This is a slightly more broader baseball post. The Tigers are in here, though, so don’t worry.
It’s March, which means it’s a time for optimism in baseball. “_________ is in the Best Shape Of His Life!” “____________ looks like he’s primed for a big season!” (I need not remind everyone of Jon Heyman’s now-infamous tweets from Spring 2011 in which he opined that Austin Jackson was poised for a huge year – he ended up hitting .249 – or when he said the Angels have “too many good players.”) Me, being the horrible cynic that I am, have taken to trying to combat this insufferable optimism. It’s okay if your team’s players think the playoffs are within reach if a few things go their way. Who wants to play the game knowing that their hopes and dreams are dashed before they even play a game? (Man, it must be horrible to play for the Astros.) The reality is, there are 29 teams that will not win the World Series this year, and even the one that does will have flaws. So basically, my point is: it’s okay to be excited about your baseball team. But just allow me to point out all the things that might go wrong with them!
I cynically present: the third annual edition of Why Your Baseball Team Sucks.
ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS: Well, they ran their most talented player out of town because he wasn’t gritty enough, apparently. And, as such, that lineup really isn’t that great. We’ll see how good Adam Eaton (the prospect, not the pitcher) is, but I don’t know where on earth that season from Aaron Hill came from, nor do I know where the 30 homers from Jason Kubel came from. However, I can tell you with certainty that going from Upton to Cody Ross is a backwards move, although Martin Prado is a nice pickup. What’s certain: they’re gonna need some better pitching, particularly from Ian Kennedy. His 2012 left a whole lot to be desired. Otherwise, they’re counting on Tyler Skaggs to progress rather quickly and hoping that he can hold things down until Daniel Hudson comes back (if Hudson is even any good when he DOES come back). Good as the bullpen was last year, J.J. Putz is 36 and they added Heath Bell to it, which, based on what he did last year, is not a good thing. Bottom line is their staff isn’t as good as San Francisco’s and it might not be as good as Los Angeles’s, either. They were a .500 team last year and they’ve done little to convince anyone that they’ve gotten much better.
ATLANTA BRAVES: For years now, enterprising sportswriters (Heyman!) have opined that pairing the Upton Brothers together would pay huge dividends for all involved – they’d play better together, the team would benefit, and so on. We have no evidence to back this up, of course, but we’re about to find out. As it is, what we have is a center fielder who never really lived up to his lofty potential in Tampa Bay and a corner outfielder who, despite his prodigious talent, was dumped with alarming immediacy by Kevin Towers despite being on a team-friendly contract at the age of just 25. Many experts would also say that the Braves’ strength lies in their pitching, but with Tim Hudson getting older and Paul Maholm existing, just how strong is it? Let’s be real: the otherworldly form Kris Medlen displayed last season isn’t sustainable. Similarly, unless Justin Upton rediscovers his MVP-caliber form, the Braves don’t have that one truly elite bat that can carry a slumping lineup. Gerald Laird and the Juan Francisco/Chris Johnson platoon at third base certainly aren’t going to do it – and will Brian McCann be any good when he finally gets healthy? Are the Braves really that much better than last year – a season which saw them crash out in the wildcard playoff? Sure, one game wildcard playoffs are just that – a crapshoot – but what’s to prevent history from repeating itself?
BALTIMORE ORIOLES: I still have no idea how the 2012 Orioles made the postseason, but let’s get this out of the way: that Orioles team was 29-9 in one run games. That is an outrageous mark and it’s not going to happen again. In fact, their Pythagorean record had that team at 82-80. The 2012 Orioles were one of the flukiest teams in recent memory.
But when I look at Baltimore’s roster, it just does not impress me. Nate McLouth wasn’t even relevant at this time last year. Now the Orioles are expecting him to be one of their key sparkplugs. Chris Davis is no more than a glorified Adam Dunn – a guy who homers plenty but strikes out a ton. Not that being Adam Dunn is necessarily a bad thing, but there’s a reason Texas dumped Davis. Wilson Betemit and Danny Valencia is not a playoff-quality platoon. Valencia got dumped by the Twins and Red Sox, and those are two teams that were looking for any help they could possibly get last season. Brian Roberts, age 35, who has played a grand total of 115 games over the past three seasons due to injury, is being expected to handle second base. Jason Hammel – who wasn’t even good enough for Colorado, a team desperate for any pitching at all – is being relied upon to carry the staff and post a sub-4 ERA in the AL East again. Chris Tillman? Miguel Gonzalez? (Let’s be honest: the Orioles rotation is composed pretty much entirely of pitchers who cause you to yell “HOW DO WE ONLY HAVE FOUR HITS? THIS PITCHER SUCKS!” while you’re sitting at home watching on television.) Jim Johnson was a revelation that year, but he’s only done it once. Is really that good? Color me skeptical when it comes to all these questions. If Hammel and Gonzalez and McLouth and Strop and Johnson and all those other players who had inexplicable breakout 2012 seasons really do turn out to be as good as they appeared to be last year, Dan Duquette and the O’s scouting department deserve a Presidential Medal of Freedom. If not? This is not a playoff team.
BOSTON RED SOX: On the bright side, it appears that this iteration of Red Sox players don’t hate each other and their manager. On the other hand, nobody remembers who their manager is and they haven’t really done much to make the team better after moving all that dead weight out. Well, that’s not necessarily true. They brought in Jonny Gomes – the same Jonny Gomes who was nothing more than a platoon player despite a flukishly good year with Oakland last year. They brought in Shane Victorino, who saw his OPS crash toward .700 last season and is hurtling toward age 35. They brought in Mike Napoli – sort of – the deal took approximately a millennium to complete thanks to some serious red flags in his medical records. And they brought in Stephen Drew, who snapped his ankle a few years back and has never been the same since. In short, the Red Sox replaced all those overpaid, aging veterans with…more overpaid, aging veterans. These veterans have better attitudes though!
And I haven’t even mentioned the pitching staff yet, although the same principles apply there – does anyone really have much faith in 36-year-old Ryan Dempster to have a good year pitching half his games at Fenway Park and pitching most of his games against the tougher-than-ever AL East? He certainly didn’t make much of an impression with Texas last summer. Joel Hanrahan and Koji Uehara should be improvements at the back of the bullpen, but Uehara’s another guy on the wrong side of 35 and really, how much better is the rotation? It’s not wise to count on a guy who’s coming off Tommy John to contribute anything, and that’s what John Lackey is – and he wasn’t any good before the surgery anyway. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz also need to rebound for the Red Sox to be any good at all – Lester’s 2012 was particularly disconcerting. A second consecutive last place finish would not be the most shocking thing.
CHICAGO CUBS: Getting closer. Not there yet, nor are they particularly close. Call me when you get the Soriano contract off your books, or when you find a second baseman better than Darwin Barney.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX: How different might this entry look if the White Sox could just beat Cleveland in September?
Last year’s club had their share of good luck. And if they want to contend again, some of it is going to have to hold into 2013. Alex Rios magically remembered how to hit a baseball. It might not be a fluke, but considering his career was in the toilet before 2012, I’m going to wait to say he’s back for good. A.J. Pierzynski is definitely gone, and it’s an open question as to how Tyler Flowers will fill his shoes, but Tyler Flowers has never been a major league starter before, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether he’ll be able to hold down the position. And Paul Konerko will get old someday. It might be this season. It might not be. But it’s going to happen. And if it DOES happen this season, Gordon Beckham’s gonna have to remember how to hit, and Alexei Ramirez can’t be posting .287 OBPs again, either. And most importantly, Robin Ventura had better be praying that Adam Dunn’s 2012 is the norm, not his 2011.
But that’s not all Chicago needs. They need Jake Peavy to 1. not fall apart and 2. pitch that well again. They need John Danks to come back healthy and effective. They need all the innings that Chris Sale logged last year to not come back to diminish his effectiveness this year. And they need all those relievers that were revelations last year – Hector Santiago, Nate Jones, so on – not to turn into pumpkins. And it’s worth noting that in spite of all those things that went right for them last year, they still won 85 games and blew the division – and they’re entering 2013 with largely the same team, perhaps even a bit weaker. What happens if the Tigers don’t let them hang around this season? There were, after all, sound reasons behind all the predictions that had them finishing nearer the bottom of the AL Central than the top before last season – Peavy’s fragile, Rios and Dunn both looked like shadows of their former selves, and their bullpen was filled with untested youngsters. These are largely the same players. Those questions don’t just go away.
