"His voice betrayed a craving for terrible things." -- Don DeLillo
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April 9, 2004
Baseball, Baby, Baseball!
Ahh, April is finally here, meaning that winter is further behind us, warm weather is starting to sneak into the area, the Philadelphia Film Festival is starting, and at last, baseball is back! I've been a huge baseball fan for, oh, 15-16 years now, but my fanaticism has reached fevered new heights over the past two years. First of all, let's make my allegiance clear: I'm a through-and-through, pureblood Phillies
fan. Making that comment a few years ago would have brought scoffs and condescending head shakes, but this year finds the Phillies in prime pouncing position for the playoffs (ooh, FEEL the alliteration). Ostensibly, it started after the 2002 season (though a brilliantly cultivated farm system should not be ignored), a disappointing 80-81 season after their up-to-the-last-weekend 86-76 finish in 2001. I was in London during the fall of 2002 and followed religiously from my dorm's internet lab the off-season moves of my beloved Phils. After years of pennypinching that drove out All-Stars Scott Rolen (in 2002) and Curt Schilling (in 2000), management was ready to open their pocketbooks for a big splash. That came in the form of home run masher and probable future Hall of Famer Jim Thome, who signed a six-year $85 million contract. That offseason also brought in 3B David Bell and P Kevin Millwood (from archrivals the Braves). With their new veteran players joining young stars Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu, and Randy Wolf, 2003 looked like it could be the Phillies' year. However, the Baseball Gods had other ideas, striking down Burrell's bat with an abysmal .209 average and forcing fans to endure blown saves and endless shaky pitching from soon-deposed closer Jose Mesa. After falling far behind the Braves rejuvenated offensive machine, the Wild Card was the Phillies' only hope and a terrible September let the Marlins sneak in and win it all.
It was another disappointing finish, but the fact is I was following Phillies baseball religiously in late September still and that has happened VERY rarely since 1993's World Series run (in fact, the only other time it happened was in 2001's surprisingly strong season), so I really can't be too upset. This past offseason, though, fueled by expected high revenues from the new Citizens Bank Park, management took out the checkbook again and brought in 100 MPH'er Billy Wagner to take over the closer reigns as well as Tim Worrell and Roberto Hernandez to rebuild a once-tumultuous bullpen. Combined with significant offseason losses by the Braves and Marlins, the Eastern division is the Phillies' to lose this year.
However, the Phillies' recent surge isn't the only reason my baseball addiction grew in leaps and bounds last year. Two words for you: fantasy baseball. Now, I'd certainly heard plenty about fantasy games before, but I only joined last year and became addicted
. I cared as much about my fantasy team as my real-life Phils and got sucked into its world of statistics and player-watching. Without any preparation before my draft and just figuring things out along the way, I managed to finish third in my league (after making a painfully close run at first). My sickness is only growing this year as I'm actually in three
different leagues. There goes my summer... Also contributing to my plunge into baseball stat analysis were Moneyball
, Michael Lewis' fantastic look into the small budget, big success Oakland A's, and the regular columns of sabermetrically-inclined writer Rob Neyer of ESPN.com
. Great stuff.
Since I enjoy pronostication as much as anyone, here are my predictions for this season:
National League - Eastern Division
Let's just start with an easy one: this will be the Phillies' year. Many predicted the Phillies would end the Braves' reign last year, but few could have expected the extent of the offensive explosion that came out of Gary Sheffield and (especially surprising) Javy Lopez and Vinny Castilla. However, with those three gone (along with Greg Maddux), the Braves have never looked so vulnerable. Their pitching is a shadow of its former self and the offense, while still potent, won't be able to approach 2003 levels. With some luck and health (mainly for J.D. Drew), the Braves could stay in second place and even fight for the Wild Card, but they'll likely find themselves falling back into third or even fourth. The Marlins may be the current World Champions, but will be hardpressed to follow up last year's success. Losing Ivan Rodriguez and Derrek Lee will hurt the team both offensively and defensively and Mark Redman's departure puts a small sting in the rotation. However, their rotation is still formidable with Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, and Dontrelle Willis--with A.J. Burnett coming back from Tommy John surgery later this season. Full years from Willis and phenom Miguel Cabrera could greatly help the Marlins and make them contenders again for the Wild Card. I don't see them accumulating enough wins to fight for first, however.
