New managers and top prospects promise plenty of intrigue
By Paul Hagen
The final whistle at the Super Bowl is also the beginning of the final countdown toward Spring Training. In fact, now that football season is over, there are just 11 days until camps open across Florida and Arizona.
With that in mind, here are 11 storylines to follow during Spring Training:
1. They'll manage: Five teams have made changes on the top step of the dugout since last season ended. So it will be interesting to see how the three inexperienced guys -- Dave Roberts with the Dodgers, Andy Green with the Padres and Scott Servais with the Mariners -- set the tone and relate to the players.
How will Roberts, who has never managed at any level, handle a team with the expectations that go along with having the highest payroll in the game? How will Dusty Baker, a proven winner, impact a Nationals team that has failed to meet expectations the past four seasons? How will Don Mattingly, coming off three straight playoff appearances with the Dodgers, bring stability to a Marlins franchise that has changed managers eight times in the past 11 years?
2. Nine figures for seven: Orioles first baseman Chris Davis signed a seven-year, $161 million deal to stay in Baltimore, while a half dozen other free agents got more than $100 million to change teams.
The spotlight is always on new guys with huge new contracts, so you can be sure every move David Price (seven years, $217 million from the Red Sox), Zack Greinke (six years, $206.5 million from the Diamondbacks), Jason Heyward (eight years, $184 million from the Cubs), Justin Upton (six years, $132.75 million from the Tigers), Johnny Cueto (six years, $130 million from the Giants) and Jordan Zimmermann (five years, $110 million from the Tigers) make will be closely scrutinized.
3. Crowned Royals: For the first time since 1986, when closer Wade Davis was a year old, Kansas City heads to Spring Training as the defending World Series champions.
When the Phillies reported to camp in 2009, manager Charlie Manuel made a point of saying that the World Series was over, that it was a new year, that the players should forget they'd won it all the previous October. Then they went onto the field and saw signs proclaiming them the 2008 champs hung all over the complex.
Last year, the Royals used their near-miss the previous fall and the near-unanimous preseason opinion that they had little chance of making it back to the postseason as motivation. The challenge will be to maintain that edge while everybody tells them how wonderful they are.
4. The Bandwagon: Despite getting swept in the National League Championship Series, the Cubs -- thanks to a few major free-agent signings -- are the consensus favorites. Will this be the year the team with the most famous championship drought in all of sports, 108 years, finally wins it all?
From the first days of fundamental drills and PFP this spring, the world will be watching for clues to the answer for that question. With a talented young nucleus (Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Kyle Schwarber), a solid rotation headed by Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester, a proven manager in Joe Maddon and a talented front office led by Theo Epstein, they might be the team to beat on paper. Still, their history adds a degree of difficulty. They may be able to ignore their century-and-change without the ultimate victory. But nobody else will.
5. Sliding 101: Watch to see how umpires call slides into second base during exhibition games. That became a hot button topic during the playoffs when the Dodgers' Chase Utley broke up a double play and also broke the leg of Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada.
Major League Baseball had been looking into this issue even before the Utley slide brought it into sharper focus. For the past two years, runners in the Arizona Fall League have been instructed to slide directly to the base. Possible tweaks were also discussed by the rules committee during the offseason.
7. Now, for an encore: The Astros and Mets were two of the best stories in baseball in 2015. After a total of 416 losses the previous four seasons, Houston not only made the playoffs, but gave the eventual World Series champion Royals everything they could handle in the American League Division Series. The Mets took off in the second half to make it all the way to the World Series, but this year neither team will sneak up on anybody. And everybody understands that it's often more difficult to repeat success than to succeed in the first place.
8. Pardon our dust: A few teams are rebuilding, none more aggressively than the club that finished with baseball's worst record last year. The Phillies will have all five of their top-rated prospects, and eight of the Top 20 as ranked by MLBPipeline.com, in Major League camp, which will give fans a chance to see the players that could form the nucleus of the organization's next run of excellence. At the same time, the Phils will also grapple about what to do with 36-year-old first baseman Ryan Howard; manager Pete Mackanin called it a "hairy" situation.
10. Washington monuments: Bryce Harper is one of the best players in baseball coming off a historically good year. Jonathan Papelbon is a proven closer who is guaranteed $11 million this season. The two had a very public dugout scrap last season, which means they'll be watched closely this spring to see if they can peacefully co-exist.
11. Not his father's Yankees: Principal owner Hal Steinbrenner wasn't willing to trade top prospects for a quick fix down the stretch last season. He hasn't signed off on any major free-agent signings this offseason. He's consistently said he's putting his trust in youngsters like Judge, Gary Sanchez, Jorge Mateo, Rob Refsnyder and James Kaprielian. So, what the kids show in Tampa, Fla., will become increasingly important for a franchise that hasn't won a playoff game in three years for the first time since 1993.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.