Opening Day 2005: Top 10 Stories for the New Season

Nothing is sweeter than Opening Day. It’s the symbolic start of spring and the start of a new baseball season. With 30 teams playing out their 162-game schedules, anything can happen between now and the end of October.

Maybe another cursed team can break a decades-old spell. Maybe the .400 mark will finally fall. Maybe baseball will have a glorious return to the nation’s capitol. The beauty about baseball is that anything can happen on any given day. For now, though, I’m just going to take a look at what I think are the top ten compelling storylines for the 2005 season. Feel free to disagree with me. That’s what the comment section down at the bottom is for.

So without further ado…

1. The Boston Red Sox, Defending World Champions – After winning their first title in 86 years, the Red Sox underwent something of an overhaul this winter. Gone are Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Orlando Cabrera. Joining the self-proclaimed idiots are David Wells, Matt Clement, Edgar Renteria, and Wade Miller. With the team and its fans basking in the glow of the World Series trophy, expectations will be at an all-time high for the Boston Red Sox, and anything short of a first-place finish will be viewed as a disappointment. But will the team be able to meet these expectations or will David Wells’ failed Opening Night start serve as a harbinger of a long season?

2. Overcoming the Choke – As everyone and their mothers now know, the Yankees, baseball’s most storied franchise, chalked up a dubious record last October when they became the first Major League team to blow a 3-0 series lead. For the first few months of the season, many eyes will turn to the Bronx to see how the Yankees rebound from what could have been a crushing psychological blow. Mariano Rivera, who was once viewed as infallible, will be particularly scrutinized at first. If last night is any indication, however, the Yankees looked looser on the field than they have at any time since the start of the 2002 season, and Randy Johnson in a very average start was better than most of the Yanks’ 2004 rotation. Considering the pressure, that’s a good sign for Yankee fans and a bad sign for anyone else.

3. The Post-Steroid Era or Not? – Just hours before Opening Night, Tampa Bay Devil Rays outfielder Alex Sanchez became the first player to be suspended for violating the new drug policy. While Buster Olney is ready to feed Sanchez to the dogs and move on, I disagree with his assessment. Sanchez’s suspension shows that players may still be using steroids. For baseball to put this scandal in the past, no one else should test positive this season. But if more players are suspended, the public – and Congress – may grow more skeptical of baseball’s commitment to clean up.

4. Challenging .400 – Last season, Ichiro Suzuki hit .372 and set a new record for hits in a single season. What isn’t mentioned is that for the last three months of the season, Ichiro hit .408. Then, for an encore, he went 31 for 71 during Spring Training. While the eyes on Seattle may focus on the newest additions to the Mariners’ lineup, the rest of the baseball world may see a hitter reach the .400 plateau for the first time in over 60 years.

5. New-Look Mets – The Mets, New York’s other team, is trying to become New York’s team again. They signed Pedro to a sizable contract and wooed Carlos Beltran to Shea Stadium. With a solid young core of players, including Beltran, David Wright, and Jose Reyes, and a sturdy group of veterans, the Mets have the makings of an offensive force. But can Pedro Martinez and Tommy Glavine, two aging starters, make up for a back-end rotation that reeks of mediocrity? The path to Braden Looper, the Mets’ closer, is fraught with failure as well. I don’t expect Omay Minaya to sit pat, but I don’t think 2005 is the Year of the Met in New York.

6. Billy Beane’s Magical Touch – A’s fans the nation over are despairing about the offseason. After blowing a late-season lead, Billy Beane traded away Oakland’s top two starters. Left with Barry Zito and Rich Harden as their 1-2 guys, the A’s aren’t in the dire straits their fans think they are in. They too have a solid core of young players, and Nick Swisher should move beyond his Moneyball reputation this year. It may be a mini-rebuilding year in Oakland, but with Billy Beane at the helm and more money in the owners’ pockets, don’t count out of the A’s just yet.

7. A Reverse Switch – Many prominent pitchers have gone from the starting rotation to the closer role with devastatingly effective results. Now, one of the game’s top closers who has already made the switch once is heading back to the rotation. What kind of starting pitcher will John Smoltz be after four seasons as a closer? The Braves’ hopes for another division title may rise and fall on his right arm.

8. Barry’s Knee and the NL West – With the race to 756 on hold while Barry Bonds recovers from another knee surgery, the Giants will have to find ways to win without the most potent threat in baseball in the lineup. With a bunch of grizzled, old (and I mean old) veterans, they just might be able to stave off disaster until Barry comes back to resume his assault on the Babe and Hammerin’ Hank.

9. The Rocket Redux – What do you do for an encore when, at age 42, you win your seventh Cy Young Award? Is it best to retire when you’re ahead or push through for another season?

10. Breaking a Curse – Who gets to break their curse this year? Will it be the Cubs behind the arms of oft-injured Kerry Wood and Mark Prior? Will it be the White Sox behind the arms of the Cuban tandem of Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras? Or will curses remain in place for yet another season in the Windy Season?

Now play ball!

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