CINCINNATI REDS: They needed just one win in three tries at home to knock the eventual World Champions out of the postseason last year and they promptly failed to do it. The magic of Dusty Baker. Cincinnati had some of the best pitching in the National League last season, which is saying something considering they play in a bandbox. More than a hint of good fortune was involved here: their starting five were never injured. Cueto, Latos, Arroyo, Bailey, and Leake started 161 of Cincinnati’s 162 games. Considering Cueto and Bailey have missed time with injuries before, that’s both impressive and foreboding. Bronson Arroyo, while durable, is now 36 years old. Basically what I’m trying to say is Cincinnati’s rotation may well be in for a bit of strife. This includes forcing Aroldis Chapman into said rotation, which could really go either way at this point. If it works, they’ll miss him in the bullpen – Jonathan Broxton ain’t him. That takes us to the lineup, where Shin-Soo Choo is an upgrade over Drew Stubbs offensively, but he’s never actually been a center fielder before, and putting him there nullifies the fact that he has a cannon for an arm. Otherwise, the Reds’ lineup looks a lot like it did last year, and what people forget is that the Reds’ lineup last year really wasn’t all that great, particularly if you set Joey Votto, the newest Face of MLB (what a farce that is – thanks, MLB Network) aside. The .315 OBP ranked 12th in the NL, because Dusty can’t have all those guys on base clogging up the basepaths, you know. The Reds’ lineup seems to have more potential than it was showing, but Votto can’t do it all. They also outperformed their Pythagorean record by six wins last season. Proceed with caution.
CLEVELAND INDIANS: The Windians were mighty busy this past winter, bringing in a new manager and four new position player regulars, splurging on Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn in the process. That’s all well and good, but the problem is that neither Swisher nor Bourn nor Drew Stubbs or Mark Reynolds are going to be able to give the Indians seven strong innings every fifth day – in that aspect, they have a lot in common with Cleveland’s starting pitchers, who can’t be counted on to do that either. It seems like a pretty safe bet that any hope that Ubaldo Jimenez ever becomes a decent starter again is false hope, Justin Masterson’s ERA ballooned toward 5 last year, Brett Myers hasn’t been a starter since 2011 when he was pretty much awful for Houston (and he’s making $7 million!), Zach McAllister is decidedly mediocre, and Daisuke Matsuzaka is a wreck, and there’s not a whole lot of help coming from beyond. The back of the bullpen is good, but how can you expect them to do their jobs if you can’t get them there with a lead?
And let’s talk about those new acquisitions. Bourn strikes out a ton and most of his value lies in his speed, which, at the age of 30, could well be fleeting. Nick Swisher’s OBP skills won’t disappear but his short porch at Yankee Stadium will (speaking of disappearing, he’s done so in the last few postseasons as well – maybe that’s why he signed with Cleveland). The fact that Mark Reynolds will strike out a ton goes without saying. So too will once-upon-a-time top prospect Drew Stubbs, who has managed to get worse in pretty much every offensive category in each of his three seasons with Cincinnati. (Oh, and they also signed Ryan Raburn and Jason Giambi!) The Indians will have a very good defensive outfield, but they’ll strike out a whole lot, and their pitchers won’t strike anyone out. Money can’t buy you love, nor can it buy you a playoff appearance – at least, not the way Mark Shapiro spent it.
COLORADO ROCKIES: How can a team with two of the best position players in baseball be so, so awful? When your pitching staff is basically at an AAA level, that’s how. Run scoring is not the problem for Colorado; run prevention is, and that pitching staff has not gotten any better this winter. Full seasons from Jorge de la Rosa and Jhoulys Chacin might help a bit, but certainly not enough to make up for the fact that this is largely the same staff that gave up 890 runs last year. Jeff Francis led the staff with 113 innings in 2012. They are a total, total trainwreck, and that’s bad enough to dilute any good that their parcel of exciting position players – a healthy Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler, Wilin Rosario – can offer.
