By Andy Harris
Alright, I’m going to try to make this intro short and sweet, because I know you didn’t come here to learn about me. My name is Andy Harris. All you really need to know is that I love baseball, and I’m an avid Phillies phan (and have been long before October 2008). I’m pretty good at keeping my bias in check since I’m naturally pessimistic, so I hope it’s not an issue. I’m not exactly sure what my goal is for my slice of this blog. Obviously I‘ll be discussing baseball, but I’m still deciding what format to use. Part of me wants to make it a week-by-week power rankings, while another part wants to provide some more in-depth analysis. I guess I’ll figure it out while I go along. You can read my posts every Thursday, so make sure you check this blog every week.
For this week’s post, I’m going to go division by division and break down every team’s outlook for the upcoming season. A lot of this will involve my own personal predictions, so feel free to argue with me. I really enjoy a good baseball debate.
Let’s Start with the American League East. Easily baseball’s best division, you could make a strong case that any one of their top 3 teams are the best in baseball. The division is home to many strong pitching staffs and some stacked lineups, and no matter the outcome I think it’s going to be a thrilling race all year long. Here’s how I think the standings will look at the end of the year:
-5th place: Baltimore Orioles. In 3 years this team will be a lot of fun to watch. Then, their offense will be anchored by seasoned versions of Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, crazy-hyped prospect Matt Wieters, as well as veteran Brian Roberts, and some of the good arms in their farm system are likely to have panned out. But until they can get some pitching, they’re destined to be cellar dwellers in the AL East.
-4th Place: Toronto Blue Jays. Man, it really must be depressing to be a Jay’s fan. Every year they field a team that’s good enough to get their fans optimistic in the spring, and every year they’re buried by the Sawx and Yanks (and now the Rays.) However, I really don’t see any reason to be optimistic about the Jays right now. They had the best starting pitching in the bigs last year, but that’s no longer the case. They lost A.J. Burnett to the Yankees, Shaun Marcum to Tommy John surgery, and Dustin McGowan is going to miss significant time as well. Factor in that they still don’t have an offense AND that Vernon Wells is hurt, not to mention that Roy Halladay won’t match his numbers of his career-year 2008, and it’s hard to imagine that they’ll be able to keep up in this division.
-3rd Place: New York Yankees. Alright guys, I’m going to go on a little rant here, and I apologize. You know what irks me more than anything? Overrated teams. Why is it that a team with glaring weaknesses and major question marks is the preseason consensus to win the World Series? Seriously? Look, I know this team has some great players. But honestly, the Yanks have declining talent and zero depth at almost every other position. It’s a collection of has-beens, never-beens, and DL stints. You really think a team anchored by A-rod’s right hip, CC Sabathia’s gut, and Jorge Posada’s ghost is going to the playoffs? I just hope you didn’t put any money on it. End of rant, here’s why they won’t make it:
-Age. Look at their roster and count how many guys on the wrong side of 30 they have. Now do the same for Tampa. Staggering, isn’t it? ESPN’s vaunted experts are saying that with a healthy Posada, Matsui, and Damon, they could have an offense for the ages. Honestly, it doesn’t really matter what they could do, because you can’t expect guys closing in on 40, two coming off surgery, to stay healthy. It wasn’t bad luck that they were saddled with injuries last year. It’s what you should expect. They’re old, injury prone, and in decline.
-Weak starting pitching. I have absolutely no idea where the perception that this rotation will be dominant is coming from. They have a stud in Sabathia, but his shoulder is a ticking time bomb after pitching roughly 4,328 innings in the last 2 years. Burnett had a career year last year, which illustrates how overrated he is because his ERA was above 4. Oh, and he’s pitched 200 or more innings only thrice in 10 major leagues seasons. Chien Ming Wang gets points for his name, but he’s just a glorified middle of the rotation guy who gets passed off as an ace. Chamberlain has unbelievable talent, but his health and inexperience is a question mark. And then there’s Andy Pettite, who’s regressed to the point of being a competent number five starter and nothing more. So this is the rotation that’s supposed to carry them through the World Series?
-Alex Rodriguez. I’ll refrain from calling him A-Roid because he was just “naïve,” but it’s tough to win when your best player misses two months and isn’t a hundred percent all year.
2nd Place: Boston Red Sox. The Sawx offense is going to lack the punch it normally has, with a declining Big Papi and the loss of Manny. Still, they’ll score enough runs to win 97 games with the pitching they have. They boast one of the strongest rotations one through five in the game today, and they have an insane amount of depth. Honestly, injuries aren’t going to be a factor in this staff. If John Lester goes down, you can replace him with Clay Buckholz (1 career no hitter), John Smoltz (who could be the steal of the winter if he comes back to pre-injury levels), or Justin Masterson (can’t miss prospect). Oh, and their bullpen is filthy and as deep as the starting rotation.
