Thoughts at the start of Spring Training
Nine thoughts from I-75 to the Courtney Campbell Causeway:
I can't tell you that I think the Jays will make the playoffs, not with the Yankees, Rangers, Rays, Red Sox and Angels in line for what may be four postseason spots. They're coming off a year in which they were 81-81 -- with a -18 run differential -- finishing nine games behind Boston and in fourth place. Yet the fact that they appear to be much improved -- as opposed to the number of games the Rangers and Angels play against Oakland and Seattle -- make it very difficult for more than one Wild Card team to come out of the East.
But with Jose Bautista established as a star in right field with his 97 homers and 1.022 OPS over the past two seasons, if Colby Rasmus relaxes and approaches what some in St. Louis saw in him, with Adam Lind at first base, the Jays are going to be a dangerous offensive team.
The left side of the infield is fascinating. Yunel Escobar has found himself in Toronto, and at age 29 could use his 6-foot-2, 205-pound strength to improve his career high of 14 homers; he hit .290, his 61 BB/70 K numbers are very good, and he's certainly capable of going well over .800 in OPS. And 22-year-old third baseman Brett Lawrie is a potential beast.
"The biggest thing for us is what it is for most everyone -- starting pitching," says John Farrell. "We need more innings, and that will only make our bullpen better."
Jays starters last season were 51-61, with a 4.55 ERA, ninth in the league in innings (964 2/3) and 10th in the league in quality starts.
Ricky Romero is in what Farrell calls "an elite category," with 225 innings and a 2.92 ERA last season. Brandon Morrow isn't far away. Henderson Alvarez showed promise in September.
But the keys are Brett Cecil and Dustin McGowan.
"Cecil really dedicated himself this winter, not only losing 30 pounds but strengthening his core," says Farrell. "It shows in his ability to drive the ball down in the zone. McGowan [after coming back from surgery] has really thrown well."
If Cecil, who should be better than a 4-11 pitcher, and McGowan hold up in the rotation, then the Jays will be far better. Does that mean better than Tampa Bay, New York or Boston, or either Texas or the Angels? That discussion is for four months from now.
Joe Girardi was upset when he heard that A.J. Burnett had broken the bone around his eye while practicing bunting.
"I have nothing but respect for A.J.," says Girardi. "He always wanted to pitch. He never made excuses. He worked his tail off. And we might not have won the  World Series if he doesn't win the second game. Being down, 2-0, to that Philadelphia pitching staff would have been a huge hole."
The Pirates plan to hold Burnett back, knowing how badly he wants to pitch. But once he is cleared to throw, he has to build up his arm and go through the equivalent of Spring Training, hence the 8-to-10-week timetable.
Incidentally, classic Clint Hurdle -- he made sure that Spring Training invitee Jeremy Farrell, John's son, made the trip to Dunedin, Fla., for the Bucs' opener so he could play third base and bat against his father's team.
When the Giants won the 2010 World Series with Buster Posey as their charismatic star, there was considerable criticism of the Rays for taking shortstop Tim Beckham with the first pick in the 2008 Draft in lieu of Posey, who, after all, played at Florida State. But Beckham, who turned 22 in January, has been a head-turner at Rays camp. He has redefined his body, is strong and looks as if he can be a two-way shortstop. At age 21 last season, Beckham batted .271 with 12 homers combined at Double- and Triple-A. He has shown natural raw power this spring and, according to those around the club, is highly motivated to prove he deserved to be the top pick.
In case you can't be bored enough about the Yankee-Red Sox buildups, if Vicente Padilla makes the Boston staff, there may be a new chapter ready to unfurl. Padilla has been known to drill hitters he doesn't like.
Nick Swisher was one. Jarrod Saltalamacchia was catching for Texas when Padilla drilled Swisher, and got to the mound in time to pull Swisher away.
"I think Salty saved me," says Swisher. "Padilla did it perfectly. Fastball in, then away, in, away, away -- then he really got [me on] three-and-two. I had heard that he's not a guy you want to charge, but I did it, and Salty pulled me away just in time."
This is not over if Padilla makes the Red Sox. Sounds like a perfect sideshow for the April 20 game celebrating 100 years of Fenway Park. Too bad there's no video of the Carlton Fisk-Gene Michael-Thurman Munson brawl of Aug. 1, 1973, which was the biggest melee in the past 40 years of the rivalry.
While Pirates season-ticket sales are up, they are still building their individual-game sales. One reason? No Red Sox, which provided a three-game sellout the last time they played. Which has prompted a discussion among many this spring. Why not use Interleague Play as a form of revenue-sharing? Why not ensure that the biggest road draws like the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs and Giants play a couple of series in small-revenue cities. Instead of having the Red Sox play at Wrigley, why not in Pittsburgh? Why not have the Cubs play in Cleveland?
When one looks at the character Brian Cashman has added in the middle of the field in Curtis Granderson, CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and, they hope, Michael Pineda, Russell Martin sometimes gets overlooked. But to his teammates and the staff, Martin is the unsung hero of the team.
"When one considers that he came here and caught 28 different pitchers, it's incredible what he meant to this team," says Girardi. "He is first and foremost a gamer. He really plays hard, and he cares behind the plate."
It's fun in the spring to watch Martin and Francisco Cervelli -- both converted infielders -- take ground balls. Martin could still play third base in the big leagues. One Boston scout sent a report out of Class A that Martin was a "definite big leaguer" as a third baseman.
Speaking of scouts, one thinks Ryan Sweeney may be a sleeper in 2012.
"I've always liked his defense and his swing," says the scout. "He hasn't hit for power yet, but it's there, and Fenway Park should help him, because he can drive the ball to left-center. He's a good player who could become a solid everyday player at 27."
Mark Teixeira says, "Matt Moore may be the best left-hander in the game this season. He's got great velocity, the changeup. But the thing that makes him really tough is that he hides the ball so well. You can't pick him up. He gets over the rubber and stays back with his back to the hitter until he springs forward. Cliff Lee is like that. You don't see the ball, then it's right on you. Our kid, Manny Banuelos, is like that, and he's going to be really good, too."
The Braves are going to contend because of their pitching, as long as Jason Heyward's shoulder remains healthy, Freddie Freeman's knee is all right and Chipper Jones stays on the field. It seems funny to hear Braves people talk about having the smallest payroll in what is now the heated National League East. If they are in it come July, which they should be, Atlanta is expected to have cash available to make whatever deal they need to make.
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.