The Mets made some nice offseason moves bringing in Kaz Matsui and Mike Cameron, but it's still a weak lineup and an aging rotation. Third place would be an optimistic goal for them, though they could surprise if everything comes together. The Expos lost Guerrero and Vazquez, but Nick Johnson will be a valuable addition (if he can stay healthy). Regardless, the Team Without A Home will be battling to stay out of the basement this season. The Phillies, on the other hand, have the same potent lineup they featured last year. Pat Burrell will improve this year (simply because he can't get any worse) and David Bell hopefully should as well if his back holds up. The rotation is 1-5 effective and may be the deepest in the National League. They have no established ace, but any of the five could develop into one in the course of the year (Millwood's a possibility, but my money's on Padilla or even Milton). The statistics show that the Phillies actually underperformed last year when looking at their runs scored/allowed. With more luck this year and without Mesa's debilitating presence in the bullpen, the Phillies should be able to jump out of the gate early and run away with the division title. If there's an April slump, though, watch for GM Ed Wade to cover his own ass by firing firebrand manager Larry Bowa. I don't think Bowa's as hurtful a clubhouse presence as some insist, but I don't doubt that a more relaxed manager could help the team in the long run.
National League - Central Division
A much more difficult division to predict with three worthy teams: the Cubs, Astros, and Cardinals. Also, one of the two teams that doesn't win the division could easily win the Wild Card. I'm apprehensive, but I think the Cubs are going to take the division. Their pitching is too good to ignore and the addition of Maddux will give a valuable sounding board to the young pitchers. A major question mark is Mark Prior's health--if he is forced to spend any more than a month or so on the DL, the Cubs may start to fall behind. However, I think Kerry Wood could have a career year and pick up the slack. The offense isn't nearly as intimidating as the defense, but should still be enough to rack up enough wins (as long as Sosa, Alou, and Patterson stay healthy).
The Astros should be the Cubs biggest competition, though they have plenty of their own question marks. Petitte and Clemens are great pickups, but it remains to be seen how the two will do switching leagues and fighting off aging. The rest of the rotation is filled out with promising young pitchers (Oswalt, Miller, and Redding) who just need to stay healthy. If the offense can keep scoring runs, they should threaten the Cubs for the division title or have a serious shot at the Wild Card. The Cardinals are the weakest of the three, but could still act as spoiler. They still have the awesome core of Pujols, Rolen, Renteria, and Edmonds, but, again, pitching is a huge problem. The closer problem will be solved with Jason Isringhausen starting the season healthy, but the rotation has a lot to prove. With some luck and maybe some key injuries to the Cubs and Astros, the Cardinals could swoop in, but more than likely they'll be relegated to third once again. If so, watch for manager Tony La Russa to be given his walking papers, maybe even before the end of the season. As for the Pirates, Brewers, and Reds, their purpose this year is to pad the records of the other three teams.
National League - Western Division
A wide-open division, you could make a case for all five teams (though you'd be stretching it with the Dodgers and Rockies, admittedly). I think the Giants and Padres have the best chances, though. The Giants will be a force as long as the head-inflated Barry Bonds is smashing homers at will. His spot on the lineup changes the whole dynamic of Giants games--pitchers need to work around him, walks are issued, other players get better pitches, etc. If Bonds stays in the lineup, the Giants will contend even with their very shaky rotation. If Bonds misses a substantial amount of time, you can write off the Giants' hopes. The Padres are looking to go from worst to first this year. Like the Phillies, they're moving into a new ballpark this year and thus had more money to play with. Catcher Ramon Hernandez was a valuable pickup from the A's and the team will benefit greatly from full years from Brian Giles, Phil Nevin, and Trevor Hoffman. They'll need their share of luck and, with poor pitching or injuries, could find themselves with a losing record again, but they also have a chance to turn some heads and be this year's surprise story (though so many people have written about their sleeper status that they hardly qualify anymore).
