2006 MLB Power Rankings Preview (Part 1)
by James Deaux(MLB)
Posted on April 2, 2006, 12:16 AM
2006 MLB REGULAR SEASON PREVIEW
w/ James Deaux and Raine Daniels
James: Chicago White Sox
Raine: New York Yankees
James: Okay, so you have the Yankees as your number one. I have them ranked very high, too, but no way would I rank them #1. You don't think there are still some glaring pitching concerns?
Raine: There's glaring pitching concerns with every team. Fact of the matter is the Yanks still have Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, a top closer, and the best offense in baseball. No team in the AL (and baseball) is as complete as them. You're countering with the White Sox, who top a lot of people's lists. How can a team that features just two proven starting pitchers and a team full of role player's be so highly regarded?? If they hadn't won the World Series, wouldn't they just be a 5th or 6th ranked club??
James: Fact of the matter is, they won the World Series, and they have gotten better. Buehrle and Garcia head a pitching rotation that almost any team would kill to have. Plus, getting rid of Frank Thomas is, in and of itself, a good move considering that no one in the hierarchy of that team wanted him and his horrid attitude there anymore. Jim Thome won't play more than 120-125 games, but he's certainly a better guy to have in the clubhouse than Thomas.
Raine: Houston Astros
James: New York Yankees
Raine: You're number two is my number one, the Yanks. I had them as the top team, so I can't say much bad about them. How can a team that can potentially have the best starting pitching in the East, and should have the best offense in the league, not be your top team?
James: I have them winning the AL East, obviously. Their lineup got a huge boost by adding Damon and yes, their pitching can potentially be a juggernaut. However, Randy Johnson was topping out at 94mph last year, which isn't the Big Unit we all know. I see them as just a hair under the White Sox, but obviously a great team. You have the Astros as your number 2. This team won't have Roger Clemens pitching for them until June at the earliest, if at all. Their hitting was third worst in the NL last year. How do you see them being so much better than last year and better than a much-improved Milwaukee team?
Raine: Say they get Clemens back: that's a starting rotation of Clemens, Pettitte, Oswalt, and Backe, quite possibly the best 1-4 in baseball. Brad Lidge, when a World Series isn't on the line, is a money closer. For the offense to be just as bad, you have to pretend that both Everett and Berkman have career off-year's again, Ensberg doesn't continue to build on his skills, and Chris Burke doesn't turn into the player he should be. There are so many things that should go right for this team that, coupled with the demise of the Card's and the fact the Brewer's are so ridiculously young, they could turn out to be the only 100-win team in baseball.
James: Toronto Blue Jays
Raine: Cleveland Indians
James: So, you have the Indians at #3. I like them quite a bit, and I certainly wouldn't be surprised to see them win the AL Central this year (despite my prior ranking of the White Sox). However, they did choke horribly at the end of last year, probably due to fatigue. Is this the year they realize their potential and take the Central?
Raine: Here's the thing with the Indians: they were a 93-win team and arguably their best pitcher (Millwood) accounted for 9 wins. You don't think Byrd, Westbrook, Sabathia, and even Johnson can make up 9 wins between them?? Lee is just waiting to be a 20-game winner, while Sabathia still has the talent too. The offense is ridiculously balanced, with one weak spot (Aaron Boone) likely to be replaced by one of the best hitting prospects in baseball (Andy Marte). They can win a game by scoring 10 runs as easily as they could win by allowing 1. I don't really trust Wickman as the closer, but he'll have to do (and could very well be replaced via trade during the season). Now you're countering with Toronto. I love Toronto. It's my team. But do you expect both Chacin and Towers to repeat outstanding (ERA wise) years?? How solid is the pitching after Halladay??
James: If Chacin and Towers do as well as they did last year (and I, personally, don't see why they won't), then they will be fine. They are going to get a great deal more run support than they did last year with the likes of Glaus and Overbay in the batting order. Roy Halladay will be a contender for AL Cy Young this year with the run support he'll get now. Plus, they easily have a better closer now in B.J. Ryan than Miguel "Let's make this interesting...oops, blown save" Batista. This team is my pick for the AL Wild Card.
Raine: Atlanta Braves
James: Atlanta Braves
Raine: Number four in your list is Atlanta. They're coming into the season without their top-class pitching coach, very inexperienced players in the corner outfield spots, a SS who played his way out of Boston last year, a near-rookie catcher, and practically no closer. And they're the fourth-best team in baseball??
James: Color me biased, but I say my team finishes with the best record in the NL this year. The Braves have arguably the best pitching staff in the NL in Smoltz, Hudson, Sosa, Thomson and Ramirez/Davies. The closer situation is up in the air, but I'm confident Chris Reitsma can do the job. Brian McCann came onto the scene and became John Smoltz' personal catcher. That shows me that he has all the confidence he needs to make it. He's certainly a better all-around catcher than Johnny Estrada, who might even be slower than Bengie Molina. If Andruw Jones raises his batting average while keeping similar numbers to last year in RBI and HR, and Chipper Jones stays healthy, this is a very solid, well-balanced team. So, you also say the Braves. You think they are better than the likes of St. Louis?
