Spring training is Chapter 1 of a great mystery novel. Characters are introduced and plots are set in motion, often toward unimaginable ends. The Cardinals began last year, for instance, with a season-ending injury to ace Adam Wainwright, who underwent Tommy John surgery a week after their pitchers and catchers reported to camp in Jupiter, Fla. They ended it with a world championship and a presidential decree that they were "the greatest comeback team in the history of baseball."
Incubating in the welcome warmth of Florida and Arizona, another thriller begins this week, and it already looks very different from the one that unfolded in 2011. A healthy Wainwright is back with St. Louis, but iconic slugger Albert Pujols and manager Tony La Russa are not. The newly named and costumed Miami Marlins spent money; the Yankees and the Red Sox did not. Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish, by way of Japan, and A's outfielder Yoenis Céspedes, by way of Cuba, add international intrigue. As training camps open, these are the most compelling story lines to follow.
After watching the two worst run-scoring teams in franchise history lose a combined 196 games in 2010 and '11, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik went on the offensive: He told Yankees G.M. Brian Cashman at the winter meetings in December that he wanted New York's prized power-hitting prospect, 22-year-old catcher Jesus Montero. Zduriencik gave up two premier arms—Michael Pineda (right, with Seattle in 2011), 23, who went 9--10 with a 3.74 ERA and 173 strikeouts as a rookie last year, and 19-year-old prospect Jose Campos—to get Montero and pitcher Hector Noesi. Montero, whose catching skills are questionable, is a designated hitter with opposite-field power that recalls Mike Piazza's.
"People have to realize he is not the savior and the answer to all of our offensive issues," Zduriencik says. "He's a part of the things we need to do to get better. [Montero should] eventually be a middle-of-the-order hitter, but that will play itself out over time."
Patience has also been required for first baseman Justin Smoak, another young hitter Seattle imported for elite pitching (from Texas for Cliff Lee in 2010). Smoak, 25, hit 15 home runs with a .719 OPS in 489 plate appearances last year, his first full season with the team. But the Mariners are so starved for offense that Montero, who hit .328 with four homers and a .996 OPS in 69 plate appearances as a Yankees call-up in September, may be their biggest threat immediately. If nothing else, he should enjoy hitting in Arizona while camp lasts. In Seattle, home of cavernous Safeco Field, only one Mariner in the past five years, Russell Branyan in 2009, has hit 30 homers.
MEET THE NEW BOSSES
The 2011 season began with seven managers who had won a World Series with their current club. It ended with three of them gone: Ozzie Guillen asked out of the White Sox job to go to Miami, Terry Francona agreed not to return to the Red Sox, and La Russa retired after winning another World Series with St. Louis. The White Sox (Robin Ventura, below) and the Cardinals (Mike Matheny) chose popular former players who have never managed on any level. The Red Sox (Bobby Valentine) chose someone with 15 years of big league experience—the most recent in 2002 before finding work in Japan. All of them, in a sign of the times, are media-savvy.
Just two years ago, Giants catcher Buster Posey and Braves rightfielder Jason Heyward competed for the NL Rookie of the Year Award: They finished one-two, respectively. This year they are competing for the NL Comeback Player of the Year Award.