Nine story lines for 2008

Years ago, a high school teacher of mine talked about the importance of living in the present. Being the wise-ass high school student that I was, I quipped that I looked forward to that.

Hey, when you’re 17 years old, it’s amazing what passes for clever.

Anyway, I’ve spent this offseason living in the past. Now that spring training has arrived, it’s time for me to think once more of the future. With that in mind, here are some things (beyond living in the present) that I look forward to in the coming season. These aren’t necessarily the biggest stories of 2008, but, in my eyes, they’re pretty compelling.

In no particular order:

The Rays

The club from Tampa Bay (“Now 100% Less Devilish!”) has been in the league for a decade. It has finished in last place every year except 2004, when Lou Piniella managed to coax the only 70-win season in club history.

Thanks to good draft position and player development, as well as a dash of turning Victor Zambrano into something usable, the Rays have built a solid foundation of good—potentially great—young players. Many of these kids are now in a position to contribute at the big-league level.

B.J. Upton posted a 136 OPS+ in his first full season, at the ripe old age of 22. That’s usually a recipe for multiple All-Star appearances.

Carl Crawford, one of those players who is simultaneously over- and underrated, has established himself as a solid left fielder with a broad array of offensive skills and the ability to disrupt defenses with his baserunning ability. He’s closing in on 1,000 hits and 300 stolen bases, and he doesn’t turn 27 until August.

Delmon Young? Yeah, he’s gone, but the guy he was traded for, Matt Garza, is no slouch. He has already had a chance to get his feet wet in Minnesota over the past two seasons. There may be some initial growing pains, but he looks like a good bet to help anchor a strong young rotation over the next few years.

The kids in front of Garza look pretty good, too. James Shields emerged in his sophomore season, and Scott Kazmir is a special talent that teams don’t just give away. Well, most teams….

Carlos Pena? He might be a fluke; but then again, he might not be. The guy once was highly regarded, and he’s still only 30 years old.

Yeah, I think this could be a fun team to watch in ’08 and even further into the future.

AL Central

Was the Indians’ resurgence in 2007 legitimate, or are they headed for a fall? Will the White Sox’s implementation of Baltimore’s “Overpay Generic Relievers” strategy keep them out of the basement? Is this Kansas City’s year to break the 70-win barrier? Who ate all the cookies? These are just some of the questions that will be answered during the season. (Miguel Cabrera ate the cookies; Ozzie Guillen slipped them to him when nobody was looking.)

The Indians last year were hugely dependent on Fausto Carmona and C.C. Sabathia. Although we should expect those two to slip somewhat—particularly Carmona, whose track record and strikeout rate aren’t quite as impressive as Sabathia’s—there’s a lot more going on in Cleveland than that duo.

Second base and left field shouldn’t be such black holes again, and Travis Hafner figures to improve on last year’s numbers. Besides closer Joe Borowski, the bullpen looks strong, and obviously guys like Victor Martinez and Grady Sizemore don’t grow on maple trees.

As for the Tigers, they won 88 games in ’07 and added Cabrera, among others. ‘Nuff said.

Even the Royals appear to be headed in the right direction. Alex Gordon will have a year of experience under his belt. And Zack Greinke has gotten his career back on track. This might be the season that Kansas City passes the White Sox, who spent the winter giving long-term contracts to guys like Octavio Dotel and Scott Linebrink. Hey, when Danys Baez and Chad Bradford aren’t available, you’ve got to do something, by golly.

NL West

How strong is this division? Last year, an 89-win team failed to reach the playoffs. And no team from another NL division won a single post-season game.

The defending NL West champion Diamondbacks have added Dan Haren to go with Brandon Webb. And it’s only a matter of time until their good young position players learn to hit at the big-league level.

The Rockies? Sure, they probably played over their heads down the stretch last year. But there’s plenty of talent here as well; you don’t win a league championship without it.

As usual, San Diego will slip under the radar, and as usual, they’ll be successful. The Dodgers brought in Joe Torre to manage and Andruw Jones to make Juan Pierre even less useful than he was play center field.

Some terrific young pitchers call the NL West home as well. Webb, Haren, Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Chad Billingsley, Matt Cain, and Tim Lincecum are all in their twenties, and all have the potential to join Webb and Peavy as Cy Young Award winners in the not-too-distant future, possibly even this year.

Expect the NL West again to be one of the most hotly contested divisions in baseball. And enjoy the pitching.

