Ring in the new year with 15 burning questions for 2015
As the New Year kicks into gear, here are 15 questions worth pondering in '15:
1. Can Kansas City take the next step?
The 2014 Royals captivated fans far beyond their hometown while pushing the Giants to the last out of Game 7. There will be some roster tweaks, such as Kendrys Morales at designated hitter instead of Billy Butler and Kris Medlen in the rotation, but this club is pretty much intact, well-rounded and star-studded with Greg Holland, Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez and Lorenzo Cain.
2. Will Yasmany Tomas make it a Cuban grand slam?
It was Yoenis Cespedes with the A's in 2012, Yasiel Puig with the Dodgers in 2013 and Jose Abreu with the White Sox in 2014. All three Cuban sluggers came to the Majors and powered their way to top-two finishes for Rookie of the Year. Tomas, 24, has a six-year contract with Arizona, and it remains to be seen whether he will grab the everyday third-baseman job, play the outfield or even start the season in the Minors. Video: Sanchez discusses impact Tomas will have on D-backs
3. Where will Max Scherzer and James Shields wind up?
They are the remaining headliners in a powerhouse free-agent market. In Scherzer's case it certainly could be a tipping point for an existing contender, and Cardinals fans are especially interested in the former St. Louis high school and University of Missouri pitcher. Speaking of Redbird Nation, we wonder whether MLB follows this trend of National League champions that started in 2010: Giants, Cardinals, Giants, Cardinals, Giants ... Cardinals?
4. Can David Ortiz join the 500 home run club?
Big Papi needs just 34 home runs to become the 27th Major Leaguer to reach that benchmark. That's one homer less than he hit last season. Doing so would help the outlook in Boston, where the Red Sox are hoping newcomers Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, Justin Masterson and Wade Miley can spark another bounceback season. By the way, can this Ramirez make a smooth move from shortstop and fare better than the sometimes-adventuring one (Manny) as an everyday keeper of the Green Monster in left?
5. Will the Giants repeat now that Matt Cain rejoins a rotation including Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year Madison Bumgarner ... or will they help MLB set a record?
This active streak of 14 consecutive years without a repeat champion is tied with the 1979-92 mark for longest in Major League history, symbolic of competitive balance. "The chances of repeating are good, but the main thing about repeating is everybody has to be healthy," said Jeremy Affeldt, winning pitcher of baseball's last game. "I think that's our focus, to try to repeat so we don't let that record get set."
6. Which Chicago team is likeliest to step forward?
The Joe Maddon era will be interesting to watch on the North Side, especially with Jon Lester as his ace. But is the roster upgraded enough yet? Some think the White Sox are the better bet, hoping to commemorate the 10th anniversary of their last World Series title in style after adding Jeff Samardzija, David Robertson, Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche. Video: White Sox introduce Samardzija, Cabrera and Robertson
7. What about A-Rod?
The Yankees go to Tampa with more question marks than any year in recent memory. Who will replace Derek Jeter's leadership? Can Masahiro Tanaka return to his pre-injury unbeatable form? Will they find answers up the middle? Can Robertson be sufficiently replaced at closer? Alas, one Yankee question is fairly certain to get more buzz than any other out of the gates, and that's what Alex Rodriguez might do for them in 2015 ... and whether he can hit at least seven home runs to pass Willie Mays (660) for fourth on the all-time list.
8. Is the Mets' time now?
While the Yankees are faced with all those questions, the best team in the Big Apple might be over in Queens now. Michael Cuddyer takes over in right field, Matt Harvey returns from Tommy John surgery, the fences are moved in, it's a strong team up the middle and some noise is finally expected beyond the flyovers from neighboring LaGuardia.
9. Are the Dodgers better or worse?
They won 94 games last season and then made a slew of changes, from the front office through the lineup. Is the combo of shortstop Jimmy Rollins, second baseman Howie Kendrick and catcher Yasmani Grandal better than Ramirez, Dee Gordon and A.J. Ellis? No team has a better rotation on paper than Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy -- but can they shut down foes in the fall? Among key questions, who will they start in center -- Joc Pederson or Puig? Video: Rollins plans to lead and succeed with Dodgers
10. Who is the new face of baseball?
Now that Jeter is retired, the likeliest heir is Mike Trout. The Angels' center fielder comes off a year for the ages, winning both All-Star and American League MVP honors even though he has had better seasons. Kershaw and Bryce Harper of the Nationals are candidates as well.
11. What will be Giancarlo Stanton's return on investment?
The Marlins' outfielder signed the richest contract in North American sports history this offseason, at 13 years and $325 million. It's also worth asking who is stronger: Stanton or Michael Morse? Now that the latter is aboard as well, it will be fun watching Marlins batting practice sessions to see for oneself.
12. Has California baseball ever been better?
Four of the five teams in that state were in the last postseason -- a first -- and now San Diego seems intent on "filling the field." That would mean exactly half of the 10 postseason clubs from one state. Oakland is retooling, but hardly to be ignored, while the Giants, Angels and Dodgers are all title contenders.
13. Can Justin Verlander still lead the Tigers ... or is he past his prime?
It was quite an impressive first decade in the bigs -- six All-Star selections, Rookie of the Year in 2006, AL Cy Young and MVP in 2011, 152-89 record with 1,830 strikeouts and eight straight years of 200 or more innings pitched. But the Tigers' right-hander turns 32 next month, and it is worth noting that over the last four years his WAR, ERA, WHIP, strikeouts and hits allowed have steadily deteriorated. Video: [email protected]: Verlander fans six in stellar outing
14. Will Ichiro get a shot at Pete Rose's record?
Currently a free agent, Ichiro Suzuki is just 156 hits away from 3,000 hits in the Majors. Not only that, he also is just 134 hits away from Rose's all-time record of 4,256, when you include Ichiro's 1,278 over nine earlier seasons with the Orix Blue Wave in Japan. That's got to be a pretty big marketing carrot for some club.
15. Washington the capital or Washington the state?
The Nationals are thinking World Series title, something elusive to date in a franchise history going back to Montreal. The Mariners, meanwhile, are thinking at least playoffs and -- who knows? -- they could be this year's Royals. As our colleague Richard Justice noted, it is now "a league of contenders," from coast to coast, with precious few exceptions.