It occurred to me when Mark Reynolds homered in the 11th inning to win Wednesday’s game at Rogers Centre, I was watching a phenomenon that has been missing from Tribe lineups for at least 10 seasons.
Guys like Reynolds, Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana can alter the course of a game with one swing. Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall, Asdrubal Cabrera and Drew Stubbs can do the same thing but probably not as often, nor do pitchers regard their power as the kind that will ruin their day.
Power hitters are nice to have around, not only because of their penchant for hitting balls over the fence, but the way that skill can play out in the heads of opposing pitchers.
• The schedule had to be revamped to allow for the shift of the Houston Astros to the American League and the introduction of at least one interleague game every day of season, because there is an uneven number of teams (15) in each league.
Everybody complains about the schedule and with good reason. I know it is not a simple matter to integrate the desires of 30 different teams into a coherent plan, and maybe this year’s version is only a trial balloon. If so, someone should stick a pin in it.
Rivalry games — locally, between the Indians and Cincinnati Reds — have been reduced to two, two-game series, home and home, played in four consecutive days. Neither series will be played on a weekend, keeping thousands of Reds fans from visiting Progressive Field and grounding thousands of Northeast Ohio fans who planned to travel to Great American Ball Park.
In addition, there are six, two-game series, which the players hate and the Major League Players Association tried to get rid of several years ago. Now they are back.
For the Tribe’s marketing department, this year’s schedule is another disaster. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the Tribe’s biggest gate attractions, will visit Progressive Field in April, when the weather is cold and school is in session.
In only one mid-summer month, July, when it is warm and kids are out of school, do the Indians play more home games (16) than road games (9). The biggest draws for that month will be the Detroit Tigers and the Washington Nationals, who will come to Cleveland on weekends.
In June and August, the Tribe plays only 10 and 11 home games, respectively.
• Spring training usually means nothing in terms of forecasting player performances during the season.
But the way Michael Brantley attacked pitchers during exhibition season looked like the real thing to me. Brantley denies that he is bigger and stronger this year, but he looks bigger and stronger, maybe because his body has matured along with the mental agility it takes to play the game.
Brantley seems to have carried his spring training swing and aggressiveness into the regular schedule.
If this continues, he might change the negative perception of the CC Sabathia trade. Even when the deal was consummated, there were scouts who thought Brantley was the prized catch rather than Matt LaPorta, who was touted as the best prospect in the Milwaukee Brewers’ farm system.
I could be fooled by the small sample of games, but I think Brantley is headed for a breakout season.
• I calculated that I’ve spent something like 184 hours listening to the national anthem at the ballpark.
If someone ever produces a television series called American Idol: O Say Can You See Edition, I will be first in line at auditions for judges (because Idol misses Simon Cowell’s nastiness).
I have been told that most teams do not bring in would-be anthem singers to determine whether they can carry a tune or even if they know the words (unlike the Aeros). Since clubs don’t pay the “singers” and they’re only on the field for two minutes at most, why expend the effort?
Here’s why. Thousands of fans have to stand and listen to what often is a version of the anthem that gives patriotism and Francis Scott Key a bad name. Like my mother told me, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.
And who does it right? Progressive Field’s anthem singer of the decade: Danielle Danburg, wife of Curtis Danburg, the Indians’ senior director of communications.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.