What to watch for as spring games start
Ten compelling storylines will help define this year's MLB season
Don't trust Spring Training. It can deceive you, give you false hope, crush your dreams.
In the end, though, it doesn't mean all that much. Spring Training is over in the blink of an eye, and no matter what happens, there's a long, tough grind ahead. One of the beauties of a baseball season is that eventually every weakness is exposed. No one tricks 'em for six months.
We pause now for a story about that. Long, long ago, the Baltimore Orioles had a hotshot kid named Cal Ripken Jr., who would grace our game with his dignity and production and work ethic for 21 seasons.
Back in those early days, in 1981 and '82, Ripken was just another kid trying to impress someone. Thirty-three years later, he can look back and have a good laugh at this story. At the time, it wasn't such a knee-slapper.
Anyway, in those first springs with the big league club, Ripken got sent up to hit off Yankees ace Ron Guidry. If the kid could hit a couple hard ones off Gator, that would be a good indicator.
And Ripken did just that. In fact, he hit some rockets off Guidry. He remembers coming back to the dugout one day thinking something like, "Guidry ain't so tough." I'm paraphrasing here just to be safe.
Ripken faced Guidry again a few weeks later, during the regular season, and something changed. When the regular season began, Guidry exited his spring mode and turned back into one of baseball's best.
"That slider," Ripken recalled years later, "I didn't see THAT in Spring Training."
Ripken's experience with Guidry became example No. 3,213 that Spring Training results frequently aren't what they seem.
On the other hand, there are decisions to be made, and Spring Training counts for something. In some cases, decisions have to be made based on what clubs see during Spring Training because it's the best and most immediate information they have.
Six months from now, those decisions still could look smart even if the player is having a tough time of it. And all around Florida and Arizona, teams are anxious to get a look at their guys and begin trying to figure out what they have, or don't have.
Because we love this stuff, because we'll be forever captivated by the kid who hustles his way onto the roster in Spring Training, here are 10 things clubs are looking closely at over the next few weeks:
1. Derek Jeter, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Michael Pineda, David Robertson.
Yes, the Yankees have a couple of issues. Even after all the spending, the Yanks still have huge question marks. Though if things work out a certain way, they're good enough to win their 28th World Series.
This spring will offer a glimpse into the direction the Yankees are headed in 2014. Remember, though, it's no more than a glimpse. If there's real trouble between now and Opening Day, the Yanks are in real trouble.
More likely, we won't really know what Jeter, Sabathia, etc., are capable of for months as the season rolls on. Jeter, Sabathia, Teixeira and Pineda are recovering from injuries, so Spring Training will offer plenty of insight into whether they're capable of going out and being productive. But the larger answers will come a day at a time.
As for Robertson, nothing that happens in Spring Training is likely to reveal how good a big league closer he's going to be. He has passed every test in his career and earned the opportunity to see if he can follow the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera.
2. Billy Hamilton.
Hamilton has the potential to be one of the most exciting players in baseball, and all the Reds are looking for in Spring Training is a progress report. If he's not overmatched, he'll be their center fielder on Opening Day. They'd like to see Hamilton hit the ball on the ground, bunt some and look comfortable in Spring Training. In other words, they'd just like to see a few basics while understanding that substantive answers are weeks away.
3. Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong.
It seems pretty simple for the Giants. If Lincecum and Vogelsong are good, then San Francisco might just win its third World Series in five seasons. The Giants feel really good about every other area of their club, including the first three spots in the rotation (Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Hudson), and if Lincecum and Vogelsong are as good as they've been in the past, this club could be in business.
4. Jackie Bradley Jr., Will Middlebrooks.
The Red Sox feel so good about rookie shortstop Xander Bogaerts that it doesn't even feel like he's a big question mark. Yes, he may be that good.
As for Bradley, he brings terrific Minor League credentials, and he is going to be given every opportunity to replace Jacoby Ellsbury in center. This is about as good a situation as a kid can have because of the clubhouse leadership that will assist him, a manager in John Farrell who will put him in position to succeed and the overall strength of the club.
With Middlebrooks, it's important to remember he has had only 615 Major League at-bats. During that time, there have been moments he looked very, very good, and other moments when he struggled. That's to be expected, and plenty of scouts believe Middlebrooks is going to have a big-time breakout season.
5. Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols.
Once upon a time, Pujols and Hamilton might have been the two best offensive players on the planet -- at least among men not named Miguel Cabrera. Now, the Angels have no idea what they can expect of them.
Pujols appears to be healthy and confident after a couple of tough seasons with the Angels. Here's betting he has a monstrous season if his legs allow him. As for Hamilton, he has gained 30 pounds after enduring his worst big league season, and he believes he can be the player he was when he averaged 28 home runs a year and batted .305 during five seasons with the Rangers. If Hamilton, Pujols and Mike Trout are what plenty of us think they'll be, the Halos have a chance to be in the mix in September.
6. Neftali Feliz, Alexi Ogando.
With Matt Harrison and Derek Holland both sidelined, the Rangers' pitching depth suddenly looks extremely vulnerable. Ogando has never thrown more than 169 innings in a season, but his pure stuff is as good as anyone in baseball. If he's healthy, he would add a third quality arm behind Yu Darvish and Martin Perez.
The Rangers still have quality arms stacked on their roster, but the options are thinning by the day. When closer Joe Nathan signed with the Tigers, Texas believed Feliz was a more than capable closer. He saved 72 games on the back-to-back American League champions in 2010 and '11, but he has pitched in just 14 games in two years since. If Feliz is healthy, the Rangers have one area taken care of.
7. Ryan Howard.
Everything Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has done is based on his belief that the band has another good tour left in it. On top of that list is Howard, who was once one of baseball's most feared hitters. He has played 151 games the past two seasons, and has mostly been overmatched by left-handed pitching. If the Phils can get a big season from Howard, they've got a chance to contend.
8. Ryan Braun.
Braun has said all the right things in his renaissance tour, and the Brewers have surrounded him with a club that seems capable of getting to the postseason. What Braun must do is prove that he can still be an All-Star caliber player without performance-enhancing substances. He's just 30 years old and has plenty of time to write a different ending to his career. Is there any better way than Braun again throwing MVP numbers on the board and leading the Brewers back to October?
9. B.J. Upton.
The Braves are again deep and talented, and they can probably get to October regardless of what they get from Upton, who hit just .184 in 2013 and looked lost at the plate at times. But he has a different kind of track record. During his Tampa Bay years, the Rays played their best baseball when Upton was very good. He was the type of player capable of carrying an entire club. If that Upton re-emerges in 2014, the Braves will definitely be playing in October.
10. Wandy Rodriguez.
The Pirates said their goodbyes to A.J. Burnett, but their rotation could still be excellent, especially if the 35-year-old Rodriguez recovers from a left forearm injury that sidelined him the final four months of last season. The southpaw had a 3.47 ERA in his first 11 starts before the injury. In six seasons before 2014, he averaged 31 starts, 186 innings and a 3.66 ERA. The Bucs have other question marks, especially in their search for a right-handed bat, but Rodriguez could elevate a good rotation into an excellent one.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.