Talking Baseball

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Posted by Ben K. on Saturday, March 27, 2004

2004 Season Preview, Part III

Before I begin my season preview, I would like to direct your attention to a few articles on ESPN.com. A few hours ago, the Yankees and Devil Rays landed in Japan to start their Opening Day trip through the Far West. Having flown over 7,000 miles from their Spring Training complexes, players on both teams had the joy of missing Friday completely this week. Jayson Stark and Bob Klapisch yesterday presented the two sides of the debate.

On the one hand, Stark wrote an elegant piece from the players' points of view, saying that the fact that these games actually count is ludicrous. The jet lag is ridiculous, and it is a situation in which 28 other teams do not find themselves. In fact, those 28 other teams enjoy more days for Spring Training exhibition games and more days for pitchers to tune up. I won't rehash the entire argument. Just click here: Way too Far East, by Jayson Stark

On the other side, Klapisch sat down with Yankees GM Brian Cashman to discuss the economics of the trip. From an international marketing point of view, clearly this trip is good. MLB and the Yankees get widespread exposure in Japan, thus increasing sales of baseball memorabilia. It's also good for the international image of Major League Baseball if they spread the game across nature barriers such as the ocean. For Klapisch's argument, click here: History in the Making, by Bob Klapisch

Personally, I think it's a little crazy for these two teams to fly half way around the globe and suffer the consequences of jet lag and fewer Spring Training games just to play two regular season games in Japan. If they want to open Spring Training there, so be it. But for Alex Rodriguez to be making his Yankee debut at 5:07 a.m. on the YES Network instead of 8 p.m on ESPN makes it seem as though Major League Baseball is forsaking its home fans for better international coverage. Baseball has been under a lot of pressure to improve its marketability. It lags far behind in basketball and football in that category. While this trip to Japan may enhance baseball's image in Japan, it certainly doesn't help build its popularity in the States.

Now, on to Part III of the Spring Preview. If you missed Parts I or II, follow these links:
Spring Preview, Part I
Spring Preview, Part II

If you don't want to read about every league and simply care about the league in which your favorite team plays, follow one of these links:
National League East
National League Central
National League West
American League Central
American League East
American League West

American League Central

1. Chicago White Sox — The American League Central, is hands down, the worst league in professional baseball this year. The stars are either on the way out (Frank Thomas, age 36) or will be starting this year (Ivan Rodriguez, age 32, 13,076 innings behind the plate). While there are some rising stars (Jeremy Reed, Joe Mauer), this is a thin league. As such, I think any of the top four teams could win the division. However, I'm going to pick the White Sox, just because no one else has. Under first-year manager Carlos Guillen, the White Sox did not make any large off-season moves and did lose Bartolo Colon, Tom Gordon, and Carl Everett. But this team has a strong rotation with Esteban Loaiza and Mark Buehrle up front and Jon Garland, Scott Schoenweiss, and Danny Wright on the back end. If Billy Koch can undo 2003 and return to 2002 form, the White Sox will have a decent bullpen to compliment a solid offense.

Obvious story line: Pitching is what will deliver the Central for the White Sox. Last year, Loaiza was a surprise, winning more than 11 games for the first time in his career. And he did it in fashion too, racking up 21 wins to go along with a 2.90 ERA and 207 strike outs. Behind him, Mark Buehrle was 2-10 with a 5.18 ERA on June 10 before he went on to win 12 of his last 16 decisions. If Loaiza is for real and Buehrle's hot streak continues on into 2004, the White Sox should be looking down at the rest of the Central.

Interesting story line: In 2002, Paul Konerko hit .304/.359/.498 with 27 HR and 104 RBI. Last year, he hit .234/.305/.399 with 18 home runs and 65 runs batted in. He hit only .187 off of left-handers and .327 off of right-handers. Konerko see pitches to hit this year, and for the White Sox to score runs Konerko will have to do much better than his 2003 average of .218 with runners in scoring position. If he doesn't shake off 2003, the White Sox will have a gaping black hole of offense in their lineup.

