Yeah, it was ugly. I knew it was going to be a long day when Contreras gave up a home run on his second pitch.
There were some good points, and some highlights – Erstad’s home run in his first White Sox at-bat, the bullpen’s promise, and others…but 12-5 is just not the way to start it up.
That being said, it’s also only one game. Take a day off, get a breather, and come back strong on Wednesday.
And the final set of predictions: the AL Central, which I originally composed this morning, but for whatever reason it did not post correctly. So here you are, for your viewing pleasure.
Chicago White Sox
Some national pundits a few months ago were claiming that it was the fact that the White Sox did not have enough hitting that contributed to their demise in 2006. This could not be farther from the truth. An inconsistent rotation that had a dismal two-month stretch in the early fall sealed doom for the South Siders. The rotation will need to improve and not give up early runs in order to be successful. The lineup will have no problem – they easily have one of the best offenses in the American League and will continue to improve with the addition of Darin Erstad. The bullpen is vastly improved from a year ago, with additions of Nick Masset, Andrew Sisco, and David Aardsma – all hard-throwers that will confuse hitters with movement on their pitches. Everything hinges on the starting five – they will literally make or break this team in 2007.
Everyone believes that this is the year for the Cleveland Indians, but the pitching has a lot to prove in order to convince this writer. After C.C. Sabathia and Jake Westbrook, the Indians have an unproven rookie (Jeremy Sowers), a journeyman with a ballooning ERA (Paul Byrd), and a replacement fifth-starter with one career win to his name (Fausto Carmona). Cliff Lee can’t return to the rotation soon enough. Joe Borowski was a great addition as closer, though it remains to be seen if he can maintain his production as closer that he showed in 2006 (36 saves in 43 opportunities with Florida). Andy Marte is a subpar option at third base, but the only viable one at this time. Betancourt and Hernandez are great set-up men, but aging and weary. The offense is solid and should produce this year, especially with the additions of Barfield (San Diego), Nixon (Boston), and Dellucci (Philadelphia).
A largely unchanged offense from 2006 will deliver on its big promises in 2007. Granderson will need to cut down on the strikeouts (174 last year) in order to develop further his effectiveness as a leadoff hitter. The addition of Gary Sheffield as full-time DH will add another dimension of power to this solid lineup. Jose Mesa joins an already deep bullpen featuring Todd Jones, Joel Zumaya, Fernando Rodney, and Wil Ledezma. Chad Durbin has a lot to prove in order to remain with the club as the fifth starter. Bonderman, Maroth, Robertson and Verlander have evolved from joke of the league to class of the AL. This is truly an exciting team to watch and one of the teams to beat in the AL.
Kansas City Royals
A roster of parts has no unifying figure to lead them, and it will show glaringly in 2007. Mike Sweeney, Mark Teahen, David DeJesus, and Alex Gordon all post consistently solid offensive numbers, but without a true superstar among them, there will be no one there to help them string together the hits they need to win games. The pitching rotation is also a number of parts, with a number of solid pitchers but no true ace among them. Gil Meche comes over from Seattle to anchor a rotation that is growing and learning. Meche and Odalis Perez must teach the younger pitchers how to work deep into games. Zach Greinke has the stuff to be a 20-game winner but needs to work on his command within the strike zone. Bullpen lacks depth – no consistent relievers beyond Octavio Dotel (closer) and Todd Wellemeyer (set-up).
The Twins always seem to be around when the season wraps up. This year might prove to be their most difficult year yet, as the rotation is as thin and unproven as it has been in the past five years. Beyond Johan Santana, who is easily the best pitcher in the AL (if not the entire MLB), the other starters will have their work cut out for them. Boof Bonser will need to do better than one game over .500 this year (7-6 in limited 2006 action), and Ortiz, Silva, and Ponson will need to improve from last year (all three posted sub-.500 records in full-season action). The bullpen can get the job done in the late game, and the offense will keep the team in any game (the lineup is largely unchanged from last year’s roster), but if the starting pitching cannot keep the game close, the bats will falter more often than not.
5. Kansas City
And the season gets underway in earnest today, so live from downtown Chicago, the first of the final two previews – the NL Central.
Let me first say: I do not -hate- the Cubs, I simply don’t follow them with the fervor that I follow the White Sox. So this preview is probably more impartial than you would like to admit.
