With all the basketball hoopla, I almost forgot about my favorite form of March madness. Baseball’s spring training is as mad as it gets — especially when you add Bobby Valentine.
Baseball, unlike most other sports, is a grueling, six-month race that takes us from spring to fall. No other sport can claim that kind of longevity. A three-week slide in football can knock most teams out of the playoff race. Just about every team in basketball and hockey makes the postseason. But baseball’s long journey is unique.
Had I known the Red Sox would turn into a beer-drinking, wing-eating, rec softball-type of team instead of a $200 million organization, I wouldn’t have tabbed them to win the World Series last year.
All the signs were there as the crash-and-burn Sox stunk up the month of April with a staggering 2-10 start. The team righted itself and September came with Boston in first place over the Yankees. Then the nightmares began again. The 7-20 finish was like watching a train wreck in slow motion as the Sox fell just one lousy game out of the playoff picture.
Not much has changed on the roster, unless you’re a big Jonathan Papelbon fan (and I’m not). Andrew Bailey, the 2009 AL Rookie of the Year, has come over from the A’s to take over the ninth inning. The bullpen also got a shot in the arm with the addition of Mark Melancon (8-4, 20 saves) from Houston.
That allows Daniel Bard to try his hand in the rotation. With Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz at the front end of the rotation, the Sox will need to find a few viable arms to fill out the staff. That may include Felix Doubront, who’s had a couple of auditions amounting to 23 games over the past two seasons.
The Sox have added a bunch of spare parts in the likes of Ryan Sweeney, Cody Ross, Nick Punto and Kelly Shoppach. The usual suspects—David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury will cross the dish enough times for the Sox to be successful. But a return to the postseason may fall on the shoulders of Carl Crawford, whose average dropped 52 points after he put his autograph on a $100 million deal.
Two-time World Series winner Terry Francona took the blame of the collapse along with GM Theo Epstein. That paved the way for Ben Cherington to take over the front office and the Sox brought in mad cap manager Bobby Valentine to either right the ship or provide excellent cover if the team continues to flop.
With high-priced free agents like Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols out there, the Yankees stood pat and why not? A 97-65 finish landed them the AL East crown and if they can get one more go around from Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Mariano Rivera, I would expect the same results in 2012.
Curtis Granderson led the league in RBI and runs while knocking homers to finish fourth in the MVP voting. Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira each drove in more than 110 runs while Brett Gardner led the league in stolen bases.
Offense won’t be the Yankees’ downfall. CC Sabathia will need to hang another 19 or 20 wins. The Yanks did go out and get some help with the addition of Hiroki Kuroda from the Dodgers and 23-year-old phenom Mike Pineda from Seattle.
The AL East will see its usual three-team race between the Sox, Yanks and the pitching-rich Rays. The NL East will be interesting with the Braves and Marlins getting a little better as they try to dethrone the Phillies.
That leaves the Mets trying to avoid a fourth season in a row where they have a lock on fourth place. The only good news coming out of Citi Field is that owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz only have to pay out $162 million from a billion-dollar lawsuit.
Johan Santana is trying to come back from shoulder surgery and his spring training results have been successful. That will loom largely in just how competitive the Mets will be as youngsters Jon Niese and Dillon Gee work alongside RA Dickey and Mike Pelfrey.
The Mets bullpen, ranked 28th last year, and the addition of Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch certainly doesn’t move them that much further up the ladder.
The most alarming bell ringing in New York is the lack of production from the bats. Carlos Beltran, who was traded after 98 games, still led the team with 15 home runs and 66 RBI. That’s ugly and it didn’t get any better when Jose Reyes bolted to Miami.
Jason Bay needs to find the bat he used when he led the AL with 119 RBI for the 2009 Red Sox. David Wright needs to do better than 60 runs and 61 RBI. The Mets’ lineup is filled with unproven youngsters with a lot of potential. But that may not spell enough victories to keep the Mets from being the doormat of the NL East.