Commentary

Spring into a new season

The top storylines, best/worst signings, most/least improved and players to watch

Originally Published: February 11, 2013
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Zack Greinke and R.A. DickeyAP PhotoZack Greinke and R.A. Dickey bring heightened expectations for the Dodgers and Blue Jays in 2013.

Yessir, it's that time again. Time to say so long to the Harbaugh brothers and say hello to the Upton brothers. Time to tune out the sequester and tune in Jon Lester. Time to stop tweeting about Kyle Lohse's never-ending quest for employment and start worrying about the Cubs' never-ending quest for a decent center fielder.

In other words, it's time once again to unlock the gates to Tempe Diablo Stadium, Camelback Ranch and good old McKechnie Field. Time to resume typing those exotic Port Charlotte, Maryvale and Lake Buena Vista datelines. And especially, time to start dreaming those always-uplifting spring training dreams.

Because winter -- or at least the nonbaseball portion of it -- is over. Finally. And spring training is upon us. Luckily.

So allow us to shine a heat lamp on the arctic frigidity that is no doubt bearing down on your household, by previewing the sun, the fun and all the hot storylines of Spring Training 2013 -- with the help of 16 all-knowing baseball men who so graciously took part in our annual spring-preview survey.

Most Intriguing National League Spring Stories

Dodgers

1. Hooray For Hollywood: For the first time in this millennium (and what seems like the first time in any millennium), there's a baseball team in our midst that will outspend the Yankees. That team, of course, is the Marlins. And ... OK, no it's not. It's actually the National League's first $217 million single-season budget baseball franchise ever, those Los Angeles/Guggenheim Dodgers. And this is their time. Or at least it had better be, considering that their part owner/part inspirational Jedi, Magic Johnson, just laid out one of those dreaded win-it-all mission statements. This will be the first spring in which Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez all assemble on the same field at the same time in the same uniforms. And if their trusty manager, Don Mattingly, can't make those pieces fit together harmoniously, it might not matter that this team appears to have more money in its checking account than Bill Gates.

Stephen Strasburg
Strasburg

2. Nationals' Treasure: So when was the last time a team from Washington headed for spring training expected to be the best team in baseball? During the Calvin Coolidge administration maybe? Aw, whenever. Doesn't matter now. What matters is, the 2013 edition of the Washington Nationals is loaded. So loaded that the Nationals made a $28 million impulse buy on a closer (Rafael Soriano) this winter, even though they already had two guys on the roster (Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard) who had combined for 79 saves in 2011 and '12. So loaded that they didn't have room for a man who had led their team in slugging over the past two years (Michael Morse). So loaded that they voluntarily pulled the plug on their best pitcher (Stephen Strasburg) last summer so they could look ahead to more health and good times this summer. Should be a fun and mesmerizing spring in the wilds of Viera, Fla.

Braves

3. What's Upton: From the producers who once brought us Chipper-palooza, The Greatest Rotation Show on Earth and 14 Peachtree Octobers, those ever-inventive Atlanta Braves have done it again. This spring, they're rolling out "Oh, Brother," a rollicking tale of two Upton brothers (B.J. and Justin) hanging out side by side in the very same outfield. Their assignments: (1) to put their enigmatic past reputations behind them and lift each other to stupendous new heights; (2) to turn themselves into the best brother act ever to work for the same team at the same time; and (3) to lead their new team to glory in Year 1 of the Post-Chipper era. That Braves-Nationals rivalry could be about as good as it gets in the National League this year.

Ross
Ross
Prado
Prado

4. Diamondback Jubilee: So many people in our survey brought up this team, it's clear that people across this sport are fascinated by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Out the door went Justin Upton, Chris Young and Trevor Bauer (among others) this winter. In came Martin Prado, Cody Ross, Eric Chavez, Eric Hinske, Brandon McCarthy, Heath Bell, Cliff Pennington and Didi Gregorius, in a series of moves that one AL executive described as not just a roster remake, but a "personality cleanse." So is there still a place in modern, 21st-century baseball for a team constructed around the blood-and-dirtball image of throwback manager Kirk Gibson and his coaching staff? We're about to find out.

