Top Must-Follow MLB Storylines Heading into Opening Day

Doug Mead@@Sports_A_HolicCorrespondent IMarch 29, 2013

Top Must-Follow MLB Storylines Heading into Opening Day

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    With Opening Day just three days away, intriguing storylines abound throughout Major League Baseball.

    As each team begins its slate of 162 games, these storylines will quickly start to unfold. Some will be ones to follow throughout the season. Others may be just temporary, but they'll be equally captivating.

    The storylines include possible performances, injuries, drama and other enthralling factors sure to keep fans riveted early in the 2013 season. Some of the events will titillate fans right through the playoffs.

    Here are some of the top storylines fans will follow when Opening Day finally arrives.

Can an Improved Boston Red Sox Rotation Help Lead Them Back into Contention?

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    Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester pitched a perfect six innings against the Tampa Bay Rays on March 17 and finished spring training with a 0.75 ERA.

    Clay Buchholz threw free and easy, finishing Grapefruit League action with a 0.79 ERA.

    Ryan Dempster looked solid in his No. 3 role, putting up a 3.06 ERA. Felix Doubront struck out 16 batters in 13 innings, and even John Lackey looked rejuvenated after returning from Tommy John surgery.

    The Red Sox finished with their worst regular-season record since 1965 last year, and their starting pitching was a major reason why.

    However, with former pitching coach John Farrell back in town as the manager, the Red Sox rotation suddenly looks like a force.

    Is it enough to put them in contention again? That's a storyline Sox fans will follow all season.

What Can Mike Trout Do for an Encore?

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    Los Angeles Angels rookie Mike Trout sported a new look coming into camp this spring, and everyone took notice.

    Just about every media outlet around commented in some form or another about his added weight. Coming into Tempe, Ariz., weighing in at around 240 pounds or so, Trout's new look was the talk of the town.

    Via Jerry Crasnick of ESPN:

    The increased bulk has earned Trout some jibes on Twitter and sparked some concern among fantasy owners that his speed game might suffer as a result. It has also been a topic of discussion among bloggers and sports talk radio callers in Southern California.

    Well, it turns out the talk may have been a bit premature.

    Trout raked for much of the spring, hitting .373 with one home run, 10 RBI and five stolen bases.

    He pretty much looked like the same Mike Trout who dazzled the baseball world last season.

    Considering the spring he just completed, fans will look to see what Trout can do to top last season—and that was indeed special in itself.

For That Matter, What Can Bryce Harper Do for an Encore?

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    Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper had a pretty special season of his own last year.

    While not up to the standard set by counterpart Mike Trout, Harper did things no teenager had ever done in MLB history. His 22 home runs and 59 RBI with 18 stolen bases were more than enough to garner him a National League Rookie of the Year Award.

    Harper also had an outstanding spring, hitting a sizzling .476 with three home runs, 14 RBI and five stolen bases.

    He absolutely looks primed to go well beyond what he accomplished last season. For Nationals fans, that will be a more-than-acceptable encore.

Will Anyone Take a Chance on Francisco Rodriguez?

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    Just five years ago, closer Francisco Rodriguez set the all-time single-season saves record (62). He's still only 31 years of age.

    Yet he's still out of work. How long can that really last?

    Well, if you listen to Scott Boras—K-Rod's agent—not much longer.

    Ken Rosenthal of tweeted on Monday that Boras expects K-Rod to sign "soon."

    Really? Why has it been a five-month wait, then?

    Well, at least it's drama that can be followed for a while after Opening Day.

For That Matter, Will Anyone Take a Chance on Jose Valverde?

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    The Detroit Tigers have chosen the bullpen-by-committee approach to start the 2013 season after sending prospect Bruce Rondon down to Triple-A Toledo to work on his command.

    But wait.

    There's a closer out there still waiting for a job, and he has 277 career saves.

    Maybe the Tigers could call on Jose Valverde.

    Oh wait, never mind. Been there, done that, don't want a postcard.

    Valverde, also a Boras client, still awaits a phone call after famously imploding in the playoffs last year. Like his other client, Boras insists that Valverde will sign soon.

    Yes, and I'll win all of my March Madness brackets in two weeks. All played for fun, of course.

Is Roy Halladay OK?

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    Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay enters a pivotal season.

    In the final year of a contract with a vesting option that he likely won't reach, Halladay will pitch for his future. He comes off one of the worst statistical years of his career to boot.

    Roy hasn't looked like the Doc of old this spring either.

    Halladay struggled to a 6.06 ERA in six spring starts, walking nine batters in 16.1 innings. At times, his fastball couldn't even crack 85 MPH.

    His last outing on Thursday was only marginally better, as he gave up two runs in 4.1 innings. But he threw 96 pitches in those 4.1 innings.

    Halladay simply doesn't look like the dominating figure who captivated fans in both Toronto and Philadelphia.

    He looks human.

Can the Yankees Survive April Without Jeter, Granderson and Teixeira?

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    The storyline for the New York Yankees thus far this spring has been their medical reports.

    Alex Rodriguez already planned to miss at least half the season recovering from hip surgery. Then Curtis Granderson went down with a broken forearm in his first spring at-bat.

    That was followed by Mark Teixeira possibly tearing a tendon sheath in his wrist hours before he was to take part in the first exhibition game for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.

    Then Derek Jeter's return from a fractured ankle suffered in last year's ALCS hit a speed bump—he'll also start the season on the disabled list.

    It could be a long first month for Yankees fans.

Will the Toronto Blue Jays' Revamped Roster Have Early Chemistry?

