Spring forward: Baseball camps to open 

John Lackey, welcome to the beach. Roy Halladay, have a safe trip to Florida. Mr. Cliff Lee, enjoy your stay in Arizona.

It's time.

In the snowy Northeast and chilly Midwest — even in sunny California — it's the signal that baseball is coming back. Pitchers and catchers report to camps over the next 10 days, finally shifting the biggest winter moves from podiums and conference calls to the field.

"Spring training is a special thing," Chicago Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "It sets the tone for a championship season."

The St. Louis Cardinals hope to get a boost from Mark McGwire. He's set to be their batting coach after — he hopes — putting his steroids admission in the past.

Lackey joins Josh Beckett at the front of a stellar Boston rotation after the top pitching prize on the free-agent market signed an $82.5 million, five-year contract.

Philadelphia will have Halladay after getting him in the biggest winter trade, a swap that also sent Lee to revamped Seattle. Minnesota strengthened its roster with a surprising spending spree ahead of its first season in open-air Target Field.

It's all in an effort to unseat the New York Yankees, who once again begin the spring as the team to beat following their 27th World Series championship.

Never content to sit still, the Yankees added All-Star center fielder Curtis Granderson, pitcher Javier Vazquez, designated hitter Nick Johnson and outfielder Randy Winn. But the moves left the popular Johnny Damon looking for a team — outfielder Jermaine Dye, slugging first basemen Carlos Delgado and Russell Branyan, and left-hander Jarrod Washburn are among the other available free agents as the season approaches.

The Yankees play the major league opener on April 4 against Boston at Fenway Park.

"Everybody puts on their Sunday best for the Yankees," said Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who was in New York's dugout the last time it won consecutive titles.

In the meantime, there are workouts and games. The exhibitions start on March 2 when Atlanta plays the New York Mets at Port St. Lucie, Fla.

Torre, who managed New York to three straight titles from 1998-2000, is hoping to lead Los Angeles back to the postseason. But an ownership dispute featuring a bitter divorce could handcuff his team, and the Giants and Rockies like their chances in the NL West.

"Last year we opened that door," said Tim Lincecum, who agreed to a $23 million, two-year contract with San Francisco on Friday following consecutive NL Cy Young Awards. "We won 88 games and we surprised a lot of people who didn't think we were going to do that. Now that that door is open, we've got to pound through it and make ourselves a little more well known."

St. Louis has a spot to fill in its rotation after losing solid right-hander Joel Pineiro to the Angels in free agency. Fellow NL Central power Chicago could be without lefty Ted Lilly at the start of the season, leaving the division wide open, with Milwaukee also in the mix.

At least the Cardinals kept Matt Holliday. The star outfielder was on the market before agreeing to stay in St. Louis for a franchise-record $120 million, seven-year contract.

McGwire and the Cardinals are hoping his media blitz over the winter will allow him to focus on work this spring.

"I don't know what else he can say," manager Tony La Russa said during the team's fan festival last month. "How many more times does he have to apologize? How many more times does he have to admit he made a mistake?"

Also this spring in the NL Central: the Pirates open camp in Bradenton, Fla., hoping to avoid their 18th consecutive losing season, and there's intrigue at Chicago's training home in Mesa, Ariz. The Cubs have new ownership in the Ricketts family, and Piniella is entering the final year of his contract.

"We've got a good ballclub," said Piniella, who turns 67 in August. "Every manager feels good about his team this time of year."

Texas also could have new owners by opening day. Tom Hicks has agreed to sell the club to a group that includes team president and Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan.

The Rangers (87-75) begin this spring with high hopes after only their second winning season since their last playoff appearance in 1999. They're expected to contend for the AL West title, along with the new-look Mariners and defending champion Angels.

Los Angeles had a rocky winter following its fifth division title in six years. Lackey and third baseman Chone Figgins left for big free-agent deals, but the Angels signed World Series MVP Hideki Matsui.

"When you lose a John Lackey, when you lose a Vladimir Guerrero, other teams have got a chance," new Oakland ace Ben Sheets said.

Sheets was one of several free agents the Mets pursued this winter with lackluster results. Left fielder Jason Bay agreed to come to New York for a $66 million, four-year contract, adding some punch to an offense that had just 95 homers last season.

The Yankees' success has only ramped up the pressure on Mets manager Jerry Manuel and general manager Omar Minaya.

As for the defending champs, their biggest unresolved issue this spring is in the rotation. Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes will compete to become the Yankees' fifth starter.

"I think it's just one of those things where guys are going to have fit in different ways and we might have to do things different," Chamberlain said, "but I think we retooled great."

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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