It is, therefore, still too early to know quite what to expect in the new year. But I do have some hunches. And with 2013 upon us, I foresee that the following 13 names (or pairs of names) are going to be prime points of discussion in the coming months.
1. Don Mattingly Is there a manager under more direct pressure than Mattingly this season? Not that he's on the hot seat, per se, but the staggering investment the new ownership group has made into the Dodgers' player payroll is accompanied by increasing expectations -- expectations that will, of course, be difficult to meet in a division that includes the defending World Series champs. The Dodgers made a bold strike to improve their roster last August, only to fall short. They've upped the ante even further this offseason. When a team shakes up its roster this thoroughly in such a short span, it inevitably becomes a chemistry experiment, and Mattingly and his staff are the ones entrusted with the lab coats.
2. Aroldis Chapman The Reds are doing what just about any organization would do with a high-velocity left-hander full of upside by giving Chapman a chance to stick in their rotation. But that doesn't distort the bottom line that the Reds are also taking on a great deal of risk with this move, for Chapman's learning curve and expected innings limitations could become a burden to a club with serious championship hopes. A risk worth taking? We'll see as the season evolves.
3. Mariano Rivera Is this the end? It feels like the end, if only because there was so much concern that the end had come that May day when he crumpled to the ground in Kansas City. That Rivera has decided to suit up for another season is wholly unsurprising, given his competitive nature. It couldn't end that way. But at some point, the greatest closer of all time will seal his final save, and that time could very well come in 2013. In the meantime, even those of us who don't identify as Yankees fans ought to appreciate Rivera while he's still around. Because rare is the athlete who so clearly stands out as the best to ever do what he does.
4. R.A. Dickey In 2012, Dickey became perhaps baseball's most fascinating figure. A National League Cy Young Award winner, a bestselling author, a hero for speaking up about the horrors of child sexual abuse and, at year's end, a high-profile piece of trade bait. Because of all this, we'll be looking at Dickey in an altogether new light in 2013. And because we now know the Kilimanjaro-like heights he can climb to with that knuckleball, we'll be eager to see not only if Dickey can successfully transition to the American League but if he can lead the Blue Jays' return to relevancy in a daunting division.
5. Dayton Moore (Royals GM) and Alex Anthopoulos (Blue Jays GM) Might as well group these two together, because few GMs stick their necks out there quite like these two did at the end of 2012. Both of them were "tired of waiting for tomorrow to come," as Bruce Springsteen once sang in "Better Days," and both sold off valuable pieces of their perceived tomorrows to reel in present-day upgrades. The gamble is greatest for Moore. Because in small markets, you simply can't miss.
6. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens It is widely expected that they won't get into the Hall of Fame this year. And when this matter is made official on Jan. 9, we'll have yet another spirited round of debate about the steroid era, the Hall's voting procedure, the Baseball Writers' Association of America's role and how history and hindsight should be handled. Bonds and Clemens have become the faces of that era and its implications, and it is, frankly, fascinating to observe the various rationales behind the yays and nays with regard to their candidacies.
7. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper While I'm in the midst of trotting out some proper pairings, I might as well continue to view these two as a dynamic duo. Perhaps that's not fair to Trout, given that his 2012 season was transcendent enough to stand on its own accord. But it seems safe to suggest that few sophomore seasons in the game's long history have been as hotly anticipated as 2013 will be for the reigning Rookies of the Year. With Trout, especially, we'd worry that the hype and expectations will prove suffocating. But when you share a lineup with Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols, perhaps that helps deflect some measure of the attention.
8. Josh Hamilton There is more curiosity surrounding Hamilton than any other player who has changed uniforms this winter, because of his past and because of the potential damage his bat can do when paired with that of Pujols. Hamilton had a nice comfort zone in Texas, as the Rangers handled his situation with tremendous sensitivity. Not that the Angels won't, but this will undoubtedly be an adjustment for Hamilton. There will also be questions about how he'll rebound from the bizarre way his 2012 season ended. Because of the age and park effects at play here, perhaps the Hamilton-Pujols pairing won't be quite as dramatic as some envision. But if the Halos weren't already must-see TV, they are now.
9. Stephen Strasburg We saw what he could do with 159 1/3 innings, guiding the best rotation in the game toward the best regular-season record in the game. What can he do with 200? All that hubbub about his early shutdown isn't really in the rearview mirror. Strasburg should be back strong, having benefited from the Nats' caution. But if he gets hurt, the Nats will take all kinds of abuse for their course of action.
10. Michael Bourn He makes this list simply as a product of being the last truly big-ticket free agent standing. Speed is always a risky investment, but Bourn has the skillset to energize a lineup. So who's it going to be? The Dodgers? The Rangers? The Mariners? The Phillies? The Cubs? The Yakult Swallows? OK, OK. Probably not the Cubs.
11. Justin Upton Allow me to help ensure that 2013 is the fourth consecutive calendar year in which Upton is a prominent member of the trade-rumor mill. It just wouldn't feel complete without him. The D-backs surprisingly acquired Cody Ross, so their outfield surplus remains a talking point, and Upton will remain a focal point for teams (the Rangers, especially) on the hunt for a middle-of-the-order presence. Will 2013 be the year that talk leads to actual movement?
12. Wil Myers A lot of people in the industry were stunned the Royals moved this kid in the James Shields deal. As a result of that trade, Myers is now a household name for more than just the milb.com crowd. His Major League debut, likely to come in the first half of 2013, will be one to watch.
13. Giancarlo Stanton The Marlins already traded away just about everybody else, and that naturally leads to suspicion, perhaps unfounded, that they might deal Stanton, too. Over the holidays came word that the Fish are open to listening to offers for Stanton, but that trends more along the lines of organizational policy than actual intent to move him. But when you look around the game and see the willingness clubs are showing to part with prospects in an effort to immediately improve in the more competitive Wild Card-enabled environment, and when you think about how tantalizing a talent Stanton is in a game starved for power, it's not all that crazy to consider a club enticing the Marlins with four or five top young talents to bring him aboard. Few players could attract the kind of haul Stanton could bring, and few additions would excite a fan base quite like Stanton would.