Spring training is Chapter 1 of a great mystery novel. Characters are introduced and plots are set in motion, often toward unimaginable ends. The Cardinals began last year, for instance, with a season-ending injury to ace Adam Wainwright, who underwent Tommy John surgery a week after their pitchers and catchers reported to camp in Jupiter, Fla. They ended it with a world championship and a presidential decree that they were "the greatest comeback team in the history of baseball."
This is an article from the Feb. 20, 2012 issue
Incubating in the welcome warmth of Florida and Arizona, another thriller begins this week, and it already looks very different from the one that unfolded in 2011. A healthy Wainwright is back with St. Louis, but iconic slugger Albert Pujols and manager Tony La Russa are not. The newly named and costumed Miami Marlins spent money; the Yankees and the Red Sox did not. Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish, by way of Japan, and A's outfielder Yoenis Céspedes, by way of Cuba, add international intrigue. As training camps open, these are the most compelling story lines to follow.
After watching the two worst run-scoring teams in franchise history lose a combined 196 games in 2010 and '11, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik went on the offensive: He told Yankees G.M. Brian Cashman at the winter meetings in December that he wanted New York's prized power-hitting prospect, 22-year-old catcher Jesus Montero. Zduriencik gave up two premier arms—Michael Pineda (right, with Seattle in 2011), 23, who went 9--10 with a 3.74 ERA and 173 strikeouts as a rookie last year, and 19-year-old prospect Jose Campos—to get Montero and pitcher Hector Noesi. Montero, whose catching skills are questionable, is a designated hitter with opposite-field power that recalls Mike Piazza's.
"People have to realize he is not the savior and the answer to all of our offensive issues," Zduriencik says. "He's a part of the things we need to do to get better. [Montero should] eventually be a middle-of-the-order hitter, but that will play itself out over time."
Patience has also been required for first baseman Justin Smoak, another young hitter Seattle imported for elite pitching (from Texas for Cliff Lee in 2010). Smoak, 25, hit 15 home runs with a .719 OPS in 489 plate appearances last year, his first full season with the team. But the Mariners are so starved for offense that Montero, who hit .328 with four homers and a .996 OPS in 69 plate appearances as a Yankees call-up in September, may be their biggest threat immediately. If nothing else, he should enjoy hitting in Arizona while camp lasts. In Seattle, home of cavernous Safeco Field, only one Mariner in the past five years, Russell Branyan in 2009, has hit 30 homers.
MEET THE NEW BOSSES
The 2011 season began with seven managers who had won a World Series with their current club. It ended with three of them gone: Ozzie Guillen asked out of the White Sox job to go to Miami, Terry Francona agreed not to return to the Red Sox, and La Russa retired after winning another World Series with St. Louis. The White Sox (Robin Ventura, below) and the Cardinals (Mike Matheny) chose popular former players who have never managed on any level. The Red Sox (Bobby Valentine) chose someone with 15 years of big league experience—the most recent in 2002 before finding work in Japan. All of them, in a sign of the times, are media-savvy.
Just two years ago, Giants catcher Buster Posey and Braves rightfielder Jason Heyward competed for the NL Rookie of the Year Award: They finished one-two, respectively. This year they are competing for the NL Comeback Player of the Year Award.
Posey broke his left leg and wrenched his left ankle last May in the home plate collision that doomed San Francisco's season. Now healed, Posey will work himself back into playing shape while also getting familiar with first base, where the Giants may give him occasional starts to reduce wear and tear and keep his bat in the lineup.
Heyward saw his average drop 50 points last year, to .227, while he was hindered by a right-shoulder injury, a heavily bulked physique and a hole in his swing on inside fastballs. This winter he has dropped 20 pounds (to 235) and tweaked his swing with the help of new Atlanta hitting coach Greg Walker. "The players working out with him say the ball is jumping off his bat like it did in 2010," says Braves G.M. Frank Wren. "He's important to us. That's like having a big addition to the team over the winter."
SO CLOSE AND SO FAR
Until this spring, only the 1987 Red Sox went to camp trying to forget about the pain of losing the World Series after coming within one strike of winning it. That team finished with a losing record (78--84), the first of 12 years the franchise went without winning another postseason series.
Now the Rangers will find out what it's like to come back from the ignominy of One Strike Away. The spotlight on Texas has been intensified because of the alcohol relapse last month of free-agent-to-be centerfielder Josh Hamilton (complicating contract-extension negotiations with the 30-year-old outfielder) and two high-profile additions to the rotation: Japanese righthander Yu Darvish and erstwhile closer Neftali Feliz, who will be converted to a starter this spring. Including the posting bid to earn his rights, the Rangers spent $111 million on Darvish, who joins Pujols ($240 million from the Angels), Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes as nine-figure investments wearing a new uniform this spring. None of the three who signed such deals last year—Lee (Phillies), outfielder Carl Crawford (Red Sox) and outfielder Jayson Werth (Nationals)—won a postseason series with his new team.
THE YOUNG AND THE AGELESS
On the day Bryce Harper was born (Oct. 16, 1992), Jamie Moyer already had 34 major league wins and was about to join his fifth organization. Now Harper, 19, and Moyer, 49, are both trying to make Opening Day rosters. Harper, a rare power prodigy who hit a combined 17 homers and slugged .501 at Single A and Double A last year, could force his way into the Nationals' outfield under Davey Johnson, the same manager who took 19-year-old pitching phenom Dwight Gooden on his 1984 Mets Opening Day roster. Only five teenagers have ever hit 10 homers in a big league season: Tony Conigliaro (24), Mel Ott (18), Ken Griffey Jr. (16), Mickey Mantle (13) and Ed Kranepool (10).
Nobody as old as Moyer, who turns 50 in November and is in camp with the Rockies, has ever won a major league game. Then again, his left arm is as good as new. Moyer last pitched in 2010, with the Phillies, and missed all of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery, a procedure that is 12 years younger than he is.
Two batting champions in their prime lost their positions to free-agent additions this winter and were told to move to third base, whether they liked it (Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers, whose .344 average led the majors last year) or not (Hanley Ramirez of the Marlins, who led the NL in 2009 with a .342 average). It was five years and many pounds ago that Cabrera, a first baseman who hovered around 270 in 2011, last played third regularly. Detroit manager Jim Leyland acknowledged Cabrera must lose weight to make the switch, but said he believes Cabrera has the hands and arm to play competently enough there while new arrival Prince Fielder, Detroit's $214 million knee-jerk reaction to slugger Victor Martinez's knee injury, takes over at first.
Unlike Cabrera, Ramirez initially grumbled at moving to third upon the Marlins' $106 million signing of Jose Reyes to play shortstop, but he came around with some salesmanship from his new manager, Ozzie Guillen. Under far less scrutiny, the Astros' Brett Wallace and the Angels' Mark Trumbo, who finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting last year, are also moving to third (from first).
MOYER THROUGH THE YEARS
1996 Red Sox