Monday, April 04, 2005


2005 Baseball Season Preview

Finally, here's the rest. It's long, so get comfy. Also, the win-loss may not add up and I'll fix it in the summary post to follow:

Pre-Season Preview – National League Central

Once again, this is going to be a close race, with three teams very evenly matched and one that could be there with them. Let’s get to it:

Chicago Cubs – How these guys didn’t make the playoffs last year is one of the greatest mysteries to me. Yes, the Cardinals were unbelievable down the stretch, but a team as talented as the 2004 Cubs should have never let the Astros up off the deck. Even without Mark Prior for the first half of the season, this team was loaded offensively and had enough pitching to go places. Yet, they didn’t and I’m not sold on the 2005 version. Already, the injury bug has bitten Prior (elbow inflammation) and Kerry Wood (bursitis) and neither will be ready for Opening Day. Matt Clement is gone to Boston and his likely replacement in the rotation, Ryan Dempster, is two years removed from Tommy John and has admitted that his velocity isn’t where he wants it to be. Joe Borowski is gone for 4-6 weeks and that makes LaTroy Hawkins the closer. Hawkins bombed in the job not once, but twice last year, causing Oakland to deal for Octavio Dotel and sending Cubs manager Dusty Baker to look for the Maalox. Finally, I think Baker’s the worst manager for this team just based on the way he has historically mishandled pitchers and, if there’s ever been a team who cannot afford to mishandle pitchers, it’s this one. Offensively, the Cubs will miss Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou, but that pain should be eased by a full season of Nomar Garciaparra (if he stays healthy) and Jeromy Burnitz (if last year’s numbers aren’t Colorado-inflated). I also think that this is the year that Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Corey Patterson establish themselves as All-Stars. A lot of health concerns and what-ifs here, but there’s plenty with everyone else in this division, so what’s to say they won’t be there at the end? Let’s say that the Cubs get the genie in the bottle the Red Sox captured last year and keep everyone healthy and happy and win 95. 95-67.

Cincinnati Reds – Speaking of injury-prone teams, here you go. One of the greatest collection of outfielders in recent memory has hardly ever played together because one (or more) of Ken Griffey, Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns has been on the DL. Things are looking up this spring, though, as Griffey has shown no ill effects of the hamstring tear that ended last season and Austin Kearns is tearing up spring training. Assuming these two stay healthy and Adam Dunn and Sean Casey continue their awesome run started last year, this team could rack up the runs. Good thing, because their pitching is hideous. Paul Wilson’s miracle run last year ended in September with shoulder problems, but he says he’s better. The Reds dealt for Angels’ headcase Ramon Ortiz, who may or may not find the strike zone on a given day and signed veteran free agent Eric Milton who, with the run support he’s likely to receive this year, should win 15-18 games. The back of the rotation is still not yet set, as Luke Hudson, Aaron Harang and Brandon Claussen battle it out. Danny Graves is the closer and if the Reds get the pre-All Star break version all year, they’ll be happy as pigs in mud. Still, too many thin spots (weak infield and rotation, injury-prone, poor bullpen) to like them this year and if they deal Wily Mo Pena, they’re fools. 79-83.

Houston Astros – Here is the poster child for the big deadline deal, as Carlos Beltran rode into town, put the team on his back and they rode past Chicago into the playoffs. Now Beltran is gone to the Mets, Lance Berkman is out until midseason and they look much like they did at the start of last season, old and fading. Spring efforts to get Craig Biggio back to second base have not gone well and it looks like Chris Burke will get the nod. A full season of Adam Everett and a full season of the second half version of Morgan Ensberg will do wonders for the club. Jason Lane is thrust into a must-produce role, as much of the pop in the lineup will need to come from him, as Jeff Bagwell and his deteriorating shoulders have pushed him into a support role. Pitching will once again be led by Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens and a, hopefully, healthy Andy Pettitte. Brad Lidge established himself as possibly the best closer in the NL (and no, I haven’t forgotten buddy with the goggles in L.A.) and is as close to automatic as there is. This means that the Astros can probably play a lot of 7 and 8 inning games this year, which will help with this aging crew. Gerry Hunsicker may have to pull the trigger on another big deal this year to make the playoffs. 88-74.

