Two teams with playoff aspirations kick off their 2012 campaigns this afternoon when the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays meet in the first of three games at Tropicana Field.
It was a record-setting season last year for the Yankees, but one that ultimately ended in disappointment.
Along the way to their 97 wins and an 11th American League East crown in the last 14 years, shortstop Derek Jeter further cemented his legacy with hit No. 3000, while Mariano Rivera became the game's all-time saves leader.
Robinson Cano also continued his pursuit to be considered along with the game's elite, while Curtis Granderson did his best to join him with a season that saw him slug a career-high 41 home runs.
But, when it was all said and done, that great lineup that carried them for most of the season failed them when it mattered most, as the Yankees lost in five games of the ALDS to the Detroit Tigers, dropping the decisive contest in the Bronx.
The Yankees didn't need to make wholesale changes at season's end and were unusually quiet this winter. They did, however, deal top prospect Jesus Montero to Seattle for All-Star right-hander Michael Pineda, while also luring Japanese right-hander Hiroki Kuroda over from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Actually the biggest addition to this year's Yankees team may have arrived late in spring training when left-hander Andy Pettitte announced he would be coming out of retirement to once again join the club.
CC Sabathia, who agreed to a five-year extension to stay in pinstripes this offseason, put forth another tremendous year, winning at least 19 games and finishing in the top-5 in AL Cy Young voting for the third straight season. He will get the call today.
Sabathia, who fell a win short of becoming the first Yankees starter to post back-to-back 20-win seasons since Tommy John back in 1979-80, still ended the year 19-8 with a 3.00 ERA.
"It's an honor to be able to start the season for the franchise and the organization," said Sabathia, who inked a five-year $122 extension this winter. "I'll be ready to go."
Opposing him will be another All-Star in right-hander James Shields, who bounced back last year with a terrific season, as he went 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA over a career-high 249 1/3 innings. His 11 complete games were also by far the most in the AL.
"Being the Opening Day starter means a lot," Shields said. "For me, I put in a lot of hard work in the offseason, and it's just a testament to how hard I worked last year to get to where I am this year. And that's pretty much all it is. Obviously, it's nice to become the Opening Day starter. Especially on a staff like ours, I mean, we have a pretty good staff. It's definitely gratifying."
Shields, who will be making his fourth Opening Day start, heads up perhaps the best rotation in all of baseball, as manager Joe Maddon can on any given day send out a starter who's finished in the top three of AL Cy Young Award voting (Shields, third, 2011; and David Price, second, 2010), won an AL Rookie of the Year Award (Jeremy Hellickson, 2011), struck out double-digits in a postseason start (Matt Moore, 11, 2011) or simply won at least 11 games in three straight seasons with an overall winning percentage of 62.3 (Jeff Niemann).
But lost in the shadow of the elite arms is a star-studded, albeit inconsistent offense that includes another former AL Rookie of the Year in third baseman Evan Longoria and a returning fan favorite in first baseman Carlos Pena, who spent one year with the Chicago Cubs after hitting 46, 31, 39 and 28 home runs in the previous four seasons with Tampa Bay.
The two are penciled in as the go-to run-producers in a lineup that also includes intermittently dynamic holdovers like Desmond Jennings (.259, 10 HR, 20 SB in 2011), Ben Zobrist (20 HR, 91 RBI). B.J. Upton (23 HR, 81 RBI, 36 SB) and Matt Joyce (.277, 19 HR, 75 RBI). Upton, though, is currently sidelined with a back injury.