Sunday, March 30, 2008

MLB Preview: Final Predictions

American League

Playoff Teams:
New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, Boston (wildcard)

MVP: Alex Rodriguez
Cy Young: Erik Bedard
Rookie of the Year: Adam Jones
Manager of the Year: Jim Leyland

National League

Playoff Teams:
Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York (wildcard)

MVP: Chase Utley
Cy Young: Johan Santana
Rookie of the Year: Justin Upton
Manager of the Year: Joe Torre

And finally...
World Series: Los Angeles Angels over New York Mets

MLB Preview: NL West

(Teams listed in order of projected finish)

Los Angeles Dodgers
Hitting: There aren't many holes in this Dodgers lineup. Russell Martin is the best catcher in the NL, Matt Kemp hit .342 last year, Andruw Jones hit 26 HRs in a "down year," and Jeff Kent is still one of the better hitting second basemen in the league. Grade: B+
Pitching: This will also be a strong point. Brad Penny is coming off a 16 win season, Derek Lowe is a solid #2, Chad Billingsley won 12 games and posted a 3.31 ERA, and the team signed highly-touted Hiroki Kuroda from Japan. Takashi Saito and Jonathan Broxton should give the Dodgers a strong bullpen as well. Grade: B+
Fantasy Sleeper: Andruw Jones - Even if he replicates last season's supposed disappointment, he'll still be better than most outfielders, and would it shock anyone if he cranked out another 35 HR season?
X-Factor: Joe Torre - He'll be in a very different situation from his Yankee days, as he'll be dealing with a fairly young team. Whether he can mesh with his new club could be the difference between a 1st place and 4th place finish.
Overview: It'll be a dogfight, but the Dodgers have the talent both at the plate and on the mound to win the division. They might be the most well-rounded team in the NL West and the hiring of Joe Torre could be enough to make the difference and elevate them to the top of the standings.

Colorado Rockies

Hitting: This was the Rockies forte last year, as they were able to get production from almost the entire lineup. Matt Holliday, Garrett Atkins, Todd Helton, Brad Hawpe, and Troy Tulowitski give the Rockies as much offensive firepower as any team in the National League. Grade: A+
Pitching: While it was not a particular strength, the pitching was very good by Rockies standards. Jeff Francis returns as the staff ace and the Rockies will look to get some more quality outings from second-year starters Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales. Another second-year player, Manny Corpas, will close, and he'll have former closer Brian Fuentes in a set-up role. Grade: C
Fantasy Sleeper: Willy Taveras - He stole 33 bases, despite playing in only 97 games due to injury. If he's healthy he should get at least 40 steals and plenty of runs.
X-Factor: Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales - These two pitched extremely well down the stretch and helped propel the Rockies into the playoffs with their incredible September run. They'll need to have similar success for the entire season for the Rockies to repeat as division champs.
Overview: It's hard to know how their young pitching staff will hold up, but the Rockies offense is still one of the best in baseball. That should be enough to keep them in the running even with mediocre pitching. However, if the pitching is comparable to last year, or better, the Rockies could run away with the division.

Arizona Diamondbacks
Hitting: Arizona has an interesting balance of power and speed. Eric Byrnes and Chris Young should each go 20-20, at least. Conor Jackson and Mark Reynolds provide some power, though Jackson is coming off a disappointing season. Stephen Drew will also look to improve after a lackluster rookie year. Grade: B-
Pitching: Brandon Webb was already arguably the best pitcher in the National League and he'll now be joined by Dan Haren, the AL starter at the 2007 All-Star Game. There is a major drop-off after Webb and Haren, but still enough talent that starting pitching won't be a liability. Jose Valverde was traded, so Brandon Lyon moves into the closer role, which could prove problematic as he has very little experience closing games. Grade: B
Fantasy Sleeper: Conor Jackson - He wasn't particularly impressive last season, as he battled injuries, but he's a lock for the first base job now that Tony Clark is gone and he's got good potential.
X-Factor: Brandon Lyon - Can he replace Valverde? The D-Backs won a lot of close games last year and they'll need their bullpen to be at its best.
Overview: While the addition of Haren will help quite a bit, Arizona was lucky to win 90 games last year. They were actually outscored overall, so one has to think a great deal of luck came into play. Also, the bullpen was essential to winning so many close games, and they traded their closer in the off-season. Ultimately, adding Haren should be enough to off-set the "luck" factor and the D-Backs should win almost as many games as they did last season.

