Monday

3-30-09: 2009 MLB Preview: NL West

Hello again everybody...

Well, I'm back. My Phoenix vacation went far too quickly, but I can't complain since I had a brilliant time. I saw more baseball there this year than I'd seen the last couple of years combined. I had a fantastic stay and can't wait to get back down there next year.

But now I'm back in Minneapolis. And fortunately it seems the "storm of the century" that they were predicting for tomorrow is going to be more of a mix of rain and snow than just snow. Apparently the worst of it will be up north, which isn't going to help the flooding situation much, but here in the metro, it won't be so bad. We shall see.

Today's the fifth edition of the 2009 MLB Preview and we're down to the divisions containing my two favorite teams. The news for tomorrow is pretty good. But today? Not as much. Let's light this candle!

"I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies."
- Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1826), 3rd President of the United States


I'm not sure T.J. could've imagined the mess our current banking system is in. But it's an eerie bit of foreshadowing, no?

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The fifth edition of the 2009 MLB Preview focuses on one of the worst divisions in baseball last year. It also happens to contain my "other favorite team", the Arizona Diamondbacks. Without further ado, I give you...

2009 MLB Preview: NL West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers - Last year the Dodgers finished 84-78. They won the NL West, defeated the Cubs in the NLDS and lost to the Phillies in the NLCS.

It was touch-and-go as to whether I would pick the Dodgers this year. There was a lot of drama in the off-season. From manager Joe Torre's book to the "will they, or won't they" dance Dodger management did with Manny Ramirez.

But thanks to A-Roid, the Torre book stuff blew over. And eventually the Dodgers did re-sign Manny. So even though their pitching isn't the best in the division, I'm picking them to repeat as NL West champs.

Let's start with their rotation. Derek Lowe is gone to Atlanta. That leaves Chad Billingsley as their #1 pitcher. He's followed by Hiroki Kuroda, Clayton Kershaw and Randy Wolf. That's a step backwards from last year, but not so bad that it'll hurt their win total.

The bullpen is pretty strong. Jonathan Broxton is their closer. And he's backed up by Hong-Chih Kuo, Guillermo Mota, Cory Wade and former Tampa Bay Ray Tanyon Sturtze. That list of names doesn't blow you away, but it's solid enough to help make up for the "not as strong" starting pitching.

As was the case last year, the Dodger line-up is what will carry them. Manny Ramirez hit .396, with a .743 slugging percentage, 17 home runs and 53 RBI in 53 games for the Dodgers last year. And now they get him for an entire season. And if that doesn't scare pitching coaches in the National League to death, then consider the fact that due to an opt-out clause in Manny's 2-year deal, he's essentially playing in a contract year.

A motivated Manny is a bad thing for NL West pitchers. Trust me.

The rest of the line-up improves greatly when you put Manny in the middle of it. SS Rafael Furcal returns to lead off. 2B Orlando Hudson comes over from Arizona to hit second. Then it's Manny. He's followed by C Russell Martin and OF Matt Kemp. That's a damned solid 1-5. 3B Casey Blake is also back with a new contract. All in all, it's a line-up that should score a lot of runs.

Bottom Line: I don't think the Dodgers are a threat to go to the Series (although with Manny in the line-up anything's possible), but in a weak NL West I think they're the clear favorites to win the division.

2. Arizona Diamondbacks - Last year the D'backs finished 82-80. They finished second in the NL West and missed the playoffs.

I'm not optimistic for the Diamondbacks this year. In fact, I nearly put the Giants in second place. Then I looked at San Francisco's lineup and realized that I'm not entirely sure how they're going to score runs. So consider my prediction of Arizona's second place finish a "best of the rest" type designation.

Arizona started out red-hot last season, and then faded over the course of the rest of the season. Their starting pitching carried the team last year and will have to do so again this year. Brandon Webb is back as the staff ace. Danny Haren returns for his second season with Arizona after a successful first year. Doug Davis moves up to take the third spot after the departure of Randy Johnson. Then it's free-agent addition John Garland who comes over from LAAAGOCRCUSE. I loved that signing. Garland wasn't lights out in the game where I saw him, but he steadily got better as the game went along. And since they're not counting on him as a top-3 guy, I think he'll fit in just fine. It looks like Max Scherzer will take the 5th starter role. Scherzer had a brilliant debut last year, and then struggled to adjust to advance scouting. Now with most of a season under his belt, D'backs management hopes he takes the next step.

It'll be important that the rotation is just as good as last year, because the bullpen is unsettled. Closer Brandon Lyon and set-up guy Juan Cruz have both departed. Chad Qualls becomes the de facto closer and Tony Pena and John Rauch will rotate as the set-up men. Tom Gordon is a crafty veteran, but is coming back from an injury and won't be available right away. Scott Schoenweis is also a veteran reliever, but there's a reason he was available. Maybe I'm wrong (I sure hope I am), but it feels like a year where the D'backs could lose a lot of late leads.

But perhaps the biggest problem is team defense. Arizona's line-up has a lot of offensive potential, but that's off-set by the runs they give up due to errors. They've added 2B Felipe Lopez to replace the departed Orlando Hudson, but O-dawg wasn't the problem defensively, so in essence that's a wash.

The rest of the line-up remains mainly unchanged. Steven Drew is still their shortstop, Chris Snyder returns behind the plate and Chris Young will start in center field. That's a fairly strong group up the middle both offensively and defensively. When you start looking at the corners, the defense gets sketchy in a hurry. In the outfield, Eric Byrnes returns in left, but he had hamstring problems for most of the season last year, so who knows how durable he'll be. In right field Justin Upton's coming off a frustrating season where he showed flashes of his high potential, but also struggled through long stretches of down periods both offensively and defensively. In the infield, Connor Jackson returns to first base where he makes a heck of left fielder (oof). The hot corner will once again be manned by Mark Reynolds. When he connects, he can hit the ball a long way. There's just a lot of K's involved in the process. And defensively he makes the occasional spectacular play, but also boots some routine ground balls from time to time.

Bottom Line: It looks like another frustrating year for Arizona fans. It's too bad because they have a contending starting rotation, but they don't have the defense and bullpen to take advantage of it. Again, here's to hoping that I'm wrong. But I can't honestly rate them any higher than second in the West.

3. San Francisco Giants - Last year the Giants finished 72-90. They were fourth in the NL West and missed the playoffs.

What a difference a year makes. At least in terms of perception. Last year, the Giants' rotation was considered their weak link after the bust that is Barry Zito's contract. This year, the rotation isn't necessarily viewed as championship caliber, but it's at least creating some positive buzz. Tim Lincecum won the NL Cy Young award last year and he'll be the ace this year. Randy Johnson comes over from Arizona to take the second spot. And while RJ has never been considered a great active mentor of young pitchers, you'd think just being around him would passively assist the kids filling out the rest of the staff. Matt Cain, Barry Zito and Jonathan Sanchez fill out the rest of the rotation. On paper? That might be as good as the staff the Dodgers are running out there, but clearly isn't as good as Arizona's.

San Francisco's line-up is clearly inferior to those two top teams though. A lot of age and a lack of a power hitter are going to make it tough for the Giants to score. OF Randy Winn is a solid veteran lead-off guy. SS Edgar Renteria is in year 3 of his career reclamation project. I'm not sure that's going to work out. Somebody named Pablo Sandoval is their 3-hitter and C Benjie Molina is cleaning up. And it gets more depressing from there.

The bullpen isn't too bad actually. Brian Wilson is closing. Behind him, Bob Howry, Jeremy Affeldt and Brandon Medders will try to man the late innings. Those aren't All-Star arms per se, but I promise you the Diamondbacks would trade bullpens straight-up if offered the chance.

Bottom Line: If San Francisco can find some offense somewhere, they could certainly finish second and perhaps even give the Dodgers some headaches. But as constituted, they'll struggle to score, and that makes them third in my eyes.

4. Colorado Rockies - Last year the Rockies finished 74-88. They were third in the NL West and missed the playoffs.

The Rockies had a rough year last year after having been in the World Series in 2007, and it doesn't look like this year's going to be much better. They traded Matt Holiday to the A's and replaced him with somebody named Seth Smith. Not exactly an even swap. Rumors abound that they're looking to deal 3B Garret Atkins, who's pretty much the only other power hitter they have. 1B Todd Helton is still a great veteran presence, but he's clearly on the backside of his career. SS Troy Tulowitski is looking to bounce back from an injury-riddled year. And RF Brad Hawpe has shown some potential. So offensively, the Rockies could be okay.

As for their starting pitching? That's another matter. Aaron Cook is their ace, and as good as he was in their Series run of '07, he was up and down last year. After that it gets sketchy in a hurry. Ubaldo Jimenez, Jorge de la Rosa, and Jason Maquis fill out the top 4 pitchers. Not a succession of arms that are going to strike fear in opposing hitters.

Then there's the Colorado bullpen. Huston Street came over from Oakland in the Holiday deal. And if he stays healthy, he'll be a solid closer. Manny Corpas, Taylor Bucholz and Alan Embree form the nucleus of a solid relief corps. And given the quality of the starting staff, they'll have to be solid if the Rockies want to win games.

Bottom Line: Pitching, as always, is the Rockies problem. If their starters are better than advertised, they could move up the standings. But right now I'll put them 4th.

