Who will be the most valuable player in baseball?
Jon Heyman: Ryan Howard, Phillies.
He's won a Rookie of the Year, an MVP and a World Series, and in some ways he's still underappreciated. He's always a threat to go deep, especially in Citizens Bank Ballpark. And the new slender waistline can't hurt, either.
Ted Keith: Albert Pujols, Cardinals.
With Pujols the Cardinals will always have, at worst, an outside chance at contending. Without him they have no chance. He's still in his prime and the numbers he's putting up are simply staggering.
Gennaro Filice: Hanley Ramirez, Marlins.
In the grand history of baseball only four players have produced 40-40 seasons (Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Alfonso Soriano). But this ultra-exclusive club could welcome a new member very soon. After sniffing it last season (33 homers, 35 steals), Hanley could reach 40/40 land in '09. (Those extra 25 pounds of muscle could slow him down a bit, though.)
Cliff Corcoran: David Wright, Mets.
Wright is a 26-year-old superstar who does everything well. Everything. He's a superb fielder (though his Gold Gloves should have gone to Ryan Zimmerman or Pedro Feliz). He will steal 15-plus bases a year. While the Mets' bullpen was busy throwing the season away each of the last two years, he hit .354/.442/.615 and .397/.451/.575 after Sept. 13. With the bullpen fixed, his accomplishments shouldn't be overshadowed again, and in his age-26 season, he could accomplish more than ever before.
David Sabino: Josh Hamilton, Rangers.
Last year was Hamilton's coming-out party, and 2009 promises to be the season in which the Home Run Derby hero reaches mega-stardom. Hamilton batted .304 and finished in the top 10 in the AL in RBIs, slugging percentage, OPS, hits, home runs, total bases, extra base hits and runs created, all while slumping badly in the second half of his first full season. With more experience and a higher comfort level he'll be in the thick of the Triple Crown category races again and has a chance to top .325, 40 home runs and 150 RBIs in a very strong Rangers lineup.
Joe Lemire: Pujols.
He is baseball's undisputed best player, and there's no reason to think he won't have another MVP season to keep St. Louis at or above .500. Plus, his success homering on Buddy Day gets me every time.
Jonah Freedman: Manny Ramirez, Dodgers.
You'll never see a more motivated Manny Ramirez than you will this season. He has everything to gain and nothing to lose. He's essentially playing for another contract, thanks to his opt-out clause, and I still believe that the bitter taste from his Boston exit affects him more than he's leading on. I expect Ramirez to have another dynamite year and to help make the cadre of young Dodgers hitters more dangerous with him protecting them.
Who will be the best overall pitcher?
Jon Heyman: Jon Lester, Red Sox.
Dynamic stuff and tremendous poise mean he's ready to leap to the next level. That $30 million extension's going to look like a major bargain very soon.
Gennaro Filice: Roy Halladay, Blue Jays. No pitcher in baseball consistently gives his team a better chance to win than Halladay. Sorry, Johan, but nine career complete games just isn't going to cut it; not when Halladay had nine last season. With a little more offensive support this season, Halladay could win 22-plus.
Cliff Corcoran: CC Sabathia, Yankees.
Sabathia quite simply is the best pitcher in baseball. He won the AL Cy Young in 2007 and was dominant for the Brewers last year. There's no reason to expect anything less from him this year in his age-28 season, as he's been conditioned to pitch 250-odd innings over the last two seasons and likely won't be asked to throw as many for the Yankees, who have a better bullpen than either the Indians or Brewers had last year.
David Sabino: Johan Santana, Mets.
After posting a better ERA and WHIP in more innings than the top two finishers, it appears that the thing that kept Santana from the Cy Young Award in 2008 were his 16 victories compared to Tim Lincecum's 18 and Brandon Webb's 22. However, Santana made 11 appearances in which he allowed two or fewer runs yet either got a loss (four) or a no-decision (seven). Enter Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz, who will help Santana get back to the 20-win mark on the NL's best club.
Joe Posnanski: Santana.
Santana was SO good last year and hardly anyone even noticed it. I think he will be even better in '09.
Joe Lemire: Josh Beckett, Red Sox.
The numbers don't lie: In odd-numbered years Boston's ace is 36-25 with a 3.17 ERA; in even-numbered years he's 43-37 with a 4.29 ERA. Not only is 2009 an odd year, but also the Sox have assembled the best defense he's ever had supporting him.
Jonah Freedman: Halladay.
Against all odds (and his team's likely lack of support), Halladay will take home his second Cy Young. He may turn 32 this season but the Jays ace is getting better with age, upping his strikeout count, innings pitched and strikeout-to-walk ratio. Competition seems to bring out the best in Halladay, so bring on division rivals CC Sabathia and Jon Lester -- "Doc" will outlast them both.
