Big Questions Will Be Answered in 2010

Each team in baseball opens the year with half a dozen or more storylines that will determine how its season will play out. But some go beyond Player X staying injury-free or Player Y taking the great-leap-forward. So, here are some of the big-picture items to look at as the 2010 season unfolds.

How Will Target Field Play?

It is always exciting when a new ballpark opens. Frequently, we get a massive upgrade in facilities with the opening of a new park and that will certainly be true in Minnesota, as the Twins move from a dome to an open-air facility. For the past 28 seasons, the Twins have played indoors, sharing their park with the Vikings while playing in a stadium more suited for football.

As we saw last year with the two new parks in New York, one can never be certain of exactly how a new ballpark will play. How many people expected the Yankees’ new place to be the best home-run park in baseball? How many spectators predicted that Citi Field would spook David Wright and help cut his home-run output to one-third of what it had been previously?

Last year, Mall of America Field reversed a three-year trend of cutting both home runs and runs by playing as a hitters’ park. The Twins and their opponents combined to score 830 runs and hit 189 homers in Minnesota in 82 games, while in 81 road games the numbers were 752 and 168, respectively. The top five home-run hitters for the Twins – Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Joe Mauer, Joe Crede, and Delmon Young – combined to hit 145 homers. Eighty of those home runs came in their home park.

The dimensions are nearly identical between Target Field and Mall of America Field in right field and right center. The new park will be a few feet shorter from center over to left field. The wall in left will be eight feet high, a foot higher than in the old park. While the 23-foot high wall in the old park was located merely in right field, the new park will have a wall that high from right center to the right field foul pole. Officials expect the park to play “neutral,” but it remains to be seen how the Twins will do outside in their new surroundings.

Will the Red Sox Have a 30-Home-Run Hitter?

For years the Red Sox offense was defined by the 1-2 punch of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. From 2003 to 2007, the duo averaged more than 77 homers per season. Last year, Jason Bay hit 36 bombs for Boston. But with Bay gone and Ortiz no longer a guarantee to hit 30 long flies, who will provide the big bat in the middle of the order for the Red Sox? Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, Mike Cameron, and Victor Martinez are all capable of putting up a 30-homer season but none of them are predicted to reach 30 bombs by the Bill James Projections. The Red Sox won two World Series in the last decade and consider themselves contenders for another title. But no team has won a World Series this century without at least one player recording 30 or more home runs.

Will the Mets Fare Better in Year Two at Citi Field?

Shea Stadium was known as a pitcher’s park. But in its final season, the Mets hit 95 homers in Shea Stadium. Last year, in the first season at Citi Field, the Mets club managed just 49 bombs in its home park. Now, the Mets’ home run problems were not limited to Citi Field, as the club managed only 46 homers in road parks. But the perception of Citi as an extreme pitcher’s park in part influenced the team’s decision to make Jason Bay its primary offseason acquisition, even though a younger, better all-around player in Matt Holliday was also a free agent at the same position. Holliday had a 5.7 WAR last year compared to a 3.5 mark for Bay.

The Mets cited Bay’s home-run power and his pull tendencies as reasons for preferring him over Holliday. Will Bay be able to approximate either the 36 homers he hit overall last year or the .936 home OPS he posted in 2009? If he does, will the Mets continue to base offseason decisions on players they believe will “fit” their home park? And if Bay flops and none of the other players step up with a big home-run season, will the club alter the dimensions of its new park?

Will the Jorge de la Rosa-Ubaldo Jimenez Combination Become the Best in Baseball?

When the Mariners acquired Cliff Lee, many offered Lee and Felix Hernandez as the top pitching tandem in baseball. Others countered with Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, or Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, or C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. But hardly anyone mentioned the Rockies’ duo of Jorge de la Rosa and Ubaldo Jimenez.

Last year, de la Rosa and Jimenez combined for 31 wins and 391 strikeouts, totals that stack up with any of the other tandems mentioned above. After the All-Star break, the two combined for a 19-5 record with a 3.26 ERA and had 191 Ks in 190.2 innings pitched. The duo helped lead the Rockies to the playoffs as Colorado won 45 games in the second half to claim the Wild Card.

