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.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Schilling, Bedard Trade, etc.

It's hard to believe that we're only a scant few days away from the beginning of the 2008 baseball season. The prospect of those first images from Florida and Arizona on Wednesday and Thursday warms my winter heart. It's the universal sign that these cold months will go away soon and that the spring and summer will bring us the joy of the greatest game on earth once again. I always start to get the fever for baseball right around this time of year, and I can sense it coming back extremely soon. Even if there won't be any games for another couple of weeks, it's a least a great diversion from my Patriots depression.

We begin with Curt Schilling and this week's news about his lingering shoulder problems. Word right now is that Schill will be on the shelf until the ASB at the earliest. But finding out exactly what is wrong with his shoulder is a matter of what source you consult. The Red Sox think he's got a partial rotator cuff tear, while Schilling himself has refuted that diagnosis. Schilling's own doctor has been extremely public in his belief that Schilling can still have the surgery and pitch this year while the course of action the team has prescribed won't work. I'm not sure who to believe, but either way he's not going to be pitching anytime soon and the Sox will essentially have to plan on trying to win the 2008 World Series without him. I'm glad cooler heads prevailed on this matter, considering there was a lot of contention between the two camps and the Sox reportedly explored the option of voiding his contract (but, as Rob Neyer pointed out, "if the Rockies couldn't get their money back from Denny Neagle, the Sox aren't getting theirs from Schilling." Very true indeed).

You know your club is in good position when they can afford to lose a pitcher like Schilling for at least half the season and it's not really a big deal. There's no reason for Theo Epstein and Co. to panic and give a ridiculous contract to Kyle Lohse or overpay in players for the mediocrity of Joe Blanton. This generally assures Clay Buchholz will play a major role this season for the Sox, as will Julian Tavarez. If the other four members of the rotation are healthy, I'd personally like to see Tavarez begin the season as the 5th starter while Buchholz pitches four-to-five inning stints in Pawtucket until the end of May. The Sox will be putting Buchholz at significant risk if they pitch him more than 180 innings this season, and given their willingness to shut him down last fall I'm fairly certain the club is aware of his limitations. I would not mind seeing the Sox bring in some cheap insurance like Bartolo Colon or Freddy Garcia with the relative fragility of all their starters. I think losing Schilling doesn't help the club but it also doesn't worsen their '08 chances. Does anyone else think it would have been possible for a Tavarez/Buchholz combination to outpitch Schilling this year anyway?

The long-awaited, much-debated trade of Erik Bedard from the Orioles to the Mariners finally reached its conclusion yesterday. I don't think I've ever read more articles in a two-week span dealing with whether or not players had traveled for physicals in my life. Not unlike the Johan Santana trade, there seems to be a general consensus about who won this trade, but this time it's not the side that received the bigtime pitcher. At the expense of their future, the Mariners elected to make a play for Bedard they hope will even the score with LA heading into the season. This move does not do that, despite the borderline hilarious musings of Steve Phillips on Sportscenter last night. In my estimation the Mariners gave up, far, far too much for a pitcher we'd all agree is far from a sure thing.

Don't get me wrong, I think Erik Bedard is an awesome pitcher. I'm also excited to see how teams deal with the Bedard-Felix combo throughout the year. But there are several facts about Bedard that should cause worry all M's fans. Bedard underwent TJ surgery in 2002, and he's never logged more than 196 IP in any season. He was shut down for most of the final month of 2007 with an oblique strain. He's also never won more than 15 games (which could be more of a product of playing on crappy teams in Baltimore), and he will also be 29 at the start of next season with two years to go until free agency. Given the extension Santana earned last week, I don't see how any premiere pitcher could wait until either one year before free agency or free agency itself to sign. There's a ton of money out there for them, and if Seattle can't retain Bedard this trade could prove to be a massive mistake.

I say that because the Orioles got a boatload of talent back unlike anything we've seen this winter. There have been a lot of major deals since October, but I'll say without qualification the package headed by Adam Jones (one of my absolute favorite young players in the game) was the best any team received for any player this offseason, including those for Santana, Haren, Swisher and the O's earlier trade of Tejada (which definitely wasn't a bad haul). Jones profiles as a Mike Cameron-type, and at 22 he's still got a long way to reach his ceiling. In a short period of time I could see Jones hitting 25-30 homers and stealing 15-20 bases annually. All he has to do is improve his plate discipline, as he's already a plus defender in center with a 70 arm (that's scout speak for "freakin' awesome"). Also heading to Camden will be George Sherrill, J.J. Putz's lefty setup man last year who will almost certainly step into Baltimore's vacant closer job, and losing him is yet another reason why I dislike this deal from Seattle's perspective. Starters Chris Tillman and Tony Butler also will be changing addresses, and Tillman was recently ranked 44th on Kevin Goldstein's Top 100 Prospects list over at Baseball Prospectus. The final player in the package is an intriguing, high-upside reliever named Kam Mickolio who could join the Baltimore bullpen right away. This has the chance to be the best trade for the Orioles since (get ready for this) they dealt Mike Boddicker to the Red Sox for Curt Schilling and Brady Anderson at the 1988 trade deadline. That tells you how crappy the O's have been over these recent years.

