Spring a reminder of glory to come
Budding stars add dimension of excitement as season begins
Technically, the season is two games old, with Yoenis Cespedes atop the Triple Crown leaderboard. But the real shift from Alligator Alley and the Salt River flats on to Round Rock and Zebulon and, eventually, the cool of the Major League season takes place these couple of days with a reflection on what has been an unusual and positive prelude to the business dance of the 2012 season.
There are eight reasons this was a very good Spring Training for baseball:
1. The $2.15 billion sale of the Dodgers. Yes, there are baseball people who fear that this will set off a spending binge and raise the bar on potential free agents such as Matt Cain and Cole Hamels, but this sale and the regional television rights fees that have made teams such as the Angels and Rangers mega-players is a huge boon for the industry. Magic Johnson and Nolan Ryan are already iconic figures in their markets, and as faces and voices of the Dodgers' and Rangers' ownerships, they give further credentials to their teams.
The regional television boom ensures better marketing for baseball. The sport no longer has to be fixated on Route 95 -- the Yankees and Red Sox and Phillies -- as the money and power move west to the Dallas Metroplex and Los Angeles. An Angels-Dodgers battle is something that baseball as an industry needs. It's L.A.
At a time when there is no NFL presence in the nation's second -- or biggest, depending on your vantage point -- market, all of a sudden, the Dodgers have Magic and they're not going to be restricted to bidding for Aaron Harang and Adam Kennedy. They can poster up Matt Kemp against Albert Pujols, throw Clayton Kershaw against Tim Lincecum and late-night baseball means Rangers-Angels or Dodgers-Giants-D-backs. Their programming has stars, it has pennant races, it has riches, it has faces, and while the big money seemingly resides on the coasts, the defending World Series champions reside in St. Louis, the National League Central could be a three- or four-team see-saw and the long-standing fans of the Detroit Tigers will sell out Comerica Park on Thursday, looking out at three megastars -- Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera -- with the belief that this is 1984 redux.
2. The addition of two teams into the playoff equation was the subject of considerable discussion all spring. In reality, one extra team -- one extra game -- per league may be more of an illusion out across the horizon, but players and fans look to that illusion and take from it the hope of October baseball. Driving I-75 and I-4, 95 and the 101 loop, one sensed that four teams in the NL East, three in the NL Central, three and maybe four in the NL West, four in the American League East, two in the AL West and maybe a couple of teams after Detroit in the AL Central all begin the season with the hope that they can sneak into one of the 10 October "powerball" slots. That's 11 of the 16 NL teams and seven to nine of the 14 in the AL, and the fact is that fans in Texas and Southern California feel more strongly about making the postseason than those in New York and New England.
3. The spring focused on the game's rising stars: Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Yu Darvish, Cespedes, Trevor Bauer, Eric Hosmer, Taijuan Walker, Brett Lawrie, Matt Moore, Dylan Bundy, Manny Machado, et al. This is part of what we love, and the regeneration of fascinating, talented and star-personality players is vital if baseball is going to be an entertainment as well as sentimentally evergreen.
4. There was a huge, natural fascination with the present stars. Fielder walked into the Joker Marchant Stadium clubhouse he knew as a kid and was, to all his teammates and new friends, the same as he ever was -- hard-working, gregarious and one of the funniest and most popular persons in any uniform. Pujols, in the eyes of his general manager, Jerry Dipoto, exceeded the anticipation, the preparation metronome that instantly became the example for and mentor to the Angels' bright rising stars like Peter Bourjos, Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo. Perhaps the NL's best player, Kemp, donned the cover of Forbes Magazine and reveled in Don Mattingly's suggestion to become the Dodgers' Derek Jeter while maintaining his joyous -- rather than Hollywood -- persona. Verlander never changes.
5. Several GMs believe that midseason trades will be harder to make because there will seemingly be more teams in races for October. There are fewer Draft choices, and since Pat Gillick figured out 20-something years ago how to trade for players who would require compensation and store additional Draft picks, there have been trades made with that in mind that now won't exist. But there are teams that will clearly be positioned to make the headline trade:
Not only do they not have to remain in the lower tier of payrolls -- Magic doesn't do Wal-Mart -- but around their Kemp/Kershaw/Andre Ethier cast of stars, they have some big arms in the Minors whom they can use the way the Giants used Zack Wheeler last July. They likely won't trade Nate Eovaldi or Zach Lee, but a package involving one or two from Allen Webster, Chris Reed or Chris Withrow might fetch the Dodgers a power-hitting third baseman or left-field bat.
They probably are not going to deal Jurickson Profar or Martin Perez, but look around baseball and see the paucity of third-base bats, think Mike Olt, throw in a big arm and GM Jon Daniels can probably get whatever the Rangers need, if they turn out to need anything.
The Blue Jays
Scouts who went to watch their back field this spring believe that they're right there with the Rangers and Padres as having an elite farm system. "Alex Anthopoulos is the most creative general manager in the game," said one of his peers. If Brandon Morrow and Henderson Alvarez (whom one scout calls "a superstar in the making") join Ricky Romero at the top of the rotation and the Blue Jays pull into the race with the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox, Anthopoulos is going to have young pitching and outfielders to trade come July.
They are good, they are fun and manager Kirk Gibson has the pedal to the metal 24/7. Now they won't trade Bauer or Archie Bradley, but if they trade one of their Big Four -- which includes lefties Patrick Corbin and Tyler Skaggs -- GM Kevin Towers can get the piece he needs for the race against the Giants, or perhaps the Dodgers or Rockies. "The Diamondbacks may have to do something," said another GM, "because come July, that San Diego system is going to make everyone in the division nervous."
6. We finally will learn if baseball can succeed in Miami. Meanwhile, it's going to be a boffo opening for the Marlins. The ballpark is unique, it is Miami cool and the team is very good. Hanley Ramirez has accepted the move to third base and is a kid again. Jose Reyes is ever-energetic. If Giancarlo Stanton's knee is all right, he is one of the great young stars anywhere, as well as precisely what we all want our stars to be. If Josh Johnson can make 30 starts, he can be an NL Cy Young Award contender, the Marlins will be contenders and we're all going to board the Ozzie Train. To repeat: Ozzie Guillen is Robin Williams; had they made a Spanish "Good Morning Vietnam," Ozzie would have played the lead.
7. The spring brought us the promise of Washington, D.C., becoming a baseball capital. Strasburg is now, Harper is the near future -- two potential megastars and, while very different, two very intelligent, driven individuals. Ryan Zimmerman should be on every MVP checklist. Hey, Johan Santana is starting on Opening Day, Jason Heyward is in flight, and the NL East is going to be a great division to watch. And once he gets his hip, knee and ankle in alignment, don't count out Chase Utley from once again being a key figure in the Phillies' run at another postseason.
8. Commissioner Bud Selig has found a way to keep Joe Torre and Tony La Russa in the game as they prepare their Cooperstown acceptance speeches. Torre had a major impact on umpiring last season, and both he and La Russa care so much for baseball and are so competitive that they will impact whatever they do.
Not that we ever really see what's over the horizon. On the eve of last year's NL Championship Series, Ryan Theriot told me, "When you're done watching the Cardinals this season, the player you'll say you had no idea was that good will be David Freese."
He was right. Just as until Spring Training, I didn't have any idea how good Corbin, Dee Gordon or Lucas Duda could be. Which is why, after a very good spring, there is so much we don't know about what lies ahead between April and November.
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.