Jose AltuveJohn Rivera/Icon SportswireJose Altuve and the Astros face arguably the most challenging early-season schedule in MLB.
Managers and players don’t really peruse schedules the way that general managers do, because for those in uniform, the season plays out like a baseball version of "Groundhog Day." There’s always a charter, or a bus to the ballpark, or a specified report time for home games, and always a ballgame. They worry only about the team in front of them.

But a GM must assess his club and players relative to the competition, so they’ll weigh the strength of schedule to see where the possible pitfalls and opportunities are over the months of games.

In 2015, it looks as though the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics will be candidates to start well, based on their early-season schedule -- the first quarter of their games or so -- and on the other hand, the Astros’ very difficult slate of games in the first weeks of the season might set them on a trajectory to be sellers before the trade deadline.

These early-season schedules are ranked from most difficult to least difficult, and today, we break down the American League. We’ll rank the National League schedules Sunday. Something worth remembering: There will always be scheduling quirks that make players and managers grumble, and creating an arrangement of games that will equally satisfy the interests of all 30 teams is impossible.

1. Houston Astros

Games against teams that had records over .500 in 2014: 39 of their first 48 games are against teams with records over .500.
Home/away: 22 of their first 38 games are at home.
Noteworthy: It’s hard to imagine the Astros having a more challenging start than what they face in 2014. Twenty-two of their first 41 games are against the Angels, Athletics and Mariners, who finished 1-2-3 in the AL West last year, and they also have out-of-division series against the Giants, Blue Jays, Indians and Tigers.
Odubel Herrera AP Images, Icon SportswireThe lack of high expectations should free up the Phillies to play prospects such as Odubel Herrera.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Before the Phillies faced the Yankees in an exhibition here Wednesday, some folks within the Philadelphia organization had nice things to say about Rule 5 selection Odubel Herrera, who was plucked from the Texas Rangers after winning a Double-A batting title last season.

Then Herrera had another good day, reaching base four times and stealing three bases, as Matt Breen writes. Check out some video of his day's work here.

The Phillies are in for a very difficult season, and they play in a tough division that has at least three good teams in the Nationals, Marlins and Mets, so it's possible Philadelphia will at least flirt with 100 losses. But 2015 should be when the roster turnaround begins, the shift to get younger players to make the team better down the road, and the Phillies are in position to take a shot with somebody like Herrera.

If the Phillies think he could be someone who can help them in the years ahead, they should play him. They should make all their personnel decisions through that prism. In some respects, the lack of expectations for the team this year frees them as they make these types of choices.

If they believe Darin Ruf could be a guy who could help them for the next three or four years, what's the point of running out Ryan Howard into the regular season. If they think Ken Giles is their closer of the future, there isn't much point in keeping Jonathan Papelbon in the role.

They also should at least explore all of the ideas that could be on the table in possible trades of Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee.

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Miguel CabreraAP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)Miguel Cabrera is reportedly in excellent shape, especially for a guy who had offseason ankle surgery.
LAKELAND, Fla. -- After sitting down with Karl Ravech and John Kruk on Tuesday, Miguel Cabrera downplayed the notion that his physical condition has changed, making fun of himself, joking how he looks without any clothes. He is a large person, and he will never stop being a large person.

But others in the Tigers' organization do see a change in him, after what was probably the greatest conditioning challenge of his career. Cabrera had complicated surgery on his right ankle after the 2014 season, which meant that he basically had to stay off his feet and was limited in his aerobic activity. Other athletes in similar situations have had difficulty keeping weight off, because they can't run or walk and they struggle to adjust entrenched eating habits.

Cabrera didn't get pudgy through a winter of activity; in fact, he looks stronger, as manager Brad Ausmus noted, having spent the winter working on his upper body because he couldn't do other types of exercise, and he is more defined in the middle part of his body, in his waist. He looks more fit than he has since his days with the Marlins.

There is a perception within the Tigers' camp that for Cabrera, the change in his conditioning was more than just killing time until he can get back on the field again. Cabrera is thinking more and more about the arc of his entire career in the choices he makes.

