Gammons: Season opens, questions abound

Season opens, questions abound

Here are 20 questions opening the season:

1. Does the injury to the Twins' Joe Nathan change the AL Central race? Of course. Over the past four seasons, Nathan has compiled a 1.73 ERA, his 159 saves trail only the Mets' Francisco Rodriguez, his 10.9-to-2.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio trails only the Yankees' Mariano Rivera and Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon. Jon Rauch may or may not be able to handle being the point man, and eventually they may have to either try to trade for San Diego's Heath Bell or another available closer, or try Francisco Liriano, who is their one hope for a dominant-stuff starter.

The Central is an intriguing race. The White Sox have four very good starters in Mark Buehrle, Jake Peavy, John Danks and Gavin Floyd, and they have a power bullpen as well.

"We have to keep [left fielder] Carlos Quentin healthy," says Ozzie Guillen of his MVP candidate. "I think health is the key to the entire division race. Look at what happened to Cleveland."

For the Indians, Travis Hafner this spring looked like the Hafner of 2004-06. Grady Sizemore is back from elbow and hernia surgeries. Jake Westbrook is back, and Fausto Carmona looked like the pitcher who was fourth in the American League Cy Young balloting in 2007. Those are four huge additions. Shin-Soo Choo can be an All-Star, they have Asdrubal Cabrera, Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley rising and they have to hope that Chris Perez can finish games.

Detroit went to the final day in first place last year and lost out to the final surge of the Twins. But the Tigers had a good spring, with Miguel Cabrera an MVP candidate. Dontrelle Willis and Jeremy Bonderman gave hope they can fill the rotation, Magglio Ordonez appeared to get to the fastball in for the first time in three years and Jim Leyland is figuring they will be in it if Joel Zumaya can make Jose Valverde's setup crew deep and if DH Carlos Guillen has a productive season. Austin Jackson had a very good spring, but he still reached base less than 30 percent of the time in the second half of the International League schedule last season.

2. Does Target Field change the Twins' advantage? Early observations have the park favoring Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel and the Twins' left-handed power. But do not forget the Twins have had the biggest home-road advantage in the past decade by playing in The Baggydome, going 242-154 at home and 191-208 on the road.

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3. What are the ramifications of the Phil Hughes/Joba Chamberlain soap opera? Hughes can be very good, we know that; in fact, the development of Hughes, Boston's Clay Buchholz, Tampa Bay's David Price, Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson, Baltimore's Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta, and Toronto's Kyle Drabek will be a fascinating side story in the hardest division in which to develop young pitchers. The question may be whether Chamberlain can and will adjust to the eighth inning. The odds are that he will.

4. What injuries are we watching as the season opens? Many. It could be a few weeks for the Mariners' Cliff Lee's oblique to allow him to throw across his body. The Astros have to have Lance Berkman and are concerned about Brandon Lyon's right shoulder. The injuries to Brad Lidge and Joe Blanton are a concern for the Phillies, as those to Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Daniel Murphy are for the Mets (although Reyes may not be out for long). The Brandon Webb saga seems to get worse, which is not good news for a D-backs team that is thin after Dan Haren, Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy. His shoulder inflammation isn't supposed to be more than a two-to-three-week proposition for the Rockies' Huston Street, but this man has endured a lot of tough situations in his career. Alfonso Soriano hasn't moved well, and the Cubs have to have Ted Lilly healthy. Daisuke Matsuzaka's late start may be a blessing for the Red Sox, because it allows Terry Francona to postpone a decision on whether or not Buchholz, Tim Wakefield or Matsuzaka has to work out of the 'pen, at least temporarily.

5. Who are the most intriguing rookies? Matusz, the Braves' Jason Heyward and the Cardinals' Jaime Garcia, to name a few. It's going to be interesting to watch Brewers shortstop Alcides Escobar and Angels third baseman Brandon Wood in their first full trials. Escobar is a highlight reel, and the Angels think Wood is a .250 hitter who can hit 25-30 homers and contend for a Gold Glove award at third base. Mike Leake walked in from Arizona State and was better prepared for the Majors than Aroldis Chapman.

6. Is Heyward that good? The concern the Marlins had about Heyward before the 2007 First-Year Player Draft was that some of their people thought he wasn't aggressive enough at the plate, so they took Matt Dominguez and cost themselves a chance to get Heyward and Mike Stanton in the first two rounds. That plate discipline is what made it so easy for Heyward to get to the big leagues after 47 games in Double-A. His Minor League on-base percentage was .391, he is 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds and can fly. Manager Bobby Cox thinks he might be the Braves' best baserunner, he has a good right-field arm, prodigious power and a phenomenal family upbringing. Is he going to have the kind of seasons that Al Kaline (.340, 27 HR, .942 OPS), Alex Rodriguez (.358, 36, 1.045), Ted Williams (.327, 31, 1.045) or Mel Ott (.328, 42, 1.084) had at the age of 20? Probably not, but he may match Ken Griffey Jr. (.300, 22, .847) and fall somewhere between A-Rod's 36 homers and the 32 Tony Conigliaro hit when he led the league in homers at the age of 20.