Raine: John Smoltz brought up a good point: besides himself, barely any of the rotation spent much time with Mazzone. It's not like they relied on him or anything, like you could say his old projects did (Wohlers, Neagle, Rocker, Wright, Ortiz). Francoeur is remarkably overrated, but he has talent to back up some of the hype (unlike that guy Shane Spencer). Renteria was a force in the NL, one of the best SS's, and it's hard to believe he could fall so far (both offensively and defensively) in one season. Maybe it was just Boston. They have a nice, typical line-up (quality leadoff man, .300 hitter, homerun threat, quality rookies) to stick around in a National League game, and a pitching staff to keep the other team down. I'd even argue that this is the most balanced Atlanta team in years.
James: New York Mets
Raine: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
James: At number five, you have placed the team with the absurdly long name. Their outfield is a mess, and their infield isn't much clearer. Garret Anderson gets injured every other day it seems. And their starting pitching is suspect, even with Cy Young (cough) Bartolo Colon. You think they will win the West again?
Raine: The rotation is strong, comparable to Oakland's if you're only mildly drunk. Colon isn't a Cy Young pitcher, but he's a legitimate 20-game winner. Both Lackey and Escobar are bona fide 15-game winners with the talent to throw a no-hitter. Santana is a top-class young pitcher, overshadowed in that division by the likes of Feliz Hernandez and Rich Harden. Jeff Weaver is OK for a #5. K-Rod is the best closer in the West. I'm basing this pick on the pitching, Vladimir Guerrero, and the fact one of Casey Kotchman, Dallas McPherson, or maybe even Morales (if he gets called up) has to break through. Kotchman and McPherson are too strong of hitter's to both flop at the major league level. The rotation is good enough to hang with most teams, and the offense can score when they feel like it. Continuing with your East coast bias (just call you ESPN), you have the Mets next. I'd look hypocritical if I tear them apart, considering I just spent about 2,000 words praising them. The question remains, however: how effective can that pitching rotation really be?? If Pedro gets hurt, the ace is Tom Glavine, the #2 is Steve Trachsel, and the #3 is...ummm...me?? How much faith can you put into a team like that??
James: Because that's really their only glaring question mark at this point. Yes, their weakness is their starting pitching depth. However, if, and this is a big "if", Pedro stays healthy, it's a good enough staff with that lineup and that closer to win a lot more than they did last year. Lo Duca is a big upgrade defensively and he'll hit at least .280. Delgado solves a huge problem for that franchise at first base assuming he doesn't get injured. David Wright is a future MVP, too. This team needs to make the playoffs this year, though, or else they will be in some trouble. If they can't do it with that lineup, then I don't see what they can do later on. They gave up Mike Jacobs to Florida, which is going to hurt in the long run. Still, for now, I pick them for the NL Wild Card.
Raine: Next up you have Oakland, because apparently the Red Sox aren't good enough for your East Coast-lovin' butt. It's a solid - if not young - rotation, with an emerging closer, but isn't Milton Bradley a disaster waiting to happen?? And can Frank Thomas really be counted on for more than headache's at this point?? You've already called him a distraction. Nobody on that team hit over .285 last year, or had 30 homeruns, and even though I already complimented the pitching staff, no one won 15 games. How can you put them above, say, Cleveland, Boston, St. Louis, or Houston??
James: At this point, I'd take the A's current pitching staff over the current pitching staffs any of the four teams you mentioned, save probably Cleveland. Not to mention their closer is the reigning Rookie of the Year. Their lineup wasn't impressive; I admit that. And yes, I did call Thomas a distraction earlier. But if he screws up, then he's going to be canned. He only signed a one-year deal and cutting him wouldn't be a great loss to the team. Milton Bradley is certainly a (no pun intended) wild card. At the very least, he'll provide some power in that otherwise powerless lineup. I expect Charles Thomas to be called up and assume a regular role in that outfield. He's going to be a great player some day. What about you? Why do you also have them ranked at #6?
Raine: Oakland always does something amazing. Even with their mediocre individual numbers, this team still had 88 wins. They've only added to that. Loaiza, while not his 2003 self, is one of the better #3 pitcher's in the AL. Rich Harden hit a rough injury last year, while Barry Zito is back on track. Street, while he didn't save many games, was lights out. Oakland was always built on timely hitting, which Chavez, Kotsay, Bradley, and even Mark Ellis can provide. If they can score four runs every other game, the Oakland staff can probably pick them up. There's not a lot of weakness on the pitching side, which is what the A's always build themselves on.
James: Boston Red Sox
Raine: New York Mets
James: So, you've chosen the Mets at #7. They've obviously improved in many areas, but just not enough to topple the Braves, in your estimation. Why is that?
