The baseball offseason is 3 ½ months of rumors, predictions, hype, and projections. I find it frustrating more than anything – it is all planning and discussion without any action. I used to work for a public accounting firm and I liken Spring Training to the two or so months leading up to the start of tax season. You would spend months discussing upcoming work and planning it out, without actually doing much of anything. By the time February rolled around, I almost looked forward to working on an actual tax return. The baseball offseason is just like, only longer and more frustrating in some ways. Then you get to the start of Spring Training, which is of course where we are right now with Orioles pitchers and catchers set to report to Sarasota this weekend. Baseball fans treat the day that pitchers and catchers report to camp as some sort of ritual that symbolizes the beginning of a new baseball season. That is great and all, except for one thing – we still have close to a month and a half to go before the real games actually begin. I like Spring Training because a little baseball is better than no baseball. At the same time, Sprint Training isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. It really amounts to nothing more than a veritable tease. Baseball isn’t really back when Spring Training starts; it is only sort of back.
In many ways, Spring Training is an antiquated event. Years ago, it was used as an opportunity for players to get into shape. We are not talking about working off a little rust. We are talking about working off a winter’s worth of weight gain and relaxation in three weeks. Of course, not all players used Spring Training for that purpose, but certainly more did than do today. Yesteryear’s salaries also weren’t what they are today, meaning more players had offseason jobs to earn extra money. Those players probably weren’t doing a lot of baseball-related activities during the winter months so Spring Training was a time to get back into the baseball groove of things.
These days, with players being so highly paid and on the whole being better conditioned, baseball has become a year-round occupation. Fewer players enter camp significantly out of shape and many have been partaking in baseball-related activities for the past couple of months. In general, the players don’t need to a month to get into game shape as most of them are already there when they arrive in Florida or Arizona.
Spring Training is also historically viewed as a an audition or tryout of sorts. The idea is that everyone that goes to a major league camp is trying out for a job, which in this case is a position on the team’s 25 man roster. This was never entirely accurate. As long as a formal Spring Training structure, complete with Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, have been around teams have generally entered February with a decent idea of their opening day rosters. I don’t want to put a number on it, but I think it is safe to say that there have been few times in the past 60 years where teams have had more than a half dozen spots on their 25 man roster that were realistically up for grabs during Spring Training. A younger player can sometimes force himself onto the opening day roster and there are often at least one or two bullpen spots up for grabs, but the idea of Spring Training has a full-on tryout has never really been accurate.
The commitment a team makes to a player now compared with 60 years ago is also much greater. This is not only true in terms of the financial commitment for the average player (which is certainly far greater) but also the simple ability to maintain a player. With free agency and all of the other various rules surrounding player and team relationships (minor league options, six year minor league free agents, and Rule 5 draft to name a few), there are a lot of different variables to take into account when selecting a 25 man roster beyond who the best players are. All other things being equal, teams are more likely to give a spot to a player with a track record who is out of minor league options than to a rookie who outperforms that other player in exhibition games. If a team is paying one player a $1 million guaranteed salary, that player is most likely going to make the team over a minor league player making the league minimum, regardless of Spring Training performance. It just makes the most economic sense.
What all of this means is that Spring Training is more than a month of repetitive practices that many of the players don’t really need and fabricated roster spot competitions. Spring Training is just an extension of the winter offseason – more rumors, more speculation, and more hype before the real games actually begin.
That doesn’t mean I won’t have my television tuned to MASN on March 5th for the first televised Orioles game of the spring. I will be checking out all of the usual blogs and news sources. I am sure I will follow and even join on the speculation of all the “exciting” competitions, like weather Jai Miller, Ryan Flaherty, or Nick Johnson will win the final bench spot on the team. Still, I try not to put too much stock into all of it. Spring Training is just another tease, another prelude, before the regular season begins – that is when baseball really returns and that is when the fun really begins.