Baseball is already upon us, despite what it may look or feel like outside. Spring training has forced its way onto winter and the Boys of Summer are already catching fungos. So go ahead, put your coats and long underwear away and try to pretend that you’re sitting in your favorite stadium on opening day eating a hot dog and enjoying your favorite beverage. Or just ponder these 10 questions, in no particular order of importance.
Girardi proved in 2006 that he has the make-up to be a great manager in the big leagues. He took control of a team that had the lowest payroll in professional baseball and almost guided it into post-season play. However, not everything was roses in Miami as Girardi lasted only one season due to a rift with Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria. He also implemented a few hard line rules that some of the players did not like. That said, Girardi is well respected around the league and many admire they way he handled the falling out in Florida. Since the Yankees have struggled in the playoffs as of late, it is likely that Girardi will have their ears. Most of the Yankee players are used to a few quirky rules anyway. George Steinbrenner has always been known for his eccentric behavior and handling of players and managers. Only time will answer this question, but it is hard to see someone who was viewed as a consummate teammate falling too far out of favor with his players.
In 2006 Francisco Liriano looked like the second coming of, well, Johan Santana. All that came crashing down in September of his rookie year when the southpaw suffered season ending Tommy John surgery. With Santana now in New York, everybody in the Twin cities area is hoping that Liriano can return to the electric form he displayed in 2006 and do it quickly. If Liriano looks like he did in his rookie campaign, he could change the entire complexion of the Twins season.
The 2008 season should give the Rockies the perfect opportunity to let baseball fans know just who they really are. For the past few seasons, and for a good majority of the 2007 season, the Rockies looked to be capable of only poor or pedestrian play. Sure, they had some firepower and a few good arms but they never really seemed to move forward, until…well we all know what happened in September of 2007. Was that amazing run late in the season the result of a team that finally broke through or was it just a flash in the proverbial pan? With most of last year’s NL Championship team returning this season (they lost 2B Matsui to the Astros, reliever LaTroy Hawkins to the Yankees, and starter Josh Fogg to the Reds), the real Colorado Rockies should be able to stand up.
Nobody expected the Diamondbacks to take the NL West crown last season. Once they accomplished that improbable feat everybody expected them to receive a playoff dusting at the hands of the Cubs. The red hot Rockies finally bagged Arizona but that occurred about two months after their predicted implosion. Still, the manner in which Arizona won last year puts a big question mark next to them this season. In 2007 division play the D-backs averaged almost an entire run less than what they allowed. It is hard to envision a team doing that two seasons in a row and maintaining a place at the top of the standings. While Dan Haren certainly bolsters an already quality rotation, he doesn’t bring a big stick. And big sticks are exactly what Arizona needs to prove that last year wasn’t smoke and mirrors.
Just file this question in the nostalgia folder. Even if Nomo does return it is unlikely that he’ll have a dramatic impact. Still, it will be interesting to see if this former All-Star and pioneer of the Japanese influx has what it takes to return to the mound. He looked overweight and out of shape at the start of Spring Training, but he did turn in a nice preseason game against the Padres, allowing no earned runs and three hits in two innings of work. He will get a legitimate shot as the Royals have spots open at the backend of their rotation.
No organization received more off-season accolades than the Tigers. The praise was not out of line. Detroit added tremendous talent to an already potent line-up. However, it seems as though everybody is focused on the names and not what Detroit actually has to do in order to overtake the Indians. Did everybody forget Jeremy Bonderman’s struggles last year? Dontrelle Willis was sub-par in 2007 as well, is he going to fair any better in the hitter’s half of the league? The Tigers bullpen, while sound, is not any better than Cleveland’s and based on last year’s performance their starting rotation is not as good. Detroit may well meet expectations, but there is also a decent chance that they come up short. When everybody is ready to crown you ALCS champions, second place in the AL Central might be hard to stomach.
Before this can be answered, the baseball gods should be required to define what a slump looks like. Because in the case of Braun his numbers could drop off sharply and he could legitimately be having a decent season. He definitely set the bar high in his rookie campaign (.324 BA, 43 HR, 97 RBI, .370 OBP, .634 SLG.), so high in fact, he may have no where to go but down. However, with the tools he possesses and the quality protection he gets in the Brewers batting order, it is doubtful that baseball fans will forget his name in 2008.
There’s lemon sour and then there’s 2007 Mets sour. Sorry lemons, you lose. The Mets must have had the longest off-season of any team in baseball. The real kicker for them is the way the fell on their faces at Shea, especially against division opponents. Fortunately for New York the sun finally rose again on February 3, 2008. Yes, arguably baseball’s best pitcher joined forces with the orange and blue to help them shed the final remnants of 2007. Apparently, he’s done more than that. The acquisition of Santana has the mild mannered Carlos Beltran feeling so good that declared his team the team to beat in the NL East. Is he right though? Well, the Venezuela native most definitely will help a staff that gave up 5.50 RPG to division foes at Shea last season. If Pedro is healthy too, than the Mets have a rotation that looks to be equal to or better than Atlanta’s and certainly ahead of the Philadelphia’s. Front runner? It is hard to say, but the Phillies are probably hearing footsteps.
This might be more competitive than the race for the championship with several teams vying for a spot at infamy. It is of note too because, as any good handicapper knows, bad teams are usually some of the best to wager on. For the sake of simplicity the field will be narrowed to three strong contenders. Drum roll…Oakland, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh. The rebuilding A’s and the aging Giants could make it a rough year for Bay Area baseball fans. The Giants, however, are probably the best of this group just based on the quality of their starting rotation. Oakland lacks offensive punch and they traded away their best starter (Haren). They are also rumored to be shopping their second or third best starter in Joe Blanton. Both of these teams at least appear to have some direction though. Then there are the mighty Pirates. What did the organization do to address a 2007 team that had little offensive firepower, a poor bullpen, no speed, a rotation with little depth, and an inability to draw a walk? They stood pat. The Pirates are still trying to find their treasure at the bottom of the NL Central; they’ll get another chance to look for it this year.
There are always some unexpected names that make their way into the race and that will be no different in 2008. Let’s go with some potential gems that are being mentioned. First up is Boston pitcher Clay Buchholz. This kid has nothing to live up to; he only threw a no-hitter in his second major league start. Florida outfielder Cameron Maybin is another strong candidate. Despite his struggles in a brief stint last season, everybody says he is a five-tool player with can’t miss potential. A couple of dark-horse contenders could be Royals starter and former number one pick Luke Hochevar and Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria. Hochevar pitched fairly well in his 2007 September call up and he has looked good thus far in Spring Training. Longoria has shown the ability to hit for both average and power; he, along with a number of other players, has Tampa Bay excited about the future.
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