On Baseball | A look ahead at the big stories

Posted: April 01, 2007

At this time last year, the Detroit Tigers were just another team coming off a string of losing seasons, and Ryan Howard was a burgeoning talent with one major award in his trophy case.

Six months later, the Tigers were one of the best teams in baseball, a 95-win club on its way to the World Series, and Howard was about to win everything but the Nobel Peace Prize.

So which team will be this year's Tigers? And who'll blossom into a mega-talent, like Howard did?

The answers to these questions, and many others, will begin to unfold tonight as another baseball season begins with the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals hosting the New York Mets in a rematch of last year's National League Championship Series.

This season could bring a conclusion to one of the most public and controversial ordeals in the game's history. Barry Bonds needs 22 home runs to break Hank Aaron's record of 755. Unlike other record marches, this one may not be widely celebrated, as Bonds' link to baseball's steroid era, in the eyes of some, remains a pox on the game.

Anything can happen in baseball, and last year's World Series champions are proof. The Cardinals had the 13th-best winning percentage in the majors but got into the postseason tournament, went on a roll, and won it all.

Today, there is hope in all major-league cities. A new season is here. Here is a look ahead at some story lines worth following:

Yankees-Red Sox. The hype seems to have died down - they only played each other once in spring training - but the game's hottest rivalry remains intact. The Red Sox outbid the Yanks for Japanese phenom Daisuke Matsuzaka in November. The Yanks will look to beat out the Sox for Roger Clemens.

Boston has few weaknesses as it looks to rebound from last year's 86-win disappointment.

The Yankees could be equally strong, though there are question marks in their starting rotation. The Yanks have won 10 of the last 11 American League East titles, but no World Series since 2000. Owner George Steinbrenner doesn't breath fire the way he once did, but there's no doubting that he's restless.

Angels-Dodgers. Is this the year these two So-Cal teams meet in the World Series? The Angels have plenty of talent, led by Vladimir Guerrero, and a tremendous bullpen with Francisco Rodriguez and Scot Shields. The Dodgers' pitching staff should be among the best in the NL.

AL Central. Who wins this wide-open division? The defending champion Twins have the reigning AL MVP (Justin Morneau), Cy Young winner (Johan Santana) and batting champ (Joe Mauer) and might be the fourth-best team behind the ripening Indians, the ripened Tigers and the talented White Sox.

NL East. Jimmy Rollins likes the Phillies' chances (you might have heard that a time or 6,000), but the Mets and Braves both have enough to win it, and the Marlins' pitching makes them difficult to discount.

Dice-K mania. The Red Sox paid more than $100 million in posting fees and salary to get Matsuzaka, and they may have gotten a bargain. The guy is 26, has a brilliant array of pitches, and was the MVP of the World Baseball Classic. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts to the better overall brand of hitters in the majors. Dozens of Japanese reporters and photographers will be on hand to chronicle the process.

The Cubs. Some teams will do anything to stop a World Series title drought from reaching 100 years. The Cubs, who haven't won a World Series since 1908, spent nearly $300 million retooling their 96-loss team. They brought in a new manager in Lou Piniella and a big-time slugger in Alfonso Soriano. They should be better, but are they good enough to go from worst to first?

The Rocket. Clemens, the ultimate hired gun, is expected to decide in May whether he will return for a 24th season. He'll come with a price tag of about $4 million per month, and he wants to go to a team with a chance to win the World Series. Yankees lefty Andy Pettitte, a close friend, expects him to pitch. Clemens may spend a couple of months monitoring the Astros' chances. If he likes what he sees, he may re-sign with his hometown team. Otherwise, it'll be the Yankees or the Red Sox. The hunch here is that he'll be a Yankee. They'll be a contender, and they need him.

He's back. After a year out of the game, Sammy Sosa will open the season with the Texas Rangers, the team he broke in with as a 20-year-old in 1989. Sosa, 38, denied any wrongdoing during the March 2005 congressional hearings on steroids in baseball. He then went out and hit just .221 with 14 homers and 45 RBIs in 102 games for Baltimore.

One to watch. Josh Hamilton was the first pick in the 1999 draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Stardom was predicted for the hard-hitting outfielder until his career was derailed by drug and alcohol addiction. He missed most of the last four seasons. The Cincinnati Reds took a gamble on Hamilton and picked him in the Rule 5 draft in December. In spring training, he was almost their best player, and he's made the club. The Reds must keep him all season or offer him back to Tampa Bay. Hamilton, 25, must also stay clean and sober to keep his career on track.

Milestones. There's Bonds, of course. As much as Major League Baseball rues the day, he should move past Aaron this year. All that stands in his way is health, and Bonds' balky knees got stronger as last season went on. . . . Clemens needs two wins for 350. Mets lefty Tom Glavine needs 10 to become the 23d member of the exclusive 300-win club. Arizona lefty Randy Johnson has an outside chance of getting there this season; he needs 20. . . . Craig Biggio needs 70 hits to become the 27th entrant into the 3,000-hit club. . . . Sosa (588) and Ken Griffey Jr. (563) are within striking distance of 600 homers, and Frank Thomas (487), Jim Thome (472), Manny Ramirez (470), Alex Rodriguez (464) and Gary Sheffield (455) are all nearing 500. . . . All-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman needs 18 to reach 500.

Potential free agents. Next winter's free-agent class is impressive, and it will get even stronger if Alex Rodriguez exercises an opt-out clause in his contract and leaves the Yankees. Would A-Rod walk away from three years and $81 million? Sure, he would. He's never found the love he craves in New York and, at 32, he might double that price on the open market. The Cubs, Giants, White Sox and Angels lead a list of teams that could make a play for A-Rod.

Others who could be on the market after this season include Bonds, Curt Schilling, Mariano Rivera, Ichiro Suzuki, Kerry Wood, Mark Buehrle, Jermaine Dye, John Smoltz, Andruw Jones, Jorge Posada, Torii Hunter, Freddy Garcia, Jon Lieber, Bartolo Colon, Pudge Rodriguez, Carlos Guillen, Aaron Rowand, Paul Lo Duca, Jake Westbrook and David Eckstein. Carlos Zambrano would be one of the most attractive pitchers on the market next winter, but he's close to signing an extension with the Cubs.

On the hot seat. Phillies general manager Pat Gillick is on record as saying Charlie Manuel is his manager for 2007, but Manuel will still be under pressure to produce with a team from which much is expected. Cleveland manager Eric Wedge could be in trouble if his well-stocked club stumbles again. Yankees manager Joe Torre, who has taken his club to the playoffs 11 straight seasons and won four World Series, nearly lost his job after a first-round playoff exit last season. He's in the last year of his contract. If the Yankees underachieve, the Don Mattingly era might not be far away.

Rookies to watch. Third basemen Kevin Kouzmanoff (Padres) and Alex Gordon (Royals); catcher Chris Iannetta (Rockies); shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (Rockies); second baseman Dustin Pedroia (Red Sox); pitchers Matsuzaka (Red Sox), Mike Pelfrey (Mets), Adam Miller (Indians), Matt Garza (Twins), Phil Hughes (Yankees), Homer Bailey (Reds), Matt Lindstrom (Marlins); outfielder Chris Young (Diamondbacks);

Don't forget. This season marks the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Contact staff writer Jim Salisbury

at 215-854-4983 or jsalisbury@phillynews.com.

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