Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Checking In on NYE

I've just got a few things to cover here before we say goodbye to 2008:

News broke Sunday night of the Red Sox reaching contract agreements with Brad Penny and Josh Bard on one-year deals. I'm a big fan of both moves, as they help the Sox address needs in a low-cost, high-reward fashion, especially in the case of Penny.

As I mentioned last week, the Sox had been "monitoring" Penny with an eye towards bringing him aboard for 2009. He threw only 94 innings last year and dealt with shoulder and elbow pain all along. Penny had several other suitors for his services, but in the end decided to come to Boston because he wants to win.

Penny was coming off excellent back-to-back seasons for the Dodgers, going 32-13 with a 3.64 ERA in 397 innings between 2006 and 2007. After the arm issues, and some problems with LA management, Penny's 2009 option was declined, and now he finds himself coming to Boston for $5 million plus $3 million in potential incentives based on innings pitched.

We've seen the Red Sox take on these types of pitchers before. In 2005, they gave $1.5 million to Wade Miller, and he did admirably in around 100 innings. Last year, they brought in Bartolo Colon on a minor league deal, and when he wasn't breaking the record for most pulled muscles in a single game in Philly, he pitched pretty well.

But the Red Sox are making a more significant investment in Penny than those others, at least in terms of actual dollars. They certainly feel if even relatively healthy Penny could be more than just a No. 5 starter. It also won't preclude them from going after other starters like Ben Sheets or Kenshin Kawakami because they won't know what they have with Penny until spring training.

In short, the Red Sox could be getting a lot for very little, and I like Penny's chances to make 20-25 starts and really contribute significantly to the '09 Red Sox. If not, at least they won't have paid him as much as they paid Curt Schilling to sit out the '08 season.

You may remember Josh Bard as the poor kid charged with catching Tim Wakefield at the outset of the 2006 season, but he just couldn't hang on to Wake's knucklers, and was traded to San Diego in one of the worst deals of the Theo Epstein era. Bard split time behind the dish with Mike Piazza and astonishingly hit .338 with a .943 OPS in 93 games for the Padres. He was also the Padres' primary catcher in 2007 but ran into some injury/ineffectiveness problems last year, batting just .202 and catching only 49 games.

With the catching market so thin, and Kevin Cash gone to the Yankees, the Sox must have felt some urgency to at least have one catcher under their control with significant major league experience. That's what they have now in Bard, whose one-year, $1.6 million contract is not guaranteed, certainly a rarity in major league contracts today. Again, I have to say I'm a big fan of the move.

There's no doubt the Red Sox still want Jason Varitek back. He's the team captain, he knows the pitchers in and out, he still plays terrific defense and it's awfully hard to see this club without him. I am still yet to hear definitively that a team besides Boston has any interest in Varitek. Scott Boras must face the facts: at this point, Varitek only has value to the Red Sox, and no team is willing to give up their first-round pick to sign a catcher who struck out 122 times in 423 ABs last year (I'm beginning to sound like a broken record here).

So if Varitek wants to play next year it will have to be with the Red Sox. By signing Bard, the Red Sox now gain more leverage in negotiations with Boras. They can say they've got a guy capable of being a primary catcher, and they can still sign someone like Gregg Zaun, Toby Hall or Johnny Estrada to split time with Bard. So either Boras can let his client continue to wait for a job somewhere that is highly unlikely to materialize, or he can return to Boston for something much closer to Boston's price. That could still be a two-year deal, but probably not for the $10 million AAV he got in his least deal. It's also possible Boras could wind up looking bad for not accepting arbitration for Varitek.

So what exactly Bard's role will be for Boston next year is unknown until they get another catcher. We know Bard can't catch Wakefield, and I've heard the Red Sox may ask Varitek to catch Wake as he did from 1998-2000 if he were to return. My guess is that if Varitek does sign, he will probably receive more time off in 2009 than he has in the past, and the Red Sox will continue to look via trade for his long-term replacement (Saltalamacchia, Montero, Clement, et al). We'll see where the Varitek talks go from here.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Pitcher's Market, Part II

Let's continue our look at the free agent starters still available as we head into the new year...

Oliver Perez - Age: 27 - 2008 salary: $6.5 million
Scott Boras would like you to believe Perez is one of the five best left-handed pitchers in all of baseball, but like most of what Boras says, that's crap. Perez was around average last season, only managing a 4.22 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 194 innings. But he's young, one of the youngest of all free agent starters this offseason, and he has shown flashes of greatness dating back to his debut with the Padres in 2000. The Mets want Perez back, but the price they're willing to pay is not yet known. Boras will try to push for five years, but again, this isn't the kind of winter where teams not named the Yankees are able to dish out that kind of contract length for far from sure-things. I can't see Perez leaving the NL, but if an AL team came calling with something close to what Boras is demanding, they might have to jump on it. I suspect the Mets might be better off with Jon Garland anyway.

Andy Pettitte - Age: 36 - 2008 salary: $16 million
It's been a great career for Pettitte. He was an integral part of every Yankees' team that made it to a World Series during these past two decades. He went to Houston, close to his Louisiana home, and helped them get to a World Series. Even though he was implicated in baseball's various steroid scandals, he was one of few stars to admit HGH use, and escaped that particular scandal because everyone made Roger Clemens out to be the real villain. Pettitte's had two solid seasons back with the Yankees, and they have a $10 million offer out for Pettitte to return as their 2009 fifth starter. They now seem more willing to go with Phil Hughes following the Teixeira signing, but there's still a chance it happens. Should the offer be pulled, it's safe to say Pettitte will consider joining rotation-mate Mike Mussina in retirement. The Astros probably don't have the money Pettitte would want at this point.

Ben Sheets - Age: 30 - 2008 salary: $12.125 million
Has anyone been more frustrating to fantasy owners over the years than Ben Sheets? He always appears so tantalizing, because everyone knows his stuff is still at its 2004 level, when a 25-year-old Sheets struck out 264 batters with a 2.70 ERA and a microscopic 0.98 WHIP in 237 innings. In 2008, Sheets came within two innings of throwing 200 for the first time since that magical '04 season, but an elbow injury crept up at the worst possible time. He tried to gut through it, but was abysmal in a nationally-televised start against the Cubs during the last weekend of the season. That injury likely cost Sheets millions this winter. The Yankees had been linked to Sheets during the winter meetings, but recent rumblings have the Rangers preparing to make a run. Jon Daniels says there's been no offer, but there has been contact between the two parties. It's predictable for the Rangers to go after a pitcher like Sheets, and but if Sheets wants to live up to his potential he sure as hell won't do it playing in Arlington. If the Red Sox are feeling more ambitious than just going after Brad Penny, I don't see why it would hurt to make a play for Sheets. They could give him two years at around $14-$15 million annually and see what happens. Again, it's a tough winter for a guy like Sheets to be a free agent. If anyone gives him more than two guaranteed years, I'll be surprised.

More tomorrow.

A Pitcher's Market, Part I

On the heels of Randy Johnson's new one-year pact with the Giants, let's take a look at some of the many options remaining in the free agent pitching market. As I mentioned yesterday, there's been very little movement in the overall market but especially with starting pitchers, where only CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett have signed out of all the top-tier candidates. Here we go:

Jon Garland - Age: 29 - 2008 salary: $12 million
Garland is coming off his seventh consecutive season with over 190 innings under his belt. He'd probably be in line for a deal like Carlos Silva's or Gil Meche's or even better in any other year. Unfortunately for Garland, the best he'll probably be able to do in 2009 is a three-year pact with an option for a fourth with an average right around his $12 million 2008 salary. Deep in this Heyman article (with a headline that makes me grit my teeth) is mention that the Dodgers, White Sox, and Mets are options for Garland, and Heyman also makes the excellent point that Garland is "two years younger than Burnett with a better lifetime record (106-89)." I believe Garland could trive in the National League as a potential No. 2 starter. Should the Mets lose out on one of Derek Lowe or Oliver Perez, I see them making a play for Garland, and I doubt they'll be disappointed with the outcome.

Braden Looper - Age: 34 - 2008 salary: $5.5 million
Looper has been solid in two seasons as a starter for the Cardinals, and he's looking for a multi-year deal heading into 2009. The team most interested in his services appears to be the Brewers, but nothing is likely to get done until after the New Year. A nice two- or three-year deal could be in the works, and the Brewers need all the help they can get after losing Sabathia and potentially Ben Sheets.

Derek Lowe - Age: 35 - 2008 salary: $10 million
There's no question that Lowe is one of a select few free agents the Red Sox have let go in recent years that done very, very well in a different uniform. Lowe was consistently excellent for four years in Dodger Blue, his ERA never getting higher than 3.88 and his IP never getting lower than 199. He's still got that great sinking fastball, and he's one of few starting pitchers in this market likely to get four years, despite his age. The Mets are reportedly deep in negotiations with Lowe, but nothing his imminent, according to Omar Minaya. I've heard the Red Sox are maintaining contact with Lowe, and Lowe would love to come back to Boston, but I'd be surprised if that's the rout the Sox go. Lowe's numbers came while playing in the weakest-hitting division in baseball, and teams must be aware of that while courting him. I expect Lowe to wind up with the Mets on a four-year deal that will pay him around $15-$16 million per year, slightly less than Burnett's deal with the Yankees.

Brad Penny - Age: 30 - 2008 salary: $9.25 million.
Penny only made 17 starts in 2008 while dealing with constant pain in his right shoulder. There's been durability issues with Penny throughout his career, and he's only thrown 200 innings twice. Still, Penny is only a year removed from finishing 3rd in the NL Cy Young voting, and the talent has always been there. The Red Sox were said to be "monitoring" Penny at the beginning of the offseason, and his name has come up constantly as a possibility for that fifth slot in their rotation. I personally would love to see Boston take a flier on Penny and see what happens. He would not cost a lot in money and years. I'm sure plenty of other teams have interest as well.

More to come.

Friday, December 26, 2008

I'm Back...

I'm home for winter break, and I promised myself I'd write more as a result. To update you about my life, I just had perhaps the most fun three months of my college years, working for an amazing school newspaper, getting to cover the two best teams at UNH, meeting tons of new people and making lifelong friendships as a result. I have concluded taking classes and after this brief respite, I'll be doing my UNH journalism internship at the Daily News of Newburyport on the North Shore. My work will be varied and interesting, and hopefully I'll get to cover some high school baseball after the snow melts. Then in May I will get that diploma, and in these uncertain times, we all have to hope for the best when it comes to getting jobs. But that's in the future. Right now, I'm just trying to relax for these few weeks before beginning my life in the work force.

I did get a chance to write about baseball during my tenure at TNH, including this Red Sox post-mordem that would have fit perfectly here at JBB. Take a look if you want to recall the pain of the end of the 2008 season. I know, I'm so good at marketing myself.