San Diego Padres
Hitting: Adrian Gonzalez leads the way, fresh off a 30 HR, 100 RBI season and Khalil Greene had 27 HRs, but they won't have too much help. Kevin Kouzmanoff, Brian Giles, and Tadahito Iguchi will all chip in, but none of them will scare opposing pitchers. Grade: C-
Pitching: Reigning Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy, Chris Young, and Greg Maddux will get all the hype, but don't forget Randy Wolf and Justin Germano, who are very good for 4th and 5th starters. Trevor Hoffman leads the bullpen yet again, which, even at 40, is still a good thing. Grade: A
Fantasy Sleeper: Randy Wolf - He's an injury risk, but if he stays healthy he could be in for a great year. He'll benefit from pitcher-friendly Petco Park and he's shown the ability to rack up Ks in the past.
X-Factor: Mark Prior - He could be a tremendous asset if he can stay on the field, but that's been extremely rare for him in recent years. Still, if he can return to his old form, the Padres pitching will be flat out dominant.
Overview: The Padres boast an outstanding pitching staff, but the offense will not consistently score enough for them to keep up with the Rockies and Diamondbacks. If the pitching is even better than expected, or they get some unexpected offensive contributions, they could take the division or wildcard, but more likely they'll fall short of the playoffs.

San Francisco Giants
Hitting: Where will the offense come from now that Barry Bonds is gone? Good question. Aaron Rowand will help make up for the loss of Bonds, but one has to wonder whether last season's career year was a result of his playing in a hitter's park and batting behind Ryan Howard. Grade: F
Pitching: Barry Zito had an unimpressive first season in San Francisco and there's little reason to believe he'll do much better this year. At least there won't be any pressure. Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum are two of the best young arms in the NL and both could be in line for breakout seasons. There's no telling what the bullpen will bring, with Brian Wilson stepping in as the closer. Grade: C-
Fantasy Sleeper: Matt Cain - He lost 16 games last year, but that had more to do with terrible run support than anything else, as he had a 3.65 ERA and 173 Ks. He still won't win many games, but his ERA and strikeouts should be a boon.
X-Factor: Ray Durham - He hit only .218 last year, but in 2006 he batted .293 with 26 HRs and 93 RBIs. If he can put up those numbers again, the Giants offense might have a little life after all.
Overview: The Giants were a bad team with Bonds last year, but he was still hitting very well. Without him it will be a long season. Aaron Rowand is their best hitter, and as good as Rowand was last year, that's not a good sign for the Giants. The pitching has some potential, but not enough for the Giants to be in the race. This year is about developing Cain, Lincecum, and any other talented prospects.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

MLB Preview: NL Central

(Teams listed in order of projected finish)

Chicago Cubs
Hitting: Led by Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, and Derrek Lee, the Cubs could have the best offense in the NL Central. Both Soriano and Ramirez missed about 30 games last year, but if healthy, they should each hit 30+ HRs this season. Ryan Theriot will supply speed at the top of the order and Japanese import Kosuke Fukudome should provide some additional power. Grade: A-
Pitching: Carlos Zambrano is coming off a down year, but he still finished with 18 wins. Ted Lilly had 15 wins and Rich Hill chipped in with 11 of his own. Zambrano, Lilly, and Hill all finished with sub-4.00 ERAs, but the back of the rotation is questionable, with Ryan Dempster and Jason Marquis. Meanwhile, Kerry Wood takes over as the closer, as he'll just try to stay healthy for a change. Grade: C+
Fantasy Sleeper: Ryan Theriot - He stole 28 bases last year and was only caught 4 times. With a regular starting job he should be able to steal 30-35 easily.
X-Factor: Rich Hill - Can he follow up last season's success, or will hitters adjust to him? Without a great deal of starting pitching depth, the Cubs need him to pitch well.
Overview: The Cubs won the division last year, despite injuries and underachieving from several key players. They have the talent to win it again, but they won't have as much margin for error this time around.

Milwaukee Brewers
Hitting: The Brewers might have the best young trio of hitters in the majors, with Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, and Corey Hart. Fielder should be good for another 50 HRs and Braun might have a shot at 50 of his own, after he clubbed 34 in just 118 games in 2007. Grade: A-
Pitching: If the Brewers can just keep Ben Sheets on the field, they'd have to be happy, as he hasn't made 25 starts since 2004. After Sheets, the rotation thins out. Jeff Suppan struggled in his first season in Milwaukee and Yovani Gallardo will start the season on the DL. The bullpen took a hit when Francisco Cordero left and the Brewers replaced him with (gulp) Eric Gagne. Grade: C-
Fantasy Sleeper: Corey Hart - He got a lot less attention than Braun last year, but he hit 24 HRs and stole 23 bases. Expect him to improve those numbers this season.
X-Factor: Eric Gagne - The bullpen isn't especially impressive after Gagne, so the Brewers will need him to be a reliable closer.
Overview: The Brewers should, once again, have a very dangerous lineup, especially considering that Prince, Braun, and Hart could all improve, but the pitching will likely keep them out of the division lead. If Sheets can stay healthy and Gallardo makes a quick recovery, perhaps that changes, but odds are they'll be on the outside looking in come October.