Prospect to watch: Last year, Aaron Rowand hit .287/.327/.452 while prospect Jeremy Reed hit .409/.474/.591 in half a season at AA. The White Sox feel that Reed needs more time, and he'll be starting the season at AAA. Rowand, on the other hand, will have one more chance to win a starting job or at least prove he's trade bait. Reed will be in Chicago before Rowand realizes it. For more on Reed, check out Dave's last post.

2. Minnesota Twins — The Twins are trying the Seattle Mariners approach to improving. When the Mariners lost Ken Griffey, Randy Johnson, and Alex Rodriguez, they managed to win 116 games. This winter, the Twins lost closer Eddie Guardado, set-up man LaTroy Hawkins, catcher A.J. Pierzynski, outfielder Dustin Mohr, and starting pitchers Eric Milton and Rick Reed. This year, they're relying on über-hyped prospect Joe Mauer, reliever Joe Nathan, and newcomer Rick Helling to fill the gaps. Unfortunately for the Twins, Helling was hit in the leg by a line drive, and his leg broke. Ouch, big time. So the Twins will start the season (and play to the end of May) with an unproven fifth starter. While their lineup will be about as good as last season with Shannon Stewart anchoring for the entire season, the pitching looks shaky. Brad Radke, Johan Santana (back from surgery), Kyle Lohse, Carlos Silva, and someone else will start. Joe Nathan and his one career save will close with J.C. Romero to set up and not much else behind him. I think the Twins will get the second slot, but only because the Royals and Indians won't.

Obvious story line: Joe Mauer. That's it. I'm sick of hearing about him. Go watch the Twins. He's Baseball America's number 1 prospect, drafting the same year as Mark Prior, and he could be one of the best catchers all time. I can't wait to see him, but there's no need to write any more about him here. It's all been said to death throughout the baseball blog world.

Much more interesting story line: Joe Nathan had a good season last year. He threw 79 innings, striking out 83 while surrendering only 51 hits. He had a 2.96 ERA last year, but was 0 for 3 in save opportunities. In October, he pitched 0.1 innings and gave up 4 hits and 3 runs and earned a blown save, costing the Giants a game in the NLDS. Nathan's one career save came on May 16, 1999, when he was the only player left in the bullpen during an extra-inning game between the Giants and the Astros. Nen recorded the win; Nathan the save. For the Twins to win, Nathan will have to show he can close. While Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system is predicting an ERA over 5.00 for Nathan this year, the Twins may see a lot of defeats snatched from the jaws of victory this year.

More interesting prospect: First baseman Justin Morneau will be in the starting lineup this season. While Morneau will start the season at AAA, he's a better hitter than Doug Mientkiewicz. The guys over at Prospectus think Morneau will be the next Fred McGriff when McGriff was in his prime and healthy. Baseball America, which ranked Morneau at 16 on their top 100 prospects list, agrees. I can't wait to see him just as soon as the Twins think he's ready. I predict by June or July.

3. Kansas City Royals — A little over two weeks ago, I wrote about how many baseball analysts are picking the Royals to be this year's equivalent of the 2002 Angels or the 2003 Marlins. I don't buy it. As I wrote in that post, I don't think the Royals have nearly the same level of talent that the Angels or Marlins had. The pitching isn't there, and the offense is certainly not there. Since I just wrote so recently on my prediction for the Royals, I'm not going to repeat my argument here. If you want like to read about it, it can be found here: why the Royals won't win the 2004 World Series. All I have to say is that it is possible for the Royals to win this division because, as I've said, this is a very mediocre division.