Reds

5. Cuban Missile Crisis: So let's see now. Those Cincinnati Reds looked out into their bullpen last season, saw a guy who piled up nearly 90 more strikeouts (122) than hits (35), turned the finest batsmiths on earth into .141 hitters and could reach like 175 mph on the radar gun -- and now they want to mess with that? Yup. That's about the size of it, all right. As Jerry Crasnick detailed in depth, the Reds are about to embark this spring on a quest to convert their intimidating bullpen monster man, Aroldis Chapman, into a starter, even though Joba Chamberlain and Daniel Bard might be willing to offer several alternative thoughts. The Reds say they're not locked into this plan yet, so train your eyes on Goodyear Ballpark this spring: The fate of this team's extremely promising season might be riding on every journey its favorite Cuban smokeball-launcher makes to the mound.

Most Intriguing American League Spring Stories

Yankees

1. Yanks For The Memories: Every spring is a soap opera in Yankee Land. So why should this spring be any exception? Will Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera perform their standard miraculous healing act? Will a proven catcher (not counting Yogi Berra) stop by one of these days? Will the Yankees figure out a way to replace those 101 home runs that just vanished off the roster over the winter? Will Robinson Cano's walk year before free agency erupt into crisis-hood? And will the artist formerly known as A-Rod appear in this camp at any point? That's about 1/87th of the plotlines hovering over Steinbrenner Field this spring. But again, what else is new?

Hamilton
Hamilton

2. Angel Eyes: Is anyone else out there still trying to get used to the idea that Josh Hamilton is an Angel now? One minute, he was getting booed out of Texas. The next, the Angels were making their annual free-agent stealth strike -- and dropping Hamilton into the middle of a lineup that already included gentlemen named Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. So they've set the stage for a spring that figures to be loaded with Hamilton-ian intrigue, but that's not all. Is their other big free-agent acquisition, Ryan Madson, healthy enough to close? Is their rebuilt rotation dependable enough to propel them toward a rendezvous with October? And if not, is there reason for a manager who for years was the face of this franchise, Mike Scioscia, to start worrying about his future employment plans? Lots of action in this camp.

Blue Jays

3. This Ain't South Beach: Was it really just a year ago that Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle were rolling into the Marlins' camp, ready to become central figures in the rebirth of baseball in Miami? Well, never mind that, because Reyes, Buehrle, Josh Johnson and Emilio Bonifacio are Blue Jays now. But if it helps them settle in at all, so are R.A. Dickey, Melky Cabrera, Maicer Izturis, Josh Thole, Mark DeRosa and a whole new cast of characters who have been imported for the sole purpose of bringing postseason baseball to Canada for the first time since Joe Carter's home run landed 20 years ago. It has been a long, long time since the center of the AL East's spring training universe could be found in beautiful downtown Dunedin, Fla. But it will be this year.

Shields
Shields

4. Royality Check: Not to imply it's been a while since the Kansas City Royals played a postseason game. But the last time they took part in one, the names in the box score included Buddy Biancalana, Jim Sundberg, Lonnie Smith and a Cardinals reliever (Bill Campbell) who turns 65 this year. Now, though, the Royals are taking a bold shot at doing what one exec pithily referred to as a "Rays 2008 impersonation." The good news is, they're building this pursuit around a real, live, one-time member of the 2008 Rays, James Shields. The bad news is, the Royals traded the minor league player of the year (Wil Myers) and three other legit prospects to get him. The worse news is, the Tigers haven't seceded from their division in the past 10 minutes. But that unfortunate happenstance won't make spring training any less interesting for this team. Huge spring, huge season, coming right up.

Red Sox 5. Take Your Sox Off: So whatever happened to that Bobby V guy anyhow? And, for that matter, whatever happened to Adrian Gonzalez, Dice-K, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, da Youkah and all those other transcendent figures who were going to spend last season proving that there would indeed be a happy and prosperous Life After Theo and Tito for the Boston Red Sox? OK, so much for that fun-filled experiment. The Red Sox are trying it again this year with their old friend John Farrell at the helm and a bunch of big-ticket free agents who swear they come in peace: Ryan Dempster, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew, David Ross and Koji Uehara, just to name a few. So life is bound to be more harmonious this spring. But the upheaval on this team is the perfect symbol for the suddenly mixed-up AL East. If you know what to make of any of these teams, you're smarter than us. So spring training, here we come.

