<$BlogRSDUrl$>

Talking Baseball

Your weekday baseball fix. Some days.



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.


### So what do you think? We want to know. | | E-mail us ###



Posted by Mike on Friday, March 26, 2004

OW! My Medial Collateral Ligament!

It's inevitable that pitchers will occasionally fall to injuries, but why do some teams seem to go out of their way to increase the chance of injury to their own pitchers? It seems that every year a few pitchers are destined to be hurt due to their own manager (read Dusty Baker, Tony LaRussa, etc...). The managers know that if the pitcher becomes hurt for a prolonged period of time the team's playoff chances will be put in jeopardy. So, why do these managers ride their starting pitchers so hard?

Dusty Baker is one the worst managers the Cubs could have selected. They have a young and talented rotation in Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano, and Matt Clement but the management went out and signed Dusty last winter who proceeded (no surprise) to spend his first season in Chicago mercilessly abusing those pitchers. Why are the Cubs allowing this to happen? If the problem a team faces is a weak bullpen then how does it help the team to over-pitch their starting rotation? That extra wear and tear will increase the probability of an injury that will force greater reliance on the bullpen - so it seems counter-intuitive to over-pitch the starters.

Pitches per game and MLB rank:

Pitches Per GameMLB Rank
Prior113.21
Wood109.92

2003 was Prior's first full season in the majors and Dusty forced him to lead the major leagues in pitches per game. I know that Prior is constantly commended for having near perfect mechanics, but this sort of wear and tear cannot be good for his young arm. Incredibly, Prior is just 23 years old. It's difficult to tell because has pitched so dominantly and maturely these last two years.

Wood was second in the league in pitches per game. What's worse, his total could have been higher if he hadn't been pulled a couple of times in the third inning because of ineffectiveness. Wood is a strong guy, but he's just a few years removed from Tommy John surgery. The surgery has been more and more successful lately, but pushing a player who has had it seems like a good way to re-injure that elbow.

Top 3 starts by number of pitches thrown:

Pitches
Prior133, 131, 129
Wood141, 130, 129


141 pitches. That isn't just a lot of pitches, that's a ton of pitches. I'm not saying that a pitcher should never throw more than 140 pitches but I am saying that this much fatigue would be more appropriate in a game that the team absolutely needed to win down the stretch. But no, Dusty made Wood throw those 141 pitches in the middle of May, and Wood still threw just seven innings with all those pitches.

Prior and Wood made it through 2003 relatively healthy, but with this type of workload their health could easily become a question this year. Speculation is fun, so here it goes. Prior will be starting the year on the DL with an Achilles tendon injury (likely not related to last year's workload), but that injury could become more important if it alters his mechanics. An alteration to his mechanics might make Prior put more stress on his arm - this will be more problematic given the workload that Dusty forces upon him. Down the road, this could result in an injury. Good-bye Future of the Cubs.

For comparison's sake, here are a few other dominant (and valuable) starters. Notice that their teams didn't abuse them in nearly the same way that the Cubs abused their two aces (Schmidt was ridden a little bit).

Pitches Per GameMaximum Pitches
Halladay100.3122
Martinez97.9128
Loaiza102.9121
Schmidt106.4128
Beckett98.5123


The Athletics are known for their humane treatment of starting pitchers, here's how the Big Three stacked up last season:

Pitches Per GameMaximum Pitches
Hudson102.5127
Zito106.6122
Mulder100.3125


What I've been getting to is that teams built around pitching, like the Cubs, can't afford to run their starters into the ground. The A's know that without their starting pitching they will not win games because their offense is atrocious. So they protect their starting pitchers, but why don't the Cubs do this? Why are they giving Dusty the chance to ruin their future?


### So what do you think? We want to know. | | E-mail us ###



Posted by Dave on Thursday, March 25, 2004

Where's the Hype?

Sorry for the brevity, but I ruined my back on Monday. I play a lot of squash (2-4 times a week, I would say), and squash is sometimes not the greatest thing for your body. I was lunging for a drop-shot my opponent hit, and I severely strained my lower back. In turn, it makes sitting (especially in uncomfortable chairs for class) painful and difficult. That, in turn, makes posting painful and difficult. This author's got resolve. In fact, one could sum up my desire to write with this analogy:

Dave Metz : Writing :: Kevin Brown : Pitching

That is, I will write even through the greatest of pain - just like Kevin Brown will pitch through excruciating pain. One could also use the analogy:

Dave Metz : Not writing :: Jim Edmonds : Playing Baseball

For all the Cardinal readers, I'm sorry, but this guy takes more trips to the DL than JLo takes to marriage counselors. Last year he sat for a great deal of the season because he "strained his shoulder" in Home Run Derby. That sucks Jim, but suck it up and play. Now for some entirely unexplained statistics:

Chicago White Sox | Outfield | Bats: Left | DOB: 6/15/1981
YearLevelABAVGOBPSLGHRBBSOSB
2002A (lo)210.319.377.4484112417
2003A (hi)222.333.431.4774412727
AA242.409.474.5917291918


These are the minor league statistics of Jeremy Reed. Who's Jeremy Reed? Well, that's a loaded question - one that could be answered in a variety of ways. If you're Baseball America, he's the 25th best prospect in baseball. If you're Baseball Prospectus, he's the 2nd best prospect in baseball. I'm not going to comment on where I'd place him amongst the other great potentialities - I'm no prospect guru. What I will say is this: Jeremy Reed is really, freaking, good. How good? Only time will tell, but I can tell you that these are truly incomparable numbers.

To summarize the statistics above, I'm going to articulate a situation quite analogous to Jeremy Reed's. Young Dayve Metz (hey, it worked for Laynce and Jayson Nix, so maybe my alter-ego, Dayve, was an awesome hitter) is playing center field for the Worcester Whopper Juniors. He's playing with kids his age - Dayve happens to be 13 - and is doing pretty well for himself. He is crushing pitches, playing solid baseball - especially at the plate. The coaches in the Whoppers' league realize Dayve's too good for his league, and have him play with the 15 year-olds and the Worcester Whoppers. Dayve doesn't just adjust well to the improved competition, he actually performs better against the older/better kids than he did for the Whopper Juniors (where he was facing easier competition). He continues to be incredibly good. He goes about his business beating the snot out of all the pitchers who claim to be trying to "get him out." (you wouldn't know it, he was reaching base more than 2/5 of the time) The Whoppers, seeing that they have a real talent on their hand, realize they simply can't keep him with their team - it may stunt his growth if he keeps facing pitching that isn't challenging him. They prudently decide to send him to the Double Whoppers (a league composed of 17-year olds, where the players are more experienced and the competition is fiercer), where they expect him to flounder under the pressure of improved pitching and expectations. Except, strangely, he doesn't. Not only does Dayve go to the Double Whoppers and play well, but he improves again on his performance with the Whoppers. Now playing for the Double Whoppers, he's thoroughly dominating opposing pitchers. He reaches base nearly half the time (his batting average is a ridiculous .409), and his power has even improved as well. To recap, Dayve started out a great player amidst ordinary competition, then he became a great player against mild competition, then he became a truly unparalelled and dominating player against difficult competition. This kid just keeps getting better and better, and against harder competition!

What I've just described to you isn't the case of some hypothetical Dayve Metz, but the case of the concretely real Jeremy Reed. Some think Reed is a little old for being considered a premium prospect (23), but to pooh-pooh Reed's minor league stats makes you an ignoramus. In all likelihood, Reed had some luck in AA-ball (he did hit 400, too ludicrous for most to imagine), but that's irrelevant. These are simply eye-popping statistics.

