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These spring-training sites are places of interest

From Jupiter, Fla., to Surprise, Ariz., there are several facilities with captivating story lines.

February 18, 2012|By Bill Shaikin
  • When the Kansas City Royals gather this season in Surprise, Ariz., they just might be assembling a club that can compete in the American League Central Division.
When the Kansas City Royals gather this season in Surprise, Ariz., they… (Charlie Neibergall / Associated…)

The sunshine is plentiful. The smiles are genuine. The beers are cold.

Ah, spring training, where the losses don't count and hope runneth over. As the Angels enjoy their first six weeks of the Albert Pujols era, and as the Dodgers count down the final six weeks until owner Frank McCourt selects his successor, here are other places of interest around the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues:

JUPITER, FLA. — The St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins train here, but the team generating all the excitement is not the team that won the World Series last fall. No sooner had the Cardinals concluded their championship parade than Tony La Russa retired as manager and three-time most valuable player Pujols left for Anaheim. Mike Matheny, who has not managed at any level, replaces La Russa. For the first time since 1997, the Cardinals open the season with neither Pujols nor Mark McGwire at first base; Lance Berkman, 36, gets the call.

Meanwhile, the Marlins shed their miserly skin and jumped unabashedly into free agency, losing Pujols and pitcher C.J. Wilson to the Angels but landing shortstop Jose Reyes, pitcher Mark Buehrle and closer Heath Bell. Their Miami ballpark is new, too, featuring an aquarium behind home plate and a garish sculpture behind center field. For all that is new, the Marlins' chances of contention rest with three returnees — third baseman Hanley Ramirez, outfielder Mike Stanton and pitcher Josh Johnson.

FORT MYERS, FLA. — These are strangely unsettling times for the teams that train here, the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins. The Red Sox coughed up a playoff spot with a 7-20 September, shoved out manager Terry Francona, held the exit door open for general manager Theo Epstein, and all but sat out free agency. Outfielder Carl Crawford, their grand-prize free agent last year, hit .255 is recovering from wrist surgery and is not expected to be ready for opening day. New Manager Bobby Valentine can charm, but 13 teams have won a postseason game since the last time Boston did, in 2008.

The Twins, the bedrock franchise for the build-from-within and stay-the-course movement, fired general manager Bill Smith and brought back his predecessor, Terry Ryan. The Twins won the American League Central in 2009 and 2010 but lost 99 games last year, their worst season in 30 years. They can't win without a combined 1,000 at-bats from their former MVPs, catcher Joe Mauer and first baseman Justin Morneau; they got 560 last season. The Twins' new shortstop: former Dodgers spark plug Jamey Carroll.

SURPRISE, ARIZ. — Baseball's best team trains here, alongside the team that might be baseball's best story. The Texas Rangers could become the first team to play in three consecutive World Series since the New York Yankees in 1998-2000. They coughed up Game 6, sure, but they upgraded from Wilson to Japanese import Yu Darvish, and they added closer Joe Nathan so they could move fireballer Neftali Feliz into the rotation. And talk about motivation: they have four-time All-Star outfielder Josh Hamilton in a contract year, determined to play 150 games without an alcohol-related slip.

The optimism surrounding the Kansas City Royals might be a bit much, considering they have lost 90 games three years running and their one winning season since 1994 was fueled by Jose Lima. But what better year for all those prospects to grow up than this one, when Kansas City plays host to the All-Star game? Their core four is outstanding — first baseman Eric Hosmer, third baseman Mike Moustakas, left fielder Alex Gordon and designated hitter Billy Butler. The starting pitching is suspect, but ex-Dodger Jonathan Broxton and closer Joakim Soria could shine late in games.

PHOENIX — The Milwaukee Brewers won 96 games last season, came within two victories of the World Series, then bundled up for a long winter. Prince Fielder cashing in elsewhere? They expected that. Ryan Braun facing a 50-game suspension? That crushed them. The Brewers should learn this week whether Braun wins his appeal. If not, their Nos. 3 and 4 hitters could be Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart. The pitching remains strong, with Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum to start and Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford to close.

VIERA, FLA. — The most intriguing positional battle in spring training is likely to be fought here, with Washington Nationals Manager Davey Johnson wanting phenom Bryce Harper as his opening-day right fielder and the front office trying to resist the temptation. Harper, 19, hit .256 in 37 games at double A last year. But why not give your final outfield spot to him rather than to underwhelming veterans Roger Bernadina or Mike Cameron? This is a young, exciting team — Stephen Strasburg is back atop the rotation, Drew Storen the closer, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman the franchise player — that could post its first winning record since the move from Montreal after the 2004 season.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

twitter.com/BillShaikin

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