Gennaro Filice
Friday April 4th, 2008

Well, folks, the '08 campaign is underway. And with the launch of a new season, I've decided to tweak my approach to weekly baseball analysis a bit. After two years of "Five Up, Five Down," I'm slimming down to a more compact, concentrated "Three Up, Three Down" frame.

This revision makes it easier to achieve my stated goal: To provide an original, quick-hitting, thought-provoking, controversial, somewhat light-hearted, enjoyable, easy-to-comprehend piece. And it gives me a cute, baseball-friendly title to boot.

1. A long, strange trip to stardom: OK, loyal readers, let's kick this season off right with a little role play. You can assume the role of a big studio exec, and I'll play the fledging writer. Let me pitch you my idea for a baseball flick:

An All-American southern boy grows up loving two things: his parents and baseball. Just after his 18th birthday, Southern Boy is selected first in the MLB draft and everything is peachy ... until a car accident puts him on the shelf. During rehabilitation, Southern Boy leaves his parents for the first time.

Left without family and baseball, Southern Boy quickly finds two new loves: tattoos and drugs. Over the next few years, Southern Boy covers his body with 26 tattoos and tries all kinds of drugs, becoming addicted to crack. Southern Boy gets suspended from baseball multiple times for excessive drug use. After eight separate rehab stints and a handful of suicide attempts, Southern Boy sobers up, finds religion and resumes his playing career.

Though his original ballclub has given up on him, another franchise scoops him up. Southern Boy reaches the bigs and begins smacking homers at a prolific rate. The following offseason, Southern Boy is traded and becomes the centerpiece of his new team's offense. Almost eight years after being drafted as the first overall pick, Southern Boy finally starts his first Opening Day.

So, what do you think? A bit overcooked? Too over the top, even by Hollywood standards? Well, you can file this absurd tale under "so unbelievable, it's true," because this is the unadulterated story of Rangers CF Josh Hamilton. And it may be just the beginning ...

Entering this season, there's no more intriguing player than Hamilton. Still just 26, Hamilton has already been to hell and back. Even so, his raw ability remains. Injuries limited him to 90 games in Cincinnati last season, but he still blasted 19 homers and boasted a .922 OPS. With a full season in Texas' hitter-friendly ballpark, Hamilton should eclipse 30 homers, and 40 isn't out of the question.

It didn't take Hamilton long to dust off his home run trot this year, as he belted a game-winning homer off All-Star closer J.J. Putz in Game 2. While the Rangers' season as a whole will be forgettable (as usual), Hamilton's exploits demand your attention.

2. Liriano II?: In 2004, Cincinnati took Homer Bailey with the seventh overall pick of the MLB Draft and handed the celebrated hurler a $2.3 million signing bonus. While the fireballing right-hander has progressed nicely over the past few years (making nine major league starts last season), this move could end up paling in comparison to an inconspicuous acquisition the Reds made three months prior to Bailey's signing. Back in March '04, Cincinnati locked up an obscure Dominican pitcher by the name of Johnny Cueto for the bargain-basement price of $3,500. On Thursday, Cincy reaped the benefits.

In his major league debut, Cueto made Diamondbacks hitters look foolish with a mix of mid-90s fastballs, 90-MPH sliders and perfectly placed changeups. Perfect through the first five innings, Cueto's first win featured an awe-inspiring line: 7 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 10 K and 0 BB. The kid never even reached a three-ball count, for crying out loud.

Throughout the FSN Arizona telecast, I joined Diamondbacks announcers Daron Sutton and Mark Grace in drooling over the 22-year-old hurler. I hadn't seen a rookie instantly dominate major league hitters like this since Francisco Liriano. While Liriano's rookie-year slider was filthier than anything in Cueto's arsenal, Cueto showed far better command (basically painting the black with every fastball). And supreme talent isn't the only thing these two have in common. They share the same number (47), same homeland (Dominican Republic) and most noticeably, the same deft touch with a beard trimmer ...

AP

It remains to be seen whether Cueto will enjoy a Liriano-like impact during his rookie campaign, but he's sure off to a good start. And with him, Bailey and Edinson Volquez, the Reds have an impressive collection of young arms.

3. The X-Man on opening day: Xavier Nady is a solid ballplayer. Nothing more, nothing less. But every single season on Opening Day, Nady morphs into a combination of Ted Williams and Babe Ruth:

This type of production always results in a huge Nady binge on fantasy baseball waiver wires. Unfortunately, following Opening Day, the X-Man usually returns to his "solid" self. And solid just doesn't cut it in the fantasy world.

1. Brian Sabean: This isn't San Francisco GM Brian Sabean's first stint in the "Down" section, and considering he's on contract through the 2009 season, I'm guessing it won't be his last.

