Tuesday, March 28, 2006

2006 MLB Preview

2006 MLB Preview

It’s done. Finally. I need to go take a nap.

I’ve been working on this thing for a month. Circumstances have changed, players have signed and been traded, I’ve gone insane, then sane, then insane again. Hell, I even had my life threatened over these picks (more on that in the NL East preview).

So that’s it. I’m done. I’m taking a week or two off, then I’ll be back with thoughts after the opening of the MLB Season.

You can either scroll down to read each one individually, or just click the links below to jump to a specific division.

Enjoy, and as always, I’ll begin accepting hate mail later today…

American League East

American League Central

American League West

National League East

National League Central

National League West

Playoffs & Awards Predictions


'06 MLB Preview - American League East

American League East

2005 Prediction

2005 Standings

2006 Prediction

New York (96-66)

Boston (95-67)

Boston (94-68)

Boston (93-69)

New York (95-67)

Toronto (91-71)

Tampa Bay (80-82)

Toronto (80-82)

New York (88-74)

Baltimore (78-84)

Baltimore (74-88)

Tampa Bay (78-84)

Toronto (70-92)

Tampa Bay (67-95)

Baltimore (70-92)

No team in the American League did more spending this off-season in an attempt to scramble to the top of the division that the Toronto Blue Jays.

Toronto might have spent big dollars to overhaul their roster, but no team in baseball has more of a “new look” than that of the Boston Red Sox. In fact, since they are “my team”, they get their own page in this preview. If I’m going to dedicate 1,100 words to the Sox, I might as well put them on their own page…

Boston (94-68) – Click here for the Red Sox’ preview…

Toronto (91-71) - After tying-up $107 Million in contracts to AJ Burnett, BJ Ryan and Bengie Molina, General Manager JP Riccardi (what’s with all the initials?) was able to swing trades for two of the most coveted corner infielders on the market – Troy Glaus from Arizona and Lyle Overbay from Milwaukee. And they did not lose one player to free-agency, re-signing OF reed Johnson and INF John MacDonald before they could hit the open market.

But Burnett is a career .500 pitcher with a history of arm and attitude troubles. BJ Ryan has only been a closer for one season, and although he was dominant, it was for a 4th place team with no aspiration of contending. Let’s see how he handles August in a pennant race before anointing him the best closer in the league.

As for the other big acquisitions – Molina was an absolute coup. I had forgotten he was still available when the transaction came across the wire. How he lasted that late into free-agency, I’ll never know. Glaus will either be an absolute masher in Skydome (Oh, sorry – The Rogers Centre), or he’ll be an injury-riddled, overpaid, under-producing “slugger”.

Overbay might turn out to be the best pick-up of the off-season for the Jays. After losing Carlos Delgado to free agency a couple years back, Toronto was forced to try the Eric Hinske experiment as the only power hitter in their lineup in 2005. Hinske is no longer even in the everyday lineup – a huge shift from his Rookie of the Year campaign.

In the end, the most important signing of this off-season for the Blue Jays will probably end up being the re-signing of ace Roy Halladay. He’ll be a Cy Young contender yearly from now through probably 2008, so locking him up before teams like Boston, New York, Atlanta, and that “other” New York had a chance to throw ridiculous dollars at him might be the smartest thing Riccardi has ever done.

Biggest Question(s): Has Halladay completely recovered from the broken leg that ended his 2005 Cy Young campaign? Will Ted Lilly ever become the prototypical left-handed starter that Toronto thought he would be when they got him – the kind of guy that can shut down the power of Boston & New York?

Best possible scenario: First place is certainly not out of the question. No team in baseball has more questions heading into this season than Boston. Toronto could easily jump out of the gates and surprise everybody the same way the White Sox did in 2005. We all saw how well that worked out…

Worst possible scenario: Halladay isn’t healthy, Burnett is the same pitcher he was in Florida, Ryan took the money and suddenly can’t close in the 9th anymore… They’re all possibilities (I’d say Burnett is more likely to happen that the other two). If any of this happens, Toronto will probably be stuck back in the third hole in the rotation. If all of it happens, they might be looking at fourth.

New York (88-74) – Don’t laugh. Seriously. C’mon guys, I’m not kidding here. New York doesn’t look like a 90-win team to me in 2006. And yet, I’ve thought the same thing about the Yankees every season since 2003…

The team is a year older. The rotation, which was falling apart most of last season, is already hurting before this season even opens. The big free agent acquisition, Johnny Damon, has already come out of spring training games with shoulder tendonitis – not a good sign for a guy that has to roam one of the deepest centerfields in the majors.

And for all of that, I still can’t discount the offensive prowess of this team. They have four possible 35-homer guys on the roster, with another four that could hit 20 (Sorry Bernie – you’ll be lucky to see 15). If they don’t score 900 runs this season with that lineup, I’d be stunned.

The rotation is going to be the biggest question this season. The bullpen has always been pretty solid, considering they have the best closer in the game (if not in history) anchoring the back-end. This season, by adding Kyle Farnsworth & Mike Myers, they’ve finally got a solid middle relief corps to get the ball from the starters to Mariano Rivera in the ninth.

Now all they need to do is make sure the starters can get the ball to the middle guys…

Biggest Question(s): Can a team with only one starting fielder and one starting pitcher under the age of 30 (Robinson Cano - 23, Chien-Ming Wang - 25) survive the season? Will any team that starts Alex Rodriguez ever win anything? (Sorry, had to…)

Best possible scenario: Hey, they’re the Yankees. I’d be an idiot to not at least concede the point that they’re never out of the pennant race. They can always easily make a deal to improve an area of need and push for the top of the heap.

Worst possible scenario: The flip side of that coin is that, yes, they’re the Yankees. Sooner or later, teams like Kansas City, Washington, Pittsburgh, etc. are going to get tired of essentially being a farm system for teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets and Braves. Those trades eventually won’t be there, or will just be too expensive for the “haves” to make. If New York is forced to keep this lineup and rotation all year long, I don’t think they can pull out 90-wins.

Tampa Bay (78-84) - I really hope this is the year that these kids figure it out, because they are fun to watch. I make a point to never miss a Red Sox / Tampa game, because the D-Rays are just a young team that always comes out with guns blazing, never afraid of anybody. Lou Pinella held them back for the past few years, burying players if he didn’t like them, forcing pitchers to retaliate in bean-ball wars, etc.

They dumped four mediocre pitchers in the off-season, including their last two ineffective closers (Danys Baez & Lance Carter) in trades to the Dodgers that netted them some high-profile prospects. They landed Shinji Mori from Japan, and then promptly lost him for the season with a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder. Other than those moves, they basically stood pat this winter.

They have one of the best young outfields in baseball, with Carl Crawford, Aubrey Huff, and the return of Rocco Baldelli, not to mention Joey Gathright as probably the fastest fourth outfielder in the game. He is a big luxury for a team like Tampa – he can be brought in as a pinch runner and still provide an upgraded defense for two of the three kids in the outfield.

The question, as always, lies in the rotation. Scott Kazmir has already moved nicely into the #1 spot in the order (Kazmir for Victor Zambrano… I just can’t get over how terrible of a trade that was for the Mets. Think they’d like to have this kid back right now to slide into the #2 spot behind Pedro?). But after Kazmir, they have four guys that probably wouldn’t crack the major-league rotation for 75% of the other teams around baseball (unless Edwin Jackson takes the #5 spot – then they’ve only got 3 stiffs instead of four). And with the loss of Mori, they are looking at Dan Miceli and Chad Harville splitting time at closer. Ouch.

78 wins might be a little optimistic, but I really like this team. It would be great to have a Red Sox / Devil Rays series after May actually mean something for both teams.

Biggest Question(s): Who starts? Who closes? Essentially, if you have pitches above the little league level, Tampa Bay will take a look at you for a tryout…

Best possible scenario: I think the 78 wins above already is the best possible scenario. Let’s be honest here people – they’re not winning 90, and they’re not passing the Red Sox, Yankees or Blue Jays in the division.

Worst possible scenario: Back to the basement they fall, if they get nothing from anyone on the mound but Kazmir. Even Baltimore has more to offer than that.

Baltimore (70-92) – They still have Miguel Tejada (for now). They have whatever is left of Javy Lopez. And much to the delight of 14-year old boy in and around the greater Baltimore-Washington region, they now have Anna Benson sitting behind home plate in Camden Yards.

And let’s not forget new first baseman, Kevin Millar. I can’t wait to hear the first radio interview where Millar is asked about Benson. That might redefine uncomfortable comedy as we know it.

The Orioles never really had a chance to re-sign BJ Ryan, so they replaced him with LaTroy Hawkins in a trade with San Francisco. They brought back Jeff Conine, traded for Corey Patterson, and imported Ramon Hernandez to run the young pitching staff - Kris Benson is the “elder statesman” on the staff at the ripe old age of 31. He’s the #4 starter…

The best thing they did in the off-season was to not re-sign Sammy Sosa or Rafael Palmeiro. Those two were more of a distraction than an attraction last season, and contributed very little to any team success.

The rotation is young and improving, with Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera and Rodrigo Lopez filling in the 1-3 spots in the order. Benson gives them a mid-level veteran to help bring the kids along, and Ramon Hernandez has always been regarded as one of the top three catchers in the game at coaching his pitchers.

They’re too young to really compete this season. They need one more year, and a little more money invested more effectively before they become a threat to the division leaders once again. But it will happen – their young talent is just too good to stay in the basement for long.

Biggest question(s): Got to be the closer spot. When they lost Ryan, they figured Jorge Julio would re-claim the closer position that was his before Ryan emerged. Then they traded Julio for Kris Benson, so they had to get LaTroy Hawkins to close. Ask any Cubs or Twins fan about the LaTroy Hawkins as closer experience…

Best possible scenario: Since they’re in the basement, they’ve got nowhere to go but up. Tampa certainly has questions, mostly about their inexperience and their rotation. Baltimore could easily pass them and slide into the four-spot.

Worst possible scenario: They stay right where they are. Tejada demands to be shipped out of town by mid-season. Javy Lopez is a waste of space, and Anna Benson becomes the most talked about person related to the team.

'06 MLB Preview - American League Central

American League Central

2005 Prediction

2005 Standings

2006 Prediction

Cleveland (93-69)

Chicago (99-63)

Chicago (97-65)

Minnesota (88-74)

Cleveland (93-69)

Cleveland (94-68)

Chicago (82-80)

Minnesota (83-79)

Minnesota (84-78)

Detroit (73-69)

Detroit (71-91)

Detroit (68-94)

Kansas City (60-102)

Kansas City (56-106)

Kansas City (64-98)

This was, by far, the closest I came to correctly predicting any division last season. The White Sox were the only team whose record I missed by more than five games (though I did miss it by 17…), and I really thought that Cleveland’s 93 wins would be enough to take the division title. Guess not…

Chicago (97-65) – They are going to field essentially the same team as they did last season, with a slight downgrade in center and a big upgrade at DH. Trading Aaron Rowand, an above average centerfielder and a solid hitter, to Philadelphia for one of the best power hitters in the game (when he’s healthy) is going to be the off-season move that defines this team. Rowand was, by all accounts, a great clubhouse guy. The kid replacing him, rookie Brian Anderson, is just that – a kid. It might take him awhile to mesh with his new teammates.

On the pitching front, the only big move was trading away Orlando Hernandez to Arizona for Javier Vasquez. Like I said in the Diamondbacks’ breakdown, they lost a proven clubhouse presence (as well as the best postseason pitcher they had on their World Series run last season) and got back an overpaid, underachieving pitcher who can either be dominant or useless, depending on the day. Luckily, he’s only going to be the #4 starter on this team, and there won’t be a tremendous amount of production expected from him.

The only real worry for the White Sox could be at closer, where Bobby Jenks has had a rotten spring so far. If that carries over into the regular season, Chicago has to start looking to deal for a closer, and fast.

Biggest Question(s): Closer… will the team get complacent after winning it all last year?

Best possible scenario: Thome & Konerko combine to form the second best 3-4 heart of the order in baseball, right behind Manny & Ortiz wearing those “other” Sox…

Worst possible scenario: Thome doesn’t fully recover from the multitude of injuries that slowed him for his entire time in Philly, Konerko sits back and collects his fat new paychecks, and the rest of the team just tries to coast to back-to-back division titles. If they do, Cleveland will pass them.

Cleveland (94-68) – After a rotten first half of last season, they made a mad dash to get right back into the hunt for the division, before falling flat for the last two weeks of the year. Those types of finishes do one of two things to a young team like Cleveland, either they completely crush the players for a long time, or they inspire the team to come out of the gate hot, so they won’t have to scramble for the final three months of the year just to get close. I’m guessing these guys will follow the latter path.

The Coco Crisp trade with Boston was a steal for the Indians (and I’m saying this as a Red Sox fan…). They shipped out a good centerfielder/leadoff guy in Crisp, plus a backup catcher (Josh Bard) and a average middle relieve in David Riske, and in return they got one of the best prospects in all of baseball (Andy Marte), a solid catching prospect in Kelly Shoppach, and a proven (if injury prone) reliever in Guillermo Mota.

They did lose Kevin Millwood, but replaced him with Paul Byrd & Jason Johnson. If the bullpen can learn to hold a couple of leads this year, there shouldn’t be much of a drop-off between them.

The bullpen is going to be what makes or breaks this team. They’ve got plenty of offense, and the starters that two or three years ago were just young kids breaking in (Cliff Lee, C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook) now are turning into pretty decent guys in a solid rotation. If they can get through the middle innings, and Bob Wickman can keep racking up 40+ saves, they’ll be right there with Chicago all year long.

Biggest Question(s): Bullpen. If they hold onto leads, this is a dangerous team.

Best possible scenario: Chicago gets lazy and Cleveland just keeps playing solid baseball. They’ve got the talent to take this division, and if the White Sox slip up even once, Cleveland should be able to seize the opportunity.

