Talking Baseball

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Posted by Ben K. on Friday, March 19, 2004

2004 Season Preview, Part I

I'm not going to talk about hats. I promise.

One of our aims here at Talking Baseball is to bring you content and articles you might not find elsewhere. While our statistical analysis is evocative of Baseball Prospectus, and we decided to pursue the whole blog thing after reading Aaron Gleeman's blog, our topics and the analysis are our own. That being said, I feel that an important pre-season ritual is the season preview. While you can get season previews at every baseball site under the sun, each one is different. Over my next few posts, I'll be writing a few season preview entries. While my posts will predict the standings (and you'll see how in a minute), the previews are going to focus around interesting story lines surrounding each season during the 2004 campaign. Some of these story lines will be obvious, and some of them won't be. But hopefully, all of them will be something to follow during the upcoming 162 games.

But before I begin my previews, I would like to welcome you to Talking Baseball Version 2. As you may have noticed, we recently redesigned the site to look, well, more professional. The sidebar has been reworked, and the fonts have been replaced. More importantly, however, we have added a comments section to the bottom of every post so that our readers can leave us instant comments. Many people have already taken advantage of the opportunity to post their thoughts, and I would like to ask everyone to avoid posting vulgar or obscene comments. When you post a comment, that comment becomes a part of the post for everyone to see, and it becomes a part of our blog. We will be deleting any obscene or vulgar posts and spam as well. So please save us the trouble of deleting the posts, and think twice before posting the curse-filled tirade against a hat analysis or anything else. We want to hear from you, but at the same time, we will keep the site and its content respectable and decent.

Anyway, enough preaching, and onto the preview. I'm listing teams here in the order I feel that they will finish this season. Today's post will start with the NL West and Central; I'll take on the NL East and AL West on Tuesday; and I'll wrap things up next weekend with the AL Cetral and the über-competitive AL East.

National League West
1. San Francisco Giants — Clearly, the Giants are the heavy favorite to win the NL West. But I wouldn't expect them to put together another 100-win season. While their number-one starter Jason Schmidt is recovering from elbow surgery, he seems to be on pace for Opening Day. The offense, led by Bonds, is solid, but behind Schmidt, the Giants have Kurt Rueter (and his 2.51 K/9 IP), Brett Tomko, and Dustin Hermanson. That is not a trio that inspires confidence, and the young Jerome Williams will have to pick up some slack. If the rotation falters, the Giants could fall from the top of the West, but who would replace them is anyone's guess. (This just in, Schmidt's been scratched from his Saturday spring training start due to shoulder aches.)

Obvious story line: Barry Bonds, his aging body, and steroids will be all over the baseball news this season. Bonds is hitting fourth again this season because, as he told the San Francisco Chronicle, "I can't be up there in the early part of that lineup running around the bases. I'll end up in a coffin." As he pursues Hank and the Home Run record, his health will become more and more of a question.

Interesting story line: How will Robb Nen's surgically-repaired shoulder hold up? Nen missed the 2003 season and had three surgeries in the process. In 2002, his 43 saves brought the Giants to the brink of a World Series Championship. Since Tim Worrell signed with the Phillies this off-season, if Nen is not healthy enough or effective enough to close, the Giants will be in need of some pitching help.

Player to watch: Edgardo Alfonzo. Hitting behind Bonds, can he once again become a threat in the line up so that pitchers will be forced to throw Barry some strikes?

2. San Diego Padres — Despite the addition of Jeff Cirillo, one of the worst players out there right now, the Padres were one of the few teams in the West to make a big off-season push. With a young nucleus, along with All Star Trevor Hoffman making a return to form, the Padres could push the Giants out of the top spot this season.

Obvious story line: Phil Nevin and his shoulder. Nevin reinjured the shoulder than limited him to only 226 at bats last season. While the latest Prospectus book contends that Nevin is overrated, if he can stay injury-free this year, he could return to his 2001 form, thus propelling the Padres' offense.