Obvious story line: The last time Juan Gonzalez drove in over 100 runs, the year was 2001. The Yankees had yet to fall to fall victim to a dinky pop up off of the bat of Luis Gonzalez, and I was a freshman in college. Now, I'm a junior, and the Yankees will go into 2004 with a payroll equivalent to some small countries' GDP. In 2001, Gonzalez drove in 140 runs. Since then, Gonzalez has managed to drive in just 105 runs combined over the last two seasons. During these last two years, Juan has played in only 152 games. Juan has been Gone much more frequently from the lineup than the Rangers would have liked. For the Royals to come anywhere close to October or a division title, Gonzalez will have to play a big role in kick starting the offense. While he could be a presence in this lineup, already his calf is hurting him. For this reason (and others articulated in the March 11 post), I simply can't pick the Royals to come anywhere close to a divisional title or a World Series appearance.

Interesting story line: (This one courtesy of Athlon Sports.) Darrell May has pitched 4.08.1 innings in his career, surrendering 71 home runs in the process. He is currently the active leader in most home runs allowed in a career of fewer than 425 innings pitched. Can he continue this astounding rate? Stay tuned to Kansas City Royals baseball to find out.

Old guy who was named in the BALCO incident to watch: Benito Santiago was one of those named a few weeks ago during the steroid witch hunts. This guy looks older than the Grand Canyon, and at age 39, he has caught over 15,000 innings in his career. I'm sure some people out there would attribute his longevity to steroid use. I will give him the benefit of the doubt, but if this steroid mess heats up over the summer, Santiago will feel that pressure, as he was already one of the named.

4. Cleveland Indians — I'm going to be frank with you right now: I don't know too much about the Indians. Of all 30 teams, I'm probably least familiar with the Indians and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Mainly, that's because except for Mr. Board Game, Milton Bradley, and C.C. Sabathia, there are fewer names worth knowing on a team that is rushing prospects in order to field a Major League team. The Indians' rotation will feature Sabathia, maybe Jeff D'Amico, and a lot of no name guys who probably shouldn't be pitching in the Bigs. They will have to rely on Jose Jimenez to close now that Bob Wickman's out for a few months, and the rest of the bullpen is David Riske. The lineup will be good, but just not this year. Jody Gerut is a bright spot, but right now, most of these guys are place-holders until the Indians' very rich farm system ripens. When Grady Sizemore (OF) and Jeremy Guthrie (RHP) arrive in 2005, the Indians will then become a fun team to watch and an immediate contender in the Central.

Obvious story line: There are none. Well, wait. This is a stretch, but if the Tigers have a miraculous season, the Indians could be facing the cellar of the AL Central. Conversely, if a few key prospects mature quickly, the Indians could actually be in a position to make a run for the division title. While I think the former is a safer bet, in a division of mediocrity, the field is indeed wide open.

Interesting story line: The Bill James 2004 handbook lists the team's ace C.C. Sabathia at 270 pounds. That's quite a lot. In fact, for the Indians, that's too much. The team wishes he wouldn't put on the pounds so quickly. While he is still a major risk for injuries, feeling discomfort in his elbow last season, he has somehow managed to avoid serious injury. Food poisoning, that's a different story. Sabathia showed what he is capable of as he posted a 3.60 ERA last season, and the Indians would love to see that again.

Cereal to watch: Cleveland outfielder Coco Crisp is tearing up the Cactus League. He's hitting .404 and slugging .532 in 47 at-bats. Crisp could end up in the outfield alongside Milton Bradley. Now, if only the Indians could find Scott Tissue or Johnson & Johnson, they would have the best corporate outfield in the game.

5. Detroit Tigers — Last year, the Tigers were bad, 119 losses bad. To be that bad, everything has to click at the same time, just in the wrong direction, and for the Tigers, it did. They gave up 928 runs, the second most in the majors, and scored only 591, the second least in the majors. As a team, they hit .240/.300/.375 while their opponents steamrolled them with a .286/.350/.461 line. No one on the team reached .300 or the 100-RBI plateau. On the pitching side, they had a team ERA of 5.30 and managed just 4.78 strikeouts per 9 innings. On September 5, Mike Maroth became the first pitcher in 23 years to lose 20 games. He would end the season with 21 losses. But he was hardly alone. Jeremy Bonderman lost 19 games, and Nate Cornejo lost 17. To make matters worse, the Tigers' bullpen converted only 27 out of 46 save opportunities, and no pitcher recorded more than five saves.

