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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Mike Bradley: AL West Preview

The AL West was so bad in 2008, the division was decided nearly a month before the season ended. And it wasn't even THAT close. The outright dominance of revived starter Ervin Santana and lefty Joe Saunders, coupled with new saves-record holder Francisco Rodriguez, helped the Los Angeles Angels finish 21 games in front of the second place Texas Rangers. While the division did boast the aforementioned best record in baseball, as well as a revived Rangers team, it's hard to see much more competition for the Angels this year. 

While the Angels are the only team truly worth mentioning, there are three other teams playing baseball in this division. The Rangers have a very bright future, led by prodigy-turned-druggy-turned-prodigy Josh Hamilton, 5-tool-stud Ian Kinsler, and super-slugger Chris Davis ready to bring Texas back from the dead. Meanwhile, the last two teams in the division are feeling nostalgic these days, with the Seattle Mariners' signing of Ken Griffey, Jr., and the Oakland Athletics' signing of Jason Giambi. Here are my projections for the 2009 MLB season in the AL West:

1. Los Angeles Angels 99-63

Despite the losses of Rodriguez, slugger Mark Teixeira, and 14-game winner Jon Garland, the Angels are in an enviable position. They are still the most talented team in a poor division. With a starting rotation consisting of three ace-quality starters (John Lackey, Saunders, and Santana), an established, young gun (Jered Weaver), and a stud prospect ready for the majors (Nick Adenhart), the Angels are head and shoulders above the AL West competition in the pitching department. With ex-Rockies closer Brian Fuentes prepared to take over the lucrative position of Angels' closer, as well as the set-up jobs held by flamethrower Jose Arrendondo and vet Scot Sheilds, there should be little drop off from the K-Rod days. If star Vladimir Guerrero can play like the 2007 model instead of the 2008 version, Bobby Abreu can provide stability to left field, and Chone Figgins and Howie Kendrick can stay healthy and get on base, the Angels should be able to cruise their September schedule with the division on lock. Look for X-Factors Mike Napoli and Kendry Morales to influence the early success of the team as the pitchers get back into the swing of things. The two young sluggers need to provide protection for Guerrero and Torii Hunter in order for the Angels to score their runs. Even if they don't, the Angels will still be in fine shape in 2009.

2. Texas Rangers 86-76
Everyone knows the story by now. Top Rays prospect falls into a life of drug addiction, gets suspended, resumes his career in Cincinnati, gets traded to Texas, takes the world by storm, puts on a show at the Home Run Derby, becomes a role model for anyone battling addiction, solves world hunger, brings peace to the Middle East, etc. Maybe the last two haven't happened yet, but I'm sure Rangers right fielder Josh Hamilton is working on it. His sensational first year in Texas ended in him leading the AL in RBI, but he did more than just drive in runs. His ability to overcome his adversities served as motivation for the rest of a usually-bottom-dwelling Rangers club. In turn, second baseman Ian Kinsler turned in an All-Star season, Michael Young performed at his consistent level, and the Rangers ever-so-closely to the .500 mark. With their incredibly stable of young catchers (Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teagarden, and Max Ramirez) the anticipated debut of shortstop Elvis Andrus, and the expected progression of midseason call-up Chris Davis, the sky is the limit for the Rangers offense. And that is without mentioning up-and-coming left fielder David Murphy (a Nolan Ryan favorite) and minor league masher Nelson Cruz. Pitching is, of course, the problem in Texas. Since team president Nolan Ryan looks reluctant to come out of retirement, another year of Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, and Scott Feldman headlining the rotation is less than appetizing. The bullpen is even less glamorous, with ex-chair hurler Frank Francisco leading an underwhelming group of relievers in the competition to be the Rangers closer. It's fair to see, if something drastic isn't done about this pitching corp in the near future, the Rangers may waste the best years of their offense. If only they could get someone to take one of their catchers *coughBostoncough*.

3. Oakland Athletics 84-78

Billy Beane has long been admired for his ability to stock pile young talent, develop that talent, and then trade it away for more young talent. Moneyball was the book that revolutionized the world of scouting and player development, and everyone can thank Beane for that. However, this offseason marked an incredible shift in Beane's offseason approach. In the biggest trade of the offseason, Beane packaged young pitchers Greg Smith and ex-closer Huston Street, along with top outfield prospect Carlos Gonzalez in a deal for Rockies slugger Matt Holliday. This surprising move was followed by the signing of aging slugger and former A's fan favorite Jason Giambi. While the out-of-character signings make the team better in the short term, it doesn't do enough to turn the team into contenders now. Holliday's home/road splits were disturbing as a Rockie, and moving into a pitcher's park like Oakland Coliseum is downright terrifying. With no idea as to how much ex-star Eric Chavez will give the team this year, the A's will have to rely on swing-or-miss slugger Jack Cust and right fielder Travis Snider for backup run support if Holliday and Giambi falter. Last season's emergence of n0w-ace Justin Duchscherer does little to calm to the worries of the Oakland faithful as far as the rotation goes. After Duchscherer, a combination of journeyman Dana Eveland and once-top prospects Sean Gallagher, Dallas Braden, and Gio Gonzalez look to be the next Mulder's, Hudson's, and Zito's of the organization. While ERA masters Joey Devine and Brad Ziegler look to replicate last year's performances, the team needs to have a lead in order to protect it. Unless two or more of the pitching prospects pans out, it might be a long year for the team in green and yellow.

4. Seattle Mariners 67-95

With all of the money tossed around the past few years, Seattle ownership had to be expect a little (OK, a lot) more than a 100 loss season and clubhouse turmoil. The team pulled the plug on the Richie Sexson disaster and appear on the verge of doing the same to the equally disappointing Adrian Beltre. However, the superstar causing the most trouble in the clubhouse (according to reports) is perennial 200-hit man Ichiro Suzuki. If the Mariners want to right the ship, the first step is fixing all the kinks. Whether that means trading the worldwide superstar or clearing the air and moving forward, no amount of rebuilding can fix disgruntled teammates. If nothing, Mariners fans can rejoice in the return of the golden child, Ken Griffey, Jr. The Kid is back in town, albeit slightly older and slightly rotund. With budding superstar Felix Hernandez and his blazing fastball keeping hope alive for the future, the sweet stroke of Griffey should be a nice distraction for the time being. The development of former closer Brandon Morrow into a starter will be one of the keys to this season, as well as the development of outfielders Wladimir Balentien and Franklin Gutierrez and catcher Jeff Clement. Aside from the few young players that can get some playing time, the Mariners to endure another year of highly-paid, underperforming pitchers Carlos Silva and Erik Bedard and catcher Kenji Johjima. But did I mention Junior is back?!

