And here they are ...
1. Paul Maholm, Pirates starter: He was about the best starter down in Florida (2-0, 1.52). Apparently not at all affected by his big winter contract (three years, $14.5 million).
2. Corey Hart, Brewers outfielder: He showed none of his September struggles, hitting like a fiend all spring (7 HR, 17 RBIs, .362).
3. Andre Ethier, Dodgers outfielder: Gigantic second half, including a .462 September, may be attributable to the presence of Manny Ramirez, or maybe just personal improvement. In any case, Manny's back.
4. Ricky Nolasco, Marlins starter: Popular pick for stardom, his dynamic second half included 119 strikeouts and 13 walks the last three months.
5. Khalil Greene, Cardinals shortstop: Perhaps the noted introvert just didn't fit in with the Padres. Big spring.
6. Chris Getz, White Sox second baseman: Speedy player had a nice spring that included an inside-the-park home run.
7. Alex Gordon, Royals third baseman: Greatness was always expected for him. Perhaps now's the time.
8. Josh Fields, White Sox third baseman: Hampered last year by knee trouble, he looks primed for a big year.
9. Brandon Wood, Angels infielder: They've got to find at-bats for this guy with monstrous power.
10. Rick Ankiel, Cardinals outfielder: Yet another full year with the stick can only help. Great all-around talent, obviously.
11. Chris Volstad, Marlins starter: Underrated member of a great young rotation showed big potential late last year (6-4, 2.88).
12. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers starter: Tremendous talent might be a year away. Or maybe not.
13. Pablo Sandoval, Giants third baseman: Huge Cactus League offensive numbers can be misleading, but his stats, including a .459 batting average, were crazy.
14. Travis Ishikawa, Giants first baseman: Big spring (seven homers) provides hope to the Giants' other corner.
15. Rickie Weeks, Brewers second baseman: Underachieving No. 2-overall pick is looking at a make-or-break year. I say he makes it.
16. Chan Ho Park, Phillies starter: "Looked great this spring," according to a scout. But with a stash of fine young pitchers, his hold on the No. 5 spot isn't impenetrable.
17. Micah Hoffpauir, Cubs first baseman: Maybe it's just me, but this guy's an unstoppable force whenever I see him. Unfortunately for him, he's blocked at first by Derrek Lee.
18. Micah Owings, Reds pitcher: Known previously more for his hitting, but he's showing signs. Big year for Micahs.
19. Johnny Cueto, Reds starter: Some scouts think he's more talented than Edinson Volquez.
20. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox starter: Tremendous spring (2-0, 2.52) portends better things to come.
21. Adam Jones, Orioles outfielder: Already very good defensively, he might be ready to make a leap as a hitter now.
22. Brett Anderson, A's starter: He's considered the best of a great stable of young A's pitchers.
23. Jayson Werth, Phillies outfielder: Serious contributor to world championship team who plays the game right and keeps improving.
24. Shin-Soo Choo, Indians outfielder: He was very good last year (his second half OPS of 1.038 trailed only Manny Ramirez, Albert Pujols and Mark Teixeira), but maybe someone will notice this time.
25. Chris Iannetta, Rockies catcher: Very impressive display in the WBC won plaudits.
26. Chris Young, Diamondbacks outfielder: His 2008 season will prove to be an aberration offensively.
27. Kendry Morales, Angels first baseman: They tried to keep Teixeira, but this fellow looks pretty decent so far.
28. Javier Vazquez, Braves pitcher: Switch back to National League may prove big for this innings-eater.
29. Brett Gardner, Yankees center fielder: Speedy and cocky, he beat odds just by getting a chance to win the job to man that hallowed ground. One caveat: Any sign of a slump, and the Yankees are always a threat to go out and acquire someone to replace him.
30. Joey Votto, Reds first baseman: Big-power potential means he might take over Adam Dunn's old role as 40-homer hitter in a Great American (hitters) Ballpark.
Asked whether star pitcher Jake Peavy could be traded during this season on Thursday, perpetually honest Padres general manager Kevin Towers answered, "Who knows? A lot depends on how we play. We'll see how the season is going. If we start spinning our wheels, we might engage in discussions."
