MLB 2008 Preview: Five Trends to Follow

Luigi TollisCorrespondent IMarch 23, 2008

It's almost here. 

I can almost smell it. 

95 mph heaters, cutters, sinkers, splitters, sliders, unbelievable breaking balls, the knuckler.  Splintered bats, singles, doubles, triples, dingers, bunts, bloop hits, infield singles.  Diving catches, web gems, stolen bases, caught stealing, pick-offs, balks, walks, and everyone's hated enemy, errors.  Hot dogs, crackerjacks, sausages, beer, pizza, and peanuts.

That's right people—Opening Friggin' Day is around the corner.  Soon enough we'll be in the midst of the tourney, NBA playoff races will be coming down to the wire, and the boys of summer will be out to play. 

God, I love this time of year.

This year will be a bit difficult to catch the first game of the year.  It will air at 6am EST.  As I currently live in a central time zone, I'd have to get up at a quarter to five am to even watch the game live.  It's a sacrifice I just might make. 

I don't necessarily approve of MLB opening its season in Japan, but hey, what can I do?  Really though, why is America's pastime beginning its season in the Land of the Rising Sun?  Is it only about marketing, and money?  If so, then a league that is awash in cash apparently can't satisfy is appetite for greenbacks (or yen, they're probably worth more seeing as how the dollar is in the crapper). 

It doesn't matter though, its about baseball people, and I don't care if they play in Mongolia or Timbuktu.

Just thinking about the game makes me want to pick up the glove and toss the ole' pill around.  I'd probably throw out my elbow screwing around with curve balls, but that's a price I'm willing to pay.

Even if your team isn't in the mix this year (I'm talking to you A's fans) there's still a good deal to look forward to.  Will the Yankees return to the glory land?  Can the Red Sox repeat?  Do the Mets have what it takes?  Or the Phills?  Can the Cubs break the curse?  What are the Angels chances?  Will John Kruk be wrong as always on baseball tonight?

The answers to these questions and more will come forth with the fast approaching baseball season. 

Here are some of the things that I'm looking forward to this year in no particular order (even though they're numbered)...


1)  Will Chad Billingsley emerge as a potential ace this year?

If you've been paying attention to his career to this point, this question seems like a hanging curve.   

Granted he was not-so-impressive in his debut in 2006, but that was due, in part, to the fact that the Dodgers rushed him to the majors.  Last year, in 147 innings, Billingsley went 12-5 with a 3.31 ERA. 

The kid's got the stuff required to be a good, if not very good pitcher in the bigs.  His fastball is between 92-94 and he has a 12-6 uncle charlie.  Add an improved changeup and this kid could be mowing down lineups on the Senior Circuit.


2)  Will Jon Lester break out this year?

Lester is an interesting story to keep your eye on. 

We all know how he beat cancer two years ago.  How he won game four of the World Series last year.  And most Red Sox fans know about his control problems and seeming inability to pitch past five innings. 

Now a year and a half removed from his bout with cancer, Lester seems poised to take a permanent spot in the rotation.  He's pitched well this spring, and is following through on his pitches with better control as the result. 

The Red Sox are going to need him to break out this year if they wish to repeat as champs.


3)  Will the De...err Rays (I'm still getting used to it) win more than 75 games this year?

That's right, I said it. 

The only time that those pesky Rays have ever won more than 70 games is when Lou coached the hell out of them.  This year will probably be different, barring substantial injury to their pitching staff, which is among the best young staffs in the majors. 

Shields just signed a lucrative deal this offseason, and is worth every penny they inked him to.  Kazmir needs to avoid the DL this year, but should otherwise give the Rays the second component of their 1-2 punch with Shields. 

Carl Crawford is a great asset to the team and is either over or under rated depending upon who you talk to.  Carlos Pena has had a productive spring, and seems poised to show that last year was no fluke.  Upton is looking to avoid the sophomore blues, and put together a similar season to last year. 

Add a call-up a month into the season of a potential ROY candidate in Evan Longoria, and these Rays are going to be a little more than just pesky.  They'll be the fierce creatures that instill fear into the hearts of crocodile hunters everywhere (what, too soon?).


4)  Can the Nationals be more than just gnats?  (I know, bad pun)

With a new ballpark, with quite possibly the largest flat screen in the world, the Nats are going to have to put asses in the seats somehow. 

Winning is generally acknowledged as the best way, but there have been other methods tried (see: Disco Demolition Night). 

The Nationals have an interesting lineup this year, but no pitching staff.  Ryan Zimmerman should put up better power numbers than last year, as he's no longer swinging in cavernous RFK.  Lastings Milledge has had a big spring, and everyone is expecting him to show why he was the Mets best prospect a few years back. 

I, for one, have no idea why he was traded for such low value (Ryan Church and Schneider).  If Steve Phillips wasn't on baseball tonight, I'd think he was the one who pulled the trigger on that deal.


5)  Assuming the Braves' talented lineup gets them to the playoffs, will fans in Atlanta actually go to playoff games?

To me, this was a terrible sign, and made me sick.  When the Braves were on the tail end of their incredible playoff run, the stadium wouldn't be sold out for NLDS games.

Granted they would lose those rounds, but what else to people in Atlanta have to do?  I mean, dog fights are fine if you're into that sort of thing, but we're talking about the playoffs. 

If the Braves can put it together this year (and I think they can), I'd assume the fans will return to the ballpark.  If you look at this team, they have a better chance of returning to the playoffs than the Phillies do. 

The lineup is about as potent as you'll get in the National League.  Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar are poised to be this year's fantasy sleepers, with Escobar looking like he'll fill the void left by the departure of Edgar Renteria.  Teixeira will put up his usual big numbers.  Francoeur will provide a big bat in the middle of the lineup, and McCann is going to have another big year. 

The pitching staff, while a little old, is at least good enough to get this team to the first round of the playoffs. 


Well, there are a litany of other things I'm looking forward to, but that's a story for another day. 

I'd also like to think that the first time Josh Hamilton breaks his bat, he'll turn to the batboy and say, "Pick me a winner Bobby."


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