Monday, March 31, 2014

MLB 2014: National League Central

Yadier Molina (pictured) is the best all-around catcher in the game, and the leader of one of the best teams in all of baseball.

The Saint Louis Cardinals have won four National League pennants in the past decade, and the NL Central crown 7 times in the last 13 seasons.

And they will win yet another division crown in 2014.

That is one of the easiest predictions for me at this early point. The Cards are the best team in this division. They are one of the 2-3 best teams in the entire National League, and one of a handful of the best in MLB entering the year.

Now anything can happen to derail things for the Redbirds, most especially injuries to key players. However, barring disaster, a deep, versatile lineup led by a pair of MVP candidates in Molina and outfielder Matt Holliday and an equally deep pitching staff should be able to hold up over the long haul.

Here are my predictions for the National League Central in 2014:

1) Saint Louis Cardinals
The defending National League and NL Central champs won the World Series back in 2011, and right now look to me like the healthiest, deepest, and overall best team among all the legitimate contenders in the league this season. The franchise has won an NL-best 11 World Series crowns and 19 NL pennants. They have been to the playoffs 3 straight years, 4 of the last 5, and in 10 of the last 13 seasons. There is no reason that string of excellence should not continue. The lineup is one of the deepest and most versatile in the game. The clear leaders in that starting lineup are the best all-around catcher in the game in Yadier Molina, and one of the best hitters in the game in leftfielder Matt Holliday. They can go with either Allen Craig or Matt Adams at 1st base, with Craig capable at 3rd and likely to start the season in rightfield as well. Exciting rookie Kolten Wong should add another weapon at 2nd base, and is a likely NL Rookie of the Year candidate this year. Jhonny Peralta signed a longterm free agent contract in the off-season, and has a strong bat for the shortstop position. At 3rd base it's more versatility from Matt Carpenter, who can also play 2nd. Newcomer Peter Bourjos will take over in centerfield and should upgrade their offense from that position. The bench is made up of the experienced group of Jon Jay, Daniel Descalso, Pete Kozma, Shane Robinson, and Mark Ellis. But despite the versatility in that lineup, it is the pitching staff that makes them true favorites. The rotation is led by a true Ace in Adam Wainwright. Behind him, Michael Wacha emerged in last year's playoffs as one of the exciting young arms to watch in the entire game. Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, and Joe Kelly give the rotation depth, as does Carlos Martinez, who would start for most teams but will serve as setup man for now. The closer is the dominating Trevor Rosenthal. The bullpen also includes Kevin Siegrist, Randy Choate and Sean Maness. At some point, both Jason Motte and Jaime Garcia should return from injury to give them even more depth. If I haven't emphasized it enough, let me do so now. This is a big time NL central, NL pennant, and World Series contender.

2) Pittsburgh Pirates
For some reason, after reaching the playoffs last season for the first time in over two decades, the Buccos are not getting enough love as the 2014 season opens from many prognosticators. Well let me give them some. This is again a Wildcard contender, and they are building themselves into a longterm contender in the NL Central, just a couple players away from being a pennant contender. The Pirates are led by dynamic National League MVP Andrew McCutchen, one of the all-around best players in all of baseball. Flanking him in the outfield are powerful Jose Tabata and Starling Marte, the latter an emerging young star himself. Gaby Sanchez and Neal Walker give them an experienced right-side infield, and Jody Mercer is a good-looking young shortstop. Pedro Alvarez at 3rd base could be an NL MVP candidate, and if he is one he could elevate this team to a division crown. The catcher is one of the game's great leaders in Russell Martin. The bench does not have much proven depth beyond Travis Snider and Clint Barmes, and this could prove problematic if there are any major injuries in the everyday lineup. On the mound, Pittsburgh has last year's great comeback story in Francisco Liriano leading the way. Behind him is a future Ace in big, young righty Gerritt Cole. Veterans Charlie Morton, Wandy Rodriguez, and Edinson Volquez round out the rotation as they wait for top prospects Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow to finish developing. Jason Grilli is a solid closer, Mark Melancon is an experienced setup man who could also close, and they have pen depth with Justin Wilson, Tony Watson, and Jeanmar Gomez. The rotation should get a bump from Jeff Locke when he is ready as well. If the Pirates stay healthy, they will contend for another playoff berth, and maybe more.

3) Cincinnati Reds
Just a couple of years ago, this looked like it was going to possibly be a team that would dominate the NL Central division for years to come. Now they have a number of questions that keep them from being predicted for the top, but enough possible answers to see them remaining a legitimate contender. In 1st baseman Joey Votto they have one of the best hitters in the game, and a legit MVP candidate. Outfielder Jay Bruce is one of the most feared sluggers in baseball. Despite a number of trade rumors, 2nd baseman Brandon Phillips remains and is still one of the top offensive producers at the position. The left-side infield combo of Zack Cozart at short and Todd Frazier at 3rd needs to step up production and show that they are as good in the longterm as they looked a couple of years ago. Those two are among the biggest questions, and if they do step up they could make the difference in returning the club to the top of the division. The other guy with that potential is new centerfielder Billy Hamilton. The speed demon has game-changing stolen base potential, and can run down anything in center. But can he hit and get on-base enough to remain in the lineup on an everyday basis? If he can, he will be an elite weapon at the top of the Reds lineup, a true offensive catalyst. Outfielders Ryan Ludwick, Chris Heisey, and Roger Bernadina and infielder Neftali Soto provide the depth, while Brayan Pena will get a shot at catching while Devin Mesoraco begins on the DL. The Reds pitching is talented and deep, but opens with some injury concerns. Both top starter Mat Latos and dominant closer Aroldis Chapman start out on the DL. Both should be back by May, so would provide a strong bump if the Reds can stay in contention early. The rotation for now is led by Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey, with youngsters Tony Cingrani and Mike Leake being counted on heavily. Alfredo Simon is likely to get the shot as 5th starter while Latos mends. The bullpen has not only Chapman, but also the big arms of Jonathan Broxton and Sean Marshall on the DL. Even with all that injury, they still have talent and depth in J.J. Hoover, Sam LeCure, Logan Ondrusek, and Manny Parra. Again, the keys will be staying in range early while the injured guys heal up, and then how the trio of Hamilton, Cozart and Frazier produce over the length of the full season. If they get the right answers, they can win the division and contend for an NL pennant and more.

4) Milwaukee Brewers
This is a team that was a dangerous Wildcard in 2008 and a division champ in 2011, but they have fallen into dangerous territory in a toughened NL Central. They are clearly not as good as the three teams above, and the team currently behind them is absolutely going to improve in the coming years. If the Brew Crew is not careful, they could fall into a longterm losing situation quickly. For now, staying in contention for the top half of the division will depend on a full comeback from 2007 Rookie of the Year and 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun, lost a year ago for the last couple of months due to a PED suspension. If he comes back fully and as productive as always, he'll team with 3rd baseman Aramis Ramirez, shortstop Jean Segura, catcher Jon Lucroy, and outfielders Khris Davis and Carlos Gomez to give Milwaukee a loaded offensive lineup. Scooter Gennett is likely to get his first full shot as the 2nd baseman, with Rickie Weeks struggling to return to former All-Star form. Lyle Overbay and Jeff Bianchi will be the leaders off the bench. On the mound, the Brewers rotation could be an underrated strength. Yovani Gallardo is a key, and he must show that he is the Ace-level youngster that the team has hoped he would become. Matt Garza was signed as a free agent, and with Kyle Lohse, Marco Estrada, and Wily Peralta gives the Brewers a good option in every slot. Jim Henderson is the closer, supported by the experienced Francisco 'KRod' Rodriguez. Arms such as Tyler Thornburg, Brandon Kintzler, and Will Smith fill out the pen. If the Milwaukee rotation stays healthy and pitches to their talent levels, and if Braun is an MVP candidate again, this club could surprise and be a contender once again. More likely, they find that it gets increasingly tough to avoid the NL Central basement, especially as the next couple seasons advance.

