Category: Dailies

the first 35 games. Q’s answered, new ones arise

 

Well, six weeks into the season and as I predicted , Milton Bradley has been released by the Mariners after straining to hit .200 and straining the patience of Seattle management a little too much. Also in Seattle, former Jay Brandon League is now the closer, also as predicted here. Of course, my foresight on the fate of the Indians, the Royals and Rays, let alone of players like Grady Sizemore and Lance Berkmann have been just a wee bit off, which makes me like almost every other baseball pundit and shows again why we actually play 162 games rather than just pontificate about what might be.

Here, north of the border the season is looking a bit like a Soapbox derby: it started with some promise and enthusiasm but has been running steadily downhill since! As we quickly approach the quarter-way mark, the jays have been able to answer some of the doubts people had about them before the season began. Unfortunately, they have answered a few negatively and created new ones people didn’t think to have before.

Happily, as I expected Jose Bautista has now proven that he wasn’t a one-year fluke. All Bautista has done so far, (despite missing 5 games due to a sore neck and a series when he returned home to be with his girlfriend for the birth of their child,) is lead the AL in batting average, slugging (just crossing the .800 mark minutes ago), on-base percentage and tie for the lead in homers. All he’s done is clip 75 home runs in the last 208 games he’s played dating back to about Labour Day, 2009. Jose is showing the more pitchers try to get inside his head and pitch around him, the more patient he becomes waiting for the perfect pitch to drill to, or over the left field wall.

Adam Lind started a bit slow but has gotten red-hot of late (before missing the last couple of games with a bad back), tying for the league lead in RBIs and giving Bautista a bit of protection in the lineup. Lind has looked comfortable at first base and excellent at the plate against both lefties and right-handed arms. Apparently there was no need to worry about his transition or about his less-than-stellar hitting last year.

JP Arencibia has run hot and cold. Some days he’s excellent with the glove (tonight for example tagging out a speeding Carl Crawford at the plate) , other days he can’t hold onto anything. But, all things considered, he doesn’t look badly out of place and can only get better as a major league catcher, and with a .240ish average and 5 home runs, has been producing well enough compared to many higher profile backstops around the league. As John Farrell said recently, “he’s really settled in and really transitioned into more of a regular role very easily.”

The bullpen wasn’t really much of a worry going into the season, and has been all that one could hope for basically. Despite being called on night after night,leading the league with 120 innings pitched as of last night, the ‘pen has limited opponents to an under-.200 avg. and has posted a handsome 2.77 ERA… or, if my quick calculation is close, about 2.15 if not including the atrocious and washed-up Octavio Dotel who’s mission in life is seemingly to make sure his first baseman is never lacking for someone to talk to at the bag. Dropping Dotel and putting lights-out Jon Rauch back into the closer’s role as opposed to Frank Francisco could turn this into the best bullpen in the game. So too, could not having to burn them out so much. Which is where the starters come in.

Unfortunately for the jays, and for us fans, the highly touted young rotation is quickly becoming the team’s Achilles heel. Don’t believe me, ask the Toronto Star‘s Richard Griffin or Toronto Sun’s Bill Lankhof who’ve both written similar opinions in the last few days. Fact is, thus far they’ve been terrible. Too many pitches, too many walks, too few innings, too much gabbing from the TV cheerleaders about the great “stuff” the young arms have and too few good pitches made. True, ricky Romero (2-4, 4.04, average of 6 innings per start) has been good at times, and might be an adequate #3 starter, but looks badly overmatched as a Number One guy. Brandon morrow does look like he can mow down any lineup any time… but so far hasn’t done so. Perhaps he’s fallen too in love with the radar gun and the K-count and lost sight of the whole game, which is winning. The rest of the rotation has less to brag about. True, Jo jo Reyes has at times pitched well enough to win in some games and doesn’t deserve to have the major’s longest winless streak (25 starts and counting going back to his early Atlanta days) among starting pitchers, but the fact is that when you have a lefty who can go over two dozen starts without posting a “W”, its time for him to look at another career option. Jesse Litsch is the picture of unremarkable mediocrity and the uni #4, Kyle Drabek, aka The Greatest thing Since Sliced Bread according to the Toronto media and jays hype machine, exited tonight again after a mere 5 innings after giving up another 4 earned runs and walking so many Red Sox that he could sideline as a public service announcer for fitness health (“just put on those walkin shoes people”). At the start of today’s game he was averaging the third highest number of pitches per inning in the AL and now he’s walked 29 already in 43 innings. He does have some good pitches… he just needs to learn how to use them and find the plate. I might suggest that AAA Las Vegas would be a good place to do so, which is where , in the ordinary scheme of things, a pitcher who’d spent last year at AA would be anyway.

Say what you will about the Yankees, right now they’re looking pretty smart for their salvage projects of Bartolo Colon and Freddy garcia. Two guys who didn’t really break the bank– heck, they didnt even empty the pinstripers petty cash jar– and are now keeping the Y’s in first despite the number two pitcher (Hughes ) being injured.

Drabek’s not quite ready for the bigs, and some might argue the same about Alex Anthopolous. Alex has made some shrewd moves (perhaps most notably re-signing Bautista despite some protests from but until he can deliver the team a real front-of-the-line starter who can win games and knows the value of going deep into the game , he’s still going to be seen as a GM in training rather than one of the star minds in the game. Especially since many of us still remember his first move upon taking the job was trading away a pitcher who fit that bill perfectly.

Two down, road trip to go…

 

Haven’t been hearing as many voices lately saying Jose Bautista’s 2010 was a fluke! Well, given his AL leading batting average, on base percentage and home run tally, all we can ask is….how good would this guy be if he actually had people around him hitting? Thus far it’s been easy to pitch around Jose, hence his league-leaguing 24 walks. Imagine if Adam Lind (of 2 HR and 5 RBI tonight) gets hot behind him in the lineup. All of a sudden another 50 homer, 120 run, 120 RBI season, coupled with a .300+ average seems well within reach for Bautista.

OK, Texas lose two at home to the Jays. Besides that basic fact and Toronto scoring some runs, a thing that I liked: Jesse Litsch’s fielding. Pitchers seldom get evaluated on their defence but Jesse made a couple of very nice plays tonight to save a base runner (and potentially a run) , snagging a come-backer off Chris Davis in the 4th and handling a hot drive from Beltre–aka the Most Over-rated Player in the Game– in the 6th. A pitcher that can field is a good resource… and a reason Litsch might just merit staying up there in the majors despite good showings from the likes of Brad Mills in AAA.

Speaking of pitchers and AAA, as much as we showed up the reigning AL champs last night and tonight, one thing that really showed up the Jays ws the bullpen effort of (former Jay) Dave Bush last night and Brett Tomko tonight. Collectively 8 innings of rocksolid ball from those guys after lousy starts from their starters. It shows up what toronto needs badly– a “long man” out of the bullpen, a starting pitcher sitting down there in the ‘pen who can toss 3,4, even 5 innings at a time when his team is down. Rzepcinski is not a bad imitation of that, but not quite there and the rest of the Jays bullpen is built around guys who are good for two or three batters at a time, maybe 12 pitches tops… and that’s why the team has already had as many as 9 arms in the ‘pen at a time. The end result of it is not only bad pitching, but not enough flexibility off the bench. Stuff the bullpen with nine guys and you have only a couple of players to come in defensively or to pinch hit late in the game. A serious drawback. C’mon Alex— either bring up Brad Mills as a long man out of the pen or trade for some “washed up” starter ala Freddy Garcia or Bart-man Colon to anchor the bullpen for nights Litsch, Reyes or (Lawd help us!) Brett Cecil (he of the 10 earned runs tonight in the minors in, oh, let’s say about 17 pitches thrown) can’t do it beyond 3 innings.

