Did you ever drive your parents car as a child? Not actually “driving,” just sitting in their lap as they pulled the car into the garage? You can’t even reach the pedals, but just having your hands on the wheel, sitting where real drivers sit, is exhilarating.
Then it’s over. You climb out of the car, reminded that it wasn’t really you making it move. It’s just a taste of what it must be like to be a grownup, but also a reminder that you’re not there yet. There are still years in front of you before you can really— finally!— take control of the car completely.
Such is Spring Training baseball. It’s not REAL baseball, but you’re in the driver’s seat all the same, pretending that this really matters. Someday soon, the regular season will come and the games will mean something, but it seems like it takes FOREVER to get there.
All the same, there are some things worth rooting for, even in the spring. Wins aren’t among them. Do you remember which team had the best record in Spring Training last year? Well okay, it was Boston followed by Houston, so sometimes good teams do win meaningless games too. However, Baltimore and San Diego both finished five games over .500! If there were Grapefruit and Cactus League playoffs (perish the thought), both would have participated.
Since wins and losses don’t matter in Spring Training, what does? What’s worth our interest in late February and March?
Transactions are always fun because someone new is coming to your team. New players are alluring, and we almost always see them in the best light. Depending on how closely you follow baseball as a whole, you may well be familiar with the new guy already. Now that he’s one of YOUR guys, you take a closer look. You dig deeper into his Baseball-Reference page (or FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball, maybe all of of the above) and find out why he’s not only better than you realized before, but will have his best year ever on your favorite team. Guaranteed.
It used to be that most Spring Training transactions were trades, probably not involving high-level talent. This is no longer the case, as much of free agency still hasn’t happened yet. Since November, every notification on your phone might have been Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Dallas Keuchel, or Craig Kimbrel signing... somewhere. Hundreds of times, you’ve been disappointed, but this only means we’re closer to the notification you’ve been waiting for!
Sometimes, the best transactions are teams keeping the players they have. This is a popular time of year for players to sign extensions, as Luis Severino and Aaron Nola have just demonstrated. Jacob deGrom set Opening Day as a deadline for extension talks. Nolan Arenado is an extension candidate as well. If not, he’ll be next year’s Machado.
Prospects and Fringe Guys
There’s no point in watching Mike Trout in Spring Training, other than to marvel at his excellence. Same goes for Max Scherzer, Mookie Betts, or any other superstar. Their time is the regular season, and possibly October (not for Trout). For players, Spring Training is about proving one’s self, and the biggest names have nothing to prove.
The players worth your attention probably won’t make the 25-man roster— at least not right away. It’s all about the guys you’ve read about on a top prospect list. Unless you go to a lot of minor league games (highly recommend, by the way), you won’t get to see Fernando Tatis, Jr. and Forrest Whitley until the big clubs deem them ready. Spring Training is the best chance you’ll have for a while to glimpse into the future. Furthermore, you can measure them up against big league competition, or at least other players wearing big league uniforms at the moment.
In addition to the prospects, every team has at least one or two roster battles. Now, this isn’t about who’s going to bat cleanup or take the mound on Opening Day. Anyone in that conversation already has a big league job anyway. Backing up these guys— the utility infielder, second lefty reliever, and fifth starter— the roles might be uncertain. These are important spots on every team, and often they are decided upon in Spring Training.
There is nothing more boring than rooting for health, yet here we are because of its importance. Every baseball action has the potential for damage. Every step can sprain an ankle, every swing can pull a muscle, and every pitch can tear a ligament. One of your favorite players will get hurt this spring. He won’t even be doing something that matters, because these games don’t matter. Nevertheless, he’ll be absent for an undefined period of time that extends into the regular season.
This will happen. It does every year. The best we can hope for is minimal damage and a quick recovery. Maybe this isn’t rooting for health as much as it is rooting against injuries. That’s more hopeless even than rooting for the Orioles.
I happen to be a fan of the Yankees, for whom John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman call the games on radio. Objectively, they aren’t highly rated. FanGraph’s Carson Cistulli (...sob...) ranked 62 broadcast teams in 2016, with Sterling and Waldman finishing 61st.
However, announcing isn’t objective at all. I have my own personal complaints with Sterling and Waldman, but the first time I hear, “Swung on, and THERE IT GOES TO DEEP LEFT FIELD! It is high! It is far! It is GONE!!! Giancarlo, non si può stoparlo!” I can’t help but smile. It’s a dumb call; it’s nauseatingly kitschy and doesn’t even make sense. But it means the Yankees are playing baseball again, and that sure feels good.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983