Baseball Beat/Change-UpDecember 08, 2010
Back & Forth: Hot Stove Edition
By Rich Lederer and Patrick Sullivan

We talked some baseball over email last night and decided to share our conversation as a post on Baseball Analysts. Hope you enjoy.


Sully: Rich, you did a nice job covering the Red Sox Adrian Gonzalez acquisition but as a Boston fan it's definitely still at the forefront of my mind this Hot Stove season. What's most of interest to you now that we're a couple of days into the Winter Meetings?

Rich: Thanks, Sully. Adrian Gonzalez is likely to remain at the forefront of your mind at least through September… OK, October. Maybe even November if the World Series schedule repeats itself. As an Angels fan, I'd like to see the team pick up an impact player or two. Other than that, I guess we're all interested in the whereabouts of the big-name free agents like Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Beltre, as well as guys like Zack Greinke.

Sully: What do you see the Angels doing? I have heard they're in big on both Beltre and Crawford, and I think Hisanori Takahashi is one of the nice under-the-radar signings of this offseason. I suppose ideally you'd like to see him inducing more grounders (just a 38.4 GB%) but other than that, he was excellent for the Mets in his first Major League season. What is your sense for Tony Reagins's other priorities?

Rich: Takahashi was a nice pickup. He gives the Angels a much-needed lefty in the bullpen and could also serve as an insurance for a fifth starter if Scott Kazmir continues to implode. I hope it's as a reliever though as Takahashi was much more effective coming out of the bullpen (2.04 ERA, 1.13 WHIP) than starting (5.01 ERA, 1.45 WHIP). A good guy to go to when the opposing team has two LHB out of three coming to the plate in an inning, such as, ahem, Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz or Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. But the reality is that Takahashi is just a role player. The Halos need to do something big this offseason like sign Crawford and/or Beltre, if the club wants to compete for a championship next year. How do you see the Angels from the other coast?

Sully: Seems to me the rotation's fine, if not very good. The Angels biggest problem to me is that the once promising prospect core of Erick Aybar, Brandon Wood, Mike Napoli and Howie Kendrick has failed to produce a very good player much less a star or two the way many thought. Like you, I think they will need an impact position player or two in order to regain their standing atop the AL West. Speaking of Crawford, I was impressed with this article by Jayson Stark discussing the market for him in light of the Jayson Werth blockbuster. Like many others, my gut was to assume Crawford would make way more than Werth since he's the younger and better player. Stark makes the great point that just because one team - in this case the Nats - goes way above market for a player, that does not mean it necessarily resets the market. What's your sense for what it will take to lock up Crawford?

Rich: Prior to the Werth signing, I thought it would take more than five years and more than $100 million. Maybe 6 years/$108 million. Or something close to that. The Werth deal may not reset the market but, remember, it only takes one team to step up. With the big-market clubs like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels, among others, showing interest in Crawford, it's my guess that he will get a Werth-like contract. Maybe not more as some people now think but in that ballpark. If it means going 8 years and $160 million, I would say "No thanks." What do you think it will take to sign Crawford, Beltre, and Lee?

Sully: Tough to say. I will call it 6/115 for Crawford and 6/140 for Lee. As for Beltre, his market seems to be drying up a tad. Boston's out, and it would seem the O's are out as well now with Mark Reynolds in the mix. I bet he ends up around 5/60 or so.

Rich: My sense is that you might be light on all three. Unless Lee has his heart on signing with Texas, I believe it will take a seventh year to lure him to New York or one of the other rumored teams. It's also my belief that Beltre will do better than $12M per year.

Sully: When you look at the current FA class, do you think there might be some nice values to be had for teams that wait out the silly season and the biggest names going off the board? Maybe a Derrek Lee type?

Rich: I thought the Aaron Harang signing was a real bargain. The San Diego native might give the Padres 180-200 decent innings. Not bad for no more than $4 million. As to free agents who are currently available, I think Orlando Hudson is still a valuable second baseman. If O-Dog could be had on the cheap again and my club needed a second baseman, I'd ink him to another one-year deal for a few million bucks. I can't believe I'm saying this but Miguel Olivo might present a bargain on a one-year deal with an option for a second year. The glut of defensively challenged, offensive types is sure to leave a couple of players without a chair when the music stops. As such, there could be some values like Magglio Ordonez, Vladimir Guerrero, Hideki Matsui, and Jim Thome for a patient AL team in search of a DH.

Sully: I like the Harang signing too. He's still a decent pitcher but has problems when teams lift the ball for extra base hits. He's always had a below average gopher-ball rate. That should change at Petco given the size of the ballpark and Jed Hoyer's emphasis on outfield defense. As for other values, I think you have it exactly right. When a David Ortiz is under contract for $12.5 million, some of the names you mention will be shooting higher than what's realistic. That should leave a nice slugger or two hanging around late in the Hot Stove season.

Rich: How about Paul Konerko? He apparently wants as much or more as Adam Dunn in terms of both years and money. Does that seem reasonable to you? Do you think he will be back with the White Sox?

Sully: Dunn's three years younger and has had a considerably better long-term track record, which the Fangraphs wOBA, um, graph shows below. With that said, you could hardly blame a man for trying to capitalize on a huge contract year, which Konerko certainly had.

I think Konerko returns to the White Sox. This negotiation has a "Derek Jeter and New York Yankees" feel, with a revered player trying to get as much as he can while the team tries to stay as chained to reality as possible.

Rich: Switching gears here, I don't believe for a second that Boston is going to be satisfied with Jarrod Saltalamacchia as its starting catcher. C'mon now, who do you see the Red Sox adding between now and spring training?

Sully: I couldn't disagree with you any more. I think the Red Sox are very comfortable with the combo. That's not to say that they won't remain open to other options, but don't expect them to give up much in a trade or spend above market for anyone as though it remains a need. A Salty and Jason Varitek platoon actually looks somewhat formidable to me given the way Tek has hit righties the last few seasons.

Rich: If Boston doesn't sign Crawford, do you think the Red Sox and the Mets might reach a deal for Carlos Beltran? Seems to me that he would be worth a shot if New York picked up half of his $18.5M salary. I'm not sure Beltran can play center anymore, but his 30 walks and 39 strikeouts suggest he still has a good approach at the plate and the switch-hitter put up a line of .321/.365/.603 in September and October. If nothing else, the guy is intriguing.

Sully: Yeah, I think that's right - he is intriguing. Boston - perhaps bizarrely at this point given the way 2010 went on the injury front - has a lot of faith in its ability to gain an edge by performing strong medical due diligence. If the reports are true that Boston is in fact interested in Beltran, they must be very comfortable with his health. The other fourth outfielder options appear to be Josh Willingham or Magglio Ordonez, something Marc Normandin addressed yesterday at Red Sox Beacon.

Rich: What happens to Greinke? Do the Royals trade him or does he stay put for another year?

Sully: Sounds to me like they want to move him. Given the premium Lee seems poised to command, why the heck not? Who's the second best pitcher on the free agent market right now? Carl Pavano? Dayton Moore, particularly given some of Greinke's public comments, would be crazy not to consider dealing him in this market. I expect Toronto to be a key player there. Rightly, I think the Jays believe they have a real chance in 2011 and beyond.

Rich: Albert Pujols is interested in signing a long-term extension with the Cardinals. I'm setting the line at 10 years and $275 million, which is exactly what A-Rod received the last time around. Are you taking the overs or the unders?

Sully: Ooooh. Give me the under there, but he'll get a huge number.

Rich: Time for a lightning round. Match the player with the team. First up: Cliff Lee. I say Texas. You say?

Sully: Angels

Rich: Carl Crawford?

Sully: Red Sox

Rich: Adrian Beltre?

Sully: Angels

Rich: Circling back to A-Gon, I know you talked to Carson Cistulli at Fangraphs Audio about him. How many years and dollars do you think he will coax from John Henry?

Sully: The reports say 8 years (including 2010, I believe) and $155-$165 million.

Rich: Lastly, who owns the Dodgers a year from now? Frank, Jamie, their attorneys, the taxpayers, Bank of America, or … ?

Sully: I'll leave that one to my Southern California pal. You have the feet on the street!

Baseball Beat/Change-UpDecember 24, 2008
All I Want for Christmas
By Rich Lederer and Patrick Sullivan

While rummaging around our respective living rooms and getting ready for Christmas morning, we found some gifts for the following under the tree...

Bert Blyleven: A phone call from the President of the Baseball Writers Association of America on January 12th

Bobby Grich and Dwight Evans: More Rob Neyers in the BBWAA

Ron Santo: A rookie year before 1943

The Steinbrenners: More taxpayer money

Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles: A chance to play in another division

Scott Boras: A one-year deal with the St. Paul Saints for Jason Varitek

Alan Trammell: Back-flips and cartwheels

Tim Raines: Mandatory BBWAA continuing education reading containing on the syllabus

Jim Rice: Fear Strikes Out

BBWAA: More objectivity in voting for the Hall of Fame and fewer moral judgments

Mark McGwire: See above

Marty Brenneman: A grip

C.C. Sabathia: Continued post-season excellence from your Red Sox admirers

Los Angeles Angels: That Boston might be satisfied with football and basketball championships

Matt Holliday: A one-way airplane ticket to the city of your choice on July 31, 2009

Manny Ramirez: A third year

Paul DePodesta: A second chance in a town sans Bill Plaschke and TJ Simers

Phil Hughes: An invitation to Andy Pettitte's retirement party

Mark Teixeira: A Central Park West high rise (in lieu of an oceanfront view in Newport Beach)

Bud Black: A better managerial situation in your next life

Boston Red Sox: Better money market rates for all that unused cash

The Giants, Padres, Diamondbacks and Rockies: A care package from the Dodgers for being worse than they were

Roger Clemens: A do-over

Chicago Cubs: No more Blago dealings

Frank Wren and John Schuerholz: No more Arn Tellem dealings

Rickey Henderson: A Hall of Fame speech in the first person

Theo Epstein: A Will Clark impersonation by Lars Anderson sooner rather than later

Bud Selig: A Farmer's Almanac

Marvin Miller: R-E-S-P-E-C-T from the very players he turned into multi-millionaires

Ryan Howard: More Tom Boswells

Joe Mauer: More Joe Posnanskis

Baseball Fans Everywhere: More Joe Posnanskis

Baseball Analysts Readers: Our sincerest gratitude for checking in with us over the past year

Baseball Beat/Change-UpOctober 01, 2008
ALDS Preview: Tampa Bay Rays versus Chicago White Sox
By Marc Hulet

This ALDS preview is brought to you by R.J. Anderson, senior editor of DRaysBay and Beyond the Boxscore, as well as by Baseball Analysts columnist Marc Hulet, who truly believes the White Sox have the most beautiful female fans he's ever seen at a ballpark. But that's not the only reason why they have his support...


Game 1: Thursday, Oct. 2 at 2:30 p.m. in Tampa Bay, James Shields vs Javier Vazquez
Game 2: Friday, Oct. 3 at 6 p.m. in Tampa Bay, Scott Kazmir vs Mark Buehrle
Game 3: Sunday, Oct. 5 at TBA in Chicago, Matt Garza vs John Danks
Game 4*: Monday, Oct. 6 at TBA in Chicago, TBA vs Gavin Floyd
Game 5*: Wednesday, Oct. 8 at TBA in Tampa Bay, TBA vs TBA

* if necessary


         HOME      ROAD     TOTAL
TB       57-24     40-41    97-65
CWS      53-28     35-46    88-74
Head-to-head results: Tampa Bay won six out of 10 games in 2008


         RUNS   AVG   OBP   SLG    OPS    OPS+   
TB       774   .260  .340   .422   .762   103
CWS      811   .263  .332   .448   .780   108


         RUNS   AVG    OBP    SLG    OPS    OPS+   
TB       671   .246   .314   .400   .714    90
CWS      729   .261   .320   .410   .730    95
Position-By-Position Breakdown

After an unlucky and injury plagued 2007 Dioner Navarro showed some of the promise that made him one of the top catching prospects for the New York Yankees way back when. Navarro is a switch-hitter with occasional home run power who does not walk or strikeout all too much but seems to have a fair grip on the strike zone. Defensively Navarro features a strong and accurate arm and decent blocking ability.

A.J. Pierzynski had another solid offensive season. He doesn't walk but he also does not strike out too much. The White Sox catcher has 28 games of playoff experience and has .287/.351/.529. Defensively, Pierzynski is nothing special but calls a nice game. His arm won't instill fear in many base runners.

R.J. says: Navarro all day.

Marc says: Navarro probably has an edge defensively, but I'd call it a draw offensively.

First base:
Carlos Pena is almost certainly the leader of the Rays. The journeyman with the majestic smile and laugh did not set the east in flames like 2007, but that was to be expected. Pena still hit some timely home runs, including a big one versus Boston recently, and leads the Rays in WPA by quite a bit. How patient is Pena? In 2008 he’s walked nine times with the bases loaded. Solid at first base, Pena will not botch many plays.

Paul Konerko had a pretty rough season offensively. The 32-year-old veteran has battled through some nagging injuries, although his numbers have been declining to two years now. He may be sorting things out a bit, just at the right time, as he has slugged eight homers in September.

R.J. says: Pena is superior.

Marc says: Konerko does not give away as many at-bats as Pena but the younger first baseman is clearly a step ahead in the batter's box when he makes contact.

Second base:
Akinori Iwamura made a seamless transition from third to second this season. Despite changing positions, Iwamura remained as the Rays lead off hitter on most days and will not expand the strike zone.

Alexei Ramirez has had a very interesting season and has hit some pretty big home runs in August and September, including his grand slam against Detroit earlier this week to force the deciding game with Minnesota. Ramirez has walked just 3.6 percent of the time in his rookie season but he offers more power than most second basemen (.185 ISO). Even though he showed power late in the season, Ramirez hit just .211 in September.

R.J. says: Ramirez has a way, way better bat, although his defense is a bit iffy.

Marc says: Personally, I'll take Iwamura's steadiness and consistency over Ramirez' inconsistencies (and flair for the dramatics).

Third base:
Evan Longoria is almost certainly the American League Rookie of the Year. Unreal power Longoria will hack occasionally. Longoria also plays very good defense and has a fiery demeanor that the mainstream media will fall in love with.

Joe Crede's back has not only ended his season, but it could very well be threatening his career. In his absence, the White Sox will have to look to Juan Uribe, which is a huge drop defensively and in the power department. Neither player, though, hits for average on a consistent basis. Josh Fields chose a really bad year to slump.

R.J. says: Evan Longoria. Evan Longoria. Evan Longoria.

Marc says: It's not even close: Longoria.

Jason Bartlett suffered a knee injury around mid-season, which could explain for the defensive metrics rating him worse. In the second half Bartlett has been a far better hitter, although he still deservedly hits ninth.

Orlando Cabrera has led the White Sox in games played, at-bats, hits and stolen bases. He also plays a steady shortstop. Although he has been a consistent performer throughout his career, Cabrera really hasn't fit in well in Chicago. Regardless, he should continue to be steady in the playoffs and has 27 games worth of post-season experience.

R.J. says: I’m a bit torn here, but Cabrera gets the slight nod.

Marc says: I definitely favor the steady veteran here.

Left Field:
Eric Hinske depending on Carl Crawford's health it seems as if Hinske will get the majority of reps in left field with Fernando Perez filling in for defensive and left-handed pitching situations. Hinske is awful defensively and his bat has been in a coma for most of the second half.

The left-field picture is a little muddled at this point. If Carlos Quentin can some how make it back (without re-injuring himself), then Chicago has a huge advantage. If not, then it looks like Dewayne Wise and Nick Swisher could see time in left. Wise has resurrected his career and has had some big hits in September, although he's shown time and time again that he's just not a good hitter (.211 career average). Swisher should be the overwhelming choice in left field, but he has been absolutely brutal with the bat in 2008. He does, like just about every other White Sox player, offer some power potential.

R.J. says: I think a powerful Wise and an iffy hitting Crawford match up close to equal.

Marc says: Thanks to Crawford's off-year and finger injury, it's not as much of a landslide as it should be. I'll still take him over a combination of Wise and Swisher, though.

Center Field:
B.J. Upton tore the labrum in his non-throwing shoulder in early May, the reason for his lack of power. Upton covers a ton of ground in center and has one of the best arms in the league. Anyone attempting to take home on a hit up the middle will quickly realize Upton ’s arm combined with his shallow alignment can cause issues for base runners.

Ken Griffey Jr. is definitely a shadow of his former self both offensively and defensively. He hit just .260/.347/.405 in 41 games with Chicago but he can still take a walk and hit for occasional power. Griffey Jr. also hit pretty well in his previous playoff appearances.

R.J. says: Upton is better defensively and offensively than Griffey Jr.

Marc says: I will also take the youngster over the grizzled veteran. It's kind of sad, actually, that Upton is still better with basically one arm tied behind his back.

Right Field:
Gabe Gross is the king of walk-offs but he’s been really good overall. Acquired in May for Josh Butler, Gross will play right field most days with Rocco Baldelli (again depending on Crawford’s health) possibly sparing him against southpaws.

Jermaine Dye just keeps getting it done in right field and at the plate for the White Sox. His strong arm gives runners pause. His power will also keep pitchers honest. Unfortunately, Dye has not performed overly well in post-season play despite some significant experience. In 147 at-bats, he has hit just .259/.319/.395.

R.J. says: Love Gross, but Dye, easy.

Marc says: Despite his struggles in the post-season, I would rather have Dye at the plate with the game on the line.

Designated Hitter:
Cliff Floyd signed with the intent to play for a winner, or perhaps I should say “hit” since he hasn’t played defense at all. Floyd will probably split time with Baldelli. This is a pretty platoon-driven lineup.

Jim Thome has not been quite himself this season. That said, he has still hit a ton of homers (34) and walked a lot (91). In 188 post-season at-bats, Thome has hit just .222 but he's slugged 17 homers (.287 ISO) and driven in 32 runs.

R.J. says: Thome is having another monster season.

Marc says: The average may not be there but Thome loves to homer and drive in runs in the playoffs.

Willy Aybar can play any infield position, although playing him up the middle is at your own risk. He might see some time at DH as well. A switch hitter Aybar the Rays acquired him (along with prospect Chase Fontaine) for Jeff Ridgway in the off-season.Rocco Baldelli needs something magical in the playoffs to occur in order to cap off an amazing comeback story.

The bench probably isn't going to figure into the series much, unless another injury occurs. Toby Hall might see a few innings behind the dish. Brian Anderson will likely be a late-game defensive replacement for Griffey and/or Swisher.

R.J. says: Rays again, I think Aybar would start on the White Sox.

Marc says: I'd give the edge to the Rays since there is more depth and more pop in the bats sitting on the bench.

James Shields is one of the best pitchers in the game. His change-up is really, really good, and he mixes in a decent curveball. Shields doesn’t walk many and his durability and efficiency resemble a poor man’s Roy Halladay.

Scott Kazmir is having an extremely odd season. His fastball usage is way up, as are his fly balls and home runs allowed, and his outings have left something to desire, mainly efficiency.

Matt Garza was acquired last off-season in the Delmon Young trade. Strides have been made by Garza, including a one-hitter against the Florida Marlins. Garza’s fastball is extremely good and he has good breaking stuff.

Andy Sonnanstine doesn’t feature anything that would make tools whores drool, but he simply doesn’t walk anyone. Sonnanstine’s cutter is his main pitch, but he uses nearly a half-dozen different pitches and grips.

Javier Vazquez had another typical Vazquez season. He has good stuff and he strikes out a ton of batters (200 in 208.1 innings) but he just does not do well under pressure. Good thing there is no pressure in the playoffs.

Mark Buehrle keeps getting it done despite less than stellar stuff. He allows a ton of hits and doesn't strike out many batters (5.76 K/9) but he also doesn't walk anyone (2.14 BB/9) and he does a reasonably good job of keeping the ball on the ground (49.6 GB%). Expect him to rise to the challenge in the playoffs.

It's already been a great season for the former phenom known as Gavin Floyd. He led the club in wins but he showed signs of tiring down the stretch after pitching a career high number of innings. His K/9 (6.32) and BB/9 (3.05) rates were nothing special this season. He should be OK early on in the playoffs, but he'll have to be watched carefully if the White Sox move on into the later rounds.

Another young pitcher in uncharted territory, John Danks showed some guts on Tuesday night as he pitched the White Sox into the playoffs. He has good stuff for a lefty and has a diverse repertoire, but it remains to be seen how well he'll hold up over the course of a long post-season.

R.J. says: I’m going with the White Sox here on the basis that Kazmir won’t morph into 2007 Kazmir and that Danks will make the third start.

Marc says: The White Sox have the edge thanks to some veteran pitchers. I'm also not sold on Garza's ability to pitch while under pressure.

Grant Balfour went from designated to assignment to mint piece reliever within one season. Balfour brings the heat constantly, although he does have a slider.

J.P. Howell is a left-handed Sonnanstine. Not the flashiest pitcher, Howell features some decent breaking stuff but won’t throw an egg through a cement wall anytime soon.

David Price also known as Velociraptor Jesus, Price throws a hard fastball that moves and a slider that sits in the upper 80s. Look for Price to get some of the workload from Howell and Trever Miller when it comes to lefties.

Chad Bradford gets a ton of ground balls and is a bit of a unheralded part of the pen. Along with most of the Rays dependable relievers Bradford can go multiple innings.

Bobby Jenks' strikeout numbers have declined each of the past four seasons and they dropped significantly in 2008 from 7.75 to 5.55 K/9. Part of that could be blamed on his injury woes this season, but it is still a little alarming. Even without the strikeouts, though, Jenks does a great job of keeping the ball on the ground (57.6 GB%).

Scott Linebrink was brought in as a free agent last winter to help stabilize the bullpen but he, like Jenks, battled injuries. Despite the shoulder woes, Linebrink showed improve K/9 (7.77) and BB/9 (1.75) rates in 2008 compared to his disappointing 2007 campaign.

Octavio Dotel had a bit of an issue with the home run during the regular season (1.61 HR/9) but he definitely resurrected his career in 2008. He struck out 12.36 batters per nine innings and batters hit just .216 off of him. He offers insurance for the White Sox if Jenks' back acts up again.

Matt Thornton clearly had a career year in 2008 and finally harnessed his excellence fastball. He struck out 10.29 batters per nine innings and lowered his walk rate from his career number of 4.48 to 2.54 BB/9. Batters also hit just .202 against him.

R.J. says: Not really sure here, Balfour and Howell are just as good at Jenks and Thornton, and I’m not sure Bradford and Price aren’t better than Linebrink and Dotel. Rays, barely.

Marc says: Price could give the Rays a real edge in an extra-inning game, but overall I like the White Sox' veterans.

R.J.'s Prediction: Rays in five. The White Sox will tee off a few times on the Rays pitchers, but when all is said and done the Rays scrape out three hard-fought wins.

Marc's Prediction: The Rays have a more well-rounded club and the team also has youth on its side (It is roughly three years younger than the White Sox) but Chicago has the momentum. If it goes five games, the fresher Rays have the edge but I'll take Chicago in four thanks to the superior (veteran) pitching.

Baseball Beat/Change-UpOctober 01, 2008
NLDS Preview: Milwaukee Brewers vs. Philadelphia Phillies
By Marc Hulet

OK, this one gets the post-season started at 3 PM ET this afternoon.

Peter Baker from chips in with Phillies analysis, our own Al Doyle helps out from the Milwaukee side.

Al says that as a Wisconsin resident for 15 years, he has been surrounded by the statewide celebration since the Brewers qualified for the post-season for the first time since 1982. Will the joy go beyond the first round of the National League playoffs? Only time will tell.

The Brewers drew nearly 3.07 million fans (including 22 consecutive sellouts at Miller Park) in one of baseball's smallest markets this season, so the enthusiasm began well before September.

As Peter can attest, there is similar enthusiasm surrounding the Phillies after their second consecutive division crown.

Game 1: Wed., Oct. 1, 3 PM ET on TBS - MIL (Yovani Gallardo) @ PHI (Cole Hamels)
Game 2: Thu., Oct. 2, 6 PM ET on TBS - MIL (CC Sabathia) @ PHI (Brett Myers)
Game 3: Sat., Oct. 4, 6:30 PM ET on TBS - PHI (Jamie Moyer) @ MIL (Dave Bush)
Game 4*: Sun., Oct. 5, TBD on TBS - PHI (TBD) @ MIL (Jeff Suppan)
Game 5*: Tue., Oct 7, TBD on TBS - MIL (TBD) @ PHI (TBD)

* if necessary


         HOME      ROAD     TOTAL
MIL     48-33     44-37     92-70
PHI     49-32     41-40     90-72
Head-to-head results: PHI, 5-1.


        RUNS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   OPS+  
MIL      750  .253  .325  .431  .756   102
PHI      799  .255  .332  .438  .770   103


        RUNS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   ERA+  
MIL     689   .256  .323  .406  .729   112 
PHI     680   .260  .329  .410  .739   115

Position-by-Position Breakdown:

Carlos Ruiz – The full season slash numbers are terrible, yes, but Ruiz managed to go .244/.345/.346 after July 15. Okay, that’s still not very good but a team with a solid offense can carry a cheap, young, solid defensive catcher at that rate. But can he maintain that? Stay tuned… The Chris Coste Story continued in 2008, where he showed himself to be a credible backup catcher with decent pop, especially against lefties (.881 OPS). Can’t get around on the hard stuff. And let’s face it, this is a 35 year old catcher from Concordia College. Anything we get from him is gravy. His time here will probably be up soon when the Lou Marson Era begins in Philadelphia.

Jason Kendall (.246, 2 HR, 49 RBI, 8 SB) started a team record 149 games behind the plate this year. He did a fine job handling pitchers and in tossing out opposing baserunners by gunning down 41 of 96 attempted steals for a 42.7 percent success ratio. A slap hitter, Kendall was the only real contact type in the lineup. He struck out just 45 times in 516 AB.

Peter says: Edge: Brewers. Kendall isn't much at the plate, but he's solid defensively and throws out tons of potential base stealers.

Al says: Brewers get the nod here.

First Base:
Who is Ryan Howard? Game-changing monster or terrific mistake hitter? Know this: When Howard is in a groove, there’s no one you’d rather have at the with runners on base, needing a few runs. When he’s scuffling, he’s just brutal. Terrible defender (18 errors at first base). Majestic, often otherworldly specimen of a hitter who can literally carry a team for weeks at a time (hit .273/.356/.593 with 40 homers since May 15). Unlike 2007 he was healthy all year and put up the counting stats to show it. We’ve learned to love Howard for what he is, and have no intentions of throwing out the beautiful baby with the somewhat putrid bathwater.

Prince Fielder (34 HR, 102 RBI, .276, 84 BB, .372 OBP, .507 SLG) came on strong in September after a largely mediocre first 130 games. Even though his numbers are down from a 50-HR, 116-RBI season in 2007, the lefty swinger is a threat to take it out of the park at any time. With 134 strikeouts, Fielder is one of five Brewers with triple digits in that category. A likely candidate for the DH role as he grows older, Fielder committed 17 errors in 2008.

Peter says: Edge: Phillies, barely. You're great, Prince, but Howard's better.

Al says: Phillies and their MVP candidate get the nod here, but Fielder can mash.

Second Base:
What happened? The first six weeks of the season appeared to be the start of the inevitable MVP campaign for Chase Utley. Then suddenly the bad thing happened. His power all but disappeared (11.53 AB/HR through the end of May; 27.71 AB/HR thereafter). Whispered rumors of a hip injury needing rest and/or surgery have circulated for weeks now. Nonetheless, an 80 percent Utley is still the best second baseman in the league. Add in his Gold Glove-caliber defense, and you have a truly special player who should seriously contend for an MVP award one day. A World Series MVP? We can hope.

This is the one of two changes to the lineup made by interim manager Dale Sveum. Switch-hitting Ray Durham (370 AB, 6 HR, 45 RBI, 35 2B, 53 BB, .380 OBP) now gets most of the starts over erratic Rickie Weeks (.234, 14 HR, 46 RBI, 115 K, 66 BB and 19 SB in 475 AB). The veteran Durham has been nagged by hamstring problems, so it remains to be seen how much he will play. Weeks can tantalize with his bat speed, and the ball jumps when he connects, but hand and wrist injuries plus prolonged slumps have kept his career average under .250.

Peter says: Edge: Phillies. The best defensive and offensive second baseman on the planet.

Al says: No-brainer. Utley, both at bat and defensively.

Third Base:
Pedro Feliz is bitter medicine. Good for you in a lot of ways (defense) but dreadful in others (overall offense). He had, however, a strange knack for late inning heroics (.313/.368/.575 in close-and-late situations) and single-handedly won a couple games for us with big late-game hits. Also posted the best BB/K ratio (33 BB / 54 Ks) of his career.

Craig Counsell (248 AB, 1 HR, 14 RBI, .226, 46 BB, .355 OBP) gets more starts under Sveum than he did when Ned Yost filled out the lineup card. What advantage does the 38-year old bring over streaky Bill Hall (404 AB, .225, 15 HR, 55 RBI, 124 K, .293 OBP)? Counsell provides a much-needed lefty bat in the predominantly right-handed Milwaukee lineup. His dependable defense, smart play and patience at the plate stand in stark contrast to the one-dimensional, swing from the heels style of his teammates. Hall can literally carry a team for a week when he goes on a tear, but that didn't happen at all in 2008. He is adequate defensively and has a rifle arm. Hall will start against lefties Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer, but Counsell will also see some action at the hot corner and possibly at second base.

Peter says: Edge: Phillies. And I feel dirty for saying it. It's bad when a .301 OBP, in the case of Feliz, wins you a matchup, but Counsell and Hall have just been awful. And Feliz's defense certainly helps, too.

Al says: Phillies have the edge, but third isn't a big strength for either team.

Let-down campaign? In part. Oft-overlooked is the serious ankle sprain that Jimmy Rollins suffered in mid-April, and that he struggled to play through for a few weeks before finally going on the disabled list. His offense suffered for most of the season, and the ankle injury seems to be a plausible explanation. He still swipes bases at an ungodly rate (47 steals in 50 attempts… 94 percent!) and he’s only solidified his reputation as a Gold Glove defender. He also posted the best strikeout and walk rates of his career. Hopefully he’ll remain healthy in 2009 and regain some of the home run power he lost in 2008.

J.J. Hardy (.283 , 24 HR, 74 RBI, .343 OBP) put up similar numbers to his 26 HR, 81 RBI totals for 2007. He is solid defensively and has a strong arm. Hardy has overcome injuries to become one of the better players at his position. Having batted second, fifth, sixth and seventh in 2008, Hardy is the one Brewers starter who gets moved around the batting order. Svuem may do the same in the NLDS.

Peter says: Edge: Brewers. It's awfully close, Rollins' defense and speed are terrific. Hardy's just been better all year.

Al says: Slight edge to the Phillies.

Left Field:
A tale of two seasons -- .271/.410/.571 through June 30; .230/.322/.444 thereafter. Pat Burrell still hung on to most of his ability to draw walks, but tailed off pretty much everywhere else. Constantly replaced late in games for “defensive purposes” despite being a sure-handed (albeit slow) left fielder. A free agent after this season, all signs point to Burrell playing elsewhere in 2009, probably somewhere in the American League. Good luck, Pat. Some of us will miss you.

Slugger Ryan Braun (.285, 39 2B, 7 3B, 37 HR, 106 RBI. .553 SLG, 14 SB) made a smooth transition to the outfield after a rough (.895 fielding percentage) rookie season at 3B in 2007. Although he looked unpolished at times, Braun has played well defensively, with a better arm and speed than average for the position. A pure power and average hitter, Braun was ineffective for much of September due to a nagging rib injury. He came through in a big way during the final four games of the season by slugging game-winning bombs against the Pirates and Cubs. Even though he can be impatient at the plate (just 42 walks in 611 AB) Braun is clearly one of baseball's top young players.

Peter says: Edge: Brewers. It's Ryan Braun's world. I'd be inclined to call it a tie if Burrell weren't slumping so badly coming into the postseason based on Burrell's edge in OBP.

Al says: Brewers have the advantage here.

Center Field:
Shane Victorino: $480,000, .293/.352/.447. Aaron Rowand: $12,000,000, .271/.339/.410. Even with park adjustments, is it even close? Victorino continues to mature as a player, and although his stolen base rate was significantly worse than last year, he improved at almost every measurable aspect of the game, at a more important defensive position. Cheap, quality production at a premium position. Sign me up!

After being suspended for the first 25 games of the season by MLB for failing a substance test, Mike Cameron (.243, 25 2B, 25 HR, 70 RBI, 17 SB) saw nearly half of his 108 hits go for extra bases. It was an all or nothing season for Cameron, who whiffed 142 times in just 444 AB. The three-time Gold Glover can still chase 'em down in the alleys. Sveum has used Cameron as a leadoff man, which is an unusual spot for a low-average hitter who doesn't make consistent contact.

Peter says: Edge: Brewers. Cameron wins due to more power, although Victorino's edge in OBP makes it close, and the defense is a wash.

Al says: Phillies get the edge, but not by much.

Right Field:
Geoff Jenkins - .246/.301/.392. Ewwwww… Everyone makes mistakes, Pat Gillick. This was one of yours. Jayson Werth made the transition from right-handed half of a right field platoon to full-timer during the summer of 2008. He showed the ability to hit for power, get on base, and play occasionally stellar defense. Still doesn’t hit righties very well (.767 OPS) but destroys lefties (1.020 OPS, MLB leading 16 homers). The Phillies likely see Werth as Burrell’s 2009 left field heir apparent. They could do worse.

After becoming an All-Star for the first time, Corey Hart (612 AB, 45 2B, 20 HR, 91 RBI, 23 SB, .268, .300 OBP) cooled off considerably in the second half. Despite his lack of patience at the plate (just 27 BB and 109 Ks), Hart brings a lot of positives to the Brewers. He hits for power, runs well for a big man and is more than adequate in the field.

Peter says: Edge: Phillies. Nominally deserved All-Star berths notwithstanding...

Al says: Even

The Bench:
Greg Dobbs – The best pinch-hitter in baseball in 2008, the lefty-hitting Dobbs set a new Phillies record for pinch hits in a season. Good pop but so-so speed, his ability to play third base and either corner outfield position makes him a valuable commodity.

Matt Stairs – Kills right-handed pitching, swings hard, and he’s your best chance at a late inning home run. Cannot really run at all and plays pretty bad defense. With that mustache and the bald head, he kind of looks like the guy who got his face sliced off by the propeller in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is a pretty groovy look to cop.

Eric Bruntlett – Yes, Bruntlett is your top right-handed pinch-hitting option. Good thing the Brewers are low on LOOGYs. As a defender, he’s quite versatile, capable of playing shortstop, third base, and the corner outfield positions competently. For a Stanford graduate, Bruntlett is a great utility player.

So Taguchi – What do you call a baseball player who doesn’t really do anything well anymore, but who coasts on his reputation and a vague appearance of athleticism? No, not Ken Griffey, Jr.! It’s Taguchi. A frequent defensive replacement and pinch runner for Burrell, he’s neither a great fielder nor a great baserunner. No power, no OBP, no nothing, really. The fact that he made the postseason roster speaks volumes about how desperately lacking this team is in right-handed hitting.

Depending on the situation, Hall or Counsell along with Durham or Weeks will be available in the infield. Gabe Kapler (229 AB, 9 HR, 39 RBI, .301) was one of the best fourth outfielders and pinch hitters in the majors this season, but a shoulder injury will keep him out of the NLDS. Speedy Tony Gwynn Jr. (.195 in 41 ABs) will take Kapler's place on the roster.

Mike Rivera (62 AB, 1 HR, 14 RBI, .306, .373) performed well as Kendall's backup despite seeing limited playing time. He can also fill in at 1B, as can Brad Nelson, who hit a pair of doubles in seven September ABs. The raw rookie is on the roster as a lefty pinch hitter.

Peter says: Edge: Phillies, barely. Dobbs is the best pinch hitter in baseball, which makes up for the bench's heavy leftward tilt (lefties Dobbs, Stairs, and Jenkins; righties Taguchi, Coste, and Bruntlett). The Brewers have weapons, but the Phillies have just a touch more quality.

Al says: Phillies. Not having Kapler available is a big loss for the Brewers.

Starting Pitching:
Cole Hamels – Young, amazingly talented, and not yet in his prime. What’s not to like? Well, he exceeded his previous career high in innings pitched by 44 innings (plus whatever he winds up throwing in the postseason). There’s a pretty substantial risk of injury in the future, but like they say, Flags Fly Forever. The Phillies first true ace since Curt Schilling.

Brett Myers – This is so confusing. There was first-half Brett, who was absolutely brutal and was relegated to the minors for a stint mid-summer. Then, there was Awesome Brett, who along with C.C. Sabathia and Johan Santana was one of the best pitchers in the league over the last half of the summer. Then, we had Windin’ Down Brett, who over his last two starts in September was as bad as any starting pitcher I’ve ever seen, grooving super-straight 88 MPH fastballs right over the heart of the plate. The Brett We Get may very easily determine how far the Phillies go this offseason. One has to wonder how much longer the team can tolerate such a highly-paid, unreliable dunderhead on its roster.

Jamie Moyer – Yeah, just your run-of-the-mill 45 year old 16 game winner. And those weren’t “empty wins,” either; Moyer posted an ERA of 120. His skills and approach have barely changed in over a decade and he keeps himself in terrific physical condition. One has to wonder if he can pitch until he’s 50. I wouldn’t necessarily bet against it.

Joe Blanton – He was eeeehhhh… PRETTY good during his Phillies debut (4-0, 4.20 ERA). And they have him under control for a reasonable salary next season. There are worse guys to have out there, I just wish they didn’t have to give up so much to get him. He’s a decent bet to keep the Phillies in a game, but a longshot for a masterpiece.

CC Sabathia (11-2, 1.65, 130.2 innings pitched, 128 K, just 25 BB) has turned out to be one of the great midseason acquisitions of all time. The big lefty even led the NL in complete games (7) despite making just 17 starts in Milwaukee.

Sabathia has the whole package - a blazing fastball, sharp breaking stuff, excellent command, durability and the mentality of a staff ace. He has volunteered to pitch on three days rest and will do so again Thursday in Philly.

Ben Sheets (13-9, 3.09, 198.1 IP, 158 K, 47 BB, 5 CG) is out of the NLDS and most likely for the entire postseason with a torn ligament in his elbow. After this stellar 1-2 combination, the rotation takes a big turn for the worse.

Yovani Gallardo (0-0, 1.88, 24 IP) has just four starts in 2008. The 22-year old tore his ACL in a collision while covering first base in April. Making an exceptionally speedy recovery, the right-hander gave up a run in four innings while starting against the Cubs last Saturday.

