The starting nine

KEN FIDLIN, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 9:22 AM ET

Nine questions as Major League Baseball teams prepare to head to their spring training facilities:

1. How much damage has been done to baseball's image by the revelations of the Mitchell Report on performance-enhancing drugs?

The only barometer that would seem to matter is ticket sales and MLB has set attendance records in four consecutive seasons, starting in 2004.

Last year, they drew 79.5-million fans and commissioner Bud Selig is on record as expecting them to break the 80-million barrier this year.

Suspicions of use of performance-enhancing drugs goes back 20 or 30 years on the sports scene and, in the interim, attendance, ticket sales, TV revenues, revenues from merchandising, not to mention player salaries, have all gone through the roof. Last year's revenues topped the $6-billion US level, another record that was set while the Mitchell Report was being assembled with full knowledge of the public.

It isn't a matter of no one caring about who is and who isn't using illegal drugs to get a performance advantage. People do care and would like to believe the stars they watch at the ball park and on the tube are squeaky clean. On some level, the game's integrity does have some currency. But it's clearly not a deal-breaker.

And what would constitute a deal-breaker?

If the government stopped huffing and puffing about drugs and decided that it's time to no longer allow corporations to buy wads of tickets to sporting events and write them off as business expenses.

You want to see empty stadia? Sports fans may pay lip service to integrity in the games they watch but the only way to find out how they really feel is to follow the money.

2. Who will have the toughest adjustment, Joe Torre or the Yankees?

At one point last October, the wrenching departure of Torre after 12 successful years in the Bronx looked as if it might tear the Yankees apart. Several players, including free agents Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, said Torre's departure might be just a prelude to their own. But, in professional sports, money can heal a lot of wounds and both Rivera and Posada each got a ton of it to re-sign with New York.

So, the Yankees remain essentially the same team that has made the playoffs 13 consecutive years, with four World Series in that span. Their most recent trip to the Series, however, was in 2003 and that was essentially Torre's undoing.

His greatest strength as a manager was in his extraordinary ability to rise above all the external pressures of such a high-profile position in the media capital of the world as well as his ability to work in the chaotic atmosphere of Boss Steinbrenner.

Former player Joe Girardi takes over from a living legend and he will have his work cut out to keep a lid on things at the Bronx Zoo while being mindful that, with by far the highest payroll in baseball, he is expected to win a World Series, right now.

Torre landed on his feet with the Dodgers, a team that has started to make some noise in the NL West after many years of futility.

They made some key acquisitions in the off-season, including Andruw Jones. Be aware, though, that in L.A., Torre will once again be just a mere mortal, managing a team with about half the money to spend on payroll as the Yankees but without the frenetic pressure.

3. Whatever happened to the free-agent market?

With training camps about to open all over Florida and Arizona, there remain upwards of 90 players who were on major-league rosters last season waiting for a call from some team, any team, this year. Included in the list is the career home-run leader, a certain Mr. Bonds; and a 354-game winner named Clemens. Now, there are obvious reasons for those two omissions, but what about all those middle-level players who thought they were going to get showered with cash on multi-year contracts? Guys such as Shannon Stewart, Shawn Green, Kenny Lofton and Tony Clark, all productive players in 2007, are jobless. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

"I think reality is hitting some of these guys," Blue Jays general manger J.P. Ricciardi said. "It goes back to supply and demand. For a lot of GMs, it's a matter of sticker shock. To be honest, it wasn't a great class of free agents and the dust is going to have to settle in spring training before some of them get picked up."

There are mutterings about collusion from some agents but it's hard to make that case when the real quality free agents are still commanding huge money. Even with the game awash in cash, on the club level, there is still the need to be financially-responsible and remain within budget guidelines. Toward that end, many clubs have decided that it's better to go with youth rather than expensive veterans, even if those veterans might be a cut above.

4. Who are the big winners in the Johan Santana trade?

For starters, all the teams in the American League East not named Boston or New York. For most of the off-season, a Santana-to-Boston, or Santana-to-New York transaction seemed inevitable, putting the best pitcher in the AL in a lineup that was already talent-laden.

"Whenever there's a top quality guy out there, you know that the Yankees and Red Sox are both going to be in on it," Ricciardi said. "When they don't get him, it's definitely a plus for the rest of us. I just hope that gives us a chance to face (Santana) in the playoffs."

As far as the deal itself goes, there is a rule of thumb in any transaction: Whoever gets the best player in any deal wins the deal. In that vein, the Mets scored in a big way. Whether Santana's presence can make up for the Mets' devastating collapse last September remains to be seen. On the other side of it, the Twins did not get one major-league player in return, after demanding at least two major-league-ready players when they were dealing with Boston and New York earlier. By waiting too long, the Twins lost big time, even though they did get some true prospects. But without a marquee pitcher to take into their new ball park in two years, they missed an opportunity.