The quality of Reed's performance the past two years would seem to merit a trip to the majors and universal praise amongst those in baseball. The White Sox are currently sporting a truly awful player, Aaron Rowand, in center. Last time I checked, .327 was a pretty terrible OBP. Yet, they seem to have no desire to entertain the idea of starting Reed at center for the upcoming season. I wouldn't mind if the White Sox wanted to coddle Reed, to have him adjust to each successive level of competition, but that's not why they're caging him up in minor league ball:

"Aaron [Rowand has] got the first shot; I think Aaron's earned it,'' Williams said. "We're going to give him every chance to be the regular out there. Should Aaron go down for some reason, then Jeremy will get a shot with whomever else we decide to open it up to.''
Rowand's earned first shot?! Rowand plays an above-average center, but anyone with a .327 OBP the previous year (an unsightly .298 the year prior to the last one) hasn't earned anything. If anything, Rowand's earned the right to have his job revoked. Unfortunately, the White Sox are locking up Reed even though he is likely their best option in center. They're not the worst perpetrators in ignoring Reed, however.

Amazingly, Baseball America ranks him only 25th. Frankly, I wouldn't care if Reed had to use a walker to field and to run the basepaths, he would still rank as one of my most promising prospects in baseball. The guy can flat-out hit, and I've neglected to mention that this guy actually has a bit of speed: 62 SBs in 674 ABs over his minor-league career - not too shabby. So, what's wrong with Jeremy Reed? Well, first, he lacks the power that most prospects lack anyways. However, he did show improvement recently, stepping up his HR totals from 4 to 7 in a similar number of at-bats in AA. What's BA's other major concern?

Reed’s aggressiveness occasionally turns into recklessness. He needs to pick his spots better as a basestealer after getting caught in 13 of 31 attempts in Double-A.
Who CARES?! So what, he gets thrown out a few times. This can be remedied by just forbidding him from running. That way, instead of getting thrown out, he gets driven home. I don't even see this as a weakness - it's simply rfixed by a coaching or psychological change. They're not complaining about how he can't make good contact on breaking balls or get good jumps on the baseball or that he sometimes misses the cut-off man - all innate problems that are not easily remedied - they're complaining about his base-stealing decision-making! Unbelievable. If this is what vaults someone to 25th on the list of top prospects in baseball, I want nothing to do with Baseball America.


### So what do you think? We want to know. | | E-mail us ###



Posted by Ben K. on Wednesday, March 24, 2004

One Outfielder For Sale
Updated Thursday, March 25 at 9:42 p.m.

Some baseball fans will take their devotion — and despair — to any levels. Today, up until about 30 minutes ago, one desperate Mets fan was auctioning off outfielder Roger Cedeño on eBay. While the online auction company has since pulled the auction, I thought I would post the description of the maligned Cedeño for all to see. It's really quite funny.
This is an auction for Mets outfielder Roger Cedeño. He's played left, center and right fields, and all of them equally horrendously. He never gets a good jump on a ball, and on the rare occassion that he does end up in the general vicinity of one, he'll probably drop it. He used to be quite fast, but as he's gotten older and somewhat fatter on his contract, even that last vestige of value has left him. He cannot run the bases, he cannot play defense, he cannot hit for average or power and he couldn't get a bunt down to save his life. He does, however, still have a decent arm - but odds are he'll either miss the cutoff man or throw to the wrong base entirely, so it's a non-factor. When it comes to the oft-spoken "intangibles" of a professional athlete, this is where Cedeño really excels. Despite his woeful play, Roger somehow manages to smile and laugh and carry on like he's just hit a grand slam to win Game 7. This is where I believe his value truly kicks in, because that's just the type of person you want serving your organization from a customer support position. Cedeño would undoubtedly adapt to a concessionaire position with grace and aplomb. Also, imagine the excitement your fans would experience when they realize who just tossed them that hot dog or sold them that lemonade! Roger Cedeño contract is valued at $10,000,000 and terminates after the 2005 season. Thus, bidding starts at a reasonable $5,000,000 with the New York Mets Baseball Club hopefully picking up any difference incurred by this auction. Seller hereby gives his word as his bond that should the final auction price exceed the aforementioned value of Roger Cedeño's contract, $10,000,000 will be forwarded with haste to The New York Mets Baseball Club in order to expedite Roger Cedeño's unconditional release, with the difference being donated in it's entirety to the Lymphoma Research Foundation at http://www.lymphoma.org/site/PageServer?pagename=donate Seller is in no way affiliated with Major League Baseball, The New York Mets Baseball Club or Sterling Equities, Ltd. Good luck and happy bidding!!
One member of Fark.com, the site where I first heard about this auction, has nicely taken screen shots and posted them for posterity. Of course, eBay has already pulled the auction since it's in violation of their policies. But for all you inquiring minds, here is a screen shot of the auction: eBay Item 3668589301 — Roger Cedeño. It looks as though this link will survive longer than the last one did.


### So what do you think? We want to know. | | E-mail us ###



Posted by Jon on Wednesday, March 24, 2004

An Injured Prior Could Doom the Cubs

The Red Sox have Trot and Nomar. The Yankees have Lieber, Bernie, and Travis Lee. Now the Cubbies can join the party.

Mark Prior, Chicago's North Side superstar, will start the season on DL. The inflammation in his right Achillies' tendon, which has prevented him from participating in any Spring Training games, will also prevent Prior from beginning his season. Eligable to return from the DL on April 10th, at best he'll miss one start. Chicago is hopeful that he'll be ready to pitch by mid-month, but when he does return, will he be in game-form, ready to help Chicago push for their first consecutive playoff appearances in almost a century?

With Prior's date with the DL now definite, the top three favourites to win the 2004 World Series all have some players with significant injury problems -- stars who will not start the season. For each team, the question marks will develop into exclaimations if the players do not soon return to form. Prior's injury, though, trumps both the Yankees and the Red Sox. A healthy Prior makes the Cubs a dominant force in any game in which he pitches, and he transforms the Cubs' rotation into the best five-man combo in baseball. In a division also featuring the four dandy hurlers down on the ranch in Houston, Prior's importance cannot be understated.

There are no delusions in the Windy City. Neither Kerry Wood, who was proclaimed Opening Day starter weeks ago, nor Greg Maddux, who was scheduled to follow Wood, were envisioned to outpitch Chicago's ace. Their third-slated starter, the young Prior, is their best chance at not only repeating their trip to the playoffs, but more importantly, he almost singlehandedly enhances Chicago's chances in October. Without a healthy Prior for an entire season, Chicago will not be sunk, but their task of reaching the playoffs doubles in difficulty.

Replacing the Choi/Karros firstbase combination with Derrek Lee should net the Cubs at least three wins (Lee outperformed Choi and Karros together by nine Win Shares). While the loss of Estes can only be viewed as a Cub gain, his replacement, Maddux, only accumulated eleven Win Shares in 2003. While anything is better then Estes' zero Win Shares (ranking 597 out of 611 major league pitchers in Earned Runs Saved Above Average will do that to you), Maddux cannot be counted upon for more than four additional Cubbie wins. And after Zambrano's breakthrough 2003 performance, it would be great to see a repeat performance. Unfortunately, as Baseball Prospectus 2004 reports, it may not be in the cards for Carlos, which could cost the Bear Cubs an additional three or four wins. As Sammy Sosa continues to decline and the rest of his lineup (and his manager) refuses to take a walk, the additional three wins the Cubbies have created (addition of Lee adds three; addition of Maddux adds four; Zambrano's expected decline removes four) could easily evaporate under the strain of an offense that led only three NL teams in OBP (the impotent Cincinatti, New York, and Los Angeles lineups). While a full season of Cory Patterson may help, he too is unlikely to reach and sustain his early 2003 successes. So as best as can be seen, the Cubs stand to win more games than last season -- about four more, which is nothing to scoff at.

