"Let us go forth a while, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our closed rooms...
The game of ball is glorious."

--Walt Whitman

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Jason Bartlett Show

Jason Bartlett. Can you believe this kid? I mean, wow. Just...wow.

Last season, we got our first look at the organization's hottest shortstop prospect. We knew what to expect: good bat, good runner, no glove. What we got was a matching bat and glove set in solid lead. He stood at the plate like a deer in the headlights, a syndrome common to first-time callups, and watching him field was like watching the proverbial train wreck--you just can't take your eyes off the twisted, smoking ruin of it all. I mean, it was painful. It was worse than watching Cuddyer field third, and that's saying something. (To be fair, Cuddy has been surprisingly above average fielding-wise this spring, though he's hitting like an AL relief pitcher so far.)

Bartlett was no doubt given the reward of an invitation to the big-league spring training more in response to his performance in the minor leagues last year than his first "cup of coffee" in Minnesota. I don't know anyone who was seriously considering him as a possible replacement for the departed Guzman this year, though of course he is intended for the position eventually. But with early favorite Nick Punto, veteran Juan Castro, and defensive wizard Augie Ojeda in the mix for the starting shortstop job, young Bartlett and his fielding foibles looked like a longshot even for a backup role. Halfway through the exhibition season, Punto is injured and out of favor, Castro apparently has seizures every time the ball gets within ten feet of him, and poor Augie still can't hit. Suddenly, Bartlett is the front-runner.

After reportedly working his butt off after returning to the minor leagues, in the prestigious Arizona Fall League and during the offseason, he looks like a completely different player. He has had a couple of questionable fielding moments which are more than outweighed by dozens of solid plays and a handful of mind-blowing ones. He's hitting pretty much anything in the strike zone, and he's stealing bases. I was lucky enough to see him for myself in two spring training games in person and one on television, and of course it is occasionally possible to pry nuggets of relevant information from John Gordon's radio calls of the games. Everything I've seen and heard has been impressive.

He got the call to the big leagues, and he was terrible. The coaches sat him down, told him what he was doing wrong, worked with him a little, and sent him back down. How many times have you seen players in that situation tank completely? It happens too often. But this guy kept doing what he did well and worked hard on what he didn't. Now, less than a year later, he's on the verge of becoming an everyday major-league shortstop.

In a spring full of talk about steriods and congressional hearings, it's nice to see someone earn their shot through simple hard work. So let's all wish Jason Bartlett good luck--this season or next he'll probably be a regular part of the Twins lineup, and when that day comes he'll have gotten there the right way. Bravo.

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