Friday, February 19, 2010

Pitchers & Catchers Report!!!

Finally, after a long and dark winter of discontent, the 2010 baseball season is here. While I still enjoy other sports, baseball is my first love and my obsession some might say. But today, the pain is finally over. Its the second official day of Spring Training for the least for pitchers & catchers. Despite this, a good number of other position players are already in camp and working out (some since January actually). Howard has been there a few weeks, Utley and Polanco reported early. Utley always reports early and Polanco (who typically doesnt) came a full week early to take extra reps at 3B.

On the pitchers/catchers side of the house, Ruiz, Contreras & Moyer were the last 3 to report in at camp and all 3 showed up on the 17th.

10 Guys To Watch In Camp:

1. Cole Hamels - He supposedly worked on his curveball and will be working on it all spring training. He's also working on a slider so it should be interesting to see how hard he gets hammered the first couple of Grapefruit League starts as he uses them in game action.

2. J.A. Happ - Happ is working on a 2 seamer/sinker to compliment his current arsenal of various fastball iterations. He threw primarily 4 seamers and cutters last year to go with his slider and change. That should give him a different look and with his height, it could be a very effective pitch if he perfects it.

3. Placido Polanco - How well will he transition to fielding 3B again? He is a great fielder and he has the arm strength so it shouldn't be too rough of a transition. Should be fun the first couple times he gets a screamer down the line though.

4. Brad Lidge - If and when he's healthy again, it should be interesting to see where his velocity/control is at for his fastball as well as his pickoff move (something that was non-existent in 2009). He's about 2 weeks behind the other pitchers in camp for readiness. Odds are he won't be ready for Opening Day.

5. Antonio Bastardo - Antonio had an absolutely fantastic winter and fall. He pitched lights out in the Dominican League (equivalent of AA/AAA competition) and he's been fully converted to a relief role. He was able to sit 93-95 as a reliever at Reading last year and he was typically low 90s (89-91) as a starter at the MLB level. It will also be interesting to see where his changeup and slider were at. His change was supposedly his best pitch as a minor-leagure but he never really got comfortable using it in the Majors. Going into April, he'll likely be the only LH pitcher in the bullpen.

6. Scott Mathieson - Scott is coming back from his 2nd TJ surgery and might finally be healthy. He was regularly hitting 97mph in the Arizona Fall League and was pretty unhittable in limited action last year in the minors. He could be a sleeper to make the team out of the bullpen if Moyer, Lidge and Romero all aren't ready by Opening Day.

7. Phillippe Aumont - He got a Major League invite so we'll get at least a couple weeks of him against MLB hitters. While he's at least a full year or so away, this will be a good benchmark to see where he's at as a prospect.

8. John Mayberry Jr - Barring injury, he'll start the year in Lehigh. However, he had a strong winter in the Mexican League where he was sent to work on hitting breaking balls. He batted over .300 there so hopefully he can build on that success. He's not really a prospect anymore as he's into his Age 27 season but he might end up as a decent platoon OF. I wouldn't be stunned if he is traded after a strong Spring. Between Ben Francisco and Dewayne Wise, he's pretty unneccessary and he might be a decent bargaining chip to pick up another pitcher.

9. Dom Brown - He's our last elite prospect. While he'll start the year in Reading, he's not that far away when its all said and done. His only chance of seeing the Majors will be as a Sept callup but it will be good to see how he does against advanced pitching. He hasn't had a breakout year yet but he's always been young for his league in the minors. Still, he's got the making of an All-Star RF.

10. Kyle Kendrick - This is it for Kyle. This will be his last chance to be an MLB pitcher. If he can't beat out a hobbled 47 year old Jamie Moyer and AAA retreads like Drew Carpenter and Ryan Vogelsong for the 5th starter position, I see no point in keeping him around. Hopefully he builds on his strong Sept last year and shows us something worth keeping.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Weekend Wrap/Off-Season Thoughts

Well, we all knew that it wouldn't be easy. The Yankees are the most talented team in baseball and we knew it would take essentially perfect baseball to beat them. The Phillies simply haven't performed. They haven't made the spectacular defensive plays or the great clutch hits that they made last year. Hamels and Lidge have been decidedly human this post-season. Ruiz has made some questionable pitch selections and the big bats (other than Werth & Utley) have failed to show up. At this point, we're playing for respectability. If we can force a Game 6 or 7 we will at least have pushed a truly great team to the edge. We lose in 5 (my fear) and we will be looked at as a flash in the pan fluke team that got lucky last year and this year. That's not the truth but that's what will be said. This team has always played its best baseball with its backs against the wall. That Feliz HR last night was a great example of that. I really thought we were gonna win when that happened but it was all for naught.

Either way, its really hard for me to complain about back-to-back World Series appearances, two pennants and three straight Division titles. We've won a World Championship with this core and done what no other Phillies team has ever done in making it back the very next year. We have a great team coming back next year too so this is not a last gasp effort like 1983 or a fluke like 1993. We are a great team, the best the NL has to offer. We play great defense, hit for great power, steal bases and play a hard-nosed style of baseball. This series could easily have gone the other way. We were in Game 2 and Game 4. We very well could be up 3-1 ourselves had a couple key hits happened or key defensive plays. We could also very easily win 3 straight to win the Series. Yeah, there's probably like a 9% chance of it happening but with this team I could see it.

Going into next year, we have a lot of good things going for us:

1. Our entire core is coming back. The only free agents are Feliz, Stairs, Bruntlett, Myers, Pedro, Eyre & Park. None will be missed too much. Feliz can be replaced with a FA signing and relievers are fungible. Blanton is in his final year of arbitration so the Phillies might have to make a decision on whether to resign him or go after Pedro as the 3/4 starter. Odds are they'll go with Blanton as he's far less injury prone. He'll likely cost about $6-8 million for his final year with us which is pricey but less than we'd pay on the open market for a similar pitcher. We have $108 million committed to next year before arbitration raises. I figure our payroll will have a hard cap of no more than $140 million but likely closer to $130 million like it was this year (we came in at around $134 million when all was said and done with the Pedro signing and Lee trade). Our only major NEED is a legit 3B so we should be able to spend to fix that hole. The bullpen will get help from the minors as guys like Scott Mathieson, Antonio Bastardo and Kyle Kendrick likely take spots behind Lidge, Madson, & a hopefully healthy Romero.

