A new Grapefruit League season has dawned this week with pitchers and catchers reporting around the state — and full-squad workouts getting under way in the coming days. With that in mind, here are five key storylines to watch as the exhibition games begin and rosters take shape for the 2012 season.
1. FIELDER AT FIRST — AND NEW FIELDER AT THIRD: Among the biggest news this spring training is the arrival of former Milwaukee Brewers home run king Prince Fielder in Lakeland, where he reported Monday to his new team, the Detroit Tigers. Even though he wasn’t obliged to show until Friday, the No. 2 prize of the free-agent sweepstakes — behind Albert Pujols, of course — didn’t want to waste any time earning his $214 million over the next nine seasons. It’s hard to overstate the impact Fielder’s presence in the Detroit lineup will have — beyond making spring training batting practice and games a lot more fun to watch.
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Without the 27-year-old first baseman, the Tigers won the AL Central by 15 games and captured their first division title in 24 years before losing in the ALCS to Texas. With Fielder in a lineup that already features the fearsome Miguel Cabrera — along with such playmakers as Austin Jackson (center field), Delmon Young (left field) and Jhonny Peralta (shortstop) — the Tigers look downright scary. And that’s before you even factor in Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander, coming off his 24-5, 2.40 season, along with fellow starters Max Scherzer (15-9), Rick Porcello (14-9) and Doug Fister (11-13).
The big question is how Cabrera will handle the move from first base to third in making room for Fielder. The burly 6-4, 240-pound infielder hardly looks the part of a lithe hot-corner man, but he came into baseball playing third and offered to change positions for the good of the team. It will be interesting to see how the switch plays out the next six weeks — not to mention damage that the tandem of Cabrera (at least 30 homers in seven of his past eight seasons) and Fielder (200 homers in his last five seasons combined) will do at the plate.
2. VALENTINE’S DAY AT FENWAY SOUTH: Every day is Valentine’s now down in Fort Myers, where the Red Sox show off their new spring training digs and their new manager, Bobby Valentine. The slick, new stadium is called JetBlue Park, but it boasts the same dimensions as fabled Fenway — and even a “Green Monster” wall in left. It’s a given that the place will be a smash hit with fans.
The real question is whether respected baseball man Valentine will be able to get the Red Sox back on track following their monumental collapse at the end of last season, edged out by the resurgent Tampa Bay Rays on the final night of play for the wild card. Reports of dissension and lack of discipline were rampant after the season, leading boy wonder GM Theo Epstein to find a new job with the Cubs and the dumping of manager Terry Francona after eight seasons. Valentine is a shrewd baseball mind and could be just what the Sox need to get their act together.
Even with all their problems, the Sox still finished 90-72. And they boast a formidable lineup highlighted by second baseman Dustin Pedroia (.307, 91 RBI), first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (.338, 27 homers, 117 RBI), DH David Ortiz (.309. 29 homers) and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (.321, 105 RBI, 39 stolen bases). One key question is whether Carl Crawford can bounce back from a disappointing debut in Boston. That won’t be immediately known, since Crawford underwent wrist surgery during the offseason and will likely miss all of spring training and the start of the season. Boston also has moved on without Marco Scutaro at shortstop, leaving Mike Aviles, Nick Punto and Jose Iglesias to vie for the starting job.
The starting pitching melted down the stretch, and both Josh Beckett and Jon Lester apologized Sunday in camp for their role in the “beer and chicken” fiasco. That stemmed from stories of how they failed to condition properly and liked to eat fried chicken, drink beer and play video games in the clubhouse on non-start days. Both pitched poorly when the team needed them the most, but certainly have ample motivation to return to everyone’s good graces in 2012. The other pitching topic of note: hard-throwing set-up man Daniel Bard moving to the starting rotation, and the end of the Jonathan Papelbon era at closer. He agreed to a four-year deal with Philadelphia, and his successor is former Rookie of the Year Andrew Bailey, acquired from the A’s.
All in all, there’s plenty in place for Valentine as he tries to re-ignite the Red Sox.
3. BRAVING THE STORM: The Atlanta Braves experienced a fall from playoff contention nearly as epic as Boston’s. Beleaguered by injuries and sub-standard seasons by a handful of players, they lost 17 of their last 25 games — in addition to eight of their final 10 — and lost the wild-card berth on the last night of the regular season. That opened the door for the Cinderella team of 2011, the Cardinals, and their eventual storybook World Series championship. It was a most painful conclusion to a promising first season on the job for Fredi Gonzalez, replacing legendary Braves skipper Bobby Cox.
But hope springs eternal at the club’s spring training home at Disney World. The Braves didn’t hit the panic button in the offseason. There was no housecleaning or massive roster overhaul. In fact, general manager Frank Wren has said that he believes the team can reach the 2012 postseason if the players stay healthy and perform up to their potential.
