- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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We're not sure what winter looked and felt like where you live. But from where we live, in the tundra formerly known as Pennsylvania, this spring training is looking like civilization's greatest innovation since the iPhone.
Possibly even since ice cream.
Now, instead of scraping glop off our windshield, we'll get to spend our time watching Stephen Strasburg begin his imitation of Walter Johnson.
Now, instead of buying out all the space heaters in Home Depot, we'll get to see how Roy Halladay takes to life in a division with no DH, no Green Monsters and no $200 million payrolls.
So as pitchers, catchers and blizzard escapees report, and the gates of McKechnie Field, Tempe Diablo Stadium and Ho Ho Kam Park swing open, it's time to look ahead to the people and storylines you'll be monitoring this spring, with the help of 20 baseball wise men who took part in our annual spring-preview survey.
In other words, put down those shovels and start dreaming those sweet baseball dreams, as Spring Training 2010 reminds us all there's hope for warmth and sunshine not so far over the nearest horizon -- and the nearest snow plow.
Most Intriguing Spring Stories (American League)
1. Weepless in Seattle: Was it really only a year ago that this team was coming off a 101-loss free fall into an abyss of hopelessness? Yeah, sure was. You can look it up. But here we are, 12 months later, and GM Jack Zduriencik has turned this outfit into the most buzzed-about team in the American League. So now, six free-agent signings, 13 non-roster free-agent signings, two trades for that noted odd couple of Cliff Lee and Milton Bradley, two smaller deals for Casey Kotchman and Brandon League, two waiver claims, a Rule 5 draft pick and one monster extension for Felix Hernandez later, we get to start finding out whether this team will look as good on the field as it looked in the transactions column.
2. Twin Peaks: Nine years ago, the Twins' entire roster collected $24.1 million. Now they're about to finish up a contract that will pay just their starting catcher alone (Mr. Joseph P. Mauer, ladies and gentlemen) somewhere in that neighborhood every year for about the next decade. In other words, these aren't Calvin Griffith's Twins -- or even Bud Selig's contraction-guinea-pig Twins -- anymore. These 2010 Twinkies have added Orlando Hudson, J.J. Hardy and Jim Thome to a team that has made the postseason five times in the last eight seasons. They're opening a real ballpark under the actual Minnesota sky. And they might have one of the top 10 payrolls in baseball. So are the Twins poised to take charge of the AL Central? Could be, friends. It just could be.
3. Bronx Bombacity: It hardly feels like an official offseason if the Yankees don't outspend the defense department. But after reacquainting themselves with the Canyon of Heroes, the Bombers barely outspent the Royals on the free-agent market this winter. And when was the last time you read a sentence like that -- maybe 1978? Instead, GM Brian Cashman pulled off two tremendous deals for Javy Vazquez and Curtis Granderson, sprinkled in the signings of Nick Johnson and Randy Winn, and made the gutsy call that it was time to say see ya to Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui. So this team will look different than the 2009 champs. But is it any better? It's time to start figuring that out.
4. Witness for the Defense: In case you hadn't caught onto this, defense is officially cool again. It must be if the Red Sox devoted their entire offseason to it. They're about to enter this season without anybody on the roster who hit 30 home runs last year. But the run-prevention upgrade infused by this winter's imports -- John Lackey, Adrian Beltre, Mike Cameron and Marco Scutaro -- might be worth eight to nine more wins, according to the Fielding Bible's John Dewan. So kids, put down those bats and start flashing that leather. Who knew the good old home run trot was soooo 2007?
5. Not so Angelic: True fact: Over the last five years, the Angels have averaged 13 more wins than the next-winningest team in the AL West (that would be Oakland). But all of a sudden, this division doesn't look so Angel-centric anymore. Over the last two offseasons, the Angels have waved adios to John Lackey, Chone Figgins, Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Vladimir Guerrero, Jon Garland and Kelvim Escobar. And while they theoretically plugged their holes this winter with Hideki Matsui, Fernando Rodney and Joel Pineiro, the consensus of folks we polled is that this division is no longer The Angels and Those Three Other Teams. This is a club that always seems to disprove that kind of talk. But we'll see.
