Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
March 30, 2001
BASEBALL: 2001 Preview

Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website

I originally planned on a more elaborate preseason spread, with projected records and league leaders, but work intervened and this column doesnít pay the rent. Here are the standings as I see them:

NL EAST
1. Braves
2. Mets
3. Phillies
4. Marlins
5. Expos

The Mets and Braves might not be helped by the unbalanced schedule; the Mets were just 27-23 last season against the NL East, but 34-16 against the Central; the Braves were 27-24 last season against their divisional rivals but 32-13 against the West. In fact, the Marlins had the best record in intra-division play (28-22).

If youíre wondering, the teams with the best records within their divisions were: Marlins (.560), Cardinals (.597), Dodgers (.588), Blue Jays (.571), White Sox (.592), and Aís (.579). Teams that overachieved against their division rivals: Royals, Orioles, Phillies, Astros. Underachievers: Yankees (.510), Red Sox (.469), Indians (.412, worst in the Central Division and one of the worst home-division records in baseball), Mariners, Cubs (.339 against a weak division), Giants and Rockies. Take all that for whatever itís worth.

Anyway, the Braves, like the Yankees, have seen their well-balanced juggernaut unravel and are increasingly dependent on a few superstars and veteran starting pitching -- still a tough mix to beat. With injuries attacking their rotation and catching, a desperate situation at first base and potentially bad outfield corners (although Brian Jordan may rebound), the Braves are ripe for pickiní. But I donít see it happening.

One piece of good news on the Mets: they plan to use Benny Agbayani in the leadoff spot more often than not. Bobby V can do some strange things, but he deserves credit for not just going with the knee-jerk move of leading off the small, speedy Timo all the time and instead picking a 225-pound home run hitter to lead off because he gets on base.

(Note: Iíll take a closer look at the NL East some time in the next few weeks. This could be a much more competitive division, top to bottom, than itís been in years. But for now Iíll be brief and move on to the other divisions.)

NL CENTRAL
1. Cardinals
2. Astros
3. Reds
4. Cubs
5. Brewers
6. Pirates

The Cards face some challenges: Jim Edmonds had a career year last year; Darryl Kile may also be off; Rick Ankiel is a wild Card, literally; McGwireís age, injuries and huge strike zone could catch up to him; Will Clark and Fernando Tatis are gone; Mike Matheny remains. But this team still has the best balance in the division, they could get real improvements from JD Drew and Edgar Renteria, and they would take a large step forward if McGwire hits 60 homers again (you canít say for certain he wonít) and Matt Morris starts 30 times.

Things often collapse much more quickly than they can be rebuilt. The Astros lost too many close games last year, and frankly, they seemed unprepared for how moving from the Astrodome to Enron would affect them (with Billy Wagner mostly healthy, that wonít happen again). I expect an off-year (.290 with 28 homers would be an off-year) from Bagwell and only a partial return to form by Biggio, whoís older than you think (34), but this team can still hit. The rotation is a mess, though, and with Shane Reynolds hurt it could take time to come together. Both Jose Lima and Octavio Dotel may need to be exchanged for ground ball pitchers for the Astros to be more than just Rangers Part Deux!

I was debating picking the Reds before Griffey got hurt, but then reality set in. If healthy, Griffey should rebound. Sean Casey had a huge second half last season; his huge second half in 1998 led into a big 1999, and this could be the same thing. Casey is a serious hitter. The bullpen should be good again. Beyond that, the Reds are their usual collection of talented question marks, and Iím not optimistic about Barry Larkin. I will also be waiting to see if Bob Boone has learned anything from his disastrous tenure
in KC.

The Cubs have patched some holes by bringing in Todd Hundley, Bill Mueller, Rondell White and Matt Stairs. Itís a fair question whether they should be focusing on plugging holes rather than rebuilding, but with Sammy re-signed and a weak division the Cubs clearly sense an opportunity and a need to make a push now. They should be improved and might finish ahead of the mercurial Reds, but their rotation is still weak behind Jon Lieber and Kerry Wood (assuming Wood is all the way back; the high strike should help), the bottom of the order is pitiful, and the lineup is loaded with guys who list the disabled list as their primary residence. Only three non-pitchers on the roster are under 30, and Rondell White (an old 29) is the only one expected to play a significant role.