Raine: Like I mentioned earlier, a Pedro arm injury completely ruins their season. Glavine isn't good enough to lead a staff, while Trachsel and Zambrano should be happy enough to be there. Heilman can really develop into a #2 pitcher this year, though, and unlike in previous seasons the bullpen is a strong point. If the offense plays up to snuff, it should be the deadliest in the NL. (It's hard to imagine Carlos Beltran, as overrated as he is, can struggle so mightily two years in a row.) There's a positive vibe around this team this offseason, which was seriously lacking in the Mo Vaughn, Kevin Appier, Roberto Alomar years. They'll probably add a strong pitcher during the season (Zito for prospect Lastings Milledge has been rumored for months), but as it stands now the offense is good enough to carry a weak second-half of the rotation. Now going back to the East Coast, you have the Red Sox. Schilling, Foulke, Wells, Clement, even Beckett are all health question marks, Manny doesn't want to be there, the offense has taken a hit, and two very good team's (New York and Toronto) are in the same division. Can they win the 90 games necessary to be ranked this high??
James: No. They will win 89. In all seriousness, though, Manny pulls some moronic stunt every year (with an equally stupid haircut). And still, he hits his customary .290+/40+/130+ RBI. As much as we can criticize Manny for his foolish behavior, he always gets the job done (at the plate, anyway; leftfield is another story entirely). As for the pitching staff, yes, I believe at least one of them will go down for a considerable length of time (my guesses are Schilling with a foot injury and most likely Beckett, as well, only with a hand injury instead). Wells won't be on that team much longer, though. He'll be traded sooner rather than later for a younger guy. However, that lineup is still very formidable. The bullpen is above average, too; but regardless, I'm going out on a limb and saying they aren't making the playoffs this year. 2007, though? Watch out for that Red Sox team.
Raine: Chicago Cubs
James: Cleveland Indians
Raine: Making our way down the list, you've decided Cleveland is the eighth best team in baseball. They have a superior offense to the White Sox, and if you get past the big names, contracts, and lack of long-term success, their pitching staffs are much closer than one would think. They came down to the wire with the White Sox last season - what makes them only a second-place team again??
James: Now, before I say anything else, I want to clear the air here. I would not be shocked at all to see Cleveland take the Central Division or the Wild Card this year. I love the team. They have young, skilled talent all over their roster and their pitching staff is very, very good. I suppose my reason for ranking them below the White Sox is that their hitters as a whole are among the most inconsistent in the league. Plus, their bullpen, as good as it was last year, was very deceptive. And I still don't trust Bob Wickman and his rather large physique. The team as a whole wore down horribly at the end and choked mightily against their rivals the last weekend of the season. I think if the hitters start off strong and keep it going, they will overtake the Sox. However, that seems to have been the thorn in their side the last two seasons--not getting off to a good start. You, on the other hand, have the Cubbies as the 8th best team in baseball. This team has injury concerns everywhere and their bullpen is perennially nonexistent. How are they better than St. Louis?
Raine: The Cardinals did a good job of making themselves worse than the Cubs, not the other way around. If you look at the Cubs rotation, without predicting injuries, is the best in baseball. Prior only has freak injuries; Greg Maddux seems like a mortal lock to hit 200 IP; Zambrano might be the most talented under-25 pitcher in the NL; and then you have a high-ceiling pitcher like Jerome Williams and consistently-average Rusch bringing up the rear. No team in the NL can match that. Dempster seemed to take to the closer's role, Derrek Lee finally broke out, Ramirez continues to, and if Juan Pierre can figure out how to take a pitch this team could realistically win 98 games. Will they?? Probably not. On paper?? Definitely. The only thing really going against them is they're the Cubs.
James: St. Louis Cardinals
Raine: Toronto Blue Jays
James: We've let the birds loose on this one. You've placed your team, the Displaced Anaheim Canadian Angels of Toronto, formerly of Los Angeles in California Blue Jays, at number 9. They've made significant upgrades at third, closer and on the pitching staff. You have them in the top 10, but still, why not a little higher?
Raine: As of this very second, I'll argue that Toronto has the best pitching staff in the AL East, but they're just begging to fail. It's hard to believe both Chacin and Towers (who had the top ERA's in the AL East last year) will continue their success when both of them had WHIP's above 1.25 and BAA of over .275, respectively. AJ Burnett, as it stands right now, still isn't more than a 15-game winner. I'll say they're a Top Ten team, however - and possible Wild Card contender - because their 2-6 hitter's are ridiculously solid, Molina/Zaun could form the best catching tandem in baseball, and BJ Ryan by himself could give Toronto 7 extra wins over last year's 80. You went with the birds in the National League: the Cardinals. In no particular order, they've lost Matt Morris, Larry Walker, and Grudzielanek this offseason, replacing them with players like Sidney Ponson and Encarnacion. Their starting pitching, outside of their ace and #2, seems horribly thin, and their offense is significantly weaker. Can the Cards four or five impact players really will this team to a 93+ win season??