Most Improved National League Teams

     1. Atlanta Braves
     2. Los Angeles Dodgers
     3. Washington Nationals

B.J. Upton
B.J. Upton
J. Upton
J. Upton

The power of Upton-icity is a remarkable thing to behold. The Braves narrowly won this most-improved category in our survey in a vote that's clearly based almost solely on the belief that the Upton meter is pointing way upward now that the brothers have been united as Georgians. If you really assess the full spectrum of the Braves' offseason, you'd say they basically traded Chipper Jones, Martin Prado, Michael Bourn, David Ross, Tommy Hanson, Randall Delgado and prospects for Gerald Laird, Jordan Walden, Chris Johnson and every famed Upton in America except Kate. Does that "trade" make them substantially better? Or just substantially different? "To me," said one NL executive, "they're just different. They've gone from blue-collar to star-itis." But they've also gotten younger, more athletic and better positioned to contend over the next three years. And with Chipper moving on, they had no choice, right? So "who addressed their needs the most?" mused another NL exec. "Atlanta." And the masses obviously concur.

Fun Poll Fact: All you need to know about the winter just past in the NL is that the Braves (9), Dodgers (8) and Nationals (4) got nearly all the votes in the survey to name the three most improved NL teams. The only other clubs that even got mentioned were the Reds (1 vote), Cubs (1) and Diamondbacks (2).

Most Improved American League Teams

     1. Toronto Blue Jays
     2. Kansas City Royals
     3. Los Angeles Angels

Blue Jays

How could the Blue Jays NOT be No. 1 on this list? They have a general manager (the turbo-charged Alex Anthopoulos) who made at least one acquisition every 46.8 seconds this winter, by our calculations. All right, so not quite that many, but here's what this team did do: It traded away one manager (John Farrell), and hired another (John Gibbons). It brought in four new coaches. Claimed 10 players on waivers. Made a 12-player trade with the Marlins and a seven-player trade with the Mets. Signed three free agents to major league deals, including a guy who spent the last 50 games of last season under suspension (Melky Cabrera). And signed 23 more free agents to minor league contracts. Got all that? We're exhausted just from typing it.

Fun Poll Fact: It may seem like a great thing to finish No. 1 in this coveted category. But maybe not. The Marlins were tied for first in the polling for most improved NL teams last year -- and you know what happened to them. The Red Sox topped the AL charts the year before -- and you know what happened to them. The Mariners were voted "most improved" in 2010 -- and lost 101 games. So if the Blue Jays start out 12-53 or something, we may have to offer natural disaster insurance to next year's winner.

Most Unimproved National League Teams

     1. Miami Marlins
     2. New York Mets
     3. Colorado Rockies

Marlins

We were shocked -- shocked, we say -- that the Marlins were a runaway choice in this section of the survey. Just because they've exiled their $106 million shortstop (Reyes), their $58 million left-handed innings-eater (Buehrle), their disastrous free-agent closer (Bell), last year's Opening Day starter (Johnson), everyone else from last year's Opening Day lineup except Giancarlo Stanton and their entire season-opening rotation except Ricky Nolasco? Just because they've zapped about $75 million worth of payroll in the past 12 months? Just because the only free agents they signed to big league contracts as they headed for Year 2 of their new ballpark were Juan Pierre, Placido Polanco and Jon Rauch? Yeah. Just because. On the other hand, this team did lose 93 games last year, even with all the Monopoly money it scattered all over the free-agent landscape. So how much worse can this year's Fish Fry be? Seriously.

Fun Poll Fact: Our top three in this category were just about unanimous. Only one other team even got more than one vote -- the Brewers (with two).

Most Unimproved American League Teams

     1. Houston Astros
     2. New York Yankees
     3. Baltimore Orioles

Astros

Nothing amazed us more during this entire survey than the votes flowing out of this precinct. We expected the Astros to swamp the most unimproved competition. Instead, it was stunningly close: The Astros showed up on 11 ballots, to the Yankees' nine. So what's up with that? We'll tell you what's up with that. The Yankees might wind up winning 40 more games than the Astros. But the Astros were already a 107-loss team, and their 2013 record is almost irrelevant in the context of their long-term (make that REALLY long-term) blueprint. The Yankees, on the other hand, are an outfit that has led us to believe the only acceptable outcome of any season involves confetti and massive champagne spritzing. So to see this team jettison its emergency closer (Rafael Soriano), its catcher (Russell Martin), its right fielder (Nick Swisher) and its latest, greatest Mr. October action figure (Raul Ibanez), among others, while adding only Kevin Youkilis and a bunch of low-budget free-agent lottery tickets (Travis Hafner, Matt Diaz, Juan Rivera, etc.) was apparently staggering to many of our voters. One described the Yankees as "the most unimproved good team." Another asked, though not entirely seriously: "Is someone going to pick the Yankees last? I know that's unlikely. But one of these years, all the age on that team is going to hit them. Right? Doesn't it have to?" Yeah, we guess so. But we still didn't see this vote coming. Did you?

Fun Poll Fact: Incredibly, nine of the 15 teams in this league received at least one vote, including three (Red Sox, Indians and Twins) who got mentions in both the most improved and most unimproved balloting. And the voting for the third spot in our top three was extremely tight, with the Orioles (5 votes) barely edging the Rangers (4), Twins (3) and White Sox (3).

Least Recognizable Teams

     1. Houston Astros
     2. Miami Marlins
     3. Minnesota Twins

Once upon a time, even people roaming the streets of Wyoming could spit out the names of at least eight Astros without thinking hard: Bagwell, Biggio, Berkman, Kent, Oswalt, Wagner, Lidge, Ausmus et al. But now? Yikes. How many of you out there can name even THREE Astros? Really. Here's the ultimate measure of how witness-protection-program-esque this team has become: We asked one NL executive to name six Astros off the top of his head. Here was his response: "[Jose] Altuve, Chris Carter [traded to Houston literally the day before] annnnnnd & ummmmmmm. I'm stumped." True story. So who are these guys? That's possibly the most challenging question you can ask anyone roaming around any park in spring training 2013.

Fun Poll Fact: The Astros and Marlins clearly have become this sport's poster boys for unrecognizability. The final voting in this polling: Astros 10, Marlins 9, no one else even close.

Checkbook Champ$

Dodgers

1. Dodgers: One thing we've astutely detected over the past 10 months -- the Dodgers really seem to have gotten the hang of this spending-money thing they do. So this winter, just to stay in practice, they went out and guaranteed more than $234 million of those hard-earned Guggenheim dollars to a mere four free agents, assuming you count the $25,737,737.33 posting fee it cost them just to negotiate with one of them (former Hanwha Eagles great Ryu Hyun-Jin). Of course, it helped run up that tab that one of those free agents was named Zack Greinke. But whatever. We think they should know that for that $234.09 million, they could have had Greinke, Ryu, Brandon League and J.P. Howell -- or 52,019,497 Dodger Dogs. What do you think? Tough call?

Blue Jays

Blue Jays: We probably should have hired a team of accounting consultants to compute this entry, because the Blue Jays guaranteed "only" $26.75 million to the three big league free agents they signed. But by the time they'd finished taking on the paychecks of a bunch of guys they traded for (Reyes, Buehrle, Johnson, Dickey, Bonifacio and Thole) and then extending Dickey's deal through 2015 for another $25 million, it came to, according to our low-end calculators, a LOT OF FRIGGING MONEY, eh? We totaled it all up as an additional $199.5 million U.S. in added guaranteed payouts. Or, if you're ciphering this up north of the border, that would be $199,360,350 Canadian -- or, to make this simpler, 5.1 million servings of handmade pasta at Scaramouche.

Angels

Angels: On one hand, the Angels probably got a (cough, cough) "discount" on their much-ballyhooed Josh Hamilton acquisition (at "only" $125 million for five years). On the other hand, that wasn't all they crammed into their shopping cart. By the time they'd finished also grabbing Ryan Madson, Sean Burnett and Joe Blanton off the shelves, they were in for a hefty $151.5 million in new guarantees. Hey, it was either that or 496,000 Double Doubles at In-N-Out Burger.