Interesting story line: New ballpark, new team members, new season outlook? Can the Padres turn all of their off-season acquisitions into their first post-season appearance since they got swept by the Yankees in 1998? Right now, they could. Their team is built to win this year or next, and their new stadium will drive up attendance. Already, the Opening Day crowd at Petco Park should be huge. After the stadium boom, the young Padres (Xavier Nady, Sean Burroughs, Ramon Vazquez, Jake Peavy) may be ready to lead them to a few pennants.

Player to watch: Jay Payton. Last season, in the thin air of Denver, Payton hit 28 home runs, slugged .512, and drove in 89, all career highs. Can he come close to repeating this performance down at sea level in San Diego?

3. Colorado Rockies — If the Rockies are going to win, this is the year to do it. They have a roster full of aging veterans who are close enough to their peaks that they may be able to pull this franchise above .500 again. Jeromy Burnitz and Vinny Castilla will both enjoy boosts from the Colorado atmosphere, but once again, pitching remains a question.

Obvious story line: Todd Helton and his quest for a Triple Crown. Every year, Helton finishes near the top of the league in batting average and RBIs, and if anyone's going to get the Triple Crown it would be him (or maybe Manny, if he focused on the game enough). Will Burnitz and Castilla as protection in the line up, will this year be the year of the Triple Crown?

Interesting story line: The Rockies' starter this year, Shawn Estes, came to camp on a minor league deal, and now it looks like he will pitch opening day. Last season, batters hit .304 off of Estes, and he surrendered twenty home runs while pitching for the Cubs. These numbers would be cause for concern at Coors Field, but pitching coach Bob Apodaca believes Estes is in better shape than ever, and Shawn says he same thing. While the Rockies will once again sport a killer (home) offense, their pitching could make for a long season.

Player to watch: 22-year-old Chin Hui Tsao is the future of pitching in Colorado. Ranked the 25th-best prospect by Baseball America, he could be the the future ace of the Rockies' rotation, if the thin air doesn't get to him first. As highly touted as he is, he could be the brightest star in the Rockies' future or the biggest Colorado bust since Mike Hampton.

4. Arizona Diamondbacks — Although my girlfriend, Sarah, who's from Phoenix, is a Diamondbacks fan, I still have to rank them fourth, largely due to injuries. But I'll get to that in a second. This team no longer has the hitting or the pitching to have a shot at the division. Over the off-season, they acquired Richie Sexson and young arms Casey Fossum and Brandon Lyon, but they lost Curt Schilling and sparkplug Craig Counsell. Despite a dive last year in production, who could forget Counsell's annoying appearances against the Yankees in the 2001 World Series? While this team's young players (Brandon Webb, in particular) will continue to improve, their rotation with a back end of Elmer Dessens, Shane Reynolds, and Steve Sparks, will prove woefully inadequate this year.

Obvious story line: Injuries. Can Randy Johnson stay injury-free and once again carry this team on his back even without Schilling around? According to all sources, Johnson has no cartilage in his knee which makes his landing very difficult. Yet, Bob Brenly says RJ looks at the top of his game this spring. What's up with Luis Gonzalez's elbow? It's no secret that Gonzo is playing hurt these days, and if his elbow continues to hurt his swing, opposing pitchers will challenge him and risk facing Sexson with Shea Hillenbrand and little else to follow.

Interesting story line: Bob Brenly's job is not the most secure managerial position anymore. The Diamondbacks have made it known that they want Mark Grace managing soon, and Mark Grace has made it known that he's interested in the job. Right now, he's waiting up in the broadcast booth for the call, and if the D-Backs stumble out of the starting block, Grace could be the new Diamondbacks manager by the All Star break.

Players to watch: Brandon Webb and Florida Marlins pitcher Dontrelle Willis. On all accounts, Webb should have won the National League Rookie of the Year last year. In 28 starts, he had 21 quality outings, including his first 13 in a row. Prospectus rated his VORP at 51.9 and his stuff an astonishing 44. Despite his 10-9 record, he sported a 2.84 ERA and struck out 172 in 180.2 innings. Compare that to Dontrelle who had a 36.8 VORP and an ERA of 3.30 while striking out 142 in 160 innings, and it's clear that the attention Dontrelle gained because of the Marlins' overachieving propelled him to the ROY award. It will be interesting to see if Webb can prove that he deserved the award and outpitch Dontrelle for the second year in a row.

