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What to keep an eye on this spring

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Cubs and Astros in 2016 World Series? (0:59)

ESPN MLB analysts reveal who will win the 2016 World Series. (0:59)

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- We interrupt that ice storm you're driving through for this important bulletin:

There is hope. There is warmth. There is sunshine. There is baseball. And it's happening. Like right now. On the same planet you live on.

There are pitchers. There are catchers. And they're reporting to spring training this very week. They're wearing gloves. Wearing shin guards. Hanging out in bullpens, and on actual pitchers' mounds. Surrounded by what appears to be actual grass, gleaming in the morning sun.

This is a real thing. We're not making this up. And you know what this means, don't you?

You've just about made it. You've just about survived another long, draining winter. You can stop worrying now about whether Travis Ishikawa and Craig Breslow will be appearing soon on a diamond near you. They have jobs. They have teams. They have spring training homes of their very own. And that, friends, is a beautiful thing.

So unlock those gates of Hohokam Stadium, McKechnie Field and the Cecil B. Englebert Complex. Spring training 2016 is finally here. And you need to be ready. So here come 10 of the most compelling storylines with which you're about to get bombarded. Better pay close attention. There's a talk show you might need to call any minute now.

1. Year of the Cubbies

Last year, on the North Side of Chicago, was a gift. A gift from the baseball gods. A bonus year. A year those Chicago Cubs never really planned on. Never envisioned 97 wins coming. Never envisioned the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 hitters launching home runs on the same enchanted October evening. Never envisioned the first postseason champagne party in Wrigley Field history. And so, when the fun ended with a National League Championship Series sweep by the Mets, it was nothing to mourn. Because it was a year with no pressure, no expectations, no hangover. In other words, it was a year that will feel like the opposite of this year.

It's now 2016, the year that the Cubs' time has officially arrived. With $272 million invested in Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and John Lackey. With Vegas anointing them as the team to beat. With the whole world gazing at what happens next. Remember this no matter where you're from: Life is always more interesting when the Cubs are this good. Now they just have to live up to it all.


2. Boston Uncommon

Can you imagine, just for about a second and a half, a World Series between the Cubs and the Boston Red Sox? OK, time's up. All further imagining is optional. But meanwhile, in exotic Fort Myers, Florida, the Red Sox will be cranking up about 1,000 plotlines of their own this spring. New ace (David Price). New closer (Craig Kimbrel). New general manager (Mike Hazen). And, especially, new hope after two straight last-place clunkers. But before this team can really get deep into dreaming on the future of some of the most dynamic young players in the game, there's some other stuff that needs to happen.

How motivated is Hanley Ramirez to make his third position switch in five years go a whole lot less disastrously than the first two? How intent is Pablo Sandoval on prioritizing professional hitting over professional face-stuffing? And of course, it would be really helpful if the Big Papi Farewell Tour turns out to be more inspiration than distraction. Have to hand it to the Red Sox. They're never boring.


3. Legally Bonds

Just when you thought you'd make it through your entire lifetime without knowing or caring who the hitting coach of the Miami Marlins was, well, sorry. That's no longer going to be possible. Not when Barry Lamar Bonds is the answer to that suddenly inescapable trivia question. The return of the lightning-rod home run king isn't even the only must-see plot thread in this camp. Not with Don Mattingly now residing in the manager's office. And the Giancarlo Stanton/Jose Fernandez dynamic duo trying to make it through a healthy season together for the first time. But it's the hitting coach that has folks locked in on this camp, from day one.

"Will Barry Bonds pick up the baseballs [after batting practice]? That's my most interesting storyline of the spring," one NL executive said. "Now I'm just going to sit back and go, 'Wow.' "


4. Yadi Yada Yada

The St. Louis Cardinals won 100 games last year. Their good friends at FanGraphs, apparently unaware of how sacrilegious they're being, don't see that history repeating. What FanGraphs projects is a team that's going to drop from 100 wins to 84. That means 98 runs shaved off its run differential (from plus-122 to plus-24). That's going to mean giving up 136 more runs than a staff that spent last summer pitching like the '65 Dodgers. They're projected to finish 10 games behind the Cubs in the NL Central. And if that sounds a little grim, Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections look even worse.