After going 9-5 as a rookie in 2007, the Mexican-born Gallardo is often touted as a future staff ace. He has the talent to reach that level, but Gallardo is extremely inexperienced for a pitcher in such an important game. He could well rise to the occasion, but I'd be surprised to see Gallardo pitch more than five innings.

Righties Dave Bush (9-10, 4.18 and just 48 walks in 185 IP) and Jeff Suppan (10-10, 4.96, 177.2 IP) round out the rotation. Hard-throwing but erratic lefty Manny Parra (10-8, 4.39) will be used out of the bullpen. Bush finished strong after getting hammered early in the season, while Suppan was battered in September.

Peter says: Edge: Draw. Okay, it's a cop-out. I guess you pick your poison: Depth or upfront dominance? A pitcher like Sabathia is awfully close to a guaranteed win, but do you let it all ride on him and pray in the games he doesn't pitch? A toss-up.

Al says: I think it's a draw as well.

Brad Lidge – ‘Nuff said. 41-for-41 in save attempts, well over a strikeout per inning, Lidge is a Cy Young and MVP candidate who deserves a ton of credit for solidifying the back end of the Phillies bullpen and helping to make it one of the very best in baseball. Some shaky outings here and there, but there was probably no one in baseball this year that you’d want on the mound with the game on the line than Lidge.

Ryan Madson – Picture it: Tall, lanky right-hander with plus change-up and decent fastball carves out nice career as solid middle reliever on perennial east coast contender. Then, seemingly overnight, “Stretch” starts throwing 95 MPH to offset an already terrific change-up. He allows one earned run in 14 innings in September, with 17 strikeouts. Did we just witness the birth of an elite relief pitcher? Stay tuned…

J.C. Romero – Employed mostly as a LOOGY, he’s also more than capable of getting the occasional right-handed hitter out, too. Great stuff, but a little wild. Also a little, shall we say, “demonstrative” on the mound when successful. Nobody likes a showoff, even if you share initials with a certain you-know-who…

Chad Durbin – The aliens’ great experiment was a success. Last winter, Durbin was abducted by extra-terrestrials who needed to harness his homer-licious pitching proclivities to power their flying saucers. His replacement, in a funny The Last Starfighter-ish twist, was a robot made in Durbin’s exact likeness. This Robo-Durbin was one of the game’s best relief pitchers this season, helping to lock down the 6th and 7th innings before handing them over to the Madsons and Lidges of the world. Now that we anticipate that the real Durbin will return next season, we’ll have to see if Robo-Durbin teaches him any new tricks on his way out of town.

J.A. Happ – Rookie lefthander with promising stats in AAA, he’s been added to the roster, I imagine, to hedge on the all-too-likely possibility that one of starters (coughMYERScough) lays an egg out there. He gets plenty of strikeouts but walks a few too many. Likely to be the first line of defense in the case of an injured starter.

Scott Eyre – Ladies and gentlemen, your LOOGY. On the roster for the sole reason of getting Prince Fielder out. Which is no small thing.

Clay Condrey – Another unlikely success story this year, and looking at the numbers I have no idea how in the hell he did it. He doesn’t get strikeouts, he gave up a ton of hits, his walk rate is decent and he gives up his share of home runs. If he can keep working his magic into the postseason, hey, life is good.

Sveum used Johnny Wholestaff over the final week of the season, yanking starters early and often. Thanks to strong performances by AAA call-ups and September surprise Todd Coffey (not eligible for postseason play), the results were unexpectedly successful. Things could be much different with a 25-man roster.

Versatile Seth McClung (6-6, 4.02, 12 starts in 37 G) could come in for an inning or four. When he has his command, the hard-throwing McClung can be dominating, but control has been his problem. Eric Gagne (4-3, 5.44, 50 G, 46.1 IP, 10 saves, 7 blown saves) was signed to be the closer, but ineffectiveness led to a demotion to middle relief. Gagne has looked good in recent outings.

Guillermo Mota (5-6, 4.11) has a plus fastball, but command issues means he can be erratic. Lefty Mitch Stetter (3-1, 3.20) gave up more walks (19) than hits (14) in 25.1 IP while striking out 31. Carlos Villanueva (4-7, 4.07, 9 starts, 108.1 IP, 93 K, 30 BB) has done an excellent job out of the bullpen after flopping as a starter. He's capable of going two or three innings.

Salomon Torres (7-5, 3.49, 28 SV, 71 G, 80.1 IP) was given the closer's job out of desperation. He took the challenge and performed well until late in the season. If Torres was tired, perhaps the two days off since Sunday will solve that problem.

Peter says: Edge: Phillies, and it's not even close. One of the best bullpens in the league, a bona fide closer and quality set-up men, versus the Brewers Island of Misfit Ex-Closers.

Al says: Advantage Phillies. Aside from Sabathia's starts, the Brewers relievers could be putting in a bunch of innings.

* * *

Peter's Prediction: Despite relatively small changes in personnel from last season, the Philadelphia Phillies went from an offensive juggernaut with bad pitching in 2007 to a more balanced attack in 2008. Their 92 wins was the franchise’s highest mark since 1993. The overall composition of both the Phillies and Brewers is quite similar; the Phillies are just slightly better offensively, they have a slightly better pitching staff with more depth, and more team speed. It’s hard to overstate the importance of Game One. If the Phillies lose the first game, they face Sabathia the next evening and the very real possibility of being down 0-2 going to Milwaukee. Of course, there’s also the very real possibility that the overworked Sabathia’s arm is going to fall off his body, like it did in last season’s ALCS with Cleveland. These five game series are almost literally a crapshoot. I’m not going to pretend to have some kind of clairvoyance to predict how this series will turn out based on each team’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s almost purely an educated guess, and since I’m a Phillies fan, I’m going to guess the Phillies win the series in 4 games. Hamels is solid if not spectacular in Game One, with Gallardo pitching very well for five innings before stepping aside for Milwaukee’s weak bullpen, where the Phillies’ bats will feast. Sabathia wins Game Two, then the Phillies take Games Three and Four in Milwaukee.

Al's Prediction: Phillies in four games. The Brewers have too many weaknesses (all or nothing offense, starting pitching depth, mediocre defense) to go to the NLCS. It's still quite an achievement to make it to the postseason for the first time in 26 years.

Much of the credit can go to Milwaukee owner Mark Attanasio, who stepped up and approved the Sabathia deal that cost the Brewers several top prospects. With Sheets and Sabathia heading for free agency after the season, Attanasio saw 2008 as a one-year window of opportunity and acted accordingly.

When Yost tightened up as the team slumped in September, Attanasio pulled the trigger and fired the manager with just 12 games left in the season. It was an unprecedented move for a playoff contender, but turning the team over to Sveum and new bench coach Robin Yount has had the desired effect.

Baseball Beat/Change-UpOctober 01, 2008
ALDS Preview: Boston Red Sox vs. Los Angeles Angels
By Rich Lederer and Patrick Sullivan

They don't start this one until later tonight but it's the one nearest and dearest to our hearts. So we're throwing it up first this morning. We will have the Phills/Brewers later on this morning (or at least before first pitch), the Cubs/Dodgers later in the afternoon and then we will run with the other ALDS series tomorrow morning. Al and Marc from The Baseball Analysts chipped in, and we have bloggers from around the web that are helping us, too. So stay tuned.

Let's defer to last year's preview in order to set this year's up.

Hi everyone. I'm the Baseball Beat guy. Patrick Sullivan and I are going to preview the American League Division Series between the Los Angeles Angels (94-68) and the Boston Red Sox (96-66). I've been a fan of the Angels since 1969 when my Dad was hired by then-general manager Dick Walsh as Director of Public Relations and Promotions. It was a tough job as there wasn't much to promote back then. Ownership has since transitioned from Gene Autry to Disney to Arte Moreno. Angels fans love Autry and Moreno, but did you know that the team won its only World Championship under Disney?

Sully here, and I must confess that this matchup is pretty neat for Rich and me. As many of you know, Rich resides in Southern California and is a longtime supporter of both the Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Angels. I have spent most of my 27 years in the Boston area and have loved the Red Sox for as long as I can remember. Rich and I even attended an Angels-Red Sox game together back in the Summer of 2005. Rich wrote about that night here (Johanna, joining me at tonight's contest, is now my wife for those who follow the link).

The two of us attended another game this season – this time at Fenway Park. Our Sunday included breakfast with Bill James and Jared Porter, Director of Professional Scouting, followed by an afternoon tilt between the Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays, a young team that went on to win the AL East. We even had the opportunity to pose for a photo before the game.

Today, we sit on the opposite coasts awaiting with excitement the first pitch to this year's ALDS.


Game 1: Wed., Oct. 1, 10 PM ET on TBS - BOS (Jon Lester) @ LAA (John Lackey)
Game 2: Fri., Oct. 3, 9:30 PM ET on TBS - BOS (Daisuke Matsuzaka) @ LAA (Ervin Santana)
Game 3: Sun., Oct. 5, TBD on TBS - LAA (Joe Saunders) @ BOS (Josh Beckett)
Game 4*: Mon., Oct. 6, TBD on TBS - LAA (John Lackey) @ BOS (TBD)
Game 5*: Wed., Oct 8, TBD on TBS - BOS (TBD) @ LAA (Ervin Santana)

* if necessary


         HOME      ROAD     TOTAL
BOS     56-25     39-42     95-67     
LAA     50-31     50-31    100-62
Head-to-head results: LAA, 8-1


        RUNS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   OPS+  
BOS     845   .280  .358  .447  .805   108     
LAA     765   .268  .330  .413  .743   96


        RUNS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   ERA+  
BOS     694   .250  .323  .390  .713   114 
LAA     697   .261  .322  .406  .729   109

Position-By-Position Breakdown

Mike Napoli (.273/.374/.586, 20 HR, 149 OPS+) platooned with Jeff Mathis the first two months, missed a large portion of June through mid-August, then earned the starting job for good with a fantastic September (.453/.508/.906). Napoli is not only the hottest hitter on the team – going 20-for-34 with 5 HR in his final 11 games – but one of its best.

Jason Varitek (.220/.313/.359, 13 HR, 74 OPS+) was awful this season. The Red Sox are the only American League playoff team who won't field a good catcher. In all likelihood, regardless of how far they advance, the Red Sox will yield ground to their opposition behind the plate. Varitek's awful September dashed any hope that his .264/.376/.431 August offered Sox fans.

Rich says: This is the first time an Angels catcher deserves to get the nod over the Boston captain.

Sully says: Not even close.

First base:
Mark Teixeira (.308/.410/.552, 33 HR, 153 OPS+) has hit .358/.449/.632 since being acquired by the Angels at the end of July. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound switch-hitter is the only Halo with more walks (97) than strikeouts (93). He is the single biggest difference between this year's club and the one that was swept by the Red Sox last year.

Kevin Youkilis (.312/.390/.569, 29 HR, 145 OPS+) was an American League MVP candidate this season and I wonder how many folks really know it. You look at the Red Sox record, run differential, runs scored, etc. and you wonder how they did it with all of the problems on offense (injuries to Lowell, Papi, Drew, the existence of Lugo and Varitek). Well, look no further than Youkilis and the guy positioned to his right. They became stars in 2008.

Rich says: Both Tex and Youk can hit and field with the best but the edge goes to the Angels newcomer.

Sully says: Narrowly, I give it to Tex as well.

Second base:
Howie Kendrick (.306/.333/.421, 3 HR, 98 OPS+ in 92 games) hit for average once again but his poor walk (.033) and home run rates (.008) limit his value offensively. His defense has advanced to the point where he is now a plus fielder.

Dustin Pedroia (.326/.376/.493, 17 HR, 123 OPS+) may win the AL MVP (rightly or wrongly) and has emerged as a real team leader. As disadvantaged as Varitek makes the Red Sox compared to the other post-season catchers, Pedroia gives the Sox nearly as great of an advantage over the other playoff keystoners.

Rich says: Pedroia is the easy pick here.

Sully says: Agreed.

Erick Aybar (.277/.314/.384, 3 HR, 84 OPS+ in 98 games) split time with Maicer Izturis until the latter was sidelined for the season in August with a torn left thumb ligament. The 24-year-old defensive whiz missed two weeks on two separate occasions this season. He is one of three switch-hitting infielders.

Jed Lowrie (.258/.339/.400, 3 HR, 91 OPS+ in 81 games) took over full time shortstop duties after Julio Lugo went down with an injury. Looks like he might have Pipped him. Lowrie's numbers might not be anything to write home about but remember, this is not the turn of the century. Hanley Ramirez aside, shortstops no longer count among the game's best hitters like Nomar, A-Rod, Jeter and Tejada once did.

Rich says: It's hard to get excited by either shortstop. I would call it a toss-up or a slight edge to Aybar for his defensive prowess.

Sully says: Lowrie is no slouch defender and every bit the hitter the 2008 versions of Michael Young and Miguel Tejada were. His .117 BB/PA rate to Aybar's .037 tells you a lot of what you need to know about the differences between the two players.

Third base:
Chone Figgins (.276/.367/.318, 1 HR, 84 OPS+) had the worst year of his career. Period. His only contributions of note were his improved walk rate (.120) and 34 stolen bases in 47 attempts (72%). Given Figgy's lack of power, Boston's pitchers would be well served to pound the strike zone in an effort to keep him from getting free passes.

Mike Lowell (.274/.338/.461, 17 HR, 105OPS+) battled injuries all season long but could be a real wild card (heh) in this series. His start was horrendous, he crushed the ball in May and June, then stunk again as he battled injuries only to have a strong September when he was in there.

Rich says: Lowell is the choice but only if healthy.

Sully says: If Lowell is unhealthy and it forces Mark Kotsay into the lineup, Figgins gets the nod. Otherwise, yeah, just as Rich stated above.

Left field:
Garret Anderson (.293/.325/.433, 15 HR, 99 OPS+) put up a fairly typical season, hitting nearly .300 with moderate power and little interest in taking a walk. The 14-year veteran (3.42) and his fellow starting outfielders rank in the bottom 10 among 68 qualified AL batters in pitches per plate appearance.

Jason Bay (.286/.373/.522, 31 HR, 133 OPS+) was a main reason that the Red Sox went 34-19 after Manny Ramirez left town at the trade deadline. He has been terrific since arriving here, and provides an incredible amount of lineup depth hitting out of the 6-hole.

Rich says: Bay over GA. Way.

Sully says: Nice, Rich.

Center field:
Torii Hunter (.278/.344/.466, 21 HR, 112 OPS+) had a career-best OBP while tying his single-season high with 50 walks. The first-year Angel had a Gold Glove-type season in center field, making several spectacular catches while covering plenty of ground and displaying one of the most accurate arms in the league.

Jacoby Ellsbury (.280/.336/.394, 9 HR, 89 OPS+) led the American League with 50 stolen bases and was only thrown out 11 times. Since August 1, he hit .314/.352/.463 and stole 15 bases at a 79% clip. If that guy shows up, you can actually consider this one a draw.

Rich says: You know what you're gonna get with Hunter. That's good enough to win this position battle.

Sully says: Ellsbury seems over-matched against the hard throwers. Look for Lackey and Santana to pound Ellsbury inside. I don't think he will be much of a factor.

Right field:
Vladimir Guerrero (.303/.365/.521, 27 HR, 131 OPS+) batted over .300 and hit at least 25 home runs for the 11th straight season, matching a streak set by Lou Gehrig (1927 to 1937). He tied for the AL lead in IBB (16) and GIDP (27). Vlad has a powerful but inaccurate arm and no longer can go from first to third on a single or first to home on a double.

Guerrero has struggled in two his previous playoff appearances against Boston, going 4-for-22 with just one extra-base hit. Moreover, his aggressive, first-pitch hacking approach has been exploited by other teams during the post-season as well (.183/.258/.233 in 16 games).

JD Drew (.280/.408/.519, 19 HR, 139 OPS+), like Lowell, comes into the post-season as something of an unknown. When healthy and locked in, he is an MVP-caliber performer (AL Player of the Month in June). When shaky, he is still an asset. His walk-rate never goes anywhere.

Rich says: Guerrero, but not by as much as the average fan might think.

Sully says: A reluctant nod to Vlad because of JD's gimpy finish.

Designated Hitter:
Juan Rivera (.246/.282/.438, 12 HR, 87 OPS+) played sparingly through June, then hit .268/.299/.505 while playing in 75% of the games over the final three months of the season. Like most Angels, he rarely draws walks. Never known for his speed, Rivera has become even slower since breaking his leg playing winter ball in Venezuela in December 2006.

David Ortiz (.264/.369/.507, 23 HR, 125 OPS+), like Drew, played in only 109 games this season. Ortiz hit six home runs in September and seemed to be hitting his stride heading into the post-season but even the most rose-colored view of Ortiz's current makeup would have to conclude that he remains a tick or two off of his recent dominance.

Rich says: Give me Big Papi any day of the week.

Sully says: I agree.

Off the Bench:
Gary Matthews Jr. (.242/.319/.357) was a reserve outfielder, yet ranked fourth on the team in games played. He is the most likely reserve to see action in the ALDS.

Brandon Wood (.200/.224/.327) struck out 43 times in 157 plate appearances but slugged four home runs in September when he earned more playing time than at any other point in the season.

Jeff Mathis (.194/.275/.318) will back up Napoli behind the plate, Kendry Morales (.213/.273/.393 in only 27 games) and Robb Quinlan (.262/.326/.311) will be used as pinch hitters, and Reggie Willits (.194/.321/.231) is likely to be used as a pinch runner and defensive replacement as well as an occasional situational hitter off the bench.

Coco Crisp (.283/.344/.407) steps right should Drew be unable to go. Either way, it is quite likely that he starts against Joe Saunders. Crisp, the switch-hitter, will take over for the left-handed Ellsbury against the Angels southpaw. Crisp plays a terrific center field and has turned back into a passable offensive player this season.

Alex Cora (.270/.371/.349) is slipping as a defender but remains a tough out at the plate. It's hard to envision a scenario in which he takes much time from Pedroia or Lowrie but he could be used as a pinch-runner.

Sean Casey (.322/.381/.392) is the slowest man on earth and has to be the worst fielding first baseman in baseball. He also seems like he is swinging underwater oftentimes. And yet, I am pretty sure I would categorize him as a net contributor this season. He might get a look or two as a pinch hitter. Mark Kotsay (.276/.329/.403) would in all likelihood start at first base should Lowell be unable to go and Youk shifts over to third.

Kevin Cash (.225/.309/.338) is just awful.

Rich says: Yuck. Not Youk. Just Yuck.

Sully says: I will give a slight, unenthusiastic edge to Boston here.

John Lackey (12-5, 3.75, 116 ERA+) missed all of spring training and the first month-and-a-half with a strained right triceps, then pitched as well as he ever has through June (6-1, 1.44 ERA with a better than 4:1 K/BB ratio). However, the soon-to-be 30-year old has not been nearly as effective in the second half and was pummeled in his last outing, allowing 10 runs in 2 2/3 innings against the Rangers. The 6-6, 245-pound righthander throws a low-90s fastball along with a plus curveball and a slider. Manager Mike Scioscia is handing his veteran ace the ball for Game 1.

Ervin Santana (16-7, 3.49, 125 ERA+) finally realized his potential this season, earning an All-Star berth and leading the club in IP (219), SO (214), WHIP (1.12), and K/BB (4.55). The 25-year-old righthander throws the third-hardest average fastball (94.4) in MLB and a plus slider. He is scheduled to start Game 2.

Joe Saunders (17-7, 3.41, 128 ERA+) surpassed everyone's expectations by making the All-Star squad and leading the staff in Wins, W-L%, and ERA. While considered a finesse pitcher, the 27-year-old southpaw's fastball sits at 90-92. He mixes in a plus changeup and an average curveball and occasional slider. He is slated to go in Game 3 at Fenway Park.

Jon Lester (16-6, 3.21, 143 ERA+) was Boston's most dependable arm this season and is the second-best pitcher in the playoffs (behind only C.C. Sabathia). Go on, check it out. Johan Santana and Tim Lincecum are out on the NL side while Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay are eliminated from the American League. He's been remarkable all season long and given how battle-tested the kid is, I don't expect him to wilt out in California.

Daisuke Matsuzaka (18-3, 2.90, 158 ERA+) was simply not as good as his numbers would have you believe this season. He walks too many batters and his formula for keeping runs off the board of always depending on stranding runners is unsustainable. He had one of the very flukiest pitching seasons that I can recall.

Josh Beckett (12-10, 4.03, 114 ERA+) is sort of the opposite of Dice-K. Despite notching 18 more strikeouts, 60 fewer bases on balls and a considerably better WHIP, Beckett still ended up with the higher ERA than Matsuzaka. I expect their respective ERA's to reverse for the playoffs.

Rich says: Too close to call.

Sully says: I can't make a call here, either. Daisuke and Saunders are not as good as they would appear, Lackey and Beckett are probably better (but both come in with question marks) and Lester and Santana are both undeniably terrific.

Francisco Rodriguez (2-3, 62 SV, 2.24, 195 ERA+) set the MLB record for saves this season. Make what you will of his saves total but the fact remains that he pitched well. The only criticism of the 26-year-old veteran closer is that he walks too many batters (4.48 BB/9), but he also strikes out more than his fair share (10.14 K/9) and keeps the ball in the park (0.53 HR/9). The free agent-to-be flashes a 92-mph fastball (down from the mid-90s earlier in his career), a wicked slider when on, and one of the most improved changeups in baseball. The latter has become his true out pitch, especially when facing LHB.

Scot Shields (6-4, 31 Holds, 2.70, 161 ERA+) is a solid veteran set-up man. He didn't tire down the stretch as he has in past years.

Jose Arredondo (10-2, 16 Holds, 1.62, 269 ERA+) may assume the role of closer next season but will serve as a bridge between the starters and Frankie during the 2008 playoffs.

Darren Oliver (7-1, 12 Holds, 2.88, 152 ERA+) was more effective than ever this year. While Oliver is the only lefty in the bullpen, he is more than a LOOGY, averaging 1 1/3 innings per appearance.

Jon Garland (14-8, 4.90) and Jered Weaver (11-10, 4.33) will be used exclusively in long relief in a series that only requires three starting pitchers.

Jonathan Papelbon (5-4, 41 SV, 2.34, 196 ERA+) will be the reason the Red Sox lose this series should they go down. He has yielded an .822 OPS in September and seems entirely too dependent on a fastball that he is not even throwing as hard as he did at this time last season.

Manny Delcarmen (3-2, 18 Holds, 3.27, 140 ERA+)

Hideki Okajima (3-2, 23 Holds, 2.61, 189 ERA+)

Justin Masterson (6-5, 3 Holds, 3.16, 145 ERA+)

Javier Lopez (2-0, 10 Holds, 2.43, 189 ERA+)

This bullpen, when you take the trio of suck that was Mike Timlin, Craig Hansen and David Aardsma out of the picture, was pretty damn good and really came together towards the end of the season. Paul Byrd and Tim Wakefield should offer depth (unless one is called upon to start Game 4).

Rich says: I haven't given up on Paps yet. He is every bit as good as K-Rod in my judgment. The balance of the 'pens are equally solid. No blood.

Sully says: I will give the nod to the Halos with Papelbon struggling coming into the playoffs.

* * *

Rich's Prediction: An argument could be made on behalf of the Angels or the Red Sox. To wit:

  • The Angels had the most wins in baseball. The Red Sox had the biggest run differential in the AL.
  • The Angels took eight out of nine games from Boston this season. The Red Sox swept Los Angeles in the 2004 and 2007 ALDS.
  • The Angels had the best road record in MLB. The Red Sox had the second-best home record in the majors.

Based on the above, there's nothing I can hang my Angels hat on except for two factors:

1. Home-field advantage.
2. BOS appears to be about as banged up as the LAA were in 2007. Hint: It didn't turn out too well for the Halos a year ago.

While I don't see the Angels returning the favor and sweeping the Red Sox this time around, I believe the AL West champs have what it takes to beat the AL wild card in five.

Sully's Prediction: Boston beats Lackey twice and Saunders once but loses to Santana. I like the Sox in four.

Two on Two: 2008 AL Central Preview
By Rich Lederer and Patrick Sullivan

We're bringing out the big guns for the American League Central. We hope you enjoyed the AL West and NL West previews and trust you will find today's roundtable discussion with two of our favorite writers informative and entertaining.

Rob Neyer, a senior writer at and the author of six books (including the soon-to-be-released Big Book of Baseball Legends), is on the very, very short list of parties most responsible for advancing statistical performance analysis into the mainstream. Often referred to as a "Bill James disciple" resulting from his time working for the so-called godfather of sabermetrics, Rob ascended to his current position of influence by championing a constant message and winning over a legion of loyal readers.

Joe Posnanski, a columnist for the Kansas City Star and author of The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America, stands out among his peers in that he uses his mainstream platform to advance analytical metrics that in too many circles are still considered to be the stuff of propeller-heads and Mom's basement dwellers. Posnanski's appealing writing style and broad audience make him a critical voice in furthering the understanding of fundamental tenets of what constitutes winning (and losing) baseball. Poz (as he is often called) was named best sports columnist in America by the Associated Press Sports Editors in April of 2007. You can also enjoy his "curiously long posts" and Pozterisks at his fun-to-read blog.

Go grab a cup of coffee. Heck, get two. You can sip both of them slowly and finish about the same time as our discussion. Enjoy!

Sully: What sticks out for me when I stand back and look at the AL Central is just how quickly this division got top-heavy. It's become a two-team show between Cleveland and Detroit as both Chicago and Minnesota have taken significant strides backwards from just a couple of years ago.

Rich: Cleveland may have been the second-best team in all of baseball last year. The Indians won the division by eight games, walloped the Yankees in the ALDS, and won three of the first four games against the Red Sox in the ALCS. The team that was one win away from the AL pennant and perhaps the World Series championship is basically one and the same in 2008 and would be favored to win the AL Central if not for the aggressive moves this winter on the part of Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski, who has added Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, and Dontrelle Willis to a solid nucleus that went to the World Series in 2006. It's no secret, this is a two-team race between the Indians and Tigers with Minnesota, Chicago, and Kansas City playing for third place.

Joe: Well, obviously, I'm excited about seeing just what the Detroit Tigers lineup will do. How about a Top 7 that could look like this via 2007 OPS+ – 136, 122, 150, 167, 120, 125, 123 – that's Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffield, Edgar Renteria and Carlos Guillen. You could put those seven in any order you like – Brian Bannister says he had nightmares all winter. Then you throw Marcus Thames, Jacque Jones and, oh yeah, Pudge v.2.0 in there – that's a 1,000 run lineup plus.

Sully: Bold call, Joe. Playing at Comerica and with some age and injury risk mixed in with all of that promise, I think they will be a whale of an offense but will come up well short of 1,000 runs. So I guess you see Detroit running away with this thing, Joe?

Joe: Not necessarily; I still think the Indians will make this a race. That Tigers rotation has holes, and their bullpen is shaky – if the Indians get the big years out of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona I think this thing could be fun.

Rob: I’m looking forward to a great pennant race, and as fans we all may wish the best for Francisco Liriano in his comeback. Personally, I’m most excited by the prospect of watching Billy Butler for a whole season.

Sully: OK, let's start with the defending Central champions. Sabathia is one of the very best pitchers in baseball. His 5.65 K/BB in 241 innings made him a most deserving Cy Young choice. Carmona will be hard pressed to repeat his sterling 2007 with such a low K rate but I think he has made it clear that he has the talent to pitch effectively for years to come. The back end of the rotation leaves a bit to be desired while the bullpen ex-Borowski is tremendous.

Joe: I think Sabathia has arrived as an ace – there's no going back for him now. And he's so much fun to watch. It's stunning to think he has 100 wins and won't turn 28 until late July. People talk about the 300 pitcher being dead but I think if Sabathia can keep plowing along, he gets there before his 39th birthday.

A lot of people think Carmona will have a come-down year after last season ... I don't know. To me, he had the best stuff in baseball when I saw him pitch. I've heard from fans and scouts that hitters will wait him out this year, make him throw strikes, force him to adjust. Maybe. His strikeout rate is remarkably blah for a power pitcher but he's the one guy I watch and think, "How the heck do you hit this guy?".

Rob: It’s hard to imagine Sabathia and Carmona combining to go 38-15, right? Especially considering how many innings they threw last year? Including October? Cleveland’s No. 5 starters were generally horrible last season, but I suspect somebody – Aaron Laffey or Cliff Lee or Jeremy Sowers, as things stand now – will have to make a solid contribution to help offset the minor-but-likely decline of the guys at the front end of the rotation.

Joe: I look for Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd to switch roles – this time it will be Westbrook getting the 200 or so innings and 15 wins, Byrd battling all year with injuries and inconsistency. Anyway, as long as at least one of those guys serves the 200 innings, league-average ERA role, they'll be fine.

I can't figure out Lee. I had one scout tell me last year that his stuff has dropped two or three grades over the last two years. Injuries, wear-and-tear, whatever – the guy won't be 30 until late August and his future is hazy.

Rich: Cleveland was No. 1 in Rob's Beane Count, primarily because the pitching staff gave up the fewest number of walks in the majors and ranked second in the AL in home runs allowed. Led by Sabathia and Carmona, the club was second in the league in ERA+ and runs per game on the road. The rotation is deep and Rafael Betancourt ranks among the most effective set-up men in the league.

Rob: The bullpen was bizarre last season, with Joe Borowski and Tom Mastny pitching much worse than expected, and Betancourt and Perez pitching much better than expected. This season they’ll all regress to the mean and the Indians will again have a solid bullpen.

Joe: The Indians have a lot of great arms in the bullpen, but the guy who gets me is Borowski. The guy's gutsy and likable and if you take away his three or four blowup games every year, he's pretty effective. BUT ... you're just tempting fate with this guy as your closer, right? It's hard enough to win games without giving Joe Borowski a one-run lead in the ninth.

Rich: I believe the key to Cleveland's run prevention will be whether manager Eric Wedge can once again get 450 quality innings out of Sabathia and Carmona, both of whom were worked hard last season and faded in October. How about this offense?

Rob: The Indians are strong up the middle and weak on the corners (with the exception of first base, where Ryan Garko’s not far from stardom). This is unchanged from last year, as the Indians bring back essentially the same lineup they used from the middle of last August, with Asdrubal Cabrera taking over at second base. I do expect Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner to improve, which is probably the No. 1 reason to be optimistic about the Indians’ chances this season.

Sully: It's hard to envision a scenario in which the Tribe offensive attack fails to make considerable strides forward in 2008. Take away Josh Barfield's and Trot Nixon's plate appearances in 2007 and mix in some bounce-back from Hafner and all of a sudden the 100 OPS+ offense of last season looks well above average again.

Rich: While Sizemore and Victor Martinez may be the league's best offensive players at their respective positions, this is nothing more than a middle-of-the-road lineup unless Hafner (.266/.385/.451) can bounce back to his 2004-06 form (.308/.419/.611).

Joe: The whole key to the Indians, for me, is Hafner. If he's the Hafner of 2005 and 2006, when he might have been the best offensive player in the league, then I think the Tribe offense will score a bunch of runs and be competitive with Detroit. If he's the ever shrinking Hafner of 2007, then I think there's trouble. It would be hard to overstate how bad Hafner was last year. After a very Hafner-like first month, he hit .253/.364/.427 the last five months of the season. Awful. He can't play a position, his slugging percentage dropped more than 200 points, he can't run ... the hope here is that it was a mirage. The Indians need him to swat.

Sully: Joe, any thoughts on the Indians position players not named Hafner?

Joe: One of the fun arguments we had last year was who you would rather have right now, Sizemore or Granderson. Obviously that's a situation where you'd be happy to have second choice ... but when making the comparison:

Sizemore walks a lot more.
Granderson's slugging percentage was 90 points higher.
Sizemore will probably hit more home runs.
Granderson runs better.
Sizemore won the Gold Glove in 2007.
Granderson is a pretty darned good fielder too.

And so on. It's a good argument ... I've become convinced that Sizemore has the edge right now though because he hits lefties .(284/.384/.428) while Granderson does not (.160/.225/.269). There is no doubt in my mind that Granderson will make the adjustment – he's just too gifted and driven not to adjust. But for now, I think, it's Sizemore.

Sully I'm with you, Joe. Sizemore for me as well. Speaking of Granderson, I am of the belief that his excellent defensive play in center field masks some fundamental problems with Detroit's pitching. The staff's 1.85 team K/BB ratio was just 11th best in the American League in 2007. Fortunately for them they were excellent from a Defensive Efficiency standpoint.

Rob: Last season, six Tigers started at least a dozen games. Their ERAs (in descending order of innings pitched): 3.66, 4.76, 5.01, 4.72, 5.06, 5.63. Justin Verlander’s responsible for that 3.66, so he was Detroit’s only starter who might reasonably have been categorized as “good.” With that in mind it’s surprising that the Tigers managed to win 88 games.

Have they addressed this obvious problem? The Tigers bring back their top three starters: Verlander, Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman. They hope Kenny Rogers, who posted a 4.43 ERA in 11 starts, will pitch more (if not necessarily better). And they’ve added Dontrelle Willis, who has allowed more hits than innings pitched in each of his last two seasons while pitching in a pitcher’s ballpark in a pitcher’s league. In the rotation, the Tigers’ best hopes are that Verlander takes yet another step forward and Bonderman’s ERA finally matches his other, generally impressive stats.

Joe: It is no fun being a fan of Bonderman. Every time you think he's about to turn the corner and become one of the elite pitchers in the AL ... he doesn't. It will be interesting to see how he bounces back – his last 18 starts last year he was 6-9 with a 6.06 ERA and he gave up 18 homers in 108 innings.

I guess everyone's watching Dontrelle closely. Its almost impossible to believe, but the guy is only 26 years old ‐ he won't turn 27 until 2009. I think there's reason to hope even after the tough year he had in 2007. For one thing, his batting average on balls-in-play was very high (.326) and that should come down. Also, even last year he was about as unhittable as you could be against left-handed batters, and in a division with Sizemore, Hafner, Thome, Morneau, Mauer and most of the Royals, that could come in handy. Maybe it's because I like the guy so much, but I'm thinking a big rebound year for him.

Rich: The Tigers are thin everywhere, including the bullpen and depth in the starting rotation. An injury here and there could derail Detroit's chances of gaining a postseason berth. While Verlander is poised to win a Cy Young Award one of these years, the other four starters bring as many questions as answers to the rotation. Age, health, and inconsistencies surround Bonderman, Robertson, Rogers, and Willis with little or no help waiting in the wings. A bullpen headed by Todd Jones and Fernando Rodney and bereft of Joel Zumaya's services for most of the first half is a weakness that can't be ignored.

Rob: The bullpen wasn’t particularly good last season and could be a true disaster this season, especially if Jones shows his age and Rodney’s not healthy. The Tigers do have some young arms who might fill the breach, but you know what usually happens to teams that rely on young arms.

Joe: I agree with Rich and Rob. That bullpen is big-time shaky, I think, and I think Detroit fans will want to be up 8-3 going into the seventh a lot. But with that lineup, it should happen a lot.

Sully: Let's talk about Detroit's offense. I touched on it above but I will say it again. There is no doubt they can hit but I have been hearing some awfully high praise. I have some doubts as to whether they will be the game's best offense this season, much less one of historical significance.

Joe: Well, it's the best lineup in the game, and depending on how things work out it could be a 1,000-run offense this year. There have been seven teams since 1900 to score 1,000 runs in a season – only one in the last 50 years. Rob, you want to take a shot at this? Yep, the 1999 Cleveland Indians scored 1009 runs. A quick comparison:

Catcher: Einar Diaz vs. Ivan Rodriguez.
Thought: Diaz and Sandy Alomar probably provide more run production than Pudge v2.0 at this stage of his career – hard to believe that Rodriguez has not had a 100 OPS+ in three seasons.

First base: Jim Thome vs. Carlos Guillen
Thought: Edge to Thome, who had a .426 on-base percentage and a 141 OPS+. But Guillen is not chopped liver. I have not idea what that expression means, by the way.

Second base: Roberto Alomar vs. Placido Polanco
Thought: Alomar could have been MVP in 1999 – .323/.422/.533 with 24 homers, 138 runs scored and 37 stolen bases. Again, though, Polanco ain't bad, coming off a .341/.388/.451 year.

Shortstop: Omar Vizquel vs. Edgar Renteria
Thought: Vizquel had a career year offensively – he hit .333 with a .397 OBP and 112 runs scored. Renteria, though, is coming off an even better year.

Third base: Travis Fryman and Co. vs. Miggy Cabrera
Thought: A blowout. Cabrera has had a 150 OPS+ or better each of the last three seasons.

Left field: David Justice vs. Jacque Jones/Marcus Thames
Thought: Justice had a nice 21 homer, 123 OPS+ year – I suspect Jones and Thames together won't quite match that (certainly not Justice's .413 OBP) but they'll be plenty good.

Center field: Kenny Lofton vs. Curtis Granderson
Thought: Lofton had a .405 OBP (one of FIVE Indians regulars with an OBP better than .400) and scored 110 runs. Granderson, though, is coming off of one of the more sensational number stews in memory – 38 doubles, 23 triples, 23 homers, 26 steals, whew.

Right field: MannyBeingManny vs. Magglio Ordonez
Thought: MBM drove in 165 runs in 147 games (173 OPS+), so it will be tough to beat that. Can't downplay Magglio's 167 OPS+ season a year ago.

DH: Richie Sexson/Wil Cordero vs. Gary Sheffield
Thought: Sexson/Cordero combined for 39 homers and 148 RBIs in about 190 games combined. And Sheffield is 39 years old. But Sheffield's career OPS+ is 143 ... he's an incredible hitter when healthy.

So, all in all, I could see this Tigers team scoring more than those Indians, or at least coming awfully close.

Rich: I have no doubt that Detroit will score more runs than this year's Indians, but I'm not sure about those Indians. At a minimum, I think we can all agree that the Tigers have the best offense in the division. However, I see it a little bit differently than Joe. By my way of thinking, there are a number of question marks here. Can Granderson hit southpaws? Can a 39-year-old Sheffield bounce back from minor shoulder surgery in October and leg cramps this spring? Will Magglio, Polanco, and Renteria hit .363, .341, and .332, respectively, again? Can Pudge ever draw a base on balls (46 BB in his last three seasons, covering 1620 PA)? Oh well, maybe the difference between Cabrera and Brandon Inge is enough to make up for any and all of these potential shortfalls.

Rob: As late as August 1 last season, the Tigers actually led the American League in scoring, which was quite a shock. Granted, Comerica Park is now a decent park for hitters. Also granted, the Yankees passed the Tigers and wound up leading the league (as usual). Still, Detroit’s offense was truly impressive.