Which rookie will have the biggest impact?
Tom Verducci: Rick Porcello, Tigers.
Matt Wieters might be the best rookie, but the Orioles still aren't going to be a playoff team even if he has a breakout year. Porcello, however, could be the difference in whether the Tigers go to the postseason or not.
Jon Heyman: David Price, Rays.
There are lots of great possibilities here, but Price was a No. 1 overall pick for a reason. He's in the minors for now to monitor his innings (and maybe push back his clock), but he'll be up in time to throw at least 150 very impressive innings.
Ted Keith: Price.
He's starting the season in the minor leagues but whenever he returns to Tampa Bay he'll have the ability to immediately transform that division race. He's talented enough to be slotted almost anywhere in the Rays' rotation, and depending on where he fits, should have a ripple effect on the rest of the staff.
Joe Posnanski: Price.
I expect that Price will be the best pitcher on the Rays in 2009. He was one of my finalists for Cy Young Award.
Ben Reiter: Price.
It has to be Price or the Orioles' Matt Wieters, both of whom will start the season in the minors but should be up after a month or so. Wieters, who some describe as "Joe Mauer with Power," should have the most impact going forward (by virtue of the fact that he's a catcher and will play every day), but I think Price will finish ahead this year -- mostly because he'll provide a jolt to a team that will be in the playoff hunt, whereas the Orioles shouldn't be anywhere close.
Joe Lemire: Trevor Cahill, A's (Or Brett Anderson or Vin Mazzaro).
Certainly Wieters will have a nice year, but when it comes to impact in 2009, Oakland's promising starters are the wild card for the A's to possibly challenge for, well, the wild card. Based on the spring, Anderson seems most ready to contribute now, but Cahill and/or Mazzaro could fill that role, too. Of course, if Price is called up to the majors within the first month and immediately reaches his ace potential -- which is entirely possible -- he could be the difference-maker in the Rays pushing the Sox or Yankees out of the playoffs.
Jonah Freedman: Matt Wieters, Orioles.
In terms of raw ability it's almost impossible to pick against Wieters. But potential's a tricky thing, and crushing expectations are even worse. The catching prospect may have to carry the weight of another futile season in Baltimore on his shoulders, and that won't be easy on him.
Who is your breakout player?
Tom Verducci: Chris Iannetta, Rockies.
Big-time power that is not a Coors Field creation; he had a slightly better OPS on the road than at home last year. He just might lead all MLB catchers in home runs.
Jon Heyman: Paul Maholm, Pirates.
And no, it's not because he retired Billy Crystal. Maholm responded to a contract extension by having a better spring than anyone. Springs don't count for too much, but he was simply dominating down in Bradenton.
Ted Keith: Justin Upton, Diamondbacks.
Upton is still just 21 years old and entering just his third season, but it feels like he's been around much longer than that. He's never played more than 108 games, or had even 400 at-bats, But with consistent playing time and more experience, look for the numbers to rise across the board for the former No. 1 overall pick.
Ben Reiter: Adam Jones, Orioles.
We know not to put so much stock in spring training statistics, but this Adam Jones made it rain down in Ft. Lauderdale this spring: Through Tuesday he was hitting .382 with three homers and seven steals. After a slightly disappointing rookie season in '08 (.270, 9 HR, 10 steals), the 23-year-old could go 25/25 this year, and the sky's the limit after that.
Lee Jenkins: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers.
He got a taste of the majors last season, showing off some electrifying stuff. The Dodgers need a pitcher to emerge at the top of their rotation, and Kershaw's the most likely candidate.
Albert Chen: Shin-Soo Choo, Indians.
Choo, who hit .343 with a 1.038 OPS in 58 games in the second half last year, is poised for a big year. The Indians have so much faith in Choo that they dealt away Franklin Gutierrez this offseason so that Choo could take over on a full-time basis.
Cliff Corcoran: Jayson Werth, Phillies.
There are a lot of young players who showed signs last year indicative of a breakout season this year -- among them Joey Votto, Justin Upton, Stephen Drew and Chris Iannetta -- but the guy I'm keeping my eye on is Werth. He entered last season as a platoon player and finished the year as the Phillies' everyday right fielder. This year he's the Opening Day starter (the Phils just released his 2008 platoon partner, Geoff Jenkins) and could very easily turn in a 30/30 season with 100 RBIs and 100 runs scored.
David Sabino: Alex Gordon, Royals.
Since he was drafted with the second pick of the '05 draft the world has been waiting for a big year from the Royals third baseman who had a modest 16 home runs and .432 slugging percentage as a sophomore last season. He has looked much more comfortable at the plate this spring, though, and with a vastly improved lineup surrounding him the pressure will be off and his true talent should emerge.