With a season like 2003, General Manager Dave Dombrowski knew he had to improve the team somehow so that the fans wouldn't start deserting the team in droves. So during the off-season, he went out and revamped the lineup. He acquired Rondell White, Fernando Viña, Ivan Rodriguez, and Carlos Guillen. While Viña only played in 60 games last year, these four combined scored 250 runs. Already, the Tigers' offense is looking improved, but this team still has a long way to go. Their rotation will still include Cornejo, Maroth, and Bonderman, and these three will be joined by Jason Johnson who has a career 4.91 ERA and a 36-58 record in seven seasons. The bullpen, now anchored by recent addition Ugueth Urbina, will be slightly improved, but this team is on thin ice. Viña, White, and Pudge all have a history of injury, and the bullpen upgrades are only upgrades because the team was so bad last year. It's true the Tigers could turn it around this year, but I think another 90- to 100-loss season is on the way.

Obvious story line: How many games will this team lose? As I detailed back in February, no team has gone from losing over 110 games one year to a .500 season the next year. The best improvement was 32.5 games with the average improvement only 16.5 games. While no team in history has enjoyed the same level of improvement on paper as the Tigers did this off-season, it's unlikely that the pitching in Detroit will improve by more than 30 games. And 30 games would only put Detroit at 73-89, still not a stellar season.

Interesting story line:Will the real Ugueth Urbina please stand up? In Florida, during the second half of 2003, Urbina was nearly unhittable. He had a 1.41 ERA and struck out 37 while surrendering just 23 hits, all in 38.1 innings. In Texas, during the first half of 2003, Urbina was definitely hittable. He sported a 4.19 ERA while striking out 41 and giving up 33 hits in, surprisingly enough, 38.2 innings. So either Urbina had a really rough one-third of an inning in Texas last year, or he was motivated by landing on a contender in time for the stretch drive. If the latter is the case, I can't understand Urbina's reasons for signing with Detroit when he had been offered other contracts. We all know Urbina was willing to sit out the 2004 season over money, and this looks like another case of a player ending up in Detroit because they are willing to overpay players in order to prove to the fans that they are committed to improving. I don't think the Florida Marlins version of Ugueth Urbina will be anywhere near Comerica Park this summer.

Contract clause to watch: Pudge's new contract has an interesting clause: If Rodriguez is on the DL for more than 35 days in 2004 or 2005, the Tigers can void the rest of the deal. The same holds true for 2006. This is believed to be the first non-guaranteed contract in MLB history, and it will be interesting to see how Pudge holds up. If his chronically-injured back starts aching, he may opt to play. A trip to the DL could cost Rodriguez nearly $20 million.

American League East

1. Toront...Just kidding. New York Yankees — Despite my allegiances, this is no easy pick. The Red Sox have as best a pitching staff as they've had in recent years, and their lineup is very impressive too, even with Pokey Reese occupying second base. The Yankees, on the other hand, are better. Here's the lineup they will probably send out their when they return from Japan:
1. Kenny Lofton
2. Derek Jeter
3. Alex Rodriguez
4. Gary Sheffield
5. Jason Giambi
6. Jorge Posada
7. Hideki Matsui
8. Bernie Williams
9. Enrique Wilson

Their starting four are equally impressive. Five is a big giant question mark.
1. Mike Mussina
1a. Kevin Brown
1c. Javier Vazquez
4. Jose Contreras
5. Donovan Osbourne/Jon Lieber

The bullpen is great, too.
Paul Quantrill
Tom Gordon
Felix Heredia
Gabe White
Steve Karsay (mid-June)
Mariano Rivera

