Ten questions to be answered by Opening Day

BY foxsports • January 16, 2010

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.

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