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New, old blood on field

Sun., April 4, 2010

Stars, stories to follow in ’10

The major league baseball season opens today, and by amazing coincidence, it will feature the Yankees against the Red Sox. I’ll bet ESPN never saw that one coming.

But from this predictable start will follow, we can only hope, seven months of shocks, twists, turns, turbulence and triumphs. But enough about Milton Bradley.

Happily, the sport is brimming with a new generation of supreme talent on the verge of busting out. Rarely has a spring created the sort of buzz that built this year as Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals and Aroldis Chapman of the Reds unleashed their 100-mph fastballs in Florida and Arizona, respectively. Both will start in the minors, but that won’t last long. By June, expect both fireballers to be unveiled in the majors, debuts which could cause immense excitement.

A third phenom, Atlanta’s Jason Heyward, will start in the majors despite being only 20 years old. Braves manager Bobby Cox, starting his final season, or so he says, simply couldn’t manufacture a reason to keep the best-looking player in any camp down.

Not to put undue pressure on the kid, but he’s already being dubbed the next Dave Winfield, Willie McCovey or Dale Murphy. I’m simply looking forward to watching the first Jason Heyward develop before our eyes.

Nothing excites the senses more than new blood, but there’s some compelling old blood, as well. Minnesota’s Joe Mauer, at age 26, isn’t exactly old, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that he is a once-a-generation talent. And with that new eight-year, $184 million contract in hand (thanks in large part to the anticipated revenue from brand-new Target Field, which opens in Minneapolis this season), we don’t have to worry about another superstar skipping off to the Yankees.

St. Louis’ Albert Pujols, of course, is a once-every-two- generations talent. This year’s task: determining whether Pujols has reached his prime yet. Derek Jeter is surely past his prime, but he keeps befuddling all those analysts who love to mock his defense. He reinvented himself with the glove last year and remains the consummate winning player.

Other players I’m eager to see again, just for the wow factor:

•Tim Lincecum, with hair flying, his arm contorted into impossible angles, improbably firing the ball past hitters.

•Prince Fielder, because we all love big ol’ dudes who can hit the ball into the upper deck.

•Pablo Sandoval, because we all love big ol’ dudes who can hit, period.

•Ichiro, still a unique bat artist in his 10th season, providing a show every time he steps to the plate.

•Hanley Ramirez, the best combination of speed, power, and hitting for a high average to come along in years.

•Evan Longoria, who can beat you every which way and still hasn’t reached potential.

•Felix Hernandez, who is at that magical juncture where the electric stuff we always knew was there has been matched by experience and wisdom. And he hasn’t even turned 24 yet.

•Roy Halladay, because there’s just something about the crafty old pro who is dominant year after year.

•Jamie Moyer, because he’s the craftiest and oldest pro around.

The season begins with the usual fretting about the dominance of the Yankees and their infernal spending, a story line that had waned during their eight seasons without a title. The Yankees are indeed the team to beat in the American League, almost by force of habit, but that doesn’t mean their ascension is a fait accompli.

Heck, the Yankees might not even be the best team in their own division. Take it a step further, and the three best teams in the American League – New York, Boston and Tampa Bay – might all reside in the A.L. East. Yes, it’s an embarrassment of riches, but it’s going to make for one compelling race.

One of the great sidelights to this season will be watching all the teams maneuvering for the talent drain that figures to take place around the July trade deadline. The Mariners can only hope they are position to join the rush for Adrian Gonzalez, long presumed to be almost certain trade fodder and just the sort of piece that could put an offense-challenged team over the top.

Of course, that outcome presupposes that the Padres aren’t in contention themselves, which seems logical on the surface. After all, they lost 87 games last year and didn’t make much of a mark in the offseason. But here’s something to chew on: The Padres went 37-25 over their final 62 games, a record matched in the National League only by the Rockies. Who’s to say the Padres couldn’t contend in a division that’s not a powerhouse, and decide to hold onto A-Gonz?

We’ll just have to wait and see, just as we’ll have to wait and see which teams soar, which ones underachieve, which players break out and which ones break down.

The mystery is the enticement. The unveiling is the show.

Tags: baseball, MLB

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