Two of the biggest stars in all of baseball are planning to dust off the rust Thursday and make their spring debuts. After prolonged negotiations, Manny Ramirez -- dreadlocks and all -- will take two places that seems customary even after a few months, left field and the middle of the order for the Dodgers. Three hours later, the Mets' Johan Santana will toe the rubber for the first time in a Grapefruit League game.
Ramirez's first swings against an opposing pitcher will represent the final part of a long sigh of relief folks in Mannywood have been breathing since he returned to the Dodgers a week ago. Fans in Flushing, on the other hand, will be left holding their collective breath.
The weather is good in Southern California. It always is. But the sun ought to be shining a little brighter now that Manny is back. The return of Ramirez makes the National League West just a little bit less wide open. The reigning champion Dodgers brought their most potent offensive force back into fold, and there's no arguing that they aren't significantly better.
Los Angeles hardly has the division locked up. The Dodgers didn't really replace Derek Lowe, their No. 1 starter down the stretch in 2008, this winter, instead banking that some combination of free-agent signing Randy Wolf, rehabbing Jason Schmidt and potential phenom Clayton Kershaw will fill the void
One of these years it's all going to come together for the Diamondbacks. They have the best young offensive core in the division and maybe, just maybe, baseball's best 1-2 punch in Brandon Webb and Dan Haren. The Giants are not to be taken lightly either, not with reigning Cy Young winner (and TV commercial funnyman) Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, who has drawn rave reviews this spring and is hungry for his 300th career win, in their rotation.
But the Dodgers have their swagger back, and there is only one man who could give it to them. Manny is smiling and dishing out hugs to everyone, even Joe Torre. It would be foolish to expect him to hit .396 or drive in runs at the pace of almost one a game over a full season as he did over the final two months of 2008, but he doesn't have to for Los Angeles to return to the playoffs. He just has to be the feared slugger he's been since the day he picked up a bat.
The weather isn't quite so good in New York, especially in mid-March. For Mets fans, that's no doubt exacerbated by the dark cloud that has hung over their team the last two seasons.
The arrival of a new baseball season is supposed to be all about rebirth and second (and third and 27th and 86th) chances. Would anyone blame Mets fans if the only anticipation they felt for 2009 involved cringing or the fetal position?
They could do nothing but watch as their team fell victim to a historic collapse in 2007, blowing a seven-game lead over the Phillies with 17 games to go. Then in 2008, it happened all over again. The Mets blew another lead over Philadelphia in September, albeit a much smaller one, and wound up on the outside of the playoff picture in the final season at Shea Stadium. The hated Phillies went on to win the World Series, and took every chance to remind them of it all winter long.
The culprit in 2007 was starting pitching, so general manager Omar Minaya responded by going out and getting Santana, one of the very best in the game. The culprit last year was a shaky bullpen that imploded when it couldn't cope with the loss of closer Billy Wagner in September. Minaya responded in kind again this winter, swooping for two established closers at the Winter Meetings, Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz.
Now, the guy he got to compensate for the 2007 season, Santana, threatens to screw up 2009 if he's absent from the rotation.
He's yet to participate in spring games due to elbow soreness, an ominous sign for any pitcher, but an even more ominous sign for the Mets, who are built around Santana's golden left arm as much as anything else. They may have collapsed in 2008, but it was through no fault of the two-time Cy Young winner. He went 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA over the final two months and nearly willed New York into the playoffs with a dazzling start on three days of rest on the pentultimate day of the season against Florida.
If he doesn't dazzle in a similar fashion Thursday against those very same Marlins, if his fastball velocity is off even a few miles per hour, cue the panic in the Big Apple.
The return of Manny is cause for celebration in Los Angeles -- the coda for a week that's been all about relief. Mets fans are looking for the same thing Thursday, there's just no guarantee they'll get it.
Daily Jolt: Two Stars, Two Debuts, Two Very Different Emotions originally appeared on MLB FanHouse on Thu, 12 Mar 2009 08:30:00 EST . Please see our terms for use of feeds.