No less an authority than Tony La Russa was fond of saying that a good Spring Training record could tell you one thing about a team: that it was going to have a good Triple-A team that year. The point was that Grapefruit and Cactus League games tend to be determined by guys wearing numbers like 76 and 84.
Mind you, La Russa wanted to win, even in spring. Another of his go-to lines in March was that if he didn't have a winning record, he might not still be the manager on Opening Day. But in the end, he knew -- as we all should -- that the results just don't mean that much.
Does that mean we should stop watching spring games? Heavens no. If anything, it's freeing. Just watch, enjoy the blue skies, the familiar and unfamiliar faces, the calm sense of relief that baseball is back. It's beautiful. Spring Training is great.
It's just that the stats and results, well, they don't mean anything.
Not to worry, though. There are, indeed, a few things you can glean.
Health: This is the big one. This is one thing you can tell from watching spring games. How is Freddie Freeman's wrist? How is Masahiro Tanaka's elbow?
It's worth knowing what you're watching, of course. Freeman, or any player with an injury that might be exacerbated by an errant fastball, probably won't start against the kid from Double-A who throws 98 but doesn't know where it's going.
If guys are still getting extra days off late in spring, though, it might not be a good sign. Some guys dial it way back early in the exhibition season, but by the final couple of weeks, pretty much everybody wants to be getting ramped up.
Playing time: Here's one where you really have to know what you're looking for. Outfield prospect Mallex Smith started and starred for the Braves in their Grapefruit League opener. There's a pretty good chance he's going to play quite a bit in the early going. Don't read too much into that.
The first week or two of games, often, a manager is taking advantage of the opportunity to see guys who are going to get sent out. There are still lots of innings and at-bats to go around, so players who simply aren't going to make the Opening Day roster get a chance to shine.
Once in a very long while, one of those guys is just so good that he forces a team's hand. More likely, though, he plants a seed, and when there's a decision in June or July, the front office knows what it's dealing with.
Later in camp, though, it gets more meaningful. Sometime around mid-March, those at-bats carry a little more weight.
To quote La Russa once again: Often in the last week or two of camp, if the reporters asked him whether a certain player had a real shot, the manager would simply answer, "He's still here, isn't he?"
Roles: Yet again, there's a difference here between March 5 and March 25. Early in spring, a player might lead off just so he can get his 2-3 at-bats and get out of the game early. Later in camp, it probably means he's actually under consideration to lead off.
Sometimes, though, a manager really does want to see how a combination looks. The Marlins began looking at lineup combinations starting with their game against the University of Miami, with Giancarlo Stanton batting fourth and Justin Bour fifth.
If a guy is regularly hitting first or third or fourth, it probably tells you something. If he's pitching the ninth late in camp, it probably tells you something. (As an aside, if he's pitching the ninth early in camp, it probably doesn't tell you a darn thing -- often as not, the closer will pitch the fourth at this time in March.)
Mostly, though, don't think too much. Enjoy it. Spring Training is fun. The games will count soon enough. Somebody's going to hit .400 in spring and .240 in the regular season. Some veteran is going to struggle through March and rake starting on Opening Day. Don't worry about the results. Just enjoy the baseball.