Standings, awards, and for no good reason (the playoffs are a complete crapshoot, anything can happen in a short series, etc), playoff predictions too.
Rays (Wild Card)
Brian Cashman and company have done a great job recognizing the Yankees' aging core and splicing in elite (or near-elite) talent in their prime years. Javier Vazquez, Nick Johnson and Curtis Granderson aren't quite CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, but they'll do nicely. The Yankees never carry a good bench -- their depth lies in their sheer number of star players.
Expect one or more breakthrough seasons for the Rays' rotation, which will propel them just above a really good Red Sox team, into the playoffs for the second time in three years. Wade Davis in particular could be a huge upgrade over Scott Kazmir's ugly 2009 season; we already know this team can hit, and catch the ball.
Impressive offensive display last night by the Red Sox in their home opener against the Yanks. It says here they'll have a tougher time with the Matt Garzas and James Shieldses of the division than the CC Sabathias, due to their righty-heavy lineup. There's a lot of age and injury risk in this lineup too. Of course we're talking about a matter of degrees here: We might see the Yankees win 96 games, the Rays 94, and the Red Sox 93, so the order could easily flip.
Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters, Nolan Reimold, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman...the foundation is here for good things. Just not yet. Not when the team's wasting multiple millions on placeholders like Garrett Atkins and Miguel Tejada for no good reason. An Orioles team with .500 potential in another division might struggle to win 75 in the ridiculous AL East.
Ditto the Jays and their base of Adam Lind, Aaron Hill, Travis Snider and an intriguing young pitching staff. Lind's four-year, $18 million contract with three club options was a move right out of the Andrew Friedman playbook. With just two minor contracts in place after this year other than Lind and (UGH) Vernon Wells, the Jays have the right combination of payroll flexibility and a sharp, Montreal-raised GM to be a threat a couple years down the road.
The loss of Joe Nathan hurts, though more because it thins out the bullpen's depth than for any magic 9th-inning pixie dust reasons. Here's why we're sticking with the Twins, though: In years past, half the starting lineup would consist of Nick Punto clones affectionately called piranhas (read: guys who can't hit to save their lives). This year, the Twins finally bought the right veteran free agents to augment their core, and are now a top-10 payroll team. The woefully underrated combo of Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey add further stability in the rotation, and Francisco Liriano is everyone's post-hype breakout candidate.
I'm not buying what the White Sox are selling. Jake Peavy has to prove he can dominate in the tougher American League, in a much, much tougher ballpark, if the Pale Hose want to tout their rotation as elite. And we haven't touched the team's biggest problem, a flimsy offense. Love Gordon Beckham, but this team is carrying too many Mark Teahens and Andruw Joneses to knock off the Twins. One wild card which could override all that: a monster bounceback for Carlos Quentin, which is certainly possible.
Dave Dombrowski has always been one of my favorite general managers - he was even the subject of the last article I ever wrote for Baseball Prospectus. So when the Tigers GM makes a trade that has others scratching their head, I'm willing to consider other angles. Subbing in Johnny Damon for Curtis Granderson is a downgrade, 2009 stats notwithstanding. But Dombrowski has clearly made a complete transition to a pitching-and-defense approach, a front three of Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer could be awesome, and there's plenty more top-notch pitching talent on the way from the farm. The Tigers might not win this year, but their pitching will make them competitive for years to come.
OK, Indians, you're not fooling the statheads this year. Yes, we likee young(ish), cheap talent like Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo and Matt LaPorta as building blocks for a team. But there's way too much pitching uncertainty here, and the team still needs to transition away from the last generation of players, replacing the Travis Hafners, Jake Westbrooks and Jhonny Peraltas with real upgrades. If Kansas City passes Cleveland this year, no one should be surprised.
Speaking of the Royals, it's a damn shame they don't have much of a supporting cast, because Zack Greinke and Billy Butler should be pretty damn good for a long time. Luke Hochevar's a sleeper breakout candidate, if he can stay in the rotation for 30 starts. The next step for this team should be to trade the few other marketable pieces they have for more prospects. Flipping Joakim Soria and David DeJesus would augment a farm system core that's led by hard-throwing pitchers Mike Montgomery and Aaron Crow.
Aside from the all-consuming Rays book that's finally, mercifully is nearly done, the other major project I worked on for the past several months was a story on the Texas Rangers and the innovative steps they're taking to upgrade their run prevention. Other publications have covered Nolan Ryan's influence on the team. But assuming this story runs as planned, you'll get more minute details about the Rangers, their pitchers, their staff, and the history of pitching than you could ever hope to digest. That pitching-and-defense approach, combined with a still-dynamic young lineup, propels the team to their first division title in more than a decade.
I've learned my lesson well enough to know not to bury the Angels, like some projection systems are doing this spring (please don't kill me PECOTA, I'm still a big fan). But there are enough question marks here to drop the Halos to second place for the first time since 2006. John Lackey's departure will hurt, as will Chone Figgins', as will regression concerns for Kendry Morales, Torii Hunter, Erick Aybar and others. On the other hand, Kevin Jepsen, Howie Kendrick and Mike Napoli could hike their value with more playing time and development this year, and more broadly, the Angels always seem to find a way. This prediction is similar to the AL East call: The margin's close enough that the outcome could easily flip based on one big injury, breakout, or collapse.
