What to watch for in 2009: Baseball
This year's World Baseball Classic features a new double-elimination format
The Orioles' Matt Wieters, a switch-hitting catcher, is the best prospect in baseball
Rickey Henderson's Hall of Fame induction speech will be must-see TV
1. The World Baseball Classic: An unknown oddity in 2006, the WBC is now a legitimate, big-stage international event after what turned out to be a highly successful debut. What to look for in March of 2009? How about the possibility of Alex Rodriguez, who switched teams to play for the Dominican Republic, facing Derek Jeter and Team USA in the semifinals? You can get a peek at pitcher Yu Darvish, 22, of Japan, who someday may trigger the next stateside posting war. How about a Sunday night game between the U.S. and Venezuela (and a possible start by Johan Santana) in the first round? Or Cuba vs. Mexico in Mexico City? The new double-elimination format makes every game exciting: The loser either goes home or to the losers' bracket.
2. How good are the Rays? It is the question that lingered last season as the Rays completed one of the most stunning turnarounds in sports history. But now comes the really hard part: to try to do it again while playing with expectations for the first time. The good news is that the Rays, with their defense and young pitching, fit the profile of the 1991 Braves, another worst-to-first outfit, who actually won more games in 1992 (98) than in 1991 (94). And they can drop super-cool rookie David Price into the rotation.
One key to watch with Tampa Bay: how its young starting pitchers bounce back from being pushed through seven months of work last season. James Shields, 26 (240 total innings), Andy Sonnenstine, 25 (210 1/3), Matt Garza, 24 (209 2/3) and Scott Kazmir, 24 (188), face the same price of success that challenged the 2006 White Sox, '07 Tigers and '08 Rockies as they tried to repeat breakout years.
3. The arrival of Matt Wieters: The Orioles' phenom is the best prospect in baseball, a 6-foot-5, switch-hitting catcher who hits for average and power. In 130 games last season between Class A and Double-A, Wieters hit .355/.454/.600, with 27 home runs and 91 runs batted in. When the Orioles traded veteran catcher Ramon Hernandez to Cincinnati at the winter meetings, Baltimore president Andy MacPhail admitted the obvious: "This is about Matt Wieters, frankly," he said.
Baltimore will sign a veteran placeholder to catch until Wieters is ready, but there is no doubt that moment is coming in 2009, and most likely sooner rather than later. The Brewers pushed Ryan Braun, then 23, into the majors on May 25, 2007. The Rays brought up Evan Longoria, then 22, on April 12, 2008, but only after he signed a long-term deal that made moot the service-time accrual that would have brought arbitration eligibility into play. In any case, Wieters, 23, looks like he can be the same impact player straight-out-of-the-box that we've seen over the previous three seasons with Hanley Ramirez (2006), Braun and Troy Tulowitzki ('07) and Longoria ('08).
4. Rickey Henderson's Hall of Fame induction speech: Get your recorders ready. People have been waiting for this one for years. The man who once as a free agent called up Padres GM Kevin Towers and said, "This is Rickey calling on behalf of Rickey. Rickey wants to play" will be the guaranteed hit of the party.
5. World Series Game 7 on Nov. 4: Brrr. Commissioner Bud Selig already might be rooting for teams from warm-weather cities or with domes to win the pennants. The WBC caused the entire baseball calendar to get pushed out by one week, thus the latest scheduled ending to a World Series ever -- and that's not including possible 2008 Philadelphia-style weather delays. You know that Red Sox-Cubs ratings bonanza matchup that MLB and its television partners have dreamed of since 2003? It might be played amid snow flurries if it happens in 2009.