Monday, February 21, 2011

NL Central Preview

The Red comfortably won the NL Central by 5 games last season, but the race for the division title this upcoming season should be closer.  Here's a look at all six teams in the division...

The Astros only won 76 games last season and 2011 should be just as tough.  They only managed a .247 team batting average last season, and did not make many changes that will improve the ball club for this season.  The rotation will only be solid at best and doesn't have much potential for improvement.  Highly touted prospect Brett Wallace could have a breakout year in his first full season in the bigs, which could be one of the few bright spots for Houston.

Last season, the Brew Crew finished third in the division, but only won 77 games.  They knew that they needed new parts in order to win this season (in order to convince Prince Fielder to sign an extension or to win before he leaves after this season).  The Brewers succeeded in trading for both Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, in order to upgrade a subpar rotation.  In 2011, Greinke, Marcum and last season's ace Yovani Gallardo should help form one of the best rotations in the National League.  The offense was already formidable, with sluggers Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and Corey Hart in the middle of the order.  Milwaukee fans should be very excited for the 2011 season.

Just how much of a distraction will Albert Pujols' contract be?  The Cardinals and Pujols did not reach a contract agreement by the February 16th deadline, so Pujols has stopped negotiations until the season ends.  Hopefully, distractions won't take away from what should be a good season for the Cardinals.  The rotation will be good, as it always is, with Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, and one of last season's standout rookies, Jaime Garcia, at the top.  If Kyle Lohse can pitch for a full season, unlike last year when he only threw 92 innings, the rotation could be better than expected.  The lineup will be fine, with Sir Albert and Matt Holliday in the middle smashing home runs.  The big question: can Lance Berkman bounce back from a terrible 2010?  As usual, the Cardinals will be in contention at the end of the season.

Ah, the Cubs.  Questions, questions, and more questions.  Can overpaid players like Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez and Kosuke Fukudome be consistent throughout an entire season?  Will newly acquire first baseman Carlos Pena hit over the Mendoza Line (.200)?  Will Matt Garza be as good as expected or will he give up too many homers to succeed at Wrigley?  Will Carlos Marmol be the guy who struck out 138 batters in 77.2 innings, or the guy who walked 52 batters in those innings?  Was Mike Quade the right managerial choice?  You get the point.  This year could either be a disaster, or it could turn out better than expected.

When people talk about your team as a glorified AAA team, you know you have problems.  No chance to win anything. period.  In the last five years, from 2006 to 2010, the Pirates have won 67, 68, 67, 62, and 57 games, respectively.  The team's last winning season: 1992.  That is beyond horrendous.  If you can name anyone in the Pirates lineup besides Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, I will be extremely impressed.  At least they have a great ballpark, right? 

They are the defending NL Central champs, having won 91 games last season.  They have basically the same lineup as they did last season, when they led the National League in batting.  The middle of the lineup should be potent, with defending NL MVP Joey Votto and Jay Bruce.  The rotation should be solid again this year and the Reds should prove that last season was not a fluke, as they contend with the Brewers and the Cardinals for first place in 2011.

1. Brewers
2. Cardinals
3. Cubs
4. Reds
5. Astros
6. Pirates

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Young Wants Trade, Peavy On the Way Back

So Michael Young isn't happy in Texas afterall.  Young told the Rangers last week that he does not want to be a full-time DH and wants a trade.  Earlier in the winter, the Rangers signed Adrian Beltre to a longterm contract to replace Young at third base.  Young has publicly said that he has grown disillusioned with playing in Arlington, mainly because of how he has been treated by the Rangers.  GM Jon Daniels has said that this is not the team's first choice, but at this point all signs seem to point towards a trade.  There may be too many problems to repair between the two sides.  Young is still a very effective player, as evidenced by his 2010 season in which he hit .284 with 21 homers and 91 RBI.  If they end up trading him, the Rangers will need to find another hitter with consistent pop to fill their vacancy at DH.