Let's head right into the big news of this week, that being the revelation the New York Yankees have pockets deeper than the Mariana Trench. They swooped in at the very last second to sign the crowned jewel of the free agent season, Mark Teixeira, to an eight-year deal worth a reported $180 million. This comes a few short weeks after the Bombers came to agreements with stud free agent arms CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett for $161 million and $82.5 million, respectively. So while the Yankees have committed $423.5 million to their future this offseason, no other team has made what you'd call just a "splash" in the most timid baseball winter in recent history.

The Red Sox, in particular Theo Epstein, were enamored with Teixeira, and badly wanted to sign the slugging first baseman not just for next year but to be their mid-lineup stalwart for several years to come. But they only wanted to sign him for their price, and their reported final offer for Tex was $12 million short of what the Yankees will give him.

When Epstein, Larry Lucchino and John Henry flew to Texas to meet with Teixeira and his agent Scott Boras, I was fairly confident the latter two would be joining the former three on their way back to Boston. Of course, this wasn't the case. Boras played his typical game, telling the Sox he had much bigger offers on the table for Teixeira, and Henry chose to call his bluff by publicly proclaiming the Red Sox would "not be a factor" in the bidding for Teixeira's services.

I felt like the major media outlets got it all wrong when they claimed the next day that the Red Sox were out of running entirely for Teixeira. The wording of Henry's statement did not close the door at all. But maybe in the end they were right. I wonder if Teixeira was put off by the often off-putting duo of Lucchino and Henry, and instructed his agent to do whatever it took to get him into pinstripes.

Until Tuesday, it didn't seem like the Yankees were really seriously considering signing Teixeira. They'd already brought on two huge contracts this winter, traded for Nick Swisher, and their glut of corner outfield/first base/DH types seemed to keep them out of the running. Well, looking back, it's clear they wanted Teixiera all along, and were willing to wait for all the other offers to come in just so they could trump them by about $10 million or so. The Nationals may have had the biggest offer on the table, but there was no reason to believe Teixeira, who wanted to play for a winner, that he'd actually sign with either his hometown Orioles or Washington.

There's still a lot we don't know. Murray Chass (who somehow has a blog even though he remembers the McKinley Administration) believes Teixeira and his wife didn't want to live in Boston, and chose New York instead. This might be true, and if so it makes me feel better about the situation. But I can't help but feel for a measly (to the Sox) $2-$3 million more per year, they might have been able to convince the Teixeiras to set aside their reservations about Boston. Then again, maybe it was Teixeira's desire all along to play for New York, and the Yankees' interest was stoked as soon as that fact became apparent to them. Maybe the Red Sox never really wanted Tex as much as what had been reported all winter. It's hard to say right now.

The Red Sox are not screwed for the 2009 season because of this. They will cross their fingers and hope Mike Lowell, David Ortiz, and J.D. Drew have fully healthy seasons, Jason Bay and Kevin Youkilis replicate their 2008 successes, and Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia become the game's best 1-2 punch. Signing Teixeira would have taken a considerable amount of pressure off all those players, and Lowell would have been playing at a different address. I've heard Lowell felt betrayed by all the Teixeira talk, which is unfortunate considering Lowell is probably the best guy in baseball and doesn't deserve to be jerked around like this. Hopefully this will motivate him to come back stronger than ever from hip surgery. Also, Youkilis will likely be the everyday cleanup hitter for the Sox, a role he seemed to thrive in down the stretch and in the playoffs. If they want a bona fide mid-lineup star, they will have to wait until next offseason to go after Matt Holliday, or maybe Albert Pujols in two years.

Don't get any ideas in your head that the Sox might go after Pat Burrell, Adam Dunn, Jason Giambi, or Bobby Abreu. They were either going to sign Teixeira or have a relatively quiet offseason as far as signing free agents. This article by Sean McAdam points out how futile the Red Sox view the free agent market. The current Red Sox administration will never spend half a billion dollars on free agents in one offseason, and it's hard not to respect them for that. Epstein refuses to get into bidding wars with his rivals, and he won't let the Yankees dictate his own moves the way Dan Duquette and Lou Gorman did.

The Sox need to focus now on their catching situation after the Yankees pilfered Kevin Cash the same day they yanked Tex off the market. Boras is having a tough time shopping Jason Varitek to other teams, mostly because the Red Sox offered Tek arbitration and no team wants to give up their first round pick for a soon-to-be 37-year-old oft-injured catcher who sported a .672 OPS last year. Conventional wisdom would say Varitek comes back to the Red Sox on a two-year deal that will pay him around his $10 million salary from last year. Because neither party has much of an option elsewhere, this should be the way it goes down. Needless to say, Boras is a slippery fuck. So anything can happen.

That's all I've got for today. I'll be back soon with thoughts on the still-vast free agent pitching market, and how frugal teams like Boston, Tampa, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Arizona could come up with some big bargains by waiting. I hope everyone had a good Christmas.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

LCS Previews

The NLCS will commence in Philadelphia Thursday night, so I figured I would get on here and give my brief previews for that series and the ALCS set to kick off Friday in St. Petersburg. There's a ton of intrigue involved in both matchups, and I'm happy that all four teams remaining are excellent clubs and are all conceivably good enough to win the World Series. I'll start out with the National League:

Dodgers v. Phillies: Both clubs defeated NL Central foes, with the Dodgers completing a sweep against the Cubs and Philly taking four games to dispatch Milwaukee. Each team has balance on offense, terrific starters and a deep, strong bullpen. For LA it's their first NLCS in 20 years and for the Phillies it's been 15. They've both had good teams in the interim years but never could quite get over the top. Now they'll vie for a chance to be the NL representative in the Fall Classic.

I wrote in my last post here that LA feels like the Team of Destiny in 2008. Their tight win in Game 3 in front of the LA fans only adds to my feeling on this. To make the Cubs, the best NL club during the regular season, look as poorly as they did in the NLDS is remarkable. They have this Red Sox-esque mix of veterans and young players (I don't have to tell you that some of those guys WERE Red Sox at one point) that works very well for the personality of the club. Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Kent, Casey Blake, Rafael Furcal, Derek Lowe and Juan Pierre and well-complimented by the likes of Matt Kemp, James Loney, Andre Ethier, Russell Martin, Blake DeWitt, Chad Billingsley, Clayton Kershaw and Jonathon Broxton. They've got an energy and feel about them great playoff teams always possess. And it doesn't hurt that Joe Torre is at the helm. He's been through a few of these before himself.

As for Philly, their pitching carried them through the Milwaukee series with strong outings in each of the four contests. Cole Hamels has emerged as a bonafide ace for this club, and if they can continue to get strong outings from Brett Myers and Jamie Moyer this series may go the distance. Of course, the Phillies offense is nothing to sneeze at as well, with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Pat Burrell anchoring the lineup.

Interestingly enough, I watched these teams lock up for a Saturday game in Philadelphia in late August. It was the 2nd game of an eventual series sweep for the Phillies, with Cole Hamels dominating and Clayton Kershaw looking very much like a 20-year-old. What got me about this game was the middle of the Dodgers' order, with Manny hitting cleanup and playing left, with Nomar hitting 5th at shortstop. It felt like 2002 all over again.

Anyway, I could see Hamels going out and knocking the Dodgers off their momentum somewhat by taking the first game. After that, however, I see this series as all Dodgers. If they can take Game 2 in Philly I feel very confident they'll win all three games at LA. This is their year to make it to the World Series. It pains me to predict this because no town needs a title of any kind more than Philly. They have a good team, and maybe this group will win the first major sports title for Philadelphia since 1983. But I just feel like it's not their year.

Red Sox v. Rays: I figured there was a very good chance this could have been the 2010 or 2012 ALCS matchup. But never did I think coming into this year that it could be the 2008 ALCS matchup. I'm still having a tough time taking these Rays seriously. I mean, they're the freaking Rays, aren't they? Imagine the Clippers and Lakers playing for the Western Conference title, or the Blue Jackets taking on the Red Wings for a chance to play for the Stanley Cup. It's just not right. The Rays shouldn't be here. Not now. Not while the Red Sox are still the best franchise in baseball.

But here they are. They took care of the White Sox, despite my best gut feelings. I should have known better, considering the one-dimensional nature of Chicago's club. They've done it with James Shields and Scott Kazmir at the top of their rotation, but I have every reason to believe the rest of their starts won't pan out when the pressure is on in Fenway. The idea of Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine having success in Boston in October might be the biggest "I'll believe it when I see it" scenario I've had in a long time. I almost feel like Joe Maddon is pulling a fast one on us with Sonnanstine and he's really going to start David Price in that game. I mean, really? The guy's got a #1 overall pick with an electric left arm just sitting out in the bullpen and he's going to start Andy Freakin' Sonnanstine over him? Something smells here.

Tampa's offense performed well against Chicago and their success against Boston pitching during the year will give them confidence going in. I do wonder about their bullpen, I'm not sure I would trust Dan Wheeler to close out a playoff game with 39,000 Sox fans screaming for his head. (That scenario is applicable to games in both Tampa and Boston). I once had an away message that said: "The three things in the world that I love most: Hot girls, sandwiches, and the Tampa Bay bullpen." I figured that if I was hanging out with hot girls, while downing a steak and cheese, while watching Tampa's parade of 21-year-old-shouldn't-be-in-the-majors-deer-in-the-headlights relievers pitch blow leads against the Red Sox, I'd be in heaven. I'm not sure where I'm going so I'll stop.

This provides a nice segue into my feelings on the Red Sox heading into this series. I have never been prouder of a Red Sox team than I was surrounding this past series against the Angels. I mean that. They played their asses off to win the first two games in LA. They had many opportunties to end the series in Game 3 but couldn't capitalize. They could have withered away in Game 4 after the Masterson Cross-up (which is what that play would have been called for ever if they'd lost that game and eventually the series in LA), but they played tough, and won an incredible game to advance to the ALCS.

There's no question that on paper the Angels were the better team, but they killed themselves with careless mistakes and couldn't make the best of opportunities like the Red Sox did. Erick Aybar's inability to execute a squeeze bunt in that key spot, given the emphasis that Mike Scioscia's clubs put on fundamentals, may have been the biggest surprise of the entire 2008 postseason thus far.

The Sox will miss Mike Lowell dearly. They are a weaker team without him on the field. But Mark Kotsay proved the other night that he can play first base with the best of them, and his scorcher down the line in the 9th should have been the winning hit of Game 4. We know Youk can play a mean 3rd base. And with new, emerging leaders like Jed Lowrie and Jason Bay, I feel more confident than ever about this team's ability to win.

My biggest concern going forward is the bullpen, and in particular, the ability of Jonathon Papelbon to bounce back on a day-to-day basis for the rest of the playoffs. I'm confident he will, simply because he's Papelbon, and it's the playoffs. By the way, if you missed his antics after the series clincher Monday night, then I feel bad for you. There is no one on earth like this guy, and we're so lucky to have him around.

