Friday, March 31, 2006

Let the Games Begin

Thank goodness it’s time to kick things off in a fresh new season. Sometimes the winter is too long and cold. The inaugural Canyon of Heroes season preview is an abbreviated article, in that it only superfluously looks at Major League Baseball as a whole, in favor of brevity. The focus of this season preview is the AL East, and you’ll find below some general predictions followed by more in depth analysis of our home division and immediate rivals. Without further ado, let’s begin.

American League

East: Yankees
Central: White Sox
West: Athletics
Wild Card: Red Sox

AL Champs: Yankees
AL MVP: Derek Jeter
AL Cy Young: Johan Santana

National League

East: Mets
Central: Cardinals
West: Dodgers
Wild Card: Braves

NL Champs: Cardinals
NL MVP: Albert Pujols
NL Cy Young: Pedro Martinez

World Series: New York Yankees defeat St. Louis Cardinals

AL East Preview

2005 Order of Finish:

1. Yankees (95-67)
2. Red Sox (95-67)
3. Toronto (80-82)
4. Baltimore (74-88)
5. Tampa Bay (67-95)

(Papi Knows Where to Look for NY)
Predicted Order of Finish:

1. Yankees (97-65)
2. Red Sox (92-70)
3. Blue Jays (85-77)
4. Devil Rays (72-90)
5. Orioles (65-97)

AL East MVP: Derek Jeter, SS-Yankees
AL East Cy Young: Roy Halladay, RHP-Blue Jays
AL East LVP: Corey Patterson, CF-Orioles
AL East Sigh Young: A.J. Burnett RHP, Blue Jays

New York Yankees Preview

Outlook: By all accounts the 2005 season was a lackluster showing by the Yankees. While it’s true that they posted 95 wins, tied for 2nd best in the AL and 3rd overall in the Majors, the team never found consistency and struggled to patch together a solid rotation all year long. Beating the Red Sox for first place in the AL East was sweet, but the team fizzled out in the playoffs and showed why big hitting is only a formula for regular season success.

The same pitching problems confront the Yankees in 2006, and there is no reason to believe we will see an improvement in the overall wins in the regular season. I believe the offense will stay strong and that the team will show improved results in beating the weaker teams in the division. Although Tampa is much improved under new ownership, there is no reason to believe they can post a winning record against the Yankees again.

The season will hinge on a return to form by Randy Johnson, more consistency from Mike Mussina, and solid contributions from a combination of Wang, Chacon, Pavano, and Wright. The bullpen appears to be improved and deeper, as long as Joe Torre uses his toys wisely and doesn’t wear them out by over-pitching them. The addition of Johnny Damon seems unnecessary at first glance and all the hype about him being a “real leadoff hitter” is ludicrous. The argument has been made ad nauseum that Derek Jeter’s numbers in the #1 hole were near the top in the league. Essentially, the Yanks look the same as they did a year ago with the same question marks, and the same strengths.

MVP Player: Derek Jeter – Look for a batting title, gold glove, and MVP trophy
MVP Pitcher: Mariano Rivera – No comment necessary

Bat to Watch: Bernie Williams – Can he get back near .300 for one more year?
Avert your eyes: The Yankees Bench – Who among these guys is a player?

Arm to Watch: Mike Mussina – Moose is 37 and seems to be slowly declining. We need him.
Duck!: Tanyon Sturtze – How long before Torre goes away from him in favor of new blood?

Boston Red Sox Preview:

Outlook: The off-season was certainly an adventure in Boston. The Theo Epstein seesaw was enough to give Red Sox Nation a collective cardiac arrest. All in all, the team seems to have turned itself over, dropping key members of the 2004 Championship in favor of a different mix. The Josh Beckett signing was the crown jewel of the winter for Boston, and he should account nicely of himself at the front of the rotation. His health is a gamble for the Sawx, but he’s got electric stuff as the Yankees well know, and could win some important ballgames for Boston this year. All those nice things aside, Beckett sports a WHIP of 1.235 for his career, and while his ERA is good, he’s about to enter Fenway Park and you should see a spike to a number closer to 4.00 this season. Like Pavano, Beckett is cashing in on a good arm and memories of the 2003 World Series.

