Ten things to think about as Major League Baseball gears up for spring training.
1. The Marlins: Brave new world? Or more of the same?
The Miami Marlins spent a wad of cash this off-season (Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell) and would have been on the hook for a ton more if Albert Pujols had taken the best offer on the table or if the Cubs weren’t paying $16.45 million of Carlos Zambrano’s $19 million stipend. They currently have 2012 net payroll commitments of $95 million to 15 players and are likely headed over the $100 million mark for the first time in their history. This is a team that spent $57 million last year and, as recently as 2008, had a payroll that topped out at $21.8 million. Since the turn of the century, the Marlin franchise has averaged about 1.376 million fans per season at Dolphins Stadium and are now counting on at least doubling that total in their new ballpark on the site of the Orange Bowl. The Marlins are gambling big that it was a stadium issue that kept fans away, not an aversion to baseball.
2. Extra wild card teams possible, but what about a balanced schedule?
There is still a reasonable chance that an extra wild card playoff spot will be up for grabs in both leagues as early as this season. That will give some additional incentive but, for one of those teams in each league, it will be a short-lived playoff of one game. People talk about adding some spice to September baseball but it’s hard to imagine anything spicier than what happened last fall, when races went to the last day in both leagues.
What would really level the playing field is a balanced schedule where, with the exception of interleague play, all teams in each league would play each other an equal number of times. That may come next year when the Houston Astros move to the AL, creating two 15-team leagues. And not a moment too soon.
3. Red Sox Nation: What’s the state of the union?
On the second day of January in 2011, an article appeared on the New England Sports Network’s website entitled “2011 Red Sox Will Challenge 1927 Yankees For Title Of Greatest Team in Baseball History.”
Now we all know how that prediction turned out. They endured a September collapse for the ages, missing the playoffs on the last day of the season. In the aftermath, the manager was fired, the GM left to take over the Cubs, the closer signed with the Phillies and two pitchers — Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey — will be paid $26 million to recover from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery this year. They have no starting shortstop since they traded Jed Lowrie for bullpen set-up guy Mark Melancon. They traded for closer Andrew Bailey and brought in role players Cody Ross, Nick Punto and Kelly Shoppach as free agents. Behind starters Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, they have question marks. They still have potentially one of the most devastating every-day lineups in the game, but nobody’s invoking the ’27 Yankees this time.
4. Pujols and Fielder: Short-term gain vs long-term pain
The two most significant off-season free agents — Pujols and Prince Fielder — both landed in the American League and raked in $454 million between them. The dollars are stunning enough but most baseball men will tell you the money is one thing but the part that scares them is the length of contract. Pujols, 32, will earn $100 million in the first five years of his deal. In the second five years, the Angels will owe him $140 million. That’s an average salary of $28 million a year for a guy from the age of 37 to 41. Fielder gets $23 million in each of the first two years of his nine-year contract with Detroit, and then $24 million a year thereafter, cashing out at the age of 36 in 2020. The early years of both contracts, barring injury, should be productive but, given Pujols’ age and Fielder’s body composition, it’s hard to be optimistic about the long range outcome.
5. Dodger blue bringing out the long green.
No matter how much mud Frank McCourt and his wife Jamie have dragged the Dodger name through, it remains one of baseball’s iconic franchises. Big Money is lined up out the door and around the block to get a piece of this bit of Americana.
At one point there were a dozen groups who paid a non-refundable $25,000 entrance fee into the bidding. The field has been pared to eight groups, one of which will win the auction at a cost expected to be about $1.5 billion before the MLB-imposed deadline of April 30.
One interesting aspect is that McCourt, who made his money running parking lots in Boston, is planning not to sell the land, just the franchise. He wants to retain the parking lots for which he currently charges his own team $14 million a year.
6. Reds taking dead aim in NL Central
With the Brewers and the Cardinals both licking their wounds after failing to hold on to Fielder and Pujols, respectively, there is suddenly hope in Cincinnati for the Reds.