2. We still got all the playoff revenue we could expect by playing 3 WS games at home. We'll have plenty of cash in the off-season that will see other teams make hard choices due to the economy. We should be able to seize that opportunity and retool for another run. While most teams will be making tough $$ decisions due to the continued bad economy, the Phillies will be one of the few with money to spend. Hopefully Rube is able to take advantage of this unique opportunity and get some guys at less than their market value. Rube knows he crapped the bed on our bench and I figure we'll target a good middle infielder to spell Utley/Rollins as well as a legit speedy OF bat. Francisco will be back as will Dobbs.

3. Hamels will be better next year and we'll have 2 Aces at the top of the rotation. Hamels had a terrible year (something I predicted) but he should bounce back next year. He'll be entering his prime at Age 26 and he should hopefully grow a pair and recommit himself to pitching. He could go the other way but I tend to doubt it. Everything that could go wrong for him in 2009 did. However, his peripherals stayed the same as 2008. There were no drops in K/9, BB/9 or other splits that would indicate a loss of skill. He actually improved his control surprisingly. He just had a lot of balls fall in and had issues finishing guys off (his 2 strike BAA went up about 40 points). I think those things will improve with the off-season. Lee will have pitched 270+ innings this year so hopefully he doesn't feel any afteraffects like Hamels did this year. Our rotation going into next year will likely be Lee, Hamels, Blanton, Happ and ??? (maybe Kendrick though Moyer will be in camp too).

4. We have a pretty strong Farm system and guys like Drabek, Taylor and Brown will be helping the 2nd half of next year. Lesser names like Mathieson and Bastardo will likely have spots in the BP and we just might see the 2nd coming of Kyle Kendrick in the rotation. We also have some other good arms in the system that should be ready for the bullpen if need be like Schwimmer and Rosenberg. That will help Rube avoid having to sign questionable relievers at overly expensive costs.

Within our own division, the Mets have a TON of question marks and their aging players will be another year older. They likely won't have money to spend again as they owe close to $50 million in the Madoff scheme and will be fighting a costly legal battle. Their GM is a moron so that also helps. The Braves should threaten again and their pitching is very good. I would expect a threat again. The Fish will probably trade Uggla this off-season and start Coglan at 2B. They will be young and dangerous once again but I doubt we will lose the division to them. The Nats are barely a AAA team so I'm not worried. Barring a slew of major injuries, we should be able to take the NL East for the 4th straight year in 2010.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Happy Memorial Day

Let's all take a pause from our everyday lives and remember all those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in defense of God and Country. I believe Arthur Ashe put it best, "True herorism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost. "

Remember those who died for their country, their nation, their flag on this day.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Kyle Drabek: A Star In The Making?

Kyle Drabek is just 21 years of age and currently pitching in Single-A Clearwater but he has all the makings of a possible future star. He possesses 2 plus pitches and a decent third pitch. You could argue which is his better pitch: A 92-95 mph fastball that can touch 97 mph on occasion with good movement or a strong hammer curve (upper 70s mph) that buckles the knees of most batters. Both pitches are out pitches and he is able to mix and match with them to keep hitters off-balance in the box. He also throws a decent change and appears to have just begun to discover his potential after a long road back following Tommy John surgery. Originally, Drabek fell to the Phillies in the 2006 draft due to major concerns about his maturity and work ethic. Thankfully, Drabek appears to have been transformed by his surgery and its subsequent long recovery and has recommitted himself to baseball. Because of that new found maturity, Drabek could be a # 1 starter in the Majors if he fulfills his vast potential. Hopefully he will join a rotation anchored by World Series MVP Cole Hamels in the next couple years and provide the Phillies with a very solid duo of young, dominating starters at the major league level. Either way, it should be exciting to follow his progress through the minor leagues. So far in 2009, he's made two starts and dominated in both outings. His combined numbers so far? 2 GS, 2-0, 12 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 16 K, .150 BAA. Hopefully, he keeps up his early domination of the Florida State League and is promoted to Reading by mid-season. That would put him on path to be either a September call-up (a long-shot in a playoff race) or a 2nd half of 2010 arrival in the Majors.

Either way, the Drabek bandwagon is pulling out of the station and I'm fully in the driver's seat.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Minor League Spotlight - Pitching Prospects

It's early yet but its been an impressive debut for several of the top prospects in the Phillies system. The Phillies farm system has taken huge strides in the past few years and is now generally rated around #12 by most scouting organizations. Several top prospects made their season debuts tonight and all of them impressed.

SP Carlos Carrasco (AAA) - Carrasco is generally considered the top pitching prospect in the Phillies system and one of the top 50 prospects in all of baseball. He features a low 90s fastball, a very good changeup (generally his best pitch) and a decent curve. He starts the year in AAA playing for the Iron Pigs after losing a long-shot bid to crack the Phillies Opening Day rotation. Still just 23 years of age, the future is bright. His numbers tonight against a good Yankees minor-league squad: 6 IP, 0 ER, 0 R, 4 H, 4 K, 0 BB. Not too shabby from Carlos against very good competition.

SP Joe Savery (AA) - Savery's 2008 campaign was generally considered a complete bust. He was self-admittedly out of shape in his first full year of pro ball. His velocity was well down from his college days at Rice where he was generally in the low 90s. His fastball hovered in the low-to-mid 80s last season and got hammered at times because of it. He reportedly re-committed himself to playing baseball and is finally fully healthy after a 2 year recovery from major shoulder surgery. He won't be fast-tracked to the Majors like many thought this time last year but there is reason to be hopeful. His velocity was back up in Spring Training and he started off the season on a good note: 6 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 R, 8 K, 1 HR. It will be interesting to see where he is on his fastball but his box score is quite impressive. Hopefully he is able to continue this level of production throughout the season. If he can, he will once again be a top prospect in the Phillies system.

SP Kyle Drabek (A+) - Kyle has been a long way back from arm surgery. He has impressed many in the organization with his new found maturity and work ethic. Drabek originally fell to the Phillies due to concerns over both and he could end up being the steal of that draft. He features a mid-90s fastball, a heavy hammer curve and a decent change. Drabek probably has the best pure stuff of any pitcher in their system and he could quickly overtake Carrasco as the top prospect if he continues on this path. Finally ready for a full season of pro ball, Drabek should impress. I fully expect him to end the season in Reading and be pushing for a spot on the major league club in 2010. His line yesterday: 5.2 IP, 2 ER, 2 R, 3 BB, 7 K and the Win.

SP Drew Naylor (A+) - Naylor dominated at Lakewood last year but was old for that league. He was quickly promoted to High A and his numbers suffered as a result. After a disappointing performance in Clearwater (3-7, 4.85 ERA), he will repeat that level to start 2009. As an Aussie import, its important to remember that his developmental curve is different than a typical North American prospect but at Age 23 (he turns 23 on May 31st) in High A ball, he needs to start moving. He started off his season on a good note: 5 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 4 K.

