The top 10 stories to watch

Baseball 2000

April 02, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

1. Cal's back

Future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken appears to be completely recovered from September back surgery, but his status as a full-time player figures to remain an open question. The back injury prevented him from accompanying Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs into the 3,000-hit club last year, but he is expected to reach that auspicious career milestone sometime in the next couple of weeks. After that, his performance at the plate likely will dictate whether his longevity becomes a major issue in 2000. He turns 40 in August, and this is the first time in his major-league career that he will enter a season without a contract for the ensuing year.

2. Rocker returns

Embattled relief pitcher John Rocker returns to the Atlanta Braves' bullpen on April 18 after serving a two-week suspension for his infamous diatribe against gays, immigrants and minorities. If the reception he got in spring training is any indication, he'll be met with strong support from Atlanta fans, but the real test will come when the Braves visit New York. Even before Rocker blasted the Big Apple in his infamous Sports Illustrated interview, he was getting showered with debris at Shea Stadium. The only question is whether he'll be wearing a Braves uniform or be wearing an Expos uniform when he gets there.

3. Home run Central

The deal that sent superstar Ken Griffey to the Cincinnati Reds created the potential for the most dynamic divisional home run competition ever. St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire and Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa went head-to-head for the major-league home run title each of the past two years. Now, it's a three-headed battle that could define an exciting National League Central race. The Cardinals upgraded their pitching staff. The Reds added Griffey to a team that won 96 games last year. The two-time defending champion Houston Astros traded pitching ace Mike Hampton, but they get 1998 MVP candidate Moises Alou back from a serious knee injury. That's entertainment.

4. A-Rod in limbo

Seattle Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez is likely to become the richest player in baseball history when he enters the free-agent market after the 2000 season, which has created a difficult choice for the Seattle Mariners. Do they trade him now and try to offset a potentially disastrous loss next winter, or cling to the faint hope that he'll take less than full market value to remain in Seattle? Rodriguez has made it clear he will not sign an extension with a new club if he is traded during the season, which will make it virtually impossible for Mariners general manager Pat Gillick to get anything close to comparable value in a midseason deal. The issue figures to remain open up to the Aug. 31 deadline for players to join a new club and be eligible for postseason play.

5. Damn Yankees

The two-time defending world champion New York Yankees struggled through the early weeks of the exhibition season, prompting concern that baseball's best team might not be equal to the challenge of reaching the World Series for the fourth time in five years. Stop worrying. The Yankees still have the best pitching staff in the American League and one of the most versatile, experienced offensive attacks. And, with Roger Clemens coming off a so-so year and Jorge Posada ready to pop as the everyday catcher, there still is some upside potential.

6. Baseball's new hierarchy

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has been given broader power to act in the best interests of the sport. The National and American league have been placed under a single administrative umbrella. The umpires have thrown out Richie Phillips and formed a new union. The times they are a changin' in baseball, and the 2000 season will be the laboratory in which the game experiments with its new hierarchy.

7. Braves new world

The Braves have owned the National League East since they jumped from the NL West in the realignment of 1994, but this could be the year that their divisional dynasty begins to disintegrate. The Braves recently lost veteran starter John Smoltz to a season-ending arm injury -- creating a serious void in what has long been considered the best starting rotation in baseball. The offensive lineup also took a hit this spring when newly acquired first baseman Wally Joyner went down with a leg injury. Perhaps the inspiring return of slugger Andres Galarraga will help create a winning offensive chemistry, but the Braves have to wonder if all the elements are in place for another successful season.

8. Party crashers

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