AL West MVP: Josh Hamilton

AL West Cy Young: Felix Hernandez

AL West Rookie of the Year: Nick Adenhart

AL West Diva of the Year: Ichiro Suzuki *

Evan Heffron: NL West Preview

The 2008 version of the NL West was appearing to shape up once again as a pretty mediocre division heading into the all-star break. As it was the case in years past, every team was still in "contention" for the division because of the very unimpressive records at the top of the division. Everything was dragging along normally for the West, but then, Mr.Ramirez came to town. The Dodgers consequently took the division and made a strong run to the NLCS. This success was mostly attributed to Manny's insane 53-game line of 17 HR's 53 RBI and a nice little .396 AVG. Ramirez's absolute tear was the driving force behind LA's run last year. Now, with Manny testing the free agent waters, this division is up for grabs in 09'. The rumored destinations for Ramirez have been noted as San Fransisco or LA. So with disregarding the Manny factor and analyzing the rosters for what they are right now, here are my 2009 NL West Predictions.

1. Los Angeles Dodgers 86-76

With or Without Manny, this lineup is stacked regardless. The Dodgers are young and have tons of athleticism. Role players Matt Kemp, Andre Eithier, and Russell Martin are all on the verge of becoming statistical leaders of this club. All three of these guys are five-tool studs that can change the complexion of a game in the field or at bat. SS Rafael Furcal was hampered by injury last year but if healthy in 09', he can serve as the contact spark at the top of the order. His fielding and throwing ability as well are elite. When it comes to pitching, Jonathan Broxton will anchor things in the 9th inning. His awesome regular season numbers as a set-up guy will translate well this season. As far as the rotation, losing Derek Lowe does hurt but there are enough up and comers to keep this staff in check. Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, and super prospect Clayton Kershaw can all contribute in the up coming season and it will be much needed. This squad minus Manny could be potentially at a shortage for power, so consistent pitching will be needed in order to win those one run games.

2. Arizona Diamondbacks 85-77

In my opinion, this team has one of the best 1-2 punches at SP in the NL. 22 game winner Brandon Webb and K guy Dan Haren put out dominating performance after dominating performance last season. Prospect Max Scherzer is also projected to get innings either as a pen arm or in the starting rotation. Arizona's pitching seems to be in place but the real key to their success will be in the offense. Losing 40 HR guy Adam Dunn, along with role-player Orlando Hudson, will drastically change the complexion of the lineup. OF's Justin Upton and Chris B. Young will need to step up their batting averages in order to develop any substantial rallies in the regular season. Overall I like this team. I feel as if they are one crazy looking dread-locked man away from winning 90-95 games.

3. San Fransisco Giants 79-83

This team will make improvements from last season. Adding a veteran presence of Randy Johnson in with CY Young winner Tim Lincecum and fireballer Matt Cain will settle the young guys in to be even more successful in big spots. Lincecum, according to reports, is virtually unhittable in live pitching sessions in spring training thus far so it will be interesting to see if he can repeat the tremendous success he had last season. Rookie utility man Pablo Sandoval can play all over, and is bound provide support for Aaron Rowand and Fred Lewis in the lineup. The offense does not appear too threatening on paper, but the superior staff should help this team through rough spots in the schedule, and should ultimately lead to a better year than last year.

4. San Diego Padres 70-92

Adrian Gonzales is one of the most underrated players in the entire MLB. His consistent 30 HR 100 RBI seasons are all the more impressive because he has virtually no help or protection in the lineup and is playing in one of the most pitcher-oriented parks in the majors. Along with Gonzales, Jake Peavy is doing his fair share to carry the staff year to year. Peavy was injured last year so his numbers may not reflect his abilities but over the course of a full season it won't be surprising to see Peavy put up numbers in the realm of 220 K's and a sub 3 ERA. The one thing that was always a constant in San Diego was the closer spot. Trevor Hoffman year after year would post up 30 + save seasons like it was nothing. Now that he is a Brewer, the Padres will have a big hole to fill during spring training. I Like certain guys on the team, but in all reality I don't know if they have what it takes to contend this year.

5. Colorado Rockies 66-96

Even after losing stud LF Matt Holliday to Oakland this offseason, this team has power. Between Brad Hawpe, Garret Atkins, and a healthy Troy Tulowitzki, the Rockies can put up some big time run totals, especially at Coors Field. The big set back for these guys is the staff. In a division with so many dominating pitchers it will be difficult to contend on the road with anytime simply because Colorado's staff can't stand tall with the Arizonas and the SanFrans of the world. Losing Jeff Francis for the year to surgery is a huge blow. Now, the staff is headed by the very raw Ubaldo Jimenez; who's stuff is electric but has no idea where his pitches will end up (i.e. Daniel Cabrera). Ultimately, this team's lineup isn't too shabby but they simply don't have a Lincecum, a Peavy, or a Webb. Maybe next year Rox.

NL West MVP: Matt Kemp/Adrian Gonzales

NL West Rookie of the Year: Pablo Sandoval

NL West CY Young: Tim Lincecum
NL West Most Overpaid player: Barry Zito, again. *

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Mike Bradley: Playing Favorites Has Never Been So Hard, Part 3

Pac 10

Contenders: UCLA, Arizona State

While not the same dominant UCLA team of years past, this Bruins team is more than capable of making some noise this March. Even with the likes of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love plying their trade in the NBA, Ben Howland's squad still has the talent and leadership to have a deep run in the tournament. Led by senior studs Darren Collison and Josh Shipp, as well as Alfred Aboya, the leadership provided by the trio is the perfect counterbalance to the young talent of freshman phenoms Jrue Holiday and Drew Gordon. An early season loss to Michigan was a bad omen, as well as a later nonconference loss to Texas, but UCLA looks like they are saving their best basketball for the tournament yet again. With four conference losses thus far, half of those losses came at the hands of an extremely talented Arizona State team. With lottery-bound sophomore superstud James Harden lighting the world on fire, the Sun Devils have the go-to scorer needed to have success in the postseason. They are far from a one-trick pony, however. Senior forward Jeff Pendergraph provides rebounding ability and extra scoring to compliment Harden's wing play, while guard-forward Rihards Kuksiks takes some heat off of Harden on the outside with his 10 points per. Even with an early loss to Baylor and a few inexcusable losses in conference play, you can't count out a team with such undeniable talent.

Jury is still out: Washington

Easily the most baffling team in the Pac-10, the Huskies have all the talent to be a top 10 team in the country. However, they continue to show that they can't be trusted on a game-by-game basis. A season-opening loss to Portland should have been an omen, as the team continued to lose nonconference games to both Kansas and Florida, and then conference games at home against California and then at Arizona, Cal again, UCLA. One of the most balanced teams in the country, the Huskies have a pair of sub-6' guards in freshman Isaiah Thomas and Justin Dentmon who are both average over 16 PPG. Down low, senior big man in the league Jon Brockman, averages a double-double while forward Quincy Pondexter tosses in 11 points and
 5.6 rebounds a game. With all the talent they have, it's easy to see a decent showing in the tournament. At the same time, all of the consistent makes it hard to put Washington any farther than the second round.

