Spring about laying groundwork, not getting wins

February 16th, 2017

In the final days of Spring Training in 1989, the Cubs were putting the finishing touches on a 9-23 Cactus League record -- the worst of any big league team that spring -- and third-base coach Chuck Cottier told a friend he might drop by for a visit in mid-July.

"Things don't look good for our survival," Cottier said.

By mid-July, Cottier and the rest of manager Don Zimmer's staff was very much employed, the Cubs on their way to a division title and a National League-best 93-69 record. They were eliminated in the NL Championship Series by the Giants, but their regular-season success underscored something that can't be ignored.

Spring Training is about getting ready for the regular season. Wins and losses don't carry over from March into April.

And there is no sure-thing approach to preparation for a successful regular season.

Jim Fregosi showed up in the spring of 1993, manager of a veteran Phillies team that not only had suffered six consecutive losing seasons, but had only one regular (center fielder Lenny Dykstra) and one starting pitcher (Danny Jackson) who had appeared in a postseason.

From Day 1, Fregosi was pushing the Phillies to win. They finished that spring with a 16-10 record. Only the Reds (18-9) and Yankees (20-12) were better. The Phils spent all but one day of the season in first place in the NL East, and they won 35 of the first 50 regular-season games. They eventually lost to the Blue Jays in the World Series. Joe Carter's three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 6 lifted Toronto to an 8-6 victory and a championship celebration.

"You looked at our roster," said Fregosi. "We had veteran players, good competitors, but they didn't know how to win. From the first day of Spring Training, I was more concerned about learning to win than anything else we did."

Since the expansion of the LCS to a best-of-seven series in 1985, only 18 eventual World Series champions enjoyed a winning record in Spring Training. Just last spring, the eventual World Series champion Cubs were 11-19, the 26th-best record in the big leagues.

Those Blue Jays, who knocked off the Phillies in 1993 to claim a second consecutive World Series championship, were 11-19 in the Grapefruit league. And the year before, when they beat Braves in a six-game World Series, they had gone 13-18 in the spring.

Only twice since 1985 have the eventual champs had the best record among Major League teams during Spring Training -- the 1997 Marlins (26-5) and the '91 Twins (21-10).

It's all about assessing the roster and knowing what buttons to push.

Consider that the Royals went 14-10 in the spring of 1984 and were swept in three games by the Tigers in the American League Championship Series. The next spring, they were 12-15, and they rallied from 3-1 deficits to beat both the Blue Jays in the ALCS and the Cardinals in the World Series.

During the spring of 1984, the late Dick Howser juggled his rotation to make sure that Bret Saberhagen, 20, and Mark Gubicza, 21 -- both of whom had pitched at Double-A Memphis in '83 -- started every time they pitched.

"I wanted to make sure they were seeing the best lineups," said Howser. "I needed to see how they handled proven big league hitters if we were going to decide to take them north."

They did just fine.

And those Royals built off their surprising division title in 1984 to claim their first World Series championship in '85, with Saberhagen tossing complete games in both his starts against the Cardinals -- including the World Series clincher -- and being the foundation for a rotation that worked 55 1/3 of a possible 62 innings.

That was the heaviest workload for a World Series rotation since the 1958 Braves, and the second-most innings by a starting staff since the '31 A's.

"The spring is about getting ready for what's ahead," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. "There's no carryover from Spring Training. They don't give out trophies and rings for winning championships in the Cactus League or Grapefruit League."

But they do lay the groundwork for what could be a championship season during those games in March.