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Thursday, May 23, 2024 at 8:01 AM
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PLAY BALL!

SPRINGTIME IS BASEBALL TIME IN SOUTHWEST FLORIDA
PLAY BALL!

The fall destination is unknown for the three Major League Baseball teams who will play their home spring training games in Southwest Florida in the weeks ahead. 

Their physical spring destinations are all well-known, however. The Atlanta Braves play in North Port. The Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins play in Fort Myers. The Tampa Bay Rays normally play at Charlotte Sports Park, but damage to that facility from Hurricane Ian forced them to move away for this year. They will play their Grapefruit League games at Tampa’s Tropicana Field. 

So, what is the ultimate destination for the Braves, Red Sox and Twins? Are they destined to get to the Fall Classic this coming, er, fall? No one knows just yet, but here for you in Destination SWFL, we preview each team.

Play ball!

RED SOX HOPE TO SPRING BACK AFTER FALL 2022

Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers at the plate. I LEE COUNTY VCB / COURTESY PHOTO

The 2022 Boston Red Sox season included a tumble from a bicycle by pitcher Chris Sale, a game where they allowed the most runs (28) in their 121-year history and a month (July) where they posted an 8-19 record. 

That’s not a formula for success by any metric, whether new-fangled analytics or old-fashioned, straight-forward math.

The result was a 78-84 record and a last-place finish in the powerhouse American League East where they ended up 21 games behind the division-champion New York Yankees. 

It was a stunning fall from 2021, when the Red Sox won 92 games and reached the American League Championship Series. 

Sale

It was the second last-place finish in three years for the Red Sox and came only four years after winning the 2018 World Series. Can the 2023 Red Sox return to the post-season? 

Or are they fated to founder once again in a division with the Yankees, a competitive Toronto Blue Jays, the always feisty Tampa Bay Rays and resurgent Baltimore Orioles? 

By the way, that 28-5 loss came against the Blue Jays. 

Speaking of offense… 

The 2022 Red Sox did not have anybody hit 30 homers or knock in 90 runs in a full season for the first time since 2012. Yet they were fourth in the league in runs scored, 735. 

Scoring runs wasn’t the issue. 

As is often the case with losing teams, the problems can be traced to pitching. The team earned-run average of 4.53 was the second worst in the American League. Only the Kansas City Royals at 4.70 were worse. 

The Sox were not good on the road or in close games. Juxtaposed to a 43-38 record at Fenway Park, they flopped 35-46 on the road. It didn’t help that they were 24-26 in one-run games. 

Then there was that 28-5 loss on July 22 — at home. Toronto’s Raimel Tapia hit an inside-the-park grand slam. 

That game and score were so bizarre that the Athletic’s Jayson Stark shared some statistical oddities: 

■ Even the NFL has never had a 28-5 score. 

■ The inside-the-park grand slam was the sixth in Fenway history. 

■ It was 14-0 in the fourth inning. 

■ Mr. Stark credited a friend of his named Doug Kern for pointing out the only other 28-5 score in Major League Baseball history came on Aug. 25, 1891. 

That July 22 game was part of a threegame stretch in which Boston also lost games 14-1 and 13-2. That’s 55-8 over those games. 

Fenway South is the Spring Training home of the Boston Red Sox. I LEE COUNTY VCB / COURTESY PHOTO

So, what about this year? 

A return to health for one-time ace Mr. Sale is likely critical if the Red Sox hope to contend. A former Florida Gulf Coast University standout, he has missed time in recent years because of a stress fracture in a rib, a broken pinkie finger when hit by a line drive and a broken wrist from the bicycle crash. He turns 34 on March 30. 

Although Mr. Sale is seemingly far removed from his prime, only two years ago he was 5-1 with a 3.16 ERA in 42 2/3 innings. If the lefty can stay healthy, perhaps he can once again be a horse in the Boston rotation. 

He should be atop the rotation somewhere ahead of Corey Kluber, who will turn 37 on April 10 when the Red Sox visit St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field to face the Rays. Mr. Kluber is a two-time Cy Young Award winner, in 2014 and 2017 when he was with Cleveland. He signed with Boston for one year at $10 million. 