DETROIT TIGERS: Two weeks in October seemingly made everyone forget that the 2012 Tigers were an 88 win team in a mediocre division that often struggled on offense and only made the playoffs thanks to an epic Chicago collapse in the last two weeks of the season (because the Sox couldn’t keep Russ Canzler and the Swingin’ Windians in the ballpark). Everyone who did forget were promptly reminded of that fact during the World Series. And Detroit needed every bit of that help, too – they suffered a doubleheader sweep at home to the last-place Twins in late September. Are the 2013 Tigers any better? Well, maybe. That depends upon a few things. First, Victor Martinez at DH instead of Delmon Young looks like an improvement on paper, but Martinez being himself is no foregone conclusion – he’s a 34-year-old ex-catcher coming off an ACL tear. Torii Hunter’s 2012 is a bit fluky and he might not hit .300 again. Neither will Andy Dirks. Jhonny Peralta is still mediocre at best defensively and if he performs like he did last year again on offense, he won’t be worth it. Alex Avila has ended the last two seasons with nagging injuries and didn’t do much to follow up a breakout 2011 last year. The bench isn’t deep (Brennan Boesch is awful, and so too is Quintin Berry). The rotation is the same, and it’s a good rotation, though they grossly overpaid Anibal Sanchez, but what of the bullpen? Jose Valverde is gone and the Tigers haven’t really bothered to replace him, and it seems as if they want to give the closer’s job to an unproven rookie in Bruce Rondon who walked 5 batters per nine innings in the minors and has never thrown a major league pitch. He’s backed up by Joaquin Benoit, who gave up 14 homers last season; Phil Coke, who despite his October heroics gave up a .396 average to righties last year; Al Alburquerque, who spent most of last season shelved due to elbow problems; and Octavio Dotel, who has spent the better part of spring complaining to the media about Miguel Cabrera’s perceived lack of leadership. They have a quality rotation, but lack depth there as well. The Tigers will probably ride a mediocre division to the playoffs again, but like the Blue Jays, considering them runaway favorites to do anything in the postseason is putting the cart before the horse.
HOUSTON ASTROS: Probably the worst team in baseball. Moving to the AL West is only going to magnify that. Sorry, Jose Altuve.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS: It would appear that some writers – we won’t name names – have decided that the Royals are actually contenders this year. Why Dayton Moore has chosen to go for it this season of all seasons is beyond me, but they dealt Wil Myers – who couldn’t be any worse than Jeff Francoeur is right now – to the Rays for James Shields. Shields is a nice add, but he only matters once every five days – the other four remain an issue for KC. Once-touted Ervin Santana was a disaster last year, and while he probably won’t give up 39 homers again, it’s an open question as to whether he can rediscover himself. Jeremy Guthrie pitched way over his head after the Royals got him last year – he won’t be as bad as he was with Colorado, but he won’t be as good as he was with KC, leaving him firmly in the mid-rotation tier of starters. That leaves us with Bruce Chen, who occasionally torments opponents (particularly the White Sox) but usually soft-tosses; and an option between Wade Davis, who is okay, and Luke Hochevar, who is simply awful. That leaves us with the lineup, which, aside from Francoeur, is counting on Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas to remember how to play baseball for it to really get anywhere….and even if that happens they might not be as good as Detroit this year. Indeed, for all the talk about how the Royals really really really needed pitching upgrades this offseason, only two AL teams scored fewer runs than the 2012 Royals, and they haven’t really done much to rectify that issue short of hoping the youngsters progress this season. The bullpen is good, but not great. Again, I have no real idea why the Royals decided to go for broke this year, but the team is still too flawed in too many areas.
LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF THE UNITED CALIFORNIAHEIMISTAN KINGDOM: Let’s cut right to the chase. While you’ve been reading about how great that lineup is, you’ve been forgetting that the Angels’ pitching staff is really a pretty brutal outfit. Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson are all well and good, but Joe Blanton? Jason Vargas? Let’s talk about Jason Vargas. Jason Vargas’s ERA+ the last two seasons are 88 and 97. That’s right. Take him out of Safeco Field and he is a below league-average pitcher. Nice trade, Angels. Tommy Hanson? The same Tommy Hanson who was brutal last year when his arm was attached to his body? Look, the Angels have two quality starters and three average-to-mediocre ones. For a team with designs on winning the World Series, that is not good enough. And that bullpen is a bit shallow as well. Ernesto Frieri? Good. Sean Burnett? Not bad. Everyone else? Pffft. And they traded away Jordan Walden to GET Hanson, too. And the rotation lacks depth, too….which isn’t great, since Blanton and Hanson both have considerable injury histories.
