So as players begin drifting into camps next week, here are some individual storylines that bear watching:
B.J. Upton, Tampa Bay. He hit seven postseason homers in 2008 and was thought to be shedding the vestment of unlimited expectation and heading to stardom. But after offseason surgery on his left shoulder, Upton hit .241 with 11 homers, his on-base percentage was .313, and his .686 OPS was sandwiched on your leaderboard between Jhonny Peralta and Yuniesky Betancourt.
But, remember. Upton is 25 years old. He has played short, third, second and the outfield. He has spent the winter working at the Trop with Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton.
"I think the shoulder issue concerned B.J. more than people realized," Shelton says. "It clearly affected his swing. He has worked really hard this winter to get comfortable at the plate and to be consistent in his approach. He's trying to find a consistent load, then getting through the hitting zone. He gets the barrel of the bat through the zone incredibly quickly, with tremendous power. His work habits have been amazing. Obviously so is his talent. There is little doubt in my mind that B.J. is going to have his breakout season."
The conventional wisdom is that the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox begin Spring Training as consensus picks as the three best teams in baseball. Upton's emergence as one of the game's best all-around players would mean if David Price and Wade Davis are as good as hoped, the Rays can think about 95 wins again, just as the D-backs dream of the emergence of Justin Upton changing the Western landscape.
Kendry Morales, Angels. Remember, he's 26, and the one-time star center fielder and closer for Havana's Industriales has had to make social, cultural and physical adjustments since I first saw him when he was 15 at an academy outside Havana in March 1999. He was long, loose and looked like he could grow into another Andre Dawson; when he finally got to the U.S., he hadn't grown any taller, his body had changed and he had to endure the trials and tribulations of an entirely different, free culture.
When Mark Teixeira left the Angels, Morales took over first base and had his breakout season. He batted .306, was sixth in the American League in homers with 34, eighth in OPS at .924 and knocked in 108 runs. But in Mike Scioscia's mind, he has just begun. He had a career total of 12 homers going to Spring Training last season.
"Kendry's growth has taken off," Scioscia says. "I don't think a lot of us can relate to how difficult that process is for someone with his background. But last year he emerged on the field and off. He hit [.306] and can hit a lot more than that. He's developing a much better idea of how he's going to be pitched, and his plate discipline improved greatly. It will improve even more."
Morales was a power hitter and closer for Industriales -- Cuba's equivalent of the Yankees -- as a teenager, and was considered his nation's prodigy. "He now realizes he can be a superstar in America," Scioscia says. "He wants it. He's going to look up in 10 years, have 400 homers, have made more money than he ever imagined and going to be thought of as a star player."
With Vladimir Guerrero and Chone Figgins gone, Morales becomes a central figure on a team with a deep bullpen, five good starting pitchers and Trevor Reckling on the horizon. Spring Training is always a great time to watch Scioscia work the entire organization on the lower fields of the Angels complex, work that may pay off with Brandon Wood getting his chance at third base, and which has already paid off with Morales. "Mark my words," Scioscia says. "With Kendry, the sky is the limit."
Josh Beckett, Red Sox. Get all the negotiating numbers on the table: He's in a free-agent year as he turns 30 in May, he's looking at John Lackey's contract, and he has taken some hits for not duplicating his 2007 season (yes, his four-year Boston ERA is 4.05; yes, his 2008-09 postseasons have been 21 innings, 18 runs, 17 strikeouts) ...
Fine. But in the minds of his manager, coaches and teammates, what Beckett has or hasn't been compared with Halladay or Lackey isn't as important as who he is. Everyone expects that in this contract year, in the aftermath of the Lackey and A.J. Burnett contracts, that Beckett will come riding into Fort Myers, Fla., like Clint Eastwood and have a 2007 season.
"Sure, I think he's on a mission," pitching coach John Farrell says. "But not because of the contract. That's the way he is every spring. He's always energized; he's always focused not on getting by, but being great. The contract is incidental."
Farrell, Terry Francona, Jon Lester and most people around the Red Sox view Beckett not as an exceptional pitcher who works every fifth day, but as the de facto captain of the pitching staff, a leader. Farrell has long marveled at Beckett's work habits, how he tries to be perfect on every between-start throw day, which is now duplicated by Lester.
"Josh leads by example," Farrell says. "His work is consistent. He never lets anything distract him from his purpose. He carries expectations, and can be hard on himself, but he is never afraid of being honest with himself. There's no question that he's had an impact on Lester and Clay Buchholz. He's not afraid to call someone out and keep the accelerator going."
The Red Sox won 95 games in a season in which injuries and disappointments forced them into 55 starts in which their starting pitchers had a 6.28 ERA. A healthy Daisuke Matsuzaka -- and Mike Roberts last week continued to rave about his work habits at the Athletes Performance Institute in Scottsdale, Ariz. -- and a mature Buchholz and Lackey can change that. As can a 2007 Beckett. But even if he's "just" a 17-game winner, as he was in 2009, Beckett is the ultimate foxhole teammate, and that makes him the potential ballast of the Boston pitching staff once again.
