The Top Early MLB Storylines for the 2013 Season

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2013

The Top Early MLB Storylines for the 2013 Season

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    The 2013 season is quickly approaching, with pitchers and catchers reporting on February 12, and it's been a busy offseason already.

    With a pair of $100 million contracts and a handful of blockbuster trades, the landscape of baseball has changed plenty this offseason, and there is no shortage of reason for excitement this coming year.

    While the season has not begun yet, here is a look at the top 15 early-season storylines for the 2013 MLB season.

2013 World Baseball Classic

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    This March will mark the third World Baseball Classic, and after Japan claimed the title in 2006 and 2009, the field should be wide open this coming season with a number of Japan's players sitting out.

    So far, Yu Darvish, Hiroki Kuroda, Ichiro Suzuki and Norichika Aoki have all announced that they won't play for Japan.

    If nothing else, it's always fun to see how the rosters shape up.

Will the New Qualifying-Offer System Be Changed?

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    This offseason is the first in which the former Type A and Type B free-agent system has been done away with in favor of the new qualifying-offer system.

    For those not familiar with the qualifying-offer system, teams can now offer their outgoing free agents a one-year deal that equates to the average of the top 150 players in the league (which came to $13.3 million this season).

    Nine players were given qualifying offers this season, and Rafael Soriano, Kyle Lohse, Michael Bourn and Adam LaRoche are the only ones who remain unsigned. Teams signing a player who received a qualifying offer must give up draft pick compensation.

    Of that group, Lohse has reportedly yet to receive a single offer this offseason, due in large part to that compensation (h/t St. Louis Post Dispatch).

    On the other hand, top pitchers Anibal Sanchez and Zack Greinke required no compensation with their signing since they were traded at midseason.

    On the surface, it appears as though the system needs at least some tweaking this offseason, and it will be interesting to see what, if anything, is changed.

The Houston Astros Move to the AL, Interleague Play Everyday

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    This will be the first season of the new division alignment, with the Houston Astros moving from the National League Central to the American League West, bringing the number of teams in each league to 15.

    That means that interleague play as we know it is over, as there will now be interleague play all season. For the Astros, in particular, it means a move to perhaps the best division in baseball.

    With the A's, Angels and Rangers all potential playoff teams and the Mariners on the way up with a terrific young core, the Astros' rebuilding process could be even more painful this coming season.

The Youth Movement in Seattle

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    The Mariners have finished last in the AL West each of the past three seasons, but there is reason for optimism with a fantastic group of minor leaguers pushing ever closer to the majors.

    The team has three of the best pitching prospects in the game in Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton, an impact offensive shortstop prospect in Nick Franklin, the best catching prospect in the game in Mike Zunino, and a pair of potentially dominant relievers in Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor.

    All seven of those players could make an impact in the majors this season, and alongside Felix Hernandez, Kyle Seager, Jesus Montero, Kendrys Morales and Hisashi Iwakuma, the team's future is an exciting and bright one.

What Does the Future Hold for Alex Rodriguez?

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    Alex Rodriguez missed a total of 103 games over the past two seasons and put up an average line of just .274 BA, 17 HR, 60 RBI during that time.

    He capped off last season's struggles with a 5-for-43 postseason, and he found himself on the bench during the team's ALCS series with the Tigers.

    He'll likely miss the first half of this coming season, as he's expected to undergo hip surgery later this month (h/t CBSSports). 

    The team signed Kevin Youkilis to replace him, but with Rodriguez at 37 years old and declining in production, it is wondered how he figures into the Yankees' future plans.

    He's signed through 2017 and owed $86 million over the next four seasons. With 647 career home runs, he's approaching some major milestones—but will the Yankees find a way to cut ties with him?

The Sophomore Seasons of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper

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    Last season saw two generational talents in Mike Trout and Bryce Harper capture Rookie of the Year honors.

    Trout turned in perhaps the greatest rookie season of all time, posting a .326/.399/.564 slash line and adding 30 home runs, 83 RBI and 49 steals while playing fantastic defense and posting an MLB-best 10.7 WAR.

    Harper, just 19 years old last season, hit .270/.340/.477 with 22 home runs, 59 RBI and 18 steals, making an impact for the Nationals well before anyone thought he would.

    Those two could be the face of Major League Baseball for the next decade, and it will be interesting to see how they follow up their terrific seasons last year.

How Soon Can Wil Myers Make an Impact in Tampa Bay?

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    The Rays finally pulled the trigger on dealing some of their pitching depth for offense, as they shipped James Shields and Wade Davis to the Royals for an impressive package of prospects led by Minor League Player of the Year Wil Myers.

    Myers hit .314/.387/.600 with 37 home runs and 109 RBI last season between Double-A and Triple-A, and many were surprised that the Royals didn't give him a cup of coffee in September.

    The Rays held off on calling up Evan Longoria until April back in 2008, and the team has already said it won't rush Myers this coming season (h/t CBSSports).

    Once he finally arrives, though, he should make an immediate impact, as he may already be the team's best hitter outside of Longoria and Ben Zobrist.

Aroldis Chapman's Move to the Rotation

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    Last season saw five different pitchers make the transition from reliever to starter, with incredibly mixed results.

    Chris Sale went 17-8 and looks as though he'll anchor the White Sox staff for the next decade. Lance Lynn stepped into the Cardinals rotation for Chris Carpenter and won 18 games, and Jeff Samardzija showed promise in his first season as a full-time starter for the Cubs.

