CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Is it over yet?
We're talking, of course, about a period we once used to refer to as "the offseason." (Sheez, you were expecting maybe the A-Rod-Madonna lovefest?)
That isn't a question we normally ask when we unfurl our annual spring training preview/offseason-wrapup extravaganza, you understand. This is usually the place where we celebrate the end of stuff like Pudge Rodriguez's tireless search for employment.
But this has been one weird winter. Which means it's going to be one weird spring.
You can tell because, as the gates of Joker Marchant Stadium and Ho Ho Kam Park swing open this month, we have a veritable all-star team that's still out of work.
Could a team of Pudge, Manny Ramirez, Junior Griffey, Orlando Hudson, Orlando Cabrera, Joe Crede, Frank Thomas, Garret Anderson, Ray Durham, Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, Livan Hernandez, Kenny Rogers, Juan Cruz, Jason Isringhausen, Eric Gagne, Will Ohman and Dennys Reyes beat the Pirates in a best-of-seven series? Hmmm, it would be worth a few shekels to find out, wouldn't it?
So welcome to the first spring training in history -- non-work-stoppage division -- that won't actually wait for the end of the offseason that preceded it. Yeah, it's a little bizarre to be asking questions like, "Who's the Cubs' closer going to be?" and, "Will Manny ever get a job?" at the same time. But that's life in the year 2009.
So, with the help of 15 of our favorite baseball sages (or, at least, the first 15 to respond to our annual survey), let's spin our gaze forward and take a look at the people and story lines you'll be following as Spring Training 2009 gets cranking -- ready or not:
Most intriguing spring stories: American League
1. Access A-Rod-wood: Was it Alex Rodriguez's goal in life to star in his own personal reality show, or did it just bust out when he wasn't paying attention? Whatever, the February and March episodes of "Alex Zillionaire" are guaranteed to be must-see viewing. Can this man manage to explain away his steroid mysteries, keep Madonna happy, avoid sucking every last ounce of oxygen out of the Yankees' clubhouse and remember how to hit a splitter without keeping a team of psychotherapists on call 24/7? Stay tuned.
2. The Tex, CC and A.J. Show: Back before A-Rod hogged the headlines, the arrival of Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett was supposed to be the story in the Yankees' camp -- or anyone else's, for that matter. Ya think these guys will miss the days when the biggest issue they faced in spring training was whether to use SPF 15 or SPF 30?
3. Sox's Anatomy: It's tough to remember a team whose upside was more dependent on life in the trainer's room than the 2009 Red Sox. But if John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Takashi Saito, Rocco Baldelli, David Ortiz, Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett all make it back to perfect health, it might not matter how many negotiable Steinbrenner dollars the Yankees spent this winter.
4. The Amazing Rays: You can kiss the laugh-track era of that team in Tampa Bay goodbye. The rest of the AL East will miss it. But the big question of spring training 2009 is: How dramatically has the Rays' universe shifted, now that they've played in a World Series, moved into a real spring training camp all their own (in exotic Port Charlotte, Fla.) and even found themselves penciled into the Sunday Night Baseball schedule? The quest to prove this group is for real starts right here, right now.
5. Straight A's: The bad news is, the A's scored 255 fewer runs than Texas last year. The good news is, they just traded for Matt Holliday, signed Jason Giambi and may have another signing (paging Orlando Cabrera) in them. The good and bad news this spring is, those moves have to work, or Holliday will be calling a moving van on July 31.
Most intriguing spring stories: National League
1. The Mannywood Shuffle: One of these days, or weeks, or months, or centuries, Manny Ramirez has to sign. Doesn't he? And when he does, he has to land back in Dodgertown West. Doesn't he? Well, it seems logical to us, and logical to you. But does it seem logical to the mysterious orb known as Manny's brain? You've got us. But the Dodgers need Manny, and Manny needs the Dodgers. So how this story ends will tell us a lot about the state of the NL West and the state of modern baseball madness.
