Around The Bases Vol IV: Opening Day

Opening Day. One of the most special days on the entire sports calendar. The day when questions that have been lingering for months start to get answered. The day that, in many people’s minds, officially marks the beginning of spring.

Yesterday, after what may have been the longest Spring Training in anyone’s memory, baseball got into full swing for the 2009 campaign. Officially, the season started on Sunday night when the Braves took advantage of Phillies pitcher Brett Meyers and launched 3 HR by the middle of the 2nd inning. Rookie Jordan Shafer hit a HR in his first major league at bat, becoming only the 99th player in baseball history to do so. Brave starter Derek Lowe, who they picked up this off-season, looked to be in mid-season form as he shut down the Phillies for 8 innings, allowing only 2 hits.

Yesterday’s games provided some excitement as well. In the Florida Marlins – Washington Nationals game, new Marlins 2B Emilio Bonifacio had a great start. He went 4 for 5 with the first Opening Day inside the park HR since Carl Yastrzemski did it for the Boston Red Sox in 1968. Bonifacio also had 2 RBI, scored 4 runs, and stole 3 bases.

And, there were some major disappointments. The New York Yankees’ $161M man, CC Sabathia, looked flat and unprepared for his start against the Orioles. In 4 1/3 innings, he gave up 8 hits and 5 walks, while throwing 2 wild pitches. Also, it was the first time since July 25th, 2005, that he didn’t have a single strikeout.

Mark Teixeira, the Yankees’ $180M first baseman, also had a lousy day. In his Yankees debut, Teixeira went 0 for 4, stranding 5 baserunners. On a bright note for New York, Jorge Posada and Hideki Matzui, who each missed significant time last season due to injuries, both homered in their first game of the season.

Many questions remain for the still young season:

Will Manny Ramirez continue his rampage for the LA Dodgers? In some circles, he is already the early favorite for the NL MVP Award. If he continues to play the way he did in the second half of last season, he certainly has a great shot to take the award.

How will the Angels of Southern CA get over the loss of their number one and two starters for the first month of the season? John Lackey and Ervin Santana are both out until at least the beginning of May. If another one of their pitchers go down, the season could be over before it even starts.

Will the Yankees’ combined payroll of Sabathia, Teixeira, and A.J. Burnett pay off and buy them their first World Series title of the decade? Even with the amazing pitching staff and line-up that they have, they still face some extremely tough competition in their own division. Tampa Bay shows no sign of slowing down from last season and the Red Sox have what is largely considered the best pitching staff in the AL.

Will this be the year of the turnaround for the Kansas City Royals? If they don’t do it this year, with the team that they will be fielding, then I don’t know when they will have another opportunity. Manager Trey Hillman will be putting out Mike Jacobs (.247, 32 HR, 98 RBI) at 1B, Mark Teahen (.255, 15 HR, 59 RBI) at 2B, and Alex Gordon (.260, 16 HR, 35 doubles, 59 RBI in 134 games) at 3B, with Billy Butler hitting DH. Not to mention his pitching staff that consists of Zach Grienke (13-10) and Gil Meche (14-11), with Joakim Soria closing.

Will the move of Michael Young from SS to 3B to make room for rookie phenom Elvis Andrus pay off for the Rangers like moving Alex Rodriquez from SS to 3B paid off for the Yankees? It’s true that Young wasn’t the amazing shortstop that Alex Rodriguez was, but he’s still very good. It will be very interesting to see how he acclimates to third base. Not to mention how interesting it will be to watch Andrus have a Rookie of the Year season, as he’s already projected to.

Will David Ortiz and Mike Lowell bounce back from their injury plagued ’08 season? And, what will happen to the Red Sox if they don’t? The Sox still have reigning MVP Dustin Pedroia, MVP contender Kevin Youkalis, Jason Bay and J.D. Drew (great when healthy), but will that be enough if Big Papi and Lowell don’t have good seasons? Their pitching staff (Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matzuzaka, Tim Wakefield, and Brad Penny) may be enough to carry them through any rough spots. Lester is already very prominent in Cy Young Award discussions. Dice-K had the quietest 18-3 record in recent memory last season and he’s only getting better. He had a fantastic spring, going undefeated in the WBC for Japan while winning the WBC MVP Award for the second time. Oh, did I mention that the Sox have the best closer in the game with Jonathon Paplebon?

Staying in the AL East for a moment, who will win the division? Incredibly, there is no favorite. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays are all serious contenders. Last season, the Rays won with a 97-65 record. The Sox were right behind them at 95-67. The Yankees trailed off a bit, finishing the year 89-73. This season, it would surprise no one if all three teams had 96 wins or more.

Will Randy Johnson be successful in San Francisco and will Junior Griffey be successful in Seattle? Junior is off to a great start, hitting his first HR of the season in yesterday’s opener. That was his eight career opening day HR, tying him for first place with Frank Robinson. Ironically, the last time Junior hit an opening day HR was also the last time he started a season with the Mariners, ten years ago. Johnson (11-10, 3.91 ERA), one of the best left-handed pitchers of all time, gets his first start with his new team on Wed against the Milwaukee Brewers. We will see very soon whether The Big Unit, who is 45 years old, should have retired this off-season with his 2001 World Series co-MVP, Curt Schilling.

Will still free agents Pedro Martinez, Mark Mulder, Paul Lo Duca, Ray Durham, Chuck James, and Ben Sheets (among a couple of dozen others) sign with anyone before the All-Star break? Many of the available free agents, the ones mentioned and a few others, can still be very productive players and can really help a contending team.

Will the new MLB Network, which launched on January 1st of this year, be all that it’s expected to be and more? I’ve watched it on and off for several weeks now. It is very good and they have many good features. Their flagship show, MLB Tonight, will compete with ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. They have a similar format and will have many live look-ins on games in progress.

Former big leaguers Harold Reynolds, Sean Casey, Barry Larkin, Al Leiter, Mitch Williams, and Dan Plesac join veteran broadcasters Joe Magrane, Matt Vasgersian, Greg Amsinger, and Victor Rojas on various shows that focus on analysis of players, teams, and games. The network will also feature a Thursday Night Game of the Week.

The biggest problem is that most of the country isn’t going to get the chance to watch it. Unless you have cable TV with the expanded sports package, you won’t get it. And that is truly a shame. Like the NFL Network, this channel should be available for all subscribers.

All of these questions, and many more that I haven’t thought of yet, will be answered in due time. Meanwhile, batter up.