Spring-training primer: Key questions for Dodgers, Angels and others

Masahiro Tanaka's signing with the New York Yankees helps make them an early favorite to win the World Series.
(JiJi Press via AFP/Getty Images)

Everyone expects the Dodgers to win. They did last year, and they just put up $215 million for Clayton Kershaw, to better their chance to win for many years to come.

No one expects the Angels to win. They sat out the playoffs last year — for the fourth consecutive year — and they pretty much sat out free agency too. After owner Arte Moreno dropped $375 million on Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, the Angels’ largest expenditure this winter came to $16 million, for setup man Joe Smith.

Everyone expected the Washington Nationals to win last year. No one expected the Boston Red Sox to win, let alone win the World Series.


Of course, spring expectations too often are driven by winter glitz. Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle can tell you all about that, as stars in hype with the Miami Marlins in 2012 and the Toronto Blue Jays in 2013. “Winning the winter” guarantees nothing in baseball, except a fat payroll.

With that in mind, here are some questions and answers as major league teams open camp:

Who won this winter?

The New York Yankees. Since 1994, when the players went on strike and Commissioner Bud Selig called off the World Series, the Yankees have missed the playoffs twice.

In 2008, after finishing in third place in the American League East, they spent $423.5 million on first baseman Mark Teixeira and pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. In 2009, they won the World Series.

The Yankees finished third again last season. They just spent $490 million on nine players — including $175 million on Japanese sensation Masahiro Tanaka, $153 million on center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and $85 million on catcher Brian McCann.

Does that make the Yankees favorites to win the World Series?

No. The entire infield is questionable — shortstop Derek Jeter is 39 and coming off injury, Teixeira’s OPS has declined for five consecutive years and he is coming off injury too, and the Yankees have patchwork replacements for departed second baseman Robinson Cano and suspended third baseman Alex Rodriguez.

For the first time since 1997, the Yankees will play without Mariano Rivera as their closer. David Robertson should replace him capably, but the setup void created by Robinson’s promotion could lead to middle-relief uncertainty. The starting rotation — Sabathia, Tanaka, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova and David Phelps — is no better than third-best in the AL East.

Is Tanaka the best pitcher in the world not named Kershaw?

You would have thought so, given his undefeated season last year in Japan, the breathless tracking of his free agency, and the Yankees’ putting up more money for him than any team has committed to sign any major league pitcher besides Kershaw and Justin Verlander.

The Dodgers are not shy about opening their wallet, but their scouts did not see Tanaka as a long-term ace in the majors. A good pitcher, yes — but, for them, a guy who would battle Hyun-Jin Ryu for the No. 3 rotation spot behind Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

The Yankees desperately needed Tanaka and bid accordingly, but still it was startling to hear General Manager Brian Cashman say this of Tanaka last week on ESPN Radio: “We view him to be a really solid, consistent No. 3 starter.”

Where did the best hitters end up, if not with the Yankees?

In the AL West. The Seattle Mariners spent $240 million on Cano. The Texas Rangers spent $130 million on outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and acquired first baseman Prince Fielder — and the $138 million remaining on his contract.

Cano, Choo and Fielder all bat left-handed. That could make left-handed reliever Sean Burnett a pivotal player for the Angels this season. He gave them 9 2/3 innings amid injury last season, the first of a two-year, $8-million contract.

What hitter might get the biggest contract next winter?

It could be Hanley Ramirez. The Dodgers continue to say they would like to sign him to a contract extension, but they have at least wondered how productive he might be this summer with the carrot of free agency in the fall.

In the meantime, the Dodgers ought to do with him this spring what they did last September — give him the minimum number of at-bats he needs to stay sharp, and otherwise keep him in bubble wrap until the season starts. The Dodgers started slowly last season, when he had a broken thumb, and they collapsed in the National League Championship Series, when he had a broken rib.

What player made the smartest off-season move?

Dan Haren, who signed with the Dodgers before Thanksgiving. The free-agent market had just opened, and many starting pitchers were looking for contracts of three years, or more. Haren’s willingness to take a one-year deal got him a guaranteed $10 million, with the chance to earn an additional $16 million through 2015 simply by taking his turn every fifth day.

On Saturday, the Dodgers signed Paul Maholm for one year and a guaranteed $1.5 million, with the chance for another $5 million. Over the previous two seasons, Haren threw 346 1/3 innings with a 4.50 earned-run average; Maholm threw 342 innings with a 4.00 ERA.

So Haren got to enjoy Thanksgiving and Christmas without worrying about where he would play this year.

With Valentine’s Day coming, which pitchers could be jilted?

You could build a pretty good rotation out of remaining free agents — Burnett, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana and Chris Capuano, with Johan Santana, Joe Saunders and Barry Zito fighting for the fifth spot. You might even argue that rotation could be better than the one the Angels plan to use this season.

So the Angels had a bad winter?

No. General Manager Jerry Dipoto, handcuffed by a lack of money, prospects and legitimate starting pitchers, turned Mark Trumbo into two young starters. As the Angels’ rotation stands now, those two pitchers — Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago — will join home-grown Garrett Richards behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson.

Santiago is 26, Richards 25, Skaggs 22. These kids take time. The last time the Angels got 30 starts each from three pitchers 26 or younger: 1971 (Andy Messersmith, Rudy May, Tom Murphy). They finished 25 1/2 games out of first place and, after the season, traded for a wild but hard-throwing prospect named Nolan Ryan.

Is anyone famous paying attention to the Angels?

President Obama is a fan of the Chicago White Sox, but he dropped a reference to baseball’s best player last week, as he spoke about legislation designed to help farmers. Obama said the bill was not only about agriculture but about innovation, infrastructure, research and conservation.

“It’s like a Swiss Army knife. It’s like Mike Trout, for those of you who know baseball,” Obama said. “It’s somebody who’s got a lot of tools and multitasks.”

Do spring-training records mean anything?

No. Of the 10 playoff teams last season, five finished the spring with a winning record.

Three teams played better than .600 ball last spring; none made the playoffs. Three teams played worse than .400 ball last spring; two made the playoffs. The Dodgers were one of them.

Which team had the worst record last spring?

The Angels.

Twitter: @BillShaikin