Spring Training brings unwelcome storms
La Russa, Leyland wrestle with outside distractions
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Theirs are distractions of different sorts. No one knows how or when Miguel Cabrera will be back on the field, or precisely how Albert Pujols' contract negotiations will evolve, or how the impacts of the Frank and Jamie McCourt divorce or the Bernie Madoff-related suit against Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz will impact two of baseball's most notable franchises.
Plunging into a season in which the sport is optimistic about setting an attendance record and building record revenues in an era when young players like Jason Heyward, Buster Posey and Mike Stanton have seemingly distracted us from the Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens legal cases and dark shadows, the distractions have been the headlines.
To begin with, it isn't what people say, it's what they do. The Phillies' Phantastic Phour have all established their identities as extraordinary pitchers, they have been gracious enough to provide answers about the lofty expectations, and they all appreciate that it doesn't take a sports psychologist to explain to them the fragility of February greatness.
The same is true here in The Fort, where reporters had two days of questions, the first about Brian Cashman calling the Red Sox "favorites," the second about Mark Teixeira referring to the Yankees as "underdogs."
"Baseball is played, not spoken," said Jason Varitek.
"They're having fun playing with us," said Terry Francona. "We know that, come September, the Yankees will be right there with us."
Thus endeth that stream of consciousness.
Buck Showalter understands distractions from his experience building the Yankees, D-backs and Rangers to championship levels in distinctly different markets. When he took over last season, Showalter sought to "restore the self-esteem" of Orioles players who had come to believe that they were as bad as their history of failing to reach .500 since the first year of Bill Clinton's second term. With a reconstructed infield and bullpen and the addition of Vladimir Guerrero, the Orioles appear to have a legitimate chance to get back to that .500 level, or better. But Showalter wants to strip away the distractions that came with the expectations of Matt Wieters' arrival in Baltimore.
That arrival came with claims that he was Joe Mauer with power, an immediate star. Problem is, Wieters didn't get to call pitches and understand the complex relationships that go into working with pitchers, and when the Orioles' pitching went south and the team kept losing, Showalter said he believes Wieters lost his self-esteem. So Buck will start Wieters down around the eight hole, let him further his defensive development, and when he's ready, push him back to the front of the stage.
"Matt is a tremendous kid," says Showalter. "He really cares, which may have hurt him when the team was losing. I think he's going to be a great player, but we need to allow him to do it on his own time."
Sandy Alderson is clearly unfazed by the Wilpon-Madoff situation. It's not for him to join in the judgments. What will it mean to the Mets? Their payroll is going to be at $150 million with incentive bonuses by the end of the season, and they can take it to $130 million as they proceed with the three-year rebuilding process that Alderson, J.P. Ricciardi and Paul DePodesta have undertaken.
What is interesting is the way Jim Leyland and Tony La Russa have confronted the potential distractions of Cabrera and Pujols. Now, Cabrera made a horrific mistake. More than falling off the cliff of sobriety, he endangered other human beings driving around Florida. He may or may not have to agree to a stay in a rehab facility, depending on what doctors agreed upon by the club and Players Association feel is necessary.
Leyland and veteran players such as Magglio Ordonez and Victor Martinez never condoned the endangerment factor, but they did sympathize to the addiction issue.
"Miguel is a [heck of a] kid and a great player," said Leyland. "It's like this -- if your pipes burst, you bring someone in to fix them. I can't fix this. The players can't fix this. We'll bring someone in from outside. And when he's fixed, he might have the best year of his career."
Think about the best year of Miguel Cabrera's career as he turns 28 in two months. He's averaged 34 homers a year in his seven full seasons. He led the American League in on-base percentage and OPS-plus last season. When you go to Baseball Reference, his "similar players through age 27" include the names Frank Robinson, Henry Aaron, Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle and Albert Pujols. Hall of Fame no-brainer, if they fix the pipes.
Leyland never condoned Cabrera's fall from his wagon, just as no one riding Josh Hamilton's wagon to the AL MVP in 2010 condoned his fall, only glorified in his rise from his personal ashes. Leyland appreciates that we are a redemptive society, because we know there are millions among us with demons and pray that they are overcome. As the manager of a human being, Leyland has laid out for Cabrera the carrots that come with his recovery.
La Russa was in a very difficult position given the breakdown in Pujols' negotiations. Pujols is the best player of his era, and looks at his 10 historic seasons which cost the team just under $97 million and wants his due. He is a proud man who thrives off what people have said he couldn't do, and he isn't going to accept data that shows decline in players past 35.
Pujols once said, "I remember the people who said I wouldn't make it when I was a junior in high school." A motivating force to a highly intelligent person that isn't going to accept that he's like anyone else from the age of 36 to 42. That's who he is and why he is what he is, the best of his time.
By pinning the tail on the Players Association, La Russa smartly protected Pujols from Cardinals loyalists for whom work is hard to find, while Stan Musial was receiving the National Medal of Honor.
La Russa has told Cardinals fans that Pujols isn't disloyal or greedy; the union wants him to be Messersmith/McNally. He has stood up in front of Pujols' locker and essentially said, "Leave Albert alone."
Leyland and La Russa have measured difficult situations and tried to diffuse the distractions that could eat at their teams' expectations. Hopefully their owners appreciate them.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.