Tagged: Stephen Strasburg

Rebuilding The Jays Rotation, Part 1…

The first General Managers Meeting of the off-season is underway, so high time to get to work for the Jays Ross Atkins. The Blue Jays have potential… but also a lot of work to do before next March if they’re going to be respectable and not continue to bleed fans as they’ve done for the past couple of years. “We don’t suck quite as bad as the Orioles” will not be an acceptable slogan again for 2020, Toronto.

I don’t know what Ross Atkins and the Jays will do this off-season, but I know what I’d be doing, so I’ll look at my path to success for 2020. What I’d do if I was the GM.

Job 1 is, has to be, simply must be starting pitching. The good news is that everyone’s on the same page on that issue. Club president Mark Shapiro has said so clearly, and the team got off to a decent start on the pressing need last week by acquiring Chase Anderson from Milwaukee. Not exactly a beeline to the World Series, but a promising start.

A number of fans are clammoring for Toronto to go after the presumed Free Agent blue ribbon candidates – Gerritt Cole and/or Stephen Strasburg. While Toronto is a big enough, rich enough, team to actually go all in for either of the pair and outbid their supposed preferred SoCal destination teams, I’d steer clear. As good as they both are, there’s little real upside to bidding into the $30M + a year category on a lengthy contract to attain their services when the same amount could conceivably bring in two pitchers who’d collectively upgrade the staff more…and tie up the budget for fewer years. In today’s market, Strasburg, for instance, may be worth $35M a year right now… but there’s great doubt as to how wonderful he’ll be around 2027 when he’ll be 39 and the contract his agent Scott Boras is looking for for him will likely end. Let’s keep in mind, that Trent Thornton, a dude with 6 wins and an ERA of near 5 was the most reliable starter the team had by September. They are more than one good pitcher away from taking on the Yankees or Astros next October. In short it makes more sense to upgrade two spots in the rotation from an “F” to a “B” than one from that “F” to an “A.”

So I wouldn’t spend much time or phone minutes on that pair. Instead, my first call would be to Atkins & Shapiro’s old stomping grounds – Cleveland. My first choice to upgrade the Blue Jays staff for next season would be trading for Carlos Carrasco. The man’s a champ, on and off the field. His off-field activities won him the Roberto Clemente Award for this year. He supports refugee camps, spends time helping out at soup kitchens, has donated food to the needy from his own driveway and volunteered at hospitals before being diagnosed with cancer early this year. He’s a one-man relief organization that fans can get behind and do the team proud.

On field of course, he’s a star that would be a significant upgrade over any pitcher in the Toronto system right now. His 2019 numbers look mediocre indeed: 6-7, 5.29 with a small but still positive WAR of 0.3. However, one has to remember that he missed at least half the year undergoing cancer treatment and still came back to pitch in September. He still amassed an amazing 96 strikeouts to just 16 walks and still had a 94 MPH fastball (although MLB consider his 85 MPH nasty slider as his best pitch.) there’s plenty of reason to expect he could bounce back to his 2017-18 numbers next year. In ’18 he was 17-10, 3.38 with a WAR of 3.1; the year before that, a league-leading 18 wins and a 3.29 ERA. His ERA was at least 19% better than league average from 2014-18 inclusively and he’s averaged better than 1.3 ground balls per flyball – a real bonus in the AL East. Carrasco will be 33 next spring, but shows no real signs of being nearly over-the-hill. Better, he’s signed through 2022, at an average of about $11.5M per season, a bargain in today’s market.

Now, there’s no reason why Cleveland should trade Carrasco. However, I think they would given a decent offer. Consider how they are heavily rumored to be trying to shed their “franchise” player Francisco Lindor, to save money and build for the future. As Anthony Castrovince points out, the Indians are good, but nowhere near good enough to contend for a championship and would do well in their small market to get rid of some stars now to build up their already good farm system to take another run at it in a couple of years. Consider also how both Carrasco and Corey Kluber were rumored to be on the trading block along with Trevor Bauer last season. Bauer got traded downstate, the other pair stayed.

