I recently wrote an article titled "The 30 Best Players Baseball Fans Don't Know." It's gotten great responses, and I had a great time writing it. So with spring training here, I decided to do a series of these about different aspects of the sport. Enjoy.
Every team, no matter how good, goes into the baseball season with questions that can only be answered once the season plays out. While it's true that the teams that win usually have fewer question marks, they can also become winners because they're pre-season questions have been answered favorably. With that in mind, here is a list of the 30 biggest questions of the upcoming 2009 baseball season.
Will the Diamondbacks young players take the next step?
Arizona has a talented group of young players who got the chance to play everyday in 2008.
The group of Justin Upton, Mark Reynolds, Stephen Drew, and Chris Young all showed signs of brilliance at times (like Young's 42 doubles and Reynolds 97 RBI), while at other times showed that they have a lot to learn (each one of those players struck out over 100 times last season).
If this core of young talent can continue to develop, Arizona may be able to avoid another fade down the stretch and win the NL West.
Can the Braves get any offensive production from the outfield?
Atlanta's outfielders combined for a league worst 27 home runs in 2008. Jeff Francoeur didn't help the situation, batting just .239 with 11 homers and a sub-.300 on base percentage.
The Braves lost out on Ken Griffey, Jr., but did land Garrett Anderson. Prospect Jordan Schafer will get a chance to make the team in spring training, and Gregor Blanco, who had an outstanding rookie season in 2008, will also battle for a spot.
If Francoeur can bounce back, and the young players live up to expectation, the Braves should see a huge jump in their outfield offensive productivity.
Who's going to pitch in Baltimore?
The No. 1 problem for most teams that are not contenders is pitching, and the Orioles fall into that category. Number one starter Jeremy Guthrie, who lead the team with 10 wins last season, returns after a solid 2008, but after that, the rotation tails off considerably.
Mark Henrickson, with his 50-63 record and 5.07 ERA in his career, was isgned to be the fifth starter and eat up innings.
Other starters include Koji Uehara who signed from Japan and former reliever Matt Albers.
Not exactly the 1995 Braves, but Baltimore is committed to rebuilding and not rushing their young prospects. It's a smart move, but not one that will payoff in 2009.
Will Big Papi be Big Papi?
Last season, David Ortiz played in just 109 games, hit 23 home runs, drove in 89 RBI, and hit .264. Those numbers were the his lowest since his days in Minnesota. Ortiz missed a lot of time due to injury last year, and looks to be healthy heading into 2009, but there is one other cause for concern.
This will be the first full season in Boston that Ortiz will not have Manny Ramirez hitting behind him. After a dismal September last season, in which Papi hit just .244, one has to wonder how much Ramirez may have had to do with Ortiz's production.
This will be an important year for Ortiz, because the Red Sox need Big Papi to be Big Papi if they want to win the tough AL East.
Is this finally the Cubs' season?
The Chicago Cubs may be the most complete team in the National League. They have a very good line-up, better starting pitching, and a bullpen that will be excellent even after losing closer Kerry Wood to free agency.
The only problem, they're still the Cubs. After being the best team in the NL for most of 2008, Chicago lost in the first round of the playoffs to Manny and the Dodgers, leaving Cubs fans crushed once again.
On paper, the Cubs look like the team to beat in the National League, but they are still the Cubs, so if anyone can underachieve, it's them. Maybe they really are cursed?
Will the White Sox youth movement pay off?
The White Sox surprised the critics last season by winning 89 games and making it to the playoffs with a veteran laden team. This season, Chicago decided to let Joe Crede and Orlando Cabrera leave as free agents, and traded Javier Vasquez to Atlanta.
The White Sox will look to win with a younger, more athletic lineup (led by Alexi Ramirez) and a talented young rotation (led by John Danks). The middle of the lineup is still full of veteran (Carlos Quentin, Jermaine Dye, Jim Thome, and Paul Konerko), and the rotation is still lead by quality vets (Mark Buerhle and Gavin Floyd) so there shouldn't be too much pressure on the youngsters.
Still, if the Sox want to duplicate what they did in 2008, those young players will have to mature quickly.Can Cincinnati make noise in the NL Central?
After eight consecutive losing seasons, things maybe looking up for the Reds. Lead by terrific young player like Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Johnny Cueto, and Edinson Volquez, the Reds have the core to contend for a wild card spot.
If Micah Owings and Aaron Harang can bounce back after sub-par 2008 seasons, then Cincinnati may have the deepest starting rotation this side of the Bronx.
