7 feel-good stories from Spring Training

February 28th, 2019

Spring Training arrives as an internuncio of idealism, a bearer of baseball’s buoyancy and hope.

And then, pretty much instantly, a necessary nip of reality sets in, in this case of the sore shoulders of Clayton Kershaw and Carlos Martinez and the sprained left knee of Jed Lowrie, among other maladies.

Our goal here and now is to not let the bummers counterbalance the beauty. There are great stories unfolding every day in these camps, stories that uplift and inspire and oblige us to believe that every little thing is gonna be all right.

Here are some of those stories that have unfolded in the early days of Spring Training.

1) Aaron Barrett’s long-awaited return to the Nationals

Everything we love about the perseverance of people and the concept of teams was right there on the Nationals’ mound and in their dugout in the fifth inning of their Grapefruit League opener against the Astros last Saturday.

Though it is customary for veteran players to log a few innings in these early days of the exhibition season and then bolt for the clubhouse or bus, Ryan Zimmerman asked the entire team to stick around until Barrett completed his one inning of relief. This was the 31-year-old Barrett’s first appearance with the Nats since Aug. 5, 2015. He spent a year rehabbing from Tommy John surgery only to break his right arm while throwing a pitch, an injury that wound up requiring another two years of rehab.

With a metal plate and screws in his elbow, Barrett, a non-roster invitee to Nats camp, has a long way to go before he’s in a proper big league game, but even getting to this point took a lot of patience and hard work and the effort deserved the support it received.

“Everybody sticking around to watch me pitch, it’s unbelievable,” Barrett told reporters. “I can’t really explain to you how much that means to me.”

That wasn’t even the only uplifting experience in Nationals camp in this first week of spring play. Former Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal, who had Tommy John surgery of his own in 2017, hit 100 mph on the radar gun in his first post-rehab appearance -- against his old club, no less. The Nats signed Rosenthal early in the Hot Stove season and have designs on giving him closing opportunities this season.

2-3) Leonys Martin and Danny Farquhar: From near-death to new life

Last April, Farquhar, a reliever for the White Sox, suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm -- a condition with a 40 percent fatality rate and 70 percent chance of permanent neurological damage. He spent nearly three weeks in intensive care.

Martin, a non-waiver Trade Deadline outfield acquisition for the Indians, suffered a life-threatening bacterial infection that spread throughout his body and caused major organ malfunction. He spent a week in intensive care.

Both of these players had their seasons cut short. They darn near had their lives cut short. So to see them back in uniform -- Farquhar on a Minor League deal with the Yankees, Martin still with the Tribe -- has been one of baseball’s biggest blessings in the new spring season. Martin has appeared in a couple games and gotten a couple hits for the Tribe and is projected to be Cleveland's starting center fielder come Opening Day.

“I’m a human, so it’s gonna be emotional,” Martin told reporters. “Everybody knows what I went through. It’s been a long time. To see my life turn around so quick and now God gave me the opportunity to be back playing baseball again, it’s going to be emotional for me.”

Farquhar will have his work cut out for him if he’s going to crack that loaded Yankees bullpen this year, but, wearing a special protective cap, he faced live hitters in a simulated game Sunday and is progressing toward an exhibition outing on Saturday.

“The attitude he has about everything is kind of special,” pitching coach Larry Rothschild told reporters.

4) Nolan Arenado’s extension with the Rockies

It is extension season across MLB, and so far it has been kind to Aaron Hicks, Luis Severino, Miles Mikolas, Aaron Nola and others. Given the state of free agency, it would not be a shock to see several more sizable deals before all is said and done.

But any time a team that isn’t from a mega-market can lock up its superstar and its franchise face before some ballclub gets its grubby hands on him in free agency, by golly, that’s a feel-good story! And so it is with the Arenado extension, which has major ramifications for next offseason’s free-agent class but, most importantly, means the Rockies -- who plucked Arenado in the second round of the Draft a decade ago -- and their fans don’t have to spend the 2019 season feeling and fretting the urgency associated with Arenado’s ticking clock and pondering the possibility of him getting moved in the midseason market if the club doesn’t get off to a strong start.

5) Troy Tulowitzki’s homer vs. the Blue Jays

Do we customarily approve of shouting and peering at the opposing dugout as you round the bases following a home run in the exhibition season? No.

But do we understand why Tulowitzki’s leadoff homer against the Blue Jays the other day meant a little more to him than your average Spring Training tater? Yeah, absolutely.

The Blue Jays cut Tulo over the winter despite owing him $38 million over the next two seasons. If that’s not an indictment of a player’s present-day ability, nothing is. And Tulowitzki, who at one time was on the very short list of greatest players in the game, is now a man on a mission to make the Blue Jays pay for the crime of not believing in him. It’s all a little overwrought, especially at this early stage (and the dudes in the dugout obviously weren’t the ones who made the decision on Tulo).

Still, emotion can fuel players to great things, the game is better when Tulo is healthy and productive, and, devoid of any particular rooting interest in this American League East drama, it did feel good to see him playing with some swagger again.

6) Byron Buxton’s big start

Dan Vogelbach led the Majors in OPS last spring ... and was optioned to Triple-A by the end of April. Confirmation, once again, that these results don’t matter.

That said, if anybody needs an early confidence boost in these exhibition games, it’s Buxton. Great things were forecast for him from the day he was drafted second overall in 2012, and, save for the second half of the '17 season, living up to those enormous expectations has been nothing short of a struggle.

Last year, Buxton battled numerous injuries, spent more time at Triple-A and invited more questions about whether he’d ever put it all together. He’s now the textbook spring redemption story, checking all the necessary and cliché boxes (new swing mechanics, better body, more relaxed mindset). But knowing how much Buxton feeds off momentum in either direction, his 5-for-5, 10-RBI performance in his first two games of the Grapefruit season was very good to see. The game will benefit if a dynamic athlete like this reaches his ceiling.

7) Kyle Zimmer’s new hope

Taken just three picks after Buxton in the 2012 Draft, Zimmer, with his mid-90s fastball and power curve, was supposed to possess top-of-the-rotation-type upside. His professional career, however, has featured a litany of arm and shoulder injuries and surgeries, all resulting in just 259 innings in the Minors and zero in the bigs. A year ago, he made just one appearance for the Royals in spring camp before his shoulder started barking again, and another full season of rehab followed.

But Zimmer took part in the aggressive, progressive Driveline Baseball program in Seattle in the months leading up to camp, using weighted balls to bring his velocity back to life, improve his mechanics and potentially put his career back together. So did the 1-2-3 inning he pitched on Wednesday have meaning to him? Heck yes it did. The Royals re-signed Zimmer to a Major League contract over the winter and should have opportunity for him on their pitching staff this season. He’s 27 years old, but this feels like a new beginning for him.