Commentary

Ready to spring into action

A look at the top storylines, best/worst signings, most/least improved, players to watch

Updated: February 17, 2012, 6:54 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- No more mystery teams. No more posting fees. No more free agents jetting into Miami for a tour of the gleaming new Ballpark That Ozzie Guillen Didn't Build But Will Definitely Tweet In.

No more surprise quizzes on the proper spelling of C-E-S-P-E-D-E-S. No more waking up in the middle of the night to ask your wife: "Is it true that Pat Burrell retired?"

In other words, that's all, folks. No more winter. Well, no more baseball winter, anyway. If you live in about 44 of our 50 favorite states, we can't help you drum the wind-chill factor out of your lives quite yet. But we CAN help you feel a whole lot warmer inside by uttering these two magic words:

Spring training.

Yep, it's here, all right. So before we all stampede through the gates of Salt River Fields, the Ballpark at Camelback Ranch and the exotic Cecil P. Englebert Complex, it's time once again to gaze over the horizon at the stories you'll be following this spring, with the help of 20 brilliant baseball men who took part in our annual spring-preview survey:

Most Intriguing American League Spring Stories

Tigers

1. The Prince and Miggy Show: You can never have too many game-changing, middle-of-the-order mashers hanging around one lineup card. So if the Detroit Tigers want to unite Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in the same batting order, hey, that's the part of the Tigers' 2012 blueprint that everybody gets. But if both of them happen to be first basemen who are well down the road to DH-hood, uhhhh, that's the part the Tigers are going to need to prove to the skeptical masses this spring. Can Cabrera really do a half-decent Aurelio Rodriguez impression? Can an infield consisting of all below-average defenders really hit enough to carry an otherwise imposing roster to greatness? And if not, can Justin Verlander just compensate by averaging, say, 22 strikeouts per nine innings? We'll start finding out any minute now, right there on the same infield at Joker Marchant Stadium where Alan Trammell and Sweet Lou Whitaker once worked their magic.

Bobby Valentine
Valentine

2. The Bobby Sox Brigade: Why is it that we just can't wait to see what life has in store for Bobby Valentine's 2012 Red Sox? Is it because we're fascinated to see how Bobby V's act will play in Boston? Is it because we're still trying to decide whether to sell all our stock in KFC and Chick-fil-A? Is it because no team in 70 years (since Andy Pafko's 1952 Dodgers) has made it to the postseason one year after coughing up a double-digit lead after Aug. 1? Is it just because we have no idea what Life After Theo and Tito will look like in Red Sox Land? OK, so it's all of the above. But whatever, it'll be tough to take our eyes off this team all spring.

Los Angeles Angels

3. You Can Call Me Albert: Albert Pujols doesn't just have a new area code. He's now the proud emperor of a whole new universe. It's now his mission, if he chooses to accept it, to transport the Angels' entire franchise from its former, half-century-old role of being That Other Team In Southern California into an uncharted dimension, where, as the Dodgers continue to wallow in ownership limbo, the Halos morph into THE team. That may not be possible. But if it is, it'll be Albert driving the spaceship. And that's a fact. He's being paid to be that transcendent a figure. Oh, he won't be the only major story this spring in Angels camp. C.J. Wilson, the health of Kendrys Morales and the most overcrowded outfield in baseball will also be on the agenda. But it all starts with Sir Albert. Toto, he isn't a Redbird anymore.

Yu Darvish
Darvish

4. We'll Be Seeing Yu: One American League general manager made a startling observation about Yu Darvish recently. It isn't just the Rangers' season that will be riding on this guy's expensive right shoulder. It's the future of all Japanese pitchers in the good old U.S. of A., if not the future of Japanese free agents of all sizes, shapes and positions. And you know what? He's right. If Darvish's eye-popping talents get lost in translation in even a remotely similar way to the disappointment that Daisuke Matsuzaka devolved into, do you really think any big league team is going to fork over another $50 million posting fee to travel down this trail again? We doubt that seriously. So we're sending out this memo to No. 11: It's all up to Yu.