Andy MacPhail has changed the culture in Baltimore, finally setting the franchise on a rebuilding path that should have started years ago. For Tejada and Bedard they've gotten back a whopping ten players, and if Brian Roberts goes they should be able to get at least three or four more. They will use Jones, Nick Markakis and top draft pick Matt Wieters as their foundation for the future. As someone that grew up respecting Cal Ripken's Orioles teams and appreciating their legacy of greatness from 1966 to 1983, I want badly for the Orioles to be a great team again. While we can expect them to be in the cellar for at least the next two years, these moves actually serve a purpose and will finally help the Orioles build towards something positive.

With that, baseball season is in the air. I've already signed up for two Yahoo public leagues and taken part in a half dozen mock drafts. Coming up I'll have my annual AL preview and I'll also try to post some other fantasy stuff including a recap of a mock I did last weekend that I'm extremely proud of. Until then, stay warm and pray for spring.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Fleecing of Minnesota

I can't say that I have a terribly large amount to offer on the Johan Santana resolution which has come about in the last few days. As a write this, word has just broken that the Mets and Santana have agreed on an extension, leaving only the physicals to deal with in completing the trade agreed to by the Mets and the Twins on Tuesday. There are no financial details at this moment, but current speculation places the deal at six years (beginning in 2009) with an AAV of $22 million.

Most experts and analysts, from Keith Law to Baseball America to Joe Sheehan, have come up with the same conclusion about the deal: The Mets made out like bandits in dealing away four above-average prospects for the best pitcher in the world. If the speculation about Santana's extension is true, it will be the biggest ever given to a starter. But based on how little the Mets gave Minnesota in this trade, $132 million is really the only price they have to pay for his services. Color me shocked if any of the prospects the Mets dealt wind up making the future CitiField faithful wish they'd never taken the chance on Santana. And if you're a Twins fan, that's undoubtedly the worst part about this entire thing.

Deolis Guerra, Carlos Gomez, Kevin Mulvey and Phil Humber were the second, third, fourth, and seventh-ranked prospects in the Mets' system, respectively, according to BA. In getting the best pitcher in the world, the Mets did not have to relinquish their best overall prospect (outfielder Fernando Martinez) or their best young pitcher (righty Mike Pelfrey). Some have come to the defense of rookie Twins GM Bill Smith, saying that his hands were tied and he was forced to make the trade due to Santana's wish for a resolution. All along I believed the Twins had to trade Santana, get the best possible package for him, and move on without allowing Santana to walk in free agency at the end of 2008. However, now, looking at what the Twins actually got, they really should have hung onto Santana, allowed their fanbase to rally around the club they had, and take the draft picks. I did not think it was possible to trade the best pitcher in the world and not receive at least one premium prospect in return. But the Twins did it. Unbelievable.

I know I said about a month ago that I really wanted the Red Sox to go ahead and make the Santana trade, but keeping him away from the Yankees was really the most important thing. When Theo Epstein found out Hank Steinbrenner didn't want to spend the money and Brian Cashman really wanted to give his young, cheap starters a chance in 2008 and beyond, that essentially sealed the results of the Santana sweepstakes. If the Red Sox really wanted to get Santana, they could have trounced any offer from the Mets. I firmly believe that the total value of the four prospects on their way to Minnesota does not equal the singular value of Jacoby Ellsbury. The Twins could have had Ellsbury, Jed Lowrie, and Justin Masterson one month ago had they played this whole thing correctly. I can't say that I'm upset the Red Sox didn't end up with Santana. It would have been nice, but not totally necessary, and in the end the Red Sox decided they'd spent enough time on the issue and simply didn't care enough to top what the Mets were offering. To still have the best team in baseball without needing to add the game's best pitcher is an awesome position to be in.

I feel very happy for the Mets and their fans. They endured one of the all-time collapses last September, and the feeling was GM Omar Minaya would swing something to lift the spirits of Mets Nation. I am not ready to anoint the Mets the best team in NL because of this, they still have issues in the rotation past Santana, their bullpen is kind of suspect and they are planning on trotting out Moises Alou and Ryan Church in their outfield corners. I think right now the Phillies are slightly better, the Rockies have done nothing to hurt their '08 chances and the Diamondbacks will have the best rotation. The Mets have certainly made themselves frontrunners in that conversation without having to disrupt the core of their 2008 team.

As for the Twins, they've entered a semi-rebuilding period. They will rely on the recovering Francisco Liriano and the inconsistent Boof Bonser to anchor their staff going forward. Before dealing Santana, they extended the contracts of Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau in addition to Joe Mauer's extension from last spring. They traded for Delmon Young, whom I believe can become the most dangerous hitter in the game in short order. But they've traded Santana for 20 cents on the dollar, let Torii Hunter hasten off to the land of Milk and Honey, and essentially assured that Joe Nathan will be pitching at a different address before the 2008 season ends. This is a helluva way to get a fanbase excited about their taxpayer-funded new stadium. At least they can look forward to being disappointed by Kevin Mulvey in a couple years.

One more note before I go. It was great to hear that the Red Sox signed Sean Casey to a one-year contract around $700K today. Casey will serve as the lefty bat off the bench the Sox had been looking for, spell Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz, and Mike Lowell (with Youk shifting to third), and provide yet another positive voice in the clubhouse. It's hard for all the Red Sox haters out there to hate a team with Casey and Lowell, who happened to be #1 and #2 in the MLB Nice Guy Power Rankings. Casey loves Boston and wants badly to earn his first World Series ring. Now all the Red Sox have to do is figure out how they will resolve the outfield situation. Will Coco Crisp swallow his pride and accept his proper role as a reserve on this team, or will they ship him off to another team in need? We shall see.

Got the BA Handbook in the mail yesterday. 512 pages of pure awesomeness. Later.