Thursday, February 24, 2005

2005 MLB Preview - Introduction

Ah… Spring. Time to dust off the batting gloves, tar up the batting helmet, and get the MLB Extra Innings ordering form handy. That is, if I had Satellite TV. A time of rebirth, a time to reflect (again) on the successes or failures from the year past. And of course…

The perfect time to read my 2005 Major League Baseball Season Preview.

Now, I know that technically Spring is three weeks away, or at least that’s what the petrified groundhog in Pennsylvania told us about two and a half weeks ago. But my official first day of Spring is the day that the local news covers (and with great enthusiasm, I might add) the loading of the Red Sox’ team trailer with all of the players’ equipment as it makes it’s journey from Fenway Park to Fort Myers, Florida. Nothing screams Spring quite like hundreds of bats and baseballs being stuffed into duffel bags and tossed into the back of an 18-wheeler.

And now, since all the major players have signed their contracts and most of the major pre-season trades have been made (look out for Mike Cameron – last big name that should move before Opening Day), I figured that today would be the best time to give you my insight into the upcoming 2005 season.

“Insight?! Are you serious?” I’m sure that’s the thought on each of your minds right now. But trust me – baseball, I know. Playoff football; not so much. But baseball, yeah, I got that covered.

Quickly, before I go into my current thoughts, (which will get changed at the All-star Break, I’m almost certain. And probably changed again after the July 31st trading deadline. And maybe one more time after the waiver deadline…) I would like to invite you to revisit the “predictions” I made a couple of days before the start of the 2004 MLB playoffs…

Obviously most of them involve things that have yet to happen. But of the ones that already occurred (Petey & Beltran not in pinstripes, the Devil Rays signing a big free agent pitcher – Hideo Nomo - and the Expos without a permanent home) I’m 3 - 3. Not too shabby…

And now, without further ado, onto the 10,000-word reason we’re all here, as well as the reason that I have developed full-blown carpal tunnel syndrome…

(My apologies about BlogSpot's issues with Microsoft Word formatting)

American League East

American League Central

American League West

National League East

National League Central

National League West

Awards & Playoffs

Now I’m sure you’re all as tired of reading this as I am of writing it. Go forth and spread the word. And feel free to send along hate mail. I won’t be writing much for a little while longer, probably until the NCAA basketball tourney starts. So I’ll have plenty of time to read e-mails and discuss why you think I suck.


2005 MLB Preview - AL East

American League East

New York Yankees (96-66)

Boston Red Sox (93-69)

Tampa Bay Devil Rays (80-82)

Baltimore Orioles (78-84)

Toronto Blue Jays (70-92)

I’m being realistic here. Please, don’t kill me faithful co-members of Red Sox Nation. I’m trying to look at this as objectively as possible, and right now, the Yankees do have better pitching…

New York Yankees (96-66):

It begins and ends with the gangly 6’10” frame of Randy Johnson. Period. If he’s right, I think he’ll go about 25-7. Left-handed batters thrive in Yankee Stadium, and he kills lefties. Now that he’s got an offense behind him, the games when he only allows 2 or 3 runs shouldn’t be too close.

(Great aside – last weekend a few friends came over to play some poker. Afterwards, my buddy Tim decided to go through a stack of about 100 old issues Sports Illustrated from the mid 90’s that I had lying around. He found about 5 with Randy Johnson on the cover, which he promptly grabbed. I have no doubt that each one has been defaced in its own special way and hung on his refrigerator by now…)

As for the rest of the Yankees, well for the first time in recent memory they didn’t go after the biggest offensive name on the free agent market, opting instead to bolster an aging rotation. Granted, they don’t really need any more offense. But they could have done better with their dollars, and they certainly could have helped out the bullpen a little.

Johnson, Mussina, Pavano, Wright, and Kevin Brown make for a pretty solid 1-2, a good 3, and a decent 4-5. But this rotation could quickly get caught in the same “funk” that hit the Bombers last season, if Kevin Brown isn’t healthy (which is pretty much a given at this point in his career), and if Carl Pavano can’t adjust to the AL, and if Jaret Wright’s resurgence was nothing more than a contract year coming out party helped along by the genius that is Leo Mazzone. But that’s a lot of “ifs”, even if they are all good possibilities.

In any case, the Yankees have an offense capable of putting up about 900 runs, and they have the best left-handed pitcher of the last 50 years at the top of their rotation. I think they take the division.

I’ll begin accepting hate mail tomorrow.

Boston Red Sox (93-69):

Defending the World Series trophy is never an easy task, and especially not when just winning it in the first place was such a cathartic event for such a large group of people. I mean, there are were entire generations of Red Sox fans that just wanted to see their team win it once in their lifetime, myself included. Can you even imagine that? Unless you’re from Chicago or Cleveland, I doubt that you can.