New York Yankees

5. Yanks a Million: Is it even legal to run through a list of spring training storylines without including the Yankees? To be honest, we're afraid to find out -- and it's not worth investing the legal fees. So as much as we were tempted to ignore the Bombers and hone in on stuff like the Rays' potentially awesome rotation or the rise of the Royals, we just couldn't bring ourselves to do it. So get ready for another big spring of Alex Rodriguez health updates, A-Rod girlfriend-sighting updates, Derek Jeter-is-still-aging updates, Derek Jeter girlfriend-sighting updates, Mark Teixeira bunt-drill updates, Mariano Rivera can-pitch-'til-he's-80 updates and other hot Yankee topics. No. 1 on that list, though, is the Michael Pineda Watch. As this man climbs toward acehood, we just hope he's ready. The first time he throws off a bullpen mound this spring, it's a lock to generate more coverage than all 27 of his starts for the Mariners last year put together.

Most Intriguing National League Spring Stories

Miami

1. Gone Fishing: One baseball man we know passed along some excellent career advice recently: Head straight for Florida, follow the Marlins around for the next eight months, write the sure-fire best-seller that's practically guaranteed to result from this season and retire to Aruba. Hmmm. Sounds like an excellent plan, because we just can't wait to see this team arrive in tropical Jupiter, Fla., this spring. Mix in a gallon of Ozzie Guillen pronouncements, a case of Jose Reyes' former hair follicles, then stir in Hanley Ramirez's new third-base glove, a cubic centimeter of Logan Morrison's favorite tweets and all the Josh Johnson "I feel great" quotes you can digest, and how can this not be the finest five-star baseball feast in all of spring training?

Mike Matheny
Matheny

2. Shuffle Those Cards: When last we left those St. Louis Cardinals, confetti was falling from the heavens, Tony La Russa was hugging Albert Pujols on the World Series victory podium and a true sporting miracle had just unfolded. Now here we are, a mere 3½ months later, and there's no Tony, no Albert and no Dave Duncan anywhere in sight. Other than the debacle of the 1997-98 fire-sale Marlins, it's hard to remember any defending champ that reassembled the next spring to discover a more dramatic culture change than these Cardinals. So as rookie manager Mike Matheny and his 2012 Redbirds embark on their journey into a whole new tomorrow, they should understand two things: (1) They have an impossible act to follow; and (2) always speak clearly into the bullpen phone.

Ryan Braun
Braun

3. The Wild Brew Yonder: What a happy, uplifting tale those 2011 Brewers were. A team in the second-smallest media market in baseball draws 3 million customers, finishes in first place for the first time in almost three decades, produces an MVP (Mr. Ryan Braun, ladies and gentlemen) and even employs The Artist Occasionally Known As Tony Plush. And now? Hoo boy. What a winter these guys just had. Prince Fielder takes the money and bails for Motown. The MVP awaits word on whether he's about to get suspended for 50 games. And suddenly, this tale doesn't feel so happy and uplifting anymore. Even the serenity of spring training figures to last about 30 seconds -- until the Braun verdict bombshell drops on this team. But it'll be interesting to see how the Crew sorts through it all, anyhow.

Washington Nationals

4. National Treasure Hunt: Since this looks like The Year when people in Washington get to look up the meaning of "contender," it's time to test your capital-city baseball trivia aptitude. Who knows the last time there was a team with a winning record in Washington? Right you are. It was 1969, when the Senators were managed by some know-it-all named Ted Williams. OK, how about the last time a team in Washington played a postseason game? That would be (ready?) 1933, when FDR was president, Joe Cronin hit cleanup (and managed) and Lefty Stewart started Game 1 of the World Series. Well, this Washington team might not be ready for a World Series. But with Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and a full season of Stephen Strasburg now injected into the pitching portion of this equation, the Nationals are at least ready to wreak some havoc in the NL East. Biggest spring soap opera: Will they be doing that early-season havoc-wreaking with or without Bryce Harper?