5) Chicago Cubs
The Cubbies have not won a world title since 1905, with that 108-year titleless streak now the longest such streak of any professional sports franchise in North America. They have not even been to a World Series since 1945. Think about that: the last time the Cubs reached the World Series was the same year that World War II ended. There has been some success in recent years, with a 1998 Wildcard playoff berth leading to regular contending status for much of the last decade, when they won the NL Central crown 3 times between 2003-2008. But for the last four seasons, the "Loveable Losers" have done an awful lot of that losing. Four straight last place finishes where they have hovered between 20 and 40 games under the .500 mark has sealed this franchise losing reputation with a new generation of their fans. Still, there is reason to see a change coming. New ownership came in 2009, and prior to 2012 they brought in Theo Epstein to run the baseball operation. The former Red Sox boy genius has improved the farm system measurably, and it is hoped that those prospects will begin emerging in the 2nd half of this decade to turn things around. Until they come, however, this is a last place team. When your outfield is made up of Justin Ruggiano, Nate Schierholtz, and Junior Lake, you have problems. 1st baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starling Castro are good building blocks, and catcher Wellington Castillo may be a longterm piece as well. For now, Darwin Barney plays 2nd and some combo of Luis Valbuena and Mike Olt will play 3rd. The versatile Emilio Bonifacio could see plenty of time in both the outfield and infield, while Ryan Kalish also should see lots of outfield at-bats. There is much more mound talent than in the lineup. The rotation of Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Jason Hammel, Travis Wood, and Carlos Villanueva is underrated. The bullpen of closer Jose Veras and supporters Hector Rondon, James Russell, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, and Chris Rusin has potential, and Jake Arrieta still has the potential to return from the DL and be a real contributor in either role. It's a basemen team once again. They need to get 3-4 impact pieces into the starting lineup before that will change.

Look for the Cardinals to win the NL Central, possibly easily. I see the Pirates and Reds battling for 2nd place and for at least one of the NL Wildcard playoff spots. Milwaukee struggles to a 4th place finish, and may turn out to be one of the games true disasters in the next couple of seasons. The Cubs are a disaster right now, and Epstein has to start moving that young minor league talent along so that their fans begin to at least smell a winning future.

Monday, March 24, 2014

MLB 2014: National League West

The N.L. version of the "Wild West" has been ceded to the Los Angeles Dodgers and their deep-pocketed ownership group that appears willing to spend what it takes to keep the team on top.

But the Dodgers have enough problems when you put them under a microscope, and there is enough talent on a couple of their rivals, that a repeat as division champs is not the slam dunk that some appear willing to call it at this point.

LA has two potentially big problems that could derail any celebrations as the season moves along. First and foremost are injuries, which continue to plague a number of key players such as MVP-caliber outfielder Matt Kemp, speedy outfielder Carl Crawford, and starting pitchers Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley.

The second problem is defense: the Dodgers just are not very good at it, and if they cannot stay fully healthy and keep their high-priced talent on the field most of the season, the defensive lapses and holes will take their toll over a long regular season.

Not a problem for LA, at least right now, and the reason to pick them to win this division again? The top of the rotation and the multi-faceted, experienced bullpen. Strong pitching can cover a lot of woes, including some bad defense and some injury troubles, and the Dodgers have that pitching, at least going in, led by the current best pitcher on the planet, lefty starter Clayton Kershaw.

Here are my predictions for the National League West in 2014:

1) Los Angeles Dodgers
One of the oldest franchises in Major League Baseball history, the Dodgers were founded in 1883 and joined the National League in 1890, winning the NL pennant that very first season. They have since added 20 more pennants and 6 World Series, the most recent back in 1988. The club has also won a dozen NL West crowns in the divisional era, four in the last ten years, including last season. Playing for over six decades in the New York borough of Brooklyn, the franchise moved west to Los Angeles for the 1958 season. If you were listening to Brooklyn Dodgers games on the radio in the 1950 season, a dozen seasons before I was even born, you heard the voice of Vin Scully calling their games. If you listen to the club today, you will still hear his distinctive voice, as the now 86-year old Scully is the dean of baseball broadcasters and a cherished icon to not only the Dodgers but the entire sport. A new ownership group took over the club in 2012, and with NBA legend Magic Johnson as it's public face, has injected new financial life into the franchise. On the field, the team's success begins with a trio of starting pitchers and back-end bullpen arms. Lefty Clayton Kershaw is simply the current best starting pitcher in baseball, winning the NL Cy Young Award in 2 of the last 3 seasons. Their 2-3 starters, righty Zack Greinke and lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, give LA a trio of Ace-quality pitchers at the front of the rotation. At the back of the bullpen, a pair of experienced closers in Chris Perez and Brian Wilson act as setup men for filthy closer Kenley Jansen. That pen also includes tough lefties in Paco Rodriguez and J.P. Howell, and another former closer in righty Brandon League. The starting rotation has depth with veterans Dan Haren, Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley, and Paul Maholm when each is healthy. In the starting lineup, 1st baseman Adrian Gonzalez is one of the best hitters in baseball, and shortstop Hanley Ramirez gives the club rare MVP-caliber offensive production from the position. 3rd base is handled by veteran clutch hitter Juan Uribe, and the catching by the steady A.J. Elllis. 2nd base is a question mark, with speedy Dee Gordon the preferred option. He has never been able to win a full-time job, however, and will be supported by veteran Chone Figgins and utility man Justin Turner. The outfield can be one of the most talented, deepest in baseball. I say "can be", because centerfielder Matt Kemp and leftfielder Carl Crawford, two of baseball's best players, have been frequently injured over the last couple of seasons. Last year's rookie sensation, Cuban-import rightfielder Yasiel Puig, has breathtaking talent. He also makes enough mistakes in the field and on the bases, and has shown to be somewhat of a clubhouse and off-field problem, that it is reasonable to question whether he may ultimately prove more trouble than he is worth. Andre Ethier was believed to possibly be trade bait, but with the others troubles, he has become pivotal to their success. Scott Van Slyke and Mike Baxter provide depth. Their is every chance that off-field and injury problems could derail this club. But the overall talent, especially the pitching, is just too good to ignore and to not pick them to successfully defend their division crown. Their health entering the post-season should tell the story of how far they eventually go, which could be an early exit or a World Series title.

2) San Francisco Giants
The GMen won the World Series in 2010 and 2012, so here in 2014 they should be continuing that "every other year" contending status, right? Well something tells me to watch out for them again, so in what I think will be a dogfight for 2nd place with Arizona, I'll take the Giants by a nose, with both teams in the Wildcard mix. The main reason to like San Fran is the usual reason to like them when things are going well, their pitching. Veteran Tim Hudson was signed to add another quality arm to the trio of Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Tim Lincecum. Toss in Ryan Vogelsong and Yusmeiro Petit for depth, and if all are healthy this rotation can compete with any in the league. The bullpen is solid as well, with Sergio Romo closing and arms such as Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, and Javier Lopez setting him up. When at their best, the Giants always seem to come up with an eclectic group of hitters to give them just enough offense, and that appears to again be the case. The biggest key is that catcher Buster Posey is healthy, giving them one of the 2-3 best all-around backstops in the game. 3rd baseman Pablo 'the Panda' Sandoval, 1st baseman Brandon Belt, and the outfield of Hunter Pence, Angel Pagan, and Michael Morse are all solid, professional hitters. The middle infield will be manned by the underrated pair of shortstop Brandon Crawford and 2nd baseman Marco Scutaro, with Joaquin Arias possibly spelling each when needed. Gregor Blanco and Tyler Colvin head a somewhat thin bench right now that may prove the team's biggest weakness. The Giants can win the division too, but I think they are more likely to fall short while fighting for a Wildcard.