Why are de la Rosa and Jimenez not considered as an elite tandem? Neither Rockies pitcher was considered top-shelf material while in the minors. Jimenez ranked 84th on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospect list in 2007, while de la Rosa never made any of the publication’s lists. Neither pitcher had much success until last year and, even then, de la Rosa’s ERA was 4.38 for the season. And many will contend that pitching in the heartland hurts when it comes to publicity.

But if de la Rosa and Jimenez can match their second half numbers for an entire season in 2010, no one will doubt them. And the Rockies club, which finished three games behind the Dodgers for the NL West title last year, will become the class of the division.

Will the Braves Have One Last Hurrah for Bobby Cox?

As a ballplayer, Bobby Cox was nothing special. In two seasons in the Majors he put up a .225/.310/.309 line. But as a manager, Cox will likely make the Hall of Fame. A four-time winner of the Manager of the Year award, Cox guided his team to 14 first-place finishes in 15 years. He was the skipper for five NL Pennants and one World Series championship. Overall, Cox ranks fourth among managers with 2,413 wins in 28 years.

The Braves have missed the playoffs the past four years, but last season’s 86 wins was their highest total since 2005. The club enters the season with a top-notch rotation and a revamped bullpen. Offensively, the Braves hope that Chipper Jones can shake off his late-season slump and that Troy Glaus can stay healthy for the majority of the year.

If Atlanta finds itself in the middle of the pennant race, will it make moves to acquire a veteran bat to give Cox one last shot at a World Series? For years, the Braves were known as an organization that made shrewd trades. But the big push for Mark Teixeira in 2007 really hurt the farm system and did not pay off in a playoff berth. If the Braves club finds itself in the hunt, will management be gun shy with the memory of the Teixeira deal or will it go all-in to send Cox out on a high note?

Who Will Dave Duncan Work Miracles on Next?

In 2009, Joel Pineiro was the latest pitcher that St. Louis Cardinals coach Dave Duncan transformed into a surprise winner. From 2004 to 2008, Pineiro was 35-47 with a 5.34 ERA. Last year, with the addition of a two-seam fastball, Pineiro won 15 games and posted a 3.49 ERA. He joined a long line of Duncan-aided success stories, including Kyle Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer, Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan, Brett Tomko, and Darryl Kile, among many others. Which St. Louis pitcher will come out of nowhere to post a big season in 2010?

How Will the McCourt Divorce Affect the Dodgers?

The local media likes to give Dodgers owner Frank McCourt a hard time about making his fortune with parking lots. But under McCourt, the Dodgers advanced to the NLCS in back-to-back years for the first time since 1977-1978. The Dodgers organization had not even won a playoff game since 1988 when McCourt took control prior to the 2004 season. Since then the club has made the playoffs in four of six seasons and has maintained one of the top payrolls in the game.

But since the end of last season, when strains in the marriage between Frank and Jamie McCourt became public, it has been a different story. The Dodgers did not offer arbitration to any of their free agents, clearly afraid that someone would accept and win a big pay day while the team’s ownership status was in flux during the divorce proceedings.

While losing Randy Wolf, Jon Garland, Orlando Hudson, Mark Loretta, Jim Thome, and Will Ohman from last year’s club, the only moves the Dodgers have made so far has been to sign veteran utility man Jamey Carroll and deal Juan Pierre in a cost-cutting move. Right-hander Vicente Padilla was recently re-signed after coming over to the club in a mid-season trade in ’09.

Will the Dodgers make any moves to add more depth to its pitching before the start of the year? And if the team is in contention, will it be able to pull off a trade to add payroll? On the flip side, if the Dodgers fall behind early, will the club look to move Manny Ramirez or any other veteran making more than minimum wage? Will the unsettled ownership situation lead to a quicker decision on in/out of the playoff chase than normal?

Will the Yankees Be Able to Repeat Their Prolific Offensive Season?