7. How many players will we see come out of the Minors as the season winds on? A ton. Stanton and Logan Morrison in Florida. Drabek and catcher J.P. Arencibia in Toronto. Chapman will be back with the Reds, but he has to learn to pitch out of the stretch and deal with adversity. Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen will be back up for the Nats. The Pirates' Pedro Alvarez. The Tribe's Carlos Santana. Maybe Chris Withrow with the Dodgers, who are going to need pitching depth. Hellickson. Braves reliever Craig Kimbrel. Oakland's Chris Carter and Michael Taylor, Giants catcher Buster Posey. Fun? Tyson Gillies, the fleet outfielder the Phils got in the Lee deal. Charlie Manuel says Gillies thinks he's Pete Rose, as evidenced by being clocked at 4.1 seconds to first and 16.5 seconds around the bases -- on a Spring Training home run.

8. What are the most significant comebacks? Along with Hafner, Sizemore, Ordonez and Willis, Troy Glaus with the Braves, Shaun Marcum in Toronto, Andruw Jones with the White Sox, Reyes and Beltran, Jeff Francis with the Rockies, Conor Jackson in Arizona.

9. Talk shows and columnists equate home runs to offense and think the Red Sox are impotent offensively. Where do they lie? David Ortiz's comeback is a huge factor in the middle of the order. With Marco Scutaro in the nine-hole, followed by Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez and Kevin Youkilis, the Red Sox will have a lot of runners on for the fifth hitter. With Youkilis, Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron, they could have a lot of strikeouts against right-handers with exceptional breaking balls (A.J. Burnett, Peavy, et al.), so they need Ortiz and likely Jeremy Hermida to produce. Fenway Park is not a home run park -- it's an on-base and doubles park (harken back to the 1989-90 offenses), but they cannot go an entire season with Ortiz losing confidence in his ability to hit with two strikes. Last season, he was vulnerable to fastballs from the waist up, cheated and swung early at fastballs up and in and waived at breaking balls in the dirt, which this winter's work may put behind him.

10. Defense is the soup du jour this season. What is going on? This is nothing new. When he managed the Cardinals, Whitey Herzog, one of the game's greatest minds, spent hours preparing defensive charts and estimating the runs saved by Ozzie Smith, Terry Pendleton, Willie McGee, et al. Now, we have John Dewan and statistical mavens to estimate UZR and other defensive matrixes, and teams care about defense. Matthew Futterman in the Wall Street Journal this week pointed out that the average total of runs scored per game has declined for four consecutive seasons, and that it's down 9.3 percent in the past decade. I remember when the Red Sox played Kevin Mitchell in right field at Fenway Park.

11. Can Tampa Bay's young guns -- Davis, Price and Hellickson -- pitch them into the World Series for the second time in three years? It's possible. Or, if Rafael Soriano breaks down, Price could be a temporary closer down the stretch.

12. Who will be the biggest free agents at the end of the season, and who might be the biggest names available come July? The Phils' Jayson Werth, the Rays' Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, Boston's Beltre, Victor Martinez and Josh Beckett (though Beckett could be signed as soon as his deal doesn't impact the luxury tax threshold), Washington's Adam Dunn, Detroit's Brandon Inge, Westbrook, the Yankees' Javier Vazquez, Oakland's Ben Sheets, Lee, Lilly -- there are miles and miles and miles to go before we know whether Crawford, Pena, San Diego's Bell and Adrian Gonzalez, Houston's Roy Oswalt, the Bucs' Zach Duke or Sheets is a midseason option. If the Brewers cannot cobble together their pitching, they may have to make a decision on Prince Fielder, who is going to play it to free agency, which he reaches after next season.

13. Which five players could have breakout seasons? Jay Bruce in Cincinnati, the Marlins' Cameron Maybin, the Cards' Colby Rasmus, the Dodgers' James Loney and Buchholz are candidates.

14. How do the Mets fill their 3-4-5 spots in the rotation after Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey? Jon Niese should slot in, but they really don't know what to expect from Oliver Perez or John Maine. If their lives were on videotape, they'd rewind and let Perez walk the free-agent line after 2008. That said, players believe they'll be better than people think come June, when Beltran is back. Jason Bay, who has every right to be more than a little peeved about Boston's concerns over the left fielder's health, is a huge addition, and having Bay and Jeff Francoeur will take pressure off David Wright, whose sense of accountability has led him to take the blame for all that's gone wrong. But they will need pitching and hope they don't have to trade Fernando Martinez to get it.

