| Jeff Kent spent the first few days of Spring Training washing his truck, and breaking his wrist. Hell, it beats fielding fungos. In this same spirit of self-sufficiency, we continue our list of the top 10 stories heading into Spring Training 2002. Here is the first part, in case you missed it.
6. Can the Red Sox stay healthy? Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Varitek must come back from their respective injuries for Boston to seriously contend. However, that's not the kind of "health" we're talking about. This team was filled with absolute whack-jobs last year, and they faded down the stretch like bad tie-dye. On the positive side, malcontents Carl Everett, Troy O'Leary, Mike Lansing, Dante Bichette and Scott Hatteberg are gone, and the Sox acquired "character" players like Johnny Damon, John Burkett and Tony Clark. On the negative side, any good roster karma is nullified by Boston's sham of a sale to former Marlins owner John Henry, the incredibly protracted nature of which strung out the life of GM Dan ("Baby Doc") Duquette to impossible lengths. For the past few weeks, one imagined Duquette hanging onto the railing of the Titanic, muttering to himself how the Red Sox have the best record in Thursday night games of any team in the American League. Fortunately, the new owners fried his ass last week. Will that be enough?
7. Are middle relievers really worth this kind of bank? This off-season, David Weathers (Mets), Steve Karsay (Yankees), Jay Powell (Texas) and Todd Van Poppel (Texas) made out like Russell Crowe on Oscar night. All but one of them got three-year deals (Karsay got four!), and none will close. Todd Van Poppel??? Geez. In the Rangers' case, we suppose it makes sense: if your starters can't go more than four innings, might as well beef up on mop-up guys. As Seattle proved last season, a deep bullpen is worth maybe ten wins a year, so in itself, the emphasis on middlemen is okay. But the length of these deals is crazy. How many middle relievers can you name who stayed effective pitching 80 games a season for more than a year or two? It's true: the rich teams just don't know what to do with all that money they make.
8. Can Oakland continue to defy gravity? For two straight seasons, the A's have gotten to within a few outs of ousting the Yankees while boasting less than half the payroll of the big guys. But this year, the poor starving Athletics lost their muscle man: Jason Giambi vamoosed for New York, pulling a sell-out of which Aerosmith could be proud. Smart money says the A's will take a step or two backwards, doesn't it? Don't be so sure. Pitching gods Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito are all back, and they've got the best incentive of all: perform well for a couple more years until they can find some serious scratch someplace other than Oak-town.
9. Will Seattle win over 100 games again? The Seattle Mariners won 116 regular season tilts last year? No way. It seems like a long time ago, doesn't it? After the Yankees flipped into 'turbo' mode in the ALCS and left gutless Aaron Sele in the dust, the M's were simply roadkill. Regular season records are for stat dorks like Dan Duquette; Lou Piniella knows Seattle left a lot of business unfinished. They rid themselves of Sele, who should be very happy pitching in front of 17 people every fifth day in Anaheim, but only added retread James Baldwin. Can Mike Cameron continue to play the role of Ken Griffey, Jr.? Can all those guys repeat their career years? Can anyone get over that dreaded Yankee hurdle? Which leads us to....
10. Who can stop the Yankees? If the Diamondbacks taught us anything, it's that having two great starters, and as many lefties as possible, can make even the best teams vulnerable in a short series. If anything, the Yanks look a little weaker against lefties this year; Giambi "only" hit .290 against southpaws last season, Nick Johnson and Robin Ventura hit lefty, and both Scott Brosius and Chuck Knoblauch are gone. But when your rotation goes Clemens, Mussina and Pettitte, and then you get to choose from among fatty David Wells, Orlando Hernandez and Sterling Hitchcock (with David Cone in the wings), well, things aren't exactly fair. A strike might be the only thing that would stop these guys.
And finally, here's a little ammunition you can salt away for October, and then throw back in our faces to prove we know nothing about sports. Here are our pre-pre-preseason picks for the major awards:
AL MVP: Jason Giambi, Yankees.
NL MVP: Sammy Sosa, Cubs. AL Cy Young: Pedro Martinez, Red Sox. NL Cy Young: Curt Schilling, Diamondbacks. AL Rookie: Carlos Pena, Athletics. NL Rookie: Sean Burroughs, Padres.