Tuesday, February 27, 2007

These Players Will be Feeling the Heat

Spring training is upon us, and while that might equal a 6 week vacation for a lot of players, there are a couple handfuls of players, coaches, and one very prominent executive who are going to be under the microscope like never before. Below are 5 of the 10 individuals who I feel are facing the most pressure as the 2007 season approaches and how I think they'll fare. I'll give you the top 5 players under pressure tomorrow.

10. Justin Morneau - 1B, Minnesota Twins
Morneau broke out in a huge way the final 4 months of last season, rolling all the way to the unlikeliest of MVPs. Unlike last season however, Morneau won't be given any leeway should he struggle to start out the season. He's now an established power hitter, and his big challenge is to see how he handles being pitched around in a lineup without much thump.

9. Brad Lidge - Closer, Houston Astros
Lidge had a roller-coaster 2006, losing his closer job briefly, then regaining and holding it to the end of the season. If Lidge can regain the form he had through 2005 before NLCS Game 6 and the Albert Pujols home run, the Astros could be the team to beat in an NL Central that appears to be up for grabs. My guess: he'll be solid if not spectacular, keeping his job safe.

8. Fredi Gonzalez - Manager, Florida Marlins
Joe Girardi came out of his firing by the Marlins smelling like roses, and it didn't help Gonzalez in the court of public opinion since he was essentially hired before Girardi could clean out his office. What will really hurt Gonzalez though, are the expectations that accompany his team a year after overachieving under Girardi. Realistically, Florida is still probably a year away from being a serious playoff contender, and if they struggle, Gonzalez may get some heat unfairly.

7. Joel Zumaya - Reliever, Detroit Tigers
Zumaya had a spectacular season in 2006, bursting onto the scene as one of the premier set-up men in baseball. Then like one of his 101 mile per hour fastballs, he flamed out just as spectacularly in the World Series, giving up key hits and making crucial fielding errors. Does the negative momentum of the World Series stay with him, or will he ascend to the closer role? My guess is that he takes the job from incumbent Todd Jones at some point this year - he's got too much talent for the Tigers not to make the switch eventually.

6. Lou Piniella - Manager, Chicago Cubs
Cubs fans have become increasingly intolerant of mediocrity in recent years, and make no mistake, Lou ain't having any of that either. Maybe more than anyone else on this list, I expect Piniella to succeed because of his incredible track record as manager. However, he is coming off a putrid stint as Devil Rays manager, and faces sky-high expectations in Chicago after the off-season spending spree they went on. The Cubs should be right in the thick of things in the Central race, and Piniella will likely prove to be the Cubs' smartest investment of the offseason when all is said and done.

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