Since we last convened for the opening of a major-league baseball season, there have been many remarkable doings both on and off the field. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays, by a new name, smelled much sweeter. The Philadelphia Phillies ended a city's decades of pro sports futility. The Chicago Cubs concluded a full century without a World Series championship and will now begin another. The New York Yankees missed the playoffs. Yankee and Shea stadiums are gone. Veteran stars like Manny Ramirez, Ivan Rodriguez, Bobby Abreu and Adam Dunn settled for short dollars or short term or both, while future Hall of Famers Pedro Martinez and Frank Thomas can't even find a job. And Alex Rodriguez is now as tarnished as Barry Bonds, no longer poised to be MLB's salvation from itself. Baseball's only eternal verity is Bud Selig, commissioner for life. Here's what to keep your eye on this season:
Recession Ball: Baseball is hardly immune to the national economic woes. Major-league teams are now asking, "If we play, will they come?" There's good reason to wonder. The Red Sox, with a record sellout streak at 469 games, were recently advertising ticket availabilities in April and May, and the Yankees can't move all those pricey luxury seats in their new palace. One team executive confided that during spring training he had seen a once unimaginable sight: three young men sharing one beer. Delaware North, which handles concessions in eight ballparks, will experiment with $1 mini-items—peanuts, popcorn, hot dogs, sodas—in Cincinnati and Milwaukee.
New York, New York: The legacy of New York City's Olympic-bid boondoggle is two new baseball stadiums subsidized by local tax dollars. Gone is old Yankee Stadium, site of countless historic moments, but the new Big House in the Bronx is a glorious sight. Nobody will miss the monstrosity that was Shea. It housed far fewer glories, but those witnessed there were truly miraculous. No grand statements for the Mets, who have constructed an intimate ballpark rather than a stadium.
The Steinbrenner Way: George Steinbrenner may have passed the torch to his sons, but his influence continues. After a one-year experiment with young pitching and a mortifying third-place finish—out of the playoffs for the first time since 1995—the Yankees' front office has re-embraced the Boss's big-spending ways. The Yankees were the off-season's sole big spender, putting up $425 million to snare the sexiest free agents on the market, notably pitching ace CC Sabathia. Of the three kids—Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy—who last year represented the pitching future, only Chamberlain will start in the majors this season (though there are concerns about his pitching health).
The Red Sox Way: With a solid, young nucleus, the Boston Red Sox just dabbled in the free-agent market. Still, Boston scored some major talent at discount prices because almost all of it came as damaged goods—old, infirm or both. The most notable acquisition was 41-year-old John Smoltz, who had spent his illustrious 20-year-career with the Atlanta Braves. Smoltz, off shoulder surgery, is not expected to join the BoSox rotation before mid-May. Recalling two critical extra-inning losses to Tampa Bay, one in the ALCS, when the Red Sox ran out of strong arms and the Rays didn't, the front office also bolstered the bullpen.
Relief: The Mets' September fold is threatening to become a perennial. Few on the team were blameless, but the bullpen was indisputably the biggest culprit. The Mets went out and obtained two standout American League closers, Francisco Rodriguez and J. J. Putz. Both come with warning tags. Putz had elbow problems and was largely ineffective last year for Seattle, earning just 16 saves after saving 76 the two previous years combined; K-Rod saved a major-league-record 62 games, but the Mets took a careful look at his physical condition after scouts noted his velocity last season dropped by 4 or 5 mph. Still, hard to believe this duo won't represent a major upgrade and a likely NL East title.
Philadelphia Freedom: The Phillies' championship should free fans there from their unique brand of angst. Still, they will have plenty to be angstious about. Can Chase Utley (hip surgery) and Cole Hamels (elbow inflammation) rebound from injuries? Can Brad Lidge stay perfect? What happens if Ryan Howard hits only 30 home runs and strikes out 250 times? Can Raul Ibañez replace Pat Burrell's bat? No team has repeated since the Yankees back in 2000, and the Phillies are unlikely to prove an exception.
The AL Beast: Baseball Prospectus picked three AL East teams to finish with the three best records in the American League—the only teams in the league predicted to surpass 90 wins. If the Prospectus wise guys have it right, Tampa Bay would be odd team out of the playoffs with 92 wins.
