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?
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!