    On the other side of things, though, Daniel Bard struggled mightily for the Red Sox and wound up being demoted to the minors, while Neftali Feliz battled injuries all season in Texas.

    The story of this season in that regard will be the Reds transitioning flame-thrower Aroldis Chapman to the rotation, as they re-signed Jonathan Broxton to serve as closer.

    Chapman put up video-game numbers in the ninth-inning role last season, striking out 122 batters in 71.2 innings of work with a 1.51 ERA. However, it really is a crapshoot trying to predict how a pitcher will make the transition, and if he can thrive as a starter, it could make the Reds the team to beat in the National League.

Can the Phillies' Superstar Core Make One Last Run?

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    The Phillies struggled through a disappointing season last year, finishing the year 81-81 for a distant third place in the NL East.

    Injuries to Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley played a big role in those struggles, and once everyone came back healthy, the team went 16-10 to close out the season.

    Those three guys, along with Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Jimmy Rollins, give the Phillies as much star power as any team in the league. However, age is rapidly catching up to them, and this could be their final chance to make a title push before the team has to think about starting to rebuild.

    If they can stay healthy and productive, the Phillies could make a run at a playoff spot, even playing in the NL East, where the Nationals and Braves will be incredibly tough once again.

Will David Price Be Shopped at the Deadline?

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    Back in September, Buster Olney of ESPN wrote a piece on how David Price could potentially be a trade chip for the Rays this offseason.

    That hasn't come to pass, with the team trading James Shields instead, but there remains a decent chance that Price could be shopped in the not-too-distant future.

    The team signed him to a one-year, $10.1125 million deal this offseason to avoid arbitration, and he'll only get more expensive moving forward.

    Unlike many of their players, the Rays were never able to reach a long-term, team-friendly deal with Price early on, and as a result, he is rapidly becoming too expensive. 

    If for whatever reason the Rays aren't in the thick of things at the deadline, and perhaps even if they are, given the level of starting pitching depth they still have, Price could be the most attractive trade chip to hit the market in years.

Fallout from the 2013 Hall of Fame Ballot

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    The results of this season's Hall of Fame voting will be announced on January 9, and this will be as polarizing a ballot as any, headlined by Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

    Joining them on the ballot are a number of intriguing new names in Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, Sammy Sosa, Curt Schilling and Kenny Lofton, along with holdovers Jack Morris, Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell and Alan Trammell, among others.

    The real story, though, will be the candidacy of Bonds and Clemens, as they statistically rank among the greatest to ever play the game, but that will likely be outweighed by their PED allegations.

How Will the Big-Spending Los Angeles Teams Perform?

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    The Dodgers and Angels have been incredibly busy since the start of last offseason, and as a result, both are in a position to contend for a title this coming season.

    Last offseason, the Angels spent big to add Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, but they finished a disappointing third in the AL West and missed the playoffs.

    This offseason, they completely overhauled their rotation in cutting ties with Dan Haren and Ervin Santana and bringing aboard Jason Vargas, Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson, along with Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett in the bullpen.

    However, the big move was undoubtedly signing Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million contract. At least on paper, they have as complete a roster as anyone.

    The Dodgers turned the tides of their entire franchise when they sold the team last March, and during the season, they brought aboard Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett.

    Then they signed Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu to shore up their rotation this offseason, and their new, free-spending mentality could be enough to push them over the top.

Can the Oakland A's and Baltimore Orioles Repeat Last Season's Success?

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    Last season saw both the Athletics and Orioles pull off a major surprise in making the postseason, and while a lot went right for them to get that far, they have the pieces to make another run.

    The Athletics continue to work within the constraints of their budget, as new additions Yoenis Cespedes, Brandon Moss and Josh Reddick led the offense, and a young, inexperienced pitching staff performed better than expected.

    They return essentially the same team as last year, and while they play in a tough division, they certainly have a chance at sustained success.

    For the Orioles, it's been a slow process of building from within, but they've resisted the urge to deal their prospects and to spend big on the free-agent market.

    They're returning essentially the same team as well, and with prospects Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy expected to make a significant impact this season and the rotation more stable than last season, they have a chance in the AL East once again.

Who Will Be This Year's Surprise Team?

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    Few would have predicted that the Orioles and A's would have finished where they did last season. While they won't take anyone by surprise in 2013, that doesn't mean there won't be a surprise team this year.

    The Pirates have been on the cusp of contention the past two seasons, only to fall apart down the stretch. Their young players are another year older, and with a full season of Wandy Rodriguez and Francisco Liriano in the rotation, their pitching could be better this season.

    The Tigers have to the be the favorites in the AL Central, but the Indians, Royals and Twins have all improved this offseason and could contend if things break right.

    With the Rockies pitching staff healthy and Troy Tulowitzki back as well, they should be much improved, while the Padres have a deep farm system and a quietly improving roster.

    Those are just a few teams that could be in a position to surprise this season.

The New-Look Toronto Blue Jays

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    No team has been busier this offseason than the Blue Jays, as there is no question they have gone all-in this season and have a real shot at title contention.

    Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and Emilio Bonifacio were brought over in a trade with the Marlins. R.A. Dickey was acquired from the Mets, and Melky Cabrera and Maicer Izturis were signed in free agency.

    That group joins a solid handful of incumbents in Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Lawrie and Brandon Morrow to give the Blue Jays a roster that rivals any in baseball.