Major League Baseball story lines to watch the next six weeks

SPRING TRAINING '08

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After all the talk about the Mitchell Report, it's time for Mitchell to report.

Mitch Talbot is all set to get in his car next week and make the 36-hour drive from Cedar City, Utah, to St. Petersburg, Fla., for spring training with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Just like everyone else, the 24-year-old pitching prospect followed all the steroid news during the offseason. But starting Wednesday, when camps begin to open in Florida and Arizona, attention will turn back to the field after months of sour headlines.

"I don't think it's going to hurt. I think they're still excited for baseball," said Talbot, who started last season with six no-hit innings for Class AAA Durham.

Johan Santana, Dontrelle Willis, Dan Haren and Erik Bedard will be with new teams after big trades. When position players show up, Miguel Cabrera, Miguel Tejada, Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones will put on different uniforms.

All those fans in cold-weather cities await those magical words, "pitchers and catchers," and the sounds of fastballs popping into mitts and balls cracking off bats.

New York Mets manager Willie Randolph, still smarting from September's epic collapse, gushed when he thought about Santana, who will brighten a camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

"When they announced that we got him, everybody kind of congratulated me like I just had a baby or something," Randolph said.

Acquired by Detroit at the winter meetings along with Cabrera, the excitable Willis beamed when the Tigers gave him a $29 million, three-year contract.

"I'm so amped up about being here and knowing I'm going to stay here," he said. "It's mind-blowing to know I'm going to play for years to come for a team that had guys like Ty Cobb and Al Kaline."

Hunter will be with the Los Angeles Angels after agreeing to a $90 million, five-year contract, and Jones will be with the Los Angeles Dodgers, starting their final spring training at Vero Beach, Fla., where they've trained since 1948.

The Dodgers and San Diego Padres will leave spring training for two exhibition games in Beijing March 15-16. The World Series champion Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics also head to Asia, becoming the third set of clubs to open the regular season in the Tokyo Dome.

"We want to expand Red Sox Nation and further establish it in one of the greatest baseball nations in the world -- Japan," Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said.

Back at home, teams will start unloading their trucks at all those cities that fill papers each spring: Clearwater, Dunedin, Bradenton, Winter Haven and Lakeland in Florida; Surprise and Peoria in Arizona. Years ago, players used spring training to work off winter weight gains. Now they put on sunblock, grab some chew and are ready to go.

There will be some absences. Barry Bonds, the San Francisco Giants' slugger since 1993, won't be in Scottsdale, Ariz. His hometown team decided not to re-sign him and following his indictment in November on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in the BALCO drug case, no offers have emerged for what would be his 23rd major-league season. At 43, the seven-time MVP might be finished, unwanted by teams after accusations he used performance-enhancing drugs. His 762nd home run might have been his last.

Roger Clemens will be missing from spring training mounds for the third consecutive year. While he returned at about midseason during each of the past two years, it's a little different now. The seven-time Cy Young Award winner was accused of using steroids and human growth hormone by his former personal trainer. He has denied using drugs and is scheduled to testify before a congressional committee Wednesday.

Perhaps he'll pitch for the United States during the Beijing Olympics. Perhaps his career is over at age 45.

Sammy Sosa, fifth on the home run list at 609, will be watching spring training from afar, having failed thus far to find a deal to his liking.

Craig Biggio is missing voluntarily. He retired after 3,060 hits in 20 seasons, all with the Houston Astros.

So much for those not at spring training. The big stars who are there will be under the usual scrutiny.

Alex Rodriguez, known as much for being trailed by paparazzi as he is for postseason popups and regular-season home runs, figures to be the center of attention at Yankees' camp. Following another October swoon, he opted out of his record $252 million, 10-year contract, then returned for a record $275 million, 10-year deal.

The Yankees will head north to their final season at Yankee Stadium, and the Mets will spend their final year at Shea, both due to be razed when replacements open in 2009. In Washington, the Nationals move into their new home in April.

For now though, the spotlights are on players, especially those with injuries.

Arizona's Randy Johnson, at 44, is trying to rebound from yet another back operation. Boston's Curt Schilling, 41, wanted shoulder surgery but reluctantly agreed to the team's request that he try rehabilitation.

Atlanta pitcher Mike Hampton has been injured for so long he enters spring training three years shy of Hall of Fame eligibility. Juan Gonzalez, attempting a comeback with St. Louis, also would be eligible for the Hall's 2011 ballot -- unless he plays again.





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