5. San Diego Padres - Last year the Padres finished 63-99. They were 5th in the NL West and missed the playoffs.

Remember my rant about how bad the Pirates are? The Pads aren't much better. In fact, if it wasn't for the presence of Jake Peavy in their rotation (and he's been the subject of several trade rumors), they might be worse than Pittsburgh.

The line-up is either old, or not terribly talented. 1B Adrian Gonzalez is a solid hitter, but he should be a 5- or 6-hitter instead of a clean-up guy. Beyond that, the line-up isn't going to scare anybody. David Eckstein is an upgrade at shortstop, but he'll be lucky if he hits his weight. OF Jody Gerut is a Cleveland flunky. OF Brian Giles is getting old in a hurry. And there isn't much else to like.

As mentioned earlier, Peavy is their ace... for now. The rest of the rotation is staffed by pitchers you've never heard of. Probably with good reason.

The bullpen lost save king Trevor Hoffman who now pitches in Milwaukee. Heath Bell attempts to replace him. (Emphasis on "attempts".) Duaner Sanchez has showed flashes in the past. But Cla Meridith (yes, that's how he spells it), Mike Adams and Justin Hampton will attempt to keep the routs from getting too awful.

Bottom Line: 63 wins last year. Sounds like a solid bet for their win total this year. Unless they trade Peavy, then you could probably knock about 7 wins off that total.

So there you have it. As much as it pains me to say it, put the Dodgers down as repeat division champs.

That leaves one division to go in the 2009 MLB Preview plus the playoff edition. Those will round out the rest of the week. I'll be back Wednesday to tell you who's going to win the AL Central. Will it be the sheik pick of the Indians? Or will I go homer and pick the Twins? Tune in Wednesday to find out!

Until then, thanks for reading!

Friday

3-27-09: 2009 MLB Preview: AL West

Hello again everybody...

This is the first Friday in a long time that I'm not feeling terribly congratulatory. Yes, I know that for most of you, it's the end of another slog through the work week. And for that, we should be grateful. But for me, it means that in approximately 30 hours, I'll be leaving the cozy confines of the Phoenix offices and headed back to Minnesota.

And judging by the forecasts I've been looking at, I'll be brought back down to meteorological reality rather abruptly. Such is life I guess.

But I've still got one more Spring Training contest to attend. Tonight it's the Texas Rangers hosting the Milwaukee Brewers. So hopefully come Monday I'll have some words of encouragement for my fine readers to the East.

As for the past couple of days, I attended the Rangers hosting the Diamondbacks on Wednesday evening, and the White Sox hosting those same Diamondbacks Thursday afternoon. First of all, let me say that of the 4 Cactus League ballparks I've attended in my travels down here, the Surprise Stadium complex (the one nearest to my parents) is still the coziest, best atmosphere I've seen. So in that regard, Wednesday night's game was more enjoyable than Thursday's. Not that Camelback Ranch at Glendale is a bad ballpark, it's just a little too big for the kind of intimate atmosphere you'd like out of your Spring Training experience. Alas, it was also the home of the Diamondbacks' sole win out of those two contests. And, of course, beating the White Sox is never a bad thing.

All in all, the experience has been brilliant, and I can't thank my parents enough for bringing me down here and shepherding me around to see all this baseball. Thanks Mom and Dad!

Okay, enough preambling. Let's get on with today's column. As we continue with the 2009 MLB Preview, today we look at the only 4-team division in the Major Leagues. It's time to go West young men and women. Go West! Let's get to it...

"I don't necessarily agree with everything I say."
- Marshall McLuhan (1911 - 1980), Canadian educator, philosopher and scholar


This is either an example of tremendous wisdom, or a successful politician. I'll let you make up your own minds.

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The fourth edition of the 2009 MLB Preview takes a look at the division I got most comically wrong last year. Without further ado I give you...

2009 MLB Preview: AL West

Last year I picked the Seattle Mariners to win the division. They finished 61-101, 39 games behind the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of Greater Orange County in the Republic of California in these United States on this planet we call Earth (heretofore known as LAAAGOCRCUSPE) . Allow me to explain. When I was pondering who to select, the LAAAGOCRCUSPE seemed like a good club to pick. But then I watched a Spring Training edition of Baseball Tonight on ESPN where Buster Olney picked the Mariners to win. And he made such a convincing case, that I changed my mind and went with the M's.

Now, understand that I'm not blaming Buster for my busted pick (pun intended - you're welcome Lon). I just learned a valuable lesson. The guys who opine and prognosticate for a living aren't any more successful at picking these things than I am. So this year I vowed not to be influenced by any of the talking heads and make my picks 100% my own. Will it help? Well they can't get much worse, can they?!

1. LAAAGOCRCUSPE - Last year the Angels finished 100-62. They won the AL West pennant and lost to the Boston Red Sox (whom I hate) in the ALDS.

I got scared off last year because the Angels started the season dinged up in their starting rotation. This year? They're going to start dinged up in their starting rotation. But if they could win 100 games last year starting in that condition, then I see no reason that they won't do the same thing this year. Especially given the quality of the other starting rotations in this division.

John Lackey still anchors the Halos' starting 5, with Joe Saunders and Jered Weaver behind him. Ervin Santana should be a big part of that rotation, but he'll start the season on the shelf with elbow trouble. Reports are he should be back by May, but any time you're dealing with a pitcher's elbow, it's a tricky situation. With Santana out, Dustin Moseley will have to be a more important part of the rotation than manager Mike Scioscia would prefer.

LAAAGOCRCUSPE's saving grace however is their ability to score runs. Their line-up is still their strong suit, and it actually got stronger with the addition of OF Bobby Abreu. While his addition has created something of a log-jam in the Angels' outfield (Abreu, Torii Hunter, Vlad Guerrero and Gary Matthews, Jr. all will vie for playing time), it's also given the middle of the Angels' order a tremendous amount of punch.

To be fair, the Angels did lose out in the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes in the off season. And the power he provided at a corner infield spot will be missed. His replacement is Kendry Morales, who actually came up through the Angels' system as an outfielder, but has been converted to a first baseman. He put up solid numbers in the minors, but hasn't brought the same production to the big leagues so far. I say "so far" because this spring he's hitting .391, so maybe he's finally putting it together.

That leaves the LAAAGOCRCUSPE's bullpen to discuss. K-Rod has fled for the greener (as in more dollar-filled) pastures of Queens, NY. That left a big hole at the back end of the Angels' bullpen. They seem to have filled it rather nicely by signing Brian Fuentes from the Colorado Rockies. Fuentes was last year's "bullpen trade bait du jour", even though he never was actually traded. They also have an intriguing option in Jose Arrendondo who could be the club's closer of the future. Surrounding those two are solid vets like Scot Shields (yes, he only uses one "t") and Justin Speier. All in all, the pen is not the Angels' foremost concern.

Bottom Line: LAAAGOCRCUSPE is a really good club. Not only will they win the West again, but they should be trouble for the Beasts out East come playoff time. Last year, the Angels finished 21 games ahead of their nearest competition. I don't see that gap having shrunk much, if at all.

2. Texas Rangers - Last year the Rangers finished 79-83. They were second in the AL West and missed the playoffs.

Oh the poor, poor Texas Rangers. It seems like each year they show flashes of promise, only to wilt under the harsh Arlington Summer sun.

Once again, the Rangers shouldn't have trouble producing runs. Along with last year's "feel good" story in OF Josh Hamilton, 3B Michael Young is back to form the core of a potent line-up. Yes, you read that right 3B Michael Young. Even though Young made the All-Star team as a shortstop last year, the club asked him to move to third to make room for super-rookie Elvis Andrus. After initially balking at the idea, Young eventually agreed. With Young, Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Hank Blalock in the middle of the order, Texas is going to give pitchers fits.

Unfortunately, their pitchers should be equally fit-filled. (Yes, I just invented that term.) Kevin Millwood returns to anchor the Ranger staff. And that ought to fill anyone with alarm in and of itself. If you're starting with Millwood, the rest of the staff isn't going anywhere good. Millwood has moments of dominance, but clearly he's on the backside of an otherwise solid career. Next is Vicente Padilla who looked pretty good when I saw him Wednesday night. He was pretty consistently lighting up the gun at 94 with his fastball, and seemed to be able to get his off-speed stuff over for strikes. But he's notorious for his inconsistency. Maybe new Ranger pitching coach Mike Maddux will be able to even him out. Maybe. Even if he does, Maddux has a huge challenge in front of him with the rest of the rotation: Scott Feldman, Matt Harrison and Brandon McCarthy. Have you heard of them? No? There's a reason for that.

And the bullpen? The best I can say is that it contains two former Twins (Eddie Guardado and Willie Eyre). Though in fairness there are good reasons why those two are former Twins.

Bottom Line: Much like previous seasons, I expect there to be stretches where the Rangers look like contenders. And then there will be other stretches where they stink the joint up on a nightly basis. Until club president Nolan Ryan starts addressing their pitching needs, this club isn't going much of anywhere.

3. Seattle Mariners - Last year the Mariners finished 61-101. They were 4th in the 4-team AL West and missed the playoffs.

