10 hottest flashpoints for 2013 season

Charlie Manuel's future with the Philadelphia Phillies is cloudy after this season. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Jim Leyland wore a small smile last week as he talked about team chemistry. He said if you win, you've got a great clubhouse, but if you lose, then it's said you have a bad clubhouse.

He's right, of course. Almost everything else follows success and failure, and there are some situations in baseball this season -- let's call them the Tinderbox Ten -- that could be inflamed this year, depending on how events play out.

Here are the 10 most inflammatory situations in baseball in 2013:

1. Charlie Manuel's status with the Philadelphia Phillies

Manuel made it clear recently that he'd like to continue managing beyond 2013. But his contract is set to expire this fall, and general manager Ruben Amaro isn't ready to commit beyond this season. From The Associated Press:

    "We'll see what happens at the end of the year and go from there," Amaro said.

    Manuel isn't one to make demands, but it seems he's a bit peeved.

    "I'm not disappointed in it at all. I don't know if I get it or not," Manuel said. "I think they can do whatever they want to do. That's how I look at it. Actually, when you get right down to it, it doesn't bother me a whole lot because I have nothing to do with it. If you stop and think about it, I don't have nothing to do with it. I mean that in a good way."

On top of that, there is a perception that Manuel's heir apparent -- Ryne Sandberg -- is already on the big league coaching staff, something Amaro has flatly denied.

Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are having good springs, and on paper, the Phillies have the easiest early-season schedule in the National League. But Roy Halladay is struggling like crazy to find his old stuff, and if the Phillies start slowly -- at a time when the team is in win-now mode -- Manuel's situation may well come to a head. It's not exactly a secret in baseball that Manuel and Amaro are not the closest of pals.

2. The battle for the L.A. area market

The respective ownerships of the Dodgers and Angels have made no secret of the fact that they have spent big dollars to win immediately -- not in 2014, not in 2017. It's playoffs or bust. The Dodgers have more than doubled their payroll in less than a year, including the signing of the most expensive free agent of the winter in Zack Greinke, and the Angels signed the second-most-expensive free agent, Josh Hamilton. And the Angels signed Hamilton just a year after signing Albert Pujols in their ongoing market fight with the Dodgers.

So there will be enormous pressure on these two teams to win, which will be exacerbated if one of them is winning and the other is losing.

If the Angels or Dodgers are struggling, could it mean the manager is in trouble? Could it mean that one or both teams could move swiftly to make changes with players or staff? We'll see.

But failure will be met with change, in some form, because losing just won't be accepted benignly.

The Angels' pitching this spring has not been good, Mike Scioscia acknowledged. Rival evaluators think their rotation is extremely thin.

3. Yunel Escobar and the Tampa Bay Rays

The shortstop and his new teammates are in the honeymoon phase -- everybody is saying the right things, everybody seems happy with the new arrangement. And it's very possible that this will continue, because Escobar has to understand how much he has at stake to make this relationship work, and because the Rays are known to have a relatively easy and tolerant work environment.

But if Escobar regresses, and his demeanor and play become an issue, it's hard to imagine the Rays are going to be especially patient. Escobar's reputation precedes him, the Rays don't have a lot of money invested in him and they've got other guys who can play shortstop. There is every reason for Escobar to be on his best behavior -- but that was the case in Atlanta and Toronto, as well.

4. Mark Appel and the Houston Astros

Last year, the Astros' strategy was to draft high school shortstop Carlos Correa at No. 1 overall and sign him for a modest bonus of $4.8 million, and then use the savings to be more aggressive in other parts of their draft. The Astros may have actually rated Appel higher than Correa, but opted to go with the shortstop as part of their overall draft plan.

But this year, Appel -- now a senior at Stanford, after rejecting an offer from Pittsburgh last year -- is viewed as the clear No. 1 of the draft by Keith Law, who notes there may be a gap between Appel and others in the draft class, such as Jonathan Gray of Oklahoma.

So the question for the Astros is this: Will they draft Appel at No. 1, knowing that the negotiations could be a major wrestling match? Appel, who is represented by Scott Boras, won't have the same kind of leverage he did last year, given that he cannot simply return to college -- but he could take the longer track of refusing their offer and threatening to play independent league baseball.

In referring to the Astros' strategy earlier this week as part of comments about the compensation system, Boras was not complimentary.

    "The integrity of the game has been compromised," Boras told USA TODAY Sports. "What baseball has done, it has created a dynamic where draft dollars are affecting the major leaguers. Teams are constructing clubs to be non-competitive, like Houston and Miami, so they can position themselves where they can get more draft dollars. Clubs are trying to finish last to create more draft dollars. And this dramatically affects the wild-card and major league standings."

    Certainly, the American League West greatly benefits having the low-budget Astros joining the division this year. The Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners will play 22 to 23 games against the Astros and Chicago Cubs -- who combined for 208 losses last year -- giving them a potentially huge advantage in the wild-card races.

