MLB: Opening Day Looming
By ZACHARY MORETTI
Foreward by JOEY MERKEL
After five months of free agents, trades and watching scrub players try hopelessly to make their respective teams after signing minor-league deals, the baseball regular season is less than two weeks away.
This begins a two-week special MLB preview issue in which The Bullet sports staff will take a look at every team’s additions, subtractions and chances of making the postseason in the near future.
Up this week: the AL East (sans Baltimore Orioles) and the NL West.
1. Boston Red Sox:
While all the talk in this division centers around the Tampa Bay Rays and their fairytale rise to the World Series a season ago along with the New York Yankees and all the money they spent to get big name free agents in the off-season, people have forgotten the Sox took the Rays to seven games in the ALCS despite their best hitter and best pitcher battling injuries throughout the series.. With an outstanding pitching staff that has three All-Star quality starters in Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Daisuke Matsusaka, along with low-risk, high-reward free agent signings in John Smoltz and Brad Penny, many believe the Red Sox could end up with the best rotation in all of baseball.
The Sox have the MVP of the American League from a season ago in Dustin Pedroia to go along with star first baseman Kevin Youkilis and outfielder Jason Bay. The bullpen is built around one of the best closers in all of baseball in Jonathan Papelbon. The Red Sox may not be the best story and they may not have made the biggest splash in free agency but they will surely be in the thick of things when playoff time comes knocking.
2. New York Yankees:
The Yankees had an uncharacteristically quiet off-season before the 2008 regular season began as they preached trying to build the farm system up and try to move to replenishing from within the organization in the future. Well, after New York missed the playoffs in 2008, the Yankees are back to their old ways as they shelled out contracts worth $181 million, $161 million, and $82.5 million to three players respectively this past offseason.
The additions of first baseman Mark Teixeira along with starting pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett should certainly help the club out considerably. Sabathia and Burnett greatly improve a pitching staff that struggled a season ago and the two of them paired with the return of a healthy Chien-Ming Wang should give the Yankees a pretty impressive pitching staff. Teixiera is a star hitter who gets inserted into an already impressive lineup that includes shortstop Derek Jeter, outfielder Johnny Damon, and of course third baseman Alex Rodriguez and all the controversy that surrounds him nowadays.
If the Yankees do the smart thing and move the ultra-talented Joba Chamberlain back to the bullpen to fill the 8th inning role then things begin to look much better there. However, the major question surrounds Alex Rodriguez and how effective he will be once he returns from injury along with how he will handle all the talk about his steroids confession.
3. Tampa Bay Rays:
The 2008 Rays were the biggest surprise of the season and truly became a real life Cinderella story as they went from the worst team in all of baseball in 2007 to representing the American League in the World Series in 2008. The 2009 Rays will again be very good and they will compete the entire season for a division title or Wild Card berth. Tampa Bay has young and excellent starting pitching in Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, and David Price, which should keep them in every game. Their hitting is nothing to sneeze at either and is centered around two young stars in Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton. Carl Crawford is an absolute burner at the top of the order and Carlos Pena and new off-season addition Pat Burrell give them some extra pop in the middle of the lineup.
The question mark for the Rays is the bullpen. I have no faith that Troy Percival can stay healthy, I sincerely doubt that Jason Isringhausen has anything left in the tank, and Dan Wheeler proved last season when he tried to close that he just doesn’t have what it takes. This will prove to be a fatal flaw for the Rays and despite being one of the five best teams in all of baseball, they are the third best team in their division, which means the clock will strike midnight on Cinderella as Tampa Bay misses out on the playoffs in 2009.
4. Toronto Blue Jays:
Toronto finished a mere fourth in the AL East in 2008 despite a solid 86-76 record. The 2009 forecast looks to have the Blue Jays fourth yet again, but don’t expect so many wins this time around. With the loss of starting pitcher A.J. Burnett to division foe New York and the loss of starting pitcher Shaun Marcum for the entire season due to an elbow injury, a once formidable pitching staff is looking bleak.
The Jays still have the services of ace Roy Halladay though, who is proven to be one of the best in the business and a true innings eater as well. With talented hitters in outfielders Alex Rios and Vernon Wells along with veterans at the corner infield spots with third baseman Scott Rolen and first baseman Lyle Overbay, Toronto could produce a solid amount of runs. Their bullpen is decent but does rely on the return of closer B.J. Ryan, who was solid last year, to his dominant form ala 2006. Toronto will be competitive in most games, but barring major injuries, they just aren’t good enough to finish any higher than fourth.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers:
The Dodgers emerged late last season to win the division after the addition of outfielder Manny Ramirez via a trade from the Boston Red Sox. Just how good was Manny in Dodger-land? A .396 average, 17 home runs, 53 RBI’s, and 36 runs in just 53 games vaulted Ramirez into MVP consideration despite being in the NL for such a short period of time. The 2009 Dodgers will field one of the best hitting teams in the majors with no weak spots aside from the pitcher’s spot in the order. They have one of the best hitting catchers in the sport in Russell Martin, emerging outfielders in Matt Kemp and AndreEither, and solid veteran hitters in third baseman Casey Blake and second baseman Orlando Hudson. Now the loss of starting pitcher
Derek Lowe to the Atlanta Braves would appear to hurt the pitching staff some, but the Dodgers still have a quality rotation led by ace Chad Billingsley and they have the immense talent of 21-year-old Clayton Kershaw in tow as well. Young, upcoming closer Jonathan Broxton anchors the bullpen down and there are several other solid arms at the disposal of manager Joe Torre out in the pen as well. Los Angeles simply has the most talent in this division and they will be too much for the other teams to compete with them as they will coast to the division title.
