CLOSE

Now Commenting On:

Baseball's hits to keep coming in 2008

Hits to keep coming in 2008

Baseball has given itself a tough act to follow. The 2007 season teemed with enough team and individual heights, milestone moments and star turns to move some to call it the greatest in the sport's history.

There were three no-hitters (Mark Buehrle, Justin Verlander, Clay Buchholz), two torrid batting races (taken by Matt Holliday in the National League and Magglio Ordonez in the American League) and one monster statement (Alex Rodriguez's 54 homers and 156 RBIs).

There was also a scoreless month (Brandon Webb went from the sixth inning on July 20 to the first inning on Aug. 22 without allowing a run) and a nearly undefeated month (the Rockies lost once from Sept. 15 until Game 1 of the World Series, on Oct. 24).

More

Add a plethora of historic accomplishments, from Barry Bonds' record 756th home run to a steady round-number roundup (Craig Biggio's 3,000th hit, Tom Glavine's 300th win, Sammy Sosa's 600th homer and Nos. 500 for Frank Thomas, Jim Thome and Rodriguez).

What can the game do for a 2008 encore?

For starters, the milestones should continue to topple. Ken Griffey Jr. (593 career homers) is on target to become only the sixth member of the 600 circle and Manny Ramirez (490) and Gary Sheffield (480) both bear down on 500. Bonds still hopes to be in uniform for the 65 hits he needs for 3,000. Randy Johnson, balky back permitting, will resume his quest for 300 wins at 284.

In certain need of an affirmative encore are teams bent on showing there is life after sudden death, like the Mets, for whom a mid-September lead of seven games wasn't enough, and like the Padres, ousted from the playoffs by three runs in the bottom of their 1,485th inning.

Beyond the numbers and provincial angst, the game will clutch us with its gripping storylines.

The top 10, in descending order:

10. A Cubs Century

Can the pride, and folly, of Chicago's North Side really fulfill Jack Brickhouse's line, that "Any team can have a bad century"? The Cubs are marking what is popularly called the Ten Carat Diamond Anniversary of their last World Series triumph, and it's been 62 years since they've even been in a Classic. Or, when Lou Piniella was in his terrible twos.

9. Dusty rocks the cradle (of baseball)

Dusty Baker returns from a one-year sabbatical behind the microphone to roust the Cincinnati Reds from their nadir of seven consecutive losing seasons. The three-time NL Manager of the Year has been dealt a bolstered hand, mostly by Francisco Cordero, given a four-year deal to mend a bullpen that converted an NL-low 55 percent of save chances.

8. Farewell to Yankee (and Shea) Stadium

It was renovated in 1974-75, but has stood at the corner of East 161st Street and River Avenue since 1923. The curtain drops in the Bronx (as well as in Flushing, on the Mets' 43-year-old home), helped by the fanfare of the 2008 All-Star Game on July 15. Of course, the tenants hope to flummox those engaging in the inflamed market for tickets to the final scheduled game -- Sept. 21, Orioles -- by extending their lease with a 14th consecutive postseason appearance.

7. Golden Rod

He is easy to resent and dislike, because he is too good. Last year, the Yankees' Rodriguez proved to be even better than that: He proved to be human (some indiscretions, some confessions), although 54 homers and 156 RBIs could argue that point.

6. Santana Stakes

Wherever he starts the season, the 29-year-old left-hander with a 93-44 record and two Cy Young Awards will be the most closely followed individual in the game. If he begins the season in Minnesota, the suspense of his destination will build up to the July 31 trading deadline. If he already has a new home -- in Boston, New York or the West Coast -- he'll be scrutinized as the highest-paid pitcher in history (that's his contract target).

5. Mitchell microscope

Doubts have been replaced by a document, suspicions by substantiations. The names unearthed by a 20-month investigation into the use of illegal substances in baseball are out there -- and two dozen of them will be out there on the field. Their performance, and behavior, will be on public trial.

4. The Tigers' tale

Running amok among his gun-shy peers, Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski quickly pulled the trigger on a series of moves that seemed to jack up the Tigers from competitive to ferocious. Can Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, Edgar Renteria and Jacque Jones help the Tigers live up to what obviously will be lofty preseason expectations?

3. Keeping up with the Joes

Torre is in Los Angeles, replaced in the Bronx by Girardi. The glare, and the heat, will be on both.

Torre represents a major organizational shift for the Dodgers, a high-profile hire by a club which historically has looked in-house. Andruw Jones and Kuroda have also been brought on board, but Torre is clearly regarded as the key acquisition to revive a storied franchise which has gone 1-12 in postseason games since its 1988 World Series title.

Girardi has quickly met his destiny, taking over the Yankees four years after playing his last game. He lands in an everything-to-lose situation, inheriting a club that has been in 13 consecutive postseasons and spent time and fortune holding together the roster that did not win the AL East for the first time in a decade.

2. The next tsunami from Japan

Thirteen years after Nomomania and seven years after Ichiro pushed the envelope off the mound and onto the playing field, the Major League assimilation of Japanese players is complete. They have quickly gone from novelties to critical building blocks of success.

During an offseason of interest heightened by the generally tame domestic free-agent market, several teams imported key additions: outfielder Kosuke Fukudome by the Cubs, right-handed starter Hiroki Kuroda by the Dodgers and relievers Masahide Kobayashi by the Indians, Yasuhiko Yabuta by the Royals and Kazuo Fukumori by the Rangers.

This new wave will be closely watched also because, unlike last year's group headlined by Daisuke Matsuzaka, all were more veteran players exempt from the debated posting process.

1. Defending (Red Sox) National honor

Uneasy rests the head that wears baseball's crown. Since the New York Yankees were the last champions to repeat with their 1998-2000 reign, a World Series title has been a harbinger of horrible fate.

Of the ensuing six defending champs, only two even made the next playoffs -- and they went 0-6 and quickly out.

Following an October run eerily similar to their 2004 jinx-buster -- the only difference between Division and World Series sweeps was this time overcoming a 3-1, rather than 3-0, Championship Series hole -- the Red Sox could be even better.

Jacoby Ellsbury advances their evolution to speed, and they can expect more offense from Ramirez and J.D. Drew. They should also have either Jon Lester and Buchholz all season, or Johan Santana in their place.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Less