As bone-chilling temps sink to the single-digits in the Bronx and Flushing, what better time for the start of spring training, with its sunny images of pitchers throwing and the endless rounds of blue-sky batting practice.
The 2015 season ended at Citi Field with Terry Collins pushing his luck with a weary Matt Harvey and the Royals’ Wade Davis firing his glove into the air after striking out Wilmer Flores to clinch Kansas City’s first world championship in three decades.
Along the way, we had the rapid ascendance of the young Cubs, the stunning collapse of the surprising Astros and, of course, the Jose Bautista viral-video bat-flip for the ages. There also was the resurrection of A-Rod’s career, the emergence of Carlos Correa and MVP Bryce Harper making his best argument yet to be the sport’s first $500-million man.
But that’s all behind us now. It’s time to look forward, to Florida and Arizona, where the next 30 storylines will be developing during the upcoming six weeks. So what better way to kick off spring training with some (very) early observations, ranging from the standard to the eccentric, divided into top-three categories.
Remember, the games don’t count until Curtis Granderson digs in against Yordano Ventura for the prime-time April 3 opener at Kauffman Stadium. But there’s plenty of baseball to enjoy before then, so let’s jump right in.
YOUR 2016 WORLD CHAMPION IS …
1. METS. I know. I know. Hard to believe the Mets are considered the chalk in the NL this year. But after blowing leads in three games of the World Series, they’re actually better from the jump this season, with a deeper rotation to start.
2. BLUE JAYS. The Jays lost David Price and GM Alex Anthopoulos this winter, but they still have one of the sport’s most fearsome lineups, with reigning MVP Josh Donaldson. Price’s absence should be softened by a full season of Marcus Stroman.
3. ASTROS. Sleepy Kissimmee should get plenty of attention this spring after the Astros’ young stars proved they’re ready for the spotlight. Carlos Correa already is looking like A-Rod 2.0, Dallas Kuechel is a freshly-minted Cy Young. Houston has plenty of pieces.
READY TO CRASH THE PARTY
1. DIAMONDBACKS. They shocked the world by whipping together Zack Greinke’s $206-million in 24 hours, swiping him from his LA home. But Arizona was stacked already, with Paul Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock, David Peralta and Yasmany Thomas.
2. RANGERS. Texas won the AL West last season in a furious battle with the Astros, so the Rangers aren’t really an outsider – they just feel that way. But the expected May return of Yu Darvish from TJ surgery gives them an intimidating one-two punch with Cole Hamels.
3. ORIOLES. Just .500 a year ago, and 12 games back, the Orioles reloaded this winter by re-signing their core of Chris Davis ($161M), Matt Wieters ($15.8M qualifying offer) and Darren O’Day ($31M). Also trying to secure a front-line starting pitcher.
FEELING THE PRESSURE
1. RED SOX. Three last-place finishes in four years cost Ben Cherington his job. New president Dave Dombrowski’s quickie makeover – signing David Price, trading for Craig Kimbrel – improves Sox on paper, but we’ll see how they handle the Fenway crucible.
2. DODGERS. Stunned by the Mets in the NLDS, and then spurned by Zack Greinke, the Dodgers parted ways with a fed-up Don Mattingly to give the keys to first-time manager Dave Roberts. Signed Japanese star Kenta Maeda and Scott Kazmir, but LA needs to solve chemistry problem.
3. GIANTS. A Vegas favorite, the Giants are banking on winter acquisitions Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija to bolster a rotation led by Madison Bumgarner. But Cueto was mostly uninspiring in KC and Samardzija (4.96 ERA) didn’t pitch very shark-like for the White Sox.
HEY! LOOK WHAT WE FOUND!
1. AROLDIS CHAPMAN. In a move that only Brian Cashman saw coming, the Yankees swooped in after the collapsed Dodgers’ swap with Cincy to steal the 104-mph throwing Chapman. A domestic-abuse suspension is looming, but a strong bullpen got stronger.
2. BEN ZOBRIST. The Mets seemingly had Zobrist already fitted for his uniform when the Cubs suddenly stole him away during the winter meetings with an 11th hour deal that pays him $56 million over four years. Joe Maddon gets his former Rays buddy.
3. STARLIN CASTRO. Just when you thought the Yankees were cool with handing Rob Refsnyder the second-base job (well, not really), Cashman piggybacks on the Zobrist talks to pry Castro from the Cubs. Later said he’s always had eye on three-time All-Star.
YOU PAID WHAT? FOR WHOM?