2. Jake-ing It: Jake Peavy will pull into Padres camp with the rest of his pals. But will he be leaving with them? The Peavy trade whispers don't go away. But if the Cubs' ownership flux doesn't get resolved, is there any other place for this man to go?
3. Pen pals: If ever there was a team that could say the games were just too darned long, it was the 2008 Mets. Actual fact: If all games had ended after six innings last year, they'd have won the NL East by 11 games. But they were forced by the proper authorities to play all nine innings, and that didn't work out so hot. So the arrival of Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz represents far more than just fun little spring training stories. These guys have to be as good as advertised. Or this team could unravel.
4. Phil 'Er Up: The Phillies as World Series Champs is a concept a whole generation of Philadelphians -- and players -- is 100 percent unfamiliar with. So their challenge this spring is trying to become the first NL team to repeat since the 1975-76 Big Red Machine -- and the first Philadelphia team to repeat, in any sport, since the 1974-75 Flyers. Will that Raul Ibanez-for-Pat Burrell free-agent swap be an upgrade? Will J.C. Romero's 50-game suspension hang over their bullpen? Can their rotation possibly stay as healthy as it was last year? Will winning it all elevate this group's psyche to a whole new level? Biggggg questions in the life of the NL East.
5. Brave New World: Once, there was a time when about 95 percent of all living Americans could recite the names of the Braves' starting rotation. Well, we wish them luck this spring. The answer (for those who are already stumped) is: Derek Lowe, Javy Vazquez, Kenshin Kawakami, Jair Jurrjens and Insert Fifth Name Here. So this group sure will be different. But will it better? And is it capable of pitching this team back into contention? We'll start finding out under the palm trees.
Most improved teams: American League
1. New York Yankees
2. Oakland Athletics
3. Cleveland Indians
If you spend $441 million on free agents, you'd better rank No. 1 on our most improved list. But the Yankees didn't just sign the best free-agent starter on the market (CC). They also added the second-best (Burnett) -- to a rotation that pitched fewer innings last year than any AL rotation except those motley crews in Baltimore and Texas. And that, friends, is what you call a serious upgrade. On the other side of the ball, you can question the price tag and length of Teixeira's deal. But he's still a fine fit for the middle of this order -- not to mention a major leatherworking improvement on Jason Giambi. Any time the Yankees write checks this large, you can cue the violas, as owners everywhere whine about this money machine. But with $88 million coming off their books and a new ballpark opening, what did the other 29 teams expect the Yankees to do -- sign John Wasdin, Mark Redman and D'Angelo Jimenez?
FUN POLL FACT: Of the seven teams who got votes, three of them play in the AL East -- the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays.
Most improved teams: National League
1. New York Mets
2. Atlanta Braves
3. San Francisco Giants
We've already discussed the bullpen renovation that helped the Mets run away with this voting. So let's raise a larger issue: Has there been a more disastrous winter in the National League in years? As one AL executive observed, "the AL/NL discrepancy has been remarkable the last few years. [It] probably got even worse this year." Here's one sign of that: The Mets, Braves and Giants were the only three teams that got a vote in this poll. And with good reason. You can argue that six NL clubs (the Cardinals, Pirates, Astros, Reds, Padres and Marlins) didn't add a single impact player. And the players lost by the other 10 teams included Sabathia, Ben Sheets, Kerry Wood, Derek Lowe, John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, Takashi Saito, Brad Penny, Jeff Kent, Adam Dunn and Pat Burrell -- and we haven't even figured out where Manny fits. So have the Mets bettered themselves on paper? Absolutely. But the standard for most improved team in this league has never been lower.
FUN POLL FACT: One of our distinguished panelists cast his most improved vote for "Padres ownership."