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    The Toronto Blue Jays will sport a new look on Opening Day, courtesy of general manager Alex Anthopoulos.

    Two trades changed the face of the Jays, as Anthopoulos brought on board Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Emilio Bonifacio and R.A. Dickey.

    He signed Melky Cabrera and Maicer Izturis for good measure.

    Now, the Jays are one of the favorites to win the World Series—without a game having been played yet.

    The Los Angeles Angels made a major change last year, albeit smaller. Albert Pujols was a game-changer, or so it was thought. The Angels got off to a 6-14 start and never recovered.

    Chemistry does count in baseball. If the Blue Jays show that chemistry early, it could be a long year for the other teams chasing them in the AL East.

How Bad Will the Houston Astros Really Look?

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    When the Houston Astros take the field on Sunday night to take on the Texas Rangers, they'll do so with a roster that, as a whole, makes less than New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez.

    At least they'll be on the field.

    The Astros project to be the team with the worst record in baseball. Considering they've lost 213 games in the past two seasons and are still rebuilding, that isn't shocking.

    But could they actually threaten the New York Mets' modern-day record of 120 losses?

    I don't personally think that will happen, but the over-under has to be somewhere around 110.

Who Will End Up Being This Year's Version of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper?

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    An exciting crop of rookies look to make their marks this year. They'll try to follow up an act that was must-see TV last year in Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.

    There are two who could be worth spending time in front of that TV to watch—Jedd Gyorko of the San Diego Padres and Aaron Hicks of the Minnesota Twins.

    Gyorko makes his MLB debut for the Padres on Monday at Citi Field against the New York Mets. Hicks makes his debut the same day at Target Field against the Detroit Tigers.

    Each brings a different skill set, and both bring an air of excitement as well.

    They may not gain the media swarm that surrounded Trout and Harper last year, but they both could join those stars as the great young guns in MLB.

Just How Explosive Will Trout, Hamilton and Pujols Be?

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    The Los Angeles Angels will begin their 2013 season at Great American Ball Park on Monday against the Cincinnati Reds.

    It's the first interleague game of the year in a newly formatted schedule that promises an interleague game every day of the season.

    But that's not why Angels fans will watch.

    Instead, they'll tune in to see if Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols can make magic together.

    Throw in Mark Trumbo as well, and you could have a team capable of blast-offs every night.

Can Tim Lincecum Turn Things Around?

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    San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum will start this season on a mission—to reverse course.

    The two-time Cy Young Award winner worked through a positively miserable season last year. He posted a 10-15 record and 5.18 ERA, gave up a National League-leading 107 runs and threw 17 wild pitches, the most in the majors.

    At a salary of $22 million, Lincecum is at a crossroads. Another rocky season could see him pitching somewhere other than the Bay Area next year.

    A bad season could have other teams wondering if he's even worth the risk of signing at all.

    Lincecum's spring didn't give anyone a warm, fuzzy feeling. Against Oakland on Thursday night, he gave up five runs on five hits in 4.2 innings. The outing raised Lincecum's spring ERA to 10.57.

    Crossroads, indeed.

Can Miguel Cabrera Be a Repeat Triple Crown Winner?

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    The Detroit Tigers third baseman did something last year no one in baseball had accomplished in 45 years.

    His 44 home runs, 139 RBI and .330 batting average were good enough to capture the Triple Crown, last achieved by Boston Red Sox left fielder Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

    Is it conceivable that Cabrera could do it in back-to-back seasons?

    It's entirely possible.

    Cabrera has better hitters around him in the lineup this year. He'll have Torii Hunter—who hit .313 last year—hitting in front of him. He'll have Prince Fielder hitting directly behind him once again, and he'll have the added benefit of Victor Martinez back in the lineup behind him.

    A long shot? Yes, absolutely. But Cabrera will no doubt give it his best shot once again.

Can Robinson Cano Put Up Numbers Without Thinking About His Pending Contract?

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    New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano represents the most enticing pending free agent on the market as the 2013 season begins.

    He will get paid. And it could be big.

    In early March, reports revealed that the Yankees made Cano a significant offer. At the time, he told reporters that he was clearly focused on just baseball.

    Well, kind of.

    Via Eric Boland of Newsday: "It's never going to go out of your head," Cano said. "That's all I can say."

    That's probably not what fans wanted to hear, especially considering Cano will be the main offensive weapon on a team challenged with injuries to Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson. Not to mention the fact that the Yankees lost a lot of offense via free agency as well.

    Cano could easily see a $200 million payday in his future. It could be considerably more. But how about just worrying about the $15 million he'll make this year and letting his performance dictate the market?

    I know, it's a novel idea. But the Yankees have enough issues without contracts getting in the way of things. Cano simply needs to let his bat do the talking—the money will be there in the end.

Will There Be Fireworks in Atlanta with Upton, Upton and Heyward?

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    There's a new trio in town, and it's called Up, Up and a Hey.

    For those of you living outside of Atlanta, that would be Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward, the new outfield triumvirate of the Atlanta Braves.

    Heyward is just 23 and coming off a season in which he hit 27 home runs with 82 RBI.

    Justin Upton is 25 and already has 108 career home runs.

    Brother B.J. Upton is the old man of the group. At 28 years old, Upton comes off a career year in which he hit 28 home runs and stole at least 30 bases for the fifth straight season.

    This is an outfield that promises to be together for several years to come. By the time they're finished, they could be one of the best outfield combinations in baseball history.

    It will be fun watching baseball in Atlanta.


    Doug Mead is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. His work has been featured on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle.