Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's that time of year again. Spring time. Birds are chirping, grass is turning green and the scent of steroids is in the air. Yes, it's baseball season once again, which means...cue music...it's time for my annual pre-season divisional breakdown and guessing game, which, as always, will culminate with my picking the St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series, because I am nothing if not loyal.
Let's get to it, shall we.
One might think that this year will bring yet another showdown between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox for dominance in what has been, admittedly, a two-team race for the past decade or so, but both perennial powerhouses have weaknesses that just may leave the door open for a third team to get its proverbial foot in the door.
The Yankees once again have a Murderer's Row of a lineup, with All-Stars at nearly every position. With newly-acquired Johnny Damon and Derek Jeter setting the table, they will score runs by the dozens with Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi and Hideki Matsui hitting behind them. 3-run homers will be in abundance. Yet this has been the case for the past five years, and how many World Series rings do these Bronx Bombers have to show for their efforts? None. Zero. The reason? Postseason pitching, or lack thereof, and this season will be no different.
With a horrible bullpen, the Yankees have no bridge between their aging starters and aging closer. Another year of wear and tear on the arms of Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina and Mariano Rivera leave the team vulnerable if even one of their crafty veterans goes down. And Carl Pavano is already having back pain and will probably start the season on the DL. You aren't going to be winning anything with Shawn Chacon and Chien-Ming Wang filling out your rotation regardless of how many runs you score.
Boston finds itself in a similar situation. Even with the defection of Damon, the Red Sox should be able to put runs on the board. As long as David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez are in the middle of the lineup, scoring runs will be the least of their concerns. Their season hinges mostly on the health of starter Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke, not to mention how well Josh Beckett handles the spotlight that comes with playing in New England.
While the question marks surrounding these big behemoths doesn't necessarily break the AL East wide open, there is a lot of buzz surrounding a once formidable opponent who nearly broke the bank this year, spending over $100 million on two pitchers they hope will close the gap between the Haves and the Have-Nots of the AL East.
Fifteen years ago, the Toronto Blue Jays were the talk of baseball, one of its crown jewels. With back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993, the Blue Jays are the last team in baseball to repeat as champions not named Yankees. After the strike of 1994, however, things went south pretty quickly for baseball's northern-most team.
With the signings of starter A.J. Burnett and closer B.J. Ryan to huge contracts (some would say ridiculously huge), general manager J.P. Ricciardi hopes to signal the revitalization of baseball in Canada.
Pairing Burnett (who, unfortunately, will start the season on the DL) with Cy Young-winner Roy Halladay gives Toronto a proven 1-2 punch (if Burnett can stay healthy) that may unriveled in the division. With a pair of young 13-game-winners in Gustavo Chacin and Josh Towers, and a solid bullpen bridging the gap to Ryan, pitching should not be a problem.
Scoring also shouldn't be a big problem for a team that was fifth in runs in the American League last year. Adding Troy Glaus' 40-homer potential to a team that already had Vernon Wells' 30+ and a handful of guys who should hit 20-25 gives Toronto a pretty potent lineup.
It has been said that defense might be a bit of an issue for the Blue Jays. They aren't exactly stacked with Gold Glove winners, but, at worst, they should be average. Their hitting should be able to mask any runs they give away during the regular season. The postseason, that's another matter.
The AL East is rounded out by two teams with no real hopes of competing this season. The Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Devil Rays both have a few pieces here and there, like Miguel Tejada (Baltimore) and Carl Crawford (Tampa), and new managers, but neither team can match up with the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays.
It's become trendy to pick the Blue Jays to win the division, and if Halladay and Burnett can hold up over the course of the season, I might have to pick them, too. They have most of the pieces in place, and both the Yankees and Red Sox have fallen off a bit since last season. It'd probably be a smarter pick to go with New York, but I always like the idea of seeing some fresh faces in the postseason.
The division of the reigning World Series champions has a little bit of everything this year, from the imposing might of the Chicago White Sox to the young would-be usurpers in Cleveland to the not-quite-ready-but-on-the-way Detroit Tigers. And, of course, the perennial last place Kansas City Royals.
The White Sox are the safe pick to win the division again. They haven't really lost much from last year's team and they added Jim Thome to the lineup, who, if healthy, is good for 30-40 homers and 100+ RBI. Once again, their starting pitching is deep and they have a strong bullpen.
Watch out for the Cleveland Indians, though. They have a good, young lineup led by Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez, and strong starting pitching anchored by C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Jake Westbrook, though the bullpen may not be quite settled. They'll definitely be in the race this year.
It's quite possible that the window of opportunity has closed on the current incarnation of the Minnesota Twins. After Johan Santana, their starters aren't all that intimidating and neither is the bullpen until you get to closer Joe Nathan. The lineup doesn't exactly strike fear into the hearts of opponents, either. Torii Hunter missed a lot of time last season and Joe Mauer is still just 22-years-old.