So how do you rebuild a champion? Well, you start with pitching. You lost 2/5 of your rotation, including the best pitcher in history, inning-for-inning, and a guy who contended for a Cy Young just two years ago before he lost his mental game. You replaced them with three guys: an overweight, aging lefthander with a history of both back problems and of not walking anybody, a strikeout king from the National League who can blow the ball past any given batter, provided he can find the plate, and a young flamethrower coming off of rotator-cuff surgery. Hmmmm…

Well, maybe the pitching won’t be a big deal. Let’s try to focus on the offense. You traded away the face of your franchise mid-season last year and it helped you win the title. Unfortunately, his replacement also walked in the off-season, so you needed to find your third shortstop in six months. Luckily, you happened to lose your first two shortstops in an off-season that saw more quality free agents at that position than any before, and you were able to sign the best of the bunch.

You were forced to trade away a starting first baseman, since you had two of them. You chose offense over defense, which, considering the team philosophy, makes sense. Finally, you were able to re-sign the heart and soul of your team, the team backstop that is actually the team’s backbone. And you did so without giving in to his agent’s ludicrous demands of $12M yearly and a blanket no-trade clause. Kudos.

And yet, with all of that, you’re still trailing in your own division, let alone in your league. But you know what?

You were trailing last year, too…

Tampa Bay Devil Rays (80-82):

I think it’s about time for these young guys to step it up and prove that they’re actually a Major League team, and not just something between Triple-A and the Big Leagues. They’ve got the talent, they’ve got the manger, there’s no reason not to make a move this year.

There’s a very fine line between the way the Devil Rays operate and the way the Pittsburgh Pirates operate. Neither team has contended in about a decade (yes, the Devil Rays only started playing in ’98 – I know…) But while the D-Rays trade off big names that are home-grown prospects, much like the Royals do, the Pirates scavenge the bargain-basement at the end of the free agent period, signing players like Raul Mondesi and Randall Simon, then trading them at the deadline for top prospects and draft picks.

The loss of Rocco Baldelli will be big in ‘05; in fact, it could be catastrophic. But the young talent on this team (Baldelli once he’s healthy, Crawford, Huff, Kazmir) leads me to believe that sometime soon, the D-Rays will be – GASP! – a playoff team. In fact, I believe that they can make a strong run this year, as long as they aren’t forced to sell off their team for fear of impending free agency.

Of course, no one in Florida will know, or care, until they make it to a World Series. But that’s a discussion for another day. The D-Rays are legit people! Pass the word! Tell your friends! Plenty of good seats are still available!

Baltimore Orioles (78-84):

Hey, you do nothing in the off-season, you don’t get any better. Simple. Last year I predicted them to go 80-82. And that was after they had made three major free agent signings. This year, they’ve done nothing aside from acquire an aging outfielder on the downside of his career with a history of nagging injuries and a poor clubhouse presence, so they’re getting no respect from me.

In the American League, and especially in the AL East, you need pitching. You’re not going to out-hit Boston and New York, so it’s not really worth it to try. Sure, you’ve got two 500-home run guys, plus a shortstop that could reach that mark before he’s done and a catcher who is coming off two of the most prolific seasons ever recorded at that position. But that only covers four spots in the batting order.

I can think of at least five guys on both the Red Sox and Yankees that are legitimate 30-home run threats year in and year out. But the difference is this – on the days when the offense isn’t getting it done, both of those teams have the pitching to hold the other team down and keep the game within reach. The Orioles just don’t, and until they realize that, it’ll cost them.

Toronto Blue Jays (70-92):

When your biggest off-season acquisitions are the closer that you dumped a few years back because of his inability to close, and a third baseman that has been shipped around the game three times now for his inability to produce consistently, you know you’ve got problems. But when you also lose a legitimate yearly MVP candidate in the process, well, that’s a hell of a hole to fill.

And while Roy Halladay is probably the best pitcher in Canada, he’s not going to carry your team to any more than 15-22 wins, if he’s healthy.

Corey Koskie, Vernon Wells, Orlando Hudson, and whatever is left of Eric Hinske will provide numbers, but not enough to contend, and probably not enough to keep Toronto from ending the season looking up at the rest of the division.

But there is a silver lining – maybe this will be the first year that the AL East hasn’t finished in the same order (New York, Boston, Toronto, Baltimore, Tampa Bay) since 1998…

2005 MLB Preview - AL Central

American League Central

Cleveland Indians (93-69)

Minnesota Twins (88-74)

Chicago White Sox (82-80)

Detroit Tigers (73-89)

Kansas City Royals (60-112)

The Twins’ reign atop the AL Central is about to come to an end. Cleveland had the talent on offense last year to overtake the Twins and win the division. Their pitching held them back last season, so they addressed it...

Cleveland Indians (93-69):

Last year they had 32 total team saves in 60 opportunities. Their bullpen cost them 28 blown saves, and probably a half dozen more that didn’t qualify. Their four returning starters combined for only 41 of their 80 wins. So naturally, they added Kevin Millwood with his paltry 9-6 record and 4.85 ERA (not to mention his awful 5 2/3 innings per start). So why am I picking them to take the Central?

Well, they are getting Bob Wickman back as their closer, the position that doomed them last season. Rafael Betancourt and David Riske get to slide back into the setup role where they are comfortable and can excel. Last year both of them spent substantial time at closer, and yet still factored in 21 decisions (12-9 combined record). Personally, I don’t want my closer(s) factoring into 21 decisions in the course of a season, because chances are they either blew the save or the game altogether. Having Wickman back healthy will allow them to use the bullpen the way they had planned to in the first place.