So this is a big, big spring in Cardinals country. The good news is, Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Randal Grichuk and Matt Adams ought to be healthy. The bad news is, Yadier Molina, uh, not so much, following October thumb surgery. And how momentous a deal is that?

"Huge," one NL exec said. "All you have to do is watch him every day to understand what he means to that club." So Molina's ability to heal up by April and resume his reign as this team's Lion King might be the biggest injury story in the whole sport this spring.


5. Royal Rumble

But if the Cardinals aren't real happy with their projections, they don't have to look far for solace. Just look across the state, where those Kansas City Royals are once again slapping their preseason computer projections all over their clubhouse walls, as they search for inspiration to go roaring toward their third straight World Series. Over the last 50 years, only the Orioles (1969-71), Yankees (1976-78 and 1998-2001) and A's (1972-74 and 1988-90) have done that, you know. And no team from the Central time zone has pulled it off since the 1942-44 Cardinals.

But PECOTA sees the Royals finishing last (at 76-86). And FanGraphs' view (79-83, fourth) isn't much sunnier. So get ready for a camp full of fire from a team that spent all last season practicing its defy-the-spreadsheets act.


6. West Wing

Trying to sum up all the raging NL West spring storylines in one item isn't a job for the wimps of the keyboard. So bear with us as we try to rip through a few of our favorites. And we'll start here: Yasiel Puig! OK, got that out of the way. Now let's keep going.

Those Los Angeles Dodgers handed their new manager, Dave Roberts, the deepest roster in baseball. But for a first-time manager, is that a good thing or a land mine waiting to go off with every lineup choice he makes? When we posed that question to one NL exec, he replied, succinctly: "Dave Roberts has got his hands full."

Meanwhile, there's nothing the Arizona Diamondbacks enjoy more than tweaking the Dodgers. And what better way to do that than to find $206.5 million lying around that they could use to steal away esteemed Dodgers co-ace Donald Zackary Greinke? So the D-backs have established they're going for it. But have they established they're now ready to play in October? Um, the baseball world is heavily divided. Let's leave it at that.

And, finally, there are those San Francisco Giants. Can Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija be restored to greatness by Bruce Bochy, AT&T Park and the local pitching wizard, Dave Righetti? We'll start finding out this spring. If they can, this is a team built for another World Series parade. And while we're on that subject, two final words: Even year.


7. The Toronto New Jays

Here's our nomination for the team with the most spectacular spring storylines in baseball: It's those Toronto Blue Jays. And here's a guess that they're about to turn Dunedin, Florida, into the most interesting town in America in which almost no one has ever set foot.

Is Marcus Stroman ready for ace-hood? Are Jose Bautista and/or Edwin Encarnacion signable? Who's the closer -- Roberto Osuna or the newly imported Drew Storen? Is Troy Tulowitzki ready to prove he was way more than just a Coors Field phenomenon? And if he is, does any team have a more incredible up-the-middle talent pool than this one? Are Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ really as good as they looked down the stretch? And is Canada ready to forgive new team president Mark Shapiro for a crime he didn't really commit -- running popular Canadian-born GM Alex Anthopoulos out of town? This isn't a spring training camp. It's a miniseries.


8. Let's play the feud

If you missed our Best and Worst of the Offseason poll on Wednesday, first off, you'll need an excuse note from your mom. Second, we polled the same group on the spring stories in which they were most interested, and a couple of those stories fit in a category that rarely rears its head in spring training. By which we mean: folks who don't appear to like each other a whole lot.

