Spring training in baseball is the one time in baseball and perhaps even in professional sports where every single player on the field is equalized. No one receives special treatment, as every player, despite their salary, gets the same amount of meal money, has to work drills on fundamentals and take the same grueling bus rides from city to city.
It’s the least regimented time of the year, as fans can simply walk up to players after game and get autographs (avoiding the enormous crowd that is often left without even a glimpse of a star player after a regular season game), and the teammates can bond after training camp with activities such as golf, swimming and fishing, none of which players have the time or energy for during the regular season.
Simply put, while the games are often not as competitive and fierce as fans would hope, spring training is a sign of rebirth. Spring training means that snow is melting away and warmth is coming. It means that every team still has the same chance. It means that it’s time for rookies to prove themselves and for veterans to dig their cleats in. It’s time for baseball.
A lot of teams made big moves this off-season to bolster their chances of that elusive playoff berth. Here’s six teams to focus on this year. Let’s start with the local ones.
A major blow to the Cardinals’ 2013 chances came when General Manager John Mozeliak announced that former Cy Young award winner Chris Carpenter is not expected to pitch for the entire 2013 season, the last of his current contract with the Cardinals. This now leaves the Cardinals with two holes in their rotation to fill, for which Lance Lynn, Trevor Rosenthal, Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller will be competing.
Another major issue for the Cards is the loss of leadership in the clubhouse after Skip Schumaker, Kyle Lohse and Lance Berkman departed. Several free agents were signed to try and fill some of that void, though the loss of leadership, the lack of a defined starting second baseman and a thin bench means St. Louis will have a tough road ahead of them. This is not to say they can’t do it (their road from Wild Card winner to World Series champs proves they can handle adversity), but it does mean that players like Rafael Furcal need to step up and take control of the team.
Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein is in his second year of a total Cubs overhaul, and many fans were starting to lose faith after a disastrous 101-loss season in 2012. The off-season moves made by Epstein and company, however, should convince fans that he is not fighting a losing battle.
Having an unproven and potentially overpaid starting third baseman in Ian Stewart and a wholly unpredictable and somewhat aged starting left fielder in Alfonso Soriano is enough to worry any Cubs fan. Epstein, however, chose to focus on the other side of the ball, and made moves to improve a dreadful 2012 rotation and bullpen, signing Carlos Villanueva, Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Edwin Jackson and Kyuji Fujikawa. Epstein was quoted as saying the difference between the pitching staff since last year is “night and day” (Source: MLB.com).
The Cubs have youth: half of the slated starting lineup has three years or less of MLB experience. While youth can revitalize a team, it is at the same time sporadic and untested. If all goes well, the Cubs could be looking at a very good year. But since when has luck been on the Cubs side?
The 2012 off-season was a relatively uneventful one for the White Sox, which has led many fans and commentators to be skeptical about the Sox’ chances of unseating the Detroit Tigers for AL Central dominance.
In the AL Central especially, teams need strong starting pitching staff, and the Sox managed to retain Jake Peavy and Gavin Floyd, while adding Matt Lindstrom to bolster the bullpen.
The major losses, however, came on the other side of the ball, as the only move made to combat the losses of AJ Pierzynski, Kevin Youkilis and Brett Myers was the addition of Jeff Keppinger.
Despite the losses, Manager Robin Ventura remained confident in his team, telling MLB.com, “I think Hahn [White Sox assistant GM] has done his work. I don’t think you go and just spend money to spend. You have to make moves that you hope you can make to make a difference. That’s where we are at right now. I’m excited to get everybody healthy and back on the field.”
Moving away from the Midwest, it’s now time to analyze some of the biggest off-season moves for some of the best teams across the country.
“’World Series or bust,’ that’s probably the slogan this year,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. But I’m comfortable with that” (Source: MLB.com). Johnson has no reason not to be confident: with Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann heading perhaps the best rotation in the National League. With the addition of free agent Rafael Soriano to close out games atop an already solid bullpen, it’s difficult to imagine the Nats pitching staff as anything but completely dominant.
Then add free agent Denard Span to a team with Bryce Harper, Jason Werth, Ian Desmond, Adam Laroche, Ryan Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa, and you have yourself a playoff caliber team with just the right mix of experience and youth to win it all.
An indescribable amount of money was spent this off-season by the Angels, but what that earns them is possibly the scariest team in the entire MLB. They have the Rookie of the Year Mike Trout. They have a pitcher who consistently competes for the Cy Young Award in Jered Weaver. They have one of the best defensive outfields (Trout, Peter Bourjos and Josh Hamilton, one of the most complete outfielders in the game), at times the best hitter in the game in Albert Pujols, and a bullpen bolstered by Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett.
Unfortunately, being the team with the biggest free agent splashes in the off-season doesn’t necessarily correlate with success (Los Angeles Lakers, anyone?), especially a team that won just six of its first 20 games last year. Nonetheless, the Angels are a terrifying team to look at on paper.
Ah, Los Angeles. A city of bright lights and big contracts. For the Dodgers this year, it was the additions of Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu, for the startling price of $200 million. This for a team with now eight well-paid starting pitchers? Questionable perhaps, but having extra starters is never a bad thing in the MLB.
Fresh off his $142 million contract, Tommy John surgery and the bitter taste of Boston, Carl Crawford is anxious to prove himself in LA, and with the combined pop of his and Matt Kemp’s bats, the Dodgers are anxious to prove that money can indeed buy victories.