Too early to handicap World Series favorites
As Spring Training starts, championship field is wide open
Hey, how about that Hot Stove League? Some fun, huh? We never ran out of things to chew on, and that's not always the case. From Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder to Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge, there were players moving in, players moving out.
The Angels, Marlins and Nationals got better, but so did the Yankees, Diamondbacks, Reds, Rays and Tigers. The Cardinals and Brewers were decisive in dealing with their losses, and both appear in position to contend again.
Perhaps that's the best thing about this offseason. When all was said and done, a whole bunch of teams seem capable of winning a championship. In fact, with virtually all the heavy lifting finished, and Spring Training upon us, it's impossible to see an offseason winner or a consensus 2012 favorite.
Let's approach it from another direction. I'll throw out the name of a team, and you tell me how surprised you'd be if it ended up winning the World Series.
That's an easy one. They've missed the playoffs once in the last 17 years, and 2012 isn't likely to be the second.
Sorry, another easy one. Pitching. Hitting. Defense. OK, scratch the defense. What's not to like?
Your first reaction is that it would be a surprise if they won again. Your first reaction would be wrong. Albert Pujols is gone, but Adam Wainwright is back. If Carlos Beltran has another productive season in him, the Cardinals should roll back to the playoffs. In a weakened National League Central, they're still players.
Here's another one.
OK, take a deep breath before you answer. General manager Frank Wren has been torched for not doing enough, but the bottom line is that he couldn't fix everything that went wrong late in the season.
There was a time last summer when the Braves were 26 games over .500 and seemingly capable of winning a World Series. They did this despite never really having a smooth ride.
Dan Uggla had a bad first half. Jason Heyward struggled mightily. Martin Prado was slowed by a staph infection. And then in September, the wheels came off. The Braves didn't get a single victory from Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson and Brandon Beachy, and that was that.
The bottom line is that the Braves are a very good team, but they're playing in a monster division with the Phillies, Nationals and Marlins.
See where I'm going with all of this? By my count, 14 teams could win the World Series, and there wouldn't be an eyebrow raised.
Let's start with a dozen obvious choices: Yankees, Rays, Red Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Angels, Phillies, Braves, Cardinals, Reds, Diamondbacks and Giants.
I would add the Marlins and Nationals to that list. They're longer shots than the Phillies and Tigers, but long shots are all the rage these days. The 2005 White Sox and 2003 Marlins weren't picked to win, either.
It's just that nothing is as obvious as it used to be. Once upon a time, the team that spent the most money would be the first choice.
Money still matters. Let's not kid ourselves. But the Rays, Rangers, Rockies, Twins and other teams have used smarts and youth to overcome financial disadvantages.
Last season, seven of baseball's 10 biggest spenders didn't even make the postseason, and the World Series featured No. 11 (Cardinals) vs. No. 13 (Rangers).
The Marlins and Nationals find themselves fighting to get out of a NL East that could be impressive. But the Marlins added the dynamic presence of Jose Reyes, along with Heath Bell and Mark Buerhle. If Carlos Zambrano has anything left in the tank, if Josh Johnson makes 33 starts, Miami can play with almost anyone.
Likewise, the Nationals have scary deep starting pitching and a lineup that could be anchored by one of the best prospects of the last 20 years -- Bryce Harper. If the Nationals get hot and start filling up that beautiful ballpark, who is to say what will happen?
In the last 11 seasons, nine different franchises have won the World Series, and that's parity the NFL would love to have. In just the last three years, 16 of baseball's 30 franchises have made the playoffs at least once.
The Astros and A's may be in a rebuilding mode, but the Royals and Padres, to name two, are rapidly improving. This Spring Training will be about watching the big show in South Florida, with Ozzie Guillen trying to fit all his pieces fit as his bosses put the finishing touches on a beautiful new ballpark.
It's watching Carl Crawford and Adam Dunn attempt to get their careers back on track. It's about Alex Rodriguez proving he's healthy and still capable of being a great player. It's about Albert Pujols beginning to get accustomed to his new surroundings with the Angels. Ditto Prince Fielder and the Tigers.
It's about Ryan Howard taking the next steps toward getting back on the field after blowing out his Achilles tendon. It's also about Harper showing he belongs in the big leagues at 19 after 109 Minor League games.
Tony La Russa has retired but two highly regarded players -- Mike Matheny (Cardinals) and Robin Ventura (White Sox) -- are trying their hands at managing. The A's are hoping for a new ballpark, the Dodgers awaiting new ownership.
On this first week of Spring Training, there are dozens of other story lines. In about nine months, we'll crown a new champion. At this point, it's absolutely impossible to know which team that'll be, and isn't that how it should be?
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.