Anyway, I have a lot of confidence the Red Sox will be able to capitalize on the youth and inexperience of the Rays in this ALCS. It should be fun to watch the pseudo-home crowd in Tampa, and like the other LCS, I feel if the Sox can take one game in Tampa this series might not get back there for Game 6. Then we'd have the Dodgers-Red Sox match up everyone's been dreaming about.

Of course, that scenario of intrigue almost never happens (see 2003). For the sake of the game, I hope it does.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Remember When I Used to Write About Baseball?

I have to issue a most serious, sincere apology to all those who have enjoyed reading my thoughts about baseball for the egregious, inexcusable five-month hiatus of Jake's Baseball Blog. I guess I'm just not very good at keeping up two blogs at once, and with this unbelievable election season I have focused my writing for fun over at Blue Musings. What's most inexcusable about my hiatus is that it took place basically during the entirety of the actual season. Now it's October, the leaves are turning, and eight teams are left to vie for the World Series title. And I have regret about not getting my feelings about these last five months out to you.

You never got to hear my feelings on the incredible rise of the Tampa Bay Rays, one of the most surprising playoff teams in recent history. I never let you know how I felt about the New York Mets imploding once again, and the injustice of Omar Minaya's four-year extension. I never wrote here about CC Sabathia's dominance of the NL, Tim Lincecum's breakout season, and Cliff Lee's improbable road to 22 wins. I never came here to discuss the longest All-Star Game in history, and the emotional closing of the stadium where it was played. I never gushed over Dustin Pedroia's MVP season, and him perhaps becoming my favorite Red Sox player ever. And, most regretfully, I never came here to pour out my incredibly conflicted feelings about the trade of Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers, perhaps the seminal off-the-field happening of my entire time following the Sox.

So, once again, I'm sorry. But I'm here now, and as always, this is the best time to be watching. I'll handicap for you what I expect to see in the remainder of the Division Series.

Dodgers v. Cubs (LA leads 2-0): I think it's safe to say the Dodgers hold that "Team of Destiny" mantle that went along with the Rockies, Tigers, White Sox, and Red Sox in the last four postseasons, respectively. They didn't finish the regular season with a great overall record, and they played rather passively until the trading deadline. Then came Manny. He hit .396 with 17 homers the rest of the way, and the Dodgers essentially left Arizona in the dust for the West Division crown. Now, they're a dynamic group mixing youngsters and veterans, and they're heading back to Chavez Ravine after ripping the Cubs' guts out in two at Wrigley.

It's hard not to feel bad for the Cubs and their fans. They had, on paper, the very best team in the NL all season, and then they run into the momentous Dodgers buzzsaw in October. They didn't just lose those first two games in Chicago: they were embarrassed there. They could never get that vaunted offense going, and both Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano were inconsistent in their starts.

Tomorrow night Hiroki Kuroda will face off against Rich Harden in a do-or-die game for the Cubs. Given Harden's unpredictability, and the likelihood of a raucous Dodgers Stadium crowd, I think this series will be over after tomorrow's game. I wouldn't be surprised if the Dodgers won each of their next five games, either. They are the Team of Destiny in 2008. But, as the Rockies and Tigers proved, the Team of Destiny doesn't always win it all.

Brewers v. Phillies (Philly leads 2-0): My vote for "Least Surprising Outcome Through Two Games in the LDS" goes to this series. The Brewers got into the playoffs by the hair on Prince Fielder's ass, and their big weaknesses have been exposed thus far. Inexperienced guys in clutch situations, bad defense, bullpen woes, and no one to pitch well for extended innings besides Sabathia. His inability to get through the fourth inning in yesterday's game speaks volumes about just how screwed the Brewers are. We saw the same thing last year with Sabathia in the playoffs. It appears that he, like just about any other pitcher these days, just simply can't perform once they his 250 innings in a season.

On the other side, the Phils have seen two excellent starts from Cole Hamels and Brett Myers, and while the ghosts of Brad Lidge's playoff past seemed to come alive in Game 1, he definitely settled down in Game 2. The offense has come up with timely hits with Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino leading the way. Philly will look to Jamie Moyer to close out the series in Milwaukee. I won't rule out one Brewers win at home here, but Hamels will get the ball again Sunday, so I don't expect this series to go much past that. It will be great for the Phillies and their long-suffering fans to finally get back to the NLCS.

Of course, they'll just be heartbroken again after the Dodgers sweep them in that series.

White Sox v. Rays (Tampa Bay leads 1-0): Before this series began, I had this unexplainable, gut feeling that Chicago's momentum from beating the Tigers on Monday and then topping Minnesota in their one-game playoff Tuesday would lead to them pulling the upset against Tampa. I didn't get to see this game last night, but given Javier Vazquez's poor performance, and the apparent cohesiveness of the Tampa offense, I may have to rethink that stance.

Is Tampa's playoff inexperience a curse or a virtue? Will they wilt in key spots or will they be too scared or stupid to know how to act? I'm still having a tough time fathoming that the Tampa Bay Rays are in the playoffs. We are talking about the same Rays that finished last almost every other year of their existence, right? In my AL East preview from February, I said Tampa would be a "fun team to watch in 2008 and may surprise some people," and they could "drum up enough interest to get people out to the Trop even when the Sox or Yanks aren't in town." So I was right in those regards. But I never, ever thought they would have this much success this fast (I picked them to come in 4th), and here they are with homefield advantage in the ALDS.

If Mark Buehrle can stop the Rays train tonight, I'll feel much more confident about my gut feeling of the White Sox winning this series. If not, then I think we can safely pencil the Rays in for the ALCS.

I still can't believe I just wrote that last sentence.

Red Sox v. Angels (Boston leads 1-0): This Red Sox season has certainly not been without drama and intrigue. The Manny Saga aside, we saw awesome years from Pedroia, Youkilis, Lester, Matsuzaka and Papelbon, mediocre seasons from Beckett, Wakefield, the centerfield platoon, Varitek, and the rest of the bullpen, and abysmal/injury-plagued seasons from Buchholz, Drew, Lowell, Ortiz and Lugo. We saw the emergence of young future stalwarts like Jed Lowrie (Lugo only plays on the Red Sox as a $9 millon backup from now on. Period.), Justin Masterson and Manny Delcarmen. They played their best baseball behind the mid-season acquisitions of Jason Bay, Paul Byrd and Mark Kotsay. It was Bay who hit the go-ahead bomb to give the Red Sox the lead in Game 1 against the Angels. He had exactly the same number of postseason homers in 2008 as Manny. Until about 20 hours later. (Damn you, Manny).

I'm sure there were plenty of people who thought the key injuries to Lowell and Drew, Beckett's first start being pushed back to Sunday, and not having #24 out there would lead to a quick exit from the 2008 playoffs for the Red Sox. Well, they all forgot that these are the Red Sox, and their playoff success has never been about one guy, or two guys, or three guys. It's always been about 25 guys who go out there everyday and wear the jersey with pride, and they respond to the greatest fans in the world each time. They're going to win behind the sterling success of Lester and Dice-K, and the intense, in-your-face, leave-everything-out-there style of Pedroia, Youkilis and Papelbon. Everything else will trickle down from that.

Wednesday's win was the 10th in a row for the Red Sox against the Angels in the postseason, dating way back to that mythical Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS, when Dave Henderson saved the Red Sox season with a homer off Donny Moore (followed by Henderson jumping roughly 25 feet in the air while skipping up the 1st base line). Spike Owen said that on the plane ride back to Boston, all 25 Sox, to a man, knew they'd win Games 6 and 7 to get back to the Series. I almost feel like the Red Sox just know this time around that they're going to win despite the odds. These Angels are a stacked group, the best all-around team in baseball. But there's just something about these two teams getting together. I just think these Sox are a better team than these Angels right now.

If the Sox can manage a win tonight, and head back to Boston 2-0, they will be back to the ALCS for the fourth time in six years. They're on a collision course to face Manny and the Dodgers in the World Series.

I can't even begin to imagine what a series like that will mean.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Jon Lester's Amazing Night

It's been far too long since my last update, unfortunately I've been preoccupied with school work, getting ready for the summer, "Lost," following the political happenings over at Blue Musings, and watching the Celtics on their run to a 17th NBA title. It's been a ho-hum season in baseball thus far in my opinion, with the Red Sox playing streaky and spending lots of time looking up at the Rays (what?) in the AL East. But everything that I love about baseball came rushing back last night when lymphoma-survivor Jon Lester pitched the greatest game of his life in front of a packed Fenway Park. He no-hit the KC Royals on 130 pitches and reminded everyone, fans and non-fans alike, the power of the human spirit.

Lester had everything going last night. He was hitting 94-95 with his fastball, even after he'd already thrown 115 pitches. His cutter was darting from one side of the plate to the other with ease, and his curve was buckling the knees of Alex Gordon, Jose Guillen and Billy Butler alike. For all of us who've been watching Lester ever since his big league debut in 2006, we always saw the potential. Here was a lefty with good breaking stuff, a fastball that could blow away good hitters, and enough poise to fill an entire stadium. Then came his illness, and we all watched with baited breath as he built his body for a most improbable comeback. His performance in Game 4 of the 2007 World Series was inspirational in the least and a beautiful display of courage we could all appreciate. And last night, Lester finally put together the game we all expected he was capable of.

The best thing I saw from Lester last night was the confidence in his fastball to get ahead of just about every Royals hitter. Lester has been labeled with the dreaded "nibbler" tag to this point in his career, but there was nothing remotely resembling a nibbler on the mound at Fenway last night. He was going right at the free-swinging Royals, and he got the majority of his 27 outs on ground balls. Lester was not afraid to let his sterling defenders (save Julio Lugo) do their jobs behind him, including a spectacular play by Jacoby Ellsbury in the 4th inning that wound up being the closest thing to a hit allowed by Lester all night.

I was worried that once he got past 110 pitches that Terry Francona might pull the plug on Lester's night even if the no-hitter was still going. But Francona kept his man on the hill and allowed him to get to where he could blow away Alberto Callaspo on his 130th and final pitch of the night. Much of the credit for this no-hitter must go to Jason Varitek, who has now caught an all-time record four no-hit games. I don't think that achievement by Varitek is a coincidence. It's even more amazing considering the no-hitters have come from a Japanese hurler (Nomo), a headcase (Lowe) and two kids (Buchholz and Lester). His own composure and prowess at calling games means much more to the pitchers in these situation than any of us can fully appreciate. Here's to hoping Varitek hasn't caught his last no-hitter in a Boston uniform.

I wrote after the World Series about how we wouldn't know about Lester's courage if it wasn't for baseball. I was reminded of this last night. Way to go, Jon.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Thoughts on the First Week

Baseball came back in a big way this week, and it's safe for me to say I couldn't be happier about it after the long winter. Fans were treated so some excellent contests as the week came to a close, including some terrific comebacks, pitching excellence, offensive displays and defensive wizardry. In short, it's been great to get the tumult of the 2007-2008 offseason behind us and get down to the real games.

