Ah, yes, that time of year again - baseball season, albeit already a month underway. Will the '09 season bring a new sense of optimism and excitement? We can only hope. The past few years have been pretty dull, especially in October. The Chicago White Sox won their first title since 1917 four years ago, yet nobody really took notice, despite the cloud that had hung over the franchise since the Black Sox scandal in 1919; the 83-win St. Louis Cardinals took the crown in 2006, proving that mediocrity is just fine so long as you play well when it matters most; after ending the curse in 2004, nobody outside Beantown gave a hoot about the Boston Red Sox' second title in four years; and finally, the Philadelphia Phillies, no doubt an offensive juggernaut, enter this year as defending World Champions when we all thought the century-long drought for the Cubbies of Chicago would be over. Last but certainly not least, none of these fall classics went beyond a fifth game. Baseball needs to be saved. We continue the struggle to get past the steroid era. Ratings are falling and interest is waning. Empty seats will likely be more of a common occurrence than ever in a down economy. Say it ain't so, Joe!
Maybe fans will appreciate clean, hard-played ball. A few once-proud franchises that have suffered for years seem to finally be turning it around. Young stars, some of which are already established and others just beginning to emerge, will be around for years. The young talent in the game right now is darn good.
Here's how the regular season will shape up:
1. New York Yankees (93-69) - Yea, yea, I know. Everyone says it every year: the Yankees absolutely destroy teams on paper. I guess why paper is exactly that and nothing more, because the Yankees, for all their paper destroying, missed the postseason last year. That's not going to happen again. Import 1B Mark Teixeira's all-around game is fantastic, and he will provide not only power but average batting cleanup. C Jorge Posada is back, and 2B Robinson Cano will rebound from a poor '08 campaign. Newly signed starters CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett anchor a very deep rotation, perhaps the best in the league. Outside CL Mariano Rivera, the bullpen is a weak link, which will surely blow some games. All things considered, the Bronx Bombers will finish with a win total right around the century mark.
2. Boston Red Sox (91-71) - The Red Sox were a win away from their third World Series in five years, and they more or less bring back the same team. They are solid all around, except maybe for the back end of the rotation. No Manny? No problem! The X-Factor will be SP John Smoltz, who bolted Atlanta to play for a ring. He could be huge for this team down the stretch. The Sox will be back in October.
3. Tampa Bay Rays (89-73) - The defending AL Champs fail to make the playoffs? Well, when the Yankees shell out all those millions and the Red Sox continue to be darn good, yes, someone's the odd man out. Their rotation is on the verge of greatness, and it could get there soon with contributions from top prospect David Price after his call-up. The late innings could be trouble, with a less than stellar pen. Young stars 3B Evan Longoria, LF Carl Crawford, and CF B.J. Upton are three of the most fun players to watch in the game today. May miss out this year, but they’ll be back in October in 2010.
4. Toronto Blue Jays (74-88) - The Jays are an interesting case. They have veteran talent in SP Roy Halladay, CF Vernon Wells, RF Alex Rios, CL B.J. Ryan, and 3B Scott Rolen. With little around them, it might be time for Toronto to become sellers. Stock up the farm and play for the future - because there's three teams significantly better than them in their own division right now. Top OF prospect Travis Snider will start the year in the show, and could have some immediate impact. Former top prospect OF Adam Lind will finally get a full-time gig.
5. Baltimore Orioles (69-93) - The O's have a nice young group of guys for the coming years: RF Nick Markakis, CF Adam Jones, C Matt Wieters, but they, too, must sell hard. 2B Brian Roberts is coveted by many teams and should fetch some good prospects. 1B Aubrey Huff and 3B Melvin Mora can put up numbers, and should be dealt while they still have value, especially with Huff coming off a career year. Baltimore's starting pitching is atrocious, and may cause them to have the league's worst record.
1. Minnesota Twins (86-76) - The Twins take the crown of baseball’s tightest division. Staff ace Francisco Liriano heads a rotation that includes Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey, and CL Joe Nathan is one of the best in the business. The offense isn't great, but it's decent enough, and filled with young talent only bound to get better with time.
2. Detroit Tigers (83-79) - We should have examined the most important aspect of winning before anointing last year's Tigers the team to beat - pitching, something Detroit has very little of. If SP Justin Verlander doesn't recapture his pre-2008 form, this team could be in big trouble. The rotation beyond him is questionable at best, and the bullpen may be even worse. The lineup will but up runs, but will opponents put up more?