Plus, there is that offense to speak of. The only starter on their team that didn’t give them 10+ home runs was Omar Vizquel, who left for San Francisco and has been replaced by one of the top prospects in all of baseball - Jhonny Peralta. No, that’s not a typo on his name... Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez, and Ben Broussard all had big coming out parties last year, and will probably continue right into this season.

But the biggest reason I’m picking them as AL Central champs? Somebody’s gotta win it...

Minnesota Twins (90-72):

It’s hard to pick against a team that sports the reigning Cy Young at the top of their rotation and one of the best innings-eaters in the game as their #2. But then I look at the rest of their team...

They lost the left side of their infield. They’re probably going to lose their starting right fielder midseason if they aren’t contending. After Santana and Radke, there is an appreciable drop in their starting rotation. They have a great closer and decent middle relief, but not stellar. And if the back end of the rotation falls apart (Lohse, Mays, and the ageless Terry Mulholland), they could be in serious trouble.

And even with all of that, they can still win almost 90 games in this division.

Chicago White Sox (82-80):

Because I’m so bad at math, every division is probably going to have either an 82-80 team or an 80-82 team. Makes the arithmetic easier. In the AL Central, that honor falls upon the Chicago White Sox...

The White Sox were able to address a pressing need by adding Scott Podsednik to the top of their order, and although the bullpen was sorted out by season’s end, there’s still much work to be done. Unfortunately, losing Jeremy Reed to Seattle in the Freddy Garcia deal and Carlos Lee to Milwaukee for Podsednik leaves a gaping hole in the outfield that Jermaine Dye cannot fill on his own.

Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras are not the answers in the starting rotation, although considering the crop of free agent pitchers available when the White Sox finally started to bid, I don’t really know who would have been. Chicago is now stuck with Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, and Freddie Garcia to round out their rotation. Looking around the rest of the division, those five won’t get it done.

Until they learn to open their checkbooks sooner, Chicago will be doomed to mediocrity in the Central division.

Detroit Tigers (73-89):

They finally signed their big name free agent, and all it cost them was five years and the worst contract of the off-season. Magglio Ordonez’ and his two weak knees will be lucky to play in 80 games this year. Fortunately for Detroit, They already have five other mediocre outfielders under contract, so losing Ordonez for an extended period time shouldn’t hurt them too badly... I mean – the guy had his surgery overseas and then refused to discuss his progress or take a physical – he seems like a natural for a guaranteed 5-year contract... What a snow job.

Anyway, back to reality... The Tigers’ pitching will have to be better than their 4.93 Team ERA and .275 Batting Average Against that they allowed last year, both second-worst to only the next team on this list, or the 28 blown saves that tied for the American League worst with Cleveland and Oakland. Even with a little added offense, they can’t keep allowing teams to stay in games.

The pitching is young, and it can only get better. How much better is probably up to the front office. They need to sign a front line starter; a legit #1 that can take over the staff. Too many times they ran out guys who shouldn’t be any more than a #3 against the other teams’ #1 guy. Not going to win too many with that approach.

Kansas City Royals (75-87):

What can I say about the Kansas City Royals?

No, seriously. I’m asking. What should I say?

I’m looking down their depth chart, and I recognize two, maybe three guys. Mike Sweeney, the only “good” offensive player they have, will most likely be traded at mid-season. Angel Berroa seems to have lost the mental game after winning 2003 ROY honors. Terrence Long? Matt Stairs? Is this really it?

OK, maybe the pitching will be better. Hmmm... Zack Grienke – young guy, good stuff, will probably suffer 15-20 “tough” losses this year. Jose Lima? Didn’t he already bomb in KC once?

I wish I didn’t have to write about the Royals. I actually feel bad as I’m typing this. But then I think:

“Somebody has to be the farm team for the Yankees this season...”

Strangely, I don’t feel any better.

2005 MLB Preview - AL West

American League West

Anaheim Angels (94-68)

Oakland Athletics (91-71)

Seattle Mariners (82-80)

Texas Rangers (74-88)

The best division in baseball will regain some of its respectability with the mild resurgence of the Seattle Mariners. And for the first time in many a year, discussions about Oakland will not begin with the words “The Big Three”. But Anaheim will put all of the talk about the Mariners and A’s to rest, and probably do so before the August waiver deadline…

Anaheim Angels (94-68):

Anaheim took a team that won their division last year and improved upon it by filling in holes and getting younger where they could afford to. The only reason the ALCS wasn’t Angels/Yankees in ’04 was because Anaheim ran up against the offensive juggernaut known as the 2004 Boston Red Sox, and because their best offensive weapons (Vlad, Troy Glaus and Garret Anderson) were all battling injuries at the worst possible times. I can remember watching Game 2 of the ALDS, in Anderson’s first at-bat against Pedro Martinez, and thinking to myself “That’s just not fair”. Anderson was so hobbled that Pedro made him look like a little leaguer at the plate.

