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The biggest storylines of 2013

12/25/2012

As we count down the last days of 2012 armed with eggnog, here's a look ahead to the biggest storylines of 2013:

1. The fate of the '13 Los Angeles Dodgers

The new ownership group took over with a vengeance, investing $650 million in player-acquisition cost in its first seven months and immediately changing a reputation sullied by former owner Frank McCourt. The Dodgers made the richest in-season trade in major league history, with the Red Sox deal that netted them Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett, before making Zack Greinke the highest-paid right-handed pitcher ever. The Dodgers are spending (or investing, depending on your point of view) so rampantly that some agents wonder whether they'll sign Michael Bourn and trade Andre Ethier -- whom they just signed this past spring to a whopping five-year, $85 million deal -- in an effort to glean a defensive upgrade.

As soon as the season begins, however, the Dodgers will face exceptional scrutiny and pressure as much as the Phillies did after they landed Cliff Lee. The new standard for the Dodgers is easily stated: World Series or bust. Manager Don Mattingly has already spoken of expectations that could be unfair to the players.

For all the money spent, however, the Dodgers could have fundamental issues, especially on the left side of their infield. And, by the way, the defending World Series champions happen to reside in their division.

2. The Hall of Fame collides head on with the steroids era

I get emails all the time written along the lines of, "The writers are the only ones who care about this issue; nobody else cares." I can promise you this: A whole lot of sports fans care, based on the responses I get on Twitter and email, and they have a very strong point of view, ranging from Throw The Cheating Bums Out, to What Will We Tell Our Children If Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens Get into The Hall, to Let 'Em In Because The Whole Era Was Infested. The results of this year's voting will be announced in two weeks, and although it's been taken as a fait accompli for a while that Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa won't get in, the baseball world will go nuts with debate as the meaning of the final tally is dissected -- a debate that will go on for the foreseeable future.

3. The wild, wild AL West

The Angels ripped Josh Hamilton away from the Rangers, and the Rangers will go into spring training with a leaner lineup -- but perhaps a little hungrier and with something to prove under the leadership of Adrian Beltre, after the disappointing finish of 2012. Three years ago, Mike Scioscia was widely regarded as the most powerful manager in the game, and if the Angels struggle, his job could be in jeopardy, depending on the sometimes volatile whims of owner Arte Moreno.

What's almost always forgotten, of course, is that the defending champions of this division are the Oakland Athletics, who won 68 of their final 91 games last season. This would appear to be the best and most interesting race of the upcoming summer.

4. Trout and Harper, Harper and Trout

Bryce Harper accomplished things that we've never seen out of any 19-year-old player, and he did so while adjusting on the fly to the reality that pitchers are already determined to throw him anything but a fastball out of fear for what he can do to a fastball. Only the notoriously free-swinging Alfonso Soriano and Hamilton saw a lower percentage of fastballs than Harper.

At age 20, Trout had a season we have never seen out of any player, using his simple swing, power and speed to change the definition of what is possible at that age. He is already regarded by general managers as the sport's best overall player; could he actually get better? Could he move into the Babe Ruth-Barry Bonds neighborhood in single-season WAR?

Either way, it'll be fun to see him try.

5. Toronto goes all in

The Red Sox were the winners of the 2010-11 offseason ... and they didn't make the playoffs in 2011. The most-talked-about teams of last winter were the Marlins and the Angels, and they didn't make the playoffs in 2012.

Now the Blue Jays are center stage as the winners of the winter after jumping in big and adding R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and others -- at a time when the traditional AL East money powers aren't in a position of dominance. The Yankees are being much more conservative and aiming toward a budget of $189 million for 2014, and the Red Sox are retooling.

The Jays are the current Las Vegas favorites to win the World Series, which has proved to be a dubious distinction in recent years.

6. The replay of instant replay

There are degrees of frustration beginning to take hold among some teams that support more use of instant replay. The folks in charge of the development of replay have reported that details must be worked out before MLB can implement changes, because the camera angles in all parks are not uniform, and other issues. Some team officials believe that MLB should worry less about refining a perfect system and worry more about the big picture and the overriding effort to get as many calls right as possible, when possible.

