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Spring Training 2015

By: X Bats

Tomorrow is the day when the first full squad workouts begin. Some teams start as late as Friday but most start tomorrow and Wednesday.

There are some major stories in MLB this Spring that will play out over the first half of the season. 

The Red Sox's lineup appears better. Can the rotation improve, too?

Boston's odd recent history - last in 2012, World Series champs in 2013, last again in 2014 - is amplified by a makeover that's difficult to decipher. After ranking ninth in the American League in runs scored and 13th in OPS a year ago, the Red Sox signed free agents Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to prop up a lineup that still revolves around David Ortiz. But the expectation, entering the offseason, was that they would land one of the front-line pitchers available - either Jon Lester, their homegrown hero, or Max Scherzer as a free agent or Cole Hamels via trade (and that's still possible). Instead, Boston traded for Rick Porcello, who always fit behind Justin Verlander and Scherzer (and even Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister) in Detroit and who has thrown 200 innings or had an ERA below 3.90 only once. They traded for Arizona's Wade Miley, coming off a season with a 4.34 ERA and 1.401 WHIP. They signed Justin Masterson, once their top pitching prospect, who had the worst season of his career in 2014 (5.88 ERA). And they forge forward with the increasingly brittle Clay Buchholz (5.34 ERA, 1.386 WHIP). Maybe that group, plus midseason acquisition Joe Kelly, can hold things together. But if the Red Sox begin to lose games 8-7, prepare for the Boston cognoscenti to look to the minors, where prospect Henry Owens and others lurk.

The Dodgers, Nationals, Cardinals and Angels all have teams some believe will win 95 or more games. Which one will struggle?

The picks on paper in February are inevitably different than the postseason teams in October, and the Dodgers are the first with a bump in the road because closer Kenley Janssen had foot surgery and could be out until May - a huge blow to a bullpen that was the team's weakest point a year ago. The Nationals are familiar with the "World Series or bust" hex of 2013, when they were the favorites and didn't make the playoffs, but their rotation is the best in the game and their offense should be boosted by a healthy Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper. The Cardinals have advanced to the postseason four straight years, may have right-hander Michael Wacha healthy again and now have Jason Heyward gobbling up whatever's hit to right field. The Angels? Yes, Mike Trout is the game's best player. But aren't there more questions here than answers? Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols need to turn around their downward trajectories. Cornerstone second baseman Howie Kendrick is gone (to the Dodgers). Right-hander Garrett Richards is coming off an injury, and Matt Shoemaker will have to duplicate his out-of-nowhere rookie season of 2014, when a guy with a 4.52 ERA in the minors somehow went 16-4 with a 2.94 ERA in his first 28 major league appearances. With much-improved Seattle lurking, maybe it's the Angels who stumble.

Alex Rodriguez?

Put aside his hand-written apology to fans issued earlier this week, and consider for a moment just A-Rod, the player: 14 times an all-star, three times an MVP, fifth all-time on the home run list. From 1994-2001, he hit .302 with a .953 OPS, one of the most consistent and deadly offensive players of all-time. Now, he returns from his year-long suspension as ... what? In 2012 and '13, the last two seasons in which he played, he hit a pedestrian .265/.352/.428 in 166 games, posting his lowest slugging percentage since 1995 and his lowest on-base percentage since 1997. He was so bad against right-handed pitching in 2012 (.256/.326/.391) that he was benched in the playoffs. He turns 40 in July. What do the Yankees have? And where will he play? New York signed Chase Headley to a four-year, $52-million deal to be its third baseman. Is Rodriguez going to be a fulltime designated hitter? Doesn't Carlos Beltran figure to need some time there? Plus, he steps onto a team that no longer has Derek Jeter as a center-of-the-universe anchor. This story would be intriguing even if it were just about baseball. And it's not.

Can the overhauled Padres contend?

For all the hoopla - and yes, it's deserved - over San Diego's marked roster change under first-year general manager A.J. Preller, it's worth noting that the Padres still reside in the same division as one team that has won three of the past five World Series and another that will have the highest payroll in baseball. That said, who figured San Diego would be this fascinating? There are plenty of questions within this roster - Can Wil Myers play center field? Will James Shields excel against National League lineups in a pitcher-friendly ballpark? - but the central one is the most important, because it's ultimately about winning games. Given that they traded for Justin Upton, in the last year of his contract, the Padres intend to do that now. San Diego won 77 games in 2014. It took 88 to make the National League playoffs. Will all the new faces add up to a dozen more wins and end a stretch of six losing seasons in the last seven?

Who will have more fun in Chicago - North Siders or South Siders?

One of the best baseball towns in the country has been irrelevant lately. The Cubs have had five straight losing seasons and haven't won a playoff game since 2003. The White Sox's only appearance in the postseason since winning the 2005 World Series came in 2008, and they were dispatched in four games. Now, there is a dizzying combination of star power and upside. The Cubs signed left-hander Jon Lester to a six-year, $155-million deal in the offseason, and he now fronts a rotation that includes promising 25-year-old right-hander Kyle Hendricks. Plus, the Cubs have the best crop of young position players in the game, led by 2014 minor league player of the year Kris Bryant but also including infielder Javier Baez, infielder/outfielder Arismendy Alcantara, shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder Jorge Soler. If the Cubs are in it at the trade deadline, they have the talent pool from which to deal. That said, only San Diego had a splashier offseason than the South Side White Sox, who nabbed a frontline starter to pair with Chris Sale in (former Cub) Jeff Samardzija, got the best closer on the market in David Robertson and added pop around lineup centerpiece Jose Abreu (the 2014 AL Rookie of the Year) in Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera. So mark down July 10-12 at Wrigley Field, because by then we'll know if these teams are for real, and that three-game series between the two could be directly at the center of the baseball universe.



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