|With Prince leaving and Ryan Braun's possible ban, Milwaukee is a question mark. (Getty Images)|
Mother Nature, that old third-base coach herself, annually flashes all kinds of signs that it's time to start spring training.
Hand to the right ear? Too damned many icicles. Three touches of the belt? Someone threw his back out again shoveling snow. Hand on the nose, then the bill of the cap? A Ripken-esque streak of gloomy, gray days.
Then, there are this year's signs: Both hands on top of the head? Jose Reyes getting a haircut on national television. Both hands covering the eyes? Derek Holland pinch-hitting as a weatherman on television in Texas.
For the love of Boog Powell, before the Orioles provoke another international incident, can pitchers and catchers please take the fields?
Crack open the sunblock, and give me some flip-flops that won't blow out if I step on a pop top (ask your dad). ...
Five best spring storylines
Whereof, when we speak of "Linsanity", we mean Lincecum (among other things). ...
1. Albert Pujols, the quarter-billion dollar Angel: Will he live up to that gargantuan 10-year, $240 million deal, or will the Angels have a Rally Monkey on their backs for the next decade? Mark this down: Nothing less than at least one World Series title -- and preferably a minimum of two -- will keep this deal from being a crushing disappointment. Play ball!
2. The Motown Sound of Prince Fielder: Yikes, Prince lifetime in Comerica Park: A .174 batting average, .240 on-base percentage and .544 OPS. Break glass in case of emergency? Naw, that's only in six interleague games. With Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera on board as well, Jim Leyland's crew enters the spring as heavy AL Central favorites. But do you know what would make a really nice story? If Prince and pop Cecil figure it out and repair their relationship.
3. Fish open wallets, Ozzie to open mouth: Miami's early-winter momentum slowed when the Marlins whiffed on Pujols and Yoenis Cespedes. But with Reyes, Mark Buehrle and closer Heath Bell, new skipper Ozzie Guillen has lots to talk about.
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4. Valentine's Day in Boston: Last year, I tagged the Red Sox as preseason AL East favorites after the Adrian Gonzalez trade. Six months later, the Sox proved me El Pollo Loco. After an epic failure in September and a rough go over the winter, the Sox came back strong in hiring Bobby Valentine. All he's charged with is proving that there really is life after Theo.
5. Cubs hibernating while under new management: Speaking of Theo. ... Can Epstein and Jed Hoyer pull off what would be baseball's greatest magic trick, moving the Cubs toward a World Series? Won't happen this year. Cute, though, how they keep lugging around their lucky rabbit's foot, Anthony Rizzo.
Five best storylines, off the field
I mean, not counting Reyes' haircut. ...
1. Expanded playoffs on deck? We'll know sometime this spring whether MLB will add one more team in each league beginning this October. Great, now the Yankees and Red Sox can both make the playoffs every year.
2. Dodgers for sale: If Magic Johnson's group buys the Dodgers, then Larry Bird should buy the Red Sox.
3. Bud Selig, Commissioner for Life: He's the Eagles of Commissioners -- what is this, his fifth Hell Freezes Over tour, or sixth?
4. Mets chop payroll by $52 million: Know what's funny? Approximately $30 million of the downsizing comes from no longer having to stock product for Reyes' hair.
5. Astros entering final year in NL: Really glad new owner Jim Crane dropped his idea to change the Astros' name. The Houston NL Short-Timers would have been a nightmare for headline writers.
Five top spring changes
Might be enough of a shock to make the groundhog go back underground for six more weeks. ...
1. Mike Matheny replaces Tony La Russa: The Cardinals go from being led by the manager who ranked third all-time in wins (2,728) to a guy who has yet to earn victory No. 1. Gutsy, inventive and fascinating.
2. Dan Duquette takes charge of Orioles: New guy in Baltimore GM seat can ask Yankees, Red Sox, Rays and Jays, "Thank you sir, may I have another?" as O's get paddled again.
3. Chicago goes raw: New White Sox skipper Robin Ventura has never managed before, new Cubs guy Dale Sveum's only experience came in relief when Brewers axed Ned Yost with just 12 games left in 2008. Talk about Chicago's happening blues scene. ...
4. Neftali Feliz moves into Rangers rotation: One of the game's modern truisms: Anything concocted by Nolan Ryan, Jon Daniels, Ron Washington and Mike Maddux has an excellent chance of succeeding.
5. Red Sox move into new spring facility: Finally, a place David Ortiz and Josh Beckett can be proud of. The dump they inhabited in recent years was beneath the Bad News Bears, let alone the Red Sox. It was like Jennifer Aniston living in a tin shack.
