Now that the games are under way in the sunny south, we have enough of an idea of how things will shake up through the summer to …make ourselves look foolish by prognosticating! So that’s what I’ll attempt to do, fresh from my correct prediction of New York taking out Philly in October. October 2009. We won’t mention last year’s pre-season thoughts.
So in the next week or so I’ll add my two cents worth to the raging debates around hotstoves from Toronto to Tuscaloosa… can the G’s repeat, are the Yanks too old, is Chapman’s fireball going to burn opposition batters or just the Reds money, if the Babe was still alive, could he outhit Miguel Cabrera, or drink him under the table for that matter… inquiring baseball minds want to know! So, I’ll take a look at the game division by division, starting with the most difficult one for me (as a Toronto fan) to assess- the NL West. Being an AL East “resident”, I don’t pay as much attention to this division as the others usually, seldom see the teams play here through Interleague games and don’t get updates from San Diego or LA during most of our eastern time zone televised games. That said, here goes, alphabetically:
ARIZONA – The once proud snakes now look more like garter snakes than rattlers. Not too intimidating. True enough , JJ Putz should improve the league’s worst bullpen, but not by that much. Even if he knocked five blown saves off the ’10 tally and lowered the collective ERA by half a run, you’d still have a terrible bullpen. Probably not a big issue anyway, since the rotation isn’t likely to pass along all that many leads to the pen. Daniel Hudson has potential, no doubt, and I think Ian Kennedy will continue to round into the prime form the Yanks expected when they drafted him, but beyond that there’s not much to like there. And the already K-prone , under-achieving hitting squad will be hard pressed to replace Mark Reynolds and Adam Laroche’s 57 HR and 185 RBI with aging Melvin Mora and Xadier Nady. These snakes seem to be digging themselves into a burrow. 2011 prediction: 66 wins, 5th place
COLORADO – Jim Tracy is the NL’s Ron Gardenhire, always squeezing the most out of limited talent. And his talent level is on the rise, with Troy Tulowitzki being both a potential MVP and Triple Crown threat, and Carlos Gonzalez certainly more than a one year fluke. Likewise, Ubaldo Jimenez is good. Probably not great ,but very good… not as good as his Bob Gibson impression in the first half last year made us think, but not as ordinary as his 4-7, high ERA finish. However, I’m not sold on the rest of the starting rotation, and Todd Helton’s production graph looks like an alpine skiier’s route… last year alone his power numbers were halved from a diminished 2009 tally and his average tailed off by almost 70 points. Good thing they brought in Ty Wiggington who should have replaced Todd in the lineup by May. The Rockies are within sight of lofty summits– but the ski-lift won’t be going that high this year. 2011 Prediction: 87 wins, 3rd place.
LOS ANGELES: Who would’ve thought that the split up of the McCourts would rival the Brangelina-jennifer triangle for tabloid fodder and gossip? Not me, but it’s fitting it would take place nowhere but Tinseltown, and at times in ’10 seemed to rub off (negatively) on the Hollywood Blues. Don Mattingly was a great player, but on-field talent doesn’t always translate into great dugout skills, so he’s a major unknown, taking over from the exceptional Joe T. There seem to be some unresolved clubhouse issues lingering, last year’s opening day starter (Vince Padilla) is out indefinitely with a messed up pitching arm, and Matt Kemp needs to show that he’s more than a merely photogenic celebrity but run-of-the-mill athlete. That said, he still delivered over 80ribbies last season and is capable of more, Rafael Furcal and rising star Andre Ethier help give the team’s offence a bit of punch and Matt Guerrier shores up an already OK bullpen. The thing which seems overlooked is that , even without Padilla, the Dodgers have the best starting rotation on the Left Coast. There, I’ve said it. Billingsley, Kershaw, Lilly, Kuroda and Garland outmatch the Giants fivesome, even if they lack the Freak-ish “star” power. Billingsley and Kershaw are young and only just rounding into form, while the other trio provide sound, reliable 200 inning, 15 win type credentials. I look to see Kemp hit 35 dingers this season and the starting five to win 70+ by themselves. Surprising 2011 prediction: 91 wins, 1st place.
SAN DIEGO – A team and a ballpark built on pitching. And indeed, they do have pitching: Heath Bell is a tremendous and mostly unsung reliever, and at 23 Mat Latos could well be the real deal. How he will respond to the pressure of being the anchor of the staff and subject of intense scrutiny around the league (after his breakout 2010) remains to be seen. However, all is not sunny on the Mexican border. Aaron Harang may improve pitching at home and in a good pitcher’s park, but if the P’s want to contend at all, will need to transform himself from the guy who was 12-19, approx. 4.70 ERA over only 270 innings in past couple of seasons. Orlando Hudson and jason Bartlett should help out their pitchers by being very sound as a DP combo, and I thinkRyan Ludwick might bounce back from a sub-par year. All that notwithstanding, how is a team which was 28th last year in both average and slugging percentage going to even tread water, let alone improve , now that they’ve lost their one power hitter , as well as the feisty David Eckstein and pinch hitter supreme Matt Stairs? Answer: they won’t. They’ll probably sink to 30th in both categories this year, and even if you have pitchers who can throw goose eggs, you still need to score some runs of your own. 2011 Prediction: 72 wins, 4th place.
SAN FRANCISCO, Reigning world champions. If you’ve been reading this far, you can probably do the math and assess what I think of their chances of bringing back-to-back championships to the land of Milk and Rice-a-roni. First off, this is still a good team, as much as it irks me to admit. (For some strange reason, the Giants have been the one team I always seem to despise, year in , year out, and have done since I was a little child. I’m not sure why, it just is.) But they aren’t World Series good. Last year, they had everything go right, as almost any team that wins it all has to. What are the odds of that happening again ? Not great at any time, but especially when , as PF Sullivan of the Hardball Times points out, they now have a big “target on their backs”. They are now the team other teams have to find ways to beat as a matter of self-respect. Not great when the team is largely built on hard-throwing young pitchers who amazingly have stayed almost perfectly healthy in the past . Maintaining that stat will certainly be a high-wire act. The G’s may be one “freak” injury away from being closer to the bottom than the top in Eleven. Now, Matt Cain, as I’ve indicated here before, is brilliant and under-rated and Bumgarner shows real promise, but the heat-bringing Jonathan Sanchez looked dubious in the post-season and his 3 walks per start show he needs to really work on pitching (as opposed to throwing) to be a legit star. Barry Zito continues to contend for the title of Worst.Contract.Ever. Brian Wilson’s beard and antics are tiresome, but I have to respect his topnotch ability to bring in saves of over an inning. Nothing wrong with the SanFran bullpen.
Still, any outfield that has to rely on Nate Schierholtz, Aaron Rowand and star-for-a-week Cody Ross is not going to be more than a run-of-the-mill squad. Add to that , as Athlon sports notes, that Aubrey Huff hasn’t put together two good years in a row since 2003-04, and that Pablo Sandoval still needs Valerie Bertinelli’s (or Sarah Ferguson) help to , no, not get into “skinny jeans” but to just manage to stay in a big league uni, and you get the idea this team would only be “Giants” this year if playing in Lilliput , not in Philadelphia, Cinci, Hotlanta and LA. Chances of making the playoffs this season: 40%. Chances of repeating as World Series champions: 30-1. 2011 Prediction: 88 wins, 2nd place.
Next time we’ll visit hometown boy Joey Votto and his NL Central.