CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Well, it's that time again
Time to pay way more attention to those Molina brothers than those Manning brothers. Time to zone in on George Sherrill instead of George Mitchell. Time to stop focusing on Byung-Hyun Kim's exhaustive search for a new employer and start worrying about the Cardinals' exhaustive search for a new center fielder.
In other words, it's time to wander (one last time) through those soon-to-be-open gates of Holman Field and Chain O'Lakes Park. Time to crank up those exotic Port St. Lucie and Surprise datelines. Time to start dreaming those much-needed spring training dreams.
Because one of the strangest baseball offseasons of modern times is history now. Finally. And spring training is here. Finally.
So -- with the help of 22 of our favorite baseball wise men (or, at least, the first 22 to agree to vote on all these categories) -- it's time to take a look at the people and story lines that will start unfolding any second now as Spring Training 2008 gets rolling.
Most intriguing spring stories (NL)
Santana-mania: When last we saw the Mets in September, they were freeing the '64 Phillies from their seemingly endless Worst Collapse of All Time purgatory. So even if Johan Santana doesn't go undefeated, strike out 398 or have a 1.04 ERA, at least he'll help the Mets change the subject. Might have been worth all the aggravation just for that.
The Miggy chronicles: By now, George Mitchell has moved along to concern himself with matters less important than steroids, like elections and peace on Earth. But the PED tsunami he launched will come crashing down on many a shore all spring. And especially in Kissimmee, where the Miguel Tejada questions lurk around every corner. Will he be allowed in the country? Is he about to get indicted? Is the Mitchell report true? And assuming Tejada can slalom past all those questions, there's this one: Can he still play? He'd better have a big year in him, or the Astros are in major agua caliente.
Didn't this used to be Dodgertown?: Say it ain't so. No more spring training drives down Duke Snider Street or Vin Scully Way? No more open-air dugouts? No more street lights disguised as giant illuminated baseballs on a pole? No more living legends leaning against the batting cage on the same, coconut-tree-lined field where Branch Rickey and Walter O'Malley once presided? Progress has never been more overrated than it will be this spring -- when the Dodgers vacate their hallowed, historic spring home of the past six decades.
The Power, the glory and the careful pronunciation of
No team in the history of sports has ever gone a whole century without winning a championship -- until now, when the Cubs observe a centennial they'd rather we all ignore. But just because Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Ryne Sandberg and Mark Prior couldn't close that deal doesn't mean it can't be done. This will be the spring their latest hero, Kosuke Fukudome, gets to learn all about billy goats, roamings, gloamings and deep-dish fatalism.
They left their Barry in San Francisco: Is there really life without Barry Youknowwho for those San Francisco Giants? Heck yeah, there is. And it arrives any minute now. Unfortunately, it includes life without an actual cleanup hitter (Bengie Molina?). But the good news is, there will sure be a lot of tremendous arms in this camp -- and about 3,000 fewer media invaders.
Most intriguing spring stories (AL)
The young and the Santana-less: It's always a little confusing when the Mets start acting like the Yankees, while the Yankees start acting like -- well, who? The Indians? The Diamondbacks? The A's? Whatever, Johan Santana was out there for the Yankees' trading pleasure this winter -- and GM Brian Cashman took a culture-changing stance for this franchise, by deciding he'd rather have Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy. So Hughes had better have, like, a 0.36 ERA this spring, or there's no telling what kind of Hank Steinbrenner second-guesses Cashman will be in for. Meanwhile, in other soap operatic Yankees plot lines, you can't beat new managers, ace left-handers hanging out with their favorite congressional investigators, Joba Watches and A-Rod awaiting Jose Canseco's next contribution to world literature.
Beware of Tigers: How many runs will the 2008 Tigers score, anyway? A thousand? Two thousand? More than the rest of their division combined? That will be one question we'll explore this spring, now that Miguel Cabrera and Edgar Renteria have pulled into Motown. But there's just enough uncertainty about issues like (A) Joel Zumaya's future and (B) the dependability of the rotation that it isn't safe to pencil in this team for 110 wins. Yet.
Repeat after me: The common wisdom out there is that the Red Sox remain the best team in baseball. But wait. That would mean they're the favorites to (gulp) repeat. And last time that happened -- a mere 92 years ago -- Woodrow Wilson was in the White House, despite the fact he hadn't been endorsed by Ted Kennedy or interviewed by MSNBC even once. Those questions about Curt Schilling's future notwithstanding, the Red Sox of this spring won't look much different from the Sox of October 2007. But that's a huge story in itself. When was the last offseason in which the Red Sox and Yankees both added, essentially, no new players of major significance? 1904?
