All the time-honored signs of an impending baseball season are upon us — the hint of warmth in the air, Valentine's Day around the corner, a freshly blooming steroids scandal.
All the time-honored signs of an impending baseball season are upon us — the hint of warmth in the air, Valentine’s Day around the corner, a freshly blooming steroids scandal.
Yes, spring training is nearly here, and you have to feel for those poor teams with budget-conscious owners who sat on their wallets all winter. But enough about the New York Yankees.
Stepping nimbly into the Yankees’ role as MLB’s wildly spending behemoths were the Los Angeles Dodgers, masterminded by that sage baseball savant, Magic Johnson, who continued to demonstrate that for his ownership group, money is no object.
The Dodgers made it their mission to steal away free agent Zack Greinke from the crosstown Angels by bestowing upon him a $147 million contract (or as Felix Hernandez calls it, “chump change”). That’s on top of the huge contracts of Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez they picked up last summer. With a payroll upwards of $200 million, rest assured Dodgers manager Don Mattingly will be afforded every bit as much patience as was given to the coach of Johnson’s former team, Mike Brown.
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We haven’t even had the ceremonial first visa problem of spring, and already the proverbial hot seat is getting warmed up. You can add Mattingly’s SoCal counterpart, Mike Scioscia, to that list. After spending $331 million in one day the previous season to land free agents Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, the Angels did another cannonball into the free-agent pool, yanking Josh Hamilton away from the Mariners with a five-year, $125 million deal.
Angels owner Arte Moreno wants a little more bang for his buck than he got last year, when his team watched the A’s, with a measly $55 million payroll, win the AL West despite predictions of doom and gloom. It was such an audacious triumph of team-building by Oakland general manager Billy Beane, they ought to make a movie about it.
The Angels finished four games out of a playoff spot and had to be content with watching the emergence of the most exciting 20-year-old in anyone’s memory, the prodigiously talented Mike Trout. And Trout had to be content with being named the unanimous Rookie of the Year while Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera broke the hearts of sabermetricians everywhere by taking home the Most Valuable Player award.
Trout’s attempt to avoid a sophomore slump — which for him will take place if he doesn’t remain the most complete player in the game — will be a major story line to watch this season. So will the second season of his young partner in prime time, Washington’s Bryce Harper.
Speaking of which, the return to the mound of Washington’s Stephen Strasburg, unceremoniously grounded by the Nationals just shy of the playoffs last year, will be a big spring story. So will the return of Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter to the Yankees — knock on a Louisville slugger if you’re a Yankees fan — after knee and ankle surgeries, respectively.
Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz won’t return until April 28, when he’s done serving his 25 game suspension for taking a banned stimulant, reportedly Adderall. And MLB will have to figure out what to do, if anything, with the players mentioned in the records of the South Florida anti-aging clinic, Biogenesis.
That’s to be contrasted with the South Florida anti-winning ballclub, the Marlins, who dismantled the team just one season after moving into a fancy new ballpark. Their one remaining big-ticket item, the soon-to-be too expensive slugger Giancarlo Stanton, will report to camp as the object of lust for the other 29 teams.
The Giants had a modest offseason, content mainly to retain their own free agents. But when you have two recent World Series trophies to use as bookends, you’re entitled to stand pat. Their vanquished World Series foes, the Tigers, were more aggressive, signing former Angels outfielder Torii Hunter.
Then there’s the Toronto Blue Jays, the anti-Marlins. No team was more aggressive in trying to force their way into contention, raiding Miami for Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Emilio Bonafacio, trading for Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey and signing free agent Melky Cabrera.
Former Jays manager John Farrell is now manager of the Red Sox. Former Red Sox manager Terry Francona is now manager of the Indians. Former Blue Jays manager John Gibbons is now manager of … the Blue Jays, having been given a surprise second crack at the job.
Walt Weiss in Colorado and Mike Redmond in Miami are this year’s version of Robin Ventura and Mike Matheny, getting managerial gigs despite minimal experience. And Bo Porter moves from the Washington Nationals coaching ranks to take over the Houston Astros.
It’s not a job for the fainthearted. The Astros have lost 106 and 107 games the past two years and have traded virtually every player with even a modest major-league résumé. They’re starting a new life in the American League, joining the Mariners in the Western Division to serve the important function of keeping Seattle out of a fourth straight last-place finish.
It all starts Tuesday when pitchers and catchers report, the always-exciting spectacle of players dropping off their duffel bag. All except Michael Bourn, Kyle Lohse and Jose Valverde, three blue-chip free agents who remain unsigned. And for the first time since 1991, the Braves will have a spring camp without Chipper Jones.
It will also be the Mariners’ first camp since 2000 without Ichiro on their roster. He’s a Yankee now. Fortunately, he’s used to making do with less.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @StoneLarry