15. Is rushing Jennry Mejia to the Majors as a one-inning reliever a mistake by the Mets? It is a monumental gamble. Start with the fact that they may need him in the rotation come July, which he will not be prepared to do, having worked out of the bullpen. He's thrown 44, 72 and 94 innings in three Minor League seasons and needs to develop. "His stuff is too good to throw into middle relief," said one scout, especially when he doesn't turn 21 until after the regular season ends.

16. Who has enough pitching to challenge the Angels in the AL West? If Sheets and Andrew Bailey are healthy, with Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill, the A's may, but they also may have their problems scoring runs. Seattle is scrambling for starters after Felix Hernandez and Lee. Texas is interesting, but as hard as Rich Harden competes and works, can he consistently throw 93 mph? The Rangers locked up Scott Feldman, Matt Harrison had a good spring, they've brought Colby Lewis back from Japan, moved C.J. Wilson into the rotation and have Derek Holland, Neftali Feliz, Brandon McCarthy and Martin Perez down the line. It will be an interesting year for pitching coach Mike Maddux.

17. Will the Dodgers' divorce situation impact the team? They're already at an $83 million payroll. They wouldn't offer arbitration to Jon Garland and Randy Wolf to avoid paying Draft choices. The core of this team is very good, but they don't know if Hiroki Kuroda is going to hold up and they don't know what Ramon and Russ Ortiz can do. They have $6 million more invested in their starting rotation than do the Padres. If Commissioner Bud Selig could convince Frank McCourt to sell to Dennis Gilbert tomorrow, it would be done. Gilbert has the money, and he won't take $108 million out of the team for personal use while refusing to pay gas and expenses for Minor League instructors and managers in Spring Training.

18. Which Manny Ramirez will we see this season? He turns 38 in May, but he is still a workaholic. He's in the middle with Rafael Furcal, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Loney. But here are some facts:

• From Sept. 1, 2006, until when he pushed his way out of Boston on July 31, 2008, Ramirez batted .295 with an .898 OPS and a homer every 21.15 at-bats.

• From his arrival in Los Angeles until he was suspended last May, he batted .380 with a 1.200 OPS and a homer every 12.13 at-bats.

• After he returned, Ramirez batted .269 with an .881 OPS and a homer every 20 at-bats.

Ramirez has to produce to get another big contract, maybe even one that isn't almost fully deferred. He'll hit, if he stays healthy.

Rotation payrolls
Highest Lowest
NY Yankees $63.2M Tampa Bay $9.4M
Cubs $50.8M Florida $9.6M
Boston $42.3M Pittsburgh $10.0M
NY Mets $38.1M Washington $10.2M
White Sox $36.2 Minnesota $12.6M
courtesy Tim Dierkes, mlbtraderumors.com

19. In which area do big-market teams have the greatest advantage over small-market teams? Pitching. The Yankees added Vazquez, who nearly had a Cy Young season in Atlanta. Boston added John Lackey and is going to keep Beckett. Big markets can gamble on big-money rotations.

20. Will Bryce Harper be this year's Strasburg and become Washington's next potential star? It will be interesting to see if the Nats will play a high-stakes game with Scott Boras, with whom GM Mike Rizzo has long had a good relationship. The early reports on Harper, forecast as the probable No. 1 pick in June's First-Year Player Draft, have been mixed. Some scouts feel he swings and misses too much; some have been turned off by his ejections by umpires. "I know all that," says one scouting director. "But the power is there. The talent is enormous. He's a teenager facing enormous expectations and pressure. Let's allow him to play it out and see where he is in another six weeks."

Pittsburgh could also be in on Harper. The Pirates have had 17 straight losing seasons dating back to the Barry Bonds era, five straight seasons with 94 or more losses and they were 26-58 after July 1 last season. Ownership is being hammered by big-market owners.

But the fact is, they've spent more on Draft and international signings than any other team the past two years, and bad drafting coupled with the goal of finishing .500 left them in quicksand. From 1999 until they took Alvarez in 2008, seven of their nine first-round picks were pitchers. Bad pitchers. Paul Maholm is 38-44, Sean Burnett won eight games, and none of the other five pitchers taken in the first round have won a game in the Major Leagues.

Now, they have hope: Alvarez has massive power, Brad Lincoln is healthy again and on the cusp of making the rotation and last year's first-round pick, catcher Tony Sanchez, can be a 10-year solution at a critical position. Andrew McCutchen is one of the game's most engaging young stars, and Lastings Milledge's relationship with McCutchen may allow him to take off.

Reaching .500 is no longer the mission statement, so if Harper progresses and is as good as some feel he may be, drafting and signing the Sports Illustrated cover boy could be an intriguing investment for the Bucs.

Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.