SP Jason Knapp (A) - Jason Knapp is the product of the Northeast and is thus used to pitching in cold and miserable weather. So lucky for him, he'll be pitching in Lakewood to start the season. As he's just 18 years of age (he turns 19 in August), he could have a bright future if he stays healthy. He was drafted last year out of High School due to his high 90's fastball and projectable frame. He could regularly hit 97 mph on his fastball in high school and there is every reason to believe he will build on that pure stuff. He starts the year in Lakewood (impressive for his age) and could move fairly quickly if his secondary stuff develops. His line today: 5.2 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 R, 3 BB, 10 K.

So, all in all, the future looks bright.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Tragedy in Los Angeles

I was going to post Part III of my AL preview but decided, much like the Angels and MLB, to delay that in honor of the tragic passing of Nick Adenhart in a senseless hit and run accident early this morning. Adenhart, one of baseball's top prospects, was struck and killed by a suspected drunk driver just hours after putting in the finest performance of his young career. By all accounts, Nick played the game the right way and was a standup kid who epitomized everything you would want in a young player. Nick was just 22 years old. Rest In Peace, Nick.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

2009 AL Predictions, Part II (AL West)

For the AL West, I'm going out on a limb by predicting a surprise season by the Oakland Athletics. The Angels took a big step back this off-season and due to a slew of injuries to their pitching staff, the door could be open for the A's to sneak in and steal this division. With that in mind, the A's pushed all their chips to the middle of the table. Here we go again...

1. Oakland Athletics -
On the urging of team owner Lew Wolff, GM Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics have gone all in at the Turn for the 2009 season. It'll be interesting to see what turns up on the River for Wolff and Beane. Now that I've pretty much beaten that poker metaphor worse than Chris Brown beat Rihanna, let's get on with the A's 2009 season. The acquisition of rental LF Matt Holliday can not end well for Oakland. The As managed to avoid giving up any real top end talent. They'll miss OF Carlos Gonzalez more than CL Huston Street as the A's have plenty of good young pitching that can step into Street's shoes. Street is one of the more overrated relief pitchers in all of baseball and he was nearing the point of his career where he would become vastly overpaid for throwing 1 inning of work every couple days. There are only a few elite closers in all of baseball (their names are Rivera, Rodriquez, Lidge, & Nathan essentially) and Street doesn't compare to any of them. Relievers are a fungible asset and closers are nothing more than a glorified reliever. Thus, while it was a good trade, Holliday will disappoint those expecting him to be the guy he was at Coor's Field. However, the addition of Holliday, Giambi (who can still crush the baseball) and SS Orlando Cabrera will vastly transform the middle of the A's lineup. They'll join incumbents 2B Mark Ellis (recently locked up for 3 more years), 3B Eric Chavez (the most injured player in baseball not named Mike Hampton), DH Jack Cust (he strikes out a lot, like 33% of all his plate appearances, for a reference Howard = 28%), and 1B Daric Barton (who is much better than his 86 OPS+ last year would suggest). Oakland was able to replace some of the pitching they traded away last year (Harden, Blanton, & Smith) and should be able to roll out a fairly good and very young rotation headlined by veteran SP Justin Duchscherer. While Duchscherer will likely start the season on the DL, he surprised almost everyone last year with a very solid effort as a starter. After that, its a pure youth movement with Dana Eveland (Age 25), Sean Gallagher (Age 23), Gio Gonzalez (Age 23), Dallas Braden (Age 25), Trevor Cahill (Age 21), and Brett Anderson (Age 21). Also on the outside looking in is another prospect in SP Josh Outman (acquired in the Blanton deal and just 24). Oakland has the luxury of mixing and matching among all 7 of these potential starters as well as several other prospects a year or so away to come up with a usable rotation. Several of them are top talents so given the A's proven track record at developing young pitchers, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. Whoever doesn't make the rotation will likely end up in the bullpen to support emerging closer Joey Devine. It will be an interesting year for Beane and the Athletics, one that could define their legacy and make or break major league baseball on their side of the Bay. The A's desperately need another playoff run to re-ignite one of the worst fanbases in all of baseball and restart talks for a new stadium deal. Otherwise, the Athletics' days in Oakland could be numbered. Still, the AL West is a weak division this year and the A's could easily sneak in and win it on pure youth and talent (ala Rays of 09). 85-90 Wins (darkhorse candidate in the AL)

2. Los Angeles Angels - During the Battle of Jutland, Vice Admiral David Beatty lost 2 of his Dreadnaught Battlecruisers in under 30 minutes of action leading him to turn to his subordinate and mutter, "There's something wrong with our bloody ships today." I'm guessing that Manager Mike Scioscia muttered something similar to his pitching coach as he has watched SPs Kelvim Escobar, John Lackey, and Ervin Santana all be struck down by fairly major injures before the start of the 2009 season. The Angels will have to rely heavily on the up and down Jared Weaver and the surprising Jon Saunders to start off the 2009 season. Dustin Moseley, who couldn't make it as their 5th starter last season will enter the 2009 campaign in the #3 role and that does not bode well for the Angels this year. They have the highly regarded and much rumored in trades Nick Adenhart will follow him in the rotation. The Angels desperately tried to resign 1B Mike Teixeira but were never really in the race to do so. They passed on LF Manny Ramirez due to concerns about his character and due to a pure dislike of dealing with superagent Scott Boras. Instead, they grabbed a consolation prize in the underrated Bobby Abreu, owner of some very impressive overall numbers and a overwhelming fear of big, scary walls. Its said that Bobby once wet himself upon realizing his cleats had touched the warning track. Still, he still swings a good bat and had phenomenal on-base skills. Abreu took a massive paycut when he accepted a 1 year, $5 million deal and will be fighting to prove he is still a legitimate MLBer all season as a result. This despite him posting his 7th season of at least 100 RBIs in 08 while picking up at least 20 HRs and 20 SB for the 8th time in his career. He will slot in nicely in a lineup that features the still formidable Vlad Guerrero, CF Torii Hunter, 2B Howie "maybe this is the year I stay healthy" Kendrick, 3B Chone Figgins, and slugging catcher Mike Napoli (20 HRs in 227 AB last year). In the bullpen, the "loss" of closer Francisco Rodriguez will be largely negated by the acquistion of Brian Fuentes and the up and coming Jose Arredondo (who will start the season in the setup man). There are just too many questions in their rotation for now. 85-90 Wins.