So. That historically great lineup? It only has three really good hitters in it. Albert Pujols is great, Mike Trout had a great year, Josh Hamilton is fine – although one can only wonder what happens when you take an aging player like Hamilton away from Texas’s hitting paradise and put him in the Angels’ hitting not-paradise.. Surely there must be something to all that fan derision. Anyway, once you get past those three, you’re left with glorified slap hitter Erick Aybar; Mark Trumbo, who hit .237 with a .285 OBP from June 1st forward last year; Howie Kendrick, whom I like, but he’s not an anchor; Alberto Callaspo, who had an OPS under .700 last year; Chris Iannetta, who’s a solid power hitting catcher but little else (and spent a lot of last season on the DL); and Peter Bourjos, who offers a lot more on defense than he does on offense. Remind me again what’s historically great about this lineup? And that’s operating under the assumption that Mike Trout will do THAT again. Take a step back. The Angels are flawed. They were supposed to be really good last season, too. How’d they do in October?
LOS ANGELES DODGERS: The Dodgers spent a whole lot of money this winter to make themselves immediate World Series contenders. The 2011 Boston Red Sox and 2012 Miami Marlins applaud them.
In fact, the 2013 Dodgers contain a rather alarming amount of castoffs from those two high-price busts. Hanley Ramirez’s lackluster effort and perceived lack of production with regards to talent got him dumped by the Marlins last July. The Red Sox handed off many of the reminders of their extraordinary 2011-2012 failures for virtually nothing but salary relief. I’m a believer in Adrian Gonzalez, but forgive me for being skeptical of Hanley. And it’s not like the lineup lacks holes either – the starting second baseman is Mark Ellis, which speaks for itself. And good as that pitching staff looks on paper, Josh Beckett is going to get old someday, Hyun-Jin Ryu has never pitched in the big leagues, Chad Billingsley hasn’t been relevant in a while, and the bullpen isn’t great. We’ve had plenty of recent reminders that big money and big names don’t necessarily equate to big trophies. Those piloting the Dodgers’ bandwagon would be well-served to keep in mind that nothing is guaranteed.
MIAMI MARLINS: Your team has one of the worst owners in sports. I really don’t have anything nice to say about a team that employs Juan Pierre, Chone Figgins, and Jeff Mathis. It’s just sad, really. Giancarlo Stanton deserves better. They’ll be lucky to finish fourth.
MILWAUKEE BREWERS: They’re a .500 team without a whole lot of pitching at all. They don’t have a bad lineup but they don’t have a great one either. The rotation is in a state of transition, and it might not be that bad, but that bullpen was a disaster last year and it hasn’t really gotten any better. We’ll see if any of the youngsters stick there. If not, things could get ugly again. Either way, it looks like the only thing the Brewers will get out of that whole big series of investments is a 2011 NLCS appearance.
MINNESOTA TWINS: Minnesota’s pitching is still awful. Minnesota’s lineup is mostly still awful. Mauer can hit, and Willingham can hit homers, but everyone else is mediocre at best. Justin Morneau isn’t even close to what he once was. Other than the aforementioned Willingham, the lineup has no power to speak of – Trevor Plouffe had that bizarro hot streak last year but it’s asking a whole lot of him to hit 24 home runs again. And the pitching, oh the pitching – they’ve brought in Vance Worley, Kevin Correia, and Mike Pelfrey to plug holes but Worley is a mid-rotation guy, Correia isn’t very good at all, and Pelfrey is coming back from Tommy John surgery. The only pitcher who was any good for them last year, Scott Diamond, had elbow surgery in December. In the bullpen, Glen Perkins and Jared Burton are good, but everyone else on that staff has a chance to give up a whole lot of runs, and until they fix that (with, like, a whole new staff) things aren’t getting any better in Minnesota.
NEW YORK METS: Their highest-paid outfielder this year is Jason Bay. Second highest is Bobby Bonilla. This sums up the state of the New York Mets, and the fact that they are paying Bay over $18 million this season to play somewhere else really sums up the colossal front office failure that put their roster in this situation. I need not go into detail. David Wright is here, but there’s not much else. The ace of their staff, Johan Santana, showed up to spring camp out of shape. My advice to Mets fans: tune in all your team’s games and pretend that you’re in a heated race with the Marlins for first place, not fourth place.
