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Saturday, April 2, 2011
Things to keep a close eye on in 2011

By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine

Mercifully, the Major League Baseball season began a few days ago. Here are 11 storylines to watch in 2011.

Phillies injuries

Brad Lidge
Phillies closer Brad Lidge began the season on the disabled list, and it's uncertain when he'll return.

Chase Utley isn't just the best second baseman in the league, he is the most important player on the Phillies. And not just because he hits third in their batting order, but because of the way he plays the game.

Utley started the season on the disabled list with an injured right knee, which likely will keep him out a month, if not several months or perhaps the whole season. There is no player in the game tougher than Utley, but the pain simply became too much for him to play through. From all indications, it's not going to get significantly better unless he has surgery, and even then, there is no more than a 30 percent chance that it will fix what is wrong.

So, the Phillies, who scored 48 fewer runs last year than in 2010, and 100 fewer than in 2009, will open the season without their No. 3 hitter and their No. 5 hitter (Jayson Werth signed with the Nationals in the offseason). The Utley injury is on top of the one to right fielder Dominic Brown (out until May with a broken right hand) and closer Brad Lidge (sore right shoulder), who will be out three to six weeks.

The fourth and fifth starters for the Yankees

At least in spring training, this did not turn out to be the disaster that some thought it would be.

Ivan Nova had a terrific spring, showing great poise for a 24-year-old kid, and well above average stuff. Freddy Garcia won the fifth spot. When asked if he was throwing the ball well in the spring, Garcia said, "I have to,'' meaning he was pitching for a job for the first time in a decade. And it showed.

Bartolo Colon was impressive, as well. "He can't do that for 200 innings,'' one scout said of Colon's solid work in spring training, which included a fastball that at times hit 93 mph. "But he can do for it 100. I would take 100 innings of that.''

Jonathan Papelbon

There were rumors (the Red Sox extinguished them) that Papelbon might get traded in spring training because he could become a free agent after the season. But Papelbon said he went to spring training stronger and more rested than he'd ever been since he had an extra month of rest after last season. And he started throwing his slider again this spring.

"I didn't throw it the first half of last year,'' he said. If Papelbon is at his best, along with Josh Bard and Bobby Jenks, the big weak spot of the Red Sox last year -- the bullpen -- could become a strength.

Justin Morneau

On July 7, Morneau was kneed in the head while sliding into second base, suffered a concussion and didn't play the rest of the season. But he was on the Twins' active roster when this season began, and that would not have happened if the Twins, or Morneau, had second thoughts about it.

"If you get a second concussion before the first one has healed,'' he said, "then it can get even worse.''

The Twins played extremely well without Morneau during the second half of last season, but the division is better this year, and the Twins will be challenged to win the American League Central again if Morneau isn't at his best for most of the season. And it doesn't help that catcher Joe Mauer, was slowed all spring after having offseason surgery on his left knee.

Chipper Jones

Chipper Jones
Chipper Jones is back as the Braves' third baseman after undergoing season-ending knee surgery last August.

Halfway through spring training, Jones said, "I've never felt this good from both sides of the plate in spring training.'' And then he really got hot. "I've never seen anything like it,'' Braves hitting coach Larry Parrish said with a week left in spring training. "I've never seen anyone swing the bat like he has this spring.''

More important, Jones had more mobility than expected on his surgically repaired left knee, the one that was supposed to force his retirement. "He has moved very well,'' Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. There was only one day -- Jones' third day of spring training, well before he was officially supposed to report -- that Jones needed to skip a workout because his knee was too sore.

If he can stay healthy (understandably, a big if), the Braves will have a formidable offensive team with a healthy Jones and Martin Prado, Dan Uggla and rookie Freddie Freeman (hitting eighth) in the lineup.

Albert Pujols

He went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts in a spring training game, "and couldn't get to sleep that night,'' Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire said. "That's how much he cares.'' Pujols apparently didn't lose any sleep over his contract, and neither, it seemed, did his teammates or the Cardinals front office.