Houston Astros
Hitting: Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee hit 66 HRs between them last year, while Hunter Pence hit .322 with 17 HRs in just 108 games in his rookie season. Add Miguel Tejada and speed demon Michael Bourn and the Astros offense becomes very dangerous. Grade: B+
Pitching: Roy Oswalt is a legitimate staff ace, but the rest of the rotation is very suspect. The bullpen should get a boost as Jose Valverde steps in as closer, though the middle relief is mediocre, at best. Grade: D+
Fantasy Sleeper: Michael Bourn - He stole 18 bases as little more than a pinch runner with the Phillies. Now, with the center field job to himself, there's reason to believe he could swipe 50 in '08.
X-Factor: Starters not named "Oswalt" - We all know Oswalt can pitch, but what about Wandy Rodriguez, Brandon Backe, Shawn Chacon, and Chris Sampson?
Overview: The Astros could have one of the National League's better offenses, but where is the pitching going to come from? They've got a weak rotation and no bullpen depth. Unless the offense can carry them or they get a few pleasant surprises from their pitching staff, it's hard to see them finishing above .500.

St. Louis Cardinals
Hitting: Once again, Albert Pujols will be the main component of the Cardinals offense. Pujols is coming off an injury-plagued year in which he hit "only" 32 HRs. If healthy, he should be good for 40+, but that's a big "if" right now. With Troy Glaus and Rick Ankiel in the fold, he may have more help than usual, but Glaus is an injury-risk himself and one has to wonder whether Ankiel can hit at the rate he did last season, when he had 11 HRs in 47 games. Grade: C
Pitching: With Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder still nursing injuries, Adam Wainwright will lead the staff. He appears more than capable of doing so, but he won't have much behind him in the rotation. The Cardinals bring back a similar bullpen to last season, and as long as Jason Isringhausen can stay healthy, it should be a strength. Grade: C-
Fantasy Sleeper: Chris Duncan - He didn't wow anyone the way Ankiel did, but he hit 21 HRs and posted a very solid .834 OPS.
X-Factor: Troy Glaus - He's shown the ability to hit 35+ HRs when he's healthy, but he battled injuries last year and hit only 20. If he can give Pujols some backup, the Cardinals offense could be dangerous.
Overview: As they stand, the Cardinals look like a very mediocre team, but by mid-season they should have Carpenter and Mulder back. If they can stay afloat for the first half of the season, they could be in position to make a run in the second half. Unfortunately, for this to occur, the rest of the team would have to stay healthy as well, and with their track records, it seems unlikely.

Cincinnati Reds
Hitting: Adam Dunn should be good for another 40 HRs and Brandon Phillips has a good chance to replicate his 30-30 season. After that, there is some uncertainty. Ken Griffey Jr. hit 30 HRs, but what are the odds he's healthy two years in a row? Grade: C+
Pitching: Aaron Harang is one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball, but then what? Bronson Arroyo followed up a great 2006 with a lackluster 2007, in which he lost 15 games. After that comes Matt Belisle and a pair of rookies. The bullpen should be decent with Francisco Cordero, David Weathers, and Jeremy Affeldt, but it will get a lot of work. Grade: F
Fantasy Sleeper: Corey Patterson - He's had a very up-and-down career, but if he gets consistent at-bats, he should come up with 30+ steals.
X-Factor: Bronso Arroyo - He won 14 games with a 3.29 ERA in 2006, but came back down to Earth in 2007. He'll need to get back to his '06 form and give the Reds a solid #2 for them to have any chance.
Overview: The Reds should have a strong lineup once again, but the pitching will continue to be their downfall. Unless Arroyo and the young arms can step up (and in Great American Ballpark, it seems unlikely), the Reds should be in for another long year.

Pittsburgh Pirates
Hitting: The Pirates struggled to drive in runs last year and they'll continue to do so in 2008, bringing back virtually the same lineup. Jason Bay and Adam LaRoche both played well below expectations and they'll need to bounce back for the Pirates to score with any consistency. Grade: D
Pitching: While they don't sport any big names, the Pirates rotation has some good young arms. Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny both pitched very well last year. If Paul Maholm can improve and Matt Morris can provide some steady outings, the rotation could be a strength. Matt Capps and Damaso Marte should be effective out of the bullpen, but that's about it. Grade: C-
Fantasy Sleeper: Nate McLouth - He hit only .258 last year, but he stole 22 bases and was caught just once. With a regular starting job, he should steal 30+ bases.
X-Factor: Jason Bay - The Pirates need someone to step up at the plate and Bay used to be that guy. He hit 35 HRs in 2006 before dropping to 21 last year.
Overview: The Pirates have some intriguing pitchers, but not much depth. In addition, their hitting is a major weakness. If Bay and LaRoche can return to their 2006 forms, the Pirates could have enough pop to surprise some people, but more likely they'll stay in the cellar.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

MLB Preview: NL East

(Teams listed in order of projected finish)

