Baseball Beat/WTNYJune 06, 2006
Live Blogging the 2006 MLB Draft
By Rich Lederer

Jim Callis of Baseball America believes the Kansas City Royals will take former Tennessee ace Luke Hochevar with the first pick in the draft. If so, it would be apparent that the team has reached a pre-draft agreement with agent Scott Boras. Hochevar was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers last year and agreed to a $2.98 million signing bonus before reneging on that deal. An amount in excess of $3 million but less than the $5 million that other #1 choices have demanded in the past is probably in the cards. Let's call it $4 million, which is still below what Boras was seeking a year ago for his client.
Posted by Rich Lederer at 12:50 p.m. ET

First Round:

1. Kansas City Royals: Luke Hochevar, RHP (Fort Worth)

A top prospect in last year's draft, it was a surprise when Luke Hochevar slipped on draft day to the 40th pick, belonging to the Dodgers. Our own Rich Lederer wrote his capsule:

...Hochevar's outing on Friday didn't raise his stature in the draft. He worked eight innings and gave up five runs on nine hits while recording nine strikeouts and four walks. However, prior to that, he was considered one of the top two starters in the draft (along with Mike Pelfrey).

Scott Boras and an asking price of $5 million scared away many teams. It will be interesting to see if the Dodgers step up well beyond the norm for a supplemental pick or if Boras and Hochevar come down. Unlike Jered Weaver last year, every team in baseball passed on Hochevar, which weakens his position considerably.

Furthermore, even in the words of Boras, Hochevar is not as "major league ready" as was Weaver last year. Luke might throw a couple of mph harder than Weaver and has a plus breaking ball, but he does not possess the same command and control as Jered. His lack of polish suggests Hochevar is probably at least two years away from pitching at Dodger Stadium.

Conclusion: A potentially great draft pick if the Dodgers can sign him for a price not to exceed $3M.

No, ladies and gentleman, Rich has not edited that last sentence in the last 365 days. The three million dollar bonus that Rich suggested proved to be the dividing line between the two sides, as Hochevar reneged after agreeing to a $2.98M contract.

Since then, thanks to Kent Bonham, we have learned that Hochevar may have been statistically overrated last year. His final junior stat line offers an ERA of 2.26, a number aided by context. Remove defense from the equation, and Hochevar's ERA slips to 3.69, without his park and schedule, just 3.97. Suddenly the Dodgers unwavering offer doesn't look so bad, does it?

Hochevar proved a lot with his stint in Indy ball, showing the same arm strength, and just a little less polish than his previous self. Given a year off to rest his once over-worked arm, this is forgivable.

At any spot in the top ten, Hochevar is simply a reach, lucky to have his hold-out gamble pay off. In truth he is a pitcher that belongs from 10-20 in the draft, garnering little more than slot from that position. Given his flakiness in the past, the bang is just not worth the buck with Hochevar.
Posted by Bryan Smith at 1:16 p.m. ET

2. Colorado Rockies: Greg Reynolds, RHP (Stanford)

Not one of my partner Bryan's favorite prospects, Reynolds flew up the draft boards by beating fellow Pac-10 stars Lincecum and Morrow late in the regular season and then North Carolina State in the opening game of the Texas Regional last Friday. He has pitched five complete games in his last six starts and will be extending his season when he faces the Beavers once again in the Oregon State Super Regional this weekend.

Reynolds has the size (6-7, 225) and excellent command of a fastball that sits in the low-90s, as well as a curveball that impressed me when I had the opportunity to watch his last start on TV. He throws strikes but has never been one to punch out very many hitters, as evidenced by a mediocre K/9 rate in college and in the Cape Cod League the past two summers.
Posted by Rich at 12:41 a.m. ET

3. Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Evan Longoria, 3B (Long Beach State)

Longoria slips past the Rockies and into the laps of the Devil Rays. The Cape Cod MVP last summer follows in the footsteps of Bobby Crosby and Troy Tulowitzki as the third Dirtbag infielder selected in the first round of the draft in the past six years.

Here is my scouting report from early February after watching him over a three-game weekend vs. USC:

Second-year transfer from Rio Hondo JC...Named the Cape Cod MVP after leading the league in homers (8), RBI (35), and SLG (.500) and a first team Summer All-American by Baseball America...Can play 3B, SS, or 2B...Adequate defensively...Slightly open stance with left heel off the ground...Steps into ball as it is pitched...Drives ball to all fields...Hit a long flyout that was held up by the thick air in the first inning on Friday against Kennedy...Tattooed a line drive past a diving CF for a triple in the fourth inning vs. the USC ace...Runs well for his size and is a good baserunner...Rated as the 10th-best prospect by Baseball America and is a lock to be one of the first position players drafted in June.

Longoria should fit in well with Tampa Bay's youth movement. Although some have likened him to Aaron Hill and others to Chase Utley, I think he profiles a bit like Ryan Zimmerman. At 6-2, 213 pounds, Longoria's build is similar to Zimmerman's. They both exhibit line-drive power, capable of hitting .280-.300 with 20 or more home runs. Longoria may not make quite the rush to the majors as Zimmerman did last year but could find himself in the Show at some point in 2007.
Posted by Rich at 1:59 p.m. ET

4. Pittsburgh Pirates: Brad Lincoln, RHP (Houston)

An outstanding two-way player in college, Lincoln will undoubtedly earn his keep as a pitcher at the next level. One of the many "undersized" RHP in the draft, the hard-throwing Cougar has displayed excellent command of his fastball and secondary pitches and could work his way through the minors rather quickly.
Posted by Rich at 11:43 p.m. ET

5. Seattle Mariners: Brandon Morrow, RHP (California)

After a 9.36 ERA in his sophomore season, Brandon Morrow had worked his way off a lot of follow lists. However, like so many prospects before him, Morrow was a Cape Cod League darling, quite possibly the league's best 2006 success story. Pitching in relief, Morrow dominated, striking out 24 batters in 14.2 innings, flashing a good fastball and plus splitter. Reservations about his control and starting potential carried into this spring, and were for the most part, quenched by his great 2006. The right hander continued to be near unhittable, allowing just 72 knocks in 96.2 innings.

The biggest question surrounding the live arm is his ability to control the fastball, a weakness that seems to come and go with each outing. With good control Morrow might be the best arm in this draft, a player that held postseason teams UCLA, UC Irvine and Stanford to just five runs in 22.2 innings, striking out 27. But in other starts, he's off, letting bad command get to him on the mound. However, many believe Morrow's strength is his ability to be effectively wild - in his two starts while allowing six walks, Morrow didn't allow an earned run over 12 innings.

Whether his future lies in a rotation or a bullpen, there is a future for Brandon Morrow. This kind of arm strength is rarely wasted too long in the minor leagues.
Posted by Bryan at 1:41 p.m. ET

Note: As reported by Baseball America, no high school player was taken in the top five picks for the first time since 1992 when Derek Jeter went sixth.

6. Detroit Tigers: Andrew Miller, LHP (North Carolina)

I saw Miller's last start, his regional appearance against Winthrop, and this is the best attempt at a scouting report that I could muster:

Miller's length comes across as soon as he walks towards the mound; his frame is all arms and legs. The length allows for very good extension in his delivery, which helps produce a 91-93 mph four seam fastball that touched 95 mph in the first inning. His frame is so wiry that the naked eye guesses it could add 25-30 pounds, maybe more; Miller's success could greatly depend upon his workroom ethic. The slider is as every bit as good as advertised, a pitch impossible for left-handed hitters to hit. Miller knows this, and goes to it early and often during at-bats against LHB. Some question his ability to stay in a rotation without a third pitch, but his two-seamer plays the part of a change up, working in the high 80s. While the pitch doesn't offer the velocity difference that a true FB-CU combo would, the two-seamer's heavy action makes it a difficult pitch to adjust to.

Andrew did not pitch great against Winthrop, allowing four runs in eight innings of work. But scouting is done between the lines, and the gray area is where Miller thrives. Comparisons have been thrown out all over the place, and Miller's career has been written up as both a starter and a reliever.

I was always a believer in Andrew Miller, a proponent of his since he was a sophomore. On Saturday, I found out first-hand why. Truly, no one in this draft offers more potential.
Posted by Bryan at 1:40 p.m. ET

7. Los Angeles Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw, LHP (H.S./Dallas)

Kershaw was the first high school player chosen in this year's draft. Highly coveted by the Dodgers, he got past the Tigers because Andrew Miller was still available when Detroit's turn came up. The 6-4, 215-pound LHP had a 13-0 record with a 0.77 ERA in his senior season. He has reportedly touched the mid-90s with his fastball and has a plus curveball. Improved mechanics have contributed to better command. Given his height, handedness, stuff, and track record, Kershaw has one of the highest ceilings among all draftees.
Posted by Rich at 3:25 p.m. ET

8. Cincinnati Reds: Drew Stubbs, OF (Texas)

Stubbs has been associated with the "Can He Hit?" question since people have ranked the 2006 draft-eligible players. However, from a facts perspective, he has *never not* hit. As a freshman, at one of the country's largest programs, Stubbs earned an everyday spot. He was one of the better players on a 2005 club that won the national title, drawing rave reviews for his defense in center. The College World Series proved Stubbs to be a freak athlete - and freak athletes with contact problems draw an unfortunate group of comps.

Last summer, Stubbs hit well with wood, hitting .304 for the USA Baseball National team. And this year, given the role of leading the Texas attack, Stubbs thrived, coming to play on every day of the week. There are serious contact problems, yes, but Stubbs skillset counteracts that. His speed and power should yield higher BABIP rates than than most players, meaning we don't have to write him off as Torii Hunter just yet (how many can say that?).

If all else fails, Stubbs will sit on a Major League bench, able to play all three OF positions, and able to steal a base, hit a home run and draw a walk at will. If all goes well, he is the best position player eligible to be drafted.
Posted by Bryan at 1:45 p.m. ET

9. Baltimore Orioles: Bill Rowell, 3B (H.S./Sewell, N.J.)

Rowell was the first high school position player drafted this year. He played shortstop in high school but projects as a third baseman in the pros. The left-handed-hitting Rowell, known to have "middle of the lineup power," set the school's career home run record during his junior season and hit .557 with six home runs as a senior.

According to, the Orioles expect that he will sign quickly and play with one of the team's short-season affiliates this year.
Posted by Rich at 6:50 p.m. ET

10. San Francisco Giants: Tim Lincecum, RHP (Washington)

Lincecum is the Giants' first pick in the opening round since 2002 when they took another power pitcher in Matt Cain. The Husky went 12-4 with a 1.94 ERA while leading all Division I pitchers with 199 strikeouts.

I watched Lincecum when he faced USC on April 21. I charted his pitches, talked to scouts, and reported my findings here.

Lincecum's stuff is as good as or better than any college pitcher in the draft. He throws a mid-90s fastball and an outstanding curve. A veteran scout that I spoke to rated Lincecum's fastball as a 7 (on the 1-8 scale the team uses) or a 70 (on the more traditional 20-80 range). He called Lincecum's curve and change-up a 6 and his pitchability a 65.

Many analysts have suggested that Lincecum could make it to the majors this year as a reliever, but let's not forget how many pitches this workhorse has already thrown since the beginning of February. I wouldn't be inclined to rush Lincecum and would like to see him given a chance to become a starter in the professional ranks first. If it doesn't work out, then go ahead and convert him into a Scot Schields-type relief pitcher.
Posted by Rich at 4:44 p.m. ET

11. Arizona Diamondbacks: Max Scherzer (RHP, Missouri)

12. Texas Rangers: Kasey Kiker, LHP (H.S./Phenix City, Ala.)

13. Chicago Cubs: Tyler Colvin, LF (Clemson)

John Manuel of Baseball America called this pick "the biggest shock of the first half of the first round." His physical tools (6-3, 190 pounds with good speed as evidenced by stealing 23 bases in 27 attempts) and stats (.359-12-65 with a .622 SLG) while playing for one of the best teams in college baseball would suggest this selection may not be such a reach after all. Cubs fans will get a chance to see their #1 pick this weekend as Clemson hosts Oral Roberts in one of the eight Super Regionals.
Posted by Rich at 7:46 p.m. ET

14. Toronto Blue Jays: Travis Snider, OF (H.S./Everett, Wash.)

Toronto reverses its recent course of taking college players in the first round by taking the player Baseball America ranked as the "Best Pure Hitter" among high school eligible draftees.
Posted by Rich at 11:31 p.m. ET

15. Washington Nationals: Chris Marrero, 3b (H.S./Miami)

16. Milwaukee Brewers: Jeremy Jeffress, RHP (H.S./South Boston, Va.)

17. San Diego Padres: Matt Antonelli, 3B (Wake Forest)

We should feel lucky, as baseball fans, that Antonelli picked our sport. He certainly didn't have to. As a senior in high school, Antonelli was a three-sport star, or more specifically, the three sport star. Antonelli was named the state's best player in both football and hockey. The baseball award went to Jeff Allison, with Antonelli landing a close second.

But, he chose baseball. Scouts watched Antonelli for two years thanks to such plus athleticism, witnessing a solid if unspectacular collegiate campaign. In his second summer at the Cape, Antonelli began to draw more notice, despite a lackluster .267/.361/.330 line. His success post-Cape is one of the best data points to support the notion that true offensive Cape success stands around the .700 OPS line.

Before this spring, scouts wondered if Antonelli could hit for power. So, he doubled his previous career high home run total, slugging .584. They doubted his ability to hit good pitching, but he was one of the draft's best on Friday nights. And, of course, Antonelli showed versatility, patience and speed; playing 2B in addition to 3B, drawing 39 walks, and going 15-for-18 on the bases.

If you prefer a draft-for-the-stars approach in the first round, Antonelli is not your guy. But he does a little for everything, and his versatility will lend a future somewhere.
Posted by Bryan at 1:46 p.m. ET

18. Philadelphia Phillies (for Billy Wagner): Kyle Drabek, RHP/SS (H.S./The Woodlands, Texas)

Makeup, makeup, makeup. Drabek is a top ten talent but a fiery temper and off-the-field issues dropped him to #18. The son of former Cy Young Award winner Doug projects as a pitcher although he has the tools to hit and field at the pro level. His fastball has been known to reach the upper-90s and his power curve ranks among the very best in the draft.
Posted by Rich at 9:23 p.m. ET

19. Florida Marlins: Brett Sinkbeil, RHP (Missouri State)

20. Minnesota Twins: Chris Parmelee, OF/1B (H.S./Chino Hills, Calif.)

Baseball America listed Parmalee as the high schooler with the "Best Strike-Zone Judgment" and the second "Best Pure Hitter."
Posted by Rich at 11:37 p.m. ET

21. New York Yankees (for Tom Gordon): Ian Kennedy, RHP (USC)

Here is my scouting report on Kennedy as written in early February. I have seen him pitch several times while at USC, including an outing vs. the University of Washington that I charted pitch-by-pitch.

Following in the footsteps of fellow Trojans Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson, Barry Zito, and Mark Prior...Consensus All-American...Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year...Two-time pitcher for Team USA...Although stuff is no better than average for a major league hurler, the right-hander exhibits outstanding command of four pitches...Fastball ranged from 89-91 all night...Throws strikes and changes speed...His stretch position is similar to Mike Mussina...Top ten draft pick unless his advisor and soon-to-be agent Scott Boras scares off potential suitors.

Kennedy's stock fell this year, owing to a disappointing junior season. Agreeing to terms with agent Scott Boras could prove troublesome. If and when Kennedy signs--and for how much--should prove to be one of the more interesting post-draft stories.
Posted by Rich at 3:33 p.m. ET

22. Washington Nationals (for Esteban Loaiza): Colton Willems, RHP (H.S./Fort Pierce, Fla.)

23. Houston Astros: Max Sapp, C (H.S./Windermere, Fla.)

24. Atlanta Braves: Cody Johnson, 1B (H.S./Panama City, Fla.)

25. Los Angeles Angels (for Paul Byrd): Hank Conger, C (H.S./Huntington Beach, Calif.)

26. Los Angeles Dodgers: Bryan Morris, RHP (Motlow State CC, Tenn.)

Callis correctly tabbed this pick in his Tuesday morning mock draft (although he later moved him all the way up to the Dodgers' first pick at #7). Morris may not be as well known as many college pitchers because he played for a community college in Tennessee. However, he earned Freshman of the Year and Pitcher of the Year honors while fashioning a 10-1 record with a 0.82 ERA, which included a no-hitter vs. Southwest Tennessee and a four-hit, complete-game shutout with 14 strikeouts vs. Hiwasee in the playoffs.

Morris is my type of pitcher. The 6-3, 200-pound RHP has a plus fastball and a power curve. Moreover, the freshman recorded 122 Ks in 88 IP (12.48 K/9) and induced nine groundouts (and only two flyouts) in that Hiwasee shutout last month. He was drafted in the third round by the Devil Rays out of high school last June. The two sides supposedly agreed on a $1.3 million bonus that greatly exceeded the slot money, but the deal was never consummated due to an inability on the part of ownership to pull the trigger. Morris chose to attend Motlow State and join his Dad, who is the assistant coach, for one year.

Without seeing him pitch before, I'm still going to give Logan White a big thumbs up on this draft pick.
Posted by Rich at 2:53 p.m. ET

27. Boston Red Sox: Jason Place, OF (H.S./Easley, S.C.)

28. Boston Red Sox (for Johnny Damon): Daniel Bard, RHP (North Carolina)

There seem to be two camps regarding Daniel Bard entering the draft: the apologists and the critics. Both sides have valiant arguments, and at times this season, I have audibly been on either side.

From a statistical standpoint, it is easy to be critical of Bard. Mixed in with great performances as a freshman and in his 2005 summer are disappointing sophomore and junior caimpaigns. Bard became the poster boy of inconsistency this season, and was not able to turn around his aptitude for the big inning. His context was a wash; his AdjDERA equivalent to his season ERA. Bard has a good arm and offers a lot of upside, but he doesn't profile as a top 15 pick.

That's one side. The other is far more focused on his freshman year, and really points to last year's Cape: 82 strikeouts in 65 innings. Scouts often stand on this side, enamored with the ease of Bard's delivery. In his regional start, Bard sat at 93-96 mph, and seemingly recorded a ground ball out at will. His slider comes in at the low 80s, and is a pretty devastating second pitch. He uses a third pitch, a mid 80s change, more than most of these high level players use their "third pitch."

John Manuel of Baseball America recently compared Bard's season to that of Justin Verlander as a college junior; an inconsistent spring unable to meet summer's expectations. But scouts across the nation know that Bard, the type that looks like a future workhorse, has the stuff to belong in the top 10. I agree.
Posted by Bryan at 1:42 p.m. ET

29. Chicago White Sox: Kyle McCulloch, RHP (Texas)

30. St. Louis Cardinals: Adam Ottavino, RHP (Northeastern)

Note: 15 college players, 13 high schoolers, 1 JC, and 1 Indy Leaguer were taken in the first round.

* * * * *

Sandwich Picks:

31. Los Angeles Dodgers (for Jeff Weaver): Preston Mattingly, SS (H.S./Evansville, Ind.)

Yes, Preston is Don's son. He's a 6-3, 205-pound shortstop out of Evansville Central HS in Indiana. A three-sport star, Mattingly earned All-State honors with the football and basketball teams. He signed a national letter of intent to play baseball for the University of Tennessee. Look for the younger Mattingly to forsake college for the riches of professional ball.
Posted by Rich at 5:04 p.m. ET

32. Baltimore Orioles (for B.J. Ryan): Pedro Beato, RHP (JC/St. Petersburg, Fla.)

33. San Francisco Giants (for Scott Eyre): Emmanuel Burriss, SS (Kent St.)

34. Arizona Diamondbacks (for Tim Worrell): Brooks Brown, RHP (Georgia)

35. San Diego Padres (for Ramon Hernandez): Kyler Burke, OF/LHP
(H.S./Chattanooga, Tenn.)

36. Florida Marlins (for A.J. Burnett): Chris Coghlan, 3B (Mississippi)

37. Philadelphia Phillies (for Billy Wagner): Adrian Cardenas, INF
(H.S./Miami Lakes, Fla.)

38. Atlanta Braves (for Kyle Farnsworth): Cory Rasmus, RHP/SS (H.S./Seale, Ala.)

Cory's brother Colby was taken by the Cardinals in the 28th spot last year. A two-way player, he projects more as a pitcher than as an infielder. The stigma of six-foot-and-under RHP has apparently been overcome this year with Rasmus, Lincoln, Lincecum, Drabek, and Jeffress all getting first and supplemental round attention despite their lack of height.
Posted by Rich at 5:20 p.m. ET

39. Cleveland Indians (for Bob Howry): David Huff, LHP (UCLA)

I scouted Huff when he pitched against Miami back in February. He is a finesse pitcher, working in the high-80s. His fastball did not touch 90 that day but hit 89 on at least three occasions. The lefty throws a slow curve in the low-70s and a somewhat harder curve/slider that was consistently at 78-79 that afternoon. He will need to locate his fastball and change speeds to keep batters off balance in order to succeed at the big-league level.
Posted by Rich at 7:28 p.m. ET

40. Boston Red Sox (for Johnny Damon): Kris Johnson, LHP (Wichita State)

41. New York Yankees (for Tom Gordon): Joba Chamberlain, RHP (Nebraska)

42. St. Louis Cardinals (for Matt Morris): Chris Perez, RHP (Miami)

43. Atlanta Braves (for Rafael Furcal): Steve Evarts, LHP (H.S./Tampa, Fla.)

Atlanta stayed the course of previous drafts by selecting its third high school player out of the southeast. Cody Johnson (#24), Cory Rasmus (#38), and Evarts (#43) give the Braves three more kids to put into its pipeline of young talent.
Posted by Rich at 11:27 p.m. ET

44. Boston Red Sox (for Bill Mueller): Caleb Clay, RHP (H.S./Cullman, Ala.)

Note: 7 college players, 6 high schoolers, and 1 JuCo were taken in the supplemental round.


5:35 p.m. - With allowance for last second adjustments, Callis correctly projected seven of the top ten picks. He dialed the first 18 selections last year. Baseball America's draft guru had Kershaw going to Detroit in the 6th hole (although parenthetically added that "this is the first possible stop for Andrew Miller, too"), which led to the wrong choice by the Dodgers. To Jim's credit, he figured L.A. would nab Morris with their first pick when, in fact, they lucked out and took him their second pick and the 26th overall.

7:32 p.m. - The first day of the draft has concluded. The draft will resume tomorrow with the 19th round. Be sure to check back later today and tomorrow for more updates and comments.

* * * * *

A few of Rich's quick takes in the aftermath of the first day:

STL: The Cardinals certainly drafted a lot of big-name college players in Perez, Jay, Hamilton, Degerman, Robinson, and Erickson. Ottavino's size and strikeout rates are intriguing. Not sure how much he was tested at Northeastern though.

I saw Jay when Miami was out here (vs. UCLA) and wasn't impressed. He has what I would term a poor stance with a very "handsy" approach. He starts with his hands held above his head, then drops them into the slot before raising them as the ball is pitched. Unless Jay makes adjustments, I would think pitchers could get him out with hard stuff high and tight.

With respect to Degerman, his stats (12-1, 1.67 with 150 strikeouts in 113 innings) should be enough to impress me, but I can't get past his highly unorthodox mechanics. My eyes almost popped out of my sockets when I saw him pitch on TV this past weekend. Sure, he pitched well, but mark me as a skeptic. His straight-over-the-top delivery doesn't appear sustainable to me and his diving curveball may not be as effective with a different arm slot.

ARI: I'm not particularly high on Buck (OK, I flat out don't like him), but I like the team's first three pitchers (Scherzer, Brown, and Anderson). If the D-Backs can sign all three, I think we will look back in time and applaud their 2006 draft. I also became a Hankerd believer when I saw him play three games vs. LBSU in February. He also showed up well on Kent Bonham's list of hitters.

Here is my scouting report on the USC left fielder:

Drafted in the 45th round by the Chicago Cubs in 2003...Broke out last summer in the New England Collegiate League, hitting .383 with nine HR and 36 RBI (two short of winning a triple crown)...Big, strong kid...Keeps weight back with left heel off the ground...Lifts front foot straight up...Slight uppercut swing...Hits the ball hard and usually in the air...Outfield defense is plenty good enough...Made three spectacular catches, including diving grabs to his left and right plus a running catch going back and toward the line in left field...Also threw out a runner trying to score on a single from second base with two outs with a one-hop strike to the catcher...Should be moving up draft boards as the spring progresses.

CLE: Given the lack of a first round pick, the Indians fared quite well in my judgment. Huff, Wright, Rodriguez, and Hodges comprise a formidable foursome. Although Davis might be more of a name than anything else, he seems like a worthwhile pick at 101. That said, I may have taken CSUF's Blake Davis before Adam. If healthy, Rustich, the big UCLA relief pitcher, could be a steal at 401.

PIT: I would give the Pirates a strong "B" this year. Lincoln alone makes for a good draft. Felix is a favorite of those who paid attention to Kent Bonham's work on pitchers. Don't know what to make of Hughes after watching him pitch all year. He was up and down and may lack the mental toughness one would like to see. Negrych's upside may not be all that great, but neither did he cost them much as a sixth rounder.

Baseball Beat/WTNYApril 12, 2006
Baseball With the Numbers
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

Larry Borowsky wrote a guest column last week called Baseball Without the Numbers. It was a refreshing piece in an era dominated by statistics. But enough with the refreshments. Man needs his meat and potatoes, too. If you like baseball with the numbers, then this piece is for you. If you don't, be sure to check back this summer as we're bound to come up with another numberless article.

Numbers, numbers, numbers. We have 100 of them for you. Yes, we've got something for every number from 0 to 99. Baseball With the Numbers.

00: the number of HR Jason Kendall will hit for the second straight year.

01: Nap Lajoie hits .426, the highest batting average since 1900.

02: how many different times San Francisco fans get to pay for the day/night doubleheader between the Astros and Giants on Thursday, April 13.

03: the size of the Angels' lead when K-Rod comes into the game.

04: hits, runs, RBI, and SB combined Brandon Watson has in 23 AB this year (but all's not lost--he has 2 CS).

05: starts until the Red Sox regret letting Curt Schilling throw 231 pitches in his first two outings.

06: hitters Will Ohman faced, and let on base before being taken out of Tuesday's loss to Reds.

07: years since Ken Ray -- the Braves new set-up man -- last appeared in the Major Leagues.

08: the number of saves Chris Ray will have at the end of April.

09: consecutive home openers the Yankees have won.

10: more baserunners Kyle Lohse has allowed in the same number of innings as Francisco Liriano.

11: walks allowed by the Daniel and Fernando Cabrera in their first outings this year, totaling 2 1/3 IP.

12: hits by Florida Marlins outfielders in 54 at-bats.

13: a lucky number for Derrek Lee and David Ortiz.

14: days until we expect George Steinbrenner to issue his first statement.

15: Win Shares we suspect David Wright has earned through the Mets first five wins.

16: number of players fighting at the bat rack to face Glendon Rusch.

17: strikeouts, including Spring Training, Chan Ho Park has recorded in 13.1 innings since his great World Baseball Classic.

18: number of strikeouts among six Brewers starters in 130 at-bats.

19: number of strikeouts between Geoff Jenkins and Prince Fielder in 53 at-bats.

20: Happy Birthday, King Felix.

21: how many BB the Brothers Giles have thus far.

22: how many BB the Brothers Molina will have all year.

23: men left on base by Juan Encarnacion this season without an RBI.

24: Philadelphia's run total after seven games.

25: baserunners Andy Pettitte has allowed in two starts this season.

26: Spring Training hits (in 60 AB) that earned Josh Barfield the Padres 2B job.

27: games into the season it took in 2005 for Jose Reyes to match his current walk total.

28: days since Roger Clemens last pitched in a baseball game.

29: consecutive years Tony LaRussa has been managing in the big leagues.

30: groundball outs Mark Mulder has induced in 15 innings thus far.

31: reader's choice.

32: scrabble points in Doug Mientkiewicz's last name.

33: home runs Barry Bonds hit in 1990, when he won his first MVP award.

34: Babe Ruth's last year with the Yankees.

35: strikeouts that Leo Mazzone's pitching staff has through 63 innings, six less than their total number of walks.

36: the most extra-base hits Ozzie Guillen ever had in a single season.

37: reader's choice.

38: consecutive games in which Vladimir Guerrero has gotten a hit vs. the Texas Rangers.

39: years since the last Triple Crown winner.

40: Greg Maddux's age as of Friday.

41: weeks since Eric Gagne last struck out a Major League hitter.

42: games it took Jim Thome to hit his first four home runs in 2005.

43: percent of the time the Detroit Tigers have been successful on the basepaths in 2006.

44: games into the season it took for COL to win the same number of road games last year as it has won this year.

45: regular season home runs Brandon Wood has hit since 2005, spanning 573 at-bats.

46: Nolan Ryan's age when he pummelled then 26-year-old Robin Ventura in 1993.

47: reader's choice.

48: Julio Franco's age by season's end.

49: what's 7x7 (just checking to see if you're still following along).

50: games until Ramon Ramirez, Waner Mateo, Ryan Rafferty and Justin Mallet will be playing baseball again.

51: number of pitches Ronny Cedeno has seen in his first six games, lowest in the Majors.

52: Barry Bonds' uniform number...oh thit...25!

53: reader's choice.

54: the fewest number of career wins by a pitcher (Bill Stoneman) with two no-hitters.

55: games before anyone will notice that Ramon Ramirez, Waner Mateo, Ryan Rafferty and Justin Mallet are back.

56: Mickey Mantle.

57: hits the Colorado Rockies have collected in four road games, in which the team is 4-0.

58: appearances between Johan Santana allowing 10 or more hits in a game, a streak which ended on Opening Day.

59: how many wins Jim Leyland needs over the next like number of games to get his lifetime record up to .500.

60: shutouts Bert Blyleven threw during his 22-year career.

61: batting average for Jeff Francoeur's 2-for-33 start.

62: number of days before the Atlanta RF is back in the minors.

63: pitches Jon Papelbon has needed to cruise through his first five appearances, including four saves.

64: batters University of Washington right-hander Tim Lincecum has faced in his last two starts, 30 of which ended in strikeouts.

65: errors that defensive specialist -- and $20.2 million man -- Jack Wilson projects to have in 2006.

66: the inning in which Cal State Fullerton ace Wes Roemer walked his first batter of the season.

67: after Tuesday, the percent of Khalil Greene's hits that have gone for home runs, the highest in the Majors west of Bronson Arroyo.

68: 1.12.

69: number of years since the last NL Triple Crown winner.

70: Pete Rose and Ray Fosse.

71: reader's choice.

72: Steve Carlton. 27 of Phillies 59 wins, 1.97 ERA, 310 K's, 346.1 IP.

73*: Billy Crystal's next movie?

74: Mike Marshall pitches 106 games and 208.1 IP--all in relief--and wins the Cy Young award.

75: percent of Atlanta's four wins earned by Oscar Villarreal.

76: average speed of Tim Wakefield's fastball last year.

77: Reggie...Reggie...Reggie.

78: reader's choice.

79: "We are Fam-i-ly!"

80: Mike Schmidt and George Brett.

81: home runs that the San Francisco Giants currently project to hit this season.

82: how many victories it will take to win the NL West.

83: reader's choice.

84: J.T. Snow's uniform number this year in honor of his dad, Jack, who died in January.

85: highest OPS+ that Neifi Perez has posted in a single season.

86: how many months before Hank Aaron's career HR record is broken.

87: the approximate average speed of a Freddy Garcia fastball in two starts.

88: walks plus hits allowed by the Kansas City Royals in 53 innings.

89: days until the All-Star Break.

90: last full season in which the Braves didn't finish in first place.

91: days until we know for sure that the AL has home field advantage (again) in the World Series.

92: Kansas City losses by Labor Day.

93: number of intentional walks Todd Helton is currently on pace for, which would still fall 27 behind the single-season record.

94: did baseball really not have a World Series that year?

95: career OPS+ of Twins third baseman Tony Batista in over 4,500 career plate appearances.

96: average speed of A.J. Burnett's fastball last year.

97: last year in which the Yankees failed to win the AL East.

98: reader's choice.

99: Wayne Gretzky. All right, all right. So this is a baseball site. Sue us.

Please feel free to add your best ideas in the comments section to the numbers marked "reader's choice." Don't be afraid to have some fun with this "contest."

Baseball Beat/WTNYApril 07, 2006
Pre-Season All-OOPs Team
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

Last December, we introduced a formula for identifying overrated offensive players (or OOPs). It is simple and straightforward:

1. Batting Average > League Norm
2. On Base Percentage and Slugging Average < League Norm

As noted when we rolled out the idea of OOPs, "the players who meet the above criterion are singles hitters who only walk on occasion and rarely slug home runs." Such players have batting averages that are "hollow" with little else to support their value. By definition, the qualifying hitters have low Isolated Discipline (IsoD) and Isolated Power (IsoP). IsoD equals OBP minus AVG, and IsoP equals SLG minus AVG. These isolated stats tell you what's not a part of batting average.

In order to make the all-OOPs team last year, a player had to hit higher than .264 with an OBP less than .330 and a SLG below .419 with a minimum of 400 plate appearances. We won't know what the league averages will be this year until October but that didn't stop us from picking our pre-season all-OOPs team.

A little drumroll, please...

 C: Paul Lo Duca
1B: Nomar Garciaparra
2B: Mark Grudzielanek
SS: Jose Reyes
3B: Joe Randa
OF: Willy Taveras
OF: Juan Pierre
OF: Darin Erstad

C: Paul Lo Duca, New York Mets

Did you know that Lo Duca is going to play for the San Diego Padres next? How do we know that? Well, LoDuca has been following in the footsteps of Mike Piazza his entire career. Both players were drafted and signed by the Dodgers and later traded to the Marlins and then the Mets. Piazza joined the Padres as a free agent in the off-season. Given that Lo Duca has succeeded Piazza at every stop along the way, it only makes sense that he will wind up in San Diego.

There is one major difference that separates these two catchers. Whereas Piazza is inarguably the greatest-hitting catcher of all time, Lo Duca is the most overrated offensively to don the tools of ignorance among active players. Paul hit .320 with 25 HR in his first full season but has been stuck at or around .280 and 10 homers ever since. He turns 34 next week and is unlikely to improve on these numbers this year.

Honorable Mention: Johnny Estrada, Arizona Diamondbacks

1B: Nomar Garciaparra, Los Angeles Dodgers

Perhaps a surprise pick at first base, we believe Garciaparra is no longer anywhere close to the hitter he was the first six years of his career. The Dodgers' decision to move Nomar to first surprised every DePodesta-ite out there, as all had been praying Hee Seop Choi would finally get his chance. Instead, Los Angeles opted to stake first base production in a 32-year-old former star with a vicious history of injury problems. To boot, Nomar has spent his entire career in stadiums like Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, both of which are far cries from the spacious confines of Chavez Ravine. In 2005, Garciaparra's .169 Isolated Power matched a career low (previously set in 2004), and his .037 Isolated Discipline was his lowest since 1997. The writing is on the wall for this signing to look bad for all involved, as a healthy season could yield .290/.330/.440 production. Whither Choi?

Honorable Mention: Sean Casey, Pittsburgh Pirates

2B: Mark Grudzielanek, Kansas City Royals

How could we possibly refrain from the Most Overrated Offensive Active Player? Mark has had a long, successful career in the Major Leagues simply on his ability to bat .287. However, in more than 5,500 career at-bats, Grudzi's career OPS lies closer to .700 than .750. Despite being a late bloomer and having his best years ever these past three seasons, we're convinced the 1996 version (.306/.340/.397) is coming back. And really, what better environment to do so than Kansas City, the organization that placed a lot of unnecessary hope in his veteran leadership. We would all like to see Grudzielanek, one of the game's better guys, go out on a high note. But no matter how you slice it, an OOP is always an OOP.

Honorable Mention: Aaron Miles, St. Louis Cardinals

SS: Jose Reyes, New York Mets

Reyes was a second team all-OOPs member last year. His ability to beat out infield hits adds batting average points but the lack of walks and extra-base power hurts him in the other two rate stats. Jose is an excellent base runner so his weakness offensively is simply how he performs at the plate. He led the majors in outs in 2005 and, as a leadoff hitter, is a prime candidate to become the first player to repeat this trick since Chad Curtis in 1994 and 1995. If Reyes ever learns to take a walk, he could go from overrated to a true star as fast as it takes him to get down the line.

Honorable Mention: Omar Vizquel, San Francisco Giants

3B: Joe Randa, Pittsburgh Pirates

Last year's Great American Ballpark-caused power outbreak notwithstanding, Joe Randa has a long history of OOPs-like behavior. From 1996 to 2004, Randa's batting average slipped below .280 on just two occassions. However, Randa eclipsed a slugging of .450 only three times and has not had an OBP of .350 since 1999. The NL Central was good to Randa last year, but with another year of age and a new, tougher ballpark, don't expect anything close to the line he put up in Cincinnati. Randa has been told he's a useful stopgap his whole career, and it seems as if he will finish his career with that notoriety. A good player some years, a bad player other years, we think he will simply be overrated this year.

Honorable Mention: Brandon Inge, Detroit Tigers

OF: Willy Taveras, Houston Astros

Taveras is a pretty easy choice here. By virtue of having the highest batting average among those players who failed to match the league average in OBP and SLG, Willy was our OOPs Player of the Year last year. Taveras has next to no power as evidenced by his .050 IsoP in 2005. It's hard to bunt for a double. His IsoD (.034) was just as poor. It's difficult to walk when you don't take pitches (3.53/PA). He has no business batting second, despite manager Phil Garner's insistence that Taveras is a good bet to sacrifice leadoff hitter Craig Biggio to second. The math doesn't really compute in terms of run expectancy but, hey, who are we to question a skipper who is 2-for-2 in taking the Astros to the postseason?

OF: Juan Pierre, Chicago Cubs

A general rule around Analysts' parts: never, ever give up three good arms for a player with a long history of overrated behavior at the plate. The Cubs were hellbent on signing Rafael Furcal this winter, and when the Dodgers surprisingly inked him, the Cubs acted quickly and irrationally. Last year was his worst season as a Major Leaguer, making the Cubs trade look like even more of a panic move. Pierre's baserunning has helped shadow the fact that he is not a very good hitter, despite a fantastic ability to beat out a lot of groundballs. And no, he's not really a player that will make up for defensive inefficiencies in the field, as Pierre no longer can boast of great defense. Too many Cub fans will likely be wowed of Pierre's ability to bunt for a single or steal a base, but we just hope Pierre doesn't prevent the Cubs' front office from using Felix Pie when he's ready.

OF: Darin Erstad, Los Angeles Angels

Erstad was our all-OOPs first baseman last year. Heck, he could probably make our squad at any position. Once upon a time, the man affectionately known as Ersty was a very good offensive player. Hard to believe now but the former Nebraska Cornhusker hit .355 with 240 hits (including 70 XBH) and 100 RBI from the #1 hole in 2000. His OBP and SLG exceeded .400 and .500, respectively. He won't sniff .300/.350/.400 this year and, as such, is a lock to ensure that the all-OOPs team is once again represented by a hustling, scrappy, aggressive, all-out (so to speak) player who just so happens to wear eye black and favor the unshaven look.

Honorable Mention: Joey Gathright, Tampa Bay Devil Rays

That's about it, folks. OOPs, I guess we left out a DH. Any suggestions?

Baseball Beat/WTNYApril 02, 2006
One on One: 2006 Predictions
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

The wait is over. In a matter of hours, the newest season of baseball will begin the way it ended -- with the White Sox attempting to pitch their way to victory.

Over the course of the last six weeks, we have attempted to preview each division in a detailed fashion. Here's a quick link to each of those Two on Twos:

AL Central: Aaron and Cheat
NL Central: Larry and John
AL West: Blez and Rob
NL West: Jon and Geoff
AL East: Cliff and Sully
NL East: Mac and Jeremy

Thanks again to all the participants. As a final cherry-on-top to finish our 2006 Season Preview package, we wanted to go over all the categories not yet covered. Before we get to that, however, here's a review of our 8 picks to make the playoffs:

AL East AL Central AL West AL Wild Card NL East NL Central NL West NL Wild Card
Rich Red Sox Indians A's Yankees Braves Cardinals Giants Brewers
Bryan Red Sox White Sox A's Twins Braves Brewers Dodgers Mets

Next is a look at our picks for the major awards:

Rich Ortiz Pujols Santana Zambrano Johjima Jackson Thome Bonds
Bryan Ramirez Pujols Harden Hudson Anderson Fielder Thome Gagne

Now onto the fun stuff. Below we have created another three categories which might be of interest. The first is the OOPs MVP (OOPs = Overrated Offensive Player), given annually to the player with the highest batting average while posting below average on-base and slugging percentages. Next, as we did last year, are the guesses for the first manager to be fired. The last category is a guess at who will win the minor league player of the year award. Our picks:

OOPs MVP 1st Fired MiL POY
Rich Lo Duca Narron Stewart
Bryan Pierre Hurdle Salty

While Barry Bonds might be garnering most of the veteran press this spring, we believe Roger Clemens will be the major subplot of the 2006 season. In honor of that belief, here is a series of categories dedicated to the Rocket. We asked each other whether or not Clemens will play this year, and if so, for what team and on which date he will begin.

Play? Who? When?
Rich Yes Red Sox May 22
Bryan Yes Rangers June 11

And as is only appropriate, we close today with our picks for the World Series. Sure, sure, neither of us had even considered the White Sox last year, but we're both sure we nailed it this year.

World Series
Rich Red Sox over Giants
Bryan A's over Braves

Let us know your own predictions in the comments and have a wonderful day away from work and glued to the television!

Baseball Beat/WTNYMarch 31, 2006
Two on Two: 2006 NL East Preview
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

The Two on Two series stay on the right coast and concludes with the NL East. Here with us today to preview the division that the Atlanta Braves have owned for the past decade are Mac Thomason of Braves Journal and Jeremy Heit of Metsgeek.

Is this the year that the Tomahawk chops or drops? For the answers to this question and a whole lot more, read on...

Bryan: Mac, to start off this chat, I have to ask you: did Bobby Cox sell his soul to the devil? That's the only answer I have for the Braves winning the division again in 2005, given their injuries and lackluster (preseason) outfield.

Mac: It's been speculated. Part of it is that Bobby (even before he met up with Leo Mazzone) always has gotten better than expected efforts from his pitchers, and kept them healthy. Another is that he keeps a stable clubhouse, more than any contemporary manager, and so players are kept in a state of "relaxed readiness."

Bryan: Whatever it is, the Braves certainly got the most out of their talent again last year. Things didn't turn out the same way in New York, did they Jeremy?

Jeremy: No, not quite. It was a promising year in some respects though. David Wright's continued rise to super-stardom, Pedro Martinez's great year and both Cliff Floyd and Jose Reyes staying healthy.

Bryan: Definitely. And while the Mets didn't spend a lot of time in contention, the Braves did have to fight off runs by the Marlins and Phillies. Could two organizations possibly have gone in more different directions in one winter?

Rich: Are you talking about the Mets and Braves? Or the Marlins and Phillies? The Mets appear to be making a push for it now, while the Braves seem content on going with their youth. The Marlins are restocking--something I don't necessarily disagree with--and the Phillies might be betwixt and between.

Mac: Well, the Braves can't spend like the Mets, but they don't have to, because of the depth the farm system has recently developed. Still, the Braves were actually as stable as they've been in several years, the only major move in the ML roster being Edgar Renteria in for Rafael Furcal. Other than SBs, they're actually very similar offensive players.

Jeremy: On the other hand, the Mets can spend, and as Omar Minaya has shown the last two offseasons, he loves to do that. They were essential moves though. The Carlos Delgado trade gives the Mets their first bona fide hitter at the 1B position since John Olerud. And Billy Wagner gives them the shut-down closer they lacked last year late in games with Braden Looper. Omar also liked to stay active throughout the off-season with smaller trades, some of which were better than others.

Bryan: The most interesting tactic I saw from the Mets this winter was the Johnny Damon-type acquisitions. Hurt your rivals while making yourself stronger.

Jeremy: Yes they did. The acquisition of Billy Wagner from the Phillies forced them to have to downgrade to Tom Gordon, while the Mets were also able to take advantage of the Marlins and use their money to get Carlos Delgado and Paul LoDuca while giving up solid prospects, but not top-tier ones, namely Lastings Milledge.

Mac: Well, I should point out that this strategy dates back to Tom Glavine, though that didn't work out so well for the Mets. Though they certainly need a good effort from Tommy this year.

Jeremy: Well, last year's second half revival from Tommy gives the Mets hope that he can provide that kind of performance for a full year. For the first time as a Met, he consistently at least attempted to throw some inside pitches while mixing in a curveball. I'm fairly confident he will give the Mets what they need from him this year, though for the first part of the contract, you are correct, it did not work out that well.

Bryan: That is not true, however, for Pedro Martinez, who was dazzling in his Mets debut. Pedro is really the only (current) star on this staff, so I have to ask: is his toe the most important body part in baseball?

Jeremy: It definitely is to me, though that is quite biased. If it isn't the most important, it is definitely one of the tops. The Mets need a top-notch performance from Pedro to anchor the staff to have a chance to contend for the NL East title

Mac: I agree, though Tim Hudson's oblique muscle is a strong second, even though I'm not quite sure where it is. As an aside, I felt that the Mets were a little too blase about the bottom of their rotation considering all the other moves they made.

Bryan: Let's talk about the rest of the Met pitching staff. The decision to move Aaron Heilman to the bullpen is one, I think, that won't make it to June. He's too good for that.

Mac: I think there may be a bit of a reverse-Fenway (or now, reverse-Coors) effect there, where they're overrating some of their pitchers and underrating their hitters -- though their bad hitters were still pretty bad. For the life of me, I don't know what Peterson sees in Victor Zambrano.

Jeremy: Neither does any Met fan. I also disagree completely with the Bannister/Heilman move, though I'm not sure he will make it back to the rotation by June. If Steve Trachsel doesn't pitch well, Victor Zambrano bombs out or Bannister fails, I could see the Mets going after a pitcher at the deadline instead of moving Heilman back. Omar seems fixated on a strong bullpen, moving Heilman back there even after he traded away two starting pitchers just to get relief help.

Mac: You really need another lefty, you want Horacio Ramirez?

Rich: Hey, mean the guy you like to call HomeRam?

Bryan: Problem is, Minaya simply doesn't have a lot of chips from which to deal.

Jeremy: It's a huge problem. Lastings Milledge is the chip, and he is, by all accounts, an untouchable.

Bryan: Moving to the offense, there is another player with whom his contract's start looks to be a disappointment: Carlos Beltran. Is he simply an example of being intimidated by New York?

Jeremy: It is quite tough to say. On one hand, he definitely seems liked he was pressing at the plate. But, you must remember, he played with a quad injury for a great deal of the year. I think he'll be OK this year, but that may be the optimist in me. His numbers will never look as good as they did in KC and Houston, just because of the Shea park effects. I also think if Willie Randolph bats him second, that will be a huge help to him.

Mac: I thought at the time that the Beltran signing was a mistake and that the Mets should have gone after Delgado then, because they had Mike Cameron, who's what, 95 percent of Beltran at his best? And was far better last year. At the same time, Beltran wasn't that bad -- not good, but for a CF with his defense he was a positive contributor even with a below-average OPS.

Bryan: Well, they sort of made up for that mistake by signing Delgado, who should have a big year. Say what you will, but not many teams can match a four hitter combination (including Beltran) like the Mets have.

Jeremy: Unfortunately, it's the other four hitters and their production that worries me with the Mets.

Mac: I loved Willie Randolph as a player, Yankee or no, but I can't believe that a guy with his playing skills thinks Jose Reyes should be leading off.

Bryan: Yeah, no matter how Willie wants to twist and contort Reyes, he's a different player than Jimmy Rollins.

Jeremy: Unfortunately, who else would they have lead off? Beltran? LoDuca? The other options don't seem that appealing. If Reyes ever learns some pitch selection, which is a big IF, he would be a fine lead-off man because of what he can do with his speed on the bases. Unfortunately, for now, while he is still working on that, it is on-the-job training in the 1 spot.

Bryan: Alright guys, let's move onto Rollins and the Phillies. After a long tenure hanging mostly in the middle of the division, Philadelphia enters the year with a new GM and a few new pieces. What do you make of the Phillies this year?

Mac: I take the Phillies very seriously; I picked them to win the wild card over the Mets by a game or two. Everyone's writing them off because they lost Billy Wagner, but the difference between him and Gordon can't be more than a game or two. And they get Ryan Howard in the lineup for a full season, and they don't have any real lineup holes -- not everyone's a star, but nobody will kill them.

Jeremy: I have the Mets barely edging out the Phillies for the wild card, but I agree with Mac. I really like their lineup and feel that if they put both Ryan Madson and Gavin Floyd in the rotation over Ryan Franklin, they could have a very solid starting staff. It just seems to me this team always tends to underachieve, and I can't shake that notion in having them not make the playoffs this year.

Bryan: Madson seems to be in a similar spot to Aaron Heilman. He's totally not being utilized to his full potential.

Mac: They also have a really serious park effect there, and I don't think they have a handle on the quality of their starters, who aren't great but aren't bad either.

Bryan: Personally, I think their downfall might be that bullpen, because outside of Madson, I don't see a lot to like. Gordon and Arthur Rhodes are risky people to depend upon.

Jeremy: Arthur Rhodes usually seems to be OK as long as he isn't facing the mythical aura behind the 9th inning and closing. I think it will be interesting to see how Gordon performs as a closer after years of setting up Mariano Rivera.

Mac: He has 116 career saves, which is more than the entire Braves' bullpen. I'd be more worried about the plunge he had in his strikeout numbers last year.

Bryan: As far as the offense goes, all the early season hype will be aimed at Rollins and his streak. But I think the other players up the middle are the key to the Philly offense.

Mac: Chase Utley terrifies me. He's the scariest player in the division to a Braves fan, not Delgado or Miguel Cabrera. By the end of the season, certain Braves pitchers just walked Utley if there was anyone on base. And I believe one of those pitchers was John Smoltz, which gives you some idea.

Jeremy: As for Aaron Rowand, I think he'll give them a solid bat, but his defensive contribution will be enormous.

Bryan: They need it with Pat Burrell in left covering about 20 feet, and Abreu's range is decreasing a bit in right.

Rich: Which Bobby Abreu is going to show up this year? The one before he won the HR derby at the All-Star game or the guy who hit .260 with six dingers in the second half?

Bryan: Sooner or later the game's most underrated player is going to head for decline, but I do believe he will be solid this year. This is much like the Phillies this year, a team that is well balanced all around, but special in no particular area.

Jeremy: I agree, which is why even though a lot of the talk in the division focuses on the Mets and Braves, the Phillies could definitely be dangerous.

Mac: About right. They've won 86 games three times in the last five seasons and 88 last year. I expect about the same.

Bryan: Alright, let's move onto the Marlins, who are special in one area: the youth. Florida's firesale will certainly hurt their W-L record and attendance, but what do you guys see it doing in the long term?

Mac: I think that there's a comment in Baseball Prospectus about all the Marlins' moves being defensible individually, it's just that all at once they're a disaster. Still, they have the best player in the division (Cabrera), maybe the best pitcher (Dontrelle Willis) and probably the best short-term prospect (Jeremy Hermida), which is a nice base.

Bryan: And the sight of Joe Girardi managing from a Major League bench is enough to keep me entertained.

Mac: Until Torre re-signs him for the stretch run.

Jeremy: There is definitely a nice young base, but what happens when they have to start paying these guys? It just seems like the Marlins will forever be in this type of cycle.

Bryan: Yeah, it seems like the Marlins need a new city and another new ownership group. If they trade Miguel Cabrera at year's end, as some have rumored, the ship will have officially sunk.

Mac: Well, one World Series win every few years looks pretty good to me at this point, and I expect to you, too.

Bryan: One thing I want to focus on is the fact that the Marlins used their trades to stockpile pitchers, viewing it as a depleted market. Though their outfield looks even worse than the Braves did in March last year, is this the type of methodology that will pay off?

Mac: It's probably easier to find outfielders than pitchers, though young pitching is such a risky market I can't really approve of gutting the team in exchange for it.

Jeremy: I think it is one of those wait and see things. As Mac says, young pitching is a risky market. I'm a big fan of Yusmeiro Petit and think he'll end up as a solid middle of the rotation starter, but a guy like Gabby Hernandez is so far away that who knows at this point.

Bryan: Well, let's talk about what they have this year. Are the likes of Jason Vargas and Sergio Mitre enough to give Joe Girardi a respectable club?

Mac: Their starting rotation might be okay. Willis is great, of course, Brian Moehler's not really a #2, but he's not bad in the middle of the rotation, Vargas and Mitre are adequate. The bullpen looks pretty thin, though, and they can't really afford to rush the kids to fill that hole.

Jeremy: I don't think there is much of a chance. This team just doesn't have enough pitching behind Dontrelle Willis, who looked quite shaky in the WBC himself. They have some interesting young hitters beyond Cabrera like Mike Jacobs, Hanley Ramirez and Hermida, but I just don't see it happening. Too many holes.

Mac: And they have probably the worst infield in baseball. Jacobs is the only one who looks half-competent. They have Wes Helms at third base, whom I've seen enough of, thank you.

Rich: I don't expect fans will see much of Helms at the hot corner this year, not with Cabrera around.

Bryan: While I agree with Jeremy about the holes, there is something about young managers/former catchers that seem to maximize effort from their players. That, I say, belongs to the Nationals.

Jeremy: I happen to disagree and think the Nationals will finish higher than the Marlins, but I don't think it will be by that much. I just don't understand what Jim Bowden has been thinking all off-season, which was culminated by the Ryan Church decision a couple of days ago.

Mac: I thought that the environment in Washington, which basically makes any pitcher look okay, would be one where Bowden could thrive. He always could find good hitters in Cincy, it was just that he couldn't tell a pitcher from a hole in the ground. But he seems to have lost the eye for hitters as well.

Bryan: Yeah, he's versatile. I agree with Rob Neyer that the Alfonso Soriano trade could end up as one of the worst of all-time, and the Church move is a head scratcher. This was a Rookie of the Year candidate last June.

Mac: Nobody looks good in that situation but the Rangers. Soriano is not a good enough hitter for an outfield corner anyway, and he'll probably hit about five homers at home this year.

Jeremy: The whole entire Soriano thing has been a debacle from the actual trade to the whole spring training spat.

Bryan: Ryan Zimmerman, Nick Johnson and Jose Guillen are all solid on the corners, but you have to really squint to see a successful offense here.

Mac: And the good hitters they have (Johnson and Guillen) are fragile. I mean, Guillen actually caught a wrist injury from Johnson.

Jeremy: I really like Zimmerman and I think he'll have quite a nice year, so much so that he'll end up as the rookie of the year. But, the offense is suspect outside of him, Guillen and Johnson. Because, what can they expect out of Jose Vidro this year?

Bryan: An injury to Vidro and then the Soriano thing is really going to blow up.

Jeremy: The pitching will be interesting. I'm a fan of John Patterson, but behind him and Livan... Ramon Ortiz? Tony Armas? When does he ever stay healthy?

Mac: I know I've said this before, but it's certain that Bowden doesn't understand park effects, and that his pitching (other than Patterson) wasn't very good last year. Livan was the definition of "league average innings eater".

Rich: Well, he ate...scratch that...he pitched a lot of innings last year. A MLB-leading 246 1/3, to be exact.

Bryan: Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman, John Patterson and Chad Cordero are the types you build around, but they simply have the wrong man to execute any rebuilding process.

Rich: I'm not defending Bowden by any means here. But it's tough to run a franchise when you don't have a real owner. I mean, no matter what you do in life, you need a time horizon. The Nationals don't know if they are coming or going.

Bryan: This is, of course, the opposite situation as to what we see in Atlanta, with one of the game's best GMs. This winter, however, Schuerholz was probably able to take some time off thanks to his great farm system.

Mac: Well, he did make the Marte-for-Renteria trade, which I didn't really like but won't hurt the team in the short term. He traded Johnny Estrada, who he didn't need anymore, for a couple of pitchers who might help. Other than that, he stood pat. I think that the hope is that some of the rookies from last year will improve and give the Joneses some help. And that Chipper stays relatively healthy.

Bryan: Yeah, the ability that the Braves could stand pat was that fantastic group of youth. Francoeur is the first name that comes to mind but there is a good chance he is outperformed by Kelly Johnson and Brian McCann, who I think is on the cusp of a monster season.

Mac: McCann was actually my favorite of the group, though I like Johnson a lot too, and Francoeur should be great down the road.

Jeremy: I am afraid of Francoeur. As a Met fan, I get this feeling he is the next Chipper Jones. I know he has issues in his game, but he just seems so natural sometimes.

Mac: The player Francoeur gets compared to is Dale Murphy, but he reminds me more of Juan Gonzalez. Same holes in his game, same just freaky power. Remember, Juan Gone was a CF in his youth. He doesn't even really need to walk, just lay off the really bad pitches.

Jeremy: He has such great power and such a strong arm in rightfield. I think the Braves will be fine when it comes to finding hitters, especially now that Matt Diaz can see out of both eyes.

Bryan: The rookies also will be balanced with a solid crop of veterans. Andruw and Chipper Jones are about the two easiest players to depend on ever, and Edgar Renteria should be solid in his return to the NL.

Mac: What worries me is that if Adam LaRoche struggles again they'll wait too long to pull the trigger without Julio Franco in reserve.

Rich: Well, Julio has hung in there for at least five more years than anyone could have reasonably expected ten years ago. He's kind of like the Energizer Bunny or, heck, the Braves. He just keeps going and going and going. But, like the Braves, you have to wonder how long either will last.

Bryan: The question really isn't the offense, it's the pitching. Mac, I wonder what type of impact you think Mazzone's loss will bring to the club?

Mac: A lot of the pitchers were relieved to see him go, it seems, because he was hard on them. What I hope is that they'll respond well for a time with the pressure off. What I fear is that they'll fall into bad habits. Not Smoltz and Hudson, but the kids.

Jeremy: It will be quite interesting to me to see what happens. I hope, as a Met fan, that Leo leaving means a regression in the Braves pitching performance, but Roger McDowell seems like a solid pitching coach and the young kids still have Smoltz and Hudson to look up to.

Bryan: I actually like this pitching staff better than most, because I see quite a bit of depth. If Thomson or Ramirez don't perform well, in steps Davies or James; if Chris Reitsma struggles, how about Joey Devine or Blaine Boyer?

Mac: I figure Reitsma will be Reitsma. He will be good for a few weeks, then he will struggle, and Devine will take the job. Hopefully, he can hold it and the revolving door will stop.

Rich: The Braves need Smoltz to be Smoltz because Hudson is no longer Hudson. And Thomson, Sosa, and Ramirez are no better than league average as far as #3-5 go.

Mac: What really worries me is that we're in a division with Delgado, Floyd, Howard, Utley, and Abreu and we have one southpaw starter, who isn't very good and gives up lots of homers.

Jeremy: I really wouldn't be shocked to see Ramirez displaced at some point this season. I just don't see him pitching well at all this year. But, as you note Bryan, the Braves have young starters ready to step in.

Mac: I like Davies a lot, as does Cox, and the Braves are going to do something (a trade, or a move of Sosa or Thomson to the pen) to get him in the rotation.

Bryan: It's just that, on contrast to last year, this Atlanta team seems to have some nice depth. Has to be comforting, eh Mac?

Mac: Depth is great. I really like the bench they've assembled, which for the first time in forever doesn't have any useless players. Wilson Betemit is probably one of the best bench players in baseball, one who really should be starting somewhere. But the Braves need him to insure against an injury to Chipper or Renteria. If Francouer struggles, Diaz or Johnson can step in. If McCann flops or gets hurt, they have Jarrod Saltalamacchia in wait.

Jeremy: The depth the Braves have scares me a lot because their injury concerns can be more easily taken care of then someone, say, like the Mets, who have pretty much depleted their starting pitching depth.

Mac: The only really irreplaceable player is Andruw Jones, but he never leaves the lineup.

Bryan: So much has to be said about the Braves ability to develop players. Their starting lineup is almost entirely made of homegrown players, which speaks volumes.

Mac: In an interleague game last year, the Braves had ten homegrown players in the lineup, seven of them rookies.

Bryan: Alright guys, let's finish it off with some division predictions. How do you guys see it finishing, 1-5?

Mac: Braves, Phillies (WC), Mets, Marlins, Natspos. The first three teams will be within five or six games. The last two will be about 30 games back.

Jeremy: Braves, Mets (WC), Phillies, Nationals, Marlins. Like Mac, I think the first three are tight and the last two are way behind.

Bryan: I must admit that I came into the chat ready to pick the Mets, but I'm going to go with the Braves first. Mets (WC), Phillies, Marlins and Nats for me.

Rich: I thought I was going to like the Mets a couple of months ago. But they still have too many holes in my mind. I think this division is much weaker than most. That said, I'm going with the Braves, Phillies, Mets, Nationals, and Marlins.

Mac: I wouldn't really be surprised by any order for the first three, only if one of them was way off.

Baseball Beat/WTNYMarch 29, 2006
Two on Two: 2006 AL East Preview
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

Today, the Two on Two previews move from one coast to the other (sorry, Texas). Left to right across your computer screen. With us today to discuss the AL East are Cliff Corcoran of Bronx Banter and Patrick Sullivan of The House That Dewey Built. Cliff and Patrick (aka Sully) joined us last year and are the first pair to repeat as guests in our series.

When it comes to the AL East, some might call such a chat a review rather than a preview. Pull up a chair and find out what the four of us have to say about the Yankees and Red Sox. Oh, and the other three teams, too.

AL Central
NL Central
NL West
AL West

Rich: Last year, Boston and New York finished the regular season tied, yet New York was awarded the division title due to winning their season series. Fair or unfair?

Cliff: As it turned out it was irrelevant. Neither team got home field advantage during the ALDS because Boston lost the tiebreaker with the Yankees and was forced to settle for the Wild Card and the Yankees lost another tiebreaker with the also 95-67 Los Angeles de Los Angeles de Anaheim. Then both teams lost in the first round. In fact, the only real impact it had, other than bragging rights for fans of the now eight-consecutive-time AL East Champion Yankees was that the Red Sox were able to claim Hee Seop Choi off waivers before the Yankees got their shot because the tiebreaker put the Sox ahead of the Yanks in the waiver order.

Patrick: I sort of just thought the season series gave them a seeding tiebreaker (so to speak). The benefits of determining a champion the traditional way, with a playoff, are not worth jeopardizing teams' pitching staffs when both have already qualified anyway. But then, I am a fan of the team that lost the tiebreaker.

Rich: I wonder how Joe McCarthy, Miller Huggins, and Casey Stengel feel about running AL East pennants up the flagpole at Yankee Stadium?

Cliff: You know, I've been at the last three home openers and I'm not sure they actually do that. I think they only run up AL and World Champion flags, but I'm not 100 percent sure.

Patrick: An AL East championship is grounds for a Kevin Millar hoe-down up here.

Cliff: Not anymore.

Patrick: Mercifully.

Cliff: For both of us. If only he went to the NL.

Rich: OK, now that we have settled last year's score, let's take a look at how the AL East is shaping up this year.

Patrick: Well, I think the Yanks and Sox are the definite class of the division again, but Toronto is not far behind. Boston has a wider variance in outcomes both to the upside and the down, but New York looks more solid at this point to me.

Cliff: Yeah, I don't think much has changed. The Yanks and Sox are very tight, they'll likely finish a close one-two, but either could collapse. Toronto, despite making a lot of noise, isn't meaningfully better, and the Orioles will disappoint anyone who expects them to win more than 75 games. If anything's changed, it's that the Devil Rays suddenly have a pretty nifty offense, which actually isn't all that different from the second half of 2005.

Bryan: It's been a long, long while since the division has had any change, Cliff. Is the philosophy we saw from the Blue Jays this winter going to help them do anything but draw more fans?

Cliff: There was a philosophy there? All I saw them do is spend money. But to answer your question, no.

Patrick: Cliff and I disagree on the Jays. I am not sure how an 88-win Pythag team like the 2005 Jays makes the changes they did and doesn't make some real noise in the division.

Cliff: The thing that's most overlooked about the 2006 Jays is the loss of Orlando Hudson. Having a healthy Roy Halladay for a full season will go a long way, but their bullpen and the remainder of their rotation, especially Mr. Gustavo Chacin will see a significant regression as a result of both natural correction (most of the pen was way over it's head last year), and due to the loss of Hudson's defense behind them. That will reduce their run prevention and cut into that impressive Pythagorean showing.

Patrick: Fair points...but a full year of Halladay and the additions more than make up Chacin's regression and Hudson's absence. Also, Jason Frasor, Vinny Chulk and Justin Speier are all live arms setting up B.J. Ryan. Scott Schoeneweis is a pretty good LOOGY too.

Rich: Wow, Chacin hasn't gotten this much press since his birth announcement!

Cliff: Chulk's K/9 dropped to 4.88 last year and Schoeneweis is an established mediocrity (career: 5.02 ERA, 5.13 K/9, 3.52 BB/9). A.J. Burnett is already hurt. Troy Glaus was a bat they needed, but other than him and Ryan, whom I view as a guy headed for a collapse just due to his mechanics, I don't see much added value.

Rich: I'm not suggesting that Toronto has caught and passed the Yankees and Red Sox, but I wouldn't dismiss them either. Cliff, was that you really saying that "all Toronto does is spend money?"

Cliff: Yeah yeah, who is the Yankee fan to talk? I get it. But where's the plan in what Toronto did this offseason? They overpaid wildly for the initial boys and two of their four major acquisitions have nasty injury histories. Besides which, why throw money at Bengie Molina when they had a smart inexpensive option with Gregg Zaun?

Patrick: I don't dispute that their plan is a bit tough to discern. But I am really just concerned with their 2006 chances at this point, and they look pretty good to me.

Rich: I thought the Yankees signed Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, no?

Cliff: We're not talking about the Yankees, we're talking about the Blue Jays. I don't work for the Yankees, you know. I'll tell you what I do like about the Jays going into the season. Their duel platoons in the outfield corners (Frank Catalanotto and Reed Johnson in left, Alexis Rios and Eric Hinske in right), is a fantastic way of maximizing their resources. That is, if Hinske can actually play the outfield.

Bryan: It's hard not to like that whole offense, but I agree that Hinske in right and Hudson not at second will do damage to their defense. In a long season it's the little things that make the difference, and a decline in defense and lack of depth might be what kills Toronto.

Patrick: Sure I'd agree with that. I happen to think they will come in third, but I also think a division title is just as likely as a sub-80 win season.

Rich: I don't think Toronto will be 16-31 in one-run games this year. How much better they will be than last year, I'm not sure. But they won't be worse.

Bryan: One team many are choosing to drop a bit in the standings -- though I don't necessarily agree -- is the Red Sox. Is this a transition year in Boston, or has management found a way to mix youth with a winner in 2006?

Patrick: I think Boston has done a nice job putting a good team on the field for 2006 while making sure their future remains bright. They have added two cost-controlled mid-20's contributors in Josh Beckett and Coco Crisp and two other young role players in Hee Seop Choi and Wily Mo Pena. With respect to whether or not they have found a winner, if they can win 95 games with Curt Schilling posting a 77 ERA+ and Keith Foulke a 75 ERA+, then they will be just fine.

Cliff: Beckett's injury history concerns me as much as Burnett's, as does the fact that both are leaving that roomy pitchers park in Miami for high-run environments. But as I said up top, I think the Red Sox will hang with the Yankees all year. What I find most interesting about Boston right now is that they have tremendous depth on the bench and in the bullpen, but some shaky starters, primarily on the left side of the infield and in the rotation.

Rich: Hmmm. I think Boston's starting rotation is actually pretty good. They go six deep by my math. I would take Beckett over any starter in the division this side of Halladay and Randy Johnson. I think he will be just fine. Remember, he is additive to the team that won 95 games last year.

Bryan: I think Beckett is on the short list of AL Cy Young candidates, but I also think this team will be better once they realize Jon Lester over David Wells, Craig Hansen over Keith Foulke, and Dustin Pedroia over Alex Gonzalez.

Cliff: Exactly.

Patrick: I don't see much evidence that Lester is ready to supplant Wells. I do think we will see Hansen at some point this year and I am not sure on Pedroia. But I am comfortable that Alex Gonzalex can at least replicate what Edgar Renteria contributed to last year's club.

Rich: I wouldn't hold it against the Red Sox this year that they have one of the best groups of prospects in all of baseball. These guys will just make Boston that much stronger in 2007 and beyond.

Bryan: There is no doubt about that. Boston has the brightest future of anyone in the division, I think. But in terms of 2006, I still believe the Red Sox aren't utilizing these prospects enough. I'm not faulting Boston's developmental department, which should now be lauded as one of the Majors best, but for the trust issues they still have in some youth. That could change in a few months, though.

Cliff: Agreed, I'd be surprised if Gonzalez lasts past the All-Star break and if Hansen isn't back with the big club by then. Speaking of which, the Sox should ditch J.T. Snow in favor of Choi (whom is reportedly ticketed for triple-A because he has options left) yesterday.

Patrick: The Sox have a phenomenal roster. We will see if Terry Francona can do a better job of using it then last year.

Rich: His job in terms of filling out the lineup card should be rather simple in my mind. Pena or Choi should be starting every game. Period. But they should never both start the same game.

Bryan: Let's move onto another organization with a bright future, guys, the Devil Rays. It's hard for ownership to keep telling their fans to be patient, but this winter seems to have shown there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Cliff: Everyone made a big deal about how the Yankees kept losing to the D-Rays last year, but they all ignored the fact that the Rays had one of the best offenses in baseball after the All-Star break and one of the best second-half records in the American League. That offense will only improve this season with Joey Gathright finally getting a starting job. Their pitching, however, is another story entirely.

Patrick: The Devil Rays need pitching badly. When they get a little bit, they'll be competitive. Until then, they won't. I think Scott Kazmir's progress will be interesting this season. Victor Zambrano's on the other hand, won't.

Cliff: That trade just keeps killing the Mets. They traded Jae Seo to make room for Victor Zambrano? Brutal.

Bryan: Rich's K/100P stat tells us that Kazmir's path to stardom is right around the bend. Still, Kazmir becoming an ace won't hide the fact that a rotation needs 4, or at least 3, other starters.

Cliff: I read something anecdotal about Seth McClung correcting a mechanical flaw this spring related to how he moves his glove hand through his motion that has supposedly yielded fantastic results, but I'll believe it when I see it over a full season. Second to that, Casey Fossum had solid peripherals last year, but I find it hard to believe that he's become a front-line starter.

Rich: Tampa Bay's pitchers, for the most part, are young and inexperienced. They have some good arms in the system though that should yield decent results down the road.

Bryan: And, for the first time in ages, the new Devil Rays front office makes me believe Tampa actually knows they have a lack of pitching depth. This alone speaks volumes.

Rich: Well, Bryan, the Devil Rays are likely to get a top-flight pitcher in this year's draft, which, as you so well know, is full of pitching talent.

Bryan: Yes, and I'm looking forward to them making better draft day decisions than Wade Townsend.

Patrick: Well, with the competent offense Cliff alluded to earlier and guys like Delmon Young and B.J. Upton on the way, this offense doesn't figure to slow down for years to come.

Rich: I think Tampa Bay is going to be a really fun team to watch. I would be a bit worried if I was a Baltimore fan.

Cliff: Hey, any of you guys still high on the Orioles? Heh.

Patrick: I still maintain that if Erik Bedard and Rodrigo Lopez had stayed healthy, that team could have been much, much different. Sometimes a thing or two goes wrong and the wheels come off. The O's were not as good as they started out nor were they as bad as they finished.

Rich: I agree. The Orioles spent most of the first three months last year in first place. It's too bad they didn't get paid "lap money." An injury here and an injury there, the fallout of Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, the firing of the manager, and Miguel Tejada's lack of interest and production in the second half (.276/.322/.416) was just too much to overcome.

Patrick: But I have given up the good fight. Despite upside potential from Erik Bedard and Daniel Cabrera, they stink.

Cliff: Welcome back to Earth, Sully. The Orioles are one of the worst franchises in baseball and have been for the better part of a decade.