3. Kansas City Royals (82-80) - A team on the rise. The Royals have a great 1-2 punch in starters Gil Meche and Zack Greinke, plus a top closer in Joakim Soria. Their lineup is young, but a nice blend of speed and power. 1B Billy Butler will be a stud, and look for 3B Alex Gordon to finally live up to his potential. The back-end of their rotation is poor, but this team will compete for the division in a year or two.
4. Cleveland Indians (81-81) - A .500 season may be too much of a low-ball estimate for the Tribe, but there are too many question marks to place them higher. Ace Cliff Lee will not repeat his Cy Young year, and will C Victor Martinez and DH Travis Hafner get their mojo back? If they don't, tell me - what will opposing pitchers really be afraid of? OF Grady Sizemore, that's about it.
5. Chicago White Sox (73-89) - A playoff team last year, it may be time for Ozzie & Co. to go into rebuilding mode. The loss of durable SP Javier Vazquez hurts, and at the plate, who besides LF Carlos Quentin and SS Alexei Ramirez really excites you? Get rid of the older bats while you can, guys.
1. Los Angeles Angels (91-71) - Pitching, pitching, pitching! Oh yes, the Halos have got plenty of it. The rotation includes John Lackey, Ervin Santana, Jered Weaver, and Joe Saunders, all of whom have All-Star ability. The pen remains strong despite the loss of CL Francisco Rodriguez. Trustworthy set-up man Scott Shields is still there, as is young flamethrower Jose Arredondo, and CL Brian Fuentes was signed as a free agent to nail down wins. The offense is potent as usual, and the 3-6 spots in the lineup are lethal. Look for C Mike Napoli to hit 25 bombs.
2. Texas Rangers (81-81) - Another team that seems headed in the right direction. The Rangers are absolutely stacked on offense, with stars CF Josh Hamilton and 2B Ian Kinsler leading the way. Young 1B Chris Davis is a hot pick to hit 30 homers in his first full year, and contributions can be had from LF David Murphy, SS Michael Young, and whoever of their young trio of catchers sees playing time. As for the staff, it could be better, but help is on the way. Prospects Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland are both highly touted, and could make an impact as early as this year.
3. Oakland Athletics (75-87) - The A's are a young, developing team, which makes you scratch your head at the Matt Holliday trade and the Jason Giambi signing. Whatever his motive, I'm sure GM Billy Beane has good reason. They should remain competitive until late summer, when they'll begin to fade a bit, or a lot, if Holliday is traded.
4. Seattle Mariners (70-92) - For such a bloated payroll, the results were awful last season for the M's. It won't get much better this year. Trading RF Ichiro Suzuki now would make a lot of sense, since he alone could net a boatload of prospects. SP Erik Bedard will be coveted by numerous teams when the trade deadline approaches.
1. New York Mets (91-71) - They didn't enter the free agent spending spree like their crosstown rivals, but the Mets transformed their bullpen from one of the worst to one of the best in one off-season. They essentially have two closers after signing CL Francisco Rodriguez and trading for former Seattle CL J.J. Putz. Last year's Mets' CL Billy Wagner was expected to miss all of '09, but may be back as early as July. If he's effective, a Wagner/Putz/K-Rod combo to finish games could be hell on opposition. After ace Johan Santana, the rotation is good, but not great. John Maine's stats have gotten progressively worse the past few seasons, Oliver Perez is an enigma, Mike Pelfrey is unproven, and Livan Hernandez has an ERA over six last year. The lineup remains the same, but look for a bit of a bounce back from 2B Luis Castillo and for a pleasant surprise from LF Daniel Murphy, who is so disciplined for such a young guy at the dish. SS Jose Reyes remains one of the most electrifying players in the game, 3B David Wright has all the tools to win an MVP, and CF Carlos Beltran just isn't appreciated for being one of the best center fielders today. 1B Carlos Delgado is 31 homers shy of 500, and is in a contract year. Needless to say, the Mets are counting on him to pick up right where he left off last season.
2. Philadelphia Phillies (88-74) – The defending World Champs bring back nearly all of the same team, and you can say they even upgraded in left by replacing LF Pat Burrell with the more consistent LF Raul Ibanez. However, outside of their more than potent offense, questions remain. Will SP Cole Hamels be an effective ace after a taxing ’08? Will CL Brad Lidge be perfect, or at least close to it, again? Will Moyer repeat his solid ’08, now at age 46? They aren’t favorites to repeat, but their lineup may carry them to October.