Milwaukee Brewers – And from the penthouse to the outhouse we go. When a team is seriously looking at Russ Branyan as a starter, you have to wonder. Now, there is a lot to like in Milwaukee, as the team made two smart off-season swaps, landing Carlos Lee from the White Sox in exchange for Scott Posednik and riding Dan Kolb’s hot closer run right to the pay window, walking away with Atlanta’s highly-regarded pitching prospect Jose Capellan. Too soon to tell whether Capellan will start or close, but he should be effective in either role. Lee provides a monster bat in the middle, where he should enjoy protection from either Lyle Overbay or Geoff Jenkins (another health risk). Milwaukee’s farm system should start paying off this year, as J.J. Hardy is marked in as the starting shortstop and Rickie Weeks will take over second base once Junior Spivey makes his annual trip to the DL. Leadoff is an issue without Podsednik, but one of Brady Clark or Dave Krynzel should emerge. Pitching-wise, the bullpen is a horror show, but Ben Sheets looks set to assume the lead in the rotation and should be in the Cy Young running this year. Doug Davis had a few good runs last year and should be more consistent in 2005, giving Milwaukee a good 1-2 in the rotation. If Ben Hendrickson and Victor Santos can hold up in the 3-4 and Capellan can take the fifth spot, the Brewers have a not-bad rotation. However, they’re at least one, maybe two years away. 75-87.

Pittsburgh Pirates – Here they come. They won’t make the playoffs this year, but the Pirates are going to be there in the next couple of years. The amazing Oliver Perez (an early favourite for 2005 NL Cy Young) leads a rotation that could be impressive, especially if Kip Wells holds up for a full year. There isn’t a real strong candidate for the fifth spot in the rotation, but manager Lloyd McClendon can take the chance this year on auditioning a few young arms in that spot. Jose Mesa had a great year in 2004 and is counted on to continue this year. Offensively, this team is coming into its own, led by 2004 NL Rookie of the Year Jason Bay and the unrelated Wilsons (first baseman Craig and shortstop Jack). Matt Lawton and Benito Santiago provide veteran leadership and Tike Wilson should have a mild breakout this year atop the batting order. If the Pirates get serious in the offseason about adding some veteran talent, this team could challenge in 2006. 82-80.

St. Louis Cardinals – Ah, the 2004 darlings who folded like a cheap tent in the World Series. You betcha they’ll be back this year, but nothing’s cast in stone, as injuries could easily derail this team. Outfielders Larry Walker and Jim Edmonds have lengthy injury histories and All-Everything first baseman Albert Pujols is still battling a cranky foot (plantar fasciitis is no fun, trust me). As well, the top three starters (Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder and Matt Morris) and closer Jason Isringhausen aren’t exactly poster children for athletic health. But, assuming the injury bug is kept to a minimum, this team is a 100-game winner. The Cards smartly cut their losses as Woody Williams walked away by trading with the A’s to land Mulder. Mulder had an off year in 2004 and cost the Cards dearly, as I think Danny Haren will be a champ within two years and Kiko Calero is an excellent reliever, but if he returns to 2003 form, he will be a tremendous contributor in St. Loo. Tony LaRussa is a proven winner and a smart manager of pitchers and the Cards seldom play themselves out of a game (excluding the Series). This is the team to beat in the NL, make no mistake about it, and only injuries can change that. 103-59.

National League West

Arizona Diamondbacks – Hard to believe these guys won the 2001 Series. What a difference 2 years make. Using the Florida Marlins’ playbook for rapid dismantling of a World champion, the D-Backs will be hard-pressed to avoid 100 losses this year. To replace Randy Johnson (dealt this year to the Yankees) and Curt Schilling (dealt last year to the Red Sox), the D-Backs have Javier Vazquez, who may or may not have lost his edge after a dreadful season in the Yankee media glare, and Russ Ortiz, who did win 20 games two years ago, but has horrid control and pitches himself into jams in almost every inning. Thankfully, he has a rubber arm, so he’ll do the one thing Arizona needs him to do (eat innings). The bullpen’s a mess and their offensive hope rests on the surgically-repaired shoulders of Troy Glaus and Luis Gonzalez. Shawn Green, like Vazquez, must get his head screwed on right in order to resume what had been, before last year, an impressive career. A return to right field should help. Still, not much to see here, move on. 59-103.

Colorado Rockies – This year’s team should take the field to the Who’s “Who Are You?”, because nobody knows these guys. After more than a decade of pricey free agents and a Frankenstein monster of a team that played beer-league games at home and like a bunch of fantasy-camp businessmen on the road, the Rockies have gotten young and hungry. These guys are going to struggle mightily this year, but they’ll be there soon (probably 2007). Preston Wilson and a slimmed-down Todd Helton will be asked to carry the bulk of the power this year, but youngsters Matt Holliday, Clint Barmes, Aaron Miles and J.D. Closser will start carrying their share of the load this year. Pitching-wise, Jason Jennings and Joe Kennedy are pretty good, Shawn Chacon is on his way out and Chin-Hui Tsao should be able to hold on to the toughest closing job in the major leagues. The guy to watch, though, is Jeff Francis, who will take his first steps to stardom in 2005. Not this year, not next year, but by 2007 the Rockies will be back. 67-95.

