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April 5, 2009

On the Beat

Let the Games Begin

by John Perrotto

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Everyone is 0-0 today, though that will change later this evening once the opening game of the season between the defending World Series champion Phillies and the Braves has ended at Citizens Bank Park. Before any team has a blemish on their record and begins to give their fans reason for despair, let's remember that Opening Day is a time for hope.

With that in mind, here's a look at each of the 30 major league teams, and at least some reason for optimism:

Angels: The pitching staff is still deep enough to offset a number of spring injuries and the loss of some key players from last year's 100-win team.

Astros: Adding catcher Ivan Rodriguez strengthens a very weak roster position, and he should have something to prove after sitting on the free-agent market until deep into spring training.

Athletics: The off-season additions of shortstop Orlando Cabrera, left fielder Matt Holliday, and designated hitter Jason Giambi should greatly improve the offense.

Blue Jays: Roy Halladay is always capable of having a Cy Young-type season.

Braves: The rotation should be strong after adding Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez, and Kenshin Kawakami over the winter.

Brewers: They have a big-strike offense stocked with power hitters.

Cardinals: Chris Carpenter should give the rotation a big lift after missing virtually all of the past two seasons with shoulder and elbow injuries.

Cubs: They're the most balanced team in the National League, with a deep lineup and a deep rotation.

Diamondbacks: Brandon Webb and Dan Haren team up to form a pair of aces at the top of a good rotation.

Dodgers: Left fielder Manny Ramirez will be here for a full season, and he still seems to be in a good mood.

Giants: Tim Lincecum leads a talented rotation that gained a veteran mentor in Randy Johnson.

Indians: They finished seventh in the major leagues in runs scored last season, despite catcher Victor Martinez and designated hitter Travis Hafner missing large chunks of time with injuries.

Mariners: The outfield defense was greatly improved with the off-season acquisitions of Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez.

Marlins: They have a pair of potential young aces in Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson.

Mets: Johan Santana is as good as any starting pitcher in the game, and the additions of closer Francisco Rodriguez and set-up man J.J. Putz strengthens a shaky bullpen.

Nationals: They have three potential stars in third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, center fielder Lastings Milledge, and right fielder Elijah Dukes.

Orioles: They have three outstanding pitching prospects that could join the rotation sometime this season in Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, and Jake Arrieta.

Padres: The weather is always great in San Diego, and their home games are never rained out.

Phillies: They have everyone back from last season's World Series-winning team except for left fielder Pat Burrell, who they've replaced with Raul Ibaņez.

Pirates: Matt Capps is an outstanding young closer, even if, outside of Pittsburgh, almost no one knows his name.

Rangers: Right-handers Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla should be motivated to have big years since they're both eligible for free agency at the end of the season.

Rays: Adding Burrell as their designated hitter gives the defending American League champions the right-handed power bat they sorely lacked last season.

Red Sox: They have such outstanding pitching depth that Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard are beginning the season at Triple-A Pawtucket and Justin Masterson is being used in middle relief.

Reds: They should have five reliable starters for the first time in years, especially if Aaron Harang can bounce back from his poor 2008.

Rockies: First baseman Todd Helton had a big spring after undergoing off-season back surgery, and he seems poised for a comeback.

Royals: They've improved their record for three straight years and have their deepest roster since the players' strike wiped out the 1994 season.

Tigers : They should score plenty of runs with center fielder Curtis Granderson at the top of the lineup and first baseman Miguel Cabrera in the middle.

Twins: Despite scheduled Opening Day starter Scott Baker being forced to begin the season on the disabled list, they have a very good young rotation that includes ultra-talented Francisco Liriano.

White Sox: The batting order is deep enough in power hitters that third baseman Josh Fields, who hit 23 home runs in 100 games as a rookie in 2007, will bat ninth.

Yankees: The addition of free agents CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to holdover starters Chien Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte, and Joba Chamberlain makes for one of the best rotations in the game.

---

Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, the reigning AL Most Valuable Player, and Indians left-hander Cliff Lee, last year's AL Cy Young winner, had drastically different springs.

Pedroia hit .333/.426/.487 in 47 plate appearances, despite having to leave the US team in the World Baseball Classic early because of a strained abdominal muscle after going 2-for-16. Pedroia had hit just .152 in 46 at-bats last spring. "I feel a lot better this year," Pedroia said. "I'm seeing the ball better. My last couple years, I was kind of nervous going into the season. This year, I saw the ball a lot better and hit the ball a lot better. So hopefully it carries over, and I'll swing the bat from the start all the way to the finish."

