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Story lines to watch


Story lines to watch
Imagine for a moment that today is April 3, 2008, not 2009. The Baseball season is about to get under way. What are the most unlikely developments you can think of that might happen over the next six months? } How about the Tampa Bay Rays going to the World Series? } How about the New York Yankees missing the playoffs altogether? } How about Manny Ramirez forcing the Boston Red Sox to trade him to Los Angeles and then playing at an MVP-caliber level to lead the Dodgers to the NLCS? } And then, of course, how about the Washington Nationals losing 102 games? } The point is, you just never know what can happen in Baseball. Much as you'd like to think you've got it all figured out in advance, you can't predict the great American pastime. } But that doesn't mean you can't go into the season with an eye on several likely developments. And we're here to help. Here are 10 stories to watch for as the 2009 season plays out. } (Just promise not to hold it against us come October when the Pirates are in the World Series, the Phillies and Mets finish tied for last in the NL East and Manny Ramirez makes zero headlines in L.A.)

1. CIRCUS IN THE BRONX

The Yankees are always the center of attention, for reasons both good and bad, but the Bronx Bombers really are at the focal point of the Baseball world in 2009 following a wild offseason.

After missing the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, the Yanks went out and spent as much money as they possibly could on roster reinforcements. CC Sabathia got $161 million. A.J. Burnett got $82.5 million. And Mark Teixeira got the mother of all insane contracts: eight years and $180 million.

Then a certain fellow whose nickname rhymes with A-Fraud decided to start making headlines for all the wrong reasons. After being outed as a steroids user by Sports Illustrated, Alex Rodriguez admitted he juiced from 2001-03 while playing with Texas. And before he could go and prove to his legions of naysayers that he can still produce while clean, he found out he needed major hip surgery that will sideline him until early summer.

It's a good thing the new $1 billion Yankee Stadium is opening in a couple weeks. Hopefully the new ballpark is big enough to hold all three rings necessary to house this circus.

2. CAN THE Rays DO IT AGAIN?

Show of hands: Who had Tampa Bay winning the AL pennant and going to the World Series last year? Liars.

No one saw that one coming. The question now is whether it was a mirage or a sign of a franchise that has legitimately become a perennial contender.

The Rays face all kinds of odds to make it back to the Fall Classic. They're in Baseball's toughest division with the Red Sox and Yankees at the top, the Blue Jays always tough and even the Orioles improving.

But manager Joe Maddon does have an incredibly talented roster of young stars, led by Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton and David Price. If these guys can stay level-headed, they should be right back in the thick of things in 2009.

3. MANNY IN HOLLYWOOD

Who would have guessed Manny Ramirez would be such a hit in L.A. for two months last season? The once-disgruntled Red Sox slugger, though, was all smiles in the Southern California sun.

But how long will the honeymoon last? The Dodgers weren't happy when Ramirez waited until March to finally re-sign, and there's always the fear his "Manny Being Manny" act will wear thin at some point, just as it did in Boston.

This much is certain: If Ramirez can stay happy and productive, the Dodgers could be a very interesting team. Probably the class of the NL West, they'll be a legitimate World Series contender if everyone stays on the same page.

4. FAMILIAR FACES, NEW PLACES

Has there ever been an offseason in which so many future Hall of Famers signed with new teams?

John Smoltz left Atlanta after 21 years to join the Red Sox. Ken Griffey left Cincinnati after nine seasons and returned to Seattle, where he spent his first 11 years as a big-leaguer.

Ivan Rodriguez is now an Astro. Trevor Hoffman is a Brewer. K-Rod is a Met. Randy Johnson is a Giant (in more ways than one).

It'll take some time to get used to these guys in their new uniforms, but perhaps each has one last moment of legacy left in him before it's all said and done.

5. MILESTONES ON THE HORIZON

There is no shortage of players on the cusp of some magical, statistical plateaus.

Randy Johnson needs just five more wins to become the 24th 300-game winner in Baseball history, and he needs 211 strikeouts to join Nolan Ryan as the only members of the 5,000 "K" Club.

Gary Sheffield's next homer will be his 500th. Carlos Delgado could join that elite group with 31 homers this season.

And with 18 more saves, Mariano Rivera will become just the second closer to reach the 500 mark, joining all-time leader Hoffman (554).

6. RENEWED RIVALRY

Say what you want about the Yankees and Red Sox, but the rivalry between the Phillies and Mets has become just as heated. It's certainly helped matters that New York has managed to choke away the NL East title each of the last two Septembers, allowing Philadelphia to swoop in last season and win the World Series.

Those two clubs almost surely will duke it out again for the division crown. The Phillies are still flying high after their October to remember. The Mets, though, are determined to make up for the last two years and brought in some impressive reinforcements to make that happen (K-Rod, J.J. Putz will shore up what had been a dreadful bullpen).

Will that be enough for New York to leapfrog to the top of the standings? Check back in late September and find out if the Metropolitans can overcome their demons.

7. THE WRONG END OF HISTORY

Usually teams go into a season trying to accomplish something no one else has done before. Not the Pittsburgh Pirates, not this year.

The Pirates, who were last competitive when Barry Bonds still roamed left field at Three Rivers Stadium, are on the verge of a most dubious record. Unless they can somehow go 81-81 in 2009, they'll complete their 17th consecutive losing season.

That wouldn't just be a record for an MLB team. That would be a record for any major, professional sporting team in North America.

Try as they will to avoid that ignominious label, the Bucs don't stand much of a chance. After trading away top offensive threats Jason Bay and Xavier Nady last summer, they've returned to rebuilding mode and aren't positioned to win this year.

Then again, they haven't been positioned to win since 1992.

8. IS THIS FINALLY THE Cubs' YEAR?

If ever the stars seemed aligned for the most woeful franchise in Baseball history, 2008 seemed to be it. The Chicago Cubs, celebrating the 100th anniversary of their last World Series title, were perfectly positioned to end their long drought with perfect timing. Then they fell flat in the playoffs and were swept by the Dodgers.

Could this year be different? The roster is once again loaded. The weak NL Central is theirs for the taking. And the pressure of trying to win in the centennial year is off them now.

The Cubs should be good enough to give it a real run. If they can't, well, maybe that Billy Goat Curse is for real.

9. WILL MR. STRASBURG GO TO WASHINGTON?

The Baseball draft doesn't often garner much attention among the sporting public. This year should be different.

The consensus No. 1 overall pick, San Diego State right-hander Steven Strasburg, is being called the greatest pitching prospect of all-time. He's apparently a cross between Roger Clemens, Walter Johnson, Nolan Ryan and Bob Gibson. Only he throws harder than them all.

And he's the Nationals' to take if they want him. Strasburg and uber agent Scott Boras are reportedly going to ask for the moon, the stars and everything in between in contract negotiations. It could be a colossal blunder for Washington if instead of becoming the next Clemens, he becomes the next Van Poppel.

Either way, it's going to make for some intriguing pre- and post-draft drama here in the nation's capital.

10. WHO ARE THIS YEAR'S Rays?

Modern Baseball seems to require one surprise team each season, a club that comes out of nowhere to steal the spotlight and crash the postseason. Three years ago, it was Detroit. Two years ago, it was Colorado. Last year, it was Tampa Bay. Who's it going to be this year?

There are several logical candidates. The Giants are loaded with young pitching and could be poised to make a move. So, too, are the Reds, who have slowly been stockpiling top prospects for the last three or four years.

How about the Royals? Sure, they've been cellar dwellers for the better part of the last decade. But they're finally starting to show signs of improvement. And as the Rays proved last year, anything's possible.


Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: April 8, 2009

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