Pitchers and catchers report this week to spring training
Washington's star-studded rotation reports to Florida. Matt Harvey continues his comeback with the New York Mets. Joe Maddon takes over the Chicago Cubs, and Russell Martin gets a closer look at Toronto's pitching staff.
While much of the Northeast and Midwest navigates bitter cold and piles of snow, spring training begins in earnest this week when pitchers and catchers file into camps in Florida and Arizona. World Champion San Francisco is one of four National League teams slated to begin on Thursday, and most of the majors' pitchers and backstops will be in place by this weekend.
Following several massive free-agent deals and blockbuster trades, there are plenty of compelling story lines heading into baseball's first spring training since Rob Manfred took over as commissioner in January.
The Nationals strengthened their already solid rotation by signing free agent Max Scherzer to a $210 million, seven-year contract. Now the pressure is on Scherzer to deliver on that big deal and help the reigning NL East champions advance deep into the playoffs for the first time since the franchise moved to Washington.
While Scherzer will attract plenty of attention this spring, it looks as if Tanner Roark will have to adjust to a bullpen role after he had a breakout season a year ago, winning 15 games with a sparking 2.85 ERA. The right-hander is a nice insurance policy for manager Matt Williams should any of the starters get hurt.
Harvey missed all of last season for his recovery from elbow ligament-replacement surgery, and got an early start on spring training by reporting to New York's facility about two weeks before the first scheduled workout. He is hoping to be ready for opening day, but the Mets could decide on a slow and steady approach for the ace right-hander.
It's a brand new day for the Cubs when they report to Arizona after a banner offseason that included the addition of Maddon, who had a 754-705 record during his successful nine-year run with Tampa Bay.
Cubs President Theo Epstein pounced on the quirky skipper after he opted out of his contract with the Rays, dumping Rick Renteria after just one season. Epstein is counting on Maddon to ease the transition of the organization's impressive stable of prospects to the rigors of the majors.
The Cubs were one of baseball's most active teams over the winter. Same goes for Toronto, which is seeking its first playoff appearance since it won the World Series in 1993.
Martin was one of the majors' most prized free agents over the winter, and he opted for an $82 million, five-year contract with the Blue Jays. The three-time All-Star, who was born in Toronto and raised in Montreal, hit .290 with 11 home runs and 67 RBIs with Pittsburgh last season, helping the Pirates to a second straight playoff berth.
Here are a few more things to watch heading into spring training:
HERE COME THE CHAMPS
The last team to win consecutive World Series was the New York Yankees from 1998-2000. The next team to take a crack that feat is San Francisco, which beat Kansas City in seven games for the title last fall.
The good news for the Giants is they have plenty of experience when it comes to defending the title, having also won the World Series in 2010 and 2012. But they failed to make the playoffs following each of their previous two championships, slipping to a 76-86 record in 2013.
One spot to watch this spring is third base, where Casey McGehee replaces Pablo Sandoval after the slugger signed a $95 million, five-year deal with Boston over the winter. Madison Bumgarner returns after throwing a whopping 270 innings last year, and Matt Cain is back after he had surgery in August to remove bone chips from his right elbow.
MANY HAPPY RETURNS
The comeback capital of the majors is New York, which has Harvey hoping to return to form, and three intriguing situations with the Yankees. Left-hander CC Sabathia is back after he missed much of last season with a degenerative cartilage problem in his right knee, and Masahiro Tanaka is looking for a healthy second season after he was limited to 20 mostly impressive starts last year due to an elbow injury.
But one of spring training's biggest stories is the return of Alex Rodriguez after the three-time AL MVP was suspended for last season for violations of baseball's drug agreement and labor contract. Rodriguez's last major league game was Sept. 25, 2013, against Tampa Bay, so no one really knows what to expect from the 39-year-old slugger.
Reds first baseman Joey Votto (left knee), Rangers first baseman Prince Fielder (neck surgery), Orioles third baseman Manny Machado (right knee surgery) and Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (left hip surgery) are among the other noteworthy comebacks to watch this spring.
NEW FACES IN NEW PLACES
Maddon gets to give the ball to Jon Lester every fifth day after the lefty signed a $155 million, six-year contract with the Cubs. Lester went 16-11 with a 2.46 ERA with Oakland and Boston last year.
The Cubs also traded for catcher Miguel Montero and brought back right-hander Jason Hammel with a $20 million, two-year contract.
The crosstown White Sox have a completely different look this spring. Jeff Samardzija joins the rotation after a trade with Oakland, and closer David Robertson should stabilize the bullpen after agreeing to a $46 million, four-year deal in free agency.
The Red Sox, with Sandoval and slugger Hanley Ramirez ($88 million, four-year contract), and the Padres, with right-hander James Shields ($75 million, four-year deal) and a brand new outfield, are two more teams who bring big expectations to camp following an active offseason.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap