TAMPA, Fla. — Pass the sunscreen, it's getting hot here amid the palm trees...
1. The "Rebuild" Begins in New York
Not only is it the most mind-warping number of the winter, but guaranteed you will not find a statistic this summer that trumps it (sorry, meant that apolitically), either.
The Yankees spent zero dollars in free agency.
So while former Yankee hero Paul O'Neill spent his time supporting Donald Trump at an election night shindig last week in Jupiter, Florida, maybe you spent some time wondering when general manager Brian Cashman is going to make the Yankees great again.
Answer: Possibly this year, according to several of those wearing pinstripes.
"Aroldis Chapman the last two or three years was one of the highest-paid relievers in baseball," Yankees bullpen ace Andrew Miller tells Bleacher Report. "That's not exactly free."
Neither is Chapman, who will begin the season serving a 30-game suspension under MLB's domestic violence policy.
But in adding the former Cincinnati closer, who will earn $11.325 million this year (minus what he's docked for those 30 days) and second baseman Starlin Castro, who is guaranteed $38 million through 2020, the Yankees added two impact players, got younger and kick-started the closest thing to a rebuilding, or retooling, process you'll probably ever see in the Bronx.
"I don't think there's any rebuilding or retooling with the Yankees," Miller says. "You'd be wrong if you think anybody in this clubhouse has anything to do with that.
"It was a bittersweet feeling last year, the one-game playoff."
Blink and you missed the Yankees in the "postseason" last October, as Houston's Dallas Keuchel fired six scoreless innings and the Astros won 3-0.
Then came the winter of no David Price, no Yoenis Cespedes and no Zack Greinke.
"I think it's one of those things where they do what makes sense for this team," outfielder Brett Gardner says. "Guys on the big board made no sense.
"Starlin is 25, he's already played in three All-Star Games, the kid has a lot of talent."
As Gardner also points out, Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran, a couple of heavyweights, are already taking Castro under their wing and teaching him a few things. To Gardner, Castro is reminiscent of another player whom the outfielder was a big fan of, former Yankee Alfonso Soriano.
"I'm really, really excited about him, and Chapman speaks for himself," Gardner says. "There's only one person in the world who throws 105 mph left-handed, and he's the man."
The Yankees last year ranked second in the American League in runs scored, and this year's lineup should be similar. Mark Teixeira's health is vital with Greg Bird already having been lost for the season.
The key, of course, is pitching. But when Chapman returns, with him, Miller and Dellin Betances lurking, the Yankees don't need more innings than Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia can realistically give them.
"I think Aaron Hicks is going to help us out, too," third baseman Chase Headley says. "Even though he's a fourth outfielder, if someone goes down...
"The Yankees didn't spend, but we certainly improved."
How much? We're about to find out.
2. Easy Lies the Crown
Everybody wears rose-colored sunglasses at this time of year, and it's always best to take the happy talk with a grain of salt (preferably, that grain of salt should come on a margarita glass in these warm and carefree spring training days).
But when you're talking the defending champion Kansas City Royals, who, as manager Ned Yost reminds, came within 90 feet two years ago of entering this spring with back-to-back world championships, the optimism is warranted.
There is no reason the core group of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Salvador Perez, Alcides Escobar and Co. cannot continue improving, Yost says.
"They've gotten better and better every year, and none of them have reached their ceilings yet even though it's been a few years," Yost says. "It's such a special group. They like to have fun, but they know when to get after it.
"They know when to get after it better than any group I've ever had."
Cain finished third in AL MVP voting last year, hitting .307/.361/.477 with 16 homers, 72 RBI and 28 thefts. Somehow, he's yet to win a Gold Glove, but that's only a matter of time. Everyone knows he's as good as it gets in center field.
How high is Cain's ceiling?
"It's very high," Yost quips. "You might need a pair of binoculars to see it."
3. It's One of Those Years in San Francisco
It's cute and all (and, frankly, more than a little tired, as Bryce Harper might say), this thing about the Giants winning only in even years.
Fact is I could cite Hunter Pence alone and make a case that every year is an odd year in San Francisco (he wrote lovingly).