The Red Sox faced serious difficulty this weekend in Toronto, but don't count me amongst the surprised about how these three games turned out. This club is definitely tired, and when they arrive in Boston tonight they will have traveled roughly 19,000 miles since I last wrote. It's hard to blame these guys for playing this series like they were on Dramamine, because they probably were. It's obvious Julio Lugo was in dire need of a nap this afternoon given his listless and idiotic defensive performance. Over the last few weeks, these guys were asked to do things few, if any big league teams have ever been asked (for a sample, you MUST check out this video of Jon Papelbon talking to Tanguay and Felger about the Japan trip. I'm sure Larry Lucchino loved this). Just before they finally get to go home, they have to go play a Blue Jays club that I think we can all agree might be just a bit better than we all thought. I'm not giving the Sox a pass; they're pros and they should have gone out and taken at least one from the Jays this weekend. But overall, I can't say I'm terribly disappointed the Sox went 3-4 over this long excursion. Now they get to come home, get their rings, and get on with their season.

Waiting for the Red Sox on Tuesday afternoon (which also happens to be my 22nd birthday) will be the Detroit Tigers, who have begun this young season with an 0-6 record. I've been able to watch three of the six losses so far, and I think the Tigers' problems are almost entirely a result of their ineptitude on offense, which is something nobody could have predicted. Miguel Cabrera and Gary Sheffield have both been hampered by injuries, and it's very apparent this team misses the energy and spark of their catalyst, Curtis Granderson. But that doesn't excuse other guys like Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen and Edgar Renteria from not picking up the necessary slack to win a single game thus far. Despite some of the moronic statistics about how "no team has ever gotten to the playoffs after losing X number of games to start a season," this Tigers team is simply too good to not be a factor this year. Last time I checked there were still 156 games on their schedule, and 156 more opportunities for the best offense in baseball to explode. That said, I hope that explosion doesn't come during the next three games. I do expect a tough series in Boston that should be highly enjoyable. I will be in attendance for Wednesday night's contest between Jeremy Bonderman and Jon Lester.

Elsewhere, the Yankees have enjoyed some close victories but also lackluster starting efforts by Ian Kennedy and Andy Pettitte this weekend versus the Rays. Today Joba Chamberlain earned a two-inning hold with Mo Rivera earning a save in a 2-0 victory. I really can't imagine the Yankees taking Chamberlain out of that role this season, he's just too good at it and the Yankees don't have anyone else this side of LaTroy Hawkins they can rely on in the 7th and 8th innings. Unless their starting pitching implodes entirely (which could happen), I'm not seeing any reasonable scenario under which Joe Girardi makes Chamberlain a starter. Of course, if they did, I wouldn't shed any tears over it.

One of my favorite stories to watch this year will be that of Royals closer Joakim Soria. The Mexican fireballer already has three saves on the young season, and Buster Olney and other have already begun comparing him to a young Rivera. This is certainly high praise, but the easy-going right-hander with pinpoint control has done nothing to deter those who believe Soria is on the fast track to stardom. I highly doubt you'd find him on your league waiver wire, but if he is you need to pick him up immediately. Random side note: A couple weeks ago I had a dream the Red Sox traded Dustin Pedroia for Soria. As a friend told me, "That's when you know you're obsessed." Yeah, I know.

I am extremely excited to inevitably see Johnny Cueto get lit by the Brewers on Tuesday so every fantasy owner that picked him up after one dominant start. Fantasy owners: Don't expect a 22-year-old starter to be the savior of your team. It's just not a wise move. I'd personally rather have Micah Owings or Joe Saunders, both of whom are being added to many teams this weekend. They are older and can be relied on much more.

One final, random, totally unrelated note: Ryan Martin has the strength of 10 men. That is all.

Monday, March 24, 2008

2008 Red Sox Preview

I sit here typing my Red Sox preview with just one night between us and the 2008 season. The Sox almost "didn't get on that plane" (yes, I just quoted "Friends") and stood up for their less-wealthy employees because it was the right thing to do. It was a strong showing of solidarity, and in a way it proved a lot about this particular group of players. The 2008 Boston Red Sox are a continuation of a 2007 team that cared much, much more about shared accomplishment and riches than individual achievement. The cohesiveness of their unit, the shared experience at the top of their profession, and the makeup of their well-rounded group makes them an overwhelming favorite to be the first back-to-back World Champs since the New York Yankees three-peat for 1998-2000.

I'll be up at 6 a.m. tomorrow to watch Joe Blanton and Dice-K square off in the first match of the 2008 MLB season, and I hope anyone who considers themselves Red Sox fans will do the same. The Sox roster will be fluid between now and when they return to the mainland next week, but I'll do my best to handicap who I expect to see when they pare down to 25 for April 1.

CATCHERS (2): Jason Varitek, Kevin Cash.
One of the only real surprises of the Red Sox stay in Fort Myers was the release of Doug Mirabelli. This was a sudden move and very little reason was given by the Red Sox as to why this happened. I'm wondering if maybe he mouthed off to somebody at an inopportune moment and that led to his dismissal from the club. Either way, Dougie is out and Kevin Cash will be Jason Varitek's backup as well as the personal catcher of Tim Wakefield. Cash did an exceptional job in Mirabelli's absence at one point in 2007 and this spring he didn't have any trouble with the knuckleball. While Cash and Mirabelli are similarly inept hitters, at least Cash isn't a total liability on the basepaths and could probably do a better job if Varitek is faced with a prolonged injury. I like the move from a production standpoint, but there's no doubt Mirabelli is a great guy and a terrific teammate. A lot of people will miss Dougie, myself included.

Varitek, at this moment, does not have a contract past this year. Scott Boras has said he won't initiate extension talks on Varitek's behalf, so it's up to the Red Sox to decide if they want him around for the future. Given the scarcity of catchers in their system, and in the entirety of the game itself, there's no reason why the Sox should not try and keep Varitek in Boston for the rest of his career. A three-year extension should do and allow the Sox to bide their time in their search for his replacement. As for 2008, I think Tek's offensive decline should continue but there's no reason to believe his defense will be anything other than top-notch and his handling of the pitching staff will be anything other than the best in baseball.

INFIELDERS (7): Sean Casey, Alex Cora, Mike Lowell, Julio Lugo, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis.
The only new addition here is Casey, added for a small price to provide a backup role. Casey has stated he wants to win a ring, and nowhere better could he get that opportunity than in Boston. I like his defense, he still hits for a good average, and will produce if Youkilis or Lowell (with Youk shifting to third) goes down with an injury. Youkilis has experienced significant declines during the second half of the last two seasons. With Casey in tow, I'd like to see both Lowell and Youkilis get enough rest to ensure they'll be effective well into October.

Up the middle, Pedroia should build on his Rookie of the Year campaign and while many are calling for a decline I think he can work more walks and get up to 15 HR. He ought to spend most of the year in the leadoff spot. As for Lugo, there's no doubt his offense and defense improved considerably starting in August last year. An untold story from last season was how Lugo took ill in spring training and he wasn't himself for months. Lugo's .643 OPS from 2007 was 85 points below his career OPS, so there's no reason he can't get himself back up to that .720-.740 level and have a hugely productive year seeing fastballs at the bottom of the order. I was really, really impressed this spring with what I saw out of Jed Lowrie. He is definitely ready to play in the majors now and as much as I love Alex Cora, expect Lowrie to come up from Pawtucket and start in place of either Pedroia or Lugo.

I tossed Ortiz in this group because he's technically a first baseman, but we all know Papi won't have to pick up a glove until interleague play. A lot has been made of his struggles this spring, but that's pointless to get concerned about. Ortiz had surgery on his knee this offseason and maintained his shape adequately. Does that mean he'll return to his supreme 2006 power numbers? Regardless, Papi remains the most popular Red Sox player in history and despite Varitek's captaincy, the real leader of this team is undoubtedly David Ortiz.

OUTFIELDERS (4): Coco Crisp, J.D. Drew. Jacoby Ellsbury, Manny Ramirez.
There's a possibility Bobby Kielty could make the club as a 5th outfielder, but that would disrupt Terry Francona's typical preference of opening seasons with 12 pitchers. Kielty could go to Pawtucket once the Sox come back to the U.S., or he could become a free agent and sign elsewhere, because it's not likely Theo Epstein will find a suitable home for Crisp before then.

The situation with Crisp has become increasingly murky as the regular season approaches, and there's been no indication about how this will shake out. Buster Olney wrote on Sunday that he's heard the Red Sox interest in trading Crisp may be waning. Epstein may be frustrated by the lack of interested parties at this point. All this makes me wonder if the Red Sox were actively shopping Crisp much this winter even while his name was constantly mentioned in the Johan Santana talks. There were other teams in need of a CF but after a while the market dried up and the Sox were stuck with two starters at the position. Just when it was possible the Sox could find someplace to send Crisp, he gets hurt in Fort Myers and barely plays all month. This is really tough to gauge because it seems like the A's have a definite interest but Billy Beane won't give up what the Sox are asking for. Bottom line: I have no idea how this will turn out. Hopefully Crisp will be content with whatever role the club assigns for him.

Like Lugo, I'm ready for J.D. Drew to break out this year. There was a great article by Rob Bradford in the Herald over the winter about Drew (if I had the link I'd post it, but I can't find it now). Bradford talked about how Drew had difficulty in the batter's box because of ruts created by Ortiz during his ABs, and this year Drew has figured out how to avoid stepping in those ruts. He also mentioned that Drew used a smaller bat belonging to Kielty when he hit his grand slam in ALCS Game 6 off Fausto Carmona. I think it would be huge for the Red Sox in many ways if Drew could put together a solid season. Hitting 6th behind Ortiz, Ramirez and Lowell will give Drew plenty of opportunities to come up with big hits. He doesn't have to try and hit home runs; he needs to try to drive outside pitches onto the Monster and work pitch counts. Basically, he has to do the things that got him a $70 million contract in the first place. I'm confident he can do it.

This brings us to Manny. Peter Gammons commented that Ramirez became a "maniacal workout warrior" in Arizona this winter, and many pictures from the offseason show just that. He is in perhaps the best shape of his career at nearly 36. One can assume Manny came to the realization that in order extend his career he needed to take better offseason care of his body. Maybe this knowledge has led to his boasting about how the Red Sox will definitely pick up his two $20 million options and, in his words, "then I'll get four more after that." That might sound far-fetched, but what if Manny's newfound shape affords him his first chance to play in over 150 games since 2005 and he puts up numbers like he did in '04 and '05? Doesn't that seem at least somewhat possible? If Manny's fully healthy, I don't see why he can't have that kind of year. No matter what happens to his body, Manny's natural talent for swinging a bat can never leave him. I think maybe 2008 won't be his last year in Boston after all.