Bryan: Things are at least looking a bit better for the O's this year, however, thanks to the loss of Sosa and Palmiero. Brian Roberts won't give the same production, but even Nick Markakis can be better than Sosa.

Rich: It makes no sense to put Markakis on the 25-man roster at this point, especially if he's not going to start. And what's up with heading north with just two catchers, when one of them (Javy Lopez) is supposedly going to play first base and DH?

Patrick: So many questions about the way the Orioles go about their business. Kevin Millar is all I have to say.

Cliff: Actually, that's the answer to the second part of Rich's question. They say Kevin Millar will be their emergency catcher. As for the first part, from what I've heard, Markakis is going to start in center. If that's true, it means that Luis Matos is out of a job, or that the soon-to-be 40-year-old Jeff Conine will be riding pine. If I'm an Orioles fan, I'm hoping for the former.

Bryan: One thing we can probably depend on, thanks to Leo Mazzone, is an improved pitching staff, even with the loss of B.J. Ryan.

Rich: Yes, our good friend JC Bradbury has studied the Mazzone Effect and concluded that, on average, Leo lowers staff ERAs by 0.60 runs per game. If that holds true this year, the O's would give up 100 fewer runs (which works out to 10 wins)!

Patrick: A part of me wants to really believe in these O's. Their offense should be good and their pitching improved with considerable upside in the lefty/righty tandem of Bedard and Cabrera I just think too much can go wrong with these guys. They rely too much on oldish players and their stars are on the decline.

Cliff: I couldn't find this offense you were talking about last year and I can't find it this year either. Mora's coming back to earth, Roberts has already done the same, hitting .274/.351/.419 after the All-Star break last year before his catastrophic elbow injury. That puts all the weight on Tejada and he showed last year that he's not willing to bear that burden. Meanwhile, Mazzone may help the starters, but their pen is falling apart. I'm bullish on Chris Ray as a closer, but Aaron Rakers just hit the 60-day DL with a labrum injury. Todd Williams is already hurt. There's just not much there for Mazzone to work with.

Rich: Well, he has worked wonders in the past with guys like Rodrigo Lopez and Kris Benson. A starting staff of Bedard, Cabrera, Bruce Chen, Lopez, and Benson isn't the worst in the league.

Bryan: It also isn't the best, which, despite a lot of failures, the Yankees have worked hard at building towards. Last year the rotation wasn't very good at all; do we think that could change this year?

Cliff: The Yankees' rotation is a mess, to be completely honest, but it's a deep mess, and that may be it's saving grace. Johnson should improve despite his age. Chien-Ming Wang could as well. Both he and Shawn Chacon have shown indications this spring that they'll be missing more bats this year -- Wang via his heater, Chacon via his nasty sea-level curve and a fine change. After that, you get into the injury concerns: Mike Mussina (elbow), Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano (any and everything). But what most folks don't realize is that the Yankees have a nice trio of 25-year-old starters in Columbus in Matt DeSalvo, Darrell Rasner (a gift from Jim Bowden) and Sean Henn. Expect one of those guys to be this year's Chien-Ming.

Rich: For the Yankees' sake, let's just hope they don't wing the wang number when they call for help in Columbus.

Patrick: Well Cliff's got all the contingency plans covered but I think the Yanks have a lot of problems on the pitching side of things. I don't see another Aaron Small coming down the pike for them. I do, however, think Randy Johnson is going to have a great year.

Cliff: Another Aaron Small won't come down the pike for anyone anytime soon. That was a major fluke.

Bryan: I'm a Johnson buyer too, but I don't even think Small himself will have a good year. The Yanks are almost a lock to be looking for pitching at the trade deadline, and you know everyone will want Eric Duncan or Phil Hughes.

Cliff: Sully, Bryan and I agree on Johnson. I also happen to think that the Kyle Farnsworth and eventually Octavio Dotel combo will give them a devastating Big Three in the bullpen, which could ease the burden on their starters, who had no room for error last year.

Rich: I like Farnsworth but will be watching closely to see if he can handle the pressure of the Big Apple. Dotel is nothing more than a crapshoot at this stage. However, it doesn't get mo better than Mariano Rivera.

Cliff: Meanwhile they've got the best offense Joe Torre's ever had.

Patrick: Well, the Yanks offense is going to pound again but I really don't get the 1,000-run offense talk I hear from the talking heads. Johnny Damon helps, but everyone in the lineup except Robinson Cano is another year past their prime. It's a very good offense, but not an historic one by any stretch.

Cliff: Certainly not, though it would be better if Bernie Williams was retired and Andy Phillips was the DH.

Rich: The Yankees have a lot of big names in their lineup. Damon, for one. I've got Coco Crisp over Damon this year in OPS+. Any takers?

Cliff: Damon will be hurt by leaving Fenway, that's for sure, and Crisp is still climbing toward his peak. I'm not going to fight you on that.

Bryan: Not from this end. But to the Yankees' credit, Damon is an improvement upon last year. The offense should be just about as good as last year, but I don't think it will be much better.

Cliff: Bryan, you wanna check Tony Womack's 2005 stats and get back to me on that one? Or John Flaherty's, for that matter?

Rich: The good news for the Yankees is that the offense doesn't need to be better. They scored the second most runs in baseball last year. This team can still mash.

Cliff: Still, runs on either side of the ball count toward the ultimate objective.

Bryan: Yes, the Yankees offense will be just fine even if it doesn't improve. It's all about whether the pitching staff can fight off a run from the Red Sox and even, yes Cliff, the Blue Jays.

Rich: Bryan just mentioned the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays. Is that how this division is going to finish (once again) this year?

Cliff: Yup, that's the top three, though I might put a larger gap between two and three than most. I'll mix it up with the bottom two, however. I think the D-Rays will slip past the O's and it will be a while before Baltimore manages to return the favor.

Patrick: Well, you guys know mine, same order as always: NYY-BOS-TOR-BAL-TB.

Bryan: I have been predicting the Sox to upend the Yanks for years. I think it will happen this year, with the Yanks finishing a close second. The Jays win 87 or so, while Tampa and Baltimore tie for last place.

Rich: I guess this really is a two on two. But it's different than I might have expected. I'm going to side with Bryan here--at least with respect to his top three teams. Boston, New York, Toronto, followed by Baltimore (one last time) and Tampa Bay.

Baseball Beat/WTNYMarch 27, 2006
Two on Two: 2006 AL West Preview
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

Our season previews roll on today, as we stay out on the left coast to preview the AL West. In the hot seat with Rich and Bryan today are Tyler Bleszinski (Blez) from Athletics Nation and Rob McMillin from 6-4-2. Before we begin, here's a quick look at our previous division previews:

AL Central: Aaron and Cheat
NL Central: Larry and John
NL West: Jon and Geoff

And with that, away we go...

Bryan: Guys, in recent years this has become little more than a two-team division. Seattle and Texas have flirted with success in certain years, but neither come close to the recent consistency of the Angels and Athletics. Obviously, this speaks volumes about the abilities of Billy Beane as well as the Stoneman/Scioscia duo. This is a two-part question, first what gives those teams such great success (beyond Moneyball and Angel-speed cliches) and do you see anything over the horizon in Dallas and Seattle?

Tyler: I know Rob disagrees with me on this one, but I think Texas makes a jump this year. With Ian Kinsler coming in, a slight improvement in the rotation, Brad Wilkerson joining the team and a mashing offense that's built for that ballpark, I think they leapfrog the Angels this season. But not for long because the key to the Angels and A's success will largely be the draft and a solid farm system. And the Angels will rise again in 2007 with all of those great young kids they have.

Bryan: So success in the West is a product of proper player development?

Tyler: In the A's case, definitely. They had four players in their first full years -- Dan Johnson, Nick Swisher, Huston Street and Joe Blanton -- who were major contributors to their success last season. The Angels time is coming for their farm system to flex their muscles. In part, it will happen this year with Casey Kotchman and possibly Dallas McPherson.

Rich: I wouldn't bank on McPherson contributing much this year. He is unlikely to break camp with the club and will find it difficult unseating Chone Figgins at third unless, of course, Figgy returns to his role as a super sub again.

Rob: The 2004 and 2005 Angels won their respective divisions for almost completely different reasons; the 2004 squad because of its good offense (three players with 119 or more OPS+) and mediocre pitching, and the 2005 team almost exclusively because of its superior pitching. Unlike Tyler, I don't see the Rangers really contending until they figure out guys like Kevin Millwood aren't worth the kind of money the Rangers gave him and R.A. Dickey doesn't belong in any major league rotation until he can figure out how to get his knuckleball over the plate.

Tyler: The truth is that the Rangers have to overpay for pitching to get anyone to come to that ballpark.

Bryan: The Rangers are, like the Angels, at an advantage because of team payroll. However, this hasn't correlated to direct success. Is it just bad front office decision-making?

Rich: Well, there is a new sheriff in town -- and I don't mean Kevin Malone. John Hart stepped down as the team's general manager and Jon Daniels stepped up. At 28, Daniels is now the youngest GM in the game.

Tyler: I think the Rangers front office is making better decisions now. Getting rid of Alfonso Soriano in favor of Wilkerson was a very good move and Millwood, while they overpaid, will also help.

Rob: Yes, I think the Rangers are victims of some none-too-smart decisions. That doesn't mean they'll keep making them, though; like Tyler, I liked the move to unload Soriano to a GM dumb enough to force him to left without asking first. But I'm far from sold on the idea that the Rangers' pitching problem is mostly about money. Their park is hot -- always bad for pitching anyway -- and it has some well-known wind tunnels that conveniently happen to be jet streams in the power alleys.

Bryan: Yeah, some pitchers can succeed in the park, but it's tough to come up with a staff full of 'em.

Tyler: The Rangers major problem is that home ballpark. While it helps the offense become prolific, it's also scared off any potential pitchers since the Chan Ho Park debacle.

Rob: Even when they were a good team in the mid-late-90's, they never had superior pitching, but they had guys who could wallop the ball into Tierra del Fuego.

Tyler: One big mistake the Rangers made was letting go of Kenny Rogers. I understand why it had to be done, but he figured out how to pitch there when few have. And the Tigers paid too much to get him, but that's the market for starting pitching right now.

Rob: Totally agree on the Rogers situation, and that's why I think they won't contend -- Millwood hardly looks like a replacement for Mister Camera Smackdown Guy.

Bryan: Well, let's talk about the rotation they do have. Millwood will be an improvement at least, and Adam Eaton has big potential. At the back end, the Rangers are showing a touch of depth with Vicente Padilla and Kameron Loe.

Tyler: Eaton concerns me. He had scary bad stats last year at Petco Park, which many believe is the antithesis of Arlington. But the improvement should really come as a result of improvements in the overall team defense with Wilkerson and Kinsler there when talking about the rotation as well. Soriano was just brutal out there.

Rob: Kinsler may be an improvement -- we won't know until he actually plays at the major league level for a while. But I'll buy that, even if he's only league average, he'd be a big boon compared to the sieve that was Alfonso Soriano.

Bryan: Personally, I think the key to the Rangers will be the success of that bullpen. Francisco Cordero, Frank Francisco, Joaquin Benoit and Akinori Otsuka all need to pitch well for great success.

Tyler: I agree because of the nature of that ballpark. So many games are decided later. But the thing is, the Rangers don't need their pitchers to be perfect unlike the A's and possibly even the Angels because of their offense.

Rob: I don't know about that, Tyler. Between David Dellucci, Mark Teixeira, and Michael Young, you've got a fine lineup, and maybe throw in Wilkerson if you think he can be a 120+ OPS+ guy. But it doesn't seem to me to be a recipe for winning anywhere else than Amerimash Park.

Tyler: You left out Hank Blalock, Rob. I know he didn't have the best year last season, but he's bound to improve this year.

Rich: It would be hard for Blalock not to improve on his numbers last year. He was just plain awful on the road (.231/.276/.335), in the second half (.236/.283/.375), and against lefties (.196/.228/.356). By the end of the year, southpaws were sending limousines for Blalock to make sure he made it to the away games on time.

Rob: PECOTA agrees with you, guys -- I guess Blalock's disappearance last year had fooled me into thinking he had peaked early, but at 25 it's unlikely.

Tyler: What could make a difference would be if the Rangers continue to play Rod Barajas over Gerald Laird. Even though Laird hasn't shown it yet (he's only played 81 games at the MLB level) he has the much higher ceiling offensively.

Bryan: The catching position is certainly their weakest position offensively. However, with 8 other solid spots in the lineup, good defense behind the plate might be more important.

Rob: Tyler -- could be. But I'm still skeptical; they have to keep runs off the board, and this is a pretty tattered pitching staff.

Bryan: Let's go from the division's worst staff to the best, the A's. With a deep rotation, 1-5, the A's will be difficult each day of the week.

Tyler: I'm not sure Rob would agree with that. The Angels have a quality rotation as well. But it's true, and the A's rotation is actually almost eight-nine starting pitchers deep now. For the first time in many, many years, the A's have replacements in case Rich Harden or another starting pitcher goes down. The A's have Kirk Saarloos, Joe Kennedy, Brad Halsey and even John Rheinecker or Chad Gaudin waiting in the wings in case of injury.

Rob: The A's have a good team this year, no doubt about it. In fact, I'm picking them to win the division. They have a good 1-4 and a fifth starter who could be a number three on some second-division teams and a young guy in Bobby Crosby who can rake in the middle of the infield. They've got three starting center fielders in Milton Bradley, Jay Payton, and Mark Kotsay, and as Tyler mentions, remarkable depth in their rotation.

Tyler: That isn't an ideal situation, but they're better equipped than last year when they were picking up Ryan Glynn off the waiver wire to take emergency starts.

Bryan: Decisions are just so, so difficult for the A's this year. Oh, who to pitch behind former Cy Young winner Barry Zito: Rich Harden or Dan Haren?

Tyler: This is Harden's year to break out. Almost all of the health reports on him this year have been glowing. He's even backed off on his weights routine. Haren will also be solid, but he can have problems with consistency because he depends on hitters swinging at that nasty splitter.

Rob: Break out? What more does he need to do? By the way, Tyler, next time you talk to Billy, you need to tell him to stop getting pitchers whose names are so similar -- Harden/Haren? That's almost as bad as Sarumon/Sauron.

Bryan: Personally I don't think the name of the hurler will matter much this season. Any pitcher could succeed with an outfield defense that will make doubles an impossibility.

Tyler: You're absolutely right about the defense, and you didn't even mention the infield. Mark Ellis and Crosby are one of the top double-play duos in baseball. Eric Chavez is a five-time Gold Glover (though we all know how much that means) and Dan Johnson is a decent first baseman. Then you add the outfield defense to that mix, some of these pitchers won't play with a better defense behind them their entire careers. The major question mark with the A's this year is health. Can Crosby and Harden stay healthy? Will Bradley be healthy? Will Chavez's ongoing shoulder issues hamper him? Notice I didn't even mention Frank Thomas.

Rob: Rate2 gives Chavez a 105 score -- he's still above average, though not as good as he was a couple years ago. Nobody expected you to mention Thomas, Tyler. It's pretty obvious that Beane doesn't expect him to necessarily be a lynchpin of the offense.

Bryan: The question, I guess, will be how health affects the offense. Still, I think it's good enough to win the division. Milton Bradley in a loving environment could be a big run producer.

Rich: The A's offense is plenty good. They scored nearly as many runs on the road last year as Texas.

Tyler: My feeling is you're going to see a Bradley close to the 2003 Cleveland Indians Bradley.

Rob: Bradley's health is far more important; if he doesn't stay in the lineup, bad things happen. I also think, having seen him play some, that he shares with Darin Erstad a tendency to injure himself from overhustling. Plus, he's just plain fragile. Remember the injury that kept him out of the Dodgers lineup last year: a busted ring finger ligament! How freakish is that?

Tyler: Still, even so, the A's have depth that they haven't had in years. If Bradley does go down for an extended time, the A's have Jay Payton.

Bryan: The A's depth will give Billy a chance to be Billy during the season. During the season, Beane can use that depth to fix the A's weaknesses. However, at this point, I'm not sure the A's have any weaknesses.

Tyler: I think they're missing a true LOOGY. And in this division with Teixeira, Blalock and even Garret Anderson, I think you need a quality LOOGY.

Rich: That's minor in the scope of things. The Angels haven't had a lefty in the bullpen in years.

Tyler: Joe Kennedy could evolve into that, but he's probably going to be more a Justin Duchscherer-type from last year.

Rob: I was astonished at how badly Kennedy performed last year, considering he was leaving Colorado. 4.45 ERA?

Tyler: Not that spring stats mean much considering their small sample size, but Kennedy seems to be thriving now that he knows his role. He's got a 0.96 ERA in Arizona.

Bryan: Still, I can't see Kennedy or any LOOGY having a large impact upon the A's chances. Oakland's division, and pennant, chances depend far more on the likes of Bradley and Eric Chavez.

Tyler: The A's season is dependent on three players to me: Crosby, Street and Harden. They lose any one of those players for an extended period of time and the drop-off in talent really hurts them.

Rob: Bryan was saying how the division has become a two-team race between the Angels and the A's in the last couple years. It's my opinion that if it becomes a three-team race, it'll be the Mariners, not the Rangers, who get there first.

Bryan: Seattle is certainly headed in the right direction, and for one reason: Felix Hernandez. There is no more exciting talent in the division than Felix, who is good health away from dominating each team's #1.

Rob: The M's have a very good bullpen -- in fact, their cumulative ERA was just a couple points behind the Angels' -- a once-in-a-lifetime starter in King Felix, but after that the story gets very unpredictable. Their 2-5 rotation guys are either old and inconsistent (Jamie Moyer) or young and inconsistent (everyone else). Outside of Richie Sexson, unless Adrian Beltre returns to something like his 2004 form, they don't have what Tyler calls a scary monster in their lineup.

Bryan: They overpaid for Jarrod Washburn, to be sure, but he will be a positive influence in the rotation. He's a similar style to Moyer, but he has a much better upside.

Rich: I think we saw Washburn's ceiling last year. Expect him to be nothing more than an average pitcher over the life of his contract, with more downside than upside.

Rob: Washburn was a mistake; he won't be healthy, he won't repeat his ability to strand the numerous runners he allows on base, and he's going to be a real albatross by the last year of his contract.

Tyler: I'm sorry, but any team that has Jamie Moyer as their opening day starter is not going to contend. They're also depending on Gil Meche and Joel Pineiro, both of whom had ERAs in the 5's last season. Truth be told, I actually like the Rangers rotation better than the Mariners right now with the natural exception of Hernandez.

Bryan: With Jeremy Reed out for two months, the Mariners will be in a pretty bad spot the first 8 weeks. Either Matt Lawton, Willie Bloomquist or Joe Borchard is going to be getting a lot more ABs than they deserve.

Rob: And I don't like that the injury appears to have been to one of the small bones in his wrist. I always think of Nomar's post-wrist-injury hitting, and cringe.

Tyler: Yes, they have a bona fide ace in Felix Hernandez and the offense will be better this year with Beltre likely improving, but you're right in that they have no depth.

Bryan: I like Beltre, too. He was one of the best hitters in the WBC, and has continued to play well in Spring Training. I have both Sexson and Beltre pegged for 30 home runs.

Rob: I dunno, Bryan. Having seen Beltre swing and miss at too many low outside sliders when he was with the Dodgers, and then hearing he's doing the exact same thing with the M's, well, I wonder if he'll ever be consistent.

Rich: Beltre will never approach his 2004 career year, but he should certainly improve upon his inaugural season in Seattle.

Rob: His early Spring Training numbers are encouraging for Seattle, though. Yeah, depth is a real problem for this club, although I confess to being surprised that the Mariners are in the middle of the pack as far as farm system rankings go. Most of their truly good players are still years away, though.

Bryan: In reality, I think the lack of depth will kill them. There are a few exciting talents at the top, but there is not nearly enough depth to really succeed. I look for a few good runs, but besides that, another last place finish from Seattle.

Rob: Totally agree. I see this division going down Oakland-LAA-Texas-Seattle, but it may be a lot tighter than that, and I could easily see the Rangers and Mariners flip-flopping if the right circumstances occur.

Bryan: Let's talk about Washburn's old team, the Angels. Signing Jeff Weaver on the cheap was a good move, I think, but I'm not sure they have the offense to succeed. Young players could definitely change that if they gel quickly, though.

Tyler: The Angels have an impressive rotation, the thing that concerns me about that team is its offense. There's Vladimir Guerrero and then there is everyone else.

Rich: Yeah, I think signing Jered to a $4 million bonus was a very cheap signing. Oh, you mean Jeff? Well, that was a good move, too.

Tyler: It usually takes a younger player a little longer to adjust to the majors. I think Casey Kotchman is going to be great, I just don't expect it to happen immediately. So, I agree, the pitching and bullpen will once again be solid, but the offense will struggle.

Rob: Even at the rate he was hitting last year, you could see him being a 20-30 home run guy. He's doing well in Spring Training. But definitely for the Angels, getting longballs out of the kids is going to be the key to the season. This is a rebuilding year, no doubt about it.

Rich: I don't think the Angels are viewing 2006 as a "rebuilding year" at all. Like the Atlanta Braves have shown more than once over the years, Arte Moreno's team is simply trying to have its cake and eat it, too, by slipping a couple of youngsters into a lineup that is still expected to contend.

Bryan: I think this is a team destined to succeed in 2008. They have to figure a few things out, for example, whether McPherson is the future at the hot corner. Or, how to get rid of Orlando Cabrera soon.

Rich: I'm not worried about these so-called problems in the least. These things have a way of working themselves out.

Tyler: Angel fans can take solace in the fact that they've got Kendry Morales, Brandon Wood and all those youngsters just waiting to make a huge impact on the AL West in 2007 and beyond.

Rob: The Angels look like they have depth, but it's illusory in some ways; what happens if, as many old and melancholy Angels fans hope, Tim Salmon makes the team? With Erstad and Anderson already begging for at-bats from the DH position, they now have three DH's, and four if Kendry Morales and his non-glove make a push for the big club in midseason.

Rich: I don't believe Erstad will get many at-bats as a DH. Anderson, Juan Rivera, and perhaps Salmon and Morales (if either makes the team), but not Ersty.

Tyler: I also don't buy the argument that the Angels didn't do anything this offseason. Angel fans should be rejoicing that Stoneman didn't deal away any young talent for Manny Ramirez. Allowing the young kids an opportunity is doing something intelligent.

Bryan: Stoneman really needs to figure out the right way to blend these veterans and young prospects. It will be his success in this regard that determines the Angels W-L record in 2006 and 2007, I think.

Rob: I'm a little less concerned, having seen the pitching, that they have sufficient bullpen depth; the recent announcement that the team "wants a left-handed bat" and is willing to give up Kevin Gregg and/or Esteban Yan to get it is really code for, "here, take my junk." They're not terrible, but given how well Jason Bulger did this spring (prior to a game or two ago), and some of the other guys' success, the bullpen looks like it's set.

Tyler: Rob, is this the year that K-Rod's funky delivery lands him on the DL?

Rob: Could easily be. And, I'm going to make a prediction: he'll be out of baseball beyond 2010. He refused to change his mechanics in the minors, and now that he's in the Show, he's showing the same recalcitrance.

Bryan: Well, the Angels bullpen is so good that a short Francisco Rodriguez stint on the DL isn't the worst thing in the world. Scot Shields is probably one of the 3-4 best relievers in the division.

Tyler: I also wonder about Shields being overworked. The guy personifies rubber arm, but eventually that type of use burns you out. Bobby Crosby named Shields as the toughest pitcher he's faced in the major leagues when I interviewed him recently.

Rich: Maybe that explains why Bobby is 0-fer vs. Shields.

Rob: Shields had started to tire around the time of the late August Blue Jays series last year, when the team had something like two or three extra-inning games, including an 18-inning nightmare. He absolutely can be overworked. And Scioscia, who learned at the foot of Tommy Lasorda, a master of overworking pitchers, while not quite as bad as his instructor, sometimes has the same tendencies.

Tyler: That's exactly what concerns me about Shields and K-Rod. Scioscia and Dusty Baker both come from that school. It's also why I don't think Kelvim Escobar lasts. And, how many games before Erstad gets injured in center field?

Rob: My bet is 40 games, which ought to be enough time for Dallas McPherson to get hot in the minors, and Figgins to move back to center, where he will probably be the team's starter through 2010.

Bryan: It seems as though the Angels are totally dependent upon health. And with Vlad not even entering the season 100%, they look to be in a lot of trouble. This team has the upside to win the division, but that would be pushing it.

Tyler: Yeah, Erstad getting hurt might actually HELP the Angels. I agree 100 percent, Bryan. I think depth comes into play so much in a 162-game schedule and for once, the A's have the most depth in the division.

Bryan: Well, let's go through our projected standings. I am going to go with the A's first, with the Rangers, Angels and Mariners rounding out the division.

Tyler: I see the division shaking out this way: OAK-TEX-ANA-SEA.

Rich: I like the A's here, followed by the Angels, Rangers, and Mariners.

Rob: Here's how I see it shaping up: Oakland, LAAoA, Texas, Seattle.

Tyler: But I also think this is going to be one of the most hotly contested divisions in baseball. Each one of the teams, except the Angels, will be improved.

Rob: Tyler -- how do you get off saying that? Finley's out of center, Erstad's in a position where his bat isn't expected to produce much, and Kotchman has a real chance of being a 20-30 home run guy.

Tyler: I think we've seen the best of Adam Kennedy last year, Anderson is on the decline, the catching can be a question mark. When I said improvement, I meant win totals. I don't imagine they would top 95 wins. I think the A's will top 88, the Rangers will top 79 and the Mariners will top 69.

Bryan: But, of course, the answer to the dozens of hypothetical questions we posed today will determine who lives up to their potential, and who does not.

Baseball Beat/WTNYMarch 22, 2006
Two on Two: 2006 NL West Preview
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

Our Two on Two 2006 season previews move West this week, following the AL Central and NL Central. In the ring with Rich and Bryan today are two of the senior writers/bloggers on the Internet: Geoff Young (Ducksnorts - Padres) and Jon Weisman (Dodger Thoughts). Enjoy...

Bryan: Well guys, we have gotten to the point where criticizing the NL West's futility in 2005 has become cliche. Still, it's worth noting that after years of the AL Central being the worst in baseball, the NL West passed right by them last year. What I want to know is, was this simply a one-year aberration or is this a problem that isn't going away?

Jon: Can it be a two-year aberration? The coveted prospects in Arizona and Los Angeles will just be beginning to transition to the majors in 2006. San Francisco and San Diego should struggle with growing old despite having a hot pitcher here and there, while Colorado will continue to struggle with being Colorado. The law of averages could certainly help the NL West this season, but odds are that at most, one team will pass the 85-victory mark. Division-wide respect could be another year away.

Geoff: I think Jon nailed it. The California teams are too old, and the non-California teams are too young. The Dodgers and Giants brought in some name guys, and the Padres moved a lot of bodies, but for the most part we're looking at the same bunch of mediocrity that we saw in 2005. Although the positions may change, I don't see a 90-win team in the division. The good news is that I do think the problem will go away in 2007, when some of the good young talent in Arizona starts to make an impact and the Padres no longer have to pay the likes of Ryan Klesko and Chan Ho Park.

Rich: The NL West isn't dead. It's just taking a nap. That said, the division figures to be slightly better this year, if for no other reason than improved health. Looking out a year or two, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks could be among the elite teams in the league if their farm systems are as good as advertised. So I don't think we are talking about a Rip Van Winkle snooze here.

Bryan: Good point regarding the farm systems, Rich. While the Dodgers and Diamondbacks have the opportunity at plenty of implementation in the coming years, the Giants and, to a lesser degree, the Padres are aging and aging fast. Are the next two seasons going to be the last stands for these organizations, after which Arizona and Los Angeles start trading division titles? Or, is this thought simply too assuming?

Jon: Well, some teams rise from the dead quicker than expected, and some teams stay dead for a century or so. So who knows? It is hard for me to imagine a world where Arizona and Los Angeles alone play division-title keepaway. But getting back to this year ...

Rich: The Diamondback and Dodger farm systems aren't going to pay big dividends this year. Oh, we might see a few players get a chance to show their stuff, but I wouldn't expect much, if any, impact from these youngsters in the here and now.

Bryan: Yeah, it's funny, the two rookies that might be best in the West this year are Matt Cain (Giants) and Josh Barfield or Ben Johnson (Padres). Barfield has been one of Arizona's best hitters so far, so you'd have to think he will get the majority of 2B at-bats. The offense around him is pretty solely dependent upon aging, with Mike Piazza, Ryan Klesko, Brian Giles and Vinny Castilla all paramount to the defending champs' success.

Geoff: Beyond Barfield (if he wins the job) and Khalil Greene, the Padres do have a pretty old offense. Of course, that changes next winter when all the contracts run out. From there it's a question of how quickly Grady Fuson is able to revitalize the farm system. It's funny: all the teams in this division are on the cusp of rebuilding. The only thing really holding anyone back from committing to a complete overhaul is the fact that everyone else is in the same boat, so why not hedge your bets and try to do something right now? After all, as we were reminded last year, someone has to win the NL West.

Rich: Yes, indeed. Let's take a look at each team, starting with last year's NL West champs--the 82-80 San Diego Padres. Is the team better or worse this year?

Jon: At best, they're not much better. Many of the folks they brought in are aging, declining players. Mike Cameron is a good player, but not an acquisition to pin your hopes on. There probably isn't any pitcher in the division I'd rather throw out there in a single game than Jake Peavy, but I don't know that San Diego has a complete starting rotation. I think the Padres will need some pleasant surprises.

Geoff: The team is certainly different. Better or worse remains an open question. As Jon notes, the Padres aren't young and the pitching staff has holes. I agree that San Diego will need some pleasant surprises. Unfortunately that's a lot to ask when you're talking about a group that for the most part is on the wrong side of 30 (by quite a bit, in many cases). I look at this team and see 75-85 wins. Sadly, that might be enough.

Rich: Well, 85 may be enough to take the division. But 75 certainly won't, no matter how bad the West might be this year. What needs to go right for the Padres to win 85?

Geoff: No, 75 probably won't - the '94 Rangers were an aberration. What needs to go right for the Padres to win 85? How much time have you got? Chris Young needs to prove that last year's fade down the stretch was a fluke, and at least one of Shawn Estes, Chan Ho Park, or Woody Williams needs to provide league average production or better. The aging vets on offense need to stay healthy and reasonably productive. Khalil Greene needs to step up his offensive game a bit. And then - you know, I liked this question better before I'd really stopped to think about it. The biggest problem facing the Padres this year is that they didn't address their deficiencies in the starting rotation. I think for the Padres to succeed this year, their pitching needs to be better than it looks on paper, and not just by a little.

Jon: Park was doing well has a reliever in the World Baseball Classic - I don't know if that's a good sign or a bad one.

Rich: As long as the Padres aren't footing the bill this year, it seems to me that Park is more likely to surprise to the upside than the downside, especially as a middle reliever. I also think Young has some upside, if for no other reason than going from a hitter's park in Texas to a pitcher's park in San Diego.

Bryan: Peavy and Young at the top of the rotation. Williams and Estes in the middle. Let's just hope that Dewon Brazelton isn't the fifth starter. But does any team in the division have a quality fifth starter?

Jon: If you ignore the fact that Brett Tomko is a questionable No. 4, I think the Dodgers have potential in the back of the rotation with Jae Seo and, perhaps later this season, Chad Billingsley. With Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, Odalis Perez, the Dodgers make a mockery of the whole No. 1 - No. 5 designations. Every day is No. 3 or No. 4 day!

Rich: Yeah, I don't understand why Tomko has been handed a spot in the rotation and Seo has to beat back D.J. Houlton and Scott Erickson Aaron Sele. Jon, tell me, it's not true: Sele is not going to break camp with the Dodgers -- or is he?

Jon: Not in the rotation, because Seo held his own in the increasingly respected (at least outside of Dodgertown) WBC. But the last spots in the Dodger bullpen are up in the air. The Dodgers would probably prefer Sele go to Las Vegas, but he might ask for his release rather than face the slot machine bats down there. Geoff - maybe San Diego would like to trade Brian Giles for him???

Geoff: Hmmm, Sele was pretty good in 1998, which seems to be the theme of the current Padres rotation. As for Park in the bullpen, why not? If that happens, I'd expect Clay Hensley rather than Brazelton to get the #5 spot. Or Andy Benes. Or Tim Lollar.

Rich: Nomar Garciaparra was pretty good back then, too. In fact, Ned Colletti and Grady Little have put together a Dodgers team that is a cross dresser between the Red Sox and Giants of old.

Jon: Yeah, what are you gonna do? It's also got a lineup that's about as vulnerable to injury as last year's was. But this Dodger team should take at least a small step forward - it starts the season without the holes of Jose Valentin and Scott Erickson, and with a more mature group of prospects to back everyone up. Still, the Dodgers' fortunes may depend most on whether Lowe, Penny and Perez can be more effective.

Bryan: And, certainly, how much they can get out of their veterans. This team is extraordinarily dependent upon veterans like Garciaparra, Jeff Kent, Bill Mueller, Kenny Lofton and (his body older than his actual age) J.D. Drew. In my eyes the Dodgers chances are as dependent upon (trainer) Stan Johnston as anyone else.

Rich: True. In the investment world, we would tab the Dodgers as a "high beta" team. If things go awry, I wouldn't be surprised if LA only won 70-75 games. Conversely, if everything goes as planned, LA could win 85-90 games. I know you could drive a couple of big trucks through that range, but it suggests to me that the Dodgers are perhaps the most difficult team in the league to gauge.

Jon: Amen to that. Last year, I went out on the short, sturdy limb that the Dodgers would win between 80 and 100 games - and I still crashed.

Rich: Some folks got hurt (so to speak) more than others. Mixing trees and walls here, do you think Humpty Dumpty has been put back together again?

Bryan: My vote is that in this division, the answer is yes. As dependent as this team is on health, there are a lot of pieces for a winning ballclub. I think the Rafael Furcal acquisition, if a few too million per year, is going to be fantastic. With a little help from the farm system, a la Jeff Francoeur, I see little reason the Dodgers can't be the Braves of 2006.

Rich: We'll see, Bryan. I know Little and Cox are buddies, but who's going to impersonate Schuerholz and Mazzone? Oh well, let's talk about that other team in the West with all those rookies. The Diamondbacks. Are their youngsters ready for prime time yet?

Bryan: Yes (Stephen Drew), yes (Conor Jackson), and yes (Carlos Quentin). Unfortunately, the team didn't open up a spot for Quentin, who will return to Tucson and destroy more PCL pitching. Not trading Shawn Green while his stock is high is weird to me. Anyway, I really like this offense, but am pretty worried about the defense besides Orlando Hudson. If Tony Clark ever plays first when Brandon Webb is on the mound, Webb's fantasy owners will be left depressed.

Geoff: I like a lot of the young position players Arizona has assembled but as with the Padres, I wonder about the rotation. Beyond Webb I'm not seeing a whole lot unless Russ Ortiz somehow rebounds.

Jon: I've gone wrong a good part of the past several years underestimating Arizona, so I'm loath to belittle them when they've got prospects percolating. I'll also question their starting rotation - as well as their overall home run power - but they've got enough of an X factor that I can't count them out.

Rich: To the extent that anyone likes Arizona, I believe they are either premature in their thinking or guilty of looking at the D-Backs with their heart. This is not a very good ball club right now. Heck, they weren't a very good team last year. They just happened to outplay their Pythagorean record by 12 games. I mean, these guys gave up 853 runs last year. Only the Rockies and Reds allowed more. In fact, Arizona was more than a half a run behind the 13th-worst team in run prevention. And what do they do? Replace Javier Vazquez with Orlando Hernandez? I'm sorry guys but even in as weak a division as the NL West, I don't see where the Diamondbacks stand a chance--at least not this year.

Geoff: Put me in the "not going to underestimate them again" camp with Jon. Yes, the team has a lot of holes, but they had those holes last season and finished second in the division. And I'm pretty sure, Rich, that I would have been at the front of the "I don't see where they stand a chance" line this time last year. Fool me once...

Bryan: It's hard for me to not think the Diamondbacks pitching staff will not improve this year. Yes, they lost Javier Vazquez, but he had a down year in the desert anyway. It's quite possible that Dustin Nippert could jump in the rotation and provide equal or improved production. Factor in a better season from Brad Halsey, a better than 6.89 ERA from Russ Ortiz and more of the same for Brandon Webb, and it isn't quite so horrendous. Still, it also isn't enough to win this division.

Rich: OK, I guess I'm the bear in this group with respect to the Diamondbacks. One other point, they traded Troy Glaus and certainly aren't going to get the same level of production out of Tony Clark (.304/.355/.636) they got last year. Who's going to take up the slack? Eric Byrnes? Jeff Davanon?

Geoff: Well, they've upgraded at catcher and second base, and I think if Jackson and Drew get material time, they could help fill the gap left by the departure of Glaus. I also don't believe Chad Tracy's season was a fluke. Not that any of this guarantees success for Arizona, just that in March, it's too soon to count them out just yet. On the other hand, there is still the matter of pitching. Which I guess brings us to the Giants.

Jon: Guess so. And in contrast to the Diamondbacks, I think the Giants have some starting pitching potential, led by Jason Schmidt, Matt Cain and Noah Lowry, and I'll take Matt Morris as a No. 4 over the Dodgers' Tomko.

Bryan: It's a good rotation if, and only if, Jason Schmidt is healthy and himself, neither of which he was last year. Lowry is as quiet an All-Star as there is on the West Coast, but he is no ace. Cain has all the potential in the world, but it's hard to imagine too much in 2006. Schmidt needs to eat innings and take on the best that other teams have to offer.

Jon: But with Barry Bonds unlikely to play maybe even 120 games and other aging players speckling the roster, don't you think there will be some low-scoring days at the park north of Candlestick?

Rich: As long as "guess" is the watchword here, I guess it depends on how many balls end up in the McCovey Cove. And only one player is capable of depositing home run balls into as many kayaks as -- dare I say his name? -- Barry Bonds.

Bryan: There is no question that Bonds is going to have to bear a lot this season in the way of heckling, and if history repeats itself, even threats. There are two directions he could go -- proving everyone wrong, or folding under the pressure.

Geoff: Assuming Bonds is able to do anything this year, has there ever been an older starting outfield in baseball? The biggest offensive threats on this club will be 40+ by the end of the season. Honestly, I have a tough time gauging the Giants. Schmidt pitched last year like he was back in Pittsburgh. Morris is good for innings but he hasn't been much better than league average in a few years. Seems to me they need a lot go right to make an impact.

Rich: The Giants have a lot in common with the Dodgers. Both teams are pretty old. However, if healthy, Schmidt is better than any Dodger starter and Bonds is better than any Dodger regular. But those are two big IFs, let me tell you.

Geoff: Agreed on both points. So, no love for the Rockies?

Jon: Honestly, I'd like to see them do well. I'd like to see baseball thrive in that ballpark, in that state, in that time zone. I'd like not to think that baseball is being played somewhere you just can't win. But they just can't seem to get a collection of impact players going. The team isn't talentless, so if injury demons take out the division's other four teams, stranger things have happened than Cinderella wearing ski boots. But the bigger issue is that Colorado has just got to figure out how to get true quality players there - not phantoms.

Rich: And to think that Clint Hurdle is the manager with the second-longest tenure in the division! I doubt if Hurdle is to blame for Colorado's woes, but it's definitely unusual--especially nowadays--for a skipper to finish fourth three straight years, then last and still have a job. But here's what I find so interesting: the Rockies are 171-143 (.545) at home and 105-207 (.337) on the road under Hurdle. Until the Rockies find a way to win away from Coors Field, they will never 'mount to anything.

Bryan: It's interesting you point a finger at Hurdle, but Dan O'Dowd does not get a mention. Coors Field can make ordinary players look like stars, ordinary lineups look impressive. But the reality of the matter is this team hit .232/.299/.359 on the road last year, when we saw the real sides of Garrett Atkins, Matt Holliday, Cory Sullivan and Clint Barmes. It's odd that Hurdle has been here for four years, but far stranger that O'Dowd has lasted more than half-a-decade. Me thinks ownership has, like many fans in Denver, simply fallen asleep.

Geoff: Here's a depressing thought: The Rockies haven't finished higher than fourth in their division since 1997. Not even Kansas City or Pittsburgh can make that claim. I guess the real questions are whether it's even possible to win in Colorado and, if so, how one goes about doing it. Also, where is Marvin Freeman when you need him?

Rich: Well, the Rockies have proved they can win in Colorado. The problem is that they have never shown an ability to win on the road. Todd Helton and Matt Holliday tied for the club lead in home runs on the road with SEVEN. The bottom line is that the Rockies lack talent more than anything else. There appears to be some hope down the road in the form of Ian Stewart and Troy Tulowitzki but neither is likely to make their debuts until 2007.

Geoff: Yeah, those are some bad splits. One thing I've long suspected (without any proof) is that a secondary effect of the Rockies' extreme home environment is that it hurts them when they leave Coors Field because they are constantly having to adjust to different conditions. I wonder, regardless of talent level, to what degree it's even possible to field a consistently winning club that plays half of its games in an extreme environment and the other half in places where it's trying to adapt to more "normal" conditions. My complete space cowboy theory is that they should play in a pressurized dome in Colorado, which unfortunately negates many of the benefits of having a team in such a beautiful location. Honestly, I think that has got to be the most challenging place to try and build a competitive ballclub.

Rich: I agree. I think Denver should stick to football.

Jon: I'm not ready to give up on the Rockies forever. I still think it's mainly a talent problem. How many true stars have come through there in the past few years? Todd Helton and ... (gulp) Mike Hampton? If the Rockies can learn not to get fooled by mountain mirages and actually put together some good people, they might win some games, home and away. Tampa Bay had a home/road split in winning percentage of .160 last year (.493/.333) - not much less than Colorado's - but no one argues that the Devil Rays' playing environment is unwinnable. I'm not convinced a team loses two out of three on the road because of air pressure. I think it's more likely because they aren't that good anywhere.

Of course, for this year, what's done is done. These are your Rockies, and they still face an uphill battle. And the best thing they've got going for them is that the hills of the NL West won't be as high as they are in other divisions.

Bryan: It's more than an uphill battle against a short hill, Jon. This Rockies team has NO chance of success given their starting rotation, much less inadequacies in their lineup. I love Jeff Francis as much as the next guy, but he may not be the breed of pitcher to succeed in Denver. I'm not really sure what that breed is, however. I've always liked the idea of the Rockies using only relievers. Look for another season with Colorado towards the bottom of the MLB in ERA.

Jon: So, predictions? I'll go with the Dodgers in a rough-and-tumble rumble.

Bryan: Jon, I know it's a bad division, but you forgot to mention the other 4 teams! Who do you have in slots 2-5? Personally, I like the Dodgers, too, and see them modestly chased by San Diego and San Fran. Give Arizona a year off to get some pitching, and give Colorado five to leave town.

Jon: I was trying to avoid having to be more specific. With no conviction, I'll say San Francisco, Arizona, San Diego and then Colorado behind Los Angeles.

Rich: Gosh, Jon, I was hoping we wouldn't even have to pick our favorite to win the division, much less rank all five teams. I believe it is a three-horse race among the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres. If everyone is relatively healthy, then I like the Giants. But I don't say that with a lot of conviction either. I feel better about qualifying my prediction to add that whichever one of these three teams has the fewest number of days - or the lowest amount of payroll dollars - on the DL will take the division. How's that?

Jon: I think that's great, but Bryan is going to disown you!

Rich: I know, I know. OK, I'll close my eyes and go with the Giants, Dodgers, Padres, Diamondbacks, and Rockies.

Geoff: Much as I hate to admit it, I think that - if healthy - the Dodgers are the team to beat, followed by the Padres, Giants, Diamondbacks, and Rockies. I could see Colorado finishing ahead of Arizona. I'm crazy that way.

Baseball Beat/WTNYMarch 17, 2006
Another Casual Friday
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

With just about two weeks left until the 2006 season begins, the middle of March is normally a time to start counting down the days to opening day (while filling out and monitoring your NCAA brackets). In the meantime, the World Baseball Classic will divert and capture the attention of baseball fans for the next several days.

We were both fortunate to see baseball games this past week, one of us basking in the Arizona sun with the other performing his patriotic duty, rooting for the good ol' US of A. With the Major League season just a hop, skip and a jump away, here are a few notes to lead us into the weekend...

Rich: A couple of months ago, I made a decision to purchase a strip of tickets to the WBC games in Anaheim. After attending games on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, I have no regrets. Well, I regret the fact that the U.S. team lost two of three games and failed to advance to the semis in San Diego, but I'm glad I was there.

Bryan: Boy Rich, I'm jealous that you got to see competitive baseball.

Rich: I'm not sure how much I saw, Bryan. The people in front of me spent more time standing and waving American and Mexican flags than watching the games. It kinda felt as if I went to the zoo and a baseball game broke out, to be honest.

Bryan: I can't really complain...

Rich: You're not allowed to complain. Just me.

Bryan: As I was saying, the Angels entered the ninth inning today with Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick and Kendry Morales due up. A prospect fan's dream. I'll have the full report next week, but I will say that the Angels' opponents, the Cubs, have been more of a nightmare lately. Mark Prior's injury comes as no surprise, and while his diagnosis isn't too frightening, for once the Cubs need starting pitching.

Glendon Rusch, Rich Hill and Jerome Williams entered Thursday with a 8.18 ERA. Fans will have faith in Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux, but the comfort ends there. With an offense that was going to be questionable no matter what, the Cubs pitching staff now has very little wiggle room. With each passing day, my win prediction for the 2006 Cubs seems to drop.

Rich: Mine wasn't very high to begin with so I'm not going to adjust anything. I've got the Cubs at about .500. You know, the same as Team USA. Do you realize the Americans were 3-3 and could have been 2-4, if not for that botched call at third base against Japan?

Bryan: Yeah, that's as surprising as the Koreans getting through the first two rounds undefeated. Good for them. Good for baseball.

As far as spring training goes, if you are curious about how your favorite prospect has played this spring, I would suggest this article at the official Minor League Baseball site. My first point is to stress that numbers are just small sample sizes this early on, and everything must be taken with a grain of salt. However, I also remember spring trainings of yesteryear, when players like Russ Martin and Prince Fielder (both mentioned in this article) raised a lot of eyebrows.

Brewer fans should rest assured that Fielder is generally a slow starter. He really improved as the AAA season went on last year. The Brewers should also be made aware of this, so that there are no temptations to use Corey Koskie and Bill Hall on the corners. Fielder is one of the four leading preseason candidates for the NL Rookie of the Year (an article that demands to be written later), and a bad Spring Training should hardly dillute such thoughts. Everyone of my fantasy teams will have Fielder and Brian McCann on the bench.

Rich: I'm not as high on Fielder as you are, Bryan. But I'm biased. I remember seeing him at P.F. Chang's in Newport Beach with his Dad when Cecil was playing for the Angels in 1998. Prince was a big boy back then. He was only 14. I don't know what it is, but I just have a hard time thinking of him as a bona fide Rookie of the Year candidate. Oh, I'm sure he will hit for power...I just don't know if the rest of his game will be strong enough to support anything less than 30 or 35 home runs per season.

Bryan: I also want to point out that Joey Devine is mentioned in this piece, growing in fame for striking out 14 batters in his first seven innings this March. The Braves' closer spot is one of the most watched positions in fantasy baseball, and Devine should probably start getting major attention in fantasy leagues. I thought Blaine Boyer would land the job originally, but it appears to be a matter of time before Devine is pitching in the ninth. This is, of course, a good time to mention that Blair Erickson and Mark Melancon -- college baseball's two best junior closers -- currently have 54 strikeouts in 44 innings.

Rich: If we're talking prospects, you best be tipping your hat in the direction of Evan Longoria. The rap on him last year was that he didn't walk much. Well, guess what? The MVP of the Cape Cod League has drawn 19 bases on balls in 90 plate appearances. He has a .527 on-base average. Oh, and Longoria has only struck out five times thus far. This guy is a surefire top ten pick. But he's a third baseman, not a shortstop.

Bryan: Speaking of college baseball, I'd like to point out an article by Dave Cameron at The Hardball Times. Cameron is really the first to enter a full report on the North Carolina duo's season, which has been absolutely fantastic. Daniel Bard has certainly passed Ian Kennedy in my rankings (Joba Chamberlain has, too), and is really competing with Max Scherzer for the second spot.

Andrew Miller, however, is by far the best player in this draft. This is another topic I will have more on soon, but Cameron details the heavy two-seam fastball that Miller has perfected, resulting in pretty ridiculous groundball rates. This draft has gained a lot of criticism for not having that one, great player, but my vote is for such talk to stop. Miller is an injury risk, I know, but he would be one of the top ten pitching prospects in baseball right now. Simply put, the Kansas City Royals must, must, must draft and sign the Tar Heel southpaw.

While we are on the topic of the draft, let me point out the fact that Matt Antonelli hit his seventh home run of the season this week. In 72 at-bats, the Wake Forest third baseman has 24 hits, 48 total bases, 17 walks and seven steals. He's a freak athletically, a former high school player of the year in football and hockey (ironically not baseball). He is a good third baseman, but probably has the ability to move to centerfield and possibly even second base. Antonelli made the 20 spot in my Sports Illustrated preview article, but his stock is way up since then. In a draft extremely thin on position players, I would be shocked to see Antonelli not drafted in the top 30.

Rich: Well, Bryan, I see where I am 12-4 in my college hoops pool. And the good news is that all of my Sweet Sixteen teams will be playing this weekend. That's a lot more than what Team USA can say.

Baseball Beat/WTNYMarch 08, 2006
Two on Two: 2006 NL Central Preview
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

Today we return to our 2006 previews, staying in the midwest. In our first installment of this feature, Aaron Gleeman and Cheat helped us preview the AL Central. Here to duke it out with Rich and Bryan are two very talented writers, Larry Borowsky from Viva El Birdos (a Cardinals blog) and John Hill via the Cub Reporter. Enjoy the latest segment...

Bryan: The NL Central has been, outside the AL East, the most predictable division in baseball for five years. In fact, only once has the top two not included St. Louis and Houston. The trend looks to be coming to an end, no?

Larry: I think the Cardinals are still pretty certain to hold one of those top 2 slots, but not so certain they'll hold the top slot. The Brewers look ready to challenge for a division title or wild card, and the Cubs' luck is bound to turn one of these years; if they can keep Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano healthy for 60 starts (and that's a big if, I realize) they could easily finish 1st or 2nd. I wouldn't expect Houston to win the division outright, but if Roger Clemens returns -- as Peter Gammons reports he will -- I don't see why they couldn't win 90 games and another wild card.

John: This time last year, most were completely writing off the Houston Astros, and that didn't stop them making it to the World Series for the first time in their history. So excuse me if I'm a little hesitant to be quite so bullish about any anticipated demise on the part of the Cubs' biggest rivals! That said, it does certainly appear that both the Cardinals and Astros will be weaker this year, and that consequently the division will be a lot more open. At the very least, I don't think the Cardinals will have run away with things again by the end of the May.

Rich: The Cardinals are clearly the class of the division. It's theirs to lose. The Astros, Brewers, and Cubs (that's alpha order and how they finished last year) have an outside shot at first place if everything goes right and the Cards slip for whatever reason.

Larry: The pitching staffs of the top four teams are pretty close. All four teams have strong 1-2 starters: Oswalt/Pettitte, Carpenter/Mulder, Zambrano/Prior, Sheets/Davis.

Bryan: Yes, other than the Reds, I think it's a division of pitching. The Cubs, Brewers and Astros all have offensive problems, but everyone has a deep staff.

Larry: I think the Brewers' offense may be pretty good. I was just looking their lineup over -- if Prince Fielder hits, there's not a weak link in the lineup.

John: In the long-term, there's little doubt about it, Fielder and Rickie Weeks will hit, and both will be tremendous assets to the organization. But the jump from the minor leagues to the major leagues is a hard enough one to make as it is even without taking into account that young players that strike out quite a bit seem to take the longest to acclimate to facing more advanced pitching. As a result, I personally wouldn't be surprised to see Fielder and Weeks find the going tough at first, to see them not contribute much. As for the rest of the lineup, it doesn't feature any weak links, but I don't think it features many particularly strong ones either. This year at least, I think it's likely to not be much better than an average offense, one that will keep them in games but that won't go out and win them outright.

Bryan: Well, as someone who follows prospects, the Brewers are a dream. I say offensive problems, but that's a stretch, what I mean is potential offensive problems. If they hit on all cylinders, this team will bash with the best of 'em.

Larry: I agree with you, Bryan. The Brewers have the best leadoff man in the division (Brady Clark) and they have good on-base ability throughout the lineup. I think Weeks is going to hit, and Carlos Lee and Geoff Jenkins are pretty established middle-of-the-order hitters. Not all-stars, but very productive. One caveat in regards to Fielder: 2 walks, 17 Ks in his September trial last year. If he falters, however, they can put Bill Hall in at third and play Corey Koskie at first.

Rich: Yikes. Hall hit well last year, but I'd be surprised if he put up those same numbers this year. Koskie is passable as a third baseman but would be a huge liability offensively as a first baseman.

Bryan: Well, Fielder is the one guy you don't have to worry about. He might start slow, he does so historically, but he is totally ready for the Majors. I worry more about Koskie, Damian Miller, and Clark bringing the rest down.

Larry: What's impressive about the Brewers is that they can just plug in Corey Hart if one of their outfielders goes down or plays badly. Does anybody think the Brewers might actually trade Carlos Lee in a midseason salary dump? They're almost sure to be in the wild-card race come July. But the rumors have flown about Lee being moved.

Bryan: No, they might as well take the draft pick at season's end, unless Hart's OPS at AAA is over 1.000 or something. But really, the reason to like the Brewers isn't the young, high ceiling offense but the deep, deep, deep rotation. Mike Maddux for divisional MVP?

John: There's no doubting Mike Maddux is one of the better pitching coaches in the game, but the most valuable person in the division? That's far too big a statement for me. I mean, come on, Albert Pujols?

Bryan: Yeah, I exaggerate, but his value has been well-proven with the improvements of Chris Capuano, Doug Davis, and many more. We really need J.C. Bradbury to do a Mike Maddux Effect.

John: Is their rotation really that deep? I don't think it is, yet it may well need to be. Their fourth starter is currently Tomo Ohka, and they have Dave Bush, Dana Eveland and Rick Helling battling it out for the final spot. I don't see much to get excited about there and the Brewers are only an injury to Ben Sheets away from having three of those four pitchers in their rotation behind Davis and Capuano. That's a cynical way of looking at things, certainly, but is Ben Sheets that much greater an injury risk than some of the Cub pitchers we'll surely come to speak of later in this discussion?

Rich: The Brewers will only go as far as Sheets takes them.

John: Few pitchers are paragons of good health, it's part of the job description, but over the last eighteen months alone, Sheets has suffered a torn muscle in his upper back related to the shoulder and undergone surgery to repair a herniated disk in his lower back, plus that odd inner-ear infection. If he's not careful he'll get a somewhat undeserved reputation for being injury prone before too long.

Larry: Before we leave the Brew Crew, they meet a lot of Bill James' "leading indicators" of successful teams. One, they have a young everyday lineup. Two, they underperformed their Pythagorean W-L last year by three games, meaning they may be due for a bit of luck this year. And three, they scored fewer runs than would be predicted by the Runs Created formula, which again suggests they might have been a tad unlucky last season and due for a bounce. They won 81 last season; it's not that hard to see them at 90 in 2006.

Bryan: I'll admit, they are my pick to win the division. I like David Bush to break out a bit, Ben Sheets to stay healthy, and Carlos Lee could blossom into a star in his contract year. Milwaukee is looking up sans Selig.

John: I agree that things are looking up in Milwaukee, and that this ought to be the season that they finally get back above five hundred for the first time since 1992. I'm just wary that people are setting the bar too high too soon, and expecting the youngsters to carry them to a division title is I think out of the question, at least this year. For them to do it, literally everything would need to break their way.

Rich: I'm not looking for the Brewers to win the division, but I think they will challenge for the wild card.

Larry: If they do win, then maybe Mike Maddux IS the division MVP, but Pujols will not give it up without a fight. The man has a force of will (as we saw in the 9th inning of Game 5 of the NLCS) and it elevates the whole team's play. That said, the Cardinals are clearly vulnerable. The Brewers have a clean shot at them, but if the Cubs can get 60 starts from Prior and Zambrano -- and if Dusty Baker stops doing those things -- they could be troublesome, too.

John: On the face of things, I think the Cardinals have taken a pretty big step backwards this year. The return of Scott Rolen, perhaps to his best form, perhaps not, could give them three big bats in the lineup, one of them in my opinion the best player in the game. But beyond those three, the other being the aging Jim Edmonds, the supporting cast has really thinned out. Larry Bigbie, John Rodriguez, Juan Encarnacion, Junior Spivey - any other team and I'd feel sorry for them. Fact of the matter is that the only people that lineup's scaring now are Cardinal fans. What a far cry from just two years ago.

Rich: Well, we're all aging, John. At 35, Edmonds is still the best center fielder in the division. Granted, the Cardinals missed an opportunity to better themselves during the off-season, but we need to remember that they are working with a pretty big margin for error here.

Larry: If the pitchers perform, I think the Cardinals will still be right there, despite the weakened lineup. But Jeff Suppan has overachieved the last couple of seasons, and who knows if Mark Mulder is any good anymore. I wrote him off last June and he proved me wrong. He's pitching for a new contract; maybe that will motivate him.

John: I think it's pretty evident that the Cardinals made a big mistake in pulling the trigger on the Mark Mulder trade. Danny Haren is arguably already the better of the two, and that's not even considering the difference in salary, or the fact that the Cardinals also sent Daric Barton and Kiko Calero to Oakland.

Larry: It obviously hasn't worked out. I won't fault Jocketty for pulling the trigger -- he thought Mulder was the guy who could put the Cards over the top. He paid a high price to get him, rolled the dice and crapped out. But at least he played to win. I will allow him that.

Bryan: The Mulder trade represents a weakness in the La Russa/Jocketty-run front office, as they tend to devalue top-heavy pitching prospects. Here's to hoping Anthony Reyes doesn't face the same curse.

John: I could understand underutilizing Reyes if the Cardinals didn't have an obvious vacancy in the rotation, but the fact of the matter is that they do. Suppan is at best a league average pitcher, I don't think much more of Jason Marquis, and I think a lot less of Sidney Ponson, though it was a low risk gamble. Sending Reyes to the bullpen or back to the minor leagues sends the wrong message, and it might even cost the Cardinals a few games too.

Larry: The one player who might give the Cards a real shot in the arm, Reyes appears ticketed for long relief. Marquis and Ponson are both question marks. There are no disasters-in-waiting on the staff, but it may not be a league-leader in ERA in 2006.

John: Wait, you're saying Sidney Ponson isn't a disaster in waiting? I can't agree with that, not unless you already think he's a disaster.

Larry: I think Ponson will simply eat innings and have a 4.50 ERA, which is only slightly worse than what Marquis and Morris did last year.

John: Well, Ponson is good at eating, they might as well put that to good use and feed him innings.

Bryan: Ponson is a good value signing, but it's just that. There's no risk to give him ten starts and see what happens, but Jocketty needs to make sure La Russa can get away from him if need be.

Larry: Obviously Ponson isn't the difference between success and failure in the postseason. At best, he'll provide the depth the Cardinals need to acquire a bat at midseason.

Rich: I don't see Ponson bringing a bat this summer. Either he pitches well and the Cards keep him or he bombs and has next to no trade value.

Bryan: My concern isn't really the rotation, which has enough depth to survive. The problem of the staff, I think, is the bullpen.

Larry: I think the middle relief will shape up. Either Reyes or Ponson will be there to provide bulk innings, and Brad Thompson can handle the 6th/7th; Duncan should be able to turn at least one of Adam Wainwright, Josh Hancock, Brad Voyles, etc. into a useful middle reliever. But the 8th and 9th innings won't be boring. La Russa will have to play matchups to the hilt, shielding Braden Looper (and Jeff Nelson, if he makes the team) from left-handed hitters and Ricardo Rincon and Flores from righties. Jason Isringhausen may be asked to get more 4-out saves this year, and he wasn't exactly unhittable in 2005. One weak link in that chain could cost the team a few games -- and in a tight race, that could be a big problem.

Bryan: Alright, let's talk a bit about the offense. Larry mentioned Rolen, and to me, he's the key. His health could be the x-factor of the division. Without him, who's the 3rd-best hitter, Encarnacion?

Larry: If he's healthy, then Encarnacion is safely stowed in a supporting role. If Rolen gets hurt or is not sound enough to be Scott Rolen, then there's nobody on the roster to pick up the slack.

Rich: There really wasn't anybody to pick up the slack last year, yet the team won 100 games.

Larry: It's going to be a 760-run offense at worst, as long as Pujols and Edmonds can play. And 760 runs will put them in the upper half of the league. If Rolen's good to go, then it's probably a 780- to 790-run offense, which puts them in the top 3 or 4. It's not as scary as it used to be, but don't forget they scored 805 without Rolen last year.

Rich: Exactly.

Bryan: Yes, the offense certainly has an advantage over the Cubs. Edmonds is that big difference-maker. The infields are pretty much the same offensively, but the Cubs abysmal outfield can't touch the Cards average one. That will be one difference maker between those rivals, before even talking about health.

Larry: And I would expect the Cardinals to acquire an outfield bat at some point. Luis Gonzalez will be available; Kevin Mench can be had.

Bryan: Yes, and Jim Hendry might be too stubborn to do so. Matt Murton and Jacque Jones will be really average, and Juan Pierre will be, well, Pierre. He won't see reason to make a trade, and will thus give that bat to the Cards.

Rich: Cubs fans would be better off counting crows than hits for Mr. Jones this coming year, especially those vs. LHP.

Bryan: It's a problem of roster construction that gives St. Louis the edge.

John: Strangely, I just can't bring myself to predict anything less than ninety wins for the Cardinals this year. I don't much like their offense, and I don't much like their pitching staff. But if there's a team in baseball not called the Braves that manages to always find a way, it's the Cardinals. If I wasn't quite so cold-blooded I could probably find a way myself to actually appreciate that about them. As it happens, I'm reptilian about it and really can't.

Larry: Well, let's talk about the Cubs. I always think they're gonna give the Cards a go and then health and Dusty Baker make me look like a fool. Will this year be different?

John: No. So, anyone got any thoughts about the Reds this year?

Bryan: Yeah, the key for Cub fans is always to downplay expectations, right?

John: Expectations, what are they again?

Bryan: I think the Cubs are merely a .500 team, and constructed just like that. The bullpen is solid, but there isn't a lot of room for it to be great. The rotation can be, but there is such little certainty in it. And, finally, the lineup doesn't invoke a lot of hope.

Larry: Couldn't Pierre have a .370 OBP playing in Wrigley?

John: Juan Pierre isn't going to be a problem for the Cubs this year. I have little doubt he's going to hit a lot of singles, he's going to steal a lot of bases, and he's going to get caught while he's at it plenty of times, too. He's going to catch balls in center field that his poor reads and routes give him no right to get to, and his arm is going to be of less use than a balsa wood battering ram. But he won't be a problem. The center field position will be filled, and on the whole, adequately so. Juan Pierre, for me, actually sums up the current state of the Cubs very well: on the whole just adequate and overly expensive.

Bryan: John, I'm really curious what your thoughts are about this pitching staff. Is there any chance for a full bill of health? I doubt it.

John: There's no chance of a full bill of health, but that's the same with almost every pitching staff. Injury is a part of the game, particularly on the pitching side of things.

Rich: Dusty rode his Big Three hard down the stretch in 2003. He may have ruined Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Well, maybe not ruined them. But we'll never know just how good Wood and Prior might have been had they been handled properly.

John: All the same, the situation with the Cubs these last few years has been farcical - besides Chad Fox, who hardly counts, and Mike Remlinger, I honestly can't remember the last time the Cubs suffered an injury to a pitcher who wasn't absolutely crucial to the team's success at the time (a quick check says Todd Wellemeyer spent nearly two months on the DL in early 2004). At some stage, surely, the Cubs will be able to get a fully-functional Zambrano, Prior and Wood on the mound at the same time, and instead it'll be John Koronka maybe that's taken out by an unfortunate line drive. But until that happens, though the Cubs have better pitching depth this year, easily the best in the division, the Cubs aren't going to win anything. The depth is great, but this offense needs a staff strong enough to pick it up, put it on its back and literally carry it. That means all three of our aces really need to be out there.

Larry: As a baseball fan, I would like to see what those guys could do in a full season. The signs from spring training aren't all that encouraging regarding Prior, and the latest I've heard is that Wood won't be back until May 1 at the earliest. In all honesty, I hope Chicago's pitchers are healthy. It'll make for a very exciting division.

Bryan: Confidence in Kerry, for most Chicagoans, has eroded. Something is mechanically wrong, and like Corey Patterson, I have a feeling he's too stubborn to fix it. Mark Prior has a chance at a full bill of health, but unless something dramatic changes, I don't think Kerry Wood does.

Rich: Listening to Steve Stone while watching Wood pitch was a can't miss for me. Maybe Stone and Baker should have switched places all these years?

Bryan: Don't tell the Cubs that, Rich, you'll have to start dodging punches. If Dusty Baker's one strength is motivation -- though I'm not sure it is -- the thought behind Stone is that quality would be his weakness.

Larry: Do the Cubs have lineup problems or simply a Dusty problem? They finished second in the league in slugging last year but were about 10th in OBP -- and not for lack of decent on-base skills on the roster. Does Hendry recognize this problem at all? And do you guys think anything can be done to change it, short of firing Dusty?

Bryan: For Dusty Baker to succeed, a General Manager needs to set him up not to fail. Jim Hendry hasn't, putting people like Neifi Perez on a team, giving him a chance to play. The team will have better OBP this year, but they are a few injuries from falling on their face. Murton and Ronny Cedeno will help, Pierre should provide a big lift, but it is by no imagination a good offense.

John: If anything, it's not just a Dusty problem, but a Cubs problem. The organization doesn't seem to believe in the importance of on-base percentage, instead concentrating much more on contact skills, power potential and the ability to catch the ball.

Larry: I've heard they are pursuing Tony Graffanino to play 2B. Would that provide any encouragement?

Bryan: It doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Graffanino would simply be piling on top of Todd Walker and Jerry Hairston. It would really be odd if the Reds and Cubs entered the year with six combined capable (though that's a strong word for Tony Womack) second basemen.

John: Not at all, because the majority of Cub fans as I can see are at the very least satisfied with Todd Walker, who, while not great defensively and prone to saying a few stupid things, has a very solid bat for a second baseman.

Larry: But Dusty doesn't like him. Or doesn't seem to.

Bryan: I mentioned the Reds 2B problem, guys, and it's really just a bit in a damning resume that led to Dan O'Brien's firing. Before he left, he finally fixed the OF/1B logjam by acquiring mediocre pitcher Dave Williams, adding to the mediocrity and filth that makes up the pitching staff.

Rich: I'm not so sure O'Brien fixed that logjam. Cincy still has four outfielders plus it looks as if Scott Hatteberg might start at first base.

Bryan: Any reason for optimism in Cincy?

Larry: Not for a while. They do have some of the most interesting young players in the division. Felipe Lopez looks good, ditto Edwin Encarnacion. Looks like Wily Mo Pena will be a good roto player if not necessarily a good real-life hitter.

Rich: I'm not high on Pena at all. He struck out 224 times while accumulating 42 walks in approximately 700 plate appearances the past two years. PECOTA can fawn all over him as it wants, but I think he is overrated and unlikely to become a star player.

John: I'm not entirely sure Felipe Lopez' bat is for real, given his historical propensity to strike out and he's also a butcher of a shortstop.

Bryan: If ever there was a team that should be willing to sacrifice some defense for some above-average offense, it's the Reds. As a hitter, it seems Lopez, Jorge Cantu and Jhonny Peralta all broke through last year and enter the year with a lot of doubts, despite solid (if stagnated) minor league records. He's a good offensive player that probably won't get better than he was last year.

Larry: Their players draw a lot of interest. Austin Kearns, Pena, Lopez, and Adam Dunn are all pretty coveted. And Dunn's contract is considered to be highly moveable. So perhaps there's an opportunity to restructure the talent on that team.

John: The changes for the Reds have to come first via the farm system, and the outlook on that front isn't particularly bright at all. Trading away Adam Dunn isn't likely to be a profitable move for them.

Larry: Anybody think they can move Ken Griffey Jr.?

John: If there's even a chance of it, the Reds ought to be all over it. He's expensive, awful defensively, and it's only a matter of time, surely, before he gets injured again.

Bryan: Yes, but I'm not sure the return will be worth it. Kearns needs to come out of the gate hot, and then Krivsky can trade him and insert Chris Denorfia into the outfield.

Larry: Bryan, what do you think of Homer Bailey?

Bryan: For the Reds to be successful, the changes need to come from the farm system, like Bailey. This team needs to find a way to keep young pitchers healthy, and maximize their potential. It has been awhile since they've done that. Bailey's arm is fantastic, but this organization needs to change its methodology before I'm a full-fledged believer.

Larry: They do have a new owner who has ties to the Cardinal organization. If nothing else, I think a change in philosophy is in the offing in Cincinnati. Whether or not they will execute remains to be seen, but I would expect a new process of decision-making at the very least.

Bryan: The Reds are, like a lot of teams in baseball, simply a few years away. That's really the easy way to conclude, right?

John: Do you think enough of the Reds' system to say that they're only a few years away, Bryan? Or, do you have faith in their new GM to maintain a strong lineup while simultaneously finding all the pitching, and that's essentially about nine or ten members of that staff, that they need?

Bryan: Well, I'm stretching the word "few," John. It's a weak system, and a creative GM will need to work a lot of magic to fix this team.

Larry: With the wild card, one only needs to cobble together 88 wins to make the playoffs. And that can be done with a couple of decent trades, one free-agent pickup, and an unexpected year from one prospect. I could easily see them being competitive again by 2009 -- why not?

Bryan: After seeing what Doug Melvin has done in Milwaukee, I'll believe anything.

Rich: Oh, the Reds can be turned around. But it won't happen overnight, and it won't be easy. It's gonna take time and patience. Unfortunately, most of the talent at the big-league level is at the wrong end of the defensive spectrum, the pitching staff could be the worst in baseball, and the minor-league system is bereft of talent.

Bryan: The Pirates are another team a few years away, but seem to be the opposite of the Reds. There is a lot of hope in a young pitching staff that showed promise in 2005, but the offensive foundation isn't there. Your takes on the Bucs?

John: Put it this way, I'd rather be the Pirates than the Reds right now.

Larry: Why are they throwing money at Jeromy Burnitz and Roberto Hernandez and Sean Casey?

Bryan: You beat me to that question, Larry. I mean, did Dave Littlefield and Allard Baird come up with winter plans together? Spending money on overrated veterans is a sorry game.

John: That's not really a fair comparison. The Pirates are in a much more favorable situation relative to the Royals. On the pitching side of things there's a lot of promise, with Oliver Perez, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, and Sean Burnett. At some stage they're going to need to create an offense for these guys, and it's tough to put one together overnight. They should really start making preparations now.

Larry: Which is why the Casey and Burnitz signings were so mystifying. They need to find out of Brad Eldred can play.

Rich: I already know the answer. Eldred can't play. At least not at the major-league level. He'd make a good slow-pitch softball hitter, but that's about it.

Larry: And they need to create a trade market for Craig Wilson, or else stick him in left and take the .850 OPS. But he does them no good on the bench.

Bryan: Besides Jason Bay, there is no real lock on the club for a future division-winning ballclub starter. That puts this front office way behind the pack.

Larry: So why don't the Reds and Pirates get together? Send one or more of those young arms to the Reds in exchange for Kearns or Lopez or Encarnacion.

John: The Burnitz and Casey signings aren't particularly wise, but a pretense at respectability could potentially make it easier to attract the caliber of player they clearly need, as well as keep the fans around. As such, I don't think it's a completely misguided policy.

Bryan: Sort of the Detroit Tigers recent approach, John? I can see that, and it's one reason I so desperately hope Mark Cuban buys this team. It's a wonderful park, a baseball town.

