(Kim Klement/USA Today)
*This column was originally published in The Inkwell, and on its website.
Rejoice, baseball fans. If you’ve had enough of ice dancing and curling for the time being, put a smile on your face, because baseball is back.
Spring training is about rookies and the veterans trying to take one more crack at the game. It’s about position battles and hearing how a player is in “the best shape of his life.” Most of all, spring training is about plenty of questions and finding the answers.
The Atlanta Braves have answered questions on their future with the long-term signings of Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Julio Teheran.
Freeman, Atlanta’s 24-year-old first baseman, signed the largest contract in team history over the offseason. He broke Chipper Jones’ franchise record by signing an eight-year, $135 million deal. In 2013, Freeman made his first All-Star team, and ended the season hitting .319 with 23 home runs, 109 RBIs and 89 runs scored in 147 games played. Freeman has improved each year since he entered the league in 2010, and especially excels with runners in scoring position.
Kimbrel, 25, is a near lock to closeout a win for the Braves almost every time he toes the rubber. Over the last three years, Kimbrel leads all of baseball with 138 saves. His numbers stack him up with the best pitchers – starter or reliever – in baseball over the same span. Kimbrel leads baseball in WHIP, ERA, Opponent Batting Average and strikeouts per nine innings pitched. Atlanta awarded the All-Star with a four-year, $42 million contract with a $13 million option in 2018.
Teheran, 23, is the third young Brave to be locked-up for the future. The right-handed starting pitcher was signed to a six-year, $32.4 million deal. There is a $12 million option for a seventh year. Last season was Teheran’s first full season in the majors, and he went 14-8 with a 3.20 ERA over 185 2/3 innings pitched.
One of the biggest questions after a major spending spree while losing their best player to the Seattle Mariners is if the New York Yankees are back. Mark Teixeira says “we’re back to being the Yankees,” on the Bronx Bombers adding center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, right fielder/DH Carlos Beltran and catcher Brian McCann to New York’s offense.
Adding three left-handed bats – Beltran is a switch hitter – that have major power potential seems to project perfectly for the short-porch of right field in New York. Ellsbury also adds a serious speed threat on the bases that the Yankees desperately need.
The new face of pitching for the Yankees is a 25-year-old Japanese ace, Masahiro Tanaka. After going 24-0 for the Rakuten Golden Eagles of Japan with a 1.27 ERA in 2013, the Yankees signed Tanaka to a five-year, $155 million contract. The last time Yankees signed a supposed star pitcher from Japan, they floundered terribly with Kei Igawa being a bigger joke than Shia LaBeouf’s honesty.
The biggest question for the Yankees this year may be how Derek Jeter will top Mariano Rivera’s farewell tour.
Teams can never have too much talent, but when you have four stars and only three spots, there is a problem full of controversy. The Los Angeles Dodgers have this problem with an outfield of Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig.
Crawford is still under his $142 million dollar contract that runs through 2017, and turns 33 this season. He has dealt with injury-plagued seasons in recent years, though he had a solid season last year, hitting .283 in 116 games during his first season with the Dodgers. Ethier is also signed through 2017 for $95.95 million, but his numbers dipped in 2013. He only hit 12 home runs and had a career-low .272 batting average. The two biggest stars in the outfield are Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig. They also happen to be the biggest question marks.
Kemp, the NL MVP runner-up in 2011, missed significant time due to injuries the last two seasons. He only played in 73 games last season and missed the entire playoffs. Still he can’t participate in spring training games due to an ankle surgery in the offseason. When healthy, Kemp is one of the true five-tool players in baseball, but his constant injuries and huge $160 million contract through 2019 will have people rumbling during spring training.
Puig is a wreckless driving, power hitting, crowd-pumping, rocket-armed star sculpted from the Cuban baseball gods. But, will his monstrous numbers last or will teams figure out the free-swinging 23-year-old? The Dodgers signed Puig out of Cuba for seven years and $42 million in 2012 and he did not disappoint in his first year of playing in the big leagues. In 104 games played, Puig hit .319 with 19 home runs last season.
So, who’s the odd man out?
Every year at spring training a young star emerges. Remember when Jason Heyward made his name by hitting moon shots in 2010? Last year Jose Fernandez emerged and went on to win the NL Rookie of the Year. Even with a stocked rotation, Archie Bradley could emerge as the next young star for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Oscar Taveras finds himself in a St. Louis Cardinals outfield that seems to be full, but he may be the last piece to the Cardinals reaching the World Series again.
The games don’t count yet, and some stars still don’t have a home, but spring training means baseball is back. What more can you ask for?