Time to look back and spring ahead
A complete guide to what happened this offseason and what's ahead as camps open
No more huddling by the space heaters. No more treks to the hardware store to see if the new shipment of ice-chopping implements has finally hit the shelves.
No more loading up the entire thermos arsenal with hot chocolate. No more gathering around the fireside to watch the Weather Channel for 14 consecutive hours.
That's what winter was like where I reside, in a Pennsylvania town that apparently was secretly annexed by Iceland when we weren't looking. But all that frostbitten wind-chill garbage is about to become officially irrelevant, thanks to the greatest invention since the iPad. And by that, of course, I can only be referring to
So as pitchers, catchers and sleet-riddled Northerners get ready to stampede through the gates of exotic Joker Marchant Stadium and HoHoKam Park, it's time to look ahead to the people and storylines you'll be monitoring this spring, with the help of two dozen baseball sages who took part in our annual spring-preview survey:
Most Intriguing Spring Stories (AL)
1. YANKEE PANKY: The Yankees will play 162 games this season. I guarantee some pitcher or other will start all 162 of them. But once we get past CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes, the mystery of who starts all those other games is one of those sagas that makes spring training media-expense accounts worth computing. Can A.J. Burnett be salvaged? Can Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia be hypnotized into believing it's still 2005? Can Cameron Diaz command a slider anywhere near as well as she commanded a piece of popcorn on Super Bowl Sunday? Can't wait to find out.
2. FOREVER YOUNG? When last we saw those Texas Rangers, they were still playing baseball in November, Cliff Lee was on the mound and Michael Young was Mr. Ranger. Amazing how much can change in a few months, huh? While the Rangers remain poised to contend, we know they'll be doing it without Lee, who bolted for Philly. But will they be able to find a taker for Young -- their disgruntled shortstop-turned-second baseman-turned-third baseman-turned-super-utility DH -- in the next week? And if not, can they all make peace this spring, find this guy 600 at-bats and get back aboard the World Series Express? Bigggg questions.
3. WHO KIDNAPPED THE RAYS? Speaking of how much can change in a few months, who are these mystery men about to slip on those Tampa Bay Rays uniforms this spring? We knew Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena wouldn't be working here anymore come spring. We just didn't get the memo that the Rays would also be trying to replace Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett and pretty much everyone who ever hung out in their bullpen -- or that we'd find the Johnny Damon/Manny Ramirez Idiots Reunion tour passing through Port Charlotte, either. But here's the best-kept secret that folks might very well discover by the end of this spring: Incognito as they may be, these Rays are not about to go all Wayne Huizenga-ish on you and win like 59 games. They're way too talented for that. But how high is their upside? We'll start finding out under the palm trees.
4. ALL A'S: Looking for a dark-horse pick to be this year's Giants? How 'bout those Oakland A's? Bet you didn't know they led the whole darned sport in quality starts last year. (They threw 103 of them -- seven more than the next-closest rotation.) Then Billy Beane and his brain trust spent the winter stocking up on bats (Hideki Matsui, Josh Willingham, David DeJesus) and bullpen depth (Brian Fuentes, Grant Balfour, Rich Harden). And if all those pieces fit together this spring, look out. The next Bay Area World Series might be coming right up -- but not on the shores of McCovey Cove.
5. "O" HAPPY DAY: How 'bout this for a concept: actual hope in Baltimore. And it doesn't even involve Joe Flacco. I'm not sure about the last time an Orioles spring training was a source of this much positivity, but I'm fairly certain Earl Weaver was still smoking cigars in the manager's office, whenever it was. Well, just goes to show you what a couple of big-name free agents (Vlad Guerrero and Derrek Lee), two intriguing trades (for J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds), a major bullpen pickup (Kevin Gregg) and an injection of genuine managerial know-how (from the great Buck Showalter) can do for a team. The Orioles haven't had a winning season since Jeffrey Maier hit puberty. But this just might be the year. And if it is, that crazy AL East is about to get even more nuts.