The Reds are really young and haven't learned how to win, but that didn't stop the Rays last season. The Reds may end up being this season's Tampa Bay Rays.
What can "the Tribe" expect from Travis Hafner
Once considered one of the most dangerous hitters in all of baseball, Travis Hafner followed up a sub-par 2007 season with an injury plagued 2008 season.
Pronk played in only 57 games last season (only 11 post All-Star break), and batted just .197 with only five homers and 24 RBI.
Hafner is the heart and sole of the Indians, and his absence was a big reason the team was only .500. If Hafner returns to form, and is healthy enough to be Cleveland's everyday DH, then the Indians could win the division.
Can Colorado compete minus Holliday?
Despite the fact that Matt Holiday's impending free agency after the 2009 season, it came as a bit of a shock to the baseball world when he was traded to Oakland for Houston Street.
It was a disappointing season for the Rockies in 2008, after winning the NL pennant in 2007. Matt Holliday was the Rockies best player, and face of the franchise, so it will be interesting what effect his departure will have in Colorado's title hopes.
Players such as Brad Hawpe and Garrett Atkins will have to step up and lead the offense if Colorado is to have a chance of winning. One thing in their favor is the fact that they play in the NL West, where any team other than the Padres has a shot.
What will become of Dontrelle Willis?
Since winning 22 games and finishing second to Chris Carpenter in the NL Cy Young Award voting in 2005, Dontrelle Willis hasn't had a winning season. He lost his fastball in 2007, and his control in 2008.
Due to injuries and ineffectiveness, Willis pitched just eight games in 2007 for the Tigers, going 0-2 with an ERA over 9.00.
He may be done, but the Tigers still owe him $22 million, so he'll get every chance to make a comeback. It's a long shot, but if he can bounce back, Willis will give Detroit a very deep starting rotation.
Can the cash-strapped Marlins compete in the NL East?
The Marlins have faced the same question every year since they broke up their championship team after the 1997 season. Can a team that has one of the worst stadiums in baseball (with no new stadium on the horizon), poor attendance, and limited financial resources be competitive, especially in the toughest division in the National League?
For the most part, the Marlins have seemed to defy the odds averaging 79.8 wins per season the last five years (83 wins in 2004 and 2005, 78 in 2006, 71 in 2007, 84 in 2008). The Marlins have a great farm system, and make good trades for young talent, a must for any small market team.
This year the Marlins lost their closer, number three starter, first baseman, and left fielder and still feel they can contend. When playing in the same division as the Mets, Phillies, and Braves, however, having the lowest payroll in the majors makes being competitive very difficult.
Will the Astros put it together for a full season?
The past few seasons, the Houston Astros have been playoff contenders despite the fact that they have been remarkably inconsistent. Houston has averaged 84 wins the past five seasons, including an appearance in the 2005 World Series, but the team has been able to win consistently from April to October.
In 2008, the Astros went in to the all-star break with a record of 44-51, for a winning percentage of .463. After the all-star break, Houston turned it on, going 42-24, for a .636 winning percentage, second-best in the majors and only a half game behind the Angels.
Those 86 wins were only good enough for third place, but the 'Stros had a winning record against the division winning Cubs and were eight games over .500 within the division.
One has to believe that if Houston could have played at least .500 baseball the first half of the season, they probably make the playoffs and maybe challenge Chicago for the division.Will the Royals actually be competitive in 2009?
Kansas city fans rejoice, because that answer is looking like it could be yes. The Royals have good young pitching thats starting to come around (Zack Grienke), a stud closer (Joakim Soria), excellent young talent (Mike Avillies, Alex Gorgon), and some solid veteran leadership (Jose Guillen). Kansas City wasn't a major player in the offseason, but they didn't sit on their laurels, either. The Royals traded for Coco Crisp to bat lead off and play his usual stellar defense in center, and the added some pop at first when they traded for Mike Jacobs. After playing poor baseball for most of 2008, things came together down the stretch, and the Royals actually posted the best September record in the bigs at 18-8. Add in the fact that no team in the AL Central looks as if they will run away with the division, and KC fans may actually have something to look forward to this year.
Did the Angels lose too much talent this off-season to win the AL West again?
Not many teams are good enough that they could lose their best player and record-breaking closer to free agency, and still be considered the team to beat in their division, but that may be the case for the Angels.
Sure the Angels were the only team to finish over .500 last season in the weak AL West, but even after losing Mark Teixeira, Garrett Anderson, and Francisco Rodriguez, LA still has one of the deepest pitching rotations in the game.