Pretenders: Arizona, California, USC

With the early season controversy surrounding the health and subsequent retirement of legendary coach Lute Olson, the decommitment of many incoming freshmen, and the game
 lapses from a mentally drained team, it's almost a miracle the Wildcats are even in position to make the tournament in the first place. Headlined by two players they have been lucky to have for this long, Arizona gets 18 points a game from Cali Boy Chase Budinger and a double-double from big man Jordan Hill. If the pieces around those building blocks can put it together and point guard Nic Wise can run the show effectively under pressure, the Wildcats may just prove the naysayers wrong. The California Golden Bears are built like Washington, without the bangers down low. With three guards averaging at least 12 PPG, Cal relies mainly on the 5'10'' Jerome Randle to carry the load. While it might work against the Pac-10, it'll be a whole different story for them to bang bodies with the likes of the Big East, ACC, and Big Ten when it's tourny-time. Led by head coach Tim Floyd, the Trojans surrounded wunderkind DeMar DeRozan with juniors Taj Gibson, Dwight Lewis, and Daniel Hackett for what was suppose to be an even better run than the one they completed with already-NBA star O.J. Mayo. However, things haven't gone smoothly. Losses to Seton Hall and Missouri early on, coupled with Pac-10 losses to Oregon State and Arizona, highlight some of the disappointing losses that weren't suppose to happen this year. Inconsistency and crushing losses early on will most likely end up costing the Trojans another shot at a March Madness appearance. 


Contenders: LSU

Even with the premature exit of freshman phenom (but NOT NBA ready) forward Anthony Randolph, the Tigers look like they haven't missed a step. In fact, they look better than last year's version. Led by senior sharpshooter Marcus Thornton (20.3 PPG) and junior forward Tasmin Mitchell (16.9 PPG and 7.3 RPG), LSU is the SEC's best chance at a respectable showing come March. With 6'11'' big man Chris Johnson anchoring the middle with 2.8 blocks per game and sophomore guard Bo Spencer providing some extra scoring, the Tigers should be a very good team for the seeding they will inevitably be given.

Jury is still out: Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky

The most disappointing team in the SEC has to be Bruce Pearl's Tennessee Volunteers. With Tyler Smith returning for his junior year and his shot to lead the team, expectations were high to pick up where Chris Lofton had left them the year before. Tyler Smith has put up his end of the bargain, averaging 17.6 points, 5.7 boards, and 3.5 assists per game as the do-it-all man an otherwise underachieving team. Wayne Chism has produced fairly well as a complement to Smith, but it's hard to find any other player on the roster playing to their potential. The monumental hype surrounding McDonald's All American Scotty Hopson seems incredibly misplaced based on his first year in Knoxville. For a team that relied heavily on three point shooting last year (thanks, in large part, to the graduated Lofton), they just don't have the firepower to reproduce last year's performance. Look for an early exit this March. Two years removed from their second straight National Championship, the Gators are looking to get into the dance yet again. However, they don't have nearly enough firepower to make a run even remotely close to the 2006 or 2007 teams. Nick Calathes can do it all (19-5-6) and Alex Tyus has done a nice job down low for the Gators, but that's about all there is to them. An extremely young team, look for the Gators to compete in a year or two if everyone stays. Down in Lexington, KY, there's a lot to like about the Wildcats this year. Phenom Patrick Patterson has managed to stay healthy while sensational guard Jodie Meeks has put it all together in a Player of the Year type campaign. The only problem is, those two are all that there is to Kentucky. Their third scoring option stands at 6'9'' and barely 200 pounds (Perry Stevenson) and the rest of the supporting cast is subpar at best. When Meeks is double-teamed (e.g. @ Mississippi) or when Patterson is out (e.g. @ Vanderbilt), the Wildcats are dead in the water. That being said, if both of them go off, specifically the sweet-stroking Meeks, the Wildcats can compete with anyone.

Pretenders: South Carolina

The last of the SEC teams with a legitimate shot at the tournament, the Gamecocks should be happy just to be there. Sensational guard play from Devan Downey and Zam Fredrick has gotten them this far, but success in March is a lot of pressure to put on the narrow 5'9'' and 6' shoulders of the two scorers. With losses to College of Charleston and Mississippi State on the resume, as well as a general lack of impressive wins in the nonconference schedule, the Gamecocks will have to fight for their lives come March. Count on them losing that fight.

Best of the Rest - Contenders:
Memphis, Gonzaga

John Calipari pushes all the right buttons. After losing a majority of his National Championship-losing team, including invaluable guards Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts, many were unsure how the Tigers would fair this year. Then Calipari scored a commitment from superstar Tyreke Evans, and all was good in Memphis yet again. While he's no Rose, Evans has been more than effective in his freshman campaign, averaging 16.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists a game. Meanwhile, National Championship game holdovers Robert Dozier, Antonio Anderson, and Shawn Taggert have provided the complementary scoring and defense that has Memphis in a good position to make a decent run again this
 time around. Gonzaga has long been America's darlings, making it to the tournament and garnering adoration, only to fall short time and time again. However, Mark Few feels incredibly confident about his current crew, and he has good reason. With big man Josh Heytvelt avoiding the psychedelics, his senior leadership and production has led the way for the likes of Austin Daye and Matt Bouldin to register equally impressive seasons. However, for the Bulldogs to get over the tournament hump and win the title, Jeremy Pargo needs to find his stroke and run the show like a senior point guard has to do. If this happens, look for Gonzaga in the Elite 8, with a possible deeper run in the cards. *

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Mike Bradley: AL Central Preview

Last season, the Detroit Tigers made all the offseason noise with the trade for superstud Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, supposedly fortifying an already formidable lineup and rotation with even more established talent. Unfortunately for them, the big splash bought them a last place finish and a lot more money on the payroll. Meanwhile, the White Sox and Twins battled to a tie for the division, which resulted in a Chicago playoff win, the Indians salvaged a .500 season, and the Kansas City Royals, showed a pulse by finishing outside of last place for the first time since 2003. 

