All Things Being Equal: Our Baseball Picks for 2008
This Great Game's fearless prognosticators look through soothsaying eyes and deliver their best guesses for the 2008 major league season.
By Eric Gouldsberry and Ed Attanasio, This Great Game
Posted March 26, 2008
Eric and I are at two different ends of the baseball spectrum when it comes to preseason analysis. He’s more into Bills James-like statistical studies (in fact, he’s developed his own methodology for This Great Game on quantifying player performances) while I shoot a little more from the hip. It’s kind of how we live our lives. Eric is calculated and careful. He plays it smart. I am more emotional and act almost entirely on instinct. Consequently, I make more mistakes.
Last year, the end results were about the same. We both stunk up the place with our picks.
Hopefully we’ll do a little better this time around. Maybe if Eric goes with his gut a little more and I do a bit more analysis, we’ll both improve our performances when it comes to the prognostication game. —Ed.
NL East: Ed's picks
NL East: Eric's rebuttal
NL Central: Eric's picks
NL Central: Ed's rebuttal
NL West: Ed's picks
NL West: Eric's rebuttal
AL East: Eric's picks
AL East: Ed's rebuttal
AL Central: Ed's picks
AL Central: Eric's rebuttal
AL West: Eric's picks
AL West: Ed's rebuttal
Postseason/Awards: Ed's and Eric's picks
After pulling one of the worst choke jobs in the history of baseball (1951 Brooklyn Dodgers, anyone?) the New York Mets are better for one reason: Johan Santana. It was a major move getting the All-Star pitcher and the dividends should be immediate. If he wins 15 games, it will be a disappointment, let’s put it that way. There are still several question marks on this team, however. One is age. Moises Alou, Luis Castillo and Carlos Delgado aren’t spring chickens anymore. The other is catching. Newcomer Brian Schneider may not be the answer. And the third question is named Pedro. Can Pedro Martinez be the all-star pitcher he once was? Will he rebound from injury? If he can, the Mets will be tough to beat, with a starting rotation led by two of the finest hurlers in the game. Throw an improving John Maine and a tough bullpen led by Billy Wagner into the Big Apple’s picture, and what you have is a lot of opponents’ whiffing and whining. Manager Willie Randolph seemed surprised that he wasn’t fired by GM Omar Minaya after last season’s debacle. If he doesn’t win with this stellar squad, he might not get another chance. With Jose Reyes leading off and jumpstarting the offensive attack; David Wright holding down third base and hitting taters; and Carlos Beltran doing what Beltran does—the Mets are the team to beat not just in the NL East, but in the entire league.
The Atlanta Braves have four future Hall of Famers on their team (Chipper Jones, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz) if you also include skipper Bobby Cox. It’s hard to believe that they’ve won only one World Series after taking all those division titles. One of the problems now is that Glavine is 42 and Smoltz will be 41 in May. Glavine didn’t have a great year last season (4.45 ERA) and Smoltz seems more hittable than ever, which isn’t surprising when you consider his age. The Braves have some solid bats throughout their lineup, including Jones, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur. Andruw Jones is gone to LA-LA Land, but the team picked up Mark Kotsay to replace him. The way A.J. was hitting, it might be an improvement. Left fielder Matt Diaz is a top prospect and could contribute almost immediately. On the mound, the Braves are hoping that Tim Hudson can retain solid form, because their prospects for a decent fourth starter look dim. Mike Hampton, the guy who has made a career out of hauling in huge money while being injured, is slated for the spot, but he’s proven to be more fragile than a porcelain China doll. Pitching prospect Jair Jurrjens has a live arm and could step in, as could either Jo-Jo Reyes and/or Chuck James. I like a lot about this team and with a few breaks they could make it to the postseason. But, it’s more likely that they’ll finish far behind the Mets and several games out of the wild card spot.
The Philadelphia Phillies made a great run last year, right up until they ran head-on into a surging Colorado Rockie squad. They won’t even make the playoffs this season, in my estimation. This team is loaded with top-tier talent, with names on their roster like Ryan Howard, MVP Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. But, the departure of Aaron Rowand to San Francisco will hurt the Phils more than they probably realize. This Pete Rose throwback never stops hustling and all his teammates love him, so that fact that he’s gone isn’t good news. Philly’s pitching rotation is a case of Cole Hamels and not much else. Brett Myers will go back into the starting five after being used as a closer late last season, but with names like Jamie Moyer, Adam Eaton, Kyle Kendrick and possibly Kris Benson after that, this team’s pitching is likely to be its Achilles Heel in 2008. GM Pat Gillick went out during the offseason and picked up reliever Brad Lidge, who is coming off a knee injury and may not be ready when the season starts—and if that happens, trouble will reign. Manager Charlie Manuel may also run into problems if some of his marquee players start reading their press clippings. The City of Brotherly Love will flirt with the playoffs, but in the end I just don’t see them putting it together enough to make it happen this season.
The Washington Nationals have a new stadium. That’s the good news. They have to field a team to fill the place. And that’s where the bad news begins. Manager Manny Acta has a team that is full of huge holes and big problems. Not one of his pitchers has ever won more than seven games. And he’s got two new guys who have three-and-a-half egos between them (Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes). If the Nats can be even slightly competitive, it will be close to miraculous. The fact that they won 73 games last year was amazing and a tribute to Acta. Don’t get me wrong. This squad has a few bright spots within an otherwise pretty dim-looking crew. Paul Lo Duca, Aaron Boone and Austin Kearns should provide a little pop at the plate and some much-needed leadership. Willy Mo Pena (if not injured) is a solid part to this confusing puzzle. And Chad Cordero will save some games if there are any that need saving. All in all, it will be a long season in a nice, new park for the Washington Nationals in 2008. If they win 70 games again, I’ll eat my beautiful, high-quality This Great Game embroidered cap like a hot dog--with ketchup, onions and relish.