Most Intriguing Spring Stories (NL)
1. CUT THE CARDS: Albert Pujols says he doesn't want to be a distraction. OK, great. So let's say he DOESN'T sign an extension with the Cardinals before he buttons his jersey and cuts off negotiations next week. Can't imagine anybody would want to talk about that over the next seven weeks or months. Heck, no. We'd much rather focus on the maturation of John Jay, or ask profound questions like "Is there life after Blake Hawksworth?" Who'd want to get distracted by a subject as trivial as the impending free agency of One of the Greatest Players of All Time? No sane person would let that happen. But on the off chance that most of the hemisphere can't get Sir Albert's contract status out of its head, the Cardinals had better get this deal done. Or it's tough to like their chances of spending another serene spring in Jupiter.
2. ACES HIGH: Whatever happened to the theory that no big-time pitchers would ever want to pitch in Citizens Bank Park, huh? The Phillies are turning that one into a bigger myth than Charlie Sheen's "laugh-induced abdominal pain." This spring, the Phillies will assemble a rotation that has combined for three Cy Youngs, 10 other top-five Cy Young finishes, a World Series MVP award, two LCS MVP awards, 18 Opening Day starts (by four different pitchers), six 20-win seasons and 13 trips to the All-Star Game. So can they all make it through spring training without Tommy John surgery? If so, this team should be departing scenic Clearwater, Fla., as your official NL favorite.
3. LAND OF THE GIANTS: The good news for the team that won the World Series is that it became the first juggernaut in history to ride four starting pitchers 27 and younger to the parade floats. But the bad news for the Giants is that those four young starters had to work an extra 99 high-octane postseason innings to carry all those waiver-wire all-stars around them into the winner's circle. Those innings rarely come without a price. So since this team added virtually no offense over the winter, the Year After bounceability of its rotation will be a, well, "Giant" story to eyeball this spring.
4. WHO'S THE BOSS? There's nothing more impossible in life than following a legend. And you don't even have to consult Aaron Rodgers about that. You can spend all spring asking Don Mattingly and Fredi Gonzalez. All they have to do is walk in the tracks of two managers who won nearly 5,000 games between them: Joe Torre and Bobby Cox. Is Mattingly ready to do what the Yankees weren't so sure he was up to doing -- running the show of one of baseball's most storied franchises (in this case, the Dodgers)? And is Gonzalez -- hand-anointed by Cox himself as The Successor in Atlanta -- really the perfect, easy, no-worries choice to carry on the legacy of one of the only five men in history to manage the same team for 20 consecutive seasons? Spring training won't answer those questions definitively. But it will sure give both these guys a chance to rehearse their follow-the-legend lines.
5. OWNING UP: We don't normally spend a lot of time dissecting owners in spring training. But this spring, we might have to make an exception. Will the Mets' legal bills be higher than their payroll by Opening Day? Is there an astrologer someplace who can extricate the Dodgers from the McCourt family civil war? And when will one of those Texas oil zillionaires finally step up to convince Drayton McLane he wants the Astros to be a champion, too, gul-darnit? We're talking three once-premier NL franchises, all of which have played in an NLCS over the past six Octobers, now virtually frozen in ownership limbo. Isn't this spring fun at its very finest?
Most Improved Teams (AL)
1. Red Sox
The blueprint for this defining offseason was one the Red Sox had sketched on their chalkboards for a long, long time. So when the first pitch was thrown, they were ready. Yeah, we'd all been speculating for like two years that they'd trade for Adrian Gonzalez someday. But they actually made it happen -- and then essentially hammered out the parameters of an extension that was both fair and Pujols-proof. Then, in the same December week, they zeroed in on Carl Crawford and lured him away from what seemed like an inevitable rendezvous with the Angels. Add in a couple of good-fit bullpen imports (Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler) and a little upbeat news on the health front (Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury). And this shapes up as the best team out there on anybody's spreadsheet. Of course, it helps to have a few hundred million dollars sitting around to plow into the renovations. But the Red Sox continue to remind us they can splice together brains and bucks as purposefully as any franchise in the sport.