James: Let's not kid ourselves. Though they have lost a lot of players, St. Louis is still a very formidable team and they will most likely still win the (much more competitive) NL Central Division. Last I checked, they still have the MVP and Cy Young on their team. Their outfield is up in the air, but I expect John Rodriguez to have a breakout year for them. The guy is money. The infield is good with Pujols and Rolen at the corners, assuming Rolen doesn't get injured again. The place I wonder about them is the rest of their pitching staff and the bullpen before Isringhausen. Signing Sidney Ponson is one of the most laughable things I've seen in my 17+ years of watching baseball. I predict his first DUI comes around late May sometime. But hey, Jason Marquis is the best hitting mediocre pitcher in baseball, so that counts for something...right? Still, Suppan is good for 13-14 wins and maybe Adam Wainwright will crack the majors this year. (I'm still hurting from when Atlanta traded him.) They've also lost Ray King, among others, and it will hurt them. I seriously doubt this team wins 90 games this year, but that will just barely be good enough for another division title because none of the other five teams strike me as ready to usurp their position. Though the Cubs and Brewers are very close, I think. Above all, I will admit this is St. Louis' last year on top for a while. Their farm system is bone dry right now, and as we'll both agree: this is not the team that dominated the division so handily the last two years.
Raine: St. Louis Cardinals
James: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Raine: Rounding out your Top Ten is the California Angels. This team has had a rough offseason. Paul Konerko shunned them, Jarrod Washburn is replaced by the inferior Jeff Weaver in the Anaheim Angels rotation, and all their rookie hitters seemed to have a tough time adapting to major league baseball. Santana emerged as a bona fide major league pitcher, but for the Los Angeles Angels, did they do enough this winter (and do they have enough this season) to fend off an emerging Oakland team??
James: The Angels of [insert city/state/county here] just don't strike me as a team that will win their division this year. The infield and outfield are both a huge mess, in my estimation, though there are bright spots. Dallas MacPherson, for example. I'll also give all the credit in the world to their bullpen, which is one of the best in baseball. But there are several injury concerns, most notably Garret Anderson, who at times, looks like the most apathetic outfielder in baseball not named Manny Ramirez. I just see this as the year Oakland takes over and wins the division (as per my ranking them 6th). You've ranked St. Louis as the tenth. You just got done questioning me about their weaknesses, so I turn your question back on you. How can a team that has lost so much be ranked in the top ten?
Raine: Baseball's fantastic because one or two players can't win you a Championship (even the D'Backs had three). The Cards have enough firepower with Mulder and Carpenter to have a legitimate chance to win every 2.5 games, while Pujols, Rolen, and even Eckstein spark the offense. I see Edmonds slowing down - like most people are predicting - but it's not like he'll have a Mike Lowell-esque drop off. There's also the distinct advantage of playing in the National League. Quite frankly, aside from maybe six teams, none of them are good enough to finish over .500. You can pad a nice win total when you see the Red's, Rockies, Marlins, Nat's, and Giant's enough. They might win around 90 games, but playoff-bound?? Nah. I think the Card's World Series window has shut.
James: Los Angeles Dodgers
Raine: Minnesota Twins
James: Now that we're out of the top ten, obviously our opinions of the teams are going to get less and less favorable. Raine, you have the Twins at #11. Now, this team's infield was so horrible last year that they signed Bret Boone to a contract. Their hitting was the second worst in the AL only to the Mariners. They have an outstanding closer and a Cy Young at the front of their rotation. However, their lack of any semblance of hitting outside of maybe Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer has to be cause for concern. Why even rank them as high as this?
Raine: It's a nice team, which is the best you can say about them. I think the pitching staff (even with Lohse) is ridiculously underrated, and the bullpen is the best in the division. When you look at their line-up, it just seems scrappy enough to keep pace. Morneau is a legitimate 25-homer threat, while Mauer could just go insane and hit .300 this year. Stewart has been significantly slowed down, but is still a solid-enough leadoff man, and for some reason I'm just a huge Lew Ford fan. I'm not going to lie and say it's a top eleven team - they're clearly not. But I think they'll have the 11th most wins in baseball, which works for me. They play two horrific teams in Detroit and KC about 36 times a year. They can scrap out an 87-win season if healthy. Now the Dodgers probably had the most interesting offseason of all clubs. They signed an above-average shortstop (Furcal) to a monstrous deal when they already had an All-Star shortstop (Izturis). Then they signed another shortstop - a former batting champion, no less - in Nomar and put him at first. Then they acquired Kenny Lofton and Jose Cruz to fill outfield spots that were already taken. To finish it off, they go and trade for a closer (Baez) when they have the best one in baseball (Gagne). At least they have depth. I won't argue they're good enough to win the NL West - it's horrible - but the 11th ranked team?? That's around 88 wins. Is a team with that many potential problems and iffy-staff that good??
