Ranking MLB's 15 Biggest Early-Season Storylines

Rick WeinerFeatured ColumnistApril 9, 2014

Ranking MLB's 15 Biggest Early-Season Storylines

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    Richard Drew

    From the final seasons for two of baseball's most important figures to newly-implemented rule changes and the continued development of some of the game's biggest stars, there's no shortage of intriguing storylines to follow as the 2014 MLB regular season continues to unfold.

    You may be asking yourself: "How can you rank them? How can you possibly say that one is more important—a bigger story—than another?"

    There are two major pieces to my ranking logic: impact and staying power.

    Is the story something that affects the entire league—or involve a figure that is iconic enough—that more than his local fanbase is going to have a genuine interest in?

    Additionally, will this be a story that we'll be talking about over the course of the entire season? Or will it be quickly filed away and hardly mentioned once it plays out?

    With that in mind, let’s take a look at the 15 biggest narratives to follow as the 2014 MLB season rolls along.

     

    *Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

15. Will Mark Buehrle and Bartolo Colon Pick Up Career Win No. 200?

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    FILE

    The man on the left, Mark Buehrle, was a quickly rising 26-year-old with 79 career victories under his belt. The man on the right, Bartolo Colon, was an established veteran arm with 125 major league wins on his resume.

    Colon would go on to win the AL Cy Young Award, while Buehrle would finish fifth in the voting—the only time that he has ever gotten any support for the game's highest individual pitching honor.

    Nine years later, the pair is linked once again, each with a shot at becoming the 92nd and 93rd members of the 200-win club. At the time this article was published, Buehrle sits with 188 career victories, 12 away from the mark, while Colon is 10 shy at 190.

    If Buehrle stays true to his career average of 14 wins a season (since becoming a full-time starter in 2001), he should pick up No. 200 toward the end of Toronto's season, perhaps in his next-to-last start.

    It would be fitting, of course, for Buehrle to pick up the milestone win against his longtime employers, the Chicago White Sox, but with the two clubs last set to face each other in a three-game series in Chicago beginning Aug. 15, it's unlikely.

    As for Colon, while he's averaged 12 victories a year since returning from baseball exile in 2011, he did so on playoff-bound teams in New York and Oakland. Now a member of the New York Mets, a team that has shown no semblance of a major league offense thus far in 2014, he may have to wait until 2015 to reach his milestone.

14. Can a Pair of All-Star Infielders Join the 400-Home Run Club?

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Of the 51 members of the 400-home run club, only 19 spent the bulk of their careers at a corner infield spot—and only four spent any substantial time at third base: Darrell Evans, Chipper Jones, Eddie Mathews and Mike Schmidt.

    Both of those lists figure to expand by two at some point over the summer, as both Texas 3B Adrian Beltre (376 career HR) and Detroit 1B Miguel Cabrera (366 career HR) can see the club's front door on the horizon.

    Beltre would become the seventh Dominican-born player to achieve the feat, while Cabrera would become the first Venezuelan-born player to gain entry—and become the most prolific Venezuelan slugger in MLB history, surpassing the "Big Cat," Andres Galarraga, who retired with 399 career blasts.

13. Will a Prospect Make a Jose Fernandez-Like Impact?

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    Marc Serota/Getty Images

    Jose Fernandez took the baseball world by storm in 2013, putting up some of the best numbers that the game has ever seen from a 20-year-old pitcher en route to winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award and a third-place finish in the NL Cy Young Award voting.

    More importantly, he began to change the culture in Miami, giving his teammates faith that whenever he stepped on the mound the team had a chance to win.

    Of the 12 different pitchers that started a game for the Marlins in 2013, only one—Fernandez—saw the team post a winning record in games that he started (18-10), regardless of whether he factored into the decision or not.

    Will a prospect on the verge of making his major league debut, like Arizona's Archie Bradley, Chicago's Javier Baez or New York's Noah Syndergaard, have a similar impact on his new club once he arrives? 

12. Will a Player Be Suspended for PEDs or Other Banned Substances?

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Every year, we tell ourselves that this is the year nobody is going to be dumb enough to try to cheat the system or find a product that is so ahead of its time that MLB's drug testing simply can't detect it.

    But every year since MLB decided to ramp up the penalties for those caught violating its drug policy in 2005, at least one player on a major league roster has been suspended for doing just that.

    YearNo. of Players Suspended
    200512
    20063
    20077
    20081
    20092
    20101
    20112
    20127
    20139

    Will 2014 be the year that the streak comes to an end?

    Or will we be talking about another Biogenisis-type scandal in the coming months, with a number of well-known players caught up in the mess?

