Intriguing matchups on tap as season nears
New faces in new places, like Prince in Detroit, prepare to debut
Now that football has played its big game, baseball fans have dozens and dozens of big games to look forward to during a 2012 season that will reflect major changes made this winter.
With the Super Bowl decided, the race for the World Series begins. With the countdown to pitchers and catchers inside two weeks, the A's-Mariners opener in Japan on March 28 and all the others opening April 4-5-6 aren't too far over the horizon.
From then on, big game after big game will pop up all over the country, all over the standings, over and over again. After a winter of change, the first half of the season will be dotted with games that reflect that change.
Here's a glance at some of the games on tap early in the season that will showcase some of what occurred this winter:
March 28: On Tokyo time -- American baseball becomes yakyu with a two-game series in Tokyo that will feature Ichiro's return to Japan. He'll be leading the Mariners, who toyed with the idea of going after Prince Fielder this winter, against an A's team hardly recognizable from the end of last season after a flurry of trades that sent starters Gio Gonzalez (Washington) and Trevor Cahill (Arizona) and closer Andrew Bailey (Boston) elsewhere.
First pitch, 6 a.m. ET.
April 4: Welcome to Miami -- Now that they signed all their new talent, it'll be time for the Marlins to show off their sparkling new venue in Miami. With the Marlins meeting the defending World Series champion Cardinals for the solo opener on national TV, something in the air and about $200 million spent this winter suggests this grand opening might be particularly spectacular.
April 5, 6: Open for business -- Prince Fielder's debut at Tiger Stadium in the defending American League Central champions' home opener gets one transplanted slugger started. Tigers ace Justin Verlander takes his MVP/Cy Young Award double out to the mound against the Red Sox on a day of seven openers.
Then, Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson make their debut under the halo when the Angels host their opener against the Royals as part of a nine-game slate on April 6. After that, it's on with full schedules most days until October.
April 9-12: Yu-Ichi, we scratchie -- The first full week of the regular season brings potential for a matchup between Japanese baseball's greatest Major Leaguer and the next big thing. The Rangers' Yu Darvish might get a chance to meet his old World Baseball Classic teammate Ichiro in Spring Training, but this four-game set with the Mariners could include a milestone matchup that counts.
April 13: Where's Albert? -- As the remainder of the teams open up their home schedules the following week, the Cardinals will be on the field at Busch Stadium for the first time since they piled on it as World Series champions. Of course, they'll also be there for the first time without Pujols, who will be at the Yankees' lid-lifter in the Bronx along with the rest of the Angels.
April 17: Hardware conference -- Defending NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and MVP runner-up Matt Kemp will lead the Dodgers into Miller Park to face the Brewers. The question remains whether defending MVP Ryan Braun will be playing, or serving a possible 50-game suspension under Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. That issue is currently being appealed.
April 24: Reyes returns -- Jose Reyes didn't surprise anyone by leaving the Mets, who didn't really pursue the shortstop they'd groomed into an All-Star. When the Marlins hit Citi Field for the first time in 2012, Reyes will be wearing a new and (very) different uniform.
April 26: How you managing? -- When the Red Sox visit the White Sox for the first time this season, two new managers in different senses of the word will meet. Bobby Valentine managed Robin Ventura for three years while both were with the Mets, but now Valentine will be bringing his veteran managerial chops to the plate for the Red Sox against rookie skipper Ventura and the White Sox.
They're part of the turnover of seven managers since Opening Day 2011, which includes former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen moving to Miami, Dale Sveum taking charge of the Cubs and Mike Matheny in his rookie season with the Cardinals.
May 4: Bell tolls in SD -- He thought he was gone last July 31, but it took awhile longer. Closer Heath Bell will be back on the mound at PETCO Park in a Marlins uniform.
May 11: Howdy, C.J. -- The SoCal boy went home for millions after helping the Rangers to consecutive World Series appearances. This isn't just a chance for Wilson to reunite with Rangers players and fans, and perhaps for Mike Napoli to ask his former Angels buds how their October went last year. It's also an early barometer for what this winter's moves have wrought. Is a C.J.-Yu matchup too much to ask?
Also that day, the Mariners begin a three-game set in the Bronx that provides a chance to face Michael Pineda, the man-child they traded to the Yankees for top catching prospect Jesus Montero.
May 18: Pap vs. Papi? -- With Jonathan Papelbon having moved his closing talents from the Red Sox to the Phillies, he'll have a chance to meet his former Red Sox teammates -- including David Ortiz, who accepted arbitration rather than finding another home as a free agent.
June 15: Theo hosts Sox -- Maybe it's a bit too much to preview a team visiting its former general manager. But there was always drama with Theo Epstein and the Red Sox -- along with two World Series rings -- so why not with this Boston visit to Wrigley Field, where Epstein hopes to bring a ring to the Cubs and their fans?
July 6: Buehrle homecoming -- No, the Marlins aren't playing the White Sox -- although he'll visit Chicago in July a little north of Comiskey. This is Mark Buehrle returning to his hometown of St. Louis, where everyone seemed to think he'd land once he became a free agent. Buehrle's a lot more southpaw than South Beach, but Miami's his baseball home the next four years.
Of course, those are just some of the big games affected by offseason changes, not all the big games on tap.
There are a couple of World Series rematches on the Interleague slate, too. Slugger Jose Bautista and the Jays welcome the Braves, their opponent in the 1992 Series, on June 8, and the Giants and Angels reprise their 2002 Series matchup on June 18. Also in Interleague Play, there will be homecomings, from Zack Greinke heading back to Kansas City with the Brewers and Giants ace Tim Lincecum having the opportunity to pitch in his hometown of Seattle in Interleague Play in mid-June.
And there are the matchups we've come to know over the years, like Red Sox-Yankees starting their 18-game season series on April 20, and Rangers-Angels starting theirs on May 11. A new ownership debuts in Houston, a new ballpark becomes reality in Miami and the All-Star Game will grace Kansas City on July 10.
Big games? We've got 'em, and now that the Super Bowl has passed, there's a ton of them to look forward to this summer.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.