Whether it's turnover in Toronto, sophomore superstars, or Dodger dollars, there's no shortage of storylines coming this 2013 baseball season. To get you up to speed before opening day, here's a look at everything you need to know.
1. Oh, Canada!
We could probably fill this story with 15 things to watch about the Toronto Blue Jays alone. This team begs for attention, from so many angles, and we know that at least one country will be watching closely. Rival executives have long believed that Canada’s only baseball team, backed by the Rogers Communications fortune, was a sleeping giant. Now, the Blue Jays are wide awake, with emerging young talent (Brett Lawrie), steady veterans (Mark Buehrle), power hitters (Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion) and speedsters (Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio). The Jays could have as many as three aces around Buehrle, who was part of the bounty that general manager Alex Anthopoulos extracted from the Miami Marlins in a November blockbuster. Brandon Morrow has some of the best stuff in the league, Josh Johnson is a former ERA champion, and R.A. Dickey just won the National League Cy Young Award for the Mets. The bullpen is loaded with power arms. The folksy and fiery John Gibbons is back as manager after four years away. And — oh, by the way — the revamped lineup includes Melky Cabrera, who gained a measure of infamy last season when he flunked a steroids test shortly after winning the MVP award at the All-Star Game. The San Francisco Giants refused to activate Cabrera during the postseason, yet won it all in his absence. Cabrera, who cashed in with the Jays for two years and $16 million, would be worth watching wherever he went, to see if he’s anything more than a league-average player without the juice. Here, though, he’s just one storyline on a team that seems poised to take advantage of an AL East that, for the first time in two decades, could be theirs for the taking.
2. Sophomore Stars
Every now and then, the Rookie of the Year Award winners seem destined to have a significant impact on the future of the game. Think Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki in 2001, Eddie Murray and Andre Dawson in 1977, or Tom Seaver and Rod Carew in 1967. It’s been only one season, of course, but Mike Trout and Bryce Harper already have that look. Trout was the runner-up to Miguel Cabrera as the AL Most Valuable Player, putting together the best all-around season of any player in the majors, factoring in speed (an MLB-high 49 steals), power (30 homers) and his nightly highlights on defense. And he just turned 21 in August. Harper is even younger, playing his entire season before turning 20, and while his skills are not quite as advanced as Trout’s, he posted one of the best age-19 seasons in baseball history, batting .270 with 22 homers, 59 runs batted in and 18 steals, while also playing strong defense and showing exceptional instincts. Both players approach the game with passion and relentless drive, and possess such a diverse set of skills that they do something memorable every night. We never know what’s coming next from this pair, and we sure can’t wait to find out.
3. New Dimensions
The ballpark that gave up the fewest home runs last season was AT&T Park, whose tenants, the San Francisco Giants, won the World Series. Yet building a winning team in an extreme pitcher’s park has been much more challenging for the teams in the 28th- and 29th-ranked parks for home runs. The San Diego Padres (Petco Park, 28th) and the Seattle Mariners (Safeco Field, 29th) have not won much lately, and they decided after the season to move in their fences. In San Diego, the power alleys will be reduced by 12 feet in left field and nine feet in right. Another part of the right field wall will come in by 11 feet. In Seattle, the left field walls will be pulled in, in various spots, from four to 17 feet, with a four-foot reduction for much of right field. “We have been an outlier in terms of the difficulty hitting in our ballpark,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik says. “What we really want to be is a fair ballpark for pitchers and hitters. That’s the biggest thing.” Neither the Padres nor the Mariners (whose retractable roof does not enclose the ballpark) can do much about the cool and heavy local air, which can depress the flight of a ball. But at least their hitters won’t be as frustrated as before. Now, of course, the teams need to find hitters talented enough to take advantage. That could be a much bigger challenge.