Ed pretty much hit it on the head: Johan Santana puts the New York Mets over the top in the NL. But there’s more to the Mets’ improved chances than Santana. They’ll have Pedro Martinez for the full season, not a full month. They’ll have a potentially solid and gritty supporting cast member in outfielder Ryan Church, acquired from Washington. And even the losses are considered improvements; Tom Glavine, the face of the Mets’ near-historic collapse last September, is gone, as is loud-mouthed wannabe Lastings Milledge and steroids-soiled catcher Paul Lo Duca. What remains is the core of one of the most explosive lineups in the majors, starring Jose Reyes, David Wright, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado. The overall mix of the 2008 Mets will be more cohesive, healthy and successful than the 2007 model. If manager Willie Randolph can’t get this group to the postseason, he’ll get a well-deserved dismissal notice from the front office.
Last year, Jimmy Rollins made himself a famous prophet by publicly predicting a divisional title for the Philadelphia Phillies. This year, he’s forecast the Phillies to win 100 games—and by doing so, has lowered his credibility as a psychic to the level of the Amazing Criswell from Plan 9 From Outer Space. Here’s what my crystal ball is showing for the Phillies: Something between 80-90 wins, maybe good enough for a wild card, but not enough to catch the strengthened Mets. The Phillies have the firepower to match the Mets, with Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Pat Burrell and former Giant Pedro Feliz, who might make for a good fantasy league sleeper pick playing in a smaller ballpark. But where Philadelphia pales in comparison to New York is in its pitching. It’s not a bad rotation with youngsters Cole Hamels and Kyle Kendrick, but it’s not Santana and Martinez, either. Worse, the bullpen is banking on Brad Lidge, who’s been erratic over the past few years in Houston, to take over as the closer. The only way the Phillies make Rollins look good in the prophecy department is to count on a Met collapse for the second straight season.
Amid all the verbal wintertime sparring between the Mets and the Phillies came this missive from Chipper Jones, the third baseman and future Hall of Famer for the Atlanta Braves: Don’t forget about us. And if the Mets and Phillies are wise, they won’t. The Braves are one of the “future is now” ballclubs in the majors, with three of their stars from the glory years of the 1990s—Jones, John Smoltz and once-and-current Brave Tom Glavine—still with just enough gas to give Atlanta a full tank to the postseason. Those sages will be well complimented by some strong talent coming into or already in their prime: Slugger Mark Teixeira, catcher Brian McCann, outfielder Jeff Francouer and second baseman Kelly Johnson. Given how badly center fielder Andruw Jones performed in his final year with the Braves last year, it’s not expected that his loss will be greatly felt—although his projected replacement, Mark Kotsay, had an even worse (and injury-riddled) 2007. Still, the Braves can’t be overlooked; a run at the wild card is a real possibility.
“Oops!...I did it again!” No, that wasn’t Britney Spears crooning a golden oldie, but Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria once again letting go of more genuine talent rather than be forced to pay them big money. Gone are third baseman Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis, traded to the Tigers for six youngsters who, if they one day make it big, will likely also be traded by Loria before their big payday hits. That’s the vicious cycle that continues to drive Marlin fans crazy, and keeps the team from ever being built into a true contender. Even without Cabrera and Willis, the Marlins do retain some respectability on a shoestring budget, including a legitimate MVP candidate in shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who hit .332 last year with 29 homers, 48 doubles and 51 steals. But the youthful pitching (Scott Olsen, Sergio Mitre, Ricky Nolasco), which fell apart last year, needs to regain the stingy knack that surprised many in 2006. The hard reality of the Marlins’ lot in life comes down to this: The highest paid player on this year’s roster—closer Kevin Gregg—will make less ($2.5 million) than the average major league salary ($2.8 million). Even in a weak National League, that’s a major handicap. (Ed, apparently, thinks so lowly of the Marlins that he didn't even discuss their prospects.)
Last year I reviewed the starting rotation for the Washington Nationals and thought, it can’t get much worse than this. It has. The Nationals released fragile (and brief) ace John Patterson, and placed Shawn Hill, their projected Opening Day starter with all of six career wins, on the disabled list. The rest of their rotation will consist of three pitchers with a combined 17 career victories and veteran Odalis Perez, who’s been all but atrocious over the past few years. Worse for Washington pitchers, they’ll no longer have the advantage of RFK Stadium’s spacious dimensions, as the Nationals move into a new and much cozier ballpark. The team’s hitters will like it—that is, if troubled new arrivals Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes aren’t too busy making the wrong headlines off the field or in the clubhouse. Mix this all up and you have, potentially, the ingredients for a nightmarish season. Manny Acta did well to make the Nats respectable in his first year as the team’s manager in 2007, but this year may prove to be an even tougher challenge. It’s quite possible people may start referring to this team as the Washington Generals, with every opponent looking like the Harlem Globetrotters, and Acta being confused for Red Klotz.
One hundred. That’s the number the Chicago Cubs are going to be forced to live with all season long. They’ve been hearing it all winter, and they’re going to hear it all spring and summer long. The Cubs have not won a World Series in 100 years, and just to get there, they’re going to have to make the postseason for the second straight year—something they also haven’t done in a century. Fortunately for the Cubs, little has changed in the inferior NL Central, with no divisional opponent spending hundreds of millions of dollars on players as Chicago did last year. Better yet, the Cubs are walking into the new campaign feeling more at ease, having proved they can win after burdening $300 million dollars worth of expectations upon their shoulders last season. If Japanese import Kosuke Fukudome is every bit the equal of, say, a Hideki Matsui, he’ll provide some terrific glue to an already potent offense that includes Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. A fine starting rotation is anchored by Carlos Zambrano, who not only brings 18 wins from last season but is feeling content to boot, having signed for five years and $90 million. The only mystery at Wrigley Field remains who will close; the sexy option is former starter Kerry Wood, but he’ll have to prove he can condense all that gas into his arm for one inning every couple nights without—all together, now—re-injuring himself. All in all, the Cubs will KO one century-old drought by returning to the postseason. Will they overcome the other, far more famous 100-year run? In today’s MLB, when even the Colorado Rockies can reach the World Series, anything is possible.