John: Well, the Detroit Tigers took things to extremes: Magglio Ordonez, Troy Percival, Pudge Rodriguez. Those are expensive mistakes. The Pirates are being a lot more conservative, and that's the right way to go about things.

Bryan: Alright, that's fair. Let's talk about 2006, though. Is there any upside for 80-85 wins, or is this team just caught in the same boat they have found themselves in?

Larry: The division is too tough. They've got 70 games against St Louis, Chicago, Houston, and Milwaukee.

John: There's no upside for 2006 for the Pirates as far as I'm concerned. This is a two-tier division now.

Bryan: Yes, I don't see it either. But let me ask one final question, so Pirates fans don't hate me. Jason Bay. Is he the new Brian Giles, which is the most underrated player in baseball?

Larry: Bay is a great, great player. The Todd Helton of the NL Central. Put him in Coors, he'd post similar numbers, I think.

John: I can see that. Still, I think last season may wind up being the best that Jason Bay ever has.

Bryan: I guess we can just hope the Pirates don't give him a Todd Helton-esque contract and hang themselves.

Rich: Bay is underrated in the sense that he was 12th in the MVP voting last year when, in fact, a strong argument could be made that he deserved to finish in the top five. What's not to like? He played every game, hit over .300 with almost 100 BB while going yard 32 times and stealing 21 bases in 22 attempts.

Bryan: While Bay is just running into his prime, a former NL Central superstar, Jeff Bagwell, is running away from it. A lot of people seem to put stake in Bagwell's health as a reason for Houston winning or not winning a lot of games. I don't see it. I see Roger Clemens as that X-factor. Thoughts?

John: Right now the difference between Jeff Bagwell and a replacement player is next to nothing, so no, in terms of wins, I don't see it either.

Larry: They don't need Bagwell. Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio and Morgan Ensberg provide enough of an offensive core to support that pitching staff. Clemens will probably be back, and Houston will probably contend. Berkman's health is more of a factor, I think. Once he returned to the lineup last year, they scored pretty well.

John: Right, the Astros just don't need Bagwell, but mainly because he isn't particularly good any more, and he's extremely expensive. They do need more offense, though.

Bryan: Berkman's injury was a freak one, so he should be fine. My worry, if I liked Houston, would be when Craig Biggio and Andy Pettitte might start to decline. It has to be soon, right?

Larry: Pettitte looked better than ever last year. I think he could pitch at a high level for a few more years. And Biggio is a young 40. He's not an all-star, but as a 2B he still merits a starting job.

John: Last year will end up being the best year Andy Pettitte ever has, mark my words. Neither the numbers nor the stuff is there to support that kind of performance from him.

Rich: I disagree with you on both fronts, John. Pettitte has excellent stuff and his numbers stacked right up there with the best, especially once you adjust for the fact that he is a lefty working in a ballpark that is highly favorable to right-handed batters.

Larry: Do you guys think Pettitte still be good enough to form the corps of a contending staff for the next few years? That seems a pretty safe bet to me.

Bryan: I don't think so. I wrote off this signing when they made it, and I'll retract that statement (after having lost a bet to Rich, I should mention). But remember, this is a guy who used to be injured a lot, and if he goes on the DL, and Roy Oswalt does too, this team is not very good.

Rich: ...if, if hooray!

Larry: There was a lot of smoke regarding a Jose Contreras to Houston deal. That would be a very significant acquisition if it happened. And Contreras is bound to be dealt somewhere, isn't he?

Bryan: I could see it happening quickly if Clemens decides against returning, or going to Texas.

John: Oh my, what a phenomenal rotation they would have with Clemens, Oswalt, Pettitte, Contreras and Brandon Backe, whom I like more than most.

Larry: Backe sure kills the Cardinals. Especially in October.

Bryan: It seems as if you both seem to like the Astros more than I do. It's a good lineup and rotation, I'll admit, but very volatile. After watching the Cubs for a few years, I treat volatility with kiddie gloves.

Larry: The Astros though are the anti-Cubs -- overachievers. Last year they were 15-30 toward the end of May, and they had every excuse to quit. Bagwell out for the season; Berkman injured; very low pre-season expectations. Somehow Garner got them going again and for the second straight year they rose from the dead. I figure they'll find a way to get themselves into position by September.

Rich: Just as the Brewers are tied to the right arm of Sheets, I think the Astros need Clemens if they are serious about playing more than 162 games this year.

Larry: Over the last four months of the year they played .632 ball and had the best record in the NL (74-43, 3 games better than St. Louis) and best run differential (+128). And then they went 7-3 in the playoffs against StL and Atlanta. If Clemens comes back in mid-June (as rumored), that entire team will be back -- and will have added Preston Wilson and possibly a healthier Bagwell.

John: I'm still just worried about that lineup. Outside of Berkman and Ensberg, it's pretty miserable, no?

Bryan: I like Jason Lane quite a bit, and some see something in Preston Wilson that I don't. Really, I just think it's too bad Chris Burke has been nudged out. It's not a good offense, probably fighting with the Cubs and Brewers for 3/4/5 in the division.

Larry: There are worse lineups. The Astros are above league-average hitters at first (Berkman), third (Ensberg), and second (Biggio). One loud bat in the outfield would go a long way. I don't think Wilson is it, though. But again, with their arms, who needs runs?

Bryan: Alright, so the consensus is positive about the Astros. Let's finish it up here, guys, with your predictions, 1-6.

Larry: Cards with 93 wins, Brewers 90, Astros 88, Cubs 85, Pirates 72, Reds 67.

Rich: With respect to predicting win totals in these previews, I'm always a bit amused when I see every division averaging more than 81 per team.

Bryan: I actually have the Brewers winning the Central by a game over the Cards in the final weekend. The Astros and Cubs battle it out for .500, with the Cubs winning 83, and the Astros an even .500. Pirates fifth, Reds last.

John: I actually struggle to see a 90-win team in the division. But I'll go with Cardinals at ninety wins, the Astros at 89, the Cubs at 88 and the Brewers at 87. Obviously, both the Pirates and Reds will be way below .500.

Rich: I like the Cardinals, followed by the Brewers, Cubs, Astros, Pirates, and Reds. If I'm wrong, it's probably because I have the Astros too low. So, Roger, what will it be?

Baseball Beat/WTNYFebruary 24, 2006
Two on Two: 2006 AL Central Preview
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

It's that time of the year again, folks. Time for us to dust off the ol' crystal ball and share our secrets of the upcoming baseball season with you. Our motto is that it's better to be early than late. Well, it's actually better to be right than early but anybody can pick 'em in October. I mean, why wait around when we've got the answers for you in February?

Like last year, we will discuss the divisions by starting in the Central, then moving to the West, and finishing with the East. In week number one, we break down the AL Central--home of the defending World Series champs, the Chicago White Sox.

Our Two on Two format consists of Rich and Bryan and two guests each week expert in that particular division. Today, we meet up with Aaron Gleeman and Chris aka The Cheat to discuss all things AL Central. Aaron writes about his hometown Minnesota Twins through Aaron, while Chris covers the Chicago White Sox at South Side Sox.

Grab a Venti, pull up a chair, and enjoy.

Bryan: A year ago, we began our AL Central preview with a discussion about the division's weak reputation. A World Series championship and wild-card contender later, such criticism has disappeared. Do you guys think the AL Central has begun a climb up the rankings and, if so, how does it compare to the other divisions?

Aaron: I still think the AL East is usually a good bet to be the best division every year, but the AL Central is definitely in the conversation now. Given how horrible Kansas City is, the Central could have four teams seriously going for 80+ wins.

Cheat: The AL Central absolutely has climbed the rankings. They may have the best pitching of any division in baseball.

Rich: As much as I like the division, I like the league even more. The American League is much stronger than the National League. The team that finishes third in the AL Central could probably win the NL West and challenge for the senior circuit's wild-card berth.

Bryan: Yes, the White Sox, Indians, and Twins form the makings of a strong division.

Cheat: I think you need to include Detroit in the discussions also. They're no pushover.

Aaron: Yeah, I agree. I'm not sure Detroit has enough pitching, but their lineup could lead to 80-85 wins.

Cheat: You could even argue that because there are four solid teams, the Central may beat up on each other just enough to only get one team in the playoffs yet again.

Bryan: Frankly, I think the reasoning for this improvement are the front offices. Is there a better group -- besides KC -- of executives in baseball?

Aaron: It's an interesting mix. I think Terry Ryan and Kenny Williams each have their flaws, and I'm not sure Dave Dombrowski can really be considered good. Mark Shapiro is somewhat untested comparatively, but he's doing a nice job.

Cheat: I'm not sold on Dombrowski, but Williams has certainly improved. Ryan and Shapiro have proved that they can win with a small budget.

Rich: Ryan and Shapiro are well respected and deservingly so. But I've been impressed with Williams, too. Not because the Sox won the World Series so much, but in the fact that Kenny was bold enough to make changes this offseason after winning it all.

Aaron: The division is so dependent on money, in relation to the rest of the AL, it's hard to judge everything properly. I mean, Minnesota has done well on a small budget, but they're competing with KC, Cleveland, and Detroit, with somewhat small budgets. And Chicago did well on a medium-sized budget, but they are outspending everyone else in the division.

Bryan: What's interesting is how volatile a few of the ownerships seem to be with money. Both the ownership groups in Cleveland and Detroit are willing to spend money on winners, which puts their GMs in a weird situation: right in the gray area of the buyers/sellers market.

Aaron: Right. The advantage they have is that once a rebuilding effort is nearly complete, the checkbooks can open up. Whereas Minnesota never has that.

Cheat: The White Sox are in the process of making themselves into a large-market club, one that spends $100+M each year. And Detroit has vowed to spend money. I'll be interested to see how Minnesota continues to compete with Cleveland looking like they may be able to add payroll in the future, too.

Aaron: If a team in the Central consistently spends $100 million, I think they'll win it most years. That extra $25-30 mill is just tough to overcome long term.

Rich: I don't know about "most years," but, yes, the team that spends the most money should win it more often than any other club.

Bryan: It's tough to consistently have player development success stories like the Twins have had recently.

Cheat: The one thing the White Sox have done, and I know Bryan has something to say about this, is deplete their farm system of top-level talent on their way to a big budget. That could hurt down the line.

Aaron: Right, but if you suddenly add $25 million to the payroll, prospects suddenly aren't as important.

Bryan: It certainly creates the risk of getting old, but the White Sox don't seem to be there--unlike maybe the Mets--quite yet. They can stay with this team for maybe two to three years before a huge decline sets in.

Aaron: Yeah, aside from Jim Thome they don't have a ton of really old guys.

Cheat: Agreed. The key will be letting go of the right guys each trading deadline and offseason.

Bryan: Well, Cheat, one real question entering the season is if they are letting the right guy into the rotation. Brandon McCarthy will likely start the year in the bullpen, despite the fact that he was probably the #2 starter in the second half. Mistake?

Cheat: The one thing I'm worried about with McCarthy is how he'll react to throwing from the 'pen. I don't know what the stress of throwing every day will do to his long and lean frame. I would rather he threw every five-to-six days.

Rich: The one thing I'm worried about with McCarthy is the number of home runs he allowed last year (13 in 67 IP).

Aaron: I was surprised that they added Javier Vazquez and then also kept Jon Garland and Jose Contreras. Vazquez doesn't seem like much of an upgrade, if any, over McCarthy.

Rich: It's a cliche, but you can never have too much pitching.

Bryan: Well, I guess it depends whether Ozzie can still have the Midas touch in regards to the pitching staff. There was no better manager at that trait in 2005 than Guillen.

Cheat: The Sox also seem to think that McCarthy will get anywhere between 10-20 starts. They seem abnormally worried about their pitchers' workload from the playoff run and the upcoming WBC.

Aaron: Well, the odds of making it through a whole year with five starters is pretty slim. So I bet he'll get more than a dozen starts.

Cheat: I think the Sox have done a good job of targeting workhorses who don't go on the DL. I think only Vazquez and Freddy Garcia have ever been on the DL, and both for very limited time.

Aaron: That's the strength, and then that makes the bullpen even stronger.

Cheat: Well, I'm not as confident about the bullpen.

Bryan: The bullpen lost a few arms last year, and again enters the year dependent on some volatile players, like Dustin Hermanson.

Aaron: I think Bobby Jenks will have some rough patches, but I like Jeff Bajenaru as a potential new guy.

Cheat: Cliff Politte and Hermanson are very unlikely to repeat their performances, and Neal Cotts and Jenks are still young guys who walk a lot of batters.

Aaron: Right, but Jenks, Politte, McCarthy, Hermanson, Cotts, and maybe Bajenaru is a strong group.

Cheat: The White Sox don't have as much faith in Bajenaru as you do, Aaron. He'll be lucky to be the 12th man in the pen.

Aaron: Really? He seems like he's earned a shot.

Bryan: Thinking Baj isn't as good as the horrendous group of LOOGYs they brought to camp is foolish. Although I agree the White Sox might be in that school of thought.

Cheat: I agree with that sentiment, but it appears that he'll be competing with Sean Tracey and Tim Redding for the 12th spot. He should earn that spot though.

Aaron: Also, on the pitching in general, it may look a little worse this year simply because the defense might not be as good.

Cheat: Paul Konerko had a great year (for him) defensively, and Brian Anderson replaces Aaron Rowand. But aside from that, they should be about equal there.

Bryan: You would have to think there would be regression to the mean in that regard. The difference between Rowand and Anderson might be a problem, too.

Aaron: Right, that's mostly what I'm thinking. And it'll be even bigger if Rob Mackowiak plays a lot out there. But they'll still be good defense, just maybe not insanely good like they were last year.

Bryan: With the Anderson-Rowand swap, and Thome replacing Carl Everett, the team seems to have been willing to sacrifice a bit of defense for offense. How much better is this group than the April 2005 offense?

Rich: Not much, if at all. Other than the likely improvement at DH, I wouldn't expect the Sox to get more production anywhere else.

Aaron: I think Thome will have a pretty big year, but I'm not sure their offense in center field will be any better.

Cheat: Brian Anderson is Eric Byrnes long-lost twin. They look alike, play alike, and even have the same humor in interviews.

Bryan: Is playing like Eric Byrnes a compliment anymore, or no?

Cheat: It's not an indictment. It's passable for a rookie, I suppose. One who's not being counted on to carry the team.

Rich: If Anderson is Byrnes, it had better be the 2004 version or else the Sox are in trouble.

Aaron: Also, everyone seems to be talking up Mackowiak as a really good player, but he's not a good hitter. If Chicago loses a key guy for a while to an injury, their depth is somewhat thin.

Bryan: Definitely, though Williams has never been slow to make a trade in that regard.

Cheat: Mackowiak is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. So is Joe Crede, however, so it may be a good fit.

Rich: Or a bad fit. I hope Guillen doesn't try to play the so-called "hot hand" until it turns cold because that is a heckuva lot harder to do in practice than in theory. You end up "shooting behind the ducks" and the end result is usually worse than if you just left the cold guy in and play his way out of any slump.

Bryan: The key to the offense, for me at least, seems to be Joe Crede. Is this guy going to continue the step he made after some work in September, or will he continue to be as inconsistent as we all have seen in the past?

Cheat: Yeah, I agree. I think the key is the whole left side of the infield. Uribe will bat in the #2 hole in spring training, to see if it's something he can handle. I'm expecting big things from both Crede and Juan Uribe.

Aaron: I think he's more or less proven that he's a pretty mediocre hitter. I don't know that a good few weeks at the right time changes that.

Cheat: Crede did change his swing late last year. If he carries that over, he will be a different hitter.

Aaron: I'm curious to see if Tadahito Iguchi improves in his second year, but beyond that any offensive gains will probably come from Thome. A bigger key will be Konerko maintaining his production.

Bryan: Well, as much as this offense may have improved, it's pretty much a given that they will fall short of the group in Cleveland. If the Indians can avoid an offensive slump in April, they could outslug this division by a lot.

Aaron: Actually, I wouldn't bet on Cleveland's offense being much better than last year's. Where is an improvement coming from, aside from young guys potentially developing a little more?

Cheat: I might take a Chi vs. Cle HR vs. HR bet, but I'll concede that they have a better offense overall.

Aaron: The Indians are weak at the corners and very strong up the middle, which is an odd sort of arrangement. By the end of the year I could see Ryan Garko starting over Ben Broussard at first base, Andy Marte starting over Aaron Boone at third base, and Casey Blake and/or Jason Michaels being on the bench.

Rich: While it may be odd, it certainly is a lot easier to replace players on the left side of the defensive spectrum than the right.

Aaron: Yeah, having such strength up the middle, especially with young building blocks, will make it a lot easier for Cleveland to improve via trade during the year. It's not too difficult to find a solid first baseman or left fielder at midseason, but it's almost impossible to get your hands on a good-hitting shortstop or catcher.

Cheat: I will be really interested to see what they do with Marte.

Bryan: I guess I'm not the believer in Cleveland that some are, however. Aaron hit it on the head. They are just too weak at about three key positions to have an elite offense, and there is no elite part of the team.

Cheat: I think Grady Sizemore can continue to improve. I love the way that kid plays.

Bryan: Sizemore is fantastic. In two or three years, I could see him being one of the two or three best players in the division. And what's surprising is that it might not even be bold to say that anymore.

Aaron: I like Sizemore too, but it'd be asking a lot for him to do much better than he did last season. Same with Jhonny Peralta. It's dangerous to just assume young guys will be better every year.

Cheat: Yeah, I'm not that high on Peralta. He was amazing last year, but I just don't see him matching that output again.

Rich: I don't think the Indians need to improve their hitting or pitching. They just need to distribute their runs a bit better. To wit, Cleveland was 22-36 in one-run games and 34-14 in games that ended with a margin of victory or defeat of five runs or more.

Cheat: Yeah, they have that AL Central Pythagorean Championship banner to raise, right?

Aaron: The White Sox had that one for a while, I think. A few years running.

Cheat: Those are hollow titles to hold. It sure does feel better with the real thing.

Bryan: Cleveland's pitching staff is questionable, especially the bullpen. I don't see a way in which Bob Wickman is the same pitcher as last year, and they lost key arms in David Riske, Bobby Howry and Arthur Rhodes.

Cheat: I did like what I saw of Fernando Cabrera at the end of last season.

Aaron: They still have Rafael Betancourt, who is underrated. And Guillermo Mota's health is probably a pretty big key. But yeah, I wouldn't bet on them giving up under 650 runs again, either, I guess.

Bryan: While we all might agree Kevin Millwood was overpaid this winter, we have to recognize they lost the AL leader in ERA. And as valuable as Jason Johnson and Paul Byrd might be on the dollar, they lost an ace.

Aaron: Yep. Although I like Jeremy Sowers as a midseason fill-in.

Cheat: As a White Sox fan, I'm upset that Byrd is in the division. They always seem befuddled by him. Johnson is another story, however. At least he didn't cost much, and may have some upside.

Aaron: I don't think Johnson will be very good, but I liked the Byrd signing.

Cheat: The only solid defense I've seen of the Johnson signing was his DIPS numbers stacked beside Garland's.

Bryan: As much as the White Sox and Indians did this winter, the Twins did very, very little. Rondell White and Tony Batista?

Aaron: Don't forget Luis Castillo. He's the big one. Or non-small one, I guess. They've had such horrible second basemen that Castillo represents a pretty huge improvement.

Cheat: Castillo was a great addition, especially for what they gave up.

Aaron: I liked that move a lot. White, I'm sort of lukewarm on, and I think the whole Batista thing is a disaster. They essentially promised him the third-base job, which later kept them from going after Corey Koskie at a discount price.

Bryan: Of the contenders in the majors, no one has a worse left side than the Twins. The lack of any attempt to improve this group is quite damning.

Cheat: Jason Bartlett looked like a young Cal Ripken when he played the White Sox last season. He must have been pretty bad when I wasn't watching, because I really liked what I saw.

Aaron: If they play any large part of the season with Batista at 3B and Juan Castro at SS, it's a pretty big mark against Terry Ryan's understanding of offense building. I like Bartlett, but he looked rough at times last year. But I think he's a good defender and can get on base.

Cheat: If only Jason Kubel could play infield, right?

Bryan: We talked about the Indians depending upon improvement from youngsters, which is also exactly what the Twins are doing. However, for as difficult as it will be for Peralta to improve on his numbers, Justin Morneau almost has to.

Rich: Justin needs to be More Yes this year than More No.

Aaron: Right. Morneau is a big key. But they also need comebacks from Shannon Stewart, and health from Torii Hunter and Kubel. The Twins have a ton of question marks throughout the lineup, so they could go either way.

Bryan: But what's the upside? Third in the division offensively?

Aaron: It'll never be a great offense, but they really only need it to be an average one.

Cheat: They probably have the fourth best offense, but even a passable offense can get by with their pitching.

Bryan: Pitching, pitching, pitching. Terry Ryan essentially put the pressure on the staff to be as good as the White Sox to succeed. But I think they could conceivably do it.

Aaron: Here's what bothered me. They are spending $4 mill on Kyle Lohse and giving Batista the third-base job. Why not spend $4 mill on a decent 3B and give Francisco Liriano Lohse's spot?

Rich: Free Francisco Liriano, huh?

Aaron: I might have to start one up, but I have some patience. If he's still at Triple-A in July I might have a new cause. I started complaining about them keeping Johan Santana in the bullpen after a few years.

Rich: Yes, we all remember your pleas, Aaron. You were right, of course, but maybe Ryan believes Johan benefited by not being rushed.

Aaron: There's a difference between not being rushed and what the Twins did. I'm not clamoring for every young pitcher to be given a rotation spot immediately. Santana was in the bullpen for the bulk of four seasons. I'm willing to wait three months for Liriano.

Bryan: The Twins seem hesitant to depend too much on young players, which is odd because it runs counter to the philosophy that won them division championships.

Cheat: There's definitely been some questionable decisions by the front office, but they still have the pitching that will keep them in the division until September.

Aaron: Right. I always say that the Twins are good at the big picture of team-building, like developing young talent, but then they are sub par at the little stuff, like utilizing it. Their track record of helping young hitters develop is also very questionable.

Bryan: Dave Dombrowski was brought to Detroit because he was supposedly good at "the big picture of team building." However, in his time with Detroit, we haven't seen that. Many point to this year as the season they begin to contend. Do you guys see it?

Aaron: Dombrowski confuses me, because he always seems to be halfway between two plans. But I do think they have a chance to be surprisingly decent this year. Their pitching still stinks though.

Cheat: They're a mirror image of the Twins. The offense will be good, but they have to hope for some improvement in the pitching staff.

Aaron: I don't see it unless Justin Verlander immediately becomes an ace. I mean, who are they counting on improvements from? Kenny Rogers? Mike Maroth? Nate Robertson?

Bryan: Well, it's that time of the year for the inevitable Jeremy Bonderman breakout talk. It's also the time of the year for me to believe it.

Cheat: If Bonderman was a stock, I'd be buying right about now.

Aaron: He's yet to post a league-average ERA in three seasons, but of course he's only 23. I really like Bonderman, Verlander, and Joel Zumaya long term, but I doubt they'll be ready this year.

Bryan: Yeah, it seems like Dombrowski needs to start planning for 2008. Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez won't be the guys to see good teams in Detroit.

Rich: I don't know what or even if Pudge was seeing last year. Did I mention that he struck out 93 times while drawing 11 walks? He had a .270 OBP in the second half. C'mon, the guy is D-O-N-E.

Bryan: I certainly wouldn't want an offense dependent upon Carlos Guillen, Pudge and Maggs. Talk about declines on the horizon?

Cheat: A full year of Maggs, Placido Polanco, and Curtis Granderson over Nook Logan, and they'll have a fine offense. Pudge was so much fun to watch last year when he got to two strikes. He swung at everything.

Bryan: My question is this: is Carlos Pena as bad as people think this year? Chris Shelton is certainly better, but Pena could give a good 300-400 ABs if he had the right platoon partner.

Aaron: I don't think Pena is bad at all. He's an average first baseman, all things considered. The expectations for Shelton might be a little high at this point.

Cheat: Pena would be a good fit for a team like the Royals. Shelton was a bit of a surprise to me last season. I wouldn't look for him to improve too much this season.

Bryan: I agree, and I'll throw Brandon Inge into that same fire. The two are solid players but have very little star power.

Aaron: Right. Detroit doesn't have any real stars, but I could see them being average or better at every position.

Bryan: Seems to me the Twins and Tigers will be battling for having the third and fourth offenses in the division, but the Twins strength in pitching puts them way ahead.

Cheat: I'd rate the Tigers offense ahead of the Twins, but your point still stands. The difference in pitching is too much to overcome.

Bryan: It seems funny to say that in the AL Central that a good offense and mediocre pitching staff doesn't have a ton of hope for third. That's new.

Aaron: Yeah. This Tigers team could have competed for the division title a couple years ago.

Bryan: One certainty has not changed in the AL Central: the Kansas City Royals will finish fifth. Again, we have to talk about them, so let me ask: is there value in a veteran movement like they've made?

Aaron: I don't really see much value. It always struck me that if you're going to stink like KC will and the fans are going to hate it anyway, why not bank some of that money for the future? You know, instead of spending it on guys who might help the team go from 65 to 70 wins.

Cheat: There might be some economic value in it. I mean if you can draw 2M fans because you might reach 70 wins, then I suppose it's worth it.

Rich: The Royals would need the Million-Man March to go through Kauffman Stadium to get their attendance that high.

Aaron: Adding someone like Reggie Sanders might be helpful in three or four years, but it does nothing now.

Bryan: And blocks Chip Ambres from showing that he can be a pretty decent player.

Aaron: Right. I think they rushed quite a few guys too quickly last year, and now they're going to block quite a few other guys in 2006. It makes no sense. Why is Justin Huber at Triple-A? And what does having Doug Mientkiewicz instead of him accomplish, exactly?

Bryan: Well, we all know how important the Royals defense is to their success this year. C'mon, Aaron.

Cheat: The Royals off-season is emblematic of a larger problem that's facing baseball. The small market teams don't have much incentive to win when they can make a hefty profit via revenue sharing. It seems like MLB clamped down and made them spend the money this year, but all that did was drive up the market for middling veteran talent.

Rich: It's pretty sad when a team goes out and signs Elmer Dessens, Scott Elarton, Joe Mays, and thinks they are doing something to improve their pitching. I mean, these guys were found on the rack at Filene's Basement this winter.

Aaron: They have a nice bullpen, though. Sort of like having "a nice personality," but still.

Bryan: That's definitely the strength. Andy Sisco, Ambiorix Burgos, Leo Nunez even, these are the guys the Royals should be marketing rather than a bunch of meaningless vowels.

Rich: Well, with their rotation, the relievers might throw more innings than the starters this year.

Bryan: Zack Greinke, Andrew Miller, J.P. Howell, Denny Bautista. This is the future of the KC rotation.

Cheat: It doesn't look intimidating by any means. They need to be in full rebuilding mode, like the Marlins. Though at least the Marlins have a few top guys to build around.

Rich: I heard you, Bryan. Andrew Miller. Nice.

Aaron: They really need to see some big strides from young guys like Greinke, and then decide who to keep around when the next wave (Huber, Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, etc.) arrive, but I don't have confidence in Baird making the right choices.

Cheat: If Greinke was a stock, I wouldn't be buying, but I'd probably miss the boat. They've got a few young guys with potential. I think the season should just be about finding out who can play and who can't.

Aaron: They could have four good hitters in a year or so, with David DeJesus being #4, but the pitching looks brutal.

Rich: Patience, my friends. So they've lost 100 or more games in three of the last four years and have had only one winning season since the strike in 1994. These things take tiiiiiiiiiiiiime.

Bryan: Not trading Mike Sweeney this winter was just such an odd choice. Fine, if the Angels won't trade Howie Kendrick, take Erick Aybar. They aren't in the position to hold out for blue chippers.

Cheat: Again that comes down to economics. Trading Sweeney would have been a terrible PR move by the Royals. They would have trouble drawing 10K on the weekends without Sweeney.

Aaron: Nah, I don't buy that for a second. How much worse can their PR get? A diehard fan like Rob Neyer has basically disowned the franchise.

Cheat: It's not because of Mike Sweeney. It's because Sweeney is the one good player who the common fan can identify. If they trade him, after a 56 win season, it's interpreted as giving up before the next season even starts.

Aaron: Right, but I don't think Royals fans are even optimistic enough to care about that.

Bryan: Alright guys, enough Royals before I get sick. Let's close this out. What is your projected order of the division in 2006?

Aaron: It's a tough division to predict. I'd say probably Chicago, Cleveland, Minnesota, Detroit, Kansas City, but I'd give the first three at least a 25% chance of each winning.

Cheat: Chicago: 92 wins. Cleveland: 91. Minnesota: 87. Detroit: 82. KC: 63.

Rich: I'm not sure the division is good enough to average 83 wins. That seems a bit much to me. No way the Tigers and Royals combine for 18 more victories.

Cheat: Like you, Rich, I think the AL is clearly superior to the NL once again. The AL Central plays the NL Central in interleague this year. They'd have to beat up on the NL Central the way they did the NL West to post those records, but I don't think it's impossible.

Bryan: I agree with the same order as Aaron and Cheat, but I say Chicago wins the division by five games, at least.

Cheat: I'd like to agree, Bryan, but the Sox fan in me has trouble being that optimistic.

Rich: Well, I hate to be the party pooper here, but I'm going with Cleveland, followed by Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit, and Kansas City.

Baseball Beat/WTNYFebruary 22, 2006
Analysts Paper Anniversary
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

Today marks the first anniversary of the birth of Baseball Analysts. Although the origins of Baseball Beat and Wait 'Til Next Year date back to 2003, the merged entity began on February 22, 2005.

When we started this site, we promised to "examine the past, present and future" of baseball. Our partnership was no coincidence either. As colleagues, we realized our interests and expertise covered a wide array of baseball, ranging from college to the minor leagues to the majors. For example, during the past year, we covered the College World Series and the amateur draft like few other websites. We also covered the MLB postseason, the Rule 5 Draft, and the top 30 free agents.

While Rich is well-known for making a Hall of Fame case for Bert Blyleven, Bryan's focus was his top prospect list in January. Whether arguing on behalf of new or ignored statistics, or taking an in-depth look at baseball's scouting directors, we have tried to cover a little bit of everything in a year.

We promised to have daily articles, up to six times a week. With few exceptions, this goal has been achieved. Although it's difficult for the two of us to keep up with the volume of some other terrific baseball sites out there, our focus has been on emphasizing quality in the single article that we post each day.

Fittingly, our website started with Rich's wonderful "Who Was Your Favorite Player Growing Up?" series. This was the start of Baseball Analysts being home to dozens of voices in different styles. In this particular feature, Rich was able to garner memories from 38 well-known writers on their past as a fan. Rich then followed this series up with one of his most high-profile interviews, Breakfast With Bill James -- a three-part series which was the culmination of his Abstracts From The Abstracts series in 2004 through early 2005.

Baseball Analysts has allowed us to provide some of the most unique features of any site on the Internet. Our "Designated Hitter" series has proven to be among the most popular and has become a must read. We have been fortunate to garner guest articles from 47 different writers in the past year, covering a wide array of topics. Kevin Kernan forged the path for mainstream media to partner up with us, volunteering to write a guest column when the DH was in its infancy. J.C. Bradbury authored one of the most widely quoted sabermetric studies, while Alex Belth made us cry with a personal tribute to a dear friend. Eric Neel shared his touching Growing Up With Vin Scully column, Matt Welch wrote a fun story about fellow band member and journeyman Dave Hansen, and Bob Klapisch delivered some of the year's best prose in From the Press Box to the Pitcher's Mound.

We owe a hearty thanks to each participant of this series who has poured his or her heart and soul into writing, for free, at our site. You are all a part of this site's success, and we tip our caps to you for doing your part in raising the bar of baseball journalism.

Contributors have also had their voices heard in a couple of other features, such as the Two on Two or What Went Wrong series. Last year, the free-flowing Two on Two series allowed us to have 12 different writers help in previewing the upcoming season. In the What Went Wrong series, several more writers assisted us in reviewing the regular season and postseason. Look for Baseball Analysts to continue running these informative and entertaining discussions in 2006, starting with the AL Central preview this Friday. We believe in the strength in numbers and have tried to utilize the expertise of dozens of knowledgeable and generous writers/analysts.

We would also like to extend a thanks to the dozens of individuals all over baseball's blogosphere to write about or simply link work that has been published on this site. In today's Internet world, traffic is built through links and partnering with other writers. We have been lucky enough to have so many of you -- too many to name, in fact -- direct your readers to this site. We appreciate each and every referral.

Most of all, however, we owe a thanks to you, the reader. Your daily visits, comments, and e-mail provide our motivation, while your dissents broaden our horizons. We feel the Baseball Analysts readership is as intelligent as any on the Internet, and we appreciate each response we receive. In the coming year, we sincerely hope to meet and exceed your expectations.

For both of us, the last year has been a dream from which we can't wake up. We would never have imagined to be on Peter Gammons' reading list, linked in the New York Times, or mentioned in a number of other mainstream newspaper articles. There was no way we could have envisioned this success a year ago.

In Year Two, our goal is to simply push forward. Thank you for your loyalty and support.

Baseball Beat/WTNYFebruary 08, 2006
Breakouts and Breakdowns
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

As spring training approaches, one of the most fun things to do as a fan is to project which players are the likeliest to breakout or regress in the coming season.

Let's face it, you can write down what Albert Pujols is going to do now. When it's all said and done, he's going to be right around .330/.420/.620 with 40 HR and 125 R and RBI.

If you have the first pick in your fantasy pool, take Pujols. Heck, that's a no brainer. But who should you take when rounds 11-20 roll around? Anybody can identify Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, David Wright, and Mark Teixeira as the best, young hitting studs in the game. But which lesser-known players have the potential of stepping up and making a difference for their big league club or your fantasy league team in 2006?

Conversely, which well-known players have the potential of imploding, causing anguish for the owners of those teams--real or make believe?

Well, we've decided to take the plunge. Each of us is going on record by naming two players who have it in them to take it up a couple of notches plus two more who could fall off the cliff.

Rich: I'm going to stick to two players who I have already identified in the past as players I believe are going to make the greatest advances from one year to the next. My first pick is a pitcher. He's a big pitcher in stature, and I think he is going to put up big numbers as well. His name? Daniel Cabrera.

I've extolled Cabrera's virtues a few times since last summer when he began to give us a glimpse of the pitcher he is capable of becoming. If there is one combination of pitching stats I like more than any other, it is strikeouts and groundballs. Show me a guy who can whiff batters and induce grounders and I will tell you about Chris Carpenter, A.J. Burnett, Carlos Zambrano, Roy Halladay, and...Daniel Cabrera.

There is no doubting the Baltimore right-hander's stuff. His fastball sits in the mid- to high-90s and has been known to reach the triple digits. In fact, Cabrera threw more pitches that hit 100 or more on the Stalker Sport radar guns than anyone else. He was second in the majors when it came to hitting 95+. Number one? Mr. Burnett, the $55 million man. Just for fun, I'll tell you who was #2 in the NL -- Carlos Zambrano.

Have you noticed a pattern here? Big, strong pitchers who can throw heavy gas tend to get their fair share of strikeouts and groundballs. And when pitchers do that, they generally don't give up very many home runs. Carpenter and Halladay have won Cy Young awards. Don't bet against either Burnett, Zambrano, or Cabrera taking home the hardware this year.

My second pick is a hitter. He just happens to play on the same team as Cabrera. Call me an Orioles fan if you'd like, just be sure not to take these two players ahead of me in my fantasy league draft.

As I wrote in Digging Deeper Into The Handbook in December, "If you're looking for someone who might take it up a notch or two next year, consider Jay Gibbons. He was the only [player other than Vladimir Guerrero] who hit more than 15 HR (26) and ranked in the top ten in lowest strikeout rate per plate appearance (.108). The Baltimore OF/1B/DH doesn't field or run all that well, but he still has further upside when it comes to mashing the ball. Consider this: Gibbons was 31st in the AL in RC/G with just a .268 batting average on balls in play. You have to go all the way down to the 63rd batter (Nick Swisher) to find someone with a lower BABIP."

Look for Gibbons to hit .280-.290 with about 40 doubles and 30-35 home runs. He'll make a nifty mid- to late-round draft selection in your fantasy draft. You can thank me after he puts up those numbers.

Bryan: Good picks, Rich. If you're right, and the Orioles have two big players break out, the AL East could be (again?) the most difficult division in baseball. And, of course, you forgot to mention that Cabrera has another plus on his resume: Leo Mazzone. As J.C. Bradbury showed on our site, the great pitching coach tends to have a positive effect on pitchers. With a little bit of the fastball control that Mazzone teaches so well, I think you're right, Cabrera should have a big 2006.

One other problem that Mazzone has to deal with is finding a closer amidst a group containing Chris Ray and LaTroy Hawkins. And they will be one of many teams shuffling between ninth-inning pitchers during Spring Training. Given the importance of saves on a fantasy team, finding a sleeper closer is much like having drafted Willie Parker in fantasy football this year. Therefore, my break out choice is Blaine Boyer of the Mazzone's old team, the Atlanta Braves.

Last year, Bobby Cox was forced to shuffle between the likes of Danny Kolb, Chris Reitsma and Kyle Farnsworth to close out games. Don't expect him to take long to make a decision this year. The candidates? Reitsma, again, Joey Devine and Boyer. Given Reitsma's lack of success in the role, Davine's lack of success in any role, and Boyer's good stuff, he should get the job. Then, watch as his 95+ mph fastball and hammer curve gains a lot of saves and a good enough ERA, WHIP and K/9. Even if he doesn't repeat a 3.11 ERA, his fantasy profile will improve that much more when he adds 25 saves.

My second pick should be a very good bench choice for keeper leaguers this year. The Padres outfield situation is very clouded this coming year, but they have shown confidence in Ben Johnson in the past. While Johnson is infamous within Padre crowds for a bad playoff performance last year, the focus should really be on Bruce Bochy's confidence to play the then 24-year-old. This season Johnson currently stands behind Dave Roberts and alongside Terrmel Sledge, but with a trade of Roberts, it isn't hard to conceive the idea of Johnson getting 500 AB.

Before the playoffs last year, Johnson had just 88 plate appearances. His .213/.310/.467 line wasn't exactly awe-inspiring, but beneath the surface, there is certainly reason for optimism. For one, Johnson's line drive percentage was an astounding 26.4% in his cup of coffee last year. The Hardball Times has done loads of research on line drives, but the general conclusion is that the more lines drives, the better. And to put Johnson's number in context, had he qualified for the NL, his mark would have ranked second overall.

Conversely, Johnson's BABIP last year was just .267. When considering his line drive percentage, it's shocking to have a BABIP rate that low, especially given Johnson's plus speed. In fact, only 37 players in the National League had LD% over twenty last year, and just seven had BABIP rates below .300. Of those seven, just two (David Bell, Mike Lowell) were under .270. So not only does Johnson's hit rates mean he should hit for increased power, but his average should go up as well.

If your league uses OBP as a statistic, Johnson is an even better selection, given his high walk rate. As is, I think Johnson is very (optimistically) capable of a batting average around .280 and 20 home runs given the opportunity. The question remains, however, will Johnson have an opportunity? Those are my far out choices, Rich. Who do you think might regress in 2006?

Rich: On the downside, I'm going to once again pick one pitcher and one hitter. Both players are changing teams this year. One is going to a more favorable ballpark and the other is going to a less favorable environment. My first choice is Jarrod Washburn. He is the opposite of Cabrera. Washburn is a lefty, Cabrera is a righty. Jarrod doesn't strike out many hitters nor induce a lot of groundballs, whereas Daniel makes a habit of doing both.

One would think that Washburn, coming off a year in which he had a 3.20 ERA and moving to pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, would be a good bet to become one of the top hurlers in the game. Wrong. His stats last year were very deceiving. His DIPS ERA was 4.55. The ratio of DIPS ERA/actual ERA (1.42) was the highest in the AL. I wouldn't be surprised if he won more games this year--it would be hard not to exceed his eight victories with the Angels--but his ERA is going to top 4.00 in 2006.

I feel guilty choosing Alfonso Soriano as my hitter. It's no secret that the second baseman (outfielder?) is going from one of the best to one of the worst ballparks for hitters. But, hey, I'll take a lay-up when I can get it. No use trying to tomahawk a slam dunk just to get on ESPN when I can kiss it off the glass and into the net nice and easy.

Besides, anybody making $10M-$12M per year who hits just .260/.300/.450 with 15-18 HR (as I predict) deserves to be recognized for his ineptness as much as the general manager who traded for him. You know, the same guy who acquired Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman last year and the 36-year-old Royce Clayton a few days ago because he wants to be sure he's got a backup in case his starting shortstop goes .219/.260/.314 again.

Bryan: I'm going to stick in the middle infield with the first of my selections: Carlos Guillen. After leaving Seattle for Detroit before the 2004 season, Guillen broke out in a big way: .326/.391/.562. Last year, I was pretty sure Guillen would take a big step backwards and fall apart. I was wrong. While Guillen was injury plagued for much of the season, he did manage to hit .320/.368/.434 in 334 at-bats.

Next year, Guillen will be 30 years old. He will be coming off a second half in which he hit .255/.317/.364. He will have to deal with the rigors of not having a BABIP of .360. The signs are there: Carlos is going to regress. PECOTA, the genius prediction system of Baseball Prospectus, doesn't see a lot of optimism for Guillen next year. BP sees Guillen hitting .286 next year with nine home runs and 50 RBI in 438 plate appearances. More importantly, the Tiger is given only a 6% chance to "breakout" of those numbers against a 36% chance to "collapse." Without going into detail on what those percentages mean, I can tell you that it isn't good. Despite his shortstop eligibility, stay away from Guillen in your fantasy draft.

By signing Billy Wagner this winter, the Mets not only made themselves better, but they also worsened a division rival in the Philadelphia Phillies. With Wagner heading off to greener pastures, the Phillies looked to the next-best option available, and thus signed Tom Gordon. This move is certainly seen as a step backwards already, but I predict that in three years, it will be an atrocious trade off. After years of being among the best set-up men in baseball, I'm predicting Gordon falls apart in his first year back in the closer role.

Before joining the Yankees in 2004, Gordon was hardly a staple of health. In the five years prior, he had just two full seasons in relief, two seasons in which he pitched under 45 innings, and one more in which he was under 20 IP. With the Yankees the last two seasons, Joe Torre rode Gordon as hard as any reliever in baseball. The writing is on the wall: Gordon is not a dependable closer. Furthermore, Gordon has three straight years with a falling K/9 rate. He's moving to a smaller stadium. He has a worse team behind him. His FIP last year was 3.72. Again, don't be the one caught in drafting Tom Gordon, the results can't be good.

Do you agree or disagree with our choices? If the latter, who would you pick?

Baseball Beat/WTNYFebruary 05, 2006
College Baseball Preview: A-A Squad
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

In the past week during our College Baseball Preview, we have mentioned hundreds of names that will affect the outcome of the 2006 baseball season. Today, it's time to find the best of the best and honor those players with selections among the Baseball Analysts All-American team.

Unlike most All-American squads, our polling was not extensive to get names, as we just used the five people that contributed to the preview this week. While this means we won't have second and third teams like Baseball America or Collegiate Baseball, it's unlikely you'll find our list to be much different than the norm.

Without further ado, here's a look at the 2006 Baseball Analysts All-American squad:

C - Chad Tracy - Pepperdine
1B - Matt LaPorta - Florida
2B - Jim Negrych - Pittsburgh
SS - Evan Longoria - Long Beach State
3B - Wes Hodges - Georgia Tech
OF - Shane Robinson - Florida State
OF - Drew Stubbs - Texas
OF - Brennan Boesch - California
DH - Mark Hamilton - Tulane

And a look at the pitching staff:

SP - Andrew Miller - North Carolina
SP - Max Scherzer - Missouri
SP - Ian Kennedy - Southern California
RP - Blair Erickson - UC Irvine

And a look at the honorable mention squad, which includes players who received votes but were not in the majority:

C - J.P. Arencibia - Tennessee
1B - Joe Savery - Rice
2B - Taylor Harbin - Clemson
2B - Adam Davis - Florida
SS - Jason Donald - Arizona
OF - Colin Curtis - Arizona State
OF - Nathan Southard - Tulane
SP - Kyle McCulloch - Texas
RP - Derrik Lutz - George Washington
RP - Brett Jensen - Nebraska

And finally, we asked all our participants to pick the outcome of the College World Series. Unsurprisingly, each person polled selected Texas as the team to become repeat winners of the National Championship. However, opinions varied on the team that Texas would close it out against.

However, majority rules, and in this polling, Baseball Analysts will select North Carolina as the team that falls short to the Texas Longhorns in the CWS finals. However, don't be surprised if a traditionally great program like Cal State Fullerton, or a darkhorse like the Pepperdine Waves make a splash and reach the finals.

Formally, the College Baseball Preview will end on Tuesday as we finish our preview of the ACC. If you disagree with any of our choices for the All-American squad, please, drop a comment below.

Baseball Beat/WTNYFebruary 04, 2006
College Baseball Preview: Best of the Rest
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

The College Baseball Preview sticks to its regularly scheduled programming with the Best of the Rest. We take a look at 11 of the top teams outside the Pac-10, Big West, Big 12, SEC, and ACC.

We set out to cover all of the baseball programs that have a legitimate shot at hosting a Regional and/or playing in a Super Regional. Although mindful of missing a team or two along the way, we hope that our series winds up capturing the vast majority of the Regional hosts and Super Regional participants, as well as all of the College World Series teams.

With the addition of Rice this year, Conference USA is without a doubt one of the top half dozen leagues in college baseball. Our series, in fact, would have been incomplete had we not covered Rice, Tulane, and Southern Mississippi. It would have also been lacking had we bypassed many of the other teams below.

RICE had a 45-19 record last year in the Western Athletic Conference, ranking 13th in Baseball America's final poll and 14th in RPI. The Owls, coached by Wayne Graham, are among the top ten in all the preseason rankings. The move to the stronger C-USA may make it more difficult to save a weekend starter for weeknight games vs. the likes of Texas and Texas A&M. Freshman of the Year Joe Savery, a two-way player, is a first-team preseason All-American. Savery went 8-5 last year with a 2.43 ERA and a league-leading 129 strikeouts in 119 innings. A 1B/DH on days he's not pitching, the left-handed Savery hit .382 with a .471 OBP and .559 SLG. Rice also returns Josh Rodriguez, a junior shortstop who has been named to Baseball America's third-team preseason All-America team. Rodriguez (.345/.411/.555) led the Owls in HR (11) and RBI (54) last year. [Posted by Rich Lederer]

TULANE finished the 2005 season with a 56-12 record and a trip to Omaha. Following the tragic hurricane hit to New Orleans, the Green Wave will be playing their home games at Zephyr Field (AAA home of the Nationals). The team was displaced to Lubbock with Texas Tech in the fall. Certainly they'll feel the feel the loss of All-Americans Brian Bogusevic and Micah Owings at the plate but not as much as one would think. They return three preseason All-Americans in CF Nathan Southard (.341/.429/.563, 12 HRs, 3B Brad Emaus (.321/.424/.542, 13 HRs), and 1B Mark Hamilton (.318/.452/.599, 11 HRs). They will feel the loss of their big two draft picks more on the mound as their lone returning starter is Brandon Gomes (4.42 ERA, 89.2 IP, .278 BAA, 82/17 SO/BB). They would have had senior J.R. Crowel returning to the rotation but he will have to take a medical redshirt following mid-January surgery on his throwing shoulder (labrum). Luckily, they pickup sophomore John Michael Vidic (3.24/8.1/.188/5/3) as another transfer from Georgia Tech (Owings being the first) who might be able to fill that void. [Posted by Ryan Levy]

SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI heads into this season off the heels of a school record third-straight NCAA Regionals appearance. Coach Corky Palmer will have his hands full though with perennial baseball powerhouse Rice joining Conference USA for the first time. The Golden Eagles had a record of 41-21 last year, their third-straight season with 40+ wins, also a school record. Southern Miss' best player is senior 1B Marc Maddox (.359-14-59), who was a first-team All-Conference USA selection last season. Sophomore shortstop Trey Sutton will look to build on his impressive freshman season in which he hit .346 with 6 homeruns and 41 RBI. The pitching will be held down by closer Daniel Best. In 2005, Best tallied 11 saves and a 3-0 record to go with his 0.46 ERA. The senior submariner is on the Roger Clemens Award watch list. [Posted by Joe Lederer]

The TEXAS CHRISTIAN Horned Frogs are making a leap from C-USA into the Mountain West Conference this season. TCU finished the '05 campaign with a 41-20 record and a trip to a very difficult Regional in Waco (vs. Stanford and Baylor). The Horned Frogs will be led by utility man Chad Huffman (.353/.437/.573, 12 HRs), who was named to NCBWA's preseason All-American squad. On the mound they lost a ton of talent (mainly, Lance Broadway) and return only three pitchers with a sub-5.00 ERA, although none were below 4.00. Sophomore Sam Demel was a big name from Spring HS (Josh Beckett's alma mater). His ERA was 4.64 but the righty struck out 100 batters in 95 innings in what was only his freshman season. [Ryan Levy]

NOTRE DAME (Big East) went 38-24-1 enroute to their 4th consecutive Big East Tournament Championship and a Regional berth falling at the hands of national runner-up Florida. The Fightin' Irish return 10 of their top 11 hitters (losing only their top hitter, Matt Edwards), including their corner infielders Craig Cooper (.325/.446/.502), and Brett Lilley (.355/.502/.379). On the mound they return six of their top eight pitchers, including their entire starting rotation--most famous of the group being All-American wide out, Jeff Samardzija (3.89/78.2/.272/56/30). Things should certainly be looking up for the Golden Domers. [Ryan Levy]

FLORIDA ATLANTIC will look to close out its Atlantic Sun Conference history in style, as the team will move into the Sun Belt Conference next season. The Owls finished 37-24 last year (19-11 in conference play) and advanced to its sixth NCAA Regional in the past seven seasons. Coach Kevin Cooney, who will notch his 800th career victory this season, will rely on sophomore RHP Mickey Storey and junior RHP/OF Mike McBryde. Storey recorded seven saves before being moved into the rotation in April. At the end of the season, he was named to Baseball America's All-Freshman Team after posting a 10-1 record and 1.70 ERA. Closing for FAU will be two-way stud McBryde, who went 2-2 last year with a 3.11 ERA to go along with 11 saves and 49 strikeouts in 35 innings. As an outfielder, McBryde hit .370 with 5 homeruns and 35 stolen bases. Transfer Ovy Ramirez (.350-13-62 at St. Petersburg JC) will play second and add pop to the middle of the Owls' lineup. [Joe Lederer]

In 2006, WICHITA STATE (Missouri Valley Conference) returns all but three starters and a starting pitcher. Of course, that pitcher was All-American Mike Pelfrey, regarded by some as the best pitching prospect in the 2005 draft. Gene Stephenson, who pulled a Shocker in the offseason when he accepted the Oklahoma job but changed his mind hours later, returns for his 29th season and is seeking to extend a streak of never winning fewer than 40 games. Junior 3B Derek Schermerhorn (.329-2-60, 34 SB) had a 34-game hitting streak last year and will lead the Shockers' offense. Wichita State's strength is its pitching, where the team was 9th in the nation in team ERA (3.16) last season. The team's best pitcher is junior LHP Kris Johnson, who will be out until March as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. As a freshman, Johnson went 7-0 and started last season 3-0 with a 0.98 ERA before suffering a season-ending elbow injury. Sophomore RHP Travis Banwart (8-1, 2.09) and senior RHP Jereme Foster (7-5, 3.63) will anchor the rotation and freshman Aaron Shafer, a 16th round selection last year by Cleveland, will also pitch meaningful innings. [Joe Lederer]

We turn westward...

FRESNO STATE baseball history can be broken down in two eras: Before Rice and After Rice. The Bulldogs made 15 straight NCAA appearances from 1979 to 1995, including 12 Western Athletic Conference titles. Then Rice joined the WAC and won the title every year from 1996-2005. During Rice's reign, Fresno State made only four NCAA appearances. Now with Rice leaving the Western Athletic Conference, Fresno State again becomes the best program. Coach Mike Batesole's team was ranked #21 in Baseball America's preseason poll. Fresno State will look to improve on its 30-29 record last year behind the bat of sophomore 3B Beau Mills, son of Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills. Mills (.319/.424/.699) earned Freshman All-American honors after leading all freshmen with 22 home runs. Senior RHP Doug Fister was drafted in the 6th round last year by the Yankees but chose to return to school and will fill the shoes of last year's ace, first-round pick Matt Garza. Fister (7-6, 4.32 ERA) features an 88-to-91 MPH fastball but scouts believe he'll add velocity once he fills out his frame (6-foot-8, 195). The Bulldogs also return junior outfielder Nick Moresi, an All-WAC selection after hitting .352-11-54 and 13 SB in 13 attempts. [Joe Lederer]

PEPPERDINE (West Coast) went 41-23, 32nd in RPI, and ranked #24 in Baseball America's final poll last season. The Waves came within one win of advancing to the Super Regional round. They enter this season with most key players back, and their highest pre-season ranking in years - #11 in Baseball America. Those players will include senior LHP Paul Coleman (9-3, 3.35), WCC Pitcher of the Year, despite his 9th round selection by the Tigers. RHP Kea Kometani (10-5, 3.17) is gone, but sophomore RHP Barry Enright (10-1, 4.62) returns. Enright was WCC Freshman of the Year. To complete the trifecta, junior catcher Chad Tracy (.367/.428/.609, 22 doubles, 12 HR), the son of Pittsburgh Pirates Manager Jim Tracy, comes back after his WCC Player of the Year season. Last season Head Coach Steve Rodriguez' Waves hit .295/.366/.409 as a team, and posted a 3.84 team ERA. They outscored opponents 368-290. With another year of experience, Pepperdine has a great shot at playing in Omaha in June. [Posted by Jeff Agnew]

SAN FRANCISCO (West Coast) was 38-18 in 2005, coming in 58th in RPI. The Dons return one of the best two-way players in the country in junior outfielder/LHP Scott Cousins (.309/.398/.457; 8-5, 2.64, .229 OBA, 76K, 30 BB, 95.1 IP). Senior RHP Patrick McGuigan (5-2, 1.66, 7 saves, .206, 50K, 13 BB, 54.1 IP, 25 appearances, 1 start) moves from the closer role to starter. Senior outfielder/catcher Stefan Gartrell (.364/.409/.552) is back, but infielder/DH Cy Donald's (.368/.419/.412) bat will be missed. Now in his 8th year, Head Coach Nino Giarratano's team set a school record with 38 wins last year. But it wasn't enough to get the Dons into the post-season. But it was close. Will this be the year the WCC sends 3 teams to Regionals? [Jeff Agnew]

SAN DIEGO (West Coast) was 30-27-1 last season, coming in 130th in RPI. 8th year Head Coach Rich Hill's Toreros go in ranked 36th pre-season by Collegiate Baseball. USD returns two of three starters in junior RHP Josh Butler (7-7, 3.42) and sophomore RHP Matt Couch (5-3, 3.65), with LHP Justin Blaine (8-5, 3.55) going in the 6th round to the Phillies. Most of the key position players are back, led by junior outfielder Shane Buschini (.352/.450/.538) and junior infielder Keoni Ruth (.338/.380/.431). But the big story with the Toreros is the recruiting class, ranked 12th in Division I by Baseball America. Freshman LHP Brian Matusz passed on signing after his 4th round selection by the Angels. Freshman LHP Josh Romanski did the same, despite being picked in the 15th by the Padres. These guys aren't "crafty lefties," each throws in the low 90s. Depending upon how quickly this crop of HS and JUCO recruits adjusts to the D-I level, San Diego may land its first bid since 2003. Any way you look at it, the future looks bright. [Jeff Agnew]

While we're in San Diego, let's take a look at SAN DIEGO STATE's (Mountain West; 26-35, #170 RPI) progress in the Head Coach Tony Gwynn era (90-96 in his 1st 3 years). Although the Aztecs don't make the "Best of the Rest" list, there are signs that the future Hall of Famer's team is making progress. Junior outfielder Quintin Berry (.419/.569/.550) returns. More importantly, recruiting - including the most important part, getting them to enroll - seems to be getting better. Freshman 2B Nick Romero passed on his 40th round pick by the Royals. And junior RHP Justin Masterson makes the transfer from independent Bethel College, where he was 20-8, 1.85, over 2 years. In the Northwoods League last summer, Masterson was 3-1, 1.15, and posted 10 saves. Skeptics have questioned Gwynn's commitment to college baseball. Each passing year, he quiets a few more. [Jeff Agnew]

Gwynn and bear it.

* * * * *

Be sure to return on Sunday to catch our Baseball Analysts' Preseason All-American team and who we believe will make it to the finals of the College World Series in June.

Baseball Beat/WTNYJanuary 25, 2006
One on One: Fast Break
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

We're not talking about Kobe's latest offensive burst. That would be One on Five. Instead, we're dusting off a favored format of ours. One on One, a chance to talk about the offseason - including free agent signings and trades - plus a sneak preview of the year at hand.

The break isn't over. But we're getting close, folks.

Bryan: Congratulations Rich, we did it. We made it through the winter. Just a few more weeks until baseball is back.

Rich: Promise, Bryan? (As I cross off another day on my calendar, waiting for pitchers and catchers to report)

Bryan: I do, just 22 more days. That should be exciting, but I'm really excited for what happens about five weeks from now. Spring Training is fun and all, but this inaugural WBC has me giddy.

Rich: Oh, I didn't realize boxing had another title fight at hand.

Bryan: Don't be sarcastic Rich, we finally have a World Cup of our own! I mean, passionate baseball in March? I'm a bit worried about the impact this might have on the season, but really, good baseball should outweigh political complaining.

Rich: All right. I'll come clean with you. I bought a strip of tickets for three games at Angel Stadium the minute they went on sale.

Bryan: Now that's more like it. What team are you most excited to see, it seems like a few have murderer's rows and rotations of aces.

Rich: Heck, I don't even know who is playing, much less who is playing for whom? I mean, is A-Rod in or out or in?

Bryan: Who knows. Last I heard he was talking to Castro about playing for Cuba. Apparently his great uncle had a Cuban friend once.

Rich: Does smoking a Cuban cigar qualify as well? Look, I don't know if I should root for the good ol' USA or return to my roots like the players and side with Germany, Ireland or Sweden.

Bryan: That's very Piazza-ish of you. Speaking of Mike, word is that he's been talking to the Phillies this week. Platoon a bit with Ryan Howard, give Mike Lieberthal time off. Is this a good fit?

Rich: Mike is from Norristown, Pennsylvania, so he might get a nice welcome home party from his family and friends. But, other than that, I wouldn't be overly excited for either side. Let's face it, Piazza is a much better fit for an AL team.

Bryan: I agree. I thought it might be the Orioles or Twins, but those two seem content with Javy Lopez and Rondell White, respectively. I still think Minnesota should bite.

Rich: How 'bout the Yankees? Alex Belth is clamoring for the guy. If New York is going to live with Jason Giambi in the field (which I think is a disaster waiting to happen), then why couldn't Mikey DH and spell Jorge Posada once a week behind the dish?

Bryan: Not sure New Yorkers - at least those in the Bronx - would like Piazza in a Jim Leyritz role, he's not quite as lovable. But really, it's a far better bet for anyone in the AL than National League teams. I would say Oakland, but the Frank Thomas situation is the worst kept secret in baseball.

Rich: I don't want to pull a Yogi Berra here, but if the Big Hurt ain't hurt, what would it hurt to sign him?

Bryan: It wouldn't, as long as Beane doesn't think that signing him would be enough of a reason to trade away Jay Payton, who would then be out of a starting spot. Signing Frank is a good move, depending on him is not.

Rich: I agree. But I'm not worried about the A's depth. They have a lot of chips at their disposal. Trading for a DH is a lot easier than finding a good CF or SS. Hint, hint.

Bryan: Yeah, sometimes you're left with Alex Gonzalez. And that's no longer even close to a compliment.

Rich: The good news for Boston fans is that this version doesn't have a middle name. He can pick it a bit and should suffice in the ninth hole, provided they consummate that deal with Cleveland. Are you koo-koo for Coco Crisp?

Bryan: Opinions about this possible trade seem to be all over the map. Some Bostonians think that Crisp will be some great improvement upon Johnny Damon, and others think he isn't even worth Edgar Renteria, er, Andy Marte. Covelli is a fine player, and should modestly succeed in Boston, but I don't think he's a budding All-Star.

Rich: I fooled around on the Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia and came to the conclusion that Crisp's 2005 looked a tad like Damon's 24-year-old season in 1998 and Marquis Grissom's 25-year-old campaign in 1992 (without the SB). As a result, I think he is a suitable option for the Red Sox. They need a CF and there aren't too many options, if the truth be told.

Bryan: Good point. I do think that this puts the Red Sox back in the AL East argument. The Yankees are much the same team they were, and probably due for a bit of regression. The Blue Jays are much better, but have not pulled ahead of the top two. So now, Boston should be able to get away with a bit of regression and still be in the race.

Rich: I haven't been overly worried about Boston. Everyone seems focused on what they need rather than how much they have improved themselves in certain areas. If healthy, they should be just fine. What I'm not so sure about though is whether the second-place team in the AL East will earn the Wild Card berth this year.

Bryan: Well, I think it will be the same as it always is. The Wild Card should be a simple competition between the loser of the AL East and the loser of the A's/Angels. I think the Indians have taken a big step back, and have the White Sox winning the division by over five games.

Rich: Oh, I haven't given up on the Tribe at all. Despite a 22-36 record in one-run outcomes, they missed the playoffs last year by just two games. I think Cleveland will need to be reckoned with, for sure. It's too bad the Indians aren't in the NL. They would run away with the West and could give the Cardinals and the Mets/Phillies/Braves a run for their money.

Bryan: Well, as the official Midwest representative of the group, I'm going to pick on you for pointing out the Cardinals only. After such a lackluster winter, are you really ready to hand them the division?

Rich: St. Louis won 100 games last year, the most in baseball. Will they win 100 this year? No, probably not. But, let's assume they slip back to 90 games. Who else in the division is in a position to win that many?

Bryan: This seems like the argument with the AL Central last year. "Even if the Twins regress..." Now I'm not saying the Cardinals shouldn't be the division favorite, they have certainly earned it. But I wouldn't rule out the Astros, the Cubs, or the Brewers -- my pick -- to win 91 games.

Rich: I've already ruled out the Cubs. So take that. I like the Brewers and wouldn't be surprised in the least if they captured the Wild Card spot in the NL. That is one fun team.

Bryan: I agree. A lot of high ceilings on offense with a good, young pitching staff and a better coach. That's one good formula. Too bad they don't play out West.

Rich: If the Dodgers can give all these players one-year deals, maybe baseball should allow teams to switch divisions for a year. Can you imagine how much a spot in the NL West would bring in an auction?

Bryan: More than the auctions for Jeff Weaver and Bengie Molina, that's for sure.

Rich: Maybe they can both sit out the year and keep in shape by playing pitcher and catcher - the same game I played as a kid - with one another.

Bryan: I mean, it really seems like this is an option at this point. Otherwise, it seems like Molina might have to take a one-year deal with the Blue Jays, and as for Weaver...well, I still haven't heard a team officially associated with Weaver.

Rich: Buster Olney reported that "the Phillies are doing some checking on Jeff Weaver." I gotta tell you, Bryan, I just don't understand these guys. How could Weaver pass up, say, a 3 x $9M offer from the Dodgers? Is it really worth an extra million bucks or so a year to leave your hometown team? I mean, is that incremental money going to have any bearing whatsoever on your lifestyle or your kids or grandkids? Suck it up and be glad you can stay home, play this silly game called baseball, and make more money than you will ever know what to do with.

Bryan: Amen. But if that's your philosophy regarding Weaver, what are your thoughts on Roger Clemens? It almost seems as he's trying to start a bidding war between his two hometown teams to be fought on after May 1.

Rich: I'm not convinced it's as much about money this time around as it is with whether he wants to even play another season. He could retire after the WBC. Picture him winning the championship game. That wouldn't be such a bad way to end things, now would it?

Bryan: Well, I guess it depends how many people confuse WBC with a boxing match, or care about it at all.

Rich: But you could be right. Maybe Clemens is just rope-a-dopin' Drayton McLane and Tom Hicks. In fact, it seems to me that Lloyd's of London just might be paying Roger's salary this year, so help me Jeff Bagwell.

Bryan: Alright Rich, let's go into the lightning round, like before the winter. Where does Sammy Sosa end up?

Rich: Dead, like all of us. How 'bout David Wells?

Bryan: Theo gets back and gets a deal done in a week. Wells back to San Diego. How about any of the Rays left on the trading block?

Rich: Julio Lugo and Aubrey Huff are history. Look for Lugo to end up with the Cubs. Andy Friedman will deal Huff to the highest bidder, but it may not happen until this spring. No way Molina sits out. Four million dollars for one year is much more than zero, no?

Bryan: Molina gets backed into the corner, also known as the city of Toronto. He's definitely an improvement upon Gregg Zaun. And how much colder can we expect Jeff Weaver's surroundings to be?

Rich: I'm pretty sure there is a market out there for Weaver. Unlike Scott Boras, I just don't think it's 4 x $10M. But, if it is, then I guess the Bank of Omar Minaya or Tom Hicks will be the one to foot that bill. Let's end with the ace of the free agent market and WBC. Roger Clemens - in or out?

Bryan: In, but on May 2. Whether that's with Hicks or McLane, I'm not sure.

Rich: When it's all said and done, I think he might be known as Roger Clemency. Let's just hope he bows out on a high note, whether it be in March with the WBC title under his belt or with one last great season in Houston or Texas.

Baseball Beat/WTNYJanuary 04, 2006
Top 30 Free Agents (and More) Revisited
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

As a follow-up to our three-part Free Agent series (Part One [#1-10], Part Two [#11-20], and Part Three [#21-30]) in November, we are going to provide the status of each player, compare our projections with the actual results of the signings, and add fresh comments on the top 30 plus the honorable mentions. We hit the nail on the head on several but came up one year and a million or two dollars short on the majority of the free agents in a frenzy that surprised us and many others.

1. Roger Clemens - 43 - SP - 2005: Houston Astros

W-L 13-8 | SV 0 | ERA 1.87 | WHIP 1.01 | 185 K/62 BB

Projection: Either Clemens signs with the Astros or he retires. Only Roger knows. It all depends on whether he still has the fire in his belly. If he comes back at a reduced salary, the money saved could be redirected toward a third quality bat to go along with Lance Berkman and Morgan Ensberg -- giving Houston perhaps one last opportunity to make another postseason run before retooling for the future.

Status: Unsigned.

Comments: The Astros didn't offer Clemens arbitration. He is now ineligible to sign with Houston until May 1st. Other potential suitors include his home state Texas Rangers, plus the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. The Rocket has one other option: retirement. The guess here is that he won't make any decision until after he pitches in the World Baseball Classic.

2. A.J. Burnett - 29 - SP - 2005: Florida Marlins

W-L 12-12 | SV 0 | ERA 3.44 | WHIP 1.26 | 198 K/79 BB

Projection: 4 years, $48 million. An expensive gamble given the number of times he has been on the DL throughout his career but one many teams won't hesitate to take.

Status: Signed, Toronto Blue Jays, 5/$55 million.

Comments: Burnett's contract actually worked out to a slightly lower annual amount than we forecast. A.J., however, made out even better because he got an extra year and the option to test the free agent market after 2008, if he so desires.

Burnett turned 29 on Tuesday. His age and career W-L record (49-50) are identical to Chris Carpenter when the latter joined the Cardinals in 2004. Could Burnett put up his best season to date in 2006, followed by a Cy Young Award in 2007?

3. Rafael Furcal - 28 - SS - 2005: Atlanta Braves

.284 AVG/.348 OBP/.429 SLG | HR 12 | SB 46 | 62 BB/78 SO

Projection: 4 years, $40 million. Edgar Renteria went from a .728 OPS in 2004 to this exact contract during the winter. Furcal will draw the same deal, and people will again cite that he's a "winner." Both sides will win at this rate.

Status: Signed, Los Angeles Dodgers, 3/$39 million.

Comments: We lowballed Furcal, on an annual rate, more than anyone on this list. It's reported that offers were up to five years, but Furcal decided to take an increased amount per year for less security. If he signs a two-year deal for more than $11 million after 2008, he made the right move. From where we are sitting, the Dodgers did, too.

4. Paul Konerko - 29 - 1B - 2005: Chicago White Sox

.283 AVG/.375 OBP/.534 SLG | HR 40 | RBI 100 | 81 BB/109 SO

Projection: At least a Richie Sexson-like 4 years, $50 million and a 5-year, $65 million deal isn't out of the question. Good luck.

Status: Signed, Chicago White Sox, 5/$60 million.

Comments: We're going to count this one as a success in terms of our prediction. If anything, we were a tad optimistic. Konerko is likely to earn his keep in at least two of the next three years, but we remain skeptical beyond that.

5. Kevin Millwood - 31 - SP - 2005: Cleveland Indians

W-L 9-11 | SV 0 | ERA 2.86 | WHIP 1.22 | 146 K/52 BB

Projection: 4 years, $36 million. Again, expectations will dictate whether this contract is a success or failure.

Status: Signed, Texas Rangers, 5/$60 million.

Comments: Texas can void the fifth year of the deal if Millwood doesn't pitch a certain number of innings in the early years of the contract, but the Rangers will pay him a minimum of $48 million for four years no matter what. Ugh!

6. Billy Wagner - 34 - RP - 2005: Philadelphia Phillies

W-L 4-3 | SV 38 | ERA 1.51 | WHIP .84 | 87 K/20 BB

Projection: 3 years, $30 million. That's more than $128,000 per inning based on last year's totals. By comparison, Clemens earned just $85,000 per inning despite making a record $18M for a pitcher.

Status: Signed, New York Mets, 4/$43 million.

Comments: Turns out that it's actually $138,000 per inning, with one more season than we had forecasted. The Mets wanted Wagner badly, needed a closer even worse, and have the money to overpay. But there is a lot of risk in a contract like this, and that's before we even talk about the problems involved in paying a reliever eight figures per year.

7. Brian Giles - 35 - OF - 2005: San Diego Padres

.301 AVG/.423 OBP/.483 SLG | HR 15 | RBI 83 | 119 BB/64 SO

Projection: 3 years, $30 million. Well worth it, at least for the next two seasons.

Status: Signed, San Diego Padres, 3/$30 million.

Comments: It's a match! Giles could have signed for more money elsewhere but chose to remain with his hometown Padres. We would not be surprised if he turns out to be the biggest bargain of this year's free agent class.

8. Hideki Matsui - 31 - LF - 2005: New York Yankees

.305 AVG/.367 OBP/.496 SLG | HR 23 | RBI 116 | 63 BB/78 SO

Projection: 3 years, $36 million. The Yankees won't lose him, nor care if they overpay by a couple million. Expect more of the same for all three years of this deal.

Status: Signed, New York Yankees, 4/$52 million.

Comments: Good for Matsui. He casually threatened to leave the Bronx a few times and, as a result, made more money than we had predicted. Matsui should be consistent for the first three years, as we guessed, but it's hard to think he'll be worth anything close to $13 million in 2009. Godzilla comes out on top.

9. Johnny Damon - 32 - CF - 2005: Boston Red Sox

.316 AVG/.366 OBP/.439 SLG | HR 10 | RBI 75 | 53 BB/69 SO

Projection: 3 years, $33 million. In four seasons with the Red Sox, Damon became one of New England's most recognizable faces. Loyalty pays a steep price.

Status: Signed, New York Yankees, 4/$52 million.

Comments: No one outside Boston can call Damon an "idiot" for taking the money and running. His signing fills a hole in New York while creating one for their arch enemy.

10. B.J. Ryan - 30 - RP - 2005: Baltimore Orioles

W-L 1-4 | SV 36 | ERA 3.54 | WHIP 1.14 | 100 K/26 BB

Projection: 4 years, $32 million. Bidding war will run high considering his number of suitors. His value should remain solid.

Status: Signed, Toronto Blue Jays, 5/$47 million.

