Football ends every year with its Beethoven's Ninth finale, and come Groundhog Day there's spring training back on the corner where it's always been, changed but unchanged, a kind of healing game from winter flus to the siren song of pitchers and catchers report.
AL East breakdown
Yankees 2003 finish: 101-61, first place (+6), won ALCS, lost in six games in World Series to Florida. Offseason transactions: Signed FA OFs Gary Sheffield and Kenny Lofton. Traded 1B Nick Johnson, OF Juan Rivera and LHP Randy Choate to Montreal for RHP Javier Vazquez. Traded RHP Jeff Weaver and RHP Yhency Brazoban to L.A. for RHP Kevin Brown. Lost FAs LHP Andy Pettitte and RHP Roger Clemens, RH reliever Jeff Nelson and OFs David Dellucci and Karim Garcia. Rookies and other strangers: RH reliever Scott Proctor (2-0, 1.42 in Triple-A after acquisition from L.A.). RHP Jorge DePaula (10-11, Triple-A), RHP Sam Marsonek (4-4, Triple-A). Significant 2003 statistics: Run Differential: +161. Scored 817 runs, allowed fewest (716) in division. OBP .356, Slug .453. Starters' ERA 83-42, 4.03, threw 1,066 innings, 90 more than any divisional rival. Bullpen 18-19, 4.02, 49-for-67 in save opportunities. Defense made 114 errors, allowed 63 unearned runs.
Major spring training questions: Who plays third base? How does center field work between Lofton and Bernie Williams? Is Jose Contreras more comfortable in the rotation? Will George Steinbrenner begin his campaign on Joe Torre? 2004 team song: "Love Boat Captain." Red Sox 2003 finish: 95-67, second place (-6), defeated Oakland in ALDS, lost to New York in ALCS. Offseason transactions: Traded LHPs Casey Fossum and Jorge de la Rosa, RHP Brandon Lyon and OF Michael Goss to Arizona for RHP Curt Schilling. Signed FA reliever Keith Foulke and 2B Pokey Reese. Traded cash to Colorado for INF Mark Bellhorn. Signed FAs UTL Tony Womack and Terry Shumpert, 1B-OF Brian Daubach. Rookies and other strangers: RHP Bronson Arroyo (12-6, Triple-A). Claimed or drafted: RHP Reynaldo Garcia, LHP Nick Bierbrodt, LHP Lenny DiNardo, RHP Colter (LL) Bean, C Michel Hernandez, LHP Mark Malaska, RHP Edwin Almonte, LHP Phil Siebel. Significant 2003 statistics: Run Differential: +152. Led majors in runs, 961, as well as on-base and slugging, .360, .491, respectively. Starters were 65-40, 4.30, but threw only 959 2/3 innings. Bullpen was 30-27, 4.83, with 36 saves in 57 opportunities. Defense made 113 errors and allowed 80 unearned runs, most in the division, third worst in the league. Major spring training questions: Since peace, love and understanding was so much a part of the '03 team, what will be the fallout from the aborted Manny Ramirez-Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra-Magglio Ordonez trades? How is David Ortiz's knee? Is Pedro Martinez stronger than he was at this time last year? Will Terry Francona be happy with Byung-Hyun Kim as his fifth starter? Can they find a second bullpen lefty from among the Bierbrodt-Siebel-DiNardo-Malaska contingent? Or will David McCarty become their Brooks Kieschnick? 2004 team song: "Meet Me at Mary's Place (exorcism version)" Blue Jays 2003 finish: 86-76, third place (-15). Offseason transactions: Traded OF Bobby Kielty to Oakland for LHP Ted Lilly. Acquired RH reliever Justin Speier from Colorado. Signed FA RHP Miguel Batista and Pat Hentgen, and FA relievers Kerry Ligtenberg, Terry Adams and LH Valerio De Los Santos. Signed INF Chris Gomez. Lost FAs Kelvim Escobar, Cory Lidle. Rookies and other strangers: OF-C Jayson Werth (.237, Triple-A). If there are injuries, during the season you could see OF Alexis Rios (.352, Double-A, MVP Puerto Rican League), C Guillermo Quiroz (.282, 20 HR, Double-A), RHP Dustin Magowan (12-6, A-AA), RHP David Bush (14-6, A-AA), RHP Jason Arnold (7-9, AA-AAA). Significant 2003 statistics: Run Differential: +51. Tied Yankees with 877 runs. OBP .349, Slug .455. Stole only 37 bases. Starters were 69-53, 4.69 with 976 2/3 IP. Bullpen 17-23, 4.69, with 36 for 53 in save opportunities. Defense made 117 errors, most in division, allowed 78 unearned runs. Major spring training questions: Can Josh Towers be at least a matchup fifth starter? How will the bullpen fit together? Can Werth be a fourth outfielder or third catcher? 