Strike One -- Jays On Fire Dept.
After four weeks of playing baseball under the Florida sun, the Toronto Blue Jays are 23-5.
Roll that number around your brain for a moment 23 and 5?
It may feel normal for the North Carolina Tar Heels to go 23-5. But it sure isn't normal for any baseball team to be 23-5.
The Elias Sports Bureau reports that the Blue Jays are the first team to win 23 of its first 28 spring training games in 15 years, since Jim Leyland's 1997 Marlins did it. And you know where they ended up.
Now I'm not ready to predict that the 2012 Blue Jays are going to follow that script and win the World Series. But I've seen this team a lot this spring. And this is not just some palm-tree-land aberration.
Scouts and executives around Florida continue to buzz about how this is one of the best lineups in baseball, from top to bottom. Heck, a guy who had an .859 OPS two years ago (Colby Rasmus) is probably going to hit ninth.
This team also has made massive upgrades to a bullpen that tied for the league lead in blown saves (25) last year and had the worst save-conversion rate (57 percent) of any team in baseball, with the exception of the bullpen-challenged Astros.
But beyond that, this is now a team with an attitude -- a group that truly believes it's bound for something bigger, something better. And as Omar Vizquel told me Saturday, it hasn't just played all spring with tremendous energy, it's gone through every drill, from the first day of spring training, with that same energy.
"And it's carried over to the games," Vizquel said. "You can see it."
It's a rough, tough division. I know that. But I wonder about the Rays' offense, and their catching and shortstop issues. And I'm not sure where the Red Sox are right now on many levels. So I'm ready to predict the Blue Jays are going to shock the world and make the playoffs, as the second wild card, for the first time since Joe Carter's home run returned to Earth 19 years ago.
So what does this spring record mean, if anything? It might mean more than you think.
Over the past 20 years, only two other teams have won more than 75 percent of their spring training games, according to Elias. They both went on to have memorable years.
One was those '97 Marlins. They went 26-5 (.839) in the spring, then won 92 games that season and won the World Series.
The other was the 2009 Angels. Their spring record: 26-8 (.765). They then went out and won 97 games for only the third time in the history of the franchise, and swept the Red Sox in October.
Now past performance -- especially in spring training -- is never a guarantee of future success. But it shouldn't be ignored, either. So I'm just warning you now:
Don't ignore the OTHER team in the AL East. If you do, you'll be making a gigantic mistake.
Strike Two -- Luxury Lane Dept.
Cole Hamels set off a mess of confusion the other day when he told a media throng in the Phillies' camp that the Phillies might be waiting until after Opening Day to sign him mostly so they could avoid the luxury-tax implications.
Sounded good at the time. But as it turned out, it's a good thing this guy pitches for a living, because interpreting labor rules in his spare time isn't working out so hot.
Hamels actually would have been right about this if he'd made this statement last spring. You probably recall -- and so does he -- that the Red Sox and Adrian Gonzalez stalled until after the opener to announce his seven-year extension. But that was because the rules were different then.
The rule now goes like this, according to sources familiar with the new labor agreement:
• If Hamels signs a long-term deal before Opening Day 2012 and his $15 million salary for 2012 doesn't change, he and his team would have the right to choose whether they want the luxury-tax computations to begin with his 2012 salary or with the rest of the extension, beginning in 2013.
• If he signs an extension at any point during the season, the luxury-tax stuff automatically kicks in starting in 2013.
But the moral of the story is, it doesn't matter when he signs. The Phillies can put off the luxury-tax pain until next year if they were to get a deal done this weekend, next weekend or on Labor Day weekend.
Now that we've got that out of the way, though, here's the important part: It all appears to be a moot point, anyway. There are no indications the Phillies are close to a deal with Hamels in the first place, despite some suggestions in recent days that they're making headway.
Strike Three -- Don't Mess With Miguel Cabrera
It's almost two weeks now since a bad-hop ground ball clanked off Miguel Cabrera's face at third base and left him looking as if he'd just gone 10 rounds with Wladimir Klitschko.
I've heard people speculate quite a bit since then that Cabrera would be so scarred by that experience, in more ways than one, that he might find himself ducking out of the way of every rocket that comes speedballing its way toward him at third base.
But Cabrera's friends and teammates don't think so. And after speaking with him last week, neither do I.
I asked him at one point if he'd watched the replay of the ball that hit him. I expected him to say no, that he had no interest. But that isn't what he said. And the answer should tell us all something about him.
Oh, yeah, he said. He's watched that replay "a lot."
"I want to see if I do something wrong or something that could help me to get better," he went on, "or help me so that this no happen again."
And when he watched it, he decided there was "nothing I can do on that ball," he reported. "I was in good position. I do everything right. And then the next second, the ball is in my eyes."
We're talking about a guy, remember, who was signed as a shortstop, played more than 400 games at third in the big leagues and hasn't exactly been on vacation in Maui the last four years. He's been playing first base. Every day. In the same uniform.
He reminded us, too, that he's been conked before by many a ground ball. In the teeth. In the nose. In the chin. In the neck. And he's always come back for more.
So he has no plans, he said, to position himself differently or do anything different The Next Time.
"No," he said, emphatically. "Just go play."
And when Cabrera just goes out and plays, he's one of the best, and most underappreciated, players alive. Just ask a guy who knows a big-time player when he sees one.
"When a guy like that agrees to move to third base, it's a big deal," said the great Al Kaline. "When other players look at that guy, the best player in the American League, and they see he's willing to do that to help the team, they say, 'What can I do?' That's the ultimate team player, when you're a great player and you'll happily say, 'Sure, I'll do that for the team.' When I heard that, I said, 'I'd like to play with a guy like that.'"
Look, I understand Cabrera won't have to worry about saving any space in his memorabilia room for his Gold Glove award at third. But want to know why this fellow is my MVP pick for this year? I think Kaline just summed it up.