SCOTTSDALE – The sweet sound of baseballs hitting mitts filled the air at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick this week as Arizona Diamondbacks pitchers and catchers reported to spring training.
While the NFL season ended with a Super Bowl in Glendale last Sunday and the WM Phoenix Open came to a stirring finish, another sports season begins as 15 MLB teams report to Cactus League spring training sites across the Valley over the next week.
The start of the MLB season is just around the corner and that means one thing: Hope springs anew.
The excitement of a new season was palpable as players and fans alike were excited to see what this year’s iteration of the Diamondbacks will look like on the field.
“It’s always fun to see the guys again, it seems like it hasn’t been that long (since I saw them last),” right-handed relief pitcher Mark Melancon said.
Carson Kelly, the Diamondbacks starting catcher, echoed Melancon’s sentiment about the offseason.
“The winter seems to go quicker and quicker,” Kelly said. “But it’s been fun. We’re excited to be out here and it’s good to see everybody.”
The Diamondbacks’ catching depth is one of the deepest positions on the team. This season, Kelly will be joined by newcomer Gabriel Moreno, who was acquired in December from Toronto, along with outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr., in a trade that sent Daulton Varsho to the Blue Jays.
While the roster has added a few new players this season, one familiar face (and beard) returned to the Diamondbacks for 2023 on a one-year deal. Andrew Chafin, a left-handed pitcher, originally pitched with the team from 2011-2020.
“I basically grew up here so it was nice to come back to a familiar place. I love the heat,” Chafin said.
“It was good to see him walk through the door today,” manager Torey Lovullo said of Chafin. “I looked up and I thought I saw Sasquatch.”
The first day of spring training consisted of bullpen sessions, strength and conditioning, a round of catchers taking batting practice and pitcher fielding drills. Most of the drills seemed on the lighter side with players laughing and joking among themselves while waiting for their turns.
Along with the excitement of seeing old and new teammates enter through the clubhouse door, there was also a sense that it was time to lock in and get to work for a Diamondbacks team looking to improve on last season’s 74-88 record.
With the full squad not reporting until Feb. 20, Lovullo got a chance to take a good long look at some of the pitchers and catchers on this year’s Arizona roster.
“Everyone from my perspective has come in ready to go,” Lovullo said. “It was a fantastic first day. Get that nervous energy out of the way. Get your hellos in and get to work and that’s exactly what we did today.”
Lovullo did not want to single out any pitchers after the first day of practice, but mentioned right-handers Ryne Nelson and Drey Jameson as well as left-hander Blake Walston as players he closely watched throw bullpens sessions.
Outside of the action on the field, the team added two former Diamondbacks to the coaching staff. Miguel Montero, a former catcher and two-time All-Star, will be working as a staff assistant, while ex-second baseman Daniel Descalso is now a baseball operations assistant.
“Miggy has been a semi-fixture here for a few years … he’s an unbelievable mind. He’s invested at a different level now to help us win baseball games and develop baseball players so we welcome his insights and we’re thrilled to have him here,” Lovullo said.
Changes in both the clubhouse and coaching staff this season pale in comparison to changes in some of the game’s rules. The 2023 season will feature a 30-second pitch clock, removal of the shift and much, much larger bases. MLB hopes the alterations will help speed up the game while cutting down on injuries.
“These are things the fans want, and I think it’s going to be good for the game. I think it’s going to speed things up. It’s going to be a different element and challenge, but I think guys on the whole are going to enjoy it,” Kelly said.
While MLB has yet to see how effective the rule changes will be or the players’ responses to them, the changes were put into place in the minor leagues and the Arizona Fall League last season and were overwhelmingly embraced.
The first day of spring training is a lot like the first day of school. Everyone’s mostly happy to see each other and though they have absolutely no idea what the year holds, everyone wants to make it a memorable one. This Diamondbacks’ 2023 season is no different. For now, hope springs anew.