Los Angeles Dodgers – And away we go to schizo land. What is with this bunch? They have a GM (Paul DePodesta) who seems to treat the team like a Roto team, dealing away the heart of the team (Paul LoDuca) and an ace setup man (Guillermo Mota) for a pitcher (Brad Penny) who, almost immediately, goes down with nerve problems. He then ships Shawn Green to Arizona for Dioner Navarro and spare parts after bailing out of a three-team deal with the D-Backs and Yankees that would have seen him deal the same players for better return. Points, though, for unloading the erratic Kaz Ishii to the Mets for Jason Phillips, who fixes the hole left by LoDuca’s exit and buys Navarro time to season at Triple-A. The Dodgers are loaded with what-ifs: What if CF Milton Bradley has another mid-season meltdown, what if free agent signee J.D. Drew cannot adjust to spacious Chavez Ravine, what if the Dr. Jekyll versions of Derek Lowe and/or Jeff Weaver appear this year, what if Brad Penny’s injury is serious enough to cost him significant time this year and, finally, what if Eric Gagne’s knee isn’t 100%? A lot that can go wrong and, given the Dodgers’ historically fractious chemistry, could turn 2005 into a disaster that could cost DePodesta and manager Jim Tracy their jobs. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say 81-81.

San Diego Padres – The one team that can keep pace with the Giants in this division and, now that Barry Bonds is all but done for 2005, might actually win the thing. The Padres have a bona-fide ace in Jake Peavy, who anchors a very good rotation. The Padres only have to be good for 7 innings, too, since they have Akinori Otsuka and Trevor Hoffman waiting in the bullpen to knock out opponents. They’ve also got offense to burn too, with middle-of-the-order power from Brian Giles, Ryan Klesko and Phil Nevin supplementing on-base and speed performance from Mark Loretta and Dave Roberts, who was the sparkplug for the Red Sox in the 2004 playoffs. Supersub Xavier Nady is a star in waiting and, if Sean Burroughs finds a power stroke, the Padres have a great combination of youth/veterans, speed/power, pitching/hitting. Nevin and Klesko are somewhat fragile, but they have options if one or even both go down hurt. I like this team to win a tight horserace with the Giants. 90-72.

San Francisco Giants – Can they do it without Barry? Hard to say. It’s impossible to replace Bonds’ numbers, but Pedro Feliz will give it the ol’ college try. The bigger question, though, is can they win with their rotation? Jason Schmidt is awesome, but it looks a lot like Schmidt and 4 days of good luck until they come around to him again. Jerome Williams and Noah Lowry will be very good, just not this year and Brett Tomko and Kirk Rueter don’t exactly strike fear in the hearts of opponents. Signing Armando Benitez gives the Giants a bona-fide bullpen stopper, but will they get the ball to him often enough? Offensively, they’ll be fine. Moises Alou and Marquis Grissom seem to get better with age and, as said before, Feliz is a star. The biggest knock is their age and the fact that there ain’t much there there if any of the starters go down, since many of the backups are never-will-be’s and their best option at multiple positions (Feliz) is not an option while he’s subbing for Bonds. I think the Giants had a ghost of a chance with Bonds and less than that without him. 82-80.

American League East

Baltimore Orioles – The AL East is touted as really being two divisions, and who can argue? The Orioles, along with Toronto and Tampa Bay, really do have their own private division as they all dream of passing Boston and New York, but are in reality miles behind them. With the Orioles, they have very little pitching and tons of hitting. Miguel Tejada put up MVP-like numbers last year and Melvin Mora is one of the best third basemen in the majors and the addition of Sammy Sosa can only help the offense. Rafael Palmeiro showed signs of slowing down last year, but that could just be a one-year aberration. Brian Roberts, Larry Bigbie, Jay Gibbons and Luis Matos MUST produce this year or it could be time to give others a chance. This is going to be a tough year for Birds fans, as Baltimore is going to hit lots and get hit lots. Usually, in those cases, the hittees wind up on the wrong side of the ledger. 73-89.

