MAIER RID­DLE IS TOUGH TO SOLVE

The Kansas City Star (Sunday) - - SPORTS DAILY - SAM MELLINGER

SHere comes Mitch Maier, some­thing like the Ted Wil­liams of the Cac­tus League, and if you didn’t know bet­ter you’d think the Roy­als have an MVP can­di­date. He’s clos­ing down one of the best springs of any­body in base­ball, hit­ting .440 with as many walks as strike­outs. Even his outs are line drives, and the buzz among scouts is that Maier should start over Rick Ankiel, who signed a $3.25 mil­lion con­tract in part be­cause the Roy­als promised him the cen­ter field job. Big leap for a guy not ex­pected to be on the open­ing day ros­ter when spring train­ing be­gan. “Full pack­age,” man­ager Trey Hill­man says. “Hon­estly, no reser­va­tion say­ing this: I know I’ve never seen this much de­vel­op­ment at this level in one year for a po­si­tion player.” Maier is the talk of camp here, and the con­ver­sa­tion drives straight into an

is­sue that comes up ev­ery year at this time — how the heck should spring train­ing be eval­u­ated? You’ll fight this in your fan­tasy draft, and gen­eral man­agers will fight it in their ros­ter man­age­ment. The com­mon line from scouts is that the two worst times to eval­u­ate base­ball play­ers are Septem­ber and spring train­ing. Septem­bers give you mi­nor league call-ups and vet­er­ans looking for­ward to va­ca­tion. Around Kansas City, Kyle Davies some­what fa­mously went 4-1with a 2.27 ERA in Septem­ber of 2008, talk spread­ing that he’d fi­nally learned how to use his div­ing changeup against big-league hit­ters. He then went 8-9 with a 5.27 ERA last year. Spring train­ing may be an even goofier time to eval­u­ate be­cause there are even more vari­ables to muddy the look. Th­ese are al­most all day games in prepa­ra­tion for a sea­son full of night games. The air is light, so curve­balls don’t bite like dur­ing the sum­mer. The desert sun and wind turn pop-ups into dou­bles, and es­tab­lished stars face wide-eyed mi­nor lea­guers. Last year, the Roy­als led the Cac­tus League in home runs be­fore fin­ish­ing 13th in the Amer­i­can League. Zack Greinke had a 9.21ERA while the Cac­tus League hit .367 off him, then dom­i­nated the reg­u­lar sea­son with a 2.16 ERA and the Cy Young Award. Maybe you don’t want to know that the Roy­als now lead the Cac­tus League in hit­ting. Or that Joe Mauer didn’t play at all last spring. Or that Al­bert Pu­jols hit just one home run. This stuff can drive you crazy. “That goes back to that lit­tle man in your head say­ing, ‘Hey, don’t over-eval­u­ate, es­pe­cially of­fen­sive statis­tics, in spring

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Go to up­dates, pho­tos and videos from Roy­als spring train­ing. train­ing,’ ” Hill­man says. This thing with Maier may have legs, though. His aren’t rou­tine flies catch­ing in the wind and car­ry­ing through the light air. Th­ese are line drives hit af­ter tough at-bats, a bal­anced plate ap­proach that’s im­prov­ing through the spring. Hill­man goes on and on about Maier, say­ing ev­ery last de­tail is where a vet­eran should be. He’s throw­ing to the right base, mak­ing the best reads on fly balls, and show­ing an im­proved sense of the strike zone and hit­ting sit­u­a­tion. If he’s hon­est, Maier will say the whole thing is a lit­tle more than even he ex­pected. But it does re­flect his ca­reer-long pat­tern of mak­ing huge im­prove­ments his sec­ond year at any par­tic­u­lar level. “I’m a big be­liever that I’m go­ing to make ad­just­ments,” he says. “The 15th time you face Justin Ver­lan­der, you have a bet­ter idea what he’s got. I’m not say­ing it’s not still tough, but the first time through and he throws a two-strike curve­ball and you haven’t ever seen any­thing like it, well, there’s some­thing to be said for that.” So maybe the Roy­als have a much-wel­comed sur­prise here, a fringe big lea­guer turned solid con­trib­u­tor. Or maybe they’re looking at a mirage, a hot streak of 50 at­bats that should be taken in con­text of a small sam­ple size from a time and place that re­ally doesn’t mir­ror bigleague base­ball. The Maier-over-Ankiel thought makes sense when you see Maier star while Ankiel tends to an in­jury. It makes less sense when you ask Maier how much im­por­tance he puts on spring train­ing per­for­mance. “Hon­estly?” he says. “Not a ton.” To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to [email protected]­star.com or fol­low twit­ter.com/mellinger. For pre­vi­ous col­umns, go to KansasCity.com.

JOHN SLEEZER | THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Roy­als out­fielder Mitch Maier is hit­ting .440 and draw­ing gush­ing re­views dur­ing spring train­ing.

JOHN SLEEZER | THE KANSAS CITY STAR

The Roy­als’ Mitch Maier (fore­ground) is draw­ing praise this spring for his im­prove­ments at the plate and in the field.

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