As it stands, the Braves boast one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. Two starters bothered by injuries in 2011 — Tommy Hanson (shoulder) and Jair Jurrjens (knee) — are both back in good form, though Hanson did suffer a concussion in a car accident the way to camp this week. Additionally, veteran hurler Tim Hudson is on track to return from back surgery by late April or early May. And second-year closer Craig Kimbrel, the NL Rookie of the Year, is poised to pick up where he left off.
Braves fans will see an old, familiar face this spring, with third baseman Chipper Jones returning for his 19th season, amazingly all with Atlanta. This is the final year of his guaranteed deal, raising some speculation that 2012 could be his last season. But Jones, who’ll turn 40 in April, is coming off a strong season (.275, 18 homers) so he could prove doubters wrong.
Gonzalez will have a full season with speedster Michael Bourn — acquired at the trade deadline in July — roaming center and the basepaths. He hit .294 combined with the Astros and Braves and is a major asset as a leadoff man. Meanwhile, the Braves are hoping for a return to form by right fielder Jason Heyward. After a standout rookie season, hitting .277 with 18 homers in 2010, Heyward dipped to .227 last year, as he was bothered by a sore knee. But he’s feeling good, which is great news for Atlanta.
Two other keys: second baseman Dan Uggla, acquired last year from the Marlins, started slow but still finished with 36 homers. His power at the plate is complemented by first baseman Freddy Freeman, who hit .282 and belted 21 homers as a rookie last year and catcher Brian McCann, who hit .270 with 24 round trippers last season.
Those are just some of the reasons Wren and Gonzalez like their chances with last year’s team — even with a collapse they’d just as soon forget.
4. NATIONAL NEWS: The Washington Nationals have hardly been that, but they could be a lot more interesting this spring — and season — with the continued recovery of 2010 rookie phenom Stephen Strasburg and, for at least spring training, No. 1 overall draft pick Bryce Harper.
Strasburg made big headlines two seasons ago when he burst onto the scene as a flame-throwing rookie (setting a major league record with 32 strikeouts in his first 30 innings pitched). But the hoopla soon gave way to shoulder problems as Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery, missing most of 2011. Concerns about his future swirled, yet he looked strong in 24 innings pitched at the end of last year, posting an ERA of 1.50 with 24 strikeouts — and raising hopes that he could return to his former world-beating form.
There’s equal excitement brewing at the team’s spring training base of Viera about Harper, who batted a combined .297 in A and AA ball last year with 17 homers — at only age 19. He may still be a season away from making the parent club, but he should generate substantial interest in Grapefruit League action along with his fellow No. 1 overall pick, Strasburg.
In the meantime, the Nats need a boost from last year’s ballyhooed addition, Jayson Werth. He hit a disappointing .232 with 20 homers, hardly the bang Washington was hoping to get when it signed the former Phillies star for $126 million. A turnaround by Werth, along with another strong campaign by Michael Morse (.303. 31 homers, 95 RBI) could help Washington get over the .500 hump after an 80-81 season in 2011. Second-year Nationals manager Davey Johnson has his work cut out in the mega-tough NL East, but he appears to have Washington moving in the right direction — especially if Strasburg is back on track.
5. PINSTRIPED PINEDA: The Yankees added a promising piece to their pitching rotation with the addition of All-Star right-hander Michael Pineda from Seattle — and cut loose a weak link in A.J. Burnett. The addition of Pineda, 23, as well as veteran righty Hiroki Kuroda from the Dodgers, could reinvigorate New York’s starting rotation and take some of the burden off of ace CC Sabathia and 2011 rookie sensation Ivan Nova (16-4, 3.70).
The Yankees’ advancing age continues to be a topic of discussion, but the team could be as strong as ever — even with such fixtures as shortstop Derek Jeter, third baseman Alex Rodriguez and closer Mariano Rivera at the tail end of their careers. Rivera hinted this week that this could indeed be his final season, with Rafael Soriano or David Robertson waiting in the wings.
The Bombers still have plenty of firepower in star second baseman Robinson Cano, who belted 28 homers with 118 RBI and hit .302 last year, and Curtis Granderson (.262, 41 homers, 119 RBI). Even team captain Jeter continues to defy time, coming off a .297 season. The Yankees, on the other hand, need better results from their corner infielders, first baseman Mark Teixeira and Rodriguez. Both had uncharacteristically down years — Teixeira hitting 39 homers but with a .248 batting average, and A-Rod battling through injuries to hit .276 with 16 homers.
But they gave up a top-notch catching prospect in Jesus Montero, trading him to Seattle for 6-7, 260-pound Pineda. As a Mariners rookie, he finished 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA, but struck out 173 batters in 171 innings. He gives the Yankees another major weapon in the rotation, with a team that scores runs to support him. His presence, along with that of Kuroda, made the inconsistent Burnett completely dispensable, leading to his trade last week to Pittsburgh for a pair of minor leaguers.
That’s potentially good news for the Pirates, training in Bradenton, since a change of scenery and less pressure could be just what Burnett needs.
It’s no big deal over at Legends Field in Tampa, where the Yankees have suddenly made starting pitching their strong suit once again.