With the Tigers dying to prove last year was a fluke, the Twins trying to win the division with their small-market methods, the Indians looking for a bounce-back in their own right, and the White Sox looking to assert their division dominance once again, the AL Central could shape up to be the most competitive division in baseball. Oh, and here's to hoping the Royals continue to work their way back to relevancy. Here are my projections for the 2009 MLB season in the AL Central:

1. Cleveland Indians 91-71

This time last year, the Indians were looking towards a year of watching Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner put up runs in bunches behind the pitching efforts of CC Sabathia, Fausto Carmona, and Jake Westbrook. Instead, Hafner and Martinez battled inconsistency and injuries over the whole season to combine for a grand total of 7 home runs and 59 RBI. CC Sabathia found himself packing for Milwaukee while Carmona and Westbrook combined for 27 starts total. Luckily for them, Cliff Lee's 22 win Cy Young effort and Grady Sizemore's 33 HR-38 SB season was able to salvage a .500 record for the fortunate Indians. A few experts had predicted (quite incorrectly, to say the least) the Indians to be the AL representatives in the World Series. While I won't go that far this year, I do like the Indians' chances in the American League. Lee looked like he put it all back together last year after a demoralizing year spent in the minors, and there shouldn't be much drop-off as he leads a staff with seemingly healthier pitchers Carmona and Carl Pavano, as well as young guns Anthony Reyes (former Cardinals top prospect) and Aaron Laffey. The bullpen also finally found their end game solution in Kerry Wood. If he can stay healthy, he'll be a welcome addition to the subtraction of Joe Borowski's inflated ERA. With Jensen Lewis, Masa Kobayashi, and Adam Miller anchoring the middle innings, the pitching corp looks prepared for the long haul this time around. The offense is another story, however. Grady Sizemore is a known entity, but it's anybody's guess if Martinez and "Pronk" Hafner will bounce back. Between the two, Martinez is more likely to bounce back due to his age, his complete recovery from his injuries, and the team's plan to limit his time behind the plate. However, 31-year-old Hafner and his bum shoulder is the only thing keeping Cleveland from being the legitimate postseason contender everyone thought they were last year. The keyword there is postseason. The AL Central crown should be theirs for the taking.

2. Minnesota Twins 88-74

It's hard to understand how the last time the penny-pinching Twins always seem to be involved in the AL Central chase. Despite consistently sending one of the lowest payrolls in the game out onto the field, the Twins counter their financial ineptitude with masterful scouting, drafting, and player development. Homegrown talent like Joe Mauer,  Justin Morneau, and Jason Kubel, as well as acquired prospects like Francisco Liriano and Carlos Gomez, look to lead the Twins to the playoffs after a heartbreaking tiebreaker loss to the White Sox in '08. With a full season of a healthier, craftier Liriano on the horizon, another year of smooth 9th innings behind Joe Nathan, and the continued progression of batting champion Mauer and former MVP Morneau, it's easy to see why there is so much hype around this team yet again. However, this team seems to have a bunch of flaws that will keep them from the ultimate success they hope to achieve. Even with Liriano anchoring the rotation, there doesn't seem to be enough behind him to get them over the hump. A lot of nice prospects seemed to cash in on their talent last year as Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins, and Nick Blackburn all recorded double-digit wins for the team. But as the story usually with young pitchers, it's hard to envision all four of them sustaining their early success into the 2009 season. And outside of Morneau, Mauer, Kubel, and right fielder Michael Cuddyer, the Twins aren't going to put up a ton of runs. Will the young pitchers be able to maintain 1-0 and 2-1 leads over the course of a whole season? Will Carlos Gomez prove he was worth being the centerpiece for Johan Santana? Can Delmon Young keep his head on straight? Will Liriano be able to last a whole year? Too many uncertainties usually spell doom for a team battling for a playoff spot in a competitive division. Look for the Twins in 2010, not 2009.

3. Detroit Tigers 84-78

A year after the franchise's big splash and burn, the Tigers should finally get a little something out of their money. A wealth of starting pitching is one of the first things seen when looking at the Tigers. However, the biggest acquisition the Tigers need is the return to form of ace Justin Verlander. As he goes, the Tigers go. Behind him, you find pleasant rookie surprise Armando Galarraga, Jeremy Bonderman, ex-Rays fireballer Edwin Jackson, and then your choice of Dontrelle Willis, Zach Miner, Nate Robertson, or possibly pitching phenom Rick Porcello. If Willis can resemble even a shadow of his Florida self, the Tigers are looking at one of the most talented groups of young starters in the game. The bullpen is also poised to do big things as opposed to last year's debacle. Todd Jones and his 4.97 ERA are now enjoying he retired life, and a combination of Brandon Lyon, Fernando Rodney, and currently healthy flamethrower Joel Zumaya will be plugged into his slot. The hope is for Zumaya to grasp the role he was being groomed to take over before his slew of injuries. Clocked at 100+ MPH with relative ease, Zumaya's potential is endless if he can stay on the field and develop a secondary pitch. As far as offense goes, you immediately have to look at Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez as the primary contributers. Look for Cabrera to absolutely rake in his second time around in the American League. If Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco, and Curtis Granderson can consistently get on base and Gary Sheffield can provide some protection for Maggs and Cabrera, the Tigers offense has the potential to put up runs with the best of them. This team is young, for the most part, and this year will be a year to build upon.

4. Kansas City Royals 79-83

In one of the nicer stories of 2008, the Kansas City Royals made their most significant strides back to respectability. Recording over 70 wins for the first time since 2003, the kids in KC are looking to build on their newfound "success." When you're a team that doesn't score all that often, pitching is a must. While the Gil Meche signing seemed ludicrous at the time, he has done a nice job filling in as the veteran ace on the staff while Zach Greinke slowly realizes the lofty potential he always possessed. If Brian Bannister can right the ship, Luke Hochevar can follow in Greinke's footsteps and pitch to his ability, and Kyle Davies keeps them in as many games as possible, this rotation can do more than enough to get the Royals close to .500 this year. If the games stay close, the Royals will win a lot of 1-0 and 2-1 games with the dominance of Joakim Soria holding down the 9th inning. But the problem with that is the Royals need to score runs in order to keep most games close. Outside of the disgruntled Jose Guillen's 93 RBI, the light-hitting David DeJesus was next in line with a paltry 73 ribbies. If the Royals are to make any progress, superstar-in-waiting Alex Gordon has to do better than 16 home runs and 59 RBI with a .260 average. A little more production from Billy Butler and Mark Teahen is also necessary for this team to get to where GM Dayton Moore promised they would achieve. It's a long process, but the Royals are well on their way. For now, they'll probably settle for two straight seasons out of the AL Central basement.

