Woohoo. It's that time again. ...
Time to swap the Polar Vortex for the outfield sundeck. Time to stop dodging falling icicles and start embracing rising stars. Time to quit reminiscing about John, Paul, George and Ringo, and start dreaming on Jose (Abreu), Masahiro (Tanaka), Xander (Bogaerts) and Taijuan (Walker).
In other words, it's time once again for all pitchers, catchers and frostbitten Northerners to begin stampeding immediately through those welcoming turnstiles at Joker Marchant Stadium, jetBlue Park and the ever-inviting Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, where spring training's idyllic land of hope and dreams can't possibly begin too soon.
But what that also means is it's time for us to restore power to your world, by aiming every space-heating kilowatt in our arsenal at the spring storylines you're about to be locked in on for the next month and a half -- with the help of 23 all-knowing baseball executives who were kind enough to take part in our 2014 spring training preview survey.
Here we go, into the spring balminess zone:
3 Feeding Leather To The Tigers: Here's another team that seems to fascinate everyone. The enduring image of those Detroit Tigers last October was Torii Hunter somersaulting into the bullpen at Fenway. Now that seems almost fitting, since this whole franchise feels as if it's turned itself upside down. Out went Jim Leyland, Prince Fielder, Omar Infante and Doug Fister. In came Brad Ausmus, Ian Kinsler, Joe Nathan, Joba Chamberlain, Rajai Davis and a newfound emphasis on seeing how many baseballs they can catch instead of how many baseballs they can whack into somebody's moussaka plate in Greektown. So we know this team will be different. But will it be better?
Other AL storylines:
• How much more imposing is the Texas Rangers' lineup now that they've promised to stuff $268 million into the pockets of Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo? On the other hand, is there any reason to panic over the state of this pitching staff, in the wake of Joe Nathan's exit and Derek Holland's misadventures playing with his dog (or whatever the heck attacked his meniscus)?
• Will Joe Mauer wear his shin guards out to first base?
• How is that famous medial patellofemoral ligament in Manny Machado's left knee feeling? And if the answer to that is "great," would he also mind pitching the ninth inning?
1 Excess Hollywood: Here's yet one more team the execs in our poll are clearly mesmerized by. Since last we saw the L.A. Dodgers of Chavez Ravine, they've extended the contracts of their manager (Don Mattingly) and their resident Cy Young ( Clayton Kershaw). They've provided helpful driving tips for Yasiel Puig. They've lengthened their rotation by handing much-lauded, one-year deals to Dan Haren and Paul Maholm. They've loaded up on bullpen depth by signing Jamey Wright and Chris Perez, and by bringing back J.P. Howell and Brian Wilson's facial hair. They've got a payroll that's still hovering somewhere around $220 million. And yet we still don't know what to make of their four-headed outfield monster, where Josh Beckett fits or whether much-ballyhooed Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero can play second base. Then again, what we do know is that, if trouble arises, there's apparently enough money in the checking account to fix it.
2 Braveheart: In case you didn't notice, just two teams in baseball (the Red Sox and Cardinals) won more games last year than those Atlanta Braves (who won 96 of them). But not only have the Braves neglected to add a single Upton brother since last fall, they've barely disturbed any other family trees all winter. Ready for their only two big league additions? (1) A catcher/outfielder/DH whose DH skills won't come in real handy anymore ( Ryan Doumit) and (2) a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery ( Gavin Floyd). In other news, when they weren't escaping ice storms, the Braves also waved sayonara to two of the dominant personalities on their roster over the last nine years ( Brian McCann and Tim Hudson), and apparently never came close to keeping their unhittable closer ( Craig Kimbrel) from heading to an arbitration hearing. So while the Braves are still a young, really talented team, the feeling in other front offices is that they had an odd winter.
3 House Of Cards: How many World Series teams overturn the middle of their infield? Well, the Cardinals have. Matt Carpenter is their third baseman now. Pete Kozma is a utility man now. So the big questions are: Is Kolten Wong ready to start at second base, at age 23, for a team with win-it-all aspirations? And was Jhonny Peralta really the $53 million solution at short after a brush with Biogenesis fame, especially, as one exec mused, considering that "multiple teams thought he couldn't play shortstop every day?" Granted, every recipe the Cardinals pop in the oven seems to come out smelling like peach pie. But this is a spring where we'll start finding out if they were right about their latest up-the-middle renovation plans. And they need to be.
Other NL storylines:
• With A.J. Burnett moving across the state, with questions about first base, with the memories of an actual trip to October warming their souls, where do the Pirates go from here, now that there are no more Curse of Sid Bream anchors attached to their shoulders?
• Will Ryan Braun look straight into the cameras this spring and utter any words that restore his standing as a player whom anyone in the state of Wisconsin will want to root for?