2004 team song: "The Rising" Orioles 2003 finish: 71-91, fourth place (-30). Offseason transactions: Signed FAs SS Miguel Tejada, C Javy Lopez, 1B Rafael Palmeiro, RHP Sidney Ponson and RH relievers Mike DeJean. Lost FAs Pat Hentgen, Jason Johnson and Rick Helling. Lost FAs 3B Tony Batista, SS Devi Cruz. Rookies and other strangers: RHP Kurt Ainsworth (5-5, S.F.-Baltimore), LHP Erik Bedard (0-1, six appearances off surgery), LHP Matt Riley (9-4, AA-AAA), DH Jack Cust (.285, Triple-A), RHP Denny Bautista (12-9, A-AA). Significant 2003 statistics: Run Differential: -87. Scored 743 runs, fourth worst in league. OBP fell to .323 in last six weeks, from .340 for four months. Hit 152 HR, fourth lowest. Starters were 54-62, 4.86 with 971 1/3 innings. Bullpen 17-29, 4.37 with 41 saves in 62 opportunities. Defense made 105 errors and allowed 53 unearned runs, fourth lowest AL number. Major spring training questions: Who will emerge as the 3-4-5 starters, among Omar Daal, Ainsworth, Eric DuBose, Riley and Bedard? Are Bautista and John Maine close enough to be midseason starters? Is Cust ready to part-time DH? 2004 team song: "The Modern Age." Devil Rays 2003 finish: 63-99, fifth place (-38). Offseason transactions: Signed FAs OF Jose Cruz Jr., RH relievers Danys Baez, 1B Robert Fick. Acquired LHP Mark Hendrickson, 2B Geoff Blum, 1B Tino Martinez in trades for minor-leaguers. Also signed: RHP Todd Jones, LHP John Halama, LHP Damien Moss, RH reliever Mike Williams, 3B Fernando Tatis, SS Devi Cruz, RHP Paul Abbott, LHP Trever Miller, OF/INF Eduardo Perez, RHPs Al and Carlos Reyes. Rookies and other strangers: RHP Doug Waechter (8-6, AA-AAA). After a strong AFL, Dewon Brazleton may be back in the picture during the season. RHP Chad Gaudin (7-3, A-AA). OF Joey Gathright (.332, .408 OBP, 69 SB, A-AA). Significant 2003 statistics: Run Differential -137. OBP .320, Slug. .404, third worst in league. Stole 142 bases. Starters were 37-70, 5.45, with 891 IP. Bullpen 26-39, 4.08, 30-for-55 in save opportunities. Defense made 103 errors, allowed 65 unearned runs. Major spring training questions: Who will be the 4-5 starters after Jeremi Gonzalez, Victor Zambrano and Waechter? How will Lou Piniella piece the bullpen? What did Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford take out of their rookie seasons, and is Crawford ready to do what Piniella predicted, namely contend for the batting title? 2004 team song: "It takes about half a day to get there if we travel by my unicorn" (Jimi Hendrix, "Spanish Castle Magic")
What makes spring training so intoxicating to fans in so many cities is that the antiphon the owners carried into the last negotiation -- that when spring training begins two-thirds of the teams know they have no chance -- turned out to be an empty campaign promise. Indeed, if you're in Kansas City or San Diego, Cleveland or Houston, what makes this spring training so interesting is the fact that the last three world champions have been the Diamondbacks, Angels and Marlins. Find someone who on Groundhog Day the last three years predicted every one of those storylines, much less one of them.
So much happens over the eight months leading up to the World Series, it's just that in the case of Aaron Boone, that wrong stuff happened in January. Make no mistake: Boone is a loss for the Yankees because he is a very good defensive third baseman with range (especially to his left) on a team that has no more than two other average defenders (not to mention three or four way, way, way below average). Boone adds speed to a team that up and down the lineup is essentially stationary and he brings character to a clubhouse that the owner has infiltrated with character questions.
