The first full week of the baseball season gets underway this week.... of course we already had those 2 Boston Oakland games from Japan that nobody watched...(except for Barry the local Boston Red Sox fan) Were the A's fans really going to stay up till 3 AM! to watch a game? - This whole Japanese games things is just so silly. I still remember the good ol' days where the first game of the season always took place in Cincinnati and the rest of the games came on later in the afternoon. Now ESPN has a Braves Nationals game on tonight, and The Reds don't kick off till after 2 on Monday... 2 American League games will already have started by then.
Monday is the culmination of 5 terrific days in sports.. 4 days of the NCAA leading to the Final 4 and then Opening Day. Usually Opening Day coincides with the NCAA Championship Game.. but this year the first full day of the baseball season is March 31..
So who are the top 14 teams of the year... As usual we start in the National League and move East to West starting with....
THE METS - Time for my boys to get back to 2006 mode.. except this year, the St. Louis Cardinals will not interfere with their Road to the World Series.... the Cardinals will be too busy trying not to lose 110 games! The Mets go into the new year with some glaring holes on offense, but their bullpen is solid and the rotation looks much improved with Johan Santana, plus a full year of Pedro, and the ever improving John Maine and the surprisingly improved Oliver Perez. The outfield is a tad shaky.... but its always fun to watch ESPN Games to hear Jon Miller announce Carlos Beltraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan. Hopefully Beltraaaaaaaaaaaaan will stay healthy because LF and RF are not solid. Luckily the Mets have a pretty strong left side of the infield and they are praying that Carlos Delgado has another year left in the tank.. I think they will grow to regret trading away Lastings Milledge... but Met fans will be too focused on the Pennant Race with the Phils and Braves to get overly worried. Nonetheless, the Mets probably should have acquired another outfielder during the spring... we'll see if it comes back to bite them in the tushie.
Philly - Now Enemy #1 to Mets fans after they took advantage of the Mets 2007 choke job and snatched the division. The Phils have a decent rotation anchored by young Cole Hamels and Brent Myers who is back as a starter after a year in the pen. Old man Jamie Moyer continues to chug along, and watch out for Kyle Kendrick who went 10-4 last year. Brad Lidge comes over from Houston as the stopper. Offensively, they have what they had last year. A lot of pop with Ryan Howard and a phenomenal hitting middle infield with Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. You gotta give credit to Pat Burrell also, he consistently hits close to 30 homers each year. Unlike last year they are going to be in the division race from Day One... so Mets fans wont have to worry about another late choke job with the Phillies making a huge comeback. The Phils are for real this year, and won't far too fall of the pace, and this might mean that the Wild Card is coming out of the East.
Atlanta - Tom Glavine is back in Atlanta rejoining John Smoltz, a rejuvenated Tim Hudson, and Mike Hampton who came back from years of injuries. Braves teams of yesteryear were built on pitching, and if these veterans can stay healthy, the East will be a 3 team race. However, Smoltz has some injury troubles that could drastically hurt this team, especially with Glavine's aging and Hamptons shakiness. He has been injured so much lately he could homeschool his kids. (A little dig at Hampton who didnt want to pitch for the Mets because of the local school systems.) Andruw Jones is gone, but Chipper had a great year, they get a full year of 1B Mark Texiera and Brian McCann is a terrific catcher so the team should contend for the Wild Card. Rafael Soriano comes in out of the bullpen as the stopper - he has already posted some pretty good numbers as the set up man.
Cubbies - They might cruise to the division, unless the Astros can get it together with their new look team. The Cubbies have some solid players with outfielder Alfonso Soriano and corner infielders Derek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. When I saw the new Japanese player was named Fukudome... I thought that was the name of a new stadium! Carlos Zambrano and Ted Lilly anchor the pitching staff - but who knows how long Kerry Wood can last as the stopper? He might actually thrive in that role since he won't be forced to pitch more than an inning at a time. Lou Pinella as manager should help them out in an incredibly weak division.
