MLB | Season preview: Dodgers looking for payoff this season

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The top story lines to watch in baseball this season:

Go big or go home

The free-spending Los Angeles Dodgers were knocked off in the National League championship series last season by St. Louis, falling short of their World Series goal. They remain all in, including a $215 million contract extension for ace Clayton Kershaw, and coming up empty again will not be looked upon kindly by management, especially with the team’s $230 million payroll.

All eyes on Seattle

The Mariners made the biggest splash in the offseason by stealing second baseman Robinson Cano from the Yankees with a 10-year, $240 million contract. They also added former Brewers slugger Corey Hart and Marlins castoff Logan Morrison. Still, the rest of their lineup is questionable and ace “King” Felix Hernandez isn’t getting any younger. They’ll need everything to go right to contend.

The Cardinals way

St. Louis had the look of a budding dynasty in making it to the 2013 World Series. The Cardinals seem to crank out hard-throwing pitching prospects at will, with Michael Wacha earning the headlines down the stretch and into the postseason. With that kind of pitching and an offense built around reliable role players, this team has staying power.

The Price is right

The Rays resisted trading free-agent-to-be David Price, instead hoping to make one last run with him. If things don’t work out, they should be able to land a king’s ransom for him before the trade deadline in July. Working from a familiar script, they will use their usual mix of unheralded position players and manager Joe Maddon’s mad genius to again compete with heavyweights Boston and New York.

One and done?

The Pittsburgh Pirates snapped a record 20-year run of sub-.500 records in 2013 and made it to the playoffs as a wild-card team, led by NL MVP Andrew McCutchen. But the Pirates frustrated their fans by staying mostly quiet over the winter while losing veteran right-hander A.J. Burnett to free agency. Was last year simply a fleeting return to glory?

Yankee makeover

New York did what it does best in the offseason — spend money. The Yankees used big-bucks contracts to add center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury from the rival Red Sox, right fielder Carlos Beltran, catcher Brian McCann and, for good measure, Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka. Throw in a healthy Mark Teixeira at first base, a final season from Derek Jeter and a resurgent CC Sabathia, and it could be a big year at Yankee Stadium.

Rangers, Tigers swap stars

After consecutive postseason disappointments, the Tigers turned the page on former Brewers slugger Prince Fielder by trading him to the Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler. That allowed Detroit to move AL MVP Miguel Cabrera back to first base and become a little more multidimensional with Kinsler at second. Texas, meanwhile, will pair Fielder with free agent Shin-Soo Choo to give itself plenty of left-handed pop in a ballpark that is well-suited for them.

Braves’ building blocks

The Atlanta Braves spent the off-season giving contract extensions to everyone but the night watchman. They also announced plans to move to a new palace in the ‘burbs. Injuries picked apart their pitching staff, however, and they will try to regroup behind budding ace Julio Teheran.

Rallying Royals

Kansas City has been trying to position itself for a playoff run. With an offseason trade for legitimate leadoff hitter Norichika Aoki, the hope is the lineup will be balanced enough to contend. The Royals lost stud starter Ervin Santana to free agency, so James Shields and the AL’s best closer in 2013, Greg Holland, must carry their staff.

Aimless Angels

Free agency hasn’t worked out so well for the Angels the past few years. They signed sluggers Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton to huge-money deals only to see both struggle with injury and inconsistency. If those two can come back and produce, they would team with mega-talent Mike Trout to form a fearsome middle of the lineup. Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson are solid atop the starting rotation, and youngster Tyler Skaggs could be a key piece to round it out.

Wrigley birthday party

The Cubs will spend as much time as possible celebrating the 100th birthday of Wrigley Field, but at some point they need to put a representative team on the field. They have built a dazzling array of prospects by gutting previous rosters, but after consecutive 100-loss seasons, long-suffering fans want something to raise a beer to other than the Friendly Confines.

The Nationals debt

No team was more disappointing in 2013 than the Washington Nationals, who went from playoff team to also-ran in the last year under manager Davey Johnson. When you have young stars such as Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, expectations present the kind of pressure to which local resident Barack Obama can relate.

Hope in Houston?

The Astros enter 2014 with the smallest payroll in the major leagues, and it’s not even close — even the miserly Marlins are $15 million ahead of them at this point. But, credit to them, they’re sticking to a slow, methodical rebuild, and at some point the belief is the short-term pain will be worth the long-term gain. The question is, will what remains of their fan base continue to support the team through these tough times?

Under the magnifying glass

No player will be more-scrutinized than Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun, who ended a year and a half of lying about his involvement with performance-enhancing drugs by accepting a season-ending, 65-game suspension in 2013. Braun put himself in this no-win position: If he falters, critics will say he can’t play clean. If he plays great, they will say he must still be cheating. Tough row to hoe.

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