The World Baseball Classic is correct about its international nature and the sport involved. But the tournament is a long way from being a sterling standard on these shores, where our sporting attention each spring is drawn to college basketball and NFL free agency.
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Spring training has a familiar look for Clint Robinson despite the change in location.
He spent the offseason at home in Arkansas doing his usual low-key things. Ready to go, he drove to West Palm Beach, Florida on Feb. 12, two days before pitchers and catchers were supposed to report, only to be told he could not access the facility until the next day. Once allowed in, he situated his locker, said hello as one of a handful of position players already in town and settled in for a fight for his job.
Robinson is 32 years old now. His spot as the Washington Nationals’ backup first baseman/left fielder/left-handed pinch-hitter is again not guaranteed. In fact, the Nationals’ late offseason move to sign Adam Lind, who does all of those things and has a more established major-league career, has provided Robinson direct competition to keep his up-and-down baseball career going.
“There’s always competition in this game,” Robinson said. “Especially on the bench. … It’s just something you have to deal with. What decisions they make don’t really affect what I do. As long as there is a uniform in my locker, I’m going to go out and do the same thing I always do, which is do the best I can and let the other stuff sort itself out. I can’t really worry about who signs who and all that stuff.”
Lind and Robinson appear to be duplicates. Both left-handed, both too big to play the outfield consistently, both with power. The gap comes when looking at the long run Lind has had versus Robinson’s hanging-on career in baseball. Lind has hit 20 or more home runs six times, including last season, when he received just 401 at-bats with Seattle. Robinson struggled in 2016 during a season he was primarily dispatched to face the opposition’s closer or elite setup pitcher. He hit just .235 a season — his first full one in the majors — after hitting .272 in a similar role.
Nationals manager Dusty Baker has an affinity for Robinson. During spring training, he has claimed that Robinson looks “good, real good.” He has mentioned he would like to keep both Lind and Robinson on the roster, though that seems unlikely. Baker has also stated that jobs are to be won. That’s what spring training is for.
“We have some good competitions for jobs,” Baker said. “If you’re going to win, you have to have depth in a number of areas. I just got to get a good look once some of the games start.”
Lind was available to be signed in the middle of February because he is a 32 year old with a declining batting average. Last season, his average sunk to .239, its lowest single-season mark since 2010. Baker talked with Lind. The new signee explained that he became pull happy in Seattle. Baker would like him to try to hit through the middle more.
Lind enjoyed his single season with the Mariners. The city’s food and quirkiness both worked for him after eight years in Toronto and spending 2015 in Milwaukee. He’s a career .271 hitter who hit 35 home runs in 2009 for the Blue Jays.
“It’s a J-O-B,” Lind said of joining the Nationals. “I mean, really. Didn’t have too much to choose from, so it was nice [general manager] Mike [Rizzo] offered me the opportunity to help this team.”
Whoever wins the spot may prove vital. Both Robinson and Lind could be considered help in left field, where soon-to-be 38-year-old Jayson Werth operates. First baseman Ryan Zimmerman struggled last season and has dealt with foot injuries in recent years. Robinson and Lind also offer left-handed options at both those spots. Baker is adamant that Werth and Zimmerman are the starters in those positions. That’s not a current debate. It’s a question of who will back them up or fill-in, if need be.
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As major leaguers took the field in Florida and Arizona, that familiar sound of balls popping into mitts served as a reminder that in baseball at least, winter is finally over.
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