1st Place: Tampa Bay Rays. Some people are viewing Tampa as a fluke because they were awful for a decade, but I really can’t see why. They didn’t merely catch fire in September and ride it through October like the Rockies in 2007, and they weren’t made up of guys who simply all had career years. They have a very young but immensely talented roster, and their young stars were finally incubated enough to hatch. Honestly, I expect them to be even better this year than last. It’s fair to say that their offense underachieved in 2008, and although they overcame that, they should score another hundred or so runs in 2009. BJ Upton battled a bad shoulder all year, limiting him to just 9 home runs after hitting 24 in 2007 (and the potential for far more.) He’ll open the year on the DL from surgery but he should come back at 100%. Carlos Pena missed a month, as did Evan Longoria, and Carl Crawford battled injuries all year while posting the worst numbers of his career before finally hitting the DL in August. Assuming just 2 of these guys are better and healthier then their offense will be powerful. Oh, and they added Pat Burrell, who had an OPS of .874 last year with 33 home runs. I’m a little worried about their starting pitching. It’s as talented as anyone’s, with 3 guys posting an ERA+ of 120 or above (100 being average), but it has the potential to be decimated by injuries. Scott Kazmir is injury prone, and Matt Garza saw huge spikes in innings pitched last year, which always spells trouble. Assuming everyone stays healthy, it’s fair to argue that the staff could be even better. Some hotshot named David Price will be joining the rotation at some point this year, if not by opening day, which gives them four very good starters. How many teams can say that? Joe Maddon just has to hope he has to use the DL less this year.
On to the impossible to predict AL Central, where I can make a good case for all 5 teams. Seriously, it’s that wide open. I can see any one of these teams winning 87 games and I can see any team winning 70 games, and not one outcome would surprise me. What would surprise me is any team winning more or less than those totals. Here’s how I see it panning out, but keep in mind that this will likely change 47 times between when I write this and when you read it.
5th place, Chicago White Sox. Yup, the division’s defending champs are falling all the way to the bottom this year. This team was built around very strong starting pitching and the home run. The problem is, they won’t pitch or slug nearly as well this year. They already traded Javier Vazquez, and say what you want about his deficiencies, but he was always good for 200 innings and a 4.00 ERA. Gavin Floyd’s peripherals suggest some serious regression, and they’re relying on Jose Contreras as their fourth starter…On offense, they’re hoping 38 year old Jim Thome has another good year left, that old, injury prone, and that inconsistent Jermaine Dye doesn’t turn in a bad and/ or injury-riddled year, They need Carlos Quentin to come back from wrist surgery and prove that he wasn’t a fluke and for shortstop Alexei Ramirez to avoid a sophomore slump. This team just isn’t as good as it was last year, and is due for some serious regression.
4th Place, Kansas City Royals. Man, the Royals are finally getting some love! It feels like every sports website I go to I see articles that proclaim this could be the year that the Royals are this year’s Rays. It kind of seems like wishful thinking to me, but before I go and rain on your parade, I’ll tell you what I like about this team, or at least what the experts like. They have the best 1-2 punch atop their rotation in the division, with Zach Greinke and the unheralded Gil Meche. They have a lot of untapped potential in Billy Butler and Alex Gordon, and their defense has slightly improved as well. But now for what I don’t like. Behind Greinke and Meche they have no pitching starting pitching at all. Case and point: Horatio Ramirez and his career 4.59 ERA is the number 4 starter. Coco Crisp is batting leadoff. Jose Guillen is batting cleanup. Mike Aviles isn’t as good as he was last year. Mike Jacobs is their only power bat. Their team OBP last year was .320 (pitiful!) and they added out-makers in Jacobs and Crisp. And despite their potential, neither Alex Gordon or Billy Butler has broken out yet. Really, I can’t get excited about this team. They could be good, but at very best they win 85 games, and that’s assuming every player performs to their most optimistic predictions. I don’t think that happens, and as a result I don’t think they post a winning record. Sorry for the hate, Kansas fans. Go check out ESPN if you want to feel better, I’m sure they’ll have some optimistic things to say about your team.
3rd Place, Detroit Tigers. Remember a year ago, when the Tigers were the sexy World Series pick after trading for Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, and Edgar Renteria? And remember how their pitching disappeared and they won 74 games? They may only have a mediocre starting staff, but that will be far better than what they had last year. For one thing, they finally have an adequate defense with Miggy Cabrera moved to first, Adam Everett at short, and Brandon Inge at third. Trading for Edwin Jackson was a shrewd move, and the track records of Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman point to turnarounds. Even though Nate Robertson still sucks and Armando Galarraga will regress, this offense really only needs three above average starters to post a winning record.