Dusty Baker is a fast starter. In his first year managing San Francisco, the Giants posted 103 wins. When he managed the Cubs for the first time, in 2003, they came within five outs of a World Series appearance. Now Baker brings his act to the Cincinnati Reds, a team with two hitting stars (Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr.) each in the last year of their contracts, two upscale starters (Aaron Harang and Brandon Arroyo), promising stars of the future (Joey Votto and Homer Bailey) and a legitimate closer via free agency (Francisco Cordero). Put all of this together, and the Reds, in my opinion, will be the closest thing to a surprise in the NL. Then again, they’d better make an impression; if Baker can’t work his first-year magic and Dunn and Griffey bolt after the season, there will be a sense of starting over in 2009. So the future is more or less now for the Reds, and Baker is the perfect tonic to make the present a good thing.
The Milwaukee Brewers are getting a lot of attention from the pundits following a solid showing last year, and much of it is justified. It’s hard to argue against a team that has two under-25 sluggers (Prince Fielder and reigning NL Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun) who went nuts with the bat in 2007. But the Brewers are handcuffed with some major disabilities; the defense is atrocious, they carry two catchers (Johnny Estrada and Jason Kendall) who can’t throw any basestealers out, and closer Francisco Cordero (44 saves) has left town, replaced by Eric Gagne—whose 2007 went from good (Texas) to bad (Boston) to worse (the Mitchell Report). What ultimately may keep Milwaukee upright is its starting rotation, but only if Ben Sheets and Chris Capuano can stay healthy and effective.
I picked the Houston Astros to win the NL Central last year. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…well, the Astros are doing everything to try and cast shame on me and win now, but I doubt that’s going to happen. The team has cleaned house; there’s a new manager (Cecil Cooper), new GM (Ed Wade), new closer (Jose Valverde) and just two everyday position players (Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman) returning from Opening Day of last season. Yes, Houston also snagged Miguel Tejada, but his production isn’t what it used to be and will likely suffer further now that the Mitchell Report will dog his tail wherever he goes this year—not exactly the intangible the Astros are looking for. This team should hit; besides the vets, they have last year’s rookie sensation Hunter Pence (.322, 17 homers) and a potential A-list slugger in rookie catcher Justin Towles, but for all the production they put up, the Astros will pray that something good comes out of a weak rotation beyond premier ace Roy Oswalt. To be honest, this team is something of an enigma. I doubt I’ll get fooled again.
Next, we have the Pittsburgh Pirates who don’t do anything. After finishing with the NL’s worst record in 2007, the Pirates stood pat. Now, that’s okay if you’re the Boston Red Sox; they’re the champions. But Pittsburgh, a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 1992? Even some of the team’s better players (Jason Bay, Xavier Nady) are scratching their heads over the Bucs’ do-nothing philosophy, and they used the team’s winter fanfest—an event designed as a feel-good mixing of players, fans and media—to air their complaints. The state of affairs in Pittsburgh has become almost criminal; the Bucs have the beautiful ballpark they told fans had to be built so the revenue can pour in and allow them to compete. The public certainly did its part by providing the funds to build PNC Park, but the Pirates have not carried out their end of the bargain. The team does hold promise—especially with a starting rotation that’s developing more slowly than anticipated—but “promise” has become a tiring word to Pirate fans, who would rather hear “results” instead. Not this year. Again.
But wait—I’m not picking the Pirates to finish last. I’m reserving that spot for the St. Louis Cardinals, who have tremendous potential to completely collapse in 2008. It’s all but assured if megastar Albert Pujols’ bad elbow finally gets the better of him and is forced to shut down sometime during the season. Beyond Pujols, there’s trouble everywhere with this team. Chris Carpenter will not pitch until late in the year if at all; Mark Mulder will be back sooner, but he needs to prove, for the first time since 2005, that he can pitch effectively; Juan Encarnacion is out all year, still recovering from that freak on-deck circle injury late last season; and boomers Troy Glaus and Rick Ankiel have been fingered as steroid users and have not responded well to their accusations. Then there’s a clubhouse still drenched with the afterthoughts of Ryan Hancock’s drunk-driving death and the recent release of Scott Spiezio, who survived his own drunk-driving adventure but faces a scroll’s worth of misdemeanor charges back in California. Otherwise, the level of talent on this roster is approaching paper-thin. Tony LaRussa somehow signed on to all of this for two more years, but if he gets this team anywhere over .500, he’s Manager of the Year.
The Chicago Cubs have the talent, the coaching, the depth and the fans. They have one of the best old ballparks in baseball, too. Winning the division will not be an easy task, but I believe they’ll be on top at the end. Alfonso Soriano is a clutch player with many skills. He’s getting better and smarter every year, and this could be his best yet. Japanese free agent Kosuke Fukadome will be an asset in left field as soon as he gets acquainted with American baseball. And with guys like Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Mark DeRosa, this squad is full of gamers who can win. The Cubs’ pitching has a few problems, but if Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Rich Hill and Jason Marquis can pitch half as well as they did last year, they’ll be tough to beat. The Cubs will win the division once again this season, but whether they can get past the Mets in the playoffs remains to be seen.
The rest of the NL Central will end up this way: Milwaukee, Houston, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
The Arizona Diamondbacks are a young, balanced and well-coached team that will win the NL West and with any luck could make it all the way to the Fall Classic. Manager Bob Melvin must be salivating like one of Pavlov’s mutts when he views this team on paper. When you look at their starting rotation, featuring stoppers like Brandon Webb, newcomer Danny Haren, Doug Davis and Mike Owings—not to mention future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson—it’s hard to believe that this team won’t win 100 games. Offensively, the D-Bax are stacked as well—with names like Eric Byrnes, Stephen Drew, Mark Reynolds, Orlando Hudson and Justin Upton. They lack power, but make up for it with smart play and enthusiasm. There are no prima donnas on this team, just hungry solid performers. Arizona got into the playoffs last season, even though their opponents outscored them by 20 runs. That won’t happen this year. The only big question with this group is—“Will Brandon Lyon be able to replace Jose Valverde’s 47 saves?” If he can, watch out. The D-Bax are ready to break out and this is the year they could do it.