James: The NL West is atrocious, and the Dodgers have enough depth to win it. (I'm sure they'll have more than 82 wins, unlike last year's division winner, too.) I'll predict that they go...86-76. Their starting pitching is an enigma, but they still have a great bullpen and arguably the best infield in baseball now. Furcal for $13 million a year is absolutely insane, but at least he's an All-Star shortstop. The outfield is a huge question mark at this point other than JD Drew. (Oh, wait. Nevermind.) Gagne needs to come back healthy and be throwing 98, but it's nice to have Baez to back them up, as Yhency Brazoban wasn't getting the job done for them in place of Gagne. Baez is overrated as all get out, but he's decent and in a pitcher's park. This team will win the division because, quite simply put, there isn't any team in the division that is better.
Raine: Chicago White Sox
James: Chicago Cubs
Raine: A step behind the Cards, but still moving up in the NL Central, you have the team from Chicago that didn't want anything last year. I think the Cubs are a top ten team, but you see them on the outside looking in, most likely a few games back in the Wild Card hunt. Does the pitching staff not do it for you, or do you have a tough time accepting Jacque Jones as a legitimate offensive threat??
James: Jacque Jones has never struck me as an offensive threat. At least not a consistent one. The pitching staff, if healthy (which, for all intents and purposes, is never) can be the best in the game. However, Mark Prior seems to have a karmic bull's-eye painted on him and Kerry Wood is never going to be healthy for an entire year ever. Zambrano is a fantastic pitcher and should be the ace of the staff, but he needs to cut down on the walks. Maddux, who will forever be my favorite athlete of all time, is winding down and the ERA is not going to dip below 4.00 again. As for the other side of the pitching—the bullpen—they never seem to get the job done. However, I'm willing to give Dempster the benefit of the doubt since he might get accustomed to the closer's role. As for the hitting, Juan Pierre is coming off the worst year of his career. But surely, he'll do better than Corey Patterson, right? Derrek Lee should put up really good numbers again after that ridiculous season last year. Overall, I see the Northsiders in the hunt for the Wild Card, but falling short because of injuries. Simple as that. You have the Southsiders as your #12. How can the World Series champions fall so far in one offseason in your estimation?
Raine: You're better off asking: how'd they get so far ahead last season?? It wasn't that woeful offense, which lost one of their three 80+ RBI men (Carl Everett) and replaced him with the fragile Jim Thome. It was all about the pitching, which absolutely cleaned up the American League. The problem heading into this season is that only two men in their five-man rotation are experienced, successful AL pitchers. Jose Contreras still has to be classified as a disaster (although improving), Javier Vasquez hasn't pitched well outside of Canada (and not for the Jays), while Garland was past due for his Dontrelle Willis-esque breakout season. The question is if they can do it again. The White Sox have coaxed uncanny, career seasons out of pitcher's before (Esteban Loaiza springs to mind), but the fact remains: I wouldn't draft any member of their pitching staff (including bullpen), besides Buehrle and Garcia, in the top 9 rounds of my fantasy draft. Couple that with the fact they have no legitimate closer (just reeks of a "closer by committee" bullpen, which always fails), and I have a tough time believing they can even win 90 games.
James: Milwaukee Brewers
Raine: Los Angeles Dodgers
James: At #13, you have the first of your NL West teams. I'm not surprised it took you this long to get to a team in that horrid division. Has the Dodgers' offseason spending spree made way for them to win the NL West this season?
Raine: I think the fact they're the only .500 team in that division has made way for them to win the NL West. They're not a bad team (overpriced, yes; bad, no). Their offense is fairly impressive if they all stay healthy (which is hard to believe with Nomar and Drew out there - Izturis is already injured). They have some nice, solid hitter's which you can win a baseball game with if you possess superior pitching. Do the Dodgers have that?? Not really. I wouldn't take Derek Lowe or Brad Penny over any other division winner's (or even Wild Card contender's) ace or #2. 1-through-5, however, they're talented. All of them (except Tomko) can give their team a fighting chance to win a game if the offense scores five runs. They'd finish third in any other division, but in the purgatory that is the NL West?? They're the brightest of the Special Ed. Kids. You're countering with the Brewers, who play in the already tough NL Central and will have to deal with a very young infield, shaky outfield, inconsistent Carlos Lee, and a pitching staff that (besides Sheets) are other team's cast-off's. Are they better than Houston??
James: Not by a wide margin, no. But they are better, and in a better position, in my opinion. The Brewers are well on their way to contending for, and eventually winning, the NL Central crown. Ned Yost has done a marvelous job with this group of young guys, taking them out of the perennial basement spot in the division. (Yost is my pick for Manager of the Year, for the record.) There are a lot of rookies and sophomores comprising their roster, which is likely going to hold them back from going to the postseason; but guys like Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks have bright futures in this league. The pitching staff is developing very nicely around Ben Sheets. Doug Davis and Chris Capuano make for a good #2 and #3 for them, castoffs or not. (Cappy even won 18 games last year.) I doubt the Brew Crew makes the playoffs this year; however, they don't really need to, because many say that 2007 is their year. I'm inclined to agree with that. Though for now, I will give them a "dark horse" tag for the NL Wild Card.