Worst possible scenario: The bullpen is as bad as it has been in years past, forcing the front office to deal away some young talent to fill in the gaps. And if Chicago plays as well from start to finish as 2005, then Cleveland is just playing for the Wild Card.

Minnesota (84-78) – They’ve officially reached the level they were at in the mid-90’s. They’re not bad enough to get the top draft pick prospects their system is built on, but they’re not good enough to even compete in their own division, let alone in the league. But they do have a pretty good nucleus to work with (Santana, Mauer, Morneau, and new import Luis Castillo).

This off-season, they lost middle-reliever JC Romero in a trade with Anaheim, and free agency claimed Joe Mays (Royals) and Jacque Jones (Cubs). Seeing as how they weren’t exactly an offensive powerhouse last season, I think Romero will be missed more than Jones (although supposedly the kid they got from the Angels, Alexi Cassila, could be in the starting lineup within two years).

Importing former 40-homer guy (honestly, who wasn’t in the last ten years?) Tony Batista shores up the left side of the infield, while Morneau should provide enough power with his tape measure shots to allow Twins fans to overlook his .240 bating average and .310 OBP.

Biggest question(s): After Johan Santana, who is going to pick up the slack in the rotation? Brad Radke might have trouble with the giant fork sticking out of his back, and Carlos Silva/Kyle Lohse/Francisco Liriano don’t exactly strike fear into the heart of opposing lineups…

Best possible scenario: Detroit isn’t as good as I expect them to be, and the Twins can hold onto this third slot in the division.

Worst possible scenario: Pretty simple – Minnesota’s pitching falls apart, Detroit picks up 5-8 cheap wins, and the Twins are left looking up – UP! – at the Tigers…

Detroit (68-94) – For the last two seasons, I kept giving the Tigers a lot more respect than anybody thoughts they deserved, and they just kept proving me right. Let’s see if I ease off the accelerator this season and send them spiraling back into the basement.

Maybe 2006 will be the year that they prove me wrong. Maybe. But c’mon - their biggest off-season acquisitions were Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones. Those weren’t even big name acquisitions in 1996, let alone 2006.

They only had one real big defection – Rondell White moving up in the division to the Twins. Unfortunately, their entire offense consists of nothing more than Dmitri Young and Craig Monroe.

They have three decent young pitchers in Bonderman, Robertson & Verlander. Mike Maroth isn’t bad, but he’s never going to be anything more than a #3 or 4. The rest of their team looks like a bunch of All-Stars and fill-in guys… from 1999.

At this stage, they’re a team without a direction. They can’t blow it all up again and just go young. They can’t afford to shell out major dollars, and even if they could, the last two seasons (when the ownership finally decided to spend money on their baseball team instead of their hockey team) have had pretty weak free agent crops.

They went out and spent big money on free agents last year in Troy Percival and Fernando Vina, among others. Since then, Vina has left for Seattle (after playing all of 29 games as a Tiger, and forcing the team to trade for Placido Polanco), Percival may never pitch again with serious damage in his throwing arm, and the Tigers’ payroll is shot.

And the answer is Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones?

Biggest question(s) – Can the kids handle the pressure? Can the old guys handle the grind?

Best possible scenario - With a little luck and some help from Minnesota, Detroit could feasibly squeak out another 10 wins, especially considering that they get so many games against Kansas City. 10 wins added to Detroit, and maybe a five-game swing from Minnesota, and the Tigers are looking at a legit chance to grab third place. Might not sound like much, but that’s the kind of jump that could prove to next season’s free agents that Detroit is trying to win, not just playing for third.

Worst possible scenario – I don’t much of a chance that Kansas City could pass them in the standings, so I think 4th place in the worst division in baseball qualifies as just about the worst possible scenario the Tigers could face.

Kansas City (64-98) – This was one of the most free-spending off-seasons in recent memory for the Royals, at least by their standards. They brought in moderately priced free agents like Joe Mays, Reggie Sanders, Doug Mientkiewicz and Mark Grudzielanek, and actually shelled out some decent money for Sanders (2yrs / $10M) and pitcher Scott Elarton (signed from Cleveland for 2yrs / $8M).

And yet, I’d be very, very surprised to see them approach the 70-win mark. They continued to get younger, losing five free agents, all over the age of 30. They now have a starting lineup with four players 28 years old or younger. And admittedly, they are counting on Reggie Sanders to start and play most of the year in the outfield at the age of 38.

They have only one more move that they need to make – they need to move Mike Sweeney. In 2005, the Royals’ entire payroll was just under $37 million, with Mike Sweeney taking up $11M of that (and including Mays’ 2005 salary of $7.25M from Minnesota, instead of the $1M that he’ll make in ’06). Sure, Sweeney is probably their most effective offensive player, but if he could be moved to a contender for a couple of top prospects (or even one top prospect and a couple of mid-level guys), Kansas City would be stupid not to just at the opportunity.