3. Texas Rangers - The feel good story of last year was recovering drug addict Josh Hamilton and that's great. Its largely ignored that he pretty much hit the wall in the 2nd half when his numbers dropped off significantly losing over 50 points from his slugging percentage. He should be better conditioned for a full season in 2009 and should produce accordingly. 2B Ian Kinsler remains one of the best in the game while SS Michael Young is now 3B Michael Young with the emergence of prospect Elvis Andrus (acquired in the Teixeira trade). 1B Chris Davis was very impressive in his debut at Age 22. Davis hit .285 picking up 17 HRs and 55 RBI in 317 PA. Davis will be the full-time 1B this year pushing Blalock into the DH role. The Rangers will manage to score runs in bunches but will give also give them up in bunches as they continue to struggle to find pitching. They have traded away John Danks and Edinson Volquez in recent years and one wonders how their pitching staff would look with those two at the top. 70-75 Wins.

4. Seattle Mariners - The Mariners had one of the most disappointing seasons of the past decade in 2008. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Stunningly, mega acquisition SP Erik Bedard broke down. Apparently nobody in the Mariners front office ever bothered to check out the fact that Bedard has NEVER in his 5 full MLB seasons pitched more than 196 innings. So why they expected him to step in and be an innings eating workhorse at the top of their rotation was a mystery. Giving up an uber-prospect in CF Adam Jones along with 4 (count 'em 4 other players) for a guy that went on the DL for a myriad of minor ailments is questionable and even criminally bad management by their now former GM Bill Bavasi. Bavasi, who apparently was a plant determined to tear down the organization from within, managed to outdo himself and threaten Ed Wade for GM of the Year when he locked up quickly aging catcher Kenji Johjima to a 3 year, $24 million deal last April. This deal is a complete and utter mystery when you realize that Johjima is blocking one of the top catching prospects in baseball (Jeff Clement). Johjima was bareable when he was at least contributing with his bat but now that his OBP is well below .300 he hurts them both offensively and behind the plate, where his poor management of American pitchers has been noted on several occasions. This was the last straw for Seattle ownership and Bavasi was soon fired. However, things did not get much better for the Mariners. SP Jarrod Washburn was claimed off waivers in August only to be pulled back by new GM Jack Zduriencik in a move reminiscience of Bavasi at his best. Now the Mariners are on the hook to pay Washburn $10.35 million to suck in 2009 instead of finally being free of his albatross of a deal. That's over $19 million in essentially wasted payroll between just two players. It gets better when you realize that they still owe SP Carlos Silva $34 million over the next 3 seasons. Silva (another coup by Bavasi) posted an abysmal 4-15, 6.46 ERA line in 08 and there are no indications that it was a fluke. His peripheral statistics have always ticketed him as a guy that has no margin for error and those numbers came back to haunt him last season. When you add in the $9 million they're paying Miguel Batista to be a 12th guy out of the pen and it becomes clear that the Mariners are the victim of historic mismanagement in the Bavasi era. They have one of the worst and most overpaid pitching staffs in all of baseball. The Mariners have essentially $38 million (more than 1/3 of their total payroll) committed t0 four players (Batista, Washburn, Silva and Johjima) who actively hurt the team everytime they touch the baseball. It gets worse when you look at the starting lineups they will be throwing out there every night. Converted catcher Russell Branyan will be the starting 1B, oft-injured Jose Lopez is penciled in at 2B and their outfield will consist Griffey (a shadow of himself), Franklin Gutierrez (OPS of .691 last year which would have been good for 56th overall among OF in MLB) and Ichiro (a singles hitter). It is going to be a long year in Seattle. The only things to look forward to are the continued improvement of SP Felix Hernandez (one of the top young talents in the game), another straight 200 hit season out of Ichiro (which will break a record for consecutive seasons) and maybe a few more HRs to Griffey's impressive career total. 60-65 Wins.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

2009 AL Predictions, Part I

So here we are...its time for the American League predictions. The Rays will be hard pressed to repeat as they are again playing in the toughest division in baseball and both the Red Sox and Yankees have improved their already formidable clubs. The Blue Jays (a 87 win team in 2008) will be lucky to take home 4th place and even the Orioles have improved (at least on offense). The Angels once again disappointed in 2008 by getting beat early in the playoffs. The White Sox surprised pretty much everyone by making the playoffs after going down to the wire with a surprising Minnesota Twins. The Twins battled for the AL Central crown all season long with great defense, timely hitting, and surprisingly good pitching despite the off-season losses of Johan Santana and Carlos Silva from their rotation. The Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993 and that is simply unacceptable in the Bronx. The Rays caught lightning in a bottle and ran the table for the season, in the playoffs and all the way into the World Series. Unfortunately for them, their fairy tale ending came to a swift and sudden end when Cinderella was bludgeoned to death by the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies, a team that nobody thought could win and a team that nobody outside of Philadelphia wanted to win, swiftly and in convincing fashion pummeled the Rays in five games to take home their 2nd World Series trophy in team history (Sorry, that never gets old). That said, here we go.

AL East

1. Boston Red Sox - The Red Sox had one of the best teams in all of baseball last year and they proved it when they fought the Rays to a 7th game in the ALCS. Had things gone differently, the Red Sox could have easily gone on to win another World Series. However, the Rays pulled out a game 7 victory and were then quickly beat in the ensuing World Series against a well rested and hungry Philadelphia squad. The Red Sox lost out on their major goal of the off-season which was to acquire premier 1B Mark Teixeira. In the long run, not giving Teixeira a 8 year contract like the Yankees will be a good thing as its not smart to give any player a deal that long. The Red Sox were then able to reinvest a small amount of the money they had earmarked for Teixeira and roll the dice on several low-risk, high-reward reclamation projects. SP John Smoltz and SP Brad Penny were brought in to bolster the back end of the rotation, former closer Takashi Saito should help strengthen what was a surprisingly weak bullpen, OF Rocco Baldelli and OF Brad Wilkerson will replace Brandon Moss and Coco Crisp as a 4th and 5th OFs respectively. All in all, they won't cost close to what Teixeira alone would have cost and if they are even able to hit big on one of them it will have been worth it. The Sox have a great top of the rotation with hopefully a healthy Josh Beckett, an emerging Ace in SP Jon Lester and a very solid # 3 in Daisuke Matsuzaka. If either of Penny or Smoltz can provide solid innings, their staff matches up very well with the best the Yankees and Rays have to offer. On the offensive side of things, both Ortiz and Drew need to bounce back from injuries and Pedroia needs to continue his rise to stardom. Another huge question is the health of 3B Mike Lowell who underwent hip surgery in the off-season. If Lowell is able to bounce back and have a respectable year and the rest of the offense produces as expected, the Red Sox will be a very tough team to beat. The Red Sox also have that rare ability to replace from within as they still have one of the best farm systems in all of baseball. 95-100 Wins.