The Indians have formidable pitching with Kluber still there, Shane Bieber establishing himself as a real front-line starter this season and Zac Plesac posting numbers that would have made him a likely Rookie of the Year candidate most any other season (8-6, 3.81). Then there’s Danny Salazar coming back and Mike Clevinger. They could stand to lose a starter like Carrasco and try to pinch those pennies to re-sign either Lindor or Jose Ramirez as a foundation for the infield for their next generation. I’d offer them something like a current AAA pitcher of the likes of Sean Reid-Foley or Jacob Waguespack, teenaged-sensation Simeon Woods-Richardson (acquired as part of the Marcus Stroman trade) and if needed, someone like Rowdy Tellez or even Teoscar Hernandez to help their less-than-all-that offence. The Indians would save cash, still have a solid rotation and add two young arms that given their coaching staff’s record of success, could be starts in two or three years. The Jays would have a starter who fans will love and who should deliver close to 200 innings and probably 15+ wins while keeping the budget low enough to allow for signing of more pitching,

That would be call #1. If the Indians refused or wanted simply too much, the next call would be to Colorado who are reportedly taking offers for their star , Jon Gray. Gray’s a little younger than Carrasco, won’t be a free agent until after the 2021 campaign and will probably be in line to make about $8M this year if he goes to arbitration. The rightie was 11-8 with a 3.84 ERA last season with a 96 MPH heater and a surprising WAR of 4.0. Oddly he pitched better at flyball-happy Coors Field than on the road, by an ERA margin of over 1 and a half. I’d make an offer close to what I’d offered Cleveland for Carrasco… perhaps just two solid young pitchers like Reid-Foley and Woods-Richardson would acquire him from the Rockies.

So, that’s my first moves for the off-season… bring in a new #1 starting pitcher, hopefully Carlos Carrasco but possibly Jon Gray. A good starter is a good start, but there’d be more work to be done… we’ll get to that next.

National League May Not Be Nationals’ – 2018 Predictions

Woo hoo! Opening day is here again! With our Blue Jays only hours away from taking the field (and honoring the late great Roy Halladay beforehand) it’s time to look ahead and predict what might happen this season…although the unexpected is really half the fun of the long, 162-game summer!

Today I’ll start with the league we have a little less interest in, the National.

Without further ado, here’s my best guess for the standings come Sep. 30:

East:

Washington 92 70 —

New York 86 76 -6

Atlanta 77 85 -15

Philadelphia 73 89 -19

Miami 63 99 -29

Central

Chicago 91 71 —

St. Louis 86 76 -5

Milwaukee 84 78 -7

Cincinnati 72 90 -19

Pittsburgh 67 95 -24

West

L.A. 95 67 —

Colorado 87 75 -8

Arizona 86 76 -9

San Fran. 78 84 -17

San Diego 67 95 -28

Clearly this would result in Colorado being in the Wild Card, hosting either St.Louis, New York or Arizona (wouldn’t that make for an interesting final weekend of the regular season!) Winner would ten play L.A. while Washington would host Chicago in the other NLDS. I tend to think whichever of the three wild card opponents face Colorado, they’d win. So here’s how I see that playing out:

wild card: St. Louis over Colorado

NLDS: LA over St. Louis Chicago over Washington

NLCS: LA over Chicago

so, there you have it. The more things change, the more they stay the same. I see the Dodgers making another run at the World Series.

Now to see how my predictions stack up against others, I’ve looked at USA Today, Yahoo and Sports Illustrated. The former put forward 7 experts,Yahoo, 6., making for a total of 14 opinions besides my own. Here’s how they see things. The top, second and third picks are from the 14 other sources cited with number behind the number of “votes”:

Category My Pick Top Pick Second Pick Third Pick
East Washington Wash. 14
Central Chicago Chicago 14
West L.A. L.A. 13 Col. 1
NL champ L.A. Wash. 6 Chicago 5 L.A. 3

Clearly there’s not much variation in picks until we get to the Championship series, so it could be a good year for a Dark Horse! By the way, the only “dissenting” vote was one USA Today writer who saw the Rockies winning the West.