This week’s news that #1 starter Zach Greinke and closer Mike MacDougal probably will have to start the year on the DL is just plain bad luck. But the remaining guys – Elarton, newly acquired mark Redman (via trade with Pittsburgh), Runelvys Hernandez, Joe Mays, and “kid” closer Ambriorix Burgos, should be able to hold the fort until Greinke can get back and re-anchor the top of the rotation.

Overall, things don’t look great in KC. But if the kids live up to their potential, and the veterans have enough left to contribute for the entire season, they’ll have something positive to build on in 2007 and beyond…

Biggest Question(s): How much can the veterans contribute before breaking down? Will the kids like David DeJesus & Mark Teahan be able to step up and handle the majors like the Royals’ front office hopes they can?

Best possible scenario: 70 wins. In a perfect world, Reggie Sanders plays 160 games and plays them well, Doug Mientkiewicz plays stellar defense and actually contributes at the plate, and the pitching comes together with a couple of 14-18 win guys, 70 wins could happen…

Worst possible scenario: You mean a 64-win season isn’t bad enough? Maybe it could get worse – how about a 58-win season? Sure, it could happen – the kids can’t play, Sanders remembers that he’s 38, the pitching falls apart – 50-54 wins wouldn’t be out of the question. Surprisingly, I think this Royals team has more questions surrounding their chances than any other in the American League, except for one…

'06 MLB Preview - American League West

American League West

2005 Prediction

2005 Standings

2006 Prediction

L.A. Angels (94-68)

L.A. Angels (95-67)

L.A. Angels (93-69)

Oakland (91-71)

Oakland (88-74)

Oakland (91-71)

Seattle (82-80)

Texas (79-83)

Seattle (78-84)

Texas (74-88)

Seattle (69-93)

Texas (70-92)

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? The Angels seem to have a stranglehold on this division, winning it in 2004 & 2005, and falling just a few games short in 2002 when they won the Wild Card & World Series, and in 2003 when they missed the playoffs. Oakland looks like they are gearing up with a new “Big Three” – Zito, Harden and either Dan Haren or Joe Blanton, whichever matures quicker. They’ll be very dangerous in a year or two…

Los Angeles Angels (93-69) – They look to be trotting out almost the exact same starting lineup as Opening Day 2005, having made very few acquisitions in the off-season. They did lose three big pieces from their team in Jarrod Washburn, Paul Byrd and Bengie Molina, all of whom walked in free agency.

The Steve Finley for Edgardo Alfonso swap was pretty useless for both teams, as neither player has much left in the tank. And the only other significant losses from 2005, Lou Merloni, Jeff DaVanon & Josh Paul are all bench players or utility guys. None of them should have an impact.

Picking up J.C. Romero from Minnesota and free agent Jeff Weaver improve an already potent pitching staff. Romero in particular makes the best bullpen in baseball even better. I’ll say it right now – I’d be surprised if there were more than 10 leads blown all season long by this bullpen, 15 at most. They just don’t let people score.

Biggest Question(s): If a Vlad falls in the outfield, and the team has no backup plan, can they still contend for a division title?

Best possible scenario: Vlad stays healthy, Garret Anderson contributes, albeit in an extremely reduced role, and the pitching carries them to another division title and ALCS berth.

Worst possible scenario: Vlad goes down early and/or often, Anderson is forced to play in the field more than he is able to, and the offense struggles so mightily that the Angels lose a lot of 2-1 and 1-0 heartbreakers.

Oakland (91-71) – This team got young in a hurry, didn’t they? Just a year ago, many people around baseball were questioning Billy Bean for breaking up the original Big Three when he sent Tim Hudson to Atlanta and Mark Mulder to St. Louis. Well now with the emergence of Rich Harden and the quick development of fellow young’ins Danny Haren, Joe Blanton & Huston Street, Bean is once again proving that he has one of the best baseball minds out there today.

Surprisingly, for the team that invented the “Moneyball” philosophy, the offense seems to be the shaky side of the team. Eric Chavez, Jason Kendall & Mark Kotsay will all continue to be solid contributors, and if newcomers Frank Thomas and Milton Bradley can stay healthy and not have a psychotic break during the season, I think the A’s could do a lot of damage in this division.

All it will take for them is one major injury or a slow start out of the gates to hold the Angels back, and Oakland could easily vault into that top spot in the A.L. West. Just don’t look for them to do anything in the postseason…

Biggest Question(s): Like many other teams, the A’s have to abandon high-priced free agents and trades and simply go with the homegrown talent and mid-level signings. If the kids can get it done, they can be dangerous. If…

Best possible scenario: As outlined above – if the Angels lose some major players to injury, the A’s will be right there to jump through the open window and reclaim their spot atop the division.

