12 for '12: Ultimate Fan's Guide to spring in season of change
There is more change and uncertainty this spring than any year in memory
Sluggers in their prime like Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder changed teams
Intriguing international players like Yu Darvish, Yoenis Cespedes have arrived
The heir to Stan Musial left St. Louis, the Tigers came out of nowhere to give a Prince a king's ransom and three of the most intriguing players in baseball today never have played a day in the big leagues. In other words, strange as it is, this is the perfect spring training to follow a 2011 season in which none of the nine biggest payrolls won a postseason series and St. Louis, which lost its ace (Adam Wainwright), scrapped its closer (Ryan Franklin) and languished 10 ½ games out in late August, wound up winning the World Series.
Get used to it. Baseball, with its expanded postseason (which will expand again), surge in local television money and ease of movement in assets (players, executives, information, etc.), has a higher churn rate than ever. Expect the unexpected.
Musial never left St. Louis and Robin Yount never left Milwaukee, but Albert Pujols said goodbye to the Cardinals and Prince Fielder departed the Brewers -- and neither of them wound up in the Philadelphia-New York-Boston corridor that has become the financial power base of the sport.
Likewise, the Phillies, Yankees and Red Sox can't claim one of the three most intriguing newcomers, either, with pitcher Yu Darvish signing with Texas and outfielder Yoenis Cespedes with Oakland and teenaged outfielder Bryce Harper arriving with Washington.
I can't remember another spring with more change and uncertainty on the table. The upside is greater competition for playoff spots -- or at least the appearance of it -- and greater star power. A year or two ago I wondered what had happened to the true drawing card ballplayer. The game lacked big personalities. But now the Nationals have two of them -- Harper and Stephen Strasburg, who has the kind of stuff, if not the personality, to be a sensation -- Pujols is an even bigger star for having changed teams, and Darvish might be an international sensation.
Change even has created stars who don't actually play, including quotable managers Ozzie Guillen of Miami and Bobby Valentine of Boston, and president Theo Epstein of the Cubs. And who knew when we would see a season in which the Marlins, playing in a new ballpark, and the Nationals are compelling contenders and the Cardinals would not have Tony La Russa in the dugout?
One season used to blend into the next, like episodes of a TV serial. Now the change is head-snapping abrupt. Pitchers need six weeks of training to get their arms in shape; the rest of us need the entire time to get our minds around all the change. To assist you, here is my Ultimate Fan's Guide to Spring Training, a 12-for-'12 rundown of the major spring storylines about to unfold in Arizona and Florida.
1. The spotlight stays on Pujols and Fielder.
Yes, they have been star players for years, so they have played under scrutiny and expectations before. But this is different. Ask Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, Barry Zito, Alfonso Soriano, Mike Hampton, etc. what it's like when you change teams by going to the highest bidder. You get too much attention and too much analysis. The responsibility grows without any goodwill reserve in the bank; you have to start a new account under your new fans. On top of all that, they are changing leagues (admittedly, not as a big a deal as it used to be). The room suddenly becomes very crowded.
2. Try to identify this year's turnaround team.
It happened again last year for the sixth straight season and the 16th time in the 17 years since the last postseason expansion: a team made the postseason the year immediately after a losing record. Actually, two teams pulled off the losers-to-playoffs turnaround -- the Diamondbacks and Brewers -- making it 33 such turnaround stories in 17 years, or about one out of every four playoff teams.
Which 2011 loser will wind up in the 2012 postseason? Rule out the Orioles, Athletics, Mariners, Mets, Pirates, Cubs and Astros for various reasons and you are left with nine possibilities. The most likely? In order: Reds, Nationals, Marlins, Rockies, Indians and Royals. The Royals? Now that is upheaval.
3. Keep an eye (like everyone else) on Harper.
The Nationals outfielder is the most fascinating player in camp yet to make his big league debut. Washington would prefer Harper to start the season in Triple-A in keeping with their original blueprint to have him touch every minor league level. But some players are just too good for those kinds of conservative plans, and Harper may be one of the special ones to accelerate the timetable. Think Dwight Gooden with the 1984 Mets, Ken Griffey Jr. with the 1989 Mariners, Albert Pujols with the 2001 Cardinals and Jason Heyward with the 2010 Braves, all of whom forced their way onto Opening Day rosters with big springs.
The next generation of stars is standing by. In addition to Harper, Angels outfielder Mike Trout, 20, Braves pitcher Julio Teheran, 21, Rays pitcher Matt Moore, 22, Mariners DH Jesus Montero, 22, and Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado, 22, are among the most exciting young players in baseball who could quickly catapult to stardom.
4. Don't buy the Cespedes hype just yet.
The A's handed $36 million to a guy who hasn't seen major league pitching, lost his job on the Cuban national team to Leonys Martin and may or may not be a legit centerfielder. (It's hard to imagine he is a good enough centerfielder to push Coco Crisp to a corner.) Cespedes has received so much hype because he is impressive in workouts and has this element of mystery because he left Cuba. One executive compared him to Marlon Byrd -- not exactly your franchise player
Cespedes, 26, is a free swinger with power, so you can expect many strikeouts this spring as well as a couple of jaw-dropping home runs in the light air of Arizona. (But wait until he sees the ballpark in Oakland.) Cespedes is going to need some time, perhaps even a bit in the minors.
