MIAMI -- Thursday may have been Opening Day but the season really begins in earnest on Friday, with 11 more games. Here is a closer look at some of the biggest questions as the season gets going:
1. Should the Phillies be the NL favorite?
Probably not now. They lost Chase Utley with a knee injury, perhaps for the season (most recently he said he still hopes to be back this year), they lost Brad Lidge for several weeks due to shoulder soreness and they enter the season with a diminished Placido Polanco and no Domonic Brown. They came to spring with a couple subtle flaws, most notably that they needed more righthanded pop, and left it beat up. Their rotation -- which may be the greatest since the 1954 Indians, and perhaps ever -- is intact and that will cover a lot of issues. And they also have a very strong cast of battle-tested characters, starting with Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard and also including very good complementary players like Shane Victorino and Carlos Ruiz. But they enter the year without a bona fide No. 3 or No. 5 hitter, and altogether too much pressure on Howard in the middle of a lineup full of scrappers and fill-ins. Even Luis Castillo got a tryout at the end of spring. The Giants showed that pitching can carry a team to a title, so it can be done. But it's very hard to do.
2. Are the Red Sox still the AL favorite?
In a word, yes. Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis are back from injury and winter acquisitions Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez should give them one of the best lineups in baseball, if not the best. The pitching staff is so talented and deep that proven performers Alfredo Aceves and Hideki Okajima were optioned out. If there are questions, it is these: 1) Is Jarrod Saltalamacchia really ready to be a starting catcher now? 2) Can they win with a 36-year-old starting shortstop (Marco Scutaro)? And 3) Is there enough starting pitching depth, considering the questions surrounding Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka?
3. How is the rookie class?
It won't match last year's, which was one of the best ever, led by the Giants' Buster Posey, the Braves' Jason Heyward and the Rangers' Neftali Feliz. But it will still be pretty good, especially at first base. Brandon Belt, a sweet swinging lefthander, changed the Giants' plans to send him out by impressing everyone in spring training and won the starting first base job. Freddie Freeman looks ready to hit for the Braves. And Mark Trumbo, a former No. 1 pick, will add power to the Angels' lineup while Kendry Morales continues to heal. Among pitchers, Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson is very mature considering his lack of experience.
4. Who is likely to emerge as a star?
This is obvious, but Posey and Heyward appear ready to take another step toward stardom. Posey probably only needs a full season to put up huge numbers for a catcher. And Heyward will be better with his thumb healed. Others who could emerge as stars this year include Colby Rasmus, the Cardinals' multitalented center fielder, Gordon Beckham, the White Sox's second baseman who's a lot better than he showed last year, Matt Kemp, who had a huge spring, powerful Mets first baseman Ike Davis, even more powerful Marlins outfielder Mike Stanton, plus Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen, Indians catcher Carlos Santana and Tigers outfielder Austin Jackson. And oh yes, B.J. Upton might finally become a star and his brother Justin a superstar.
5. Who will win the World Series?
The Rockies, with their rare tandem of young superstars, Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, is the pick here over the Rangers. But strong cases could be made for the defending champion Giants, the loaded Red Sox and several more teams as parity continues. In nine of the past 10 World Series, there was a different winner.
6. What managers should be nervous?
There's an interesting mix of established iconic managers with long track records and first-year managers, meaning there might be an unusually low number of firings this year. But one manager that begins the year under the gun is the Marlins' Edwin Rodriguez, whose team finished the spring strong. A long spring losing streak irked impatient owner Jeffery Loria. Loria wanted to hire Bobby Valentine, who turned down an offer after fighting in his first job interview with club president David Samson and eventually receiving a bid of $1.5 million, low for a manager with his experience, or Ozzie Guillen, who was going to cost them outfielder Logan Morrison (no thanks, said Loria). E-Rod enters the year in good spirits; he's a pleasant fellow who doesn't make the mistake of taking himself too seriously like Joe Girardi did in Florida. But he can't forget that this is like Steinbrenner south.
7. Which team might be the most hopeless?
There are several candidates for this dishonor. But the Royals look especially putrid in the short-term. There is good news on the horizon as the consensus is they have the best group of young prospects in baseball, making their future exciting. For now, though, expect more of the same.
8. What's to become of Albert Pujols?
Three opposing general managers predicted Pujols will sign back with the Cardinals after the year. There won't be any discussions during the season, as the Pujols camp set a hard deadline that didn't yield a contract this spring. But that doesn't mean that their chances are no better than anyone else's. The Cardinals' main offer was for nine years and more than $200 million. Nine years is plenty long but not quite high enough in terms of average annual salary. "Too light,'' one competing agent said of the reported offers. As was the case with Matt Holliday a winter ago, the conventional wisdom is that the Cardinals and Pujols will figure it out once the threat of a Pujols departure is at hand. Pujols is very close to manager Tony La Russa, ingrained in the community and, at this point, part of the Cardinals' brand. So hardly anyone sees them letting him leave.
9. What will happen with CC Sabathia's opt-out clause?
The smart money says he opts out but re-signs with the Yankees. "He's definitely opting out,'' one competing GM said. In reality, there is no reason not to. Assuming Sabathia has his usual year, it would be unwise business not to turn the four years and $92 million that would remain into something at least a little longer. The Yankees were willing to give Sabathia's good friend Cliff Lee at least $148 million over seven years at age 31, so figure Sabathia might be able to add three years onto his deal, especially if he stays off the Cap'n Crunch.