STARTING PITCHERS (5): Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz.
We all know about Beckett's back trouble, and word came down today Beckett will officially start 2008 on the DL. I'm not all that worried since he's pitched very well since the injury and I've got no problem with limiting his innings at any point in the season to keep him fresh for when it will really count. Sitting Beckett when he had a tired arm last season cost him the Cy Young, but it's the a big reason why the Red Sox will be getting World Series rings next month. Last October Beckett cemented himself as the official Ace of Aces in Major League Baseball (the only criteria for that distinction being: If you had to win one game today, which current pitcher would you choose? With guys like Clemens, Schilling, Pedro, Unit, Smoltz and Maddux over the hill, and the big-game ineptitude or inexperience of Santana, Sabathia, Bedard, Webb, Verlander and Peavy, the only logical choice is Beckett. No questions asked).

A lot of people were disappointed with Matsuzaka's rookie effort in 2007, but I think any rookie should be happy with the year he put forth. There's a lot of positives to build on as Dice-K continues to adjust to life in America and the travel during the season. I hope he has worked with Varitek to a point where Dice can be confident in his offspeed offerings and not nibble so much with his fastball. It's not good for anybody for Matsuzaka to go out there and rack up 125 pitches every time out. There were so many times last year that I asked myself: "What happened to the guy who mixed 10 pitches and baffled the Cuban national team in the WBC?" That guy needs to show up in 2008.

Coming off a 17-win season, Wakefield comes into a season for the first time with serious concerns about the durability of his shoulder. Thus far Wake has shown nothing in spring to provide doubts about his health, so expect the typical solid-Wake year. Don't take it for granted either, we don't know how many more of these we'll have. Lester finally is fully healthy and I'm expecting a big year out of him. I'm thinking 15 W's with an ERA around 4. The national experts might think I'm crazy, but Lester's stuff is totally undeniable and he's definitely got the guile to be a star at this level. I've mentioned in this space my reservations about Buchholz and how he can absolutely throw no more than 180 innings this year, but I'm sure Farrell and Francona will ensure he's not overworked.

Even with Schilling on the shelf until at least July, I believe the Red Sox are set pretty well in the rotation and could once again have one of the best in the entire game. I look forward to watching them deal in 2008.

RELIEVERS (7): Manny Delcarmen, Javier Lopez, Hideki Okajima, Jonathan Papelbon, Julian Tavarez, Mike Timlin, Kyle Snyder.
Another year, another solid group of Red Sox relievers. The four main guys (Papelbon, Delcarmen, Okajima and Timlin) logged heavy innings last postseason and I'm confident they're rested and ready to contribute bigtime in 2008. I'm most excited to see the development of Delcarmen, who I think can be expected to see some time in the 8th inning this year. It was clear by the end of last season that Okajima had been beaten like a rented stepchild (you like that? I'm just trying it out), so having both guys capable in that role could be huge down the line for the Red Sox.

Papelbon established himself as the alpha dog of baseball's 9th-inning warriors in 2007 with his second consecutive dominant year. I remember how adamant I was that Papelbon remain as a starting pitcher even heading into last spring. Realistically, and from the Red Sox perspective, I think we can safely say this was the best route for Papelbon. There's no guarantee his slider would have ever developed into a useful Major League pitch (he throws it sparingly if ever now), meaning he'd be left with just the fastball and split as a starter. There's a name for starters who only throw two effective pitches in the Majors: unemployed. The Sox have also done an exceptional job preserving their closer, as he threw a scant 58 1/3 innings in 2007, which was among the lowest for any closer for the whole season. Like Beckett, Papelbon was able to turn it up in the postseason as a result, and he tossed 10 2/3 innings in seven October contests. I'm ready to watch Papelbon continue to blossom as one of the most reliable 9th-inning arms the game has ever seen.

Don't be surprised to see Justin Masterson come up from Pawtucket to supplement the bullpen at some point in 2008. He's a master of the sinkerball, and even though he's been groomed as a starter the Red Sox believe he's going to be a power setup man at the Major League level. Masterson has a Papelbon-like mentality and could find himself as the closer of some other big league club someday.

With that, you have a pretty good idea of what this team will be like. But you already had this idea, because you could look at this 2008 team has Part B of 2007. It's been a long winter of waiting, but I'm finally ready to watch these guys defend their title. The Japan trip will hurt them in short term, mostly because they have a truly hellish start to their season even without the games in the Land of the Rising Sun. They'll head to LA for some exhibition games against the Dodgers, followed by two real games at Oakland, three games at Toronto, the home opening series against Detroit, three games against the Yankees, then two at Cleveland and two at the Bronx. But even if they don't get off to the best start, all of us Red Sox fans shouldn't worry. This team is built to get through the regular season at around 95 victories and then take off, once again, in October.

It would be hard to ask for more of the Red Sox than I've been granted by them so far in my life. Two World Titles in four years and a dynastic-level group for years to come are things many baseball fans can only dream of. I ask all Red Sox fans to take a deep breath during the season and appreciate the fortunate hand we've been dealt in our baseball lives. Watch Josh Beckett unleash a 95 mph missile and appreciate the beauty of getting to see the Ace of Aces deal once or twice a week. Watch David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez hit back-to-back jacks and appreciate that you're seeing the greatest offensive duo this side of Gehrig and Ruth in their primes. Watch Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jon Papelbon play the game of baseball with fiery, passionate intensity and appreciate their desire to be the best. Watch Jacoby Ellsbury hit a ball into the triangle and fly effortlessly around the bases on his way to a triple and appreciate the talent it takes to get this far. Watch Mike Lowell, Mike Timlin, Tim Wakefield and J.D. Drew conduct themselves with the highest manner of professionalism possible and appreciate how they've become incredible role models for the children of New England. Watch Terry Francona manage this club and appreciate where it all comes from.

I've never been more confident in a team in my life. So long as the plagues of injury and ineffectiveness don't afflict them, there's no reason why the 2008 Red Sox won't repeat as World Champs. And this time, without the personal pressures of winning and losing every game, hopefully we'll all appreciate what these guys do a little more than the other two times.

Get that alarm set and coffee pot ready to go. The 2008 season is finally upon us.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

2008 AL West Preview

Sorry for taking so long to get to this. I was very busy the last few weeks at school and I also started a new political blog called Blue Musings. Please check it out if that stuff interests you. Onto the AL West preview:

LOS ANGELES -- Manager, Mike Scioscia
There wasn't much to complain about during the regular season last year for Angels. They finished the year with 94 wins and the AL West title. They saw offensively strong years from stalwarts Chone Figgins, Vlad Guerrero and Garret Anderson while starters John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar earned 19 and 18 wins, respectively. But Mike Scioscia's crew ran into Boston at the start of the playoffs without regular CF Gary Matthews and with Guerrero and Anderson both at less than 100 percent. Their offense was anemic, especially during Josh Beckett's sterling Game 1 performance. The Sox easily dispatched LA in three games and longtime GM Bill Stoneman resigned on October 15. Taking over the franchise would be Tony Reagins, and he set out early to make some changes for 2008.

Reagins dealt Orlando Cabrera to the White Sox in exchange for starter Jon Garland, who may be the Angels' Opening Day starter given some injuries (more on that later). Garland has pitched at least 208 innings each of the last four years, and even though he's one year away from free agency I think LA definitely got the better end of the deal. Two days later the Angels pulled one of the more interesting moves of the winter when they inked free agent CF Torii Hunter to a five-year, $90 million contract. Most expected that LA would bring in some offense, but I would have guessed they'd make a run at Alex Rodriguez or cash in their young pieces for Miguel Cabrera. Instead they opted to bring in Hunter, who is probably on the back end of career and is DEFINITELY not an $18 million-a-year player. He brings a lot of intangibles to the table, but the acquisition creates and even bigger logjam in the outfield than they already had.

Besides those two moves the Angels are set to enter this season with much of the same team they had last year. Many of those players are entering the final guaranteed years of their contracts, like the aforementioned Garland and Figgins. Closer Francisco Rodriguez will be hitting the open market after earning a record $10 million in arbitration this season. There are option years for 2009 for Lackey, Guerrero (both likely to be picked up) and Anderson (not likely to be picked up). So one can see the Angels are definitely trying to go for it this year, but they have run into some problems this spring.

Escobar's chronic shoulder woes returned and he just threw for the first time this spring this weekend. He won't return to the big club until May at the earliest. Word came down this week about Lackey and a bum right triceps, which will also keep him out until May. Expect the Angels to go with a rotation of Garland, Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders and Dustin Moseley until then. Santana struggled mightily last year and while many are predicting a bounce-back year in 2008 I'll believe it when I see it. Weaver experienced some injury troubles but was relatively effective in his sophomore campaign and could see a big improvement this year. I think most teams would be happy even to have that rotation for a full season, and having Lackey and Escobar hopefully fresh for the stretch could be a big plus for the Angels. Offensively, they will pick up some with Hunter but look for a trade of Juan Rivera, Reggie Willits, or maybe Matthews if Reagins can find some team dumb enough to take the $44 million left on his deal. I'm looking for a big year out of my boy Howie Kendrick. He played only 88 games last year but still hit .322 and with a full season I expect big things.

Despite missing Lackey and Escobar early, I think the Angels will still be the third-best all around group in the AL behind Boston and Cleveland. They will benefit greatly by having so many players in contract years and the knowledge that if they don't win the year, this group won't stay together past 2008.

Prediction: 1st place.

OAKLAND -- Manager, Bob Geren
The A's went into last season attempting to get back to the ALCS but an incredible rash of injuries ruined any of their chances. Mark Ellis, Shannon Stewart and Nick Swisher were the only members of the 2007 A's to play in over 145 games. Huston Street earned only 16 saves while the potential of Rich Harden once again spent most of the season on the shelf. Bob Geren's club finished ten games under .500 and GM Billy Beane set out to rebuild for the future this winter.

The A's went from having the 27th-best farm system in baseball to the 9th-best as a result of the trading away Swisher and Dan Haren. In those trades Beane acquired, amongst others, outfielders Carlos Gonzalez, Aaron Cunningham and Ryan Sweeney, the high-upside young 1B Chris Carter, and three burgeoning pitching prospects in Gio Gonzalez, Fautino de los Santos and Brett Anderson. While on their faces each deal doesn't seem like a huge win for Oakland, it can be argued that combined they definitely provide an opportunity for the A's to start over. There has been some talk recently that Beane has spoken with Street about a possible long-term contract, but that seems to fly in the face of Beane's expressed philosophy about closers and I could see Street pitching for someone else before this season is over. If that happens look for promising reliever Joey Devine (acquired from Atlanta for Mark Kotsay) to take over as closer. Their current #1 starter, Joe Blanton, will also be sold to the highest bidder come deadline time.

