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.

4. Will Scott Kazmir miss more than one start?
After losing ace John Lackey to Boston in the offseason, the Angels’ starting rotation took a major hit. But with a full season of Scott Kazmir (who was acquired in a midseason trade last year with the Rays), the Halos felt confident that the top of their rotation would be fine. That of course, was before Kazmir landed on the DL with a strained hamstring. Manager Mike Scioscia said he isn’t concerned about Kazmir’s health, but considering the 26-year-old pitcher makes it a yearly habit of checking in with the disabled list at least once, the Angels have to be at least a little worried. Matt Palmer pitched very well for the Halos last season, but he’s certainly not the top of the rotation guy that Kazmir is. If Kaz is out for more than a start, the defending AL West champs could start out of the gates slow.

5. Has Jorge Posada lost his ability to handle the Yankees’ pitching staff?
Last season, reports emerged that Posada was at odds with pitcher A.J. Burnett about pitch selections and now, those same concerns may be rearing their ugly head again. In Sunday night’s 9-7 loss to the Red Sox, Posada appeared to be crossed up by Damaso Marte on a passed ball late in the game. There also seemed to be confusion about pitch selection on a Dustin Pedroia home run earlier in the contest. This situation might blow over quickly, but given Posada’s issues with Burnett last year, it’s possible that the Yankees have a developing problem on their hands.

6. Will Joba Chamberlain win the Yankees’ setup job?
When Chamberlain lost out to Phil Hughes to become the Yankees’ fifth starter, everyone assumed that the talented, hard-throwing reliever would be a lock to setup closer Mariano Rivera. But manager Joe Girardi said over the weekend that “No one has really claimed that spot,” meaning Chamberlain has to earn it. He’s in the mix with Damaso Marte, Chan Ho Park and Dave Robertson and after a shaky eighth inning in the Yankees’ 9-7 loss to the Red Sox on Sunday night, Joba isn’t off to a great start. Given how conservatively managed he’s been throughout the past two years, there’s a real possibility that he could wind up a bust. The Yankees need to decide what his role is going to be, or more drama could be on the horizon.

7. Can John Bowker supply the Giants with the power they desperately need?
After deciding not to renew Randy Winn’s contract over the offseason, the Giants entered spring training fully expecting Nate Schierholtz to emerge as their everyday right fielder. But after Bowker hit six home runs and drove in 23 runs this spring, they had no choice but to stick Schierholtz back on the bench and give the 26-year-old former Long Beach State outfielder the starting nod. The question now is whether or not he can finally produce at the big league level. The Giants gave him 326 at bats in 2008 and although he hit 10 home runs, he batted just .255 and showed zero plate discipline. He improved his patience in the minors last year and after turning in a great spring, the Giants are excited to add his bat. That said, he’ll be kept on a short leash because Schierholtz offers better defense and more speed. If Bowker can’t produce early, he’ll find himself regulated to role duties or worse, back in the minors.

8. What will become of Jack Cust?
In one of the more shocking moves this spring, the A’s decided to designate DH Jack Cust for assignment. The news is particularly surprising given that Oakland has little to no power and Cust averaged 28 homers over the last three seasons. Another issue is that starting center fielder Coco Crisp has to start the season on the DL with a broken pinkie, so it’s a little perplexing that the A’s felt as though Cust wasn’t among the top 25 players on the roster. The club now has 10 days to trade or release Cust, or send him outright to the minors. Recent comments made by Cust suggest that he’d rather set himself on fire then return to Oakland, but will he actually pass up on $2.65 million by not accepting a minor league deal? His fate should be determined soon.

9. Who will emerge as the Rangers starting catcher?
The Rangers have an interesting dilemma on their hands: Do they start Jarrod Saltamacchia behind the dish, or go with Taylor Teagarden? Saltamacchia, a switch hitter who hit .280 this spring, has the better bat but Tegarden is the better defender. Texas will rotate the two players at the start of the year, but will they eventually need one of the two to step up as the full-time catcher? The Rangers are a serious contender in the AL West this season and will need one of their two young backstops to step up, or if they stay in a rotation, they’ll need both players to play at a high level all season.

10. How will Mike Leake fare in his big league debut?
In a surprise move, the Reds announced over the weekend that Mike Leake had won the fifth spot in the rotation and will make his big league debut against the Cubs later this week. Granted, he was one of the most polished pitchers in the 2009 draft, but he has never pitched once in the minor leagues, so his inexperience is freighting. Still, he has a wide variety of pitches and has very good command, so he could make a seamless transition from Arizona State to the Reds. If he does, Cincinnati has an underrated starting five that could help the club emerge as a postseason sleeper this season.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

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