Start of exhibition games signals spring rush
Oakland and Seattle open exhibition slate later this week
Let the exhibition games begin.
After weeks of pitchers' fielding practice, bullpen sessions on back fields, batting practice and intrasquad games, fans in Arizona and Florida will finally get to see the first real evidence of the coming season later this week.
We're talking about March, which means real Major League Baseball teams pitted against each other in packed stadiums as the smell of hot dogs, popcorn and sunscreen wafts through the stands.
Yep, soon enough, baseball will really be back.
The fun starts in earnest on Friday, when the Seattle Mariners visit the Oakland A's at Phoenix Municipal Stadium at 1:05 p.m. MT. It's fitting that these two clubs should suit up first in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues considering that they're the same teams that will begin the regular season when they meet in Tokyo on March 28-29 as part of the Japan Opening Series.
The Mariners-A's game will be the only legitimate exhibition game on Friday, but Saturday will feature a semi-full slate in Arizona and Florida, starting with five games -- Tigers at Braves, Yankees at Phillies, Pirates at Blue Jays, Rays at Twins and Nationals at Astros -- beginning at 1:05 ET in the Sunshine State. The Cactus League slate, set for two hours later, includes split D-backs squads taking on the Giants and Rockies, the Indians playing their Goodyear, Ariz., complex-mates, the Reds, and the A's and Mariners matching up once again, this time at Seattle's home park in Peoria.
The week will end with a packed Sunday featuring 12 games on both coasts.
What to expect from these early March games? Well, not a lot of tosses from starters, who usually crank it up for only an inning, and maybe two at-bats from the regulars in the lineup as the hitters attempt to catch up with the pitchers. But don't worry; there's plenty of drama yet to come. This is where the positional battles we've all been reading about in February start to simmer and the countdown to 25 (roster spots) begins to heat up, just like the weather.
The most prominent ones include the Angels logjam in which Mark Trumbo, Kendrys Morales and Bobby Abreu could find themselves wondering where they might play around the diamond and how many at-bats they'll each receive. There's also the D-backs' upcoming decision regarding who will get more reps in left field between reigning National League Gold Glove Award winner Gerardo Parra and recent signee Jason Kubel.
The Tampa Bay Rays will be forced to make the always-tough choice between two worthy candidates for the starting rotation, with Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis competing for the No. 5 slot. However, if top prospect Matt Moore gets lit up all spring, it might be a three-way competition.
The Red Sox will determine if Mike Aviles or Nick Punto deserves to start at shortstop and replace the slick glove and clutch bat of Marco Scutaro.
And at Nationals camp, what will happen with super-prospect Bryce Harper? Will Harper make the roster right away or will he start the regular season in Triple-A? We'll find out soon enough now that there are games being played.
So it goes all around the camps, although there's still time for some rosters to change shape. Believe it or not, March will arrive and several big-name players are still out there and looking for jobs.
The biggest of those names, starter Roy Oswalt, indicated that he might wait until the middle of the season to sign somewhere. Johnny Damon and Vladimir Guerrero are still unemployed and looking to work right away, as are Mike Gonzalez, Derrek Lee, Hideki Matsui, Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Tejada, Jason Varitek, Javier Vazquez, Michael Wuertz, Chris Young (the pitcher) and others.
And don't rule out the possibility of trades, either. With many players out of Minor League options, Spring Training can be a convenient time to unload one roster spot for another.
Bottom line: There's still a lot that remains to be seen, but starting this week, at least we'll be watching big league games while we're wondering what'll happen next.