But, as Rich asked, can they do it again? I don’t see how. The Tigers were carried by five hitters: Magglio Ordonez (167 OPS+), Curtis Granderson (136), Carlos Guillen (123), Placido Polanco (122), and Gary Sheffield (120). They’re all good players, but I suspect four or even five of them will fall off this season. They’ll be a lot better at third base, with Miguel Cabrera instead of Brandon Inge. They should be better in left field, simply because Craig Monroe’s gone. But while the Tigers figure to have a good attack, they won’t be great again. And I should mention somewhere that much of what they’ll gain with Cabrera’s bat they’ll lose with his glove.

Rich: Other than the Indians, are there any teams capable of stopping this potent offense?

Rob: Well, let’s see … the Twins gave up the best pitcher in the known universe and replaced him with … Livan Hernandez? Well, not exactly. Ideally, Johan Santana’s replacement, at least statistically, will be Francisco Liriano; for a 10-week stretch in 2006, Liriano was actually the best pitcher in the universe, going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA. Liriano has spent the last 16 months rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery, and if he’s league-average this season the Twins should be thrilled. In addition to Liriano, there’s plenty of other young talent on hand, but of course young talent in the rotation and three bucks will get you a fancy coffee at Starbucks.

Rich: Like Rob said, Santana is gone but Liriano is back. Hmmm. Well, we know Minnesota's pitching won't be as strong as it was in 2006 when Santana and Liriano were both in the rotation, but it may not drop off year-over-year as much as some people expect.

Joe: How good will Liriano be coming off the injury? It's easy to forget that for 16 starts in 2006, he went 11-3 with a 1.92 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 98 innings. It's also easy to forget that he has not pitched a Major League game in 18 months, so who knows? With Santana, Silva and Matt Garza gone, Liriano isn't just the key to this team's pitching. He's pretty much the whole show.

Sully: There is a frightening lack of depth in this starting rotation. Given the uncertainty surrounding Liriano's injury, Livan Hernandez's general ineffectiveness and the reality that just one, maybe two of Boof Bonser, Kevin Slowey or Scott Baker emerge this season, I just don't see how the Twins are going to be able to consistently hold opposing offenses down.

Rich: Adam Everett, who handles the leather as well as any middle infielder, should prevent numerous runs at shortstop but only to the extent that the pitchers do a better job at inducing groundballs than last year when the staff was second-to-last in home runs allowed. The bullpen should be first rate, provided that Joe Nathan, who has yet to sign a contract extension, isn't traded.

Joe: How about that Nathan? His ERAs the last four years have been 1.88, 1.58, 2.60 and 1.62. I bring this up because his career ERA, even after that, is 3.00 – mainly because of one bad season as a reliever in 2000. I think what this tells you is this: Nathan is a fabulous pitcher. But man, he hardly throws ANY innings. Do you know how many saves he had last year where he pitched more than one inning? Three. All three he threw 1 1/3 innings. Hey this is the game now, and that's OK, but man how can you compare his value to, say, Dan Quisenberry, who routinely threw twice as many innings?

Rich: Removing Nick Punto from Minnesota's lineup will do more for this offense than adding Delmon Young – and that's not meant to be a dig on the 22-year-old former No. 1 overall draft pick. After signing multi-year contracts, Michael Cuddyer, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau will be richer if not better this year. The club was second from the bottom in home runs in 2007 and will probably wind up at or near the basement again in 2008.

Rob: The Twins were 12th in the league in scoring last year. That stinks. Statistically, their biggest problem was an utter lack of power: 13th in doubles, 13th in home runs. Morneau hit 31 homers; every other infielder on the club combined for 11 homers. Torii Hunter hit 28 homers, and now he’s an Angel. Could things get better this year? Sure. Joe Mauer might play 140 games rather than 109. Morneau might bat .301 rather than .271. Fellow infielders Mike Lamb and Everet and Brendan Harris might … actually, they might be out of jobs by the end of the season. Bad example. The Twins’ only real hope of significant improvement is that Young and Carlos Gomez develop quicker than we think. Realistically, though, the Twins don’t figure to be even AL-average, hitting-wise, until 2009 or ’10.

Joe: I'm curious to see what Young will do in Minnesota. I thought that trade really didn't get as much hype as it might have – who trades 22-year-old, No. 1 overall picks who are already up in the big leagues? I'm not saying it was a bad trade for Tampa – hell, it might have been a great trade – but I'm saying this is more or less unheard of. The Rays REALLY must have soured on him. Isn't it possible that this guy will be a monster superstar, and everyone will wake up one day and go, "Did Tampa REALLY trade that guy?"

Sully: I just want to echo Rich's point about the impact alone of getting Punto the hell out of that lineup. There can be no overstating the devastating impact of handing 536 plate appearances over to someone who delivers at a .210/.291/.271 clip.

Joe: I'm like the world's biggest Mauer fan. I really thought he deserved to be MVP in 2006. But I just don't hear much good about him around baseball. Maybe it's because he doesn't hit with much power. Maybe it's because he's had injuries. I don't know. But I talk to a lot of scouts, a lot of people in the game, and Mauer just isn't high on their list. Everybody thinks he's good, but when scouts start raving about people in this division, it's always Sizemore and Verlander and even guys like Alex Gordon. I don't get it. He must send out a bad vibe or something.

Rich: Go figure, the White Sox were 16-26 in one-run games last season, yet won five more contests than expected based on the club's run differential. Although I'm not a fan of Jon Garland, his likely replacement in the rotation, Gavin Floyd, gave up 17 home runs in 70 innings last season. While Kenny Williams may think he has improved his bullpen with a couple of acquisitions, Octavio Dotel's health is always a question mark and Scott End of the Linebrink appears as if he has very little life left in his right arm.

Joe: I don't like that White Sox team at all – I mean AT ALL – but you have to give them a puncher's chance to be OK with Mark Buehrle, Javier Vazquez and Jose Contreras as their top three starters, no? Well, Contreras might be toast. The White Sox were 35-28 last year when Buehrle and Vazquez started games – 37-68 when they did not. Yikes.

Vazquez is one of those pitchers – Carmona is like this, Verlander, Felix Hernandez sometimes – where, when he's on, I have no idea how ANYBODY hits him. He pitched a game in Kansas City, I guess it was in 2006, where in the first inning I said, "Oh man, he's throwing a no-hitter today." And he took a no-hitter into like the seventh inning, when Doug Mientkiewicz beat out a goofy little infield ground ball off the end of his bat. That guy on that day was about as dominant looking as a pitcher can be. One year, he's bound to put together a Cy Young type of season.

Sully: This is nothing more than a top-heavy, middle of the road pitching staff that once again figures to feature two good starting pitchers and three crummy ones. Chicago's off-season baffled me a bit in that they clearly have no identity. Garland for Orlando Cabrera is mere wheel-spinning , while trading youngsters for proven talent seems like a tough way to address the long-term health of a franchise coming off of a 72-win campaign.

Rob: The White Sox improved their defense and their offense when they traded Garland for Cabrera, and hurt their pitching at the same time. On balance? A wash, roughly speaking. Sometimes they’ll surprise you, but a rotation that includes Contreras, Jon Danks and Floyd looks to me like three-fifths of a disaster.

Joe: How old do we think Contreras really is? I guess they're listing him at 36, but I have this suspicion that he grew up with the Castros.

Rich: By the way, as much as I like Jon Dewan's plus/minus defensive work, I'm not buying his fielding assessment of Nick Swisher in center field.

Joe: I like Swisher – maybe not in centerfield as Rich says, but I like the bat. I like Carlos Quentin a little – I thought that was a really good gamble for them. I think Jermaine Dye has something left, I think when Jim Thome's healthy he will hit, I think Paul Konerko is probably good for his usual 35 homers, 100 RBIs. And yet I don't like this offense at all. I guess it's because they just don't get on base.

Rich: Here's a weird one for you... while the White Sox were second in the league in home runs, the team ranked dead last in runs.

Rob: Sure, part of that’s their ballpark – they hit 110 homers at home, only 80 on the road – but the real problem was their .246 batting average that led to a .318 on-base percentage (both figures were AL-worsts). Getting Cabrera into the lineup (and Juan Uribe out) will help some, as will Swisher’s presence. I like Quentin, too. But considering the ages of Thome and Dye, any improvement this season should be modest.

Rich: It looks as if Ozzie won't be playing small ball again this year with the likes of Dye (28 HR, 107 SO), Josh Fields (23 HR in 100 games along with a 30% SO rate), Konerko (31 HR, 102 SO), Swisher (22 HR, 131 SO), and Thome (35 HR, 134 SO) in the lineup. Heck, even Uribe (20, 112), who just may win the second base job this spring, fits right in there.

Sully: I want to make sure Joe and Rob get most of the floor for their Royals but I will transition over to them by simply saying that, coming off of a season in which they notched an ERA+ over 100 for the first time since 1996, this has to be Kansas City's most promising pitching staff in a long time.

Joe: Finally, we're to the team. I think, for me, I think it's exciting that the Royals have three starters who could potentially have double-digit victories – Gil Meche, Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke. Do you know when the last time the Royals had three starters with double digit wins? It was not 2004 or 2005 when combined they had, let me see here, carry the one, um oh yeah, zero. It was 1996, when my old UNC Charlotte classmate Chris Haney had 10 wins to complete the trilogy (along with Kevin Appier and Tim Belcher).

Rob: Last year the Royals’ 4.48 team ERA was seventh best in the league. This might not seem like a big thing until you find that the Royals had finished 14th (last) in the league in ERA in each of the previous three seasons, and that they hadn’t finished in the top 10 in the league since 1997 (when they finished eighth, thanks to Appier), and that their seventh-place finish last year was their best since 1996.

What does it mean? Ask me in six months. In ’96 the Royals’ 4.55 ERA was third in the league, in ’97 their 4.71 ERA was eighth, and in ’98 their 5.16 ERA was 13th. The Royals’ top three starters could be quite good, and their bottom two (or three or four, as it’s not likely that they’ll need only five starters) could be quite bad. It’s a matter of degree, and there’s really not much separating fifth in the league from 12th.

Rich: As Joe and Rob have pointed out, Kansas City's team ERA last season wasn't too bad and, as Sully mentioned, the ERA+ (104) was better than average. However, it looks as if they did it with smoke and mirrors as the peripherals were iffy at best. For the most part, the pitchers are young and should be no worse this year than last. Nobody is laughing about Meche's contract anymore, Bannister is studious if not the real deal, and Greinke is only 24 and occasionally flashing the stardom scouts projected when he was the sixth overall pick in the 2002 draft.

Joe: The Royals are really hopeful that Meche will take the steps he made last year and step forward again, become an upper-echelon American League pitcher. He has the stuff to do it. He seems to have his head on straight now. Who knows?

The guy I'm rooting for harder than anyone else in baseball is Brian Bannister ... people in the SABR community have gotten to know him this offseason and the one pitcher in baseball who not only knows his BABIP but really wants to figure out how to keep his BABIP low. This is obscure, but I tend to think of him as the Tom Cruise character in "Minority Report" who was able to change his future only because he knew of it in advance. Anyway, Bannister is an all-time great guy, as smart as they come, as determined as they come – we will find out if he can be a good Major League pitcher without a big fastball.

Rich: Well, Joe, Bannister is about "as smart as they come" because he went to ... ahem, USC.

Sully: OJ Simpson too, Rich!

Joe: Zack Greinke? I'm tired of guessing. He has all the pitches – he can be a dominant starter. And he's been getting lit up all spring. The Royals are excited about Luke Hochevar, which is good to hear because I thought that he was a mistake No. 1 overall pick.

Rich: He was. Evan Longoria was in that draft. Oh, you want a pitcher? How about Tim Lincecum? Hochevar is good but should have never been a No. 1 overall pick, so help me Matt Sosnick Scott Boras.

Joe: Joakim Soria is the closer – and he's fun to watch. I was messaging with Rob about this: I cannot remember a young pitcher who started out his career as a closer and then became a good major league starter. I bring this up because the Royals keep talking about making him a starter down the road ... I don't think so. Seems to me the decision is made.

Rich: Jonathan Papelbon? Oh, that's right. That only last a couple of starts in spring training last year. Hmmm... I can think of some pretty good pitchers who started as relievers (Orel Hershiser, Fergie Jenkins, Pedro Martinez, Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, and David Wells to name an Antonio Alfonseca handful), but I guess it would be unfair to call them "closers." I don't know, Joe, you might be on to something here. The closest one that I can think of would be Charlie Hough. As a knuckleballer, maybe he doesn't qualify. Or maybe you don't think he was a "good major league pitcher?"

Joe: Well, Charlie Hough doesn't qualify in my mind because he wasn't especially young when he came up as a closer (he was 28 in his first full season) and while he did become a good starter at 34, I'm suspecting that's probably not the career arc the Royals are hoping for with Soria. Knuckleballers are indeed a whole other thing. And yes, the Cardinals are trying to do it with Braden Looper, but you couldn't call that a success story yet. ... The closest I've been able to find is actually Scott Garrelts, who wasn't exactly the closer with the Giants -- he was sort of a co-closer with Craig Lefferts -- and then he had one really good year as a starter, another so-so year, and then he got hurt and was done. Again, not exactly the model I think anyone is hoping for.

Sully: Offensively, this looks to be another tough year for KC. Gordon and Butler will be fun to monitor and David DeJesus is a decent all-around player but after that there is not a whole lot that excites about this KC offense.

Rich: While the offense should be better in 2008 than 2007, it's still nothing to write home about. The Royals were last in the majors in home runs and second-to-last in walks. Hey Joe, where's Carlos Beltran when you need him?

Joe: It breaks my heart every time I see Beltran in a Mets uniform. Just breaks my heart.

Rob: As usual, the Royals didn’t score any runs last season, mostly because (as usual) they didn’t hit any home runs (14th in AL) or draw any walks (13th). They’ll do better this season, thanks to a bit of experience for Gordon and a full season for Butler. Elsewhere, though, there’s little upside. They probably won’t finish last in scoring again – that honor will fall to the Orioles or the Twins – but it’s going to be another long year for the poorly supported starting pitchers.

Joe: I sure like Billy Butler. In the late 1990s, even though the Royals were terrible, they were developing good young hitters. Johnny Damon could hit, Mike Sweeney could hit, Carlos Beltran could hit, even Michael Tucker and Mark Quinn showed some flashes. Then, it got BAD. The Royals started taking pitchers in the first round every year, and until last year the Royals had a LONG drought of every day players. I think DeJesus was the only player in the 2005 or 2006 every day lineup developed by the Royals. Last year, though, Gordon and Butler were called up, and I think they are huge keys to this team's future. Everybody likes Gordon – I include myself in that – but the guy I really like is Butler, who I think can put huge, Miggy Cabrera type numbers in the next two or three years. We'll see.

Rich: Butler reminds me of Greg Luzinski. Big body, thick legs, slow as molasses, can't field, but, boy, they can both hit for average and power. Well, I'm not sure if the Bull can still do those things at the age of 57 although he was one heckuva hitter back in the 1970s. I wonder if Butler's career will have a similar shape – oops, poor choice of words – to it?

Rob: It's funny, the Luzinski comparison keeps popping up (or out, to continue your theme). It must be true; BP's top four comps for Butler are Marc Newfield, Luzinski, Gary Carter, and Paul Konerko. But from the very first time I saw Butler, I thought of Edgar Martinez. Statistically that comparison doesn't work, at least not yet, but I think Butler will wind up hitting 25 homers and 40 doubles in his good seasons, and as perhaps the first great hitter to serve as a DH from (practically speaking) the beginning, he may finish his career No. 2 among DH's in a bunch of categories, behind only Harold Baines.

Joe: Obviously, the Royals don't have much power – a weakness that will be made even more apparent by their large ballpark. It will be interesting to see how new manager Trey Hillman plays things. He says a lot of the right things – he preaches OBP, says that he has no intention to give up too many outs – but he also has been very plain in saying that if you can't score runs conventionally, then you have to 'do some things to help the offense along." I think he likes the bunt, the hit and run, the running game, and I expect him to play that game often. How often? How early? We shall see.

Sully: What do you think will be the major surprise in the AL Central in 2008? I will put myself out there and call a third-place finish for Kansas City. This call is probably more of an indictment of Minnesota and Chicago than it is a reflection on any great feelings I have about KC but nonetheless there it is, KC in third.

Joe: Well, obviously when the Royals win the division, that will be the big surprise. But beyond that, I think the Twins have a chance to surprise a little if Liriano's healthy. The Twins have been winning games against logic for quite a while now – every year they won the division this decade they outperformed their Pythag by five games at least, once by eight games. I like Gardy, I like Mauer-Morneau, I don't know. I'm picking them last with the expectation that they could surprise.

Rob: The Tigers, a popular choice this spring as the best team in the American League, won’t qualify for the playoffs.

Rich: I believe the surprise will be that the White Sox, a 10/1 bet at The Mirage to win the World Series, will finish at least 10 games out of second place. Who do you guys see as the main MVP, CYA and ROY candidates in the AL Central?

Sully: Give me Miggy for MVP, Sabathia again for the Cy, and I don't think I see a ROY candidate coming out of the Central.

Rob: MVP: Grady Sizemore and Miguel Cabrera.

Cy Young: Justin Verlander and C.C. Sabathia.

Rookie of the Year: It’s not a good year for rookies in the Central. There literally aren’t any hitters to get excited about, and while Detroit’s Rick Porcello and Cleveland’s Adam Miller both are supposedly future No. 1 starters, neither is on track for much action in the majors this year.

Joe: Detroit has three or four MVP candidates, I think – Granderson, Miggy, Magglio for sure. Cleveland has Grady. That's probably it, unless you're with me on the Billy Butler bandwagon.

Cy Young, I'm with the usual suspects: C.C., Verlander. I think Carmona has another good year, though a lot of people seem to think he will step back. You never know when Vazquez will blow up and have a great year. A healthy Liriano had Pedro-like numbers. And you can't ever count out my guy Banny.

Rich: Turning to how it will all shake out, I feel safe in saying that Cleveland and Detroit will finish 1-2 or 2-1 (okay, okay, 1-2) and that Chicago, while overrated, will finish third, Minnesota fourth, and Kansas City fifth.

Joe: I think it's Detroit, Cleveland, Kansas City (I have to people), Chicago, Minnesota. I only feel any confidence at all about Detroit and Cleveland duking it out.

Rob: Indians, Tigers, Royals, Twins, White Sox. But there’s not much separating the top two from one another, or the bottom three from one another.

Sully: Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Minnesota, Chicago. Thanks a lot, guys. That was a lot of fun.

Two on Two: 2008 AL West Preview
By Rich Lederer and Patrick Sullivan

This week's edition of the annual Two on Two series focuses on the American League West. We were thrilled with the way last week's discussion on the NL West went, and we think we have assembled a similarly excellent ensemble for readers this week.

David Cameron of one of the very finest team blogs out there, USS Mariner, joins us. So too does Sean Smith of "Anaheim Angels all the way". David and Sean are two of the brightest baseball analysts writing regularly on the web.

Sully: Rich, you're in Southern California, a west coast guy, I want to start with you. What are some immediate thoughts that come to mind when you think of the AL West in 2008?

Rich: Although it's difficult to try and compare a division with four teams to another with six, the AL West isn't much stronger than the NL Central. I like the Angels and Seattle ain't half bad but Oakland is in the process of rebuilding and Texas is – what do you call it when a team has had just one winning record in the past eight seasons? – well . . . Texas. Long gone are the years in which the AL West sent two teams to the playoffs like in 2000-2002. While the Angels appear to have the clearest path to the postseason of any AL club, there is zero chance that the Wild Card will come from this division this year.

Dave: I see where Rich is coming from here. The AL West, at first glance, might look a little boring for 2008. Texas is rebuilding, Oakland is selling off talent, and the Mariners are banking on their starting pitching to help them chase down the Angels. For most people, they'll just decide whether they think Eric Bedard and Carlos Silva are enough to put the M's over the top, and if not, they'll default to LAA as the choice for the division.

However, I think that overlooks a lot of variables. Texas has quietly put together a potentially terrific offense with a lot of young talent, and despite the sell-off, Oakland's still got a quality club capable of putting together a good streak of wins. While I'm not disagreeing that the Angels are the presumptive favorites, I will say that I think there are a lot more possible outcomes in this race than just the Mariners and Angels fighting to the death in September.

Sean: The Angels look far stronger than everyone else in this division. Last year they were the favorites, but this year they will be expected not just to win, but to run away with the division.

Sully: I agree, Sean. I want to go against the grain here but no matter how much I squint, the Angels still come out on top. What excites me about following this division in 2008 is the intriguing young talent coming of age in it.

Sean: Well that's just it, if we're not expecting a close race, the excitement comes from seeing which young players can establish themselves as major leaguers. This time next year, we should know if Brandon Wood and/or Erick Aybar are capable major league shortstops. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, will he become a run producer? Will his defense be acceptable at catcher? If yes to either one, he'll be a useful player, but if the answer is yes to both, he'll be a superstar. The A's are unsettled in the outfield, in the pitching rotation, and will start rookie Daric Barton at first. Only the Mariners seem to rely almost exclusively on veterans, though Wladimir Balentien may take some playing time away from Brad Wilkerson or Raul Ibanez in the outfield.

Sully: The most decisive strength on the best team in the division is the pitching of the Angels. Los Angeles had a 108 ERA+ in 2007, a fine figure before taking into account specific circumstances. When you take the 250 innings of 5.99 ERA pitching that Bartolo Colon and Ervin Santana contributed, you really start to get a good sense for how strong this Angels pitching staff is.

Rich: The Angels have a deep pitching staff, both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen. The depth, aided by the acquisition of Jon Garland this winter, is going to come in handy once again with Kelvim Escobar expected to be out of action until May. John Lackey, a healthy Escobar, and Jered Weaver form a solid 1-2-3. Garland is a dependable, if unspectacular, No. 4, and Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders are certainly capable at the back end of the rotation. There are worse things than turning the ball over to Justin Speier, Scot Shields, and Frankie Rodriguez for the late innings.

Dave: From my perspective, this Angels team has a lot of downside potential on the run prevention side of the ball. Even beyond Escobar's injury, this isn't the dominating pitching staff they've had in recent years. Jon Garland is nearing the end of his usefulness, and while Rich might not want to hear this, Jered Weaver is more innings eater than ace. Importing Torii Hunter and shifting Gary Matthews to a corner outfield spot should keep the defense good enough that it won't cause the pitching staff to implode, but this isn't a team of guys who are going to create extra outs with their gloves either.

The key here will be the performance of Saunders and Santana - both will probably spend a solid amount of time in the rotation, and both are good enough pitchers to solidify the back end should Escobar not get healthy.

Sully: Pretty harsh, Dave. Weaver is a 25 year-old, career 137 ERA+ Major League pitcher. [Dave responded to this and his thoughtful remarks are posted at the bottom of the piece.]

Sean: The Angels' defense is pretty ordinary, but the pitching is outstanding. If only the Halos had Hunter five years ago. He's still a good center fielder, but most observations I've read suggest he's lost a step or two from his peak. This is to be expected with a 32 year-old who plays the most speed intensive position in the field. If Aybar is the starting shortstop I expect to see a lot of errors. In 35 games in the Dominican winter league he made 19 errors.

Sully: The Angels offense was dead average last season, and that was with Garret Anderson going bananas. The addition of Hunter helps but I still don't love this offense. What does everyone else think?

Rich: Hunter's signing will help but this is still a middle-of-the-road offense, one that scored more runs at home than on the road. There are a lot of moving parts here, just in the infield alone. Casey Kotchman was having a breakout season when he suffered a concussion on a thrown ball while diving back to second base in June. Howie Kendrick broke bones in his left hand not once but twice last season and missed more than 70 games. Orlando Cabrera is being replaced at shortstop by either Aybar or Maicer Izturis. Chone Figgins had a career season and will be hard pressed to duplicate it this year. The outfielders will rotate through the DH spot but none of these guys are young or getting better. As usual, the Angels will be dependent on another big season from Big Daddy Vladdy. Put me in charge and I would pitch to him like the count was 0-2 from the moment he stepped into the batter's box.

Dave: For years, if you pitched around Vlad, you could hold the Angels offense down and be okay. This looks to be the year that changes. I see Kendrick and Kotchman both ready for prime time and if that's the case, the team has two impact young bats that can produce runs even when Guerrero's not terrorizing fastballs. I wouldn't be surprised if the Angels sent these three to the All-Star Game, and along with Hunter, Gary Matthews, Mike Napoli, and the role players, the Angels should actually be a threat to win their games with the bats for once.

Sean: The Angels should be able to produce about as many runs as last season. Anderson is unlikely to hit as well as he did in the second half, and Figgins is not going to hit .330 again, but the young trio of Kotchman, Kendrick, and Napoli should improve the team some, even if just by playing more than they did last year. Hunter adds a 25 homer bat to the middle of the order. While he's not the dominant hitter that Mark Teixiera, Adam Dunn, or Miguel Cabrera are (the mythical big bat behind Vlad) he certainly won't hurt.

Rich: A lot was made out of the fact that Arizona scored fewer runs than it allowed last year, but how many folks know that Seattle did the same while going 88-74? It wasn't that the Mariners offense (with an OPS+ of 104) let the club down as so many people tend to think; rather, it was due to the fact that the defense (ERA+ of 91, third-worst in the AL) gave up a lot of runs. Well, the good news for Seattle fans is that this problem has been addressed in a big way by acquiring one of the game's best pitchers in Erik Bedard. A starting rotation of Bedard, Felix Hernandez, and three league-average innings eaters coupled with arguably the most dominant closer in baseball last season gives Seattle a competitive advantage in the pitching department for the first time in five years.

Dave: One of the main themes I've been hammering on our blog for the past couple of years is the contribution of defense in run prevention. In general, people attribute almost all of a pitcher's ERA to his own ability, but I think we realize more and more that there's significant contributions from his teammates involved in his performances. Well, the Mariners seem bound and determined to do the opposite of whatever we preach, and so they've decided to build a team around a starting rotation and put a group that is mediocre-at-best defensively behind them. Yes, Erik Bedard is awesome, and I'm as high on King Felix as I have ever been, but are two terrific arms enough to contend?

Sully: Interesting stuff, Dave. How do you see the lacking defense impacting the M's?

Dave: Both Carlos Silva and Jarrod Washburn are highly dependent on their fielders, and the Mariners are going to run out two of the worst defensive players in baseball (Ibanez in left, Richie Sexson at first) on a daily basis. The organization has spent about $30 million on the back-end of the rotation to try and avoid any more Jeff Weaver / Horacio Ramirez / Joel Pineiro disaster type seasons, but perhaps someone in that front office should consider spending a fraction of that on some better defenders? Don't be surprised if the M's are at a loss to explain the sudden collapse of one of their proven veteran starters; my money's on Washburn.

Sean: Seattle's starting rotation may be the best in the division. I could see Bedard and Hernandez each contending for the Cy Young award. Their defense is poor. Despite good reputations for Ichiro, Adrian Beltre, and Yuniesky Betencourt, the team defensive efficiency was better than only Tampa Bay's among AL teams. It's some combination of those players being not quite as good as their reputations, and Raul Ibanez, Sexson, and Jose Guillen being true liabilities. Wilkerson or Balentien should be improvements on Guillen, though neither is a gold glover. Still, the pitching is good enough, combined with the park, that Seattle will be right there with Anaheim in run prevention.

Sully: I think I see this one just as you and Dave do, Sean. Having two premier strikeout guys at the top will go a long way in masking problems with a particularly defense-dependent back end. All in all, it's probably nothing more than an above-average run prevention unit. As for the offense, I see a considerable step back coming in 2008. As Rich mentioned above, the offense was actually quite good in 2007. I think Ibanez and Ichiro will both regress a bit this season.

Rich: Change out Guillen for Wilkerson in right field and this is basically the same offense as last year. Betancourt and Jose Lopez are the only two players under the age of 29 and both are in the lineup more for their defense than offense. As such, it is difficult to see how the offense will produce more runs in 2008 than in 2007. Oh, I guess Sexson could bounce back a bit and Jeff Clement could be of some help on the margin, but the bottom line is that the team is deficient at drawing walks (last in the majors in 2007 with 389 BB) and hitting home runs, hardly the recipe for scoring runs. These are your guys, Dave. What do you think?

Dave: Watching this team hit, there are times when I wonder if the Mariners purchased this offense at Costco; why buy just one right-handed free-swinger with gap power who can't hit a curveball when you can have four? Jose Guillen's departure takes away some of the repetition of this player type, but it's still hard to find a line-up that has four guys more similar in approach than Beltre, Kenji Johjima, Lopez, and Betancourt. If you can bury a slider in the dirt in the left-handers batters box, odds are you can get these four to get themselves out with very little effort.

Beyond those four, the team is counting on production from Ibanez (36 years old, can't hit lefties, clearly in physical decline), Jose Vidro (33 years old, zero power), Sexson (33 years old, already collapsed), and Wilkerson (31 years old, body of someone three times that age). Intimidated? Not unless you're worried they're going to steal the remote from you to watch Matlock or take your spot at the early bird table at the cafeteria.

And, as the cherry on top, this already questionable line-up is built horribly for Safeco Field, which destroys right-handed power hitters and is quite friendly to lefty flyball hitters with pull power. Ibanez and Wilkerson are good fits for Safeco offensively (defense is another story), but Vidro and Ichiro pound the ball into the ground, nullifying the short fence down the RF line, and the rest of the roster swings from the right side, watching their long fly balls turn into outs in the alley.

I can't help but look at this offense and think that advanced scouts for opposing teams look at writing this team up as something of a vacation. The offense is both simultaneously not good and easy to match up with; Bedard is going to have to be pretty fricking awesome to win 20 games with this bunch providing run support.

Sean: The Mariner offense will struggle in 2008. Last year they had seven regulars play 147 or more games. Their catcher played 135 games. They were lucky to stay as healthy as they did last year, and I would be shocked if they can repeat it. Especially as this is not a young team. As Rich mentioned, their only young regulars, Lopez and Betencourt, are also the team's worst hitters.

Sully: It seems to me that the M's made moves as though they were building off of the foundation of a legitimate 88-win team again in 2008. Add Bedard and Silva and look, "we're a 95-win team." Unfortunately, it does not appear to be that simple for Seattle. Oakland is another team that might struggle but at least they have come to grips with their identity. They are rebuilding. Dan Haren is gone now, so what do we make of Oakland's pitching and defense?

Rich: On the positive side of the ledger, Oakland's pitching staff gave up the fewest home runs (138) in the AL last season. Of course, the A's are helped by playing home games in a big ballpark. The club allowed the fourth most runs on the road, which is probably a better indication of its pitching prowess (or lack thereof). Add in the fact that Haren is no longer with the team and the possibility that Joe Blanton could be traded at some point, and it becomes difficult to comprehend how the situation could improve this year. A healthy season from Rich Harden would certainly help but that likelihood is remote at best.

Dave: While the Mariners seem to have no idea how big of a role defense plays, on the other end of the understanding the importance of defense, we have the Oakland Athletics. Mark Ellis continues to be one of the more underrated players in the game, as he gets very little credit for being a premium defender. Perhaps one of these years, he'll get the recognition he deserves as one of the prime reasons the A's keep shuffling pitchers through their rotation while still preventing runs with the best teams in the league. With Haren off to Arizona and the health of Chad Gaudin, Rich Harden, and Justin Duchscherer all up in the air, Oakland will have to continue to rely on their defense to help keep runs off the board. Don't be surprised if they continue to perform better than expected, and hopefully, one of these days people might give Ellis some of the credit.

Sean: It's very hard to predict how the A's will do this season keeping runs off the board. Joe Blanton is the only starter they can count on. They have a lot of potential starters, and I expect to see a lot of auditions for spots. In past years the A's defense was good enough to make ordinary pitchers look good, but this may not be the case in 2008. The infield defense is still strong, especially Ellis, but the outfield has no true center fielder, and the possibility of Jack Cust playing outfield (to get the bats of Mark Sweeney or Dan Johnson in the lineup) does not bode well for the young pitchers.

Rich: With the additions of Barton, Travis Buck, and Kurt Suzuki, the offense is getting younger. The question is whether it will be better. The A's traded away Nick Swisher, their most productive offensive player, and the left side of the infield is once again struggling with back problems in March. If Cust turns out to be a one-year wonder, Oakland is going to have a difficult time finding a power source this season. The sleeper here is Buck, a first round draft pick out of Arizona State in 2005. As a 23-year-old rookie, the lefthanded-hitting outfielder, who put up a .325/.398/.510 line over three seasons in the minors, hit .316/.407/.538 on the road. He is an All-Star in the making and will anchor this club's offense in the years to come.

Dave: On the offensive side of things, the view isn't quite so pretty. Long gone are the days of the A's sitting around and waiting for the three run homer, because this offense is seriously short on power. Yes, Jack Cust can hit a fastball a long way, Travis Buck has some pop, and Eric Chavez can still pull pitches off of right-handed pitchers, but beyond that, the position players are going to struggle to do much besides slap the ball around and try to draw walks. It's the kind of line-up that pitchers aren't afraid to attack, and with a bottom of the order that could include some combination of Bobby Crosby, Emil Brown, Suzuki, and Chris Denorfia, it's easy to understand why.

Sean: Their offense should be below average. They traded their best player, Nick Swisher. If Barton develops quickly they might be able to maintain the offensive level of the last few seasons, but the chances of that aren't especially good. If Barton struggles and Cust proves a fluke (hard to keep producing like that while striking out over 40% of the time) the offense could be ugly. In any case, it leans strongly to the left. They have 5 hitters who I project to be above league average - Barton, Cust, Buck, Chavez, and Johnson, and all five bat from the left side.

Sully: So it looks like the A's might struggle in 2008. I would have to agree. But the news isn't all bad for A's fans and it sure seems like Billy Beane is comfortable with a down-tick this season. The Swisher and Haren deals both netted them considerable returns and the future figures to get better in Oakland before long. The same goes for the Texas Rangers, whose farm system Baseball America ranks as fourth best in MLB. They are not there yet though, are they?

Rich: Texas doesn't do a very good job at preventing runs. The Rangers had the AL's second-worst road ERA in 2007. Among the six likely starters, only Kason Gabbard (100) had an ERA+ better than 93. Three of them had ERA in the fives and sixes. The bullpen isn't all that great either. Overall, Texas just gives up too many walks (4.1 per game, second to last in the AL) and gets too few strikeouts (6.02/game, dead last), putting way too much pressure on a mediocre defense to save runs.

Dave: Thanks to their ballpark, the Rangers could assemble a veritable all-star rotation and people would still talk about their struggles in finding good pitchers. Between the dimensions and the weather, trying to keep run scoring down in Arlington during the summer is basically impossible. However, I can say with some confidence that the 2008 Rangers have not assembled an all-star rotation. Kevin Millwood is a solid bounce back candidate, and I think Texas could get some positive contributions from back-end starters Jason Jennings and Gabbard, but when Vicente Padilla and Brandon McCarthy are your #2 and #3 starters, well, you're probably not going to make the playoffs.

Sean: What run prevention? They will bring back the same group of pitchers. Last year, only McCarthy (4.87) started at least 10 games and had an ERA under 5. They had one pitcher, Edinson Volquez, who appeared to make progress last season and might have improved the staff, but he was traded to the Reds. Like usual, the Rangers are not going to prevent many runs.

Rich: On a ballpark-adjusted basis, the Rangers had the worst offense in the division last season. The arrival of Milton Bradley and Josh Hamilton, as well as a healthy Hank Blalock, could help the cause this year. However, the team will be without Teixeira for the entire campaign and Saltalamacchia is unlikely to come close in replacing his lost production. Shake it all up and the Texas offense should be about the same or perhaps slightly better if everything goes well in 2008.

Dave: With a pitching staff that is going to require the team to win a lot of 7-6 games, the Rangers offense may actually be up to the task, assuming they can figure out how to keep their best hitters healthy. Bradley and Hamilton are legitimate offensive forces when they step up to the dish, and every other line-up spot is filled with a player with some real offensive talent. Former uberprospect Hank Blalock might actually be the worst hitter in the line-up when Saltalamacchia is behind the plate. Even if Bradley tops out at 400 at-bats, the outfield depth in the organization should keep the holes filled adequately, and this team should easily score the most runs in the division. Even when accounting for their home park, this is probably the best line-up in the American League West.

Sean: They will score quite a few runs, and not just against Baltimore (I'll never forget watching that 30 run outburst). The Rangers will look good offensively thanks to their ballpark. Assuming they stay on the field, Bradley and Hamilton should put up impressive numbers this year, assuming they stay on the field.

Sully I think the big surprise in the West this season is just how bad the Rangers will be. I think they battle injuries and horrendous pitching all year long en route to a sub-70 win season.

Dave: I am going against Sully here. Because Texas doesn't have any marquee names and are assumed to be rebuilding with young players, the national assumptions I have seen have them winning 70-75 games. In reality, I think this team is going to be quite a bit better than that, and it's not hard to envision a scenario where the Rangers put up 82-86 wins. In a division where the top of the division looks relatively weak in comparison to other divisions and the bottom of the division is apparently underrated, there may not be a huge gap between the teams at the end of the season, and while it may appear a major surprise considering the preseason narrative, there's a realistic chance for each team in this division to take the title and sneak into the playoffs.

Sean: My surprise is that Brandon Wood will win the starting shortstop job for the Angels, and most of the talk about him will not be about his power, but about his defense as he proves that he does indeed have the range to stick at the position, and then some.

Rich: I don't see many surprises in the AL West this year, yet I think the division could play a factor in the MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year awards. I mean, as far as the MVP goes, the voters would eat it up if Hunter hit .300 with 30 HR and 100 RBI while playing a Gold Glove center field for an Angels club that won the division. Given that Hunter has never hit .300 means that probably isn't gonna happen. If it did, I guess that would be my surprise. Otherwise, I would go with Guerrero as the MVP or perhaps Suzuki should the Mariners beat out the Angels. The CYA could go to Lackey, Bedard, or King Felix. Barton would be the favorite to win ROY if it went to a player in the AL West.

Sean: I don't think the MVP will come from the West, but Guerrero is the #1 choice, and Torii Hunter #2. For Cy Young, I'll pick Bedard, Felix Hernandez, and Francisco Rodriguez. Daric Barton for Rookie of the Year.

Dave: The two best position players in the A.L West are Ichiro and Vladimir Guerrero, and you have to start any potential MVP discussion from this divsion with those two players. However, there's a second tier of quality role players who all have some breakout potential and are capable of having an MVP caliber season. Among this group are Casey Kotchman, Howie Kendrick, and Adrian Beltre, while Michael Young and Ian Kinsler could get votes from those who don't adjust for park effects (and, in Young's case, defense).

