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.
Before you print the championship T-shirts and plan the parade on Broad Street, it's important to note that the Phillies have been plagued by injuries this spring, and second baseman Chase Utley will start the season on the disabled list because of a bum knee.
But barring injury to their stable of aces, Philadelphia will send an All-Star starter to the mound in 80 percent of its games, making the Phillies the favorite to go back to the World Series for a third time in four years.
5. Opening day comes early
If you're baffled by why the Royals — and 11 other teams — are beginning the season on a Thursday, you're probably not alone.
In an effort to avoid the World Series spilling into November, Major League Baseball pushed up opening day from its usual Monday spot.
Bad news: You won't get a full plate of baseball in one sitting — six games are scheduled for today, while another nine openers will be played on Friday.
Perhaps you can call today, "Opening Day-lite."
But you will get Tim Lincecum vs. Clayton Kershaw as the defending champion San Francisco Giants visit the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Justin Verlander vs. Sabathia as the Detroit Tigers face the Yankees. And you won't get a World Series game that wrecks your Halloween plans.
Five players to watch
1. San Francisco C Buster Posey
Posey's debut season was a fairy tale. He batted .305 with 18 homers in 108 games, won the NL Rookie of the Year award, and capped it by helping the Giants win their first World Series championship since 1954. So, Buster, what have you got for an encore?
2. Minnesota 1B Justin Morneau
Morneau's 2010 season came to an abrupt end after just 81 games following a concussion on June 7 while sliding into second base in Toronto. Morneau, who was batting .345 with 18 homers at the time of the injury, hasn't played since. He's taken baby steps toward full recovery this spring, but the Twins may have a tough time holding off the White Sox and Tigers in the AL Central if Morneau continues to be limited by the injury.
3. St. Louis 1B Albert Pujols
Got a couple hundred million dollars to spare? Well, you still might not be able to afford Pujols, who will become a free agent after the season and is reportedly asking for a deal in the neighborhood of 10 years and $300 million. Initial negotiations fizzled, and Pujols, 31, has halted talks for the season. For now, it appears the question will cast a large shadow over St. Louis all summer: Could the Cardinals possibly lose their franchise cornerstone?
4. Colorado SS Troy Tulowitzki
In the midst of a busy offseason, Tulowitzki, 26, quietly signed a 10-year, $157.5 million deal to stay with the Rockies through 2020. Can Tulowitzki, a Gold Glove winner who hit .315 with 27 homers last year, help Colorado catch San Francisco in the NL West?
5. Cleveland RF Shin-Soo Choo
He plays in a small market — and for a team that could lose 90 games again. But after averaging a .397 on-base percentage and 21 homers over the last two seasons, Choo is on the verge of cementing himself as one of baseball's most all-round — and underrated — talents.
Five teams to watch
1. Milwaukee Brewers (77-85 in 2010)
The Brewers emerged as a trendy pick in the NL Central after swinging trades for Zack Greinke and Toronto right-hander Shaun Marcum, a native of Excelsior Springs. That was before Greinke cracked a rib playing pickup basketball, but the story remains the same. If first baseman Prince Fielder and left fielder Ryan Braun continue to hit — and Greinke, who should be back in mid-April, stays away from the local recreation center — Milwaukee could be a factor in the National League.
2. Oakland A's (81-81 in 2010)
The A's made it an offseason priority to add some offense to their talented young pitching staff. They traded for Royals outfielder David DeJesus and signed the aging Hideki Matsui. And, of course, the "Moneyball" movie, starring Brad Pitt as general manager Billy Beane, comes out this year. That has to bring some good vibes, right?
3. San Francisco Giants (92-70 in 2010)
Now the hard part. The Giants rode ace Tim Lincecum and a nasty rotation to the World Series title in 2010. They lost infielders Juan Uribe and World Series MVP Edgar Renteria, and they'll have to deal with some ramped-up hype — a reality show will air on Showtime during the season. But a loaded pitching staff makes them the favorites in the NL West.
4. Atlanta Braves (91-71 in 2010)
Chipper Jones, the 38-year-old face of the franchise, is back for another run after missing the latter half of last season because of a torn ligament in his left knee. The Braves also acquired power-hitting second baseman Dan Uggla in a trade with Florida.
5. Chicago White Sox (88-74 in 2010)
Forget youth. The White Sox acquired slugger Adam Dunn, 31, and re-signed 35-year-old first baseman Paul Konerko. Will it be enough to edge the Twins and Tigers in what looks to be a three-team race in the AL Central?
Detroit (Verlander 0-0) at N.Y. Yankees (Sabathia 0-0), 11 a.m.
L.A. Angels (Weaver 0-0) at K.C. (Hochevar 0-0), 2:10 p.m.
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Atlanta (Lowe 0-0) at Washington (Hernandez 0-0), 11:05 a.m.
Milwaukee (Gallardo 0-0) at Cincinnati (Volquez 0-0), noon
San Diego (Stauffer 0-0) at St. Louis (Carpenter 0-0), 2:15 p.m.
San Francisco (Lincecum 0-0) at L.A. Dodgers (Kershaw 0-0), 6 p.m.