A retooled rotation looks to be the strongest for the team since 2003. Carlos Zambrano anchors the rotation, and if he and Wade Miller can stay healthy, look for a team that can get many games to the bullpen either in the lead or close to it. The biggest questions linger in the lineup – the corner infield positions are strong but the middle infield (Cesar Izturis and Mark DeRosa) could be the difference between wins and losses. LF Cliff Floyd returns to his hometown and likely will be starting at the first sign of trouble from Matt Murton. Jacque Jones needs to improve his defense or the Cubs could end up having problems at both corner outfield positions. The lineup needs to provide offense for the pitching or the starting arms will simply tire and shut down late in the season, when the Cubs figure to need the push of wins the most.
An infield that has been largely untouched for the past three years figures to be productive again this year. The outfield will be the big question for the offense – can Carlos Lee stay in shape and continue his streak of 30-HR seasons? Can Luke Scott handle full-season outfield duties? Can Jason Lane pick up the slack if someone is injured or not producing?
The pitching is a different story. A retooled rotation looks decidedly weaker than in previous seasons, with Roy Oswalt the only true ace of the rotation. Woody Williams had a nice comeback last year from an unproductive ’05 campaign and looks to continue said resurgence. Matt Albers posted some nice numbers in a late-season audition with the club last year. Brad Lidge continues to be the closer, despite an obvious drop in production during last season – attributed to walkoff home runs given up in both the 2005 NLCS and World Series.
A young team looks to make some noise up in Wisconsin this year, with Bill Hall and Prince Fielder coming off stellar seasons with the club. Geoff Jenkins is a mainstay in left field but power numbers have declined steadily the last four years. J.J. Hardy and Rickie Weeks will need to improve their numbers as the new everyday middle infield – last year’s numbers for both in limited action were less than impressive. Kevin Mench and Tony Graffanino continue to be two of the most underrated utility players in the NL.
St. Louis Cardinals
One of the most powerful lineups in the NL also sports one of the weakest rotations, where Kip Wells is the second starter, following ace Chris Carpenter. The aim for the rotation will be to survive five or six innings nightly and turn the game over to the improving bullpen, and resurgent closer Jason Isringhausen. Izzy, despite an ugly early season, came back to save 33 games and also close down the Tigers in the 2007 World Series. Randy Flores and Josh Hancock will be expected to handle the set-up duties and will have to keep games close as the Cards let the lineup go to work. Pujols, Edmonds, Spiezio, and Rolen cannot afford any long-term power outages this season as offense will be paramount in 80% of the games for the Redbirds this season.
The most beautiful thing about the Pirates this season will continue to be the view of the skyline from PNC Park. Jason Bay is a key in left field but the weaker pieces in the other two outfield positions (CF Chris Duffy and RF Xavier Nady) may find themselves overmatched at the plate much of the time. 3B Freddy Sanchez begins the season on the DL and may be rushed back, hampering him for most the season. Adam LaRoche is a good addition at first. The rotation is anchored by Zach Duke, who regressed in his first full season last year after a promising limited audition in 2005. No clear-cut closer has emerged in the bullpen, where Salomon Torres (12 saves in 15 opportunities in 2006) looks to cement himself in the role. Set-up man Matt Capps had a better record than some starters last year (9-1) but lefty set-up Damaso Marte continued his long string of inconsistency and inability to hit the strike zone in tight games.
Another year, another question mark in right field. Griffey continues to confound, often having long streaks of great hitting before going cold or getting injured. Adam Dunn and Ryan Freel hope to build on 2006 successes and post themselves as the top outfield in the NL Central. The Reds rotation could be the most distressing and confounding in the NL in their own right – Harang, Arroyo, and Lohse are all known for their extended periods of streakiness. Scott Hatteberg continues to be an anchor at first base but an untested infield will need to work deep into counts and raise opposing pitchers’ pitch counts to ultimately be successful this season.
