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Spring's 10 burning questions

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

With pitchers and catchers officially reporting Thursday, all we have are questions without definitive answers.

It's always fun to take a gander, though, so here are 10 of the biggest issues entering this season and our best ripostes.

1. Can Alfonso Soriano really play center field?

Sure.

Playing it well isn't so easy.

By the end of last season, Soriano had turned into a serviceable, if not good, left fielder. Transitioning to center field, however, is a different beast. The center fielder runs the outfield. He relays the positioning to the corner outfielders. He is responsible for a vast array of open space. He can call off anyone.

Put Soriano in a domed stadium and the worries would lessen. Stick him in San Diego or Florida and he'd be fine. Wrigley Field, Soriano's new home, feasts on inexperienced outfielders.

At the Chicago Cubs' home opener last season, a 25-mph wind gusted in from center field. Rain pelted players. The 40-degree temperature felt more like 15.

Mother Nature doesn't take bribes, not even for the $136 million the Cubs gave Soriano.

Welcome to Chicago, Alfonso, and good luck.

You'll need it.

2. Where does Roger Clemens end up?

Notice it's not "Does Roger Clemens return?" When Clemens acknowledged he's "failing at retirement," that was the all-engines-go sign.

Smart money says it's to the New York Yankees, with the Houston Astros a close second. As little sense as the Boston Red Sox make – they already have at least six pitchers who can start – the symmetry of having Clemens begin and end his career at Fenway Park is too delicious not to consider.

Real money, however, takes the Red Sox out of the equation and leaves Clemens with two suitors. The Astros have shown a willingness to pay Clemens ($18 million for four months' work last season) and let him be (the so-called "Freedom Clause," which allows Clemens to show up only when needed to pitch). The Yankees, though likely not as forgiving with his time, can pony up the money and offer a greater shot at a championship.

Remember, Clemens won his two rings with the Yankees. Old pal Andy Pettitte is back in the Bronx. And unless the Yankees want Carl Pavano in their rotation – or choose to rush Phil Hughes – they're going to need another starting pitcher.

Clemens won't come until the end of May. By then, if the Yankees and Astros are desperate, the price could exceed $20 million.

3. Who closes for Boston?

Jonathan Papelbon or Chad Cordero.

Who believes the Red Sox will actually end games with Joel Pineiro, Craig Hansen or Mike Timlin?

Theo, please put your hand down.

Whether it's Papelbon or Cordero depends on the Red Sox's obstinacy. It should become apparent as spring training progresses that none of the current candidates are close to as good an option as Papelbon, who saved 35 games with a 0.92 ERA last season. If the Red Sox insist on keeping Papelbon a starter, as is their intention, they'll look to deal prospects to Washington for Cordero.

Should Jon Lester return from cancer treatment healthy, though, that gives the Red Sox five starters without Papelbon and opens the door for his return to where Boston needs him most: the ninth inning.

4. What comes of the champions?

Depends on their rotation.

The St. Louis Cardinals' official web site currently lists three starters: Chris Carpenter, Kip Wells and Anthony Reyes. Behind them, it's anyone's guess. Adam Wainwright, who recorded the final out in the World Series last season, has the inside track for the No. 4 job, so long as Jason Isringhausen is healthy. After that, it's a dog fight between Ryan Franklin, Braden Looper and Brad Thompson. And by dog fight, we mean Bichon Frises nipping at each other.

Anyway, that fifth spot is being held for Mark Mulder's return. And if he comes back healthy, the Cardinals should be in decent enough shape to make another run for the NL Central pennant.

After all, the popular favorite, Chicago, still counts on Mark Prior and Kerry Wood to stay healthy and Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis to be its Nos. 2 and 3 starters. Houston's rotation is shaky behind Roy Oswalt and Jason Jennings, the Milwaukee Brewers still haven't proven they can win and the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates are afterthoughts.

Which leaves the Cardinals primed to pounce on a weak division again. Eighty-three wins was good enough last year. It could be again.

5. Who are this year's Detroit Tigers?

The Arizona Diamondbacks.

They've got good pitching (Cy Young winner Brandon Webb and veterans Livan Hernandez and Doug Davis), an old guy to play the Kenny Rogers role (Randy Johnson, once he returns in April from back surgery), a future MVP candidate at shortstop (Stephen Drew), an exciting young center fielder (Chris Young) and a division that's ripe as a month-old strawberry.

Of course, all of that could be wrecked by a bullpen that rests somewhere between shaky and awful. Jose Valverde has shown he's not the answer at closer, yet he'll start spring with the role. Tony Pena has the fastball-slider combination, if not the mettle quite yet.