There you have it Alex A— in last week I recommended running John McDonald out there every day. Farrell has been lately, and the Jays just took two off the defending AL champions. Now I recommend getting rid of a couple of easily-tired relief arms and replacing them with one solid starting pitcher in the ‘pen to give you innings… and the flexibility to bring up an Eric Thames or Brett Lawrie to supplement this team’s offence.

And keep John A. out there somewhere in the infield every night.

Helpful hints from a fan who is tired of seeing the team lose… and believes they could compete this year.

Don’t take that Sabbath thing TOO seriously Jays!

 

C’mon Blue Jays!! I know a number of you are likely religious men, particularly those of you guys who are of Latino descent. A nice sense of faith can be a great thing in a person to keep them grounded and stable… but boys, please don’t take that “sunday as a day of rest ” TOO seriously! Thus far this season the sabbath-respecting Jays are 0 for sunday, being winless and outscored 17-5 on sunday matches. They’re above .500 the rest of the week.

***

the Blue jays have been struggling for offense lately, which leads me to a couple of modest proposals for them. First, has anyone besides me , the guys in the broadcast booth and about 12000 fans a night noticed that John McDonald has evolved into a pretty decent hitter? Last season he improved his hitting greatly , clipping 6 home runs in only 152 at bats. This season so far, as rightly noticed by Sportsnet commentator (and former manager) Buck Martinez, he’s been more aggressive at the plate and is taking more good swings. The result is a respectable .270 average and a timely walk-off home run earlier this week. Plus, that at bat demonstrates what I kept telling a friend who was a Boston fan back as far as 2008– McDonald comes through in the clutch. If one could properly gauge “clutch hitting” and define what important at bats are, I’m sure you’d see Sir John A hitting over .300 in those situations. Combine that with his great , at times highlight reel great, defense throughout the infield and it makes me think that it’s time to make John an everyday player, at least until he plays himself out of the role. A .270 average is right now better than double what Juan Rivera is hitting and is somewhat better than what Aaron Hill was hitting before he screwed up his leg again. Make McDonald the everyday second baseman for the time being, make sure Hill is 100% before bringing him back and if that happens soon, consider shifting John A over to third , another position he handles well with the glove. And while we’re at it, move him up a bit higher in the order… having a .120 hitter hitting fifth is embarassing!

Secondly, but on the same topic, isn’t it time to bring up Eric Thames for a try? Yes, Alex Anthopolous guested on the TV broadcast today and made valid points about not bringing up minor leaguers until he knew they were ready to face big league pitching and could stay up here. The Mike McCoy shuffle (back and forth to Las Vegas on a weekly basis) is bound to be tiring and, for a youngster, demoralizing. BUT, with Corey Patterson now barely hitting .200 (2 for 27 in the last 7 games!) , Rajai Davis injured, Travis Snider struggling most days, isn’t it time to give a mature minor leaguer who’s hitting .382 with 9 doubles and an on-base percentage topping .600 a try? Anything to get this team’s hitting sparked , Alex. This guy turned heads in spring training and even if somehow he only hit half as well as he is in the minors, he’d still be an upgrade over Rivera and probably Snider right now.

By the way, as an aside, one of the few hitters topping Thames in the Pacific League right now… former major leaguer Wily Mo Pena, clipping along at a .420 pace for Reno.

A tale of two catchers. And two DHs.

 

One thing that hasn’t been commented upon widely enough in local media about the Jays start to the season and Alex Anthopolous’ acumen is how he managed to avoid signing Manny Ramirez in the off-season despite the dread-locked (or maybe just “dreaded”) one’s many trips to the city and efforts to hook up with the Jays. Boy, doesn’t Alex look smart now!

It was little surprise that Manny would want to join the blue Jays; teams weren’t exactly banging down the door to get to him after a lacklustre 2010, it was widely known the Jays had interest in picking up a DH and he always exceled in Toronto, holding the single season home run record for an opponent in the Rogers Centre (9 in 2001) and being second among visiting players in lifetime home runs there. Nowhere offered him a better shot at reviving his career. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Certainly I felt a need for a solid hitting DH, and felt that Manny was capable of exceeding his puny 9 HR total of last year. Plus he was apparently going cheap. But, I also was hesitant of the idea given that even more than hitting homers, Manny was good at “being Manny.” the last thing the team needed was a moody prima donna who might just take a weekend off to party with the visiting team, or walk off the field in the middle of the game or any number of other “Mannyisms”. Nor, needless to say , break the game’s drug rules again and be suspended for over half the season.

Curiously, the one player I thought might have been worth investigating for the role was Carlos Delgado . I figured Delgado would be warmly received by the fans, and why not… he is still the club’s alltime doubles, homers and RBI leader, and might offer the mature, determined leadership for the youth corps that Paul Molitor did in ’93. alas, it wasn’t to be and Delgado’s ongoing hip troubles caused him to retire this week, unsigned. Too bad so few people noticed his honorable retirement amid the circus that is Manny.

No doubt 5 years down the road, Ramirez’s numbers will merit Hall of Fame honouring more than Delgado’s. But Delgado’s career should merit him more votes than Manny’s.

***

One broadcaster on a game I was watching last week haphazardly commented (while watching a highlight of a Braves game) that for his money , Brian McCann was the best catcher in the game. You could almost hear the collective mocking of a hundred thousand fans in viewerland saying “What about Mauer? Does McCann have an MVP? Does he tell me what shampoo to use?”

But here’s the thing. I think he was right. Yes, Mauer is good. No question about that at all. But McCann is a bit better, and , and more durable. If I was a GM, I’d like either one, but given the choice I’d opt for McCann. I would have made that call even before Mauer hit the DL again this week with “tired legs”.

Now I don’t know what’s up in Minny. Maybe Joe’s blown out his knee again, can’t walk and the Twins are trying to downplay it and not alarm their fanbase or cut into advance ticket sales but to me, and I’m sure to the ordinary people who deliver packages, stock shelves, teach kindergarten kids and chase bad guys – in other words, the people who pay the freight for Mauer’s hefty contract— “tired legs” sounds like a regular daily condition , not reason for taking two weeks or more off with pay.

Since the start of the 2009 season Mauer has caught 230 games. Very respectable. McCann, however, had been squatting behind the plate 276 games and counting (as of Friday). True, Joe’s average is better, no question (approximately .339 to .278 for McCann in that period), but McCann has the edge in homers and RBI (50/180 to 37/175), surprising given the Twins’ reputation and 50 odd more at bats. Mauer commits fewer errors, but then again , McCann gets in on a lot more plays (over 500 more total chances between ’09 and ’10). And, while not a precisely measurable factor (given different staff and leagues), anchors a team with more successful pitching . I’d wager that if the two traded places, Atlanta’s ERA advantage over Minnesota would be much slimmer than the .70 it’s been over the past couple of years.