5. The quality of the next free agent class will be determined now.
The best players who might be on the market come November are Josh Hamilton of Texas, Cole Hamels of Philadelphia, Matt Cain of San Francisco and Zack Greinke of Milwaukee. The time is now for their clubs to lock them up with extensions. Otherwise, as Pujols reminded us last year, the closer a star gets to the free agent process the closer he is to walking out the door.
6. The balance of power remains shifted toward the AL.
Of the six most expensive signings this winter, five of them were by AL teams: Pujols by the Angels, Fielder by the Tigers, CC Sabathia by the Yankees, C.J. Wilson by the Angels and Darvish by the Rangers. (Jose Reyes by the Marlins is the NL exception.)
The Rangers and Angels are waging a Yankees-Red Sox kind of warfare when it comes to spending money and competing for a division title. The Tigers made the kind of impulsive vanity buy -- $214 million for Fielder only after Victor Martinez wrecked his knee -- typically associated with New York and Boston.
The AL is more top-heavy; the NL is more unpredictable and has more parity. Let's hope commissioner Bud Selig, with 14 days before the deadline, can secure the expanded postseason for this year to bring more teams into play. And let's just say that more quality teams in the AL have been left out of postseason play over the years than have NL teams. Here is a quick rundown of teams that won 90 games over the past 10 years:
|90-win Teams 2002-11|
7. Get ready for a ton of stories to come out of the manager's office regarding Red Sox and Marlins coverage.
In Valentine and Guillen, Boston and Miami hired veteran managers with strong personalities who not only can be blunt, but also are skillful at sending messages and defining narratives through the media. Though the Red Sox don't have an everyday shortstop and have to live down the great chicken-and-beer September fest of 2011, and the Marlins need to convert Hanley Ramirez to third base and keep Josh Johnson healthy, the personality of those teams will be defined by the managers.
8. Pay no attention to spring training results.
The Cardinals and Rangers played losing baseball in spring training last year and wound up in the World Series. Four of the top five teams last year as ranked by spring training winning percentage didn't sniff the playoffs: the Royals, Giants, Rockies and Twins, the champions of the Grapefruit League who turned out to be awful.
9. The Rockies think age is the new market inefficiency.
Colorado added Michael Cuddyer, 32, Jeremy Guthrie, 32, Mark Ellis, 34, Ramon Hernandez, 35, Marco Scutaro, 35, Casey Blake, 37, and Jamie Moyer, 49, to a roster that includes Todd Helton, 37, and Jason Giambi, 40.
The NL West, with its bigger ballparks and comparable payrolls, for years has been a free-for-all. Three different teams have won the division in the past three years (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Arizona) and a fourth (San Diego) won it six years ago. The Rockies? They never have finished in first place. This is their 20th season. Well, this winter they did win this: they handed out the biggest free agent contract in the division -- $31.5 million to Cuddyer.
10. Pray for the good health of your favorite team's rotation.
We can talk all we want about tweaking a team around the edges, finding the perfect batting order, building a deep bullpen, having "character" guys in the clubhouse, mining advanced metrics or extracting good mojo from a uniform redesign, but nothing is more important to a championship season than having your top five starters take the ball as many times as possible. It really is that simple.
Over the past four seasons, 11 teams have had four starters make at least 30 starts. Ten of those teams made the playoffs, including six that wound up in the World Series -- that's 75 percent of pennant winners from 2008-11. Here are the teams with four pitchers to make 30 starts since 2008:
11. Try to find the next Lance Berkman.
Everybody loves comebacks, and this spring is full of possibilities. Wainwright, Josh Johnson of the Marlins, Clay Buchholz of the Red Sox, Tommy Hanson of the Braves and Johan Santana of the Mets all are important pitchers looking for a healthy spring.
Catcher Buster Posey of the Giants (broken leg) and outfielder Jason Heyward of the Braves (.227 average) are battling for the NL Comeback Player of the Year Award just two years after they finished 1-2 in NL Rookie of the Year voting.
Neftali Feliz (as a starter) will try to bounce back from blowing World Series Game 6, in which he needed only one strike to bring Texas its first championship. Manny Ramirez (currently unemployed) is trying to come back from a second drug penalty. Ichiro Suzuki, at age 38, is trying to come back from hitting .272. Crawford, recovering from wrist surgery and an awful debut season in Boston, still is mending. The comebacks of pitchers we used to know as Leo Nuñez and Fausto Carmona will occur, if at all, under their actual names.
Then there is poor Adam Dunn of the White Sox, trying to come back from one of the worst years in history (.159).
12. Always remember this: it's a very, very long season.
The 2010 Giants were six games out of the playoffs as late as Aug. 28. The 2011 Cardinals were 10 ½ games out of the playoffs as late as Aug. 24. Both teams became World Series champions.
Don't like the way your team looks this spring? Think your club needs another starter, a better closer or another bat? No problem. World championship teams can be made on the fly, not in the winter. Five of the 24 players St. Louis used in the World Series were in other organizations at the All-Star break. The Cardinals took an eraser to their spring plans to use Ryan Theriot at shortstop, Colby Rasmus in centerfield and Franklin as the closer. The changes, they proved, just keep on coming.