5. Los Angeles Dodgers — I know it's not very trendy to predict the Dodgers to finish last in their division; it hasn't happened since 1992. This team, however, does not inspire much confidence. They traded away ace Kevin Brown for Jeff Weaver (we'll get to him soon), and they lost Jeromy Burnitz who was a key part to the Dodgers' woeful offense last year. Their pitching isn't the same, and Kaz Ishii, Weaver, and Nomo have all been lit up this spring, and their fallback options are Jose Lima and Wilson Alvarez, back end starters at best. To top it off, the only offensive upgrade involved bringing in Juan Encarnacion. Last season, the Dodgers managed a Major League low 574 runs; they were even outscored by the Tigers. The prospects for improvement look slim, and the pitching doesn't look much better.

Obvious story line: Eric Gagne hasn't blow in a save since the war in Iraq began, and last season, he held opponents to a .133/.196/.173 line en route to a Cy Young. While the save itself may be an overrated, Gagne effectively makes Dodger games 8 innings long. This season, he probably won't challenge Bobby Thigpen's single-season save mark because the Dodger offense won't give him enough opportunities, but he's still really fun to watch. Baseball Propsectus has given him the nickname "Ice Cold." With a 1.20 ERA and 137 K in 82.1 innings, it's easy to see why.

Interesting story line: Jeff Weaver will forever be remembered in New York, unfortunately. He compiled a 5.35 ERA in pinstripes, giving up 28 home runs in 240 innings, and one mighty big home run to Alex Gonzalez during Game 4 of the World Series. (Really, Joe, what were you thinking putting him in to pitch with Rivera on the bench?) While many analysts are saying he'll recover nicely in Los Angeles, I think he won't, and for this reason alone, he's the guy to watch on this team. On the Tigers, he was never that good, and his career losing record and ERA of 4.59 attest to that. While Prospectus rates him with a VORP of 39.4 in 2001 (down to -10.9 in 2003), opposing hitters have hit .274 off him. In 2002, while still in Detroit, Weaver showed that he was capable of pitching well, sporting a 3.18 ERA in 121.2 innings. Weaver puts the ball in play, striking out only 5.93 per 9 innings, so he will benefit from an improved defense behind him in Los Angeles. But if he was never really that good to begin with, can the Dodgers really expect him to improve that much? If Spring Training is any indication (which it's not), signs point to no. He's surrendered 25 hits (2.00 WHIP) and 11 earned runs in 14 innings, but maybe he'll pull it together for the season. I personally doubt it.

General Manager to watch: Paul DePodesta, a disciple of Billy Beane, is now in charge of the Dodgers' development, and he has a long road ahead of him. His first step will be reviving the dormant offense, and it will be interesting to see who he pursues. With the organization sporting two of the top 10 BA prospects, and both of them pitchers, DePodesta's primary focus will be squarely on acquiring a bat, young or old. With James Loney (1B) and Franklin Gutierrez (OF) rounding out LA's prospects on BA's top 100 list, I would expect DePodesta will look to bring in a few more young bats as he aims for an improvement in 2005 and beyond.

National League Central

1. Chicago Cubs — While many baseball analysts have picked the Astros to win this division, any pitching staff led by Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and Greg Maddux, backed up by Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement gets my vote. This rotation’s overall VORP measured up to an impressive 208.4. With Kyle Farnsworth, LaTroy Hawkins, and Joe Browoski in the bullpen, the Wrigley faithful may feel that the stars are aligned for the Cubs this season. But as we will see, this team’s offense is treading on thin ice.

Obvious story line: In 1998, Greg Maddux led the NL with a 2.22 ERA; the season before that his numbers were even more impressive as he went 19-4 with a 2.20 in 1997. Since then, however, it’s been a slow, but steady, decline for one of the era’s greatest pitchers. As a telling indication, Maddux’s Equivalent ERA has gone up 0.40 runs each year for the last three seasons, and his VORP has fallen to 23.3. This year, the Cubs are asking Maddux to do two things: pitch as he did last year and impart his knowledge of pitching to the rest of the young Cub staff. In Atlanta, Maddux had to front the rotation; this year, the pressure is off, as he will be the Cubs’ third starter. If he can win 16 games for the Cubs, he will be one of the best third starters around.