After the early controversy about Pujols not signing long term, things got quiet in Cardinals camp (other than the injury to Adam Wainwright). It did not cause a distraction -- "we all laugh about that,'' one Cardinal said -- for the players or for Pujols. As the season goes along, perhaps it will. No one was talking publicly about it, but there was a sense this spring that the Cardinals' front office didn't believe there would be a huge market for Pujols after the season because the Yankees and Red Sox likely would not be part of the bidding process. That would leave, logically, the Angels and Cubs as teams that might make a run at Pujols.

Two questions: How many premium free agents have left the Cardinals the past 20 years? Edgar Renteria? And was he premium? And how could the Cardinals allow the game's best player, the guy on his way to hitting 700 homers, if not 800, allow to sign with the rival Cubs? They can't.

Prince Fielder

Like Pujols, he can become a free agent after this season. Like Pujols, the Brewers appear committed to winning the division with him. But unlike Pujols, the Brewers will have to trade Fielder if they're not in contention at the end of July.

They probably will be, but it can't help team chemistry if a team isn't sure if its No. 4 hitter will be around all season. There is no doubt that the Brewers will lose Fielder to free agency after the season. They can afford him at, say $13 million a year, but not at $19 million. And he will get at least that.

The Giants

The defending World Series champions had a terrific spring in every way. Other than a mild injury to Matt Cain, their starting pitching looks even more dominant than last year.

"All anyone talks about is the Phillies' rotation,'' one scout said. "But 1-to-5, no one is better than the Giants'.''

That includes fifth starter Barry Zito, who had a good spring. The Giants did little to improve their team in the offseason, but they made a bold, but inspiring move this spring, making rookie Brandon Belt their first baseman and moving Aubrey Huff to the outfield. If Belt hits, and slimmer, trimmer Pablo Sandoval returns somewhere near 2009 form, the Giants can be better than last year. "They will be,'' one scout said. "You can bet on that.''

The Mets

Jose Reyes
Jose Reyes has spent his entire career with the Mets, but could become a free agent at the end of the season.

For a team with no hope of contending in a very difficult division, for a team in deep financial trouble, the Mets had an upbeat spring training, and that was even before the release of Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo.

New manager Terry Collins had a lot to do with that, given his energy and enthusiasm. "I love talking to him,'' third baseman David Wright said of Collins. "We talk baseball, and he starts out loud, then he starts screaming and sweating and his face is all red. He's great.''

Collins organized a bowling league this spring, which brought a little fun to a time of year that isn't often fun for the players. Enthusiasm is great, but the Mets are a little short of talent, especially until Johan Santana returns sometime in late June or early July. By then, the Mets need to have a minority owner in place, one that can provide an injection of cash. If not, there will be little chance they will be able to go after any free agents after the season, or sign their own, notably Jose Reyes.

Miguel Cabrera

This guy is hard to figure. After a troubling and embarrassing incident with drinking and driving this spring, Cabrera returned to the club, hit like crazy and all was well again with the Tigers. No one in Tigers camp seemed too bothered by this, but that's because Cabrera appears to be a completely different guy in the clubhouse than out of it.

"He's a big teddy bear,'' Tigers manager Jim Leyland of Cabrera said. "His teammates love him. He might be the most popular guy on our team. And he's the smartest player we have. If I mess something up in a game, he will look right at me. And he's the only guy I've ever seen that, in batting practice, can hit a home run down the right-field line, then go to right center about 420 feet, center about 480, left-center 450 and then left field, hitting home runs. And he's just messing around.''

The Phillies' Big Four

It was as good as advertised in spring training, and there should be no change during the regular season.

"But we haven't even thrown a pitch,'' Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee said before the season started. "We've got a long way to go before we can [be compared to some of the best rotations of all time, or even in the last 15 years].''

Several times this spring, the Big Four was asked to pose for a photo shoot, or appear as a group, and each time, Roy Halladay, Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels said they weren't doing anything without the No. 5 starter, Joe Blanton. He might be the best No. 5 in the game, Hamels might be the best No. 4, Oswalt the best No. 3 and Halladay and Lee might be the best 1-2 in the game.

All said, they'll be fun to watch.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.

Follow Tim Kurkjian on Twitter: @Kurkjian_ESPN