Baseball is on its way. The Superbowl has been and gone, MLB.TV subscription details have been announced and teams are starting to head to their Spring Training camps in Arizona or Florida.
The long winter months are tough to get through, but weâ€™re over the worst of it and can now look ahead to what is certain to be another incredible MLB season.
Iâ€™ve been covering MLB in a weekly column, â€˜Weekly Hit Ground Ballâ€™, since 2007 and will do so again in 2014. Itâ€™s undergone various format changes over the years to hopefully keep it fresh, including changing from being published on a Sunday to a Monday.
This season as standard Iâ€™ll be going almost full circle and returning to something close to the initial format where I used the column to bring together all of the major stories, plus other things that caught my eye, in one bundle.
That approach is going to be flexible, so if one major story dominates the news agenda in a given week then Iâ€™ll devote the entire column to that, but by and large Iâ€™ll try to touch plenty of bases in the column and will chip in with a post or two during the rest of the week if a particular story deserves to be covered there and then rather than waiting for Monday (or Sunday, as Iâ€™ll occasionally be putting it online a day earlier, such as this weekend).
With that explained, letâ€™s head on to the main stories of the last few days.
I mentioned last week that I had picked up the Baseball Prospectus 2014 book and the first two team essays â€“ on Arizona and Atlanta â€“ have proved quite prescient.
The Diamondbacks were the first team to open their Spring Training camp due to their participation in the early MLB season opener in Australia.
The BP essay focused on the futures of General Manager Kevin Towers and Manager Kirk Gibson. Both were due to enter this season with only one year remaining on their contracts and with some question marks over whether they would be with the team in 2015.
It was thought that they would need to use the 2014 season as an extended trial to prove they were the men to take the team forward in the coming years; however those thoughts were pushed aside this week as both received contract extensions.
The D-Backs are in an interesting position having finished dead on .500 in each of the last two seasons and with the Dodgersâ€™ spending making them strong favourites for the NL West division again.
Arizona need to find a way to take the next step and to push for a Wild Card spot and if they donâ€™t it would call into question whether the contract extensions, Gibsonâ€™s in particular, were a good decision. Acting early does at least mean there will be no distractions if the season doesnâ€™t start brilliantly for them, so in that sense clearing up the issue could work in their favour.
Arizona have improved their chances of a mounting a decent challenge by agreeing to a two-year deal with Bronson Arroyo. Their starting rotation was in need of support and Arroyoâ€™s brand of solid if unspectacular work should meet the need well.
Eight years for Freeman
The Atlanta Bravesâ€™ chapter in BP 2014 centred on their young core of players and impending dilemmas the team would face in trying to keep hold of as many as possible.
Stage one in that process was completed this week as the team agreed an eight-year, $135m contract extension with first baseman Freddie Freeman. Itâ€™s the most lucrative contract in the teamâ€™s history and shows how much faith they have in the 24-year-old.
His age is crucial to the deal for the Braves. Freeman finished fifth in the NL MVP voting process last season and yet you could have a long argument over whether heâ€™s really an elite young player worthy of $135m or â€˜justâ€™ a very good one. The key point is that either way it represents good value because the Braves are going to be paying that money when heâ€™s in his prime.
The Braves also agreed a two-year, $13.3m deal with outfielder Jason Heyward. He was already under contract with the team for those years, and it may prove difficult for Atlanta to keep hold of him beyond this point, but this at least puts to bed any arbitration wrangling.
There are still a number of free agents who donâ€™t yet know which Spring Training camp they will be heading to.
It was presumed that A.J. Burnett would be staying at home and beginning retirement, but in the past couple of weeks it has emerged that he fancies giving it at least one more year. A return to the Pirates does not appear to be on the cards, leaving the Orioles, Phillies and Blue Jays as the likely main contenders for his signature.
Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana are also on the radar of teams seeking an additional starting pitcher. Jimenez has been heavily linked with a move to Toronto although no deal has been struck just yet.
Fernando Rodney reportedly has found a new team in time for the beginning of Spring Training after agreeing a two-year contract with the Mariners.
Seattle are also seen as the team keenest to end outfielder Nelson Cruzâ€™s stay on the free agent market. Â Cruz has been characterised as the booby prize this offseason with the assumption being that one team desperate for a right-handed bat will hand the 33-year-old a multi-year contract theyâ€™ll soon come to regret.
After taking their $240m plunge with Robinson Cano thereâ€™s a sense that the Mariners need to add at least one more bat to the mix in 2014 and that they may be the team to pay Cruz.
Sadly itâ€™s always only a matter of time in Spring Training before a pitcherâ€™s season is cut cruelly short before it has even begun as their elbow gives way and Tommy John surgery is required.
This springâ€™s first victim, the Padresâ€™ Cory Luebke, is doubly unfortunate as he is undergoing the operation for a second time after his recovery from the first operation didnâ€™t go to plan. Luebke has been out of action since May 2012 and it will be 2015 before he has any chance of getting back out onto the field.
Good news at last
Finally, that rarest of things: a news story about Alex Rodriguez that is good for baseball. Rodriguez has dropped his lawsuit and accepted a season-long ban for his alleged part in the Biogenesis drug case. The game didnâ€™t need the sideshow of an ongoing bitter legal dispute this year and we can now all concentrate on positive news such as the teams heading back to Spring Training camps.