Boston Red Sox – Being a Yankees fan, it’s hard to swallow the events of the 2004 ALCS. Give the Red Sox props though, as they refused to pack up after being thoroughly whomped in the first three games and looking a bit like whipped puppies. Question is, can they do it again? Make no mistake, losing Pedro Martinez to free agency was big and not having Curt Schilling for the start of the season makes it hurt that much more. David Wells gets the nod for Opening Day and, while he’s very, very good, he ain’t no Schilling. Matt Clement and Bronson Arroyo should have good years and the top 4 in the rotation should be very effective. Combine that with closer Keith Foulke and a tough and varied bullpen attack, and you gotta like what you see. Offensively, the Sox are stacked with the addition of Edgar Renteria and (hopefully) a full season of Trot Nixon. There’s no reason why the Sox can’t go deep into the postseason again, but they won’t get an easy World Series win again. Still, count on them to be there. 105-57.

New York Yankees – Aaaaand here’s the other really good team. The Giambi mess now (somewhat) behind them, the Yanks can focus on chasing Boston and getting playoff revenge. But there’s some worry in Yankeeville. Yes, they got their man for the front of their rotation, working Randy Johnson free from Arizona. They also made some smart free-agent signings, specifically Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, but they must get a return to form from Mike Mussina and Kevin Brown if they’re going to make a run at Boston. More importantly, Joe Torre must find a way to keep his starters on both sides of the ball healthy, cause there just ain’t much in the cabinet (Ruben Sierra, Damien Rolls, Doug Glanville to name a few of the “top-drawer” reserves) if anyone goes down for an extended period of time. Two or three key injuries to the Yanks could be truly devastating this year. Having said that, if they stay healthy, see you in October. I say they stay relatively healthy. 98-74.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays – I sense something really special starting to happen in T.Bay. Already in possession of a major star outfielder in Carl Crawford and a serious middle-of-the-order hitter in Aubrey Huff, the Rays are on the verge of welcoming some heavy-duty young talent to their roster. Pitcher Scott Kazmir will be an impact player this year and B.J. Upton should assume the everyday shortstop role by the all-star break. If Jorge Cantu can step into the second base spot and Rocco Baldelli can come all the way back from his knee injury, Lou Piniella will have the young nucleus of a very, very good team. Add a few veterans and the Rays might be the team to break through in the AL East to challenge the Yankees and Red Sox in a few years. Not this year, though, as the pitching remains paper-thin and there’s still some significant holes in the offense. Still, they’ll be in the running for third. 75-87.

Toronto Blue Jays – Ted Rogers may have stepped in at exactly the right time, as the Blue Jays are starting to build themselves back to mid-market respectability. J.P. Ricciardi has made his share of odd moves, but he has proven to be right more often than not. Some question the wisdom of letting Carlos Delgado walk, but he wasn’t going to give the Jays a discount and he is not worth $17 million. That money can be used to shore up the rotation, because there’s lots of offense (Vernon Wells, Alexis Rios, Eric Hinske). Shea Hillenbrand and Corey Koskie should also contribute and, if Gabe Gross is as real as spring training suggests, he’s going to be a force. Pitching’s still thin behind Halladay and Lilly, and moving Miguel Batista to the closer spot was kind of an odd decision, but the Jays are moving in the right direction. Ricciardi failed to land key pitching free agents this year, but the money will be there and a winning spirit will help. Next year and the year after will be better, but this year will be up and down. 75-87.

American League Central

Chicago White Sox – There is a lot to like in Chicago, but there’s some worry, too. With the Carlos Lee – Scott Podsednik deal, the Sox are moving more in the direction of a small-ball team. Power is limited to Paul Konerko, who has been Jekyll-Hyde over the last three years, and the fragile Jermaine Dye, who finally had a healthy season in 2004. Frank Thomas will kick in some offense during the second half, but it’s not likely to make a difference if they can’t make the transition from plodding power to hit-and-run. If the offense can’t go, it won’t matter how good the pitching is. Freddy Garcia is good for 17-20 wins and Mark Buerhle should pull 15. If Orlando Hernandez stays healthy and Jose Contreras and Jon Garland find their groove, this could be a very special rotation. Shingo Takatsu looks good as the closer and Dustin Hermanson and Damaso Marte provide solid bulloen support. If the transition to run and gun is smooth, Thomas delivers upon his return and the pitching is as good as it looks on paper, the White Sox will challenge for the division. It says here they challenge. 89-73.

Cleveland Indians – It appears that the Juan Gonzalez experiment is a dog. C.C. Sabathia is starting the season on the DL. It’s not a good start. But there is a lot to like here. Some really special hitters (Casey Blake, Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner) and lots of talent in the wings (particularly Grady Sizemore) combine with some good young pitching (Sabathia, Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee) to make this a team that could make some noise. The Kevin Millwood deal is a smart one that could pay big dividends if Millwood stays healthy and the Indians need a return to form by Millwood, Bob Wickman and Aaron Boone and a good showing from rookie shortstop Jhonny Peralta to have an impact on the division this year. It’s too much to expect one year too soon. Get ready for the Indians in 2006. 77-85.