In terms of Cy Young contenders, you have to look at John Lackey, Kevlim Escobar, Erik Bedard, and Felix Hernandez. While Bedard could be scary good as a high strikeout southpaw pitching half his games in Safeco Field, King Felix is the guy here who could make this a race for second place. Despite his inconsistencies, he's still the most talented pitcher on the planet, and has the raw ability to put up seasons that would rank among the best of all time.

As for the newcomers, Daric Barton seems to be the obvious frontrunner as the guy who should get 500 at-bats if he stays healthy. Perhaps Brandon Wood finally learns how to recognize a breaking ball and provides some competition, but this isn't a particularly strong crop of rookies, with most of the young talent in the division having already surpassed the rookie thresholds, and thus, no longer qualify for the award.

Rich: I will be surprised if the Angels and Mariners don't finish 1-2. Put me down for the A's in third by the slimmest of margins and the Rangers in fourth – that sounds better than last, doesn't it?

Los Angeles: 88-74
Seattle: 83-79
Texas: 82-80
Oakland: 79-83

1. Angels
2. Mariners
3. A's
4. Rangers

Sully: Thanks for participating, everyone. I am taking the same order as Sean, with the Rangers a good bit back of Oakland.


David Cameron on Jered Weaver:

While ERA+ is a fun little toy for historical comparisons of past events, I don't find it particularly useful for projecting pitcher's future performance. There are a host of variables that go into ERA that have little or nothing to do with the actual talent level of the pitcher, and I'm not interested in assuming past events that were outside of the pitchers control will continue on in the future.

And, let's be honest, quoting Weaver's career ERA+ is not exactly giving people accurate information. People would be better served by actually looking at what he's done in his short time in the majors.

In 2006, Jered Weaver posted an ERA+ of 173. This is, of course, a tremendous number. There were few pitchers better at keeping runs off the board. What was the key to his success? As many others have shown (and I've covered in my Evaluating Pitcher Talent article at, run prevention is influenced essentially by five things; walk rate, strikeout rate, home run rate, batting average on balls in play, and runner stranding. Or, statistically, BB%, K%, HR/F, BABIP, and LOB%. By looking at these five metrics, we can easily determine why a pitcher was successful in keeping runs off the board.

So, what was so great about Jered Weaver in 2006? His strikeout rate was very good (8.3 K/G), his batting average on balls in play was very low (.236), and his runner stranding rate was very high (86.2%). As has been shown in various studies, the latter three events aren't nearly as predictive as the first two from year to year. Considering the shaky foundation of Weaver's 2.56 ERA in 2006, it wasn't any surprise to watch him take a significant step back last year as both his batting average on balls in play and his strand rate regressed heavily to the mean.

So, when Weaver wasn't posting the lowest BABIP and the highest LOB% in the American League, he was actually just a bit above average, and not a world beater as quoting his career ERA+ might suggest. If we look at his FIP, we see that the 3.99 mark in 2006 wasn't that much different than his 4.14 mark in 2007; in other words, Jered Weaver didn't pitch that much worse, as his ERA might imply, but instead his run prevention performance just regressed to more closely match his actual abilities.

Jered Weaver is essentially a strike-throwing flyball machine with a good enough breaking ball to miss bats a little more than average. When those flyballs aren't flying over the wall or are being chased down by his outfielders, he'll look just fine. When the wind is blowing out or Garret Anderson or Vladimir Guerrero are chasing that same flyball, he's going to look pretty mediocre.

This isn't to say Jered Weaver isn't an asset. Having a healthy pitcher who can put the ball in the strike zone with regularity without giving up 30+ home runs a year means that you've got a pretty solid pitcher, but let's not be deceived by the fact that his ERA in 2006 was artificially deflated by things outside of his control. Weaver's a nice pitcher to have, but he's a huge step behind the good pitchers in this division.

Baseball Beat/Change-UpFebruary 26, 2008
Two on Two: NL West Preview
By Rich Lederer and Patrick Sullivan

A tradition of sorts has developed here at Baseball Analysts. Each season, two outsiders and two of our own preview the six divisions. We kick off this season with what may be the very finest division in all of baseball, the National League West. We are thrilled to have Jon Weisman of Dodger Thoughts joining us once again this year. In the minds of baseball blog readers, Jon is as closely associated to the Dodgers as any blogger is to any other team.

Also joining us this season is Russ Oates of Purple Row, one of the more popular Colorado Rockies blogs out there.

Sully: This division is one of the very best in baseball. San Francisco is more or less irrelevant at this point. As I heard someone say (I can't remember who), the Giants biggest problem this season is that they have 162 games to play. That leaves the other four teams and really, it's anyone's division.

Rich: The young players in the NL West have finally come of age. The division is arguably the strongest in the league and one of the best in the majors. As you said, a strong case could be made for as many as four teams to win the West. Arizona, Colorado, and San Diego were three of the four most efficient teams in baseball last season in terms of wins vs. payroll. San Francisco, on the other hand, was one of the least efficient. Los Angeles was more like the Giants in 2007 but figures to be more like the other three in 2008.

Russ: It might be hard for this year's NL West to outdo the 2007 version, certainly not the way it concluded. Still, as has been mentioned, the division will have four teams with a chance to capture the NL West crown. Also, I think Sully is being a bit unfair to the Giants. They won't compete for the division but won't be a complete black hole either. A couple of young pitchers there should make fans occasionally forget the long summer it'll be for the team.

Jon: The NL West had three teams play past the 162-game mark last season, and a fourth, Los Angeles, is a legitimate contender to do the same this year. I can't remember a year when four NL West teams were legitimate picks to win the NL pennant. It's gonna be like the climax from John Wayne's last movie, "The Shootist" - shots coming from everywhere.

Rich: Although Colorado was in the middle of the pack in terms of runs allowed, the Rockies ranked third in the NL in ERA+. The club had outstanding defense and a surprisingly strong bullpen. Troy Tulowitzki led shortstops in traditional and non-traditional fielding stats and Manny Corpas had a 2.08 ERA, including a 1.54 mark with 18 saves in the second half. Moreover, the starting rotation should be even better this year with Jeff Francis (16-6, 3.86 excluding April) now comfortable in the role of an ace, along with a healthy Aaron Cook and full seasons from youngsters Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales.

Russ: Coming off a season in which they set a major league record for fielding percentage and tied the NL record for fewest errors committed by a team, the Rockies enter 2008 with a defense that is largely unchanged. The only change will be at second base for the departed Kazuo Matsui. Jayson Nix offers the best defense among the candidates for the job, and Tulowitzki is known to be a fan of his.

The Rockies' rotation is one filled with potential but also uncertainty. Francis established himself as the team's ace last season, fulfilling the expectations given to him in the extension he signed during the '06-'07 off-season. Cook, though, will carry heavy expectations after signing a four-year contract in December. Cook has yet to put back-to-back complete seasons together since becoming a member of the rotation. The potential and excitement comes in youngsters Jimenez, slated to be the third pitcher, and Morales, competing for the fifth spot. Both are hard throwers, though Morales is less refined than Jimenez. If they catch on, this rotation won't be forgotten among the rest of the talented NL West rotations. Jason Hirsh gets lost among the rest of the starters, but should he rediscover his use of the fastball, he'll be a decent fourth starter.

Jon: Elmer Dessens made five starts for Colorado last season, lasting a total of 19 innings. In the other 158 games, Colorado's worst starting pitcher was Josh Fogg, who finished with an ERA+ of 97. Despite numerous injuries in their rotation, Colorado had average-or-better starting pitching for 97 percent of 2007. And other than Dessens, no starter was above the age of 31. That won't change much this year, even with Fogg departing and the battered Kip Wells coming in to fight for a spot. There's some question, I suppose, over whether the youngsters Morales and Jimenez can work some magic over their first full seasons, but this figures to be an effective group in 2008.

Sully: I think Jon makes good points in talking about how the starting pitching was really just solid over a long stretch but rarely spectacular. That was enough to get it done with the run support of their potent offense. But really, we are talking about a club with aspirations to get back to and win the World Series. Francis to me seems to be the only guy on the team you can depend on for reliable performance in 2008. The bullpen, on the other hand, once again looks formidable.

Russ: Brian Fuentes will be an expensive setup guy, but he'll also be necessary insurance should closer Manny Corpas struggle. The Rockies and Yankees swapped relievers through free agency when LaTroy Hawkins signed with the Yankees and Luis Vizcaino moved out west to Denver. Vizcaino will take over Hawkins' role as the right-handed reliever during late-inning situations.

Jon: The most significant offensive change for the defending NL champion Rockies is at second base, where Matsui is being replaced. But Matsui was hardly the straw that stirred this drink. There's a core - Matt Holliday, Garret Atkins, Brad Hawpe, Troy Tulowitzki - that's productive and under 30, and Todd Helton walked 116 times last year en route to a VORP of 51.9. The main problem with Colorado's lineup is that it doesn't scare you from the top to the bottom ... but oh, that middle.

Rich: The Rockies can hit. Sure, with Coors Field as its home ballpark, part of the team's offensive success is illusory. But the club still finished fifth in runs scored on the road. Atkins, Hawpe and Holliday are all 28 and at their peaks while the 34-year-old Helton should still be good for another .300/.400/.500-type season and the 23-year-old Tulowitzki may be the best-hitting shortstop in the league whose last name doesn't start with an "R".

Russ: Tulowitzki will move into the second hole this season. He split most of his time in 2007 between the second and seventh spots, hitting 14 of his 24 homers in the second spot, so this move has some history behind it. Along with leadoff hitter Willy Taveras, Tulowitzki will be asked to steal more (though Taveras will need to stay healthy if he wants to reach his stated goal of 60 stolen bases). Holliday, Helton, Atkins, and Hawpe offer the rest of the punch to the lineup, though it really is apparent that Helton is no longer the masher he once was.

Hawpe has struggled with lefties his entire career and will sit often in favor of a player such as Ryan Spilborghs when a southpaw opposes the Rockies. Yorvit Torrealba is a below-average offensive catcher, but with Clint Hurdle unlikely to give Chris Iannetta a chance to unseat Torrealba for the starting position there won't be much change from 2007's offensive output there.

Sully: As good as the core is, it seems as though they will have four holes in their lineup. That's a lot of dead weight to lug around. Jon alluded to the great core but lacking depth and I suppose I see this as a potential Achilles heel for this team. Helton figures to come back a bit and even if Holliday, Atkins, Tulo and Hawpe replicate their 2007 output, I think Torrealba, Nix and Taveras figure to offset a lot of the productivity. The Rox are a nice team, but there's a little too much hamburg on this roster for me to be convinced they will win 90 games once again. The Diamondbacks, on the other hand, look awfully tough to me.

Jon: I won't be provocative here: Thanks to the pickup of Danny Haren, Arizona gave itself arguably the best rotation in the division, at least in April. The presence of Haren and Brandon Webb up front will grab the headlines, but Doug Davis (111 ERA+) and Micah Owings (109 ERA+) also pitched passably last year. A comeback season from Randy Johnson would give them a game pitcher every day of the week, but even if Johnson's health gives way, the Diamondbacks have some prospects who could step in.

Rich: Arizona, which was second in the league in ERA+ last year, figures to be equally good this season. With respect to the starting rotation, it's a combination of addition and subtraction. Haren (3.07 ERA, third best in the AL) joins Webb to give the Diamondbacks arguably the best 1-2 punch in the league while Livan Hernandez takes his nearly 5.00 ERA to Minnesota. The bullpen, however, is a somewhat different story. I'm skeptical as to whether Brandon Lyon can step up and replace Jose Valverde as the club's closer, and it will be interesting to see if Tony Pena and Juan Cruz can repeat their fine performances in their set-up roles.

Sully: I agree on Lyon, Rich, but it is not like they didn't get bullpen help back from Houston. Chad Qualls figures to be a nice addition to a bullpen already teeming with live arms.

Russ: As Rich said, the D'Backs will have a great 1-2 combo with Webb and Haren, and if Randy Johnson, 44, returns healthy it could be lights out for the rest of the NL West. Beware the Unit's back, though. Given his experience in the role, I happen to think Lyon will transition back into closer duties with few problems. Add in Qualls, acquired in the deal that sent Valverde to the Astros during the offseason, and Pena, late innings against the D'Backs will be tough for opposing hitters.

Hudson, Chris Snyder, and Eric Byrnes form the basis of an above-average defense. Will Stephen Drew make any strides on defense?

Sully: I am sure Drew is a major priority for Bob Melvin this season.

Jon: Speaking of Melvin, the Diamondbacks rather famously won the division despite allowing more runs than they scored. The analyst consensus pointed to effective bullpen management as the cause: Melvin didn't waste his good pitchers in blowouts. If this is a true skill of the Arizona manager, what a nice one to have. And don't forget how nice it would be for Arizona to have Hudson healthy down the stretch, unlike in 2007.

Sully: We know Josh Byrnes is excited about his young offense, but what's the consensus around these parts about the Snakes' bats?

Rich: The D-Backs had the worst offense in the league in 2007. Despite playing in a hitter's ballpark, the team was last in batting average and on-base percentage. In addition, Arizona ranked at the bottom of the NL in OPS+ and runs on the road. That said, there is some upside to this lineup. Stephen Drew came alive in the postseason and should put up better numbers this season. Conor Jackson, Mark Reynolds, Justin Upton, and Chris Young are all going up the escalator and should be sure to wave to the 32-year-old Eric Byrnes (.258/.340/.412 in the second half) as he passes them counting his money on the way down.

Jon: Seven returning Diamondback starters, plus Miguel Montero, homered in double-figures last season. Chris Young, now 24, led the way with 32 homers, despite a .295 on-base percentage. In a sense, just like Los Angeles with Andruw Jones, Arizona is hoping that their top power hitter can be even more productive. Arizona's is not a dominant lineup, but it is a mostly young and capable one - especially when Owings is batting ninth.

Russ: Will the D'Backs be able to avoid the criticism they received last year for having a negative run differential? Stephen Drew will need to hit a few more home runs and improve his OBP to help the offense out. A quick start for Conor Jackson will also go a long way for this team, since April '07 (.217/.351/..267) was his worst month. Young could cut down on the strikeouts and reach base a bit more often, as could Upton. It's not a question of if the D'Backs offense will improve, it's how much.

Sully: With that last statement, it sounds like you agree with Byrnes here, Russ. I think I do too. The Snakes will make strides this season, with the potential to put together a very good offense should they be fortunate to have a number of their youngsters blossom simultaneously. It could well happen.

Rich: Moving along, San Diego, helped in large part by a big ballpark, was the only team in the league that sported an ERA under 4.00 last year. However, the Padres were fifth in ERA+ and eighth in runs allowed on the road. If the pitching staff has a signature, it's throwing strikes. Greg Maddux, 42, does that better than anybody, allowing slightly more than one walk per nine innings. Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy led the NL in ERA, wins, and strikeouts, becoming only the eighth pitcher since WWII to win the Triple Crown of pitching. The big question marks are the back of the rotation and the front of the bullpen where health and age loom large.

Russ: One of the major questions facing the Padres is what they'll get out of Mark Prior and Randy Wolf. It's a big if, but if Prior can come back and perform anywhere close to his 2003 season, the Padres will have the rotation to beat in the West. If he doesn't, it's not a big loss for the Padres since Prior signed a cheap contract and the team wasn't pinning their season's hopes on him. Wolf, coming off shoulder surgery, will benefit pitching at Petco. Maddux keeps chugging along, but you have to wonder how much longer he'll be able to do that. Peavy is one of the best and Chris Young is a great counterpart for him at the top of the rotation.

Jon: The Padres have the Cy Young winner and Young (129 ERA+ in 30 starts), but there is a problematic lack of depth to their rotation. Their No. 3 and No. 4 starters, future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux and comebacking Randy Wolf, will struggle just to be average. There's rarely reason to fear blowout losses in San Diego, but will the Padres be able to hold their opponents to three runs instead of four when they need to, or four runs instead of five? At Petco, that run or two can be a big deal.

Sully: It sounds like folks think the Padres offense will have to pick up some of the slack, and I think it is very much capable of doing so. Kevin Towers added to his young infield of Kevin Kouzmanoff, Khalil Greene and Adrian Gonzalez, the steady bat of Tadahito Iguchi. This may not seem like much but consider what San Diego got out of their second basemen last season; a line of .247/.320/.342. Iguchi does not have to do much to constitute a marked improvement.

Russ: In 2007, Gonzalez clouted 30 homers and had a team-leading OPS of .849. It's likely he'll lead the team again in that category. As Sully mentions, Iguchi also offers better offense at second than Marcus Giles did, who received more at-bats than he should have in 2007. Overall, this is a quiet offense that will need Greene and Kouzmanoff to continue to improve at the plate. And maybe the surgery Brian Giles had on his knee will help him gain back a little more of the power he once had. It might be hard to do at 37, however.

Jon: Continuing a division-wide theme, there are some nice young players manning up for the Padres: Adrian Gonzalez, Khalil Greene and even Kevin Kouzmanoff, who OPSed .890 in the second half of 2007. Chase Headley (24 in May), who OPSed 1.017 in AA ball last year as a third baseman, could be a godsend if he can make the leap while filling a hole in left field. But I wouldn't say it's a knockout offense, even taking Petco Park's environment into account.

Rich: See I believe San Diego's offense is nearly as underrated as the pitching is overrated. The infielders can flat out hit. Adrian Gonzalez is perhaps the most under appreciated hitter in the league. He blistered the ball on the road (.295/.358/.570 with 20 HR) and during the second half (.302/.356/.538). Kevin Kouzmanoff improved his OPS from .673 in the first half to .890 in the second half. While a liability in the field, Kouz should rank as one of the best offensive third basemen in the NL this season. Khalil Greene has been needlessly dissed for far too long. Throughout his career, the four-year veteran has hit .228/.288/.370 at home and .280/.335/.515 on the road. The big question about the Padres is whether the other Giles and the newly acquired Jim Edmonds have much, if anything, left in them.

Sully: Switching gears, what do we make of the Los Angeles Dodgers? The run prevention side does not seem to be a problem given the team's bevy of young, durable arms. The Dodgers had an ERA+ of 109 last season and it is hard to see them falling off too far from there (if not improving).

Jon: Chad Billingsley (138 ERA+) could become a staff ace as early as this season. That would be a huge help to a team that doesn't know exactly who its fifth starter will be if Jason Schmidt or Hong-Chih Kuo aren't up to snuff in April (though quality candidates like James McDonald and Clatyon Kershaw are lurking in the minors). There's a lot of mystery centered on Japanese import Hiroki Kuroda, but another question is whether Brad Penny can maintain his high-flying performance (151 ERA+) despite a tumbling strikeout rate. If the Dodger starters can give quality starts, Takashi Saito and Jonathan Broxton form a great one-two combo in the bullpen. On the downside, Dodger defense can be spotty, depending who's in the lineup.

Rich: The Dodgers have a fab four (Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, Chad Billingsley, and newcomer Hideki Kuroda) at the top of the rotation and a fifth (Jason Schmidt) who could be a pleasant surprise if he can begin to earn a fraction of the more than $15 million per season that he is pulling down. Saito and Broxton, who make about $2.5M between them, have given the McCourts a much better return on their investment, combining to strike out 32% of the batters they faced in 2006 and 2007.

Russ: Penny finished an honorable third in the NL Cy Young voting last year and there's as good a chance as any that he'll repeat that finish for another year. Lowe was the victim of poor run support in many games last season, so an improvement in his W-L record isn't out of the question. Hiroki Kuroda isn't on the level of Daisuke Matsuzaka, but he should fit in nicely behind the previous two pitchers and Chad Billingsley. If Jason Schmidt bounces back from his shoulder injury and subsequent surgery, it could be a good season for the Dodgers.

How Joe Torre uses his bullpen will be interesting since he was questioned numerous times in New York for how he managed it there. As Jon and Rich said, Broxton and closer Takashi Saito are a lights-out combination.

Sully: Jon is our Dodgers guy here, so I am interested in his take. What do we think about this offense? It seems like there is talent all over the place on this roster. Can they make it work in 2008?

Jon: Don't laugh, but this is potentially the most dangerous group in the division. If Andy LaRoche and Andre Ethier win starting positions, one of them could easily be the No. 8 hitter in a lineup that could have everyone with an on-base percentage of .350 or more. (Last year, James Loney, Jeff Kent, Matt Kemp, Russell Martin and Ethier all reached that plateau; ex-Braves Andruw Jones and Rafael Furcal need comeback seasons to make it). Los Angeles won't have the most power in the NL West, but the pitching in this division is so strong that a team that can consistently battle offensively might have the best weapon.

Rich: If Joe Torre puts his best eight on the field everyday, the Dodgers should have one of the best offenses in the division and maybe the league. I'm less concerned with the youngsters like Martin, Loney, LaRoche, Ethier and Matt Kemp as I am with the veterans such as Kent, Nomar Garciaparra, Jones, and Juan Pierre. How goes the 40-year-old Kent and Jones, coming off his worst season ever, will go a long way in determining how goes the offense.

Russ: Signing Jones could be a huge boon for the Dodgers, but is it likely for him to rediscover his power with the Dodgers? Having a competition between Ethier and Pierre should hopefully improve the Dodgers. Russell Martin offers the best offense out of all the starting catchers in the division, but Joe Torre could give him a few more games off after catching 145 games last season. The competition at third between LaRoche and Garciaparra will be good for the younger LaRoche.

Sully: This seems like the team in Major League Baseball whose Manager could make the biggest impact. The personnel is there. The question is whether Joe Torre can optimally deploy the resources at hand. What about LA's rivals to the north?

Rich: Too bad pitching isn't 75% or more of the game as some people think. If it were, the Giants would be in fine shape. As is, San Fran stands to lose a lot of low-scoring games. By season's end, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Noah Lowry, and Barry Zito will be awfully frustrated.

Russ: Cain and Lincecum carry the future of the Giants on their shoulders, but for now they'll need to wait until management makes a few more smart decisions. Though they'll both only be 24 at some point in 2008, Cain and Lincecum will be one of the top 1-2 punches in the majors. Zito has already been named the Opening Day starter, whatever that's worth, but Cain would have a better claim if it wasn't for Zito's contract.

Omar Vizquel is, as usual, still a good defender, and Dave Roberts, Aaron Rowand, and Randy Winn in the outfield will be a great help to the pitchers.

Jon: Gosh, you could hardly ask for much more than a rotation whose worst pitcher might be Barry Zito. For a team that's perhaps universally picked to finish last, they're gonna keep the score close all too often.

Sully: At the risk of sounding hyperbolic or even snarky, I have to say that I cannot remember an offense that looked as inept as this Giants one does heading into a season. You guys are right; the pitching is there. But this offense is going to be atrocious.

Rich: Do the Giants have an offense? Sully, you covered this one about as well as possible in a Giant Mess three weeks ago.

Russ: Is there any hope here? With Barry Bonds gone, this team will need to find a new face for the offense. Rowand is hardly a world-beater, and he'll be hitting fifth behind Bengie Molina. That's not a situation any team should have. Rich Aurilia, Ray Durham, and Vizquel are still with the team; maybe Kevin Frandsen will successfully supplant Durham at second. The Giants could probably do worse than Dave Roberts and Randy Winn, but they also could do better.

Jon: Well, there's a reason the team is perhaps universally picked to finish last. Randy Winn is the Giants only returning starter with an EQA over .280 in 2007. Aaron Rowand was signed to mitigate this (his VORP was almost even with that of Barry Bonds last season), and Dan Ortmeier will try to bring some power to first base.

Sully: Very diplomatically handled, Russ and Jon. What about surprises from the NL West in 2008? Mine? I think Colorado is going to disappoint. I think injuries and unfulfilled promise from Jimenez and Morales in the rotation combined with some real holes in their offense will drop the Rockies a few games below .500.

Jon: I'm sincerely not trying to make any enemies down south, but I certainly won't make any friends with my inkling that San Diego is going to have a rougher time than most people expect this year. Even with Peavy, the Padres might have the division's weakest overall starting pitching. I know they won 89 games with much the same staff last year, but I see some signs that things could get worse before they get better. Certainly, I don't think any team in the NL West is more dependent on a single player than San Diego is on Peavy.

Russ: Despite all the gloom surrounding them, the Giants will actually finish closer to .500 than most projections have them.

Rich: The surprise will be that Brian Sabean doesn't lose his job until after the season ends.

What about awards candidates in this division? After a huge season in 2007, I doubt whether Holliday can improve upon his AVG/OBP/SLG as he has every year since he broke into the big leagues in 2004. If Holliday does, he will run away with the MVP award in 2008, especially if the Rockies win the division as I suspect. I don't see any other viable candidates outside of perhaps Russell Martin or a couple of starting pitchers like Peavy and Webb, both of whom should be the co-favorites along with Johan Santana to win the Cy Young award. As for Rookie of the Year, I would offer up LaRoche and Morales, since neither Jimenez nor Upton qualify. Oh, and I guess I shouldn't forget Kuroda even if he is 33 years old.

Jon: As a catcher, Martin probably can't get the numbers needed to win an MVP, but with the Dodgers fielding a contending team on the 20th anniversary of Kirk Gibson winning the award, I think he could be a strong candidate. More likely, look to Matt Holliday as the leading position player candidate - and don't rule out Webb or Peavy, the leading Cy candidates, for the MVP award either. But with the tough pitching in this division, an offensive MVP seems unlikely to come from it. As for Rookie of the Year, Kuroda could win it. But even more than him, or his teammate LaRoche, I'll agree with Rich and offer Colorado's Morales, who is still a rookie despite a 140 ERA+ down the stretch for the Rockies last year and despite pitching 10 innings in the 2007 playoffs.

Russ: Jake Peavy and Brandon Webb should compete for the Cy Young award again this season. Don't discount Matt Cain or Brad Penny, either. Matt Holliday's about the only real candidate for MVP. Some candidates for ROY would include Jayson Nix, Franklin Morales, Chase Headley (if he winds up as more than a backup), and Hiroki Kuroda.

Sully: If the voters can understand park effects, then Kouzmanoff and Greene could well merit MVP consideration. I am not sure I have others to offer over and above those already mentioned. As for my predicted order of finish, I am going with the D-Backs (their offense comes alive this season), then LA, San Diego, Colorado and (big, big gap) San Francisco.

Rich: I like Colorado, followed by Los Angeles, San Diego, Arizona, and San Francisco. The Diamondbacks will be closer to first place than last although that says as much about the Giants as anything else.

Jon: I don't think Colorado or Arizona got lucky last year. despite what others might say. There's no reason either of the two couldn't win. But thanks to their addition of Haren to a rising young team, I think the Diamondbacks deserved to be slotted first right now. And given what full seasons from Kemp, Loney, Jones, Billingsley (in the rotation) and maybe Ethier and LaRoche could mean for the Dodgers, I'm gonna put them close behind in second. (Maybe this year, Martin blocks the plate against Holliday in a one-game playoff with the Rockies.) San Diego follows in fourth place, with San Francisco fifth.

Russ: Same as 2007: 1. Arizona 2. Colorado 3. San Diego 4. Los Angeles 5. San Francisco

Sully: Thanks, everyone. This was good fun.

Baseball Beat/Change-UpDecember 06, 2007
Winter Meetings Roundup
By Rich Lederer and Patrick Sullivan

Let us love winter, for it is the spring of genius. - Pietro Aretino

Although the Winter Meetings didn't produce as much action as anticipated, there were a few notable trades and signings. Rather than sharing all the rumors and whisper stories the past few days, we decided to sit this one out until there was news to report.

News: The Detroit Tigers and Florida Marlins agreed to a blockbuster trade involving Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, Andrew Miller, Cameron Maybin, a backup catcher, and three minor league pitchers.

Comments: This is one of those deals that could work out well for both clubs. The Tigers acquired one of the best hitters in the game and a starting pitcher to round out its rotation, while the Marlins gained two of the most coveted prospects (both of whom were top 10 selections in the amateur draft), a relief pitcher (Eulogio De La Cruz) who has touched 100-mph, and a groundball specialist (Dallas Trahern) who could figure into its rotation in the second half of 2008 and beyond. As the saying goes, you gotta be willing to give up something to get something.

The Tigers will obviously be the biggest beneficiaries of this deal in the short run. Motown will now produce mo runs than ever. Check out the following lineup:

Granderson, CF
Polanco, 2B
Cabrera, 3B
Ordonez, RF
Sheffield, DH
Guillen, 1B
Renteria, SS
Rodriguez, C

Add a LF to that lineup (which should be pretty easy to do via trade or free agency) and we're looking at the best lineup in baseball. If Cabrera doesn't work out at third base, manager Jim Leyland could slide him across the diamond and put Carlos Guillen at the hot corner. Either way, that is a potent offense. Placido Polanco (.341) and Edgar Renteria (.332) are unlikely to match last year's batting averages, but there is no reason why this keystone combo can't hit .300/.350/.425 next season. Gary Sheffield's health and Magglio Ordonez holding up his end of the bargain will be the determining factors as to just how scary Detroit's offense will be in 2008.

What a turnaround for the Tigers in just a few years, huh? Under the ownership of Mike Ilitch and President/CEO/GM Dave Dombrowski, they've gone from the basement in 2003 when they lost 119 games (one fewer than the all-time record) to the penthouse in 2006 when they won the American League pennant. Detroit is clearly one of the best five teams in the AL (along with the Indians, Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels) – and, for that matter, in the major leagues – and just may be the favorite to win it all in 2008.

Of the five powerhouses, the Angels have the easiest path to the postseason. As outstanding as the other four clubs are, at least one of them will be on the outside looking in when October rolls around. It's too early to pick which one that might be, but the ante has just been raised once again.

In the meantime, Florida may have only one player on its roster next year (catcher Miguel Olivo) with a salary in excess of a million dollars. As things stand now, the entire payroll could be under $10 million. The Marlins may not win a lot of games, but they sure will be profitable (even if fans stay home).

- Rich Lederer

* * * * * * * * * *

News: Outfielder Jose Guillen and the Kansas City Royals reached an agreement on a three-year, $36 million deal.

Comments: Let's see if I've got this one straight. The Seattle Mariners declined a $9M option on Guillen for 2008 and the Royals stepped up and gave him $3M more per annum for each of the next three years?

Either Bill Bavasi misjudged the interest in Guillen or Dayton Moore overpaid for him. I mean, even if the Mariners had no use for Jose, they could have exercised their option and traded him to a team like the Royals. One way or the other, Seattle left talent and/or money on the table.

Kansas City, on the other hand, is now on the hook for $12M in 2008, 2009, and 2010 for an enigmatic outfielder who will turn 32 in May and has already played for eight teams in his first 11 seasons in the majors. Guillen was suspended by the Angels near the end of the 2004 campaign and recently questioned by the commissioner's office regarding the purchase of HGH and steroids from May 2002-June 2005. He may serve a 10-15 day suspension next season.

In the department of risk and reward, maybe Guillen (who has put up an OPS+ of 116 or better in four of the last five seasons, including a 142 in his career year in 2003) fits the bill as a potentially high reward for a club that has been unable – or unwilling – to attract tier-one talent in the free agent market. Maybe. But there's no getting around the fact that he is a high risk.

Rob Neyer and Joe Posnanski, two of my favorite baseball writers, seem to agree with me on this one – and both are longtime followers of the Royals.

- Rich Lederer

* * * * * * * * * *

News: The Los Angeles Dodgers reached an agreement late Wednesday night with free-agent center fielder Andruw Jones on a two-year, $36 million contract. Jones will receive a $12 million signing bonus and earn $9 million in 2008 and $15 million in 2009.

Comments: This is a typical move on the part of Ned Colletti, who has signed a number of free agents to shorter-term contracts in his two years as general manager. Too bad one of them wasn't Juan Pierre, who Colletti inked to a FIVE-year deal last winter.

To make room for Jones in center, Pierre will now switch to left field. At best, he can become Lou Brock light. The operative words here are: "at best" and "light." In other words, Pierre will not duplicate what Brock did for the Cardinals during the 1960s and 1970s. Instead, he can only hope to hit for a similar average and steal a like number of bases. Brock had an OPS+ of 107-126 every year from 1964-1976. Pierre's single-season best OPS+ is 107 with a career mark of 84. No matter how you slice this one, the Dodgers will have a gaping hole offensively in left field next year – and perhaps through 2011 unless management swallows its pride and owns up to the mistake of signing Pierre to that ridiculous contract a year ago.

By the way, are the Dodgers and Angels collecting center fielders or what? The Jones signing marks the fourth (yes, FOURTH!) free-agent CF in the past year that will call the greater Los Angeles area his home.

Jon Weisman hopes the Dodgers will see fit to trade (or sit) Pierre rather than Andre Ethier or Matt Kemp and longs for an outfield consisting of Ethier-Jones-Kemp rather than Pierre-Jones-Ethier.

- Rich Lederer

* * * * * * * * * *

Presented without commentary (There are no words.):

Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus at 2:45 on 12/4: "The blockbuster that might have been between the Tigers and Marlins ... won't be."

Carroll at 5:15 on 12/4: "Johan Santana to the Red Sox is all but done. Jon Lester, a center fielder, Justin Masterson and Ryan Kalish are the package. More details now."

Carroll on Bill James during his chat yesterday: "The guy bores me, frankly."

- Patrick Sullivan

* * * * * * * * * *

There is something cruel about reading this excerpt from an ESPN story posted last night about the Mets being in play for the services of Johan Santana. On the Mets ability to get a deal done...

"We have some pretty good prospects," general manager Omar Minaya said. "We have the players."

No, you don't, Omar. And the saddest part of it all is that if you did, it would have had to have included Lastings Milledge, whom you traded to the Washington Nationals for a 29 year-old outfielder who has appeared in all of 347 games and a 31 year-old catcher who has hit .246/.323/.333 over the last two seasons.

If David Wright and Jose Reyes are, in fact, untouchable as has been reported, there is no combination that the Mets could put together that would best even the least inspiring combo that has been put out there by the Yanks or Red Sox.

- Patrick Sullivan

* * * * * * * * * *

I usually don't get too worked up over the Veterans Committee's Hall of Fame selections (or lack thereof), but I was left scratching my head when I read that former commissioner Bowie Kuhn was elected and Marvin Miller wasn't in the balloting for managers, umpires, executives and pioneers.

Kuhn was joined by managers Billy Southworth and Dick Williams plus executives Barney Dreyfuss and Walter O'Malley. Other than William Eckert, I realize that all of the commissioners before Kuhn have been enshrined in Cooperstown. But being commissioner in and of itself should not be a reason for induction. If anything, we have had our fill of commissioners over the years. What's ironic to me is that Kuhn's tenure was parallel with Miller's, and it's the latter who schooled the former in the area of labor relations.

Miller is one of the most influential figures in the history of baseball. He belongs in the Hall of Fame. It's a real disservice that he has been overlooked this long. I hope voters will see fit to honor him before he passes away. Miller turns 91 next April and the committee will not vote again for two years.

I'm happy for the Kuhn family but feel sad for the Millers. Mr. Miller deserves (much) better.

- Rich Lederer


Here's a comprehensive recap of today's Rule 5 Draft.

Former Indians outfielder Brian Barton, whom Marc Hulet mentioned in his excellent preview on Monday, was selected 10th by the Cardinals.

- Patrick Sullivan

Baseball Beat/Change-UpOctober 09, 2007
Tuesday Blog
By Rich Lederer and Patrick Sullivan

We ordinarily would only post such a format on the Weekends but let's be serious here, what else are we going to write about today? We have playoffs on our scattered brains, and thus will unapologetically move full steam ahead with a blog format.

I couldn't help but notice yesterday that Rich seemed to be downplaying the contributions David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez made in Boston's sweep of the Los Angeles Angels. Rich said the following:

Although David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez will get a lot of the credit for lifting the Sox to the first-round victory, Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling shut out the Angels for 16 innings.

OK maybe he did not downplay it, but he failed to mention specifically what Ortiz and Ramirez did in the series. Combined, the two put up a ridiculous .533/.731/1.333 AVG/OBP/SLG line. Boston fans have long been treated to superb hitting from these two but never at this level simultaneously. It will be difficult to keep the momentum going, however, with a five day break and C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona set to go this weekend.

- Patrick Sullivan, 10/9, 8:15 AM ET

Before I can turn my full attention to the upcoming ALCS and NLCS, I feel the need to make the following comments with respect to Joe Torre, who may be on his way out in New York.

Joe Torre is a class act. He is a pro. Respected by his players and peers. Too bad the same thing can't be said of George Steinbrenner. Torre should have been able to leave on his own terms or at least with the dignity he showed throughout his 12-year career with the Yankees. He was good to baseball and baseball was good to him. Fifty years. Four world championships. Nine-time All-Star. MVP. Gold Glove. Batting title. And, yes, a Hall of Famer.

- Rich Lederer, 10/9, 8:30 AM PT

Two infielders famous for not living up to some lofty expectations came through in a major way for their teams in the LDS. Three others notable for carrying their teams at times and coming through when needed most did not. Have a look:

            AVG   OBP    SLG
K. Matsui  .417  .500  1.083
S. Drew    .500  .500  1.143
D. Jeter   .176  .176   .176 (3 GIDP)   
A. Soriano .143  .200   .143
A. Ramirez .000  .077   .000

It will be interesting to see if Arizona and Colorado continue to get heightened performance from Drew and Matsui, respectively.

- Patrick Sullivan, 10/9, 12:47 PM ET

They say good pitching beats good hitting, especially in the postseason. Well, the League Championship Series will feature four of the best pitching staffs in baseball.

Let's take a look:

       ERA+    Lg Rank
ARI    114       1
COL    110       4
       ERA+    Lg Rank
BOS    118       1
CLE    109       3

Don't let those hitters' ballparks fool you. Arizona, Colorado, and Boston can flat out pitch. And so can Cleveland. These teams also boast good defenses (with Colorado tied for second in the NL and Boston tied for first in the AL in defensive efficiency). It's important to note that a run saved is worth more than a run scored.

- Rich Lederer, 10/9, 10:25 AM PT

Baseball Beat/Change-UpOctober 03, 2007
ALDS Preview: Los Angeles Angels vs. Boston Red Sox
By Rich Lederer and Patrick Sullivan

Hi everyone. I'm the Baseball Beat guy. Patrick Sullivan and I are going to preview the American League Division Series between the Los Angeles Angels (94-68) and the Boston Red Sox (96-66). I've been a fan of the Angels since 1969 when my Dad was hired by then-general manager Dick Walsh as Director of Public Relations and Promotions. It was a tough job as there wasn't much to promote back then. Ownership has since transitioned from Gene Autry to Disney to Arte Moreno. Angels fans love Autry and Moreno, but did you know that the team won its only World Championship under Disney?

