From Florida to Arizona, what to watch for this spring
Ten storylines worth following as teams get back on field to prepare for new season
With Spring Training camps opening in Arizona and Florida this week, baseball can turn its attention back to the field. The business takes a back seat and teams can focus on getting their rosters in shape for the start of the season.
The talks turn from free-agent pursuits and blockbuster trades to position battles and the health of players attempting comebacks.
Here are 10 storylines to watch:
Yankees: Who's on third?
... and first and second and shortstop? Not advancing to the postseason for the second time in 19 seasons, the Yankees made a splash, landing Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka after signing free-agent outfielders Carlos Beltran and Jacoby Ellsbury and catcher Brian McCann. What they didn't do was answer the questions about an infield in upheaval.
Second baseman Robinson Cano signed a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Mariners. Third baseman Alex Rodriguez finally accepted a season-long suspension for violating baseball's PED policy. And first baseman Mark Teixeira and shortstop Derek Jeter are coming off serious injuries that virtually wiped out their 2013 seasons. The Yanks can cross their fingers for a return of Teixeira from wrist surgery, who will turn 34 on April 11, and Jeter from the broken left ankle, but he will be 40 in June. Are Brian Roberts at second and journeymen Brendan Ryan at shortstop and Kelly Johnson at third really answers for a team with postseason aspirations?
A's: The little guys who could
The A's have found a formula for success and it doesn't cost a lot. They are coming off back-to-back division titles despite ranking 29th out of 30 teams in Opening Day payroll in 2012 and 27th in '13. They ignored the Angels' landing of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson two years ago, and Josh Hamilton prior to last season. Now they also have challenges issued by Seattle, which shook up the baseball scene by signing Cano and then also adding free agents Corey Hart and Fernando Rodney, and Texas, which traded for Prince Fielder and signed Shin-Soo Choo. Oakland's response? The A's took a risk on pitchers Scott Kazmir, Jim Johnson and Eric O'Flaherty, and let it be known they aren't the least bit intimidated by the deep pockets of their rivals.
Rangers: Who has Washington's back?
The Rangers have not met expectations in each of the past two seasons, watching the A's win the American League West, while also losing Wilson and Hamilton to free agency. They bolstered their roster with a $268 million commitment in which they acquired Fielder from Detroit (which picked up $30 million of the $168 million he's due the next seven years) and signed Choo to a seven-year, $130 million deal. What Texas didn't do was give manager Ron Washington any love. He goes into the spring in the final year of his contract and no longer has the security of backer Nolan Ryan, who lost a power struggle that resulted in his resignation as CEO.
Red Sox: Second time around
A year ago, the Red Sox became only the 11th team in Major League history to go from last to first, and the only one other than the 1991 Twins to cap such a season by winning a World Series. Can they repeat their success in 2014? Of the 10 previous teams that went from worst to first, only two won back-to-back division titles: the Braves in 1991-92 and the Cubs in 2007-08. Boston lost Ellsbury and potentially shortstop Stephen Drew to free agency, and it's looking for unproven replacements to pick up the slack. The candidates for center field are Jackie Bradley Jr., who struck out 31 times in 95 big league at-bats last year, and Grady Sizemore, attempting to come back at the age of 31 after missing the better part of the past four seasons. Xander Bogaerts, 21, gets the shot at shortstop after only 60 games at the Triple-A level.
Tigers: New kid on the block
Jim Leyland took his likely Hall of Fame managerial resume into retirement after taking the Tigers to three straight AL Central titles. Enter Brad Ausmus. A graduate of Dartmouth College who arrives with his only managerial experience being his time with Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic, Ausmus inherits a veteran team. However, he has never let odds get in his way. He was a 48th-round Draft choice of the Yankees and an Expansion Draft pick of the Rockies, who dealt him because Bob Gebhard, then the general manager, didn't want Ausmus to block the development of Jayhawk Owens. Ausmus' answer to the questions about his ability? An 18-year big league career, including three with Detroit. He won three Gold Glove Awards and was considered one of the game's premier handlers of pitchers.
Nationals: Making up for lost time
After winning the National League East in 2012 but getting knocked out in the postseason, the Nationals were expected to make a major statement last year and send manager Davey Johnson into retirement with a World Series ring. So much for expectations. They finished 10 games behind Atlanta and were a combined 7-24 against the three NL division winners, leaving the franchise that began as the Montreal Expos in 1969 as the only one other than Seattle to have never appeared in a World Series. With Johnson having moved on, GM Mike Rizzo went to the other extreme and brought in former Arizona third-base coach Matt Williams, who has no regular-season managerial history on his resume.
Cardinals: Shuffling the Cards
From Tony La Russa to Mike Matheny, nothing seems to change in St. Louis. No team in the NL has won more regular-season games -- 538 -- over the past six seasons than the Cards, who have reached at least the NL Championship Series in each of the past three seasons, during which they won a World Series and lost another. The Cardinals have not been afraid to juggle their roster, and this offseason was no different. They have new faces at three of the four spots up the middle. Joining incumbent catcher Yadier Molina in the projected lineup are shortstop Jhonny Peralta, second baseman Kolten Wong, and center fielder Peter Bourjos. Bourjos' acquisition from the Angels will allow Allen Craig to slide over to right field, vacated when Beltran left.
Pirates: Time for the next step
So much for the celebration in the Steel City. Yes, the Pirates ended two decades of decay last season, winning 94 games and an NL Wild Card spot en route to their first postseason appearance and winning record since 1992. The Bucs and their fans felt like a major burden had been lifted. Manager Clint Hurdle, however, has made it clear that there's no satisfaction in what happened last year. The Pirates didn't win a division title, and they didn't get to the World Series. And that, said Hurdle, are the goals he has set for this season. The Bucs haven't been to the World Series since they knocked off Baltimore in 1979. Since that time, 27 other teams have been to the World Series (aforementioned Seattle and Washington are the others who have not been there), and 19 of them have won at least one World Series title.
Dodgers: The pressure is on
The great debate about manager Don Mattingly ended when he was signed to a three-year extension, but it's not like there will be any dull moments at Dodger Stadium. The new ownership has made it clear that money is no object and winning is the only acceptable result. In the owners' two years, the Dodgers' payroll has more than doubled from the $104 million of 2011. It's Mattingly who is expected to keep the egos checked at the clubhouse door. Given his experience as a Yankees player and coach in the days of The Boss, Mattingly has the perfect personality to go undistracted by outside influences.
Giants: It's time, again
The Giants have won two of the past four World Series. Each time, they stumbled the following year, in part because their rotation wasn't as consistent. San Francisco wondered if it could be the residual of workloads made heavier by an extra month of pitching in the postseason. Something certainly went haywire. Matt Cain had been the ace until last year, when he was 8-10 with a 4.00 ERA, but that came after a three-season stretch in which he worked 715 2/3 innings, including the postseason. Will he bounce back after a career-low 184 1/3 innings last year? Ditto Ryan Vogelsong, who after going 14-9 with a 3.37 ERA in 2012 was limited to 19 starts, 103 2/3 innings and a 4-6 record with a 5.73 ERA.