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.