By Andy Harris, WSOE Sports
Hey guys! I’m back! I probably should name this column, but for now we’ll call it “Baseball Talk with John Kruk,” because his insight is invaluable. Last week I looked at the AL and made my predictions. This week I’ll move over to the Senior Circuit…That’s the NL.
Let’s start out with the NL West, perhaps the worst overall division in baseball.
–5th Place, and still defending losers, San Diego Padres! It’s crazy to think that this time a year ago, the Fathers were considered a very strong candidate for a playoff spot. I don’t know how I or anyone else managed to overlook their glaring holes (read: 4/5 of their 25-man roster). About the only reason to keep tabs on the Pads this year is to see where Jake Peavy gets traded in July.
–4th Place, Colorado Rockies. Sticking with the theme established by the Padres, it’s crazy to think that one year ago, the Rockies were defending NL Champions. Rocktober, everyone! It turns out that this was just an average team that got hot. Who knew? The Rockies still can’t pitch and they traded away their best player Matt Holliday for garbage. They won’t even sniff ROctober this year.
–3rd Place, Arizona Diamondbacks. With Arizona, it’s all about patience. They have one of the youngest rosters in the game, and it seems like we’ve been waiting for a decade for their young stars to emerge. (If you’re in a Fantasy baseball keeper league, pick up Justin Upton and latch on. Dude’s gonna be insane in 3 years). If Stephen Drew, Upton, and Conor Jackson fulfill their potential this year, the snakes will have a lineup to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, I just don’t quite think that this is the year…again. They lost the Big Unit and replaced him with Jon Garland. The offense doesn’t make enough contact or get on base enough to really be the force it may become a few years from now. They’ll contend but come up short.
–2nd Place, San Francisco Giants. What do you know, a team that will rarely score more than 3 runs a game will hover around .500. Such is that state of the NL West. They actually have a really good starting rotation, probably the best in the division. Tim Lincecum is downright nasty, they added still ticking (how?) Randy Johnson, and I really think Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez take the next step. If they could hit at all I’d be far more optimistic about this team.
–1st Place, and still champion, Los Angeles Dodgers
of Anaheim. Sorry about that, I got my L.A. teams confused again. The rotation takes a step back by losing Derek Lowe, but the lineup takes a huge step forward with full years from Manny and Rafael Furcal. For the first time in seemingly ever, L.A. will boast a very good offense. With their slightly above average pitching that will be more than enough to run away in the awful West.
Now on to the NL Central, probably the only division in the game with a clear-cut preseason favorite.
6th Place, Pittsburgh Pirates. The Buccaneers could potentially boast a good lineup…If Nate Mclouth and Ryan Doumit repeat, if Freddy Sanchez bounces back, if Andy Laroche and Andrew McCutchen come close to their ceiling, and if Adam Laroche figures out that hitting in April is no different than hitting in September. But…that won’t happen, and they’ll be a laughing stock for a 17th straight year. Keep your eyes on Pedro Alvarez, because he’ll be anchoring the Pirates lineup in 2 years. Maybe they’ll be good then.
5th Place, Houston Astros. It has to be so depressing to be an Astros fan. Every year they put just enough front-line talent on the field to get one’s hopes up, but inevitably fail because they have no supporting cast. They have a strong but aging core with not enough depth to make any headway. With a limited payroll, Ed Wade as a GM, and no talent whatsoever waiting in the minors, you’re looking at the worst franchise in the sport.
4th Place, Saint Louis Cardinals. Envision this team without Albert Pujols. Do you see a playoff contender now? Neither do I. This is a double-A team without Pooh. If Chris Carpenter can bounce back and give them 150 innings, they’ll have a shot, but I’m not sure that I see enough on that roster to be optimistic.
3rd place, Milwaukee Brewers. Despite their offensive weapons, the Brew Crew were only 7th in the NL in runs scored. The girl that took them to the dance was their starting pitching, but now the Brewers need to find a new girl because she had shoulder surgery and is dating a handsome young New York gent. (CC Sabathia signed with New York and Ben Sheets had should surge- you know what? Forget it.) Seriously, this team barely made the playoffs last year WITH CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets, and now they lose them both. They’ll be fun to watch with all that power, but they’re no more than a Wild Card dark horse.
2nd Place, Cincinnati Reds. I swear I’ve heard more comparisons between the Reds and 2008 Rays than legitimate baseball analysis this offseason. Sure, I’ll give you that both teams are anchored by young and talented pitching staffs and a few young stars on offense, but I think the John Kruks of the world are forgetting something: The Rays were way better. They pitched better. They hit better. Most of all, they defended better. The Reds have an above .500 club, and a solid core to build around. If they act wisely they can reach the playoffs sometime in the next 3 years, but not in 2009.