Philadelphia Phillies
Hitting: Defending MVP Jimmy Rollins, former MVP Ryan Howard, and (future MVP?) Chase Utley led a high-powered offense. They'll get help from Pat Burrell, Shane Victorino, and newly-acquired Geoff Jenkins. From top to bottom this is the best offense in the National League. Grade: A+
Pitching: Cole Hamels established himself as an ace last season, though he'll technically be the #2 starter this year as Brett Myers returns to the rotation. Myers struggled as a starter in 2007, but he should still be an upgrade. The back-end of the rotation is questionable, with youngster Kyle Kendrick, oldster Jamie Moyer, and an undetermined fifth starter. Brad Lidge will get a shot at closing, while Tom Gordon and J.C. Romero pitch middle relief. Grade: C+
Fantasy Sleeper: Pedro Feliz - He's hit 20+ HRs in each of the last 4 years and now he moves to the friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park. Barring a platoon with Greg Dobbs, he should hit 25 or more.
X-Factor: Kyle Kendrick - He was something of a savior for the team last year, going 10-4 after being called up from AA, but can he do it again in '08? He'll need to for the Phillies to contend for the division again.
Overview: While there are serious questions about the back of the Phillies rotation and a few about the bullpen (notably Brad Lidge's health), the offense should be as good as it was last year, if not better. The additions of Pedro Feliz and Geoff Jenkins will more than account for the loss of Aaron Rowand. The offense should be able to make up for any suspect pitching, as it did last season.

New York Mets
Hitting: The Mets have a Big Three of their own in David Wright, Carlos Beltran, and Jose Reyes, but the rest of the lineup is hard to judge. Carlos Delgado is coming off his worst season ever and Moises Alou is 41 and injury-prone. After that, there isn't much offensive firepower. This team went through a lot of dry spells last year and there's little reason to believe that won't continue in 2008. Grade: B
Pitching: The starting rotation should be the best in the National League, with twin aces Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez, John Maine, Oliver Perez, and either Orlando Hernandez or Mike Pelfrey. Santana is arguably the best pitcher in baseball and should benefit from a move of the National League. Martinez will be a great asset if healthy, though at 36 his durability is in question, and Perez struggled with his consistency late last season. The bullpen was problematic last year, aside from Billy Wagner, but on the whole this is a very strong pitching staff. Grade: A-
Fantasy Sleeper: Mike Pelfrey - He's got a chance to nail down the fifth spot in the rotation and if so he should be in line for some wins.
X-Factor: Carlos Delgado - If he can regain his power, the Mets offense could be devastating, but at 35 that's a tall order.
Overview: The Mets received high praise for their trade for Johan Santana and there's no doubt he'll improve their starting pitching. However, that may not be the solution for the Mets. Last year's team collapsed because the hitting was inconsistent and the bullpen fell apart, not because of the starting pitching, which performed well all year. With a slightly worse lineup and the same bullpen, it's hard to see the Mets improving much as a team. They are certainly capable of taking the division, but don't expect a huge jump in the wins column, especially with the tough divisional competition.

Atlanta Braves
Hitting: With Mark Teixiera, Chipper Jones, Jeff Francoeur, and Brian McCann, the Braves field one of the better offenses in the National League. Teixiera hit 17 HRs in only 54 games with the Braves and he should put up monster numbers in his first full season in Atlanta. Jones' health will be a question at age 35, especially considering he hasn't played 140 games since 2003, but he'll produce when he's on the field. Grade: B+
Pitching: John Smoltz and Tim Hudson will be atop the rotation again, and a familiar face joins them, as Tom Glavine makes his Atlanta return. Mike Hampton will also be back, though one has to wonder if he can stay healthy. In the bullpen, Rafael Soriano takes over as closer with Peter Moylan in a set-up role. Grade: B
Fantasy Sleeper: Yunel Escobar - He hit .326 as a second baseman last year and now he becomes the starting shortstop after the departure of Edgar Renteria.
X-Factor: Tom Glavine - It seems a foregone conclusion that Hampton will hit the DL sooner or later, and if so it is paramount that Glavine produces as the #3 starter.
Overview: The Braves look great on paper, but they have a lot to overcome. It will be hard to make up for the losses of Andruw Jones and Renteria on offense, and there are serious age and injury concerns throughout the roster. Glavine is 42, Smoltz is 40, and Hampton and Chipper Jones are 35. Granted, that's only four players, but they are all essential to Atlanta's success. If the Braves can stay healthy, they can take the division, but if injuries take their expected toll, a third place finish is more likely.

