PHILADELPHIA, then BALTIMORE, then MIAMI -- Three cities in three days. It doesn't match a certain new network's 30 spring training sites in 30 days (apologies for the shameless plug). But hey, it's the best I could do. It's also a great way to start the season, not to mention to learn a little about six different teams. Here are 30 observations, insights and opinions from three great cities and six great and not-great teams.
1. The Braves took some hits for their soap operatic winter, and it's true that there was seemingly unending drama, between Rafael Furcal's abrupt about-face, the failed, very public pursuits of Jake Peavy, A.J. Burnett and Ken Griffey Jr., plus the defection of all-time Braves great John Smoltz amid controversy about whether they tried hard enough to keep him. But when all was said and done the Braves did a lot right, and they just might have baseball's most improved team. It looks a lot better than the one that lost 90 games last year.
2. Sixty million bucks may be considered an overpay for Derek Lowe, but it was a necessity. Lowe is consistent, durable and clutch. He didn't even use his changeup once in shutting down the Phillies on Sunday night. Breaking ball, sinker was plenty.
3. Beyond Lowe the Braves aren't bad, either. Javier Vazquez wasn't great for the White Sox, but he's generally been better in the National League, and maybe the switch will do him good. Throw in Jair Jurrjens and the Braves have the makings of a very nice rotation.
4. Brian McCann is terrific. He has everything going for him. He can hit, he can catch and, for a bonus, he has a great personality. The home run he hit off Brett Myers on Sunday justified his spot as a rare catcher batting cleanup. (San Francisco's Bengie Molina and Pittsburgh's Ryan Doumit are the only other cleanup-hitting catchers.)
5. New Braves center fielder Jordan Schafer has the tools. That's what Braves executives Frank Wren and John Schuerholz told me before the opener about their debuting center fielder. And boy did they look smart when Schafer homered to dead center field in his first big-league at-bat. I know he has a great arm, too, though he didn't get to show that off.
6. The Braves' biggest concern is their bullpen. I asked GM Wren and team president Schuerholz what their biggest concern is, and while neither liked the word concern, they both talked about the bullpen. (And this was before said 'pen blew up Wednesday night's game spectacularly).
7. The atmosphere in Philly was great. Who says this is a football town?
8. I'm not worried about the Phillies (and I wasn't even before they came back to salvage Wednesday's game 12-11 after being down 9-3). They always start slowly (4-10 last year). It is hard to repeat, but this isn't the sort of group that's going to slack off or be satisfied.
9. The Phillies not only have the game's best closer, but they are the game's best closer. When they have a lead late, it's safe. When they're down, they're rarely out. That's their greatest advantage.
10. Many pitchers are going to try to avoid throwing fastballs to Ryan Howard. This really became obvious in the playoffs, and it worked for a while. But Howard got the last word in October. And in the end, it isn't going to beat him.
11. The left-handed-hitting Raul Ibanez shouldn't be batting fifth. I suspect that Phillies manager Charlie Manuel knows that he needs a right-handed hitter batting behind Chase Utley and Howard, but when a free agent comes over with a $31.5-million contract, the temptation is to put him on display. Ibanez isn't bad vs. lefties (.268 lifetime), but once Shane Victorino gets going (Manuel said he thinks he needs at-bats after his WBC play), he should bat second, with underrated Jayson Werth fifth, as was the case on Wednesday night.
12. CC Sabathia is going to be fine, probably even great. But it may not happen immediately. It's hard to go from that awful (eight hits, five walks, six earned runs in 4 1/3 innings of Monday's loss in Baltimore) to great in one start. Yankees people are saying that he always uses the heating pad early to ward off the possibility of oblique pulls, and I'll buy that one. They also say that he hit 95 mph once or twice and suggest that the other lower readings (scouts have said he was throwing 88-91) were the result of trying to aim the ball to get near the strike zone, and I'll buy that too ... for now.
13. It looked like Sabathia and Jorge Posada need to work out some early kinks, which shouldn't be a serious thing. But one thing I do wonder a little about is Sabathia's nervous-looking starts in big games -- though I would say this one was far worse than anything he's ever thrown up in October.
14. There's nothing at all to worry about with Mark Teixeira, who's a .254 career hitter in April.
15. Many e-mailers who wrote to explain why they or other Orioles fans were booing Teixeira said either it's because A) he always talked about how he wanted to play for the Orioles and wound up signing with the hated Yankees, or B) he has been talking lately about how he grew up a Don Mattingly fan after first saying he was an Orioles fan. Once again I don't think there are two people on Earth who sign for $40 million less with a rebuilding team that hasn't made the playoffs in 12 years. As for him saying he's a Mattingly fan, I think it's possible to love the Orioles and also admire Mattingly. (Plus, after signing with the Yankees, it's a prerequisite to lay it on thick.)
16. The biggest concern about the Yankees has to be the middle of their bullpen. Jonathan Albaladejo, Phil Coke, Brian Bruney and Damaso Marte retired only eight of 17 batters faced on Monday. It's not a bad group, but it doesn't come close to ranking with the pens of their championship teams.
17. I don't care what anyone says. The Yankees are going to miss Alex Rodriguez.
18. Jeremy Guthrie has been ripped for not being tough enough. But he looked tougher than Sabathia on Monday.
19. The Orioles' top two in the batting order of Brian Roberts and Adam Jones could be dynamic if Jones can take the second step forward this year.
20. Joe Girardi isn't off to a great start in Year 2 in New York. There was no good reason not to ask the umpires to review the phantom home run hit by Cesar Izturis on Monday. The umpires telling Girardi that they were sure just isn't good enough, especially since we all know now that they were wrong. It's true that Johnny Damon didn't go nuts over the bad call. But as Damon explained later, he wasn't sure. The one sure way to get the right answer would have been to review the tape, and Girardi gave the umpires no compelling reason to do so. Just ask next time.
21. The Marlins don't need a new ballpark. That the seats aren't angled exactly right (or even that it rains a fair amount) isn't enough reason to junk a perfectly fine stadium and spend several hundred million in a market that doesn't draw, in an economy that's as bad as any since 1929-32. In this case I predict that if you build it, they still won't come. Miamians generally just don't believe in showing up.
22. The Marlins are going to be tough whenever they're throwing their top three pitchers, because Ricky Nolasco, Josh Johnson and Chris Volstad give them a great trio.
23. Marlins center fielder Cameron Maybin's going to be great eventually . But Maybin (my Rookie of the Year pick) still looks overmatched at times.
24. Marlins third baseman Emilio Bonifacio (inside-the-park home run) looks like a man determined to show the Nationals that they made a mistake letting him go. Scott Olsen (24.00 ERA) does not.
25. Ryan Zimmerman is one terrific third baseman. But what can he think of some of the defense going on around him?
26. Deposed GM Jim Bowden should have been fired long ago for what he did on the field, never mind any possible shenanigans they're looking into. It appears that Bowden was trying to collect bad outfielders.
27. I love Adam Dunn, as a person anyway. As an outfielder he may be the worst I have ever seen. It makes no sense that he is now on his third National League team. He clearly belongs in the AL.
28. For all the outfielders the Nats have, they still don't have a center fielder. Lastings Milledge belongs in center like I do.
29. The Nats may be that rare team whose Nos. 4 and 5 starters (Shairon Martis and Jordan Zimmermann) may be better than their Nos. 1 through 3 starters.
30. There's a long way to go ... especially for the Nationals.