80° Good Afternoon
80° Good Afternoon

Annual visceral, small-sample-sized observations from spring training

Yankees pitcher A.J. Burnett throws during spring training

Yankees pitcher A.J. Burnett throws during spring training at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. (Feb. 17, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

I drove 976 miles during my 12 days in Florida and then another 80 miles over my two days in Arizona. Saw a total of nine teams, although not quite with evenly distributed attention. 

Yes, I love spring training. I love the relaxation vibe among the players and team officials. I love that you work days, at least until the occasional exhibition night game comes on the schedule. I love, journalistically, that I have 15 teams at my dispoal, each, in just two states.

I'm glad that I'll be returning to Florida two weeks from now, to get a better look at teams and players at a more crucial juncture. But I always like to wrap up my initial visit after a night's rest with some general thoughts, so here we are:

--Spending time with the Yankees didn't improve my early, short-term outlook of them. As we've discussed, I don't fault the Yankees for what went down over winter regarding their starting rotation. It just didn't work out for them, and we're already reading raves about the likes of Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances and, before he suffered a groin injury, Andrew Brackman. The long-term future is bright. Maybe one of those guys can even help in the second half of 2011.

But for 2011... to rely this heavily on A.J. Burnett? You need to search long and hard to find a non-Yankees person who thinks that Burnett can produce like the Yankees need him to do. Even if he does revert to the 2.8 WAR pitcher he was in 2009, however, can the Yankees get enough behind him and CC Sabathia? We still don't have a clear picture of Phil Hughes, although he obviously has trended in the right direction.

The Grapefruit League is more relevant than past years for the Yankees, that's for sure. Not only do they need the back end of the rotation to announce itself, but they also need to establish depth there, to develop internal replacements should injuries arise and to enhance trade chips, as well.

As for their lineup, individually, I can envision Derek Jeter putting up a rebound season, and Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira. But simple probabilities indicate that all three probably won't. A-Rod and Teixeira both look to be in better shape than usual, while Jeter is in his standard stellar condition.

You look at the Yankees' lineup, and they should continue to score a lot of runs, no matter the formula.

--Neil "Yakosphere" Best, making a spring-training cameo, columnized about Sabathia.

--Mets camp? Despite the Wilpons' best efforts to make themselves visible - again, I get it, some would be ripping them if they were hiding, but the bottom line is they're just not very good at public relations - there's definitely an aura of professionalism that didn't exist in previous years.

Undboutedly, Terry Collins is a good spring-training manager. He has every reason to be energetic and faces no immediate pitfalls that would invoke his shaky past. He definitely keeps people on their toes more, in a good way.

And just to see Sandy Alderson patrolling the premises... I can't say with any certainty that the players feel this way, but for me, it's like when Mr. Miyagi negotiates the deal with Kreese to keep the Cobra Kai away from Daniel in "The Karate Kid." There's a sense of order, of intelligence, that hasn't existed in a very long time.

The actual roster? Eh. But you should have far more faith that this group will optimize what it has, as opposed to, well, you know... making Jenrry Mejia an irrelevant reliever.

--The New York Post reports that the Mets need another loan.

--Red Sox camp was, as I termed it, Camp Optimism. A real sense of satisfaction over what they accomplished over the winter. But yesterday, the team announced that Josh Beckett suffered a mild concussion during pre-game batting practice. As we've become more educated about concussions these past few years, we know that it's too early to anticipate how Beckett will be impacted by this.

Beckett was so awful last year, however, that from a mathematical perspective, Boston wouldn't be impacted dramatically by his absence. If you combine the anticipated contributions from Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez with a healthy Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, the Red Sox could put a replacement-level pitcher in Beckett's spot and they'd be all right.

--If it's possible to have a team-crush (a men-crush?), then I have one of those on the Rays. I love how they try to figure it out every year and scare the daylights out of the big, bad Yankees and Red Sox.

I was speaking with one Rays official (obviously biased), and he was expressing his confidence to me that the team wil solve its gaping bullpen hole. Because they have some live arms there, because Joe Maddon is used to deploying a bullpen by committee (last year was the one season Tampa Bay had a full-time closer, in Rafael Soriano) and because veteran J.P. Howell is scheduled to return in May from left shoulder surgery that sidelined him all of last year. Howell recorded 17 saves for Tampa Bay in 2009.

--I spoke with Jonny Damon regarding his talks with the Yankees this past winter. Damon said the Yankees pitched him the notion of making two outfield starts a week and one DH start a week. He simply wasn't ready to be that much of a bench player yet. As he said with his characteristic honesty, "I have milestone I'm trying to reach." With 2,571 career hits, at age 37, it'll be a tight race for 3,000.

--And speaking of former Yankees, I saw Marcus Thames at Dodgers camp. The Yankees liked Thames' pop from the right-handed side last year, but as he said, once the Yankees made Jorge Posada their full-time DH last November, that pretty much ensured that Thames would be headed elsewhere. 

The Dodgers under Don Mattingly should be better by having Ted Lilly for a full year and by bringing back Jon Garland, as well. While I spent only a little time around them during Joe Torre's three years there, it surely will be a different environment there, not only with Torre's regal aura gone but also with Torre's bad cop Larry Bowa having moved on.

--Yes, spring training is relaxed... except for Kirk Gibson. I sat in on Gibson's post-game news conference Saturday, and wow. You would've thought they were in the middle of a five-game losing streak in the regular season. Very serious, very intense.

If the Diamondbacks are trying to create a culture change, as Tyler Kepner reports today, then they probably made a good move retaining Gibson.

--Did I hear someone say "Free crap!"? That's right, starting today and going through the rest of the week, we'll have giveaway contests. You won't want to miss it.


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