Houston - This is the team that could sneak up on a lot of people who are so into the Brewers this year...... Houston totally revamped their team for '08. but the major concern is the starting rotation. After Roy Oswalt, who is gonna pitch? Wandy Rodriguez as the #2 starter? Do any fantasy drafts today have any other Astros starters getting drafted? If the Astros discover a young rookie and make a trade they could quickly straighten out the rotation. Jose Valverde is a solid acquisition for the pen. Offensively, Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman are joined by a full year of young Hunter Pence plus Shortstop Miguel Tejada and speedy outfielder Michael Bourn who quietly had a terrific year with the Phllies in '07. The Astros also picked up former Met Kaz Matsui from Colorado... but he is out for now due to an Anal Fissure. Anal Fissure? Is that any relation to Ira Joe Fissure.
Arizona - Their already solid rotation got even better when they snagged Dan Haren from Oakland to join Brandon Webb and the ageless Randy Johnson. Brandon Lyon will save the games replacing Jose Valverde who went to the 'Stros. The hitting looks pretty good this year with some major speed in the outfield coming from Eric Byrnes and Chris Young. Both also have some pop in their bats. The rest of the offense leaves a bit to be desired, but the pitching staff is strong enough to carry the team through some low scoring 2-1 or 3-2 games... sort of like The Mets.
Colorado - Last years surprise pennant winners look to continue the hot streak. They also fulfilled a prediction I have made in previous baseball columns - there is so much parity in baseball (moreso in the NL than the AL where its either feast or famine) that a team can put together a big winning streak in September to catapult them right into the wild card race. Thats what the Rox did... and they bring back the same offense with Roy Halladay, Garrett Atkins, Todd Helton, Brad Hawpe and Todd Tulowitzki. That is some hitting team!! Manny Corpas took over as stopper last season and never looked back.. They only have one solid starter in Jeff Francis... and like a number of other teams, they will be shopping for pitching during the season.
San Diego - The last NL team to make the list... Wait, No Dodgers?? Sorry... Joe Torre ain't with the Yankees anymore and the LA Dodgers are nowhere near as good as the Yankees from '96-'00 when Torre really established himself... However, the Padres get the edge here, although they will probably finish with a slightly better record... but not by much. The starting looks solid with Jake Peavy, Chris Young... (not the same as the D-back outfielder) and veteran warhorse Greg Maddux who always figures out a way to get to 14 wins. Trevor Hoffman is a seasoned pro who should be able to bounce back from last years meltdown. Like LA, the offense is just ok.. and with that ballpark, it is going to be tough to get a lot of home runs, even though they have some solid hitters in 1b Adrian Gonzales, ss Khalil Greene and 3b Kevin Kouzmanoff. The Pods just barely make it in as the #14 team.
Yankees - First of all Let's hope Stadium PA Announcer Bob Shepherd makes a full recovery. The 90 something Shepherd is still "under the weather" and will not be around for the start of the season. He did conduct an interview with Neil Best from the Watchdog blog on Newsday... so apparently his age has not caught up with him. This season's team is putting a lot of faith in their young pitching staff with Chien Ming Wang being the only sure thing. Andy Pettite and Mike Mussina might be near the end of the rope, so the young guys they did not trade for Johan Santana might have to step up to cover the slack. Mariano Rivera is Mariano Rivera 'nuff said, and the offense remains basically the same as '07 so as usual the Bombers are going to be tough. Last year, they couldn't pull off the division title, but still got the Wild Card. This year's big question is will the starting pitching issues get them back to the playoffs.... and will ARod be hitting on other players' wives as he allegedly did with Mrs. Canseco? For more on this topic... see today's Clip of the Week.
Boston - The World Champs and more trash talking by local Red Sox fan Barry. He's still chirping about the Celtics terrific season, but his Patriot talk has been refreshingly quiet since The Super Bowl. :) He actually pointed out to me yesterday that he saw a T- Shirt that said... "2007 New England Patriots - 18 Wins and One Giant Loss'. Good to see that the Patroits fans are recuperating! Anyway, despite the loss of Curt Schilling the Sox look good again this year. The young players in the lineup are one year older, although Mike Lowell probably won't repeat his '07 stats, but the drop in his numbers will be offset by the monster year expected of Manny Ramirez who is playing for a new contract. He already has 5 RBIs. Jonathan Papelbon continues to anchor the bullpen. The Sox made mincemeat out of the Rockies in the World Series and they will probably do likewise to the American League during the '08 season.
