- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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I can't wait for the season to get going. You can't wait. Last October was the best we've had in years, and the offseason only fueled our baseball fever. Spring training is mercifully over. Let the games begin. Here are 100 reasons I'm pumped for the next seven months.
1. Albert Pujols in Anaheim. They call him The Machine, but Pujols had a few rusty bolts in 2011. He hit under .300 for the first time, his walk rate was down, and his extra-base-hit percentage was down. After a slow start through May (.267, nine home runs), he did hit much better after returning from his fractured forearm. He moves to a tougher division and will have to face the Rangers, A's and Mariners 19 times each -- with cavernous parks in Oakland and Seattle -- rather than the Cubs, Pirates and Astros. The pressure is on. The spotlight is bright. But machines are immune to all that, right?
2. Jim Thome's pursuit of a World Series title. He'll turn 42 in August and will play some first base until Ryan Howard returns. That's a pretty good story in itself (he hasn't played on the field since appearing in one game at first in 2008), but he's played in nine postseasons and reached two World Series without winning it all.
3. Jamie Moyer is back in the majors at age 49 and can surpass Jack Quinn as the oldest pitcher to win a game. Moyer's arsenal these days: an 80 mph fastball, a 70 mph changeup, a 65 mph curveball, a 55 mph slowball, a 20 mph Bugs Bunny ball and an 8 mph retirement community ball that bends time.
4. Justin Verlander's encore performance. Verlander threw 3,941 pitches in the regular season, the most since Livan Hernandez's 4,007 in 2005. Verlander added 360 more in the postseason. It's not necessarily a big deal -- Verlander's 2009 total is the third-highest since 2005 -- but you do wonder whether Jim Leyland will back off a little.
5. Roy Halladay's paintbrush.
6. Yu Darvish.
7. Yu Darvish's hair. Straight from Supercuts.
8. Adam Wainwright's return to the Cardinals' rotation. He was third in the 2009 NL Cy Young vote and second in 2010. He looked good this spring, pitching 18 2/3 innings and allowing just 11 hits. The strikeout rate wasn't great -- just nine K's -- but signs are positive a year after Tommy John surgery.
9. A full season of Stephen Strasburg, who was electric in his own return in September from TJ surgery in September 2010 -- his fastball averaged 95.8 mph, below the 97.3 he averaged in 2010 but still with enough velocity that it would have ranked No. 1 among starting pitchers. The big question for his season: How much the Nationals will limit his innings?
10. Jose Canseco's tweets.
12. Verlander, Halladay, Kershaw: three of the amazing generation of pitchers we get to enjoy. Maybe Darvish and Strasburg will join them. In 2011, 14 pitchers pitched at least 200 innings with an ERA of 3.00 or less. The last time we had even 10 such pitchers in one season was 1997, with 11. The last season with more than 14 was 1992, with 20. Yes, steroids are a small part of that. A small part. The best pitchers today are throwing harder and with meaner breaking stuff than we've ever seen. Guys like Kershaw and Halladay are relentless in their workout routines. It's not a lot of fun to be a hitter these days.
13. Well, Jose Bautista has a lot of fun.
17. Will Cabrera win his first MVP award? He's finished fifth in the voting three times, fourth once and second once. Two things that could prevent him from winning:
A. Austin Jackson's on-base percentage. Cabrera hit .388 with runners in scoring position in 2011 but drove in "just" 105 runs.
B. Fielder. Batting behind Cabrera and his .400-plus OBP will give Fielder more RBI opportunities. If he ends up driving in 15 to 20 more runs than Cabrera, they could split votes.
18. Cabrera playing third base. With Fielder at first base, the Tigers could have the worst first baseman and worst third baseman in baseball. (And, please, don't defend Fielder's defensive prowess at first base. He's better than Adam Dunn, I suppose ... but Dunn is a DH.)
19. Defensive runs saved!
Your leaders by position in 2011:
C -- Matt Wieters
1B -- Adrian Gonzalez
2B -- Ben Zobrist
3B -- Evan Longoria
SS -- Brendan Ryan
LF -- Brett Gardner
CF -- Austin Jackson
RF -- Jason Heyward
20. The Sandman.
21. The fans in Milwaukee. The Brewers drew a franchise-record 3.071 million fans in 2011. Depressed over losing Fielder? Hardly. They'll surpass that in 2012.
