Sunday, April 05, 2009

Baseball Preview - Top 14 Teams of 2009

Well folks.. its that time of year.. Opening Day has arrived and today we present our Annual Baseball Preview… We will get to that in just a moment, but I wanted to write a little follow up to the previous Paul Harvey column where news about radio newscaster George Weber’s death was being announced just as I was finishing up the column.

After learning the sordid details that Weber went on Craigs List looking for sex and allowed a 16 year old into his home to perform sex acts on him, I have done a considerable 180 in this story. I wonder what would have happened if the father of the minor that Weber was molesting had stabbed him? And… what happens if George had survived that brutal attack? I am pretty certain that his radio career would have been finished and he would have gone to jail, and upon his release he would have signed up as a registered sex offender. Surfing the web for sex with people under age 18 is a serious offense, and as much as I like reading the WABC New York radio bulletin board, I am quite surprised how so many people are so supportive of Weber on this matter. Granted he was an excellent radio newscaster, and it is unfortunate that he is dead… but I really wonder if any of those pro-Weber people would ever allow their children to be alone with him if they knew that in reality he was a child molester.

This year’s baseball preview is a little different than the ones we have done in prior years on NWOW… Usually my fantasy draft is held on the ESPN-created Opening Sunday.... but this year, our draft was moved up a week earlier. This means instead of cramming all this info to my brain for my draft today, it is over and done with and I can write about specific players without worrying that members of my league will find NWOW and steal my trade secrets.

I was reading a magazine article about a guy who belongs to my Temple, who has been advocating for a certain cause and has turned into a bigshot and even recently got to hang out with President Obama. In the interview he commented about certain idioms that he finds to be very odd and frankly I couldn’t agree more.. For example… why are there so many phrases involving horses… “put the cart before the horse?”… “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”.. and even the incredibly offensive “you can’t beat a dead horse”…. Why would somebody beat a dead horse?

In light of the all the wars, the military term of “firing a salvo” puzzles me when it is used as a phrase concerning a debate or argument where somebody unleashes a verbal volley. And as I gear up for the 2009 season, I start to remind myself of Uncle Rico, the character in Napolean Dynamite who looked back with nostalgia at his high school football team that he feels he could have led to a championship if only the coach would have brought him in off the bench. (By the way, the actor who played Uncle Rico is Ben Linus’s father on Lost.) I am the same way when it comes to the 2007 season where my 1st place fantasy team was cruising into September towards a championship until a guy in my league named Bob Salvo acquired a red hot Kevin Kouzmanoff and blasted right past me to the championship. Bob Salvo is my Newman.. and since that day I cringe when I hear anything involving “Bob Salvo”…because it was Bob Salvo who cost me a victory. Last week I had to sit at the draft table opposite Bob Salvo and grind my teeth because I was so close to my adversary. And as I gear up for this season and write today’s blog…. I have one last thing to say on this topic…

April 5th Fools Day Bob! I heard that you read the blog and I just wanted to congratulate you for winning and wish you best of luck in 2009.

So as I prepared a list of 14 teams to watch for in 2009, I started to wonder if there are really 14 good teams this year. I checked out the SI Baseball Preview (which is picking the Mets to win it all) and if you look at their predictions, they think that only 12 teams will finish better than 2 games over .500. Could this be the season where we move farther away from parity… sort of like the NBA’s Western Conference where it’s either feast or famine? Lets take a look starting with …

THE METS – The powers that be seem to think that the bullpen was the sole source of last years late season collapse… the pen may have been the sole scapegoat.. but there were other problems as well. The team swiftly fixed the pen, cutting players they didn’t want to see booed at the new Citi Field and adding K-Rod and JJ Putz. But even though they have an exceptional left side of the infield and centerfielder, there are question marks about Carlos Delgado’s abilities at his advancing age and the fact that the corner outfielders consist of a rookie, Fernando Tatis and a guy with a concussion. But teams evolve over the course of a season, and the Mets may have taken a step in the right direction by bringing on Garry Sheffield.

Player to Watch – Ryan Schneider – nobody expects him to hit, but he has to catch the bullpen and starting staff which could be a bit shaky beyond Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey.

THE PHILLIES – Last year’s world champs return almost intact…. Pat Burrell has been replaced by Raul Ibanez. Otherwise they still have that winning formula with an exceptional offense. Nobody expects the pitching staff to repeat last year’s success especially Brad Lidge who never blew a save. The starters also are questionable with Cole Hamels looking a little injured, the ageless Jamie Moyer starting to age, and the fact that Joe Blanton… is Joe Blanton.

Player to Watch – Ryan Howard – possibly the premiere power hitter of this decade as we enter into the post Steroids era where almost nobody else except Adam Dunn appears able to crack the 40 home run mark.

THE CUBBIES – Now that the World Series drought is past the 100 year mark, everybody is ready to see if the Cubs can get a little farther in the playoffs after last year’s first round shocking 3 game sweep by the Dodgers. The team is also pretty much intact plus they get a full year of Rich Harden who seems to be a little fragile. (No fragile it must be Italian jokes are allowed after April 1.) Some question marks come up concerning Carlos Zambrano and newcomer Milton Bradley’s attitude and ability to get along with fiery manager Lou Piniella. The bullpen is anchored by Kevin Gregg who was imported from Florida to replace Kerry Wood, and with the Cubs playing a very weak division, another NL Central Title should be a piece of cake.

Player to Watch - Aaron Heilman. Watch the close-ups on WGN to see how happy he is to be out of NY where he went from 2006 post season almost playoff hero (until that pitch to Yadier Molina) to 2 yrs of constant booing at the late lamented Shea Stadium.

THE REDS – One of my surprise teams for this year.. I really dig this rotation of youngsters Edinson Volquez and Jonnny Cueto and veterans Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo. Fransisco Cordero is extremely reliable in the pen… and the offense is solid down the middle of the lineup. The division seems a little weaker this season and if Harang can bounce back from last season’s 6-17 disaster, they have a chance to make some noise this season.

Player to Watch – Brandon Phillips. Literally stolen from Cleveland a few years ago for a minor leaguer nobody hears much about, Phillips has a shot at moving up in the ranks of all time 2nd baseman. He had a 30-30 in ’07 and slumped a bit last year in a season cut a bit short due to injury. But.. if he can bounce back to another 30-30 this year, he could move up to the ranks of superstar.

THE CARDINALS – They always seem to make their way into this list…due to the genius of manager Tony LaRussa. I don’t know he does it, and his motley crew this year again looks rather unimpressive. But, when you play in a division with the Astros, Pirates and Brewers (who will really miss Sheets and Sabathia) interesting things can happen to .500 teams in August. Albert Pujols remains a superstar… and even though he hit 58 points lower, Ryan Ludwick had similar power numbers. And even though Kyle Loshe has no chance of another 15-6 season… La Russa is bound to pull something else out of his bag of tricks.

Player to Watch – Ryan Ludwick – He came out of nowhere to hit .299 with 37 homers and 113 ribbys. His ability to have another similar season will take a lot of pressure off Pujols.

THE DODGERS – Last year’s team changed its whole approach after they acquired Manny Ramirez. And who exactly did they give up besides Andy LaRoche? Talk about another steal of a deal… But in reality a lot of other guys chipped in late last season to help this run including outfielder Andre Ethier who was on fire in August and September. I’m not exactly thrilled with the rotation… but since they will play a lot of games against the weaker Giants, Rockies and Padres… this non parity year will considerably help LA… especially as their young lineup with Ethier, budding superstar Matt Kemp and James Loney continue to hit well.

Player to Watch – Hin Chuo Kuo… LA got rid of most of its bullpen.. and now Kuo will be the set up man. Hes had a lot of arm injuries including 2 Tommy John surgeries which Asia may rename Hin Chuo Kuo surgery… Nonetheless, he barely allowed a baserunner per inning and his success in the late innings will be key for the Dodgers probable return to the playoffs.

Now over to the American League…

THE YANKEES – The New Yankee Stadium looks very much like.. The Old Yankee Stadium.. and the Yankees might be getting old as mainstays Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter all celebrate another birthday this year. Nonetheless, the Yankees are looking to return to their late 90s early 2000 success as they remade the rotation with the initals boys.. AJ Burnett, and CC Sabathia. Last year’s team missed the playoffs so to avoid history from repeating itself the team also added Mark Texiera, but with both Tampa and Boston in the division, a playoff spot is gonna be tough.

Player to Watch – Arod. His hip surgery sidelined him for the Yankee home opener so his controversial presence wouldn’t upstage the opening of the new Stadium. But.. once he is back will the distraction of the steroids saga and Madonna’s inability to adopt another African baby from parents who didn’t want to give up the baby affect him?

THE SAWX – My friend Barry’s favorite team and I haven’t heard the end of how good the ’09 team since around early November. The outfield is JE (Jacoby ellsbury) JD (Drew) and JBay (Jason Bay) and the rest of the lineup is pretty intact although Jason Varitek continues to chug along. Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis have established themselves on the infield and the rotation is pretty solid. Could be another interesting battle in the AL East this year.

Player to Watch - Dice K – Not the comedian who couldn't last longer than Dennis Rodman on Celebrity Apprentice. It's amazing that Dice-K goes 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA and Red Sox nation thinks he is awful! Whats with these people? Not a bad record for a #3 starter and hopefully he won’t learn English to understand what the fans are saying about him.

TAMPA BAY – The success story of 2008 and the team all my fellow Mets fans rooted for during the World Series, especially now that Scott Kazmir has not established himself as a great pitcher and the one that got away in that illfated Victor Zambrano deal. The D-Rays built themselves with a solid offense with draft pick Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena who has a shot at being the AL HR king in ’09 now that ARod is going to miss some time. The rest of the offense is solid with Pat Burrell bringing his 33 HRs over from Philly and the pitching staff is solid. This could be the best team in the AL.

