Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
March 29, 2002
BASEBALL: 2002 Preview

Originally posted on Projo.com

NL EAST

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

The Mets, I've been through already. I'm skeptical of the Braves' starting rotation (heresy!) beyond Maddux, who is ceding ground only slowly and grudgingly to the ravages of time. And the infield corners are shaky at best, disastrous at worst. But this team has baseball's best offensive outfield, its best defensive center fielder, a dynamite young DP combination (if Furcal's healthy) and a catcher who can hit. And a manager who's a whiz at making a good bullpen from scratch. I'm just not ready to write the obit yet; this year's Braves may be different, but they are still a good bet for the 90 wins that are more than enough to win this division.

The Phils have a good offensive talent core, but they still have the execrable Doug Glanville (998 outs the past two seasons and just 163 runs scored), and will wind up with either Glanville or Jimmy Rollins as their primary leadoff man. Unless Randy Wolf has a breakthrough they don't have anything resembling a #1 starter, and I still don't trust their bullpen. The good news is the return of Mike Lieberthal, who should hit even if not at his old level, the likelihood of mild improvements from Abreu and Rolen, and the high likelihood of a major step forward by Pat Burrell.

The Marlins, with their young pitching, are a tempting choice for this year's surprise team, but other than Cliff Floyd there isn't a guy in this lineup who is likely to be significantly above league average in both slugging and OBP. I don't see them having the bats to keep up with the Cincinnatis and Philadelphias of the league, let alone Houston or St. Louis. And young pitching can make you famous, but it can also kill you; Josh Beckett could easily be the next Dwight Gooden, or he could be only the next Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, or Randy Johnson, which is to say, not that much as a rookie. Paul "Mr. February" Wilson was once a projected superstar rookie, too.

Some of you may have seen the recent article citing the "new fad" of using on base percentage to evaluate players and Montreal Interim GM Omar Minaya's disdain for the stat (Art noted the piece in his Notebook yesterday). What's strange to me about some of the "baseball people" knocking OBP is that it is one of the few statistics developed principally by and for people inside a major league organization -- the modern form of OBP came about through the efforts of Branch Rickey and his team statistician with the Brooklyn Dodgers. This is in contrast to, say, the save rule, which was invented in the 1960s by a Chicago sportswriter and yet has somehow assumed totemic proportions among the game's insiders. While Minaya's thinking may be stuck in the 1930s, however, Interim Manager Frank Robinson was an Earl Weaver disciple who gave Mickey Tettleton, Andre Thornton and Moose Milligan their first everyday jobs, so maybe we can hope that Robinson's thinking will rub off on Interim Right Fielder Vladimir Guerrero and Interim Second Baseman Jose Vidro.

Thumbs up:

+Bobby Abreu. If you don't think he's one of the game's biggest stars, you aren't paying attention.
+Andruw Jones. I assume that he's the age he says he is -- has anyone investigated Curacao lately? -- and he should recover from last year's bump on the road to superstardom.
+Edgardo Alfonzo. Having a good spring with the bat, less so the glove but will come around at his old (pre-1999) position.
+Josh Beckett. The most likely scenario is a season like Kerry Wood, Rick Ankiel and Matt Morris had as rookies.

Thumbs down:

+Tom Glavine. His days as an elite pitcher are done.
+Jason Marquis. Good stuff, but not ready for prime time as a rotation starter.

NL CENTRAL

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

The Cards still have the upper hand in this division unless the trio of Matt Morris, JD Drew and Jim Edmonds reverts to their injury-prone ways. A lengthy absence by Morris would be critical, especially now that it seems that the Rick Ankiel Era may have to wait another year (the name "Sam Militello" is starting to come to mind). I liked the acquisitions of Tino and Izzy even though I'm not a fan of either; they were better than letting holes fester at those spots.

