What to Watch for in Spring Training's Opening Week of Games
Finally, it's time for baseball.
After months of offseason rumors, trades, free-agent signings and the slow, monotonous days of spring training, actual games are slated to begin this week in Florida and Arizona. When the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, respectively, begin play, it will mark the first live baseball since the Cardinals and Red Sox squared off in Game 6 of the World Series.
It may still be February, but there's actual, tangible baseball to talk about. By the end of the week, expect narratives and storylines to begin forming about teams and individual players. In other words, your typical small-sample size overreaction columns.
Hyperbole or not, it's time to buckle up and get set for the first steps toward meaningful baseball in March and April.
As you gaze up at the screen or listen on the radio during work, here's a primer on what to watch for during the first week of spring training games.
Old Faces, New Places
Free agency changes the landscape of the sport on a yearly basis. Yet, it's difficult to remember an offseason where so many of the top players switched teams, regardless of market size.
When the games begin this week, Robinson Cano's first swings in a Seattle Mariners uniform will stand out among the old faces in new places crowd. After producing like a Cooperstown-bound second baseman for years in New York, Cano left for the $240 million lure of Seattle.
Along with Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury's jump from Boston to New York will be an adjustment for fans of both the Red Sox and Yankees.
Over the past few years, major free-agent deals have been lauded in the winter but chastised by mid-summer. If Cano and Ellsbury want to avoid the scrutiny and jeers recently thrust upon Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols, a solid opening to the exhibition season would be a nice start.
If you follow Major League Baseball, a yearly rite of passage arrives every spring: veterans who arrive at spring training in the best shape of their respective lives.
From offseason workout changes to recovery from injury, countless players will claim to be in remarkable shape and poised for a big season. By the time April arrives, offseason workouts will be forgotten and production will supersede narratives.
This week, baseball fans will have a chance to catch a glimpse of transformed stars.
In New York, CC Sabathia has lost a significant amount of weight, spurring debate about his fastball and future, per John Perrotto of Sports on Earth.
In Detroit, Joba Chamberlain hired a chef, changed his lifestyle and is looking to regain the form that made him one of baseball's best prospects in 2007, per Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports.
In San Francisco, Pablo Sandoval is noticeably smaller than in years past. By this time next year, the new-look Sandoval could be swimming in the riches of a free-agent jackpot. According to Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle, the 27-year-old third baseman is trying to lose even more weight this spring.
Blast from the Recent Past
Get ready to feel old, baseball fans.
When the Nationals and Tigers hired Matt Williams and Brad Ausmus, respectively, this winter, the new skippers joined a group of young managers taking over the sport.
With Williams and Ausmus in tow, seven of baseball's managers were stilling playing Major League Baseball in the 2000s. The two new skippers join New York's Joe Girardi, St. Louis' Mike Matheny, Colorado's Walt Weiss, Miami's Mike Redmond and Chicago's Robin Ventura as recent players making an impact in the dugout.
Furthermore, only nine managers in baseball have more than 10 years of experience at the position.
If Williams and Ausmus can replicate some of the success that Girardi and Matheny have experienced thus far, the trend will likely continue around baseball.
Derek Jeter's 2014 Debut
When it comes to Derek Jeter's retirement tour, every game is a big deal. That includes his first exhibition game of 2014.
According to Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York, Jeter's first game of the Grapefruit League slate is scheduled to be on Thursday against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Yankees will hold Jeter out of action on Tuesday and Wednesday, easing his routine into spring games.
If Jeter was coming off a healthy 2013, the first game of his final spring training would be a hot ticket in Florida. This, of course, is more than that for the Yankees and Jeter in 2014.
After playing in less than 20 games last season, Jeter's health and ability to play shortstop will be monitored on a daily basis, including his first few innings on Thursday against Pittsburgh.
If there's a slow roller to shortstop, Jeter's speed, agility and reaction time will be a hot topic. If a ball is rocketed up the middle, his range will be tested. If he runs without a limp or hitch in his step, media members will envision a healthy Jeter atop the Yankees lineup.
Thursday afternoon is one game in a long, arduous grind. For Jeter, it carries more meaning than in almost any other year.
Dodgers-Diamondbacks Rivalry Renewed
Between the Cactus League and regular season, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks will play each other over 20 times this year.
If the NL West rivalry is as explosive as it was during the 2013 campaign, expect fireworks early and often. That includes spring training games and a season-opening series in Australia.
Last summer, the Diamondbacks, led by former Dodgers legend Kirk Gibson, took exception to the personality and flair displayed by Los Angeles during their summer-long romp over the division. When Los Angeles clinched the NL West division title in Arizona—punctuated by a swim in the Diamondbacks' outfield pool—the stage was set for 2014.
When Dodgers manager Don Mattingly addressed his team at the outset of camp, his message could have been aimed straight at the Diamondbacks, per Andy Martino of the New York Daily News.
"We’re going to have fun, and if people don’t like it, that’s their problem.”
Rivalries have changed over the years, cooling due to increased camaraderie between players and free agency bringing rosters closer together.
That doesn't seem to apply in Los Angeles or Arizona. For the next seven or eight months, get ready for a steady dose of rivalry talk between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks.
On Wednesday afternoon, the two teams begin to settle it on the field in Scottsdale, Ariz.
What are you most looking forward to during the first week of exhibition games?