The other holes in CF and SS were filled by Coco Crisp and Alex Gonzales, respectively. Crisp is a solid all around player that should see a spike in his offensive numbers in Fenway. He won’t put up the same kind of numbers that Damon leaves behind, but his 42 doubles last season were no fluke and he will hit to the gaps frequently in Southie. Gonzales is Silly Putty. He’s there to make sure balls don’t go through the infield. He has a career .682 OPS, which should tell the story.

The Sox are not as good this season as they were in either 2004 or 2005. Schilling is a year older and his famous ankle hasn’t improved. The rest of the pitching is decent but not lights out, with Clement, Paplebon, Wakefield, and the ever abrasive David “Tweedledum” Wells. Ortiz and Ramirez are as potent a 1-2 punch as there is in the league and virtually guarantee an above .500 season regardless of who you put around them. Mike Lowell is a favorite whipping boy in some circles, but I think he should account nicely of himself for the Red Sox. He has solid career numbers which should provide a better predictive sample than the dismal results he produced in 2005. To sum things up, the Sox are not the team they once were, but they are still a formidable opponent with a great home field and an aggressive front office. There’s no reason they can’t be near the top of the Wild Card race all year.

MVP Player: Manny Ramirez – As good as Ortiz is, Manny is Manny
MVP Pitcher: Keith Foulke – If he doesn’t bounce back it’s over in Beantown

Bat to Watch: Adam Stern – “The Canadian Babe” could provide a welcome surprise to red Sox Nation
Avert your eyes: Alex Gonzalez – A career .291 OBP? Can you say Womack?

Arm to Watch: Curt Schilling – If 2006 isn’t better than 2005 by a wide margin the Sox are out of the playoffs.
Duck!: Tim Wakefield– Led the AL in home runs allowed last year with 35, and had 29 in 2004.

Toronto Blue Jays Preview:

Outlook: The Jays are back at it again. They have taken up free spending ways to get their fan base back and fill the cavernous Sky Dome again. The Blue Jays used to lead the Major Leagues in home attendance every year, but have fallen out of favor with their fans in recent times. It’s easy to understand why, with the lack of direction both in the front office and on the field.

Letting Carlos Delgado, the face of the modern Blue Jays, go was a smart choice in my opinion. The brain trust at Blue Jays central knew they could get several players for the cost of one Delgado. The thing is, they broke the bank on B.J. Ryan and A.J. Burnett. They must like guys with initials instead of names. Credit GM J.P. Ricciardi for those decisions. I guess he wanted company in the lonely world of the nameless. Stupid. Burnett is starting the season on the DL in the grand tradition of other former Florida Marlins hurlers (see: Pavano, Beckett).

There is enough hitting talent on this roster to succeed. A team that features Vernon Wells, Troy Glaus, Frank Catalanotto, Alex Rios, Eric Hinske, Lyle Overbay, Shea Hillenbrand, and Bengie Molina should have no trouble putting up runs. Likewise a rotation fronted by Roy Halladay, Ted Lilly, and Gustavo Chacin should prove tough on any team facing all three in a series. Add a healthy Burnett to the mix and you have the makings of an above average rotation. If Ryan can close effectively, you’ll see the Blue Jays become a thorn in the side of any number of teams throughout the season. They’re not in the same class as the Yanks or the Sox, but the fans should have some reason to cheer.

MVP Player: Vernon Wells – Alpha and Omega for the Blue Jays offense
MVP Pitcher: Roy Halladay – If healthy, Toronto is in the Wild Card hunt

Bat to Watch: Alex Rios – Can he breakout in 2006 the way Toronto believes he can?
Avert your eyes: Russ Adams & Aaron Hill – Weak middle infield offensively.

Arm to Watch: Roy Halladay – The entire season depends on his health.
Duck!: Josh Towers– Posted a 1.71 WHIP in the Spring, and is always an adventure.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays Preview:

Outlook: Finally some new ownership committed to actually being a Major League team. Let’s face it, the Devil Rays will never in a million years win the AL East with juggernauts like New York and Boston in front of them, and historic franchises like Toronto and Baltimore surrounding them. They can compete and should they build wisely they can find themselves regularly in the wild card race. It will take shrewd planning and great scouting, but if the Twins can do it, so can the Rays.