Fans in Colorado rode a Rocky Mountain High last season when the Rockies came out of nowhere and nearly took the whole thing. That’s not going to happen this season. The team just has too many question marks and holes to fill. For one, the starting pitchers are very good, but there’s little depth. After Jeff Francis and Ubaldo Jimenez, you have a bunch of guys who have never put together anything more than a semi-successful season. The bats on the Rockies are formidable—Matt Holliday had an MVP season last year and should be one of the league’s toughest outs again this year. And Troy Tulowitzki is an amazingly poised player for being so green. But, guys like prospect Ian Stewart and up-and-down sluggers like Todd Helton and Garrett Atkins will have to have stellar seasons if this team is to repeat last year’s performance. Don’t bet the house on it. This team is more likely to get lost in the mountains than it is to climb to the pinnacle of the NL once more.
In the City of Angels, the Los Angeles Dodgers are looking forward to exiting Vero Beach as their Spring Training site and moving their camp to Arizona next year. Joe Torre is at the helm and ready to look good wearing Dodger Blue. But, unfortunately for the Hollywood Bums this team is full of more holes and question marks than they were last season. No one knows if Jason Schmidt will pitch effectively again. Juan Pierre is out-of-place and feels unwanted. And the team paid big bucks for Andruw Jones, who they hope can provide power. Sure, the team has some young studs (Matt Kemp, James Loney, Andre Ethier, Andy LaRoche and Chad Billingsley), but they also have a lot of brittle oldsters (Nomar Garciaparra and Jeff Kent). Yes, the Dodgers’ staring rotation looks good with guys like Brad Penny and Derek Lowe leading the way. And with Takashi Saito in the pen, you’re bound to get 30 to 40 saves. But, to pick this crew to win any more than 75 games this season would be crazy when you look at the other dynamic teams in this division. Get your young kids some valuable experience this year, Torre. L.A. is at least a year away from getting into the playoff picture.
If pitching wins games, the San Diego Padres have a shot at winning this division. Unfortunately, you also have to score a few runs to be victorious on a consistent basis. The Pads’ starting rotation is awesome—led by Cy Young winner Jake Peavy and followed by names like Greg Maddux, Chris Young and Randy Wolf—but their bats are weaker than a Happy Hour drink at an airport bar. Center fielder Jim Edmonds is old and tired, as is second baseman Marcus Giles. Up-and-coming third baseman Kevin Kouzamanoff is still a couple of years away from being a stud and rookie Chase Headley will need time to develop. There’s just no pop in this lineup. Playing in home run-unfriendly Petco Park means they could set an all-time record for fewest dingers. Future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman (who choked big-time late in the season last year and showed he was merely mortal) definitely won’t be closing out as many games as he did last season. His team will rarely be ahead late in games. San Diego will drop a lot of 3-2 and 2-1 contests this year and will fade quickly in the NL West race.
The San Francisco Giants have a slogan this year that says something like “We’re going full out all season.” What it should say is “We’re going to be out of it all season.” If the Giants lose their first series this season, they won’t spend a single day atop the NL West. Everything on this team is suspect—from a young, pitching staff led by Matt Cain, Noah Lowry and Tim Lincecum--to an aging lineup led (or misled) by names like Dave Roberts, Omar Vizquel, Ray Durham and Rich Aurilia. These guys might be going through a rebuilding stage, except for the fact that they don’t have enough to rebuild with. The Giants are the midgets of the NL West and will dwell all alone in the cellar all season.
Give credit to Ed for showing humility. He’s actually bashing his Los Angeles Dodgers. All the more amazing from my perspective, since I’m picking them to win an otherwise shaky NL West. Yes, I know all about the clubhouse acrimony that took place at Dodger Stadium last year and the rather disappointing fourth-place finish (despite an 82-80 record). But Joe Torre has stepped into this kind of scenario before. In 1996, he took over a Yankee team that had dealt with 15 years’ worth of bad chemistry and underachievement. Now he takes over a Dodger team with pretty much the same predicament, yet he also shows up with 12 years of solid respectability after piloting the Yankees to four World Series titles. On the field, the Dodgers have a little bit of everything, from a top-flight catcher (Russell Martin) to solid starting pitching (led by Brad Penny and Derek Lowe) to a potential home run king (first-year Dodger Andruw Jones) to, perhaps, the game’s most underrated closer in Takashi Saito (63 saves, a 1.77 ERA and a .166 batting average against in two years). I can’t say that the Dodgers are assured first place, but the mix of talent, sage and intangibles, in my mind, favors them over any other team in the West.
Meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out which way the Arizona Diamondbacks will roll in 2008. On one hand, will the young lineup grow stronger after earning the league’s best record last year and pull away, as Ed believes? Or, will they be exposed as one of the game’s all-time overachievers that allowed them to win 90 games despite being outscored, and fall back to Earth with a relatively luckless thud? The truth lies somewhere in the middle, as in the middle of the division—which is where I expect the Diamondbacks to finish. Bringing in Dan Haren from Oakland was a major coup, but that may be more than offset by the loss of closer Jose Valverde—whose 47 saves allowed Arizona to win so many close games last year—and the lack of anyone trustworthy to take his place. If the bullpen can hold, and if the cache of young hitters (Mark Reynolds, Chris Young, Stephen Drew, et al) mature from their not-so-jaw-dropping numbers of a year ago, then Arizona will prove they belong. If not, the Diamondbacks will always have 2007.
A year ago, I summed up the Colorado Rockies’ chances for the 2007 season in one word: Sigh. Seven months later, I responded with another: Wow. Their stunning run through the fall was something that blindsided a lot of folks beyond just myself, especially given my previous assessments that the Rockies would never win a World Series. Does that mean I’ve become a changed man and bow down to the reigning mile-high NL champions? No. The Rockies will be competitive, no doubt; with Matt Holliday, Todd Helton, Garrett Atkins and Brian Hawpe, Colorado has, easily, the division’s best arsenal of offense—even when you throw out the Coors Field enhancements, based on their solid road numbers last year; and they have an exceptional defense led by sensational sophomore shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. But it all comes back to the pitching in Denver. The staff, led by starter Jeff Francis and closer Manny Corpas, had its moment in the thin air last fall, but you can only align the planets and the stars for so long. I just can’t see this same group performing at that level over the long haul once more. So I’m not sighing about the Rockies anymore, but I doubt I’ll be wowing over them, either.