In other news, White Sox pitcher Jake Peavy is making progress in his recovery from surgery to reattach a lat muscle under his right shoulder.  He recently told reporters that he is at about 60 to 70 percent and has started throwing off a mound.  No pitcher has ever had an injury quite like Peavy's, so it will be interesting to see if he can come back and be anywhere close to the guy who won 2007 NL Cy Young Award.  If he can pitch effectively when he returns, the White Sox will have one of the best rotations in the American League.  Peavy would be towards the back end of a rotation that includes Mark Buehrle, Gavin Floyd, John Danks and Edwin Jackson.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Will the Cardinals Sign Pujols in the Next Week?

Albert Pujols will report to spring training on February 16th and if he has not signed a contract extension with the Cardinals by then, he has pledged to stop negotiations until he becomes a free agent after the season.  As many of you know, Pujols is not your typical potential free agent.  He is the best player in the game today and will most likely go down as one of the best to ever play it.  In ten big league seasons, Pujols has a slash line of  .331/.426/.624 (AVG/OBP/SLG), 408 home runs, 1230 RBI, and 1900 hits.  He has never batted below .300, never hit below 30 home runs and never driven in fewer than 100 runs.  He has won three MVP awards (and never finished outside the top ten in MVP voting during his ten years), the 2001 Rookie of the Year award, two Gold Glove awards and six Silver Sluggers.  Obviously not the kind of player you just let walk out of town.

The funny thing is, the Cardinals have yet to give Pujols a concrete contract offer.  Clearly, that means that the Cards and Pujols are nowhere close in their contract negotiations.  Pujols is said to be looking for a contract similar to Alex Rodriguez's massive contract worth 10 years, $275 million.  According to Yahoo Sports, valed Pujols as high as $275 million over 10 years, valued him at $267 million over 10 years, and valued him at $350 million over eight years (taking into account increases in player salaries and league revenue).  That is a ton of money and the Cardinals might not be willing to go that high. However, if they don't, another team will.

If the Cardinals lose Pujols, they won't only lose the best player on the planet, but the centerpiece of their organization.  It would be a devastating blow to one of the most loyal fan bases in all of baseball.  However, if he does end up leaving, let's hope the Cubs can steal him from their arch-rivals and end 103 years of futility (yes, I realize how unlikely that is).

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Philadephia Favorites: Phillies Primed for More Success

So, is there really any question about which team is the favorite in the National League East?  The Phillies signed Cliff Lee and now have the best rotation in baseball, not to mention a pretty good lineup.  The rest of the teams in the NL East?  Competing for second.

The Braves look like the clear favorite for second place in the NL East in 2011, and maybe they could even push the Phillies for the first.  The Braves have one of the best rotations in the National League (behind the Phillies and Giants, of course), with a solid group of Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, and Mike Minor.  If Chipper Jones can come back strong after missing 67 games last season, the middle of the Braves could be extremely good (they need to improve on their .258 average from last season), as it will include Jones, Jason Heyward, Brian McCann, and newcomer Dan Uggla.  While I think that it will still be almost impossible for any team to best the Phillies, the Braves have the best chance of the other four teams in the division.

The Marlins finished 2010 with a record of 80-82, and may be a bit better this upcoming season.  They have a solid rotation topped by Josh Johnson (11-6, 2.30 ERA) and newcomer Javier Vazquez pitched well last time he played in the NL East (with the Braves in 2009).  The lineup should be solid, as the Marlins have Hanley Ramirez manning shortstop and new star Mike Stanton in right field.  Newcomers Omar Infante (2B) and John Buck (catcher) offer upgrades at both positions.

What to say about the Mets?  They only won 79 games last season and might not win that many this season.  Their lineup has the parts to be good, but injuries and inconsistency are a concern.  Normally, a team with Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, David Wright, and Jason Bay would have high expectations.  However, a rotation where the best starters are Mike Pelfrey and R.A. Dickey offsets a lineup that may produce runs (especially when their rotation is the fourth or fifth best in their own division).  If you're a Mets fan, don't expect a playoff run.

Obviously, not having Stephen Strasburg is a major loss.  However, the Nationals have the pieces to win more than the 69 games they won last year.  They don't have any aces in their rotation, but they have solid pieces in Livan Hernandez, John Lannan, Tom Gorzelanny, Jason Marquis, and Jordan Zimmerman (hopefully Zimmerman will be back from injury).  The lineup will be anchored by Ryan Zimmerman and newcomer Jayson Werth.  Clearly, the Nationals can't compete with the top teams in the division, but they might not finish last either.

Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels.  Who cares who the Phillies fifth starter is, because they already have the best rotation in baseball in place (also, its one of the best of all-time, on paper).  Their offense isn't too shabby either.  With Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco, Raul Ibanez, Carlos Ruiz, and Dominic Brown starting, the Phillies should score more than enough run to win with the rotation they have.

1. Phillies
2. Braves
3. Marlins
4. Nationals
5. Mets

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Can the Rangers Repeat?

In 2010, the Rangers came out of nowhere to win 90 games and coast to a division title in the AL West.  After winning their division games over the Athletics, the Rangers surprised everyone by making it to the franchise's first World Series, where they lost to the Giants.  After an offseason highlighted by the fact that the Rangers couldn't retain star pitcher Cliff Lee, they may have competition from the A's for the division crown in 2011.  Here is the outlook for the AL West in 2011.

After finishing last season with a record of 81-81, the A's should move closer (and maybe even win) to a division title.  Oakland has the best young rotation in baseball (it might also be the best in general).  The top four starters, Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, and Dallas Braden, have an average age of 24.  That core four pitched well enough last season that the A's were able to lead the AL in ERA (3.56) and shutouts (17).  In order to actually win the AL West, however, the offense will need to perform better.  The A's only hit .256 as a team last season and only scored 663 runs, good for 23rd in the majors.  New additions Hideki Matsui and Josh Willingham will add more pop to the lineup, and if some of the returners can avoid injuries they suffered last season, the offense will be more balanced and produce more runs.  Injuries are the key to the A's success.  Fewer injuries than last season and the A's can compete with the Rangers.

After years as a perennial favorite to win a terrible division, the Angels struggled last season and finished with a record of 80-82, good for third place.  It was their first season under .500 since 2003.  Unfortunately for Angels fans, the struggles will probably continue into 2011.  Slugging first baseman Kendry Morales will return after missing all but 51 games last season after injuring himself while celebrating a walk-off home run, which will help the offense some (the Angels only batted .248 as a team last season).  However, the only newcomer to the Angels for the upcoming season is inconsistent outfielder Vernon Wells, who is sometimes great but much of the time doesn't play up to the expectations that come with having a huge contract.  The pitching staff isn't bad, with Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana at the top, but it is basically the same as last season as well.  Expect to see a better season from the Angels in 2011, but the improved depth of the AL West will prove troublesome.  They didn't make enough moves in the offseason.

The Mariners are easily the worst team in the AL West, if not the worst in the entire AL.  They have two studs, one in the rotation (AL Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez) and one in the outfield (Ichiro Suzuki).  Besides that, the cupboard is pretty bare.  They were the worst offensive team in the bigs last season, finishing with a paltry .236 team batting average and only 513 runs scored.  Seattle's team ERA was pretty good, as they finished at 3.93, tied for ninth in the majors.  Until the offense gets better, however, expect the Mariners to keep losing.

As previously mentioned, Texas won 90 games last season and advanced to the World Series.  The only problem that they have for the 2011 season is that Cliff Lee is now pitching for Philadelphia.  That's a big problem to have, but not one that the Rangers can't overcome.  The rotation is still solid with C.J. Wilson, Tommy Hunter and Colby Lewis at the top.  Texas also signed Brandon Webb to an incentive laden one-year deal and if he can fully recover from injuries, he will be the steal of the offseason.  The bullpen is solid, with stud closer Neftali Feliz (2010 AL Rookie of the Year) at the back-end.  However, the Rangers offense can make up for the shortcomings of the pitching staff.  They are absolutely loaded.  Imagine being able to put Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Elvis Andrus, Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre, Julio Borbon, and Mike Napoli on your lineup card everyday.  Manager Ron Washington is a lucky man.  The Rangers are the favorites to repeat as AL West champs.

Expect a much closer battle between the A's and the Rangers for the AL West Crown.  The Rangers pitching staff needs to show it can still be elite and the A's offense to needs to step up to help their young, excellent rotation.  Even after losing Cliff Lee, the Rangers will still win the division.  Their rotation is solid enough to win when it is backed by one of the best offenses in the AL.

1. Rangers
2. A's
3. Angels
4. Mariners