Interesting story line: The Cubs offense should be a cause for concern; a right-handed line up, the only upgrade came at first base and the outfielders are an aging bunch. Sammy Sosa, the cornerstone of this team, had a precipitous decline in production last season. This was mostly due to a large drop-off in his walk rate while his strikeout rate actually increased. Sosa has Moises Alou and Derrick Lee hitting behind him now. While Alou will turn 38 this year, he put up solid numbers last year and Lee was an All Star and a key part to the Marlins’ run. With the team’s top-line pitching in place, the Cubs’ chances rest on the heart of the order.

Player to watch: Quietly, lead-off hitter Mark Grudzielanek put together a very respectable season last year. He hit .314/.366/.416 and scored 73 runs in 121 games. If Grudzielanek was for real last season, the Cubs will score a lot of runs; if this production was a fluke, the heart of the order will have to produce its own base runners and runs. I would look for the Cubs to acquire a true lead-off hitter before the trading deadline.

2. Houston Astros — Supposedly, the Astros have the best rotation in the major leagues, but I don’t see it. I’ve already written about this, and you can read about it here. Dave also voiced his belief that the Astros had an overrated rotation. Looking at the Baseball Prospectus statistics, the Cubs rotation appears much stronger. Prior’s 63.8 VOPR overshadows Oswalt’s 33.6; Wood’s 53.4 far exceeds Pettitte’s 25.4; and while Clemens’ 37.9 is significantly better than Maddux’s 23, I don’t think Clemens and Pettitte will be as good as Houston hopes. Clemens has shown his rust in a very unimpressive spring, and Pettitte, while sharp, is not the ace the Astros think he is. Additionally, Pettitte was recently quoted as saying he doesn’t like being the center of attention. That’s one of the reason why I think he left New York, but he’s going to have to get used to it if he is to succeed in Houston. The Astros and their fans are putting a lot of pressure on Andy. Oswalt is the future for this rotation, but he had issues with a groin injury last year. If the Astros win the division this year, it will be because their offense is much better than Chicago’s. A division title is possible, though I would look for the Astros to secure the Wild Card.

Obvious story line: Will the loss of Billy Wagner hurt Houston more than they think? The Astros were willing to let Wagner walk because of All Star set-up man Octavio Dotel and his recent success. Yet, Dotel’s line as a closer is less than impressive. In his career, he has converted only 65 percent of his save chances (28 for 43), and he is replacing someone with a success rate of 97 percent. Dotel will have to show improvement in the closer role if the Astros are going to win their games.

Interesting story line: How good is Morgan Ensberg? Last season, Ensberg hit 25 home runs in 385 at bats, and for some reason, Jimy Williams never officially handed him the starting role. (Geoff Blum? What was he thinking?) Now that Houston shipped Blum to Tampa Bay, Ensberg will get his 500 at bats this season, and 40 home runs out of the number two hole is not out of the question. Backed by Bagwell, Kent, and Berkman, NL pitchers will have to throw strikes to the 28-year-old, and if last year is any indication, he will deliver. Look for him to turn in a .280/.370/.500 performance with an increase in power numbers. If Ensberg stays hot, the Astros could upset the Cubs.

Manager to watch: Jimy Williams, in my opinion, is one of the worst managers around. He hardly ever runs out the same line up two days in a row, and he used his relief pitchers an astounding 502 times last season. Compare that to Dusty Baker (420), Joe Torre (367), Grady Little (437), and Jack McKeon (280 in more than two-thirds of a season), and Williams’ hyperactivity becomes more apparent. He needs to settle down. He should let his hitters grow comfortable in a set line up and allow his relievers to get some rest every now and then. Expectations are high for the Astros this year, and Williams will get the blame if the Cubs open up a wide division lead.