Last year, eight of the nine regulars for the Yankees posted an OPS+ of 125 or more, as the team scored 915 runs – the most in the Majors. Only center fielder Melky Cabrera failed to reach that level, and he was hardly a slouch with a 99 OPS+. However, the Yankees organization replaced him with Curtis Granderson, who put up a 123 OPS+ in 2008 and 135 in 2007.

The Yankees lost DH Hideki Matsui, but have already replaced him with Nick Johnson, who posted an OPS+ of 122 last year and 124 in 2008. Johnny Damon also may not return, but the Yankees are likely to replace him with a bat, too.

New York enjoyed great health in 2009. Only Jorge Posada failed to get 500 plate appearances among expected starters and even he played in 111 games. Also, the Yankees enjoyed great rebound seasons last year from Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, and Nick Swisher. Those three posted OPS+ numbers of 86, 102 and 92, respectively, in 2008. Can everything fall in place in back-to-back seasons offensively for the Bronx Bombers?

Can the Mariners Offense Catch Up to Its Pitching and Defense?

After five years of middle-of-the-road offensive performance, where he posted wOBAs ranging from .344 to .359, Raul Ibanez left the Mariners as a free agent prior to the 2009 season. The main outfielder imported was Franklin Gutierrez, who posted a .337 wOBA. Yet, Gutierrez was widely hailed as one of the reasons Seattle improved from 61 to 85 wins. Gutierrez took over center-field duties and posted a 27.1 UZR/150. Ibanez had posted back-to-back double-digit negative UZR/150 seasons his final two years in Seattle.

The Mariners led the American League with a .710 Defensive Efficiency Rating last year. In 2008, the club ranked 13th with a .679 mark. The outfield of Gutierrez, Ichiro Suzuki and a revolving door in left field, which included Wladimir Balentien, Endy Chavez, and Ryan Langerhans (who each posted double-digit UZR/150 marks in left), was one of the best fielding groups of recent memory. Among players who played at least 50 games, only shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt had a negative UZR/150. He was replaced with Jack Wilson, who notched a 14.3 UZR/150 in 31 games.

The improved defense undoubtedly helped the pitching, which led the AL with a 3.87 ERA. So the 2009 Mariners club was first in pitching, first in defense, but last in runs scored with 640 – 275 runs behind the AL-leading Yankees. The Mariners imported Chone Figgins to help the offense but must find a replacement for free agent first baseman Russell Branyan, who had a team-leading 31 homers and 76 RBI. Can a team with only two players likely to exceed a .350 wOBA – Ichiro and Figgins – make the playoffs?

Did the Phillies Make the Right Choice in Trading Cliff Lee?

The Phillies acquired Cliff Lee at the trading deadline last year and he proceeded to win seven games down the stretch and was the club’s best pitcher in the postseason. Lee went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five playoff games last year and his two victories in the World Series were the only games won by the Phillies. But Lee was a free agent following the 2010 season and Philadelphia opted to trade him and acquire Roy Halladay in a multi-team, multi-player deal. The deal was contingent on signing Halladay to an extension, which the Phillies were able to do.

Meanwhile, after the trade, Lee expressed surprise that the Phillies dealt him, as he thought the two sides were closing in on a new contract. Philadelphia made the decision to spend the money on Halladay rather than Lee, but should they have kept both players for the 2010 season? With the Phillies’ offense, having Halladay and Lee at the top of their rotation would have been an imposing threat for other teams in the National League.

Now the Phillies are hoping that Cole Hamels can bounce back and be the club’s second starter behind Halladay. After out-performing his FIP in both 2007 and 2008, Hamels experienced some bad luck in 2009. His FIP shows him as essentially the same pitcher from 2006 to 2009, but the results were markedly worse last year than 2008. If Hamels posts an ERA that matches his career FIP of 3.79, will the Phillies be happy with that production from the second starter?

Philadelphia restocked its farm system by trading Lee. But is the haul of Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, and JC Ramirez better than a season of Lee and two draft picks? Conventional wisdom says that the Phillies made it to back-to-back World Series with just half a season of Lee. The Major League team is better off with a full season of Halladay and the minor league system is better with the prospects. But anything less than a World Series victory will leave fans wondering how things would have been with Lee still on the team.

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