Pitchers and catchers report this week to spring camps in Arizona and Florida.
For the 27th time, the Yankees will take a crack at defending their World Series championship this baseball season — at the same time the Pirates take their 18th consecutive crack since 1992 at producing a winning record.
The Yankees have been successful 12 times, while the Pirates, alas, have as yet been unable to break .500 in their post-Bonds incarnation. Ah, but hopes are high (for the 18th straight spring) that this is really, truly the year.
Those two extremes, accompanied by the familiar scent of limitless dreams and aspirations by all, frame the advent of the 2010 baseball season. It commences this week in Arizona and Florida with the glorious annual rite known as “pitchers and catchers reporting.”
Among those pitchers will be John Lackey, moving from Anaheim to Boston, to the tune of five years and $82.5 million as the premier free-agent hurler, part of the Red Sox’s annual reload in pursuit of the Yankees. Former Cy Young winner Roy Halladay was traded from Toronto to Philadelphia, prompting the chain reaction of former Cy Young winner Cliff Lee being traded from Philadelphia to Seattle.
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This winter’s annual winner of the most lucrative free-agent contract was outfielder Matt Holliday, who was persuaded by a seven-year, $120 million deal to remain in St. Louis. The Cardinals would be quite happy if Holliday is the second-most-productive hitter on the team behind reigning National League MVP Albert Pujols, who can be penciled in for .300-35-120. Minimum.
The Cardinals’ hitters will be tutored by Mark McGwire, whose return to uniform, following a steroids admission and apology last month, will be one of the most closely watched developments of the spring.
Another hitting coach will switch teams with much less fanfare, but perhaps more impact, as Rudy Jaramillo, who won accolades during 15 seasons with the Rangers, takes over batting instruction for Lou Piniella’s rebound-minded Cubs.
The Cubs, meanwhile, were relieved to rid themselves of controversial Milton Bradley, deciding that resurrecting Carlos Silva was a much more palatable challenge. A new ownership group takes over on the North Side, with the Ricketts family replacing the Tribune Company in the century-plus-long quest to bring a World Series title back to Wrigleyville.
Another ownership change is pending in Texas, where the sale of the Rangers by Tom Hicks to a group led by Hall of Fame pitcher — and team president — Nolan Ryan could become official before the team breaks camp. The other Texas team, the Houston Astros, is also for sale, owner Drayton McLain recently revealed, while Dodgers owner Frank McCourt is going through a bitter divorce that left the team’s fans fretting about its effect on baseball operations.
Three new managers take the helm this spring. Jim Riggleman moves from interim to the full-time gig in Washington (helped by bench coach John McLaren, whom Riggleman replaced, on an interim basis, as manager of the Mariners two years ago); former Nats manager Manny Acta, whom Riggleman replaced, takes over in Cleveland; and Brad Mills leaves his post as Terry Francona’s Red Sox bench coach to replace Cecil Cooper as Astros skipper.
One legendary manager, meanwhile, begins his final spring: Atlanta’s Bobby Cox, who has announced that this season will be his last.
One of Riggleman’s prime decisions will be whether wunderkind rookie pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who hasn’t even thrown a pitch in the minor leagues, will be ready to assume a spot in Washington’s rotation at the start of the year. Multitudes of eyes — and radar guns — will be trained on Strasburg this spring.
Another unknown pitcher with unlimited upside — described by many as the left-handed Strasburg, in fact, for his triple-digit fastball — who will be scrutinized in the spring is Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman. After abruptly changing agents during the winter, Chapman surprisingly signed (for $30 million) with the Cincinnati Reds, who need all the help they can get. The Reds have a nine-year streak of losing seasons they’re trying to break.
Another highly touted rookie who will get a long look this spring is Atlanta outfielder Jason Heyward, regarded as a future superstar (but aren’t they all?).
As for the mighty Yankees, they eschewed re-signing free agent Johnny Damon on the amusing grounds that they had a budget to maintain (which unlike every other team happens to be a nine-digit number that begins with a “2”). But the Yankees still have some new toys to play with, like center fielder Curtis Granderson, pitcher Javier Vazquez and DH Nick Johnson.
The biggest drama in the Bronx this year figures to be the pending free agency of three seminal Yankees figures — legends Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, and manager Joe Girardi, all of whom are entering the final years of their contracts.
Logic dictates that all three will re-up, but logic is not always in play when anyone named Steinbrenner is involved. In a related note, it appears that Jeter has already lost a portion of his free agency with rumors of his apparent engagement to actress Minka Kelly.
Meanwhile, the other New York team opens 2010 camp in much the same state of disarray as it exited 2009. While the Mets were successful in landing free-agent outfielder Jason Bay (four years, $66 million), they already have been hit with their ceremonial first injury blow with word that outfielder Carlos Beltran had knee surgery in January and won’t be ready for the opener. If the Mets, coming off a 92-loss season, don’t jell quickly, Jerry Manual could be this year’s first manager fired — and GM Omar Minaya might not be far behind.
The Mets’ frustrations are magnified by their $140 million payroll. One team that is creeping into a rarefied salary range is the Minnesota Twins, whose payroll jumps from $65 million on opening day last year to a projected $96 million. Not at all coincidentally, the Twins move into a new ballpark, Target Field, in 2010, buoyed by the addition of J.J. Hardy, Jim Thome and Orlando Hudson, among others.
The Twins hope to have a long-term contract for their superlative catcher, Joe Mauer, wrapped up before the season begins, emulating the Mariners with Felix Hernandez (five years, $78 million) and the Tigers with Justin Verlander (five years, $80 million).
Other faces in new places this spring include Kevin Millwood (Orioles), Adrian Beltre, Mike Cameron and Marco Scutaro (Red Sox), Rafael Soriano (Rays), Rick Ankiel (Royals), Joel Pineiro and Hideki Matsui (Angels), Ben Sheets (A’s), Vladimir Guerrero and Rich Harden (Rangers), Randy Wolf (Brewers), Edwin Jackson (Diamondbacks), Melky Cabrera and Billy Wagner (Braves), and Ivan Rodriguez (Nationals).
The Pirates, meanwhile, have added closer Octavio Dotel, along with pitchers Brendan Donnelly and Javier Lopez, infielders Akinori Iwamura and Bobby Crosby, and outfielder Ryan Church in their eternal pursuit of a winning season.
In February, anything is possible.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com