For the second year in a row, the Baltimore Orioles will most likely be looking up at the AL East from the basement. Right-fielder Nick Markakis and second baseman Brian Roberts, who both received big contract extensions in the offseason, anchor an O’s line-up that, last year, was third in the AL in run producing before Sept. 1. Aubrey Huff will take over at first base this year and Luke Scott will become the club’s designated hitter after the club’s acquisition of former top prospect Felix Pie.
The O’s glaring hole, as usual, is the rotation. With less than two weeks left until opening day, only Jeremy Guthrie and free-agent Japanese signing Koji Uehara has strongholds on rotation spots. After that Manager Dave Trembley brought a lot of arms in to spring training to compete but has been disappointed thus far that no one has really stepped it up. One time top prospect Hayden Penn is still in the hunt for the rotation but he has no options left so if he doesn’t make the team he’ll have to be exposed to waivers if the Orioles want to send him to the minors.
Some say the bullpen could be in shambles but with the return of a healthy Matt Albers and Chris Ray, who has put up dominant numbers thus far in spring training, the bullpen could be one of the plusses on this club.
Though it would be near impossible for the Orioles to compete this year, they have done very well replenishing a once barren farm system. The O’s drafted catcher Matt Wieters in 2007, who is now Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect in the game, and Brian Matusz in 2008 who shined in a short stint during major league spring training camp. Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman aren’t far behind and will be a staple in the rotation for years to come.
2009 may be a wash for the Orioles, but they will certainly be turning heads in 2010.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim:
The Angels are expected to start the season with starting pitchers John Lackey, Ervin Santana and Kelvim Escobar all on the disabled list. Jered Weaver is not expected to be ready to throw on opening day, which leaves projected third starter Joe Saunders, who is rumored to be throwing with a “dead arm.” They have a potent line-up but also one that is aging and often hurt. Torii Hunter is the Angels youngest outfielder at 33 and Vlad Guerrero, though he is a monster at the plate has shown declining speed and if you can believe it, may soon be a liability in the field.
The Athletics were busy early and often this off-season. General Manager Billy Beane acquired Matt Holliday from the Rockies and reunited Jason Giambi with the west coast. The A’s have a sturdy line-up and catcher Kurt Suzuki is blossoming in to a talented, well-rounded everyday player. The projected rotation includes Justin Duchscherer, who broke out last year as a fantasy stud, but he is scheduled to start the season on the DL and it is there is not much of a timetable for his return. Beane, who has always understood the importance of a farm system, will try to send out top prospects Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill to the mound and hope for early success. The Atheltics success this year will contingent upon their young pitchers rooting themselves in the rotation even if it is their first full season with the big club.
Last year the Mariners were expected to compete immediately after acquiring Erik Bedard from the Orioles for five players including budding start Adam Jones and top prospect Chris Tillman. The Mariners are calling the ‘08 season a wash and are starting fresh in 2009. Seattle acquired speedy outfielders Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez in a three-team deal in which they lost all-star closer J.J. Putz. With “King” Felix Hernandez and Bedard the Mariners have a formidable one-two punch but not much after that in veteran, overpaid, workhorses Carlos Silva and Jarrod Washburn. This year could go either way for the Mariners but at least fans get to watch Ken Griffey Jr. in Safeco again.
No team in the majors scored more runs than the Ranger last season. Problem? No team in the majors gave up more runs than the Rangers last season. Up-and-down the line-up, the Rangers haven’t changed much, however certain players are not where they once were. Gold Glove shortstop Michael Young made the jump to third base to make way for toolsy prospect Elvis Andrus, a move that in turn forcees Hank Blalock in to the role of designated hitter. With the loss of Milton Bradley the Rangers have two possible ways to fill the void. Nelson Cruz, who has had previous chances in the show and has failed to stick, and Chris Davis, who came in last year after the All-Star break and proved himself worthy against big league pitching. And of course, there is Josh Hamilton: ‘Nuf Said. For the sake of Rangers fans, I won’t get into the pitching, but get ready for flamethrower Neftali Feliz and pitcher Derek Holland in the upcoming years.
The Braves shook up their rotation big time this year with only two returning starters in Jair Jurrjens and veteran Tom Glavine. Atlanta traded multiple prospects to the White Sox for Javier Vazquez and later signed Japanese pitcher Kenshin Kawakami and postseason guru Derek Lowe. The Braves lost Mark Teixiera last year but were able to salvage a shred of dignity when they got Casey Kotchman in return. With one of the best catchers in the game in Brian McCann and future hall of famer Chipper Jones, the Braves will do continue to make the NL East among the most competitive divisions in baseball.
Hanley Ramirez is easily among the best players in baseball while right fielder Cody Ross quietly had a very good 2008 campaign. The Marlins have a rotation that most teams would dream over: five young, under control, pitchers that have all showed at least some success in the majors. Though he is not listed as the staff ace, the 6’ 7” Josh Johnson, who missed most of 2007, came back at the end of 2008 and showed that his 12-7, 3.10 ERA season in his rookie year was no fluke.
Side note: I had the pleasure of seeing Johnson pitch in spring training this year and he is one of the most dominating, intimidating looking pitchers I have ever seen in person. He should be mowing down NL East competitors for years to come…or at least until the Marlins decide to trade him because they are too cheap to extend anyone.
New York Mets:
Take a look at the Mets offense this year and you’ll recognize every name in the line-up. The Mets didn’t bother to bolster their offense during the off-season instead working on what the biggest problem was a year ago; the bullpen. Early during the free agency period, the Mets worked out a $37 million deal with former Angels’ closer Francisco Rodriguez and then shocked some of the baseball world when they traded for another closer in Putz from the Mariners. Offensively, the Mets seem to be fine with David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran scattered about the line-up. Right fielder Ryan Church was off to a hot start at the beginning of last season before colliding with a teammate and suffering a concussion that left him unable to return to early season form.
The Phillies had one of the quietest off-seasons in the majors after winning their first World Series since 1980. But when you’re the world champions you can pretty much expect that if you did it once you can do it again. Up and down the Phillies have arguably the most consistent line-up in the National League. The Phils’ have speed, power and defense in Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ran Howard and “The Flyin’ Hawaiian” Shane Victorino. After the front office declined to resign Pat Burrell, the Phillies quickly filled their void in left by signing former Mariner Raul Ibanez. World Series MVP Cole Hamels has been battling minor injuries during spring training but is confident he will be able to pitch shortly after the start of the season, while Brett Myers and is looking to start of 2009 a little differently than his 2-6 start a year ago.
The Nationals, desperate to appease their fans, went out and recklessly spent $20 million on Adam Dunn. Though he has 40 home run power and will probably have an on-base percentage pushing.400, the Nationals are not nearly ready to contend in the NL East as they do not have the talent that the other teams do. Ryan Zimmerman may have lost some of his glamour after being on the DL for much of the season but as the true face of the franchise he will have to have a great season to keep fans happy. The rotation will most likely be among the worst in baseball, but it should be exciting to see how first-round draft pack, rookie Jordan Zimmerman performs. Take a left end of the hallway and take the third door on the right and the Nationals are back to where they were last year…the basement.