Sully here, and I must confess that this matchup is pretty neat for Rich and me. As many of you know, Rich resides in Southern California and is a longtime supporter of both the Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Angels. I have spent most of my 27 years in the Boston area and have loved the Red Sox for as long as I can remember. Rich and I even attended an Angels-Red Sox game together back in the Summer of 2005. Rich wrote about that night here (Johanna, joining me at tonight's contest, is now my wife for those who follow the link).

The schedule, with five games played over eight days, looks like one befitting a basketball or hockey playoff series. Hey, with wild cards and all, it almost is. But the Angels and Red Sox made it the old-fashioned way – they earned it by winning their respective divisions.


Game 1: Wed., Oct. 3, 6:37 PM ET on TBS – LAA (John Lackey) @ BOS (Josh Beckett)
Game 2: Fri., Oct. 5, 8:37 PM ET on TBS – LAA (Kelvim Escobar) @ BOS (Daisuke Matsuzaka)
Game 3: Sun., Oct. 7, 3:07 PM ET on TBS/TNT – BOS (Curt Schilling) @ LAA (Jered Weaver)
Game 4*: Mon., Oct. 8, 9:37 PM ET on TBS – BOS (Josh Beckett) @ LAA (John Lackey)
Game 5*: Wed., Oct. 10, 8:37 PM ET on TBS – LAA (Kelvim Escobar) @ BOS (Diasuke Matsuzaka)

* if necessary


         HOME      ROAD     TOTAL
LAA     54-27     40-41     94-68
BOS     51-30     45-36     96-66

Head-to-head results: Boston won 6 games out of 10.


        RUNS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   OPS+  
LAA      822  .284  .345  .417  .762   101
BOS      867  .279  .362  .444  .806   113


        RUNS   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   OPS+  
LAA      731  .266  .328  .412  .740    95
BOS      657  .247  .314  .392  .706    86

Due to the fact that Gary Matthews Jr. was left off the roster and Vladimir Guerrero isn't healthy enough to play right field, the Angels will be going with a makeshift lineup that will probably include shifting regular third baseman Chone Figgins to right field and inserting utilityman Maicer Izturis at the hot corner. We won't know what manager Mike Scioscia will do until the starting lineups are announced but are guessing that the winningest skipper in Angels' history will see fit to make the changes described above.

Position-By-Position Breakdown

Jeff Mathis (.211/.276/.351, 4 HR, 23 RBI) began the season in the minors, was called up to the majors in early July, took over the starting job when Mike Napoli got hurt, and never gave it back. His stat line peaked at .248/.306/.434 on September 6 but a 1-for-27 finish reduced his numbers to a level that can be deemed nothing short of a liability *at* the plate (rather than *behind* the plate).

Jason Varitek (.255/.367/421, 17 HR, 68 RBI) bounced back from an injury-plagued 2006 that had Sox fans wondering if the Captain might be all done. He bounced back nicely and eased the minds of Red Sox fans. You can nitpick about the contract and the production and whether it was a good deal but, at the end of the day, all that matters was that the Sox had the luxury of penciling in a good player in the catcher slot. In this catcher’s market, you’ll take that.

Rich says: Mathis can handle himself defensively but Varitek has more experience and is a better hitter. Edge Boston.

Sully says: Agreed

First base:
Casey Kotchman (.296/.372/.467, 11 HR, 68 RBI) was one of the best hitters in the AL through the middle of June before suffering a concussion on a thrown ball in a game vs. the Dodgers. Kotchman, who returned nine days later and went hitless for a week, has never been the same, hitting .263/.338/.390 with only 3 HR in 236 AB the rest of the way.

Kevin Youkilis (.288/.390/.453, 16 HR, 83 RBI) is a very good baseball player, comfortably above average as first basemen go. Youk prides himself on his approach – he ranked 7th in baseball with 4.47 pitches per plate appearance – but his second-half slugging average of just .391 is of concern to Sox supporters. Even when he is going badly he is ok but when he really turns it on, he can be one of the best in the game. A September up-tick over and above his July and August performance keeps hope alive for a first-half replication in the playoffs.

Rich says: I'm calling this one a tie. The tie usually goes to the runner but neither of these guys is particularly fast. No blood. Just like Schilling in 2004.

Sully says: Hey, irk Schill at your own peril. He reads these here internets and will be gunning for the Halos in Game 3. Anyway, by virtue of his stellar finish I am giving this one to Kotchman.

Second base:
Howie Kendrick (.322/.347/.450, 5 HR, 39 RBI) can flat out hit. But he's really nothing more than a singles and doubles hitter at this point in his career. I mean, Howie couldn't draw a walk (9 BB in 353 PA) if you gave him a piece of paper and a pen. His power should develop over time but, for now, he is a poor man's Bill Madlock. Which ain't half bad.

Dustin Pedroia (.317/.380/.442, 8 HR, 50 RBI) had an excellent season and will in all likelihood run away with the AL Rookie of the Year award. Those numbers up there look nice and all but if you have a look at Pedroia’s line since bottoming out with a .518 OPS on May 1, you start to realize just how special a player the Sox have on their hands. He has hit .335/.392/.470 since that time, a line that would have him hanging right with any keystoner in baseball not named Utley.

Rich says: I would have picked Kendrick before the season began. Oh wait, I did. He was on my fantasy team. But I gotta give Pedroia a tiny (sorry, bad joke) edge at this point in time.

Sully says: Pedroia in a photo finish thanks to his consistency and approach. Edge: Boston

Orlando Cabrera (.301/.345/.397, 8 HR, 86 RBI, 20 SB) is in the midst of one of his best seasons ever. His offensive numbers have never been better and his glovework has been exceptional (although perhaps not as fantastic as 2001 when he was with Montreal). He really doesn't have a weakness. O.C. can hit for average, has decent extra-base power for a shortstop, can hit & run, bunt, steal a base, pick it with the best, throw, you name it. Very underrated in most sabermetric circles.

Julio Lugo (.237/.294/.349, 8 HR, 73 RBI) was awful this season, one of the very worst shortstops in all of baseball. Pitchers rarely fail to overwhelm him and I cannot imagine things will be different with the potent arms the Angels have lined up. He’s brutal.

Rich says: Let's be real. Cabrera in a landslide. Sully just wishes that Boston still had him.

Sully says: What can I say?

Third base:
Maicer Izturis (.289/.349/.405, 6 HR, 51 RBI) is better than most of us think. I mean, check out those numbers. Not bad for a utility player who has served the Angels well by filling in at second and third base for long stretches. Izturis is one of three switch-hitters in the starting lineup. He makes good contact and can jack it out of the park on occasion, especially when hitting from the left side.

Mike Lowell (.324/.378/.501, 21 HR, 120 RBI) seems to be garnering some unmerited team MVP support in some corners but he still had one whale of a year. A pro’s pro, Lowell has been a steadying force for an offense that has seen its share of ups and downs throughout the season.

Rich says: There's no use arguing this one. Lowell, hands down.

Sully says: Yeah, this is a no-brainer.

Left Field:
Garret Anderson (.297/.336/.492, 16 HR, 80 RBI) is on fire. Turn back the clock, folks. The 35-year-old left fielder is hitting like it's 2002 or 2003. GA, who sat out the final two games of the regular season with a case of pink eye, hit .305/.361/.530 with 13 HR and 65 RBI during the second half. One of the best "guess hitters" in the game, Anderson needs to produce in order for the Angels to score runs and compete with the Red Sox.

Manny Ramirez (.296/.388/.493, 20 HR, 88 RBI) could be the greatest determinant of this series. He has been bad, good, excellent, ok and injured at various points in the season. Who shows up come tonight is really anyone’s guess.

Rich says: Man, this is a toughie. Ramirez is a Hall of Famer so it's difficult, if not unwise, to go against him. But, in the here and now, I gotta call this one a draw. Did I really say that?

Sully says: Here we go. Rich, go with Manny. I ain't buyin' what GA's been sellin' these last few months and neither should you.

Center Field:
Reggie Willits (.293/.391/.344, 0 HR, 34 RBI, 27 SB) gets the call in CF because incumbent Gary Matthews Jr. (.252/.323/.419, 18 HR, 72 RBI) was left off the roster due to an ailing left knee. A slap hitter with no power, Willits draws walks, runs well, and is a good choice to have at the plate in certain situations. Then again, Reggie was a terrible option to have at the plate during most of the second half when his batting average (.271) and on-base percentage (.370) fell well below their first-half levels (.312 and .408).

Coco Crisp (.268/.330/.382, 6 HR, 60 RBI) is one hell of a defender but often looks lost at the dish. Don't be surprised to see Jacoby Ellsbury cut into some of his playing time.

Rich says: The loss of Matthews hurts. I can't see taking Willits or Crisp. Call it a push.

Sully says: I am not sure you have an appreciation for just how inept Crisp can be at the plate. I give Willits just a slight edge thanks to his on-base skills.

Right Field:
Chone Figgins (.330/.393/.432, 3 HR, 58 RBI, 41 SB) has led the majors with a .381 batting average since May 31. However, Figgy enters the playoffs in an 0-for-22 slump, perhaps owing to an injured left wrist that has caused him some problems down the stretch. He is equally good from both sides of the plate. Just not sure what to expect from him in the playoffs, either at the plate or in right field.

J.D. Drew (.270/.373/.423, 11 HR, 64 RBI) is the favorite whipping boy of the masshole sect of Red Sox Nation but look at those final numbers. They aren't worth $14 million but they are not half bad either. Mix in the fact that he ended up hitting .342/.454/.618 for the month of September and we may just have to turn Central Park into a makeshift confessional for Phills and Sox fans to repent over all those nasty things they said about Pat Burrell and J.D., respectively.

Rich says: Guerrero. Oops, Vlad is likely to DH this week (see below). Figgins has had the better season but Drew is in more familiar territory out there and comes into the series with a hotter bat than his counterpart. Too many variables to call it one way or the other.

Sully says: I would have said big edge to the Angels a month ago but with more of a track record to speak of and coming into the post-season on the heels of a lights-out September, I am giving a small edge to Drew and the Red Sox.

Designated Hitter:

Vladimir Guerrero (.324/.403/.547, 27 HR, 125 RBI), who sat out four of the final six regular-season games due to a sore triceps muscle, will probably serve as the primary designated hitter in this series. Big Daddy Vladdy as he is called by Angels color analyst Rex Hudler is as dangerous as they come when healthy. However, Vlad has had a tendency of becoming even more anxious than normal during the postseason and might be neutralized like he was in 2004 when Boston held him to just two hits in 12 at-bats in a three-game sweep.

David Ortiz (.332/.445/.621, 35 HR, 117 RBI) may have just had his best season. The counting stat crowd wouldn't know it (he had 19 less home runs) but his career-high OPS+ of 176 would certainly seem to support the contention. Like Drew, Ortiz comes in smoking too. He hit .396/.517/.824 over the season's final month.

Rich says: The numbers don't lie. I know Angels fans wouldn't trade Guerrero for Ortiz, but Big Papi bested Vlad across the board. I hate to say it but the DH slot goes to Boston.

Sully says: Vlad's a great player, just not David Ortiz.

Off the Bench:
Juan Rivera (.279/.295/.442, 2 HR, 8 RBI in 43 AB) could see time in right field but is more likely to be used as a pinch hitter or perhaps as a DH if Vlad is healthy enough to take his old spot back. Rivera, who missed the first five months of the season with a broken leg, looked tentative during most of September.

Mike Napoli (.247/.351/.443, 10 HR, 34 RBI) will probably start one of the games behind the dish. He was slowed by a leg injury during the second half and lost his starting job to Mathis.

Others: Erick Aybar (utility), Nathan Hayes (OF), Kendry Morales (1B/DH), and Robb Quinlan (designated lefty masher).

Jacoby Ellsbury (.353/.394/.509, 3 HR, 18 RBI) tore through the minors this season and impressed in a fair amount of Big League time. He may start a game or two in Crisp's stead but even if he does not, he provides some nice depth for Terry Francona's club.

Eric Hinske (.204/.317/.398, 6 HR, 21 RBI) is better than these numbers look. He's a career .255 hitter who just happened to put up a crummy batting average this campaign. He still has some pop and still knows how to approach an at-bat.

Others: Kevin Cash (C), Doug Mirabelli (C), Bobby Kielty OF), Alex Cora (INF).

Rich says: The Angels bench has been depleted of its strength. Not all that crazy about Boston's depth either. Edge goes ever so slightly to the Sox, mostly due to Ellsbury's presence.

Sully says: Too close to call, but I think both teams feature pretty decent benches. No word on why Francona did not also add Rich Gedman, Marc Sullivan and Spanky MacFarlane to supplement his catching depth in 'Belli and Cash.

Rich: I was wondering the same thing, Sully. Can only guess that Ellsbury is going to be pinch running for Tek and Tito wanted the flexibility to pinch hit for the backup catcher in the late innings. Did I mention, edge to Angels in the manager category?

John Lackey (19-9, 3.01) isn't called Big Game John for nothing. Lackey led the AL in ERA and Runs Saved Against Average (42) and was second in wins. He has also led the league in shutouts in three of the past five years. The big righthander is as tough as he is ugly. He wants the ball in crucial games and never wants to come out.

Kelvim Escobar (18-7, 3.40) pitched brilliantly through mid-August when he was leading the AL in ERA, then tired down the stretch, before righting the ship last Saturday when he pitched six solid innings in a win over OAK. He did a great job at keeping the ball on the ground (28 GIDP) and in the yard (11 HR in 195.2 IP).

Jered Weaver (13-7, 3.91) will be making his first appearance in the postseason. The second-year pitcher experienced a bout of tendinitis in the spring and has only recently recovered to the point where his fastball has a 9-handle on it. Weaver gave up just one earned run in five of his final seven starts while allowing no more than one walk in all but one game.

Josh Beckett (20-7, 3.27) was the only 20-game winner in Major League Baseball. He's a true ace and for what it's worth, dominated the Angels in two 2007 starts.

Diasuke Matsuzaka (15-12, 4.40) had well-documented troubles towards the end of the year but finished decently in his final three starts. When it was all said and done, he was an above average starter who threw over 200 innings with an exceptional strikeout rate. If I am Francona, I have Jon Lester on alert for an early call should Matsuzaka appear to be struggling on Friday night. Dice-K is the type that either has it or does not.

Curt Schilling (9-8, 3.87) had a 3.34 ERA and a 7.5 K/BB over his last nine starts. He's back, folks, and though I am not one for the touchy-feely stuff, Schilling is one hell of a competitor to boot.

Rich says: The Lackey-Beckett matchups are about as good as it gets. The righthanders are two of the top three candidates for the AL Cy Young Award. Furthermore, both pitchers won the clinching game of the World Series on short rest in their first trip to the postseason – Lackey, of course, in 2002, and Beckett in 2003. I would call these two a draw and give the Angels a slight edge when it comes to Escobar-Matsuzaka and Weaver-Schilling (bloody sock or no). Bottom line: Angels, by the smallest of margins.

Sully says: Lackey would probably be the runaway favorite for the Cy Young if he had not made the two starts against Boston in 2007 (8.38 ERA in just over 9 IP). The Sox own him, as he is precisely the type of pitcher they have handled over the years. Look for Sox hitters to wait Lackey out and drive mistakes they force him to throw in hitters counts. As for the other matchups, Escobar has not broken a 60 game score since August while Matsuzaka turned a corner over his last three outings. Do I really need to go into Weaver and Schilling? Boston gets the nod here.

Francisco Rodriguez (5-2, 2.81, 40 Saves) completed his third-consecutive season with 40 or more saves. A strikeout pitcher, K-Rod punched out 90 batters in 67.1 innings. Frankie is lights out if he has his fastball and slider are both working on the same night.

Scot Shields (4-5, 3.86, 31 Holds) had an uneven season. He gave up two runs or more in nine games over the course of the second half. His ERA more than doubled from 1.70 at the All-Star break to 3.86 by season's end. Scioscia still has confidence in his veteran set-up man and is likely to hand him the ball in the eighth inning whenever he is needed.

Justin Speier (2-3, 2.88, 24 Holds) missed 2-1/2 months early in the season but was nails in September. He is the Halos "go to" guy in the seventh inning and could be used every game if necessary.

Darren Oliver (3-1, 3.78) had an 11-game streak from August 31-September 22 in which he threw 14.1 IP without allowing a run. His good fortune came to an end when he surrendered three runs on September 25 and he gave up another run in his next outing on Sunday. A lefty with reverse splits this season, his role is somewhat unclear given the new-found depth in the names of Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana in this short series.

Others: Dustin Moseley (groundball specialist), Ervin Santana (long or middle relief), and Joe Saunders (fourth starter or possible LOOGY – I'm talking to you, Big Papi).

Jonathan Papelbon (1-3, 1.89, 37 SV) is one of the best closers in baseball. There is not much else to say.

Hideki Okajima (3-2, 2.22, 27 HLD) was a Rookie of the Year candidate until faltering badly in August and September. Since August 1, Okie has posted a 6.23 ERA. It will be interesting to see how Francona mismanages this one.

Manny Delcarmen (0-0, 2.05) needs to be featured more prominently. He was lights out all year long.

Javier Lopez (2-1, 3.10) is used too often as a LOOGY for a guy with reverse splits but remains a dependable item coming out of the Boston bullpen.

Others: Jon Lester (emergency starter/long reliever), Eric Gagne (which one shows up?), Mike Timlin (middle relief).

Rich says: Two of the best bullpens in the league. Minor edge goes to the Angels because their usage patterns are much more transparent than Boston's.

Sully says: A really difficult one to call but I will give the Angels the advantage given Eric Gagne's struggles, Francona's bullpen management problems and Okajima's iffy finish.

Rich's Prediction: Boston is the favorite for good reason. The Red Sox had the best record in the majors, the biggest run differential, won the season series, and own the home-field advantage. Oh, and Boston comes into the series in better physical shape than the Angels. Add all these factors up and even an (objective) Angels fan would have to pick them to win the division series. The Sox win this one in four or five. A sweep will have Boston players and fans thinking 2004 all over again. However, since 1990, only the 1998 Yankees have won the World Series after finishing with the best record in the majors.

Sully's Prediction: Boston in four. I think the Sox paste Lackey in Game 1 and don't look back. The Halos will pull one out but I think this is too much of a mismatch for Los Angeles. As the numbers clearly demonstrate above, Boston has the better lineup and the better pitching - a tough combo to overcome.

* * * * *

Note: Be sure to check out our playoff previews for the Cubs-Diamondbacks and Rockies-Phillies series, both of which are also scheduled to launch today.

Two on Two: NL West Preview
By Rich Lederer and Patrick Sullivan

We conclude 2007's Two on Two Preview series with the NL West. With us for this one is Jon Weisman of Dodger Thoughts, who also has published a collection of his best postings over there. Geoff Young of the popular Padres blog, Ducksnorts, has also joined us to preview things out west. Geoff's book, Ducksnorts 2007 Baseball Annual, is a thorough review of recent Padres history and would make an excellent addition to any Padres (or baseball for that matter) fan's library.

Previous Two on Two's are listed below:

AL East
AL Central
AL West
NL East
NL Central

Sully: In 2006 the NL West was a two-tiered division. San Diego and Los Angeles each finished with 88 wins, while San Francisco, Arizona and Colorado all finished with 76. It seems like Colorado and Arizona may be looking to break into that upper tier - if not this year, then soon. I think anything goes in this division in 2007. The standings could look exactly the same or the Snakes and Rox could make some real noise and tip the balance of power. What do you guys look forward to from the West this season?

Geoff: The division figures to be extremely competitive. The Dodgers and Padres each won 88 games in 2006, and neither should slip much this year. Arizona and Colorado both have some dynamic young players, with the Diamondbacks being more well rounded and ready to contend. Even the Giants, about whom I'm not terribly enthusiastic, could be tough if Barry Bonds can stay healthy and a few other things go their way.

Jon: I think the NL West is an interesting division, top to bottom. And I am with Geoff on the Giants, perhaps the last-place consensus pick. But they have a starting rotation you can't dismiss, plus Bonds in his drive for history. I'm not sure there's an elite team in the division, but I think it could be the best overall division in the league.

Geoff: One of the more interesting stories to me this year is player/manager movement within the division. Bruce Bochy, Jose Cruz Jr., Steve Finley, Luis Gonzalez, Ryan Klesko, Greg Maddux, Dave Roberts, and Jason Schmidt all moved to rival teams in the NL West this past off-season. Congratulations to Finley for becoming the first player to complete the NL West circuit in its current configuration.

Rich: This is our sixth and final preview and what I find interesting is that each division in the NL seems to have three teams that have a legitimate chance of winning. The Phillies, Mets, and Braves should dominate the NL East; the Cardinals, Brewers, and Cubs appear to have separated themselves from the others in the NL Central; and the Dodgers, Padres, and Diamondbacks are the cream of the crop in the NL West. San Diego won the West last year. Is the pitching as good as advertised?

Geoff: Chris Young looks legitimate; he doesn't throw particularly hard, but his pitches are very difficult to pick up and he's pitching in the right park for an extreme flyball pitcher. Jake Peavy's production dipped in 2006, but his peripheral numbers remained strong and he's a good bet to rebound. Both of those guys need to increase their efficiency, though, to avoid putting unnecessary strain on the bullpen. Clay Hensley finished 10th in the league in ERA and nobody knows who he is. Strike throwers Maddux and David Wells anchor the back end of the rotation, and should provide an upgrade over Woody Williams and Chan Ho Park. This is probably the best starting five in the division, if not the league.

Jon: I agree with Geoff. Putting aside the fact that the ballpark itself suppresses offense, they have a lovely pitching staff in my opinion. This team won't get routed.

Geoff: The San Diego bullpen also figures to be strong, as the big three of Trevor Hoffman, Scott Linebrink, and Cla Meredith return, while Kevin Towers generally manages to string together cheap and effective arms for the lower-leverage roles. Heath Bell is the intriguing name this season.

Sully: It's a very solid rotation, and that Peavy was in fact very good last season cannot be stressed enough. He struck out more than a batter an inning and was by no means liberal with the free pass. That will translate into better traditional stats like W-L and ERA in 2007. As for the bullpen, I think it remains strong but I wouldn't be holding my breath expecting similar output from Meredith in 2007.

Rich: San Diego led the NL in ERA last year and, as Geoff notes, the pitching staff should be even better in 2007. Sure, they benefited from Petco but the Padres were second in the league in ERA+ (which adjusts for ballpark effects). One of the hallmarks of a Kevin Towers team is throwing strikes. The Padres do that as well as any team in the majors. In the meantime, San Diego's defense was the best in the NL. Having Mike Cameron in center means the outfield will do just fine in chasing down flyballs. If Kevin Kouzmanoff and Marcus Giles can hold their own at third and second, respectively, this team will likely lead the league in run prevention this year, too.

Sully: These guys aren't so bad offensively either. I am really excited to see Kouzmanoff with the bat and I also want to see what the Pads offense can do with full seasons from Cameron and Josh Bard. Marcus Giles coming over and staying healthy could also be a nice boost.

Geoff: Scoring runs was a problem for the Padres in 2006, especially at home. Now entering their fourth season at Petco Park, Padres batters really need to figure out ways to make it work to their advantage. A fully healthy Terrmel Sledge should represent a slight upgrade in left field from the popular but aging Dave Roberts. I also expect Brian Giles to rebound somewhat (nothing spectacular, maybe .280/.390/.450) from a career-worst season; he's in the decline phase of his career, but his batting eye hasn't deteriorated at all and he actually could be a pretty decent #2 hitter. If Khalil Greene can stay off the disabled list, he's still got a little upside.

Jon: It's not a dynamic offense, but I really like the look of Adrian Gonzalez, whom San Diego recently rewarded with a contract extension. And I need to make a special mention of Rob Bowen, whose plus/minus rating - based on purely anecdotal recollection on my part - must be sky high!

Rich: San Diego's offense is a bit underrated in my mind. Not great by any means but not all that bad either. I don't think Kouzmanoff will be a superstar, yet I salute management for recognizing the glut of second basemen on the market and getting someone who can hit to play third base because the Padres haven't gotten much production out of that spot in years. Whatever the team lost in going from Josh Barfield to Marcus Giles will be more than overcome by inserting Kouz in the lineup rather than Vinny Castilla and friends.

Sully: The Dodgers are a tough team to handicap. On the one hand, they have all of this young talent and yet they seem a little clumsy in melding their free agent strategy with their efforts to promote from within their own system. Offensively they look solid if they can get the right guys in there. But Luis Gonzalez and Juan Pierre have the ability to quickly submarine even the most potent offense.

Jon: No 1.000 OPSers here, but they have enough options that if they're reactive, they should at least be middle-of-the-road for the league and near the top in the division. Memo to Ned Colletti: Change can be good.

Geoff: The Dodgers have some very nice young hitters, and I'm not sure why they're not using more of them. Russell Martin looks like he could be one of the better catchers in baseball before long. I'm not as excited about Andre Ethier as some are -- too much of his value is tied into batting average for my taste -- but he's a decent young player in the Garret Anderson mold. James Loney and Matt Kemp showed flashes of brilliance last year but are blocked by veterans Nomar Garciaparra and Gonzalez. And of course, the Dodgers didn't do themselves any favors by overpaying for the services of Pierre. If he hits .320 or better, as in 2004, then he'll have value; but if he's down in the .290s, like last year, then not so much.

Rich: We've mentioned everyone but the team's best player: Rafael Furcal. Although the 29-year-old shortstop and lead-off hitter starts the season on the DL, I think he may be the best everyday player in the division. Furcal hit .300 with 73 BB and 15 HR while stealing 37 bases at a 74% clip. He is supposed to miss the first week with an ankle sprain but should be good to go soon.

Geoff: Honestly, this is a tough offense to figure. If Garciaparra and Jeff Kent stay healthy, if Ethier and Martin avoid a sophomore slump, and if Wilson Betemit develops into the hitter some folks think he can become, then the Dodgers should score some runs. That's a lot of if's, though.

Jon: On the pitching side, I've had nagging concerns about the health of the Dodgers' otherwise deep starting rotation, and I'm certainly not alone in my reservations about the defense. I think the Dodger bullpen is underrated, though. They have a lot of live arms.

Geoff: The Dodgers have a fascinating rotation. Their signing of Jason Schmidt, in light of other deals being thrown around for pitchers this winter, could be one of the steals of the off-season. Derek Lowe and Brad Penny remain talented but erratic. Penny completely disappeared after the All-Star break last year, and the Dodgers can't afford to have that happen again. Randy Wolf doesn't do much for me, but if he's healthy, there are worse guys to stash at the back of your rotation. Takashi Saito and Jonathan Broxton return to anchor the 'pen. Bringing Saito over from Japan was a brilliant move, and Broxton is one of my favorite pitchers to watch -- he's the NL version of Bobby Jenks. Actually, he's probably got a little better command than Jenks.

Rich: Oh, I like Broxton more than Jenks. He would be the closer on most teams and will one day be asked to pitch nothing but the ninth inning for the Dodgers. In fact, I would take Broxton over any closer in the division and that's not a knock on Hoffman. He's just that good. Chad Billingsley gives the Dodgers another power arm in the bullpen. He should be starting but Ned Colletti and Grady Little haven't shown much confidence in their youngsters, other than as in-season replacements. He'll get a chance to start at some point and will undoubtedly wind up in what could be a very good rotation. More than anyone else, Penny is the key to how well the Dodgers pitching staff performs this year.

Sully: The Giants continued full steam ahead with their organizational philosophy of being as old as possible this off-season. Only this season they just so happen to have some young talent entering into the Big League mix from within. For the money the Barry Zito signing was awful but with the youngsters (Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum) in the mix the rotation looks formidable.

Jon: Like I indicated earlier, a rotation with Cain, Zito, Lowry and, say, Lincecum will keep them in most games. I'm not enamored of the Giants' bullpen or defense.

Sully: The bullpen does leave quite a bit to be desired. Kevin Correia, Steve Kline, Armando Benitez. Blech.

Rich: If we set aside for a minute how much the Giants paid Zito, then I think one can make the case that he's not a bad fit unless, of course, you consider the team's outfield defense. This staff gives up a ton of flyballs, and I just don't think an outfield anchored by Dave Roberts in center is up to the task of chasing down all these balls in that park. And let's not forget Russ Ortiz. He reportedly has lost a bunch of weight and added several MPH to his fastball. But I reserve the right to remain (highly) skeptical until he proves me wrong.

Geoff: The addition of Zito should help take some of the pressure off future ace Cain. Zito is being marketed as a "sure thing" but I have my concerns -- his most comparable pitcher at Baseball-Reference through age 27 is Mike Hampton. Acknowledging that every case is different, this is kind of a terrifying precedent. Cain, meanwhile, is a stud who doesn't turn 23 until October. If there's a guy the Giants should be building around, it's him. Beyond those two, San Francisco really needs Noah Lowry to return to his 2005 form. His drop in strikeouts (7.56 K/9 in 2005 to 4.75 last year) is more than a little disconcerting. Matt Morris is pretty much an innings eater at this point, nothing too exciting, and like Jon and Sully mentioned, the bullpen is very suspect.

Sully: As for the offense, it wasn't very good last year and barring 145 games of 2005'ish Bonds, I don't see it being very good this season. The aging mediocrities added in the off-season will do little to catapult this offense to where it needs to be in order to contend.

Jon: At age 42, Bonds is still perhaps the hugest threat in the division, and Ray Durham is still productive - though, as with the Dodgers' Jeff Kent, you'd rather that your aging, 20-homers-with-a-little-luck second baseman weren't your cleanup hitter. I think basically, you can pitch around Bonds and let the rest of the offense sink itself.

Geoff: This is an unbelievably old lineup. I like the Bengie Molina signing. He's not great, but he'll give the Giants better offense out of the catcher position than they've gotten in recent years. Durham won't repeat his fine 2006 season, and Pedro Feliz still makes way too many outs to be a big-league regular. As for Bonds, he'll be productive if healthy.

Sully: I hate to be glib but it just astounds me how awful Feliz is and that he holds down an everyday MLB job.

Rich: I concur with Geoff. The team was old last year and is even older this year. I mean, what was Brian Sabean thinking when he signed Rich Aurilia, Ryan Klesko, and Roberts during the off-season? I know, I know. The Giants are of the opinion that they have to win now but that's the problem. They abandoned their player development program years and years ago, diverting money that should have gone to draftees in favor of free agents. The gig is finally up. I believe the Giants could be one of the worst teams in the NL, if not the majors, over the next half dozen years.

Sully: What do we think about the Rockies this year? They were a .500 Pythag team in 2006 and now add two exciting youngsters in Troy Tulowitzki and Chris Iannetta. Are they there yet or no?

Geoff: Well I'm pretty excited about the Rockies' offense. Todd Helton appears to be following the Brian Giles decline path, but he still gets on base and can do occasional damage. Helton, though, is no longer the focus of this lineup. Garrett Atkins, Brad Hawpe, and Matt Holliday all made their mark in 2006, and all are just entering their prime. Even acknowledging that Helton is on his way down, the Rockies have assembled a nice little collection of offensive talent that only figures to improve. Overall, this is probably a more well-rounded group than the heralded Blake Street Bombers from a decade ago.

Rich: I'm pretty sure that Kaz Matsui won't hit .345 again but he and Taveras give the team some speed to go along with the big bats that Geoff pointed out. It's probably too much to ask but this lineup could be really dangerous if Matsui and Taveras would learn to take a walk now and then. Atkins, Helton, Holliday, and Hawpe form a terrific three though six. Tulo and Iannetta are the future of the Rockies and should be at least league average in their first full seasons.

Jon: As I wrote this week at, it's the best heart of the order in the NL West. If Colorado can get production out of Tulowitzki and Iannetta, they will be a lot harder to beat than people may be expecting.

Sully: Colorado's starting pitching is very suspect. Nobody strikes anyone out on this staff, which is not a good thing when you are playing home games at altitude. I hold out some hope for Rodrigo Lopez, Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook but it's not a very good 1-5. The relief corps, on the other hand, is a different story. Brian Fuentes, Ramon Ramirez, Taylor Buchholz and Byung-Hyun Kim all miss bats with regularity. As long as they are not too taxed, the bullpen should help the Rox win a lot of games.

Geoff: Humidor or not, preventing runs at Coors Field will always be a challenge. Losing Jason Jennings hurts, and I have concerns about his replacement, Jason Hirsh, who gave up a ton of home runs in limited big-league innings with the Astros. Who else is in the rotation -- Josh Fogg? Kim? Lopez? Not a lot to get excited about here. The bullpen has potenial. Fuentes deserves a medal for consistently getting the job done for the Rockies. Outside of Steve Reed, I can't think of another reliever who's enjoyed so much success with Colorado. Manny Corpas and Ramirez give the Rockies a couple nice young right-handers with some upside. The guy I can't figure out is Jeremy Affeldt. Whenever I see him pitch, he looks like he should be pretty good, but the numbers just aren't there.

Rich: I like Lopez more than Geoff. He had decent strikeout, walk, and groundball rates last year while pitching for Baltimore in the much tougher AL East. The NL West should look like Triple-A to him except, of course, when he has to pitch at home. But, hey, somebody has to start those 81 games. Cook and Francis are solid. Although Hirsh might be a year away, I think O'Dowd made a great move trading Jennings for him. Colorado was bound to lose the free agent-to-be so turning him into a prized prospect and a center fielder (Willy Taveras) who can flag down balls at Coors Field seemed like a brilliant move to me.

Sully: And now onto the most compelling team in the division (in my opinion), the Arizona Diamondbacks. The projection systems love these guys, far more so than the mainstream press. I think the Snakes are ready to contend for the division. Their starting pitching is phenomenal, with the reigning Cy Young Award winner, Randy Johnson, a workhorse in Livan Hernandez, Doug Davis and any number of capable youngsters in the fifth spot. Jose Valverde, Brandon Medders, Tony Pena and Juan Cruz should all be excellent relievers. These guys are going to be tough.

Jon: After Brandon Webb, I'm not in love with the combined durability or talent of the others. Johnson, Hernandez and Davis will have their fair share of moments, perhaps more than their fair share, but I'm not intimidated by this staff. I feel this is a team that you can wear down.

Rich: I'm more with Jon than Sully with respect to Arizona's starting pitching. Webb was great last year but is unlikely to get much better. Johnson is more of a name than not at this point in his career. Hernandez should eat innings among other things and Davis is another guy who should give the club 200+ innings. But I wouldn't call this group "phenomenal" by any means.

Geoff: Arizona's biggest weakness last year was its starting pitching. The Diamondbacks moved aggressively this winter to address that problem, and now they're in surprisingly good shape. However, I disagree with Sully and think the bullpen is a little dicey. Valverde is capable of much better than what he did last year, and the Brandons (Lyon and Medders) are decent support guys if healthy. Cruz is one of those perennial breakout candidates. His stuff is electric, and he's still just 28 years old. Basically there's potential with this bullpen, but very little margin for error. If Valverde doesn't rebound or Lyon gets hurt again, the Snakes could have trouble late in games.

Sully: This should be a strong offense. It was just average last year (99 OPS+) but with additional development and improvement from Stephen Drew, Carlos Quentin and Connor Jackson, and the addition of Chris Young should all make this offense formidable.

Jon: It's exciting to think of what the kids can do. There's always the risk of a collective slump from unproven hitters, but it's a risk I'd be willing to take. With their talent, they don't need to feel intimidated by any division rival's pitching.

Geoff: You know what kills me about the Diamondbacks? They traded away a pretty good catcher in Johnny Estrada and don't figure to lose any ground at that position with rookie Miguel Montero. Oh, and they picked up a pretty decent starting pitcher in the process. That's making use of your resources. Anyway, I love this offense. The Diamondbacks have good, young hitters at almost every position.

Rich: Yes, I would concur with that assessment, yet there is some risk that Quentin's torn labrum zaps him of his power this season. I really like the talent the Diamondbacks have assembled but am inclined to think that players are still a year away from doing their thing.

Geoff: Seriously, this has the potential to be a real sick lineup for many years to come. The danger with guys like Montero, Drew, Quentin, and Young is that they haven't done it yet, so you never know if they're ready; that said, I don't see anything in their statistical records to indicate that they aren't. Maybe they'll just tread water in the short term, as Jackson did last year, but this is a tremendous foundation around which to build.

Rich: Let's talk about some potential surprises that may develop in the NL West in 2007.

Sully: I'll jump in and say that Rich's call for best player in the division, Rafael Furcal, will be surpassed by Stephen Drew. Drew will outplay Furcal in 2007 and be the best SS in the division.

Jon: Colorado's competitiveness. My surprise hunches, I'm sorry to say for the Rockies, rarely pan out, but I just feel there's a chance for things to break right for them.

On another level, I think the Padres have the potential to win and allow Bud Black to bust the stigma against pitchers becoming managers.

Geoff: A couple months ago, I would've said the Diamondbacks, but everyone seems to be jumping on their bandwagon, so I'll say the Colorado pitching staff. Jeff Francis will finish in the top 10 in the NL in ERA.

Rich: My surprise is that Lincecum will be forced into the closer's role for the Giants before the All-Star break and will strike out more than one-and-a-half batters per inning.

Sully: How about the three major awards? Who do we like as MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year candidates? I don't think I see any real MVP potentials coming out of the division. Maybe one of those guys in the middle of Colorado's offense. As for Cy Young candidates, I like Peavy and Webb, with Matt Cain having an outside shot as well. Chris Young is my guy, and I am sure others' as well, for ROY.

Jon: MVP: How about a little Garrett Atkins? Cy Young: Brandon Webb, of course. ROY: I'll follow others in picking Chris Young.

Geoff: I'm not sure there are any serious MVP candidates in the NL West. Maybe Matt Holliday or a healthy Barry Bonds, but both of those are a stretch. In alphabetical order, the main Cy Young candidates are Cain, Peavy, Schmidt, Webb and Young. Rookie of the Year? I'll go with Iannetta, Kouzmanoff, Montero, Tulowitzki and Chris B. Young.

Rich: Rather than rattling off a bunch of names, I am going to cut to the chase and say if the MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year come from the West, players attached to those awards will be Holliday, Peavy, and Lincecum.

Sully: And finally, please predict the order of finish in the division. I will take San Diego to repeat, and then I have Arizona, Los Angeles, Colorado, a big gap, then the Giants.

Rich: I'm on record going with the Dodgers, Padres, Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Giants. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Jon: I don't know if I'd make this pick if I didn't live in Los Angeles, but I think the Dodgers will get their act together in time to win the division, narrowly over the Padres. I think the Rockies will be a factor and edge out a disappointing Arizona team for third, with the Giants coming in last. But my dissing Arizona is probably the best thing that could happen to them.