But while there has been speculation about the Yankees acquiring every breathing third baseman from Edgardo Alfonzo to Jose Valentin to Troy Glaus to Shea Hillenbrand to Scott Brosius to Mike Pagliarulo, the longer Brian Cashman can afford to wait the better chance he has to get someone significant for the stretch drive whether it's an impending free agent like Corey Koskie or a veteran like Mike Lowell. Boone is not a critical component to the Yankee offense; he was going to hit in the bottom third of the order. So if Cashman can find defense to complement a pitching staff the Yankees privately feel is better than last year, they can survive for a couple of months, then shop around. Remember, they were in a World Series platooning Shane Spencer and Ricky Ledee.
In what appears in February to be baseball's strongest division, the American League East, the Yankees and Red Sox in most cases do not have the luxury of, say, the Blue Jays and Orioles, in that they have to try to have filled in most of the dots before pitchers and catchers report. Barring some breakdown and given the encouraging throwing sessions by Steve Karsay, New York goes into camp with all 11 pitching spots in place, while Boston is looking for a possible second left-handed reliever. New York has to solve the third-base situation, decide how the Bernie Williams/Kenny Lofton combination is going to work and do some minor tinkering with the bench. Boston, presuming Ellis Burks signs, may not have one positional decision for Terry Francona, from Jason Varitek catching all the way to Mark Bellhorn and Tony Womack.
Both the Yankees and Red Sox face issues that no one on Groundhog Day can predict with any assurance. Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and David Wellswere 53-24 last season and all are proven September and October performers. Pettitte and Wells are also left-handed, which is of no small significance. When Gene Michael was rebuilding the Yankees into the team that won four world championships in five years, he started with re-emphasizing that The Stadium is a left-handers' park, and anyone who watches games in Fenway Park and Camden Yards knows they are as well. With Brandon Claussen gone in the Boone deal, Joe Torre now could be faced with starting 110 games in New York, Boston and Baltimore with right-handers, taking away one advantage he had matching up with the Red Sox.
For most of last season, Torre daily incanted "Lord, please get my starter to Mariano Rivera." Now middle relief is stuffed with Paul Quantrill, Tom Gordon, perhaps Karsay, Gabe White and Felix Heredia, which would make Rivera's two inning saves few and far between. If Kevin Brown (two years off surgeries) approximates himself and Javier Vazquez isn't hurt, then they fit right in with Mike Mussina. That gives the Yankees time to find out if Jose Contreras is more comfortable in his second year in the culture, and whether Jon Lieber is anything close to the old Jon Lieber. Now, there could easily be a short somewhere in that group, which makes it even more important not to be unloading what's left in the farm system to get a name third baseman right now. Reliever Scott Proctor is considered a real deal sleeper, and 20-year-old catcher Dioner Navarro is considered a potential star at a position where the current star, Jorge Posada, will turn 33 in August.
If Williams is relegated to the DH role, Posada and Derek Jeter will be the only Yankees in defensive place from their last world champions of 2000. How Gary Sheffield, Lofton and others deal with The Back Page(s) and how that carries to what once was a model clubhouse is yet to be determined. As is George Steinbrenner's role. He clearly took back control of the offseason moves, and has sometimes seemed to be swerving toward a lane that would end up in some sort of crash course with Torre, whose role maintaining the elliptical forces in place for all the moons is something The Boss may not comprehend, or appreciate, just as he may not appreciate the immense respect Cashman carries throughout the game as one of the best general managers in the business.
That's not to say that the Red Sox -- seemingly entering spring training with a far, far more stable roster with defined roles and purposes -- don't have some issues that could arise. One of those likely will not be Terry Francona, who seems to relish and get the whole East Coast passion thing. At a rock event at Boston's Paradise in January, he was completely at ease schmoozing and hanging with people who listen to The Gentlemen and Dropkick Murphys, and onstage even led the crowd in a rendition of "Yankees Suck."
But while the 2003 team that was within four outs of the World Series was the essence of team, no two clubs have the same personalities and no one outside the clubhouse can predict how people meld. Nomar Garciaparra has said all the right things, but his friends say he was not happy with the way the Alex Rodriguez and Garciaparra trades were publically bungled, and is less pleased with the fact that the Red Sox reduced their offer from an average annual value of $15 million to $12 million. Manny Ramirez did ask John Henry to be traded, but after being placed out there like a claiming horse, then nearly traded to Texas, what will be his six-month disposition coming off a year in which he played in a career high number of games? They're back in negotiations with Pedro Martinez. And if they fail? Garciaparra, Martinez, Derek Lowe, Jason Varitek, Trot Nixon, David Ortiz, Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, Scott Williamson and Alan Embree could be free agents at the end of the season, which may mean little. Or ...
