Need a comprehensive preview of the 2009 MLB season? Want to know who’s going to make it through the gauntlet that leads to October? Itching to find out which teams will rise out of nowhere to become legitimate threats? Wondering how all the hardware will be distributed?
Well then, please read on.
AL East Champions — Boston Red Sox (96-66)
The Red Sox have been the team of the decade thus far. They’ve won at least 93 games six times, played for four pennants and hung two banners.
Boston’s success has revolved around developing homegrown talent through its farm system (Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jonathan Papelbon), and filling in the holes through trades (Hanley Ramirez for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell before the 2006 season) and free agency (recent signings of John Smoltz, Brad Penny and Takashi Saito).
Combine that with a prolonged dedication to defensive proficiency, and you see how drastically the core philosophy of the franchise has changed in the last 10 years. The Red Sox are a team built for the long run, both the grind of a 162-game season, as well as the future.
While the health of cogs David Ortiz, J.D. Drew and Lowell will be closely monitored throughout the ’09 season, Boston’s pitching and defense is good enough to make up for any offensive shortcomings.
The Red Sox will retake the AL East and make another run deep into October.
AL Central Champions — Cleveland Indians (89-73)
If the Indians have taught us anything in recent past, it’s that they are all about expectation. When they’ve avoided it (2005 and 2007), they’ve flourished (average of 95 wins). When they’ve encountered it (2006 and 2008), they’ve flopped (average of 80.5 wins).
Now that CC Sabathia is a distant memory and Fausto Carmona is fresh off a back-to-earth ’08 season, there is very little expectation in Cleveland. Though that’s not to say there isn’t a quality ballclub there. With a 26-year-old MVP candidate in Grady Sizemore at the top of the lineup, the Tribe will plate runs. Versatile newcomer Mark DeRosa will complement the likes of Ryan Garko and Jhonny Peralta to form a solid one through nine. And remember the name Shin-Soo Choo (1.038 OPS after the All-Star break last year).
The pitching staff is a question mark, especially given that no one is banking on a repeat of Cliff Lee’s 22-3 campaign of a year ago. But then again, few are counting on much from Carmona, who was shaky and broken down last year after a 2007 season that saw him throw 230 innings (he had never thrown more than 173 innings at any level). Given that he relies primarily on a hard sinker, so long as he consistently locate his pitches, there’s no reason to believe he won’t bounce back with a big season in ’09.
As for the bullpen, which was nothing short of a train wreck last year, Joe Borowski — along with his 89-mph fastball and countless blown saves — is out as Indians closer. That alone is cause for elation among Cleveland fans. New fireman Kerry Wood, health issues notwithstanding, is going to totally transform the vibe of that bullpen, not to mention the late-game managing strategies of Eric Wedge.
With a well-rounded club and scant expectation, the Tribe will do what they do best: fly under the radar en route to the postseason.
AL West Champions — Oakland A’s (88-74)
They are turning back the clocks in Oakland. The days of Billy Beane jettisoning any and all valuable commodities for prospects are over. By signing Matt Holliday, Orlando Cabrera and Nomar Garciaparra, and bringing back old friend Jason Giambi, Beane’s A’s are going for it. Now.
They will be relying on a young and largely unproven rotation, headlined by an ace, Justin Duchscherer, who is not likely to post another sub-3.00 ERA. But as opposed to last year, the Oakland hurlers will not take the mound knowing they must totally shut down the opposition to win, because their offense (worst in the AL in 2008) finally has the ability to plate a significant amount of runs.
Don’t underestimate how a change in clubhouse culture can affect play on the field as well. With a veteran-laden, high-powered offense and a throwback leader in Giambi, the A’s clubhouse will be a light and comfortable atmosphere in which the young arms can mature without significant pressure. Beane’s well-established track record of developing pitching would indicate that one or more from the top-prospect trio of Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill and Vincent Mazzaro will make the leap in ’09.