Cabrera turns 32 in April and is devoting himself to being a great player for years to come, at least while he can still control that.

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Drew StorenMitchell Layton/Getty ImagesDrew Storen had a successful 2014 season with the Nationals.
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Drew Storen, closer of the Washington Nationals, grew up as a huge fan of sport, and given his current vocation, he’s had an opportunity to meet some legends, which he relates enthusiastically.

Storen has a picture of longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully from 1957, and so Storen used the power of the Internet to acquire the exact model of microphone that appears in that picture. During one of the Nationals’ trips into Dodger Stadium, Storen took the microphone upstairs to the booth where Scully works and asked him to autograph it -- and, as Storen recalls, he got to sit and listen to 30 minutes of incredible stories from Scully.

Another time, Storen visited the same physical therapist as future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, and Storen’s appointment happened to be just before Rivera’s appointment. As his time with the therapist ended, he got to meet Rivera, but then a moment later, the therapist summoned him back into the room, and over the next 45 minutes or so, Storen got to chat with the greatest closer of all time.

“Of course I asked the one question that anyone [in baseball] would ask him,” Storen said.

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Martin PradoJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesMartin Prado is preparing for multiple roles with his new team, the Miami Marlins.
JUPITER, Fla. – The memory is clear in Martin Prado’s mind, and as he spoke about it Friday in the Marlins’ indoor batting cages, the rain falling outside, Prado wasn’t so much describing as he was reliving. He used his hands and gestures to replicate and convey the sheer horror of the moment.

This was about the instance in which Prado manned third base and Giancarlo Stanton used the full force of his 6-foot-6, 250-pound frame and blistered a baseball right at Prado’s soul and body, although not necessarily in that order.

Prado smiled slightly as he began to relate the story, but he is a dead-serious professional, which is part of the reason the Marlins traded for him during the offseason.

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MLB faces tough decision on Hamilton 

February, 27, 2015
Feb 27
Josh Hamilton Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsAngels outfielder Josh Hamilton reportedly suffered a cocaine and alcohol relapse.
JUPITER, Fla. -- Josh Hamilton’s status is still unknown. The Daily News reports that Hamilton suffered a relapse, using alcohol and cocaine.

But the details of what has happened with Hamilton are still sketchy. Maybe even for Major League Baseball officials who have spoken directly to Hamilton. Maybe even to Hamilton himself. Such is the nature of addiction.

As Rob Manfred faces his first major discipline case since he assumed the role of commissioner, he is faced with the question of what to do with a star player -- one of the highest paid in the sport -- who has a long and serious history of addiction.

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A Hamilton absence won't hurt Angels 

February, 26, 2015
Feb 26
videoThe Angels are bracing themselves for the possibility that Josh Hamilton will be disciplined by Major League Baseball, as Mike DiGiovanna reported. Hamilton’s father-in-law told Steven Marcus that he has hit a bump in the road.

Hamilton is a big name, and for his past achievements and stardom, the Angels committed a five-year, $125 million deal to him after the 2012 season. But whether his absence from the Angels is brief or extended, the actual impact on the team

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Players who could be traded this spring 

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
Los Angeles DodgersGary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsNo longer a part of the central cast in L.A., Andre Ethier is probably destined for somewhere else.
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Spring training is supposed to present a time of optimism, when players look around and think about what can be accomplished with the group in the room. But for a small handful, this can be a time of frustration because they know they just don’t fit in.

Andre Ethier is among those, as Mark Saxon writes; the veteran outfielder wants to be traded. From his piece:
Ethier is the longest-tenured Dodgers player, having broken in with the team in 2006. The Dodgers' tentative Opening Day plans are for Carl Crawford to start in left field, rookie Joc Pederson in center and Yasiel Puig in right, with Ethier the fourth outfielder.

