Well, it's that time again
If that "Space Available" sign has been yanked off the Cowboys' head coach's office, if Dominic Rhodes has hosted his last Disney World parade, if all those naughty Cincinnati Bengals have made bail, hey, you know what that means.
Right you are. No more three-part series on the flaws in the Japanese posting system. No more updates on J.D. Drew's riveting contractual small print. No more heart-pumping trips through Google-dom to see whether Adam Hyzdu has signed yet.
In other words, there's a reason to escape the Land of the Plummeting Wind Chill Factor, a reason to dream again, a reason to fling open the gates to Joker Marchant Stadium, Hi Corbett Field and all those other exotic places that tell us spring training is here. Finally.
So -- with the help of a dozen incisive baseball men who voted on all of these categories -- it's time to take a look at the people and story lines that will come pouring out of the offseason Mixmaster as spring training 2007 unfolds.
Most intriguing spring stories (National League)
1. Heeeere's Barry: Well, this is it. The countdown begins. Is there anything that can stop Barry Bonds now from finishing off his hostile takeover of Bud Selig's record book? George Mitchell? Those hard-working grand jurors? An exploding kneecap? Father Time? Pedro Gomez? You never know what's next on the Barry beat. But once again, there will be no escaping him this year, no matter how hard the commish might wish he could.
2. Who stole the champs' rotation? The Cardinals will have a tough enough time winning a division in which the Cubs and Astros committed nearly half a billion dollars this winter trying to catch them. So the reconstruction of that St. Louis rotation will be a huge story this spring. But the pivotal figure to watch isn't even a starter. The Cardinals need Jason Isringhausen to come back from hip surgery so Adam Wainwright can ditch the bullpen for the rotation -- or they could find themselves desperate to make a deal.
3. Deep-dish Moneyball: You would think a team that just tossed around $300 million would at least know how the pieces will fit together. But it's never that simple when you're the Cubs. Amazingly, they gave Alfonso Soriano 136 million of those bucks, and they're not even sure where he's going to play. We can't quite envision exactly how they'll simulate center field conditions at Wrigley while they're holding spring training in a desert. But they have a month and a half to figure out whether Soriano can play center. Should be fun.
4. Back to the starting line: When last we left the Mets, they were running their favorite three-game winner (Oliver Perez) out there to start Game 7 of the NLCS. Now it's four months later, and the biggest name they've brought in to spruce up the rotation is -- can this be right? -- Chan Ho Park? So with Pedro Martinez's future far from certain, this team's rotation consists of two 40-somethings (Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez), John Maine and a whole lot of Then Whats? Considering the staffs the Phillies and Braves have assembled, the Mets' you're-the-arm-that-I-want auditions this spring will be a bigggg topic.
5. He's not Joshing: The dark twists and turns of Josh Hamilton's life represent one of baseball's saddest stories. But his tale isn't over yet. The Reds' decision to take this fallen phenom in December's Rule 5 draft has inspired a lot of head scratching. But spring training is a time of opportunity. And for Hamilton, any opportunity is a chance to rewrite a script that nobody saw coming when his name was the first one called on draft day 1999.
Most intriguing spring stories (American League)
1. The roll of the Dice-K: Just when you thought the Red Sox scene couldn't possibly get any wilder, it's Daisuke Matsuzaka time. As Dice-K fever reigns in Fort Myers, will anybody remember that Manny Ramirez, Curt Schilling and Big Papi are even around? Well, yeah. But they'd better get their gyroball one-liners ready.
2. Breaking up is Sosa hard to do: Can Rangers hitting coach/magician Rudy Jaramillo resurrect the career of a man who had a lower slugging percentage two years ago than David Eckstein? And even if he can, does America even want to see Sammy Sosa write himself a heartwarming comeback saga? We're about to find out. Aren't we?
3. Who needs a closer? Well, the Indians and Red Sox need one. But that hasn't stopped both of them from heading for spring training without one -- or without having one anointed, anyway. So many options. So little time to sort them out. But no matter how many words get written about this spring "drama" between now and April Fools' Day, somebody will pitch the final inning of every single game both teams win this year. We estimate there's a 100 percent probability of that.
4. A-Rod's pinstriped life: So what's the next chapter in Alex Rodriguez's never-ending "When does he become a true Yankee" soap opera? Will he exercise a little-known clause that allows him to opt out of bus trips to Sarasota? Will he confess he hasn't been the same since the departure of Bubba Crosby? Will Joe Torre try to take the pressure off by batting him ninth -- in an intrasquad game? Aw, who knows? But with no new 100-zillion-dollar free agents added to the Yankees' list of spring story lines, you know A-Rod will fill that vacuum somehow.
5. Tiger tales: Can the Tigers recapture the magic they rode to their first World Series in 22 years? Oh, the heck with that question. Can their pitchers make it through the first three innings of the Grapefruit League without another error?
