Top 20 topics for Spring Training
Clubs open camps in Florida and Arizona this week
It has been long enough since Adam Wainwright blew a pitch by Brandon Inge on a cold October night to complete a magical first season for a new ballpark beside the Arch in downtown St. Louis.
The Hot Stove League was a lot of fun. It kept us warm at nights. It was filled with rumors and deals, Daisuke Matsuzaka updates and hope for tomorrow. But now it is time for the ballplayers to return to work. It is time for Spring Training, and here are 20 of the top storylines that greet the opening of camps in Florida and Arizona:
1. Meet the managers -- The big managerial news last October was Joe Torre announcing he is returning to the Yankees -- a decision very much in doubt right after the Tigers eliminated his club. But nearly one-fourth of Major League teams did make the change. Here are the newbies: Manny Acta of the Nationals, Bud Black of the Padres, Bruce Bochy of the Giants, Bob Geren of the A's, Fredi Gonzalez of the Marlins, Lou Piniella of the Cubs and Ron Washington of the Rangers. Expect most of the attention to fall on Piniella in Mesa, Ariz., as the replacement for Dusty Baker, who got the Cubs ever so close in 2003 but not close enough.
2. Why PFP highlights are good for Detroit -- One year ago, anyone watching the Tigers' camp was just curious how a middling club would respond to new manager Jim Leyland. So when all the media go gaga over pitchers fielding practice (PFP) in Lakeland, Fla., just to see if Justin Verlander, Todd Jones, Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya can throw to the correct base, let's hope the Tigers take it as a compliment. No, it won't mean squat, as that was just one week in October. But everyone will be watching because this club just went to the World Series. That matters. And the same team just got better, so most importantly, Tigers camp will be home to a bona fide title contender.
3. Milestone Madness -- No milestones will be chased during Spring Training, but that's where the preparation begins for one of the most collectively historic seasons ever to be seen. People will be watching Barry Bonds (734 homers), Craig Biggio (2,930 hits), Tom Glavine (290 wins) and four guys within comfortable reach of the 500 Home Run Club: Frank Thomas (487), Jim Thome (472), Manny Ramirez (470) and Alex Rodriguez (464). And those are just the blockbusters.
4. Forget the gyroball and just watch him -- Matsuzaka was tuning up for the World Baseball Classic at this time last year, pitching Japan to the inaugural title and winning MVP honors. Boston outbid all clubs for the rights to sign him -- a $103.1 million total commitment -- and now he reports to Fort Myers, Fla., as an expensive key to Red Sox hopes. As for his "miracle pitch" -- it allegedly breaks twice upon delivery, but experts around baseball and even physicists are split over whether it exists. See for yourself.
5. Sedona Red -- Randy Johnson is back in a No. 51 Arizona jersey, but it won't look anything like the one he wore when he was co-MVP of the 2001 World Series. The Diamondbacks have a brand new look, featuring red. Now they have to buck a trend they actually started. Since 2001, red-laden clubs have won every other year (Angels in 2002, Red Sox in 2004, Cardinals in 2006). Five American League clubs include red in their color schemes, and nine in the National League (including Pittsburgh's new red alternate jersey). So it's not a good year to switch to red, but they'll make you look.
6. Who cares about the unis -- look at that rotation -- Arizona's camp features a rotation of reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb, Johnson, Livan Hernandez and Doug Davis. Whatever they're wearing, that is going to look pretty formidable during Spring Training.
7. It's all about Spring Training -- Last year was a load of fun. The first World Baseball Classic captured the imagination of people all around the world. We'll do it again in a few years. But for now, it's all about the camps and the Cactus and Grapefruit League exhibition games. No distractions, no players leaving and then coming back.
8. Find Greg Maddux -- Now he's a Padre. Once an annual tradition as part of the Braves' unshakeable starting rotation, this future Hall of Famer is fast moving. He went back to the Cubs, then to the Dodgers, then to San Diego. The question is whether he can win the 15 games that have eluded him just once since 1988. While you're at it, find Mike Piazza. It will be hard to get used to him wearing the A's green and gold.
9. Does Sammy Sosa still have it? One player in Major League history has hit at least 60 homers in three seasons (66 in 1998, 63 in '99 and 64 in '01), and he is about to report to Rangers camp after a year away from the game. Sosa, 38, is 12 homers shy of the 600 Club. But most notable are his successive game totals this decade: 160 in '01, then 150, 137, 126 and 102. A $17 million salary earner for Baltimore in 2005, he was signed by Texas to a Minor League contract, so now the outfielder will be back with his original team just hoping to make The Show -- like he was half a lifetime ago.
10. And what about Gagne? Speaking of Rangers camp, take a good look at Eric Gagne in that new Texas uni. The closer position is not the reason the Rangers have been denied an October for so long, but if Gagne is where he once was as a healthy Dodger, it could breed a lot of swagger and success for Texas.