2. Tampa Rays - The Rays made their first ever World Series in their first ever winning season. I hope they enjoyed it because I don't see them making it back in 2009. They have some huge questions in their bullpen (like the lack of a definite closer due to injuries to Percival) and their young pitching staff of Scott Kashmir, James Shields, Andy Sonnastine and Matt Garza saw more innings than they ever have before. There will likely be some fallback due to that overwork in 2009. The Rays have doubly hurt their rotation by refusing to start phenom David Price at the MLB level. Price has officially been dropped to AAA to "control his innings" but the more realistic answer is to prevent him from reaching arbitration as quickly. This cost cutting move could significantly hurt the Rays in the first couple months of the season. The addition of veteran RH bat Pat Burrell should balance a lefty heavy lineup and provide some much needed patience and on-base skills to a young Rays lineup. LF Carl Crawford should bounce back and have a great year if he is finally healthy. CF B.J. Upton will also likely continue to improve as will Rookie of the Year 3B Evan Longoria. Longoria was last year's victim of the Rays penny pinching but he still hit the ground running and was an integral part of their postseason run. Overall, the Rays should have another good year but they lack the ability to add that missing piece and are bound to suffer from a long season of work in 08. I won't be surprised if they make the playoffs in the Wild Card. I also won't be surprised if everything that could go wrong does go wrong for them. Still, I'm cautiously optimistic. 90-95 Wins.

3. New York Yankees - A good number of pundits jumped on the Yankees bandwagon once again after they drove dump trucks full of cash up to the homes of star pitchers A.J Burnett and CC Sabathia this off-season. That they also managed to snatch the premier positional free agent 1B Mark Teixeira from their arch rival Red Sox was the coup de grace of the 2008 off-season for GM Brian Cashman and the Yankees Front Office. While Sabathia and Burnett should vastly improve their rotation, neither signing occurred in a vacuum. Sabathia will be replacing a 20 game winner in Mike Mussina who retired at the end of the season. Burnett is coming off perhaps the best season of his career (funny how that happened in a contract year) but the odds of him staying healthy and pitching over 200 innings will be low. Sinkerball pitcher Chien-Ming Wang will be back in the #3 spot, a spot that suits him far better than being the #1 guy. Veteran lefty and former juicer Andy Pettitte and rookie phenom Joba Chamberlain will round out a very tough rotation in the Bronx. Offensively, the Yankees look very good on paper. If you ignore defensive ability, the Yankees have a great lineup. However, Jeter is a SS in name only and he will continue to hurt them in the field as he cannot field his position at even an average level anymore. 1B Mark Teixeira will be help improve their infield defense but the loss of 3B Alex Rodriguez for the first 1-2 months will hurt them on both sides of the ball. 2B Robinson Cano is entering what could be a make or break season for the Yankees. While he is quite solid defensively, his bat disappeared in the 1st half again and he didn't turn it on enough to make up for it down the stretch. He'll have to post an OBP well above his .305 effort in 2008 if he wants to have a future in the Bronx. Their outfield defense is questionable as well with CF Brett Gardner (expected to beat out Melky Cabrera for the starting role) as the only plus defender. Veterans Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui will return as well as OF Xavier Nady. OF/1B Nick Swisher should see a decent amount of time in the field as well and a platoon of Swisher and Nady will be an improvement in RF over Matsui. Matsui will likely have the majority of his ABs from the DH role. However, it remains to be seen whether or not aging (quite quickly apparently) C Jorge Posada will return at a level even close to his amazing 2007 effort. The odds are against him and if he cannot be a plus at catcher, the Yankees will soon see themselves having a logjam at DH once again. This issue will only compound if and when they realize that Jeter is killing them in the field with his glove. If the Yankees have another disappointing year in 2009, manager Joe Girardi will quickly find himself out of work. My bet is another 3rd place finish and some heads will roll. 90-95 Wins.

4. Toronto Blue Jays - The Blue Jays won 86 games in 2008 but still finished 4th. Then they lost pitchers A.J. Burnett to free agency, Sean Marcum to Tommy John surgery, and Dustin McGowan to a frayed labrum. Marcum might be back by the end of the season and McGowan will be back by late June if everything goes according to plan. However, former 1st round pick David Purcey will get a long look this year as he has top of the rotation talent. Roy Halladay will continue to add to his potential Hall of Fame resume as he continues to quietly be one of the best pitchers in the game today and Jesse Litsch should follow up as a solid 2008 campaign with another good year in his Age 25 season. The Jays will also throw out a good but not great offense led by RF Alex Rios and CF Vernon Wells that would allow them to compete in most any other division in baseball but not the AL East. The Blue Jays have the misfortune of being a member of the AL East and will thus be lucky to finish a solid 4th once again. 75-80 Wins.

5. Baltimore Orioles - When your major pitching addition for the 2009 season is Adam Eaton, you know you're in trouble. Eaton will be a solid addition to the Orioles rotation and he is currently penciled in as their #3 starter. Of course, the Orioles will be rolling out one of the weakest rotations in the past 20 years and Eaton shouldn't be the #3 starter on most AAA teams. The Orioles may have a respectable pitching staff in a couple years as they have some impressive pitching prospects in their minor league system but they are in no hurry to bring those prospects up too soon. Their offense should continue to improve as RF Nick Markakis is quietly becoming a superstar, CF Adam Jones should be better with another year under his belt and 2B Brian Roberts continues to be one of the top leadoff men in all of baseball. Roberts very quietly led the league with 51 doubles, notched 40 steals, and batted close to .300. The offense will also get solid secondary production from OF Luke Scott, 1B Aubrey Huff, and new acquisition UT Ty Wigginton. Wigginton will likely see time at all four corner positions and will get over 400 ABs in doing so. It will be interesting to see if OF Felix Pie (long touted as a star in waiting by the Cubs before his trade) will finally put it all together in Baltimore with regular playing time and lower expectations on a rebuilding ball club. So the Orioles should take another step in the right direction in 2009 but will not be close to the top of their division. 65-70 Wins.

To Be Continued...