Northwest Passage: It took the Tigers about 45 minutes to trade for Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis this winter. It seemed as if it took the Mariners somewhere around a century to trade for Erik Bedard. But now that this deal is finally done, Bedard and Felix Hernandez loom as the AL's most terrifying top-of-the-rotation tag team. On the other hand, it tells you this team must be at least slightly flawed when one of its big spring questions is: "Uh-oh. How do we replace the invaluable contributions of Jose Guillen?"
Rise of the Rays: We always knew that one of these decades, that franchise in Tampa Bay might crash through the magical 70-win barrier. Well, guess what. This should actually be the year. Is The Team Formerly Known as the Devil Rays ready to slap around the Yankees or Red Sox (or even the underrated Blue Jays)? Nah. Not yet. But the Rays have added Matt Garza to the rotation and depth to the bullpen. Third base stud Evan Longoria might be the most buzzed-about phenom in baseball. And three of the best pitching prospects on earth (David Price, Jake McGee, Wade Davis) are just over the horizon. Here's how promising this team is: One AL executive actually predicts the Rays won't even pick in the first 10 picks of the draft. Pass the smelling salts!
Most improved teams (NL)
Here's how much of a difference maker Johan Santana is: Before the Mets traded for him, they were viewed as one of the National League teams that had done the least to get better this winter. But drop the best pitcher of his time into this mix, and people start changing that tune, faster than you can say, "Whatever happened to Deolis Guerra?" Can one player really make that much of a difference? Sure. When he's this player. Heck, the Twins went 105-47 when Santana started over the past five years (and only 335-323 when he didn't). So the Mets might go undefeated when he's out there.
Poll tidbit: The Mets got 14 votes from our panelists. The D-backs got 10. And no other NL team got more than three.
Most improved teams (AL)
It can't be only five years ago when the Tigers lost 119 games, can it? Feels like 50. But this Tigers team sure looks a lot more like the '86 Mets than the '62 Mets. How deep is this Motown lineup, now that Cabrera and Renteria are in this mix? Sheez, the No. 8 hitter (Pudge Rodriguez) will be making 13 million bucks a year. So all these guys have to do now is find a way to dial up 2005 on Willis' time machine, and it's ridiculous how good they can be.
Poll tidbit: Believe it or not, we got a real, live vote for the Orioles on this "most-improved" list. Nah, not because of temporary insanity. Just because, in the words of the exec who cast it, at least they've "finally accepted that they were going nowhere and had to make big changes."
Most unimproved teams (NL)
What follows is the transcript of an actual conversation between two longtime baseball men this winter. Baseball man No. 1: "What do you make of the Pirates' offseason?" Baseball man No. 2: "Has it started yet?" It wasn't easy beating out the Marlins or Giants for this much-uncoveted "most unimproved" award. But the Pirates pulled it off, based on sheer inactivity alone. This is, after all, a team that lost 94 games last season. Yet the biggest name it has added this winter is (drum roll, please) Chris Gomez? We have a lot of respect for the new GM (Neal Huntington), manager (John Russell) and team president (Frank Coonelly). But if you can find anybody outside the 412 area code who thinks this outfit can avoid consecutive losing season Numero 16, please identify him immediately. We're pretty sure the Pirates would like to sell him a season ticket.
Poll tidbit: The Dodgers were the only NL team to get votes for both most improved and most unimproved.
Most unimproved teams (AL)
You know it was a goofy offseason when 10 different AL teams got at least one vote in this department. But the A's won the Battle of the Roster Demolition All-Stars by waving so long to their best pitcher (Dan Haren), their most consistent run producer (Nick Swisher), their leadoff man (Shannon Stewart) and their center fielder (Mark Kotsay). And de facto ace Joe Blanton might not make it to Opening Day, either. The good news is, Billy Beane traded for 11 legitimate prospects, so the A's will be back. But the bad news is, the biggest veteran names they've added are Mike Sweeney and (gasp) Emil Brown. So it won't be this season.
Poll tidbit: Five potential playoff teams -- the Red Sox, Yankees, Angels, Blue Jays and Indians -- all got "most unimproved" votes. Hard to believe.
Least recognizable teams
What a free-for-all this category was. The Astros might have been the most stable team in baseball for the past decade. Now they've killed off all their Killer Bees except Lance Berkman. Then there are those post-Dontrelle, post-Cabrera Marlins. Now they're a team only the Rick VandenHurk Fan Club could love. We could have made compelling cases for the Twins, Giants and Orioles, too. But how could anybody out-anonymous these 2008 A's -- especially if they deal away Blanton? If you've ever wanted to see Chris Denorfia, Santiago Casilla and Jeff Fiorentino on the same field, A's camp is the place for you this spring.
