Storylines begin to unfold across Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues with big league matchups Tuesday
By Doug Miller
Today, and in the week ahead, we take the leap.
The winter without baseball has been long enough, and now we're saddled with an extra day, as February finally comes to a close after 29 days. But there's no stopping baseball anymore.
Pitchers, catchers and position players are no longer in workout mode. It's time to play ball in the Cactus League and the Grapefruit League, and after a light Monday that features three games against college teams, Tuesday gives us Major League matchups -- and live MLB.TV games -- for the first time since the Royals closed out the Mets in Game 5 of the 2015 World Series.
So this is the week to start putting MLB.TV to good use again. More than 275 Spring Training games will be available leading up to Opening Day.
Two games will be streamed live on MLB.TV on Tuesday: the Blue Jays against the Phillies in Clearwater, Fla., at 1:05 p.m. ET, and the Reds against the Indians in Goodyear, Ariz., at 3:05 ET.
Meanwhile, the Tigers take on the Pirates at their Spring Training home of Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla., and the Orioles and Braves will face each other in Kissimmee. Both games are scheduled to start at 1:05 ET.
The entire exhibition schedule takes off in earnest on Wednesday with a fuller slate of games, and that will be the norm until Opening Day.
Rosters will be pared and, as front offices hope, perfected. There will be late-innings drama in the comforting sun for legions of fans ecstatic that the national pastime is back.
And there will be storylines galore. Here are five of the many to watch for, even in this much-anticipated first week of games:
A Royal encore: All eyes will be on the defending champs from Kansas City when they take the field Wednesday for their Cactus League debut against their Surprise Stadium roommates, the Texas Rangers, at 1:05 p.m. MT.
The Royals have a similar roster to the one that won the Fall Classic in five games, but they've added starting pitcher Ian Kennedy and reliever Joakim Soria to offset the loss of ace Johnny Cueto to free agency and closer Greg Holland (at least for now) to Tommy John surgery.
The outlook? That won't change at all.
"We want to win another world championship," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "We were 90 feet away [in 2014] from going for a three-peat. We basically have the same crew. They're motivated and want to win another world championship for the city of Kansas City and this organization.
"We have a top-notch organization. The support and belief we have in each other ... that's what makes it fun."
Giant expectations: It's an even year again, which means the 2010, '12 and '14 World Series champion San Francisco Giants are expected by at least the superstitious to win it all again. That might not qualify as a realistic projection, but the Giants do look pretty good, having added Cueto and Jeff Samardzija to their rotation alongside Madison Bumgarner and signing Denard Span to provide more oomph in the outfield.
This new crew for manager Bruce Bochy will take on the Angels on Wednesday in Scottsdale, Ariz., at 1:05 p.m. MT.
"It don't matter to us whether we're considered the favorites or not, underdogs or whatever," Bumgarner said. "We don't care about that. We know what we have to go out and do, and that's what we're focused on doing."
The long Boston goodbye begins: Slugger David Ortiz has already announced that 2016 will be his last ride in the Major Leagues, and he and the otherwise young Red Sox roster will try to make sure it includes a trip to the postseason.
"Don't think that because I'm retiring after this season that I'm not hungry," Ortiz said. "I'm still hungry. I was going at it this offseason just to come in and have another good season. And I'm going to be pushing my teammates the best I can, the best possible. Hopefully I do not know when my last at-bat is going to be, because I want to go to the postseason."
Ortiz has some brilliantly talented teammates, too. Boston brought in ace David Price to anchor the pitching rotation and closer Craig Kimbrel to steel up the bullpen. They, along with Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Blake Swihart plus stalwart second baseman Dustin Pedroia, will strut their stuff for the first time this spring on Wednesday at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla., against the Twins at 1:05 p.m. ET.
Fish story:Giancarlo Stanton has already done plenty of damage in his young Major League career, and the Marlins slugger was doing some last year (27 home runs and 67 RBIs) before a broken bone in his hand ended his season after 74 games.
Miami and new manager Don Mattingly need Stanton as a daily presence in the middle of their order for the team to improve from its 71-91 record in 2015, and Stanton, 26, is healthy, entering his prime years and ready to begin the 2016 journey with Spring Training games starting against the Cardinals on Thursday at 1:05 p.m. ET at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla.
"I gave it a long rest, strengthening period, and I haven't had any problems since," Stanton said of the injury. "To be honest, I did just about everything I could to strengthen it [last summer]. None of that worked. It really just needed to sit and do nothing. That was the best for it."
The odds-on choice: The Cubs had a breakthrough 2015, making it to the National League Championship Series despite one of the youngest cores in the Majors, and this offseason they added Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey. That's why they are the odds-on favorite to win the World Series -- something the franchise has not done since 1908.
So you could say things have changed since last year, expectations-wise, and the Cubs will start trying to live up to it on Wednesday at 1:05 p.m. MT when they send a split squad to Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix to take on the Brewers in their spring debut.
"Obviously, the team has all the talent and the right leadership to go all the way this year," Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said recently. "I think the guys are ready for it. It's a different vibe than we've had in the past. I think everyone's excited to get the season started."
No doubt on that one.
Extra bases: And for all those points of intrigue, add these: The D-backs, with new ace Zack Greinke and high hopes in the NL West after an improved 2015, play the Rockies on Wednesday at 1:10 p.m. MT at their shared Arizona complex, Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.
The Dodgers, with new pitchers Kenta Maeda and Scott Kazmir, open up against their Camelback Ranch complex-mate White Sox at 1:05 p.m. MT on Thursday in Glendale, Ariz.
And Thursday is the day for the Mets, too. New York takes on its NL East rival, Washington, and new Nationals manager Dusty Baker on Thursday at 1:05 p.m. ET at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., as they try to do what it takes to get three more wins at the right time in October.
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.