Baseball!!!

Pitchers and catchers report this week. Keep an eye on these plotlines
February 17, 2014

A truth emerged from this baseball off-season that is as bracing as the spring training sun upon the eyes of a Midwesterner unbound from winter's icy grip: The Yankees ($471 million on free agents) and the Dodgers ($293 million on free agents and a record-setting extension for pitcher Clayton Kershaw)—who combined to spend more money in three months than the entire MLB payroll of 1991—are in a financial league of their own. Having won the winter, the two Goliaths bought their way into these five most intriguing story lines as spring training camps open this week.

1Three Divided by Four

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly is facing a tricky math problem: He has four outfielders worth $429 million for three spots. The Dodgers don't see having Carl Crawford, Yasiel Puig, Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp as a problem. "I like that two are righthanded and two are lefthanded," GM Ned Colletti says. "And just because you're not in the lineup that night doesn't mean you won't have a chance to impact that game."

Puig is the most fascinating, because pitchers adjusted to him by keeping the ball low and away. He hit .379 in his first 58 games but .234 in his last 46. "Now it's his turn to adjust," Colletti says. "He's a special player. He does everything fast—he runs fast, he thinks fast. Unfortunately, that includes driving."

2The 21 Club

The dues-paying period in the big leagues has been shortened. For the first time in history, we are riding a streak of four seasons in which multiple 21-and-under players hit at least 15 home runs. This year's batch of young stars is likely to include Boston infielder Xander Bogaerts, Texas second baseman Jurickson Profar and Seattle pitcher Taijuan Walker—all of whom are 21 and likely to break camp with their teams.

Four other 21-year-olds could make an impact before the year is out: St. Louis outfielder Oscar Taveras, Cubs infielder Javier Baez, Arizona righthanded pitcher Archie Bradley and Minnesota third baseman Miguel Sano.

3Captain Comeback

Derek Jeter will try to return from ankle and leg injuries to do something only three men ever have: play 90 games at shortstop during a season in which they turned at least 40. While his range, durability and power will be watched closely, Jeter remains a pillar of the club amid change. The additions of catcher Brian McCann, outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and pitcher Masahiro Tanaka bring needed talent and vitality, though New York still has health and age issues. The good news is the Yankees are paying six players who received MVP votes. The bad news is we're talking about 2003 votes (Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki, Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Beltran, the suspended Alex Rodriguez and Vernon Wells, who has been released).

4No Experience Necessary

Five managers will run their first spring trainings, and three of them will do so facing lofty expectations after replacing a legend. Matt Williams, 48, replaced Davey Johnson, 71, in Washington; Brad Ausmus, 44, replaced Jim Leyland, 69, in Detroit; and Bryan Price, 51, replaced Dusty Baker, 64, in Cincinnati.

Ausmus and Price have never managed on any level. Williams's only experience is five weeks as a fill-in manager in Double A and one Arizona Fall League season. They are part of a larger trend in baseball: Organizational power has shifted from the dugout to the front office. General managers are picking young, inexperienced managers to replace older managers who had more authority.

5Texas Strangers

No franchise has been waiting longer for its first world championship than the Rangers, who will give it a 54th try this year. Their impatience is showing. Texas has changed six spots in the lineup from Opening Day last year, including seven-year bets on outfielder Shin-Shoo Choo and first baseman Prince Fielder, who had career lows in homers and slugging percentage last year with the Tigers.

The Rangers are counting on Fielder, 29, to regain his power in a better hitter's park. Fielder has ditched his number 28 for 84 (which happens to be his birth year). Only one other player ever wore 84: J.T. Snow, who wore it to honor his father, former NFL receiver Jack Snow, during 44 homerless at bats with the 2006 Red Sox.

PHOTOROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CRAWFORD) PHOTOROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (PUIG) PHOTOROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (KEMP) PHOTOELSA/GETTY IMAGES (ETHIER) PHOTOJANA LEON/THE IMAGE BANK/GETTY IMAGES (CANDLES) PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (JETER) PHOTOKOYO979/FOTOLIA.COM (GRAVESTONE) PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (FIELDER)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)