The A's will look to start youngsters at first base (Daric Barton), catcher (Kurt Suzuki), center field (Chris Denorfia) and left field (Travis Buck). If the injury woes continue for the likes of Eric Chavez, Bobby Crosby and Dan Johnson, look for even more young guys to get a shot. They also added ex-Royals Emil Brown and Mike Sweeney to infuse some life in the offense, but I'd expect Jack Cust to get most of the starts at DH this year. Beane got the burley Cust from the Padres for peanuts in May and then proceeded to mash 26 home runs and get on base 40 percent of the time (sounds like Billy's kind of guy). Who knows if he'll keep it up but he's at least fun to watch.

I'm presently re-reading "Moneyball," the book that forever changed my outlook on baseball and made me want to become a baseball writer. It is fascinating to look back and see how revolutionary Beane's thinking was for the time, and in six years his influence has spread to many other franchises. Three of the final four teams in contention for the 2007 title adhere to some form of the Beane doctrine on player personnel and development (Boston, Cleveland and Arizona). It will be fun to watch how Beane uses his model for success with this new young group of players. 2008 won't be a great year for the A's, but they have a strong future to look forward to.

Prediction: 4th place.

SEATTLE -- Manager, John McLaren
2007 was a pretty wild year for the Mariners. They started slow, then picked up strong as the summer began. During the midst of a strong winning streak, manager Mike Hargrove shockingly resigned and John McLaren became the manager for the rest of the year. Under McLaren, the eclectic group of players earned 88 victories and a 2nd place finish in the AL West standings. The Mariners made several moves setting themselves up for a playoff run in 2008, but I don't really see it.

The most important move made by the M's this winter was trading for Erik Bedard. GM Bill Bavasi has completely mortgaged the future of the club by dealing off four young players and their primary 2007 setup man, George Sherrill. I have mentioned several times in this space that I think Bedard is a great pitcher but his injury history means he's far from a sure thing. The main piece they relinquished was outfielder Adam Jones and I do think it's possible he could make Seattle regret dealing him away. Bavasi also threw $48 million at Carlos Silva, which was perhaps the most laughable contract in a winter full of laughable contracts. Color me shocked if Silva ever earns lower than his career 4.31 ERA in any of his four seasons for the Mariners. The M's also replaced the upside and potential Jones with the mediocrity and frustration of Brad Wilkerson.

Discussing the relative fortunes of any Mariners club begins and ends with Ichiro. The best leadoff man in baseball agreed with Seattle on a 5-year, $90 million extension last summer. If you take a look at his stats through his seven years in the Bigs, he's been ridiculously consistent. Check out his numbers for runs, doubles, steals, walks and strikeouts. They have been virtually the same every year. The M's will need another year like that in order to contend in 2008. This is a very good offensive club, with fellow veterans Adrian Beltre, Raul Ibanez, Jose Lopez and Kenji Johjima anchoring the lineup. This is thankfully the final year of Richie Sexson's bust contract, and after his OPS dropped an incredible 150 points in 2007, the M's would be more than happy if some team was willing to take him off their hands even if it meant they'd have to swallow most of the $14 million he will make this year.

The one big thing the M's have going for them is their pitching. I always knew the Red Sox would do well in 2004 because it was the first time they'd ever had not one but two #1-type pitchers in Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling. A case could be made the M's now have this with Bedard and Felix Hernandez. If both are healthy and effective I think they could provide the best 1-2 punch in the AL alongside Sabathia-Carmona and Beckett-Matsuzaka. We should not forget the Mariners also have one of the top three closers in all of baseball in J.J. Putz. For a pitcher to get a WHIP of 0.68 over the course of an entire ML season is truly astounding.

All this said, I still feel like the Angels will be the better club, especially since there's a chance their starters will be more fresh at the end of the season. Getting Bedard will help this team, but I think their other moves have actually set them backwards. 88 wins sounds about right once again.

Prediction: 2nd place.

TEXAS -- Manager, Ron Washington
The Rangers haven't been very good since the heyday of the Johnny Oates era in the late 1990s. They've gone through several managers and the biggest contract in baseball history, and manager Ron Washington's first year on the job led to a 75-87 season. GM Jon Daniels decided to try and build for the future by dealing away Mark Teixeira for a bevy of young Atlanta talent. They also traded Eric Gagne for three young players, but if I talk about it further I might hurl my computer against a wall. (Of all the things in life I can be certain about, the young kid the Sox gave away in the trade, Engel Beltre, WILL be an All-Star and could have a Hall of Fame career. I'm absolutely, 10,000,000% certain of this. Moving on.)

Daniels made a few nice, low-risk moves this winter by signing starter Jason Jennings, outfielder Milton Bradley, relievers Eddie Guardado and Kaz Fukumori, and trading for infielder Ben Broussard all at low costs to the club. Their most important move was trading away perennial headache and starter Edinson Volquez to the Reds for former #1 overall pick Josh Hamilton. As you may recall, Hamilton was the feel-good story of 2007, as he turned his career and life around and lived up to some of his lofty potential in 90 games before dealing with myriad injuries. Hamilton should get in a full season as the Rangers CF in 2008 and could hit 30 homers.

Some of their 2007 deadline acquisitions will play a role on the 2008 club, beginning with catcher/1B Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Salty has a world of potential and should find himself behind the plate for the Rangers for many years to come. You will also find Red Sox castoffs Kason Gabbard and David Murphy playing a key role on this team. Elsewhere, look for solid campaigns out of veterans like Michael Young, Frank Catalanotto, and the emerging young 2B Ian Kinsler. The pitching for this (pretty much every) Rangers club is a big question mark, however. None of the Rangers' starters were anything close to good in 2007, with "ace" Kevin Millwood going 10-14 with a 5.16 ERA. They didn't do a drastic amount to improve their chances this time around. Unless the Rangers push back the fences at the Ballpark, their pitchers will never have any form of success.

With that, I can't say I expect a whole lot from the Rangers this year. They will battle with the A's for third place in the West in 2008, and I think they will come out on top.

Prediction: 3rd place.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

2008 AL Central Preview

Without anything remotely resembling ado, here's my AL Central Preview.

CHICAGO -- Manager, Ozzie Guillen
The wheels came off the White Sox in 2007, where Ozzie Guillen's brand of smart ball lost all semblance of mojo resulting in 72 wins and a 4th place finish in the Central. Besides starters Javier Vazquez and Mark Buehrle (who tossed a no-hitter on April 17) and closer Bobby Jenks, their pitchers performed either below expectations or downright miserably, with only Tampa and Baltimore finishing with worse than Chicago's 4.77 staff ERA. On the offensive side, many of their stalwart performers also declined, including a frightening drop off for Jermaine Dye (his OPS went from 1.007 in '06 to .803 in '07). GM Kenny Williams was charged with this question heading into this winter: Is it worth it to keep trying to win with this team, or start over with new, young players?

While most experts believe the White Sox should have chosen the latter, Williams elected to cash in what little remained of his trade value to make a play for 2008. He dealt young, dependable starter Jon Garland to the Angels for Orlando Cabrera, who is just one year away from free agency (expect Juan Uribe to move over to 2nd this year). In what I felt was their best move of the winter, Williams traded Low-A 1B Chris Carter to the D'Backs for one of their surplus young outfielders, Carlos Quentin. Quentin should start in left if his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery goes well and definitely could drop 25 bombs this year in full PT. Then came their biggest winter move when they sent their two best pitching prospects (lefty Gio Gonzalez and righty Fautino De Los Santos) and another excellent outfield prospect (Ryan Sweeney) to Oakland for Nick Swisher with the thought of putting Swish in center field. Williams also signed veteran relievers Scott Linebrink and Octavio Dotel to strengthen the bullpen.

In trading away Garland, Guillen is banking most of the hopes of the Sox this year on John Danks and Gavin Floyd both stepping up in the final spots of their rotation. I think we can all agree that Jose Contreras has lost it and that he will go down in history as one of the most over-hyped pitchers ever. Vazquez signed a reasonable extension last spring (he'll earn $34.5 million over the next three years) and some team with money to burn could take on his deal if the White Sox are out of it this summer.

I do believe Swish will hit better in U.S. Cellular Field but my issue is that he doesn't make the club that much better or more dynamic. They already have a bunch of other guys who hit for power and not for average, and it might be a pipe dream to expect Swisher to play CF for a full season. Besides the Quentin trade none of the White Sox moves this winter made a whole lot of sense. The two teams atop this division, Cleveland and Detroit, are too good for anyone else to sneak in and compete. The White Sox should have gone the way of the Twins; they should have traded their veterans to start over.

Chicago will be better this year but not by much. In a few seasons the fans on the South Side will look back and wish Kenny Williams had elected to rebuild this winter. On the bright side, Guillen has said he's going back to being his un-PC self in 2008, so at least this should be entertaining.

Prediction: 3rd place.

CLEVELAND -- Manager, Eric Wedge
The Indians and their fans were hopefully holding their heads high throughout this offseason. They rose up to big spring expectations, fought through a barrage of injuries, ineffectiveness and intrigue, won 96 games and the AL Central title, destructed the Yankees in the ALDS, and got out to a 3-1 series lead against the Red Sox in the ALCS. From there, the club ran headlong into the Boston postseason buzz saw. They never really had a shot in any of the final three games and went home empty-handed. Had they beaten the Sox in any of those games I'm confident Cleveland would have brought home their first World Championship since 1948. They did not hurt themselves this offseason, and they certainly have the group to get that elusive title.

It's interesting to look back on the expected starters for the Indians heading into the '07 season and then look at the group that came within one win of the World Series. Josh Barfield was supposed to be Cleveland's second baseman of the future, but he struggled mightily during his first AL season and Asdrubal Cabrera literally came out of nowhere in August to hit .283 the rest of the way. Now he holds that title Barfield lost during the season. The platoons in the corner outfield spots were essentially dissolved during the season's second half when Franklin Gutierrez smashed 13 homers in 271 ABs (the platoon in LF of Jason Michaels and David Dellucci will be continued this year). Andy Marte, the crowned jewel of the Coco Crisp deal from Cleveland's perspective, could not hack the big leagues and Casey Blake and his beard stepped in the rest of the way (Marte is out of options and must make the Indians this year or else the club will have an extremely difficult decision on their hands). In the starting rotation, young lefties Cliff Lee and Jeremy Sowers were terrible and their ineffectiveness opened the door for former failed closer Fausto Carmona. In one of the biggest surprises of 2007, Carmona blew away everyone in the AL with his 96 mph sinking fastball to the tune of 19 wins and a 3.06 ERA.

Like the Red Sox, the Indians did not change much for the 2008 season. They added utility infielder Jamey Carroll from the Rockies and brought over reliever Masahide Kobayashi from Japan to compliment a strong setup core of Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez. I was certain Joe Borowski would cost Cleveland the ALCS last year but he was surprisingly good except for Game 6. His combination of 45 saves with a 5.07 ERA in 2007 is one of the all-time "What the...?" stat combos. The fifth spot in the rotation could go to Aaron Laffey but Sowers, Lee and prospects Adam Miller and Chuck Lofgren should be in the mix as well. Both Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore had disappointing seasons in some respects so don't be surprised to see both come back fired up out of the gate. They don't have a lot of team weaknesses as Eric Wedge is a stickler for fundamentals.