Florida Marlins
Hitting: While they can't replace Miguel Cabrera's production (not yet, anyway), the Marlins have some talented young hitters. Hanley Ramirez is capable of MVP-caliber numbers, Dan Uggla and Mike Jacobs are good power hitters, and Jeremy Hermida began to blossom into a fine all-around hitter last season. Also, be on the lookout for Cameron Maybin, after his inevitable call-up. Grade: B-
Pitching: The pitching staff is very much a work in progress, especially with Dontrelle Willis gone. Andrew Miller is incredibly talented, but he's 22 and inexperienced, and it's unclear just how good Scott Olsen and Anibal Sanchez are based on their first two years. Kevin Gregg looks to be the closer again, where he was adequate last season. Grade: D
Fantasy Sleeper: Cody Ross - In limited action last season, he managed a 1.064 OPS. While that won't hold up over 162 games, he could hit upwards of 20 HRs.
X-Factor: Scott Olsen - Was last season a fluke, or did hitters figure him out? Florida has very little starting pitching depth and could use the help.
Overview: Florida's pitching will get some help from their ballpark, but otherwise it's hard to know what to expect. The young arms will get plenty of chances to develop. The Marlins do, however, have a very potent lineup and they should be able to take advantage of weak pitching and slug their way to some victories.

Washington Nationals
Hitting: The Nationals will look to Ryan Zimmerman to improve upon his sophomore season, though he did hit 24 HRs. After Zimmerman, there are a lot of questions. Dmitri Young had a resurgent season, but he'll compete with Nick Johnson for playing time. Lastings Milledge is an intriguing prospect, but he never found a niche with the Mets and one has to wonder why they gave up on him so quickly. Grade: D
Pitching: Before the season even started, the Nationals released their 2007 Opening Day starter, John Patterson. Despite that discouraging sign, the Nationals have some decent arms in Shawn Hill, Tim Redding, and Matt Chico, but none of them look like an ace. Closer Chad Cordero is coming off a down year, but he still racked up 37 saves. Grade: C-
Fantasy Sleeper: Lastings Milledge - It seemed as if he never got a fair shot with the Mets, but he'll get plenty of chances in Washington. He's got the raw talent to put up some good numbers.
X-Factor: Nationals Park - One of the few things this team has going for it is the brand new ballpark that opens this season. It remains to be seen how the ballpark will play, favoring hitters or pitchers, and whether the improved fan turnout is enough to boost the club's play.
Overview: There isn't that much the Nationals do well. Their hitting leaves much to be desired and their pitching is average, at best. That said, there are some talented young players (Zimmerman, Milledge, perhaps even Elijah Dukes) who will have a chance to develop and help this franchise in the long haul.

MLB Preview: AL West

(Teams listed in order of projected finish)

Los Angeles Angels
Hitting: Vladimir Guerrero will be the centerpiece once more, but he should have a little more help this year with Torii Hunter in the mix. Garret Anderson and Gary Matthews Jr. provide some power, while Chone Figgins has excellent speed at the top of the order. Orlando Cabrera will be missed, but Hunter should make up for his production. Grade: B+
Pitching: This is one of the deepest rotations in baseball, with John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar, Jered Weaver, newly acquired Jon Garland, and Ervin Santana. Santana is coming off a 7-14 season, but if he can at least be a .500 pitcher, the Angels will be very tough to beat. Francisco Rodriguez, Justin Speier, and Scot Shields combine to give the Angels an excellent bullpen. Grade: A
Fantasy Sleeper: Mike Napoli - He had 10 HRs in only 75 games last year. If he can win the starting job, there's no reason he can't hit 20.
X-Factor: Garret Anderson - His health is crucial to the Angels success. They can be a good team without him, but, even with the addition of Hunter, they'll need his offense to be a great team.
Overview: The Angels greatest strength is still their pitching, but their offense could be significantly better this year with Hunter on board and Figgins healthy. The key will be keeping Guerrero in good shape, as he has worn down in recent years, but with the improved lineup, there should be less pressure on him. If Guerrero is at 100%, this is the best all-around team in baseball.

Seattle Mariners
Hitting: Aside from Ichiro Suzuki, there is not much star power in this lineup. Adrian Beltre and Raul Ibanez will hit 20+ HRs and drive in about 100 runs, but that's about it. Jose Guillen will be missed. Grade: C
Pitching: Seattle's pitching got a huge boost when they traded for Erik Bedard. He'll take over as staff ace, followed by Felix Hernandez, Jarrod Washburn, Carlos Silva, and Miguel Batista. In the 'pen, J.J. Putz will serve as closer, where he excelled last year with 40 saves, a 0.70 WHIP, and a 1.38 ERA. Grade: B+
Fantasy Sleeper: Riche Sexson - He's coming off a terrible season in which he hit only .205, but he still cranked out 21 HRs, and he hit a combined 73 HRs in 2005 and 2006. He could be due for a bounce-back year.
X-Factor: R.A. Dickey - Dickey will be asked to replace George Sherrill, who was the primary set-up man last season. Lacking an especially deep bullpen, the Mariners will need Dickey to perform and get the ball to Putz in the 9th.
Overview: The Mariners played above their talent last year, winning a ton of close games. That would have been very difficult to replicate, but the addition of Bedard should allow the Mariners to win another 88 games, if not a few more. The real challenge will be off-setting the loss of Jose Guillen. If Sexson returns to form and Brad Wilkerson can make up for Guillen's production, then the Mariners could make a run at the division. More likely they finish in 2nd place.