I only recently stopped drinking the Mariners' Kool-Aid. Maybe it was the Cliff Lee injury, or the punchless Rob Johnson beating Adam Moore out of the starting catcher's job, or the downgrade from Russell Branyan to Casey Kotchman at first base, or the team failing to convert Brandon Morrow into anything better than another (admittedly solid) relief pitcher named Brandon, or axing better role players in favor of sentimental favorites like Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney. Add it all up and you have a team that deserves credit for riding a defensive wave to a big 2009 improvement, but doesn't quite have the horses to win the West, at least not yet.
Bill Simmons documented the e-mail exchange we had over A's starting pitcher Brett Anderson. Let's just say there was more gushing there than in the entire Saw series. The young lefty ace will lead a team that's loaded with speed and defense, but completely devoid of offensive punch. If Chris Carter and Michael Taylor were in the lineup on Opening Day, you might be able to squint and imagine the A's vying for third place. Keeping their service time in check and letting the other pitchers develop behind Anderson, then making a run in 2011 and beyond, seems like the wisest choice.
Braves (Wild Card)
Let's make a few things clear first. On paper, the Phillies are clearly the class of the NL East. Also, health is a skill. So the fact that this team has the potential to stamp itself as a mini-dynasty, on the shoulders of full seasons from all their key players, every year, shouldn't come as a surprise. But weird stuff can and does happen in baseball. I'm not wishing ill on Jimmy Rollins or Ryan Howard or any other Philly star. You just wonder if they can stay bullet-proof forever. Then again, maybe this team already had its run of bad luck with last season's bullpen collapse - which had exactly zero impact on preventing another NL pennant in 2009.
If the Braves had converted Javier Vazquez into a win-now hitter, instead of yielding a dynamic but raw A-ball pitcher as chief booty, I'd feel more inspired about the Braves' chances of winning the East. As is, Jason Heyward needs to be everything drooling scouts and fantasy owners dream right away, Troy Glaus needs to defy the injury bug and Chipper Jones needs to beat Father Time for this offense to do enough to knock off the Phillies. All of these things are possible, you just wouldn't bet the farm on it (not at even odds anyway, wink-wink). This is still a very strong pitching staff, though, one good enough to lead a Wild Card charge in Bobby Cox's final season at the helm.
Why no one's talking about the Marlins, I have no idea. When you start with one of the top three players in the game in Hanley Ramirez and one of the best one-two pitching punches in Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco, you have to be taken seriously. There's enough firepower in the rest of the lineup and upside in other young hurlers like Chris Volstad to make this team a darkhorse wild card contender. They'll need either luck or trades to fix what could be a leaky bullpen, though, otherwise this team will blow a whole bunch of 5-3 leads this season.
Avert your eyes. An Opening Day lineup that include Alex Cora, Luis Castillo, Mike Jacobs, Gary Matthews Jr., Jeff Francoeur and Henry Blanco is clearly doing nothing other than trying to win a HACKING MASS contest. It would be tough enough for the Mets to compete for a division title with five stars and a miserable bottom 20. When two of those stars are major injury concerns (Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran), two more are coming off down years (Johan Santana and David Wright) and the fifth (Jason Bay) goes from perhaps the friendliest ballpark in the majors for a power-hitting, lousy-fielding righty hitter to one of the worst, you know this isn't going to end well. The Mets might lose 90 games.
For the second year in a row, them Nationals will trot out a lineup that could be interesting. Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Nyjer Morgan and Josh Willingham are a decent top four, and rookie Ian Desmond could click at shortstop. We'll have to wait on the pitching, though. The Nats stared at the possibility of packed houses for Stephen Strasburg starts and the value of preserving his service time and elected for the latter, sending the big righty to the minors. He's yet to throw a pitch in regular-season pro ball, so this'll give him time to develop, though Strasburg would instantly become the team's best pitcher if they threw him out there for Opening Day. The combination of Omar Minaya's farm system plundering in the final days of the Expos and some lousy drafts in the early DC years mean this team is still a few years away.
Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter are great. Colby Rasmus has star potential, and could start that path this season. After that, this Cardinals team isn't all that good. Unlike the Mets and their five stars and 99 problems roster, though, the Cards have Dave Duncan to make retreads like Brad Penny into more valuable commodities, dollops of upside with players like David Freese, and most importantly, health and positive outlooks for their best players.