    "The integrity of the game," Boras says, "is very damaged by this system. Draft dollars is the latest currency for GMs. And the best way to earn draft dollars is to sabotage your major league team and finish last."

If the Astros pick Appel, the subsequent negotiations could be a big-time showdown.

5. Nolan Ryan's standing with the Rangers

This standoff has been playing out for weeks, and some friends of Ryan believe he will walk away. There is a perception among rival officials that some staffers working under general manager Jon Daniels want Ryan out. From the outside looking in, the whole thing seems a little silly.

Ryan hasn't significantly undercut the Rangers' baseball operations planning to the point that he's shoving them out of the way. Anybody under Daniels who is frustrated with Ryan should stand down because, well, he's Nolan Ryan, with a long history in Texas and with the Rangers. If Ryan sometimes gets a little more credit than he deserves, big deal.

And on the other side, it's not exactly clear what Ryan is looking for, because he doesn't seem interested in doing all the day-to-day heavy lifting. Daniels and his staff does that. Does Ryan want more authority? Or just some? And is all of that so important that he'd walk away from the team?

We'll see.

6. The New York Yankees' summer of reckoning

I wrote here the other day about all that is at stake this season for Hal Steinbrenner, following the winter of austerity.

7. The Toronto Blue Jays

The expectations are very high in Canada after the Blue Jays invested a ton of money in this year's makeover, and as is the case with all teams in the AL East, their weaknesses could take them down. The Rays should have an excellent bullpen, and the Orioles, Yankees and Red Sox may all have strong bullpens. The Jays, on the other hand, have major question marks, given the health concerns of Casey Janssen, Sergio Santos and others, and they don't have a lot of depth. Ricky Romero may be the first to find out that the pressure has been turned up: He really struggled last year and he is having problems again this spring. Plus, GM Alex Anthopoulos seemed to hint the other day that Romero's spot in the rotation isn't assured. This will not be a business-as-usual summer in Toronto.

8. Giancarlo Stanton and the Miami Marlins

The slugger expressed his frustration with the Marlins' operations last fall after the massive trade with Toronto. But he's kept his feelings under wraps this spring, speaking positively about the year ahead. His patience will be challenged this season, however, because there seems to be absolutely no reason for any opposing pitcher to throw him strikes, given that the guy hitting behind him could be either Casey Kotchman or Placido Polanco. Stanton is a smart guy, which gives him a better chance to cope with the long summer likely ahead of him. But there will be a day when his relationship with the Marlins reaches a head -- perhaps when they push him to sign a long-term deal.

9. Johan Santana and the New York Mets

They are headed for a divorce after a contractual marriage that hasn't played out the way either side envisioned. Santana has been hurt, and as he enters the last year of his contract with the team, he's dealing with arm issues again.

It's going to be important for the two sides to communicate regularly and respectfully to try to bring this relationship to a graceful conclusion. But as we saw earlier in spring training, there is major potential for ugliness.

Santana doesn't know when he'll pitch again.

10. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals

The Reds and Tigers will go into the season as strong favorites to win their respective divisions, so it's not as if the fans in Pittsburgh and Kansas City expect their teams to roll into the playoffs. But there is a strong desire for marked improvement -- for the Pirates, to finally climb at least to .500, after 20 straight losing seasons, and for the Royals, to contend all summer. The Pirates have some hope on the horizon, given the young pitching they have hoarded in their farm system, and Kansas City spent to significantly upgrade its pitching, adding James Shields, Wade Davis and Ervin Santana to a rotation that already includes Jeremy Guthrie.

But the early-season schedule for each team is absolutely brutal -- here in the blog, we rated Pittsburgh's early schedule as the toughest in the NL, and the Royals have the toughest early schedule in the AL. For example, from April 29 to June 2, 29 of the 32 games Kansas City plays will be against teams that had records over .500 last year.

If the Pirates and the Royals can get through that first stretch with a record close to .500, they could be set up for a summer of fun. If not, there could be ramifications.

News and notes

• St. Louis closer Jason Motte will open the season on the disabled list. From Derrick Goold's story:

    Motte pitched a scoreless inning against the Mets on Thursday in Port St. Lucie, Fla. His last pitch zipped at 97 mph, and he was able to complete his post-appearance work without any discomfort or hints of trouble. On the bus ride back to Jupiter, he felt his arm tighten up and the elbow seized when he tried to extend his arm to set his phone down. The Cardinals sent Motte for an MRI scan on Friday, and the results of it were read by the team's medical staff.

    The MRI showed what [GM John] Mozeliak called a "mild" strain of the tendon, or a Grade 1 strain. The MRI did not reveal any damage to the ligament, Mozeliak said.

Pablo Sandoval suffered a setback.

Jesus Montero was whacked in the head.

