With the 2009 MLB season getting underway today, you’ve got questions. We’ve got questions of our own—and some answers. Here are the biggest storylines for all 30 teams on Opening Day (teams listed alphabetically).
Atlanta Braves: No team did more to upgrade their starting pitching (not even the Yankees) than the Braves did in acquiring Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez and Kenshin Kawakami this off-season. But can that pitching influx overcome what might be the worst outfield in baseball?
Arizona Diamondbacks: A young, potentially explosive lineup includes prime breakout candidate Justin Upton, while the rotation features what might be the best 1-2 punch in the game in Brandon Webb and Dan Haren. The Diamondbacks’ playoff hopes might rest on 24-year-old starter Max Scherzer and the five arms setting up Chad Qualls in the bullpen.
Baltimore Orioles: Will 23-year-old outfield dynamo Adam Jones and Triple-A bound catching wunderkind Matt Wieters be as good as advertised? If they are, this team’s pitching-deep farm system could round out a serious contender by 2011.
Boston Red Sox: Can Boston’s offense hang with loaded rivals Tampa Bay and New York, with Mike Lowell and David Ortiz aging and no Manny Ramirez on Opening Day? If it does, there’s enough pitching here to win baseball’s scariest division.
Chicago Cubs: Can the starting rotation repeat 2008′s stellar performance, given Ryan Dempster’s spotty track record and Rich Harden’s health concerns? Probably not, but there’s enough talent up and down the roster to win the NL Central again even if regression occurs.
Chicago White Sox: Can Bartolo Colon and Jose Contreras dip into the fountain of youth and bolster the back of the rotation? If they can, the White Sox could repeat in a Central division in which just about any team could finish first…or last.
Cincinnati Reds: Will a young core of Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, Edwin Encarnacion, Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto be enough to overcome a weak bullpen and question marks elsewhere on the roster? Maybe, but we might have to wait until 2010 to see the full effect of Cincinnati’s youth movement.
Cleveland Indians: Is anyone in the Indians rotation a safe bet? Even defending Cy Young winner Cliff Lee was up-and-down before last season, putting the onus on a loaded offense to carry the Tribe into October.
Colorado Rockies: Is this the most undervalued team in baseball? It just might be, after the Rockies followed their miracle run in 2007 with an ’08 stinker. Even with Matt Holliday gone, bounceback seasons for Troy Tulowitzki and Garrett Atkins, more playing time for Ian Stewart, and continued improvement by Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge de la Rosa in the rotation make the Rox a post-hype sleeper team.
Detroit Tigers: Does any team in baseball have more boom or bust potential than the Tigers? Detroit could win the division title many expected in 2008 if 20-year-old phenom Rick Porcello pans out and the defensive upgrades of Brandon Inge, Adam Everett and Gerald Laird bear fruit…or see the combination of a shaky pitching staff and down times in the Motor City lead to a painful fire sale.
Florida Marlins: Can the Marlins’ talented young roster pull as big a shocker as Jeffrey Loria did in executing the latest taxpayer-swindling ballpark boondoggle? Doubtful, but Hanley Ramirez will see some MVP votes and the young starting rotation could be electric.
Houston Astros: Can the Astros finish above .500 again, coming off an 86-win season in which they allowed more runs than they scored? An aging roster and a lack of new talent makes another winning season a long shot.
Kansas City Royals: Are the Royals this year’s Rays, as some prognosticators seem to believe? There’s top-line talent here with Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Zach Greinke and Gil Meche, but championship teams don’t run out the likes of Jose Guillen, Horacio Ramirez, Sidney Ponson and Kyle Farnsworth.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Can the Angels overcome the early-season losses of top three starters John Lackey, Ervin Santana and Kelvim Escobar? Potential breakouts for Howie Kendrick, Kendry Morales and Brandon Wood, coupled with weak AL West competition, suggests a repeat. Just barely.
Los Angeles Dodgers: What did the twin signings of Manny Ramirez and Orlando Hudson do for the Dodgers? They turned a decent team with dynamic young pitching into the favorites in the NL West.
Milwaukee Brewers: Can the Brew Crew overcome the loss of both their aces? Probably not enough to make the playoffs. But in Yovanni Gallardo the Brewers have a future ace on the staff, and Dave Bush, Manny Parra and Jeff Suppan could offer average or better production through the rest of the rotation. We’d feel better about Milwaukee’s chances if the Brewers had a better bullpen, or a lefty bat not named Prince Fielder.