2. Arizona Diamondbacks:
Arizona was the team who least enjoyed the arrival of Manny to the Dodgers. After Ramirez joined L.A. on August 1st, Arizona went just 25-28 to close the season and only 2-7 against the Dodgers, losing their division lead and missing out on the playoffs in the process.
Since then, the Diamondbacks lost two key players in free agency as second baseman Orlando Hudson signed with the aforementioned Dodgers and home run masher Adam Dunn signed with the Washington Nationals. The Diamondbacks only had one player hit .300 or higher last season while they had three who hit .250 or lower.
The team needs young outfielder Justin Upton to increase his production and live up to the hype that surrounds him to give aid to star shortstop Stephen Drew and give more stability to their lineup.
Now the strength of Arizona is clearly their pitching staff as they have the pleasure of having two aces in Brandon Webb and Dan Haren and what many believe to be a rising star in young pitcher Max Scherzer.
The bullpen is in pretty good shape as well and they have a couple options to go with at the closer position in either Jon Rauch or Chad Qualls. However, their inability to consistently produce runs will have them looking up at the Dodgers in the standings for most of the season.
3. San Diego Padres:
After a disappointing 2007 year where the Padres finish third in a very close division race, the 2008 season saw San Diego hit rock bottom as they finished last in the NL West. The 2009 Padres can bounce back to a degree, but there is only so far you can go with mediocre talent. They have a stud at the top of their rotation in Jake Peavy and Chris Young should bounce back from an injury that cost him a big chunk of the 2008 season and be a good number two on the staff as well. Adrian Gonzalez serves as the teams primary home run threat and run producer and the team is also relying on the further development of young players such as third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff and outfielder Chase Headley.
The Padres bullpen will certainly have a different look to it as the team and MLB all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman went there separate ways, which means no more of “Hells Bells” in the ninth inning to preface the entrance of the San Diego fan favorite anymore.
This san Diego teams has a lot of question marks and they could very well finish in fourth if things don’t pan out, but just know that third is their pinnacle.
4. Colorado Rockies:
Following a season where they went on a great World Series run, Colorado fans were not happy with a 2008 season that saw the club finish in third place and 14 games under .500. The 2009 season does not look any brighter for Rockies fans as the team traded away its best player, outfielder Matt Holliday, to the Oakland Athletics and lost starting pitcher Jeff Francis for the year due to injury. The team still has a lineup that should produce very well due to a hitter friendly ballpark a load of good, veteran hitters in Garret Atkins, Brad Hawpe, and Todd Helton. The team is also hopeful that star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki can return from an injury that slowed him most of the 2008 season and go back to the way he played during the 2007 year where he cranked out a .291 average, 24 home runs, and 99 RBI that earned him the Rookie of the Year Award.. The starting rotation looks to be the shakiest part of this years Colorado club. Ubaldo Jimenez is the most promising pitcher on the staff and Aaron Cook put up respectable numbers last season, but the others are all big question marks and average or below average starting pitching can’t be hidden in this ballpark that hitters thrive in. Therefore, despite solid hitting, the pitching just isn’t reliable enough for the Rockies to compete and they will battle the Padres for the rights to third place in the division, but that’s as high as they will get.
5. San Francisco Giants:
The Giants simply weren’t that good in 2008 and they don’t’ look to be that much better in 2009. The team is built around 2008 Cy Young Award winning pitcher Tim Lincecum, who is one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. They also have solid complementary starters in Matt Cain and Randy Johnson, but the other two spots in the rotation are huge question marks. Pitcher Barry Zito signed a seven-year, $126 million contract in December of 2006; the richest ever for a pitcher at the time of the deal, yet he has posted win-loss totals of 11-13 and 10-17 with ERA’s of 4.53 and 5.15 in his two years with the club. San Francisco is high on 26-year-old starter Jonathan Sanchez, but he has yet to put it together in the big leagues while pitcher Things don’t get better when it comes to hitting either as San Francisco is subpar in this area as well. When Pablo Sandoval and Bengie Molia are your projected 3-4 hitters, you just don’t have a very good lineup. The 2009 Bay Area fans will be dreaming about the good old days when they had Bonds as this year will bring nothing but a second consecutive losing season.