11th and Washington

11th and Washington: March 2008

Friday, March 28, 2008

2008 preview: NL East


In general

Last year is over. It is. So is the time to talk about it. That time was February, when players reported to Port St. Lucie. A slow start isn't a reason to talk about it again, nor is losing two out of three to the Phillies in the second week. But neither of those will happen, so it shouldn't be a problem. Final standings aside, there's still a case to be made that the Mets were the best team in the division in 2007. They led for 140 days; Philadelphia was on top just four days. The Phillies certainly played better down the stretch and showed they wanted it more. The Mets tried to act calm and collected, like they'd been there before, but this group really hadn't. They were in a pennant race, something they didn't really experience in 2006, when they had a comfortable lead that even a three-game sweep in Pittsburgh didn't threaten. That September, they clinched the next day. This year, you can be sure, the Mets won't take anything for granted.

The Mets' biggest concern -- their biggest rival, in a way -- will be age. Moises Alou is already out until May (I'm not believing any April projections with that guy), two key starting pitchers are in the twilights of their careers and coming off injuries or rehab in 2006, and they not only signed a 32-year-old second baseman with 42-year-old knees to a four-year deal, but they had about a dozen second base candidates miss time in Spring Training with injuries. But every team has injury issues. Hopefully, the Mets have the depth -- or go out and get it -- to get through the lean times this season.

This is still a lineup that can contend with any in the league. Jose Reyes will continue to mature, Carlos Beltran has put his rough first season in New York behind him and David Wright had as good a season as any in the NL. Carlos Delgado's '07 campaign was a big concern, but he's playing for one last contract this year, so here's hoping he has the same good fortune that so many players in that situation have had of late.

Where this division will be won is on the mound. There's no doubt that the acquisition of Johan Santana was the coup the Mets needed this offseason. He's the best pitcher in the game and a perennial Cy Young candidate. Bringing him in pushes everyone else back into a more suitable rotation slot, particularly Pedro Martinez, whose age and recent injuries made him a risky ace. And the young and impressive Oliver Perez (also in a contract year) and John Maine have the potential to make this the best top four in the league. I just hope Mike Pelfrey can get it together in '08; he has too much potential to start off 0-7 and not stick in the rotation.

So many discount the Mets' bullpen, but who outside of San Diego and Chicago really has a slam-dunk bullpen? Starting at the back, Billy Wagner remains one of the best closers in the league, Aaron Heilman has proven so valuable as a setup man that the Mets have refused to move him into the rotation even when he could've helped there, Duaner Sanchez looked good in spring ball and will work to get his arm strength and stamina back up before joining the team, and even Jorge Sosa has been a strong long man. The issue will be more Willie Randolph's use of his relievers than their execution. Perhaps taking the wrong page from Joe Torre's managerial handbook, Randolph overused his bullpen to the point that it struggled in September. Fresher arms through the first five months should mean better results in the final one.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

Jose Reyes may very well be the best shortstop in the game, but his detractors are finding fewer and fewer things to criticize. His plate discipline is no longer an issue after he brought his walks up to a nearly 1:1 ratio with his strikeouts. The only thing left is his maturity and makeup -- as energetic and fun-loving as he is, he found himself in the dog house a couple of times in '07 when Randolph benched him for not running out popups that landed fair. He shouldn't be making those mistakes anymore, and more rest in '08 should keep him fresh for the stretch run. Put him in Citizens Bank Park, and he'll hit 25 home runs too. In 2008, the average, runs and steals will be there. I expect the power and discipline will be, too.

Other fun things to look for: Santana's dominance, Pedro's perseverance, Pelfrey's potential realized, Ollie and Maine taking the next step, and Wright winning that MVP that slipped from his grasp last year when his team crumbled around him.


In general

After so many years of Atlanta dominance, I wasn't quite sure I could believe that it was the third-place team yet again in 2007. For a while, it looked like the Braves wouldn't be. They took two out of three from the Mets in every series before the All-Star break and led the division for 29 days, but none after May 15. But they faded through August, including a home sweep to the Mets at the end of the month. I still think they're counting on too much from Chipper Jones, Mike Hampton and even John Smoltz, all of whom have age and/or injury issues. Plus, Andruw Jones is gone, and Mark Kotsay cannot fill those shoes, even after Andruw's down year in '07.

Atlanta does get a full season from Mark Teixeira, who's 27 and in his contract year. He's next winter's top free agent, with what figures to be no fewer than four teams seriously chasing him. First, there's the Braves, who will be going after the Georgia Tech product and may take advantage of a year without Andruw's salary to make a competitive offer. Second is his hometown Orioles, who will need a veteran cornerstone after a year of development from just about every other player in their lineup. Third and fourth, you'll have the two New York teams with first-base openings and some big contracts coming off the books -- more for the Yankees, who won't have Jason Giambi, Bobby Abreu, Andy Pettitte or Mike Mussina in 2009.

I'm not as sold on the pitching. Smoltz is now on the DL, though he should be back to face the Mets in the season's second series. Hampton -- please. Tim Hudson remains a big-game pitcher for them, but as good a guy as Tom Glavine is and what he did for the Mets for the better part of his five years in New York, his final start at Shea was nothing short of disastrous. Was it the beginning of the end? Too soon to tell, because in the end, it was just one start. I love Rafael Soriano as the closer, but the middle relief in recent years has not been as good as that of past Braves championship teams.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

Not much, because despite two years of third-place finishes, I still don't like the Braves. I've always been a fan of Teixeira, so hopefully he has a down year and the Mets sign him at a relative discount (relative to what he should make). I'm not sure what kind of reaction Glavine will get at Shea, but my guess would be an unfavorable one. I can see the fans remembering the final day against the Marlins more than any near-no-hitters or Opening Day wins he had. The final line on Glavine's Mets career: 61-56, 3.97 ERA, 1.38 WHIP. His first start, a 15-2 Opening Day loss to the Cubs in 2003: 3 2/3 8 hits, 5 earned runs, 4 walk, 2 strikeouts. His last one:
1/3, 5 hits, 7 earned runs, 2 walks, 0 strikeouts.


In general

The Mets' rivalry with the Braves never seemed to be that heated to me, except when they played. Perhaps it was distance, but more likely it was the fact that it was so one-sided. The Mets were the younger brother trying to knock the older brother off the couch, similar to the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry ... until 2004. But now, New York has a rivalry with Philadelphia in baseball. In some ways, the Mets-Phillies rivalry was similar to Mets-Braves, with the Mets in the Braves' position of superiority (they've had more winning seasons and more playoff appearances than the Phillies in the past decade) and the Phillies playing the part of the young upstarts. Now, it's a true, full-blown face-off, with many picking the clubs as the top two in the division.