Minnesota Twins: Can the Twins offense put enough runs on the board to make another playoff push, with perennial MVP candidate Joe Mauer likely to miss a good chunk of the season? It might be tough, especially with a league-best .305 batting average with runners in scoring position last year likely to see some regression back toward the mean.
New York Mets: Will the additions of Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz address the team’s long-standing bullpen woes and prevent another September swoon? A run at the NL East crown looks promising, especially with the best quartet in baseball—David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Johan Santana—all in or near their primes.
New York Yankees: Did the off-season additions of Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett make the Yankees the favorites to win the AL East? They probably would have, but Alex Rodriguez’s uncertain health status creates a virtual toss-up for any of the top three spots among the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays.
Oakland A’s: Can the least-experienced starting rotation of the decade (just 403 MLB innings pitched) come through for the most improved offense in the bigs? The window’s open, with the Angels likely to regress and the Rangers and Mariners probably not yet ready for prime time.
Philadelphia Phillies: Do the Phillies have enough to repeat? It’s a long shot, after an off-season that failed to address the team’s need for righty power, combined with a question-filled starting rotation that’s already fretting over Cole Hamels’ huge 2008 workload and injury concerns.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Can the Pirates avoid finishing with the worst record in the majors? That might be a challenge, given the team’s Swiss cheese rotation and a lineup that lacks pop with Jason Bay not around (and replaced with Punch n’ Judy hitter Nyjer Morgan) for Opening Day.
San Diego Padres: Will Jake Peavy get traded? Eventually, and when he finally moves on, Adrian Gonzalez will be the only star-caliber player left on a team that badly needs to hit a bunch of homers in the draft.
San Francisco Giants: What would happen if the Giants had any semblance of an offense? They might challenge for a World Series, given how stacked the top of the rotation is with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Randy Johnson, as well as breakout candidate Jonathan Sanchez. As is, the Giants could trot out baseball’s least productive attack.
Seattle Mariners: Should Mariners fans be optimistic under the new regime? Most definitely. In combining a top-flight scouting background with some of the brightest minds in statistical analysis, new General Manager Jack Zduriencik has built the foundation for a revival in Seattle. The M’s will struggle to hit, but if new manager Don Wakamatsu does the right thing, Endy Chavez, Franklin Gutierrez and post-DL Ichiro will form the best defensive outfield in the game.
St. Louis Cardinals: Can pitching coach Dave Duncan pull off another miracle and deliver another overachieving pitching staff? Based on former ace Chris Carpenter’s impressive spring, he just might. And if the Cardinals’ pitching holds up, there’s enough thunder in the lineup (watch for a big bounceback by Khalil Greene) to produce another contender in St. Louis.
Tampa Bay Rays: Will the Rays win a second straight AL pennant? If they don’t, it won’t be for lack of trying. The additions of Pat Burrell, Gabe Kapler, Matt Joyce and Joe Nelson, coupled with likely improvements for Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton, point to a team that could be better in ’09 than it was in ’08, yet still face a giant struggle to beat the Red Sox and Yankees and get back to the playoffs.
Texas Rangers: Will Baseball America’s top-ranked collection of organizational talent translate into a 2009 playoff run? Uberprospects Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland will likely play in the big leagues by year’s end, but it might take another year or two for them to turn around a perennially weak Rangers rotation. In 2011, though? Be afraid, be very afraid.
Toronto Blue Jays: Will the Jays run out the worst offense in the American League? Given the team’s glaring lack of on-base threats, it’s a valid concern. With Roy Halladay free agent-eligible after next season, a blockbuster deadline deal is a possibility—as are a number of other organizational changes.
Washington Nationals: Should we call this year’s Nationals team the Bizarro Giants? Yes, yes we should. Adding Adam Dunn to an already exciting young lineup gives the Nats a potent top-six that would be downright scary if Nick Johnson can finally stay healthy. It might take a couple years for the pitching to round into shape, though, with Jordan Zimmerman, Colin Balester and company needing time to develop behind nominal top starters Scott Olsen and John Lannan.
Jonah Keri has covered baseball for a variety of publications, including ESPN.com, Baseball Prospectus and the New York Times. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.