Pitchers and catchers mean questions and answers. Here are the top four story lines to follow between now and the time teams break camp in April.
1. PITCHING COMEBACKS
No matter how smart G.M.'s try to be with their rosters, teams' fortunes rise and fall with the health of the starting rotation. For instance, the Diamondbacks' 2009 season cratered when former Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb broke down after one start with a bum shoulder. With every bullpen session on a back field this spring, the postsurgical Webb will be watched closely to see if he has regained his magic sinker.
Similarly important springs are in store for Johan Santana of the Mets (elbow), Jeff Francis of the Rockies (shoulder), Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Red Sox (shoulder), Ben Sheets of the A's (elbow), Ted Lilly of the Cubs (shoulder), Jeremy Bonderman of the Tigers (shoulder) and Jake Westbrook of the Indians (elbow)—counting Webb, that's eight key starters with a combined 2010 salary of $88.8 million. The $10.0 million the austere Athletics have riding on Sheets is particularly curious. Oakland could have a bona fide ace to front a young rotation, a valuable trade asset come July or a huge sunk cost for an injury-prone, 31-year-old righthander who hasn't pitched since 2008.
2. TOP ROOKIES
One way for clubs to save millions on their best young players is to delay the start of their major league service clocks until at least late May, which generally leaves players with three cracks at arbitration down the road instead of four. Four impact rookies last season were promoted 10 days apart, beginning on May 29: Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, White Sox third baseman Gordon Beckham, Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutcheon and Braves righthander Tommy Hanson. This spring lefthanded pitcher Madison Bumgarner of San Francisco and outfielder Jason Heyward of Atlanta—both 20 years old—may be too good to hold back, service time be damned. Bumgarner is already penciled in as the Giants' fifth starter after a dominating minor league career (27--5, 1.65). Heyward is a 6'4", 245-pound hitting machine who gives retiring manager Bobby Cox one last chance to fast-track a prospect. (See past Atlanta phenoms Andruw Jones, Rafael Furcal and Brian McCann.)
3. PAIR OF ACES
The best righthanded and lefthanded pitchers in the world outside of the majors last year each signed with downtrodden NL franchises that haven't seen the playoffs in well over a decade. Both are 21 years old and throw in the upper 90s. Now it's showtime for righthander Stephen Strasburg (page 66) of the Nationals (who signed for $15.1 million as the first pick of the draft last summer) and lefthander Aroldis Chapman of the Reds ($30.3 million as a free agent from Cuba this winter). Strasburg, a polished star out of San Diego State, could come along as quickly as did the Tigers' Justin Verlander (debuted in 2005 after 13 minor league starts) or former Cubs All-Star Mark Prior (arrived in '02 after nine). Chapman, who walked 5.4 batters per nine innings for Holgúin of the Cuban National Series, may need more time to refine his command.
4. TALK ABOUT THE PAST
New Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire is the first of the top home run hitters from the heart of the Steroid Era (1993--2001) to return to uniform after his playing career ended. His reentry strategy began in January with an admission, but soured when he insisted steroids didn't help his performance, inviting as much criticism as forgiveness. Now that he is back in the public eye on an every-day basis, McGwire will be judged not only by how he improves a St. Louis offense that ranked seventh in the National League in runs but also by how he handles his notoriety.