Best Free-Agent Signings

     1. Josh Hamilton, Angels (5 years, $125 million)
     2. (tie) Zack Greinke, Dodgers (6 years, $147 million); Torii Hunter, Tigers (2 years, $26 million)

So did the Angels just shell out all that moolah for the Josh Hamilton who hit 43 homers, whomped nine of them in one week and finished fifth in the MVP voting? Or did they sign the Josh Hamilton who missed five games in September because he over-caffeinated himself, struck out 18 times in his last 42 at-bats and has played in 150 games only once in his big league career? Well, both, obviously. So no wonder two of the execs who voted in our survey nominated him as both the best and worst free-agent signing of the winter. Here's how one of them explained it: "Josh goes in both categories because he is so unique. [One day] you may have the best free-agent signing ever, and the next day he is gone."

Fun Poll Fact: Want to guess how many different players got at least one vote in the best free-agent portion of this survey? How about 24 -- which was only two more than the number who got votes in the next, not-so-prestigious category.

Worst Free-Agent Signings

     1. Shane Victorino, Red Sox (3 years, $39 million)
     2. B.J. Upton, Braves (5 years, $75.25 million)
     3. Angel Pagan, Giants (4 years, $40 million)

Victorino
Victorino

It was one of the least appetizing free-agent markets of modern times. So name just about any quasi-famous free agent. He probably got a vote in this category. Why Pagan? "$10 million a year for four years of a guy who has never been an All-Star or [finished in the] top 30 MVP [voting]?" grumbled one NL exec. Why Upton? "Five years, $75 million? He's not that kind of player," said an AL exec. And why Victorino, who ran away with this vote? "You know what? I like Shane Victorino," said one exec. "I'd take Shane Victorino. But not for three times 13 [million dollars]. No way. Too much."

Fun Poll Fact: Ready for a rundown of the seven players who got votes as one of the best and worst signings of the winter? Here goes: Hamilton, Greinke, Upton, Edwin Jackson, Rafael Soriano, Mike Napoli and Marco Scutaro. Hey, it was that kind of offseason.

Best Trades

1. The Braves complete their Upton brother collection by getting Justin for Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and three prospects who failed to dent Keith Law's Top 10 Diamondbacks prospects list.

Span
Span

2. The Nationals deal an excellent pitching prospect (Alex Meyer) to Minnesota, but finally reel in the center fielder/leadoff whiz they've been stalking for two years (Denard Span) -- without having to blow $90 million on the free-agent auction mart to accomplish that mission.

3. The Blue Jays trade for pretty much the entire population of Miami, except for Dan Marino, J-Lo and Dr. Jack Ramsey. But just so no one thinks the Marlins got nothing out of this salary mega-dump, three voters said both sides got what they wanted from this swap.

Fun Poll Fact: If the best trades are really deals in which both teams "win," then we just witnessed a lot of that this winter. Trades that our voters thought qualified besides Toronto-Miami: Rays-Royals (Shields-Myers), Mets-Blue Jays (Dickey-Travis d'Arnaud) and Reds-Indians-Diamondbacks (with Shin-Soo Choo to Cincinnati and Trevor Bauer to Cleveland both getting votes).

Best Free Agents Signed To One-Year Deals

Pierzynski
Pierzynski

1. After missing out on quite the laundry list of other free-agent luminaries, the Rangers have to shell out only $7.5 million to fill their catching chasm with the ever-plucky A.J. Pierzynski, who happened to hit more home runs last year (27) than Nick Swisher, Mike Napoli, Matt Kemp Mark Teixeira or any catcher in baseball who didn't get to play half his games at Coors Field.

2. Thanks to the miracle of avascular necrosis, the Red Sox wind up with a one-year, $5 million "bargain" in Mike Napoli -- which would be two fewer years and $34 million less than they had originally planned to guarantee him. Now if he can actually play &

3. The Mets no longer have the reigning Cy Young Award winner hanging around Queens, but it costs them just $4 million for one year to take a flier on Shaun Marcum. Bet you didn't know that Marcum is one of four active pitchers working on a streak of four straight seasons with a winning record, a WHIP under 1.27, an ERA under 3.75 and at least 20 starts. The others: CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander and Matt Cain. (One slight asterisk, though: Marcum missed the entire 2009 season, following Tommy John surgery, in the middle of that streak.)