• In a story this week for ESPN The Magazine, I wrote about how Joey Votto is an omnivore, guessing on pitches -- breaking balls, changeup, fastballs. Watch what he does here, in sitting on a slow curveball from Yu Darvish. Darvish wasn't sure why Votto gestured.

• Halladay is facing a new reality, writes Jayson Stark. It's a chess match, writes Matt Gelb.

From Gelb's story:

    When asked to evaluate Halladay's performance, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said he would not discuss it. He then added, "He was OK. He got his work in."

• The high percentage of cut fastballs being thrown by the Mets' Jon Niese has raised eyebrows among rival evaluators. There has always been concern that pitchers who rely heavily on cutters will sometimes lose velocity.

• Officials say Boras continues to ask for $14 million to $15 million a year from those interested in Kyle Lohse.

Julio Teheran continues to have a great spring.

The fight for jobs

1. The Phillies sent Darin Ruf to the minors.

2. The Nationals have two No. 1-caliber catchers, and they will split the playing time, writes Adam Kilgore.

3. Francisco Cervelli has emerged as the No. 1 catcher for the Yankees.

4. The Orioles have a ton of candidates for the No. 5 spot in their rotation. They optioned Zach Britton to the minors.

This is part of the reason why I picked the Orioles to win the AL East: They somehow have developed a culture in which most or all of the players understand and embrace the idea that they will get opportunities, and if they fail, the team will try somebody else. This is not common, and it allows the Orioles to have great flexibility in maneuvering from game to game.

Britton's response to being sent down, detailed here by Roch Kubatko, was exactly what a team would hope for:

    "It's disappointing, but I think you understand it's a fierce competition and guys have thrown better than me. Plain and simple," Britton said. "I have some things I need to get better at. Coming off that injury last year, I still feel like there are some adjustments that need to be made and it's easier to do that down there than the big league level. Especially because we want to win right off the bat. Hopefully, spend a month down there, get everything straightened out and then help the team. And I feel like that's more beneficial, rather than starting with the team and struggling and not feeling right. I think it's beneficial and I'm going to use it that way."

No excuses, no casting blame, complete accountability. This is how the Orioles' culture has evolved.

5. Chris Getz won the Royals' second-base job, over Johnny Giavotella.

6. A couple of newcomers figure to be on the Tigers' roster.

7. Scott Kazmir had a tough day.

8. Casey Coleman was upset about being sent down.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. The Yankees officially announced the Chien-Ming Wang deal.

2. Ron Roenicke is looking for some bench help.

3. The Cubs are looking for infield help, writes Jesse Rogers.

4. The Marlins signed an infielder.

5. The Rays cut a veteran.

6. The Astros are expected to sign Ronny Cedeno.

7. The Athletics signed a 6-foot-8 first baseman.

Dings and dents

1. Stephen Strasburg took a liner off his left wrist.

2. Derek Jeter doesn't want to talk about his ankle anymore, Mark Feinsand writes. He did not look good on the bases, writes George King.

3. And so it goes for the Twins: A promising pitcher is hurt.

4. A White Sox pitcher is encouraged.

5. Another Marlins prospect got hurt.

6. Chad Billingsley may or may not be ready to open the season.

Saturday's games

1. Torii Hunter stole a home run.

2. A Dodgers sensation ruined a Jake Peavy outing.

3. Tim Lincecum is really struggling.

NL East

Jayson Werth is making a lasting impression with the Nationals.

John Buck is mentoring the Mets' pitchers.

NL Central

James McDonald is the ultimate professional.

Jay Bell is hoping to help the Pirates' offense.

Derrick Robinson is turning heads in the Reds' camp.

NL West

Magic Johnson says he's excited about Yasiel Puig.

The Diamondbacks added some veterans.

After 20 years, the Rockies are trying to solve the same pitching problems, writes Patrick Saunders.

Carlos Quentin is making progress.

Kevin Acee is fighting to believe in the Padres.

AL East

Kevin Youkilis talks about his swing in this Q and A.

Daniel Bard is in his own Catch-22.

J.P. Arencibia has faith in Romero, writes Mike Rutsey.

The Blue Jays loom as World Series contenders, writes Richard Griffin.

David Price is looking to regain his feel.

AL Central

Asdrubal Cabrera is slimmer, Terry Pluto writes in this piece.

Miguel Sano is getting Hall of Fame help.

AL West

Carlos Pena is not focused on his move to DH.

Rangers fans are keeping the faith, writes Randy Galloway.

Other stuff

• Dan Shaughnessy declares the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry dead.

• John Henry opened up in an exchange of emails with Steve Buckley.

• Stuart Sternberg is among the DH haters, writes Roger Mooney.

• Baseball's lawsuit against the Miami PED clinic is a thinly veiled shot at Ryan Braun, writes Jeff Blair.

And today will be better than yesterday.