Most improved teams (NL)
Is there any doubt the heat is building on the North Side of Chicago? Their arch-rivals in Missouri won the last World Series. Their crosstown rivals to the south won the World Series before that one. And if the Cubbies don't win a Series this year, then next year they'll become the first team in pro sports history to have gone a whole freaking century between titles. Lou Piniella, Alfonso Soriano, Ted Lilly, Neal Cotts, Cliff Floyd and the rest of this $300 million "Extreme Makeover" cast don't guarantee them any parades. But if this team isn't vastly better than that 96-loss mess of last year, Piniella might spontaneously combust. Team that spent $208 million and didn't get a vote: Giants.
Most improved teams (AL)
1. Red Sox
A year ago this time, the Red Sox thought they had a real shot to break out of that Yankees-finish-first, Sox-finish-second rut they'd been buried in since 1998. But not that way. They've responded to their third-place hangover by addressing their leadoff issues (Julio Lugo), bullpen troubles (Brendan Donnelly, Hideki Okajima, J.C. Romero, Joel Pineiro, Runelvys Hernandez), outfield questions (J.D. Drew) and International Man of Mystery deficit (Daisuke Matsuzaka). If they find a closer and everything else works, this could be the most dangerous team in baseball. Team you'll be shocked to hear got some votes: Royals.
Most unimproved teams (NL)
Has any defending World Series champ ever gone to camp with a prospective starting rotation that won 22 games (as starters) the year before? We can't find one. But that's the mess the Cardinals find themselves in, minus Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis, Jeff Weaver and an injured Mark Mulder. Last year, starters not named Chris Carpenter won 41 games for this team. Can the Cardinals find that many wins this year in a cast that includes Anthony Reyes (five wins), Kip Wells (two wins) and a group that made a combined one start last season (Adam Wainwright, Ryan Franklin, Brad Thompson and Braden Looper)? We know Mulder could be back in midseason. We know Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan always find a way. But with no real offensive upgrades, this is the shakiest any Cardinals team has looked in February in this millennium.
Most unimproved teams (AL)
3. Devil Rays
It was almost impossible to pick a "winner" from among these three teams. The Devil Rays made exactly one tangible addition -- Japanese third baseman Akinori Iwamura -- to a club that scored the fewest runs in baseball, finished 27th in ERA and went 3-30 on the road after the break. The Rangers lost five hitters who combined for 64 homers, 141 doubles and 328 RBI last year -- and replaced them with Kenny Lofton, Frank Catalanotto and Didn't You Used to Be Sammy Sosa. And wayyy too big a chunk of Texas' pitching hopes depend on an Eric Gagne comeback and the hope that Vicente Padilla won't take his $33.75 million and cruise. But it was an especially discouraging winter for the Twins. They lost Brad Radke and Francisco Liriano (who went a combined 24-12,
3.40 ERA last year) -- and imported only (gulp) Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz (who went a combined 15-21, 5.78). Much as we admire this franchise, no AL playoff team regressed more than the Twins did in the area (starting pitching) that was most responsible for getting them to October in the first place.
Least recognizable teams
2. Devil Rays
Can anybody outside the Beltway name six Nationals? Better yet, double or nothing, can anybody -- Beltway residents included -- name the Nationals' starting rotation? Hey, we know we can't lose that bet, because even the Nationals couldn't name it right now. The only guy "guaranteed" to make that rotation is a one-game winner (the talented, but oft-injured John Patterson). And after that, who the heck knows? Perpetually turbo-driven GM Jim Bowden has brought in 33 (yep, 33) nonroster invitees this spring. So if you've ever wanted to see Mike Bacsik, Chris Booker and Anastacio Martinez on the same field at the same time, this is the place.
1. Cubs: Committed $297.55 million to 10 free agents, plus another $10 million to Lou Piniella, plus another $10 million to convince Notre Dame's Jeff Samardzija to turn in his shoulder pads. Grand total: 317.55 million Tribune Co. dollar bills. Just so they know what they missed, for $317.55 million, they could have had those 12 guys -- or 13.6 million large special stuffed pizzas at Giordano's.
2. Giants: If Barry Bonds ever signs his contract, the total on that Giants cash register will come to $208.53 million. Nobody noticed, thanks to the Cubs, but that ranks No. 3 in history in the all-important Most Bucks Spent On Free Agents In One Offseason standings.
3. Red Sox: Boy, is this tricky. By MLB's accounting rules, the Sox committed "only" $173.95 million this winter. But that doesn't count the $51.1 million posting fee it cost them just for the right to deposit another $52 million in Matsuzaka's checking account. It also doesn't factor in the $28 million they could subtract, potentially, if Drew isn't healthy enough to guarantee his last two seasons. It also doesn't include the $1.4 million Donnelly (trade acquisition) will make or the $1.205 million Runelvys Hernandez and Adam Bernero (minor league free agents) could collect if they make the team. So it's possible this could turn into a $227,355,000 winter -- not even including Matsuzaka's 48 round-trip first-class air fares to Japan.