Raine: Boston Red Sox
James: Houston Astros
Raine: Continuing with your tradition of knocking off entire division's all at once, Houston is your next team. I have them pegged as the second-best team in baseball. You?? 14th. This team might have lost Roger Clemens, and Jeff Bagwell will probably never hit more than 20 homeruns again (and most likely not in a Houston uniform). They've been replaced by Preston Wilson and the emerging Chris Burke. Clemens only contributed 13 wins last year, and - while it's still a high number - it's not especially difficult to replace. How do they drop so far off the map?? And where would you put them with Clemens in the rotation??
James: With Clemens in the rotation, most likely the bottom end of the top 10 or maybe 11th. However, the fact remains that he won't be pitching for them for at least the first two months of the season, if he does at all. Houston, much like last winter, did virtually nothing to bolster the offense. I've always felt Preston Wilson was overrated. Now, I'm well aware that they were the NL Champions last year even with that pitiful offense. This year, I don't see that flying in a strengthened NL Central division. They need to hope that Chris Burke, Jason Lane, Luke Scott, and Willy Taveras all do well at the plate. Not to mention that Morgan Ensberg could very conceivably fall flat on his face after last year. I'm not saying he will—just that he came out of nowhere last year and it's peculiar. As for the pitching staff, Andy Pettitte is more than capable of being the staff ace for the time being (as is Roy Oswalt—a top 5 pitcher). After that, who is there to really count on? Brandon Backe still isn't a solid, consistent #3 or #4 guy. Ezequiel Astacio and Wandy Rodriguez were awful, the latter because he allegedly was stubborn. There are just too many things on this team that absolutely must go right for them to make the playoffs. I don't see them as more than a third place team. Way down here at 14, you have the team Ted Lilly loves to face—the Red Sox. Have they really lost so much that you would rank them in the middle of the league?
Raine: Speaking of teams that must have many things that "absolutely must go right for them to make the playoffs," the Red Sox are arguably the AL-equivalent of the 'Stro's (just switch the Houston pitching for Red Sox offense). Is Boston really this bad?? No, not particularly. I don't think they're worse than the Twins. However, fact of the matter is that they play in a revamped AL East (everybody improved, not just Toronto), their offense is now solely built around Manny and Ortiz instead of casting them as the "threats," and their pitching staff is chock-full of "ifs." On the offensive side, I wouldn't take anybody, position-by-position, on the Red Sox - aside from Ramirez and Ortiz - over a Yankee or Blue Jay counterpart. Coco Crisp is a #2 hitter, not a leadoff man and the fact some Boston fans say he's just as good as Damon shows how little they appreciated him. It's no longer a top offense. Add to that a questionable pitching staff, where Josh Beckett might never be fully healthy (although will always started 23+ games), Schilling could very well be done, and Clement was hammered once the AL figured him out, and it's very easy to see them as a .500 team. And that's all without touching their closing situation and marginally improved bullpen. Like the Brewers, though, I like them for 2007.
James: San Diego Padres
Raine: Milwaukee Brewers
James: Okay, so I just got done praising the future of the Brewers. Now, you have them smack dab in the middle at 15. I'm not going to question that pick given how close mine was to it. How does this team fare this year in an NL Central division with (seemingly) much more parity?
Raine: I don't know what this has to do with the amount of children borne to a woman, but whatever. I've already listed three NL Central member's ahead of them, but I give the Brewers enough credit to be about .500 and better than most of the West and just a bit less than half of the East. I have a tough time believing a team can join a Wild Card race when the average age of their infield is 13. All of Fielder, JJ Hardy, Bill Hall, and Weeks have varying levels of expectations (replace Hall with Weeks, and you actually get the correct order, although Hall has a head start), but it takes time to be a productive major leaguer. Personally, I think Fielder will struggle and spend half the season in AAA due to confidence and fielding. The pitching staff is capable enough of handling another team's offense (I thought David Bush could've been a good Toronto pitcher, and will probably turn into one in Milwaukee). Like you said, the sky's the limit for this team. The problem is it takes time to reach the sky, and this season is just a bit too early. Wild Card contender next year, however, and probably a World Series threat within three or four years. Going back to the NL West (for some reason), the Padres are your middle-of-the-road team. They brought back two senior citizen's in Hoffman and Giles, traded for the perennially-disappointing Dewon Brazelton for the a player of the same description in Sean Burroughs, while also signing Mike Piazza (who really should've gone to the AL). On the bright side, they stole Chris Young (and Adrian Gonzalez) from Texas for Adam Eaton. Josh Barfield and Khalil Greene should be ready to produce, and Mike Cameron is an upgrade over Xavier Nady. But are they a .500 team??