I don't buy it, for one reason: Pitching. The Phillies, as I said before, led the division for just four days and won by one game. Yet they did it with 11 starts from Kyle Lohse down the stretch and 12 from Jon Leiber over the season -- and didn't feel a need to re-sign either one. They did it with a 6.29 ERA over 30 starts from Adam Eaton, one of the worst ERAs for a full-time starter in baseball history. And they did it with a magical 10-4 performance over 20 starts from rookie Kyle Kendrick, despite his 3.64 K/9 ratio.

Brett Myers returns to the front of the rotation, which helps, and Cole Hamels may be the best No. 2 starter outside of Arizona, but after that they're relying on 45-year-old Jamie Moyer (5.01 ERA in '07), Kendrick and Eaton. Myers is back in the rotation because of the acquisition of closer Brad Lidge, but he had knee surgery in the spring and starts on the DL -- meaning shaky 38-year-old Tom Gordon begins the season closing games. When he returns, Lidge has to adjust to another homer-heavy ballpark, recover from his surgery and overcome blown saves in front of the tough Philly fans. If I were a Phillies fan, the bullpen would concern me, but the rotation would terrify me.

Luckily for them, the Phillies play in a glorified minor league park. Well, a big league park with a minor league left field wall. Jimmy Rollins, free-agent-to-be Pat Burrell and free-agent gone Aaron Rowand have all taken advantage of it. Rollins and Burrell will again, as will new third baseman Pedro Feliz. But there are holes now in center and right fields, where I'm not sure Shane Victorino (center) is an everyday player (I know he played a lot in 2007, but we'll have to see if he can adjust to pitchers exposing his weaknesses on a regular basis) and the combo of Jayson Werth and Geoff Jenkins in right isn't any worse than what the Mets are going with in Ryan Church. When you're counting on Burrell to be the anchor in the outfield, the best hitter of the bunch, you'd better be pretty sure of what you're getting from him.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

A collapse, a plunge, a slow start followed by a long summer and a double-digit deficit and barely-.500 record in September. What can I say? I've got my team, and this isn't it. Look, there are some good players and better guys, particularly Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. Utley is the MVP of this team, regardless of the last two writers' votes, and he probably would've won it last year if he hadn't been out for a month. Howard will have to avoid 200 strikeouts or risk seeing his batting average plummet for a second straight season (.313 in 2006, .268 in '07) and his homers take another dip (58 to 47), but he should reach 40 again, easily. And Hamels will have to put his unhappiness with his contract behind him for one more season. Look, kid, I know you're confident in your abilities and all, but you've had one full, healthy season as a big leaguer. You've shown you can do it, now show you can do it again. Then you'll have earned your payday. There's nothing wrong with making $500,000.


In general

The Nationals signed Odalis Perez to a minor league deal on Feb. 19. He was seen as insurance in case oft-injured John Patterson or Shawn Hill was not ready to start the season. Patterson has since been released, Hill is indeed injured, and Perez will be the Opening Day starter on Sunday night as the team opens Nationals Park. Wow. I've often chuckled at the pie-in-the-sky expectations some with this team have had this offseason, but how do you say those things when your rotation is Perez, Matt Chico, Tim Redding, Jason Bergmann and Hill?

There's a lot to like with Ryan Zimmerman, Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes, but the team will have to watch Dukes -- and, to a lesser extent, Milledge -- as he adjusts to a new team and new city, considering his history. I'm all for second chances and I hope Dukes can turn his life and career around the way Josh Hamilton did, though Dukes' transgressions didn't involve hard-core drugs and life-threatening choices. But 100 RBIs from each of them, including Zimmerman, who should reach that mark? (There are those expectations again.) To do that, you need to have guys on base, and if Cristian Guzman is going to be the leadoff hitter with his projected .310 OBP, there's no way Milledge gets to 100, especially if he's hitting second. And Dukes will have to play enough to do so, but when Wily Mo Pena returns, Dukes may return to fourth-outfielder status, unless he starts off on a tear. Zimmerman had 91 RBIs last year and no one else had more than 74. The new ballpark should increase scoring, but I don't think it will be by that much to get three 100-RBI guys.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

I'd like to see this team take another step forward, though I would prefer they do that mostly against the Braves and Phillies. They need pitching, and that will come, but by 2010, we could be seeing a four-deep division with the Mets, Phillies, Braves and Nationals competing like the D-backs, Rockies, Padres and Dodgers will be in the West this year. And I'm looking forward to my as-yet-undetermined trip to D.C. to see the new ballpark. Plus, I'm anticipating Opening Night, when the Braves and Nats start the season in earnest on ESPN.


In general

This certainly is Hanley Ramirez's team now, isn't it? Gone are Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, leaving Ramirez as the lone star, the face of the franchise, and the clear Marlins representative in New York in July for the All-Star Game. Ramirez and Dan Uggla ... and what? There's Mike Jacobs and Josh Willingham, who are slowly but surely rounding into solid players. There's Jeremy Hermida, an outfielder who came up with a bang (a grand slam in his first at-bat) but struggled with injuries last year. And there's a hothead in Scott Olsen as the only recognizable face in the rotation, with the possible exception of Ricky Nolasco. I mean, this team's Opening Day starter is Mark Hendrickson! Even among basketball big men in the league, he's still only No. 2, behind San Diego's Chris Young.

I really don't know what else there is to say about a team that dumps its best players every four years -- is this a college program? -- leaving its fans to wait another year or two for the prospects to mature. The two biggest pieces of the Cabrera/Willis deal are outfielder Cameron Maybin, who's starting the season in the minors, and pitcher Andrew Miller, who struggled mightily in the start I saw him pitch against the Dodgers in Vero Beach.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

How will losing Cabrera affect Ramirez's production? And will he run less, as manager Fredi Gonzalez would like? And when will they start building that new stadium? In 2009, Dolphin Stadium will be the oldest ballpark in the NL East. Amazing.

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2008 preview: NL Central


In general

The Cubs seem poised for a repeat appearance in the postseason -- and another year-long battle for the division with their Wisconsin neighbors, the Brewers. Gone are outfielders Jacque Jones and Cliff Floyd and perennially injured starter Mark Prior. The main replacements are prospect Felix Pie and free agents Kosuke Fukudome and Jon Lieber, both of whom have to be considered upgrades. Anything from Lieber is better than nothing from Prior.

So there's a lot to like from the defending NL Central champions, and if they get contributions from the minors -- like Jeff Samardzija in a relief/fill-in starter role -- later in the season should any injuries arrive, they should at least have a chance to enter the tournament to for their first World Series title in 100 years.

A leadoff hitter would help, allowing Alfonso Soriano to hit in a run-producing spot, where his inability to draw a walk wouldn't hurt so much. Finally completing a trade for Brian Roberts would fill that void, but don't hold your breath. What they need is for Pie to prove he can hit at the top of the order, followed by Ryan Theriot and leaving the 3-4-5-6 spots to some combination of Fukudome, Soriano, Derek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. The NL Rookie of the Year could very well come from a catcher in the division -- either Chicago's Geovany Soto or Houston's J.R. Towles.

