We are finally in the home stretch of it all.
After today, there will be four teams left to preview. I think you can slot teams in to spots now because there is typically just one team left in each division. I’ve tried to leave some suspense in the NL East, but I don’t know if people are ready to buy into me being crazy enough to put the Phillies out of the playoffs.
It isn’t that crazy though, is it?
* Wild Card
Boston Red Sox – AL East
Last Year: Finished Second in AL East, Won Wild Card, Lost in ALCS
Notable Additions: OF Rocco Baldelli, SP Brad Penny, SP John Smoltz, RP Ramon Ramirez, RP Wes Littleton, RP Takashi Saito, RP Fernando Cabrera
Notable Subtractions: IF Alex Cora, OF Coco Crisp, SP Curt Schilling, SP Paul Byrd, SP Bartolo Colon, RP David Aardsma
Underrated addition: Rocco Baldelli
He’ll be missed: Coco Crisp
Baldelli could be one of the best fourth outfield options in the game. Crisp was proven insurance, above solid defensively, and the prototypical fourth outfielder.
Biggest Key to Success: Infirmary Report
This team is a walking infirmary report.
Face it, they’ve got players in and out of the trainer’s room, yet they still manage to be awesome.
There are a lot of important pieces on this team that need to stay healthy for most of the season.
David Ortiz is probably the big one on offense. J.D. Drew can be in and out, unless it’s June, it doesn’t seem to matter. Mike Lowell is definitely important, but without Manny Ramirez, Ortiz has to be good.
His wrist really hampered the performance he had last year. Let’s wait to see what a healthy Ortiz can do before we start go calling him Mo Vaughn.
Josh Beckett would be the guy in the pitching staff and in my opinion, the most important player on this team. Josh Beckett is healthy; they probably win the ALCS and go back to the World Series.
Face it, he’s got ice running through his body and while that’s awesome and totally clutch, it seems some of his body parts are actually ice.
Add in Lowell, even Drew, new addition Brad Penny, there is a group of players that dealt with injuries last year or in the past that you have to worry about.
Kevin Youkilis early injury issue probably isn’t making things any better either. If the Red Sox want to contend for the World Series, they need their big guns on the field.
Biggest Concern: Catch Me If You Can
The one spot that the Red Sox didn’t really address in the offseason with any large impact was the catcher position.
They re-signed their captain, Jason Varitek, and attempted to re-add Josh Bard to the mix, but eventually cut Bard during camp.
So now they are left with very little at the spot. Varitek’s numbers translate better to a backup role, but because of the Red Sox failure to land a better option, he’ll be the starter.
This will become an Achilles' heel for Boston throughout the entire season if Varitek is behind the plate for a majority of the games. As good as he is handling a pitching staff; he was never a top guy for controlling the run game. His negatives outweigh his positives as a starting catcher at this point his career.
Boston will need some sort of answer, be it young George Kottaras or an outside addition, Varitek’s continued production will not cut it.
Biggest Change: Take a Chance
I for one love the way the Red Sox handled their offseason business. They weren’t going to stay the same as last year, a team that was coming off a World Series, reaching all the way to the ALCS. The success was there.
That was even after they traded their most feared slugger, Manny Ramirez.
However the Red Sox didn’t break the bank either. They made an attempt at Mark Teixeira, but in the end they settled for low-risk ventures like Brad Penny, Takashi Saito, John Smoltz, and Rocco Baldelli.
Coco Crisp was a nice fourth outfielder, especially when they were dealing with injuries to David Ortiz, sliding J.D. Drew or, when he was there, Ramirez into the DH spot and letting Crisp play center was a luxury.
Crisp was traded for a relief pitcher, Ramon Ramirez, who makes the Red Sox bullpen very deep, but replacing him is Rocco Baldelli.
He never seems to be healthy, but if he can stay fresh as the fourth outfielder, he might find a role that can maximize his abilities and situation.
I like Brad Penny, who is an All-Star caliber pitcher at a very good price. Takashi Saito has closers experience and with all the arms around him, might be able to remain fresh in his role in the Sox pen.
And if these types of moves don’t pan out, what can you say? It’s a whole heck of a lot better than having just one option, like a Clay Buchholz, and not having him pan out, and you being stuck.
Team MVP: Dustin Pedroia, 2B
I think it’s only fair that the league’s most valuable player is the same for his own team.