They can't be as bad as they were last year. Can they?! I don't think so. The M's played baseball last year kind of like how I used to play Risk with one of my best friends as kids. Things would go badly for me, then they'd go a little worse, and finally I'd just say the hell with it and launch a series of suicidal attacks until he won the game.

Things started badly last year for the Mariners when their big trade acquisition P Erik Bedard began the year hurt, and then progressively got worse and worse til they just said the hell with it and fired everybody in their front office and field managerial staff.

This year the Mariners are trying to start over while fielding a veteran club. That's either a recipe for surprising success, or another complete melt-down. Given new manager Don Wakamatsu's resume as a long-time big league coach, I doubt it'll reach the level of full-on melt-down. But I also don't expect the M's to really challenge for the division.

Their line-up still can cause problems for pitchers. OF Ichiro is still as dangerous a leadoff hitter as you'll find. And 3B Adrian Beltre can still hit the ball a long way. The returning Ken Griffey, Jr. is clearly taking a victory lap, but on any given day, he can still cause trouble.

And their starting pitching isn't beyond salvage either. Felix Hernandez hasn't developed the way many people thought he would. But maybe under a new regime, he'll bounce back. Erik Bedard had a disastrous year last year, but still has the stuff to be an impact pitcher. Jerrod Washburn's biggest value to the club may be as trade bait. And Carlos Silva can't be any worse than he was last year... I don't think?!

The bullpen may be the biggest problem for the Mariners. They're looking at Mark Lowe and Miguel Batista as their closer. Miguel Batista shouldn't be anybody's closer. And it only gets shakier after those two.

Bottom Line: The Mariners will need to score some serious runs in the late innings to hold leads and make a run at .500. I expect they'll finish 10-15 games or so below that mark. And that's probably good enough for third in the division.

4. Oakland Athletics - Last year the A's finished 75-86. They were 3rd in the AL West and missed the playoffs.

I've heard a few people picking the A's to be a contender out West, but frankly I don't see it. And I say that because not only do I believe they aren't all that talented, but there's a brewing discontent between the club and the city of Oakland. It's entirely possible that the A's will be the next big league club to abandon their city for greener monetary pastures. Where they'll end up (Las Vegas? North Carolina?) is hard to say, but the animosity that's building towards their ownership isn't going to help ticket sales in a bad economy. And the resulting atmosphere is going to make it awfully tough to compete.

I'll start with the good. I love the additions of Orlando Cabrerra and Matt Holiday. Cabrerra is the best defensive infielder the A's have had in a long time. And Holiday not only brings a big bat to the A's line-up, but he's an excellent guy to have in the clubhouse.

But after those two, the rest of the line-up is suspect at best. I'll grant that it's possible that being back out West will help Jason Giambi. But I think it's more likely that he's yet another example of a guy who, once he went off the juice, became just another ballplayer. Eric Chavez is a constant injury concern at 3rd, and so is his back-up Nomar Garciaparra. Both can contribute offensively when healthy, but it's just as likely the A's will need a third option at third, because neither of the first two has shown any propensity to stay on the field.

Oakland's rotation is young. And while there is potential there, I think too much youth in any rotation is a bad idea. The Twins got away with it last year, but I think they're the exception to the rule. Justin Duchscherer, Dana Eveland and Sean Gallagher may all turn out to be excellent pitchers. But trying to develop them all at the same time is a tall order for any pitching coach.

The bullpen is a complete mess. The only recognizable name out there is Russ Springer, and that's not a compliment. Oakland will be yet another home for "no lead is safe"-style baseball. And that certainly won't help them contend.

Bottom Line: If Seattle was last year's "bottom's out of the tub" squad, I expect Oakland to wrest that title from them this year. To me? 70 wins is this club's ceiling.

So there you have it. Book another playoff trip for LAAAGOCRCUSPE. I'm not sure I see a World Series in their future, but I certainly don't see anyone giving them a run for the division title.

That's all for today folks. And that ends my columns from the warm, sunny, pleasantly fresh-aired Phoenix offices. I know none of you will shed a tear. But permit me a moment of wistfulness as I contemplate getting back to the grind of work and Minnesota March weather for my next offering. Speaking of said offering, which division will be next? There are only two more to go. And I've saved the DFT's divisions for last. I'll let you flip the coin and guess which one I'm back at you with on Monday.

Until then, thanks for reading!

Wednesday

3-25-09: 2009 MLB Preview: NL Central

Hello again everybody...

I'm still writing to you from the cozy confines of the ST Phoenix offices. Which, in case I haven't mentioned, include a very comfortable back porch which allows me to enjoy the fresh air while I write!

So far I've got three Spring Training games under my belt with a fourth scheduled for tonight. Yesterday was actually a double-header day for me and the folks as we took in a White Sox/Indians game during the day and then attended a A's/Royals game at night. Lots of fun. Lots of fresh air. Lots of pictures (available on my Facebook page). And lots of baseball. It's hard for me to find a vacation that's better than that!

Fortunately for you, my fine readers, I also have some time to keep writing. And it's in that spirit that I bring you today's installment of the 2009 MLB Preview. Today we focus on the only 6-team division (5 1/2 if we're going to be honest about Pittsburgh) in the Majors. It's also the only division winner I got right last year. So will it be the Cubbies again? Or will the Brewers take the next step and grab their first division title since the 80's? Perhaps another team might sneak up on both? Let's find out!

"Making duplicate copies and computer printouts of things no one even wanted in the first place is giving America a new sense of purpose."
- Andy Rooney (1919 - ), American radio and television writer and commentator


Yes, technology had made life easier. But it's also created reams of material that are superfluous at best, and downright pack-rattish at worst! (Fortunately this blog doesn't fall into that category... right!?)

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The third edition of the 2009 MLB Preview takes a look at the division of most concern for my freinds and neighbors to the East. Without further ado...

2009 MLB Preview: NL Central

1. Chicago Cubs - Last year the Cubs finished 97-64. They won the NL Central and lost in the NLDS to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Though I know it will pain my loyal Brewer Fan readers to hear it, I feel a small affinity for the Cubs. After all, they were the only division winner I got right last year.

But that's not why I'm picking them to win the Central again. I'm picking them because, even though I don't think they're as good as they were last year, they're primary competition in the division also took steps backwards.

The Cubs regular line-up is minus 3B Mark DeRosa (now with the Indians), but added OF Milton Bradley. If - and I stress if - manager Lou Pinella can keep Bradley from melting down, that should be an offensive wash. Defensively, however, it's a step backwards.

Outside of Bradley, the Cubs line-up still features Alfonso Soriano, Derek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Geovany Soto. And Cubs fans are also hoping that Kosuke Fukodome returns to his early-2008 form rather than continuing with his late-2008 decline. All in all, the Cubs are going to score plenty of runs.

And their starting pitching staff remains solid as well. Carlos Zambrano is their Ace. And he's followed by Ryan Demptser, Ted Lilly and Rich Harden. Presuming they're able to keep Harden healthy (and that certainly hasn't been his history), that's a formidable rotation.

The Cubs bullpen on the other hand? Not quite as formidable. Carlos Mormol takes over closing duties from the departed Kerry Wood. Mormol was a decent set-up guy last year, so the move to closer shouldn't be a huge adjustment. Prior to him though, the Cubs have some issues to sort out. Kevin Gregg, Aaron Heilman, Luis Vizcaino and Chad Gaudin form the heart of the pen. And youngster Jeff Samardzija will be another option as the year goes along. That list doesn't make you sweat if you're Lou Pinella, but it doesn't bowl you over with confidence either.

Bottom Line: The Cubs were good enough to win the division last year, and nobody else in the Central has improved enough to make me think Chicago won't come out on top again.

2. Houston Astros - Last year the Astros finished 86-75. The were 3rd in the NL Central and missed the playoffs.

This is the pick that's going to raise some eyebrows. I know that, and I accept it. But hear me out.

The Astros were improving as the season went along, and at one point were a serious Wild Card contender. And while I thought blaming their missing the playoffs on having to move that Cubs series to Milwaukee because of the hurricane was ludicrous, I think the distraction that controversy caused definitely put a damper on their clubhouse.

But now that's behind them and they have a fresh season to focus on.

Their line-up is one again anchored by Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Miguel Tejada. True, those guys aren't getting any longer, but outside of Tejada, they haven't given indications that their performance is slipping. And now Houston has added C Ivan Rodriguez into their mix. And I have a feeling he'll experience a mini-revival now that he's not being counted on to hit in the meat of their order.

The Astros' rotation, one through three, can give the Cubs a run. Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez and a healthy Mike Hampton form a solid core. Brian Mohler and Brandon Backe don't thrill me by any means, but they're not stiffs either.

In the Pen, Jose Valverde is a solid closer. If you don't ask LaTroy Hawkins to do too much, he can be effective. After that, you run into a bunch of also-rans, but I suppose you could say that about most bullpens.

Bottom Line: I don't expect the Astros to make a huge improvement on their record from last year, but they have an outside chance to top 90 wins. And given the backwards steps I expect from the Brewers and Cardinals, that's enough for me to put them in second place.

3. Milwaukee Brewers - Last year the Brewers finished 90-72. They were the NL Wild Card and lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLDS.

Sorry Crew fans. I know you're going to hate me for this. But when you take CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets out of your line-up, that's a step backward.

