As these 10 go, so go their teams

MLB Week

April 09, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

One week into the baseball season, we know that Barry Bonds cries, Joe Maddon's black retro glasses are nerdy cool and Albert Pujols is really, really good.

As any baseball manager worth his ill-fitting pullover will tell you, though, it's too early to reach any reasonable conclusions from what's happened on the field so far.

Every team has played a handful of games, leaving a tidy 157 or so to go. As former Orioles manager Mike Hargrove liked to say, "Get to the quarter pole before you start evaluating teams."

It's a solid credo, but this one's not bad, either: "It's never too early for random speculation and old-fashioned guesswork." Sure, baseball is a team game, but which individuals will have the biggest impact on whether their clubs are successful in 2006? Here's a top 10 list of guys on the spot - with names subject to change by the quarter pole.

1. Pedro Martinez, pitcher, New York Mets: The big-spending Mets have a frightening lineup and a revamped bullpen. But they dealt two starting pitchers - Jae Seo and Kris Benson - and have handed over one rotation spot to a true rookie. Even at 34, Martinez is still one of the best pitchers around. But he must stay healthy and make 30-plus starts to anchor the Mets' staff or it'll be another bust season in the Big Apple.

2. Scott Rolen, third baseman, St. Louis Cardinals: Albert Pujols is baseball's best hitter, Chris Carpenter is one of its top pitchers and Tony La Russa is perhaps the game's best manager. In a weakened National League, this team should be able to close its eyes and show up in October. But when they get there, the Cardinals will need Rolen's bat, glove and leadership to win a World Series title. He started off hot, but his surgically repaired elbow needs to hold up.

3. Bobby Jenks, pitcher, Chicago White Sox: Jenks looked liked another scrapheap project when the Los Angeles Angels released him in December 2004. The White Sox picked him up, bad right elbow and all, and then rode his 270-pound frame to a championship. Only 25, he could be on his way to an All-Star career as a closer. Or he could be the latest post-World Series flameout. The White Sox have a solid relief corps, but it's not the same without Jenks.

4. A.J. Burnett, pitcher, Toronto Blue Jays: No one made a bigger free-agent splash than Burnett, a sub-.500 starter with a history of injuries. He signed a five-year, $55 million contract with the Blue Jays, but already is on the disabled list with a sore elbow. Every year it seems a pitcher gets big money and then falls apart. Burnett has plenty to prove, and his success could help make the Jays formidable.

5. Miguel Tejada, shortstop, Orioles: Last season perfectly demonstrated Tejada's importance to the Orioles. When he was pushing for a second Most Valuable Player award in the first half, the club was in first place. When he wilted in the heat of Raffygate and Sammygate, the Orioles traveled south with him. They need his bat, but more important, they feed off his contagious enthusiasm. The B-12 shots are history, he has said, but will his energy stick around for 162 games?

6. Curt Schilling, pitcher, Boston Red Sox: He's the Pedro Martinez of the American League. Schilling, 39, is dominant when healthy. But he made just 11 starts in 2005, his fewest since the season after the Orioles traded him (and two other future All-Stars for Glenn Davis, in case you forgot) to the Houston Astros in 1991. The guy loves proving people wrong, but it'll be tough. With him shelved, Boston lacks a proven ace.

7. Alfonso Soriano, outfielder, Washington Nationals: Admittedly, this team has little depth in its starting rotation and already lost its top setup reliever, so it might not matter if Soriano hits 60 home runs. But it's impossible to leave this guy off the list after his reluctance to play the outfield and his first-week benching for not running out a pop-up. His bat should elevate the offense, but he also could be dealt midseason if the Nationals stink.

8. Mariano Rivera, pitcher, New York Yankees: OK, if he is healthy, he is automatic. And there's no reason to think he won't be healthy. But he's 36. And even superhumans break down eventually. An injury to Rivera would be the toughest one for the Yankees to overcome. Kyle Farnsworth likely would be moved into the closer's role and the rest of the carefully built bullpen could crumble, especially if Octavio Dotel struggles in his return from elbow surgery.

9. Garret Anderson, outfielder, Los Angeles Angels: The only thing that has kept the Angels from returning to the World Series - besides a Josh Paul rollback, perhaps - is a more explosive offense. If Anderson could return to his pre-2004 form, it certainly would help. If not, the club will have to move one of its coveted prospects in July for a bat. Anderson is only 33, but his body is 50.

10. Randy Winn, outfielder, San Francisco Giants: Barry Bonds is seemingly the only player in San Francisco, but there are 24 other guys there. Winn hit 14 homers and batted .359 after being traded from the Seattle Mariners to the Giants during late July. Based on his past numbers, it looks like a two-month aberration. But if Winn can hit .300 with 20-plus homers, the geriatric Giants could make a run in the weak National League West, even if Bonds takes his reality TV show and goes home.

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