The Diamondbacks will stay in contention as long as Randy Johnson is throwing strikes, but his age is definitely showing at this point. Schilling is no longer around to anchor the rotation when Johnson's out and the rest of the rotation is unproven, though Brandon Webb may be invaluable in years to come. With some pitching success and overperforming offense, they could contend for the division title (especially since it will likely be won with few wins), but my guess is they'll settle into third or battle for second (but will not have enough wins for the Wild Card). The Rockies will win games as long as they keep playing in band box Coors Field, but they still need pitching that can perform at home and away. They'll likely remain in the stagnation they've been in for the past few years. The Dodgers did very little to help their league worst offense, but Milton Bradley's recent addition could be the splash they needed. After losing so much of its overpowering pitching, though, the Dodgers will likely be in rebuilding mode for the next few years. The future is bright, though, with new GM Paul DePodesta calling the shots. As Billy Beane's right-hand man in Oakland the past few years, he has a intelligent view of baseball that will reap benefits for LA thanks to a higher payroll than Oakland's nickels and dimes. Keep an eye on them.
American League - Eastern Division
If you only heard one baseball story for the past six months, it was likely related to the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry, which could be given its own weekly sports soap opera on ESPN at this point. The two will beat the absolute hell out of each other for the next six months, but I think at the end the Red Sox will be left standing with the division title. The Red Sox left a tremendous offense almost untouched and only bolstered their pitching with Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke (who will finally add some much-needed stability in the bullpen). The offense will not be as explosive this year since many players enjoyed career years last season, but they should give up less runs with their new pitchers, so it should still even out in the Sox favor. The Yankees, of course, made plenty of excellent offseason moves as well, but I think they'll fall just behind the Sox, though they'll probably grab the Wild Card instead. Vazquez could be a great pitcher for the Yankees for years, but health and attitude questions swarm around Kevin Brown, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Jason Giambi (among others). If the team finds the right chemistry, they'll certainly win plenty of games, though injuries would be crippling due to a thin bench and ransacked farm system. The addition of A-Rod will be one of the biggest stories of the year, but the reality is A-Rod doesn't offer a substantial
improvement over Alfonso Soriano and actually hurts them by creating a hole at second base.
I enjoy rooting for the Toronto Blue Jays and think they're a strong team, but in this division they're probably a few years away from serious contention. Though very unlikely, if both the Yankees and Red Sox were crippled with multiple injuries, it would be Toronto that emerged for the title. Their poor start this year (a sweep by the Tigers, of all embarassing teams) notwithstanding, they'll win a lot of games this year with their young and developing roster. Carlos Delgado and Vernon Wells should have tremendous years and I'll always root for my favorite fantasy player from last year: Frank Catalanotto. Though his stats would probably keep him off most fantasy rosters, he put in a nice and solid season last year with some triples, lots of doubles, some home runs, and a scattered stolen base here and there. He finished just under .300 and that was after a poor finish (he was batting in the .300s for most of the season). Reigning Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay is the staff ace and, though he probably won't replicate his 2003 numbers, he still should put up a great season. Miguel Batista comes in from the Diamondbacks after a great season and underappreciated Ted Lilly arrives from Oakland on the heels of a fantastic end of the season. If he keeps the success going, he could be a major help to the Jays. The Orioles made a few nice pickups in Tejada, Lopez, and Palmeiro, but Guerrero would have been a big help and the questionable pitching staff means that Baltimore will still have to be content with fourth place. The Devil Rays will improve, but that's not saying too much and they certainly won't be emerging from the basement this year barring a major collapse by Baltimore (or Toronto).
American League - Central Division
Probably the weakest division in baseball, no team is ready to run off with the title this year and it should be a three-way matchup between Minnesota, Chicago, and Kansas City, though in-development Cleveland is hoping for a big year from their youngsters. The Twins may still be the strongest team in the division, but they took some heavy losses in the offseason, losing Eddie Guardado, Kenny Rogers, Eric Milton, A.J. Pierzynski, and LaTroy Hawkins. Joe Nathan is coming in to anchor the new bullpen, but it's uncertain whether he'll be effective in the closer role after a questionable spring. Joe Mauer will be the focus of attention this season and should put up good numbers, but it will likely take him time to find his power and he may not be enough to increase the offense. He also just sprained his left knee after a strong start and will miss a month. Hawkins will be sorely missed in the bullpen and the team just may not have a title run in them this year. The Wild Card will likely be out of the question for the second place team given the strength of the teams in the other two divisions.
Luckily for Minnesota, Chicago took some hits in the offseason as well, and needs to patch up some holes. Gone are ace Bartolo Colon, Tom Gordon, Carl Everett, and Roberto Alomar. The offense may not produce enough runs to win many games, but the pitching is still relatively strong even without Colon. Buehrle will head up the rotation in front of Cy Young candidate Esteban Loaiza. Though Loaiza won't be as effective this year, he'll still be valuable to the team. Billy Koch may struggle in the closer role, though, and the question will be whether manager Ozzie Guillen is smart enough to install the capable Damaso Marte in the role. The Royals were a surprise story from last season, but the team hasn't improved enough to make a serious run at the title, though I certainly wouldn't rule them out. The rotation isn't very intimidating, though Jeremy Affeldt and Darrell May could still develop and put up respectable numbers. Cleveland is still in the middle of the rebuilding phase they began around the time of Jim Thome's departure, but in this weak division they could be a sleeper candidate if they catch enough breaks. C.C. Sabathia is a worthy staff ace and still young enough (23) to keep getting better. Plenty of questions about who will close and how the young lineup will perform, but their timetable could make them contenders in the next few years. The Tigers are, well, the Tigers. They may be 4-0 right now, but their toughest goal this year will be fighting to keep from 100 losses, which would be a considerable improvement from last year's throwaway season. A run at contention would be unprecedented after such a terrible season in 2003.
American League - Western Division
A powerhouse division with three legitimate contenders: Oakland, Anaheim, and Seattle. Even still, I can't stop from picking the A's to win the title until Billy Beane proves me wrong. The Big Three of Hudson, Zito, and Mulder are still there and are as intimidating and valuable as ever. The addition of Mark Redman from Florida hasn't received the attention it deserves--he is an excellent pitcher that will complement the top three brilliantly. By adding another veteran into the fourth slot, Rich Harden is given a little breathing room holding up the number five spot. After a fast start out of the gate last summer, he stumbled his way through September and it will be interesting to watch his development this year. Many question Arthur Rhodes' ability to replace Keith Foulke in the bullpen, but again, I defer to Beane here. He's created closers before and I have full confidence he'll be successful again. The offense is missing some pop with the losses of Miguel Tejada and Ramon Hernandez, but Jermaine Dye could contribute much more this year if healthy, superstar Eric Chavez (on the heels of signing the largest contract in A's history) could be ready for a tremendous year, and rookie phenom Bobby Crosby could help blur the memories of Tejada at SS. The A's are my favorite AL team and are going to be as fun to watch as ever. Watch them continue their reign.
The Anaheim Angels are coming off of a disappointing 2003 season (which followed their improbable championship run in 2002), but some significant offseason moves will make them players in 2004. Bartolo Colon should be an excellent ace for the Angels, though his health (and weight) could be issues. Vlad Guerrero comes in and adds superstar power in both offense and defense. With big years from Garret Anderson and Troy Glaus, the offense could generate lots of runs. The bullpen is still excellent, but the rotation behind Colon and Jarrod Washburn could be troublesome. With some pitching success, they could easily contend for the title (and possibly the Wild Card), though a couple slips could put them back in third once again. With these core players, though, another strong offseason could make them a serious threat next year. Seattle will still be a factor this year, though they haven't had much luck besting the A's and I don't think they will this year either. The offense is decent, but not overwhelming--Ichiro will provide speed and hits while Bret Boone and Edgar Martinez will add in the homers. Jamie Moyer continues to defy statistics by pitching brilliantly into his 40's, though he won't be able to do this forever. Should he start to slump, look for the Mariners as a whole to do so as well. Freddy Garcia is looking to forget about last year and emerge as the new ace, but it remains to be seen if he can meet his expectations. They'll win plenty of games, but I still don't see them ready to topple the A's yet. Another year to be the bridesmaid and not the bride. In Texas, the A-Rod Contract Albatross has finally been lifted off their backs, but pitching is still abysmal and I think as long as Tom Hicks is running this team, they'll fail. It's a shame because the young lineup could have potential, but it's not happening this year and especially not in this division.