Division by Division Breakdown: AL Style

Can the Rays recapture the magic?

Can the Rays recapture the magic of 2008?

The American League, while generally regarded as vastly superior to the National League, only leads the senior circuit in World Series victories this decade 5-4. The AL has won 13 of the past 14 All Star games, but has generally failed to capitalize on the home-field advantage. Last year the Tampa Bay Rays won the AL Pennant, but fell to the Phillies in the World Series in 5 games. Can the AL avenge the loss in 2009?

AL East: Arguably the toughest division in baseball, whichever team comes out on top will likely be the favorite to win the World Series. (* denotes wildcard winner)

1. New York Yankees (95-77): As painful as it is to put them on top, this team simply has too much talent not to win the  division, and will be playing with a chip on their shoulder (hold the salsa) after missing out on the postseason last year. The additions of CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Mark Teixeria make this one formidable team and A-Rod should have a monster year to silence his critics (who are, at this point, just about everyone).

2. Tampa Bay Rays* (94-78): The Rays were the darlings of baseball last season, and despite having a target on their back the size of Florida, should battle the Yankees till the bitter end. With increased production from young players, the addition of Pat Burrell and a full season of David Price, this year’s Rays may be even better than last season’s version.

3. Boston Red Sox (90-72): While still a talented team, Boston is beginning to show signs of aging, and will need some good luck to stay healthy and competitive. This team full of has-beens (Mike Lowell) and never-weres (Julio Lugo) will crumble down the stretch like Tom Brady’s knee.

4. Toronto Blue Jays (84-78): Just like the Canadian dollar, the Blue Jays are headed south in a hurry. The loss of AJ Burnett will hurt them, as will a schedule full of games against Boston, New York and Tampa Bay. It’s just not their year.

5. Baltimore Orioles (69-93): Maryland has great crab cakes. Maryland does not have a great baseball team. Enjoy another year in the cellar Orioles’ fans.

AL Central: This division is up for grabs, as none of the teams in the division made major strides in the offseason. Not a great division, but pretty consistent from bottom to top.

1. Cleveland Indians (89-73): The Indians vastly underachieved last season, with top players like Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez struggling all year. The team also suffered as the result of a chaotic year from the bullpen which was addressed with the addition of Kerry Wood. Cleveland should get better production from its veterans as well as key contributions from youngsters like Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo and Matt Laporta and win a hard fought division crown.

2. Minnesota Twins (86-76): The Twinkies compete year in and year out despite a limited payroll and 2009 will be no different. A lineup led by two-time batting champion Joe Mauer and former MVP Justin Morneau is complemented nicely by a stable of young arms including Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, and R.A. DickeyNick Blackburn.  Minnesota will enjoy its last season in the Metrodome, but it won’t be enough to push them into the playoffs.

I think they can't, I think they can't, I think they can't...

I think they can't, I think they can't, I think they can't...

3. Detroit Tigers (84-78): The Detroit Tigers were expected to compete for the World Series last year but bombed worse than a J-Lo movie. The offense was great but the pitching staff was atrocious as newly acquired Dontrelle “D-Train” Willis ran off the track early in the season and never recovered. The team still doesn’t have a closer heading into the season (no offense Brandon Lyon) and will struggle to win close games.

4. Chicago White Sox (82-80): This will finally be the season that costs Ozzie Guillen his job as the Sox will have to fight to finish over .500. A dysfunctional team that somehow got into the playoffs last year, the loss of Orlando Cabrera will hurt this team as will the the rapidly aging Jim Thome and Paul Konerko (who may or may not be dead at the time of this post). The White Sox have some good young arms, but not enough offense to contend.

5. Kansas City Royals (76-86): The K.C. Royals are just like the little engine that could, except they can’t. The perennial laughing stock of the AL Central has made some strides in recent years, but some quizzical offseason moves (Mike Jacobs, Willie Bloomquist, keeping Jimmy Gobble–he of the cartoon character name and 8.81 ERA last season) will keep the Royals mired in mediocrity.

AL West: Bringing up the rear of the AL divisions is the much maligned AL West. This division hasn’t sent a team to the World Series since the Angels miraculous run in 2002, the longest drought of any division in baseball. Don’t expect that to change this year, no team in this division has improved enough to be considered a legitimate contender.

