Yankees, Mets, trade rumors, free agents, off-the-wall predictions and other MLB musings.
Annual visceral, small-sample-sized observations from spring training
Upon returning home from my first visit to spring training, I always enjoy checking in with some mental snapshots, mindful that what I took away could prove to be hugely significant or, far more likely, wholly irrelevant. Here is last year's entry. I forgot that I had Johnny Damon on the record acknowledging how important reaching 3,000 career hits was.
Some spring trainings, I'll spend almost excluslvely with the Yankees and Mets. Shoot, in 2009, when Alex Rodriguez confessed to using illegal PEDs, I was pretty much with the Yankees the entire time. This year, however, with neither local club having particularly captivating storylines, I roamed.
In all, I saw 10 teams in 14 days. I'll go team by team, in the order I saw them:
1. Phillies. Well, the deal with the Phillies was, I saw just one player - Jonathan Papelbon. When I went to Clearwater on February 18, Philadelphia hadn't even started working out yet. So I showed up in their press room, ate lunch and spoke with Papelbon in an interview room. Good lunch.
I took away one observation: We'll see how Papelbon pitches at the Phillies' new closer, but his Boston experience will undoubtedly help. He has experienced plenty of bad days at the office, as has any top-notch closer, and he knows the post-game drill.
About 40 media members attended Papelbon's news conference on the 18th. That might have fazed some Phillies newcomers. For Papelbon, however, it was just another day at the office.
2. Red Sox. Bobby Valentine really is a force of nature. He overflows with ideas on everything from how to run a spring-training drills to lineup construction to the bigger stuff like front-office decisions. In that manner, he's a significant contrast to his predecessor Terry Francona, who succeeded by working quietly and often just staying out of the way.
I wonder how Valentine and his largely veteran team will work together when they hit their first speed bump during the season. It might be just fine. Yet for a team very accustomed to doing things a certain way, it'll be an adjustment.
3. Pirates. I went to Bradenton to see A.J. Burnett, and I saw a young team with some talent that appears to be headed in the right direction. The Andrew McCutchen contract extension is a great, encouraging move. But man, it sure is taking them a while.
With Burnett down for a while after his freak accident, look at the Pirates' starting rotation for the start of the season: Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton, James McDonald and Erik Bedard. That isn't terrible, and there's some upside there, and if Burnett can recover, then he can help, too. Yet when you compare it to the rotation of the Brewers, Cardinals and Reds, it doesn't match up.
4. Yankees. When I was on Duke Castiglione's "Sports Xtra" show on Fox 5 Sunday night, he threw out this thought: With each year that passes, the Yankees' spring training moves further away from the George Steinbrenner lunacy that used to pervade in Tampa (and prior to that, in Fort Lauderdale). That statement is obvious in the time-measurement sense, but I think it's also true spiritually.
The Yankees are still the Yankees. With the highest payroll, the most big names and the most fans, they're going to attract more of a buzz than any other club. Yet you stand in their camp now, and for the most part, it's just spring training. There's no concern about losing Grapefruit League games. There's litlte chatter about other moves the Yankees should be making to ensure a 28th World Series title.
Of course, days like yesterday, when Michael Pineda pitched well, help. Every baseball operations official I saw in spring training, I asked that person what he thought about the Yankees' acquisition of Pineda. It received universal praise. People think that highly of Pineda, and while people generally love Jesus Montero's bat, the consensus if he simply isn't going to pan out as a catcher, and therefore he'd have to be an Edgar Martinez-caliber DH to justify giving up Pineda.
5. Marlins. There's a very positive vibe here, thanks to the acquisitions of Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell. They all seem to have blended in quickly - Reyes has his trademark laugh. Bell is a goofball and Buehrles quietly does his work.
And of course, there's Ozzie Guillen. He deservedly got a bad rap his last few years in Chicago, as he openly clashed with his general manager Ken Williams, but it shouldn't be forgotten that, in his early years, Guillen was pretty darn good at his job. Both in running a clubhouse and running a game.
As one official from another club said to me in Florida, "What I love about Ozzie is that he doesn't take any ___. He calls people out when they deserve to be called out."
The interesting dynamic here will be Guillen's ability to manage up as well as manage down. Marlins upper management has turned quickly and often on its managers; just ask Joe Girardi and Fredi Gonzalez. Guillen is combustible. But no previous Marlins manager had the job security that Guillen does.
6. Cardinals. Gosh, this really is a different place with Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols gone. Much of the Cardinals' notorious anti-media attitude stemmed from that pair, even though both could be personable in the right settings.
The key to replacing Pujols' production will be the health of veterans Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran, and for whatever it's worth, both guys looked to be in good condition. New manager Mike Matheny, meanwhile, projects confidence and competence as he tries to succeed the great La Russa.
7. Nationals. I happened to show up the day they announced the Ryan Zimmerman contract extension, and man, were they excited. I get it - local kid, face of the franchise, etc. But man. Is Zimmerman that good? As an outsider questioning the wisdom of this deal, I felt like Homer in this "Simpsons" episode, when he upsets his fellow Springfield natives by correctly guessing the conclusion to a Julia Roberts-Richard Gere film.
Meanwhile, Davey Johnson has a rather, um, casual attitude. As the Nats took batting practice, he often turned away from the field and proactively started conversations with front office officials and media members. I couldn't see the intense New York duo of Terry Collins or Joe Girardi doing that.
8. Mets. Last year, I wrote about the increased sense of professionalism around camp, and that remains intact. But there's just no escaping the ownership stuff - yesterday was another bad day - and I just don't see how this team has the talent and depth to compete with the rest of the National League East.
You can see this lineup scoring runs, definitely, and you can see the bullpen doing a better job of protecting leads. But can the lineup stay healthy? And what if any of the starting rotation gets hurt, or simply doesn't pitch well - not a longshot when it comes to Mike Pelfrey or Dillon Gee?
It's hard to see how this won't be another long year in Flushing.
9. Rays. I still have a "team crush" on them. You look around their clubhouse and you see a mass of talent. Not a bad contract in the room. You see even interesting, slow-developing youngsters like Tim Beckham, whom the Rays drafted ahead of Buster Posey in 2008 and who might be coming around as a shortstop, and Matt Bush, who has gone from a bust shortstop as the Padres' first overall pick of 2004 to a very interesting pitcher.
With the extra wild card in place, and with no significant losses from last year, there's little reason to see the Rays missing the postseason.
10. Tigers. It's a cliche to say a new player "seems like he's been here forever," or what have you. But that's the case with Prince Fielder here. Detroit manager Jim Leyland said that he's never seen an easier big-name transition in all of his years managing.
Of course, the big concern remains how Miguel Cabrera can handle third base. If it counts for anything, Cabrera appears to be fully invested in it.
--OK, check back later for a contest.
Tags: Prince Fielder , Bobby Valentine , Jonathan Papelbon , Michael Pineda , Jose Reyes , Ozzie Guillen , Heath Bell , Mark Buehrle , Carlos Beltran , Lance Berkman , Tony La Russa , Albert Pujols , Davey Johnson , Ryan Zimmerman , Jim Leyland , Miguel Cabrera , Matt Bush , Tim Beckahm