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Monday, April 1, 2013
5 things to watch for in 2013 MLB season

By Sarah Spain

Zack Greinke
After landing Zack Greinke, the Dodgers' starting rotation is loaded with talent.

Five things to watch for this 2013 baseball season:

1. Money Talks

When it comes to Major League Baseball, money talks. And as the 2013 season opens, the whole country is listening to Los Angeles. With a record payroll of $230 million, the Dodgers will be under a spotlight so bright even the stars down the street in Hollywood would be sweating.

Zack Greinke, the 2009 AL Cy Young award winner, was handed a six-year, $147 million deal in the offseason; he joins a rotation that already boasts 2011 NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw. Behind Kershaw and Greinke are Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley and newly acquired Korean pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu (inked for $36 million in the offseason). Ted Lilly, Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang round out a rotation that's overflowing with talent.

Questions abound when it comes to the Dodgers' position players. How will Carl Crawford (Tommy John surgery), Hanley Ramirez (thumb surgery) and Matt Kemp (shoulder surgery) perform post-surgery? Will Adrian Gonzalez rediscover his power stroke in his first full season in LA and put up the kind of numbers he did with the Padres?

2. Youth Gone Wild

A couple of last year's most exciting young stars will try to avoid a sophomore slump in 2013. AL Rookie of the Year Mike Trout thrilled fans in Southern California with his .326 batting average, 49 stolen bases and 30 homers, while NL honoree Bryce Harper excelled in D.C., hitting .270 with 22 long balls and 98 runs.

Monday, Harper will take the field with fellow youngster Stephen Strasburg for their first Opening Day together. Last year, Harper was called up a few weeks after the season began, and Strasburg was shut down a few weeks before it ended. Both players are expected to be unchecked this year, available from start to finish to help their team contend with the best.

R.A. Dickey
The Blue Jays were busy in the offseason, acquiring -- among others -- Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey.

Young guns are poised to help teams elsewhere, too. Defending NL MVP Buster Posey, who helped the Giants win it all last year, is just 26. Marlins superstar Giancarlo Stanton is just 23 and he's coming off back-to-back seasons with 34-plus home runs. Yu Darvish, the 26-year-old Rangers starting pitcher, is getting early buzz for the Cy Young, and enthusiastic Athletics fans already are predicting an MVP-worthy season from 27-year-old Yoenis Cespedes.

3. Into The Great Wide Open

An AL East division that used to be all about the Yankees and the Red Sox is wide open this year.

New York will start the season with Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and Phil Hughes on the DL. The Yankees have the oldest 40-man roster in the league and they suffer from a lack of depth -- a bad combination. Without the power hitting that made them a force in years past, it'll be up to their pitching to keep them in games. The Yanks' top starters -- CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte -- must produce and stay healthy, or they could be in for a very bleak year.

The Red Sox were a dumpster fire last year, managing just 69 wins under an embattled Bobby Valentine. It appeared the boys of Beantown still hadn't recovered from the previous season's September swoon and the "beer and fried chicken" blow-up that followed it. Boston is hoping a new skipper and a handful of new faces can help right its sinking ship. This year's team motto says all you need to know about the Red Sox's approach to 2013: "What's broken can be fixed."

With the Red Sox and Yankees looking like potential bottom-dwellers, the rest of the division has a chance to seize control. The Blue Jays are the front-runner after a busy offseason that saw them grab Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Melky Cabrera and reigning NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey.

Tampa Bay, led by outstanding pitching, can be a top contender if it can get more consistent offensively. Baltimore didn't make many moves in the offseason, but the Orioles have a strong everyday lineup. If they want to make a run, they'll likely need some more of the magic that helped them snap their playoff drought last year.

4. Long Time Coming

Here's the bad news: The Pittsburgh Pirates haven't had a winning season in 20 years. They spent 100 days above the .500 mark last season but ultimately fell short of a winning campaign, losing their 82nd game on Sept. 30, Fan Appreciation Day at PNC Park. Seriously.

The good news? For the second straight season, the Bucs were close to snapping that ugly skid. They had a strong first half in 2011 before fading to 72-90, and last year they finished 79-83, their best record since 1997.

An optimist would tell you Andrew McCutchen will have another big year, Starling Marte is primed for a Mike Trout-esque breakout season and this Pittsburgh team is headed in the right direction.

Realists might point out, however, that pitching could be a problem. On paper, it looks like the Bucs' best set of arms in years, but there are a lot of "what-ifs" to consider. The back end of the rotation is in flux -- what if injuries to Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton linger? The team's top starter is getting older, what if 36-year-old A.J. Burnett can't deliver the same product he did last year? (It's never a good sign when your ace is already predicting he'll retire when the 2013 season is over.)

After 20 consecutive losing seasons, the Pirates are the Sisyphus of baseball. It'd be tough to find someone who doesn't hope they finally get that boulder to the top of the hill. (Pipe down, Cubs fans. Misery doesn't always have to love company.)

5. Trouble Weighs A Ton

Major League Baseball is suing Biogenesis of America, the now-closed Florida "anti-aging" clinic accused of supplying performance-enhancing drugs to players, despite knowing those drugs were in violation of player contracts.

The league is seeking money damages but, more importantly for players and teams, the lawsuit could provide the league an opportunity to further investigate Biogenesis and the players it served. Several names already have been linked to the clinic -- Melky Cabrera, Ryan Braun, Alex Rodriguez, Gio Gonzalez, Francisco Cervelli and Nelson Cruz -- but reports from the Miami New Times indicated that 90 MLB player names were found in the clinic's records.

MLB hopes the case will force the New Times to give them access to the records and potentially suspend players for a "non-analytical positive" rather than an actual positive drug test. As the season rolls on, players could be identified, found guilty and suspended. Something to watch for, to be sure.