- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2008

1. Yankees, Mets try to go out on top

Both of these teams still are recovering from last year — the Mets after their historic collapse in September, the Yankees after being eliminated in the ALDS for the third year in a row — and they’ll both try to do it while closing down their longtime homes. This is the final year for both Yankee and Shea stadiums before each team moves into a new ballpark next season. The All-Star Game is at Yankee Stadium, and the Yanks will try to make a championship run with a new manager (Joe Girardi) and an aging pitching staff. Meanwhile, the Mets swung a trade for arguably the game’s best pitcher in Johan Santana, hoping the lefty can take them to the World Series.

2. Japanese imports might be the best yet

We’ve heard plenty about players coming from Japan in the past (Ichiro, Daisuke Matsuzaka, etc.), but this year’s group is probably the deepest to come to the major leagues so far. It’s headlined by Kosuko Fukudome, who signed with the Cubs and will likely start in right field. But it also includes Dodgers pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, Indians reliever Masahide Kobayashi, Royals reliever Yasuhiko Yabuta and Rangers reliever Kazuo Fukumori.

3. Bonds‘ future

Say what you want about Barry Bonds, but for as much time as he’s spent in the spotlight the last few years, it’d be strange for his career to end like this. The former Giants slugger broke Hank Aaron’s career home run record against the Nationals last Aug. 7, was indicted on perjury charges stemming from the BALCO steroid probe in November and though he’s said he wants to play in 2008, no one has signed him. The baseball players’ association announced last week it is investigating why Bonds has no offers, and the 43-year-old says he’s in playing shape. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him wind up as a DH somewhere.

4. Can the Red Sox do it again?

When Boston swept Colorado to win its second world championship in four years last fall, all the talk was about how well-positioned the Red Sox were to win another title. That may be, but recent injuries to Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling have cast doubt on that assumption. The Red Sox should still have enough pitching (with Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield and youngsters Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz) to make a run, but their championship prospects hinge on having two of baseball’s best big-game pitchers healthy in October.

5. Tigers load up

After winning the American League in 2006 but missing the playoffs in 2007, the Detroit Tigers made the biggest splash of the offseason when they traded a handful of prospects for third baseman Miguel Cabrera (as if they needed another bat) and pitcher Dontrelle Willis. With an aging core and an emerging division rival in Cleveland, it’s clear the Tigers are taking their shot at a World Series now. The bullpen remains a question mark, but while we’re asking questions, do you really need a bullpen when you’re up 7-0 in the sixth inning most nights?

6. Torre heads west

Joe Torre’s 12-year tenure in New York came to an unceremonious end, and now the former Yankees manager will try to win in the National League with another proud (if perhaps less intense) franchise — the Dodgers. He received a three-year, $13 million contract, and by all accounts, seems more relaxed in L.A. than he’s been in a long time. He’ll have to deal with one of the toughest divisions in baseball, but there won’t be any Steinbrenners breathing down his neck.

7. Rockies, loaded NL West battle it out

Torre’s new division will be worth watching for a number of reasons other than the Dodgers’ new manager. The Colorado Rockies, eight months removed from their improbable World Series run, will have plenty of work to do just to make the playoffs again. Four of the five teams in the NL West — the Dodgers, Rockies, Diamondbacks and Padres — can be considered legitimate contenders, and we could see a sequel to the hair-raising title chase baseball’s toughest division gave us last year.

8. Nationals begin new era in new park

There’s a big story on the local front, this year, too: The Nationals open the major leagues’ only new park this Sunday against the Braves. Aside from giving the team a modern home to replace RFK Stadium, Nationals Park also signals the start of a new phase of the team’s history. Stocked with an improving farm system and a number of young stars, Washington is confident it is building a contender. This season could be the first step in that direction.

9. Griffey, Ramirez, Sheffield approach milestones

We won’t see anything on the milestone front like we did last year, when Barry Bonds was chasing Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record, but there are a number of players closing in on significant marks. Ken Griffey Jr. is seven home runs from becoming the sixth player to hit 600 in his career, while Manny Ramirez and Gary Sheffield are 10 and 20 homers from the 500 mark, respectively. If he comes back, Bonds is only 65 hits from 3,000, and Randy Johnson needs 16 wins to hit 300 for his career. And Greg Maddux, who no one has ever accused of taking steroids, is eight wins from passing Roger Clemens on the all-time list.

10. The next breakthrough team

This isn’t one we can answer for sure, but we can say this much: The way baseball’s been going the last few years, there’s likely to be a surprise team in the playoff mix. It happened in 2006, when Detroit stormed to the World Series. It happened last year, when Arizona and Colorado met in the NLCS. And there are several candidates this year, like the Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners and possibly even the Tampa Bay Rays. Or maybe the Nationals. Stay tuned.

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