Towers talked extensively this winter to the Braves and Cubs, two teams on Peavy's original, informal list of teams he might consider (he has a full no-trade now, so it's up to him). The Brewers have been mentioned as a possibility more recently, and they certainly have what it takes to pull off a deal (hot-shot shortstop prospect Alcides Escobar would be a nice start). Peavy supposedly much prefers the NL. As to whether Peavy would accept a deal to the Brewers ... who knows?
In an attempt to quell all the speculation and accompanying anxiety, Peavy's agent, Barry Axelrod, asked weeks ago that Towers only come to him when something gets serious, and while Axelrod admitted to "hearing rumblings" lately, he said nothing's been brought to them lately.
Meanwhile, Towers, who cut the Padres' payroll some $35 million into the mid-$40s, isn't quick to give up on the season. "I like our ball club a lot better than last year," Towers said. Although, Towers conceded that with eight new faces on the pitching staff, there are a lot of questions to be answered. "If our pitching struggles, we won't be very good," he said.
Nonetheless, Towers' teams have won more than they've lost over the years, and he isn't giving in to the outside reviews, which are almost all bad. "The expectations internally are probably a little bit better than externally ... That's the best way to sneak up on people," Towers said.
With the economy expected to decrease ticket sales by as much as 10 percent (that's a figure you hear cited), some baseball executives are predicting a major sell-off at mid-year among teams out of the race carrying big contracts.
"It could get ugly," one AL executive said.
According to baseball insiders, the Tigers are seen as one of the prime candidates for a mega sell-off if things don't go well for them. The chic pick a year ago, they are now viewed by most as only third- or fourth-most likely team to capture the AL Central. They are also carrying some fairly heavy contracts a non-contender may seek to excise.
But, as to whether a midyear sell-off's a possibility, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski said, "We have not even discussed that question ... If the guys play well, we believe we have the potential to have a contending club. We have more versatility, more athleticism and more youth than we've had."
The Tigers do have a talented rotation that includes no one older than 27, and they still have some big players with impressive track records, so they could easily contend in a wide-open AL Central. But if they don't, competing executives view them as a likely mega-seller. Considering Detroit's $140 million payroll in a down economy in an especially down city, one competing GM wondered aloud whether Dombrowski has a good chance to be "under the gun" to move money come trade-deadline time. Dombrowski, whose teams have frequently delivered unexpected results (good and bad) in recent years, says, "If we play well, we expect to draw well, even in a tough economy."
Dombrowski quickly rebuilt the Tigers from a 119-game loser in a hurry, but big-ticket signings had the opposite result lately, with Gary Sheffield (who'll be paid all but $400,000 of his $14 million salary after his release) and Dontrelle Willis ($22 million through next year) worth next to nothing on the open market. Willis' fall has been precipitous, and the anxiety order recently diagnosed could be a contributor, Dombrowski says.
Fading starter Nate Robertson may not have much value either, but young starter Jeremy Bonderman would be an interesting trade chip, and perhaps so could defensively adept third baseman Brandon Inge. Nobody envisions hitting superstar Miguel Cabrera or cost-efficient star Placido Polanco on the trading block, but Carlos Guillen, a tremendous hitter and underrated and versatile player, could draw significant interest.
If the Tigers don't contend, though, competitors see the biggest name the Tigers might put on the block as Magglio Ordonez, whose two option years at $15 million per (in 2010 and 2011) kick in with 400 at-bats. Ordonez went from having a contract that originally looked way too high to one that looked very reasonable (thanks to his great performance) to one that looks a little high again (thanks to the economy), especially if the option years are triggered.
The Jays are another team with some big contracts that may go. They will want to avoid trading superstar pitcher Roy Halladay, but what about Vernon Wells? If they can find an interested party, they should jump at it. And Scott Rolen? Another trade candidate.
Several other teams could be candidates for a sell-off, as well, and if a half-dozen teams are holding fire sales featuring stars, that's what could really make things ugly.
The Indians decided not to make a contract offer to Cy Young winner Cliff Lee because they understood it was going to be impossible for a small-to-mid-market team that really has to watch what it spends in an awful economy to find common ground with a pitcher coming of an all-time great season.
