Baseball spring training: First pitchers and catchers report Thursday

The drought is almost over. While much of the northeast and midwest struggle under snowy and cold conditions, this week Major League Baseball returns to the sun as diehard fans hear their favorite words: “Pitchers and catchers report!” The batteries return to the Cactus League in Phoenix and the Grapefruit League in Florida beginning Thursday, with full teams beginning to work out on Feb. 24. Pitchers and catchers for four National League teams, including including World Series Champs San Francisco, are the first to start the 2015 season on Feb. 19, with most of the remaining pitchers and catchers in place by the weekend.

Spring training is a renewal of hope for every baseball fan, no matter what team their loyalties lie with. At this point the season is a blank slate for every team and anything seems possible, although a few of the scenarios are attracting extra attention.

The Giants are starting the season with the goal of winning back-to-back World Series for the first time since the Yankees did it in 1998-2000. The Giants are loaded with experience, after winning the championship in 2010 and 2012, as well as 2014. Crowd favorite Pablo Sandoval has signed a $95 million, 5-year deal with Boston, so third base for the Giants will be taken over by Casey McGehee.

The Washington Nationals have added free agent pitcher Max Scherzer to a 7-year, $210 million contract in the hopes that he can help the NL East champs to advance deeper into the playoffs this year. The deal is not looked upon favorably by everyone. ESPN senior writer Jayson Stark’s annual survey of 35 MLB executives found the the Scherzer-Nationals deal voted the “Most Outrageous Contract” and “Worst Free Agent Signing” in the game. The execs love the 30-year-old pitcher, but hate the contract, which will give Scherzer $15 million a year through 2028.

The Chicago Cubs were busy over the winter, with Joe Maddon taking over the helm after a successful 9-year run with Tampa Bay, bringing a 754-705 record. Rick Renteria is gone after just one season. Cubs President Theo Epstein is counting on the new skipper to bring an impressive group of prospects up to major league standards. They have also brought back right-hander Jason Hammel and traded for catcher Miguel Montero.

Left-handed pitcher CC Sabathia is back in New York after missing much of last season with right knee problems. The Yankees are also welcoming back Masahiro Tanaka, who is hoping for a healthy season after an elbow injury limited him to only 20 impressive starts last year. And then there is Alex Rodriguez, the AL MVP suspended last season for violations of baseball’s labor contract and drug agreement, returns to the Yankees after being out of baseball since his last game on Sept. 25, 2013. No one knows what to expect from the 39-year-old A-Rod, but his return is sure to draw attention.

The Red Sox, who added Sandoval along with slugger Hanley Ramirez (at a deal with $88 million over four years) also had an active off season. The Padres were also busy, bringing in a brand new outfield, as well as right-hander James Shields (four years, $75 million).

Fans still have to wait another month-and-a-half for opening day, but the start of spring training is stirring up excitement in fans who have suffered through football season. Spring is just around the corner, and the teams are tantalizingly near the field.

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