I swear I didn't plan on pairing up two teams that both have bird nicknames and then line up another one for Monday. It just happened that way. But Toronto and St. Louis are up next to conclude the first week of previews.
ALE: 1, Tampa Bay*, 3, 4, 5
ALC: 1, Minnesota, 3, 4, 5
ALW: 1, 2, Texas, 4
NLE: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
NLC: 1, 2, Cincinnati, 4, 5, Pittsburgh
NLW: 1, 2, 3, 4, San Diego
* Wild Card
Toronto Blue Jays – AL East
Last Year: Finished Fourth in AL East
Notable Additions: C Raul Chavez, C Michael Barrett, IF Kevin Millar, OF Jason Lane, SP Matt Clement, SP Mike Maroth, P Matt Bush
Notable Subtractions: C Gregg Zaun, SP A.J. Burnett
Underrated addition: Raul Chavez
He’ll be missed: Gregg Zaun
Chavez could potentially be the veteran backstop to replace Zaun, if he makes the team. A young staff needs an experienced game-caller.
Biggest Key to Success: Healthy Bullpen
The Blue Jays’ bullpen is one that is rather stout.
With All-Star closer B.J. Ryan back to full-health, being backed up by the likes of Scott Downs, Brandon League, Jeremy Accardo, and Brian Tallet, the bullpen is a force that the Jays can rely on.
Jeremy Accardo might not be fully recovered from his Tommy John surgery, but he’s proven to be a solid contributor and he’ll no longer be relied on as much with Brandon League finally coming into his own. League gave up just eight earned runs in 33 innings last year.
Scott Downs is a left-hander who can get out the right-handers as well and he was an innings eater for Toronto in 2008. While fellow leftie Brian Tallet rounds out, but doesn’t complete a solid staff.
They of course are all held together by B.J. Ryan, who plain and simple, makes games shorter. With rotation issues, if the bullpen can pick up the slack and get the ball to Ryan, the Jays might win some more games than we all think.
Biggest Concern: A Rotation in Flux
Roy Halladay is still around for now and he’s always a legit Cy Young award contender. Plus there are some familiar names in Litsch, Janssen and Purcey in the fold. But are these guys really healthy options to be playing second-fiddle to Halladay?
With Dustin McGowan out till May at the earliest, A.J. Burnett pitching for rival New York, and Shaun Marcum on the shelf for 2009, the Blue Jays must rely on rather uncertain starters like Jesse Litsch.
While Litsch’s two seasons of work shouldn’t make you blink, at least 20 starts in the past two years with ERA’s under four, he’s never had the pressure of being the second guy.
Left-hander David Purcey isn’t as young as Litsch but his taste of big league action is limited to 12 starts in 2008, and he had his ups and downs.
Two rotation spots are up for grabs; one contender is Casey Janssen, who hasn’t started a game since 2006 and hasn’t even pitched since 2007. After appearing in 70 games as a relief pitcher in 2007, Janssen didn’t pitch at all in 2008 due to a torn labrum.
Will guys like Matt Clement and Mike Maroth save the day? Maybe one can until McGowan is back, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Aside from Halladay and maybe Litsch, this rotation has some issues. Typically, rotations with issues and no plausible remedies to those issues tend to turn out bad. It could lead to the downfall of the Jays this year.
Biggest Change: The Zaun is Gone
Say what you want about Greg Zaun, but he was a fixture for the Blue Jays.
Now he’s keeping the seat warm for the Oriole’s super-prospect Matt Wieters.
He may not have been much, but not seeing Zaun behind the plate for the Blue Jays is going to be a change, especially since now Michael Barrett is the new backup catcher.
Will it make much difference on the field? Probably, in a good way offensively maybe, Barrett definitely has some punch, A.J. Pierzynski-related incidents excluded, but it will just be strange seeing Zaun play catch for Baltimore and not Toronto.
Team MVP: Roy Halladay, SP
The master of the complete game, Roy “Doc” Halladay is without a doubt the MVP for the Blue Jays. That is if he’s on the roster all year.
While the Jays may not have any thoughts of trading him, he could be a hot commodity come mid-summer if Toronto is out of the fierce race in the AL East.