The National League Central has not exactly been a perennial powerhouse, what with the Pirates, Cubs and Astros unable to get their acts together. But now, with the Cards and Brewers somewhat vulnerable, the Reds are looking like it may be their time after quietly upgrading in a couple of areas. The Reds won the Matt Latos sweepstakes, giving up some of their top farmhands to solidify a rotation spot in support of Johnny Cueto and Bronson Arroyo. They also upgraded their bullpen with ex-Phil Ryan Madson and are now in a short window of opportunity, with aging Scott Rolen winding his career down and just two more years of Joey Votto before he hits free agency.
7. Tigers: Their time is now
Even before Prince Fielder signed, even after Victor Martinez was lost for the season with knee surgery, the Tigers looked as if they would roll in the AL Central virtually unopposed. They still had Miguel Cabrera, one of the best hitters in the game. They still had Alex Avila and Brennan Boesch and a pitching staff anchored by AL MVP Justin Verlander, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer.
But the Fielder signing changes the dynamic. Now Cabrera is expected to play third base and he’s reportedly taking that responsibility seriously, having dropped 25 pounds this winter to try to make himself a better defender.
Cabrera and Fielder comprise probably the best 3-4 combination in the American League since ... well, since Cabrera and Martinez. If the Tigers aren’t in the playoff mix come October it will mean they have truly squandered an opportunity.
8. Darvish on early path to assimilate
We’ve been told all along that Yu Darvish is not your garden-variety free agent from the Far East. We were told he’s power versus finesse, a strikeout pitcher who punched out 276 batters in 232 innings last year and that he has a good chance to break the stereotype of Japanese pitchers failing to live up to their potential.
What impressed the Rangers was Darvish’s intention to be, as much as possible, just one of the guys. He expressed a desire to get on the same training regimen as his teammates and when asked if he wanted his own personal PR handler, he wanted to know if anyone else on the team had that kind of treatment. When he was told that no one did, he declined.
The transition will, no doubt, have its difficult moments as he transitions from having five and six days rest to the traditional North American practice of four days between starts but his insistence in getting with the program has eased some minds in Texas.
9. Ryan Braun: Double Jeopardy for Brewers
It’s tough enough that the Brewers lost Fielder, but they were anticipating that. But they were totally unprepared to be blindsided by Ryan Braun’s 50-game suspension for breaching the MLB drug code, not three weeks after being named the NL MVP last November.
The Braun case has been shrouded in secrecy. He appealed the decision and the hearing on that appeal was heard by an independent arbitrator in January. In-season, there is a 25-day limit on the deliberations after the start of a hearing but in the off-season, that limit doesn’t apply. Word out of Milwaukee is that a ruling will be made in the next seven to 10 days but no one who has ever failed a MLB drug test has won his appeal. With Fielder gone and Braun out for a third of the season, it would be a devastating blow to the heart of the Milwaukee order.
10. Parity in the AL takes a holiday
In baseball, there is nothing more flammable than an off-season prediction. When you look back on February pronouncements in September, most of the time you just shake your head at how utterly wrong they were. That said, as spring training beckons, it is difficult to remember a time when there were so many really strong teams in the American League as there are at the dawn of 2012.
There are the old standby Yankees and Red Sox, who have been joined by the Rays as the beasts of the AL East the past few years. But now they have been perhaps passed, by the two-time defending AL champion Rangers, the AL Central champion Tigers and the Angels, who grabbed everyone’s attention by signing Pujols and lefty starter C.J. Wilson.
At the same time as these six beasts have stepped forward, there are another six teams who appear to have no chance. That would include Baltimore, Kansas City, Chicago White Sox, Seattle, Oakland and Minnesota.
The Blue Jays and, to a lesser extent, the Indians are rarities in that they could go in either direction: good enough to contend under the right circumstances, yet shaky enough to fall flat if luck betrays them.