The top 20 questions of 2006

The top 20 questions of 2006

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There are five things that are not going to be asked in this space because, well, we are tired of asking them at this time every year. If you want to know if it's the Cubs' turn, what Roger Clemens will do, if the Braves can win another division title, if Barry Bonds can catch Hank Aaron or whether this year can top last year, then you will just have to order MLB.TV and watch for yourself.

Here are 20 other questions about the 2006 season, now that the calendar has flipped over:

1. Is it the Cubs' turn? Amazing! It's like the computer has a mind of its own and the fingers are just drawn to those very keys. This question is as permanent here as ivy at Wrigley. While it may be easier to just see for yourself, here are the details. The Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 to end an 86-year drought. The White Sox won the World Series in 2005 to end an 88-year drought. The Cubs, who last won it all in 1908, now have the longest drought -- so this question must be answered by a group that includes newcomers Juan Pierre and Jacque Jones.

2. Can Andruw Jones and Derrek Lee do it again? Jones hit 51 homers for the Braves in 2005, 15 more than his previous career high, and drove in 128 runs, 12 above his best. The Cubs' Lee, who can be a free agent after next season, was in Triple Crown contention for much of the season before finishing with a .335 average (first time ever above .300), 46 homers (14 more than his previous high) and 107 RBIs (nine more than his previous high).

3. What will Clemens do? Remarkable -- you try to not type it, but the question still appears. It has been this way ever since the Rocket supposedly retired after pitching for the Yankees in the 2003 World Series. The Astros did not offer him arbitration in December, so he cannot re-sign with Houston until May 1. Maybe he comes back then. Maybe he signs with the Rangers, Yankees or Red Sox. Maybe he retires. Maybe when he is 50, we still will ask: "What will Roger Clemens do?"

4. Can Josh Beckett pitch 200 innings? That is an even more important question than "Is he a Yankee-killer?" Sure, he dominated the Yankees in winning the 2003 World Series Most Valuable Player Award, and that fact might come up once or twice when the rivals meet on May 1 at Fenway Park. But the real issue is whether he can stay healthy enough to reach the 200-inning mark for the first time in his career.

5. Will the Braves win another division title? Another question that asks itself. And this one is actually taking on a new life of its own. First you ask, "Will the Braves make it 15 consecutive division titles?" Now you have to add, "And can they do more with it this time?" For this is a club that is becoming legendary for its division flags, making that one World Championship (1995) flag at Turner look lonelier and lonelier. Will Leo Mazzone's move to Baltimore as pitching coach have a measurable effect? After all, Atlanta gave you the "Baby Braves" last year, and there is no reason to think the Braves won't be right there in October again.

6. Is the Indians' rebuilding plan ready for October? The Tribe made a remarkable run in the second half last season, and they nearly overcame a huge deficit against the White Sox in the AL Central standings. Veteran righty Paul Byrd has been added to a rotation that includes tough lefties C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee, and the club is hoping Jake Westbrook will improve on what was an up-and-down 2005. With all that offense, and if Bob Wickman is the answer again at closer, 2006 might be the year that Cleveland returns to postseason baseball.

7. Can Barry catch Hank? This question is unavoidable. Maybe it is better at this point to just talk about Babe Ruth and 714 homers. Bonds is sitting on 708, so he could vault into second place on the all-time home run list early in the season. Whether he can put together a 48-homer season and pass Aaron for the all-time lead is anyone's guess. How much is left in the tank? Bonds played only 14 games last year, but he hit five homers. Maybe history will happen.

8. Will the White Sox repeat? No team has repeated as World Champions yet in this decade, but the Pale Hose certainly have a good chance. The general consensus is that they have done nothing but improve over the offseason. Trading Aaron Rowand to Philadelphia meant giving up a player coming into his own, but the White Sox got Jim Thome in return to be their designated hitter. Paul Konerko was re-signed, and Javier Vazquez was acquired from Arizona in the deal that sent El Duque to the D-Backs. Versatile Rob Mackowiak was added for reinforcement.

9. Will Barry Zito be traded? Rumors have persisted since the 2005 season ended. He gave up an astounding 40 runs (26 earned) last September, which would not exactly be going out in style. The question is whether he is going out, as Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder did a year ago. The A's have fielded a number of inquiries about Zito, and the Phillies even reportedly offered Bobby Abreu in a package that would include him. Nothing doing through 2005, but keep your eyes on this one.

10. Will the Marlins shock the world again? That phrase was last uttered while they were winning it all in 2003. This is a team that has been through a housecleaning before, and they have a whole new look in 2006. Gone are Juan Pierre, Mike Lowell, Luis Castillo, A.J. Burnett and Paul Lo Duca. Even Jack McKeon is gone in the dugout, replaced by manager Joe Girardi. Dontrelle Willis led the Majors with 22 wins in 2005 and he's back. Somehow, this franchise has seemed to thrive when others have completely written them off.

11. Will Seattle be the most improved team? Some people think Felix Hernandez could become the best pitcher in baseball, and he certainly made a huge splash as a 2005 callup. In 12 starts after dominating on the farm, "King Felix" was 4-4 with a 2.67 ERA and 77 strikeouts/23 walks. Add Jarrod Washburn to the rotation, bring in prized catcher Kenji Johjima from Japan, get Adrian Beltre back to his 2004 self and add Carl Everett as the DH, and you definitely have an opportunity to improve markedly on 69 wins.

12. What will the new Busch be like? Every new ballpark in recent years has developed its own personality, sometimes changing the way a team's roster has to be built. Will it be a pitchers' park or a hitters' park? The Cardinals led the Majors in victories each of the last two seasons, but they also will have a new look with the departures of Matt Morris, Reggie Sanders, Larry Walker, Mark Grudzielanek and Ray King. Having a healthy Scott Rolen back may be the best sight of all for Redbird Nation.

13. Will the Yankees end the Curse of Not Winning the World Series? Hey, you get used to certain things when you win three consecutive World Series, as the Bronx Bombers did from 1998-2000. And when every subsequent offseason brings monster acquisitions, you expect even more. So now that Johnny Damon is on board, people are wondering if this mini-drought will end for the Yankees. They lost the 2001 and 2003 World Series and were knocked out by the Angels in the first round in 2002 and 2005. Then there was that 2004 American League Championship Series meltdown against the rival Red Sox. Is title No. 27 waiting in 2006?

14. Will the Mets walk the walk? Once again, they talked the talk in a second consecutive blockbuster offseason. This time their additions included first baseman Carlos Delgado and closer Billy Wagner, and they traded Mike Cameron to San Diego for Xavier Nady. Lo Duca replaces Mike Piazza behind the plate. The middle infield is still a question mark. Many thought Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran would bring a postseason, and many will just wait and see how this season unfolds. Maybe the bigger question is whether this is now the best team in New York.

15. Will the Blue Jays pass the Yankees and Sox in the AL East? Toronto was 80-82 last season and finished 15 games behind both of those clubs. But the Blue Jays landed the most-desired starting pitcher on the free agent market in A.J. Burnett, as well as one of the most-desired closers in B.J. Ryan.

16. Will the NL West be better? It couldn't get much more collectively worse than 2005, when the Padres barely prevented the dubious and unprecedented distinction of no club in the division reaching .500. The Dodgers unquestionably should be better after adding Rafael Furcal, Nomar Garciaparra, Kenny Lofton and Bill Mueller. The Giants unquestionably should be better after adding Morris and with an able and willing Bonds. Harder to say with the others -- and hard to imagine this division won't be a lot better overall.

17. Who plays second for the Nationals? Jose Vidro is back healthy and intends to be an everyday player. Alfonso Soriano was acquired this offseason, and brings a much-needed bat from Texas after averaging 35 homers and 97 RBIs over the last four years. Soriano has refused in the past to play outfield. GM Jim Bowden has experience in such sensitivity subjects from his days with Cincinnati (see: Barry Larkin and Tony Fernandez), and it would be surprising if Soriano is not an outfielder. But we'll see.

18. Will Pat Gillick build another winner in Philly? The architect of those World Series champs in Toronto (1992-93) and a powerhouse in Seattle (116 wins in 2001), he has made some key moves (i.e. Rowand, Tom Gordon, Abraham Nunez, Julio Santana) for the Phillies since taking over as GM there. But there are still some challenges, namely finding a frontline starter and an established setup man.

19. Is this Duke's year? No, we aren't talking about the Cameron Crazies. We're talking about Zach Duke. In 2005, he joined the Pirates around the All-Star break and proceeded to go 8-2 with an amazing 1.81 ERA. Now that he's been around the league and hitters have seen him, the question is whether he can maintain that dominance. And if he can, maybe he's a hometown All-Star when the Midsummer Classic comes to PNC in July.

20. Can 2006 top 2005? Again, the keyboard just takes over. This is an era where the impossible seems to happen each year, and each year somehow tops the one before it. MLB set a single-season attendance record of more than 73 million fans last year, and those fans saw dramatic playoff chases topped off by an historic World Series in which the White Sox ended their long drought while the Astros saw their first Fall Classic. How do you top that?

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.