The Detroit Tigers have a lot of good, young position players and pitchers, and with new manager Jim Leyland, they're possible on their way to contending, but not this year. If they can get to .500, that'll be a victory unto itself.
As for the Royals, they're a mess as usual. With mostly unproven pitching and a makeshift lineup of aging, though still productive, veterans and young kids, there's not much hope for anything more than a last-place finish this season.
Once again, the AL West is going to be a two-team race between the Oakland A's and the Orange County Angels. (I know they're technically called "Los Angeles Angels," but c'mon, who are they kidding? They play 40 miles from L.A. Disneyland is closer to their stadium than the Hollywood sign.) The Seattle Mariners have been rebuilding for the past couple of years and still have some work to do, and the Texas Rangers, well, they'll sure score a lot of runs, but they're going to give up plenty, too, playing in that stadium with that pitching staff.
The '06 A's might be the best team Oakland has fielded in recent memory. The lineup has depth, power and speed, and they just might have the best starting pitching in baseball, with Barry Zito, Rich Harden, Joe Blanton and Danny Haren. Not to mention fireball-throwing 22-year-old phenom Huston Street closing. This might be the year Oakland finally makes it to the World Series.
The Angels shouldn't be counted out, though. With Bartolo Colon and World Series hero John Lackey anchoring the rotation and Scot Shields, Brendan Donnelly and newly-signed J.C. Romero leading the way to K-Rod, Francisco Rodriguez, their pitching will certainly be formidable.
Scoring runs will be a problem, however, if Vladimir Guerrero and Garret Anderson can't stay healthy. The offense takes its cue from them, and they have to produce.
After winning 14 straight division titles, it's pretty silly to pick against the Atlanta Braves. Until someone actually dethrones them, they're the team to beat. The bullpen might be a little shaky, but with a rotation featuring workhorses John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, they should have time to sort it out.
The lineup got a big influx of youth and energy last year with the promotions of Brian McCann and Jeff Francour, and if they're able to pick up where they left off, they make the Jones Boys, Chipper and Andruw, that much more dangerous. Look for Edgar Renteria to bounce back from a subpar season now that he's back in the NL, too.
The New York Mets are the only real threat to Atlanta this season. After a flurry of offseason moves, they seem poised to take the division, but they neglected one key area in need of improvement.
The only major addition to the pitching staff was closer Billy Wagner, who is still one of the best closers in baseball, but after injury-prone Pedro Martinez and 40-year-old Tom Glavine, though, the starting rotation is a bit thin. I'm just not sure they have the pitching to keep pace with Atlanta.
The additions of Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca certainly make the lineup better. David Wright has had another year of experience and Carlos Beltran should be feeling more comfortable in the Big Apple. Without a doubt, they're going to score runs.
The Philadelphia Phillies, Florida Marlins and Washington Nationals are nothing more than also-rans this season. Each of the three has good, young players, like Ryan Howard in Philly, Jeremy Hermida, Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera in Florida and Ryan Zimmerman in Washington, but not enough of them. The flaws, mainly in pitching staffs, are far too great for any of these teams to finish higher than third.
Ah, the Central, home to my beloved St. Louis Cardinals. This division could actually be pretty tight this season. At least, between the top three teams.
The Cardinals, after not adding much in the offseason, have question marks with 2nd base, left field and the bullpen. It might take a month or so before they figure out who the position regulars are going to be and how the bullpen pitchers will be used.
However, any team that returns the reigning NL Cy Young and MVP winners is still in pretty good shape. Albert Pujols (41 homers, 117 RBI) once again leads a pretty powerful lineup, even with the losses of Reggie Sanders to Kansas City and Larry Walker to retirement. If Jim Edmonds is able to bounce back from a subpar 2005 (29, 89) and Scott Rolen, coming back from injury, is able to regain his 2004 form (34, 124), this is still one of the most feared lineups in the league.
Chris Carpenter anchors a strong rotation that returns three pitchers who won at least 16 games last year (Carpenter - 21 wins, 2.83 ERA, Mark Mulder - 16, 3.64 and Jeff Suppan - 16, 3.57). If Jason Marquis (13, 4.13) can pull it together for an entire season, he, too, should win at least 15 games, lessening the loss of Matt Morris, who signed with the San Francisco Giants in the offseason.
Number two in the division, I believe, will be the Milwaukee Brewers, who finally finished .500 last season after something like 13 years of losing records. I think they're finally ready to break through and contend again.
They have a strong pitching staff led by Ben Sheets, even though he'll be starting the season on the DL. They have an 18-game-winner in Chris Capuano and Doug Davis nearly had a career year last season. In the bullpen, Dan Kolb should bounce back from his horrendous season in Atlanta, though he'll have to deal with being replaced at closer by the outstanding Derrick Turnbow (39 saves, 1.74 ERA).
