JUPITER, Fla. -- Between some very big injuries, one extremely big signing, a trio of superb prospects and a couple budding controversies, it's been quite a spring so far. With just a week to go, here's my spin on the biggest Cactus and Grapefruit league storylines.
1. The biggest blow
Joe Nathan's injury is a killer for the Twins. He is not only one of the best two or three closers in the game but the leader in that very pleasant clubhouse. As for the games, manager Ron Gardenhire said he's going with a closer-by-committee, the only sensible decision on team where there's a nice and deep pen but no obvious closer candidate. Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares and Jesse Crain are all fine in their roles, but none of them can replace Nathan. As one competing GM said, "The Twins always figure it out.'' Indeed, they do. Keep an eye on Padres closer Heath Bell. The Twins reportedly are doing just that. It would be a wise move for Minnesota to acquire the man who saved an NL-best 42 games last season.
2. The biggest deal
The Twins made much of the big news, it seemed. And while Joe Mauer's $184-million, eight-year contract, complete with a full no-trade clause, certainly was eye-popping, it was a necessity that they lock up their hometown, home-grown superstar. Though Mauer's a 26-year-old catcher, he isn't a major risk because 1) he is a great hitter, and 2) he is athletic enough to play several other positions if need be. "I'd move him from behind the plate right now,'' one scout said. "I'd want him in the lineup every day for the next eight years.''
3. The most surprising failed drug test
Practically nobody even recalled that Major League Baseball had adopted George Mitchell's suggestion to test all personnel with access to the clubhouse since nothing had ever come out previously about any failed tests involving a non-player. The revelation that Rangers manager Ron Washington failed an MLB test for cocaine immediately after last year's All-Star break came as a shocker for many reasons, including Washington's previously sterling 57-year reputation.
The Rangers seemed to bond as a team in support of the well-liked Washington when he emotionally told them in a team meeting about his slip-up, and that's very important now because Washington's going to need all the support he can get. He is said by people with connections to the team to need a strong start. That shouldn't surprise a soul. Rangers management decided to keep Washington last summer, possibly in part because he admitted his mistake even before the test came back positive and possibly also because they preferred not to throw a bomb onto last year's nice success story. Club president/baseball icon Nolan Ryan made it clear the expectations are high when he said publicly he felt they have a 92-win team, and that proclamation was made before the failed test was made public. Now it's becoming clear Washington's team better meet that lofty goal.
4. The most interesting controversy
It involves White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen and general manager Ken Williams, two of baseball's strongest personalities. Ozzie's 24-year-old son Oney Guillen resigned his job as the team's video coordinator after Williams noticed that the young Guillen was tweeting inappropriately about the team (one tweet was a little rip on third base coach Joey Cora, another questioned the front office for not locking up catcher A.J. Pierzynski). Then, after leaving the team, Oney (twitter name @OneyRoberto) stepped up his rhetoric presumably in retaliation, complaining about the "geeks'' and "dorks" running the team, and about how they don't know baseball because they "never played'' (Oney, incidentally, batted .140 in the low minors for the White Sox).
Williams said by phone that he didn't believe the young Guillen's tweets were representative of the feelings of Oney's father, which is important, and that Williams' own feelings about his manager hadn't changed based on the younger Guillen's tweets, which is more important. Though what matters most are the feelings of club owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who is well known for his loyalty and is said to love both of his top baseball men. Ozzie's contract goes through 2012, but it might as well be 3012. That's a good thing for him; Guillen's son is apparently uncontrollable. Since leaving the team, he bashed a couple of Williams' high-ranking assistants on WSCR-AM's popular Mully and Hanley show in Chicago and continues to tweet negative opinions about Market, the Chicago restaurant that's partly owned by Williams. Oney Guillen is a free agent. But at some point, you have to wonder whether this may boil over again.
5. The unluckiest team of spring
New Astros manager Brad Mills has managed to maintain an upbeat attitude in spite of a brutal spring. Lance Berkman tested out his surgically repaired knee in the batting cage Saturday, and they're hoping it doesn't blow up like last time. Roy Oswalt is returning to Houston to have a hamstring injury checked out (though Mills said Oswalt is expected to check out fine and start Opening Day). Plus, they've dealt with injuries to Michael Bourn and Tommy Manzella, two more prominent Astros. Referring to the importance of the injured players, Mills said, "Everyone has injuries. You might have three hamstrings, two quads ... but you can't pick from a list'' who gets them.
6. The best prospects
There were dozens of pretty good ones this spring. But three stood out: Braves outfielder Jason Heyward, Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg and Reds pitcher Aroldis Chapman.