4. Dodger Dollars
It’s been quite a debut for the new owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who last May paid $2.15 billion for a team emerging from bankruptcy with a payroll just over $100 million. Now the payroll is doubled, Dodger Stadium is being renovated, and the team is stuffed with TV stars. That’s no coincidence, since the Dodgers’ spending has everything to do with a lavish new deal for their cable rights. The Yankees showed the value of must-see players (who also win) on the wildly successful YES Network in New York. The Dodgers haven’t grabbed a playoff spot since 2009, so it will be fascinating to see if all their imports can come together and lead them back. Stan Kasten, the team president, promised that it would take more than dollars to win. “I always say smart beats rich,” he said. “The Yankees got as good as they are because they’re both smart and rich. We’re working on it.” All of the newcomers, even Zack Greinke, must prove the Dodgers smart for believing that their best days are in front of them, not behind them. If it turns out that the Dodgers paid Greinke for his Royals success, Carl Crawford for his Rays success and Hanley Ramirez for his Marlins success (and so on), this could turn into a big-budget Hollywood flop.
5. Hamilton’s New Home
It was time for Josh Hamilton to leave the Texas Rangers. After five seasons in which he led them to their first two World Series, the fans had turned on him, and the team made a tepid offer to bring him back. Even so, the Rangers served Hamilton well in his time there, creating an environment in which he could manage his complicated life and thrive. A hefty contract (five years, $125 million), new teammates and a ballpark that is less hitter-friendly bring challenges that Hamilton, a recovering addict, must navigate now that he’s with the Los Angeles Angels. “I have a past history of making mistakes with drugs and alcohol, drinking twice in seven years, which is not good for me,” Hamilton said after signing. “They’re going to help me with my support system to put things in place that I had with the Rangers.” If Hamilton stays clean, he will add another dangerous bat to a glittering lineup that last year added Albert Pujols from St. Louis. Splashy annual signings do not guarantee success, and the Angels are starting to look like their 1980s teams, put together largely by poaching stars like Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson and Fred Lynn from other teams. But if Hamilton makes a smooth transition, the Angels could power their way to the World Series for the first time in more than a decade.
6. Oriole Luck
The 2013 Baltimore Orioles will be a fascinating case study in luck. All last season, as they clawed to their first playoff berth in 15 years, they battled the perception that their success was a freakish product of extraordinary good fortune. Never mind that the Orioles won 93 games — their success in one-run games made them a prime candidate for a major regression, or so the thinking went. The 2012 Orioles were 29–9 in one-run games, the best winning percentage in such games for any team in the modern era. It would seem to be unsustainable, but the Orioles believe that their power (214 homers, ranking second in MLB) and dominant bullpen (3.00 ERA, ranking fifth) give them a distinct edge in close games. They lost one power hitter this winter, Mark Reynolds, but bring back four others who hit at least 22 home runs. They’ll also have a healthy Nick Markakis and will get to see heralded third baseman Manny Machado, 20, for a full season. And, of course, they retain manager Buck Showalter, the master in-game strategist, who has turned around every team he has managed but still seeks postseason glory.
7. New League for the Astros
The Houston Astros’ 51-year run as a mediocre National League franchise is over. They won a single pennant, in 2005, and were probably best known for the now-outdated innovations of artificial turf and the domed stadium. They ended their NL existence with the two worst seasons in club history, losing 106 games in 2011 and 107 last year. It’s a good time to start over, and the Astros are all about new beginnings. They move to the AL West this season, bringing a rookie manager, new uniforms and a largely anonymous and ever-shifting roster. General manager Jeff Luhnow cleaned house in his first year on the job, and former Nationals coach Bo Porter gets his first chance to lead a team. He doesn’t appear to have much talent to work with, though chances are he will find a gem or two in the massive haul of players Luhnow has acquired in trades, waiver claims and Rule 5 draft picks. Given the size of their market, their new cable revenue, and their annual high draft position, the Astros could be a power in a few years. But that time is not now, and a new batch of opponents may not be enough to bring fans back to Minute Maid Park. The Astros’ presence could boost the win totals of the A’s, the Rangers and the Angels, making it possible for both AL wild cards to come from the West Division.
