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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Reds name Leake fifth starter

And this is news…why? Well, because Mike Leake was taken with the eighth overall pick in last June’s draft and has yet to throw a pitch in the minors yet. Not one.

From ESPN.com:

The 22-year-old Leake beat out Travis Wood, a second-round pick in 2005, and Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, who was hampered by lower back spasms late in spring training.

“There’s no words to describe it, right now,” said Leake, the former Arizona State star who was selected eighth overall in last June’s draft. “Maybe in a couple days.”

Chapman, who agreed to a $30.25 million, six-year deal in January, was optioned to Triple-A Louisville.

Granted, Leake will actually be reassigned to the minors before Cincinnati needs a fifth starter, but it’s still impressive that he made the big league club without spending at least a couple months in Triple A. Tim Lincecum, the Giants’ two-time Cy Young winner, even spent some time in the minors before he was called up to The Show.


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Five new playoff contenders for the 2010 MLB season

While some enthusiasts will argue otherwise, there’s usually not a lot of change from one year to the next in baseball. Most pundits expect the Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox, Angels, Cardinals, Twins, Dodgers and Rockies (all eight teams that made the playoffs in 2009) to be good again this year. MLB isn’t like the NFL where teams make unexpected playoff runs every year.

That said, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a couple of sleepers to watch out for in 2010. Below are five clubs that didn’t make the postseason last year that have the best odds (in my estimation) of making the playoffs this season.

1. Chicago White Sox
If you read the 2010 MLB season preview, you’re not surprised to see the White Sox at the top of this list. As long as Jake Peavy stays healthy, Chicago arguably has the best starting rotation one through five in the American League. (Boston fans may argue otherwise, but Boston fans can also shove off…just kidding…although not really.) But the key to the Chi Sox’s success this season lies in their offense. Yes, I’m banking on veterans Carlos Quentin, Alex Rios, Mark Teahen, Paul Konerko and Mark Kotsay to have productive years and yes, that may be asking a lot. But Gordon Beckham looks like a star in the making and the addition of Juan Pierre gives the Sox a solid leadoff hitter. I’m well aware that Chicago could finish third in a three-team race in the AL Central, but their pitching is going to keep them competitive all season and I’m willing to bet that their offense won’t be as bad as many believe.

2. Seattle Mariners
The Mariners have all the pieces in place to not only compete for the AL Wild Card, but also unseat the Angels in the AL West. Along with Felix Hernandez, the acquisition of Cliff Lee now gives Seattle the best 1-2 punch in the American League outside of Boston’s Josh Beckett and John Lackey. The problem is that the lineup lacks major punch. Chone Figgins and Ichiro give the M’s quality bats at the top of the order, but can this team score enough runs on a nightly basis? The club has been built on pitching and defense but if they want to make the postseason, the Mariners will have to prove that they can overcome a powerless lineup.

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Red Sox offer Josh Beckett four-year contract extension

ESPN.com’s Buster Olney is reporting that the Red Sox have offered ace Josh Beckett a four-year contract extension. Olney also reports that a deal could be completed in the next week or two.

Beckett, the sources said, has a four-year, guaranteed offer from Boston on the table. His deal could be along the lines of the free-agent contract John Lackey signed with the Red Sox this winter — $16.5 million a year for five years — in terms of annual salary. It could be worth a total package in the range of $65 million to $70 million, sources said.

The three-year, $30 million extension Beckett signed in 2006 expires at the end of the season. He is coming off a 17-win season and has won 65 games in his four seasons in Boston.

Beckett is coming off a solid season in which he compiled a 17-6 record, with 199 strikeouts, a 3.86 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP. It was the fourth time in five years that he posted a WHIP under 1.2 and as long as he stays healthy, he will continue to be the rock in Boston’s rotation.

A back injury did cause him to miss a start last season, but he hasn’t suffered any lingering affects and will be set to go on Opening Day. The Red Sox would be smart to get a deal done now so the situation won’t be a distraction during the season. Not that it would anyway – Beckett is the consummate pro.


Photo from fOTOGLIF

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