10 things to watch for the upcoming MLB season

As I watch what actually has turned out to be an interesting season opener between the Yanks and the Sox (in the Michael Wilbon voice), I guess there’s no better time than the present to give you my 2010 MLB season preview. Here are 10 storylines to watch as America’s pastime opens 2010 in earnest tomorrow.

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Repeat?

It’s been another busy winter for the Yankees, though this time with a tighter grip on the purse strings. The 27-time World Champs signed former farmhand Nick Johnson as their DH and added journeyman Randy Winn to provide a capable outfielder off the bench. But the other additions came through trades. Curtis Granderson, fresh off a career-high 30 home runs with the Tigers (written as he takes Josh Beckett deep with two outs in the second inning), was brought in for pitchers Phil Coke, Ian Kennedy, and top prospect Austin Jackson. The rotation was strengthened by the acquisition of Javier Vasquez (another former Yankee returning to the Bronx) for misfit Melky Cabrera. Vazquez and the reintroduction of Phil Hughes to the rotation stabilizes the back-end of one of the best starting fives in the AL, while Chan Ho Park and Joba Chamberlain’s return to the bullpen gives them depth there. Despite playing in baseball’s toughest division, the Yanks are still a front-runner to take home another World Series Title.

Phil me up again?Depending on who you ask, the NL has already been decided with the Phillies as the hands-down favorites. And there’s at least 6 feet, 6 inches worth of reasons in Roy Halladay. The Toronto ace, acquired for a package that sent Cliff Lee to Seattle, trades one ace for another, but gives the Phils more left-right balance in the rotation. Virtually everyone is back from last year’s NL Champs, with one obvious upgrade at third base with (former Phil) Placido Polanco replacing Pedro Feliz. Injuries may be the only thing that can derail Philadelphia, and they’ve already started to pile up with lefty JC Romero, much maligned closer Brad Lidge, and starter Joe Blanton all starting the season on the disabled list. But that dynamite lineup with its many sluggers, including the newly bearded Jayson Werth in a contract year, can make any pitching staff look good in a hurry.

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Help for Phat Albert

The biggest splash in the free agent market during a subdued winter was easily the Cardinals’ ability to hold onto left fielder Matt Holliday, who tore it up to the tune of a .353 average, 13 home runs, and 55 RBIs in just 10 weeks with the Redbirds. He provides all-everything Albert Pujols (who hit .375 in September with Holliday cleaning up behind him) the best protection he’s had since the Cards’ 2004 NL Pennant. The Cards’ won’t be just offense this year though, thanks to one of the best pitching staffs in the National League. Chris Carpenter, the man who SHOULD have won last year’s NL Cy Young Award, and Adam Wainwright, Major League Baseball’s wins leader last season, head a rotation that while it lost Joel Piniero to the Angels is still easily the best in its division. Brad Penny is coming off a tough season, but a strong September gives the Cards hope that he will rebound in 2010. The same goes for snake-bitten Kyle Lohse, while newcomer Jaime Garcia rounds out the rotation for the team that should repeat as NL Central Champs.

Earning his money

Twins’ fans have $184 million reasons to be excited for 2010. Or at least Joe Mauer does. The reigning AL batting champ and MVP leads the way for one of the league’s most interesting teams. They enter a new era in their franchise’s history with the move outdoors to Target Field after 28 seasons in the Metrodome. While no one’s quite sure just how the new stadium will play, the Twins have assembled a hard-hitting lineup around their two MVPs, Mauer and Justin Morneau. Jim Thome and Jason Kubel provide some pop as a DH platoon (somewhat befuddling as both are lefties), while a full season out of Michael Cuddyer will up run production. They brought in Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy to sure up the middle infield and set the table. Pitching may be a question, as a rotation led by Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn doesn’t strike fear in the hearts of many, and a bullpen that has long depended on All-Star closer Joe Nathan as its anchor will be hurt by his absence with Tommy John surgery. The bright side is that the AL Central is one of the weaker divisions and if history is any indication, it may only take 86 wins to make the postseason.

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Beasts in the East

Canvass any group of baseball experts and it’s very likely that their World Series picks will include any one of three teams from the AL East. That’s nothing new for what has developed into perennially the most difficult division in all of baseball to the point where Major League Baseball has contemplated a rotating divisional system to restore competitive balance. But for 2010, either the Rays, Red Sox, or Yankees will not be taking part in the postseason. The Red Sox made arguably the biggest free agent pickup in John Lackey to solidify an already amazing rotation with Beckett, Jon Lester, and Tim Wakefield (just imagine if Diasuke Matsuzaka ever broke out of his now year-plus long funk). They also brought in Mike Cameron to replace Jason Bay (and move the defensively woeful Jacoby Ellsbury out of centerfield), Marco Scutaro for the ineffective and oft-injured Jed Lowrie, and Adrian Beltre for the aging Mike Lowell. The Rays (yet again) have one of the best young rotations, with many expecting Wade Davis, David Price, and Jeff Niemann ready to have breakout seasons. They’ve also strengthened the bullpen with Rafael Soriano brought in to close out games, though last year’s saves leader J.P. Howell starts the season on the DL. One thing’s for sure: it’s not a good year to be the Orioles or the Blue Jays.

