Spring training is a strange phenomenon it never seems to end. Baseball is the ultimate endurance test a month of games to get prepared for six months of games to decide which teams get to play another month worth of games. Because of that, the ultimate baseball handicapping survival tip is to relax and not overvalue anything. Baseball reality as you know it is going to completely reinvent itself over the course of the season. That being said, it only makes sense that we pay some attention to what is going on in Florida and Arizona to see what impact it may have on the season. Here are eight things we have learned so far that could be useful once the season gets under way:
1) The Nationals are really, really bad. It’s possible, in fact, that they will be historically bad. All that you need to know about the team is that John Patterson is their No. 1 starter. Who’s John Patterson? That’s exactly the problem. You would have to be a long-time scout to know a lot about the pitching staff, or the bench players for that matter. There is no bench depth, and the starters don’t need to worry about polishing up their induction speeches for Cooperstown. If you find yourself in a betting slump at some point this year, chances are pretty good you can break it by betting against the Nats.
2) Justin Verlander may be hitting a sophomore slump. Verlander was absolutely brilliant last year, but whatever magic he captured has escaped so far this spring. He’s made five spring appearances, and he has an ugly ERA of 8.31. The scariest part is that he doesn’t know what is wrong. If the problem was obvious then he’d fix it and everything would be okay again. He doesn’t know, he seems to be frustrated and maybe panicking a bit, and that’s not good news for Detroit.
3) Wood and Prior are hopeless causes. I watched a Cubs spring training game in Phoenix a couple of weeks ago. Mark Prior started. He was terrible. Kerry Wood came in for an inning of relief and he was brilliant. Since then, though, Wood has regressed and Prior hasn’t improved. Thanks to injuries and mental issues, neither pitcher is poised to be a factor for the Cubs at the start of the season. It’s comforting, I guess, that some things never seem to change.
4) It’s all Dice-K, all the time. Never has a pitcher come into his first season more hyped than Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka. If you’re not sick of hearing about him already, you will be soon. It’s hard to know how he will adapt to American baseball, but one thing you can be certain of is that public bettors will overvalue him in his first few starts. His spring appearances haven’t given us much of a clue about what the future has in store he was brilliant in his last start against Pittsburgh, but less than stellar in the start before that against the Dodgers.
5) Something’s brewing in Texas. It’s been a while since Rangers’ fans have had anything to get excited about. It’s not like they should be planning a victory parade, but things are going well so far for Texas. The pitching is going well, Eric Gagne is healthy and throwing in games and the bats are working. Spring training records mean virtually nothing, but the Rangers have the best record in Arizona. If nothing else, a team with Kenny Lofton and Sammy Sosa on the roster will be interesting to watch.
6) Clemens is coming back. Roger hasn’t made an announcement yet, and he likely won’t for weeks or months, but you can pretty much rest assured that he’s coming back. He’s been spending more time at Astros’ training camp than he did when he was playing for them. He’s been throwing batting practice and helping his son as much as he can. He’s been giving interviews and making comments, and his representatives have been more vocal than usual. In other words, the Yankees, Red Sox or Astros are going to get a mid-season pitching boost.
7) Chipper Jones is sore again. Jones missed 27 games last season during two trips to the DL with the same injury, a strained left oblique. Though he’s 35 and increasingly fragile, Jones is still a crucial part of whatever success the Braves will have this year. It has to cause concern, then, that he has missed four games with a muscle problem on his right side. Though this injury by itself likely won’t amount to much, it could be a precursor to a real problem if he can’t stay healthy.
8) Yankees pitching still tenuous. The biggest question the evil empire faced last year was their lack of dominant starting pitching. That hasn’t changed substantially in the offseason. One change is that Carl Pavano, an all-star head case, will be back and ready to contribute after missing last year. The biggest difference is that Andy Pettitte has been brought back to anchor the staff, and the team needs him to be at his best. It has to scare George Steinbrenner to death, then, that Pettitte is struggling with back spasms and is going to miss at least one start.