Five best spring stops
I will play for gumbo (note the longstanding No. 1, Florida's sublime Le Tub, remains ineligible now that the Orioles no longer are in Fort Lauderdale). ...
1. Rokerij, Phoenix: Funky and eclectic, Rokerij (ROAK-uh-rie), Danish for "smokehouse", this place earned MVP status by serving the menu from sister restaurant Richardson's after Richardson's burned down. Get the steaks (grilled over pecan wood) or bacon-wrapped scallops off the Rokerij menu. Or, better yet, order off the Richardson's menu. Great New Mexican cuisine -- blackened fish over a tortilla, green chili potatoes -- and outstanding Prickly Pear Margaritas.
2. Nino's, Fort Myers, Fla.: I've loved this place for nearly 20 years. Authentic, homemade Italian food, huge portions and the garlic rolls to start are mouth-watering. Say hello to owner Graziano if you go.
3. Harry's Louisiana Grille, Lakeland, Fla.: Gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish etouffee, voodoo shrimp, red beans and rice with smoked sausage ... I don't know why colleague Danny Knobler ever left the Tigers beat with this place in Lakeland!
4. Frenchy's, Clearwater, Fla.: Grouper sandwiches and the beach. Any questions?
5. Italian Grotto, Scottsdale, Ariz: How big of a baseball hangout is this? Nearly every scout is on a first-name basis with owner Gary ... and Gary was in Los Angeles in January to say hello to everyone at the Professional Baseball Scouts' Foundation Charity Gala. Very cool.
5A. Tee Pee, Phoenix, Ariz.: Total hole in the wall, which is far more my style than some pretentious "establishment" where the prices are high and food mediocre. Great Mexican food -- try the Chili Rellenos or enchiladas -- and inexpensive. One of Angels owner Arte Moreno's favorite places.
Five key storylines
Hold your breath. ...
1. Ryan Braun's PED suspension: Say it ain't so, Ryan. If the suspension is upheld, there is no way the Brewers will get around losing him for 50 games and Fielder for, well, forever. If Zack Greinke stays away from the basketball court, he, Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum will help keep the Brewers from completely fading away. But they'll still need more than Tony Plush and a bounce-back season from Aramis Ramirez.
2. Josh Hamilton's battle: His relapse in early February is the latest photograph reiterating what a monster addiction is. Here's a ginger ale toast to Hamilton staying on the straight and narrow, because even if Yu Darvish is all that, the Rangers will need all hands on deck to win a third straight AL West title given how the Angels have beefed up.
3. Dave Duncan's leave of absence: Here's a prayer for Duncan and his ailing wife, Jeanine. Without La Russa and Duncan, life will be vastly different for the Cardinals this year. Derek Lilliquist, who pinch-hit last year when Duncan left the club in August, again will act as pitching coach in his absence.
4. Bryce Harper in D.C.: The Nationals swear they will not rush him. Word is, manager Davey Johnson wants him on the club. This will be a fascinating spring for both Harper, The Next Big Thing, and the Nats, who can contend if everything breaks right for them.
5. Athletics in crisis: Oakland Held Hostage in the House Al Davis Built, Day 6,423. Attention, Park Ave.: Will someone please release these guys to San Jose? This is going to be one awful ballclub.
Five lineup questions
Decisions, decisions. ...
1. Ichiro: No longer a leadoff hitter? Worst batting average (.272) and on-base percentage (.310) of his career last year, by far. Manager Eric Wedge is pondering dropping Ichiro to second or third in the lineup, and maybe moving Dustin Ackley atop the lineup. This happens, it will be very interesting to gauge the reaction of Ichiro, who, great as he has been, always has been viewed by teammates as a me-first guy, not a team-first guy.
2. Can Miguel Cabrera play third base? It's all relative, but I think the Tigers' biggest worry is this: Will Cabrera hurt himself playing third base? He's a big man (listed at 6-4, 240) and every dive will result in an incredible amount of wear and tear on that body.
3. Will Hanley Ramirez smile at third base? Right here is where Ozzie Guillen will earn his money.
4. Who plays shortstop for the Red Sox? Nick Punto? Who are they, the Twins? But if not Punto, the current choices are Mike Aviles or Jose Iglesias. In hindsight, perhaps Starlin Castro is what lured Theo to Chicago.
5. Who plays shortstop for the Giants? If money were not an issue, Bay Area native Jimmy Rollins would have been perfect. But the Giants think youngster Brandon Crawford can do it. And if not, former LSU and Cub teammates Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot are in the SS on-deck circle.
