I don’t know about you all, but I will never be so happy to read “He’s in the best shape of his life!” stories as players filter into spring training as I will be this year.
I will never be so happy to see that first video of players stretching and playing catch.
This isn’t the usual “winter bad, baseball good” attitude that creeps up this time of year, especially for those of us who live in areas of icy driveways and slush-filled sidewalks. This is about talking baseball and not the offseason mess of free agency. It’s talking about great plays instead of pace of play. It’s talking about who is in camp instead of who isn’t. It’s about watching Judge and Stanton break car windshields and seeing if Ronald Acuna can make the Braves and how Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria look in their new duds.
The Yankees report to camp on Tuesday as pitchers and catchers get their physicals. Aaron Boone will have his first news conference since he was introduced as the team’s manager, and one of the questions he’ll be asked will be about his batting order. He can’t go wrong no matter what he does, but it’s fun to speculate about that Opening Day lineup. All I know is that once Judge and Stanton check in, I want to see the numbers -- not just their projected home run totals but also their body-fat percentages.
Of course, the number that will come up time and time again is the number of free agents still out there; somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 remain unsigned. That list includes J.D. Martinez, who slugged .690 last season with 45 home runs; 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta; Eric Hosmer, who is coming off his best season; and Mike Moustakas and Logan Morrison, who both slammed 38 home runs.
Baseball has a way of doing this, of punching itself in the face, of drawing criticism instead of celebration. We had a remarkable 2017 season that included Stanton and Judge topping 50 home runs, Jose Altuve winning an MVP Award to further show that baseball is for anyone of any size and an exciting postseason that culminated in the Astros’ first championship in franchise history. The star power, especially all the young stars, means the game’s future is in good hands.
Instead, we’ve spent the winter wondering why billionaires aren’t sharing more of their money with millionaires. Whether some teams are “tanking” or just merely “rebuilding.” About the sad state of the Marlins after Derek Jeter traded away an All-Star outfield in Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. About the economics of a sport that saw the Pirates and Rays trade away the longtime faces of their franchises.
To which I point out: The Yankees released Babe Ruth, the Giants dumped Willie Mays, the Mariners traded Ken Griffey Jr.
The fact is that a lot of this stuff is inside baseball. It’s interesting to the die-hards like us. The average fan just wants to go to the park, eat food that’s bad for you and not feel guilty, soak in the sun and hopefully cheer for a winning team. In these days of social isolation and political division, the ballpark still brings everyone together.
Anyway, baseball is back, and given the way this winter unfolded, spring training will feel like less of a slog than ever. Here are some camps worth paying extra attention to:
New York Yankees. I think we’ll have to get rid of the Baby Bombers nickname for 2018. Judge is now a wise old veteran who turns 26 in April. Gary Sanchez is an All-Star coming off a 33-homer season. Stanton is the reigning NL MVP and major league home run champ. The record for home runs by three teammates -- 143, by the 1961 Yankees' Roger Maris (61), Mickey Mantle (54) and Bill Skowron (28) -- could be in play, along with the record for home runs by a team (264 by the 1997 Mariners).
Atlanta Braves. Acuna has been pegged as the game’s next great star, the No. 1 overall prospect, after he hit .325 with 21 home runs and 44 steals across three levels of the minors. The most amazing part of his season: He hit .287 in Class A, .326 at Double-A and then .344 in 54 games at Triple-A. He didn’t turn 20 until December. Along with Acuna, the Braves have a slew of pitching prospects to monitor -- eight of them made it into Keith Law’s list of 100 top prospects. Giant Brazilian lefty Luiz Gohara debuted last September, while others such as Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Kolby Allard, Ian Anderson and Max Fried will push for midseason call-ups.
Los Angeles Angels. Welcome to America, Shohei Ohtani. His attempt to play both ways begins in Tempe, and spring training is the perfect time to get him as many at-bats as possible. At the same time, Mike Scioscia’s first priority is to get Ohtani on schedule to pitch in the rotation. If Ohtani doesn’t hit well, will that doom his chances of getting some DH time in the regular season?
San Francisco Giants. The Giants collapsed to a 64-98 record -- on the heels of a terrible second half in 2016 -- and will have to prove that their roster isn’t too old to compete in today’s youth-centered game. They’ve added Longoria (32 years old) and McCutchen (31 years old) to help an offense that ranked next-to-last in the NL in runs scored, but the back of the rotation and bullpen have to improve as well.
New York Mets. The Mets hope to throw last year’s soap opera of a season into the trash and start over, but all scrutiny will be on the health and production of Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz. Besides the rotation, it will be interesting to see how youngsters Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith respond after their initial big league trials.
Chicago Cubs. It was already an interesting spring for Chicago. Kyle Schwarber is going to show up in really good shape. The World Series hangover year is over, but the Brewers and Cardinals should be better in the NL Central. The Cubs already had a lot riding on 2018 -- and now Yu Darvish is headed to Chicago.
So, yes, it’s time to talk some baseball.
P.S.: Heard anything new on J.D. Martinez?