The song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” has long been a holiday staple. However, baseball fans know the most wonderful time of the year comes in February when pitchers and catchers start reporting to spring training camps in Florida and Arizona. Reporting dates come a week early this year because of the World Baseball Classic, so batterymen for all 30 teams will be working out by this time next week.
There will be plenty of stories from places like Viera, Florida, and Surprise, Arizona, to tide fans over until the regular season starts on March 31 when the Astros play their first game as an American League team by hosting the cross-state rival Rangers. With that in mind, here is one baseball writer’s opinion on where the most interesting stories will lie this spring, picking three camps in Florida and three in Arizona:
Yankees: The storylines will abound in Tampa. Is Derek Jeter recovered from the broken ankle he suffered in last year’s American League Championship Series? Is Mariano Rivera recovered from major knee surgery? Will the pitching arms of Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda fall off? But the biggest story of all will be Alex Rodriguez and his latest reported ties to performance-enhancing drugs. Rodriguez is rehabbing from last month’s hip surgery and won’t be able to play until at least sometime after the All-Star break, and general manager Brian Cashman declines to say where his third baseman is working out.
“If I’m Cash, this is what I do—I tell A-Rod to come to Tampa on the day the full squad reports, hold a press conference, then go away for the rest of the spring and do his rehab at an undisclosed location,” one AL East front-office type said. “Otherwise it’s going to be like Ringling Brothers all spring in that camp. Get it over with and then move on.”
Blue Jays: The quaint town of Dunedin has been an afterthought on the spring circuit for many years. However, the Blue Jays are relevant again after trading with the Marlins for shortstop Jose Reyes, left-hander Mark Buehrle, and right-hander Josh Johnson and with the Mets for reigning National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey. The Blue Jays also signed outfielder Melky Cabrera to a two-year, $16-million contract as a free agent. He will have to face the media and explain why he put himself in position to get busted for having elevated levels of testosterone last August, which resulted in a 50-game suspension from Major League Baseball.
“This is an interesting dynamic because you’re throwing a lot of guys from different teams together just like the Marlins did last spring, and we saw how that worked out,” said the AL East FOT, referring to Miami finishing last in NL East following a big free agent spending spree in the 2011-12 offseason. “I think things will be different here, though. John Gibbons isn’t a sideshow like Ozzie Guilen. He is a manager who knows how to handle to people. He’ll get his guys on the same page, and he’ll handle the media crush. The Blue Jays hired the right guy to pull this off.”
Braves: One of the most tried-and-true storylines of spring training is new faces in new places. No story in that category is more compelling than that of the Upton brothers joining the Braves: B.J. was signed as a free agent for five years and $75.25 million after spending his eight-year career with the Rays, and Justin was acquired from the Diamondbacks in a seven-player trade. The Braves feel the additions of the Uptons make them a legit threat to unseat the Nationals as NL East champs. We won’t know if that’s the case until early autumn, but we do know the Uptons will likely get tired of hearing this question before spring training is less than one week old at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex in Lake Buena Vista: “What’s it going to be like playing with your brother?”
“Rightly or wrongly, the Uptons have a rap around baseball of not always fitting in with their teammates and not always giving their best effort,” one NL East front-office type said. “One thing about the Braves that hasn’t changed since Bobby Cox retired and Fredi Gonzalez took over as manager is their players are expected to conduct themselves in a proper manner and play the game the right way. I guarantee you that if there is any trouble with either B.J. or Justin—and I don’t think there will be—that it will be addressed this spring and that will be the end of it.”
Angels: The big news in Tempe will be the arrival of outfielder Josh Hamilton, who left the AL West rival Rangers for a five-year, $125-million contract as a free agent. The recovering drug addict had a great support system with the Rangers, and it will be interesting to see how quickly Hamilton can become comfortable in his new environment. Albert Pujols is a great player but not a warm and fuzzy guy who would seemingly go out of his way to help Hamilton make the adjustment.
“I really wonder how this whole thing with Josh Hamilton is going to work out,” said an AL West FOT. “Spring training is the time when bonds are built on teams. It’s pretty much nothing but baseball for six or seven weeks. There was no doubt Josh was stung by the boos at the end of last season and, more than most players, he really needs to feel welcomed this spring.”