Here's two related questions: has any organization been as snakebit by injury as the Cards the past 15 years? Maybe Anaheim, but St. Louis stacks up with anyone. And has any organization had a better run of good health than the Cardinals did before that? Starting when they followed their first World Championship in 1926 by trading super-slugger Rogers Hornsby for the hustling Frankie Frisch and running at least through their last championship in 1982, the Cards had a clear and coherent organizational philosophy: young players who ran well and played hard, and pitchers who threw strikes. They were rewarded with many years worth of players, mostly in their twenties, who never got hurt; even the guys who lasted into their thirties with the team were durable. People like Frisch, Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Keith Hernandez, Ozzie Smith, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Garry Templeton, Ted Simmons, Tim McCarver, Ken Boyer, Red Schoendienst, and Bob Gibson were astonishingly healthy. There were careers ruined by injury, to be sure: Dizzy Dean, Johnny Beazley, Joe Garagiola, Mike Shannon. But their numbers were generally fewer than you would find anywhere else in the majors. The mid-80s came, and there was Jack Clark, Pedro Guerrero, Bob Horner, and an incredible rash of pitching injuries (I think Greg Mathews and Ken Dayley are still on the DL). The 90s were even worse, from McGwire to Alan Benes to Donovan Osborne to Brian Jordan to Fernando Tatis. Maybe it was just their luck changing, but it seems that the gradual abandonment of the Cardinal philosophy, at least on the offensive side, played a role: fewer jackrabbits, more sluggers, more pulled muscles.

The key for Houston overtaking the Cards is whether they can get .300 and 30+ homers each out of the outfield of Berkman, Hidalgo and Ward; a big year by any one of them is highly likely, but if all three click at once and Morgan Ensberg can step up before Craig Biggio steps down, they will be hard to contain even with weaker hitters at catcher and shortstop. Lance Berkman, center fielder. The mental image alone says all you need to know about how their surroundings have changed the Astros from the days of Terry Puhl, Craig Reynolds and Enos Cabell. A year ago I thought Enron Corp. must have been thrilled to have its name on a stadium where power is cheap and plentiful . . . The Central runner-up will almost certainly take the wild card.

The next three teams are more interchangeable than you think; all three have young pitchers and young power hitters, and then there is Sosa and Griffey. But the pitching staffs aren't a match for St. Louis, nor the lineups a match for Houston. The Pirates will be in the game's desperate underclass again; new stadiums aren't as important as good players. I'll admit that I haven't seen enough of Jason Kendall to know if he'll ever return to the hitter he was just over a year ago.

Thumbs up:

+Roy Oswalt. Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Juan Guzman, Whitey Ford, Bill Gullickson, Robin Roberts, Fergie Jenkins, Walter Johnson . . . there are plenty of examples of guys putting in a partial good season as a rookie and then handling the transition to a full-time starter as a second-year pitcher seamlessly.
+Kerry Wood. This is the year Wood hits it big.
+Geoff Jenkins. One injury-scarred season and everyone seems to forget about the slugger who was just starting to get noticed a year ago.
+Glendon Rusch. I still like Rusch, albeit less so with the Brew Crew.

Thumbs down:

+Adam Dunn. Not saying he won't be a great player someday with Mark McGwire power, and if he's healthy he should hit 35-40 homers this year. Just this: the guy strikes out A LOT, and he's 22 years old. Don't be surprised if he struggles to hit .250. You know, like the young Mark McGwire.
+Rick Ankiel. Ankiel is a supremely talented major league pitcher, and he did last year was such pitchers are supposed to do when they are sent back to rookie ball: struck out 2 men per inning, totally overpowered the competition. But now he's hurting, and you wonder if there is a connection between his control problems and his arm trouble. One thing says it's coincidence: his problems started with his fastball, and at first at least didn't affect his curve.
+Derek Bell. Ah, I'm beating a dead horse here. But it feels good. The injury in late 2000 that forced the Mets to use Timo Perez instead of Bell was a tremendous blessing, regardless of how Game 1 of the World Series turned out; doesn't that say everything you need to know about Derek Bell?

NL WEST

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

Any team in this division could finish anywhere, although the Dodgers look pretty unlikely to contend given the loss of Sheffield and Chan Ho Park as well as key 2001 contributors Terry Adams and Matt Herges. In a close pennant race, I still like the ability of the D-Backs to throw the Johnson-Schilling buzzsaw at whoever challenges them. They do have an awful lot of guys on the decline from what was already a weak offense, though, and if Schilling's 300-inning season catches up with him, they could finish last. Easily. The Giants still have Bonds, Kent and Aurilla, but the penny-pinching they went through to keep Bonds will catch up with them (Tsuyoshi Shinjo as a leadoff hitter?). Interestingly, Baseball Prospectus projects David Bell to recover his home run swing at Pac Bell. Highly-touted Kurt Ainsworth could be important, assuming he's healthy. The Pads may surprise, but I don't see their pitching as particularly reliable. Colorado should expect a better year from Mike Hampton, who flamed out after a good first half last season; like Pedro Astacio after 1998, he may be back with a better appreciation of how to pace himself at Coors. I like this team up the middle, and they are the most likely candidate to win if the
D-Backs falter.