Kings of the Northwest

Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee compose one of the strongest 1-2 punches in the AL for what may be one of the league’s sleeper teams, especially if Erik Bedard can ever recover from his two-season malaise in a Mariners’ uniform and become a 15-game winner again. A full season of Jack Wilson at shortstop along side new double-play partner Chone Figgins strengthens the lineup, as does the acquisition of Ken Griffey, Jr. to DH, Casey Kotchman to play first, and (possibly) Milton Bradley to play left self-destruct. Those additions could give a boost to the numbers from existing pieces like Jack Hannahan (once healthy), Jose Lopez, and Franklin Gutierrez. More importantly perhaps, there’s an air of hope in Seattle and a real drive to improve this season that is indicative of the changes management has made.

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A Brave prediction

While we’re on the subject of sleepers, we might as well address the NL. And if there’s one team I like to come out of relatively nowhere, it’s the Braves. They do lose Javier Vazquez from that rotation, but Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, a potentially healthy Tim Hudson, and young phenom Tommy Hanson still make for a daunting fivesome. There are still ifs in the equation: if Jason Heyward can live up to his high billing as the 2009 Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year; if Nate McLouth can recapture his All-Star form of two years ago; if Billy Wagner is still a Major League closer; if Troy Glaus’ swing can look like a Major Leaguer’s once again. But, based largely on the strength of 19 games against the Nationals, the Braves may just be able to sneak into the wild card.

Welcome to the show?

When it’s mid-July and you’re wondering why you have to sort through meaningless highlights of games like Reds-Pirates and Nats-Padres, you’ll have Aroldis Chapman and Stephen Strasburg to blame. Chapman, the 6-foot-4 Cuban defector who shocked many by signing with the team from the Queen City, will start the season in Triple-A despite some impressive numbers in Spring Training (1-0 in five games, 1.69 ERA, eight hits, seven walks, 15 strikeouts in 10.2 innings). The Reds rotation is pretty solid, but with both Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang eligible for free agency after 2011, Chapman may force his way into the bigs before too long (remember, former All-Star Edinson Volquez is also waiting in the wings on the way back from Tommy John). Strasburg performed well in the Arizona Fall League (4-1 with a 4.26 ERA) and in Spring Training (1-0 with a 2.00 ERA in three games and nine total innings). Beyond Jason Marquis and John Lannan, the Nats’ rotation is anything but solid, and Strasburg will be in the big leagues before too long (probably something like the way in which the Braves handled Tommy Hanson last season).

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The best rotation in all the land?

As much as I enjoy sorting through mountains of stats to determine the best offenses in baseball, I find myself drawn to the pitching this season. I believe the Cardinals will have the best rotation in baseball when all is said and done. The Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, and Angels are also obvious frontrunners. But let me give you two candidates that may be flying under the radar. The White Sox quietly have assembled the best starting five in their division and, if their offense can muster consistent run support, possibly the best in baseball. Jake Peavy and Mark Buehrle are legitimate aces that can help take some of the pressure off one another. John Danks and Gavin Floyd are great middle of the rotation guys, and Freddy Garcia provides a veteran presence on the back-end. The Diamondbacks could also put together a stellar starting five if injuries don’t hamper them. It all hinges on Brandon Webb’s health, but he and Dan Haren could pair for a dangerous 1-2 combo. Edwin Jackson is a nice starter whose numbers should get a boost from a move the NL. If Ian Kennedy can find himself in the desert and Rodrigo Lopez is able to be solid but not great in the fifth spot, this could be the surprise team in a fairly wide open NL West.

How we’ve missed you

An interesting little factoid that was brought up by ESPN’s Tim Kurkijian before the Yanks-Sox game tonight: three Opening Day starting pitchers—Shaun Marcum, Ben Sheets, and Jake Westbrook—were completely out of baseball last season. Only seven other pitchers had been in a similar situation prior to this season. Marcum is coming back from Tommy John surgery in Sept. 2008 and made only five minor league starts in 2009 before being shut down. Sheets, a classic Billy Beane, Moneyball, bargain buy for the A’s, will ascend the hill on Opening Day after elbow surgery last season. Sheets will anchor a young Atheltics’ rotation, and with the team on the hook for $2 million in incentives on top of a $10 million base salary, he may be trade bait near the deadline to acquire picks and younger talent if the A’s are out of the race. Westbrook seems to be just one of many reclamation projects in the baseball wasteland that once was known as Cleveland. He just edged out Fausto Carmona for the honor of opening the season but, for a team that is also auditioning Scott Elarton, I’d take the honor with a grain of salt (no word on whether or not Kevin Appier was available).

– Matthew De George ’10

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