Spring training is baseball's version of the senior prom: Everyone gets excited. Everyone goes. Everyone has a good time. Except, I suppose, for the people who forget to bring their pitching. They never have fun.
Some would argue -- and I am one of them -- that these are baseball's most captivating weeks. October is more memorable, but February and March signal winter's demise and near-universal optimism. Sources say sunshine and contentment remain undefeated.
But let's face it: All spring mornings in Florida and Arizona are not created equal. Somewhere, a diehard is looking at her team's roster, along with the cost of a flight and hotel, and asking, "Really? I'm about to shell out hundreds of dollars for this ?"
This column is dedicated to her.
Since spring training has intoxicating powers, consider this a plea to enjoy it responsibly. Here's a list of five teams who aren't going to win the World Series this year -- based on signals sent by their moves (or non-moves) this offseason. Buy your season tickets ... for 2013.
New York Mets The Mets' payroll has dropped roughly $50 million since this time last year. They lost popular shortstop Jose Reyes because they weren't able to match the Marlins' offer -- a notion that would have seemed absurd two years ago. Sandy Alderson, the general manager, told reporters in December that the franchise had an operating loss of $70 million last year.
The Mets are doing business in a manner uncommon for a New York baseball franchise. And with Bernard Madoff litigation still pending, there's no foreseeable end to the ownership's cash shortage.
Yes, this is a lousy time to be a Mets fan. The Marlins and Nationals did more to upgrade their rosters this offseason, while the Phillies and Braves return most of the players who helped them win 102 and 89 games, respectively. The Mets suffered 85 defeats in 2011 and responded by signing closer Frank Francisco to a two-year, $12 million contract.
It seems that every team in the National League East is getting better -- except the Mets.
"It's a perception," Alderson acknowledged Sunday. "But I don't think anybody in the division could add any more talent to their roster than we can. We're talking about adding Johan Santana. We're talking about adding Ike Davis. Daniel Murphy was the fifth-leading hitter in the league when he went out with his injury. David Wright missed two months. [All are expected to be full participants in spring training.] We've substantially improved our bullpen.
"So, did we add talent? I think we did, the fact that we didn't sign someone for $100 million notwithstanding. ... It's an uphill battle getting that message across."
The Mets' payroll should be around $90 million this year. Alderson pointed out that there are some "misconceptions" about how far that figure has dropped in recent months; he said the on-field payroll is close to what it was at the end of the 2011 season -- after Luis Castillo, Oliver Perez, Carlos Beltran and Francisco Rodriguez were gone.
However one adds up the salaries, the Mets face a daunting task. They must contend with a division that Alderson said "rivals the American League East" in its competitive depth. The Mets' best hope for a .500 season involves Santana, Wright and Jason Bay reviving their careers in the same year.
If that doesn't come to pass, they could finish last for the first time since Steve Trachsel was their No. 1 starter.
Houston Astros For years under former owner Drayton McLane, the Astros operated with a win-now philosophy. That was fine when Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio were in their primes, less so when an aging core and barren farm system made it necessary to rebuild.
But McLane never permitted his team to complete its life cycle, propping up a mediocre team with patchwork veteran signings that forced the Astros to surrender draft picks.
Now the Astros have new management: owner Jim Crane, president/CEO George Postolos, general manager Jeff Luhnow. And they understand what needs to happen.
"The near-term goal is to put up the best 25 guys to compete in the NL Central right out of the gate -- that's one part of the message," Luhnow said over the weekend in a telephone interview.
"The other part of the message is we're not going to rob from tomorrow to win a few extra games today. We have a farm system that's widely recognized as being among the bottom third in baseball. We're coming off one of our worst seasons. We have a lot of work to do."
The Astros didn't add expensive talent during the offseason. That was wise. In fact, the trade countdown is on for two high-priced stars: first baseman Carlos Lee (owed $18.5 million through 2012) and left-handed starter Wandy Rodriguez (owed $25.5 million through 2013).
Luhnow said Lee is penciled in to play first base for the Astros this year.
"If he gets off to a good start, and clubs feel like he's someone they need for the stretch run, I'm sure we're going to get calls," Luhnow said. "And we're certainly going to be answering the phone."
Rodriguez, meanwhile, has a winning record and 3.36 ERA while averaging nearly 200 innings over the past three years. He's a strong candidate to start Opening Day.
"A left-handed starter at the top of the rotation who can give you quality innings is a hard asset to replace," Luhnow said. "At the same time, any decision we're making is considerate of the medium to long term. We're looking at how we can get good and stay good. If we get an offer for Wandy that gives us an opportunity to improve the ballclub, we'll look at it. But we're not actively trying to get rid of him. He's an important part of our plan for next year."
