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Feel-good stories from Spring Training's first weeks

@castrovince
February 28, 2020

Let’s celebrate the hope, the joy, the “everybody is 0-0” upside of Spring Training. Because that’s ultimately what this time of year is all about, no?

Let’s celebrate the hope, the joy, the “everybody is 0-0” upside of Spring Training. Because that’s ultimately what this time of year is all about, no?

You might not necessarily know it to look outside your own door, but somewhere it is sunny and warm and baseball is blossoming again. So let’s take a look at some of the many optimistic, enthusiastic storylines taking shape in spring camps in Florida and Arizona. No bum elbows or booed Astros here -- just the feel-good stuff that stirs the senses.

1) Chris Davis has been going oppo for the O’s.

Last April, Davis attracted international attention for the most dispiriting slump in Major League history -- 0-for-54. He handled that particular, mortifying situation as gracefully as one could hope, though his overall frustration with his performance decline and role with the O’s appeared to boil over when he got into a dugout altercation with manager Brandon Hyde in August. He contemplated retirement at season’s end.

So pardon us if we couldn’t help but applaud the 33-year-old Davis reaching base routinely and swatting two opposite-field homers -- that’s two more than all of last season -- in the first week of the Grapefruit League. Meaningless games or not, the dude is due. His search for redemption at an increasingly late stage in his career, and the 25 pounds of muscle he added in the offseason, are the kind of Spring Training-y tropes we will happily fall for every time.

“After two real grinding years,” he told MLB.com’s Joe Trezza, “I do still think there is some time to kind of right the ship.”

2) The Marlins started out 6-0.

OK, the wins don’t count, but the confidence they can instill in an organization trying to turn a corner is real. After all, exhibition play, where the starters are yanked early, is ultimately a demonstration of organizational depth, and -- between the Draft, the Trade Deadline and some internal development -- the Fish are in a much, much stronger position now than they were a year ago.

They also were more active in free agency this winter than many teams in their competitive position would be, and it would be nice to see that rewarded and reflected in the win column in 2020. For now, it’s reflected in the Grapefruit League standings, which is not something but is also, for a team at this stage, not nothing.

3) Ubaldo Jiménez is back in purple.

Jiménez hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2017. He hasn’t pitched for the Rockies since 2011. So to see him on the mound at Salt River Fields -- which, for the record, opened in 2011 -- on Wednesday was a lovely lavender thing. He’s 36 years old and just trying to prove himself again with the club for which he authored the best pitching season in franchise history (2010).

4) Daniel Bard is back, period.

Then there’s Bard, whose last big league appearance was way back on April 27, 2013. He totally lost his command that year and tried everything -- even a submarine-style delivery – to make it back, to no avail. He retired in 2018. But while working in mental skills with the D-backs last year, he started throwing again, hopped on a mound out of curiosity and wound up landing a Minor League deal with the Rockies, with whom he is in big league camp.

“Away from the game, I still had a wife and kids who loved me and life was still pretty good,” Bard told MLB Network. “I was able to find happiness in other things. Then baseball was still there. I’m 34 and still had my health. So why not give it another shot, go play with house money and see what happens?”

5) Carlos Carrasco is having a normal spring.

Well, his spring has been slightly impeded by a right hip flexor strain, but that falls under the category of "normal baseball injury." A year ago, abnormalities in Carrasco’s blood work during Spring Training caused concern, and he was diagnosed with leukemia in May. He made it back to the big league mound in September as a reliever, and it was one of the best stories of the 2019 season. But we shouldn’t take for granted that Carrasco is in camp, healthy, and preparing for his usual role as a starter.

“The hopeful plan,” manager Terry Francona told reporters at the start of camp, “is that we’re able to treat him like [the] Carlos Carrasco we normally would.”

6) Ichiro Suzuki has a pretty good fastball.

At least, good enough to elicit what appeared to be a genuine “Wow!” from former outfielder Franklin Gutierrez.

We are not naive enough to advocate that a 46-year-old Ichiro actually mount a comeback attempt as a pitcher. At the same time, we will not deny him his right to pursue said path should he so choose.

7) Steven Souza Jr. is upright and in line for a spot in the Cubs' outfield.

Back in 2017, Souza had a career year with the Rays -- an .810 OPS, 30 homers, 21 doubles and 16 steals. It made him a target of the D-backs in a pre-2018 season trade. Little has gone right for Souza since. He missed most of 2018 while battling a pectoral tear. Then he missed all of 2019 after tearing multiple ligaments in his left knee on a freak play on the penultimate day of the exhibition season.

“When the doctor tells you that you may never be able to straighten your leg again,” he told the Associated Press, “doubts start to creep in your mind about whether you can make it back.”

Souza, therefore, is an easy guy to root for in Cubs camp. He got a Major League deal and has been having some early success at the plate.

8) Tom Koehler is back on the mound in Pirates camp.

Koehler was an enticing relief option after the Blue Jays acquired and converted him to that role mid-2017. After struggling in the Marlins’ rotation earlier in the year, the veteran Koehler had instant success in the Toronto ‘pen, making him an offseason target for the Dodgers. But before Koehler even had the opportunity to assert himself in L.A., he suffered a tear in his shoulder capsule. He wound up having surgery and missing not only all of 2018 but all of 2019 as well.

It’s too soon to know if Koehler will land a roster spot with the Pirates, who signed him to a Minor League deal prior to 2019 with a club option for 2020. But he’s in a lot better position than he was the last two seasons.

“I’m happy to be back in uniform again,” he told MLB.com’s Adam Berry, “just having a chance to see where it goes.”

9) The Royals have (some of) the band back together.

Salvador Perez was, in many ways, the heart and soul of the Royals’ run to consecutive American League pennants and a 2015 World Series title (he was the MVP of that Series). He had a run of six straight All-Star selections snapped when he tore his ulnar collateral ligament last February, necessitating Tommy John surgery. So it’s good to see him approaching full health in Royals camp.

And we could see him catching Greg Holland again in the regular season. Holland was a linchpin of the Royals’ great bullpen during that championship window, but he’s had some major ups and downs the last couple seasons and is trying to land a job via a non-roster invite. He’s looked sharp in Cactus League play so far.

10) Nathan Eovaldi has his stuff back.

How well that stuff will translate when the lights come on remains to be seen, but Eovaldi was hitting 100 mph and had good secondary stuff in his Grapefruit debut against the Twins. What this guy did in Game 3 of the 2018 World Series is the stuff of legends. The game was lost, but Eovaldi’s six innings of relief on just one day of rest saved the bullpen and allowed Boston to live to fight -- and win -- another day.

All that extra effort may have caught up to him in a lost 2019 in which he posted a 5.99 ERA in 67 2/3 innings, but, if the early stuff is any indication, Eovaldi might be bound for a bounce-back year.

11) Luke Farrell pitched well … in front of his dad.

The son of former Red Sox and Blue Jays skipper John Farrell is continuing a comeback story that began last season. He was struck by a line drive on March 2, 2019, and suffered a broken jaw and concussion, requiring surgery in which a metal plate was inserted in his jaw bone. He lost a ton of weight during the rehab process but made it back to pitch with the Rangers in August and September.

Now he’s vying for a spot in the Opening Day bullpen, and his scoreless outing against the Reds the other day certainly attracted the interest of one Cincinnati official -- John Farrell, naturally.

“What I am most proud of,” the elder Farrell told MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan, “is his ability to get back on the mound and not be gun-shy because of the impact last spring.”

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.