3) Arizona Diamondbacks
I can envision a scenario in which the DBacks win this division. I can also see them finishing right here, in 3rd place. I don't see them slipping any further, at least not without some major injuries derailing them. At the plate, 1st baseman Paul Goldschmidt became an MVP contender a year ago. 2nd baseman Aaron Hill has developed into one of the more reliable producers at the position, as has catcher Miguel Montero at his. 3rd baseman Martin Prado and outfielder Gerardo Parra are underrated performers. Mark Trumbo's power bat was brought in to bolster the offense, and it would be nice if he can at least prove passable in leftfield. A.J. Pollock has to show that he is ready-for-prime-time in center for this team to really click on all cylinders. Eric Chavez, Cliff Pennington, and Tony Campana give the infield nice depth. A real key will be figuring out who starts at shortstop between homegrown Chris Owings and elite defender Didi Gregorius, who arrived in a trade last season. Both appear ready to play in MLB, and one or the other is likely to become trade bait. On the mound, Arizona has a number of decent options, but no real Aces among the group of Wade Miley, Trevor Cahill, Bronson Arroyo, Randall Delgado, and Josh Collmenter. The bullpen is strong and has plenty of options as well. New closer Addison Reed will be setup by J.J. Putz, David Hernandez, Will Harris, and Brad Ziegler. If the rotation overachieves, they can contend at the top. I think they are more likely to battle for 2nd in the division, and for a Wildcard playoff berth.

4) San Diego Padres
The Padres, one of only two MLB teams to actually originate in California (the Angels are the other) were formed in 1969. They are also one of the 8 clubs to never have won a World Series, though they have won 5 division crowns and a pair of National League pennants. They were in contention as recently as 2010 when they won 90 games and finished in 2nd place. But aside from that one season, 5 of the last 6 have been losing campaigns. The club has some talent, but it is anyone's guess as to how or if it will all come together. The infield of Yonder Alonso, Jedd Gyorko, Everth Cabrera, and Chase Headley may be one of the most underrated in the game. Sticking with that underrated theme in the outfield, Will Venable fits that description perfectly. The others getting time will be Carlos Quentin, Chris Denorfia, Seth Smith, and Kyle Blanks. Alexi Amarista provides infield depth, with the catching done by Nick Hundley and Yamani Grandal. On the mound, San Diego could surprise some people. Andrew Cashner has the stuff to become a front line starter, if he can stay healthy. Tyson Ross may be ready to emerge as a legitimate solid option, and Ian Kennedy should benefit greatly from his new home ballpark. Josh Johnson was signed to give them depth, has as much talent as any pitcher in baseball, but just cannot stay healthy. He has had injury issues again this spring. A group of kids that includes Robbie Erlin, Donn Roach, and Matt Wisler should battle Tim Stauffer for any opportunities there. Huston Street remains the closer for one more year, with Joaquin Benoit bought in to set him up. Dale Thayer and Alex Torres are good bullpen arms as well. If manager Bud Black pushes enough of the right buttons, he could surprise one of the top three, moving them into that position.

5) Colorado Rockies
I am extremely prejudiced against Coors Field, and it's hard for me to envision a scenario where any Colorado team ever gets enough elite pitching to truly become a World Series contender. Formed in 1993, they have been to the playoffs three times, and even advanced to the World Series once in 2007 before being swept by Boston. But 2/3 of their seasons have been losing ones, including the last three, and I can't envision 2014 improving that recent history. They have a pair of legitimate NL MVP candidates when shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez are healthy. Rightfielder Michael Cuddyer and catcher Wilin Rosario are outstanding players, and they also have former AL MVP Justin Morneau now at 1st base. Big keys to lengthening their offense will be new centerfielder Drew Stubbs and kid 3rd baseman Nolan Arenado. If both perform to their capabilities, and the Cargo/Tulo/Morneau trio stay largely healthy, the Rox will give every pitching staff fits. 2nd base should be manned by some combo of D.J. Lemaheiu and Josh Rutledge, and the bench will be Charles Blackmon, Corey Dickerson, and Jordan Pacheco. The starting rotation has some talent, but not enough to overcome the Mile High conditions at Coors. The starters will come from the grouping of Joge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin, Brett Anderson, Tyler Chatwood, Juan Nicasio, Franklin Morales, and Jordan Lyles. Veteran LaTroy Hawkins is likely to close, setup by Rex Brothers, Boone Logan, Matt Belisle, and Wilton Lopez. The hope in Colorado is that they get all the right answers in health, production, and emergence from the offense, and that the starting pitching overachieves.

There appears to be not only too much talent in LA for the rest of the division to keep up, but also the resources and competitiveness from ownership to fill in any holes that may develop as the season unfolds. Both Arizona and San Francisco are solid teams and playoff contenders behind them. San Diego is still building, but getting better, while Colorado has talent, but still has to subject it's pitching staff to half their games at altitude. Anyone but the Dodgers winning this division would surprise me. Having no teams, one, or even two teams reach the Wildcard behind them? None of those scenarios would surprise me.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

MLB 2014: American League West

Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels has played just two full Major League Baseball seasons. But in that short amount of time one thing has become clear: Mike Trout is the best all-around player in the game.

The local (Millville, NJ) kid hit .326 with a .399 on-base percentage and .564 slugging percentage, stole 49 bases, scored 129 runs, clubbed 30 homers and knocked in 83 runs as a 20-year old in 2012 to win the A.L. Rookie of the Year Award. Were it not for Miguel Cabrera's historic 'Triple Crown' season, Trout would also have been the league MVP.

Most felt that there was no way that he could replicate those incredible numbers as a sophomore in 2013. And he didn't. But what he did do was hit .323 with a .432 on-base percentage and .557 slugging percentage, stole 33 bases, scored 109 runs, hit 27 homers while driving in 97 runs. Is that a little worse? A little better?

The scary thing for MLB pitchers is that Trout is only 22 years old. He won't reach his peak performance for a couple of years still. It is likely that he is only going to get better, if you can imagine that. Given health, we are looking at the beginning of one of the great careers in the history of the game. We're talking Mickey Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr. stuff here.

But for all his individual early career success, Trout's outstanding hitting, base-running and defense have not been enough to elevate the Angels to contender status. In 2012, the team won 89 games, a nice total but 5 shy of both AL West-winning Oakland and of the Wildcard. Last year, they slipped to 78 wins, finishing 18 games behind Oakland, 13 1/2 back of the Wildcard.

It's clear that Mike Trout is the player to watch and talk about in this division. But he is going to need help if his LA-Anaheim based team wants to move back up into contending status. They are not far off, and if their key players stay healthy most of the season, they just might have what it takes.

Here are my predictions for the American League West in 2014:

1) Texas Rangers
Based in Arlington, Texas as part of the Dallas-Forth Worth Metroplex, the franchise actually began as the expansion Washington Senators in 1961. In 1971, they moved to Texas. In their 53 seasons, the club has never won a World Series, making them one of 8 MLB teams to retain that dubious distinction. But they did reach the Series in back-to-back years recently. Can this group return to that 2010-11 status, and perhaps even take that first crown? To that end, ownership reached into their pocketbooks and brought in a pair of high-priced, high-talent hitters in 1st baseman Prince Fielder and outfielder Shin-Soo Choo. They join an offense that already included all-star 3rd baseman Adrian Beltre, the dynamic young middle infield combo of Elvis Andrus and Jurickson Profar, and solid supporting hitters such as Alex Rios, J.P. Arencibia, Mitch Moreland, Leonys Martin, and Geovany Soto. They will give every pitcher they face a rough go, but as we all know, hitting is only part of the game. What happens when the Rangers take the field? Thanks to injuries, the rotation has a few question marks. Particularly with Derek Holland and Matt Harrison. The former won't likely be ready until summer while recovering from knee surgery, while the latter may be a month behind in his spring development. There is no question at the front of their rotation, as Japanese import Yu Darvish has proven to be a major star. Youngsters Alexi Ogando, Nick Tepesch, and Martin Perez will be asked to take on major roles while the others try to get healthy. The bullpen looks like a strength, especially if Neftali Feliz comes all the way back from his own injuries. He will join Joakim Soria, Tanner Scheppers, Neal Cotts, Jason Frasor, and Robbie Ross to give the Rangers an excellent mix. Guys like Tommy Hanson and Michael Kirkman could also lengthen both the rotation and the pen. This is a team with a lot of talent. Even with some injury questions, they appear to be the team in the division with the most answers to such questions. I see no reason that the Texas Rangers won't not only win the A.L. West, but also be a scary team come the fall.

