For some reason, every baseball mind – no matter how bright or dim – that can get their opinion on the Internet posts a season preview column around this time of the year. It’s like clockwork. The columnist could spend every other day of the year criticizing stereotypical baseball columns (‘The Bonds Column,’ ‘The Pete Rose Column,’ ‘The All-Star Snub Column,’ etc.), and they’d still push out something that previewed the upcoming campaign.
It’s tacky, overdone, and outrageously bias. So here’s mine:
(Before we get started, however, some forewarning: since James and I are piecing together our Power Rankings column (due out soon), I can’t very well do another first-to-worst format. So instead I’m taking the best of two worlds: baseball and ‘The Colbert Report.’ We’ll go through about twenty topics; all inspired by Stephen Colbert’s segment ‘The Word.’)
I Am The Great And Powerful Oz
For this, we’re going to classify The Wizard as the old, fragile man behind the curtain that is merely using some fancy lights and smoke to his advantage. This goes to Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who for the umpteenth season in a row simply doesn’t get it, but continues to talk as if he’s George Steinbrenner Jr.
He was the biggest advocate against moving the Expo’s to Washington (who would apparently steal the fan base that was rapidly leaving Camden Yards), refuses to hire a competent GM – instead choosing to stick with his two-headed monster of ineptness – while pouring all the money into more offence. Baltimore has rarely had a problem with their offence. They’ve boasted the talent of Cal Ripkin Jr., Albert Belle, Rafael Palmeiro, Wil Clark, Roberto Alomar, Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Eddie Murray over the past decade. This has always been a team that has lacked pitching, and only just recently have they addressed it by signing Leo Mazzone away from the Atlanta Braves. Of course, before that they let BJ Ryan and afterwards traded the superior talents of John Maine and Jorge Julio for career-#3 starter Kris Benson. Baltimore still doesn’t get it, but at least their owner talks a big game.
Pat Gillick is arguably my favourite General Manager ever, but moving Jim Thome out of town won’t make the Phillies an instant Wild Card contender. Granted, Thome had an injury-riddled 2005 season, and most likely his back will never hold up to the rigors of a 162 game schedule as a first baseman, however Ryan Howard is a strikeout machine who is most likely to develop into...guess...Jim Thome, minus the walk totals. He’s not the reason Philadelphia failed to ever reach the postseason during his tenure.
The Phillies continued to patchwork their starting rotation during his time, only being able to build around Brett Myers while Vincette Padilla, Randy Wolf and Brandon Duckworth have all flopped. The only significant starting pitcher to be brought in was Jon Lieber, while the exporting of pitching talent (Curt Schilling) far outweighs the imports (Omar Daal). Thome was never the reason this franchise couldn’t play 163 games, but his time in Philly will be remembered for little else.
The Yankee’s are still the best team in baseball. Adding the second-most vital element of Boston’s line-up (their leadoff hitter) to their own not only weakens their biggest rival, but strengthens New York. They now have a legitimate .290 hitter at every position (minus second base but only because Cano is a sophomore), two MVP’s, an infield (infield) that could hit a combined 100 homeruns (also remember that a back catcher isn’t considered part of the infield), and arguably the top offensive leadoff hitter in baseball.
As for the rotation: everyone is much too happy to see them fail. They’re fully ready to write Randy Johnson off for the rest of his career, label Pavano and Jaret Wright one-season wonders, and completely dismiss a revamped bullpen. They’ve been completely overshadowed by a pitching staff that, for all intents and purposes, is lacking in a number of areas just like their own. That would be....
The Chicago White Sox. The claim that they have the top rotation in baseball would be laughable if you delete their World Series win (which accounts for roughly four starts per pitcher). The only arms in their starting five that have continued success during their baseball careers are Mark Buehrle and Freddy Garcia (and even the latter has had a tumultuous career). Javier Vazquez is the guy who pitched his way out of New York after one season, and followed up that season by posting an ERA over a run higher with Arizona than the last one he registered in the NL with Montreal. Fact of the matter is, Vazquez hasn’t pitched consistently well outside of Canada.