Geoff: 1. Arizona 2. San Diego 3. Los Angeles 4. Colorado 5. San Francisco

I'll qualify this somewhat by saying that the battle for those top three spots will be fierce. I expect the wild card to come out of the NL West again this year.

Sully: Thanks for participating, guys.

Two on Two: NL Central
By Rich Lederer and Patrick Sullivan

Another Friday, another Two on Two. Today it's the NL Central and we have two of the best on these here internets accompanying us for the preview. Jeff Sackmann, most famously of Brew Crew Ball and the invaluable Minor League Splits, joins us. Also contributing is Larry Borowsky of Viva El Birdos, a tremendous site devoted to coverage of the St. Louis Cardinals. The previous installments can be viewed via the following links.

AL East
AL Central
AL West
NL East

Sully: Thanks guys for joining us as we preview the NL Central. It promises to be one of the tougher divisions in baseball to call this season. What are your introductory thoughts on the division? What's exciting about the NL Central in 2007?

Larry: It's a wide-open division. World Champs or no, the Cardinals are no longer perceived as invincible. The Cubs and Brewers have caught up to them talentwise, and if the Astros get Clemens back they may be right in the mix. Even the Pirates have a chance to play some meaningful late-summer games.

The most interesting thing about it, in my mind, is the wealth of young starting pitchers. Every team has at least one young hurler with a chance to make a big impact either this year or next. I would include on that list Anthony Reyes, Adam Wainwright, Rich Hill, Fernando Nieve, Matt Albers, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Homer Bailey, Yovani Gallardo, Carlos Villanueva . . . . who'm I leaving out?

Sully: Looks like a pretty comprehensive list to me, Larry. I am most excited about the Milwaukee Brewers. They seem to have been going about team-building "the right way" for a market of Milwaukee's size but people have been saying that for a while now. Is this finally the year that they put it together and contend? That to me will be the most fun storyline to watch in the NL Central.

Jeff: If you think the 2006 NL Central was bad, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Sure, the Brewers and Cubs will be improved, but the talent drain from the rest of the division is bad news. The division winner will win more than 83 games, but I wouldn't be shocked if the fourth place team (remember, that's out of 6) doesn't crack 70.

Rich: You know what is interesting about the NL Central to me? The lack of quality relief pitchers. Quick, name the closer for each team in this division . . . OK, I'm still waiting. Unless Brad Lidge returns to form, I guess Francisco Cordero would be the best of the rest. Cordero's not terrible but his ERA isn't going to be remotely close to the 1.69 mark he put up with Milwaukee last year. As a result, to answer Sully, I guess the excitement in the Central in 2007 will be the number of games blown in the ninth inning. If you're a fan of one of these teams, be sure to stick around for the whole game.

Sully: What's everyone thinking about the defending World Series Champs this season?

Larry: The Cardinal defense is one of the overlooked aspects of their dominance this decade, and it remains among the best in baseball. That's a good foundation to build upon. The starting rotation should improve through sheer inertia . . . and by "sheer intertia," yes, I'm referring to Braden Looper. Last year Jason Marquis and Mark Mulder combined for a 6.40 ERA in 289 innings. If the Cards merely find someone to give them replacement-level performance out of the same innings in 2007, they'll save 30 runs. If they do better than replacement, they could save 50 runs. I think you'll see the Cardinals back in the top 4 in NL run prevention this year.

Jeff: I don't know, Larry, I think Walt Jocketty better have something up his sleeve. If everything breaks right, a rotation of Chris Carpenter, Kip Wells, Adam Wainwright, Anthony Reyes, and Looper could be fine, but I wouldn't bet a spare nickel on everything breaking right. Wells will be the difference-maker: he's a nice gamble at $4 million, but note that the other $4 million injury-rehab gambles are being slotted into other rotations as #5 starters. If the Cards are going to top last year's win total, they'll need another solid starter, and however optimistic you want to be about Mulder (I'm not very), that guy will have to come from outside the organization.

Sully: I am sensitive to the lack of depth point, Jeff, but I think the rotation is fine and agree with Larry that the defense remains very strong. I am really high on Wainwright and think he is poised to build off of his ridiculous post-season relief run and become a very good starter. Of course the rotation's gain is the bullpen's loss and that's where I question St. Louis's run prevention unit.

Rich: As I mentioned, there isn't much relief when it comes to the bullpens in the NL Central and the Cardinals are going to be in big trouble if Jason Isringhausen doesn't come through for them. The Redbirds have a bunch of arms down there, some of whom are decent situational guys, but they might come up a bit light in the eighth and ninth innings with the uncertainty surrounding Izzy and Looper and Wainwright now in the rotation.

Larry: Offensively, there's little margin for error for the Cards. If Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds all don't stay healthy - and in Edmonds' case, "healthy" means 500 plate appearances - things could go south in a hurry. I think Chris Duncan will regress to the mean but still remain above average - OPS in the .825 range. Ultimately, the Cardinal lineup will probably need a midseason transfusion. Jocketty has about $10 million in payroll slack, and I have a feeling he's going to be spending it on a corner outfielder sometime in July.

Sully: I have some real concerns about this Cards offense. I don't see Rolen and Edmonds staying consistently healthy and when you take a look at that offense after the main triumverate, I mean wow. It's gonna really suck wind.

Jeff: It's hard to be too negative about an offense anchored by Pujols and Rolen, but there aren't a lot of other bright spots. Especially for as long as Edmonds and Juan Encarnacion are out (or in the lineup, and hurting), there are only two real threats in the lineup. The Cards scored more runs than anybody else in the division last year, and may do so again on the strength of Prince Albert's contribution, but it would take Braden-Looper-is-my-5th-starter style optimism to figure on an improvement from last year's 4.85 runs per game.

Rich: The offense should be about the same as last year, maybe a tad better. Pujols went on the DL for the first time in his career and missed 18 games. Edmonds and David Eckstein both went down for more than a month in the second half. Duncan didn't join the club until late May and only appeared in 90 contests. Other than Rafael Belliard, who will be replaced by Adam Kennedy, everybody is back. It seems to me that the offense should be just fine.

Sully: Are we as mixed on Houston's offense as we are with St. Louis?

Rich: The Astros had the lowest batting average and the second lowest slugging average in the NL last year. As great as Berkman is, he's not going to improve upon his outstanding season in 2006. Carlos Lee will add a boost - maybe even a big boost - and Morgan Ensberg might bounce back a little bit. But the rest of the lineup is pretty pathetic. I'm not buying into Jason Lane and his five home runs this spring. And don't tell me about Luke Scott. He will be known as Luke the Fluke before the summer is out.

Larry: At least they have now committed to Chris Burke; he should help. Obviously, so will El Caballo. With Brad Ausmus and Adam Everett bringing up the rear they're never gonna lead the league in runs scored, but I can see them putting 40 or 50 more runs on the board this year over last.

Sully: The only hope for this offense is an injection of Hunter Pence at some point this season. He raked all Spring Training and appears ready to contribute in a big way. As for the rest of the offense, as others have mentioned, it's Berkman, Lee, Ensberg and then not a whole lot to get excited about.

Jeff: I am with you guys here, and actually see Houston's offense much like I do St. Louis's. Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman aren't quite the equals of Pujols and Rolen, but they're darn good. Unfortunately, the catcher, shortstop, and second baseman have to bat, too. I love Craig Biggio, but at the moment, what I love most about him is his ability to keep the Astros far out of the race; most painful for Houston is that there are at least two guys in the lineup likely to contribute less than Biggio.

Rich: The trio of Roy Oswalt, Pettitte, and Clemens was Houston's strength the past few years. If Houston gets off to a slow start, as I suspect, then it might be more difficult than ever to entice The Rocket to join the team. A 40-year-old Woody Williams no longer pitching in the safety of Petco Park could be a disaster waiting to happen in Minute Maid. 150 innings with an ERA in the neighborhood of 4.50 is all I would expect from Williams. And if that is Houston's #3, well, it won't matter how well Oswalt or even Jason Jennings perform this year.

Jeff: It doesn't matter how many Jason Jennings's you add, you're going to get worse if you lose Andy Pettitte and, most likely, Roger Clemens. The bullpen remains strong, and may even be better than last year's version, but the rotation is weak as is, and is completely unprepared for a single injury. Sure, there are warm bodies to take the mound, but none of them are going to make the fans in Houston very happy. Troy Patton may get an audition, but he's no Yovani Gallardo or Homer Bailey; he probably won't contribute until '08.

Larry: Like the Cardinals, the Astros don't get enough credit for their defense; as long as their pitchers just keep the walks and home runs in check, the team should keep runs off the board reasonably well. Should Clemens come back, the Astros rotation will be as good as any in the division - but without that rather large equalizer, it looks pretty shabby. Williams doesn't seem like a good fit for the park, and any rotation in which Wandy Rodriguez holds tenure needs help.

Sully: I don't think defense can help this rotation. Oswalt is fantastic of course, but there is so little there after him that it is hard to portend anything but a lot of opposing players crossing the plate, especially at that ballpark.

Like the Cards and 'Stros, the Reds are another top-heavy team. On the run-prevention side, Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang constitute a nice 1-2 and Homer Bailey is awfully promising but it gets pretty grim after that.

Jeff: It's easy to get excited about a near-future triumverate of Arroyo, Harang, and Bailey, but in the meantime, there'll be a triumverate of Eric Milton, Kyle Lohse, and someone else equally uninspiring. The back end of the rotation may be better than it was last year (if only because it's hard to be worse), but Arroyo may find it hard to replicate last year's success against a league more familiar with his offerings. In deference to my many friends who inexplicably root for the Reds, I'm not going to bring up the bullpen.

Rich: Adjusted for Cincinnati's ballpark, the Reds (106 ERA+) actually had one of the best pitching staffs in the league last year. Other than throwing lots of strikes, I'm not quite sure how they pulled that off. But Arroyo is unlikely to repeat and Harang can't get too much better than what he showed last year. And who are all these relief pitchers Wayne Krivsky acquired? Quantity, yes. Quality...uhh, no.

Larry: When he added Arroyo last spring, it looked like Krivsky had a plan: convert surplus bats into stable arms. And at midseason, when "The Trade" went down, it seemed like part of a larger pattern of transactions; I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. It was the acquisitions after The Trade - the 87 DFA'd pitchers Krivsky picked up - that changed my opinion of him. Now it looks like he's just throwing darts at the wall. I think it's the worst pitching staff in the division; Arroyo and Harang can pitch for anyone, but beyond them I don't see anybody I'd want on my team. The atrocious defense obviously doesn't help.

Sully: Is the team any better offensively though? I love Adam Dunn and all, and I guess Edwin Encarnacion is ok if the low-obp/decent slug type is your thing but I don't see this club putting up a whole lot of runs. It's never good when the loss of Rich Aurilia represents a genuine hit to your productivity outlook.

Jeff: I am so underwhelmed by Krivsky. His stopgap approach to first base makes sense with Joey Votto on the way, but is there some shortstop uberprospect I'm not aware of? How about an outfielder who they're willing to grant some playing time? Griffey in right field could be league-average or worse; Ryan Freel in center every day is almost a contradiction in terms: Cinci will always be one spectacular catch/injury away from Josh Hamilton, starter. Or something else equally unappealing.

Rich: Home runs and walks. Walks and home runs. The Reds were second in the league in both categories in 2006. Sounds like a bunch of Adam Dunns in that lineup. But the truth of the matter is that there isn't a whole lot beyond Dunn. You can stick a fork in Griffey. He was a great player but is now in the decline phase of his career. I think he may fall hard, and I wonder if Jerry Narron will have the guts to bench him. David Ross will not come close to matching his output last year. He murdered lefties, yet it says here that opposing teams will figure him out and his production will plummet in '07. On the positive side of the ledger, I happen to like Encarnacion and Brandon Phillips, two youngsters who provide some upside.

Larry: Jeff Conine, Bubba Crosby, Alex Gonzalez . . . 'nuff said. I'd rather talk about the Milwaukee Brewers, a far more interesting club than the Reds. They boast an impressive starting staff with Ben Sheets, Dave Bush and Chris Capuano being the best frontline trio in the division, and maybe the league. I don't know why Carlos Villanueva isn't in the rotation - he'd be a #3 on a lot of staffs. Claudio Vargas and Jeff Suppan aren't very good, but they're considerably better than the average team's #4/#5 starters. Assuming the bullpen holds it together this year and Sheets remains healthy, the Brewers staff should be the class of the Central.

Sully: I agree with the crux of your point here, Larry, but I would stop short of best front three in the NL. I think Philly and Arizona trump them in that regard. Nonetheless it's a very good staff with some impressive young arms ready to contribute. I think the defense may leave a bit to be desired.

Rich: Boy, Sully, you're really hot to trot for Arizona's starters. Unless Randy Johnson miraculously turns into the Big Unit of old, I don't see all that much to get excited about beyond Brandon Webb. If Sheets is healthy and throws 200 innings, I believe Milwaukee's rotation will be among the best in the league. Sheets, Capuano, Bush, and Suppan form a solid foursome, and I would be pretty comfortable with Vargas or Villanueva as my fifth starter, especially knowing that Yovani Gallardo might be good to go this summer.

Jeff: Especially after this week's acquisition of Elmer Dessens, no team in baseball has a deeper group of ready-now starting pitchers. That's necessary with Sheets's injury history, but even with the possibility that Sheets doesn't make 30 starts, it gives the Crew a layer of insurance it didn't have in 2006. The defense is still probably below average, but a full season from J.J. Hardy at short and Bill Hall in center ought to improve those two important spots.

Rich: Did you say Elmer Dessens? He's 35 now and hasn't started more than 10 games since 2003. I think he is nothing more than a mediocre middle reliever. Elmer might be more valuable to the team than Brady Clark but that's not saying much.

Larry: I think this offense looks plenty good on paper; lotta balance, no serious holes. They appear primed for a major step forward, but I thought the same thing last April and the Crew only improved by 4 runs over the previous season.

Sully: Prince Fielder, Hall and Rickie Weeks make for a fine offensive core and the filler has potential. Johnny Estrada, J.J. Hardy and Corey Koskie - remind me why Ryan Braus is down again? - may drag the O down a bit but I think overall it looks solid. Corey Hart and Geoff Jenkins will be the wildcards, and if either one should falter, the serviceable Kevin Mench waits in the wings.

Jeff: Their offense depends on the continued development of Hardy and Hart, but Milwaukee has a good chance of having above-average hitters at seven of eight defensive positions. If Braun convinces the club he can pick it at third base (or, as is more likely, that he'll hit so well it doesn't matter), that could be eight of eight. Unlike most of the other teams in the division, the Brewers don't have one main offensive stud, but they aren't hamstrung by the likes of Brad Ausmus or Jack Wilson, either.

Sully: It really is amazing how simply eliminating terrible offensive players really goes a long way.

Rich: Like its pitching, Milwaukee's offense is more solid than anything else. I'm not crazy about the third basemen the Brewers are going to throw out there, but every team has a weakness or two. Speaking of weaknesses, how do we see Pittsburgh this year?

Jeff: Losing Mike Gonzalez is going to hurt. Unlike most teams who trade an established closer, the Pirates don't have a youngster chomping at the bit to claim the job; they've got Salomon Torres and a bunch of guys you probably don't want in the game when your team has a one- or two-run lead. The rotation is equally uninspiring; this could be Ian Snell's year, but it's more likely that he'll settle in as a mid-rotation guy, just Zach Duke is seeming to do. This isn't a bad starting five, and it's a heck of a unit when measured against its cost, but it isn't going to put Pittsburgh in the running for anything but fourth place.

Larry: Call me crazy, but I like their staff a lot. When Zach Duke is only the third-best pre-arb pitcher on your staff, you've got some talent to work with. Too bad Dave Littlefield is what he is . . . there's material to be excited about here.

Sully: Yeah, I think I am more with Larry here than Jeff. Duke is solid, and Snell, Tom Gorzellany and Paul Maholm all figure to keep the Bucs in a lot of games. Jeff is dead on with respect to the bullpen concerns, however. Damaso Marte and Matt Capps have live arms, but there is little to get excited about after that. All in all, I think this Pirates pitching staff will hold up ok though.

Rich: Other than Snell, this staff doesn't miss a lot of bats. The lefties all pitch to contact and can be effective if they throw strikes and keep the ball in the yard. Snell could be a sleeper this year. How many people realize that he struck out more than one batter per inning in the second half? I like him and wouldn't be at all surprised if he lopped off at least half a run off his ERA in 2007.

Jeff: The Pirates have yet another top-heavy offense, only theirs isn't as good as St. Louis's or Houston's. Jason Bay can hang with the best of them, but it would take a best-case scenario from Freddy Sanchez or Adam LaRoche to create a 1-2 bunch as good as, say, Berkman and El Caballo. Like the rotation, some of the other position players are very productive relative to their cost, but the Pirates have one too many holes filled with average or worse guys making the minimum. Those players are important for any team, but Dave Littlefield is going to find his group of former C+ prospects taking him all the way to 70 wins again this year.

Larry: LaRoche helps, I guess. Bay can hit. But I don't see where the runs will come from.

Sully: Too harsh, fellas. Ronny Paulino and Xavier Nady are both decent players and as you mention, Bay, Sanchez and LaRoche are solid, too. This is by no means a great lineup but combined with the fair pitching, I see the Bucs as more of a 75-80-win club than a 70-win one.

Rich: Maybe 75 but I would be surprised if the Pirates won 80. They are a good bet to improve upon their 67 victories, but I still think they will be closer to last than first.

Sully: Onto the Cubbies. We waited this long to get to them because they finished in dead last in 2006 but many have them as the NL Central faves going into 2007. Did Jim Hendry simply do the drunken sailor thing in the last year of his contract or did he make some real improvements? The truth probably lies somewhere in between but what of these Cubs in 2007?

Larry: Neither Ted Lilly nor Jason Marquis seems like a good fit for the ballpark, and neither Alfonso Soriano nor Cliff Floyd seems like a good fit for the positions they'll be asked to play. Rich Hill seems like a pivotal guy; if he throws as well as he did in the second half last season, I think the Cubs will have enough pitching to make a serious run at it.

Jeff: The Cubs are certainly going to be the most improved team in the division this year, and that will in large part be due to the changes in their rotation. On the other hand, they're likely to get 30 starts from Jason Marquis. Marquis, Lilly, and Carlos Zambrano are known quantities; what will make or break the Cubs comes from the other two spots in the rotation. Rich Hill could become a solid #2 or #3, but it's foolish to raise expectations too high for a guy with only 20 major league starts under his belt. And, of course, there's always the Mark Prior factor: the range of plausible outcomes for him ranges from Cy Young contention down to zero innings for the big-league squad.

Rich: Yes, Marquis is a known quantity. That's the good news, I guess. But I suspect that we will never again see the pitcher who put together back-to-back ERAs of 3.71 and 4.13 in 2004 and 2005. Sure, Marquis is unlikely to be as bad as he was in 2006 (6.02) - I mean, if he is, he won't remain in the rotation all year - but his peripherals lead me to believe that he will be more of a liability than an asset. With respect to Prior, I'm betting on the "don'ts." As a USC grad, I'm rooting for him. However, other than his name, I just can't see any reason for optimism at this point.

Sully: I think the Rich Hill factor that Larry points out really will make or break this team's chances. If he pitches like he did in his first bunch of Big Club starts, the Cubs will plod. If he is average, the Cubs will have a shot at the division. If he does his September 2006 Randy-Johnson-circa-1997 routine, the Central is all Cubbies.

Jeff: The Cubs offense is the exact opposite of Pittsburgh's: where the Pirates have a bad offense that is nonetheless productive relative to its cost, the Cubs ought to have a good offense that is too expensive. Soriano, of course, will be a huge improvement, even if the Cubs will be paying him too much in 2012. A full season from Derrek Lee may be even more important to Chicago's chances than the addition of Soriano. There's no doubt that the offense will drastically outperform last year's; the concern is that, somehow, the Cubs will need to gain about 20 wins to give themselves a shot at the title. If Soriano, Lee, and Aramis Ramirez all live up to reasonable projections, that puts 20 wins in sight, but it's a tall order no matter how many changes you make.

Sully: All good points, Jeff, and I just have one additional item to add. Michael Barrett has very quietly been a top-flight catcher for multiple seasons now. Outside of Brian McCann and maybe Josh Bard, there is not another catcher in the NL I would prefer.

Rich: I'll take Russ Martin, thank you. But your main point is well taken. Barrett is underrated offensively, and he helps elongate Chicago's top-heavy lineup. I'll take the unders on Jacque Jones hitting .285 and 27 HR this year. The former Trojan does have one advantage though: the Cubs are going to overdose on right-handed pitchers, and ol' Jacque has been known to hit them pretty well.

Larry: They're gonna score a lot of runs, obviously - best offense in the division. Their on-base skills are still a little thin, but it could be a 215-HR offense. Lou Piniella seems likely (more so than Dusty Baker) to find enough at-bats for Matt Murton.

Sully: What will be the biggest surprise in the NL Central in 2007?

Jeff: It's perfectly correct to forecast a three-team race among the Cardinals, Brewers, and Cubs, all hovering around 85 wins, but that won't happen. Something will go massively wrong for one of those three teams (as with the Brewers or Red Sox last year), and one of those teams is going to finish below .500.

Rich: Craig Biggio won't get his 3,000 hit until September. Management will grow tired of Biggio's lack of production, call up Hunter Pence, and switch Burke to second base before the All-Star game. Biggio will ride the pine for a couple of months, then get one last shot in September after the Astros have been given up for dead.

Sully: I say Ronny Paulino joins the MLB elite catcher ranks. He's 26, coming off a decent year last season and raking this Spring.

Larry: The Pirates will stay on the fringes of the race for most of the year.

Rich: Who do you guys see as the main MVP, CYA and ROY candidates in the Central? I see Albert Pujols as the odds-on favorite to win the MVP, but I can see the writers going Justin Morneau on us and voting for Alfonso Soriano if the Cubs win the division. There are a number of quality Cy Young candidates in this division, headed by Carpenter, Oswalt, Sheets, and Zambrano. Forced to choose among this foursome, I will go with Carpenter. There are a number of prospects who are on the verge of the big leagues but nobody who is likely to be in the starting lineup on Opening Day. With that in mind, put me down for my man Pence.

Jeff: Pujols ought to win the MVP, though once Bill Hall proves he's a Gold-Glove center fielder, he'll get his share of votes. If Sheets is healthy - especially if he's pitching for a team that gives him more run support than he got in 2004 and 2005 - he's my pick for CYA, though when you factor in Sheets's injury problems, the safest bet is probably Oswalt. There are plenty of aces to choose from: I wouldn't be shocked if Carpenter or Harang took home the prize, either. The Jackie Robinson Award will go to Yovani Gallardo, who will go Jered Weaver on the league after a mid-May callup. On that score, I brook no argument.

Larry: The usual suspects: Pujols, Berkman, and Derrek Lee for MVP, with Soriano, Rolen, Aramis Ramirez and maybe El Caballo on a second tier. For the Cy Young: Carpenter, Oswalt, Zambrano, Harang, Sheets. Rookie of the Year . . . I don't see any strong contenders for this season, to be honest. Ask me again in 2008, I might have a different answer.

Sully: I don't have a whole lot to add to this one other than to say I think Berkman may have a sniff at the MVP award if he goes bananas and Pujols stumbles. What about order of finish? I really believe this is Milwaukee's year to make the jump from promising club, to legitimate contender. They're there. Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Houston, Cincinnati.

Jeff: I'm on record elsewhere giving first place to the Cardinals based on my trust in Walt Jocketty, but the last month has changed my position: 1. Brewers 2. Cubs 3. Cardinals 4. Reds 5. Astros 6. Pirates.

Larry: St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Houston, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati.

Rich: I second Larry's picks. If I'm wrong, I believe the Brew Crew leapfrogs the Cardinals. The Cubs have an outside chance, but I'm more skeptical than not.

Two on Two: NL East Preview
By Rich Lederer and Patrick Sullivan

It's time to move on to the National League now and we kick things off in the East. Kind enough to have joined us for the chat are Dave Studeman of The Hardball Times and Chris Needham, who writes the Washington Nationals blog, aptly named for 2007 at least, Capitol Punishment. Dave had some personal matters to tend to during our chat so he did not finish up with us. Listed below are our American League Two on Two chats.

AL East
AL Central
AL West

Sully: The National League East, like the American League Central, will be competitive and deep. The division features some of the best individual talent in baseball. What excites you guys most about the NL East in 2007?

Dave: The great young players in the division. You've got three third basemen (Ryan Zimmerman, David Wright and Miguel Cabrera) who could have careers that rank among the ten or twenty best all-time at their position; three great young shortstops (Jose Reyes, Jimmy Rollins and Hanley Ramirez - the three R's) who have all the tools. Plus the best young slugger in the game (Ryan Howard), the best all-around young second baseman (Chase Utley) and the best all-around player, period (Carlos Beltran). Brian McCann could have a tremendous catching career. I've probably missed a few (don't the Marlins have some good young kids?). So it will be fun to watch each one of these guys in 2007, seeing which ones step forward, which ones continue apace and/or which ones lose some career momentum.

Rich: I agree. There is a lot of star power in the division. As Dave pointed out, many of the best players in all of baseball are congregated in the NL East. The Phillies, Braves, and Mets can flat out hit. These teams finished 1-2-3 in the league in runs scored last year. All three clubs slugged at least 200 home runs. Even though four of the five ballparks favor pitchers, this division seems like it is right up the alley for those who like offense.

Sully: Remarkably, according to their park-adjusted OPS+ figures, every team in the division was above average offensively. The Nats pulled up the rear with a 101 figure while Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia and Florida ranked 1 through 4 in the NL.

Chris:And although most every team has some questions marks in their staffs, some of these guys can throw the ball. The frontline starters of the five teams really excite me -- John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Dontrelle Willis, John Patterson and Freddy Garcia eating innings for Philly to go along with Cole Hamels and Brett Myers. These guys can hold their own with any other division's combo. It's a division with some strong closers too, and a few teams look like they could have lights-out pens.

Rich: Another side story, in my opinion, is that the worst team in the majors just so happens to reside in the division. This is a three-team race with a fourth heading in the right direction but possibly due for some consolidation after last year's huge strides and a fifth that has almost no chance of losing fewer than 100 games.

Dave: Oof. As we used to say in Chemistry class: Viscous, Rich. Viscous. Seems to me that the Nats' (relative) success, like every team in this division, will hinge on its pitching. Doesn't it seem as though every team has MAJOR question marks in its pitching staff?

Sully: Washington's going to be awful this season. The starting rotation they are planning to go with is the worst I can remember heading into a season. Rich wrote about it a few weeks back so I won't delve any further but it's bad. Tim Redding didn't pitch in the Big Leagues last season and in limited time in 2004 and 2005 he sported a 75 and 37 ERA+ respectively in each season. As for the rest of the division, the Mets and Braves look like they have strong bullpens and questionable starting. Vice versa for the Phils. Florida looks mediocre in both departments.

Chris: The Nats are just taking stathead orthodoxy to its illogical extreme. Why spend $55 million on Gil Meche when you can get Joel Hanrahan for $2.99? At least they'll have a solid pen (at least until they trade Chad Cordero to Boston).

Rich: Speaking of money, the Mets have been known to thrown some coin in the direction of free agents. However, this year's additions don't measure up to the past couple of years. Moises Alou seems like a good fit to me but did Omar Minaya do enough in the off-season to enable New York to defend its NL East title?

Dave: I think Omar did the same thing Kenny Williams did this offseason: he refused to pay the going market price for good pitching (either in money or talent). I can't say I blame him at all. Regarding Alou, I thought that was a terrific move: get someone who can conceivably contribute well for a year or two (at a decent price) while waiting
for their young outfielders to mature. Omar got very lucky last year with many of his lesser signings (Jose Valentin, Endy Chavez, Pedro Feliciano, etc.). He's hoping to strike similar gold again in the pitching department.

Sully: We know New York's offensive core will be fantastic. David Wright, Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran and Moises Alou are all known quantities. I do have some concerns after these five, however. I question whether Jose Valentin can replicate his 2006. Valentin is very good when things are going well for him but being a low-obp type, he can also be just terribly debilitating for an offense when he is off. Paul Lo Duca is another player that appears to be in for some regression. He is 35 now and coming off one of his best seasons. Also, the sooner Lastings Millesge supplants Shawn Green, the better for the Mets and their faithful.

Chris:That's assuming that the Milledge the Mets faithful get is the one they've managed to put on a pedestal over the last year or so. He held his own for being such a young kid last year, but he would still need to take a step or two forward to be much of an improvement over Green. Offensively, I love the Alou signing. He murdered the ball last year in a pretty tough pitcher's park. But the calendar flips over to 40 for him. He's missed a bunch of games with injuries ever since the millennium rolled over. And I worry about his defense, especially with Green flopping around in right. Those guys are going to burn out Carlos Beltran's hammies by mid-May.

Rich: Every team has a few weaknesses. But I'm not overly concerned about the sixth, seventh, and eighth best hitters or their corner outfield defense. Those seem rather minor compared to the starting pitching. Unlike Chris, I don't think of Glavine as an ace. At 41, he remains a solid pitcher but more like Jamie Moyer than not. Unless Oliver Perez finds his 2004 form and Mike Pelfrey pitches like the ace he was at Wichita State, I'm at a loss for how the starters are even going to give the team league average results.

Chris: 200 Innings of 115 ERA+ is pretty close to an ace these days. This might finally be the year he falls off the cliff as almost everyone has predicted him to do for the last 10 years. But your overall point is right. It's the other four starters who are going to make or break the season. El Duque is one of my favorite pitchers to watch, but as Mets fans saw in the playoffs, he comes with huge durability concerns. It's pretty scary that they're even screwing around with the idea of Chan Ho Park, a pitcher who hasn't had a good year since 2001. But with as strong as that pen is, maybe Willie Randolph is taking a page out of the 1996 Yankees playbook: nurse the starter through five, and let the bullpen shut down the other team.

Sully: I will be honest, I think the Mets are in for a real step back this season. Like Rich, I just don't think a chamionship aspirant club can come with a rotation as thin as this one. The offense is formidable, and will be called upon to carry this team on its shoulders but I don't see it being enough to repeat as division champs. What am I missing with this club, Dave?

Dave: Hope! Seriously, the Mets' rotation ERA was 4.67 last year, league average. I think it won't be much worse than that this year. Glavine, El Duque and Maine are all capable of ERA's under 4.67; Oliver Perez is looking great, and Mike Pelfrey should be an established major league starter by the end of the year with Philip Humber perhaps contributing by the end of the year, too.

The real difference for the Mets is in the bullpen, where they had a 3.25 ERA last year thanks to great efforts by a lot of relievers. They won't do nearly that well in the pen this year, especially if Sanchez keeps showing up late. Also, some of the spare parts, like Valentin and Chavez, won't contribute as much. For those two reasons, I think Jimmy Rollins is right: the Phillies are the team to beat in the East.

Chris: I think that Dave is right when it comes to how well the front three starters will pitch. It's just a matter of how often. As strange as it sounds, Oliver Perez really does seem to be the linchpin of that staff. He had a 4.40 ERA after September, which looks good only in comparison to the 7.29 he had prior to that. If Rick Peterson really has fixed him (and his 13/3 K/BB ratio in spring is a sign that he might've), they'll have a solid innings-eating 3 or 4 in the middle of the rotation, which is more valuable than it seems.

Rich: Who'da thunk that the Phillies would be the team with the superior starting rotation? Philadelphia goes six deep. The bullpen isn't nearly as strong but perhaps Pat Gillick can flip Jon Lieber and/or a youngster like Scott Mathieson for another arm to bridge the gap between those starters and Tom Gordon. This is a team that could have the best balance in the division. But is this club good enough to close last year's 12-game gap with the Mets?

Sully: For starters, it is more like a 5-game gap than 12 according to New York's and Philly's 2006 Pythagorean records. And yes, as I wrote about a month ago, I do think it is enough. Philadelphia got some astoundingly horrendous starting pitching from the likes of Gavin Floyd, Randy Wolf and Ryan Madson last season. Freddy Garcia basically takes all of these innings. Further, this was the best team in the division after the All-Star Break last year. The team posted a 2nd-half .831 OPS (tops in the NL, 2nd in the Bigs) and 4.36 ERA, a very respectable figure given their offense-friendly digs. With the addition of Garcia, and to a lesser extent Wes Helms, I see the momentum carrying over.

Dave: There are lots of parallels between the teams. Rolllins/Reyes, Utley/Wright, Howard and Burrell vs. Beltran and Delgado. On offense they're virtually equal, and their fielding skills are relatively similar. The big difference is the starting
rotation, which should be one of the best in the league this year (and the best in the division). Of course, I thought the Philly starting rotation would be strong last year too, but it was almost the worst in the league.

Chris: The depth of that rotation is scary. They should be able to weather any inevitable injuries that pop up without taking a beating at the back of the rotation.

It has the potential, too, to be a dominant rotation. The few times I saw Cole Hamels last year, I came away impressed. Brett Myers is probably underrated because of how much a hitter's park that is -- an ERA under 4 there isn't half bad. If those two emerge and Garcia does what he does every year, it's likely one of the two or three best rotations in the league, even if the park will disguise much of that.

Rich: One of the things I really like about the Phillies is that the team's three best players are all right at their peak. During the off-season, Howard turned 27 and Rollins and Utley both turned 28. Although all three are coming off outstanding years, I wouldn't look for any of them to regress much, if at all, in 2007. The oldest starter is Rod Barajas and he is only 31. This team is primed to win right now.

Sully: Indeed they are, Rich, and you did not even mention the pitching staff. Hamels is just 23, Myers 25 and Garcia, the prototype innings eating horse, is 32. I am a big believer in these Phillies. While Shane Victorino might not be an adequate fill-in for David Dellucci's production, some of that could be made up for at third base. Phils 3rd Basemen hit for a .684 OPS in 2006, worse than everyone in baseball except for San Diego. They bring in Wes Helms, a career .268/.331/.447 hitter who is coming off a .329/.390/.575 season. No matter where he slots in on the production spectrum between those two endpoints, he will represent a major uptick for Philly over and above what they got out of the hot corner in 2006.

Dave: The biggest question mark for the Phillies is their bullpen, particularly with Tom Gordon showing some injury concerns. I also don't see Geoff Geary having the same kind of year. Maybe Ryan Madson is a partial answer, but who knows? How do you guys think the Philly pen will fall out?

Chris: That's the million dollar question. It's a shame they dumped Ed Wade. I'm sure he'd throw a few million dollars at a few supposed answers. Geary has been a pretty underrated pitcher the last two years or so, but that 91 IP from last year scares me. He's not really an overpowering pitcher, but he had great control last year (1.97 BB/9) and he kept the ball in the park. That's two thirds of the battle.

I think the more interesting case is Madson. He's been disastrous as a starter, but a pretty valuable arm in the pen, even last year. It looks like the shorter outings, as you'd suspect, give him just a little more juice on his pitches, upping his effectiveness.

They've got a lot of arms at the back of the rotation. It's going to be up to Charlie Manuel to sort through them to round out the staff - something I don't think he's particularly known for.

Sully: Atlanta has been thought of as a pitching-first ballclub during the last 16 years or so but they led the National League with a 110 OPS+ last season. Will the lineup continue to mash, and what do you guys think of Atlanta's strategy to prioritize bullpen quality this off-season?

Rich: As you noted, Sully, the Braves had the best OPS+ but also the second-lowest ERA+ in the NL last year. The offense looks good once again. However, there are a few question marks. Chipper Jones turns 35 next month and hasn't played more than 110 games since 2004. First base and left field are OK but nothing special. Kelly Johnson should provide decent offense as a second baseman, provided he can handle the job defensively. Andruw Jones is Andruw Jones. Brian McCann is the real deal. Jeff Francoeur could be a superstar if . . .

Chris: ... I guess the answer I'm supposed to say is "he walks more," but if he hits .300 like he did in his first crack at the league (a huge if), it won't much matter. At the very least, he needs to improve his pitch recognition. Even Vlad Guerrero walks 50 times a year.

Rich: As far as the bullpen goes, yes, I like the moves John Schuerholz made this winter. Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez will lend plenty of support to Bob Wickman, who was lights out with Atlanta last year. It looks like Detroit's bullpen with two power pitchers setting up a veteran closer. The fact the Braves also wrangled Brent Lillibridge out of the Pirates in that deal for Adam LaRoche was pure genius on the part of one of the game's best GMs.

Sully: I am looking forward to watching Brian McCann this season. It's not so much that he figures to be a superstar someday, he is one already. Have a look at the following OPS+ figures for a smattering of catchers that played full-time in their 22-year old season. He's got a way to go, but for now it sure looks like McCann has the potential to be a player of historic significance.

                         OPS+ in their 22-year old season
Brian McCann                         146
Johnny Bench                         145
Bill Dickey                          118
Ivan Rodriguez                       117
Yogi Berra                           115
Mickey Cochrane                      108
Joe Mauer                            108
Gabby Hartnett                       107

Rich: While on the subject of young players, let's turn our attention to the Florida Marlins. The team was still in the hunt for the playoffs as late as early September last year, winning 78 games or five to ten more than most pundits predicted before the season began. This franchise has been known to get good, really good, in a hurry then trading players off and rebuilding. What does the future have in store for the Marlins?

Sully: The Marlins are an interesting club. They feature some real star power in Miguel Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez and Dontrelle Willis but I see them as a little too top-heavy to threaten in the ultra-competitive NL East. Pretending Alex Sanchez is an everyday Major League center fielder is criminal, and the back end of the rotation, though talented, is not quite there yet. The rest of the roster is filled with serviceable types that won't make or break anything. Guys like Josh Willingham, Dan Uggla and Mike Jacobs are solid but not difference makers. Jeremy Hermida is another one. He will have a fantastic MLB career, but he is not the stud the Marlins need him to be yet. These are the types of guys you fill out a championship caliber roster with. The Marlins are depending too heavily on them.

Chris: It's amazing how many of those filler guys had great years last year. Willingham slugged .500. Wes Helms (Wes Helms!?) slugged .575. They picked Joe Borchard off the waiver wire and he put up an OPS over .800 against righties. They're going to need to get a bit lucky again with the fringes of their roster to duplicate the success they've had. And that's even before we consider the arm problems cropping up on their pitching staff.

Dave: The Marlins have some great young players, and they do have some holes, as Chris says. To me, the biggest hole is in their bullpen. Of course, some of their young arms could help fill in that hole, but their weaknesses are serious enough to keep them listed behind the Braves, in my eyes.

Sully: What about the Nats? To me, this team looks just awful. With Nick Johnson looking like he is out for a while and the pitching staff being just brutal, I don't see much hope for these guys.