Lieber and Ryan Dempster essentially fill the rotation spots once annually left for Kerry Wood and Prior, though neither had much use for them from the disabled list. Add in Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Rich Hill and Jason Marquis, and the Cubs actually have a surplus of capable starters, so someone will be a long man out of the bullpen. Wood takes over the closer role, with Carlos Marmol and Bob Howry setting him up (and filling in, if need be), along with Scott Eyre. It's a well-balanced team with enough pieces to be at the top of the standings from start to finish. The Cubs did have the second-best team ERA and third-best bullpen ERA in the NL in 2007.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

It's been fun watching the likes of Ichiro and Hideki Matsui come over from Japan, so what does the season hold for Fukudome? How will Zambrano react to pitching with his big contract? Just how good will Hill be? Can Wood stay healthy in the closer role? Does Samardzija make his debut?


In general

The Brew Crew ended its streak of consecutive non-winning seasons (they had an 81-81 campaign in 2005) at 14 and led the division for most of 2007 and is poised complete the turnaround this year. With few changes in the lineup or the rotation, the only question on this team is the bullpen. Closer Francisco Cordero left for division rival Cincinnati, and GM Doug Melvin chose Eric Gagne as the replacement. Whether he signed the one who pitched well in Texas last year or the one who bombed with Boston in the stretch drive may mean the difference in whether Milwaukee or Chicago is adding bunting to the ballpark in October.

The rotation adds Yovani Gallardo for a (mostly) full season, once he gets into playing shape after spring knee surgery and loses Chris Capuano -- who went something like 15 starts without a win last year -- to his second Tommy John procedure. The lineup benefits from a full season of Rookie of the Year* (it should've been Troy Tulowitzki) Ryan Braun. Plus, the addition of center fielder Mike Cameron (after his 25-game suspension for a positive amphetamines test) moves Bill Hall back to third base and puts the brutal Braun in left. Though they did decide Jason Kendall would be a good free-agent pickup behind the plate, which is ridiculous. Hopefully it was their only option. Still, this is a young team on the rise, not a fluke.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

Man, Braun was just brutal at third base, so putting him in left field limits the damage his glove can do. But what kind of numbers will he put up without having to worry as much about his defense? Gallardo is supposed to be the second coming of Dwight Gooden, or something like that, and I love the young flamethrowers. Ben Sheets is in the final year of his contract, so I'd like to see a strong season -- particularly for all the recent years he's burned me on my fantasy staff. And how does the Gagne investment pay off?


In general

They finished 72-90 last year, but the Reds are poised for a turnaround. I don't think they'll get quite that far. I don't really see any surprises like last year's Rockies this year, in part because there's not much room for a darkhorse to break through. Colorado benefitted from a wide-open division last year and eeked out a Wild Card berth. But the NL West is so deep that none of the four teams who could win it would be a surprise. The Cubs and Brewers in the Central aren't sneaking up on anybody, and I think they'll either both make the postseason, or the Wild Card will land in another division. In the East, you've got three teams who can win it and two who can't. A quick look at the AL shows that the Jays and Rays -- no matter how good they can be -- won't surge ahead of either the Yankees or Red Sox; the Central has three contenders, and should the White Sox sneak in there, they wouldn't be all that surprising. A Seattle postseason berth really seems like the only possibility among the non-favorites.

But back to the Reds. They're getting younger, with Ken Griffey Jr. on the cusp of 600 home runs, but also beginning to make way for the future stars. Adam Dunn is in his walk year, so he'll either stick around as a franchise player or open up a clear spot for Jay Bruce in a year. Brandon Phillips leads the infield, with a young corner combo of Joey Votto at first and Edwin Encarnacion at third. The Reds still like their young rotation combo of Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo, but they need a rebound from Arroyo, who went 9-15 last year. Sending prospect Homer Bailey to the minors is frustrating, but he should be up to stay by the end of the year.

Cincinnati's biggest issue in 2007 was a bullpen that couldn't hold leads before it got to closer David Weathers (and sometimes when it did get to him). Signing Cordero away from the Brewers helps by pushing Weathers back into a setup role and making the 'pen deeper overall. Now those arms just have to be more consistent.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

Votto should be a fine replacement to popular former Reds first baseman Sean Casey, but with more power. Everyone has more power at this point than Casey, unfortunately. Griffey's homer chase should be fun to watch, because he's one of baseball's good guys and has never had a hint of scandal associated with his name in this recent era of scandalous allegations. Dunn's season will be interesting for fans of those teams with left field openings in 2009 -- like the Mets.


In general

Love the lineup. Hate the rotation. And the bullpen may have taken a step back. But first, the offense. Oh, the offense. Carlos Lee has proven to be an excellent signing, particularly with the way Minute Maid Park is set up for right-handed hitters. Now they'll get a full year of Hunter Pence and have added shortstop Miguel Tejada, who should see a rebound coming to a more formidable lineup and benefitting from the aforementioned -- or previously alluded to -- Crawford Boxes in left field. New center fielder Michael Bourn should, at the very least, be what Willy Taveras was when he was the center fielder and leadoff hitter. And Kaz Matsui -- once he gets over his, ahem, surgery -- will be no worse than Craig Biggio was in his final few years.

But now the pitching. Beyond Roy Oswalt -- who has fallen to 15 and 14 wins the last two years after consecutive 20-win campaigns -- we're looking at Wandy Rodriguez, Brandon Backe (coming off injury), Woody Williams and Chris Sampson. Or Shawn Chacon may be in there somewhere. As good as Oswalt is, I'd take the Reds' duo of Harang and Arroyo, with whatever else they have, over him and Houston's back four. The bullpen dealt talented but perhaps troubled -- and oft-aching -- closer Brad Lidge, but picked up a new one in Jose Valverde. But Valverde has yet to put together two capable, consistent seasons in a row without being bounced as Arizona's stopper, so he's no sure thing. He also cost Chad Qualls, one of Houston's stallwart setup men. This team could sure use a hard-throwing future Hall of Famer, but he's not worth the headaches.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

Big fan of Pence. I love the kids who come up and take the league by storm. The Rookie of the Year Award was his -- until he got hurt, missed a month, and allowed Braun to take over the headlines. And Bourn can run all day, so 50 steals isn't a bad over-under for him. J.R. Towles takes over the catching duties, where he'll have the guidance of previous starter and current backup Brad Ausmus. That kind of asset can only help.