Oakland Athletics
Hitting: With Nick Swisher in Chicago, the A's offense is looking thin. Jack Cust, Daric Barton, and Emil Brown will make up the heart of the order, at least until Eric Chavez returns from injury. Grade: D
Pitching: Without ace Dan Haren, it will be up to Joe Blanton and the oft-injured Rich Harden to carry the load. The bullpen should be in decent shape, with Huston Street, Alan Embree, Keith Foulke, and Justin Duchscherer. However, with a weak rotation, the 'pen will have its hands full. Grade: D+
Fantasy Sleeper: Daric Barton - It's not much of a sample size, but he had a 1.067 OPS in 18 games with the A's last season and wound up batting 3rd in the first game of the season.
X-Factor: Rich Harden - It will take Harden's first healthy season since 2004 for the A's to be in any way competitive. Not too likely, but if he can stay on the field, there's no doubting his talent.
Overview: Like the Twins, the A's dealt their top hitter and pitcher in the same off-season and there will be no easy recovery. It's hard to argue with Billy Beane's track record, but this looks like a rebuilding year for Oakland.

Texas Rangers
Hitting: With Mark Teixiera gone, Michael Young is the only big name remaining, but he's been in decline the last few years. Marlon Byrd and Ian Kinsler will look to build on last year's success, as will newcomers Milton Bradley and Josh Hamilton. Grade: C-
Pitching: When Jason Jennings (coming off a 6.46 ERA) is considered a pitching upgrade, you know the Rangers are in trouble. Brandon McCarthy has some potential, but struggled last year, and the rest of the rotation was downright awful. Eddie Guardado might provide some stability, but he hasn't been a dominant closer since 2005. Grade: F
Fantasy Sleeper: Jarrod Saltalamacchia - While he was nothing special after being acquired from the Braves, he's got tremendous upside and should see a lot of time behind the plate this year.
X-Factor: Hank Blalock - He put up impressive numbers while healthy last season and is not that far removed from 25-30 HR seasons.
Overview: In Kinsler, Hamilton, and Saltalamacchia, the Rangers have some intriguing young talent, but their pitching staff needs a ton of work. This is undoubtedly a rebuilding year, but perhaps McCarthy can provide a glimmer of hope.

Monday, March 24, 2008

MLB Preview: AL Central

(Teams listed in order of projected finish)

Detroit Tigers
Hitting: The Tigers offense was excellent last year, led by Magglio Ordonez, Curtis Granderson, Gary Sheffield, and Carlos Guillen. Add Miguel Cabrera to the mix and the Tigers should have the best lineup in baseball. Grade: A+
Pitching: Justin Verlander is one of the best young pitchers in baseball, but after him there are few question marks. Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman combined to go 20-22 last year, Kenny Rogers is 43 and only started 11 games in '07, and newly-acquired Dontrelle Willis posted a career-worst 5.17 ERA. The bullpen is also cause for concern. Todd Jones saved 38 games, but did so with a 4.26 ERA, and while Joel Zumaya appears to be waiting in the wings, he only pitched in 28 games in 2007, due to injury. Grade: C+
Fantasy Sleeper: Edgar Renteria - He always seems to fly under the radar, but he'll hit for a good average and should get plenty of runs and RBI chances in this lineup.
X-Factor: Dontrelle Willis - He's coming off a terrible 2007 campaign, but if he can regain his 2005 form, he can take some pressure off of Verlander.
Overview: Much like the Yankees, the Tigers have the offensive talent to power their way to a division title, even if their pitching isn't dominant. Of course, there has to be some concern about whether or not the Tigers can stay healthy. Sheffield and Ordonez both have injury histories and Granderson will start the season on the DL, but even if a few of their hitters are out for brief stretches, they have the depth to compete. The key will be their starting pitching. If Willis and one of Bonderman, Robertson, or Rogers can step up, the Tigers could be the team to beat in 2008.

Cleveland Indians
Hitting: Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore, and Victor Martinez lead a balanced attack that should be among the league's better offenses. Hafner's power dropped off last year, but he should return to hit at least 30 home runs. Grade: B+
Pitching: C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona is as good a 1-2 punch as there is and the 3-4-5 of Paul Byrd, Jake Westbrook, and Cliff Lee should be enough to keep the Indians in most games. While Joe Borowski isn't exactly a dominant closer, the middle relief is excellent, with Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez. Grade: B+
Fantasy Sleeper: Ryan Garko - Hafner has far more hype, but Garko actually posted a better OPS and, at 27, should continue to improve.
X-Factor: Fausto Carmona - Carmona had a phenomenal regular season, but melted down in the ALCS to the tune of a 16.50 ERA. The Indians have to hope there aren't any lingering effects.
Overview: The experience gained from last year's success should prove valuable, as this is still a relatively young team. If Carmona can bounce back from his disastrous ALCS showing, the Indians will be a very dangerous playoff team. Of course, to stay ahead of Detroit, they will need Hafner to recover his power. Another division title is possible, but Detroit might have too much firepower.