NEW YORK YANKEES: Every year someone brings up the “Yankees are getting old” thing. One of these years it might actually be true. Age or not, boy, this team has a whole lot of question marks – especially in light of the fact that Russell Martin and Nick Swisher walked and the Yankees did precious little to replace them. First, they seem content to ride things out with some sort of catching combination of Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli, which is just asking for it. Ichiro looked done before the Yankees acquired him last year; what if he reverts back to listless Seattle form? Kevin Youkilis was largely the same – his OBP skills haven’t faded, but pretty much everything else has. The man he’s filling in for, Alex Rodriguez, was on a downward spiral BEFORE his hip surgery – what about after? Travis Hafner’s inevitable DL stint is a matter of when, not if. Curtis Granderson has become Adam Dunn with defense. Mark Teixeira’s offensive numbers have declined every year since 2009. Indeed, you can make the case if you wanted to that Robinson Cano is the only truly great hitter left on the Yankees. He might be the only guy in that lineup who cracks .300 this season. And I haven’t even mentioned Derek Jeter, who turns 39 in June and is trying to come back from an ankle injury. If anyone can do it, it’s probably him, but even Jeter has his limitations.
Can the pitching carry them? Meh. CC Sabathia will probably be okay despite an elbow procedure (and he turns 33 in July – feel old?). Hiroki Kuroda had a great first season in the AL but I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes a step back this year. Similarly, Andy Pettitte is turning 41 this year. Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova have had their struggles, and it remains to be seen what Michael Pineda will offer after a year off thanks to labrum surgery. I also think the Yankees will miss Rafael Soriano. Mariano Rivera is ageless enough that I won’t doubt him, and David Robertson is great, but the rest of that bullpen has questions. David Aardsma could either be an excellent bounceback candidate or be a bust. The Yankees are talented enough that they could get by – but there’s oh so much that could go wrong here…
OAKLAND ATHLETICS: Oakland is a weird case in that, unlike Baltimore, their runs scored/runs allowed means they actually performed about where they should have last season. That has absolutely nothing to do with the hitting (which was 11th in the American League last year in OPS and had a collective OPS+ of 97 – in that department, only Boston, Kansas City, Toronto, and Seattle were worse) and everything to do with the pitching and defense. Even more amazing, they didn’t have a single 200 innings guy and only two pitchers on staff that even struck out a batter an inning. So here’s the problem: good as their pitching was, somebody’s probably gonna take a step back this year, especially some of the guys in that bullpen who had BABIPs in the .220-.230 range. And that puts Oakland in a very tepid position, because if that pitching DOESN’T match what it did in 2012, they’re not going to hit enough to make up for it. And relying on a bunch of young pitchers who primarily pitch to contact is an alarming proposition in a division that includes Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and Adrian Beltre. Until I see that pitching staff pull that off again, I’m a huge skeptic of this team’s staying power.
PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES: The grand solution to fixing up a team that finished 17 games out last season: bringing in Delmon Young. That’s all, folks!
One of the Phillies’ big problems last season was that they were ravaged by injuries. But that’s because this team is just old, and adding Michael Young, who is decidedly past his prime (that 2011 season is looking like a fluke), isn’t going to rectify that. Shane Victorino is gone, replaced by Ben Revere, whose one asset is his speed and really doesn’t do much else. Chase Utley and Ryan Howard can get a pass for coming back from serious injuries last year, but neither of them lit the world on fire – Howard, in particular, was awful. Jimmy Rollins has no excuse – he still wins Gold Gloves (on merit) but hasn’t been much of an offensive force since 2008, and it’s high time people stop acting like he is one. Essentially, the Phils are counting on bounceback seasons from a bunch of old guys. And Dom Brown. Dom Brown might happen if Charlie Manuel actually plays him.
Of course the pitching is still there, but Cliff Lee made 30 starts last year with a 3.16 ERA and only won six games, so he and Cole Hamels certainly weren’t the problem. If Roy Halladay is healthy he’ll probably be fine. The issue was the bullpen – which is better – Mike Adams is a quality signing – but the bullpen was so brutal last year that “better” does not necessarily equate to “good.” The back of the rotation remains meh quality as well. Is this team really any better than a .500 club in a decent division?
