Finally, the White Sox will begin their spring schedule today. They'll face the Dodgers at 2:05 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on whitesox.com and 670 The Score. There's a whole schedule here and everything.
And with the games starting, it also means that it's the start of making too big a deal out of spring training numbers.
Granted, some players would be highly advised to post a respectable stat line -- for instance, anybody with a hope of grabbing an open bullpen spot, or Ozzie Martinez.
Even then, it's not necessarily imperative. Look at Jeff Gray last year. He was among many journeymen AAAA pitchers invited to spring training by the White Sox, and he didn't really show all that much in terms of results -- 12 hits, four walks and just four strikeouts over 9 1/3 innings, good for a 6.75 ERA.
But when the Sox decided a six-man bullpen wouldn't cut it, the Sox turned to Gray as the first man in. Don Cooper defended the decision thusly:
"We need another guy, and he was the guy chosen. He had a sideline two days ago, so he's ready to go … He threw the ball well and he had good stuff in spring training. He can give us innings."
Gray did just that, doing everything that was asked of him over six extended, low-leverage appearances. He performed well enough to get picked up the Mariners when the Sox designated him for assignment, and he was hilariously underutilized in Seattle the rest of the season.
In summary, Gray was a guy who would have been well served by a strong spring training. He failed in that respect, and yet he somehow earned a major-league salary for all but one week of the season. It's not the strongest example to live by, because Gray benefited from timing more than anything. Had he pitched the day before Milledge was DFA'd, the Sox probably would have tapped somebody else. But hey, athletes aren't role models.
It's not just that he had a flat spring (.244/.295/.390) while Lastings Milledge surged (.319/.421/.574), but I had the impression that De Aza wasn't connecting on other opportunities. For instance, while he might've gained Ozzie Points with the suicide squeeze on Monday night, he was still in the red, having botched two squeeze attempts earlier in the spring.
Other odd things piled up, too -- like a laughable throw, or hanging Ramon Castro out to dry by missing a hit-and-run sign, or ruining a Brent Lillibridge steal attempt with batter's interference. These gaffes may have been inconsequential for all I know, but they are the kind of mistakes that can help spoil an audition, especially when the rest of the competition is raising the bar.
In De Aza's case, poor spring numbers probably didn't cost him a roster spot. He was on the outside looking in because he had an option, so at the most, he might have gotten the Milledge treatment. Still, it probably would have helped if he made a stronger impression, because after he was cut, he was out of sight and mind for months. Maybe that wouldn't have resulted in a quicker promotion, especially watching the way the season played out, but it never hurts to have advocates.
Take Tyler Flowers, who gained internal support after raking at Camelback Ranch last season (.476/.542/.857 over 24 plate appearances). In his case, it wasn't so much that he tore up Cactus League pitching, but that he finally had a good spring for once. Ozzie Guillen, who had criticized Flowers' game in the past, noticed and praised him for his progress. When Flowers joined the Sox in July to replace Ramon Castro, Guillen turned into his biggest fan, which was a surprising turn of events.
Now, Flowers enters 2012 as the undisputed backup catcher, and the excellent spring most likely helped in a big way, because it probably would have been far more difficult for him to gain a foothold on the 25-man roster had he turned in another lackluster preseason.
We'll still pay some attention to spring training stats, because official or not, it's fun to have baseball results again. They just happen to be irrelevant for most major leaguers, and for players on the margins, they're not indicative of reliable progress.
It's better to think of spring stats as means to an end, which is building support. Flowers showed that great results never hurt, but players like Gray (or Phil Humber) can gain fans in the spring with poor numbers if they're at least doing what they're told. When a player fails to both post decent stats and execute basic baseball functions during an audition ... well, that could lead to a setback.