JUPITER -- Even though there hasn’t been a World Series game played in the state of Florida since the Philadelphia Phillies beat the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, baseball fans in the Sunshine State haven’t had to drive very far in February and March to see the game’s best.
In 10 of the past 11 years, at least one of the Fall Classic’s participants has called the Grapefruit League home during spring training. This year — with the world champion Boston Red Sox in Fort Myers and the National League champions St. Louis Cardinals here in Jupiter — it marks the sixth time during that 11-year span both defending league champions have called Florida their spring training home.
In all, six of last year’s 10 playoff participants are here (Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, Atlanta Braves in Lake Buena Vista, Rays in Port Charlotte and Detroit Tigers in Lakeland).
Not all 15 Grapefruit League teams will play each other. But if you want to see a 2013 World Series rematch, you’ll have two chances — when the Cardinals and Red Sox meet in Jupiter on March 5 and again over in Fort Myers on March 17.
What other intriguing story lines are there entering the start of Grapefruit League action?
No team seems to draw more attention than the Yankees, and this year will be no different with 40-year-old shortstop Derek Jeter announcing this will be his final season before retirement. Last year, closer Mariano Rivera had droves of autograph seekers waiting on every corner during the spring knowing 2013 was to be his final season.
The good news for the Yankees captain is many other fans in pinstripes also will be out to see 25-year-old Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who signed a $155 million deal this offseason to help relieve the sting of losing All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano to the Mariners. The Yankees missed the playoffs last season for only the second time since 1995, and the Bronx Bombers are counting on Tanaka, former Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and Braves catcher Brian McCann to get them back into October.
Speaking of Boston, the buzz in Fort Myers is all about 38-year-old slugger David Ortiz and whether he will receive a contract extension beyond 2014. He hit .309 with 30 homers and 103 RBI en route to earning World Series MVP honors last year, and already has criticized those who have labeled his desire for a contract extension as the first distraction to Boston’s bid for a repeat.
If anything might stand in the way of the Red Sox winning the pennant again, it’s probably the Rays. Joe Maddon’s team didn’t get rid of staff ace David Price in the offseason and instead paid him $14 million to avoid arbitration while resigning Gold Glove first baseman James Loney and signing closer Grant Balfour to bolster the bullpen.
Of the three American League playoff teams in the Grapefruit League, none has undergone a bigger face lift than the Tigers. There’s a new manager (Brad Ausmus), new infield around two-time AL MVP Miguel Cabrera, and right-hander Doug Fister was shipped off to the Washington Nationals in a trade that has left some scratching their heads.
Over in the National League, the reigning champion Cardinals bid farewell to three aging veterans in right fielder Carlos Beltran (Yankees) and right-handers Jake Westbrook and Chris Carpenter, who retired. But with Michael Wacha (age 22), Shelby Miller (23), Lance Lynn (26), Jamie Garcia (27) and 23-year-old closer Trevor Rosenthal, talented pitching is likely to keep the Cardinals very much in the hunt for a fourth consecutive trip to the National League Championship Series.
The Pirates, who pushed the Cardinals hard in the NL Central race and then in the division series, basically stood pat this offseason after league MVP Andrew McCutcheon led them to their first winning season in 20 years. With a payroll near $70 million, it looks like Pittsburgh wants to save its money to re-sign some of its stars when the time comes.
That’s pretty much what defending NL East champion Atlanta did. The Braves spent more than $300 million secure young talents such as right-hander Julio Teheran, first baseman Freddie Freeman, closer Craig Kimbrel, shortstop Andrelton Simmons and right fielder Jason Heyward with contract extensions. Even manager Fredi Gonzalez and general manager Frank Wren received extensions.
Who are the top prospects for fans to watch this spring?
Make sure to swing by Fort Myers to see Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts and center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. While you are there, make sure to head over Twins camp to see center fielder Byron Buxton, the No. 1 prospect in baseball camp, according to MLB.com.
Also, Twins third-base prospect Miguel Sano, a standout from the Dominican Republic, is ranked third overall in the MLB.com top 100 prospect list.