The problem is that the above analysis makes no mention of Mark Prior. Going 18-6 with a 2.46 ERA while striking out more than ten batters and averaging little more than two walks per nine innings, Prior lifted and carried Chicago to an 88-win season, bringing them to the cusp of a World Series berth. A healthy Prior -- whose accumulated 22 Win Shares in a season that included a freak trip to the DL -- over the course of the entire 2004 season would seemingly easily push the Cubs into October again. But pitching that well and accumulating that many Win Shares could prove difficult. Unfortunately, the Cubs' ace is already scheduled to miss just about as much of the season as he did in 2003, leaving little room for error. And having avoided pitching in Spring Training due to his lingering Achillies' injury, a little rust should be expected. It is entirely possible that Prior will continue in mid-April where he left off in October, pitching lights-out baseball. But if the rust lingers, or he requires a second stint on the DL, the Cubs could be in trouble. The Astros are poised to perform better than they did last season, especially with the addition of significant upgrades in their starting rotation with Clemens and Pettitte. This should have North Siders frightened, because even with all of Chicago's 2003 successes, the Astros had the better run differential and, luck aside, could easily have taken the division crown. Having been lucky enough to win the NL Central by one game last season, and with an additional four wins coming their way if all things Prior remain similar in 2004 as they were in 2003, the Astros are still in position to overtake the Central Division. Not only does Prior's Achillies' hurt, but his could easily become the 2004 Cubs' Achillies' heel.


### So what do you think? We want to know. | | E-mail us ###



Posted by Ben K. on Tuesday, March 23, 2004

2004 Season Preview, Part II

Welcome to my 2004 Season Preview, Part II. Last time, I previewed the National League West and Central. If you missed it, you can find it here: Ben's 2004 Season Preview, Part I.

If you don't care to read the entire post, you can just check out each league individually:
National League West
National League Central
National League East
American League West

Before I delve into the National League East and the American League West, I would like to briefly discuss Sunday's implosion of Philadelphia's much-maligned and ugly Veterans Stadium. Sixty-two seconds after the scary green thing that runs around the stadium with no pants on pressed the detonator, the Vet was reduced to a pile of concrete. Ask anyone in the Philadelphia area, and they would say that it was about time for the Vet to go. I've seen 18 of the 30 major league parks, and outside of Olympic Stadium in Montreal, the Vet was by far the ugliest. (That award now goes to Shea Stadium, in my book.) Yet, there were a few Philadelphians mourning the loss of the Vet. Here's what Paul DiMuzio, the director of ballpark operations for the Phillies was quoted as saying over at Phillies.com:
"From day one to the last day, I've been at the Vet, so that's why it's so tough for me. I shed a tear when it came down. I shed a few tears before it came down.”
I guess I understand why DiMuzio would be sad; he did work at the Vet for the past 22 years. But at the same time, these are the same people who criticized the enclosed, sterile Vet and its horrible AstroTurf for much of the last 10 years. If I were an employee of the Phillies, I would be thrilled to be moving into the beautiful, state-of-the-art Citizens Bank Ballpark. By this time next year, I bet that the Vet will just be another memory in the collective consciousness of Philadelphians, and one that the citizens of the City of Brotherly Love will be trying desperately to forget. Now, onto the preview.

National League East

1. Philadelphia Phillies — It's tough to pick a team other than the Atlanta Braves for this slot; despite repeated reports the past few years, the demise of the Braves has been greatly exaggerated. Yet, after 12 years (not counting a strike-shortened 1994) as the Beasts of the East, I believe that the Braves' run is over. The reason for this is simple: the Phillies added All Star closer Billy Wagner (and set-up man Tim Worrell) during the off-season. In 2003, the Phillies had Jose Mesa closing games. While he converted 24 of 28 save attempts, he blew two key games in September during the pennant race. Furthermore, he lost 7 games coming out of the bullpen and sported an ERA of 6.52. It's easy to see why the Phillies decided not to pick up his option. Mesa also managed an astounding 0 win shares. On the flip side, Wagner on the Astros converted 44 of 47 opportunities while losing 4 games and sporting a sexy 1.78 ERA. He raked in 19 win shares for the 'Stros, second among closers to Eric Gagne. Keep in mind now that Wagner was responsible for more than 6 of the Astros' victories, and six more victories for which Mesa can claim credit.

Now, let's look at last year's standings: The Phillies finished five games behind the Marlins and 15 games behind the Braves. Had Wagner been in Philadelphia last year, it's very safe to assume that the Phillies would have played past the end of September. Now, consider that the Braves have since lost Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez, and Greg Maddux; the Marlins are relying on Armando Benitez to close and are without Pudge's leadership; and the Phillies now sport a rotation of Kevin Millwood, Randy Wolf (arguably the team ace), Vicente Padilla, Brett Myers, and Eric Milton to complement their vastly upgraded bullpen. Unless the Phillies implode as the Vet did on Sunday, it's hard to imagine this team not winning the East. Clearly, they are the heavy favorites.

Incredibly obvious story line: Let's see. New stadium, new bullpen, high expectations. Since I just detailed why I think the Phillies will win (pitching), there's not much need to go into it again, but let’s look at some odds. According to the lines from Vegas, the Phillies are the favorites at 3 to 1 to win the NL pennant while the Braves are more of a long shot at 12 to 1. On the division level, the bookies are barely taking bets for the Phillies. Philadelphia is enjoying 5 to 8 odds for the East, while the Braves are at 14 to 5. (Rounding out the division: Mets and Marlins at 7 to 1 and the Expos at 30 to 1.) For those of you who don't know — and I admit I had to look this up— the Phillies are so favored to win the East that bookies are being conservative. You bet a dollar on them this season, you'll get back that dollar plus a whopping 63 cents. The Braves win the East, and that dollar nets you $2.80 plus your original bet. In fact, the Phillies (according to Vegas), are more favored to win the NL East than any other team in Major League Baseball is expected to win their respective division. That's tough billing, and it will be interesting to see if the Phillies and Citizens Bank Ballpark can live up to these expectations. (For more fun with the odds, check out this U.K.-based betting site.)

Interesting story line: Last year, Pat Burrell crashed and burn like no other. His .209 average, 64 RBIs, and 57 runs scored were a far cry from the promise he showed in 2002. For $50 million and six years, Burrell is expected to deliver for the Phillies, and this year, he'll be under a lot of pressure to succeed. The early reports out of Clearwater suggest that Pat's improving, and his .293 average in 41 at bats is very encouraging, albeit with a grain of salt because those are just Spring Training numbers. In all likelihood, Burrell will hit fourth or fifth for the Phillies, and if he produces, this line up will be potent. If he falters and 2004 starts looking like 2003, the Phillies will have a big, expensive question mark on their hands.

Manager to watch: Outside of Pat Burrell and his return to stardom, all eyes in Philly will be squarely on Larry Bowa. While Bowa has 252 wins in three seasons at the Phillies manager (the most since Pat Moran managed the Phillies from 1915-1917), it's no secret that the players have much contempt for the man. Remember when Burrell himself refused to accept a congratulatory handshake from Bowa during the stretch drive? If the Phillies stumble out of the block, GM Ed Wade won't be afraid to cut Bowa faster than you can digest a cheesesteak from Geno's (or Pat’s if that’s what you like).

2. Florida Marlins — Most baseball people making their picks seem to like the Braves for this spot, thus making the defending World Champions underdogs once again. Personally, I like the Marlins for the second slot in the East, and I think they may give the Phillies a run for their money. With a rotation that features Josh Beckett, A.J. Burnett (probably in June), Brad Penny, Carl Pavano, and Dontrelle Willis, the Marlins' starting five have the most potential of any rotation in the Majors. Their season depends greatly on whether or not these guys (plus whoever fills in for the injured Burnett) can fulfill this potential. In fact, after I started writing this post, MLB.com posted an article on how the Marlins pitchers are getting the short shrift. I couldn't agree with this more. In all the talks about Houston and the Cubs having the best rotation, the young live arms of the Marlins were neglected. I would take a healthy Burnett and Josh Beckett with no blisters over Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens at this point in their respective careers. But with youth comes uncertainty, and much with depend on the pitchers if the Marlins are to repeat their magical 2003 season.