8. Davey’s Farewell
Tony La Russa retired as a champion with the Cardinals in 2011, and now Washington’s Davey Johnson will try to do the same. Johnson, 70, has declared this to be his final season as a manager, after stops with the Mets, Reds, Orioles, Dodgers and, after more than a decade out of the dugout, the Nationals. He guided the Nats to their first playoff appearance last season, earning the National League Manager of the Year award but losing to St. Louis in a five-game division series. The Nationals were one strike from victory but still lost, the reverse of Johnson’s greatest moment as a manager, when his Mets came within a strike of losing the 1986 World Series, only to stage a furious Game 6 comeback against Boston. That remains Johnson’s only championship team, but he has a chance for another with the Nationals, who led the majors in wins last season (98) and added the durable veteran Dan Haren to the league’s best rotation. Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals’ ace, will have no innings restrictions this year, and Denard Span, the speedy new center fielder, adds another element to the offense. Johnson, brash as ever, welcomes the expectations for his young team. “World Series or bust, that’s probably the slogan this year,” he says. “But I’m comfortable with that.”
Six players were suspended 50 games last season for violating baseball’s steroids policy, the most since 2007. The last three to be caught — former San Francisco Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera, Oakland Athletics pitcher Bartolo Colon and San Diego Padres catcher Yasmani Grandal — tested positive for testosterone. So did the Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun, in Oct. 2011, before his suspension was overturned last spring. It seems to be no coincidence that some players believe they can successfully avoid the testers when it comes to testosterone, and Michael Weiner, the executive director of the players’ union, called it a troubling trend. He vowed in the offseason to “make sure that our deterrent on testosterone is as strong as it can be,” adding that talks were underway to improve the detection of the drug. The sagas of Braun and Cabrera, especially, were major stories in 2012, and the issue bears watching again this season — for the players caught using testosterone, or (one hopes) for the reduction in positive tests.
10. Padded Hats
Twice in the final two months of last season, a pitcher was struck in the head by a line drive. Brandon
McCarthy, then of the Athletics, suffered a skull fracture, brain contusion and epidural hemorrhage in September. The Tigers’ Doug Fister, pitching in the World Series, stayed in the game with no apparent side effects. There is no way to entirely remove the possibility of a batted ball striking a pitcher who does not have time to react, and as McCarthy and Fister showed, the effects of such a blow can vary widely. But baseball deserves credit for trying to reduce the risk. In December, ESPN reported that MLB had examined caps with interior padding and planned to send them to some pitchers for suggestions. Baseball was said to be working with six different companies on prototypes and was hoping to have samples available for pitchers to wear in spring training. Of course, that doesn’t mean pitchers will like them. The caps must be vigorously tested, and beyond that, they must be unobtrusive, since pitching depends so much on precise, repetitive movements. Baseball could try the caps on minor leaguers — the lab rats of the game — before requiring them in the big leagues. But if there’s a way to keep pitchers safer without disrupting their routines, baseball is obligated to consider it. Here’s hoping the prototypes meet with approval and help prevent a tragedy.
11. Kris Medlen
It’s rare to hear old-timers rave so enthusiastically about newcomers. But the Braves’ Kris Medlen was just that impressive late last season. “I would have liked to have played with Kris Medlen, because I do think he has a communication with a force in pitching that most of us can’t talk to,” Braves announcer Don Sutton, the Hall of Fame pitcher, said in September. “It’s an awareness, it’s a sixth sense.” Don’t blame Sutton for hyperbole; Medlen, at the time, was in the middle of an unprecedented roll. The righthander set a major league record by reeling off 23 consecutive starts in which his team won, a streak that began in 2010, stretched through Tommy John surgery and lasted through the end of the 2012 regular season. Medlen’s luck ran out in the wild card game, which he lost despite pitching well, but it will be fascinating to see if he can carry the full-season load as the Braves’ next ace, at age 27. Short and stocky — 5'10", 190 pounds — he does not look the part of a dominant starter. But that’s what he was, with a turbo changeup that helped him post a WHIP of 0.913. Had he thrown enough innings to qualify, that figure would have led both leagues. Not just last year, either — but in each of the last eight seasons.