"You're not wishing for it ever to end, but sometimes that opportunity takes you somewhere else," Ethier said. "I'm not going to do anything to sit here and force it. Hopefully it works itself out." [More…]

"I want the opportunity to play every day. My mind hasn't changed from when I told you guys that a couple months ago," Ethier said. "I felt like when I get a chance to play every day, I put up the numbers they ask of me. For some strange reason, it just happened that coming off a good 2012 season, in 2013 they took games away. You start to wonder why that happened. I feel like if I get a good full year in and get the at-bats, it starts to add up. It's tough when you get 300 at-bats and you're expected to hit 15 or 20 home runs."

Every time another team loses an outfielder or a designated hitter in the inevitable wave of injuries, Ethier will be an option. But he isn’t the only one who will probably spend this spring wondering if his playing time is going to happen in a different uniform.

Here are some others

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Adrian Beltre Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesThe Texas Rangers are likely to pick up the 2016 option for third baseman Adrian Beltre.
Adrian Beltre is at the heart of the Rangers, writes Gerry Fraley.

From his story:
The Rangers want him to stay a while. At least two years.

General manager Jon Daniels indicated the club could soon pick up an option on Beltre for 2016, at a salary of $16 million. Beltre could guarantee the option with 586 plate appearances this year, but Daniels hopes by acting now to avoid creating a subplot that would hang over the club all season.

“We’ll address that relatively soon,” Daniels said. “We don’t want that to be a distraction nor even a story as we go through the year.”

The Rangers’ 2014 season disintegrated quickly in an avalanche of injuries, from Derek Holland to Yu Darvish to Prince Fielder to Shin-Soo Choo, and it made sense for them to at least consider some trades of players not tethered to their future. For example, they spoke with other teams during the summer about Alex Rios, who became eligible for free agency last fall.

But when I’d ask various sources about the possibility of Beltre being marketed, I’d be shooed away from the idea. The Rangers view Beltre as a legacy player, an all-time great third baseman who could finish his career with Texas and perhaps have the Rangers’ cap on his Hall of Fame plaque.

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Reds' Bruce, Votto ready to bounce back 

February, 22, 2015
Feb 22
Joey Votto and Jay BruceUSA Today Sports, Getty Images Joey Votto , left, was limited to just 62 games last season, while Jay Bruce hit just .217.
Near the end of the Reds' lost season of 2014, Jay Bruce asked general manager Walt Jocketty if he could stop by his office for a conversation. By then, Bruce was already deep into the process of mentally preparing for 2015, having formulated his loose plans for the offseason.

He and Jocketty talked about what had gone wrong for Bruce, and for a team that opened 2014 with expectations of making the postseason. He told Jocketty that he intended to quickly resume the rehabilitation work on his surgically repaired left knee and then start his drills for the season sooner than he normally does.

Bruce followed through with everything he told Jocketty that day, and he burns for his next chance. "He is highly motivated to come back and have a good season," Jocketty said recently.

The GM senses the same about first baseman Joey Votto, who missed 100 games last season. Sean Marohn, the Reds' strength and conditioning coordinator, visited Votto several times in Toronto during the winter and reported that Votto is doing well. "I feel very good about both guys coming into camp healthy," Jocketty said.

That's crucial, because given the structure of the Reds' roster and the improvements of other teams within the National League Central, Cincinnati almost certainly cannot win without more from Bruce (who batted .217 last season with 18 homers) and Votto.

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A-Rod could face mundane final act 

February, 21, 2015
Feb 21
Joe Girardi, Alex Rodriguez APCompared with two years ago, Joe Girardi sounds a lot more like A-Rod's manager now, not his friend.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Alex Rodriguez is the opposite of subtle, with personality traits and a history that seemingly guarantee some crazy ending to his playing career. After two decades of spectacular home runs and confessions and a record-setting suspension, even Hollywood screenwriters would have a difficult time imagining an ending that would be a topper to the drama he has produced.

But it may well be that the mechanism that drives Rodriguez out of the game in the months ahead will turn out to be relatively mundane. If Rodriguez cannot hit fastballs any more, he may get squeezed out by a good old-fashioned roster pinch, a time when the Yankees designate him for assignment, he passes through waivers unclaimed and is out of baseball. Because of the past problems between Rodriguez and the Yankees, there is a career lifeline commonly used for veterans in Rodriguez's situation that is simply not available to him. We'll get to that in a moment.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi talked Friday about how Rodriguez must show he deserves playing time, as Andrew Marchand writes. Girardi's tone in speaking about Rodriguez was somewhat different than two years ago, more antiseptic. He sounded more like Rodriguez's manager than his friend.

