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With opening day just around the corner, aftertastes from last season are rekindled. For some clubs, it is a bitter, uncomfortable feeling, like in Boston and Atlanta. But for those in Detroit and Anaheim, the hopes of deep playoff runs have come in the form of big free agent franchise players. Here are the four biggest questions and storylines heading into the Major League Baseball season.
1. Will huge money free agents like Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols and Yu Darvish prove to be worth the price for their respective teams?
The signings of Albert Pujols and CJ Wilson have the Angels looking prime for a run towards an American League crown. Kendry Morales is on fire this spring training, and if he can consistently produce behind Pujols then Pujols will be worth every penny of that $250 million. The addition of CJ Wilson on the mound can only help the Angels’ already stellar starting rotation.
Staying in the American League West, the Rangers filled the hole left by the departure of CJ Wilson with Japanese sensation Yu Darvish. Darvish is a 25-year-old, 6’5, 216 lb. right-handed pitcher. In Japan, he had a record of 93-38 and 1,250 strikeouts in 1,268.3 innings. The Rangers have a stacked offense and if their young starting pitchers like Darvish, Neftali, Feliz and Derek Holland succeed then us baseball fans will have the delight of watching the Tigers, Rangers, Angels, Red Sox and Yankees battle it out in an absolutely loaded American League.
The Tigers’ signing of Prince Fielder makes them a virtual lock to win the AL Central. Miguel Cabrera and Fielder hitting back-to-back in the lineup will be fun to watch; not so much for opposing pitchers though. Like in Anaheim, Cabrera will have to move to third base, where he played very early on in his career. I highly doubt this will work and Cabrera will likely be a full time DH. Especially after Cabrera wore a grounder with his face and had to get stitches. Either way, Fielder’s big offense is definitely worth the price and he will likely battle Pujols for the AL lead in home runs.
2. Will Carl Crawford improve and play up to his contract?
Despite the terrible performance of the beer-drinking, video game-playing Red Sox starting pitchers, Boston might have actually made the playoffs if Crawford played up to his abilities. Even with Crawford’s career lows last year (.255 BA, .285 OBP, 18 stolen bases), the Red Sox lineup still led Major League Baseball with 875 runs and 2631 total bases, and their .280 batting average was only 3 points behind Texas for the MLB lead. If Crawford can get it going, Boston’s offense is stacked. I think if Crawford can handle the Boston pressure and play up to his talent, the Red Sox might be able to slug their way to an AL East crown.
3. How does the city of St. Louis and the Cardinals rebound from a World Series win without Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols?
Unfortunately, you cannot simply replace Albert Pujols, the best offensive player in the game. However, what will help is the return of starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, who was injured last season with a torn elbow ligament. When Wainwright is healthy, he serves as an annual contender for Cy Young. If he and last year’s playoff stud Chris Carpenter can pitch to their capabilities, the Cardinals will be competitive in the National League Central. However, Carpenter went down last week and will not be ready for opening day.
Losing La Russa might be an even bigger loss than Pujols. La Russa’s sense of his players’ talent and abilities is among the greatest the game has ever seen. La Russa has made a Hall of Fame career out of pushing the right buttons at exactly the right time. Last year he was able to make a mediocre bullpen look elite by carefully selecting matchups and playing the percentages.
4. Can the Brewers sustain their success?
With a dynamic duo of high-powered sluggers in the middle of the lineup, a revelation at Closer in the grizzly John Axford and their first division crown in 29 years, the Brewers emerged as the new sexy team in the NL last year. Unfortunately, Prince Fielder is now 1500 miles west in Detroit. Luckily for the Brewers, Ryan Braun just won his appeal for his 50-game suspension, stemming from his postseason positive drug test. He is the first player ever to win his appeal, in which he cited a protocol error by the collector. Their starting pitching is still pretty good with arms like Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum, and the addition of third baseman Aramis Ramirez should help Rickie Weeks and Braun sustain their offense. Second year manager Ron Roenicke pushed all the right buttons last year and is certainly capable of coaching this talented roster to another playoff run.