Obvious story line: How much will the losses of Derrek Lee and Ivan Rodriguez hurt the team? I believe that Lee's leaving will have more of an effect on the lineup than Pudge's decision to sign with Detroit. Lee slugged higher than Ivan did last year, and he got on base more consistently while accounting for 25 win shares as opposed to Pudge's 23. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system is predicting a breakout season for replacement first baseman Hee Seop Choi, but he won't be bringing the same power, hitting skills, or leadership that Lee possessed. I believe that Rodriguez's replacement will turn in better numbers than Pudge does in Detroit, but the rape case hanging over Ramon Castro's head won't help his performance in the field, and Mike Redmond is definitely not the answer.

Interesting story line: Can Josh Beckett translate October stardom into regular season success or will his right arm fall off? During the Playoffs, Beckett decided being human just wasn't good enough, and against the Yankees he posted a 1.13 ERA, striking out 19 in 16.1 innings, and winning the World Series with a shut out in Yankee Stadium. Oh yes, he did that on three-days' rest. Before that, he pitched four innings of 1-hit ball in relief to bring the Marlins an NLCS victory. He did that on two-days' rest. At the same time, Beckett has never won more than 9 games at the Major League level. Based on the 2003 season, Beckett's destiny is one of two things: Tommy John surgery or a career of All Star appearances and top-10 Cy Young finishes. This upcoming season will be a big indication of things to come for the 23-year-old from Texas.

Headcase to watch: No one will be missed more on the Marlins than Ugueth Urbina (and by May, probably Braden Looper too). Last season, the still-unsigned Urbina came to the Marlins at the trade deadline and was utterly dominant. He sported a 1.41 ERA in 38.1 innings while striking out 37. He raked up 11 holds and converted 6 of 8 save opportunities when Looper was demoted. Despite a rocky October, he was a large part of the Marlins' winning the Wild Card. On the other hand, Looper was better than most people gave him credit for. He converted 28 of 34 save chances, and while he didn't strike out many, he wasn't horrible. Yet Looper will be closing for the Mets, and Urbina will be closing the door to his fridge until he decides to take a pay cut and sign somewhere (maybe with the Indians). So the Marlins turned to perennial goat Armando Benitez, for some inexplicable reason. Last year, Armando managed to save 21 out of 29 opportunities, and while his ERA was a respectable 2.96, he walked an astounding 41 men. It's a nightmare every time he pitches, mainly because he can't throw his 96-mph fastball for strikes with any consistency. The Marlins are taking a huge gamble with Benitez, and had he been on the team last year, those 8 blown saves would have cost the Marlins the Wild Card.

3. Atlanta Braves — Things ain't what they used to be in Atlanta. Gary Sheffield and his .330 BA/39 HR/132RBI/.604 SLG, gone. Greg Maddux and his legacy, gone. Javy Lopez and his .328/43/109/.687, gone. John Smoltz and his elbow, surgically repaired and questionable. The days of Atlanta's dominance are over. The rotation is now headed by Russ Ortiz (and his league-leading 102 walks last year), Mike Hampton, John Thomson, Horacio Ramirez, and a 5th starter to be named later. The offense, which could still be fairly strong, is centered around Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, and the oft-injured J.D. Drew. With Smoltz in the bullpen, the Braves' games are still 8 innings long, as long as his elbow is ok; getting through those first 8 innings will be much tougher this year however that it has been for the Braves since they finished in last place in the old NL West in 1990.

Obvious story line: Outside of the "Is this really the end of the Atlanta Era?" story, J.D. Drew and his injured past have garnered so much attention this spring that he's moved from my interesting story line to the obvious story line. Drew, if you may recall, was one of Scott Boras' draft hold-outs when he was picked in 1997 by the Phillies. In 1998, the Cardinals gave him the large bonus he wanted, but Drew has yet to fulfill his potential. In six years in the Bigs, he's played in 135 games only twice, and while his career .289 average is good, his power numbers and run production have been well off any sort of expected pace. He suffers from the same injury (chronic patellar tendonitis) that cut short Mark McGwire's career, and he'll have to remain largely injury-free or else the Braves will have a large whole in their lineup.

Interesting story line: Braves' pitching coach Leo Mazzone is almost a sure lock for the Hall of Fame, no small feat for a pitching coach. He's been the man responsible for the success of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and the countless other pitchers who came out of Atlanta vastly improved. This year, he is faced with arguably his toughest task since 1990. Ortiz, while winning 21 games, walked a ton of guys; Thomson showed some promise ace the Texas Rangers' "ace" last year, but at age 30, it could be like teaching an old dog new tricks. Hampton, who went 11-3 with a 3.26 ERA over his last 17 starts in 2003, could re-emerge as the ace he was with Houston. But overall, it's clear that Mazzone and manager Bobby Cox have the worst pitching the Braves have seen since the start of their incredible run.

Prospect to watch: Unless the Braves go with 90-year-old Julia Franco as their Opening Day first baseman, Adam LaRouche, who is certainly young enough to be Franco's son, will become the every-day Braves first baseman. LaRouche, ranked the 73 on Baseball America's top prospect list, has been compared favorable to Doug Mientkdwqddkzt (that's Mientkiewicz, but can you really tell the difference). In two stops last season in the minors, LaRouche hit around .290/.370/.480 with 20 HR but a K:BB ratio of 1.8:1. That, however, represents a big step up from his 2001 K:BB of 3.6:1. With solid defense and a decent bat, LaRouche could bring some stability to first base in Atlanta.

4. New York Mets — At 66-95 last year, the Mets really hit bottom. Playing in the shadow of the Yankees, it's not easy to compete for attendance, attention, or success in New York when your neighbors to the Northeast have unlimited financial resources. Last year, the Mets had to rebuild and New Yorkers do not take kindly to rebuilding years. This year, unfortunately for the Mets, does not look much different. Tom Glavine and Al Leiter would have made an impressive front-end of a rotation five or six season ago, but age is taking a toll on these two pitchers. Steve Trachsel continues to plod along, and Jae Weong Seo was a bright spot last year. The top half of the Mets' lineup should be good: Kaz Matsui, Jose Reyes, Mike Piazza, and Cliff Floyd could all produce if healthy, but Mike Cameron and the hitters below him will probably do more to break the Mets' season than make it.

Obvious story line: For the Mets this year, there are two obvious story lines. Once is Mike Piazza's boring switch to first base. Really, who cares? Good luck there, Mike; just watch that groin on the stretches. The other obvious story — Matsui Mania — is much more interesting. In Japan, Matsui was a bona fide star. He hit .305/.368/.549 with 33 HR. The Mets are so high on him that they gave Kaz $20.1 million for 3 years and moved Jose Reyes, one of the best young short stops in the game, over to second. While many analysts think Matsui will excel in the America, I see an alarming increase in his strike out rate in Japan. In 2000, he struck out 60 times in 550 at bats; last year, he K'ed 124 times in 587 at bats while drawing only 55 walks. While Hideki Matsui struck out fewer times in his first big league season, Hideki was a better contact hitter with a higher OBP in Japan than Kazuo was. Additionally, baseball analysts are predicting 30 stolen bases for Matsui this year. Yet, last year in Japan, he stole just 13, down from 33 the year before. While the Mets may reap the benefits of signing Japan's best second baseman, his strike outs could become very problematic as he adjusts to a new brand of baseball, and his expected speed just might not be there at all.

