With the grapefruit league here, and the start of the season just around the corner lets look at the teams and their prospects for winning their divisions.
We will start with the National League and American League East teams.
National League East
The Phils come into this year with a lot of confidence stemming from being the defending division champions.
Let’s not kid ourselves. They played inspired baseball the last 3 weeks of the season to catch the Mets, but they needed the Mets to fold as well.
They have to get off to a better start than they did last the last two seasons. They can’t depend on the Mets or Braves to come apart, and they can’t depend on getting red hot the last month of the season.
The Phillies main need is consistent starting pitching. They were in the bottom five in ERA last season and struggled for much of the year with their starting pitching.
Adam Eaton disappointed last year and his ERA was up over 6, which was the worst of his career. The good news for Philadelphia is that he should rebound from that and pitch a lot better.
Brett Meyers has been moved into the starting rotation from the bullpen with the addition of Brad Lidge (already injured). The Phils are that Lidge can be effective as their everyday closer and that Meyers can make the transition to starter and thrive. Those changes will have a lot to do with the Phillies defending their division title.
We know they can hit.
Rollins, Utley and Howard are as formidable as they come.
Aaron Rowand left as a free agent, and I believe that they will miss him. He got a lot of big hits for them and was a very hard-nosed player and a good fit on the team.
He will be replaced by Geoff Jenkins, who hit .255 with 21 home runs last year; definitely not an upgrade, but they should have enough fire power to compensate for losing Rowand.
Pat Burrell is another key to this team. If he can hit consistently, especially on the road, where he only hit .220 last season, they will remain close to the top of the league in runs scored.
The Phils didn’t do a lot to improve their club overall in the off-season. Pitching will be their key, and they will still need MVP type seasons from Rollins and Howard.
If Lidge can’t go, then Tom Gordon will close.
Projected finish - 2nd Place
New York Mets
The Mets' collapse at the end of last season has been well chronicled. The start of baseball season will probably be therapeutic.
One thing is certain - the Mets will not take anything for granted this year.
Their collapse has left them with a firm resolve and something to prove. The starting pitching will be decidedly better this year, and not just because of the addition of Johan Santana.
Having Pedro Martinez back in the rotation will be a huge boost as well, as long as he can stay healthy.
The Mets’ rotation is as deep as any in the National League. Last season there were times when the Mets didn’t know who they were going to throw out on the mound to start. Not so this year.
El Duque and Pedro may be susceptible to injury, but Pedro had most of the year off and they are not depending on El Duque as much as they did last year.
Their middle relief is still suspect and they are relying on Duaner Sanchez coming back strong from being injured. Their bullpen was over-used to the point where they had nothing left at the end of the season.
The lineup is pretty potent, but there are some areas of concern.
Jose Reyes faded in the last month of the season and didn’t hit when it counted most (.205 batting average and .279 on base percentage in September).
We will see if he can rebound confidence wise.
Carlos Delgado became a liability against left handed pitchers last season and was moved down in the lineup. His on base percentage was .318 and he only slugged at a .386 clip versus lefty’s.
He only hit about .230 with runners in scoring position as well. His production is decreasing and the Mets need him to help anchor the middle of the lineup.
As a team they didn’t hit well against lefty’s which they will have to improve upon to be more balanced. They are pretty solid everywhere else.
How Willie Randolph manages will be a key. If he learned from last year he will be fine.
He can’t abuse his bullpen again, and he will need to rest his players periodically so they are fresh for the stretch run. They have the depth to do that. Middle relief is an issue, but the improved starting pitching should make it better.
I believe Reyes will rebound, and if Delgado improves they will fine. Injuries to key players is about the only thing that could derail them.
Projected finish: 1st place.
The Atlanta Braves have gone back to the strategy that made them perennial division champs.
They let their high priced free agents walk and have put the emphasis back on their pitching staff.
The addition of Tom Glavine will help, but he is not the innings eater he once was.