Poll tidbit: What does it say about Tampa Bay that the Rays got almost as many votes for "least recognizable" as they did in that "most improved" balloting?
Yankees: Even though the only new "high-profile" player the Yankees brought in this winter was the bargain-priced LaTroy Hawkins, it was the cost of keeping their old players (i.e., A-Rod, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte) that put a hurting on the old Steinbrenner checking account balance. The official offseason price tag for that group, plus (never forget a Molina brother) Jose Molina, added up to a spectacular $396.15 million. And that doesn't even count the $30 million in (ahem) "milestone accomplishment" payouts they'll owe A-Rod if he breaks Barry Bonds' home run record. Just so the Yankees know what they missed, for $396.15 million, they could have had all those guys -- or 20,905,013 Derek Jeter sandwiches (roast beef, turkey and muenster) at the Stage Deli.
Mets: They'll be plunking down a cool $196.1 million to their distinguished offseason acquisitions -- five free agents, plus the three veteran players they traded for: Brian Schneider, Ryan Church and some guy named Santana. Of course, Santana will eat up $137.5 million all by himself. Which makes you wonder: Was that a trade -- or a corporate acquisition?
Angels: Torii Hunter had better be good. His $90 million price tag accounts for just about all of the $93 million Arte Moreno added to his bills-due folder this winter. The other $3 million comes from the difference between the salary of newly acquired Jon Garland ($12 million) and the paycheck of the guy he was traded for, Orlando Cabrera ($9 million).
Best free-agent signings
Kosuke Fukudome, Cubs (4 years, $48 million)
Hiroki Kuroda, Dodgers (3 years, $35.3 million)
To quote one exec, "Was there such a thing [as a good free-agent signing] this winter?"
What a nutty winter. Once we'd finished disqualifying free agents who re-signed with their old teams in this category, the only free agents who mustered any real enthusiasm from our poll voters were guys who came with their own translators. Not that anyone is sure that Fukudome is going to generate the same productivity or electricity as some of his Japanese predecessors. But his left-handed bat is a perfect fit for the Cubs. And we're betting that if there are any curses out there he's familiar with, at least they have zilch to do with goats.
Worst free-agent signings
Carlos Silva, Mariners (4 years, $48 million)
Scott Linebrink, White Sox (4 years, $19 million)
Aaron Rowand, Giants (5 years, $60 million)
So many choices for this award. So few places to rank them. But in a category in which 17 (count 'em, 17) different players got nominated, the Silva and Linebrink signings squashed the rest of the field. It's a great country when a guy like Silva -- who hasn't had a winning record since 2005 and has struck out fewer hitters over the past three years than Jake Peavy struck out last year -- can rake in 48 million bucks. But as a whole, no category of fat contracts seemed to offend our panel more than excessive bullpen contracts. And $19 million for Linebrink, whose opponent OPS has swelled from .583 to .678 to .742 over the past three years, made him the bad-bullpen-contract poster boy of 2008.
Poll tidbit: Rowand would never have shown up on this list if he'd gotten, say, a three-year deal. But those fourth and fifth years, which the Giants so charitably guaranteed him, allowed him to edge Cordero, Gagne, Jose Guillen and Jones for that prestigious No. 3 ranking.
Mets get Santana for a sprint champ who might never hit (Carlos Gomez) and three pitching prospects who might never win as many games combined as the 93 Santana won for the Twins all by himself.
Tigers get a 24-year-old four-time All-Star (Cabrera) and a 26-year-old two-time All-Star (Willis) from the Marlins for two tremendous prospects (Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller), plus four deal filler-outers who include one minor leaguer (pitcher Burke Badenhop) who's actually older than Cabrera.
Orioles get three excellent young arms (Troy Patton, Matt Albers and Dennis Sarfate), plus the useful Luke Scott and a third-base prospect with power potential (Mike Costanzo), from Houston for a player (Tejada) who got scorched by the Mitchell report about 20 minutes after the press conference. "If they'd just waited two days," one of our panelists said of the Astros, "wouldn't the price tag have gone down dramatically?"
Poll tidbit: Here's a no-doubt-about-it sign that the most evenly matched monster trade of the winter was the six-for-two extravaganza that sent Haren from Oakland to Arizona. Three of our balloters gave the Diamondbacks "best trade of the winter" votes. Two thought the A's made one of the best trades of the offseason. And four more said both teams made out great.
Best free agents $2 million and under
The Red Sox found an $800,000 bargain in the ever-lovable Sean Casey, even though his numbers after May 1 last season (.317 average/.372 on-base/.424 slugging) were pretty much identical to those of a guy they're paying $14 million a year, J.D. Drew (.269/.373/.429).
