For much of the country, the "pitchers and catchers report" date is but one more day in the long slog of winter. But the stories that come out of camp have a way of warming us, stirring the senses, enlivening the imagination between driveway shoveling sessions.
Unfortunately, a lot of these stories prove, in the long run, to be either bunk or overblown. "Best shape of my life" has morphed from an earnest promise of better days to an inside joke or meme material. But that doesn't mean that there won't still be some worthwhile storylines emanating out of Spring Training camps.
With camps opening this week in Florida and Arizona, here are the five most interesting narratives.
1. The Phillies' pawn shop and its impact on other clubs
In the grand scope, it's pretty stunning that the Phillies likely will enter their 2015 camp in Clearwater with Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard all on the roster. Though the organization acknowledged the need to rebuild as far back as last summer's Trade Deadline, to date the only tangible trade chips actually moved have been Jimmy Rollins and Marlon Byrd.
Obviously, the high price tags associated with all of the names above complicate matters, as do the Phillies' reportedly high asking prices. But having lost 89 games in consecutive years with no discernible reason to believe things will turn around dramatically in 2015, the Phillies have to consider any and all reasonable offers between now and July 31, and we can't rule out the possibility of those offers becoming more earnest between now and Opening Day.
Lee, for instance, can use this spring camp to prove he's healthy after last year's elbow shutdown and entice a contending club. After all, while Lee's remaining contract (either $37.5 million or $52.5 million over the next two years, depending on the myriad options involved) is onerous, its shorter term could create a wider range of appeal than the four- or five-year commitment due Hamels.
Papelbon has outright asked to be traded, but cumbersome closer contracts are a complication all their own. Still, we can't rule out some closer in another camp blowing out his elbow and desperation setting in on a club that views itself as a legit contender.
Utley's probably not going anywhere, and the same goes for Howard. But if Phillies are serious about eating the vast, vast majority of Howard's remaining $60 million over two years and an AL club turns up desperate at DH (Orioles? Rays? Rangers?) for whatever reason in spring camp, who knows? More likely, Howard himself will have to prove in-season that he can still be a viable threat at the plate.
And then there's Hamels, the most interesting case simply because he's the most valuable trade chip. Every start he makes, the Phillies run the risk of an injury or regression that would hamper that value. Or perhaps he'll add to it with a dazzling first half. I still think it's possible that the right deal could come the Phillies' way between now and Opening Day, particularly if the Red Sox (an obvious fit from a resources standpoint) have some sort of starting-pitching setback in Fort Myers.
2. The timetables and tweaks for Detroit's superstars
Miguel Cabrera will be testing out his repaired ankle. Victor Martinez will be testing out his repaired knee. Justin Verlander will be testing out a new pitch.
The Tigers' three signature stars are all facing some level of uncertainty at the dawn of a new season, and the extension of this club's window to win is heavily dependent on how their situations play out.
Offseason surgery revealed that Miggy's ankle injury was even worse than he or the Tigers thought. That he played through that pain and logged a 1.118 OPS in September is further affirmation of what a uniquely talented hitter this guy is. He should get enough at-bats in Lakeland to be ready for Opening Day or soon thereafter, but that's no guarantee. The big question is how quickly Cabrera will settle into the flow of the season. He had a pedestrian (by his lofty standards) start last year after core muscle surgery.
The Tigers might have dodged a bullet with Martinez's knee issue, as the damage to his cartilage wasn't extensive enough to necessitate a months-long rehab. Instead, he's out four to six weeks total, which puts him in good position to be ready for the opener. That said, Martinez's 2013 return from dual knee procedures was a difficult one for him, as his batting sagged (again, by his lofty standards) in the first half. So how quickly will V-Mart get into the swing of things?