1. St. Louis
Part four, and I’m already bracing for the backlash of Yankees fans who think their team is far better than a fourth-place finish…
Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim, or parts nearby, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…)
The long name notwithstanding (and I enjoy poking fun, mainly because the squabble was so petty and yet took up so much of my computer screen), the Angels have a strong team for the upcoming season. John Lackey has finally come into his own and will anchor the Angels’ rotation, whose only question mark seems to be a rookie fifth-starter (Dustin Moseley, who gave up 11 ER in 11 IP last year in a late-season audition). The lineup is a little shakier in appearance, with a center fielder (Gary Matthews, Jr.) surrounded in controversy, as well as a quasi-rookie 2B (Howie Kendrick, with a promising start last year in limited action) and a loose cannon at DH (Shea Hillenbrand, whose problems with Toronto Blue Jays’ management last year are well-documented). The lineup questions notwithstanding, the bullpen appears solid, including key acquisition Darren Oliver (6 IP without giving up a run in the 2006 NLCS).
An essentially unchanged Oakland A’s team will take the field looking to repeat as AL West champions. Barry Zito departs the team, leaving Rich Harden as the top pitcher in a deceptively deep rotation. Five star outfielders will rotate among the three positions leaving the A’s as the deepest outfield in the American League. Dan Johnson is the main question mark, batting only .234 while seeing only limited action in 2006. The A’s bullpen will be hard-pressed to duplicate the successes of 2006, but will need to do so in the event the relatively unknown rotation names cannot deliver. Third-starter Esteban Loaiza needs to return to his form of 2003 and 2005, where he posted more than 170 K’s in each campaign. While Mike Piazza (acquired from SD) will be asked mainly to DH (with Jason Kendall and Adam Melhuse the staff catchers), it would not be a big surprise to see Piazza behind the plate at some point this season.
Seattle could be the surprise, or the bust, of the 2007 season. Felix Hernandez is quickly becoming the new face of this franchise and has the stats to match. Jarrod Washburn and Jeff Weaver are the other cornerstones of a rotation that must improve in order to have any shot at contesting for the division crown against the two giants of the division, Oakland and Los Angeles. A largely disappointing bullpen from 2006 will be asked to improve in order to get to the team’s breakout closer, J.J. Putz. The infield corners are mainstays of the Mariners; the middle infield will have to play strong and protect CF Ichiro Suzuki as a hitter in order to produce runs. Jose Guillen is the only weak outfielder in the starting lineup – an improved batting average might be the difference between wins and losses in key games.
The story of the year might be Sammy Sosa making the team, but the Rangers have a lot of other bright spots in their lineup. The entire infield might be one of the best in the Majors, with four potential All-Stars in Blalock, Young, Kinsler, and Teixeira. The outfield is slightly behind the star power, with RF Nelson Cruz only on tenuous footing after spring training (and Sammy Sosa waiting in the wings should Cruz falter early in the season). Brad Wilkerson will need to bat better than .222 and Kenny Lofton will have to lead an outfield unit that could make or break this Rangers squad.
Acquisition of Brandon McCarthy is a definite upgrade for the rotation, but Texas will still need production out of pitchers other than Vicente Padilla. Akinori Otsuka has proven that he can hold down the fort while the Rangers wait for Eric Gagne, but if Gagne falters, Otsuka could easily be the full-season closer.
1. Los Angeles
Opening night is mere hours away, so continuing on with the predictions, the AL East!
Boston Red Sox
Everyone is saying that the Boston Red Sox, if they stay healthy, are the team to beat this year in the AL East this year. I’m really not sold on this, for three reasons:
1. Dustin Pedroia, a rookie starting at 2B, who has played a total of 31 games in the majors.
2. A bullpen that, beyond Jonathan Papelbon (and perhaps even in part because of him) is one huge question mark. Brendan Donnelly is a loose cannon, J.C. Romero had a TERRIBLE 2006 campaign, Javier Lopez and consistency are two terms that have never been used in the same sentence, ditto for Kyle Snyder, and Joel Piniero couldn’t hack it as a starter in Seattle for the last three seasons (double-digit losses in ’04, ’05, and ’06). Hideki Okajima, a rookie from Japan, could conceivably be the only plus in the bullpen.
3. Beyond Ramirez and Ortiz, the Red Sox do not have one single position player who can consistently put the ball in play. The closest match to this might be Mike Lowell, and even that is still a stretch.
I don’t think they’re going to be quite as good as everyone thinks they will be. Worst case, they’ll be fighting to hit .500. Best case, they’ll win in a very weak AL East. They’re not awful, in fact, they’re probably the best team in the division – but in this division it’s not really saying much.