Joe Mauer, baseball’s best shampoo salesman, and admittedly, a pretty darn good player. But Brian McCann, the best catcher.

jays so far– an ace but still a work in progress

 

Two weeks in, baseball’s being what it always is for us fans- quixotic. On the one hand, we had Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee churn out back to back complete game wins for the Phils this week, Texas are leading a weak AL West division, Miguel Cabrera and Alex Rodriguez are coming through with big hits for their teams. In other words, predictable.

But then, there is Boston off to a league worst 2-10 start, thanks in no small part to the apparent strange sense of amnesia suffered by Carl Crawford and Kevin Youkilis,which has effected the part of the brain dealing with how to hit and the determined efforts by Clay Bucholz and jon Lester to prove me right when I said they aren’t Cy Young caliber pitchers. You have Cleveland off to a flying start and Bartolo Colon looking like he actually belongs on a pitcher’s mound, even after you rub your eyes and check the newspaper to assure yourself it isn’t 2003 again. The sort of unexpected quirks that make the game ever-interesting and always a threat to the livelihood of Vegas bookies.

Here in Canada, the book on this year’s edition of the Blue Jays is being written… but the mystery  is chapters away from being solved. At 7-6, all in all we have to be reasonably happy and confident… at 4 and a half games up on the Bosox we should be delirious. Good signs abound. Yet, there remain nagging doubts about this team which won’t go away.

One of my main concerns about the jays going into this season was whether JP Arencibia was anything close to being a major-league ready catcher. My worries have been assuaged. Despite having a lousy spring training, he’s holding his own at the plate (.286, .988 OPS) and more importantly, hasn’t looked out of place behind the plate. He’s no johnny Bench, but he’s been calling decent games, blocking balls in the dirt fairly reliably and made a nice block of the plate to cut down a run in Seattle. He’s still a work in progress, but he looks capable of becoming the player the Jays thought he’d be.

Likewise, Adam Lind looks comfortable at first base. He might not have quite the range or reflexes of departed Lyle Overbay, but he’s not embarassed himself out there at all and can probably more than over-compensate for the slight defensive loss with the improved hitting that the Jays should get from him over Lyle. So far, the jury’s out on that one – Lind seems to be a bit more confident than last year but still is hitting for a bit of a low average and striking out a bit too much. The other guy who almost always gets mentioned in the same breath as Lind, Aaron Hill has been spectacular with the glove and has helped save a good few runs already by turning impossible double plays (no surprise to me– through 2009 he looked to me to be the most consistent fielding second baseman in the league), and he’s had some good swings at the plate but somehow is still lugging a measly .216 average with him and so far hasn’t even negated that with some long bombs. He’s got to get a few line drive doubles in soon to keep his confidence and his place on the field.

Yunel Escobar has been a revelation at short, not only matching the (rightly) sainted John McDonald for “d” but leading the AL in hitting so far, with a .417 avg. and his one home run being a walk off winner. To his left, Edwin Encarnacion is nobody’s third baseman… so it’s a good thing the Jays managed to pick up little-known Jayson Nix on opening day eve . Nix has shown a strong, accurate throwing arm, decent range and a surprising ability to hit that no one in cleveland would have ever guessed existed.

In the outfield, Rajai Davis seems an adequate, but different replacement for Vernon wells, and since he’s now on the DL, seems like he might have to battle Corey Patterson for the fulltime job when he comes back. Patterson has been tremendous in the field and hitting in the five games since coming off the disabled list. To make things more interesting, Scott Posednik is now playing in the minors after a foot injury kept him out of most of spring training. All of which should make Travis Snider very very nervous. Snider, the Canadian media’s golden boy, has never fully won me over, his decent home run to games played ratio last year notwithstanding. So far this season, he’s given us fewer hits than Travis from WKRP in Cincinnati , and has been a Jeckyl and Hyde outfielder. Some days he’s getting to balls quickly and throwing cleanly to cut off men or gun down runners; other nights he’s looking dazed and confused and throwing like a girl. A girl who doesn’t play softball too, so as not to insult females in general. Or else is just barreling into his shortstop and messing up an easy play on a pop up. Even the Toronto Sun’s Mike Rutsey was questioning “how long can they stick with young left fielder Travis snider, who continues to struggle to find his footing?” and warned Alex Anthopolous, who remains publically bullish about him, that “falling in love ” with the team’s young players is the worst mistake a GM might make. My hope is that they can package Snider , together with recently designated for assignment David Purcey to some struggling team building for the future and pick up either a hard-working veteran OF, or a solid AAA prospect and promote Posednik (if healthy enough) or young Eric Thames who looked better than Snider in spring.

The one surprisingly encouraging factor in the jays offense has been that, true to their pre-season promise, they’re running the bases like roadrunners. Sixteen stolen bases used to be a good half season’s total for a typical Toronto squad, not a baker’s dozen games. The change in attitude has made the team more enjoyable to watch, more distracting to opposition pitchers and most importantly, more capable of scoring runs.

Pitching was supposed to be a strength for the jays this season and while they certainly exhibit depth, they have yet to really show that translating into a major positive. Ricky Romero (1-1, 1.66, 21+ innings over 3 starts) has pitched like a real number one guy, Kyle Drabek shows great poise and some real talent to blow away the opposition which leads one to hope that we didn’t get fleeced that badly by the Phils in the Halladay trade, but neither he nor any of the other starters used (besides RR) have been able to follow Bruce Walton’s advice, and throw strikes, keeping the ball down in the zone. (The others have in their collective first ten starts managed 56 innings with 26 walks.) Result: too many inflated pitch counts, too many trips to the showers by the fifth inning, even if there’s a “0” on the scoreboard for whomever they’re facing. Any team carrying more pitchers than position players, any team needing eight guys in the bullpen, is doing something wrong. Is it Bruce Walton not being able to get his message across to young pitchers? Is it John Farrell being too trigger-happy and unwilling to let relievers go more than a batter or two at a time? Is it simply expectations for the talent level of Mr’s Litsch, Reyes, Cecil, plus Dotel, Frasor and most of their busload of pen buddies wildly exceed their real talent levels? Questions the Jays need answering, and sooner than later. My guess is its a little of all three. Last night’s save by Jon Rauch was amazing to watch though, and hopefully a clinic for other Toronto relievers– he went at the batters, worked quickly and got the jays to the clubhouse in efficient and winning manner. It was one of the most pleasing things we’ve had to watch thus far in ’11, after so many nail-biting, clock-dragging innings of full counts and walking the bases loaded we’ve come to expect from this over-manned and underconfidant bullpen.

Quick assessment: so far so good. Yes, Toronto doesn’t look poised to be in the World Series. But few people expected that of them anyway. What they do seem poised to do is stay competitive, not fall to the bottom like so many pundits imagined they’d do and give the fanbase some reason for optimism for once.

start etching that “P” onto those WS rings, boys.