So this off-season, rather than get back into the Randy Johnson sweepstakes and mortgage their future, they let Glaus walk in favor of the younger (and by all accounts better) Dallas MacPherson at third. They made a HUGE upgrade from David Eckstein to Orlando Cabrera at shortstop, and then they signed Steve Finley to patrol center. Granted, Finley is older than most teams would prefer for a starting center fielder. But his signing allows them the flexibility to move Darrin Erstad to left field and put Garret Anderson at first, where he would provide a huge target and would be able to rest his degenerative knees and back.

Of course, this is all made possible by the arrival of 21-year old Cuban import first-baseman Kendry Morales, who will likely start the year as the DH over Tim Salmon. The kid is the real deal, and will give even more thump to a loaded lineup.

On the mound, the Angels bring back almost the same rotation as last year, which may not be the best thing in the world. They had one of the best bullpens in all of baseball in ’04 because they needed to have one of the best bullpens around. Those starters weren’t exactly stellar, and the closing duties are now going to be forced upon Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez. How he handles the situation could well determine if the Angels cruise to another postseason berth, or are left looking up at…

Oakland Athletics (91-71):

The end of an era usually doesn’t hit you until long after the time has passed. Sometime a few years or a few decades down the road, you’ll look back and realize “Wow, that really was something special.”

In the A’s case, they’ve made provisions to ensure that while the era of The Big Three is indeed over, they aren’t just going to wait for the next power trio to step up and take their place.

Exit Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder; enter Danny Haren, Dan Meyer, Joe Blanton, and 2004 rotation holdover Rich Harden. Barry Zito suddenly steps up from the shadows of Mulder and Hudson to captain what is, by far, the best young rotation in the game. Sure, the Yankees have more talent right now, and the Red Sox are a close second. And the Cubs can never be counted out with their own “Big Three”. But the five men in line to toe the rubber for the A’s will make their names known before all is said and done.

Factor in a solid “Moneyball”-styled offense with the addition of Billy Beane’s dream catcher (no pun intended) in Jason Kendall and a revamped outfield, and this team is dangerous. If the Angels falter, even a little, look for the A’s to grab the opportunity – probably with one of their patented August winning streaks.

Seattle Mariners (82-80):

Here’s the thing about the Mariners: they didn’t get better where it mattered. Oh sure, they’ll hit about 40 more team home runs this season, and probably score 100 more runs. But they didn’t help their pitching one iota, electing instead to sign a first baseman that separated his shoulder on a check-swing and a third baseman that had never even reached half his potential until his first shot at free agency.

Now, I’m not saying that Richie Sexson won’t bounce back from all the nagging injuries, or that Adrian Beltre didn’t really reinvent his game and will see a substantial drop from last year’s monster numbers. What I am saying is that the offense, though a problem, wasn’t the problem. The rotation is relying on three guys with 104 career wins in 14 years of combined service, along with a 42-year old guy whose fastball is slower than most pitchers’ changeups and a #5 starter with 11 career starts… at age 29. The bullpen isn’t terrible, but if they are forced to consistently enter games in the 5th or 6th innings, it could get ugly fast.

I still think last year’s debacle was a fluke. I just don’t think they’re much better than a .500 team… yet.

Texas Rangers (74-88):

I don’t feel too good about this pick, if only because there’s no way to gauge what we’ll see out of the Rangers’ pitching this year. Seriously.

The offense is pretty cut and dried – lots and lots of young hitters with power to all fields and speed to spare, playing 81 games a year in a hitters’ ballpark. But the pitching? Well…

Their #1 starter threatened to retire before spring training if he didn’t get a multi-year contract extension. He’s 40. He’s won more than 13 games four times in a 16-year career (granted, four of those years were spent as a closer or spot starter). He has a career ERA of over 4.25. And he’s struck out more than 130 batters twice – 1993 and 1995. Did I mention he’s the #1 starter for this rotation?

Should I even go into the Chan Ho Park nonsense? How much time do you have?

The point is this – Ryan Drese, Chris Young and Juan Dominguez are all relatively decent young pitchers, with Drese bordering on good. But in a division that includes Anaheim and Oakland, “decent - bordering on good” ain’t gonna cut it. If the Rangers were in the AL Central, they’d be a division contender. In the West, they’ll be an also ran.

2005 MLB Preview - NL East

National League East

Atlanta Braves (100-62)

Florida Marlins (89-73)

New York Mets (89-73)

Philadelphia Phillies (82-80)

Washington Nationals (61-101)

I have to predict a tie somewhere – I believe I’m contractually obligated to make this preview interesting at least once. So why not do it here, assuring tons and tons of hate mail from Mets’ fans, as well as the high probability of a new post over at the Anti Big-D site

Atlanta Braves (100-62):

Ho hum, another NL East division crown for the Atlanta Braves. It’s almost time to add a second tier for all of the banners they have to hang over at Turner Field. Let’s just make one level for the division titles and another one for everything else. That second tier would be pretty small, no…?

Ouch. And I’m a Braves fan. But that tells you how I feel about the team right now. All for show, no glory – they have no problem winning 90+ games every year to take the NL East. But put them in a 5- or 7-game series and they’re screwed.