When he was first asked Friday about Rodriguez's handwritten apology, Girardi quickly veered to reiterate his own feelings about steroid use in baseball, about how it has hurt the game and how players' performances are perceived.

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Why a pitch clock seems inevitable 

February, 20, 2015
Feb 20
Tim TimmonsAP Photo/Alex BrandonThe role of the MLB umpire is set to change in the coming seasons as new rules for hitters develop.
A lot of parents would tell you they mostly concern themselves with the A-list of priorities. Keeping the kids safe, properly fed and on time to school, with homework completed.

Most tension is rooted in the murkiness of the B-list of priorities: the timely completion of chores, the condition of the room, time spent with electronics.

The daily challenges facing umpires hover along parallel lines. The A-list is correctly applying rules most integral to the play on the field, from the definition of the strike zone to safe-or-out calls on the bases.

Almost all of the trouble between umpires and players stems from a piece of the B-list: on-field conduct. Different umpires, managers and players have different views on how and when an umpire’s decision can be questioned, with so much hinging on the interpretation of facial expressions and tone.

This is the fault line in Major League Baseball’s effort to speed up the game, and why inevitably, the sport must turn to a pitch clock.

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Lineup questions that must be answered 

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
Yasiel Puig and Bryce Harper Getty ImagesWhere will 24-year-old slugger Yasiel Puig hit this season? And what about 22-year-old Bryce Harper?
When Joe Torre managed the New York Yankees, he liked to put pen to paper and jot down various lineup combinations to see how they might look and feel. His bench coach, Don Zimmer, would do the same, and they would discuss the combinations they had written out, like two mathematicians discussing a proof.

With lineups, however, there are no perfect answers, and no absolutes. Because the variables are changing constantly. Hitters streak or slump. Opposing managers poke and prod for the vulnerabilities in lineups, with different bullpen weapons. But most managers and general managers think about the possible structure of their batting order constantly, sorting through the quandaries.

Some are unwelcome problems. For instance, Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg must find a place to hit Ryan Howard, in the season after Howard has been told the team might be better off without him.

But other lineups present interesting puzzles, such as those that follow:

1. Who will hit cleanup for the Marlins?

Marlins manager Mike Redmond is experimenting with different lineups.

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Rafael Soriano and Francisco RodriguezGetty ImagesWith Kenley Jansen out, the Dodgers could turn to Rafael Soriano or K-Rod, both free agents.
The Tampa Bay Rays' record of drafting in Andrew Friedman's time as their general manager was spotty, including the moment when they passed on Buster Posey and chose infielder Tim Beckham. There also were mistakes on free agents such as Pat Burrell.

But Friedman's era in Tampa Bay was an overwhelming success, which is why the Dodgers stalked him with promises of potential and power until he agreed to take over their baseball operations. What the Rays probably did better than anything was build bullpens, year after year, despite constant turnover because of the team's financial limitations.

Consider the composition and work of the Rays' bullpens from 2008-14.

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A-Rod's words will now ring hollow 

February, 15, 2015
Feb 15
Alex RodriguezAlessio Botticelli/GC ImagesAlex Rodriguez has a long way to go to win back the public's trust.

Alex Rodriguez will make himself available to a roomful of reporters sometime in the coming days, in what will amount to his first give-and-take session with the media since he agreed to his one-year suspension.

What will actually be given and what will be taken is not clear, though. After it's over, reporters can say they asked the questions they are expected to ask, and Rodriguez will be able to say he answered the questions asked of him. This is standard operating procedure when a public figure returns from suspension or scandal.

But a lot of the questions asked of Rodriguez will bear little to no meaning, because a lot of what he says -- almost all of it, in fact -- won't be believed. The reason why is that we were all here before

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