 

And for the predictions:

Over the past month I looked at each of the clubs and gave you my evaluations on them. So, as a finale to that, here I’ll give you my early season prognostications for what will happen in the post-season. But first I’ll go over the picks of several top publications and writers: Baseball Digest (BD), Sports Illustrated (SI), Athlon Sports (AS), USA Today’s Mike Dodd (USD) and Seth Livingstone (USL) and local Toronto Sun columnists Bob Elliott (TSE) and Ken Fidlin (TSF) for the prominent awards and titles.

AL East: easy one here, all of the above pick Boston.

AL Central: SI, AS, TSE pick Minnesota. USD and BD pick Chicago. USL and TSF picks Detroit.

AL West: SI curses Oakland by making them their pick to click. All others go for a repeat by Texas.

AL Wildcard: SI, USD, AS, and TSE pick new York. USL picks Chicago and TSF goes for currently 1-8 Tampa.

Meaning that for the American League, among the 7 experts, all 7 see the Red Sox in the playoffs, 4 see the Yanks there, one pick for the Rays, 3 foresee the White sox making it back in, 3 the Twins and one the Tigers, 6 expect the Rangers back in the post-season and one the A’s.

NL East: Philadelphia across the board.

NL Central: SI, uSL, TSE and TSF go for Cincinnati, USD and AS opt for St Louis while uSL says Milwaukee.

NL West: USL and TSE go for Colorado while the others all expect last year’s champs, San Francisco to repeat.

NL wildcard: SI, AS and TSF figure on colorado, TSE chooses Atlanta, USL goes for San Francisco and uSD for Milwaukee. BD didn’t directly choose wild card favourites. The end result of that is its unanimous that the Phillies will be back in October baseball for a fifth year in a row, four expect Cincy back, six out of seven think the Giants will be Giants again, five expect their division mates the Rockies to be there, while two see the Cards and one lone voice apiece is optimistic about the Brewers and the Braves.

AL Champion: The five who pick league champs all pick boston.

NL Champion: Likewise, USD, USL, AS, TSE and TSF expect Philadelphia to win.

World Series: Well all agree on who is expected to be there. But of the selected experts, philadelphia have the slight edge, being picked by three (USL, TSE and TSF) compared to two who expect Boston (USD, AS).

AL MVP: Note that SI picked choices for all 3 divisions in both leagues. That said, Robinson Cano and Miguel Cabrera were picked twice, while Justin Morneau, Carl Crawford, Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Evan Longoria also got mentioned .

NL MVP: Four picks for Troy Tulowitzki, a pair for Albert Pujols, while Joey Votto gets one nod for another trophy, the same number of choices as Jason heyward, and Ryan Braun.

AL Cy Young: three nods to Jon Lester, two for Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia, and a single pick for Clay Bucholz and last year’s winner (felix Hernandez).

NL Cy Young: Three choices for Doc Roy Halladay, two each for Cliff Lee and Adam Wainwright (presumably picked before he underwent season-killing surgery!) and one mention each for the SF Freak, tim Lincecum and for Yovani Gallardo.

AL Rookie: Chris Sale, jesus Montero and Desmond Jennnings were the names picked by the three who ventured a guess.

NL Rookie: Aroldis Chapman picked by two, Domonic Brown by the other picker.

And for my choices…well as past blogs had documented, I picked Boston, chicago and Texas for AL division champs and Philly, milwaukee and LA in the National and nothing I’ve seen so far (early as it might be) has done much to dissuade me from that. For the wildcard, I pick Atlanta in the NL and Detroit in the AL. Detroit might not be quite as good a team as the Yankees but owing to the schedule they get in the Central, should win a game or two more and thus make the playoffs.

Ultimately, though anything can happen in October, it is difficult to disagree with the concensus and see it any way other than a Boston vs Philadelphia showdown. And while Boston may have a bit of an edge (as the rosters sit now anyway) in offense, I think the Phils pitching will carry the day and thus the 2011 Prediction for the World Series: Philadelphia.

For the awards… the MVP typically goes to a player from a playoff team, for better or worse. I often think there are better choices from more mediocre teams (I look at the award from the standpoint of which player would cause his team to fall the most games if he was subtracted from the roster. Most really good playoff teams wouldn’t be heavily impacted by the loss of any one player hence their stature in the post-season. But I am apparently in the minority opinion here.) So that point in mind, my top choices for AL MVP would be Miguel Cabrera (particularly if he does something that will win him Movie of the Week laurels like decide to publically go for alcohol treatment) of Detroit, Robinson Cano of the Yanks (especially if they do squeak in to playoffs), Adam Dunn of Chicago. Less likely but on radar , Kevin Youkilis in boston and our own Jose Bautista in Toronto, whom using my criteria should have been the ’10 winner.

In the NL, Ryan Braun should edge out last year’s winner, joey Votto, particularly if my voice in the wilderness about the Brewers winning the division is correct. Other good choices: matt Kemp having a big comeback year (apparently looking focused and interested this year) for the Dodgers, Brian McCann in Atlanta , Matt Holliday in St Louis who just might eclipse his better known teammate this season (besides which, a disgruntled Pujols might well end up elsewhere by September) or Corey Hart in Milwaukee. Dark horse candidate: Aramis Ramirez, looking OK so far and poised to try for one more big contract.

Cy Young: In the AL, I like the Boston kids (Lester and Bucholz) but not that much. I don’t think their slow start this year is a total fluke or coincidence, though they’ll both end up with decent numbers by the end of the year. The winner– easy pick in my mind, Justin Verlander of Detroit. Close runners-up, Dan haren and Jered Weaver out in the City of , or at least state of , Angels, and David Price , a very good pitcher on a very bad team (kind of like last year’s winner). Uber dark horse pick– Blue Jays Brandon Morrow. If he can pick up where he left off last season and convince head office not to limit his innings to 38 or whatever their asinine plan is, he could still deliver 30 starts, 225 strikeouts, a no hitter and with a bit of offence (likely ’cause he won’t be the #1 starter so his batters won’t be facing other aces) , perhaps win 18 or more.

In the NL– who’d you think I’d say? I’ve picked this guy for a Cy Young every year for about 9 years now— literally. Last year I was right. Roy Halladay, who thus far between spring training and two regular starts, has an ERA well below 1.00. needs 31 wins for 200 career victories. Won’t make it to that mark this year. Probably. Runners up, tim Hudson, josh Johnson (if he spends whole year in NL) , matt Cain and roy Oswald. And no, I’m not forgetting any frea…err San francisco pitcher.

Rookie of year: In the AL, I think KC will go to their uber-hitting prospect sooner than later, Wilson Betemit’s 4 hits yesterday notwithstanding, and Mike Moustakas sooner than later  will deliver that combination of 25 home runs and hope for a * not so good* team that gets voters turned on. Over in the NL… well, my gut feeling is that Freddie Freeman will be the real rookie de jour. But, given voters’ inexplicable love of shoveling this award over to the Bay area year after year in both leagues, I’d bet SF’s Brandon Belt would be a more surefire bet. Unless they figure out a loophole which will let them give it to Buster Posey for a second year in a row.

What about you? Who are your picks?

