This Spring Training begins with at least a dozen teams thinking they're good enough to win a World Series, and that's probably a record. These aren't teams looking for the stars and moon to align, either. They're just solid teams that need to stay healthy and get the kind of production championship teams always get from a few players.
The Nationals may be atop this list, but the Braves are there, too. So are the Cardinals and Reds, Giants and Dodgers, Angels and Tigers, Blue Jays and Rangers. And others.
That's just a start. Another dozen teams believe they're capable of making the playoffs, and if they're hot in October, anything can happen. The Yankees begin this season as underdogs, the Blue Jays as a potential powerhouse. Yes, the times are changing.
The Orioles and Athletics surprised us last season, but there may no such thing as a surprise team in 2013. So much happened the last two seasons -- so many wild finishes, so many seismic shifts in the landscape -- that we should be braced for anything.
If you're looking for storylines, they're here, there and everywhere. Here are 10 to whet your appetite:
1. Tim Lincecum goes for a jump-start of his career.
Once upon a time, Lincecum was the best of the best. And then it all came undone last season, thanks to declining production, shaken confidence and a 5.18 ERA. If he can get back on track -- and he seems confident he can -- the Giants will have taken a huge step toward a third championship in four years.
2. Don Mattingly tries to make all the pretty pieces fit.
Go ahead and admit it. You didn't think Mattingly was up to the job when the Dodgers made him their manager two years ago. Those doubts have pretty much been blown away. From communication skills to creating a winning environment, Donnie Baseball has been first-rate. Now his challenge will be taking all that talent and all those egos and creating a cohesive, competitive unit. Don't bet against Mattingly.
3. The Angels made another huge splash, but did they get better?
Albert Pujols got most of the headlines last Spring Training, but the Halos were supposed to win because of their starting rotation. And that rotation is why they failed to make the playoffs. Now it has a new look, with Tommy Hanson, Jason Vargas and Joe Blanton getting the spots behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. The Angels are scary good on offense, with Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton and Pujols in three of the first four spots, but it's the rotation that could decide whether they make the playoffs for the first time in four years.
4. Will Aroldis Chapman be baseball's next great starting pitcher?
The Reds went almost wire to wire with five starting pitchers to win the National League Central. Meanwhile, Chapman emerged as a first-rate closer by making good on 38 of 43 save chances and throwing consistently in the 100-mph range. Still, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty wants to exhaust every opportunity to make Chapman a starter, believing that's where he would be a greater value to the franchise. That was the plan last spring until an injury to Ryan Madson created a hole in the bullpen. Jonathan Broxton has filled that hole, so here comes Chapman again.
5. Can Yoenis Cespedes be even better?
The Oakland outfielder was good last year, with 23 home runs and an .861 OPS. The A's were 82-46 with Cespedes in the starting lineup, and 12-22 without him. Once he got settled in, he was more than impressive. Now, Cespedes knows his surroundings, knows the opposing pitchers, and most of all, knows he's capable of greatness in this new league. We may have seen just a hint of how good he can be.
6. Are the Yankees really underdogs?
It's a great storyline. No Nick Swisher. No A-Rod. No Russell Martin. No Rafael Soriano. OK, let's slow down. The Yanks have a smaller margin of error, but if Andy Pettitte, CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda stay healthy, if Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano have productive seasons, the Yankees are plenty good enough to win again. Still, it makes for a good spring debate.
7. Roy Halladay will be a good measuring stick for the Phillies.
If Halladay can be great again, so can the Phils. But he's 35 years old and has averaged 219 innings per season over the last decade. Halladay's velocity was off enough last season that he looked like a shadow of his former self. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. had a nice offseason in adding upgrades up and down the roster. But the Phillies will go only as far as Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels take them. They need Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins and all those other guys, but it's still all about the rotation.
8. The future is now for the Royals.
General manager Dayton Moore ended the reconstruction of the Royals and put them in a win-now mode by trading one of baseball's best prospects, Wil Myers, to get James Shields and Wade Davis. Moore has done a fabulous job collecting prospects, but 2013 will be about winning. There appears to be too much talent on the roster to fail.
9. John Lackey is starting over again, but then so are the Red Sox.
Lackey has promised to turn the page on two frustrating years of slumps and injury and prove that he can once again be one of baseball's most durable and effective starting pitchers. General manager Ben Cherington worked hard to change the environment around the Red Sox with the acquisitions of Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, David Ross, etc., and a big year from Lackey could change the story in Boston.
10. Will the Upton brothers get the best out of one another?
The Braves have been smartly constructed and expertly managed. But general manager Frank Wren aggressively changed his roster again by acquiring B.J. Upton and his younger brother, Justin. At their best, they're good enough to put a franchise on their shoulders. The Braves believe they will.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less