Interesting story line: In 160 at bats last year, premier prospect Jose Reyes hit .269/.333/.356 with 5 HR, 32 RBIs, and 47 runs scored. Back in 1995, also at age 20, a young Alex Rodriguez hit .232/.264/.408 with 5 HR, 19 RBIs, and only 15 runs scored in 142 at bats. Last year, Reyes walked 13 times while striking out 36 times; in 1995, A-Rod walked 6 times while striking out 42 times. While A-Rod showed much more power and slightly better hitting skills at the Minor League level than Reyes did, it's not inconceivable to think that Reyes could develop into a hitter of A-Rod's caliber, just without the 50-HR power. This season will be a big step in the development of Reyes as a ball player, and it will be interesting to watch how he adapts to a new position in his first full season in New York. If he fails at short, the only people to blame are the Mets development team. I believe that, in the long run, Jose Reyes has more to offer the Mets than Kazuo Matsui. It's conceivable that he could have been the next A-Rod. I hope the Mets made the right move in moving Reyes to second.

Prospect to watch (or trade): Aaron Heilman is one of the highest-regarded prospects in the Mets' system. Yet, last season, he tanked. In 13 starts, he went 2-7 with a 6.75 ERA. He gave up 79 hits and walked 41 in 65.1 innings for a WHIP 1.85. The 25-year-old wasn't fooling anyone. This year, Heilman has a shot at being the Mets' fifth starter, and he's pitched well down at Port St. Lucie this spring. For the Mets, this is the do or die season for Heilman. If Aaron sputters at the start, the Mets ought to trade him before his stock sinks to low. If he fulfills his potential, he could be a big part of the Mets' rotation as they rebuild from a solid core of minor leaguers.

5. Montreal Expos — This off-season, Major League Baseball officially gave up on the Montreal Expos. They didn't make an effort to sign Vladimir Guerrero, and they traded away their pitching future when Javier Vazquez landed with the Yankees. The Expos' rotation is spotty with Livan Hernandez and Tony Armas providing the weakest one-two punch in the NL East. Behind them are Zach Day, Tomo Ohka, and Claudio Vargas. I think the names speak for themselves. While Nick Johnson, Orlando Cabrera, and Jose Vidro will be decent in the middle of the order, Vidro may not be in Canada past July. Outside of Brad Wilkerson, the outfield of Carl Everett, Juan Rivera, Termel Sledge, and Endy Chavez is pretty much a disaster. With the exception of Everett, the other four guys have yet to establish themselves at the big league level, and Everett is a problem himself. While the Expos were in the Wild Card lead through August last year, don't expect the same level of competitiveness from the team this year.

Way too obvious story line: The only people to blame for the sorry state of the Expos are Bud Selig and his people. Had Major League Baseball and the other 29 owners actively pursued their relocation plan and a potential suitor for the Expos, the team from Montreal (or Washington, D.C., or anywhere else)with a new owner and a fan base may have been able to afford Guerrero or Vazquez. Yet, MLB keeps pushing back the timetable for relocation. The Expos are already a PR nightmare for Selig and Co. It's time for them to actively pursue this issue. As with last year, this will again dominate the Expos' season.

Perversely interesting story line: Last year, the Expos averaged 12,662 fans per home game. While this does include a bunch of games in Puerto Rico, that number is still good enough for last place in attendance. And this was in a year when the people of Montreal thought they were seeing the Expos for the last time. As the Expos get worse, it will be interesting to see how few people they draw to their games. The Cubs and Yankees among others have, on average, outdrawn the Expos at home during Spring Training; if the Expos show no life during the beginning of the season, and MLB draws out the relocation process even more, Olympic Stadium might have more people on the field than in the seats come late August and September.

Ex-Yankee to watch: Somehow, Nick Johnson was underrated while he was on the Yankees. He had an OBP of .422 and walked 13 more times than he struck out, a rare feat indeed. He drove in 47 runs while scoring 60 in only 96 games. He saw 4.28 pitches per plate appearance, second only to Edgar Martinez, but he did not have the necessary number of at bats to qualify for the leader boards. In Montreal, Nick could blossom into a huge star. He'll be batting third in the lineup with decent protection in Vidro behind him. While he has yet to show that he can stay healthy for entire season at any level of pro ball, he could put up a huge season for the Expos and your fantasy team if he gets 450 at bats. But, if the past is any indication, even 400 ABs is unlikely, and Nick already has experienced some lower back pain this spring.

American League West

1. Oakland Athletics — This division is tough. The Angels made some significant improvements this season, and the Mariners' line up still packs a punch. But in the end, I have to go with the A's for one reason. Well, maybe it's three reasons. With Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito pitching three out of five days, it's easy to win. Backed up by Rich Harden and Mark Redman, the A's have one of the best rotations in the American League, and easily the best rotation in the West. Despite their lack of offense and shaky bullpen situation, their pitching should carry them to another division title in the West.

Obvious story line: The A's finally have their $66-million man. By signing his big contract, Eric Chavez immediately became the most important man in the A's lineup (although he probably was before he signed the contract). Chavez now must start hitting lefties. In his career, he's managed a remarkable .302 BA off righties and a woeful .229 off lefties. He no longer enjoys the protection of Miguel Tejada; instead, he'll be hitting in front of Jermaine Dye (awful) and Erubiel Durazo (potentially decent protection). The A's offense which pales in comparison to the years of Chavez-Giambi-Tejada will be riding on Chavez's bat alone. He holds the key to Oakland's October chances.

Interesting story line: Last season, Arthur Rhodes' ERA ballooned from 1.72 in 2001 to 4.17. He struck out only 48, down from 81 in 2002, and gave up only 1 fewer hit than innings pitched. While the guys at Baseball Prospectus think 2003 was merely a fluke for Rhodes, I think the 307 appearances he's made over the last 4 season may be taking its toll; that is, after a while, a lot of bull pen pitches. The A's are relying on Rhodes to close this year with almost no options behind him. For the success of the Big Three to translate into wins, Rhodes will have to hope that he can regain his 2001-2002 form.

Ballpark to watch: Just last week, Bud Selig announced that the Oakland Coliseum "cannot produce enough revenue for his team to be competitive and keep the players they want to keep." Yet, at the same time, Selig won't let the A's move to Santa Clara because that's within the Giants' territorial rights. So the A's are trapped in a bad ballpark with limited options. This team is one of the best franchises of the young 2000's; they deserve a new ballpark, and Selig shouldn't stop them. With a schedule that rarely sees the A's and Giants at home on the same day, a new ballpark in Santa Clara would hardly draw fans away from San Francisco. The A's ownership is fighting for a new ballpark, and Selig should be too.

2. Anaheim Angels — Many baseball guys picked the Angels to win the division. With the additions of Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar, and Vladimir Guerrero, this team has the make up to win games, but I don't think they top the A's. With a offensive lineup of Guerrero, Garret Anderson, and a supposedly healthy Troy Glaus, the Angels pack more punch than the A's. However, Colon is too inconsistent to be considered in the same league as Zito-Mulder-Hudson, and Escobar is a number 3 guy who pitches a lot. The jury's still out on Jarrod Washburn, Ramon Ortiz, and John Lackey.

Obvious story line: Going back to Vegas, the odds on the Angels are 10 to 11, which means they are favored slightly over the 2 to 1 Athletics. Yet, I'm not picking them to win. Looking at Anaheim, the baseball world will wonder whether the Angels can win. Can David Eckstein and Adam Kennedy return to their 2002 forms? And more importantly, can the Angels finally avoid the injury bug? Vald, Glaus and Salmon need to stay healthy for this team to win, but more importantly, Garret Anderson has to play 150 games for the offense to stay scary good. Right now, Anderson has been hurt on and off during March. If any of these injuries carry over into the regular season, and if the players on the team play to their 2003 levels instead of 2002, the grade-B rotation won't be enough to propel the Angels passed a second place finish.

