Yankees prominent on '09 watch list

Updated: January 5, 2009, 2:10 PM ET
ESPN.com

What's going to happen this year in Major League Baseball? We asked some of ESPN's finest about people and teams to watch in nine different categories in 2009.

BREAKOUT PLAYER

Justin Upton, CF, Diamondbacks

Upton

There are times when a young player's extraordinary physical ability is more advanced than his mental and emotional aptitude. And it is during this stage of development that we talk about the player's potential -- what he can and will become. When a young player finally matures, we often see a significant burst in performance in which potential gives way to stardom.

In 2009, that young player will be Upton. His breakout season is going to come at age 21, one full year sooner than it did for his brother, B.J., who at 22 hit .300 and slugged 24 home runs for Tampa Bay in 2007. In 2008, after a torrid April, Justin hit the proverbial wall. The league adjusted to him, and he struggled to find answers. Success at the major league level is about making adjustments. This is sometimes difficult for young studs to understand until they finally fail. After a trip back to the minor leagues, Justin finished the season with the big club and did pretty well. He is starting to learn patience and to realize that the first strike he sees isn't necessarily the best strike he is going to see. He is beginning to understand that in order to hit at the major league level, sometimes he has to take a pitch instead of swinging at it.

Justin's breakout year has the potential to dwarf his brother's production in 2007. This kid is going to be a superstar, and this is his year to shine.
-- Steve Phillips

NEW FACE IN NEW PLACE

CC Sabathia, LHP, Yankees

Sabathia

Sabathia rides into New York just as Johan Santana did last season: two trains running, each 29 on entrance, both kind and thoughtful and vehemently competitive. Santana could have won the NL Cy Young Award, but for the Mets' bullpen. Sabathia arrived in the league in June, and after going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and not allowing more than four runs in 17 starts -- including four in succession on three days' rest down the stretch -- he made himself part of the Cy discussion. Sabathia is 117-73 lifetime; Santana is 109-51. Each has won the Cy Young in the American League, and last year both were in the top three in the majors in ERA, quality starts, games started and innings pitched.

Santana had no problem handling New York, and neither should Sabathia. Of course, there is a lot of pressure on the $243 million initials twins, CC and A.J. Burnett.

En Español
Read about the 2009 MLB predictions in Spanish on ESPNdeportes.com.
The Yankees have lost their 20-game winner, Mike Mussina, and may lose Andy Pettitte. Last season, the Yankees lost Chien-Ming Wang on June 15 and used nine different people for at least seven starts; consequently, more than a quarter of their games were started by Sidney Ponson, Darrell Rasner and Carl Pavano.

As he neared signing with the Yankees, Sabathia got a message from Red Sox GM Theo Epstein telling him how much Epstein respected him for putting aside free agency to try to bring Milwaukee a championship. Some look at what Sabathia has done the past two seasons -- from Opening Day to the playoffs: 36 wins, 513 innings pitched, 69 starts -- and worry about what that means to his long-term career. The Yankees look at him and see what they most need: the model of reliability.
-- Peter Gammons

FANTASY STEAL(S)

The Upton Brothers

Fantasy owners need not bother looking at what the Upton brothers -- Justin of Arizona and B.J. of Tampa Bay -- did statistically in 2008, because these guys won't be underachieving again. B.J. Upton will regain his lost power and become a 30/30 threat. After stealing 44 bases during the regular season but seeing his home run total drop from 24 to 9, B.J. hit seven home runs during the first two playoff rounds. He's arguably a top-25 player again.

Meanwhile, Justin Upton hit only .250 with moderate power in his first extended action, but he's only 21. He might never run enough to go 30/30, but the power is certainly there for a breakout campaign. Based on 2008 stats, each brother will be a fantasy steal in '09.
-- Eric Karabell

TOP ROOKIE

Matt Wieters, C, Orioles

Wieters

Wieters draws comparisons to two players: Joe Mauer and Mark Teixeira, who are two of the top hitters in the American League. Mauer has posted MVP-caliber campaigns in two of the past three years.