Philadelphia Phillies

5. Phil'er Up: The Phillies' rotation will be happy to discover it won't have to worry about posing for magazine cover shots every 20 minutes this spring. But for a team that just finished winning 102 games, the Phillies themselves have more worries these days than the cast of "Revenge." Can they sign Cole Hamels this spring? Will they get Ryan Howard back before Memorial Day? Will Chase Utley and Placido Polanco ever be healthy again? Is there a left fielder in the house? Can Jonathan Papelbon learn to love cheesesteaks more than chowder? And, most of all, can the Phillies hold off the upwardly mobile NL East competition and become only the third franchise in the division-play era (along with the Yankees and Braves) to finish in first place six years in a row? It's a huge spring -- and a huge season -- in the life of this group.

Most Improved American League Teams

     1. Los Angeles Angels
     2. New York Yankees
     3. Texas Rangers

Albert Pujols
Pujols

C.J. Wilson
Wilson

You know the most amazing part of the Angels' offseason? Nobody saw it coming. Unlike past winters, when they were visibly stalking the Carl Crawfords and Torii Hunters of the planet on the big free-agent hunting grounds, these Angels went totally stealth on us in their pursuit of Albert Pujols. In fact, as late as 24 hours before they laid a quarter of a billion dollars at Albert's doorstep, there were high-ranking executives in their own organization who thought that was some kind of Rumor Central hoax. But now that the winter is over, think about what this team has done, even beyond adding a franchise-altering figure in Pujols. The Angels brought in the best starting pitcher on the market (C.J. Wilson). They shored up their catching (Chris Iannetta) and bullpen (LaTroy Hawkins). They're increasingly upbeat about the chances of having Kendrys Morales back. And The Phenom, Mike Trout, is ready to unleash his act in the big leagues anytime they're ready. Now it's up to Mike Scioscia to figure out what to do with Mark Trumbo, Vernon Wells and Bobby Abreu, sort out his bullpen and make it all work. As one AL exec put it, "if they put the best team on the field instead of the most money [i.e., playing Trout from the get-go], they will be really good."

Fun poll facts: As you might have expected, the Angels (15), Yankees (13), Rangers (10) and Tigers (7) got practically all the votes in the three-most-improved-AL-teams category. In fact, those four dominated this poll so thoroughly, the only other teams that got any mentions at all were the Rays (3), Royals (1) and Mariners (1).

Most Improved National League Teams

     1. (tie) Washington Nationals, Miami Marlins
     3. Cincinnati Reds

MarlinsNationals

How little of a threat has the rest of the NL East posed to the mighty Phillies lately? Put it this way: Over the past three seasons, they're nearly 50 games over .500 (131-85) just against their own division. But we're hereby announcing that little joy ride is officially over. The Phillies can still look at themselves as the team to beat. But there are now juggernauts in Washington, Miami and Atlanta that just might be ready to beat them. The Nationals aren't all the way there yet. But Gio Gonzalez gives them a left-handed dominator to match up with the Phillies' left-handed thump. Edwin Jackson beat the Phillies in an elimination game last October. And if the Nationals add a center fielder somewhere along the line, there might not be a position on the field where the Phillies are dramatically better. Then there are the Fish. Who the heck knows when Jose Reyes' next hamstring pull is coming … or when Carlos Zambrano's next meltdown is coming … or whether Hanley Ramirez will ever really buy into this Mike Lowell imitation they're asking him to attempt. But if those guys fall into line, Josh Johnson makes 33 starts and Ozzie Guillen can keep this clubhouse and this market engaged, this will be one fun baseball team.

Fun poll facts: We've been taking these polls for a lot of years now. We don't ever remember a year when three teams were bunched together any closer than the Nationals (15 votes), Marlins (15) and Reds (13) were in this competition. The only other teams that got any significant support were the Rockies (7) and Diamondbacks (5).

