Ah, spring training. It means winter is drawing to a close, as the sound of baseballs slapping into mitts and cracking bats slowly push the cold weather away for another year.
But it's also a time of anticipation, as fans get the first glimpse of how their teams will shape up for the season. It's a time to see which teams look the same, which teams have the biggest question marks and which squads are just plain-old intriguing heading into the season.
The latter is what we're concerned about this year. From two teams with drastically different looks to an older team looking to regain its once iron-clad control of the NL East, the following three teams are the most intriguing squads in spring training for my money.
Toronto Blue Jays
There isn't a team in baseball that improved more this offseason than the Blue Jays.
They signed Melky Cabrera and R.A. Dickey, and added Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle in the "Miami Marlins Contract Dump Trade."
This lineup should absolutely rake this year, assuming Jose Bautista fully recovers after tearing a tendon sheath in his left wrist last season—he hit a home run on Sunday in his first game back in action, so there's that—and Edwin Encarnacion can repeat his epic 2012 season (.280, 42 home runs and 110 RBI).
The Blue Jays even have youngsters who have room to improve in Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie. And with Dickey, Johnson, Buehrle and Ricky Romero, Toronto may have the best staff in baseball.
It will be interesting to see how the new additions gel, and how this lineup will shape up as we get closer to Opening Day. There isn't another team in baseball I'm more excited about than the Blue Jays this year.
Maybe I'm biased as a Philadelphia native, but I think this team is one of the biggest question marks and most intriguing teams in baseball this season. Last year, the Phillies were decimated by injuries but recovered in the second half of the season, finishing 81-81.
This is a team that still has one of the strongest starting staffs in baseball with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels at the top, and the back-end of the bullpen looks strong with Mike Adams and Jonathan Papelbon.
Of course, the real questions are with the lineup and age of the squad. If Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz and Michel Young all stay healthy throughout the year then this team should score runs, but who will play in the outfield?
Will Domonic Brown finally live up to his potential? Will fan favorite Darin Ruf earn a starting gig? What can we expect from newcomers Ben Revere and Delmon Young?
The Phillies have a lot of question, but this is still a roster with some talent and plenty of veterans who know how to win. I don't think the Phillies can surpass the Washington Nationals or Atlanta Braves to win the NL East, but don't be surprised if they sneak into the Wild Card.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Like the Blue Jays, the Dodgers are another team that looks much different from the team that went into training camp last year.
The team made several major trades last season, adding Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett in one deal and Hanley Ramirez in another. Then the team made a big splash in the offseason, signing right-handed Zack Greinke to pair atop the rotation with lefty Clayton Kershaw.
The Dodgers have the look of a team that could either run away with the NL West or totally flop and miss the postseason. A lot will depend on whether Crawford and Ramirez can return to elite status, if Matt Kemp returns from injury and regains his MVP form, and if the Beckett of previous years shows up for the team.
We'll get some early indications in spring training. The Dodgers should be a fun watch this year, for better or worse.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!