2) Los Angeles Angels
In what has suddenly broken out as a major financial war with the N.L.'s Dodgers for the hearts and minds of the LA baseball fan base over the last couple of seasons, owner Artie Moreno has opened his wallet to bring in superstars Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and lefty pitcher C.J. Wilson. It hasn't resulted yet in any concrete results in the standings, but 2014 has a chance to be different. The biggest factor will be Pujols and Hamilton both staying healthy and returning to form as the MVP-caliber players at which level they are being paid. Pujols just turned 34, and is coming off by far the worst season of his career. Hamilton turns 33 in-season, and a bunch of those were tough years battling substance abuse. Pujols has struggled this spring, and Hamilton just got on the field after battling calf injuries. This 2nd place prediction is wholly dependant on those two being 30-homer, 100-rbi threats in the middle of the Halos lineup for most of the season. If they struggle again, the team could sink as low as 4th. Staying optimistic, I'll put them together with the game's best all-around talent in centerfielder Mike Trout to give the Angels as dynamic a potential combo as their is in all of baseball. There are solid supporting players in the lineup with middle infielders Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar, 3rd base newcomer David Freese, catcher Chris Iannetta, and outfielder Kole Calhoun. Eternal veteran Raul Ibanez was brought in to take DH at-bats. He is likely to rotate with some leftfield play while both Pujols and Hamilton also get DH turns. This team has as much experienced depth as any to rotate those players, and if injuries strike, with Carlos Pena, Brennan Boesch, Hank Conger, Ian Stewart, Grant Green, Chad Tracy, and John McDonald on hand. On the mound, the 1-2 veteran combo at the top in Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson can compete with anyone. Weaver is one of baseball's best starters, and together their health is vital to the team contending. The guys vying for the 3rd-5th rotation spots from among a group including Hector Santiago, Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs, Joe Blanton, and Wade LeBlanc need to produce a couple more solid options for manager Mike Scioscia. The bullpen has great depth with the likes of Brandon Lyon, Kevin Jepsen, Fernando Salas, Joe Smith, and Sean Burnett supporting closer Ernesto Frieri. For the team from Disney World, it's all about health. They and their fans deserve a break in that area, and a chance to see this group click on all cylinders. This 2nd place and Wildcard opportunity prediction is based on them getting that chance in 2014.

3) Oakland Athletics
The two-time defending A.L. West champs just suffered what no team wants to face, the loss of their projected Opening Day starter and young staff ace just weeks before the season even begins. Jarrod Parker will need Tommy John surgery, and will be out for all of 2014. He's still plenty young enough for a full bounce-back in 2015, and to have a long, productive career ahead. But that doesn't help the A's this year. For a team run on a tight budget, they cannot afford many of these types of losses. In fact, this one alone might prove too much. However, it's not the only one. Another projected rotation stalwart, A.J. Griffin, will be out for weeks, perhaps a couple months, with his own elbow worries. The rest of the rotation will need to step up a couple of notches. Newcomer Scott Kazmir will likely have to take on the lead role, proving that his 2013 comeback season was not a fluke. Young Sonny Gray has all the talent in the world, and the rookie will need to put it all on display right away. The injuries put Dan Straily and Tommy Milone into the spotlight, with Drew Pomeranz hoping to take the 5th starter role. Straily and Milone have proven their worth before, and must now show they are ready to be rotation stalwarts. The bullpen is anchored by new closer Jim Johnson, one of the game's best over the last couple of seasons in Baltimore. Sean Doolittle, Luke Gregerson, and Ryan Cook give the A's a strength supporting him at the end of games. The hitting should be another strength, as the club has underrated batters throughout the lineup. Leading the way is the outfield of speedy veteran Coco Crisp in center, Cuban star Yoenis Cespedes in left, and the bearded wonder Josh Reddick in right. 3rd baseman Josh Donaldson and 1st baseman Brandon Moss developed into productive sluggers a year ago, and both need to show that 2013 was no fluke. Their middle infield of Jed Lowrie and the bespectacled near-miss 'Face of MLB', 2nd baseman Eric Sogard, gives them a nice doubleplay combo. They have a pair of catchers in Derek Norris and John Jaso who can both be regulars, and particularly in Jaso will get some DH at-bats. The losses in their starting rotation are extremely tough. Whether they prove devastating in the end is the challenge ahead for this team. It's hard to see the A's spending for the pieces needed to keep up with the Rangers and Angels, especially if they should lose any more. Can they find them some other way? It's hard to count out this perennial underdog franchise, but making it a division-winning three-peat will be very tough.

4) Seattle Mariners
This will be the 38th season for the 1979 expansion franchise, and 26 of those previous campaigns have been losing ones. The winning seasons came in a stretch of glory from the mid-90's through the very beginning of the 21st century, capped by the glorious 2001 season in which they set an American League record with 116 regular season victories. Remaining contenders for a couple more years, the team then pretty much collapsed over the last decade, enjoying just two winning seasons in that time. They have finished in 4th place in the division in 7 of the last 9 years, including the last 3 straight. To try and end that stretch of futility the owners surprised many when they opened their wallets this winter and brought in one of the best hitters on the planet in 2nd baseman Robinson Cano. He immediately injects much-needed talent and respect to the middle of the M's batting order. However, the supporting cast remains a group of kids and suspects, and until that changes the struggles are likely to continue. A pair of youngsters, 3rd baseman Kyle Seager and catcher Mike Zunino, are being counted on heavily into the future. Kid shortstop Brad Miller is also a key piece in the middle infield. Dustin Ackley was never able to hold down 2nd base, and now moves to the outfield. He has a long way to go in order to ever justify his selection as the 2nd overall pick in the 2009 MLB Draft, as does 1st baseman Justin Smoak, who was the 11th overall pick in the 2008 Draft and came as a key piece in the 2010 Cliff Lee trade with Texas. The outfield has a pair of solid if unspectacular players in Michael Brantley and Abraham Almonte. Both Corey Hart and Logan Morrison were brought in as free agents to lengthen the lineup. Hart has recent injury questions to overcome, and Morrision is another formerly high-rated prospect who has never really panned out as a truly productive MLB hitter. John Buck is a decent supporting bat if Zunino proves to still be not quite ready at catcher, and Willie Bloomquist provides reliable talent as an infield backup. While there are a ton of questions in the Mariners lineup, their pitching seems to be developing some answers. It's rotation is led by one of the best in the game in 'King Felix' Hernandez. Hisashi Iwakuma is a solid 2nd option as well. This team needs the trio of 25-year old James Paxton, 23-year old Erasmo Ramirez, and perhaps most especially 21-year old rookie Taijuan Walker to quickly emerge to lengthen that rotation. In the bullpen there is nice talent and depth. Fernando Rodney was signed as a free agent, and gives them one of the game's top closers. He is supported by arms such as Danny Farquhar, Tom Wilhelmsen, and Charlie Furbush. They have Blake Beavan, Scott Baker, and Hector Noesi among others around as potential middle relievers or rotation depth arms. Despite the pivotal additions of Cano and Rodney, there simply remain too many questions to pick Seattle for anything other than another 4th place finish. Can they get the right answers finally from a number of their underachievers at the plate? That's the only way that they can rise.