In general

It was only a year ago when the Cards entered the season as the defending World Series champions. But they barely got out of that first game before their ace was lost for the season -- and perhaps a month or two of this one -- and not much has gone right since. Even their best player -- one of baseball's best players -- Albert Pujols has said that his injured right elbow will someday require surgery, but he's going to play with the discomfort as long as he can. For now, he's still slugging, but it may be sometime in August, when St. Louis is looking way up at Milwaukee and Chicago, that he calls it a season and gets the procedure out of the way.

Pujols anchors a solid middle four of the batting order, with Rick Ankiel having successfully completed his conversion from pitching prospect to outfield prospect and Troy Glaus coming over from Toronto in exchange for disgruntled third baseman Scott Rolen. Chris Duncan, like Ankiel a left-handed swinger, completes the quartet and the left-right balance. But beyond that, you've got Skip Shumaker as the likely leadoff hitter, Yadier Molina as a significantly better fielding catcher than hitting one, a declining Adam Kennedy at second base and the oft-waived Cesar Izturis at shortstop -- and hitting ninth, in favor of the pitcher at No. 8. At least it appears Tony La Russa will choose to do that again this year.

Chris Carpenter's absence from the rotation makes Adam Wainwright the No. 1 starter -- and puts Braden Looper in the No. 2 slot. Yikes. Kyle Lohse wasn't signed until about two weeks ago, and the moment that contract became official was the moment Lohse became the No. 3 starter. That's how desparate this team is for pitching; it needed to sign a guy with a 63-74 career record and 4.82 ERA whom nobody wanted all offseason. I don't even have to go any futher into the rotation. But that brings us to a bullpen anchored by successful closer Jason Isringhausen, and his degenrative hip. The relief corps will have its good days and bad, but there will definitely be both.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

I've seen projections for Ankiel reaching 30 or even 40 home runs and 90 or 100 RBIs. Should he reach the latter numbers, what an amazing comeback story he would be. A full season from him this year would complete the tale; otherwise, last year's late-season performance will be just an afterword on his disastrous pitching downfall. And if Pujols can still be a 35-homer, 95-RBI monster with elbow issues, he's perhaps better than we first thought.


In general

It's going to be another long year with plenty of good seats available in baseball's best ballpark. There's a new CEO and GM who brought in a new manager and coaching staff. But it's the same old players, though the old guys -- as in holdovers -- are at least getting younger. The good news is that they're no longer bringing in the overpaid, past-their-prime veterans like Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa. The trade for Matt Morris last August was questionable, but at the very least, he provides a veteran presence to a young pitching staff and his contract will be off the books at the end of the season.

There's a good base with Freddy Sanchez, Adam LaRoche, Jason Bay and Xavier Nady. Nate McLouth won the starting center field job in Spring Training, and there is lots of anticipation in the Steel City for prospects Andrew McCutchen and Steven Pearce. It's just a matter of time before they get the call.

On the mound, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Paul Maholm and Zach Duke would appear to be a fine nucleus for a starting rotation, but they've all struggled to establish themselves. How much of that is the result of their own abilities and what can be attributed to the shortfalls of the team behind them is still to be determined. The bullpen, other than promising young closer Matt Capps, is a toss-up.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

Signs of life. Anything. I'd like to see McCutchen and Pearce come up and lock themselves into the lineup for the next decade. I'd like to see Snell, Gorzelanny and Duke put it all together and become a poor man's late-2000s version of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. Or even just Steve Avery, Glavine and Smoltz. If it weren't for my fondness for the city and the ballpark, I probably wouldn't care much about this team. But I do. Still, even this much on them for 2008 is too much.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

2008 preview: NL West


In general

There is only one certainty in the NL West this year: The Giants will not win the division. And they probably will finish last. After that, this group is a tossup. Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles and San Diego can each win this thing, and each could finish anywhere from second to fourth. We could see all four within five games of one another at the end. Or we could see one or two of them crash and burn and fall a dozen games or more off the pace.

I don't feel good about this one, but I'm going with Arizona because I like their balance. If Randy Johnson is healthy and can win 12 games -- he needs 16 to get to 300 -- that's not a bad fourth starter, and a fourth starter is probably what you have to consider him to be now. Putting him behind Brandon Webb, Dan Haren and (my choice) Micah Owings gives the D-backs a deep rotation, and Doug Davis as a fifth starter is more than a lot of teams have. In the 'pen, tabbing Brandon Lyon as the closer soon after Jose Valverde was traded was a move questioned by some -- OK, maybe mostly fantasy folk -- but if he can hold the job, it makes the relief corps that much deeper, because it keeps hard-throwing Tony Pena in a setup role. But if the two are switched, they might not see that much of a dropoff. They've also got Chad Qualls, acquired in the Valverde deal.

Arizona's West title in 2007 was a bit of an anomaly. The D-backs went 90-72, but gave up more runs than they scored -- scoring, on average, 4.40 runs per game but yielding 4.52. Baseball Prospectus put their expected record with that run differential at 79-83. In 2006, the Padres allowed more runs than they scored in winning the division, but in '07, they collapsed down the stretch and gave up the Wild Card spot to the Rockies. But the young lineup Arizona enters 2008 with is similar to the one it finished '07 with, meaning these young guys have a year under their belts and should see some improvement. They've experienced first place, a pennant race and two playoff rounds. Eric Byrnes, Chris Young and Justin Upton may be the finest young outfield in baseball and Stephen Drew will soon emerge into an infield leader as Orlando Hudson passes the torch. Mark Reynolds and Conor Jackson at the corners still have a little to prove over the course of a full season, but this does have the makings of a strong young infield. If Chad Tracy can recover from his injuries, he's a viable backup or replacement at either third or first base.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

The Big Unit is the lynchpin. If he's healthy and can fill out the rotation -- pushing Edgar Gonzalez or whoever back into the bullpen -- they're better off. I'd like to see him get to 300 wins, but 16 this year is asking a lot. How will Haren handle the change from one of baseball's best pitcher's parks to one that's not so forgiving? Can Lyon hold onto the closer's job? Is Chris Young a 30-30 guy in his second season? Just how good will Upton be? And do the D-backs have a budding rivalry with the Rockies that will provide plenty of great moments for years to come?


In general

I love this club and I wanted to put them first, but with three-fifths of their starting rotation still having a lot to prove and the nature of their playoff appearance last year -- winning 20 out of 21 in September and October will not happen in 2008 -- I have to bump them down a notch. I'm tempted, in fact, to put them third, but I'm not going to; I'll explain when I get to that third-place team.

