GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Taking in the battle for Ohio, where the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds share Goodyear Stadium, a park located somewhere between Phoenix and Los Angeles. Maybe this was a World Series preview. Or maybe it wasn't. Some thoughts ...
1. Danny Salazar: Still electric, still enigmatic
I think I had Salazar on my list of potential breakout candidates, and that's still possible, but he grooves too many pitches and doesn't make good pitches when he has to. In the first inning, Todd Frazier whipped a 2-1 fastball on a screaming line to the hill behind the left-field bullpens. In the second inning, Salazar fell behind 3-0 to Devin Mesoraco, then got two swinging strikes, and then Mesoraco hit one out to left-center. Later in the frame, Billy Hamilton jumped on the first pitch and lined an RBI double to right field. On the next pitch, Joey Votto lined a two-run single. It just seemed like a complete lack of focus.
After the game, Salazar said he struggled with his release point, which led to too many fastballs down the middle. Major leaguers hit fastballs down the middle, even ones that are 95 mph. Salazar acts like he can throw it by everyone, and he often does but also often doesn't. He also hit two batters, threw several sliders in the dirt, including at least one that bounced in front of the plate, and slumped off the mound after each half-inning. Yan Gomes constantly tried to offer encouragement with pats on the chest and the like, but Salazar left the game after allowing seven runs in 3.1 innings. The bottom line: Good pitchers figure out a way to survive when they don't have their best stuff. Salazar has to figure out how to do that. Until he gains more consistency, especially with his slider (batters slugged .600 against it the past season), he might continue to put up a reverse platoon split and be forced too often to rely on his fastball.
2. Billy Hamilton: Impact player?
He hasn't done a whole lot this spring, hitting .207 after going 2-for-4 on Thursday, but we're talking about 29 at-bats -- a sample size that doesn't tell us anything. He struck out twice against the Indians but had just one strikeout entering the game. Besides the hard-hit double, he made a fantastic, diving catch on Lonnie Chisenhall's liner in the second and showcased the defense that earned high grades the past season. Anyway, what to expect in the regular season? The Reds have talked about keeping Hamilton stronger after he wore down in the second half last year, so I assume we'll see a few more off-days. I do think there's more potential in the bat than the .250/.292/.355 line he put up last year. I don't think he'll be a lot better, but I think he'll be better.
3. Cincinnati lineup might be OK
If Hamilton can do a better job getting on base, this lineup could surprise:
1B Joey Votto
3B Todd Frazier
RF Jay Bruce
C Devin Mesoraco
LF Marlon Byrd
SS Zack Cozart
Votto has one bad, injury-plagued year, and it's like we forgot that from 2009 to 2013, he hit .300 with an OBP over .400 every season and led the NL in on-base percentage four straight years. Bruce played through the bad knee last year and was terrible. Phillips missed time. Byrd is getting up there in age but has been productive. Anyway, everyone seems to be predicting the Reds and Milwaukee Brewers battling for fourth and fifth, and I've seen references calling the Reds awful, but it's not that difficult to paint a positive scenario when you have an ace in Johnny Cueto, maybe the game's best closer in Aroldis Chapman and potentially one of the game's best hitters in Votto.
4. Note: Votto hitting second
Great move by Bryan Price. Studies show your best hitter should bat second, though no teams do this. Plus, more runners on base for Phillips to drive in!
5. Michael Lorenzen needs more time in minors
Keith Law's No. 4 prospect on the Reds, Lorenzen was a first-round supplemental pick out of Cal State-Fullerton, where he played center field and closed. He's obviously athletic, and the Reds had him start the past season in Double-A, where he allowed 112 hits in 121 innings with 44 walks and 84 strikeouts. He's in the hunt for a long relief role, and I did like how he settled down after giving up several hard-hit balls in the first inning. But he had no strikeouts in three innings and has more walks than K's on the spring -- in line with the past year's mediocre strikeout rate in the minors. He's a nice talent, and the fastball can reportedly get up to 97 mph in relief, but I'd think he goes to Triple-A and continues working as a starter, rather than in the big league bullpen.