James: The Padres won the worst division in baseball history by the skin of their teeth last year. During the offseason, they did...well, nothing. All they did was add Mike Cameron and Mike Piazza and shore up the ever-aging Trevor Hoffman to a new deal. That isn't going to win them another division crown. Jake Peavy is a phenom, but the rest of the pitching staff is a huge question mark. Adam Eaton is gone to Texas, and from Texas, the Pads have Chan Ho Park, who has never done anything even remotely worthwhile. Chris Young, also from the Rangers, could be spectacular, or he could fail in a new environment (though I admit it isn't likely in that mammoth ballpark). I just don't understand how a team can just meander around for four months and not do much of anything to truly strengthen themselves after only winning 82 games the year before. Did that 2005 pennant fill them with some kind of invincibility complex? Even if they had gotten one more reliable bat or one more solid pitcher, they might have stood a chance. As it is right now, they are just another .500-to-sub.-500 team in the National League and I simply don't get it. This team cannot overcome the very much-improved Dodgers, even in the worst division in baseball.
Raine: Philadelphia Phillies
James: Minnesota Twins
Raine: This is where it gets tougher: the middle of the pack teams that are just under .500. The Twins are your first pick of the lower half of the list. I had them higher, but that's because I find it tough to pick against the Twins when they always seem to win with horrendously average players. I picked on mystique; you're picking on facts. Is this the weakest Twins team since their 90-loss days??
James: Yes, it is. The Twins had no identity at all last year, and they seem to be content with staying that way this season. Their infield was one of the worst I can remember and their outfield wasn't all that much better. Torii Hunter won't play 100 games this year, but at least Lew Ford (who I really like) will get more playing time. Now, I would be remiss to not mention Minnesota's awesome pitching staff. They hardly ever walk anyone and their team ERA is among the league's best. Furthermore, Joe Nathan was one of the league's few mostly reliable closers last season. Unfortunately, as Roger Clemens could attest to, great pitching can only take you so far. You need run support, which is something this team couldn’t buy last year. The Twins need to hope Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer really bust out the lumber this year because they'll need it. This team certainly isn't better than the White Sox or Indians. Now, you have the team from Philadelphia with the least creative name in baseball. They don't strike me as a team with a definitive future plan. Their pitching staff is an absolute mess and the bullpen which many, including myself, thought was going to be the best in baseball turned out to be horrendous. What will they do this year?
Raine: I'm going to hop aboard the Phillies bandwagon for the next few years because of their new GM Pat Gillick. He's led every team he's been the GM for to the playoffs (Jays, O's, and M's) through timely/brilliant trading and signings. I'll be the first to admit that Padilla trade was a bit of a head-scratcher, though. Still, it's hard to argue against a team that sports two rising stars (Brett Myers and Ryan Howard), four fielder's really coming into their own (Burrell, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Aaron Rowand), along with a bona fide (albeit overrated) All-Star with Abreu. I don't expect the latter to still be a Philly at the end of the season, but until the time he's traded - along with Jon Lieber, most likely - they're a .500 squad. They might even still be after they lose them. At this very second, I'd pencil this team in for 80 wins (more if they had a decent bullpen), but who knows how extensively Gillick will rip this team apart. They have two very good cornerstones for the future, at least.
James: Philadelphia Phillies
Raine: San Diego Padres
James: So, San Diego had a pitiful offseason after getting murdered in the playoffs last year. Does this team stand a chance of beating the Dodgers in the West this year, or are they going to sink back into non-first-place mediocrity?
Raine: As I was telling you during the commercial break (sounds impressive, at least), I don't understand why the Padres didn't just go out and spend $20 million to guarantee themselves a playoff spot for the next two year's. You're telling me AJ Burnett wouldn't thrive there?? Or they couldn't save the cash they spent on Hoffman and Giles and give it to BJ Ryan and Konerko?? I don't get it. Nobody in that division will win more than 92 games within the next three years, and spending a bit of cash doesn't cost them one of their talented prospects. The Padres doomed themselves this offseason by not competing with LA's spending and thinking their long-term team (which won't have Hoffman, Giles, Castilla, or a productive Klesko) can match the Dodger's, D'Backs, and even Rockies. There's a couple of player's that will win them some games (Peavy, maybe Chris Young, Giles still has good days), and there's some kid's to be excited about (the aforementioned Greene and Barfield), but overall?? The typically crafty Kevin Towers made some bad decisions in this pivotal offseason. To copy me, you're going with the Phillies in the 17-hole. Do you see a lot of similarities between these two teams now that you look at it??
James: Now that you mention it, they do. They both have aging closers whose best days are far behind them, their pitching staffs are similar in terms of the ridiculous amount of question marks swirling around them, and their outfielders seem about equal in overall ability. None of that, by the way, is very good. The Phillies play in the most absurd ballpark in baseball (i.e., their Power Alleys are both less than 375 feet out). Whatever pitching they do have is going to be tormented by playing there for 81 games, just like the last two years. Now, of course, they have Brett Myers, who was fantastic for most of the 2005 season and even Jon Lieber showed signs of brilliance (he doesn't know how to walk a batter, it seems). Other than that, there isn't much to talk about other than Ryan Madson, maybe. What the Phillies do have going for them is their raw power. The likes of Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard, Bobby Abreu (who mysteriously disappeared the second half of last season), and even Chase Utley can put a scare into pretty much any pitching staff in the league. However, that is countered by their combined strikeout totals (a whopping 503 strikeouts between the four of them). This team lacks a full pitching staff and a decent bullpen, which means no playoffs for them and maybe not even a .500 season.
