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Eye on the ball

The Baltimore Sun

The Orioles made plenty of moves this offseason.

There were also national steroid controversies and star free agents holding "Will work for fewer millions" signs.

It was a pretty entertaining winter, baseball-wise.

But, like the good old days, the New York Yankees dominated the hot-stove season. They did it with big-money signings, a dash of backbiting and the pedestal crash of the game's biggest star.

The Yankees are obviously the biggest story this spring, but there are other things to keep an eye on in Florida and Arizona after pitchers and catchers report. Here are five stories to watch.

A new Bronx Zoo

The Yankees spent a mind-boggling $423.5 million on three players: pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira (Mount St. Joseph). They'll try to mix in with the team's existing superstars, including Alex Rodriguez, who admitted this week that he took illegal performance-enhancing drugs while with the Texas Rangers.

Even before the revelation, Rodriguez was dubbed "A-Fraud" this winter in former manager Joe Torre's new book. Torre also takes shots at general manager Brian Cashman's communication skills and portrays owner George Steinbrenner as not much more than a famous bystander these days.

In manager Joe Girardi's first year in the Bronx, the club finished out of the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons. Girardi has to prove he can replicate Torre's touch in dealing with diverse personalities or he'll quickly be on the managerial hot seat.

World Baseball Classic fallout?

The inaugural Major League Baseball-sponsored tournament in 2006 was an international hit. But many GMs and managers hated it because high-paid players were going all-out in exhibition games.

The only major injury in 2006 was Washington Nationals reliever Luis Ayala, who suffered a season-ending elbow tear while pitching for Mexico. But there will always be fear that bigger names will be lost for the season.

And plenty of WBC participants, especially hitters, suffered a hangover of sorts to start the 2006 regular season, struggling early, seemingly because their routines were altered. MLB lengthened spring training a week this year to compensate for the WBC interruption, and club executives will be watching carefully to see whether it has any effect.

Who will be the next Tampa Bay Rays?

Walking into the Rays' clubhouse in March, you could sense a palpable difference from previous years - and it wasn't just a name and uniform change. The Rays talked about finally being winners and backed it up by getting to the World Series a year after having the majors' worst record. It was an incredible story, and one that might not be duplicated for years. But each season an unexpected club or two makes a serious playoff push. Who will come out of nowhere this season?

Well, the Oakland Athletics (75-86 in 2008) added serious power in Matt Holliday and Jason Giambi (left), and they always seem to find solid starting pitching. The Cincinnati Reds (74-88) have four legitimate starters if youngsters Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto build off last year. And the San Francisco Giants (72-90) could challenge in a weak division with a bolstered bullpen and Randy Johnson complementing Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

What happens to baseball's nomads?

It's almost impossible to predict how good certain teams will be because some quality free agents still haven't landed. Manny Ramirez (right) , Orlando Hudson, Orlando Cabrera, Ivan Rodriguez, Garret Anderson, Pedro Martinez and Juan Cruz, among others, are still looking for jobs.

More than 65 players who filed for free agency are still unemployed. And some will make a difference for a playoff team this year. Guaranteed. There has been talk that they could band together for their own training camp. That would definitely be worth watching.

Will the Philadelphia Phillies repeat?

It hasn't been done since the Yankees (1998-2000). In fact, only the Yankees (2000, 2001, 2003), Boston Red Sox (2004, 2007) and St. Louis Cardinals (2004, 2006) have been in multiple World Series this decade.

The good news for the Phillies is they remain mostly together. They lost outfielder Pat Burrell but replaced him with Raul Ibanez. They still could use pitching help, but they are among the elite in the National League. The real question is: Will they remain hungry?

o's pitchers, catchers report today

Coming tomorrow: Full coverage of the first day, plus 10 questions for the Orioles and analysis of the roster

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