6. No Francisco Lindor
The Indians' 21-year-old shortstop -- Keith's No. 6 prospect in the majors -- was sent down to minor league camp Thursday morning, even though he had played well, hit .297 with six extra-base hits and impressed manager Terry Francona. "He had a great camp," Francona told reporters. "I don't just mean his batting average. We enjoy so much seeing guys do well, but the way he conducted himself and the way he played defense and the way he worked."
If he plays well in Triple-A, Lindor should get called up in June or July, though Francona said he'll have to earn his way to the majors. Until then, shortstop is in the capable hands of Jose Ramirez, who hit .262/.300/.362 as a rookie (and is just 22 years old). But expect Lindor to be up by the All-Star break.
7. Michael Bourn's legs
Similar to the case of Hamilton and the Reds, the Indians really need Bourn to set the table from the leadoff spot. He went 2-for-3 Thursday and is hitting .400 this spring. He spent the winter working with gold medal sprinter Leroy Burrell, the head track coach at the University of Houston, to keep his hamstrings healthy this year.
Outfield defense was a big problem with Cleveland last year; the Indians ranked 29th in the majors with -37 Defensive Runs Saved. David Murphy was the biggest culprit at -17 DRS; he was the DH on Thursday, with Brandon Moss in right field. Bourn was -6 runs in center field and Michael Brantley -3 in left. If Bourn's legs go sour again, the Indians would either have to move Brantley to center and play Murphy more in the outfield or consider playing defensive specialist Tyler Holt. Moss is OK at best in right field and is coming off hip surgery. It all adds up to Bourn being a pretty important player, on both sides of the ball.
8. Jason Kipnis, back in action
After playing a minor league game Wednesday, he played his first Cactus League game since March 17. He had a line-drive single in the first and later made a nice, diving stop and assist in the field. Kipnis is another huge key for the Indians. He played through injuries in 2014 and saw his WAR drop from 5.9 to 0.9. An extra three to four wins from him could be the difference between making the postseason and crushing that Sports Illustrated cover jinx.
9. Potential sleeper: Anthony DeSclafani
I'm actually cheating here: He pitched Wednesday night against an admittedly weak Texas Rangers lineup, but he looked good, with six scoreless innings that included nine strikeouts. The Reds got him from the Florida Marlins for Mat Latos, and if you ask me which guy I'd rather have for 2015, the answer is DeSclafani (especially with Latos looking terrible in Florida). There's nothing fancy about DeSclafani, but he throws strikes and will benefit from the good up-the-middle defense of Phillips, Cozart and Hamilton. I think he'll be a solid enough back-end starter.
10. Cactus League inequities
One thing a tour of Arizona shows: the big gap in income equality. While the Chicago Cubs are setting Cactus League attendance records of 15,000-plus per game at their new park in Mesa, the San Francisco Giants pack it in in Scottsdale, despite obscenely high ticket prices, and the Los Angeles Dodgers do well in Glendale, the Reds and Indians drew just 4,183 fans, even though both teams were at their "home" park.
The Indians have a long Cactus League history, going back to the days in Tucson, but the Reds had trained in Florida until Goodyear built its $108 million complex that opened in 2009 to lure in the Indians and Reds. I don't know if that's a factor; the crowd seemed pretty evenly split on this day. Goodyear is located about 20 miles west of downtown Phoenix, a bit of a crawl from the more glamorous destinations of Tempe and Scottsdale, so you're always less likely to pull in the fans who just like to come down to spring training to catch any game (though they should head out here, where they can get seats at much cheaper prices than a Cubs or Giants game). It's a great spring training ballpark, but all the empty seats I see here -- or the empty seats in Maryvale for the Brewers -- just highlight another revenue stream the smaller market teams can't capitalize on.
Oh, the Reds won 13-2. I think. They just turned off the scoreboard.