The loss of K-ROD was softened a bit by the acquisition of ever reliable Brian Fuentes and Scott Shields, one of the best set-up men in the sport, returns for 2009, meaning the bullpen should still be a strength.
The offense will take a big hit, with no comparable replacement for Teixeira in the middle of the order. But prior to the Teixeira acquisition in 2008, the Angels were winning with speed, pitching, and defense. Looks like they'll have to do it again in 2009.
How long will it be before Manny is unhappy in LA?
To say Manny Ramirez is a bit flaky is an understatement, but the guy can flat out swing the stick. He can be a head case, but he's also arguably the greatest right-handed hitter of all time.
Ramirez's 2008 season was a perfect example of the good and the bad of "Manny being Manny". In Boston, Ramirez hit .299 with 20 homers and 68 RBI in 100 games. He also faked injuries, demanded to be traded, lost the respect of his teammates, and dogged it at times when he did play.
After being traded to the Dodgers however, Manny hit .396 with 17 homers and 53 RBI in 53 games. He was a model citizen who won the respect of the young LA players, put the Dodgers into the playoffs, and even finished fourth in the NL MVP voting.
Earlier this week Manny was all smiles when he resigned with the Dodgers for two years and $45 million, but the fans and management in southern California have to be wondering if and when, the evil Manny will return.
Can the Brewers overcome losing Sabathia and Sheets?
It's difficult for a small market team to stay competitive after loosing one ace starting pitcher to free agency, so imagine how difficult 2009 could be for the Brewers after losing two aces.
CC Sabathia is now a Yankee, and Ben Sheets is still unsigned but will miss a large portion of 2009 due to injury.
After being arguably the toughest one-two pitching punch down the stretch last season, Milwaukee will now turn to solid but unspectacular Jeff Suppan and young, talented Yovanni Gallardo and his 17 career starts to fill the spots left by Sabathia and Sheets.
In a division that includes the best team in the NL in the Cubs, as well as the talented Cardinals, Astros, and the up-and-coming Reds, the only thing that may save the Brewers from a last place finish in 2009 is the fact that the Pirates are also in the division.
Is Francisco Liriano finally back?
After going 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA as a rookie in 2006, Liriano missed the entire 2007 season due to Tommy John surgery. Liriano came back in 2008, and got off to a slow start, going 0-3 with an 11.32 ERA in April.
Liriano was sent down to AAA for the next three months where he went 6-1 with a 2.74 ERA, before returning to the Twins in August. Liriano was great in August, posting a 4-0 record and 1.23 ERA, before struggling a bit down the stretch going 2-1 with a 4.66 ERA in September.
It was an up-and-down 2008 for Liriano, and his k/9in ratios dropped from 10.7 in 2006 to 7.9 last season. It's still unclear if Liriano will ever become the ace the Twins thought he could be after his brilliant rookie campaign.
If he can regain his dominance and stay healthy, the Twins may be the team to beat in the AL Central.
Will the Mets choke in September for a third straight season?
By know everyone knows that the Mets choked away a seven game division lead with 17 games left to play in the final month of the 2007 season, and then decided to follow it up by coughing up a three-game division lead in the final week of the 2008 season.
Adding insult to injury, the Phillies won the World Series and World Series MVP Cole Hamels labeled the Amazin's as choke artists.
Unfortunately for Mets fans, the label fits, and it's got to be in the mind of every Mets fan going in to the 2009 season. Other than adding Francisco Rodriguez and JJ Putz, the 2009 Mets will eerily resemble the 2008 squad.
In a division that includes the world champs, the spoiler Marlins, and the youth filled Braves, the road to the post-season will not be getting any easier for New York.
If the Mets end up leading the division by the time September rolls around, the eyes of the entire baseball universe will be on them. And they thought the pressure was on them last season.What can the Bronx Bombers expect from Alex Rodriguez?
This off-season was one to forget for Alex Rodriguez. The Yankee third baseman got divorced, was at the center of Madonna's divorce, was called A-Fraud in Joe Torre's book, admitted to using steroids while with the Rangers, had a tell-all book written about his steroid use, was thought to have dissed Derek Jeter by praising Jose Reyes, was found to have a cyst and a torn labrum in his hip, and has elected to have surgery that will force him to miss 9-10 weeks.
That's enough to make even the most mentally-tough players contemplate retirement, let alone a guy who's as sensitive as A-Rod.
As if the constant booing and bombardment by fans, especially on the road, wouldn't have been enough to distract Rodriguez, he now has the added difficulty of rehabbing an injury under an intense media microscope.