The Brewers, as usual, are headed nowhere in particular. They badly need Ron Belliard to step up, and together with the Jenkins/Sexson/Burnitz power core he could give them some offensive oomph. But the pitching staff is not strong, and Jeff DíAmicoís health is (as always) a major concern. Ben Sheets and Miller Park could create some excitement, which is much needed after a lost decade in the wilderness; I watched one Met-Brewer game last summer where Tom Seaver just tore into the Brew Crew for going through the motions.

The Ship of Fools was already headed for rough sailing in Pittsburgh before a battery of pitching injuries set in. The charitable reading of Lloyd McClendonís decision to name Pat Meares the starting second baseman is that heís just trying to light a fire under Warren Morris, but it appears that heís actually serious about giving up entirely on a talented young player coming off a disappointing second season and handing his job to a thirtysomething who is trying to recapture the mediocrity of his youth. Is it too late for Brian Giles to fail his physical and get sent back to Cleveland? This simply has to be the worst team in the National League.

NL WEST
1. Rockies
2. Giants
3. Diamondbacks
4. Dodgers
5. Padres

Another division with four competitors and one doormat, although the competitors are all weak enough that the West may be thankful for the unbalanced schedule.

The Rockies are hardly an imposing team outside of the best-hitting pitching staff since Babe Ruth left Boston, and the Neagle signing is sure to be a disaster. But they have two outstanding starters (Hampton and Astacio) and an offense that ought to score some runs even on the road. Fleet-footed rookie Juan Pierre should help shore up the outfield defense, always a burning issue in spacious Coors Field, and Neifi Perez is probably the NLís best defensive shorstop.

The Giants, who looked like the best team in baseball entering the 2000 postseason, missed their chance. To repeat, they are heavily dependent on Bonds and Kent repeating their 2000 performances. Both should still be outstanding this year, but itís highly unlikely that they will finish 1-2 in the MVP balloting again. Ellis Burks wasnít going to hit .344 again, but now heís gone entirely, as is Bill Mueller, and Mueller leaves a gaping hole (Russ Davis) in his place. Robb Nen will also have difficulty repeating at last yearís unearthly level. I will admit that I may not be giving their rotation its fair credit, but SFís collection of number 3 starters still doesnít inspire confidence.

Arizona, the Orioles of the National League, should stay above .500 thanks to solid pitching, but their offense was unimpressive last year and only seems older. My list of guys threatened by the new strike zone includes virtually the entire D-Backs lineup except for Tony Womack, who already stinks.

The Dodgers tempted me, but the Beltre injury leaves them with only two dependably above-average hitters (Sheffield and Green), Chan Ho Park may not be able to repeat last season (when he was the best nonPedro pitcher in baseball the last two months of the season), the bullpen is ancient (you think the Twins still regret dealing Jesse Orosco for Jerry Koosman?), and the defense is suspect. Oh, and now Kevin Brownís banged up, albeit mildly.

The Pads? Well, there are better ways to develop a young pitching staff than an outfield where Tony Gwynn is not the oldest guy out there. San Diego may make some progress but frankly thereís little new to say about a team there was really nothing to say about last season.

AL EAST

1. Yankees
2. Red Sox
3. Blue Jays
4. Devil Rays
5. Senators
6. Browns
7. Pilots
8. Spiders
9. Orioles

OK, the top 3 arenít real original. The Yanks arenít really a championship-caliber team at this stage, given the injury threats to the pitching staff, the decay at three positions (1B, RF and 3B) and defensive experiments at two others (LF and 2B). Justice and Posada are likely to be off last yearís pace, although if Knoblauch survives in left he could give a big boost to the offense. They still have Rivera, Bernie, Jeter, excellent starting pitching, and they are still the Yankees: even if THIS roster isnít enough, George will get more at the deadline. They wonít win 96 games, but they should hang on to take an injury-riddled division and the mid-season additions could still make them scary in October.

