Opening Day a good indicator of what's to come

Updated: April 5, 2009

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Josh Beckett's start Monday could give a sneak peek to what his 2009 will be like.

OPENING DAY: WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Opening Day always has an extra special atmosphere to it. It seems so much more important than most regular-season games, it's really almost like a playoff game.

In 1982, when I was with Cleveland, there were 60,000 fans at the park on Opening Day and the next day we had fewer than 10,000. A lot of times a team will empty its bullpen and use its entire bench trying to win that first one. It's only after that when teams dig in and get ready for the long haul. Everyone wants to win on Opening Day to help set the tone for the season. It's a special day in every big league city in America, but there are a few games this season that stand out to me.

The Royals are an interesting team. I really like what Kansas City has done in setting up its rotation. Back in 1992, I was with the Baltimore Orioles and I pitched on Opening Day that year at Camden Yards. Our manager, Johnny Oates, picked me to pitch that day and everyone asked him if that meant he thought I was the best starter on the staff. It was toward the end of my career and he certainly had other options with Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald. I went to Johnny to thank him for the honor and he asked me if I knew why he picked me. He explained that he knew I could hold my own facing the other team's No. 1 starters for the next two months. And I had to go out and try to match the Jack Morrises of the world.

Well, I went out and pitched a 2-0 shutout that day and ended up 16-15 that season. But the key for our team was that Mussina and McDonald were matched up against everyone else's Nos. 2-3-4. He knew that those guys would fare well in that position, and if I could hold my own we'd have a chance to contend. The Orioles finished in last place in 1991, but we were a game out of first on Sept. 1. That's what I see Kansas City doing with Zack Greinke. I like their rotation. When you have Brian Bannister as your fifth starter, you are OK.

The Royals are running Gil Meche out there on Opening Day. Now there's nothing wrong with Meche, but I think Greinke is ready to take that next step. I think he'll win 15 to 20 games this season. Trey Hillman is doing a great job by putting him in that second spot. There's a big difference for most teams between their first and second starters, and moving Greinke to second sets him up for success at an important stage in his career.

In Boston, I think Monday's opener against the Rays is going to be a big indicator about the Red Sox's chances this year. We should get to see how Josh Beckett looks and see where his health is right now. If he goes out and can cruise through six innings, then I think the Red Sox can cruise back to the postseason. But if he is not healthy, then I think they could struggle this year.

I think Tampa Bay got even better this year. Just think about this: The Rays didn't really have career years from anybody last year. Every one of these young guys should get better. They added Pat Burrell to give them added power from the right side. Their rotation is strong. Matt Garza, the ALCS MVP last year, is, like Greinke, ready to make the leap. And I think the Rays are being real smart with the way they are handling David Price, letting him start the season in the minors. He is going to be a big part of their season and I expect he'll be with the major league club by the end of May. But the Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays have a history, so that will definitely be one to watch.

Another game to watch is the Mets at Cincinnati. I think Aaron Harang has a real chance to turn it around this year. If things break right, that 6-17 record he had a year ago could flip to 17-6. The Reds are my dark horse team in the National League. Harang has his work cut out for him on Monday facing Johan Santana, but if he can even get to 15-10 this year, I think the Reds could contend all year long.

CC Sabathia makes his debut in pinstripes. Really, though, the Yankees can send an ace out pretty much every day. But I think with Alex Rodriguez out, the concern for them will be their offense. They have other questions aside from A-Rod's health. Sure, they've added Mark Teixeira, but what are they going to get from Jorge Posada or Robinson Cano this year? It's tough to know. There will be high expectations for Sabathia on Monday, but he turned the corner a year ago in my mind with what he did in Milwaukee. He showed he can handle any kind of pressure. I like everything about Sabathia. He will mean as much to them in the clubhouse as he will on the field.