AL East– where have all the catchers gone? a preview

 

AL East: the money division. My division too, me being in Ontario.

BALTIMORE: Like Cleveland, the O’s have found that the appeal of a nice, retro ballpark can last only so long. Sooner or later you have to put a respectable club on the field to put some butts in the stands. There’ll be a lot of empty seats at Cambden this year. But they’re heading in the right direction at least.

Around here, orioles usually return to the trees around May 10. Seemed last year that was when they returned to Maryland too; after an awful 2-16 start , the birdies seemed to return to life. This year, theyve flown back early.Is that a hint of things to come?

Probably not. But it is a sign that Buck Showalter’s strong finish for the team wasn’t a pure illusion.

That said, this is still not a good team. It must be an embarassment for older Oriole fans who remember the great teams of the 70s and 80s built around the likes of Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Mike Flanagan, Ross Grimsley even, to see a club that sports Jeremie Guthrie as the anchor now. Still, Zack Britton looked good in his debut this year and is promising, and Brian Matusz won 10 last year only two years after being drafted. There is hope for a return to respetability at least, if not greatness. It just won’t be this year.

The rotation will hand the ball over to a decent enough bullpen, with jays castoffs kevin Gregg and Jeremy Accardo (24 saves with AAA las Vegas last year but seemingly a way of continually pissing off Jays management) , and Koji Uehara capable of being a closer as well.

This team should hit; brian Roberts if healthy is among the game’s elite second baseman in the field and at the plate. It astounded me that it took someone so long to pony up some cash for Vlad Guerrero; granted his average last year was 20 points off his career numbers, but his career avg. is .320! In the friendly confines of Cambden Yards, he’ll up his average, quickly collect his 2500th career hit and smash at least 35 homers… and be a headache to hitting coach Jim Presley, who’s job it is to turn youngsters like Adam Jones into all the hitter they can be. Guerreros slap-happy, swing at anything that moves approach won’t help teach the younger teammates.

Mark Reynolds won’t match Vlad’s impact. Sure he might hit a dinger or three, but this is a guy who’s not a defenisve upgrade over redoubtable Miguel Tejada and who strikes out 40% of the time . In this lineup, he may K 250 times and be a rally-killer. Big question for the orange birds: will Matt Wieters develop into the player he was hyped as when he arrived in the league? I don’t know, but I do know this team isn’t atrocious– but neither is it all that good. 2011 Prediction: 71 wins, 4th place.

BOSTON – How things change. Ten years ago, the Curse of the Bambino was as scary to New Englanders as some rabid dog or satanic clown devised by Stephen King. Now, ask a nor’easter ball fan about a curse and they’ll answer that their curse is having to actually play 162 games as a technicality before being awarded their division title. Almost every expert has already stated inequivocably that the Red Sox are absolutely guaranteed to be the AL champs this year; so much has been written about them and their talent that it takes little recapping from me. Nor their rivalling their down-coast rivals in payroll spending; it’s well documented.

If the Sox stay healthy this year, it’s obvious they’re in good shape. The return of Jacob Ellsbury in particular will ramp up an already good offense, and with the addition of Carl Crawford, the Bosox will have the league’s top two triples hitters and base stealers… quite a spark to get things going for the heavy hitters in the lineup. Kevin Youkilis is under-rated and an upgrade on Adrian Beltre at third, even in a year when Beltre feels like trying, of which this season likely wouldn’t be one. KY is their best everyday player. End of story. Across the diamond, Adrian Gonzalez ain’t bad… but he’ll disappoint and be the subject of a big-selling voodoo doll by mid-summer, so inflated and unrealistic are hopes for him in Beantown. He’ll do OK if he doesn’t get dragged down by the new spectre of having fans who are critical of him (or fans of any type for that matter), but a .275 avg, 35 or so home runs is a realistic prospect for him, not the .375, 70 home runs most seem to project him for. What is amazing is that a team willing to pony up close to $200M for a roster couldn’t find a decent regular catcher! This will hurt them thru the summer, but not enough to keep them out of post-season contention.

Josh Beckett (comeback? Not likely.) and Dice-K in the rotation means that the pitching isn’t all that. But it’s not terrible by any means, John lackey will come around and be a big improvement over his mysterious bad 2010 self, and he, Clay Bucholz and Jon Lester should all win 16+ .Jon Papelbon… should they have made him a starter years ago? Is there still time to do so? Debate among yourselves. No debate though, the bullpen is pretty sound.

IF they stay healthier this year than last and IF they don’t panic at their slow start and do something rash, it’s hard to imagine this team missing the playoffs. Much as somewhere up there the Babe will be cursing, and somewhere down here, so will I. 2011 Prediction: 94 wins, 1st place.

 

NEW YORK : a team which this year could rival last year’s Seattle for dollars spent per win. Good thing for the pinstripes that the Y’s are spending double what the Mariners did.

No other team is as much commented upon or under the microscope as much as the Yankees, so I probably can’t add too much to the commentary. Other than to perhaps point out that the infield is the best in the history of the game (and yes, I say that as someone who doesn’t ‘like’ Alex Rodriguez). A-Rod is still only 35 and embarassed by his lowly .270 BA and 30 homers last year and will improve upon those numbers. Robinson Cano has swum up above the teaming pool of talented young second baseman in the AL (Hill, Roberts, Pedroia, Kinsler et al) to become by far the best with the glove and with the bat. A batting title is in his future, quite possibly as soon as this October. Mark Teixeira has made 7 errors at first… in over 300 games since 2008. And will give Jose Bautista a run for the home run title this year… even if Bautista clocks 54 again. No surprise Mark has already driven in 10 in the first week of the season. And Derek Jeter, yes, he’s on the downslope of his career, but the quest for 3000 hits and his pride will result in a somewhat upgraded year over last. The OF is OK, but not spectacular, but Big Applers have to like young Brett Gardner, a tremendous young speedster and .300 hitter for many years to come and if they refrain from putting him behind the plate 4 days a week, Jorge Posada will show he still has some pop in his bat and do fine as the DH.

OK, so the infield is one for the ages. No one will ever say their pitching is though. Sure CC is exactly what they expected and hoped he’d be when they drove a fleet of Brinks trucks up to his door. He’s a sure thing, 220 innings, 18 wins, 200K, many quality starts in the bag before the season even opens. And Phil Hughes will be ok, maybe not an 18 game winner elsewhere, but a decent enough young pitcher. The rest of the rotation is a bit of an adventure though. Bartolo Colon, kevin Millwood and Freddy Garcia competing for the number 4 and 5 spots ? This would be great news – if it was still 2005! And of course, then there’s AJ Burnett. His 15 loss, 5+ ERA season didn’t surprise those of us here in southern Ontario at all– his decent 2009 did! We saw enough of AJ and his spotty pitching, sour personality and disdain for those who paid his inflated salary for spontaneous acts of dancing in the streets to occur when he decided to walk out on his ludicrously generous T.O. Contract. But rest assured , New York, he won’t lose 15 this year. The Steinbrenners will grow tired of his act and either ship him to the minors or bite the bullet and give him $40, 50M to just walk away by August. And probably find a Carlos Zambrano or Wandy Rodriguez for the taking to boost the pitching and keep the Bombers in the running. 2011 Prediction : 88 wins, 2nd place.