1. JUSTIN UPTON. Not a knock on Upton, who’s strung together three 26-plus homer seasons and is nice fit for Tigers. But with a strangely-quiet market, Detroit seemed to be only bidding against themselves in giving Upton a six-year, $132.75-million contract.
2. JEFF SAMARDZIJA. It’s always smart to bet the over when it comes to money for free-agents pitchers. But the Giants giving a five-year, $90-million contract to Jeff Samardzija was a stretch after a dismal walk season (11-13, 4.96 ERA, 228 hits/214 IP).
3. JOHNNY CUETO. As far as free-agent auditions go, Cueto seemingly flunked with a 4.76 ERA and 1.451 WHIP in 13 starts after the Royals acquired him from the Reds last season. But that didn’t stop the Giants from giving him a six-year, $130-million deal.
STILL HERE, HUH?
1. HANLEY RAMIREZ. This ’15 reunion was doomed from the start, with the Red Sox signing Ramirez – a career shortstop – to be their leftfielder. Now Ramirez is moving to first base, another bad idea, and with $66 million left on his deal, he’s virtually untradeable.
2. RYAN HOWARD. The last man standing from the Phillies’ glory years, Howard was unable to follow Cole Hamels, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins out of town. At age 36, and $35 million guaranteed left, Howard remains a costly hindrance to the rebuilding Phillies.
3. BRANDON PHILLIPS. The Reds have been trying to trade Phillips for years now, and they reportedly had a deal in place with the Nationals in December before Phillies refused to waive his no-trade clause. With two years, $27 million left, Phillips wants an extension with any change of scenery.
KEEP THE TYLENOL HANDY
1. DON MATTINGLY. Frustrated with the front office in L.A., Mattingly jumped to the Marlins, a franchise that comes with its own headaches. Working with Barry Bonds, the new hitting coach, could take some finesse, along with the daily questions of whether or not they’re trading Jose Fernandez.
2. DUSTY BAKER. The volatile Nationals were too much for Matt Williams, and Baker inherits a talented but temperamental roster that still has Jonathon Papelbon, i.e., the D.C. strangler. Baker needs a fast start to avoid any clubhouse brushfires.
3. FREDI GONZALEZ. The Braves have made it clear they’ve gutting the franchise with an eye toward being competitive for the 2017 opening of their new stadium. Atlanta traded Shelby Miller and Andrelton Simmons this winter, prompting Vegas to predict a 65-win season, two fewer than last year.
1. DAVID ORTIZ. Big Papi’s victory lap begins this month in Ft. Myers as Ortiz will go the Jeter route and entertain the sentimental goodbye festivities in closing out his 20-year career. Let’s see if he takes the long bus rides to Tampa and Port St. Lucie.
2. CARLOS BELTRAN. Beltran turns 39 this season, and now in the final year of his $45-million contract with the Yankees, he said this past week that retirement is a definite possibility. Beltran has been managing knee issues for years, but if he’s productive at the plate, chances are he’ll be back somewhere in ’17.
3. BARTOLO COLON. Big Bart continues to defy conventional wisdom, but he turns 43 in May, and the Mets gave him a nice parting gift with a $7.25-million deal for this season, when he’ll be the pitching staff’s swingman for a World Series contender.
PROCEED WITH CAUTION
1. MASAHIRO TANAKA. Two years removed from his elbow scare, the Yankees never feel like they’re in the clear with Tanaka, who still pitches like an ace as long as he’s healthy. They’re always extra careful with Tanaka, especially in spring training.
2. ZACK WHEELER. The Mets are predicting a July 1 return for Wheeler, using the same conservative approach they took with Matt Harvey in his comeback from Tommy John surgery. As a result, they’ll keep him on a tight leash, with incremental nudging.
3. JOSE FERNANDEZ. After returning from Tommy John surgery last season, the Marlins’ young ace went right back on the DL with a strained biceps, raising further questions about his health. He’ll need to be managed very carefully over the next six weeks before pitching with an innings limit during the regular season.
FREE AGENTS STILL AVAILABLE
1. DEXTER FOWLER. Leading the way for qualifying offer reform, Fowler, 29, remains unsigned after turning down $15.8 million for the Cubs, despite hitting a career-high 17 homers with 20 stolen bases for the NL Central champs.
2. IAN DESMOND. Once talked about as a shortstop option for the Mets, Desmond turned down a qualifying offer from the Nats and is no doubt hurting from a soft walk year. Desmond hit 19 homers, but batted a career-low .233 with a .674 OPS.
3. MARK BUEHRLE. Still unsigned despite going 15-8 with a 3.81 ERA last season for the Blue Jays over a reliable 198 2/3 innings, the first time in 16 seasons under the 200-inning plateau. Buehrle turns 37 next month, but seems like still has plenty left.
