Baseball season opens with major question marks

    8:51 AM, Apr 2, 2013   |    comments
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    Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Many Major League Baseball teams head into the season with high hopes.

    However, during the grueling 162-game schedule, all squads are going to face some adversity and have some major questions they'll need to answer.

    As the 2013 marathon gets under way, let's take a look at the most intriguing question in each of the six divisions:

    NL EAST: Will the Phillies' Roy Halladay regain his past form?

    Halladay was the National League Cy Young Award winner in 2010 and the runner- up to Clayton Kershaw in 2011. It was not so long ago the right-hander was one of the game's elite pitchers, but he's coming off shoulder and back injuries last season and will turn 36 in mid-May.

    The most troubling sign has been that Halladay has generally averaged only in the mid-to-high 80s with his fastball during spring training games, despite his assurances that he is injury-free. If the velocity doesn't improve, he would seem unlikely to be much better than what he was last year - an 11-8 pitcher with a pedestrian 4.49 ERA in 25 starts.

    The Philadelphia Phillies need Halladay to again be the Halladay of old if they are to challenge the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves in the NL East. A healthy and productive Halladay would give Philadelphia the ammunition to compete with the Nationals rotation's big three of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann.

    Right now, Halladay isn't inspiring much confidence, and it's possible he could simply be in the declining phase of his brilliant career - something that has happened to other pitchers when they've reached their mid-30s.

    NL CENTRAL: Will the Cardinals overcome injuries to Chris Carpenter, Rafael Furcal and Jason Motte?

    It's always a blow to find out that your ace pitcher will likely miss the entire season, but the St. Louis Cardinals last season proved they can be successful without Carpenter. He was limited to just three late-season starts in 2012 because of a nerve injury, and that ailment recurred during this offseason.

    St. Louis' pitching was just fine without Carpenter for most of last season, so the Cardinals should once again be able to make up for his loss. Top prospect Shelby Miller will slide into the rotation to give St. Louis another quality starter, albeit not nearly at a healthy Carpenter's level.

    Furcal is also out for the season with an elbow injury that requires Tommy John surgery. Pete Kozma, who filled in for Furcal last postseason, will take over the job on a full-time basis. The former first-round draft pick has been a major disappointment in the minor leagues, but he flourished with the Cardinals last September and October, and looked great during spring training last month.

    Motte, the Cardinals' dependable closer, opened the season on the disabled list with what is being termed a mild elbow strain. It doesn't sound so bad, but, then again, any kind of elbow strain isn't such a great thing for a power pitcher to have. Luckily for the Cardinals, their bullpen is deep. Mitchell Boggs will fill in until Motte can return, and St. Louis also has top prospect Trevor Rosenthal as a late-inning bullpen option.

    Despite the injuries, St. Louis ought to be fine and should remain in playoff contention all season. There probably isn't another team in the majors with as many versatile players on its roster.

    NL WEST: Will the Dodgers' offense be good enough to be a championship team?

    A torn ligament in Hanley Ramirez's right thumb will keep him sidelined until about late May. The Los Angeles Dodgers were counting on the shortstop to be one of their most significant offensive players.

    First baseman Adrian Gonzalez and center fielder Matt Kemp are both exceptional offensive players, but the rest of the Dodgers' lineup, minus Ramirez, appears to be mediocre at best.

    Andre Ethier is productive, but really only against right-handed pitching. Carl Crawford is coming off two forgettable, underachieving years with the Boston Red Sox. Mark Ellis and A.J. Ellis are pretty average hitters. Late bloomer Luis Cruz had few highlights on his resume prior to his solid second half last year with the Dodgers.

    Offense - and defense, for that matter - won't likely be strengths for the Dodgers. Pitching will probably have to carry the team, and L.A. certainly has a solid starting rotation and quality depth. It's hard to imagine the offense being any better than the middle of the pack, though, unless a couple of people other than Gonzalez and Kemp step up and exceed expectations.

    AL EAST: Will the Yankees be a non-contender for the first time since the early 1990s?

    The New York Yankees long had the majors' biggest payroll, and their lineup has frequently resembled an American League All-Star team. Opening Day sure looked strange in the Bronx on Monday.

    A wrist injury is expected to sideline first baseman Mark Teixeira until at least late May. Curtis Granderson's fractured forearm is expected to keep him out of the lineup until mid-May. Alex Rodriguez's recovery from hip surgery will cost him at least half of the season.

    Additionally, Derek Jeter has opened the season on the disabled list as he tries to come back from the major ankle injury he suffered in last year's playoffs.

    For a team that struggled to score runs during the 2012 postseason, these injury-decimated Yankees could be even more offensively challenged this year.

    The Yankees will eventually get their offensive stars back, and they still have quality pitching. However, the team probably won't be able to contend in a stacked AL East unless Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte stay healthy all season. Since they're 38 and 40 years old, respectively, that's a risky proposition.

    AL CENTRAL: Will the Royals make a big move up in the standings?

    Because of a roster littered with young offensive talent, Kansas City was a popular dark horse pick in the AL last season, but it stumbled to a 72-90 record.

    It would be easy to simply blame the pitching for the disappointing campaign, but statistics show that the Royals' struggles were truly a group effort. Yes, Kansas City's team ERA ranked only 10th in the AL, but their defense was 13th and, surprisingly, their 676 runs scored ranked only 12th in the AL.

    The pitching can only improve thanks to the acquisitions of James Shields, Wade Davis and Ervin Santana. There weren't many changes to the offense during the offseason, although an injury-free year from promising young catcher Salvador Perez would help this time around.

    Although the lineup will look a lot like the underachieving 2012 lineup, the Royals could be expected to improve because young players like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas ought to be ready to take a big step forward.

    Kansas City would be hard-pressed to compete with AL Central favorite Detroit, but perhaps at least a .500 season could be in the offing. That hasn't happened since the Royals were 83-79 in 2003.

    AL WEST: Can the Mariners be what the Oakland Athletics were last year - a surprise contender?

    It's not going to be easy to move to the top of the AL West standings, since the Los Angeles Angels enter the season with one of the sport's best rosters, and the Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers are returning playoff teams.

    Seattle went 75-87 last year, 19 games out of first place. In fact, the Mariners were deep in the basement of the division because the Athletics, Rangers and Angels won 94, 93 and 89 games, respectively.

    The Mariners won't occupy the division basement again this year, thanks to realignment that sends the woeful, rebuilding Houston Astros to the AL West. Playing so many games against Houston should improve Seattle's record, but the Mariners would realistically need to approach 90 wins to be a playoff contender.

    Improvement that drastic seems unlikely, but the additions of Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales and the continued development of promising young hitters like Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero and Kyle Seager should enable the offense to score well over the AL-worst 619 runs it managed in 2012.

    With a solid rotation anchor like Felix Hernandez, Seattle could be an interesting team in the near future. Top pitching prospects Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker are probably a year away, but when they eventually arrive, this team could become a real contender.

    Jeff Saukaitis has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.

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