Dustin Pedroia opened a lot of eyes with his fantastic 2008 season. Not many people thought he could win the award, more probably didn’t even think he’d make it to the major league level with his height.
We need feel-good players like Pedroia to come around and win something as big as the AL MVP once and awhile. But the feel-goodness is now over.
It’s time for Pedroia to prove he’s for real and he can do what he did on a yearly basis.
With their bigger bats either hurt or traded, it was up to Pedroia and teammate Kevin Youkilis to carry the load for most of the season.
They both held up their end, but look at what Dustin did.
He was the league leader in both hits and runs scored, and he ranked seventh in extra-base hits. Not bad for a little guy.
When Francona lost his middle of the order, Pedroia stepped in to multiple spots in the lineup and got the job done. He adapted to the situation and still produced at the high level needed.
Not to mention, he played a Gold Glove second base.
He may not repeat as the league MVP, but he’s definitely going to have to repeat as team MVP for Boston in 2009.
On the Rise: Justin Masterson, P
So Justin Masterson starts the year as a bit of a spot starter for the Red Sox, filling in when they need him.
He did nothing but churn out quality start after quality start. In his nine games as a starter he went at least six innings in each game. He never really went further than that, but as long as your pitcher is giving you innings and keeping you alive, he’s doing his job.
So is it any wonder Masterson thrived as a relief pitcher?
Deciding to move him into the 'pen, the Red Sox quickly gained some much needed help in the setup role when Masterson kept moving up.
At the end of July he started pitching later in the game, his first eighth inning appearance came on the 30th.
From there on to the end of the season, he carried a 2.12 ERA and come August he was one of the go-to-guys in Francona’s pen.
Could Masterson eventually return to a starter’s role? At this point, the Red Sox won’t need him in that role, but I wouldn’t rule it out. This year he’ll start off as one of the dependable late inning arms in Boston’s bullpen.
His history as a starter gives him the stamina to go more than one inning, which is always a plus late in the game.
When it comes down to it, there is one team that I’d fear more than anyone else in the entire game.
If the Boston Red Sox are healthy, a majority of the year at least, they are a force to be reckoned with. Adding talent like Penny, Saito, and Baldelli carries its risks, but it also carries its big-time potential.
Add it to an already bolstered rotation that includes a blossoming superstar I haven’t even mentioned, Jon Lester, Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka, big potential lies there.
What isn’t to like about what the Red Sox have? When it comes down to it, every team in the game has their flaws, but the Red Sox’s flaws are more unpredictable ones.
The beauty is guys like Baldelli aren’t exactly being counted on for big time production, so if something happens, it isn’t a huge loss.
Now if Beckett goes through another year like he did in 2008, they’ll have issues, but as they showed they can still make it pretty far with him struggling.
All things equal, this team is dangerous and one that I wouldn’t want a part of come the postseason. The Rays could give them another run, but I like Boston to regain control of the AL East.
Prediction: Win the AL East
San Francisco Giants – NL West
Last Year: Finished Fourth in NL West
Notable Additions: IF Edgar Renteria, IF Juan Uribe, SP Randy Johnson, RP Bob Howry, RP Jeremy Affeldt
Notable Subtractions: None
Underrated addition: Jeremy Affeldt
He’ll be missed: None
Affeldt could boost the back end of the pen.
Biggest Key to Success: Pitching Past Me
This pitching staff is good, scary good.
With reigning NL Cy Young Award Winner Tim Lincecum leading the charge, there are many teams fearing what is in store for them in the future.
This rotation is not only good, but it is young.
In addition to Lincecum, the Giants have Matt Cain, who could definitely improve on his numbers from last season, win total aside.
Jonathan Sanchez figures to win the last rotation spot thanks to Noah Lowry’s injuries, but Sanchez has the stuff and could realistically be part of the Cain/Lincecum grouping of young future studs.
Randy Johnson was added to the rotation as the veteran presence and he can do nothing but improve their depth.
Then of course there is Barry Zito, who had a nightmare of a year in 2008. Perhaps with the pressure off, he can focus a little better and put forth the stuff that helped him win a Cy Young.
We’ll get into the bullpen later, but even that is good with one of the more underrated closers in the game in Brian Wilson.
They’ve got pitching to contend with the big boys of the division, it’s just a matter of the offense contributing.
Biggest Concern: Hit Me With Your Best Shot
This team was four less runs away from being dead last in the entire sport in runs scored.