5) Houston Astros
This is going to be the best team in the A.L. West - in 2018. At least that is the hope of those at the top of the organization, as well as their fan base. But it has been a struggle in recent years, and probably will stay so for a couple more. The franchise was formed as the expansion Houston Colt .45's back in 1962, and became the Astros in 1965 as a nod to the emerging space age. They have bounced around in their history as well, becoming members of the NL West when divisional play begin in 1969 and remaining there through the 1993 season. They were moved to the NL Central from 1994 through 2012, and then last year completely switched leagues, moving to what is hoped will be their permanent home in the AL West. It is hoped that eventually they will emerge as a regional and divisional rival to the Texas Rangers. For now, the Astros are trying to emerge from a string of horrendous seasons. One of 3 teams in the division (Rangers, Mariners) who are among the 8 in all of baseball to have never won a World Series, the Astros reached the Fall Classic for their first and only time as recently as 2005. But since that version of the club was swept by the White Sox nearly a decade ago, they have collapsed. The last three years, Houston has finished with the worst record in baseball in successively worse seasons of 106, 107 and 111 losses. However, those horrid years have resulted in terrific MLB Draft positions, including the upcoming 1st overall pick this coming June, and the team has made the most. Now rated as having one of the best and deepest pools of prospects in the game, they are positioned to begin having success in the coming years. It's the wait until those highly-rated kids arrive that will be continue to be tough. There is some excitement in the infield where speedy Jose Altuve gives them an all-star caliber player at 2nd base. The two kids on the left side of the infield in shortstop Jonathan Villar and 3rd baseman Matt Dominguez may be long term keepers. Catcher Jason Castro is emerging as one of the best in the game behind the plate. The team brought in speedy centerfielder Dexter Fowler in hopes that the longtime Rockies outfielder can bring impact to the lineup. If any from among the trio of 1st base/DH/left field types in Jonathan Singleton, Chris Carter, and Jesus Guzman can emerge as a reliable threat, this offense should begin to produce more runs. But the pitching staff remains light years away from contending. The rotation is fronted by veteran Scott Feldman, a 4th starter at best for a contending team. The rest of the rotation will be likely filled by some combo of Brett Oberholtzer, Jared Cosart, Brad Peacock, Jerome Williams, Alex White, Dallas Kuechel, and Luke Harrell. In the bullpen, Josh Fields will try to nail down the closer slot with arms like Jesse Crain and Matt Albers in support. The Astros don't have a prayer of finishing out of the AL West basement again in 2014, and may again be contenders for the top MLB Draft pick in 2015. But there is so much talent in their minor leagues that it is not hard to envision things beginning to turn around as those kids continue to arrive in the next 2-3 years. Hang on, Houston, better days are coming...some day.

To me, right now, the Texas Rangers are clearly the class of this division. They do have a couple of injury concerns in their rotation. But they also appear to have solid options to fill any voids and still win among this group of rivals. The Angels need their stars to stay healthy and produce. If they do, they can contend for a Wildcard, maybe even push Texas for the division crown, but those are big "if" questions that will require the right answers. Oakland's early rotation injuries may prove too much for the "little engine that could" to keep winning. Both Seattle and Houston just don't look to have enough.

Monday, March 10, 2014

MLB 2014: American League Central

The 2014 MLB predictions continue today with the American League Central Division, home to half of the now 113-year old league's charter franchise clubs.

Founded in the old Western League in 1894, the Detroit Tigers are the oldest continuous one-name, one-city franchise in the American League, and one of those 8 junior circuit charter franchises.

The franchise has won 4 World Series crowns, 11 American League pennants, 3 division titles as a member of the A.L. East division, and now the last 3 consecutive division titles as a member of the A.L. Central.

For the Tigers to add a 4th consecutive division title the team will have to overcome a number of big off-season personnel losses. On the mound, starting pitcher Doug Fister was traded and setup man Joaquin Benoit left via free agency. Infielder Jhonny Peralta also left as a free agent.

But the two biggest losses to overcome will be slugging 1st baseman Prince Fielder and one of the game's top managers, Jim Leyland. Fielder was dealt to Texas, while Leyland finally walked away at age 69 after eight seasons guiding the Tigers.

Still, any team that wants the crown, and there are contenders, will have to go through Motown. Remaining are one of the game's most dominant pitchers, and the envy of many red-blooded American males as swimsuit model Kate Upton's steady date, Justin Verlander, the reigning A.L. Cy Young winner in Max Scherzer, and the best hitter on the planet, 2-time defending A.L. MVP Miguel Cabrera.

Here are my predictions for the American League Central in 2014:

1) Detroit Tigers
Sure, they suffered all of the losses that I described above. But for most of the questions raised by those losses, the team appears to have enough answers to win a 4th straight division title. On the mound, Drew Smyly should be ready to step right into Fister's steady shoes, and Rick Porcello at age 25 now should be ready to take a step forward as well. They follow behind the outstanding trio of Verlander, Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez. Given health, that group is far and away the best rotation in the division. In the bullpen, Detroit signed Joe Nathan as the new closer, and has a talented bullpen mix with arms such as Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke, Joba Chamberlain, and future closer Bruce Rondon. The infield has a chance to be one of the best in the league. Besides the 2-time MVP in Miggy, the Tigers have veteran Ian Kinsler now at 2nd base. He came from Texas in the Fielder deal, and brings an all-star caliber of play to the middle infield. His doubleplay partner is tremendous defensive shortstop Jose Iglesias. At 3rd base, rookie Nick Castellanos will finally get a chance to show that his minor league production and prospect hype are for real. The regular DH is Victor Martinez, one of the game's elite hitters, and the catcher is the capable Alex Avila. The starting outfield trio of Austin Jackson, Andy Dirks, and consummate pro Torii Hunter is supported by speedy Rajai Davis. And Detroit has a pair of reliable bench players in Don Kelly and Steve Lombardozzi. The Tigers enter the season as the favorites to 4-peat in the A.L. Central. Whether they can win another A.L. pennant, even win their first World Series since 1984, remains to be seen.

2) Kansas City Royals
For me, it's verrry close for the runner-up spot in this division between KC and the Cleveland Indians. I'm going on a bit of a hunch with the Royals, the only franchise in the division that is not one of the original 8 charter members of the American League, feeling that perhaps they are ready to grow into a legitimate playoff contender. A year ago the team registered the first winning record since 1994, and their 86 victories were the most since 1989. The difference with the Tribe, and the main reason that I pick them for 2nd, is an under-rated starting rotation that is supported by a shutdown bullpen. 'Big Game' James Shields gives them a legit Ace at the front, and arms such as Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas, Bruce Chen, Wade Davis, and Luke Hochevar are all talented, with the latter two likely battling for the 5th spot with fireballing youngster Yordano Ventura. The two who don't make the rotation will join a bullpen that includes Greg Holland as the closer, with lefty Tim Collins and righties Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow setting up. If healthy, that trio can be as good as any end-game trio in baseball. The everyday lineup finally began to see 1st baseman Eric Hosmer tap some of his vast raw potential in 2013. In the coming season, 3rd baseman Mike Moustakas and catcher Salvador Perez will be counted on to take similar steps forward. They join veteran leaders in DH Billy Butler and leftfielder Alex Gordon. Lorenzo Cain in center and newcomer Norichika Aoki in rightfield add nice speed, and veteran 2nd baseman Omar Infante is a steadying presence for the kids. If players like Moustakas, Perez, and Ventura actually come through as star-caliber, KC could surprise and contend for the division title. But there remain enough questions to think that the wrong answers may dump them back towards the bottom.

3) Cleveland Indians
The Indians finished in 2nd place a year ago, and earned a berth in the A.L. Wildcard playoff game where they were shutout 4-0 by Tampa Bay. The franchise has won 7 American League Central Division titles, the most recent in 2007, and the most by any of the division's 5 teams. But the franchise has won just two World Series crowns in it's 114-year existence, none since 1948, the longest such streak in the league among teams who have won it at least once. They don't appear to have enough pitching to end that World Series drought, but they might have enough to return to the playoffs, even challenge for a division title with the right breaks. The everyday lineup has depth and versatility. 1st baseman Nick Swisher brings energy and leadership on a daily basis. 2nd baseman Jason Kipnis is an all-star caliber player now, and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera is solid. The outfield will feature speedy Michael Bourn in center, steady newcomer David Murphy in right, and multi-talented leftfielder Michael Brantley. There is depth as well with still-dangerous DH/PH Jason Giambi, infielder Mike Aviles, and IF/OF utility man Ryan Raburn. The most intriguing story line for the Tribe is the move of catcher Carlos Santana to 3rd base, a move they now appear committed to as the season opens. He is also still likely to catch a bit, with Lonnie Chisenhall getting the hot corner when he does. Yan Gomes will catch when Santana is at 3rd base. On the mound, Justin Masterson is more of a #2-type, and is now in his free agent season. Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, and Carlos Carrasco are back and are all capable starters, though none is dominant. Young Danny Salazar gets his first full shot, and he may bring that dominant, strikeout type stuff to a rotation that could use it. Cleveland signed former Milwaukee closer John Axford to finish games, and his presence allows arms such as Vinnie Pestano, C.C. Lee, and Cody Allen to settle into what should be nice setup/matchup pieces in the bullpen. Shaun Marcum and Josh Tomlin provide the Tribe with swingmen who give the rotation depth and the pen some long arms. If Salazar proves for real, and manager Terry Francona keeps pushing the right buttons, Cleveland should at least be in the Wildcard hunt.

