Opening day matchups!

Well folks, it’s almost here. So grab your beer, get the hotdogs out and get ready for a marathon of baseball. I can’t believe we’re back already. It feels like a century ago though when the Yankees claimed title number 27. Anyway. I’ve ordered my subscription (premium by the way, I can’t stand watching Tigers/White Sox games with the guys over at Comcast sports net – seriously – most biased guys in the game – ‘you can put it on the boaaaaaaaaaarrrrrddddd. YEEEEEESSSSS!) and now that’s posted their probable pitching matchups, I’m getting really excited! 

Here’s what I’ll be (hopefully) watching this coming week:
Sunday night:
Yankees/Red Sox – 8:05 pm – Beckett vs Sabathia. What a matchup to begin the season. Can’t get much better than this. Great way to reign in the new season on ESPN. 
Phillies/Nationals – 1:05 pm  – Roy Halladay vs John Lannan. Why this one? Hmm, I love Nationals Park for a start so it’s a great setting. I’ve got a real soft spot for Ryan Zimmerman, plus I love watching ‘Doc’ take the hill. So why not? 
Tigers/Royals – 4:10 pm – Justin Verlander vs Zack Grienke. Again, another pitching gem. Can’t get much better than this. Can Grienke build off his Cy Young award winning season? How good will Verlander and his 100 mph gas stack up?
Giants/Astros – 7:05 pm – Tim Lincecum vs Roy Oswalt. 2 time reigning NL Cy Young award winner vs one of my favourites Roy Oswalt in one great ballpark. 
Mariners/A’s – 10:05 pm – Felix Hernandez vs Ben Sheets. What a pitching matchup this is going to be. And with two fairly inept offensive teams, this could be a gem. 
Cubs/Braves 7:10 pm – Ryan Dempster vs Jair Jurrjens. I swear Jair Jurrjens is out to make Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski regret every single day for trading him away. He’s done pretty well so far in his first two seasons. How does a career 3.21 ERA taste? Plus, I can’t wait to take a look at Jason Heyward. 
Dodgers/Pirates – 12:35 pm – Chad Billingsley vs Paul Maholm. This one’s a pretty good matchup. Is Billingsley the potential Dodgers staff ace or the guy who just fell of the map late last season? Maholm has shown some pretty good consistency too for a struggling Pirates team destined for an 18th consecutive losing season. Still, Andrew McCutcheon will be worth tuning in for. 
Orioles/Rays – 7:10 pm – Brian Matusz vs Jeff Niemann. There’s two stellar young arms on the mound in this one. Matusz is my pick for AL ROY and Jeff Niemann had a monster season last year as a rookie. If only this wasn’t inside at the dull Tropicana field……
That’s it for now, as none of the matchups for Friday on have been posted yet. But I’ll try and keep this up over the course of the season if I can. I love browsing pitching matchups. It’s so much fun. Anyhow. As of 24 hours time, I’ll get to re-ignite another of my baseball passions: Browsing box scores! 
Enjoy opening day folks! It’s almost here! 

2010 predictions

Well folks, were almost there. The 2010 season is set to begin in just over 24 hours with a classic – Yankees/Red Sox, Fenway, Sabathia and Beckett. ESPN. Couldn’t ask for more to begin the year. 