The Red Sox have a new closer in Kenley Jansen. Although Mr. Jansen is 35, he is still a force out of the bullpen. In 2022 with the Atlanta Braves, the 6-foot-5 right-hander led the National League with 41 saves. He also led the league with 41 saves in 2017, when he was with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Mr. Jansen is second among active relievers in saves with 391 and is No. 8 all time. He signed a two-year, $32 million deal in December. 

Boston lost one of its most potent offensive weapons, shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who hit .307 and signed a free-agent deal with the San Diego Padres. 

Although Mr. Bogaerts departed for the other side of the continent, the Red Sox retain third baseman Rafael Devers. He did not come cheap. Mr. Devers, who led the team with 27 homers and 88 runs batted in, signed an 11-year, $331 million to stay in Boston. It’s the largest contract in team history. 

Trevor Story, who played shortstop for the Colorado Rockies from 2016 to 2021 but second base with Boston in 2022, was expected to slide over to the left side of the infield to his old position. 

That will not happen. At least anytime soon. Mr. Story had surgery on his right elbow on Jan. 10 and is expected to miss much of the season. 

In the middle of January, the Red Sox shortstop situation was murky. Who would be their everyday shortstop? Would it be a young prospect such as 20-year-old Marcelo Mayer, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2021 draft? 

Or would the Red Sox trade for a veteran or move second baseman Christian Arroyo over to play short? 

Other things were less murky. 

The Red Sox added veteran Justin Turner, who previously played for the Dodgers. Mr. Turner, 38, was another free agent nearer the end of his career than the start. He signed a one-year, $15 million deal with an option for 2024. He will likely be a designated hitter as well as play third base. 

An intriguing addition to the Red Sox roster is Japanese left fielder Masataka Yoshida, who could be the leadoff hitter. The Red Sox have a tradition of outstanding left fielders going back to Ted Williams. 

Nobody is comparing the 5-foot-8 Mr. Yoshida to legends of the game. But he hit .326 in seven seasons in Japan. The Red Sox signed him to a five-year, $90 million contract. 

Before cratering in last summer, the Red Sox looked as if they had a strong pulse. After going 14-14 in May, they romped to a 20-6 record in June. 

Then came July. 

Will the 2023 season be like June 2022? Or will it be like that next month? Stay tuned.

BRAVES AIM TO MAKE A RETURN TO BASEBALL’S TOP

Max Fried pitching for the Braves during the 2022 season. I ATLANTA BRAVES / COURTESY PHOTO

The beauty, magic and mystery of baseball can be summed up by the Atlanta Braves the past two seasons. 

In 2021, they compiled an 88-73 record, then sped to the world championship. 

In 2022, they improved dramatically in the regular season, going 101-61, then lost in the first round of the National League playoffs to the Philadelphia Phillies. 

One might assume a team that wins 101 games has a better post-season chance than one that wins 88. 

Never assume anything when it comes to baseball. 

Repeating as champions is hard, as everybody in baseball knows. It doesn’t matter that the 2022 Braves won 13 more regular-season games than the 2021 Braves. 

CoolToday Park, the Atlanta Braves’ Spring Training facility, is in North Port.  I COURTESY PHOTO

What matters is October. 

The Braves couldn’t pull off consecutive titles. They’ve never won back-to-back World Series, although coming close by winning it in 1957 and blowing a 3-1 Series lead the next year. 

It’s been nearly a quarter-century since a team won two straight. One must go back to the 1998-2000 New York Yankees to find a repeat champion. 

The last National League team to repeat was the Big Red Machine Cincinnati Reds of 1975-76. 

That should not diminish what the 2022 Braves achieved in winning their fifth consecutive National League East title. The 101 wins were the most by the Braves since 2003, when they also won 101. 

The Braves won at home (55-26) and on the road (46-35). 

They started slowly, going 23-27 through the end of May. 

But then they made a key move calling up outfield prospect Michael Harris in late May. 