Player to Watch - David Price. Not the CBS Weatherman. Did you see this guy in the playoffs? He was amazing.. and now he is in the minor leagues as the financially challenged Rays exploit a little loophole to delay salary arbitration for another year. Once this guy comes up as either a starter or reliever, the Rays are going to be awesome which is incredible considering how lousy they used to be… sort of like the 1986 NJ Devils.

THE WHITE SOX – They showed a lot last year with their amazing run to win 2 extra games to punch their ticket to the post season. The middle of their lineup consists of 3 guys who hit more than 34 homers… Carlos Quentin, Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome. The rotation looks pretty decent 1-3 but you get nervous when the 4-5 spots are anchored by Jose Contreras and Bartolo Colon. They probably would have had an easier run to the playoffs last year if Quentin didn’t get hurt at the end of the season.

Player to Watch – Quentin – Is this a trivia question for what street is between Avenue P and Avenue R in Brooklyn? A budding superstar or a one year wonder? So far it looks like he is the D-Rays fans version of Scott Kazmir! They traded him for a guy named Chris Carter. Didn’t he create the X-Files?

THE INDIANS – A late addition to this year’s list.. I am adding them and deleting Arizona. Cleveland doesn’t quite have the offense from the glory years, but Grady Sizemore is a superstar and if Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner can bounce back from injuries, it might be enough for them to have a good season. Kerry Wood comes in to anchor the pen but how many saves he will get will depend on Cliff Lee and Fausto Carmona. Lee won’t repeat his 22-3 2008 season but 15-16 wins wont be too shabby. And Carmona was awful last season but could have that Bret Saberhagen-esque ever other year success.

Player to Watch – Carl Pavano – see Aaron Heilman above. However, in Pavano’s case I never saw a pitcher so hated for being injured except for maybe Victor Zambrano. Check out the broadcasts on ESPN and MLB to see how happy he looks to be away from The Bronx.

THE TWINS – It seems like their offense is Justin Morneau and a bunch of young guys who keep them competitive. Last year Morneau had an “off year” with only 23 home runs but he did drive in 129 runs. Catcher Joe Mauer is out for awhile with back problems and that loss will have to be made up by solid pitching led by their solid young rotation. It’s amazing that this pitching staff kept them in contention last season after they traded Johan Santana and Matt Garza! Joe Nathan is solid in the pen and with enough mediocrity in the AL Central, they have a chance for another good season.

Player to Watch – Joe Mauer – not only is he a reliable .300+ hitter…. but his value in catching the pitching staff has to be taken into consideration when it comes to weighing the chances of this teams success. If Mauer is out for too long, it could be a long season in Minnesota.

THE ANGELS – I thought they made a great deal when they signed Bobby Abreu as a free agent. He joins a solid lineup along with Vlad Guererro and Torii Hunter.. They may have Angels in the outfield, but their rotation is on the DL… and there is concern since they won’t have John Lackey, Ervin Santana, and Kelvim Escobar to start the season. They also lost K-Rod to the Mets and Texeira to the Yankees.. but they should still contend in the weak AL West. Brian Fuentes comes over from Colorado to replace K-Rod and he is good for at least 30 saves for a team that probably will have a pretty decent lead all season.

Player to Watch – Joe Saunders. He went 17-7 last season and with all the injuries to the starters moves up to the top of the rotation. Despite his record and 3.41 ERA all the fantasy websites are not predicting a good year for him. He might be the man that keeps the staff together until the injured players return.

OAKLAND – My 2009 surprise team… With Justin Duscherer on the DL, the rotation is a bunch of no names, but as is the case each year, these guys tend to keep the A’s in contention, and with the Angels looking a bit vulnerable this might be a good chance for the A’s to do well if they get off to a good start. The bullpen is solid with the virtually unhittable Brad Ziegler and I am one of the few people impressed with the offense with Jack Cust, and newcomers Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi, and Orlando Cabrera. Giambi isn’t really such a newcomer since he was in Oakland before his Yankee days… but I have a feeling this offense will make life a little tougher for LA this season.

Player to Watch – Matt Holliday – Not only for the tongue twisting games against Toronto…(And Halladay’s pitch to Holliday)… but also for the fact that he is in a walk year and if the A’s contend he will be a big cog for them, or a cog somewhere else if the A’s don’t do well and another team decides to take him for a September spin.

Surprise Teams – Reds and A’s
Disappointments – D’backs and Yankee fans who expect the playoff drought to end.
NL Division Winners – Mets, Cubbies, and Dodgers
NL Wild Card - Phillies
AL Divison Winners – Rays, White Sox, Angels
AL Wild Card – Red Sox
NLCS – Mets vs. Dodgers
ALCS – Tampa vs. Boston
WORLD SERIES - It won’t be Shea and it won’t be Buckner and Mookie.. but Youkilis better be careful on any sharp ground balls hit by Carlos Betraaaaan. Mets in 6!

Enjoy the season and check the sidebar for updates on all of the games.Now excuse me while I order the MLB network from the cable company and think of a clever name for my fantasy baseball team! I'm thinking of something with a (2)007 theme.. if if weren't for that Bob Salvo...

CLIP OF THE WEEK: Before Citi Field opens next week, here is one last look at our beloved old dumpy Shea Stadium!