FUN POLL FACT: While the Red Sox (18), A's (9) and Orioles (6) monopolized the most-improved votes, the surprise entry was the Blue Jays, who parlayed the stunning Vernon Wells deal into mentions from three voters who were mega-bullish on their long-term future now that they don't have Wells' $86 million cluttering up their debt sheet.
Most Improved Teams (NL)
As I mentioned in a blog post this week, nobody will ever confuse Brewers history with Packers history. The Packers now have won 13 NFL titles in their history -- while the Brewers haven't even won 13 postseason GAMES in theirs. But this is The Year cheeseheads have been waiting for since Harvey's Wallbangers boarded up the old trot shop nearly 30 years ago. GM Doug Melvin's marching orders were to go all-in to win. And the GM apparently knew what that meant. He sure wasn't going to win with a rotation that had a worse ERA than any team in his league not known as "The Pirates." So Melvin did what he had to do, wiping out his top-prospects list to deal for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. And the folks who responded to this poll clearly liked the GM's work, since the Brewers got more most-improved votes (15) than the next three NL teams (Phillies, Dodgers, Marlins) put together (12). But here's the bad news: This had better be The Year, because it looks as if Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks will both bolt through the free-agent emergency exit next winter. All this reminds one scout of the year when the Brewers traded for CC Sabathia (in 2008): "They have a hell of a team this year," he said. "But they can't keep their team together next year. So they'd better get off to a good start."
FUN POLL FACT: Eight different NL teams got at least one most-improved vote (including the Pirates). But the only team besides the Brewers to get more than three votes was the Phillies (seven).
Most Unimproved Teams (AL)
For eight years (2002-09), the Angels dominated the AL West by such a ridiculous margin, there was only one team within 100 wins of them. And that was Oakland, which was 46 wins back. But all of a sudden, things ain't going so hot in Orange County. After his team staggered to a sub-.500 finish for the first time in seven years, owner Arte Moreno plunged into the offseason vowing to do and spend what it took to get the mother ship back on course. So how'd that work out? Hoo boy. One of our poll participants used the word "disaster" to describe the Angels' train wreck of a winter. And that was one of the gentler descriptions. They took such a hard line on the two free agents who fit their needs most -- Carl Crawford and Adrian Beltre -- that they lost both of them. Then they reacted, in the words of one AL exec, with a "total panic move," by trading for Vernon Wells without even getting the Blue Jays to eat a major chunk of his money. When you consider that the Angels got almost twice as many most-unimproved votes (10) as two teams that did just about zilch this winter -- Cleveland and Seattle -- it tells you exactly how many people in this sport have spent the past few weeks asking: "What the heck were they thinking?"
FUN POLL FACTS: A sure sign of how good a winter the A's had was that the other three AL West teams got a combined 18 most-unimproved votes -- while Oakland was piling up nine most-improved votes.
Most Unimproved teams (NL)
Before he took the Mets job, Sandy Alderson probably thought a Ponzi scheme was something that went down in a "Happy Days" episode he once saw on Nick At Nite. But this is one GM who has been getting an education this winter in all kinds of stuff that doesn't involve trolling for somebody who might hit more than six home runs a year in Citi Field. It sure isn't the new GM's fault that he had no money to spend and no hope of moving the Oliver Perezes and Luis Castillos who are cluttering up his roster. But the bottom line is that the Mets had a laugh track of an offseason. A two-year contract to D.J. Carrasco, after he got non-tendered? A major league deal for Ronny Paulino while he was still serving a PED suspension? A bargain bin full of Boof Bonsers and Willie Harrises and Taylor Tankersleys? A hunt for inning-eating starters that led to the signings of Chris Capuano and Chris Young, two guys who have spent a combined 720 days on the disabled list over the past three seasons? Someday, when the Madoff Mess gets sorted out and the bloated contracts disappear off the payroll, the sharp minds the Mets brought in to salvage this operation will be able to make an impact. But they had no shot this winter.
FUN POLL FACT: Although the Mets blew away the field, quite a field it was. Nine of the 16 teams in the NL got at least one most-unimproved vote -- the three above, plus the Cardinals, Padres, Dodgers, Reds, Braves and your defending World Series champs, the Giants.