12. Will Anyone Show Up in Miami?
The Marlins bet big on 2012, and when everything went wrong, owner Jeffrey Loria gave up. There’s no other way to say it. The grand vision of a high-payroll team managed by Ozzie Guillen was given just one season to succeed, before the front office went into the franchise’s default mode and slashed the payroll. The champions of 1997 and 2003 were gutted, piece by piece, and so it is again. Fans in South Florida were already skeptical of Loria, who had promised things would change if only the taxpayers would build him a stadium. Now that he has it, and has slid back so quickly into a major rebuild, the sense of betrayal is greater than ever. Attendance — which reached only 12th in the league last year — seems certain to sink back to last, where it was each season from 2006 through 2011. Loria, of course, should be used to intimate gatherings at his ballparks. He also presided over the final years of the Montreal Expos, and he seems determined to once again turn a nice profit as a welfare case while driving another franchise into oblivion.
13. Royal Contenders
When Darryl Motley caught Andy Van Slyke’s fly ball to win Game 7 of the 1985 World Series for the Royals, a young Dayton Moore was there, watching from a hillside along I-70 as his favorite team reached the pinnacle. Moore, who was 18 then, could not have known that the Royals would never return — not even to the playoffs, let alone the World Series — for at least 27 years. As general manager of the Royals, it’s Moore’s job to get Kansas City back to being a contender, and as he approaches his seventh year there, the time is now. The Royals won only 72 games last year, their 17th losing season in the last 18. But Moore has positioned them to contend now, acquiring four starting pitchers since the 2012 All-Star break — Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, James Shields and Wade Davis. The last two came from Tampa Bay in a controversial December trade that cost the Royals the Minor League Player of the Year, outfielder Wil Myers, and three other prospects. The hope is that homegrown young players like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas will blossom this season, while homegrown veterans who have signed long-term deals, like Billy Butler and Alex Gordon, continue to do their thing. It’s a risky bet, because young, cost-efficient players like Myers are the lifeblood of a small-market franchise. But the Royals are tired of losing, and Shields sees parallels to his former team. “They definitely remind me of our ’07 season going into our ’08 season, in the Rays’ organization,” Shields says. “I think there’s a good possibility we can step in that direction.” The Royals will be overjoyed if that happens; the Rays won the pennant in 2008 and have contended ever since.
14. Bert to the Desert
If you’ve seen “Baseball Tonight” on ESPN (and since you’re reading this magazine, we’ll assume you have), you know Steve Berthiaume, the host who skillfully combines irreverence with insight. Now he’s the play-by-play man for the Arizona Diamondbacks, giving real baseball lovers another reason to stay up late for those telecasts out West. It’s a treat to hear Vin Scully call the Dodgers and Dick Enberg behind the Padres’ microphone, two old pros still going strong whose familiar sound takes us back through the decades. Berthiaume is just a rookie in this role, with little play-by-play experience, but we’re willing to bet that he’s a rising star whose deep appreciation of the game will make him a fixture on our televisions for a generation. The Diamondbacks might not be the most interesting team in the National League West, but Berthiaume will make them worth watching.
15. Three Injured Yanks
Few players have had as much impact on baseball in the last decade and a half as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Alex Rodriguez, and each has undergone major surgery since his last game. Jeter’s season ended in the dirt near second base in Game 1 of the ALCS, when he broke his ankle stretching for a ground ball. Rivera’s ended in May, on the warning track in Kansas City, when he tore his right ACL chasing a fly ball in batting practice. Rodriguez learned after the season that he needed surgery on his left hip. Jeter and Rivera are scheduled to be recovered in time for Opening Day, while Rodriguez is likely out until June. How will Jeter, already limited in range, handle another year in the field at shortstop? How will Rivera, at age 43, respond to the longest break from pitching in his career? And will the rapidly deteriorating Rodriguez be able to summon any of his past greatness, or is he destined to be an albatross for the Yankees in the final five years — yes, five years — of his contract? No athlete, no matter how successful, is guaranteed a fairy-tale ending. And few will be scrutinized as closely as these Yankees.
—by Tyler Kepner