Here are 12 storylines for Spring Training 2012

Feb 19 2012 - 5:42pm

Spring training is finally here, welcome therapy to anyone who's been obsessing over the calendar since the Super Bowl. OK, Jeremy Lin has helped, but he's still no substitute for the sound of that first fastball detonating in a catcher's glove - as hopeful as the ice cream truck ringing its bell.

You want intrigue? Try the coming race in the AL East. Legal drama? Watch Ryan Braun squirm. You like rooting against the odds? Put your money on Johan Santana.

There are a million reasons to be locked and loaded for the coming baseball season. Here's our top 12 for '12:

YU DARVISH'S BRAVE, NEW WORLD: Talk about a gamble of global proportions. The Rangers are betting $60 million on Darvish, who's never thrown an inning in the big leagues - and that's not even counting a $51.7 million posting fee Texas had to pay.

Does Darvish have good enough stuff to cope with, say, Robinson Cano or Albert Pujols? Can he adjust to the big leagues' heavier, larger ball than the one used in Japan? Will Darvish be affected by pitching every fifth day instead of every sixth? And what about the Texas midsummer weather - he's never had to deal with temperatures that can reach 100 degrees.

The Rangers have faith; they dispatched 12 scouts to Japan over the last two seasons, and are convinced Darvish's talent will hold up in the American League. It's true, he's a rung higher than Daisuke Matsuzaka, but the final verdict is months away from being returned.

BOBBY VALENTINE VERSUS FRIED CHICKEN AND BEER: Valentine inherits a dysfunctional clubhouse that ended Terry Francona's reign. That, and a somewhat flawed roster. This is no small challenge for a manager who a) hasn't worked in the big leagues since 2002, b) is starting the season without Carl Crawford and c) will be missing the maturity and professionalism that underscored Tim Wakefield's career.

But it's a good sign that last year's rogue element - Josh Beckett and Jon Lester - showed up to camp several days early. If Valentine can gain their respect and loyalty, the Sox can begin healing the wounds of their horrific September collapse. The pressure is squarely on Valentine, though, because the Sox project to 88-90 wins, which probably won't be enough for October.

JOHAN SANTANA'S SECOND ACT: Santana long ago earned the respect of his peers for his competitiveness and willingness to pitch through pain. But now the left-hander is being asked to perform a small miracle - return to greatness after 2010 surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder.

Can he? The Mets are doomed to a last-place finish with or without a healthy Santana, so the question is no doubt moot. But his relative recovery - say, 12-13 wins, 150 innings, no trips to the DL - would be a rallying point for Mets fans who are starving for good news.

RYAN BRAUN'S SUSPENSION: The Brewers were already in trouble in the Central Division the day Prince Fielder played his final game. He wasn't coming back in 2012, which meant Braun would have to carry the Crew by himself this year.

But barring an unlikely reversal, Braun's 50-game suspension for testing positive for elevated testosterone levels will leave the Brewers in year-long crisis. The off-season additions of Alex Ramirez and Alex Gonzalez will help, but not enough. Neither one will be able to keep Brewers fans from asking what, exactly, Braun was thinking when he cheated.

MATT MOORE'S HEAT: It's a good thing the Yankees acquired Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda this winter, because it turned them into the favorites in the East. But the two new arms only gave the Bombers the division's second-best rotation.

The Rays will unveil a full season of Moore, who talent evaluators believe already has the best stuff on the staff -- and that includes ace David Price. Moore has a better fastball, averaging 96 mph, and used it 72 percent of the time in his brief with the Rays last season.

Moore's youth (he's only 22) could work against him, but only in the short term. He'll be worth watching.

ALBERT PUJOLS' NEW LIFE IN THE AL: Is the game's best hitter worth $240 million at age 32 (or older?). Of course not, but the Angels are flush with TV revenue - an estimated $3 billion over the next 20 years - which allowed them to absorb Pujols and C.J. Wilson and not feel the sting.

Despite coming off his worst season in St. Louis, Pujols will add obvious muscle to a team that led the American League in pitching last year. The Angels may or may not be more lethal than the Rangers - so much depends on Darvish - but they've officially ascended to the ranks of the AL's six super teams that are all capable of getting to the World Series.

MARK TEIXEIRA'S UPPERCUT: If you want to talk about the key to October, look no further than Teixeira, whose return to form from the left side, is paramount to the Yankees' chances. Put it this way: If the Bombers are going rely solely on Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson again, they could be looking at another first-round exit in the playoffs.

But if Teixeira can go back to being a gap-hitter, a two-way threat who can finish with a .300-plus average, the Yankees' offense becomes dangerous even to the Rays. Of course, this presumes Teixeira can address the uppercut in his swing, and can get the idea of long home runs over the right field wall out of his head. We'll see.

IRVING PICARD'S LEGAL STRATEGY: The Wilpons are set to go to trial March 19, when a jury will hear them plead ignorance of the Madoff Ponzi scheme. They'll be opposed by Picard, the trustee who says it's irrelevant what Mets' ownership did or didn't know. Instead, the case rests on whether the Wilpons should've seen the red flags.

At the heart of Picard's case will be the testimony of whistleblower Noreen Harrington, who, according to court filings told Saul Katz - one of the two men who own the Mets - that Madoff's performance was "fiction." This was in 2003.

Harrington's observations were dismissed and rejected. She subsequently resigned from Sterling Equities.

PRINCE FIELDER and the TIGERS DEFENSE: Even without Fielder, the Tigers finished in first place by 15 games in 2011, so what chance does the rest of the Central Division have now?

Not much. The only intrigue will be figuring who, exactly, can catch the ball. With Fielder at first base, Miguel Cabrera's return to third base could turn the Tigers into the AL's worst defensive team - he hasn't played the position since 2007. Not that it should matter during the regular season. But ask us about this in October.

CARLOS BELTRAN'S KNEES: The Cardinals had to find someone to take Pujols' place, but investing in Beltran's come with all kinds of risks. The Yankees, for example, had a chance to sign Beltran this winter and passed - specifically because they didn't think his knees would hold up for a second straight season.

It's true, Beltran played 142 games last year, but he's going into his age-35 season and will be asked to play center field occasionally. The good news for the Cardinals is that Beltran is only signed through 2013, and he's still a terrific hitter. His 4.7 WAR was only slightly less than Pujols' 5.1 last year.

PHIL HUGHES' CONDITIONING: The Yankees still believe Hughes can he the pitcher who once dominated hitters with four-seam fastballs in the strike zone - at least until he let himself get out of shape in 2011. For what it's worth, Hughes is in camp already, physically fit and ready to regain his elusive 94 mph.

The question isn't whether Hughes gets it back, but what's Plan B if he doesn't.

JOSE REYES' NEW FRIENDS: The former Met wanted the love, the money and a chance to play in October. It's all there in front of him in Miami. But with the bling comes an even bigger surcharge - dealing with the moody (and that's putting it gently) Hanley Ramirez.

The Marlins still can't say for sure that Ramirez is willing to move to third base to make room for Reyes. Of course, Ramirez has no real say in the matter, he'll ultimately do what he's told. But if his hostility lasts, it'll have a corrosive effect on Reyes, a sensitive guy who won't be able to block out the distraction. And we haven't even mentioned Reyes' hamstrings.

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