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Off-season Story Lines to Watch

With the Hot Stove heating up, we preview some of the winter's most intriguing questions

Whole New Cubs?


PEOPLE OF Cubs Nation: Are you ready to believe? A fifth-place finish may not seem like real progress, but the 2014 season offered slivers of hope as Chicago's young core of position players came of age—mashers like Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez made the team more captivating than an 89-loss club should be. The blueprint on the Northside has been to assemble a beastly offense from within while cobbling together a pitching staff on the fly, and now, entering Year 4 of the Theo Epstein era, Chicago is closer to becoming a juggernaut than you might think. They took another step forward with the hiring of Joe Maddon last week, but the roster is still starved for top-end pitching. Headlining the free-agent class is a trio of aces—Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields—and that's why the Cubs, a franchise flush with cash, are the team to watch this winter: If they can land one top pitcher (and two seems possible), then Chicago, after a five-year run of mostly hideous baseball, will contend for a division title in 2015. Believe it.

A-Rod Strikes Back


AS DEREK JETER'S retirement tour reached its end, his longtime frenemy slowly began to inch his way back into the Yankees' vacated spotlight. Alex Rodriguez was mostly a specter in 2014 as he served his 162-game PED ban—"Alex has not not been talked to throughout the season," Yankees GM Brian Cashman reported in September, that loaded double negative saying it all—but he's shown up at a number of big football games recently. It was as if Rodriguez wanted to get the public used to the idea of him again, in preparation for a return to the Yankees' lineup that many said would never happen. Rodriguez's suspension ended at 12:01 Eastern the day after the World Series concluded, and all signs suggest that he will be on the field next April to start collecting the $61 million his club still owes him over the next three seasons. How will he be received? What kind of player will he be? Who knows? The only sure thing is that such uncertainty means watching A-Rod will be something that it hasn't been for years: fun.

Money Mania


IT SHOULD be interesting to watch how the excess money in the game affects the free-agent and trade markets. National revenue is at an alltime high, while payrolls have dipped to just over 40% of revenues, down from close to 60% at the start of the century. Money from new local-TV contracts—the Dodgers' started this year, the Rangers' start next year—is itching to be spent. High-revenue teams like the Red Sox and the Cubs head into the off-season with room on their payrolls for 2015 and clear needs. All of this means we could see huge contracts not just for top domestic free agents like Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, but also for Cuban outfielder Yasmani Tomas and potential Japanese pitching import Kenta Maeda. GMs could trade for a player about to get expensive through arbitration or free agency and ink that player to a big extension. Second-tier free agents like David Robertson or Adam LaRoche could be in for paydays that seem crazy but simply reflect the amount of money burning a hole in teams' pockets.

Meet the New Boss


LOVE HIM, hate him, or a little of both, Bud Selig has been in charge of baseball for a long, long time. (When he took over as acting commissioner in 1992, Mike Trout was one-year-old.) By now fans know Selig's habits and approach by heart. After all that's happened in the two-plus decades of the Selig era—the 1994 strike, the All-Star Game tie, the steroid scandals, the wild-card game(s), instant replay, record revenues—there's about to be a new sheriff. What can fans expect from Rob Manfred? MLB's chief operating officer has publicly been quiet about what, if anything, he plans to do differently as commissioner. He was a longtime Selig lieutenant and ally, so it would be foolish to expect radical change (especially in regards to MLB's approach to issues around performance-enhancing drugs, as Manfred spearheaded MLB's response to the Biogenesis scandal). Still, after 22 solid years of Bud, even the introduction of new tie patterns will feel like a step into a brave new world.