Most Unimproved American League Teams

     1. Chicago White Sox
     2. Baltimore Orioles
     3. Oakland Athletics

White Sox

It was no secret last summer that White Sox GM Kenny Williams couldn't wait to blow his under-performing roster to smithereens. But when he finally got his chance this winter, his peers in the industry had a tough time figuring out what his blueprint was. It was one thing to ship out Carlos Quentin and Jason Frasor. But hiring a manager (Robin Ventura) who not only has never managed a game, but who has basically been away from the sport for most of the past eight years? A head-scratcher. And dealing an effective, low-budget closer (Sergio Santos) for what most clubs regard as a second-tier prospect (RHP Nestor Molina)? Another puzzler. Here's just a sampling of the comments we got on this team's offseason: "They dumped without getting much in return. A mess." … "I don't know what they're doing. If they were trying to dump money, why'd they trade Santos? I just don't get it." … "Did they add a new bat boy or hot dog vendor so that they can at least make it seem that they are moving forward?" Get the picture? Youch!

Fun poll facts: For all the talk of how the balance of power is shifting to the American League, you might be shocked to learn that nine of the 14 AL teams got at least one vote in this most-unimproved competition. That would be every darned club in the league except the Angels, Rangers, Yankees, Rays and Tigers if you're scoring at home. And just missing the top three here was the team that won the most-IMPROVED category a year ago -- the Red Sox (who got five votes).

Most Unimproved National League Teams

     1. Houston Astros
     2. New York Mets
     3. Milwaukee Brewers

Astros

It isn't quite true that you spent more on your last Frappuccino at Starbucks than the Astros spent in the free-agent market this winter. But it's close. This team handed out exactly two big league deals through the entire offseason. One was a non-guaranteed $600,000 contract to Jack Cust, a guy who got released twice in one month last season. The other was a one-year, $750,000 deal for catcher Chris Snyder, but only $350,000 of that one is guaranteed. And that, friends, was it. Now the Astros did trade for Jed Lowrie to play short and claimed ex-Mets phenom Fernando Martinez on waivers. But basically, the term "rebuilding project" doesn't begin to describe what's going on with this team. "Scorched earth" is more like it. That scorching includes a new owner (Jim Crane). And a new GM (Jeff Luhnow). And a new (caution: You're about to read the greatest baseball title ever) "director of decision sciences" (Sig Mejdal). And a dramatically new approach to just about every aspect of constructing a baseball team. Unfortunately for Houstonians who enjoy hanging out in Minute Maid Park, virtually none of that new approach will involve attempting to win baseball games in the big leagues in 2012. But be sure to check back with us in, say, 2014.

Fun poll facts: For all those Mets fans who can't believe any team was more unimproved than their team, they should know this vote was super-close. The final totals: Astros (9 votes), Mets (8), Brewers (7), Braves (6), Cubs (6), Giants (4), Dodgers (3), Cardinals (2).

Least Recognizable Teams

     1. Houston Astros
     2. Oakland Athletics
     3. San Diego Padres

Here's a productive way to while away those otherwise empty hours before the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues get rolling. March on down to your very favorite saloon and ask your friends this semi-impossible question: Name six Astros position players not named Carlos Lee. Go ahead. Try it. There can't possibly be more than 100 living humans outside the 713 area code who could recite the names of Brian Bogusevic, Jose Altuve and Jimmy Paredes before their beverages get warm, right? Heck, we're not even sure people who work in other front offices could do it. All we know is that when we asked one NL executive to vote for his least recognizable team, he immediately nominated the Astros -- and then quipped: "I recognize more than one player on each of the other 29 teams!"

Checkbook Champ$

Angels

1. Angels: We've seen all sorts of estimates on how much Albert Pujols' contract is really worth. But if we go with $250 million (counting his 10-year personal services deal), that means the Angels committed a mere $331.5 million to Albert, C.J. Wilson and LaTroy Hawkins this winter. In other words, they either could have acquired those three guys -- or 88.4 million cheeseburgers at In-N-Out Burger. Hmmmm. Tough call.

Tigers

2. Tigers: For a couple of months there, the Tigers were having a nice, peaceful, financially restrained offseason. Then Prince Fielder came into their lives -- not to mention their CPA staff's lives. So they wound up guaranteeing $222 million to Prince, Octavio Dotel, Gerald Laird and Ramon Santiago. Apparently, the choice was either to pay those four or order 24.67 million Ultimate Supreme Pizzas at Little Caesars.