Mark Prior's medical reports scared the eyeballs off some teams. But it cost the Padres a piddly $1 million to take a shot at a guy who is the proud owner of the highest career strikeout rate (10.37 per nine innings) of any active right-handed starter with 100 or more starts.
The Cardinals shelled out just $1.5 million to roll the dice on Matt Clement, a pitcher whose career strikeout ratio (7.75 per 9 IP) and opponent batting average (.248) are actually better than Roy Oswalt's (7.45 and .256). Who knew?
Best free agents signed to minor league contracts
Mike Sweeney, A's: Granted, you have to go back six years to find the last time Sweeney played more than 126 games in a season. But we're still talking about a fellow with a higher career OPS (.861) than Carlos Beltran, Carlos Lee, Andruw Jones or Aramis Ramirez. Let's just say none of those guys is working on minor league contracts.
Get back to us in a week: With 50-plus free agents still overstuffing the unemployment rolls, somebody out there is going to be a sensational buy. Here are three potential minor league signees we'd take a gamble on: Kris Benson, Akinori Otsuka and (we can't believe we're saying this) Armando Benitez.
Three most outrageous contracts (free agent or otherwise)
Yankees toss $275 million over 10 years, plus a chance to make another $30 million, at Alex Rodriguez, even though (A) no other team appeared to be within $80 million of that, (B) he turns 33 in July and (C) he couldn't possibly have been more desperate to go back there. Worked out just fine for "60 Minutes," anyhow.
Maybe the most fascinating development in this whole poll was that the Mets' trade for Santana got universal raves -- but the contract they gave him took a major whomping from our panel. How risky is a six-year guarantee, even for a 28-year-old horse who hasn't spent a day on the disabled list since 2001? Here's how risky: In the division-play era (1969-present), we could only find six non-knuckleballers, Santana's age or older, who have ever strung together seven straight seasons of double-digit wins and more than 30 starts.
Carlos Silva actually got the most votes in this department, but we've already covered him. So we're awarding third place to the Angel who shocked the sport with his five-year, $90 million contract: Torii Hunter. The funny thing is, we've never met anybody in baseball who didn't love Hunter. Just not 90 million bucks' worth. Sensational center fielder. World-class human being. Great player to have around. But in the history of baseball, just eight position players have ever scored contracts worth $18 million a year. Hunter is the only one who has never scored 100 runs, had a .340 on-base percentage or had a slugging percentage as high as .525 in any season of his career.
Poll tidbit: Twenty-one different players got votes for either most outrageous contract or worst free-agent signing, or both -- including a guy who hadn't even signed yet (soon-to-be-overpriced Scott Boras client Kyle Lohse).
Most important injury comebacks
Special déjà vu division
Rookies to watch (NL)
Jay Bruce (Reds CF)
Colby Rasmus (Cardinals CF)
Cameron Maybin (Marlins CF)
Rookies to watch (AL)
Most unlikely names on spring training rosters
Juan Gonzalez (Cardinals): What the heck is this man doing in anybody's camp? The last time a team took a chance on him -- that would be the 2005 Indians -- he played just well enough to collect a $600,000 bonus for making the roster, then pulled the plug after one at-bat. The year before, in Kansas City, he managed to miss the last 4½ months of the season with an injury that was once described as "day-to-day." So are the Cardinals that desperate for offense that they had to bring in a Mitchell report alumnus who last played more than 82 games in a season five years ago? For the record, since the last time Gonzalez drove in a run -- 1,366 days ago, on May 19, 2004 -- Albert Pujols has knocked in 322 of them.
Chad Fox (Cubs): Is there life after three Tommy John surgeries? Fox is about to find out. He came back after Tommy John No. 2 to help the 2003 Marlins make it to the World Series. But he only had another 18 2/3 innings in him before it was time to head back to the repair shop for Tommy John No. 3, in May 2005. Modern medicine is a beautiful thing, isn't it?
Brian Anderson (Rays): Have we ever mentioned what a tremendous invention left-handedness is? One minute, Anderson was working for Fox Sportsnet in Ohio. The next, his elbow was feeling so good, he was scarfing up a job with Tampa Bay. For the record, (A) his last win was April 10, 2005, and (B) the only two active pitchers with more triples than Anderson (three) are Dontrelle Willis and Mike Hampton (with five apiece).
Event that best summed up the offseason (Non-Mitchell Division)
The Yankees and Red Sox spend the entire offseason talking to the Twins about Johan Santana. Then neither of them trades for him. What's baseball coming to, anyway?
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.