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Sunday, March 30, 2003

Play Ball

Let's hope these turn out a little better than either my Oscar picks or *shudder* my March Madness picks.

American League:

AL East
NY Yankees - 99 wins
With the deepest pitching staff by far (I wonder if Jose Contreras regrets passing up Boston, Miami, and the Mets for the Yankees, where he may be stuck in relief) and the best offense in the AL, the Yankees should be good enough for another predictable division title, particularly if LF Hideki “Godzilla” Matsui is worthy of the hype. Defense is an Achilles’ heel, particularly up the middle (Jeter is overrated with the glove, Soriano is terrible, and Bernie’s arm is too weak for CF) The bullpen, heretofore the biggest difference-maker between them and the Red Sox, opens the season injury-plagued. Which could open things up for…

Boston Red Sox - 97 wins (Wild Card)
On the other hand, this might be the best offense in the AL if things break right.
1B and DH, sink holes in the lineup last year, have been plugged, and every other position figures to at worst stay the same, as Nomar and Trot Nixon had off years. The danger would lie in the rotation - an injury to Pedro Martinez, a decline by Derek Lowe, and an inability of the other starters to pick up the considerable slack, which could drop the Sox in the direction of Toronto. The bullpen should be much improved from last season, though infield defense drops a bit in going from Rey Sanchez and Tony Clark to Todd Walker and Jeremy Giambi. Combined with declines by Seattle and Anaheim, and the continued privilege of playing the Rays and O’s, these improvements should net them the AL Wild Card if they fail to unseat the Yankees.

Toronto Blue Jays - 86 wins
Their offense is coming together nicely, with Eric Hinske, Carlos Delgado, Vernon Wells, and the rest, and might end up being almost as good as that of the two teams above. Unfortunately, neither side of the pitching staff is anywhere near ready for prime time, Roy Halladay notwithstanding. In the AL Central, they’d be contenders.

Baltimore Orioles - 64 wins
They’re spinning their wheels in Charm City. Some of the O’s pitchers (Rodrigo Lopez, Sidney Ponson, Jorge Julio, Buddy Groom) might be worth having, but there’s very little in this lineup that scares anyone. Even worse, the farm system is weak, particularly for position players. Their late 2002 collapse is a sign of something, but they’re still in better shape than the Devil Rays.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays - 59 wins
How bad are the Devil Rays? This prediction is an improvement of four games over last year. Their offense is virtually a real life HACKING MASS team, and the pitching isn’t much better. Lou Piniella is going to have a long year. One of these days, Tampa Bay will get a Major League franchise.

AL Central:
Chicago White Sox – 88 wins
They say young pitchers will break your heart. Undaunted, I’m picking the ChiSox to take a weak AL Central. I like this lineup, led by Magglio Ordonez and Paul Konerko, and this bullpen to help bolster a somewhat suspect rotation.

Minnesota Twins – 87 wins
The Contraction Kids, everyone’s favorite team, in a sense. I see a decline for them mostly attributed to not being sold on this offense. They have talent in the outfield, but it’s tough to use them all effectively, and I’m skeptical about just how many runs this lineup can score. The starting pitching looks good, but the relief pitching can only get worse. I also envision the White Sox being much more willing to make moves to put them over the top than Carl Pohlad and the Twins management.

Cleveland Indians – 74 wins
I think last year was the bottom for the Tribe, but it could be this year, since Jim Thome is gone. I think the offense will be a lot better than some people expect, with Travis Hafner and Brandon Phillips. Not that it matters much, since .500 is about a best-case scenario for this bunch. Worst-case? They lose their grip on third place to…

Kansas City Royals – 67 wins
Two offensive stars (Mike Sweeney and Carlos Beltran) and possibly a boost from some talented young pitchers. It’s not much, but trimming dead wood like Neifi Perez and Chuck Knoblauch should be enough to improve their record a few games from last year.

Detroit Tigers – 62 wins
They have an offensive that might well be even worse (though they moved the fences in, which should help) than last years’ anemic bunch, and an unproven pitching staff with no real anchor. So why have I projected them to improve seven games? The law of averages, mostly, but also Carlos Pena, and new closer Franklyn German. It won’t be enough to get them out of the cellar, but in the AL Central, it might not take long to turn the corner.