Best free-agent signings
1. Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox (six years, $52 million)
2. Jason Schmidt, Dodgers (three years, $47 million)
3. Alfonso Soriano, Cubs (eight years, $136 million)
This was a tough call. Schmidt and Matsuzaka actually tied for the most votes in our survey. And at least Schmidt is a known quantity. But how many tourists from Seibu is Schmidt going to attract, huh? Of all the free agents signed this winter, Matsuzaka might pack more buzz factor than the rest of them combined. Below-the-radar signing that got the most votes: Randy Wolf, Dodgers (one year, $7.5 million).
Worst free-agent signings
1. Gil Meche, Royals (five years, $55 million)
2. Drew, Red Sox (five years, $70 million or three years, $42 million, depending on how you read the fine print)
3. Juan Pierre, Dodgers (five years, $44 million)
Back at the winter meetings, a high-ranking official of one club suggested that if we took a poll, we'd get 10 nominations for worst signing of the winter. He was wrong. We got 20. But Meche's contract was our runaway "champ." Actually, we understand what new K.C. GM Dayton Moore is trying to do -- assemble as many good arms as possible. But shouldn't a $55 million man at least be a pitcher with more wins over the last two years than Claudio Vargas, or a better WHIP than Bruce Chen? Other signings that got multiple votes: Carlos Lee (Astros), Barry Zito (Giants), Gary Matthews Jr. (Angels), Adam Eaton (Phillies), Ted Lilly (Cubs), Jason Marquis (Cubs), Jeff Suppan (Brewers) and Soriano (Cubs).
Best free agents signed to minor league contracts
1. Aaron Sele, Mets: It wouldn't be a shock if the back of the Mets' rotation turned into a revolving buffet line of arms. And if it does, they would probably take a dozen decent starts from Sele. Well, just to refresh your memory, he did go 6-2 with a 2.91 ERA, the first 12 times the Dodgers gave him the ball last year. After that, uh, don't ask.
2. Matt Stairs, Blue Jays: Bet you didn't know that Stairs, Nomar Garciaparra, Magglio Ordonez and Nick Johnson have virtually identical home run ratios over the last three years (one every 26.8 at-bats).
3. Pick a reliever, any reliever: We can just about guarantee that some veteran reliever, scarfed up on a minor league deal, will have a big season. Happens every year. So try these three nominations: (A) Arthur Rhodes, Mariners (best 2006 K ratio of any left-handed free agent this winter), (B) Rudy Seanez, Dodgers (did whiff 9.17 per 9 IP last year -- and loves that Pacific Time Zone) or (C) Ray King, Nationals (clearly freaked last year by Coors, where opponents batted .385 with a 1.033 OPS against him).
Most intriguing player to get a vote: Rick Ankiel, Cardinals (as a hitter). Hey, he does have a .540 career minor league slugging percentage.
Three most outrageous contracts
1. Giants throw $126 million, over seven years, at Barry Zito -- even though (we hate to break it to them) since his Cy Young season, he owns fewer wins than Jeff Suppan and a worse strikeout ratio than Casey Fossum.
2. Yeah, we know we've already mentioned that Gil Meche contract. But while our contestants were in enough disagreement to dump on 24 different contracts/signings in this survey, nearly everyone ranted over the Meche deal. Potential is wonderful and all that. But when the Mariners chased every half-decent free-agent arm in America except Meche, were they sending a message the Royals didn't get?
3. Angels hand over $50 million for five years to Gary Matthews Jr., who -- as lovable a guy as he may be -- once careened through seven organizations in five years, and averaged .254, .330 OBP, .408 SLG, 11 HR, 43 RBI and 60 runs in all his other 300-plate-appearance seasons before last year.
Most votes for a low-profile signing: Jamie Walker, Orioles (three years, $12 million for a fellow who faces only 200 hitters a year, which sort of makes him the Zito of left-handed specialists.)
One-year contract award: Jeff Weaver, Mariners (one year, $8.325 million for a guy who had a 5.76 ERA last year, has a 6.55 career ERA in Safeco and is 54-73 lifetime as an American Leaguer -- as opposed to 32-28 as a National Leaguer).
Most unlikely names on spring training rosters
1. Jim Parque (Mariners): He hasn't thrown a pitch anywhere in three years. But that doesn't begin to describe how far off the radar screen this fellow has drifted. How long has it been since Parque won more than one game in a season? So long ago (2000) that Bonds was still 259 homers away from Hank Aaron, Tom Glavine was 92 wins short of the 300 win club, and Will Clark, Ozzie Guillen and Jaime Navarro were all still active players.
2. Rey Ordonez (Mariners): If you wander into that Mariners camp this spring, your first question might be: What year is it? Ordonez hasn't started a game since 2004, hasn't started 35 games in any season since 2002 and won his last Gold Glove in the previous millennium.
3. Dave Veres (Rockies): It isn't every spring you see a 40-year-old guy volunteering to pitch in Denver, even though he has had more hip replacements (one) than saves (none) over the last three years. But the Rockies can't afford to turn anybody away who can throw a baseball 60 feet on the fly. So they're taking a shot on a pitcher whose last save was so long ago (Aug. 3, 2003) that Mariano Rivera has saved 158 games (including the postseason) since then.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.