Most unimproved team: American League
1. Toronto Blue Jays
2. Chicago White Sox
3. Los Angeles Angels
Here's a little trivia question for you: Which team had the best staff ERA in the whole sport last season? No, it wasn't the Dodgers or Cubs or Angels. It was those Toronto Blue Jays. But that was then. And this is now, in the star-studded AL East. So consider the state of this roster this spring versus where it was a year ago. The Blue Jays didn't merely lose the bidding war on Burnett. They lost him to a team in their own division. Meanwhile, two of their most sensational young arms, Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum, had surgery and may not dent the radar screen all year. And their money issues were so massive, their biggest pitching addition of the entire offseason was Brian Burres, whom they claimed off waivers from the Orioles. Amazingly, this team didn't sign a single free agent to a major league contract all winter, and didn't trade for a single major league player. In the NL Central, that would be considered treading water. In the AL East, it's a serious U-turn.
FUN POLL FACT: The Royals got as many votes for most improved as they did for most unimproved (two).
Most unimproved teams: National League
1. Pittsburgh Pirates
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Milwaukee Brewers
No, the Pirates don't win this award every year. But this does make two in a row. And they did it this year despite massive competition, for reasons we've already discussed. So why did the Pirates nudge out St. Louis? Because they're coming off a 95-loss season and we bet even Bill Mazeroski couldn't name the only two free agents they signed to major league contracts this winter. They were … (the envelope please) none other than Eric Hinske and, ummm, Ramon Vazquez? Yeah. Really. Granted, the Pirates actually started their big roster-reconstruction project last July 31. And GM Neal Huntingdon certainly seems to be a man with a plan. But this is a team in danger of making very messy history if it rips off its 17th straight losing season. And, as one of our panelists put it, "I think they added more assistant general managers this winter than players." Uh, is that good?
FUN POLL FACT: Nine different NL teams got votes, and seven got multiple votes. So unimprovement was the clear specialty of the National League's entire house this winter.
Least recognizable teams
1. Washington Nationals
2. Pittsburgh Pirates
3. San Diego Padres
Look at it this way. There were about 23 people in America who could have named 10 Nationals last year. And that was before GM Jim Bowden launched into his regularly scheduled winter obsession -- namely, signing every minor league free agent in the western hemisphere. He's scarfed up 21 free agents on minor league deals in the last four months -- a cast of characters that includes two guys named Gustavo (Chacin and Molina), five former No. 1 picks (Corey Patterson, Ryan Wagner, Bobby Brownlie, Matt Whitney and J.D. Martin) and a group of other luminaries that includes Jorge Sosa, Josh Towers, Joel Guzman, Freddie Bynum and, of course, Ryan Langerhans. And we haven't even mentioned that five-player deal he swung with the Marlins, one Rule 5 draft pick, five new coaches and Adam Dunn. Phew. This team should give away a free season ticket to anybody who can name the entire 25-man opening-day roster. We bet Manny Acta couldn't.
FUN POLL FACT: Nine different teams got a vote in this category. But the best "least recognizable" nominee of them all was: "the new New York State junior senator." That's Kirsten Gillibrand, by the way -- who was immediately signed to a minor league deal by the Nationals.
1. Yankees: Ever wondered what $441 million could buy you? Well, now you know. On one hand, it could buy you CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte and Damaso Marte. Or, if you've worked up an appetite, it could also get you 24,568,245 six-inch cheesecakes at the Carnegie Deli.
2. Phillies: We weren't sure whether the Phillies qualified for this list or not, since they spent "only" $47 million on their three free agents -- Raul Ibanez, Chan Ho Park and Jamie Moyer. But if you add in contract extensions for Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels and Jayson Werth, it means they coughed up $131.525 million this winter. If they're wondering, they also could have used that stash on 15,473,529 mushroom pizza steaks at Pat's.
3. Braves: Did anyone except Chipper Jones notice this team actually outspent the Mets on free agents this winter? Almost all of the $86.8 million the Braves laid out went to Derek Lowe (four years, $60 million) and Kenshin Kawakami (three years, $23 million). But it was those indispensable deals for David Ross (two years, $3 million) and Greg Norton (one year, $800,000) that pushed them past the Mets (who spent $78.1 million).