The pieces are starting to fall in place for the Orioles, but they’re still a year (or two) away from really contending in this division. The corner outfielders are strong as ever (Jay Payton in LF, and Nick Markakis in RF) but until they find a center fielder who can hit consistently (for either power or average) they’ll never be considered one of the elite outfields in the AL. The infield has no real holes, and C Ramon Hernandez gives consistent production at the plate on a yearly basis. The real problems start to emerge when you examine the rotation and bullpen. Adam Loewen and Steve Trachsel, fourth- and fifth-starter (respectively), constitute a big drop-off in talent from their top three starters (Bedard, Cabrera, Wright). The bullpen will ostensibly need to pick up the slack, but big names (Jamie Walker, Chad Bradford, and Chris Ray) are poised to have big seasons.
New York Yankees
Everyone in the past few years has had the Yankees as either laying a large egg or winning the World Series, but inevitably they end up somewhere in the middle. This year will be no different, as a distinct lack of depth and aging of name players will take its toll on the Bronx Bombers. The outfield will produce as expected, though the infield looks a bit more dicey. Cano will need to rebound from a rough ’06, as will Rodriguez. Mientkiewicz is a distinct step down in talent at 1B. The bullpen, beyond Mariano Rivera, is as unreliable and unpredictable as it was in ’06, as no major upgrades were made.
And, by the way, Carl Pavano is starting to open the season. Clemens will eventually return to the Yankees, but it will be far too little, far too late, as Mussina and Pettitte continue to decline. Kei Igawa is a bright spot in a rotation that will not have a great year in ’06.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
The Rays will not make much noise, but they’ll be better this season than they have in the past. Returning in the batting order includes Carl Crawford, Ben Zobrist, Dioner Navarro, and Rocco Baldelli. The lineup will need to learn how to string hits together and move runners over in order to be successful in a weak division. The pitching rotation is solid, with Scott Kazmir, Jae Seo, and Casey Fossum looking to turn in consistent performances in every start. The bullpen is thin, but growing – Ruddy Lugo is the only known commodity in relief this year. 80 wins is a lofty goal, but perhaps not out of the question for a Tampa Bay team that may finally be learning how to put together a successful season.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Toronto Blue Jays loaded up on offense this off-season, but their inability to land one more big name pitcher may be their undoing this year. The Blue Jays are banking on Frank Thomas to equal his production of last year with the A’s, although with his advancing age it doesn’t seem likely (although, it didn’t seem likely that Thomas would produce as he did last year, and look what happened). Vernon Wells and Troy Glaus anchor a lineup geared more for power, but middle-infield of Royce Clayton (SS) and Aaron Hill (2B) raises more than a few eyebrows. Alex Rios will seek to build on his ’06 rebound. Tomo Ohka (fourth starter) has massive control issues, yet sports a deceptively low ERA.
4. New York
5. Tampa Bay
Continuing on…all six divisions will definitely be posted by Opening Day. We continue with the National League West.
I really don’t know what to make of the Diamondbacks. They could either be a breakout team, or the bottom of the barrel. Top three starters (Webb, Johnson, Hernandez) are powerful pitchers but the team will need consistent performance from #4 and #5 to make an extended run at the division title. Jose Valverde will need to have a breakout season to keep his spot in the bullpen as the closer. RF Eric Byrnes and 2B Orlando Hudson will need to be leaders in a lineup that is still very young and relatively inexperienced.
The Dodgers could turn some heads here. Derek Lowe returns as the ace starter, hoping to match or improve upon last year’s 16-8 campaign. Jason Schmidt and Juan Pierre are key additions to a lineup that was only a couple of pieces short of making a deeper run into the 2006 playoffs. P Takashi Saito was a very pleasant surprise as closer and now tries to avoid the sophomore slump. 3B is still a question – despite 18 HR from Wilson Betemit, LA looks for Betemit to improve upon his .263 average.
The Giants are hoping that big contracts translate to wins, but the money could turn out to be not so well-spent as some might believe. Barry Zito was the big signing of the offseason, but maybe was too highly paid for the type of pitcher he is. Bonds will set the record this year, but may end up being more of a distraction than normal. Armando Benitez is the closer, but questions abound after he blew eight saves last year. The Giants hope to utilize the speed they acquired out of CF Dave Roberts.