Heyward is cited by just about every scout as the best positional prospect in years, maybe decades. "If he stays healthy and works hard, he's the next superstar,'' gushed the Yankees' Mark Teixeira. "I'm just glad he's in the other league so I can root for him.'' Strasburg wowed people in Viera with three plus pitches and surprising poise. Chapman was the best story in Arizona, drawing folks to Goodyear with a 100-mph fastball and several other pitches. "He's the best pitching prospect I've ever seen,'' one N.L. scout said. "He looks like he'll win a Cy Young, maybe not this year but someday. He has four out pitches.''
The polished Heyward made the Braves, and everyone agrees that was the right call. "He was the best player in Florida this spring,'' one scout said. Many believe Strasburg and Chapman are ready, as well, but those decisions are trickier. The Nats sent Strasburg to Double-A Harrisburg but are expected to recall him around June 1. Chapman may go down as well. But if he does, he shouldn't stay down for long.
6. The most underrated prospect group
The Mets' minor-league system looks a lot better now than most realized last year, when so-called experts rated it near the bottom. Those ratings will need to be re-evaluated now that five young Mets looked very good or better this spring. Left-hander Jon Niese will be the fifth starter (one scout said, "He won't be No. 5 for long.''), shortstop Ruben Tejada will start the year with the Mets and supremely-talented right-hander Jenrry Mejia may make it as a reliever. GM Omar Minaya was determined not to take Mejia to start the spring, but the momentum seems to be swinging the other way. Plus, Fernando Martinez re-established his value as a bright young outfield prospect and first baseman Ike Davis looked terrific, especially at bat. It's too late to give ex-Mets exec Tony Bernazard his job back, but if removing his shirt and being impolite once or twice were his only faults, firing him seems like a bad call now.
7. The best comeback
Fausto Carmona (3-0, 0.45 ERA) appears to have regained his near-Cy Young form in Indians camp. "He looks like he did a couple years ago,'' one scout said.
8. The best comeback via Japan
Ramon Ortiz (2-0, 1.15, 21 Ks) is leading the Cactus League in strikeouts after a stint with the Orix Buffaloes and will make the Dodgers. They may well keep 26-year-old knuckleballer Charlie Haeger, who's out of options, as their fifth starter. But Ortiz has to make the team they way he's pitched.
9. The best team
The best team this spring looked like the Rays, who are 17-7. "They keep coming at you with more guys,'' said one scout in tribute to the Rays scouting and depth.
10. The worst team
That's a tough one, as the Royals, Pirates, Astros, Padres, Indians and Nationals all have their supporters (or is detractors?). The Astros have too much firepower to be in this group, the Indians' future looks pretty good and the Nationals will start the year with a very good offense and could finish it with pretty good pitching. The pick here would be either the Royals, who would need a miracle to avoid their 16th losing season in the past seventeen years, or the Pirates, who seem destined for an 18th straight losing season.
• The Mariners and Jarrod Washburn are believed to remain apart on the dollars for a new deal. The fit makes sense, especially with Cliff Lee beginning the year on the disabled list. But there's a reason he isn't there yet, and it's money.
• Asked how Phil Hughes did this spring, one Yankees person said, "Not bad for the guy who came in third'' in the competition for the No. 5 starter. Some Yankees people believe Alfredo Aceves and Sergio Mitre actually outpitched both Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. But Hughes was the correct choice for the rotation. Long-term, he'll be the best of the group. Joba will be the set-man, although the Yankees aren't admitting that yet.
• Diamondbacks star Brandon Webb is shooting to return in late April or early May. In the meantime, Rodrigo Lopez has had a nice spring and appears to have earned a spot in the Diamondbacks' rotation.
• Gaby Sanchez has won the Marlins' first-base job over Logan Morrison. But the Marlins love Morrison's future, and one N.L. scout said, "Look for Morrison real soon. This guy can play.''
• Clay Hensley has made the Marlins with a big spring, but they hope he is their long man, not their fifth starter. They are looking or a fifth starter to fit behind Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez and Chris Volstad. Hensley suffered a torn labrum three years ago, so this is still quite a comeback.
• Nate Robertson is said to be available. But perhaps more interesting (especially to the Marlins) might be Dontrelle Willis, who thrived there. He's been decent this spring. But when Tigers manager Jim Leyland was asked about the competition between Robertson and Willis for the No. 5 spot, he threw Armando Galarraga and Eddie Bonine into the mix, too.
• The Cardinals "can really hit,'' according to one scout. They have the best hitter in the game (Albert Pujols), signed the best hitting free agent (Matt Holliday) and perhaps the best hitter among bench players (Felipe Lopez).
• The Mets are hoping Jose Reyes can be back for the second week of the season. Tejada will make the team in the meantime. Carlos Beltran would like to come back sooner than May, but doctors are being cautious with him.
• The Nationals made the right call naming Ian Desmond their starting shortstop. Cristian Guzman's arm trouble made him untenable as a regular on the left side of the infield. Second base is going to be his best spot for now, so he may split time with Adam Kennedy.
• Proving there is no perfect team, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel is said to be very concerned about his bullpen. Brad Lidge's late start will not help matters.