My older brother called this one: the Red Sox look like a rotisserie team assembled by an owner who spent all his money in the first five minutes of the draft and had to fill out his roster with $1 players . . . . At this writing, the 2001 Red Sox Bandwagon is in the garage with the door shut and the motor running. Did I mention that Chris Reitsma, traded by the Sox for Danteís Decline, will be in the Redsí starting rotation this year?

Toronto is the same old story: key guys will hit, Billy Koch will close the close ones, but the young pitchers are unpredictable and the lineup peters out at the end. 86 wins. Yawn.

Much of the Raysí success will hinge on two things: can they unload Vinny Castilla to get more at bats for Aubrey Huff and Steve Cox? And, can Albie Lopez and Paul ďMr. FebruaryĒ Wilson hold up as productive starters over a full season? If so, Tampa could threaten .500. Larry Rotschild deserves some credit as an excellent handler of pitchers. Jason Tyner appears relegated to a bench role, but Tyner is only 24, and if he gets playing time he still has a decent shot at developing the patience at the plate to be an effective table-setter. The best hope for these guys is to shop Vaughn, McGriff, Castilla, Guzman, Alvarez, and Flaherty to contending teams in July.

How bad are the Orioles? A starting outfield of Melvin Mora, Brady Anderson and Delino DeShields? And take a look at the starting rotation beyond Hentgen and Ponson. They are planning on starting some guy named Willis Roberts, a prospect so obscure that none of the many preseasoon guides I own (including the Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus books) even cover him. Peter Angelos should be sued for malpractice . . .

AL CENTRAL
1. Indians
2. White Sox
3. Twins
4. Tigers
5. Royals

No bad teams in the Central, so head-to-head competition will be vicious.

I see the Indians, like the 1992 Aís, the 1983 Phillies or the 1972 Tigers, squeezing out one more run. Their top 3 starters should be a match for the Twinsí, the bullpen is deep, and the offense should still have some firepower. Obviously a revived Juan Gonzalez and the health of Travis Fryman will be key; they need to handle their aging outfielders with care without giving too much playing time to Wil Cordero. The other big things that could kill them: 1) Chuck Finley suddenly getting old, or 2) Russ Branyan hitting .180.

The White Sox have some real health issues on the pitching staff; Ray Durham is due to have a mild off year; Charles Johnson is gone; the teamís best defensive player (Chris Singleton) has lost his job; and Frank Thomas will probably not be quite as good as in 2000. They should still win 90 games, but I sense the Indians taking them head to head. Mark your calendars now for 8 games between the Indians and White Sox between August 31 and September 10 ( the same stretch when the Yankees will be playing the Red Sox and the Giants playing the Rockies).

Some people are picking the Twins to contend for the wild card or even the division title based on their starting pitching. I donít see it. Their three best hitters are Matt Lawton, David Ortiz and Corey Koskie. Good players all, but can those three outhit Thome, Alomar and Juan Gonzalez? To say nothing of Thomas, Ordonez, and Konerko. The Twinsí vulnerability to lefthanded pitching could be lethal, given how often theyíll see Finley, Wells, Parque, and (if healthy) Rosado, plus rookie lefties Mark Buerhle and CC Sabathia. And their closer is LaTroy Hawkins; baseball-reference.com lists Lynn ďLine DriveĒ Nelson as one of the ten most similar pitchers ever to Hawkins. Not a good sign to be compared to a man known for serving up line drives (for the optimists, Jose Mesa is also listed as a comp through the same age, two years before his '95 breakout).

The Tigers just donít impress me. Sure, thereís cause for optimism. Roger Cedeno is primed for a solid season at bat and a huge one on the bases (he should lead the league in steals by a margin of about 15-20). The disgruntled Juanny Paycheck is gone. Tony Clark could be healthy. And Matt Andersonís 100 mph fastball canít help but make him a big beneficiary of the new zone. But beyond that, this team is too far from having a passable pitching staff or a scary offense to make a dent. Mitch Meluskey's season-ending injury doesn't help.