Comments: Like most of the players on this list, we missed Ryan by one year and between $1-2 million annually. Apparently, that's just the current market. Ryan at five years is a big gamble but, given his age, it's a better risk than the Mets took with Wagner. Toronto also sent a message with this contract, which is a fact we can't ignore.

11. Nomar Garciaparra - 32 - SS - 2005: Chicago Cubs

.283 AVG/.320 OBP/.452 SLG | HR 9 | RBI 30 | 12 BB/24 SO

Projection: 2 years, $15 million. However, you can bet there will be enough incentives and options in the contract to drive its potential value through the roof. We're just not optimistic he'll meet any team's demands.

Status: Signed, Los Angeles Dodgers, 1/$6 million.

Comments: There is very little risk in this contract so, in that regard, it's hard to hate this deal for the Dodgers. But why, why, why would you pay $6 million for Nomar to play first base when you have Hee Seop Choi at less than a million and other needs to fill? From Nomar's perspective, this isn't a great deal either, but it gives him another chance to prove himself and earn a more lucrative deal next year.

12. Jeff Weaver - 29 - SP - 2005: Los Angeles Dodgers

W-L 14-11 | SV 0 | ERA 4.22 | WHIP 1.17 | 157 K/43 BB

Projection: 3 or 4 years @ $8-9M per. Seems like a lot of money but isn't that what these guys are now commanding?

Status: Unsigned.

Comments: The Dodgers offered Weaver arbitration. The team has until Sunday, January 8 to sign him. Scott Boras is believed to be seeking at least a four-year, $38 million deal for his client.

13. Jarrod Washburn - 31 - SP - 2005: Los Angeles Angels

W-L 8-8 | SV 0 | ERA 3.20 | WHIP 1.33 | 94 K/51 BB

Projection: 3 years, $25+ million. Teach your kids to pitch left-handed.

Status: Signed, Seattle Mariners, 4/$37.5 million.

Comments: Horrendous, horrendous signing. Maybe the worst of the winter. Why any team would pay this much money for Washburn, who was so obviously pitching over his head in 2005, is a mystery. Why the Mariners, who are still rebuilding in a sense, would gamble on their future like this is yet another red mark on Bill Bavasi's resume.

14. Tom Gordon - 38 - RP - 2005: New York Yankees

W-L 5-4 | SV 2 | ERA 2.57 | WHIP 1.09 | 69 K/29 BB

Projection: 3 years, $18 million. Likes Giles yesterday, he's a great bet for two seasons. However, some team will likely add a third year in order to secure their next closer.

Status: Signed, Philadelphia Phillies, 3/$18 million.

Comments: On the dot. Given the amount of money made by Wagner and Ryan, it's hard to believe that Gordon couldn't have held out for more. Pat Gillick did well in his first signing, taking a slight step backwards with Gordon but adding about $5 million to the payroll for each of the next three seasons. It's the White Sox way.

15. Ramon Hernandez - 29 - C - 2005: San Diego Padres

.290 AVG/.322 OBP/.450 SLG | HR 12 | RBI 58 | 18 BB/40 SO

Projection: 4 years, $22 million. His position and youth will be enough to convince a team this contract is worth it. We don't advise a four-year deal with very many catchers, but the price should be low enough to make him a worthwhile bet.

Status: Signed, Baltimore Orioles, 4/$27.5 million.

Comments: This signing came from left field, as no one expected the Orioles (already paying Javy Lopez a big chunk of money) to get involved with Hernandez. However, they struck quickly, and appear to have made a pretty good signing. They may have overpaid but, if there is a decent market for Lopez, the signing has the potential of being a success.

16. Bengie Molina - 31 - C - 2005: Los Angeles Angels

.295 AVG/.336 OBP/.446 SLG | HR 15 | RBI 69 | 27 BB/41 SO

Projection: 3 years, $20 million. An extra year or a few million more than prudence dictates.

Status: Unsigned.

Comments: Molina may have missed his opportunity with the Mets. If he doesn't get an offer to his liking, he could sign a one-year deal with the Angels to return on May 1st and then try the free agent market once again next winter.

17. Paul Byrd - 35 - SP - 2005: Los Angeles Angels

W-L 12-11 | SV 0 | ERA 3.74 | WHIP 1.19 | 102 K/28 BB

Projection: 1 x $6 million with an option for a second year if the Angels sign him or 2 years, $12+ million should he go elsewhere. A serviceable pitcher when healthy.

Status: Signed, Cleveland Indians, 2/$14.25 million.

Comments: If he stays healthy, this could wind up being a good signing for the Indians. With Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia in the rotation (and Jeremy Sowers on the horizon), all they really needed was a #3 or #4 pitcher. Paul Byrd is just that.

18. Matt Morris - 31 - SP - 2005: St. Louis Cardinals

W-L 14-10 | SV 0 | ERA 4.11 | WHIP 1.28 | 117 K/37 BB

Projection: 2 years, $13-15 million. Incentives, options, and buyouts likely to factor into his next contract.

Status: Signed, San Francisco Giants, 3/$27 million.

Comments: We don't like this signing one bit. If Paul Byrd only is making $7 million per year, then in what world does Matt Morris make nine? Does Brian Sabean not factor in the past two seasons when he signs free agents? Not quite as bad of a deal as Washburn, but if we were grading it, Sabean would earn a big, fat "D."

19. Jacque Jones - 30 - OF - 2005: Minnesota Twins

.249 AVG/.319 OBP/.438 SLG | HR 23 | RBI 73 | 51 BB/120 SO

Projection: Last year, Jermaine Dye signed a 2-year, $10.15 million contract with the White Sox. The last $1.15 million is the buyout for a potential third season. Look for Jones to sign a very similar contract this winter.

Status: Signed, Chicago Cubs, 3/$16 million.

Comments: Jones certainly signed for more than Dye got, as the Cubs were quickly falling out of options. Bryan has defended the deal but, as a result, no longer has the respect of any Cub fan. With a good southpaw basher at a cheap price (Eduardo Perez?), the Cubs will do fine here. Jones did even better.

20. Kyle Farnsworth - 29 - RP - 2005: Tigers/Braves

W-L 1-1 | SV 16 | ERA 2.19 | WHIP 1.01 | 87 K/27 BB

Projection: 3 years, $15 million. There is a lot of risk involved with Farnsworth, which will keep his next contract low. However, if he pitches like 2001 or 2005, this could be one of the winter's best deals.

Status: Signed, New York Yankees, 3/$17 million.

Comments: Off by less than a million per year, and we probably would have guessed more had we known the Yankees would sign him. Farnsworth never had the head to be a great closer, so he might thrive in the Tom Gordon role. But it will be interesting to see how Kyle holds up in New York.

21. Esteban Loaiza - 34 - SP - 2005: Washington Nationals

W-L 12-10 | SV 0 | ERA 3.77 | WHIP 1.30 | 173 K/55 BB

Projection: 2 years, $9-11 million. He is what he is, a guy who can throw 200+ IP with an ERA between 4.00-5.00 in a neutral environment.

Status: Signed, Oakland A's, 3/$21.4 million.

Comments: We seriously underestimated the market for mediocre starting pitching. Given the market, the A's didn't really overpay, though they probably went one year too many. Oakland wanted to land someone quickly, and did so, as Loaiza was one of the first players to change hands. If this deal allows Billy Beane the opportunity to get as much for Barry Zito as he did for Mark Mulder, then we will call it a success.

22. Reggie Sanders - 38 - OF - 2005: St. Louis Cardinals

.271 AVG/.340 OBP/.546 SLG | HR 21 | RBI 54 | 28 BB/75 SO

Projection: 2 years, $10 million. An injury-filled past and old age will force teams to stay conservative with their offers. Whoever signs him should be pleased given the right expectations.

Status: Signed, Kansas City Royals, 2/$10 million.

Comments: Again, right on the nose. We have a little bit of respect for these Royals, as they are determined to show their fan base that someone does care. Sanders won't be playing for a World Series team again any time soon, but he'll have the opportunity to end his career being called a "leader."

23. Preston Wilson - 31 - OF - 2005: Rockies/Nationals

.260 AVG/.325 OBP/.467 SLG | HR 25 | RBI 90 | 45 BB/148 SO

Projection: 2 years, $10-12 million, as long as the Yankees don't get involved. A small- to mid-size market team will think his 25 HR and 90 RBI are a bargain at that price.

Status: Signed, Houston Astros, 1/$4 million.

Comments: Wilson will either make $4.5 million for one year (including a $500,000 buyout) or $28 million for four years if the Astros exercise a club option to extend the contract through 2009. Houston gets Wilson at a slight discount to the $5 million per year entry fee for most middle-of-the-road free agent outfielders with the added bonus of being able to lock him up longer term, if they so choose.

24. Trevor Hoffman - 38 - RP - 2005: San Diego Padres

W-L 1-6 | SV 43 | ERA 2.97 | WHIP 1.11 | 54 K/12 BB

Projection: 2 years, $14 million. He deserves to be overpaid a bit, but no one should make the mistake of giving him a third year.

Status: Signed, San Diego Padres, 2/$13.5 million.

Comments: We basically nailed this one. "There's no place like home...There's no place like home..."

25. Todd Jones - 37 - RP - 2005: Florida Marlins

W-L 1-5 | SV 40 | ERA 2.10 | WHIP 1.03 | 62 K/14 BB

Projection: 2 years, $7-8 million. A cheap closer option for a small- or middle-market team.

Status: Signed, Detroit Tigers, 2/$11 million.

Comments: Here's a joke for you. In 2006, the Tigers will be paying Troy Percival and Jones a combined $11.5 million. The end.

26. Bob Wickman - 37 - RP - 2005: Cleveland Indians

W-L 0-4 | SV 45 | ERA 2.47 | WHIP 1.26 | 41 K/21 BB

Projection: A Jones-like 2 years and $7-8 million. They don't allow month-to-month deals, do they?

Status: Signed, Cleveland Indians, 1/$5 million.

Comments: The Indians had the best signing among mediocre starters with Byrd. They also had the best signing among mediocre closers with Wickman. Ken Williams may have deserved AL Executive of the Year in 2005, but Mark Shapiro is doing one heckuva job in Cleveland, too.

27. Kenji Johjima - 29 - C - 2005: Fukuoka Softbank Hawks

.309 AVG/.381 OBP/.557 SLG | HR 24 | RBI 57 |

Projection: 2 years, $13 million. Teams will only guarantee two, but you can bet they will have some options on the back end just in case.

Status: Signed, Seattle Mariners, 3/$16.5 million.

Comments: Very good signing. The Mariners have a following in Asia that is unmatched, and the Johjima signing will only help that. If he's an average catcher in the next three years -- and he has the ceiling to be much more -- this is a good signing.

28. Kenny Rogers - 41 - SP - 2005: Texas Rangers

W-L 14-8 | SV 0 | ERA 3.46 | WHIP 1.32 | 87 K/53 BB

Projection: 1 year, $6 million. He'll get a $1.5 million raise on his 2004 salary, plus some team will throw in an option for a second year, with a nice seven-figure buyout.

Status: Signed, Detroit Tigers, 2/$16 million.

Comments: Here's a joke for you. In 2006, the Tigers will be paying Kenny Rogers $8 million. The end.

29. Mike Piazza - 37 - C/DH - 2005: New York Mets

.251 AVG/.326 OBP/.452 | HR 19 | RBI 62 | 41 BB/67 SO

Projection: 1 year, $5 million. Piazza will be hard pressed to earn his keep on the field, but he just might be enough of a box-office hit for the right AL team to justify the price tag.

Status: Unsigned.

Comments: National League teams have shown little, if any, interest in the future Hall of Famer. As a result, Piazza may have to give up his desire to catch on a regular basis and sign a contract with an American League team to become a full-time DH and a part-time catcher.

30. Juan Encarnacion - 30 - OF - 2005: Florida Marlins

.287 AVG/.349 OBP/.447 SLG | HR 16 | RBI 76 | 41 BB/104 SO

Projection: 2 years, $8.5-9.5 million, basically repeating his previous salary. Encarnacion is young, consistent, and coming off perhaps his best year. You can rest assured that some General Manager will bite at that.

Status: Signed, St. Louis Cardinals, 3/$15 million.

Comments: Who would you rather have, Reggie Sanders for $5 million per for two years or Juan Encarnacion for $5 million per for three years?

* * * * *

Honorable Mention

  • Jeromy Burnitz

    Status: Signed, Pittsburgh Pirates, 1/$6 million.

    Comments: The two sides have agreed in principle as of Tuesday. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Burnitz's deal is "expected to be worth at least $6 million and would include an option for the 2007 season." If so, Jeromy will make more money than fellow free agent outfielders Encarnacion, Jones, Sanders, White, and Wilson. Thank you, Pittsburgh.

  • Octavio Dotel

    Status: Signed, New York Yankees, 1/$2 million.

    Comments: Dotel had reconstructive elbow surgery last June and isn't expected back until midseason. However, the Yankees, who are stockpiling relievers this winter, are hopeful that he can help them down the stretch.

  • Erubiel Durazo

    Status: Unsigned.

    Comments: Few players have had winters as quiet as Durazo. The holy grail will likely be signing a contract with less zeroes than he, and Billy Beane, had once imagined.

  • Carl Everett

    Status: Signed, Seattle Mariners, 1/$4 million.

    Comments: Mariners fans are making a lot of fuss for $4 million but, for what it's worth, we have set August 15 as the release date in the over/under contest.

  • Alex Gonzalez

    Status: Unsigned.

    Comments: A last-ditch option for Boston, if all else fails. Or perhaps for a team that might trade its shortstop to the Red Sox.

  • Mark Grudzielanek

    Status: Signed, Kansas City Royals, 1/$4 million.

    Comments: Another player dedicated to becoming a leader. A contending team should have made this deal.

  • Bobby Howry

    Status: Signed, Chicago Cubs, 3/$12 million.

    Comments: The Cubs really have guaranteed money towards Howry and Scott Eyre in 2008. Wow.

  • Bill Mueller

    Status: Signed, Los Angeles Dodgers, 2/$9.5 million.

    Comments: They really only need a stop gap for one season, as either Joel Guzman or Andy LaRoche will be ready by then. Therefore, Joe Randa probably would have been a better investment.

  • Frank Thomas

    Status: Unsigned.

    Comments: Teams are waiting for a medical report due this month before expressing an interest in Thomas. Look for an AL club to sign The Big Hurt to an incentive-based contract as a DH if he is cleared to play.

  • Rondell White

    Status: Signed, Minnesota Twins, 1/$3.25 million.

    Comments: We'd rather have Frank Thomas or Mike Piazza, but Twin fans should note that White has hit .300 or better in five of the past eight seasons with 12 or more HR every year. Hard to find much fault in a one-year deal at that price.

    * * * * *

    The following players are the remaining free agents who have signed for a total of at least $2 million:

    Braden Looper, St. Louis Cardinals, 3/$13.5M
    Scott Eyre, Chicago Cubs, 3/$11M
    Brett Tomko, Los Angeles Dodgers, 2/$8.7M
    Scott Elarton, Kansas City Royals, 2/$8M
    Brad Ausmus, Houston Astros, 2/$7.5M
    Hector Carrasco, Los Angeles Angels, 2/$6.1M
    Glendon Rusch, Chicago Cubs, 2/$6M
    Jamie Moyer, Seattle Mariners, 1/$5.5M
    Neifi Perez, Chicago Cubs, 2/$5M
    Joe Randa, Pittsburgh Pirates, 1/$4M
    Jason Johnson, Cleveland Indians, 1/$4M
    Tim Worrell, San Francisco Giants, 2/$4M
    Kenny Lofton, Los Angeles Dodgers, 1/$3.85M
    Elmer Dessens, Kansas City Royals, 2/$3.4M
    Abraham Nunez, Philadelphia Phillies, 2/$3.35M
    Jose Cruz Jr., Los Angeles Dodgers 1/$2.91M
    Ricardo Rincon, St. Louis Cardinals 2/$2.9M
    Roberto Hernandez, Pittsburgh Pirates, 1/$2.75M
    Jay Witasick, Oakland A's, 2/$2.75M
    Jose Mesa, Colorado Rockies, 1/$2.515M
    Ramon Ortiz, Washington Nationals, 1/$2.5M
    Mike Myers, New York Yankees, 2/$2.4M
    Dave Roberts, San Diego Padres, 1/$2.25M
    Eric Byrnes, Arizona Diamondbacks, 1/$2.25M
    Julio Franco, New York Mets, 2/$2.2M
    Tony Armas, Washington Nationals, 1/$2.1M
    Rudy Seanez, Boston Red Sox, 1/$2.1M
    Olmedo Saenz, Los Angeles Dodgers, 2/$2M

  • Baseball Beat/WTNYNovember 10, 2005
    Talkin' Turkey
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    We went on record with our top 30 free agents in a three-part series on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. We gave you our rankings and projections as far as contract terms. However, you didn't think we were going to end there, did you? Right you are. It's time for us to match the players with the teams. And we mix in some other Hot Stove stuffing and gravy as well. Let's serve it up.

    Bryan: Well, Rich, now that we've dissected and ranked the players, let's talk about where they might end up. I want to start with Paul Konerko, who seems to becoming the 'sexy' name of the offseason, even if he wasn't our number one player. Who do you see coming out of this bidding war on top?

    Rich: If it's not the White Sox, then it will be either the Angels or that other Sox team.

    Bryan: Let's talk about the White Sox commitment to him. Besides being the power hitter on the club, there is also a public relations side that must sign him.

    Rich: Yes, teams that win the World Series often times feel compelled to please their fan base by locking up their star players. Other than Ozzie, Konerko is the most popular guy on the South Side of Chicago. You can bet the Sox will do their damnedest to keep him.

    Bryan: The Chicago Sun-Times reported yesterday that Ken Williams is preparing a 4-year, $52 million contract. I'd say that's their damnedest, wouldn't you?

    Rich: That is a very full offer and just about what you and I predicted. The floor has now been set. The only question is whether or not Konerko holds out for a fifth year.

    Bryan: Let's hope that no one would put a burden on their payroll like that. But, as you said, there are some high-profile teams contending for him. The only team I think that has a chance, honestly, is one you didn't mention, the Mets.

    Rich: I'm quite certain that the Angels and Red Sox will be tendering offers. You might be right about the Mets though. Omar Minaya seems to have more money at his disposal than Bill Gates. Boy, Konerko's numbers would take a dive going from U.S. Cellular to Shea Stadium, don't ya think?

    Bryan: Most definitely. I really don't think that Konerko is a direction that the Mets should go. In fact, today we heard reports that Minaya has been talking about acquiring Aubrey Huff. Now that's more like it.

    Rich: Kudos to Gerry Hunsicker and Andrew Friedman down in Tampa Bay. They are trying to unload Huff while they can and at the same time take care of one of their own in Rocco Baldelli. The Devil Rays, if managed properly, could become the Cleveland Indians of the late-'90s.

    Bryan: Without question. Now if they could only use their offensive depth to acquire some pitching, and find a spot for B.J. Upton, I'd be happy. Let's just be glad the Devil Rays aren't like the Royals, who seem to be committed to spending too much money on a veteran that might help them win 65 games instead of just 60.

    Rich: I gotta tell you, Bryan, I am concerned for Royals fans. This free agent crop is right up their alley. A bunch of second-tier guys who they can throw some money at in the hopes that the uninitiated will think they are making a concerted effort to get better. Guys like Kevin Mench, rumored to be heading to KC, and Matt Morris aren't going to turn things around anytime soon.

    Bryan: Yes, can't you just imagine a press conference in which they give Morris something like 3 years at $8M per season? Yuck! I don't really have a problem with the Mench-for-Affeldt rumors (Jeremy just isn't turning the corner in K.C.), but they must show their fan base the right mentality. They should be focusing on nurturing and improving Billy Butler, Zack Greinke, Alex Gordon, Justin Huber, and in time, Andrew Miller.

    Rich: Patience is the watchword here. Well, at least in terms of how long it's going to take to turn this mess around. But I bet the fans wish they would hurry up and sell the team, hire a new GM, and put a five-year plan in place. I mean, the Royals could have one of the top picks in the draft for the next few years. How can they NOT get better?

    Bryan: No kidding. Let's move within the division to a team whose five-year plan actually looks to be succeeding: the Cleveland Indians. Mark Shapiro is in a tough place, forced into decisions regarding Kevin Millwood and Bob Wickman. Sure, both have regressions coming, but both are also top 30 free agents. Is simply bringing back the 2005 team the direction he should go?

    Rich: I normally don't advocate sitting tight but, in the case of the Indians, I think that just might be the way to go. Building your team with young and talented players like Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, and Grady Sizemore up the middle is a sure sign that management knows what it is doing. The Indians were one of the best teams in baseball last year. Heck, they might have been the second best for all we know. Winning 93 games with a $41 million payroll is a tribute to Shapiro and his staff.

    Bryan: Yes, and you can bet that Shapiro will now be given some extra money to add to his payroll. However, I disgaree with you. This team has the foundation for success, yes, but they also can't just sit tight. Re-signing Wickman is a bad idea, and I wouldn't advise to meet Millwood's demands, either. Instead, let the front office continue to be creative, filling these holes, and trying to find a way to eliminate Aaron Boone and/or Casey Blake from that lineup.

    Rich: When I said "sit tight," I didn't mean holding on to Millwood and Wickman per se. I just think they should stay the course while tweaking their roster on the margin in the most cost-effective manner. I'm certainly not married to Wickman. There's no reason to suspect that an even cheaper option like Bob Howry couldn't do as good a job as him. Let's face it, there are a lot of decent closers out there to choose from.

    Bryan: Definitely not. The consensus top two are, as we ranked them, Billy Wagner and B.J. Ryan. And I don't see either of those players touching Cleveland with a ten-foot pole. Instead, Wagner will probably choose between the Phillies and the Mets (are they in on every big free agent these days, or what?), while Ryan is going to hear from all the big teams: the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, etc.

    Rich: I guess it depends if you like to shop at Bloomingdale's or Target. Todd Jones would be just fine by me -- as would Howry -- and I wouldn't be against giving Kyle Farnsworth a shot. The Wagners and Ryans out there are going to come at a big price. No thanks. I would rather see the Indians give Brian Giles the same money or even slightly more, for that matter, in order to get one more big bat in the lineup.

    Bryan: I agree, though Giles might get priced-out of their budget pretty fast. I see him ending up with the Chicago Cubs, who will also get Rafael Furcal. But Giles, like the closers discussed above, will get interest from everyone. While he might not even make a ton of sense for the Yankees or Red Sox (unless they trade Manny), you can bet even they will be in on the calls.

    Rich: For sure, as well as they should be. What were the Padres thinking, offering him a 3 x 7 deal? C'mon, that is downright insulting. Sheesh, that's not even in the ballpark -- and Petco is a huuuuuuuuge park. If Kevin Towers & Co. believe they can replace him with Jacque Jones, on top of trading for Vinny Castilla, I have a bridge to sell them and it's not heading to Coronado.

    Bryan: The Dodgers would have to fall flat on their face to not be the favorites in March. After all the 2005 injuries returning, and the money spent this winter, they should be much improved.

    Rich: The only money the Dodgers have spent so far is in severance pay. I'm not at all convinced the McCourts are going to pay up for anyone. That said, I don't think the Dodgers can get much worse and in such a weak division, I guess they have as good a shot at winning as anyone else. But the real story here is 2007 and beyond, provided the McCourts and the new GM don't panic first. Oops, silly me. I forgot, the panic button has already been pushed.

    Bryan: The Dodgers are the definition of mismanaged, but still should be the favorites in the NL West. Says a lot about that division, huh? Really, the Dodgers concern should be to avoid becoming the number two team in Los Angeles. The Angels have shown an interest in getting rid of Darin Erstad this winter, which is a sign their winning ways just might continue.

    Rich: That is a very good sign. But for the life of me, I don't understand why they have so much interest in Konerko. It's not like Erstad is their only option at first base. Bill Stoneman, I'd like you to meet Casey Kotchman. Oh, and Kendry Morales is sitting in the lobby waiting to see you, too.

    Bryan: It's funny that the team was so quick to implement Dallas McPherson, but approach Kotchman with such apprehension. They have the chance in 2007 to have Jeff Mathis behind the plate, with an infield of Kotchman-Kendrick-Wood-McPherson and Kendry at DH. I'm not sure Billy Beane could make 1,000 trades to top that future.

    Rich: Excuse me, I was salivating. Gotta wipe my shirt off. Not only are those guys up-and-coming players with high ceilings, they will be cheap for years to come. Arte Moreno will be able to add a real center fielder one of these years and put even more money into an already top-notch pitching rotation.

    Bryan: Alright, Rich, let's give the readers what they want with a quick lightning round. Do the Burnett-to-Toronto rumors make sense, and where will he end up?

    Rich: Toronto has the money as well as Brad Arnsberg. If Burnett is OK with Canada, then Toronto it is. While on the subject of the AL East -- Johnny Damon?

    Bryan: Stays in Boston for too much money. Am I right with Furcal to Chicago?

    Rich: If not the Braves, then the Cubs. Speaking of which, Nomar?

    Bryan: Heads out west to the Dodgers. How about the three catchers, Hernandez, Molina and Jojima?

    Rich: Arizona, NYM, and Seattle. Let's turn to those ace relievers. Wagner, Ryan, and Gordon?

    Bryan: The Mets, Red Sox and Yankees. Now please Rich, tell me Hoffman and Thomas stay in the right uniforms?

    Rich: Maybe Hoffman although they are far apart. Thomas is Oakland's next DH. Sad but true.

    Rich: Speaking of has beens, where will Piazza wind up?

    Bryan: If it's not Thomas in Oakland, it's Piazza. Otherwise, he'll replace Raffy in Baltimore. Let's end on the two bashers, Konerko and Giles. Who lands 'em?

    Rich: Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals. Have a good life, Larry Walker. Welcome, Brian Giles. The type of guy LaRussa and the fans in St. Louis will love.

    Baseball Beat/WTNYNovember 09, 2005
    Free Agency Preview (Part Three)
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    UPDATE: Rich will be a guest on The Mighty 1090 AM radio show this evening at approximately 5:30 PST. The host is Ted Leitner, the voice of the San Diego Padres. The topics of discussion include the GM meetings, free agents, trade rumors, and, of course, the Padres.

    For those who will be away from the radio or are out of the area, the show can be heard via streaming audio. Click on the blinking "1090AM LISTEN LIVE" button.

    * * * * *

    We wind down our free agent series with the #21-30 players available this winter. Today's list includes a first-ballot Hall of Famer, three crack relief pitchers, a couple of former All-Star starting pitchers, three outfielders who have been around the block, and a Japanese import. (Part One and Part Two)

    21. Esteban Loaiza - 33 - SP - 2005: Washington Nationals

    W-L 12-10 | SV 0 | ERA 3.77 | WHIP 1.30 | 173 K/55 BB

    With the exception of 2003 when Loaiza finished second in the AL Cy Young voting, he has always been the type of pitcher who was more of an innings-eater than anything else. The question has usually been whether that was a good or a bad thing. The native of Tijuana, Mexico relies heavily on his cut fastball while mixing in a four-seamer with average velocity, a mediocre slider, and a change-up.

    Aside from his superb season, which two years later looks to be more and more of an aberration, Loaiza's ERA going into 2005 ranged from 4.13-5.71. The 11-year veteran then bounced back last season and posted the second-best ERA of his career. He was undoubtedly helped by RFK Stadium, one of the more friendly pitcher's ballparks last year. Loaiza fashioned an ERA of 2.86 at home and 4.71 on the road.

    Projection: 2 years, $9-11 million. He is what he is, a guy who can throw 200+ IP with an ERA between 4.00-5.00 in a neutral environment.

    22. Reggie Sanders - 37 - OF - 2005: St. Louis Cardinals

    .271 AVG/.340 OBP/.546 SLG | HR 21 | RBI 54 | 28 BB/75 SO

    Sanders only played in 93 games last year, but he sure looked good doing it. If he had survived a full season, his numbers would have projected to 37 home runs, 94 RBI, and 24 stolen bases. Of course, Sanders has never played a full season, as his career-high is 140 games. Counting on him to play more than 120 games would be a risk.

    However, there is a high likelihood that he will play quite well in those 120 games. Sanders showed the same plus-power in 2005 that has always made him an attractive option, while also walking at the highest rate of his career. He will, of course, strike out a lot, but that is now one of his only flaws. He runs the bases well, plays good outfield defense, and can hit even the league's best fastball.

    Given the right fourth outfielder, there is no reason to believe that Sanders' late-career success will not continue. Oh, and he's got that "winner" label, too.

    Projection: 2 years, $10 million. An injury-filled past and old age will force teams to stay conservative with their offers. Whoever signs him should be pleased given the right expectations.

    23. Preston Wilson - 30 - OF - 2005: Rockies/Nationals

    .260 AVG/.325 OBP/.467 SLG | HR 25 | RBI 90 | 45 BB/148 SO

    Wilson is unique among this year's free agent class in that he can play all three outfield positions. The former All-Star has a lot of pop in his bat, too. He has a big swing and always ranks among the league leaders in strikeouts. Owing to a knee injury, Wilson's days of stealing 20-plus bases are behind him. But he is only two years removed from leading the NL in RBI, a plus for those GMs who believe they need a "run producer."

    The 6-foot-2, 213-pound former Met, Marlin, Rockie, and Nat has a career OPS+ of 106 so we wouldn't get carried away with his offensive abilities, especially for an OF. His counting stats are enticing at first blush, but they overstate his actual production.

    Projection: 2 years, $10-12 million, as long as the Yankees don't get involved. A small- to mid-size market team will think his 25 HR and 90 RBI are a bargain at that price.

    24. Trevor Hoffman - 37 - RP - 2005: San Diego Padres

    W-L 1-6 | SV 43 | ERA 2.97 | WHIP 1.11 | 54 K/12 BB

    Like Frank Thomas (who just missed our top 30), the prospect of Trevor Hoffman leaving San Diego is a sad one. Although Hoffman hasn't spent his entire career with one organization in the manner of Thomas, imagining Trevor in a different uniform is a strange thought. The right-hander has saved 434 games as a Padre, including 53 in his sparkling 1998 season.

    Those days are long gone, however, as Hoffman really is not a threat to post a 1.98 ERA anymore. His K/9, which once lived in double-digits, has been below 9.00 for two seasons. In 2005, his .235 batting average against was the lowest since 1995. Hoffman's game is now a different one, as he is walking batters at David Wells-like rates. He still has one of the game's best change-ups, though his fastball is down to around 90-MPH.

    Given his age, past injuries, and the declining K/9 rate, Hoffman isn't the safest bet for an eight-figure contract. However, he provides a sort of ninth-inning comfort that few other pitchers in the Majors could. Let's just hope that's with the Padres.

    Projection: 2 years, $14 million. He deserves to be overpaid a bit, but no one should make the mistake of giving him a third year.

    25. Todd Jones - 37 - RP - 2005: Florida Marlins

    W-L 1-5 | SV 40 | ERA 2.10 | WHIP 1.03 | 62 K/14 BB

    Jones throws four pitches for strikes, including a fastball that was consistently hitting 95-MPH on the gun last year. The 13-year veteran challenges hitters and was equally tough on LHB and RHB, as well as at home and away. Jones claims that he didn't shake catcher Paul LoDuca off once all year. Whether the author of "The Closer" column for The Sporting News can maintain his excellence without LoDuca remains to be seen, but the change of scenery won't be anything new as he has been with Boston, Colorado, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Florida the past three years.

    The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder allowed only two HR in 73 IP last season. Todd's ERA was almost two runs below his career norm. He also ranked fourth in the NL in saves despite not registering his first until the end of April. His ERA was under 2.00 every month except September (4.91) when he gave up four hits and five runs (four earned) without getting an out in a forgettable appearance vs. Philadelphia.

    Projection: 2 years, $7-8 million. A cheap closer option for a small- or middle-market team.

    26. Bob Wickman - 36 - RP - 2005: Cleveland Indians

    W-L 0-4 | SV 45 | ERA 2.47 | WHIP 1.26 | 41 K/21 BB

    Wickman throws a two-seam fastball, a slider, and a change-up. His fastball sits in the low-90s and doubles as a heavy sinker. At 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, Wickman isn't light on his feet. He is a poor fielder and not adept at holding baserunners (11 SB and 0 CS last year and 21-for-21 the past three seasons).

    A closer since 1998, Wickman has a bulldog mentality on the mound. He wants the ball and thrives in pressure situations. His 45 saves ranked second in the AL although his peripheral stats were less than spectacular. He had arm surgery two years ago and is a health risk.

    Projection: A Jones-like 2 years and $7-8 million. They don't allow month-to-month deals, do they?

    27. Kenji Jojima - 29 - C - 2005: Fukuoka Softbank Hawks

    .309 AVG/.381 OBP/.557 SLG | HR 24 | RBI 57 |

    An unknown commodity if there ever was one. Most Japanese products are, although players like Ichiro, Hideki and Kaz Matsui came with fantastic reviews. Tadahito Iguchi, however, slipped through the free agent process last year, signing a small deal with the World Champion White Sox. Jojima lies somewhere in the middle, as he isn't well-known as one of Japan's most dangerous hitters but is garnering more interest than Iguchi.

    Jojima wasn't much entering the 2003 season, following a 2002 in which his OBP was below .310. The last three seasons, however, Jojima has averaged something like .320/.405/.600. His 2004 season was fantastic, where Jojima showed good discipline, power, and a solid throwing arm. This past season, Jojima broke his shin at the end of a year in which he hit 24 homers and had a .381 OBP. However, traditionalists might worry that he only had 57 RBI. Don't let that concern you.

    Because as unknown commodities go, he might just be worth the risk.

    Projection: 2 years, $13 million. Teams will only guarantee two, but you can bet they will have some options on the back end just in case.

    28. Kenny Rogers - 40 - SP - 2005: Texas Rangers

    W-L 14-8 | SV 0 | ERA 3.46 | WHIP 1.32 | 87 K/53 BB

    If only age and make-up didn't matter, Rogers would be ranked much higher. He is the definition of crafty lefty, throwing 90-MPH only on occasion, while mixing a good curve and solid change. His control has never been a forte, but an ability to pitch with runners on base and keep the ball in the park has made him a 16-year veteran.

    However, his status as a veteran comes at a cost: age. Rogers will turn 41 tomorrow, and his days are getting more and more numbered. Only eight southpaws have ever thrown 180 or more innings at his age. Only five pitched decently. The numbers are simply against Rogers succeeding, against his ERA staying below 5.00. Throw in a certain camera man incident from the regular season and a second half ERA of 4.72, and you can see why Rogers might not be the winter's hottest commodity.

    Projection: 1 year, $6 million. He'll get a $1.5 million raise on his 2004 salary, plus some team will throw in an option for a second year, with a nice seven-figure buyout.

    29. Mike Piazza - 36 - C/DH - 2005: New York Mets

    .251 AVG/.326 OBP/.452 | HR 19 | RBI 62 | 41 BB/67 SO

    Piazza can still hit reasonably well. Too bad we can't say the same for his defense. Oh, Mike is good enough to spell a starter here and there, but no team can -- or should -- count on him to be their number one catcher. Whether he wants to admit it or not, those days are simply behind him. However, Piazza's agent says the former Dodger and Met great isn't interested in being reduced to a part-time role -- and therein lies the problem. They are still of the belief that Mike can play for "two or three more years" and maintain that he will have the option to catch in either league. We say "good luck" to that and expect AL teams to be much more involved in bidding for his services as a designated hitter and backup catcher than NL teams.

    The future Hall of Famer still has above-average power to all fields, but he no longer has what it takes to hit .300. In fact, we think it would be a mistake to expect anything more than a .265 AVG with 20 HR (with little or nothing else behind those numbers) over the course of a 400-450 AB season. Like it or not, at this point in his career, he is more of a name than anything else.

    Projection: 1 year, $5 million. Piazza will be hard pressed to earn his keep on the field, but he just might be enough of a box-office hit for the right AL team to justify the price tag.

    30. Juan Encarnacion - 29 - OF - 2005: Florida Marlins

    .287 AVG/.349 OBP/.447 SLG | HR 16 | RBI 76 | 41 BB/104 SO

    For four seasons, Juan Encarnacion has been the same player. He has played the same good outfield defense, while staying the same poor baserunner. You can expect about 140-150 games, 40 or so walks, and about 45-55 extra-base hits (the smaller the park, the less doubles and more HR). The only thing that changes on a year-to-year basis is batting average.

    Lucky enough for Encarnacion, his batting average rose 50 points during the 2005 season. Interestingly, his BABIP on the season was .334, far above the league average. This followed a season in which he had the opposite luck. In the middle lies a player who should hit about .270/.330/.430 over the duration of his contract. It's nothing great, but he's a sure bet for those willing to settle for mediocrity.

    Projection: 2 years, $8.5-9.5 million, basically repeating his previous salary. Encarnacion is young, consistent, and coming off perhaps his best year. You can rest assured that some General Manager will bite at that.

    Honorable Mention: Jeromy Burnitz, Octavio Dotel, Erubiel Durazo, Carl Everett, Alex Gonzalez, Mark Grudzielanek, Bobby Howry, Bill Mueller, Frank Thomas, Rondell White

    * * * * *

    Check back tomorrow when we get together and chat about our predictions for the winter.

    We also would like to point out two new additions to our sidebar. The first is the "Hot Off the Stove" feature near the top, in which we will be commenting on the day's hottest topic. Second, our list of the top 30 free agents is at the bottom and will be updated as these players sign throughout the offseason. As for now, feel free to list your own thoughts in the comments section.

    Baseball Beat/WTNYNovember 08, 2005
    Free Agency Preview (Part Two)
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    With the Hot Stove League about to begin, we are previewing this year's top 30 free agents in a three-part series. We covered #s 1-10 yesterday and continue with our second ten today. We start off with a certain former Boston Red Sox All-Star shortstop:

    11. Nomar Garciaparra - 31 - SS - 2005: Chicago Cubs

    .283 AVG/.320 OBP/.452 SLG | HR 9 | RBI 30 | 12 BB/24 SO

    This was not supposed to happen. In fact, Nomar was never supposed to reach free agency. After hitting .372 in 2000, Nomar was a hero in New England to a Tom Brady degree. He was supposed to stay a Bostonian for life. And then, his wrist hurt. And it stayed hurt, and he was never the same. His days in Chicago were mediocre at best, and Garciaparra's health prevented North Siders from seeing his true colors, whatever they might be.

    No longer is Nomar an asset at shortstop. Instead, he's better suited moving down the defensive spectrum to third base or left field. No longer is he a good bet to have a .360 OBP or even the .342 OBP that had been his career low before the 2005 season. No longer is Nomar a threat to slug over .500. But, he still has the potential to hit .280/.330/.470. Look for a team to give him one last shot to handle SS with the knowledge that he could be switched to 3B, if necessary. An infielder who can post an .800 OPS has value, although teams shouldn't expect him to play a full season.

    And yes, he's a public relations department's dream. Or, at least has the potential to be.

    Projection: 2 years, $15 million. However, you can bet there will be enough incentives and options in the contract to drive its potential value through the roof. We're just not optimistic he'll meet any team's demands.

    12. Jeff Weaver - 29 - SP - 2005: Los Angeles Dodgers

    W-L 14-11 | SV 0 | ERA 4.22 | WHIP 1.17 | 157 K/43 BB

    Weaver throws two fastballs (a low-90s four-seamer as well as a high-80s two-seamer that runs and sinks), a hard slider, a slurve, and a mediocre change-up. At 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, the lanky right-hander is long and comes at hitters with a low angle of delivery. Jeff's make-up is questionable and his body language on the mound when things go against him leaves a lot to be desired.

    Weaver's splits show he is tough on RHB (.208/.241/.345) and at home (.237/.290/.385). On the other hand, he is less than ordinary against LHB (.297/.356/.511) and on the road (.277/.320/.489). After a rough April and May, Jeff settled down and posted a 3.60 ERA in the final four months of the season. Weaver is durable (224 IP in 2005 and has never been on the DL during his seven-year career) and has nearly impeccable control (one walk per five innings). However, he needs to drastically reduce the number of gopher balls (35, tied for the second most in MLB) to become anything more than a 4.00 ERA, middle-of-the-rotation pitcher.

    Projection: 3 or 4 years @ $8-9M per. Seems like a lot of money but isn't that what these guys are now commanding?

    13. Jarrod Washburn - 31 - SP - 2005: Los Angeles Angels

    W-L 8-8 | SV 0 | ERA 3.20 | WHIP 1.33 | 94 K/51 BB

    Washburn is the best southpaw in a thin market for starting pitchers. Jarrod throws the standard pitches but no longer relies on his heater the way he once did. He works the outside corner, throwing sliders to LHB and change-ups to RHB in addition to his two fastballs. Washburn has become less of a flyball pitcher in 2004-05 than he was in his first six seasons. The lefty is quick to home and rarely allows runners to steal bases (0-for-6 in 2005 and 37 SB with 38 CS since 2000). He consistently pitches better on the road than at home.

    Jarrod's won-loss record and ERA were both misleading last year. He deserved to win more than eight games for a division champ but didn't pitch as well as his fourth-ranked ERA might indicate. Washburn, in fact, had the highest DIPS/ERA ratio in the league last year, suggesting that he benefited from strong defense and luck more than anything else. Wash also gave up more hits than innings, had a K/BB ratio under 2.0, and his 4.77 K/9 was the lowest of his eight-year career.

    Projection: 3 years, $25+ million. Teach your kids to pitch left-handed.

    14. Tom Gordon - 37 - RP - 2005: New York Yankees

    W-L 5-4 | SV 2 | ERA 2.57 | WHIP 1.09 | 69 K/29 BB

    It looked like at the age of 28, Tom Gordon was washed up. Fresh off signing a contract with the Boston Red Sox, Gordon had a 5.59 ERA in 1996. In 215.2 innings, Gordon allowed 249 hits, 105 walks and 28 home runs. He looked finished. The next season, the Red Sox converted Gordon in midseason to the bullpen. He has yet to look back.

    For the last three seasons, Gordon has been one of the best relievers in baseball. In each, he has appeared in more than 60 games, with an ERA never higher than 3.16. Some worry that his K/9, which dropped to 7.70 this year, is a sign for future failure. However, Flash still shows the stuff that put him at the top: the mid-90s fastball, the devastating hammer curve, and the solid slider.

    Projection: 3 years, $18 million. Likes Giles yesterday, he's a great bet for two seasons. However, some team will likely add a third year in order to secure their next closer.

    15. Ramon Hernandez - 29 - C - 2005: San Diego Padres

    .290 AVG/.322 OBP/.450 SLG | HR 12 | RBI 58 | 18 BB/40 SO

    There was one change in the style of Ramon Hernandez at the plate in 2005: he stopped walking. Instead, Hernandez increased his batting average, this time to a career high .290. We can partially attribute this to Ramon showing the best contact skills of his career: 40 strikeouts in 369 at-bats. His on-base percentage was right near his career average, even if his tiny walk rate was his worst ever.

    Hernandez has the potential to be a very good investment. If he could continue to show the same contact skills, while reverting to his past walk and power rates, he has .290/.350/.450 potential. He is also serviceable behind the plate, although few catchers were run on as much as Ramon last season. However, there is no question that Hernandez has a few obstacles to overcome before he reaches his ceiling, if that time has not already passed.

    Projection: 4 years, $22 million. His position and youth will be enough to convince a team this contract is worth it. We don't advise a four-year deal with very many catchers, but the price should be low enough to make him a worthwhile bet.

    16. Bengie Molina - 31 - C - 2005: Los Angeles Angels

    .295 AVG/.336 OBP/.446 SLG | HR 15 | RBI 69 | 27 BB/41 SO

    Molina had a career year at the plate in 2005, setting personal highs in AVG/OBP/SLG, as well as HR and BB. He slugged three HR in the first three games of the ALDS, fell back to Earth in the ALCS (2-for-17 with no extra-base hits), and ended up with overall numbers in the postseason that weren't distinctly different than his seasonal averages. Bengie rakes against lefties (.393/.430/.648) but has never been platooned despite his shortcomings vs. righties (.253/.294/.361). He is a contact hitter first and foremost, but his lack of speed causes him to hit into an inordinate number of double plays.

    The oldest Molina brother is no longer the catcher he was in 2002-03 when he earned Gold Gloves by throwing out nearly 45% of base stealers. After a poor season in 2004, Bengie threw out an acceptable 31% last year. He is still an asset behind the plate and pitchers like working with him. However, Molina is a risky proposition for any team because of his age, weight, and poor conditioning.

    Projection: 3 years, $20 million. An extra year or a few million more than prudence dictates.

    17. Paul Byrd - 35 - SP - 2005: Los Angeles Angels

    W-L 12-11 | SV 0 | ERA 3.74 | WHIP 1.19 | 102 K/28 BB

    Every rotation could use a guy like Byrd. Although not a hard thrower, the veteran right-hander is effective because he throws strikes and changes speed. Paul is an old-fashioned pitcher in terms of his over-the-head windup and his style of painting the black with nothing more than average stuff. He is a nibbler and is much more comfortable working the outside, rather than the inside, part of the plate.

    Byrd is much tougher on RHB (.234/.257/.382) than LHB (.306/.339/.473). The OPS differential has been about .200 over the past three years and his strikeout and walk rates are like night and day. To wit, Byrd's K/BB ratio over the past three seasons has been 9.05 vs. RHB and 1.58 vs. LHB. If Paul's not careful, he may end up being a ROOGY before his career is over.

    Projection: 1 x $6 million with an option for a second year if the Angels sign him or 2 years, $12+ million should he go elsewhere. A serviceable pitcher when healthy.

    18. Matt Morris - 31 - SP - 2005: St. Louis Cardinals

    W-L 14-10 | SV 0 | ERA 4.11 | WHIP 1.28 | 117 K/37 BB

    Morris is a fastball/curveball pitcher who throws strikes. His fastball topped out in the low-90s during the first half of the season and the high-80s in the second half. His overhand curve was once among the best in the game and his heavy sinker is primarily responsible for his above-average G/F ratio (1.60). Matt can be guilty of being around the plate too much and his HR rate has jumped to 1.22 per 9 the past three years vs. 0.58 from 1997-2002.

    The big right-hander, who has had a history of struggling as the season progresses, posted an ERA of 3.10 prior to the All-Star break and 5.32 after. He gave up 113 hits (including 16 gopher balls) in just 88 innings and his K/9 plunged to 4.50. Morris is no longer the elite pitcher from 2001 when he was striking out nearly eight batters per nine and getting 2x the number of groundballs vs. flyballs.

    Projection: 2 years, $13-15 million. Incentives, options, and buyouts likely to factor into his next contract.

    19. Jacque Jones - 30 - OF - 2005: Minnesota Twins

    .249 AVG/.319 OBP/.438 SLG | HR 23 | RBI 73 | 51 BB/120 SO

    There is no question that other outfielders on the free agent list had better 2005 seasons or have had superior careers. None, however, are as young as Jones or play the outfield as well as he does.

    Terry Ryan and the Twins have always been very stubborn regarding Jones. They should have realized a long time ago that Jones could not hit left-handers. In a continuing tradition, Jones hit poorly (.201/.247/.370) against southpaws. However, he continued to hit right-handers well, to the tune of an .814 OPS. He also is historically better away from the Metrodome (.822 OPS vs. .742).

    Given the right context, Jacque Jones could succeed. He needs to stay away from Minnesota, preferably in a hitter's park. He also needs a good platoon partner, so he can avoid ever facing a southpaw again.

    Projection: Last year, Jermaine Dye signed a 2-year, $10.15 million contract with the White Sox. The last $1.15 million is the buyout for a potential third season. Look for Jones to sign a very similar contract this winter.

    20. Kyle Farnsworth - 29 - RP - 2005: Tigers/Braves

    W-L 1-1 | SV 16 | ERA 2.19 | WHIP 1.01 | 87 K/27 BB

    Few players are more frustrating to watch than Kyle Farnsworth. At times, he is as dominating as anyone. He mixes a fastball that can hit triple digits with an inconsistent slider and splitter. When Kyle gets the latter two over the plate, he is fantastic. However, he often falls into the trap of throwing these pitches too much, even when they aren't under control.

    We have seen in the past what type of influence Leo Mazzone has on a pitcher. Mazzone had only a half-season with Farnsworth, but the results were sparkling: a 1.98 ERA, 32 strikeouts in 27.1 innings, and just 22 baserunners. Basically, we saw Mazzone bring out Farnsworth's ceiling. Kyle has always been close to breaking out, and there should be some closer openings that are willing to risk that he already has.

    Projection: 3 years, $15 million. There is a lot of risk involved with Farnsworth, which will keep his next contract low. However, if he pitches like 2001 or 2005, this could be one of the winter's best deals.

    * * * * *

    Check back tomorrow for part three of this series, the final ten players on our list, as well as several honorable mentions. As for now, feel free to list your own projections -- and problems with our rankings -- in the comments section.

    [Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]

    Baseball Beat/WTNYNovember 07, 2005
    Free Agency Preview (Part One)
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    The regular season gets underway in April, the playoffs in October, and free agency in November. Yes, baseball is about to embark on its third season this month. Thursday marks the last day in which players can file for free agency. Teams will no longer have exclusive negotiating rights. On Friday, about 200 players will be available to all 30 ballclubs, and the hot stove will be turned up to high.

    To be nice, this free agent class is a weak one. Really weak. Excluding Roger Clemens, there are no superstars on the market. In fact, we believe there are fewer than ten players to get hot and bothered about. However, thanks to a recent XM Satellite radio deal, every Major League team has some extra money in the bank. And while the talent might not be up to par with past winters, you can bet the spending will be.

    On a day in which the General Managers meet in Indian Wells, we have decided to begin to unveil our list of the top 30 free agents available this winter. There will be other players out there who can be acquired via trades or after non-tenders hit the market, but these 30 should represent the cream of the free agent crop. In a perfect winter, there would be a strong correlation between ranking and dollars spent. However, some teams will reach based on need and others will sit out altogether, making the process less efficient than one might expect.

    We can only show you what we think of the players today, before you find out soon what your team thinks. We start with the best ten free agents in baseball, with the Major League ERA leader atop the list:

    1. Roger Clemens - 43 - SP - 2005: Houston Astros

    W-L 13-8 | SV 0 | ERA 1.87 | WHIP 1.01 | 185 K/62 BB

    Clemens couples a riding fastball in the low-to-mid 90s with arguably the most effective splitter in the game today. The latter looks like his fastball until the bottom drops out at the end. Roger has the unique ability to work batters up and down the zone as well as both sides of the plate. He is without peer in terms of his physical and mental preparation and is as good as his health allows.

    Which Clemens would the Astros get in 2006? The Rocket pitched as well as ever from April through August but was closer to replacement level in September and October. Roger averaged just five innings in eight starts down the stretch and in the postseason. His WHIP and ERA skyrocketed to an un-Clemens-like 1.53 and 4.81, respectively, while his strikeout rate plummeted to 5.44 per 9. Is Father Time catching up with the 43-year-old all-time great or was his poor performance a function of a nagging hamstring injury that could befell any pitcher? That's the $18 million question.

    Projection: Either Clemens signs with the Astros or he retires. Only Roger knows. It all depends on whether he still has the fire in his belly. If he comes back at a reduced salary, the money saved could be redirected toward a third quality bat to go along with Lance Berkman and Morgan Ensberg -- giving Houston perhaps one last opportunity to make another postseason run before retooling for the future.

    2. A.J. Burnett - 28 - SP - 2005: Florida Marlins

    W-L 12-12 | SV 0 | ERA 3.44 | WHIP 1.26 | 198 K/79 BB

    Burnett is the best starting pitcher among this year's free agent class, given the likelihood that Clemens won't sign with any team other than the Astros. The former Marlin is highly coveted and will be a big catch for whichever team lands him.

    A.J. works in the mid- to upper-90s and has been known to hit triple digits on the radar gun. His repetoire includes an overpowering four-seam fastball, a two-seamer with lots of action, and a hump-backed curve that can flat out freeze hitters. He delivers the ball across his body at a 3/4 arm angle and is as deceptive as he is fast. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound right-hander has the stuff to contend for a Cy Young Award in either league.

    Although Burnett was 0-6 with a 5.87 ERA in his last seven starts, he finished the season ranked sixth in MLB in G/F ratio (2.42), eighth in K/9 (8.53), and fourth in HR/9 (0.52). His ability to induce groundballs and whiff batters is a rare combination. A.J., who can go deep into games when he keeps his pitch count down, was tied for fourth in CG (4) and eighth in quality starts (23).

    Projection: 4 years, $48 million. An expensive gamble given the number of times he has been on the DL throughout his career but one many teams won't hesitate to take.

    3. Rafael Furcal - 27 - SS - 2005: Atlanta Braves

    .284 AVG/.348 OBP/.429 SLG | HR 12 | SB 46 | 62 BB/78 SO

    High on our list because of his blend of age, position, speed and defense in addition to what he provides with the bat. After watching Juan Uribe change the course of Game 4 in the World Series, you can bet General Managers will be salivating with the option of signing the one shortstop with a stronger arm. Furcal also fits great atop a lineup, as his baserunning (82% SB success rate) and patience (averaged 60 walks from 2003-2005) are both assets. This, not his DUI, should be the focus of GMs during evaluations.

    2005 was Furcal's second best season ever, despite ending June with a .652 OPS. However, in each of the final three months his OPS was over .800, and his OBP was over .370. There is talk that Furcal was playing injured in the early going, explaining his struggles. His final two months, which were nearly identical -- .286/.377/.439 in August, .320/.383/.437 in September -- indicate when he stands as a player now. Rafael is a better bet to succeed over a four-year contract than Edgar Renteria, who might have made GMs wary of those deals with his mediocre season.

    Projection: 4 years, $40 million. Edgar Renteria went from a .728 OPS in 2004 to this exact contract during the winter. Furcal will draw the same deal, and people will again cite that he's a "winner." Both sides will win at this rate.

    4. Paul Konerko - 29 - 1B - 2005: Chicago White Sox

    .283 AVG/.375 OBP/.534 SLG | HR 40 | RBI 100 | 81 BB/109 SO

    Konerko is certainly the top slugger, if not the best hitter, among this year's crop of free agents. Paul hit 40 HR during the regular season and raised his profile by going yard five times in the postseason. However, a full 60% of Konerko's dingers the past five years have come at home-run friendly U.S. Cellular Field.

    Like many sluggers, Konerko is a dead-red fastball hitter. Although hard throwers can pound him inside and get him to chase pitches up and out of the zone, he will sit on average fastballs down the middle and deposit them into the bleachers as well as anyone in the game. The veteran has improved his strike zone judgment over the years and drew a career-high number of walks (81) and BB per plate appearance (.122) while seeing more pitches/PA (4.15) than ever before.

    Konerko is already at or near the far end of the defensive spectrum and, as a 1B, has nowhere to go other than to become a DH. Smart teams don't overpay for 1B/DH, especially those who will be 30 years old on Opening Day. Konerko already has the skill-set of an older player (a first baseman with strong power and little or no speed) and one has to wonder how well he will age.

    Projection: At least a Richie Sexson-like 4 years, $50 million and a 5-year, $65 million deal isn't out of the question. Good luck.

    5. Kevin Millwood - 30 - SP - 2005: Cleveland Indians

    W-L 9-11 | SV 0 | ERA 2.86 | WHIP 1.22 | 146 K/52 BB

    Pursuing Kevin Millwood with the expectation that he'll pitch like he did in 2005 is wrong. Much of what led to Millwood's 2.86 ERA was luck, as his 3.77 FIP might suggest. Millwood, a nine-year veteran, went from being an established flyball pitcher, to setting a career high with a 1.34 G/F ratio. He was then helped by having the AL's 3rd ranked defense (by DER) playing behind him. Add one of the better second halves of any pitcher in the Majors, and you have the AL ERA leader.

    Paying the big right-hander ace money will be a mistake as Millwood's regression should leave him as a solid second or third pitcher. His stuff is above average, but the problem has been control for his entire career. Racking up high pitch counts has always been an issue, often preventing Millwood from going deep into games. The problem was hid well in 2005, however, in which Millwood went eight or more innings in one-fifth of his starts.

    The expectations for Millwood going forward should be to pitch 190+ innings per year (in line with his average since 1998) with an ERA of about 3.50-4.00, depending upon the home ballpark and defense.

    Projection: 4 years, $36 million. Again, expectations will dictate whether this contract is a success or failure.

    6. Billy Wagner - 34 - RP - 2005: Philadelphia Phillies

    W-L 4-3 | SV 38 | ERA 1.51 | WHIP .84 | 87 K/20 BB

    Wagner is without a doubt the most sought after closer on the free agent market. His signature pitch is a four-seam fastball that touches 100-MPH. Wagner's heater is so unhittable, he went with it 87% of the time on the first pitch last year. The 10-year veteran reliever also throws a hard slider that he tries to bust-in on the hands of RHB and down-and-away to LHB.

    Skeptics question Wagner's elbow, but the truth of the matter is that the little lefty pitched the second-most games (75) and innings (77.2) of his career while posting his lowest ERA (1.51) ever. With 284 saves, Billy is 40 away from ranking in the top 10 all-time. Moreover, he has the highest K/9 (12.0) among pitchers with at least 500 innings and is the only one who has struck out two batters for each hit allowed in the history of baseball.

    Projection: 3 years, $30 million. That's more than $128,000 per inning based on last year's totals. By comparison, Clemens earned just $85,000 per inning despite making a record $18M for a pitcher.

    7. Brian Giles - 34 - OF - 2005: San Diego Padres

    .301 AVG/.423 OBP/.483 SLG | HR 15 | RBI 83 | 119 BB/64 SO

    If you want offensive production, Giles is your man. The 10-year veteran has essentially been a .300/.400/.550 hitter over the course of his career while averaging 100 R/RBI/BB and 30 HR per 162 games. Although Giles may be past his prime slugging years, he is still an on-base machine as evidenced by ranking first in MLB in BB (119) and fourth in OBP (.423) while playing half his games in Petco Park, unquestionably the most difficult hitter's ballpark in baseball.

    Giles hit .267/.378/.417 at home and .333/.463/.545 on the road. His away stats ranked 7th in AVG, 1st in OBP, and 20th in SLG, while placing 6th in OPS behind only Derrek Lee, Jason Bay, Travis Hafner, Albert Pujols, and Miguel Cabrera. Put another way, Brian outproduced Carlos Delgado, David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, Andruw Jones, and Manny Ramirez on the road. His 148 OPS+ last year was the fifth-best in the NL and his 146 career OPS+ puts him 11th among all active players.

    Projection: 3 years, $30 million. Well worth it, at least for the next two seasons.

    8. Hideki Matsui - 31 - LF - 2005: New York Yankees

    .305 AVG/.367 OBP/.496 SLG | HR 23 | RBI 116 | 63 BB/78 SO

    In 1996, Hideki Matsui broke through. After beginning his career modestly with the Yomiuri Giants, Matsui hit 38 home runs, 16 more than his previous career high. Over the next six seasons, Matsui never hit fewer than 34 home runs in a single season. He has yet to hit that many in the Major Leagues, playing in almost 25 more games per season. Hideki looked headed in that direction in 2004, hitting 31, but dropped again in 2005.

    Despite not hitting the ball out of the park consistently, Matsui has been one of the most dangerous Yankees at the plate for three years. He is a fantastic gap hitter, and uses the whole field because of great bat control. He struck out less than ever this year, leading to his best average since coming to the States. Hideki also has the "clutch" label attached to him -- until the 2005 postseason -- thanks to good career numbers in October and with runners in scoring position.

    Along with his pluses on the baseball diamond, Matsui is sure to be a positive from a business perspective. He comes with a substantial fan base, one that helped make the Yankees (along with Seattle) one of Japan's teams. This cannot be ignored, as Matsui will likely help the bottom line more than any other player on the current market.

    Projection: 3 years, $36 million. The Yankees won't lose him, nor care if they overpay by a couple million. Expect more of the same for all three years of this deal.

    9. Johnny Damon - 31 - CF - 2005: Boston Red Sox

    .316 AVG/.366 OBP/.439 SLG | HR 10 | RBI 75 | 53 BB/69 SO

    If Matsui is considered consistent, Damon is a rock. Since his first full year in 1998, his numbers down the line look extremely similar, minus (of course) batting average. As a leadoff hitter, his game is very batting average dependent, making his 2005 season appear that much better. It must be considered, however, that Johnny's BABIP this year was .343. Because of this, there is a good chance that after he signs, Damon begins looking much more like 2002-03 than 2004-05.

    Damon's value is atop the order, which means his slide in walks per plate appearance this season must stop. His baserunning is still good, although Boston asked him to attempt just 19 steals in 2005, despite being caught only once. If he leaves Boston, look for Damon to steal 25 bases again. His speed also helps in the outfield, where he takes very good routes to the ball. His throwing arm, however, rivals Jeff Bagwell's. Atrocious, and you can bet every third base coach in the Majors knows this much.

    Projection: 3 years, $33 million. In four seasons with the Red Sox, Damon became one of New England's most recognizable faces. Loyalty pays a steep price.

    10. B.J. Ryan - 29 - RP - 2005: Baltimore Orioles

    W-L 1-4 | SV 36 | ERA 3.54 | WHIP 1.14 | 100 K/26 BB

    You can bet that if the 1998 draft was held again, Ryan would not slip until the 17th round. Since that draft, collegiate closers have become more respected, and his promise to rise quickly to the Majors would have interested teams more. One ideological change that did help Ryan, however, was because of Eddie Guardado: southpaws can be more than situational.

    Ryan was in danger of falling into that role, averaging well less than an inning per appearance from 2001-2003. However, the improvement of his fastball -- a pitch that now runs from the low-to-mid 90s and has quite a bit of movement -- convinced Oriole brass that he was late-inning material. Oh, and you can bet his slider, ranking among the game's best, didn't hurt.

    B.J. didn't disappoint in his first year as closer, blowing only five saves -- three of which came in two weeks during July. The only split worth noting is his 1.19 ERA in Baltimore, as opposed to 3.86 on the road. However, Ryan's age, stuff, and numbers all promise for good things going forward.

    Projection: 4 years, $32 million. Bidding war will run high considering his number of suitors. His value should remain solid.

    * * * * *

    Check back tomorrow for part two of this series, the next ten players on our list. As for now, feel free to list your own projections in the comments section.

    [Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]

    Baseball Beat/WTNYNovember 05, 2005
    What Went Right
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    Say what you will about the Chicago White Sox -- but they are the World Champions. They are definitely the most unlikely Champs in recent memory, coming out of baseball's most mocked division to rise above one of the deepest fields in years.

    Before, we chronicled this field (with the help of our friends) in the What Went Wrong series, which dealt with more than half of baseball's teams. All these teams were perceived as contenders as late as September. But it was the White Sox, who jumped out of the gate quickly and never looked back (well, maybe a little bit) that won their first World Series title in almost 90 years.

    We thought a great way to follow the What Went Wrong series would be to look at what was different about the White Sox -- about what went right. So, we've asked the Cheat from South Side Sox to share some insight about baseball's newest champs.

    1) Congrats, Cheat. Tell us, how do you think this team was able to rise to the top in October?

    It's tough to pin it down to one thing. If I was forced to classify it, I would say it was pitching, defense, and the timely HR. -- The Sox obviously had the deepest pitching staff in baseball. I mean they were able to leave Brandon McCarthy (1.69 ERA in his final 42 IP) off of the playoff roster for crissakes.

    2) How did their playoff performance parallel the regular season? Was this the Sox playing their best ball of the year, or showing the nation what you saw since April?

    I would say that their October run was very similar to how they started the regular season. The Sox had a lead in their first 38 regular season games to set a major league record. During that streak, they seemed to score first in probably 80% of their games. I've never seen a team be able to do that.

    When they reached the playoffs, I was listing some keys to each game on my site. Invariably, I would list "score first" as one of the keys. Not only were they very good at getting a lead, the Sox were the best team I have ever seen at taking a 1-0 lead in the first, and making it hold up all game long. They just carried over what they had been doing all year long into the playoffs.

    3) What misconception about the White Sox has come out since the World Series that you would like to correct?

    Smallball. Smartball. Ozzieball. Whatever you want to call it. It certainly wasn't the reason that the Sox had the best record in the AL.

    I will concede that Ozzie's predisposition to playing for one run in the first inning probably helped the Sox score first in more games than they would have without the smallball approach. And as I mentioned before, I've never seen a team that played better with a slim lead, so smartball may have had a positive effect on the team, just not in the way you hear most talking heads and columnists fawn over it.

    4) After a team wins, the competition suddenly wants to follow their model. Tell us, Cheat, if you had to explain the White Sox model to another GM, what would you tell them?

    You need a starting rotation full of above average, historically healthy, arms. You need strong defense up the middle, SS and CF being most important. You need above average defense from everyone on your club. You need above average power throughout the lineup. You need 6 good arms in the bullpen, no dead weight. -- Then, you need a little luck.

    If you build the team that I highlighted above, you're probably not going to win the World Series, but you're almost assured of making the playoffs. And that's really the goal, right Billy Beane?

    5) What is your opinion on the influence a manager can have on a team, particularly in the playoffs?

    In the playoffs, not very much. The manager's job, more than anything, is to manage the bullpen. There was a stark contrast between Ozzie Guillen and Phil Garner after the first two games of the series though. Garner seemed dejected, and focused too much of his time on complaining about the roof situation. Guillen was busy being the clown prince of baseball. I suppose that had something to do with the Sox being up 2-0, but I suspect that Guillen would have been the same down 0-2.

    Over a whole season, however, a manager can have a great effect on the club. Ozzie was particularly good at handling the bullpen. For the most part, he had his best pitcher from the 'pen pitching in the highest leverage situation. It sounds like a simple plan, but most managers are too busy sticking with the "closer pitches the last 3 outs" philosophy.

    6) When did it become apparent to you that this team was World Championship caliber?

    During their games lead streak to start the season, it was clear to me that this team was special, but when we talked at the time I couldn't predict anything more than a trip to the ALCS. The Sox fan in me wouldn't let the rational side of my brain realize that they could win the World Series until Juan Uribe went diving into the stands in game 4.

    It was really coming down to the wire there at the end with Cleveland breathing down their necks. I was more interested in the Wild Card standings for about a week before they clinched.

    So I guess there were two points. The first was early in the year when they were steamrolling everyone, and the second was the day they clinched the Central. At that point, Jose Contreras had been the 2nd best pitcher in the AL (to Johan Santana) for the last two months, and I felt like the Sox had an ace in the hole that nobody really knew about.

    7) When were you most worried? What was the season lowlight?

    The whole month of August was a pain, but the Sox still had a sizable lead on Cleveland that I was sure they couldn't lose. The one stat that I kept harping on during that time goes back to the score first mantra. They went from July 30th until September 20th without winning a game when facing a multi-run deficit at any point in the game. -- I was sure they couldn't compete in the playoffs during that stretch of games.

    The absolute low though was a few games in September. They lost 5 of 6 games, and held a multi-run lead in each of the losses. I think I may have reached my lowest, and started focusing exclusively on the Wild Card, after Brandon McCarthy lost a pitcher's duel to Johan Santana.

    8) What was the club's major weakness during the season?

    The #3 spot. It was Kryptonite to anyone who batted there except Frank Thomas. In general, you like to have a high average guy who can also hit for power in the #3 spot. The White Sox #3 hitters combined for a .234/.296/.419 line. Only the bay area teams had a worse combined OPS from their #3 hitters.

    9) Briefly, how do you hope Ken Williams corrects this and other weaknesses this winter?

    It looks like he's addressed part of it already. Carl Everett, who received a majority of the at-bats in the #3 spot, didn't have his option picked up and was bought out by the Sox. Who he gets to replace Everett remains to be seen.

    I would say the needs are a left-handed hitter with a good batting eye, preferably on the cheap. Erubial Durazo (if healthy) and Matt Lawton (before the juice) were two guys who I had my eye on. Aside from those two, I don't really see a free agent on the market who really fits what the Sox need. -- I suspect Williams will have to get creative on the trade front to really be proactive.

    10) Who would you label as the team MVP and LVP?

    The MVP has got to be Konerko. He was the only consistent threat in the lineup. His free agency puts the Sox in a really tough spot. He's going to command a 6-year deal on the open market, and that's going to be an albatross of a contract in just a couple of years.

    For LVP I'd have to go with Jurassic Carl again. He was one of the easiest outs in baseball for most of the second half.

    11) Finally, what expectations should people have for this team to repeat in 2006?

    They're certainly not the '98 Yankees, so there's no reason to start engraving their name on the '06 trophy just yet. They do, however, return everyone from the deepest pitching staff in baseball, so I wouldn't count them out either.

    2006 will come down to whether the pitching was a fluke -- I think Garland and Contreras can repeat, but some of the members of the bullpen like Cotts, Hermanson, Politte should regress -- and what Kenny Williams does to the offense this winter.

    Baseball Beat/WTNYNovember 04, 2005
    What Went Wrong in the Playoffs (AL Edition)
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    With both a World Series and All-Star Game victory in hand, we know one thing: the American League is currently baseball's dominant conference. It appeared before the playoffs that it would be a crapshoot which AL team won, as all were legitimate title contenders. In the NL, this really could have only been said about two teams.

    When it was all said and done, the White Sox prevailed, beating out the Red Sox, Yankees and Angels. Today, we want to look at the three losers, remembering their seasons through some of the best team writers in the blogosphere.

    We start with the American League runner-up, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Even the name change couldn't put the team over the hump, though some would argue the Angels were one good umpire away from moving to the World Series. No matter what, it had to be a great season in LA, as the team was in first for much of the season and also fought off the rival A's run in the second half. In to talk about the season is Rob McMillin, from 6-4-2:

    1) What overarching problem proved to be this team's Achilles heel in the postseason?

    Without a doubt, offense. In the ALDS, the bottom of the order carried the Angels, the top four going 16-77 (.207) and accounting for only nine RBIs. Alleged catalyst Chone Figgins disappeared (4-21). Though Vlad went 6-18, he didn't collect a single RBI, and Figgins' failure to get on base was a main culprit. These problems only got worse in the ALCS, with the top of the order going a mind-numbing 10-73 (.137) and collecting a grand total of four RBIs. As Joe Sheehan has said, this is an offense that works when everyone's hitting .280, but falls apart when everyone's hitting .265.

    2) How do you hope your team's GM deals with this problem and others over the winter?

    The Angels have three major problems with their offense.

    1. A reluctance to take playing time away from veterans. Steve Finley, and to a lesser degree, Garret Anderson and Darin Erstad all absorbed at bats at times when their performance could have been outmatched by someone on the bench. Respectively, that would have been Chone Figgins, Juan Rivera, and Casey Kotchman. Kotchman in particular has proven himself as earning the starting job next year; the team simply can't afford to let Erstad, who has become a slap-hitting singles hitter, continue to play first. It's too much to hope that Stoneman releases Finley, by far the most useless regular hitter on the squad, but in the absence of that scenario, it's hard to see how Scioscia doesn't play him in 2006. That is, veteran hitters, no matter how bad, are a temptation Mike can't let pass.

    2. A failure to get a real leadoff hitter. Chone Figgins plays one on TV, but he's not really capable of working a walk, and as a result, Garret Anderson and Vlad don't often have a guy to drive in by the time they get to the plate. David Eckstein used to be able to get walks and the odd hit-by-pitch to get on base, but there isn't really anyone on this team -- save for bench player Jeff DaVanon -- willing to shake hands with ball four. This is as much an organizational failing as it is a player issue, so the Angels will have to find someone out of the organization to fix it. One answer might be to put Kotchman, who has a very good eye, at leadoff, but that presumes that (a) they won't play Erstad regularly, and (b) you would want a guy with 20-25 HR production and not necessarily a lot of speed at that slot. Going outside the organization means finding a middle infielder or another centerfielder.

    3. An absence of power. This one's actually the easiest problem to solve, and what it means is playing Kotchman as a regular, and Dallas McPherson to get healthy. McPherson will be 26 next year, which means he doesn't exactly have a lot of time, and so will have to prove himself next year or risk becoming an intermediate solution until Brandon Wood can replace him.

    3) Who would you label the team MVP and LVP?