Worst possible scenario: Frank Thomas & Milton Bradley get into a cage match brawl-to-the-death sometime in June and send the entire season down the drain. Seriously though, if those two can keep their heads on straight, and the team can avoid injuries, the A’s will be right there to fight for the division all year long.

Seattle (78-84) – Last year I horribly overrated the signings of Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre, even going so far as to put Beltre into my top 2 for MVP consideration, ahead of David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez. Yes, I’m an idiot. Luckily for me, the Mariners didn’t go on a spending spree like last year, so I don’t have anyone I can overrate.

They added some nice complimentary pieces in Matt Lawton and Japanese import catcher Kenji Johjima, and if Carl Everett can give them anything out of the DH spot, it’s a plus. Jarrod Washburn’s move from the Angels’ rotation to the Mariners’ not only helps them, but it hurts a division opponent. Plus the hopeful emergence of “King” Felix Hernandez, the young fireballer, should boost their rotation even more.

Seattle didn’t lose too much in their off-season. They allowed Jeff Nelson and Ryan Franklin to walk in free agency, and traded away backup catcher Yorvit Torrealba. Flashy infielder Pokey Reese, who spent all of last season on the DL, went to Florida as a free agent and has since left baseball altogether.

Unfortunately, they are still a team in a bit of disarray, which explains the predicted record and position in the division. They are not better than Anaheim or Oakland, and are about even with Texas. It’s tough to win a 4-team division when two teams are clearly better than you, and no team is really that much worse.

Biggest Question(s): Can they stay healthy and stop striking out? Will King Felix be as good as advertised? Will Ichiro eventually get tired of all the losing and ask out?

Best possible scenario: They stay healthy and stay ahead of Texas, maybe making a push towards the .500 mark.

Worst possible scenario: Beltre & Sexson continue to coast after signing their fat contracts last year, Washburn can’t escape the injuries that have haunted him for years, King Felix is pummeled and sent back to the minors, Jamie Moyer remembers that he’s old enough to have witnessed the Kennedy Assassination…

Texas (70-92) – They seem to be on a continual backslide to the abyss of mediocrity. Unfortunately, they are stuck in the same situation as the Colorado Rockies. They play in a ridiculously hitter-friendly ballpark. Pitchers won’t go there because they don’t want to have their numbers get inflated to the point of killing any future contracts. Good hitters don’t want to go there because they will be accused of being a product of the park (look at Alfonso Soriano). So they are left with mid-level pitchers and mostly average hitters, except those brought up in their own system like Mark Teixeira & Hank Blalock.

They did a great job of getting value for Soriano, arbitration eligible and sure to command far more than they were willing to pay, by getting good all-around player Brad Wilkerson and the young guy, Terrmel Sledge from Washington. They then flipped Sledge and Adrian Gonzalez, a top-tier 1B prospect who would never get to play with Teixeira blocking his path, to San Diego for pitching help in the form of starter Adam Eaton and reliever Akinori Otsuka.

Losing Kenny Rogers could have hurt a lot more if they didn’t pay Kevin Millwood to take his place. Sure, they probably paid $10-15M more than anyone else would have for Millwood, but in order to get a decent pitcher to play in Arlington, the Rangers will always have to overpay them.

Now, if they can only convince Roger Clemens that Arlington is only a short daily commute from Houston…

Biggest Question(s): After Millwood & Eaton, who fills in the rotation? Can Francisco Cordero remain a high-level closer?

Best possible scenario: The offense looks like it will be fine, probably even better than last year. The pitching will always be suspect, but if Kevin Millwood can even approach the year he had in 2005, when he led the A.L. in ERA but only posted nine wins with an awful Cleveland bullpen behind him, the Rangers could threaten the 80-85 win plateau.

Worst possible scenario: Millwood becomes the next Chan Ho Park, the token “pitcher who had a great season while chasing a free agent deal, only to sign for fat dollars in a hitters park and fade off into obscurity,” and the Rangers remain a 70-75 win team.

'06 MLB Preview - National League East

National League East

2005 Prediction

2005 Standings

2006 Prediction

Atlanta (100-62)

Atlanta (90-72)

NY Mets (93-69)

Florida (89-73)

Philly (88-74)

Atlanta (88-74)

NY Mets (89-73)

NY Mets (83-79)

Philly (83-79)

Philly (82-80)

Florida (83-79)

D.C. (74-88)

D.C. (61-101)

D.C. (81-81)

Florida (66-96)

It’s over. The Braves’ decade-and-a-half run of dominance has got to end sometime, right? It’s this year. And, as a Braves fan, it hurts me to admit that the Mets are the team that will end it.