Five great spring reads
Between games, on the sandy beaches of Florida or poolside in Arizona. ...
1. Baseball Prospectus 2012 Annual: This annual publication logs more time atop the charts than Adele. It'll make you look smarter than Billy Beane, Theo Epstein and Bill James combined, promise. No way you win your Fantasy League without it.
2. The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach Breakout rookie of the year. Phenomenal debut novel. Right on page one, Harbach describes fictional Westish College as "that little school in the crook of the baseball glove that is Wisconsin." How can you go wrong with beautiful writing like that?
3. The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood, by Jane Leavy: Absolutely terrific. And when better to read about greats from the past than in the spring?
4. The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, by Howard Bryant: Because Aaron's grace, class and strength during the time he played, and in the midst of ugly racial slurs, should be learned by heart by all baseball fans.
5.The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America, by Joe Posnanski: If we could soak up even 10 percent of O'Neil's wisdom -- which comes through vividly in this book -- we'd all be better off.
Five rookies on the verge
Who says youth is wasted on the young?
1. Jesus Montero, Mariners: When Yankees GM Brian Cashman is worried he's traded away the next Miguel Cabrera. ...
2. Devin Mesoraco, Reds: Cincy let Ramon Hernandez walk and has an opening behind the plate. ...
3. Mike Trout, Angels: Everybody's No. 1 on the best prospects in baseball list ... though the Angels outfield appears overstocked and Trout likely will open in the minors.
4. Matt Moore, Rays: Started Game 1 of the ALDS last year and was marvelous. Another great young arm developed in Tampa Bay, look for him in the opening day rotation.
5. Brett Jackson, Cubs: Keep an eye on this outfielder, one of the best prospects in the system for a team looking to go younger.
Five intriguing individual competitions
No need to wait for the Olympics in London later this summer. ...
1. C.J. Wilson vs. Yu Darvish: The AL West race between the Rangers and Angels could turn on whether Texas' calculated gamble to cut bait with Wilson and sign Darvish works.
2. Yonder Alonso vs. Anthony Rizzo: Because he did not want a "quarterback controversy" this spring, new Padres GM Josh Byrnes shipped Rizzo to the Cubs. As Alonso becomes the latest Padre to attempt to plug the first-base crater left by Adrian Gonzalez, he and Rizzo will not be in direct competition for a job with the Padres. But the comparisons between him and Rizzo likely will last a lifetime.
3. Theo Epstein vs. Ben Cherington: How are the negotiations for compensation going, Cubs and Red Sox?
4. Pedro Alvarez vs. Casey McGehee: Alvarez played his way into the Pirates' doghouse last year. McGehee played his way out of Milwaukee's lineup in the playoffs. Who plays third for Pittsburgh? Big year for Alvarez, the No. 2 overall pick in '08, as he looks to get a grip on third base.
5. Pujols vs. Fielder: Didn't put this No. 1 because we've talked enough about these two, haven't we? But based on what we see on the field this summer, the arguments will rage over which was the more desirable free agent.
Five spring essentials
Sing it, Todd: I don't want to work, I just want to bang on the drum all day. ...
1. Sunblock: Odd how the Beach Boys and Jimmy Buffett never mentioned this in their songs, isn't it?
2. Shades: Get your mind out of the gutter, I'm not talking hotel room stuff. Sunglasses. Maui Jim-style.
3. iPod: And, especially in Florida, a radio adapter so you can run tunes through the rental car stereo. High on the playlist this year: Tom Waits, Lydia Loveless, Drive-By Truckers, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, The Civil Wars and, of course, Bruce Springsteen and Florida's poet laureate, Jimmy Buffett.
4. Satellite radio in rental car: For the MLB Channel, one of the greatest inventions this side of pepperoni pizza. And, in an election year, CNN.
5. Aloe Vera: Because you know you won't use enough sunblock, you dope, 'cuz the sun is so seductive. And then the burns come so easily.
Five comebacks to track
Whoa, recount! These guys wouldn't fit into a top five. ...
1. Buster Posey, Giants: Baseball's version of Peyton Manning. When he went down last year, so did the Giants' offense. With a healthy Posey, Bruce Bochy's club can contend.
2. Adam Dunn, White Sox: Maybe 2011 was just one miserable dream. ...
3. Joe Mauer, Twins: Last year had better be an aberration, given that Minnesota is in for $23 million annually to Mauer through 2018.
4. Carl Crawford, Red Sox: Word from Valentine that Crawford likely will miss the first few weeks of the season following winter wrist surgery is unsettling, to say the least.
5. Justin Morneau, Twins: Like Mauer, a former MVP who has fallen on hard times. If their M&M boys don't bounce back, the Twins are doomed.