Most Intriguing Spring Stories (National League)
1. The Mac Attack: It isn't every camp where the new hitting coach can overshadow the signing of the first $119 million free agent in franchise history (Matt Holliday). But that's the deal in Bird Land this spring. And contrary to what Big Mac may have heard from Ari Fleischer and his spin doctors, he's still not here to talk just about the present and future. Not yet. Are the St. Louis Cardinals going to be able to keep the McGwire Circus from following them from town to town for the next 7½ months? By the time they leave Jupiter, Fla., we should all have a better idea.
2. That Halladay Feeling: Last year this time, who among us wasn't peering into our handy-dandy crystal balls to try to figure out where the great Roy Halladay would be unloading his gear for this spring training? Well, now that that mystery has been solved, we can turn our attention to what kind of numbers the best pitcher in baseball might be able to put up now that he doesn't have to face the Yankees and Red Sox 12 times a year. And how much better does he make a Phillies team that had this spot in the rotation occupied by Rodrigo Lopez, Antonio Bastardo and a hurting Brett Myers for four months last year? But just as important, Halladay also has to make Philadelphians forget the exit of the man who held down that spot in the rotation in August, September and October -- Clifton Phifer Lee. And that might be tougher than back-to-back starts in Fenway and the Bronx.
3. Heeere's Stephie: Well, this is it for Stephen Strasburg: Showtime. This isn't San Diego State anymore. Or the Instructional League. Or the Arizona Fall League. This is it. Time to put on a big league uniform, unleash that $15 million arm on real big league hitters and begin tackling his modest little assignment to rescue an entire franchise. The last thing we'd wish on any player is a bulldozer loaded with the kind of hype Strasburg will have to lug around with him for the rest of his life. But if this guy ever lives up to it, we'll have one heck of a story on our hands.
4. Mets Anatomy: You don't have to be a subscriber to the Journal of the American Medical Association to know the Mets had themselves a few medical mishaps last season. So now that they've pulled back into exotic Port St. Lucie, have they used up all their bad health luck for, like, the next 900 years? Are Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Johan Santana, John Maine and the Wilpon family investment portfolio all going to be just fine? Or were the Mets' troubles last season, and their puzzling Jason Bay-and-a-cloud-of-dust offseason, an indication that this is now a franchise with serious issues? Somehow, it feels as if this will be a defining spring and summer for this team.
5. The light goes out in Georgia: OK, here's a tricky little trivia question for you: Who managed the Braves before Bobby Cox? And what year did anybody else last manage this team -- in, like, 1948? Well, the correct answer is Russ Nixon. And the year was 1990 -- just months after the arrival on planet Earth of Cox's No. 1 prospect this spring, Jason Heyward. So now, two spectacular decades later, manager Cox's final season is about to begin. Will the arrival of Heyward, Billy Wagner, Takashi Saito and Troy Glaus be enough to write a happy ending for the best manager of his generation? Uh, excellent question.
Most Improved Teams (AL)
2. Red Sox
No team in either league got more most-improved votes in our poll than the Mariners. In fact, they got nearly twice as many votes as any other team in the whole sport. But now the question is whether they're really as good as they're being made out to be. Not that there's much reason to debate the merits of just about anything Jack Zduriencik did: The Cliff Lee trade was the deal of the winter. Chone Figgins was as dynamic an addition as any team made. And no matter what you think of Milton Bradley, he can't possibly contribute less than the guy he was traded for, Carlos Silva.
Rookies to Watch (AL)
But now let's remember something: This team got outscored by 52 runs last season. And finished last in the league in runs scored, batting, on-base percentage and OPS. So as one AL exec put it, this club has a chance to pull off a theoretically impossible daily double: It "might be better -- but not win more games."
Fun poll fact: Five teams got at least two most-improved votes: Mariners (9), Red Sox (5), Twins (5), Yankees (4) and (surprise) Orioles (2).