• Two and a half years after blowing out his Achilles, four years after he last slugged .500 and five years after he last hit 40 homers, which direction is Ryan Howard headed this spring - Feared Cleanup Masher or Not So Feared Half of First Base Platoon with Darin Ruf?
• Can Bryce Harper make it through the spring without sending any outfield fences to the emergency room? If Harper stays on the field and has a special season, the Washington Nationals could have an even more special season.
• Which first-year manager has the best chance of (A) getting ejected from a spring training game and (B) making folks forget the legendary manager he's succeeding -- Matt Williams (Nationals), Ryne Sandberg ( Phillies) or Bryan Price (Reds)?
2 Collision Course: At some point this spring, MLB expects to figure out the final details of its new rules on collisions at home plate. But the ripple effect is that everybody will have to be retrained to think and act differently when a runner is roaring toward home plate -- catchers, runners and umpires. Why do we think that, as that unfolds this spring, it won't be a smooth, serene sail on the spring seas?
3 Sign Of The Times: One of these days, weeks or months, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Stephen Drew, Nelson Cruz and the shocking number of still-unsigned free agents have to show up in somebody's spring training camp. Right? And no, we're not talking about the camp at Rancho Bernardo High School.
4 Alex Rodriguez: Sorry. Just typed that from force of habit. Correctly, pick the date, time and place where Alex Rodriguez will be photographed first this spring, and you'll win a date with Cameron Diaz. Or not.
Even after laying out half a billion dollars to collect or retain nine free agents, blowing through the luxury-tax threshold they were once so fixated on, surviving their legal strife with their former third baseman (guess who?) and setting a new standard for most money paid to a man (Tanaka) who had never set foot on a major league field, the Yankees remain a team with many questions. But if you don't think they're much improved, you need to seek help for your deep-seated, Yankee-hater issues immediately. Name a team that added four players as important and impactful as Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Tanaka. Go ahead. We dare you. "They're clearly the most improved team in the league," said one exec. "Of course, they'd better be, for what they spent."
Fun poll fact: Does it tell you anything about how much more hyperactive the AL was this winter than the NL, that 10 of the 15 teams in the American League got a vote? Yeah, 10. And eight of them got multiple votes. (We allow voters to pick up to three teams per category). Ready? Here they come: Yankees (14), Rangers (6), Mariners (4), Astros (3)*, Twins (3)*, A's (2), Royals (2), Tigers (2), Angels (1), White Sox (1).
(* - it's all relative)
It was such a weird offseason that three different executives told us that when they first asked themselves which NL teams improved the most this winter, their first instinct was to answer: "No one." Half the teams in the league, quipped one exec, basically "took the winter off." But of the others, the Nationals pulled away from the pack, thanks mostly to their heavily praised deal with Detroit for Doug Fister. And while we like what the Padres have done, it's still kind of amazing, said the same exec, that they got the second-most votes, for "signing an injury-prone pitcher ( Josh Johnson) and an eighth-inning guy who's getting a lot of money ( Joaquin Benoit), and trading for Seth Smith. Really?" Hey, it was that kind of winter.
Fun poll fact: The Diamondbacks, Rockies and Mets managed the impressive feat of attracting multiple votes in both the "most improved" and "most unimproved" balloting. So however their seasons turn out, this poll has it covered!
There has to be a logical explanation for the Orioles' mystifying offseason. Doesn't there? We doubt we'll ever get to hear it (or at least all of it). But there has to be. Dumping Jim Johnson? Backing out of a deal for Grant Balfour? Never adding a veteran closer to replace Balfour (or Johnson, for that matter)? Flirting with a bunch of starting pitchers but signing none of them? Acting as if they were out of money, in an offseason where TV cash came flooding into the sport? Not good. There's still time for them to rewrite this script by signing an Ervin Santana kind of guy. But for now, the only categories the Orioles led this survey in were "I don't get its" and "I don't understands." In our experience, that's not usually a portent of great things to come.
Fun poll facts: We found it interesting that three of last year's playoff teams -- the Indians, Tigers and even the champs, the Red Sox -- got Most Unimproved votes. But no one was a match for the Orioles and Blue Jays, who crushed the rest of this field in the voting. In fact, only the Tigers (with four votes) were within 10 of either one of them. But there's so much certainty within the industry that the Blue Jays are a lock to add a starting pitcher, several of the votes they attracted were on an "until-they-sign-a-pitcher" basis. So they get an asterisk, if it brightens their spirits any.