Now, I have plenty of friends who are fans of the Mets. In fact, I’ve even been “asked” by one of them (ahem… Vinny, whose reaction via IM when I told him that I had the Mets winning 93 games was “NOOOOOOOOOOO – I will kill you if you pick them to win the division”) to pick someone else to win the division, since I’m always so horrible with my picks (like picking the Mets & Marlins to finish tied in the division last year – really missed that one…)

Last season, the N.L. East was the “best” division in baseball, as it was the only one with no teams under .500. This season, not so much…

NY Mets (93-69) – They added Carlos Delgado, Paul LoDuca, and Billy Wagner, as well as smaller pieces like Jorge Julio, Xavier Nady, and the ageless wonder himself, Julio Franco. Aside from losing Mike Piazza to the Padres (can it really be called a “loss” if they simply let him walk?), the biggest pieces from the 2005 season that no longer call Shea home are the overpaid Mike Cameron and Kris Benson, and the wildy ineffective and overrated Braden Looper.

Admittedly, there are questions about the rotation, with Pedro Martinez’ injury history and Tom Glavine’s age the only things standing in the way of having Victor Zambrano as the #1 starter. Now that’s a scary thought. But with that offense in place now, this team could probably stand to win a few more 11-9 games than they pulled out (or coughed up) last season.

Moving from defensive specialist (which is a nice way of saying “he couldn’t hit his way out of a wet paper bag”) Doug Mientkiewicz to offensive specialist (which is a nice way of saying “better not make him reach for any throws”) Carlos Delgado should add a couple dozen more runs to the season total at season’s end. The upgrade from Looper to Wagner alone should give help them hold onto 6-10 more wins than last year.

Don’t be surprised to see the Mets go 10-20 games over .500 in their own division this season, especially with the state of the Marlins and Nationals, and all the uncertainty surrounding the Braves and Phillies. Those 10 wins should be enough to wrest the division title away from Atlanta.

Biggest Question(s): Pedro’s toe, Reyes’ legs, Matsui in general.

Best possible scenario: It’s been 20 years since the Mets won a World Series. Right now, I wouldn’t be surprised to at least see them in the NLCS, and maybe all the way to the show.

Worst possible scenario: Pedro shuts it down early (like, May). Glavine calls it a career after an ineffective first half, Beltran proves that last year wasn’t the fluke, and Delgado – a career “small market” guy - can’t adjust to New York, all of it pushing the Mets down to 3rd in the NL East. Right now, only 2 of those look even remotely plausible (Pedro & Beltran).

Atlanta (88-74) – It isn’t very often that the biggest acquisition or loss for a Major League Baseball team is a bench coach, but in this situation, with the history surrounding this team and its ability to resurrect pitchers, you’ve really got to wonder how big the absence of Leo Mazzone is going to be…

I’ll admit – aside from the Jones’, “E” Renteria, Marcus Giles and Adam Laroche, I had a serious problem trying to name any of the everyday starters on this team. I had to look up “that kid in right field who gets all the big hits and makes great plays…” (Jeff Francoeur), and their left field situation still hasn’t been decided. They’ve got a rookie catcher in Brian McCann who is two-and-a-half years younger than me and has only 183 Major League at-bats to his name.

The rotation still looks good, with Smoltz & Hudson anchoring the top, and a bunch of filler taking up the last three spots. But Chris Reitsma as a closer is just not going to get it done.

So why am I only dropping them two games and one position from their 2005 finish? Simple – have you seen the rest of the division? There’s no way they should lose more than five of 19 against the Marlins, or seven of 19 against the Nats. The Phillies might prove to be a bit more of a challenge, and the Mets look to have surpassed Atlanta, at least on paper.

There’s just something about this franchise that makes me question if they’ll ever lose a division title again. I think this is the year, but it’s going to be close.

Biggest Question(s): The impact of losing Leo Mazzone, who the hell are these guys?

Best possible scenario: The pitchers don’t revert to old bad habits, the kids come through and the veterans do what they’ve done for the last 14 years – win division titles.

Worst possible scenario: Smoltz’ arm fails, Hudson can’t carry the team, Andruw Jones falls off his 2005 career-high pace, and the kids play like kids, pushing the Braves to a 3rd place finish. Armageddon follows soon thereafter.

Philadelphia (83-79) – Well, they added Tom Gordon…

In all seriousness, Philadelphia had two moderately important acquisitions, and one moderately important loss. Jim Thome, if healthy, is still one of the most dangerous power hitters in the game. Unfortunately, he’s rarely healthy. I was able to steal him in the 14th round of a fantasy draft last week, and even then I felt like I took him too high.

