11 storylines to watch in 2011
Every baseball season begins with the same question: Can the world champions repeat? For 10 straight years the answer has been the same: no.
Now it's the San Francisco Giants' turn. The odds are enormous that they can do it in quite the same way -- they suffered no injuries to starting pitchers, won six postseason games by one run and closed the year on a 32-15 run.
Nothing was more important than the health of their starting pitchers. The Giants had four pitchers make at least 33 starts. Do you know how many previous times that happened in franchise history? Zero.
In fact, it's been done only 17 times since 1900 -- and never in that time in back-to-back years by the same league, nevermind by the same team. Throw in huge innings jumps by Tim Lincecum (+24), Matt Cain (+25), Jonathan Sanchez (+50) and Madison Bumgarner (+73) -- brought on by three rounds of postseason play -- and you begin to understand the difficulty of repeating.
There's no predicting luck, be it good or bad. But we can predict the stories that will create the headlines this year. Here the biggest storylines coming your way -- let's go 11 for '11.
The 3,000-hit mark survived The Steroid Era with its magic intact. No player who debuted since 1989 has reached 3,000 hits. With 74 more hits, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter will become the first such player -- and 28th overall, including the first Yankee -- to reach that milestone.
The road to 3,000 could be a bumpy one. By going on the public offensive with Jeter in offseason contract negotiations, the Yankees took a valuable asset and turned Jeter into something he had never been before: an open target. Every hitless streak, however brief, launches questions about whether Jeter should be dropped in the lineup, rested more or moved to another position. There were spring training stories with anonymous quotes about whether he ought to be dropped from the leadoff spot. How messy could a slow start be? Take what happened to David Ortiz in Boston the past two Aprils and multiply it by a hundred.
Despite the rush to frame the Phillies' rotation in historical context, the rest of the National League has not conceded to Philadelphia quite yet. For starters, what are the odds that Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels all win even 15 games and throw 200 innings? It's been done just once in the Wild Card Era (2003 Yankees: Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte and David Wells).
The NL East figures to be much tighter than last year, when the Phillies were six games better than Atlanta and 17 better than Florida. The Phillies are an older team with no Jayson Werth and, for what could be a few months or more, no Chase Utley. Philadelphia's window could be closing faster than people think.
Another baseball icon goes on trial. Four months after Barry Bonds went on trial for charges he lied to a grand jury about his steroid use, Roger Clemens gets his turn in a Washington, D.C., courtroom on July 6. Clemens is charged with three counts of making false statements, two counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of Congress related to his testimony at Congressional hearings about steroids in baseball.
The All-Star Game will be held in Phoenix, but not without protesters using the national profile of the event as a soapbox to argue against Arizona's immigration law of 2010, which requires police officers to question the status of anyone they have lawfully stopped and yet suspect may have entered the U.S. illegally. The union issued a statement last year denouncing the law, and its players may be under pressure from civic activists to boycott the event.
Though just an 18-year-old player in Class A, Washington Nationals prospect Bryce Harper will be one of the most fascinating and closely watched players of the year. The kid has a burning love of the game, a magnetic smile and a ferocious swing with light tower power. It's not out of the question that he makes his big league debut before the year is out.
Twelve teams begin this season with different managers than began last season. The most interesting replacements are a pair of former Most Valuable Player Award winners in the NL West: Don Mattingly with the Dodgers and Kirk Gibson with the Diamondbacks. Only three former MVPs have gone on to win the Manager of the Year Award since it began in 1983: Frank Robinson, Don Baylor and Joe Torre.
Boston added the two best available hitters last winter: Adrian Gonzalez (trade from San Diego) and Carl Crawford (free agency). After a few seasons of stressing run prevention in what's been a depressed scoring environment, Boston has ramped up its run production so much it has a chance to become the first team in four years to score 950 runs.
And for those of you scoring at home, here are the number of teams to score 950 runs in the seven years before drug testing with penalties (1997-2003) and the seven years after (2004-10): Before: 6; After: 1 (2007 Yankees).
New York's season comes down to this: How quickly can it swing a trade for an established starting pitcher, especially a badly needed lefty? The Yankees play 25 of their first 41 games against their top five opponents from last year as ranked by OPS against righthanded starters: Toronto, Boston, Minnesota, Texas and Chicago. The Yankees will have only one lefty, CC Sabathia, available to start those games.
Bartolo Colon, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia, Kevin Millwood . . . they can mix and match their fourth and fifth starters all they want, knowing that none of them will make 30 starts and none of them are lefthanded. The Yankees' best option is if Jake Peavy is healthy enough for risk-taking White Sox GM Ken Williams to consider trading John Danks for a boatload of New York prospects.
With his world-record heater (105.1 mph), Aroldis Chapman might be the most exciting pitcher in baseball. But he's not a drawing card because no one knows when he will be pitching; he's a setup reliever for manager Dusty Baker's Reds. Will he close some games? Will he pitch multiple innings in relief? Will he throw even harder? Chapman is a fascinating pitcher who by this time next year needs to be either starting games or finishing them for Cincinnati to get some return on the $30.25 million they gave him.
Are there more Buster Poseys -- an impact rookie who can help lead his team to the postseason, even the World Series title? It's too much to ask that this season sees as many exciting rookies as last season, when Posey, Jason Heyward and Stephen Strasburg accounted for three of the 20 most popular jerseys in baseball, and Chapman and Florida slugger Mike Stanton personified power.
The rookie class this year should have a lesser, but still important impact on the races. Among the rookies to watch are Chapman, first basemen Brandon Belt (San Francisco) and Freddie Freeman (Atlanta), outfielder Domonic Brown (Philadelphia), and pitchers Zach Britton (Baltimore) and Jeremy Hellickson (Tampa Bay).
Commissioner Bud Selig has four pressing ownership issues to worry him, though none of them might get resolved in 2011. They involve the Mets, where fallout from the Madoff Ponzi scheme has jeopardized the Wilpon family's hold of the club; the Dodgers, where the divorce of the McCourts has created financial instability; the Athletics, where owner Lew Wolff is patiently waiting for Selig to broker a deal with the Giants to get the team to San Jose; and the Rays, where a new ballpark is needed for long-term viability. Selig is likely to find an easier time locking down a new collective bargaining agreement with the players association (the current one expires in December) than solving those problems.