    Is there still a player out there crazy enough to think that he can beat the system?

     

    *Suspensions through 2012 via USA Today and ESPN.
    *2013 suspensions via Fox News, ESPN and CBS Sports.

11. Can Albert Pujols Cross 2 More Milestones off of His List?

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    And then there were two.

    After picking up a pair of RBI in Los Angeles' 5-3 victory over Seattle on Tuesday night, Albert Pujols became the 47th player in baseball history to reach 1,500 RBI for his career, crossing one of three attainable milestones off his "to-do" list this season.

    Next on his list is gaining entry into the illustrious 500-home run club. With seven more home runs, Pujols will become only the 26th person allowed to enter its hallowed halls.

    But there's a third milestone within his reach—1,500 career runs scored, a milestone that only 51 other players have reached. Pujols sits 71 runs shy of the mark.

    That figures to take far longer than his chase of his 500th home run, as it's not something that's really in his control, but it's not unrealistic to think that he could cross home plate with that historic run at some point in August or early September.

    When that happens, Pujols will become one of only 19 players in baseball history to have accomplished all three.

10. Which Pending Free Agent Will Be the First to Be Traded—or Sign a New Deal?

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    As was the case a year ago, there's no shortage of big names and impact players set to hit the open market as free agents once the 2014 season comes to an end.

    From All-Star caliber bats like Victor Martinez, Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval to front-of-the rotation arms like Jon Lester, Justin Masterson, Ervin Santana, Max Scherzer and James Shields, it looks like there'll be something for everyone once the free-agent shopping season commences.

    Now granted, some of those players are likely to work out new deals with their current clubs between now and then, reducing the number of top-end players available.

    But not all of them will.

    Cleveland tried to work out an extension with Masterson this spring but failed to do so, as reported by MLB.com's Jordan Bastian, and talks aren't expected to be conducted during the regular season.

    Detroit's attempts to extend Scherzer met the same fate as well, with the Tigers reportedly offering—and Scherzer declining—a six-year, $144 million extension, the same deal that Philadelphia's Cole Hamels got in 2012, according to Fox Sports' Jon Paul Morosi.

    Negotiations between other pending free agents and their current clubs have been—or continue to be—conducted, but the closer a player gets to free agency, the harder it is to lock him up.

    That's why as the trade deadline nears and this pending class of free agents' current teams assess their current situations, one of them could—and likely will—be traded for a package of young players and prospects.

    For these clubs, getting more of an immediate return for their prized commodity can be more valuable than the draft pick they would receive as compensation should their free-agent-to-be sign elsewhere.

    Who will be the first to go? Who will be the first to sign an extension?

9. Which Preseason Contender Will Prove to Be a Pretender?

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    Ed Zurga/Getty Images

    Whether it's due to injuries, ineffectiveness or another team just getting hot at the right time, teams that are pegged as contenders in spring training fail to appear in the playoffs on a yearly basis.

    We don't have to look far to find evidence of this.

    Take the 2013 Washington Nationals, a team that one year after winning its first division title (and making its first playoff appearance) in franchise history were relegated to the role of spectator once the postseason began.

    With teams around baseball having improved over the winter, there's going to be a 2014 version of the Nationals.

    Will it be Atlanta, Oakland or Texas, three teams whose starting rotations have been decimated by injury?

    Perhaps it'll be the defending world champions in Boston, which lost key pieces in free agency over the winter, or the Kansas City Royals, widely expected to end a nearly 30-year absence from the playoffs this season.

    Or maybe the pretender lies in the NL Central, which seems to have four teams (Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and St. Louis) that are all capable of playing meaningful baseball in October.

    Then again, maybe there's more than one pretender lying in the weeds this season.

    We'll see how this story unfolds over the next few months.

8. Will Bryce Harper Finally Live Up to the Hype?

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    Alex Brandon

    This is going to sound like a criticism of Bryce Harper, which it most certainly is not.

    It's impossible to criticize a 21-year-old who, through his age-20 season, has produced at a level that is on par with, if not better than, some of baseball's all-time greats who, like Harper, started their major league careers at an early age.

    PlayerPABAOBPOPSHRRBIR
    Bryce Harper1,094.272.353.83442117169
    Ken Griffey Jr.1,172.284.350.80538141152
    Mickey Mantle1,012.294.377.87436152155

    But while Harper's numbers have been good, they haven't been great.

    Part of that can be attributed to injury, which limited him to only 118 games in 2013, his first full season in the major leagues.

    But fair or not, Harper will forever be linked to Mike Trout, with the pair both arriving on the scene around the same time and being as hyped as any two prospects in the history of the game. 