22. The fans in Boston and Philadelphia. I sense small amounts of trepidation seeping out from your greater metropolitan areas.
23. Joey Votto. The pride of Cincinnati. Although the Reds took on enormous long-term risk with Votto's mega-deal, the contract isn't necessarily absurd, even assuming Votto's decline in its later years. Dave Cameron wrote a story comparing Votto to similar players.
24. Dee Gordon's speed. I still say the young Willie Wilson is the fastest major leaguer I've seen since I started watching baseball, but Gordon is close. He's skinnier than a blade of Dodger Stadium grass, but he's an electrifying presence on the bases. You know, you hear a lot that baseball doesn't have the athletes it used to -- "used to" referring any unspecific time period that is in the past. But as fast as Gordon is, I'm not sure he's the fastest guy in the majors. It may be Michael Bourn or Mike Trout or Jacoby Ellsbury or Emilio Bonifacio or Austin Jackson or Ben Revere or Brett Gardner or Dexter Fowler ...
25. The Molina brothers. We're down to two. And, no, they're not as fast as Dee Gordon.
28. Rangers fans arguing for Ian Kinsler.
29. Everybody ignoring Ben Zobrist. Again.
30. Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, C.J. Wilson and Ervin Santana. Last year, all four Angels starters threw at least 220 innings, and Santana had the highest ERA at 3.38. (Wilson, of course, was with the Rangers.) The last time one team had four starters pitch that many innings, all with an ERA under 3.50? The 1997 Atlanta Braves with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Denny Neagle. In fact, only four other teams since 1970 have done it:
1975 Dodgers -- Don Sutton, Andy Messersmith, Burt Hooton, Doug Rau
1971 and 1972 Orioles -- Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson
1971 Yankees -- Stan Bahnsen, Mel Stottlemyre, Steve Kline, Fritz Peterson
In other words, no AL team since the DH rule has done it.
31. The raw power of Yoenis Cespedes.
33. Will offense continue to decline? It's gone down each season since 2007:
2006: 9.7 runs per game
2007: 9.6 runs per game
2008: 9.3 runs per game
2009: 9.2 runs per game
2010: 8.8 runs per game
2011: 8.6 runs per game
34. Adam Dunn has seven career Opening Day home runs, one shy of the record held by Frank Robinson and Ken Griffey Jr. Hey, it's exciting for White Sox fans and Dunn's family.
35. Felix Hernandez. It's likely another long season without much offense for us Mariners fans, but every fifth day we get to watch King Felix pitch and pretend we have a good team.
36. Heat maps. Remember when we used to say just, "he chases too many outside pitches," or, "he's having trouble throwing his curveball for strikes," even if we were just guessing and not entirely sure whether those statements were true? Now we can prove it!
37. Prop bets. ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski says his favorite bet is the undervalued Braves or Marlins to win the NL East. If he gambled, that is.
38. Dirk Hayhurst's new book, "Out of My League." His first book, "The Bullpen Gospels," was the heartfelt (and funny) story of a fringe prospect trying to survive the unglamorous life of minor league baseball. His new book tackles Hayhurst's trek to reaching the major leagues. It's sitting on my bookcase ready to be devoured on a Saturday afternoon, a baseball game on the TV in the background.
39. Madison Bumgarner. Ready to make The Leap?
40. Brandon Belt. Ready to ... oh, geez, will he even be in the lineup?
41. Matt Kemp chasing 50-50. OK, it's the longest of long shots. But after watching this video, I'm inclined to say he has a shot. Although that 24-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in spring training has me worried.
42. The Marlins' new park. Crazy prediction: The Marlins won't finish last in the NL in attendance for the seventh straight season.
43. The Marlins' beautiful eyesore of a home run sculpture modern art catastrophe that Marlins fans will pridefully photograph on trips to the park happily ignore once they've had a few drinks at the on-site Clevelander nightclub. And why is it called the Clevelander? Is this a jab at the Indians, whom the Marlins defeated in the 1997 World Series? Rise up, Indians fans!