Saturday, March 28, 2009

2009 NL Predictions

I figured I would finally get off my arse and whip out some predictions for both leagues this year. I'll probably publish the AL predictions tomorrow at some point...that is assuming a good marathon doesn't come on television, or I simply find something better to do with my time. So its been quite enjoyable to bask in the greatness that has been the Philadelphia Phillies 2008 season over the past five months. Unfortunately, that time is past and we must all look to the future. The Phillies managed to clinch their first NL Pennant since 1993 and only the 6th in their "storied" history. To say the Phillies were clearly the favorite to win the Pennant last year would be exaggerating just slightly. Most "experts" went with the vastly improved Chicago Cubs and in their defense, that team did lead the league with 97 wins. Unfortunately, they forgot that those pesky games in early October are also important. Because of this, they were quickly swept aside by the Dodgers led by late-season acquisition Manny Ramirez. The Phillies easily knocked off the Milwaukee Brewers in impressive fashion and then smashed the Dodgers with the same ease taking home the Pennant in 5 games. Out of those four teams, the Brewers will likely not be back in the mix as they lost most of their pitching staff to free agency. The Dodgers lost some pitching as well with the departure of staff ace Derek Lowe through free agency but were able to shore up the defense by acquiring defensive stud 2B Orlando Hudson and retaining premier (when healthy) SS Rafael Furcal and the ever enigmatic LF Manny Ramirez. The Cubs retooled slightly in the off-season and should be as dangerous as ever with the acquisitions of OF Milton Bradley and former Marlins closer RP Kevin Gregg. The loss of UT Mark DeRosa due to salary issues will hurt them more than they realize. It will be interesting to see which teams out-perform and make a splash in 2009...but we'll get to all that. Let's begin:

NL West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers - As I mentioned briefly, the Dodgers spent a large sum of money retaining LF Manny Ramirez and SS Rafael Furcal. This necessitated allowing free agent SP Derek Lowe to depart as well as former closer Takashi Saito. However, they should expect continued improvement from young guys like Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier as well as the emergence of a potential star in SP Clayton Kershaw. Their biggest problem will be a lack of depth in the starting rotation as well as the lack of a legitimate game stopper at the top of that rotation. Their lineup will depend almost completely on Manny Ramirez continuing his inhuman 2nd half performance. As goes Manny, so goes the Dodgers. Other things that would concern me as a Dodgers fan would be whether or not Jonathan Broxton will actually emerge as a legitimate closer. His playoff performance in 2008 left something to be desired and will be interesting to see there are any lingering effects from Broxton having his still-beating heart ripped out of his chest by OF Matt Stairs in the 08 NLCS. All that said, their only real competition in the NL West will be the Diamondbacks. I expect it to go down to the wire with both squads. 85-90 Wins.

2. Arizona Diamondbacks - Well the DBacks not so much collapsed in 2008 but rather could quite keep up with a inspired performance by the Dodgers. Overall, the DBacks have some very intriguing young players and they should expect continued improvement as a result. OF Justin Uptin and SS Stephen Drew are both very good. Upton was just 20 years old and draws comparisons to future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr for potential upside. Drew has a similar upside and between the two of them along with some decent supporting cast, the DBacks will be competitive. They have a great pitching staff led by twin aces in Dan Haren and Brandon Webb, a solid supporting cast with Doug Davis and John Garland and a potential star cutting his teeth in the 5th spot in Max Scherzer. The loss of 2B Orlando Hudson to a division rival will hurt but it is mitigating by opening up the starting role to super-utility guy Felipe Lopez. Lopez will compensate the loss of Hudson quite nicely. It will be harder to replace SU Juan Cruz and SP Randy Johnson (who they'll miss more than they realize) but the DBacks still have a ton of upside. Having been wrong in picking them last year, I will give them the slight nod again in 2009. Prove me wrong kids, PROVE ME WRONG. 85-90 Wins.

3. San Francisco Giants - The Giants have a great pitching staff led by the reigning NL Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum. Lincecum was lights out in 2008 and has the potential to be a great pitcher for a long time. However, there are concerns about his long-term health due to a violent delivery. Lincecum is joined in their rotation by emerging stars SP Matt Cain (owner of one of the more impressive 14 loss seasons of the past 30 years). In the shadow of Lincecum, Cain (a former 1st round pick) gets overlooked at times. However, he is quietly becoming a very good #2 pitcher despite a 15-30 record over the past 2 seasons. Former Cy Young winners Barry Zito and Randy Johnson follow them in the rotation and Jonathan "I'm much better than my 5+ ERA suggests" Sanchez will be the #5 coming into the season. Overall, the 3 are very solid and while Zito will never even come close to living up to his albatross of a contract, he is still a serviceable back of the rotation pitcher. I expect to be pleasantly surprised by Johnson as he is just 5 wins away from being perhaps the last ever 300 game winner in baseball. He's still very effective despite entering the season at Age 45 and he can still rack up strikeouts on occasion. Sanchez (whose role is finally defined after being jerked around between relief and starting) should have a breakout season. The Giants offense is not so impressive and that is ashame as it wastes an impressive pitching staff. Free agent signing Aaron Rowand was a bust (as I predicted this time last year) and is that special kind of bust that will weigh down their payroll for another four seasons. In mystifying fashion, GM Brian Sabean repeated this special type of blunder by vastly overpaying SS Edgar Renteria. This money could have been much better spent elsewhere as Renteria has a limited upside and lacks the glove of a Orlando Cabrera (a superior free agent player who signed to play across the Bay in Oakland for far less money). The Giants simply do not have even an average offense and there is little hope for improvement in 2009. 70-75 Wins.

4. Colorado Rockies - The Rockies had pretty much everything that could go wrong in 2008 go wrong. The magic from their 2007 run was gone from the start and they were hamstrung with significant injury issues. They also had vastly disappointing performances from 2nd year man SS Troy Tulowitzki (posed for a bounce back year in 2009), OF Brad Hawpe (who took a step back last year) and the continued declines of former stars 1B Todd Helton (who still can get on base but do little else) and 3B Garrett Atkins. One of their few pleasant surprises was the emergence of a potential star in C Chris Iannetta. Their chances for 2009 took a major hit with the departure of OF Matt Holliday in a trade to Oakland. While they were able to get a decent return in OF Carlos Gomez and former A's closer Huston Street, the Rockies offense will struggle to replace his production. The Rockies also have major issues in their pitching staff that begins with the inability of SP Jeff Francis to stay healthy. (Note: Francis will start the season on the DL again in 2009.) Aaron Cook is not a true #1 but he still somehow manages to post impressive numbers without ever striking anyone out. A great sinker will do that for you. However, the Rockies are not nearly as good as they appeared to be in 2007 and perhaps not as bad as they were in 2008. They will not compete with the big guns in the division. A solid 3rd place is not out of the question, though I wouldn't be stunned to see them drop below the Giants. 70-75 Wins.