Marlins

3. Marlins: Ever wondered what $191 million could buy you in South Florida? Here's what: You could either purchase the right to employ Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell -- or 8.3 million jumbo lump crab cakes at Joe's Stone Crabs. Incredibly, the Marlins went for Reyes, Buehrle and Bell, even though none of them will be throwing in any green tomato caper remoulade on the side.

Best Free-Agent Signings

     1. Albert Pujols, Angels (10 years, $250 million)
     2. Ryan Madson, Reds (1 year, $8.5 million)
     3. (tie) Prince Fielder, Tigers (9 years, $214M); Yu Darvish, Rangers (6 years, $60M)

What constitutes a great free-agent signing? Even people who work in the game aren't completely sure. We could tell because Sir Albert was one of five different players who got votes for best free agent, worst free agent AND most outrageous contract in this poll. But what separates Pujols from the rest is that, when you sign a guy like this, you're getting more than merely a baseball player. You're getting a fellow who can change the national perception of this franchise in much the same way that LeBron James changed the Heat's world. As one of our survey-takers said of Pujols it, "He'll transform that lineup AND that team."

Fun poll facts: You know it was a crazy winter when 17 different free agents got at least one vote in this category -- including all three players who ranked 1-2-3 in the WORST-free-agent-signing segment of this poll. More on that shortly. Very shortly.

Worst Free-Agent Signing

     1. Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies (4 years, $50 million)
     2. Prince Fielder, Tigers (9 years, $214 million)
     3. Coco Crisp, A's (2 years, $14 million)

Jon Papelbon
Papelbon

What constitutes a "bad" free-agent signing? See above. Papelbon got three votes as one of the best signings of the winter -- and six votes as one of the worst. Prince got four votes as one of the best signings -- and five votes as one of the worst. Crisp only got one vote in the best-signings polling -- and four votes as one of the worst. But you get the idea. What turned the voters off in Papelbon's case, obviously, wasn't his ability. It was, almost exclusively, the size and length of his contract. But we did hear one B.J. Ryan comparison. And when you're talking momentous closer contracts, that's never a good sign.

Fun poll facts: Besides the three guys we just mentioned, five other players got votes in the best and worst free-agent columns: Pujols, C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel. What can we tell you? Schizophrenic voters abound in baseball AND politics these days.

Best Trades

Michael Pineda
Pineda

1. The Pineda-Montero deal: The Yankees get Michael Pineda and high-upside rocket-launcher Jose Campos from Seattle for the almost-as-intriguing package of Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi. There were no more fascinating election returns than this one. Montero has enough fans that four of our voters said they liked both teams' return in this deal. But the group that favored the Yankees' end of the trade outnumbered the flip-a-coin crowd by more than 2 to 1. Four survey-takers went with the Yankees based on Pineda alone, but five more specifically mentioned Campos as a potential difference-maker down the road. Can't wait to watch this one play out over the next few years.

2. The Gio deal: The Nationals get Gio Gonzalez from the A's for three guys (RHP A.J. Cole, catcher Derek Norris and RHP Brad Peacock) gifted enough to rank as Oakland's second-, fifth- and seventh-best prospects, according to Keith Law Prospect Productions, plus a fourth prospect (RHP Tom Milone) who whiffed 155 hitters in 148 1/3 Triple-A innings last year. But as with that New York-Seattle deal, nearly as many voters liked the Oakland haul in this swap as the Washington side.

Matt Latos
Latos

3. The Latos deal: The Padres deal away Mat Latos to Cincinnati but get back two potential stars in catcher Yasmani Grandal and 1B Yonder Alonso, along with a reliever (RHP Brad Boxberger) who allowed 32 hits in 62 innings in Double-A/Triple-A last year, plus fabled right-handed heartbreaker Edinson Volquez, who might actually be inspired to throw a few strikes now that he's relocated to Petco Park. But before we lay on the Padres praise too thick, we should mention that this deal was just like the previous two. The Reds' end of this trade also got multiple votes. So the moral of this story, folks, is that the definition of a good trade is still one that works for both teams, not just one. Remember that, OK?