Harris

They proceeded to reel off a 14-game winning streak in June that changed the arc of their season. They were 21-6 that month and followed that by going 18-8 in July, 18-10 in August and combined 21-10 in September and October. 

They hit all year. Atlanta’s 789 runs were second-most in the league to the 844 scored by the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Their team ERA of 3.46 was second-best in the league to the 2.80 of the Dodgers. 

By the way, the Dodgers won a franchiserecord 111 games in 2021 but they also foundered in the first round of the playoffs, losing to the San Diego Padres. 

It was a player born in 2001 who helped spark Atlanta’s 2022 turnaround. Mr. Harris made his big-league debut on May 28 and in 114 games hit .297 with 19 homers and 20 stolen bases and was named National League Rookie of the Year. 

Another rookie made a big contribution to the turnaround. That was right-handed pitcher Spencer Strider, who was 11-5 with a 2.67 earned-run average. Mr. Strider finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to his teammate in centerfield. 

Strider

Mr. Strider is part of a stout starting rotation headed by Max Fried and Kyle Wright, who were a combined 35-12 last year. Both pitchers are still in their 20s. 

Then comes 39-year-old Charlie Morton, who was 9-6 in 2022. 

A big hole could loom in the bullpen. Veteran closer Kenley Jansen led the National League last year with 41 saves but left the Braves for the Boston Red Sox. 

Veteran Raisel Iglesias may be the 2023 closer. In eight big-league seasons has 157 saves and a 3.00 ERA. 

Returning to the outfield. … 

Mr. Harris is flanked by left fielder Eddie Rosario and right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. Mr. Acuna missed half of the 2021 season after a knee injury but returned in 2022 and in 119 games hit .266 with 15 homers and 29 stolen bases. 

Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr I ATLANTA BRAVES / COURTESY PHOTO

Shortstop Dansby Swanson, who hit .277 with 25 homers and 96 runs batted in along with stellar defense, signed a free-agent contract with the Chicago Cubs. He had been a big part of Atlanta’s recent success. 

Now the Braves have another promising young player slated to take over at shortstop. That is Vaughn Grissom. 

The Braves have a new catcher in Sean Murphy, who was acquire in an off-season trade with the Oakland A’s. 

Corner infielders Matt Olson at first and Austin Riley at third return. Mr. Olson is as sturdy a player as one can find. He played all 162 games last year and hit .240 with 34 homers and 103 RBI. 

Speaking of sturdy, Riley is 6-3, 240 pounds, played in 159 games last year and belted 38 homers. 

Second baseman Ozzie Albies isn’t as imposing as Mr. Riley, but the 5-foot-8 veteran is entering his seventh big league season and is still only 26. A broken left foot and broken right pinky last year limited him to 64 games. 

Designated hitter duties may be split between Marcell Ozuna and Orlando Arcia.

The Braves are still in the tough National League East. Winning 100 games or 90 is a challenge. 

The defending National League champion Phillies and big-budget New York Mets pose formidable challenges in the division.

But Phillies and Mets fans know Atlanta poses a challenge to their championship hopes as well. 

After all, the Braves won 101 games a year ago and are only two years removed from winning a World Series.

TWINS PLAN TO RIDE CORREA TO ANCIENT WINNING WAYS

Carlos Correa returns to the Twins after signing a six-year deal. LEE COUNTY VCB / COURTESY PHOTO

The Minnesota Twins last won a game the final day of the 2022 season. It was Oct. 5 when they beat the Chicago White Sox 10-1 at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago. 

Twins starting shortstop Carlos Correa did not play that day and seemed destined to never again wear a Twin Cities cap. 

That’s because one of the biggest off-season baseball stories had Mr. Correa leaving Minneapolis. It had nothing to do with a game or score or hits or errors. Between Oct. 5 and early January, it seemed all but guaranteed that Mr. Correa would sign with another team. 

The San Francisco Giants tendered a 13-year, $350 million offer. He seemed headed west until he failed the physical. 

The New York Mets then offered a 12-year, $315 million deal. He seemed headed east until they also passed on his old ankle injury. 