5. San Diego Padres - The Padres endured a fire sale necessitated by the ongoing divorce of their now former principle owner and his wife. As a result of this divorce and the overall collapse of the national economy, the Padres drastically cut payroll for the 2009 season. Despite this slashing of the payroll, they still decided to take on the $9 million option for OF Brian Giles. 3 or 4 years ago, this would have been a good decision as Giles was, at that point, a very good player. While he is still considered a team leader, it seems questionable to commit nearly 1/5 of the team payroll to what is basically a no-power corner outfielder who is also 38 years old. There are a few bright spots in SD, namely SP Jake Peavy and 1B Adrian Gonzalez (easily the most underrated slugger in all of baseball). Still, there is not much else and despite the recent sale of the team to Jeff Moorad, its gonna be a long time before competitive baseball is played in San Diego. 55-60 Wins.

NL Central

1. Chicago Cubs - I predicted them to win the division in 2008 and they didn't disappoint. I expect them to have little issue repeating that performance in 2009. While the Cardinals appear to have slightly improved, the Reds young talent a year older, and the Astros ready to go all out in a wasted effort to win the division again, the Cubs stand head and shoulders above these teams. The Brewers are in for a hard fall from 2008's playoff appearance after losing both Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia to free agency. For the Cubs, Japanese import Kosuke Fukudome was a disappointment. He was closer to being the fielding version of Kei Igawa than the next Ichiro. He was relegated to almost 4th OF status by the end of the year. The Cubs attempted to rectify this issue by signing a great offensive threat (when healthy) in OF Milton Bradley. Bradley interacting with manager Lou Piniella should be interesting to say the least. Still, there are plenty of reasons to expect a repeat performance by the Cubs in 2009. They will miss utility man Mark DeRosa who saw time in LF, 3B and 2B while scoring over 100 runs and driving in over 90 with his bat. His trade to Cleveland was necessitated by salary constraints and the desire to sign the above-mentioned Bradley. The Cubs will continue to get solid production out of their very solid corner bats (Soriano, Ramirez, Lee, and Bradley) as well as decent numbers up the middle. The emergence of a potential perennial all-star behind the plate in C Geovanny Soto gives them solid production up and down their lineup. A very solid pitching staff is anchored by an impressive triumvirate of Carlos Zambrano, Rich Harden, and Ryan Dempster. They have perhaps the best 4th starter in all of baseball in LHP Ted Lilly (owner of a very impressive 32-17 record in two seasons in Chicago) and a very solid option in prospect Sean Marshall in the 5th spot of the rotation. The Cubs have a very solid bullpen anchored by Carlos Marmol and Kevin Gregg (both of whom will battle for the closing role due to the departure of Kerry Wood to Cleveland). Reliever Jeff Samardzija showed flashes of brilliance in a September callup as well but there are questions as to whether he will even make the team out of spring training. IF Aaron Miles will take over the super-utility role from DeRosa while Mike Fontenot and Ryan Theriot should provide a solid double-play combination at 2B and SS. CF is somewhat of a question mark as Fukudome does not have the range to adequately cover the position day in and day out while there are also no good backup options as CF Reed Johnson and CF Joey Gathright will round out the bench options. None of the three are even above-average in the 8 spot. Still, the Cubs are still a powerhouse and a favorite to win the division and compete for the NL Pennant. 90-95 Wins.

2. St. Louis Cardinals - The Cardinals don't have a rotation that compete with their division rival Chicago Cubs but they do have one of the premier pitching coaches of his generation in Dave Duncan. Duncan has managed to squeeze production out of the unlikeliest of candidates turning guys like Kyle Lohse and Jeff Weaver into productive pitchers in their time in St. Louis. Lohse was locked up (fortuitously on his part) for four more seasons shortly before the 2008 season ended and he will help a rotation led by former closer Adam Wainwright. The return of former ace Chris Carpenter from injury as well as reclamation projects like Joel Pineiro should help give the Cardinals enough pitching to compete in this division. The Cards offense will be anchored as always by the premier hitter in baseball 1B Albert Pujols. Pujols will be protected in the lineup by OFs Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel as well as the newly acquired SS Khalil Greene (who, if healthy, could have a huge season now that he's free of Petco Park). In a somewhat puzzling fashion, the Cardinals cut their starting 2B Adam Kennedy only to hand the job over to OF Skip Schumacher in Spring Training. Schumacher has not impressed so far at the position and there are major questions as to whether he can play 2B at the MLB level. I expect the Cardinals to surprise again and compete for 2nd place in the NL Central. 80-85 Wins.

3. Cincinnati Reds - The Reds have a ton of young talent on their roster and they should continue to improve as a club. The departure of veteran leaders LF Adam Dunn and RF Ken Griffey Jr will radically transform the locker room and should allow the Reds to finally focus on the future. The future for the Reds is bright with top prospects 1B Joey Votto, CF Jay Bruce, SP Edinson Volquez, and SP Johnny Cueto. They also have solid complementary players in 2B Brandon Phillips (a magician with the glove who also hits for power), 3B Edwin Encarnacion (a 3B in name only, his bat would be much better in LF), and returning pitchers Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo. They also have the best hitting pitcher in all of baseball with new acquisition and 5th starter Micah Owings. The Reds are my darkhorse candidate to surprise this year in the NL. 75-80 Wins.

4 . Milwaukee Brewers - So the Brewers mortgaged the future and doubled down when the acquired CC Sabathia last summer to make a playoff run. The Brewers, knowing that Sabathia was a rental, pitched him as often as possible and he carried them into the playoffs only to run out of steam in the NLDS. After Shane Victorino hammered a grand slam in Game 2 of the NLDS, that was all she wrote. The Brewers are drastically changed with the departures of CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets to free agency and will have trouble coming up with enough pitching to compete. There are reasons to be optimistic in Milwaukee. Young starters Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra will be a year older and should provide stability to their rotation in 2009 and their offensive core is still very solid. Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy, and Ryan Braun anchor a young core of offense that is surrounded by complimentary pieces like veteran CF Mike Cameron, 3B Bill Hall (who should improve if given stability after being jerked around the last few years learning new positions), and RF Corey Hart (perhaps the most unlucky player in the Majors last year). I like the Brewers a lot and they impressed me with their legitimate contract offer to CC Sabathia. This is a team that wants to win and wants to compete with the big boys. Given a different economic climate or a salary cap structure like the NFL's and the Brewers would be far more competitive. They had the misfortunate in 2008 of running headfirst into destiny by facing the Phillies in the 1st round. I expect to see them back in the playoff hunt in 2010 but not before. 75-80 Wins.