Whatever year it is, one enormous key this summer in San Francisco is free-agent starter Jeff Samardzija's return to form. The right-hander was delivered on a five-year, $90 million deal and is looking to re-establish himself following a rough season in 2015 that saw him go 11-13 with a 4.96 ERA for the Chicago White Sox.
"Every year is a new year," he says. "As a baseball player, you don't look in the past much unless you're looking at film."
In that regard, he might especially want to stay away from last August and September. After the Sox elected not to trade him to a contender last July, Samardzija answered by going 1-8 with a 9.24 ERA over his next nine starts.
"It didn't end up numbers-wise the way I wanted," he says, though he notes that he did throw 214 innings.
"The most frustrating thing last year was giving up a bunch of early runs and putting my team in too much of a hole to come back," Samardzija says.
He denies that his impending free agency affected him, noting that to go out and try to find an extra gear in a given start "is ridiculous because usually there's nothing more to find; you're leaving it all out on the field."
The prediction here is that Dave Righetti, San Francisco's sensational pitching coach, will help Samardzija find both his old self and perhaps some new ground that he hasn't yet been able to traverse in his career.
"Rags has been awesome," he says. "We're taking our time with each other. He's got two new guys [Samardzija and Johnny Cueto] and we're trying to get to know each other. He's been great sort of standing back and evaluating as we go.
"You've got to have a foundation first."
4. High Hopes in the Desert
We all know that recent history shows that teams winning the winter don't exactly win the summer. Arizona is the next team up taking aim at changing that.
Zack Greinke made his third start of the spring Monday, Shelby Miller is expected to team with him to give the D-backs a strong one-two punch, and starter Robbie Ray has been outstanding so far.
Meantime, a couple of young outfielders, Socrates Brito and Peter O'Brien, are pushing Yasmany Tomas hard for an outfield spot.
"The last four days, I'd say Peter has really blossomed in front of us," Arizona manager Chip Hale says. And with Brito and Tomas, "we're going to have a whole lot of decisions to make in the outfield."
As we know, teams that look sexy on paper at this time of year are not automatic winners in the summer. But beyond Greinke, Miller, Paul Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock and more, Arizona's depth is what is most impressive. Right now, Chris Owings is projected to start at second, with Nick Ahmed and Jean Segura battling for the shortstop job, but Owings can slide over to short if need be, too.
"I think we have three shortstops on this team who are above-average major league shortstops," Hale says. "Owings, Segura, and Nick is a difference-maker."
Says starter Archie Bradley: "From a team aspect, it's awesome. You can feel the excitement in this club. Even in spring training games, there's a different feeling."
5. When Catchers Run Hard
In Cleveland's camp, manager Terry Francona was raving about catcher Yan Gomes—not for a home run he hit the other day, but for nearly beating out a ground ball to shortstop.
"This is our catcher, and he runs like his pants are on fire," Francona says. "If you're ever going to give someone a pass [for not running hard], it would be your catcher.
"The way you run the bases sets a tone for how you play the game. Jason Kipnis is another one. You want it and expect it, and when it happens it's really good. And it's going to help us win a game. [Gomes] will run a guy into an error one day."
6. Weekly Power Rankings
1. Bryce Harper and sleepy baseball: Tired sport needs more virtuoso individual performances with flair, says the Nationals outfielder. Old-timers rush to take their blood pressure medication.
2. Goose Gossage and old fire: After ripping Toronto outfielder Jose Bautista for the bat flip and Harper for being young and brash, the Yankees call the Hall of Famer into the principal's office and threaten to enroll him in an etiquette class.
3. NCAA brackets: The most important moment of my school years might have been junior year of high school, when Brother Ronald LaLonde, yearbook moderator, ran an NCAA bracket pool. Talk about education opening up an entirely new world. Upset special!
4. Matt Harvey's crazy velocity: His fastball was clocked at 97 mph in Port St. Lucie, Florida, the other day. Then, the stadium scoreboard clocked another fastball at 47. Conventional wisdom has a pitcher needing at least a 10 mph difference between his fastball and changeup to screw with a hitter's timing, but that's a little extreme, isn't it? Or, maybe, ahem, the scoreboard is tired.
5. St. Patrick's Day: In one of spring's most charming traditions, green caps and bases are on deck. As opposed to the green rookies, who are beginning to be shipped back to minor league camps throughout the game.
