The defending champs in Tokyo. Miguel Cabrera in Detroit. Johan in New York. Joe Torre in LA. Just a minor shakeup from a year ago, no? So how’s it all going down in 2008? Here are the thoughts of one scribe…
On the Outside Looking In
Arizona Diamondbacks (87-75) It’s tough to make the playoffs two years in a row, particularly when you can’t score runs. Last year the Diamondbacks scored 712 runs, fifth-fewest in MLB. They also surrendered 20 more than they scored, making them (by far) the only playoff team with a negative run differential. Good pitching and a pesky lineup one through eight got Arizona to the NLCS in ’07. Adding a second ace in Dan Haren to complement Brandon Webb would indicate the D-Backs are set to be even better in 2008, except there’s one major caveat. Jose Valverde and his 47 saves are now in Houston. The Diamondbacks won 90 games last year, but many of them were thanks to Valverde protecting one-run leads. Webb was a stud from mid-summer on last season, but Valverde was the MVP of the team. Without him, Arizona has uncertainty at the back end of their bullpen. No team wants to adopt a closer by committee. Especially one that needs to constantly protect tenuous leads late in ballgames.
Cleveland Indians (91-71) The following statement is going to make the city of Cleveland cringe (again): The Indians had their shot last year, and blew it. The optimistic outlook is the Indians have a solid and young core and will be competing for the foreseeable future. The pessimistic forecast has reigning-Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia bolting town for a mega-deal after 2008 (he rejected a four-year, $68 million contract extension and unilaterally suspended talks until after this season). Fans of the Tribe know it was there for the taking last October. Those feelings of regret have been compounded by concern about the future. Which leaves the present. More bad news: The 2008 Detroit Tigers might boast the greatest offense of all-time. Cleveland will be good, just not good enough to return to October.
Into October…But Out
Los Angeles Dodgers (90-72/NL West Champions) The NL West will be the deepest division in the league. In the age of the unbalanced schedule, a stacked division means upwards of sixty games against quality opponents–not including interleague and interdivision play. That puts a premium on overall team balance. When good teams play one another over and over again, the team with the best balance will prevail. The Dodgers have consistent starting pitching (Brad Penny and Derek Lowe), good middle relief (Scott Proctor and Jonathan Broxton), and the best closer in the National League (Takashi Saito). With speed at the top of their lineup (Juan Pierre and Rafael Furcal) and power in the middle (an emerging-James Loney and Russell Martin), LA will avoid the scoring droughts that plagued them last year. Joe Torre’s cool and calm demeanor is also ideally suited for Southern California. The new skipper will lead the Dodgers back to the postseason, but not through it.
Atlanta Braves (91-71/NL Wild Card) Two consecutive seasons without playoff baseball at Turner Field? Are the Braves really still the third-best team in the NL East? On paper they are. But luckily they are looking up at a city and team that deal with high expectations about as well as Isiah Thomas deals with basketball contracts. The Phillies staged an impressive run last year to steal the division from the Mets, but let’s get something straight: the Mets CUH-LAPSED. The city of Philadelphia was still rubbing its eyes while the Rockies were in the process of sweeping away the Phillies in the NLDS. This is the pick I’m most ambivalent about. Both teams have good pitching, powerful lineups and closers who are suspect. I guess I’m going with the Braves because they’re still the Braves (and the Phillies are still the Phillies…)
New York Yankees (93-69/AL Wild Card) I hate sounding like a broken record but I simply refuse to pick against the Yankees in the regular season so long as Derek Jeter is taking the field everyday. Keeping an already established Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen is a wise move, because the Yankees biggest weakness will be their starting pitching. One man who hasn’t started at the big league level isn’t going to change a whole rotation. However, the one-two punch of Joba and Mariano Rivera will protect late inning leads for the Yanks when they have them. More importantly, they will help account for the inconsistencies of the New York starters. This team could find itself down big early in ballgames, but with its loaded and unrelenting offense and a couple stoppers at the end of the game, no deficit will be insurmountable for the Bombers (except the 0-2 one they’ll face against Detroit in the playoffs).
Los Angeles Angels (94-68/AL West Champions) An interesting pattern has developed the last six years. The Angels, Yankees and Red Sox have been the three most consistent franchises in the American League. Since 2002, all three have made at least four postseason appearances and averaged better than 91 wins per year. The Angels have had continued success by playing aggressive baseball; they steal bases, hit and run, squeeze. John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar are rocks at the top of their rotation; Scot Shields and Francisco Rodriguez have been as good as they come at the end of games. In October, however, that all changes. The Angels pitching staff cannot deal with the Red Sox offense, particularly David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. The Yankees, meanwhile, can barely touch the Angels hurlers. Twice the Yankees have lost to Los Angeles in the playoffs (2002 and 2005), and twice the Angels have been defeated by Boston (2004 and 2007). What am I getting at? The Angels have established themselves as the class of the American League, right there with the Red Sox and Yankees. Seattle will push them hard, but LA will be back in October, albeit briefly.
Playing for a Pennant
Chicago Cubs (89-73/NL Central Champions) The Cubs dealt with their fair share of turmoil to begin the Lou Piniella era. Alfonso Soriano started the year in a prolonged slump and Carlos Zambrano was awful until he punched out his catcher. Once they got rid of Michael Barrett, Chicago started playing like most had expected going into the season. Still, they never seemed to click on all cylinders, and were blitzed by Arizona in the NLDS. This year, there will be stability in the clubhouse–or at least as much as there can plausibly be with Sweet Lou and Zambrano still prone to the occasional outburst.
No matter what, the Cubs won’t have to expend nearly as much energy and emotion in order to win a very bad division. If Kerry Wood can succeed as the closer, this team is built to make some noise in October. They have three horses at the top of their rotation (Zambrano, Rich Hill, Ted Lilly) and a lights-out setup man in Carlos Marmol. If they weren’t inevitably running into a team on a blood mission, I’d say the Cubbies were about to be closing in on their first pennant since 1945. Instead, 2008 will go down as another tantalizing, but ultimately unfulfilling campaign in Wrigleyville.
Detroit Tigers (101-61/AL Central Champions) Admit it. If you’re a fan of any team in the American League, you are dreading the first time your team and this team meet. The 2007 Tigers won 88 games and scored 887 runs. Then they went and added Miguel Cabrera and Edgar Renteria–who scored a combined 178 runs last year. So how many times will Tigers cross the plate in ’08? 950? 1000? More? Apologies in advance to pitching staffs in the AL Central, which will have no choice but to get abused by this sure-to-be historic offense up to 19 times a piece over the next six months. Detroit will be raking from April through September, and into October.
Why then are they not going to be representing the AL in the Fall Classic? Pitching. Specifically, their bullpen. It’s looking like Joel Zumaya will never be the pitcher he was, at least not this year. Fernando Rodney is mediocre, and he too is battling shoulder issues. That leaves the man who will be entrusted to get the final three outs, Todd Jones. His best days are far behind him. His recent past has been spotty at best (average of six blown saves and 4.10 ERA the last two seasons), and he hasn’t been able to get anybody out this spring (seven appearances, 15 hits, 11 earned runs, 14.84 ERA). Even backed by a legendary offense, that’s simply not going to cut it in a seven-game series against a team with a lockdown bullpen.
Boston Red Sox (96-66/AL East Champions) The Red Sox are in Tokyo as this column goes to publication. The trip, which will span 18 days and three countries, is great for the Red Sox brand and even better for the game itself. Theo Epstein and the Sox brass lured Dice-K and Hideki Okajima from Japan last year. They transformed the Boston Red Sox into a global enterprise. Then they won a second title for the first time in a century. As much as Hank Steinbrenner would like to deny it, Red Sox Nation is now multinational, multilingual, and carrying the torch into the next era of the sport of baseball. Assuming an ambassadorial role for MLB won’t come without consequences, however.
By the time the Red Sox finally return to Fenway–via the west coast and Toronto–on April 8, the entire organization is going to be gassed. Players have been forced to alter their diets (“lots of sushi” says a reinvigorated Manny Ramirez), sleep habits, and general routines. Terry Francona and his staff have basically assumed responsibilities of foreign dignitaries in addition to their daily duties as managers and coaches. And then there’s the simple fact of being on the road for an extended period of time to kick off the season. It’s not easy. The defending champs will be buoyed by the sustained reception they receive upon their return home, but it’s just not reasonable to expect them to come flying out of the gates in April like their calling card would indicate.
They will win the AL East, because they are better than the Yankees, but if anyone thinks they’re going wire to wire, think again. It will take time to shake off the Tokyo-jet lag, and come October, after the Sox have played the most grueling 162 games imaginable, in addition to another run through the American League playoffs, it will all catch up. The Sox won’t repeat as champions, but they will come damn close.
New York Mets (98-64/NL East Champions) I thought that with a healthy Pedro Martinez in 2008, the Mets would be good enough to get back to where they were last year: on the brink of the NL East title and home-field throughout the playoffs. Frankly, though, I wasn’t convinced that even Pedro’s elephant-sized ego would be sufficient enough to pull the team out of the total malaise it was stuck in since early September. Then Omar Minaya saved the day, the season, and quite possibly the franchise, by working a deal for Johan Santana. So in comes the best pitcher of today, joining the best hurler of yesterday.
For those who have little faith in Pedro, chew on this: when the walls were crashing down around the Mets last September, Pedro, with all 88 miles per hour of his fastball, started five games, went 3-1 with a 2.57 ERA, and struck out 32 in 28 innings. After the collapse was complete, with the Mets dreadfully looking ahead to 2008, Pedro was the beacon of light at the end of a long and otherwise pitch black tunnel. Trust me, the guy was prepared to lift that big blue toilet bowl also known as Shea Stadium–along with his team and what was left of its fan base–onto his modest shoulders, and start chugging.
Petey was ready to assume the entire burden of (another) hopeless franchise. And you know something? I would have bought in. I believe he could have done it — until his right arm detached itself from the rest of his body, that is. Well now he won’t have to take that risk. The Mets, and their fans, have been reborn. Johan has, in a word, simplified things. Willie Randolph’s boys will be the undisputed best in the league, Johan will win the NL Cy Young, Pedro will prove all the haters wrong, and the New York Mets will become your 2008 world champions.