But, as colleague Jayson Stark has reported, the additional layers of instant replay may not go into effect for the start of the upcoming season. In lieu of changes, there will be replays of umpires missing calls -- and the never-ending discussion of what should be done. Quietly, some officials will seethe at the sport's slow pace of change.

7. The David Price sweepstakes

Price's salary will skyrocket this winter, in his first year of arbitration eligibility, following a Cy Young Award-winning season -- and the presumption among rival executives is that Tampa Bay will be forced to trade him sometime before next Christmas. Maybe the deal will happen before the July 31 trade deadline, maybe sometime after the season. But the Rays can't keep him long-term, considering that the next long-term deal he signs will be worth something in the range of $150 million to $200 million. If they want to recoup trade value for him, the best time to trade him will be before the start of the 2014 season. When he hits the market, the baseball world will revolve around the left-hander.

8. Robinson Cano's free agency meets Yankees' austerity

The second baseman is one of the pre-eminent players in baseball, and he'll be a free agent in the fall, right in the middle of his prime. But as the Yankees prepare for what is expected to be Cano's Alex Rodriguez-like contract demand, they are dealing firsthand with the cautionary tale of Rodriguez, whose days as a star player appear to be over at age 37. Cano will turn 31 next October: Should the Yankees pay him when he hits the market next fall? Will they pay him? We'll see.

9. Milestones

Derek Jeter had an incredible 216 hits last season, at age 38, finishing the year with 3,304 for his career. If he adds 180 more this season, he'll pass Eddie Collins (3,315), Paul Molitor (3,319), Carl Yastrzemski (3,419), Honus Wagner (3,420) and Cap Anson (3,435) -- and that would put him sixth on the all time hit list. The top five: Pete Rose (4,256), Ty Cobb (4,189), Hank Aaron (3,771), Stan Musial (3,630) and Tris Speaker (3,514).

Alex Rodriguez is 99 hits from 3,000, a milestone probably out of reach in 2013 as he comes back from major hip surgery. Next-closest to 3,000 hits among active players: Ichiro, with 2,606. Rodriguez is 13 home runs from Willie Mays' 660, which ranks fourth all time.

Albert Pujols needs 25 homers to reach 500 for his career. Roy Halladay (199 career wins), Tim Hudson (197) and CC Sabathia (191) are all on the verge of 200 career victories. Johan Santana needs 12 more strikeouts for 2,000 in his career.

10. San Francisco dynasty?

The Giants have never had the look of a juggernaut, a lineup that easily spits out runs and blowouts and crushes other teams. But they do have one of the best players in the majors in Buster Posey, a consistently excellent pitching staff and one of the best home-field advantages in the sport. If San Francisco were to win another championship in 2013, that would be three in four years for the Giants -- which would probably cement manager Bruce Bochy's future place in the Hall of Fame.

11. The end of Mariano Rivera's storied career? Last summer, Chipper Jones got to take the victory lap, being honored in every NL park. If Mariano Rivera announces his impending retirement at any point, he'll be treated similarly. He is to baseball history what Jerry Rice was to NFL history: the best at what he's done, by far.

Others

Can the Nationals get over the hump, aided by a fuller season of Stephen Strasburg? Can the Tigers -- judged by some rival officials as the most improved club of the winter -- take the next step to getting the championship that Detroit owner Mike Ilitch has pursued with such determination? Will Shin-Soo Choo be the piece who helps the Reds advance in the playoffs -- and will Aroldis Chapman make a smooth transition to the rotation? What will the post-Chipper Braves look like? After an offseason in which no general managers were replaced, will there be massive GM turnover next year?

Moves, deals and decisions

" Scott Kazmir is grateful for another shot at the big leagues, writes Brian Smith.

Other stuff

" There is sad news about former Rangers owner Brad Corbett.

" The Trop gets high marks from folks in the Tampa Bay area.

" A left-hander deserves the final spot in the Detroit rotation, writes Kurt Mensching.

" The revival of Joe Mauer is one of the biggest sports stories in Minnesota. For the year.

Merry Christmas, folks.

And today will be better than yesterday.