    Shooting from the hip:
    Regular season MVP: Vlad.
    Postseason MVP: Bengie Molina
    Regular season LVP: Steve Finley
    Postseason LVP: Vlad Guerrero, followed closely by Darin Erstad. Both of them gave up at bats, weakly grounding out innumerable times. Vlad had the excuse that his shoulder was bothering him; Erstad had no such excuse.

    4) Season Highlight:

    Certainly, being the first team in the AL to clinch a postseason spot, finishing with the second-best record in franchise history.

    5) Season Lowlight:

    1-4 in the ALCS. This team beat the Chisox in the regular season series, and should have done so in the postseason. Some of that was luck and a remarkable string of terrible calls by the umpiring crew, but a good bit of it was lousy offensive strategy, and giving away at bats.

    * * * * *

    We move from the team the White Sox beat in the ALCS to their ALDS opponents. Despite all the current drama that has taken over the Boston Red Sox, it really wasn't too bad of a season for the defending World Champs. The club showed a lot of guts winning the Wild Card over the Indians and A's but, in the end, the pitching staff could not match Chicago's in the first round. Randy Booth from Over the Monster has agreed to share his views on the season:

    1) What overarching problem proved to be this team's Achilles heel in the postseason?

    If you watched the Boston Red Sox for just one game in the 2005 season, you immediately became aware of their largest problem: pitching. Whether it be starting, middle relief, long relief, or the closer situation, it was all atrocious and entirely evident in the post-season.

    It all started when Curt Schilling couldn't hit his spots, Keith Foulke was hitting his spots too well, and Terry Francona making bad bullpen decisions. From there it just escalated to a point of no return. The Boston offense was the best in the majors, but if your starter can't go seven innings with solid relief, you'll still lose.

    2) How do you hope your team's GM deals with this problem and others over the winter?

    General manager? At this moment in time, we have no general manager. That's a different story, though. Still, I'll toss out a few ideas. Let's just pretend I'm the GM for a day.

    A reliable starter needs to be added. Whether it's a #1 or #3 type, we need to fill that specific hole. Jonathan Papelbon will be a huge help if he's added to the rotation (which he should), but we'll still need someone if the Sox trade David Wells. I hope the Sox also trade Manny Ramirez and Keith Foulke. Not for nothing, but both are deteriorating the clubhouse chemistry. That brings me to another thing: forget the chemistry. Dump Kevin Millar and the loyalty. We need to add players that play the game well, not wear Tom Brady jerseys to practice.

    3) Who would you label the team MVP and LVP?

    The team's MVP is most definitely David Ortiz. .300 batting average, .397 on-base percentage, 47 home runs and 148 runs batted in. Don't forget numerous game winning hits and the fact he is the glue that holds together the team and the lineup.

    The LVP is a little harder to decide. Many would say Edgar Renteria is the LVP, but I won't go that far. He was too good to be the LVP. For the LVP, we must head to the pitching staff where all the problems were. I am torn to pick some of the short-term relief pitchers, but I'm going to stick with someone who lasted the whole year as a Red Sox and was a huge disappointment: Foulke. 5.91 ERA and five losses in 45.2 IP before he landed on the disabled list for the rest of the season. If we had Foulke at the top of his game, we may be holding the World Series trophy in Boston once again.

    4) Season Highlight:

    The season highlight is debatable, but I don't think I'll forget when Curt Schilling made his walk from the bullpen to the mound in his first appearance as a closer for the Boston Red Sox on July 14. The crowd roared and a feeling was sent through many fans' bodies. I can honestly say I never re-felt that feeling for the rest of the season.

    5) Season Lowlight:

    The lowlight has to come on September 1 when the Red Sox lost to the Yankees, and once again allows the Yankees to clinch the American League East. The Red Sox led the East for the majority of the season, yet we lose it in the final weeks.

    Wait 'til next year, I guess.

    * * * * *

    It was a heartbreaking season for New York relative to expectations. The acquisition of Randy Johnson was supposed to be the one that put them back in the World Series. As it turned out, Johnson, who failed to live up to his standards, had a difficult time carrying an injury-depleted and underperforming staff. Before this team reloads for the 2006 campaign, Cliff Corcoran from Bronx Banter has agreed to share his feelings about what happened in 2005:

    1) What overarching problem proved to be this team's Achilles heel in the postseason?

    Despite what you might read elsewhere, the Yankees lost the ALDS to the Angels not because the Angels pitched around Alex Rodriguez (which they did), but because Randy Johnson punted Game 3. One could argue that the Yankees came from behind to take a lead in Game 3 after Johnson was removed, but had Johnson pitched at the level he had established during the September surge that put the Bombers in the playoffs to begin with, that would not have been necessary. Of course, despite his struggles, Johnson was the Yankees' most valuable pitcher (well, Johnson or Mariano Rivera), so the fact that he wasn't the dominant pitcher the Yankees thought they had traded for cannot be called an "overarching problem." Nor can the team's Game 5 struggles with runners in scoring position, as the Yankees were second in the majors (to the Red Sox) in runs scored during the regular season.

    With the spectacular exceptions of Rivera and Tom Gordon, the Yankees' relief corps was an overarching problem in 2005, but that didn't really hurt them in the playoffs. It was the 10-0 Aaron Small who took the loss in Game 3, and Johnson himself filled the middle relief role with great success in Game 5. Rather, the one overarching problem that contributed most to the Yankees' ALDS loss was their awful team defense. Chien-Ming Wang should have won Game 2, but errors and misplays by Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi and Wang himself handed the game to the Angels. Meanwhile, the decisive play of Game 5, and thus the series, came when Gary Sheffield collided with Bubba Crosby while attempting to catch Adam Kennedy's fly ball in the second inning and the ball dropped for a two-run triple.

    There's nothing that could have been done about Giambi, Rodriguez or Wang. The latter two are generally good to excellent fielders and Giambi has, consistently throughout his career, been a far superior hitter when playing first base as opposed to DHing, and is thus able to out-hit his poor defense at first (indeed, he was the Yankees most productive hitter in the ALDS). But the Yankees could have done something about their centerfield situation, which remained unresolved even in the postseason. The Yankees' failure to sign Carlos Beltran, despite his disappointing performance with the Mets, remains the biggest mistake in one of the worst, if not the worst, winters in franchise history. Following that failure, their inability to settle the centerfield situation during the season, be it via trade or the decision to give the defensively superior but offensively questionable Crosby the job for better or worse, led directly to that misplay in Game 5. If Sheffield and Crosby are used to playing next to one another the odds are that Sheffield would have looked for Crosby or Crosby would have called off Sheffield (which the replays showed neither did) and Crosby would have caught Kennedy's "triple" unencumbered. Instead, it was clear that neither expected the other to be there, which could only be the result of a lack of familiarity with the one another's range.

    2) How do you hope your team's GM deals with this problem and others over the winter?

    As I said, there's nothing to be done about the infield defense, but the Yankees have to find someone who can play centerfield on an everyday basis. Unfortunately, there's not much out there. Perusing the free agent market, it boils down to Kenny Lofton -- who was dumped by the Yanks for Felix Rodriguez last winter, presumably in anticipation of the arrival of Beltran, only to go to Philadelphia and see spikes in both his hitting and fielding numbers -- and Johnny Damon. Lofton will be 39 in May and Damon is sure to be overvalued due to the dearth of alternative options, the Championship ring on his finger, his flowing locks, and in spite of his age and lack of a throwing arm. That leaves a trade or a Cano-like rookie-cum-savior. Neither of which is a particularly attractive option as the latter is as unlikely as the former would be costly.

    The player the Yankees could most afford to deal is Gary Sheffield, as they could sign Brian Giles, who is two years Sheffield's junior and outperformed him in 2005, to play right and swap Sheffield for a centerfielder with perhaps a middle-relief throw in (Sheffield to Minnesota for Hunter and Rincon or Romero?), but Sheffield's comments around the trading deadline last year, advancing age (he'll soon be 37), declining production (it's subtle but it's there), and likely demands for a contract extension wherever he ends up are likely to put the kibosh on such a deal. Meanwhile, the Yankees hole in centerfield is so glaring that other teams are sure to attempt to fleece the New Yorkers, asking for top prospects such as Phillip Hughes and Eric Duncan or the established rookies Wang or Cano in exchange for, say, Juan Pierre (for whom I foresee a Womackian future) or the rapidly aging and currently damaged Torii Hunter or Mike Cameron. I'm not sure I have an answer here.

    Brian Cashman's other important tasks are re-signing Hideki Matsui, but for no more than three years, rebuilding the bullpen from scratch (save Mo, of course -- it appears Gordon is headed somewhere he can close), and finding a back-up catcher who can hit, thus extending what's left of Jorge Posada's usefulness.

    And, just to be greedy, I'd sign Giles anyway, sticking the aging and perpetually hurt Sheffield at DH (where he's an even more frightening hitter) and forcing Giambi into the field where his bat is most potent.

    3) Who would you label the team MVP and LVP?

    Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson and Mariano Rivera were clearly the team's best hitter, pitcher and reliever respectively, a status they've enjoyed no matter what uniform they've worn throughout their careers. Rodriguez (.321/.421/.610), however, was clearly the most valuable player on the Yankees this year. After all, he is one of the game's true greats and he had one of the best seasons of his career. As such, he was not only the Yankees' MVP, but the obvious choice for MVP of the American League.

    You might expect me to list Tony Womack (.249/.276/.280 in 351 plate appearances) as the Yankees' Least Valuable Player, but Womack, though a detriment as a whole, did things of value during the season, including stealing 27 bases in 32 attempts (84 percent), playing uncharacteristically outstanding defense during his one month as the Yankee second baseman, seeing 3.89 pitches per at-bat (even if he only watch ball four go by twelve times all year), picking up a couple of game-winning hits, and playing multiple positions. Indeed, Womack was a virtual world-beater compared to the Yankees' true LVP, John Flaherty (.165/.206/.252 in 138 PA). Despite having less than 40 percent as many plate appearances, Flaherty's VORP was -9.6 to Womack's -8.9. Honorable mention to the starters whose performances set those of Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon into such sharp relief: Jaret Wright (-9.8 VORP), Kevin Brown (-9.5 VORP), and Darrell May and the unfairly rushed Sean Henn, who combined to be 17.2 runs below replacement in a mere 18 1/3 innings pitched.

    4) Season Highlight:

    Sunday, September 11, with my girlfriend and me cheering them on from the right field bleachers, the Yankees win the rubber game of their final home series against the Red Sox 1-0, a stirring pitchers duel between Randy Johnson and Tim Wakefield that was decided by a short-porch Giambi homer in the first on a Wakefield curveball. That game kicked off an 11-1 run that catapulted the Yankees to their eighth straight AL East title.

    5) Season Lowlight:

    After a dismal 11-19 start the Yankees appeared to have salvaged their season with a ten-game winning streak in early May that kicked off a 16-2 stretch that pushed them eight games over .500. That stretch was halted by a pair of home loses to the Red Sox at the end of May in which Boston outscored the Yankees 24-3. But that wasn't the worst of it. No, the worst was the three game sweep at the hands of the AL-worst Kansas City Royals that followed in which the Yankees scored a total of six runs. That sweep dropped the Yankees to 27-26 on June 2. They would lose the next day in Minnesota to drop back to .500 and wouldn't shake the .500 mark for good until early July.

    * * * * *

    Thanks again to our wonderful guests for providing their insights. We move out of the pessimistic world tomorrow as we take a look at What Went Right with the World Champion Chicago White Sox, before turning our attention toward the Hot Stove.

    Baseball Beat/WTNYNovember 03, 2005
    What Went Wrong in the Playoffs (NL Edition)
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    No one remembers the losers. In the past, we used our What Went Wrong feature to provide coverage to teams that failed to make the playoffs. Here's a look at previous editions:

    Indians, A's, Giants
    Nats, Marlins, Phillies
    Cubs, Dodgers, Mets, Twins

    Now, with the baseball season over, all the talk is focused on the champion White Sox and off-the-field job openings. Suddenly, the teams that were so close have been discarded for the hotter issues. So while some outlets spend time worrying about the Dodgers GM opening or Mets offseason concerns, we thought now would be a good time to talk about the teams that barely missed.

    Today, we have interviewed bloggers from each of the four National League playoff representatives. We will deal with the American League tomorrow, and the multi-part series will conclude with a What Went Right version on the World Champion Chicago White Sox.

    We begin with the last National League team standing, the Houston Astros. There is no doubt had the Astros caught a few breaks -- and balls found the right holes -- they would be atop the baseball universe. This team had such an impressive run after some early struggles, and their great playoff play should not be forgotten because of their World Series sweep. In to talk about the Astros' season is Darrell Pittman from His answers:

    1) What overarching problem proved to be this team's Achilles heel in the postseason?

    Inability to drive in runs with men in scoring position. For example, in the four World Series games, the Astros stranded 35 baserunners, 22 of whom were in scoring position.

    2) How do you hope your team's GM deals with this problem and others over the winter?

    All the off-season moves hinge on whether Roger Clemens comes back for '06. He made $18M in '05. Owner Drayton McLane has set the 2006 payroll limit at $85M, a large portion of which goes for Clemens, Bagwell, Berkman, and Biggio. Other players are going FA or are arbitration-eligible. If Clemens retires, it frees up a huge chunk of change for GM Tim Purpura to play with. The scuttlebutt in Houston is that Clemens will come back after the All-Star break to make a run for the pennant while healthy, and to play with his son Koby in September. He would thus take a reduced salary.

    The Astros need to get at least one bona fide hitter (perhaps two) to protect Lance Berkman and Morgan Ensberg, preferably a left-handed or switch-hitting outfielder. Even if Clemens returns, we need a decent #5 starting pitcher. Wandy Rodriguez and Ezequiel Astacio just don't cut it.

    3) Who would you label the regular season team MVP and LVP?

    MVP: Morgan Ensberg had a breakout year (.283/36/101), postseason hampered by HBP hand injury in September.

    LVP: Much as I hate to say it, Jeff Bagwell -- understandably poor production after return from shoulder surgery.

    4) Season Highlight:

    When the Astros won NLCS Game 6 to advance to their first-ever World Series.

    5) Season Lowlight:

    Being 15-30 on May 28. The Houston Chronicle published an article on June 1 showing a gravestone with "Astros 2005 Season" on it.

    * * * * *

    From April to September, the NL Central belonged to the St. Louis Cardinals. Their players made it obvious that nothing would be acceptable besides a World Series victory. However, in the end, the Cardinals were done by one of their own -- division rivals that they had spent a season dominating. In to discuss the season that was in St. Louis is Larry Borowsky of Viva El Birdos fame. His thoughts to the What Went Wrong questions:

    1) What overarching problem proved to be this team's Achilles heel in the postseason?

    The old farts in the outfield. By October, 38-year-old Larry Walker was in tatters -- herniated disk in his neck, bad knee, and unspecified other complaints -- and not even a late-season cortisone injection (his fourth of 2005) could hold him together. He went 3 for 28 in the postseason. Another OF geezer, Jimmy Edmonds (35), had a sore right shoulder that wouldn't heal and couldn't turn on a fastball; his only two meaningful hits in the postseason both went to the opposite field, one of them on a hit-and-run. The killing blow came when the Cards' third Methuselean outfielder, 37-year-old Reggie Sanders, wiped out on the warning track in NLCS Game 2; he got only 1 hit in 12 at-bats after that while striking out 7 times, and his inability to bring home the tying run from third with nobody out in the 9th inning of Game 4 was very costly.

    It's only fair to point out that Houston's excellent pitchers had a lot to do with shutting down the Cardinal bats. But I am not willing to give them all the credit. Clemens was beatable, as both the Braves and White Sox showed. So was Brandon Backe, whom the Cards dented for just 2 hits in Game 4, their only respite from the Big Three. With the offense unable to provide much margin for error, the rest of the Cardinals' game wilted. They made 5 errors in the series while turning just 3 double plays, the reverse of their regular-season proportions. The bullpen was unmasked as inadequate. Worst of all, the team's composure got called into question during Game 4 of the NLCS, when their frustration over Phil Cuzzi's amorphous strike zone led to two late-inning ejections.

    2) How do you hope your team's GM deals with this problem and others over the winter?

    The Cardinals need to get some youth into the lineup, even if only in a part-time capacity. The organization possesses no everyday talent at the higher minor-league levels, but it has some surplus pitchers who are already in the majors or close to being there. Jason Marquis, Brad Thompson, and Adam Wainwright are all young and have upside, and I'd like to see the Cardinals convert some or all of them into either a) a position player who's still in his 20s and has some growing room (Austin Kearns comes to mind), or b) position-player prospects who are no more than a year away from the majors. Jocketty isn't offering blue-chippers and won't get blue-chippers back, but it's a numbers game - he might get lucky. At the very least he might land one or more useful platoon players, or an everyday guy who can deliver league-average performance at bargain rates.

    With the window of opportunity open now, however, the Cards may not be able to resist the temptation to pay full retail for off-the-rack-veterans and try to take another run at a title in 2006. Jocketty loves Brian Giles (35 years old next season) and will surely try to sign him as a replacement for the retired Larry Walker. He may also bring back affordable free agents Mark Grudzielanek (35) at second and Sanders in left. St. Louis might be able to get away with that approach for one more year, and might even be able to combine it with a pitching-for-prospects swap as described above. But if the Cardinals don't get younger soon they're going to wind up where the Giants are.

    3) Who would you label the team MVP and LVP?

    Regular season: MVP Pujols, LVP . . . . sadly Ray King. I say "sadly" because he spent most of the summer watching his father die slowly of cancer; it affected his pitching, and by the end of the year La Russa had no confidence in him (nor did King merit any). After failing to get called into a single postseason game, King angrily requested a trade. He really wasn't that bad in 2005, but standards are high on a 100-win team and Ray came up short.

    Postseason: MVP Pujols again, although you could make a case for Reggie Sanders, who drove in 12 runs in St. Louis's first four playoff games, all of them wins; once he stopped hitting, the offense was never the same and the team went 1-4. The postseason LVP goes to Edmonds, whose failures came in many forms. His lax pursuit of a ball in the gap early in Game 2 enabled Chris Burke to stretch a double into a triple, setting up Houston's first run. In the same game Edmonds twice stranded the tying and lead runs on base (5th and 7th innings). In the 8th inning of Game 4 he stupidly took arbiter Cuzzi's bait -- an egregiously bad called strike on what was clearly ball 4 -- and got himself ejected at a critical point in a critical game. And in Game 6 his 6th-inning error enabled the Astros to score an important insurance run.

    4) Season Highlight:

    Without question the most exhilarating moment was Pujols' season-extending homer off Brad Lidge in Game 5; sadly, the high was ephemeral. In a broader sense, Chris Carpenter's emergence as a Cy Young candidate was very satisfying, and it was a kick to see the team keep winning -- as if from sheer force of habit -- no matter how many everyday starters went on the DL. Scrubs like Abe Nunez and John Rodriguez got a chance to make real contributions, and they came through; fun to see.

    But for me, the highlight was getting familiar with David Eckstein. After the signing, Cardinal fans were told we'd love his hustle and dedication and all that other bullshit, and I was fully prepared to reject the guy along with the l'il-scrapper storyline. I gradually learned from watching him play that he wasn't just some souped-up version of Rex Hudler, using "hustle" cynically to grandstand and create a reputation (and a market) for himself. This guy could actually play, and the vaunted "hustle" was really a misnomer for intelligence and composure. In late July he executed a walkoff squeeze to beat the Cubs; about a week later he hit a walkoff grand slam to beat the Braves. A real winner; a champ.

    5) Season Lowlight:

    The Cubs owned the Cardinals this year, which is always painful. But the aforementioned Game 4 of the NLCS was absolutely brutal. The umpiring was maddening enough, ditto the Cardinals' mystifying impotence (for the second straight year) against the nondescript Backe and their failure to execute simple plays -- a muffed bunt in the 7th inning set up Houston's winning run. But despite of all that, and despite the two ejections, the Cardinals still managed to nudge their win expectancy over 50 percent in the top of the 9th inning -- 1st and 3d with nobody out, down a run, against a suddenly hittable Lidge. We would learn just how hittable the following night, and during the World Series -- but here, in a game they had to have, they couldn't get the ball out of the infield. The game-ending double play on John Mabry's slow roller to second pretty much summed up Cardinals in that series: a quarter-step slow.

    * * * * *

    The Astros also eliminated the Atlanta Braves from the playoffs. Like the Cardinals, this season was the same story for Braves fans, who watched a dominant regular season precede a postseason belly-flop. We have to respect the Braves for overcoming the odds to win yet another division championship, but the first-round defeat in the postseason has an all too familiar ring to it. Here to share his pain is Mac Thomason from Braves Journal. His responses:

    1) What overarching problem proved to be this team's Achilles heel in the postseason?

    The easy answer is probably what was the problem all season long, "the bullpen". But that's only a part truth; the bullpen lost only one game in the Division Series and that in seventeen innings. Certainly, the Braves would have extended the series to five games had they gotten a decent relief performance out of Farnsworth in Game Four, and poor relief in the other two games (when the bullpen came in with small deficits and let the Astros blow it open) was a big problem. But that was only part of it.

    I would say that the real Achilles heel was that the Braves weren't able to score many runs except via the longball, especially later in the season. The real reason they lost Game Four is that they couldn't get a run in without a homer despite numerous chances in extra innings.

    2) How do you hope your team's GM deals with this problem and others over the winter?

    For the bullpen, I'd like them to get a couple of non-closer, "good reliever" types and hope one of them takes over the main job and the other the eighth innings. Hope that Joey Devine and Blaine Boyer are healthy. Don't overpay for Billy Wagner, tempting as he might be.

    As for the other, replace Adam LaRoche with a real first baseman, or move Chipper to first and get Andy Marte into the lineup every day. Resign Furcal, one of the few players on the team who can produce runs without a homer.

    3) Who would you label the team MVP and LVP?

    Andruw Jones is the easy pick for MVP, though a lot of sabermetrical types are a little down on him. Second place Marcus Giles, third probably Furcal. Arguably, though, the one man that the Braves could least have afforded to lose was John Smoltz, who kept the staff afloat in the first half when the 2-4 starters all went down.

    LVP is also easy, the inimitable Danny Kolb, though Adam LaRoche had what would be an LVP season most years.

    4) Season Highlight:

    For me, Andruw Jones' walkoff walk against the Natspos in the tenth inning, July 16. The Braves took over first place for good that day, starting a three-game sweep of the Natspos, who never looked like a contending team again.

    Alternatively for those who think that a walk is a silly highlight, Andruw breaking Aaron's and Mathews' team single-season home run record.

    5) Season Lowlight:

    Brad Ausmus, two out in the ninth inning, Game Four or Chris Burke, 18th inning, same game.

    * * * * *

    Last, and certainly least, we are left with the San Diego Padres. After a very lackluster regular season resulting in a win in baseball's worst division, the Padres' season ended just as we expected: a sweep. It's unfair to say the Padres were a bad ballclub, though they certainly weren't the caliber of the other three NL playoff teams. Longtime blogger Geoff Young, of the great Ducksnorts blog, shares his thoughts on the Friars:

    1) What overarching problem proved to be this team's Achilles heel in the postseason?

    In the postseason? Not playing as well as the Cardinals, I suppose. Basically, it was the same problem that plagued the Padres throughout the regular season: inability to execute with any kind of consistency. Specifically they didn't hit in the clutch, they didn't play good defense, and they didn't run the bases very well.

    The Padres were actually competitive in every game of the NLDS. It's just exceedingly difficult to beat good teams when you spot them eight runs. Obviously Jake Peavy's broken rib didn't help matters.

    During the regular season, in addition to the above, injuries were a big problem. But the same could be said of any NL West team. Beyond that, there were too many games in months other than May.

    2) How do you hope your team's GM deals with this problem and others over the winter?

    First, we need to figure out who our GM is. We think it is Kevin Towers, but with two pretty high-profile vacancies, and Towers already having interviewed with the Diamondbacks, anything is possible.

    I think the Padres already have addressed a couple of things by moving Phil Nevin and not renewing the contract of first base coach Davey Lopes. Getting a legitimate center fielder and first baseman, along with some guys who can make throws from the outfield, would be a good start. I'd like to see youngsters such as Ben Johnson and Xavier Nady (and maybe even Freddy Guzman and Josh Barfield) get a shot at regular playing time.

    If the Padres can find takers for any of Brian Lawrence, Chan Ho Park, or Woody Williams, that would help. There's some pretty good (not great) young talent in the organization, and I'd like to see some of those kids get a chance to show what they can do. But with veterans clogging up the rotation, spots will be limited.

    3) Who would you label the team MVP and LVP?

    MVP: Three-way tie among Brian Giles, Jake Peavy, and Scott Linebrink. Giles very quietly put together a tremendous season, while Peavy is one of the best young pitchers in the game. As for Linebrink, nobody outside of San Diego knows who he is, but among pitchers who have worked 150 or more innings over the past two seasons, only Mariano Rivera has a lower ERA. Linebrink is lights out, and I have no doubt that he could close for most teams in either league.

    LVP: With all due respect to Darrell May and Tim Redding, this has to be Nevin. He tried, but there just wasn't anything left in the tank.

    4) Season Highlight:

    September 17: The Padres are down 5-0 at home with two out in the ninth. They score a run, and then the Nationals bring in Chad Cordero, who walks a guy before giving up a game-tying grand slam to Khalil Greene. Ramon Hernandez ends it in the 12th with a three-run homer. Unreal.

    Okay, so I guess sometimes they hit in the clutch.

    5) Season Lowlight:

    The Redding start in St. Louis May 8, when the Cardinals scored 11 runs in the first inning, was pretty brutal. Any of a number of baserunning blunders throughout the year; Mark Sweeney getting picked off third base in Houston immediately leaps to mind.

    But if I had to pick just one, I'd say it was learning that Peavy pitched Game 1 of the NLDS with a broken rib. The Padres had a legitimate chance against the Cardinals. Peavy hurting himself during the division championship victory celebration was a killer. Maybe his being healthy wouldn't have made a difference in the end, but it's hard not to think "what if..."

    * * * * *

    Thanks very much to our guests for their fantastic answers today. Please support them by checking their sites often, as they are the best the blogosphere has to offer. And also check back tomorrow, as we will touch on the Red Sox, Yankees, and Angels, before ultimately analyzing the White Sox championship run.

    Baseball Beat/WTNYOctober 22, 2005
    Baseball Playoffs: Take Three
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    World Series Preview: Astros vs. White Sox

    After nearly seven months of regular season and postseason play, Major League Baseball has eliminated 28 of its 30 teams from the chance to win the World Serious. The defending champs are out. The team with the most championships and the highest payroll is out, too. So is the only ballclub to win 100 games during the regular season. Gone also are 17 other franchises that have won it all since either of the two finalists this year enjoyed the fruits of victory.

    Take a bow (and send us the link) if you thought the White Sox and the Astros were going to face each other in October. Heck, give yourself a pat on the back if you thought just one of these two teams would make its way to the Fall Classic. It may not be Kansas City-Colorado, but you would be a rich man or woman had you laid a grand on the White Sox and Astros outlasting everyone else.

    We're now down to the nitty gritty. The first pitch is only hours away. Weather permitting, it looks like we will have a winner before Halloween. Read on for our latest tricks or treats.

    **The Limbo Series: How Low Can We Go?**

    In a nutshell - Big Three vs. Fab Four

    Bryan's Take: So, this is what it all comes down to. The ninth-ranked American League offense against the NL's number eleven? A battle of two clubs with aggregate OBPs of .322? Um, isn't this supposed to be the World Series?

    However, what the series lacks in offense, it makes up in pitching and defense -- the two things that are supposed to win come playoff time. And you would be hard-pressed to find two better teams in these areas, both two of the Majors top four clubs in ERA and defensive efficiency. In this regard, the Astros are little different than the White Sox's last opponent, however better in both categories. For Houston, the White Sox are a worse team than the Cardinals, albeit a hotter one.

    In winning twelve of their last thirteen games, dating back to September 28 of the regular season, the White Sox have allowed more than three runs just once. They have not allowed more than four runs since losing to Cleveland on September 21. Nineteen games, 41 runs allowed, 2.18 RA. For one-eighth of the season, the White Sox have been unstoppable.

    This is, of course, almost all due to great starting pitching. By now, we all know the story. Four straight complete games, the first time (in the postseason) since 1928. Credit this to Ozzie Guillen and Don Cooper, a pair to both trust their starters as well as the fact that this bullpen will not implode due to over-rest. Also credit the White Sox foursome, a group that truly saved their best stuff for the right time.

    This just in: Astros pitching is pretty good, too. While more apt to allow runs lately, the Astros will put their four best pitchers (and yes, I know that this keeps getting repeated) up against anyone in the game. Brad Lidge along with the three best Astros starters had a 2.46 ERA during the regular season. The White Sox four starters, their key pitchers in this series, were more than a full run higher at 3.52.

    So, from a pitching standpoint, it's all about which White Sox staff will show up. It's also about whether Andy Pettitte can begin pitching in the postseason like he did all year. Whether the Rocket is just too beat-up to lead his team to their first ever World Series win. Whether the White Sox bullpen can withstand any semblance of a workload.

    Shocking news, I know, but this series is less about runs scored than we could have imagined in this new era of baseball.

    Rich's Take: Winning baseball games is all about scoring runs and preventing runs. The White Sox and Astros are mediocre at the former and superb at the latter. You don't have to score a lot of runs if you don't give up many. Runs are going to be scarce this coming week. The 2005 World Series is a throwback to 1960s when pitchers like Whitey Ford, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer, Jim Lonborg, Mickey Lolich, Denny McLain, and Tom Seaver were mowing down the opposition.

    If the Series plays out as expected, the oldtimers are going to have a field day. No, I don't mean Roger Clemens, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Orlando Hernandez, and Frank Thomas. I'm talking about the fans of yesteryear. You know, the guys who romanticize about pitching, defense, sacrificing, hitting behind runners, and timely hitting. This Series should be right up their alley.

    Speaking of Bags and the Big Hurt, how ironic is it that these two future Hall of Famers with the same birthday, parallel careers, and similar achievements and career totals would be non-factors when their teams finally made it to World Series? Bagwell might see some action as a right-handed DH/PH but Thomas was left off the postseason roster with a broken foot.

    If FOX advertises Reunion, will it be about six high school friends or four pitchers who teamed up with the Yankees earlier this decade? (I'm stretching things here a bit as Clemens, Pettitte, Jose Contreras, and El Duque never all pitched in the same season for NY but, hey, it makes for a good story.)

    Besides rich, I wonder how Carlos Beltran is feeling these days?

    Bryan's Outtake: With the pitching and defense so close between these two teams, it might just be the offenses that dictate the winner. Who can score four runs or more?

    Since manufacturing runs is going to be so difficult against these staffs, the longball will likely be the key to scoring. And given the seven upcoming games in pro-offensive environments, home runs could be hit far more often than people think. And this is definitely one area where the White Sox have a clear edge over Houston, having slugged 39 more bombs than Houston during the regular season.

    As we said in the Astros-Cardinals preview, the key to beating the Houston offense is to take out Morgan Ensberg and Lance Berkman. While Biggio and Jason Lane are both threats, no other key player has a .750+ OPS. The White Sox are far more balanced, though shutting down Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye -- accounting for 36% of the Sox homers -- would be a good idea.

    However, at this point, the best offensive player on the White Sox might be Joe Crede. Despite losing the Playoff MVP award to Konerko, Crede has been lights-out this postseason. Furthermore, he has been great since returning from the DL in early September, in which he apparently changed his swing. Since then, against some of baseball's toughest competition, Crede has been the player he was supposed to be coming out of the minors: .344/.375/.677. Eight home runs in ninety at-bats. Big Frank would be proud.

    Finally, we should highlight momentum as the other key factor in the Series. Problem is, I'm not sure who has more at this point. I'm inclined to say the White Sox, playing within the crazy Chicago environment, off what might have been the four best games they played in 2005. However, the Astros -- playing in their first World Series in franchise history -- surely are on their own emotional high after overcoming the brutal Game 5 loss. This seems to be a push, a recurring theme in this preview.

    Rich's Outtake: Anything can happen in a short series and, if this postseason is any guide, the World Series will probably turn on an umpire's decision, a fielding miscue, or a late-inning home run. With two evenly matched teams, it's as much a crapshoot as anything else.

    Since the advent of the Wild Card, the team that wins it all is usually the hottest rather than the best. A second-place team has won the World Series in each of the past three seasons, and the club with the lesser record has poured the champagne in five of the last six years. Both of those tidbits point to the Astros.

    The White Sox may be hotter, having won 12 of their last 13 games -- against outstanding competition, I might add (with 10 of those victories at the expense of the Indians, Red Sox, and Angels). But, as Yogi Berra might say, the Astros aren't so cool themselves. Consider this: since May 24, Houston is 81-46 (.638) and Chicago is 74-50 (.597). I bet you didn't know that!

    One other thing -- the White Sox were the best team on the road this year while the Astros tied for the second-best home record. The team that wins it will be the one that takes at least two of three in Houston.

    Bryan's Pick: These teams are just so similar that home field advantage (thank God for the All-Star Game) might just be the key component. So, I'll go with the White Sox in six games, as I think Chicago is playing a bit better across the board at this moment.

    Rich's Pick: The pressure is on me to see if I can go 7-for-7 with my picks. Yes, I chose the Astros and Cardinals in the NLDS, the White Sox and Angels in the ALDS, the Astros in the NLCS, and the White Sox in the ALCS. If I select the World Series winner, too, I might just have to go into the tout business. You know, the one in which you tell half of your customers Team X will win and the other half Team Y. Fifty percent of your clients think you're a genius.

    But I'm not willing to settle for being half right. No hedging here, folks. Houston is going to win it all. The Astros in seven.

    * * * * *

    ALDS/NLDS Previews
    ALCS Preview
    NLCS Preview

    Baseball Beat/WTNYOctober 12, 2005
    Baseball Playoffs: Take Two (Part Two)
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    NLCS Preview: Astros vs. Cardinals

    **Second Verse, Same as the First?**

    In a nutshell - Team Built for 162 Games vs. Team Built for October

    Rich's Take: The Cardinals and Astros just might be the two best teams in baseball. It just so happens that they not only play in the same league but the same division. I believe the winner of the NLCS will be favored to win the World Series so there is a lot at stake here. Both teams are hungry with something to prove.

    It's hard to believe but the state of Texas has never hosted a World Series game. Houston took St. Louis to the brink of defeat last year, but the Cardinals earned the right to get swept by Boston by beating Roger Clemens in Game Seven. Interestingly, the stars are aligned in such a way that Clemens just may start the final game once again.

    If you go by the numbers, I think you have to like St. Louis. The Astros really aren't better than the Cardinals at anything. The Redbirds hit better, field better, and have the home-field advantage. The Astros? They have one of the top three pitchers of all time, the Killer B's, and perhaps the mojo this year.

    The Cardinals won 11 more games than the Astros while playing in the same division. St. Louis beat up on Houston when they played each other, taking 11 of the 16 games. They swept the Padres in the NLDS and have won more regular season and postseason games than any team in baseball the past two years. The Astros, on the other hand, have won only two playoff series out of ten in the franchise's history. But they were victorious last week in perhaps the greatest one of 'em all.

    Bryan's Take: Yes, the numbers definitely support a St. Louis sweep. The emotions, however (and we saw what a difference that can make last night), favor the Astros. That's what 18-inning game wins do, they put clubs on emotional highs, and provoke the media to call them a team of destiny.

    However, while we are probably going to hear some David v. Goliath references, don't believe them. David isn't going to win because he has heart. This series will be about more than that. And as Rich pointed out, other than emotions, the Cards have everything else.

    What little the Astros have in offense, the Cards can match it. Both offenses are predicated around four hitters, but you have to think those four will balance each other out in this series. Or at least that's the Astros goal. Can Biggio, Ensberg, Berkman and Lane balance Walker, Edmonds, Pujols and Sanders? If so, the series becomes about the other four offensive starters, and about the pitching.

    This is what Houston wants, not because it's better in those areas, but because those two things are more volatile.

    Rich's Outtake: At number one and two in the NL, the team ERAs were almost identical this year. Houston's pitchers had better peripheral stats than St. Louis. The Astros have more star power at the top of their rotation in Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Roy Oswalt, but the Cardinals have more depth. To wit, Tony La Russa can turn to Jason Marquis or Jeff Suppan in Game Four. Phil Garner has no choice other than to go with Brandon Backe. Marquis was 4-0 with a 3.22 ERA against the Astros, while Backe had a 10.32 ERA with 21 hits and 7 walks in 11 1/3 IP vs. the Cardinals.

    Chris Carpenter also fared well against Houston this year, going 4-0 with a 1.85 ERA. The Cardinals didn't have Carpenter in the postseason last year, while the Astros had both Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent. Seems hard to believe that St. Louis with a healthy Carpenter could lose to Houston team sans Beltran and Kent.

    Bryan's Outtake: Other than emotions, Houston has one thing in their favor: the Fab Four. Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, Roy Oswalt and Brad Lidge. If these four can get in about 50 innings during the series, you have to figure the Astros win. I mean, how much better are they than Carpenter, Mulder, Morris and Isringhausen. Not exactly a murderer's row, there. In fact, the Astros have an ERA edge greater than half a run there.

    One area not getting a lot of mention in this series is Yadier Molina. Before the season, I compared Molina to Angels manager Mike Scioscia, and now I think the comparison is as true as ever. This season, Molina has thrown out 64.1% of baserunners. Yes, you read that right, 25 of 39 have been thrown out. In an age where Mike Piazza and Jason Kendall can each catch more than 800 innings behind the plate with rates below 20%, that is astounding. So basically, do not expect Wily Taveras to have a big series.

    Rich's Pick: The left side of my brain tells me the Cardinals, while the right side says Astros. The right side wins out. Houston in seven.

    Bryan's Pick: In the playoffs, they tell you to throw out the numbers and look at the intangibles. But if Rich is going with the right side, I'll be happy to hedge his bet. We know the Cardinals will win Game Five, and they have four other games at home. I'll go with Cardinals in six.

    * * * * *

    For more information on the NLCS, please be sure to visit the following sites...

    Astros: Astros Daily and The Dugout

    Cardinals: Viva El Birdos and Cardnilly

    Baseball Beat/WTNYOctober 11, 2005
    Baseball Playoffs: Take Two
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    ALCS Preview: Angels vs. White Sox

    **Two of a Kind**

    In a nutshell - Pitching vs. Pitching

    Rich's Take: Rather than pitching vs. pitching, it should read Rested and Relaxed vs. Road Weary and Tired. C'mon, this is the most unfair schedule I have ever seen. Is it the Angels fault that Game Four of the ALDS was rained out? Blame it on the New Yorkers. It was their rain. But no way should it be held against the Angels.

    The White Sox should get credit for sweeping the Red Sox and for having a better regular-season record than the Angels, but you may as well hand them Game One. They will have had three days off. The Angels get no time off. Worse yet, the Halos played in New York on Sunday night, then fly coast-to-coast in the wee hours of the morning, play the rubber match of the series Monday night, then turn around and take another red eye more than halfway across the country. Now that is downright silly! Moreover, it is blatantly biased in favor of the White Sox and against the Angels.

    OK, I feel a little bit better now. . .but not much. Take a deep breath, hold it, hold it. . .now let it out slowly, Rich. Whew! OK, OK. I'm making some progress. I should be good to go by Game Three. The first two games don't really matter anyway, do they? I mean, the White Sox had best be up 2-0 by Wednesday night or they are going to be in a real hurt, let me tell you. The Pale Hose have home field advantage in this series, and they had better sweep in Chicago. If they don't, the Angels are going to beat them. It's that simple. I know the White Sox have a great record on the road and all, but I think they need to take advantage of the gift in the schedule in order to beat the Angels.

    Absent the schedule, these two teams are about as equal as can be. Second and third best team ERA in the AL. Top two for starting pitchers only. The White Sox have the edge in bullpen ERA though. However, I wouldn't take the Angels relievers lightly. Led by Frankie Rodriguez, the Halos have a higher K/9 than the White Sox, plus LA's 'pen has been bolstered by the addition of Kelvim Escobar the past few weeks.

    I'm inclined to throw the above stats out the window because what you've seen is not what you're going to get. Bartolo Colon and Jarrod Washburn are questionable. Colon's shoulder will be re-evaluated on Tuesday and Washburn, scratched from his Game Four start due to a throat infection and high fever, has strep throat. John Lackey and Ervin Santana both pitched more than five innings on Sunday and Monday, respectively, so neither will be available until this weekend. That leaves Paul Byrd to go in Game One and anybody and everybody in Game Two.

    Bryan's Take
    : Oh pipe down, Rich. I thought you California folk were supposed to be laid-back? I'm kidding of course, but in seriousness, there is no reason to bring up the anti-West Coast bias already. I mean, can't we at least wait for the White Sox to win the first two games before accusing baseball of conspiracy?

    Also, I think you are selling the Angels short here, I mean c'mon, these guys are professional athletes. On 18 different occasions this year, the Angels traveled out of state between games on consecutive days. Oftentimes, this meant little more rest than the 20 hours given between Game Five and Game One. The Halos record in these games? 12-6, with the average scoring 6 runs per game, significantly more than their seasonal average (4.7).

    It isn't the schedule that is going to do the Angels in, but the pitching we highlighed at the top. Oh, or are you going to blame Bud Selig for Colon and Washburn's injuries? While Rich looked at just how similar these staffs have been, Los Angeles could hardly enter a series more vulnerable. Their three healthy starters had an aggregate ERA of 3.73, while the Sox Game 1-4 starters were at 3.52. And for once, it looks like the Angels might be out-manned in the bullpen, as the White Sox four best relievers (Cotts, Jenks, Hermanson, Politte) had a 2.12 ERA in over 220 innings this season).

    Also, despite the numbers, I like the Chicago offense more in this series. The Angels had just one player hit more than 17 home runs this season, as the White Sox had five. Neither team walks very much, and both are fairly active on the basepaths. The difference? The Angels are a contact-first team, striking out 154 less times than the White Sox this year, while being out-homered by 53. So who gets the advantage in this series then, the team that puts pressure on the defense, or the one that depends on the long ball? Go for the latter, as the White Sox have one of the Majors best defenses, while playing in one of the Majors smallest parks.

    At the top, we mentioned this series was about pitching against pitching. Problem for the Angels is, they enter the series with an issue of too little, while the White Sox come in with problems of too much.

    Rich's Outtake: The Angels and White Sox are a bit more challenged offensively. They ranked seventh and ninth, respectively, in the AL in runs scored. Even though Ozzie Guillen and Scott Podsednik would like you to think these are the Go-Go Sox, I'm going to let you in on a secret. They are anything but. The White Sox hit 97 home runs in 1959 and 199 in 2005. I know, I know. . .there are more HR being hit today than back then, but double the amount? I don't think so. Today's Sox have some sock. Chicago ranked fourth in the league in dingers. Paul Konerko slugged 40, Jermaine Dye 31, Carl Everett 23, Joe Crede 22, and on and on. Every starter other than Podsednik hit 13 or more HR.

    By comparison, the Angels only had four players hit 13 or more homers. Heck, the team's starting infield of Darin Erstad, Adam Kennedy, Orlando Cabrera, and Chone Figgins went yard a total of 25 times COMBINED! Their corner infielders muscled out 15 in 1,251 at-bats during the regular season. Did I mention that they both struck out over 100 times to boot? I mean, what's not to like? You either get home runs or you get the unshaven look with eye black and dirty pants.

    Bryan's Outtake: One thing I ignored when evaluating the Angels-Yankees series was that L.A. simply had the Yanks number. It seems as if everytime the two teams had played since the Angels won the World Series, Los Angeles came out on top. The Angels also have an advantage over the White Sox from the beginning of 2004, albeit a narrow one at that.

    The postseason is also when stars shine brighter, and the Angels are aided by the two best players in this series. Vladimir Guerrero is tops, by far, with his blend of fantastic contact and power skills at the plate. In the bullpen, the team also has Francisco Rodriguez, one of the American League's best closers. When on, K-Rod's stuff would have made Mariano Rivera a preferable choice. Expect these two to not go down without a fight.

    Finally, in the last preview for the White Sox, of the ALDS, I mentioned Chicago's troubles against right-handed pitching. While the club had no such problems against the Red Sox right-handers, this could change as the White Sox are set to play a better group. In fact, besides Jarrod Washburn, it's unlikely the Angels will have another southpaw on their ALCS roster.

    And believe me, the White Sox lineup looks a lot less frightening when the largest concern is A.J. Pierzynski.

    Rich's Pick: The schedule favors Chicago. The home field advantage goes to Chicago. With the status of Colon and Washburn up in the air, Chicago gets the nod for starting pitching, too. Throw in the decided edge in power and what does that spell? Chicago in six.

    Bryan's Pick: Starting out strong is important to the White Sox. They need to get ahead early in games to avoid facing Scot Shields and K-Rod, while also handing the ball over to their own bullpen to protect the lead. They also need to start strong in the series, to avoid Washburn returning to a tied (or close) series. Expect them to do both. White Sox in five.

    * * * * *

    For more information on the ALCS, please be sure to visit the following sites...

    Angels: 6-4-2 and Pearly Gates

    White Sox: South Side Sox and Exile in Wrigleyville

    Baseball Beat/WTNYOctober 09, 2005
    What Went Wrong to the Rest
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    Media coverage is a funny thing.

    One day, you're on top of the world, leading off Sportscenter, and making the front page. The lead story to every sports report on the local and national news. The next day, however, you're gone -- over and done with -- and worthless to them. They forget about you for months, until the playing field is level again, and we can begin to argue who will do it next season.

    This sudden lack of coverage comes at different times for different teams. For some it's lost in early September, when many teams often go from contender to pretender. Sometimes it's lost slowly, during the season, when divisional mates prove to be too much. For some it goes, comes back, and goes again. This series is about covering those teams.

    In previous editions, we looked at those failed September teams, and yesterday, looked at the losers of the NL East. Today, we finish up the regular season edition of "What Went Wrong" at a look at three teams that had the oddest of seasons. At various times during the middle of the year, Oakland, Cleveland, and San Francisco were all considered to be done with. However, the clubs played well when needed, and slowly climbed up the rankings, and began to make some noise in September.

    Problem is, the teams simply couldn't capitalize when needed. All three teams saw their season slip away in the September series against the would-be divisional winner. Had the A's beat the Angels, or the Giants top the Padres, or the Indians upset the White Sox, this article could feature a completely different group.

    Let's start with the Indians, probably the most interesting of the group, considering their September collapse. In May, no one would have imagined this team had a shot to make the playoffs. In mid-September, few would have believed they had a chance at missing it. But this was a team to constantly defy the odds, whether it be a ridiculous second half run or a final week belly-flop.

    In to discuss the Indians is the SportsBlogs' Cleveland affiliate, proprietor of "Let's Go Tribe," Ryan Richards. He answers the usual five questions...

    What turned out to be the team's Achilles Heel?

    Well, the last week of the season it was the offense. The team couldn't string together two hits together the last week of the season, never mind three or four. While the offense overall was very good over the course of the season, there were some really bad stretches at times. So I guess the short answer is the lack of consistency on offense.

    How do you hope Mark Shapiro attacks this problem over the winter?

    The biggest hole this early in the process seems to be in right field and/or first base. Casey Blake is not an everyday outfielder, and Ben Broussard is eligible for arbitration for the first time. The Indians need some production from their corners, and while I don't know if there's an answer on the free agent market, the Indians have to make an upgrade somehow. There are issues to address as well: If the Indians lose Kevin Millwood, they're going to need another starter. And they'll have to remake the bullpen; three important pitchers (Wickman, Howry, Sauerbeck) are free agents.

    Who would you label as the team's MVP and LVP?

    MVP could go to a number of players, from Kevin Millwood to Victor Martinez to the bullpen as a whole. But I'll go with Travis Hafner; Pronk carried the team during several stretches over the course of the season. He missed 2.5 weeks during the season, but still finished the year with 75 extra-base hits. One stat that amazes me about Hafner is that he hit .286/.316/.516 after falling behind 0-2, indicating how good he is at pitch recognition.

    LVP has to go to Casey Blake. I don't like to look at RISP numbers as a measure of a player's worth, but posting a .491 OPS with runners in scoring position is so bad that you can't help noticing it.

    Season Highlight?

    There's a lot to choose from, but for me the highlight of the season was Travis Hafner's grand slam in Fenway on June 28th. The Indians had been down three runs in the eighth, but tied the game in the ninth; Hafner's grand slam off Keith Foulke put the game away.

    Season Lowlight?

    The last week of the season. Six losses in seven games, five of them by one run. An agonizing seven days considering the Indians had control of their own destiny.


    The Billy Beane bashers came out loud and proud in May, when the A's were in last place in the NL West, and Beane's rebuilding job was looking like just that. How dare we had thought this team had a chance to win, no matter how young and promising they looked, right? Wrong. The A's season took a drastic 180 on June 1, when the club caught fire, and quickly rose up the AL West standings, all the way to first place. However, injuries and inconsistency allowed the Angels to eventually take the division, and Oakland simply couldn't stick with Cleveland and the AL East in the Wild Card standings.

    Baseball Toaster writer and webmaster Ken Arneson answers a few questions about his favorite team...

    What turned out to be the team's Achilles Heel?

    Bobby Crosby's ribs, Rich Harden's oblique, Erubiel Durazo's elbow, Octavio Dotel's elbow, Rich Harden's lat, and Bobby Crosby's ankle. And possibly Eric Chavez' shoulder.

    The injuries to Crosby and Durazo were the most damaging. They led to far too many at bats by Marco Scutaro and Scott Hatteberg, as well as by Durazo himself, before they figured out how badly he was hurt. The offense, not among the best to begin with, lost a lot of power.

    The injuries made for a really schizophrenic season. The A's were really, really bad; then they were really, really good; and finally, they were mediocre.

    How do you hope Beane attacks this problem over the winter?

    Health and maturity should improve the team quite a bit, so Billy Beane doesn't need to do much. The future looks bright. The question marks for 2006 are at LF and DH. However Beane fills those two positions, I'd like to see some more power, hopefully with at least one right-handed bat.

    I hope Hatteberg retires. I wouldn't mind the default choice: re-signing a recovering Durazo on the cheap, and picking up Jay Payton's option. But Beane might have some money to burn this offseason for a change ($7-10 million), so he has some room to be creative.

    What Beane does depends a lot on how close they think Daric Barton is. The A's might want to give him a little more time to mature and work on his defense. Otherwise, they could just use Barton right now in the Hatteberg role of DH/backup 1B/emergency catcher, and focus their dollars on the best left fielder their money can buy.

    Who would you label as the team's MVP and LVP?

    The A's didn't have a clearcut MVP this year. Rich Harden is the team's best player, but he was hurt too much. Zito and Blanton both had long stretches of great pitching, but a few bumps, too. Huston Street was a godsend, but he wasn't the closer all year. Eric Chavez had the biggest offensive numbers, but he sucked so bad at the beginning of the year, I don't want to pick him.

    So I'll do the non-stathead thing, and pick the best story: Mark Ellis. He came back from missing a year with a horrible shoulder injury, played excellent defense, and hit .316/.384/.477. He had the most out-of-the-blue offensive season in Oakland since Terry Steinbach hit 35 homers in 1996.

    LVP is easy: Keith Ginter. If he had hit anything like what he hit in 2004, he could have taken some of Scutaro's at-bats, and given the A's some more power. But he forgot how to hit, for some reason.

    Season Highlight?

    The two most memorable plays were by Jason Kendall: diving at the plate to tag out Michael Young to end the game in Texas, and then dashing home to win the game when K-Rod dropped the throw back from the catcher.

    The game to remember was on September 7, when theyscored five runs in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Mariners, 8-7.

    But the best part of the season was just that stretch in late June through early August, where most of the team was healthy, and every day just seemed to bring another victory.

    Season Lowlight?

    The most painful play to watch was on August 21, when Mark Kotsay lost a ball in the sun, helping the Royals win their second straight game in Oakland, after they had just lost 19 in a row. The most costly play of the year was the one where Bobby Crosby broke his ankle against Baltimore.

    The lowlight game of the season was the Michael Cuddyer game, when it became clear the A's would not make the playoffs.

    The lowlight stretch of the year was in May, when the A's had a ton of injuries, and had to play the Yankees and Red Sox for two straight weeks. That stretch buried the A's; it was amazing that they managed to dig themselves out of it to even be competitive at the end.


    Few sub-.500 teams have taken up our airwaves more in recent memory than the 2005 Giants, for two reasons. First and most obviously, Barry Bonds. The game's best slugger nearly missed the entire season with injury, coming back just early enough to create a media frenzy. The second reason is that the Giants played in baseball's worst division, one of the worst ever, one that even sub-.500 play could contend in. So when September rolled around, and Bonds came back, hope was restored in San Francisco. It shouldn't have been.

    Moving across the bay, we being in Grant, from McCovey Chronicles, to discuss his memories and complaints from the latest edition of the G-men...

    What turned out to be the team's Achilles Heel?

    While the starting pitching fell far short of expectations, the biggest weakness of the Giants was a dearth of reliable hitters. No one, save Moises Alou and Ray Durham, could get on base. It's almost as if the team was counting on Barry Bonds a bit too much, but I wouldn't want to speculate.

    How do you hope Brian Sabean attacks this problem over the winter?

    I want a big, thumping first baseman, and that's what the team needs. There are no big, thumping first basemen available with the exception of Paul Konerko, who I don't really want roaming around at the end of a 4-year deal, and possibly Jim Thome, who is still due the GDP of Peru. If the Giants threw money at Konerko for a short-term fix, and pretended like 2010 didn't exist, I wouldn't be too bitter.

    Who would you label as the team's MVP and LVP?

    The MVP would have been Moises Alou if he had stayed healthy, but Noah Lowry is a fine choice. The start of the season for Lowry was scary, but he was fantastic the second-half. Even more impressive, in a roundabout way, was how he did it. Last year, Lowry threw an amazing changeup consistently. The change was flakier in 2005, but an improved curveball proved good enough to be an out pitch.

    The LVP goes to Armando Benitez. Overpaid, ineffective, and injuried. He'll be fine, and his struggles when he returned were likely due to his being rushed, but the Giants would have won the division if he even came close to a repeat of 2004.

    Season Highlight?

    Bonds hitting a double in his first at-bat back was nice, but Randy Winn tying a critical game against Trevor Hoffman was the best moment of the season. That game left Giants fans as if the team had a shot; a ridiculous scenario to contemplate for a team as flawed as this one.

    Season Lowlight?

    Getting one-hit by the A's in a 16-0 rout. Oof. Maybe the worst Giants game ever, from a purely aesthetic point of view.


    As always, this article would have been impossible without the help of our fine guests. Hopefully we can continue this series going forward, as the playoffs cut the playing field down in half with each round. We'll be back tomorrow with new content, so please check back.

    Baseball Beat/WTNYOctober 08, 2005
    What Went Wrong in the NL East
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    In the last edition of "What Went Wrong," we looked at four organizations that fell apart in September's first two weeks. Still, even when the article ran on September 16, many other teams were still in the race. Over the next two days, we will look at the six clubs that teased their fan bases up to the season's last week.

    We begin today with the most interesting division in baseball. No, not the NL West, the loathsome group that sent the 82-80 Padres into the playoffs. Instead, we look at three clubs that missed in the NL East, a division in which San Diego would have finished just one game from last place. While the Braves had all-but-assured themselves of a playoff spot in August, we may forget that this division was up for grabs well into July.

    Last time, we looked at the New York Mets, the first team that really fell apart in the division.'s Ricardo Gonzalez told us about the club's numerous issues, including, "The back-end of the bullpen gave us some problems, Willie Randolph had a rough rookie year, and Jose Reyes was seemingly unable to take ball four [and] ... the production of the right side of the infield." However, he also relived the season highlight with us, the club's first win of the season under Pedro Martinez and over John Smoltz.

    The Mets ended up finishing tied for third in the division thanks to a solid finish, bringing their record up to 83-79. Behind the Amazins in the standings were the Washington Nationals, in their first season in the District of Columbia. The Nats, formerly the Expos, started off the season like has become a ritual: extremely well. They were leading the division well into June, and appeared to be a contender for the Wild Card well into September.

    To profile the Nats many ups and downs, we asked the Ball Wonk, proprietor of the fantastic The Wonk gives us a look at MLB's team, who we can expect to have some semblance of stability in 2006, when the organization should gain an owner.

    What turned out to be this team's Achilles heel?

    Ah, but we only remember Achiles's heel because it was his one vulnerability. A team that just barely misses the playoffs because it couldn't win that 101st game to pass the Cardinals, that team has an Achilles heel. The Nats? Not so much. Imagine, if you will, that Achilles was dipped into the Olympian water of invulnerability by a god who dangled him from not from his heel but from his elbow and knee, which had been hog-tied together for the purpose. In that version of the story, Achilles would have been about two-thirds invulnerable. "Nigh-invulnerable," and the Tick would say. But one whole arm and shoulder, one whole leg and hip, a hand, a foot, and a couple of his abs would have remained the mortalest of flesh. That would be the Nationals this year.

    Actually, "knee" is probably the right answer here. The Nats had like ten guys go down with knee injuries, or play hobbled through excruciating knee ailments. Jose Vidro and Vinny Castilla stand out among knee injuries that hurt the Nationals, but only because Livan Hernandez was so good at faking his way through the pain. Knee problems were so endemic you'd have thought we had stolen money from the Irish Republican Army or something.

    More generally, having the least productive offense in the big leagues probably wasn't as helpful as GM "Trader Jim" Bowden thought it might be. Nor was unreliable middle relief. And manager Frank Robinson driving every Asian pitcher off the team in fits of petty rage? Again, not as helpful as Frank probably thought at the time.

    How do you hope Jim Bowden attacks this problem in the winter?

    The first priority must be convincing George Steinbrenner that he is only one fat, underachieving, surly Dominican shortstop away from the 2006 pennant. Short of that, the Nationals are in a "do no harm" mode until the team gets permanent owners who can assess long-term revenue and the like. We need more prospects in the minors a lot more than we need pennant races in 2006 or 2007. But we have two whole outfields worth of league-average or better outfielders. Any two of them could bring us real value, perhaps an infield bat and some minor-league talent, that would have a fast impact. So could the right free-agent signing, even in this anemic free-agent year, but that depends on an owner's decision to raise payroll from the current $50 mil to the $80 mil or so that a team in this market can easily afford.

    Who would you label as team MVP and LVP?

    MVP is a tough call. The one player who would probably have cost us the most wins if he had performed at any level less than what he gave us is Chad Cordero, but it's just unseemly to rate a closer as a team's MVP. Esteban Loaiza is really the unsung hero of the 2005 Nationals season; he pitched better and more consistently over the season than anyone else on a generally excellent staff, but wound up with nothing to show for it but a whole lot of 1-0 losses and 1-1 no-decisions.

    Season Highlight:

    You kidding? Opening day at home, first big-league game in DC since before a lot of fans were born. Seeing baseball-starved fans at a bar, none of whom were keeping score or could hear the broadcasters because the jukebox was on instead of the game audio, realize on their own, with no prompting, that Vinny Castilla needed only a single to hit for the cycle and then get hushed and start cheering for a single in his last at-bat. That was a pretty special moment.

    Or maybe the highlight was Frank's confrontation with Mike Scioscia over the gunk on that cheating pitcher's glove, and how it took seven guys -- no exaggeration; you can check the Tivo -- to stop Guillen the Barbarian from rushing the field to defend his manager, and then the Nats went on to tear through the next few weeks like Sherman marching through Georgia. Or the final game, where the Nationals got blown out by the Phillies but the fans kept right in it the whole way and finally managed to shut up the 10,000 or so Phillies fans who'd been making RFK feel more like the Vet.

    Season Lowlight:

    Every time the Phillies came to town and their lowlife fans turned up in massive numbers to make DC feel like a home game for the Phils. Are all Philles fans vulgar boors who behave more like European soccer hooligans than American sports fans? Surely not, but a shocking number of the ones who show up at RFK when the Phillies are in town would fit right in at a French soccer stadium. I started the season expecting to regard the Phillies the same way I do the Indians: the other team in my favorite team's division I wouldn't mind getting the pennant if my team can't win it themselves. Now, after a season of getting to know the Phillies fans who come to RFK? I wouldn't mind so much if the Nationals went 3-159 next year, just so long as those three wins were a sweep at Philadelphia that cost the Phillies the Wild Card.


    Two games ahead of the Nationals, and tied with the Mets, were the Florida Marlins. Probably the NL East's most top-heavy team, the club packed quite a bit of punch for the whole season. Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Delgado at the plate, Dontrelle Willis and Josh Beckett in the rotation, and a suddenly-for-no-reason-dynamite Todd Jones in the bullpen all fueled this team for 162 games. However, the team that Bryan chose to make the Wild Card weeks into September proved to not have enough depth to overtake the Houston Astros.

    In to provide the answers to the Marlins' woes is Mike Hunssinger, one of the co-writers at Fish Stripes, SportsBlogs' Marlins affiliate. His answers...

    What turned out to be this team's Achilles heel?

    This has to be either one of two things. The conventional answer is the bullpen, which--other than Todd Jones--was disappointing all around. The Marlins tried to plug holes throughout the year with minor leaguers and re-treads, but it just didn't work. The biggest disappointment of all has to be Guillermo Mota, who was counted on in the spring to be the closer. He proved incapable of that and luckily Todd Jones stepped up.

    Other than that, Jack McKeon's curious managerial style and grating personality in the clubhouse may have made the difference. There was talk around the All-Star break that the Marlins might shake things up. They didn't and the dirty laundry started to come out at the end of the year. It almost seems that clubhouse dissension played as large of a role in the team's struggles as the poor bullpen and the struggles of Lowell and Pierre.

    How do you hope Larry Beinfest attacks this problem in the winter?

    Unfortunately, the Marlins offseason problems will be much larger than just repairing the bullpen. If that was all they were faced with, I'm confident that Beinfest could patch things up. But there are long term deals to be made for Willis and Cabrera. Beinfest may also be tasked with trading Carlos Delgado and trimming payroll. He'll have to either resign or replace a total of thirteen free agents. There are a lot of holes to fill on the Marlins' roster and there's talk that it might have to be done for less money than it was this year.

    Who would you label as the team's MVP and LVP?

    Carlos Delgado and Miguel Cabrera had strong campaigns at the plate and deserve team MVP consideration. But realistically, this team wouldn't have been anywhere near wild card contention without the heroics of Dontrelle Willis. Willis won a major league leading 22-games and posted an ERA well below 3.00. He's among the ML leaders in VORP for pitchers and Win Shares. Willis also set a franchise record for hits by a pitcher and was used fairly frequently as a pinch-hitter. All of this from a guy who started out the year 4th in the rotation.

    The LVP could easily be one of the guys (Al Leiter) who started out ahead of Willis in the rotation. But the Fish sent Leiter to New York in July. While Leiter's $7 million salary was a tremendous waste, Mike Lowell's lack of production hurt the team more than anything. It's hard to get down on Lowell because he's such a great guy, has overcome cancer, and has been huge for the Marlins over the years. But the reality of it is that he didn't produce and was relegated to the bench late in the year for the Marlins. This came from a guy who was supposed to hit somewhere between third and fifth in the lineup, providing punch and protection for Delgado/Cabrera. There were some flashes of brilliance, but they were few and far between. Fortunately his defense stayed Gold Glove-caliber. The Marlins just needed a lot more than that this year (especially for a financially limited team, which had invested over $8 million in Lowell this season).

    Season Highlight:

    Two moments immediately come to mind: Dontrelle Willis' 20th win and Jeremy Hermida's debut grand slam. While the Marlins are still a relatively young franchise, Willis' 20th win marked the first time in franchise history that any Marlin had won 20 games. Willis notched the win in an important September 7th matchup against the then wild card contending Nationals.

    Hermida debuted on 8/31 and hit a pinch-hit grand slam in the 7th inning. Realistically the shot was meaningless (the Marlins lost 10-5), but to see Hermida deliver in his debut was exciting. Hermida is probably the mostly highly anticipated prospect the Marlins have had in a long time - bigger than even Cabrera and Willis, who spent such a short amount of time in the minors that folks didn't have a chance to get anxious about their arrivals. Hermida's debut grand slam is even more impressive when you consider that he was only the second major leaguer to hit a grand slam in his first at bat. The other was William "Frosty Bill" Duggleby (a pitcher) who accomplished the feat in April of 1898.

    Season Lowlight:

    The lowlight is unquestionably the 10-2 loss to the Phillies on September 17th. Going into that game, hopes were still high for the wild card. The Marlins had a 2-0 lead going into the 9th. Willis was on the hill and Todd Jones was ready in the pen. It seemed like a sure win. Then the unthinkable happened. Then the unthinkable happened again. And again. They ended up losing 10-2 and never really recovered after that.


    However, both of those two teams fell short to the Philadelphia Phillies, who brought hope to the city of Brotherly Love until the regular season's final Sunday. The team eventually fell as the Cubs could not play spoiler in Houston, and the Phillies late season surge fell just a little short. We asked Mike Carminati, from Mike's Baseball Rants of Baseball Toaster, to give insight on his favorite club.

    What turned out to be this team's Achilles heel?

    For the Phils, I think it was their reliance on aging players and their bloated contracts. Lieberthal, Bell, Thome, and Worrell hurt this team. It wasn't until some of the younger players got a shot that the team was buoyed. Certainly, not installing Utley as the second baseman out of spring training was a mistake though Polanco was no slouch either--it was just a bad situation, porrly conceived by team brass. Oh, and of course, Charlie Manuel is a big dummy.

    How do you hope Ed Wade attacks the problem in the winter?

    I hope he attacks the problems by committing sepuku this winter. Ed Wade, or more to the point the lollygagging brass, are the Phils' biggest problem.

    Who would you label as the team's MVP and LVP?

    LVP is hard. I guess Bell since he played the entire year, but Thome was horrible in his brief stint. Lieberthal was dreadful in the first half.

    MVP would go to Utley. Howard would get it if you prorated by plate appearances. Burrell was very good. Abreu was excellent in the first half and slumped badly in the second. I got the sense that a day off here or there--he played all 162 games--would have helped. And Rollins was great in the second half.

    Season Highlight:

    I'll mention two: First, taking five of six from the Braves in mid-September, often in exciting fashion, to revive their dwidling playoff hopes.

    For me though, the season finale in which they fought to sweep the Nationals to stay alive in the wild card hunt with their backs against the wall only to find out as the crowd was breaking up and the National players were coming on to the field to thank the fans that the Astros had won, thereby eliminating the Phils. I was at the game--very bittersweet.

    Oh, and I'll name a third: Rollins' hitting streak. It was nice that it had something to do with their success very late in the season.

    Season Lowlight:

    It had to be getting swept by the Astros in early September, twice by one run and once by two. Closer Billy Wagner lost the last two games, giving up ninth-inning homers both times. As a fan, one had the sense that these were perhaps the two teams that the wild card would come down to and the Phils were blowing it. It took most of the month for the fans to be distracted enough from the Eagles to notice that the Phils were in a playoff drive, just in time to be let down again. Welcome to Philadelphia.


    Thanks to our guests for providing the answers and insights to the losers of the NL East. We can only hope the division provides the same depth and drama in 2006. Check back tomorrow, as we will bring in guest analysts to provide answers to the same questions about the Bay Area teams, and the season's largest choke-artists: the Cleveland Indians.

    Baseball Beat/WTNYOctober 04, 2005
    Baseball Playoffs: Take One
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    Ahh, October. The days are getting shorter. The leaves are about ready to turn colors. And baseball begins its second season. Yes, the National Pastime takes center stage in the sporting world. Octoberfest, here we come.

    From the Baseball Analysts dictionary:

    Oc·to·ber·fest n. - An autumn festival that usually emphasizes merrymaking for one baseball team and the consumption of beer for the other seven.

    With the baseball playoffs upon us, we give you our takes and outtakes on each of the divisional series. Which team will be merry and which seven will be left drinking when it is all said and done? To find out, read on . . .

    American League Divisional Series

  • Boston Red Sox vs. Chicago White Sox

    **Who is going to knock your Sox off?**

    In a nutshell - Chicago's pitching vs. Boston's hitting.

    Rich's Take: Both teams outscored the opposition by about 100 runs. They just happened to get there in a completely different fashion. Chicago won the most games in the AL, swept the hottest team in baseball during the last weekend of the season, and enters the postseason with the longest winning streak of 'em all. Back in March, I would have bet Schillings to doughnuts that the Red Sox would beat the White Sox if they faced each other in the playoffs. In October, I'm Guillen with the Pale Hose. Chicago in five.

    Bryan's Take: They started well, they finished well. Really, the only scary part of Chicago's season was the month of August. What was so different in that month? No, not the pitching that has garnered all the press, but the offense that was remarkably consistent in the months of June, July and September. In each, the club had an OPS in the .780s. In August? One hundred points lower. The pitching is always there with this team, with a great bullpen and a rotation fresh off a great month. If they hit, they will win. Lucky for them, the Red Sox don't have great pitching. Tim Wakefield enters October as the de facto ace. Never a good sign. White Sox in four.

    Rich's Outtake: Boston's been there before, Chicago's not been there. I mean, the South Siders haven't won a postseason series since 1917. Call it the Curse of the Bamblack Sox. This series will be thrown by guys named Contreras, Buehrle, Garland, and Garcia. And Eight Men Out is what happens when Tony Graffanino comes to bat for the first time.

    Bryan's Outtake: Chicago may just be losing it for themselves. Left off the first round roster will be Brandon McCarthy, the club's second-best starter in the month of September. After gaining trust in his change-up in Charlotte, McCarthy skyrocketed, even shutting out these Red Sox for seven innings. However, the postseason experience of Orlando Hernandez and an odd love affair with Luis Vizcaino keep McCarthy watching from home. The club also has an awful bench and is susceptible to good right-handed pitching (.736 OPS vs. RHP; .782 vs. LHP). These factors will help struggling Red Sox starters Matt Clement and Bronson Arroyo considerably.

  • New York Yankees vs. Los Angeles Angels

    **The Battle of the Hot Rods**

    In a nutshell - L.A.'s pitching vs. New York's hitting.

    Rich's Take: The Yankees could have won home field advantage by winning one more game but preferred belly-aching about Buck Showalter laying down for the Angels in Texas on Sunday. If the Yanks come to Anaheim feeling sorry for themselves, they will go home feeling even sorrier. New York is hot but the O.C. is even hotter. They are about to meet their match in the Angels. LAA in four.

    Bryan's Take: Essentially, the Yankees and Angels will have a series with only seven inning games. Yes, the combinations of Gordon-Rivera and Shields-Rodriguez are that good. Then, understanding the Yankees will give up a few runs, the question becomes whether the Angel starters can stop these Yankees. Look for the answer to be no. The Yankees have a nice combination of being good, being hot, and being experienced. The Angels offense is, at best, one of those three. Despite Chone Figgins best efforts at becoming a media icon, the Yanks win in five.

    Rich's Outtake: The Yankees are a professional team, and I don't mean to diss them or dismiss them. The Bronx Bombers can flat out hit. But I'm skeptical of the team's starting pitchers beyond the Big Unit. Is Aaron Small really 10-0? Conversely, can anyone on the Angels other than Vladimir Guerrero hit? For the Yankees to beat the Angels, Johnson has to win. For the Angels to beat the Yankees, Vladi has to hit.

    Bryan's Outtake: Rich is skeptical of the post-Unit starters. This is a common theme among analysts this October, and a concern we should all be wary of. Both Jaret Wright and Mike Mussina are entering the playoffs pitching horribly. You also have to wonder when Shawn Chacon's deal with the devil will run out. His FIP with the Yankees is 1.72 points higher than his 2.85 ERA. Sooner or later, his awful K/BB rate will catch up with him. Whether it's the former or the latter will prove vital.

    * * * * *

    National League Divisional Series

  • Houston Astros vs. Atlanta Braves

    **Is That You Again?**

    In a nutshell - Pitching vs. Pitching.

    Rich's Take: Everybody seems to be jumping on the Houston bandwagon, myself included. I guess we've all noticed that a Wild Card team has won the World Series in each of the last three years. When it comes to the postseason, it's not about which team is best but which is the hottest and which is set up to win a short series. The Astros are built for October. Houston in four.