11. The Game, and now The Questions -- The Cardinals and Mets played a Game 7 in the most recent NL Championship Series that will become a legend. Now they share something else: They are two top NL contenders, each with seriously patchwork rotations. The Mets will wait much of the season for Pedro Martinez, and Glavine will be asked to carry a huge load. The Cardinals will wait much of the season for Mark Mulder, and Chris Carpenter will be asked to carry a huge load. Wainwright escaped those Mets in that classic clincher, and if Jason Isringhausen proves he's back at closer this spring, then how will Wainwright do as a starter? Both clubs have lots of starting issues, yet both are generally viewed as the clubs to beat.
12. Other rotation questions -- Spring Training will go a long way toward deciding some important situations on other pitching staffs. What about the Twins, who lost Brad Radke to retirement and will go all year without 2006 first-half sensation Francisco Liriano? Somehow they always seem to find a solution, and who at this time last year thought they would win the tough AL Central? What about the White Sox, who dealt Freddy Garcia and Brandon McCarthy for young pitching that may or may not be ready for The Show? White Sox fans can point to Jon Garland, Mark Buehrle, Jose Contreras and Javier Vazquez, and ask: What's the big deal?
13. Camp Barry -- Bonds won't be the only one in the spotlight as Giants camp opens in Scottsdale, Ariz. The other Barry, Zito, just crossed the Bay as the biggest free-agent pickup among pitchers. Bochy made the decision to leave San Diego, replacing Felipe Alou, and brought Dave Roberts and Ryan Klesko with him.
14. Is it time for No. 27? The Yankees have made the playoffs 12 straight years, and they were on course for that to be 13 had there been a 1994 postseason. They have won the American League East nine years in a row. But the Bombers have gone six autumns without a world championship, and they always come to camp with the expectation that the biggest payroll in sports had better deliver No. 27 soon. Andy Pettitte is back to help restore the goods; Don Mattingly now is bench coach; Big Unit was sent back to Arizona, where he beat the Bombers to start their drought; and having Bobby Abreu in the lineup for a full year could be a key.
15. Will this be A-Rod's last spring in Tampa? Rodriguez has three years left on his big Yankees contract, but he has an opt-out clause each year. He recently declined to rule out invoking that at the end of the upcoming season, and that only heated up the speculation. It was a drama-filled 2006 season for the third baseman, filled with emotions, and yet here he is again, ranked No. 4 overall on the MLB.com fantasy list. What will 2007 be like, and will it be his last year as a Bomber?
16. Check out those Cincinnati uniforms -- The Reds aren't about to drop the color red. They always will be red. But that is definitely a new look that fans will see for the first time in Sarasota, Fla.
17. What about Roger Clemens? The Yankees very well could be a destination again for the Rocket now that his friend Pettitte is back in pinstripes and that Robinson Cano has given up No. 22. That is a major sign. Don't expect any news there for quite a while. Houston and Boston also are possibilities. Astros fans have been through this all before.
18. Could the AL East ever be flipped upside down? A lot of people wonder that -- especially in Tampa Bay and Baltimore. One of the quietest developments at the very end of last season -- even quieter than Toronto slipping into second place ahead of Boston to end a long pattern -- was the fact that Joe Maddon's Devil Rays went 61-101 to finish one game worse than Kansas City for baseball's basement. Hasn't a storied franchise like Baltimore gone long enough without a contender? The Orioles just lost Kris Benson for the year, but now they have Steve Trachsel instead.
19. Who are the next meek to inherit the Earth? Is all of that core talent in Colorado ready for prime time? Milwaukee fans like what they see so far in Prince Fielder, and now they have Jeff Suppan in a solid rotation. Just maybe it will be the Brewers' turn. How much better can Kansas City be, led by prized pickup Gil Meche as its ace? Will Jeff Weaver do for the Mariners what he did last October for the Cardinals? Pick any team in baseball and apply recent big-league trends, and you can understand why Major League Baseball probably will shatter its overall attendance record again.
20. Who closes in Cleveland? A better question might be: Will Travis Hafner become the best hitter in baseball this season? What a phenomenal 2006 Pronk had despite missing the last month. But the real question in Indians camp is: Who will finish the games? They have more candidates than the upcoming Democratic presidential ticket. They were expected to contend last year, and the answer to this question will help decide whether they will contend this time.
Of course, there are countless other topics people will be talking about in the days to come. Does Steve Finley retire or latch on? How will Mark Prior and Kerry Wood look (again)? Do the Braves consider 2006 just an unexpected diversion from the divisional dynasty, and will they have Andruw Jones around for the rest of his wondrous career? Can Rich Harden pick up some Zito slack in Oakland? How will the much-questioned Phillies bullpen look this spring? Is Carl Pavano ready to give the Yankees what they expected? Will the Angels have the best outfield in baseball now that Gary Matthews Jr. is aboard as a free-agent pickup?
There are many more, and now it is time at last to start addressing all of that wonderful Hot Stove dialogue and debate that helped us through a long winter. It is time this week for fans to go after that autograph of Toronto's Roy Halladay or Florida's Dan Uggla. The wheels go 'round again. It is time for Spring Training.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.