Keith Foulke

Foulke is my kind of pitcher. He doesn’t throw hard, but he gets results. Or at least, he did from 1999 to 2004. The next two years weren’t so kind to Foulke, and he retired before the 2007 season.

Well, now he’s back. Currently nursing a calf strain, Foulke is vying for a spot in the Oakland bullpen. He has been there before—in 2003, when he saved 43 games for the A’s and finished seventh in AL Cy Young voting.

Whether Foulke is able to return after sitting out a year remains to be seen—on the one hand, he’s now 35 years old; on the other hand, he has spent the last 12 months not abusing his arm. But I hope that Foulke’s isn’t one of those stories that dies in spring training. The common man (and woman) needs guys out there who can dominate hitters with off-speed stuff. With Doug Jones fading from memory and Trevor Hoffman perhaps nearing the end of his line, maybe Foulke can step back in and make us all feel a little better about ourselves for not throwing hard. Relatively speaking, of course.

Kosuke Fukudome

I’m curious to see how well Fukudome’s game translates to the North American version. On the Matsui scale, will his transition land closer to the Hideki end or to the Kazuo end? And if the latter, how long will it take for Cubs fans to turn on him and start intentionally mispronouncing his name?

Rick Ankiel

As a pitcher, Ankiel was Baseball America‘s No. 18 prospect in 1998. He won 11 games and fanned 194 batters as a 20-year-old rookie in 2000. Then came the control problems. Then the injury problems. Then the conversion to outfielder. And then the .285/.328/.535 line in 47 games last year for the Cardinals.

You couldn’t even write a character like that for a movie. Nobody would believe it.

And the stuff about Ankiel and HGH? It probably would bother me more if there were any conclusive evidence that HGH enhances performance.

For me, Ankiel remains a feel-good story and a compelling one at that. Our own projections have Ankiel knocking 25 homers this year. I’m guessing that the subset of players who have done that and had a Top-10 ERA in another season is pretty small.

Francisco Liriano

Liriano is like Foulke. Only he’s left-handed. And he’s young. And he throws hard. And… okay, I lied, Liriano is not at all like Foulke. Except for the whole “didn’t pitch in 2007″ thing. Of course, that’s the important part, the unknown, the teaser that makes the rest of the story worth following.

Originally property of the San Francisco Giants, Liriano came to Minnesota along with Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser for A.J. Pierzynski and cash. After a brief cameo in 2005, Liriano dominated the American League for much of the following season. He missed most of August and September and then had Tommy John surgery and sat out all of 2007.

Liriano is only 24 years old, and pitchers these days generally come back from TJS pretty strong. The Twins will be cautious with him, but as the season goes on and he finds his command, we could be in for some special performances down the stretch.

Or we could be in for nothing. We don’t know yet. But I like Liriano’s chances. And I hope I’m right, because when healthy, the kid has an electric arm. With the departure of Johan Santana, fans in Minnesota could use one of those about now.

Kyle Kendrick

I don’t know much about Kendrick beyond the facts that his strikeout numbers in the minors have never been exceptional and that last year’s rookie campaign looks like a fluke. But after seeing the way he responded to getting punk’d by teammate Brett Myers and cohorts this spring, I’m rooting for the kid. If nothing else, we know he handles adversity well.

Lastings Milledge

When I saw Milledge play in the Arizona Fall League a few years ago, I was expecting to be underwhelmed. I’d heard the hype, but the numbers didn’t sing to me. They barely spoke to me, in hushed tones: “Nice bat, could draw more walks, could hit for more power.” And then I saw him, and there was a substantial disconnect between what the stats said and what I was watching.

I hate when that happens.

Milledge showed terrific bat speed, and he hit everything hard. I mean, really hard. The name that jumped into my head was Gary Sheffield. And then I thought, “Oh great, now I’m one of those guys hyping this kid too much.”

But all I can tell you is what I saw. And what I saw was a guy who hit the snot out of the baseball. Not to harp on the Sheffield comparison, because that’s a lot of baggage to lay on a kid who doesn’t need any extra, but when Sheffield was traded in his early 20s from the team that drafted him, it did wonders for his career. Why couldn’t something similar happen with Milledge?

. . .

As I said at the top, this is hardly an exhaustive list. Exhausting? Well, maybe; that’s your call. But these are a few of the many story lines that I’ll be following during the season. That reminds me: Is it the present yet?

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