A team as deep offensively as the Yanks may be able to absorb the loss of A-Rod, and at this point, any production at all that Rodriguez will give the Yankees in 2009 has to be viewed as a plus.
Will the win-now approach work in Oakland?
The past few years, the Oakland Athletics have written the book on how to be successful in a small market. They cultivate young talent, get as much out of it as they can, and then trade it away before they reach free agency in return for more young talent, then repeat. With strong scouting and a saavy GM, that process has bee relatively successful for the A's. This offseason, however, Oakland shocked many baseball insiders by breaking recent tradition, when they took a win-now approach. Rather than trade away young players on the cusp of free agency, Oakland bolstered their roster with quality veterans like Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera, and Nomar Garciapparra. The also traded fading Huston Street for Matt Holiday. Holiday is an interesting acquisition because he's eligible for free agency after 2009. If the A's are out of contention by the trade deadline, he could be sent packing without even completing a full season in the Bay Area. It's clear Oakland is counting on the Mariners still being awful, the Rangers not having enough pitching to compete, and the Angels coming back to the pack after loosing their closer and best hitter. It could work, and if it doesn't, at least the A's will have desirable vets to deal at the deadline.
Brad Lidge can't possibly be that good again, can he?
When the Phillies acquired Brad Lidge to be their closer prior to the 2008 season, it was considered a huge risk.
Not only was he injured at the time, but he had been terrible in Houston the past two seasons, and hadn't been the same pitcher since giving up a huge game winning homer to Albert Pujols in the 2005 NLCS.
The gamble paid off for Philadelphia, as Lidge not only had his best season in the majors, but didn't blow a save all season and helped lead the Phillies to their first world title since 1980.
Lidge was lights out last season, but was it a fluke? Could he be one big home run away from returning to the pitcher who had lost his confidence and his closer's job in Houston?
Or, did Lidge just need a change of scenery and a team that believed in him, and this will be the Brad Lidge the NL will see for years to come. Either way, 2009 will be the proof that cements Lidge's reputation.
Will the Pirates ever be competitive again?
In 2008, the Pirates posted their 16th consecutive losing season. In fact, the last time the Pirates were a winning team, their left fielder was some scrawny speedster with two NL MVP awards named Barry Bonds.
Unfortunately for Pirates fans, 2009 looks to be much of the same as the past 16 seasons. Despite some young talented players like Nate McClouth, Ryan Doumit, Paul Maholm, and Matt Capps, the Pirates may still be looking at a sixth place finish in a pretty tough division.
The Pirates farm system is thin, and the plan is to be competitive as possible while stock piling young talent to replenish the farm system.
The idea is a good one, but due to Pittsburgh limited financial resources, they may not be able to keep the talent that they develop. It seems the Pirates are stuck in a vicious cycle of losing.
How long will Jake Peavy be a Padre?
With owner John Moores in the middle of a bitter divorce, the San Diego Padres have slashed payroll, and are currently in a state of flux.
The team feverishly shopped Jake Peavy this off-season to no avail, and have made no secret of their desire to trade him.
Peavy, who took less money to stay in San Diego (he made $ 6.5 million in 2008, a steal for a former Cy Young winner), has limited the teams he will play for and if he is traded, wants to re-negotiate his contract.
The Braves were the closest to getting Peavy, but were scared off by the Padres demands and the re-negotiation Peavy desired.
The Padres will be terrible, and they want Peavy gone, but they may have to wait until the trade deadline, when a team in contention who is desperate for pitching, will give both the Padres and Peavy what they want.
Note: While working on this article, the Padres were sold, and new ownership has made it known they are committed to keeping Jake Peavy turning the franchise back into a winner.
Is this the year Barry Zito lives up to his $126 million contract?
Prior to the 2007 season, the Giants signed Barry Zito to a huge free agent contract, with the hopes that he would be their ace, and mentor the young talented pitchers San Francisco had on the horizon.
Zito was disappointing in 2007, and followed that up by being so bad in 2008 that he was removed from the rotation and placed in the bullpen.
Zito is a breaking ball pitcher in a fastball league, and hitters learned quickly to not chase his devastating curveball.
The result is increased walks, a sub-.500 record, and an ERA of around 5.00. On the bright side, Zito did pitch much better in the second half of 2008.
After going 4-12 with a 5.62 ERA in the first half of 2008, Zito posted a 6-5 record and 4.59 ERA in the second, including a September that saw Zito go 2-1 with a 3.15 ERA.
