MLB Opening Week: 10 Things to Watch

While nothing beats the opening weekend in football, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the start of a new baseball season. With a sense of a new beginning, the opening week of baseball brings hope and excitement to fans across the country.

Then you realize that you’re favorite team is the Pirates, Royals or Nationals and all that hope gets crushed. It’s an ugly realization, but it is what it is.

As baseball is set to kick off a new season, here are 10 things to keep an eye on this week.

1. Roy Halladay makes his Philles debut
Fans will have to wait until next weekend to see Halladay make his Philadelphia debut, but they probably won’t have to wait long to see him dominate in red and white. Halladay will start against the Nationals on Opening Day and then at Houston five days later, which means he gets tune ups against two of the weaker teams in the National League. He shouldn’t have any issues making the early-season transition to the NL – outside of hitting, of course. Unless he succumbs to the pressure of pitching in Philadelphia, Halladay will likely have plenty of success throughout the entire season.

2. Jason Heyward’s MLB debut
The top position player prospect in baseball will enter the 2010 season as the Braves’ starting right fielder. The former 2007 first round pick hit .323 with 17 homers and 63 RBI between three stops in the minor leagues last season and might be the difference between the Braves finishing in the middle of the pack in the National League, or securing a postseason berth. Heyward doesn’t have one breakout skill, but he’s a five-tool player who takes a patient approach to the plate and exhibits good bat speed. He’s also a solid defender, with above-average speed and can play multiple outfield positions. If Heyward turns out to be the real deal, then so too will the Braves.

3. Can Jon Rauch fill Joe Nathan’s shoes?
After Nathan decided to have Tommy John surgery and therefore miss the entire 2010 season, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said that the club would employ a closer-by-committee situation with their bullpen. But Gardenhire quickly went back on that decision, instead choosing to go with Rauch as his full-time closer. The question now becomes: Will Rauch be the same reliable pitcher he was last year in Minnesota or the one that struggled in Arizona in the first half? Rauch isn’t the long-term solution, but he doesn’t have to be either. He just has to be dependable this season to help bridge the gap until Nathan returns to full health in 2011.

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2010 MLB Preview: AL West

In order to help get you ready for the MLB season, we’re doing division-by-division rankings with quick overviews on how each club could fair in 2010. Next to each team, you’ll also find a corresponding number written in parenthesis, which indicates where we believe that club falls in a league-wide power ranking. Be sure to check back throughout the next two weeks leading up to the season, as we will be updating our content daily. Enjoy.

All 2010 MLB Preview Content | AL East Preview | AL Central Preview | AL West Preview | NL East | NL Central | NL West

Next up is the AL West.

1. Los Angeles Angels (6)
When I started to do the prep work for the AL West preview, I filled the top slot with the Angels without even giving it much thought. And why should I have? They’ve won the division six of the last seven years and baseball fans have just grown accustomed to the Halos being in the playoff mix every season. But immediately after I slotted them in the top spot, my stomach started to hurt and no, it wasn’t from the fish I ate last night. (Although hey, fish is still good even when it turns green right?) There’s no doubt that the Angels took a hit this offseason. They lost their ace (John Lackey), their leadoff man (Chone Figgins) and their top power source (Vladimir Guerrero), and usually when a team parts with that much talent, it suffers a setback. But this is why I’m not overly concerned about this club: the additions of Joel Pineiro and Hideki Matsui should pay dividends and if Scott Kazmir could ever stay healthy, he would ease the loss of Lackey. Plus, in Erick Aybar (their new leadoff hitter), Kendry Morales and Torri Hunter, the Halos still have a solid offensive core and their starting pitching is still in good shape with vets like Kazmir, Jered Weaver and Joe Saunders. Times are changing in L.A. and the Mariners and Rangers will push the Halos this season, but in the end they should be right back on top.

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Rays trade Kazmir to Angels

The Los Angeles Angels gave their starting rotation a boost on Friday night, acquiring Tampa Bay Rays left-hander Scott Kazmir for third baseman Matt Sweeney, left-hander Alex Torres and a player to be named later.