6. Jason Heyward, Braves: Derailed on the way to instant superstardom. What have you done for the Braves lately, Jason?
7. Shin-Soo Choo, Indians: The drunk driving, the .259 batting average, the eight homers ... it was a miserable year for a very good player.
8. Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians: In the long list of disappointments of 2011, Jimenez was right there. If the Indians have any prayer of challenging the Tigers in the AL Central, the scenario includes a dominant Jimenez.
9. Jayson Werth, Nationals: Psst, a .232 batting average, .330 on-base percentage, 20 homer and 58 RBIs do not add up to a $126 million contract.
10. Carlos Zambrano, Marlins: If Ozzie Guillen cannot reach him, Zambrano is finished.
Five Twitter accounts to follow
Because we're in the digital age, you know.
1. Ozzie Guillen, Marlins: @OzzieGuillen. Still the champ, nobody is more entertaining. Sample tweet, Super Bowl halftime: "Madonna u are the best u are friking good."
2. Brandon Phillips, Reds: @DatDudeBP. Who can forget his Twitter photo Easter egg contest last year?
3. Logan Morrison, Marlins: @LoMoMarlins. As he writes in his Twitter page bio, "To know me is to Tweet with me! Miami Marlins LF, Twittaholic, All around good guy (with just a pinch of dangerous sexuality)!
4. Michael Cuddyer, Rockies: @MCuddy3. A master at interacting with fans.
5. Heath Bell, Marlins: @HeathBell21. If the Marlins play as well as they tweet this year, book your World Series tickets in South Florida.
Five most improved clubs
They look even better on paper right now than the other guys. ...
1. Angels: World Series or bust. ...
2. Nationals: With Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, the Nats aren't messing around. And how exciting is the prospect of a full year of Stephen Strasburg? GQ magazine named him No. 47 on its list of the 50 Most Powerful Men in D.C., right there alongside Hillary Clinton, John Boehner, David Petraeus and Rep. Eric Cantor.
3. Yankees: With Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda, rotation behind CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova is in far better shape than last year.
4. Tigers: Prince Fielder and Justin Verlander? Whoa.
5. Marlins: The NL East is going to be a slugfest this year.
Five least-improved clubs
1. Athletics: At this point, Charley O. and his mule would be an improvement.
2. Astros: Oh, for the days of Mike Scott and J.R. Richard.
3. Orioles: A two-year deal to Wilson Betemit. Two years. Good luck with that. His mediocre bat does not make up for his awful fielding.
4. Mets: Doing the impossible, becoming a small-market club in New York City.
5. Cubs: Still listening to the Rolling Stones' Goats Head Soup all these years later.
Five best spring venues
1. Scottsdale Stadium, Giants: Intimate, gorgeous, walking distance to the restaurants and bars in Old Scottsdale (especially Los Olivos Mexican joint) ... exactly what you picture when you close your eyes and think of spring training.
2. Joker Marchant Stadium, Tigers: Now entering their 76th consecutive spring of training in Lakeland, Fla., the longest streak going.
3. Brighthouse Field, Phillies: My take from last year still stands: Modern, intimate and Frenchy's out in left field.
4. Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Diamondbacks and Rockies: Debuted last year in North Scottsdale and is sensational.
5. Tempe Diablo Stadium, Angels: At the foot of Mt. Diablo. Location, location, location.
Five things I'm thinking
1. Yes, the world-champion Cardinals will miss Albert Pujols. But if Adam Wainwright comes back strong, David Freese continues to emerge and Carlos Beltran produces, they will contend in the NL Central.
2. I like what the Indians have done with their rotation, adding Derek Lowe and Jon Garland. And I like Shin-Soo Choo's chances for a bounceback season. Don't know that they have enough to hang with the Tigers in the AL Central, but keep an eye on them.
3. It will not be long before Toronto is playing with the big boys in the AL East. GM Alex Anthopoulos is legit, manager John Farrell is very good and the Jays have a guy who could become the next great closer in Sergio Santos. Can't wait to see what Henderson Alvarez does in the rotation.
4. GM Kevin Towers continues to hit all the right notes in Arizona. Adding Trevor Cahill to the rotation, Takashi Saito to the bullpen and Jason Kubel's bat to the lineup make the defending NL West champs even stronger.
5. Kansas City will return to the center of the baseball universe this summer. No, I'm not predicting a division title -- yet. But it's nice to see the Royals hosting this July's All-Star Game. It's about time a big event returns to a great baseball city. I'm calling Arthur Bryant's Barbecue joint now for reservations.