Least Recognizable Team
I might as well retire this category. What's the point? The Pirates seem to win it every year, anyway. Here's how I know exactly how faceless this team is: I cover baseball for a living. I kept a daily log book on every team's transactions all winter. And even I couldn't correctly identify the Pirates' entire prospective Opening Day lineup this week. So there's no telling how much money you could win if you walked into any tavern not located in the 412 area code and challenged your buddies to do it -- even if you gave them Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez free of charge. It's not a good sign when more Americans can name the lineup of the 1979 Pirates than the 2011 Pirates. But I'm betting that if I commissioned a Gallup poll, that's exactly how it would turn out.
FUN POLL FACT: You know it was an action-packed offseason when eight teams get more than one vote in this competition -- our top three, plus the Indians, Padres, Mariners, A's and Rays.
1. RED SOX: The Red Sox really made life tricky for us checkbook-champ judges. Technically, they laid out "only" $161.63 million for Carl Crawford, Bobby Jenks and their surrounding free-agent cast this winter. (Don't forget Matt Albers!) But you know, I know and Bud Selig's luxury-tax pinto-bean counters know that one of these weeks, as soon as it's clear Adrian Gonzalez's shoulder is still attached to his clavicle and as soon as the accountants give the thumbs-up, the Red Sox also will drop an extension on their new first baseman in the neighborhood of seven years and 150 million bucks. So we're going to ring the cash register early and award them this prestigious checkbook-champ title for approximately $311 million. But hey, if they change their minds, they should know they could have scarfed up nearly 15.6 million servings of Anna's Baked Boston Scrod down at the Long Wharf outpost of Legal Sea Foods if they wanted to lay out that kind of change.
2. ROCKIES: Here's a team that never looks in the mirror and sees a big spender staring back. But our motto here is: Follow the money. So we followed along this winter as the Rockies added six years and $119 million to Troy Tulowitzki's equity pool, and another $80 million to the Carlos Gonzalez kid, grandkid and great-grandkid scholarship fund. And yeah, it's true they were only "extensions" to players who weren't going anywhere for years. But tell it to the accounting department. Now add another $40 million for the Rockies' two big league free agents, Jorge De La Rosa and Ty Wigginton. And that's $239 million in bills that are going to land on somebody's desk over the next 10 years. That doesn't quite make this team the Yankees. But we won't be confusing the Rockies with the Pirates any time soon, either.
3. NATIONALS: Even though the Reds followed the Rockies' path and locked up $151 million worth of extensions with four of their favorite local heroes this winter, I'm making an arbitrary decision to elevate the Nationals ($145.85 million spent) onto the bronze-medal podium on this stage. Yeah, that's pretty much based on the Jayson Werth signing alone. (More on that later.) But if any team tried to make a statement with the sheer muscle of its checking account this winter, this was the team. You can quarrel with the length and magnitude of that seven-year, $126 million Christmas gift the Nats laid on Werth. And trust me, pretty much everybody who participated in this poll did exactly that. But it was still a signing the Nationals utilized to announce to the world: "We're no longer the Artist Formerly Known as the Expos. We're planning to be good. And we've got the money to make it happen." So this is Spring Preview's way of saying: We heard you!
FUN POLL FACTS: Bet you didn't know that EIGHT different teams (these three, plus the Reds, Phillies, White Sox, Tigers and -- shocker alert! -- the Yankees) committed at least $100 million each in free-agent deals and/or whoppo contract extensions this winter. That doesn't even count the Dodgers, who spent $91.825 million on their 11 big league free agents and will top $100 million easy if a few of their 15 minor league free agents make the team. And it doesn't count the Angels, who spent $23 million on free agents and also took on -- stop us if you've heard this somewhere before -- another $86 million worth of Vernon Wells via trade. But the Angels subtracted just enough in salaries in that deal to slip under the magical $100 million threshold. Phew. Meanwhile, who was the biggest non-spender this winter? Gotta love those Indians. Who out there can identify their only free-agent signing this winter (at least so far)? Yessiree, that would be good old Austin Kearns, for 1.3 million big ones. Hey, you were expecting maybe Manny Ramirez?