PITTSBURGH PIRATES: I actually have to write about the Pirates this year – I usually just blow them off because they speak for themselves. They seem to have made a practice of hanging around in the race just long enough for neutral observers to fall in love with them and start rooting for them before going full Pirates and tanking their way through August and September. The Pirates do have lots of young players and Andrew McCutchen, and they’re inching closer to .500 by the day, but a team playing Russell Martin and Clint Barmes as regulars without the players to complement them isn’t gonna do much. Their roster, with a few exceptions, is the very definition of mediocrity, and signing Brandon Inge doesn’t change that – especially that pitching staff, capped off by Jason Grilli at closer. I don’t care how good he has been, Jason Grilli as my team’s closer would make me hurl.
SAN DIEGO PADRES: The most interesting thing about the Padres this season will be whether Petco Park can revive Freddy Garcia’s career. It’s the ballpark’s toughest test yet. Otherwise, this will be the same old Padres: don’t give up a lot of runs, score even fewer, which will probably get them fourth place but little else. How soon does Chase Headley get traded somewhere he might actually win something?
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS: They keep finding people off the scrap heap to hit them to World Series titles, and they have the best catcher in baseball. But that rotation isn’t what it was even two years ago. Can Tim Lincecum ever return to ace form? Madison Bumgarner had stretches of brilliance in the regular season, but he was a total disaster from the end of August up to that one start in the World Series. Does anyone really believe Barry Zito’s impeccably timed career resurrection is going to translate into anything more permanent? I know I don’t. Ryan Vogelsong is 35 years old and spent five years out of the majors, and it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if he began to regress this season. It’s still a quality bullpen, and Matt Cain can carry anyone, but they’re facing a tougher division rival this year, and if Lincecum doesn’t recover and Zito turns into Zito again, who knows what might happen. Can they hit enough? They may well regret that Pagan contract, and we’ll see if Pablo Sandoval can make it through the season without getting uber-fat. The Giants are a talented team, but as is the case with most World Series winners, they got their fair share of good fortune on the road to the title that masked a few flaws.
SEATTLE MARINERS: They still can’t hit, and bringing in the fences at Safeco isn’t really going to change that. Mike Morse and Kendrys Morales are half-decent additions, but they’re not going to pick that lineup up enough to save it. The other problem? The pitching. Aside from Felix Hernandez, there is none – or, at best, it’s a bunch of youngsters who are trying to stick. That rarely works out well. And in a division that nearly had three 90-win teams last year, it’s not going to carry them close to the top of the division, either.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS: Nobody does it like the Cardinals – they slide into the playoffs and ride the powers of the dark lords of baseball to series victories that even the biggest experts think impossible. Last year they used the new second wild card to sneak into the playoffs, used the infield fly rule to sneak past the Braves, used who knows what to sneak past the Nationals, and really should have won the NLCS, too. They’re baseball’s equivalent of the cockroach.
Basic problem with the Cardinals: their pitchers are all falling apart at the seams. It appears that Chris Carpenter’s herculean effort in the 2011 postseason has pretty much cost him any and all usefulness going forward, and Jaime Garcia isn’t totally healthy either. Kyle Lohse is gone, and while they were right to let him go, because he’s Kyle Lohse and that whole “inexplicably fantastic” thing can’t last forever, it’s really hard to replace 16 wins and 211 innings with a 2.86 ERA no matter where it came from. Oh, and Jake Westbrook is in that rotation. This team can hit, sure, but they weren’t that far ahead of the Dodgers last year, and the Dodgers have gotten better while the Cardinals really haven’t. Playoffs are far from guaranteed. Although they do have dark magic behind them, which is a heck of an equalizer.
TAMPA BAY RAYS: I’m not one to doubt the power of Joe Maddon, but this is the weakest pitching staff the Rays have had in recent memory. That’s not to say Alex Cobb and Jeff Niemann are bad, but neither of them are James Shields. And on another note, Fernando Rodney isn’t doing that again. It isn’t happening. Just forget it. No amount of Rays magic can make that replicate itself. This is the same team that won 90 games last year with weaker pitching. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either, but how’s that going to get them past New York or the wildcard contenders out west? A full season of Evan Longoria will help, but they’ll miss Shields. And how many playoff series have this exemplary organization won since 2008, anyway…?