Tom Gordon will be a relatively effective closer, but is nowhere near the closer that Billy Wagner has been in the past. And although Aaron Rowand is a huge upgrade in centerfield, he just doesn’t fill the offensive gap that the Phillies needed.

Philadelphia still has a few huge offensive holes in their lineup, namely Mike Lieberthal and David Bell. Bobby Abreu can’t be happy with all the off-season trade talk, and might ask out if the team falls out of the race early. Even though last season looked promising (.281/32/117), Pat Burrell is only one year removed from his back-to-back seasons of averaging .231/22/74, and still strikes out at a ridiculous pace (160 in 2005). The lone bright spots might be the kids – Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, both of whom should blossom into NL All-Star candidates in the very near future.

Biggest Question(s): Will they break the all-time record for team strikeouts, who closes games when Gordon goes on the DL?

Best possible scenario: Gordon stays healthy, Abreu is happy and he, Howard & Burrell all hit 25+ HR with over 100RBIs, propelling the Phillies into a tight race for the division title.

Worst possible scenario: Burrell is more the 2003/04 version than the 2005, Howard can’t handle playing first everyday for 162, David Bell & Mike Lieberthal drag the offense into the basement, and take the team’s win/loss record there with them.

Washington D.C. (74-88) – Admit it – you never thought the Ex-Expos could be a.500 team, did you?

I know I certainly didn’t (see last year’s 61-101 prediction). And that’s why I’m predicting a bit of a backslide this year. Not back into Montreal mediocrity, but at least to a level equal to the talent on the team.

For a team hurting in the starting pitching department, losing Esteban Loiaza was actually a pretty big deal. Sure they picked up Brian Lawrence (now out for the season with a shoulder injury), but he was nothing more than a #3 on a team that played in one of the best pitcher’s parks in the league out in San Diego. Feliz Rodriguez & Ramon Ortiz, added in free agency, are not exactly the type of pitchers who can really solidify a rotation.

Obviously, all the focus will be on Alfonso Soriano, the major off-season acquisition that cost the Nationals their best all-around offensive player in Brad Wilkerson and a younger guy, Terrmel Sledge, who was pretty sought-after this off-season. Soriano is a strikeout machine who can’t play defense, making $10M this season and already complaining about switching positions heading into free agency. Washington already has one head case in the outfield in Jose Guillen. Adding Soriano (while losing Wilkerson and letting Preston Wilson walk to Houston) just didn’t make any sense to me, and I think it will end up being a bad deal in the long run. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him out of D.C. by mid-season.

Biggest Question(s): Who pitches after Livan Hernandez? How long before Soriano and/or Guillen drive manager Frank Robinson (more) crazy?

Best possible scenario: Soriano & Guillen are on their best behavior, the rotation falls into place after Hernandez, and the Nats leapfrog a disappointing Phillies team for 3rd place.

Worst possible scenario: RFK Stadium explodes while trying to hold the collective egos of Robinson, Guillen & Soriano… in all seriousness, I’m already planning for the worst possible scenario. They shouldn’t have been a .500 team last year (just look at their second half), and they won’t finish anywhere near .500 this year.

Florida Marlins (66-96) – The last time the Marlins held a complete fire sale (after the 1997 World Series title), they finished the 1998 season at 58-104. That team never had a monthly winning percentage above .444 (except March, when they went a stunning 1-0), and even with the sell-off of their high-priced talent, the Opening Day roster still included Cliff Floyd, Gary Sheffield, Charles Johnson, Mark Kotsay and Edgar Renteria (who were still on their rookie contract at $171k and $255k respectively) and Livan Hernandez. And let’s not overlook offensive powerhouse Kevin Millar.

This year’s team bears a lot of resemblance to the Marlins’ team that finished the 1998 season. On Opening Day 2006, they expect to start six different rookies on the field, with another as their #5 starter. Pokey Reese was supposed to be one of the highest paid position players – at $800k. He quit.

I expect absolutely nothing out of this team in 2006. I would not be surprised to see both Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera struggle with virtually no support around them (which is why I stayed away from both during my early fantasy drafts). In fact, the only person on this team that might put up reasonable stats is free agent closer Joe Borowski, who should pick up some garbage stats and maybe 25-30 saves on a team that I would be surprised to see win 60 games.

I gave them 66 wins above. I was feeling generous.

Biggest Question(s): Just about everything about the team. Even the “money in the bank” guys like Willis & Cabrera will have a tough season.

Best possible scenario: The kids are so young and green that they don’t realize they’re supposed to be lousy and become one of those first-half surprises that always make April & May fun for baseball fans.

Worst possible scenario: Just about the exact opposite of the last line. And no matter what happens, you can count on about 3,000 fans showing up to see it live.