April 03, 2009

Opening Day(s)!

Now that (the never ending) Spring Training is finally over and the Opening Days are upon us, I figured we’d take a look at 5 questions / issues / predictions heading into the season.

1. The East
And I’m not talking about the American League. There are potentially four really good teams coming out of the National League East. I’ll get into the Braves and their outlook a little later, but obviously you have to put the Phillies and the Mets at the top of the list. But taking a closer look, both of those teams have some serious questions: the Phillies have to be seriously worried about Cole Hamels elbow, and can they really rely on Jamie Moyer to be so productive again tossing up 80 mph meatballs? Location can only get you so far. And is Ryan Howard going to keep putting up those big power numbers with such a glaring vulnerability in his swing?

As for the Mets, take a look at that rotation. Ok, Johan is Johan, but Mike Pelfrey put up shaky peripherals (110 K’s in 200 IP’s for one), and the ageless (and most of the times lifeless) Livan Hernandez is penciled in for the 5 spot. How long can that last. Obviously, with three stars like Reyes, Wright and Beltran, along with a rebuilt bullpen, the starting pitching doesn’t have to carry the team. But remember this. If it’s close coming down the stretch, the Mets finish with 18 out of their last 21 against the Phillies, Braves, Cubs and Marlins.

Speaking of the Marlins, I love everything about the organization. The philosophy is simple: spin off your assets before they get too expensive and build around pitching. Gammons has been hyping Josh Johnson so much that I’m looking into the Vegas odds of him winning the Cy Young. Ricky Nolasco was probably the most underrated pitcher in the league last year, Cameron Maybin is the next young star to emerge, and Gammons has also identified minor leaguer Mike Stanton as the most impressive youngster in the game this spring. I know that Miami isn’t a sports town and I guess technically it’s not really a small market town, but how can any local Floridian complain about the way that team is run. Larry Beinfest should be giving clinics to every small market team.

2. Sleepers
This morning Gammons identified the Royals and the Cardinals (with the Rockies also in the conversation) as the sleepers. I guess I can’t say I disagree, but the Royals really have to prove it to me for me to believe it. Where is the offense going to come from? Did Gordon and Butler get that much better in the offseason? I like Kyle Davies as much as the next guy (but not as much as Dayton Moore – I’m waiting for him to go sign Bruce Chen and Jung Bong and any other failed Braves prospects he can scrounge up), but when a just signed off the street Sidney Ponson is inserted directly into the rotation, I’ve got questions. Horacio Ramirez is their #4 starter for Pete’s sake! (2007 numbers as a starter – 7.16 ERA, 1.85 WHIP, .337 BAA).

As for the Cardinals, I guess I can see it. They’ve quietly gotten healthy and younger, and never count out a LaRussa coached team. He’s like Tom Izzo – just low key, fundamentally sound, and always in the running. I wouldn’t blink if I looked up the standings in the Central on September 1st and saw the Cubs in 1st and the Cards 2.5 games back.

And while they don’t qualify as a sleeper, I did want to give my thoughts on the Indians since I used follow them regularly while living in Cleveland. I know they are the popular pick to win the Central, but I’m just not buying it. Look at their pitching. Cliff Lee is not going to put up Cy Young numbers again. He got rocked in spring training. I’m bullish on Fausto Carmona, but he has to prove that his sinker is as nasty as it was in 2007. The rest of it…ugh. Carl Pavano is the number three starter. That is all you need to know. As for the offense, it should be decent, but there are some question marks. Stick a fork in Hafner – he’s done. Has there been a more obvious juicer? Victor has to prove he’s healthy and rebound from a dreadful ’08 season. I like Choo (or is it Soo-Choo?), but I don’t think anyone expects him to keep hitting as well as he did the 2nd half of last year (or maybe I do after drafting him about 10 round too early in fantasy baseball). As far as I’m concerned, I have questions about the Indians winning the Central this year.

For my sleepers though, I’m going with….the Rockies and….the Rangers. I still can’t get over the fleecing that the Rangers gave the Braves a couple of years ago for Mark Teixeira. I’m excited to see what Elvis Andrus can do at short, and Neftali Feliz is going to be a star. I’m already pissed at that 17-9 record he is going to put up in 2011 with 200 k’s. It’s coming. I kind of like the Rockies too. Nobody’s talking about them, but I was really impressed with Ianetta in the WBC. I think he and McCann are going to be fighting it out for the next 5-10 years for NL starting catcher in the All-Star Game. Tulo and Ian Stewart are a pretty solid middle of the infield, and they seem to always have outfielders like Spilborghs and Brad Hawpe that quietly put up good numbers due to Coors. Plus, I’ve never seen Dexter Fowler play, but I already love the guy. He’s gotta be like a young Torii Hunter right?