Yovani Gallardo is now listed as the Milwaukee Ace. I simply can't pick a team with an Ace who's started exactly 21 games in the big leagues to be a serious contender. After that, the Brewer rotation goes: Dave Bush, Manny Parra, Braden Looper and Jeff Suppan.

I'm not saying there's no reason to hope. I'm just saying there's plenty of reason to be doubtful.

The saving grace for the Brewers is their line-up. There's a lot of young talent headed to the dish for the Crew this year. J.J. Hardy, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Corey Hart (does anyone know if he actually wears his sunglasses at night?) all can rake. And I like the experience of Mike Cameron, Mike Lamb and Jason Kendall hitting 7-8-9. So I don't doubt that the Brewers will score some runs.

The trouble is, they'll need to.

If that rotation doesn't worry you, the bullpen has to. Yes, they went out and got Trevor Hoffman to close. And if he's healthy (it sounds like he's battling some oblique trouble), he can be an effective stopper. I'm just not exactly sure how they're going to get the ball to him with a lead. Carlos Villanueva, Seth McClung, David Riske and Jorge Julio are all trying to find their roles within a very unsettled bullpen.

Bottom Line: I know there are Brewer fans with hope. And for their sake, I hope I'm wrong here. It just seems to me like they're primed for a step backwards. If the starters are better than I think, and the bullpen gels some, they've got a chance. But for now, I've got them third.

4. St. Louis Cardinals - Last year the Cardinals finished 86-76. They were fourth in the NL Central and missed the playoffs.

Another NL Central team, another one that failed to improve much in the off-season.

1B Albert Pujols is a perennial MVP candidate, and OF Ryan Ludwick took some nice steps last year. Outside of that, their line-up doesn't scare me much. Rick Ankiel has shown flashes, but Yadier Molina as your 5 hitter? Really?! And there's a reason Khalil Green was available as a free agent. Maybe a change of scenery will help him, but he clearly was a disappointment in San Diego.

There's potential in the Card's rotation. But to fulfill it, Chris Carpenter has to stay healthy, Adam Wainright has to remain serviceable and Kyle Lohse has to pitch as well as he did last year. If those things happen, St. Louis will be in some games.

Their bullpen, however, is a mess. They can't decide on Ryan Franklin or Chris Perez as their closer. And while I liked Denis Reyes with the Twins, he'll be counted on to a lot more with the Cardinals, and I'm not sure if he'll be up to it.

Bottom Line: The Cardinals are one of those teams that could do a moon-walk in the NL Central standings in a big way this year. A key injury will hurt any team. For St. Louis? It could mean the difference between 3rd and "hello Pittsburgh".

5. Cincinnati Reds - Last year the Reds finished 74-88. They were 5th in the NL Central and missed the playoffs.

Young talent? Thy name is Cincinnati. So why am I not picking the Reds higher? When Brandon Phillips is your "veteran presence", that's a problem. Plus, as good a skipper as Dusty Baker is, I'm not sure he's the best "talent developer" I've ever seen.

The Reds' line-up is stocked with young potential. Jerry Hairston, Joey Vatto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce could form a fantastic nucleus. But outside of Phillips, they're all pretty young and inexperienced.

Their rotation is much the same. I raved over the performance of Johnny Cueto early last year. But then the scouts found his weaknesses and he had a tough time adjusting. Edinson Volquez was great, but can he keep it up? Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo form the "veteran" portion of the rotation. All in all, that's a decent set of pitchers to run out there every 4 to 5 days.

Francisco Cordero's a solid closer. But when the best I can say about the rest of the bullpen is, "Hey, Arthur Rhodes is still pitching?" That's trouble.

Bottom Line: If St. Louis really tanks, I can see the Reds finishing as high as 4th. But unless a lot of things come together (and I'm talking about "Tampa Bay Rays"-style), I don't see this team being much better than .500.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates - Last year the Pirates finished 67-95. They were 6th in the NL Central and missed the playoffs.

Ah, what do you say about the Pirates that hasn't been said before?

I can't think of anything, so I'll rehash what we know: they're awful. In fact, if you enter "bad" into Thesaurus.com, you get as good a description as I could come up with:


abominable, amiss, atrocious, awful, bad news*, beastly, blah*, bottom out, bummer*, careless, cheap, cheesy*, crappy*, cruddy, crummy*, defective, deficient, diddly, dissatisfactory, downer*, dreadful, erroneous, fallacious, faulty, garbage, godawful, grody, gross*, grungy*, icky*, imperfect, inadequate, incorrect, inferior, junky, lousy*, not good, off, poor, raunchy*, rough, sad, slipshod, stinking, substandard, synthetic, the pits, unacceptable, unsatisfactory

Yep, that about covers it.

I'd go over their line-up and rotation, but it's likely no more than 5% of you have ever heard of any of them. And don't get me started on their bullpen! Whoa!

Bottom Line: It's sad that a team with such a good ballpark has such a god-awful team playing in it. It's truly a crime for Pittsburgh management to run this group of stiffs out on the field and try to convince the ticket-buying public of Blue Collar U.S.A. that they're worth paying to see. In retrospect, maybe I should've counted this division down from 6 to 1 just so I didn't have to end on such a depressing note!

There you have it. Put the Cubs in the playoffs again! After all, now we can talk about how it's been 101 years since they've won a World Series... woo?!

That's all for today ladies and gentlemen. I'll be back on Friday with the fourth installment of the 2009 MLB Preview. Which division is next? I'll give you this hint: last year I whiffed on this division more comically than any other. Until Friday, thanks for reading!

Monday

3-23-09: 2009 MLB Preview: AL East

Hello again everybody...

Your faithful correspondent writes you today from the newly minted "Phoenix home office". I safely arrived in the Valley of the Sun on Saturday, and have already taken in the first ballgame of my trip. More on that in a moment.

I know some of you think it's the height of ridiculousness that I continue to update my blog whilst on vacation, so allow me to explain. I'm one of those people who view vacations as opportunities to rest and relax more than as sight-seeing adventures. Not that there aren't sights to see, and I'll take some of those in. But I'll also be spending copious amounts of time just kicking it on my parents porch, enjoying being outside looking at a clear, blue sky. And since writing is an enjoyable activity for me, I'll knock out a few columns while I'm enjoying the fresh air.

So think me nuts if you like. But that's just how we here at The Sports Take roll!

So before I get to today's portion of the 2009 MLB Preview, a brief bit about the game I attended yesterday. The Kansas City Royals hosted the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Greater Orange County in the Republic of California in these United States on this planet we call Earth. At least I think that's how their name goes.

What separated yesterday's contest from most you'll see in Spring Training was the stiff wind that was blowing out to center field. The wind was so strong in fact that when a ball was fouled off behind home plate and took a track that should've led it over the grandstand behind the stadium, there were several times when the wind blew the ball all the way back into the field of play.

Not only did the wind turn foul balls into playable balls, but it also turned routine fly balls into home runs. My folks and I didn't have the presence of mind to keep count from the beginning, but from about the 3rd inning on, we counted 10 home runs. And our guesstimate is that the game exceeded a baker's dozen. The final score was: L.A. 18, Kansas City 12. Yes, that's right, 30 runs combined. And just to put a point on it, the two teams combined for 40 hits.

Those of you who know me, know that as a baseball fan, I prefer the 1-0, 2-1 style pitcher's duels. They tend to move along more crisply and every pitch means something. So, needless to say, this game yesterday wasn't really my style. Fortunately, with only two mid-inning pitching changes, the game still came in around 3 hours and 15 minutes. Not entirely ridiculous.

And when I checked the rest of the Cactus League scoreboard, it was clear that this wasn't the only "wind aided" game on the docket. Every game except one had at least one team with double-digit runs, and several of them had two.

So that was yesterday. I don't think we're attending any games today. But there are plenty more to come, including a potential double-header on Tuesday. So I'll have more to report then I'm sure.

On to today's column! Friday I previewed the home division of the 2008 World Champs. Today I tackle the division containing the other World Series participant. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays shocked the baseball world by not only winning the AL East, but by making it all the way to the World Series. Can the Rays repeat that result? Or will the Red Sox (whom I hate) resume their control of that division? And what about the Yankees? As usual, they spent a lot of money in the off-season. Will it pay off? I'll discuss!

"A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."
- Thomas Mann (1875-1955), German novelist, philanthropist and 1928 Nobel laureate


I think what he's getting at is that writers find writing more difficult because they expect more from their writing. Fortunately, I don't have a ton of time to kvetch about these suckers, so it's not quite as difficult as I could make it!

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The second edition of the 2009 MLB Preview focuses on the division containing the other World Series participant. Without further ado...

2009 MLB Preview: AL East

1. Boston Red Sox (whom I hate) - Last year, the Red Sox (whom I hate) finished 95-67. They were the American League Wild Card and lost to the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALCS.

First of all, let me say this: I hate this pick, I hate this pick, I hate this pick!

But I can't help it. When you break down the lineups and pitching rosters for all 5 AL East teams, I don't see how you can go any other way. The Red Sox (whom I hate) are just that deep.