Most Improved Teams (NL)
If the Phillies had just traded for Roy Halladay and held onto Cliff Lee, they might have won this poll unanimously. But that isn't how they chose to play it. So after another strange journey to the center of the NL offseason, it's hard to make a case that a single team in the National League got dramatically better.
But if you're looking for a dark horse, how about the Diamondbacks? Toss Edwin Jackson into a rotation with Dan Haren and a healthy Brandon Webb, and there might be no team in the league that can top that 1-2-3 array. Adam LaRoche, at $6 million for one year in that ballpark, could be a great signing. And Kelly Johnson, Bobby Howry, Ian Kennedy and Aaron Heilman provide useful inventory, if nothing else. Nobody is going to pick this team over the Rockies, Dodgers or Giants. But the D-backs sure did get a lot of votes in this survey.
Fun poll fact: A sure sign that nobody knew what to make of this winter in the life of the NL: Seven different teams (Diamondbacks, Nationals, Brewers, Phillies, Braves, Reds and Mets) got two or more most-improved votes. But no team got more than four votes.
Most Unimproved Teams (AL)
3. Blue Jays
It's now just 28 months since the Indians held a 3-1 series lead over Boston in the ALCS and found themselves one win away from a trip to the World Series. That's all. Just 28 months. So it's hard to comprehend what's befallen this team since. The Indians have traded away two Cy Youngs (CC Sabathia and Lee) and an All-Star catcher (Victor Martinez) since then.
They lost as many games as the Royals last year (97). And they were so short in the old checking account this winter that the only free agent they signed to a big league contract was a backup catcher (Mike Redmond), for 850,000 bucks. Whew. Sad story. Is it too soon to start the Kerry Wood and Jake Westbrook trade-deadline rumors yet?
Fun poll fact: At least the Indians have company. Every team in the AL Central except the Twins got at least one most-unimproved vote.
Most Unimproved Teams (NL)
No team has beaten out the Pirates in this prestigious portion of our poll since 2007. But the Dodgers pulled it off this year, thanks pretty much entirely to the "Divorce Court" soap opera currently swallowing up life both inside and outside their owner's box. Frank McCourt keeps insisting that his divorce isn't affecting the operation of his team. But two years ago, the Dodgers' payroll was nearly $119 million when the season started, and about $122 million when it ended. Now it's almost $40 million lower, even though this team has topped 3.7 million in attendance (and made the playoffs) in two straight seasons.
Rookies to Watch (NL)
So GM Ned Colletti was forced to shop on the cheap all winter, for every Russ Ortiz and Luis Ayala he could scoop out of the bargain bin -- and couldn't even take a chance on offering arbitration to Randy Wolf, Jon Garland or Orlando Hudson. Tough way to run a marquee franchise.
Fun poll fact: Competition in this section of the poll was so feverish that nine different NL teams got votes (Dodgers, Pirates, Mets, Astros, Padres, Cubs, Marlins, Braves and Cardinals).
Least Recognizable Teams
2. Blue Jays
Here's a question that could win us a free beverage in any saloon in America outside the 412 area code: Name six Pirates. Go ahead. Try it. We'll even spot you Zach Duke and Paul Maholm, and we'd still take our chances. Of the eight position players who started on Opening Day last year, only three are still on the roster. By August, the '09 Buccos had traded away everybody who made more than $2.5 million. And while they did have an action-packed winter, their 16 free-agent signees have less guaranteed money coming combined ($7 million) than John Grabow (who's now a Cub, by the way). So go ahead. Try to name six Pirates. We're not 100 percent sure even Bill Mazeroski could do it.
Fun poll fact: For the first time in the history of this survey, the Red Sox even got two votes.
1. Red Sox: Ever wondered what you could buy if you had a spare $126 million in your wallet? Well, it could get you 26,526,315 million cups of chowdah at Legal Seafood. Or, if you weren't in the mood for soup, it could buy you John Lackey, Adrian Beltre, Marco Scutaro, Mike Cameron and two more years of Tim Wakefield. Now if you want to be technical, we should deduct $7.15 million from that total, because that's how much money Seattle sent to Boston, along with Bill Hall, in the Casey Kotchman deal. So if you see our waitress, tell her we're not going to need 1½ million of those chowdahs.