2nd Place, Cleveland Indians. This team probably has more question marks than any team in the division, but also the most upside. There are a few reasons to feel good about this team. Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner are presumably healthy, and if both rebound to 2004-2006 levels they win the division going away. That’s a huge if, especially with Hafner, and I wouldn’t bank on a rebound from him. They know what they’re getting from Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta, and Mark Derosa, but IF they have a healthy Martinez and Hafner, IF Shin-Soo Choo continues to develop, and IF backup catcher Kelly Shoppach continues to kill the ball, they’ll have a very good offense. IF. If they’re going to compete, they’re going to have to hit their way into contention, because this starting staff isn’t strong enough to carry them to October. They could have a respectable staff if (it’s becoming a theme) Cliff Lee can post numbers close to those of last year, if Fausto Carmona and Carl Pavano remember how to pitch after abysmal seasons, and if Anthony Reyes or Scott Lewis are merely not awful. So, to conclude, this team has the talent to win 90 games, but they need A LOT of things to go just right. If almost everything does, they’re division champs. But I don’t think everything does. There are just too many question marks, and I can’t imagine all of them turning out well. They’ll be painfully close to winning, though.
1st Place, Minnesota Twins. The Twins’ greatest strength is that they don’t have a weakness. They’re a solid but unspectacular team with no singular tremendous strength, but they don’t have a debilitating weakness like every other team in the Central does. Their offense is steady but not overpowering. Their starting pitching is led by an ace in Liriano and four young guys who won’t win or lose them many games. In fact, it’s that pitching stability that will get them into the postseason, because no other team in the Central can boast a reliable staff.
Ah, the AL West, which boasts three teams with good pitching staffs but no offense, one team with a great offense but no pitching, and a suspicious lack of a fifth team. Seriously if you like 1-0 games or 15-13 games, this is your division. The Angels dominated the West last year, but lost some key pieces while the A’s improved. The consensus pick is still the Los Angeles ANAHEIM Angels, but it should be a tight race regardless.
4th place, Texas Rangers. Seriously, this will be a really bad team. Fun to watch because every game will be a shootout, but bad. You just can’t win if you have awful pitching. With their powerful offense, they scored 901 runs (leading the league) and STILL lost 83 games. That’s how bad their pitching is. Nolan Ryan could go out there right now and be more effective than half of their guys. It’s a good thing they have a great farm system stocked with promising young arms, because otherwise there’d be no light at the end of the tunnel.
3rd Place, Seattle Mariners. Well, at least they won’t be atrocious this year. Their pitching should be better this year with a full healthy year from Erik Bedard, and who knows, maybe Carlos Silva will remember that he’s not throwing batting practice every five days. The staff will also be helped by a revamped outfield defense, which should be among the best in the game. (See, Endy Chavez does have some value!) Unfortunately they still can’t hit and the bullpen’s a mess, and I doubt their outfield gloves can carry them past the Angels, but, like I said to open this paragraph, at leas they won’t be atrocious again.
2nd place, Oakland Athletics. The A’s had the AL’s 5th best team ERA last year, but unfortunately they were dead last in runs. They have virtually the same staff returning, but finally found some offense. A great trade for Matt Holliday and a rare free agent signings of Jason Giambi and Orlando Cabrera have given this lineup some teeth, and coupled with Jack Cust they could form a fearsome middle of the order. Oh, and for the record, Giambi can still hit, even at age 58, posting the Al’s 13th highest OPS last year. Unfortunately I don’t think it’ll be enough, because the Angels still outclass them, and if they get off to a slow start, Billy Beane won’t hesitate to trade away Holliday. Not to mention that Justin Duchschererererererer [sic], Oakland’s best starter, is injured a third of the time. But hey, the A’s are used to surprising people, right?
1st Place, and still defending champion, Anaheim Angels. Just a brief aside, I never refer to the Angels as the L.A. Angels. They play in Anaheim, not in L.A. End of story. A lot has been made about their offseason losses, but I’m not terribly worried about that. To say they lost Mark Teixeira is misleading because they only had him for two months. Losing K-rod doesn’t hurt because they replaced him with the equivalent Brian Fuentes (yes, K-rod is overrated. And yes, I know he saved 62 games.) Jon Garland is an innings eater, but they’re all awful innings, so losing him doesn’t hurt. Garret Anderson is bleh at this stage in his career anyway, so his departure was more of an emotional loss than an impactful one. Most of the offense they lost from Teixiera’s 2 months will be replaced by a full year of OBP machine Bobby Abreu, who they snagged for a tremendous value. What worries me more is that this team overachieved last year (they weren’t a 100-win team, they were more of an 88-win team but won a ton of 1-run games) and now Ervin Santana’s hurt. If he only misses a third of the season they’ll be fine, and getting Kelvim Escobar back at any point is huge. Imagine a 1-2-3 of Lackey-Santana-Escobar…
Alright guys, that’s all I got for this week, but since I’m already on page six of this word document it’s probably too much. Come back again next Thursday for my predictions for the NL, and maybe I’ll work on keeping things short.