AL West:
Oakland Athletics – 97 wins
Obviously, they have the strongest 1-2-3 in the majors with Zito, Hudson, and Mulder, and a fine pen to go with it. So I’ve picked another AL West crown for the A’s, but I’m somewhat concerned about the offense – few teams would envy an outfield of Terrence Long, Chris Singleton, and Jermaine Dye. They will be strong defensively, but a bad year by either Eric Chavez or Miguel Tejada could doom them.

Anaheim Angels – 88 wins
The feel-good hit of last year, reality may set in a little bit as their offense in particular seemed to have overachieved substantially, despite few obvious “career years” by anyone. Sabermetrics tells us all about the importance of power and plate discipline – can a team as limited as Anaheim in both these categories continue to be productive? Can their bullpen, Francisco Rodriguez notwithstanding, perform at that level again? Can the Angels win anywhere near as many games in a tough AL West? Color me skeptical. But teams that come out of nowhere as frequently go back there as they do stick around. 88 wins could put them in Wild Card contention if the Red Sox sputter, and in AL West contention should Oakland’s lineup drag them back into 90-win territory.

Seattle Mariners – 84 wins
I think the Mariners are in trouble. There’s not much power in this lineup (albeit that is exaggerated a bit by Safeco Field) and many of the key offensive performers (John Olerud, Edgar Martinez, Bret Boone) are on the wrong side of 30. They should have speed and defense on their side, but the bullpen, which has been a strength for the M’s, is aging as well. Freddy Garcia holds the key – the M’s can’t afford any further decline by their staff ace, due to the shakiness at the bottom of the rotation.

Texas Rangers – 79 wins
Despite the loss of Ivan Rodriguez, the offense still has its stars, with A-Rod, Rafael Palmeiro, and Juan Gonzalez. They’ve improved in the bullpen as well, but the brutal starting rotation will still be among the worst in baseball, and that’ll be enough to consign them to the cellar in a tough AL West. The good news is that 79 wins would be an improvement, and they’re really only a couple starters from being competitive.

National League:
NL East
Philadelphia Phillies – 89 wins
I pick the Phils to end the Braves’ long run of AL East titles, but it will be close. Philly’s rotation, anchored by Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, and Randy Wolf, looks strong. Jim Thome may prove just the boost the Phils offense needs to take the next step, joining Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu, and speedy Jimmy Rollins. If they can’t take the Braves out, the Wild Card also remains a possibility.

Atlanta Braves – 86 wins
The Braves will not go quietly. They’ve still got Greg Maddux, and they’ve added Paul Byrd, Russ Ortiz, and Mike Hampton might work out. The infield seems weak offensively, but they still Jones, Jones, and Sheffield in the outfield. John Smoltz is an asset wherever they stick him, and they always seem to find a way to have an excellent pen. A good season would not only keep them in AL East contention, but would make them a possible Wild Card team as well.

New York Mets – 83 wins
Last year, nearly everything that could go wrong went wrong. Perhaps this is the year things turn around for this aging veteran squad. They have added valuable parts in Cliff Floyd and Tom Glavine. The offense almost has to better than last year’s, and a Glavine/Leiter/Astacio/Trachsel rotation could pan out, with Armando Benitez in the pen. They’re certainly good enough to push their way into contention in a division with no obvious powerhouse.

Montreal Expos - 80 wins
The Expos, believe it or not, are a possible contender as well, although it’s hard to imagine them contending in fact since they’re far more likely to be a net seller than a new buyer in the annual stretch-drive bazaar. I’m of the opinion the Puerto Rico factor will help them more than hurt them, especially with their many Latin players. Vlad Guerrero is a force, and he has some support, with Jose Vidro, Orlando Cabrera, and Brad Wilkerson. Javier Vazquez will anchor the rotation. The relief will be weak, and of course, no help is forthcoming, so fourth place is the likeliest outcome.

Florida Marlins – 71 wins
Though they have some promising pitching, their offense is almost guaranteed to stink worse than dead fish. There will be lots of running but not a heck of a lot of hitting – we have the potential for historically significant levels of badness. The pitching – both starting and relief - will prevent the total train wreck going on in that other alleged Major League franchise in Florida.

