Top 10 for '10: What I'm most looking forward to this season
Expect at least one team to go from a losing record to the postseason this year
Aroldis Chapman leads an influx of Cuban defectors to small-market teams
Rookies Jason Heyward and Stephen Strasburg will make their debuts
You have to start somewhere. The Gregorian new year begins in Kiribati, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean that is the inhabited landmass most near, on the west side, to the international date line. For those of us who measure time by the Doubledayan calendar, the new year begins in Washington on Monday at 1:05 p.m. with a pitch from Nationals left-hander John Lannan, shortly after the ceremonial one from another southpaw, President Barack Obama.
(Yes, there is a game Sunday night, but the Yankees-Red Sox game is more of a made-for-TV event than it is a traditional Opening Day.)
It's the start of not just a new year but also a new decade. Welcome, as the Romans might have said, to MMX, though that would also happen to be the same greeting you could expect after touching down at Malmo Airport in Sweden.
A new year brings new storylines. It's much of the magic of Opening Day -- the anticipation of what is to come, like the first page of a good book or the clackety-clack slow climb of a roller coaster up the first hill. When it comes to the baseball storylines I most eagerly await this year, here are my favorites: the top 10 for '10:
10. The surprise team
Fourteen teams had losing records last year. One of them will be in the playoffs this year. How do I know this? Of the 120 playoff teams in the wild card era, 30 of them had a losing record in the previous season. That's 25 percent of your playoff teams, or an average of one turnaround team in each league each year. There has been at least one turnaround team in the playoffs every year but one in the 15 wild card seasons.
So who will be this year's surprise team? Pick one from among the Brewers, White Sox, Diamondbacks, Reds, Mets and A's.
9. The Cuban influence
Left-hander Aroldis Chapman of the Reds ($30.25 million) will be fun to watch, capable of very high strikeout games when he has command of his breaking ball. He is the most celebrated player among the biggest exodus of Cuban baseball talent since Fidel Castro gained power in the country more than half a century ago. Other recent defectors include shortstops Adeiny Hechevarria of Toronto ($10 million) and Jose Iglesias of Boston ($8.25 million), left-hander Noel Arguelles of Kansas City ($6.9 million) and first baseman/outfielder Leslie Anderson of Tampa Bay ($3.75 million).
Wait a minute. The Reds, Blue Jays, Royals and Rays are winning international bidding wars?
8. California courtroom drama
In the Bay Area, the Giants and A's do battle over Oakland's strategy to relocate to San Jose. In SoCal, the McCourts continue their War of the Roses divorce proceedings, a nasty feud that could lead to someone else owning the Los Angeles Dodgers, but not before the Dodgers -- a team stopped short of the World Series twice in a row only because of the mighty Phillies -- could see their window slammed shut because of the owner-driven austerity.
7. Carl Crawford
There is almost no chance that the Rays will re-sign Crawford, not with a 2011 payroll barely north of $50 million and with the Yankees and the Red Sox lining up to snag him (or Jayson Werth) as a free agent. But do the Rays have the nerve to trade Crawford during the season even if they are in a race? It's crazy, sure, but they were only 4 1/2 games out of the wild card last year when they traded Scott Kazmir and they could have prospect Desmond Jennings ready to replace Crawford by midseason. The more likely names tossed around the trade market in July could include A's starter Ben Sheets, Indians pitchers Jake Westbrook and Kerry Wood, Nationals first baseman/outfielder Adam Dunn and Orioles starter Kevin Millwood.
6. The Seattle Mariners
The darlings of the offseason now actually have to play baseball. Not since The Flying Karamazov Brothers has there been a troupe this sure-handed. But can a great defensive club win with a popgun offense and thin pitching rotation? Milton Bradley is their cleanup hitter. Yes, the same Milton Bradley who turns 32 in April and never has knocked in 78 runs in a season.
The pitching is heavily dependent on Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee throwing 450 dominant innings, because there are no certainties otherwise in the rotation. And Lee's Seattle career, short though it may be, already includes foot surgery, a five-game suspension, an abdominal strain (his third in eight years) and an assignment to the disabled list.
5. Target Field
And a target of critics it will be in April, May, September and, if applicable, October, when baseball will be played, when it can be at all, in miserable conditions. In this era in which sport is as much about programming as it is competition, and when stadium roof technology has been around for more than a quarter of a century, Major League Baseball should never have allowed a ballpark to be built in Minnesota without a retractable roof. Think of it as a minimum industry standard for an anticipated building lifespan of 50 years.
4. Roy Halladay's win total
From 2001 through 2009, Halladay pitched to a .685 winning percentage for a team that played .466 baseball otherwise. So what kind of total might he put up while pitching for the best team in the National League, the Phillies, and freed from the grind of the DH and the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays (against whom he made 14 of his final 18 starts for Toronto)?
The Phillies are due for a big winner. They haven't had an 18-game winner since 1983, the longest such drought in baseball.
3. The Nationals Are on the Clock (Again)
What to do with their second straight No. 1 overall pick of the draft: take 17-year-old junior college catcher Bryce Harper or 18-year-old, 6-foot-7 Texas high school right-hander Jameson Taillon? No right-handed high school pitcher has ever been the top pick. In fact, it's rare that any high school hurler is ever taken with the first pick of the draft -- thanks in part to Texas schoolboy Todd Van Poppel, whose contract demands led the Braves to happily take Chipper Jones first overall in 1990. Van Poppel wound up 40-52 with a 5.58 ERA for six teams.
By the way, here is the list of the worst ERAs of all time by anyone who threw at least 900 innings:
1. Todd Van Poppel (1991-2004) 5.58
2. Jimmy Haynes (1994-2004) 5.37
3. Scott Elarton (1998-2008) 5.29
4. Jose Lima (1994-2006) 5.26
5. Brian Bohannon (1990-2001) 5.19
Van Poppel, Elarton and Bohannon all were first-round picks -- out of high school.
2. Stephen Strasburg
The number of expected minor league starts for the right-hander before he gets called up by the Nationals is 10: slightly more than Mark Prior and half that of Justin Verlander. And the day he gets called up is the day the Washington Nationals become relevant and their television audience might actually be larger than your local community access channel.
1. Jason Heyward
The Braves' right fielder created the most spring training buzz since Albert Pujols tore up Cardinals camp in 2001. Which would you rather have when it comes to the NL Rookie of the Year Award: Heyward or the field? I'm not taking the field, not even a field that includes Strasburg and Chapman.
Heyward seems like a lock for 20 home runs. Not so impressed by that number? The dude is 20 years old. Only 13 players have ever hit 20 homers at or before their age 20 season, and that includes only two 20/20 Club members in the past 31 years: a couple of guys named Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez.
Forget the Fred McGriff comparisons; Heyward is far more athletic. Forget the Willie McCovey comparisons; McCovey was only a .270 career hitter. Forget the Willie Stargell comparisons; Stargell never walked even 90 times. Just let Heyward be who he will be, and enjoy a very unique player.
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