The good thing is he will not be relied upon like he was last year when he was with the Mets.
Smoltz and Hudson anchor the staff.
Hudson was a stud for most of last year, and Smoltz keeps doing what he does at a high level year in and year out. Glavine is only being asked to be a 3 in the rotation, and he will be fine in that role.
Mike Hampton is another story. Anything they get out of Hampton will be a plus considering they have gotten nothing for the last 2 years.
As far as their rotation goes, he is the wild card. Soriano will handle the closing, and he should stabilize that role for them. Mike Gonzalez is back from injury and he was tough on left-handed hitters out of the bullpen.
This is the formula that the Braves were so successful with for so long. One key for them will be how the back side of their rotation holds up. Chuck James and Hampton have to hold up for the Braves to get back to the top.
Yunel Escobar takes over from Edgar Renteria at shortstop, and he is a budding star. He and Kelly Johnson are a formidable part of a star-studded infield.
Mark Teixeira didn’t disappoint last year, and if Chipper Jones can stay in the lineup they won’t notice that Andrew Jones and Renteria are gone.
They will notice that Mark Kotsay is in centerfield instead of Jones. Andrew is one of the best ever to play that position, and you just can’t count how many runs he has saved out there.
He was a security blanket for his pitchers. Kotsay is not a bad centerfielder to say the least, but he is not Andruw Jones.
Many believe the pieces are in place for the Braves to get back to prominence. They will be good, but I don’t think they will win the division.
Smoltz and Glavine are not getting any younger, and Escobar can’t struggle as a sophomore. He didn’t play a full season last year. Chipper is injury prone, and Hampton has a lot to prove.
The bullpen is strong, so they should contend.
Projected finish - 3rd place.
A couple of familiar faces will be gone from the Marlins this year. Miguel Cabrera won’t be in the line-up terrorizing opposing pitchers, and Dontrel Willis won’t be around to solidify their rotation.
For Florida, it is not a problem. They have good young talent, and as history has shown us, they probably have some diamonds in the rough that we don’t know about.
Hanley Ramirez is the leader of this team now, and he is the one commodity that we know about. He may be the best all around shortstop in the National League.
Dan Ugla, Mike Jacobs and Josh Willingham are the other familiar faces from last year, and as a group they should get better.
Ugla didn’t hit for average but did hit 31 home runs in 2007, so their lineup is not soft. Cameron Maybin will get his shot to start in centerfield, and many believe that he will be a stud. He was a highly rated prospect that hit for average and stole a lot of bases in the Florida State league.
Their projected lineup is young and still developing.
The pitching rotation will be young and relatively untested.
Scott Olsen and Sergio Mitre are slated at the top of the rotation, but there isn’t any meaningful experience in the rest of the rotation.
They do have some experience in their bullpen with Gardner and Tankersley, and Kevin Gregg did save 35 games for them last year, so their bullpen looks like their strength.
If Florida gets some decent starting pitching they will be somewhat competitive. Their problem is that they are in a division with three other solid teams.
They will have to wait and see how some of their young players pan out. History says some of them will be pretty good.
Projected finish - 4th place.
The highlight of last year for the Nationals was beating up on the Mets down the stretch to help foil their playoff aspirations.
Looking at their lineup, they do have some familiar faces. Dimitri Young and Christian Guzman both hit over .300 last year (Guzman only played in 46 games last year), while Ronnie Belliard and Ryan Zimmerman round out the infield.
It will be interesting to see how Lastings Milledge does as an everyday outfielder. I for one thought it was a mistake for the Mets to trade him, unless it was for a stud pitcher.
The Nationals are looking to Shawn Hill to anchor their rotation. They don’t have a lot of experience or depth there.
Their bullpen is pretty good though. Chad Cordero will continue to close. Saul Rivera, John Rauch, and Luis Ayala have pitched well in relief.
Make no mistake, the Nationals have talent, but they haven’t been consistent. They can be competitive, but they need consistent starting pitching to contend in this division.
