Assessing Madison Bumgarner and his future in the desert

SCOTTSDALE – At this juncture of spring training, results are not of great concern. Then again, the management of opportunity to improve, receive instruction and accept coaching rapidly closes. Pitchers tend to be most vulnerable and that’s because the time window is not as great as position players.

In the case of veteran Arizona left-hander Madison Bumgarner, this spring appears to be particularly critical. After Bumgardner’s initial outing of the spring against Cleveland on March 5, two dimensions appeared.

First, Bumgarner was clearly “political” in responses to reporters and that took into account his observations of the pitch clock and audio transmitter for communication with catcher Gabriel Moreno in calling his own pitches.

The second phrase is likely the more critical issue and that is whether Bumgarner continues to be relevant. Here’s a pitcher who achieved in the World Series what no other pitcher achieved and reached great heights in a career which has vacillated between mediocrity and importance.

Now 33-years-old, the native of Hudson, North Carolina, who will be 34 this coming August 1, finds himself in familiar territory which plagues athletes in this age group. Over the past few seasons, there has been a noticeable decline in Bumgarner’s physical abilities and that was evident during his start on March 5.

In going three innings and reaching a pitch count of 41, Bumgarner did not throw one pitch over 90 miles per hour. That could be especially dangerous for any player who could likely experience difficulties.

Bumgarner has not had a winning season in the majors since the 2016 season. That year with the Giants, he went 15-9. Since and with San Francisco and Arizona, he has recorded a 34-54 mark and has only six seasons above .500 in his 14-year major league career.

In such a downfall, the prevailing secret in the recent off-season was the effort by the Diamondbacks to peddle Bumgarner and his $23 million, 2023 contract, but generated little interest

The first to admit maladies over the past few seasons, Bumgarner said he is fully aware of his current plight.

“At this point, I’m just trying to get ready,” he said after that start on March 5. “I do know what it takes. In the past couple of years and pretty much my entire time here, has not been I wanted it to be. But, I’m focused on this year and the years to come. For the off-season, everything was pretty much similar. I’m always tinkering a little bit. I’m definitely in shape (came to camp at 240 pounds, 10 pounds under his playing weight of last season) and as strong as I have been in quite a while. In reality, it is not much different.”

While Bumgarner acknowledges the past and desires a clear separation, he faces the challenge of similarity from the recent past. His fastball now barely reaches 90 or the low 90s and poor location represents a criteria for disaster.

For Bumgarner to survive and thrive, there is a need to “reinvent” himself. That is, the veteran lefty needs to develop pitches to keep hitters guessing, such as a variety of off-speed pitches, location and trying to outsmart hitters.

The days have long passed where Bumgarner can rely on sheer physical power to extract outs at critical times. Should he survive this summer in the desert, Bumgarner has one year remaining on his obligation to Arizona. In 2024, he is scheduled to earn $14 million and becomes a free agent.

Elsewhere …  infielder Evan Longoria made his first start as a position player Monday in a 10-1 loss to Kansas City in Surprise. The veteran third baseman played five innings and wanted to make the trip from Salt River, on the east side of the Phoenix metro area, to Surprise, on the far west side. That’s about a 40-mile journey takes nearly one hour.

“He was good with five innings,” said manager Torey Lovullo after the loss to the Royals. “His process is very well defined, and he knows where is trying to reach. I don’t want to interfere with that. He’s done this for a long time at a very high level. I brought him along and it’s hard for me to bring him all the way out here to play only five innings. But, he said, “I want to play’ and I’m going to get in that way of that.”

Going forward, Lovullo is uncertain as to the playing time for Longoria at third or as the DH, only to say, “there is a lot of innings in his body, and he is prepared to play often. What that number is, I don’t know. He is very durable and takes great care of himself. Long-term durability? I don’t know the answer to that question.”

First start … right-hander Zac Gallen, who declined an invitation to pitch for Team USA in the upcoming World Baseball Classic, gets his first start of the spring Tuesday against Oakland. With various workouts on the back fields of Salt River, Lovullo said he is prepared to stretch out Gallen and other starters. For Gallen, the criterion against Oakland is three innings or 45 pitches, whichever comes first.

The spring training slate continues Wednesday March 8 with a game against the Texas Rangers at Salt River, and then a day off. The spring slate resumes Friday with a night game Friday March 10 against Cincinnati at Goodyear.

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