The most obvious: When last we laid eyes on Jonathan Papelbon in September, he was choking the MVP, Mr. Bryce Harper, in the Washington Nationals' dugout. And as astounding as that was, this might be even more astounding: They're both back. In the same clubhouse this spring. Thanks to the sheer untradeability of Papelbon, the Nationals evolved from, "We have to get rid of this guy," at the beginning of the offseason to, "Don't worry, everything's totally kumbaya," by the end of the offseason. Well, maybe it is. Maybe it isn't. But just the spinfest alone will make this team worth watching this spring.

And meanwhile, out West, we started getting surprise votes for Mariners-Angels games as must-see events. Yes, Mariners-Angels spring training games. And why is that, you ask? Because the manager in Seattle these days is Scott Servais, who used to be an assistant GM with the Angels. And suffice it to say that when he held that job, he wasn't exactly Angels manager Mike Scioscia's favorite source of fun facts and lineup/strategy suggestions. So how will that play out on the field? Who the heck knows? But those votes got our attention anyway.


9. New York, New York

Start spreading the news. It's the Mets who played in the World Series. It's the Mets who are clearly built to go back to another World Series. It's the Mets who brought back Yoenis Cespedes, installed a new double-play combination (Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera), have their Matt Harvey controversy in the rearview mirror and are now finally ready to roll out baseball's most dominating rotation for a full season of swing-and-miss fun. And yet ...

When we conducted that poll, it was the Yankees who turned out to be the most intriguing team in New York -- at least from the perspective of the rest of baseball. Who knew? Then again, it makes sense. We'll learn this spring how healthy the Yankees' rotation is. How unhittable their bullpen might be, now that Aroldis Chapman has joined the band. How Starlin Castro fits at second base. Whether Mark Teixeira's broken leg has healed up enough to make Greg Bird's injury irrelevant. How close Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Jorge Mateo are to helping them peer into the future. Oh, and we're required by law to mention one more thing: There's that A-Rod dude.


10. Beyond the diamond

If you're just studying those always-juicy spring training box scores, guess what? You might find yourself missing the most important stories of the spring. Yeah, we hate when that happens, too. But there are some big, big off-the-field developments about to erupt.

How will Rob Manfred rule on the domestic-violence cases of Jose Reyes, Puig and Chapman? ... What happens to the dozens of still-unsigned free agents? ... What will the new sliding rules on the basepaths look like? And how will they be received? ... How will fans react when they find extended netting hanging in front of their box seats? ... And, oh by the way, those pesky labor talks are about to begin any minute now, as the clock begins ticking on a collective bargaining agreement that expires after this season. You never know what tidbits might be leaking out of those sessions. They won't leak into any box scores. We do know that. But that's a reminder that, in this and all sports these days, the action sure isn't all on the field.

In other news ...

The five most important rookies to watch

1. Corey Seager, Dodgers. 2. Byron Buxton, Twins. 3. Joey Gallo, Rangers. 4. Trea Turner, Nationals. 5. Steven Matz, Mets.

The five most important injury comebacks

1. Yadier Molina, Cardinals. 2. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins. 3. Jung-Ho Kang, Pirates. 4. Mark Teixeira, Yankees. 5. Yu Darvish, Rangers.

The five most important position switches

1. Can Hanley Ramirez play first base in Boston? 2. Can Yoenis Cespedes handle center field full time in New York? 3. Ditto Jason Heyward in Chicago? 4. Can Miguel Sano play right field in Minnesota? 5. Can Wil Myers play first base in San Diego?

Five managers under the microscope

1. Dave Roberts, Dodgers. 2. Dusty Baker, Nationals. 3. Brad Ausmus, Tigers. 4. Robin Ventura, White Sox. 5. Don Mattingly, Marlins.

Five most unlikely spring training invitees

1. Matt Murton, Cubs (one big-league home run since 2007). 2. Daniel Bard, Pirates (146 walks, 90 strikeouts since end of 2011). 3. Carlos Quentin, Twins (last big-league HR: 7/1/14). 4. Carlos Marmol, Red Sox (last big-league save: 4/25/13). 5. Brad Penny, Blue Jays (two big-league wins since 2011).