A few thoughts before we go: I call it the “Curse of Strasburg”. Or “curse of cockiness”. The Nationals have clearly been the best team in the NL East this decade, and still are, but have yet to even make it to the NLCS. In fact, for all their stars and glory, they’ve won a grand total of 7 playoff games in their history. Deciding to shelve their top pitcher, Stephen Strasburg back in 2012 seemed to start their run of October bad luck, and whether it’s an angry Magic 8 Ball, too much over-confidence from the clubhouse to Owner’s box or perhaps just the fact that beyond their top three starters, they’re not that good, it seems like a Washington characteristic – ease to a division championship then tank. With the team one of the older ones around, I don’t see that changing this year- but i see a change next year with Atlanta and Philly both on the ascent and Bryce Harper likely as not gone to greener pastures. This might be the last year in the near future the window is open for D.C.’s team to do anything much.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s the Marlins. They were surprisingly good last year but as we know Derek Jeter and his cohorts have cleaned house there to the dismay of soith Florida fans. I almost think my prediction of 99 losses for them conservative. For one thing, chances of them finishing the year with the roster they have now are slim. Catcher J.T. Realmuto and infielder Starlin Castro both want out and will probably be accomodated. Meanwhile, there’s already strife in the clubhouse between the few veterans like Dan Straily who say they’re happy to stick it out and those demanding a trade. A tumultous clubhouse is seldom good in a winning environment. In a bad setting, it can be disastrous.

I see the Cards have signed reliever Greg Holland today. I think that will solidify their chances to finish ahead of Milwaukee, a team with a good field but rather shaky starting pitching.

Out west, boy- if you could combine the Rockies position players and D’backs pitchers, you’d have a World Series team. But you can’t, so I see the money and talent of L.A. holding them both at bay easily. I do,for the record, think Colorado has the best hitting team in the game and that Carlos Gonzalez is going to have a comeback year and Nolan Arenado should take home the MVP if his team make the playoffs in any capacity.

The Giants tried, bringing in aging stars Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria but it looks like their year’s over before it begins with ty Blach their opening game pitcher. Madison Bumgarner has a broken hand and Jeff Samadzjia is out with a pec strain and by the time they’re both back, the Giants could already be buried 10 games out. They should however, be better than last year’s mystifying 64-98.

Well, this weekend I tackle the real fun – the American League.

More Strasburg, less Clemens?

 

Tonight there’s a battle for first place in the AL East with the remarkable upstart Orioles taking on the behemoth Yankees. Yet most eyes in the baseball world will be elsewhere: in Washington DC and south Texas. There two of the most talked-about and anticipated starts of the year take place- Stephen Strasburg in Washington for the Nationals and a guy who was coming off his second Cy Young Award when Strasburg was born, Roger Clemens, in suburban Houston. The two are anticpated for different reasons yet are intriguingly similarly relevant.

 

In Washington , Strasburg is due to pitch against Miami in what will be his last, or possibly second-last game of the year. The Nationals,they or best record in baseball, as you likely know have decided to “shut down” their healthy ace for the year because he will have reached a pre-determined number of innings and the Nats brain-trust have it in their head that any innings over that number will jeopardize the young phenoms arm. In Sugarland, Clemens will make what will likely be his last start for the minor league Skeeters. If he leaves in pain or flames out, it will likely be the last start he’ll ever make in pro ball. However, if he looks respectable, as he did last month in his debut, it’s a poorly-concealed secret that the Houston Astros, they of the worst record in baseball, will sign the Rocket and use him for a game or two before slinking away for the off-season to prepare for even worse fates next year in the American League. As a fan, I”m furious at Washington. Surprisingly, I’m not that riled up about Houston.

 

Unlike many in this area, I’m not a fan of the Nationals. I wasn’t especially fond of the Expos, and besides, this is the organization that let baseball shrivel on the vine in Montreal then walk away. Little there for a Canadian to feel warm and cuddly about. I feel thankful that I’m not a fan of the DC club. If I were, I’d be apoplectic. The team which only two years back were a dismal 69-93 have a comfortable lead in their division and are going to the playoffs for the first time since moving to the capital a decade back. Everything seems to be clicking for the Nationals this year, including especially, the top end of their starting rotation. Gio Gonzalez has upped his game coming over from Oakland and of course, Stephen Strasburg, perhaps the most talked about pitcher since Roger Clemens has lived upto his billing as the top young ace in the game , going 15-6 with a 2.94 ERA and well over a strikeout per inning. He’s seemed totally healthy this year, after coming back from Tommy John surgery last summer. He shows no signs of slowing down or wearing out either; since July he’s been 4-1 with 41 Ks in 35 innings and a stellar 2.31 earned run average. He should be a lethal weapon against the bats of the Reds or Giants in the playoffs. So why on earth would the team want to stop him playing?