    Bryan's Take: You have to love Houston in a short series, for all the reasons that Rich mentioned yesterday. Clemens, Pettite, Oswalt, Lidge. Need anybody say more? The Braves are a pretty deep team, but hardly a dependable one. Could you honestly say that you would stake your prediction in Jorge Sosa's right arm or Jeff Francoeur's cooling bat? Didn't think so. Houston in three.

    Rich's Outtake: Have those of us who picked Houston overlooked the fact that the Braves beat the Astros five out of six times this year? Can Berkman and Ensberg keep up with the Joneses? We'll see.

    Bryan's Outtake: Clemens, Pettite, Oswalt, Lidge. Is there anything more? And no, Dan Wheeler and Chad Qualls don't count. Both Berkman and Ensberg do, but it's hard to think that they will be pitched to. The rest of the lineup, including an especially cold middle-three, will face plenty of responsibility. Atlanta's ability to exploit this may make my sweep prediction look stupid.

  • San Diego Padres vs. St. Louis Cardinals

    **The Host With the Most in a Coast**

    In a nutshell - Cardinals vs. themselves.

    Rich's Take: The Cardinals had the most wins in baseball this year. The Padres, on the other hand, enter the postseason with the worst record of any team ever. Winning the NL West gets you a playoff spot, but it won't do much more than that. The Cardinals in three or four, depending on whether Peavy wins game one.

    Bryan's Take: It's hard to bet against disparity here. Best team in the Majors against one of the worst playoff teams in 35 years? Pujols, Edmonds and a suddenly-hot Walker? Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, and the hot duo of Suppan and Marquis? Not to mention one of the best bullpens in the playoffs. It seems like fish in a barrel. It will be. Cardinals in four.

    Rich's Outtake: The Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday basketball schedule helps the underdog Padres. The Cardinals are stronger and have more depth, especially in their pitching corps. But the days off in between games one and two, and games two and three will minimize this advantage. Heck, San Diego could start Jake Peavy on Tuesday and let him come back on three days rest -- Sandy Koufax was known to pitch on two days rest in crunch time -- to try and sweep the Cards, if successful, or keep St. Louis from sweeping San Diego. I'm not saying they should but they truly could.

    Bryan's Outtake: However good Carpenter has become, you have to worry about his endurance. A 5.73 ERA in September did little to calm those concerns. San Diego is also built for a short series with Peavy paired with hot pitchers Pedro Astacio and Adam Eaton. The Padres ability to shorten games could also help keep an early lead. Let's put it this way: you wouldn't be a fool to put money on the playoff's largest (and I mean +325 LARGEST) underdogs. Just don't tell 'em we sent ya.

    * * * * *

    For a more detailed preview of the Yankees-Angels series, check out Rich's analysis over at Alex Belth's and Cliff Corcoran's fun, entertaining, and informative Bronx Banter.

  • Baseball Beat/WTNYSeptember 16, 2005
    What Went Wrong
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    As a fan, there is nothing worse. Over the long season, your time builds hope for a late season run. Then, without warning, at or around Labor Day, they take a nosedive. The race becomes out of reach, and you're left with nothing but broken dreams.

    Suddenly the "Baseball Tonight"s of the world have forgotten your club, spending their valuable time on those organizations with heartbeats. Without warning, coverage is gone, and you're left with pigskin and the "Wait 'til Next Year" mantra.

    Fear no more, Baseball Analysts (with a little help from our friends) has you covered. We reached out to members of the baseball blogosphere covering the four September flops of 2005: the Mets, the Twins, the Dodgers and the Cubs. Sure, not all teams had equal chances a few weeks ago, but go to their fan bases and they'll tell ya, somewhere inside there was hope...until September. So, we asked four bloggers questions about their team, from the highs and lows to the winter ahead.

    We start with the first team to hit the rocks: Dusty's boys. To help us analyze the Cubs, we have brought in Baseball Toaster and Cub Town writer Derek Smart. His answers...

    What turned out to be this team's Achilles heel?

    When Achilles and his infamous heel are linked with the 2005 Cubs I get an image of an enormous, athletic, mighty Grecian who, despite the traits which make him ideal for mortal combat, is covered from head to toe with fleshy knobs - vulnerable heels scattered over the length and breadth of his body like warts on a toad, offering so many inviting targets for the opposition that one wonders why one would bother to magically armor the rest.

    Or to put it more plainly, it's difficult to point to a single factor that made the Cubs a disappointment this season.

    There were bullpen issues galore, as it took the club seemingly forever to determine that LaTroy Hawkins was, for whatever reason, simply unable to perform as a closer, or that Ryan Dempster was better suited for the bullpen than the rotation, or that Glendon Rusch was Dempster's opposite in that regard (although they even forgot that after a while).

    There were also issues among the starting staff, as Kerry Wood and Mark Prior both missed extended periods with injury, Greg Maddux continued to devolve into a highly paid fifth starter, and those pitchers plugged in to cover for those missing time enjoyed only intermittent success, if any at all.

    It would also be easy to blame it all on injuries, and certainly that's been part of the problem, but even losing all the days and dollars they did doesn't fully explain what happened, nor do I believe it's the single, fixable thing that should be focused on by the organization during the off-season.

    What really killed the Cubs this year, the thing that made it nearly impossible for them to have a season that could be termed as a success, was their appalling lack of teamwide OBP.

    Despite being second in the NL in batting average, the team is (as of the end of play September 12) eleventh in the league in OBP and dead last in walks. This is how a team that is also second in SLG manages to be seventh in runs scored - no one's on base when the big hit comes.

    In order for the Cubs to have a chance at the postseason next year they have to have more people with big red C's on their hats standing on little white bags on hot summer days and nights.

    How do you hope Jim Hendry attacks this problem in the winter?

    Item one on Jim Hendry's agenda needs to be deciding on a free agent target who can help with the problem, particularly at the top of the lineup where the team took a disproportionately large hit from their on-base issues, and pursue him aggressively.

    One of Hendry's strengths as a GM has been an ability to, in general, keep from overpaying for free agents in terms of time and/or treasure, and this has been achieved primarily by keeping his nose out of bidding wars. He has a price he's willing to pay and when things get significantly beyond that point, he tips his cap and walks away.

    However, the Cubs are beyond the stage where that strategy gets them anything, at least in terms of solving the issue of men on the bags at the top of the order. There are only a few options out there for the job, they will be expensive, and Hendry has to be willing to pay - even overpay - or else the solution isn't likely to be found.

    Factoring all of this in, my ideal - perhaps not in a vacuum but in the market to come - is Rafael Furcal, who not only can provide an adequate lead-off man from an OBP perspective, but also helps solve some speed issues the team has had, along with shoring up what has been a weak middle infield defense.

    Furcal will cost a bundle, particularly if the salaries given out to men like Orlando Cabrera and Edgar Renteria get factored heavily into the negotiations, but without legitimate in-house options likely to come to town in 2006 (I just can't see Felix Pie getting any kind of real shot until, at best, mid-year), I think it's a cost the Cubs can't afford not to take on.

    The other big OBP sinkhole was...well...the entire outfield, and filling those holes should be Item Number Two on the agenda. Left field can be solved simply by sending Matt Murton out there every day, and while a prerequisite for doing that might be an alteration of Dusty Baker's DNA (despite some very obvious flaws, I doubt the Cubs' manager is going anywhere), sometimes you have to take one for the team, right Skip?

    As for the rest of the outfield, I could go on - Example 1: Wouldn't Brian Giles look yummy in Cubbie blue? Example 2: Taping Corey Patterson's bat to his shoulder = Instant OBP Improvement - but further speculation might result in extraordinary foolishness - Example 3: Now playing center field: Tom Jane as "The Mick" - so I'll stop.

    Who would you label as team MVP and LVP?

    He wouldn't have been my pick before the season started - I would have said Aramis Ramirez, or even one of the Big Three starters - but at this point in the year the answer is so obvious that it's almost not worth stating. Still, since you asked, I'll tell you who my MVP is: Neifi Perez.

    (A pause while the author has the spirit of Dusty Baker exorcised from his corporeal body.)

    I mean: Derrek Lee.

    As for Least Valuable, I'll have to go with my old favorite, Jose Macias. He's not the worst player on the team in terms of VORP - that's Corey Patterson with his shocking - 7.9 to Macias' second place -3.2 figure - but he compounds his lack of discernable offensive skills with an accompanying failure to contribute anything of value on defense.

    Patterson may have been awful with the stick this year, but at least he plays a good center field. Macias barely plays a good cheerleader.

    Season Highlight?

    The emergence of Derrek Lee as an elite offensive force.

    Alright, that may turn out to be an exaggeration over the long term, as I can't say I expect him to approach this year's level of production in the future - yes, he will drive in 100 runs again; yes, he will score 100 runs again; but I have a hard time believing he'll be hanging around the 1.100 OPS neighborhood over the next few years.

    Still, as far as this year's concerned, any "highlight moments" I might bring up nearly always would include the man I've dubbed "The Savior" anyway, so in this season where the good times have been difficult to remember - what with the remarkable staying power of all the baseball related horror I've witnessed - it's the greatness of Lee's entire season that I'll recall most fondly.

    Season Lowlight?

    I'm so unsure where to go with this. There was the worst way I've seen the club lose a game this year, which happened when LaTroy Hawkins tried to end the contest on a lineout double play in the top of the ninth but somehow managed to bounce the ball off the helmet of Jose Offerman and into the stands, scoring the tying and eventual winning runs for Philadelphia.

    There are two losing streaks of eight games to think of, the up and down injury woes of Kerry Wood, and the line shot that nearly ended Mark Prior's career, but I don't think those quite do it.

    No, to sum it all up, to really pinpoint the lowlight of the season, you have to go way back to the moment when Nomar Garciaparra tore his (gulp) groin coming out of the batters box in April.

    I think there were times during the year when I actually felt lower, but in retrospect, that was the moment when it all began to come apart. Think of it as the lowlight that started it all, the event that cascaded into everything else bad that happened throughout the year. It was, indeed, the instant when the season was truly lost, even if we didn't fully realize it at the time.

    * * * * *

    Next, we have the other organization that was not ecstatic about their hopes on September 1: the Dodgers. To talk about them, we brought in (who else?) another Toaster writer, Jon Weisman. His answers:

    What turned out to be this team's Achilles heel?

    The Achilles heel, as well as every other body part in sight. It's been well-documented that the Dodgers went all-world with injuries this season. Whether you buy into the idea that those wounds were self-inflicted or bad feng shui from the Dodger Stadium seating changes, 2005 sure rubbed the wrong way. In terms of what was left on the field, the biggest problem (and one that gets no press) was the pitching. A team ERA of 4.50 - 21st in baseball - is, for a Dodger Stadium team, practically Charlie Brown-like.

    How do you hope Paul DePodesta attacks this problem in the winter?

    With humility and backbone, both of which I like to think he has. With a willingness to learn from his mistakes and a willingness to stick with good philosophies that the fates sidetracked. To increase the scoring, even with Drew returning, DePodesta's going to need a first-rate slugger, in part because Jeff Kent will probably tail slightly from his 2005 numbers. To help the pitching - that's going to be tougher. The Dodgers have prospects ready to help at least the bullpen; that plus Eric Gagne's return should solve those problems. But the rotation is highly questionable, especially because Jeff Weaver probably isn't returning (and at the salary he's going to demand, probably shouldn't). Brad Penny is somewhat reliable, who knows about Derek Lowe and Odalis Perez, and then who knows, period, because the minor league aces might not be ready yet. Finally, there's the ongoing poker game with Jim Tracy to deal with - it's time for the players to show their cards.

    Who would you label as team MVP and LVP?

    Kent is clearly the MVP, with statistical contributions that dwarf those of anyone else on the team. And in a sense, the LVP has to be Darren Dreifort - remember him? For guys who actually played, there has to be an argument for Jose Valentin, who did little but limp for about 90 percent of the season. But without shame, I'm actually going to factor in a little chemistry into the criteria and cast my vote for Scott Erickson, who not only provided nothing but trouble in the No. 5 spot of the starting rotation - at a time when the Dodgers were still a plus-.500 team - but also emptied the first beaker of clubhouse poison by blaming everyone but himself for the calamity.

    Season Highlight?

    The 12-2 start calls to us from our past like fond memories of the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm.

    Season Lowlight?

    It's a tough year when surgery for Gagne doesn't even reach the lowlight medal round. Drew's broken wrist alerted us to the stark reality of 2005, and Kelly Wunsch's season-ending misstep on the Coors Field bullpen stairs, while by a bit player, hit over the head with it. With the Milton Bradley unraveling in August, things just got ugly. But I also go back to the month of May, when a staff-wide dead-arm period seemed to hit the Dodgers and the team allowed 150 runs in 28 games. Just average pitching during that time would have changed the complexion of the entire season.

    * * * * *

    Finally, we'll round out the National League teams with the New York Mets. While staying afloat in baseball's toughest division for awhile, the Mets fell apart around Labor Day. In to talk about it is Ricardo Gonzalez from Metsgeek:

    What turned out to be this team's Achilles heel?

    Though a talented team, the Mets had many Achilles' heels this year. The back-end of the bullpen gave us some problems, Willie Randolph had a rough rookie year, and Jose Reyes was seemingly unable to take ball four. But if I had to choose just one deficiency of the 2005 Mets, it would be without a question the production of the right side of the infield. Both Doug Mientkiewicz and the lethal combination of Miguel Cairo and Kaz Matsui provided the Mets with the worst production from first base and second base in the major leagues. If the Mets had been able to get just average production from those two positions, the team could very well be printing playoff tickets right now.

    How do you hope Omar Minaya attacks this problem in the winter?

    Well, considering that Paul Konerko is the best first baseman available in free agency, that's hard to say. I suppose that I would like to see Omar explore the trade market and see what's out there. As for second base, unless a better option presents itself, I think Kaz Matsui should be given another chance. If he fails, Anderson Hernandez and Jeff Keppinger are just a phone call away.

    Who would you label as team MVP and LVP?

    MVP: For a team that is fighting to reach .500, the Mets sure seem to have a lot of candidates for most valuable player, but because of his consistency and talent, no one deserves it more than David Wright. At the young age of 22, he's already one of the 10 best players in the NL and the scary part is that he's going to get better.

    LVP: A lot of Mets have really drawn my ire this year, but none of them have irritated me as much as Miguel Cairo and his .258 OBP when batting second.

    Season Highlight:

    There have been a lot of good games this year, but none felt as good as the Mets' first win. Here's what I wrote about it when it happened:

    This was one of those games in where the outcome defines the type of ballgame. If we lose, its another tough loss . If we win, it's a classic. And a classic it was. In a day where John Smoltz was at its nastiest, Pedro Martinez, Rey Pedro, delivered a performance so magnificent that is beyond adjectives. In a day where the Mets a clutch hit, Carlos Beltran, the matinee star, delivered the biggest hit of the year. In a day where the Mets needed to win, they won, and hope is still alive.

    Season Lowlight:

    With the season on the line, the bases loaded, and Miguel Cabrera at the plate, Willie Randolph decided that it was time for Shingo Takatsu to make his Met debut. Not surprisingly, Cabrera to hit a bases clearing double just past Cliff Floyd in left field that not only sealed the game, but the Mets' season as well.

    * * * * *

    Lastly, we will finish with Aaron Gleeman, talking about the Minnesota Twins. After staying in the Wild Card race for most of the season, the Twins fell badly behind the division rival Indians in the last month. Here's Aaron's take on why...

    What turned out to be this team's Achilles heel?

    Without question, the offense. The Twins' pitching staff has been fantastic all year, but the offense stopped producing months ago and is now one of the most pathetic groups in all of baseball. Given even an average number of runs to work with, Johan Santana would be on his way to a second straight American League Cy Young and the Twins would be right in the thick of the Wild Card race.

    How do you hope Terry Ryan attacks this problem in the winter?

    I am worried, because there isn't an obvious solution to the problem. Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, and Jason Bartlett are holding down "of the future" tags for three positions. Mauer has been excellent while Morneau and Bartlett have both struggled at the plate, making it tough to upgrade the offense at first base and shortstop by doing anything but giving them another year to get better. There is a lot of room to improve at designated hitter and potentially in both outfield corners, but the Twins don't have the money to make that happen externally.

    Who would you label as team MVP and LVP?

    The MVP has been Santana, who has pitched about as well as he did last year (but without the run support/luck/whatever you want to call it). Mauer has basically been the only above-average hitter who has stayed healthy and productive all year. Carlos Silva, Brad Radke, Jesse Crain, Joe Nathan, and Juan Rincon have also been very good (and you'll notice they all throw the ball for a living).

    As for the Least Valuable Player, I'd go with Bret Boone, just because it's too tough to pick one LVP from the many bad performances among hitters and Boone's brief stint with the Twins was laughably bad.

    Season Highlight:

    Well, sweeping the White Sox, in Chicago, back in mid-August was nice. But if that's really the highlight of the season -- and I honestly can't think of anything a whole lot better -- it's been a pretty sad year.

    Season Lowlight:

    Take your pick of excruciating one-run losses. To me this season has been defined by the pitching staff turning in solid performance after solid performance and the offense wasting them by getting shut down by mediocre pitchers. You could blindfold yourself and throw a dart at the schedule and you'd hit a frustrating loss in which the Twins' starter pitched well enough to win.

    * * * * *

    That's all, boys and girls. We'd like to thank our guests for visiting this week and sharing their thoughts. And for those of you out there with one of these four as your team, we apologize. And we feel for you...more than you know.

    [Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]

    Baseball Beat/WTNYAugust 27, 2005
    One on One: Five Questions (Part Two)
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    On the heels of yesterday's One on One segment, we switch gears for Part Two. It's now time for Bryan to grill Rich with five burning questions involving the NL West, the AL Wild Card, the worst team in baseball, a certain pitcher from the Northwest, the NL ROY and the AL MVP. Find out what the latter has to say.

    Bryan: Rich, you're a West Coast guy. I know no one east of the Rockies cares about the NL West, but do you? Is it worth paying attention to, or is the winner just going to go three-and-out come October?

    Rich: I don't think many people in the Rockies care about the NL West. The AFC West, yes. But not the NL West.

    Despite where I live, I'm not the right guy to ask. I picked the Giants to win the division before Barry Bonds went down, then reluctantly chose the Dodgers in mid-May. Can I choose a third team? Like a stopped clock, I'm bound be right one of these times.

    If San Diego wins the Worst...err, I mean the West, then you would have to give them at least a chance to take one of the playoff games in the first round. How's that, you ask? Well, Jake Peavy is good enough to win a game almost single-handedly. He has a sub-3 ERA and is tied for the major-league lead in strikeouts with 189 and is first in K/9 (10.03). Jake's fifth in WHIP (1.00) and Average Game Score.

    Back to your original point, Dave Studeman said it best. "The NL West is now officially the worst division ever." He pointed out that the NL West teams are playing .443 ball overall, .413 outside of the division, and have a combined record of 5-7 against the Kansas City Royals!!!

    Bryan: Speaking of the Royals, what in the world can they do to return to success? Give me a blueprint that you would advise Mr. Baird to follow to get the Royals among the AL Central contenders again.

    Rich: Get a new owner. Get a new stadium. Get a new general manager. Oh, I guess that would be a tough sell to Baird. Seriously, I would suggest that the Royals follow the Jacobs plan as closely as possible. They are not in a position quite yet to lock up as many players as the Indians did a decade or so ago. But they need to make sure they take care of the talent they have.

    Signing Alex Gordon is obviously numero uno. Let him get his feet wet in the instructional league this fall. Invite Gordon to spring training but don't rush him or Billy Butler or any of the other elite prospects in the system. Realize and be thankful that you're likely to get another Gordon or two in the 2006 and 2007 drafts. Think in terms of a couple of years out when these kids will most likely be in Kansas City. As such, trade Mike Sweeney and don't be so damn stubborn about paying a portion of his remaining salary. If you can find a sucker team willing to pay him $10M per year, then, my goodness, pick up the other $2.5M in 2006 and 2007.

    Enunciate your plan to the fans. Stick to it through thick and thin. Evaluate your progress. And, by golly, step up the payroll when the time is right by adding the last one or two missing pieces of the puzzle via trades and/or free agency. It won't be easy, but it can be done.

    Bryan: At least one outlet on the Internet currently has the Cleveland Indians ranked as baseball's best team. Are the Indians for real enough to outplay the A's and Yankees for the next month?

    Rich: I don't see how the Indians could be considered baseball's best team, but I certainly think they are real enough to win a Wild Card berth. Why not? Cleveland is essentially locked in a three-way tie along with the Yankees and A's. Given their schedules, one could argue that the Indians have the inside track.

    Cleveland has been en fuego on the road this season. Through Thursday night's action, the Indians are 39-26 away from Jacobs Field. For the mathematically challenged, that is a win-loss percentage of .600. To show you how insane that record is, consider that the Oakland A's (31-30) are the only other team in baseball that has a winning record on the road.

    As far as the best team goes, I have to go with the St. Louis Cardinals. Not only do the Redbirds have the best record (80-47), they have the best run differential (636-500) in the majors. Most impressive to me is the fact that the Cardinals have overcome several injuries to their starters (Molina, Rolen, Sanders, Walker) without whining and feeling sorry for themselves. I predicted that the Cards would win the World Series before the season started, and I see no reason to get out of the driver's seat now. I mean, I have a responsbility to all those folks who hopped on board the wagon.

    Bryan: Much has been made about the fantastic beginning to the career of Felix Hernandez. Where does the 19-year-old currently rank in your mind among pitchers in the AL, and should we consider him a Cy Young contender for 2006?

    Rich: Felix Hernandez is as good as any pitcher in the AL right now. I know Hernandez has only pitched 29 innings in the majors (before Friday night's start vs. CWS), but do you know that he hasn't even allowed an extra-base hit thus far? He's going to give up some doubles, triples, and home runs--just not as many as the next guy. Look, other than big-league experience, this kid has it all. I don't know why we have to wait until Felix "proves" himself to call him what he is. I mean, he is what he is. . .one of the very best starting pitchers in the league. Period.

    If you're talking about Cy Young candidates for next year, you gotta put Felix in the same conversation as Johan Santana, Rich Harden, and Roy Halladay. Why couldn't Hernandez do next year what Vida Blue did in 1971 or Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 or Dwight Gooden in 1985? I'm not saying he will, but I think he has that kind of upside season in him.

    Bryan: Of all the end-of-season awards, the two closest races seem to be that for AL MVP and NL ROY. The White Sox don't have a real contender for MVP and Jeff Francoeur is the only rookie producing big for a NL contender, although he hasn't been doing it very long. Who is going to come up with a big month and take these awards?

    Rich: I'm not so sure those are the two closest races but if you want answers, I'll give you answers. We live in a (baseball) world that has awards. And those awards have to be guarded by men with stats. . .You weep for Francoeur and you curse the White Sox. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: That Francoeur's lack of walks, while tragic, probably saved many games. We use words like AL MVP and NL ROY. We use these words as the backbone to baseball. [With tongue firmly in cheek] I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain my picks to those who then question the manner in which I provide 'em.

    Bryan: Well, can you at least come up with A Few Good Men?

    Rich: OK. NL ROY. . .Jeff Francoeur, Rickie Weeks, Ryan Church, Willy Taveras, Zach Duke, and Jason Vargas. Francoeur has the most buzz of these players and his team is the most likely to earn a playoff spot. Unless he falls off the cliff next month, look for the Atlanta rookie to win going away. With respect to the AL MVP. . .Now that one is crystal clear to me. Alex Rodriguez.

    * * * * *

    Well, there you have it. We hope those of you who can handle the truth enjoyed this week's One on One.

    Baseball Beat/WTNYAugust 26, 2005
    One on One: Five Questions (Part One)
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    With the playoffs less than six weeks away, baseball still has so many unanswered questions. Divisions, Wild Cards and individual awards are all in need of winners, and none of us knows who will have the Septembers to walk away happy. However, we all want to know if our sneaking suspicions are true. Can the Cleveland Indians sneak in under the radar? Are the newest young phenoms for real? How can the Kansas City Royals turn things around?

    In this week's One on One, Bryan and Rich asked five questions to each other, hoping to find some answers to baseball's biggest questions. In Part One, Rich serves in the capacity as the interviewer, posing questions to Bryan on baseball's biggest superstar, newest superstars, and the trade deadline, v2.0.

    Rich: The trade deadline came and went with little or no fanfare. The end of August when playoff rosters have to be finalized is fast approaching. Which of the players who have passed through waivers and are eligible to be traded will be sent packing before the month is out?

    Bryan: After basically being rejected on all fronts in late July, don't expect another week to go without Kenny Williams making a move. It has been reported by various outlets that Williams was all-but-done with a trade for Ken Griffey Jr. in July, but Reds owner Carl Lindner nixed the trade. Jayson Stark is reporting that Griffey went through waivers, so that is obviously one potential option for the White Sox. But, that would simply be too good to be true for the city of Chicago.

    If not Griffey, it will surely be someone else joining a club that is just 6-10 in their last sixteen contests. Since the All-Star break, the White Sox have been fourth in the AL in team ERA but fourth from the bottom in runs scored. The lineup has become Tadahito Iguchi, Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzynski, and then everybody else. The bullpen and rotation have been fantastic during the second half, so Williams would be better suited spending his energy finding an offensive player.

    But who fits, you ask? First of all, let me go out on a limb and venture that the White Sox will not acquire any of the three one-time offensive superstars on Stark's list: Griffey, Mike Piazza and Rafael Palmiero. Rich Aurilia also does not fit a team that acquired Geoff Blum just one month ago, and he also plagues from an Ozzie Guillen obsession with Pablo Ozuna. So, who does that leave us? Five players: Mike Sweeney, Matt Stairs, Dmitri Young, Wes Helms and Edgardo Alfonzo. I doubt that the club would acquire Sweeney or Young, two in-division players that are fairly DH-only options on this team.

    I also think that Williams wants to make more of a splash in the Chicago newspapers than Helms could provide, and it makes little sense to acquire another right-handed bat for third base. For that same reason, I also doubt Alfonzo is the option. So, that leaves us with Matt Stairs, who -- while in division -- plays for a team that isn't worried about such things. Instead, the Royals want whatever young players the White Sox are willing to part with.

    My prediction: on August 30, the AP Wire will read that the Chicago White Sox acquired Matt Stairs from the Kansas City Royals for a player to be named later, who will eventually be named...oh, I'll go with...Robert Valido.

    Rich: Are you as indifferent as I am about the on and off and on again and again comeback of Barry Bonds?

    Bryan: Frankly put, I don't care. It has been nice to marvel at Barry Bonds' insane statistics for the past few seasons, but this season has made it more difficult than ever to like him. And for that, I blame the media. Their handling of players like Bonds and Terrell Owens borders on ridiculous. Obviously stories that concern the game's largest superstars must be carried, but there is a point when enough is enough.

    What's interesting is just how much coverage the Giants have received this year, while the Indians and A's aren't on half of the country's radar. How many people could tell you much about Cliff Lee or Dan Haren? Travis Hafner or Mark Kotsay? Sure, they could tell you about what the latest prognostication on Bonds' head cold is, but that's about it.

    Even without his playing this year, Bonds is one of the three greatest baseball players in the history of the sport. But when can we begin to accept what has been obvious since June (at the latest): that Bonds will not play baseball in 2005. Let's hear about him again in December, but please ESPN, don't waste any more space on my TV screen on him during the stretch.

    Rich: I wouldn't blame ESPN as much as I would blame Bonds. Remember, he is the one teasing us via his website.

    OK, on to a someone who is at least suiting up. Here is a multiple choice question. Jhonny Peralta is:

    A. Nothing more than a flash in the pan.
    B. The best SS in the A.L.
    C. A product of mixed-up parents who couldn't spell.
    D. The primary reason why the Indians are the favorite to win the Wild Card berth.
    E. None of the above.

    Bryan: Alright, let me try to run-down your given answers one-by-one, and we'll see which one best fits.

    "Nothing more than a flash in the pan." This is presumably the response of many people who are undervaluing Peralta's 2003 season. In 2002, at just the age of 20, Peralta had an .800 OPS in the Eastern League, slugging .457. Despite having started his full-season career off with OPS numbers of .663 and .684, Peralta was the Indians new hot prospect. The team got too excited about Peralta, and in '03 after just 237 poor at-bats in AAA, he was handed the full-time Major League job. Can we blame him for being overwhelmed? In 2004, Peralta redeemed himself in the International League with an .871 OPS, showing his tendency as a late bloomer. He's not going away, it just took him awhile to get here.

    "The best SS in the AL." I immediately thought this to be a stretch, and was pleased when the Hardball Times validated my initial reaction. It wasn't long ago that Miguel Tejada was being named a potential MVP candidate, and it is hard to call a slip in OPS to .918 a regression. Not only that, but Win Shares seems to be underrating Tejada's fielding, as Peralta earns a full Win Share more on his defense. Offensively, Tejada is the best in the league, and while Peralta is the new flavor of the week, bear in mind he's fifth on the Win Shares batting list among AL SS alone.

    Skipping the obvious, and moving on to, "the primary reason the Indians are the favorite to win the Wild Card berth." First of all, calling Cleveland a favorite to win the Wild Card is a considerable stretch to me, as the club is stacked up against two powerhouses. If this team is going to sneak by and make the playoffs, it will be because of their offensive depth and a good month of pitching, not Peralta. They are depending on Peralta, no doubt, but to win, will need their inconsistent hitters (Martinez, Crisp, Blake) and pitchers (Sabathia, Westbrook, Elarton) to step up big.

    So after shooting down three of your suggested answers, I'm left with C. While Mr. and Mrs. Peralta obviously did a nice job raising a fine ballplayer, what in the hell they were thinking with the name 'Jhonny' should forever be a question from us all.

    Rich: I did a double take when I noticed that Jeff Francoeur walked on Sunday. It was his first base on balls in more than 130 plate appearances. I was curious who the wild man was on the hill so I checked the play-by-play and learned that San Diego Padres reliever Akinori Otsuka walked him intentionally. The Atlanta rookie is only 21. Given his age, should we cut him some slack for his poor plate discipline? Or should we extend a high five to him for his aggressiveness in view of his eye-opening numbers thus far?

    Bryan: This is a tough question, and one the Braves are probably arguing on a daily basis right now. Let me first say that he should not be given a "high five" for his lack of discipline, as that kind of aggressiveness is obviously going overboard. While his strikeout numbers have not been awful since debuting, you can't tell me he could not have turned any of those strikeouts into walks? Still, it's hard to argue with the type of performance he's had, and given his obvious natural ability, we should also probably cut him some slack.

    Despite the discipline issues, it actually appears that Francoeur is a smart baseball player. Case in point Wednesday's game against the Cubs, and particularly Mark Prior. Entering the game, Francoeur was in the first slump of his young career, having gone 9 straight at-bats without collecting a hit. After a second inning pop-out, Jeff drew the first unintentional walk of his career in the fourth inning. And believe me, if he can draw a walk from Prior, there are quite a few more people that he could as well. Leading off the seventh inning, Francoeur laid a perfect bunt down to collect a hit. What followed was a Prior error on the next batter, setting up Rafael Furcal to hit a go-ahead single.

    Not many players in the Major Leagues can claim to have put their team in a position to win with both a home run, a bunt and an assist. This kid is talented, and the Braves should work him hard this winter to get that plate discipline up to average, and him to star status.

    Rich: Here's my last one for you, Bryan. What might just happen between now and the end of the season that nobody--and I mean nobody--has talked about?

    Bryan: Well, I'm going to go with something I mentioned in my notes column from this week. In 2002, during their post-season run to win the World Series, the Angels heavily depended on the right arm of Francisco Rodriguez. However, K-Rod had made his debut in September, after playoff rosters were announced. Using a flaw in the system, and given Rodriguez' fantastic month, the Angels put him on their playoff roster, and the rest is history. 18.2 innings in October, 2 runs allowed, 28 strikeouts, and a World Series ring.

    This year, purely for selfish reasons, I'm hoping the Minnesota Twins win the Wild Card. That's because I believe the Twins would run into a similar path as the '02 Angels, and spend September running into a pitcher they didn't even know they had. Francisco Liriano is the best starter in the minors, with no pitches below 84 mph and nothing left to prove. His arsenal would be perfect for both a rotation that contains Joe Mays, and a bullpen that could use his power arm.

    With Felix Hernandez already paving the PCL-to-AL path, look for Liriano (if called) to have a big September. And man oh man will it be hard to pick between the Indians and Twins in 2006.

    Please return tomorrow for Part Two when Rich is on the hot seat.

    Baseball Beat/WTNYAugust 10, 2005
    Three Up, Three Down
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    As we enter the season's final stretch, hope seems to be a changing concept across the nation. In some markets, hope has been restored by a midseason surge in the Wild Card standings. In others, the dog days of summer have not been so kind and hope is pushed back yet another season. Some places are just hopeful for one player, be it a potential phenom or an established star.

    Today, we run through what hope is left, from the Wild Card, to the MVP voting, to the top level pitching prospects.

    Rich: Happy Wednesday, Bryan. There are three items that are of primary interest to me. I'm going to cover them one by one.

    First up on the agenda is none other than the Los Angeles Angels-Oakland A's three-game series. Both teams came in with identical 64-47 records. The Angels have been pretty consistent all year long while the A's went from having one of the worst records in baseball at the end of May to the one of the best by early August.

    This series is the first of three remaining. Whichever team wins six of the ten games will have a two-game advantage over the other for the remaining 41 games. If either the Angels or A's happen to win seven, I would imagine that would be enough to lock up the division. The good news for the second-place team is that the Wild Card is there for the taking. Cleveland and New York might have a say in the matter, but the so-called loser between the Angels and A's has the inside track to make the playoffs as the fourth and final team in the A.L.

    With that in mind, let me ask you this, Bryan. If you don't finish with a better record than Boston and ergo win the home-field advantage in the first-round of the playoffs, are you better off finishing first and playing the Red Sox or finishing second and playing the White Sox?

    Bryan: I go back and forth on the merits of the White Sox more than Shareef Abdur-Rahim changes teams. Right now I'm supportive of the team I have not seen lose in person this year in eight outings to U.S. Cellular. When I look at the argument of which color Sox is better -- or rather a worse playoff opponent -- I look in the direction of pitching and defense. I think the A's and Angels look at these two lines, and realize they have something worth fighting for:

    Option	ERA	H/9	BB/9	HR/9
    A	3.49	8.56	2.36	0.92
    B	4.33	9.13	2.36	1.03

    The White Sox, option A, are clearly better in the 1-4 spots in the rotation. Note neither of those rate stats include two of the best postseason pitchers alive, Orlando Hernandez and Curt Schilling. Instead, the difference can probably be attributed to Mark Buerhle, the best pitcher in Chicago. And don't say Jon Garland, please, because that's like voting Dontrelle ahead of Pedro in the NL Cy Young race.

    Maybe the Angels used that comparison as motivation last night, because they quickly grabbed hold of the division lead and the chance to play the Red Sox. Vladimir Guerrero's second inning grand slam was all the doctor ordered, as John Lackey continued his very good, quiet season on the mound. The A's showed little life until the eighth inning, when they scored both their runs off Angel mop-up man Joel Peralta.

    Of the Wild Card contenders, it was the Cleveland Indians who showed the most resiliency on Tuesday. On a day in which both the A's and Yankees lost, the Indians moved a game closer in the Wild Card standings in dramatic fashion. Down 7-2 in the top of the ninth inning against the lowly Royals, the Indians scored eleven runs to win the game. Grady Sizemore had two at-bats in the inning that led to RBI, and the quietly resurging Aaron Boone doubled home the go-ahead run.

    In fact, there may not be a more fitting term for the Indians than quiet at this point, who are now 12-4 in their last sixteen games. Cleveland has their offense to thank for that, as the club has scored more than five runs in nine of those sixteen games. This is an organization that should also thrive down the stretch given a weak schedule that includes nineteen more games against the Royals or Devil Rays. The AL West teams? Just nine combined games against the AL bottom feeders, equivalent to the number of games they have left against each other.

    I don't doubt the Indians have a chance to use that scheduling to their advantage, and rather quietly steal the division from the second AL West team. Just don't expect it to happen, as both the A's and Yankees are far more experienced with meaningful September baseball, a fact that can't be ignored.

    Rich: Sticking to the A.L. West, the second of my three big stories involves Felix Hernandez. How ironic was it that the 19-year-old made his major-league debut on the day Roger Clemens turned 43? Despite getting tagged with the loss, young Felix did nothing to embarrass himself in that game. I would think that a 5-3-2-1-2-4 line is gonna win more games than it loses.

    Well, Hernandez decided not to leave such things to chance in his second outing on Tuesday night. He almost single-handedly beat Minnesota with an eight-inning, five-hit, no-walk shutout. This guy is the real deal. A strikeout pitcher who throws 96-97 MPH and gets the bulk of the other outs on the ground always gets my attention, whether they are 19 years old or 43 years old.

    I don't know if the man (boy?) they call King will be the next Rocket or not, but Bob Feller wouldn't be so bad either.

    AGE < 20, MODERN (1900-2004)

    1    Bob Feller                   49   
    2    Gary Nolan                   27   
    3    Dwight Gooden                24   
    4    Wally Bunker                 21   
    5    Don Gullett                  15   
    6    Rube Bressler                14   
    T7   Don Drysdale                 13   
    T7   Pete Schneider               13   
    9    Billy McCool                 12   
    T10  Jack Bentley                 10   
    T10  Joe Wood                     10

    My only concern after reviewing the above list involves longevity. Gary Nolan was a teenage idol. A hard thrower who came up at the same time as Tom Seaver and was thought to be every bit as good as him, Nolan was out of baseball before he turned 30. Dwight Gooden was all but done at 30. Wally Bunker was literally finished at 26. Don Gullett retired when he was 27. Rube Bressler and Billy McCool hung up their spikes at 25, Joe Wood changed positions at 26, and Pete Schneider was history at 23. Don Drysdale and Jack Bentley made it all the way 'til the age of 32. Feller was the only one who had a long career and even his was interrupted by three years serving in the military during World War I.

    I have no doubt that Hernandez will be a star--did I mention that I picked him up in our fantasy pool back in May?--but I can't help but wonder how long his career will last.

    Bryan: There is no question that we must exercise caution in predicting King Felix's career value. I mean, these are the Seattle "Where Pitching Prospects Go To Die" Mariners, for Ryan Anderson's sakes. Still, after just two starts in the Majors, I think we can argue that the 19 year old's stuff rivals that of most American League starters at this point. How many of the men on your list could say that?

    Believe me, Hernandez is far closer to the talent of Feller and Drysdale than Nolan and McCool. I should also mention that players like Bert Blyleven, Fernando Valenzuela, Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, and Dave McNally all 4-7 RSAA before 20, a total that makes more sense for Felix to land in.

    Felix continued his quiet dominance yesterday, allowing just seven of his 24 outs via something besides the groundball or strikeout. So far in the Majors, he's allowed just six two starts. Furthermore, one of those flyballs was of the infield variety. His stuff is so 'heavy' that even when opposing batters make contact, they knock it into the ground. This talent of Felix cannot be overvalued.

    One other subplot from Hernandez' rise to the Majors is that it opens up a spot for the honor of best pitching prospect in the minors. At this point, only four people can really make claims:

  • Matt Cain: The other phenom, also a teenager, Cain has not had the success of Felix at the AAA level. He allows too many walks and home runs, but both his hit and strikeout rates scream for future success.

  • Francisco Liriano: The flavor of the week, currently dominating AAA like no other pitcher alive. It would have been great for the Twins to substitute Liriano for Lohse tonight, giving us a look at two of the best young talents alive. Everything is hard for Liriano, and he is going to have quite a bit of success.

  • Justin Verlander: A recent injury to his often-sore pitching arm makes him fall down a few slots. Verlander's fastball might be the best on this list, and like Felix, he has many days ahead of him in a pitching park.

  • Chad Billingsley: You have to dig a bit deeper to find the good stats with Billingsley that you do with the aforementioned three, but they are there. Apparently the stuff has been there all season, and if you simply eliminate a few contests against Montgomery -- Delmon Young's team -- Chad's stats are worthy of his praise.

    I'll go with that order for now, but this group is so close, it's changing with every start. Gone are the days of an uncontested #1, bad start or good, soreness or not.

    (By the way, for a more detailed analysis of Felix, check out what Seth Stohs has to say).

    Rich: Lastly, can Carl Yastrzemski sleep soundly knowing that Derrek Lee isn't going to become the next Triple Crown winner? Not to demean what your first baseman has accomplished this year, Bryan, but I find it somewhat ironic that he is no longer leading in any of the three categories--much less all three. In fact, his numbers (.349-33-84) are no better than what Albert Pujols (.341-31-89) has put up thus far.

    Given that Pujols is playing for the team with the best record in the league and Lee is playing on nothing more than a .500 ballclub, I have to think this could finally be Albert's year when it comes to the MVP voting. Pujols, Lee, and Miguel Cabrera are probably 1-2-3 right now. Morgan Ensberg could slip in there if he continues to hit like Mike Schmidt and the Astros find themselves in the playoffs.

    I guess we shouldn't dismiss Clemens as an MVP candidate. He is the answer to "Who was the last starting pitcher to be named the Most Valuable Player?" Oh, and the last starter to win the MVP in the N.L.? Bob Gibson. 1968. 1.12 ERA.

    Bryan: Here you go with the Astros praise again. Morgan Ensberg? No thanks, I'd rather have the stellar season that Andruw Jones is experiencing, batting average be damned. Jones walks, hits homers at a superstar rate, and plays the best outfield defense in the National League. Furthermore, his team is feeling a little safer down the stretch than that of Ensberg and Clemens.

    Still, Jones probably is fourth in the MVP race, south of Pujols, Lee and Cabrera. We can agree on that order, sadly, and I'm afraid it will only get worse for Derrek. He has looked bad lately, likely due to the shoulder injury that was not treated very delicately. This, of course, is due to the pressure put on Dusty to get Lee as many at-bats as possible. Yes, that's right, I have both handed a Cardinal my MVP vote and not blamed Dusty Baker for a Cubs problem in the same paragraph.

    Am I delusional, you ask? Maybe, but that's what a seven-game losing streak will do to you. While as a Cubs fan I should have expected a fall like this to happen, I -- like Will Carroll -- expected the great activation to at least yield some victories. Instead, I've been left amazed at not the play of Kerry Wood or Nomar Garciaparra, but a more impressive return from injury: Ken Griffey Jr.

    While Jason Giambi has garnered a lot of credit for returning from controversy to become the AL's best hitter in July, are we paying enough attention to the NL Comeback Player of the Year? Are we noticing that Griffey has 8 home runs in 77 at-bats since Detroit? Subtract a rough April from the numbers, and Griffey has been one of the NL's most dangerous hitters this season.

    Hell, I'd vote him fifth for the NL MVP, right ahead of two Astros. Even seven straight losses can't confuse me that much.

  • Baseball Beat/WTNYAugust 03, 2005
    One on One: Hot August Nights
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    If the regular season can be divided into thirds, it can be said that we are approaching the last leg of the year. The first part is all about who gets out of the gates the quickest, the second is spent jockeying for position, and the third is when the riders go to their proverbial whips (or should we say WHIPs?).

    With that in mind, we take a look at how the various races are shaping up. So, without further ado, let's get after it.

    Rich: We're heading into what some call the Dog Days of the season. But given how tight four of the division races and both wild cards are, I think this month could be better described as Hot August Nights.

    Bryan: Four division races? That's pushing things. I think not only are both Central divisions wrapped up, but pretty soon here we have to start accepting Boston and Atlanta to be playoff teams. It's dangerous to say this -- I mean, I'm a Cubs fan! -- but both these teams are geared for good play the rest of the season. I think the Yankees and the NL East contingent should just be fighting for their Wild Card lives at this point.

    Rich: Well, I was just trying to be polite to the folks in and around Washington, D.C. Both you and I saw the writing on the wall at the All-Star break even though Atlanta was trailing the Nationals at that time.

    Bryan: Yes, most definitely. We would have both said in May that Washington and Chicago were destined for midsummer collapses. But as they say in the baseball industry, 1-for-2 ain't bad. The Nats have fallen apart for a bevy of reasons, but this can only be explained as luck catching up to them. They are average across the board, and probably no more than a .500 team on paper.

    Rich: I don't even know that the Nats are a .500 team. In fact, the team's so-called expected won-loss record was 49-56 (the inverse of its actual totals) going into Tuesday night's play.

    Bryan: Yes, meanwhile the Braves have outscored their opponents by nearly 100 runs, despite being decimated by injuries this season. How they continue to do it is astonishing, and we must continually be singing the praises of Bobby Cox, Leo Mazzone and John Schuerholz. This team has also been given loads of support by a farm system that has been well tended to for a long time. It seems this is what the Yankees want to become...maybe that's why Mazzone-to-NY rumors have already surfaced.

    Rich: Dollar for dollar, I'll take the Braves over the Yankees. I picked the Marlins to win the NL East this year. I like Florida, but I should have learned by now not to bet against Atlanta.

    Bryan: Don't feel bad, we all should have. It also appears we shouldn't have bet against Ozzie, as we were both so quick to do in our early season White Sox two-on-two. Despite the lack of offense, the club has been consistent in their winning ways the entire season. Still, and I do hate to keep betting against Guillen, but will they have any success when only playing non-AL Central teams in October?

    Rich: Are you trying to put me on the spot again, Bryan? It took me half a season, but I finally came around on the White Sox last month. They are a lot better than I had given them credit for previously.

    Bryan: Of course I'm trying to put you on the spot! If the season ended today, the White Sox would be playing one of your California teams, currently the red-hot A's. How would you preview that series? Whichever club gets some version of consistent offense wins by nullifying the other's pitching and defense, is my take.

    Rich: I've got a ticket around here from the MGM that makes me less than objective when it comes to the A's this year. I'm sure glad I didn't tear it up around Memorial Day. Let's put it this way, come October, I know Chicago wants nothing to do with Oakland.

    Bryan: Well, I'm not so sure I even have the A's making the playoffs. It seems to me this is a club too reliant on too flaky a rotation. Baseball Prospectus has shown Dan Haren is in danger of being overworked, and I'm worried we'll start to see the same telling signs from the likes of Huston Street, Rich Harden and Joe Blanton down the stretch. Personally, I'd rather have Bartolo Colon-Jarrod Washburn-Francisco Rodriguez or Randy Johnson-Mike Mussina-Mariano Rivera.

    Rich: Haren may be over worked but at least he's not over cooked like those Yankee starters. But remember, Bryan, you need at least three good starters in the playoffs. Haren, Harden, and...Barry Zito. Add in Blanton and Kirk Saarloos for a spot start here and there, and I think that is a plenty good enough rotation, especially in view of the team's deep bullpen.

    Bryan: Maybe, but I think I'll take the rich organizations in the final two months. The Yankees just have too much offense, and I don't think Torre has worked the front end of the bullpen like years past. In Anaheim, I think they are simply above-average across the board. I can only imagine how much fun an Anaheim-Boston series would play out.

    Rich: I don't know if Oakland is so much battling New York as they are Anaheim. You know, Joe Morgan thinks the A's are the best team in baseball now.

    Bryan: Personally, I don't really see a facet of the game in which the A's are discernibly better than the Angels. Offensively, it's Los Angeles by a big margin. The rotation probably gives an edge to Oakland, but as I said, I think that will change in the final two months. The Angels have the better bullpen, and I'll say push defensively, though it's probably Los Angeles there, too. Once this hot streak cools off a bit, expect LAAoA to win by a few games.

    Rich: Hold on now. Outside of Vladimir Guerrero, which hitter on the Angels causes pitchers to fret? This team can't buy a run. They rank third from last in the league in HR and BB. This is a lineup with more holes in it than the local muni golf course.

    Bryan: Holes, they have, but what AL team doesn't? Chicago has about six spots in which the players don't hit home runs, and even Boston is showing weakness at a few positions. The Yankees are the best offensive team, but if they don't make the playoffs, it's an NL-looking American League playoff.

    Rich: You brought up defense. I'll grant you that the Angels are better than average when it comes to fielding, but the A's just might be the best in all of baseball.

    Bryan: Attacking my claims one-by-one, I see. The Angels are better than the A's at three huge positions (C, 1B, SS), and maybe at second, too. Are there four better positions to have an advantage over?

    Rich: I'm not so sure Orlando Cabrera is better than Bobby Crosby at short. In fact, I would be hard pressed to come up with a better glove and arm in the entire majors at that position than Crosby. He has probably been the single most influential player as far as the A's turnaround goes.

    Bryan: I can agree with you there. Crosby and Mark Kotsay have been so important to the A's, but are generally underrated by the East-friendly press. I know when Kotsay rumors began in July, I was checking the transaction wire every ten minutes hoping to find him a Cub. Those two California college boys have been great, no doubt.

    Rich: Yes, they both can go get it, as they say. Eric Chavez is as good as they come at third and Mark Ellis ain't half bad at second either.

    Bryan: OK, ok, I'm going to have to cut you off before this becomes "One on One: All A's." Let's try and pain ourselves for a few minutes and pick a winner in the NL West. Yikes.

    Rich: All right, all right. Cut me down at my knees, why don't you? Is it a rule that one of the teams in each division has to make the playoffs? I mean, shouldn't you have to go at least .500 to make the postseason?

    Bryan: You would think, but these teams try and prove that theory wrong everyday. I look at the Padres in a similar fashion as I do the A's, a good team that was helped by a ridiculous hot streak. After a big June, this team has proven to be nothing special. I'll take the D-Backs for now, but a late Dodger run isn't out of the question.

    Rich: I'm going out on a limb and saying the Rockies have no chance at all. Same thing with the Giants. (By the way, is there a more non-descript team than San Francisco without Barry Bonds?) As far as the other three go, I say "paper, rock, or scissors?"

    Bryan: I think the Diamondbacks success could depend on their new plan to play Conor Jackson at first, Chad Tracy in right, and Shawn Green in center. Gutsy move by Bob Melvin, especially for a team that is shockingly playing its way into October. If this move backfires, and Green starts hitting like the Chavez-Ravine version, then watch out as the Dodgers grab hold.

    Rich: I guess the Diamondbacks and Padres would be favored over the Dodgers at this point. Arizona actually looks like the best team as far as the Beane Count goes.

    Bryan: Well, enough of this. I think we can agree whichever team it is, they will lose in the first round. So, let's move onto the NL Wild Card, which boasts a much more interesting, mega-team race. Any favorites there?

    Rich: I think the Astros have all but locked up the Wild Card. In fact, I see Houston as no worse than the third-best team in the NL and one that I wouldn't want to face in the playoffs.

    Bryan: "All but locked up," are you kidding? Not sure that's possible when you have two spots in the rotation that are spotty at best, and three key offensive players (Wily Taveras, Craig Biggio, Morgan Ensberg) due for some big second half regression. Not to mention Andy Pettite, who I'd happily give 10:1 odds will not finish with an ERA under 3.00.

    Rich: There isn't a better threesome in baseball than Roger Clemens (10-4, 1.45 ERA), Roy Oswalt (14-8, 2.40), and Pettitte (9-7, 2.58). As far as the latter goes, here's $10 to your $100 that Pettitte finishes below 3.00. I'm telling you, this guy gets no respect. Andy has not only been one of the better pitchers over the past decade, but he has been throwing as well as ever since the middle of June (6-0, 0.80 w/ 56 IP, 44 H, 5 ER, 11 BB, and 45 K). What's not to like?

    Bryan: Fine, but the bet's off if Pettitte can't make 6 more starts, because his left pinky toe gets a hangnail. You're in dangerous territory tooting the Astros horn in my direction, Mr. Lederer. Now I'm not so sure my Cubs have it in them to climb over a few teams and catch Houston, but I'm taking Florida in the Wild Card.

    Rich: I'll grant you that if Houston doesn't win it, then Florida is as good a choice as any other team. With respect (and I use that word loosely) to the Cubs, I think your motto of "Wait 'Til Next Year" applies once again.

    Bryan: Always, Richard, always. I have no doubt my Cubbies will come close, but fade, leaving me to sympathize with fans in Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Washington, and yes, even Houston. It's becoming about as annual as the Braves winning.

    Rich: Oakland and both Los Angeles teams have won a World Series during most people's lifetime. Show me somebody who was around when the Cubs last won it all? Us Californians own you Illini.

    Bryan: And that is one thing we won't argue about, unless your talking about food, but that's for another discussion.

    Rich: OK, Bryan, who do see winning each of the divisions and the two Wild Cards?

    Bryan: I will say the playoffs will look like this: CWS vs. NYY and BOS vs. ANA in the AL; STL vs. FLA and ATL vs. ARI in the NL.

    Rich: You know, we didn't even mention the Indians but they just might have the easiest path to the Wild Card as any team in the AL. That said, I'm going with OAK over LAA (not sure who you meant by ANA) in the West, BOS over NYY in the East, and, of course, CWS over CLE and MIN in the Central.

    Bryan: That's all, old man? Did we forget about the Wild Cards and No-good League?

    Rich: I'm getting there, I'm getting there. The Yankees by a game over the Angels for the Wild Card. Thank you, Orlando Cabrera. As a result, I see the AL matchups as follows: CWS vs. NYY and BOS vs. OAK. I picked BOS to win the AL before the year started but am leaning toward OAK now. For the record, I'm not jumping on the A's bandwagon in August. I picked them to win the West way back in March.

    Bryan: Rich, as much as I like the dramatic presentation style for the American League, I'm waiting on a whole 'nother league of picks here.

    Rich: OK, OK. HOU wins the Wild Card going away. STL winds up with the best record by far. However, once again, these two teams can't face each other in the first round. As such, I've got STL sweeping ARI and HOU taking ATL in five, just like last year.

    Bryan: Well don't get ahead of yourself, Rich. Before you go picking NLDS winners, let's see who makes it through the hot nights left on tap for August.

    Baseball Beat/WTNYJuly 15, 2005
    First Half Surprises...
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    Three days with nothing but minor league games, exhibitions, and an all-star contest. It rivals only February for the worst time of the year for baseball fans. The little good it does provide, however, is time for reflection. With one half in the books and the second already underway, Rich and I went out looking for the clubs that have left our jaws dropped through almost 90 games.

    Rich: The biggest surprises of the first half were unquestionably the Chicago White Sox and the Washington Nationals. Although both teams have played over their heads, they have performed much better than I ever imagined. At 57-29, the White Sox have the best record in baseball. I have to tip my hat to Jerry Reinsdorf, Ken Williams, Ozzie Guillen, and all the players. I mean, these guys have been nothing short of sensational. I thought they were no better than a .500 team in the spring and didn't even give them proper respect after they got off to such a great start, thinking the Sox would revert to winning one out of every two games the rest of the way and finish with somewhere around 88-92 victories.

    To show you just how good Chicago has been thus far, they can play .500 ball from here on out and still finish with 95 wins. The Minnesota Twins would have to go 47-29 in the second half to catch the White Sox. That's not impossible but it's highly improbable. The Twins are on a 90-win pace as is--which is exactly where I had them last March--but I had no clue that there was a ballclub in the AL Central that could exceed that victory total.

    Bryan: Yes, I think it's safe to say that anyone who made a preseason White Sox bet might as well cash in now. And for those of us that bet in the other direction (we'll call this group, "Cub fans"), well, just try to avoid the Sox fan. Simply put, this team is not getting caught this year...until the playoffs, that is.

    What's interesting to me is just how polarized this lineup is. I went to a game recently in which a third of the starting lineup(Thomas, Dye, Konerko) was responsible for almost half of the club's home run total. Another 30-35% (Crede, Pierzynski, Everett) was sitting on the bench. Ozzie's lineup had six players that cumulatively had 18 homers for the season! And worse...they won! As I said earlier in the season, no manager can have that kind of a midas touch forever.

    I just ain't betting against it.

    Rich: If anything, I thought the Cleveland Indians would be the surprise team in that division. I was looking equally silly with my prediction prior to the Tribe taking 12 out of 13 in the middle of June. They've since cooled off, losing five of their last six games going into the All-Star break. Losing the first game of the second half by a score of 1-0 to the White Sox has gotta hurt. It's also sure to bring back some memories as Chicago beat Cleveland by the same score in the first contest of the year.

    Bryan: You think you looked bad early because of the Indians? I picked them to win the division, making me the only one of Rich, Aaron Gleeman and Brian Borawski. I really liked this offense, which must not have received the memo about the season starting in April, not June. Conversely, I didn't get the memo that the Indians big season will be 2006, not this year.

    It's a good team, but I think Mark Shapiro needs one more year of patience from the Cleveland fans. He has proven to be very adept at building depth, but has received horrid luck in the output of players like Alex Cora and Aaron Boone. Also, to turn what was once a disastrous pitching staff into the contending one the Indians currently have was a bit of mastery from the John Hart understudy.

    Is there anything more exciting for 2006 than to see what this offense is going to turn into? Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez are legit stars already, and should have one more All-Star Game under their belt, as Hafner's merits easily trumped those of Konerko and Shea Hillenbrand. Furthermore, Grady Sizemore and Jhonny Peralta are very close to reaching stardom. Add in solid players in the rest of the slots, and at some point, this offense is going to breakout in a big, big way. I can't wait.

    But enough already about the American League! Let's move on to door number two...

    Rich: With respect to the Washington Nationals, I still don't think they are going to win the NL East. I know they are tied with the third most wins in baseball, but -- so help me, Preston Wilson -- I'm not buying whatever it is they are selling in the nation's capitol. To paraphrase Will Rogers, I'm not a comedian. Instead, I just look at what the Nationals are doing and report the facts. And the facts are this: Washington miraculously went 52-36 in the first half while getting outscored by four runs. C'mon now. Something is out of whack there, and I'm betting that it is the team's record and not the number of runs scored and allowed.

    The Nationals are 24-8 in one-run games. That's a record they should be proud of, but it's also one that makes me highly skeptical of their ability to sustain their place atop the standings in the NL East. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say the only way the Nationals finish in first place is if the players go on strike like they did in 1994, which ironically is the last time the franchise had the best record in its division.

    Bryan: With apologies to Lance Armstrong and the entire town of Boston, this is the feel good sports story of the year. While critics will constantly complain about how this is two years too late -- blah, blah, blah -- we need to step back and enjoy the Nationals for what they are. Overachievers that, in half a season, have created a fan base that is envied in more than a few places around the Majors.

    The winning isn't going to last, you're right. If only Jose Vidro and Nick Johnson never got hurt. If only Jim Bowden hadn't signed Cristian Guzman, and instead spent on one more pitcher. If only so many things, this Cinderella story might go past August. But it won't. Even with Bowden making nice reactive moves in acquiring Junior Spivey and Preston Wilson, this isn't a good enough team to fend off the getting-healthy Braves.

    Also, am I the only one who thinks the Marlins are giving up way too fast? In baseball's craziest division, in which all teams were over .500 into June, a seven-game deficit isn't too much. If this team is down by a double-digit margin by July 31, I could see trading Burnett, but no one else. It's interesting, but hardly surprising, that the Mets and Marlins have been so candid about heading into complete different directions from a buyers/sellers standpoint, despite having the same record.

    Rich: Elsewhere in the National League, I actually picked the San Francisco Giants to win the West. (Boy, that sure feels good coming clean with that one. I already feel about ten pounds lighter. Gosh, maybe I should start another new fad diet. I'll call it Long Beach. Yeah, that's the ticket.)

    Let's face it, despite Alan Greenspan's efforts to push up interest rates this year, the yield on Bonds has been pretty low thus far. OK, it's been zero. The guy hasn't played a single game. No VORP. No WARP. No nothing. He's had more palimony suits than home runs. At $22 million per year, the four-time reigning MVP is the highest-paid blogger around. Maybe Barry is using the time off to work on building up the muscles in his arms.

    Is Bonds going to make a comeback in the second half? If so, will he return in time to hit enough home runs to catch the Babe this year? Don't look at me. When it comes to the Giants, my crystal ball is worthless.

    Bryan: With the AL Central finally showing up on our radars again, the division now most likely to be completely forgotten becomes the NL West. This division just isn't good, and would be looking even worse if the Padres hadn't had a 20-game stretch of looking like World Series contenders. They aren't, and if they hang onto this division, will be given very long odds to win a series.

    As for the other teams, we see a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness. The Dodgers were the best team on paper before the season, but have been hit so hard by the injury bug that in July, they had a lineup with no player making $400,000. Does anyone else get the feeling that soon Los Angeles will become embarassed of the lineup, and ask the Dodgers to use "Anaheim"?

    And your Giants, Rich, are just not really worth watching. It's too bad that they won't trade Jason Schmidt, because it was pretty much a guarantee to have them find their way into a national baseball story. Besides Barry, those kind of offers are few and far between these days.

    I'll take Arizona at this point, but nothing would surprise me. Not even ESPN pulling the plug on Pedro Gomez' year-long assignment. What did Pedro ever do to get that gig, anyway?

    Rich: Across the Bay, I get a kick out of watching the ups and downs not of the Oakland A's but the spinmeisters who abhor Billy Beane and that bestseller he Michael Lewis wrote. The naysayers came out of the woodwork to blast Beane when Oakland was 17-32 on the last Sunday in May. "I knew trading Hudson and Mulder was the wrong thing to do. . .The team can't hit or score runs. . .They don't know how to bunt or move runners over." Well, I've got one letter for that--zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!!!

    I wonder what Joe Morg...err, they think now that the A's are 45-43 (with 28 wins in their last 39 games)? Hey, I admitted my mistakes. Why can't these guys? You and I both know why. It's because they have an axe to grind. They can't stand the fact that Billy looks at things a bit differently and does it so well. Including this year--you know, the one in which the A's have finally met their match--Oakland has won more regular-season games since 1999 than any team in baseball not named the Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees. Contrast the A's $50-$60 million payroll with the $200 million payroll of the Yankees. Make no mistake about it, Oakland has been Money the past seven years. Here says the A's are going to win more games per payroll dollar than any other team over the next seven years as well.

    Bryan: So quick to pile on, and so quick to shut up. And it always seems that Beane's naysayers are gone when the A's are winning, and when Billy is trading. Personally, I wish we could all just forget Moneyball and appreciate Beane for what he is: the best multi-team trader alive. In any sport. If three or four teams are involved, Billy's getting the best end of the deal, every time.

    Of course, there was no exception this week, when the Red Sox, Rockies, Nats and A's kind of had a four-team trade. While every team improved on paper, I think you have to give Beane the best grade. The Red Sox and Nats simply filled holes by dealing disgruntled surplus players. The Rockies found a Coors-improvement on Joe Kennedy (in Day), a cost-effective replacement to Preston (Byrnes) and Clint Barmes' future double-play partner (Quintanilla). Still, if you told me before the season that the Rockies were going to trade an innings-eater and .800+ OPS centerfielder and just land those three players, I would have called bluff.

    As for Beane, he essentially landed that innings-eater for an average-dependent AA second baseman. Kennedy could post very similar numbers to Mark Redman playing in Oakland, which will be much more friendly on the southpaw's flyball tendencies. Despite Juan Cruz pitching wonderfully in Sacramento, this team needed a sure-fire answer in the fifth spot. Besides improving there, it's certainly possible that Payton and Witasick will be better than the players they are replacing. And for all that touching up, all Beane had to give up was Quintanilla, who quite honestly, didn't have a future in this organization.

    In one direction, Omar was stacked up against Mark Ellis, a much better defender with pretty similar offensive skills. In the other, 2005 first-rounder Cliff Pennington should close fast after showing better contact, defense, speed and patience in college.

    So, with the dust settling, it looks like things might be clearing up a bit. It seems the White Sox might really be playoff caliber, but the Nats certainly aren't. The NL West is a division in shambles, and Billy Beane can't be knocked down for too long before getting up.

    And if you're wondering why the AL East and NL Central got no mention, it's because simply, the Cardinals and Red Sox don't shock us, and we didn't want to talk about the Yankees. Some surprises are better left unanalyzed.

    Predictions for the second half and beyond?

    Baseball Beat/WTNYJune 17, 2005
    CWS: Predictions Before the Storm
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    With less than an hour before the first pitch is thrown in the College World Series, we thought what better time to get our predictions out in the air than now? Expect more on the CWS this weekend, including many updates, but we wanted to go on record with who will win the tournament beforehand.

    Rich: Nebraska over Tulane in the finals of the College World Series. The Cornhuskers have the number-one player in the country in Alex Gordon (named Baseball America's Player of the Year and the top college player selected in the First-Year Player Draft last week), the second-best team ERA (2.61 in the nation, and they are the top team from the only conference with three representatives (by virtue of finishing first in the Big 12 during the regular season and winning the tournament title). If that is not enough, Nebraska will also have more fan support in Omaha than any other university.

    The Cornhuskers are not only the best team, but they are also arguably the hottest (having won 15 of its last 16 games). Put it all together and you've got the makings of a championship team.

    MVP: Gordon

    Bryan: Tennessee over Tulane. I love how the Volunteers are pitching right now, especially with Luke Hochevar leading the pack. Last year Jason Windsor showed that an ace can go a long way in Omaha, and I expect Hochevar to keep that rule going. They also have a solid second starter in freshman James Adkins who shined in the Super Regional, striking out double-digits in an attempt to copy his junior teammate.

    The Volunteers also have offense, especially in the way of Eli Iorg and Chase Headley. The latter is an on-base machine that has no problem drawing a walk, and letting his teammates knock him in. The Volunteers dominated their super regional despite being the underdogs, and that role is not a bad one for them.

    MVP: Who else? Luke Hochevar


    It's not surprising that both of us pick Tulane to win Bracket 2 as they have been atop many rankings for a long time. The club has serious pitching depth, and their two-way stars also will make some noise with the bats.

    With the games about to begin, we urge you to turn over to ESPN 2 and watch the final eight teams battle it out--first in a double-elimination format, then in a two out three series between the winners of each bracket. It all begins at 2 p.m. ET, with Hochevar leading off the tournament against the Florida Gators, with sophomore slugger Matt LaPorta.

    * * * * *

    Friday Scores:

    Florida 6, Tennessee 4 [Recap]

    WP - Alan Horne (10-2) LP - Luke Hochevar (15-3) S - Darren O'Day (7)
    Ten - Chase Headley (14) off Connor Falkenbach in the 7th
    Fla - Matt Laporta (25) off Luke Hochevar in the 3rd
    Brian Jeroloman (8) off Luke Hochevar in the 6th

    Nebraska 5, Arizona State 3 [Recap]

    WP - J Chamberlain (10-2) LP - Z Zinicola (3-4) S - B Jensen (16)
    HOME RUNS: None

    Baseball Beat/WTNYJune 08, 2005
    MLB Draft: The Morning After
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    Everybody always wants to know who had the best draft. Well, this year, it's a no brainer. Jim Callis of Baseball America, in his Final First-Round Projection (which he released prior to the draft yesterday), called the first 18 selections in the draft in the exact order that they were taken. Yes, he got the first, second, third, etc. all correct. Each and every one of 'em, from Justin Upton at #1 to Cesar Carrillo at #18. Nobody else was even close. Congratulations, Jim. That was awesome. I promise to pay more attention to what you have to say about Jered Weaver in the future. Cross my heart.

    Our goal on Day Two is to provide a general overview of Day One and recap the stories that occurred beyond pick number 48 or what is also referred to as the end of the supplemental round. We will also have updates on today's activities to the extent warranted although it is not our intention to stay abreast of every selection. If you have any particular interest in sleepers, those who surprisingly fell, or perhaps unknowns, please do not hesitate to ask questions or make remarks in the comments section below.

    With the foregoing in mind, let's analyze the results of Day One. Of interest to those who complain about the west coast teams not getting their due in the NCAA pairings, the University of Arizona and Long Beach State had more players selected on the first day of the draft than any other school in the country. Baylor and Auburn both had seven players drafted in the first 18 rounds.

    Arizona saw juniors Trevor Crowe (1st round), Nick Hundley (2nd), Jordan Brown (4th), John Meloan (5th), Kevin Guyette (10th), Chris Frey (11th), and Brad Boyer (14th) plus senior Jeff Van Houten (13th) all get the call on Tuesday. Crowe, a Golden Spikes Award finalist, was the 14th overall pick. No Wildcat had been drafted that high since Eddie Leon went ninth overall to the Minnesota Twins in 1965.

    Long Beach had two juniors taken in the first round. Troy Tulowitzki (7th pick overall) and Cesar Ramos (35th overall, 5th in the supplemental round) went early, followed by Marco Estrada, Steven Hammond, and Neil Jamison (6th round), Cody Evans (10th round), Chris Jones (11th round), and Brian Anderson (14th round).

    Of the 560 players chosen, 392 were from college, 165 were from high school, and three didn't attend any school according to (We're unsure if their parents know this fact so the names of these players are being withheld to protect the truant.) The trend toward taking older, more advanced players was maintained as 70% of the players selected were from the college ranks. Only 29% of those chosen were from high school vs. 46% in 1995. The percentage of high school draftees, in fact, was the lowest since 1985 (25%).

    Not surprisingly, Billy Beane's first two choices were college players. However, he then spent Oakland's next three picks on high school players--and pitchers at that! The lesson of Moneyball, if there was any at all, wasn't that on-base percentage was the be all and end all to player evaluation. Instead, it was about value. It just so happens that OBP was undervalued as recently as a few years ago but is now fairly valued in the marketplace. Beane, being a contrarian investor, is focusing on high school pitchers just about the time when most of the other teams are shying away from them.

    Our advice, generally speaking, would be to take the best player available, irrespective of schooling. However, for our money, we would argue that there is something to be said about balancing your portfolio, if you will, with both college and high school players. We are also proponents of not putting all of your eggs in one basket and would be inclined to take a mixture of hitters and pitchers.

    In the meantime, Arizona's selection of Justin Upton marked the third straight year and sixth time in the last seven that the number-one pick had been a high school player. Justin and B.J. Upton are now the highest-drafted siblings in history, nudging Dmitri and Delmon Young, the fourth (1991) and first (2003) picks, respectively, out of their previous fame.

    Also of note, this year's draft marked the first time in history that no pitcher was taken among the top five. Cesar Romero of Cal State Fullerton (6th, Toronto Blue Jays) was the first hurler chosen. Twenty-six of the next 45 selections were pitchers. In all, 17 of the first 27 pitchers came from the NCAA and juco ranks and 10 from high school. The Florida Marlins took the first HS arm (Chris Volstad) at #16. reports that Division II Central Missouri had five pitchers chosen in the first 10 rounds and Flower Mound High in Texas had consecutive players picked in the second round. Right-handed pitcher Thomas Italiano, thought by some to be the hardest-throwing high schooler, went to the A's with the 53rd pick, while the Twins chose shortstop Paul Kelly at 54.
    -- Posted by Rich Lederer

    * * * * *

    SCOUTING STRAIGHT FROM THE SOURCE: Yesterday in reviewing Cliff Pennington's resume from Texas A&M, I mentioned the help I received from Ryan Levy's website. Levy, the blogger and expert on the Aggies, offered Baseball Analysts some insight on the next A&M choice, Kevin Whelan, who went in the third round to the Tigers. For those uninterested, I have heard some claim that Whelan will become a better reliever than Brent Cox, the Yankees second round pick. Here is Levy's take on Whelan:

    Kevin Whelan, as with a lot of guys, has a somewhat interesting story. Kevin came to A&M as a catcher and played there his freshman season (along with a little bit of OF) and it wasn't until the summer of 2003 when he was up in the Jayhawk league that he took the hill in a game and was allegedly clocked in the upper-90s, at which point our coaching staff asked him to stay off the bump until he got back home so they could monitor him and watch his mechanics. He threw in 10 games in 2004 with mixed results: a 4.15 ERA but an 11.42 K/9 in 8.2 innings. In the summer of '04 Kevin went off to the Cape Cod where he completely dominated the league with a 0.42 ERA, 31 strikeouts and only 6 walks in 21.2 innings enroute to leading the league in saves with 11 and being named the leagues "Outstanding Relief Pitcher".

    His 2005 season at A&M came with some mixed results again. He struggled during the first month of the season but was very solid the rest of the way with the exception of a complete meltdown against Baylor in mid-May.