In stark contrast to Colorado, it’s all about the pitching—and very little else—in San Diego. The Padres have a former Cy Young winner (Greg Maddux), a present Cy Young winner (Jake Peavy) and perhaps a future Cy Young winner (Chris Young). Oh, and they have a sure Hall of Famer in closer Trevor Hoffman, who at 40 is still sharper than most marquee relievers in the game. So the Padres are set on the mound. But they’re stuck at the plate. Adrian Gonzalez is the only sure thing in the lineup; beyond that, you have veterans like Jim Edmonds, Brian Giles and Tony Clark, whose once-gold output has been reduced to battered aluminum. As always, shutouts will be in plentiful at Petco Park this year, especially more so than in past seasons. And it will likely go more the opponents’ way than for the Padres.
The San Francisco Giants are facing a similar conundrum as the Padres, only worse. They have the pitching, with a group of starters (Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito and Noah Lowry) that could be argued to be the NL’s best. After that, the Giants’ level of talent falls off the cliff. The post-Barry Bonds era hangover has begun—and for the Giants, it’s going to require more than bed rest, water and Advil to recover. Here’s everything you need to know about the Giants’ hitting impotencies: Bengie Molina, at best a sixth-place hitter on any other team, is slated to bat clean-up. The Giants might make things interesting if ultra-fast youngsters Rajai Davis and Eugenio Velez can become effective everyday starters; between them, they have the capacity to steal close to 100 bases each and give the team a character not unlike that of the Cardinals of the 1980s. But that’s asking a lot of two guys with precious little major league experience. Even if the pitching shines and the offense clicks, they have a first-year closer (Brian Wilson) being asked to earn the saves. Mothball the kayaks, for McCovey Cove will be vacant this season. As will the Giants from the pennant race.
The Boston Red Sox were as well-oiled as a team could be in 2007. They streaked out to a great start, didn’t collapse in a contrast to tradition, and with the exception of spotting Cleveland with delusions of grandeur in the ALCS, sailed through the postseason. The winter after has been every bit as good for the Red Sox; they re-signed everyone they wanted back (including World Series MVP Mike Lowell) avoided messing with chemistry by not trading for Johan Santana and was largely steered clear of the Mitchell Report. Outside of what to do with Curt Schilling’s shoulder and who’ll start in center field (Coco Crisp or rookie Jacoby Ellsbury—a good thing, as management loves competition), there’s been very little controversy in Boston heading into 2008. For now, they have it all: Veteran hitting (David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez), veteran pitching (Josh Beckett, Tim Wakefield), veteran leadership (Jason Varitek), terrific Japanese imports (Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima) and hot young stars of tomorrow, if not today (Ellsbury, Jonathan Papelbon and Dustin Pedroia). Unless there’s a mass outbreak of injury, the Red Sox should have no problem returning to the top of the AL East.
If you think what I just said of the Red Sox sounds awfully dismissive of the New York Yankees’ chances, then you’re absolutely right. I’m not anticipating another fall of the Yankee Empire, but there’s serious potential for some cracks to start developing within a roster that’s either aging or inexperienced. Think about it. Reigning AL MVP Alex Rodriguez is one of the younger pups on the everyday roster, and he’s turning 33 this year. Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui, Jason Giambi, Bobby Abreu and Johnny Damon are all older, and they’re not getting any younger while other teams, including the Red Sox, are. But an even bigger concern for the Yankees is pitching. Chien-Ming Wang, with nearly 40 wins over the past two seasons, is the only reliable starter. Mike Mussina (age 39) is all but washed up, Andy Pettitte (36 in June) has Mitchell Report distractions to fight off, Kai Igawa has yet to prove he truly belongs, and a young group of prospects (Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy) show promise but not much proof as of yet. And closer Mariano Rivera, at age 38, is exhibiting less A-game than he used to. In a very competitive league—and a much tougher division than in years past—the Yankees are showing severe vulnerability. It would be something of a shock if they could overcome the Red Sox—and not one if they slipped to third place.
The Toronto Blue Jays did well to finish above .500 considering what went down last year north of the border. An early shutdown for B.J. Ryan, leaving the team without a reliable closer. A season-long slump for prime power source Vernon Wells. Sizeable absences from starting pitcher A.J. Burnett and first baseman Lyle Overbay due to injury. Troy Glaus cowering under steroids accusations. In an AL with a black-and-white separation of haves and have-nots, the Blue Jays are one of the few teams—maybe the only—residing in the middle-class neighborhood. Whether they can accomplish an upgrade or avoid relegation from that center depends on the health of the roster, which is essentially the same as last year. The only major addition—if you can call it that—is Scott Rolen, a brooding, oft-injured presence who replaces Glaus. The Jays have the makings of a balanced, scrappy unit that could overachieve, but that’s asking a lot in the powerful AL.
Now here’s three words you never thought you’d read together in relation to baseball: Watch Tampa Bay. I see you chuckling, but don’t laugh. It’s very possible that the team which has taken the “Devil” out of its name will give opponents a devil of a time like never before. The Rays have two quality starters (Scott Kazmir and James Shield) and possibly a third (Matt Garza); a well-rounded batting order led by Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and comeback bopper Carlos Pena; improved defense with shortstop Jason Bartlett; a third baseman of the future in rookie Evan Longoria (who does not hail from Wisteria Lane); and a potentially solid closer in Troy Percival, who pitched wonderfully at St. Louis in 2007 after being shelved for two years. Perhaps best of all, the clubhouse was cleaned of malcontents with the trading off of Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes. Some issues remain, including suspect depth in a bullpen that was beyond sorry last year, but the Rays may very well develop into the surprise of the AL, and a solid bet to set a franchise record for wins—though with their current high at 70, that’s not a tall order. True, a postseason appearance is not likely given Tampa’s placement in the Division of Death with the Red Sox and Yankees, but a third-place finish is not out of the question—and, hey, if you’re in Vegas and you have a Hamilton to burn, it’s not so insane to plunk it down to win $1,500 on the Rays, 150-1 longshots to win the World Series.