Chicago White Sox
Hitting: The White Sox bring back sluggers Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye, and Paul Konerko, and Nick Swisher and Orlando Cabrera will join the fray, giving Chicago a very potent attack. That said, age and durability are concerning for all except Swisher. Grade: B-
Pitching: While they still have three of the starters from their 2005 Championship team, their production has dropped off considerably. Jose Contreras is the worst offender, posting a 5.57 ERA in 2007 (compared to 3.61 in 2005). The bullpen should be stronger than last year, as Bobby Jenks is joined by Scott Linebrink and Octavio Dotel. Grade: C-
Fantasy Sleeper: Carlos Quentin - He's coming off a very poor season, but he's only 25 and has good raw skills. Perhaps a move to hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field will do him some good.
X-Factor: Nick Swisher - If he can play to his potential, he's capable of hitting 40+ HRs in this ballpark. That production could go a long way towards getting the White Sox back in the hunt.
Overview: Chicago has a lot of offensive talent, but it's not getting any younger. The window may have closed for this team to compete for a division title, but there is still enough left in the tank for them to finish above .500 and, if all goes well, perhaps make a wildcard run.

Minnesota Twins
Hitting: Torii Hunter will be greatly missed, but Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer can still put up some great individual numbers. The Twins will also look to Delmon Young, but he is coming off an unremarkable season in Tampa and moves to a park that favors pitchers. Grade: C-
Pitching: With Johan Santana gone, the pressure will be on Francisco Liriano to take over as the staff ace. The bullpen will be highlighted by closer Joe Nathan and set-up man Pat Neshek, but there is little proven talent to speak of. Grade: C
Fantasy Sleeper: Carlos Gomez - He was the biggest name acquired in the Santana deal (though that's not saying much) and he will likely start in center field. With his blazing speed, he's a lock to steal 30+ bases if he can hold the job.
X-Factor: The other four starting pitchers - We all know Liriano can pitch, but what can be expected from the rest of the rotation? Their development will largely impact Minnesota's plans for the future.
Overview: The Twins finished just below .500 last year, and then they traded away their two best players. Regardless of whether this was the right thing to do, Santana and Hunter will be sorely missed and it's hard to imagine the Twins sniffing .500 this season. If their young players develop quickly, they could make a run at third place, but more likely they'll be fighting with Kansas City to avoid the bottom of the division.

Kansas City Royals
Hitting: The Royals have very little to offer in this department. Jose Guillen should be good for another 20+ HRs and Billy Butler might approach 20 HRs with enough at-bats, but that's about it. Alex Gordon showed some promise late in the season, but he hit only .247 for the year. Grade: D
Pitching: Gil Meche, Brian Bannister, and Zach Greinke all posted sub-4.00 ERAs and Bannister actually managed a winning record (12-9), which is no mean feat in KC. Joakim Soria was impressive filling in for Octavio Dotel as the closer, with 17 saves, 2.48 ERA, and a 0.94 WHIP. Grade: C-
Fantasy Sleeper: Joakim Soria - Closers are always valuable and Soria looked like the real deal last year. The Royals won't win enough games for him to rack up saves, but he should maintain a low ERA and WHIP.
X-Factor: Alex Gordon - Gordon struggled immensely in his highly-touted rookie year, but if he can make some strides in his sophomore season, the Royals could have a franchise player to build around.
Overview: The Royals are moving in the right direction as they build around their pitching staff. Meche, Bannister, Greinke, and Soria are a good start, but they don't have the hitting to compete in this division. There's some hope for the future, but Kansas City still has a ways to go.

MLB Preview: AL East

(Teams listed in order of projected finish)

New York Yankees
Hitting: Reigning MVP Alex Rodriguez, plus Derek Jeter, Bobby Abreu, and a host of other sluggers will give the Yankees one of the top offenses in baseball once again, though age is a slight concern. Grade: A
Pitching: Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte should be solid, but what about the rest? Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy are 21 and 23 respectively and Mike Mussina was terrible last season. The bullpen is also questionable, outside of Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain. Grade: C+
Fantasy Sleeper: Johnny Damon - Damon had a down year in '07, but he still put up solid numbers. He'll steal 20+ bases and should score a lot of runs provided he can stay healthy.
X-Factor: Joe Girardi - While former manager Joe Torre faced his share of criticism, it's hard to argue with his overall results. Girardi has only one year of experience, but it was quite a season, as he landed 2006 NL Manager of the Year with the Florida Marlins. Now he'll be leading a veteran, high-priced Yankees team with title aspirations.
Overview: With phenomenal hitting and adequate pitching, the Yankees will overtake the Red Sox. Injuries to the Red Sox pitching staff combined with slight improvement from the Yankees' pitching should be enough to propel New York into first in the AL East. In addition, it's hard to see the Yankees struggling through April and May like they did last season, finishing May with a 22-29 record. That said, unless the bullpen is upgraded the Yankees can expect another early exit, come October.