Fun poll facts: It wasn't only the blockbuster trades that got the attention of our voters. Smaller deals that drew some praise: Sean Marshall to the Reds, Jeremy Guthrie to the Rockies, Marco Scutaro to the Rockies, Sergio Santos to the Blue Jays and Chris Volstad to the Cubs.

Best Free Agents Signed To One-Year Deals

Ryan Madson
Madson

1. The Reds find Ryan Madson hanging around, still unemployed, in January and convince him to join the Great American Bullpen for $8.5 million -- or $41.5 million less than the Phillies gave Jonathan Papelbon to replace him.

2. The Nationals take a one-year, $11 million flyer on Edwin Jackson, which would be four fewer years and about 74 million fewer dollars than Scott Boras wanted for this man when this offseason began.

3. The Rays only need to drop $7.5 million to fund the Bring Carlos Pena Back Where He Belongs Homecoming Show. Want to bet that his old amigo Carl Crawford secretly wishes he could join him back at the nostalgic confines of The Trop?

Best Free Agents $2 Million And Under

1. Bet you didn't know that only two right-handed setup men in baseball (David Robertson and Mike Adams) made more scoreless appearances than the 61 zeroes Chad Qualls put up last season. Yet, it cost the Phillies only $1.15 million to bring that act east. Now all they have to do is attempt to hypnotize him into believing pitching at Citizens Bank Park is EXACTLY like working at Petco.

2. For $1.75 million, the Diamondbacks add the useful but health-challenged Takashi Saito, a guy who still has never had an ERA higher than 2.83 on this side of the Pacific.

3. The Rays make a mere $1.525 million investment in Jeff Keppinger, who instantly adds to their ever-expanding I Can Play A Thousand Positions Club, becomes the toughest bat on their roster to strike out and will be the only guy on their payroll who hit over .300 against left-handed pitchers last year.

Best Free Agents Signed To Minor League Deals

1. Last winter, the Phillies gave $120 million to Cliff Lee. This winter, they only had to toss out a minor league offer to add Joel Pineiro to their rotation mix. For what it's worth (i.e., not much), Pineiro has never allowed a run at Citizens Bank Park (in 12 1/3 innings).

2. If you ignore the part about him going 14-30 over the past three years, it's still kind of amazing that it took just a minor league deal for the Reds to sign a pitcher (Jeff Francis) who threw more innings (183) than anybody on their staff last year.

3. Fashionable as it may have been to dump on Juan Pierre when he was making 10 million bucks a year, a bunch of people in this poll thought he looked like a darned attractive speed-off-the-bench option for the Phillies on a minor league contract.

Three Most Outrageous Contracts (Free Agent Or Otherwise)

1. We'll never know how many years or dollars Prince Fielder would have raked in had Victor Martinez's ACL not gone kablooey last month. But if nothing else, we can guarantee there will never be another ACL rupture for the rest of time that will be looked at more warmly in the Fielder household. One second, Prince was probably headed for a deal in the neighborhood of six years and $120 million from a team like Washington. The next, the Tigers were forcing him to become a $214 million man -- much to the befuddlement of many folks throughout the fiscally sane portion of this sport. "I'd just like to know," wondered one NL exec (who actually LOVES Prince as a player), "what mystery team was in the ballpark, dollar-wise, to justify going that far out on him?"

2. Look, Albert Pujols won the "Best Free-Agent Signing" portion of this competition. So everybody understands exactly what this man represents as a baseball player, a franchise-changer and a one-man TV-ratings magnet. But to give him a 10-year contract at age 32 -- and backload it? It's hard for a whole lot of people outside of Orange County to love that part of this signing. "At his age," said one NL executive, "they're going to have to flush a lot of money down the toilet at the back end of this deal. So what's outrageous is the amount of money they won't get anything for."

3. The Phillies thought they were getting a jump on a wild free-agent closer market when they threw four years and $50 million at Jonathan Papelbon. And at the time, given their conviction that he was the best closer out there, they actually felt good about it. But in retrospect, following a winter in which only one other closer (Heath Bell) got more than a two-year deal or got half as many guaranteed dollars as Papelbon, the Phillies clearly overspent. One exec's one-word analysis of this contract: "Why?"