If you're looking for one tam no one's picking to potentially do some damage his year, I'd go with either the Marlins, or maybe even more sleeperish, the Brewers. While all the fuss continues over the defensive upgrades that teams like the Rays, Mariners, Red Sox and even the Rangers have made in the past couple years, Milwaukee has quietly had a mini-makeover of their own. Ryan Braun has grown into a competent left fielder after his disastrous beginnings at third base. Alcides Escobar instantly becomes a Gold Glove candidate as he takes over as the team's full-time shortstop. And Carlos Gomez will be a flyball-swallowing machine for as long as his flimsy bat can remain halfway respectable. Braun and Prince Fielder are as good as any duo in the game and Yovanni Gallardo's a true ace. The rest of the pitching staff (especially behind Randy Wolf) looks ugly, but a good defense can do wonders for the dreggiest of dregs. Watch out for the Crew.
The Reds are a chic pick among the cognoscenti to challenge for a wild card, or if friend of the site and sharp SI.com analyst Cliff Corcoran is any indication, win the Central outright. Expect Jay Bruce to finally produce like the top prospect we've been waiting for, and the rotation to be solid and productive. If I believed Aroldis Chapman was really ready to become a major league ace, I'd give the division to Cincinnati. I don't believe that. Not this young, not with this little experience, not with the spotty track record of Cuban imports, and yes, not with Dusty Baker calling the shots.
On the flip side, the Cubs are an aging team that could struggle on defense, with players like Mike Fontenot and Marlon Byrd asked to play key up-the-middle roles. Downgrade the normally solid Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster as a result. Meanwhile, Carlos Marmol is a boom-or-bust closer, Derrek Lee's headed for a huge round of regression, and Alfonso Soriano will vie for the title of baseball's biggest albatross. The Cubs won't top .500.
Yes, the Astros will be bad. Just don't bet the under. Owner Drayton McLane is one of the most stubborn characters in baseball, refusing to trade stars like Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt - same as he did with Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio - preferring instead to watch their immense talent wither on the vine, and the team fail to build anything decent around them. Perennially one of the worst farm systems in baseball, the Astros could have a long wait before they're good again, and should prepare for a long string of last-place finishes. Wandy Rodriguez might be the loneliest top fantasy commodity in the game this year.
The Pirates could easily finish 4th this year, with traditional powers in Chicago and Houston on the way down. If it doesn't happen now, look for Pedro Alvarez's arrival, combined with the stellar play of improving young star Andrew McCutchen, to finally generate some excitement to go with baseball's best stadium views. Zach Duke and Paul Maholm will be traded sooner than later. As Rob Neyer notes, though, the Bucs need to start finding some gems with their frequent vets-for-prospect deals, or the rebuilding effort will fall short.
Find me up for the Rockies bandwagon. No longer a place where pitchers go to die, the new kinder, gentler Coors Field has allowed Ubaldo Jimenez to develop into one of baseball's true aces, with Jorge de la Rosa, Jason Hammel, Aaron Cook and friends providing ample support behind him. The offense is young and deep too, with really good hitters like Seth Smith not even able to crack the lineup yet. Troy Tulowitzki is about to achieve Jeter-fied status, when he puts up another monster season and leads his team on a deep playoff run. Fitting for someone who wears #2 in honor of his early baseball idol.
If you think the McCourts divorce is nothing worse than a sideshow for the Dodgers, you couldn't be more wrong. In a marquee market, with huge revenue streams, the Dodgers should be outspending their competition every year. Instead, the team let a bunch of holes pile up (especially the failure to replace Randy Wolf and Orlando Hudson) and now find themselves with a top-heavy roster that includes a monster outfield, two exciting young starting pitchers, a strong bullpen, and almost nothing else. That still would've been enough to win the NL West in many recent seasons. Just not this year, with the Rockies on their way up.
If only Brian Sabean had done something more creative than sign Mark DeRosa and Aubrey Huff to upgrade the Giants' offense. The starting rotation will again be a joy to watch, with two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum at the top, Matt Cain a terrific number-two, Jonathan Sanchez emerging as a strikeout-compiling dynamo, and Barry Zito an excellent mid-rotation guy whose incredible durability and annual above-average performance need to be recognized, monster contract or not. As things stand, King Fu Panda doesn't have enough support. Too bad. Even an average offense probably pushes this team into the playoffs.
Yes, it's conventional wisdom, but I still don't understand why the Diamondbacks would trade away terrific young starter Max Scherzer. Either they know something the rest of us know, or they're settling for an uninspiring duo in Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy, leaving Arizona's rotation short-handed behind the maestro Dan Haren, especially with Brandon Webb's injury looking like it might plague him all year. Another case of "too bad": Stephen Drew and Chris Young could very well break out this year. If the pitching was what it used to be, that could've been enough for their own playoff berth. It could still happen this year for the D-Backs, but it's a long shot.
Just because the Padres will play a lot of guys you haven't heard of this year doesn't mean they won't be at least somewhat respectable. Kyle Blanks and Chase Headley will improve and keep the offense halfway competent, pitchers like Jon Garland and Kevin Correia will take full advantage of Petco Park's spacious dimensions, and the team will finish well above some of the apocalyptic predictions out there.
Yankees over Twins
Rays over Rangers
Phillies over Cardinals
Rockies over Braves
Yankees over Rays
Rockies over Phillies
Rockies over Yankees
AL Cy Young
AL Rookie of the Year
NL Cy Young
NL Rookie of the Year