Best Free Agents $2 Million And Under

1. We can't say we personally endorse this nomination, but the voters have spoken. And they voted Delmon Young's $750,000 deal with the Phillies as the best bargain of the winter. Look at it this way: Young is one of 10 players in the big leagues who were once the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. The other nine will collect an average of $13.26 million apiece this year. Which means they'll earn as much every week and a half as Young will make all season.

Loney
Loney

2. James Loney has never reminded anyone of, say, Willie McCovey. But for two million bucks, the Rays see a guy who can catch the ball at first, who owns an .808 career OPS at parks not known as "Dodger Stadium" and whose splits against right-handers (.294 BA/.351 OBP/.441 SLG, for a .792 OPS) suggest he'll make a fine, cost-effective platoon partner for Ben Zobrist or some other right-handed-hitting stick to be plugged in later. This guy had "low-budget Rays signing" written all over him this winter.

3. Mets fans had better sit down before they read the rest of this passage. But our voters thought Oliver Perez -- yep, THAT Oliver Perez -- was worthy of multiple best-buy votes this winter. He cost the Mariners only $1.5 million, which would be $34.5 million less than the Mets paid him to entertain them from 2009 to '11. But who knew he'd find his niche as a left-handed bullpen weapon whose forte is chewing up right-handed hitters? Correct answers: (A) Not us, and (B) not Art Howe.

Best Free Agents Signed To Minor League Contracts

1. The Mets getting LaTroy Hawkins. He won't be David Robertson. He may not even be Burke Badenhop. But you can never go wrong having Hawkins hanging out in your clubhouse or your bullpen. If he actually makes this team, he'll join Octavio Dotel, Miguel Batista and Bruce Chen as the only active pitchers who have worked for at least 10 different teams.

2. Jamey Wright, signing with the Rays. If he makes the team, he'd be the fifth active pitcher who has worked for at least 10 different teams. Call us crazy, but we pull for this stuff.

3. Rich Harden, going to the Twins. Yeah, we know he hasn't thrown a pitch in 505 days. Yeah, we know he'll probably be back on the disabled list by, say, Tax Day. But what the heck. Here are the only active starting pitchers with at least 900 career innings pitched and a better lifetime strikeout ratio than Harden (9.20 per 9 IP): Tim Lincecum (9.76) and Clayton Kershaw (9.29). And that's all, folks. So it'll be fun while it lasts.

Three Most Outrageous Contracts (Free Agent Or Otherwise)

Greinke
Greinke

1. Funny how Zack Greinke was the most sought-after free agent in the whole darned sport this winter. Then the Dodgers enrich him by $147 million over the next six years, and we start hearing how outrageous his contract was. But there's something about this guy, for all his talent, that inspires this sort of reaction. Even some of the clubs that kicked around the idea of signing him admitted the years and dollars he wanted made them nervous. And it must be true. Otherwise, they'd be employing him now instead of the Dodgers. Right?

2. Josh Hamilton was actually the second-leading vote-getter in this department, but we've been through all that. So we're arbitrarily promoting the next man on the list, Jonathan Broxton, to No. 2. Broxton got just $21 million over three years from the Reds, which is less than Hamilton will make just this year. But Broxton's mission impossible is to replace one of the most dominating closers on earth (Aroldis Chapman), at a stage in his career where "dominating" wouldn't exactly describe him. Back in 2009, Broxton punched out 13.5 hitters per nine innings. His strikeout rate last year was 6.98 K/9 -- less than HALF of Chapman's rate. The Reds are a team that almost always makes good decisions, but we're not sold on this one.

Scutaro
Scutaro

Pagan
Pagan

3. A tie, between Marco Scutaro and Angel Pagan. The Giants won the World Series with this dynamic duo, then went out and did what it took to keep the band together. And that's a beautiful thing -- for T-shirt sales. But are they SURE it was a good idea to guarantee three years and $20 million to a 37-year-old middle infielder (Scutaro), no matter how inspirational an October figure he may have been? And are they SURE it was worth committing four years and $40 million to a center fielder (Pagan) who turns 32 in July and whose Similarity Score list at baseball-reference.com produces names like Felix Jose and Alex Ochoa? Our voters definitely weren't.

