Spring training has commenced in Florida and Arizona, which means Opening Day is right around the corner. While there is never any lack of players, teams or topics to follow regarding America's pastime, here are 14 storylines to keep an eye on in MLB this season.
1. Cano in Seattle
The Mariners quantified desperation in December when they plowed $240 million into one player in an effort to escape irrelevancy. That player was the best on the free-agent market, Robinson Cano, who turned 31 in October and is now signed through 2023. Critics panned the deal, citing the recent folly of 10-year contracts to players over 30. “It’ll be another club that in five years from now, maybe less, will be looking to move an enormous contract and eat a bunch of it,” ESPN’s Curt Schilling said at the winter meetings. “It never fails. It’s three, four, five years. Six is a stretch. Because it’s impossible to stay healthy in this sport.” History supports Schilling, the former pitcher, with Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols standing as powerful warning signs the Mariners did not heed. But Cano has been remarkably durable, playing in at least 159 games in each of the last seven seasons, and he is the majors’ most productive second baseman. After losing half their fans since 2002, the Mariners felt that the contract was a risk they had to take. “Anytime you can make your club better — and especially if you can upgrade with a star anywhere — it helps everything,” says Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik. “It helps your club currently, it helps you going forward.” The Mariners, with just two winning seasons in their last 10, hope the Cano decade is a lot better.
2. A’s Held Hostage
How many times must raw sewage seep into the locker rooms at the O.co Coliseum before Major League Baseball lets the Athletics move to San Jose? It happened twice last season, yet MLB continues to let the A’s twist in an ill wind. Commissioner Bud Selig’s indecisiveness on the future of one of the game’s most innovative franchises is baffling. Selig formed a committee to study the situation in 2009 yet has not authorized the A’s to move. The San Francisco Giants claim San Jose as their territory, and Selig seems unwilling to reverse that, even though the Giants got the territory as a favor from the A’s in 1992. The city of San Jose, which is ready to break ground on a baseball-only ballpark, is tired of waiting and filed a lawsuit last year accusing MLB of conspiring to stop the team’s proposed move, which it denied last June 17. As a business, the A’s need clarity on this, if only Selig would act. The whole ordeal stinks, you might say, except for the team’s performance on the field. Despite notoriously low payrolls, the A’s will attempt to win their third AL West title in a row.
3. Instant Replay
When Major League Baseball announced plans to begin using widespread instant replay for the 2014 season, the league warned fans to expect some kinks in the system, which will be reviewed after the year for possible improvements. The evolving process (which began with reviewable home run calls in August 2008) will seek to correct blown calls on the field through a new challenge system, in which managers will get three challenges per game, one in the first six innings and two thereafter. The manager will keep his challenges if he is correct (that is, if the call is overturned), and an unused challenge in the first six innings does not carry over to the rest of the game. A league official monitoring video feeds in New York will make the final call on each challenge, which MLB believes will solve the problem of protracted manager arguments. But will managers really abide by the new rule that prevents them from arguing an overturned call? And if the system works well, will baseball push to expand it even further, to cover checked swings or even balls and strikes? That seems doubtful, but for years it seemed unlikely that MLB would even take this step. But this is a legacy item for Bud Selig, who insists that this will be his final season after more than two decades as commissioner. It should make for a fascinating subplot, where the umpires on the field will finally have access to conclusive footage that fans have had on their televisions for years.
4. Cardinals Pitchers
Year after year, it seems, the St. Louis Cardinals just keep finding them. Young impact pitchers continue to flow from the minor leagues to Busch Stadium. The Cardinal Way got a lot of attention in October as the rest of the league marveled at the instant success of pitchers who did not even start the season in the majors, like Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist and Michael Wacha, who won his first four postseason starts before losing the final game of the World Series. Remarkably, the Cardinals’ postseason roster included only one pitcher — Lance Lynn — who was also on the active roster in their 2011 championship run, and had such depth that a 15-win rookie, Shelby Miller, pitched only once in October. “You’ve got to give the organization their props for what they’ve done in drafting to get these young kids up here,” says the former ace Chris Carpenter, who retired in November. “Not only their stuff but their personalities, because that goes along with it too. These guys want it.” With Jaime Garcia returning from shoulder surgery, the Cardinals could have a logjam in the rotation, with Adam Wainwright, Joe Kelly, Wacha, Lynn, Miller and Martinez, whom the team would like to try as a starter. However it shakes out, expect some little-known rookie to make a major impact, in the rotation or relief, to help the Cardinals continue their reign as the premier team in the National League.
5. Top Twins
The Minnesota Twins probably know they will not contend this season. They have lost at least 96 games in each of the last three seasons, the longest such streak in Minnesota history. But the Twins are inching toward respectability, spending $73 million on free-agent starters Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, and they could soon take a major leap forward. Twins fans will keep a close and hopeful eye on the jewels of the farm system, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, who finished the season ranked first and third, respectively, on MLB.com’s list of the top prospects in the game. Buxton, a 20-year-old, five-tool center fielder, dominated two levels of Class A ball last season, hitting .334 with 12 homers and 55 steals. Sano, a third baseman who turns 21 in May, hit 35 homers at two levels while batting .280. He reached Double-A last year and could debut in Minnesota this season. Either way, figure on both to be at Target Field for the Futures Game, part of the All-Star festivities this July as the Twins host the Midsummer Classic for the first time since 1985.