While Kazmir has been solid in his last three starts, his velocity is down and he’s always an injury risk. Still, this move gives the Halos much-needed depth in their starting rotation and they also net a pitcher who has plenty of experience against the Yankees and Red Sox. (Two teams the Angels could face in the postseason.)

For the Rays, Kazmir never panned out to be the ace the club thought he would become when they acquired him from the Mets earlier this decade. Injuries have limited his effectiveness, although he still owns a career ERA of 3.92. He’s also the club’s career leader in wins, strikeouts and innings pitched.

Overall, Tampa gets significant salary reliever in the trade by shedding most of the three-year, $28.5 million extension Kazmir signed in May of last year.

They also get a solid strikeout prospect in Torres, who can pitch for the groundout and has been largely overlooked in the Halos’ organization. Sweeney has 25-30 home run potential, but an ankle injury cost him virtually his entire ’08 season and he’ll have to work his way up from High-A ball.

Mikey’s MLB power rankings

Pennant races this season are not quite as exciting as last season, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have a few good races in September. The power rankings this week have not changed much, but the Rockies and Rangers swapped places. The Rays, who were on the cusp of cracking the Top 10, traded Scott Kazmir to the Angels yesterday, making us all scratch our heads and wonder if they are conceding the race.

1. New York Yankees (80-48)—The first team to 80 victories is officially in cruise control. The question is, can they carry it over into the postseason? Because we all know how you-know-who performs in October.

2. Los Angeles Angels (76-51)—If newly acquired Scott Kazmir stays healthy, this scrappy Angels team could be wearing new jewelry. Then again, October has been none to kind to them recently as well.

3. St. Louis Cardinals (75-55)—The Cardinals now have a 9 game lead on the woe-as-me Cubs. The good franchises always add the right parts when they are in a pennant race, and Matt Holliday and John Smoltz are those guys for the Redbirds.

4. Philadelphia Phillies (74-52)—The Phils may have given the slightest ray of hope to the Marlins and Braves, but then they remembered that they were the world champs.

5. Los Angeles Dodgers (76-53)—Their lead over the Rockies shrunk to 2 games this past week. It’s now back to 4, but this NL West race is not going to be a landslide as everyone thought. In fact, it’s now a 3-team race.

6. Boston Red Sox (74-54)—Don’t think the Sox can’t still catch the Yankees. If not, they should be able to hang on to the wild card, and adding Billy Wagner certainly doesn’t hurt their chances.

7. Colorado Rockies (72-57)—The wild card is not what these Rockies have in mind, and they just keep right on winning and closing the gap.

8. Texas Rangers (71-56)—Slipping in the power rankings and slipping in their quest for a wild card berth.

9. San Francisco Giants (70-59)—Got a big lift from Lincecum last night against the Rockies, but Giants need to sweep this weekend if they want to remain in contention.

10. Detroit Tigers (68-59)—T-men hanging tough, but watch out for the surging Twins, is all I’m sayin’.

MLB Trade Rumors: Kazmir, Halladay and Lee

– ESPN’s Buster Olney is reporting that the Angels have interest in Rays’ starter Scott Kazmir, although its unclear at this point if this could be a precursor to a trade for Tampa, who apparently has their eyes on Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.

– Sticking with the Angels theme, owner Arte Moreno tells the L.A. Times that he remains interested in landing one of the top arms on the market, which includes Halladay and Lee. Apparently he’s also willing to pay a hefty price to acquire one of the big names.

– Speaking of Lee, ESPN’s Jayson Stark says he is available, but it appears that the Indians would have to be overwhelmed by a deal. Stark is also reporting that the Reds will listen to offers for starter Bronson Arroyo.

– According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Twins are interested in Oakland shortstop Orlando Cabrera and reliever Michael Wuertz.

– The Padres are making Heath Bell available.

– SI.com’s Jon Heyman is reporting that the Rays are kicking the tires on possibly acquiring Cleveland catcher Victor Martinez.

– Brian Anderson has asked the White Sox to trade him according to MLB.com.

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