It's absurd. Even as a big fan, I think it's getting way out of hand. But at the same time, Baseball Prospectus rightly applauds Steinbrenner for spending the money the team is making. Owners like Carl Pohland and Wendy Selig pocket any profits, while George just keeps reinvesting in his team. If he has it, he should spend it, and it's up to Major League Baseball to adjust their system to make it work. And as we all know, anything short of a World Series title (which is no guarantee) will bring ruin upon the heads of the Yankees as King George will smite them upon a mountainside. Well, maybe it won't be so melodramatic, but you get the point. And yes, I know that avoiding injuries are a big part of the Yankees' predicted success this season. But in writing a season preview, all I can do is say watch Kevin Brown's arm and Gary Sheffield's thumb and Jason Giambi's knees. That's it. I can't predict if and when they'll get injured.

Way too obvious story line: Talent vs. Egos. This team has an abundant amount of talent. This team also has an abundant amount of ego. Which will win out? Find out next time on Ego-ography, only on the YES Network. For the Yankees to win, clearly talent will have to win out. But with A-Rod, Kevin Brown, and Sheffield all in one clubhouse and all serving under Captain Jeter, things could get messy if the Yankees start losing games during the dog days of August. This year, more than ever, Joe Torre will have to serve as a diplomat in the clubhouse as he manages egos on the field.

Interesting story line: Many people feel that Hideki Matsui is either overrated or he underperformed last year. Some people see his endless groundballs during the first half as an indication of a need to adjust to new pitching while others see his 107 RBIs as indicative of the people in front of him in the lineup. If all goes according to plan in the Bronx Zoo, Matsui should see this RBI total increase, thus confusing his critics even more. I believe that Matsui will be a better power hitter from the get-go this season, and as he'll have A-Rod, Sheffield, Giambi, and Posada in front of him, he'll see more pitches in the strike zone. Amidst a lineup of All Stars, I would expect a monster season from Godzilla, thus silencing the critics.

Cable channel to watch: For millions of New Yorkers, the premium tag has been lifted for the YES Network. No longer will people like my good friend Sabeel be forced to listen to John Sterling and Charlie Steiner to get their Yankee fix. The battle between Cablevisions — the company responsible for the sorry state of the Knicks and Rangers — and the Yankee ownership ended this week, and millions of Americans breathed a collective "finally" as everyone was sick of this story.

2. Boston Red Sox — On the pitching front, the Red Sox are as strong as the Yankees. They'll be throwing Pedro, Curt Schilling, Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield, and Byung-Hyun Kim with Keith Foulke, Scott Williamson, Mike Timlin, and Alan Embree providing for a strong bullpen. The Red Sox problems are already revealing themselves as Trot Nixon is out until the end of May, thus exposing the offense and defense to some problems. Nomar, too, may miss some time, and Bill Mueller is experiencing some elbow discomfort. While the Yankees have yet to face the injury bug, the Red Sox are seeing it up close and personal during Spring Training. Red Sox Nation is hoping that the Sox players are just experience normal preseason pains, but if more Red Sox go down, their offense is much less potent than it seems.

Obvious story lines: The Red Sox have a lot of high-profile free agents on their hands. Nomar, Pedro, Trot, Derek Lowe, Jason Varitek and Scott Williamson will all be free agents, and already Nomar and Pedro have made public their feelings. Nomar has never been thrilled with Red Sox management, and I don't think Red Sox management was too thrilled with his .203 combined September and October batting average, let along his strike outs in the postseason. Pedro will want more money than he's worth at this point in his career, and he's already said he would be willing to sign with the Yankees. If you thought Boggs of Clemens in pinstripes was a blow to New England, only imagine how the Red Sox fans will feel if Pedro were trotting out to the mound in the Bronx every fifth day. This season could be a rocky one in the press as these high-profile Red Sox fight to show their worth to the Boston brass. Red Sox Nation is certainly hoping for career years from all of them.

Interesting story line: Manny Ramirez was traded this winter for Alex Rodriguez. But then the deal fell through. While Boston fans deride Manny for his lack of enthusiasm, he has .335 over the last two seasons, tops in the AL. As long as Manny continues to produce, Red Sox fans should embrace him as the All Star he is. In the meantime, I'll continue to be very scared of him every time he bats against the Yankees. He is after all a Yankee killer.