6. Kershaw Goes for Four
The race for an ERA title does not capture the imagination the way, say, a home run race does. Earned run average is a rate statistic, not a counting statistic, and the need for a calculator removes some of the romance. But Clayton Kershaw’s pursuit of a fourth consecutive National League ERA crown is worth following. This run by Kershaw, the Dodgers’ dominant lefty, evokes the hallowed name of Sandy Koufax, another Dodgers lefty who was the last pitcher to accomplish the feat. Koufax did it five times in a row, from 1962 through 1966, when he retired at 30 with arthritis in his left elbow. Kershaw, who turns 26 in March, is the first pitcher to win three ERA titles before turning 28. He shared a clubhouse embrace with Koufax at Dodger Stadium after helping the Dodgers advance in the playoffs last October. “He’s the first Clayton Kershaw,” Koufax said. “He doesn’t deserve to be compared to anybody. He is who he is and he’s great.”
7. Ryno Gets His Chance
It’s been 46 years since a Hall of Famer managed in the majors after managing in the minors. Most baseball immortals lack the patience for the climb, or let their ego get in the way. But this is the route Ryne Sandberg took as he worked his way back to the stage he dominated as the National League’s premier second baseman in the 1980s. The Phillies, who sent Sandberg on his way to Cooperstown in a disastrous trade with the Cubs in 1982, are giving him his chance. After managing in their farm system and coaching in Philadelphia, Sandberg replaced Charlie Manuel late last season. Manuel set a club record for wins by a manager and guided the team to the 2008 championship. The problem for Sandberg — a no-nonsense leader who demands attention to detail — is that many of those same players remain on the team, resulting in an aging, injury-prone roster that does not seem ready to win. The Phillies’ front office seems to expect the core of Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz and Chase Utley to perform as it did several years ago, with three expensive pitchers — Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon — leading an otherwise threadbare staff. It’s a lot to ask of Sandberg, who is signed through 2016, but nobody expected much from him as a player, either — and we all saw how that career turned out.
8. Chicago Hopeless
The Cubs lost 96 games last season. The White Sox lost 99. The 195 combined defeats were the most ever for the city’s teams in a single season, and this isn’t exactly a town known for winning, with just one championship since 1917. Neither team looks poised to compete for one this season, with both on roughly parallel rebuilding tracks. The Cubs have spent their first two years under Theo Epstein’s leadership trying to flood a lean farm system, and the team appears to have several high-ceiling hitters on the way, like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler. The White Sox started their teardown last season, and their system is not as deep, but they do have some young, impact major leaguers to excite the South Side. Outfielder Avisail Garcia, 22, enters his first full season in Chicago after parts of two seasons with Detroit. The Sox also splurged for the slugging Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu, spending $68 million on a player who hit .360 with three homers in the World Baseball Classic. Neither team has much pitching depth, but the White Sox have a genuine ace in Chris Sale, and the Cubs unearthed an All-Star last season in Travis Wood. Their turnarounds could take a while, but the teams recognize the task ahead of them. The race to respectability is on.
9. End of the Suffering
In the early 2000s, baseball was remarkably democratic. Nine different teams won a championship in the decade from 2001 through 2010, with six of those teams doing so for the first time in decades and two others, the Diamondbacks and the Angels, winning the first World Series in franchise history. The Red Sox erased 86 years of misery, the White Sox 88. The Cardinals won after 24 years without a title, the Phillies after 28, the Giants after 56. The last three seasons, though, we’ve seen some of the same old teams lifting the trophy: the Cardinals again in 2011, the Giants again in 2012 and the Red Sox again in 2013. Across the baseball landscape, eight teams have still never won a championship, and 11 others have gone at least two decades since their last. In other words, a full two-thirds of MLB fan bases are ripe for a catharsis. The outpouring of emotion and affection from proud, long-suffering fans is baseball at its best, and we can’t wait to see who experiences the feeling this fall.
10. Albert, April and the Angels
Last spring training, Angels ace Jered Weaver said that one thing was absolutely, positively essential for the team to succeed. “I’ve been here long enough now to know that it’s not fun playing catch-up,” Weaver said. “Every game’s important no matter whether it’s April or August.” A slow start in 2012 had cost the Angels a playoff spot despite a winning season. Last season, the Angels sputtered to a 9–17 April and wound up with their worst record since 2003. Josh Hamilton had his worst season, the pitching mostly fell apart and
Albert Pujols did not play after July 26 because of plantar fasciitis. Even when healthy, Pujols was rarely the force he had been with the Cardinals, hitting .258 with 17 homers and a career-low .767 OPS. The Angels might have expected such a decline late in his 10-year contract, but not in Year 2. With eight years remaining on his contract, the Angels need some reassurance that Pujols, at 33, can resume his Hall of Fame pace. With the Dodgers rediscovering their mojo in Los Angeles, the Angels cannot afford another bad start. Ideally, they need production from Pujols and Hamilton to fuel a strong April, change the vibe around Angel Stadium and give the game’s best all-around talent, Mike Trout, a chance to shine in October.