1st Place, and still defending Champions, Chicago Cubs! This team should coast through the Central, but I’m not sure that this team is as good as everyone thinks. That rotation is a lot shakier than it appears. Ace(?) Ryan Dempster had a career year, never even touching those numbers whilst in the pen, and my money says he doesn’t repeat. Carlos Zambrano is in free fall. Seriously, look at his stats over the last 4 years. He’s gone from an Ace to a number three with shoulder issues. That September no-hitter against Houston masked just how ineffective he was last year. Rich Harden can be amazing, but he can also spend 5 months on the DL. Ted Lilly’s the only sure thing and he’s only good for a 4.00 ERA. Again, they’ll make the playoffs easy because no one else in the central is playoff-caliber, but I think the North Siders’ title drought reaches 101 years. Unless they trade for Jake Peavy mid season…
And now on to the best division in the NL, the East. In it holds the defending champs, a perennial favorite, a young and potent force, and a fallen dynasty looking for reprisal.
Montreal Expos Washington Nationals. I said earlier it’s got to be depressing to by a Houston fan, because they’re mediocre now and will be far worse in the foreseeable future. It must be twice as bad to be a Nationals fan. They’re awful now AND for the foreseeable future. Their GM just got fired. Their top prospect turned out to be 18 years older than originally thought. Their Opening Day starter is John Lannan. I’ll stop now, because I don’t want any of my dear readers to have to get a prescription for Prozac.
Miami Florida Marlins. I love this team’s upside. What I don’t like is their downside. They could and probably will have the best starting pitching in the division, and easily the most underrated. Fantasy owners: get Josh Johnson on your roster now. The defense still sucks and the offense got slightly worse (you can’t call replacing Mike Jacobs with Emilio Bonifacio a good move, defense or not), but with the starting pitching that they didn’t have last year they should finish above .500, but no better than 4th in this rugged division.
3rd Place, Atlanta Braves. They were better last year than they showed, and they got better this year then they were last year. They lost a ridiculous number of one run games, (30!) in which they’ll improve. Their starting pitching, obliterated by injuries and ineffectiveness last year, has been revamped. It lacks an ace, but it’s includes 5 good pitchers that will win more than they lose. On top of that, Tim Hudson should be back my August and prospect Tommy Hanson is ready to come up and dominate. Kenshin Kawakami, straight out of Dragon Ball Z, is the wild card, but here’s my prediction for him: In his first 5-6 starts, he’s lights out. Once teams start seeing him for the 2nd time, he gets knocked around. Then he adjusts and turns into an effective but now dominant starter. This rotation has the potential to be elite in the NL. The offense is still lacking, especially minus Mark Teixeira, but I’m seriously predicting a rebound from Jeff Francoeur. Stupid, I know. With they’re pitching they’ll score enough to win 89 games, and barely miss out on the Wild Card.
2nd Place, New York Mets. With the additions of K-rod and JJ Putz, the Mets have once again springboarded the Phillies and are now the best team in the NL East. The problem? That’s just the consensus, not the facts. The Mets are good but not great. Rather than truly revamping their Achilles heel, they put a band-aid on it. Do K-rod and Putz improve the pen? Yes. But will they pitch the 6th and 7th on days when John Maine or Ollie or Pelfrey or Livan get roughed up early? No. Beyond that, their starting pitching is far weaker than it appears. Maine is a huge question mark, as he hopes to return from shoulder surgery. Oliver Perez can strike out the side or give up 10 runs, and will fluctuate from start to start all season long. Mike Pelfrey, who many tab as a breakout star this year, will regress. I don’t have time to break it down, but his peripherals and workload point toward some regression. Speaking of such, does anyone really think Carlos Delgado has a 38 home run season left? The Mets had better hope so. In short, the offense won’t be as good, the starting pitching won’t be as good, and the bullpen won’t be as good as everyone thinks. But that’s a New York team for you.
1st Place, Philadelphia Phillies. This team hinges on Cole Hamels’ elbow. If it’s healthy and he makes even just 25 starts, they win the division. If not, it won’t be so easy. What I like about this team is that unlike most World Series winners, they really didn’t have many career years on their roster. Sure, Jamie Moyer and Chad Durbin won’t be as good and Lidge will blow a save, but the rest of their roster didn’t perform up to expectations. Chase Utley was on MVP pace until he injured his hip in June, which sapped his power and average. Ryan Howard lost his swing for 3 months. Jimmy Rollins battled an ankle injury for 4 months and wasn’t his typical sparkplug self. Brett Myers had his worst season ever. They had 50 starts from Kyle Kendrick and Adam Eaton, both who had ERAs over 5, and replaced them with Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ. I like the addition of Ibanez over Burrell, assuming Charlie Manuel bats lefty-killer Jayson Werth 5th and Raul Ibanez 6th. He brings consistency to a hit-or-miss lineup. Even if Moyer and Durbin regress, this team should be even better in 2009 than in 2008.
Stat of the Day: This is a new segment, but since the whole damn column is two weeks old, everything’s new. I may use some advanced statistics while discussing players, I wanted to keep you guys educated on these stats, and how to use them. I’ll start off with the easy ones. For today, let’s talk OBP, or On-Base Percentage. The skill of getting on base is far more important in baseball than it is given credit for. Why? Because most people assume that the goal of a plate appearance is to get a hit. In reality, the goal is to not make an out, or in other words get on base. A player who hits .220 but gets on base at a .380 will score more run than a player who his .300 with a .310 OBP (external variables aside). It is my firm belief that OBP should sit alongside Avg.-HR-RBI on player graphics for television broadcasts. Getting on base is a greatly underappreciated skill, one far more important than batting average.