Hultzen and Paxton Pitch In Spring Openers

Chatting with Rainiers trainer Tom Newberg today, he mentioned that it was one of the key dates of spring training: the first day of minor league spring training games.

The Tacoma Rainiers – or at least a very early version of them – broke away from the Mariners Peoria complex for a game in nearby Surprise, home of the Kansas City Royals complex.

The Rainiers faced an Omaha Royals club in the first game of the spring. A real game with umpires, a scoreboard, and about a dozen fans.

I made the trek – and I do mean trek, it’s an unpleasant drive unless you really like red lights – down Bell Road to the Surprise complex to watch the game.

Both the Tacoma and Omaha rosters were dotted with players from all different levels of the organization. Since so many of the players who will be on the Tacoma and Omaha rosters in April are still in big league camp, players from the lower minor leagues need to fill in.

This even includes the coaching staff. Double-A manager Jim Pankovits skippered the “Rainiers” because Daren Brown was coaching a Mariners split-squad game in Tucson.

Both the Rainiers and the Double-A Jackson Generals played on Friday in Surprise, at the exact same time on adjacent fields.

Upon arriving, I checked to see who was warming up to pitch the games. I saw two lefties I had never seen before – and both were throwing hard. I quickly learned that Danny Hultzen was starting for Tacoma in the Triple-A game, and James Paxton was making the start for Jackson in the Double-A game. Two of the “Big Three.” Jackpot!

The minor league fields are like really well-groomed high school fields, except with major league dimensions. You can literally stand right behind the plate and look through the chain-link screen at the game. At times I stood right behind the Mariners pitchers who were charting, and I was able to sneak peeks at their radar gun.

There is also a small bleacher on each side – we had about a dozen people and a dog in the first base bleachers. Over half the “crowd,” including the dog, was family of the players.

I was able to walk back and forth between the fields, and see both Hultzen and Paxton. However, they were often pitching at the same time – and when that happened, I stuck with the Triple-A game.

They have very different pitching motions. My friend Jason Stockton took some pictures. You can click on the pictures to expand them.

Danny Hultzen

I only saw one radar gun reading on a Hultzen fastball: 94. He has good movement on the pitch – it sinks and has some left-side run. He also got a number of swings-and-misses with a change around 82, and he struck out Omaha utility man Kurt Mertins swinging with a sharp slider.

It wasn’t all great for Hultzen, though: in the first inning he allowed a line drive single to 2010 Royals first round draft pick Christian Colon, and then he served up a two-run homer to left-center off the bat of lefty-swinging John Whittleman, who is sort of a Double-A veteran.

Hultzen had two big showdowns with top Royals hitting prospect Wil Myers. He struck out Myers looking in the first inning, but Myers got some revenge the second time around with a two-out, two-strike opposite field RBI single.

All told, Hultzen allowed three runs in three innings.

Here’s a look at James Paxton, who was working the Double-A game.

James Paxton

He really reaches back, huh?

Every time I walked over to the AA field, Paxton was in trouble. In the first inning he loaded the bases with one out, and right when I walked up he got a double-play grounder with his curve.

The next time I wandered over, I saw him work a couple of hitters. He gave up some ground ball singles and a few runs, and the coaches were carefully monitoring his pitch count. He was limited to three innings or 65 pitches – and I’m not sure if he made it through three innings; I missed the end of his outing.

One thing did strike me about Paxton: he was showing good stuff. I didn’t get any velocity readings from the AA game, but Paxton appeared to be an uncomfortable at-bat for opposing hitters.

Other notes from the Triple-A game:

  • First baseman Rich Poythress smoked two balls to left field, including an RBI double to drive in the first Rainiers run of the spring.
  • Francisco Martinez started at third base, and his physique stands out immediately on the field. He’s a big, athletic looking dude.
  • Carlos Triunfel played shortstop for part of the game, and he ranged behind the bag to make a play, and he made it look easy.
  • Right-handed reliever Stephen Penney came in after Hultzen, and he tossed two scoreless innings. Penney had decent numbers at Double-A last year and he could be in the Tacoma bullpen mix. He was working in the upper-80s, but all of his pitches were running in on left-handed batters, or sinking away from them. He worked a 1-2-3 fourth inning, and then got a 3-6-1 double play to escape a bases loaded jam in the fifth.
  • Our estimated (actually, exact) attendance of 12 included Penney’s parents and his dog, Buddy. Buddy was not nearly as concerned about the bases loaded jam as the parents were.
  • Opinion: nothing quite says “spring training” like the first sunflower seeds of the calendar year.
  • Left-hander Philippe Valiquette was impressive in two perfect innings. He was humming along at 92 miles per hour and was locating the ball down in the strike zone. I think he punched out three, including some poor kid in the Royals system named Conner who had no chance.

We left in the bottom of the eighth inning with the score tied, 3-3. Why? Well, to quote the awesome Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus, “it was a very bright day and my core temperature was elevated.” I wasn’t sure if what I was seeing was real – I needed to get out of that sun.

Tomorrow the Triple-A game is at the Mariners complex in Peoria, and they have shaded bleachers. I’ll have a full recap here on the blog.

Two links:

Check back this weekend for more spring training updates.

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