Their starting pitching, looking at their numbers, looks like the worst in the division.
Projected finish - 5th place.
This division promises to be very competitive. The Mets and Phillies are already talking, stroking the flames of what could be a heated rivalry, and the Braves are laying in wait.
One thing is for certain. When everything plays out, at least one team will be able to say, if you can’t walk the walk, don’t talk the talk, and that is the Last Word.
American League East
Boston Red Sox
Boston has to be installed as the favorite to win their division again. They are the world champs, and they haven’t lost anyone significant from their team of last year.
There is an interesting decision the Red Sox have to make concerning center field. Do you play Coco Crisp, your experienced centerfielder, or do you play the young hot-shot Jacoby Ellsbury?
I think you have to play Ellsbury. You have to see if he can hold down that position and hit consistently, and you have to do it when there is not a ton of pressure on him to be a major contributer.
Boston’s lineup is potent from top to bottom so if Ellsbury were to struggle it wouldn’t shut them down. The Twins wanted him in a potential deal for Santana, but Boston didn’t want to give up too much of their young talent.
They need to decide who will get the everyday centerfield job so they can factor that in to future deals. Keep in mind that Coco is no slouch. He can get on base, and steal bases, and plays a pretty good centerfield, but if Ellbury can do those things and is a budding star he needs to be out there now getting his experience while Boston is still good.
Curt Schilling’s shoulder injury is a blow to their rotation, but Boston should still be ok. There is no telling whether the aggressive rehab will get Schilling back in the rotation sometime this year.
If it doesn’t work and surgery is inevitable, then his carreer may be over. On the backside of their rotation, Jon Lester was 4-0 last year, but with a 4.57 ERA. That’s the luxury of having the support of a line-up like Boston’s. They can hit their way out of a lot of potential losses which takes the pressure off of their starters.
They should be able to weather the loss of Schilling. Their bullpen is solid. Timlin and Okajima are good set up guys, and Papelbon is lights out as their closer.
There are no holes in Boston’s team. If everyone performs up to their level of play last year, they should win the division again.
Projected finish - 1st Place.
New York Yankees
The Yankees managed to hold on to some of their mainstays this offseason, so they are not undergoing a major face lift yet.
Steinbrenner senior has passed the torch to Steinbrenner junior, and they have decided to hold on to their pitching prospects rather than deal them for another top of the rotation starter.
They too had a chance to get Johan Santana, but didn’t want to surrender their young pitching prospects. Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain will have a lot to say about whether the Yankees make the playoffs this year.
Wang and Pettitte have to anchor the top of the rotation, and given all the attention Pettitte has gotten due to the steroid mess with Roger Clemens, focussing on what he needs to do will be no small task.
If anyone can do it Pettitte can. He has strong faith in God, and he is determined to put this past him and be a productive part of his team.
Mussina is somewhat of a wild card as well. His fastball has lost it’s zip and he is more of a finesse pitcher now, so you don’t know what you will get out of him from game to game.
Injuries will play a major part of the Yankees season. They are depending on players with a lot of milege on them to continually produce.
Posada had a great year last year, but he is a catcher, and you wonder when he will wear down. Giambi, Jeter, Damon, and Abreu are one year older and more prone to injury.
If they can stay reasonably healthy and not have to depend too much on their bench they should be ok.
Their main issue to me is their middle relief. There is not a lot of consistency there, and Kyle Farnsworth has been a bust ever since he came over to help with that role. Latroy Hawkins joins the Yankees this year and should help.
A lot of the Yankees' fortunes this year will depend on how well they get from the 6th to the 8th inning, when they hand it off to Mariano Rivera.
Projected finish - 2nd Place.
The Orioles come into 2008 with a new attitude and a new mindset.
Miguel Tejada is gone, and management has decided to develope their young talent rather than overspend in free agency and go for the quick fix. They will leave that to the other big market teams.
They haven’t been successful trying to build a winning team using that approach anyway.
