Plenty To Ponder As Opening Day Approaches

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—Though much of the nation is still covered with snow, it’s already time to start thinking of spring things:

• Sleeper of the year is the Reds in the National League Central. The division doesn’t have a clear-cut favorite, though the Cardinals do have manager Tony La Russa and first baseman Albert Pujols, so it can’t be overlooked. The Reds, however, have an interesting mix, and a capable manager as well in Dusty Baker.

• It wouldn’t be a surprise if Roy Halladay, now with the Phillies, becomes the fifth pitcher to win a Cy Young Award in both the National League and American League. Gaylord Perry was the first to accomplish it, earning the AL honor for Cleveland in 1972 and the NL award with San Diego in 1978.

Roger Clemens won at least one Cy Young Award with each of the four teams he pitched for. He earned the AL honor with the Red Sox in 1986, ’87 and ’91, with the Blue Jays in 1997 and ’98 and with the Yankees in 2001, and the NL honor with the Astros in 2004.

Pedro Martinez won the NL award with the Expos in 1997 and the AL award with Boston in 1999 and 2000, and Randy Johnson earned the AL award with the Mariners in 1995, and then claimed the NL award four consecutive years (1999-2002) with the Diamondbacks.

• Is Manny Ramirez at the end?

Ramirez was in a funk after returning last season from his suspension for taking female fertility drugs. He hit .218 in his final 78 at-bats last year, and manager Joe Torre said he wants to give Ramirez extra rest this season.

• Early leader for NL rookie of the year is Marlins first baseman Logan Morrison, a draft-and-follow who signed out of Maple Woods (Mo.) CC, Albert Pujols’ alma mater, in 2006 for a $225,000 bonus. Key for Morrison is that the job is wide open, so he has a chance to get plenty of at-bats.

Outfielder Jason Heyward has big-time ability, but talk about him being the key to the Braves winning another division title is an unfair expectation for a young player with only 173 at-bats above Class A.

• Give the early edge for AL rookie to Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson, who came from the Yankees in the three-team deal that included Arizona during the offseason.

• Stephen Strasburg gets the attention in Washington, but more likely to break with the big league team is the club’s other first-round pick from last year, potential closer Drew Storen, who instead of holding out all summer signed quickly and worked his way up the farm system.

• Reality hit Johnny Damon and Yorvit Torrealba. Damon said he wanted to return to the Yankees, but balked at their two-year, $14 million offer and wound up elsewhere. Torrealba, meanwhile, turned down a two-year, $6 million offer to stay in Colorado, where he claimed he wanted to play, and wound up with a $1.5 million, one-year package from San Diego.

• The White Sox have an interesting decision to make with Sergio Santos, a 2002 first-round draft pick by the Diamondbacks as a shortstop who has converted to pitching. He throws 96 mph and is out of options, and the Sox placed him on their 40-man roster to avoid losing him in the Rule 5 draft. He could be claimed on waivers if they send him down.

• Matt Holliday is where he belongs, with the Cardinals, and give him credit for telling agent Scott Boras to get a deal done instead of dragging on negotiations with other teams. Holliday learned his lesson a year ago when his pending free agency led to his trade from the Rockies, where he enjoyed playing, to the Athletics, where the game became a mental challenge. He got a second-half reprieve with his deadline deal to the Cardinals.

• The Dodgers are the consensus favorite in the NL West, but they have only two sure things in the rotation: lefty Clayton Kershaw and righthander Hiroki Kuroda. Can they trust Chad Billingsley to bounce back from his late-season disappearance? Will Vicente Padilla remain on good behavior, or will he find a comfort zone and implode again? And who is even a legitimate No. 5 candidate?

• Astros officials were concerned about Roy Oswalt’s appearance of losing interest a year ago, and hope the managerial change to Brad Mills will provide an emotional lift for Oswalt as well as first baseman Lance Berkman. Oswalt failed to reach double-digit wins for the first time in his career last season and had a career-worst 4.12 ERA.

• Another challenge for Ken Griffey Jr. in Seattle. The Mariners are counting on him to help Milton Bradley fit in. Griffey does have an inside track to Bradley, who says Griffey is the only player he ever asked for an autorgraph.