Dodgers: Camelback Ranch will be home to the team with the largest payroll in baseball history, and the fact that the Dodgers have taken that title away from the Yankees is a story unto itself. Oh, there will be other storylines, too, such as seeing if Dodgers jell better this spring than they did last season after bringing in such stars as Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett in trades. Then there is also the fact that Don Mattingly, who is popular with his players, is a lame-duck manager as his contract expires at the end of the season.
“The guy I feel sorry for is Donnie Baseball,” said an NL West FOT. “The expectations are so high for this team that anything short of the World Series is going to be a disappointment. That’s not entirely fair. Donnie is almost in a no-win situation here. Whatever he does is not going to be enough.”
Diamondbacks: After trading Upton, the Diamondbacks have made it clear they want a roster filled with players in the same mold as manager Kirk Gibson—tough, hard-nosed and gritty. Gibson, don’t forget, was also a talented player, and the Diamondbacks traded two of those types over the winter in Upton and rookie right-hander Trevor Bauer, who wound up with the Indians in a three-team transaction that also involved the Reds. You can’t help but wonder how intense those exhibition games will be at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick this spring.
“The onus is on Gibby now,” the NL West FOT said. “This is truly his team. He has the guys he wants. Now, let’s see what he does with them.”
Cardinals right-hander Chris Carpenter is expected to miss the season because of numbness in his shoulder and neck, a condition that could also end his career. The news of such a loss, particularly a week before the start of spring training, would be devastating to many clubs, but not the Cardinals. While the immediate reaction by some analysts was for the Cardinals to try to re-sign free agent right-hander Kyle Lohse, general manager John Mozeliak is much more likely to stay in-house for a replacement, as he has promising young options in right-handers Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller, and Trevor Rosenthal.
All three pitchers made their major-league debuts last season. Kelly had a 3.53 ERA, 4.04 FIP, and 4.93 Fair Run Average in 107 innings; Miller’s figures were 1.32, 1.89, 2.28 in 13 2/3 innings; and Rosenthal went 2.78, 3.14, 2.97 in 22 2/3 innings. One NL scout who covers the Cardinals’ system regularly ranks the trio in this order: Miller, Rosenthal, Kelly.
“I love Miller, and I think he will wind up being a No. 1 starter,” the scout said. “He has a great arm, but now he is starting to learn how to pitch and command his pitches. Rosenthal throws harder and I think he’s got a great future, too, but Miller has better secondary pitches and command. Kelly is OK, but he is not in the class of Miller and Rosenthal. For me, he’s more of a fourth or fifth guy in a rotation.”
Catcher Matt Wieters wants to work out a long-term contract extension with the Orioles, though he is not eligible for free agency until after the 2016 season. One source said Wieters wants to stay in Baltimore badly enough that he has asked agent Scott Boras to eschew his strategy of taking his players to free agency and instead striking a deal with the Orioles—a situation similar to that of Angels right-hander Jered Weaver and the Angels in 2011.
It will be interesting to see how much money Wieters is seeking—almost certainly an eight-figure contact—and how the Orioles value him. Wieters has won a Gold Glove and been selected to the All-Star Game in each of the last two seasons, but Baseball Prospectus’ metrics suggest the 26-year-old he has a ways to go before being considered a superstar.
While Wieters put together a .249/.329/.435 slash line with 23 home runs in 593 plate appearances in 2012, he had a .270 True Average and contributed 2.1 WARP, while his -2.2 Fielding Runs Above Average suggest he was not a Gold Glove-caliber defender. Wieters ranked ninth in WARP and 19th in FRAA among the 24 major-league catchers who had at least 300 plate appearances in 2012. A scout from an NL team, though, believes the Orioles should strongly consider signing Wieters to a long-term extension.
“I don’t think he’s going to get dramatically better, but I think there is still something more left in the bat, and I also like the way he handles their pitching staff,” the scout said. “There isn’t a lot of good catching out there, and the Orioles would be wise to hang on to him. He may not turn out to be the next Johnny Bench, but he is a cornerstone player for their organization.”