Spring Training Tease

spring trainingSpring training is here, it comes every February without fail, especially now that massive revenue gains have guaranteed a state of indefinite labor peace within the game. It’s comforting that baseball is back and being played again right now, but then again, spring training is nothing but the world’s biggest tease for me.

The games don’t actually count, even those played in the World Baseball Classic, no matter how much Jon Morosi wants those games to matter.

Spring games aren’t televised for the most part, which seems like a great missed opportunity to generate additional revenue for Major League Baseball. The good folks in MLB’s Manhattan offices do a wonderful job of extracting every last dollar from the consumer, but in this area, they’re dropping the ball. Other than the fancy, new, predominantly taxpayer-funded spring training complexes in Arizona and Florida, spring baseball remains so 1980’s. To follow a game, one has to listen to it on the radio. Oh, the injustice of that! Televising all of the spring training games would certainly get me and other baseball addicts in front of the electronic box watching their product for at least another 100 hours every March. You would think the advertisers would love a crack at that extra opportunity for seduction, and thus would pay top dollar for it.

Next Tuesday, my team, the San Francisco Giants, will be on television for the first time this spring, but the game won’t count and the regulars might not play much at all. Still, it will give me something to do for three hours and hopefully something to write about for hours afterwards.

Pitchers and catchers report around Valentine’s Day every year, and a few weeks later, the annual baseball encyclopedia Baseball Prospectus ships to bookstores, which is far more exciting than anything else that happens before the real games start. I’m about half way through this year’s version, and somehow, I’m optimistic about every team I’ve read about, except for the Astros.

Yet even the Astros are compelling to me. Their second baseman, Jose Altuve, is a gamer worthy of one day wearing a Giants uniform. If not for the presence of Marco Scutaro, I’d love to trade for him now. Jason Castro is one of a number of former first round picks they’ve collected who have legitimate upside. The farm system has improved drastically since Ed Wade’s kamikaze ride to nowhere finally ended with the inevitable crash and burn that characterizes all delusional suicide missions.

The destruction his regime laid upon that franchise has been quite a sight to behold. The Astros entered last season in about the same state that Dresden was in after the Allies bombed it into oblivion during World War II. They’ve been truly awful over the last two years, and they’ll be just as bad this year, but it is fascinating to watch the total rebuilding effort going on under savvy new GM Jeffrey Luhnow, who also happened to write the forward to this year’s edition of Baseball Prospectus.

The optimism I have for each team I’ve read about thus far is about two things: my inability to make accurate, concrete assessments and projections of what will happen this year, and the parity that exists in baseball.

There are no truly great teams in baseball right now, though I suppose the Nationals and Tigers could ascend to a level of masterful dominance this season if everything breaks right. Other than the Astros, there are no truly awful teams, either. The Twins and Rockies don’t look good on paper, but if you squint hard enough, you can see reasons for hope.

Revenue sharing has certainly helped even the playing field. However, I think the democratization of information has done more than anything to increase parity. In the so-called Information Age, which has led to the sabermetric revolution in baseball, there just aren’t vast differences between front offices anymore. Sure, some teams like the Phillies, Twins, Tigers and Giants aren’t embracing analytics as much as the Cubs, Red Sox, Rays and A’s, but even the old-school Giants have started using advanced technologies and statistics to enhance their player evaluations. Sabermetrics was initially about the numbers versus the old-school scouting methods, but in most front offices that debate doesn’t exist anymore, and sabermetrics is now about enhancing the scouting reports with advanced numbers to create a holistic view of each player. The old school versus new school debate is now being played out only in the imaginations of crusty old columnists writing predominantly for a dying newspaper industry as this crazy, new-aged internet takes over the world.

Even in the advanced Information Age with the technology available to measure every single event that takes place on the baseball field, it still comes down to a simple gut calculus with each player: acquire, or don’t acquire. Do the deal, or don’t do the deal. Give up what it takes to trade for Big Game James Shields, or don’t. Pay the millions it takes to sign Angel Pagan, or let him walk. Yes or no. The simplicity of that amidst all of the data, uncertainty and confusion is probably the single greatest factor continuing to drive my interest in the game.

“What would I do if I were in Sabey-Sabes’ [Giants' GM Brian Sabean] shoes?” It is that question that drives my mind through the baseball-less winter and the fake baseball that characterizes spring training. When the season starts, and Pagan is hitting .220 through the end of April, that thought metamorphosis shifts to, “what would I have done differently if I had been in Sabean’s shoes?”

I can’t play the game at the professional level, obviously. Having been unable to play it, I certainly can’t coach it or scout it, either. However, I can imagine myself in the GM chair, calling the shots, acquiring the players, telling the agents they’re nothing but ambulance-chasing trial lawyers and they won’t get a dime from me, doing the deals, telling the scouts to get out in the field and start humping and getting me the damn players we need.

And that insane imagination takes me back to being a child in the backyard pretending to play the game, pretending to be Will Clark, which is where this whole mess started in the first place.

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