    Kevin throws gas (tops out in mid-90s and is a consistant 91-93) and a pretty good splitter. I think that he is still somewhat of a work in progress when you consider he has only pitched 39.2 innings of NCAA ball plus 21.2 innings of Cape Cod ball. At times he looked like a guy who was a little inexperienced but he certainly has what the scouts would consider "good stuff". He finished his 2 years at A&M with a K/9 of 11.57. Interestingly enough, Kevin's groundout to flyout ratio is quite low at 0.68 (19/28) for a guy who features a splitter.

    Great stuff from Ryan, who also kept game-by-game logs for all the A&M staff, as well as AB-by-AB logs for Whelan and the other Aggie draftee, Robert Ray. So be sure to go check that out.
    Posted by Bryan at 9:59 p.m. ET

    BETTER AGGIE PENNS A DEAL: Just one day after being selected 21st overall in the MLB Draft, Cliff Pennington has signed a professional contract with the Oakland Athletics. The contract -- which calls for a $1.45M bonus -- comes as no surprise to many people that foresaw two like-minded parties. On one side it was the A's, a team known to draft with their budget in my mind, always doing their homework to make sure the player they picked is "signable." Opposite Billy Beane was Cliff Pennington, the hard-nosed, blue collar shortstop from Texas A&M that has always been known to leave everything on the field. "I'm ready to get out there and start working my way up," the Aggie told Mychael Urban of shortly after being drafted. The expectation, based on past Oakland philosophy, is that Pennington will begin shortly in the Northwest League, and likely end the year in the California League. Yesterday I wrote extensively about Cliff's merits as a player, which in review, profile to be similar to current Blue Jays shortstop Russ Adams.
    Posted by Bryan at 6:24 p.m. ET

    * * * * *

    NICK HUNDLEY DRAFTED 76TH OVERALL TO SAN DIEGO: The second collegiate catcher taken in the draft, from the University of Arizona. Hundley's scouting report is somewhat reminiscent of another 2005 draftee: big power, average to above average contact, and questionable skills behind the plate. Ring a bell?

    If not, it should sound awful familiar to the report that Dave Cameron gave on U.S.S. Mariner about the third overall choice, Jeff Clement from USC. Here are the pair's numbers from their junior seasons:

    Name	AVE	ISO	W	K	AB
    NH	0.352	0.318	42	43	227
    JC	0.347	0.259	44	41	216

    While Hundley's numbers look better on the surface, they should mean nothing without a bit of context. According to Boyd Nation, the man to talk to on such issues, USC had the hardest schedule in the NCAA this year, while Arizona's ranked 24th. Furthermore, from 2001-2004, Arizona's home field had a park factor of 133, compared to the 105 that USC boasts. The Wildcat's raw numbers are a shade better, sure, but adjusted we see why Clement was drafted 73 spots earlier.

    The knock on both players is a defensive one, as Clement's ability to stick behind the plate has always been questioned. It appears that Clement has improved enough to calm those concerns, and in the process may have passed Hundley. Both players (unofficially) had 65 attempted baserunners this past year; Clement threw out 29 of them, Hundley just 26.

    In conclusion, this is a great pick by the Padres, but Hundley's potential should not be blown out of proportion. His defensive skills will always be in question, so he'll need to retain the offensive prowess he had this season to rise in a system that already boasts sabermetric favorite, George Kottaras.
    -- Posted by Bryan Smith

    * * * * *
    SENIOR TIGER: Jeff Larish went into the 2004 season as one of the game's top prospects after a 2003 in which he hit .372/.528/.697. If the sport had been basketball Larish would have declared for the draft, earned his seven figure bonus, and moved onto the minors. Not so fast my friend.

    Instead, Larish hit *just* .308/.396/.468 in '04, and did not get John Mayberry Jr. pity with a first round selection. He actually dropped to the 13th round, picked by the Dodgers, who attempted to get value for their low selection by offering the Sun Devil $650,000 to leave college. Jeff elected to return to ASU for his final season, gambling that his numbers would head north. They did, as Larish hit a very solid .320/.452/.653 as a senior.

    While this was enough to move Jeff's stock to the fourth round, where he was selected by the Tigers, Larish is not likely to get offered the money he turned down. Suddenly Larish has lost all the leverage that he had a year ago, handing it over to the front offices. Expect the Tigers to low ball Larish, for him to sign, and for the Tigers to land a second round-caliber talent.
    Posted by Bryan Smith at 10:20 a.m. ET

    * * * * *

    SABERMETRICS IN THE SIXTIES: Somewhere between the power conferences and the nation's second best college pitcher, not a lot was written before the draft about two sabermetric picks -- Mike Costanzo and Chase Headly -- that ended up getting drafted 65th (PHI) and 66th (SD), respectively.

    Costanzo, of the quiet Big South conference, was first chronicled in a detailed fashion by Craig Burley, who put him on the Hardball Times Preseason All-America team at first base:

    The 2004 MVP of the Big South conference, Costanzo finished at #8 in last year's THT Hitters Rankings after hitting .359/.459/.740 for the Chanticleers. One of the leading power hitters in the nation, Costanzo didn't just fill up on creampuffs; Coastal Carolina play a pretty tough schedule in a pretty tough park, but Costanzo's 21 homers put him in the top five in the NCAA. Costanzo is also a third baseman and a prominent pitcher for Coastal Carolina, going 7-4 and striking out 57 in 66.2 innings. He continued to show power in the Cape Cod League, finishing fourth in the league in home runs and turning it up in the playoffs. Costanzo's nearest competition for the nomination was Stanford's John Mayberry, Jr., who is a well-regarded prospect but has not outperformed Costanzo to date.

    Costanzo did not let down this season, either, hitting .379/.525/.658 in his final campaign. I'm not quite sure where Costanzo fits into a system that may be forced to trade Ryan Howard soon, but they must have chosen the player they felt was highest on the board. In my mind, that player should have been Headly.

    Whether the presence of Luke Hochevar gave Chase Headly notice or shielded him from the spotlight will never be known, but the third baseman surely rose up draft charts considerably this season. After transferring to Tennessee this year, Chase hit .387/.534/.694, and went on to gain notice from Boyd Nation in his College Hitters to Watch column at Baseball Prospectus:

    Headley, on the other hand, walks a lot. Defense is somewhat hard to measure at any level, but observationally he can probably stick at third for a while. The potential catch is that, while all of the guys on this list are going through their best season to date (that's part of being 20 instead of 18), Headley's previous season numbers have not shown nearly this much power.

    Both of these players will likely be kept on close watch in the upcoming years, as we see how statistics that are as good as these players have -- from poor schedules though, mind you -- stack up at the minor and (hopefully) Major League level.

    Update: Baseball America's John Manuel is reporting that while announcing their first pick of the day, the Phillies also announced the signing of Costanzo. Also, Philadelphia plans to use Costanzo at third base, which is very exciting for a kid that grew up idolizing Mike Schmidt.

    Posted by Bryan Smith at 12:09 p.m. ET

    * * * * *

    AND THEY'RE OFF!: Day Two of the MLB Draft is officially under way, as five of the first seven picks come from the college ranks. The best known of the early choices is USC pitcher Brett Bannister, who also boasts a little bit of pedigree.
    Posted at 12:17 p.m. ET

    * * * * *

    HOCHEVAR REVISITED: The contract negotiations between the Dodgers and the Tennessee right-hander should prove interesting, if for no other reason than the fact that his reported asking price and the so-called slot money for the spot at which he was drafted are as wide in percentage terms as the Jered Weaver situation last year. One source indicated that Hochevar is looking for a $5 million contract, while another made reference to a four-year major league contract.

    Huston Street was drafted 40th last year (the same pick that the Dodgers used to select Hochevar this year), and the former Texas Longhorn signed an $800,000 contract with the Oakland A's. Given that the only reason Hochevar was even available in the supplemental round was owing to signability concerns, it stands to reason that the staff ace of last summer's Team USA ballclub has a good shot at getting a substantially better deal than Street. On the other hand, the fact that Hochevar was passed over by every team in the first round and fell to the ninth pick in the supplemental phase, one could easily argue that his original asking price is way too high.

    Steve Henson of the L.A. Times reports that "the Dodger front office is optimistic he can be signed this summer."

    "Every situation is different," scouting director Logan White said. "We certainly weren't caught off-guard. I think he's going to be a really good big league pitcher."

    Paul DePodesta, who is expected to head the negotiations with Hochevar because of his past dealings with agent Scott Boras, seemed unaware of Hochevar's demands. Tony Jackson of the Long Beach Press-Telegram included the following quote in his Dodger Notes:

    "That certainly hasn't been told to us. . .We really haven't gotten to the details on that yet."

    Negotiations cannot officially begin until Tennessee concludes its season. The Volunteers face Georgia Tech, the #2 national seed, this weekend in the Super Regionals.
    Posted by Rich at 2:55 p.m. ET

    * * * * *

    FIELD OF DREAMS: Boy, what a difference a day can make. Troy Tulowitzki goes from arguably the most difficult college home ballpark (Blair Field in Long Beach) for hitters to the most friendly in the majors (Coors Field in Colorado). Tulowitzki: "I guess it's the baseball gods working in a mysterious way."

    Tulowitzki is anxious to begin his professional career. "I'm a guy who wants to play," he told Bob Keisser of the P-T. "I think it will happen pretty quick." The 7th pick in the draft is expected to be assigned to Modesto, the Rockies' High-A farm team in the California League, which isn't far from his hometown of Sunnyvale.
    Posted by Rich at 3:30 p.m. ET

    * * * * *

    FINISHED IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE: The MLB Draft has ended. 1501 players were drafted. For all you college seniors out there who weren't drafted, "Have a nice life."
    Posted by Rich at 8:30 p.m. ET

    * * * * *

    YOU ARE NOW FREE TO MOVE ABOUT THE COUNTRY: J.J. Cooper of Baseball America just reported that Matt Harrington was not taken in this year's draft after having been selected in each of the past five years. Harrington is a free agent and can now sign with any team.
    Posted by Rich at 8:55 p.m. ET

    * * * * *

    ECHO CHAMBER: Jim Molony of has published an article about the pros and cons of trading draft picks, an idea I proposed (along with four others) just prior to the Weaver signing. I'm not suggesting that all five recommendations should be implemented, but I believe teams should--at a minimum--have the right to trade draft picks.
    Posted by Rich at 9:15 p.m. ET

    * * * * *

    Question of the Day: On the heels of Luke Hochevar and Mark Pawelek, we ask, is Scott Boras a net positive or negative for his clients? Should he still be viewed as the most influential man in the draft?

    * * * * *

    Please check back as the day goes on, as we will have updates throughout today on the draft's best stories.

    Baseball Beat/WTNYJune 07, 2005
    Live Blogging the MLB Draft
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    1. Arizona Diamondbacks: Justin Upton (HS SS)

    2. Kansas City Royals: Alex Gordon (Nebraska 3B)

    CORRECTLY TIED DOWN: In the end, the Diamondbacks and Royals did exactly what they had to do. While the scouting departments always run the drafts, you have to believe the PR departments had their say this morning. Where Seattle at third will likely be second guessed by many, few will argue with the top two picks.

    The Royals got a taste of the public relation nightmare a below-slot choice would have received when rumors they had cut a deal with Cliff Pennington were made public. How could the Royals spend their highest choice ever on a consensus fringe first-rounder? Or more directly, how could they not draft Alex Gordon, top on some draft boards and a potential hometown (almost) hero.

    For Arizona, enough comparisons had been thrown out there on Justin Upton to make drafting him a must. Bo Jackson athletically and Alex Rodriguez physically. B.J. Upton? Ha, he's way better. Forget the fact that Upton has no real home yet -- he's either a shortstop, third baseman or centerfielder, depending on who you ask -- because his bat will play anywhere.

    I have for months claimed Alex Gordon to be tops on my draft board. Had I been Mike Rizzo today, I too would have drafted Justin Upton...and would not have blinked.
    Posted by Bryan Smith at 1:09 p.m. ET

    Gordon - Best college player in the draft. Projects to be a Hank Blalock type third baseman in the big leagues. Great strike-zone judgment and power.
    Posted by Rich Lederer at 1:12 p.m. ET

    3. Seattle Mariners: Jeff Clement (USC C)

    Jeff Clement, C, USC - All-American catcher and a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award. Played on the U.S. National Team last two summers and was named MVP during the 33rd Annual USA vs. Japan Collegiate All-Star Series in Japan. Broke the national high school record for career home runs with 75 while prepping at Marshalltown HS (IA). Outstanding power with a short, compact stroke and good bat speed. Has shown excellent plate discipline (44 BB and 41 SO), especially for a young power hitter. Led Trojans in BA (.347), OBP (.474), and SLG (.606). Worked hard on his defensive skills after his freshman year, improving his footwork, blocking balls in the dirt, and arm quickness. Threw out 56 of 131 runners (43%) his sophomore and junior seasons.
    Posted by Rich at 1:21 p.m. ET

    4. Washington Nationals: Ryan Zimmerman (Virginia 3B)

    As expected. Moments after the Nats drafted Zimmerman, the two sides agreed to a $2.975 million Minor League deal, with more than $800,000 up front as a signing bonus. According to this article, "Zimmerman will report to Double-A Harrisburg and then play in the Arizona Fall League once the Minor League season is over. Zimmerman also will report to Spring Training in 2006."

    Did the Nationals have territorial rights to Zimmerman? (In the early days of the NBA--when teams were trying to win over local fans--the draft included territorial picks. A team had the right to forfeit its first-round pick and select a player from its immediate area. Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry Lucas, Bill Bradley, and Gail Goodrich were four of the more famous territorial draft picks.) In any event, it is good to see a Major League team draft and sign a hometown player, especially one the caliber of Zimmerman.
    Posted by Rich at 7:40 p.m. ET

    5. Milwaukee Brewers: Ryan Braun (Miami 3B)

    Braun was first brought to my attention by John Sickels, who first wrote about him in late April. And then, again on May 18, when he said:

    I love his bat, and I don't think he is far behind Gordon or Clement in what he could accomplish offensively. His defense may force a shift to the outfield, but even so I think he is one of the premium guys available. I would not be afraid to take him in the first ten picks, but he may last a bit longer than that.

    Mind you, this is all before it was a given that Braun would be in the top ten (or even the first round). And hitting isn't new for Braun either, as his slugging percentage has been above .600 in each of his three Cane seasons. It appears that only Pat Burrell, Jason Michaels and Aubrey Huff have had better careers in Miami. That's a pretty good list to be behind, and Braun has Huff-like potential, even up to the defensive problems at third.
    Posted by Bryan at 9:28 p.m. ET

    6. Toronto Blue Jays: Ricky Romero (Cal State Fullerton LHP)

    Ricky Romero, LHP, Cal State Fullerton - Without question, the best left-hander in the draft. Ramos may have better command but Romero throws harder (low 90s) and has more upside than his Big West competitor and former Team USA teammate. Doesn't turn 21 until November. Had an outstanding junior year when he and Jason Windsor combined to lead CSUF to the College World Series title. Elevated his stature last summer by leading Team USA in ERA among starters and striking out more than one per inning. Came back this season and was the ace of a team that was number one in the country for most of the year, while boosting his strikeouts per nine from approximately 7 to 10.
    Posted by Rich at 1:20 p.m. ET

    7. Colorado Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki (LBSU SS)

    Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Long Beach State - The comparisons to former 49er shortstop Bobby Crosby read like a cliche at this point but they are apt. Plus arm and plus power for a shortstop. Tulowitzki has all the tools. Big, strong (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) modern-day SS. For a RHB, runs a respectable 4.25-4.3 to first base. Has excellent range in the field. Intense player with great leadership skills. Led team in AVG (.349), OBP (.431), and SLG (.599) and finished his three-year career sixth on the career home run list despite missing 20 games this year with a broken hamate bone in his hand. Proved he can handle a wood bat by tying for the lead in HR with four last summer on Team USA. Aggressive hitter who may need to work on plate discipline.
    Posted by Rich at 1:17 p.m. ET

    8. Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Wade Townsend (Rice RHP)

    Can't help but think Tampa Bay and Townsend had a deal worked out in advance. Wink, wink. Don't see the Devil Rays taking him here otherwise.
    Posted by Rich at 7:15 p.m. ET

    9. New York Mets: Mike Pelfrey (Wichita St. RHP)

    Mike Pelfrey, RHP, Wichita State - Big, tall right-hander with a mid-90s fastball. Think Roy Halladay. Capable of getting strikeouts and groundballs. Wichita State pitching coach calls him the "best pitching prospect" in the school's history. However, the Shockers do not have a good reputation for developing pitchers who perform even better at the pro level. Client of Scott Boras adds to the uncertainty. A great gamble if he falls below the top ten.
    Posted by Rich at 1:22 p.m. ET

    10. Detroit Tigers: Cameron Maybin (HS OF)

    11. Pittsburgh Pirates: Andrew McCutchen (HS OF)

    12. Cincinnati Reds: Jay Bruce (HS OF)

    13. Baltimore Orioles: Brandon Snyder (HS C)

    14. Cleveland Indians: Trevor Crowe (Arizona OF)

    15. Chicago White Sox: Lance Broadway (TCU RHP)

    The largest riser in this draft has undoubtedly been Broadway, who was a third-round pick a few weeks ago, and could have gone top ten this morning. Instead Broadway went to the White Sox, who are pleased to get someone who beat Brian Bogusevic as well as Southern Miss and Stanford in the past couple weeks. TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle told me that Broadway's repertoire includes a "spiked curveball, change up and fastball." The latter is apparently usually between 88-92, and his curveball will likely be known as one of the draft's best. Schlossnagle downplays thoughts that Broadway has stepped up the past few weeks, instead claiming "it's just that more people have seen him since we were playing Tulane and in the CUSA tournament and NCAA Regional."
    Posted by Bryan at 1:43 p.m. ET

    16. Florida Marlins: Chris Volstad (HS RHP)

    First of all, drafting high school pitchers in and of themselves is regarded by many to be a fool's game. For those that do take the risk, and in doing so select one of the first couple players available, another question often comes up. On one hand, you could choose the fairly polished prep arm from a premier state, while the other is still raw (his state lacks big-time baseball) but his numbers are fantastic.

    In 2003, the debate was between John Danks and Jeff Allison. The latter was ranked higher going into the draft, but the Rangers -- for budget and local concerns -- chose Danks before Allison. In 2003, Mark Rogers had a fantastic season in the northeast, but Homer Bailey had been mentioned as a top pitcher from Texas for years. Rogers went first, not by much, but now it appears that Bailey was the choice.

    This season, while neither should be among the top 10 picks, the debate is between a Floridian right-hander and a southpaw from Utah. The latter has better strikeout numbers and has not registered an earned run in more than 60 innings. His stock had a rise that shamed Google, and he gained enough recognition to attract a certain power agent. Chris Volstad, from Florida, has not had so much volatility. Standing 6-7 tall and showing three plus pitches, Volstad has long been heralded a first-rounder.

    Before watching them both through the video available through MLB's scouting service, I would have guessed the better pick to be Pawelek. While more risky, yes, this was a kid with a ceiling that no Major League dome could hold. Volstad would be a solid pick, yes, but why go the high school route for a kid that lacks that big ceiling?

    I would have been wrong. Chris Volstad was the best high school arm this draft had to follow. The Marlins will get good value for their pick, and I would guarantee it if that damn TINSTAPP didn't stand in my way.

    Volstad's huge frame is far more projectable than Pawelek's, where both throw from 91-94 now, Volstad might be consistently in the mid 90s in a couple years. Pawelek probably has the better breaking pitch right now, a sick slider that the MLB scouting service says goes from 1 to 7. Volstad throws the traditional 12-6 curve, and it is good, but he also mixes in a change as an out pitch. Pawelek has not gotten that far yet.

    Of course it will be injuries that decide which player has bragging rights in the end, but right now give Volstad the leg up. And if you don't believe me, ask the Kansas City Royals whether they would prefer the all-tools player to the cerebral one.
    Posted by Bryan at 1:23 p.m. ET

    17. New York Yankees: C.J. Henry (HS SS)

    18. San Diego Padres: Cesar Carillo (Miami RHP)

    19. Texas Rangers: John Mayberry Jr. (Stanford 1B)

    Mayberry - Perhaps the biggest enigma in the draft. Has arguably the best body of any college athlete. Ranks among the top athletes and projects to hit with more power than he has shown in his junior season.
    Posted by Rich at 1:24 p.m. ET

    20. Chicago Cubs: Mark Pawelek (HS LHP)

    A Scott Boras client is signed, sealed, and delivered before the end of the first day of the draft? Well, Baseball America is reporting that Pawelek just inked a contract, which includes a bonus of $1.75 million or $250,000 more than last year's 20th pick received. (For more on this signing, check out MLB's article, Cubs sign first-round pick Pawelek.)
    Posted by Rich at 7:45 p.m. ET

    21. Oakland Athletics: Cliff Pennington (Texas A&M SS)

    PENNING A COMPARISON- Together they represent one side of the conundrum. In the all-important risk v. reward argument, they stand on the low-risk, low-reward side. They argue that spending seven figures on the next Mark Lemke is a lot better than the next Brien Taylor.

    The first of them was Russ Adams, back in 2002, when J.P. Riccardi made the Tar Heel his first pick as GM. Where Adams was taken ahead of blue chippers like Scott Kazmir, Jeff Francoeur and Matt Cain, he was also ahead of Denard Span, Matt Whitney and shortly after Scott Moore. This year Adams' teammate in fighting the high reward types is Cliff Pennington, now chosen 21st overall to the A's.

    While Rich would surely disagree, I would argue that no player in recent memory has invoked thoughts of another of his type like Pennington. With the help of Ryan Levy (the source for Pennington, Texas A&M and Big 12 baseball), Baseball Cube and UNC's old player bios, here is my case...

    Freshman Season

    Name	G	AB	BA	ISO	W	SB
    RA 50 143 0.322 0.063 17 20
    CP 63 241 0.340 0.100 22 12

    Pennington certainly started faster, gaining a full-time slot within the Aggies order less than five games into the season. It took Adams a little while longer to break into the order, but like Pennington, took a spot with good play throughout the year. Both players played at third base for most of the year, though Adams would shift to second towards the end. Pennington showed a better propensity for contact than Adams, who topped Cliff in the patience and baserunning categories.

    Sophomore Season

    Name	G	AB	BA	ISO	W	SB
    RA 57 239 0.331 0.083 28 28
    CP 63 257 0.339 0.116 33 12

    Both players would move off the hot corner for their second seasons, as Pennington shifted to short and Adams to second. Their contact skills certainly began to look more similar, as did their patience. Pennington continued to show a bit more pop, while Adams was more of a threat on the basepaths. Where Adams gained All-ACC recognition for his season, Pennington was on the All-Big 12 second team.

    Over the summers following their sophomore years, Pennington and Adams both opted for the Cape Cod League. Adams won the Robert A. McNeece Outstanding Pro Prospect Award and was named MVP of the Cape's mid-summer All-Star game where Pennington was given the #9 prospect tag from Baseball America and won the league's Manny Robello Award (10th Man). Their averages (Adams at .281, Pennington hit .277) and stolen base numbers (23 and 21) were both very similar.

    Junior Season

    Name	G	AB	BA	ISO	W	SB
    RA 63 254 0.370 0.185 52 45
    CP 56 212 0.363 0.198 37 29

    Russ shifted to short for his final season at North Carolina, showing the versatility that the Blue Jays fell in love with. Pennington also played a little bit at second this year in College Station, showing potential at both positions. His numbers -- besides the power numbers -- all fell a bit short of Adams, though they were again very similar.

    In conclusion, expect Cliff Pennington to be a good choice, and to make the Majors on a similar timetable to Adams, which would be first in mid-2007, and full-time in 2008. His defense was always much better regarded than Adams, and sticking at shortstop -- and ranking better than 10th in the AL in fielding Win Shares -- should not be a problem. Look for him to have a little less patience than Adams, but have better than .283/.393 in the AVE/SLG departments. The Royals would have been reaching at two, but expect Billy Beane to be quite happy in retrospect.
    Posted by Bryan at 1:26 p.m. ET

    22. Florida Marlins: Aaron Thompson (HS LHP)

    23. Boston Red Sox: Jacoby Ellsbury (Oregon St. OF)

    Not surprised by this pick at all. The prototype merging of scouting and performance analysis right here. Has the tools (speed and defense) as well as the strike zone judgment that sabermetricians like to see. He won't hit .400 in the majors like he has in college, but .300 with moderate XBH power, BB, and SB thrown in a la Johnny Damon is certainly achievable.
    Posted by Rich at 6:50 p.m. ET

    24. Houston Astros: Brian Bogusevic (Tulane LHP)

    25. Minnesota Twins: Matt Garza (Fresno St. RHP)

    26. Boston Red Sox: Craig Hansen (St. John's RHP)

    I'm not a huge fan of taking relievers in the first round but when a potential number one drops to #26, you gotta step up--provided that you are willing to pay the (Boras) freight. Like in the case of Hochevar (who fell to #40), it'll be interesting to see whether the team steps up or if the player reduces his asking price. One can't minimize the potential for a long holdout in both cases.
    Posted by Rich at 7:10 p.m. ET

    27. Atlanta Braves: Joey Devine (NC St. RHP)

    I will refute Rich, because I believe that relievers make great late first-round picks. The track records of relievers drafted the last few seasons are far better than the players usually picked between 25 and 30. For a team like Atlanta, that sees so much change over from season to season, adding a potential mainstay in their bullpen is a fantastic idea. Devine is a good one too, as his velocity improved this season, up to the mid-90s in the ACC tournament. Considering the depth of this system, and the consistent holes in Atlanta's pen, this was a very good pick.
    Posted by Bryan at 9:36 p.m. ET

    28. St. Louis Cardinals: Colby Rasmus (HS OF)

    After not signing one high school player all of last season, the Cardinals come out making a statement by picking Rasmus. A left-handed power hitting outfielder, Rasmus set the Alabama home run record this season, watching his stock go through the roof. He sounds like a very cerebral player -- the kind of high schooler college-geared teams like -- so Rasmus could be a very hot prospect next season. Also, he should be a relatively easy sign, which is more than the Cards can say for some of their picks.
    Posted by Bryan at 4:27 p.m. ET

    29. Florida Marlins: Jacob Marceaux (McNeese St. RHP)

    30. St. Louis Cardinals: Tyler Greene (G. Tech SS)

    31. Arizona Diamondbacks: Matt Torra (UMass RHP)

    32. Colorado Rockies: Chaz Roe (HS RHP)

    33. Cleveland Indians: John Drennen (HS OF)

    34. Florida Marlins: Ryan Tucker (HS LHP)

    35. San Diego Padres: Cesar Ramos (LBSU LHP)

    Cesar Ramos, LHP, Long Beach State - If Tulowitzki is similar to his predecessor Crosby at Long Beach State, then Ramos has to be likened to Abe Alvarez, who made it to the bigs last year in Boston and is currently pitching for Pawtucket. Both are lefthanders who rely on command and control more than raw speed or stuff. Ramos works in the high-80s with a four-seam fastball. Excellent mechanics. Arm may have tired down the stretch. Allowed 14 H, 11 ER with only 6 K in 10 IP in his final two starts vs. CSUF and USC. One of 10 semifinalists for the Roger Clemens Award, given to college's top pitcher. Pitched for Team USA last summer.
    Posted by Rich at 2:07 p.m. ET

    36. Oakland Athletics: Travis Buck (Az St. OF)

    37. Anaheim Angels: Trevor Bell (HS RHP)

    38. Houston Astros: Eli Iorg (Tenn. OF)

    39. Minnesota Twins: Henry Sanchez (HS 1B)

    40. Los Angeles Dodgers: Luke Hochevar (Tenn. RHP)

    It came as no surprise to many that on the heels of last year -- when Philip Humber, Jeff Niemann and Justin Verlander all signed similar contracts -- Luke Hochevar came out of the gate asking for a bonus of about $5M. Still, this price tag and the Boras name under his representation caused Hochevar to drop far, giving the Dodgers a legit top ten selection. Hochevar would only add to a farm system chock full of pitching depth, and could quickly become one of the better names on the list. Considering that the Dodgers don't have a player above him that gets first signing preference, expect Hochevar to sign -- for less than $5M -- rather than returning to Tennessee.
    Posted by Bryan at 5:15 p.m. ET


    I applaud the Dodgers for taking Luke Hochevar. The argument wasn't about high school or college in this case. This was a pick that Logan White and Paul DePodesta would both endorse. White obviously likes Hochevar, going back to 2002 when he drafted him out of high school. DePo is probably stunned that he even had the chance to select such a talented pitcher at #40.

    Hochevar's outing on Friday didn't raise his stature in the draft. He worked eight innings and gave up five runs on nine hits while recording nine strikeouts and four walks. However, prior to that, he was considered one of the top two starters in the draft (along with Mike Pelfrey).

    Scott Boras and an asking price of $5 million scared away many teams. It will be interesting to see if the Dodgers step up well beyond the norm for a supplemental pick or if Boras and Hochevar come down. Unlike Jered Weaver last year, every team in baseball passed on Hochevar, which weakens his position considerably.

    Furthermore, even in the words of Boras, Hochevar is not as "major league ready" as was Weaver last year. Luke might throw a couple of mph harder than Weaver and has a plus breaking ball, but he does not possess the same command and control as Jered. His lack of polish suggests Hochevar is probably at least two years away from pitching at Dodger Stadium.

    Conclusion: A potentially great draft pick if the Dodgers can sign him for a price not to exceed $3M.
    Posted by Rich at 8:30 p.m. ET

    Final add: Jon Weisman asked a question regarding Hochevar and you can find my response on his Dodger Thoughts site at Baseball Toaster.

    41. Atlanta Braves: Beau Jones (HS LHP)

    42. Boston Red Sox: Clay Buchholz (HS OF)

    43. St. Louis Cardinals: Mark McCormick (Baylor RHP)

    McCormick - Major League-ready fastball that hits the upper 90s coupled with Rookie League command and makeup. Client of Scott Boras adds to the concerns of scouting directors and general managers.
    Posted by Rich at 2:09 p.m. ET

    44. Florida Marlins: Sean West (HS LHP)

    45. Boston Red Sox: Jed Lowrie (Stanford 2B)

    46. St. Louis Cardinals: Tyler Herron (HS RHP)

    47. Boston Red Sox: Mike Bowden (HS RHP)

    48. Baltimore Orioles: Garrett Olsen (Cal Poly RHP)

    And that, ladies and gentleman, is the first round of the 2005 draft. We'll probably slow down our up-to-the minute coverage around here, and worry about recapping the first round. Please leave any thoughts on picks 1-48 below, and for a list of all the picks that are made today, drop by The Griddle at Baseball Toaster.

    * * * * *

    TRIVIA QUESTION: Four number one draft picks have been named MVPs. Name them.

    Posted by Rich at 6:35 p.m. ET

    * * * * *

    FYI: In case you tuned in earlier in the day, and came back thinking you were reading the same things, here is a list of updates made since 5 p.m. ET: Zimmerman (4), Braun (5), Townsend (8), Pawelek (20), Ellsbury (23), Hansen (26), Devine (27) and Hochevar (40).

    Baseball Beat/WTNYJune 03, 2005
    One on One: The 64-Team Question
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    This week's One on One ventures into the College World Serious. Most students are on summer break but there are 1,600 collegians trying to extend their spring semester for another week or two. We take you around the country--well, at least everywhere except the Northeast--while discussing each of the 16 Regionals set to begin play this afternoon.

    Rich: Well, Bryan, if it's June, it must be time for the college baseball playoffs.

    Bryan: Yep, just as all the tension of the draft is building, it's time for college coaches to overuse their bonus babies in the College World Series. This season will be no exception, I imagine.

    Rich: It's too bad there won't be more bonus babies from the West playing in this year's postseason. Do you realize that only nine of the 64 teams are from the western part of the country? You know, the one that produces the best amateur baseball year in and year out?

    Bryan: Wow, that is a small number for such a good year. But who are you making a case for...who got snubbed?

    Rich: Two teams from California got totally jobbed. Cal Berkeley and Cal Poly both deserved spots in this field. California (33-22, fifth in the Pac-10) won series from fellow conference invitees Arizona, Arizona State, and Stanford and also swept Long Beach State in a rain-soaked series in February. Cal Poly (35-20, third in the Big West) had the same conference record as Long Beach, yet failed to get a bid. Heck, you can even make a good case for San Francisco, UC Irvine, and Washington.

    Bryan: Well, that definitely is convincing, especially for California considering the strength of the Pac-10. I mean, those are certainly four good teams to finish behind, as none figured to be worse than a two seed. It seems like the West is always given its due with solid high rankings, but the RPI doesn't give the area enough credit for its depth.

    Rich: The Ratings Percentage Index carries too much weight with the selection committee, which, by the way, has just one representative from the West and none from the Pac-10 or Big West, two of the strongest conferences in the country. Let's face it, the RPI favors teams in the Southeast. Boyd Nation's Iterative Strength Ratings are much better indicators than the RPI because they do a better job of measuring teams from dissimilar geographic regions.

    Bryan: Interestingly enough, Boyd's ISR rankings currently have both Cal Poly and California in the top 25, ahead of number one seeds like Florida State and Coastal Carolina. I guess this goes to show that even if college football turns to a playoff system, we will never see the best 32 matchups possible.

    Rich: I wouldn't have a problem with leaving the two Cal schools out if the tournament was limited to 32 teams. But when I see the ACC and SEC get four number ones, the Big-12 three, and the third-place team from the Big West and the fifth-place team from the Pac-10 get left out, then I gotta think something's wrong.

    Bryan: I can agree with that. But, what do you think about the teams that did get in? Any problems with the actual seeding of the tournament? I felt as though one of the better number ones, Oregon State, has too tough a road.

    Rich: Too tough of a road? Man, I thought OSU was treated overly kind, especially in comparison to the other number ones in the West. Virginia (#24 RPI, #51 ISR), St. John's (#55 and 100), and Ohio State (#64 and 69) are about as easy of a threesome as there is. Remember, we're playing baseball here, not basketball or football.

    Bryan: I guess I'm guilty of associating good draft prospects with good teams. I guess that isn't too bad, though I consider OSU to be one of the teams to beat, and it just seems like Florida State and Georgia Tech both have easier roads to Omaha.

    Rich: I can't argue with you there, Bryan. Florida State is no better than a number two, yet gets Auburn (the 8th place team from the SEC), South Alabama, (74th in ISR), and Army (127th) in its Regional. Why not just give them a Pass Go card and $200 and send them directly to the Super Regional?

    Bryan: I think we can agree the ease of the FSU bracket will get them a spot in the Super Regional. Who else do you have going? Any surprises?

    Rich: The surprises out West might be who doesn't go. The Long Beach Regional pits the host Dirtbags along with USC and Pepperdine, arguably the best second and third seeds in the entire country. Long Beach has the advantage as the number one seed there. But the Trojans (#5) and Waves (#10) both rank in the top ten in ISR. Forget the ISR, these three teams are among the top 34 in RPI. C'mon now. That's just not right.

    Bryan: Assuming USC takes care of Pepperdine -- no easy task I know -- the SC-LBSU battle could be one of the best second round matchups in the country. Two very solid, if undertalked about, Friday night pitchers in Ian Kennedy and Cesar Ramos. Two top ten hitting talents in Troy Tulowitzki and Jeff Clement. Unfortunately this is a matchup we should see in the Super Regional, not the second round.

    Rich: You said it, not me. You're talking about my alma mater (USC) and hometown (LB) teams. I've got my weekend tickets right here on my desk. I'll be there for each and every game. The question I have is whether Mike Gillespie feels as if he is forced to start Kennedy today or if he will take a chance and hold him back in anticipation of facing the 49ers tomorrow?

    Bryan: Well, Gillespie doesn't have the luxury of a team like North Carolina -- a two seed that I think ends up in the Super Regional -- of having a ton of pitching depth. My advice would be to focus on Pepperdine first, and then worry about LBSU. . .though Cal State Fullerton showed last year all you need to win a championship is one ace and some serviceable pitchers behind him. The Titans rode Jason Windsor hard last year, and I expect the winner of the Dirtbags/Trojans matchup to do the same with their ace.

    Rich: Although Ramos is the headliner, Long Beach has three other capable starters, including Jared Hughes (8-3, 2.83 ERA, second-team all-Big West) and Marco Estrada (8-2, 2.27 ERA, third team)--both of whom struck out nearly a batter an inning--plus one of the best bullpens in the country, led by senior closer Neil Jamison (4-0, 0.00 ERA, 11 saves). Despite the loss of Jered Weaver, the Niners led the nation in team ERA (2.44).

    Bryan: Cesar Ramos is a good ace, no doubt, but he's hardly the best southpaw in California. We've already hit on the defending champs, Cal State Fullerton, who will likely have to battle Arizona or Missouri in the second round. I like the Titans chances with Ricky Romero on the mound, but Missouri and Arizona are both worthy contenders.

    Rich: Yes, Will Kimmey of Baseball America calls the Fullerton Regional the "Bracket of Death." I would hate to be Arizona and staring at the prospect of facing Max Scherzer (1.53 ERA, 11.5 K/9), one of the many outstanding sophomore pitchers in the tournament, in the first game. That is a tough, tough draw.

    Bryan: No kidding, Scherzer and Romero are as tough a tandem as it gets. Call me crazy, but I'm not going to predict the Wildcats to come out on top. Look for Missouri and Arizona to wear themselves out, while the Titans yawn through Harvard. In my mind not choosing Fullerton to land in the CWS is crazy.

    Rich: If Fullerton can make it out of its own Regional, Titan fans should begin making hotel reservations in Omaha because their team should sweep the winner of the Tempe Regional.

    Bryan: Fullerton would in all likelihood play the winner of the Nebraska and Miami Regionals. Unless NC State goes on a hot streak, I have to think Nebraska comes out of that. In Coral Gables, it will either be Miami or Mississipi State. Who do you have down South?

    Rich: The Hurricanes have lost five straight so playing Virginia Commonwealth should be a nice way to get things back on track. Mississippi State, on the other hand, has been on hot streak. I'm going to take a wild guess here and say MSU pulls off a mild upset and faces Nebraska in the Super the following week.

    Bryan: Any other upset predictions? I've mentioned that I think North Carolina will go on to face fellow ACC team Florida State in the Super Regional. I really don't think that Notre Dame or Florida will be too hard a test for the North Carolina staff that has to be considered one of the best in the country. In fact, I think UNC has a good chance at going to Omaha.

    Rich: Yes, you have been singing the praises of Andrew Miller all year long and some scouts apparently think Daniel Bard might be as good or better. That is one heckuva lefty and righty tandem. Speaking of great arms, I think the marquee matchup is between Luke Hochevar (14-2, 1.90 ERA with 131 Ks in 118.2 IP) and Mike Pelfrey (12-2, 1.91, 136 Ks in 131.2), assuming Tennessee and Wichita State can make it past Austin Peay State and Winthrop, respectively, in their first games. However, beating Winthrop's Kevin Slowey (13-2, 2.26) won't be a walk in the park.

    Bryan: I agree, it doesn't get any better in the Super Regional than the top two draft pitching prospects in the nation. Expect both pitchers to go well into triple digits in pitch counts and rack up quite a few strikeouts. If only college baseball was more publicized, this would be a matchup that everyone across the country would be talking about.

    Rich: I've never seen Hochevar pitch before although I had the privilege of watching his sister, Brittany, play volleyball at Long Beach State. She was an All-American who is the all-time leader in aces at a university that produced Misty May, the gold medalist in beach volleyball and perhaps the best women's volleyball player ever.

    Bryan: Well, I'm even going to go out on a limb and say that Luke is a better athlete than his sister.

    Rich: I'm not 100% sure about that but he will definitely be the richer of the two in short order.

    Bryan: Didn't you see Pelfrey pitch last year vs. Long Beach State at Blair Field?

    Rich: I did, Bryan. Although he didn't face Weaver, I was fortunate to see another tall right-hander dominate the opposition. He threw seven shutout innings and allowed just two hits and one walk. I could tell he was the real deal as a sophomore. He is going to make one of the GMs very happy come next week.

    Bryan: Like Weaver, Pelfrey might be one to drop due to economic concerns. But I think he'll showcase this week--maybe even in upsetting Tennessee--that his size, durability, and three-pitch combination is top five worthy.

    Rich: I think these pitchers all lost a bit of leverage this past week. The ceiling has been set and the teams know they can dig their heels and remain patient with their offers. I suspect these guys will sign much sooner than Weaver although there is never any hurry after logging 120 innings or so during the regular season and potentially another 20 or 30 in the playoffs.

    Bryan: We saw with the Angels-Weaver negotiations that the balance is shifting towards the teams, who are now dictating the prices and forcing the agents to meet their demands. This year's negotiations should be interesting, too.

    Rich: No doubt. Switching gears here, how do you see the Texas and Louisiana Regionals going?

    Bryan: First of all, I expect Tulane to steamroll into the final eight. Not only is their regional very easy, but I don't expect a ton of pressure coming from the winner of the LSU-Rice battle. Tulane was ranked by the seeding committee as tops in the country, and they should at least live up to that billing for the next two weeks.

    Rich: I'm not going to argue with you there. Brian Bogusevic and Micah Owings should change their first names to "Two-Way Talents" because everytime I hear or read their names, that description comes up. Interestingly, Tulane, LSU, and Rice are three of the 12 teams in the country that have appeared in the tournament every year since 1999. Furthermore, LSU will be gunning for its third straight trip to the College World Series. You don't think they have much of a chance, huh?

    Bryan: Nope, I think Tulane is a machine, and it seems like LSU has had just an OK year considering the normal strength of their program. I am also rooting for the Green Wave for sentimental reasons because I would love to see the Cinderella OSU Beavers take them down in Omaha. But, oh yes, I'm getting sidetracked, and you asked about Texas.

    Rich: Yes, Texas as in the team from Austin as well as that Regional in Waco which sports three homies in Baylor, UT San Antonio, and Texas Christian, plus some unknown baseball school from California (Stanford).

    Bryan: I think Baylor should win their regional out of depth, though head-to-head I think Texas Christian might be the better team. Texas should also win, but face a very tough team in the Super Regional in Mississippi. I think they are one of the best teams in the country, and while not my pick to win, I could see them in the final two or four.

    Rich: Baylor and Texas are certainly the favorites. The Bears are a good, solid senior-laden team, the type that could easily wind up in Omaha. Texas? I've been following Augie Garrido since his days at Fullerton and his teams always seem to be right there, no matter what.

    Bryan: Texas is an extremely young team, especially in the pitching staff, and I'm not sure how they will handle this type of pressure. Look out for the Longhorns in 2006, though, as I expect them, UNC and Missouri to be a few of the better teams in the nation. . .along with the usual bunch.

    Rich: Let's not get ahead of ourselves here, Bryan. Do you have a weekend surprise in store for us?

    Bryan: The weekend series I am anticipating the most is in Nebraska, where I actually think the number three seed in the entire country could fall. Not only has NC State caught fire at the right time, but my hometown UIC Flames are better than some people think and could give Nebraska a tough matchup. My shocking surprise is that Alex Gordon's season is done by the draft on Tuesday.

    Rich: I wouldn't be shocked if Gordon is drafted by the Royals and is tutoring under George Brett before June is out. That said, I bet Alex hopes he can extend his collegiate career a bit longer than you are forecasting.

    Bryan: Alright Rich, don't try to dodge out of your weekend surprise selection. Are you going to step out on the limb, too?

    Rich: My surprise is that Arizona loses in three games and pays a steep price for not placing a bid to host a Regional, similar to what happened with Arizona State last year. ASU, on the other hand, shows the West's superiority by beating Coastal Carolina, the number one seed in the Tempe Regional.

    Do you agree with Rich that the selection process is slanted against teams on the wrong coast? Do you have a draft sleeper for Bryan? Which teams do you see as the locks or surprises? We're no longer interested in questions. Just answers.

    Baseball Beat/WTNYMay 20, 2005
    One on One: Amateur Hour
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    It's that time of year again. The time for the traditionalist baseball fans to stand up and object to interleague play. The number of grimaces will only increase this year because, for the first time ever, the rights to the city of Los Angeles will be determined, if Arte Moreno and the Angels have anything to say about it. L.A. joins Chicago and New York in the battle for the large markets, as the Cubs-White Sox and Yankees-Mets series begin tonight as well.

    For those of you that can't stand to hear any more arguments about which side of the subway or "L" is better, we offer a getaway. Instead of spending the weekend debating about interleague play, the DH, and the wild card, take a break from Major League Baseball. Things are just starting to heat up in the college ranks and now is as good a time as ever to start paying attention.

    Just weeks away from Omaha and the June draft, Rich and Bryan are talking alphabet soup in the form of the NCAA rather than MLB...

    Rich: The college baseball season is winding down with many important matchups this weekend. Some teams need to win to make the postseason, others need to win to get a shot at hosting a Regional. What are you most excited about?

    Bryan: Well, I'll be checking the boxscores avidly for three series this weekend. First and foremost, the surprise Oregon State Beavers will be hosting your alma mater, USC, this weekend. Oregon State has become the Cinderella for this season that, if college baseball had a larger stage, would be a national story.

    Rich: USC is finishing its longest road trip of the year by flying from South Bend to Corvallis for this weekend's three-game series against Oregon State. The Trojans and the Beavers are two of the best teams in the country and will be vying for the Pac-10 championship as well as the right to host a Regional and perhaps a Super Regional.

    Bryan: Should be a great series, though the Trojans aren't as stacked as in past years. The game to watch will be Friday night, when the teams have a battle of sophomores. Pitchers Dallas Buck and Ian Kennedy are two of the best in the class. Personally, I can't wait for that Kennedy v. Jacoby Ellsbury at-bat in the first inning. I'll take Ellsbury...

    Rich: I have seen Kennedy pitch a couple of times. I was fortunate to see him make his collegiate debut against Long Beach State and Jered Weaver in February 2004. He allowed just one hit and one unearned run in five innings while striking out eight batters. He went on to post a 7-2 record with a 2.91 ERA. Those aren't bad numbers for a freshman. But what impressed me the most were his 120 strikeouts against 31 walks in just 92 2/3 innings. Ian was a member of the 2004 U.S. National Team and he struck out a team-high 40 batters in 26 innings. He has added 128 more Ks this season (second in the nation) in only 87 2/3 innings. This guy has 2006 first-round written all over him.

    Bryan: Yes, Ian will be among the top five college pitchers drafted. But, I do not believe he ranks highest in his class. The best two college sophomores, in my mind, are in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I first talked about Andrew Miller before the season, and he has done nothing to make me believe in him any less. In late April he was named onto the Dick Howser Trophy Watch List, given to the best college player in the nation. Since then he has slowed down the pace a little, and while his numbers fall a bit short of Kennedy's, you can't argue with a 6-6, 195 frame from a southpaw. Not to mention that disgusting fastball-slider combination.

    Rich: Well, I haven't seen Miller pitch, but I know you are high on him. You might think I'm high but Kennedy is a special youngster. His fastball sits in the low-90s. He has excellent mechanics and hides the ball well. However, Kennedy is not a tall and lanky guy like Miller. Instead, at 6'0", 195, he looks more like Tim Hudson or Roy Oswalt. I know the scouts like 'em bigger, but I wouldn't hesitate taking him despite his less than desirable size.

    Bryan: Yes, his repeatable delivery and good command are definitely pluses that Miller lacks. Anyway, as you very well know, we could be arguing apples and oranges as representation decides draft order now anyway. Scott Boras' presence in either's corner could very well decide which order they are drafted in.

    Rich: You are so very right, Bryan. Who knows which one will go before the other? All I know is that if it were a fantasy draft, Kennedy and Miller would be among the first pitchers chosen next year, provided they avoid serious arm problems.

    Bryan: Yes, who knows who the arm-injury bug will bite next. But we would definitely be remiss to talk about the OSU-USC match-up from purely a pitching perspective. There will definitely be some offense in Oregon, notably one of my favorite outfield prospects, Jacoby Ellsbury. It looks like Ellsbury has all the tools to be a future leadoff hitter: 28/11 BB/K ratio in 197 at-bats, twenty steals, gap power. He has most recently been named as a semifinalist to the aforementioned Dick Howser trophy, just another bullet point on a resume that will lead to a mid-first round selection.

    Rich: I hope he makes it to the big leagues because Repoz will have a field day with that name. I think USC's catcher, Jeff Clement, is a lock to go in the top ten and, in fact, has been rumored as possibly going to Arizona with the first pick in the draft. If you're looking for resumes, this is your guy.

    Bryan: Alright, spit it then...

    Rich: He played in the 1996 Little League World Series in Williamsport, set the national high school career mark for HR with 75 and led Marshalltown (Iowa) to the 2002 4-A state championship. Jeff was featured in Sports Illustrated back in September 2002, then went on to hit 21 HR his freshman season while being named Collegiate Baseball Freshman National Co-Player of the Year. He has played on the U.S. National Team twice and is a strong candidate to win the Johnny Bench Award for the most outstanding catcher in college baseball this year. Want more?

    Bryan: There's more?

    Rich: He is hitting .380/.514/.663 with 10 HR and has 39 walks while only striking out 29 times.

    Bryan: Very nice. While both prospects we mentioned will add some firepower to the series, it won't be anything like what we can expect from the Stanford-Arizona series, second on my weekend watch list. Both teams have two hitters that will go in the first round, and the number of scouts at Friday's game should rival the Star Wars opening.

    Rich: You mean, Revenge of Stanford?

    Bryan: The Wildcats will bring Trevor Crowe and Nick Hundley to the table. Crowe is currently hitting over .400 with more than forty extra-base hits and more walks than strikeouts. Hundley, like your boy Clement, is a stud catcher with three more home runs than the Trojan. I actually like Nick's defense a little better too, though neither will be winning Gold Gloves behind the plate. It will be interesting to see who wins that Johnny Bench Award.

    Rich: Speaking of which, why is it called the Johnny Bench Award when ol' Johnny never played college baseball? Wouldn't that be like calling the College Basketball Player of the Year the LeBron James Award?

    Bryan: Give it time, Rich, give it time. Maybe in the same light they should hand out a John Mayberry Award for the best first baseman with a less than impressive average but solid power. Would his son win it?

    Rich: I think he would be an excellent candidate for such an award. I know the scouts like his size and he looks like a hitter. I saw him on TV last year in the Regional and he was an imposing figure out there. It also doesn't hurt to have his pedigree.

    Bryan: I'm not as high on him as most, as his .306 average just doesn't do it for me. It looks like he might follow in his footsteps in that regard, as Dad was only a .253 career hitter in the Majors. One problem is that Mayberry hasn't shown extraordinary power, which was supposed to be one of his calling cards. In fact, he has just half the home runs as the Cardinal second baseman, Jed Lowrie. Jed's the Stanford stud, not the former first rounder.

    Rich: You're talking about the Pac-10 Player of the Year in 2004 as a sophomore. Lowrie was a bit of a disappointment last summer on Team USA but has acquitted himself well in his junior year and is a candidate for most of the National Player of the Year Awards. You gotta like the fact that he is a middle infielder with the kind of numbers he's put up (.328/.424/.612).

    Bryan: Yes, statistically he even rivals your boy, Mr. Troy Tulowitzki. Troy will be playing in the weekend's marquee match-up, against the nation's #1 Cal State-Fullerton. This series will be a fantastic one, as both teams are well coached, and have plenty of draft-caliber talent. For Long Beach, it all starts up the middle.

    Rich: Tulowitzki is the real deal. I wouldn't hesitate taking him number one in the draft. He is that good. Everybody knows the comparisons to Bobby Crosby. He's got the size, a powerful arm, a good glove, 4.2 speed, and plus power. What might not be so well known is that Troy also has the energy, enthusiasm, and leadership skills reminiscent of Miguel Tejada. This is a guy who could make it to the majors by September 2006 and has as good a shot at being named Rookie of the Year in 2007 as anybody.

    Bryan: Well, Tulo will have his hands full with fellow top ten talent on Friday. On the pitcher's mound will be none other than Titan ace Ricky Romero, who has been rumored to be going sixth overall (to the Jays) for months. Romero is sort of the southpaw's version of Ian Kennedy, with his hand preference salvaging the discontent scouts have on his size. This season Romero has more than made up for the departed Jason Windsor, leading the Titans back to the top spot in the rankings. While Ricky doesn't have the mid-90s fastball of consensus top pitchers Luke Hochevar and Mike Pelfrey, his 116/29 strikeout-to-walk ratio (and non-Boras representation) could lead to a higher draft selection.

    Rich: Romero does get his cheese up to around 92, which differentiates him from Cesar Ramos, the opposing starter tonight, who, like Ricky, is a lefty.

    Bryan: Big change of pace in Friday starters for the Dirtbags this year. You've seen Ramos a lot, right?

    Rich: Yes. Although he took over the Friday Night role from Jered Weaver, he is more like Abe Alvarez, his teammate from two years ago. He has a lot of polish and his command is superior to Romero's at this stage, in my judgment. I think Ramos could make the leap to the majors about as quickly as any pitcher in the draft.

    Bryan: Man, does manager Mike Weathers just make carbon copies of ex-players, or what? First the Tulo-Crosby comparison, and now Ramos-Alvarez. Are you just waiting at the door for Jered, version 2.0?

    Rich: I have no doubt that Jered is going to be better than Jeff, v2.0. Yes, Bill Stoneman, you heard me correctly. I don't know where people get this "third pitcher" idea. Weaver was a dominant pitcher his sophomore and junior years and was the best starter on Team USA in the summer of 2003. I wouldn't hold the fact that he is major-league ready against him as seems to be the case. Let me ask you, Bryan, who do you want -- Jeff at $9.5M per year or Jered for, say, $7.5M for five years? I mean, you might overpay a bit the first few years but you could have a bargain on your hand in those post-arbitration years.

    Bryan: Uh-oh, I brought up a sensitive subject. I agree with you, Rich, there is certainly a bargain to be had in the middle of the Boras-LAAoA negotiations. I also do think this will be the rare example of when Scott Boras loses in negotations, as I project Jered to sign in ten days. A year layoff on an arm that scouts weren't sold on is not going to bring any more millions.

    Rich: Weren't sold on? What are you talking about? Weaver would have undoubtedly gone first had the Padres not been concerned about signability. He was and remains the premier amateur pitching prospect in baseball.

    Bryan: Well, I think you might be forgetting about the other Boras holdout, Stephen Drew. It was he that the Padres had picked before negotiations got in the way, not Weaver. But both are definitely elite talents. I just happen to think that Weaver will sign before the May 31 deadline, and Drew will re-enter, getting his money from either the Mets, Orioles or Yankees. One has answered no conerns in a year off, while the other is answering the wooden bat concerns in the Independent League right now.

    Rich: I hope Weaver signs with the Angels so I can continue to watch him in person. Paul Byrd and Jarrod Washburn are both free agents at the end of the year. Adding Weaver into the mix at this point looks like a cheap option by comparison. He may not be in the rotation from the get go in 2006, but I would be surprised if he didn't pitch in the majors next year.

    Bryan: Well, don't get ahead of yourself, the 2005 CWS is long before Weaver's projected '06 arrival. Who ya got winning the title this year?

    Rich: I think the best teams are in the west but they will be lucky to hold two Regionals so the cards are stacked against them. I know one thing though. Those SEC, ACC, and Big 12 teams with all the good seeds sure don't want to see USC or Long Beach State come into town. The sad thing is that Oregon State, Cal State Fullerton, USC, and Long Beach all deserve to host Regionals. But the likelihood of all four teams staying home is slim and none and slim just left for Texas.

    Bryan: Yes, I'm not quite sure our collegiate West Coast bias will be able to extend far past the Super Regionals. I actually have Tulane to win the title, Baseball America's preseason #1, as I think the hitter-pitcher combination players Brian Bogusevic and Micah Owings are putting things together at the right time. Jason Windsor and Kurt Suzuki can tell you that often proves very valuable.

    Rich: Speaking of Windsor and Suzuki, CSUF beat Tulane two out of three earlier this year. Tulane, a west coast team, and six from the SEC in the College World Series would make the NCAA happy, I'm quite sure.

    From the Majors to the NCAAs, it always comes back to the almighty dollar. But for just one weekend, we urge you to switch away from the Cubs-White Sox, Yanks-Mets, or Angels-Dodgers. Try a different flavor of baseball, and instead you might just see the winner of that good ol' 2005 Johnny Bench Award, college or no college.

    News Flash: Weaver Joins Drew in Independent Atlantic League.

    Baseball Beat/WTNYMay 13, 2005
    Two on Two: White-Hot Sox
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    With a 3-2 win over the AL East-leading Baltimore Orioles on Thursday, the Chicago White Sox pushed their record to 26-9, tops in the Majors. The Sox have already put together two eight-game winning streaks this year and are getting production from places no one expected. For example, rotation incumbent Jon Garland has made the switch from 100 ERA+ innings-eater to one of the early-season AL Cy Young Award candidates.

    Still, with so many things going right, the Sox are still not receiving the respect that .743 teams normally garner. Will "Ozzie ball" wear off at some point, with the Sox opening nothing more than a flash in the pan? Or, was this really a universally underrated team heading into the season? To find this answer, we decided to go straight to the source, to question the White Sox fans that follow the team the closest.

    Helping us bring out the "Two on Two" segment from hibernation are The Cheat from and Mike Wilkins from Read on as the pair tries to make a case for the team that couldn't even land a second-place prediction in our AL Central preview...

    Bryan: This season the Sox appear to be a whole different team than the second place club we have seen in the past. What is so different about the White Sox this season?

    Cheat: Pitching. There's a whole new attitude to the pitching staff. The rotation has, for the most part, kept runs off the board. In the rare instances that they haven't, the pen has held serve to let the offense claw back into games.

    Mike: It's all about attitude.

    The Sox got rid of two guys (Lee and Ordonez) who seemed overly focused on padding their personal stats with the long ball, and replaced them with what Kenny Williams likes to call "grinders"--guys like Podsednik and Pierzynski who grit their teeth, hustle, get on and get over when they need to. Carl Everett's hitting renaissance hasn't hurt either.

    Rich: Wait a minute now. The White Sox have been a pretty consistent ballclub the past several years, averaging 83 wins per season in the four years following the Central Division title in 2000. After 35 games this year, the Chisox have won 26. That means the team has won about eight more games than expected at this point.

    Mike, are you saying these extra wins are attributable to an improvement in the team's attitude?

    Mike: Sure am, Rich. Instead of guys who are focused on going up there and swatting a home run, the Sox lineup now has 9 guys who are focused on getting the guy who's already on base across the plate.

    Bryan: Of course, the flaw behind that reasoning is that the White Sox are eighth in the Major Leagues in home runs, but just 21st in on-base percentage. From May 3 to May 8, in which the team did not lose, they averaged two home runs per game. The offense appears to be as inconsistent as last year -- this year's team actually has more games with less than three runs -- but the pitching constantly has bailed this team out. But considering the Maggs-Ozzie, Damaso-CLee, and Thomas-management debates, I do think the clubhouse could be a much more fun place.

    Mike: A lot of us Sox fans are gnashing our teeth over how low our OBP is. But when we do get guys on base, we tend to be (one nightmare against Detroit excepted) pretty productive about getting them home. Uribe, Everett and Rowand all have BA/RISP numbers above when the table does get set for them, they do a pretty good job of feasting on it.

    Cheat: Obviously, home runs are inconsistent. The Sox hit one about once every 23 at bats last season; They're hiting them at a rate of about once very 30 at bats in 2005. But you can't rely on the HR for all of your offense. Last year the Sox went 1-44(27.8% of games) when scoring less than three runs. They've scored less than three in 7 games(22.5%) so far this season, winning 4. They're avoiding those low scoring outputs more than last season, and the improved pitching is making those games more winnable.

    Bryan: Alright, so I think it is fair to say that we have attributed this early season outbreak to two factors: BA/RISP and pitching. The former is interesting, as the merits of clutch hitting could be argued for days. What I do find interesting is that the Sox more consistent hitters for average -- Tadahito Iguchi, Joe Crede and A.J. Pierzynski -- are hitting .192, .263 and .097 respectively with runners in scoring position. On the other hand, struggling hitters Rowand, Podsednik and Uribe are all over .333. What gives?

    Mike: Well, when Juan Uribe isn't spinning around in the dirt after a flailing swing and miss, he's usually popping a ball into shallow right. He's had ample opportunities to drive guys in being at the bottom of the order, and he's just able to slap the ball when he needs to.

    Cheat: I think that's what you call balance. Pierzynski's not going to his .097 with RISP for the whole season, and the three you named as being excellent in that situation probably aren't going to continue being as good. It should all even out at the end of the year. The one thing we can all agree on is that they need more RISP ABs, where they rank among the bottom two in baseball for the second straight season.

    Rich: Speaking of Pierzynski, how do you square the fact that he was considered a clubhouse "cancer" on his two previous teams?

    Cheat: I think he has learned that his attitude hurt him where it counts. His wallet. He's determined not to let off the field issues interfere with his future pay days.

    Mike: AJ was also known as a solid game caller, and a living breathing example of the old baseball cliche "hit 'em where they ain't." To me, that's a lot more important than some stories coming out of the SF clubhouse. I'm sure Ozzie will keep him in line.

    Bryan: Well, I can't decide whether Ozzie has a positive or negative impact in that clubhouse. While he has had a midas touch with everything this year, is he really a good influence? It seems to me that he picks favorites, and like a bad teacher, is not one who you want to be on the bad side of.

    Cheat: I'd agree that Ozzie has favorites. Cough, cough, Timo Perez, cough. Sorry, I'm still getting over a cold. I think his influence on the clubhouse, however, has been a positive one. Despite an ill-advised war of words with a former player, he keeps the mood light. Players know what to expect from him. They come to the park knowing their respective roles, that they'll be put in a situation where they can succeed, and that they have a shot to win every game they play.

    He's not the unpredictable tirant that some in the media portray him to be. He's not the kind of guy that will rip into a player, or get ejected for no reason. I think that more is made out of what he's said because it's Ozzie. I've actually seen a few occasions during his tenure where I'd like to see a little bit more fire from my manager. It's Ozzie's truthfulness that gets him in trouble. The press doesn't know what to do with a guy who doesn't give cliched, sanatized sound bites, so he's assumed to be out of control.

    Rich: If attitude and Ozzie get credit for the team's rocket launch, I'm sure Frank Thomas--if he is back in the lineup--will undoubtedly be blamed by certain members of the media should the White Sox inevitably return to Earth.

    Bryan: Yes, Frank will definitely draw criticism, which is really too bad. Still, this is a team that desperately needs his bat. Consistent offense has been a serious problem, and adding his kind of middle-of-the-order presence will be big. My question though, is who do they bench? Is Jermaine Dye in a part-time or permanent slump? Is Aaron Rowand more pre-2004 (4th outfielder) than .900 OPS man?

    Cheat: I'm worried about Jermaine. Nobody fears him as an opposing pitcher. As for Rowand, I'm disappointed with his slow start, but that's nothing new for him. What's new is that he hasn't been benched by now. Maybe that's what he needs.

    When Frank comes back, Ideally, you'd see something of a super-platoon with Carl Everett getting giving Rowand, Dye, or Frank the day off against tough right-handers.

    Mike: Dye worries me as well. His struggles at the plate have been compounded by the fact that he's been just rotten in the field... misplaying just about anything on the ground to his left.

    Bryan: I wrote after watching Dye in Spring Training that he was so frustrating because the man is a physical specimen, just not a baseball player. At some point I think the Sox should realize that stud prospect Brian Anderson is a better option than Dye, and maybe Rowand as well. I think the Sox best lineup might have Thomas at DH with Everett, Poddy and Anderson playing everyday, with Rowand on the bench and either Dye or Timo gone. But alas, this will never happen.

    Cheat: I'd have to agree with your assesment of Dye. He reminds me of another player who wore 23 in this town and couldn't hit a curveball. I don't know if bringing Anderson up is the answer though. At this time last year, he was in A-ball. I'd like to see him get a significant amount of at-bats at Charlotte before they make a rushed decision on him.

    Mike: Is that Jordan or Brian Daubach you're alluding to? (laughs) I don't think Anderson's quite ready for prime time yet...every time I see a Sox farmhand tearing it up my first thought is "Joe Borchard."

    Bryan: Not sure about Borchard, Anderson can take a walk, but I can see what you guys are saying. No reason to rush him when Rowand still has such high potential. Moving from the outfield to the infield, I'm sure you guys are happy to see Joe Crede finally having a good season. If Crede can stay consistent and Konerko can get some consistency, that offense will be alright, I think.

    Cheat: I really like the way the middle infield is shaping up. Iguchi and Uribe are about as solid as they come back up the middle, and they're both swinging the bats pretty well. As far as Konerko goes, I just hope we see more Konerko and less of the Rob Deer we've been seeing lately.

    Rich: Like 'em or hate 'em, the Sox's offense is different this year. No more Ordonez, Lee, or Valentin. And Thomas hasn't stepped afoot the playing field this year. Add it all up and the team has been without four of its top five power hitters from the past several years. On the one hand, you gotta give Williams some credit for having the courage to make such radical changes. On the other hand, I don't think the offense is the reason for the team's major league-best record thus far.

    Mike: That's right Rich. We get timely hits to score runs, but we don't get anywhere near enough of them. Our pitching has just been sensational. Contreras and Hernandez don't look so hot on paper, but they've been able to get the outs they need when they need them. In our first home game against Minnesota, they had the bases loaded at least twice, and Jose got them to GIDP both times. If there's such a thing as "clutch pitching," I'd say we're leading the league in it.

    Rich: Right, but the so-called clutch pitching is one of the reasons why I am so skeptical as to whether the White Sox can keep it up. The team has undoubtedly received good pitching performances from Contreras, Hernandez, Buehrle, and Garcia, and outstanding work from Garland. But, if Garland was a stock, I would be shorting him right about now.

    Mike: This ex-trader is putting a "buy and hold" rating on Garland now. It's like he's a whole different player from what we've seen in the past. His smug cockiness has been replaced by confidence. He's working quickly, effectively, and not panicking on the rare occasions so far he's gotten into trouble.

    Bryan: I think there might be something in the rumor that Garland has learned from Mark Buerhle, and that he has finally matured. I bet you will see many a Cub fan wince every time they see his record and Matt Karchner's statistics. Still, Garland is nowhere near this good, and will eventually run into trouble. What's good for him, though, is that even a mediocre ERA the rest of the year will give him good numbers.

    Cheat: The key for Garland with be his ability to avoid the walk. He has always appeared to be afraid to challenge hitters, as evidenced by his career 3.75 BB/9IP before this season. This season, however, he has challenged hitters, getting ahead in the count and making the hitter put the ball in play. As long as he doesn't return to his old 3-walks-a-game self, he'll post some very good numbers. I envision him with an ERA under or around 4.00, which given the stadium the White Sox play in, is very good.

    Mike: People always seem to forget that Garland has won 12 games a year for three years in a row and has never spent any time on the DL. But here in Chicago, a guy who's almost always hurt can win 12-14 games a year and be branded a superstar if he wears blue. Mark my words guys: this is the year Garland turns the corner.

    Rich: I would take a healthy Kerry Wood over Jon Garland any day, week, month, or year. That said, I realize Wood is on the DL and Garland is putting up the best numbers of his career--well, at least, the best W-L and ERA. I think the latter have changed more than anything else, seducing Chisox fans into thinking they have a new ace on board. His K/9IP ratio of less than 4:1 is downright poor and disconcerting to a numbers man from the west coast.

    Cheat: You and Kerry can have a lot of fun watching baseball games together. I keed, I keed.

    You're not going to find me calling Garland an ace. In the past I have questioned why I hear players and announcer praise his "stuff." I just never saw it. He is, however, the best 5th starter in baseball.

    Bryan: That's fair, but let's talk about numbers three and four, Contreras and El Duque. While I think we can agree that Buerhle, Garcia and Garland are all in good positions, can they maintain this type of production from the Cubans? I think it helps they are around each other, and Contreras might finally be meeting expectations. But what isn't to keep these guys from getting injured?

    Cheat: I fully expect El Duque to go down at some point in the season. Contreras appears to have progressed a bit with the acquisition of El Duque. His last start didn't show it, but he's been dropping down sidearm like El Duque recently. Contreras is a head case, and probably needs Duque to babysit for him to succeed like he has for a full season.

    The one name you need to bring up when talking about the Cubans is Brandon McCarthy. He's on-call to fill in whenever one of them goes down. He's a pretty nice insurance policy to have waiting in the wings.

    Mike: Indeed he is. McCarthy put together what might be the best Spring Training ever seen by a Sox pitcher. And it's always nice to be able to brag and say that he's one that we grew all by ourselves. He's been the marquee attraction on a struggling Charlotte ballclub.

    Bryan: Yes, if Garland is the league's best fifth starter, McCarthy might just be the best number six. I really do think the Black Jack comparisons are right, and that he will be a stud in the rotation next season. If I were Ken Williams, I would put McCarthy in middle relief in about August, like the Twins have with so many minor league starters, and be ready to put him on my postseason roster...record willing.

    Rich: Not so fast, partner. Although I underestimated the White Sox going into the season, I still think the Twins are the team to beat in the AL Central. However, if the South Siders play .500 play the rest of the way, they will end up with 89 wins and be right in the thick of the Wild Card race.

    Cheat: You were not alone in picking the Twins to win the central. I picked them over the Sox before the season too. It's really nice to see that the AL wild card will actually be a race this season, not just a consolation prize for finishing second in the AL East. I think the Sox have answered some of their question marks that they had entering the season, and should have their sights set on the AL Central crown. Though, I do like the recent trend of Wild Card winners taking home the World Series title, so the wild card would not be a disappointment.

    Rich: Yes, three years in a row. The oldtimers must be cringing. The Angels, the Marlins, and the Red Sox. Sorry, Cheat and Mike, I guess it is the National League's turn this year.

    Mike: In 2003, Brian Cashman said that the Sox were the team that he feared most if we made it to the playoffs--and we didn't. I think there's still reason for Cashman (and Theo Epstein) to fear us though--our lineup is just as deep, a little more balanced, and we picked up one of the bext postseason pitchers out there in El Duque.

    Bryan: Personally I go really back and forth on the merits of the White Sox. The fact is that they are playing over their heads right now, and Minnesota is right on target. The White Sox can coast and still win quite a few games though, so this has all the makings of a September battle...further fuel for the rivalry.

    Mike: We don't see the Twins again until August 15th. Part of me dreads the thought of heads-up action against them ten times in the last 2 months of the season, but part of me says "bring 'em on." We've proved so far this season that we can beat them--and I'm reasonably sure we can beat them again and hold them off down the stretch.

    Rich: Well, how many games do you think the White Sox will win this year? What place will Chicago finish? Do you see them playing in October? If so, how far do you think they can go?

    Mike: I see us winning between 89 and 93, and holding off the Twins to win the division by 2 or 3 games. Playoff baseball returns to the South Side for the first time in 5 years, and we advance to at least the ALCS.

    Cheat: Before the hot start I picked the Sox to win 87 games, but I'm not going to let the quick start get me too excited. 92 wins sounds like a good revision to my original prediction, AL Central Champs. I can't predict them going deep in the playoffs though. That would be down right crazy. I don't even remember the last time they won a game that mattered in October ('83), so I'm not going to tempt fate and start picking World Championships or anything crazy like that.

    Bryan: I am still going to say that the White Sox miss the playoffs, but narrowly. Look for the Twins to be throwing Johan Santana at the Sox on three days' rest if he has to, but Minnesota is simply the better team. What's really too bad is that Chicago isn't buying into the Sox enough, as their attendance still leaves much to be desired.

    Rich: I'm going to bump up the White Sox from about 81 wins at the start of the season to a range of 88-92. The Sox and Twins have the opportunity to really dominate this division. If Chicago wins 88, I think they miss out on the playoffs. If they win 92, I think we will see them in the post-season. The fact that the Twins and White Sox play each other so often down the stretch should make for one of the most interesting races in baseball.

    Not surprisingly, Cheat and Mike have a more positive spin on the White Sox's chances than Bryan and Rich. However, the White-Hot Sox have even surprised them. Is there anybody out there who can say they truly saw this coming? How do you see it? In or out of the playoffs? What are the chances of a White Sox-Dodgers repeat of 1959? Different teams, players, and stadiums, for sure. But what about the outcome?

