It's the same question asked every year around this time: How will the lucrative contracts and the flurry of player movement pay off for buyers in the free agent market? The New York Yankees were (surprise, surprise) one of the biggest buyers this offseason, spending $283 million on Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran alone. But the Bronx Bombers did lose a big piece, as Robinson Cano headed out west to Seattle, taking with him one of the most productive bats ever to play second base (career 125 OPS+). Shin-Soo Choo (Rangers) and Doug Fister (Nationals) are also new additions on playoff contenders. How quickly will everything fit together? It's almost time to get a first in-uniform look at some of the sport's relocated stars.
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Clayton Kershaw: History's Highest-Paid Pitcher
The Dodgers' dominant lefty made history this offseason by signing a seven-year, $215 million deal, the most lucrative contract ever given to a pitcher. His $30 million annual salary approaches some teams' idea of an Opening Day payroll. And, fair or not, Kershaw will be scrutinized all the more now -- that's what happens when you average about nine figures per start. Over the past three seasons, which include two NL Cy Young Awards, he's finished top-three among qualified pitchers in innings, WAR, FIP and ERA. Los Angeles obviously believes that productivity will continue. Starting with spring training, he's under the brightest microscope of all MLB pitchers.
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Derek Jeter: Finishing In Top Form?
With The Captain announcing his end-of-season retirement on Thursday, the question remains: How will he go out? The future Hall of Fame shortstop played in just 17 games last season after suffering a broken ankle, and he hasn't performed at his career-average levels (117 OPS+) since, perhaps arguably, the 2009 season. Will Jeter be ready to challenge for another batting title right out of the gate? He recently told reporters his goal is to be completely ready by Opening Day, but that would likely mean putting together a positive-trending spring.
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Preseason Favorites; Postseason Success Stories?
Last season -- not unlike this upcoming season, though perhaps to a slightly lesser degree -- the Washington Nationals had all the necessary pieces to make a World Series run: excellent pitching, an explosive offense, a talented back end of the bullpen. But it didn't work out. The Nats stumbled out of the gate and could never recover as the Atlanta Braves ran away with the NL East division. So is a fast start a necessity? Not always. But getting top players back into a rhythm and getting a feel for your organizational depth is a key component during spring training and it will be interesting to see just how good the top teams look from Day One. The Nationals are once again one of five teams receiving the best World Series odds in Vegas, right along with the Dodgers, Tigers, Cardinals and the defending champion Red Sox. Is there a slow starter in that mix?
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY SportsJeff Curry
Instant Replay Arrives
Baseball finally caught up to the times by implementing an instant replay system this offseason, following the unanimous vote by the league's 30 clubs. That is good news. The intriguing portion of the news will be the utilization of the system and the nitty-gritty details that go along with it: limiting time constraints, use of manager's challenges (up to two per game), crew chief challengers (post-sixth inning) and more. This is a new concept for every MLB manager and umpire, so expect spring training to be a type of practice session for all involved.
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Over the past few seasons, baseball has seen a steady influx of straight-to-the-majors international transplants come in and make a difference. Yu Darvish, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Wei-Yin Chen, Yoenis Cespedes, Norichika Aoki ... the list is rather impressive. This season's collection of talent is being framed in a similar light, highlighted by pitchers Masahiro Tanaka (Yankees), Miguel Gonzalez (Phillies) and Suk-Min Yoon (Orioles), infielder Alex Guerrero (Dodgers) and "the Cuban Barry Bonds," Jose Abreu (White Sox). With the exception of Yoon and Abreu, those moves are expected to make a difference in various 2014 division races. Spring training will give most -- including Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg, who said he had yet to see Gonzalez pitch last week -- their first look at the new talents. Right now, they look like some of the biggest wildcards out there.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY SportsKim Klement
There was not a Mike Trout in last year's rookie class, but then again, there hasn't really been a Mike Trout in any rookie class since the advent of baseball. But the '13 rookie class was an enticing one, particularly on the mound, where Jose Fernandez (Marlins) all but challenged for the Cy Young while Julio Teheran (Braves), Shelby Miller (Cardinals) and Hyun-Jin Ryu (Dodgers) were very, very good from start to finish. That is not to mention mid- or late-season additions like Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole, St. Louis' Michael Wacha and Oakland's Sonny Gray, all of whom look like top-of-the-rotation talents. Add in outfielders Yasiel Puig (Dodgers) and Wil Myers (Rays) and a good group of relievers, and the question is not whether the class can hold up over time but rather, "Who hits the sophomore slump?" There's bound to be some names that fall into that category, but don't expect the entire lot to fall off.
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Looking To Make The Leap
Top prospects do not always explode out of the gate, however. Some fail to find their minor-league form while others fail to find a home on the everyday roster. The most blatant example of this last season was in MLB's 2013 No. 1 prospect Jurickson Profar, who could not seem to find a place with Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus holding on to the Rangers' middle infield spots; the rookie registered 324 plate appearances and struggled mightily. But Texas traded Kinsler to Detroit in the offseason, all but handing the reins to its young talent, who should hit better than .234/..308/.336 this time around. Looking elsewhere, Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud and Seattle's Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero are former highly-rated looking to make similar strides. Each could use a good spring.
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Show And Improve
More than any other up-and-coming team, the Miami Marlins look poised to make a significant jump in 2014, earning them the preseason nod here as Most Improved Club. With a tantalizing collection of pitching talent -- Jose Fernandez, Nathan Eovaldi, Jacob Turner, Henderson Alvarez and prospect Andrew Heaney -- and a re-stocked roster featuring young outfielders Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna and free agent additions Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Garrett Jones, Rafael Furcal and Casey McGehee, the Marlins should be better. Much better. Do not expect them to finish at the bottom of the NL East again. How much better can teams like the Mariners, Twins, Astros and Rockies be in 2014? Spring gives us an early peek.
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Next In Line
The "Who's Next" debate is ever-present in sports, and baseball, with it's top-100 prospect lists and evolving video sharing on minor league stars, is no exception. Do the Mariners have the next Dwight Gooden? Do the Twins have a David Ortiz-Manny Ramirez-esque combo coming up? These are descriptions that are out there. For the past few seasons, rookies have challenged for either the MVP or Cy Young, so it's fair to offer up the notion as it pertains to the 2014 class. Aside from the aforementioned international products, ultra-talented Boston shortstop Xander Bogaerts, Seattle pitcher Taijuan Walker and St. Louis prospect Oscar Tavares are expected to make big splashes. Watch for their names down in Florida and Arizona.