Camps begin across Major League Baseball this week — earlier than usual, thanks to the World Baseball Classic in March. Here’s a list of the top-10 storylines entering spring training. — Jon Paul Morosi
Were D-backs wise to opt for grit over talent?
When Justin Upton signed his six-year contract extension with Arizona in 2010, Josh Byrnes was the general manager and A.J. Hinch the field manager. Kevin Towers and Kirk Gibson hold those jobs now, and their personality dissonance with the team’s star player had become an open secret within baseball circles. So now Upton is an Atlanta Brave, and the Diamondbacks plan to deploy an outfield of veteran grinders Cody Ross and Jason Kubel with younger sparkplugs Gerardo Parra (pictured with Gibson) and Adam Eaton. The reliable Martin Prado, obtained in the Upton deal, will become a fixture at third base. For now, trading Upton looks like a big gamble.
How prepared is Stephen Strasburg to pitch for the full season?
It was roughly one year ago that the Strasburg Shutdown entered our baseball lexicon. After Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo controversially stuck to his plan and mothballed his ace after 159-1/3 innings, the onus is on Strasburg to pitch sublimely and validate the organization’s cautiousness. Particularly with the prospect of a PED suspension swirling around Gio Gonzalez, the Nationals need Strasburg to be a reliable 200-inning workhorse — something they didn’t allow him to be in 2012.
Could we see a repeat of the Giants-Tigers World Series?
Sometimes, World Series teams undergo unflattering offseason makeovers for age or financial reasons. Not so with the Giants and Tigers. San Francisco is nearing dynasty status — if it isn’t there already — with two championships in three years and its entire rotation back, along with MVP Buster Posey. Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is wholly committed to winning his first World Series, authorizing the signings of Anibal Sanchez and Torii Hunter. Detroit’s lineup should be further improved with the return of Victor Martinez from knee surgery.
Which five pitchers will actually comprise the Dodgers’ Opening Day rotation?
The Dodgers are almost certain to begin the season with the most expensive team in baseball. And yet their roster is a little unbalanced, with no fewer than eight starting pitchers as camp begins: Clayton Kershaw (left), Zack Greinke (right), Chad Billingsley, Josh Beckett, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano. Billingsley and Lilly are injury concerns, so the Dodgers may have less depth than it would appear. But there’s the possibility that general manager Ned Colletti will need to make a trade — or two — before Opening Day.
Will the wholesale changes in Boston result in a better team?
Go back to the final day of the 2011 season, when the Red Sox completed their historic collapse with a shocking loss at Camden Yards. Of the position players who started that game, only Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz remain. This will be a nametags-necessary camp in Fort Myers, from manager John Farrell (pictured with GM Ben Cherington) to new faces Ryan Dempster, Joel Hanrahan, Koji Uehara, David Ross, Stephen Drew, Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino. And let’s not forget the maligned and surgically repaired John Lackey. He’s back, too.
How quickly will chemistry develop for unfamiliar, star-studded Blue Jays roster?
The Blue Jays, largely absent from the Major League Baseball marquee for nearly 20 years, made as many headline-grabbing offseason moves as any team in the sport: the R.A. Dickey trade and extension; the signing of Melky Cabrera; the hiring of manager John Gibbons; and, of course, the blockbuster with the Marlins, which included shortstop Jose Reyes (pictured). Now they’re supposed to win. Veteran Mark DeRosa was brought in to help keep the clubhouse together, but it will take more than that to bring a world title to Toronto for the first time since Joe Carter.
How will Angels superstars Hamilton and Pujols coexist in the same lineup?
Remember when Albert Pujols finished last April with a .217 batting average? This year, a central question of the Angels’ spring camp will be what can be done to guard Hamilton against a similar fate. Manager Mike Scioscia must decide which of them will bat third — in other words, whether Pujols or Hamilton will have the benefit of protection from the other. Aside from deeply held Christian beliefs and a lot of home runs, it’s hard to say the two share a lot in common — which will make the unfolding of their relationship all the more intriguing.
Will the Upton union in Atlanta live up to its storybook billing?
When Justin Upton became a Brave on Jan. 24, baseball fans across the country flashed back to their childhoods and remembered what it felt like to play sports with their siblings. That emotion is one reason the Braves will be one of the most-talked-about teams in the majors this year — a status they haven’t enjoyed since the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz heyday. B.J. (right) is three years and four days older than Justin, and it will be fascinating to see if their brotherly rivalry brings out the best in each.
What will Mike Trout and Bryce Harper do for an encore
Neither Trout (left) nor Harper appeared on an Opening Day roster last year. In fact, they made their season debuts on the same Saturday in late April. But now they must prepare for something they’ve never experienced before — a full season in the major leagues. Certainly, they have the talent to avoid sophomore jinxes. But it’s never that simple. Both will be pitched differently this year — particularly Trout, who won’t have Torii Hunter hitting behind him anymore.
Is there any end to the A-Rod and Yankees drama?
You were expecting another player and another team? Here’s the most banal prediction of the baseball year: New York and national media members will spend an inordinate number of column inches on a broken-down 37-year-old who hasn’t hit 20 home runs since 2010. Mostly, the infatuation is with the Yankees’ predicament — more than $100 million in future salary commitments, a fresh round of PED questions, and no easy answers. Ironically, the Rangers and Nationals are the teams with actual concerns about the South Florida steroid scandal; they don’t want to be without Nelson Cruz and Gio Gonzalez, who could face suspensions.