Opening Day 2010

Well, well, well… I’m finally back, just in time for the season to start. I graduate from the University of Tampa next month and I have been caught up in all the pre–graduation work. Then I expect to move in July, likely out of my lifelong hometown of Tampa, for graduate school and possible employment. So updates here will likely be even more sporadic than they were last season

Back to baseball, we are just about in full swing. The Braves debut with most other teams on Monday and the Rays host their opener Tuesday night. (The night I happen to have a late can’t–miss class.)

I checked out Braves Spring Training on March 13 when they hosted the Blue Jays. Ricky Romero owned the Braves and Toronto won 3–0 behind untimely errors against Tim Hudson. The slightly–improved Champion Stadium looked great as usual, and we sat in the lower level for the first time. I was about four rows behind Frank Wren, right behind the plate. It was a bit hotter than expected due to the concrete and steel, but nothing like it would be today. That didn’t stop me from having chicken noodle soup catered to my seat. It was good too.

After the game we stayed at the Best Western Lakeside (my first night ever in a hotel room all to myself) and ate at Colorado House of Beef. I recommend the Colorado’s Best, a 14–ounce center–cut portion of New York strip steak. We may go back again next year.

Now on to the regular season. The Rays added both Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac to the Opening Day roster. I like the idea because both men are versatile and did very well this spring. Rodriguez particularly killed the ball. Hopefully Rodriguez carries it over into the regular season and earns some playing time. It seems like Brignac will get most of the second base appearances while Ben Zobrist will play right field. These three should get all the time they can because they are all better than Gabe Kapler. Nothing personal against the Jewish muscleman, he’s just past his prime.

Mike Ekstrom narrowly beat Joaquin Benoit for the final bullpen spot. This surprised me quite a bit; I see Benoit as the better pitcher. But Ekstrom was said to have better fastball command and he didn’t just miss a season injured. So he should hold over in a mop–up role until J.P. Howell comes back. I also like Andy Sonnanstine in the long relief spot, and I love former Brave Rafael Soriano as the closer.

The Rays are expected to possibly drop their payroll by $20 million next season. That’s quite sad for this market. As Tom Verducci said, we “failed the litmus test” last year when our attendance only rose by less than 1,000 fans per game. I’m as guilty as all of us, only having gone to two games. In our defense, the economy in this area sucks and only nine teams saw any increase in attendance in 2009 — ours was the sixth–best increase. In terms of cutting payroll, if we get Pena, Soriano and Burrell off the books, that’s about $25 million right there. If Crawford decides to unfortunately depart, that’s more than $10 million extra. We could actually sign one or two good players next offseason. Combine that with the rise of Desmond Jennings and other prospects, and we can still contend. Don’t count us out.

I wrote a spring recap/season preview for the Rays for my school newspaper. I basically talk about everybody there, and it would clog a lot of space on this blog, so the link is here.

On to the Braves, their starting rotation looks like the 1990s, chock full of stars: Lowe, Jurrjens, Hanson, Hudson, Kawakami. When Tim Hudson is the fourth starter on an underrated staff, you know you have something special. Tommy Hanson could win a Cy Young Award soon, and so could Jair Jurrjens. If they just keep up the pace and Derek Lowe stays in shape, the Braves could sneak into the postseason.

The talk of Braves camp is Jason Heyward. What an amazing talent. He has rocket power, a great batting eye, good speed and a cannon arm. He can be the next Ken Griffey, Jr., hopefully without the injuries and slowing down. He can make Braves baseball its most exciting since the late 1990s. Now if only Chipper Jones and Troy Glaus can rebound and Nate McLouth starts to hit.

The Yankees and Red Sox begin the season tonight. I’ll be cheering for the weather and the medical staff. Now we wait impatiently for our teams to begin the 2010 season. Every team — OK, maybe about 25 out of 30 — has hope for a championship. Let’s bring one down south.

Until next time, go Rays and Braves.

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