The Baltimore Orioles pretty much reached rock bottom at the end of 2007. The team stunk, the bullpen completely imploded after a 30-3 loss to Texas in August, the fans vanished from Camden Yards (whoever expected that?) and Miguel Tejada, Jay Gibbons and Brian Roberts were prominently named in the Mitchell Report. Now comes the hangover in 2008—and it won’t be pretty. But at least the Orioles have finally asserted some hope for the future. They dealt away Tejada and ace pitcher Erik Bedard, because the team could just as easily lose with them as they could without them—but more importantly, the two trades netted ten players, many of them solid young prospects, including highly-thought of Adam Jones, who may end up as an Opening Day outfielder. What’s left of the Orioles isn’t much; the pitching staff from start to finish remains awful, and the lineup is filled with players (Aubrey Huff, Melvin Mora, Ramon Hernandez) who have never fulfilled the stardom they hinted at early in their careers. Yes, there is light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s going to be a long, dark ride getting there.
The Boston Red Sox are the class of the AL East once more. If it weren’t for the Detroit Tigers, I would be picking them to win the American League for sure. With a nice mixture of young Turks and seasoned vets, the Bosox are talented and balanced. With David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez leading the troops in the clubhouse, these guys just enjoy playing with one another. They’re a true team and not a bunch of “Me-Me” self-absorbed players. They like to hang out with each other. The Red Sox also have a great pitching staff. When Josh Beckett is sharp, he’s literally unhittable. And Daisuke Matsuzaka should be much improved. With Jonathon Papelbon in the bullpen, this team will be tough to come back against. They will win a close race over the New York Yankees.
The rest of the division will end up this way: Toronto, Tampa Bay and Baltimore.
The Detroit Tigers have everyone talking. There hasn’t been a lineup like this one in Detroit since 1968, when guys like Norm Cash, Al Kaline, Willie Horton and Denny McLain won the whole enchilada. With a starting nine featuring power (Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffield and Miguel Cabrera); speed (Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco and Jacque Jones)and hits for average (Ivan Rodriguez, Edgar Renteria and Carlos Guillen) one would be hard-pressed to find any weaknesses with these bats. Ditto with the Tigers’ starting pitching—with Jason Verlander, Kenny Rogers, Dontrelle Willis, Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson—I can’t find a weak sister in the bunch. If there’s one question mark with Detroit’s stellar crew this year, it would have to be their relief pitching. If Joel Zumaya’s shoulder rebounds, that question will be satisfactorily answered and this team could win 120 games. The fans at Comerica Park will be seeing some amazing baseball this season and the Tigers are on everybody’s “can’t miss” list. Unless they experience a complete breakdown at every level, Manager Jim Leyland’s job should be stress-free and as easy as writing the names on the scorecard every day. Maybe the Skipper will be so relaxed that he’ll even be able to quit smoking. Who knows? The Tigers have all of the right pieces in all of the right places and should win the Fall Classic if they play just 75% of what they’re capable of.
The Cleveland Indians have been cursed ever since they traded Rocky Colavito nearly 50 years ago. Since then, they’ve run into a whole slew of problems—from bad trades to season-ending strikes, all the way to players getting cancer and being involved in fatal boating accidents. Last season could have been such a triumph for the Indians. But, they folded like a plateful of paper-thin crepes against the Red Sox in the playoffs and handed Boston a shot at the World Series after being just one win away. Cleveland should be much tougher and a little wiser this season. Guys like Jhonny Peralta, Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, Ryan Garko and Casey Blake are more experienced and will be a little hungrier. One of the first things that general manager Mark Shapiro needs to do is take the Master Lock off his wallet and sign C.C. Sabathia to a multi-year mega-deal. You would think Shapiro would have learned a valuable lesson after the Twins let Johan Santana get away. It will be interesting to see how Japanese pitcher Masahide Kobayashi does—is he the real thing or just another usual suspect? And closer Joe Borowski is a major accident waiting to happen. All in all, however, the Indians should do well enough to capture the AL wild card. They have the personnel, the attitude and the talent to break the Curse of Colavito and make it into the postseason once more.
The Chicago White Sox bid for free agents Torii Hunter (didn’t everyone?) and Aaron Rowand, but whiffed on both. Now they’re without a quality center fielder and will have to make due with either Nick Swisher or a plethora of unproven names (i.e., Alexei Ramirez, Carlos Quentin and/or Rookie Jerry Owens). When you look at what Detroit did during the offseason, the Chisox pale by comparison. Sure, they have some solid performers—guys like Jim Thome, Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye are gamers who come to play every day—but they lack depth and if someone gets hurt, they’re in real trouble. Chicago’s pitching staff is light as well. Javier Vazquez and Mark Buehrle are semi-first-rate, but after that you have a group of unproven has-beens or wannabes like Gavin Floyd, Jose Contreras and John Danks. The bullpen is fairly strong, with arms like Bobby Jenks, Octavio Dotel and Scott Linebrink. The only thing that will plague the Hose this season is the same ailment that will make every other member of the AL Central sick this year—they have a lot of games against both the Tigers and Indians in their immediate future. General manager Ken Williams needed to make more moves this winter and he didn’t get it done. Consequently, he’ll be on the sideline watching the playoffs along with all of the other front office people who couldn’t get the Santanas and Hunters of the free agent world.