2. Mariners: You could convince us the Mariners ought to be No. 1 on this list, but it's tricky. They spent "only" $50.8 million on their six free agents -- Figgins, Ken Griffey Jr., Jack Wilson, Ryan Garko, Eric Byrnes and Erik Bedard. But lob another $78 million into that stack of cash for Felix Hernandez's extension. Then count the $7.15 they sent to Boston in the Kotchman trade and another $9 million to the Cubs in the Milton Bradley-for-Carlos Silva dump fest. And if you add all that together, that's $144.95 million. We just hope that works out better than the 3.2 million king salmon dinners they could have bought at Sky City for the same payout.
3. Cardinals: Of the $127.45 million they laid out on Brad Penny, Jason LaRue and Matt Holliday, all but $8.45 million of it went to Holliday. But what the heck. All of it was negotiable U.S. dollars. So it still counts. Bet you didn't know the next seven years of Holliday will cost $106 million more than it cost to build The Arch.
Fun poll facts: The Brewers ($54.4 million) spent almost as much on free agents this winter as the Yankees, Cubs and White Sox combined ($54.8M). The Tigers doled out $94.55 million if you count the Justin Verlander extension. And the Mets guaranteed $66 million to Jason Bay -- and $4.85 million to their other four major league free agents combined (Alex Cora, Kelvim Escobar, Henry Blanco and Fernando Tatis). The Mets also win this winter's Jim Bowden Invite 'Em All Award -- by signing 17 non-roster free agents, from Josh Fogg to Frank Catalanotto to Jolbert Cabrera.
Zipped Wallet Champs
1. Marlins: If there was a conscientious-free-agent-objector trophy, the Fish would win it. They handed out exactly zero guaranteed dollars on the free-agent market this winter. At least Josh Johnson's four-year, $39 million extension can keep their accountants busy.
2. Indians: Their only big league free-agent signee of the offseason, Mike Redmond, will make less money all season ($850,000) than their old pal, CC Sabathia, collects every week ($884,615).
3. Pirates: If you were willing to work for $1.5 million or less, you were the Buccos' kind of free agent. Outside of Octavio Dotel, who will get $3.25 million to be their closer, none of their other 16 major league or minor league free agents will top $1.5M. Total dollars guaranteed on big league free-agent deals: $7 million -- which comes to less than Jason Bay's signing bonus.
Best Free Agent Signings
You might think the Red Sox needed another top-of-the-rotation type starter about as much as the U.S. Curling team needs another broom. But in truth, there's no such thing as too many big-time starting pitchers. So, faced with a free-agent class that featured no hitters they felt comfortable turning into mega-millionaires, the Red Sox reeled in Lackey -- a guy who is 32 games over .500 over the last six years, who is 25-15 lifetime against the rest of the AL East, who has started 12 postseason games and who shut them out into the eighth inning in Game 1 of last year's postseason. Of course, he's also a guy with a 5.75 career ERA in Fenway. But the good news is, at least he won't have to face the Red Sox there anymore.
Fun poll fact: Not sure what it says about this market, but 16 different players got at least one vote for best free agent -- including a man who has never thrown a pitch in the USA, Aroldis Chapman.
Worst Free Agent Signings
We had 25 different players get a vote in this category, so it was quite the free-for-all. But as the votes rolled in, Lyon and Kendall pulled away from this field. The Jason Kendall Fan Club was stunned that the Royals would give a two-year deal to a 36-year-old catcher who was once a three-time All-Star but hasn't made an All-Star team in 10 years, threw out 16.9 percent of opposing base stealers last year and has hit fewer homers over the last eight seasons combined (20) than Miguel Olivo hit for them last year. So how did Lyon win this vote? "Too many years, too much money," said one GM, succinctly. Remember, only three free-agent pitchers got contracts of three years or longer all winter. And Lyon -- who had a 4.70 ERA for the last team that used him as a closer (the '08 D-backs) -- was one of them. Who knew?