Thumbs up:

+Mark Kotsay. Think 'Trot Nixon 2001'. Not as good as Nixon but the same type of player.
+Todd Helton. Will hit .360 again.
+Adrian Beltre. Healthy again.

Thumbs down:

+Miguel Batista. The numbers don't add up.
+Byun-Hyung Kim. I like his nasty sidearming style, but you know why.
+Rick Helling. Too much wear and tear.
+Barry Bonds. Of course, he can fall off sharply from 2001 and still have a year better than the average Willie Mays season with the bat, so take this with a grain of salt. But a return to his MVP-candidate level (as opposed to runaway-MVP level) would be a big blow to the Giants. The same goes for Luis Gonzalez.
+Paul LoDuca. The poor man's Piazza should be productive but is unlikely to match his Cinderella debut last season.
+Cesar Itzuris. May help your roto team, but won't hit enough to help Jim Tracy's team.
+Todd Zeile. Coors will help, but then the altitude couldn't save Howard Johnson and Dale Murphy when their numbers were up.

AL EAST

1. Yankees
2. Red Sox
3. Blue Jays
4. Devil Rays
5. Orioles

Another boring, same-as-last-year's-predictions division. I've been through the Yanks and Sox already; the return (or not) of Pedro remains the biggest question mark in the game. One interesting subplot will be whether the Yankees have the patience to break in Nick Johnson if he doesn't come roaring out of the gate the way Soriano did last season; the answer, like the treatment of Ted Lilly, will say a lot about the sustainabilty of the current dynasty. Toronto could hang around the race a while but I sense that, with their commitment to rebuilding under J.P. Ricciardi, they won't hesitate to deal veterans even if they are in the thick of it. The main man likely to be dealt is Darrin Fletcher, who's 35 and being pushed by Josh Phelps and Jayson Werth, but Raul Mondesi and Shannon Stewart could also be on the market. The Rays seem to finally be going somewhere, and if they can locate Ben Grieve, they could get mediocre in a hurry. The Orioles don't have a single player who's better than a 50/50 shot to be above average at his position this season, or at any time in the future, and few prospects in the minors. That's pathetic, and there is absolutely nobody La Famiglia Angelos can blame but themselves. Let 'em rot in the cellar.

Thumbs up:

+Esteban Yan. Throws hard, mastered the strike zone last season. I like Yan's chances to hold down the closer job.
+David Wells. Wells has thrown well in camp and could add needed stability to the Yanks' rotation.
+Jay Witasick. Not as bad as he was with the Yankees last season. Witasick can bounce back to be a contributor.
+Johnny Damon. Wishful thinking? I spent $29 on this guy for my roto team. Seriously, Damon should bounce back and hit comfortably over .300.
+Jay Gibbons.
+Jason Tyner. I still think he will learn to get on base enough to be useful.

Thumbs down:

+Sterling Hitchcock.
+Carlos Baerga. See Bell, Derek.

AL CENTRAL

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

I'm not excited about the White Sox, given the disarray of their pitching staff. But the offense is so far and away the best in the division that they can't help but win if they are healthy. Besides, only the Twins even have enough of a settled pitching rotation to take advantage of the matchup on the defensive side, and the Twins don't have Chicago's bullpen. 76 games against this division will make the White Sox look scary entering October, but don't be fooled.

Look at some of the people the Indians had in camp, like Brady Anderson and Mike Lansing, and tell me these guys haven't crossed over into Angelos Land. The Nineties are over. Pretty soon they will be a "small market" team again and begging the taxpayers for a new stadium and the league for revenue sharing.

The Royals . . . it's astonishing how many AL pitchers are holding down rotation slots despite no prior record of major league success. One pre-season depth chart listed a guy named Darrell May as the Royals' number two starter, and I'd never heard of him (May was in Japan). They need an offensive juggernaut to give their young arms (including guys who have been unproven young arms for 4-5 years now) breathing room, and instead we get Neifi Perez, Raul Ibanez, Brent Mayne, Michael Tucker, Carlos Febles, Joe Randa, and Chuck Knoblauch . . . and the Tigers, despite some good pitchers, should be even worse, having let go three talented everyday players in their twenties in the offseason and replaced them mostly with scrubs other than Dmitri Young. The Tigers have a bunch of catchers who can hit, so of course they intend to play two or three of them in the lineup at once and are still considering giving the catching job to a guy who can't. Both of these teams should by all rights lose 100 games.

