Ten questions to be answered by Opening Day

Not long ago, the independent Atlantic League included a team based
near Allentown, Pa., that didn’t have a permanent home
ballpark.

One month before spring training, we could assemble a
similarly itinerant 31st major-league team to play a handful of
games at — where else? —  Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

In all seriousness, have you checked the Roster of the
Unsigned lately? Tell me whether this team might have a chance of
winning the American League Central.

C – Bengie Molina

1B – Russell Branyan or Hank Blalock

2B – Orlando Hudson

SS – Orlando Cabrera

3B – Miguel Tejada

LF – Johnny Damon

CF – Rick Ankiel

RF – Jermaine Dye

DH – Jim Thome or Jonny Gomes

SP – Joel Pineiro

SP – Jarrod Washburn

SP – Ben Sheets

SP – Jon Garland

SP – Pedro Martinez

RP – Kiko Calero

RP – Chan Ho Park

RP – Mike MacDougal

You get the idea. We’re not far from Load the Truck
Time, and there are some certifiably big names still looking for
work.

With that in mind, here are 10 questions to be answered
between now and Opening Day.

1. Who wins the Johnny Damon staredown: the Yankees, Scott
Boras … or another team?

At present, the Yankees’ outfield includes Brett
Gardner, Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher. Seems to me they could
use a left-handed hitter to play left field. If only there were
someone who fit that description, who has had success in the major
East Coast markets, who could hit near the top of the lineup

Oh, right. Johnny Damon.

Boras and Damon asked the Yankees for Bobby Abreu money.
I’m sure the Yankees were ecstatic … until they found
out Damon was talking about the contract Abreu has
now (two years, $19 million), as opposed to the one Abreu
had in 2009 (one year, $5 million). Oops.

The Tigers say they aren’t going to give Damon the
money he wants, so maybe he will end up in the Bronx after all.
Time for Boras and the Yankees to make nice. After spending all
those millions last winter and winning a title in the fall,
now the Yankees figure it’s time to hold the line?

2. Speaking of harmony, what becomes of the Mets?

Wait. You said there wouldn’t be any essays on this
test.

General manager Omar Minaya has told reporters all is well
with Carlos Beltran, following a public back-and-forth about
whether proper protocol was followed with the center
fielder’s knee surgery. Minaya told the
New York Post that “everything is good,” but I
doubt Beltran is similarly content with the Mets’ conduct
over the past week. They handled this poorly from start to finish.

And by the way, if you’re a catcher (Bengie Molina) or
a starting pitcher (Joel Pineiro), the Mets want you to play for
them. I’m sure Beltran would speak very highly of the
organization if either player called to ask.




3. Will the Dodgers sign a starting pitcher of
consequence?

Imagine how Pineiro feels right now. He might make his choice
in free agency between the Dodgers, who have very little money, and
the Mets, who have very little credibility.

This offseason has not been kind to the Dodgers, with much
more attention focused on Frank McCourt’s divorce than Ned
Colletti’s moves. But I wonder whether Dodgers fans followed
the Beltran drama and thought: “Hey, the Mets are more messed up
than we are. Pineiro might take less money to sign with us.”

Still, don’t discount the depth of the Dodgers’
financial woes. When they traded Juan Pierre to the White Sox, they
transferred $3 million of Pierre’s 2010 salary into a bonus
to be paid starting in 2012. Colletti is doing everything he can to
shoehorn one starting pitcher into the ’10 payroll.

4. Will Major League Baseball and the players union shake
hands when the offseason is over?

In October, the Associated Press reported the union and
owners would wait until the end of the offseason to address the
possibility of a collusion filing.

“It preserves the players’ claims, and the
commissioner’s office hasn’t admitted any
wrongdoing,” new union chief Michael Weiner told the AP at
the time. “I would characterize this as a standstill
agreement.”

Well, as far as we know, the parties remain standing still.
Although many contracts remain unsigned, there’s a good
chance overall player salaries will be lower in 2010 than they were
in 2009. Individual teams will probably say that is because their
revenues declined. It’s not clear what stance the players
will take.

This issue could give us an early look at how well the
parties are getting along, with only two seasons left under the
current collective bargaining agreement.

5. Will Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander join Josh
Johnson in signing long-term contracts?

Johnson agreed to a four-year, $39 million contract extension
with the long-thrifty Marlins. Hernandez is asking for more than
that — in both years and dollars — and it would make
sense for Verlander to do the same, based on their relative
accomplishments.

Hernandez and Verlander are set to become free agents after
the 2011 season, as Johnson would have without the extension. The
Mariners appear to be building a contender, which should help their
sales pitch to Hernandez. The Tigers’ situation is murkier,
since they have parted with a number of established stars;
Verlander may need to be convinced by the team’s play in 2010
before signing on for the long term.

6. Just how much money will Tim Lincecum make in
2010?

The Giants’ star pitcher filed for salary arbitration
Friday, along with 127 other players. But none of them will walk
into a hearing room and say what Lincecum can:
Hey, I won the last two Cy Youngs. What’s that
worth?

This will be one of the most closely watched arbitration
cases in recent memory — whether the sides settle before the
hearing or not. The final salary figure will probably go down in
history as the highest ever for a first-time eligible pitcher. And
when there is talk of precedent being set, the pocketbooks of many
more people in future years are affected. Stay tuned.

7. Who is the best of the bats that the market
forgot?

We mentioned some of these names earlier, but here’s a
more complete list: Branyan, Blalock, Thome, Gomes, Jason Giambi,
Gary Sheffield and Marcus Thames.

I mention them together because they are, shall we say,
positionally deficient. With the possible exception of Blalock,
they share an optimal vocation: designated hitter.

While teams always minimize their interest in such players, I
count seven American League teams that don’t necessarily have
a full-time, 500-plate-appearance DH: Baltimore, Chicago,
Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Seattle and Toronto. Time to pair
up.

8. Who gambles on the right bounce-back pitcher?

Most of the pitchers left are coming off down seasons (Braden
Looper) or were injured at the end of the year (Washburn) or
didn’t pitch at all (Sheets), or didn’t pitch enough
(Erik Bedard) or have this thing about not pitching before the
Fourth of July (Pedro).

Pineiro is coming off a terrific season, and I’m still
trying to figure out why the Dodgers didn’t have Garland on
their roster for the NLCS.

At any rate, add in a Doug Davis here and a Vicente Padilla
there, and you have a decent market that should yield a
double-digit winner or two. Choose wisely.

9. Is Lou Piniella nervous yet?

Perhaps because the Cubs were understandably preoccupied with
trying to move Milton Bradley, they weren’t able to devote
more attention (and money) to one of the most overlooked issues
anywhere this winter: their rotation.

Ted Lilly, the Cubs’ most reliable starter, is coming
off shoulder surgery and almost certainly won’t be ready for
the start of the regular season. In a Friday interview with the
Chicago Sun-Times, Lilly talked about doing
“everything that’s in my control not to allow”
his
career to end.

So, yes, the Cubs are still looking for another starter.

10. Have you noticed Texas is for sale?

So let me get this straight: Chuck Greenberg’s group
didn’t complete its purchase of the Rangers by Friday’s
deadline, and Drayton McLane is reportedly willing to sell the
Astros.

We can’t be sure when either situation will be
resolved, so here’s my proposal: Hold a silent auction for
both teams when the Lone Star Series resumes June 18 in Houston.
Cash only, please.

Highest overall bidder can keep the Silver Boot, too.