Jose Conteras put together his best season since his rookie campaign with the Yank’s, and still has to be considered a bust, although now with an upside. He’s a 35-year old (well, maybe) pitcher with limited success in Major League Baseball, that I guess is somehow the best number four in the league. Then there’s Jon Garland, whose career has mimicked Contreras’ (multiple crummy seasons book-ended by good ones) except with more mediocrity. If you’re going to call into question Carl Pavano’s long term affectability, Garland should be the second person you talk about. Let’s remember that the White Sox have a history of coaxing career single season’s out of average pitcher’s (Esteban Loiza, Mike Sirotka).
Add that to an offence that actually got worse with the loss of Carl Everett and Aaron Rowand (and only adding the fragile Jim Thome), along with an inexperienced/underachieving bullpen, and you get – at best – an 88-win team. Yet they top the Power Rankings of at least 80% of the public.
This goes to the Toronto Blue Jays, who are in Year One of attempting to regain respect in the US. As of this second, they’re either listed as a Wild Card favourite, or the token team that receives a cash influx from their owner and doesn’t spend it all that well.
My take?? They overpaid, of course, but when you’re convincing non-hockey player’s to come to Canada, you have to. BJ Ryan, Troy Glaus, and Lyle Overbay will probably contribute to an extra nine or ten wins. It’s a solid team of non-superstar player’s that desperately need everyone to pull their own weight or else the offence will rely on the pitching staff to carry them. If Roy Halladay goes down again – and AJ Burnett’s elbow cracks like an egg – this team struggles to stay .500. They’re not good enough to make the playoffs with one only component carrying them (i.e. the Red Sox last year with their offence).
We have to dedicate at least one category to Barry Bonds. Thanks to the published book scandal, claiming Bonds is/was a prolific steroid abuser, the Giant leftfielder will have this dark cloud around him all season. It doesn’t even matter if he’s clean now – which he most likely is – it’s the fact he almost assuredly took injections in the past. Since Mark McGwire, and most likely Sammy Sosa and Palmeiro, aren’t around to receive the media scrutiny, Bonds will definitely be the main target. The question is how can Barry fight these allegations while saving face?? Filing a lawsuit probably isn’t the best start. If these allegations persist, his season could be interrupted by retirement.
Billy Beane, GM of the Oakland A’s, has probably shouted this word at least a dozen times over the past decade. Every negative (Giambi and Tejada leaving, the Mulder and Hudson trades, Art Howe taking off for the Mets) has turned into a positive (Bobby Crosby, Dan Johnson/Nick Swisher, Rich Harden, Joe Blanton, Dan Haren, and manager Ken Macha).
The pitching staff is most likely ready to begin their cycle again of carrying this squad to the playoffs, while the bullpen have their holes but are backed up by Huston Street (I’m willing to guarantee their pen resembles the Yankee’s last year); not to mention their offence hasn’t looked this strong on paper ever, even during the Tejada and Giambi days. If offensive potentials are reached, which area rarity in Oakland, they could be the only 100-win team in baseball.
The Chicago Cubs pitching staff, in other words. Are they the most talented 1-5 in baseball?? Absolutely. Will they remain healthy?? Maybe.
To their credit, Carlos Zambrano is yet to be infected with the Cubs Curse, while Greg Maddux has always avoided injury. Jerome Williams – whom they absolutely stole from San Francisco last year – can be the best number five pitcher in baseball if he can improve his endurance. The question marks come into play when we discuss Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. The former will most likely never start 15 games in a season ever and be a bullpen fixture. Mark Prior, on the other hand, has merely been the recipient of some freak injuries the past two seasons. He’s already experiencing pain, however, which could be the first of many headaches for the Cubbies. If the rotation can somehow pitch a combined 900 innings, they have the division locked up. Chances are they won’t get past 750 IP.
