If we're being honest, the best way to watch spring training is: … don't.
Seriously. It's not worth it. You already know who the majority of the guys are on your team and the kind of playing time they're going to get; you already know which kids are going to get some salt with the big leaguers before being assigned back to minor league camp; you already know most of the players are going to show up in peak physical shape after an offseason of conditioning and slowly slide back up the scale as the season goes on. (There's a phrase for that phenomenon, but I won't name it; saying it gives it power, like witches and All-State.)
But it's been a hundred days or so since the last real, tangible professional baseball was played, about thirty days more on top of that if the team you like didn't make the playoffs, and you're fixing to huff whatever kind of infield dirt is put in front of you as long as a baseball skipped across it recently.
It hasn't helped that sportswriters like me have spent the last four weeks whipping the national discourse of our shared addiction from sideshow to sideshow so fast you'd suffer another ESPN Yanks-Sox primetime "duel" between Dice-K and A.J. Burnett just to be rid of us for four and a half hours, and you'd suffer it with a smile. I can't help it. It's how I cope. I'm desperate for pitchers and catchers to report too.
Since ignoring Spring Training isn't an option, you at least owe it to yourself to greet the early, false promise of summer about to bloom in Florida and Arizona with a plan. With some discipline. It's time to show you've learned the lessons of Springs Training Past -- that, for instance, Francisco Liriano will always land in a starting rotation, no one will be able to replicate Mariano's cut fastball, and Felix Pie will never make good on all of his promise. (Here, Cubs fans, you may quietly sob. I may quietly join you.)
So in the spirit of camaraderie in the face of the hopeless, fuzzy optimism about to descend on us, here are some general pointers to help you through the next seven weeks.
One: It's Called Spring Training
Perhaps the largest misconception about the big, sporty circuses about to descend on the warmest parts of the nation is what players are there to do. There are essentially four reasons why any professional sport runs a pre-season, from baseball to hockey to football: first and foremost, to figure out who's getting cut. These usually aren't the headliner positions; generally, teams go into camp knowing who they ideally want out there every day already. But utility guys? Longmen? Backup catchers? The last five spots on the 40 man get real interesting this time of the year if aging AAAA journeymen or flawed, graduating prospects are your cup of tea. Hey, you like backup catchers. Who am I to judge?
Second, everyone not in immediate danger of losing their job has to get the rust off and get back into the habit of playing their sport -- in this case fielding, hitting, and throwing baseballs at MLB game speed. Many of them, the veterans especially, will have spent the entire offseason doing general conditioning to stay in game shape. Carl Crawford, for example, will have been out in Arizona at the Athletes' Performance facility putting work in on speed drills and weight training, while Aubrey Huff will have been eating and watching hotel porn. Unless they signed on to the winter leagues in Central and South America, guys play very little baseball in the offseason.
Third (and a distant third, because it'd happen eventually with or without Spring Training), the players get to meet the rest of the team. Baseball may be a game of individual transactions between two or perhaps three players, and it may meet the criteria for "team sport" in a much looser fashion than football or basketball, but guys still want to catch up or meet the new rightfielder or come up with new ways to harass the wizardly third baseman who can't deal with people rubbing his head. Managers take this part very seriously (managers take every part of baseball very seriously, but especially the unimportant parts); look no further than Mets skipper Terry Collins's very public, very disapproving reaction last year to his new shortstop, Ruben Tejada, showing up on time instead of a couple days early to meet everyone and show he was serious about being Jose Reyes's appointed successor.
Which leads into the fourth, final and easily least important goal of Spring Training: to put into effect whatever schemes the manager and his staff have for their team to play better baseball. Collins mentioned more than once during the Tejada non-issue that one of the reasons he wanted him in camp early was to build chemistry with the new middle infielders and practice turning double plays. New managers in particular will have new ways they want guys to shag groundballs, field grounders, or take batting practice, and what they insist on -- and how forceful they are in their insistence -- will play a role in how the team practices and comports itself for the rest of the season.
Does all of that sound necessary but completely unsexy? It should, because it is. Spring Training is normally not the time starters learn that one new pitch from the staff vet or pitching coach that catapults them to the next level*; it's not usually when the troubled corner outfielder suddenly finds his swing, nor is it when a prospect storms out of nowhere to announce his Rookie of the Year candidacy. Guys can have very good camps and contribute nothing when the games start to count (poor Jake Fox has had this happen to him more than once), or they can put up a .607 OPS across the 2011 and 2012 preseasons and then go on to be, well, Mike Trout.
Very little real learning actually happens at Spring Training, since for better or worse just about everyone invited to it is already a more-or-less realized MLB player, or close to it; what in-depth instruction does take place mostly happens over in the minor league camp. It's wise to take any wire report or blog post you read to the contrary with a few grains of salt.
*"Ah, but what about Jason Hammel?" you ask, recalling that the prohibitive favorite for the Orioles' Opening Day start "added" a two-seam fastball to his repertoire before the 2012 season. Well, not precisely—he threw the pitch in Colorado but used it much differently (and less effectively) there, likely because while a two-seamer is more likely to be hit on the ground than the same pitcher's four-seamer, it is also more likely to be put in play, period. In Coors, it's wise to avoid that whenever possible. Tinkering as with Hammel is common, though very rarely as effective.
