Grapefruit League's eight to watch 

March, 9, 2008
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- No one yet knows the long-term ramifications of Josh Beckett's back stiffness, or how quickly the Mets will get all their pieces back, or whether Mike Hampton's groin pull will have any significant impact on what appeared to be a big comeback story. But circling the vultures and passing the breakdown lanes of Florida, here are eight players/teams that have caught my eye.

1. Miguel Cabrera: He was over 260 pounds last spring with the Marlins. He says he's lost "15, maybe 20" pounds, but he looks like he could be a strong safety at USC, or Michigan, if you prefer. He's not yet 25. He still hit .327 with 34 homers and 119 RBIs in that park in Florida. And in a stacked Tigers' lineup that, if healthy, should score 1,000 runs, he could fulfill Steve Phillips' Triple Crown prediction. Thank Carlos Guillen for some of this. "We worked out every day back home in Venezuela," says Guillen. "And we work out early every morning here. Miguel is very serious." Three of Cabrera's former teammates this spring have brought up his at-bat against Roger Clemens in the 2003 World Series. Clemens threw behind Cabrera's head, and the next pitch landed deep in the right-center field bleachers. "That," says Mike Lowell, "was the biggest hit in that series."

2. Jon Lester: "I'm just feeling better and stronger," says the 24-year-old left-hander, who won the clinching game of the World Series after 10 months of chemotherapy. Fellow lymphoma survivors Scott Radinsky and Jerry DiPoto said it would take 15-18 months for Lester to regain his strength. But this spring he has put on 20 pounds of muscle, his velocity is up in the mid-90s, his curveball is sharp, and they're holding back on his cutter until the rest of his arsenal is ready. What pitching coach John Farrell and Jason Varitek see is that where in the past two years he had trouble getting his fastball down and into the strike zone against right-handed hitters, this spring Lester is driving down and through, and powering his pitches to the arm side against righties. "I think it's a matter of having my strength back," says Lester. "I think he's going to prove to be an elite pitcher," says Farrell.