MLB: The 5 Biggest Opening Day X-Factors
As Opening Day for Major League Baseball approaches (not counting the two-game series in Japan), every team, no matter how they look on paper, has a shot to win it all.
Getting off on the right foot and winning on Opening Day, while not crucial to a team's success, can go a long way towards building momentum, especially for clubs whose expectations for the 2012 season may be on the lower side.
As with any team, there is always an "X-factor" or wild card that can change the outcome of anything from one game to an entire season. These players can be anyone from a superstar returning from injury or an "off" season, to a young player trying to make a name for himself, yet somehow can find that his performance, or lack there of, will be directly related to his team's performance.
Who will be the biggest X-factors this Opening Day? Who will surprise, disappoint, help or hurt their teams as the 2012 season begins?
Josh Johnson, Miami Marlins
Marlins' ace Josh Johnson looks to comeback strong after an injury-shortened 2011 season.
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Josh Johnson is an ace, and one of the best pitchers in baseball, period.
He also has been one of the most injury-prone pitchers in baseball, as well. In fact, Johnson has made 30 starts in a season only once (2009) in seven big league seasons, and is coming off of a year in which he didn't even make it past the month of May before his season was over.
Johnson has looked great so far this spring, and is penciled in as Miami's Opening Day starter against the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals. Therefore, a good start could not only get the Fish off to a good start in what looks to be one of the tougher divisions in baseball, but could also make people begin to forget about all those injury concerns.
Expectations haven't been this big for the Marlins since Bobby Bonilla was in the outfield, and any chance they have of meeting them will ride on Josh Johnson's arm as much as it will on anyone else.
Adam Dunn, Chicago White Sox
Adam Dunn switched leagues in 2011, and had the worst year of his career. Can he bounce back in 2012?
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Any time a team gets a player who is in the midst of an eight consecutive season streak of belting at least 38 home runs and 90 RBI, they are probably planning on him being a huge part of their offense.
When that player struggles to the tune of 11 home runs, 42 RBI and a .159 batting average, needless to say, the team is going to struggle.
Such is the case of Adam Dunn, whose disastrous 2011 campaign was a large part of the Chicago White Sox finishing below .500.
Dunn has been too good for too long to just totally fall off the face of the earth, but there are concerns if he will continue to struggle in the American League, and as a designated hitter.
Dunn has bounced back so far this spring, and if the rebuilding White Sox are going to surprise anyone this year, Adam Dunn is going to have to rediscover his stroke. If this former feared slugger has another pedestrian campaign, Chicago has no chance to compete, even in the AL Central.
Johan Santana, New York Mets
A healthy Johan Santana could be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dreadful 2012 season in Queens.
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It's no secret that the New York Mets are going to be one of the worst teams in baseball in 2012, but Mets fans got a bit of great news when it was announced earlier in the week that not only would ace pitcher Johan Santana be ready for Opening Day, he'd also be starting.
Who knows what to expect from an aging pitcher who hasn't pitched in nearly 18 months, but Santana is one of the few names fans can cling to on this Mets roster. Even with all of his question marks, he is one of the only reliable pitchers on the entire Mets staff.
Santana's name alone makes the Mets more credible, and if he can be anywhere close to the pitcher he was during his first two seasons in Queens, he will go a long way towards helping the Mets surprise some people.
Even if Santana were to return to his Cy Young form, he's not making the Mets a contender, but at the very least, he can help the Mets get a much needed win on Opening Day, and give the fans something worth paying for every fifth day.
Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, Minnesota Twins
Minnesota's former MVP's look to bounce back after numerous injuries limited them in 2011.
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No team, not even the mighty Yankees, could lose two-thirds of the heart of their lineup, let alone two former MVP winners, and expect to still be contenders.
It's no secret that Minnesota's offense struggled mightily without Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer for most of last year. When healthy, they are two of the best players in baseball at their positions, and two of the most complete hitters in the game.
The problem is, neither was healthy last year. Mauer started the season hurt. Then he returned, only to watch Morneau suffer a concussion whose symptoms would persist all season. Mauer was able to play in only 82 games in 2011, and Morneau, who hasn't played in a full season since 2009, played in just 69.
Both players have been healthy and playing this spring, and both look to be ready to be in the lineup for Opening Day. Just being in the lineup at the same time is a huge step forward for the Twins' former MVPs, and if they can stay there and produce anywhere close to what they had in the past, the Twins will be successful beginning on Opening Day.
Alfredo Aceves, Boston Red Sox
With new closer Andrew Bailey out until the All Star break, Alfredo Aceves will be asked to take the ninth inning for a team that expects to return to the playoffs in 2012.
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Alfredo Aceves may be the biggest Opening Day X-factor in baseball in 2012, as he will be expected to fill in for new Sox closer Andrew Bailey, who had surgery on his pitching hand, and isn't expected back until after the All-Star break.
It's a huge blow to a team that is looking to wash the taste of a September collapse out of its mouth, and expects to not only compete in the toughest division in baseball, but expects to return to the postseason.
If Aceves is needed in the ninth on Opening Day and blows his first save, it will send Red Sox nation into a frenzy. Perhaps no team needs a win on Opening Day more than Boston does, meaning that if the opportunity presents itself, Aceves may have to pitch the most pressure packed April ninth inning in baseball history.
You need a closer to compete, and Aceves did quietly have a very good 2011 season out of the Red Sox pen, but taking the ninth, especially in a town like Boston, is a totally different animal. His success, at least until Bailey can return, may have a direct link to Boston's place in the standings.