BRADENTON, Fla. -- A little over a week ago, a bunch of middle-age dreamers were running through the fields in the team's annual Fantasy Camp.
On Monday, the real ballplayers began their own fantasy camp at Pirate City, turning the key on Spring Training '13 with dreams of a winning season and of the playoff berth that slipped through their grasp the last two years.
It was merely check-in day -- the first formal workout for pitchers and catchers comes Tuesday morning -- but already more than 40 players took the field on Monday, basking in sunshine and 80 degrees.
Of the 38 batterymen, the only ones not yet in house were catcher Ali Solis and pitchers Jeff Karstens and Stolmy Pimentel. Conversely, position players -- not due to report until Thursday -- already on the field included Garrett Jones, Clint Barmes, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley, Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez.
The first full-squad workout will be on Friday, but just about everyone is expected to beat that deadline.
They have come by truck, by train and by plane to congregate under the clear skies and palms of the crucible of another season, to take another aim at 82: The number of wins that would secure the team's first winning season since 1992.
Reinforcements have been brought in for the next charge up Mount .500.
They are paced by catcher Russell Martin, who showed up with the perfect line to greet an occasion that fills everyone with the promise offered by the baseball horizon.
"The sun is shining, skies are blue and baseball is starting," Martin said, "so I feel good about it."
Also happy to be here was left-hander Francisco Liriano, who, once rehabbed from his right arm fracture, offers the hope of being this spring's A.J. Burnett.
Burnett appeared a year ago, off his 5.13-ERA season of 2011 and after having been 21-26 with an ERA of 5.20 the previous two seasons -- and lit up the National League Central as the Bucs' ace.
Now Liriano escapes the same American League after his 5.34 ERA season of 2012 and after having gone 15-22 with an ERA of 5.23 the last two seasons. How much lightning can that bottle hold?
Of course, Burnett is back, although don't look for him in any bunting tournaments. As are starters Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald and Karstens, and key relievers Jason Grilli, Jared Hughes and Tony Watson.
But there are enough new faces to turn reporting day into a meet-and-greet clubhouse affair. Of the 38 batterymen, both rostered and non-roster invitees, over half -- 20 -- are starting their first Spring Training with the Bucs. That number includes prospects attending their first big league camp -- such as right-hander Jameson Taillon and catcher Tony Sanchez -- and offseason acquisitions.
General manager Neal Huntington's biggest acquisition, Martin, came early, and he ventured into blockbuster territory with the late-December trade of Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt to Boston for a quartet headlined by reliever Mark Melancon and slugging prospect Jerry Sands.
Around those high-profile moves, the influx was almost non-stop, right down to the confirmation of Liriano. Another veteran lefty, Jonathan Sanchez, beat Liriano through the door by a few days; Sanchez will be in camp as one of the non-roster guys pitching for a spot on the staff.
Lefty Jeff Locke and right-hander Kyle McPherson, frontrunners for spots in the rotation prior to the offseason machinations, hope not to get lost amid all the veteran candidates. They dream of keeping the jobs they had going down to the 2012 wire.
Dream? They came to the perfect place to do it.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less