But with him, the Jays still have a chance. He can take pressure off the bullpen by going the distance on any given night, which will take pressure off the other rotation members from doing more than they have to.
As Roy Halladay goes, the Jays go. But if Roy Halladay goes down, the Jays do, too.
On the Rise: Travis Snider, OF
Remember Evan Longoria last year? No, I’m not saying Travis Snider is Evan Longoria, I just wanted to bring him up as a starting point.
Longoria and Snider were drafted the same year, 2006. The difference is Snider was drafted straight out of High School.
And yet, he has a realistic shot of starting for the Blue Jays a year after Longoria got his break with the Rays. Snider might not start the year with Toronto, or he might. But it won’t be long before the much heralded power hitting prospect makes his way to the big league club.
Baltimore might have Matt Wieters, but Toronto and Travis Snider aren’t bad off themselves.
I really want to like Toronto and some of their young talent. But their pitching staff scares me, and not in the good way. Their bullpen is chock-full of talent and arms, but that means nothing if the starting pitchers can’t get them the ball.
Just ask Detroit what it’s like to have starters like Mike Maroth not make it past inning number four and having to turn to a decent arm in the pen night after night.
It gets tiring and it just doesn’t work after awhile. So while I expect Toronto to be competitive, especially on the nights Halladay pitches, there will be a point in the season that they hit a wall.
Their offense is one that I think has serious potential and it has a lot of talent to begin with, but that won’t be enough. Especially when your two best hitters seem to get hurt at different times, leaving one without the other. I’m of course talking about Alex Rios and Vernon Wells.
Add in one of their younger talents in Aaron Hill getting hurt and missing a lot of time. Scott Rolen can never be depended on as the main guy, you’ve got more worries than good relief pitchers, and they have a few of those.
I could really see Toronto falling into the basement this year, especially if they get bit by the injury bug more than once.
Prediction: Finish Last in the AL East
St. Louis Cardinals – NL Central
Last Year: Finished Fourth in NL Central
Notable Additions: SS Khalil Greene, RP Trever Miller, RP Dennys Reyes
Notable Subtractions: IF Aaron Miles, IF Adam Kennedy, IF Felipe Lopez, IF Cesar Izturis, SP Braden Looper, RP Russ Springer, RP Mark Worrell, RP Tyler Johnson, RP Randy Flores, RP Jason Isringhausen
Un-Signed: SP Mark Mulder, RP Ron Villone
Underrated addition: Dennys Reyes
He’ll be missed: Braden Looper
Reyes should impact a bullpen that is losing a lot. Looper was a much better starter than he was relief pitcher.
Biggest Key to Success: Ryan Ludwick’s Performance
I’ve been aware of the Ryan Ludwick story for sometime.
Really, the All-Star caliber season in 2008 couldn’t have happened to a better person. He’s worked hard and he’s a prime example to all minor leaguers to never give up the dream if they want it bad enough.
Ludwick was perhaps down to his final chance with St. Louis in 2008 and he made the most of it. But that was probably the easiest part of becoming an everyday major leaguer.
Now he has to continue that success.
A lot of people say he’s benefited from hitting next to Albert Pujols and that he’ll come back down to earth this season.
Here’s a chance for him to prove those people wrong.
If Ludwick carries over his production from the past season, the Cardinals offense won’t skip a beat. The St. Louis lineup has a lot of nice little pieces, but there is Pujols and then there is Ludwick.
He needs to continue to be a run producer.
Biggest Concern: What’s on Second?
Not what but rather who will play second base for this team? They let go four middle infielders in Miles, Kennedy, Lopez, and Izturis, replacing one side with Khalil Greene, but leaving a void on the other side.
They’ve tried outfielder Skip Schumaker out at the spot, but it’s been a bit of a bumpy road.
Brian Barden and Joe Thurston are both in the mix, but its Brendan Ryan who has the most experience in terms of at-bats.
Depending on when Troy Glaus is ready to play, Ryan could be in the mix for the third base spot as well, but you have to figure, being the youngest and the most successful of the group excluding Schumaker, Ryan has an upper hand.
