Starting nine: Storylines worth watching in '11
Rookies, new managers offer part of what should be intriguing
In the spirit of Opening Day, it's fitting to identify the top storylines heading into the season.
Because it's such a symbolic number in baseball and it's all about actual games now, here are nine of them.
9. Time for more young blood.
Last year was a historic one with regard to first-year players. Jason Heyward, Buster Posey, Stephen Strasburg, Neftali Feliz, Mike Stanton and so many others burst onto the scene and performed the way rookies often don't.
If Angels center fielder Mike Trout and Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper come up before the All-Star break, this year could rival 2010. Right now, though, I have my eye on first basemen Freddie Freeman (Braves) and Brandon Belt (Giants) and starters Jeremy Hellickson (Rays) and Kyle Drabek (Blue Jays).
Two under-the-radar guys who impressed me this spring: Astros first baseman Brett Wallace (who has been dealt three times in three years but looks like he's finally fitting in) and Twins second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka (an underrated signing from Japan who's super fast, has a great glove and looks like a perfect No. 2 hitter).
Of course, there are several others. Who knows which player comes out of nowhere? Somebody will.
8. Who will ride the manager-go-round?
Last year wasn't just big for rookies, it was big for turnover. Twelve teams have a different manager than they did a year ago. Who, if anyone, will be replaced this year? We'll have to at least play the games first, but there are some with expiring contracts worth keeping an eye on.
Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland are each in the final year of their deals as they look to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006. They have an owner in Mike Ilitch who wants to win and a talented roster with which to do it, but they're in a tough division and the pressure is on.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman also has an expiring deal, and the Yankees' front office is always interesting to monitor.
Others with interesting expiring deals: Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, Pirates GM Neal Huntington and managers Edwin Rodriguez (Marlins), Jim Riggleman (Nationals) and Bob Geren (Athletics).
7. Change for the better?
We shall see about those dozen teams with managers in their first full seasons with their new clubs.
The managers would be Rodriguez, Fredi Gonzalez of the Braves, Terry Collins of the Mets, John Farrell of the Blue Jays, Buck Showalter of the Orioles, Mike Quade of the Cubs, Ron Roenicke of the Brewers, Ned Yost of the Royals, Clint Hurdle of the Pirates, Kirk Gibson of the D-backs, Eric Wedge of the Mariners and Don Mattingly of the Dodgers.
(Out of breath?)
The toughest job belongs to Collins, who takes over a franchise loaded with injuries, bad contracts, a lawsuit and a world of pressure. The easiest job belongs to Gonzalez, who has a talented roster in an organization he knows well. The most interesting to watch may be Showalter, who looks like he'll shake things up in the American League East.
6. In need of a comeback.
So many of them are.
The Yankees need A.J. Burnett to be much better if they're going to compete with the Red Sox in the AL East. Meanwhile, Carlos Beltran, Johan Santana, Grady Sizemore, Chase Utley, Josh Beckett, James Shields, Jake Peavy, Justin Morneau, Lance Berkman, Aramis Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Webb will try to prove they're still among the elite players in this game.
I've got my eye on two third basemen: Chipper Jones and Alex Rodriguez.
You're not supposed to make much out of Spring Training numbers, but it's hard to fight that off in the situations of these two. Jones, who almost retired before and after a torn ACL last season, batted .387 with 15 RBIs in Grapefruit League play and is feeling fresh. A-Rod, who says his hip is feeling its best since surgery, hit .388 and bashed six homers in 18 games this spring.
5. Will the real Jose Bautista please stand up?
Is he the guy who hit 54 homers and finished fourth in AL Most Valuable Player Award voting last year? Or the one who toiled in mediocrity his previous six seasons in the big leagues?
Bautista admits he probably won't hit 50 homers again, but Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos is hoping he's a lot more like the former than the latter. This will be an interesting season for Bautista because Anthopoulos -- usually so prudent and careful -- took a tremendous risk by making him the face of the Blue Jays and signing him to a five-year, $65 million contract after one good season.
I'd like to believe that at the age of 29 last season, Bautista really did figure it out and will be a consistently great player for a few years. But there's no way of knowing that for sure.
One thing is certain: The Blue Jays aren't the kind of franchise that can afford financial mistakes of that magnitude.
4. The Albert Pujols Watch is on.
It begins ceremoniously on Thursday, when baseball's greatest hitter starts his 11th and possibly final season in a Cardinals uniform.
Pujols, eligible for free agency after the 2011 campaign, has said he won't negotiate a contract in-season and will veto any trade. But things can change. If the Cardinals -- with Adam Wainwright already missing the year -- struggle at the start and begin feeling apprehensive about their chances of keeping Pujols long-term, do they pull the trigger on a deal? And does Pujols accept?
Regardless, the first baseman is sure to get a gargantuan contract somewhere -- perhaps even the richest ever.
And even if he doesn't get traded, watching Pujols play is fun, anyway.
3. Big changes in baseball?
Major League Baseball's current Collective Bargaining Agreement won't expire until Dec. 11, but as Commissioner Bud Selig acknowledged while speaking at the IMG World Congress of Sports in Miami on Wednesday, it'll be an interesting topic all year long.
Baseball, Selig said, is in its "golden era" as it has had 16 years of labor peace, and all signs point to a smooth negotiation between MLB officials and the Major League Baseball Players Association on a new deal, much like what occurred in 2006.
But how much will change by the time the 2012 season hits?
Will the playoffs expand? Will more replay be used? Those, among a variety of other topics, will be discussed throughout the year.
2. So many new faces.
This is when we'll begin to find out if those big offseason moves were worthwhile. Guys like Victor Martinez in Detroit, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford in Boston, Adam Dunn in Chicago, Cliff Lee in Philadelphia, Dan Uggla in Atlanta and Zack Greinke in Milwaukee will try to prove they were.
The one I'm really looking out for is Jayson Werth in the nation's capital. The Nationals overpaid for their new outfielder -- to the tune of seven guaranteed years and $126 million -- because that's what they have to do to get star players at this juncture.
Now, for the first time, Werth is a main catalyst on a team and isn't sheltered behind the likes of Utley and Ryan Howard.
It'll be interesting to see if he can live up to his pay grade.
Games are not won on paper. It's a simple concept, but one we must keep in mind when looking at the two East divisions.
Almost everybody is picking the Red Sox and Phillies to meet in the World Series after each of them went to the bank this offseason (the Red Sox with Crawford and Gonzalez, the Phillies with Lee).
Now, it's the Phillies and Red Sox -- and not the 2010 pennant-winning Rangers and Giants -- who will have big targets on their backs throughout the season.
It'll be interesting to see if they can live up to a world of expectations when getting each team's absolute best in every series.
And it'll be interesting to see who can step up and match them.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.