March 14th, 2011 in Entertainment, Fun Stuff, Living, Social, Travel
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The smell of freshly laid sod, ballpark hot dogs and seven-dollar beer is in the air (or on the ground). Baseball season is quickly approaching, and fans everywhere — well, perhaps except for Houston, Pittsburgh and Seattle — are champing at the bit to find out how the 2011 MLB season will unfold. Opening Day features a slate of games involving some of the sport's most compelling teams. The Brewers, Cardinals, Giants, Yankees, Tigers, Dodger and Braves, along with a few other headliners, provide several reasons for fans to be even more psyched for the return of baseball. Here are several storylines you must follow:
- Phillies' Fantastic Foursome: Cliff Lee shocked the baseball world during the offseason by spurning the Yankees, choosing to return to the team that traded him a year earlier before acquiring Roy Halladay. The Phillies rotation, which added former Astros ace Roy Oswalt last July, now consists of four Cy Young-caliber pitchers and has been compared to the Braves rotations of the 1990s. Only the 1976 Mets rotation — Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack, Jerry Koosman and Mickey Lolich — had a better three-year WAR (Wins Above Replacement) total than the 2011 Phills. The team's current makeup contrasts with the 2008 World Series-winning squad, which featured a more feared lineup. Age and injury concerns have plagued Chase Utley and 2007 NL MVP Jimmy Rollins, and Ryan Howard suffered with ankle problems and a down season in 2010. The infusion of youth that began last season when Domonic Brown was called up to the majors will be halted as he recovers from a broken hand. The fourth best prospect according to Baseball America, Brown is expected to emerge as the star of the Phillies' lineup for years to come. For now, though, their success will hinge on the greatness of the fantastic foursome.
- National League Arms Race: The return of Cliff Lee to the Phillies and addition of Zack Greinke to the Brewers enhanced an already impressive group of NL starting pitchers that includes Halladay, Hamels, Oswalt, Lincecum, Cain, Jimenez, Johnson, Wainwright (though hurt), Carpenter, Kershaw, Latos and Santana. Milwaukee, a Wild Card team in 2008 when CC Sabathia led its staff, has been in need of a competent starter or two to complement Yovani Gallardo and put the team back in contention. Greinke won the 2009 AL Cy Young award and figures to rebound in the NL after a down season in 2010, as long as he can overcome those broken ribs. The Brewers also acquired Shaun Marcum from the AL, who, if healthy, possesses No. 2 starter stuff. Fun facts: 11 NL starters posted sub-three ERAs in 2010, compared to four in the AL. The NL also featured six of the top seven team ERAs.
- What Will Pujols Do for $300 Million?: Some media members have speculated that the league's most proficient slugger is commanding a 10-year, $300 contract next offseason, $25 million more than Alex Rodriguez's current 10-year deal with the Yankees. Now that negotiations with Cardinals have been halted for the foreseeable future, fans will anxiously wait to see if the Cards will cave next winter, or if Pujols will enter free agency, igniting a bidding war of epic proportions — big market teams such as the Cubs, Dodgers and Angels have already been mentioned as potential suitors. Of course, Pujols will be motivated to prove that he deserves such a massive contract, and may be compelled to produce even more eye-popping numbers than he has in the past.
- Can the Giants Repeat?: Many baseball followers are skeptical of the Giants' chances to repeat. They won the World Series with a mediocre lineup, at least pertaining to the 2010 statistical rankings. Although it certainly came through in the postseason, people have a hard time fathoming Andres Torres, Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell, Miguel Tejada and Cody Ross as a championship bunch. What's more, some question whether or not the anchors of their lights-out rotation can stay healthy given the mileage Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain have already accumulated in their brief careers. Despite the concerns, general manager Brian Sabaen opted to stand pat, hoping the team could recapture the magic in 2011. And perhaps it will — it wasn't exactly a heavy favorite to win a championship before last season.
- New-Look Red Sox: The gradual decline of the Red Sox reign corresponded with the departure of Manny Ramirez and struggles of an aging David Ortiz. General manager Theo Epstein addressed the issue with an active offseason, dealing for slugger Adrian Gonzalez and signing Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million contract. Fans are particularly excited to find out what kind of production the Sox will get from Gonzalez, who managed to post excellent numbers in cavernous Petco Park while protected by a substandard lineup. Now, Crawford and 2008 AL MVP Dustin Pedroia will be setting the table, Kevin Youkilis and a rejuvenated David Ortiz will provide protection, and Gonzalez will benefit from a short fence in right field. Because of their potent lineup, solid rotation and improved bullpen, the Sox are considered World Series favorites.