John Schuerholz, GM of the Atlanta Braves. The wonderful thing about baseball is that you can build a dynasty such as the Braves have without a massive payroll by hiring top scouts and willing to invest in your farm system. The baseball draft is so deep, and the amount of unsigned player’s around the world so vast, that a team doesn’t need three consecutive top five draft picks to build a legitimate contender like in basketball.
Atlanta has also won through so many strategies. Pitching has always been the cornerstone of their record-breaking run, but more-and-more in recent years timely, smart hitting has played a larger role in their success. They also got by without a reliable closer for the first time in years, something that they may have to repeat this season if Chris Reitsma doesn’t work out. In any event, this may be the strongest Braves team since Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez, and Tom Glavine all departed, which is too bad for the significantly improved...
New York Mets. As I detailed a few columns ago, while the Mets went about their normal method of being a reckless spender during the winter months, Omar Minaya built a cohesive unit instead of a clubhouse made up purely with big names and prior talent. There are no Mo Vaughn’s, Kevin Appier’s, Roberto Alomar’s, or Bobby Bonilla’s here.
There’s a strong mix of veteran leadership that is highly respect (Carlos Delgado, Paul Lo Duca), aging talent that is desperate for a World Series (Pedro Martinez, Billy Wagner), impressive youngster’s that now have a positive example to follow (David Wright, Jose Reyes), and a bona fide franchise player (Carlos Beltran, if he ever realizes his potential). It’s a strong group that unfortunately have to play with the Braves, and due to the easier schedule teams in the Central will face, it could also cost them a Wild Card birth.
Quite frankly, I have enormous concerns over Japanese export, new Mariner catcher Kenji Johjima. The fact he’s a catcher with limited English capabilities spells doom for the pitching staff, considering a catcher’s main priority is to call a strong game, not hit like Johnny Bench.
Player’s like Hideki Matsui and Ichiro can get away with little to no English knowledge due to playing the outfield. Everything they need to say on the field can be done through body motions. With a catcher, however, they’re required to communicate (preferably in words) with the pitcher to go through hitter sequences, set-up an inning, or just relax them when things get out of hand. When they can’t hold a simple conversation, discrepancies arise and problems ensue. It looks as if the Mariners got a bit too cocky after the success they’ve enjoyed with Ichiro and Hasegawa to really think this signing through.
Gay Gay Gay Gay Gay
Why is Mike Piazza in San Diego?? It became apparent to even himself last season that he couldn’t hack it as a 100-game catcher any longer. I’m sure enough people in baseball were shocked that he finished out his entire contract with the Mets, when that was roundly criticized seven years ago after being signed (when Piazza was still 31).
Now he’s 38, his knees are legitimately shot, and even with the free-fall his career is currently embroiled in, no other Padre catcher would be better than Piazza. First base is road blocked thanks to Ryan Klesko and the ultra-impressive Adrian Gonzalez, whom San Diego stole from Texas. Piazza desperately needed the DH job to even approach 120 games this season, but most likely won’t play more than 80 in a Padre’s uniform. We’re still trying to figure out why they didn’t re-sign Ramon Hernandez.
There was another ‘Word’ that described a feline (hint: it starts with a “p”), but I decided that using it in the context I was about to was a bit too crude.
This one is going to the Padres as well. Right now with their payroll roughly around $60 million, they chose to bring back Brian Giles and Trevor Hoffman for the total price of $13.5 million next year at the combined ago of 73, approximately two years older than Julio Franco. With the money that they wasted on those two, they could’ve spent an extra $6 million this off season and brought in both BJ Ryan and AJ Burnett, or Ryan and Paul Konerko. The NL West is in such disarray, with both Arizona and Colorado at least two years away from competition and the Dodgers about as cohesive as the cast of ‘Desperate Housewives,’ that San Diego could’ve modestly splurged this off season and brought in two or three big talents to guarantee themselves NL West Championships the next two or three seasons. The usually crafty Kevin Towers made a lot of mistakes over the winter.
The Cardinals are still considered the favourite in the NL Central thanks to a number of reasons, such as people having little faith in the Cubs and Astros, as well as St. Louis’ recent success. The problem with that is the Cardinals have experienced a significant drop in talent this off season while both Houston and Chicago improved.