Detroit Tigers – This is the year that Detroit starts to make their move. The young pitching rotation is maturing and benefits enormously from Ivan Rodriguez behind the plate while a smart free agent pickup in Troy Percival bolsters the bullpen and gives Alan Trammell an option if Ugueth Urbina crashes and burns. The Magglio Ordonez signing is risky, but has HUGE upside if he comes all the way back from his knee problems. The release of Alex Sacnhez causes a mild headache atop the order, but it isn’t a big problem, because the Tigers are better off without him. Craig Monroe will settle into the centre field slot vacated by Sanchez. The Tigers have a good mix of veteran talent, youth and leadership and should move into the upper tier of a competitive and winnable Central Division this year. 88-74.

Kansas City Royals – This team is a mess. 70% of the starting lineup would be in backup/reserve roles almost anywhere else in the majors (the exceptions are Mike Sweeney, when healthy, and David DeJesus). The percentage decreases if the Royals get the 2003 version of Angel Berroa instead of the 2004 vintage, which spent time in the minors. Zack Greinke is a solid No. 1 starter, but the rotation’s a jumble behind him. Say hello to the year’s big losers. 52-110.

Minnesota Twins – Here’s a team that keeps on performing miracles and wonders. Johan Santana is a true ace and Joe Nathan is aces as a closer. Brad Radke had a renaissance last year and the Twins are hoping for the same result from Joe Mays, who returns from injury. Offensively, the Twins look for bounce-back years from Jacque Jones and Joe Mauer and take the chance that Jason Bartlett is MLB-ready. The Twins should win the division on the strength of their pitching, but if Santana should get hurt, trouble looms. Minnesota won last year in large part because the White Sox imploded. If the Sox hold it together, this is going to be a good race. I think the Twins’ run ends this year. 85-77.

American League West.

Gonna be a four team race again this year.

Los Angeles Angels – Once again loaded for bear, the Angels are on a mission to win the West. This is the year they likely do it. Competition will be stiff, but the Angels have plenty of muscle to handle it. The team will hit a ton, and Steve Finley and Orlando Cabrera are significant offensive upgrades over Tim Salmon and David Eckstein. The Angel outfield of Finley, Garrett Anderson and all-everything Vladimir Guerrero is one of, if not the, best in the majors. If the Angels get undone by anything, it will be their pitching. Bartolo Colon historically struggles early and Kelvim Escobar is on the DL. John Lackey and Jarrod Washburn must bounce back from an average year in ’04. But, if they get to late in the game, the ominous presence of Francisco Rodriguez waits. I think the Angels will need to make some sort of a deal at the deadline for a starter, but it will just be to get them over the hump. 97-65.

Oakland A’s – Once again trying to make lemonade from lemons, the A’s are going to try to compete and rebuild at the same time. Barry Zito is now the leader of the pack with Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder gone, and it’s going to be really iffy after him, as Rich Harden, Dan Haren, Joe Blanton and Dan Meyer are not proven. The offense is also questionable as Erubiel Durazo and Eric Chavez are the main power sources with the hope that Nick Swisher will step up. Durazo and Chavez are both injury risks and need to stay healthy, now more than ever, and Jason Kendall will be a welcome addition to the roster as well as a help to the young rotation. I am less than convinced that the A’s will be in the running this year, but they always seem to hit big when least expected. Not this year. 82-80.

Seattle Mariners – Big rebound coming this year after a lost 2004. The signings of Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre should bolster an offense and help Ichiro Suzuki’s 200-plus hits translate into al least 130 runs. Bret Boone should also benefit from the added muscle, as he should see better pitches. Jeremy Reed must be MLB-ready and Jamie Moyer must lead the rotation this year. Gil Meche, Joel Piniero and Ryan Franklin must all come back from injury, as must Eddie Guardado. They need a lot of help, but it’s possible the M’s will see the playoffs if the offense pops and the pitching holds up. That won’t happen, but it’s going to be much sunnier in rainy Washington State. 74-88.

Texas Rangers – If the Rangers’ pitching is any better, then they find themselves in the running. They can hit a ton, but they can’t pitch a lick. Ryan Drese, Juan Dominguez and Chris Young will be good, just not yet. It’ll be a frustrating year in Texas, with lots of 8-7 shootouts with Texas on the wrong side of the result. If they get the ball to Francisco Cordero, Texas wins. If not, tough nights in Arlington. 85-77.