Lee, meanwhile, had a 12.46 ERA in exhibition play as he gave up 30 earned runs and 46 hits in 21 2/3 innings. Opponents hit a whopping .430 against him, though he struck out 20 and walked just two. Despite the poor ERA, Lee said he's ready to go for the first Opening Day start of his career Monday when he pitches against the Rangers at the Ballpark in Arlington. "It's been a strange spring, but I feel strong and I'm ready to go," said Lee. "I was throwing the ball where I wanted to. The results just weren't there. I would have liked for the story to be different, but that's the way it is."

The Indians moved their spring training camp to Goodyear, Arizona this year from Winter Haven, Florida. Their pitchers learned throughout the spring that the dry Arizona air affects their grip on the ball and reduces the effectiveness of breaking pitches. "It sounds like an excuse, but I hope there's some truth to it," said Lee. "Hopefully, when we get back east my pitches will break more and the ball won't travel so far, but you've still got to pitch."

Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, the 2008 NL MVP, hit only one home run in 91 Grapefruit League plate appearances, but had a .293/.413/.453 line. Last year's NL Cy Young winner, Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum, had a 4.03 ERA in the Cactus League as he allowed 10 runs and 16 hits in 22 1/3 innings.

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The Yankees are not the only New York baseball team feeling the pressure this year, even after their spending $423.5 million in the offseason on Sabathia, Burnett, and Mark Teixeira as free agents. The Mets are also under the microscope as well after blowing leads in the NL East each of the last two Septembers and winding up missing the playoffs as the Phillies won the division both times. Now the Mets are expected to overtake the Phillies as they move into Citi Field, having remade the bullpen by adding Rodriguez and Putz while subtracting Billy Wagner, Aaron Heilman, Duaner Sanchez, Scott Schoeneweis, Joe Smith, and Luis Ayala.

Mets shortstop Jose Reyes believes that the new-look bullpen will make the difference in 2009. "Way better," Reyes said in describing the bullpen to Adam Rubin of the New York Daily News. "We have one of the better closers in the game, and we've got J.J. Putz; he's a closer, too. He's a hard thrower. Last year you know what happened. Billy Wagner got hurt, and that was a big loss for us. Now we've got one of the best bullpens in the big leagues."

The Mets are in a difficult division; the Phillies look to be strong again, the Braves appear to be improved after a 90-loss season, and the Marlins have a talented young roster. Still, Reyes sees the Mets as the team to beat. "It's going to be a really exciting season for us because we have a good team," said Reyes. "I mean, it's not going to be easy. There are a lot of good teams in our division. The last couple of years have been tough for us, but we have a good team this year."

---

When the Nationals open their season Monday against the Marlins at Dolphin Stadium, they'll be wrapping up a stretch that is something straight out of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

It began last Sunday when the Nationals traveled from their spring training camp in Viera, Florida, to Jupiter, Florida, to play the Marlins in an exhibition game. The next day, the Nationals hosted the Tigers. The following three days saw the Nationals play the Tigers in Lakeland, Florida, the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Florida, and the Phillies in Clearwater, Florida.

Following the game in Clearwater, they flew from Tampa to Norfolk, Virginia, and played the Orioles in an exhibition game there on Friday. On Saturday, the Nationals and Orioles met again at Nationals Park. The Nationals then flew to Fort Lauderdale, Florida on Saturday night, and have a workout scheduled today at Dolphin Stadium in advance of the opener. Mark Zuckerman of the Washington Times broke out the atlas and figured that the Nationals have bussed 1,056 miles and flown 3,240 in the past week-a total of 4,296 miles.

The Nationals' players were upset that management had made a rather petty cost-cutting move by having them bus back and forth across the state to Dunedin and Clearwater on consecutive days, even though the two cities are just three miles apart, rather than paying for hotel rooms. It's roughly 150 miles from Viera to Clearwater. "It's mind-boggling," said Nationals pitcher Jason Bergmann.

Manager Manny Acta, however, downplayed the idea that the Nationals could be burned out by all of the travel. "It's going to be a little tough, but hey, there are tougher things in life," he said. "Once that bell rings on Opening Day and the national anthem is being played, guys get re-energized, so no excuses."

---

Three season-opening series to watch amidst a group of clunkers, with probable starting pitchers:

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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