The Cards are walking into this season with an outfield featuring Juan Encarnacion, Larry Bigbie/So Taguchi, and the aging Jim Edmonds. If they were wearing Tiger uniforms, we’d call it the worst outfield in baseball. The infield is ridiculously solid with Pujols, Rolen, and David Eckstein, but Junior Spivey should have stopped being a starter three years ago. All this is just a cover for the starting rotation, however, which could be the worst in the division if we pretend the Reds don’t exist.
Chris Carpenter is a bona fide ace, while Mark Mulder is a fine #2 or sub-ace. It goes south after that, starting with Jason Marquis who shouldn’t be any more than a spot-starter on a contending team. Jeff Suppan can’t decide if he’s a bad or merely decent pitcher, but he’s definitely not a number three. Rounding out the rotation is Sidney Ponson, who wasn’t good enough to make Baltimore’s starting five (!!). Add that to a bullpen that is very much like last year’s Yankees, and it’s just amazing to think people can call this team one of the top-five in baseball.
To Boston’s crowded infield. And outfield. And pitching staff. As of this very second (just after the Hee Sop Choi signing), Boston has eight everyday-capable infielders, five outfielders, and six pitcher’s.
Now the pitching situation can be easily taken care of by relegating Jon Papelbon to the bullpen (although at his stage of development, he should really be starting). I might be stretching it by calling Adam Stern capable as a starter, but he very well could be on a .500 squad. The infield, however, does possess eight legitimate starters, all of whom are spectacularly average which could be the root of the infield glut. Boston management may not feel comfortable starting average player’s (like Kevin Youklisis or JT Snow) every day and want another option off the bench. Nice theory, but it creates hostility. A trade could also be looming, as this seems very New York Knick-ish (hoping to trade garbage like Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis for Kevin Garnett). Quite frankly, I’m confused by 90% of what Boston does.
Colorado could be the most surprising team of the decade to win their division. I’ve already got down a $20 bet that’ll pay out roughly four grand if they win the World Series. My ‘Worst Bet In History’ pick comes from three facts: the NL West could be the worst division since the ’94 AL West (if we include the shortened strike year and discount last year’s NL West); Colorado’s pitching isn’t that god awful; and they play in Coors Field.
A rotation of Jeff Francis, Jason Jennings, and Aaron Cook is just as good as any in the NL West, while their line-up from one-to-five is only a notch below the Dodgers (although superior when the Rockies are playing at home). I’m not calling for this team to win 95 games or anything of that nature, but an 85-win season as they take advantage of a pathetically weak NL West (National League in general, actually) – especially at home – is not out of the question. They have the offence to win at home and the pitching to win on the road, which is something they haven’t been able to claim in years. They’re no better than the Devil Rays, but the NL West makes them look like the White Sox.
To the Twins, who could very well win the AL Central or finish below Detroit. There hasn’t been a team that could claim that since the ’04 Royals (and quite frankly, we all knew where that one was heading).
Minnesota, on paper, can’t be considered better than .500. What makes them such a sexy pick is that the Twins always look like a .500 team and pull off 90-plus win seasons. All of their position player’s, minus Tony Batista and Justin Morneau, are very Twins-esque in their hitting approach (decent-to-good OBP, below average power, timely hitters). The consistently lacklustre offence is complimented by a current ace, former ace, future ace, and Kyle Lohse, which works well with their bullpen that might have the best mixture of talent and youth in baseball. It’s a very Minnesota-type team that always seems to win 92 games. Or they could lose 85. Whatever.
There Is No Word
Detroit and Kansas City. Let’s throw in Cincinnati as well. Here’s hoping Major League Baseball switches their respective schedules so they play every team an equal amount of times, because it has to be some sort of unfair advantage for Cleveland, Chicago, and Minnesota to play them a combined 36 times. In a year where there might not be a 100-win team, it’s nice to know at least two teams will be in the triple-digits for losses.