After interminable spring, it's finally time for baseball

SEATTLE — The long exhibition nightmare is almost over, as this endless spring finally segues into such traditional Opening Day matchups as the Astros against the Rangers, and the Reds against the Angels.

It only seems like spring training started during the Nixon administration (that's Russ Nixon, Atlanta Braves manager from 1988-90). The advent of the World Baseball Classic tacked on an extra week, just long enough for the "dead-brain" phase of preparation to kick in. And after a slugging Cactus League showing — as opposed to sluggish ones in the past — the Mariners can't start the season fast enough.

Twenty-nine teams have the same sentiment. OK, 28 — the Marlins probably aren't eager to embrace the antipathy that awaits them after the Great Winter Purge of 2012-13. And the Astros, come to think of it, aren't wild about starting the sprint to 100 losses. And the Yankees will be excused for experiencing trepidation about what will be their most humbling season in nearly two decades.

But everyone else is gung ho. The ambulatory, at least.

It might not be the best sign for baseball that the biggest story line heading into the season is health — or more accurately, lack of same. The longer spring has given players more time to get hurt, and they've obliged. The Opening Day disabled lists will be bulging with some of the biggest names in the sport, from Alex Rodriguez to Mark Teixeira to Curtis Granderson to Derek Jeter. And that's just the Yankees.

The entire National League will be lamenting the departure of their ATM (Automatic Triumph Machine) known as the Astros. They're headed from the NL Central to the AL West, where the Mariners hope to feast upon them in their quest for .500.

Speaking of which, one of the enduring story lines in baseball is the Pirates' eternal quest for their first .500 season since 1992. Last year, they stood 16 games over .500 (63-47) on Aug. 8 — only to go 16-36 the rest of the way to finish four games under. Ah, but that was before they picked up Jonathan Sanchez, so all bets are off.

Here are a few more things to watch for in what I predict will be a fabulous, unpredictable, exhilarating, heartbreaking, heart-stopping 2013 season:

Five All-Star players who will start the season on the disabled list: Chase Headley, Padres; David Ortiz, Red Sox; Corey Hart, Brewers; Johan Santana, Mets (out for season); Brian McCann, Braves.

Three more All-Stars who got hurt in the WBC and will be sidelined to start the season: David Wright, Mets; Mark Teixeira, Yankees; Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers.

Ten top players who have switched teams: Josh Hamilton, Angels; Zack Greinke, Dodgers; Jose Reyes, Blue Jays; R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays; Josh Johnson, Blue Jays; B.J. Upton, Braves; Justin Upton, Braves; Michael Bourn, Indians; Nick Swisher, Indians; Mike Napoli, Red Sox.

Five players who have retired: Chipper Jones, Omar Vizquel, Hideki Matsui, Kevin Millwood, Brian Fuentes.

Five players who might never play again, whether they know it or not: Johnny Damon, Chris Carpenter, Scott Rolen, Adam Kennedy, Bobby Abreu.

One player who might have reached the end of line, but don't put it in ink: Jamie Moyer, age 50.

Five players who were active the last season in which Moyer didn't play professional baseball: Tom Seaver, Rod Carew, Mike Schmidt, Ron Guidry, George Brett.

Five top-grossing movies the last year in which the Pirates had a winning season: Aladdin; Home Alone 2: Lost in New York; Batman Returns; Lethal Weapon 3; A Few Good Men.

Five breakout candidates: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs; Pedro Alvarez, Pirates; Salvy Perez, Royals; Manny Machado, Orioles; Andrelton Simmons, Braves.

Three already great players who will be even better: Stephen Strasburg, Nationals; Bryce Harper, Nationals; Andrew McCutchen, Pirates.

One already-great player who might never get a pitch to hit: Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins.

The next Mike Trout: Mike Trout, because no one else has his skill set, youth and charisma.

MVP, spring training: Dodgers 22-year-old outfielder Yasiel Puig, who hit .526 and slugged .842 in 57 at-bats — and was optioned to Class AA.

MVP, spring training, bespectacled division: A's infielder Eric Sogard, .500 batting average (23 for 46)

Five potential impact players who are starting in the minors: OF Wil Myers, Rays; RHP Dylan Bundy, Orioles; SS Jurickson Profar, Rangers; RHP Gerrit Cole, Pirates; C Mike Zunino, Mariners.

Five teams with a payroll more than $100 million less than the Yankees who will finish with a better record: Rays, Braves, Pirates, Orioles, Mariners.

Five prominent players still unsigned: Jose Valverde, Francisco Rodriguez, Roy Oswalt, Jim Thome, Grady Sizemore.

Five hardest names to spell: Jeff Samardzija, Cubs pitcher; Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Red Sox catcher; Alex Andreopoulos, Blue Jays bullpen catcher; Alex Anthopoulos, Blue Jays general manager; Zack Greinke, Dodgers pitcher (Rule of thumb: "i before e, except in Cy Young-winning pitchers making more than $100 million.")

Two jeered ex-Mets reinvented in Seattle: Jason Bay, Oliver Perez.

The last team that will be spilling champagne in October: Cincinnati Reds.


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