44. Derek Holland's mustache.
45. John Axford's mustache.
46. Derek Holland's fastball.
47. Jacoby Ellsbury. People seem to be doubting his power surge. Keep in mind that he hit 32 home runs despite a 34-game homerless stretch at one point. Also, according to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, only four of Ellsbury's 32 homers were categorized as "just enough." Compare that to Miguel Cabrera, who had 16 such home runs.
48. The sweet swing of Adrian Gonzalez.
49. Peter Bourjos racing in to snare a blooper.
50. Checking your fantasy team at 1 a.m. Every night.
51. Justin Masterson inducing groundball after groundball.
52. R.A. Dickey's knuckleball. You know how many pitchers have thrown at least 350 innings with a better ERA than Dickey over the past two seasons? NINE. He has the same ERA as Tim Lincecum, better than those of CC Sabathia, Chris Carpenter, Jon Lester and Dan Haren.
53. Brian McCann. Somehow he's made six straight All-Star teams and still seems underrated on a national level.
54. A healthy Joe Mauer.
55. A healthy Buster Posey.
56. Hall of Fame debates. Any time, any place. Bring it on.
57. Talk about Cole Hamels' impending free agency. Watching Cole Hamels pitch.
58. Yovani Gallardo's curveball.
59. Zack Greinke. He's got four good pitches and throws all of them for strikes. He led the NL with 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings last season. His bad luck on balls in play in the early going has been well chronicled (.349 BABIP in the first half, .304 in the second half when he posted a 2.59 ERA). Don't be shocked if he wins the Cy Young Award.
60. Lance Berkman. Does he have a Hall of Fame case? His career line is .296/.409/.545, with 358 home runs, 1,193 RBIs and 1,822 hits. Of course, one of his best skills -- drawing walks -- isn't one appreciated by most Hall of Fame voters. He's 36 years old. If we give him modest averages of 20 home runs, 75 RBIs and 130 hits over the next three seasons, that would take him up to 418 home runs, 1,418 RBIs and 2,212 hits. He's a career .317 hitter in the postseason, including .410 in two World Series. He never won an MVP award but finished third twice and in the top seven a total of six times. His PED reputation is clean. It's interesting: He fared very well in MVP votes even though it always seemed that he lacked a national reputation; clearly, beat writers who covered him a daily basis gave him a lot of respect (and it didn't hurt that he's one of the better interviews in the game).
61. Alex Rodriguez. Like him or loathe him, he's always interesting. It's hard to believe that 1996 was 16 years ago. For those of us who lived in Seattle at the time, he was breathtaking that year, more impressive in some aspects than Ken Griffey Jr., a young kid who hit .358, lashed doubles and home runs all over the field. I'm not sure I've ever enjoyed watching a player more than A-Rod that season -- the mix of youth and dominance was off the charts. Now he's 36 years old, his body slowly breaking down, his slugging percentage in decline each of the past four seasons. Maybe he has one more monster season in him. Maybe his best days are long gone. I'll be watching. You can't avoid it.
64. This is the year I finally catch a foul ball.
65. Andrew McCutchen.
66. Alcides Escobar. I know you don't watch the Royals much. But this kid can absolutely pick it at shortstop.
67. Wondering whether David Freese can hit anywhere like he did in the 2011 postseason. Was that the greatest individual postseason ever? He hit .397/.465/.794 with five home runs and 21 RBIs in 18 games. It's the most RBIs in one postseason. His 50 total bases is the record. And if I remember correctly, he had a pretty good hit or two in the World Series.
69. Every Rangers-Angels game.
70. The importance of getting off to a good start and the panic when your team starts 1-3 (or 0-6). Check out Tampa Bay's first 22 games: Yankees (3), at Tigers (3), at Red Sox (4), at Blue Jays (3), Twins (3), Angels (3), at Rangers (3). No love from the schedule-makers for the Rays this year.
