Spring is in the air as camps prepare for arrival of players

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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 after 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.

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.

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, who lost Lackey and third baseman Chone Figgins left for big free-agent deals, but the Angels signed World Series MVP Hideki Matsui.


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