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Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It is hard to believe, but the start of the 2008 Major League Baseball season is now less than a week away. Of course, we are talking about the ridiculous season-opening two-game series in Japan between the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics that gets underway on Tuesday.
As you can tell, I am not a fan of this nonsense at all. I am all for the idea of bringing big league players over there, but don't we do that after the season in some sort of All-Star tour? Why does it have to be in games that count?
It just doesn't seem fair to the teams and players involved. I don't care what anyone says, a trip to and from the Far East screws you up. These players, especially pitchers, are so regimented that a week-long junket to Japan, at the very start of the season no less, undoubtedly takes its toll. Don't believe me? Ask Mike Mussina. He is still complaining about the Yankees' trip to the Land of the Rising Sun four years ago.
Speaking of the Japan series, MLB dodged a huge bullet when Daisuke Matsuzaka's wife gave birth to the couple's first child last week, earlier than expected. Mrs. Dice-K was supposed to drop some time around the time the Red Sox departed for Japan. Had she not delivered, Matsuzaka had said that he would have stayed behind.
Imagine how that would have gone over. The Red Sox, who will already be without ace Josh Beckett, travel all the way over to Japan to play these games with no Dice-K. But none of that matters now, since Matsuzaka will be on the hill next Tuesday for the defending champions.
Japanese fans will get the opportunity to see (among others) Dice-K, as well as blossoming A's first baseman Daric Barton, two of the 14 players on our following list of AL players you might want to keep tabs on during the 2008 season:
(We will take a look at the NL next week.)
BALTIMORE - ADAM LOEWEN - Much to NFL Editor Tony Moss' chagrin, there is not going to be much to watch when it comes to his Baltimore Orioles this season. Canadian left-hander Adam Loewen is a rare exception. Loewen has ace stuff, but had what was supposed to be a breakout season of 2007 cut short due to a season-ending elbow injury. With Erik Bedard gone to Seattle, the Orioles - among other things - lack an ace. Loewen could be that guy, provided, of course, he can stay on the field.
BOSTON - DIASUKE MATSUZAKA - Despite his 15 wins, Matsuzaka was a disappointment last season. Hopefully, with one year of major league experience under his belt, Matsuzaka will more resemble the player for whose services Boston shelled out over $100 million. The Red Sox may need Dice-K to step up now more than ever since the health of ace Josh Beckett is already in question. Not to mention the fact that there are people out there who think I have a better chance at starting a game for Boston this season than Curt Schilling.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX - MARK BUEHRLE - Chicago pitching coach Don Cooper has stated that Buehrle, Vazquez and Jose Contreras need to average 15 wins between them this season. Buehrle may be the only one that has a chance at doing so. Last year he endured an up-and-down campaign (that featured the first no-hitter of his career), but he is clearly the most talented member of the trio. A big year from Buehrle may ease the growing pains of the rotation that once again features a couple of young arms in John Danks and Gavin Floyd.
CLEVELAND - C.C. SABATHIA - Sabathia had been dogged for years for his inability to stay in shape. Well, last year Sabathia came into camp on a mission, and it translated into an American League Cy Young Award. Now the question is, can he do it two years in a row? Not that Sabathia needs any motivation, but he can become a free agent at season's end. The way things are today, even a so-so year will probably land him a monstrous deal, but another sensational season and he can go to teams requesting a blank check.
DETROIT - MIGUEL CABRERA - All winter, Cabrera had to hear how out of shape he was. He got tired of hearing it, and swore that whatever team traded for him would be getting a fit Cabrera. He stayed true to his word, showing up in Tigers camp in the best shape of his playing career. With a lethal lineup in Detroit, Cabrera could be poised for the best year of his career.
KANSAS CITY - ALEX GORDON - Gordon came into last year with a lot of hype. Unfortunately, he was more Ken Brett than George Brett, and struggled through his first major league season. Big things, though, are still anticipated from the team's most hyped prospect since Bret Saberhagen. Not that the Royals are going to be competing for a division title anytime soon, but how Gordon progresses in year two will go a long way in determining the Royals' success in coming years.