FUN POLL FACTS: The Red Sox spent only $23.1 million on free agents -- but those extensions to Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis inflate their winter IOUs to $105.65 million. The Orioles are at $90 million if you factor in Nick Markakis' $66 million extension. And the Cubs' offseason bill totals $87.7 million, but most of that went to Ryan Dempster (four years, $52 million).
Best free-agent signings
1. CC Sabathia (7 years, $161 million)
2. Francisco Rodriguez (3 years, $37 million)
3. Mark Teixeira (8 years, $180 million)
You'd think a seven-year, $161 million mega-deal for any pitcher -- let alone one who looks like he should be playing nose tackle for the Jets -- would have its detractors. But while K-Rod and Teixeira also got votes in the worst-signings competition, believe it or not, CC piled up higher approval ratings than Barack Obama. He also inspired a trivia question: Name the four Yankees left-handers to win 20 games in any season in the division-play era. Ready? Time's up. The answer is … Andy Pettitte, Ron Guidry, Tommy John and Fritz Peterson. Yep, Fritz Peterson. Who knew?
FUN POLL FACT: With so many spectacular free-agent bargains this winter, 20 different players got at least one vote -- including a guy who hasn't even signed yet (Manny).
Worst free-agent signings
There was nothing -- nothing -- in this poll that our panelists agreed on more thunderously than how out of line they thought the Renteria deal was with the rest of the market. One NL exec got so worked up, he even voted for this deal twice. Why? Here's just a sampling of the vociferous opinions: "The only thing more in decline than his three-year drop in homers and RBIs is his range." … "Probably should have gotten a third of that money." … And this succinct review: "That guy's done." Meanwhile, Farnsworth allowed 27 hits in 16 innings in Detroit, and still, somehow, got a two-year deal. And it was astonishing how many of our panelists checked in at the last minute to question why Dunn got two years, $20 million in Washington when Bobby Abreu was taking one year, $5 million in Orange County. "Only one way to look at it," said one panelist. "That's the only way they could get Adam Dunn to play for their club."
1. Mets unload seven players for K-Rod's new set-up terror, J.J. Putz (plus useful set-up piece Sean Green and outfielder Jeremy Reed) -- but those seven chips consisted essentially of major league flotsam (Aaron Heilman, Endy Chavez, Joe Smith) and minor league inventory (Mike Carp, Jason Vargas, Ezequiel Carrera, Maikel Cleto). The Mets might have traded 70 players if that's what it took to eradicate their bullpen nightmares of 2007-08.
3. Indians get the best (and best-educated) utility man in baseball, Mark DeRosa, for three minor league arms (Jeff Stevens, John Gaub, Chris Archer) who may all pitch in the big leagues some day -- but will never match DeRosa in most seasons quarterbacking undefeated Ivy League champs (the 1994 Penn Quakers).
Best free agents signed to one-year deals
(1) The Angels sign Bobby Abreu for one year, $5 million, only a few weeks after this same man was asking for three years, $48 million; (2) the Giants sign on for the Randy Johnson March to 300 Wins Cavalcade for one year, $8 million, and (3) the A's sign a guy (Jason Giambi) who hit 32 homers, slugged .502 and made $21 million last year for one year, $5.25 million.
Best free agents $2 million and under
(1) The Red Sox take a one-year, $500,000 chance on Rocco Baldelli's odds of finding health and happiness in New England; (2) the White Sox hope the $1 million they tossed Bartolo Colon's way buys them some semblance of what used to be a Cy Young winner, and (3) the Red Sox guarantee a mere $1.5 million to a reliever (Takashi Saito) who, when healthier, spent the last three seasons turning all the hitters on earth into Gookie Dawkins (numbers of opposing hitters: .182 average, .246 on-base percentage, .264 slugging percentage).