This year will be different. Tim Hudson and John Smoltz instantly make them the best rotation in the NL East, along with Danny Kolb as the best closer in the division. And while the offense will be lacking something with the departure of J.D. Drew, Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi should be able to combine and more than pick up the slack. They still have the Jones’ and Johnny Estrada, and a healthy Adam LaRoche at first could provide a big, big bat in the middle of the order. They’ll be fine…

Florida Marlins (89-73):

They’ve got, by far, the most balanced lineup in the division. Delgado adds the left-handed power that they’ve been lacking for years, and the rotation was never a big issue. So why don’t I think they’ll make the playoffs?

Two reasons – first, the closer. Guillermo Mota has proven to be one of the best setup men in the business, but that doesn’t always translate to success as a closer. Their second option is the six-finger man, Antonio Alfonseca, who hasn’t closer regularly in a couple of years. This isn’t a big issue, but it is still a concern.

Second - the rotation. Yes, it’s not a big issue, but it still needs to be addressed. They have four guys who are all very serviceable pitchers, but they don’t have a true #1 – a guy that they can run out to the mound every fifth day who basically guarantees his team a win. Josh Beckett has been injured and erratic, ditto for A.J. Burnett, Dontrelle Willis was figured out by just about every opposing batter last season, and Ismael Valdez, well, he’s Ismael Valdez.

Al Leiter would be the best bet to assume the role of the #1, but I don’t see Jack McKeon giving him the opportunity unless Beckett and Burnett both screw it up first. That could cost them a lot of games early.

New York Mets (89-73):

Even though I said that the Mets were the most improved team in the National League (and all of baseball, for that matter), they’re just still not good enough to take this division from Atlanta. If the Braves hadn’t gotten Hudson, New York would have a shot. But not now.

Their rotation looks good, if overpaid. Pedro will probably contend for the Cy Young in his return to the NL, much like Clemens last year. Kris Benson was not worth the money they threw at him, and nothing will ever convince me otherwise. Well, maybe three-straight Cy Young awards.

But for as great as the Beltran and Pedro signings were, they didn’t address all of the teams’ needs. And although Doug Mientkiewicz (I don’t know how I spell that correctly every time. I’m always afraid to look up after I finish typing it) will prevent the multitude of errors that would otherwise be expected from the Kaz Matsui/Jose Reyes positional swap, he’s not going to give them the offense that Carlos Delgado or even Kevin Millar would have.

The lone bright spot is David Wright. A home grown prospect who should have a huge season now that he gets a full-time shot. The Mets had to give up on Scott Kazmir, leaving Wright as the best prospect in the organization. It’s time to prove why.

Cliff Floyd is done, period. He’s taking up a valuable roster spot that could be used on any number of better players. Even a minor league left fielder would have a better shot at a more productive season. Mike Piazza really needs to just finish out this contract and move to the AL as a full-time DH. His knees will thank him later. Mike Cameron is already griping to the press about moving to right field, and he’s not even ready to play after injuring his wrist. Guess it’s just business as usual over at Shea.

Thing is, if the Mets are even close to contending at the trading deadline, they’ll hold onto these guys to try to make a run that will never happen. The best thing for them would be to have a mediocre season and ship out Piazza, Floyd and maybe even Cameron for whatever they can get in the way of prospects.

I don’t think it’ll happen, but it probably should.

Philadelphia Phillies (82-80):

And here’s the winner of this division’s 82-80 or 80-82 record! (If you don’t get that joke, read the Chicago White Sox’ preview on the AL Central page.)

Somehow, although I’m not really sure how they accomplished it, Philadelphia managed to get better and worse all at once. They marginally upgraded their offense, and marginally downgraded their pitching. They still didn’t fill the void in center field, choosing instead to move laterally in acquiring Kenny Lofton. He’s not an upgrade.

They did rid themselves of Larry Bowa and his caustic managerial style, which can’t do anything but help the clubhouse atmosphere. But the biggest need for this team was starting pitching, and it actually managed to get worse.

They lost Kevin Millwood and Eric Milton, their top two starters, to free agency last year. They replaced them by signing Jon Lieber and promoting a minor league pitcher to the #5 slot. Lieber is a very effective National League pitcher, and all reports on Gavin Floyd (the prospect) have him as a future staff ace. But Randy Wolf in the 2-hole? Vicente Padilla and Cory Lidle as 3 and 4? Look at the rest of your division and tell me that rotation compares favorably to any other team except for…

Washington Nationals (61-101):

Ah, the Nats. It’s a good thing they didn’t get contracted, or else there would never be a legit possibility of baseball in Vegas. They don’t really serve much other purpose, except to act as a couple of days off for whoever their opponent is.

They actually made some nice acquisitions, considering the situation and their budget. The offense looks like it might be able to put up some runs, with Nick Johnson, Jose Vidro, Christian Guzman, Jose Guillen and Vinny Castilla. And a team sporting Livan Hernandez is almost guaranteed a fresh bullpen one day a week. Unfortunately, these are the most positive things I can think of for the Nationals.

