The top five spring stories from Arizona

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

If spring training is about rebirth, how come everyone there looks older?

Maybe it’s all the sun.

The beauty of spring is that it arrives at the very moment you begin to wonder what everybody’s been doing.

This year, it’s Don Mattingly on the top step, and Pablo Sandoval’s(notes) efforts to halve his waist size and save his career, and what the new man off Mike Scioscia’s staff – Ron Roenicke – has in mind for the Brewers.

And it’s year hundred-and-something for the Cubs, and Todd Helton’s(notes) back, and a handshake between Eric Wedge and Milton Bradley(notes), and a preseason trailer for the Moneyball movie, dressed all in gold.

There’s always something. Here are five.

1. Those zany San Francisco Giants

Their evolution from quirky summertime scamps to October (and November) rogues was a study in just how far a roster of big arms and carefree oddballs can take a club.

Fifty-six years from their last parade (not including the procession of moving trucks out of New York), the Giants played the whole thing bearing the disposition of karaoke night at Applebee’s. I mean, other than Pat Burrell(notes).

And in spite of their obvious offensive deficiencies, the Giants have stuck to their plan to pitch the National League to death, which means: Same shtick, different day.

As any team since the turn-of-the-century Yankees can tell you, it’s harder to repeat a championship than it is to win one. Though the Cubs might disagree.

The Giants will take their shot at it as reality TV stars (courtesy of Showtime), which presumably means must-watch moments such as:

Pablo Sandoval eating lunch with a salad fork.

Brian Wilson(notes) trimming his facial hair with a belt sander.

Tim Lincecum(notes) doing donuts in right field in a VW van while wearing Aubrey Huff’s(notes) thong. Lincecum, not the van.

And Pat Burrell scowling.

Of the last 10 defending World Series champions, seven won fewer games than the season before, four missed the playoffs, two returned to the World Series and, as we know, none repeated.

It’s hard. Of course, the Giants might be just crazy enough to do it.

2. Those upstanding Texas Rangers

The Rangers were onto something, right? After 50 mostly pathetic seasons, 11 of them in Washington, they’d come upon a workable combination of cool and character, savvy and intellect, ownership and fiscal solvency.

A baseball nation won’t soon forget the late-October night when the Rangers vanquished the New York Yankees, when confetti swirled in the sky and every single person in Dallas who showed up with a ticket actually got a seat at the game, too.

The stories were of redemption (Ron Washington) and resilience (Josh Hamilton(notes)) and loyalty (Michael Young(notes)) and precision (Cliff Lee(notes)), along with claws and antlers.

Well, they’re still onto something. But, unless management finds a way to make up with its longest-tenured employee or a reasonable place to deposit him, this spring training will be swept up in the same untidiness as last year’s, which featured the Ron Washington-did-cocaine(-once) controversy.

After months – years? – of being shopped, Young has had it with the Rangers, their general manager, and their antlers. He’s demanded a trade, which the Rangers don’t have to honor, but there’s nothing quite like a brooding de facto captain to louse up your PFP.

Young is a pro’s pro. He’s smart enough not to risk $48 million by blowing off spring training. He’s respectful enough not to make a stink by airing his discontent between rounds of batting practice.

But, at a time of organizational momentum, it’s maybe best not to put him in that position. It took Young a long time to reach his fed-up stage. And it doesn’t sound like he’ll be talked out of it over lunch in Surprise.

3. Those jumbled Los Angeles Dodgers

We’re not sure which makes you dimmer (or greedier, but that’s for the courts to decide): falling victim to your old friend’s Ponzi scheme and potentially losing your franchise for it, or building your own personal one-man Ponzi scheme and going belly up in that.

The Mets’ and Dodgers’ ownership woes ultimately could share narrative arcs – panhandling for loans, selling off portions of the club, then putting the whole thing on the market – but there is a striking difference. Major League Baseball is wholly behind the Wilpons, while it appears to have left Frank McCourt on an island.

Where that leaves the Dodgers in the long term, exactly, is anyone’s guess. That prospective buyers would be lining up for a chance to decipher the club’s finances speaks well for the potential of the franchise, if not for its immediate stability. Meantime, as citywide faith in McCourt dwindles to family members and personal staff, there’s a season to play, and legal appeals to consider and a payroll to meet, so things get interesting from here.

On the field, Don Mattingly replaces Joe Torre, and the new Matt Kemp(notes) replaces the old Matt Kemp (who’d replaced the older Matt Kemp), and whoever wins a late-spring game of rock-paper-scissors replaces Manny Ramirez(notes) in left.

4. Those upstart Milwaukee Brewers

There is something really very capable about the Brewers. A lot, actually.

From the owner – Mark Attanasio – who has his moments of large-market envy but generally by his spirit and nerve hoists the franchise into more than a sum of its parts. To the general manager – Doug Melvin – who unequivocally is among the more clever minds in the game. To the market itself, which scrapes the ice off its windshields and greets every new season like this could be the one. (Did you know the Brewers averaged about three million fans the past four years?) To the first baseman – Prince Fielder(notes) – who in an age of country-club baseball refuses to accept anything but effort and accountability from his teammates.

Now the reasoning going around is the Brewers have made this their year to contend – they traded for Zack Greinke(notes) and Shaun Marcum(notes), thinning the farm system considerably – with full understanding they might not be back for a while.

I don’t buy it.

While they’ll surely lose Fielder to free agency at the end of the season (or, if the wheels fall off, in July), and could lose Rickie Weeks(notes) the same way, the roster will not be gutted. Greinke won’t be a free agent until 2013, Corey Hart(notes) until 2014, Casey McGehee(notes) and Yovani Gallardo(notes) until ’15, Ryan Braun(notes) until ’16.

This is not to say 2011 doesn’t carry extra weight. Ahem. Fielder is the franchise’s identity. The Reds and Cardinals are catchable. It would be a great way for Fielder to go.

But it shouldn’t end there. Not as long as Melvin’s around. Of course, he’s a free agent in ’13.

5. Those uncertain Los Angeles Angels

It’s about Kendry Morales(notes), who, it may be said, floats like a butterfly and lands like an anvil.

It’s about Vernon Wells(notes), who last season either revived his career or didn’t, but is no longer the Blue Jays’ problem.

It’s about Scott Kazmir(notes), who, from his peak, has lost 2 mph off his fastball and 4 – 4! – off his slider, which, speaking of the slider, is probably why he throws it about half as often as he used to.

And it’s about third base, which to the Angels’ third-place finish contributed eight home runs and 52 RBI, or exactly double the totals pitchers gave the Brewers last season.

But, mostly, it’s about getting back to the kind of baseball the Angels play under Mike Scioscia. While philosophy is great, and something the Angels adhere to more than anyone in the game, players are better.

The club, of course, believes that all the down years can be repaired, and that a solid starting rotation – one through four – can be the linchpin, and that a deeper and more veteran bullpen will be a better bullpen.

It’s about faith.

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