TAMPA BAY: Alas, baseball’s cinderella story has turned to a pumpkin, which is what a lot of baseballs hurled at opposition batters will look like this season- pumpkins. What do you get when you take a team which has played above its head for three years, to little or no fan support, and take away the franchise player (aka – best player ever to wear their uniform), eliminate pretty much the entire bullpen , lose the big slugger from the lineup, shed the extremely versatile multi-position infielder and trade away their most experienced, solid starter? Answer: a badteam. This team operated on smoke and mirrors in the past few years, and good on ’em to do so! But their batting, only 26th in the majors last year, will be no better for the absence of Carl Crawford or Carlos Pena’s 35-45 homers and no matter how good David Price is – and he is good – or Evan Longoria, this team still looks Mickey Mouse. Just like a Tampa Bay team should, I guess. Nonetheless, they do have some young talent bubbling under, so they might rise again… around 2014, or 2015, by which time they’ll likely be the Las Vegas Rays or Charlotte Rays. Going out on a limb here… but 2011 Prediction: 66 wins, 5th place, attendance under 1 million.

TORONTO– last but not least, the team I specialize in covering. I’ll write a lot more about the Jays in the next week or two, but for now , let me say briefly that entering spring training, I thought there’d be 4 big questions the jays would have to answer if they wanted to be remotely good this season: 1) is JP Arencibia ready for the big leagues, 2) can Aaron Hill be Aaron Hill again, 3) can Adam Lind play first base, let alone hit more like the 2009 Lind than last year’s and 4) are the #4 and 5 starters good enough for prime time? Happily, thorugh spring and the first week of the season, answers to all of the above look positive. (Yes, Jo JO Reyes is a bit of a crapshoot but within a week fireballing Brandon Morrow will be back, he of the 17K, near no-hitter last summer). Edwin Encarnacion looks shaky at third, but young Brett Lawrie dazzled all with his glove and bat in spring training and is expected to join the big league club as soon as they can be sure they can wait another year before making him a free agent, yet another promising AL rookie third baseman. Jose Bautista by the way? Last year at this time, on another website I predicted he’d have a breakout year. But honestly, I didn’t think it would be that breakout! He’s for real though, and will have another big year… I look for his average to rise, his homers to drop some, but not by much (my best guess: 40) and if those around him can hit a bit he’ll top 100 RBI again by Labour Day.

I have to say in honesty, that no team in baseball is as much as a mystery to me as this one I’m closest to. They so far have shown tremendous enthusiasm and a refusal to give in, and that bodes well. If the stars align properly, this team might just give us some October baseball for the first time since ’93. Then again, if the youngsters tire out or don’t alter their approach to the opposition as the other teams get their numbers, it could become a very llooonngg season. 2011 Prediction: 86 wins, 3rd place. Aaron Hill’s numbers: .290 avg, 20 HR; Bautista, .280, 40 HR, 110 RBI, Kyle Drabek…? I don’t have a clue. Maybe 14 wins and rookie of year, maybe 6 ERA and back in minors by May long weekend. I havent seen enough yet to really gauge him.

Minny in the Middle

 

AL Central: well, a weekend into the season, and given the benefit of seeing a couple of games featuring Minnesota , I continue my outlook on this season.

CHICAGO- If recent trends were to continue, the White Sox might be looking at a lost year. After all, after winning 2006 and ’08 campaigns they lost ground and ended up sub-.500 the following years. However, happily for Barack Obama , that’s one trend that won’t outlast his stay in the White House. The prez’s favourite team looks pretty decent this year.

This is a team that can hit with the best of them. Last year they were in the top 8 in the bigs in average, slugging, home runs (and stolen bases too) , and they’ve only gotten better. Adam Dunn was a major acquisition , and will really make the ball fly out of US Cellular. Being the same age as Ryan Howard, he has 100 more career homers and with an equally good bat protecting him in the lineup, a 50 homer campaign isn’t out of the question. Paul Konerko, the other big bat, shows no sign of slowing down and somehow Ozzie Guillen seems to have unlocked the mystery that is Alex Rios and coaxed a good season out of him. No one here in Canada ever questioned his ability, but his maturity and work ethic were serious concerns. He’s a five-tool player who if healthy and fully mature, could probably hit .300, 180+ hits, 30 homers and steal 30. He’s not fully mature. But he might not be far off. Add in Alexei Ramirez, now the best SS in the American, hard-headed, hard-working catcher AJ Pierzynski, bench strength in versatile Mark Teahen (if he indeed loses out to rookie Brent Morel as the everyday 3B) and you have a team poised to score a lot of runs. This might be a necessary thing as the pitching is only run of the mill.

Mark Buehrle is still reliable and will do better than his .500 season last year, and Gavin Floyd and John Danks are ok but far from dazzling. A healthy Jake Peavy would make a big difference, but that seems weeks away from happening at best. Jesse Crain is a good addition to the ‘pen, but not an adequate replacement for gone and not missed (by Guillen at least) bobby Jenks. However, if young Chris Sale’s remarkable debut at age 21 last year wasn’t a mirage, the Sox might have their next great reliever.

Like at Wrigley field, there’s always a good chance of a battle erupting on this Chicago team’s bench. Unlike the Cubbies, here it would no doubt involve the manager. But that’s where the similarities end…these South Siders just might give their fans a bit of excitement in October. 2011 Prediction: 91 wins, 1st place.

CLEVELAND: I stopped briefly in Cleveland back in ’09. I was surprised at how scenic parts of it were and how nice some of the people. Too bad for them that if the declining population and shrinking employment wasn’t bad enough, they had to deal with the spectacle of Lebron kicking sand in their faces as he left town and now a baseball team which has gone from borderline great to borderline grave in a few short years.

Yes, the catcher is healthy, should have a good season, but won’t make anyone think of his name ahead of the guitarist enshrined in the Rock n roll Hall of Fame in the city upon hearing the name Carlos santana. Grady Sizemore starts off injured again, and Travis hafner– well who knows? Mirroring the team itself , he’s gone from star material to irrelevance in a few easy years. Sin Soo Choo is the real star in town now, but he won’t be able to do much single-handedly to save a lousy offense. Jared Goedert, who had 83 RBI in the minors last year might add his name to a long list of potential rookie third basemen in the bigs this year, particularly now that the I’s have traded Jayson Nix to Toronto.

The bullpen is surprisingly strong, and will be called on often. Fausto Carmona is OK, but not a prototypical “ace” and it goes downhill from there. Drew Pomeranz, their 2010 top pick, draws rave reviews but seems at very least a year away from the mound in Ohio.

One wonders why chief Wahoo is still grinning. 2011 prediction: 58 wins, 5th place.

DETROIT: Like all cats, the Tigers can be a bit of a mystery. Generally they seem full of more promise than they deliver, despite having a very sound and respected manager in Jim leyland. That said, if GM can turn it around in Detroit, there’s no doubt the Tiggers could too.