Past Baseball Tonight Clubhouses: April 2 | April 1 | March 31 | March 30 | March 29

BEST OF THE BLOGS

Each day, ESPN.com's contributors offer a wide array of thoughts and analysis in their blogs. Opening Day comes with endless optimism. Buster Olney, though, provides a reality check:

The optimism that manifests itself in every spring training began to seep away Sunday at 8 p.m., just like clockwork, when Brett Myers throws the first pitch. For 30 teams, the hopeful notion of What Might Be is quickly replaced by the hard reality of What Is.

On Opening Night two years ago, the St. Louis Cardinals were the defending champions, and Chris Carpenter, their ace, pitched six innings -- through a nagging ache in his arm. He would not pitch again the entire season, and the Cardinals were left to try to grind through the next six months without their lead horse.

Some of the places where there will be an immediate reality check:

1. Chicago. On paper, the Cubs' rotation is deep and formidable. But as the season begins, they have to be concerned about what Rich Harden will contribute. Pitching against the Yankees on Saturday, Harden's fastball was consistently clocked in the range of 85 to 89 mph -- touching 90 mph only a few times -- but you really didn't need the radar gun to tell you that he is not close to being the same pitcher who dominated in the first five months of last season.

For the rest of this entry from Buster Olney's blog, click here.


Keith Law has records for every team in baseball as the season gets going:

Even though we weren't asked to provide them this year, I sketched out some win-loss projections for all 30 teams before offering predictions on playoff teams and award winners.

AL East
W L
Boston 95 67
NY Yankees 94 68
Tampa Bay 92 70
Toronto 80 82
Baltimore 72 90

It just kills me to put a team as good as the Rays in a position where they won't make the playoffs, but they're just a shade behind the Yankees on paper. If A-Rod ends up missing the year, or plays half a year but isn't up to his normal standard, that's probably enough to slip the Rays over New York. I see a lot of pessimism about Toronto this year, but while they're not making the playoffs, I think they'll get better pitching than expected this year from guys like Ricky Romero and eventually Brett Cecil, even if Dustin McGowan doesn't come back from shoulder surgery in 2009. It's going to be a long year in Baltimore with two-fifths of the Opening Day rotation likely to pitch below replacement level.

For the rest of this entry from Keith Law's blog, click here.


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SUNDAY'S BEST AND WORST

BEST
Derek Lowe• Not a bad debut with Atlanta for Derek Lowe. The right-hander allowed two hits over eight shutout innings, did not issue a walk and struck out four as the Braves dropped the Phillies on opening night in Philadelphia.
WORST
Mark Buehrle• A reminder that Opening Day doesn't always come with warm weather. The season opener between the White Sox and Royals was postponed Sunday because the forecast in Chicago called for snow Monday. Mark Buehrle will have to wait another day before taking the mound for the White Sox.

SIMON SAYS

Simon Says ESPN researcher Mark Simon digs deep, looking for the night's best baseball numbers.

Tonight, he takes a historical look at Opening Day.

Opening day bests (entering 2009 season)
Best team W-L Mets 30-17 (.638)
Best team W-L since 1990 Yankees 13-6 (.684)
Current win streak Brewers 5
Current losing streak Rangers 5
BA (active players) Xavier Nady .522
ERA (active players) Jake Peavy 0.45
HR (active players) Ken Griffey Jr. 7

AMERICAN LEAGUE'S TOP STORIES

NATIONAL LEAGUE'S TOP STORIES

NUMBERS TO KNOW

Francisco Liriano spent much of last season dominating in the minors. Liriano felt he was ready to return to the Twins, but he wasn't brough back until August. Once recalled, Liriano made sure to show the Twins what they had been missing, as he went 6-1 with a 2.74 ERA. Liriano used his dominant slider and an ability to get batters to swing at bad pitches.

Francisco Liriano (2008)
MLB avg. MLB rank
BA against slider .125 .220 8
Chase pct. 29.7 23.5 T-9
Swing-miss pct. 25.6 19.9 T-18

Liriano will have to be careful not to fall behind too many batters. In 2008, he was one of only three pitchers to threw less than half of his first pitches for strikes.

-- ESPN Stats and Information

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ODE TO OPENING DAY

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