1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim California U.S. North America Earth (92-70): The Angels ran away with the West last year on the way to winning 100 games but fell to their old nemesis, the Red Sox, in the first round of the playoffs capping off yet another disappointing postseason. The team was hit hard in free agency losing All-Star closer Francisco Rodriguez, starting pitcher Jon Garland and 1st baseman Mark Teixeria. The addition of Bobby Abreu should bolster the lineup, but the Angels will likely win the division on the weaknesses of the other teams, rather than their own strengths. Expect another first round exit.

Can the Angels get the playoff monkey off their back?

Can the Angels get the playoff monkey off their back?

2. Oakland Athletics (84-78): The A’s ditched their usual conservative offseason approach and brought in former MVP Jason Giambi, as well as trading for Colorado’s Matt Holliday. These two bats should bring some life to a punchless offense and give Oakland a shot to contend for the division. The team will be relying heavily on unproven pitchers like Gio Gonzalez, Sean Gallagher and Dallas Braden so the A’s will probably experience quite a few growing pains during the season.

3. Texas Rangers (81-81): Still one of the most prolific offenses in the game (and thanks to A-Rod we finally know why) the Texas Rangers will head into 2009 looking to win games with football scores of 14-13 or 17-10. This team still lacks pitching depth (you know you’re in trouble when Vincente Padilla is your ace) and will win games largely on the strength of Josh Hamilton, Chris “Crush” Davis and Ian Kinsler in the heart of the lineup. The Rangers should be a fun team to watch, but they won’t challenge the Angels.

4. Seattle Mariners (74-88): While the addition of Ken Griffey Jr. adds some hope for the Mariners, the rest of the team offers little guarantee that 2009 will be markedly better than the disastrous 101-loss season last year. Seattle has a solid pitching staff led by the terrific triumvirate of Felix Hernandez, Erik Bedard and Brandon Morrow but there are question-marks in the bullpen after the loss of JJ Putz. The lineup will struggle to score runs with no true power hitters in the lineup (only in your dreams Endy Chavez), but should improve somewhat over last season, because quite frankly, it’s pretty hard not to. Enjoy Junior’s return M’s fans; there’s little else to look forward to with this motley crew.

Coming Soon: A Look at the NL!

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Some Kids Do Come Home: What Griffey’s Return to Seattle Means For the Mariners

Seattle sports finally catch a break.
Seattle sports finally catch a break.

When word broke late Wednesday that Ken Griffey Jr. chose to sign with the Mariners over the Atlanta Braves, hysteria broke loose through Seattle–the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Starbucks offered $1 lattes. Griffey is the player that saved baseball in Seattle, a transcendent figure who loomed larger than the Space Needle. The “Kid” was the greatest all-around player of the 1990s and the image of him scoring the winning run in the 1995 ALDS against the Yankees will forever be etched into the minds of Mariner’s fans.

Junior made 10 straight All Star games in the 90s, as well as collecting 10 Gold Gloves and 7 Silver Slugger awards. He hit 382 HRs in the decade and drove in 1091 runs, punctuated by his MVP season of 1997 when Griffey put up a line of .304-56-147. He is a definitive first ballot Hall-of-Famer and was the only active player to be named to the All-Century Team.

But Junior is so much more than just mind-boggling numbers. He was the young kid with the backwards cap and 1000-megawatt smile. He played the game with such passion and reckless abandon that he won over fans not just in Seattle, but everywhere the Mariners played. Griffey’s love of baseball was evident each time he stepped onto the diamond. He was the prodigal son of a struggling franchise, sent by the gods of baseball to leave an indelible mark upon the Mariners, finally giving them the identity they had sought for so long. The clouds seemed to shy away everytime Junior came to the plate, and the sun shone just a little bit brighter each time he robbed a foe of a would-be homerun.

Just as when he burst onto the scene in 1989, Griffey is joining a Mariners team that needs him much more than he needs them. The Mariners lost 101 games last year, and would undoubtedly struggle to sell tickets with the down economy and a god-awful mediocre team. Not any more; Griffey’s 1 year/$2 million contract will look like a bargain when factoring in all the ticket and merchandise sales that will accompany his return. His #24 jersey will sellout quicker than the Turbo-Man action figures in Jingle All the Way.