3. Atlanta Braves (83-79) – Boy, what a rough off-season for Braves loyalists. So many guys were supposed to wear an Atlanta uniform this year – SP Jake Peavy, SS Rafael Furcal, OF Ken Griffey Jr., among others. But, they did land starters Javier Vazquez and Derek Lowe, who should make a formidable 1-2 punch. Outside of that, there’s a lot of uncertainty. 1b Casey Kotchman is a far cry from Mark Teixeira, 3B Chipper Jones isn’t getting younger, and who is the real Jeff Francoeur? Top pitching prospect Tommy Hanson should see action by mid-season. The Braves are a work in progress.
4. Florida Marlins (82-80) – So, who’s a believer in the 6-year theory? The Fish are due for their third World Series ring if the pattern continues. While you have to tip your hat to upper management for putting a competitive team on the field with such a small payroll, this bunch won’t be playing in October. The lineup is decent enough but young and while they have plenty of home run threats, they lack true power guys in the middle of their lineup. Their rotation is surprisingly deep, with Ricky Nolasco good and only getting better, and the same can be said for Chris Volstad, Josh Johnson, and Anibal Sanchez – none older than 26. Maybe with the maturation of a couple of kids, i.e. OF Cameron Maybin, SP Andrew Miller, 1b Gaby Sanchez, the Marlins can make a playoff run next year.
5. Washington Nationals (68-94) – The Nats have a few talented guys, and import LF Adam Dunn is always good for 35-40 bombs. But the fact remains that it’s the same ol’ story for Washington: they’re simply a bad team and are a far drop-off from anyone else in this otherwise competitive division. 3B Ryan Zimmerman could rebound in a big way after an injury-plagued ’08, and SP prospect Jordan Zimmerman will get seasoning as the team’s No. 5 starter.
1. Chicago Cubs (97-65) – The best team in baseball. The lineup is lethal and the rotation is one of the deepest in the game. LF Alfonso Soriano is always a great power/speed threat, and 1B Derek Lee, 3B Aramis Ramirez, new RF Milton Bradley, and C Geovany Soto form a deadly 3-6 that will drive opposing pitchers nuts. Starters Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Rich Harden, and Ted Lilly are better than any other four-man rotation they will face in October. CL Kerry Wood left for Cleveland, but CL Kevin Gregg will be fine as a set-up man, a role he’ll likely wind up in before season’s end thanks to fireballer CL Carlos Marmol. The Cubbies will open up a huge lead over the rest of the Central by mid-summer and never look back. There won’t be a repeat of last year’s October swoon.
2. St. Louis Cardinals (83-79) – What to say about the Redbirds? Not much. They made little to no improvements, but having the best player in the game in 1B Albert Pujols will keep them relevant until late summer.
3. Cincinnati Reds (82-80) – The dark days may finally be over for the franchise. Emerging studs 1b Joey Votto, RF Jay Bruce, and SP Edinson Volquez are going to be around for a lonnggg time in Cincy. Brandon Phillips is an elite 2B, and 3B Edwin Encarnacion, considered a flop despite 26 home runs last year, is still young and has room for improvement. SP Aaron Harang will have a bounce back year, and CL Francisco Cordero is one of the game’s better closers. The Reds could finish higher, but they’ll need time to gel and to get more starting pitching first.
4. Milwaukee Brewers (80-82) – The Brew Crew made the playoffs last year thanks to the now-departed C.C. Sabathia. The lineup is stacked and has one of the game’s best young hitters in LF Ryan Braun, but the rotation is not. Milwaukee will give up a ton of runs, especially if SP Yovani Gallardo isn’t in top form.
5. Houston Astros (76-86) – Sell, sell, sell! They clearly don’t have the weapons to compete, even despite a surge midsummer last year. But, they do have stars: 1B Lance Berkman, LF Carlos Lee, and ace Roy Oswalt can all be dangled. Pitching is always desired, and Lee has a huge ego, but can rake, so look for a youth movement in Houston.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates (67-95) – The Bucs will challenge for the title of worst team in baseball. They have a bunch of young guys, but they’re far too raw and need to get a feel for the big leagues first. CF Nate McLouth and C Ryan Doumit lead a hardly stellar group in The Steel City.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers (90-72) – Outside of ace Chad Billingsley and young Clayton Kershaw, the rotation is nothing to write home about. The Dodgers will get into the postseason with their lineup, which makes the leap from solid to fantastic thanks to the re-signing of LF Manny Ramirez. And his supporting cast ain’t too shabby: C Russ Martin is one of the best at his position, SS Rafael Furcal is a top shortstop when healthy, CF Matt Kemp is primed for a massive breakout, and 1B James Loney and RF Andre Ethier will be contributors. CL Jonathan Broxton will be responsible for protecting leads in the ninth, now that CL Takashi Saito left for Bean Town.