Thumbs up:

+Matt Anderson. Heh heh, heh heh, fire!
+Paul Konerko. Again. Most of Konerko's apparent decline last season was caused by the decline in offense around the league, as was true for a number of his White Sox teammates; he was actually better. He's in his prime.
+Todd Ritchie. Ritchie's no star, but he and Buerhle are the only guys in the White Sox rotation who are solid bets to take their 33-34 turns and not get bombed, and that alone makes them good bets to win a bundle of games.

Thumbs down:

+Bobby Howry. I hadn't noticed when I drafted him for my roto team that he has misplaced his fastball. It you've seen it, please contact the White Sox front office ASAP.
+Karim Garcia. I used to expect Garcia and Jose Guillen to be breakout candidates, a la Aramis Ramirez, as they hit their mid-20s and if they got another full shot. Now, I'm not so sure with any of these Latin American players how old they are; the ones to be suspicious of are guys like this whose careers haven't progressed the way you would expect them to at their age. Garcia can hit some homers and looked to get some playing time before the Indians cut him, but I've lowered my expectations.

AL WEST

1. Mariners
2. A's
3. Rangers
4. Angels

Lou Piniella has what sounds like the easiest assignment in baseball: if your team wins within 25 games of last season's win total, with everyone of significance returning except one good starter and one mediocre third baseman, you probably make the postseason. But too many of us ran into trouble last season by rating the Mariners against the prior year's results rather than looking at the talent on hand from scratch. The Mariners have a lot of reasons to decline: Bret Boone won't match last season, the bullpen can't be as flawless again, Edgar's second half fade may signal the overdue onset of decline. But this team still has a solid lineup; Ichiro may drop down to .330 but a recent Baseball Prospectus analysis of his Japanese batting stats suggests that he may flash more power this season; Joel Piniero will improve the rotation; Carlos Guillen isn't sick anymore; and Jeff Cirillo should hit. I don't see a real weakness to this team, and that should keep them in the race all year.

The departure of Giambi leaves the A's without any survivors of the slow-pitch softball talent core of the 1999 team, Giambi, Grieve, Stairs and Jaha. Either the Mariners or A's are Boston's primary rival for the wild card. Oakland is now a pitching team, not a mashing team and not really an exceptionally patient team at the plate, not with Tejada, Chavez, Dye, Long and Hernandez in the lineup. If Carlos Pena develops into an everyday player by midseason, Dye comes back good as new and Billy Koch bounces back, they may not feel as severely the impact of their many losses, but I don't see this as a 100-win team again.

Texas is going to score a ton of runs even if Carl Everett falls off the face of the earth, and the pitching could hardly be worse, although it won't be good. I consider them a legitimate contender in this division.

Anaheim may improve this year if Tim Salmon and Darrin Erstad bounce back - Salmon's had a good spring - but they won't keep up in this division.

Thumbs up:

+Jeff Cirillo. May have psyched himself out at Coors; won't see his numbers drop off as much as expected and his real level of performance should improve.
+Jeremy Giambi. Sloooooow, but turned it on with the bat down the stretch last year and could be a big factor in 2002.
+Chad Bradford. More on this later in the season, but I'm a sucker for sidearmers.
+Matt Wise. Good control, good minor league record.
+John Rocker. Has the closer job back, has the help of Oscar Acosta, the pitching coach who did so well with the Cubs' power arms last year, and he's back in Dixie.

Thumbs down:

+Paul Abbott.
+Bret Boone. I say he gets hurt; that seems like the most likely outcome.
+Jermaine Dye. Not a famously quick healer.
+Chan Ho Park. Will really miss Dodger Stadium.
+Carl Everett. He can't cover center field, and the severe decline in his walk rate corroborates the impression that his performance suffered last year in part because he lost his mind. I just don't think Everett will bounce back the way you would otherwise expect a guy with his record to do.

The Postseason:

I'm not going to try predicting the postseason in March again, except to say that it's been nearly 40 years since the fifth and most recent October meeting of baseball's two most successful postseason franchises. The Cards lead the Yankees 3-2, if you're keeping score. My pick, assuming there's a postseason instead of a strike: the Yankees beat the Cards. Hey, I said they were the preseason favorite. I'll be happy to be proven wrong.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 10:24 AM | Baseball Columns | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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