Monday February 14th, 2011

For baseball fans longing for their favorite sport after a long, cold winter, Monday's voluntary reporting date for pitchers and catchers, which marks the official start of spring training, is both a day to be celebrated and a big tease. The excitement of seeing one's favorite team together and in uniform is undermined by two weeks of drills and stretching followed by another month of meaningless games in which the starting nine typically play just five innings and pitchers are slowly stretched out, barely reaching 100 pitches by the end of March. Still, while Pitchers and Catchers might be the baseball equivalent of the Groundhog seeing its shadow, foretelling another six weeks of winter for those outside of Florida and Arizona, for discerning baseball fans, there's still plenty to see. Here then, is a quick review of what to look for in spring training this year.

Key players returning from injury

The Red Sox dominate this category with Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron all having had their 2010 seasons ended prematurely by injury. Pedroia and Youkilis will be the most interesting to watch. Pedroia because the former American League Most Valuable Player played in just two games after fracturing his foot with a foul ball on June 25, and Youkilis because he's not only coming back from a torn tendon in his right thumb, which needed to be surgically repaired, but because he's also making a full-time move to third base in the wake of the Sox' acquisition of Adrian Gonzalez. Elsewhere, Twins closer Joe Nathan begins his return from March 2010 Tommy John surgery, while fellow Tommy John recipients Edinson Volquez of the Reds and Jordan Zimmermann of the Nationals begin their first full seasons post-surgery after returning to action late last year. In Cleveland, a lot depends on how well centerfielder Grady Sizemore and catcher Carlos Santana return from knee surgery. Sizemore had microfracture surgery last June and Santana went under the knife last August after suffering a gruesome home plate collision in early August.

The game's top prospects in action

It's hard to tell which has received more hype, the Royals farm system, or the top pick in last year's draft, outfielder Bryce Harper of the Nationals, but you can see both in action this spring. Harper's only professional experience thus far came in the Arizona Fall League in October and November, but he's expected to play in exhibition games for the Nats this spring. Meanwhile the Royals' non-roster invitees include first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, and pitchers Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, Danny Duffer, and Chris Dwyer, six of the top seven prospects in what has unanimously been praised this spring as the best system in baseball. Other prospects to watch are Angels centerfielder Mike Trout, Braves pitcher Julio Teheran, Giants' first baseman Brandon Belt (who could force Aubrey Huff into the outfield mid-season) Yankees catcher Jesus Montero, considered perhaps the best pure hitter in the upper minors but one whose defense behind the plate has been much maligned, and the Mariners' Dustin Ackley, whose transition to second base is still a work in progress, but who could be manning that position in the majors before the end of the season.

New managers and administrations

Twelve teams arrive at spring training this year with different managers than they had at this time last year. Three of those new skippers have never helmed a major league team before. The highest profile of that trio is Don Mattingly, who replaces the retired Joe Torre at the helm of the Dodgers. Mattingly has no managerial experience at the major or minor league level (though he did skipper a team in the Arizona Fall League last autumn), but did manage to embarrass himself after Torre was ejected in a game last year by accidentally turning one mound visit into two and being forced to pull his closer from the game. In Toronto, John Farrell replaces the retired Cito Gaston. Farrell is a rising star in management having gone from the highly respected Indians front office to pitching coach of the similarly progressive Red Sox, and makes his managerial debut as the choice of new Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who has earned rave reviews for rebuilding the Jays' farm system and unloading Vernon Wells' contract. Ron Roenicke, who takes over the Brewers, has a solid pedigree as well having been Joe Maddon's successor as Mike Scioscia's bench coach with the Angels.

Also worth noting are the fact that Buck Showalter, who led the Orioles to a 34-23 record over the season's final two months last year, now has installed his own coaching staff, with former Mets skipper Willie Randolph serving as his bench coach. The Mets themselves have a whole new management team with Sandy Alderson back in the general manager's chair for the first time since he passed the A's on to Billy Beane in 1998 and Terry Collins taking his first major league managing job since he was fired from the Angels in 1999. Finally, in former Marlins skipper Fredi Gonzalez, the Braves have their first new manager since 1990, when they hired a 49-year-old retread named Bobby Cox.

Teams looking to take big steps forward or hold on to their gains from last year

Roenicke may not get as much face time as Mattingly or Farrell, but his team looks to be one of the more compelling stories of this season. With free agency looming for Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks, the Brewers made a big push to return to the playoffs this season, trading away what little was left in their farm system for starting pitchers Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum. Hoping to ruin their plans are the Reds, who with Edinson Volquez and reliever Aroldis Chapman in place from Day One this year, have impressive rotation depth and a good chance to repeat as National League Central champions. Less likely to hold on to their 2010 gains are the Padres, who in recognition of that fact turned over half of their offense by trading Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox in advance of his walk year, signing Brad Hawpe and Orlando Hudson to fill the right side of their infield, and trading for shortstop Jason Bartlett and fading centerfield prospect Cameron Maybin. Also worth watching are Showalter's Orioles, who have reinforced their offense with Derrek Lee, Vladimir Guerrero, Mark Reynolds, J.J. Hardy and a healthy Brian Roberts. The O's also have a young, talented crop of starting pitchers led by Brian Matusz, with top prospect Zach Britton a possibility to join the rotation mid season, and an impressive bullpen headed by Koji Uehara, Mike Gonzalez, Kevin Gregg and Jim Johnson.

Continuing player movement

Big moves happen during spring training. Most notably in recent years, the Yankees acquired Alex Rodriguez on Valentine's Day in 2004. The deal that sent a package built around Dontrelle Willis from the Cubs to the Marlins for Matt Clement and Antonio Alfonseca went down on March 27, 2002. The Reds acquired Wily Mo Pena from the Yankees exactly a year earlier, then one day short of five years later, traded him to Boston for Bronson Arroyo, the same day that the White Sox acquired Matt Thornton from the Mariners. The Expos got Livan Hernandez on March 24, 2002. The Red Sox acquired Kevin Millar on February 15, 2003. This year, the defending AL champion Rangers enter spring training with deposed third baseman Michael Young having demanded a trade, and the defending AL Central champion Twins made news last week with whispers that they might be open to trading their left-handed ace Francisco Liriano. Meanwhile, we're bearing down on Albert Pujols' Wednesday deadline for an extension with the Cardinals, while other teams continue try to work out extensions with their best young players, the Brewers with Weeks among them. Expect some big news on those fronts. The players may be stretching under the warm sun in Florida and Arizona, but the Hot Stove continues to burn.

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