Two: More Pitching = Better
There's a lot of attention being paid to the Detroit, Cincinnati, Toronto, and especially Washington rotations right now, and by the time Spring Training's really underway there's going to be a whole lot more. Meanwhile, there's something of a confused but excited buzz surrounding the staffs of the Athletics and particularly the Los Angeles Dodgers. L.A. has Kershaw, Greinke, Billingsley, Beckett, Capuano, Harang, Lilly, and offseason acquisition Hyun-Jin Ryu all capable of starting at the major league level (if perhaps just barely for Lilly and Harang at this point in their careers). There's been speculation that the situation in L.A. is untenable and that someone has to go, because they simply have too many starters. But having too many starters is a good thing.
The Dodgers don't have to get below 25 men on their roster until they break camp. Until then, they should hold on to every reasonably good pitching arm they can get their hands on. Once pitchers and catchers report it's about 45 days until real baseball starts happening, and a whole lot of pitchers can hurt a whole lot of arms in 45 days. As far as the Dodgers are specifically concerned, one of the plans that's been floated is having Ryu start in the pen as a fireman or relief ace and slide into the rotation once someone plays himself out of it; this is as good a plan as any to ease in a guy who's ready to contribute right now but is getting his first taste of the American game.
Washington, too, has an embarrassment of riches in the rotation -- though fewer than they did last year when they paid John Lannan, the Phillies' new fifth starter, $5 million to sit in Triple A as an insurance policy they never needed. Lannan probably had a difficult time seeing the wisdom in that, but it's a much better move for a team that's trying to win now like the Nationals or the Dodgers than flipping him for a guy who may or may not be a lottery ticket. The way prospects are valued in MLB right now, guys like Lannan, Harang, Capuano and Lilly aren't likely to bring back more in a trade than the marginal value they can contribute in a spot start in the second half of a make-up doubleheader, for instance.
This is arguably most important with pitchers, because of how difficult it is to bring together five guys who are both healthy and good for their rotation slots at the same time, but it happens with position players as well -- Oakland is not only very deep in their rotation, but they have been adding guys like Jed Lowrie and Chris Young through trade to increase team depth across the roster. It's an interesting strategy for a team whose window is opening: getting starters under controlled contracts and putting them in utility positions under the assumption that they can super-sub until someone inevitably gets hurt (Jemile Weeks, for instance). You only wonder how hard it will be for Bob Melvin to get them to buy in.
The upshot here is that most of this depth is by design, and fans shouldn't expect -- or even want -- it to be traded unless some really dire roster decisions have to be made before camp breaks. Remember that teams can do some pretty fancy disabled list dancing to keep guys they want around.
Three: Watch the Kids
The most enjoyable thing about Spring Training that involves baseball itself is seeing top prospects for the first time. While lots of fans follow the progress of their chosen organization's top young talents, unless you've got an MiLB.tv subscription and a lot of free time on your hands, you probably haven't actually seen them play baseball. This is the time of year when most get to see their next big hitter or pitcher play for the first time, and while there's not a lot to take away from their performances, well, that's not really the point. It's exciting to see a prospect make his first big league camp and dream on how they'll help your team two or three years down the line, if not sooner.
This is the part where I'm supposed to say "try not to get too attached to them," warn about the likelihood of failure and toss out names like Andrew Brackman and Brandon Wood as cautionary tales, but that's no fun. This sport needs unrealistic dreams to be entertaining. Most things do. Go wild.
Four: NRI Means Not Really Important
With one prominent exception, spend as little time possible worrying about the guys in camp on minor league deals with non-roster invitations -- and don't presume your team's GM has just gotten himself a steal until a bunch scouts start oohing and aahing about his game. Guys on NRIs are usually veteran players coming off an ineffective performance perhaps due to injury, youngish guys who could conceivably be a fifth outfielder, backup catcher or the last man in the bullpen if things go really well, and old men who can't or won't let go of the game (Miguel Tejada will be in camp with the Kansas City Royals).
All of these kinds of players get looks as insurance policies and occasionally clubhouse/make-up guys to surround your younger players with during camp and, if they're actually alright at the baseball part of the gig, in Triple A during the year. Very rarely do they make the active roster out of camp, and even more rarely do they become major pieces of the team.
That said, Phillies NRI Yuniesky Betancourt is the perfect storm of a guy on an NRI who is likely to make his team and be given substantial playing time. It's a well-worn topic, so we won't belabor the point, but if they can get approximately the performance out of him that the Phillies got out of Juan Pierre last year, it might even be worth it.
Five: Speaking of Which, What About My Team's Rule 5 Pick?
I've already forgotten who your team's Rule 5 pick is and by the end of camp so will you.
Six: Deep Breaths
These are a lot of words to restate one fairly simple concept: be cool. Don't hyperventilate because one of your relievers is striking out the world when teams still haven't sent their prospects to minor league camp. Don't scream to the high heavens that your ace is broken because his fastball's "lost" four miles per hour in early March. Don't grab the pitchforks if your team's big free agent or trade acquisition starts slow.
While it may not seem like it from all that doom and gloom about Oakland's Josh Donaldson losing his job, this part of the season is supposed to be fun, and not just for the fans that trek to the actual team facilities to watch the practices and the games. Spring Training is the one time of the year that all the myriad, contradictory possibilities of the season ahead are laid out before us with no regard paid to either probability or fate. It's the only time of year when every team in baseball could make the playoffs.
Well, maybe not Houston.
Stay calm, keep it loose, bask in the return of baseball to a place probably much nicer outside than where you are -- maybe go down there and get some autographs! -- and we'll all make it through this difficult time together.