4) Chicago White Sox
It will be a big summer for the Chisox, no matter what happens on the field, as former superstar slugger Frank Thomas is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. While the team and city celebrate the career of the man known as "The Big Hurt", they hope that there will not be a repeat of last season's last place divisional finish. Aside from the fact that Minnesota just does not appear talented enough to avoid that cellar, there is room for optimism on the South Side of Chicago. That positivity begins with Cuban import 1st baseman Jose Abreu, who the team hopes can provide some of the type of pop that Thomas once gave their lineup. Another newcomer, centerfielder Adam Eaton, is expected to bring speed and energy to the top of the lineup. Even with those new bats, young outfielders Avisail Garcia and Dayan Viciedo must step up and produce if the club is to rise beyond 4th place. The club would also love to see prospect Matt Davidson, who arrived from Arizona along with Eaton, take the 3rd base job away from Conor Gillaspie. Speedy Alejandro De Aza in the outfield, and steady vet Jeff Keppinger in the infield, provide lineup depth. At the DH spot the club is likely to split veteran sluggers Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko, the latter in a swan song for the Sox former hero. On the mound, young lefty Chris Sale gives the club a true Ace to build upon. Veteran John Danks needs to stay healthy and remain another strong option. Behind them, a pair of youngsters in Jose Quintana and Erik Johnson are likely to take steady rotation turns. Felipe Paulino and Andre Rienzo provide depth to the rotation and pen. If Nate Jones can shoulder the closer role, then arms such as Matt Lindstrom, Ronald Belisario, Mitchell Boggs, and Scott Downs could make the bullpen a strength. The White Sox could use a couple more reliable rotation arms. But if what they have should overachieve, and the kid bats come through, it could be an interesting season for the Pale Hose. Right now, that has to be seen before it can be believed.

5) Minnesota Twins
The Twins are really bad right now. So bad that it's hard to remember that in the last decade they were the division's dominant team. Winning 6 of 10 division titles, and nearly a 7th, the Twins and the "M&M Boys", stars Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, were constant contenders. Despite all those division titles, those teams did not have much playoff success. They will have to wait awhile before even talking about playoffs again. Mauer, a hometown crown jewel player, is moving from his longtime home behind the plate and out to 1st base, where he is likely to spend the remainder of his career. He will never be a prototypical slugger at the position, so will have to keep his batting average and on-base percentage high while proving that he is not a defensive liability at his new position in order for him to not become a problem for the team as it moves forward. The rest of the infield is average at best, with Brian Dozier at 2nd, Pedro Florimon at short, and Trevor Plouffe at 3rd. The catcher will be some combo of veteran Kurt Suzuki and young Josmil Pinto. Reliable vet outfielder Josh Willingham gives them some pop, and Oswaldo Arcia is a coming young run-producer. The rest of their production and depth will come from a questionable mix of Alex Presley, Chris Herrmann, and Eduardo Escobar. It's not much better on the mound. The rotation has some experience with Kevin Correia, Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, Mike Pelfrey, Samuel Deduno, Scott Diamond, and Brian Duensing all in the mix. But none are close to being a true Ace. Closer Glen Perkins is solid, and might be trade bait in the end. The arms that don't make the rotation will join Anthony Swarzak and Jared Burton to fill out the pen. The Twins do have a pair of elite prospects, two of the best in baseball in Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. But Sano suffered an injury that likely leaves him out until 2015, and backs his arrival up until at least mid-season next year. It may be 2016 before those two arrive and help begin to truly turn things around in the Twin Cities.

The Tigers were somewhat weakened in the off-season, and should their pair of superstars in Verlander and Cabrera have any injuries or production slippage, either or both of the Royals or Indians could put it all together and beat them out. But for now, Detroit still looks like the best team in the division, and they also look to be the team with the most answers should troubles strike. New manager and former catcher Brad Ausmus should be able to pick up where Leyland left off, winning a 4th straight division title. And they have enough talent that, with health and everyone producing to their capabilities, they could return to the World Series, where they lost in both 2006 and 2012.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

MLB 2014: American League East

My countdown to the 2014 Major League Baseball season begins here, with predictions for the upcoming season in the always rough-n-tumble American League East Division.

This is the home of the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox, winners of three rings over the past decade.

It is also the home of baseball's crown jewel franchise, the New York Yankees. A year ago, the Yanks struggled through injury and controversy during a swan song season for legendary closer Mariano Rivera. This year it's equally legendary shortstop Derek Jeter's turn.

Remember that I said it here: there is simply no more important player to the success or struggle of their team in the division in the coming season than the Yankees team captain.

The Alex Rodriguez controversy may now be in their rear view mirror, but his absence leaves a gaping hole for now at 3rd base. With the departure of superstar 2nd baseman Robinson Cano to Seattle via free agency, half of the Yanks infield is suspect.

Jeter must stay healthy all year, and come through with a season resembling his career norms in production, if New York is to have any chance at catching Boston.

That said, here is my predicted order of finish for the 2014 American League East Division:

1) Boston Red Sox
There is simply no reason to not pick the defending champs to successfully defend their crown. A year ago, Boston went from worst-to-first and a World Series title. With reasonable health, they will be one of the top contenders for that title again in 2014. The infield features proven gamer vets on the right side in Mike Napoli and Dustin Pedroia, and young star-quality on the left side in shortstop Xander Boegarts and 3rd baseman Will Middlebrooks. Catching is now in the capable hands of veteran A.J. Pierzynski. The outfield is a strong, eclectic mix of Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, Jonny Gomes, Jackie Bradley Jr, and the comebacking Grady Sizemore. And then there is the ever-present DH and team leader in David 'Big Papi' Ortiz. On the mound, the Bosox come at you with a strong 4-man rotation of Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Jake Peavy. Their 5th starter, Felix Doubront, is more than capable on his turn. They signed veteran Chris Capuano for insurance, and have enviable depth building up in their farm system should injuries strike. In the bullpen, Koji Uehara was a revelation a year ago, and is back as the closer. His support now includes former Cardinals closer Edward Mujica. There is plenty of talent in the rest of the division. But the Red Sox have the talent, depth, and versatility to win it again, and keep on winning for the foreseeable future.

2) Tampa Bay Rays
The consistent divisional over-achievers appear primed once again, led by manager Joe Maddon, one of the very best in the game, to contend for a playoff spot. They may not have enough offense to stay with Boston, but pitching is the name of the game in Tampa, and the Rays have plenty of it. Ace lefty David Price fronts the rotation which also includes talented youngsters Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi. Moore has a ton of talent in his own left arm, and if he can fully harness it, he could become a Cy Young contender and turn Price into trade bait, especially if Tampa falls out of contention early for some reason. The bullpen has tremendous depth, including experienced setup man Heath Bell and new closer Grant Balfour. The everyday lineup is led by 3rd baseman Evan Longoria, the single most irreplaceable player in the Rays batting order. The rest of the infield is manned by veteran, strong-gloved 1st baseman James Loney, versatile 2nd sacker Ben Zobrist, and another strong glove in shortstop Yunel Escobar. Behind the plate, the Ryan Hanigan-Jose Molina combo is steady. The outfield features a pair of young players that really need to produce in order for the Rays to contend for more than a Wildcard. Those players are rightfielder Wil Myers and centerfielder Desmond Jennings. Matt Joyce provides a veteran bat to split leftfield and DH at-bats with David DeJesus. Sean Rodriguez and Logan Forsythe are capable, versatile IF/OF backups, but not impact players if called upon to do much more in the event of key injuries. As usual, this Rays group gives Maddon many options and buttons to push. If most of the key guys stay healthy, and he keeps on pushing the right ones, there is no reason that Tampa shouldn't again be a strong post-season contender.