Best free agents signed to minor league deals
(1) The Rangers gamble a Triple-A contract that Andruw Jones can't possibly be as horrendous as he looked last year; (2) the Blue Jays get 20-homer man/clubhouse toastmaster Kevin Millar for just a minor league contract, and (3) the Giants add a nonroster bargain in a fellow (Rich Aurilia) who hit .321, with a .377 on-base percentage and .526 slugging percentage against left-handed pitching last year.
SPECIAL RUNNER-UP NOMINATED BY ONE PANELIST: Texas signs Jenny Finch (or, to be technical, Mr. Jenny Finch -- pitcher Casey Daigle).
Three most outrageous contracts
1. The Yankees guarantee five years (and $80 million) to A.J. Burnett even though, over the previous five years, he missed approximately 40 starts and spent 204 days on the disabled list.
2. The Mets win a bidding war with themselves to reel in Oliver Perez for three years, $37 million.
3. The Braves fork over four years, $60 million to Derek Lowe even though (A) the only other team bidding (the Mets) was offering three years, $36 million and (B) Lowe was a guy the Braves had professed zero interest in until John Smoltz defected.
FUN POLL FACTS: Low-budget contenders for this award included Jamie Moyer, just because he's the first 46-year-old pitcher in history to get a multiyear contract; Nick Punto, only because the Twins guaranteed him more money ($8.5 million, over two years) than Giambi and Abreu even though Punto has hit three homers and driven in 53 runs over the last two years combined; and Juan Rivera, who got a three-year, $12.5 million deal from the Angels even though he's reached 400 at-bats in a season once in an eight-year career.
Most important injury comebacks
Most important injury comebacks: Non-Boston Division
Rookies to watch: American League
Rookies to watch: National League
Most unlikely names on spring training rosters
1. Ramiro Mendoza (Brewers): Is bullpen help in short supply, or what? When the Brewers first signed this guy, we thought it had to be some other Ramiro Mendoza. But it is indeed the same inning-digester who was once Joe Torre's favorite pitcher for all occasions. In case you're trying to figure out how you lost track of this fellow, hey, it isn't just you. The entire sport apparently lost track of him. Mendoza's last truly useful season was seven years ago. And his only big league inning in the last 1,596 days was all the way back on Sept. 1, 2005. How long ago was that? His new teammate, Prince Fielder, owned exactly two career homers back then.
2. Chad Fox (Cubs): This man never does pitch a whole lot. But he does lead all active players in one important category -- most Tommy John surgeries (three). It tells you what a great guy Fox is, and how live his right arm once was, that he's pitched precisely 22 innings since the end of the 2003 World Series, and faced 14 hitters over the last three seasons combined, and he's still getting invited to big league camp.
3. Danny Graves (Astros): Sorry, no back-from-the-graves jokes allowed here. But fire out all the back-from-the-Long Island Ducks jokes you want. That's just one of Graves' many fun stops since he saved 41 games for the 2004 Reds. Since then, he's passed through New York, Norfolk, Buffalo, the Atlantic League, Fort Myers, New Britain and Rochester -- and piled up a combined 5.45 ERA. But he did lead the Atlantic League in saves as recently as two years ago. So what the heck. It's great to have him back.
Three stories that summed up the offseason
1. After not bothering to respond to the Dodgers' two-year, $45 million offer to Manny Ramirez in November, Scott Boras announces he and Manny are now ready to accept "serious" offers. Hmmm. More proof, obviously, that mail service is more unreliable than ever.
2. The Braves reach what they believe to be a tentative contract agreement with Rafael Furcal, only to have Furcal bolt for L.A. Meanwhile, Braves officials tell other clubs they're not interested in Derek Lowe, only to turn around and sign him for $60 million.
3. Presidents' Day Weekend is an excellent time to visit Orlando. But apparently, no free agents named Orlando are allowed to get a job before then. Just ask Orlando Hudson and Orlando Cabrera. No truth to the rumor they're both changing their names to CC.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.