I know it’s an overused fallback position, but let’s just look back one more time at some of the talent that has graced the field for the Expos/Nationals in the past 15 years:




Dennis Martinez.

Carl Pavano.

Javier Vasquez.

Moises Alou.

Larry Walker.

Jose Vidro (hey – he’s still there! Hooray!)

Cliff Floyd.

Orlando Cabrera.

Ugueth Urbina

And who can forget the immortal Hideki Irabu? I thought not.

Sorry, I really just have nothing to add to the discussion of the Washington Nationals. I don’t think they’ll be very good. That about covers it.

2005 MLB Preview - NL Central

National League Central

St. Louis Cardinals (102-60)

Chicago Cubs (86-76)

Milwaukee Brewers (84-78)

Cincinnati Reds (82-80)

Houston Astros (77-85)

Pittsburgh Pirates (68-94)

I don’t have a personal vendetta against the Astros, although you’d think so looking at those predicted standings, no?

St. Louis Cardinals (102-60):

The only things of value that were lost in the off-season were Edgar Renteria to the Red Sox and Woody Williams to the Padres. Granted, David Eckstein is a downgrade from Renteria. But Mark Mulder is a HUGE upgrade over Williams. This team is stacked, almost to the point of being unfair.

Mulder, Matt Morris (when he’s recovered from surgery), Chris Carpenter, Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan will comprise one of the top two rotations in the National League, right behind the Cubs. As long as they don’t have to face the Red Sox.

As for the offense, well, I don’t think offense really held the Cardinals back last season. They’ve got five different legitimate 30-home run threats, and although losing Renteria will hurt the top of their order, Eckstein provides them with a singles hitter who has a lot of speed on the bases. They’ll probably drop-off by 50 runs scored, at most. And they might even get better. Scary thought, eh?

Chicago Cubs (86-76):

The only reason I’m even considering Chicago as an 80+ win team is because of their pitching. Their two most productive RBI guys, Sosa and Alou, now play for different teams. They lost their #5 starter, who was only a #5 because numbers 1-4 are so far superior to just about everyone else in the National League.

I thin Nomar returns in a big way this year, maybe even playing 150+ games. He smartly took a pay-cut to stay in Chicago for one more season, then re-test the free agent market next year when he’s the only marquis shortstop available. I know I said it last year, but I think he has a monster year (.330/30/120 type of year).

Jeremy Burnitz will offer something in the way of outfield power, and if Aramis Ramirez keep progressing the way he has in the past few years, the offense could help keep the Cubs in a few games.

But this season is going to fall squarely on Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux, as well as whoever steps up to claim the closer’s role.

Without pitching, this team is in the basement. With pitching, they’ll make another wild-card run.

Milwaukee Brewers (84-78):

No, I’m not drunk again. Yes, that 84-win total is achievable. No, seriously, I’m not drunk.

Ben Sheets, and Ben Sheets alone will determine this season for the Brewers. And I think he can be a 22-25 game winner if he gets even a little run support. 22 wins would also be just under one-third of the team’s total wins in ’04 (67-94).

This team has some decent pitching behind Sheets, and if they smarten up and let Jose Capellan take over the closer’s role instead of Mike Adams, they could go far. Like, maybe overtaking the Cubs kind of far.

Last season, offense kept them out of games more than it kept them in. This year, the got Carlos Lee from the White Sox, and they added Junior Spivey and Damian Miller through free agency. I know, not exactly marquis names. But when you play baseball in Milwaukee, you can’t afford the marquis names. Lee, Miller, Spivey, Lyle Overbay, and Geoff Jenkins form a pretty solid nucleus of position players that, when they’re right, could do some damage to opposing pitchers.

But it all comes down to Sheets. If the Brewers aren’t at least contending by July, he’ll be a rented arm for the Angels, A’s, Braves, Yankees or Red Sox by August.

Cincinnati Reds (82-80):

Another NL Central team making small moves to quietly get much, much better. You didn’t see them courting the Beltran’s or Martinez’s, or getting involved in the Tim Hudson/Mark Mulder melee. But they did address major needs in their team, and upgrade – substantially - over their 2004 roster. Now it’s nothing more than a matter of time and health.

Joe Randa takes over at third base, adding a little pop from a guy that no one ever hears about until the trading deadline. He’s been trade bait for almost four years now, but the Royals never shipped him out. He’s no A-Rod or Rolen, but he’s a pretty damned good third baseman.

Their official depth chart lists Felipe Lopez as the starting shortstop, but I have a feeling that Rich Aurilia could step into the role pretty early on in the season. And adding Eric Milton and Ramon Ortiz to their rotation gives them two more solid arms that can each throw about 200+ innings and rack up 12-15 wins.

Obviously, the health of any of these players is a key issue. But none moreso than Ken Griffey Jr. and Austin Kearns. Last year, they Reds were forced to plug Wily Mo Pena and Ryan Freel into the lineup after Griffey and Kearns went down for the year. That can’t happen again this year. Adam Dunn is a stud in that lineup, a guy that has serious 50+ homer potential. But he needs protection, and Pena/Freel aren’t really going to frighten a lot of pitchers away from just pitching around Dunn.