The injury to projected closer Joey Devine is a blow to the bullpen, but the Oakland relief corps will still feature a variety of quality options (including Brad Ziegler, Russ Springer and Michael Wuertz).
Behind the new bats and a new mentality, the A’s will recapture the AL West after a two-year hiatus.
AL Wild Card — New York Yankees (94-68)
The new Steinbrenner contingent invested nearly half a billion dollars into their enterprise. How then is it possible that the Yankees will finish as a second-place team? Because the Red Sox have better pitching. That doesn’t mean the Yankees staff isn’t formidable, because it is. For whatever reason, CC Sabathia is not a fast-starter. While his April struggles are dominating the headlines in New York right now, over the long run his poor debut in pinstripes — however extended it may be — will be old news once he wins 20 games and finishes at or near the top of the Cy Young balloting.
It wouldn’t be prudent to hold A.J. Burnett — the other high-priced newcomer to the New York rotation — in the same regard as Sabathia. Last year marked only the second time in the last eight seasons that Burnett started 30-plus games (he’s averaged just under 24 starts per season in that span). If Yankee fans aim for 20-25 starts from Burnett, they won’t be disappointed, because when he does pitch, he’s very good (3.81 career ERA, 8.40 K/9).
Behind Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte, Joba Chamberlain is slated to be the fifth starter. Everyone knows he’s much better than that. Considering the questions surrounding Pettitte (who will be 37 in June and posted a career-worst 4.57 ERA last year) and Wang (who spent considerable time on the DL), Joba is really only the fifth starter in theory.
Whatever hurdles the pitching staff encounters, the Yankees offense will more than make up for. Sticking Mark Teixeira in the middle of that lineup is going to pay immediate dividends, and will be even more devastating once Alex Rodriguez returns.
The Yankees will be back in the playoffs.
Not Quite Enough
Tampa Bay Rays (91-71) Hands down the third-best team in the AL, but the rules say only two from the same division can make it.
Los Angeles Angels (87-75) Too much uncertainty surrounding the starting rotation, compounded by aging key contributors, will ultimately stall the Halos.
Texas Rangers Opposing staffs better hope to be throwing their frontline guys when clashing with a Texas offense that is genuinely fearsome.
Kansas City Royals Studs in the rotation and a sneaky-good lineup should have the Royals sniffing their first winning season since 2003.
Cy Young Josh Beckett
MVP Grady Sizemore
NL East Champions — New York Mets (92-70)
A new year, a new stadium, and new hopes in Flushing. Gone is the hex-house that was Shea Stadium. Citi Field is the new home of the Metropolitans.
Just like recent versions of the Mets, the ’09 one will feature an offense with considerable speed and power, as well as a deep bench. The recent signing of Gary Sheffield gives added depth to the corner outfield tandem of Daniel Murphy and Ryan Church. With one of those three coming off the bench every night, as well as Fernando Tatis and defensive specialist Alex Cora, Jerry Manuel will have versatile guys at his disposal late in games.
Late in games. Those three words have haunted Mets fans over the last three years, as the staple of the Mets bullpen has been blowing leads late. Just as Shea Stadium was dismantled in the offseason, so too was the New York relief corps. Out went failed setup men Aaron Heilman and Duaner Sanchez, and in came documented closers J.J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez. No longer will the eighth and ninth innings be disaster central for the Mets. To the contrary, in fact.
That swings the onus back to the starting rotation, which will be strong if John Maine and Oliver Perez can sufficiently back up frontline starters Johan Santana (already a far more vocal leader this year) and Mike Pelfrey (dominant in stretches last year). Add it all up and the Mets will be leading many games late — and locking them down at the end.
The revamped bullpen will be the main reason why the Mets get over the hump and back to the postseason.
NL Central Champions — Chicago Cubs (98-64)
It’s tough to say what’s more difficult for Cubs fans to endure: knowing their team is guaranteed to be bad, or knowing their team is guaranteed to be the best — and fearfully counting down the days until the playoffs begin. In years past, it was the former that Cubs fans had to come to grips with. After consecutive NL Central crowns and a pair of embarrassing sweeps in the playoffs, it is now the latter.
There is, however, no getting around the fact that for the Cubs, the 2009 regular season is going to serve as nothing more than a 162-game warmup for a five-game series in October. Remember the Cleveland Indians of the late 90s? That’s the last team that was as much of an obvious runaway favorite as this year’s Cubs.
Chicago added Milton Bradley to a lineup that scored 855 runs last year, 56 more than any other team in the NL. They will have a full year of Sean Marshall (and not Jason Marquis) as the fifth starter. If Rich Harden can approach the 25 starts he made last year, they will have one of the game’s filthiest pitchers as their fourth starter. Kevin Gregg is the new closer, with nasty setup man Carlos Marmol ready and willing to take the reigns when necessary.
The Cubs are going to win a lot of games, and for better or worse, with each one the disturbing reality of October is going to become a little more apparent.
NL West Champions — Los Angeles Dodgers (89-73)
Traditionally, when a team loses its ace and closer, panic tends to set in. That was initially the case for the Dodgers when Derek Lowe signed with the Braves and Takashi Saito headed east to Boston. Until the beginning of March, the Dodgers were nothing more than a young team with promise and a suspect pitching staff.
That is, until Scott Boras ended his four-month standoff with general manager Ned Colletti and agreed to terms on a new contract for Manny Ramirez.
Just like that the Dodgers offense transformed into one of the NL’s best. Of course all this is old news to Dodgers fans. Their team was mired in mediocrity for the first two-thirds of last season before Manny arrived. After Ramirez abused opposing pitching staffs over the final two months of the season and into October, it became abundantly clear that one player can indeed be the difference between middle-of-the-pack status and bona fide contender.
While the offseason was replete with angst in Tinseltown, Manny’s presence has settled all nerves. The pitching staff still has issues (Is Chad Billingsley a true No. 1? Can Clayton Kershaw take the next step so soon? As the full-time closer, will Jonathan Broxton avoid the horrid stretches that have plagued him in the past?), but what was proven last year was a little Manny can go a long way.
How about a full season of Manny? You know the answer.
NL Wild Card — Philadelphia Phillies (90-72)
By virtue of their dash to a world championship last fall, the Phillies changed a lot of perceptions about their franchise and city.
As for their chances of a repeat, let’s just say recent history isn’t on their side. Of the eight World Series champions this decade, only the 2001 Yankees made it back to the Fall Classic. Four failed to even qualify for the playoffs in the year of their title defense.
The Phillies will be able to avoid becoming the fifth team on that list, because their offense features three MVP candidates and a newcomer (Raul Ibanez) who is a run-producing machine. They will have to score a boatload of runs, as their starting rotation is full of holes. After Cole Hamels (who threw 262 1/3 innings last year and has been dealing with elbow problems), the Phils top three will round out with Brett Myers (erratic) and Jamie Moyer (46 years old).
Having Brad Lidge to close games is key. His consistency and a potent offense will get Philadelphia to where it wants to be: in the postseason with a chance to defend its crown.
Not Quite Enough
Arizona Diamondbacks (87-75) Playing a full season in a division with Manny (five HR, 1.588 OPS in 12 games vs. ARI last year) will be the D-backs’ undoing.
San Francisco Giants A talented and well-rounded rotation will have the Giants breathing down the necks of the contenders out west.
Cincinnati Reds With young aces and young sluggers headlining in Cincy, the Reds will lack consistency but prove to be a headache for the duration.
Cy Young Johan Santana
MVP Manny Ramirez
Red Sox over A’s; Yankees over Indians
Mets over Dodgers; Cubs over Phillies
Red Sox over Yankees
Mets over Cubs
Red Sox over Mets