March 01, 2006
Things to keep an eye on
— Gannett News Service
After an offseason marked by stars on the mend, wounded free-agent egos and hurt front-office feelings, Here are SOME storylines to watch:
5teams with star issues
• Giants: 14 games. That's what the team got out of Barry Bonds last year, yet it still pushed San Diego to the final week before dropping from contention. This spring, his right knee again figures to be the difference between mediocrity and prosperity.
• Red Sox: To win it all in 2004, Keith Foulke and Curt Schilling essentially had to sacrifice 2005. Now, the Sox hope that Foulke's knee is sound to take the heat off their young relievers. And if Schilling's celebrated right ankle is OK, a deep rotation becomes imposing with Schilling and newly acquired Josh Beckett at the forefront.
• Cubs: After a 79-83 season, Chicago shuffled the top of its lineup, dealing away Corey Patterson and acquiring Juan Pierre. But Pierre will be flanked in the outfield by a first-year starter (Matt Murton) and a National League newcomer (Jacque Jones).
• Dodgers: What should be a feel-good story — Nomar Garciaparra returning to his hometown — is clouded by the fact that he has played 140-plus games just twice in five years and has never played first base. The boost provided when INF Cesar Izturis and closer Eric Gagne return from injuries could create friction when Jeff Kent, Garciaparra and Danys Baez are forced to shift roles.
• Twins: Cash-strapped Minnesota has been bleeding talent for years, and now Gold Glove CF Torii Hunter will be a free agent after this season. His future will be a focal point from Day 1.
5 who will be missed
• Roger Clemens, Astros: The Astros didn't offer him arbitration in December and now the 341-game winner is preparing for the World Baseball Classic and trying to determine whether he can make it through another season. Depending on how much they miss Clemens (did the Lakers miss Shaq?), the Astros could bring him back after May 1.
• Bob Howry, Cubs: The right-hander was third in the American League with 29 holds for Cleveland and then signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Cubs. That may be too rich for the Indians, but they also must replace David Riske and Arthur Rhodes, both of whom were traded.
• Bengie Molina, Blue Jays: The former Gold Glove catcher was the Angels' best clutch hitter down the stretch last season but was set free to sign with the Blue Jays (one-year, $5.8 million). Now the Angels will try to replace him with brother Jose and rookie Jeff Mathis; can they afford the offensive drop-off?
• Juan Pierre, Cubs; Luis Castillo, Twins: As the Nos. 1-2 hitters for the Marlins from 2003-05, Pierre and Castillo combined to average 186 runs scored per season. There's no making up for that, but, then again, the rebuilding Marlins have many worries.
• Reggie Sanders, Royals: The Cardinals let him go across state, taking with him his leadership, attitude and the ability to still get it done at age 38. His teams have reached the playoffs in five of the past six seasons.
5 coming back from injuries
• Brian Roberts, Orioles: The second baseman hit 18 homers and had a .515 slugging percentage before tearing a ligament and tendon in his non-throwing elbow Sept. 20. He has said he'll be ready by opening day, but will he have a backslide from his breakout year?
• Eric Gagne, Dodgers: He avoided Tommy John surgery last summer, but the injury was bad enough to keep him off a mound until recently. The key for Gagne will be regaining enough zip on his fastball to make his change-up as deadly as it was in his 2003 Cy Young year.
• Scott Rolen, Cardinals: Rolen expects setbacks this spring, saying recently, "My point is, April 3 is my date." If he comes all the way back from right shoulder surgery, the Cardinals will be very difficult to beat in the NL Central.
• Rocco Baldelli, Devil Rays: He's coming back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and reconstructive right elbow surgery. Tampa Bay gave him a long-term deal, but much of it is incentive-laden after he missed all of 2005.
• Kerry Wood, Cubs: Starter? Reliever? Last year as a Cub? We'll find out as Wood tries to bounce back from surgery on his throwing shoulder. It's a key year for him: the Cubs hold a $13.5 million option for 2007.
5 faces in new places
• Johnny Damon, Yankees: How drastically can one man swing the balance of power in the Most Chronicled Rivalry in Sports? Better yet, can he lead the Yankees past the first round of the playoffs?
• Kenji Johjima, Mariners: The Japanese catcher signed a three-year, $16.5 million deal, and now all he has to do is learn to speak English and continue to average 30 homers a year.
• Jim Leyland, Tigers: He's managing for the first time since 1999, when he suffered a Rocky Mountain low and retired after a 72-90 season with Colorado. Leyland will have to prove he still has the touch that helped him lead teams to the playoffs four times in the 1990s.
• Kevin Millwood, Rangers: Will the right-hander defy the odds and become a top-notch starter in the red-hot Arlington wind tunnel? Or is he Exhibit B, behind Chan Ho Park, for why the Rangers generally avoid pricey free-agent pitchers?
• Billy Wagner, Mets: New York paid top dollar (four years, $43 million) for this top-flight closer, and now he has to deliver, or he'll be the one paying a steep price.
5 new faces to watch
• Josh Barfield, Padres: The son of former major-leaguer Jesse Barfield will compete for the second base job with Mark Bellhorn and Bobby Hill. Barfield had 15 homers and 20 stolen bases at Triple-A in 2005.
• Jeremy Hermida, Marlins: In a spring full of questions for the Marlins, Hermida is a certainty after hitting .293, with four homers, in 41 at-bats last season. The right fielder also has been rated by various pundits to be one of the game's top hitting prospects.
• Ian Kinsler, Rangers: The rookie goes against veterans Mark DeRosa and D'Angelo Jimenez for the right to take over for Alfonso Soriano at second base.
• Casey Kotchman, Angels: He hit .302, with seven homers, after getting called up in August, and now has the first base job after two seasons split between Triple-A and the Angels.
• Chad Orvella, Devil Rays: The right-hander will compete with a cast of thousands for the closer job. He had a 4.32 ERA in 50 innings last season.
5 changing positions
• Miguel Cabrera, Marlins: He goes back to where he started, moving from the outfield to third base. Oh, and he'll also be counted on to carry the team's offense.
• Adam Dunn, Reds: Since he walks so much (106 per season since 2002), Dunn should know his way around his new position: first base. However, OFs Austin Kearns, Ken Griffey Jr. and Wily Mo Pena are susceptible to injury and Dunn shouldn't get too comfortable.
• Darin Erstad: Angels: Erstad won two Gold Gloves in the outfield before winning one at first base. Now he returns to center field. It will be stunning if he can make it through the spring without running into something or pulling a hamstring.
• Ryan Madson, Phillies: The right-hander has been a reliable middle reliever for two seasons, but now he joins a rotation looking for a true No. 1.
• Alfonso Soriano, Nationals: Soriano has never played left field and doesn't want to try, but as long as Jose Vidro is healthy, the Nats are expecting him to make the move. Sit back and watch Soriano butt heads with manager Frank Robinson.