    Harper has been good—Trout has been great. Is 2014 the year that Harper takes his place alongside his counterpart as one of the game's elite?

    Or will he leave us saying, "just wait until next year," as he has in the past?

7. Can Boston Defend Its World Series Crown?

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Winning the World Series is hard enough—doing it two years in a row is nearly impossible.

    That's why since 1980, we've seen only two teams accomplish the feat: the Toronto Blue Jays, in 1992 and 1993, and the New York Yankees, baseball's last dynasty, who won three consecutive World Series crowns from 1998 to 2000 and four in five years.

    Even after losing key pieces like Stephen Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Boston headed into the regular season as one of the favorites to win it all again in 2014, as noted by OddsShark.com.

    For what its worth, Boston has failed to repeat as champion twice in the past decade, in 2005 and 2010. The last time the franchise accomplished the feat was nearly a century ago in 1915 and 1916, when some guy named Babe Ruth was toeing the rubber at Fenway Park.

6. Will Another Pitcher Be Lost to Tommy John?

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    Seth Wenig

    All around baseball, pitchers are dropping at an alarming rate.

    New York Mets closer Bobby Parnell became the latest to fall, with the team announcing that he would be lost for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow on Tuesday, according to New York Daily News' Kristie Ackert.

    Since Jan. 1, 18 different players (including Parnell) have undergone the procedure, according to a database maintained by Jon Roegele, a researcher for Hardball Times and Beyond the Box Score.

    Of those 18 players, 11 were major league pitchers, while seven minor league pitchers and a third baseman, Minnesota prospect Miguel Sano, comprised the rest of that list.

    Since the beginning of April, six pitchers have been added to that database, including major league arms Erik Davis (Washington), David Hernandez (Arizona), Peter Moylan (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Parnell.

    Unfortunately, it appears to only be a matter of time before another major league arm joins them on the sidelines. 

5. Will the New Rules About Home Plate Collisions Last?

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Towards the end of spring training, Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci wrapped up his thoughts about baseball's new rules regarding collisions between catchers and baserunners at home plate with this: "We still have collisions. We have a hybrid rule that invites confusion. And we still will get catchers and runners hurt for no good reason."

    Take this play between Toronto's Josh Thole and New York's Francisco Cervelli, for example.

    Whether you believe Cervelli was safe or not (For what its worth, I believe he was safe, with his left leg beating Thole's tag), the play—and subsequent review—was chaotic.

    Yankees manager Joe Girardi explained how he saw the play—and understood the rule—to MLB.com's Bryan Hoch after the game:

    This (home-plate collisions) is going to be the toughest replay of all of them, because it's such a judgment. The way it was explained to us, if the catcher is in front of home plate toward third base, straddling the base, that is considered blocking home plate if you don't have the ball. And I believe that's how it was.

    Blue Jays manager John Gibbons didn't necessarily disagree with Girardi's take on the situation."The throw, I'm not sure the way he set up, but it took him down the line a bit -- not much," he remarked to Hoch. "But yeah, that's that gray area. You don't want to give someone an automatic run."

    The managers aren't quite sure how things are supposed to work, but certainly the players do, right?

    That's not exactly the case, Thole told Hoch:

    I don't even understand the rule, to be honest with you. I don't even know. I don't know what I would have argued [if it had been overturned]. I mean, the ball kind of took me up the line, and I just went for the ball.

    It's really confusing. I'll be honest -- I don't know if anybody really knows the rule with what they're trying to do, because you can still get hit at home plate. So I don't know. I'm just going to do it the way I've always done it.

    While anything that promotes player safety is normally a step in the right direction, when nobody involved seems to actually fully understand the rule, it becomes dangerous. In the video, Cervelli seems to hesitate as he got close to home plate, unsure exactly where he was allowed to slide.

    It's not hard to imagine a runner blowing out a knee with such a hesitation or inadvertently crashing into the back of a catcher's knee as he reaches across the plate to grab the throw while leaving a clear path for the baserunner to score, as the rule dictates they must.

    Let's hope that scenario doesn't play out between now and the end of the season, when MLB and the players association can work to simplify things so that everyone involved understands the rule.

4. Just How Good Is Masahiro Tanaka?

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    The most sought-after free agent of the winter, Masahiro Tanaka, got his major league career off to a solid start in his debut, allowing three runs (two earned) and six hits over seven innings of work while striking out eight and retiring 13 of the last 14 batters that he faced.

    Certainly, one game doesn't make a career, nor does it validate the seven-year, $155 million deal that the Yankees presented him with. But it's a nice start to what could be an outstanding career.