If they move Schumaker to second, it could open up more at-bats in the outfield for youngster Joe Mather or Chris Duncan, with Mather possibly starting the year at third until Glaus is healthy.
The good thing about second base is that they’ve got a few depth options if their first choice doesn’t work out. Still, you want stability and right now that is something the Cardinals do not have at second.
Biggest Change: Bullpen Turnover
Talk about the middle-infield turnover, how about the bullpen?
Ron Villone, Jason Isringhausen, Russ Springer and Randy Flores made up over 167 innings out of the bullpen for the Cardinals last year. Right now, none of them are on the team.
Neither is Tyler Johnson, who missed the entire 2008 season.
So what is a team to do?
Well, they have options, and lots of them, especially for their closer spot, which has become a bit of a question so far.
Their best relief pitcher and the man who closed most of their games out, Ryan Franklin, is back. Kyle McClellan put together a good year in a set-up capacity.
They added left-hander Dennys Reyes from the Twins and Trever Miller from the Rays into the mix.
But a lot of their hopes hinge on two youngsters, Jason Motte and Chris Perez, who have 52 total innings pitched in the major leagues.
You never know what you are going to get from year to year with bullpens, especially if you aren’t sure who your closer is going to be. Hopefully someone steps in and keeps the job all year, which would let everyone else fall in place and make things so much easier.
If not, it could be a rotation that lasts all year, and that is never fun.
Team MVP: Albert Pujols, 1B
Is there any doubt that Albert Pujols is the driving force behind this team?
It’s a no-brainer; you can’t even try and be different and pick someone else, because Albert Pujols isn’t just the MVP of his team, he’s constantly in the running to be MVP of his league.
There isn’t a better all-around hitter in the NL than Albert Pujols right now and if there is, it’s very close. Some thought that Pujols would down shift due to the elbow injury.
He did just the opposite, hitting for the second best average of his career and reaching base more than ever.
He had quite possibly his most dominate year yet, and he was hurt.
Numbers wise, the home runs and runs batted in, not nearly his best. But the respect he commanded, walking 100 times and collecting nearly 200 hits, Pujols is officially the most feared hitter in the NL.
And in a way, Pujols does make Ryan Ludwick better, but he makes the entire lineup better, because when pitchers avoid him, they give in to respectable hitters and they gain confidence.
Not just a team MVP, but a league MVP, even if it isn’t official every year.
On the Rise: Adam Wainwright, SP
How is Adam Wainwright not a superstar yet?
This is David Price before David Price, only better.
Wainwright burst onto the scene during the Cardinals’ playoff run a few years ago. He became the closer while Jason Isringhausen was hurt and was the closer till the World Series was won.
Then he was moved to his natural spot, the rotation and the results have been steadily progressing.
Wainwright got 25 starts last year, missing time due to injury, but when he came around he showed steady improvement from his first full-year starting.
11-3 with a 3.20 ERA in 132 innings pitched.
This is year three for Wainwright as a starter and I think it’s about time that things clicked in a big way.
He’s got the raw stuff and as we’ve seen, the ability to come up in the clutch. He’s an ace if I’ve ever seen one and this could be the year he takes the next step.
St. Louis is a team that I could put anywhere from second to fourth. I just have a hard time picking between the three teams in the NL Central.
But there is something that sticks out about the Cardinals, I don’t know why.
They just never go away; they never do what you think they are going to do.
Tony La Russa seems to get the most out of his players when you least expect him to, and this team just doesn’t look flashy at all.
I mean, Todd Wellemeyer? That name still doesn’t make the girls go wild, but it gets the job done.
I think the Cardinals have a lot of ifs, especially in their starting pitching, but I think a lot of their ifs hold up and good things happen, Chris Carpenter being the biggest one.
A former Cy Young winner at least shows a little bit of flash, Adam Wainwright takes a big step, and the Cardinals find some offense. They might not make the playoffs, but they are runner-ups in a division that is very tough in the middle.
Prediction: Finish Second in the NL Central
On deck for Monday, Mar. 16: Baltimore and Los Angeles Dodgers