Fun poll fact: Eight players got votes in the best and worst free-agent columns -- including Lyon. The others: Holliday, Chapman, Placido Polanco, Jason Marquis, Joel Pineiro, Ben Sheets and Jason Bay.
1. Mariners get Cliff Lee from Philadelphia for three prospects (Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies and J.C. Ramirez) who failed to make an appearance on Keith Law's Top 100 list. Lee is probably one-and-done in Seattle. But for now, he and King Felix sure do form one terrifying co-ace tag team. They combined for 53 quality starts last year. Next-highest total by any two 2010 teammates: 47, by Adam Wainwright-Chris Carpenter.
2. Yankees get a No. 4 starter (Javy Vazquez) who is probably better than about 15 teams' No. 1 starter -- for Melky Cabrera, left-hander Mike Dunn and a kid who, until this deal went down, was undoubtedly the best Yankees pitching prospect you'd probably never heard of, Arodys Vizcaino.
3. After months of stalking Roy Halladay, Phillies finally get their man -- and sign him for about half (three years, $60 million) of what Lee will be looking for next winter. But this was no steal. Not if the cost was Lee and three prospects our panelists liked better than any of the three they got from Seattle.
Fun poll facts: If the definition of a good trade is one that works for everybody, you should know that the Blue Jays' return on the Halladay deal also got best-trade votes. And so did all three teams in the big Curtis Granderson/Edwin Jackson/Max Scherzer Yankees/Tigers/Diamondbacks extravaganza.
Best Bargain Free Agents
Best free agents signed to one-year deals: (1) The Twins finish renovating their DP combination by signing a guy (Orlando Hudson) who got a bunch of best-free-agent-period votes, for a mere one year, $5 million. (2) The Angels reel in the World Series MVP, Hideki Matsui, for one year, $6.25 million. And (3) for one year, $4.7 million, the Padres interrupt their regularly scheduled low-budget programming to sign a pitcher (Jon Garland) who has outwon (25-23) and outworked (400 1/3 IP to 339 2/3) John Lackey over the last two years.
Best free agents $2 million and under: (1) The Twins find a 564-homer man (Jim Thome) willing to take an $11.5 million pay cut (from $13M to $1.5M), to add to their deep collection of left-handed mashers; (2) the Braves take a $1.75 million gamble on a hitter (Troy Glaus) who has never failed to put up at least 27 homers and an .800 OPS in any season where he played more than 115 games, and (3) the Yankees give $2 million (or $18 million less than Johnny Damon was asking) to a fourth outfielder (Randy Winn) who has hit .302, with a .363 OBP, against left-handed pitching the last two years.
Best free agents signed to minor league deals: (1) The Dodgers bring back Jeff Weaver on a minor league contract, a year after he racked up his best ERA (3.65) since 2002 and actually set a career high in strikeout ratio (7.3 K per 9 IP); (2) the Dodgers gamble just a minor league contract that Alfredo Amezaga can be a seven-position super-utility dervish again (as opposed to the physical wreck he was last year), and (3) the Giants take a nonguaranteed shot that the Todd Wellemeyer they signed is that guy who went 13-9, 3.71 for the 2008 Cardinals, not the guy who made every hitter he faced last year look like Carlos Beltran (opponent numbers: .327/.399/.507).
Three Most Outrageous Contracts (free agent or otherwise)
1. Un-dissuaded by the fact that nobody else was within 100 million bucks of them, the Cardinals fork over a seven-year, $119 million deal to Matt Holliday. Hey, he's a heck of a player. But as one NL exec put it, "Still boggles the mind how a player without another concrete offer could get that kind of money."
2. The A's make Ben Sheets the first $10 million pitcher in team history, even though (A) he pitched zero innings last year after shoulder surgery, (B) he'd spent 223 days on the disabled list with other injuries the previous four years, and (C) the only other healthy free-agent starters who got eight-figure-per-year deals in this market were John Lackey and Andy Pettitte.