Chris: Earlier, someone said that the Nats pitching could be historically bad. I guess that that's possible, but it's also ignoring how pitiful last year's rotation was. Ramon Ortiz (he of the 5.57 ERA in a pitcher's park) was the team's "ace". Only one regular starter (Mike O'Connor) had an ERA under 5. So as bad as things could be this year, they probably can't get much worse, especially if John Patterson stays healthy and if Shawn Hill and his sinker live up to their modest PECOTA projections. The bullpen, with Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch anchoring, should be solid. Some pitching improvement should come from the defense. The decision to start Nook Logan in center is a mistake, but it's one that should help the pitchers' bottom lines. When surrounded by Ryan Church, Austin Kearns and Chris Snelling at the corners, lots of flyballs will die in the gaps. Felipe Lopez should be a big improvement over Jose Vidro at second base, as long as the shorter throw keeps some of the yips away.

Rich: With apologies to John Patterson, this pitching staff might be worse than the Tigers in 2003, the Reds in 2004, or the Devil Rays and Royals in 2005 - four of the worst in the post-expansion era on a park-adjusted basis. The Nats are a lock to give up more than 900 runs and could conceivably allow 1,000 or more. Let's not kid ourselves here. Aside from Patterson and closer Chad Cordero, this is, at best, a bunch of "AAAA" quality arms. Opposing hitters will be chomping at the bit to face these pitchers.

Sully: Yeah I am with Rich on this one. And it's never a good thing when you are depending on Nook Logan to rescue your team's hopes. But you make some good points, Chris. Maybe the defense can save some runs here and there on the margins. Offensively, I like some of the parts, like Zimmerman, Kearns, Lopez, Church and if he comes back, Johnson. But it still just doesn't quite fit together.

Chris: With Alfonso Soriano gone and Nick Johnson out, it's going to be a long summer. How many runs they score is going to depend on how long they tolerate automatic outs like Nook Logan and Cristian Guzman when alternatives are in place (Ron Belliard and Ryan Church). It's going to be a terrible team, but I'm not sold that it will be historically awful. Then again, come talk to me in October...if I make it that long.

Rich: By default, offense is the team's strength. Nick Johnson is a superb hitter but is recovering from a broken right leg and may miss the first two months of the season. As such, Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez, and Ryan Zimmerman will be forced to carry the load. The bottom three hitters (Cristian Guzman, Nook Logan, and the pitcher) will be the worst in all of baseball. I'm sorry, there isn't much to like here.

What do you guys see as the biggest surprise coming out of the NL East this season?

Sully: I'll take Atlanta to finish ahead of the Mets (but behind the Phillies). The bullpen will be lights out and these guys are going to mash again. And as I mentioned earlier, I think the Mets took some steps back this off-season.

Rich: No way, Sully. Pedro Martinez returns in August and is the difference maker down the stretch, lifting the Mets to a division title over the Phillies.

Chris: Does the Nats not being "historically awful" count? And isn't it always a surprise, regardless of how many have them as the division favorite, to pick Philly to win their division?

Sully: What about awards candidates? I would count Beltran, Wright, Reyes, Utley, Howard, McCann and Cabrera amongst the MVP hopefuls. I think Myers and Hamels could contend for a Cy, and I wouldn't count Smoltz out. As for Rookie of the Year, I don't see a real candidate in the East.

Rich: With respect to MVP, there are so many players in this division who could win the award. But given the voters preference for players with high RBI totals on winning teams, I would give the nod to Ryan Howard once again. If the Cy Young comes from the NL East, I would go with John Smoltz or maybe Brett Myers if he benefits from strong run support and wins 20 games. As to the Rookie of the Year, a long, long shot would be Michael Bourn. The reality is that there is little chance the #1 rookie comes out of this division. But I could see a scenario in which Aaron Rowand gets hurt or traded and Bourn steps up and hits .280-.300 with a decent number of walks and a bunch of triples and stolen bases while giving his club a plus defender in center field.

Chris: With the number of individual stars in the division, lots of players could contend for MVP, but the safe money is on Carlos Beltran and Ryan Howard. Jose Reyes and Chase Utley should certainly be in the conversation. I'm not sure if I really see any Cy Young contenders in the division, even if there are some quality pitchers. The Phillies guys are good, but the park hides much of that. If I had to pick, I'd take Old Man Smoltz. Maybe with some better bullpen support, he'd be closer to that "magical" 20-win mark. The tough thing about picking rookies is that the pre-season favorite (see: Hermida, Jeremy) rarely is the post-season one. Scott Thorman will likely have enough ABs to make some noise, but I'm not sure there are any other rookies who've won starting jobs yet. On the other side of the ball, Mike Pelfry has a chance if he cracks the Mets' rotation. And for the Nats, Matt Chico, who came over in the Livan Hernandez deal, looks like he's going to be given every chance to head north.

Sully: OK, prediction time. I have Philadelphia, Atlanta, New York, Florida, Washington.

Rich: I see the Phillies winning their first division crown since 1993, followed by the Mets, Braves, Marlins, and Nationals. I would be shocked if Florida and Washington don't finish fourth and fifth, respectively.

Sully: I like the hedge after your "surprise" call, Rich.

Chris: Phillies, Mets, Braves, BIG GAP, Marlins, Nats. But dumb luck might have a say in the order of those first three.

Sully: Thanks for participating, everyone.

Two on Two: AL West Preview
By Rich Lederer and Patrick Sullivan

This week's installment of the Two on Two series features the AL West. Kind enough to join us were Jamey Newberg of The Newberg Report and Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing.

AL East Preview
AL Central Preview

Sully: While it seems the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels separated themselves in the American League West in 2006, a closer look at some of the Adjusted Standings indicates that this division may be a lot more tightly bunched than meets the eye. What are your thoughts on the competitive dynamics in the AL West as we head into 2007?

Rich: The AL West is generally thought of as the weakest division in the league. But how many people know that all four teams outplayed the East last year and all but the Mariners were .500 or better against the Central? This division is deceiving. It's not overly strong at the top but there aren't any pushovers like last year's Devil Rays or Royals either. The West is the only division of the three where every club goes into the season believing it could sit atop the standings at the end of the year. There's a lot to be said about that.

Jamey: And while most people who feel the need to handicap the division in mid-March like Anaheim and Oakland, those also happen to be the two clubs hit hardest by injury so far. The West has more of an up-for-grabs feel to it than any division.

Jeff: I think I've written "the Mariners are the worst team in a weak division" a million times this winter, but it seems like every time I do, I come away even less impressed with the best than I was before. Put simply, neither Oakland nor Anaheim are very good, and there might only be a five- or six-win separation between the top and bottom rosters in the group. That's a tiny, tiny gap, and the sort of thing that makes for a wild September.

Sully: I think I am on the same wavelength as everyone here. What the AL West lacks in quality at the front-end, it makes up for with a complete absence of bad clubs and general competitiveness. The Oakland Athletics are coming off a 93-win season and a trip to the ALCS. But there are some real warning signs with this club. For one, their best pitcher (Barry Zito) and hitter (Frank Thomas) from the 2006 club are gone. Further, their pythagorean record in 2006 suggested they were not as good as their record. To me, this looks like a .500-ish club. How do others feel about Oakland?

Rich: I wouldn't want to under estimate the A's. Like Atlanta, Oakland seems to always defy the naysayers. The franchise has finished first or second for eight years in a row (including four division titles), and it hasn't won fewer than 87 games during this period. Yes, the team loses Zito and Thomas, but a healthy Rich Harden - knock on wood - can make up some of the difference and Mike Piazza hit .283/.342/.501 while wearing the tools of ignorance for San Diego. Net-net, I think the A's are not quite as formidable as they were in 2006, but I don't see them dropping 12 games in the win column either.

Jeff: Every year the A's lose a critical player or two, every year they bounce back, and every year I don't think they'll be able to do it again. So maybe I just suck at pattern recognition, but I think they're going to have a whale of a time replacing everything that got from Thomas and Zito. A hypothetical full season from Harden makes up for some of the Zito loss, but the same doesn't go for the lineup. Piazza just won't be able to approach Thomas's power or on-base ability. He hasn't been that kind of player for a few years, and there's no reason to think he'll suddenly rejuvenate his career at 38. The A's will be relying on a group of players to make up for the loss of one, and that's a difficult situation to be in.

Jamey: We're of course banking down here on the loss of Ron Washington killing Oakland, the addition of Washington gilding Texas, and the departure of Buck Showalter being worth a few games. Can those three things mean a 10-game swing between the A's and Rangers? Nah. But that's the sort of thing Rangers fans - and i'm one of them - hang onto this time each year. Never know.

Sully: Isn't it all about health with these guys? To me the Oakland season comes down to three players; Bobby Crosby, Dan Johnson and Rich Harden. Crosby, even when healthy, was miserable last season, hitting .229/.298/.338. Johnson hit .234/.323/.381, just abominable figures for a first baseman. Harden managed just nine starts. These guys were to be the foundation of Oakland's latest wave of talent that would carry them just as so many others who had come up through the A's system had before them. But at this point, it's hard to believe they can be counted upon for the output Oakland needs them to produce.

Rich: Eric Chavez is another player whose health is an important element here. He played through a number of nagging injuries (forearms, elbows, wrists, and hamstring) last year and his offensive production (.241/.351/.435) suffered despite making only five errors in the field and winning his sixth consecutive Gold Glove. He claims to be healthy this spring and could be primed for a bounce back year at the plate. A .270 batting average with 30 HR is certainly within the parameters of his career norms.

Jeff: I can't foresee any situation where the A's get better this year. In theory that sets the upper limit around 93 wins, but considering they beat their Pythagorean win total by eight, in reality it should be lower than that. It's a decent team, but it's not a great one, or even a particularly good one.

Sully: What about the Angels, Rich? The pitching once again looks fantastic, but is it good enough to carry what appears to be a very weak offense?

Rich: The Angels scored the fourth-lowest number of runs in the AL last year. Only the Mariners and the lowly Devil Rays and Royals plated fewer runners. The good news is that the offense should be a little bit better this year. Mind you, not a lot better. I know Gary Matthews is coming off of a career year, but he could regress and still provide an upgrade over what really amounts to Maicer Izturis. In addition, Howie Kendrick figures to put up considerably better numbers than Adam Kennedy at second base. There is no reason to suspect that Vladimir Guerrero won't be healthy, but the Angels cannot afford to lose him for any length of time. He needs to do his thing and hit .320 with 30 HR for the Angels to be respectable offensively.

Sully: So the Angels were in the market for a Designated Hitter, evaluated their available options, and decided that offering Shea Hillenbrand $6.5 million to handle the role was the right course of action. Shea has always been a low-obp / high-slug type of hitter but what will Angels Stadium do to his power? I don't think .275/.315/.430 is anywhwere out of the question. If Shea logs the majority of the Halos' DH at-bats this season, he has a good chance at being one of the very worst regulars in baseball.

Rich: I'm not going to defend that signing other than to say it was a one-year deal, mostly in response to Juan Rivera breaking his leg in a winter league game. Hey, the guy fits right in with Mickey Hacker's approach. Like most Angels, Hillenbrand has never met a pitch he didn't like. His single-season high in walks is 26. TWENTY-SIX! But who knows, maybe they acquired him for his team chemistry.

Sully: At least they no longer employ Darin Erstad!

Jeff: They might as well. I've had a sneaking suspicion for a little while that Reggie Willits has a lot of Erstad in his blood.

Jamey: The bigger question, to me, is how much Darren Dreifort it is that Jered Weaver's got in him. The health of the Angels' rotation is obviously what gives the rest of the division hope in '07, but that bully is going to keep them around no matter how many days of service Weaver and Colon and Co. rack up on the DL.

Rich: Now, now . . . I don't see any reason to lump Weaver in with Dreifort. Sure, he is dealing with tendinitis in his arm and is behind schedule. But both Weaver and Colon had "encouraging" bullpen sessions on Monday and Thursday and are expected to face hitters soon. Weaver may not make his April 6 start, but he should be starting every fifth game shortly thereafter. Colon is rehabbing his shoulder and is on a different timetable than Weaver. If everything goes according to plan, the Angels are hopeful that he could return to the rotation by late April or early May. However, Joe Saunders is a capable fifth starter so I don't think Bartolo's health figures prominently in the fortunes of the Halos this year. I see him as a potential bonus more than anything else.

Jeff: We know the Angels have the pitching; it's been like that for years. The question, as always, is whether or not they'll get enough offense to contend, and the issue, as always, is that going into the season they don't seem to have very much behind Vlad Guerrero. It sounds silly to say, but I think the Angels are going to depend an awful lot on whatever they can get from first base. If this is the year that Casey Kotchman finally breaks out (and he's having a hell of a spring), he might be enough to put them over the top in this division. If not, though, we could see an awful lot of intentional walks, and in that event they're just not going to score enough runs.

Rich: The AL West is unique in that three of the four home ballparks are known to suppress runs. Ameriquest Field in Arlington is the only park that favors hitters. When adjusted for these factors, the Rangers were actually more adept at preventing runs (102 ERA+) than scoring runs (99 OPS+). Is the pitching underrated or is the offense overrated? Or is it a bit of both?

Jeff: It's both, and it's one of those things that goes hand in hand with playing half your games in an extreme environment. This ballpark has murdered some pitchers while helping some hitters, most notably Mike Young (career OPS 134 points worse on the road), Mark Teixeira (112), and Hank Blalock (194). In one season so far, Ian Kinsler's at 254. Such artificial inflation masks problems at the plate while creating illusions of problems on the mound, and that can make it incredibly difficult to build a solid, balanced roster.

Jamey: I agree, it's a bit of both. Jon Daniels has put the focus squarely on the development and acquisition of arms, and he's fully aware that the lineup is lacking. A return to health from Blalock and Wilkerson, both of whom had dinged shoulders, is a huge key.

Rich: There's gotta be something else besides health that is at the core of Blalock's problems. The guy is a complete enigma to me. He has regressed every year since his first full season in 2003. I don't know if the heat wears Blalock down in the summer but his first half stats have consistently been vastly superior to his second half numbers:

             First Half       |       Second Half
         AVG  OBP  SLG  OPS       AVG  OBP  SLG  OPS
2003    .323 .375 .524 .899      .272 .319 .520 .839 
2004    .303 .369 .572 .941      .240 .338 .406 .744 
2005    .285 .346 .479 .825      .236 .283 .375 .658 
2006    .287 .352 .443 .795      .237 .289 .346 .635

As Jeff pointed out, Blalock has been a huge beneficiary of playing home games in a hitter friendly ballpark. His road stats are well-below average. Health or no health, he just may be one of the most overrated players in the game.

Sully: The thing I like about the Rangers is that their Pythag suggests they were about an 86-win team in 2006 and I don't think they figure to regress. I understand they lost Gary Matthews and Mark DeRosa, but Blalock cannot get worse, Teixeira did not exactly light the world on fire in 2006, Kinsler is young and improving, I have to think they get something out of Brad Wilkerson this season. And on the run prevention side, they add Brandon McCarthy and Eric Gagne. I think these guys will be in the thick of it.

Jeff: I like the Rangers as a .500 team with upside, but if their season comes down to how much slack Brandon McCarthy's able to pick up as the rotation's #3, then that's a cause for concern. Awesome talent or no, a right-handed extreme fly ball pitcher in a park that rolls over for lefties is a recipe for disaster.

Jamey: One of the things that was lost in the instant analysis of the McCarthy trade was that he was actually less homer-prone in the minor leagues than Danks has been. But there is, as has been pointed out, the righty-lefty difference to take into account. And the way Danks has been dealing in camp, we may be able to measure the deal sooner than a lot of us thought.

Sully: Let's talk about the Mariners. They're not awful, but I have to be honest. Outside of Felix Hernandez and J.J. Putz, there just isn't a whole lot that excites me about this club.

Jeff: That makes two of us. From their steady lineup without any great individual threat to their rotation of a should-be ace and four #5's, the Mariners might be the most average of the league's average teams. An offseason of hope completely went to waste, and the result is a wholly unimpressive roster that hardly resembles that of a competitive team.

And yet, there is reason for optimism, as the team's missing something that dragged it down a year ago: black holes. They got nothing from their DH, nothing from center until Ichiro moved, and worse than nothing from Joel Pineiro. All of those issues have been addressed, and while Jose Vidro and Jeff Weaver have their question marks, there's absolutely zero chance that they're as bad as the people they're replacing. The Mariners got better by dumping their trash, and now they look like a half-decent team capable of playing meaningful September baseball.

Rich: Well, Ichiro is pretty exciting and there are worse hitters than Adrian Beltre, Raul Ibanez, and Richie Sexson. But the overall offense looks about average. I might like it a bit more if the team would learn to take a walk once in a while. In the meantime, the pitching staff looks worse than average to me. Miguel Batista and Horacio Ramirez walked almost as many batters as they struck out. Weaver pitched well in October with the Cardinals but got rocked in the first half as a member of a rival AL West club. Seattle improved nine games last year and won about as many as its run differential would suggest. Bottom line, I just don't see much room for optimism beyond a .500 season.

Jamey: Speaking of Ramirez, I was thrilled to see the M's trade Raffy Soriano. Ramirez doesn't scare me a ton.

Sully: Ramirez may not scare you but he is a 27 year-old with a career 104 ERA+. If he is healthy, he is a guy the M's can feel confident handing the ball to every fifth day. He won't be a world-beater but he will be averag-ish with respect to performance and to the extent he can eat innings, he could very well be useful.

Rich: By the way, nobody was talking about J.J. Putz a year ago. Is there anyone on the horizon who could make a quantum leap in 2007?

Jeff: Nobody was talking about J.J. Putz a year ago because a year ago J.J. Putz didn't have a 90-mph splitter to go with his high-90s fastball. Ask Barry Bonds what it's like to face that repertoire - that one additional pitch turned him from a decent setup guy into a dynamite fireman.

As far as quantum leaps in 2007 are concerned, uh, no, none. At least not on the Mariners. Mark Lowe had a chance before his elbow went on the fritz, and Eric O'Flaherty might blow up (in a good way) if and when he gets the call, but there's no one who even comes close to matching Putz's potential in that regard.

Sully: Who might make the leap in the West? I think Kendrick and Kinsler will be two of the better 2nd Basemen in baseball. I think Felix Hernandez will challenge for a Cy Young Award. And although I would not call it a surprise, one of the most interesting AL West subplots of the season will be to see who gets less out of the DH slot, Shea Hillenbrand and the Halos or Jose Vidro and the M's.

Jeff: At least Vidro doesn't try to hack his way off a sinking ship. I, too, think Kendrick has a lot of Leap potential, and if he has a breakthrough campaign, the division race could be over pretty quick. In addition, I wouldn't be too surprised to see Gerald Laird hovering around a .900 OPS most of the year, while John Lackey finally flirts with a sub-3 ERA. Neither of these improvements would really count as a Putz-type jump, but then, few do.

What about Backwards Leaps? Jered Weaver, anyone? Anyone?

Rich: Boy, I thought we were going to talk about the AL West. But that's OK. I don't mind defending Jered. Heck, I've been doing it for more than three years . . .why stop now? No, the good Weaver is not going to win his first seven starts or rank second in the major leagues in run average again. So, from that standpoint, I guess he is going to take a backwards step in 2007.

Jamey: Texas is in some trouble if some of the young bullpen arms that they're counting on (Littleton, Wilson, maybe Rupe if he doesn't land a rotation spot) if their Cactus League struggles follow them to Arlington. The biggest backward leap concern, though, is Vicente Padilla, with his first taste of real financial security behind him.

Rich: Which players would you attach to the MVP, CYA, or ROY should any of those awards come out of the West this year?

Sully: Vlad is a top-5 MVP candidate from my vantage point, and I think John Lackey, Jered Weaver and Felix Hernandez will all be top-10 AL starters and therefore somewhere in the Cy Young discussion. It's hard to pick out a ROY candidate from this division, though.

Jeff: The most obvious choice for MVP would be Vlad Guerrero. Ichiro's a slight possibility, and Mark Teixeira has a non-zero chance if he really breaks out. In order of odds from greatest to least, the Cy Young could go to Felix, Lackey, Harden, or (really distant) Kelvim Escobar. As for rookies, I really don't see a single one in the division having a significant impact. There's a lot of youth, but pretty much all of it is already established. Wild guess: Jarrod Washburn will not win any hardware.

Jamey: We're not giving Brandon Wood a shot at ROY?

Rich: Well, Wood has only played four games above Double-A. He's had a pretty good spring but is almost certain to start this season at Salt Lake. Wood is a tremendous talent and I can see him joining the Angels in the summer and perhaps having an impact during the stretch run. But the odds are stacked against him and any other rookie from the AL West. Outside of Wood, if there was a surprise choice, I'd look to someone like Adam Jones of Seattle, but he is just 21 years old and is still a pretty raw talent.

Jeff: I don't think Wood's going to have a real pleasant adjustment period. He could and should be pretty good, but I doubt success comes real quick. As for West, there are two issues - one, I don't think he's quite MLB-ready yet, and two, there's no room for him to break into the lineup, which does a number to his ROY chances. If the M's are competing and an outfielder gets hurt, I think they sooner go with Jeremy Reed, so Jones's only real hope for winning the award is that the team stumbles out of the gate, deals Ichiro by May, and immediately sets its focus on the future. And even in that event, I still have trouble seeing him post an OPS too far over .700.

Rich: As far as MVP and Cy Young candidates, I would go with Vladimir Guerrero and Felix Hernandez.

Jamey: Vlad and Haren for me.

Sully: OK, prediction time and I will kick off. I like the Angels over Texas in a close race, and then Oakland a smidge over .500 and Seattle somewhere in the mid-to-high 70's win range.

Jeff: Gun to my head, I'd go Anaheim/Oakland/Texas/Seattle, but it could very easily wind up in the opposite order. There's not much separating any of these teams.

Jamey: Agree with Jeff. Could go any way. I'll say ANA / TEX / OAK / SEA.

Rich: I believe the Angels are the most likely division winner of the four. It's not that they have a great team or anything, but I'm more confident predicting the Angels to win than I am any other team in any other division. I think Oakland and Texas will battle it out for second with neither prevailing as the Wild Card. Seattle will have by far the best record of any last place team in the AL and probably in all of baseball.

Sully: Thanks everybody.

Two on Two: AL Central Preview
By Rich Lederer and Patrick Sullivan

Last week we kicked off the Two on Two Series with the AL East. This week it's the Central. Joining us are Seth Stohs of the popular Twins blog, Seth Speaks, and Brian Borawski, proprietor of Tiger Blog.

Sully: Thank you Seth and Brian for participating as we preview the ultra-competitive AL Central. We started the series last week with the AL East, a good division for sure but also a division whose reputation can be fueled by the northeast hype machine. Is the Central the best division in baseball?

Seth: The AL Central is head-and-shoulders the best division in baseball. Last year, the division had three teams over 90 wins. The Tigers were one of the feel-good stories of the year last year, and there is no reason that they can't duplicate it this year with the addition of Gary Sheffield. The White Sox had ups and downs but were still over 90 wins. They made a few moves which will likely pay off in the long run. And the Twins overcame so many obstacles to finally win the division on the final day of the season. They have the AL MVP, the AL Cy Young Award winner, the AL Batting Champ, the Minor League Player of the Year, the Executive of the Year, the best bullpen in baseball and a manager that, even with his faults, has the respect of all of his teammates. The Cleveland Indians offense and potentially improved bullpen should put them right in contention. Travis Hafner is as good a hitter as there is in the league. And although the Royals likely won't compete, the addition of Alex Gordon and Billy Butler to the lineup and the continued development of some other players, they could be a little better.

Brian: I think in 2006, you could definitely say that the AL Central was the best division in baseball but once again, I think the AL East may have surpassed the Central. I think the White Sox are probably the favorites in the Central but you could argue that both the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are better with the Blue Jays being a solid team as well. I will agree that the AL Central is probably the most wide open. I think any of four teams (Sorry Royals fans) could walk away with the division and it may very well come down to which team stays the healthiest (which could concern White Sox fans).

Rich: The AL Central is undoubtedly tough. It goes four deep although I'm not sure I would take any of them over either the Yankees or Red Sox. Now I realize that the ALCS winner came from the Central in each of the past two seasons, but I'm not prepared to annoint this division as the best in baseball or even the American League. Strong, yes. The best? I'm not so sure about that.

Seth: The AL East is solid, no question. The Yankees lineup is devastating. The Red Sox made a couple of big moves in the free agent market. The Blue Jays finally passed the Red Sox a year ago and look to improve. Most people may not know it, because you generally will only hear about the Red Sox and Yankees on SportsCenter, but the AL Central is clearly the best division in baseball.

Sully: As I said last week, I am unprepared to call the better division for 2007. Let's talk about the Twins and their chances to repeat as Division Champs. For the first time in a number of years I think there are some real concerns about their starting rotation. Francisco Liriano is hurt and Brad Radke hung 'em up. Is the dominant bullpen and solid lineup enough to overcome spotty starting pitching?

Seth: Losing Liriano was a huge blow to the Twins last year. Statistically, he was performing even better than Johan Santana, the unanimous AL Cy Young Award winner. Bringing in retreads like Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz certainly does not breathe confidence into any Twins fan. The scary thing for Twins fans is that Carlos Silva and Boof Bonser are far from sure-things, as well. From a talent and 'stuff' standpoint, it probably would be better to go with a complete youth movement, but Terry Ryan will not let that happen. He wisely is more concerned with the psyches of the young pitchers and what is best for them so that the Twins can remain competitive for years to come. That said, Matt Garza, Glen Perkins and Kevin Slowey are very close. Scott Baker has nothing more to prove at Rochester. Don't be surprised if three or even four of these pitchers are in the Twins rotation by June. I think that the Twins 2007 success directly hinges on how quickly they are willing to pull the plug on underperforming veterans. That, and the health of Jason Kubel are, in my opinion, the two big keys to the Twins 2007 season.

Brian: I think the Twins need too many things to go right to be at the top of the AL Central in 2007. They're relying on too many prospects in the rotation and while I think Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau will be good this upcoming season, I also see them coming back down to earth a bit. Still Top 20 in the American League but not Top 10 like they were in 2006.

Sully: Yeah I have a couple of problems with Minnesota. Although Santana is the best in the biz, the rest of the starting pitching is awful. Too many not-there-yets, has-beens and even never-were's. I also question the offense a bit. While Mauer will be fantastic again and Morneau very good as well, the Twins will be awful at left field and third base. Rondell White is 35 and coming off a 66 OPS+ season while Nick Punto's career 77 OPS+ suggests he will be one of the very worst regulars in baseball.

Seth: I can't really argue with you on the concerns at 3B and LF. Nick Punto surprised a lot of people last year with how well he actually played once he became the regular 3B. Yet, it resulted in an OPS+ of just 90. He played terrific defense at the hot corner, but he has almost zero power. I can't see him even performing to his 2006 level again. Fortunately, the Twins make up for the deficiency at 3B with above average performance at Catcher and CF. Bringing in Jeff Cirillo, who mashed lefties last year, could get plenty of action at 3B too. As for White, he got off to such a horrific start last year. Maybe it was the shoulder, but it was so far below what White has been throughout his career. What gets lost is that after the All-Star break, White actually hit .321/.354/.538. He had 19 extra base hits in 156 at bats. He really just needs to find a way to walk more this year. Defensively, injuries have definitely made him a subpar outfielder. I expect to see plenty of Jason Kubel in left field as well this year.

Rich: Although the starting rotation has a few holes this year, the bullpen figures to be one of the best in the biz once again. Joe Nathan is an elite closer and Jesse Crain, Pat Neshek, Dennys Reyes, and Juan Rincon arguably form the top quartet of middle relievers and set-up men in the game. As a whole, Minnesota's relievers led the majors in ERA ( 2.91), OBP (.301), SLG (.359), K/9 (8.13), K/BB (3.28), and SV/OPP (80%). This bullpen is cheap and deep, which is a prerequisite for a middle market team in hopes of playing in October.

Sully: Without a doubt, baseball is back in the Motor City. Still, the Tigers limped to the finish line before heating up again in the post-season and I think that has some people questioning if they ought to be considered legitimate contenders in 2007. Can the Tigers get back to the World Series?

Brian: They can but it's going to be a tough road. They had a lot of things go right last year and they stayed relatively healthy. The Sheffield pickup will be a huge boost in the lineup because he provides a patient, yet great, hitter at the plate that the Tigers lacked last year. They also have a deep rotation and even if a guy like Mike Maroth (the exptect fifth starter) goes down, they have plenty of guys waiting in the wings like Wil Ledezma, Zach Miner and even Andrew Miller who can fill in.

Sully: I am not sure I would characterize Sheffield as a "great" hitter. He hit .284/.355/.502 the second half of 2005 and .298/.355/.450 this past season. He is now 38 and has been bothered by shoulder problems. Other concerns I have for the Tigers offense are at first base and left field. Sean Casey just won't cut it and as long as Craig Monroe is taking playing time from Marcus Thames, Detroit will suffer for offense out of the left field position.

Rich: I believe the Tigers are more likely to pull a Chicago White Sox on us and slip into third than work their way into first. In fact, I'm not even sure Detroit can win 90 games the way the South Siders did last year. This is a solid team with a decent offense and a bunch of good, young arms. However, despite the addition of Sheffield, I see the Tigers hitting fewer home runs and scoring less often than last year.

Seth: Count me in the Justin Verlander-is-the-real-thing camp. I think that he is right up there talent-wise with Jeremy Bonderman and Mark Prior. Let's just hope that he stays healthy. Brian, any concern that the 2007 Tigers pitching staff will return to reality the way the 2006 White Sox staff did? Any concern for a let down?

Brian: Absolutely. I think Kenny Rogers and Verlander will be hard pressed to match their 2006 numbers. Then again, I think this is the year Bonderman finally breaks out and possibly makes a run at Johan Santana and a Cy Young. If anything, it'll be Nate Robertson that's the wild card. If he can put together a good season, that could really help the Tigers to the playoffs again.

Seth: The White Sox scored 127 more runs in 2006 than in 2005. However, their team ERA fell from 3.61 in 2005 to 4.61 in 2006. So, what do we expect from the Ozzie-led White Sox in 2007?

Brian: I see the White Sox bouncing back. I'm still convinced that they were the best team in the Central last year (and probably second best in the American League to the New York Yankees) despite the third place finish. That middle of the lineup (Paul Konerko, Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye and Joe Crede) is just plain wicked. They could use some bullpen help, but that's always something they can pick up at the trade deadline. I know I'll take some heat from my Tiger brethren, but the White Sox are my favorite to walk away with the Central in 2007.

Sully: I think the White Sox are on really shaky ground as a club. The starting pitching features four durable, unremarkable types and a complete black hole in the 5th starter slot. And while the middle of the lineup may be formidable, the rest of the lineup is hugely problematic. Dye, who is 33, coming off of a career year and almost sure to regress, is really the only offensive asset in the outfield. Any combination of Brian Anderson (.290 2006 OBP), Scott Podsednik (.330) and Darin Erstad (.279) alone might kill the team's hopes. All the while, they will play 57 games against Minnesota, Cleveland and Detroit, three teams of genuine quality. An aging core and a dud off-season will cost Chicago in 2007.

Rich: The White Sox had a strange off season. I give Kenny Williams credit for stockpiling young arms, but I'm not sure the team made any strides in improving the rotation this year. Mark Buehrle got rocked last season. His strikeout rate ( 4.32 K/9) fell off the cliff n 2006 and is such that I wouldn't look for him to bounce back in a big way. Maybe he can become another Kenny Rogers. I don't know. But I'd like to see evidence of it first. Jon Garland is another starter who is living on the edge. And what makes anyone think Gavin Floyd is ready to step up?

Brian: I guess I like the pitching staff a bit better than you guys do. Mark Buehrle is playing for a contract so I think we'll see him revert to at least his 2004 form. Jon Garland will ride his solid second half in 2006 into another solid season in 2007 and I've always been a big Javier Vazquez fan. I do agree that trading Brandon McCarthy after dealing Freddy Garcia to the Phillies was a bit odd but he would have been almost as much of a question mark as anyone else the White Sox throw out there. And I'd hardly say that the rest of the lineup is problematic. Tad Iguchi provides a nice table setter for the big bats in the middle and A.J. Pierzynski is a solid hitting catcher. You might also see some more Rob Mackowiak (.365 OBP) if Ryan Anderson can't get it done in centerfield and Darin Erstad has lost a step.

Rich: I don't think it matters at all that Buehrle is in a contract year. I mean, let's be real now. The Cubs will give him a 5 x 11 contract no matter what he does this year.

Seth: I definitely think that the Sox took a step backwards this offseason, although I do think that the moves Ken Williams made will make them strong again in 2008. Getting Gio Gonzalez and John Danks was good, but I agree that the Sox rotation in 2006 takes another step backwards. The offense will be fine though, particularly if they can get Josh Fields and Ryan Sweeney in the lineup quickly. I think that the shortstop situation is another big question mark.

Sully: I think you bring up a great point, Seth. The sooner Fields and Sweeney cut into Erstad's, Anderson's and Podsednik's playing time, the better for the Pale Hose and their fans. Transitioning from a team I am really down on to one I think could turn some heads this year, let's talk about the Cleveland Indians. With a punishing offense, some nice off-season tinkering and better health and development from the starting staff, this could be the Tribe's year in the AL Central.

Brian: The Indians are one of those teams that are hard to get your hands around. I've already shown my hand and said I like the White Sox to win the Central but I keep flip flopping between the Indians and Tigers as to who is better between the two. I like the bullpen moves the Indians made and they should help but the question is, can they help enough. They also lack some depth in the rotation. Once you get past those front three (C.C. Sabathia, Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee), it gets pretty spotty. There's no doubt this team should score some runs though. You've got a nice mix of seasoned talent with some younger players anchoring some key spots (Andy Marte at third and Josh Barfield at second).

Seth: The Indians had one of the league's most potent offenses last year and the additions of David Dellucci, Josh Barfield and Andy Marte should make them even stronger. I believe Sabathia is ready to take that next step. Jake Westbrook is solid. Cliff Lee still has upside. I think that Jeremy Sowers could be an All-Star. Where the Indians had struggles last year was in their bullpen. So this offseason, the Tribe went out and signed Keith Foulke, Joe Borowski, Roberto Hernandez, Aaron Fultz and some other veterans to minor league contracts. The thought being that, even though these guys may not be great anymore, they also will also get over poor outings right away. They won't have the meltdowns like Fausto Carmona had last year. Even with the retirement of Foulke, the bullpen will be stronger which should mean about five more wins. Combined with an even stronger offense and solid starting pitching, the Indians definitely should be competing all season long.

Rich: I like the Indians. Most sabermetric types know they underperformed their Pythagorean record by 11 games last year. But I also like the fact that the Tribe finished #1 in the majors in Rob Neyer's BeaneCount. As an example of its relevancy, the Yankees, Tigers, and Red Sox placed second, third, and fourth in the AL. This is a good team. Cleveland just needs to learn to play better on the road and win more than its fair share of one-run games. The latter has now been a bugaboo for a couple of years. Despite the changes, I'm not sure if that bullpen is ready for prime time yet. I'm also concerned that the pitchers don't miss more bats. The Indians finished second from the bottom in Ks in 2006. I don't see where this issue was addressed at all, which means the defense needs to come up big this year if Cleveland is going to reach its potential.

Sully: I think it will be interesting to see if Eric Wedge takes advantage of his outfield depth. As it looks now, the Tribe could have two very potent platoons flanking Grady Sizemore in center field. Against right handers, it would be David Dellucci in left and Trot Nixon in right. Here is how they have fared against righties over their career:

            AVG  OBP  SLG
Dellucci:  .271 .359 .468
Nixon:     .292 .379 .513

And here is what Jason Michaels and Casey Blake have managed against southpaws:

            AVG  OBP  SLG
Michaels:  .303 .387 .464
Blake:     .253 .335 .487
All four hit significantly better with the platoon advantage. Wedge's resourcefulness will go a long way in determining Cleveland's hopes this season.

Seth: Sully, that makes a lot of sense to you and I, but Casey Blake is slotted in as the team's 1B. Could he play 1B against righties and RF against lefties? Ryan Garko really deserves an opportunity to get some at bats as well. And, will we see more of Victor Martinez at 1B with Kelly Shoppach behind the plate?

Rich: Garko had a boatload of RBI last year (45 in 50 games) so my sense is that the casual fan may overrate him a bit this year. He's already 26. I don't really know what to make of him, but I would be surprised if he is special as a first baseman. Shoppach rusted away a bit on the bench last year, but he didn't really earn more playing time either. I mean, 8 walks and 45 strikeouts in 110 at-bats makes me wonder if he can make the proper adjustments and hit big-league pitchers.

Sully: OK guys, it's that time. What do you got on Kansas City?

Seth: I think Dayton Moore taking over the GM role is a positive for the Royals. I think that they have been very smart with Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. No need to start their arbitration clocks any earlier than necessary. It may not show in record, but I do believe that this team is getting better. Offensively, the addition of those two and the emergence of Mark Teahen as legitimate offensive players is huge. David DeJesus needs to finally step it up though. John Buck is solid. Mark Grudzielanek's injury hurts a little. If only Joey Gathright could steal 1B. The concern is the pitching staff, and they are bad. Seriously, #s 2-5 in that staff make Gil Meche look good! The Royals are trying. They are getting better, but it will take a complete overhaul to get them back to respectability.

Brian: In a weird sort of way, this could be an important year for the Royals. You won't see it in the boxscores, because they'll probably still come close to touching 100 losses, but how guys like Alex Gordon develop could go a long way towards them finally getting out of the cellar. I think we could see a reemergence of David DeJesus in kind of a Freddy Sanchez like way where he finally contends for a batting title and remains healthy. We'll also see how bad (or good if you're an extreme optimist) of a signing Gil Meche was, at least for the money. The team needs to see what it has and they'll find that out in 2007.

Sully: Gordon, Butler and Luke Hochevar are definite up and coming bright spots but this team is still just so far away. As you mentioned, Seth, nothing short of an overhaul will do for Kansas City. I can't see any way this pitching staff gives up less than 900 runs and even though Gordon, DeJesus, Teahen and even Ryan Shealy may produce some, the offense is still only mediocre. I know it sounds like old hat but there really is not a lot of good to say about these guys.

Rich: Look, the Royals have been awful for three years and have only posted one winning record in the last dozen seasons. Although Dayton Moore has a lot of work ahead of him, Kansas City is just a few players short of where Tampa Bay was a couple of years ago. The franchise has the second pick in the amateur draft and should be in a position to land another star player, whether it be Vanderbilt lefthander David Price or Georgia Tech catcher Matt Weiters. It's going to take awhile to turn things around, but the organization appears to be on the right track for the first time since the days of George Brett.