I love the Rockies because they have two of the best hitters in the division. Matt Holliday is the top player out West and Troy Tulowitzki may soon battle him for that title. Tulo is 6'3", 205 pounds -- the same height and 20 pounds lighter (currently) than another former young shortstop star who began his career in the Pacific time zone. That would be Alex Rodriguez, and while I'm not saying Tulo is going to go on to hit 700 home runs over his career (as everyone can pretty much agree A-Rod will, I think), to me there are a lot of similarities between the two. Tulo is just as good a defender at short as A-Rod was, and in his first season he developed into a threat at the plate and a leader on the field and in the clubhouse, prompting the Rockies to come forward with the biggest contract for a player with such little experience in Major League history. Like the American League was in the 90s, the NL is now stocked with young star shortstops. With Tulo, Drew, Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez and Jimmy Rollins, at least two deserving players will soon be left out of most All-Star Games.

Jeff Francis will finish his career as, by far, the best pitcher ever to wear the purple and black and aside from the aforementioned sluggers, perhaps the best draft pick in the organization's history. Yes, better than Todd Helton. But behind Francis and Aaron Cook, the Rox will be turning to Ubaldo Jimenez and two of these three: Franklin Morales, Mark Redman and Josh Towers. So that's two youngsters and two veterans who don't raise too much excitment in any fan. In relief, the emergence of Manny Corpas as the closer allowed three-time All-Star Brian Fuentes to become a setup man. Taylor Buchholz has had a strong spring, and Ryan Speier, Jose Cappellan and Luis Vizcaino help to make up a solid stock of reserve arms.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

Tulo, Tulo, Tulo. Love that guy. Plus, how does this team follow up last year? And how do opponents react? I can tell you that no one in the New York City area expected Colorado to sweep the Mets and Yankees out of Coors. In recent years, I'd looked at the Mets' annual Denver trip as a chance to win two out of three or three out of four, with the ERAs taking a hit but the averages getting a boost. Now, it's not such an easy W.


In general

Joe Torre switches coasts and takes on a new challenge. I wanted to put the Dodgers second just because of him. I considered them for the top spot as well, but I'm scared off by all the innings they want to give to Esteban Loaiza, Chad Billingsley and the unknown in Hiroki Kuroda. I don't like all the at-bats they have tied into Jeff Kent, Nomar Garciaparra and Juan Pierre, either. We want to see the kids play -- James Loney (he will), Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp. Takashi Saito, despite the 1.40 ERA in '07, is considered shaky at 38 and no one ever praised Torre's handling of the bullpen those last few years in the Bronx. Scott Proctor must've felt a slight sense of dread when the Dodgers signed Torre, figuring he had escaped him last year in the Wilson Betemit trade. Hopefully Torre doesn't overuse Jonathan Broxton and ruin him for all of us.

That said, Torre pretty much did it all with the Yankees. He won when he had everything he needed and was able to coast through a season and he managed against injuries and adversity to recover from early deficits to reach the postseason. I'd like to think he can come to L.A. and be a quick fix, but he clearly doesn't have the personnel he did when he arrived in New York.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

Saturday's exhibition game against the Red Sox at the L.A. Coliseum. I love the historical nod to kick off the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the team's move west. Also, can Torre make this a memorable anniversary? Does Andruw Jones bounce back after a tough final season in Atlanta? Do Nomar and Kent have anything left? Can the rotation veterans -- Brad Penny, Derek Lowe and Loaiza -- put together a full season? Penny's had second-half issues in the past and Lowe's in a contract year at 35 (on June 1) after going 12-14 last year, albeit with a decent 3.88 ERA.


In general

When the minor leaguers show they're ready for the Majors, yet the organization insists on sending them down to start the season, it frustrates us as fans. Imagine what it does to the players. We saw it with B.J. Upton in Tampa, and a bit with Delmon Young, too. Young spoke out about it and Upton took three years to finally stick -- and thrive. So it's maddening to see Chase Headley sent to Triple-A in favor of Jody Gerut in left field in San Diego. It's understandable that the Padres want to see him gain more experience in the outfield (they have Kevin Kouzmanoff at third base, Headley's natural position), but for a team that could use a strong outfield bat, it's a tough decision. San Diego's starting outfield -- Jim Edmonds (when he's in there, and he probably won't be to start the season), Brian Giles and Gerut -- should probably be batting sixth, seventh and eighth in the lineup. It remains to be seen if they actually will, so if they don't, that may not be a good sign. Particularly if Giles is the leadoff batter.

There's more to like in the infield, where Kouzmanoff, shortstop Khalil Green and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez are all capable of 20-30 home runs (or more, in Gonzalez's case) and 90-100 RBIs. Second baseman Tadahito Iguchi brings a little speed and a contact bat to the equation.

But pitching is this team's strength, as it should be in the hurler-friendly confines of Petco Park. A defending Cy Young winner leads the rotation (Jake Peavy), a potential one follows (Chris Young) and a former one is third in the rotation (Greg Maddux). Fourth starter Randy Wolf is now entering his second season after Tommy John surgery (always a benchmark). If Mark Prior reaches the Majors this year -- and stays there -- then what a steal. San Diego is also home to one of the best bullpens in the game, so if you manage to knock out the starter, you're going to have to deal with career saves leader Trevor Hoffman, setup men Heath Bell and Cla Meredith and a group of other reliable arms.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

Does Headley come up to stay? Ever since I heard a minor league report mentioning Gregg Jefferies on a Mets postgame show in 1987, I love watching careers bloom. Does Young win 20? Been a fan of his since 2002, when he pitched for the Hickory Crawdads in the South Atlantic League and a road trip to Lakewood, N.J., just happened to come on the weekend of Princeton's graduation, which meant Young got to attend the ceremonies with his class. Does Hoffman still have it? His struggles in the final week of the 2007 season cost the Padres the Wild Card. They had it sewn up with a win on the final Saturday, but Tony Gwynn Jr. doomed his dad's former team with a triple off Hoffman. And then T-Hoff couldn't keep the Rockies off the board in the Wild Card playoff (whether or not Holliday has yet to touch the plate).


In general

Bye-bye, Barry. No one is sorry to see him go, including, I suspect, team brass. They may be out a few million in revenue from an empty ballpark with a last-place team, but even with the stadium payments to make, they may prefer at least one season of quiet despite the financial issues. Plus, they get to finally see what the future holds as they weed out the past-their-usefulness ("prime" has long passed some of these guys by) holdovers like Ray Durham and Omar Vizquel. Another one of those, Rich Aurilia, is penciled in as the third baseman; Dave Roberts takes up left field with OK speed but little else; and Randy Winn is in right. Bonds' departure brought the team's average age down a bit, but not by much. Oh, and they overpaid for Aaron Rowand, who most certainly was bouyed in 2007 by the extremely favorable conditions of hitting in Citizens Bank Park in a contract year.

