The confetti has been cleared off the Superdome floor. The lights have been turned off on the football season ... for good this time. This means one thing: baseball is coming back, and sooner than you might think.
The countdown is on for Spring Training, and it's early this time around. Because of next month's World Baseball Classic, reporting dates have been moved up. The first pitchers and catchers will begin arriving at their camps in Arizona and Florida next Monday. Position players will begin reporting four days later, on Feb. 15.
So now that the equipment trucks are being unpacked at the soon-to-be-filled ballparks of the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues and the players will be heading through the clubhouse doors soon, here are a quick four questions to ponder:
What do the champs look like?
Very quietly, the San Francisco Giants have won two of the past three World Series championships, and they've managed to stay under the radar through a wacky winter during which huge names were traded and superstar free agents were signed. With a week to go before the champions hit their spring digs in Scottsdale, Ariz., let's revisit what they did this winter: not much.
They let Melky Cabrera go to Toronto via free agency and recent reports indicate they'll do the same with closer Brian Wilson, but they re-upped with postseason hero Marco Scutaro, re-signed center fielder Angel Pagan, brought back a favorite from their 2010 World Series-winning club, outfielder Andres Torres, and did a few Minor League signings, including right-handed reliever Scott Proctor. In other words, the Giants like what they have, and why shouldn't they?
The biggest question is the present and future of starter-turned-postseason-reliever Tim Lincecum, and the indication heading into camp is that Lincecum is guaranteed a spot in the starting rotation. Which spot that will be remains up in the air.
Will the Dodgers' investments pay off?
Expect a lot of pressure to fall on Los Angeles manager Don Mattingly, who has seen a major roster renovation occur following an influx of cash from the team's new owners and a mega media-rights contract.
Last year's blockbuster deal with the Red Sox netted the Dodgers a package that included Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett, they picked up Hanley Ramirez from Miami, and in the winter they added the top free-agent pitcher on the market, Zack Greinke, as well as Korean left-handed starter Hyun-Jin Ryu. Add to that the trade for super-utility man Skip Schumaker and the signing of lefty reliever J.P. Howell, and the already loaded Dodgers look tough in a tough division.
The biggest question facing the team might be whether Matt Kemp is all the way back to health after having left shoulder surgery. The 2011 MVP runner-up says he's close.
"I can definitely tell my labrum is stronger; my shoulder is stronger from the rehab I'm doing," Kemp said. "I'm sure when I come to Spring Training there will be some limits put on me for some things. I'm not trying to be 100 percent for the first game of Spring Training. I'm trying to be 100 percent for the first game of the season."
How good are the Blue Jays?
You'd think they're going to be pretty good, right? They landed starters Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle plus shortstop Jose Reyes and infielder/outfielder Emilio Bonifacio in a 12-player deal with Miami. They signed Cabrera. And, oh, yeah, they traded for last year's National League Cy Young Award winner, R.A. Dickey.
The American League East remains one of baseball's toughest divisions, with the Yankees coming back after winning it last year, the upstart Orioles coming off a Wild Card campaign and the Tampa Bay Rays always a contender with tons of young pitching, but the Jays like where they're at. Beginning next week in Dunedin, Fla., fans will see it start to come together.
"There have been a lot of clubs that have made a lot of moves in the offseason and they haven't made the playoffs," Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. "We made the club better talent-wise. People need to stay healthy, have good seasons and come together, but we have given ourselves a better chance to be a much better club."
Where will Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse play?
These guys still don't know where they're going to end up, whether it's in time for the start of Spring Training or sometime after. This isn't exactly what fans expected for Bourn, who remains one of the top all-around free-agent position players, and Lohse, who went 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA last year for St. Louis.
And they aren't the only good players without homes with a week to go before pitchers and catchers. Starters Joe Saunders and Daisuke Matsuzaka, relievers Jose Valverde, Wilson and Francisco Rodriguez, and position players Carlos Lee and Freddy Sanchez, among others, are available.
A key late signing here or there could make those Spring Training rosters look a bit different with a week to go.