Fun Poll Fact: Three different voters asked if it was OK to put Alex Rodriguez's contract on this most-outrageous list retroactively, seeing as how it looks worse and worse every time you read the Bottom Line on "Sportscenter." Unfortunately, that's not how this category normally works. But we get their drift!

Most Important Injury Comebacks

     1. Mariano Rivera & Derek Jeter (Yankees)
     2. Carl Crawford (Dodgers)
     3. (tie) Roy Halladay (Phillies) and Troy Tulowitzki (Rockies)

NL Rookies To Watch

     1. Oscar Tavares (Cardinals RF)
     2. Tyler Skaggs (Diamondbacks LHP)
     3. Billy Hamilton (Reds CF)

AL Rookies To Watch

     1. Wil Myers (Rays RF)
     2. Jurickson Profar (Rangers INF)
     3. Bruce Rondon (Tigers closer candidate)

Most Unlikely Names on Spring Training Rosters

1. Kelvim Escobar (Brewers): How long ago does 2007 seem? We bring that up because that year Escobar went 18-7 for the Angels and looked as if he'd finally had that bust-out season the Blue Jays and Angels had been waiting on for about a decade. Sadly, the only thing that busted after that was this guy's shoulder -- which has allowed him to reach a big league mound exactly once since then. And that was in 2009. The Brewers caught his act in winter ball and decided they had nada to lose. But just for the record, since the last time Escobar won a game -- on Sept. 29, 2007 -- CC Sabathia has won 91 of them.

Brewers

2. Bobby Crosby (Brewers): Here are just some of the players who were rookies in 2004: Zack Greinke, Matt Holliday, Alex Rios, Grady Sizemore and David Wright. But who was your AL Rookie of the Year that season? Bobby Crosby, who else? That was nine long years ago, friends. Crosby has played 100 games in a big league season just once since then. He hasn't had an OPS-Plus above league average (or even over 75) since 2005. He hasn't played in a professional game since 2010. But the Brewers are apparently into nostalgia this spring, because they're bringing him in to be Kelvim Escobar's co-star in the Miracle in Maryvale saga they'll be scripting. How great is that?

3. Jeremy Bonderman (Mariners): It's only fitting, if thoracic outlet syndrome is going to force Chris Carpenter out of the game, that another guy who struggled with it gets to charge back into the game. So here comes Bonderman, three years after his last appearance in a professional box score and nearly five years since TOS surgery turned his baseball world upside-down. It's hard to believe this guy is still only 30 years old. So he deserves to get his career back; maybe that never happens, but that's what spring training dreams are all about.

Event(s) That Summed Up The Offseason

We got nominations in this category for the Biogenesis saga, the election of zero players to the Hall of Fame and the continuing unemployment of special platinum iconic Scott Boras clients Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse. But we were looking for something slightly more upbeat than those sad stories. So here's our final answer:

Rosario
Rosario

The saga of Eli Whiteside, Russ Canzler and Sandy Rosario -- three men who, after this winter, qualify for first-ballot induction into the Waiver Wire Hall of Fame.

Whiteside went from the Giants to the Yankees to the Blue Jays to the Rangers, in a span of 28 days. Canzler bounced from the Indians to the Blue Jays, back to the Indians, then to the Yankees and onward to the Orioles -- in a span of 46 days.

Rosario might beat them both. The Red Sox claimed him from the Marlins, traded him to Oakland, claimed him back 12 days later, then lost him to the Cubs two days after that. But his glorious Cubs career lasted only nine days, whereupon the Giants claimed him -- and have managed to hang on to him for nearly a month and a half now.

We're not sure what this says about the modern state of baseball, other than the fact that it's possible some people in this sport spend more time reading the waiver wire than the box scores. But whatever the heck went on there, nobody will be happier to report to spring training this week than those three guys. Right?

"I think that's safe to say," said the AL exec who nominated this group. "But someone's going to report to the wrong team. Don't you think?"

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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