 

Well, of course because they have an idea in their head that pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery is weakened and fragile; they have it in their head that 159 innings is fine for such a pitcher but anything topping 160 will cause said arm or elbow to explode like Scratchy after Itchy replaces his eyes with handgrenades in a cartoon. There is alas, no real evidence to back this theory. The Blue Jays Jason Frasor has undergone the surgery twice and has never topped 75 innings in a season. His teammate, Kyle Drabek is out for the season after also needing Tommy John surgery for the second time and he had logged only about 71 innings this year after averaging something like 140 innings (between minors and majors) in the past couple of years. The aforementioned Clemens, for the record, pitched 254 innings the year he was Strasburg’s age, and never required the major surgery. Tommy John, who should know a thing or two about Tommy John surgery, has spoken out and says there’s no need to baby a pitcher coming back from the operation; he came back stronger and feeling healthier than he was before and the procedure has improved and become more routine since he underwent it over thirty years back.

 

Strasburg is capable of pitching,Strasburg says he wants to pitch in the playoffs. Fans in the capital-area are hungry for some success and love their young pitcher. To shut him down on basis of merely fearing he could get injured is ludicrous. Moreover, it’s disrespecting the fans and the game itself. A team has a responsibility to field the best team it can all the time, to try their best to win. Washington is not doing so. They deserve the scorn of their fans. They deserve to lose.

 

Whether or not the Astros deserve to lose, they will. They’re dreadful this year, 42-95, and face an uphill battle to improve , particularly shifting next season to a tougher division. There’s little for their fans to cheer about. Which is why I don’t mind the idea of having Clemens pitch for them this month. Yes, it’s a publicity stunt. Yes, it’s self-centred Clemens at his most egotistical, attempting to put more distance between his recent trial and his eligibility for the Hall of Fame (not to mention attempting to win his 355th game to tie, and perhaps 356th one to edge out, Greg maddux) . And no, the Roger of 2012 isn’t going to be a “Rocket.” A “hang-glider” more like.

 

That said, there’s no reason to object to the idea. The Astros have a duty to try to put something on the field that is worth the fans paying to see or spend time watching at home, and there is an undeniable interest in, and perhaps (in Houston) affection for Clemens. And, we are talking about the worst team in baseball here. A team with the 15th best ERA in the 16 team NL. Based on his one start in the minors (against a couple of players who recently had played in the bigs) and evaluation of his pitches, its not hard to imagine that he would be at least as good as recent redoubtable Astros starters Fernando Abad (5.30 ERA, hitters clipping him for a .326 batting average) or Jordan Lyles (3-11, 5.55).

 

Possibly it’s pathetic that the once great Clemens is reduced to this to try to ensure his legacy. Perhaps it’s pathetic that he might actually improve the Astros at age 50. yet that’s the situation so I for one, am OK with it. I just hope it doesn’t start a trend. No one needs to see Pete Rose playing alongside Joey Votto in a Reds uniform , swinging feebly at balls in the dirt.

Phils hope Punxsutawney Phil not their new mascot…NL East

If the Robins singing outside my window aren’t enough evidence, the Jays and Cardinals playing on the diamond are proof positive- spring is in the air! Our long winter is over, and for us Blue Jays fans it’s been rather a winter of our discontent. But March is when hope springs eternal and all teams are equal. The Orioles are tied with the Yankees and the Pirates have no more losses on the board than their cross-state rivals. This of course will not be the case come Independence Day, or even the May long weekend, by which time we should have an idea of how the 2012 season should shake down. For now though, the fun is in looking ahead and imagining what will be. Thus in the next few days I’ll share with you my predictions, starting today with the National League.