5. What darkhorse team is poised to make a splash in 2008?

For that, you don't even have to look outside the American League East. After seven years of taking abuse from the rest of the league, the Tampa Bay Rays (no Devils here) are about to grab some payback.

With an acknowledged everyday lineup that can rake an opposing pitching staff over the coals in any given series, Tampa Bay's Achilles heel always has been pitching. If the Rays could score 10, they would always give up 11, including 10 of them in the bottom of the ninth. Nothing demoralizes a decent offensive team like shoddy pitching. Now, in support of that devastating offence which has been bolstered by the No. 1 rookie-of-the-year candidate, Evan Longoria, the Rays can trot out Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza and James Shields to start consecutive games. More than that they have hired on Troy Percival to solidify their bullpen, which let more than a few wins get away last season.

They're probably not going to be in the playoffs this year or next, but as Ricciardi has said: "They're a team nobody wants to face."

6. Who are the rookies to watch?

We'll start with the aforementioned Longoria, poised to take over third base for the Rays for the next generation or so, or at least until free agency makes him richer than A-Rod. At 22, and just two seasons removed from Long Beach State (alma mater of Troy Tulowitzki), Longoria already has hit 44 home runs and driven in 153 as a pro. A shortstop in college, he has outstanding skills that will make him a defensive star at third.

You probably already know about Joba Chamberlain who became a cult figure with the Yankees in his short stint last September. He gave up just 12 hits in 24 innings out of the bullpen, striking out 34. He retains his rookie status this season and will probably be moved into the starting rotation.

Another familiar name is Jacoby Ellsbury, the cat-like centre-fielder-apparent for the Boston Red Sox. He was sensational down the stretch and through the post-season for the World Series champion Red Sox and was deemed unavailable when the Twins wanted him in a deal for Santana. He hit .353 with three homers, 18 RBIs and stole nine bases in 33 games.

7. Are the Colorado Rockies for real?

On Sept. 15 last year, the Rockies were languishing in the NL West standings with a 76-72 record, well back of the leaders. Then they went on a tear, winning 12 of their final 13 to tie San Diego for the wild card. They won the one-game playoff, then swept the Phillies in three and the Diamondbacks in four to get to the World Series. Then, after a killer nine-day layoff, they were swept by the Red Sox in an ant-climactic World Series. So, what does that mean for 2008?

For starters, the Rockies have one of the great young players in the game in shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. They also have star veterans in Matt Holliday and Todd Helton and a good catcher in Yorvit Torrealba. Canadian lefty Jeff Francis headlines a starting staff that includes Aaron Cook and, well looky here, Josh Towers. They hired Luis Vizcaino away from the Yankees during the off-season.

Whether this is enough to compete in the NL West, which suddenly has got quite good, is another question. The Diamondbacks, Padres and now the Dodgers are all equally qualified to win in this division. Even though they grabbed lightning in a bottle last September, they'll be in tough to duplicate it this year.

8. Have the Red Sox become the gold standard on the AL East?

With two World Series titles in the past three years and a well-rounded lineup composed of true professionals, the Sox have become the same type of self-confident, yet respectful team that the Yankees were in the late 1990s when they were winning World Series virtually every year.

Manager Terry Francona has a solid handle on his players. With the exception of Manny Ramirez (doesn't there always have to be one guy who's a little off-side?) this is a team that plays the game the right way. And Manny is so good at what he does -- and that's hit -- that it's easy for the powers that be to turn a blind eye to some of it.

The general manager, Theo Epstein, has been the recent architect of this club and seldom makes a mistake. When he does, he has the finances at his disposal to fix it. It is no coincidence that they have a core of young talent in Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Ellsbury that's the envy of many other GMs. Yes, right now they're the standard by which all other teams are measured. That said, no team has won the Series back-to-back since the Yankees did it in 1999-2000.

9. Is the American League still the dominant circuit?

A little recent history: The American League has swept the World Series in three of the past four years.

The American League has not lost an all-star game since 1996. And, over the course of the past four seasons, the American League has won 553 interleague games, losing 454.

During this off-season the tradeoff of superior talent has been about even, maybe a hair in the NL's favour. The American League picked up Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera. The NL got Santana. The Diamondbacks also got Dan Haren and the Astros traded for Miguel Tejada.

But those moves aren't going to move the dial much. Until the NL can prove it on the field, the AL is just plain better.


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