    There's little question that Tanaka has front-of-the-rotation stuff, but it's how he adjusts throughout the season—both to the lessened workload from what he was used to in Japan and to major league lineups as he starts to see teams for the second and third times—that will ultimately dictate his level of success.

    Will he establish himself as one of the game's premier young arms? Or will he serve as an expensive reminder to the Yankees that, for whatever reason, Japanese pitchers and the game's most storied franchise simply don't mix?

    How he holds up over the rest of the season is something that baseball fans both here and abroad will be closely watching.

3. How Far Up the All-Time Leaderboards Will Derek Jeter Climb?

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    While visions of Derek Jeter breaking Pete Rose's all-time hits record stopped dancing in our heads a long time ago, the retiring captain of the New York Yankees has a chance to move up in baseball's record books before his Hall of Fame career comes to an end.

    He's already passed Paul Molitor and taken sole ownership of ninth place for most hits in a career, and he sits within striking distance of a number of legendary players, with an outside shot at finishing his career with the fifth-most hits in baseball history.

    RankPlayerCareer Hits# of Hits Jeter Needs to Pass
    5Tris Speaker3,514192
    6Cap Anson3,435113
    7Honus Wagner3,42098
    8Carl Yastrzemski 3,41997
    9Derek Jeter3,322

    But there's more.

    Jeter sits 45 runs away from passing his currently suspended teammate, Alex Rodriguez, for 10th place on the all-time runs list with 1,920, and he needs 53 RBI to reach 1,315 for his career, which would put him in the top 100 all-time.

    Only four other players in the history of the game have retired with at least 3,000 hits, 1,900 runs scored and 1,300 RBI: Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial and Pete Rose.

    That's pretty rarefied air. 

2. Will Instant Replay Speed Up?

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    We live in a day and age of shortened attention spans and ballparks that give us more than enough to keep us entertained besides the product on the field.

    While common sense would dictate that the longer fans are at a stadium, the more money they'll spend, the last thing baseball needs is to make the game any longer than it already is.

    As Bill Vilona of the Pensacola News Journal notes, that's exactly what MLB's new instant-replay system has done: "In the first three days of the season, the average game length was 3 hours, 5 minutes. That surpassed the previous record length of 2 hours, 58 minutes which was first set in 2000 and matched last season."

    Six or seven minutes may not seem like a lot of time, but it can feel like an eternity.

    When it's seven minutes of showing the same replay from multiple angles and in just as many different ways (slow motion, super slo-mo, super-duper-slo-mo, etc.)—and seven minutes of inactivity at the stadium—people are going to turn their attention elsewhere.

    For those watching at home, there's no guarantee that they're going to tune back in as they become immersed in something else.

    Part of the problem is that there's only one replay official working at MLB's impressive replay center in New York. With multiple games underway at the same time, multiple replays may be requested at the same time or in quick succession.

    When that happens, the delays become longer—and fans become more restless.

    Anything that helps umpires make the correct call in baseball is a good thing, but MLB's new instant-replay system needs some fine-tuning—and fast.

1. Who Will Replace Bud Selig? Will Selig Actually Retire?

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    Mike Groll

    There isn't a more important story in baseball than Bud Selig's quickly-approaching retirement, and it seems that the search for his successor is no closer to completion than it was a few months ago.

    As the New York Daily News' Bill Madden wrote in February, who will replace Selig as commissioner is "the $9 billion question."

    Madden mentions Rob Manfred, MLB's chief operating officer and Selig's right-hand man for more than a decade, as the most likely successor to the throne, and it's not the first time that Manfred's name has been floated.

    Earlier this year, one baseball official told ESPN's Buster Olney (subscription required): “There’s no way [Selig] is leaving that job without anointing the next guy, and that’s Rob.” 

    But that may not be so simple, another high-ranking source tells Madden:

    For 20 years, Bud has managed to keep all the owners reined in, but with him leaving, you've suddenly got 30 owners feeling like Hercules unchained, with 30 different agendas, especially the newer ones who were never in Bud’s inner circle.

    It's no secret that neither Oakland nor Tampa Bay can continue to operate in their current markets, but the commissioner's office has offered little to no-help when it comes to solving their problems.

    Why would the owners of those teams, Lew Wolff and Stuart Sternberg, respectively, agree to anything that Selig wants without getting some resolution to their issues?

    Things like that are why the theory that Selig won't actually retire at the end of the year continue be floated, and the lack of any official statements from MLB when it comes to a potential succession plan only helps to keep that theory alive.

    Selig, who celebrates his 80th birthday this July, has been unwavering in his comments about a possible delay of his retirement, insisting that 2014 will be his last year on the job.

    How this story unfolds over the next eight months will be fascinating to see.