Opening Day is just two days and a half a world away. Set the alarms, because the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics open the season Tuesday and Wednesday morning (American time) with a two-game series at the Tokyo Dome in Japan.
No one will be under the microscope more in Japan than native son Daisuke Matsuzaka, who will pitch the opener for the Red Sox. Matsuzaka got rock star treatment when the Red Sox plane touched down, and for the media, he will be the focal point of the entire trip.
However, Matsuzaka isn’t the only player under the microscope as the season gets set to open. Here is a look at one player on each American League team who is in that situation at the outset of the 2008 season.
Baltimore: Adam Jones is just 22 but the Orioles are counting heavily on the center fielder to help revive a moribund franchise after joining it as the centerpiece of a trade that sent left-hander Erik Bedard to Seattle. PECOTA sees Jones being solid but not a savior this season, with a projection of .266/.329/.449 with 21 home runs and 81 RBI.
Boston: J.D. Drew didn’t have a very good first season with the Red Sox last year after signing a five-year, $70 million contract as a free agent, but he did shine in the postseason. More is expected from someone with an average annual salary of $14 million, but PECOTA doesn’t see Drew bouncing back with a projection of .267/.367/.421 with 11 home runs and 60 RBI.
Chicago: Jose Contreras has been horrible since midway through the 2006 season, and is signed through 2009. The White Sox need Contreras to help anchor a rotation that includes unproven pitchers like John Danks and Gavin Floyd, but PECOTA isn’t banking on it, projecting a 5.00 ERA in 127 1/3 innings.
Cleveland: C.C. Sabathia is the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, and is eligible for free agency at the end of this season; all indications are the Indians won’t be able to re-sign him. Thus, this could very well be his last go-round on the shores of Lake Erie, and PECOTA sees him finishing with a flourish, with a projection of a 15-8 record and 3.51 ERA in 215 innings.
Detroit: Todd Jones had a shaky 2007, but the Tigers are counting on him to be a key piece to a championship puzzle as the closer after putting together an All-Star lineup. PECOTA anticipates a rocky ride for Jones, though, with a projection of 22 saves and a 4.34 ERA in 59 innings.
Kansas City: Jose Guillen is expected to add punch to a lineup in need of some after being signed to a three-year, $36 million contract as a free agent over the winter. PECOTA doesn’t see Guillen adding all that much for the money, though, with a projection of .279/.334/.445 with 16 home runs and 68 RBI.
L/Anaheim: Ervin Santana has to be the potential superstar of 2006 instead of the bust of 2007 in an Angels‘ rotation that will be without John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar until at least May. PECOTA sees Santana returning to at least adequacy, with a projection of a 9-9 record and 4.56 ERA in 154 innings.
Minnesota: Francisco Liriano has the talent to be the Twins‘ No. 1 starter, a job left vacant by the offseason trade of Johan Santana to the Mets. Liriano missed last season while recovering from off-season surgery and PECOTA sees him pitching well but lacking durability with a projection of a 6-5 record and 3.00 ERA in 121 innings.
New York: Jason Giambi is finally at the end of his seven-year, $120 million contract, and the Yankees hope to squeeze a little production from someone who needs to stay healthy enough to play first base on a daily basis. That’s because they plan to use the designated hitter spot to get outfielders Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui into the lineup on an everyday basis. PECOTA isn’t optimistic about Giambi helping much, as it projects him to hit .235/.363/.453 with 15 home runs and 44 RBI.
Oakland: Bobby Crosby has not only been injury-prone in recent seasons, but unproductive when healthy. The shortstop had a batting cage built in his backyard over the winter, but PECOTA doesn’t see that making a big difference, projecting a .247/.315/.368 line with six home runs and 35 RBI.
Seattle: Richie Sexon’s power disappeared last season and the big first baseman became the target of boo birds. PECOTA is figuring on more jeers this season, with a projection of .245/.333/.433 with 19 home runs and 69 RBI for the big fella.
Tampa Bay: Carlos Pena had a breakout season in 2007, then was rewarded with a three-year, $24.125 million contract. The pressure will be on the first baseman to live up to the deal, but that seems to be in the cards, as PECOTA pegs him for .259/.372/.500 with 33 home runs and 99 RBI.
Texas: Kevin Millwood went through a rigorous conditioning program over the winter after having two stints on the disabled list with hamstring strains in 2007. PECOTA expects a bit of a bounce-back, projecting a 4.61 ERA in 152 1/3 innings.
Toronto: B.J. Ryan was limited to just five games last season before undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery and is rushing back in an attempt to be on the Opening Day roster. PECOTA likes Ryan’s chances of a solid comeback, projecting a 2.96 ERA and 14 saves in 58 1/3 innings.