On paper, it is a much-improved team because of the pitching. Curt Schilling, Martinez, Lowe and Tim Wakefield comprise one of the most reliable rotations anywhere. And after going through a year of Chad Fox and Rudy Seanez and 10 different pitchers getting saves, they now are 1-through-10 in place, with Keith Foulke set up by Williamson, Embree, Mike Timlin and Bronson Arroyo. Theo Epstein has brought in every lefty he could find this side of Paul McCartney and George Bush Sr. to compete for the last spot.
Pokey Reese makes the defense better, and while it's unlikely the Sox can or will score as many runs as they did last year, they still have a potent offense expecting better years from Johnny Damon (the leadoff spot had the worst on-base percentage of any position in the Boston order) and Garciaparra. The notion that everyone has a career year is something of a myth with the exception of Bill Mueller, who did have career highs in average, homers, OPS, runs and doubles. Check Ortiz's career path numbers. Last season was pretty much part of his graph, especially considering the fact that he didn't turn 28 until after the season. Nixon had a career high in average and OPS, but his last three years have been awfully good. Varitek topped a career high by five homers and nine RBI, but was down in average. Millar's second-half slump actually left him down in numbers.
Burks, who even in his brief tenure last season had closer to a 1,000 OPS against lefties, would be a significant addition to the lineup and the clubhouse. But understand that this division plays to Boston's left-handed power in Fenway Park. They play 38 games against their AL East opponents at Fenway, and as of today, the only left-handed starter in the entire division is Toronto's Ted Lilly -- Mark Hendrickson or John Halama could slide into the Tampa Bay rotation, but they're better against right-handed batters than lefties, and, anyway, any game one of them starts becomes a bullpen game in that park.
On the one hand, there are the Yankees and Red Sox coming right back at one another after playing more games (26) than any two teams had ever played against one another in one season. Then, there are the Blue Jays and Orioles.
Toronto right now is ahead of Baltimore, having won 86 games and with a reporting thought of 90 wins. Perhaps the single most important signing of the last month was the four-year deal that ensures Cy Young Award-winner Roy Halladay will not be a free agent at the end of the 2004 season. It's important that the 2004 team's starting pitching has been significantly upgraded with Lilly (who dominated the Red Sox at Fenway in Game 3 of the ALDS), Pat Hentgen and Miguel Batista, and the bullpen has been re-stocked. But the Halladay signing is more important in that this team is still a couple of years from where J.P. Ricciardi envisions it, when the prized kid pitchers like Dustin McGowan, Jason Arnold, David Bush, Adam Peterson and Francisco Rosario mature.
The Jays may not be able to duplicate their 2003 offense, but even if they lose Carlos Delgado after this season, Toronto has the core of a consistent contender with a perennial MVP candidate in center in Vernon Wells and a lot of high-ceiling kids that will be in the wings at Syracuse: catcher Francisco Quiroz, outfielders Alexis Rios (Puerto Rican League MVP), Gabe Gross and John-Ford Griffin, infielders Russ Adams and Aaron Hill. They now should be able to be in position to contend for the next four years.
The Orioles are going to be a lot better and it doesn't matter if this is all part of Peter Angelos' sale ("He's signed backloaded contracts, will get the fans back, collect $150 million in reparations when the Expos go to Washington and make a killing," says one GM). What's important is restoring Baltimore as a baseball town. Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro give them three bats in the middle of the order, which in turn makes life easier for Melvin Mora, Jay Gibbons, Larry Bigbie (did you notice his improvement in the second half) and Luis Matos. With Mora at third, Tejada at short and either Jerry Hairston or Brian Roberts at second, they have a solid defensive infield.
The criticism has been that Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan haven't done enough with the pitching. They did sign Sidney Ponson back, but other than Rodrigo Lopez, the starters on their 40-man roster won 11 games in the big leagues last season. Beattie and Flanagan understand that, however. They will see what happens with Omar Daal, then let Matt Riley, Kurt Ainsworth, Eric DuBose and Erik Bedard fight it out for the last two or three spots. However, what Beattie and Flanagan are awaiting is the next level of prospects like Adam Loewen, John Maine and Denny Bautista, all considered to be potential top-of-the-rotation starters, any or all of whom could be in Baltimore before Labor Day.
