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!