Start with their line-up. They have the 2008 AL MVP hitting second. Second for chrissakes! That just doesn't happen. 1-7, their hitters - Ellsbury, Pedroia, Ortiz, Youklis, Bay, Drew and Lowell - (assuming they stay healthy and that's a tricky assumption) are as good as any in the league. Ortiz and Lowell are both trying to come back from injury-plagued years. Lowell they can afford to be slow in coming back. But if Ortiz's production continues to suffer, that could hurt the team quite a bit.

What stops me from using that as an excuse to pick someone else to win the division is the Red Sox (whom I hate) pitching staff. Josh Becket, John Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka all return as the top three starters. Brad Penny joins the club as a free agent to be their fourth starter. And knuckleballer Tim Wakefield rounds out the starting 5.

The Boston bullpen is as deep as ever. Even if Jonathan Papplebon is still baseball's biggest spaz, he's a reliable closer. And when you look at the other names down there: Saito, Masterson, Okajima, Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez who they got from Kansas City in the off season - holy cow is their bullpen good. And don't forget there's a 300-game winner, John Smoltz, who's beginning the season on the DL, but will be with the club mid-season to add a veteran presence.

Bottom Line: The Red Sox (whom I hate) are deep and talented. If their hitters stay healthy, there's no reason they shouldn't win the AL East and make another run at a World Series title.

(Aside: Damn, that was painful to write. Maybe Mr. Mann was right after all!)

2. Tampa Bay Rays - Last year the Rays finished 97-65. They won the AL East pennant and defeated Boston in the ALCS. They lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series.

All great stories encounter bumps in the road. And I think the Rays are due for at least a small one this year. I take nothing away from their accomplishments from last year. I just don't think they're as deep, or as able to make a move to shore up a weakness as the Red Sox (whom I hate) are.

Their line-up is solid. They've got power and speed enough for anybody. When they're able to add a bat like Pat Burrel's and hit him 6th, you know they're pretty deep. But Evan Longoria could be poised for a sophomore slump. And Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton start the year with injury concerns. That could all clear up by mid season, but the Rays don't have a ton of guys they can go to if it doesn't.

Their pitching staff is remarkably talented, but also remarkably young. James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza and Andy Sonnanstine all had fantastic seasons last year. At least one or two of them are due for a reality check, no? And if they falter, where do the Rays go? Rookie sensation David Price may begin the season in the minors to give him regular work, so he's an option. But after that? I don't know.

What really worries me about the Rays is their bullpen. Veteran Troy Percival is still their closer, but he showed last year that the odds of him making it through an entire campaign healthy are virtually nil. There is talent in the Rays' pen, and if Jason Isringhausen can overcome his injury problems, there'll be some depth too. But there aren't a lot of defined roles, and if Joe Maddon can't iron that out, the Rays could have some rough late-inning losses.

Bottom Line: The Rays shouldn't be a flash in the pan story. There's a lot of talent on this team. They play in a meat-grinder of a division, but considering the success they had last year, I don't think it's unrealistic to expect them to contend again this year. I just think Boston's a little better.

3. New York Yankees - Last year the Yankees finished 89-73 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1995.

As usual, the Yanks spent more money on free agents than anybody else in the off-season. They added CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to shore up their pitching staff. And in a coup, lured 1B Mark Teixeira away from a pending deal with the Red Sox (whom I hate).

So after all that money, why am I picking them to finish 3rd and miss the playoffs again? As we've learned over and over, money doesn't necessarily guarantee success in baseball.

There's no question that the Yankees starting staff is greatly improved. Sabathia, Burnett and Chein-Ming Wang form a solid 1-2-3 starting core. And with Andy Pettite and Joba Chamberlain rounding out the starting five, it's hard to argue the Yankees aren't better in that regard.

Their bullpen is still solid at the end with Mariano Rivera closing. But it's between the starters and the closers that things get dicey. Damaso Marte isn't bad, but after him it gets sketchy in a hurry. It isn't ridiculous to suggest that the Yankees could've saved the money they spent on Burnett and gone after a better set-up option (Putz from the Mariners? Fuentes from the Rockies?) to help get more leads into Rivera's hands.

And though I never thought I'd say this, it's entirely possible that the Yanks will have trouble scoring runs. Their line-up is getting old in a hurry. Their lead-off man is 35. Derek Jeter's on the back side of his career. Hideki Matsui won't be allowed to play in the field until June. There are still questions about how often Jorge Posada will be able to catch. And, of course, A-Roid is starting the year on the DL with a hip problem which could conceivably be degenerative, and possibly cost him the season, if not his career.

It's not all doom and gloom for the Yankees. They did at Teixeira. Xavier Nady is back and is a nice option in the 7-hole. And Nick Swisher will help a lot coming off the bench.

Bottom Line: Given the division they play in, and the quality of the teams their competing against, I can't rate the Yanks any higher than third. Their starters could carry the club for enough time to prove me wrong, but even with all the money the Yanks spent, there are several red flags yet to be fixed.

4. Baltimore Orioles - Last year the Orioles finished 68-93. They finished 5th in the AL East and missed the playoffs.

Oh how once mighty franchises can fall. In the 70's and early 80's the O's were a model MLB franchise. Since then, owner Peter Angelos has demanded more and more control and produced less and less results.

There are glimmers of hope however. The trade that sent Erik Bedard to Seattle was a boon for Baltimore in terms of young talent. Adam Jones is an outstanding prospect and should solidify his hold on the center field job this year. George Sherrill has become the Orioles' closer. And there are still 3 more minor league pitchers that came over in the deal with a shot at making an impact. All in all, a good deal for Baltimore.

Then there's super-rookie catcher Matt Weiters. Reports vary as to whether he'll begin the year in the minors, or go north with the big club. Either way, expect to see him in a Baltimore uniform no later than June. And once he comes up, he'll stick. I've heard him described as "Joe Mauer with more power". If he comes even close to fulfilling that promise, he'll be in the running for AL Rookie of the Year.

The problem, as usual, for Baltimore is their pitching. Their starting staff is a question mark, at best. And besides Sherrill at the back end of the bullpen, there's nobody that inspires a lot of confidence down there.

Bottom Line: The O's have some young offensive talent. Enough to give the big boys in the East some headaches from time to time. But ultimately, they're not a contender.

5. Toronto Blue Jays - Last year the Jays finished 86-76. They finished in 4th place in the AL East and missed the playoffs.

The Blue Jays have been treading water for years, and I think it's finally time that they took a serious step back. So serious that it wouldn't surprise me if they decided to see what they could get for Roy Halladay at the deadline and start over completely.

Halladay anchors and otherwise unremarkable pitching staff. But there's no doubt that he's one of the top pitchers in all of baseball. If you have to blow your team up and start over, he's not a bad trading chip to have.

The Jays' bullpen is also unremarkable other than their closer B.J. Ryan. And given his arm troubles last year, as well as the soreness that kept him out of the WBC this Spring, his best service to Toronto could come as a trading chip as well.

Their line-up is getting old, and is only moderately talented to begin with. Scott Rolen is probably their biggest bat, but has a bevy of health issues. Vernon Wells had a rotten year this year. Toronto fans hope he can rebound this year, but given the lack of help around him, it's hard to count on that. Alex Rios may be the only young, up and coming talent on the club. And that's not saying much!

Bottom Line: It's time to blow this thing up and rebuild. That's not an easy decision to make. In a bad economy, it's tough to give your fans another excuse to not buy tickets. But in the long run, that may be what's in the Jays' best interests. Either way, their ceiling is 4th in this division.

So there you have it. Pencil in the Red Sox (whom I hate) as your 2009 AL East winners. It won't shock me if the Rays repeat as division champs, but I have to call them like I see them. And the Red Sox (whom I hate) look that damned good.

That's all for today. Check back on Wednesday when the 2009 MLB Preview continues. My friends to the East who love to see Bernie on his slide will be especially interested! Until then, thanks for reading!

Friday

3-20-09: 2009 MLB Preview: NL East

Hello again everybody...

Welcome to the end of the week. I hope you're all set for a fun weekend. For me? I'm approximately 26 hours from being wheels-up for Phoenix, and I couldn't be more excited. Obviously I'm excited to see my folks. And I can't wait to catch some Spring Training baseball.

I'm also pumped because today marks the first in a series of columns previewing the 2009 MLB season. April 6th is Opening Day in the big leagues, and between now and then I'll be breaking down each division and finally telling you who I expect to win the whole thing!

If you want a refresher of my pre-season thoughts from last year, you can read them here. In several cases I was pretty close (check out my thoughts on the Cubs), and in several more cases, I was comically wrong (see: Seattle, Florida and Tampa Bay - though I defy anyone to say they saw the Rays coming!).

But hopefully, right or wrong, you found those descriptions entertaining. And I hope that you find my 2009 MLB Preview equally as entertaining. So let's not dilly-dally, let's get to the previewing!

"It's amazing what you accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit."
- Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), 33rd President of the United States


THAT must have been my problem last year. I cared too much about getting credit for my picks. So I'm officially announcing that I'll give credit to any and all who read these preview columns for any picks I get right! (Think that'll work?)

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As I said, today marks the kickoff of the 2009 MLB Preview columns. Last year I did it all in one big lump and it turned into an epic post. Epic here having the meaning of "longer than anyone should be forced to wade through". So this year I'm doing one division per column, and then a 7th and final preview column dealing with the playoffs.

