If you thought winter was weird ...
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.
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
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.
Most improved teams: American League
1. New York Yankees
2. Oakland Athletics
3. Cleveland Indians
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 League1. David Price (Rays LHP)
2. Matt Wieters (Orioles C)
3. Travis Snider (Blue Jays OF)
Rookies to watch: National League1. Tommy Hanson (Braves RHP)
2. Colby Rasmus (Cardinals CF)
3. Cameron Maybin (Marlins CF)
Most unlikely names on spring training rosters
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.
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.