3. St. Louis Cardinals — Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they are in the same division as the Astros and the Cubs. Otherwise, this team would almost be a lock for the post season. As it is, they could upset the division. Their rotation, headed up by Matt Morris and Woody Williams, is decent, and their line up, with Edgar Renteria, Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen in the middle, certainly could out-slug the Cubs. While I would expect the Cardinals to finish with around 87 wins this year, I do not think it will be enough for them to reach October.

Obvious story line: Similar to Todd Helton, Albert Pujols is a perennial candidate for the Triple Crown and the MVP award. Last season, he was the Cardinals’ Triple Crown guy, hitting .359 with 43 home runs, 124 RBIs, and a league-leading 137 runs scored. The Cardinals paid only $900,000 for this last year; they're paying a lot more now - to the tune of 95 million over 7 years. If he continues to improve—and if he’s really only 24, then he will—he could become one of the generation’s greatest hitters. While the Cardinals will probably put together a very non-descript season this year, if Pujols challenges the Triple Crown again, the excitement out of St. Louis will be high. This is a city that loves and appreciates its baseball after all.

Interesting story line: For some reason, baseball fans like Jeff Suppan, the Cardinals’ third starter. I don’t really know why. His career ERA of 4.90 is among the highest in active players with over 200 starts. He gives up a lot of home runs and strikes out only 5 per 9 innings. His lack of value really showed when the Red Sox picked up him up as a last-season addition last year only to watch him fail miserably. The Cardinals may be putting too much faith in Suppan if they expect him to pick up the slack behind Morris and Williams, both of whom suffer from injuries. I, for one, don’t really know what the big deal is over this overrated righty.

Player to watch: Watch Scott Rolen just because he’s fun to watch. He quietly turned in a solid season last year, with 49 doubles, 28 home runs, and a .286/.382/.528 line. He drove in 104 runs and even managed to steal 13 bases. With Gold Glove-caliber defense at third base, he’ll have a grand time hitting behind Pujols again this year.

4. Cincinatti Reds — After the Cardinals, the NL Central witnesses a big drop in quality, and the Reds will earn fourth place merely by default next year. Their rotation, right now projected to be Paul Wilson, Cory Lidle, Jimmy Haynes, Aaron Harang, and Jose Acevedo, sports just one 10-game winner (Lidle had 12), and he struggled mightily in Toronto last year. Being on a worse team won’t help him. The offense is decent, but injuries have decimated this team. If Junior Griffey and Austin Kearns stay healthy and Adam Dunn raises his .215 average, the Reds will score some runs, but like last year, when they sported a 5.09 ERA, they will also give up a lot of runs. In fact, Prospectus ranked the 2003 rotation the 10th worst in the Majors since 1969, and this one doesn’t look much better.

Obvious story line: Ken Griffey, Jr., is the only player to get the interesting and obvious story line just because there’s not too much excitement surrounding the Reds. For the obvious story line, which Griffey will show up to play this year? Will the Seattle Ken Griffey who was considered one of the best all-around players in the 1990s show up? Or will the Reds version who plays in 70 games a season while averaging 14 home runs and two injuries a year appear? For Griffey’s sake and his chances at the Hall, I hope he finds a return to form. He is only 34 after all and could be a valuable player still.

Interesting story line: Assume that Ken Griffey Jr. doesn’t get injured and shows that he can still hit 30-40 home runs a year. The story surrounding him then becomes what team lands him by July. Will the Yankees make a run for him in Gary Sheffield’s thumb is truly injured? Will the Padres pursue the Phil Nevin-Ken Griffey trade that was rumored to be in the works last season? Or maybe the Red Sox will pick him up if Trot Nixon’s back keeps him out for a while. Either way, Griffey is the guy to watch at the trade deadline this year, if he can stay healthy for more than 6 innings at a time.

Prospect to watch: Ryan Wagner, the lone Cincinnati prospect on Baseball America’s top-100 list, reached the majors last year after 9 minor league innings and a scant 46 days after being drafted. While there, he gave up only 13 hits in 21.2 innings and pitched to an ERA of 1.66. While some analysts think his motion leaves him exposed to injuries, for now, the Reds should use him and develop him while they have him. If Danny Graves struggles in the closer role, Wagner could be seeing some ninth-inning appearances by the end of the season.