1. JUNG HO KANG. The South Korean star initially had a rough spring-training adjustment with the Pirates, then batted .287 with 15 homers in 126 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury in September. He’ll return to play third base this spring.
2. YU DARVISH. The Rangers were stunned a year ago when Darvish required Tommy John surgery, but he said recently his elbow feels stronger than before the operation and expects to be back by early June. He has a 3.27 ERA and averaged 227 strikeout in his first three seasons with Texas.
3. ADAM WAINWRIGHT. Technically, Wainwright returned in late September from Achilles surgery, but only made three relief appearances, so this marks his actual return to the Cardinals’ rotation, where he’s had a 2.98 ERA in 10 seasons.
EARLY AL PICKS FOR MVP
1. MANNY MACHADO. After finishing fourth last season, Machado – only 23 – should be poised for another huge year in a hitter’s ballpark. Also provides Gold Glove defense at third base, and Orioles can’t make a playoff run without him.
2. JOSE BAUTISTA. Entering his walk year with the Blue Jays, this would be the perfect time for Bautista to blow up the Rogers Centre coming off a 40-homer, 114-RBI season. Only drawback is significant talent around him in Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion.
3. MIKE TROUT. He’s already won the award, and finished second three times, so there’s no reason to think Trout won’t be in the running again. Still only 24, arguably the game’s most complete player.
EARLY NL PICKS FOR MVP
1. PAUL GOLDSCHMIDT. With the D-Backs on the rise, Goldschmidt remains the motor, and their success could him claim the trophy after two second-place finishes. Had a 1.005 OPS last season, along with a Gold Glove.
2. BRYCE HARPER. Now fully in stride for that $500-million contract, the reining MVP is poised for a repeat, if he can stay healthy and again play 150-plus games this season. A Nats playoff berth wouldn’t hurt, either.
3. YOENIS CESPEDES. No shortage of motivation for Cespedes, who is not only making $27.5-million this season, but has an opt-out that can set him up for a more lucrative payday next winter. With Mets starters bunched close together, his power bat could separate him as the best MVP candidate.
EARLY AL PICKS FOR CY YOUNG
1. FELIX HERNANDEZ. King Felix just feels due after a step back (for him) last season, when his 3.53 ERA was the highest since 2007 (3.92). Still a great year by any measure but his own, with an 18-9 record and seventh-place Cy finish.
2. AROLDIS CHAPMAN. A relief pitcher hasn’t won the Cy Young since Eric Gagne in 2003, but Chapman is in the unique position of being in a walk year with plenty more to prove in repairing his reputation under the cloud of domestic abuse. Could that lead to a historic season? Possibly.
3. DALLAS KEUCHEL. With big expectations for the Astros, Keuchel already has proven himself capable of dealing with the pressures of being an ace, so a repeat isn’t out of the question. A workhorse equipped to handle huge innings with a stingy ERA (2.48).
EARLY NL PICKS FOR CY YOUNG
1. ZACK GREINKE. With his preference for more low-key surroundings, Greinke should benefit from leaving L.A. for the desert, though he’ll still be plenty familiar with NL West lineups. Look for him to impress his new employers.
2. JACOB DEGROM. His biggest obstacle seemed to be fatigue at certain points last season, but he’s probably the Mets’ best chance at a Cy, with Matt Harvey’s white-hot intensity prone to occasional burnout and Noah Syndergaard’s 100-mph heat also taxing over the course of a full season.
3. MAX SCHERZER. The Nats’ vengeance tour will be spearheaded by Scherzer, who quietly validated his new $210-million contract with a 2.79 ERA and 276 strikeouts in 228 2/3 innings. Just got lost in the other D.C. drama.
FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT
1. DANIEL MURPHY. The October hero wanted to return to the Mets, but the NL champs did not reciprocate that love for Murphy, so he instead signed a three-year, $37.5-million deal with the team’s bitter division rival. They’ll face off in the Grapefruit opener March 3 in Viera.
2. JASON HEYWARD. The Cardinals seemed open to re-signing Heyward, until the rival Cubs made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: eight years, $184 million. That defection added another layer to the rivalry, especially after Heyward said he preferred the Cubs’ young core to the Cards’ aging one.
3. CHRIS YOUNG. Young, who was released by the Mets, revived his career in the Bronx by hitting .252 with 14 homers in 140 games last season. Now he’ll have a chance to torment the Yankees after signing a two-year, $13-million deal with the Red Sox this winter.