5. Chicago White Sox 76-86

Call them the anti-Rays. This is a notorious case of first-to-worst. And the Southsiders can blame GM Kenny Williams. In the biggest move of their offseason, the ChiSox traded Nick Swisher and his 24 home runs to the Yankees so Wilson Betemit could come over and back up an aging Konerko and a swing-happy Josh Fields. If that isn't a negative move, I don't know what is. With the Jermaine Dye trade rumors refusing to die, it's fairly obvious the White Sox want to move in a new direction. Carlos Quentin had a lovely breakout season, but it's hard to see him replicating his 36 homers with his wrist problems flaring up. With both Jim Thome and Konerko getting up there in age, it will be up to the young guns in Quentin and Josh Fields (assuming Dye goes somewhere). Alexei Ramirez is a nice player in the Alfonso Soriano mold, but just how much he can do for the team this year is up in the air. His long swing spells "strikeouts galore." As far as the pitching staff goes, Mark Buehrle is the undisputed ace of this staff with Javier Vazquez exiled to Atlanta. He's generally consistent, but looking for John Danks and Gavin Floyd to come close to their 2008 performance is wishful thinking at best. After a somewhat undesirable "Top 3," you have Bartolo Colon attempting a comeback in a different pair of Sox. Over/under 20 starts, smart money would be the under. Then the 5th spot in the rotation is up for grabs between the likes of Chris Richard, Lance Broadway, and the immortal Jose Contreras. It's a shame, because this staff, combined with a bullpen loaded with big names with spotty reputations, probably won't keep leads for Bobby Jenks to record more than 30 saves. I just see this team as one full of overachievers coming down to earth, aging veterans falling off, and power bullpen arms that can't stay away from the middle of the plate (See: Dotel, Octavio, and Linebrink, Scott). At least an underachieving White Sox team means quality sound bytes from Ozzie Guillen!

AL Central MVP: Miguel Cabrera

AL Central Cy Young: Fausto Carmona

AL Central Rookie of the Year: Kila Ka'aihue and Matt LaPorta

AL Central Best Mullet: Magglio Ordonez (Unanimously) *

Monday, February 16, 2009

Mike Bradley: Playing Favorites Has Never Been So Hard, Part 2

Big Ten

Contenders: Michigan State

With the Big Ten showing improvement throughout the conference this year, only one team really sticks out thus far. Despite a hiccup versus an on-fire Northwestern team, Michigan State has asserted their dominance thus far. Losses to ACC teams Maryland and North Carolina also not withstanding, Michigan State has had another very impressive campaign thus far. Led by the big-scoring little man Kalin Lucas and do-it-all forward Raymar Morgan, Michigan State looks to have just enough production out of their role players to make some serious noise in March. With an early season upset over Texas, a big nonconference win over Kansas, as well as impressive conference wins at Minnesota (ranked), Ohio State and Illinois, the resume the Spartans are building should provide a solid seeding and a somewhat favorable route to the Final Four. 

Jury is still out: Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio State

From a talent perspective, Purdue can compete with anyone in the Big Ten. Being led by a trio of sophomores, regardless of skill, is still going to be an issue for the Boilermakers. Guard E'Twaun Moore and Forward JaJuan Johnson ooze talent, but when one shows up, the other usually is a no-show. Meanwhile, arguably the most talented player, forward Robbie Hummel, has generally been a literal no-show. Registering DNPs against in losses against Penn State, Ohio State, and Illinois prove that the Boilermakers really struggle when Hummel is MIA. Can a young team really survive in March when they seem to rely heavily on the presence of one man? It's hard to see anything better than a second-round exit, depending on their seeding. Illinois shows a nice blend of veteran leadership and upstart underclassman, but they, too, have question marks. While four double digit scorers is nice to have in March, the Illini have shown they can't beat good teams on the road. Road losses to Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Minnesota (in which they only managed 36 points, a high school score total) indicate that Illinois isn't ready to win away from Champaign. There's also something when your  7'1'' big man is only pulling down 3.8 boards a game in conference with little-to-no big men. You know it's a goofy year when "Minnesota" and "contender" are even close to being considered, but it's hard to back up their resume. Lawrence Westbrook is a nice player and the Golden Gophers most consistent scorer, but nothing else is too "golden" about this team. Aside from a home upset of Louisville, nothing stands out on their nonconference slate, while conference losses to Northwestern and Penn State show that these Gophers aren't quite ready for the Big Dance. Ohio State's resume might be one of the most intriguing of this bunch. Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Evan Turner is a do-it-all guard-forward who scores in bunches and pulls down rebounds with the best of them. Complimented by guards Will Buford and Jon Diebler, Oden-Conley-era holdover David Lighty, and super frosh B.J. Mullens in the center, the talent is all there. Impressive nonconference wins over the likes of Miami, Notre Dame, and Butler help the Buckeyes overcome two losses to conference powerhouse Michigan State,  road losses to Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and a nonconference loss to the streak West Virginia Mountaineers. If Turner throws his inexperience out the window and takes over this team, noise could be made out of Columbus.

Pretenders: Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State

A team that looked like a solid contender in the Big Ten yet again, the Badgers aren't quite living up to the lofty standards that had them ranked 21st in the country heading into the year. Led by senior forward Marcus Landry and junior guards Trevon Hughes, and Jason Bohannon, Wisconsin has not scored any quality nonconference wins and their significant Big Ten wins are all the product of home court advantage. A six game losing streak which included losses to conference bottom dwellers Iowa and Northwestern, only help the case against the Badgers as a team with any real shot in March. Not many teams have the nonconference resume Michigan has put together. Wins over UCLA and Duke had major hype around the Wolverines for the first time since the Fab Five graced the Ann Arbor campus. Led by fan favorites and Michigan natives Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims, the Wolverines started off as one of the surprises in college basketball this season. It didn't take long, however, for the basketball team to take after the kind of season the football team had just wrapped up. Enduring inconsistency throughout the Big Ten schedule, the Wolverines played themselves right out of March Madness talk. Losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State at home, as well as heartbreaking losses to Michigan State and #1 Connecticut have left Michigan playing for their bids. Every game from here on out is a must win, and it's hard to see them running the table and getting an at-large bid. Penn State is in a situation much like Michigan. Lacking the nonconference wins of the same magnitude as Michigan, the Nittany Lions do have some quality in-conference wins to hang their hats on. Beating Purdue and Michigan at home and upsetting Michigan State in Lansing only slightly covers up nonconference losses to Rhode Island and Temple, but it does put them in a decent position to control their own destiny. Seniors Stanley Pringle and Jamelle Cornley will need to team up with super soph Talor Battle if they want any hope at a March Madness experience, but it's an uphill battle.

Big 12

Contenders: Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas

Whenever a National Player of the Year candidate is leading your team, expectations are high. Blake Griffin and Co. are not disappointing. Behind Grffin's ridiculous line of 22.8 PPG and 14.2 RPG, the Sooners look Final Four-bound, even coming out of a notoriously weak conference. Nonconference wins over Stephen Curry and Davidson, then-#9 Purdue, and USC are all impressive resume games to add to their outright dominance of the Big 12's best. A 15-point win over Texas, and 19-point win over Baylor, and a 21-point win over Texas Tech are all a testament to the outright dominance the Sooners display night in and night out. The emergence of guard Willie Warren's outside shooting allow  Blake Griffin a little more space to do his superman act, and it's tough to see anyone slowing down the Boomer Sooners. Almost as surprising as the aforementioned Big Ten teams (albeit without the late season letdown), the Missouri Tigers have shocked the country on their way to an anticipated top-3 finish in the Big 12 this year, as well as a promising March Madness showing. Led by a pair of 6'8'' seniors in DeMarre Carroll and Leon Lyons, the Tigers have been quietly building a solid resume and should receive a great seeding for the tournament. It's already known they can play with the big boys in the regular season (wins over USC, California, Texas, Baylor, and Kansas). It's just a matter of performing under the bright lights in March. Anything less than advancing past the second round would be a resounding failure for this athletic team. Then you have the defending National Champions...sans Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson, and Russell Robinson, but defending champs nonetheless. Luckily for them, Cole Aldrich got some valuable experience in the tournament (Right, Tyler Hansbrough?) and Sherron Collins stuck around to be "The Man" for the Jayhawks this year. Meanwhile a solid freshman class led by Tyshawn Taylor and Marcus Morris, as well as sophomore Brady Morningstar are playing their roles just well enough for Kansas to be a real threat come March.

Jury is still out: Texas

First it was Kevin Durant. Then D.J. Augustin. A.J. Abrams was the last man standing. After 2 years of being the 2nd or 3rd fiddle, it was Abrams turn to shine. And shine he did...for a while. Scoring 20+ points ten times so far this year, Abrams is the undeniable leader of the Longhorns. The only problem with that is the Longhorns are 6-4 in the Big 12 this year so far. To put that in perspective, the Longhorns lost only three Big 12 games in each of the last two seasons. Abrams isn't the only one at fault, as he is truthfully playing out of position at the point guard spot. After averaging nearly 10 PPG last year, senior center Connor Atchley seems to be missing a true PG the most, as he is scuffling to get around 5.5 PPG this year. With losses to Kansas State and Nebraska as black eyes on their tournament resume, the Longhorns are looking at a 7 to 10 seed, and a tough road to follow in the tournament. If Durant and Augustin weren't up to the tournament task, something says Abrams won't be any better.

Pretenders: Baylor, Kansas State, Texas A&M

Early season "sleeper status" was endowed upon the Bears of Baylor, and they didn't disappoint. An early season upset over Arizona State was a nice resume builder, and hiccups against the likes of Wake Forest and South Carolina weren't backbreakers to their tournament chances. However, losing six straight conference games, three of which at home, will do the trick. It will take a valiant effort by senior leader Curtis Jerrells and sophomore stud LaceDarius Dunn for Baylor to have any chance at sneaking into the Dance. Kansas State has the best chance of the "pretenders" to actually make into March. Even with Michael Beasley's departure, the Wildcats have put together a pretty solid season behind guards Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen. However, with no major nonconference wins and a few too many Big 12 losses, it will take a big run of wins for K-State to make another appearance in March. When looking at Texas A&M's 17-8 record, you see an early home win versus and underachieving Arizona team, a home win versus a noncontender from the SEC in LSU, and not much else. Sure the Big 12 win over then-ranked Baylor is nice, but the seven Big 12 losses kind of outweigh everything. Senior guard-forward Josh Carter is nice player, and it's a shame he couldn't get a little bit of help. Texas A&M will have a nice view of the tournament from their living rooms. *

Evan Heffron: NL Central Preview

By the end of the 2008 regular season, this division saw 4 teams finish over .500, it saw the Chicago Cubs finish with 97 wins, and saw C.C. Sabathia pull one of the all times greatest stretch runs for any pitcher in team and league history. And to even top that off, this division even had a little soap opera on its hands. After a Hurricane Ike swept through the Houston area amidst the Astros then 6-game winning streak, the Astros integral series against division front runner Cubs was forced from the confines of Minute Maid Park in Houston to Milwaukee. This "home" series turned out a disaster because of the 25,000 cubs fans that turned out for the games because of the close proximity from Chi-Town as well as the poor showing the the team made on the field, thus ending the Astros chances in the playoff hunt. Many pointed to Commish Bud Selig using this situation as a cash grab. By moving the game to Miller Park (Selig is a minority owner in the Brewers Org.) his organization made profit from the game being in his home park, despite the fact that Atlanta's and St.Louis' Fields were both open and closer to Houston than the Miller Park was.
All craziness and conspiracy theories aside, this division once again will shape up to be one of the most competitive in all of baseball. Here are the standing room only predictions for the 2009 NL Central division.

1. Chicago Cubs 89-73

Chicago ran this division last year, and considering how good the three teams behind them were that's all the more impressive. Using fireballer Carlos Marmol in more save situations and getting the innings from the injury prone Rich Harden could prove to be an important aspect of their staff this upcoming season. The superior K/9 ratio Harden brings to the table will only be a be a complement to proven top guns Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster, IF he can stay healthy. Health will be the key for the Northsiders this campaign. LF Alfonso Soriano has not been able to keep healthy in his time as a Cub as well. Soriano will need to stay healthy this season for Chicago to win the division. The addition of, once again, an 'injury prone' player in Milton Bradley has to make the consistency factor for this squad shaky to say the least. The loss of utility man Mark Derosa also hurts this lineup. There are just too many talented squads this time around for them to run away with the division with injuries to key players, but in the end, i think they pull it out, barely.

2. Houston Astros 88-74

The Astros could be on the brink of becoming a legit NL contender if they provided some help in the rotation for ace Roy Oswalt. Oswalt's K's have gone down in the past few years but has been consistently the leader of the staff. As far as the pen goes, Jose Valverde will need to keep his fast ball down. If he learns that major league hitters can hit a 97 mph fast ball on the middle of the plate then it should pay huge dividends in his ERA and and limit his blown saves. The 2 guys who provide most of the offense in Houston are perennial 30-100-.300 guys in Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee. In my opinion, two of the most underrated ball players around should lead this offense to a very competitive September. Role players such as Mike Bourn and Hunter Pence also provide production from two outfield positions. The one thing that makes me nervous about this team is that their shortstop may be in federal prison or deported by the time the season starts and that would be a severe hole to fill up the middle. Oh Miguel...

3. St. Louis Cardinals 83-79

Albert Pujols was playing with nerve damage in his shoulder for the past few seasons. Apparently someone forgot to tell that carrying the weight of his entire team wasn't too healthy for that shoulder. Regardless, the 2008 NL MVP put up ridiculous numbers last year and took this team from the ashes into wildcard contention later in the season. Guys like Ryan Ludwick, Rich Ankiel, and Skip Schumaker helped contribute to the Albert show with some impressive numbers. Is it possible all three of these guys produce stats like they did last year? It is within the realm of possibility. But the main detriment to this team is the rotation. They don't have the stopper they once had in the healthy Chris Carpenter. They have young guys and journeymen like Adam Wainright and Joel Pinero. That isn't enough to cut it in a division like this. With Ryan Franklin penciled in as the closer of this club, there are many questions that face this team and this pen as we move towards opening day 09'.

4. Milwuakee Brewers 80-82

Last year was a huge success for the Brew Crew who finally made the playoffs after a long drought. Stud Ryan Braun will once again be a huge offensive lift for this team as he was last year. Coupled with the power hitting ability of Prince Fielder, The Brewers will stay in contention for awhile, but don't expect it to last very long. Losing C.C. Sabathia to free agency will kill this team. The performance he put up towards the end of the year was unreal. Many attribute the playoff berth single-handily to C.C. and his magic. Milwaukee this season simply doesn't have the arms to do that again, too many good teams in the central and the NL as a whole .

5. Pittsburgh Pirates 72-90

You gotta feel bad for these guys. The have a beautiful park, solid sports fan base, and a long and rich history. This squad just cant put it together. Despite the pure stink this team puts on the field perennially, I'm going out on a bold limb....they won't finish in last this year. First baseman Adam Laroche has 30 Home run ability and statistic leaders C Ryan Doumit and CF Nate McLouth will once again lead this team into a few more wins than last year. Bottom line is this team still is one of the most pathetic in the league but does have a few bright spots. Guys on the staff like Zach Duke and Ian Snell all do have potential but have never really seemed to put it all together. The Bucs have the ability to play spoiler in this division down the stretch. Baby steps Pittsburgh, baby steps.

6. Cincinnati Reds 71-91

The Reds really have their work cut out for them this season . Replacing the 40-100 man in Adam Dunn will be no easy task. Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce are expected to lead this team into the future but poor team defense and bullpen play is the Achilles heel of the Reds. They have bright young talent in the rotation with Edison Volquez and Johny Cueto. SP Homer Bailey never really panned out into the ace that he was supposed to be but still has time to grow. The innings are there for these young guys its just a matter of them being able to limit the bleeding when they start to get rocked. That could be the difference in some W's and L's this season. On paper Cincy doesn't look to shabby but in reality, watching this team hurts. Disjointed play leads to lack of chemistry which then leads to losing more games than the Pittsburgh Pirates. Enough said.

NL Central MVP: Albert Pujols

NL Central CY Young: Roy Oswalt

NL Central Rookie of the Year: Colby Rasmus

NL Central Team Next To Be Screwed By Bud Selig : TBA *

Friday, February 6, 2009

Mike Bradley: AL East Preview

Last year, the AL East was turned upside-down. Literally.

The perennial bottom dweller Tampa Bay Rays shocked the world, won the AL East, and advanced to their first World Series appearance in the franchise’s short history. Meanwhile, the notorious New York Yankees were floundering, much to the dismay of their fans and much to the pleasure of every other baseball fan in the world. The Red Sox grabbed the wild card, the Blue Jays failed to live up to lofty expectations yet again, and the Orioles…..enough said.

With the low probability that the Yankees won’t bounce back, the Red Sox won’t compete, and the Rays won’t produce an encore performance, the AL East looks like it’s ready for another dog fight. Here are my projections for the 2009 MLB season in the AL East:

        1.      Boston Red Sox 98-64

Usually big spenders when the offseason rolls around, Theo Epstein and Co. found themselves bargain-hunting this year. After getting clowned by the Yankees in the Mark Teixeira sweepstakes, the Red Sox didn’t start panic spending. Instead, they handed out low risk-high reward, incentive-laden deals to the likes of ex-aces Brad Penny and John Smoltz, bolstered their bullpen by signing ex-Dodgers closer Takashi Saito, and tapped the Japanese talent pool yet again with their signing of 22-year old flamethrower Junichi Tazawa. The return of Jason Varitek, coupled with an expected return to dominance by Josh Beckett, only helps the cause of the deep Boston pitching core. With AL MVP Dustin Pedroia and MVP-vote getter Kevin Youkilis with new contracts in hand, much of the same production can be expected from the two grinders. David Ortiz’s health will of course be a point of focus, as well as his possible decline in production as he gets older. However, if JD Drew can stay healthy, Jacoby Ellsbury can become what he was billed as coming out of Oregon State, and Jason Bay can do his best Manny Ramirez impression, the Red Sox should reclaim their spot atop the AL East. Oh yeah. Jonathon Papelbon is an ok closer, too.


        2.      New York Yankees 96-66 (Wild Card)

Hank Steinbrenner’s first offseason at the helm of the Yankees won’t soon be forgotten. Investing $300+ million dollars into the likes of CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and A.J. Burnett was the first stamp in what is sure to be an interesting and expensive tenure for the son of one of the most polarized owners in baseball (if not sports) history. Sticking the switch-hitting Teixeira in the middle of a lineup consisting of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Hideki Matsui is enough to make any pitching staff have nightmares. However, the scariest part of the Yankees is that the starting pitching seems poised to hold onto the big leads the offense is going to give them. With the previously stated acquisitions of Sabathia and Burnett, the return to health of Chien-Ming Wang, and perhaps and full season of the Joba Chamberlain Experience, the Yankees may have their best rotation since the glory years in the late 90s. The bullpen, outside of the immortal Mariano Rivera, is another story entirely. The 8th inning role now belongs to the volatile Damaso Marte, while the middle relief roles are seemingly going to untested rookies or journeymen looking for a place to stick. In the end, this lack of bullpen stability will probably end up being the Yankees Achilles’ heel in their attempt to overtake the Red Sox for the division late in the season.


        3.      Tampa Bay Rays 89-73

A great story in 2008, the Rays undoubtedly inspired the likes of the Arizona Cardinals and the Utah Utes in their respective runs with the “underdog” title attached to them. Pardon me, however, if I’m skeptical that they can duplicate the same exact season as last year’s Cinderella run. Too many things went right for the Rays last year to think it can all happen again. What are the odds they get 30 starts from the volatile Matt Garza again? Or even the 27 starts they were lucky enough to get from the fragile Scott Kazmir? And Tampa Bay’s Christ reincarnated, David Price, is looking to prove his October performance wasn’t a fluke. But he can he do it every 5 days, 30+ times a year? I see a Francisco Liriano-like “elbow strain” in the near future. There’s still a lot like about this offense, especially with the addition of a personal favorite in Pat Burrell. However, it gets harder to drive in runs when the bullpen consistently gives them back, and (like the Yankees) the Rays of a serious lack of consistent relief pitching to protect leads. And they don’t have a Mariano Rivera at the back end of their ‘pen. It’s midnight. Cinderella’s time is up (for this season, at least).


        4.      Toronto Blue Jays 82-80

Every offseason, the Jays usually go into things attempting to play the money game and catch up with the Yankees and Red Sox. In a year where the Rays have bypassed them, the Jays actually subtracted more than they added. After deciding to let A.J. Burnett leave via free agency to one of the teams they need to compete with (Yankees), Toronto did little to make up for this major loss. The line-up looks very similar to the offense that finished fourth in the AL last year. With all the additions made by the teams already in front of them, it’s hard to envision the Blue Jays doing any better than last year’s performance. With promising youngsters Adam Lind and Travis Snider looking prepared to help cornerstones Vernon Wells and Alex Rios in the offense, superstar Roy Halladay can only hope one or two of his rotation mates can put together a formidable season to make up for Burnett’s loss. Jesse Litsch looks like a promising pitcher, but after that, the Jays are going to have to rely on the legendary arms of the likes of Casey Janssen and Brian Burres. Thank God there’s on more team in this division…


        5.      Baltimore Orioles 65-97

These aren’t your daddy’s Orioles…and for that reason, the Baltimore area is in a state of depression. Gone are the days of Jim Palmer, Cal Ripken, Jr., or even Jimmy Key and Mike Mussina. The 2009 Orioles are going to look much like the 2008 Orioles, and the 2007 Orioles, and the 2006 Orioles, and so on and so forth. Having not topped 70 wins since 2005, the Orioles have been in a long-time rebuilding effort without much of a foundation to build on. The Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez signings were busts, Teixeira didn’t want to come home, and Peter Angelos is still the owner there. Sure Nick Markakis, Brian Roberts, and Adam Jones are nice players, Aubrey Huff revived his career, Felix Pie has a lot of potential, and super catching prospect Matt Wieters is going to hit roughly 120 home runs and drive in around 300 runs. But name me 3 of their starters. I can wait. Beyond breakout (by Baltimore standards) starter Jeremy Guthrie, you’re looking at an unknown entity in Japanese signee Koji Uehara, Cubs castoff Rich Hill, and an assortment of C-level prospects. At least Joe Flacco looks like he’s the real deal!


AL East MVP: Jason Bay

AL East Cy Young: CC Sabathia

AL East Rookie of the Year: Matt Wieters

AL East Studliest Player: Pat Burrell *

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Evan Heffron: NL East Preview

In the last 15 years or so, this division has seen it all. There was the stronghold on the division by the Atlanta Braves, there were the miracle runs by the Florida Marlins, there was the Mets rise to dominance, and then there was the Mets fall. And most recently, the most losingest franchise in sports history became "World F***ing Champions".

Oh yea, the nationals play baseball too, i think.

So as long as there is an NL east, there will surely be enough story lines, rivalries, and trash talking to go around. Here are my projections for the 2009 MLB season in the NL east:

1. New York Mets 95-67

Last offseason Omar Minaya and the New York Mets made the splash of the year by acquiring arguably the best pitcher in the game Johan Santana. Santana's durability and pure dominance was supposed to provide stability for a team that was reeling after an epic collapse at the hands of the Phillies in September of 07'. Johan pitched great last year but the bullpen proved to be one of the worst in baseball. This offseason, with the acquisitions of 60 save Fransisco Rodriguez and penciled in set-up guy J.J. Putz, the Metropolitans should have the right mix to get themselves into the playoffs. Then again, they had the "right mix" in 07' and 08' . New York has some of the most electrifying offensive talent in all of baseball they should have no problems finding a way into the playoffs this year. No excuses this time Omar.

2. Philadelphia Phillies 91-71 (Wild Card)

This race again will come right down to the wire. After last seasons magic the target will be on their backs. They need to learn how to adapt as the hunted in a league where everyone will be gunning at their heads. If Chase Utley plays a completely healthy season and Ryan Howard decides to pull his Babe Ruth act before August 1st this year, the Phils could once again see them sneak into the playoffs via division champion. But in all actuality, this team will shape up quite differently than last year. Replacing Pat the Bat Burrell with lefty Raul Ibanez will change teh complexion of this lineup. Just like the Mets, will anyone step up after the #1 guy in the rotation? Cole Hamels can do it all, but will his team follow his lead? Only time will tell.

3. Florida Marlins 78-84

It is very likely that this young team hangs in the wild card race for a better part of the year. Once top Red Sox top prospect, shortstop Hanley Ramirez will be the offensive leader of this team. His uncanny ability to drive in runs, hit for average, and steal bases ranks him among the top players in the league. Could he carry his team on his back single handedly into the playoffs like Jimmy Rollins did in 07'? Maybe. He most likely will need some help. Tampa castaway Jorge Cantu has proven to have decent power and clutch hitting ability. Super-prospect, center fielder, Cameron Maybin is supposed to figure somewhere in the top of the lineup in order to let Ramirez slide back down into his niche at the 3 slot in the lineup. When it comes down to it, Florida doesn't have the pitching to contend with the big boys of the division. The bullpen is almost non existent and the starting rotation has a few nice pieces but no Santanas or Hammels to be found.

4. Atlanta Braves 72-90

The Braves have some bright spots headed into the 2009 season. The acquisition of Derek Lowe should help solitify a, in recent years, pretty banged up pitching staff that was usually the focal point of thier squad. Losing mainstay John Smoltz to the Boston Red Sox probably left a bad taste in some fans' mouths because of the consistency he brought to the table when healthy. Key word-healthy. If Atlanta can manage to stay healthy as a staff they too could see some success this season. The biggest x-factor in my opinion is right fielder is Jeff Franceour. He has 40+ home run ability but at the same time can make Adam Dunn look like a disciplined hitter at the plate. This guy swings at nearly everything. If he can put it together this season Atlanta could also see a small run at the wild card. Offensive studs catcher Brian McCann and Yunell Escobar will be leading this new age of Braves into a winning future, but in all reality, the future may be 2-3 years away for this squad.

5. Washington Nationals 63-99

I sort of feel bad for a guy like 3b Ryan Zimmerman, this guy could be an instrumental piece to a top team in either league but is stuck in the District of Colombia. After Zimmerman's pure hitting skills at the plate, the team as a whole doesn't have much to offer. One time Mets supposed messiah, Lastings Milledge, is the only real protection in the lineup for Ryan who will probably see one decent pitch a week to hit. Acquisitions of SP Scott Olsen and LF Josh Willingham are nice for a team that is stuck in the cellar but cannot be the featured signings for a team that is trying to fill an empty stadium that isn't even 1 year old yet. Oh Washington...don't you wish you kept Alfonso?

NL EAST MVP: Hanley Ramirez

NL EAST CY YOUNG: Johan Santana

NL EAST ROY: Cameron Maybin

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