An improved rotation is the highlight of the San Diego Padres, but lineup production will continue to be the main question asked of San Diego. Unknowns in LF (Termel Sledge) and at 3B (Kevin Kouzmanoff), as well as a catcher who needs to avoid a let-down from last year (Josh Bard, .333-9-40) all are mysteries to the fans in southern California. Jake Peavy anchors a solid rotation that features a still-effective Greg Maddux as the fourth starter. Fans question how much longer David Wells can last as a pitcher, especially if his health starts to deteriorate.
The Rockies could make some waves in the NL West but they may be a year or two away from truly contending. Aaron Cook (9-15 last year) anchors a rotation that could be weak but at the same time may have a breakout season. Todd Helton and Garret Atkins lead a young lineup that must learn how to earn hits and walks in key spots in the game. CF Willy Taveras adds a burst of speed which may frustrate opposing pitchers. Brian Fuentes enters his third full season as closer, looking to earn another 30 saves for Colorado. Jeremy Affeldt must lead a bullpen sorely lacking in tight-game experience.
1. Los Angeles
2. San Diego
3. San Francisco
Columnist Gregg Easterbrook, also known as the "Tuesday Morning Quarterback", has a great saying: "All predictions wrong, or your money back." I offer that disclaimer as I present to you my preview and predictions of the coming baseball year, starting with the National League East.
I will be very interested to see how the Mets this year perform in comparison to last year. They return an essentially unchanged offense (Cliff Floyd being the only notable departure, being replaced by Moises Alou), however, they also return a pitching staff filled with question marks. With six starters vying for five rotation spots, returns are indicating that Chan Ho Park is headed for the bullpen, but will stay available should anyone in the rotation falter. The bullpen is a large question mark, with Wagner still in the closing role, but Guillermo Mota unavailable for the first third of the season due to a suspension.
The Marlins will attempt to avoid a mass sophomore slump, banking on improvement from their infielders (especially Cabrera and Ramirez, who will anchor a decidedly contact-based lineup), and production from RF Joe Borchard, who never lived up to his promise on the south side of Chicago. A rotation anchored by Dontrelle Willis, Scott Olsen, and Anibal Sanchez will need to post solid ERA numbers, and will need fifth-starter Sergio Mitre to improve on his sub-par performances with the Chicago Cubs.
The Braves look to reload as much as rebuild, and are counting on solid seasons from mainstays Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, and Edgar Renteria. John Smoltz and Tim Hudson are aces on a pitching staff that will need to improve on its showing from last year and keep its ERA down in order to help the offense when its run production suffers. Corner outfield positions continue to be a question mark for the Braves as Langerhans and Francoeur posted averages of .241 and .260 last year, respectively.
The Phillies are hoping to mount a legitimate challenge for the NL East crown this year, with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard anchoring a power lineup built to take advantage of the smaller dimensions of Citizens Bank Park. RF Shane Victorino posted a solid year in his first full major league season and now looks to improve on his 2006 marks (.287-6-46). Left field is the only offensive question, as the crowd in Ashburn Alley will continue to heckle Pat Burrell if he continues his lack of offensive production at key times (29 HR, but an average of only .258). A pitching staff anchored by Chicago transplant Freddy Garcia will need to provide much-needed consistency and ERA support to an offensive-minded team; Jamie Moyer as fifth-starter is quite a luxury for a Phillies team that might make a deep run in the playoffs this year.
The Washington Nationals have continued to regress in the past few years, and unfortunately appear poised to do more of the same in 2007. Chad Cordero remains the lone bright spot in a very dark bullpen, with more production needed out of inconsistent hurlers Jon Rauch and Ray King. Rauch may finally find his consistency this year and drop his ERA under 3, but if he pitches in 80+ games again this year may find he throws his arm right off. Rotation anchor John Patterson untested and unproven; might make a decent fourth- or fifth-starter for a championship ballclub. New 1B Dmitri Young only real power in lineup, and may find the National League game unsuitable for his taste. Injuries and attitude limited Young to 47 games last year. LF Kory Casto may move back to first before the season is over, forcing fourth-outfielder Ryan Church into a starting role.
2. New York