However, Junior isn’t just some golden cow for the Mariners to trot out onto the field. He still has some gas left in the tank, and is eager to prove that he can perform at a high level. Although last season’s numbers weren’t great (.249-18-71), Griffey is certainly an upgrade over Endy Chavez in left-field, and should also see some time at DH (again, not hard to improve over Jose Vidro’s performance last season). And who knows, maybe that fresh breeze blowing in off the Puget Sound will rejuvenate Junior enough to capture the spirit of ’95, and play one last time like the kid Seattle fell in love with. 

Seattle sports were in desperate need of a shot in the arm after losing the Sonics to Oklahoma City and the disappointing Seahawks season. Wednesday night Seattle caught lightning in a bottle, as one of the city’s griffey19most beloved sports heroes finally returned home. M’s fans will once again get to see the Kid chasing down flyballs, and can “ooh” and “aah” at the swing sweeter than a box full of Krispy Kremes. Fans will finally have a reason to come to the ballpark and countless employees will have an excuse to call in sick. Starting April 6, Opening Day, Griffey will begin to write another chapter in one of the most storied careers in the history of the game, in the place where it all began. Junior saved baseball in Seattle once, and now the question becomes, can he do it again?

2009 MLB Season Preview, Predictions and Projections

Your 2009 NL MVP

Your 2009 NL MVP

The sun is shining, the snow is melting and Oprah’s weight is ballooning again–which can only mean one thing…that’s right ladies and germs, Spring Training is upon us. That glorious time of year when every team (not including the Royals, Nationals, Mariners, Orioles, Pirates or any team from the NL West) believes its their turn to win it all. A time when young players have a chance to prove their worth and seasoned vets fight for one last shot (paging Mike Sweeney to the manager’s office). A time of year when A-Rod dodges every question thrown his way and Brett Favre once again “retires” for good. A time to look at ahead at what baseball is bringing to the table in 2009 and ask important questions like: Which team will be this year’s Tampa Bay Rays? Will the Yankees off season spending spree pay off? Who framed Roger Rabbit? Can Albert Pujols hit .400? Will Manny Ramirez find a team? Who will win the World Series? It’s prognostication time! Let’s start with the individual movers and shakers in each league:

AL MVP–Grady Sizemore (Cleveland Indians CF): Just 26 years-old, this kid keeps getting better, and 2009 is the year he makes his mark and becomes a true superstar. One of the most talented all-around players in the game, Sizemore’s combination of speed and power at the top of the lineup are more frightening than Barry Bonds’ bacne. He has the potential to become the first 40HR-40SB player since Alfonso Soriano and if he can lead the Indians to the playoffs, voters will be hard pressed not to pick this 5-tool talent.

2009 projected season numbers (.285 BA-37HR-101RBI-37SB-107R)

NL MVP–David Wright (New York Mets 3B): The third baseman in New York who isn’t dating Madonna, this uber-talented diaper dandy (who like Sizemore, is just 26) excells at the dish but has also captured two Gold Gloves, and should break out with his best season yet. More importantly, the Mets finally have a bullpen, which should allow them to reach the postseason, further helping Wright’s case. He could one day win a triple crown, but he will have to “settle” for MVP this year.

2009 projected season numbers (.310 BA-40HR-129RBI-20SB-120R)

AL Cy Young–Roy Halladay (Toronto Blue Jays): “Doc” Halladay will come out with guns-a-blazin in 2009, eager to pick up the slack left by since departed teammate AJ Burnett. Arguably the most consistent pitcher in the game, Halladay epitomizes the term “workhorse” gobbling up innings like Ruben Studdard gobbles up hoho’s. He won 20 games last year, and had the highest strikeout rate of his career; as long he stays healthy, he should put up big numbers again. The Blue Jays will stink in 2009, but Roy Halladay will come out smelling like roses…or whatever flowers Canadians love.

2009 projected season numbers: (19-8, 2.85 ERA, 200 Ks, 1.07 WHIP)

NL Cy Young–Johan Santana (New York Mets):  While it’s generally hard to hide out in New York, Santana’s terriffic first season in a Mets’ uniform was largely overshadowed by the teams’ late season collapse. Despite a porous bullpen, Santana finished the year 16-7 and led the league with a 2.53 ERA and finished second to Tim Lincecum with 206 Ks. He should again finish near the top of the league in ERA and Ks and will almost certainly win more games than last year thanks to the additions of JJ Putz and Francisco Rodriguez.

2009 projected season numbers (21-8, 2.71 ERA, 220 Ks, 1.09 WHIP)

You don't recognize him...yet.

You don't recognize him...yet.