Boston Red Sox
Hitting: Manny Ramirez is coming off his worst year since 1994, but is supposedly in great shape this spring. If he and David Ortiz stay healthy, the Red Sox can hit with anyone. If not, they'll need their pitching to step up again. Grade: B
Pitching: Curt Schilling may not pitch this year and Josh Beckett starts the season on the 15-day DL. If Beckett can make a strong return, the rotation will still be a strength. The bullpen, featuring Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima, and Mike Timlin, will be among baseball's elite. Grade: A-
Fantasy Sleeper: Jacoby Ellsbury - While it's unclear how much playing time he'll get as he competes with Coco Crisp for the center field job, with his upside and base-stealing ability, it's hard to imagine he'll be on the bench for long.
X-Factor: Josh Beckett's health - If Beckett's injuries linger, this could be a down year for the Red Sox and making the playoffs would be in question, but if he comes back strong, another World Championship is not out of the question.
Overview: Last year Boston's pitching was enough to carry them through the occasional dry spells at the plate, but with Schilling out for most, if not all, of the season and Beckett's health in question, the offense will have to be much more consistent for the Red Sox to take the AL East crown for the second straight year. If the pitching stays relatively healthy and Ramirez returns to form, the Red Sox can take the division, but odds are they take a back seat to the Yankees. That said, the Red Sox are still built for October and could contend for the title through a wildcard berth.

Toronto Blue Jays
Hitting: Alex Rios is a strong candidate to go 20-20, but beyond that it's hard to find a sure thing. Vernon Wells posted a mere .706 OPS last year, Frank Thomas is 39, and Scott Rolen missed 50 games in '07. Grade: C
Pitching: Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett are among the best when healthy, and Dustin McGowan and Shawn Marcum add some depth. Jeremy Accardo was excellent as the closer last year, and he will compete with B.J. Ryan for the job once Ryan completes his rehabilitation. Grade: B
Fantasy Sleeper: Dustin McGowan - Halladay and Burnett are the bigger names, but McGowan was almost as good as Burnett last year and doesn't have his history of arm troubles.
X-Factor: Vernon Wells - If he can bounce back from a terrible 2007, he'll give the Blue Jays some much-needed power.
Overview: The Blue Jays have a good deal of talent, but a lot of things would have to go their way for them to compete in this division. If everyone can stay healthy (and with Halladay, Burnett, Rolen, and Ryan, that's asking a lot) then they can make a run at the Yankees and Red Sox, but more likely they will remain in third place for another year.

Tampa Bay Rays
Hitting: Carlos Pena shocked the baseball world last year, hitting 46 HRs (his previous career high was 27), and will be the centerpiece of the Rays offense this year. B.J. Upton is coming off a breakout season as well, and Carl Crawford is an elite base-stealer. Grade: C
Pitching: Scott Kazmir and James Shields headline Tampa's pitching staff. Kazmir will likely start the season on the DL, but he is electric when healthy, and Shields appears to be emerging as a good #2 starter. Troy Percival returns to close for the Rays, and while he is well past his prime, he should be an upgrade over Al Reyes. That said, the Rays are still lacking in depth and Kazmir's health is questionable. Grade: C-
Fantasy Sleeper: Matt Garza - He was the best player acquired in the Delmon Young trade and should easily eclipse 100 Ks in his first full season.
X-Factor: Troy Percival - If he stays healthy and returns to his 2004 form, he can stabilize the Rays bullpen.
Overview: With Kazmir, Shields, and Garza, the Rays have a solid foundation of young pitchers. Their hitters are promising too, notably Upton and Crawford. One has to wonder whether Pena can repeat last season's success, but either way it appears that the Rays are moving in the right direction. With Baltimore rebuilding as well, fourth place is a distinct possibility.

Baltimore Orioles
Hitting: Nick Markakis and Brian Roberts will be counted on to provide most of the offense, but all eyes will be on newcomer Adam Jones. Jones, acquired in the Erik Bedard trade, is only 22, but is one of the best hitting prospects in baseball. Grade: C-
Pitching: The Bedard trade leaves a gaping hole in the rotation, but the Orioles do have some talented young arms in Jeremy Guthrie and Adam Loewen. Daniel Cabrera is also worth watching, but he has yet to show any consistency in the majors. Grade: C-
Fantasy Sleeper: Jeremy Guthrie - He's no Erik Bedard, but he posted a 3.70 ERA and had an impressive K/BB ratio in his first full season.
X-Factor: Daniel Cabrera - If he can cut down on his walks, he could be a part of Baltimore's core. If not, he could be a trade bait for a team with more patience.
Overview: Baltimore was a bad team last year even with Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada, and there's no reason to believe they'll get any better without them. This is clearly a rebuilding year, but if Adam Jones begins to develop into a superstar, the Orioles will be forgiven for letting Bedard go.