TEXAS RANGERS: I don’t want to say Texas’s window of opportunity has closed on them, but right now their hand is stuck in the window frame and they’re wailing in pain (Joe Saunders was the slammer, too!). Texas still have quality players – Kinsler, Andrus, and Beltre could start for pretty much anyone – but Mike Napoli is gone, replaced by A.J. Pierzynski, who is poor defensively and almost certain to come back to earth after a career high in homers in his age 35 season; Josh Hamilton is gone, replaced by….pretty much nobody; Leonys Martin is talented but young, and Lance Berkman couldn’t stay healthy last season and isn’t getting any younger at all. Michael Young’s gone too, which will hurt the Rangers in terms of LEADERSHIP more than it will hurt them on the field. Texas can still hit, but in spite of his late-season disappearing act, you cannot simply replace Hamilton that easily (even though they were right not to give him the contract he wanted, if you ask me). As for their pitching? Waw. Yu Darvish is great and Matt Harrison seems to have made a pretty decent pitcher of himself, but we’re still waiting on Derek Holland to turn into a quality starter, Alexi Ogando is being shuffled back into the rotation, Martin Perez is still really, really young, and Neftali Feliz had Tommy John surgery and isn’t really anywhere close to returning. Couple this with their weakest bullpen in years – the guys who anchored it, such as Ogando and Feliz, are either starting or hurt, and good as Joe Nathan was last year, he’s 38 – and this is not Texas’s finest pitching staff, which was always their undoing in the leaner years. They will miss Mike Adams, too. Can Texas still make the playoffs? Sure. Are they a top-tier World Series contender? Not anymore.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS: The 2013 Jays join the 2008 Tigers, 2011 Red Sox, and 2012 Marlins as Champions of the Offseason. Of course, those three teams that preceded them ended up being monstrous busts. It’s too soon to say if Toronto will follow in their footsteps, but as I write this Bovada has them as the World Series favorites. I wouldn’t even put money on them to win the AL East. Let’s first look at the newly-vaunted rotation. R.A. Dickey can’t do this forever, Brandon Morrow is a solid bet to spend some time on the DL (and he’s never really fulfilled his potential either), Mark Buehrle is entering his age 34 season and isn’t what he once was, Josh Johnson is an injury waiting to happen, and Ricky Romero was awful last season. They don’t really lack any remarkable names in the bullpen – is Casey Janssen really a shutdown closer? I suppose you don’t need one to win, but it would sure be nice. But what about the lineup, you say? How could they go wrong by adding several key pieces from the uber-successful 2012 Marlins? It’s hard to predict Melky Cabrera’s performance after that whole PED thing last year. I’m not sold on Edwin Encarnacion going forward – before last season he was pretty much a .780 OPS guy. People also forget that offensively since joining the Jays, Colby Rasmus has been fifty shades of awful – he had a .289 OBP last season! Their DH, Adam Lind, actually successfully passed through outright waivers last May. Anyone in baseball could have had Lind for nothing…and nobody wanted him. He was better after spending a month in the minors, but it still raises eyebrows. J.P. Arencibia has a career OBP of .275 to go with a career .222 average and an 88 career OPS+, and entering his age 27 season already, one has to wonder how much room to grow he has. So yes, Jose Reyes is great, and so is a healthy Jose Bautista, and if Brett Lawrie keeps progressing offensively he’ll be fine, but I’m not totally sure where the perception of Toronto having a bulletproof lineup came from. They have two regulars who would probably be pleasantly surprised to approach a .300 OBP this season. How are these guys World Series favorites again?
WASHINGTON NATIONALS: The Nationals had everything last year and of course they lost to the Cardinals and their dark magic in the NLDS. With a young team like this, it’s no surprise they’re largely similar. Edwin Jackson is gone, replaced by an aging Dan Haren and his bad back; Rafael Soriano has been brought in, maybe or maybe not because of Drew Storen’s now-legendary meltdown during the fifth game of the division series last year. So where’s the problem here? A lot of guys doing things last year that they had never done before. Ian Desmond, where did that come from? Adam LaRoche, that was certainly unprecedented. Roger Bernadina, when did you become useful? And there’s also the burning question of what Stephen Strasburg will look like once he hits 200 innings – assuming that’s what the Nationals are going to let him do, anyway. In essence, if these guys really are that good for a second year in a row, Washington won’t really suck. At all.