Unfortunately I’ve been really pushed for time due to exams! hey hey, what a surprise. So i have no chance of finishing my AL team previews for the season. So, in respect of that, I thought I’d post my overall predictions:
American League:
AL East Champion – Boston Red Sox 
Too much pitching is never a bad thing, and the Red Sox have it in droves. There was even speculation of a 6 man rotation. Seriously. Don’t underestimate the additions of Mike Cameron, Adrian Beltre and Marco Scutaro either. This team will be deadly, and they won’t have to score 10 runs a game to beat even the best of teams. 
Why not the Yankees you ask? It’ll be tight. Don’t get me wrong. But there’s something I just don’t quite like about New York. Can’t quite put a finger on it. But hey. I guess we’ll see. I like their rotation. ALOT. But I see question marks with Phil Hughes and Andy Pettitte. And while Javier Vazquez had a career best 2.87 ERA last year in Atlanta, he didn’t exactly light it up in his one year in pinstripes in 2004. The bullpen has potential, and who can forget about Mariano Rivera. And yes there’s still Teixeira and A-Rod and Jeter and Cano. But I’m sceptical about the outfield. I love Curtis Granderson, but he’s going to have to cut down his K’s and improve his OBP and start to hit lefties a little better. Nick Swisher? Brett Gardner? Just makes me feel a little uneasy. that’s all. 
Why not the Rays? Well, I’m taking them for the Wild Card, so see a bit further down for my reasoning there.
So what about the Orioles and Blue Jays? It’ll be a long season in Toronto that’s for sure, but if Travis Snider breaks out, and J.P. Arrencibia and Kyle Drabek end up in the Majors later on in 2010, the future will be looking brighter for the Jays. For now though, they’re just going to have to live with being cellar dwellars in the AL East. But I really like the Orioles. I think this time next year, they’ll be ready to contend and will probably be 2011’s 2007 Tampa Bay. Think about it. They’ll have another year of development out of young offensive stars in Matt Wieters and Adam Jones. Nick Markakis, Brian Roberts and Nolan Reimold will still be around. They’ll have top 3B prospect Josh Bell ready. So there’s a dynamic offense to start with. And the pitching. Oh boy. Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz (my pick for AL ROY), Jake Arrieta and Brad Bergerson will similarly have that extra year of added experience under their belts, and they’ve got Zach Britton coming. So look out. This division could have 4 potential playoff teams in 2011.
AL Central Champion – Chicago White Sox
Again, too much pitching. If you ask me, the White Sox have probably got one of the top 3  staffs from top to bottom in the American League. With a rotation of Peavy, Buehrle, Floyd, Danks and Freddy Garcia, that’s a pretty solid starting 5. But it gets better in the bullpen. Bobby Jenks, Scott Linebrink. J.J. Putz. Matt Thornton. Some young converted infielder who happens to throw fire from his right arm in Sergio Santos. And don’t; discount Tony Pena either. In other words, it could be lights out from the 7th on vs the Sox this year. And yes the offense is a slight question mark, but they’ve got enough in my view. Carlos Quentin, Alexei Ramirez, a young and improving Gordon Beckham and Paul Konerko will provide plenty of pop. And Juan Pierre is an underrated pick up here. Why didn’t I pick the Twins you ask? The loss of Joe Nathan definitely contributes, but I just don’t see how the rest of their starting staff stacks up. With the exception of Francisco Liriano, the Twins don’t have a ‘lights out’ ace. While there’s depth here, the Twins rotation just doesn’t fill me with confidence. Still, they’ve got one hell of an offense, but I say the Sox pip them. 
As for the Tigers? My team? Hmm. I love the top 3 in the rotation with Verlander, Porcello and Scherzer. As things currently stand, I’m not sold yet on Bondo or Dontrelle Willis to fill out the rotation. But I really like the power arms in the bullpen. If Joel Zumaya has sorted his early spring training problems out, then that’s a pretty formidable bunch of late inning arms in him, Jose Valverde, Ryan Perry and a good couple of lefties in Phil Coke and Fu-te Ni. Offensively, I’m not sure how things will go down. Miguel Cabrera will have a monster year. But Carlos Guillen needs to stay healthy, and Magglio Ordonez needs to start driving the ball again. Watch out for Austin Jackson though. He could be my sleeper for the AL ROY. Even though I didn’t like the deal at the time, I think the Johnny Damon signing was a good one. In other words, if things go right, this team could be right there with Chicago and Minnesota. 
AL West – LA Angels. 
This is a close call. But I’ll take the Angels because of Mike Scioscia. And because they’ve got great starting pitching depth. And yea the offense still isn’t that bad even though they lost Chone Figgins. And while the rest of the division got better, they’ve all got question marks. Where’s the offense in Seattle and Oakland? How good is Texas‘ pitching? If you want more on how I feel about the AL West teams, check out my detailed team previews, hyperlinked in this paragraph. 
AL Wild Card – Tampa Bay Rays
Now, I know that alot of people have been predicting that the Rays will not make the post season, but I for one certainly am not buying it. Their rotation could be dominant as hell. Shields, Garza, David Price, Wade Davis, Jeff Nieman. Wow. And did somebody mention Jeremy Hellickson? The Bullpen is better with the addition of a dominant closer in Rafael Soriano. And yes, while J.P Howell has a huge cloud hovering over him and his sore shoulder, remember that Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler and Lance Cormier can all get the job done. So while the pen isn’t going to lead the league in ERA, they’ll be solid if not better than they were in 2009. Offensively? Where to start! Evan Longoria is only going to get better in his 3rd season. Carlos Pena has still got tremendous power. With those two guys, you’ve also got incredible defense at both corners. Add in Jason Bartlett, who probably won’t duplicate his .320 average last season, and super utility man Ben Zobrist (who by the way, probably should have been in the discussion for AL MVP last season) and that’s one hell of a great infield. The outfield isn’t bad either. Crawford and B.J Upton provide arguably the most coverage of any outfield duo in the game, and Desmond Jennings might well be on the way as soon as late this season. 
National League East Champions – Philadelphia Phillies
How to pick against the Phillies? They’ve got the chance to be the first NL team since the 1942-44 Cardinals to make 3 straight World Series. And oh by the way, I think they got better this offseason. Roy Halladay is arguably the best pitcher in the game, and an upgrade over Cliff Lee, not just in terms of makeup and stuff, but also the fact that the Phillies get Halladay for a full season, and not for the final 3 months. All signs are pointing to Cole Hamels becoming dominant again, giving the Phils a mighty 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. JA Happ had a great rookie year, and there’s t
he eternal Jamie Moyer. With Joe Blanton going on the DL, Kyle Kendrick will fill in, but when Blanton returns, that could be a solid rotation. The pen has its question marks with the health of JC Romero and Brad Lidge, but you can’t argue with that offense. Utley. Howard. Victorino. Werth. Ibanez. Rollins. And oh year, they added Placido Polanco, who, after observing him for the last 4 1/2 years in Detroit, I conclude is one of the best contact/situation hitters in the game. 
NL Central Champions – St Louis Cardinals