Milwaukee has an outstanding infield of young talent, from short to first, with J.J. Hardy, Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder, and veterans Geoff Jenkins and Carlos Lee are still patrolling the outfield, each with 30+ homer potential.
The Houston Astros will remain an enigma until Roger Clemens decides if he's pitching for them again this year, which he can't do until May 1st. Roy Oswalt is one of the best pitchers in baseball and Andy Pettitte, if he can stay healthy, is right up there with him. The rest of the rotation, however, leaves much to be desired, though the bullpen should be strong again, especially with Brad Lidge closing games out.
They'll score runs, too, with Lance Berkman, Morgan Ensberg and Preston Wilson in the middle of the lineup, but they won't be getting back to the World Series if Clemens doesn't come back and pitch like he did last year.
Futility, thy name is Pittsburgh. It's been nearly 15 years since the Pirates have even sniffed a .500 record. Inept ownership, management and players are all to blame for the tumble of this once-proud franchise, but there is hope on the horizon.
The Pirates have a bunch of promising young arms in the rotation, such as Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and Opening Day starter Oliver Perez, who will hopefully show up in 2004 form rather than 2005.
The lineup is a solid mix of veterans and young players, too, led by All-Star Jason Bay. If Chris Duffy and Jack Wilson, who needs to rebound from an abysmal 2005, are able to get on base consistently, these Pirates should be able to score some runs.
They may not contend for the division this year, but they have a bright future ahead of them. Finishing .500 is the first step.
And speaking of futility, the Chicago Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908, and that's not about to change anytime soon. The only bats in the lineup that scare anyone are Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, and the pitching staff is a mess. Kerry Wood and Mark Prior are both starting yet another season on the DL. If they can't remain healthy, this team won't be winning a thing.
The Cincinnati Reds have a strong lineup led by Junior Griffey, Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns. They'll score runs, no doubt, but the pitching staff is a joke, flyball pitchers in a bandbox of a stadium and retreads given up on by other teams. This is your last place team right here.
Once again, the five NL West teams are fairly mediocre with no clear cut favorite. You can say with certainty that the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks won't be winning the division, and the other three teams, well, they've all got issues.
The San Francisco Giants have decent starting pitching if Jason Schmidt can regain his 2004 form. The addition of Matt Morris will help, and there are some good, young arms in Matt Cain and Noah Lowry, but their closer, Armando Benitez, is already on the DL and he's never pitched all that well in high-pressure situations anyway.
The lineup is dependent, of course, on Barry Bonds, whom approximately 90% of baseball fans would like to simply go away and never come back. The poster boy for the Steroid Era, Bonds is nothing but a reminder of what happened to the game over the past 15-20 years. No one wants him around. No one wants him to pass Babe Ruth and catch Hank Aaron on the career home run list. It would be wonderful if he'd just tweak a knee, strain his throwing arm, something, anything, to get him off the field.
That being said, if Bonds remains healthy and unsuspended this season, he's still a threat to hit 40+ homers. The rest of the lineup, however, is pretty mediocre. They need Bonds' bat to protect them and give them good pitches to hit. If he goes down, they go with him.
The San Diego Padres still play in the cavernous pitcher's park that is PetCo, which is great news for the pitching staff. Not so much for the slightly revamped lineup that added the ageless Vinny Castilla and Mike Piazza, who probably should be a DH in the American League at this point in his career. After a couple of years, you'd think the team would be used to the park by now, that they'd stop trying to smack home runs and try for line drives and doubles. If they aren't able to adjust to the home/road disparity, it'll be a long grind for runs this year, too.
The pitching staff should thrive in the ballpark, however. Jake Peavy is still Jake Peavy, and Chan Ho Park and Dewon Brazelton should be grateful to be playing in such a huge ballpark. If their numbers don't come down from the past few years, then they're simply not good pitchers. And anytime you have Trevor Hoffman closing out games for you, unless he aged rapidly in the offseason, you've got a good chance to pull out some late victories.
A lot of people are picking the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the division this year, and since it's pretty wide-open, why not? Eric Gagne needs to come back and stay healthy and be that dominating closer once again. The starting pitching is good, not great, and the lineup is slightly injury prone, with Rafael Furcal, Nomar Garciaparra and J.D. Drew. They need to stay healthy and help Jeff Kent put runs on the board.
Okay, I've been working on this preview for a few days now and I'm pretty tired of it. Here's a quick recap and then, on with the show:
AL East - Toronto Blue Jays
AL Central - Chicago White Sox
AL West - Oakland A's
AL Wild Card - O.C. Angels
NL East - Atlanta Braves
NL Central - St. Louis Cardinals
NL West - San Diego Padres
NL Wild Card - Milwaukee Brewers
The World Series will be St. Louis and Oakland, with the Cardinals winning in 6.