Hope springs eternal across the 30 major league cities as baseball training camps open this week in both Arizona and Florida.
It’s time for baseball’s spring training, and the most popular words fans can hear — pitchers and catchers report.
Here’s a quick look at the story lines unfolding as teams report to the Cactus League and the Grapefruit Circuit with new faces in new places:
Teams in Town
Dodgers — What a difference one calendar year makes. This time last February there was anger everywhere and empty seats in Chavez Ravine thanks to the legacy of Frank McCourt. This year, the Dodgers have positioned themselves to win, or maybe, buy themselves a pennant. They spent over $600 million in salaries and extensions. They are so good, so deep, people on the East Coast refer to the Dodgers as the new “Evil Empire.” Biggest questions in camp: Can Adrian Gonzalez be the power hitter he used to be? Does Carl Crawford rebound from elbow surgery? Will Chad Billingsley’s shoulder hold up?
Angels — Write a check, get a star and here comes power hitter Josh Hamilton, stolen away from the arch-enemy Texas Rangers. The Halos added starting pitching and upgraded the bullpen. Pitchers Tommy Hunter, Jason Vargas and Joe Blanton pick up the back of the rotation, while Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett will solidify an untrustworthy bullpen. But getting the 45-home run hitting Hamilton to complement Albert Pujols and Mike Trout puts them atop the division standings, and maybe the entire league.
Padres — They are not real happy in San Diego. There was not one key off-season acquisition in the off-season for a team that was buried deep in the standings most of the summer. The small payroll remains intact and the only hope is that five of their injured pitchers will be back by mid-June. The Padres tried to sell the slogan “New Owner — New Ballpark Dimensions.” The real phrase should be “New Owners are Just Like the Old Owners — Low Payroll.” A long summer for fans, but at least the weather is nice.
Atlanta — The Braves have young star hitters in Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman and a load of arms. Now they add sluggers Justin Upton from Arizona, and brother B.J. Upton from Tampa Bay in deals, and didn’t give up any of their top young pitchers to do the deals. The Braves look to be back.
Washington — Stockpiling and hitting on all their draft picks, the future is now thanks to pitcher Stephen Strasburg, reliever Drew Storen and young slugger Bryce Harper. Now they add outfielder Denard Span and pitcher Dan Haren. Washington could be looking at a pennant race with the Braves.
Philadelphia — The Phillies will be either very dangerous, or very old and very hurt. If slugger Ryan Howard and veteran stars Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins can stay in the lineup, this will be a good team. There are a lot of innings on pitcher Roy Halladay’s arm. Michael Young came from Texas, Delmon Young from Detroit and reliever Mike Adams from Texas, but the key is what happens health-wise to the big money stars.
Toronto — The era of Joe Carter’s home runs, and 4 million fans per year at the Skydome are long gone. The Jays had the busiest offseason of anyone, thanks to the fire sale in Miami. Incoming pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson and everyday stars Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera make the Jays a frontrunner for postseason.
Tigers — There is a bad taste in everyone’s mouth from the way last season ended. A burned out pitching ace Justin Verlander could not carry the staff alone and much of their other pitching let them down. Adding big hitter Torii Hunter from the Angels gives Detroit a reliable leader in the clubhouse and in left field. They should/could win the division again, coming off a long winter’s rest.
Royals — Kansas City has been building towards better days and they have to because recent years have been wretched. The young power bats of Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon have now been complemented by the arrival of starting pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis in a deal with Tampa Bay.
Yankees — Can Derek Jeter fully recover from a broken ankle? Can Mariano Rivera come back at age 42 after missing last year? Will Alex Rodriguez be suspended again for involvement in PEDs? Will Curtis Granderson stop striking out? How many innings does Andy Pettitte have left in his left arm? Can you say era over?
Red Sox — They got rid of virtually all the big money players — Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett. Getting healthy on the mound will be the key to Boston staying above .500. Finding hits and runs will be the challenge for young kids coming from the farm system or the newcomers Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli. Baseball in Boston this year might resemble what it was like decades ago — not very good.
Rangers — Josh Hamilton will hit home runs, but in Anaheim, not Arlington. Do-everything clubhouse leader Mike Young is gone too, as are four veteran pitchers. And who knows about a possible drug suspension for big bat Nelson Cruz. Yes, Texas has a talent-laden farm system and Japanese pitching star Yu Darvish was brilliant for much of the season, but the Rangers just are not as scary as before.
Cardinals — St. Louis survived the loss of Albert Pujols to free- agency last year. But now they have lost pitching ace Chris Carpenter with a likely career-ending shoulder crisis. The Redbirds have good everyday players, but a weather-beaten pitching staff. They may wake up this season and be middle of the road; no longer top tier.
Astros — There’s nothing left but the embers of a once-proud Houston franchise. They’ve dealt virtually everyone away and will play the youngest, lowest paid lineup in baseball. And by the way, they move to the American League West to face the Angels, Rangers and A’s on a regular basis.
Mets — In the biggest market in the nation, they are heading to the season with little talent on the roster surrounding slugger David Wright and pitcher Johan Santana. Young players are coming, but this might be a 100-loss season with a payroll reduced from $140 million to likely $75 million this year under general manager Sandy Alderson.
Twins — They play in a shiny new ballpark, but they do not have a glittering array of talent on the roster to help stars Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. And the pitching staff is made up of refugees from places like Pittsburgh, Oakland and Cleveland. Maybe young arms like Vance Worley or a reclaimed arm like the Mets’ Mike Pelfrey might make a difference.
Pirates — They might have the best fans in the country. They keep supporting a franchise in a nice ballpark that has strung together 19 losing seasons in a row. Manager Clint Hurdle is a fiery sort, but yelling lasts only so long. You need pitchers and hitters, and they don’t have many of them to put around all-star Andrew McCutchen, young slugger Pedro Alvarez, or starter A.J. Burnett.
Rockies — Troy Tulowitzki and Todd Helton. That says it all, because that is all there is left in Colorado. Even highly regarded manager Jim Tracy walked away from the franchise. Their pitching might be the worst in baseball, and that’s dangerous considering the hitter’s haven Coors Field is.
Marlins — There is no way to accept the way Miami did business. Getting a new Orange Bowl Stadium built and paid for by public funds, hiring the volatile Ozzie Guillen as manager, and then spending wildly on free agents a year ago. They would either explode on the field and win the division, or implode in the clubhouse. You know what happened. Everyone lost — games, jobs, the fans. They fired the manager, dumped the players and will operate this year with the lowest payroll in baseball and maybe a very young roster. Last place, lost fans and lost credibility – a disgraceful way to do business.