3) New York Yankees
The Yanks finished tied for 3rd a year ago, and despite signing a few high-profile, high-salaried free agents, they simply have not gotten noticeably better for the 2014 season. Why? Because they lost almost as much as they gained. This is a tough team to get a read on for a number of reasons. In the infield, they are counting on full comebacks from Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter. Tex played just 15 games a year ago, and will play the season at 34 years of age. The Captain turns 40 this summer, and played in just 17 games a year ago. With all-star 2nd baseman Robinson Cano and PED-tainted star 3rd baseman Alex Rodriguez both gone, full comebacks to their old selves is a must for New York to do anything. In the outfield, the Yanks are much better off, with speedy Brett Gardner returning and now joined by a pair of talented free agent signees in centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and rightfielder Carlos Beltran. The team also signed all-star catcher Brian McCann, who should be come a true superstar and likely the next team leader in the Bronx. Alfonso Soriano is back as the DH, and teams with Ichiro Suzuki to give the club some nice, veteran depth. On the mound, C.C. Sabathia still leads the rotation, and needs to return to Ace-level. A year ago, his ERA rose by almost a run-and-a-half, and he allowed more hits than innings pitched for the first time in his big league career. In better shape, he must show that 2013 wasn't the start of a steady career slippage. Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova give the club two more solid options. But it may be big Japanese free agent signee Masahiro Tanaka whose performance helps push the club to contend for a Wildcard playoff spot. Another key will be David Robertson, one of the best setup men in the game for the last few years, who now takes on the unenviable task of following in legendary closer Mariano Rivera's footsteps. The rest of the bullpen is largely a question mark, and this group could prove to be fatally flawed. The Yankees have big questions in their infield and bullpen. If they stay healthy and answer those questions with in-season moves, there are enough stars to contend. Those are a lot of "ifs" for baseball's richest franchise.

4) Baltimore Orioles
After a Cinderella playoff season in 2012, the O's again had a winning record a year ago, but slipped back to a tie for 3rd with the Yankees. They could finish anywhere from 2nd to 5th in 2014, and it will be their pitching staff that tells the final tale. Ubaldo Jimenez was a late-winter signing as a free agent, and if he approximates his fine comeback season from a year ago in Cleveland, he will be just what the doctor ordered at the front of manager Buck Showalter's rotation. His presence allows youngsters Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, and Bud Norris to drop back to more comfortable supporting roles. Wei-Yin Chen gives Baltimore depth and a nice 5th option as well. In the bullpen, Tommy Hunter likely gets the first shot at closing. Whomever gets that job has a lot to replace, as Jim Johnson left via free agency and took consecutive 50-save seasons with him. There are a number of interesting, talented arms that should be able to fill out the pen, including strong setup man Darren O'Day. The everyday lineup is much more dependable and talented. A year ago, 1st baseman Chris Davis emerged as one of baseball's top run producers. Along with shortstop J.J. Hardy and mega-talented youngster Manny Machado on the left side, the infield should be a strength for Baltimore. That depends on Machado himself coming back fully from off-season knee surgery, but the future star has progressed nicely to this point. They could use either Jonathan Schoop or Ryan Flaherty to emerge as a true MLB-starting caliber 2nd baseman to fullly solidify the group. In the outfield, the trio of Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and Nolan Reimold has as much talent as any in the game if they stay healthy. The Orioles signed veteran slugger Nelson Cruz, who will play some outfield and be the regular DH. His power bat really lengthens the O's offense. Catcher Matt Wieters is a longball threat and one of the game's best defenders. There is no proven bench, so the starters need to stay healthy and productive. If Buck finds a way to get the rotation to over-achieve a bit, the Orioles can contend for a playoff berth. If injuries strike the lineup and the pitching proves average or worse, they could sink to the bottom.

5) Toronto Blue Jays
A year ago, Toronto had gone on an off-season free agent shopping spree, and the results had them pegged as divisional favorites by many, including me. Now a year later, with basically the same crew back, I'm picking them for the AL East basement. What went wrong? Last year it was the tell-tale combination of injuries and under-performance. This year, it's the fact that the rest of the division has improved, while the Jays have much to prove. The everyday lineup has enough big bats to bash with anyone, if they stay healthy. The big pieces are 1st baseman Edwin Encarnacion, shortstop Jose Reyes, and outfielder Jose Bautista. 3rd baseman Brett Lawrie is a potential all-star talent who the club is counting on to develop quickly to fulfill that potential. The outfield has Colby Rasmus and Melky Cabrera, a pair of talented players, each with something to prove in 2014. If those last three come through, this lineup will be truly deep. There might be a hole at 2nd base, but young Ryan Goins will get first shot, and he appears to at least be a nice glove man. Veteran catchers Dioner Navarro and Josh Thole should keep them competitive at that position. The bullpen has a chance to be real good, especially if closer Casey Janssen can be healthy and pitches to his potential. Arms including Aaron Loup, Steve Delabar, and Sergio Santos give them talent and depth. The rotation is where the big questions lie, and possibly where their fatal flaw lies as well. Mark Buehrle is one of the most consistent, steady winners in the game over the last decade. At 35-yrs old this season, he needs to stay that consistent, because every other arm in that rotation is a question mark. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey is now 39-years old, and while he wasn't bad a year ago, he was nowhere near the Cy Young Award winner that he had been in his final Mets season of 2012. Following the 2011 season, Brandon Morrow looked like one of the best starting pitchers emerging in the game, but each of the last two seasons has been injury-marred. He has the talent to be a big winner, but turning 30 this summer he needs to stay healthy. After those three, it's a big drop to choices like J.A. Happ, Esmil Rogers, Drew Hutchison, and Todd Redmond. Unless the Blue Jays somehow find answers in that rotation, they will find it tough to keep up in this division over time, despite their offensive talents.

I don't see any of the other teams as having the overall depth and talent to unseat the Red Sox at the top. Boston remains a strong World Series contender once again. The rest of the clubs have the talent to finish 2nd and to gain a Wildcard playoff spot. They also have enough questions to finish 5th and find themselves dismantling and rebuilding by the time it's all over. Watching the 2014 season play out should be no more interesting in MLB than here in the American League East Division.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Lenten Sacrifice

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the holy Christian season covering approximately six weeks until Easter.

During the Lenten season, Christians traditionally prepare for Easter through a process of increased prayer, penance, and sacrifice.

Of course, we are all supposed to be praying regularly, asking repentance and making atonement for our sins, and finding ways to sacrifice some part of our own blessings in the form of charity all during the year.

Lent is a good time to both get yourself back on track if you have let some of that spiritual responsibility slip, and also a good time to strengthen your commitment to areas of your life that perhaps need more attention.

To meet these increased spiritual goals during Lent, Christians often make what amount in the secular world to New Year resolution-type promises of change. Only these are promises to God from themselves. The promises can involve saying a daily rosary, returning to Church and the sacraments, and giving up something of importance to them.

That last part, the giving up of something important, is known as a Lenten sacrifice. Remember, the whole point is to prepare for the events of Good Friday and then Easter, when Jesus Christ sacrificed his own life for your sins. Keeping that much sacrifice in mind, how tough is your own?

Each year, I also try to make a Lenten sacrifice. I've usually had success in the past, but this year I am going a little more ambitious. I am personally building a number of elements into my Lenten sacrifice. Maybe one or more will inspire you as well.

First, I am actually simply going to continue a spiritual exercise which I began all the way back in November. At some point in mid-November of 2013, I began to say a full rosary each day. Somehow, I have been able to keep it up every day. I have found lately that there were a couple times where I almost just let it go. Lent will be a good time to increase my commitment to it.