If the Diamondbacks find that they're too good for a mediocre bullpen, they've got the biggest cache of prospects in the National League and could easily land a Cordero or perhaps Akinori Otsuka from the Texas Rangers.

6. Is Ryan Howard for real?

In the words of the sage Snoop Dogg, "Realer than 'Real Deal' Holyfield."

Keep in mind, were he to play in just about any other ballpark, he wouldn't be 58-home run real. Citizens Bank Park is a Little League field surrounded by major-league amenities, and Howard's ability to poke balls over the short left-field fence pads his numbers.

That said, Howard's ability to hit to the opposite field for power is what makes him so dangerous. Pitchers can work around pull-only power hitters. Only 15 of Howard's home runs last season cleared the right-field fence, yet he pulled most of his singles and doubles.

Howard is not merely a good power hitter. He's a good hitter, period.

7. Will Alex Rodriguez opt out of his contract after this season?

Why wouldn't he?

Really, what is keeping Rodriguez tethered to New York? The ever-warm fans who greet him with more boos than a ghost? The media crunch that greets him after every 0 for 4? The faux friendship with Derek Jeter?

Only Rodriguez's stubbornness – his wanting to not be another Ed Whitson, another Kenny Rogers, another Jeff Weaver – would bring him back to a place where he has failed miserably in the playoffs two consecutive seasons.

Now, were the Yankees to win a World Series this season, the equation would change. Rodriguez, already coming on the cheap because Texas covers $11 million of the $27 million a year he'll make the next three years, would have the leverage for a longer-term extension with more guaranteed money than the $81 million remaining for the '08, '09 and '10 seasons.

Best-case scenarios: For the Rangers, A-Rod flops and they get out of the final $33 million they owe. For the Yankees, if A-Rod flops, he chooses to leave, and if not, he doesn't use the opt-out clause. For A-Rod, the Yankees win, he stars and the $81 million looks like pocket change next to the $150 million he'll command on the open market as he marches toward the home run record.

8. Does Barry Bonds break Hank Aaron's home run record?

Probably, if he ever signs his contract.

Though, just to play devil's advocate: Bonds turns 43 in July, he hobbled around like he was on wooden legs last season, he's not in nearly the shape he used to be, he won't have his entourage around this year and as he approaches 755, he's likely to hear some of the same death threats and racial epithets Aaron did as he was breaking Babe Ruth's record.

And he could get indicted on perjury charges. Ho-hum.

With all that in mind, Bonds is just 22 home runs shy of passing Aaron, and last year, even in a season during which he struggled with health and didn't find his swing until the second half, he hit 26. The last time Bonds played in a full season and didn't hit 22 home runs was 1989, when he was still the skinny Bonds who stole bases.

Now, for better or worse, he's big Barry, and soon enough, he'll be the new standard bearer.

9. When will Pedro Martinez return?

Not soon enough.

Behind Tom Glavine (41 years old in March) and Orlando Hernandez (41, too, best we know), the Mets will trot out John Maine (with 24 career starts) and some two-person combination of Oliver Perez (6.22 ERA since 2005), Mike Pelfrey (rookie), Phil Humber (rookie) or Chan Ho Park (Chan Ho Park).

Recovering from surgery on a partially torn rotator cuff should keep Martinez out until at least the All-Star break, though the New York Daily News last week reported that Martinez says he has "100 percent flexibility" in his right arm.

Still, the shoulder is the shoulder, and Pedro has always been more china doll than steel wall. Mets GM Omar Minaya wants him to take his time, because with the Mets' offense and bullpen, they should still be in the NL East hunt, if not at the head of the pack, when Martinez comes back.

10. Who wins the American League Central?

The Minnesota Twins won it last year, have the game's best pitcher in Johan Santana, the reigning AL MVP in Justin Morneau and the best young player in Morneau.

The Tigers won the AL pennant last year, return their entire team and added Gary Sheffield's bat and Jose Mesa's arm.

The Chicago White Sox won the World Series two years ago, boast an incomparable 3-4-5 of Jim Thome, Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye, and still have four former All-Stars in their rotation.

And the Cleveland Indians might be the most talented of the lot, with Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore anchoring the lineup, a deep rotation headed by C.C. Sabathia and an improved bullpen.

So the pick is …

Come on.

Not even Nostradamus would try to make that tough a prediction before spring training begins.

Here is one, however, to stand by: It won't be the Kansas City Royals.