So, Mr. Correa returns to the Twins after signing a six-year deal for a “mere” $200 million. 

His staying put in Minnesota puts a more positive spin on the team’s 2023 outlook. 

Mr. Correa, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 Major League Baseball draft, hit .291 with 22 homers in 136 games last year. The two-time All-Star is also an elite defender who won a Gold Glove in 2021, his final year with Houston Astros.

From the outside, his initial deal with the Twins for the 2022 season had the look of a rent-a-shortstop situation. 

Not now. Maybe he’s the piece that will return the franchise to elite status. 

Not to put too fine a perspective on the Twins’ World Series drought, but only five members of the current 40-man roster were born when they last won it. 

That was in 1991. The Twins have certainly been competitive, with divisional titles in 2009, 2010, 2019 and 2020. 

But it’s now 32 years since beating the Atlanta Braves in a seven-game World Series. That was also the first year the Twins trained at the Lee County Sports Complex. 

The Minnesota Twins Spring Training home is Hammond Stadium at the Lee County Sports Complex. I LEE COUNTY VCB / COURTESY PHOTOS

The 2022 Twins shared something with their cross-town Fort Myers spring training friends, the Boston Red Sox. Both teams were 78-84 and did not reach the postseason. 

The Twins’ last world title time was so long ago, we had no social media or Google or Twitter or streaming services. “The Silence of the Lambs” was a hot new movie. “Murphy Brown” was a popular TV show. Football legend Red Grange died, and future baseball legend Mike Trout was born. 

Stars of the 1991 team such as Kent Hrbek, Jack Morris and Rick Aguilera are now in their 60s. 

Kirby Puckett was the best player on the 1991 team. He died in 2006 at age 45 from a stroke. 

Minnesota’s current centerfielder is Byron Buxton, a breathtaking talent when healthy. Alas, Mr. Buxton has been hampered by injuries his entire career. He played in 92 games last year and hit 28 homers. In eight big league seasons he’s had only one season when he played more than 92 games. That’s when he played in 140 games in 2017. 

Twins pitchers certainly hope he is 100% and available for 140 or more games to cover centerfield like few ballplayers can.

The starting pitching lines up with a suddenly new look, thanks to the January acquisition of Pablo Lopez. The former Marlin joins Sonny Gray, Tyler Mahle, Kenta Maeda, Joe Ryan and maybe Bailey Ober in the rotation. Mr. Ryan was 13-8 with a 3.55 earned-run average last year. 

Jorge Lopez is listed as the closer. 

Pablo Lopez moved north in a trade for Luis Arraez, fresh off the American League batting title. 

Who replaces him at first base? Joey Gallo. 

He split time last year between two of the biggest payroll teams, the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers. Mr. Gallo may be the classic example of a Three True Outcomes player — homer, strikeout or walk. He is a career .199 hitter with 177 homers. In 2022, he hit .160 with 19 homers, 163 strikeouts and 56 walks. He played 65 games at first in 2022. 

At least he stands 6-foot-5, in keeping with Twins tradition. Here’s how Minnesota first basemen have stood this century: 
Miguel Sano, 6-4 
C.J. Cron, 6-4 
Joe Mauer, 6-5 
Justin Morneau, 6-4 
Michael Cuddyer, 6-2 
Doug Mientkiewicz, 6-2 

Rounding out the infield will be second baseman Jorge Polanco and third baseman Jose Miranda, who is a cousin of Broadway legend Lin-Manuel Miranda. 

Flanking Mr. Buxton in the outfielder will be speedy Nick Gordon in left and Max Kepler in right — if he’s not traded. 

DH duties may be shared by a few players. 

So, will the 2023 Twins return to October? 

The 2022 Twins looked for a while as if they were in the hunt for a playoff berth. 

That was before a late-season collapse doomed their shot at even a .500 record. They were 10-18 in September and 1-4 in October. That’s 11-22 in the final weeks. 

If they managed to go 17-13 in their final 33 games, they could have reversed their record from 78-84 to 84-78. 

But it didn’t happen. 

Maybe better things are coming in 2023. 


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