Interesting story line: In 2000, Darin Erstad hit .355. In 2003, at the age of 28-29, Erstad hit .255 and suffered numerous injuries. His legs are so bad that the Angels are moving him to first base. This move will take much of the strain off of Erstad's legs, and the Angels are hoping it translate into offensive success as well. While the big stories on this team will be Vlad, Colon, and Garret Anderson, Erstad could become an important x-factor. If the move is successful, and he can approach his 2000 levels again, the Angels will enjoy a big offensive boost. Otherwise, they'll have to contend with a woefully unproductive first baseman.

Factoid to watch: Garret Anderson is the holder of a dubious record: consecutive seasons with more than 35 doubles and fewer than 35 walks. Last season, he hit 49 doubles, but his walk total is slowing climbing towards 35. After hitting 34 in 1999, he walked only 24 times in 2000, 27 times in 2001, 30 times in 2002, and 31 times in 2003. If Anderson shows just a little more patience at the plate, his record-setting streak will be over. I fully expect him to get his 35 doubles, but seeing as how Garret is part of the Nomar-Soriano School of Swinging at Everything, those 35 walks may be a bit elusive.

3. Seattle Mariners — The Mariners will win 90 games this season, but still finish in 3rd place. It's simply a testament to how strong their division is. The lineup will look similar to last year's, which is part of the problem. Randy Winn replaces Mike Cameron (offensive upgrade, defensive downgrade), and Scott Spiezio unseats the awful Jeff Cirillo. There's absolutely no way Spiezio can be worse than Jeff Cirillo. It's just not possible. Ask Dave about that one; he'll definitely agree. The bullpen also looks good. Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Eddie Guardado will close out games. The rotation is the same as last year, which may be a problem. This team could win the West, but there are a lot of question marks surrounding the offense and starting pitching. In the end, the team inconsistencies will land them in third place.

Obvious story line: Much depends on Freddy Garcia. In 2001, when the Mariners won 116 games, Garcia was 18-6 with a 3.05 ERA. Since then, he's declined greatly, and last year, he was 12-14 with a 4.51 ERA. Furthermore, he gave up an astounding 31 home runs in 201.1 innings, or one every 6.5 innings. Many people in the baseball world were ready to write off Garcia, but he is after all only turning 28 in June. The Mariners are relying on him to rebound, and in Peoria, AZ, he's been solid. If Garcia can rebound, the Mariners may be able to pull off a division win, but if he struggles, the Mariners' hopes will flounder.

Interesting story line: For a few months last year, Ichiro looked decidedly human. After the All Star break, he hit just .259/301/.383 only 9 stolen bases (compared to 25 before the Break). Is this the Ichiro after the rest of the American League has figured him out? Only April and May of this year may tell. The Mariners need Ichiro to set the table. He has to get on base and steal to start the game, constantly throwing the defense off. If he struggles, the Mariners will be faced with a leadoff guy who sports a low .300s OBP. I wouldn't have expected this big of a fall from Ichiro, and I don't think it will be a permanent decline. I doubt however the he will again hit .350/.384/.457, as he did in 2001.

Wild Card race to watch: I have bad news for the fans of the AL West: The Wild Card will be coming from the East. Because this division is so strong, the top three teams will end up tearing each other up. The A's, Mariners, and Angels play each other about 4,000 teams each while the Yankees and Red Sox get to play the Orioles (who aren't that good) and the Devil Rays instead. I predict three 90-win teams from the West, but only the team on top of the standings on October 3 will play on.

4. Texas Rangers — No team shows that pitching wins quite like the Rangers. Last year, they scored 826 runs, good for fourth in the AL. But they gave up 969 runs, the most in the Majors by an astounding 61 runs. The good news for the Rangers is that, despite losing A-Rod, they should still score a lot of runs. The bad news is that they will still give up a lot of runs. They lost arguably their best pitcher when John Thomson went to their Braves, and their rotation of Chan Ho Park, Kenny Rogers, Colby Lewis (10-9, 7.30 ERA), Ricardo Rodriguez, and Joaquin Benoit (and his 23 home runs allowed in 105 innings) won't exactly strike fear in the hearts of anyone. Their bullpen could be good, but already Jeff Zimmerman's elbow has a knot, much like last year, and without him, the pen in Texas lacks a definite anchor. With a great young core of hitters, this team will show some promise, but their pitching just won't cut it in this highly-competitive division.

Obvious story line: Now that most of A-Rod's contract is off the books, the Rangers have more money to spend on pitching. If the Fuson/Hart General Manager team sees a competitive team, the Rangers could go out and pick up some pitching to help them down the stretch drive. I personally think the Rangers should just wait until next off-season. They shouldn't trade any of the young players who are key to their long-term success. Grady Fuson has the team on a long-term development path, and they shouldn't let the lures of short-term success ruin this plan.

Interesting story line: Last October, Alfonso Soriano managed to strike out 26 times in 71 at bats. At one point, he was benched in the World Series in favor of Enrique Wilson. Now, out of New York, Soriano has the opportunity to put that behind him. The heat in Texas will pad his home run total, and he won't have the New York media breathing down his back every time he strikes out four times per game. But will this stop him from swinging for the fences? I don't think so. Soriano, who's really 28, may have reached his peak, and now, every pitcher knows that the old strike-strike-fastball away routine will get Sori to flail at three straight pitches. Personally, I hope Alfonso succeeds beyond everyone's wildest imagination in Texas; he could make the Rangers fans forget about that A-Rod guy. But I fear that Soriano may be facing a lot of walks back to the dugout after those three-pitch at bats.

Spoilers to watch: The last five series of the Rangers' season are against, in this order, Oakland, Anaheim, Oakland, Seattle, and Anaheim. The Rangers could be the deciding factor in the AL West race. If the three teams are as close as I think they will be, the games they play against Texas in September and October will determine the outcome of the West. While the Rangers themselves probably won't be playing for anything special, their fans will enjoy some important games late in September this year.
----------------------------
So that's it for part II. If you've made it this far, congratulations. I'll be back at the end of the week with my (shorter) look at the AL Central and my analysis of baseball's strongest division: the AL East.


### So what do you think? We want to know. | | E-mail us ###



Posted by Mike on Monday, March 22, 2004

Trotman

Trot Nixon is hurt. More specifically, he has some sort of herniated disk problem in his back that will keep him off the field until May. I think I speak for all Red Sox fans when I say, "Great news." Heading into the season with an injured Nixon and Byung-Hyun Kim does seem far better than starting the year with Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez on the DL but nonetheless injuries are never appreciated. We can only hope that the get their fair share of injuries before all is said and done.

The loss of Trot to the lineup could be discussed for a few more paragraphs because his production will be sorely missed. Instead I'm shifting to a discussion about the Red Sox's options in right field while Trot is recovering (and a semi-startling revelation). The Red Sox don't have a great deal of outfield depth at the present time. Fortunately, if the need becomes dire enough it will be easier to find a replacement OF than it would be to find another starter or middle infielder of quality. There are still a number of valid options that the Red Sox have in house; Ellis Burks has not played the outfield regularly since the 2001 season and that leaves Kevin Millar and Gabe Kapler as the two obvious options.

Kevin Millar

.........AB.....AVG.....OBP.....SLG.....OPS
2001.....449....314.....374.....557.....931
2002.....438....306.....366.....509.....875
2003.....544....276.....348.....472.....820
CAREER..2043....290.....362.....495.....858
Sometimes you just can't believe what you're looking at and at the same time you also can't believe that you had never seen it before. Millars numbers really scare me. He isn't just getting worse, he's getting a lot worse. His AVG, OBP, and SLG have each dropped over the last three seasons which are responsible for his OPS dropping about 55 points each of those three years. What makes this interesting is the belief among a number of baseball analysts, such as Rob Neyer, that Millar will actually improve in 2004. I think Millar could have a better year in 2004 than this past season but I wouldn't count on it to be dramatically better.

His numbers even in their declining state remain good. As an emergency outfielder/DH/1B he's better than who a number of teams will be sending out on a nightly basis. He couldn't replace Trot's bat in the lineup but he does have the ability to mute the effect of Trot's absense.

