TIME TO END SPRING TRAINING SOONER?
In the early 2000s, when rehabbing Cubs starters Kerry Wood and Mark Prior were throwing simulated games on the mornings before Cactus League games, the Chicago media were on hand to chronicle every delivery—real or towel-aided.
The coverage was overkill, of course. But it was spring training, and because Wood and Prior were considered keys to the Cubs’ chances of finally winning it all, every simulated outing made headlines.
Pitching coach Larry Rothschild quickly wearied of saturation coverage of what basically were controlled batting-practice sessions, and he was especially irked at repeated references to the towel drill, which they performed before the fake games.
Likewise, Wood and Prior grew tired of answering questions about their progress. They did it so often, Prior joked during 2005 spring training that the two were candidates for the Simulated Hall of Fame.
Who knew they were simply ahead of their time? Simulated games were the norm for several pitchers early this spring, as more teams opted for controlled sessions to stretch out pitchers and work on different things. Chris Sale and Jake Arrieta were among those who went the simulated route at some point.
Spring training will never change because it’s big business for some teams, including the Cubs, who are averaging more than 15,000 fans per game at Sloan Park. But the actual games are becoming more irrelevant for the “training” part of spring training.
Simulated training has become the new wave. Controlling the atmosphere makes sense from the teams’ perspective, even though most paying customers would rather watch Sale pitch in an exhibition game instead of Erik Johnson.
“I like to believe the sophisticated fan understands that,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “If you understand what’s going on, you can cope with it a lot better.”
Coping is easy in 85-degree weather, so no one is complaining.
But if the games aren’t that important for preparation, why not reduce the monthlong slate and cut down spring training by a couple of weeks? You could start the season a week earlier and have a few more days off, and everyone would still be ready on opening day.
Maddon argued recently that the current spring training period of six to seven weeks is “perfect,” and Cubs catcher David Ross concurred when asked by the Tribune this week.
“This is the time everyone wants to say spring training is too long,” Ross said. “… But for pitchers and catchers, it’s the most important time because we get to go through some things together and grow together.”
Maybe, but since they’ve never tried it any other way, who knows if five weeks would suffice? Perhaps a couple of simulated games and three spring starts would be enough for pitchers and catchers to get on the same page, and for hitters to perfect their timing.
Everyone’s ready by the final days of March and eager to begin the season. That’s something you can’t simulate.
Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks throws against the White Sox on March 18 during a spring training game.