Hot topics in the Valley of the Sun

For the past three years, I’ve had the privilege of traveling west to the Martian land of Arizona to attend Spring Training for my beloved Chicago Cubs. No matter the final standings from 2012, Spring Training is a magical time for every team. Previous victories and defeats are washed away, and for a few brief weeks, each organization is hopeful about the prospect of the new season.

As I prepare for another trip to Phoenix, I’m looking forward to seeing several intriguing Cactus League matchups. While lineups are never certain for preseason exhibitions, there are a variety of things worth observing during my time in the desert. On March 19, I will be at HoHoKam Stadium, where the Cubs will host the Texas Rangers. On March 20, I’ll see Chicago’s Southside team, when the White Sox take on the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Although this trip is intentionally baseball-centric, I will also be making a visit to the U.S. Airways Center to catch the enigmatic Los Angeles Lakers in action against the Phoenix Suns. Needless to say, I’m extremely excited about all of these contests, but here are some of the most intriguing storylines I’ll follow in each game:

Mon., March 18: Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns (NBA regular season)

Can the Lakers stay in playoff contention? 

Thanks to the astonishing and exemplary play of Kobe Bryant, the Lakers have somehow surfaced from the depths of the Western Conference standings into playoff contention. Should they hold on long enough to reach the postseason, Bryant could potentially carry the Lake Show from being a complete bust to a thrilling blockbuster hit. In a matchup with the lowly Suns, can Los Angeles avoid a disappointing defeat during the most crucial time of the year?

Suns play for Hunter’s future

After starting the season with an underwhelming 13-28 record, the Suns fired Alvin Gentry and appointed Lindsey Hunter as their interim head coach on Jan. 20. Phoenix has only managed a mediocre 9-14 mark under Hunter, but they have earned victories against several high caliber opponents such as the Clippers, Spurs, Grizzlies, Rockets and the aforementioned Lakers since his promotion. Hunter inherited a team without any marquee names, elite scoring options or an identity. If he can continue to guide them to victories over playoff-quality teams, Hunter will likely have the “interim” tag removed before long. Another win against the resurgent Lakers would certainly help his case.

Tues., March 19: Texas Rangers at Chicago Cubs (Cactus League)

The growth of the young Cubs core

In the organization’s second year under new management, led by President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer, a new era of Cubs baseball is underway in Chicago. Second-year manager Dale Sveum has a roster with a relatively young, yet talented core, featuring the likes of All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo. As the core of this team nears the prime of their respective careers, I’ll be looking to see how they’ve grown from last year. Equally as intriguing is the development of youngsters Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, both of whom will be tested against Major League competition.

How will the Rangers replace Hamilton?

Let’s face it: the Rangers are no longer the star-studded team that reached the World Series two out of the last three years. After the departure of Mike Napoli, the versatile Michael Young and ultra-talented Josh Hamilton, a great challenge looms for Texas in 2013. Hamilton’s value simply can’t be replaced, but with the arrival of veterans A.J. Pierzynski and Lance Berkman, perhaps they can come close to replicating Hamilton’s offensive production. Following a disappointing 2012 season and allegations of PED use, slugger Nelson Cruz needs a bounce-back year as much as anyone in baseball. Given the loss of Hamilton and others, manager Ron Washington is left to rely upon the likes of Cruz, Adrian Beltre and Ian Kinsler if the Rangers want to maintain their identity as an offensive power. I’m curious to see which guys will emerge for Texas this spring.

Wed., March 20: Arizona Diamondbacks at Chicago White Sox (Cactus League)

Will Sale’s big contract pay dividends?

After failing to hold onto their lead in the AL Central, the Sox missed the playoffs in 2012. In 2013, the Southsiders return a balanced pitching staff with veteran hurlers and young talent, led by left-hander Chris Sale. The Sox showed their commitment to Sale by awarding the 23 year-old with a five-year deal worth up to $60 million, so now it’s time to see if Sale can prove Chicago’s investment to be a wise decision. If Jake Peavy can stay healthy, the rotation looks promising, with John Danks and Philip Humber providing solid depth on the mound for Robin Ventura’s club. It’ll be interesting to see if the rotation can stay in tact through the spring with opening day drawing near.

Diamondbacks begin post-Upton era

When Arizona sent 25 year-old Justin Upton to Atlanta, the Diamondbacks made arguably the most pivotal move in the franchise’s young history. The former No. 1 overall pick was once expected to be the team’s cornerstone for many years to come, but his departure has now shifted the team’s identity in a different direction. The absence of Upton’s powerful bat in the middle of their order now places a greater responsibility on infielders Aaron Hill and newcomer Martin Prado. Just two years removed from inconceivably winning the NL West in Kirk Gibson’s first year at the helm, the Diamondbacks’ expectations for 2013 are unclear. If the third-year skipper can conjure some of the magic that led his team to a 94-68 record in 2011, perhaps Arizona can surprise the league once again.

The opportunity to see a variety of sporting events will surely make for a great trip to the Valley of the Sun. I’m anxious to follow each of these storylines as they play out.

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