In other words: Stay tuned. The Astros have competition for all but a handful of roster spots this spring. Particularly if they move Lee and Rodriguez, they will be the closest thing to an expansion team we've seen in some time.
Seattle Mariners I understand why the Mariners made their blockbuster trade with the Yankees: They scored the fewest runs in the American League in each of the past three seasons. They were starving for offense, and the big free agents weren't willing to come to Seattle. So, they traded from what they believe is a position of strength -- the starting rotation -- to acquire a power hitter who won't become a free agent for six more years.
But it will be almost impossible for this deal -- right-handers Michael Pineda and Jose Campos to New York; catcher/designated hitter Jesus Montero and right-hander Hector Noesi to Seattle -- to look like a win for the Mariners in the near term. Pineda will be a key starting pitcher for a Yankees team that appears destined for the postseason. Montero doesn't yet have a defined role in the everyday lineup of the still-rebuilding Mariners.
The trade weakened the 2012 Mariners, because Pineda was essential to any scenario in which they finished close to .500. Now the rotation includes Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Hisashi Iwakuma and some combination of Noesi, Blake Beavan, Kevin Millwood and Charlie Furbush. And that won't be good enough to compete with the Angels and Rangers.
Unquestionably, the pitching prospects are coming: Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Erasmo Ramirez, and, in time, the electrifying Taijuan Walker. But their biggest impact -- at least in their ability to go pitch-for-pitch with Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and C.J. Wilson -- won't come until 2013 or 2014.
"With those young guys, I'm not going to make any bold statements," Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "I'm just going to let them compete. The young kids probably need more seasoning -- but there were people in the organization who felt that way about Pineda a year ago."
Of perhaps greater importance, the Mariners must find out very quickly which hitters can give them All-Star-caliber production and provide the foundation for a post-Ichiro lineup.
Can Franklin Gutierrez stay healthy? Is Casper Wells an everyday outfielder? Will Mike Carp hit his way into the lineup while playing passable defense? Is Justin Smoak going to justify the Cliff Lee trade? Where do Kyle Seager and Alex Liddi fit? Can Montero catch?
At the very least, the Mariners need answers. That way, next offseason can be about getting the franchise back to the postseason for the first time since 2001.
Oakland Athletics The Angels added C.J. Wilson. The Rangers added Yu Darvish.
The A's subtracted Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman -- who ranked first, second, fourth and seventh in games started for Oakland last year.
The A's probably won't finish with the fourth-best rotation ERA in the American League, as they did in 2011. Of course, a stellar rotation did little for them last year. Oakland finished with a 74-88 record and one managerial firing.
Billy Beane did little to upgrade a lineup that scored fewer runs than all but two AL clubs last year. Add up the factors -- a low-impact offense, an unproven rotation, a bullpen that is without closer Andrew Bailey -- and a .500 record would be the best-case scenario for the A's.
It's hard to envision the A's challenging for the AL West title until 2014. By then, the prospects acquired in the Cahill and Gonzalez deals -- Brad Peacock, Tom Milone, Jarrod Parker -- should be entering their respective primes. But for now, until Dallas Braden and Brett Anderson return from injuries, the A's are left to counter the Angels' aces with the likes of Brandon McCarthy and Bartolo Colon.
The A's will be able to claim 2012 is a success if they see progress from the youngish hitters who have yet to establish themselves as first-division regulars: Brandon Allen, Daric Barton, Chris Carter, Collin Cowgill, Kila Ka'aihue, Josh Reddick, Scott Sizemore and Michael Taylor.
Chicago White Sox It could have been worse, White Sox fans.
Sure, the popular Mark Buehrle left to join Ozzie Guillen with the Marlins. Closer Sergio Santos and right fielder Carlos Quentin were traded for pitching prospects. Setup man Jason Frasor was shipped back to Toronto, leaving another void in the bullpen.
But the all-out fire sale never materialized. The team signed John Danks to a $65 million contract extension, while (for now) holding onto Gavin Floyd and Matt Thornton.
There's a Mets-like argument to be made here: If only the existing cast -- Adam Dunn, Alex Rios, Gordon Beckham, Jake Peavy -- plays up to its potential after last year's disappointments and injuries, the White Sox could exceed popular expectations.
Still, for an organization that struggles to generate buzz in Chicago, this offseason was even more underwhelming than most. Infielder Osvaldo Martinez was the only position player the White Sox added to the 40-man roster from outside the organization -- and he arrived from the Marlins as compensation for Guillen taking their managerial job.
Buehrle's presence will be missed. Thornton hasn't proved he can close. Chris Sale, penciled into the rotation, has never started a game in the major leagues. New manager Robin Ventura is inexperienced. The everyday lineup lacks depth and flexibility.
I'm about to type five words I never could have fathomed during Guillen's eventful tenure: The White Sox look boring.