This pick is two fold. One. They’ve got the best player in the game in Albert Pujols and they’ve surrounded him (finally!) with some great offensive weapons in Matt Holliday, Colby Rasmus, Ryan Ludwick and Yadier Molina. There’s some stingy defense in there too. And they’ve got some great starting pitching in Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. Brad Penny’s a solid addition too. Some question Ryan Franklin’s ability to repeat his 2009 performance, but don’t overlook the other solid arms in the Cardinal bullpen like Jason Motte and Kyle McClellan. The second point is that there really isn’t any other strong contender that stands out in the NL Central. The Reds have some young talented guys about to come to fruition (Aroldis Chapman, Mike Leake, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, and Drew Stubbs) and they’re about the closest challengers in my eyes. The Pirates will have yet another losing season, the Cubs, well, just didn’t get any better, the Astros, while having a really strong rotation (Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers, Felipe Paulino and Bud Norris) have some big question marks (Mainly Lance Berkman’s knees and whether Brandon Lyon or Matt Lindstrom can hold down the closers job), and the Brewers, despite having one of the best one-two combinations offensively in Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, also have question marks. Can Carlos Gomez finally put it all together and quit all those annoying habits that drive coaches nuts? Can Rickie Weeks wrists stay in tact for one season? How good is Alcides Escobar going to be? Do they have enough of a rotation beyond Yovani Gallardo to content? Does Trevor Hoffman still have what it takes at age 42? If you’re asking me for an order of finish, I’m going Cards, Reds, Brewers, Astros, Cubs and Pirates. But I may well be wrong. The Reds and the Brewers are definitely the sleeper picks in my eyes.
NL West Champions – Colorado Rockies
Seriousy. I just love this team. Why? Well, how about best infield defense in the National League in Tulo, Ian Stewart, Todd Helton and Clint Barmes. And don’t forget about Eric Young jnr coming up behind those guys. Like the Rays, they’ve got tremendous speed in the outfield in Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler. Both of those guys should benefit from having another year of experience. And there’s still Brad Hawpe in right and Chris Iannetta behind the dish. And while everyone is lamenting the fact that the Rockies pen is in dire straights due to Huston Street’s injury, I don’t see it that way. Franklyn Morales, Manny Corpas and Rafael Betancourt all throw gas and are great arms. They also added Joe Beimal who should make the staff. The rotation has its number one ace is Ubaldo Jimenez. Jeff Francis is back, and he won 17 games in 2007. Jorge De La Rosa had a tremendous second half last season (who didn’t in Colorado though?) Aaron Cook has won 27 games over the last two seasons. And Greg Smith/Jason Hammel are no slouches either. And did somebody mention Jhoulys Chacin and Christian Friedrich? Both these guys could be up and comers. 
But what about the competition? The Dodgers? I just don’t like the starting pitching depth. Is Chad Billingsley the potential ace the Dodgers envision or is he the guy who wasn’t even in the starting rotation in the 2009 playoffs? I guess if I was picking against the Dodgers, that’d be the reason. The Giants? They still don’t have the offense. Yea they added Mark DeRosa, and they’ve got one of the best young players in Pablo Sandoval, and Bengie Molina has some pop, but there’s not alot else here. The pitching will still be awesome, but I just don’t think they’ve got enough run support for their great staff. By the way, keep an eye on young lefty Dan Runzler. After watching him in person last September in San Francisco, I came away extremely impressed. He could be one of the best set up men for years to come. Arizona suffers greatly from the fact that Brandon Webb will miss 10 or more starts. I like Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson here, but beyond that, without Webb, I don’t see the depth in the rotation needed to compete. And while their pen has good arms, (Clay Zavada has the best moustache in the game by the way) they won’t be striking fear into opponents like say, the White Sox pen might. The offense isn’t bad, and perhaps a tad underestimated. Justin Upton is awesome. Mark Reynolds will smack 40 bombs while striking out 4 million times. (By the way, did you know that he stole 24 bases in 2009?), Miguel Montero is an up and comer and Conner Jackson is back. I guess the best way to put them is my wild card team in the NL West. If things come together, they could be in the mix.
As for the Padres? I sincerely hope they don’t trade Adrian Gonzalez (arguably the best 1st baseman in the NL behind Albert Pujols) and Heath Bell. They’ve got some good youngsters ready to bust out (Matt Latos, Kyle Blanks, Will Venable, Luke Gregerson, and Everth Cabrera), and the trade of Kevin Kouzmanoff to the A’s will allow Chase Headley to move back to his best position, the hot corner. In other words for Padres fans, not this year, but maybe soon. 
NL Wild Card Winner – Los Angeles Dodgers
I’ll take LA by a hair over the Braves here. Even though I’m not big on their starting pitching depth, you can’t argue with this group of young talented offensive (and defensive) players: Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Russell Martin and James Loney. I don’t think we’ve seen the best from any of these guys quite just yet, and that’s a scary proposition. And how deep is this bullpen with Jonathan Broxton, George Sherrill, Ramon Troncoso and Hong-Chih Kuo? and if/when Ronald Belisario returns, then that’s one hell of a pen right there. 
As for Atlanta, hmm, it’s tight, there’s no doubting that. Here’s why I’d pick Atlanta. 
Reason number 1: Their starting pitching is awesome. You’ve got young guns Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson. Veterans such as Derek Lowe and Tim Hudson, and also Kenshin Kawakami shouldn’t be discounted either. Or we could see young Kris Medlan in the rotation. 
Reason number 2: The bullpen is extremely solid. Despite losing Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, Atlanta picked up Billy Wagner (who I think will have a big year), have got ex Dodgers closer Takashi Saito setting up, will have a healthy Scott Proctor and solid relief from sidearming Aussie Peter Moylan. Jesse Chavez isn’t bad either. 
Reason number 3: Jason Heyward, Brian McCann and Yunel Escobar. Was there really any doubt that Heyward wasn’t going to make this team out of spring training? Even if he didn’t, he sure made the most entertaining headlines in Spring when his home runs in batting practice went so far that they not only cleared the outfield fence but also destroyed the sun roof of assistant GM Bruce Manno’s car! Heyward is going to be a monster no doubt. Brian McCann got his eyes fixed, and Yunel Escobar is one of the most exciting young shortstops in the game. If Chipper can return to form and Nate McLouth duplcates his all star form from 2008, Atlanta could be in business. 
If I’m honest, I still really like the Rays, so I’d take them to come out of the AL. In the NL, it’s tough to argue against the Phillies, and I don’t think the Cardinals have what it takes to make it through, despi
te being the class of the central. I just don’t see enough depth there. I could handily pick the Rockies, but I just don’t think they’ve got the starting pitching to match up in a short playoff series. So the NLCS for me is Phillies Dodgers, but I think the boys in Blue will finally get past the Phils in 2010. 
So there ya go, Dodgers/Rays in the 2010 fall classic. My winner? Tampa in 7. 
Can’t wait for about 2 1/2 hours from now! enjoy opening day and night folks wherever you are. Rest assured I’ll be watching.   