3.The Yankees
I’m not a Yankees lover or hater. But I can’t wait for CC to get off to a shaky start, get booed off the mound at Yankee Stadium, and weigh in at 375 by September. I don’t think that marriage is going to end well, and I say that as a CC fan. And I also am giddy in anticipation for April to end with Teixeira sitting at .211 with 2 HR’s and 9 RBI’s. Yankees fans – prepare yourselves. If you’re thinking that he is going to carry the team with A-Rod out, you’re sorely mistaken. He is a brutal starter. I know I’ve written this before, but he cost the Braves last year any shot at respectability. It was June before he warmed up and they were already out of the race. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

Braves fans, can you imagine if the Braves had just hung on to Salty, Andrus and Feliz instead of trading them to the Rangers for Tex? They could have been trotting out a 2010 lineup of Elvis at short, Yunel Escobar moving to 2nd, Chipper and McCann, Jason Heyward and Jordan Schafer in the outfield and Freddy Freeman at 1st. Plus some combination of Tommy Hanson, Neftali Feliz, Jair Jurrjens, Javy Vazquez, Derek Lowe in the rotation. Yikes. The Braves would have pulled off the rebuilding without really going through an extended down period. Which brings us to…

4. Your 2009 Atlanta Braves
It wouldn’t be a season preview if I didn’t give my Braves outlook. I’ll start off by saying that I have no grand illusions of contending in the NL East. I would really just like them to be in the conversation in August and September, as opposed to last year's disaster. Whether you agree or not with the moves that Frank Wren made in the offseason, I have to admit that their pitching is in A LOT better shape than it was last year. Jo Jo Reyes made 22 starts and went 3-11 with a 5.81 ERA and 18 homers in 113 innings. Not good. Charlie Morton made 15 starts, was 4-8 with a 6.15 ERA and 9 homers allowed in 74 innings. You can’t win with your 4 and 5 starters putting up those numbers. Newcomers Javy Vazquez, Kenshin Kawakami and Derek Lowe at least give them the proverbial “innings eaters”, and I’m quietly optimistic that Vazquez’ return to the NL will revive his career. Plus, Kawakami has been really solid in the spring, and Bobby Cox can't stop raving about him. If the ol' skipper likes him, I'll believe.

Finally, I can’t contain my excitement that Jordan Schafer has apparently won the centerfield job with this week’s trade of Josh Anderson. The Braves haven’t had a young outfielder prospect in a long time – I guess since “The Natural” graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. I know it’s only spring training, but Francoeur has supposedly been laying off the breaking balls away and taking a ton of pitches and actually drawing walks. I’m a skeptic, but again, good signs early. (Side note- congratulations to Andruw Jones. He made the Rangers. How far has his career fallen that he had to fight just to make the Texas Rangers as the last bat off the bench.) Also, Tommy Hanson blew through the Arizona Fall League, winnig MVP as a pitcher. He picked right up with some dominating efforts in spring training. I love Tom Glavine, but as the 5th starter, he is a placeholder until Hanson is ready – which should be very shortly. The guy is a stud.

Add it all up, and I think that the Braves will be hanging around the fringe of the wild card race. At the very least, it’s good to see so many young potential superstars start to get integrated into the lineup and at more appearing on the horizon. The future looks very good down in Atlanta.

4B All the young guns
Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Chris Volstad. Rick Porcello, Tommy Hanson, Jordan Schafer, Taylor Teagarden, Dexter Fowler, Elvis Andrus, Daniel Bard, Matt Wieters, David Price, Wade Davis, Cameron Maybin, Pablo Sandoval, Jordan Zimmerman, Colby Rasmus, Chris Davis, the young A’s pitchers. And that’s just off the top of my head.

With the economy making everyone wary of signing mediocre free agents, it’s become more important than ever to have young cheap talent coming through your system. I can’t remember a time when there was so much talent coming into the league.

5. Predictions
NL East – Phillies
NL Central – Cubs
NL West – Dodgers
AL East – Red Sox
AL Central – White Sox
AL West – Rangers
NL Wildcard – Mets
AL Wildcard – Rays
NLCS – Dodgers vs. Mets
ALCS – Red Sox vs. Rays
World Series – Red Sox over Dodgers
NL MVP – David Wright
AL MVP – Evan Longoria
NL Cy Young – Johan Santana (watch out for Josh Johnson!)
AL Cy Young – Going out on a limb here…Francisco Liriano
AL Rookie of the Year – Matt Wieters (didn’t bother to look to see if Rangers 1B Chris Davis was eligible. Probably not. But voters like home runs, which he should put up)
NL Rookie of the Year – Jordan Schafer!


