As our own Jon Bernhardt pointed out yesterday, there's only so much you can tell from Spring Training. Stats mean nothing over such a small and rusty sample size, so you read quotes from scouts and you listen to the coaches rave about a prospect, or tsk about fundamentals, and you hear about morale-building trips to bowling alleys or arcades, and you enjoy the optimism of the season.
Within that framework, though, there are some intriguing narratives unfolding. Here are some of the stories and questions worth keeping an eye on, here on the runway to the season.
CHOOSE YOUR BOURN(E) REFERENCE
Identity and Supremacy could work, but Ultimatum turned out not to be needed.
Michael Bourn was the last big free agent without a home going into spring training, and he found one in Cleveland, at a reasonable-for-Scott-Boras-clients $48 million over four years. So what does this mean for the Indians, besides dramatically improved outfield defense? Cleveland has largely been written off as a serious contender going into this season, still rebuilding, and this signing probably doesn't change that significantly -- if they're a lot better than expected, it won't be because of Michael Bourn -- but alongside the Nick Swisher signing, it does give the team a boost.
Then there's the inverse…
When your team's own general manager is joking about how bad the outfield is going to be, well, buckle your seatbelts. The Mets kept their star in David Wright, and they have some engaging young players and some potentially very talented arms working their way up from the farm system, but Michael Bourn was their only remaining hope for a non-disastrous outfield.
The outfielders themselves are saying all the right things. Some combination of Lucas Duda, Mike Baxter (who sacrificed his collarbone for Johan Santana's no-hitter last year), and a Kirk Nieuwenhuis/Collin Cowgill platoon will do their best. But have you ever watched Lucas Duda try to catch a fly ball on a windy evening? It's a grueling ordeal, and not the kind of thing anyone should have to endure when they're trying to enjoy a nice ballgame after work. In any case, depending on your temperament, Spring Training is either your last fling with optimism and bright possibilities in that regard, or a first glimpse at the carnage.
HOUSTON, WE HAVE … ETC.
Houston may seem, at first glance, like a whole team's version of the Mets outfield. Their highest-paid player was Jed Lowrie, and they shipped him off to Oakland. It's now Carlos Pena, who may be just about their biggest name, as well. When you make the Athletics look willing to spend by comparison, you've gone to extremes. Houston lost 107 games last year, and this season, as they move to the American League, that number could be even more alarming.
That said, there's more to the Astros than morbid curiosity. This is a full-fledged experiment in its early stages, the chance to watch a house get built from the ground up. Houston is run by some intelligent people -- led by GM Jeff Luhnow -- and they are starting from scratch, and we all get to watch. More than most Spring Trainings, the Astros' will be all about the future -- not this season, but next. Watch them make the sausage.
THE BLUE JAYS VS. THE HYPE
I think the Blue Jays are going to be very good this year, and have a decent shot at the AL East, though the Yankees and Red Sox cannot ever be ruled out until the stake is through the heart.
As exciting as Toronto is -- and those are words that haven't been written in some time -- let's play devil's advocate for a moment. The fact is that going from last year's 73-89 to the playoffs would entail a seriously steep turnaround. Toronto acquired an impressive bunch of names from the Marlins in Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and Josh Johnson (… and John Buck, and Emilio Bonifacio) but as many pointed out when the trade went down, those names didn't exactly do wonders for Miami last year. You could raise objections to any of their other big moves if you wanted to be a wet blanket: Melky Cabrera has to prove he can hit like he did last year without banned substances; R.A. Dickey, while the reigning NL Cy Young winner, is also 38 years old and a knuckleballer now transplanted to the American League. There are no sure things.
So there are all your reasons to doubt. But I haven't managed to convince myself. I think this is going to be one of the most fun teams in either league to watch, and that it will shake up the AL East. Either way, this spring provides a chance to watch a team with many, many new names re-form itself, for better or worse.
OLD YANKEES NEVER DIE, THEY JUST FADE AWAY
Speaking of the AL East … Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez are all coming back from significant injuries. That's nearly $60 million in contracts, in the form of two beloved faces of the franchise and one PED-tainted third baseman who's simultaneously an all-time great and an albatross. If Jeter and Rivera appear more or less healed by March, that'll be a big boost for the Yankees, two areas of uncertainty made reassuringly stable again. Neither of them can provide quality production at catcher, a characteristic they have in common with every other member of the 2013 Yankees, but it would be a start.
We won't know about Alex Rodriguez until later, at least as far as his on-field performance. Off the field, I'd say we should keep an eye on the ongoing investigation surrounding Alex Rodriguez. But baseball-wise, here's what's overwhelmingly likely to happen to him: nothing. Even if MLB has enough evidence to suspend him for use of banned substances, which is iffy, it would be his first official violation, and he would get a 50-game ban… coinciding with the time he'll be on the disabled list, anyway. If that seems paltry, it is. But it's not likely to go any other way, so we can probably stop reading columns about how Brian Cashman should kill Rodriguez and make it look like an accident to get out from under that contract.
THE DODGERS VS. ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD
People liked to say of the Yankees from 2002-2008, and 2010-2012, that money can't buy you championships. Well, it certainly can't guarantee you a World Series… but it can very nearly guarantee you a good team. That's because an unlimited budget can make bad contracts largely irrelevant. (The Yankees themselves could be in for a relatively tough couple of years only because they suddenly got a budget, and without adequate time to plan for it.) So if Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett don't bounce back this year as hoped, the Dodgers won't be crippled. They can just go out and get someone else. Not many teams have that kind of freedom.
Of course, that doesn't mean it doesn't matter how the team does. Contrariwise: expectations are higher than they have been in years and excuses are scarcer. Don Mattingly will have his hands full with pressure, media, and big stars, but luckily, like his mentor Joe Torre, this is what he excels at -- his in-game moves are occasionally head-scratchers, but his players love him.
GIANCARLO STANTON VS. THE MARLINS
Maybe love and feel-good fuzziness aren't your thing. In that case, the Marlins are an interesting team to watch right now. Not, you know, a good team. But an interesting one. They're like the Astros without a coherent plan, and with the addition of a Stadium deal that screwed their town and fans.
After the Marlins traded away their big guns, remaining star Giancarlo Stanton -- only still standing because he is still under team control, and therefore cheap -- was not happy. Since then, he's made it clear that he is still not happy. The question now is whether the team will trade him (unlikely, by most accounts), find a way to regain his trust, or simply live with their star being righteously ticked off. This being the Marlins, who seem not only to not be bothered by disappointment and anger but to actively seek it out, the third option is probably the most likely. At least it won't be boring.
OTHER SPRING TRAINING STORYLINES OF NOTE
Pitcher Micah Owings remaking himself as a hitter; base stealer extraordinaire Billy Hamilton of the Cincinnati Reds trying to work his way up the minor league food chain and closer to the show; the Braves' Justin and B.J. Upton, who as you may have heard, are related in some way; the Nationals' dazzling starting rotation and the (hopefully) triumphant returns of pitcher Stephen Strasburg; whether Mike Trout is, as seemed apparent from his 2012 season, a reincarnated demigod of some sort and if so, whether he will be a just and merciful ruler.