After a revealing spring, the flyovers and ceremonial first pitches are upon us. All pageantry aside, we can distill hopes and dreams into simple questions.
For some teams, the most pressing issues might involve one player, or maybe even one part of one player (see Cliff Lee's strained abdominal muscle).
With the regular season set to open Sunday, here are the essential queries for each of the 30 major league teams. It will be many months before we learn the answers. But when we do, we will have a good understanding of which teams will play in October.
Can a rotation that includes Rodrigo Lopez as a No. 4 starter really contend?
Doubtful. Lopez has won eight games in the majors over the past three seasons. Yet because of Brandon Webb's shoulder injury/drama, Lopez will probably make the Diamondbacks' rotation. The rehabbing Kris Benson will be the fifth starter, but he's not yet ready to pitch in the majors. Webb is "highly likely" to pitch in May, a major league source told FOXSports.com senior baseball writer Ken Rosenthal, but that might not be soon enough.
Will the 20-year-old Jason Heyward help 68-year-old Bobby Cox reach the postseason in his final season as manager of the Braves?
Heyward is ready to make an impact in the big leagues, according to just about everyone who has watched him in the Grapefruit League this spring. His physical ability and sense for the game are equally impressive. He's a throwback to the heroes of yesteryear – or at least the Braves' 1990s heyday. He should be for the lineup what another homegrown talent, Tommy Hanson, was to the rotation last year. Cox deserves an October sendoff, and he will probably get one.
Are the Orioles' young pitchers good enough to end the string of 12 straight losing seasons?
Probably not, unless Baltimore finds a way to join the American League Central. The Orioles have some terrific young arms, led by 2008 first-round pick Brian Matusz, but the fearsome lineups and small ballparks in the AL East are working against them. The lineup should score enough runs to make this one of the more entertaining Baltimore teams in recent memory. But Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman and David Hernandez aren't ready to beat the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays on a regular basis.
Boston Red Sox
Will Theo Epstein's pitching-and-defense philosophy yield a seventh postseason berth in eight seasons?
It should, because the Red Sox aren't conceding as much offensively as many people seem to think. Yes, they lost Jason Bay. But if Adrian Beltre and Marco Scutaro have good seasons, Boston's lineup should score close to the 872 runs it produced last year. The rotation should be superb. The bullpen is deep. The defense will be vastly improved. And if anything goes awry, Epstein has the resources to find the in-season fix.
After a tumultuous 2009, will the expatriation of Milton Bradley make for a more peaceful summer at Wrigley?
The Cubs should be vastly improved, but the elimination of Bradley's distractions is hardly the biggest reason. The biggest cause for hope among Cubs fans is that Alfonso Soriano, Geovany Soto and Mike Fontenot can't possibly struggle as much as they did last year. A healthy Aramis Ramirez might be the biggest key of all. The pitching staff will be without Ted Lilly to start the season, but that shouldn't be a huge issue if Carlos Silva continues pitching well.
Chicago White Sox
Will Ozzie Guillen use Twitter to communicate which relievers should warm up in the bullpen?
No, but there's a good chance that he won't need to use the bullpen phone at all on some nights. Mark Buehrle is good for one complete game per year (at least), and South Side fans are eager to see what Jake Peavy can do over a full season. The White Sox have the best rotation in the American League Central, which bodes very well for their postseason chances.
Are the Reds really as exciting as they looked in spring training?
All of a sudden, the Reds have some good young talent: outfielders Drew Stubbs and Chris Heisey; pitchers Aroldis Chapman, Travis Wood, Mike Leake and Logan Ondrusek. But they play in the competitive National League Central, where the more experienced Brewers, Cubs and Cardinals seem better equipped over 162 games. Cincinnati is improving, but a mid-division finish seems probable.
Will the Indians' young players offer their fans hope for the future?
The Indians aren't headed to the playoffs this year, meaning another July sale (Jhonny Peralta?) seems likely. They didn't get much talent back in the Cliff Lee deal last year, but closer-for-now Chris Perez and outfielder Michael Brantley, both acquired in trades, have showed encouraging signs. Fausto Carmona has been a spring revelation. We'll see if he can keep it up when it counts.
Will the good, homegrown lineup be enough to overcome a shaky pitching staff?
Starter Jeff Francis hasn't had a good spring overall (although he pitched well in his last start). Closer Huston Street, on the shelf with a shoulder injury, hasn't had any spring at all. Those developments could cloud much of the optimism surrounding the Rockies, who otherwise look like a World Series contender. Their everyday lineup has the right mix of experience (Todd Helton) and youth, which should make Colorado an exciting team to watch this year.
