Pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training camps in Florida and Arizona. Here are a few stories to watch as MLB players sharpen their skills in preparation for the 2013 season, which begins for every team April 1.
1. Canadian Chemistry
The Toronto Blue Jays, seemingly tired of watching the AL East world pass them by, loaded up this winter for a serious summer run at their first postseason appearance since winning the 1993 World Series. They traded for three near-elite starting pitchers and one of the best shortstops in the game. But the most intriguing move is hiring manager John Gibbons for his second stint in the Blue Jays’ manager’s office. Gibbons posted a 305-305 record as Jays skipper from 2004-08, but there is very little even-keeled about the man. He clashed with several players during his time in Toronto, most notably Ted Lilly and Shea Hillenbrand. The latter led Gibbons to threaten to quit if Hillendbrand wasn’t cut, which he was. But Gibbons was fired about halfway through the 2008 season. Now the older — and presumably wiser — Gibbons must deal with even larger egos. The chemistry that Gibbons establishes with the left side of his infield could be the difference between success and failure this season. Shortstop Jose Reyes is an established star accustomed to more coddling than Gibbons will likely impart, and third baseman Brett Lawrie is one of the most emotional and fiery players in the game. Some kind of confrontation is inevitable. How the manager and players respond to that will make all the difference.
2. Super Sophs
Last spring Mike Trout of the Angels and Bryce Harper were two high-profile prospects, deemed not quite ready for the majors. There was little pressure during spring training as both players knew more seasoning at the Triple-A level was in store. Both were called up at the end of April and their lives immediately changed. Now they are established big leaguers who shoulder significant responsibility for their teams’ postseason fate. Neither player is old enough to buy alcohol in most states, and neither had to weather many tough times last season. Most observers close to the situations in Washington and Los Angeles agree that the two are mature beyond their years, but it will be worth watching how these two respond to the pressure that comes when players are no longer rookies.
3. Angels in the Playoffs?
Last winter the Angels made a huge splash with the signing of C.J. Wilson and Albert Pujols. And just when you thought this winter would be much quieter, owner Arte Moreno reeled in the biggest fish in free agency by signing 2010 AL MVP Josh Hamilton away from division rival Texas. The outfielder joins a roster full of other big-name, big money stars and his positive effect should be huge for Pujols and second-year player Mike Trout. This time last season expectations were high for the Halos, but many thought Texas was still the favorite. No more. Anything less than a division title in Anaheim will be a failure this season.
4. Astros in AL
After 51 seasons in the National League, the Houston Astros are crossing over to the DH league. No more rivalries with St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Chicago. Now fans in Houston must familiarize themselves with Oakland, Seattle, and the Angels in addition to the team up I-45 in Dallas. Still undergoing a massive rebuilding program that saw the Astros produce the two worst seasons in their history, the Astros are likely to lose close to 110 games this season. We’ll see if the new batch of opponents coming to Minute Maid Park this season will be enough to entice fans to visit as well.
5. War on Drugs
Six players were suspended last season for positive PED tests, the most since 2007. Is that a result of more cheating, or more stringent testing? Probably some of both. Drug tests this season that now include blood tests in spring training should lead to a cleaner game. But just when it appeared that renegade labs were under control and whispers about current players juicing had subsided, a Miami newspaper uncovers some disturbing information coming out of Biogenesis, an anti-aging clinic in Coral Gables, Fla. As the investigation continues into the Biogenesis lab, most certainly more names of baseball players will surface, and more innuendo and denials will follow. It’s one thing for players already having tested positive for banned substances like Bartolo Colona and Melky Cabrera to be connected with the lab, but for names like Gio Gonzalez and Nelson Cruz and Francisco Cervelli, it’s another matter. Some will say it’s unfair to presume guilt by association. And that’s true. Others might argue that this isn’t a court of law and where there’s this much smoke there must be some flames. Gonzalez and Cruz have already issued denials and MLB is investigating. But all players with any presumed or real ties to Biogenesis will have to answer questions all spring. MLB certainly needs to offer fans and the media some confidence that the game is as clean as it has been since the so-called Steroid Era began in the late 1980s. However, MLB doesn’t need another BALCO on its hands either. This investigation must be complete and pretty swift for this not to linger as a major story all season.