There will be familiar faces in their lineup. Kevin Millar, Brian Roberts, and Melvin Mora add a lot of experience to their infield.
Nick Markakis is solid in right field and hit .300 with 23 homeruns last year and is still in his mid 20’s. Adam Jones will get the start in centerfield and he is another one of their promising young players.
Their shortstop, Louis Hernandez only played in 30 games last year and hit .290. He is penciled in as the starter.
Midway through the season Baltimore should have a better idea of how their young position players are developing.
The Orioles do have some young talent in their pitching ranks. Adam Loewen had only 6 starts but was 2 - 0 in those starts and finished with a 3.56 ERA. Jeremy Guthrie finished 7 - 5 with a 3.70 ERA.
They will be at the top of the rotation and will have to hold it down because there is not a lot of experience in the rotation. Danys Baez is penciled in as the closer and they hope he can return to form and be effective. He only pitched 50 innings and had and ERA of 6.44.
Chad Bradford has always been pretty effective out of the bullpen, but other than him the bullpen is pretty much hit and miss.
The Orioles made the right choice to build their team around their youth. They will have a better idea around the middle of the season of exactly what they have.
Projected finish - 5th Place
Toronto finished last year 4 games over .500, good for 3rd place behind the Yankees and Redsox. They are not that far away from really contending in their division, and they added a couple of new faces that will go a long way toward helping them get there.
David Eckstein is their new shortstop, and Scott Rolen is their new third baseman.
The question is whether Rolen can stay healthy enough to stay in the line-up on a regular basis. His well documented injury problems prevented him from being a difference maker 2 out of the last 3 years with St. Louis.
David Eckstein still gets on base at about a .350 clip so he will be a spark plug for Toronto.
Alex Rios had a good year last year but Vernon Wells is looking to have a bounce-back season after hitting just .245 and posting an on base percentage of .304, which are far below his standards.
Factor in Frank Thomas as the DH and their lineup has a lot of power. The big question for them is whether they can stay healthy.
Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett anchor the starting rotation, and are a good 1, 2 combination.
Burnett finished 10 - 8 the last 2 years with an ERA under 4.00. They need to get more innings out of him for the money they put up to get him in free agency. His health will be key.
Jesse Litsch and Shaun Marcum are adequate back-of-the-rotation guys. Marcum won 12 games last year and Litsch finished with an ERA under 4.
B.J. Ryan will continue to close, and they have a very deep bullpen. Scott Downs, Jeremy Accardo, Casey Janssen, and Brian Wolfe all pitched effectively last year coming out of the pen, so they shouldn’t be pressured to over use their starters.
If Toronto stays reasonably healthy and pitches like they are capable of, it is not inconceivable that they could finish second in the division and challenge for a wild card spot.
Everything has to fall right for them, or they will be an afterthought, just like previous years.
Projected finish - 3rd Place.
Tampa Bay Rays
If the Rays finish at, or close to the bottom of their division this year it won’t be because they don’t have an interesting lineup.
Akinori Iwamura is likely to lead off with Carl Crawford hitting second. If they get on base at a good clip, Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton are going to drive in a lot of runs.
They will be looking for Pena to at least duplicate his production from last year (46 homers and 121 RBI’s) in order for them to score a good amount of runs. He supplies most of the power.
Cliff Floyd is with the Rays via the Cubs and he should be able to supply some power if he can stay healthy, which is a long shot. He has a history of frequent trips to the DL.
Scott Kazmir continues to work his way back from injury and is the ace of the staff.
James Shields and Matt Garza will try to hold down some of the starting duties, but their rotation is pretty thin overall.
Troy Percival is penciled in as the closer, and he should be ok, but the rest of their bullpen is pretty much hit and miss.
They have some experience, but they didn’t perform well last year and unless that changes, they won’t be a security blanket for their starters this year either.
Their hitters will be the most exciting part of this team. Unless they suprise on the mound, it looks like a long season again for the Rays.
Projected finish - 4th Place