Gabe Kapler

.........AB.....AVG.....OBP.....SLG.....OPS
2001.....483....267.....348.....437.....785
2002.....315....279.....313.....375.....688
2003.....225....271.....336.....391.....727
Career..1908....272.....335.....430.....765
Well, Kapler is much worse at the plate than is Millar. In fact he's so much of a downgrade that from an offensive perspective Millar wins easily. Unfortunately I don't know enough about Range Factor or those other newer defensive statistics to really comment on the differences between Millar's and Kapler's fielding ability (maybe one of the other TB writers would care to address this?). I do know that Millar is one of the slowest players I've ever seen and Kapler has average speed. Kapler actually seems to move relatively quickly once he gets up to speed but he is a slow starter. This is probably why for a quick runner he does not steal many bases, it just takes him too long to reach full speed. In Fenway's expansive right field speed is always an important attribute. Millar has none and Kapler has some.

There is another option. At home Manny could play right field and Millar could play left field. This is contigent upon Manny actually being a better fielder than Millar (he actually might be). Manny was originally a right fielder and moved to left field when he came to the Red Sox because it was felt that his weak fielding would be less apparently because of the Green Monster effect. If Millar is a weaker fielder than Manny then it would make sense to move Manny to right and put Millar in left while Trot is hurt.

Mets Fans Unite!

...in two years when your team might be an NL East contender again. Craig Lowell takes a look at the Mets' upcoming season and what can be expected of them.


### So what do you think? We want to know. | | E-mail us ###



Posted by Dave on Sunday, March 21, 2004

Putting the Wraps on Caps

Today, I finish up the hat posts. With only the AL East and AL Central left, I'll venture to complete an entire review of the best Major League hats I can find. Granted, these hats are not always the ones used in games, but they are the most aesthetically pleasing (in my opinion). In case you were deprived, the first post discussed the methodology and the NL East and Central and the second post discussed the NL and AL West. In case you needed a reminder, this is the rubric I established for rating the hats:

Simplicity: 35%
Symmetry: 25%
Colors: 25%
Lasting Appeal: 10%
Nostalgia: 5%

It doesn't get much better than this - writing a post, watching March Madness, all on 9 hours of sleep (approximately 1.5 times the amount I normally get). In a positive frame of mind, with you all properly informed, let's begin:

AL Central:



Simplicity - 7.5: The Tigers have a nice hat here. The D is simple enough, though it has the bizarre horizontal lines in the middle of the D. I'm not sure if the horizontal lines are supposed to allude to some sort of Tiger, but their meaning certainly eludes me.
Symmetry - 6.5: There's a fair amount of symmetry here, fold along the horizontal axis and you nearly have perfect symmetry.
Colors - 7: I'm not going to dock the Tigers for the classic blue and white.
Lasting Appeal - 8: They've had this insignia for quite a while, and even though they may suck now...Oh who am I kidding, they'll continue to suck for at least awhile. But the hat's nice!
Nostalgia - 6: The days of Alan Trammell and Sweet Lou Whittaker are long past, sadly.

Overall Hat Rating: 7.1



Simplicity - 8.5: The Royals were a surprising bunch last year, and they have a surprisingly nice hat. The font's interesting, but not too complex. And the interlocking letters are pretty classic as well.
Symmetry - 4.5: The KC has nice symmetry on its own, but their staggered alignment eliminates the symmetry within the hat. Because they willingly ruined some symmetry, I actually docked them some points. I envision a hat in which the KC is side-by-side, like it is in prose - this would produce some nice symmetry and wouldn't sacrifice much in terms of its aesthetic appeal.
Colors - 8.5: Unlike many other teams with navy and white, KC opted for a lighter blue. I like the mixture, and its far more distinct than the navy/white combo.
Lasting Appeal - 8.5: As far as I know, the Royals haven't ever changed their insignia in their existence.
Nostalgia - 5: I can understand why the naysayers enjoy lambasting me for these articles when I realize I know far too little about the Royals' history. Alas, it's still worth a miniscule 5% of their score. George Brett would rush an umpire over too much pine tar, but I think he could hold back if I told him I didn't know too much about Royal history. Five's average, though I suspect they deserve less.

Overall Hat Rating: 7.325



Simplicity - 6: The White Sox really have themselves a pretty ugly hat here. It's no Diamondback catastrophe, but, whew, it's pretty ugly. With that said, it is fairly simple. I don't know what's up with the font the SOX is in, but at least it only has two colors. Black and white, as simple as you can get.
Symmetry - 3.5: There is entirely no notion of symmetry here. The letters individually have them, but the layering of the letters destroys any hope of producing a symmetric feel.
Colors - 2: Theoretically, one would think that the absence-of-color combined with all-colors would make for an interesting combination. Theoretically, you might be right. In reality, the combination is devoid of anything interesting or appealing. Black and white poses great contrast, but it's not ideal for a hat because it doesn't catch the eye and has no flair.
Lasting Appeal - 4: The colors are too ugly and the hat too boring. Sorry White Sox fans.
Nostalgia - 4: A pretty unremarkable history, I would say. They've always taken a back-seat to the Cubbies in Chicago's heart.

Overall Hat Rating: 4.075



Simplicity - 5: The Indians had this insignia for awhile, and I believe they switched over to the slightly better cursive I. Chief Wahoo is not what I'd call an attractive dude. Actually, his smile has an eerie resemblance to the :-D smiley you might see on Instant Messenger. I can understand why certain activist groups are up in arms about this symbol. Mr. Wahoo is red (a stereotypical color of "Indians" - who are not respectfully referred to as Native Americans today) and he sports a feather on the back of his head (why?!). I speculate that this is why the Indians switched to their I.
Symmetry - 2: I know why everyone chooses letters for their caps now. Chief Wahoo is not remotely symmetrical, I don't know what they could've done to improve this.
Colors - 8.5: I'll give the Indians this - they did have a nice combination of blue maroon and white. The colors are jumbled (due to the ridiculous visage of Wahoo), but it's still a nice mixture of colors. In fact, it's very similar to the next hat I am going to review...
Lasting Appeal - 2: It got dumped in favor of the I and it's not a particularly nice symbol anyways.
Nostalgia - 6: The Indians were one of the first (I'd argue that Atlanta was the first) to escape the small-market economic situation once markets became important in baseball. Hart's model of success will not be forgotten easily.

Overall Hat Rating: 4.875



Simplicity - 9.5: The Twins really have a nice hat here. I chose the inverted scheme because the red-maroon is particularly appealing to the eye. The TC is really nicely laid out on the hat and the font is not ostentatious while still being interesting. The way the C appears to wrap around the T is particularly nice, as well. It almost gives the hat a third dimension - all while remaining simplistic.
Symmetry - 8.5: The T and C each have their own symmetry and it's not destroyed in this tactful tiling of letters. The T has vertical symmetry while the C has horizontal symmetry. Though the hat as a whole doesn't have symmetry, the sum of the letters is still good-looking.
Colors - 9: I'm not sure what I gave the Cubbies (I just checked, I gave them an 8.5 - just what I thought I would've given), but this color combination is only slightly better than theirs because I like the darker red a bit more than the brighter/lighter red. The navy is also a nice contrast from the red and white.
Lasting Appeal - 8.5: The TC of the Twins (Twin Cities) does a better job at illustrating the team than the underlined (that was an underlined M, right?) M that Minnesota used to have. It's a nicer hat and should be their cap for a number of years.
Nostalgia - 7.5: They sacrificed some of their nostalgia by switching from the underlined M, but Kirby Puckett, Jack Morris, Scott Erickson and Co. won't be forgotten easily.