Best Free-Agent Signings
2. Carl Crawford, Red Sox (7 years, $142 million)
3. Adrian Beltre, Rangers (5 years, $80 million)
It's actually kind of amusing that people look at the Lee signing and think the Phillies got some kind of "bargain." Uh, has anyone mentioned lately that this man will collect more dollars per season (an average of $24 million) than any pitcher has ever raked in during any multiyear contract in history? Nevertheless, the Phillies played this so coyly, so quietly, so ingeniously that not even the Yankees and Rangers saw them coming until it was too late. And now this team heads for spring training with one of the greatest, October-ready rotations ever assembled. It's STILL hard to believe this really happened -- and not just for the Yankees.
FUN POLL FACT: Would you believe 27 different free agents got at least one vote -- including (gasp) Vicente Padilla? No kidding.
Worst Free-Agent Signings
2. Juan Uribe, Dodgers (3 years, $21 million)
3. Joaquin Benoit, Tigers (3 years, $16.5 million)
Werth got more votes in this category (18) than any other player got in any other department, so I guess the voters have spoken. But I'm not sure I agree with them. At least Werth has proved he can play. There isn't much chance he'll live up to his contract, since it will carry him through age 38. But there's a difference, to me, between a "bad signing" and a contract that's just flat-out too long. So I'd have voted for Benoit (whose great year literally came out of nowhere), Uribe (who couldn't even find a job until January the previous two winters), or any one of about seven setup men (whose multiyear deals boggled many a mind) before I'd have picked Werth. But as I said, the voters have spoken. And I'm the one who asked them to vote.
FUN POLL FACT: Six different players got votes in the best and worst free-agent columns -- Benoit, Rafael Soriano, Carl Pavano, Brian Fuentes, Aaron Harang and Adrian Beltre, whose magnetism in racking up big vote totals for both best and worst signing was unprecedented in the history of this poll.
FUN POLL FACTS: If a good baseball trade is one that works for both teams, we might have set a record this winter. The votes rolled in for both sides of the Gonzalez, Greinke, Matt Garza, Shaun Marcum and Dan Uggla deals. So how 'bout for the Angels' side of the Wells extravaganza? Ehhhh, still haven't found anyone willing to endorse that one.
Best Free-Agent Bargains
2. The Twins re-sign their home run leader (Jim Thome) for less money ($3 million) than they paid Nick Punto to hit ONE homer last year.
3. For one year and $7 million, the Marlins bring Javier Vazquez back to the National League, where he was last seen two years ago nearly leading the league in strikeouts.
2. The Brewers take a $1.75 million shot at a reliever (Takashi Saito) who has NEVER had an ERA higher than 2.83 on this side of the Pacific.
3. The Rays hold their breath and give $2 million (i.e., $140 million less than Carl Crawford got) to everyone's favorite baseball role model, Manny Ramirez.
2. The Pirates drop down and fire a sidearm minor league deal at left-on-left specialist Joe Beimel, a fellow one scout called the "Paul Assenmacher of his generation."
3. It's a tie between the let-it-fly bench-king champions of the non-roster-invitee world, Matt Stairs (Nationals) and Jason Giambi (Rockies) -- two entertaining, life-loving, free-swinging mashers whose combined six pinch homers last year somehow earned them zero guaranteed dollars.
Three Most Outrageous Contracts (Free-Agent Or Otherwise)
FUN POLL FACTS: So which non-free-agent deals got votes? Extensions to Dan Uggla, Troy Tulowitzki and Joey Votto. And the voters kept piling on the Angels just for trading for Vernon Wells, even though they didn't sign the guy to this contract. They just assumed what was left of it. So if you hadn't caught onto the fact that people in this sport HATED that trade, that oughta do it. Right?
Most Important Injury Comebacks
Rookies To Watch (AL)
Rookies To Watch (NL)
Most Unlikely Names On Spring Training Rosters
No. 1 Story That Summed Up The Offseason
As one AL executive quipped, history was truly made this winter, with that Cliff Lee signing -- but not how you think.
"The mystery team," he joked, "finally signed a player."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.