A mere four months ago, the Pirates and Reds were battling it out for the NL's wild-card berths. Now they're duking it out again, for a slightly less prestigious honor -- the NL's dreaded Most Unimproved award. The Pirates' one notable offseason addition was a pitcher ( Edinson Volquez) with the highest ERA (5.09) and WHIP (1.53) in the whole sport over the last three seasons. The Reds' big additions, in a winter where they lost both Shin-Soo Choo and Bronson Arroyo, were two useful players who, unfortunately, aren't projected to play much -- a backup catcher ( Brayan Pena) and one of the best utility energizers in the game ( Skip Schumaker). We get that both teams are really well-run, deep, talented and clearly positioning themselves to get big contributions from young players (Hamilton and Tony Cingrani in Cincinnati, Gregory Polanco and Jameson Taillon in Pittsburgh). But just because it's conceivable they could both make the playoffs again doesn't mean they're disqualified from the Most Unimproved competition. Sorry. We can't stop people from voting for them if that's how they see it.
Fun poll fact: You can tell, by that five-team, third-place tie, that there was feverish competition in this category. The Phillies had actually led that field before their A.J. Burnett signing. But when the polls finally closed, incredibly, 10 of the 15 NL teams had gotten multiple votes for Most Unimproved, which again tells us how unaggressive many NL teams were this winter. The exception was the Diamondbacks. They were plenty active. But our voters were stunningly divided on how it all worked out. They got five Most Improved votes, but three Most Unimproved votes. And that's almost unheard of in our humble polling experience.
This is almost impossible, but see those three incognito teams above? They're the same three that were picked in last year's survey. And in the same order! So if we have this straight, they've gone from unrecognizable to less recognizable? Hard to do. But the Astros continue to set standards for unrecognizability that are almost impossible to match. Do names like L.J. Hoes, Robbie Grossman and Jesus Guzman ring a bell? Bagwell, Biggio and Berkman they're not. But they are actual members of the Astros' projected starting lineup this season. "Wow," said one NL GM. "I don't even know if I could name them." Hey, join the masses.
Fun poll facts: and now for something completely different -- the Yankees got four votes in this category. The Yankees. Seriously. See what happens when your closer heads back to the Canal Zone and your favorite headline-grabbing third baseman is ostracized by the proper authorities? Hey, we don't want to deny anyone in this poll their right to vote as they choose, but our take on this is: The Yankees couldn't win this category if their entire roster retired.
3 You'd think that, for $266.8 million, the Mariners could have led this category just once, but, apparently, a quarter-billion dollars just doesn't buy what it used to anymore. Robbie Cano grabbed $240 million of this pot, obviously. Bet you didn't know the rest went to Fernando Rodney, Corey Hart, John Buck and, of course, Willie Bloomquist. For what it's worth, that $266.8 million could have also allowed the Mariners to purchase 92.3 million Espresso Macchiatos at Cloud City Coffee. But who needs them? Just the Cano contract alone ought to be enough to keep them up all night.
Fun poll fact: Want to take a stab at how many different players got at least one vote in the best-free-agent competition? Would you believe 31 -- including one vote for Roy Halladay as the best one-day contract of the winter.
We rarely have a dramatic difference of opinion with the choices we get back in this survey, but this would be one time we'd like to respectfully disagree with the choice of Cano as "worst free agent" or "worst signing" of the winter. There's a second, related category, which is coming right up, in which the Cano deal absolutely belongs -- the Most Outrageous Contract department. But "worst free agent?" Don't see it. "There's no doubt this was a terrible [contract]," said one exec. "It'll be a disaster on the back end, but there's one thing I think people are forgetting: He's a great player." Right. And not a good thing to forget!
Fun poll fact: Here's our annual report on the players who got votes for both the best and worst signings of the winter. Ready? Here's that list of Jekylls and Hydes: Cano, Tanaka, Ellsbury, McCann, Jhonny Peralta, Choo, Carlos Ruiz, Matt Garza, Bronson Arroyo, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Vargas. Long list!
2 Masahiro Tanaka (seven years, $155 million, plus the $20 million posting fee): No quote emanating from Yankeeville in recent times has elicited more raised eyebrows than Brian Cashman trying his best to tone down expectations on Tanaka by labeling him a "No. 3 starter." Wow. "I know they're trying to downplay it," one exec said. "I get that part. The problem is, you can say you hope he's a No. 3 starter, but you're giving him No. 1 starter-in-the-sport money, so no matter how good he is or how young he is, you're definitely going to look up at some point and say, 'Oh my God. That's way too much money.'"
3 Jacoby Ellsbury (seven years, $153 million): Nice player, that Jacoby Ellsbury, but $153 million for a guy who has played 140 games once in the past four seasons? Nice little payday if you can get it.
Fun poll fact: We should really have had two of these categories -- one for Yankees and ex-Yankees, and a second for everyone else. So you should know that Clayton Kershaw's seven-year, $210 million extension topped the Everyone Else voting, with his teammate, Brian Wilson, finishing second, courtesy of a two-year, $18.5 million deal that wound up as the highest per year of any reliever all winter. Meanwhile, one exec voted for Scott Kazmir (two years, $22 million) three times, but we still counted that only once.