AL East Preview Part 1

Now that I’ve concluded with the AL West, I’ve decided to jump to the East coast for this week’s bunch of AL previews. This, in my mind, has the potential to be the most intriguing division in the game. You’ve got the defending World Series champions, arguably the owners of baseball’s best rotation now they’ve added Javier Vazquez. Then you’ve got the Red Sox, who bolstered their defense and would happily say that their rotation is better than the Yankees (Seriously, John Lackey, no 3 starter???? Talk about depth!). Then you’ve got the Rays, two years removed from a visit to the fall classic, and with a bunch of up and coming youngsters. Right there, in my eyes, you’ve got three teams who could comfortably make the playoffs if they weren’t all in the same division. Then there’s the Jays, now in full fledged rebuilding mode after trading away long time ace Roy Halladay to Philadelphia. 

But today I’m focusing on the Baltimore Orioles, who will be entering their 57th season in Baltimore since the franchise moved from St Louis to begin the 1954 season. The O’s have captured 3 World Series titles, most recently in 1983, but haven’t made the postseason since 1997 when they won the AL East. Coincidently, the O’s haven’t finished over .500 since. 
2009 wasn’t exactly a season to remember for the Birds. Baltimore jumped out to an early 6-2 record and wound up finishing 40-48 at the break. But an utterly dismal second half record of 24-50 saw the O’s wind up at the bottom of the pile in the AL East a mere 39 games back of the first place Yankees, and only a 4 game winning streak to end the season prevented a seemingly inevitable 100 loss season. It was pretty clear that this was a growing season for the birds, one where they introduced a number of rookie arms to the majors, including top prospects Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman. And the inevitable growing pains that always comes with young pitching were more than evident. As a result, the O’s compiled the worst ERA in the AL at 5.15, while surrendering the most hits (1633), Homers (218) and runs (876). Not exactly the kind of numbers you need to be posting when you’re in a division with the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox. 
Perhaps the only really impressive season from any member of Baltimore’s staff came from rookie Brad Bergerson, who compiled a 3.43 ERA in 19 starts. The only other noticeable arm came out of the bullpen in George Sherrill, who’s tremendous first half netted the O’s prospects Josh Bell and Steve Johnson in a trade with the Dodgers. Japanese import Koji Uehara flopped, and ace Jeremy Guthrie, who had compiled a 3.66 ERA and 17 wins in 07 and 08, got smoked to the tune of a 5.04 ERA and surrendered an AL leading 35 big flies. And when you can’t prevent runs, you’ve got to score more to compensate, and offensively, the O’s were a let down, scoring only 4.6 runs per game, good for 10th in the AL. Things weren’t as bad as the pitching side of things, but still, they weren’t exactly rosy either. According to the baseball prospectus, Baltimore had the worst Equivalent baserunning runs rate in the American league, perhaps a contributing factor to their anaemic offense (EqBRR takes into account the advancement of baserunners and works out how many runs were scored as a result). This stat is therefore not surprising when you consider the fact that Baltimore had the least number of sacrifice bunts in the AL with just 13 (!!) and their 76 steals ranked 12th. Even more significant is the fact that the Orioles stolen base percentage, 67%, was also last in the AL. 
So were there any offensive bright spots on this team? Brian Roberts placed himself in some pretty elite company becoming only the 4th player ever to have 3 seasons of 50 doubles or more (See Tris Speaker, Paul Waner and Stan the man Musial). Still, his .OBP dropped over 20 points, and he stole 10 less bases than the previous season for the second year in a row. Uber prospect Matt Wieters got the call on May 29th, and after some initial struggles, finished the season strong with a .288 average. Rookie left fielder Nolan Reimold turned in an impressive campaign after tearing up AAA with a .394 average, and Adam Jones won the first of what could appear to be many gold gloves. 
With the decade over and the O’s turning in a 12th consecutive losing season, what’s changed? Garrett Atkins takes over at 1st, and Baltimore will welcome Miguel Tejada back into the fold, although with Cesar Izturis providing a solid glove at short, Tejada will man the hot corner. The pitching staff got two key upgrades, adding Kevin Millwood in a trade with Texas to provide some leadership to the young core of arms that will be a fixture of the rotation for years to come, and ex-Brave Mike Gonzalez was brought in to shut the door in the 9th, providing a solid arm at the back end of the pen. Baltimore is hoping that along with these additions, the development of Matusz, Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Wieters, Reimold and Jones can vault them back into contention in the AL East. 

Reasons they’ll do well:

Millwood leads by example. He was brought in to lead the staff, and mentor the young guys. He’s a veteran who’s been around a long time, and had the benefit of watching and picking the brains of the likes of Glavine, Smoltz and some guy called Maddux while he was a youngster in Atlanta. He excelled in Texas last summer, and should do it again this season. 
Gonzalez stays healthy. The southpaw has a power arm and a wicked breaking ball. But none of that matters if he can’t pitch in games. He pitched in a career high 80 games last year and posted a 2.42 ERA and a duplicate of that would make many in Baltimore pretty happy.  
The young guys take the next step. Adam Jones could be a future star. Matt Wieters has the potential to be the best young catcher since Joe Mauer. And Tillman, Matusz and Arrieta have drawn comparisons to the great pitching trio that was found in Oakland a few years ago, Mulder, Zito and Hudson. If these guys step up to the proverbial plate, then Baltimore will be a lot better than most expect. 

Reasons they won’t:

Growing pains. There’s a lot of young guys on this team who are being counted on to be the future leaders of this team. The good news is this: A lot of them, Wieters, Tillman, Matusz, Bergerson et al got a substantial amount of playing time in 2009. But, as we’ve seen so often, the sophomore slump can be deadly. Not to say the O’s season will live and die with these guys, but it sure won’t help if they can’t start turning their potential into performance.
They can’t find the offense. So far this spring, the O’s rank last in the AL in average, runs and OBP. And yes you can say what you want about spring training, but still, those numbers don’t exactly make you feel happy to be an Orioles fan. If those struggles carry over to the regular season, there could be a 13th consecutive losing season coming to Maryland. 

Key questions to answer:

Is Brian Roberts in decline? There have been injury concerns surrounding the second baseman this spring, and he has yet to play a spring training game due to a herniated disc. Roberts is scheduled to make his Grapefruit league debut on Friday night however. Still, his numbers regressed last season to the point that some are questioning his speed and defensive ability. He’s a key cog to this O’s offense, and a decline in his production could be painful. 
Can the bullpen be better? Baltimore’s bullpen ERA last season was 13th in the AL, and while the addition of Mike Gonzalez solidifies the 9th (Assuming he can stay healthy of course), who else is there to take the game to him from the starters? Kam Mickolio has a great arm and he and fellow righty Cla Meradith pitched well in limited innings in 2009. But there are question marks surrounding the rest of the bunch, who could/should include Koji Uehara, Jim Johnson, Mark Hendrickson among others. 

Can Jeremy Guthrie bounce back? With Kevin Millwood slotted in as the number one, there’ll be less pressure on the soon to be 31 year old veteran righty, entering his 4th season in Baltimore. After a horrendous 2009, a return to his previous form would be a big boost for the rotation and provide a solid 1-2 punch at the top.

Worth keeping an eye on:

Brian Matusz, Josh Bell and Jake Arrieta. Matusz has been pretty good this spring (see 3.10 ERA in 20 1/3 innings), and if the reports are anything to go by, he’s going to contend for the rookie of the year, so watch this space. Perhaps the biggest hurdle has already been overcome, that being breaking him into the big leagues: He pitched 44 2/3 innings with the birds late last season. The O’s consider Bell their third baseman of the future, and with Tejada manning the hot corner, he’ll have a bit longer to polish his skills before presumably taking over in 2011. But if Tejada goes down, it’ll be interesting to see if he gets the call sometime this summer. Arrieta, taken in the 5th round in 2007, has great potential but needs to show better control in order to become the front line starter that the O’s envision. A future trio of Matusz, Tillman and Arrieta could be pretty scary in a year or two. 

