LAKELAND, Fla. -- Some first impressions from spring training:
1. Tony La Russa looked incredibly relaxed as he chatted in Tigers manager Jim Leyland's office on Tuesday, leaning back in a chair and trading verbal jabs with his longtime friend. La Russa is essentially a baseball lifer and arguably the greatest manager of all-time, but there has not been a day, he indicated, when he has regretted his decision to retire. "I'm not missing the baseball side yet," La Russa said.
He intends to follow Detroit Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski for the next couple of weeks to learn more about front-office operation, and then he'll go watch games in Arizona, where he hasn't been in spring training in almost 20 years. La Russa has talked about a role with Major League Baseball to work on special assignments, at the behest of commissioner Bud Selig.
But there was nothing in the way that he talked that would give you the impression he wants to manage again. Rather, he seems fully comfortable that he made the right decision to walk away from the St. Louis Cardinals. "It's a long time to be in one place," he said. "The place [the Cardinals' franchise] needs a fresh look."
2. The first guy in the batting cage for the Tigers on Tuesday was Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder followed him, which makes complete sense, because that's how they'll hit during the season. Cabrera at No. 3 and Fielder at No. 4. Leyland settled on this relatively quickly, he explained, after thinking about how Ryan Braun hit in front of Fielder with the Milwaukee Brewers and how Fielder seemed to handle it well.
Cabrera, Fielder and Brennan Boesch -- who can match Cabrera and Fielder for distance -- are going to have an incredible amount of fun taking batting practice this year. They laughed and shouted at every long drive on a back field at the Tigers' complex, where there is a row of tall pines behind the right field fence -- and the trees were battered over and over by the left-handed hitting Boesch and Fielder. "HEADS UP!" Cabrera screamed each time a deep drive went to right. When Cabrera took his turn in the box, he carved long liners to right field, over and over, shouting to the others to guess whether they would clear the fence.
"SI OR NO?" Cabrera yelled. "SI OR NO? SI OR NO?"
When the ball would land on the other side of the chain-link fence, Cabrera punctuated the drive this way: "SI, M-----------."
When the group's batting practice ended, Fielder walked up to Cabrera and asked about the way he mashed to the opposite field: "How do you do that?"
Wedge and the Mariners have handled this perfectly. None of this conversation would have taken place if Ichiro hit well last year, but at age 38, he's coming off a year in which he ranked 137th among 145 qualified hitters in the big leagues in OPS. This may not work. But right from the start, Seattle has turned this into a flexible situation, with Ichiro open to moving to different places in the lineup now that he's out of the leadoff spot.
If he hits well, he could stay in the No. 3 spot or move back to leadoff. If he struggles, well, then the table has been set for change, and Ichiro will be moved toward the bottom of the lineup in the last year of his contract with the Mariners. It's not about disrespect, it's about Seattle trying to win games, and if Ichiro is not the same level of player he's been in the past, then he needs to be moved in the lineup.
Epstein is regarded as one of the great baseball minds in the sport -- I took an informal poll of about 15 GMs in the summer of 2010 about who they thought was the best in their business, and Epstein was the landslide winner -- and he helped to create millions and millions of dollars in business for the Red Sox. The Cubs envision him doing the same for them.
Boston should've gotten more for him, but the club ownership made a tremendous mistake by not getting a top prospect before he walked out the door, and remember, the Red Sox could have stopped this whole thing at any time by saying no. On Oct. 1, they had all the leverage, and they gave it away by letting the process advance.
Boston has need for a bullpen arm.
5. Word is the D-backs' Joe Saunders is in great shape and prepared to serve in what should be a very deep Arizona Diamondbacks rotation. He picked his family over financial gain, writes Nick Piecoro.
6. Hanley Ramirez began his work at third base. Some rival talent evaluators believe that his transition to the position will be smoothed out greatly if he hits early in the season, to make him feel comfortable with all of the change.
7. San Diego Padres GM Josh Byrnes on the start of his camp: "I would say Joe Wieland continues to look good. We obviously liked him at the time of the Mike Adams deal, and he's probably been better than expected after we got him. Andrew Cashner looks healthy and is throwing well. Jose DePaula continues to get better and grow into his body -- a lefty who finished strong last year and can reach 96 mph."
8. Houston Astros GM Jeff Luhnow on the start of Houston' camp: "Brett Wallace and Chris Johnson both look good swinging the bat. Jordan Schaefer has a beautiful swing, with surprising pop for a speedster. Jed Lowrie looks like a 10- year veteran in the way he does everything. David Carpenter, Wilton Lopez, and several other arms looked good in their bullpens. It's so early, though."
After speaking with some folks in camps this year, change in this is inevitable, for the same reason that quarterbacks have been increasingly protected by the NFL: Money. Teams invest a lot of money developing and emplacing catchers, and for the sake of one run in one game during the course of a summer, a lot of smart people in the game believe collisions are just not worth it while running the enhanced risk of injuries.
Whether it's by rule change or not, the culture of the home plate collision is clearly changing, with a lot of players saying privately they just think it's acceptable for a catcher to serve as a crash-test dummy.
• Bobby Abreu says to Enrique Rojas, in reference to the Los Angeles Angels: Play me or trade me. There aren't a lot of places for him to go, because the general perception of him is that he no longer has the ability to play every day in the outfield, and most AL teams have filled their DH spots.
• Major League Baseball adopted a change that can be called the "Maddon Rule."
Dings and dents
Moves, deals and decisions
8. A bill that would help Miami pay for a parking garage is in trouble.
The fight for jobs
• The goal for the Jays' starters is to go deep, writes Mark Zwolinski.
• Honesty is not really the best policy in spring training, writes Jim Souhan. I'd respectfully disagree with what Jim writes in this column. Some of this stuff is old for reporters, but for each annual blooming of players, it's not; the 2012 Tigers are not the 2011 Tigers. There should be a renewed sense of optimism in each camp, and for each player, and if there isn't, they probably should find something else to do. A player dedicating himself to getting in great shape is the first domino of great things we might see in August.
• Vanderbilt is going for its 20th win tonight.
And today will be better than yesterday.