Justin Verlander rivals Felix Hernandez as the best pitcher in the AL now, is a shoo-in to deliver 200 innings, 200K and an ERA a run or better than the league average, and with some booming bats this year he is poised to win 20. And the bats should be booming, with the addition of Victor Martinez.

The press has tried to pillory Miguel Cabrera for his DUI arrest, but seems to me there’ve been some big drinkers in past decades who could still swing a bat. One wonders how many of the nasty diatribes written by sports writers were posted from barstools anyway. What matters to Detroit is that Cabrera is as good a shot as anyone in baseball to win a Triple Crown ; a .313 career hitter who averages one RBI in 5 AB and who at 28 is only finally really hitting his prime. Add in speedy Austin jackson (my pick for AL rookie of year last season), dependable Brandon Inge and Magglio Ordonez and you have a team poised to slam 200 HR this year and score significantly more than the 751 runs they did last year.

Pitching is a bit of a question mark beyond Verlander. Max Scherzer seemed to come into his own last year and makes a good #2 guy, but which Rick Porcello will show up– the good rookie of 2009 or the struggling, inconfident one of last year? Can Phil Coke make the transition from bullpen to rotation? My guess is both will do so, adequately enough to keep the Tigers in contention right down to the wire. 2011 Prediction: 89 wins, 2nd place.

KANSAS CITY- It’s been said that when Toronto first gained an MLB franchise in the 70s, KC was the team they modeled their organization after. Now it appears that the positions have reversed and the Royals are modeling the Jays, if trading away the ace of the staff for minor leaguers is any indication. And as up here, it may represent some short-term pain for long-term gain. By trading Zack Greinke they appear to only be acknowledging that their former Cy Young winner would have long since moved along for greener pastures through free agency before they could contend again, so why not beef up an already talented minor league system? Arguably smart decision-making but no doubt difficult to sell to a demoralized fan base who’ve not seen a winner around their parts since 2003. And have no hope of seeing one this year, either.

With Greinke, last year’s surpriser , Bruce Chen, and Bryan Bannister all leaving town in the off-season, the already poor pitching staff lost a cumulative 29 wins and 488 innings off their ’10 numbers. Hard to imagine Vin Mazzaro doing much to offset that loss. Thus now Luke Hochevar has become the opening day starter, and probably the least impressive ‘staff ace’ in all of big league baseball. Young John Lamb and Mike Montgomery are highly-touted lefties who show great promise ,but should be at least a year away from their debut. However, with names like Sean O’Sullivan (6.11 ERA in last season’s stint of 13 starts which didn’t show the Show Me State too much to excite) pencilled into the rotation this spring, the future for the young southpaws may be sooner than later. Joakim Soria is outstanding , of course (he’s had saves in no less than 54% of all Royals wins over the past couple of seasons) but essentially a wasted resource there.

At the plate, no way will this team end up second in batting average again , and consider that even though they did last year, that still did little to help them put runs across the plate… they were 20th in that department. Jeff Francoeur should be able to reinvent himself in this small, low-pressure market (maybe .275, 24 or so homers), Melky Cabrera is less likely to. Billy Butler continues to develop into one of the better first basemen in the league and soon he’ll be playing across from young Mike Moustakas, an early Fantasy fave pick for rookie of the year- not surprising given his 36 HR, 124 RBI minor league tallies of last season. However, the KC’s began the season with Wilson Betemit their regular third bagger.

Even if they won’t have a Cy Young winner, they’ll bag one “award”… Kila Ka’aihue seems to have the “hardest name to spell” in the bag.

This team will battle cleveland all season for last place, but unlike the Ohio squad, this team may have reason for optimism. Their AA Northwest Arkansas team won the Texas League championship last fall and some experts rank the royals’ minor league talent as best all-around. But, for now… 2011 Prediction: 60 wins, 4th place.

MINNESOTA: Ron Gardenhire certainly deserved his Manager of the Year award last year; it seems every year he adds another “M” to Minneapolis , Minnesota. Magic. Each year he seems to start out with a team which looks OK, but unspectacular, on paper, loses key players for significant stretches of time and yet maneouvres the team into the playoffs anyway. This year however, things are a bit different. Thanks to JMx2 (MVPs Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau) becoming household names and apparently becoming healthy, as is Joe Nathan, the Twins are boasting a nine-digit payroll and lofty expectations to win. Can Gardenhire still work magic under these conditions?

Add into the superstar pair emerging star Delmon Young and his 100+ RBI of last season, remarkably speedy and accurate outfielder Denard Span (who last year was third in total chances in the AL with his range, and dazzled Rogers Centre crowds this weekend in toronto), and very under-rated, reliable Michael Cuddyer (who should double his low HR tally of last year) and the Twin Cities have good reason to feel high on their boys of summer. Then there’s new Japanese phenom Tsuyoshi Nishioka, a batting champion last year on the other side of the ocean taking over for Orlando Hudson at 2B. What could go wrong?

Well, lots actually. Nishioka is only a .280 career hitter in Japan, so anything more than .260 over here might be a gift, and though it’s only a couple of games, so far he has shown he’s no O-dog with the glove. Infielding could be an adventure for the Twinkies. By August, expect his name to be pronounced “No Suzuki”. Justin Morneau says he’s fully recovered from his concussion that knocked him out for half a year last year, but was limited in his playing during spring training so one has to wonder. Then there’s the pitching.

The Twins seem to brag that they’ve got two former starters sitting in the bullpen (kevin Slowey and Glen Perkins) but that may be indicative of poor talent assessment and a weak bullpen more than of a loaded starting rotation. Does anybody foresee Carl Pavano repeating his 17 win, 3.75 ERA of last year – particularly when one remembers that after mid-August he went just 2-4 with an ERA well over 5? Not me. Soft-tossing Nick Blackburn got away with one this afternoon, but looked much more like an easily hittable, 5+ ERA deadweight than a potential star trying to refind his good stuff. And while having Joe Nathan back is certainly a plus, it might take awhile for him to regain his full pre-surgery form. Even if not, the loss of Jesse crain and Jon Rauch is difficult to overcome with just one man.

Worst of all, this edition of the Twins has something new; swagger. Justin Morneau swaggers around like a Canadian hockey star (something he’s often compared to), whining about the well-liked new Target field not being personally pleasing to him; Joe Mauer is working hard at being an aspiring annoying actor and all-in-all the team is acting like they are the Natural Governing Team in the midwest. Well, you know what they say about “pride”. It comes before a fall. And this year, fall will come a little earlier in Minny. 2011 Prediction : 84 wins, 3rd place. Expect some 22 or more of those W’s to come at the expense of the Indians and royals.

Next, onto the one I’m really watching…and given the budgets and size of the markets, one most people are– the AL East.

Will the title “Lee-ve” Texas?

 

AL West, part II

SEATTLE: Two big Puget sound mysteries: one, did Kurt Cobain really kill himself, and two, are the Mariners attempting to commit suicide? It certainly is a wonder that a team with a Cy Young hurler and one of the best all-round hitters in the history of the game could manage to lose over 100 games as they did last season. Mind you, Ichiro or no, the M’s were dead last in the majors last year in batting avg., slugging, homers and virtually every other offensive category, but still…?