7. Gray Is Good
Speaking at a Society for American Baseball Research Analytics Conference in Phoenix over the weekend, new Los Angeles Angels general manager Billy Eppler absolutely nailed it when discussing the analytics/scouting divide.
In fact, he spoke in Bryce Harper terms that everyone can understand.
"The analytics vs. scouting thing, it's so tired," Eppler said, per Pedro Moura of the Los Angeles Times. "It's so East Coast-West Coast rap. Uncle. Uncle, you know what I mean?
"It's almost like you have to be Republican or Democrat. Are you East Coast rap or West Coast? Are you for stats or are you for scouting? I don't know. Can I really be in between? Because I am.
"It's only black and white. Nobody wants gray, but gray's the best. That's what makes this game great. There is no absolute."
• Outfielder Jon Jay is bringing a little bit of that famous St. Louis Cardinals culture with him to San Diego. "His leadership qualities are off the charts," new Padres manager Andy Green says. "Him and Manny Margot [the big outfield prospect San Diego acquired from Boston in the Craig Kimbrel trade] are joined at the hip."
• Todd Frazier on his years with the Reds: "I had a blast in Cincinnati, but that time is over. It's a new chapter in my life. I'm looking forward to it, man. I've been in Chicago when we played the Cubs, it's exciting."
• White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton says he is as strong as he's ever been, though he lost some muscle mass in his back following nerve compression surgery in his left shoulder. The muscle is expected to regenerate in 12 to 16 months. "You look at my back and I have a huge dent in it," he says.
• Yes, you can credit (or blame, depending on how things turn out) in part Jon Lester for delivering free-agent starter John Lackey to the Cubs. "It definitely was a big factor," Lackey says of his old Boston buddy. "He was texting me this winter, recruiting me. It definitely had a bearing."
• Padres bench coach Mark McGwire returned Monday after missing most of camp to tend to his ill wife in Southern California. San Diego has not said what's ailing Stephanie McGwire.
9. Put Me In, Coach
No, No. 81 for the Cubs doesn't stand a chance to make the team, so any fantasy players who might have been in attendance Saturday at the Cubs-White Sox, settle down.
But if he was evaluated on enthusiasm alone, the man wearing the high-numbered Cubs uniform could become the team's cleanup hitter.
Mark Stein is his name, and he is the longtime manager for Max Weinberg, Bruce Springsteen's drummer in the E Street Band. The seeds for his day in uniform actually started a couple of days earlier, when the Chicago resident and Cubs fan reached out to manager Joe Maddon and invited him to last Thursday night's Phoenix concert as a special guest.
Maddon and his wife, Jaye, not only went to the show, but they went early and met Weinberg backstage, and even had their picture taken on stage at his drum kit (yes, very early, way before the show).
"It was great. They played for three-and-a-half hours, high energy, without even taking a break. Phenomenal," says Maddon, who is a longtime Springsteen fan and, in return, invited Stein to spend a day at Cubs camp.
Though he didn't get any action, Stein did get to take some dry swings in the batting cage just after the Cubs left the field. Maybe positioning himself to be a September call-up?
9a. Rock 'n' Roll Lyric of the Week
Jake Peavy's Hero Jam, designed to "celebrate the service and honor of our U.S. military personnel," was a rockin' good time at Live Wire in Scottsdale on Sunday night. Proceeds went to the United Service Organizations' Transition 360 Alliance, and Peavy was backed by a band of crack musicians, including Doug Pettibone, longtime guitarist for Lucinda Williams; Jimmy Hall, former lead singer of Wet Willie ("Keep on Smilin'"); and Coy Bowles, guitarist for the Zac Brown Band. Peter Gammons, the legendary baseball writer, even joined them on stage to play guitar and sing one song. Nice set list, too, including Peavy taking the vocals on this gem...
"Now me and my mate were back at the shack, we had Spike Jones on the box
"She said, 'I can't take the way he sings, but I love to hear him talk'
"Now that just gave my heart a throb, to the bottom of my feet
"And I swore as I took another pull, my Bessie can't be beat
"Up on Cripple Creek she sends me
"If I spring a leak she mends me
"I don't have to speak, she defends me
"A drunkard's dream if I ever did see one"
— The Band, Up On Cripple Creek
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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