Velocity to watch: Scouts say the velocity on Pedro's fastball is down. Pedro says he's ok. Analysts say Pedro doesn't need to rely on high velocity because he's a smarter pitcher now. It'll be interesting to see what happens to Pedro over the course of this season. Is this the year his arm finally caves in to that frayed rotator cuff? If Pedro wants his big contract, he better hope not. But with him, you never know.

3. Toronto Blue Jays — When the Yankees and Red Sox are decimated by injuries this summer, the Blue Jays will win the East. At least, that's what some people are thinking, and to tell you the truth, it's not an impossibility. Last season, the Jays scored 895 runs, best for third in the Majors, and there's no reason they can't do it again this year. Led by the reigning MVP Carlos Delgado and eventual-MVP Vernon Wells, the Jays lineup packs a punch. If Eric Hinske can regain his 2002 form, this lineup will be downright potent. On the flip side, the Blue Jays have Roy Halladay, Miguel Batista, and that's about it. There are no definite go-to guys in the bullpen, and Ted Lilly was less than impressive as he threw a career-high 178.2 innings for Oakland last year. I've always thought that Lilly is due for a shoulder injury because he throws across his body in a very awkward motion. For the Blue Jays to have a serious shot at the title, J.P. Ricciardi will have to pick up some bullpen help. Otherwise, Toronto will be looking up at Boston and New York yet again.

Obvious story line: If the Blue Jays finish third and Boston second, with the D-Rays and Baltimore finishing as I predict, this will be the seventh year in a row with the same finish, one through five, in any league. Already, the AL East holds the record for most consecutive years of the same. This year, though, the spread could be smaller.

Interesting story line: Who's going to catch for Toronto? Due for arrival in 2005 is Guillermo Quiroz. He can hit and has shown great defensive prowess. While he won't be as good as Joe Mauer, most analysts feel he'll hit for more power than Mauer ever will. In the meantime, Kevin Cash will get the job this year. While he threw out 26 percent of all base runners last season, he managed to hit .142 with 8 RBIs in 106 at bats. The Blue Jays' lineup can compensate for this lack of offense, but if Quiroz, ranked 35 by Baseball America, shows he's ready, Cash may be out of a job by mid-June.

Why the Blue Jays won't win the East: Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, they have to play the Yankees and the Red Sox 19 times each for a total of 38 games against two of the best teams in history (barring injuries). Even if Halladay pitches one of the games every series against these two teams, the Blue Jays are still overmatched by the Yankees' and Red Sox' pitchers. In a few years, though, when age catches up with New York and Boston, the Jays will emerge as the team to beat in the East. In the meantime, the Blue Jays just hope the fans keep coming to the SkyDome.

4. Baltimore Orioles — The Orioles spent a lot of money this off-season, but they spent it in all the wrong places. Miguel Tejada is a sold investment, but Baltimore overpaid for Javy Lopez. Palmeiro is no longer the impact player he once was, and Sydney Ponson is the only pitcher holding the Orioles' rotation together now that Rodrigo Lopez's Spring Training has shown his one decent season was an utter fluke. The bullpen, consisting of Jorge Julio, Mike DeJean, Buddy Groom, and B.J. Ryan, is basically made up entirely of guys who would mop up on any decent team. While on the surface the Orioles appear to have improved, on the field, this team is destined to fail. And after seeing their pitchers get lit up during two Spring Training games a few weeks ago, I truly believe this team has no pitching staff to back up an offense that will score more runs than last year. The Orioles continue to be a lesson in unwise spending.
Obvious story line: In a pitchers' park, Tejada's career numbers are pretty impressive. He has a line of .270/.331/.460 with 156 HR and 604 RBI. While the move to Camden Yards won't inflate his power numbers, he now has to deal with facing the Yankees and the Red Sox a combined 38 times this season. That means, he'll be facing pitching far superior to anything the Mariners, Angels, or Rangers have been throwing at him the past seven years. For Tejada to justify the large contract, he'll have to excel against the big guns of the East. While he's been a Yankee-killer of late, hitting .327 with 26 home runs in 104 at bats over three seasons, it will be interesting to see how he responds to increased exposure to the Yankees' staff. (As a side note: Against Boston, Tejada has hit his averages. In 100 at bats, he's hit .280 with only 12 RBIs.)