The O's bullpen should be deep, but Flanagan says, "we want to get away from the lefty-righty thing. We could have from three to five left-handers out there, but John Parrish gets right-handers out better than left-handers, and the rest are equally good against either side. That knee-jerk matchup thing is something we're trying to get away from."
There is some concern that the Orioles are offensively heavy from the left side, but, again, the division is top-heavy in right-handed pitching and Camden is a left-handed hitter's dreamwork.
Finally, there are the Devil Rays, who made a huge jump under Lou Piniella. And after Chuck LaMar went out to build a representative 25-man roster by adding important depth, they are ready to keep improving. What Piniella hopes is that by the time Delmon Young and B.J. Upton come rushing in late next season, that they have their team pretty much in place. Meanwhile, even with starting pitchers who won 37 games, the Rays had a better run differential than the Texas Rangers at more than $100 million.
News and notes
The Padres have begun working out at new Petco Park with nothing but raves: Phil Nevin has lost 30 pounds after a winter of yoga, pilates and workouts and looks tremendous; Trevor Hoffman thinks he's coming back; Brian Giles has now decided to play right field after seeing how difficult Petco is going to play at that position, freeing Ryan Klesko to left; and the stadium is everything Larry Lucchino envisioned when he put the plans in place. Two weeks ago, Larry Lucchino was near Petco. GM Kevin Towers spotted him, and called Lucchino's cellphone, pretending to be a security agent ordering him off the premises. Yes, Towers 'fessed, and gave Lucchino a tour.
Speaking of conditioning, Jason Giambi has lost 25 pounds and is clearly focused on coming back from the knee surgery and proving he can play first base.
Other owners seem to feel that having Frank McCourt with the Dodgers will assure that a big-market team will not spend $120 million on payroll, but it should be pointed out that no one else in the division is going to be over $75 million in 2005. So if McCourt is at $90 million, he can win if his GM makes the right decisions. Incidentally, when Steve Schott was asked if he would allow Billy Beane to be interviewed in L.A., what was he supposed to answer but "no?" To say that he would before being asked by McCourt would have been foolhardy, in terms of splitting his own front office and relinquishing any right to ask for some compensation.
Allard Baird and Tony Pena spent the weekend in the Dominican and are very enthused about the throwing of Kevin Appier, Jeremy Affeldt and Miguel Asencio.
"The three times you can get badly burned," Baird said, "are by judgments made in spring training, with September call-ups and in winter ball. You have to temper your judgments." Or curb your enthusiasm.
The whole Ivan Rodriguez-Tigers fiasco has one element that other agents and the Players Association views with great skepticism: "A voidable contract would be a huge step in the direction of the NFL, and the association won't allow it," said one agent. No MLBPA person wants to see creeping NFL-ism into baseball, as few NFL contracts aren't voidable.
Some friendly advice for all Democratic candidates who want to make class division, tax relief for the wealthiest, etc. part of your mantra. Forget the corny campaign themes; remember how ridiculous Mike Dukakis looked with a Neil Diamond song greeting him when "Fortunate Son" would have been right? Here's offering the right theme this time, the Dropkick Murphy's "Worker's Song (Handful of Dirt)" from "Blackout," one of the three to five best albums of 2003:
This one's for the workers who toil night and day
By hand and by brain, to earn your pay
For centuries long past for no more than your bread
Have bled for your countries and counted your dead
In the factories and mills, in the shipyards and mines
We've often been told to keep up with the times
For our skills are not needed, they've streamlined the job
And with slide rule and stopwatch, our pride they have robbed
We're the first ones to starve, we're the first ones to die
The first ones in line for that pie in the sky
And we're always the last when the cream is shared out
For the worker is working when the fat cat's about
And when the sky darkens and the prospect is war
Who's given the gun and then pushed to the fore
And expected to die for the land of our birth
Though we've never owned one lousy handful of earth
And all of these things the worker has done
From tilling the fields to carrying the gun
We've been yoked to the plow since time first began
And always expected to carry the can.
We're the first ones to starve, we're the first ones to die
The first ones in line for that pie in the sky
And we're always the last when the cream is shared out
For the worker is working when the fat cat's about
And if they play it live when you're looking for the younger demographics, the first time you watch them you'll know what it was like when we first saw The Who at The Boston Tea Party.