The Royals arenít really a last place team; they still have young hitters, and they finally have a closer after an unprecedented stretch of having more blown saves than saves two years in a row. But their starting rotation stinks, Johnny Damonís gone, Rosadoís ailing, and Joe Randa is probably going to hit .254 again, which would give them three non-hitters in the lineup. The keys to a winning record are the rotation and a revival by Dos Carlos, who have lost their luster of two years ago.

AL WEST
1. Aís
2. Rangers
3. Mariners
4. Angels

Sure, anything can happen, but the Aís are the only team in the majors that doesnít need a miracle to have a realistic shot at 100 wins this season if they get reasonably good breaks. The main wild cards would be a big sophomore slump by Barry Zito, the failure of Mark Mulder to develop, the right field platoon, and whether Eric Chavez can crack the Mendoza line against lefthanded pitching. Heíd better be prepared for off-speed stuff, since none of the half-decent lefty starters in this division throw much
above 85 mph.

The Rangers will score plenty, but injuries and bad pitching will doom their playoff hopes. They already have five or six guys on the DL. The bullpen is a shambles, Rusty Greer has struck out in a third of his spring at bats (donít say you werenít warned), and Rick Helling collapsed in September last season. The upside: Kenny Rogers could win 20 games with this lineup, and if Helling rebounds, Doug Davis could actually give them 3 decent starters. The new strike zone could help Darren Oliver get his ERA back around 5.00.

The Mariners just donít have the bats. Besides Olerud Ė another guy on strike-zone watch Ė and 38-year-old Edgar, the only possibly above-average hitter at his position is Ichiro! Suzuki, and with little home run power and a moderate number of walks, Suzuki will have to swing his herb-quelling sword at at least a .320 clip to stand out among AL right fielders.

The Angels will get real sick of this unbalanced schedule real fast. Besides Glaus, Salmon, Erstad, Ortiz and some middle relievers, is there anyone on this roster you would want on your team? What kind of organization canít find a decent DH?

*****

WILD CARDS
NL -- I have the Astros; the advantage of 38 games against Pittsburgh and Milwaukee will be too much for the Mets and Giants, bit facing divisions deep in talent, to keep up with. As a Mets fan that kills me, but the Mets have a simple choice this year: beat the Braves head-to-head or go home.

AL -- Nomar's injury clears the way for the Central Division runner-up as the clear favorite in the Wild Card race; since I have the Indians winning the division, that leaves the White Sox for the card.

POSTSEASON PICKS

NLDS: Braves over Astros (pitching wins the day); Cardinals over Rockies

NLCS: Cardinals over Braves, again; this time Atlantaís just outgunned. Of course, Ankiel could upset that analysis.

ALDS: Aís over White Sox, because the Sox still donít have the starting pitching; Yankees over Indians, just because theyíre the Yankees

ALCS: Aís over Yankees; the torch passes, or rather is pried out of the hands of Clemens and Mussina.

WORLD SERIES: Aís over Cardinals. Not even close. The Yankees will give Oakland a much better fight.

SUMMARY

The parity trend continues, as the rich get older and the young stay poor. Last season exposed gaping weaknesses in the gameís top teams, most of whom have responded by dragging in still more expensive veterans, while the young teams continue to find critical elements missing from their hopes of contention. Of the teams with the most prime and near-prime talent and the least dependence on old folks, the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Rockies all have gaping holes in their lineups. Only the Aís are capable of really seizing the moment, which is why they are the logical pick to win it all.

If they donít click, the inevitable mid-season retooling will put the Yankees back in striking distance of the baseballís third-ever Four-Peat and third ever by the Yankees, but for now Iím going with the ALís second most-storied franchise to win its sixteenth AL pennant and tenth World Championship.

QUOTES OF THE WEEK:
ďI donít even want to talk about itĒ
-Pedro, on Nomarís injury.

ďI want to make the team, but if I donít, Iím in the frame of mind itís not going to spoil my golf game.Ē
Ė Steve Avery, last seen in Braves camp.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:29 AM | Baseball Columns | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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