2010 projection:

It’s been a rough ride for Baltimore since their last world championship in 83. But finally, it appears, there’s hope. They’ve built up a nice nucleus of young players (see Jones, Wieters and Reimold) and have got some highly touted arms about ready to bust out at the major league level (see Bergerson, Tillman, Matusz and Arrieta, with 2009 first rounder Matt Hobgood on the way). If Millwood and Guthrie can lead the staff, Gonzalez can finish things off, Roberts and Markakis rebound and the youngsters take a step forward then it could be an interesting summer. And while they won’t be contending for a postseason birth quite just yet, they could make the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays sweat a little.
Projected finish: 4th

Doing the right thing…..

I’ve got to admit, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for the Washington Nationals, but it stems from the little things. For example, I really love their alternate jerseys. I think Nationals Park is a gem. It’s currently NOT got a corporate name desecrating its’ beauty. Ryan Zimmerman is an exciting player. And Stephen Strasburg has incredible potential. However, ever since they moved from Montreal after the 04 season, they’ve struggled with bad management and bad luck. And that’s why two recently announced moves have put a smile on my face. 

The first of these is the release of Elijah Dukes. Now I’ll be honest. I’ve never been a fan of Dukes. I always heard about his potential, his ability, but the reality was that he had a whole host of off field troubles, and came with a ton of excess baggage that really isn’t warranted. Such a waste of that talent. Still when I heard Washington had released him, I was surprised.
The second transaction involves the aforementioned Strasburg, and fellow first rounder Drew Storen. Both were sent to minor league camp by Nats’ GM Mike Rizzo, and will start the year at AA Harrisburg. 
Why am I pleased by both of these moves you ask? Well, I feel that it represents a turning point for Nationals management. To me, these moves are indicative of a GM that knows what he’s doing and isn’t afraid to go against the grain to get what he wants done. To release your expected opening day right fielder in mid March without a backup plan and to not succumb to media pressure and keep Strasburg and Storen on the opening day roster takes guts. But it also takes into account how smart a guy Rizzo is. Dukes was a canker in the clubhouse. Strasburg and Storen both need to learn the ins and outs of the pro game in the best possible place where the pressure is off. Having them do that initially at the major league level is not the best option for their development. These guys are going to be cornerstones of this franchise in the future, so why waste such a great opportunity? 
Kudos to Rizzo. Here’s hoping for the best for the Nats in the coming seasons. (Oh and you bet I’ll be watching when Strasburg gets the call.   

AL West preview part 4

Today I’m going to conclude my AL West previews with a look at the Seattle Mariners. You can find the Angels here, the A’s here, and the Rangers here

The Seattle Mariners 2009 season was an example of what good pitching and great defense, in my mind the 2 key fundamentals of baseball, can do for you. Seattle went from a rather pedestrian 61 wins in 2008 to a 24 victory improvement in 2009, finishing 3rd in the AL West with an impressive 85-77 record that nestled them 12 games back of LA. The secret? 1st year GM Jack Zduriencik’s insistence on pitching and defense while sacrificing a bit of offensive ability in the process was the driving force behind the team that had the biggest win improvement in 2009. 
Who were the bright spots of this novel philosophy? Arguably the greatest find has to be Franklin Gutierrez, the 27 year old center fielder plucked from the Indians in the massive 11 player, 3 team trade that saw the M’s wave goodbye to favourite bullpen arm J.J. Putz. Some would argue that Gutierrez should have won a gold glove last year, but it seemed popularity won over the voters rather than production with the choice of Torii Hunter (Not that there’s anything wrong with Torii, but Gutierrez just had a better season defensively). Gutierrez teamed up with Ichiro in right and Endy Chavez in left to give the Mariners arguably the strongest outfield defense in the game in 2009. Speaking of Ichiro, the Seattle favourite recorded a .352 average and his 9th consecutive 200 hit season. Seattle also got tremendous production out of young second baseman Jose Lopez, who smashed 25 bombs while hitting .272. Russell Branyon had a monster year, and while they turned back the clock by welcoming Ken Griffey Jnr back into the fold, arguably the greatest player in Seattle history couldn’t offset the fact that this team finished last in the AL in runs in 2009. 
Additionally, the M’s finished last in OBP, OPS and walks, while ranking 13th in the AL in hits, total bases and batting average. In other words, offense was a problem. Fortunately, pitching was the other successful part of Mr Zduriencik’s great plan. The rotation was spearheaded by an incredible season from Felix Hernandez, who, at just 23 years old, established career highs in Wins (19), Innings pitched (238 2/3), Games started (34) to go along with a career best ERA (2.49). All this earned King Felix a second place finish in the AL Cy Young race behind Royals ace Zack Greinke. The M’s also got production out of Jarrod Washburn, eventually traded away to the Tigers, and Erik Bedard turned in a 2.82 ERA until succumbing to season ending surgery for a torn labrum in his shoulder. Perhaps the biggest surprise though came at closer, with former Giants first rounder David Aardsma finally putting his potential together to nail down a closer role that had been a big question mark. Aardsma converted 38 of 42 save opportunities, and was a key cog in a pen that finished with a 3.83 ERA. The staff as a whole finished with an AL best 3.87 ERA, while allowing the least amount of runs and hits in the junior circuit. 
Zduriencik took speedy Chone Figgins away from the Angels on a four year deal, traded with Philadelphia for Cliff Lee and also acquired Milton Bradley, Casey Kotchman, Brandon League and Eric Byrnes among others. So where does the optimism lie for 2010?

