Winter, at least in baseball circles, is over. Spring is here. It's time to turn our attention to the fields of Arizona and Florida, where the boys prepare for their upcoming summer.
The sights never get old: endless blue sky lit up by sunshine and legions of ballplayers marching about their work in clean uniforms on the wet, fresh grass of morning. The sounds don't get old, either: the sweet slap of horsehide to leather, the crisp crack of wood to ball, sending echoes bouncing off the bleachers, laughter in the outfield, in the dugout, in the clubhouse and just about everywhere else.
"You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming." -- Pablo Neruda
It's inevitable, this time of year, but we greet it with the same joy each February. And for the 30 Major League teams who are embarking on an extended spring because of the necessary added time to prepare for the World Baseball Classic, there will be clear agendas. The San Francisco Giants, after all, are readying themselves for a World Series title defense. It didn't go so well for them when they tried to repeat after winning it all in 2010, but it turns out they merely needed a year to regroup before doing it again. What will 2013 bring?
Well, the champs are fielding a club that looks very similar to that of last year's winner. Once again, they'll count on a superior pitching staff and a resilient lineup and bench to get it done while making sure to take nothing for granted.
"Your success is never final," manager Bruce Bochy said. "We know we have to move on and go to work."
"Spring work is going on with joyful enthusiasm." -- John Muir
Who could be more enthusiastic than teams that came oh-so-close last year but couldn't quite get the big hit or the huge out they needed and fell short in the postseason?
That's where the 2012 American League champion Detroit Tigers, National League runner-up St. Louis Cardinals, venerable New York Yankees and Cincinnati Reds, upstart Oakland A's and Baltimore Orioles, and perennial players Texas Rangers and Atlanta Braves come in. They have the pieces in place to shine and have all made roster renovations -- some more than others -- this winter in hopes of making their next October just a little longer than their last one.
The Braves might have made the most noise of last year's postseason qualifiers, solidifying their outfield and clubhouse by adding both Upton brothers. B.J. came via free agency and Justin arrived in a much-publicized trade. Atlanta is loaded now and understandably pumped.
"I'm really excited about the team," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I'm more excited than I've ever been about a team going to Spring Training."
"Spring is the time of plans and projects." -- Leo Tolstoy
For the first time in Major League history, 10 teams made it to postseason play in 2012. This will happen again in 2013. So, as always, a batting average of .333 is an excellent one, although 20 teams will once again find themselves packing up for the winter when October arrives.
That's not good enough, so organizations are trying out some new things this year. We'll start seeing those efforts today.
The Angels, for example, signed Josh Hamilton for five years and have beefed up a lineup that already included Mike Trout and Albert Pujols. The Dodgers, surging with new ownership and a huge TV deal, signed Zack Greinke and Korean import Hyun-Jin Ryu to add to a stacked roster that already includes Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and more. And what didn't the Blue Jays do? They traded for R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio. They signed Melky Cabrera. They're being picked by plenty of pundits to win the AL East before playing a single game together.
"We've certainly added a lot of talent, we've spent a lot of money, but we have to show respect to the other teams, the other organizations," Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. "We haven't done anything yet. We like our chances, we like the talent, but there is still a lot of work to do."
The same can be said for the Tampa Bay Rays, Chicago White Sox and Philadelphia Phillies, who missed out on the playoffs last year but have talent in place to turn that around in 2013. The Rays still have a dynamic young rotation and added a top offensive prospect in outfielder Wil Myers, the key piece in the trade that saw them part with longtime ace James Shields. It will be intriguing to see how long it takes for Myers to reach the Majors.
The White Sox shored up their lineup by signing Jeff Keppinger, re-signed Jake Peavy to head up a strong starting pitching staff and added veteran reliever Matt Lindstrom to the bullpen. The Phillies opted for change all over the board, adding outfielders Ben Revere and Delmon Young, veteran infielder Michael Young, starter John Lannan and relievers Mike Adams and Chad Durbin. They will hope for rebounds to championship form from ace Roy Halladay, first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley and catcher Carlos Ruiz, all of whom were either banged up or underperformed in 2012.
"I think at the beginning of every season, there is a certain amount of positive energy that helps bring a team together," Phils outfielder John Mayberry said. "Sometimes being in new surroundings can be a spark for a player or a team. I'm looking forward to working with those guys and winning some ballgames."
"The day the Lord created hope was probably the same day he created Spring." -- Bern Williams
Yes, it's true. Every team is undefeated right now. Every player is in the best shape of his life. They all take to the field with visions of future World Series titles. In other words, even the teams who struggled last year and aren't expected to contend in 2013 have reasons to believe that won't be the case.
The Red Sox continued to overhaul their roster and brought aboard a new manager, John Farrell. The Mets have potent young starters surging up the ranks fast. The Mariners focused on offense in the winter and still have ace Felix Hernandez running the show. The Astros are hard at work building an organization from top to bottom, and they head into a new league (AL) and division (West).
The Pirates got close to winning records in 2011 and '12 and have made themselves stronger in an attempt to get over that hump this time around. The Brewers lost starters Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Randy Wolf from their rotation and are going young with their pitching. The Cubs are rebuilding the right way and made a few low-key winter moves (Scott Baker, Carlos Villanueva, Scott Feldman) that could pay off in a big way.
The Royals were bold over the winter, trading for Shields to get deeper. The D-backs tried to do the same by trading Justin Upton, and the Indians brought in manager Terry Francona, high-priced outfielders Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, live young arm Trevor Bauer and made a slew of smaller deals. The Padres will try to build off a strong finish to 2013 for manager Bud Black. The Twins, Marlins and Rockies are counting on their development system to pay off now.
"It is spring again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart." -- Rainer Maria Rilke
We couldn't have said it any better.