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Seeking answers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For at least part of the next six weeks, players in No. 76 jerseys will be playing alongside baseball's biggest stars. Starting pitchers will be jogging in the outfield by the fifth inning. Lineup cards will be filled out in pencil. And almost no one will care about a game's outcome. Spring training is a time for players to ratchet up their year-round conditioning while fans bask in sunshine and Hooters waitresses hawk Buffalo wing specials. These days, most baseball decisions are made in the winter, and only a few roster spots per team are up for grabs when the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues begin play. But that doesn't mean Florida and Arizona will be without drama. The Orioles, for instance, will have their share of compelling story lines from the impact of new pitching coach Leo Mazzone to the ongoing saga of intermittently disgruntled shortstop Miguel Tejada - an issue reporters surely won't let die anytime soon. The Orioles, though, are just one club that could make headlines this exhibition season. Here are some questions for all baseball fans to ponder as winter blends into spring.

Will Barry be Barry?

OK, a little deja vu, since this also was a key story last February. Whether you love or hate him, San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds will always be news. Last spring, he struggled with multiple knee surgeries, contemplated retirement and blamed the media for beating him down. He didn't return until September, but he quickly was back to form, homering five times in 42 at-bats. Bonds, 41, will enter this season a year older and just seven homers away from passing Babe Ruth for second on the all-time list. He won't be playing in the World Baseball Classic, but he'll take his share of cuts for the Giants. Each swing, grimace and home run trot will be scrutinized.

Has the Rocket vanished?

When Roger Clemens limped off the World Series mound in October, the debate started. Was the likely Hall of Famer finally finished? When the Houston Astros allowed him to walk as a free agent in December, the speculation soared. Would he choose to play for someone besides his hometown team? Would he return to the Astros in May, the earliest he is eligible to play for them again? Would he consider going back to Boston or New York? Well, the mystery remains, but Clemens, 43, is expected to use the WBC as a testing ground for whether he will retire from the game he has dominated for decades. Nothing may be determined until May, but his health and performance in March may give us a hint.

Can the Red Sox regroup?

A year ago, the national media descended on Fort Myers, Fla., to talk to the lovable Idiots who won the 2004 World Series. Now, you'd have to gas up the car and/or jump on a plane just to locate many of the players from that squad. Pedro Martinez, Johnny Damon, Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller are among the key departures in the past 16 months. Still, David Ortiz and Curt Schilling remain with Boston, and so do Manny Ramirez and David Wells, at least for now. Ramirez apparently won't be traded, but Wells likely will. General manager Theo Epstein has some work to do to re-establish the magic. What happens with the chemistry this spring will go a long way in determining whether normalcy - and high-level productivity - returns.

Will Johnny be a good fit?

The New York Yankees delivered a blow to their archrival Red Sox when they signed Damon, the former Boston center fielder and clubhouse leader, for four years and $52 million. No question Damon is an upgrade over what the Yankees wheeled out to center in 2005. But will his wild-child, loose-lipped act grow stale in the buttoned-down corporate office known as the Yankees clubhouse? He's leaving the ever-quotable Idiots for a cliche compound inhabited by Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. It'll be interesting to see what his new teammates think when he is holding court in Tampa, the way he once did in Fort Myers.

Who gets hurt at the WBC?

The World Baseball Classic, the 16-team tournament dreamed up by commissioner Bud Selig to promote the sport internationally, is a novel experiment. Publicly, it has the support of the players union and club management. But privately many are worried that it will result in injuries to key players. The fears are legitimate. This is baseball. Players get hurt every day, pulling hamstrings, straining ligaments and occasionally breaking bones. And at least half of the WBC squads are superstar-laden. So it stands to reason that at least one big name will suffer a significant injury while playing in the tournament. Selig had better hope it's not a Yankee, or he's going to have his own eardrum injury courtesy of George Steinbrenner.

Is Toronto for real?

This won't be answered until August, the earliest. But the new-look Blue Jays certainly will be a main attraction in Florida. The team added former Orioles closer B.J. Ryan and former Florida Marlins starter A.J. Burnett for a nifty sum of $102 million. They also traded for third baseman Troy Glaus and first baseman Lyle Overbay and signed catcher Bengie Molina. The Jays are the trendy pick for baseball's most improved team. Then again, plenty of clubs have spent gobs of money and added high-profile players in the offseason only to see everything unravel when the games count. These guys should be an interesting case study in one-year facelifts.

Who plays for the Marlins?

New manager Joe Girardi may not even be able to answer this one. Let's see, there's Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis and ... Jeremy Hermida? When a guy with 41 major league at-bats is your third-biggest star, it says a lot about your franchise. This team didn't rebuild in the offseason. It took a wrecking ball to the dugout. Only Cabrera is left from the starting lineup. Willis is the only recognizable pitcher remaining in the rotation. Much of the spring will be dedicated to finding 25 players old enough to shave.

Will the once-mighty fall anywhere?

At one time, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Juan Gonzalez were three of the most respected sluggers in baseball. Now, all of them are without guaranteed contracts. And all still have expressed a desire to keep playing. It's doubtful that any of the three can make a big league club, especially since the interest is timid at best for the fallen trio. Sosa's bat has slowed drastically. Gonzalez hurt himself just leaving the batter's box last year. And Palmeiro, well, we don't have to rehash that one, do we? One, two or all could resurface if a team is desperate for help during the exhibition season. But don't bet the pharmacy on it.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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