Reasons they’ll do well:

Figgins provides the spark plug this offense needed all along. For a team that finished last in OBP in 2009 and struggled to score runs, signing a guy like Figgins is a blessing. His final season with the Angels resulted in a career high in OBP (.395), a figure that only Ichiro (at .386) came within .50 points of. Additionally, Figgins scored 114 runs while pounding out 183 hits and swiping 42 bases. No Mariner even scored 100 runs in 2009, and Ichiro’s 26 steals led the team. So Figgins brings a whole lot to the table. Second year manager Don Wakamatsu can easily slot him in behind Ichiro in the order and the M’s have got a pretty good starting point for their offense. If he can get on base along with Ichiro in front of the heart of the order, then Seattle are destined to score a few more runs than they did in 2009. 
Milton Bradley shuts up, stays healthy and just plays. 2009 was a down year for Bradley, who’s been injury plagued throughout his career and has developed a reputation for the things he’s done off the field rather than on it. Still, Zduriencik off-loaded Carlos Silva to the Cubs, and if Bradley can stay healthy, he’ll do well. History shows that, when he’s in the lineup, he’s a productive, patient hitter who will hit for a good average and have a high on base percentage, two elements that the Mariners offense needs. It’ll be interesting to see if the influence of Ken Griffey Jnr can keep Milton’s off field antics at bay. 
The starting pitching is even better. Felix Hernandez is now joined by Cliff Lee, giving Seattle a top 2 to match any of the top tandems in the game. Add in the return of Erik Bedard somewhere around June from his torn labrum, and pair them with Aussie Ryan Rowland-Smith and Ian Snell, and this rotation could be some kinda good. Rowland-Smith has shown flashes of potential and he pitched well in his 15 starts in 09, as evidenced by the fact that 8 of his final 11 were quality starts. Snell has long been a bit of an enigma, a guy with a great arm and tons of potential who never could quite figure it out in Pittsburgh. Now 28, Snell will get a chance to prove he’s still got it in a better environment. 

Reasons they won’t:

Bradley becomes distraction number one and unsettles the clubhouse. Milton has been known to be a bit of a poison. There’s a reason why he’s on his 8th team in his 11th season. Cubs GM Jim Hendry couldn’t get rid of him fast enough this past offseason, and his willingness to take on Carlos Silva exemplifies that desire. Recently, Milton lashed out at the Cubs, proclaiming that they were the reason he had a bad year in 09. And while the M’s have defined leaders and better personalities in their clubhouse than the Cubs seemed to in 09, if Milton becomes a problem, then look out. 
09 pitching doesn’t translate. One beneficiary of Seattle’s great defense last season was the pitching staff, and guys therefore over-performed above their talent levels as a result. Take Jarrod Washburn for instance. He had a 2.64 ERA in 20 starts with the M’s, but posted a 7.33 ERA after his trade to the Tigers. Coincidence? Other guys also took advantage of the great D behind them. Take Sean White for example, and his 2.80 ERA, a product of an incredibly low .226 Batting average on balls in play (BABIP). How much of an effect could this have in 2010? Only time will tell.  

They still can’t get the offense to come through. Despite the pickups of Figgins, Casey Kotchman and Bradley, this team still has a huge question mark surrounding its offense. It’s all good to get guys on base, but if you can’t send them home, how can you win consistently year in year out? Last year Branyan filled that role admirably, but he had no support. And now, Griffey is past his prime as a dominant run producer, Bradley is an enigma, Gutierrez doesn’t project to be a middle of the order masher, Kotchman doesn’t really hit that well for power, which pretty much leaves Jose Lopez. Concerned? Me too. 

Key questions to answer:

Who will establish themselves at catcher? Now that Kenji Johjima has departed, the M’s are left with a bunch of offensively subpar guys wearing the tools of ignorance. And while that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem on a team that has plenty of offensive punch, for Seattle, it doesn’t really help. Add in the fact that neither Rob Johnson or Adam Moore aren’t exactly the next coming of Johnny Bench from a defensive standpoint, and you’ve got a problem. Yes you can argue that Moore has improved his defensive game and he’s got a lot more offensive upside than Johnson, but we’re not exactly talking about a position of strength for this club. One can only hope that Moore gets then majority of the playing time and comes through. If not, then Zduriencik may be forced to make a move or two.  
Is the bullpen deep enough? While they’ve got Aardsma shutting the door in the 9th and Shawn Kelley providing a great 7th/8th inning power arm, who else is there here to call upon? The addition of Brandon League from the Blue Jays brings
in a power arm, and former Nationals closer Chad Cordero could make the team, but it doesn’t look quite as rosy on paper. Now I hope I’m proven wrong. Well, either that or the M’s are banking on their starting staff going 6+ IP every night to shorten the game. 
Whose going to drive in Figgins and Ichiro? This has mainly been addressed in the above section, but seriously, looking at this lineup, did the M’s get that run producer that they sorely lacked in 2009? Not really. While Bradley can be that guy, can he just focus on playing the game? Griffey isn’t that guy anymore. Lopez would be better served as a number 5 type hitter, same for Gutierrez, while Kotchman has never hit more than 14 homers or driven in more than 74 in a season. Then add in the fact that they lost Branyan and his 31 homers, 76 RBI’s  and .347 OBP. Watch this space on this one. 

Worth keeping an eye on:

Michael Saunders. The young outfielder got the call at the back end of the 09 season after lighting up AAA Tacoma, but while he provided solid defense (notice a theme here?), his bat didn’t come around, as Saunders hit just .221. The Mariners recently assigned him back to AAA to begin the 2010 season, but it shouldn’t be long (Pending the adventures of Milton Bradley) before we see him become a fixture alongside Gutierrez and Ichiro in the Seattle outfield.
2010 projection:

As with all the AL West previews I’ve done, I’d just like to re-iterate the fact that I feel this division is, potentially, wide open. Now, alot of things have to go right for Seattle, Texas and Oakland for that to happen, but still, the key word here is POTENTIAL, something that really couldn’t have been said the past few years with the Angels dominance. From 2004 to 2009, the Angels have failed to win the West only once, that being in 2006, when they finished a meagre 4 games back of Oakland. In other words, for the better part of the last decade, it’s been a one horse race. 
The M’s will be solid again defensively and they have arguably one of the best rotations in the game. And while they did well in adding Figgins, for me, there are too many question marks surrounding their offense. Milton Bradley? Casey Kotchman? These guys are good supplemental players, not the pillars of your foundation. Will they produce enough runs to make the defensive/pitching dominance count for more than 85 wins in 2010? It’ll be an interesting season in Seattle for sure. 

AL West preview part 3

Continuing with a look at the AL West, today I’m focusing on the Texas Rangers. Check here for a preview of the Angels, and you can find a run down of the A’s here.