There's more to like on the mound, at least after you get past Barry Zito. OK, that's not fair -- it was just one year in San Francisco. But AT&T Park isn't that much more of a hitter's park than Oakland's Coliseum, and he didn't have to face the DH anymore. He shouldn't have been that bad last year. This was also a team on which Matt Cain went 7-16 with a 3.65 ERA -- with Barry Bonds. Now, Bengie Molina is hitting cleanup. Coming off a season with 19 home runs. Yeah.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

Mainly, do they make a trade for a third baseman? That speculation would be more exciting than some of the Giants' games. And the club is high on outfielder Rajai Davis, so does he wrestle a starting gig from someone? After Zito, Cain and Lincecum, I have little interest in the rotation, but with each five-run outing, I'm happier and happier that the Giants opened the bank and scared off the Mets. If Zito was in New York now, Johan Santana wouldn't be. And does Brian Wilson keep the closer's job? I only care for fantasy purposes.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Starting a new Tradition (or Starting anew at Tradition)

If teams are supposed to bring at least four starters to road games in the spring, how do you tell with the Orioles?

That's a question I asked my new friends as we watched the Mets and Orioles from the second row behind home plate at Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie. The lineup on this day featured holdover veterans Aubrey Huff and Jay Gibbons, and then ... probable center fielder Adam Jones (who had been acquired from the Mariners in the Erik Bedard trade) and eventual Opening Day starter Jeremy Guthrie. All-Stars Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis didn't make the trip, though the two New Jersey guys I'd met this morning and the Frenchman who had joined us walking around the complex thought that third baseman Mike Costanzo was Markakis, and shouted at him during batting practice based on that assumption.

I'd been at the ballpark since 7:30 a.m., taking a shot at catching some of the players as they arrived for work. I saw some -- Carlos Delgado in his Mazerati pulling into the fenced-in players' lot, Johan Santana and Aaron Heilman through the screen over the fence as they walked from their cars into the clubhouse -- but only Heilman acknowledged us, saying he had to get inside. There were only five of us, yet still no willing signers.

Port St. Lucie was the best stop of the trip. It might've been the familiarity of the club or the relative friendliness of being with my own fans. At Dodgertown, I could've easily had Jason Schmidt's autograph, but I didn't have much of a desire. But in St. Lucie, I went to bed at 10 p.m. just so that I could get up at 6 o'clock to be at the complex by 7:30. I was, literally, the first fan there.

After a walk around the main field, I returned to a spot near the players' lot and met Jamie and Michael, the two brothers from central Jersey. We became fast friends and spent the day talking baseball. When I mentioned that I had to go buy a ticket to sit in the seats because I'd bought a berm-only ticket, they handed me one of their two spare complimentary seats two rows away from the Mets' on-deck circle. I even ended up in the aisle seat.

After two hours of nothing -- no players came over from the lot, though as I said, we saw Delgado, Santana, Heilman, Jose Reyes, David Wright, Brian Schneider and a few others, even if we were unsure of exactly who they were -- we walked through the practice fields with three fans from France who had made the trip and happily joined us around the grounds. Jamie and Michael saw two minor leaguers they'd gotten to know from going to games at Binghamton and Trenton -- Tim McNab and Mike Nickeas -- and we caught the big leaguers warming up for batting practice on Field 7, the one reconfigured with CitiField's dimensions. The outfielders were learning the angles just as we were usured out at 10:30, when the gates closed.

Though the Mets may have been the most unaccomodating of the three teams I saw -- no way to get autographs as the players arrive, only a short hour or 90 minutes to roam the fields, and a way-to-early forced exit at 10:30, then limited access near the dugout -- I enjoyed the brief glimpses in Port St. Lucie the most. But based on what others said about charging for workouts, I suspect the Braves are more uninviting. I arrived too late at the Disney complex to wander around, but I was told in PSL that Atlanta (or Disney) charges fans to enter the workouts. And though the Dodgers and Mets collected $5 for parking, that's $5 if it's one person in the car, but also if it's four.

Once we entered Tradition Field at 11 a.m., we spent about 90 minutes during Orioles batting practice waiting for Mets autographs and got nothing. They never emerged from the dugout, having completed all BP and warmups on the back field. That annoyed me. I haven't tried for any autographs in years, but I printed out some photos I've taken and felt an urge to meet a few guys for the first time in a long time.

My photos from behind the plate on this day are stellar, in my mind. It was a great afternoon for shooting, which made up for the lack of autographs. The Mets starters -- save pitcher Oliver Perez -- played through the sixth inning, and following Perez, we got Wagner, Heilman, Joe Smith and Duaner Sanchez. After the game, I went with Jamie and Michael to see Omar Minaya, but didn't think until much later that I should've mentioned my plan for the Home Run Apple to Fred Wilpon.

Jamie, Michael and I met up with the three French kids and the father/son pair from Islen once more before I headed north to my cousin Donna's house, another long drive through Floridian desolation with the iPod shuffling and the Prius coasting.

Port St. Lucie -- as remote and lonesome as it is, relative to the well-known Florida hotspots -- was the perfect end to this initial foray into spring training tourism. I'm eager to go back, though not as eager as I am for the course of this season, which is bound to be interesting. I don't know that I'd want to make it an annual trip (there are too many places I'd like to see to spend vacation time and money going to Florida every March), but I'd certainly be up for a somewhat regular return.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Won't you take me to ... Dodgertown

Down on the mid-Florida Atlantic coast -- the Treasure Coast -- sits Vero Beach, home to Dodgers Spring Training for 61 years ... until this year. Now that the deadlines have been met in Goodyear, Ariz., the Dodgers will train in the Cactus League beginning next year, ending a six-decade tradition that had come to mean Spring Training. Just those words, "Dodgertown" and "Vero Beach," meant that it was March, that the baseball season was just around the corner.

Welcome to DodgertownComing off I-95, I went a few hundred yards on a local four-lane before turning left into what looked like any other old-growth Florida neighborhood or subdivision. Only when I came to the next traffic light in this area, a sign welcoming me to Dodgertown stood on the corner. I turned into the first parking area, which put me down the hill from the fence behind Holman Stadium's left-field berm, and walked back out to the main road -- such as it was -- and joined the rest of the late-arriving morning stream of fans. We were late for the morning workouts, but early for the game. Holman's gates weren't open yet, but the Dodgers were taking batting practice on a back field and minor leaguers were enduring pitchers fielding practice on another nearby diamond.

Dodgertown was quaint, a visit back to old-school Spring Training. Walking the grounds was like exploring a resort, the streets and paths having theme names and the recognizable figures passing the everyday visitors. The path from Holman and the main complex to the back fields and minor league headquarters -- Vin Scully Way -- was divided by rope, giving the players a clear road between the fields and stadium, yet allowing the fans easy up-close access as they passed. I headed that way to explore the grounds, watching the minor leaguers hustle, then hearing the clip-clop of their cleats on the asphalt as they left the field. Joe Torre sat in a golf cart on one field, the fans up against the backstop to get pictures of LA's new manager. From where we stood, we could hear the conversation clearly.