5. Houston Astros - When you have Ed Wade as your GM, all sorts of crazy things happen. Top players get traded for pennies on the dollar (Abreu for CJ Henry, Lidge for Michael Bourn and some magic beans, etc etc). Wade also traded what little remained of the Astros farm system (always historically weak to begin with) to Baltimore for SS (in name only) Miguel Tejada. Tejada promptly aged a few years thanks to a faulty birth certificate but still performed at a respectable level in Houston. Lance Berkman is now in his fat Elvis stage of his career (literally as the resemblance is eerie). I'm half-expecting Berkman to start wearing sequined jumpsuits to take batting practice at this point. There is little to get excited about in Houston. The Michael "HE'S A 5TH OUTFIELDER, ED!!!" Bourn experiment was a colossal failure but one that kept on giving for most of the year despite a pathetic .288 OBP (in 514 PAs). Bourn was finally at least moved down in the lineup but still was rolled out there day after day after day. Bourn is not and never was a legit prospect but sometimes this lesson is harder to learn than others, especially for Ed Wade, owner of a fetish for no-hit speedy outfielders. Did I mention that Ed Wade is a jackass? The Astros managed to acquire Pudge "I was good 5 years ago" Rodriguez to shore up their catching situation but will throw out a lineup (and rotation) that is largely unchanged from 2008. RF Hunter Pence should be improved from 2008 and Carlos Lee will provide the same great bat and brutal defense that he always does to round out the outfield. Matsui and Tejada are decent up the middle (offensively at least) but 3B will be a black hole again and their pitching staff is full of question marks once you get past perennial Ace Roy Oswalt. Simply put, both Ed Wade and owner Drayton McLane Jr. suffer from a "Win Now" mentality. Because of this mindset, the Astros will continue to mortgage the future in the dim hope of a surprising regular season run that will validate (in their minds) their madness. The Astros roster is laden with washed up and never was players and their farm system is to prospects as the Gobi Desert is to flora. 65-70 Wins.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates - As usual, there isn't much to look forward to in Pittsburgh. They made some good trades last season, cashing in on soon to be free agent Jason Bay but they did not manage to get any of Boston's top talent out of that trade. Still, they did get quantity out of their trade if not top quality. The acquisition of former top prospect Jose Tabata from the NY Yankees should be an interesting one to follow. He has all the talent in the world but it remains to be seen whether or not he can put it all together and become a baseball player. Other reasons for optimism include the emergence of a good offensive catcher in Ryan Doumit as well as heralded prospects Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez. If McCutchen develops as expected he will push gold glover CF Nate McLouth to a corner spot and give the Pirates a good outfield for the first time in years. Either way, its going to be a long year in Pittsburgh but there appears to be some little light at the end of the tunnel. 60-65 Wins.

NL East

1. Philadelphia Phillies - I won't reinvent the wheel as I just wrote in depth about the Phillies 2009 season. Simply put, I expect some fallback from a great run in 2008 but I still solidly expect a repeat as the NL East division champ. The good news is that outside of Victorino, no Phillie regular had a career year. Their core is outstanding. In fact, they have one of the best cores in all of baseball. This is the year I expect Chase Utley to finally show the world how great a player he truly is. Howard and Rollins should bounce back as well and Werth should impress as a full-time player. It'll be interesting. 85-90 Wins. (My personal guess is 89 wins but I like to give ranges for this type of stuff).

2. New York Metropolitans - The Mets, the Mets, where to begin. The Mets went into the off-season with major issues at the corner outfield positions, their bullpen, 2B and the bottom of their rotation. They went out and solved their 8th and 9th inning pitching issues by signing top free agent closer Francisco "I'm not as good as my Saves record suggests" Rodriguez and trading quantity for former Mariners closer J.J. Putz. IF Putz can stay healthy and IF K-Rod can handle pitching in NY, both of those moves could vastly improve their bullpen. However, it’s kinda like patching one hole in the raft only to see another couple of holes open up. Their starting rotation is full of questions and it is somewhat questionable as to whether aging 1B Carlos Delgado can repeat his hot 2nd half in 2008. They have premier talent in CF (Beltran), 3B (Wright) and SS (Reyes) and emerging talent in the sometimes overlooked DanielMurphy but I simply see far too many question marks in NY for them to win the division. I expect a good run at the Wild Card for them though and they will make things interesting for the Phillies. 85-90 Wins.

3. Atlanta Braves - The Braves went out and completely revamped their starting rotation. Of course, I thought they had a great rotation going into 2008 only to see 3/5 of it collapse before Memorial Day. The acquisition of Javier Vazquez via trade and two top free agent signings in veteran SP Derek Lowe and Japanese import Kenshin Kawakami should give the Braves a vastly improved rotation in 09. Jair Jurrgens was impressive in 2008 and should only get better with experience. While Tom Glavine rounds out the rotation for now, the Braves have several top prospects that should push the future Hall of Famer for playing time as the season goes on. The Braves hitting is not quite so good and it will limit their ability to make a move this year. Chipper Jones and C Brian McCann will continue to anchor their offense and when Jones is healthy, they will be able to score runs. Jeff Francoeur (once dubbed "The Natural" by Sports Illustrated) has been a huge disappointment (at least to those that don't understand peripheral statistics). They simply do not have enough offensive firepower and depth to compete for the full year. They will be that pesky team that steals wins from the division leaders. 80-85 Wins.

4. Florida Marlins - The Fish finally got a new stadium deal and that means that they MIGHT consider actually hanging on to some of their young talent. That stadium won't be ready for another few years and neither will the Marlins most likely. They have a very solid young pitching staff anchored by emerging ace Ricky Nolasco. Their offense is centered around one of the top talents in the game in SS Hanley Ramirez. Their team defense and bullpens are a complete joke and this will sink their chances of competing. Given a little bit of monetary investment and some seasoning, the Fish could win their 3rd World Series since their inception. However, thanks to the cheapest and probably worst owner in all of sports, that won't happen anytime soon. Breakout player of the year - CF Cameron Maybin. 75-80 Wins.

5. Washington Nationals - The Nats are a complete and utter joke. Their offense will be improved on paper with the signing of LF/1B Adam Dunn but they will not score enough runs nor will they prevent enough with their pitching staff to be taken seriously. Luckily for them, they will have first crack at premier prospect Steve Strasburg in the June draft. The Nats have approximately 1,304 OF on their major league roster but will have issues putting together a respectable MLB lineup. 3B Ryan Zimmerman should continue to improve but there isn't much to look forward to in Washington this summer. 55-60 Wins.

So there you have it...that's the NL. Tomorrow, I'll try and roll out the AL predictions. This ended up being a bit longer than planned but fun nonetheless.

Go Phillies!