Philadelphia, PA – There is no better phrase for a baseball fan than, "Pitchers and catchers report." Although the weather here in the Northeast has resembled spring for much of the winter, the fact that baseball is starting is a clear indication that spring is indeed right around the corner.
With that said, let's take a look at some of the bigger stories to watch in the American League over the next few weeks as teams begin to get ready for the start of the 2012 season:
ALBERT PUJOLS' ADJUSTMENT TO THE AMERICAN LEAGUE
Albert Pujols' move to Los Angeles was the biggest story this offseason and how he adjusts to a new league may be the biggest story to watch in the coming months. Getting familiarized with the AL won't be that big of a deal thanks to interleague play. But, how Pujols adjusts to a to a new manager, new clubhouse dynamic, new media market and new fan base will be interesting, especially early on when he may try to overdo it in proving he is worth the $240 million he signed for this winter. Angels Stadium is not exactly hitter-friendly, but neither was Busch Stadium, where Pujols did most of his damage. Remember Hall of Famer Frank Robinson had the best year of his career after switching leagues in 1966, winning the AL MVP that season for the Baltimore Orioles. Pujols should have similar success. The eventual breakdown may be coming, but it won't be in year one of this deal.
WILL MIGUEL CABRERA HAVE A SMOOTH TRANSITION TO THIRD BASE?
Immediately upon the Detroit Tigers signing first baseman Prince Fielder to a mega $214 million deal, questions came surrounding Miguel Cabrera and where he would play. Is he upset, will he strictly be a designated hitter, would he move back to third base? Well, Cabrera made it easy on everyone, as he stated right from the beginning that he was happy to move back to third base to accommodate Fielder. It's not as if Cabrera was Don Mattingly at first anyway. Then again, neither is Fielder. The biggest question is if his big frame could handle the day-in, day-out duties of third base, but Cabrera is in camp early and seems to be in his best shape in some time. He hasn't played third base on a regular basis since 2007 and seemed awkward during a 14-game stint there with the Tigers in 2008 when he committed five errors. He's made 48 errors in 387 games for his career at third base. That's a .951 fielding percentage and would have ranked him 14th among 20 players who played at least 100 games at third last year. It's not great, but as long as he's serviceable, that should be more than enough for a Tigers team that some think is the class of the AL.
BOBBY V BACK IN THE LEAGUE
Baseball is always better if Bobby Valentine is involved. And he's not only involved, he's been put in charge of righting a Boston Red Sox team that last year went through the worst collapse in baseball history, as they blew a nine- game wild card lead as late as Sept. 2, going just 7-20 in the final month of the season. Stories came out that the clubhouse was a mess and manager Terry Francona left, as did general manager Theo Epstein. Now here comes Valentine. The guy to fix things, or add more gasoline to the fire? He's had a knack for turning his teams against him and already had a run-in in the past with left fielder Carl Crawford. Valentine knows what he is doing, though, and this Red Sox team is probably the most talented bunch he has ever managed. Will they listen, though? Even if things don't work out, Valentine will be interesting. Maybe we'll hear more stories about him inventing the sandwich wrap.
HOW DANIEL BARD HANDLES HIS MOVE TO ROTATION
Speaking of the Red Sox, one of the more intriguing things to watch in their camp will be the transition of reliever Daniel Bard to the rotation. It was almost a fait accompli that once Jonathan Papelbon left as a free agent that Bard would assume the closer's role. The Red Sox had other ideas, however. Bard, one of the game's best set-up men the last couple of seasons, now enters a rotation that already includes Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz, but one that has a glaring hole with John Lackey sidelined for the season. In 2007, Bard's first professional season, he went 3-7 with a 7.08 ERA in 22 starts at two levels of Single A, and the Red Sox moved him to the bullpen one year later. There are some major red flags here. He's never gone over 75 innings as a reliever and some question whether or not his changeup as a third pitch is good enough to get through a big league lineup three times in a game.
THE TEXAS RANGERS
The Texas Rangers are the two-time defending AL champions, yet nobody gives them any respect. Last year, it was "they can't win without Cliff Lee." Well, they ran away with the AL West thanks to a patchwork rotation headed up by C.J. Wilson. Now, all the talk out West is on the Angels, who not only landed Pujols this offseason, but also stole Wilson from the Rangers. So a suspect rotation even with Wilson is now a huge question mark because it will now be headed up by an unproven Japanese star in Yu Darvish and their closer from last season, Neftali Feliz. While I'm more sold on Feliz working out than Bard in Boston, it's still a big gamble. The Rangers have brought in Joe Nathan to close games, but if he slips, look for Alexi Ogando to fill that role nicely. Then there is the Josh Hamilton factor. He may be out to prove something after another offseason slipup. That could be bad news for not only the AL West, but for the rest of the league. I'm not ready to bet against Ron Washington's crew just yet.