Toronto - Is Toronto really in Eastern Canada?? If they said they were in Western Canada and moved to the Western Division, would anyone know the difference, especially since we Americans really don't know much about Canadian geography. Its tough to be a Blue Jay fan playing 3rd fiddle to NY and Boston. This years Blue Jays look pretty good except for that bizarre trade that got them oft injured Scott Rolen for the slightly less oft injured Troy Glaus. The rest of the team is back... with some good pop in the outfield provided by Vernon Wells and Alex Rios plus DH Frank Thomas. The rotation is solid with Roy Halladay, AJ Burnett, Dustin McGowan and the very underrated Shawn Marcum. (I had him on my rotis team and it's harder to find him on scouting sheets than it is to find Toronto on a map!). The Jays look pretty solid and might actually briefly contend for the top of the division if either The Yankees or Red Sox get off to a slow start.
Cleveland - If you follow the Indians, you realize that no stopper pitches into more trouble than Joe Borowski.. a modern day version of Doug Sisk. He is back again in '08 as the Indians will battle it out again with Detroit. CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona could each win 20 but will sit white knuckled in the dugout during those 9th inning Borowski high wire acts. The offense has the usual cast who have gone from young players to superstars led by Catcher Victor Martinez, DH Travis Hafner and Outfielder Grady Sizemore. If Cliff Lee can bounce back to his pre-2007 form, the Indians could be on their way to the Playoffs.
Detroit - Their primary votes don't count, their mayor is in a ton of trouble... but The Tigers look terrific. They made the big trade of the offseason acquiring Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from Florida... 2 more guys whose primary votes did not count. Everybody is high on Justin Verlander to anchor the staff with Jeremy Bonderman, Willis, Nate Robertson and 40+ Kenny Rogers. Todd Jones anchors the pen again for now. Offensively, Cabrera gets support from a strong supporting cast of Curtis Granderson, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen and Gary Sheffield. They may not be able to vote, but their team is strong. Just for fun, I hear MLB won't count their All Star Ballots either.
Seattle - The Mariners saw a decent rotation get a lot stronger with the acquisition of Eric Bedard from Baltimore. He joins Felix Hernandez and a deep staff featuring #5 starter Miguel Batista who won 15 games. JJ Putz has my favorite name of any player... although I do call Pirate Outfielder Nate McLouth - McLovin' in honor of the Superbad character. Offensively, if Adrian Beltre, Richie Sexson and Raul Ibanez can get it together, they along with leadoff man Ichiro Suzuki can score quite a few runs. The Angels were my original choice for the 1 spot from The AL West for this Top 14 list but the injuries to John Lackey and Kelvin Escobar have catapulted The Mariners to the top of the division.
NL Surprise - Houston Astros - If Tejada can get past his steroid controversy, this could be a good year for them... but they will need another starter.
AL Surprise - Chicago White Sox - They probably would be a contender if they were not in such a tough division. They will be the Denver Nuggets of Baseball.
NL Disappointment LA Dodgers - I like Joe Torre, but he always had problems in the NL.... This Dodger team has the pitching, but aside from James Loney and Russel Martin, the offense ain't too spectacular.
AL Disappointment LA Angels - the Lackey/Escobar injuries and the loss of Orlando Cabrera will be too much to overcome.
NL Division Winners - Phillies, Cubbies, D-Backs
NL Wild Card - The Mets
AL Division Winners - Boston, Detroit, Seattle
AL Wild Card - Cleveland
ALCS - Boston vs. Detroit
ALCS - Mets vs. Phillies
World Series - Mets against Detroit. Who else will I pick?? The Mets of course! Hey I didn't pick 'em in '06 when I picked St. Louis!
CLIP OF THE WEEK - Just in case you didn't get up to see the Red Sox and A's, Gary Thorne who I think is a terrific announcer, especially when he would fly across the country from late night hockey games to daytime Met games pulls a blooper here when he gets Jose Canseco mixed up with Jason Giambi. Might have been the jet lag flying to Japan?? Thanks to Awful Announcing for originally finding and posting this clip.
CLIP OF THE WEEK 2
Here to get you in the mood for another season... is the Terry Cashman song "Talking Baseball"
WIDGET OF THE WEEK - Here is a chance to follow the Opening Week Scores. I might move this to the sidebar if people like it.