 

You’ll see that as well as the outlook for the teams in general, I’ve listed three key players for each one this season: the Ace, the Wild card and the Joker. The Ace is the “franchise” player, the marquee performer (not necessarily a pitcher mind you); the Wild Card is less obvious, the player whose season is pivotal to the fate of the team’s success. The joker, as the name implies, is the guy they’re stuck with that takes up space (and you probably want to stay away from in your Rotisserie leagues.)

 

East:

 

Atlanta: Funny thing. I grew up in greater Toronto, and the only other place i’ve ever lived is in metro Atlanta briefly. Besides that personal point, the two cities seem connected in the baseball world. Both cities seem to feel a sense of boredom and impatience when it comes to their teams, a sense of disappointed nostalgia looking back to the glory years in the 1990s. Both teams are pretty good, but not good enough anymore in their tough divisions.

The Braves will continue that tradition this year too. Yes, its a good team. Unfortunately, their in a great division where the competition is getting better as Atlanta spins its wheels. Their rotation is as good as any in the league not wearing scarlet caps with a “P” on them; it’s arguably better than last year even with the departure of Derek Lowe. Or perhaps because of that; it frees up a spot for a talented youngster like Brandon Beachy (7-3, 3.68 in 25 starts last year) or Julio Teheran (15-3 in AAA). Add in that Tommy Hanson should be healthy this year and that they have the best 1-2 bullpen combo in the NL with Craig Kimbrel (as in Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel) and Jonny Venters (85 appearances,96 K’s in ’11) and you have to figure the opposition won’t be scoring a ton of runs against the Tomahawks.

Unfortunately, neither will they score a ton of runs. Granted Michael Bourn is a great addition and gives them speed aplenty on top of the lineup, and Brian McCann is the best hitting catcher in baseball. But Chipper Jones has had surgery on both knees in the past couple of years and seems to be running on fumes, Dan Uggla is too streaky to rely on and as an everyday outfielder, Martin Prado makes a great utility infielder. The team’s offence isn’t bad; it’s just not spectacular and they are cursed by a tougher sched than Central division teams.

Ace: Brian McCann- even on a “down” year he caught 126 games and hit close to his .286 career average

Wild Card: Jason Heyward- needs to show last year was a case of sophomore slump, not signs of his rookie year being his career year

Joker: Chipper Jones – turns 40, bad knees, power shrinking…

 

2012 Prediction: 87 wins, 2nd place

 

Miami– will be fun to watch if nothing else what with new name, new art deco look, new manager and payroll. No question the team has improved in the off-season, they’d better have become better after dishing out some $191M in free agent contracts! The thing to remember though is that last year’s edition won only 72 games– are the new stars and identity enough to add the 18 or so games it will take to compete or at least make the playoffs? Short answer: no.

Perhaps the biggest addition for the M’s will be one who’s not an addition at all- Josh Johnson. Johnson seems to be healthy again which is good news indeed for Florida fans. The young hurler has a .667 winning percentage and 2.14 ERA over past 2 years. The bad news is that he’s managed to only log 243 innings in that span. The addition of Mark Buehrle is bound to help the pitching, but with Javier Vasquez departing, Johnson will have to step up and stay healthy if the fishies are to improve upon their 2011 10th place finish in pitching. Heath Bell should help their previously mediocre bullpen and close out leads Johnson hands them but might not match the success he had in the pitcher-friendly West.

Giancarlo (nee “Mike”) Stanton is the best young outfielder in the NL and should have a break out season with more support around him in lineup; if the ball carries in new SunLife Stadium, 40homers and 110 ribbies isn’t out of the question. Jose Reyes gives them a great leadoff hitter and reigning batting champion and with John Buck thrown into the mix, the Marlins could score a lot.

The worry for SE Floridian fans has to be the “intangibles”. No doubt there is a ton of talent in the clubhouse. But there are also some very difficult personalities. Reyes wasn’t known for his work ethic in New York and has displaced the already peevish Hanley Ramirez from shortstop, to the latter’s displeasure. Throw in hot-headed Carlos Zambrano and have them all reporting to the always colourful but at times redoubtable Ozzie Guillen and one thing’s certain- there should be some entertaining stories coming out of Miami this summer. Less certain is if the Marlins mix will be magic or melee.