NL Central:
Houston Astros – 96 wins
Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller head a strong rotation. Lance Berkman and new arrival Jeff Kent lead a potent offense. Billy Wagner heads a solid bullpen. I think this team is stacked, and primed to take the next step into National League supremacy.

St. Louis Cardinals – 93 wins (Wild Card)
The Cards’ offense is strong as well, with Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds. Matt Morris and Woody Williams try to anchor a sometimes shaky starting rotation, but the bullpen strength should help them out. Most of the key performers are past their primes, injury prone, or both, so I’m picking Houston to pass them. But St. Louis should still be plenty good enough for a Wild Card berth.

Chicago Cubs – 81 wins
Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, and Matt Clement might end up being the new Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz trio in the NL. Bullpen acquisition Mike Remlinger will help. But this offense, apart from Sammy Sosa, is weak, and the new veteran additions (Grudzielanek, Karros) feel more like subtractions. Can they score enough runs to keep their contention pretensions afloat? I say no, but they’ll still improve substantially from last year’s disastrous campaign.

Cincinnati Reds – 81 wins
The Reds bring some big offensive forces to bear, with Austin Kearns and Adam Dunn flanking Ken Griffey, Jr., who may yet have a great season left in him. Unfortunately the rotation is more or less a bunch of question marks, with Danny Graves trying to become this year’s Derek Lowe, and Jimmy Haynes trying to replicate an unlikely 15-win season.
They should marginally improve as the young hitters develop.

Pittsburgh Pirates – 75 wins
The Pirates should improve from dreadful to merely ordinary on offense in 2003, as Armaris Ramirez will almost have to be better than last year and Randall Simon is an improvement on Kevin Young. And Brian Giles is still on hand. A decent bullpen may be given more workload than it can handle unless Kip Wells and Josh Fogg both prove that last year’s forward steps are for real, and Kris Benson contributes. The NL Central is tough this year, so I wouldn’t harbor any high expectations for them. But at least they’re not…

Milwaukee Brewers – 57 wins
Bad. In every conceivable way. Not even worth discussing, really.

NL West:
San Francisco Giants – 92 wins
I’ve been predicting a collective decline for the NL West for a couple of years now. One of these years I have to be right. The Giants Between Ray Durham and Edgardo Alfonzo, Jeff Kent’s production (albeit not his power) should be replaced. A capable bullpen and a spacious ballpark should help a Jason Schmidt-led rotation(Kirk Reuter, Damian Moss) function well enough to hold off the NL West pack.

Arizona Diamondbacks – 87 wins
I think this is the year Arizona’s fascination with aging ballplayers comes back to bite them in the hindquarters. Luis Gonzales’ age and shoulder surgery are a concern. This offense has the potential to be pretty feeble, as Steve Finley and Matt Williams are expected to contribute. And there’s not much pitching behind the 1-2 of Johnson and Schilling, either. This year should be the first step towards morphing into a more normal expansion-type franchise.

Los Angeles Dodgers – 84 wins
Dodger Stadium will make any pitching staff look good, including this one. And while Odalis Perez, Hideo Nomo, and Andy Ashby isn’t a bad rotation front end, even when added to a top-notch pen it’s not going to make up for what is likely to be a pitiful offense. Shawn Green’s the only star – Fred McGriff’s decline will become pretty evident in Chavez Ravine. Comebacks by Kevin Brown and Darren Dreifort could spark a pennant drive, but I wouldn’t put any money on that.

Colorado Rockies – 76 wins
They have neither a good offense nor good pitching, despite some talent on both sides of the ball. The lineup could work if Charles Johnson, Preston Wilson and Jay Payton pan out as hoped, and the Juan Uribe/Brent Butler double play combo develops. I think it’s at least as likely that it doesn’t, while the shaky pitching staff implodes. Can Rookie of the Year Jason Jennings thrive in this harsh environment for hurlers?

San Diego Padres – 67 votes
San Diego, a team some had pegged to improve this season, just took two massive hits, losing slugger Phil Nevin for the season and closer Trevor Hoffman for a big chunk of the year. They’re now counting on Ryan Klesko and Rondell White to lead the offense. Sounds like a disaster in the making, doesn’t it? They do have some young pitching talent, and there is some hope for the future, but this season’s prospects look dim indeed.


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