Raine: Texas Rangers
James: Texas Rangers
Raine: The AL West, for the longest time, was best described as "Could be the greatest division ever if Texas would fold." Well now they're not as much a joke (and Seattle got much worse), but they're still not great. And they're your number 18, James. How come their offseason moves (Millwood, Padilla, Eaton, Wilkerson) don't make them - at the very least - Wild Card contenders??
James: Let's get one thing clear here--Texas realistically has hardly any pitching that can be spoken of. They signed Kevin Millwood to a 4-year deal at almost $50,000,000. Stupid move. They got rid of Chris Young, who was one of those rare guys who can actually pitch in Arlington, and sent him to San Diego. Stupid move. They signed Vicente Padilla, who has had injury problems for years (and a nice little WHIP of 1.50) to a deal. Stupid move. Even their closer, Francisco Cordero, isn't great. His numbers other than the lovely little SV are pretty average. The reason the Rangers are this high is that they have an absolute juggernaut of an offense. Mark Teixeira, Michael Young, Hank Blalock, Kevin Mench--this team's hitters are outright deadly at the plate. At this point, they have the best infield in baseball and their outfield, though old, isn't bad, either. Still, with the unproven and/or injury-riddled pitching staff and that ballpark to contend with, this team is still a below-.500 squad. No way do they contend for the WC with teams like Toronto, Los Angeles, Oakland and Cleveland out there. So, on the flipside, you also have Texas. We know what their hitters can do. Do you think the pitchers they signed are really going to be effective pitching in Arlington?
Raine: Ha, would Grover beat Elmo in a knife fight?? Chris Young had figured out Arlington for the most part, and he gets traded for an older version of himself. Kevin Millwood, while an all right pitcher, is not worth nearly $50 million (at least you can make the argument that AJ Burnett is young). There's also an alarming trend in Millwood's career numbers that show him worsening as he pitched more in Philly's absurd ballpark, to being an ERA-leader with a league switch. I see Arlington just eating him up. And Padilla?? He was better off in Philly. New Ranger's GM Jon Daniels talked such a big game when the offseason started that you'd expect a vastly improved team. Instead he tried to rip off Toronto, moved sideways in his pitcher's dealings, and will just rely on his offense like every other Texas GM. He made a valiant effort to improve the pitching staff, but it's hard to see any of them paying off. They'll win games thanks to their offense, but they're in a tough division and their pitching staff only matches up with Seattle's. Not good enough. They'd win the division if they switched to the NL West, though. Of course, the same could be said of every team in baseball.
James: San Francisco Giants
Raine: San Francisco Giants
James: This is getting to be a habit. Oh, well. So, we both have the Giants at 19. Is this team just too old to overcome the Padres and Dodgers in the weak division? Even with Barry Bonds back again?
Raine: I think their age has been really overrated. Sure, guys like Bonds, Steve Finley, Alou, Vizquel, and Ray Durham are older than death, but...alright, that didn't help my argument. Fact of the matter is, even with the advanced age of their position players, they're still effective for the most part. Barry Bonds is still the best hitter in baseball (when he plays), Durham can still get on base, and Alou is still a legitimate 25+ homer threat. That's not where the success of this team lies, however. Jason Schmidt is a bona fide ace (in a division lacking them), Matt Morris is an overrated - but capable - #2, while Matt Cain is one of the better young pitcher's on the West Coast. With Matheny calling the pitches, the San Fran rotation will probably be their strongest link. Good enough for an NL West playoff berth?? Possibly, but that bullpen (highlighted by Armando Benitez and Tim Worrell) is atrocious, which could cost them upwards of 20 games. Keeping with the Giants, do you see this as the year they finally realize exactly how old they are and trade off some of the elder talent (maybe even Bonds) for a chance to win in three years??
James: They won't trade Bonds. Whether he's a cancer or not, he's a moneymaker for a team that lacks star names. However, I can see them shipping some of the other veterans off to get some youth in there. This is the Giants last chance for who knows how long to get to the World Series. But they hardly stand a snowball's chance of making the postseason let alone the WS. Bonds may or may not be gone after this year, depending on whether or not you believe a word that comes out of his mouth. The Giants are ridiculously old and Barry Bonds and his knees aren't going to save this team from utter mediocrity. Plus, as you said, the bullpen was horrendous and hasn't gotten any better over the offseason. You are right, though, about Cain. He's going to be something special. Overall, though, expect this team to meander around in the middle of the NL West all year.