Miguel Olivo should improve the pathetic hitting by significantly upping the numbers posted by Adam Moore and Rob Johnson last year (sub-.200 avg, 22 extra base hits between them), but it’s still going to take significant improvements , returns-to-form if you will, by Jack Wilson, Chone Figgins and newcomer Jack Cust for anything good to happen with this team. Dustin Ackley benefits from the lacklustre big-league squad and appears to be ready to take over second base and perhaps be a rookie to pay close attention to in ’11. also fun to watch: hothead Milton Bradley vs. new manager Eric Wedge. Smart money has Bradley not lasting much longer with this team than the guy he was traded for (Carlos Silva) did at the other end.

Good news for raincoast fans, they still have Felix Hernandez and he’s probably still getting better…he is after all, still just 24 and is a whole 2011 campaign away from hitting 200 games. More good news, apparently Eric Bedard, aka Mark Prior the Second, is pitching this spring and looking good. Bad news: everything from there on down in the rotation, headed up by jason Vargas and Doug Fister and perhaps finished up by rookie who was dominant at AA (and passable at AAA) last year. It’s doubtful he could do worse than departed Ryan Rowland-smith who last year would have been hard-pressed to better his 1-10 record even in Fenway , given his 6.75 ERA. The bullpen is mediocre to weak, though will probably improve when and if (mid-May by my guess) Brandon League becomes their closer.

Maybe not trying to knock themselves out of existence, but something foul is a afield at Safeco, and this is one mystery conspiracy theorists can’t blame on Courtney Love. 2011 Prediction: 64 wins , 4th place.

TEXAS: Will the Rangers make a return trip to the World Series? No. will they repeat as division champs? Yes, almost by default. The R’s aren’t all that terribly good, but they are head and shoulders above their divisional rivals, whom they’ll play 57 times.

Sure they were disappointed by not retaining Cliff Lee, but their management have an easier time explaining it to the fanbase than their counterparts in the Bronx do. The rotation is still reasonably good, with Colby lewis, Tommy Hunter and CJ Wilson atop it, but they aren’t expecting a return to Cy Young form from Brandon Webb. In fact, 100 innings out of him would probably be a gift. Netalfi Perez is a question mark, right now it looks like he’ll return to the ‘pen where he earned his R.O.Y. Award last year. Whether he stays there or is more valuable to them as a starter, what is certain is he will benefit from taking one role and running with it rather than being shunted around from month to month. (I often wonder how good Kelvim Escobar would have been if the Blue Jays had just decided on one role for him and kept him there rather than move him from starter to closer to middle reliever to spot starter…) . The pitching all-told, is decent and good enough to win a lot of games with solid hitting going for them. Which they’ll have.

Josh Hamilton would be on anyone’s short list of players who might someday win a Triple Crown. He won’t this year, but should be close to MVP consideration once again. Ian Kinsler will rebound from an injury-marred campaign and Nelson Cruz must be the least talked about player in the game who’s hit 55 homers and .280 over the past couple of seasons. Face of the team Michael Young is angry, but mature enough to play hard and do what’s asked of him, significantly proving that last year’s .284 (not terrible but a blip in the steady .300 road the veteran has ridden for years) was merely that – a blip, rather than a sign of a player in decline. However, he still might get his wish and finish the season somewhere else. Does Philadelphia protest a wee bit too much denying their interest in him?

Elvis Andrus is excellent, but don’t expect too much from the guy on his right side, Adrian Beltre. His wallet fattened and desire no doubt flattened by a big contract, Beltre won’t come close to his .321 avg or 100+ RBI of last year (although he could easily match his HR production.)

If the Rangers win two-thirds of their games against the division, they only half to be .500 against every one else to repeat their trip to the playoffs. They’ll do that – and a little bit more. 2011 Prediction: 93 wins, 1st place. League Pennant odds: 8:1.

Next, we’ll visit the midwest and the Central division.

Happy Opening Day!

AL West: All’s Wells that ends Wells?

 

And now on to the American League, starting with the West.

LOS ANGELES/ANAHEIM : The question in the ‘burbs is are these Angels really fallen? Not only did last year mark the first year since 2006 the red-caps failed to make the post-season, it also ended a tidy six-year string of winning seasons.

The foundation of a strong team is still present , first and foremost starting with the starters. Jerrod Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana are as good as any front three in the AL; Haren is bound to improve upon his 3.91 ERA of last year (which was a full run lower after being traded over to the Angels) and Santana with 17 wins and 222 innings can compare favourably to any #3 guy in the American. Joel Piniero is OK, but Scott Kazmir is looking less and less likely to ever develop into the talent he was projected to be when he arrived on the scene what now seems like a lifetime ago. A 119:89 K to BB ratio since being traded from Tampa speaks volumes about his difficulties. Scott Downs greatly improves the bullpen, over the past four years he’s averaged 65 appearances per season and an ERA of 2.36, and unlike many lefties he’s about as effective against right-handers as lefties.

A healthy Kendry Morales should vastly improve the remarkably tepid .248 team average and 681 runs scored from last year – as long as he doesn’t celebrate too much. Vernon Wells, another import from Toronto (like Scott downs) is remarkably overpaid, but is still a fairly talented outfielder who will more than make up for the loss of Juan Rivera’s bat. Under less fan scrutiny , expect Wells to hit .280 or so and knock at least 25 dingers. Torii Hunter is one of the game’s under-rated hitting gems, however, the bats at C, 2B, SS and 3B are more chunks of gravel. The regulars who are expected to start these four key positions combined for just 21 homers and 149 RBI between them last year. With their speedsters getting older, the Angels will not play as much of a running game as they did in their recent successful years and all in all, the pitchers will have to be on top of their games to keep Mike Scioscia’s team in the game. 2011 Prediction: 81 wins, 2nd place.

OAKLAND: Last year’s trendy and annoying must-have accessory: a colourful vuvuzela. This year’s : a column predicting that the A’s are this year’s Giants, poised to win it all.

Granted, a little-known stat from last season, the Oakland starters not only led the league in ERA but did so with the best number in 20 years. Yet even that only just got them to the treading water mark of .500. And given that Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden average 25 years old and 65 career starts a piece, it might be a bit much to expect the trio to repeat their excellent 2010 with its collective 44 wins and 3.25 ERA. When Rich Harden’s name enters the discussion as a potential starter, you know it’s time to worry, bay Area fans. The bullpen is OK but not nearly as spiffy as fans still wearing Rickey Henderson jerseys would have us believe.

The Henderson mention is intentional; like the wild-running championship teams of two decades back, these A’s like to run. But the loss of Rajai Davis will cut into their 156 tally from last year. Kurt Suzuki, Mark Ellis and Kevin Kouzmanoff (due for a 30 homer season) all hit pretty well, Hideki Matsui still has some fire left in his bat, but an outfield of Josh Willingham, David DeJesus and Coco Crisp is hardly going to strike fear into opponents… even if healthy , and all three missed significant chunks of time last season.

If SF won it all, against all odds last year, can lightning strike twice for Alcatraz-area fans? Well, seems to me thunderstorms are rare at the Golden Gate Bridge. Bet on “no”. 2011 Prediction: 77 wins, 3rd place.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the other two teams in the West.