Fun poll facts: Most of the votes here went to the usual suspects. But we might have to call in the United Nations to deal with the international ramifications, since the payouts for Yoenis Cespedes and Yu Darvish (counting the $51.7 million posting fee) drew an onslaught of votes, too. And you'll be happy to know there are still people in baseball lining up to pile on the Vernon Wells, Alfonso Soriano and A-Rod contracts, even though none of them were exactly signed last week.

Most Important AL Injury Comebacks

     1. Kendrys Morales (Angels)
     2. Justin Morneau/Joe Mauer (Twins)
     3. Grady Sizemore (Indians)

Most Important NL Injury Comebacks

     1. Adam Wainwright (Cardinals)
     2. Josh Johnson (Marlins)
     3. Buster Posey (Giants)

AL Rookies To Watch

     1. Matt Moore (Rays LHP)
     2. Mike Trout (Angels OF)
     3. Jesus Montero (Mariners C/DH)

NL Rookies To Watch

     1. Bryce Harper (Nationals OF)
     2. Julio Teheran (Braves RHP)
     3. Devin Mesoraco (Reds C)

Most Unlikely Names On Spring Training Rosters

Jamie Moyer
Moyer

1. Jamie Moyer (Rockies): He's been around so long, he makes Omar Vizquel look like Justin Bieber. He's been around so long, 11 different active managers have batted against him. He's been around so long that the opposing starter in his first game in the big leagues is now 67 years old (Steve Carlton). But Jamie Moyer is still pitching, gang. Even after Tommy John Surgery. Even after spending a summer hanging out on the "Baseball Tonight" set. Even at 49 years old. And here's the crazy part: The Rockies WANT him to make their team. If he does, he'll be just the third non-knuckleballer in history to throw a big league pitch at 49 or older. One of the other two was a spitballer (Jack Quinn). The other was a publicity stunt (Satchel Paige, who staged a one-day comeback at age 59). But Jamie Moyer is the real deal. And don't bet against him, either. People have been doing that for the past two decades. And how's that worked out for them?

2. Scott Elarton (Phillies): The answer is: Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens. The question is: Name the only two right-handed pitchers who have won 17 games in a season for the Astros since Scott Elarton did it -- way back in the year 2000. Well, we hope you didn't take him in your fantasy draft the next year as your keeper-for-life pick, because we regret to report his future hasn't turned out to be quite as glittering as it looked. In the dozen seasons since, Elarton has gone 28-48 in the big leagues, with an ERA that has barely stayed under 6.00 (5.92). He's visited his friendly neighborhood shoulder surgeon four different times. And he was last spotted rolling up an 8.24 ERA in the International League two years ago. So there's no apparent reason for Scott Elarton to be heading for Phillies camp this spring. But who are we to knock it? After all, if the spring training invite comes in the mail, who among us wouldn't take it? By the way, we're coming up on 18 years since Elarton was picked by the Astros in the first round of the 1994 draft. He was their compensation pick for losing Mark Portugal, who last pitched in a previous millennium. And let the record show Elarton was drafted precisely 47 picks ahead of Aaron Boone, whose spring training invite this winter apparently got lost in the mail.

Jeff Suppan
Suppan

3. Jeff Suppan (Padres): There were lots of excellent choices for the coveted third spot on this list. The long-lost Casey Fossum (Orioles) would have been a fun name to drop. It's always exciting to report that Oliver Perez (Mariners) is still left-handed and breathing. And even a guy (Eugenio Velez) who went 0-for-the-season last year (0-for-33, to be exact) didn't find that was an impediment to spring training employment. But here's Jeff Suppan's claim to fame: Four months ago, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 3 of the NLCS. Now here he is, attempting to throw far more meaningful pitches this spring. And why not? It's been only six years since Suppan had a winning record or an ERA under 4.62. So what the heck. It sure beats that ceremonial-first-pitch gig.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com