So we kick off the 2009 MLB Preview with the division of the 2008 champs. So without further ado...

2009 MLB Preview - National League East

1. Philadelphia Phillies - Last year the Phillies finished 92-70, won the NL East, won the NL Pennant and won the World Series.

In my 2008 Preview, I questioned the Phills rotation and bullpen. And as it turned out those two parts of the ball club matured into the core of a World Series Champion.

In 2009 the Phills return their top 4 starters of a year ago: Cole Hamels, Brett Meyers, Jamie Moyer, and Joe Blanton. That's still an awfully solid starting rotation. Hamels has been bothered with some arm trouble this Spring, but at worst it seems it would only prevent him from making the Opening day start. And yes, Moyer is another year older, but at this point, can he really throw any slower? As long as he maintains his ability to locate his pitches, he'll be fine.

Their bullpen is anchored by closer Brad Lidge who was perfect in save opportunities last year. Missing from their pen is J.C. Romero who was suspended under MLB's performance enhancing drug policy. That may actually make their bullpen better.

As for their line-up, last year I worried that Ryan Howard's contract situation would create some problems in the clubhouse. Then I turned around and voted for him for MVP. Guess those problems never came to fruition. All the big bats from last year are back again: Howard, Rollins and Utley (who appears to be ready to go for Opening Day after undergoing off-season surgery). Plus they retained the guy who I thought should've been the World Series MVP: Shane Victorino. Plus the Phills have added Raul Ibanez who not only brings a solid left-handed bat to the line-up, but also improves the Left Field defense after the departure of Pat Burrell.

(Aside: I'd like to take this opportunity to personally thank Phillies management for bringing Ibanez to the National League so he can stop killing the Twins every time they see him. Thank you!)

Bottom Line: Not a lot of changes from a team that won the World Series last year. They say it's far tougher to defend a title than it is to win it in the first place. The Phillies will have to adjust to that pressure this year, but I think they have at least enough to defend their NL East title.

2. New York Mets - Last year the Mets finished 89-73, in second place in the NL East and failed to make the playoffs.

The Metropolitans were my pick to win the division last year. I thought the addition of Johan Santana would be enough to put them over the top. Unfortunately, I didn't take into account their bullpen being as bad as it was.

And oh boy did they go out and fix that. First they signed Francisco Rodriguez from the Angels. All he did last year was set the single-season record for saves. Then they worked a trade with the Mariners for their closer J.J. Putz. K-Rod will be the Mets' closer and Putz will be setting him up. That effectively makes it a 7 inning game for the Mets' opponents. If the Mets are still ahead going into the 8th, those two can pretty effectively put the baby to sleep.

The trouble for the Mets is going to be getting it to that 8th inning with a lead. After Johan Santana (who's elbow doesn't appear to be very trustworthy at this point), the rotation gets sketchy in a hurry. Mike Pelfry, Oliver Perez and John Maine fill out their top four. And the favorite for that coveted 5th starter spot? Livan Hernandez. Yikes.

The line-up gives every appearance of being solid again, so maybe the Mets can just flat outscore other teams. Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado looked fantastic in the WBC, so maybe they can bounce back this year. Jose Reyes and David Wright should provide the speed and power necessary to score some runs.

Bottom Line: I like the Mets, I think they can win a lot of games. But there's no way that rotation matches up with the Phillies, who should be equally adept at scoring runs. The Mets should be in the hunt for a Wild Card berth, but I see them finishing 2nd in the NL East.

3. Atlanta Braves - Last year the Braves finished 72-90, in 4th place in the NL East and missed the playoffs.

The Braves are a lot of prognosticators' "sleeper pick" this year. And it's not hard to see why.

They improved their rotation markedly with the addition of Derrick Lowe (who's been lights-out this Spring) and Javier Vasquez. They also added Garret Anderson's bat to their line-up and will have the opportunity to develop Casey Kotchman for an entire year at first base.

But given the line-ups at the top of the divisions that they have to compete with, I just don't see how the Braves are going to score enough runs to contend. Chipper Jones is aging and dinged up from the WBC. Brian McCann is a nice player, but expecting your catcher to anchor your line-up is always a crap-shoot (see: Mauer, Joe). And who knows which Jeff Francoeur is going to show up this year?

Then you look at their bullpen. Mike Gonzalez will do their closing, and he's pretty solid. Manny Acosta and Rafael Soriano are there to help in the late innings. Nothing wrong there. But like most bullpens it thins out quickly after those guys.

Bottom Line: I like the Braves. I'd like to see them sneak ahead of the Mets. But they're going to need several dominoes falling just right in their line-up if they hope to contend for the division title.

4. Florida Marlins - Last year the Marlins finished 84-77, in 3rd place in the NL East and missed the playoffs.

The Florida freaking Marlins surprised a lot of people, myself included, last year by contending late into the year. SS Hanley Ramirez developed into an elite, 5-tool player. 2B Dan Uggla had an outstanding first half, and then a disappointing second half. Jorge Cantu did a nice job for the Fish as well, splitting time between 3rd and 1st.

This year, the Marlins are expected to have super-rookie Cameron Maybin in center field and batting lead-off. Cantu is moving to 1st base full-time as the Marlins have handed the 3rd base job to Dallas McPherson.

Once again, it's the pitching that's a huge question mark. Ricky Nolasco, Josh Johnson, Chris Volstad and Andrew Miller form the core of a talented, but young rotation. They could be solid, or they could experience some serious growing pains.

And the bullpen, outside of closer Matt Lindstrom (who was also on the WBC injury float), is not exactly confidence-inspiring.

Bottom Line: The Marlins exceeded expectations last year, but didn't keep pace this off-season. I hate to say it, but they seem primed for a backwards step this year. I hope I'm wrong. Especially since it finally seems like their getting some help on their new ballpark initiative.

5. Washington Nationals - Last year the Nationals were 59-102, in last place in the NL East and with the worst record in all of Major League Baseball.

They say that every team's going to win 60 and lose 60, so it's what you do with the other 42 games that determines your season. Well the Nats couldn't even pull that off last year. 59 freaking wins? In a brand new ballpark?! Come on Washington! That's just bush!

And this off-season hasn't done anything to think that they'll be improved this year. G.M. Jim Bowden resigned after he was implicated in a scandal involving the skimming of bonuses paid to Latin American players. And as of yet, he hasn't been officially replaced.

That means there's been little change to a roster which only won 59 games last year. I have to keep repeating that to make sure I believe it. 59-freaking-games. Good lord that's horrible.

The one major addition they made was to sign Adam Dunn. Dunn brings a big bat, a ton of strikeouts and a questionable glove to a team that certainly didn't need the latter two on that list. It brings to mind one of Dark Star's favorite sayings: putting Adam Dunn on the Nationals is like putting a butler in front of your pup tent.

The rest of their line-up is suspect. Their rotation is awful. And their bullpen is anchored by closer Joel Hanrahan whom I only remember from getting shelled in the WBC.

Bottom Line: The Nats were awful last year, and will continue to be awful this year. It's a shame. The nation's capitol deserves better baseball than this.

There you have it folks. Mark it down. The Phills repeat in the NL East!

That does it for today. I'm back on Monday with more of the 2009 MLB Preview. Should I tell you which division is next? How about a hint. I started with one World Series participant. Maybe there's a pattern there! Until then, thanks for reading!

Wednesday

3-18-09: DFTU

Hello again everybody...

We've hit the middle of the week, and the countdown continues. That's right, only 2 more days until I'm wheels up for Phoenix! (You don't count today and I fly out Saturday, so it's really just 2, see? See?!) Yeah, I'm a little excited.

I say that even though I can't complain about the recent weather. It's been as good as you could ask for in March over the last few days. And it doesn't look like that's going to change while I'm gone. That being said, I'll swap this weather for 80's and baseball any day of the week and twice on Sunday. So there you go.

I'm sure some of you have been scratching your head wondering, "DFTU? On a Wednesday?!" Yes, the DFTU is earlier than usual this week, but for good reason. As I've been mentioning, Friday begins The Sports Take's 2009 MLB Preview. I've been hard at work prepping for the column that started it all nearly a year ago ("hard at work" here having the meaning of watching copious amounts of MLB Network), and I'm hoping it shows.

But that's Friday. Today we have to talk Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament (by the hair of their chinny-chin-chin), and the Wild clinging to their playoff hopes. You know how we roll. DFTU-style! Let's do this...

"The most perfidious way of harming a cause consists of defending it deliberately with faulty arguments."
- Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), German philosopher


Boston Red Sox (whom I hate) fans, I'm looking at you!

(Yes, I'm read for the season to begin!)

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Okay... you haven't had to wait as long this time. But you've still craved it. You're still happy it's here. That's right. It's everybody's favorite segment: Dan's Favorite Teams Update!

Minnesota Wild: The Wild are 33-29-8, giving them 74 points. That places them in a tie for the 8th seed in the Western Conference with the Dallas Stars. Unfortunately for the Wild, the Stars currently hold the tie-breaker between the two teams, so should they tie for that 8th seed, Dallas is in and the Wild are out. On the more positive side, both teams are a single point behind Nashville for the 7th seed, so there's still a chance both could get in without knocking the other out.

It's been a rough go for the Wild of late. And I hate to say that because at this time of the year, rough patches generally knock a team out of playoff contention. Fortunately for the Wild, going 1-1-3 in their last five games hasn't knocked them out of contention, because the teams around them are doing just as poorly. Conversely, Wild fans have to regret a missed opportunity, since if the Wild had gone even 3-2 over those games, they'd be in much better shape.

One positive trend that's emerged lately is the Wild's ability to come back. I hearken back to the San Jose game on March 5th, where the Wild were in the midst of a horrible road trip and by the early second period were down 3-0 to the Sharks. They proceeded to score the next 4 goals and win the game. Since then, they've still fallen behind teams early, but have managed to claw their way back and grab a point or two where they've had no business earning any.

So while it's clear that this team operates best with a lead, it's nice to see that they have the ability to right the ship, and come back in an individual game. That will certainly serve them well if they manage to make the playoffs.

Up next for the Wild is a trip to New Jersey to face los Diablos on Friday night.

As a fan, I'm focused far more on Sunday afternoon when the Wild host Edmonton. The Oilers are only a point behind the Wild/Stars for that 8th spot, so Edmonton is still very much in the playoff conversation. That makes Sunday's game extra-critical (is that a term?) for the Wild. Not only do they desperately need those two points, they need them in regulation. Allowing Edmonton to get a point for a regulation tie (or worse, two points in OT or a flat-out loss), would put the Wild in a situation where they'd need to climb over two teams to get into the playoffs. And the more teams that are between you and a playoff spot, regardless of the point differential, the more difficult it is to make the post-season.

After that critical game on Sunday, the Wild head back east for a pair in the Big Apple as they face the Rangers and the Islanders back to back on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Wisconsin Badgers: The Badgers are the 12th seed in the East Regional and take on the 5th seed Florida State Seminoles Friday night at 9pm in Boise, Idaho.

Whew.

I can't be any more succinct than that. I spent Selection Sunday at my brother's house. And while he kvetched about the Gophers getting into the Tournament, I gave new meaning to the term "flop-sweat" as I waited to hear if the Badgers had made it in for the 11th year in a row.

(Actually, the sweat was probably as much due to the "Jedi training" my nephew asked of me as the show was going on, but my trepidation involving the Badgers was certainly involved.)

Let's dial back the clock to last week. The Badgers faced the Buckeyes in the 4/5 game in the Big Ten tournament. The winner of that game was assumed to have punched their ticket to the Big Dance, while the loser was firmly on "the bubble". In classic 2009 Badger hoops fashion, Wisconsin took a lead late in the second half, and failed to close the game out. Ohio State not only punched their ticket with that win, but greatly improved their seed by beating Michigan State the next day.

Fast-forward to Sunday and as it turned out, the Badgers were one of the last 4 teams to be seeded in the tournament. The 13-16 seeds are essentially reserved for the small-conference schools that win their conference tournaments to gain entry into the Tournament. So if you're in one of the power conferences, a 12 seed is about as low as you can earn. Hence my earlier "hair of their chinny-chin-chin" comment.

I also mentioned last week that if the Badgers got matched up against a team with one primary scorer they could shut down, they'd have a shot to win a game or two. But if they got matched up against an athletic team with several scoring options, they'd be in trouble.

Enter: the Florida State Seminoles.

I've gone back and forth a couple of times about what the Badgers chances are in this game. My first reaction was: Florida State... ACC... pretty athletic... oh God, the Badgers are going to get worked!

Then I looked at FSU's stats. The 'Noles finished the year 25-9 and 10-6 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Those are solid 5-seed numbers.

But when you break down their scoring, maybe they fall into my former category. Guard Toney Douglas leads the club with 21.3 points per game. No doubt he's dangerous. But the Seminoles don't have any other player that averages double-digits in points. They have 4 others who average near 8 points per game. But that's a severe drop-off after Douglas. And the team as a whole averaged only 68.6 points per game, last in the ACC.

So what does that mean for Bucky? Well, if they can double-team Douglas and take him out of his game, they've got a shot. Look at their game against Kansas State last year. Michael Beasley was one of the top players in the nation. But Kansas State's team was basically Beasley and 4 other guys. The Badgers were able to play Beasley physically and not let him get the easy shots he was used to and the Badgers ended up winning the game.

This gave me a tremendous amount of confidence headed into their next game against Davidson. If K-State was Beasley and 4 other guys, Davidson was Stephen Curry and 4 warm bodies... they hoped. But Curry was not to be stopped and single-handedly beat the Badgers with his deadly 3-point shooting.

Douglas is a good 3-point shooter, averaging 38.4% from beyond the arc, but he's not a Curry-like player that will kill you from out there.

I guess I'm saying that I believe the Badgers have a shot. Ask me for a pick? I'll go with FSU. But it's not unthinkable that Bucky could pull the upset. In fact, had Wisconsin not closed the season blowing several leads, I'd be quite tempted to pick the upset outright. But I can't ignore Wisconsin's history this year. And their inability to close teams out could very well prove costly in this game.

Should the Badgers manage to squeak by FSU, then on Sunday they'd play the winner of the Xavier/Portland State tilt. I'm not even going to begin to try and break that down, as it would be completely putting my thumb in the eye of the Tournament gods. As it is, I have to spend all my sports prayers trying to figure a way for Bucky to get by the Seminoles! So tune in Friday night and cheer "On, Wisconsin!"

Oh yeah, that team from Minnesota got in the Dance too. They're the 10 seed in the East Region and will face the Texas Longhorns at 6pm tomorrow night. The two teams are fairly evenly matched, but Texas' strength is their inside game, and that might be where Minnesota is most inexperienced. But if there's one thing I've learned this year, it's to never underestimate Tubby Smith. So it won't surprise me a bit if the Gophs make it to the second round.

Dammit.

That's all for today folks. Remember the 2009 MLB Preview begins on Friday! Make sure to come back then to find out how the NL East breaks down! Until then, thanks for reading!

Monday

3-16-09: 10 Questions With...

Hello again everybody...

Yes, it's Monday once again, but it's not just any Monday. It's the Monday prior to my trip to Phoenix! That's right. Just 4 short days away, I'll be winging my way southward, prepared for sun, warm temperatures and all the baseball I can stomach! And in the interest of familial harmony, I'll take this opportunity to mention that I can't wait to see my folks too!

But you didn't click on that link to hear about my trip (though I hope you can live with hearing about it, because I'll be talking about it all week!). You clicked to read some of the best blogging around! Hopefully today's column lives up to that standard.

I say that because I've got a new feature I'm debuting today. If it works as well as I hope, it'll become yet another popular regular feature. If not, well they can't all be gold, right?

Today is the first edition of "10 Questions With...". For the most part, all of my columns have been about my thoughts and opinions. This new segment will turn the spotlight on friends and colleagues of mine and get their thoughts and opinions. So let's get on with it and see how this sucker works out!

"Play: Work that you enjoy doing for nothing."
- Evan Esar (1899 - 1995), American humorist


So is the column "play"? Put it this way, it's a damned good thing I enjoy writing it, because I'm sure not making any money off of it!

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And now, the inaugural edition of "10 Questions With...". For the first edition of this feature, I decided to turn to someone many of you have read about already. Dip the toe in the water from a safe location right? So without further ado, I bring you....

10 Questions With the Hammer

Craig Schroepfer (aka, the Hammer) is a fellow Studio Coordinator at WCCO Radio, and as much a sports fanatic as yours truly. So here are the 10 Questions I thought would best bring out his unique perspective on the world of sports...

1. List your favorite teams from the NHL, NFL, MLB and College Sports and why...

Before I have to answer this question, the one thing you should know about the Hammer is that his love of teams are all over the map. The reason for this is simple, anyone can cheer for the home team. I always felt it is more of a challenge to support a team far away from where you are.

NFL: I have been a Seattle Seahawks fan since 1986. My friends and I knew about football but we never started following it until 2nd grade. The only thing we knew was that the Packers were bad and we all chose different teams to follow besides Green Bay. I remember watching an NBC doubleheader in 1986 where the Oilers beat the Packers 31-3. The late game that day was Seattle vs Pittsburgh. Seattle shut out the Steelers that day 30-0. I found out while watching that game that Seattle QB Dave Kreig grew up in Central Wisconsin and played in the Wisconsin Valley Conference. At that age I couldn't believe someone from my area of Wisconsin could become an NFL QB so I started following Seattle. It was easy because since they were in the AFC NBC showed as many of their games as they could. That is how I grew up a Seahawks fan in Central Wisconsin

College Football: University of Michigan- When I was in High school the Badgers weren't that good yet and while we all wanted to see them do well none of my friends became Badger fans until after their back to back Rose Bowl visits. In high school you were either a Michigan, Miami, Florida State or Notre Dame fan back then. The Michigan & Miami fans always sided with one another against the Notre Dame/Florida State fans. Truth be told I was more of a big 10 fan in general back then so I sided with the Miami/Michigan section. I didn't become a Wolverines fan until around 1997 when my friend and I went to a Michigan/Wisconsin game at Camp Randall. After the game was done my friend and I went down to the locker room area to see if we could see any of the players as they left. I ended up talking to a little old lady about the game while we were down there. It turns out she was the mother of Michigan DB Charles Woodson. That day I got to meet Charles Woodson and a couple other Michigan football players. Since then I have been a Wolverines fan.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers- While I like to see all the teams from my state do well the Brewers are the only team from my state that I will say is my favorite. I grew up listening to Bob Uecker call their games on the radio and every time I watch or listen to them it reminds me of my youth and makes me feel young again. I really miss them being in the American League.

NHL: Detroit Red Wings- I didn't start following the NHL until 92-93 when it returned to ESPN. I started watching a lot of teams and I was drawn to two teams. The Detroit Red Wings & the Minnesota North Stars. I was familiar with the Red Wings because when I started collecting hockey cards Steve Yzerman was one of the 1st cards I had. I followed the North Stars because of their run to the cup in 1991. While I couldn't watch it because we didn't have Sports Channel America in Central Wisconsin I found it cool that a team that was that bad could make it to the finals. I guess the deciding factor for me was when the Stars announced they were moving to Dallas. After that I decided to become a Detroit fan. Four cups later I think I made the right decision.

2. Who would you like least for to Detroit to match up against in the first round?

Minnesota- I still have nightmares of what Jacques Lemaire and the Devils did to Detroit in 1995 and I have no interest in going through that again. Plus I really don't want to cheer against the Wild. They have been very good to me since they came into the league in 2000.

3. List your Top 3 favorite sports moments of all time and why...

A. Detroit sweeping Philadelphia in 1997 to win the Stanley Cup: It's one thing to end a 42 year drought, it's another to do it while embarrassing a team you despise

B. Seattle defeating Carolina in 2006 to win the NFC title and go to the Super Bowl: Just because all the years I followed the Seahawks I never thought it could happen

C. Princeton using the back door play to knock defending NCAA Champion UCLA out of the tournament in the 1st round in 1996: I hate UCLA, after coming close so many times Princeton finally gets over the hump and Gus Johnson was calling this game. That's good enough for me.

4. Would you rather Detroit win the Stanley Cup, or get a date with that good looking intern and why?

Detroit winning the Stanley Cup. I know I will enjoy that for years to come. I'm not sure that I can say the same about the intern and if she doesn't age well I'm not sure if I want to.

5. If you could interview any current or former athlete not named "Steve Yzerman", who would it be and why?

Wayne Gretzky: He was the greatest player to ever play the game of hockey and everyone says he is a better person than he is a player.

6. Do you find Danica Patrick to be "hot", "cute", or "massively over-rated" and why?

I would have to say Danica Patrick is cute. I don't find her hot. I don't think she is over-rated. I'll save that label for Michelle Wie.

7. Have you ever watched a NASCAR race? Why or Why not?

I've tried to watch one. My dad was into it when I was younger and I gave it another shot when NASCAR went mainstream earlier this decade but I can't do it. I would rather listen to paint dry than watch a NASCAR race on TV.

8. Who's your favorite professional wrestler of all time? Explain...

While I have had many favorites over the years my all-time favorite was Ricky Steamboat. He had that mixture of martial arts and high flying moves that just caught my attention when he wrestled. I cheered when he beat Macho Man at Wrestlemania III. I cried when he lost to the Honky Tonk Man two months later.

9. List the professional sports venues you've been in. Of those you haven't been in, which would you most like to see?

MLB: County Stadium, Metrodome, Wrigley Field, Skydome, Coors Field, Miller Park
NFL: Lambeau Field, Metrodome, Soldier Field, Qwest Field, Arrowhead Stadium
NBA: Bradley center, Target Center
NHL: Xcel Energy Center
College Football: Camp Randall Stadium, Metrodome
College Basketball: Williams Arena, Metrodome

As for the venues I'd love to go and see


MLB: Fenway Park- Boston
NFL: Heinz Field- Pittsburgh
NBA: Madison Square Garden- New York
NHL: Joe Louis Arena- Detroit
College Football- Michigan Stadium- Ann Arbor

10. Why are you called, "the Hammer"?

The reason I am called the Hammer is that when I started at WCCO Dark Star gave everyone new there nicknames. He asked me where I worked before I came to CCO. I told him I worked for the Minnesota News Network which was owned by MPR. He thinks MPR are a bunch of communists. The Communist flag is the Hammer & the Sickle. that's too long for him to say so he just started calling me the Hammer. I thought this nickname would just blow over after a few months. four years later everyone at CCO calls me Hammer.

Ladies and gentlemen, that's the Hammer.

Hope you enjoyed a little peek behind his unique curtain. I would appreciate any and all feedback on the idea. What works, what doesn't? Any suggestions for who should be next? I have a few ideas, but I'd love yours as well!

That's all for today. I'm back on Wednesday with an early version of the DFTU. (Remember, the 2009 MLB Preview starts Friday!) Until then, thanks for reading!

Friday

3-13-09: DFTU

Hello again everybody...

TGIF. Perhaps the four greatest letters in the English language, at least when they're combined.

As you may have guessed, they have extra special importance for me today since we're officially at 7 days until my Phoenix vacation. Yes, one week from tomorrow (you never count the current day in your countdowns people) I'm wheels up for the sun, warmth and baseball of it all in the Valley of the Sun.

More importantly for you we're exactly 6 days from the beginning of my 2009 MLB Preview. That's right, baseball season is nearly upon us. So for 7 straight columns (6 divisions, 1 playoff), I'll be bringing you the finest in baseball prognostication ("finest" here having the meaning of: the best I can do, which last year sucked the bag).

Actually, I shouldn't say 7 straight, since I'm toying with the idea of mixing in a Photo Post or Running Game Commentary from one of the Spring Training games I attend while I'm down there.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I value your readership so much that I may actually *increase* my column output while I'm on vacation. No, no, no. Don't thank me. It's my pleasure to serve!

But before all that, we've got to get to this week's DFTU. So without further ado, let us away!

"Is sloppiness in speech caused by ignorance or apathy? I don't know and I don't care."
- William Safire (1929 - ), American author


Any quote that makes me laugh out loud immediately goes in the blog, and this one did. Plus Mr. Safire gets extra points for appearing in Ken Burns' "The Civil War" documentary. He's not in it much, but any appearance at all makes you aces in my book!

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You've waited all week, you know it, you love it, and now it's here. That's right, it's time for everybody's favorite segment: Dan's Favorite Teams Update!

Minnesota Wild: The Wild are 32-28-7 which gives them 71 points. They're in 4th place in the Northwest division, but more importantly, they're tied for 9th place in the Western Conference playoff race a mere 1 point behind the hated Dallas Stars for 8th.

So close! The Wild played terribly in Colorado last night and somehow managed to hold on and send the game into overtime where they lost in a shootout. Getting one point out of that debacle was nice, but sneaking two points out of the jaws of a doughnut would've been incredible. A win last night would have put the Wild into a 3-way tie with Edmonton and Dallas for 8th place, and I believe the Wild hold tiebreakers over both of those teams.

An opportunity lost? Perhaps. But working in the Wild's favor is that they play Dallas Saturday night, and the Oilers a week and a day later. I've said it before, but games against teams in that scrum at the bottom of the Western Conference are going to be the key to making the playoffs. Win those in regulation, and you're probably in. Lose, or win in overtimes/shootouts, and you're probably out. It's all about creating separation from the teams you're directly competing with.

It's hard for me to believe that there are only 15 regular season games remaining. Where has the season gone?! I guess I should be happy that the Wild are at least in the playoff hunt at this point. But the team has been so maddeningly inconsistent, that it's hard not to lament where they could be with a more even effort.

Wild fans should also keep in mind that Marian Gaborik is due back sometime next week. He won't be "the savior", but he'll at least give opposing teams something else to think about.

This weekend the Wild play back-to-back on the road. As mentioned, Saturday they're at Dallas. Then Sunday they travel to St. Louis. Next week, a home game Tuesday versus Colorado and a road game Thursday at New Jersey await. Pins and needles folks. Pins and needles!

Wisconsin Badgers: The Badgers finished the regular season 19-11 overall and 10-8 in the Big Ten. That tied them for 4th with Ohio State, but by virtue of their win over the Buckeyes, the Badgers are officially the 4-seed in the Big Ten Tournament.

At the time of this writing, the Badgers and Buckeyes have just tipped off. The winner is set to play top-seeded Michigan State, who've just beaten the Gophers, tomorrow in the Big Ten semifinals.

It was my contention last week that the Badgers need to win at least this game against Ohio State to get into the NCAA Tournament. And I'm not 100% sold that that will get it done. If you assume that the selection committee will take around 6 teams from the Big Ten, then as the 4-seed, the Badgers should be in. But beating Ohio State would pretty much clinch it. Beating the Spartans in the semi-finals (and the Badgers have played them close in both match-ups this year) would make it an absolute lock.

As for their prospects in the Tournament itself? It's all about the match-up. If they are paired against a team with one primary scorer? They've got a shot. If they're matched-up against an athletic team that likes to run the floor? They could be in a lot of trouble.

The NCAA Selection show is Sunday afternoon. Check your local listings!

Short and sweet, and off to the weekend! That's all for today folks. I'll be back on Monday, hopefully with a brand new segment for your reading pleasure. Until then, thanks for reading!