Plus, Lee's an especially tough case since he's had such a stark divergence of results the past couple years. His agent would want to talk about his 22-3 season, while the Indians can't completely forget his awful 2007 season (5-8, 6.29). That season looks like an aberration in a terrific career, but it would still throw a monkey wrench into talks.
Lee's numbers aren't good this spring (a .440 batting average against), but agent Darek Braunecker said Lee purposely threw no breaking balls his first three starts, and it's hard to believe that plays into Cleveland's thinking here. Anyway, the Indians said the economy is the main factor.
Indians executives, not the types to leave anything to chance, did give Braunecker a shot to name a figure. But Braunecker, who negotiated the eye-popping $82.5 million A.J. Burnett deal, probably didn't shock them when he told them he doesn't do it that way.
Given the chance, Braunecker could cite Burnett ($16.5 million a year), Derek Lowe ($60 million, five years) and Jake Peavy ($63 million, four years) as reasons Lee, who has the third highest winning percentage behind Johan Santana and Halladay since entering the league (he's 76-39), should get $15 million-plus per season. But he refrained from saying a thing.
Braunecker also advised Lee not to negotiate during the season, saying that he's the sort who dives into everything and that negotiations might become a distraction. So the chances of Lee heading toward a repeat of the CC Sabathia situation are gaining. The Indians will pick up the $9 million option for 2010 barring a catastrophic injury, giving them another year to work it out. But that doesn't mean they're likely to get something done next year.
The Indians don't like the idea of negotiations following the Cy Young season. But if Lee continues to pitch like an ace, negotiating in a walk year might prove just as difficult. Or even more difficult.
• Second-year Yankees manager Joe Girardi is having a great spring by all accounts, but that doesn't mean the pressure's off. It may be a little early for speculation on a replacement -- I think the Yankees will make the playoffs and Girardi will make it into next year -- but it's good to be prepared just in case. If they do replace him after the year, look for Bobby Valentine, who's in his last year with Chiba Lotte, to become a candidate.
• Ramiro Pena and Eduardo Nunez gave the Yankees a glimpse of the future at shortstop with big springs. Pena, who fell off the radar for a little while due to an injury, was especially impressive.
• Jose Tabata is having a marital issue with his 43-year-old wife being questioned in a baby-napping incident. Tabata has a history of decision-making difficulties. He's said to be on his fifth agent, and would have a chance to break Juan Gonzalez's record for agent switches if anyone kept count of all of Gonzalez's changes. Pirates GM Neal Huntington noted Tabata seems to be able to put his troubles aside while on the field, and he did have a huge spring.
• Scouts say Andrew McCutchen, another Pirates outfield prospect, was also very impressive this spring.
• Optimism award: I can't blame Cecil Cooper for injecting some optimism into Astros camp by predicting 90 victories. That seems like a stretch, though, with so little starting pitching depth.
• S.L. Price's fabulous Sabathia feature in the Sports Illustrated baseball preview issue contains this nugget: The Angels offered Sabathia a five-year contract for $20 million a year with a 24-hour window. I don't know exactly what Sabathia thought of this offer, but he did tell me at one point that the interest from his home state California teams "wasn't what you think," meaning it was less.
• I know they're paying Dusty Baker a lot of money in Cincinnati (about $3.7 million a year), but doesn't his pick of Corey Patterson last year disqualify him from recommending Gary Sheffield now?
• According to Bill Chuck's files, Nolan Ryan played for all four original expansion teams (Mets, Angels, Astros and Rangers), and in his last year was a teammate of Darren Oliver, the only other player to play for all four of those teams.
• Chuck also points out that "Pudge is chasing Pudge." Ivan Rodriguez needs 23 runs to tie Carlton Fisk's record 1,276 runs for a catcher.
• One addition to a previous statistical note, which was pointed out by several e-mailers: Tom Gordon, Dennis Eckersley and Hoyt Wilhelm aren't the only pitchers to post four shutouts and 150 saves. John Smoltz (16, 154) also qualifies.
• For those who missed out on our predictions, I'm going with Cubs over Red Sox in the World Series.