Five MLB storylines to watch in 2009

The A-Rod steroid mess is finally boiling over, the World Baseball Classic is fast-approaching and making GMs and managers nervous, and the 2009 regular season is a little over a month away. It’s hard to believe we crowned the Phillies world champs a third of a year ago, but time does fly like Jose Reyes around the bases. With that, let’s look at some interesting questions that beg to be answered in 2009:

1. Who will be the surprise team this year? Last year it was the Tampa Bay Rays, who not only won the ridiculously competitive AL East, but also beat the Red Sox in the ALCS to reach the World Series, which they eventually lost to the Phillies. In 2007, the Colorado Rockies won 21 of 22 games after September 17, including sweeping the Cubs and D-Backs in the playoffs before losing to Boston in the Fall Classic. In 2006 it was the Cardinals who squeaked into the postseason with an 83-78 record, ultimately winning it all. Who is going to do it this season? Or will it be a big-market, big-money World Series match up such as Yankees/Mets or Red Sox/Cubs? It’s almost impossible to say I told you so at this point to this type of question, but here are the teams I’m telling you to keep an eye on: Indians, A’s, Giants, Marlins.

2. How will the choking of recent seasons affect the Mets, Cubs and Angels? The Mets’ bullpen imploded two years in a row, and GM Omar Minaya went and picked up not one, but two lights-out closers in K-Rod and JJ Putz. Still, the Mets are not going to have an easy go of things in the NL East, and their lineup and starting rotation are bordering on suspect. The Cubs and Angels keep beating everyone up in the regular season only to flame out early in the playoffs. Do these two teams lack what it takes to win, or has the luck and clutch hitting of other teams been their demise? Honestly, you can’t keep talented teams like these three down for very long, and I expect all of them to be playing deep into October this time around.

3. Is Manny Ramirez going to play in 2009? Scott Boras keeps dangling his star client out there and keeps upping his asking price. Does this guy not want his commission? Yes, it’s downright irresponsible to try and rape MLB franchises in this economy, but Manny is the one guy in baseball who can shift the balance of power in a division with his insane offensive skills. I think eventually the Dodgers are going to re-sign Manny, but at what price and for how long? And before or after the season starts?

4. Who is going to win the AL East? You’ve got the mighty Yankees, who went out and bought another 10 or 15 wins by signing CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Mark Teixeira. You’ve got the Red Sox, who despite falling short last year against Tampa are still technically the team to beat in the division. And you’ve got the upstart Rays, who no one thought could keep up their winning ways for seven months and did just that. I just think the Sox are too talented and the Rays are going to drop to second or even third place in 2009, and I think the Yankees are going to make the playoffs but not win the division. Money just can’t buy team chemistry, ever.

5. Will Tim Lincecum be as brilliant in 2009 as he was in 2008? Or will his arm fall off? This kid, and he’s a 25 year old who looks like he’s 17, has some of the nastiest stuff in the majors and ran away with the NL Cy Young Award last year by going 18-5 with a 2.62 ERA and 265 strikeouts in 227 innings. You want perspective? The Giants only won 72 games last year, so Lincecum had a quarter of their wins. That’s just insane. But history shows that guys like this can’t keep it up long-term unless they’re named Clemens or Smoltz. I see another great season in 2009 but I’d temper expectations beyond that. And the Giants may just sneak into the playoffs in a less-than-stellar NL West this year.

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