For a couple of years now, I’ve really admired Tampa from afar. I like the core of young players they have and I’ve hoped that they would commit to spending big on a few marquee types that can help them climb out of the lower part of the division. They need to buy a few free agent arms and find at least one All Star caliber guy for the middle of their lineup. The payroll has got to increase, or what’s the point of even having a team in Tampa? You’re in the AL East under teams that routinely spend upwards of 100 million and more on their franchises, so what hope do you have of EVER reaching the playoffs if you can’t at least finish 2nd?

What they have now is a good start and should get them out of the basement this year. The Orioles will oblige them by fielding one of the worst teams in baseball, but they’ve also built a foundation. I like Jorge Cantu. His OBP isn’t great, but I think he’s a gutsy ballplayer who leaves it all out on the field. His power numbers are good and given some protection in the lineup he could turn out to be a solid regular for years to come. Sean Burroughs has always had the talent. He’s not a power hitter, but he can play ball. On a good team, he hits at the bottom of the order, but he’d do you proud down there. On this team he’ll be forced to hit higher up in the lineup than he should and that will hurt him. I expect big things from Rocco Baldelli this season. He never stood out as a Hall of Famer in the making, as Lou Piniella wanted us to believe, but he has a lot of tools and could evolve into a solid middle of the lineup guy, in addition to playing a good center field.

The pitching is the key. Scott Kazmir has a lot on his shoulders this season. He needs to turn into a legit #1 starter and show Tampa fans that there’s hope for the future. If he had a plus year, the Rays will go out and get a couple of real major leaguers to pitch with him. As it is now, Seth McClung will open the season as the #2, followed by Mark Hendrickson and Casey Fossum. Ouch. Kazmir needs to go out and post a win every 5th day to keep the momentum going. It’s a lot to ask of the young man. Is he ready?

MVP Player: Jorge Cantu – His attitude can keep a losing ballclub motivated to the end.
MVP Pitcher: Scott Kazmir – The team is on his young shoulders

Bat to Watch: Delmon Young – What does he bring to the table for this franchise?
Avert your eyes: Tropicana Field - The worst sports facility in major sports.

Arm to Watch: Jason Childers – Good minor league reliever who has looked strong in camp.
Duck!: Casey Fossum– Led the AL with 18 hit batsmen last year. (FYI…Derek)

Baltimore Orioles Preview:

Outlook: Yuck. That’s all I really want to write. Yuck. There I said it again.

I would be remiss if I stopped there, regardless of my feelings. This once proud franchise, who plays in one of the best ballparks in baseball has been reduced to a squad of has beens, never will bes, plus Melvin Mora and Miguel Tejada. Where did they go wrong? Can they blame things of Jeffrey Maier somehow?

Gone are Sidney Ponson, B.J. Ryan, Sammy Sosa and Raffy “HGH” Palmeiro. Also gone are there chances of staying out of the basement in the AL East. Of Jeff Conine, Corey Patterson, and Jay Gibbons does not an outfield make. Javy Lopez is being counted on to play first, catch, and DH. The DH option is the only one that makes any sense to me. Brian Roberts had a fine year last season, by all accounts, but will never approach the same success again. There’s less protection in the order now. Count on the Orioles to give away as many runs on defense as they produce with their bats.

The first, second, and third rules of baseball are all the same. Pitching is everything. In Baltimore this season, pitching is nothing. Lopez, Benson, Bedard, Cabrera, and Chen are their starting rotation. None of those guys are top pitchers, and while each is solid in his own way, they will struggle in their 57 games against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays. That’s not to mention the games they will play against Oakland, Anaheim, Chicago, and Cleveland. They’ll be lucky to pick up 35 wins in those games. The final word is, trade Tejada and Mora and rebuild Baltimore. That stadium is too beautiful for such ugly baseball.

MVP Player: Miguel Tejada – Duh.
MVP Pitcher: Jim Palmer – Why not? I have to pick somebody.

Bat to Watch: Melvin Mora – A hitter’s hitter. Watch and learn.
Avert your eyes: Donald Corey Patterson – How does a guy with a career .293 OBP start?

Arm to Watch: Daniel Cabrera – Young kid should make an impression at some point.
Duck!: Anna Benson– Will make a bad season worse with her mouth.