Sully: What do you guys see as being the biggest potential surprise in this division? Could be an individual, a team, anything really. I will go back to my earlier sentiments and say the Chicago White Sox. I think their starting pitching is suspect, their lineup contains too many holes and where they are good on offense, they are old. I have them in fourth place this season and think they will have a hard time eclipsing the .500 mark.

Seth: I don't disagree with you at all on the White Sox. I don't want to sound like a homer, but I think that the Twins will be wise and go with the young pitchers earlier than we think. I think Jason Kubel will become a star. And although I think most will predict that the Tigers, the White Sox or even the Indians to win the division, I think that the Twins will find a way to win their fifth division title in six years. Secondly, despite the fact that Daisuke Matsuzaka has already been given the AL Rookie of the Year, I think that Kevin Slowey will actually win it.

Sully: Just so we have this on the record - and please, no homer apologies. I am a Red Sox fan for crissakes. We have a Kevin Slowey for AL Rookie of the Year call - right here, and on the record.

Seth: You read it here first!! Kevin Slowey, AL Rookie of the Year!

Rich: You gotta love Seth going out on a limb like that. No pedestrian predictions here.

Brian: My biggest surprise isn't much of a surprise but it's the Indians. I have them in third place but I could easily see them vaulting over everyone and winning the division if some of their pitchers catch fire. I also think the key to the team isn't Travis Hafner(although he's a huge part of the offense), but Victor Martinez. I think if the Indians win the division, Martinez will be the guy who ends up as the MVP.

Sully: I don't know if I would call Cleveland challenging for the division a real surprise but Martinez outshining Hafner sure would be.

Rich: Mine is a bit of a stretch, but I'm going to say that Ozzie Guillen gets canned before the All-Star break. His style works great when you're winning, but it wears mighty thin when you're losing. I know it's a longshot, but I think it's within the realm of possibility.

Sully: Guys, do we see any of the major award winners coming from the Central this season? I know Seth is on the record with his Slowey for AL ROY call but what else? Does Santana cruise to another Cy Young? Will Joe Mauer or Travis Hafner get their due? Let's hear your ROY, MVP and Cy Young candidates from the Central.

Brian: While I think it will take an injury from Johan Santana, I really think Jeremy Bonderman is going to put it together this year and could compete for the Cy Young. If the White Sox win the division like I predict, I can also see Jim Thome winning the AL MVP. Alex Gordon could also walk away with the AL ROY if he's as good as the hype.

Rich: Ho hum, Santana for Cy Young. This will be the year of the DH. If Big Papi doesn't win the MVP, I can see Hafner winning the honors with a .310-45-125 type year. Heck, he was close to those numbers last year in just 129 games. But those stats will go a long ways with voters if Hafner leads the Indians into the playoffs. As far as the Rookie of the Year goes, I believe it will be tough to beat out a certain pitcher in Boston but, if not him, then Gordon is one of the next two or three logical choices.

Seth: I am going to stand by my Kevin Slowey pick for AL Rookie of the year despite so many great choices in the AL Central alone. I think that Mauer and Hafner are definitely top MVP choices, but I don't think that the reigning AL MVP should be lost in the discussion either. I would say the darkhorse is Carlos Guillen. And yes, Johan Santana should win his third Cy Young Award this year!

Rich: Before we let you go, we need your predictions as to the standings in the AL Central. Who will take first, second, third, fourth, and fifth place? Bring it on.

Seth: My head says: I'll keep it simple with this answer. I will say: Twins, Indians, Tigers, White Sox, Royals.

Brian: This might be the toughest division to call outside of the Royals finishing in last place. I have White Sox/Tigers/Indians/Twins/Royals in that order. I kept flipping back and forth between the Tigers and Indians at second and third but I think the Gary Sheffield trade and the return of that rotation puts them slightly over the top. Last I picked the White Sox and Indians one and two and they finished three and four so this is really anyone's division if they go out and grab it.

Sully: I will go with Cleveland edging out Minnesota in a tight one, and then Detroit, Chicago and Kansas City.

Rich: I agree with Brian. This is a tough division to call. No one team stands heads and shoulders above the rest. I like the Indians the most, followed by the Tigers, Twins, White Sox, and Royals.

Brian: It could well come down to who's willing to sell their future at the trade deadline. It'd be interesting to see a team like the White Sox turn around and trade John Danks for a guy like Adam Dunn in July. All four teams have some guys in their farm system that could net them a short term gain if they feel they're on the cusp.

Sully: Thanks guys.

Two on Two: AL East Preview
By Rich Lederer and Patrick Sullivan

We kick off the 2007 Two on Two series today with the American League East. Peter Abraham is the Yankees beat writer for The Journal News and The LoHud Yankees Blog. His blog has become indispensable reading for Yankees fans. He is currently in Tampa covering the team, mixing play-by-play coverage of spring games with insightful behind-the-scenes reports, audio interviews with Joe Torre, and humorous comments. Mike Green writes for one the most popular baseball blogs out there, Batter's Box, which is largely devoted to analysis and coverage of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Rich: Thank you, Pete and Mike, for joining Sully and me today to kick off our baseball previews. We decided to come out of the blocks with the AL East. Given the fact that the AL Central sent two teams into the playoffs and one club to the World Series last year, is it still fair to say that the East is the best division in the American League?

Pete: Well, it's certainly better than the AL West. The Central is more interesting in some ways because of the great young players and the presence of Johan Santana. But the best division is the East. The Yankees and Red Sox are loaded and Toronto is far more of a presence the last two years.

Sully: I pretty much feel the same way as Pete in that the East is way better than the West and the Central and East are neck and neck. But I am going to cop out and stop short of calling the East better and say that it's just about a dead heat. Detroit, Cleveland, Minnesota and Chicago are all good teams.

Mike: I think that the Wild Card is likely to come out of the AL Central again this year. The bottom-dwellers in the AL East should be a fair bit better this year, making 95 wins a challenge for two clubs in the division to accomplish.

Sully: Pete, obviously losing Gary Sheffield and Randy Johnson in and of itself is not good but with the Yanks already laden with oldish talent, stockpiling some decent prospects didn't seem like a bad strategy at all. What were your thoughts on this past off-season for New York? What did you like and dislike?

Pete: Losing Randy Johnson and Gary Sheffield sounds bad from afar but in reality it could be little more than a blip. The Yankees won 97 games with only small contributions from Sheffield. Johnson was more effective than he is often given credit for but the Yankees have enough inventory among their starters to make up for his loss and it will come far, far cheaper. Johnson also taxed the bullpen more than the Yankees expected. This was a case of Brian Cashman selling while he could still get a good return. Cashman added seven players during the winter via trades and six of them were pitchers. It's hard to argue with that. In terms of what I disliked, I'm not sure the money invested in Kei Igawa was wise. For $46 million (including the bid) they could have signed an established MLB pitcher, not a fringy lefty from Japan. But obviously it's hard to judge a pitcher none of us has seen.

Sully: This feels strange but in order of 2006 finish it is now time to address the Jays. Mike, what did J.P Ricciardi do well this off-season and which aspects of the team would you like to have seen addressed a little more thoughtfully?

Mike: The signing of Frank Thomas means that the Jay offence should be able to match, or come close to, the Sox and Yankee offences in potency. On the downside, the Jays needed a middle infielder to accompany Aaron Hill. In signing Royce Clayton to fill the role, Ricciardi is hoping that the 37 year old Clayton can rejuvenate his career after several weak offensive and defensive seasons. Ricciardi did pick up Ray Olmedo from the Cincinnati organization during the off-season; it wouldn't surprise me to see Olmedo take the starting job at some point during the season. The back end of the rotation was an issue for the Jays, as it is for most teams. Ricciardi signed two rehabbing starters, John Thomson and Tomo Ohka, to compete for rotation slots, but the success of the team is more likely to depend on the development of the young pitchers Shaun Marcum, Casey Janssen, Dustin McGowan and Francisco Rosario.

Rich: After eight years of finishing in second place, Boston "slipped" last year and found themselves in third and watching the playoffs on TV. Theo Epstein & Co. made some significant changes during the off-season, upgrading in right field and at shortstop while adding strength to the top of the rotation. Could this be a powerhouse team in 2007?

Sully: Yeah I think the Sox will be back in their normal contending position this season. The Red Sox finished 12th in the AL in OPS from the catcher position, 10th at 2nd Base, 13th at shortstop, 12th in center field and 13th in right field. Boston got 34 combined starts from Matt Clement (6.61 ERA), Kyle Snyder (6.02), Lenny DiNardo (7.85) and Jason Johnson (7.36). Before you even factor in the additions Theo et al made, you would have to think the Sox improve on the basis of better health (Jason Varitek, Coco Crisp) and expected bounceback (Josh Beckett) alone.

Rich: How does everyone see the Orioles and Devil Rays. Can either team be a factor this year or are they just also rans?

Pete: They cannot be factors in terms of winning the division or even contending. But they can be annoying to the contenders. Tampa Bay is doing the right things to be good in 2010 or so. Baltimore I just don't understand. They should have made that trade with Anaheim involving Miguel Tejada. Spending so much on the bullpen is also fraught with risk.

Mike: I think that the Rays and Orioles will both be better than last year. The Rays have about the same odds as the 1967 Red Sox of winning. There is enough talent there to win (they might have the best outfield in baseball, and Scott Kazmir and Jeff Niemann could make a fine top of rotation), but the chance of it all being harnessed in 2007 is very small. Joe Maddon has a very difficult job, handling trying young personalities and integrating them into a cohesive whole. The Orioles' major problem last year was with their pitching staff, as they gave up almost 900 runs. I am a believer in Mazzone magic, and with the development of Adam Loewen and Daniel Cabrera, and the additions of Kris Benson, Danys Baez and Chad Bradford, they could easily chop 80-100 runs off that figure. Still, when a club's upside is 80 wins or so, it is hardly cause for celebration.

Sully: The Rays are absolutely headed in the right direction but are not there yet. Baltimore, on the other hand, I mean who the hell knows? No plan, no farm, no chance for the forseeable future. And it's too bad because Baltimore is a proud franchise with a rich tradition.

Rich: OK, let's drill down and take a closer look at each of the five teams. We'll start with the defending champs. Except for whoever is going to play first base, that lineup looks like it's better than what most of us could put together in a ten-team fantasy baseball league.

Pete: I wrote this last season and I will probably write it again this season but the Yankees could score 1,000 runs. Bobby Abreu is a great fit with his OBP and having Melky Cabrera as a reserve should keep Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui fresher and more effective. You can go on and on, the lineup is insane. The only weakness, if any, is that it's very left-handed.

Rich: Everybody thinks of a team like the Angels as aggressive on the bases when, in fact, the so-called Bronx Bombers were second in the AL in SB with the highest SB % in the league.

Mike: The Yankee offence is a sabermetrician's dream. They led the league in team OBP by 12 points over Boston last year, and look poised to repeat to me. They have enough power and speed to move baserunners around, but the strength of the club is getting them on.

Sully: Pete, what are the variables that will dictate success or failure for the Yanks this season? Of course health is always an issue but what other factors are out there? When will we see Philip Hughes and how good will he be? Does Robinson Cano stay healthy and break out this season?

Pete: Cano could be their second or third best player before the season is out. He seems in much better condition this spring, which could help him stay healthy. Their only question is starting pitching. But with Hughes on the horizon along with others, they should be OK. They will control Hughes' innings for a few months in Scranton then spring him loose around the All-Star break. Then there is the chance Roger shows up. Do you guys sees Clemens coming back to the AL? I do.

Rich: I still think Houston has the hometown edge but would not be at all surprised if Roger pits the Yankees against the Red Sox and goes to the team with the best combination of salary and wins come Memorial Day, especially if the Astros are not looking like a playoff contender. What's the scoop out of Florida, Pete?

Pete: Roger is working out with Koby at the Houston camp. Meanwhile Randy Hendricks was here in Tampa the other day and Derek Jeter sends text messages to the Rocket all the time. Based on the feel I get from Andy Pettitte, he and Clemens were tired of the lack of run support in Houston and I'm not sure Carlos Lee changes that enough. I'll admit, I hope he comes to the Yankees. He makes great copy.

Sully: You know I am hoping for the storybook homecoming and reconciliation but like Rich, think Houston has the edge.

Pete: Sully (and I grew up near Boston, I know like 16 guys named Sully), do you think the Sox can resist using Jonathan Pabelbon to close? I can't see Joel Piniero being the man for a true contender.

Sully: Well given how good Boston's lineup and starting pitching should be, I think they will have the luxury of figuring out who the closer should be on the go (I see the bullpen getting the ball with a lot of 6-2 type leads). The value proposition of having Papelbon in the rotation is straightforward - better to get 200 innings out of a premium talent that 70. Between Brendan Donnelly, Pineiro, J.C. Romero, Devern Hansack, Mike Timlin, Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen, there is a decent chance that by mid-May or so one of these guys will have emerged. But if it is apparent that the back end of the Sox pen is costing them, I think they will move Papelbon back to Closer by June 1.

Mike: Exactly. My money is on Donnelly to be the Sox closer. The club will be better off, as long as Papelbon can post an ERA in the 3.5-3.8 range as a starter. I think he can.

Rich: I'm not quite as sanguine as it relates Donnelly or Boston's bullpen overall. Without Papelbon closing games, I think it is the one weak link of the team. I wouldn't be comfortable handing the ball to any of those aforementioned middle relievers with the game on the line in the eighth or ninth inning on a regular basis. I wonder if either Hansen can grow up in a hurry or Bryce Cox can fly through the minors to give the Red Sox some relief, if you will. In the meantime, I'm concerned that the Boston media will have a field day blaming management for putting Paps in the rotation and not having a legitimate closer to replace him.

Pete: I have not been to Fort Myers yet but I keep hearing stories about Daisuke Matsuzaka's amazing arm strength and endless bullpen sessions. How Boston uses him (every five days or every six) will be a story to watch. He's a fascinating pitcher but you wonder if this is one case where the hype outweighs reality. It seems like every time everybody is sure about something, it's just not the case. Do you guys think he's an ace or merely a very good starter?

Mike: I wish I knew. Using Jay starters as measuring sticks, he is somewhere in the A.J. Burnett - Roy Halladay range. Even at the bottom of the range, where it is probably safest to guess that he will fit, he helps the Sox.

Sully: Wow, lukewarm on Matsuzaka are we? He's 26 and has a track record of dominance at high levels of play. I see no reason to project him to be anything short of a top-10 AL starting pitcher.

Rich: Back in December, I predicted that he would win 14-16 games, with a 3.50-4.00 ERA and 150-180 strikeouts. Call him an ace or a very good pitcher, that's an outstanding pitching line for someone in the AL East.

Mike: Sounds right to me. Speaking of uncertainty and pitchers, what do you think about Burnett? He was a .500 pitcher through his 20s despite having first-rate stuff and decent control, with injuries and emotional issues playing an important part. More of the same, or a blooming into a fully developed effective pitcher?

Rich: I've always liked Burnett. Like you said, Mike, he has great stuff. A 95+ mph fastball and a hammer curve that generate lots of strikeouts and groundballs. My kind of pitcher. With A.J., it's all about his health. If he can give Toronto 200 innings, he will be one of the most productive pitchers in the league and the five-year, $55 million contract he signed after the 2005 season will look like a bargain in today's inflated market for starters.

Sully: I love A.J. as much as the next guy but he has pitched 200 innings twice in six full seasons so I would say that it seems a bit unlikely that he will reach that mark. On the hitting side, Adam Lind seems like a guy that is ready to help immediately. Any chance of him taking Reed Johnson's job?

Mike: Not at the start of the season. The club has made it pretty clear that he will start the season in Syracuse. But, in the event of injury to any of the outfielders or to Thomas, Lind will be up in a flash (although Lind can only play leftfield, Johnson can play all three positions and Alexis Rios could play a very fine defensive centerfield if required). Lind has a sweet swing, and I expect him in Toronto for good by July at the latest.

Rich: It seems to me that Lind is ready to play at the big league level. I don't know what else there is for him to prove in the minors. The guy has hit well at every level and put up a line of .394/.496/.596 at Syracuse last year, then went .367/.415/.600 in a cup of coffee with the Jays in September. Speaking of major league ready prospects, I bet J.P. wishes he had drafted Troy Tulowitzki rather than Ricky Romero with the #6 overall pick in 2005. Toronto could sure use a shortstop.

Mike: That they can. It would have been nice if they had put up more of a fight for Julio Lugo. Bad enough to not get him, but for a divisional rival to get him at a reasonable price really hurts.

Pete: I remember the 2005 Winter Meetings, J.P. was the prom king because of all the money he spent and spent wisely, or so it seemed. It has to start to pay off this season or the ownership in Toronto will want to know why. I think the Jays will have a sense of urgency.

Sully: There are just too many problems with Toronto for me to be a real believer. While Troy Glaus, Thomas and Vernon Wells constitute a nice offensive backbone, the rest of the lineup is filled with mediocrity and really, the shortstop situation is downright inexcusable. The bullpen is excellent but the starting pitching is as thin as the lineup. Halladay and Burnett are an excellent 1-2 but 3 through 5 gets ugly quick for Toronto. So I see Toronto as a little too top heavy to be a real threat.

Rich: Second baseman Aaron Hill and right fielder Alex Rios ranked first in the AL at their respective positions in John Dewan's plus/minus system. The team's outfield defense looks terrific with Johnson, Wells, and Rios. At the same time, Toronto hit 121 HR at home and only 78 on the road. Maybe the strong offense is an illusion and perhaps the team is more about pitching and defense than not.

Mike: The home/road split was partially fluke. Rogers Center is a good home run park, but not that good. Rios has really only had one-half season of star performance, but I like his chances of keeping it up. He changed his approach at the plate, and went from being a groundball hitter and not pulling the ball to a pull fly-ball hitter. Overall, I am a little more positive than Sully about the club (heck, I live here), but I will concede that their perch on second place is tenuous.

Rich: In some ways, I feel sorry for Toronto fans. Competing in the AL East is not easy. The Blue Jays boosted payroll by more than 50% last year and just signed Wells to one of the biggest contracts in baseball history, yet the club still trails the Yankees by over $100 million and the Red Sox by tens of millions in annual compensation. The franchise is betwixt and between. The Jays are not quite good enough to make the playoffs nor so awful as to get one of the top couple of draft picks every year like Tampa Bay.

Sully: Jamie Walker, Danys Baez, Chad Bradford, Jay Payton, Aubrey Huff and Steve Trachsel. That's a lot of change and some of it positive but we are talking about a 70-win team in 2006. The wheels are spinning, but are the O's moving at all?

Rich: That Baez contract was one of the worst signings of the off-season. I don't know what they see in him but it is indicative of a lack of vision on the part of management.

Pete: Here's my question about the O's: who's running the joint? Mike Flanagan ostensibly but Peter Angelos shoots down trades and Jim Duquette seems to be running a lot of things behind the scenes. They need a unified plan and one voice. In a division of strong GMs, Baltimore lacks that.

Rich: I guess it's not much fun to be a current O's fan either. Long gone are the days of Earl Weaver, all those 20-game winners, and that great infield defense. It's been ten years since the team played .500. As Sully said, this was a proud franchise. But it has been stuck in fourth place for a long time and Tampa Bay is going to pass them soon.

Mike: One game I play is to try and imagine a scenario by which each club could win the division. The only way I can get there for the Orioles is for Adam Loewen, Erik Bedard and Daniel Cabrera to turn into Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz overnight. I strain to get Bedard into Glavine's shoes, but no matter how hard I try, I cannot imagine the other two making miraculous transformations in one season. The best case scenario for the O's, to my mind, is that the young arms take a stride forward, but even there, the offensive firepower is not likely to be there in the future when the arms are ready.

Pete: Where do you guys stand on the Devil Rays? I've gotten to know owner Stu Sternberg a bit and he seems to be doing the right things. They've opened academies in Latin America, increased spending on scouting and development and signed some young players to long-term deals. But in this division, it's still a long way up. Are they at long last going in the right direction?

Rich: Absolutely. I'll give the new ownership and management some of the credit but most of it is simply due to the fact that the team has consistently had one of the first picks in the amateur draft and many of these players are now at the point where they should begin to pay dividends. The outfield of Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, and Delmon Young is oozing with talent and athleticism while two of the future infielders in Evan Longoria and Reid Brignac are within a year or two of making their impact felt in Tampa. The Rays also have a a top-of-the-rotation starter in Scott Kazmir plus a number of quality arms in the farm system, but I wouldn't expect pitching to be an area of strength until 2009, at the earliest.

Mike: The key issue for the D-Rays will be the development of their infield defence. The signing of Akinori Iwamura helps significantly. It sounds as though the Rays have decided for now to keep him at third base, where he is a Gold Glove quality fielder. Ben Zobrist is an adequate defensive shortstop, but Jorge Cantu is a liability at second base. For now, the plan seems to be try B.J. Upton there at least part of the time. If that doesn't work, Longoria and Iwamura will be tried in some combination at second and third. The progress of the infield defence will play an important role in the paths of the young pitching prospects, J.P. Howell, Jamie Shields, Andy Sonnanstine and Jason Hammel. I am more optimistic than Rich about the progress of the Ray pitching; I expect Howell and Jeff Niemann to take a step forward in 2007.

Rich: If Niemann can stay healthy, he should be a stud in due time. Howell and Shields are capable big-league starters and both should be in the rotation this year. I'm not that high on Hammel and am unsure about how Sonnanstine's stuff will play in the AL East, but they will both be in the mix for a spot at the back end of the rotation this year and next, respectively. What I really like though are a few guys deeper down in the system. Wade Davis and Jacob McGee were two of the best pitchers in the Low Class A Midwest League and Mitch Talbot, who the Rays stole from the Astros in the Aubrey Huff rent-a-player deal, was exceptional in the Double A Southern League playoffs last year.

Mike: Sonnanstine will probably start the season in triple A. Even if the rotation does improve, as I think it will, the bullpen looks miserable to me. Are there any bright lights there that I am not seeing?

Sully: I like Shawn Camp and Chad Orvella, but I can pretty much take or leave the rest of that pen.

Rich: All right, let's go around the room a few times with some concluding thoughts. If there is an MVP, Cy Young, and/or Rookie of the Year out of this division, who do you see grabbing each of those awards?

Pete: There are certainly multiple candidates out of this division. This will probably come back to haunt me, but A-Rod for MVP and Matsuzaka for Rookie of the Year. The Cy Young probably comes out of the Central but I see big seasons for Wang and Beckett. Wang was close to 21 or 22 wins last season.

Mike: The usual suspects, Jeter, A-Rod, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, are again the most likely MVP candidates from the AL East. Instead of one of these four, I'll go on a hunch with two longshot breakout candidates, Carl Crawford and Alex Rios. Matsuzaka for Rookie of the Year makes sense to me, as does Pete's view that the Cy Young winner will come out fo the Central. The best pitcher in the division, and a Cy Young candidate, will once again be Roy Halladay.

Rich: I have a difficult time thinking of Matsuzaka as a rookie but, until the rules are changed, I'm gonna go with him as the ROY. As far as MVP goes, I think this just may be David Ortiz's year. There are a number of Martin Scorseses in this division who could get it based on lifetime achievement, but I sense that Big Papi is going to wear down the voters this time around. Cy Young? If not Santana, then how about Roy Halladay? I could see him winning 16 to 18 games with an ERA in the low 3s. I know that doesn't sound Cy Youngish but those numbers were good enough for Brandon Webb to win it in the NL last year.

Sully: I am not sure I have a lot to add to that. Matsuzaka seems like a great ROY candidate and a dark horse Cy Young winner too. In any order, Ortiz, Manny, Jeter, A-Rod and Tejada are the five best players in the division while Halladay is clearly the best starter. Switching gears a bit, what will be the biggest surprise this year? I am going to go with Boston's bullpen. I'll come off like a homer here but I think new pitching coach John Farrell has enough arms to put together a quality pen, and with the offense and starting pitching as good as it is, they will be able to withstand the inevitable bullpen woes it will take for Terry Francona to figure out everyone's role. But come summer, Boston's bullpen will be a strength.

Pete: The biggest surprise will be the trouble Boston has scoring. Their offense is a house of cards and I don't mean St. Louis. Manny quit on them last season and could do so at any time this season. J.D. Drew's placid personality will be a bad fit in Boston. Coco Crisp and Jason Varitek need bounce-back seasons. I think what we saw of them late season is what they are.

Sully: A house of cards, huh Pete? I would say it is quite a leap to suggest that Manny "could quit at any time." He played less than 150 games for the first time in four seasons in 2006. And Drew's personality could very well be perfect for Boston. He seems more or less emotionless and has never cared about fan pressure. He is a career .333/.474/.600 hitter at Citizens Bank Park and I am pretty sure he has heard a "boo" or two there. Crisp and Varitek may need bounce-back seasons for the Sox offense to click, but they are both tremendous candidates to do just that. And the notion that what we saw late in the season from Boston is what they are now is preposterous. Lugo replaces Alex Gonzalez. Drew replaces Trot Nixon, who was just awful late last season. Manny replaces Kevin Youkilis in left field, who replaces Eric Hinske at first. Crisp and Varitek should be healthy. Think Dustin Pedroia will be a career .191/.258/.303 hitter? Do I need to go on?

Rich: Ahh, just for fun, I'll say either A-Rod or Manny gets traded at the deadline.

Mike: The Tampa Bay Devil Rays. After a 61 win season last year, few people expect them to be competitive this year, but I think that they will be. It will probably mean only about 75 wins due to a weak bullpen, but the AL East goliaths will notice.

Rich: It's time to get out your crystal balls and give us your predictions. Who is going to win the division and in what order do you see the standings come October?

Mike: The Yankees will take the division with 92 wins. That might not sound like much, but for a club in a rebuilding year and cutting payroll, it is really quite impressive. Boston, Toronto, Baltimore and Tampa will follow. The margin between top and bottom will be cut in half from last year's 36 games.

Pete: Until somebody beats them, you have to go with the Yankees. Plus they have what looks like the best team. New York, Toronto, Boston, Tampa Bay, Baltimore.

Sully: Boston leaps two places to win the division, and then it's New York, Toronto, Tampa Bay and Baltimore.

Rich: I believe it will come down to the Yankees and Red Sox. Whichever team does the best job at staying healthy and solving its main weakness (first base and a closer, respectively) will have the edge. If that same club also signs Roger Clemens, good night, turn out the lights, the party is over. Toronto will finish in third by a comfortable margin and Tampa Bay will edge Baltimore for fourth.

Baseball Beat/Change-UpFebruary 28, 2007
A Chat with Red Sox Assistant General Manager Jed Hoyer
By Patrick Sullivan

Jed Hoyer is a graduate of Wesleyan University, where he played shortstop and still holds the school record for career saves. After stints as a college coach and a few years working for a tech start-up and a management consultancy, he joined the Red Sox in 2002 after Boston's new ownership bought the team. Until 2005 he worked as Assistant to the General Manager and now has the title of Assistant General Manager. We are grateful that he took some time to chat with us.

Pat: Jed, thanks so much for taking time to answer some questions. It would be fun to start out by hearing a little about your playing days at Wesleyan. What position did you play? Were you any good?

Jed: When you spend most of your time around the best players in the world - and in our case, we've had two of the best of all-time in Pedro and Manny - your own playing talent gets put in perspective very quickly. I think the best thing that I can say for myself is that I was versatile. I started in LF as a sophomore because our captain was the starting shortstop. As a junior and senior, I played shortstop and I acted as our closer. In Division III, you see a lot of things you don't see in pro ball - and having someone jog in from SS to close a game is certainly one of them.

Pat: Sounds like we can finally squash the Julio Lugo as closer rumors. Playing ball really sounded like a positive force in your life.

Jed: Playing in college was a great experience for me. We had a terrific manager, Pete Kostacopoulos, who was at Wesleyan for more than 30 years. I played for him for four years and coached with him for three more (I coached at Wesleyan while I was working there) and he taught me so much about the game. Also, my sophomore year we had a really good team. We won the New England title and then went to the Division III World Series. We lost in the National Championship game to Wisconsin-Oshkosh and their fairly good Division III pitcher, Jarrod Washburn. The camaraderie of those three weeks of tournament games is something that I will never forget. Wesleyan treated us so well when we returned from the World Series. Our seniors had missed graduation and the school had all the professors come out for a "private" graduation ceremony at the President's House. The President announced everyone's name, academic major, and relevant baseball stats from the season.

Rich: It sounds as if you had a terrific time at Wesleyan. When - and in what capacity - did you make the move from the college ranks to professional baseball?

Jed: I worked and coached at Wesleyan for three years and then moved to Boston to work for a start-up company called Darwin Networks in the fall of 2000. I worked at Darwin until it went out of business and then worked at a management consulting firm called Seurat. I learned a ton working in the business world, but I quickly realized that I wasn't particularly passionate about it. About that time, I found out from a friend that Ben Cherington was looking to hire an intern with the Red Sox. Ben and I had played against each other in college and we had a bunch of mutual friends. I called him right away and he told me about the position. I think he was a bit reluctant to hire a 28-year old intern at first, but I guess I wore him down. I was officially hired the day the new ownership took over.

Pat: From intern to Assistant General Manager, how have your duties evolved over the years?

Jed: My timing was really good. When I started, Theo needed someone with good quantitative skills to help him out with some of his duties. Coming from consulting, where I used Excel and PowerPoint and did business models everyday, I was able to assist him pretty often. We really got along well and he basically grabbed me away from the scouting department and took up all of my time. From 2003 through the 2005 season, my job was to help Theo and Josh Byrnes with all of their duties. Over the course of those three seasons, both of them taught me a ton and gradually increased my managerial and negotiating responsibilities each year. Now, as Assistant GM, I still look at my job the same way - help Theo with anything and everything - but now I handle many of the negotiations and help oversee the office staff and professional scouting department.

Pat: So from the day you were hired until now, can you share the most mundane task ever assigned to you and the best, most impactful and high-profile work you have done?

Jed: The other night Brian O'Halloran, our Director of Baseball Operations, and I were at a Kinkos in Phoenix putting together arbitration binders until 4:30 in the morning. It doesn't get more mundane than sticking each individual number on a divider while the guy behind the counter is listening to a sci-fi book on tape - and somehow trying to stay awake. That task is up there on the list - and is certainly the most recent. As an intern, I spent a lot of time making "name" magnets for the draft room. That's pretty monotonous. I have had a ton of great projects too - heading out to Arizona to try to sign Schilling and spending two days in NYC with ARod in December 2003 were great experiences because it is so rare to negotiate without the filter of an agent. I think the most fun I have ever had working for the Red Sox has been preparing for the post-season advance scouting meetings. Every single time I wind up nearly pulling an all-nighter to get all the materials and video ready for the meeting - and it never feels like work. Preparing for a playoff series - and watching how Varitek devours the information and asks incredible questions - is an amazing experience.

Rich: Speaking of the playoffs, Boston missed out last year for the first time since 2002. What went wrong last season and what gives you hope for the coming year?

Jed: I guess the simple answer is that we weren't good enough in 2006. When we were relatively injury-free through July, we played well. But once we started getting banged up, we fell quickly. That's not an excuse at all, because the mark of a good team is one that is deep enough to overcome injuries. In 2005, we made the playoffs without Schilling or Foulke for most of the season. In 2004, we didn't have Nomar or Trot for long stretches. Last year, we weren't deep enough in the rotation or the lineup to sustain injuries. This off-season we tried to add more bats, with Drew and Lugo, to take some of the pressure off Ortiz and Manny. We were last in baseball in OPS out of the #5 hole in the lineup (.683) and we felt that we couldn't endure that again. Also, we added Matsuzaka and Papelbon to the rotation, and we have a number of solid options behind our top 5. Our team is deeper offensively and deeper in starting pitching and I think that will allow us to endure the bumps in the road that inevitably crop up during a six-month season.

Rich: There has been speculation that Papelbon's role will once again be as a closer this year. Is there any truth to that rumor? If not, are you prepared to go into the season with Joel Pineiro as your closer?

Jed: That speculation is simply people parsing words and over-thinking Theo and Tito's comments. We aren't ready to name a closer yet. We have a number of internal options and will spend our time in Florida , and possibly even into the regular season, making that decision. If a Wagner or Ryan had been available this winter, we certainly would have attempted to land such a proven closer. But since that type of pitcher wasn't available, we tried to acquire as many good relievers as possible and we are confident one of them will emerge as a solid closer.

Pat: OK Jed, let's do a quick case study. In 2002 as a 31-year-old, Bill Mueller hit .262/.350/.393 in 111 games between San Francisco and Chicago . In 2005 with similar playing time as a 29-year-old, Jason Michaels hit .304/.399/.415 for the Phillies. Prior to these seasons, they were virtually indistinguishable from a qualitative standpoint. The two important differences to point out is that Mueller was a switch-hitter and played more as a regular when healthy. Here is how they fared in 2003 and 2006 respectively:

Mueller '03: .326/.398/.540
Michaels '06: .267/.326/.391

What made Mueller such a good move and Michaels such a bad one (at least in his first season)? Scouting? Superior performance analytics? Use of spray charts? Dumb luck? Explain the anatomy of both a good and bad acquisition against the backdrop of these two guys.

Jed: While it's inappropriate for me to comment on other team's players, I will say that I certainly don't think that Jason Michaels was a bad acquisition. He played far more in 2006 than he ever had in his career and the Indians thought enough of him to sign him to a multi-year deal this winter. Comparing anyone's stats to Bill Mueller's 2003 season is pretty unfair. We had very good scouting reports on Bill Mueller and we loved the fact that he had always controlled the strike-zone so well. In Mueller's case, he was a pull hitter from the right-side and had a good opposite field approach from the left-side. That's pretty much ideal for Fenway Park.

As boring as it sounds, I believe that the most important thing is to have a well-constructed, well-thought out process to player acquisitions. As long as you have a plan, which the Red Sox certainly have, and you try to turn over every rock to find answers, you give yourself the best possible chance to be right more than you're wrong. For every Ortiz or Mueller or Schilling there are other guys that we have brought in who didn't succeed in Boston . Every time that happens we try to figure out if there was anything we could have done to avoid it.

Rich: Obviously Boston is different than most baseball cities. To what extent do you take this into consideration when evaluating a player's make-up?

Jed: That is definitely an important consideration for us. There are players who thrive in this environment and players who don't enjoy this kind of scrutiny at all. We gather as much information about a player's character as possible when we are considering an acquisition. We have been right a number of times, but we have also made some key mistakes in this regard. This is an area that we continue to study and learn about and hopefully we will continue to get better and better at making that evaluation.

Pat: How do you strike the right balance between scouting and statistical analysis? And perhaps more interestingly, have you been integrating statistical analysis into your scouting work to measure empirically what works and what doesn't, as well as which scouts are more successful than others?

Jed: As we see it, we want every piece of information possible before making a decision. We have spent a lot of time and energy in developing our quantitative methods and we certainly use them in making player personnel decisions. But we also have a lot of great scouts and we read their reports and have lengthy conversations with all of them before making decisions. The idea that teams are either "Moneyball" teams or "scouting" teams is an incredible over-simplification. You need to have both of those components - as well as medical and contractual - to make an educated decision on a player.

Pat: Allard Baird, Bill James, Tom Tippett. Explain their respective duties and how have they helped?

Jed: All three have had a tremendously positive impact on the organization. They each have an impact beyond what I could say in this chat, but to give people a sense of their daily activities, here goes:

Bill: Bill has such an incredible historical knowledge of the game and of the trends of baseball over time. He is always working on macro-level projects for us that generally begin with a question over lunch or something. Next thing you know, Bill is working on finding a real answer to the philosophical question that was asked. His reports on those questions have had a big influence on many of our decisions since 2002.

Allard: Allard is primarily focused on our professional scouting department. He runs that department and is a constant resource for Theo and me on major league transactions. He is a great scout who has worked in almost every capacity in baseball and knows almost everyone in the game.

Tom: Tom was hired to help streamline all of our information. We found that over our first 4-5 years we had come up with a lot of information but it was in different locations or databases and wasn't always easy accessible. Tom has been working for us for about 18 months and has made a huge difference in our efficiency.

Rich: We recently ran a series on Baseball Analysts categorizing pitchers by strikeout and groundball rates. Michael Bowden and Clay Buchholz, both of whom played for Greenville in the Low Class A South Atlantic League, showed up as among the best with the former inducing a few more worm burners and the latter doing a little better job at missing bats. Do you favor these metrics over more traditional stats such as ERA and BAA? If so, are you making a concerted effort to focus on power arms, both in terms of quality as well as quantity in the belief that it's somewhat of a numbers game when it comes to developing pitchers?

Jed: I can't get into which metrics we use to evaluate pitchers, but I will say that quantity is essential. We have devoted a ton of time to studying work loads for young pitchers and we have an excellent medical staff here. But no matter how careful or scientific you are with pitchers, there is a natural attrition rate. You have to draft a lot of pitchers with the size, delivery, and arm action to succeed in professional baseball in order to get a few that can help you in the big leagues.

Rich: Bowden, Buchholz, and Daniel Bard. Are we looking at the Killer Bees reincarnated here? Am I going to get a chance to see this threesome do their thing at Lancaster in the High A California League this year?

Jed: We like all three of those guys a great deal, but we are going to be careful not to overheat the hype machine. All three have a ton of ability, but all three will also have to continue to develop in order to have major league success. As for Lancaster, we haven't made final decisions on where our minor league players will be when the season starts. It is safe to say, however, that there will be a fun pitching staff to watch in Lancaster this season.

Pat: OK, Jed, let's move to the lightning round. Is Jon Lester going to be healthy enough to contribute this year?

Jed: Given what he has been through over the past six months, I am extremely reluctant to put any expectations on him. I will say that he showed up in camp in great shape and he has looked very good thus far in Ft. Myers.

Pat: Do you have any regrets about trading Hanley Ramirez?

Jed: Do I wish that Hanley was still in our organization? Absolutely. But I don't have any regrets about trading him for Josh Beckett. While Josh didn't have the kind of year he had hoped for in 2006, that certainly hasn't changed the way we look at him as a pitcher. Pitching in the AL East is a challenge and the fact that Josh was eager to sign a long-term deal in Boston tells us that he is excited about meeting that challenge head-on. You can't acquire extremely talented 25-year old starting pitchers cheaply. We don't have Josh Beckett without trading Hanley Ramirez. And we are very excited to have Josh Beckett.

Rich: Who has the best fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup in the system?

Jed: I guess my evaluation would be - Fastball (Bard), Curveball (Bowden), Slider and Changeup (Buchholz).

Pat: Jed, thanks so much for taking the time. Rich and I wish you and the Boston Red Sox the best of luck in the coming season.

Jed: Thanks guys.