Ace: “Giancarlo” Stanton – two years, 113 extra base hits, one RBI per 6 at bats

Wild Card: Ozzie Guillen- granted, he’s no longer a player, but how the rather eccentric manager deals with such a talented but emotional roster will spell the difference between a lot of W’s and L’s

Joker: Juan Oviedo, formerly “Leo Nunez”…apparently his identity was as big a scam as were his credentials as a closer.

 

2012 prediction: 82 wins, 4th place

 

New York: baseball’s black hole, where stars go to collect absurd amounts of cash and never be heard from again. Jose Reyes departure leaves them with all of one decent veteran player in the everyday lineup, and David Wright seems to be living upto his owner’s insult (“Wright is not a superstar”). In fact a third baseman who has a meagre .929 fielding percentage and .427 slugging percentage might realistically be viewed as a liability but he’s still the best player on the squad and might rejuvenate his career in a different environment. With the fences moved in a bit this year,he may outdo last year’s 14 dingers as might jason Bay and his 12 but neither will do much damage. Ike Davis should be back from his ankle injury and in a parallel universe would be on his way to being a star, but in Mets land will probably level off at .250 with 12 home runs.

Johan Santana is potentially healthy again after shoulder surgery last year, surprisingly he’s only 33 so there is time for him to return to form, but realistically he was great when George Bush was president. The Metropolitans should be ecstatic to get 175 innings and 12 wins out of him now. They raided the Jays clubhouse for Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch to revamp their bullpen. Apparently they didn’t watch Blue Jays games last year. This is a team which has potentially to blow 40 saves if they could only lead in that many games.

Ace: None. David Wright is the best they have and he’s a jack at best.

Wild Card: also David Wright. A good first half should parlay itself into a trade to a contender which will bring in future prospects that might help the M’s look decent by 2015.

Joker: Johan Santana. Hey, maybe i’ll be wrong, he’ll return to his prime Twins form and win 20. But my money’s on him being injured by July and having a losing record at that point.

 

2012 Prediction: 72 wins, 5th place

 

Philadelphia: City of Brotherly Love fans hope that Punxsutawney Phil stays over on the western side of the state and that this year won’t be Groundhog Day for them. The last two years have looked much the same for the Phils- best record during the regular season, great pitching, trouble scratching out runs, flat-lined hitting in the post-season. Unfortunately , little they did in the off-season promises great change from that pattern.

Even though pouting Roy Oswalt isn’t there anymore (in fact, lacking an offer from his favoured Houston or St Louis,he’s not anywhere but sitting on his front porch, having apparently spurned suitors in Toronto, Cleveland and Detroit), the Phils still have pitching coming out of their yin-yang. Roy Halladay is simply the best pitcher of our era, potentially starts the season as the wins leader among active pitchers and has, when “adjusted” (to league averages basically) one of the 15 best ERA’s – ever. So what if he turns 35 this year? With his discipline and work routine, 35 is the new 24. Give him some runs and a solid bullpen for the 20 games he doesn’t finish and he is a threat to win 25 and his third Cy Young. Writing this today, March 4th, he already looked in mid-season form in his spring training debut. Cliff Lee would be the ace of any other staff not located in Michigan but here is second fiddle. But his fiddle is a Stradavarius violin; all he did last year was notch six shutouts and post a 2.40 ERA, and run his career record in Philly upto 24-12. Cole Hamels is one of the best young pitchers in the game and no doubt benefits from being around not one but two Cy Young winners in the clubhouse as will Vance Worley who in any other year would likely have been the Rookie of the Year after going 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA and better than a strikeout per innin in his first complete season. Joel Piniero is a new addition who will challenge Joe Blanton for the number 5 spot.

Jon Papelbon might not quite make up for the loss of both Brad Lidge and ryan Madson, but keeps the P’s in the game with a rock-solid closer although relying on former starters Jose Contreras and Dontrelle Willis for middle innings is a little disconcerting. Nonetheless, a team with an ERA of barely 3 can stand to lose a bit of ground and still dominate opposing batters.