3. The Nationals guarantee two years, $6 million to a 38-year-old catcher (Pudge Rodriguez) who is about to join his fifth team in the last 18 months, has had a sub-.300 on-base percentage (.299) and sub-.400 slugging percentage (.389) over the last two years and was ranked 31st (or fourth-worst) in baseball in "pitcher handling" last year by Bill James Online.
Fun poll fact: Our favorite outside-the-box pick in this category: The Mets give a guaranteed, $1.25 million deal (plus another $2.5 million in incentives and a suite on the road) to Kelvim Escobar, a fellow who has pitched a total of five innings over the last two seasons put together.
Most Important Injury Comebacks
Most Unlikely Names on Spring Training Rosters
1. Byung-Hyun Kim (Giants): We count 829 different men who threw at least one pitch in the big leagues in the last two years. Our man Kim wasn't one of them. According to our esteemed cohort, Jerry Crasnick, B.K. has spent the last two years "recharging" in South Korea, other than the few weeks he spent mostly napping in the Pirates' spring training camp in 2008. It's now 8½ years since Kim served up the most famous postseason gopher balls in Diamondbacks history. But more importantly, it's also seven years since he could last be classified as "any good." Since the end of the 2003 season, this guy owns a 5.50 big league ERA, a messy 1.573 WHIP and almost as many hit batters (40) as wins appeared in (44).
2. Chris George (Orioles): More proof that it's as great as ever to be left-handed and breathing: It's now six years since the last time George showed up in a big league box score. And a year ago this time, he was a proud member of the Diablos Rojos del Mexico. But he kept bouncing around until he surfaced for the Orioles' Triple-A team in Norfolk last summer, put up a 1.86 ERA in five starts and parlayed it into a big league invite. The good news: He's only 30. The bad news: His minor league ERA the last five years is 5.43.
3. (tie) Jim Edmonds (Brewers), Paul Lo Duca (Rockies), Mark Grudzielanek (Indians), Jacque Jones (Twins), Jay Payton (Rockies): Not one of these men played a single inning of any professional baseball game last year. But spring training is a beautiful invention for folks like this. So wish them luck. Somebody has to keep the comeback-player-of-the-year committee on its toes.
Three Stories/Events that Summed up the Offseason
1. Where's Johnny: Who knew it would be easier for Johnny Damon to steal two World Series bases on the same pitch than it would be for him to find a job in the next three months? But here's our question: Did Scott Boras really want Damon to find a job before he got Matt Holliday signed? The longer the Yankees had an apparent opening in left field, the easier it was for the Cardinals to worry that the Yankees could still swoop in and sign Holliday at the last minute. Right? Unfortunately for Damon, by the time Holliday signed in St. Louis and Boras was announcing, "I'm in the process of turning my attention to Johnny's situation," it was mid-January, the Yankees had hung a "No Vacancy" sign and it was time for him to start begging the Tigers to rescue Damon from the unemployment line. Crazy saga.
2. Carlos for Milton: If there was one trade that summed up the state of modern baseball, it was the big Milton Bradley-for-Carlos Silva dual dollar dump. Just when you thought there couldn't possibly be a team more desperate to expunge any player than the Cubs were to extricate Bradley from their midst, the Mariners not only were willing to trade for Milton -- they were willing to pay the Cubs 9 million bucks to take Silva off their hands. What a country.
3. The All-Unemployed-On-Presidents-Day Team: Once upon a time, offseasons were actually over by now. But not anymore. Check out this team of still-jobless luminaries, in the third week of February:
1B: Carlos Delgado
2B: Josh Barfield
SS: Felipe Lopez
3B: Joe Crede
LF: Johnny Damon
CF: Rocco Baldelli
RF: Jermaine Dye
C: Rod Barajas
DH: Russell Branyan
Starting rotation: John Smoltz, Pedro Martinez, Braden Looper, Jarrod Washburn, Livan Hernandez
Bullpen: Mike MacDougal, Chan Ho Park, David Weathers, Kiko Calero, Ron Mahay, Joe Beimel.
Think those guys could win a series from the Indians?
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new 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.