Spring training developments and how they affect baseball futures
Spring training records don’t really mean a whole lot. A team can tear up the Grapefruit League, then crater when the real thing comes along, or they can be terrible in the Cactus League and then never look back all season. That being said, there are clues to be picked up from how teams and players behave that can tell you what you may expect for the season. Here’s a look at seven stories that are important coming out of spring training and what they could mean to baseball futures: (All odds listed are from Bodog)
Will youth win in Atlanta? – Atlanta Braves are 7/5 to win the NL East. The Braves have won 14-straight division titles, so it’s impossible to choose against at least the possibility of them doing it again. They have a solid lineup with no huge holes and more than a couple of true superstars like Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and John Smoltz. To pull off a 15th title, however, they have to overcome a few obstacles. The Mets are as strong as they have been in a long time and are at 2/5 to win the division. Smoltz is learning a new pitch, the changeup. It has been brilliant in spring training, but could be inconsistent during the season. Most importantly, though, they will be incredibly young. They played a boatload of rookies last year and that will continue. Jeff Francoeur was outstanding as a rookie last year, but will likely struggle for a while now that everyone has had a chance to see him. That doesn’t mean that they won’t win, but it does mean that they will likely be inconsistent as players find their way. I don’t hate their chances come September, but the youth will keep me away from them in April.
Toronto’s new faces – Toronto Blue Jays are 3/1 to win the AL East. More than any other team, the Blue Jays stocked up in the off-season and it made them a much better team. They spent on pitching, they bought bats and they upgraded the sad catching ranks. That many new faces will take time to gel, however, as evidenced by their second worst record in the AL preseason standings. A.J. Burnett’s elbow problems had to cause hearts to stop in Toronto, but it was just scar tissue and he will be fine. Still, the new faces mean that this likely won’t be a team to trust until well into May.
What’s wrong with the champs? – Hopefully nothing, but the White Sox have been terrible in spring training. The whole Frank Thomas affair was a complete mess and now the team is the worst in the AL in the preseason. I’m sure they will get it together, but expectations are high and their personalities are volatile. They are the second choice to win the series at 4/1 and the runaway choice for the AL Central at 2/3. If they start off the season badly in the face of those expectations, firecrackers like catcher A.J. Pierzynski and Manager Ozzie Guillen could explode and cause troubles for the team. I won’t be trusting them with a bet until I can watch them and see how their early season plays out.
What’s up with Barry? – San Francisco Giants are 3/2 to win NL west. Barry Bonds. That is, of course, the main issue with this team. What else will come out? Is he healthy? How will he play? How will fans react to him? How will teammates react to him? Will he be able to run? Will an already tense clubhouse be unbearable? Until I know more about Barry and this team, I won’t be touching them with a ten-foot pole.
Soriano the big baby – Washington Nationals are 15/1 to win the NL East. The team was facing an uphill battle anyway, but the juvenile behavior of Alfonso Soriano certainly won’t help. Soriano sat in the dugout and refused to play left field in his first spring training game, even though the team has an all-star second baseman in Jose Vidro. The team has threatened to make him inactive and the whole thing could get very ugly. Can anyone think of a team in recent memory where a star player, say a wide receiver, didn’t get his way and ripped apart the team and destroyed the season? If this situation gets out of control, a team that wasn’t very good could become very bad. That’s not good for fans, but it sure can present nice opportunities for sports bettors.
Tension in the Bronx – New York Yankees are1/3 to win the AL East and 17/5 favorites for the World Series. Expectations are high, but they always are. Steinbrenner has never had much of a sense of humor, but he appears to be losing whatever he had. He came as close to firing Joe Torre as he ever has after last year and his almost irrational hatred of the World Baseball Classic showed us that he is more tense than normal. The team is an All-Star squad as always, but its fate lies largely with the pitching. Mike Mussina has been roughed up in spring training and Randy Johnson, though he is looking great, is far from a young man. If the arms fail or the bats aren’t working by the middle of the season, and especially if the Red Sox or the Blue Jays are leading the division or even close, Steinbrenner could explode and Yankee Stadium could be a terrible place to be. This team has to win, so if things go bad for this team, they could go really bad. Relatively, anyway. They are still the favorite in almost any game they play, but I will be watching for cracks in the foundation.
The Roger Clemens Watch – No one really knows what Clemens is going to do and he seems to be in no hurry to make a decision about his playing future. He may not join any team for a month or two, if at all. However, the team he joins instantly becomes significantly better. The man has earned his indecision, but when he makes up his mind it will impact the whole league, so we’ll have to watch and wait and then adjust accordingly.