"We leave for Orlando tonight," Torre said. "And then tomorrow we'll fly to Phoenix before heading to China."

Heading back down the path, I looked over a group of fans lining the fence in the left-field corner, where Jason Schmidt was signing autographs. He signed for a long time, getting to everyone, which isn't too surprising -- it's not like he had any throwing to do this spring. Blake DeWitt also stopped on his return trip down Vin Scully Way. The fans went to get his signature too, perhaps unsure of who he was, but not wanting to take a chance to miss getting a signature from the next Dodgers Rookie of the Year or All-Star.

Holman Stadium's simplicity is striking. A '40s ballyard hosting one of the most valuable and recognizable franchises in the game. It was more than watching a big-league team on a minor league field -- it was watching it on a small-college field, a JUCO diamond in a small corner of the county. The only thing that made the players look out of place was their size -- giants on the diamond in some cases.

After a complete traverse of the concourse, from one foul pole to the other and back to the center, I grabbed some grub and settled into my seat -- five rows off the field at about the third-base coach's box. I was so close, I could just about see the smoke coming out of Larry Bowa's ears as he stood there, forced to wear a batting helmet.

In my lap was the day's giveway, a blue beach towel. I unfolded it to find that it was a Dodger Stadium towel, with a coupon attached. A man to my left noticed me looking at the coupon's fine print.

"You can get a free soda -- if you go to L.A.," he said as I read the details of the Carl's Jr. promotion of a free 32 oz. soda with any meal purchase.

"I can," I replied, "and if I do it before Oct. 31, 2007."

Just before the game began, the occupants of the four seats to my right, between me and the aisle, settled in -- a pair of older couples, the woman in the seat next to me with her cane. So that's when I decided I'd stay seated for the first five frames, then ask them to move so that I could get out and spend the rest of the game perambulating around the park. They were who you'd expect to see watching the Dodgers in Florida in March -- the retirees with time on their hands and savings to spend.

The main drawback to Holman was that smoking was allowed on the concourse beyond certain sections down either line, and I often found myself weaving around cancer clients taking up space. This lax rule allowed them to continue to watch the game, instead of forcing them down the steps to a more open area, near where the main merchandise tent stood and the restrooms were located. The restrooms were unusual for a ballpark, too, free-standing cinder-block-and-cement structures with the faint hint of a county park relief station (but in a good way).

I added to my collection of tiny plastic team helmets by getting soft-serve mint chocolate chip and headed toward the left-field berm. I got there and sat down at field level a few feet from the warning track, only a chain-link fence between me and left field. Shortly after I settled in, Juan Pierre, Andre Ethier and Delwyn Young arrived to run some sprints near the track before calling it a day and crossing the outfield to get back to the Dodgers' clubhouse. The berm had emptied out a bit from earlier in the game, and so I sat alone, with no one invading my space. Those around me were quiet enough so that when Pierre, Ethier and Young ran past, I could hear their grunts. When they walked back to the foul line for another set, I could hear their conversation. In between, it was nothing but the crack of the bat, the slap of the ball in the left fielder's mitt, and the echo of the public-address announcer calling another batter to the plate.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Baseball in the mouse's house

At one time, the acres of land southwest of Orlando, Florida, were undeveloped or consisted mainly of orange groves. But ever since Walt Disney established his World, the area has continued to grow. There are the theme parks -- internationally based, water-based, animal-based and movie-based -- a Downtown, a suburb (Celebration) and a whole Wide World of Sports.

After exiting the highway, you follow the signs -- in a cartoonish Disney font -- to your destination, turning this way and that, circling around it seems, disorienting yourself. Though I took the exit before 1 p.m., it wasn't until 1:05 that I stepped out of my car and made my way across the parking lot to Champion Stadium, named, I realized once inside, for the apparel company, and not any kind of run of success by its spring tennant, the Atlanta Braves.

The ballpark sits among a collection of other attractions situated, in true Disney fashion, as a sort of Main Street microcosm. It's nothing more than a wide concourse, an open-air mall of sorts, but with the paths intersecting outside the gates behind home plate and the nearby stores and restaurants having full-on facades, it still has the feeling of theme-park-as-neighborhood.

By the time I emerged from the tunnel and saw the field, Brian McCann was batting for the Braves in the bottom of the first inning. He singled in the first two runs in what became a 3-1 Atlanta victory. A healthy crowd -- sprinkled liberally with fans in Cardinals red supporting the visiting team -- sat in the sun, and though I walked out to my section of metal bleachers along the right-field line and found my seat in the back row, I never made my way across the legs of the half-dozen people already there. I stood the whole game, exploring the various angles of the ballpark. It's a Disneyfied setup -- the cartoonish font returns to mark the sections, and there are hardly any permanent Braves logos to be seen, because once April comes, this ballpark is home to the Double-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, the Orlando Rays.

The best part of the experience, of this first moment at a Spring Training exhibition game, is watching a Major League game -- even with a healthy dose of prospects and scrubs taking the place of the starts we'll see come the regular season -- in a minor league park. The little details that aren't noticed from any Major League loge or mezzanine section are enhanced here: Adam Wainwright's lanky height, Albert Pujols' chin resting on his front shoulder in his batting stance, Mark Teixeira's distinctive swing, Phil Niekro's chalk-line-white hair.

Among other things, I noticed that the Cardinals are wearing their red caps with their road gray uniforms, a change from recent (regular) seasons, when they'd wear a navy blue cap with red "STL" logo. And in a fun example of lawn art, the outfield grass had a silhouette of Mickey Mouse's head mowed into it.

As it is with players' performance or rookies' emergence, Spring Training can provide a hint of what's to come when the season begins in earnest. Maybe the Cards are doing away with the blue road caps (a shame, if it's true). And maybe Pujols' elbow injury won't take away from his game that much, after all, because he's still hitting the ball this spring the way we'd expect him to.

As I leave the ballpark and make my way across the sea of cars, I'm glad I made the Disney complex my first stop, because it's the most anticeptic, generic, corporatized ballpark of the three I'll see on this trip. I chose it over the Astros' camp in Kissimmee, and I probably would've enjoyed that a little more for the atmosphere (and gotten to see Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay take on the Astros' No. 1, Roy Oswalt), but Orlando proved to be a good choice because of the stars who played in this game -- not just Pujols, McCann and Teixeira, but Troy Glaus, Jeff Francoeur, probable Cards Opening Day pitcher Wainwright and Braves pitching prospect Jair Jurrjens. Plus, I found out his first name is pronounced "J-air," the sound of simply putting a "J" in front of the word "air."

