Tuesday, March 31, 2009

By Brent Hubbard – Senior Columnist

Ah, spring … my favorite time of the year.

All 30 teams start with a clean slate; last season’s memories, good and bad, are washed away. Who picked the Phillies last season? Not me. If recent Fall Classics have taught us anything, it’s that every team has a shot.

Zero wins and zero losses — 162 to play. In October, at least 17 more games for two lucky teams. And in the end, there can only be one.

The Colorado Rockies, 2007 National League Champions, and the Tampa Bay Rays, 2008 American League Champions, both formerly perennially losing teams, wound up winning their respective pennants out of nowhere. Yes, they both lost the Series, but will this year’s surprise team win it all? Who will it be?

This season’s preview, as we did last year at AngelsWin.com, will feature a division-by-division preview, starting with the AL and NL East. Thursday’s piece will feature a look at the AL and NL Central, and Friday’s will look at what is in store for the AL and NL West.

We’ll project our major award winners for the AL on Saturday and the NL on Sunday, and the preview will feature a few questions I posed to each of our senior writers, to see what they think about some hot topics for the 2009 campaign. We’ll wrap the preview on Opening Day Monday with our Playoff and World Series projections.

With no further ado, Angelswin.com’s AL and NL East Projections.

The AL East (predicted record)

1) Tampa Bay Rays (95-67) Last Year’s AL Pennant winner was not a fluke. This team is young, talented and adds David Price to the rotation (Yes, I know he is starting at AAA) and Pat Burrell and Matt Joyce to the OF mix. They just got deeper, folks, and have a ton of talent besides Price in the minors. Second consecutive AL East Title is going to Tampa Bay. They may start slow, but it won’t last.

Biggest question mark: Can they do it again?

2) New York Yankees (94-68) To be fair, I see adding two of the game’s best players as probably a bigger jump in the standings. But A-Rod is out for a few months and they are depending on a healthy Andy Pettitte and A.J. Burnett in the rotation. I think they have the depth to absorb those innings, particularly with their reluctance to trade two of the young guys, but Joba Chamberlain’s velocity is down, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada are a year older and I’ve never been a fan of Melky Cabrera or Johnny Damon. They have question marks, but also have a lot of talent. Enough to take the Wild Card.

Biggest question mark: Is A-Rod, coming back from injury, able to put up MVP caliber numbers for the rest of the season?

(Adam Dodge picks the Yanks to take the division. I guess you can buy your way back, in his opinion.)

3) Boston Red Sox (87-75) The most loathed team in baseball, I am sure, has been over-hyped for a few seasons now. Their success brought on a bit of invincibility — or they perceive it so. But they are far from invincible. Rotation questions abound after the top three of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Prospects Justin Masterson and Clay Bucholtz could be the answer, or they could fall flat like last year. They traded Coco Crisp, who really produced in the playoffs last season. Dustin Pedroia was the MVP? Really? David Eckstein 2.0 is not MVP-good, people. If he put up those numbers anywhere else, he wouldn’t have won the MVP. And Kevin Youkilis … I can’t stand his batting stance. Basically, I see this team winning 97 or 87 games and I don’t know which. So, I went with the latter.

Biggest question mark: How will they do pitching wise? They have a solid 1-2-3, but the 4-5 spots are really question marks.

(Adam picks the Red Sox to win the Wild Card, he believes in them way more than I do.)

4) Toronto Blue Jays (86-76) Same as last year, really — a solid team that could be good, could be bad, most likely will be close enough to see the top, but can’t pass the big boys to get there. Lots of young talent and a mix of talented veterans would put this team in the division race, if not the playoffs, in any other division, but it’s not going to happen in this one.

Biggest question mark: Can they step up or will they live in mediocrity another season? Will Vernon Wells return to MVP form?

5) Baltimore Orioles (66-96) Matt Weiters may wind up AL Rookie of the Year, but he might not be up to the Majors until late June. And although I see potential in Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and other young Orioles, I also see only two legitimate starters for a five-man rotation.

Biggest question mark: How much will the youth carry the team? Can they take a big step forward?

The NL East (predicted record)

1) Philadelphia Phillies (91-71) The 2008 World Series Champions, minus Burrell, plus Raul Ibanez. Pretty good team that got hot at the right time. We’ll see if they repeat as NL East champions for the third straight year; it seems likely. As World Series Champions, however, they probably will not. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard lead the way. They aren’t a very exciting team, but will that matter?

Biggest question mark: Can they repeat? Can they win the division title convincingly, before the last week of the season this year?

(Adam Dodge also takes the Phillies in the NL East. They didn’t miss Rowand last season, but will they be able to maintain?)

2) Florida Marlins (84-78) Cameron Maybin is a great player, definite NL Rookie of the Year candidate, and the Marlins have a lot of other young players besides Hanley Ramirez and Maybin. If they spent even the full amount of luxury tax money they are receiving on player payroll, they would be World Series contenders. They have depth everywhere and youth, but instead ownership decided to do its “Major League” impression. Sucks.

Biggest question mark: 1997, World Series Champs out of nowhere. Six years later, 2003, World Series Champs, again out of nowhere. Six years later, 2009….

(Adam Dodge takes the Fish as his NL Wild Card. I agree they could move up, but they could just as easily fall apart. However, you do have the every six years thing … hmmmm)

3) New York Mets (81-81) The Mets finishing fourth? A losing record? K-Rod is going to give the New York Post something to write about, that is for sure. New stadium and a talented team, but I don’t see much pitching depth behind Johan Santana, though their offense will be solid. Rookie Daniel Murphy hitting 2nd could make them even better.

Biggest question mark: Pitching outside of Santana. Maine is coming off a bad season and is an injury concern, Pelfrey is solid, but his lack of a big league changeup will have hitters figuring him out soon enough. Oliver Perez and Livan Hernandez can give you innings, but also get knocked around. Second biggest question: How quickly will Mets fans be calling for J.J. Putz to replace Francisco Rodriguez as the closer?

4) Atlanta Braves (80-82) Gone are John Smoltz and Greg Maddux. Glavine is back for his second year in his second run with the team, but other than he and Chipper Jones, nearly every link to the Braves’ spectacular run of consecutive NL East titles has moved on. Here’s hoping Garrett Anderson, Casey Kotchman and Jeff Francoeur all have great seasons and this team surprises to move up from the .500 record I am projecting here.

Biggest question mark: Believe it or not, it’s starting pitching. Is Tim Hudson healthy by mid-season? Can Javier Vazquez be the dominate pitcher he was back in '07?

5) Washington Nationals (59-103) To what exactly do Nationals fans have to look forward? Nothing exciting except Adam Dunn’s moon shots until ace-in-waiting Steven Strasburg makes his debut at the end of June. They’ll have their ace and they have a slugger, but what else do they have? Not much.

Biggest question mark: Strasburg or no Strasburg … that is, according to some sources, the $80 million question.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the AL Central and NL Central Division races.
Love to hear what you think!


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