Defections to Arizona have turned the Grapefruit League from bustling to bereft. And yet every season, as teams gear up for spring training, the dominant storylines in baseball emanate from Florida, and this year is no different.
Here are the five that will spur conversation from Yeehaw Junction to Okahumpka:
D-Day comes a few months early for St. Louisans. Whether it's suffused with depression or delight depends whether the Cardinals and Pujols' agent, Dan Lozano, can come to terms on a contract extension by Wednesday, a prospect that looks increasingly grim.
If Pujols arrives in Jupiter without a deal, he intends on playing the season out and swan diving into free agency as the best player in baseball. Forget his age (31, and disputable at that) and his position (first base, not the most difficult to fill). Should the Cardinals balk at giving Pujols more than $200 million, suitors will beg him to accept their largesse.
In signing Matt Holliday(notes) last season, the Cardinals committed themselves to a future with two paths: the one in which their payroll exceeds $100 million a year, and the one in which Albert Pujols is playing somewhere else. Nowhere do these converge, not when a decade after Alex Rodriguez(notes) played Roger Bannister comes another legitimate candidate to ascend the $200 million barrier.
By allowing negotiations to stretch this deep, the Cardinals already have taken a considerable risk. The specter of Pujols' free agency would haunt their season. That's the last reason to sign him, of course, simply at the bottom of a list of good ones.
2. Philadelphia unleashes the Fantastic Four
The Phillies' official unveiling of their starting rotation comes Monday, when their five starters will sit together at a table and talk about what it is like to be so awesome. Those in attendance will nod their heads at the collective awesomeness at the table. Then it will end and Joe Blanton(notes) will ask what he was doing up there.
Poor Joe Blanton. He may be the butt of more jokes in baseball than anyone this season. So it goes when you're the fifth wheel in a rotation tailor made for baseball's four-man-rotation era.
Roy Halladay(notes), Cliff Lee(notes), Roy Oswalt(notes), Cole Hamels(notes). Or is it Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay? Whatever the order, it gets no less intimidating: The Phillies enter this season with the most awe-inspiring rotation since the Braves' Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz juggernaut, one ripe for nicknames (still like R2C2) and winning a championship.
To assemble such a group – even Blanton, with a league-average ERA over his career, is a plenty serviceable No. 5 – makes the Phillies the most intriguing team in baseball, a difficult-to-achieve title considering that 30 minutes from their spring-training complex, across the Courtney Campbell Causeway, sits the focus of storyline No. 3.
3. The AL East is better than ever
Lost in the shuffle of money from banks in who knows what countries – do the Yankees prefer Swiss, while the Red Sox are Cayman types? – was the bubbling of the underclass in the galaxy's toughest division.
In Toronto, GM Alex Anthopoulos is turning into a modern-day Jack McKeon, pulling off trades like a shrewd fantasy owner (and believe it – getting Vernon Wells'(notes) contract off the Blue Jays' ledger was indeed an Anthopoulos fantasy). In Baltimore, GM Andy MacPhail spent less than a quarter of what the Yankees and Red Sox did this offseason and bought the Orioles one of three things: surprise contention, prospects at trade deadline time or a bunch of overpriced old guys. At least two of those options are good, even if the third is the likeliest.
The dregs not dregging doesn't exactly mean the elite will suffer. Actually, this incarnation of the Red Sox looks better on paper than their two championship teams of the past seven years. The Rays recovered rather well considering they lost the player who best embodies their franchise, nearly their entire bullpen and plenty of other important cogs. And even if the Yankees don't have Cliff Lee, they do have Robinson Cano(notes), Mark Teixeira(notes), Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher(notes), Brett Gardner(notes), Jorge Posada(notes), Derek Jeter(notes) and Curtis Granderson(notes).
The power structure in the AL East will sort itself out over the season's first few months. Seeing how it does so should be the fun part.
He's past the seven-month mark now, and Morneau still isn't close to fully recovered from the concussion suffered when he banged his head on John McDonald's(notes) knee sliding into second base. It's too early to say that what looked so benign is derailing Morneau's career. It's also impossible to say that it won't.
Concussions are fickle creatures, and Morneau's has wrapped its tentacles around his ganglia and refused to let go. The Twins' first baseman – who, remember, was putting up numbers in lockstep with eventual MVP Josh Hamilton(notes) before the injury – is swinging a bat again, which is good news, and throwing as well. He's also not putting a timetable on his return, a prudent idea that nonetheless is worrisome for the Twins this season.
Even though Jim Thome(notes) can fill it at DH while Michael Cuddyer(notes) takes Morneau's spot at first base, the Twins are undoubted AL Central favorites with Morneau, as opposed to the ever-so-slight choice without him.
They can wait. The season is long. The Twins have handled Morneau's rehab well. Baby steps this spring would be enough.
The gawkers will be out in full force again starting Feb. 22, when the 18-year-old Harper arrives for his first spring training. They lined the fences of the Nationals' complex in Viera last spring to see a supposed once-in-a-lifetime arm, and they'll do the same this year to bear witness to a bat characterized similarly.
And as great as Stephen Stasburg was in his seven starts for the Nationals last season, his elbow did blow up, he will spend the next year on the disabled list and whatever momentum came of his debut died immediately. Naturally, the hype surrounding Harper will be just as big, unable are we to take into account the fallibility of the human form before deifying someone.
Strasburg was ready for it. He handled the spotlight well, if indifferently. Harper is a different sort, bred for stardom by his father, more like a young star in Hollywood than any who has entered baseball. He could thrive off the attention. He could shrivel under its glare. Whatever he does, it will be fascinating.
The Nationals' first spring game comes Feb. 28. In the week or two thereafter, Harper should log at-bats against major league-caliber pitchers. They're likely the only ones he'll take this year. Harper will spend 2011 in places like Hagerstown and Potomac and Harrisburg, popping home runs with a swing of artwork, nailing runners with a blessed arm and preparing for 2012, when the Next Big Thing returns from his Tommy John surgery and the Next Next Big Thing joins him.