Health is not just an issue, it’s the issue. But then again, it’s an issue for every team, right?

Houston Astros (77-85):

Let’s be honest – they had a lot of things go right for them last season to achieve what they did. Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio both had relatively injury-free seasons. Roger Clemens jumped in the way-back machine and set it for about 1986. Jimy Williams was so horrific as manager that he was canned in favor of Phil Garner, who is by all accounts the most player friendly manager this side of Tito Francona. They won the Carlos Beltran Sweepstakes. How many of those things do you think could repeat themselves or carry over to this season?

Bagwell’s shoulder can’t hold on much longer. He’s put off surgery so many times that it may not even be an option by the time he’s through. Ditto for Biggio’s knees. And for as good as their rotation looks with Clemens, Oswalt, a healthy Andy Pettite and a good young starter in Brandon Backe, pitching will only carry a team so far. They lost Jeff Kent, they didn’t keep Beltran, and Lance Berkman is going to be recovering for the first couple months of the season after tearing up his knee.

For all the good luck they experienced in ‘04, 2005 is starting out with a pretty big black cloud hovering overhead. Good thing Minute Maid Park has a retractable roof…

Pittsburgh Pirates (68-94):

Pittsburgh is probably the most fun team to watch in all of Major League Baseball. They play in a beautiful park, in front of some of the most devoted (and delusional) fans in the game. And if a few breaks go their team’s way this season, they might actually have something to cheer for at those games, rather than just having great cityscape views beyond the outfield.

The Pirates return most of a team that overachieved for much of last year, if a 72-89 record can be called overachieving. They have one of the best young arms in the National League in Oliver Perez. They sport a few good young players dotted all around the diamond, from Jason Bay to Jack Wilson, Rob Mackowiak and Craig Wilson. Sure, their catcher is older than dirt. But he can still throw runners out at second from his knees.

I mentioned this in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ preview, how the Pirates conduct business. They keep their home-grown (and cheap) talent for as long as possible before dealing it away or re-signing it at a moderate hometown discount. But each off-season they hit the bargain basement of the free agent crop to find a gem that can be dealt away for a bunch of top prospects. Reggie Sanders. Raul Mondesi. Randall Simon. Jose Mesa (who’s still a Pirate, for now). Brian Giles, Aramis Ramirez and Kris Benson were Pirates for a long time before getting shipped out for a load of fresh young talent. This year, it’s Matt Lawton. You don’t think a contender would be willing to dump a couple of Double-A prospects that may or may never pan out to acquire a guy like Lawton for the stretch run?

The Pirates have one of the best scouting departments in the business, finding gems in the minor leagues. All they have to do is hope it all comes together before the next wave of talent has to be dealt.

Either that, or they could pray for a salary cap…

2005 MLB Preview - NL West

National League West

San Francisco Giants (92-70)

San Diego Padres (88-74)

Los Angeles Dodgers (82-80)

Arizona Diamondbacks (74-88)

Colorado Rockies (66-96)

Last season, I predicted that this would be the best division in baseball, with all five teams finishing over .500 and only 7 games separating first and last place. Of course, this turned out to be one of the worst divisions in baseball, with only three teams over .500 and 42 games separating first and last place. Yes, you read that correctly – 42 games. I cut that numbering half for ’05, and 21 still seems like a stretch…

San Francisco Giants (92-70):

Naturally, the first season that the Giants and GM Brian Sabean decided to give Barry Bonds some protection in the lineup will also be the season that he faces the toughest scrutiny from the media regarding the big “S” word.

If Bonds hits 50 homers, people will say he’s still using. If he doesn’t hit 50, people will say that he came off the juice and now he’s useless, since he should theoretically hit more with Moises Alou protecting him. Just imagine – in 2001, Bonds hit 73 home runs while sandwiched between Rich Aurilia and Jeff Kent. Of course, in 2001 his head also expanded about seventeen hat sizes, but that’s another story.

As for 2005, the most important acquisition of the off-season is going to be Armando Benitez. Last season, he was absolutely dominant for the Marlins, but he was never tested in his most difficult situation - the playoffs. If San Francisco wants to contend, he’s going to have to solidify a closer’s spot that tried out three different options last year, none of them really ideal.

The team could still use more starters. There’s a hell of a drop-off from Jason Schmidt to Kirk Rueter at #2. Look for the Giants to acquire another top level starter by the trading deadline.

San Diego Padres (88-74):

I picked them to win the division last season at 90-72. They finished 87-75, six games behind the Dodgers. This season, I think they’re about as good as they were last year, so why not give them just about the same record? Not quite enough to take the division, but certainly not a backslide into the mediocrity that plagued them for half a decade after reaching the World Series in 1998.

Just like last season, they’ve got a solid, if not spectacular team from top to bottom. They could still use some more power in their lineup, but in PetCo Park, it would be wiser to swing for the gaps rather than the fences. Three or four consecutive doubles will help an offense out a lot more than three consecutive long fly ball outs.

