— With the promise of no further references to sex, lies and videotaped partial confessions, we bring you a six-pack of pleasant and important issues to ponder as camps open. A performance-enhancing-drug-free celebration, if you will:
John Smoltz and Boston's comeback kids: No $423 million worth of cash outlays to free agents here. The big expenses made by the Red Sox this winter were to keep their two young stars — AL MVP Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis — in place.
Instead, they made a handful of potentially high-return investments, led by one of greatest competitors of this generation. Smoltz likely won't contribute until mid-season, but who's going to doubt that he has an effective stretch of starts left in him?
A bigger lift may be provided by Brad Penny. He's penciled in as the No. 4 starter, already has a successful side session under his belt, the first positive result of a shoulder re-strengthened by an exercise regimen. Signed at $5 million, and pitching for a new long-term deal, he could be one of the winter's best moves.
Meanwhile, Takashi Saito's elbow is pain-free for the moment, and his decision to put off surgery at age 39 appears to be the right one.
World Baseball Classic II: Long before a regular-season pitch is thrown, important games involving big-league stars will be played everywhere from Toronto to Tokyo, and San Juan to Mexico City.
When the preliminary rosters are whittled down, with the injury risks and the unmotivated left off, we will see if:
Who really are the Rays?: Is there a more-intriguing team than the defending AL champions? Can they possibly repeat after their shocking breakthrough 2008 season?
Positive signs include the signings of free agents Pat Burrell and Brian Shouse, a potentially high-reward trade for Matt Joyce, and the fact that they won last year with none of the position-player regulars having big seasons.
But the Yankees spent big to improve, the Red Sox are loaded, and there is the inevitable letdown to deal with after accomplishing the near-impossible.
Who could be this year's Rays?: Nobody — that's asking a bit too much. But there are some solid candidates for major improvements, led by the Indians, Diamondbacks and Royals.
Cleveland added Kerry Wood and Mark DeRosa, two important parts of the Cubs' 2008 success, and could get much bigger contributions from longtime stars Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez and Jake Westbrook.
Arizona has the best one-two, top-of-the rotation punch in the NL West, and rightfully expects continued career upswings from its core of young regulars — Stephen Drew, Conor Jackson, Chris Young, Mark Reynolds, Justin Upton and Chris Snyder.
Kansas City is more of a long shot to contend, but there is plenty of young talent on hand led by emerging star Zack Greinke.
Who is primed to disappoint?: The Blue Jays won 86 games last year behind some unexpectedly excellent pitching — 610 runs allowed, the fewest in the game. But A.J. Burnett is gone, Shawn Marcum is out for the year and Dustin McGowan will start the season on the disabled list.
Financial concerns kept them from addressing needs with anything besides waiver-wire additions — meanwhile the three AL East powers improved on paper in the off-season.
And the White Sox didn't really succeed in shedding their too-old-and-too slow lineup, making a first-to-last fall a possibility in what should be a tightly-packed AL Central.
New cathedrals: News of Tommy Lasorda making the bus trip from Dodger Stadium to the new Camelback Ranch complex in Glendale, Ariz., marks one of the game's biggest spring venue changes.
The Dodgers now train about five hours from their fan base, not three time zones away in legendary Dodgertown. And the Indians already have christened the new, $108-million complex in Goodyear, Ariz., where they will be joined by the Cincinnati Reds next spring. (Which begs the question, shouldn't the two Ohio teams train in the Phoenix suburb of Buckeye, instead?)
But those moves pale in significance to the first-ever, one-city-two-new-baseball-stadiums transition that will occur in the Big Apple. Home openers for each: Mets — Monday, April 13th vs. San Diego; Yankees — Thursday, April 16th vs. Cleveland.
A: I wrote a column a few days ago elsewhere on this site that pointed out potential dilemmas ahead for Hall of Fame voters as more and more players from the Steroids Era reach the ballot.
The evidence is in on a few — and we can add Alex Rodriguez to that list now — but what about the Hall-caliber players who are only suspected of use?
We all know how Mark McGwire's candidacy is going — three years on the ballot and only about 20-25 percent approval. But the fact is, McGwire never flunked a drug test that we know about, and wasn't part of the Mitchell Report's accused list.
In a similar vein, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza are two upcoming candidates (first ballot appearance in 2013 for both of them), and what do we do with them?
The questions are very difficult ones, and I can tell you that as a voter, something I long have considered to be a tremendous privilege has now become a tedious task, and one that I'm not all that comfortable with.
Lest we forget, Pete Rose never got on the ballot. Hall voters never got a chance to pass judgment on his candidacy. But now we are being forced to do so when it's impossible to know for sure who did what, unless they confess.
Most voters — myself included — aren't voting for McGwire on suspicion alone — and plan on not voting for any of the suspected or proven users.
But a select few voters are saying that since the era was so significantly tainted, they are voting for McGwire, and plan on voting for all the best players of the era.
That line of thinking could grow in legitimacy as more and more user revelations come to light — although I don't believe most fans are going to buy that argument.
Here are two other options to consider: The BBWAA voters come up with a set of guidelines on how to specifically judge Steroids Era candidates; or, they get out of the process entirely, and let the Hall of Fame come up with its own committee to do the selecting.
A: Since they traded Coco Crisp to the Royals in November, I don't think the Red Sox have entertained any thoughts about dealing Ellsbury, Malcohm. I'm sure there are plenty of teams who would be interested in Ellsbury, but he's staying put for awhile.
The 25-year-old quickly has become a key to the Red Sox's offense. In his first full season, all Ellsbury did was lead the AL in stolen bases with 50 (in 61 attempts), score 98 runs and post a .280 batting average. And we can't forget his 2007 postseason, when he went 9-for-25 (.360) with eight runs scored.
The plan this season is for Ellsbury to be anchored in center field, flanked by Jason Bay and J.D. Drew, with Rocco Baldelli and Jonathan Van Avery in reserve. That will represent a change from 2008, when Ellsbury started 58 times in left, 36 times in right and 66 times in center.
And of course, Ellsbury will hit leadoff in front of reigning AL MVP Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, Bay, Drew, Mike Lowell, Jason Varitek and Julio Lugo or Jed Lowrie.
With a six-man rotation including Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Brad Penny, Tim Wakefield, and eventually John Smoltz, plus a deeper bullpen than in 2008, the Sox are my pick to win the AL pennant.
A: It's not that difficult to pick the Angels to win the AL West, given a lack of strong competition. While I feel the Oakland A's will be a better team than in 2008, I don't see them having enough pitching to hang with the Angels. And you can forget about the Rangers and Mariners contending.
As for the Angels, there is room for criticism of their offseason. Just add it up: Teixeira, Frankie Rodriguez, Jon Garland, Garret Anderson: gone. And the only additions are Brian Fuentes and Bobby Abreu.
But the Angels do things a bit differently than other elite teams, and can afford to because they keep bringing quality players through their player development pipeline.
A couple of keys to continued success are Kendry Morales establishing himself at first base and in the middle of the order, and Juan Rivera and/or Gary Matthews Jr. stepping up and having a big year. And maybe it's finally time to see if Brandon Wood can play every day at the big-league level.
Nothing against the excitable K-Rod, but the bullpen should be fine without him. The rotation is only four-deep instead of five, but Kelvim Escobar could contribute later in the season.
Overall, I think the Angels win the West comfortably, but with 8-10 fewer wins than the 100 mark they attained last season. But what the Angels need to do is figure out how to succeed in the postseason.
That's the only thing missing for one of the game's best-run franchise over the last decade. But that appears to be even more difficult at this point, given moves made by the AL East powers.