11. Just Who Is Stephen Strasburg?
In 2010, the Washington Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg was the most electrifying player in baseball, crackling radar guns with 100 mph fastballs, devastating breaking balls and changeups at 90 mph. Then came reconstructive elbow surgery that wiped out almost all of 2011 and impacted the Nats again in 2012, when they shut him down in early September because of an innings limit and lost in the first round of the playoffs. The Nationals had admirable intentions, but their sluggish follow-up to a division title showed that postseason berths are never assured and served as a model for how not to handle a high-impact young pitcher. Freed from innings restrictions last year, Strasburg still threw only 183, with just one complete game. He was better than his 8–9 record, but he needed offseason surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. That was an ominous sign for a pitcher whose red-flag mechanics didn’t change much after Tommy John surgery, and raises the issue of whether or not he can ever be the durable, dominant ace fans envisioned. As he turns 26 this summer, Strasburg is under pressure to prove he can lead a staff into October, and then endure high-stress innings when he gets there.
12. The Prince of Texas
The Detroit Tigers wasted little time dumping Prince Fielder last offseason, shipping him to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler despite owing him a staggering $168 million for the next seven years. Only one player (Alex Rodriguez in 2004) had ever been traded with so much remaining on his contract. But the Tigers, who included $30 million in the deal, saw an escape hatch and took it, despite winning the AL Central in Fielder’s first two seasons, once advancing to the World Series. Fielder helped the Tigers, providing protection in the lineup for the incomparable Miguel Cabrera, who won the MVP award both seasons. But he hit just 55 homers overall (he once bashed 50 in a single season for Milwaukee), and his .457 slugging percentage last season ranked 12th among qualifying major-league first basemen. In Texas, Fielder moves to a hitter’s ballpark with a jet stream in right center field, and at 29, he has a chance to reestablish himself as one of the game’s elite sluggers. The Rangers, who never adequately replaced Josh Hamilton’s left-handed power last season, need a jolt of power after posting a .412 team slugging percentage, the lowest for the franchise since 1995. Fielder heralded the change by taking a new uniform number: 84, making him only the second player in MLB history to wear that number, after J.T. Snow of the 2006 Red Sox. He chose 84 for the year he was born; the Rangers would be pleased if that represented his home run total for the next two seasons.
13. Hall Managers
Together they won more than 7,500 games in the major leagues, with 17 pennants and eight championships across 91 seasons of writing out lineup cards. This July 27, Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox will share a stage in Cooperstown, N.Y. All three were elected unanimously by the veterans committee for induction to the Hall of Fame. All three are master storytellers, with Cox’s avuncular charm, La Russa’s professorial wisdom and Torre’s colorful anecdotes sure to be on display at the podium. With their induction, the Hall of Fame more than doubled its roster of living managers, with Torre, La Russa and Cox joining Whitey Herzog and Tommy Lasorda as candidates elected on the basis of their managing careers. The trio ranks 3-4-5 on the all-time victory list for managers — La Russa, then Cox, then Torre — in careers that stretch back to the late 1970s. “I certainly am honored to go to the Hall with these two guys,” Torre says, “because it just would have felt somewhat empty if one of us was left out.”
14. The Biogenesis Bunch
Before last season, the Toronto Blue Jays signed Melky Cabrera to a two-year, $16 million contract, betting that he could repeat his breakout seasons with the Royals and the Giants despite his bust for performance-enhancing drugs. As it turned out, when Cabrera was healthy, he was ordinary, making his performance spike seem even more suspicious. Then again, the Oakland A’s brought back Bartolo Colon after his suspension, and Colon made the All-Star team. Cabrera and Colon were part of the Biogenesis scandal, which ensnared 13 more players last summer, plus Alex Rodriguez. All served their suspensions (except for Rodriguez, who appealed his) and will be back for 2014, including the 2013 All-Stars Everth Cabrera, Nelson Cruz and Jhonny Peralta, who signed for $53 million with the St. Louis Cardinals. How long will fans maintain their hostility toward the Brewers’ Ryan Braun, a former National League MVP, and will Braun be booed in Milwaukee? He has always seemed sensitive to his image, so how will he react? More important, will Braun return to his usual productivity, or will he decline, calling into question just how good he really is? As Brewers owner Mark Attanasio told the New York Times last summer: “We’re going to find that out.”
—Written by Tyler Kepner for Athlon Sports. This is just one of the features that can be found in Athlon Sports' 2014 MLB Preview magazine, which is available on newsstands and online now. Starting with 21 unique covers to choose from, Athlon covers the diamond and circles the bases with enough in-depth preseason analysis, predictions and other information to satisfy fans of the national pastime from the Bronx to the Bay and everywhere in between. Order your copy now!