But I'd argue that Verlander is the most interesting guy in this camp and one of the most interesting in any camp. He is, after all, one of the game's greatest competitors and certainly one of its most accomplished pitchers. But after consecutive frustrating seasons (once again, by his lofty standards), he seems to have finally acknowledged that the inevitable decline in raw stuff that comes with his high workload of years past has necessitated changes in repertoire. Without divulging details, he's told reporters he plans to work on a new pitch, in addition to adding 20 pounds of muscle (best shape of his life?). Perhaps the incorporation of the increasingly popular cutter or a split will be in play. Whatever the case, with Max Scherzer gone and David Price entering his walk year, the Tigers need Verlander to re-establish himself as a rotation linchpin.
3. The remade Padres go to work
Of all the "winter winners" who could make a severe standings climb and who will be big talking points in camp, I'm singling out the Padres here for two reasons:
A. Their wild offseason caught us totally off-guard. We knew, for example, that the White Sox, Cubs and Astros were ready to spend more money, we've learned to expect the unexpected from Jeffrey Loria and the Marlins and we figured the Red Sox would be restless after a 91-loss season. But the Padres' big and bold spending under new GM A.J. Preller was a very pleasant surprise.
B. They're probably not done wheeling and dealing. They've still got an excess in the outfield, where Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton are locked in, Will Venable profiles as a fine fourth option and Carlos Quentin ($8 million) and Cameron Maybin ($7 million) currently are on track to do very little.
Should they move Quentin or Maybin, the Padres' infield is arguably the club's biggest concern. First baseman Yonder Alonso, second baseman Jedd Gyorko, shortstops Alexi Amarista and Clint Barmes and third baseman Will Middlebrooks all had OPS+ marks south (and in all but Alonso's case, significantly well south) of league average last season.
In general, it's always fun to see how a significantly revamped ballclub comes together in camp. The Padres, Cubs, White Sox, Mariners, Astros, Red Sox, A's, Blue Jays, Rays, Braves and Dodgers all fit that category, to some degree.
4. Embracing, encountering and overcoming the shift
The shift is on. That is well-established by this point. What once was the domain of small-market sabermetric strategists has now become commonplace even in places like Yankee Stadium. Teams shifted 13,296 times last year, per Baseball Info Solutions, and, no, new Commissioner Rob Manfred will not be eliminating them.
At this point, the shift necessitates adjustments for defenders and hitters alike.
On the defensive side, the shift's popularity in-game has not always extended to the spring prep work, for whatever reason. That figures to change. Infielders and outfielders are expected to be yanked out of their traditional alignments more commonly in camp so that they can be more accustomed to the unorthodox position when game situations present themselves.
But the big adjustment, obviously, has to come at the plate, where pull-happy hitters simply have to learn to utilize the opposite field. The pull-side batting average on balls in play was 14 points lower last year than it was in 2010, but the opposite-field percentage rose 10 points in that same span.
This is a mindset and mechanics issue, and the organizations that successfully stress it to their hitters -- young and veteran alike -- from Day 1 of camp will be ahead of the curve in '15. If anything, maybe we'll see more attention paid to the bunting drills.
5. Our perverse fascination with all things A-Rod
Frankly, A-Rod's attempt to assimilate to a reduced role after a long layoff and at an advanced age in the Yankees' Tampa camp is nowhere near as captivating as the breathless media coverage that will emanate out of said camp.
Nobody stirs emotions out of the high and mighty and page clicks from the curious quite like one Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez. His obvious and sometimes oblivious transgressions -- PED and otherwise -- have made him a monster in the eyes of some media members, who, I can assure you, will study his every movement looking for signs of awkward interactions or general discord with teammates or coaches.
The reality of the A-Rod situation is much more boring than the concept of the A-Rod situation. This is a soon-to-be-40-year-old shaking off the rust and trying to prove he's worthy of a roster spot. At best, he's the Yankees' DH this season. At worst (and this currently seems unlikely), he's deemed unplayable and the Yanks eat the $64 million remaining on his contract and/or pawn him off elsewhere.
No matter the outcome, the contract is an albatross, and that's the Yankees' doing. But the circus that will accompany A-Rod's every step is admittedly a media creation. Happy clicking.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor and MLB.com columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.