Those number still aren't great, and definitely not worth $126 million, but if Zito can start 2009 how he finished 2008, he could be an excellent third or fourth starter.
Will the St. Louis bullpen be more reliable in 2009?
In 2008, the Cardinals had an MVP in Albert Pujols, surprise stellar seasons from Ryan Ludwick and Kyle Lohse, and played outstanding defense.
They still finished 11.5 games behind the division winning Cubs, and missed the playoffs for the second straight year. They had plenty of injuries, but the main culprit was the bullpen.
Cardinal relievers lost 31 games, and blew 31 saves last season, St. Louis lost 25 games in which they were leading or tied after seven innings.
The Cards have made changes including replacing long time closer Jason Isringhausen with hard throwing youngster Chris Perez. No other bullpen, save for the Mets, will have as many new faces in it in 2009.
Now that the names have changed, St. Louis hopes the results don't stay the same. If they do, it may be a third straight year with no post season.Will the Mariners hit at all in 2009?
They still have Ichiro leading off, but the rest of the Mariners lineup is sub-par at best. They let they're only 100 RBI guy, Raul Ibanez, sign with the Phillies and replaced him in the lineup with Russell Branyan.
Third baseman and number three hitter, hasn't hit for a high average since joining Seattle, but is a lock for 25 homers and 90 RBI.
After that, the rest of the order tails off considerably. The 2009 Mariners batting order will probably look like this:
Ichiro, Franklin Gutierrez, Beltre, Branyan, Jose Lopez, Jeff Clement, Wladimir Balentien, Kenji Johjima, and Yuniesky Betancourt.
Not exactly Murderers Row. If the pitching gives up more than three runs in a game, this team will struggle to win.
Can Tampa Bay do it again?
The Rays shocked everyone last season by winning what may be the toughest division in baseball, the AL East, and going to the World Series.
They did it with speed, defense, timely hitting, and stellar young pitching. As late as August, there was still talk of if the Rays were for real.
This year, the Rays will not be able to sneak up on anybody, and with an improved Yankee team and the 2007 world champion Red Sox gunning for the division crown, the Rays have gone from the hunters to the hunted.
For the most part, the team remains intact, with the exceptions of new DH Pat Burrell. The Rays will also get a full season out of phenom David Price.
On paper, the Rays are just as talented as any team in the division, but how will they handle their first taste of success?
Who's going to pitch for the Rangers?
The Rangers have had the same problem for the past eight seasons, they have no starting pitching. What makes things worse is that the Rangers have traded away talented young pitchers the past hand full of seasons.
Imagine a rotation that included Chris Young, Edinson Volquez, John Danks, and Armando Galarraga. Those are all talented young pitchers who were all traded by the Rangers, with only the Volquez trade bringing back an all-star caliber player in Josh Hamilton.
Instead, the Rangers will go with a rotation that includes a serviceable Vicente Padilla, a washed-up Kevin Millwood, and no-names Scott Feldman, Matt Harrison, and Brandon McCarthy.
With a starting staff like that, Texas needs to continue to hit well, and even if they do, it still could be a long season in the lone start state.
How much will the Jays miss AJ Burnett, Dustin McGowan, and Shaun Marcum?
In one off-season, the Jays starting rotation went from strength to question mark. The lost Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum to surgeries, and former number two starter AJ Burnett will be pitching in the Bronx in 2009.
The Jays still have Roy Halladay, who may be the best pitcher in the game, but after that it's a crap-shoot. Youngster Jesse Litch will get a shot to be the No. 2 starter, and he has outstanding control, averaging only 2 walks per nine innings last season.
They also will give Matt Clement a shot at the fifth starter spot. Still in a division where the Jays' rivals boost pitchers like Josh Beckett, CC Sabathia, and Scott Kazmir, having question marks in the rotation could mean doom for a team like Toronto.
How bad will the Nationals be?
The team that move from Montreal because of lack of revenue and attendance is dealing with the same problems in DC, even with a brand new stadium.
The Nationals have no pitching, little offense even with the signing of Adam Dunn, injury-plagued and under- achieving players (Nick Johnson, Lastings Milledge), and viewership worse than the Florida Marlins.
Oh yeah, the also play in the same division as the Phillies, Mets, Braves and the aforementioned Marlins.
Washington also just had it's GM Jim Bowden resign due to a federal investigation into his involvement in skimming of the top of Latin players' signing bonuses.
This is truly a terrible franchise from top to bottom with no chance of winning. Expect another 100-loss season in 2009.