The Minnesota Twins aren’t rebuilding, according to general manager Bill Smith. They’re doing what’s called “re-tooling.” Re-tooling is for teams that are close to being a winner, but just need to tweak a few things to get to where they want to be. After losing their two best players (Torii Hunter is gone to the Angels and Johan Santana is off to NYC), the Twins are in a state of major flux. They did make a couple of good moves—adding OF Delmon Young and leadoff hitter Carlos Gomez in the Santana trade will help—and the Twinkies have a ton of young, untested talent on the back burner. But, their 2008 campaign is so full of ifs, ands and buts that I just can’t consider the Twins a contender in the super competitive AL Central, arguably the toughest division in baseball. To add to their woes, no one knows if starting pitcher Francisco Liriano will rebound from a rather serious injury. If he can’t, Minny’s starting rotation will be thinner and weaker than Gandhi on a hot summer day. Whether or not Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer will continue to be formidable is also subject to debate. The sad fact is that this squad will have to play the Indians and Tigers a whole lot, and that will mean a good number of “L’s” for this team. If Minnesota can make some type of run, I would say they’re a long shot for a wild card spot. But other than that, they’ll swim along in third or fourth place, out on the lake that is called mediocrity.
Just how long have the Kansas City Royals been bad? Well, do names like Bret Saberhagen and George Brett ring a bell? Unless you’re in your 30s or older, you might as well be talking about Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson. The Royals have stunk for so long, the fans in K.C. have lost their sense of smell. During the offseason, they made a play for free agent Torii Hunter, but he opted for L.A. and they settled for Jose Guillen ($36 million, three years) Ouch! There is hope on the horizon, however. The Royals are slowly getting better. After stockpiling draft picks and prospects, general manager Dayton Moore has assembled a team with great potential. But, potential won’t win games. Much ballyhooed third baseman Alex Gordon got better during the second half last year, and kids like Billy Butler, Luke Hochevar and Brian Bannister are impressive and will only improve if given time. The Royals could spoil a lot of other teams’ dreams in 2008, but are several seasons away from achieving their own. It will be another nightmarish year for the kids (and the fans) from K.C.
Ed is basically going default with the Detroit Tigers. So are a lot of other folks. One look at the everyday starting lineup and it’s easy to understand why everyone’s falling in love. A few years ago I made the comment that Carlos Guillen was the team’s best all-around hitter, but now he’s lost in the crowd, and it has nothing to do with a reduction of his talent. But it does tell you just how formidable this lineup can, and probably will, be. Having said all of this, I’m not 100% sold on the Tigers taking the divisional title. (I’ll get to Cleveland in a moment.) Let’s look at the mound, shall we? Beyond proven ace Justin Verlander, we have Dontrelle Willis, whose career has down-spiraled since going 22-10 in 2005. We have Nate Roberston, a 29-42 pitcher over the past three years. We have Kenny Rogers, coming off injury at age 43. We have Jeremy Bonderman, who collapsed late in 2007. And I haven’t even gotten to the bullpen, very definitely the Tigers’ weakness with Joel Zumaya struggling to return to form and B-list closer Todd Jones, who turns 40 in April. What I’m getting at is this: The Tigers are no lock for the top. They will hit, they will score. But if the pitching falls apart—and the Detroit staff is closer to such a possibility than most people believe, or are simply forgetting—the Tigers may very well be fighting for a wild card, not home field advantage.
Which brings me to the Cleveland Indians. What was so impressive about the Tribe last year is that, for all its success, for coming within one game of the World Series, this team could have been better. The hitting actually underachieved last season, and that was no more exemplified than what we saw out of slugger Travis Hafner, who went from .308-42-117 (in just 129 games) in 2006 to .266-24-100 in 2007. Most of the rest of the Indians’ vaunted lineup, with the possible exception of Victor Martinez, also hit for par or worse last year. And can closer Joe Borowski be any worse than 2007, when he produced an awful 5.07 ERA in spite of 45 saves? (Well, he could be, but he could also be much better.) More than anything else, the Indians did excel with front-line pitching thanks to Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, who was every bit as good. Carmona is young and Sabathia is in a “salary year,” which means there’s no reason to suggest they’ll be any worse off this season. People are writing off the Indians simply because of the Tigers, but I don’t buy it. I see a very close race in the AL Central between these two teams, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Indians came away on top.
If there’s a sleeper in the AL Central amid all the Detroit-Cleveland hoopla, it’s the Chicago White Sox. After a precipitous two-year slide from their championship year of 2005, the White Sox look ready to reverse course. They shed some old, beat-up fat (Darin Erstad, Scott Podsednik), performed a quality bulking up of last year’s disappointing offense with the additions of Nick Swisher and Orlando Cabrera, and did more than band-aid service for a decrepit bullpen by bringing in set-up guy Scott Linebrink. The addition of Cabrera cost them starter Jon Garland, which leaves the White Sox more exposed in the rotation, but what’s left of it—Mark Buehrle, Javier Vazquez and Jose Contreras, among others—still compares well to most other major league teams. Manager Ozzie Guillen has also claimed a return to old form, chucking away the nice-guy image forged upon him by all that sensitivity training and reverting back to spitting F-bombs at everyone from rookie players to local sports columnists. Maybe something resembling the good ‘ol days will return to the South Side, but with the Indians grown up and the Tigers not losing 119 games anymore, this division ain’t what it used to be.
The Minnesota Twins suffered their first losing season in six years during 2007, but their biggest losses took place after it ended. Johan Santana was traded, as was fellow up-and-coming starter Matt Garza. Veteran pitcher Carlos Silva signed with Seattle. Slugger Torii Hunter signed with the Angels. Even the architect of the Twins’ recent successes, general manager Terry Ryan, stepped down. What’s new in town is good talent with not-so-good uncertainty attached. Delmon Young comes over in the trade for Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett, but he’s an authenticated live wire who might make for tension in the clubhouse. Carlos Gomez is the blue chip headliner in the Santana trade, but he’s likely too green to make an impact—yet. Livan Hernandez was acquired to put up his usual 200+ innings, but quantity has never equaled quality for the portly Hernandez. And Francisco Liriano is back after being shelved for an entire season, but it’s a big question as to whether he can regain the form that nearly made him Santana’s equal in 2006. There are high-valued commodities elsewhere on the Twins, from former MVP Justin Morneau to catcher Joe Mauer to Joe Nathan, arguably the majors’ most effective closer. The Twins might trade the question mark for the exclamation point and surprise, but for now they’ve handicapped themselves considerably in an extremely tough AL environment.