The Tampa of 2009: Last year I gave you Tampa Bay and Milwaukee as long-shot contenders. Clearly, I should rest on my laurels. Instead, I give you the Minnesota Twins and the Florida Marlins. Baseball, in the post-steroids era, is a young man's and, therefore, a young team's game.
Second Century: There is no reason, at least on paper, that the Chicago Cubs can't break baseball's eternal curse. Then again, there was no reason last year either, when the Cubs won a National League–best 97 games and got swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Cubs are loaded again, though one has to wonder why they would add a hitter, Milton Bradley, who is even more combustible than the manager, Lou Piniella. Worry for everyone's safety if those two ever get into it.
Defense: As new statistical tools emerge for measuring defensive performance, teams are taking note. Offensive talents like Bobby Abreu, Adam Dunn and Manny Ramirez all paid a contractual price for their now documented defensive liabilities. Conversely, Detroit sacrificed offense to shore up its infield with Adam Everett, an anemic hitter but a defensive whiz at shortstop. New defensive stats exposed a Yankee weakness that fans have suspected for years: team icon Derek Jeter's limited range makes him the worst-fielding shortstop in the game. Ultimately he compromises the huge investment in starting pitching.
The WBC Effect: Teams were wary of sending players go to Bud Selig's pet tournament, the World Baseball Classic. And seeing U.S. stars Chipper Jones, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Ryan Braun all slowed by injuries during the WBC won't change minds. Teams are particularly worried about pitchers who got too much work or not enough. But how about a shout-out to Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka: two WBC tourneys, a 6-0 record, two championships and two MVP trophies.
Instant Replay: Let's hope the umps don't let their simmering resentment sabotage replay by turning it into an unnecessary ordeal. I watched a crew during the WBC spend an eternity discussing whether a ball was a home run, then an eternity looking at a replay, one in which the call appeared obvious at a glance, before finally returning to the field. The consolation: they got the call wrong on the field and right after the replay.
Switching Leagues: Despite the consensus that the American League is superior, the National League has now won two of the last three World Series. And someday it will win an All-Star Game again. (The last NL victory came in 1996!) Still, while top AL players have fared well crossing over to the NL—Manny Ramirez and CC Sabathia were dominant after interleague trades last year—the reverse hasn't been true. Two former NL outfielders who will be in the spotlight: Oakland's Matt Holliday, who will have to prove he can hit outside Denver's Coors Field, and Tampa's Pat Burrell, who could be a sorely needed extra power bat if his swing can catch up with all the hard stuff in the junior circuit.
West Coast Stars: Junior Griffey, at age 39, is going home to Seattle, a shadow of the "Kid" who went home to Cincinnati a decade ago. Manny Ramirez remained with the Dodgers, though he was unhappy to accept a two-year deal. And we know the risks when Manny is unhappy. Jason Giambi is out of New York and back in Oakland, the scene of what gossip columns refer to as "happier times." And 45-year-old Randy Johnson is now a San Francisco Giant and just five wins away from 300 career victories—quite likely the last pitcher who will ever achieve that milestone. How will the notoriously surly and sulky Big Unit adjust to pitching in the shadow of the undersize Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum?
Rare Rookies: Future salary and rights considerations dictated that Tampa Bay pitcher David Price, already a postseason standout, and Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters—think Joe Mauer with more power—start the season in the minors. Both should arrive in the majors before summer and should be eagerly anticipated by fans.
We Were Family: Willie Stargell, the young Barry Bonds, Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, Elroy Face, the Waner brothers ("Big" and "Little Poison"), Honus Wagner. That was the glory that was the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates will have to boost their win total by an unlikely 24 games to avert an MLB record 17th consecutive losing season. But don't feel too sorry for Pittsburgh. The city still has the Steelers and Sidney Crosby.
A-Rod: He carries more baggage than your average airline. And he will never again see himself cast as baseball's golden boy as he chases Barry Bonds's tarnished career home-run mark. A lesser narcissist would be humbled. Rest assured that A-Rod isn't (even though he is taking a long look at himself in the mirror), and will, at some point, be at the center of some new melodrama this season.