3 Let's hand the A's the bronze for happily taking Jim Johnson off the Orioles' hands, for the meager price of second-tier catching prospect David Freitas and the artist formerly known as Jemile Weeks.
Fun poll fact: It always warms our hearts when a trade goes down that works for everybody. And that happened again this winter. The three-way Diamondbacks-White Sox-Angels extravaganza that sent Mark Trumbo, Adam Eaton, Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago flying in all directions was one of those deals. Votes flooded in for all three teams. Ditto the Prince Fielder-Ian Kinsler swap, although the Rangers got four votes for reeling in Fielder. There were three "both teams win" votes and zero for the Kinsler/Detroit end alone.
1 You know the cash registers are ringing in this sport when a guy making 16 million bucks a year is considered a bargain. But our group loved, loved, loved the idea of the Yankees bringing back Hiroki Kuroda on a one-year deal. Even at the highest salary per year (tied with A.J. Burnett) of any free-agent pitcher who wasn't named Tanaka.
3 It tells us something when a guy gets a bunch of votes -- for anything in this survey -- before he even signs his contract. But that was A.J. Burnett, a beautiful one-year acquisition waiting to happen. Even at $16 million. If he'd signed with a team with a better shot to play in October than the Phillies -- say, the Pirates, Orioles or Nationals -- he might even have ranked higher on this list. But there's no such thing as a bad one-year deal for a pitcher who led his league in strikeout ratio last year. Right?
Best free agents $2 million and under:
2 How 'bout this? It's another bargain signing for the Dodgers -- one year, $1.8 million for 39-year-old reliever Jamey Wright, who is closing in on his 19th season even though he hasn't spent three full seasons with the same team since the '90s. Wright is one of just 11 right-handed setup men who have appeared in 60-plus games in each of the past three seasons (but have fewer than five saves in that span). "There's a level of professionalism there," one NL exec said, "that you don't get from a lot of guys."
3 Quick quiz: Name the only free-agent position player signed by the Pirates to a major league contract this winter. Nope, not Cano. It was, of course, Clint Barmes, for a mere one year and $2 million. On one hand, Barmes (.211, .249/.309 last season) isn't exactly Troy Tulowitzki with the old Louisville Slugger. On the other, he led all NL shortstops not named Andrelton Simmons in UZR/150 (Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games). And whaddaya know, the Pirates noticed.
Best free agents signed to minor league contracts:
1 Mark Reynolds, Brewers: We count three infielders in baseball who have hit at least 20 home runs in each of the past six seasons. Two of them are Miguel Cabrera and Fielder, who will earn a combined $46 million this season. The third is Reynolds, who just signed a minor league deal with the Brewers. No wonder he wiped out the rest of the field in this survey.
2 Jason Kubel, Twins: The last time Kubel headed out into free agency, he was leaving the Twins, for a two-year, $16 million payday in Arizona. Now, for zero risk, the Twins are getting back a guy who had 30 homers and an .833 OPS as recently as two seasons ago. This struck our voters as excellent free-agent shopping.
3 Alfredo Aceves, Orioles: OK, so he might not be a model of decorum, but did you know Aceves has a better career Adjusted ERA-Plus (118) than Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, Tim Lincecum or Gio Gonzalez? Go ahead. Call us devious number manipulators if you want. We plead guilty. But Aceves is still worth a shot on a minor league deal, right?
2 Tomo Ohka (Blue Jays): Speaking of blasts from the past, it's been five years since Ohka threw a pitch in the big leagues, nine years since he had a winning record and a full decade since he had an ERA in the 3.00s (for the 2004 Expos!). But he's heading for Blue Jays camp this spring to match knuckleballs with R.A. Dickey. You can't make this stuff up.
3 Russell Wilson (Rangers): Hey, it was either him or Tracy McGrady. We don't know if the quarterback of the Super Bowl champs is actually going to show up in Rangers camp, but let's hope. All we ask for is one flea-flicker involving Wilson, Fielder and Jurickson Profar, coming to a spring training field in a desert near you, and our spring will be complete.
2 The Draft Pick Five: Love this Buster Olney spy-novel nickname for the five free agents who turned down qualifying offers and found themselves still looking for an employer in February: Nelson Cruz, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew. If Russell Wilson shows up in somebody's spring training camp before Ervin Santana, it's safe to say something went amiss in somebody's offseason scenario.
3 Haymakers in the parking lot: Who says there was no action at the winter meetings? There was furious action. Out in the parking lot, where two agents (still defying firm identification) wailed away at each other in the middle of the afternoon over what was believed (according to circumstantial evidence) to be client stealing -- or the threat thereof. Still not sure what the bigger story was that week -- that brawl or the Boone Logan signing.