Rising ticket costs have made spring training a pricey endeavor https://t.co/M9UH2eqZnn— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) March 27, 2016
According to ESPN by way of Peter Gammons, spring training has gotten too corporate and pricey lately. This is, of course, a factually true statement, but not always. There's a spring training secret for those who can stand to leave the stars to the crowds for a few days and explore the back fields. The minor league complexes are abuzz in activity, and anyone can take in as much baseball as they can stand for absolutely FREE (except at the Dbacks/Rox and their snazzy Salt River complex, they charged me $5 for parking).
Now where was I? Oh, yes. FREE I say FREE!
Last week, I managed to see eight Giants minor league spring training games as well as copious hours of BP and PFPs (pitcher fielding practice). And because I like to share the wealth, I brought back some shaky iPhone videos (minus my zoom extension because I forgot to pack the case it screws into, Arrrrgh!) for you all to enjoy, as well as a few scattered impressions of things I saw. Over the next few days I'll highlight a couple of players who caught my fancy in some way or another, as we gear up for the opening of the Minor Lines season.
It should be noted, first and foremost, that my time and attention was too brief and limited. There were many players I never saw at all. Ryder Jones and CJ Hinojosa were mere rumors to me. Because of the layout of the complex, I rarely saw the pitchers doing any actual pitching. So don't take the following as in any way an indication of who had great camps, or who's ahead of whom, or who's going where.
I should also say that I didn't go to the Giants camp in search of the next Matt Duffy or Kelby Tomlinson or to spy out any boxes of devil magic lying around. I doubtless wouldn't have recognized them anyway.
I went in search of thrills. Possibly, to explain this, I should say a couple of things first about myself. I grew up watching Giants baseball in the 1960s. I watched Willie Mays throughout the second half of his long glorious peak. And even as Willie's greatness began to decline I was given the dazzling Bobby Bonds to enjoy. To this day I think of Bonds' failure to hit that 40th HR in September of 1973 (and thus become baseball's first ever 40/40 man) as one of the truly bitter pills of my young Giants fandom, equal even to many of those "nearly was" team finishes.
The point being, I have a certain strand of baseball DNA in me that has almost nothing to do with winning and losing. I pine to root for Giants players who combine power and speed into one dazzling athletic package. Think Hunter Pence, if his movements were just slightly more human looking (I kid, of course, Pence is exactly the Giant for me, and keeps me well supplied with the thrills I need. Please stay off the DL this year, Hunter!).
Naturally, I take this proclivity with me in my prospect following, seeking not just the next youngster who will help the Giants win rings (rings, rings, rings!), but rather the next youngster whose style of play will dazzle me.
And not to spoil the ending, dazzled I was! So I give you, young Jalen Miller (middle):
I was happy when the Giants used their 3rd round pick on this Georgia high school shortstop who inspired Brandon Phillips comps (Phillips who once had a 30/30 year of his own, and many many 20/20 seasons). And then this winter, hearing Shane Turner talk about his bat speed ("this kid could probably hit 120 mph fastball") and the various prospect mavens extolling his athleticism, I'll admit I was well on my way to working up to fever pitch. Miller was high on my list of "Must Sees" for the trip.
I missed his BP on my first day, so my first view of him was in a game with the A ball squad, my attention divided as I also tried to take in Sam Coonrod's 4 inning start on the neighboring A+ field. Miller played 2b and batted second, both in deference to Lucius Fox (as he would in each of the three games I saw). His first AB he grounded out to 3b, but you could see the bat fly. He didn't look at first sight, very physical or imposing. He was somewhat slight, befitting a kid who just turned 19.
But his hands, my god! They just whipped that bat. I could see, even from a distance, what Turner meant. I wasn't sure from my view in the tent covered stands that he had the strength to really impact a ball once he hit it, but those hands were going to make sure that he could get to anything. Those hands were gonna play at higher levels. Then came the second at bat. Coonrod was doing just fine without my attention. I needed to see this. And it happened:
A rocket. That did it. I was head over prospecting heels. He COULD impact the ball. I'd see more of it over the next few days in his BP sessions. Not power, per se, but raw bat speed that could blister balls off the wall, over the wall. Those hands (and I later saw, the forearms that went with them) generated tremendous force. Line drives zipped every which way out of the cage. Right field. Center field. Left field and deep.
On my last day, talking with Conner Penfold, of Giant Potential fame, I played the camp vet and coolly nodded over at Miller coming to bat. "Go check Miller out, Conner. That's who you want to photograph." And right on cue, CRACK:
Standing here with @rog61 at Salt River. Jalen Miller rockets one over the LF fence. Strong hands, lightning bat speed— GIANT Potential (@giant_potential) March 26, 2016
Excellent excellent job of making me look super smart, Jalen. I appreciate that! I looked at Conner, who's mouth was agape. Yup, I nodded. That'll happen. It was like we were learning the password to some secret society.
And then the speed around the bases. I mean, it's not Lucius Fox (I'll get to Lucius later on), but the acceleration, the fire. Shane Turner had also said Miller could easily be a great CF, and watching him hit GO I saw it. I thought of Brian Sabean talking about his time coaching college ball: "We just got a bunch of SS and then played them all over the field." Get up the middle athletes and watch 'em play the game.
He was fast. He had juice in the bat. He was smooth running down a popup down the line and turning a DP. Could it be? Dare I think? A genuine potential for the power/speed/defense trifecta? Be still my heart. Let's watch some more!
It seems pretty likely to me that Jalen Miller will be heading to the South Atlantic League next week to begin his full season career. I don't know how he'll do there. I don't know if he'll struggle (as he did in rookie camp last summer) with pitch recognition, with the physical demands of daily pro ball, or if he'll thrive. I don't know how long his development journey is going to last or how smoothly it will go.
But I know there's an exciting young player here. I know if he ends up playing at AT&T one day, Jalen Miller's going to be fun to root for. There is more than a hint here, if less than a promise, of baseball thrills to come.