Next, I am going to commit to going to Church more often. My own local St. Christopher's Roman Catholic parish will be offering Mass on a nightly basis. I will be going a few times. I am also volunteering more in my role as a church Lector to do the readings at Mass during this period.

Also during Lent, I am going to make sure that I participate in appropriate sacraments more often. Most specifically, going to Confession, doing Penance, and sincerely attempting to stay away from the occasion of sin. I'm planning on making a Confession now, at the start of Lent, and again closer to Easter.

These things should go a long way towards meeting my goals of increased prayer and penance during Lent, and your own adoption of any would help you do the same. So now, on to the sacrifice part. What am I "giving up for Lent" this year?

First, we'll start with the treats/goodies category. I will be giving up all cakes, cookies, pies, candy, ice cream, and other similar desserts and treats. Only exception will be for breath mints, which some might consider as "candy", but which I slot into their own special category as someone who has a lot of dealings with the public.

Next, a bit tougher one thanks to specific circumstances. I will be giving up soda as well. However, I am giving myself a "special dispensation" on St. Patty's Day weekend to allow for drinking soda at events surrounding that upcoming celebration. Better that than imbibe in too many "adult beverages", especially when driving. Outside St. Patty's weekend, no soda either.

Not just a "don't do that" period, Lent is a time to "do", to take action where it may be needed. I am going to begin seriously getting back into a regular physical workout routine. Starting with daily walking, and then building up to more as the Lenten season advances and I get in better physical conditioning.

And then I added on a new one this year, limiting my use of personal social media, particularly by refraining from Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media during the Lenten season with two exceptions only.

Those two social media exceptions will be this blog, where I will actually attempt to write MORE, something that I have been trying to get myself to do anyway. And also my professional Twitter account @PPDMattVeasey, where I have an expected responsibility to participate for my employer.

I have also undertaken a couple of more personal restrictions for Lent, and we'll just keep those between me and the Lord at this point. Oh, and all of my fellow Catholics should remember to refrain from eating meat today, Ash Wednesday, and every Friday through Good Friday. Also, today and each Friday you should limit yourself to one full, large meal.

I think that if I can successfully accomplish all of that, it adds up to a solid, legitimate personal Lenten observance. Prayer, penance, and sacrifice all built into the plan. So, there's my plan for Lent - what's yours?


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Never the Answer

Last night at the Wells Fargo Center, the increasingly embarrassing Philadelphia 76ers put on a dog-and-pony show for their remaining fans to honor one of the most polarizing and controversial stars in franchise history.

Allen Iverson, also known as "A.I." (emphasis on the "I"), was feted with the usual speeches from other players and club officials past and present, and a career highlight video. He also had his number '3' retired, with a banner hung from the rafters representing that honor.

As a part of the ceremony, one of the many gifts bestowed upon Iverson last night was a modest-sized fishing boat with another of his nicknames, "The Answer", scrawled along the side. The problem with the inscription, the nickname as applicable to the player himself, is that it just doesn't apply.

Allen Iverson proved that he was never the answer for this franchise. I feel that it's honoring of him alongside champions such as Julius Erving, Wilt Chamberlain, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones, Billy Cunningham, and Hal Greer is preposterous, a blatant ploy to sellout the house as was a similarly undeserving player, Charles Barkley in 2001.

Every one of those first half-dozen players mentioned in the last paragraph were great individual players on the court. Every one of them was an all-star, and spent some period of time in their NBA career as one of the best at their respective position. They played hard, well, and brought honor to the 76ers logo, fans, franchise.

They also brought the franchise and we fans something that Iverson, and Barkley, never did, an NBA Championship. Allen Iverson played parts of 14 seasons in the NBA, most of them as a starting shooting guard. He played a full 10, and parts of two others, with the Sixers franchise.

He was the 76ers first round selection, the first player selected overall, in the 1996 NBA Draft following a similarly exciting and controversial college career at Georgetown University. As in individual player, he mostly lived up to that status. He led the NBA in scoring 4x, in steals 3x, and in minutes played per-game 4x in his full Sixer seasons.

His whirling dervish style of play also injected life back into a fan base which had grown disillusioned during a 5-year stretch of losing seasons which had begun when Barkley left town. The last four of those seasons resulted in the team winning 30 fewer games than it won while playing a bland style of basketball with zero on-court personalities.

Iverson certainly brought personality, and the local media bought into his "inner city", hip-hop celebrity act hook, line, and sinker. Especially guilty was the Philadelphia Daily News, a local rag newspaper with plummeting circulation that has become as irrelevant as the team, which splashed his face across the front and back pages of it's tabloid on a regular basis.

But lost in all of the flash and style was the fact that on the court there was precious little success. In just one season, the memorably glorious 2000-01 campaign, did the Sixers enjoy real success as a team during the entirety of Iverson's tenure as it's star and leader.

The team had reached the playoffs in each of the two previous seasons, won an Opening Round, but had lost both times in the Conference Semi-Finals. In that 2000-01 season, Iverson had led the NBA in scoring for the 2nd time in his career. Now for the one time in his career, he translated that game and helped lift his team to stirring post-season victories.

The Sixers again won in the Opening Round, vanquishing an Indiana team that had eliminated them in each of the two prior playoffs. Then back-to-back, they defeated first Toronto and then Milwaukee in dramatic 7-game series to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since the 1983 NBA Championship team.

In those Finals, Iverson enjoyed one more shining moment, capping this post-season run that is really the only such period of glory that he can hang his hat upon. In the opening game at Los Angeles, Iverson almost single-handedly willed the Sixers to an overtime win. Unfortunately it would be their only victory in the series, as the Lakers then stormed back to win the next four straight games and the title.

It is that season of glory that fans cling to in their memory banks, frankly because it is the only season of real glory for the franchise since Doctor J hung up his sneakers. Other than that 2000-01 season, the 76ers have won just a handful of Opening Round matchups, never advancing further in the NBA playoffs for what is now three full decades.

Now I am certainly not going to blame 30 years of non-contending on one player in Iverson. I already mentioned some of his stats, he was most definitely an exciting, all-star caliber player. But what he wasn't was the same thing that Barkley wasn't before him: a winner.

I was a huge Sixer fan during my childhood through the 70's and mid-80's, a period that included one of the worst seasons in NBA history in 1972-73 and some awful teams before the Dr. J era began, then the full glory of that period during Doc's career when the Sixers became perennial title contenders.

What did happen during both the Barkley era and then the Iverson era was that the team came to be dominated by those players and their selfish styles on the court. They never were able to attract or elevate players around them to create that perennially winning situation.

During the Iverson era, the 76ers won just that lone Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference title in 2000-01. More representative of their finish during his time were the 6th or lower records which came eight times for the team in the Eastern Conference during his career in Philly.

For the entirety of the 5 seasons following 2000-01, the team finished with exactly a .500 regular season cumulative record. For the entirety of the 4 seasons prior to 2000-01, the team finished with a cumulative record that was 36 games under that .500 mark. Bottom line: Iverson had one memorable year in Philly.

My own interest in the Sixers has unfortunately disintegrated over the last quarter century. Both Barkley and Iverson proved themselves to be colorful characters and all-star level individual players, but neither was able to deliver more than a handful of winning stretches of play. Meanwhile, in numerous post-game interviews and off-court incidents, both set horrible examples for their youthful fans.

There have been other disappointing pro athletes in Philadelphia over the last couple of decades, players whose greatness wearing their team uniform was obvious, but who never were able to elevate their teams to a championship level. But I would argue that both Donovan McNabb and Eric Lindros did far more good than harm for the Eagles and Flyers respectively. That is an argument for another article.

As for Allen Iverson, he never did prove to be "The Answer" for the Philadelphia 76ers. Last night he was rewarded for that one 2000-01 oasis in what has been a Philly pro basketball desert over the last three decades. Right now the Sixers franchise is an embarrassment on the court, and in again bestowing an honor on a player that does not deserve it, they only add to that embarrassment.