Will the Tigers' faith in Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis be rewarded?
Detroit cast its lot with Bonderman and Willis as its fourth and fifth starters, respectively, when the team dealt left-hander Nate Robertson to the Marlins at the close of spring training. Bonderman and Willis probably have higher ceilings, but Robertson was probably the safer bet to deliver innings. Time will tell if the Tigers made the right call, but the White Sox staff has fewer questions.
Josh Johnson is a bona fide ace, but do the Marlins have enough starting pitching to compete with the Phillies and Braves?
The Marlins' spring training didn't go precisely as planned. Andrew Miller and Sean West didn't make the Opening Day rotation, prompting the Marlins to acquire Nate Robertson from Detroit. The Marlins will have a competitive team – they almost always do – and they will go as far as Johnson, Ricky Nolasco & Co. can take them. It's doubtful that this team is good enough to finish ahead of both Philadelphia and Atlanta. But when has Florida been a popular preseason pick?
Will Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman still be Astros at the end of the season?
Along with left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, Oswalt and Berkman are the last big-name holdovers from the 2005 National League championship team. Both have battled injuries this spring and are nearing the end of their contracts, raising the obvious questions about how much longer each will stay with the only organization he has known. They should have a lot of trade value in July, as long as they are healthy. If always-competitive owner Drayton McLane is willing to give them up, that will be an indication that a major rebuild is afoot.
Kansas City Royals
Can the Royals post their first winning record since 2003?
Highly unlikely. After Zack Greinke and Gil Meche, the rotation doesn't have much to scare opposing lineups. And there isn't much excitement in the lineup, outside of slugging first baseman Billy Butler. Designated hitter Jose Guillen could have a productive season – in a contract year – but the outfield lacks power. This team will struggle to score runs, and, when Greinke's not pitching, the Royals won't be able to win 2-1 and 1-0 games.
Los Angeles Angels
Do the Angels have enough talent to make up for the departures of John Lackey, Chone Figgins, Vladimir Guerrero and Darren Oliver?
Absolutely. The Angels took the American League West by 10 games last year, and it would be a surprise if they didn't win in 2010 for the sixth time in seven seasons. Brandon Wood and Hideki Matsui should be capable replacements for Figgins and Guerrero, respectively. The return of Scot Shields to the bullpen should have a huge impact, as well. Mike Scioscia always gets the most out of his roster, and he has plenty to work with this year.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Will the lack of a true ace come back to haunt the Dodgers?
In a division that also includes Tim Lincecum and Ubaldo Jimenez, yes, it probably will. At this time last year, would anyone have guessed that Vicente Padilla would be the Dodgers' Opening Day starter in 2010? Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley are talented young starters, but they showed last fall that they're not capable of leading a team through the postseason.
Did the Brewers do enough to upgrade his pitching?
I'm a believer. Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin signed Randy Wolf and Doug Davis, two left-handers who aren't the most artful pitchers but generally know how to get people out. LaTroy Hawkins, a very reliable reliever since becoming a reliever in 2000, has joined the bullpen. All three are upgrades. The question is whether the Brewers can get something out of Jeff Suppan. If not, they will need to lean on Dave Bush and either Chris Narveson or Manny Parra.
Can the Twins cobble together a late-inning bullpen crew in the absence of Joe Nathan?
Never, ever, ever doubt the Twins. If any manager has the equanimity to freelance in the ninth inning, it's Ron Gardenhire. And he has better options than you might think: Jon Rauch, Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier have been dominant in the late innings at various stages of their careers. This season would be a really nice time for one of them to find it again; Gardenhire told reporters Friday that Rauch will begin the season as the closer.
Will the Mets, still affected by injuries, have a less disastrous season than they did last year?
Natural question: Would it be possible to have a more disastrous one? Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran are ailing again, but how good could this team be if both are 100 percent by June? Remember: Jason Bay has replaced the left field committee, and David Wright should fare much better in Year 2 at Citi Field. The pitching is still suspect. This might be a fourth-place team. But it won't be as bad as it was last year. It just can't be.
New York Yankees
Can the championship stalwarts – Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera – hold up for another year?
This is the essential issue for the Yankees, because health is about the only thing that can derail them. The first scare might have arrived already, with Posada, 38, missing time recently because of a stiff neck. Jeter and Rivera seem frozen in time, but some aging is inevitable. The warnings attached to all of those pitches thrown by Pettitte, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett last fall are well known. At some point, it all adds up.
Will Ben Sheets' veteran influence – and, more importantly, his pitching – turn the A's into a contender?