In a lot of ways, the success of the Indians may hinge on the left arm of reigning Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia. The big 26-year-old tossed an incredible (at least for this era) 241 innings during the regular season and the wear definitely showed in his three disappointing postseason starts, including two losses while facing his Cy rival Josh Beckett. Yet in 2007 Sabathia finally stayed healthy and was able to show that potential we were all waiting for after winning 17 games at 20 in 2001. This has come just in time for Sabathia because he's due to become a free agent at season's end. Extension talks between Sabathia and GM Mark Shapiro have been tabled for now, but it's difficult to see the Indians willing to pay him what he'll really be worth out on the open market. I think only a World Series win can keep Sabathia in Cleveland past this year.

Based on their quiet offseason, their strong mix of veterans and youth, their depth in the rotation and bullpen, their sense of redemption for how 2007 ended, and their well-rounded makeup as a team, I see no reason why the Indians can't be even better this time around. Only the Red Sox are better than these Indians in all of baseball.

Prediction: 1st place.

DETROIT -- Manager, Jim Leyland
In 2007 the Tigers seemed more than poised to defend their AL Championship, but they could not find the consistent top-to-bottom pitching that allowed their dreams to become reality a year earlier. Jim Leyland led the veteran crew to an 88-win season, which would be solid for most teams but was nothing more than a disappointment based on the high expectations they set for themselves. Almost immediately, GM Dave Dombrowski began putting together a 2008 Tigers club that could put itself back in the World Series discussion.

They sent away two of their top prospects to Atlanta in exchange for Edgar Renteria and told Carlos Guillen to get fitted for a first baseman's mitt. Then at the Winter Meetings the Tigers pulled off a shocking blockbuster, emptying out the rest of the farm system to bring in uber-stars Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from Florida. This trade truly rocked the world of baseball. In one instant, the Tigers were able to add one of the best young stars in baseball to an already terrific club. Dombrowski also traded for AL Central veteran Jacque Jones who figures to platoon with righty Marcus Thames in left field for 2008. Incredibly, this platoon (which could easily provide 30 homers and a high OPS out of the 8th or 9th spot in the Tigers order) constitutes the only weakness for a starting lineup that is undoubtedly the best in baseball.

Say a prayer for every left-handed hurler that has to go up against Detroit in 2008. Once they get past lefty leadoff extraordinare Curtis Granderson, they will have to face eight consecutive righty hitters, none of whom will be easy outs. It remains to be see how Leyland will fill out the lineup card everyday but you can be certain to see (in some fashion) a 3-4-5 of Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and a hopefully healthy Gary Sheffield. When teamed with the likes of Guillen, Renteria, Placido Polanco (.341 AVG in '07) and the slightly declining Pudge Rodriguez, I don't see any scenario under which this group fails to score 1,000 runs this season. Some have commented that they could be hurt by all the right-handed bats but I don't find this to be nearly as problematic has having a lefty-heavy lineup. A mostly left-handed lineup will have a much more difficult time facing a tough or deceptive LHP than this predominately righty Tigers lineup will have against tough RHPs. The best thing about these guys is that they're all veterans and are very unlikely to go into a prolonged slump as a result.

I wish I could say I have as much confidence in the Detroit pitchers as I have in the hitters. I was dead wrong last season about both Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman. It was my expectation that Verlander would break down after his heavy '06 workload and that Bonderman would emerge as the second-best pitcher in the division behind Johan Santana. Instead, Verlander threw a no-hitter in June, racked up 18 victories and pitched 201 2/3 innings with a 3.66 ERA. There's no question who the ace of this staff is, and at 25 Verlander is still a year or two away from entering his prime. As for Bonderman, he suffered elbow soreness most of the season and finished with a 5.01 ERA in 28 starts. For all the hype around Bonderman and his undeniable stuff, his career-best ERA was 4.08 in '06 and has never really put together a consistently solid year. The Tigers have him signed reasonably through 2010 but this will be the most important year of his career. If he performs injury-free to his capabilities the Tigers will know they can build around Verlander and Bonderman for the future. If not, they may shop him and look elsewhere for help.

The rest of the rotation will be rounded out by a trio of lefties in the popular Willis, the ageless Kenny Rogers and the newly-extended Nate Robertson. I think we will all be interested in how Willis does in his first season out of the Marlins' black hole. Since his stellar 2005 season his ERA has worsened from 2.63 to 3.87 and then to 5.17 last year, while his K rate and innings have gone down and his walks and hits allowed have gone up. Now he's heading from a pitcher's division to a hitter's division and despite the lack of pressure on his shoulders now I'm not sure what to expect until we actually see it. The bullpen was very poor last season, and with Joel Zumaya's potentially career-ruining shoulder injury and Todd Jones' beer gut not getting any smaller, Dombrowski did not do enough to improve in this regard. Fernando Rodney, who was at times wildly ineffective last season, will be relied on heavily as the season progresses.

These Tigers could see a lot of 10-9 or 12-11 games in 2008. Their pitching depth at this point is lacking, and they don't have any reserves left in the farm system to come up or be valuable in any kind of trade. Rick Porcello, the high school phenom who fell to the Tigers because of signability issues in the '07 draft, is their only good prospect and he isn't going anywhere anytime soon. They will desperately need their five starters to be healthy and effective all season and I think that may be too much to ask. Yet they have an ace and a lineup few pitchers in baseball will want to tangle with. Detroit will probably make the playoffs based solely on these facts, and it is going to be a fierce battle between them and Cleveland all season. But right now, the Indians are better.

Prediction: 2nd place.

KANSAS CITY -- Manager, Trey Hillman
For the third straight year I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking about the Royals. They don't have much of a shot to get out of the cellar in 2008, but they did experience some bright spots from last year as well as heading into this season. Gil Meche did post a 3.67 ERA in 34 starts a year ago, and cerebral rookie Brian Bannister also impressed with 12 victories. Joakim Soria emerged as a dependable closer and my preseason fav Alex Gordon hit 15 homers but showed he has a long way to go to be the star we all expect.

The Royals finished last in the AL with a scant 102 homers in 2007 and set out this offseason to fix that. There was roughly $50 million burning a hole GM Dayton Moore's pocket and he was determined to spend that money on someone. They were spurned by Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones, and they finally settled on Jose Guillen who'll earn $12M annually over the next three seasons. Kansas City also added some bullpen help with Japanese import Yasuhiko Yabuta (forever to be called "Double-Y" on this blog), Ron Mahay and Brett Tomko. I'm interested to watch where the careers of veterans David DeJesus, Mark Teahen and John Buck go this year as well as the development of DH Billy Butler and up-and-coming pitchers Luke Hochevar and Daniel Cortes. In a few years we'll be seeing high school slugger Mike Moustakas, the 2nd overall choice in the 2007 Draft who's been labeled as the best power-hitting high schooler since A-Rod.

The club will also have a new manager in 2008 in the 44-year-old Trey Hillman. The Royals brought Hillman over after a very successful run with Japan's Nippon Ham Fighters (Hideki Okajima's old club), which followed over ten years as a manager in the Yankees farm system. He's got a terrific attitude and will connect to these players better than many of the previous KC managers.

That's really all I've got about the Royals. It's also probably the last time you'll see me mention them in this space until next year's preview.

Prediction: 5th place.

MINNESOTA -- Manager, Ron Gardenhire
Who knew the people of Minnesota could get even more depressed about their sports teams? After watching Kevin Garnett come to the Celtics for 40 cents on the dollar, and seeing their old friend Randy Moss light up the NFL all season, their new GM Bill Smith took it upon himself to trade the best pitcher in the world for next to nothing. Now the Twins and their fans have a season to look forward to, well, not very much.

The team couldn't get to .500 in 2007 after being my World Series favorite heading into the '06 playoffs. Their hitters suffered a debilitating power outage most of the season and Gopher State hero Joe Mauer only played in 109 games. When the winter came, the club and fans saw Torii Hunter walk away from Minnesota after spending his whole career there. Then Smith engineered a trade that essentially netted him Delmon Young in exchange for Matt Garza. My biggest issue with this trade is that Young needs to learn plate discipline into order to reach his full potential (he walked 26 times in 681 plate appearances in 2007). Plate discipline has never been a tenant of the Tom Kelly-Ron Gardenhire era for the Twins, so all bets are off in regards to what type of player Young will become in Minnesota. They will also fill the left side of their infield in 2008 with free agents Adam Everett and Mike Lamb.

Then came the much-documented Santana trade, which I won't rehash here. That deal left them without an answer in center field, yet it's entirely possible that Carlos Gomez (who came over in the Santana deal) will win the job. Their offense will likely be a problem again this year. The Twins have a solid core with Mauer, Young, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer, but there isn't much else to get excited about with either their current hitters or the ones they have coming up. They have won with minimal offense before but in this year's Central what they have now won't cut it.

With Santana gone the Twins will turn to Francisco Liriano, one year removed from TJ surgery, to be their ace going forward. It's a lot to ask from the kid who is actually still in the Dominican because of visa issues stemming from his 2006 DUI. We all remember how unbelievable he was during the limited amount of time we pitched that season and it would be a shame if he could not get back to that level. The rest of the rotation will be young with the likes of Scott Baker, Boof Bonser, Glen Perkins and Kevin Slowey competing with warm body Livan Hernandez this spring. Joe Nathan remains one of the top closers in the game and I've heard whispers recently that an extension could be coming his way in the future.

It won't be a fun year for Minnesota. Then again, it hasn't been really fun at all for anything in Minnesota since Jesse Ventura left the governor's mansion.

Prediction: 4th place.

Friday, February 15, 2008

2008 AL East Preview

It's time to put the offseason of trades, signings and steroids behind us. For the 30 teams that comprise Major League Baseball, spring is already here, and the prospect of the run to the 2008 World Championship is alive. There'll still be personnel moves here and there, many to provide positional battles and competition amongst the players on various clubs. But we know now the general makeup of these teams, and it's time for me to roll out my annual previews and predictions for the year in MLB (well, at least for the only league that matters, the AL). Once again I'll begin this set of previews with the AL East, excluding the Red Sox. I'll hold off on my preview for them until just before they take off for Japan and begin the 2008 MLB season against Oakland on March 25.

BALTIMORE -- Manager, Dave Trembley
This is becoming one of the saddest refrains in baseball: The great fans of the Baltimore Orioles were subjected to a 90-loss season yet again in 2007. They sacked manager Sam Perlozzo not long after blowing that big league against the Sox on Mother's Day. He was replaced with Dave Trembley and the O's earned a respectable 40-53 record under his guidance the rest of the way. The performance ensured a return engagement for Trembley, but unfortunately for him new CEO Andy MacPhail staged an offseason firesale that also ensures the club's eleventh straight losing season in 2008.