The rotation is looking pretty good. Headed by Jake Peavy, they have two different guys with the stuff to win 20 games (Peavy & Brian Lawrence), and two more with the ability to rack up 15+ (Woody Williams / Adam Eaton). Not to mention a healthy Trevor Hoffman, and a solid backup if Hoffman gets hurt in Akinori Otsuka.

They’re good – they’ve got a chance to be great. And if San Francisco’s age catches up to them, the upstart Padres will be right there to take the division reins.

Los Angeles Dodgers (82-80):

What could the Dodgers possibly have done so wrong in the off-season that I would drop them from their actual 2004 record of 93-69 to this 82-80 mark? Well, let’s see…

They have had an anemic offense for three years running now. So after they lost their best hitter from 2004 in Adrian Beltre, they decided to ship out their best remaining hitter (to a division rival, no less) in Shawn Green, and then sign J.D. Drew to a long-term, big money contract. Not horrible, except that Drew has never played a full season, and his numbers will probably never be as good as they were last year, when they were spectacular (.305/31/93/.436/1.005) in a – SHOCK! – contract year.

Sure Jeff Kent could regain his MVP form, and if Milton Bradley (I love typing that name) can keep his head on straight, they might have a legit offense. Cesar Izturis certainly showed promise last season, and he might breakout this year. Then again, he might regress to the Cesar Izturis we’ve all come to not know or care about.

On the pitching front, Their rotation is a little thin. Odalis Perez is a decent pitcher, but he’s not a #1. I was secretly hoping the Red Sox would get him to replace Derek Lowe – as a #4. Speaking of Lowe, he’s the Dodgers new #2 starter, just ahead of Jeff Weaver (yikes!) at #3, and then Brad Penny and Kaz Ishii, both of whom are coming off serious and mysterious injuries. Their only saving grace is the man at the end, Eric Gagne. Of course, you can only save a game when you team gets the ball to you while winning…

Arizona Diamondbacks (74-88):

In an off-season full of ridiculous contracts, the D-Backs made two of the worst signings, second only to Detroit with Troy Percival and Magglio Ordonez.

Troy Glaus for 4 years and $45M. Russ Ortiz for 4 years, $33M. Whaaa?

Who knew that Arizona had this kind of money? You think that if Randy Johnson had gotten an extension from them (say, maybe for 2 years and the $33M they threw at Ortiz) that I’d still have them this low on the NL West totem pole?

I’ll admit, the outfield looks OK. Steve Finley would have looked better in centerfield than Jose Cruz Jr., but Cruz, Shawn Green and Luis Gonzalez could give Arizona a solid starting three, provided each stays healthy.

The rotation isn’t awful, even though it is quite overpaid. Javier Vasquez should return to form playing back in the NL, under relatively little pressure. Russ Ortiz isn’t bad, he’s just not worth $33M guaranteed. He’ll be a good #2. Brandon Webb will be a good fit in the #3 slot – he was often overmatched against other teams’ #2 starters last season. Shawn Estes just won’t retire, and personally, I’ve never heard of Mike Gosling. So the back of the rotation could probably use some help.

But the infield? Talk about needing some pop. Chad Tracy, Craig Counsell, Royce Clayton and Troy Glaus. IF Glaus stays healthy for 162 games, which he probably won’t, I don’t think the starting infield could hit 80 home runs combined. And while the three outfielders probably could do that, I don’t think “balanced” is a word we’ll hear thrown around about the D-Backs lineup this year.

I suppose that jumping 23 games in the standings in one year should be considered a success for any team. But they’ve still got a long way to go to reach the postseason again.

Colorado Rockies (66-96):

Quick, name two starting position players on the Rockies NOT named Todd Helton or Preston Wilson…I can wait.

Still thinking? Don’t go look it up, you cheat. I’ll give you a hint – you’re not going to get it.

Maybe I shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Maybe I have readers in Colorado who are huge Rockies fans and could give me the lifetime batting averages of any of the other six position players on this team. Problem is, no one else in the world could. That’s probably not a good sign.

Here, stop hurting your brain. I’ll just tell you the rest of the position players:

Catcher: J. D. Closser (highly touted prospect last year – hit .319 in 36 games)

Second Base: Aaron Miles (could have been NL ROY last year if not for injury)

Third Base: Garrett Atkins (I got nothing here)

Shortstop: Clint Barnes (ditto)

Left Field: Matt Holliday (I think I’ve heard his name before)

Right Field: Dustan Mohr (I know him - he’s not very good)

Does that look like a team that has any chance of contending this season? Not to mention that the rotation is full of has-beens and never-will-be’s. Their #3 starter, Shawn Chacon, was the closer last year, and was probably the worst one in baseball. He could make Byung Hyun Kim look like a stable coming in to a close game in the ninth inning. In fact, the Rockies are hurting so much at pitcher that they’re still considering a trade to acquire Kim from the Red Sox (PLEASE make this happen).

I still say that Colorado would be the best place to run an OPS dominated team. Get a bunch of guys who draw walks and slap singles and doubles all around the park, then let Helton and Wilson drive them in. Since pitching is impossible in Coors, just try to run up 10-15 runs a game, and worry about pitching when you’re on the road.

But what do I know, right?