The Red Sox and Athletics will start the season as scheduled, but there were a few dicey moments this past Wednesday when Boston’s players refused to take the field for an exhibition game against Toronto in Fort Myers, Florida, and threatened to boycott the trip to Japan. The players were backing the coaches and staff, who said they were promised a $40,000 appearance fee for making the trip. The players felt Major League Baseball was reneging on the promise.
However, there was a question of who really reneged. The Boston Globe reported that the Major League Baseball Players Association, which does not recognize coaches other than for licensing and pension purposes, had agreed to pay the appearance fee during a conference call last October.
The start of the game was delayed one hour before a resolution was achieved. Basically, the Red Sox underwrote $600,000 to pay the staff, and hoped to be partially reimbursed by MLB and the MLBPA. “In the end, the right thing was done,” Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling said. “It was a busy, hectic day, but we all put our heads together and got it worked out.”
Red Sox manager Terry Francona first learned that the coaches and staff would not be paid from Athletics manager Bob Geren in a telephone conversation on Tuesday night. Francona then met Wednesday morning with Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell, General Manager Theo Epstein, and President Larry Lucchino while also having a phone conversation with Commissioner Bud Selig.
First baseman Kevin Youkilis, the Red Sox’ player representative to the MLBPA, said there should be no blame assigned for the misunderstanding, and hoped the incident would be forgotten. “The conference call (in October) was tough in and of itself,” Youkilis said. “There were six or seven players on it. In the business world conference calls are not the easiest way. You hear voices and everyone’s talking. We definitely knew what we were told. There was added stuff just to get us to go over there. I can’t blame one person for the misunderstanding. I think the next time we know going forward that when you have these conference calls, you have to get it in writing. It’s the easiest way to do stuff. One thing that will be addressed at players’ union meetings now is that you have to put it in writing and be on the same page. We found out today. It’s a learning process, we’re moving forward and we’re going to have a lot of fun over there.”
Added Youkilis, “People just don’t know how much these coaches do for us, how hard they work. They put in way more hours than players do to get us ready to play. That’s why everyone was so passionate about this issue. If they have to go through all the things that we have to go through on this trip, they should get the compensation as well. That’s only fair.”
Lowell said the brief work stoppage was a show of how tightly bonded to one another the Red Sox are in defense of their World Series title. “It shows how much this team cares about one another and the people who are involved, from the traveling secretary to the video guy to the trainer to the clubhouse people,” Lowell said. “We believed what we were standing up for was the right thing.”
The Red Sox’ action brought up the question of how much members of the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres were compensated for their trip to China for two exhibition games in Beijing last weekend. It turned to be not much. “We got a gift bag,” Padres reliever Heath Bell told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Inside was a ball, a T-shirt, two Snickers bars, a bottle of wine imported from California, a stuffed animal, and a box of tea. I must have missed the money.”
However, the Dodgers and Padres are expected to receive a small monetary stipend for their adventure. MLB was thrilled by how well the games were received in the world’s most populous country, and spent an estimated $2 million on the event. It’s doubtful the money was made back on ticket sales, as Chinese protocol requires 20 percent of tickets to sporting events be given as complimentary gifts to government agencies.
“Overall it was an A to an A-plus,” said Jim Small, MLB’s vice president of Asian operations. “This is the coming-out party. This isn’t the end. This is the beginning. This is a platform. It gives us context.”
The only drawback seemed to be the poor air quality in Beijing, something that is forcing some top athletes to considering skipping this summer’s Olympics. “You could feel the smog,” Padres closer Trevor Hoffman said. “There’d be a burning sensation in your chest, although it wasn’t that bad.” “Some players said the feeling was like playing in Colorado,” Padres conditioning coach Jim Malone said. “You couldn’t get that full, deep breath.”
The Florida Marlins had one of the National League’s best and one of its worst when he came to hitting left-handed pitchers in 2007. Thus, that should make the Marlins opener at home against the Mets and Santana on March 31 interesting. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez hit .399 against lefties last season, the best among NL hitters with a least 150 plate appearances against southpaws. Meanwhile, Willingham was last among the 40 players on that list with a .218 batting average, and he hit just two home runs against them.
“I knew the stat,” Willingham told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “I’d always hit well against them, so I was like, ‘What’s the problem?’ I couldn’t pinpoint anything.” Willingham’s struggles against lefties were a surprise since he entered last season as a .305 lifetime hitter against them while connecting for 12 homers in 144 at bats. “I never even thought about it to begin with,” he said. “It was just a coincidence. I take the same approach when I’m at the plate. It doesn’t really matter who is pitching. If I do it again this year where I don’t hit well off them, you can force me into retirement.”
NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Cubs are said to be getting extremely frustrated with the Orioles in their attempt to trade for second baseman Brian Roberts. If the trade doesn’t go down before spring training ends this week, it likely won’t happen at all. The Orioles reportedly are now asking that left-hander Sean Marshall be included in a trade package that includes pitcher Sean Gallagher, shortstop Ronny Cedeno. and pitching prospect Donald Veal. … Cincinnati reportedly has its eye on Texas catcher Gerald Laird. … Colorado doesn’t appear likely to trade left-handed reliever Brian Fuentes despite heavy interest from Detroit, the Yankees and Philadelphia. … Houston appears to be the frontrunner to sign right-hander John Patterson, who was released by Washington this past week. … The Cubs still haven’t settled on a closer from among Bob Howry, Carlos Marmol, or Kerry Wood–or a combination of the three. … Adam Eaton figures to be Philadelphia’s fifth starter to begin the season, but will likely yield the job to Kris Benson sometime in May once Benson is recovered from the shoulder surgery that forced him to miss last season with Baltimore. … Houston will go with a combination of Geoff Blum and Mark Loretta at second base, while Kaz Matsui recovers from surgery to repair an anal fissure. … Woody Williams, Clint Sampson, and Jack Cassell are competing for the Astros‘ fifth starter’s spot in a rotation that will include Roy Oswalt, Brandon Backe, Wandy Rodriguez, and Shawn Chacon.
Juan Pierre is looking like the odd man out in the Dodgers’ outfield, as he has been outplayed by Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, who are likely to play on the corners, flanking center fielder Andruw Jones. … Esteban Loaiza appears to have beaten out a rejuvenated Chan Ho Park to be the Dodgers’ fifth starter. … San Francisco is willing to trade left-handed reliever Steve Kline and outfielder Dave Roberts for prospects in order to open up roster spots for young players. … Among the out-of-options players on the trading block in the final days of spring training are Rockies reliever Ramon Ramirez and outfielder Cory Sullivan, and D’backs’ relievers Brandon Medders and Dustin Nippert. … The Padres have a four-man battle going for the fifth starter’s spot, between Wil Ledezma, Justin Germano, Shawn Estes, and Glendon Rusch. Whoever wins is likely just keeping the seat warm until May, when Mark Prior should be recovered from shoulder problems and cleared to pitch. … Former Giants, Cubs, and Nats pitcher Jerome Williams has been unable to even land a minor-league contract this spring and will likely have to go the independent league route.
AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Yankees recently kicked the tires on Oakland pitchers Rich Harden and Joe Blanton, but decided instead that they are satisfied with their starting rotation of Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte, Philip Hughes, Ian Kennedy, and Mike Mussina to abandon pursuit, while also deciding to leave Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen. … The Yankees don’t have a reliable left-handed reliever, though, and have their eyes on Pittsburgh’s Damaso Marte, as well as the Rockies’ Fuentes. … Boston is willing to trade lefty Craig Breslow and right-handers Bryan Corey and Kyle Snyder, as all are out of minor-league options. … The Red Sox asked Bartolo Colon to lose 20 pounds when they reassigned him to their minor league camp this past week, because they feel the extra weight is having an effect on his pitching mechanics. … The Orioles continue to look for their starting shortstop beyond their own camp, and are talking to the Nationals about disgruntled infielder Felipe Lopez. The Orioles’ two in-camp candidates are Luis Herandez and Brandon Fahey. … The Orioles’ fifth starter is coming down to either Matt Albers or Brian Burres. … The Rays are likely to send top third base prospect Evan Longoria to the minor leagues, in order to keep his arbitration and free agency clocks from starting. If that’s the case, Willy Aybar would be the Rays’ Opening Day third baseman. … Add the Rays to the list of teams with interest in trading for Red Sox outfielder Coco Crisp.
In addition to their own pursuit of Fuentes, the Tigers are also looking at the Cubs’ Michael Wuertz, and Blaine Boyer, Chris Resop, Royce Ring, and Tyler Yates of the Braves as trade possibilities, as GM Dave Dombrowski trolls for relief help. … Left-hander Jeremy Sowers‘ star has dimmed in the Cleveland organization, but the Astros, Phillies, and Cardinals all have interest in trading for him. … That the White Sox placed infielder Juan Uribe on recallable waivers this past week seems to be an indication they are comfortable going with Cuban rookie Alexei Ramirez at second base. … The White Sox appear headed toward naming Joe Crede as their Opening Day third baseman, and sending Josh Fields back to Triple-A Charlotte. … Among the players out of options and on the block for the Mariners are right-hander Cha Seung Baek, utilityman Mike Morse, and outfielder Charlton Jimerson.