The greatest thing about opening day is the blank slate it gives everyone. You can stare at that whiteness and imagine just about anything. A year ago, only someone with a wild imagination could have foreseen the San Francisco Giants winning the World Series, and yet there they were, parading down Market Street in early November.
I may not know how to pick winners and losers – which reminds me: make sure you enter our picks contest before 1 p.m. today – but I know people, and I know stories, and I know which people are good stories.
The following are, to me, the 10 most intriguing people in baseball as the new season begins. I’ll be in St. Louis today, writing about the No. 1 name on this list for Friday’s paper, and I imagine I’ll get to all of them eventually at some point this season.
Whether you’re at Nationals Park today, or in front of your TV, or stuck at work stealing glances at on online scoreboard – happy opening day.
The walk-year contract status of “El Hombre” with the Cardinals is THE biggest story in baseball this season, as the mere possibility of the best player on the planet becoming a free agent at year’s end will have folks salivating from the Bronx to the Anacostia River, and from the gates of Disneyland to the north side of Chicago.
2. Derek Jeter
The Yankee captain is always intriguing, but never more so than when he sits on the doorstep of 3,000 career hits (he’s 74 hits shy), after an offseason in which his ability to hold onto the shortstop job was called into question. The fact the Yankees are perceived as underdogs to the heavily favored Red Sox only makes Jeter more intriguing.
3. Cliff Lee
His stealth signing by the Phillies in December completed one of the highest-profile starting rotations in history. Even among his exalted rotation-mates, Lee stands out. He is edgier than Roy Halladay, smarter than Cole Hamels and more talkative than Roy Oswalt. Even if he isn’t the best pitcher of that quartet, he’s the most intriguing.
4. Adrian Gonzalez
He very well may win the MVP award in his first year in the AL, but the Red Sox, who got him in a trade this winter from the Padres, will settle for Gonzalez simply doing what he has always done: Destroy pitchers and play exceptional defense at first base. The Red Sox are the best team in the majors, and Gonzalez is their best player.
5. Aroldis Chapman
Velocity fascinates, and no one has more of it than Chapman, the Reds’ Cuban phenom. His fastball was clocked famously at a record 105 mph in 2010, and while the defending NL Central champs are trying to hide him in a set-up role at the start of the season, he could be closing games – or even starting them – by midseason.
6. Miguel Cabrera
He is baseball’s powder keg, the most volatile combination of immense talent and immense trouble. An embarrassing DUI episode just before spring training underscored the risk the Tigers have taken in entrusting so much of their franchise’s hopes to Cabrera. But at his best (and cleanest), he can carry them a long way.
7. Buck Showalter
The only manager on our list, Showalter has the wherewithal to transform the Orioles back into a winner, but he has a monumental task in front of him in getting the team’s beleaguered fanbase back on board. Contending in the loaded AL East seems out of the question in 2011, but how close can Showalter get them?
8. Buster Posey
The best (only?) reason to think the Giants can win it all again in 2011, after a mostly inactive offseason, is the fact they get a full season of Posey. It isn’t hyperbole to pinpoint the date of the Giants’ 2010 turnaround as June 30, the day they installed Posey as their full-time catcher. He’s that good.
9. Bryce Harper
Can an 18-year-old kid who probably won’t see a single pitch in the majors this season qualify as one of the game’s most intriguing people? He can if he’s Harper, the Nationals’ history-quoting, eye-black-wearing, tape-measure-home-run-hitting right field prodigy. The show begins in Hagerstown in April and ends in D.C., date TBA.
10. Bud Selig
Lest we forget, this is a CBA year, with baseball’s labor contract expiring in December. But that’s not all on Selig’s plate. He also has scandalous ownership problems in Los Angeles and Queens, dire stadium issues in Oakland and St. Petersburg, and a pair of all-time greats (Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens) facing steroids-related trials.