Jeremy said...

It was an incredibly strange offseason for the Mets. They did a great job overhauling the bullpen early, but basically changed nothing else from last year. The Madoff issue (and the Wilpon's subsequent decision not to raise payroll from last year), coupled with the collapsing FA market appeared to be the main culprit. I don't think the Mets had any intention of bringing Oliver Perez back. They probably hoped someone else would overpay him and would send a draft pick back the Mets' way, allowing them to make a run at a better FA pitcher. Alas, it was not to be.

I agree that the rotation is the biggest question, but I don't think its any more frightening than any of the other contenders. Everyone is expecting another monster year from Johan. Pelfrey appears to be maturing into a Webb-like groundball machine. The fact that he threw so many innings last year makes him an injury concern, but he throws so many fastballs, its hard to get too worried about him.

Maine and Perez are the two that really worry me. Maine doesn't seem to be experiencing any ill effects from his minor shoulder surgery, but he didn't have a good spring and is apparently too worried about his mechanics. He needs to get out of his own head and just throw the damn ball. Perez, on the other hand, needs to find a way to send messages to his head, because he's a freaking nutjob. I was very much looking forward to not having to experience his wild inconsistency this year. Its gonna be another rollercoaster season I'm sure. Livan as fifth starter is fine for now. He won't be there the whole season.

I still think the Mets win the division, but only because the other teams all have larger holes. It should be the best race in the NL.

Doug said...

Sweet. Now I'm fired up for baseball. I agree about the Royals. I need to see it on the field before I buy into them as legit contenders.

I am bullish on the Cards though and am pounding out an NL Central preview as we speak. I love the Tom Izzo comparison for LaRussa. That's pretty much what St. Louis is. They don't look like much on paper, but the sum is greater than the parts. And they have the best coaching staff in the majors.

I'm coming around on the Braves. I wasn't huge on the years and dollars for Derek Lowe (he'll be almost 40 at the end of that deal), but he can be a front end starter this year for them I suppose. Vazquez is going to give you 200 innings and 200 strikeouts. I like Jurrjens, and I'll buy what you are selling on Kawakami. Those Asian guys always dominate when they first come into the league. That's really not a bad rotation. Probably better than the Phillies in fact.

Seems like the keys to that team are Schafer and Francoeur. If Schafer is a legitimate bat this year, he really bolsters their lineup. Same with Francoeur. They don't need him to be a star, but they need him to at least be productive. I can't see Garret Anderson and Casey Kotchman giving them that much pop, so they need Francoeur to step up as a run producer.

I think the Yankees are wildly overrated. Their lineup stinks without ARod, and all of their pitchers are at least a little shaky. I think they are finishing 3rd again in the AL East.

I agree about the Tribe. They are getting a good bit of hype this year, but I don't see it either. Cliff Lee is going to back to his league average days, Fausto is probably a #2 starter at best, and the rest of their rotation stinks. Unless EVERYTHING breaks right (Lee is still great, Fausto is back, Pavano is effective, Anthony Reyes stays healthy, etc), their starting pitching is weak. I like their bullpen though.

Not sure what to make of their lineup. They have a lot of depth, but very few guys that you can just pencil in for a certain level of production. What is DeRosa going to be like?? Can Peralta have another good year?? Can Hafner give them anything?? Is Choo for real or just a flash in the pan?? Is Victor healthy again?? Other than Grady Sizemore, every guy in their lineup is a question mark. Too much uncertainty.


AL East - Boston
AL Central - Minnesota
AL West - Anaheim
AL Wildcard - Tampa
NL East - NY Mets
NL Central - Chicago Cubs
NL West - Los Angeles
NL Wildcard - St. Louis

NLCS - Mets over Cubs
ALCS - Boston over Minnesota
World Series - Boston over NY Mets
NL MVP - Albert Pujols
AL MVP - Justin Morneau

Boston is playing a different sport from the rest of major league baseball. They have the most organizational depth of anyone, they have youth and veterans, they have great pitching throughout their major league team and their farm system, and they have a deep and loaded lineup. It's really an embarrassment of riches in Boston. Every single guy on their entire 25 man roster is a legit big leaguer, and their bullpen is remarkable. I think they'll win 100 games and cruise to their 3rd title in six seasons.

I'm high on the Mets as well. They are a perfect National League team. Good mix of speed and power, strong bullpen, deep rotation. I think they have the strongest roster in the National League.