This is not to say MacPhail's trades are bad for the franchise. They are just bad for this year. Baltimore finally shipped off the malcontented Miguel Tejada, sending him to Houston for five players, the most important being outfielder Luke Scott and starting pitchers Troy Patton and Matt Albers. As I described last week, MacPhail made the best trade of the winter in getting another five players for Erik Bedard, including Adam Jones, their center fielder for the foreseeable future, and lefty reliever George Sherrill, who'll be expected to win the vacant closer's job with Chris Ray possibly missing the whole year. There's still also a distinct possibility that star second baseman Brian Roberts could be sent to the Cubs for a package of talent, further solidifying the O's rebuilding project.

For the first time in many years the Orioles didn't make any stupid signings, many of which they are clearly regretting now since they're stuck with the albatross trio of Melvin Mora, Aubrey Huff and Ramon Hernandez. They will bring in veteran Steve Trachsel on a minor league deal to compete for a rotation spot, but otherwise their starters will potentially be the youngest unit in baseball. It's hard to say they have an ace right now, but their best starter will probably be Jeremy Guthrie, a pleasant surprise as a rookie last season. He managed only 7 wins in 26 starts due to poor luck and the overall crappyness of his team, but sported a 3.70 ERA and 123 Ks in 175 innings. Daniel Cabrera will get one more shot as a starter in 2008, but if he starts to show his 18-loss, 5.55 ERA-self again (not to mention his bad attitude that showed itself against Dustin Pedroia last season), the O's must look to either put him in the bullpen or find another team that will put up with him. There are few players in baseball I root harder against in this game than Daniel Cabrera. There's nothing like the combination of unmet potential with immaturity. He's like baseball's Ryan Leaf.

The thing O's fans should look forward to the most in 2008 is the immense talent in their outfield. Nick Markakis has emerged as the face of the Orioles, and if he can cut down his strikeouts he will be a statistical monster in addition to being outstanding in right field. If people don't know who he is already, they most certainly will by the end of this year. I spoke glowingly about Jones last week and I firmly believe he'll be one of the better complete players in the whole game before long. It will be a steep learning curve for Jones but if the O's fans embrace him and his young teammates, the tide could turn for the better and one of baseball's most storied franchises can once again be a force.

That said, the Orioles will in fact be flat-out awful this year. For once, though, O's fans can believe their club is heading in the right direction.

Prediction: 5th place.

NEW YORK -- Manager, Joe Girardi
An Italian ex-player named Joe will be running the Yankees for the 13th straight year. This time, though, that Joe's last name will be Girardi and not Torre. The former Joe finally got out after being insulted in contract negotiations with the new Yankees front office structure, led by the Boss' sons Hank and Hal. In comes the new Joe, the longtime pinstriper and 2006 NL Manager of the Year best known for abusing young pitchers in his lone season in Florida. With the makeup of this year's Bombers, this could be match made in hell.

There was brief drama when Alex Rodriguez opted out of his massive contract, only to find no takers and wind up signing an even more massive contract to stay with the Yankees through age 42. They also re-upped Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mo Rivera, and signed LaTroy Hawkins away from Colorado. Other than that, the same Yankees team will be coming back that finished 2nd for the first time since 1997 and played rather miserably against Cleveland in the ALDS. They danced with the Twins over Johan Santana, with Hank making almost daily idiotic statements to the media about his club's interest/non-interest. Instead, Brian Cashman prevailed with his commitment to the team's young troika of Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy.

Considering the age of Pettitte, the ineffectiveness of Mike Mussina, and the weakness/unreliability of Chein-Ming Wang (104 Ks in 199 IP last season), the Yankees have pinned their hopes in the 2008 season on the aforementioned trio of youth. Chamberlain is expected to start this coming season in the bullpen, and I believe the Yankees are making a humongous mistake in their desire to eventually move him off that role. At no level in Joba's life has he ever pitched more than 119 innings in one season, and given his injury history and Girardi's penchant for blowing out young arms, the future does not look bright for him. Hughes will probably have to shoulder most of the load and could be depended on as this team's #2. I'll believe that Kennedy is a solid major league pitcher when I see it. In short, there's a very good chance the Yankees could be in a lot of trouble with this rotation. They do have young reserves and will be able to make a deadline deal if need be.

Only the Tigers will be able to rival the firepower of this Yankees lineup. They aren't invincible, and it seems like it might be about time some of these guys showed their age. Both Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi are in the final guaranteed years of their contracts, so expect to see them go all out. Hideki Matsui is battling some knee issues at the moment. There may not be enough ABs at the DH spot to go around considering the fragility/defensive ineptitude of many Yankees. Watch to see the continued rise of Robinson Cano as the league's best 2B.

Can you tell I'm not sold on the Yankees this year? It seems like the core of thus club is just a year older, and it remains to be seen if it can work with a rookie manager and a rotation filled with inexperience. The Red Sox are just better right now. Plain and simple.

Prediction: 2nd place.

TAMPA BAY -- Manager, Joe Maddon
In this space last year I called Tampa Bay's team just the "Rays" because I wasn't sure if they were dropping the "Devil" part. Well, this offseason it became official, and the Rays introduced all new uniforms that are straight out of AA. I guess that might be appropriate given the composition of this club, but I actually believe the Rays will be a fun team to watch in 2008 and may surprise some people.

I always believed that Delmon Young would flourish in Tampa Bay, and that he would be the one member of the Tampa outfield amalgamation that would never be dealt. I was proved dead wrong when the Rays pulled off the first major deal of the winter, sending Young, infielder Brendan Harris, and outfielder Jason Pridie to the Twins for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and some other young players. As last season dragged on for the Rays it became more and more apparent that Young wasn't personally handling playing the big leagues very well. Hitting .288 with 13 homers and 93 RBI along with playing in all 162 games at the age of 22 was definitely impressive. But the Rays FO believed they were better off trading him and bringing in a young starter the caliber of Garza. There's another case of a frustrated young guy, with Garza venting much of last year about having to start the year in AAA. A change of scenery could benefit both of their careers, and they could still reach their respective potentials anyway.

GM Andrew Friedman signed veteran OF Cliff Floyd to bring some experience to this group. The suddenly rejuvenated Troy Percival was also brought in and will supplant Al Reyes as closer. Reyes and Dan Wheeler (acquired before the deadline last year for Ty Wigginton) will set up Percival when the season starts. While I don't really expect this to turn out particularly well, the Rays are very much better off with seasoned arms at the end of games instead of green kids like they've had for the balance of their 10 seasons in the AL East. This should also help the confidence of the young rotation as well. I can't say how many times I've watched the Rays bullpen blow leads in games against the Red Sox, and if you're Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Garza or any of the other Rays starters, you'd have to feel much better about the three or four run lead you've left after six innings. The best thing the Rays have going for them are the young starters set to go in 2008, with reinforcements like 2007 #1 overall pick David Price and other talents like Wade Davis, Jake McGee, Jeff Niemann, Andy Sonnanstine and a boatload of companions.

Last season provided breakout performances of Haverhill's Carlos Pena and infielder-turned CF B.J. Upton, and both figure to anchor the middle of Tampa's order in the future. Carl Crawford enters his final guaranteed year with Tampa, with two option years sitting on the table. I've always wondered what it would be like if Crawford played for a good team, and since he's never been on one, if provided the opportunity I don't see why he wouldn't bolt. I would not rule out a Crawford trade this year. Rocco Baldelli was once again injured for most of the year and he'll have to compete with Jonny Gomes and Floyd for ABs. Akinori Iwamura will shift from third base to second base this spring to make room for the great Evan Longoria, a top-five prospect for all of baseball and the early favorite for 2008 AL Rookie of the Year.

There's so much youth in this group, and I'm beginning to wonder if Joe Maddon is the right guy for them. This might be the year we find out if the Rays model of building entirely through the farm system is effective. Like I said before, these Rays won't be a pushover in 2008. Hopefully they can drum up enough interest to get people out to the Trop even when the Sox or Yanks aren't in town.

Prediction: 4th place.

TORONTO -- Manager, John Gibbons
It was a very odd season for the Blue Jays in 2007. They experienced a heavy rash of injuries similar to the '06 Red Sox, with Roy Halladay the only pitcher to start more than 30 games. They lost their expensive closer B.J. Ryan to TJ surgery, and both their corner infielders (Lyle Overbay and Troy Glaus) missed significant time. It was such a strange year that 39-year-old Matt Stairs belted 21 homers in 125 games and it appears the LF job is his to lose in spring training. GM J.P. Riccardi made a bunch of moves in the offseason, but it's increasingly apparent to me that the Jays are on the road to nowhere.

In a very surprising swap, the Jays sent Glaus to the Cardinals straight up for Scott Rolen. I'm intrigued to get to finally watch Rolen on a semi-regular basis, he was always one of those guys people talked about so glowingly as a player before injuries derailed him in recent years. By all accounts he can still provide excellent defense and if his chronically bad shoulder can hold up he could be good with the stick. It seemed like Toronto was set to go with the punchless defensive whiz John McDonald at short when they elected to sign David Eckstein, who's both punchless AND bad on defense. Remember that weird thing last winter when it looked like the Jays were going to sign Rod Barajas to be their everyday catcher and he reneged on an agreement at the last minute? Well, this winter they actually signed him. I guess these weird things happen when you have a team in Canada. I haven't even mentioned the strangest of all.

Vernon Wells literally disappeared for the entirety of 2007. It wasn't that he was injured, he just plain sucked. Wells slugged a sluggish .402 with 16 round-trippers in 149 games for the Jays last year. I haven't seen one pundit or expert explain what the hell happened to one of the game's best all-around talents. I guess that's what happens after you sign a $126 million extension.He's going to be 29 this year and the people in Toronto better hope like hell it was just an aberration, an anomaly for what should otherwise be an excellent career. The Jays lineup elsewhere is pretty solid, with Alex Rios emerging as a fantasy star and Aaron Hill settling in for a Mark Loretta-like career. Frank Thomas got his 500th home run last year, and since all 513 homers are steroid-free, he's a lock for Cooperstown and will continue to pad his stats this year at 40.

The biggest problem for the pitchers for the Jays last year was staying healthy. Halladay was again the workhorse and he'll be depended upon once again for that in 2008. A.J. Burnett missed a lot of time with shoulder issues last year and has made only 46 starts in two seasons with Toronto. He can opt out of his deal after this year, and even if he only makes 10 starts this year he's as good as gone. I'll be interested to see what kind of year Dustin McGowan has in 2008 after winning 12 games with a 4.08 ERA last year. He's an injury risk like seemingly everyone else on this team, but there's a lot of upside there. John Gibbons will round out his rotation with Shaun Marcum, who also won 12 games last season, and Jesse Litch. Watch the bullpen situation here as well; Ryan has said he's healthy and wants to break camp with the team but Jeremy Accardo performed well as the closer last season, so there are are no guarantees here.

I really don't feel like talking about these guys anymore. They annoy me. But you already knew that.

Prediction: 3rd place.