They Rangers come into 2010 with a whole bunch of optimism. GM Jon Daniels is entering his 5th season at the helm in Arlington, and it appears, on the surface at least, that the plan he implemented to turn this franchise around in 2007, (a plan that went full speed ahead with the trade of Mark Teixeira to Atlanta) is about ready to come to fruition, if not this season, then definitely in 2011. Lucky for the Rangers, most think that the Angels got a little worse this offseason, and so the 10 games back Texas finished in 2009 could become substantially less in 2010. On a side not, how lop sided was that trade for Teixeira with Atlanta? Incredibly, the Rangers got Neftali Feliz, Elvis Andrus, Jarrod Saltalamacchia (who by the way, has a name so long that it practically resembles the Gateway arch on his back), Matt Harrison and Beau Jones. Incredible.  
2009 was not a bad year at all for the Rangers. They recorded just their second season over .500 for the decade, and finished 2nd in the West for the second consecutive year. They were in contention all season long, and they had a ton of positives. Young shortstop Elvis Andrus proved he could handle the jump to the bigs. Neftali Feliz got the call in August and showcased the arm that has so many scouts raving. Nelson Cruz went from slugging 37 homers at AAA in 2008 to making the All star team in 2009 and finishing second to Prince Fielder in the Home Run Derby. Michael Young was the scene of much controversy after he requested a trade in the preseason in his reluctance to move to third base to make way for Andrus at short. But after he backed down, the stellar Young didn’t appear to miss a beat and ended up hitting .322 and his 22 homers restored some faith in his power ability after 2 down years with the long ball. 
Pitching coach Mike Maddux got the most out of his pitching, with the bullpen posting the 6th best ERA in the AL, while the staff as a whole came in 8th. Pretty respectable considering the fact that the ballpark in Arlington isn’t exactly known as a pitchers paradise. Scott Feldman also came through with 17 wins to lead the rotation, and Kevin Millwood also had a solid year. But there were downs too. Despite being second in homers, Texas led the AL in strikeouts, with Chris Davis leading the way with an astounding 150 k’s in just 419 PA’s. Josh Hamilton got hurt early and failed to replicate his spectacular 2008 season, and Ian Kinsler looked like he was swinging for the fences every night, who’s average dropped from .319 to .253, despite slugging a career high 31 long balls. The Rangers also couldn’t get on base, finishing 12th in the AL in OBP.
Long gone is Kevin Millwood, traded to Baltimore for Chris Ray and rule 5 pick Ben Snyder, as are Rangers mainstays Hank Blalock and Marlon Byrd. The Rangers also waived goodbye to Pudge Rodriguez, Omar Vizquel, Jason Grilli and several others. Coming in are Chad Tracy, looking to return to form after 3 injury plagued seasons, Vladimir Guerrero from the Angels, DL veteran Rich Harden makes his way over from the Cubs, and Texas got bullpen help out of southpaw Darren Oliver. So how do things break down for 2010?

Reasons they’ll do well:

Mike Maddux continues to work wonders and the pitching staff impresses yet again. If Feldman can carry over his success from 2009, Harden can stay healthy, and some of the young pitching emerges, then this could be an interesting team. The Rangers will need the likes of young lefty Derek Holland to step it up, and if he’s in the rotation, they’ll need the same from phenom Neftali Feliz. The pen looks to be strong with Frank Francisco manning the 9th and Oliver, Darren O’Day and Chris Ray all capable of filling late inning roles. Ron Washington certainly won’t be short of options here. 
The best man wins the job for the 5th starter spot. Currently, the Rangers have Holland, Matt Harrison, Brandon McCarthy, Feliz and C J Wilson battling for the last rotation spot, with things being neck and neck so far this spring. It is flexible however, as Feliz, McCarthy and Wilson could easily go to the pen. Keep an eye on this battle though. The Rangers have repeatedly said the best pitcher will get the job.  
The offense gets on base! With speedsters Julio Borbon and Elvis Andrus, the Rangers look to have a couple of good table setters before the big guys come up. If Texas gets bounceback years from Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler, then look out. 

Reasons they won’t:

The team gets bogged down by injuries, the offense starts swinging for the fences and keeps coming up with nothing but air, and the pitching staff melts do
wn faster than an ice cream in the Texas sun. There’s lots of question marks surrounding this team with no real certainties. They could have it all come together as above, or it could all fall apart. 

Key questions to answer:

Can Josh Hamilton stay healthy and duplicate his monster 2008 year? If Hamilton can stick around for 140+ games and replicate his fairytale season from 2 summers ago, then the Rangers could be in business. If not, then that’s one huge hole in the middle of their lineup.
Who is going to catch for this team? At the time, Saltalamacchia was the crown of the Teixeira trade, but has yet to fulfill that potential. Taylor Teagarden is arguably a better defensive catcher, but neither one has grabbed the bull by the horns. The Rangers are going to need one of them to step it up in 2010. 
Can Rich Harden avoid the DL? If Harden can stay healthy, he’ll slot in nicely next to Scott Feldman to give Texas a solid 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation. 
What are they going to do with Neftali Feliz? This situation reminds many of Joba Chamberlain in New York. Developed as a starter who dominated in the minors, but brought to the big leagues and placed in the pen to help him learn the ropes, yet while there, was lights out. Now the dilemma. Do the Rangers keep him in the pen, or do they stick with the development plan and try him in the rotation? 

Worth keeping an eye on:
Justin Smoak. The young firstbase prospect has power in abundance and can hit for average too. But get this. He walks about as many times as he strikes out. In other words, the moment Chris Davis starts struggling at first, Smoak will be knocking on the door.  

2010 projection:

Once again we visit a team in this division who have question marks but also has the potential to make a great run if everything goes well. And with the Angels not so much of a definite to take the crown like they have been in years past, this could be the year for the Rangers. Luckily, Jon Daniels has built a deep system around him, so if things aren’t quite right this year, 2011 will still offer plenty to promise. Maybe, with another year of development, Holland, Feliz, Borbon, Andrus, Smoak and co could lead the Rangers to the promised land somewhere down the line.  

While alot of people like Seattle to be the closest challengers to LA, I’ll take the Rangers to finish second in the West. 

AL West preview part 2

Today I’m going to look at the Oakland A’s, part two in my AL West previews. For part 1, check here.