Who is Wieters to earn such praise before ever playing a big league game? He's a switch-hitter with quick wrists, power to all fields and a great eye at the plate -- all of which are traits he has in common with Teixeira, who, like Wieters, played at Georgia Tech. And like Mauer, Wieters is a catcher with a plus arm -- he also pitched in relief with the Ramblin' Wreck and would routinely sit at 92-93 mph. He's the best prospect in baseball right now, and should be in the majors this spring, perhaps as early as Opening Day.
-- Keith Law

SURPRISE TEAM

Florida Marlins

I can't get Bobby Cox's words out of my head. It was the last week of September. And here's what he said: "You know who's got the best starting pitching in our division? It's the Marlins. And it's not even close." Nobody, of course, was saying that about that team a year ago, when the Fish were getting ready to roll out a rotation that had won a total of 23 games the year before. But now, they have Ricky Nolasco, Josh Johnson, Chris Volstad, Anibal Sanchez and Andrew Miller lined up.

They have a collection of supersonic bullpen arms. They have Cameron Maybin moving into center. And Logan Morrison is just over the horizon, with the minor-league teenage home-run champ, Mike Stanton, right behind him. So despite all the Marlins' questions and inexperience, this is one dangerous team. I'm not sure if an 84-78 team qualifies as a "surprise" the way, say, the 2008 Rays did. But when a franchise with a sub-$40 million payroll looms as a major contender, that's always a "surprise" in my dictionary.
-- Jayson Stark

THE PRESSURE IS ON …

Joe Girardi

Girardi

Let's see: In Girardi's first season as manager, the Yankees failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1993. His critics in the New York media compared him unfavorably with his predecessor, the sainted Joe Torre.

The team is moving into a new $1.3 billion stadium, and ownership has just invested more than $420 million in free agents CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett. If the Yankees get off to a slow start -- say, 0-3 in Grapefruit League play -- someone is going to feel the heat. And our gut tells us it won't be Brian Cashman.
-- Jerry Crasnick

INJURY COMEBACK

John Smoltz, RHP, Braves

Smoltz

The future was very uncertain for Smoltz when injury to his pitching shoulder shut him down after only six games in 2008. Smoltz just refuses to leave the game this way. Despite having no guaranteed contract, he has endured extensive surgery and intensive rehabilitation with the goal of pitching again.

Now 41, he has already undergone multiple elbow surgeries, and despite surgical findings of significant pathology in his injured shoulder, he's persevering. Smoltz is already throwing breaking balls off a mound, and he has put himself in a position in which not just the Braves could become interested as his Hall of Fame career continues. Now that would be quite a comeback.
-- Stephania Bell

TOP FREE AGENT, FALL 2009

Matt Holliday, LF, A's

Holliday

One reason the Yankees did a full CIA operation to snatch Mark Teixeira away from the Red Sox was that next fall's free-agent class isn't as deep or enticing.

Next year's Teixeira is Holliday, now with the Athletics. The same age as Teixeira, Holliday is a .319 lifetime hitter who has batted between .307 and .340 each of the past four seasons, has averaged more than 80 extra-base hits the past three years and is a baseball rat from a baseball family. At this point, the home/road Colorado splits may work against him, and if Boston re-signs fellow free-agent left-fielder Jason Bay, it might hurt Holliday's leverage.

If Holliday has a productive season and leads the Athletics into the AL West race, he will get a boatload of money, somewhere, somehow. But since most of the most appealing players -- Josh Beckett, Victor Martinez, Cliff Lee, Brandon Webb, Carl Crawford and Magglio Ordonez -- have various types of options, they are unlikely to be on the market.

The Yankees may be hard-pressed to find three more players to whom to give $423 million. What the slimmer free-agent class also means is that unless Billy Beane markets Holliday in July, it is unlikely that there will be trades as big as the ones involving Sabathia, Manny Ramirez, Teixeira, Harden and Adam Dunn, respectively, were this past summer. Then there's the matter of cash come June, July and November, but that's another story entirely.
-- Peter Gammons

THE EARLY FAVORITE IS …

New York Yankees

What if I told you that a team with unlimited financial resources won 89 games, and then acquired the world's greatest pitcher and the American League's greatest first baseman? Is that something you'd be interested in? I'm fairly sure it's going to interest the oddsmakers. It has been so long since the Yankees have won a World Series that it's now fashionable to look for reasons why they'll continue not winning. It's really not that complicated, though: The World Series favorite should be the best team in the American League, and right now that perfectly describes the New York Yankees.
-- Rob Neyer