- No Surrender in the Yanks: While their arch-rival added two new stars, the Yankees struck out with their would-be ace Cliff Lee, the club's primary target heading into the offseason. For the beginning of the season, they'll have to make do with what they have, which, compared to most other clubs, still isn't too shabby. Robinson Cano, a 2010 AL MVP candidate and the game's best offensive second baseman, remains a centerpiece of a potent lineup. Derek Jeter was given a handsome contract during the offseason and hopes to defy father time, improving on last season when he posted his lowest batting average since he broke into the majors. Of course, Mark Teixeira and A-Rod are among the game's best sluggers. The bullpen was bolstered by the acquisition of Rafael Soriano — last season's AL leader in saves — who will set up for Mariano Rivera. If Phil Hughes can develop into an ace-like pitcher, he and Sabathia would form a troublesome twosome for opposing hitters. The struggles of AJ Burnett and retirement of Any Pettitte, however, make the rotation from top to bottom a huge question mark, and could cause Brian Cashman to once again wheel and deal come July 31st.
- The Older, More Seasoned Rays: Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Rafael Soriano and Matt Garza are out. Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon and Kyle Farnsworth are in. Not exactly an upgrade for last season's AL East champs, but none of the new additions are chopped liver — yet. Last season, Manny hit a hair under .300 with an .870 OPS in just 265 at-bats. The 38 year old is expected to primarily play DH with sparing appearances in left field, which should help preserve his health. Damon, 37, played in 145 games last season and hit .270 with a .355 OBP. He's two years removed from a 24-homerun, 82-RBI season. Farnsworth, 34, had an excellent 2010, posting a 3.34 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. The sometimes erratic flame thrower is projected to head a closer-by-committee arrangement. All three will be tasked with helping the Rays fend off the new-look Sox and hungry Yanks.
- Emerging Playoff Teams: In 2010, San Diego and Cincinnati improved from sub-.500 clubs the previous season to 90-game winners thanks to a couple of key acquisitions and the development of their young talent. After active an offseason, Detroit is poised to become this season's pleasant surprise. The Tigers signed Victor Martinez to a four-year, $50 million deal, expecting him to provide some needed protection for Miguel Cabrera. Austin Jackson is developing into one the league's finest lead-off men. The rotation consists of ace Justin Verlander and a pair of youngsters with ace-worthy stuff — Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. In the NL, Florida, as usual, has rebuilt with young talent, notably Hanley Ramirez, Josh Johnson, Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison, though the former two are hardly young by Marlins standards. If they fulfill their potential and Javy Vazquez can produce anything resembling his 2009 performance — when he last pitched in the NL East — then Florida could give the Braves a fight for the division crown.
- Baseball Without Torre and Cox: For the first time in decades, an MLB club will be without the services of Joe Torre and Bobby Cox, both of whom retired during the offseason. Torre left the game with 2,326 wins, fifth all time, and four World Series titles. Cox boasts 2,504 wins, fourth all time, and one World Series title. Respectively taking their places are 1985 AL MVP Don Mattingley and 2008 Sporting News Manager of the Year Fredi Gonzalez. Additionally, 1990 World Series-winning manager Lou Piniella and 1991 and 1992 World Series-winning manager Cito Gaston retired, giving way to Mike Quade and John Farrell respectively. The new guys each have big shoes to fill but have resumes that indicate they're more than qualified to oversee an MLB clubhouse.
- New Milestones: As baseball's present stars accomplish new milestones, we're reminded of the proficiency of their venerable predecessors — those who set the bar during the sport's golden eras. Last season, Derek Jeter passed Babe Ruth on the all-time hits lists, and this season, he's expected to join a prodigious list of MLB players who've eclipsed 3,000 hits. Say what you want about Jeter, but he has been a key component of four World Series champions and has exuded professionalism since he entered the league in 1995. His teammate, Mo Rivera, the gold standard of closers, needs 43 saves to pass the now retired Trevor Hoffman and become baseball's all-time saves leader. A-Rod is 18 homeruns away from passing Ken Griffey Jr. and can tie Hank Aaron for the most seasons with 30 or more homers. Veteran non-Yankee slugger Jim Thome is 11 homers from joining the 600 homerun club headlined by names such as Ruth, Aaron, Mays, A-Rod and Griffey. Impressive company, to say the least.