Coming into 09, expectations for the A’s were, well, not too bad. Billy Beane had made a rare splash in acquiring Matt Holliday from Colorado for Carlos Gonzalez, Huston Street and Greg Smith. Jason Giambi’s 32 bombs from 2008 were brought in to solidify an anaemic offense along with Holliday, and the A’s added Orlando Cabrera to give them some pop and defensive punch at short. All eyes were on a young trio of pitchers named Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill and Vin Mazzaro who looked like the next coming of Zito, Hudson and Mulder, and thus there was reason for optimism on the otherside of the San Francisco Bay. So what the hell went wrong? Well, the A’s wound up a sorry 22 games out of 1st place Los Angeles, and in fact, the A’s spent only 1 day over .500, that being on April 8th. Yes, that’s not a misprint. Turns out that Matt Holliday just can’t hit AL pitching, proven by the fact that he was a dominant force hitting behind Albert Pujols upon his return to the NL. Jason Giambi couldn’t find his way over the Mendoza line, batting a paltry .193 in 83 games, and things snowballed from there. Holliday was dealt to the Cards, Giambi released and Orlando Cabrera was packaged off to the twin cities. 
If there were any bright spots, it must have felt like they all came from the mound for the A’s in 09. Rookie closer Andrew Bailey ended up with 26 saves and turned in a dominant season, giving the A’s their fireman in the 9th. But it wasn’t just Bailey who was superb in the A’s pen, as the staff compiled a 3.54 ERA, and the pitchers as a whole combined for the 4th best ERA in the junior circuit behind only the Yankees, White Sox and Mariners. Craig Breslow was plucked off the waiver wire from Minnesota and proved to be just what the doctor ordered in the 7th inning, and Michael Wuertz, acquired from the Cubs, became a strike out machine.  Brett Anderson showcased himself more than admirably with a 3.61 ERA in 30 starts, while Cahill had a solid debut season, and lefty Dallas Braden had a very nice first half before his season ended with a foot infection. Perhaps the highlight for me was my one game at the Coliseum on September 6th, when 3 pretty cool things happened: 1) Ichiro got his 2,000 major league hit, in yes you guessed it, the first AB of the game! 2) The A’s won 5-2 and 3) Andrew Bailey collected his 23rd save of the season. Oh and 4) it was one hell of a beautiful sunny afternoon, just a perfect day for baseball. 
Going into 2010, you can take it to the bank that the pitching staff will be among the best in the AL (at least, in my eyes they will). They’ve added Ben Sheets, (who you can guarantee will be wearing other colours than green if he shows that 1) he’s healthy again and 2) the A’s are out of contention) and will be getting Justin Duchscherer and Joey Devine back. So a solid pitching staff should get even better. And while they still don’t have the offense, Coco Crisp, Jake Fox and Kevin Kouzmanoff will give the A’s a solid defensive structure if nothing else. And did I mention that Chris Carter and Michael Taylor might be mashing balls out of the Mausoleum sooner rather than later? 
Reasons they’ll do well:
Anderson turns in a Cy Young caliber sophomore season, Vin Mazzaro shows he can pitch in the big leagues like he did in his first 2 starts when he threw 13 2/3 scoreless, Justin Duchscherer returns to his 2008 All star form and Ben Sheets becomes everything Billy Beane envisioned when he signed him to a 1 year $10million deal. 
The Bullpen becomes even stronger with the return of flamethrower Joey Devine. 
And Michael Taylor and Chris Carter get the call and rescue an anaemic offense. Having said that, they’ve got some nice pieces. Speed is in abundance in the outfield in Coco Crisp and Rajai Davis, who began showing signs of promise late last season. And while nobody will be mistaking Kevin Kouzmanoff for Brooks Robinson anytime soon, he’s still a solid third baseman who can play a damn good hot corner. Cliff Pennigton gives the A’s a good young shortstop, and Kurt Suzuki more than doubled his RBI totals from 2008 in 09 while hitting a solid .274. If you’re seeing the word ‘solid’ alot in this entry, it’s because that’s exactly how I view the A’s offense. There’s no standout players, just a group of quality guys who have good skills but aren’t necessarily all stars. 
Reasons they won’t:
The offense will suffer more than the stock market in a depression. When I look up and down this lineup, I really begin to ask questions like, ‘who’s going to get on base?’ ‘who’s going to drive those guys in?’. It’s a worrying couple of thoughts. I;m sure the A’s are hoping that Carter and Taylor will be worth their respective billings, but their only small parts of the puzzle.
Gio Gonzalez continues being the most enigmatic pitcher in the AL. Brett Anderson, Cahill and Bailey suffer from the dreaded ‘sophomore slump’, Ben Sheets and Duchscherer can’t stay healthy, and the pitching staff, as well as the offense, melts away. 
Key questions to answer:
Can Sheets be the staff ace? Sheets could be the key in so many ways. He’ll be a big mentor to the youngsters on the staff to begin with. And of course, he’s a big game pitcher, potential leader of the pack no 1 starter type guy who you could put up there with the best of them on a good day. Will it pay off? Who knows. But it’s a smart gamble by Billy Beane. 
Will they get enough offense? It’s clearly obvious in my eyes that the A’s pitching staff ISN’T going to melt down as I just wrote might happen. That of course, is a worst case scenario. Still, it’s evident that the A’s are going to be involved in a ton of tight, low scoring ballgames, so if they do get solid pitching and just enough offense to push them over the hump, who knows? Maybe they’ll spend more than 1 game over .500 in this new decade. 
Worth keeping an eye on:
Michael Taylor and Chris Carter. These two guys are the mashers that the A’s lineup right now sorely lacks. They’ve got pop in abundance, and I’ve read some reports saying that Taylor has the tools to win a batting title someday. It’s a matter of when, not if, these two get the call in 2010, and when they do, look out. 
2010 projection:
This division is tight. While Seattle and Texas both got better, and the Angels perhaps took a step back, Oakland could do either in 2010. If it all comes together, I see this team competing long into the dog days of August, and finishing second in the West. But if the offense sputters, then Sheets will be playing elsewhere by the end of the summer, the questions surrounding the A’s future will once again resurface, and they’ll do no better than 4th. Personally, I’m hoping that Cisco Field eventually gets built and the A’s stay in Oakland, because, along with Target Field, I love the design of that ballpark! 
Look for the A’s to live and die on the mound in 2010.