The area of concern of course, isn’t the pitching. It’s the hitting, and for the past two years the Phil’s have been squarely middle of the pack. Last year their .253 average was right in the middle of the league and their 713 runs was 7th best . Good enough to make the playoffs, bad enough to be shut down quickly by good pitching as the Giants and then Cards showed in the past two post-seasons. Little they did this winter inspires confidence that they will be much better this year. Ty Wiggington has hit 37 homers in the past two years and will be a good bat off the bench and the timeless Jim Thome adds a superb veteran presence to the bench but is questionable as an everyday player at age 42- and with Ryan Howard being out for some time at start of season with his Achilles tendon trouble, that is what Jim might need to do. Howard being out of the lineup for potentially 40 games will not help them get off to a flying start. Hunter pence however is a solid all-round hitter and will fill in as the cleanup hitter nicely. Out of the hole that is Houston, Pence might well shine and be mentioned in MVP circles…he was hitting .308 with 11 homers in south Texas when traded last year and then upped his average while knocking another 11 out of the park in just 54 games in Philly. A .333 average, 30 home run year isn’t out of the question. Neither is a World series win for this team, but things will have to fall into place nicely for that to happen and in all likelihood, they’ll have to supplement their offence again this year by the All Star break.

 

Ace: Roy Halladay- 170 wins in past ten seasons, tops in majors.

Wild Card: Chase Utley – once the best second baseman in the game, various injuries have cost him over 100 games in past two years. Can he stay healthy this season?

Joker: Domonic Brown, one time top prospect hasn’t shone in his stints in bigs over past two years and with the addition of Wiggington and juan Pierre, may not even make the opening day roster.

2012 Prediction: 96 wins, 1st place

 

Washington: the Nationals start looked a lot like their predecessor, the Expos, finish- a lot of future promise, little real-time performance and disinterest among fans, or potential ones, in their home cities. Thankfully, the ownership of this team has made some wise moves, drafted well and all of a sudden there is a buzz about the Nats. Their top picks in ’08 and ’09 are arguably the most talked about and anticipated youngsters in the game: pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper. Strasburg has already dazzled in his brief time in the majors and showed at the end of ’11 that he’s recovered from his Tommy John surgery, his 2010 debut should help him be ready for the inevitable media frenzy that will surround his every pitch. Gio Gonzalez gives them a legitimate #2 starter, even if his ERA is likely to rise from his 3.02 of last year, given the tougher competition he’ll face most days, and Edwin jackson is a solid addition to the rotation too. Brad Lidge gives them a reliable closer and to get to him, there’s none better than rubber-armed Tyler Clippard, of 18 wins and 210 innings over past three seasons fame. His ERA of 1.83 last year was best of his career and second best in the league among pitchers with 70+ innings.

Jayson werth was an expensive flop last season for Washington, leading off his $126M contract with just 20 homers and .389 slugging percentage, but expect bigger things from him this season as well as from Ryan Zimmerman, who missed two months last year with abdominal injuries but seems good to go this year. When healthy Zimmerman , if not the best third bagger in the league is at least the most under-rated, hitting for a rather consistent .289 or so average and 20-25 homers per year. Danny Espinosa was an under-rated rookie infielder last year, with 21 home runs and being one of only two 2Bs in the league to participate in over 100 double plays. If he can be more selective at the plate and cut down on his 166 whiffs, he’ll up his average and help the Nats be in the top half of the NL hitting-wise. There’ll be pressure on the team to bring in 19 year old star-in-the-making Bryce harper but smart money would keep him in the minors for more seasoning. If Werth et al can hit upto their capability, the team will score enough runs anyway.

 

Ace:Stephen Strasburg, only 23 and with only 92 big league innings, he’s a rarity in being a kid who shows signs of living upto his reputation.

Wild Card: Jayson Werth. Forget about the $18M a year stipend, a .232 average and 160K’s won’t cut it for a major league outfielder. He knows it and may be the Werth of old again, in which case the N’s will be a number of games better.

Joker: Chien-Ming Wang- light years removed from his 18 win season with Yankees, yet another Asian pitcher who’s not been able to succeed as expected in North America.

 

2012 Prediction: 86 wins, 3rd place.

 

Up next- the Central Division… were the Cardinals a fluke?