Miguel Cabrera, Tigers. He and Mauer turn 27 one day apart in April, and he is coming off a year in which he batted .324 with 34 homers and a .942 OPS.
But there are the clouds from his September pennant-race mistake of hanging out with a few White Sox players and not being prepared to play. Tigers manager Jim Leyland believes Cabrera learned a harsh lesson.
"Miguel Cabrera is the least of my worries," Leyland says. "He was unbelievable at the WinterFest. He answered every question. He didn't duck a thing. He worked hard in rehab, and he's worked hard at everything in his life, and he'll be better for it. Let me tell you something -- this is a kid with a great face who loves to play, who's a great hitter and just had to grow up. He'll have a big year. We may have some problems scoring runs at times, but it won't be his fault."
There are concerns about the age in the corners of the outfield, and without Curtis Granderson and Placido Polanco, there are issues at the top of the order that make Johnny Damon appealing. "What we have to do is provide enough baserunners and protection for Miguel Cabrera," Leyland says. "He's the center of our offense."
Cole Hamels, Phillies. OK, he wasn't the October Hamels we watched in 2008. He was 10-11 with a 4.32 ERA after being 14-10 the year before. He won four games in October 2008, one in the 2009 postseason.
"Cole is so proud, he was almost fighting himself at times last year," manager Charlie Manuel says. "But I don't think there's any question that the innings he threw in 2008 caught up with him. He isn't a big guy, and he threw a lot of very tough innings for us to win the World Series."
Hamels' innings pattern went from 132 to 183 to, including the postseason, 262 in 2008. "He just wasn't as sharp, and he struggled at times with a third pitch," Manuel says. "But the command wasn't the same as it had been the year before, and that may have had to do with the innings. There's no doubt in my mind that Hamels will bounce back and be an extraordinary pitcher, no doubt whatsoever. What we saw in 2008 is who he is."
Granted, Manuel would love to have had Cliff Lee with Halladay and Hamels in 2010, but general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. believed that the system drain of trading for Lee, Halladay and Joe Blanton had left them vulnerable. "If Cole is healthy," Amaro says, "we will be fine."
Josh Hamilton, Rangers. Baseball's feel-good story of 2008 fell from heaven in 2009. It started with an off-field tumble he took in January that he feared would be unveiled. Then came a torn abdominal muscle. By the end of the season, Hamilton played but 86 games with 10 homers, 54 RBI and a .741 OPS, a far cry from the 32 homers, 130 RBI and .901 OPS of 2008.
"Josh never was the same person physically last year," general manager Jon Daniels said. "There were some mechanical changes he tried to make, but that wasn't the most important thing. He had played at 235 pounds in 2008; he was down to about 216 last season. He was hurt."
So the show Hamilton put on at the Rangers' recent minicamp opened everyone's eyes. "He's back at full strength," Daniels says. "He's about 238 or 240 pounds, knowing he'll lose some during the season. What we saw were those towering shots that made the Home Run Derby. We didn't see them last year at any time, but he put on a show every time he stepped in the cage. Moving him to left field will probably help, as well. I really think we're going to see the same Josh Hamilton we saw in 2008."
For a team that dropped from leading the AL in runs with 901 to seventh with 784 last season, the return of the grievous angel will be a vital sight.
Conor Jackson, D-backs. When one looks at Jackson's 2009 line, it is hard to believe: 30 games, one home run, .182 average, .516 OPS. Ugh.
"Conor was never right all year," GM Josh Byrnes says. "He didn't feel right in Spring Training, and it worsened when the season opened. We tested him for swine flu. That wasn't it. He had two negative tests for Valley Fever, but as it turned out, they were false negatives. He was really sick. He'd be bundled up in the clubhouse, his color was terrible."
The correct diagnosis was finally made, Jackson was treated and returned to health. He played in the instructional league, the Arizona Fall League and spent weeks in the Dominican Winter League.
"He felt and looked great," Byrnes says. "Conor is a very good player (.300, 12 home runs, .823 OPS in 2008). He's very important to our team, whether he's playing left field or first base. He's a clubhouse leader for us. Everyone likes and respects him, and he's important to our chemistry. He doesn't swing and miss a lot, and he hits left-handed pitching. We've made some additions this offseason, but his return is as important as any of them."
It's funny how it seems when it gets within a week of pitchers and catchers reporting. For all the Damon talk, one scout predicts Nick Johnson "will have a big impact on their lineup. He can hit 30 homers in that park, and the on-base skills will make their lineup that much better." The remnants of winter ball bring Francisco Liriano to Twins camp with the renewed hope that he is indeed Johan Santana's successor, and Fernando Martinez's MVP performance in the Caribbean World Series allows the Mets to dream that Martinez can be a significant contributor to their run in the National League East come August.
That's what makes this week so much fun. It's about time we gotta wear shades.