They’ve got no punch, no bark to their bite.
They are virtually returning with the same offense.
Edgar Renteria should be an upgrade for sure; the shortstop spot was a bit of an issue last year, so anything is better than nothing.
Face it, when Bengie Molina is your cleanup hitter, you need some help.
The Giants are hoping Pablo Sandoval and Travis Ishikawa add some power, but let’s not be crazy here; you don’t need power to score runs.
You just need to manufacture them the best way you can.
The offense is the obvious concern for San Francisco this year; they need to score runs to support that fantastic rotation. The concern isn’t so much that they can’t score runs, but they that they don’t know who can score the runs.
They can win some games this year with their pitching, but they can’t win all their games that way. Be it veterans like Aaron Rowand or Randy Winn or younger players like Fred Lewis, multiple people need to step it up.
Biggest Change: Veteran Infusion
In a division like the AL East, it would be kind of pointless for a team like Toronto to go adding veterans in a fashion like the Giants did.
They weren’t super expensive, but isn’t like they went shopping in the bargain bin either.
San Francisco’s offseason plan was very well put together. It may not push them into a division title, but it certainly pushes them towards contending a lot sooner than most would have thought.
With young guys growing up, the Giants could do a lot if their offense starts to click on the same beat of their pitching staff.
To try and help that offense, they brought Edgar Renteria back to the place he belongs, the National League.
It seems the Renteria belongs in the NL and that he puts up his best numbers when he plays in it, so the investment was rather wise, especially since the Giants struggled to get production out of the shortstop position last year.
They also impacted their bullpen with two veteran relief pitchers, Bobby Howry and Jeremy Affelt. The left-right combo of these two should slide perfectly into setup roles and give the Giants a reliable bridge to Brian Wilson.
This could have the same effect the signings of Octavio Dotel and Scott Linebrink had on the White Sox last year.
Then of course the Giants added Randy Johnson, bringing him closer to home and surrounding him with a feared group of young pitchers led by Lincecum.
This team was young last year, 28 years combined on average to be exact, and now those players are a year older and a year wiser and they’ve got some veterans around them to just help accelerate their learning.
Team MVP: Tim Lincecum, SP
In 17 of Tim Linecum’s 34 games, he allowed one earned run or less.
Four of those 34 starts he allowed two runs.
He also went four plus months between starts in which he didn’t go at least five innings of work. He only had three of those games that year by the by.
He only won 18 games, with an ERA that was second best in the game with 2.62.
And of course, he was the strikeout leader.
Tim Lincecum is special and I don’t think anyone doubts that.
He also anchors one of the most talented pitching staffs in the entire game of baseball.
I think we know why he’s this team’s MVP.
On the Rise: Travis Ishikawa, 1B
Everyone might be talking about the large third baseman, slash catcher, slash first baseman Pablo Sandoval and he may be the obvious choice for this portion of the preview.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Sandoval plenty much, but I got my eye on another young hitter.
First baseman Travis Ishikawa has some pop in his bat and he’s put on a display this spring that suggests his audition to end 2008 was no fluke.
Go back to the Triple-A level last year first. In just 171 at-bats, Ishikawa blasted 16 home runs and hit 19 doubles, incredible extra base power in such a small span of time. After he got called up to the Giants, he hit three home runs and six doubles in 95 at-bats.
When you factor in his numbers from Double-A, he hit 71 extra-base hits in one combined season.
That has continued this spring for Ishikawa, with nine extra-base hits, six home runs and three doubles.
He’s going to strikeout some, but he’s a legit power hitting first baseman. I think he’ll come out raking for San Francisco and they’ll be mighty pleased.
The most common thing I hear concerning the Giants is, “If they had only added another bat or two, they’d be really contending.”
I think they are going to make some noise. I do agree with that statement, but I still think their offense will grow enough with the young guys enough to at least help out that pitching staff.
Those pitchers are scary good and if they can just get some runs here and there, they’ll definitely win more games than they did last year.
There isn’t much more to say about this team. Good pitching, shaky offense, they need some help in that area, but they should be fine.
Comparing them to the other two teams in the division not from Los Angeles or Arizona, I think the pitching is far and away better and the offense can grow enough to push them ahead of the other two teams.
Some say they need more bats to surprise, I say they will get some surprise in their bats to help them surprise. I see the Giants finishing third in the always entertaining NL West.
Prediction: Finish Third in the NL West