Interesting story line: Who will pitch for Baltimore? After extolling the virtues of the rotations in Boston and New York, fans from other parts of the country may think I'm ridiculing the Orioles. That, however, is not my intention. Baltimore is faced with a serious problem that could turn the 2004 season into a very long one, indeed. So far, during the spring, Ponson has given up 5 HR and 24 hits in 21 innings while walking 10. He's the clear-cut ace of the Orioles' staff, and if he struggles, there's no one else to pick up the slack.

Pitcher to watch: The early indications from Fort Lauderdale are that Kurt Ainsworth may be the one to save the Orioles' rotation. In 16.1 innings this spring, he's allowed only 4 ER. While Ainsworth could be a pleasant surprise for Baltimore, he can't be expected to carry the rotation. Sir Sydney is going to have to step it up, but Kurt's season could make for a nice story.

5. Tampa Bay Devil Rays — The Devil Rays have an interesting mixture of young talent and way over-the-hill veterans in the lineup this season. While everyone is expecting the Devil Rays to improve, no one should be expecting them to surprise the East and edge out Baltimore for that fourth spot. Make no mistake, this team is still expected to land fifth. Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli should continue to improve, and the rotation is filled with live young arms. With the editions of Rey Sanchez and Tino Martinez, the pressure may be off manager Lou Piniella. He could turn to the veterans for leadership. But knowing Piniella and his temper, it's unlikely. As long as Sweet Lou isn't expecting too much this season, this young ballclub could begin to show some life, seven years after its inaugural season.

Obvious story line: Delmon Young, all of 18 years old, was the first round pick of the D-Rays last year. In the Arizona Fall League, he hit .417, a preview of things to come from Dmitri's younger and more talented brother. He and shortstop B.J. Upton are ranked 3 and 2 respectively on the Baseball American top 100 prospects list, and the future is a little brighter for Tampa Bay and their fans with these young prospects on the horizon.

Interesting story line: The Devil Rays averaged 13,070 fans per game last year, good for 29th in the Bigs. They were at a league-low 28.9 percent occupancy, and while the baseball world may see relatively better days for the Devil Rays, the casually fans won't be coming to the park in droves this year. If the D-Rays don't reverse their attendance trends, this team may be facing an economic crisis in the very near future.

Designated Hitter to watch: A few weeks ago, I performed a rudimentary statistically analysis in an effort to build evidence for my hypothesis that when players DH, they are not as focused on the game and thus hitting for lower average and less power. During this analysis, I found that Aubrey Huff last season was better at DH than at first base, but he really excelled when he was in the outfield. In 390 outfield at bats, Huff hit .328/.375/.590. While the arrival of Tino Martinez means that Huff won't be at first this year, it's looking like Piniella will use Huff as his DH. In my opinion, this is a mistake. Last year, Huff hit .311 with 34 HR and 107 RBIs, effectively winning the Devil Rays' Triple Crown. By assigning him to be the fulltime DH, the Rays may actually lose some production from their most established player.
Well, that's it, folks. If you've made it this far, pat yourself on the back. As always, these are just my opinions on the 30 teams, and this preview is in no way complete or definitive. I'm just a fan with my own opinions. Leave me some feedback; I would love to hear what you, our readers, feel about my predictions, and I would love to hear what your predictions are as well. Excitingly enough, my next post will come after the start of the 2004 regular season, and I promise you that you'll have my thoughts on the first Yankee game of the season.

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