6. Old Yankees Won’t Go Away
The New York Yankees will likely have as much support as any team in the competitive AL East to repeat as division champs this season. But keeping an eye on some of their veterans coming back from injury will tell us much more about this team. Shortstop Derek Jeter is recovering from a broken ankle suffered in the ALCS. He has begun running and says there are no lingering issues. But we’ll need to see him moving laterally to field ground balls before we believe him. Closer Mariano Rivera tore his ACL last May in Kansas City shagging flies. Will the best closer the game has ever seen, now age 43, be effective this season? Andy Pettitte is back in camp for at least one more go at this game. The veteran of 44 postseason starts hasn’t appeared in a season more than 21 times since 2009 when he was 37. Now at 40, will he be able to answer the bell for 30 starts? And what about A-Rod, the unending lightning rod for the Yankees. Recovering from knee surgery, the third baseman is staying behind in New York for rehab rather than join the team in Florida. Just how much of the season A-Rod will miss is still a mystery, but it wouldn’t be a shock if he doesn’t return until next spring training.
7. Profar in Texas – Majors or minors?
Jurickson Profar is universally considered the best rising prospect in the game. The middle infielder briefly tasted life in the majors last season when the Texas Rangers called him up in September. By all accounts he is ready for the big time. But how will the Rangers find playing time for the budding star? Shortstop Elvis Andrus is a two-time All-Star and still getting better. Second baseman Ian Kinsler is a linchpin in the lineup. So will Kinsler move to first base? Will he DH? And what about Lance Berkman signed to be the full-time DH? Will the Rangers keep Profar around as a part-time player, potentially retarding his progress? Or will he spend the season at Triple-A getting regular at-bats?
8. WBC Effect
For more than three weeks in the middle of March, spring training will be interrupted for several players who will participate in the World Baseball Classic. For most veterans, this isn’t a big deal. Miguel Cabrera will surely get enough swings in whether he’s working out with Venezuela or the Tigers. But there could be a few issues created by this international event. As mentioned above, new Toronto manager John Gibbons will work during spring training to foster good will among his players. However, R.A. Dickey, J.P. Arencibia, Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Brett Lawrie will leave camp for a spell. Milwaukee will lose both catchers on its 40-man roster when players join their international teams. Jonathan Lucroy will play for the U.S. and Martin Maldonado for Puerto Rico. That’s a lot of bullpen sessions and spring training innings Milwaukee pitchers must work with young catchers rather than developing a rapport with the regulars. Russell Martin, a new catcher to the Pirates this season, will also leave his new club for a while losing opportunity to get to know his new staff better. The impact isn’t all negative. With veterans missing in action for a few weeks, younger players will have opportunities for at-bats to impress their managers. Giants skipper Bruce Bochy will not have the services of Angel Pagan, Andres Torres, Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval during the WBC. But Bochy knows what they can do. This may give Bochy a better look at youngsters Gary Brown, Adam Duvall, Ehire Adrianza, Francisco Peguero and even Angel Villalona (if the Giants can get him into the country).
9. Free Agent Effect
Three players not under contract for 2014 bear watching this spring. Robinson Cano of the Yankees, Adam Wainwright of St. Louis and Jacoby Ellsbury of Boston could become free agents at the end of the season. How quickly will their teams move to lock them up long term? Will they investigate trades during the season? It seems unthinkable that the Yankees would not sign Cano to a long-term deal during spring training to avoid his contract situation from becoming a distraction during the season. And Wainwright still must prove that he is completely healthy, but the Cardinals have probably seen enough to get a deal done. Ellsbury’s situation is a little more tricky. Unlike the Yankees and Cardinals, the Red Sox are not expected to be in contention this season, so a trade may make sense at the deadline.
10. Brothers Upton
There’s an unofficial changing of the guard in Atlanta. Remember when the Braves were winning 14 straight division titles? Now that Chipper Jones has left the field for his hunting lodge, there are no ties to the titles in uniform this spring. But there are two Uptons, possibly the most talented pair of brothers to play alongside each other since, well, the Waners in Pittsburgh. Will this new age in Atlanta bring a division title? The Washington Nationals will be tough to unseat in the NL East, but the Braves have the bullpen and outfield that should rival any in the game. We’ll see in spring training how the rest of the team comes together.
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