5. Milwaukee Brewers — As Officer Barbrady likes to say in South Park, “Move along, people, there’s nothing to see here.” No one in the Brewers’ projected line up drove in 100 runs last year, and none of their starters had a winning record or an ERA under 4.45. The line on their number two guy Wayne Franklin could summarize the Brewers’ hopes: 10-13, 5.29, 36 home runs and 201 hits in 194.2 innings. The future of the organization lies in its deep farm system which landed six prospects in BA’s top 100 list.

Obvious story line: The books on the Brewers are under examination. To find out more about this story, check out this letter. As the city of Milwaukee investigates the Brewers’ finances, their declining payroll, and funding for the new stadium, it will be interesting to see what the outcome of this is for Bud Selig and his daughter Wendy. The Seligs made a commitment to winning when they gained approval for their new ballpark, but since Miller Park has opened, the Brewers have seen decreasing attendance figures and a payroll heading lower and lower. Their biggest off-season acquisitions were a bunch of soft-hitting guys from the Diamondbacks (Craig Counsell, Lyle Overbay, Junior Spivey) in exchange for fan favorite Richie Sexson. The Brewers and their owners may be in trouble of the city digs much deeper. This could be the beginning of the end for the much-maligned Bud Selig.

Interesting story line: Prince Fielder, no doubt. Fielder, son of Cecil, is going to be the next big offensive star in the Major Leagues. He tore up the minors last year at age 19, hitting 27 home runs with a .313/.409/.526 line at single A. While it seems to be a foregone conclusion that Fielder will be a bigger star than his dad, don’t expect to see him up this year except for maybe in September. The only question is his weight: right now, he’s better suited to be a designated hitter than a first baseman. To become a star on the Brewers, he’ll have to shed some pounds, but maybe part of his plan is to be traded from the Brewers. Overall, though, the Brewers have developed a solid farm system with Richie Weeks earning top prospect honors over Fielder. Weeks should be up in the majors by June, but the key to the Brewers’ offensive success down the road lies in the Prince.

Team for sale: Will anyone buy the Brewers? The city of Milwaukee and its citizens are showing that they won’t support this team, at least not while the team continues to lose. While the Seligs have put the Brewers up for sale, they will be hard-pressed to find a buyer willing to invest any money into what will surely be a losing venture. If the Brewers are sold before the Expos are, there will be some grumblings that things are not right in the world of baseball.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates — We’ve already angered Pirates fans by insulting their hat; now, I get to do it again by presenting the truth about a once-glorious franchise. The Pirates have very little offense, a decent starting rotation, and a bullpen that could end up losing this team a lot of games. The lone bright spots are Kip Wells and Josh Fogg, and the minor league system is looking solid. Yet, it won’t pay dividends for a few more years, and the Pirates, who have gone 25 years without a World Series appearance, will suffer another season at the bottom of the Central. In the end, there’s really not that much to say about them.

Obvious story line: Will Lloyd McClendon be fired? Currently, he sports a managerial winning percentage of .431, and that’s sure to go down again this year. If he can show some more patience with the younger players on the team, he may keep his job, but right now the Pirates need a manager who is willing to develop some young arms and some young bats. I’m not so sure Lloyd is the man for the job.

Interesting story line: Who will win the pierogi race? Will it be Saurkraut Saul, Jalapeno Hannah, Oliver Onion, or Cheese Chester? I’m serious; that’s the most interesting story coming out of Pittsburgh this year.

Player to watch: Left-handed prospect Sean Burnett is a masterful ground ball pitcher and could be a part of the Pirates’ rotation this year. He has allowed only 17 home runs in 506 innings, but he strikes out only about 4.5 men per 9 innings. To succeed in the majors, he will have to maintain his 4-to-1 groundball to flyball ratio. Burnett should be a nice harbinger of possible things to come from a fairly deep Pirates farm system.
That's the end of Part I. Hopefully, you made it all the way through it. On Tuesday, I'll be posting previews for the NL East and the AL West, and then next Saturday, I'll finish this up with a look at the weak AL Central and the incredibly strong AL East. Leave me your comments; I'm curious to see our readers' thoughts.

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