2. Arizona Diamondbacks (85-77) – Loaded with young talent, they’re probably a year away. Granted they made the playoffs two years ago, but that was a different team and they played way over their heads. 1B Conor Jackson, SS Stephen Drew, CF Chris Young, and RF Justin Upton will all be in ‘Zona a long time, and the D-Backs will very soon possibly have a beastly three-headed monster of starters Brandon Webb, Dan Haren, and Max Scherzer. Look out.
3. San Francisco Giants (75-87) – Quite a drop off from the top two teams in the division. The Giants simply don’t have any big hitters who are going to strike fear into opposing pitchers. The rotation is fine, but ace and reigning NL Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum should come back to Earth a little bit, lessening the Giants’ win total.
4. Colorado Rockies (74-88) – Are we unanimous that their NL pennant two short seasons ago was one of the biggest flukes ever? Gone are star LF Matt Holliday to Oakland and ace Jeff Francis, who is lost for the year to injury. Their rotation is awful, and while their lineup can hit, their opponents can, too. And given the Rox’ staff, the opposition may be teeing off a bit more than Colorado. Speedster OF prospect Dexter Fowler takes over center.
5. San Diego Padres (71-91) – Sure to be sellers, the Pods will almost certainly have rid themselves of ace Jake Peavy by the trading deadline. He will net a lot in return, but aside from him, they don’t really have many commodities to trade, unless they go all-out and deal star 1b Adrian Gonzalez. They should take what they can get and focus on having a strong draft. Lean years ahead in America’s Finest City.
(3) Minnesota Twins @ (1) New York Yankees – Minnesota’s rotation is well-built for the playoffs, but so is the Yankees’ – and their lineup destroys what the Twins have. Minnesota may steal a game or even two, but the Yanks advance. YANKEES IN FOUR
(4) Boston Red Sox @ (2) Los Angeles Angels – I like the Angels’ starters a bit more, but at the end of the day, I’m going with Boston’s bullpen, lineup, experience, and of course, ownership of the Halos. RED SOX IN FOUR
(4) Philadelphia Phillies @ (1) Chicago Cubs – Everything fell into place last year for the Phils. Not this time - the Cubbies sweep the defending champs right out of the playoffs in the first round. CUBS IN THREE
(3) Los Angeles Dodgers @ (2) New York Mets – A rematch of the 2006 NLDS should be a fun one. Both teams have a suspect rotations, good bullpens, and potent lineups. The Dodgers have Manny, but the Mets have home advantage – and Johan Santana twice. METS IN FIVE
(4) Boston Red Sox @ (1) New York Yankees – Not to be anti-climatic, but I don’t see this being a classic series like the 2003 and 2004 ALCS were. It may go six or seven games, but not due to great baseball, but rather a meltdown by a starter (Chien Ming Wang, anyone?), or a bullpen (the Yanks is far inferior). But New York is the better team, and will get back to the World Series for the first time in six years. YANKEES IN SIX
(2) New York Mets @ (1) Chicago Cubs – After Santana, the Mets 2-4 starters just don’t match up with Chicago’s. I’ll take Zambrano/Harden (whoever you DON’T consider the ace), Dempster, and Lilly over Maine, Pelfrey, and Hernandez (assuming Perez is bumped from the rotation because he’s too much of a risk). Also, the Mets’ bottom third of the order is extremely weak. Cubs advance to their first World Series since Harry Truman was in the White House.
New York Yankees (93-69) vs. Chicago Cubs (97-65) – Now what better to save baseball than THIS! Lou Piniella managing against the team he played a decade for; Soriano in the Series against his the team that traded him for A-Rod; Fukudome vs. Matsui; Harden vs. Sabathia; Windy City vs. Big Apple in a battle of two of the biggest markets. The Yankees’ 1-2 punch of Sabathia and Burnett slightly edges Harden and Zambrano, but it’s so close and the Cubs’ 3-4 match up evenly with the Yankees’ that starting pitching is a virtual wash. The offensive advantage again goes to New York, but by a hair. As a whole, the Cubs’ bullpen gets the edge, but the Yankees have Mo. The young Joe Girardi goes up against Sweet Lou in an epic battle for ages. In one of the best Fall Classics ever… it’s finally time to pop champagne in Chicago. CUBS IN SEVEN
So, what can save the national pastime? Well, a seven game World Series surely wouldn't hurt. Just think of some of the teams we've seen in the series the past few years - the Rays, Rockies, Astros - who really cares about them? But what if two of the oldest franchises battled it out in an epic seven game battle? Don't think it's a dream, because it well may happen.
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