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What to watch for this MLB season ...

By Rustin Dodd

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Wednesday, March 30 2011 10:16 p.m. MDT

Milwaukee players jog in the snow at Great American Ball Park on Wednesday in Cincinnati, where the Brewers open their 2011 season today.

Associated Press

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1. Pendulum swings in AL East

After missing the playoffs last season, the Boston Red Sox laid the groundwork for another World Series run with a prolific — and expensive — offseason.

The Red Sox signed the best position player available in Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford, traded for an MVP candidate in San Diego first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, and waited for second baseman Dustin Pedroia and first baseman Kevin Youkilis to recover after injuries derailed their 2010 campaigns.

Meanwhile, the New York Yankees lost out in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes and will have to hope that their aging lineup of All-Stars will make up for a patchwork starting rotation that currently consists of left-hander CC Sabathia and right-handers Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett, Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia.

And, of course, the Tampa Bay Rays — the defending AL East champs — are still hanging around after losing Crawford, first baseman Carlos Pena and almost their entire bullpen. Tampa Bay signed outfielders Johnny Damon, 37, and Manny Ramirez, 38, on the cheap, and manager Joe Maddon reportedly responded by encouraging his new players to let their hair flow. Too bad it may take more than that to compete with the free-spending Red Sox and Yankees.

2. Meet the new skippers

Twelve managers will begin their first full season with their respective teams this week — including Royals manager Ned Yost — and the ripples of the managerial sea change will be felt around the game. Legends retired. Retreads were hired. And new blood was pumped into both leagues.

Fredi Gonzalez replaced Atlanta's timeless Bobby Cox, and Don Mattingly stepped in for Joe Torre in the Dodgers' clubhouse. Former Indians manager Eric Wedge returned to guide the Mariners; Terry Collins is back in the dugout with the Mets; former Rockies manager Clint Hurdle will attempt to work miracles in Pittsburgh; veteran skipper Buck Showalter has brought his no-nonsense style to Baltimore, and Kirk Gibson is now in charge in Arizona.

And the list keeps going. Kirk Gibson is now in charge in Arizona; Mike Quade will lead the Cubs; Edwin Rodriguez moves forward with a young Marlins team; Ron Roenicke will endure pressure in Milwaukee; and former Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell jumps to division-rival Toronto.

3. Dawn of a new era?

The evidence was glaring — no-hitters seemed to occur every other week — and quantifiable. In 2010, major-league hitters had their worst collective performance in almost two decades.

Teams averaged just 4.38 runs per game and the league-wide batting average was .257 — the lowest marks since 1992. There were two perfect games, one "imperfect" game, and four more no-hitters, including a playoff masterpiece by Phillies ace Roy Halladay.

So where does that leave us? Will pitchers continue to have the upper hand in the post-steroid era? Will offensive numbers go lower — or will hitters strike back?

4. Phillies come up aces

The Philadelphia Phillies, buoyed by a rotation that included All-Star starters Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, came just two wins short of their third straight World Series appearance last October.

So, naturally, the Phillies sneaked in at the last moment and pulled the biggest coup of the offseason, signing Lee, arguably the best left-handed pitcher in the game, to a five-year, $120 million deal.

So, if you're counting at home, the Phillies' embarrassment of pitching riches now includes 13 All-Star appearances, three Cy Young awards and one World Series MVP trophy.

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