I follow the line of cars snaking its way out of the labyrinth of the Disney complex -- parking here is free, something unique for me on this three-camp tour, but I hear later that the Braves charge fans to watch workouts, so in the end, it's not as great a deal when you're paying for each person individually, rather than by the carfull -- and hit the overpriced toll road east to Titusville. I've got a little space detour before I continue the baseball portion of this trip.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

2008 Preview: AL East


In general

What's not to like about the Red Sox? Really only one thing: Curt Schilling's shoulder. Clearly, Boston was counting on Schilling as its likely third starter with the $8-million deal it signed him to in the offseason. Had they had any doubts about his healthy, they surely would've offered him an incentive-laden contract (say, $2-4 million a year, with increases for innings pitched or starts made). And if Schilling didn't like that offer, he would've tried the free-agent market. But it's not all bad for Boston, because now they can put both promising young arms -- the right one of Clay Buchholz and the left one of Jon Lester -- into the rotation, if they so please. Nonetheless, their starting pitching is in decent shape (particularly if Bartolo Colon has anything left) even without Schilling, while their bullpen and lineup haven't really lost anything.

September/October star Jacoby Ellsbury should get the center field job, leaving Coco Crisp as an attractive backup or trade piece to help the pitching staff. It probably wouldn't hurt the Mets too much to consider Crisp as a left-field fill-in for Moises Alou. But everyone else is back, and maybe J.D. Drew won't suck as much.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

Will they be able to put away the Yankees if they open up a big lead like they did last year? Can Buchholz and Lester handle the load they're likely to be given this year? Will Tim Wakefield pitch until he's 50? (That won't happen this year, though.) Is Manny going to put up tremendous numbers in his walk year? (the Red Sox have an option for each of the next two seasons.) What can Ellsbury do in his first full season? And which J.D. Drew will the Nation get?


In general

They had one "significant" acquisition during the offseason -- highly uncharacteristic for the Yankees in the past decade -- and that was to bring in reliever LaTroy Hawkins. In a kick to the rear end for nostalgia, they gave him No. 22 -- the digits worn last year by Roger Clemens. That's pretty much an about-face from the self-indulging comeback announcement he made from George Steinbrenner's box at Yankee Stadium last year. Hawkins' signing, in theory, means that Joba Chamberlain moves to the rotation to start the season. But now the talk is that Joba will "begin" the season in the bullpen. There certainly is no need to force him into the rotation when Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, Mike Mussina and Ian Kennedy form a solid five, but age is an issue with four-fifths of that quintet. Wang has won 19 games each of the past two seasons, but Pettitte and Mussina are basically year-to-year guys -- who knows what you'll get from them each year beyond their last. And Hughes and Kennedy will be attempting their first full seasons in a Major League rotation, and for all their talent, they'll still have to face the Red Sox three or four times each and face other challenges at the big league level that can't be simulated at lower levels or in spring training.

The Yankees lost nothing from their lineup, ensuring Alex Rodriguez is overpaid in a market that got out of hand in some cases (Carlos Silva) but showed admirable restraint in others (good job, everyone, for not giving Kyle Lohse $10 million a year). A-Rod didn't seem to have teams rushing to sign him for $230 million, but the Yankees didn't even try to bring him down from his -- or agent Scott Boras' -- initial demand. They also retained their catcher coming off a career year -- though their 36-year-old catcher, whom they signed for four more years. Jorge Posada shouldn't be a question mark this year, but at some point all that squatting has to (pardon the pun) catch up with him. Of course, his aversion to blocking the plate should add a year or two to the productive period of his career.

Where the Yankees are tight, or struggling with lineup decisions, is the left field, first base, designated hitter triangle. If they put Jason Giambi at first, Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui can split left and DH. But if they don't -- or can't -- put Giambi in the field, then either Damon or Matsui sits. And who plays first? Morgan Ensberg? Ouch. Whether it's Giambi, Damon or Matsui riding the padded cushion in the dugout, that's an awful lot of money for your first pinch-hitter off the bench. And it's not like you can put any of them in there for a defensive upgrade.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

I loved A-Rod when he was in the AL West, but now I hate him in pinstripes. However, it's still thrilling to watch him hit and to see just how high he can get those numbers. How quickly will he close the gap to 755 home runs? Will Derek Jeter -- the worst fielding shortstop in the game (up through something like 2005) -- get to any balls more than three steps away? (Kidding.) Actually, what I really want to see from this team is what Hughes, Kennedy and Chamberlain do -- and whether new manager Joe Girardi goes easy on them or pushes them as hard as he pushed his young Marlins pitchers during his lone season on the bench in Miami. Only Scott Olsen came out of that season unscathed. Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez have all had arm problems and missed significant time. And do they make the playoffs? This is not to discount the Yankees, but have they ever had the kind of competition for a playoff spot as they do this year with the Red Sox, Tigers and Indians? Probably not.


In general

In some other divisions, the Jays might be contenders. In the AL East, behind Boston and New York, Toronto is likely a mid-80s win team with a chance to make spoiler. Their lineup features solid on-base guys mixed with the power of Alex Rios, Vernon Wells, Frank Thomas and maybe Scott Rolen. The rotation starts with two premier arms in Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett, followed by some potential breakout guys like Dustin McGowan and Shawn Marcum. The bullpen could be decent if B.J. Ryan is back from Tommy John surgery from the outset, but without him, it could be a slow start -- something the Jays can't afford.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

I drafted Rios in a fantasy league three or four years ago -- which was two or three years too early. He blossomed last year and was nearly traded to the Giants for one of the top up-and-coming arms in the game, Tim Lincecum. How good will Rios be? What does Frank Thomas have left? Seems like a lot, and it's always fun to watch the guy keep slugging because he's one of the good guys -- and one of the clean guys. Does Wells bounce back from a disappointing 2007? Does Rolen have a rebirth north of the border, or is his career set to take off on the downward slope?


In general

This team is on the rise, and with the de-feathering of the Orioles, the Rays will move up a rung in the standings. A rotation beginning with Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza looks like fun (so long as Kazmir's elbow is healthy), and a lineup stocked with young, talented hitters like Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria will be much more enjoyable to watch than the previous attempts with Fred McGriff, Jose Canseco and Greg Vaughn.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

Is Longoria ready for the bigs? Will he live up to the hype? Can Upton continue to hit like he did in '07? Is Shields really that good? Will Kazmir make it through a full season?


In general

Andy MacPhail is in to straighten this team out, and he's brought in a load of prospects -- mostly pitchers -- by dealing Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard. Dumping Tejada days before his name appeared in the Mitchell Report was an added bonus. Now if he can keep making moves without owner Peter Angelos interfering -- note how long it took for the long-rumored Bedard deal to finally happen, and how long we've been hearing about Brian Roberts to the Cubs -- the O's may turn this around sooner than we think.

What I'm looking forward to seeing

There's not much. Maybe three: Is Nick Markakis a stud? Is Jeremy Guthrie really the best this pitching staff has? Can Adam Jones emerge as a leader?

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