Overall Hat Rating: 8.925

AL East:



Simplicity - 8: As much as I want to be biased, I can't say that the B is incredibly simplistic. The colors are nice and the B is a nice symmetrical letter, but the font is a little much, I think. The B has too many frills and embellishments.
Symmetry - 8: Perfect symmetry across the horizontal axis. There's even a bit of horizontal symmetry with respect to the separate halves of the B, but not a whole lot.
Colors - 8: The always appealing navy, red, and white. You can't go wrong with that combination.
Lasting Appeal - 9: The BoSox have always had, and will always have this timeless insignia and cap.
Nostalgia - 9: The history of heartache and disappointment is strong with this hat and logo.

Overall Hat Rating: 8.15



Simpllicity - 8.5: The Yankees employ the technique that many teams have since emulated - the interlocking letters. It's a nice look and the letters cross in the center which is aesthetically appealing. The N is stretched slightly, giving it a slightly strange and elongated appearance, but it only minimally detracts from the hat.
Symmetry - 7.5: The N has rotational symmetry while the Y has vertical symmetry. Placed together, the hat has no cohesive symmetry, but at least the letters on their own have it.
Colors - 7.5: The Yanks get slightly more for the standard white and navy because they were one of the first to employ it.
Lasting Appeal - 9.5: They've had it forever, just like the Sox. Except they win championships frequently.
Nostalgia - 10: No other team in any professional sport could boast that they've won nearly 1/4 of all major titles. The Yankees emblem has never changed and is a reminder of that tradition of winning.

Overall Hat Rating: 8.175



Simplicity - 4.5: The Blue Jays really bombed with this one. If they had omitted that devious blue jay lurking behind the T, the Blue Jays cap would only be as bad as the Rangers'. But, for some reason, they felt compelled to include it. This eliminated all notion of symmetry, but more importantly, it eliminated any semblance of simplicity. He's tossing a ball! He's got a bat! Don't mess with him! Don't wear him!
Symmetry - 3.5: It was kind of there until that stupid bird invaded the vertically symmetric T.
Colors - 6: The blue and red is appreciated - the black and white speckled everywhere is not.
Lasting Appeal - 4: They would've been better off keeping the other ugly cap they had when they won those World Series under Cito Gaston.
Nostalgia - 3.5: This cap only reminds Toronto fans of the recent misery their team has experienced - a far cry from their Series titles. JP is doing a great job though, so they will be proud of their franchise in no time, I expect. Sneaking in for the wild-card doesn't look impossible in one of the next few years - maybe this year if the Sox injury bug keeps being passed around.

Overall Hat Rating: 4.525



Simplicity - 5: The Oriole is a good-looking bird, but it doesn't really make for a good-looking cap. The Orioles at least broke from convention and decided on having a picture rather than a letter for their logo. It was smart of them - had they chosen a letter, they would've had a very similar cap to Boston.
Symmetry - 2.5: I've thought for awhile, but it's just not there.
Colors - 7.5: Some people dislike the "Halloween colors." I don't think they look particulraly bad, but there's nothing tremendously redeeming about orange, black, and white. You could wear this hat with a lot of clothes, however. The splash of orange would even be a nice way to spice up your outfit of choice.
Lasting Appeal - 7: It's not an awful hat, and I feel like a lot of ornothologists would enjoy wearing this hat.
Nostalgia - 6: I really do miss Benitez beaning Tino in the back and Albert Belle on the juice.

Overall Hat Rating: 5.25



Simplicity - 4: The Tampa Bay Devil Rays have our intials (Talking Baseball), but the good qualities just about end there. Not only does a devil ray inspire no fear in the opponent, it looks awful on a cap. The TB is relatively simple, but like the Blue Jays and Marlins, the mascot does not befit the insignia. The only reason the Rays' cap scores this high with simplicity is the nice font for the TB.
Symmetry - 3: The TB is not symmetrical at all, neither is that stupid ray. What would compel anyone to have a devil ray as a mascot?!
Colors - 6: I only chose this hat because I like the green of this cap. The purple certainly detracts, especially when paired with the green, but I'll be a bit generous because I like that hunter green.
Lasting Appeal - 3.5: The Devil Rays have yet to be good, and their hat does not much inspire much enthusiasm either.
Nostalgia - 2: They've barely had a history - what are we going to remember, a front office overpaying for a triumvirate of decaying sluggers (McGriff, Greg Vaughn, Jose Canseco)?

Overall Hat Rating: 4.1

With the anticlimactic Devil Ray ending, I've covered my favorite hat for each team (and in the Cubs' case, my favorite two hats). How does everyone stack up comparatively? What follows is the Hat Rating Leaderboard, including the post you can find the hat review and picture in, followed by some general commentary on the final results. At the peril of looking particularly biased, the asterisked hats are the ones I own.

Overall Hat Rating Leaderboard:

1-10:
1) 9.000 - Houston Astros (1st post)*
2) 8.925 - Minnesota Twins (3rd post (this one))*
3) 8.750 - Chicago Cubs, Red C (1)
3) 8.750 - Anaheim Angels, Back (2)
5) 8.600 - Seattle Mariners (2)
6) 8.175 - New York Yankees (3)
7) 8.150 - Boston Red Sox (3)*
8) 8.050 - Cincinatti Reds (1)
9) 8.000 - Milwaukee Brewers (1)
10) 7.400 - San Francisco Giants (2)

11-20:
11) 7.350 - New York Mets (1)
11) 7.350 - Los Angeles Dodgers (2)
13) 7.325 - Kansas City Royals (3)
14) 7.275 - Philadelphia Phillies (1)
15) 7.250 - St. Louis Cardinals (1)
16) 7.125 - San Diego (2)
17) 7.100 - Oakland Athletics (2)*
17) 7.100 - Detroit Tigers (3)
19) 7.000 - Atlanta Braves (1)
20) 6.975 - Chicago Cubs, Cub (1)

21-30:
21) 6.825 - Texas Rangers (3)
22) 6.175 - Pittsburgh Pirates (1)
23) 5.250 - Colorado Rockies (2)
23) 5.250 - Baltimore Orioles (3)
25) 5.050 - Montreal Expos (1)
26) 4.875 - Cleveland Indians (3)
27) 4.525 - Toronto Blue Jays (3)
28) 4.100 - Tampa Bay Devil Rays (3)
29) 4.075 - Chicago White Sox (3)
30) 3.600 - Florida Marlins (1)

The Absolute Worst Hat, at #31:
31) 2.475 - Arizona Diamondbacks (2)

Observations:
1. The teams in the West have generally worse hats than those in the Central and East. This can be seen because the hats with a two in parentheses generally rate worse than the Central and East teams (found in posts 1 and 3). I think this is likely due to the fact that the Eastern and Central teams are older and have more classic hats. It also may be due to the fact that I have a greater attachment and connection to them.
2. The scores are not normally distributed in the least. After the Brewers at #9 with a score of eight, there is a precipitous drop to the Giants with a score of 7.4. Similarly, after the Rangers with a score of 6.825, there's quite a drop-off to the Pirates at 6.175 and then the Rockies at 5.250. I'm not sure why this is the case - it could be because the categories are correlated. That is, if a hat is symmetric, it tends to be simplistic, etc.
3. The Reds, in my opinion, were rated most poorly by me. Somehow they snuck into the Top 10, even though I wouldn't say I have a very high opinion of their hat. The Reds deserved to be lower, and the Cardinals deserved to be higher. Their hat is at least better than the Royals, even though the Cards are at 15 and the Royals at 13.
4. The Red Sox never seem to beat the Yankees, and they don't win in the cap department either. They were narrowly edged out by only .025 points.

Next post I'll discuss Eric Chavez and his contract, Jeremy Reed (a prospect for the ChiSox), Joe Mauer, and whatever else strikes my fancy. Until then, let me know what you think of the Hat Ratings below with the comments and keep checking out Talking Baseball. Oh, and get those Worthlessnessfest entries sent in, the start of the season is only 8 days away!


### So what do you think? We want to know. | | E-mail us ###