72. Game scores. One of my favorite "junk stats." Created by Bill James, it gives pitchers points for outs and strikeouts and subtracts points for runs, hits and walks. Verlander had the highest average game score in 2011 at 65.9. The highest single-game totals:
96 -- Chris Capuano, Mets (Aug. 26 vs. Atl): 9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 13 SO
94 -- Justin Verlander, Tigers (June 14 vs. Cle): 9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 12 SO
94 -- Zach Stewart, White Sox (Sept. 5 vs. Min): 9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 9 SO
94 -- Ervin Santana, Angels (July 27 vs. Cle): 9 IP, 0 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 10 SO
Chris Carpenter, Clayton Kershaw, James Shields and Anibal Sanchez had games of 93. Verlander's no-hitter was a 90, as he fanned just four batters.
73. James Shields' pickoff move. He nailed 12 baserunners last season.
74. Josh Tomlin's ability to hold runners. Not a single runner attempted to steal off him.
75. The Mariners' Double-A rotation in Jackson, Tenn., featuring Taijuan Walker, 2011 second overall pick Danny Hultzen and hard-throwing lefty James Paxton. The three ranked 24th, 30th and 51st on Keith Law's preseason top 100 prospect rankings.
76. The Diamondbacks' own prospect duo of Trevor Bauer and Tyler Skaggs. Bauer, drafted third overall behind Hultzen, is already a bit of an Internet legend for his warm-up routine, which includes long-tossing from foul pole to foul pole. A mechanical engineering major at UCLA, he'll discuss pitching theories with fans on Twitter and should be in the Arizona rotation before long.
77. The return of Shin-Soo Choo to his 2009-10 level of play, when he was one of the best all-around players in the game.
78. The all-around brilliance Troy Tulowitzki.
79. A comeback season from Kendrys Morales.
81. A trip to Fenway Park. One hundred years young.
82. My friend and ESPN colleague Jim Caple complaining.
83. Mark Buehrle: Get ball, throw ball, get ball, throw ball. If only every pitcher worked as fast as he does.
84. Not caring when people who shall remain nameless complain that playoff TV ratings are low or that nobody watches the World Series anymore and inevitably suggest THAT BASEBALL IS DYING and the youth of America don't care about baseball and would rather play lacrosse. But let's ignore that a team was just sold for $2 billion or that a small-market team just signed its franchise player for more than $200 million or that nine teams drew at least 3 million fans in 2011 ... and, yes, that many, many of those fans were America's youth who don't like baseball.
85. Ryan Braun. As I understand it, he had an interesting offseason.
86. The thrill of Opening Day. Roy Halladay makes his 10th consecutive Opening Day start, matching Steve Carlton and Walter Johnson and surpassed only by Jack Morris (14), Tom Seaver (12) and Robin Roberts (12).
87. The beautiful, ugly swing of Hunter Pence.
88. Bobby Valentine and how every little thing he says will be blown up into a story.
89. Underrated setup men who don't get the glory of the save (or the money that closers make) but have to get out of the tight jams in the seventh and eighth innings. Like Tyler Clippard. Or David Robertson.
90. Brian Matusz, looking again like a guy who can headline a rotation. Halladay once went through a career crisis. Let's hope Matusz comes out of his.
91. Youth in San Diego. Don't know how good Cory Luebke is? You will soon.
92. Justin Upton. Is this the year he explodes on the league, puts up that .300, 40-homer season?
93. Andy Pettitte, proving true Jim Bouton's quote: "You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."
94. The last round for Chipper Jones.
95. The debut of Bryce Harper.
96. The hope that your team can be this year's Diamondbacks -- 65 wins to 94 wins and the playoffs.
97. The hope that your team can be this year's Cardinals -- dead as a doornail, season over, play out the string, go home, hope you sign Albert before Christmas. And then ... a minor miracle.
98. The possibility that three teams will tie for two wild cards. Or one wild card. Or something crazy like four teams alive for two spots with two days to go.
99. The one-game wild card/play-in/playoff game. Maybe it will grow on us.
100. A final day that can match last year. Another epic World Series. Surprises and disappointments. Rallies, game-winning home runs, game-saving catches, heroes and goats. Cheering for your team, a hot dog in one hand, an overpriced ballpark beer in the other, enjoying the sun and hoping to see something you've never seen before. But it's baseball. Something new always happens.