It's almost here, now.
The pitchers and catchers for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers reported to their assorted spring facilities last week, thanks to their upcoming -- and very early -- engagement in Australia to kickoff the season. There are all sorts of things to pay attention to there -- besides the fact that the Diamondbacks and Dodgers are likely to have a few bench-clearing incidents before the All-Star Break -- but most fans are still waiting with bated breath for the other 28 teams to arrive at camp and begin activities.
What should we be paying attention to as spring training gets underway?
Second base, generally speaking
Positional battles are common in spring training, but even moreso this year when it comes to second base. Teams like the Mariners, Indians, Red Sox and Phillies have excellent players on both sides of the ball at that position. Then there are a few solid-yet-unremarkable or inconsistent or oft-injured talents in the mid-range and a vast drop-off into the highly flawed or outright replacement-level players who comprise the second base options for a number of teams.
The Toronto Blue Jays' stay in camp, for instance, will feature utility infielder Maicer Izturis and rookie infielder Ryan Goins battling for the starting job. According to manager John Gibbons, Goins has the inside track, though the business of "[liking] what he did in September" is relative at best considering Goins' .252/.264/.345 line during his short call-up. The Baltimore Orioles will feature former Oakland Athletics prospect Jemile Weeks and former Minnesota Twins starter Alexi Casilla battling for the starting job, with Ryan Flaherty (Baltimore's pick in the Rule 5 draft in 2012 from the -- surprise, surprise -- Chicago Cubs) likely in the mix if Manny Machado's recovery goes ahead of schedule.
Speaking of which, the Cubs had one of the more putrid up-the-middle combinations at the plate last year in Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney. Chicago would be well within its rights to play Ryan Roberts at second instead should Barney's deplorable hitting continue. The New York Yankees signed no less than three veteran players who can handle second base -- Brian Roberts, Kelly Johnson and Brendan Ryan -- but until camp shakes out it's unclear who will be playing where and how often, especially with Eduardo Nunez still in the mix.
The Los Angeles Dodgers allowed Mark Ellis to go to the St. Louis Cardinals for a pittance, where Ellis will backup and, if necessary, supplant Kolten Wong at second base should the Cardinals' prospect continue to fail to hit at the MLB level. It was an odd choice by Los Angeles, considering its own second base plans involve either throwing Cuban defector Alexander Guerrero immediately into the fire or filling the gap with Justin Turner, formerly of the New York Mets. And although the Kansas City Royals solidified their second base plans by signing Omar Infante, they counterbalanced that by designating Emilio Bonifacio for assignment a few days ago -- meaning any one of the above teams could, for the right price, add yet another player to their second base mix.
And that's without getting into the constant trade rumors that have followed tenured veteran second basemen Howie Kendrick (Angels), Dan Uggla (Braves) and Brandon Phillips (Reds) around. For various contract and performance reasons, all three men should be safe by this point of the offseason, but you never know. The competitions for second base will be one of the more interesting sub-dramas of the spring -- even if most of them amount to the rearranging of deck chairs.
By the time pitchers and catchers report, the majority of the big decisions about who is going to play where have either already been made or don't really matter. It is, for instance, entirely up in the air who a number of the Houston Astros' starters and key pitchers will be come Opening Day, but some say that -- in a rebuilding year -- the decisions may be negligible.
One place where the Astros have made significant additions is the bullpen -- one suspects it's so they can pump Jesse Crain or Chad Qualls full of saves and flip them to a team in contention. But the exact roles still have to shake themselves out. Crain is most likely to win the closer's job starting out, with Qualls taking the job midseason when Crain is flipped; Houston would then pick up Qualls's team option and do the same thing with him next year. Should something go wrong with Crain, who spent much of 2012 battling injury, Qualls could either step in immediately or the job could be won by Matt Albers, who got a contract similar to Crain's, though with less money attached.
The Astros aren't the only team playing out a drama like this: the Seattle Mariners, New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers all have new closers (though New York's David Robertson is far from new to the organization) and need to figure out how the rest of the bullpen shakes out. The Baltimore Orioles dealt Jim Johnson to the Athletics for aforementioned second baseman Weeks and it remains to be seen whether Darren O'Day, Brian Matusz or, heaven forbid, Tommy Hunter takes over for him; and so on and so forth. Like almost all spring training battles, these will mostly be fought in the margins, but given how few wins separate a playoff team from a non-playoff team, the margins are precisely the place where battles need to be fought.
Meet the new boss
There are a number of rookie managers this season, most prominently Brad Ausmus for the Detroit Tigers and Rick Renteria for the Chicago Cubs. But don't forget about Matt Williams for the Washington Nationals and Bryan Price for the Cincinnati Reds (Lloyd McClendon, new skipper for the Seattle Mariners, is technically not a "rookie," since he once ran the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he's worth talking about, too). It's hard to determine anything about how a new manager will handle game strategy in spring training -- winning meaningless exhibition games is not the point of the exercise, nor is it any real predictor of success as the Royals most recently demonstrated last spring.
But managers -- and the staff they have in place around them -- have significant influence over who wins and loses those very same battles discussed above. While the front office and general manager sign and trade for and extend the star players and even the role players, the fringe guys -- the 23rd through 25th men on the roster, let's say -- are generally left to the manager's discretion, within reason. It's always interesting to see who managers, new or veteran, choose to latch on to. Sometimes it works out, like Buck Showalter's agitation for the acquisition of Darren O'Day off waivers for the Baltimore Orioles a couple years back, and sometimes it doesn't so much, like Terry Francona's constant support for a fairly ineffective Rich Hill last year in Cleveland.
The charming photography
The decline of print media combined with the rise of smart phone cameras has been absolutely disastrous for coverage of spring training. For the next few weeks, it's wise to batten down the hatches and prepare for a flood of unlit, blurry and otherwise poorly executed Instagram shots of baseball players doing perfectly mundane baseball things in much warmer climes.
Prepare for lots of jokes about this, and jokes about jokes about this and little paragraphs like this that pretend to be wearily exhausted and above it all, but are still written by people who compulsively click on all those terrible little pictures for a badly framed glimpse of spring.
That's just become the price of following the game this time of the year; the good news is that a week or so before the games start, actual professional photographers will show up, and we'll once again start to forget how grateful we should be to have that vanishing class of journalists who don't primarily use their camera to tweet.
The greatest thing about the preseason in any sport is that officially, everyone's still eligible for the playoffs. Even the Houston Astros.
In back-to-back years, Major League Baseball has seen a team that spent almost two decades in the wilderness claw its way back to the playoffs -- the Baltimore Orioles in 2012 and the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013. Were the 2012 Orioles some sort of luck vampires? Yes. Did the Pirates make the playoffs almost solely because every pitcher on not just the 25-man but the 40-man roster pitched out of his mind? Yes. Does that mean they didn't make the playoffs those years? No.
Success like that isn't sustainable, and it isn't predictable, but it does happen from time to time. Perhaps this year it will be the White Sox or the Mets or the Padres or Angels or Marlins. Perhaps it will be none of them. But while it's impossible to say with any degree of certainty which teams will vastly over (or under) perform their prognostications this year, it's perfectly reasonable to assert this: Baseball will genuinely surprise you a half-dozen times in 2014, maybe more. It did in 2013, and in 2012 before that. If you say it didn't, you're either lying or a prophet -- and either way, you're no fun. And for the fans, fun is all spring training is really about.