AL Rookie of the Year–Matt Laporta (Cleveland Indians OF): Matt LaPorta (pictured right) was the crown jewel of the CC Sabathia trade last summer, instantly becoming the Cleveland Indians best prospect upon his arrival. In just 302 ABs at Double-A last season, LaPorta cracked 20 HRs and drove in 66, to go with a .288 BA and .402 OBP. He might start the year in the minors, but when he does arrive, expect a strong season from Ryan Braun 2.0.

2009 season projected numbers: (.279-18HRs-71RBIs-60Rs)

NL Rookie of the Year–Colby Rasmus (St Louis Cardinals OF): Colby Rasmus is the #1 prospect in the Cardinal’s farm system, and if he finds some way into playing time in the St Louis outfield logjam, should turn a lot of heads. A 5-tool talent, Rasmus struggled in the minors last year (.251-12HR-38RBI) but was hampered by injuries, and is expected to head into the 2009 system at full health. Look for Rasmus to team up with Albert Pujols to create a formidable 1-2 punch in the lineup for years to come.

2009 projected season numbers: (.290-20HRs-78RBIs-68Rs)

Coming soon: 2009 projected finishes and World Series winner!

Alex Rodriguez Steroid Scandal: A Dark Day For Baseball

A-Rod tested positive in '03.

A-Rod tested positive in '03.

The news that Alex Rodriguez tested positive for steroids in 2003 hit MLB like an Ivan Drago punch to the gut. Rodriguez was supposed to be the new poster boy for baseball, the cornerstone upon which the sport could rebuild its image after the devastation caused by Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and the rest of the Juicers. A-Rod was going to take down every record that Bonds set, removing the tarnished numbers and replacing them with those of an honest, hardworking player who did it the right way. Sure Rodriguez is no Hank Aaron, but fans would have much rather seen him atop the all-time homerun list than Bonds. A-Rod was supposed to go on and hit 800+ homeruns, a number that would have stood without an asterisk–until now.

Now, every player in the game is guilty until proven innocent. Unless the players union releases the other 103 names that were on the list, (the players who tested positive in ‘03 along with A-Rod) there will be a cloud of suspicion every time a ball leaves the park. Rodriguez was going to be the one to clean up the mess that the steroid era left behind, but now all he has done is fan the flames. With Bonds on trial, Roger Clemens facing the possibility of perjury charges and now the game’s best player admitting he used PEDs, baseball has some major work to do to restore its image. The sport has recovered from scandals in the past like the rigged 1919 World Series  or the cancelled World Series in 1994, but what saved baseball both those times–the homerun. Babe Ruth slugging longballs into the upperdeck helped fans forget about the Black Sox and McGwire and Sosa did the same in 1998. But how can the homerun save baseball again if fans doubt the legitimacy of every player who steps up to the plate?

A-Rod did the right thing by admitting his use of PEDs in an interview with Peter Gammons, but he dodged so many questions that people will have a difficult time believing anything he says from now on. Players like Jason Giambi and Andy Pettite have recovered from admitting to the use of steroids, but they were no where near as high profile as Rodriguez, and neither one was poised to break the most hallowed records in baseball. McGwire clearly suffered from his refusal to talk about the past and Rafael Palmeiro did even more damage to his reputation after lying before congress, and then trying to sell out his teammate.

Will fans forgive A-Rod?

Will fans forgive A-Rod?

Will fans be able to forgive A-Rod and embrace him like they did with those other players, or will he be showered with Bronx Cheers every time he goes deep? Rodriguez has the potential to play for 8-10 more seasons and, by the time he retires, will fans have simply forgotten about this 15-year-old mistake? Not likely, if he is the new homerun king; numbers mean more to baseball fans than followers of any other sport. But does he deserve to suffer this much abuse when steroid abuse was likely more widespread during the 1990s and early 2000s than anyone wants to believe?

Alex Rodriguez was likely to leave the game as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, players of all time. At only 33 he is already a 12-time All-Star, 3 time MVP (2003, 2005, 2007) and the youngest ever to reach 500 homeruns. He has won 2 Gold Gloves and also swiped 283 bases, making him one of the best 5-tool players ever. But none of that matters anymore. Even if A-Rod did only use steroids during his three year stint in Texas (during which he hit the most home runs in any 3-year-span of his career: 156) everything he has accomplished is viewed as tainted, and if voting trends continue involving suspected steroid users, Rodriguez probably won’t be joining Hank Aaron in Cooperstown. A-Rod could go on to hit 1000 HRs, but it will never change what he did, and how he cheated the game.