Unfortunately for the A's, Sheets had an 11.20 ERA this spring. The rust reminded us that the guy hasn't pitched in the majors since 2008. It's hard to argue that the A's are ready to go pitch-for-pitch with the Angels, although young left-handers Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez look like they're ready for big seasons. Oakland should have a postseason-caliber team next year.
Can the Phillies overcome start-of-the-season disabled list stays by Joe Blanton, J.C. Romero and Brad Lidge?
Not to start the year on a sour note, but it won't be easy for the two-time defending National League champs. The Phillies have parted with some pitching depth in recent trades, which will make it harder to replace the ailing pitchers. Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick will be in the rotation to start the season, and young Antonio Bastardo is the lone left-hander in the bullpen. But the Phillies will have Roy Halladay on the mound every fifth day.
Is there any end in sight to the streak of 17 losing seasons?
Nope. Zach Duke, Paul Maholm and Ross Ohlendorf are intriguing young pitchers to have at the front end of a rotation, but they're not capable of winning games 3-2 and 2-1 every time out. They're good, sure, but they won't get much help from an ordinary offense and subpar defense. The Pirates aren't as good now as they were at the start of last year ... and that team lost 99 games.
St. Louis Cardinals
Can Chris Carpenter put together two good seasons in a row?
The conventional wisdom around baseball is that Carpenter (or Adam Wainwright) would need to be ineffective or otherwise unavailable in order for someone other than the Cardinals to win the division. That is probably true. Of the two, Carpenter is the greater risk to decline. He hasn't had back-to-back seasons of 15 or more wins since 2005 and 2006.
San Diego Padres
Will Adrian Gonzalez be traded during the season – or afterward?
It's almost inevitable that Gonzalez will finish his current contract somewhere else. (He is signed through this season, with a club option for 2011.) The question is when and where he will be dealt. If the Padres are surprisingly competitive this year, perhaps new general manager Jed Hoyer will hold onto him through the season. He's a certifiable gate attraction, so the revenue attached to him can't be overlooked.
San Francisco Giants
Can Brian Sabean's team hit enough to make good use of all that outstanding pitching?
It won't be a surprise if the Giants post the lowest ERA in the National League. Their starting rotation is superb, especially in the top two spots, and the bullpen is one of the deepest anywhere. But there are major questions with the lineup. At the very least, some of Sabean's off-season acquisitions have contributed to the spring optimism: Aubrey Huff is hitting .321, and Bengie Molina, who re-signed with the club, is at .346.
How soon will Cliff Lee and Erik Bedard rejoin the rotation?
The Mariners' postseason aspirations – which lost a little momentum this spring – are attached to Lee's strained abdominal muscle and Bedard's surgically repaired shoulder. Right now, the rotation includes Felix Hernandez, Ian Snell, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Doug Fister and Jason Vargas. As is, they can't compete with the Angels, who boast Jered Weaver, Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana, Joel Pineiro and Scott Kazmir.
Tampa Bay Rays
Will the Rays' bullpen withstand the rigors of the American League East?
Given their payroll disadvantage, a lot of things need to go right in order for the Rays to reach the World Series. In that respect, this year isn't off to a great start; key reliever J.P. Howell is out indefinitely with shoulder trouble. The Rays need all the help they can get against the left-handed sluggers deployed by the Red Sox and Yankees, so Howell's absence looms large. Rafael Soriano is also unproven as a closer in the American League.
Will Ron Washington's cocaine revelation this spring become a distraction during the season?
If the Rangers play well, it won't. If they don't, it will. Pretty simple. The Rangers must deal with questions about the reliability of Josh Hamilton and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Now, it appears that the irreplaceable Ian Kinsler will begin the season on the disabled list. Washington would have a tough job even if there weren't so much attention on his personal life. Fortunately for him, he has enough pitching to compete.
Toronto Blue Jays
Can Vernon Wells still play?
It's unrealistic to expect that Wells will perform well enough that teams will want him on the midseason trade market. He is due nearly $100 million through 2014. His contract isn't an albatross. It's a 747. But it would be really, really nice if he could return to the occasional-All-Star level that prompted the Blue Jays to give him so much money. A season on the order of 2005 – 28 homers, 97 RBIs – would suffice. He's only 31.
Is there any reason to pay attention to this team before Stephen Strasburg arrives?
Depends on how much spare time you have. In all seriousness, the Nationals are doing the right things. But this is going to be a slow, slow move toward winning baseball. Ian Desmond, 24, should offer some excitement in his first year as the everyday shortstop, and Ryan Zimmerman is a star who gets better every year. But the real gate attraction is the kid at Double-A.