To be fair, Sabean turned the franchise around in '97 and enjoyed successful stretch for a number of years. But over the last few years, as Barry Bonds faded away, so did the GM's genius. In recent seasons, Sabean has traded away two top-tier relievers in Joe Nathan and Jeremy Accardo (each of whom eclipsed 30 saves in '07) and an All-Star starter in Liriano. He has tossed boatloads of money at marginal free agents, including a combined $186 million for Barry Zito and Aaron Rowand. And, worst of all, his obsession with geriatric ballplayers has only grown worse with each passing year. The byproduct of Sabean's sub par management was on full display on Opening Day, when the Giants fielded this embarrassing lineup:

1. Dave Roberts LF 2. Rich Aurilia 1B 3. Randy Winn RF 4. Bengie Molina C 5. Ray Durham 2B 6. Aaron Rowand CF 7. Jose Castillo 3B 8. Brian Bocock SS 9. Barry Zito P

Seriously, what's the point? Not only is the lineup horrendous, but it's old as dirt. This lineup dooms the franchise in the present and future. I would suggest following in the footsteps of the '06 Marlins and completely turning the lineup over to the prospects, but how can the Giants possibly do that when they haven't developed a legitimate position player since ... I don't know ... Robby Thompson?

2. A Royal spanking: Only one team in baseball faced the broom during its first series of the season, and for once it wasn't Kansas City. In a twist of fate, the Royals actually administered the sweep. Kansas City stormed Comerica Park and took three games from purported World Series contender Detroit.

Detroit's supposed Murderers' Row lineup -- baseball's hottest topic in the offseason -- hit .206 and managed just five runs, including one over the final 21 innings. One can only imagine the toll this week has taken on Jim Leyland's lungs. Detroit's skipper vented to the assembled media following the sweep: "Sometimes you can smell stuff, and right now we don't smell good." To make matters worse, Gary Sheffield tore a tendon in his left ring finger on Tuesday and, according to the Detroit Free Press, could join Curtis Granderson, Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney on the disabled list.

Having said all that, let's not completely write off the Tigers yet. Take a deep breath, Detroit faithful. We're only 1/54th of the way through this thing.

3. Pirates' new slogan: After two seasons of operating under the motto "We will," the Pirates have decided to change their tune. It seems that incessant fan mocking (We will, lose 100 games ... We will, average 19,000 fans a game ...) has finally gotten to Buccos brass. Unfortunately, this new slogan may draw even more ridicule: "Pride. Passion. Pittsburgh Pirates."

Pride? Passion? Both adjectives have been completely foreign to the franchise since that Francisco Cabrera haymaker back in '92. With the everyday lineup they're trotting out to the field, the Pirates are almost guaranteed to suffer a 16th straight losing season, which would tie Philadelphia's MLB record. It's legitimately impossible to say "Pride. Passion. Pittsburgh Pirates" with a straight face.

Now, the slogan's concept isn't completely flawed -- I love the alliteration. How about something a bit less ambitious? Try this on for size: "Peter Piper picked a peck of Pittsburgh Pirates."

• It's a sad time for all those baseball fans across the country who grew up with the Braves as a secondary interest due to their presence on TBS. The station isn't nationally televising Atlanta's games for the first time since the 1970s.

• The Yankees won their 11th straight opener on Tuesday night -- a major league record.

• Was I the only baseball fan who didn't know Minnesota reliever Dennys Reyes' nickname is "Big Sweat?" That's a new favorite.

• Last season, Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon pulled Delmon Young from a game for not hustling out a grounder, so I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw Tuesday night. With the Twins down 5-1 late, Young turned a routine single up the middle into a double by absolutely booking it right out of the box. Maybe this kid's starting to get it.

Matt Cain labored through 5 2/3 innings of shutout ball (throwing 114 pitches) and the Giants rewarded him with a loss. What else is new?

• The Marlins total opening day payroll is $21.8 million. That's less than Alex Rodriguez ($28 million) and Jason Giambi ($23.4 million) make by themselves.

Kevin Youkilis set the MLB record for consecutive games without an error by a first baseman (194). Safe to say that transition from third base worked out just fine.

Joe Torre executed a key double steal in the Dodgers' 3-2 win over San Francisco on Tuesday. This served as a reminder that this guy managed for 15 seasons in the National League before his Yankees stint.

• There's no hotter item on the streets of Chicago than the "What the Fuk?" T-shirt, an ode to freshly minted Cub Kosuke Fukudome.

• Reds color commentator Jeff Brantley successfully executed the anti-jinx when he went on this tirade against Edwin Encarnacion ... moments before Encarnacion smashed a walk-off homer.

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