The mighty have fallen in baseball, the game’s golden boy knocked suddenly and unexpectedly from his pedestal. Is there anyone left to inherit his crown? Will any star ever again be free of scrutiny and suspicion? The damage A-Rod did to himself may one day be repaired, but what he has done to the entire sport of baseball will linger forever…

Career Stats: http://www.baseball-reference.com/r/rodrial01.shtml

Scott Boras and Manny Ramirez: The Blind Leading the Blind

Yes that's correct, I am a tool.
“Yes that’s correct, I am a giant tool.”

Manny continues to be Manny this off-season, but this time it may end up hurting his wallet more than it hurts his team. Ramirez and his agent Scott Boras (aka the Prince of Darkness, Beelzebub, etc.) turned down the LA Dodgers’ latest offer of one year/$25 million with a $20 million player option for 2010. The $25 million salary would have made Manny the second highest paid player in baseball behind A-Rod who is not surprisingly, also a Boras client. Additionally, the contract would have allowed Ramirez to opt out at the end of the year and seek a new contract if the economy improves over the course of the season (magic eight ball prognosis—unlikely). Boras warned the Dodgers “not to play chicken” with him and has turned down each offer as if they are somehow insulting. It’s easy to see why. As is, he only stands to make about $2.5 million with the deal – tough life.  

This was the Dodgers fourth offer to Ramirez during the off-season; they offered him arbitration which was declined, a 2 year/$45 million deal which they took off the table after Boras said that his client was only looking at serious offers, and a straight up one   year/$20 million deal. Apparently, over $20 million a year in a major economic slump for a 36-year-old who plays defense about as well as Stephen Hawking plays Wii Tennis is not a “serious” offer. The Dodgers have bent over backwards to accommodate Ramirez, who seems to have more demands than most poodles (looks like someone will only eat Fancy Feast), yet Boras isn’t willing to budge an inch. One can see why fans have become frustrated with the greed in major sports; ticket prices continue to soar as millions are fired across the country, but here is Ramirez and his agent asking for a king’s ransom.  

Boras claims that there are a number of teams in pursuit of Ramirez, but is that really the case? Most teams have been unwilling to spend large chunks of money this off-season, the Yankees being the obvious exception, and many talented players like Orlando Hudson, that would have been quickly snatched up in years past are still looking for work.  The Giants claim that they are interested–if the price is right–but are they going to up the Dodger’s ante? Boston has the money but are clearly out of the equation (hell hath no fury like a Sox fan scorned) and the Yankees don’t have a spot for Ramirez in the field after their free agent splurge. The Mets are rumored to be looking at Manny, which is denied by GM Omar Minaya and after signing Oliver Perez and being hit by Madoff’s ponzi scheme, don’t really have any more money to throw around (at least not like Howie Mandell).

The Dodgers are a completely different team with Ramirez in the lineup as he finished last season with a stat line of .332 BA-37 HRs-121 RBIs, including hitting a ridiculous .520 in the postseason. Manny is one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all-time (think Jimmie Foxx with dreads) and is a lock for the Hall of Fame, but he does come with his baggage. Often chided for his lackadaisical play, Ramirez seemingly forced his way out of Boston with a laundry list of “injuries”, decreased production at the plate, and utter bewilderment in leftfield (we’re talking Paris Hilton in a library confused). A beloved player who had led the Red Sox to two World Series in four years had worn out his welcome in the summer of 2008, leaving Boston GM Theo Epstein little choice but to ship Manny across the country to L.A. Once the precocious Ramirez felt once again that he was the center of the universe, he magically rediscovered how to hit, and the fresh L.A. air reignited his passion for the game. Playing for the Dodgers, he dove for fly balls and sprinted down the first base line like his life depended on it. The only time Manny ran in Boston is when a new Dunkin’ Donuts opened up.

The Dodgers have no one else in their lineup who can come close to that kind of production (and no, the signing of Mark Loretta is not the answer), but why should the Dodgers let Boras manipulate them into bidding against themselves? Ramirez wants a multi-year deal but his track record suggests keeping him on a short leash is the best way to get him to produce. If this continues to drag out, the Dodgers may simply decide he’s not worth the trouble and walk away, leaving Ramirez out of options and Boras a long overdue date with the Karma Police.