The good news for the Kansas City Royals is that they’re out of the quicksand and climbing their way up. The bad news is that with this division, they’re climbing Everest. Kansas City has the makings of a good pitching staff, a year after strong showings from starters Gil Meche, Brian Bannister, Zach Greinke and closer Joakim Soria. But the hitting needs to upgrade from its current status as tin. Picking up Jose Guillen might help, but his numbers have been as unreliable as his temper—and the Royals will already be without his services for the first 15 games of 2008 due to his suspension for steroid use. Alex Gordon will hope to improve on his 2007 rookie showing and Mark Teahen—who looked so promising two years ago—hopes to reverse his statistical slide of last season. The Royals’ daunting challenge looks all the more dubious when you consider that first-year manager Trey Hillman will be spending his first year at the major league level, period—he’s never played, managed or coached in the bigs. The Royals are making baby steps, to be sure, but they’re in the land of the giants.
Last year, Ed and I both picked the Seattle Mariners to win the AL West while everyone else thought nothing of them. Give us credit for reading between the lines. The Mariners were the surprise of the AL although they missed out on the postseason, and…they’ll likely miss out again in 2008. It won’t be because of the pitching, which has been strengthened with the addition of Erik Bedard and an overpaid yet serviceable Carlos Silva, both of whom will flank around the still very young, bound-to-be-improved Felix Hernandez (22 in April). Or because of the bullpen, anchored by J.J. Putz—far and away the most underrated closer in the AL. You may know where I’m headed, but before the defenders waive the M’s .287 batting average—second best in the majors in 2007—at me, do the homework a little more and you see a lot of singles, few long hits and even fewer walks attached to that figure. And if you think Silva is overpaid, $14 million better get the Mariners something more from Richie Sexson than his .205 average, 21 homers and 63 RBIs from a year ago. Seattle’s close, but they still have some work to do.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have done theirs. They gained pitcher Jon Garland from the White Sox to fortify an already stout rotation, and nabbed outfielder Torii Hunter via free agency, adding more fear factor to an everyday lineup that’s starting to look sharp from top to bottom. Otherwise, there are few weaknesses on this team. If you want to carp in that direction, you can find some fault in a relatively inexperienced infield (all the more so with Gold Glove shortstop Orlando Cabrera gone in the trade for Garland), or that an overcrowded outfield may lead to some clubhouse dissension courtesy of the odd man out, or that closer Francisco Rodriguez is an angry guy after losing his arbitration battle. But these should be minor issues. So how good are the Angels? I’ve gone this far without mentioning Vladimir Guerrero. But now I have, and now you see. The Angels are the team to beat in the West, and quite possibly all of baseball.
Gertrude Stein once wrote that there’s no “there” there in Oakland. If A’s front office czar Billy Beane keeps trading away his best talent, there won’t be much “there” there in the Coliseum, either. And because of the team’s low budget and relative small revenue streams playing in a multi-purpose stadium, there will be a continued lack of “there” until the A’s become the Oakland A’s of Fremont. (And if you thought there was no “there” there in Oakland, wait ‘til you see what’s around the A’s proposed ballpark in Fremont.) Over the winter, Beane traded away the team’s best pitcher (Dan Haren) and best hitter (Nick Swisher), and rumors are flying rampant to the point that the remaining A’s are keeping the nearest U-Haul location on speed dial, just in case. The A’s, as they currently are, might make a dent in the West—but they need solid production and good health from starting pitcher Rich Harden, third baseman Eric Chavez and shortstop Bobby Crosby—all of whom have given Oakland neither over the past few years. My old standby is that you can never count the A’s out, but if they start off awful, who’s left “there” in Oakland may well get cleaned out to other teams.
If anything else, the Texas Rangers will be interesting to watch this year because their two biggest offseason pick-ups were players with deeply troubled pasts: Josh Hamilton (drug addiction) and Milton Bradley (hot-tempered addiction). For the Rangers to have any chance of success, they’d better hope these two major talents don’t relapse during the season, because the rest of this roster is a virtual repeat of last year’s last-place finish—and less. Good P.R. was spent bringing Nolan Ryan back as the team’s new president with the hope he could reverse the franchise’s ill fortunes of the past eight years; if only the 61-year old Ryan could still pitch. No one else on the Rangers’ staff seems to be able to. Texas has no closer, not much power (Hank Blalock returns, but it remains to be seen how much pop he has minus a rib) and, as the norm so far this century, not much hope—unless owner Tom Hicks can convince baseball to change the rules to something more like soccer and bring over some of his lads from Liverpool for the summer.
I like the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to win the AL West for a variety of reasons. They made some very smart moves during the offseason and improved themselves tremendously. The addition of Torii Hunter was brilliant. And the fact that they also kept Gary Matthews Jr. was wise as well. You can never have too many talented outfielders. The wear and tear of playing every day can slow any player down when August and September come around and the presence of the DH in the AL will mean that Matthews will get enough playing time to keep him happy. Trading Orlando Cabrera for Jon Garland may have been a dumb move. Garland has shown that he may have lost some of his stuff. But, like any other high-risk trade, it may prove to be brilliant over time. The Angels are very high on infielder Erick Aybar, but they might be depending too much on someone who is essentially unproven. It’s a big risk for sure. But, this team is deep and talented in all the right places and should win the West running away.
Everyone else in the division will be pretending. I see them finishing in this order: Seattle, Texas and Oakland.
NL: New York Mets (East), Chicago Cubs (Central), Los Angeles Dodgers (West), Atlanta Braves (wild card)
NL Champion: New York Mets
AL: Boston Red Sox (East), Cleveland Indians (Central), Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (West), Detroit Tigers (wild card)
AL Champion: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
World Series Champion: New York Mets
NL: New York Mets (East), Arizona Diamondbacks (West), Chicago Cubs (Central), Milwaukee Brewers (wild card)
NL Champion: New York Mets
AL: Boston Red Sox (East), Detroit Tigers (Central), Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (West), Cleveland Indians (wild card)
AL Champion: Detroit Tigers
World Series Champion: Detroit Tigers
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