LA ANGELS - VLADIMIR GUERRERO - Although he won't come out and say it, Guerrero desperately needs some help in the Angels' lineup. The last two years the Halos have added some nice pieces in Gary Matthews Jr., and this year Torii Hunter, but they are nowhere near the caliber of the Manny Ramirez-, Miguel Cabrera-, Alex Rodriguez-type that Angels fans and Guerrero long for. Regardless, though, Guerrero keeps chugging along, and when it is all said and done, you know exactly what you are getting from him. He was the most underrated player in the game when he played in Montreal and still, even though he is in Los Angeles, he remains so. The Angels have a $15 million option on him for the 2009 season which they will undoubtedly pick up, but they have to get him some help. What is the point of having a Ferrari if you can't drive it fast?
MINNESOTA - CARLOS GOMEZ - The Twins organization had to make a decision no front office ever wants to make. Do they trade a franchise player? Ultimately, Minnesota really had no choice but to send ace Johan Santana to the New York Mets for a package of prospects. You won't be able to really judge the deal for a few years, but one new Twin who may be able to contribute this year and that is the outfielder Gomez. Gomez has been compared to Roger Cedeno, but with a better glove. Not really a ringing endorsement, especially when he is always going to be the face of what the Twins received for Santana.
NY YANKEES - PHIL HUGHES - The New York Yankees, namely GM Brian Cashman, are banking a lot on the success of Hughes. Cashman was the voice that ultimately talked Hank Steinbrenner out of trading for Johan Santana, because he wanted to stay the course with his young arms. Hughes has been talked about for years, and showed signs of greatness last season, but will truly get his chance this year. If he fails, and Santana has a big year across town for the Mets, Cashman may be out of a job.
OAKLAND - DARIC BARTON - The Oakland Athletics are in the midst of a full- fledged rebuilding process, and it figures to be a long year for baseball fans in the Bay Area. They received a ton of prospects through trades this offseason, but none of them are really able to contribute just yet. Barton, though, could give A's fans the glimmer of hope for the future they are looking for. Barton, acquired in the Mark Mulder deal three years ago, excelled as a September call-up a year ago, hitting hit .347 with four homers and 10 RBI in just 72 at-bats. Barton is expected to be team's everyday first baseman.
SEATTLE - ERIK BEDARD - Bedard was rescued from Baltimore and now heads up what could be the best 1-2 top-of-the-rotation in the majors, alongside young stud Felix Hernandez. Nobody questions Bedard's ability. He has the stuff to be a Cy Young Award winner one day. His only problem has been staying healthy. I don't know what it is, but something inside of me says that this is going to be the year that he puts it all together. While I am not jumping on the Bedard-for-Cy Young bandwagon that seems to be gaining momentum, I do think he is going to have a sensational year, and will be the driving force behind the Mariners' push back to the playoffs.
TAMPA BAY - EVAN LONGORIA - Last year, Alex Gordon was the third baseman getting all the rookie buzz. This year it is the Rays' Longoria. (And no, he is not related to Eva Longoria. You will only hear that joke/fact about a million times this season, so I figured I would get it out of the way now.) Let's hope Longoria's maiden voyage into the big league waters turns out a little better than Gordon's. By all accounts, Longoria is a can't-miss, and has succeeded with flying colors on every level thus far. He may be the face of this Tampa uprising that we keep hearing is right around the corner.
TEXAS - BRANDON MCCARTHY - McCarthy came over to the Rangers with much fanfare. After being heralded for so long by the Chicago White Sox, who held onto him like he was made of gold, McCarthy was acquired with the intention of giving the Rangers a frontline starter for years to come. Things did not work out as planned for the 24-year-old right-hander in Chicago, but if Texas is going to make a push and become relevant in the AL West again, it is going to need a strong season from McCarthy.
TORONTO - VERNON WELLS - After signing a monster seven-year extension prior to last season, center fielder Vernon Wells had perhaps his worst year in the pros. Wells, hampered by a shoulder injury for the better part of the season, hit just .245 with 16 home runs and 80 RBI. Wells, though, had surgery in late September to repair a torn labrum, and there is reason to believe he will revert back to his play in 2006, when he was an All-Star starter for the American League.
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