    Baseball Beat/WTNYMay 06, 2005
    One on One: Armchair GM
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    While sitting in the stands beats a hotel lobby any day of the week, can anyone blame us for getting a little nostalgic for the Hot Stove League? Any baseball fan can agree that even the best of May Sweeps would pale in comparison to some good trade talk. We've gone on record with our first impressions, our second and some noteworthy early season statistics, and now it's time to move the focus from the field to the front office. As contenders are hit by injuries that expose holes and bad teams watch their hopes die, it is time to start talking trade.

    Make Rich General Manager for a day and this is what he would and wouldn't do:

  • If I am Tim Purpura, I would either trade Roger Clemens or surround him with better players. The Astros are 11-16 and they are not getting any younger or better. In fact, Houston's roster is the fourth oldest in baseball. Clemens would be an expensive acquisition as his new team would not only have to pick up the balance of his $18 million contract for the year but also pay a $3 million assignment fee.

    With teammates like Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, the Astros need to make a decision to go for it all now (a decision I think is virtually impossible at this stage) or start rebuilding. As much as I enjoy Clemens pitching for his homestate team, I would vote to trade him to a contender. Reuniting the Rocket with the Boston Red Sox would be a great way for him to go out. Absent that, how about Toronto? At 16-13, the Blue Jays are in the thick of things in the AL East, especially given the fact that the Yankees or Red Sox are no longer a lock to win the division. Let's not forget that Clemens enjoyed perhaps the two best back-to-back years of his career north of the border.

  • If I am Brian Cashman, I might trade for Clemens if the Rocket and George were agreeable to such a deal. However, I would not trade for Ken Griffey, as rumored, under almost any scenario. Junior is not the answer to the team's problems in center field. He is nothing more than a name at this point in his career. Peel back the onion skin and you're looking at a 35-year-old, injury prone player, making over $10 million per year, barely hitting his weight and on pace to hit 13 HR.

  • Speaking of the Yankees, if you want to really shake things up, why not move Derek Jeter to CF, Alex Rodriguez back to SS, and pick up a cheaper option at 3B in the form of Casey Blake (if that could be arranged) or settle for a Mike Lamb or even a Jose Hernandez? This is the type of bold move that will light a fire under the Yankees. Moving Tony Womack around only makes the team worse, not better.

  • If I am Dan O'Dowd, I would swoop in and trade for Zach Day. The Washington National right-hander is apparently in manger Frank Robinson's doghouse. He is the prototypical Coors Field pitcher. Granted, Day needs to throw more strikes but his sinking fastball and low salary are an ideal fit for a rebuilding Colorado franchise.

    I am also of the belief that the Rockies should trade Todd Helton to any team willing to take on the rest of his contract, irrespective of the players I might get in return. Reallocating the money earmarked for Helton among a number of other players is a must in my mind.

  • If I am Paul DePodesta, I'm on the phone right now talking to Theo Epstein about Bill Mueller or Kevin Youkilis and Terry Ryan about Michael Cuddyer or Terry Tiffee. I think Youkilis, Cuddyer, and Tiffee are all better options than the Dodgers have now and offer decent solutions longer term. Mueller works because he would fill the void this year and perhaps for part or all of 2006, allowing the Dodgers to sit back and wait for Joel Guzman, who I think projects as a 3B, to develop.

  • If I am Bill Bavasi, I am on the horn with Scott Boras, working out a deal for Jered Weaver prior to the upcoming draft. Five years, $7.5 million. That's about a 50% improvement over the Angels' offer and just $600,000 below what the Weaver camp was asking for at the end.

    Paying a pitcher who could be in the starting rotation as early as 2006 an average of $1.5M per year for each of the next five years is a bargain, if you ask me. You overpay in the early going but, if he pans out, you've got yourself a steal in the post-arbitration years. Weaver, on the other hand, gets to stay on the west coast and pitch in the friendly confines of Safeco Park.

    * * * * *

    Make Bryan General Manager for a day and this is what he would and wouldn't do:

  • If I am Jim Hendry, I get on the phone with Chuck Lamar, quickly. Has anyone else noticed that the positions in which the Cubs are most lacking, the Devil Rays would consider trading? Aubrey Huff, Julio Lugo and Danys Baez. While I doubt the Cubs could muster a blockbuster involving all three, just grabbing Huff and Lugo would be a smart move for a team that still has a chance to get in the playoffs.

    Luckily, the one kid quickly becoming the Cub's untouchable -- Felix Pie -- plays a position the Devil Rays are not interested in acquiring. But start with Angel Guzman, Jason Dubois and one of the Cubs young relief prospects. Throw in a few more decent names, and the Devil Rays will have a hard time saying no. With Huff and Lugo added to that lineup, Cub fans will slowly stop wincing every time Nomar's name is mentioned.

  • If I am Allard Baird, I make sure Daniel Glass is willing to pay Alex Gordon what he is asking this June. While it's a given at this point that Arizona is going to draft Justin Upton, Baird should be very excited that he will land the top player on my board. Gordon continues to prove that he is a fantastic talent, and even Mark Teixeira bonus demands should not make the Royals run away. While the Royals are slowly putting together a pitching staff that isn't laughable, they have a long way to go on offense. Gordon is the type of player that will make rebuilding easier.

    After drafting Gordon, I make sure to recognize the considerable market for Jeremy Affeldt. It's amazing how ready people are to completely disregard performance and go straight by stuff, which Affeldt has plenty of. Closers are the one position that will be most sought after in the next three months, so Affeldt is a nice bargaining chip. Get a conference call going between Mr. Hendry, Mr. Sabean, Mr. Beinfest and Mr. Minaya, and let the four of them battle it out until the top bidder wins the southpaw.

  • If I am Ken Williams, I put some good publicity out there about Frank Thomas, who is not exactly receiving a hero's welcome in preparation for his return. I realize that this so-called "small ball" will not keep the Chisox in front of the division forever and that Frank's bat will be loads more valuable than what Jermaine Dye and Scott Podsednik are currently giving me. I also make sure that Dye and Poddy are the guys losing time, as Carl Everett is better than both of them, as well.

  • If I am Joe Garagiola Jr., I take advantage of the Cubs said interest in my infielder Alex Cintron. While I thought he might be a good player once, it seems like he really isn't much better than what Craig Counsell could give me. In no scenario will I back down from my current offer of one Major League reliever, though I might go as far to let Jim Hendry pick from the Mike Wuertz, Jon Leicester and Todd Wellemeyer group. If it were up to me, I would choose Wuertz.

  • If I am John Hart, I will undoubtedly shop Alfonso Soriano once Ian Kinsler proves to be a bit more ready. Soriano has put up some decent numbers in Texas, but with a ready contributor waiting in the wings and pitching sorely needed, you can kiss him goodbye. I'm not exactly sure who would be interested, but there has to be some market for a second baseman with great speed and plus power.

  • If I am every GM in baseball not named John Hart, I do not acquire Soriano. I realize that Hart will likely be asking for my best pitching prospect, and that is just not something I am willing to pay for someone who walks about as often as Jose Reyes. Soriano also plays sketchy defense, and should his OPS be lower than his .808 performance last year, that will be the fourth straight season of decline. Sure, players at 29 are supposed to be at the pinnacle of their careers, but Soriano is a perfect example of the kind that peaks at 26.

    So, would you hire us? What ideas are too ridiculous, too pie-in-the-sky, or simply make too much sense? What would you do?

  • Baseball Beat/WTNYApril 27, 2005
    One on One: Nothing But The Stats
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    After the last two weeks when we let our eyes do the talking, it is back to the numbers here at Baseball Analysts. For those of you that pegged Edgardo Alfonzo and Victor Diaz to each have an OPS over 1.000, take a bow. On the other hand, some of us thought Andruw Jones' hot Spring Training might produce a little more than a .182/.244/.312 line.

    Before regression to the mean kicks in, we thought it would be fun to point out several early season outliers. Rich begins with a look at the group with big numbers in April, citing some breakouts; some overachievers; and some plain, old superstars...

    There's no need to look beyond Clint Barmes to realize how much Coors Field helps hitters. The rookie shortstop's on-base plus slugging average at home (1.383) is nearly two times his OPS on the road (.723).

    To Vinny Castilla's credit, the Washington Nationals third baseman is hitting at home (.367/.441/.767) and on the road (.353/.389/.529) despite not having played a single game at Coors Field this year.

    Did you think Miguel Tejada's 150 runs batted in were a fluke last year? Well, he has 25 RBI in 22 games in 2005. I know it is (really) early, but I still find it interesting that Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Hack Wilson are the only players ever to knock in 150 or more runs in consecutive seasons. Gehrig and Ruth each turned the trick three years in a row. Of note, these historical seasons were all turned in from 1929-1937.

    If Tejada drives home 100 runs in 2005, he will tie Alex Rodriguez at six for the most consecutive years of reaching the century mark while playing shortstop. A 25-HR season will give the 2002 AL MVP six in a row, tying A-Rod and Cal Ripken, for second place one season behind Hall of Famer Ernie Banks.

    Except for a downtick in 2003, Tejada's HR/AB ratio has gone up every year since his rookie season in 1997. The ironman shortstop is working on his fifth straight campaign of playing in every game and has played 159 or more games every year since 1999.

    Speaking of A-Rod, where does one start and stop in talking about his accomplishiments? He is on pace to reach 400 career home runs before the age of 30. By comparison, Barry Bonds had only 259 homers at the end of the year in which he turned 30. Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth had 342 and 309 dingers, respectively, at that same age.

    With his three home runs on Tuesday night, Rodriguez has now hit seven on the year but that is only good for a five-way tie with Paul Konerko, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, and Brian Roberts. Which player looks out of place in this group? Roberts, who had hit just 12 HR in over 1,500 at bats going into 2005, has already gone deep two more times than his previous career high.

    Middle infielders Roberts and Tejada are the main reasons Baltimore is leading MLB in runs, hits, home runs, total bases, batting average, slugging average, and OPS.

    Turning to pitching, Roger Clemens has only given up one run in 28 innings this year. The Rocket has seven Cy Young Awards, the same number of MVPs in Barry Bonds' trophy case. If Roger were to win another Cy Young, he could retire in peace and say "Eight is Enough."

    Minnesota's 5.25:1 strikeout/walk ratio is more than two times better than any other AL team and almost twice the next best team in the majors. Thanks to Clemens (32/6), the Houston Astros are leading the NL at 2.86:1. According to the Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia, the Arizona Diamondbacks staff in 2002 had the highest K/BB season of all-time (3.10). The Sandy Koufax-led Dodgers of 1966 are the only other team with a better than 3.0 ratio.

    Lastly, what do you make of the trends in ESPN's Juice Box? Improved pitching, weaker hitting, the lack of Barry Bonds influencing the numbers, insignificant, or just too doggone early to tell?

                    2002   2003   2004   2005 
    Homers/Game    1.043  1.071  1.123   .951 
    Runs/Game      4.618  4.728  4.814  4.632 
    Doubles/Game   1.793  1.816  1.837  1.734 
    Slugging Avg    .417   .422   .428   .411

    As Rich sees the cup half full across the Major League statistical landscape, Bryan sees it a little more half empty. He'll take you through the errors, inept hitting and awful pitching happening across the Majors...

    While this statistic was first brought to my attention by the guys over at Metsgeek, I find it amazing that Mike Piazza has thrown out just one baserunner in 21 attempts this year. You think he will be hitting the road to the land of the DH in 2006?

    It might be best for Mr. Piazza to call it a career after this season because his legacy as the best-hitting catcher of all-time is becoming a bit tarnished. His OPS could be on the decline for the sixth straight year: 1.012, .957, .903, .860, .806, .746.

    In fact, this seems to be an easy year for basestealers. Jason Kendall, Paul Lo Duca, A.J. Pierzynski, Victor Martinez, Jason Phillips, John Buck and Mike Matheny have a combined CS% of just 18.7%. It seems as if Mike Barrett and Ivan Rodriguez are the only people throwing anyone out.

    Speaking of bad defense, there are currently four players with five errors this season: Alfonso Soriano, Jose Valentin, Julio Lugo and Jhonny Peralta. While the three veterans have taken over 130 innings each to compile five, Peralta has played in less than 115. He's also not inspiring a lot of faith in Major League Equivalencies (MLEs). After hitting .323/.382/.489 in AAA last year, his OPS is just .633 this year.

    Peralta is combining to make a pretty awful left side, as Aaron Boone has the worst average of qualifying Major League hitters at .129. Although half of the recovering third baseman's hits are of the extra-base variety, eight hits in 62 at-bats speaks for itself. Please Eric Wedge, go with Casey Blake and Alex Cora.

    While Boone has the lowest average, he is not one of the two hitters sporting an OPS below .400. All-Star Jack Wilson is hitting just .157 and has one lone double in the extra-base hit column. Even worse is Yadier Molina, who in 56 at-bats this season has eight hits, one extra-base hit, and one walk.

    Even after outdueling Roy Oswalt on Monday for his first win of the season, Oliver Perez still has allowed the highest OPS of qualifing pitchers (.926). Six homers and 18 walks in 26.2 innings will do that, which is not what the Bucs want to see from someone they considered signing to a long-term extension this winter.

    With Perez leading the way, Pittsburgh is one of six teams that has allowed opposing hitters to have an OPS higher than .800. Can anyone name the other five? Colorado is easy, Tampa Bay wouldn't be hard to guess, and Philly and Cincy both play in tiny stadiums. But the Yankees? Yuck.

    To continue the trend of Pittsburgh's awfulness, Matt Lawton has the lowest batting average against southpaws. At an .095 clip, Lawton continues to prove he should be platooned. Since 2002, the 7.75 million dollar man has hit lefties to the tune of a .681 OPS.

    The worst against right-handers? Well, it is battle within the Oakland A's right now, as Charles Thomas (.000 in 22 AB) is handily holding off Eric Byrnes (.065 in 31 AB). This is surprising for Thomas, a left-handed batter who had six times more AB against righties last year. For Byrnes this is nothing new, who since 2002 has an OPS far inferior against right-handers (.746) than lefties (.904).

    Byrnes and Thomas are just two players struggling in the horrendous A's offense that has left Blez pretty disgusted. A win against the scorching White Sox on Tuesday saw Oakland end a team scoreless streak at 26 innings. You have to feel for Joe Blanton, my Rookie of the Year choice, who has a 1.75 ERA in four starts, but no wins thanks to awful run support.


    So there you have it, a brief look at the good and bad statistics in the Majors. Can Baltimore stay this hot but Oakland this cold? Will Barmes and Castilla slow down while Cleveland's left side catch up? Could Mike Piazza throw out Rich stealing third? Statistical oddities are part of baseball, but with clubs just about one-eighth through the season, expect some of the sample size numbers to get ironed out in due time.

    Baseball Beat/WTNYApril 20, 2005
    One on One: Quick Takes
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    This week's One on One will be taking on a different face than last week, as Rich and Bryan get less long-winded and more quick-witted. Enjoy as the two make analogies, comparisons and surprising observations from what baseball has given us so far this season.

    Rich: Take a bow if you thought Brett Myers would be the Phillies best pitcher and Gavin Floyd their worst pitcher this year.

  • Speaking of the Phillies, you know Citizens Bank Park is a bandbox when Jose Reyes hits two home runs and neither of them are of the inside-the-park variety.

  • If they ever bring back Home Run Derby (circa 1959-1961), I would nominate Citizens Park as the replacement for Wrigley Field in Los Angeles.

  • Quiz: Who was the host of the original Home Run Derby show?

    Bryan: Ahh, classic Home Run Derby. If you ask me, I'm having some issues imagining the modern day version of the show featuring Brian Roberts against Clint Barmes.

  • Personally, I'd be a lot more apt to watch Strikeout Derby. We've seen the pilot for the show twice already this season, on Monday with Hudson v. Clemens (17 Ks), and Smoltz v. Pedro (24 Ks) on April 10.

  • You have to wonder whether a black cat, a ladder or a mirror has given Smoltz his luck so far this season. Atlanta has scored all of two runs in his three starts, making John's job harder than Custer's soldiers.

    Rich: I ran into Rob Bell at Bally's Fitness working off his ERA after the Yankees nailed him for 10 runs in 1 1/3 innings Monday night. For those of you who put a lot of meaning on groundball/flyball ratios, please note that Bell's was 6:1 that game.

  • I also saw Mark Buehrle driving through In-N-Out Burger after his last outing.

  • Ran into Paul DePodesta at Family Dollar looking to find another bargain basement reliever for his bullpen.

    Bryan: Well, I sure hope we can see a lot more extended visits from Tony Saunders and Bill Pulsipher at "Play It Again Sports," as Major League careers begin to be re-established.

  • The best those of us waiting for action at the Board of Trade have been forced to take excitement in Tim Wakefield's extension and Sandy Alderson's new position. That's code for "slow week on the transaction front."

  • Anyone else wondering if Steinbrenner or Jacko will be appearing more often on the AP wire in 2005?

    Rich: Did anybody else take Justin Morneau in their fantasy draft before Paul Konerko? Man, somebody must have hit me on the side of the head that night.

  • Does anyone else see a little bit of Brad Wilkerson in Nick Swisher? Height, weight, lefthanded, position. What am I missing? Oh yeah, they both have struck out 17 times this year, too. The only difference between the two is that Wilkerson has walked six times and Swisher once. Yes, 1 BB thus far vs. 17 SO.

    Bryan: After watching Swisher hit an opposite field double this week, I maintain he's like Mo Vaughn on the Subway diet. That crouched stance, big inside-out power, and college pedigree make their resumes look like carbon copies. Not quite sure they could pass as twins, though.

  • While Swisher offers some Major League pedigree, does anybody notice there should be quite a few sets of brothers in the big leagues if things pan out soon? Delmon and Dmitri representing the Youngs, Corey and Eric from the Pattersons, J.D. and Stephen from the Drews (sorry Tim), and even Adam and Andy from the LaRoches. This could put an interesting little spin on ESPN's new show "Teammates."

    Rich: There were four Golden Spike Award winners in uniform at the Dodgers-Padres game last weekend. Can you name them? (Hint: Robin Ventura is retired and Darren Dreifort was not in uniform.)

  • Speaking of Golden Spike Award winners, am I the only one who thinks Bill Stoneman made a mistake in giving Kendry Morales the big bucks rather than Jered Weaver?

    Bryan: We'll see whether Weaver regrets making the move as much as the Angels. One player who won't regret turning down seven figures is Andrew Miller at UNC, who despite a breakdown against Miami last week, has a 2.11 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 59.2 innings. It looks like Miller will be a solace to one lucky fan base from either Kansas City, Pittsburgh or Colorado.

  • Also on the college front, no one is impressing more than Alex Gordon, who would be my top choice this June. A .411 average, 41 walks, and 25 extra-base hits in 38 games. Throw in seventeen steals, good play at third, and beating out every mark Darin Erstad set, and I say Justin who?

    Rich: Brian Lawrence reminds me of a poor man's Rick Reuschel in terms of his delivery, stuff, and control. If Reuschel doesn't get your attention, maybe this will: The Whale is one of just 30 pitchers in the history of baseball with 200 wins, 2000 Ks, and a 2:1 K/BB ratio (3000 or more IP). Of those eligible for the Hall of Fame, only six have yet to make it -- Bert Blyleven, Jim Kaat, Frank Tanana, Jerry Koosman, Mickey Lolich, and Reuschel.

  • With back-to-back outstanding pitching performances from Mark Mulder and Matt Morris, the Cardinals pitching staff is looking Mmm Mmm Good in the early going. Add in Jason Marquis and 3M no longer belongs exclusively to Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing.

  • Is Jim Edmonds any good?

    Bryan: While much ado has been made of the great Florida rotation, and they have been fabulous, I might take the Red Sox pitching prospects if chosen. Boston's three best -- Jon Papelbon, Jon Lester, Anibal Sanchez -- entered Tuesday with a combined 59/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Those are the kind of peripherals that make Maddux and Spahn in their hey-days jealous, much less Dontrelle or Beckett.

  • And with as much sadness as there was that met the ending of the Willis scoreless-innings streak, why no love for King Felix? The teenage sensation allowed his first runs in AAA in his third start as well, and should be in Seattle soon.

    So, in conclusion, do we have any guesses for the weight spread between Reuschel-Swisher and Vaughn-Lawrence? Please feel free to answer that question, any other asked today, and make an observation of your own in the comments.

  • Baseball Beat/WTNYApril 13, 2005
    One on One: First Impressions
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    Our Wednesday feature shifts from Two on Two to One on One. From previews to reviews of the early going. Having watched numerous games via MLB Extra Innings and MLB TV, we began to kick it around and decided to share our observations. We may or may not be right, but you can find out what we had to say right here, right now.

    Rich: We're a week-and-a-half into the new baseball season. What has jumped out at you the most?

    Bryan: While sample size caveats apply, I have definitely been intrigued by the parity we have seen. Towards the bottom of every division in the standings right now are teams that were picked at season's beginning: both New York teams, Cleveland, St. Louis, Oakland and San Fran. Now I'm hardly naive enough to think these teams will be in the basement all season, but to see teams like Toronto and the White Sox come out swinging puts a smile on my face. Soon enough we'll see the Yankees start winning two of every three games, and the standings will look somewhat like we all expected. But for now, I love that I can dream about NFL-like cinderella stories.

    Rich: For me, I loved seeing the Yankees on the top steps of their dugout, clapping and showing respect for the Red Sox while they were getting their rings. That showed a lot of class. I give Joe Torre and his troops credit for showing such sportsmanship. Very refreshing.

    On the other hand, I cannot for the life of me understand why MLB would schedule the Yankees and Red Sox twice during the first two weeks of the season. I think having two series like this in the first ten days is absolutely silly. I mean, this isn't NASCAR. I can understand the first one and would chalk that up to just being good for baseball. The second one? Redundant. Unnecessary. Anti-climatic. Overkill. Did I also say that it was just too much, too early?

    Bryan: So what about individual players? While stats aren't ready to be evaluated yet, which players have caught your eye through eight or so games?

    Rich: The Marlins starting pitchers have been very impressive. Three complete games already. Josh Beckett looks like a world beater. I won't remind everybody that I picked him to win the Cy Young. Oh well, I guess I just did. Hey, I don't want anyone to think I jumped on the bandwagon after the fact. He just flat out pounded the strike zone in his last outing. I saw him throw a 97-mph heater past Brad Wilkerson for his tenth strikeout of the game in the eighth inning. Very, very impressive. 15 innings, 17 Ks, and no runs.

    Dontrelle Willis and AJ Burnett also had complete game victories. Although Burnett lost his first start vs. Atlanta, I thought he outpitched Tim Hudson. AJ just got a couple of bad breaks, but he looked really good. I wasn't surprised at all to see him mow down the Phillies Tuesday night. He kept his pitch count down by getting ahead of the hitters. He is virtually unhittable when he throws his fastball (which sits in the upper 90s) and knee-buckling curveball for strikes.

    Bryan: Only two strikeouts behind Beckett on the season, and far more surprising, is Brett Myers. This is a guy that was one of the best pitching prospects in baseball a few years back, but like top Phillie prospect Marlon Byrd, has been nothing short of disappointing. Myers already has logged two quality starts, and looked great in the process. His curveball has bite like never before, and it appears he is starting to control his fastball. Could Myers be a 21st century version of Pete Harnisch, meeting expectations with a Cy Young age 24 season? After witnessing him pitch against the Marlins on the 11th, I am sold that this might be the year for Brett Myers. And if Rich is bragging about his Cy Young pick, might I mention Gavin Floyd -- my Rookie of the Year choice -- started the season magnificently against the mighty Cardinals?

    Rich: Which hitters have made you sit up and take notice?

    Bryan: I'll give you two players that reincarnated themselves by each losing twenty pounds over the winter: Carl Everett and Ivan Rodriguez. Everett is quickly making Chicago fans forget about the Big Hurt, and as I said when returning from Arizona, I think that is due to an increased work ethic. This team will have to make a big decision when Frank returns to the lineup, benching either Rowand or Podsednik.

    Rodriguez drew praise from the announcing crew like crazy on Opening Day, after a winter in which he hired a dietician. I'm not so sure there is much more power left in Pudge's bat, but he can still contribute to the Tigers in a big way. If this is a guy that can hit well over .300 and continue to scare baserunners from stealing against him, the Tigers are getting enough bang for their buck.

    Rich: Pat Burrell looks like he did three years ago. He had a month's worth of home runs and RBI in his first seven games. Three of his jacks were even hit on the road. For those who thought Miguel Cabrera might fall victim to a second full-season slump, let me tell you something -- you can fuhhgetaboutit. This guy is the real deal. I liken him to Manny Ramirez. Same position. Well-below average defensively. Raw power. Huge ceiling. A .300+, 40-HR guy in the making. Perhaps as early as this year. Put me in charge though and I would throw him in, in, and in. If advance scouts see what I see, Cabrera's biggest challenge will be in making the proper adjustments.

    Bryan: So on to my favorite, the youngsters. Which young player -- bonus for naming a rookie -- has impressed you the most so far?

    Rich: Danny Haren. I'm biased though. I drafted him for my fantasy team. I expected big things so I'm not at all surprised. In fact, like Joe Sheehan, I believe Haren will outpitch Mark Mulder this year. The guy throws a nasty splitter to go with his 93-95 mph fastball. I don't think he is the type of pitcher like a Beckett or a Burnett who will dominate, but I see him as a solid #3 type guy. He will undoubtedly have his ups and downs before the year is out, but I think his numbers will be just fine come October. This might turn out to be one of those trades people talk about years and years from now if it plays out like I think it will.

    Bryan: I'm going to toot an unusual horn: Jorge De La Rosa. Currently the Brewer southpaw has the second-most strikeouts for a reliever, after a splendid two-inning, five strikeout performance on Sunday. De La Rosa had Len Kasper and Bob Brenly drooling as he went through the heart of the Cubs order in front of a packed Wrigley crowd. He struck out two batters with his big fastball (94-96 mph), and one with each of his other three pitches: slider (84-86 mph), change (83-85 mph) and a big curve (76-78 mph). His tendency to fall behind hitters makes me think he'll work better in the bullpen than the rotation, and with Mike Maddux's teaching, could be Milwaukee's answer at closer.

    Rich: Interesting. OK, changing gears here, have you seen any bloopers thus far? Any plays that teams may leave on the cutting room floor when they put together their highlight reels for 2005?

    Bryan: Sure, I'll give you two. First, the Opening Day disaster that was Braden Looper. It's quite sad that Beltran, Pedro and Jose Reyes are playing so well, and are surrounded by such a horrid bullpen. But the worst is undoubtedly Jason Ellison in the Dodgers-Giants game yesterday. Ellison, who came in as a defensive replacement in the eighth, completely missed a ball in left field that rolled to the wall for a Dodger victory. One of those one-in-a-million plays that makes us all wonder why baseball players make so much money. Either that, or it serves as a reminder why Ellison makes the minimum.

    Rich: Well, I have seen some putrid fielding, too. Jason Giambi flat out dropping a pop foul ball the other day takes the cake for me because it just goes to show that Joe Torre won't be able to continue throwing Giambi's glove out there. Tino Martinez isn't the answer either. Where's Don Mattingly when you need him?

    Speaking of first basemen, I also witnessed Jim Thome and Nick Johnson getting thrown out at home on two-out doubles. Man, these guys are slow. Thome and Johnson both looked like they were carrying pianos on their backs. Thome is a great player, and I don't want to demean him per se, but it makes me think that Johnson had better hit for more power if he is going to amount to much as a big-league first baseman.

    Bryan: Let's close this out with a prospect evaluator's favorite: the comparison. Any players that have made you think you are seeing double in the early going?

    Rich: David DeJesus reminds me of Johnny Damon. DeJesus is a bit older than Damon was in his second season, but they are both lefties who play CF with similar bodies, skillsets, and approaches at the plate. Rather than replacing Carlos Beltran, I see DeJesus as Damon reincarnated ten years later.

    Bryan: I'm going to go with one I have wanted to make for awhile: Gustavo Chacin and Jarrod Washburn. Chacin has come out of the gate well in this season, and since learning a cut fastball shortly before the 2004 season, has been a very good pitcher. Washburn has always been said to throw his fastball well over 75% of the time, relying heavily on the heater. Neither will intimidate hitters much with their offspeed stuff -- both curveballs and change ups -- and must have control to succeed. Expect Chacin, who also has shown a bit of propensity for the home run, to have moderate Major League success. With little onus on him to sit atop the rotation, unlike Washburn in Anaheim, Chacin could flourish in the middle.

    Rich: Thanks, Bryan. I'll check back with you next Wednesday. In the meantime, I'm curious what our readers have observed thus far?

    Baseball Beat/WTNYApril 06, 2005
    Survey Says...
    By Rich Lederer

    We have extended our Two on Two previews among all of our panelists to include everyone's picks for each of the division, wild card, and league championship winners, as well as the World Series champions, traditional award winners, and several other "fun" categories.

    With us once again today are JD Arney (Red Reporter), Tyler Bleszinski (Athletics Nation), Brian Borawski (TigerBlog and The Hardball Times), Alex Ciepley (Cub Town), Brad Dowdy (No Pepper), Aaron Gleeman (Aaron and The Hardball Times), Jason Mastaitis (Always Amazin' and MetsGeek), John Perricone (Only Baseball Matters), Jeff Shaw (U.S.S. Mariner), Patrick Sullivan (The House That Dewey Built), and Jon Weisman (Dodger Thoughts).

    Although not meant to be a family feud among baseball bloggers, some of our responses may not be met with clapping and the proverbial, "Good answer."

    	West	Cent	East	Wild
    Blez	LAA	MIN	NYY	
    Jeff	LAA	MIN	BOS	

    The Baseball Analysts consensus has the Angels nipping the A's in the West, the Twins taking the Central, the Red Sox winning the East, and the Yankees making the playoffs via the Wild Card.

    In the National League, the panelists see the Dodgers winning out West, the Cardinals repeating in the Central, the Braves (yawn) capturing the East once again, and the Padres sneaking into the playoffs by the slimmest of margins.

    	West	Cent	East	Wild
    Blez	SDP	STL	ATL	
    Brian	SF	STL	ATL	PHI
    Jeff	LAD	STL	ATL	

    The consensus has Boston and Atlanta facing off in the World Series, but we do not see a clear cut World Series winner (with three panelists choosing the Red Sox and three the Braves). The Dodgers and Giants are the only other teams with more than one vote. The surprise? Nobody selected the Yankees to win it all.

    Aaron	BOS	ATL	BOS
    Alex	MIN	LAD	LAD
    Blez	NYY	ATL	ATL
    Brad	BOS	ATL	ATL
    Brian	NYY	SF	SF
    Bryan	BOS	ATL	ATL
    Jason	BOS	STL	BOS
    Jeff	MIN	STL	MIN
    John	NYY	SF	SF
    Rich	BOS	STL	STL
    Sully	BOS	PHI	BOS

    As far as awards go, we see Hideki Matsui and Albert Pujols winning the MVPs, Randy Johnson and Johan Santana sharing the AL Cy Young and Tim Hudson narrowly beating out Pedro Martinez for the NL Cy Young, and Jeremy Reed taking AL Rookie of Year honors with Gavin Floyd and Jeff Francis in a tie for NL ROY.

    Aaron	Chavez	Pujols		Santana	Hudson		Reed	 Hardy
    Alex	Tejada	Pujols		Halladay	Sheets		McPherson	 Dubois
    Blez	Matsui	Pujols		Santana	Schmidt		Swisher	 Burke
    Brad	Ramirez	Pujols		Johnson	Martinez		Reed	 Reyes, A
    Brian	Chavez	Pujols		Santana	Hudson		Kazmir	 Francis
    Bryan	Matsui	Rolen		Johnson	Hudson		Blanton	 Floyd
    Jason	Guerrero	Pujols		Santana	Martinez		Blanton	 Floyd
    JD	Hafner	Garciaparra	Johnson	Hudson			
    Jeff	Suzuki	Pujols		Johnson	Hudson		Reed	 Atkins
    John	Matsui	Pujols		Johnson	Schmidt		Swisher	 Dallimore
    Jon	Guerrero	Cabrera		Santana	Martinez		Teahen	 Closser
    Rich	Matsui	Pujols		Santana	Beckett		Reed	 Barmes
    Sully	A-Rod	Drew		Johnson	Martinez		Blanton	 Francis

    Rather than stopping there, we decided to pick some additional categories for fun. Lloyd McClendon may not find it fun though if the panelists are right in believing that he will be the first manager fired in 2005. Jeff sees it differently. "Lee Mazzilli will leave the clubhouse earlier than Sammy Sosa this time." John chimes in with Charlie Manuel. "The guy has no business running a big league club, and the Phillies have unrealistically high expectations, a bad combination."

    Jeremy Bonderman is the only player chosen by more than one to earn the distinction of Breakout Player of the Year. Alex has dubbed him Jeremy Bandwagonderman in view of his growing popularity as a breakout choice. John makes an unconventional choice by tabbing Randy Johnson, a five-time Cy Young Award winner, on the belief that he will make a run at 30 wins and become the first Yankee to strike out 300 batters in a season.

    Jason Giambi is the runaway pick as Comeback Player of the Year and Adam Dunn (with two home runs on Opening Day already under his long belt) is the player most likely to become MLB's HR champion. There is no truth to the rumor that some of our guests tried to change their pick to Dimitri Young after his three-homer performance on Monday.

    We also asked our panelists if Giambi is apt to hit more HR or spend more days on the DL and the latter wins by the narrowest of margins, 7-6. Blez adds, "If there is justice, days on the DL." No hard feelings in Athletics Nation, huh?

    And the worst team in baseball goes to...the Kansas City Royals.

    	Fired	  Breakout   Comeback	HR	    Giambi Worst
    Aaron	McClendon	  Mauer	    Giambi	Dunn 47	    HR	  COL
    Alex	Pena	  Bonderman  Giambi	Pujols 51	    HR	  KCR
    Blez	McClendon	  Chavez	    Glaus		Pujols 54	    DL	  PIT
    Brad	McClendon	  Bonderman  Glaus		Dunn 51	    DL	  KCR
    Brian	McClendon	  Kearns	    Giambi	Dunn	    HR	  KCR
    Bryan	Hurdle	  Patterson  Colon		Dunn 54	    DL	  KCR
    Jason	Mazzilli	  Reyes, J   Giambi	Pujols	    HR	  KCR
    JD	Mazzilli	  Reed	    Griffey Jr.	Dunn 52	    DL	  KCR
    Jeff	Mazzilli	  Clement	    Hernandez, R  Guerrero	    HR	  WAS
    John	Manuel	  Johnson	    Giambi	Dunn 48	    HR	  TAM
    Jon	Bochy	  Harden	    Glaus		Guerrero 43  HR	  TAM
    Rich	Garner	  Capuano	    Halladay	Dunn 50	    DL	  TAM
    Sully	Miley	  Wright	    Kearns	Dunn 47	    DL	  PIT

    We also asked the date of Barry Bonds' return and the combined number of starts between Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. The range of answers on Bonds was April 29th (Jon) to "doesn't" (Jason). Jeff had a typically funny response. "July 15, give or take a tantrum." The Prior-Wood responses were fairly tight with Aaron and JD taking low honors (40) and Rich high (55).

    In our free form category, we had panelists mail in Blue Books with their answers to the biggest surprise of the year. In no particular order...

    Bryan: Last time baseball was down in the public relations department, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire saved the game. This time around it won't be two players to do so, but baseball will once again rise to the top of the sports heap. Six close division races and a few runs at some milestones (Ichiro at .400, Pedro and Randy at 300 strikeouts, etc.) will make this as exciting a year as any.

    Jon: This is a complete, wild hunch, one that makes a mockery of the predictive arts, but injuries wipe out the top three expected contenders in the National League Central, opening the door for a surprise winner.

    Sully: Behind only slightly below average pitching and a lineup that won't quit, the Baltimore Orioles push the Yankees, Angels and Indians for a hotly contested Wild Card berth.

    John: My breakout player, if one can suggest that a five-time Cy Young Award winner can have a breakout year, is Randy Johnson, who will also give us the story of the year. All Randy Johnson needs to do to make a serious run at 30 wins is stay healthy, and I think he will. On his way, he will break numerous Yankee left-handed pitching records, finish in the top 3 in the MVP voting, and he will become the first Yankee with 300 strikeouts in a season.

    Brian: Tigers win 85 and play a meaningful series with the Twins in the middle of September.

    Aaron: With seemingly half the baseball world rooting hard for them and the other half rooting hard against them, the Oakland A's will have a winning record for the seventh season in a row. Everyone who predicted their demise will forget what they said.

    Blez: It won't be a surprise to much of the Internet community, but the surprise of the year to the mainstream media will be how much the A's push the Angels in the AL West. Oakland is looking a lot like the 2000 team right now and if Blanton and Haren pitch to their potential, Joe Morgan, Harold Reynolds and the rest of them will be explaining how the team is successful because of their young pitching, not anything the front office has done.

    JD: I think the surprise of the year will be the Cleveland Indians. They're in a very winnable division, and they've made some big strides in the past couple of years. I think they'll be the playoff team that kind of comes out of left field this year.

    Jeff: Ichiro will make a strong run at .400. This will not be enough to get the Mariners into the playoffs, but will be an exciting chase for baseball fans worldwide. Twins in seven, a series for the ages. Sales of beer and ice cream bars skyrocket in Minnesota as people strive to revive Kent Hrbek's favorite snacks.

    Alex: I think that, from the mainstream press's POV, the biggest surprise of the year is that not much has changed in the game despite the steroid debacle. Kids are still poppin' home runs, still striking guys out, all while apparently not indulging in those most hip fashion products, the Clear and the Cream.

    Jason: The rumors of the A's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Joe Blanton, Danny Haren, and Rich Harden combine for 45 wins. Barry Zito returns to form. Huston Street paves the way to Endsville for opposing teams. The A's win the West by a healthy margin over the Wild Card winning Angels. That's right, the Wild Card will come out of the West this year, and Yankee officials will have yet another uncomfortable offseason.

    Brad: My surprise of the year would be a pleasant one if it actually came to pass - no player will test positive for steroids. This is a story that could take over the game even more than it already has if there is a positive test during the season. Any player in their right mind will be clean by now, but that first guy who tests positive should have his punishment quadrupled just for being stupid.

    Rich: My surprise of the Year? Reggie Sanders doesn't change ballclubs for first time since 1998, and he combines with Jim Edmonds and Larry Walker to hit the most home runs of any outfield in baseball.

    Baseball Beat/WTNYMarch 30, 2005
    Two on Two: NL East Preview
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    The Two on Two previews of the 2005 Major League Baseball season conclude with today's outlook for the NL East. With us to discuss the Land of the Free and the Home of the Braves are Brad Dowdy of No Pepper and Jason Mastaitis of Always Amazin' and MetsGeek, a new site formed through the collaborative efforts of eight members of the Mets blogging community.

    National League Central and West
    American League East, Central and West

    Rich Lederer: Excluding the strike-aborted season in 1994, the Braves have finished in first place in the NL East every year since 1991. Which team is most likely to dominate the division over the next decade?

    Bryan Smith: Wow, that's a loaded question. To touch on each team quickly, I first think it is hard to bet against any team run by Scheurholz, Cox and Mazzone. But eventually the streak will end. New York and Washington are very big markets, and a new stadium should further enhance the market of Miami. Philadelphia and Atlanta spend too, so I think once the Atlanta run ends, we should see some equality in this division. I would say that no division in baseball has five equal markets like the NL East.

    Brad Dowdy: Atlanta's streak could end at any time, but with the way the organization is run from top to bottom, I think their success in the NL East will continue. New York is going to be right there, especially with the revenues coming in from the new television network next season. Philadelphia spends money, but it is unclear to me where this organization really has a plan for the future. Florida and Washington each have their own issues -- ownership (or lack thereof), stadium deals, and payroll -- and should have more fourth and fifth place finishes than the other clubs over this time period.

    Jason Mastaitis: I agree. This is going to be a very competitive division over the next decade and the dominance of any one team is going to simply depend on all lot of things falling the right way for them (especially health, since every team has some significant issues to key players). But you can never bet against the Braves, the Patriots of baseball. They have the best front office, the best coaching staff, they make smart personnel decisions and they know how to extract the maximum amount of talent from what they have. And until Schuerholz, Cox, and Mazzone are broken up, they're going to be the team to beat. Darn it.

    Rich: I concur, Jason. The Braves have a competitive advantage as long as those three are on board. However, I'm not sure if I would compare them to the Patriots. New England has won the Super Bowl three times in four years. The Braves, while a dominant team in the division, have only won it all once. It seems to me they are more like the Buffalo Bills of the early-1990s or perhaps the Denver Broncos or Minnesota Vikings from an even earlier period. You know, a team that wins a lot -- and is always right there -- but just unable to win the big one.

    Bryan: Yes, while the Braves are constantly lauded (and deservingly so) for their dominance, it almost goes unnoticed that the Marlins have won more World Championships than the Braves during this period. I mean, in the last six years the Mets and Braves are tied in World Series appearances. Is this a case of, as Billy Beane would say, the well-run Braves not having their **** work in the playoffs? Or, is there some flaw in their construction?

    Brad: This is always a difficult question for me to answer as a Braves fan. We've done it with pitching, we've done it with hitting, but the overwhelming majority of the time, we fail to get it done in the playoffs, and there is no one specific reason why. There is some talk that since the Braves usually win the division by a comfortable margin they aren't as "up" for the playoffs as some of the other teams who fought down to the wire, but you can't exactly quantify that. When the Braves won the World Series in 1995, they won the East by 21 games - the largest margin of any season during the run.

    Jason: Sometimes bad things happen to good teams. Sometimes bad things happen to good teams again and again. And sometimes you just can't explain it. The Braves are unlucky in that the playoff structure changed in the middle of their run, giving them an added opponent and added opportunity for an upset.

    Rich: Well, to their credit, the Braves have at least put themselves in a position to win every year since before President Clinton was in office. Four presidential elections, three different presidents, and one NL East champion. Amazing!

    Brad: So, who is going to take the title from them this season? I think the Marlins have a great shot, especially after signing Carlos Delgado.

    Rich: Brad, I like the Marlins a lot this year. Is there a better one-two punch in the division than Delgado and Miguel Cabrera? If Josh Beckett and AJ Burnett can stay healthy all year, this is the team to beat. I think they have the right blend of hitting, pitching, and defense, as well as proven veterans and players on the verge of blowing up.

    Jason: The Marlins lineup is going to be a monster but Rich is right in that their key is really the rotation, not only the youngsters but the good Senator as well. I said last year that it would be a huge mistake if the Mets resigned Al Leiter and he's done nothing this spring to prove me wrong; 13 walks in 16 innings with an ERA of 9.00 -- I'd be shocked if his ERA was under 4.50 this year.

    Bryan: Leiter was definitely an odd sign, I mean, are the Marlins just trying to ensure him as a color commentator when he retires? It seems like my Cubs, there are some health concerns up and down this rotation. If Beckett, Burnett and Leiter make 90 starts, this is a good team.

    Rich: Yes, and it will be even better if Beckett and Burnett can make 65 of those 90 starts. Leiter's DIPS ERA was 50% higher than his actual ERA last year. He averaged one more pitch per inning than everbody else in the majors last year. The guy will be 40 on his next birthday. Did I mention he was responsible for trading Scott Kazmir?

    Brad: Florida does have some lingering health questions. Even Juan Pierre may miss a little time early on.

    Bryan: What seems odd to me is the exposure some of these teams have received this offseason, except that it was all quiet on the Phillie front. The projection systems love this team, and Ed Wade needs to put a winner out there soon or he'll get the axe.

    Jason: Honestly, I think the Phillies have a decent shot, and I really think their signing of Jon Lieber was one of the steals of the offseason.

    Brad: The Phillies lineup is very impressive, especially if Pat Burrell carries his big spring into the season. But as good as the Lieber signing was, there is no stopper in that rotation. That worries me a bit in a ballpark like Citizens Bank.

    Jason: The Mets still need another year to grow...and a bullpen.

    Brad: I like what the Mets did this offseason, but I do agree with Jason that they need one more season to fine-tune.

    Rich: To me, New York is the biggest wild card in the division. If everything goes their way, I don't think it is out of the realm of possibilities for the Mets to win more games than the Yankees this year. I wouldn't want to bet on it, but I think they could just well be the toast of the town come October.

    Jason: You're absolutely right, Rich. I'm being very cautious in my predictions for the Mets this year, but I haven't been this excited about a team since the late '80s. Jose Reyes is finally healthy, looks absolutely fabulous and, even though he still doesn't walk, he's been taking more pitches this spring and has greatly reduced his strikeouts. And he's still only 21. He's my sleeper breakout candidate for the division...anyone else?

    Bryan: Reyes is definitely a good one. I saw him in the second half of 2003 and fell in love with him.

    Rich: How about David Wright? Does he count or did he break out in just a half season last year?

    Bryan: Gavin Floyd is someone I think could make a huge difference and should get more Rookie of the Year hype than he does.

    Brad: I'm not really sold on Gavin Floyd as a difference maker in Philly. I know he has been around a while, but I think people have forgotten just how good A.J. Burnett was when healthy. Comeback player of the year?

    Jason: Comeback player? How about Raul Mondesi under Bobby Cox?

    Brad: It's a strange fit, but signing Mondesi to a 1 yr/$1 million contract is really a no lose situation. He either toes the company line in the clubhose and on the field, or Bobby will jettison him at the first opportunity. I think he will be a pleasant surprise from a production standpoint.

    Bryan: This organizations seems really untrusting of Ryan Langerhans, who I think could be better than both Brian Jordan and Mondesi out there. Mondesi and Jordan could just be fighting for one spot when one of the two big blue chippers is ready.

    Brad: As much as I am fine with the Mondesi signing, I really don't understand the fascination with Jordan. Langerhans is a good bet to outproduce Jordan over the course of the season, but Jordan looks to be the opening day starter. Maybe Schuerholz is making up for trading him to the Dodgers?

    Rich: I'm not real big on the prospects for 34- and 38-year-olds coming off leg injuries myself. They're nothing more than cheap imitations of Gary Sheffield and J.D. Drew.

    Jason: I was pretty surprised to see Jeff Francoeur cut so early. Is he not ready yet?

    Bryan: Prior to Spring Training, Scheurholz had lots of quotes boasting Francoeur and how he might be more ready than Marte. He's not at all ready in my mind and would need a big change in plate discipline to make me think otherwise. Marte is ready, and Chipper should go back to left, in my opinion.

    Brad: Francoeur's definitely not ready yet. I think a full season at Double-A will do him wonders. As far as Marte goes, I agree with Bryan.

    Bryan: And while we are talking about breakout players, let me mention Adam LaRoche. Few had higher slugging percentages in the second half last year.

    Brad: I was a big LaRoche supporter prior to last season - I'm glad he made me look good!

    Jason: LaRoche could have a monster year -- he and having a healthy full year of Marcus Giles, who absolutely slaughtered the Mets last year, is a big reason why I'm not too down on the Braves' offense. They still won't quite make up for the loss of Drew's production, though.

    Bryan: Well, I think the offense will be good, albeit a step down from last season. What should take a step up, however, is the starting rotation.

    Rich: I'm sure Braves fans are hoping that Tim Hudson will be another Greg Maddux in Atlanta. The drop in his strikeout rate is a bit worrisome but, otherwise, he and Maddux are about as similar as two pitchers could be. John Smoltz adds intrigue, if not innings.

    Bryan: The group had a 3.84 ERA last season, and while they lost Jaret Wright, Paul Byrd and Russ Ortiz, I think you could say Hudson and Smoltz are mighty fine improvements.

    Jason: The question is how many innings can Smoltz give you? 150? 170? 200?

    Brad: Smoltz is the key to the season in my opinion. If he misses any significant time, I think the trickle down effect could be costly. I'm hoping for at least 170.

    Bryan: Or then you could say Kyle Davies will become very, very important. He could be one of those midseason call-ups that helps propel a team. Atlanta loves him.

    Brad: Since he was kept this past offseason over Jose Capellan and Dan Meyer, I would have to agree. He would be the first one called up if any of the starters were injured.

    Jason: BP was kind of down on him this year, especially his mechanics.

    Bryan: I think there already is a trickle down effect from Smoltz leaving: the bullpen. The team loses more than 150 innings of 2.75 ERA with the exit of Smoltz and Juan Cruz. That's tough to replace.

    Jason: Danny Kolb has some big shoes to fill. While I think he'll be a servicable closer, he's definitely a downgrade from Smoltz.

    Rich: If Kolb comes through this year, then Leo Mazzone should go straight to Cooperstown.

    Brad: The bullpen has been a patchwork job over the past few seasons anyway, but the one constant had been Smoltz. The Braves could be in for some interesting late-inning situations on the mound.

    Bryan: So Kolb, Smoltz and Mondesi/Jordan are the keys for the Braves?

    Brad: That's it in a nutshell. For me, it's mostly Kolb and Smoltz. I think the offense will be OK.

    Jason: Sounds good to me --I'm a little warier of the offense but then I really didn't expect much out of Johnny Estrada last year, either.

    Rich: Put me in the skeptical camp overall. While I expect Mazzone to continue rocking on the bench this year, I don't see Jordan or Mondesi doing any rocking at all.

    Bryan: While they have downgraded in offense, I agree they will be fine there.

    Rich: They will be fine if the Joneses don't regress any further and if LaRoche hits like he did in the second half last year rather than the first.

    Bryan: The Mets are a team that improved their offense a ton. Who will score more runs, the Braves or the Mets?

    Brad: Good question, and I'm going to have to go with the Mets. They look better than the Braves 1 thru 8.

    Jason: Whoof, that's a toughie. The Mets have so many issues and so many health problems, it's really hard to say. To be better than the Braves, Reyes and Wright need to improve; Mike Piazza, Mike Cameron, and Cliff Floyd all have to be healthy; and Matsui needs to adjust. That's a lot to go right.

    Bryan: Yikes, that is a lot. Wright was their best hitter in the second half last year and -- barring a sophomore slump -- he'll be dynamite.

    Jason: I think Wright could be one of the best position players the Mets have ever had. And I think he'll be this team's leader in three years, even with Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. He has no pressure on him this year either with those two around.

    Bryan: Well, I'm not sure that's true. There is pressure on the 25th man in New York, no matter how many stars fill up 1-24. But less pressure is true, I think.

    Jason: I guess what I'm trying to say is that Reyes was looked upon as a savior two years ago and then became really frustrated when he got injured. No one is really talking that way about Wright this year, thanks to the offseason signings.

    Brad: From what I have seen of Wright in interviews, he seems to have an air of calmness around him. I think he is going to thrive for the Mets, pressure or not.

    Bryan: How about Beltran? This is a guy that thrived in the spotlight last October, and got to pick the big market this offseason. Is he going to take the step he took in the playoffs full-time?

    Rich: Nobody can do what Beltran did last October on a full-time basis. He is a great player -- a complete player -- but, other than his batting average, I don't look for him to improve upon his numbers from last year one iota. Remember, he's going from a hitter's park in Houston to a pitcher's park in New York.

    Jason: Shea will hurt his power numbers but he's going to steal a lot of bases under Willie Randolph.

    Brad: That playoff performance was unbelievable, but to ask for that much would be unfair to Beltran. He is a star, no doubt, but savior may be a little more than he can handle.

    Bryan: I think he'll stay the player he was in KC, not turn into the super-superstar he was depicted to be in Houston.

    Jason: He's been surprising -- a lot more media friendly than everyone expected and the NY media has had nothing but good things to say about him.

    Bryan: And then there is savior #2, my third-round pick in fantasy baseball this year, Pedro Martinez. Peter Gammons has beaten into our heads that Pedro is more of a horse than people make him out to be, and I think he could be a better signing than Carlos. With Shea, an ERA of 3.00 would shock me.

    Brad: Pedro really should thrive in Shea, but how deep will he go into games, and will the bullpen be able to pick up the slack? I need to see more before I buy into the "horse" argument.

    Rich: I'd call Pedro a horse, of course. A talking horse. Get this, at 106 pitches per start, Pedro was among the leaders last year. In fact, he had the third-highest pitch count of his career and the most since 1998.

    Jason: No DH. No Fenway. No Yankees (well, fewer Yankees). Pedro's been lights out so far this spring and I wouldn't be surprised to see him vie for the NL Cy Young this year. He's been great with the media so far as well.

    Bryan: OK, with a Braves and a Mets guy both on board, who is better this season, Hudson or Pedro. I'm going to cop out and say they finish with the exact same ERA, around 2.60. Hudson will have more innings, Pedro more strikeouts, and the bogus win stat total determines the Cy Young.

    Brad: Brutal question. Hudson will have more wins, but Pedro will have better numbers overall. How's that for a hedge?

    Jason: Woof. I'm going to go out on a limb and say Pedro -- better all round.

    Brad: I'm taking Pedro in a Cy Young race though.

    Rich: Hmmm. Not only did I convince Brad that Pedro was a horse, he's now talking in terms of Martinez being a thoroughbred.

    Bryan: Good, that softens my fantasy concerns. The problem Pedro might have, as Brad mentioned, is whether the bullpen can pick up the slack. That ain't Keith Foulke saving games for him.

    Jason: The bullpen could be better than people think and Heath Bell has been looking downright filthy this year. He could end up being the set up man we've been looking for.

    Bryan: Ah Bell, the official pitcher of MetsGeek. I agree he's good, but will Willie trust him?

    Jason: I do think Willie will trust him. He seems like he's going to play around with the bullpen until he finds the right mix. Willie's really impressed me so far this year. He's run a great camp.

    Brad: Bell seems to have earned whatever trust he needed this spring, and I imagine Willie will get more comfortable with his role as the season progresses, as Jason suggests.

    Bryan: Well we've been pretty positive on the Mets across the board, but Jason and Brad both mentioned earlier they need another year. Why is that?

    Jason: Too many things have to go right for them to take the division. Youngsters need experience, health issues need to be addressed, and we need another year to let the farm system recover from last year's purging. By next year, we should also know what we have in Petit and Humber.

    Brad: I think the back end of the rotation needs a little work, as does the bullpen. Plus, with two new star players and a new manager in the Big Apple, there are liable to be a few growing pains. Look out in 2006 though.

    Rich: I don't disagree with the prevailing logic at all, but I'm still of the mindset that if the stars and planets are aligned, this is a team that could take this division and maybe go deep into the playoffs.

    Bryan: OK, we've talked about the two new New York stars. But Miami, as they soon will be called, landed their largest sports star since Shaq this winter. Another tough question, who has more VORP, Beltran or Delgado?

    Rich: I have no doubt that Carlos will win out here.

    Jason: Whoa! We must be at IHOP, 'cause those waffles sure smell delicious! Seriously, I think it depends on how much their home parks hurt them; Pro Player is brutal on lefties. I expect them to be about the same. Delgado's in the better lineup, though.

    Bryan: The difference was 2.4 in favor of Beltran last season, which isn't much at all. But Delgado has struggled all spring, has to play first every day, and goes to a tough park. Beltran is my pick.

    Brad: I think Beltran as well. He is a safer bet to not suffer a dropoff after switching leagues in my opinion.

    Rich: Delgado could out-VORP Beltran, but the latter is likely to out-WARP the former. Translation: Delgado may outhit Beltran, but Beltran will be the more valuable player when viewed in the context of their positions and defensive contributions.

    Bryan: Do the Marlins have a better lineup, Jason? Middle of the order, we are talking about Beltran-Piazza-Floyd-Wright vs. Cabrera-Delgado-Lowell-LoDuca.

    Jason: Well, it looks like it's going to be Beltran-Piazza-Floyd-Cameron if Willie has his way (he's spoken openly about batting Wright eighth). Wright may force him to change his mind though. The key is having a bounce back year from Piazza -- we really need him to play 130+ games for the lineup to click.

    Bryan: At full strength, he is definitely the best catcher in the division.

    Rich: I don't know if he's the best catcher, but he certainly can be the best hitter among these backstops.

    Bryan:...he doesn't beat out Lo Duca in terms of the public's favorite, that's for sure. When oh when will Lo Duca start to let them down? I've been predicting it for years.

    Rich: Piazza and LoDuca were both favorites in Los Angeles and fans are still muttering under their breath about losing both of them.

    Jason: I'm certainly crossing my fingers for failure this year.

    Brad: I don't think quite yet...

    Bryan: Another player on this team with a lot of good publicity is Miguel Cabrera. What I find interesting is that Cabrera comps well with Andruw Jones, and David Wright does with Cabrera. Is this, offensively speaking, a like group?

    Jason: I think it's too soon to tell -- Cabrera and Wright are still so young. And Wright hasn't even had a full season yet.

    Brad: Somewhat. Wright may hit for a higher average than the other two in the long run, but Jones and Cabrera may hit for more power. I think it is still to early to tell on Wright.

    Rich: I see Cabrera being more like a Manny Ramirez than an Andruw Jones, both in terms of offensive potential and defensive position. Wright? He's the second coming of Scott Rolen.

    Jason: I still can't believe that Jones is only 27. He's had a monster spring, too.

    Bryan: I think Cabrera is actually the most talented hitter of the group, and his comparisons are scary-good. Like Rich said, Delgado-Cabrera is a sweet, sweet 1-2 punch. Beckett and Burnett could be, too. The flaw is the depth of this team, for sure. Can a team with so little on the bench, a fringe back-end of the rotation and decent bullpen win a division crown?

    Jason: I think so -- they may just end up pounding everyone into submission. I do think the bullpen is a big question. As down as Mets fans are on Armando Benitez, he had a dominant season for the Fish last year. I don't know how consistent Mota will be in that role.

    Brad: I think they have a shot - health permitting of course.

    Rich: I think they have more than a shot. I'd go out on a limb and say they are the big shots in the division this year.

    Jason: I think the Phillies will be very good. Their lineup is super scary (especially with the Met killer Pat Burrell back on track), Billy Wagner is healthy to head up the pen, and their rotation is solid, unspectacular but solid. Would anyone take Abreu-Thome-Burrell over Cabrera-Delgado-Lowell? I think I would.

    Rich: Ahh, Thome and Abreu. I think you just answered my earlier question, Jason. Thome is every bit as good as Delgado, if not better, and Abreu is a more productive player at this stage than Cabrera. Burrell? He killed my fantasy team two years ago, just as I thought he was about to turn into Greg Luzinski, circa 1975-1978. Little did I know he was nothing more than Glenn Wilson.

    Bryan: Glenn Wilson? Man, you're harsh. Greg Vaughn is more like it, which means that Pat the Bat could still have his best years in front of him. I think that's true, and if his best year is 2005, the Phillies probably become the division favorite. I'm also interested in knowing what version of Jimmy Rollins is the real one.

    Rich: Well, if you want another 1970s reference, Rollins reminds me of Garry Templeton and Templeton went into the toilet at about the stage where Rollins is now. Of course, Garry may have brought it on himself, if you know what I mean?

    Jason: Yeah, would the real Jimmy Rollins please stand up, please stand up, please stand up? And then there's the whole Polanco-Utley question to address. Regardless of who starts, the Phillies were wise to keep the unhappy Polanco since he anchors what could be a very deep bench with Todd Pratt, Ryan Howard, and Jason Michaels.

    Brad: I expect Rollins to continue more along the lines of last season, as opposed to the 02 /03 version. He and Abreu are the catalysts to a strong lineup which shouldn't have any problems scoring runs. But it's not the Phillies offense I am concerned with -it's their starting rotation that gives me pause. 2004 ERA+ for this years projected rotation: Lieber 104, Randy Wolf 102, Vicente Padilla 96, Cory Lidle 84, Brett Myers 79. I really don't see much room for improvement in 2005.

    Bryan: Well, Randy Wolf was truly on the verge of stardom before an injury has turned him into average. Padilla and Myers just have not progressed since reaching the Majors. Lieber and Lidle are innings-eaters that best serve as third or fourth starters. Ed Wade's "safe" 2004-2005 offseason -- one where Randy Johnson, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder all were traded -- should eventually lead to his firing.

    Rich: I would take issue with how you categorized some of the Phillie pitchers and the Big Unit certainly wasn't going to approve a trade to Philadelphia. As far as Hudson goes, the Phillies apparently didn't want to give Oakland any of their young arms. Mulder? He was a good pitcher prior to the second half of last year, but I would not have paid up for him at this point in his career and contract.

    Jason: Well, let's not forget Gavin Floyd who seems to be slated to be the #5 starter given Myers' struggles. Also, the player on the Phillies who impressed me the most last year was Ryan Madson. He held batters to a .631 OPS in that ballpark and had nasty stuff against the Mets. If he sets up for Wagner, that's a pretty good 1-2 punch picking up where the rotation left off.

    Brad: As down as I have been on the Phillies rotation, the Nationals are in much worse shape in that department. Livan Hernandez is as solid as they come, but there is not much substance after that. Loaiza looks like a fluke, Tony Armas is already back on the DL, Tomo Ohka could be decent, and Zach Day is your standard issue #5. Are they going to end up anywhere but the basement with this starting five?

    Bryan: Well, I'm going to say that the rotation is improved. What they are losing are the near 40 starts made by Scott Downs, Claudio Vargas, Shawn Hill, Rocky Biddle and T.J. Tucker. That's 180 innings of a 6.35 ERA. Besides that group, the starters had a 4.07 ERA last year. I think Day and John Patterson could both surprise, and this rotation won't be awful.

    Rich: Addition by subtraction, huh? That's fine as long as Washington's starters are blessed with good health this year. Otherwise, Frank Robinson's hair is going to turn totally gray by the end of the summer. I mean, this is a team that has a few good players here and there but absolutely no depth. Realistically, I just don't see how they can compete in this division.

    Jason: Rich is absolutely right and, it's sad to say, but Omar Minaya is largely responsible for the lack of depth since he traded most of the farm system away while he was in charge. Granted he was operating under some severe constraints but right now Mike Hinkley is really one of the only quality prospects left. They need some major rebuilding, and I don't mean Cristian Guzman or Vinny Castilla.

    Bryan: On the contrary, the rotation is the one place with some depth. When Armas returns the club will have 6 starters (who Brad mentioned plus Patterson), which doesn't include Jon Rauch and Mike Hinckley. They will be OK there. But I agree that after Brad Wilkerson, Jose Guillen, and Jose Vidro, the offense is quite lacking.

    Rich: Yeah, the only good acquisition Jim Bowden made was the one on his arm walking around with him at the Winter Meetings.

    Jason: One question I have is what do we expect from Nick the Stick this year? He's been healthy so far this spring but reportedly tinkering with his batting stance. They need him to bounce back somewhere between the .894 OPS he posted with the Yanks in 2003 and the .757 he posted last year.

    Brad: It's not saying very much, but trading for Jose Guillen was Bowden's best move in a rather poor offseason. Imagine what this offense would look like without him in the heart of the order. I've all but given up hope on Nick Johnson. He is an OBP machine, but has yet to have a 400 at-bat season in the major leagues. He is only 26 though, so maybe he will stay off the DL one of these years.

    Rich: You mean, Nick the Walking Stick? I don't know. Tom McCraw sounds like a bigger head case than Johnson. According to the batting coach who never could hit a lick, you've got three changes -- psychological, physical, and mental. Stay with me now, he then goes on to say that "you've got to get him mechanically to where you want him, then you got to get him comfortable in that slot, and then you go to work on the head -- knowing what you want to do." Got that?

    Brad: Being a former assistant golf professional, I can relate to what McCraw is saying, but I disagree with it. Plus, it makes my head hurt. Be it the golf swing or the baseball swing, simpler is always better. Don't think - just hit. That said, you can overhaul a swing, but it is going to take years, not months, to click.

    Rich: OK, I think it is high time that we get inside everyone's head to find out how you think it's all going to play out this year.

    Jason: Atlanta, Phillies, Mets, Marlins, Nats (with the Phils, Fish, and Mets all lumped together).

    Brad: 1. Braves 2. Marlins 3. Mets 4. Phillies 5. Nationals. I think the top three teams could finish within 5 games of each other.

    Bryan: I'll say Braves, Mets, Phillies, Marlins, Nats, though I think Washington might look good early.

    Rich: All right, guys. I guess I'm the contrarian in the group. I say Marlins, Braves, Mets, Phillies, and Nationals. However, I wouldn't be surprised if any of my top four teams took the division. The Nats may win at the box office but that may be short-lived if they don't wind up putting a better product on the field sooner rather than later.

    The Braves are the consensus choice to win yet another divisional title. There is no agreement on which team will finish second. Three out of four see the Mets ending up in third place although Jason and Rich both think they could be the sleeping giant in the NL East. There is unanimity among the panelists that the Nationals will wind up in the cellar -- a familiar home for Washington ballclubs.

    Please join us next week when we ask all twelve of our Two on Two guests for their World Series, MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year selections. Don't be surprised if we deliver a few more "fun" categories as well.

    Baseball Beat/WTNYMarch 23, 2005
    Two on Two: AL East Preview
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    The Two on Two series moves cross country from the west coast to the east coast. The AL and NL Central and the AL and NL West were the warmup acts. In week number five, we bring you the AL East, starring the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and their three backup singers.

    Patrick Sullivan of The House That Dewey Built and Cliff Corcoran of Bronx Banter join us this week to preview (review?) the division that, to some, is the only one that matters.

    Rich Lederer: When anyone mentions the AL East, it is only normal to think of the Yankees and Red Sox or the Red Sox and Yankees. Are the Orioles, Devil Rays, and Blue Jays destined to finish behind New York and Boston forever and ever?

    Patrick Sullivan: Good question. For now, Baltimore is the best of the lot but unlikely to catch either team because they are old and have little coming down the pike in the form of young talent. They'll run out of time. Toronto seems forward thinking and all, but I need to see some results. God help Tampa Bay.

    Intuitively, the answer to your question is "of course not." Someday, one of the other three will win the division. Right now, however, it's tough to see when.

    Cliff Corcoran: I really thought Toronto was going to make some waves last year based on their 2003 performance and the mindset of their front office, but they fell very far very fast and have way too much ground to make up. I do not have any faith in the Orioles putting together a pitching rotation any time soon and agree with Sully that their key players won't last until they do. I think they've been routinely overrated in pre-season predictions in recent years. It's becoming a pet peeve of mine.

    I agree with Sully. Not any time soon. O's, Jays, Rays, but a ways back from the Newston Yank Sox.

    Bryan Smith: No. Whether it takes a labor stoppage and a salary cap to change things, I don't know. But it won't keep happening. I actually think the Yankees could be in a funk in the coming years. They will be fine this season but in 2006, 2007 or 2008, they will be shelling out a lot of money for what's just not a ton of performance. At some point writing another check just won't be enough, and some creativity will need to be involved. Boston should be fine for quite some time, just maybe not the Yanks.

    Cliff: There's something to that, but the Yankees' doom has been foretold for the past three or four seasons and they have yet to do as poorly as the Wild Card. I don't have much faith in their decision making, and it seems they've finally reached their luxury tax threshold, but I'm thisclose to putting them in the Braves' category of I'll-believe-their-demise-when-I-see-it. The thing about how the Yankees do business is that you can't predict three years from now because it's not about who's on the team now or in the minors. So who knows?

    Sully: Cliff makes a good point in that many have been predicting New York's demise for some time now. But while previous offseason moves could probably be characterized as "sub-optimal," I think they made some moves this offseason that were patently dumb. I have a feeling that the combo of their inability to accurately identify areas of need along with an apparent disregard of their farm system may start to be problematic.

    Rich: Well, I think it comes down to George. Is he willing to eat bad contracts? Will he continue to authorize high-profile free agent signings? Heck, will George even be around in a few more years? If the answer is "no" to any of these questions, I think Yankee fans may need to face reality and recognize the dynasty of the past decade is not a birthright.

    Sully: As for George, it's hard to say whether he's an asset or a liability at this point. There seems to be such a pressure-filled environment in that front office that sober reasoning is all but impossible.

    Cliff: The last part of that is my exact reaction to Rich's comment. While there is a tendency for both Yankee fans and baseball fans in general to attribute the Yankees' best moves to Brian Cashman and their worst moves to King George, I do believe that it's nearly impossible for a general manager, be it Cashman, Billy Beane, or Branch-freakin'-Rickey, to execute a sound team-building strategy under Steinbrenner and his cronies. When Steinbrenner goes, the Yankees will likely suffer greatly due to a strict reduction in payroll, but they will also be able to hire (or retain, if Cashman's still sane) a general manager who can do as well with less by building a team rather than hitting a player pinata with a money stick.

    Rich: Even though we all know that New York and Boston have been the dominant teams in the AL East for some time now, I'm still struck by the fact that the Yankees and Red Sox have finished first and second, respectively, seven years in a row. Has this ever happened in the history of the game?

    Cliff: That's actually a pretty easy question to answer. How many teams have finished first seven years in a row other than the current Yankees? Answer: Just one. The Atlanta Braves, ten years in a row from 1995-2004. Who were the second place teams during that span? In order, Mets, Expos, Marlins, Mets, Mets, Mets, Phillies, Expos, Marlins, Phillies. So no.

    The AL East finished Yanks-Sox-Jays-O's-Rays from 1998 to 2003. The streak was finally broken last year when the Blue Jays fouled things up by being destroyed by injuries and general ungoodness.

    Sully: We in Boston are getting along just fine without a division crown...

    Cliff: Doing as well as the Braves, that's for sure. Speaking of which, the fascinating thing about the Braves' winning their division 10 years in a row (13 if you toss out the strike year and go back to '91), is that they have fewer World Championships over that stretch than the Marlins, who also play in their division and have thus never finished first.

    The last three World Champions have been Wild Card teams. Though it's worth noting that the Red Sox did win 98 games and the 2002 Angels won 99. If only there was a Wild Card in 1954.

    Sully: In seriousness, I think a division title is probably a real motivator for Boston this year. SABR types will tell you that baseball is a game meant to be played out over the long haul and the Yankees have done that better than the Sox now nine years running. A World Series victory, while an exhilarating accomplishment, doesn't quite feel whole without a division crown. I would guess that, to a man, Theo et al share this sentiment.

    Cliff: I admire your honesty, but after 86 years. . .the Sox did beat the Yankees head-to-head (even if the series was basically dead even, just in a really freakish way). That said, as a Yankee fan, it's nice to know that the division crown holds some significance in RSN.

    Bryan: Boston has got a lot of New York in the past year, but now they want to strip everything from the Yankees. It reminds me of Denzel Washington's character in "Man on Fire," they simply won't stop until all bragging rights are gone from the Big Apple.

    Cliff: I imagine this year will be much like the last two. I'm not convinced that either team was meaningfully better than the other in either of the last two years. And I'm not sure I could be convinced that anything has changed this year. It will likely come down to injuries, decisions made by the manager and general manager (I believe that Joe Torre cost the Yankees last year's ALCS by failing to explore his roster options in September), and a simple case of who has the last hot streak.

    Rich: Although the Yankees won more games last year, the Red Sox smoked 'em in runs scored and runs allowed. Boston won as many games as one would expect, while the Yankees won 12 more than its Pythagorean record would have suggested. As such, despite the fact that New York won the division, maybe Boston was the better team all along.

    Sully: I think the roster the Sox put together at the outset of last year was a one of historical significance, capable of winning well over 105 games. Three factors made the team merely excellent. Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe badly underperformed reasonable expectations, and Trot Nixon missed a lot of time. But the team that played from about August 10th through the end of October was one of the best teams of the last decade and pretty clearly better than the Yanks if you ask me.

    Cliff: That's an unfair comparison. By August Paul Quantrill and Javy Vazquez were cooked, and Jason Giambi was appearing on more milk cartons than baseball cards. By September, Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera were seriously winded, Gary Sheffield had gotten about all that was possible out of his torn shoulder, and Kevin Brown was shaking hands with the clubhouse wall. That's nearly one third of the Yankee roster in bad-to-awful shape. Had all of those men stayed healthy and performed on par with their abilities, the Yankees could have won 110 games last year (which was what I predicted for them prior to the season).

    Rich: Woulda, coulda, shoulda...

    Cliff: if the Red Sox, at full strength, were one of the best teams of the last decade (a decade which included the 114-win '98 Yankees and the 116-win '01 Mariners, by the way), you'd have to list last year's Yankees with or ahead of them. Except it doesn't work that way. It's a 162-game season for a reason.

    Rich: Well, speaking of a 162-game season, we're less than two weeks from Opening Day. Who has the better roster this year?

    Bryan: My thinking is that the Red Sox have the better lineup for sure. The Yankees lineup is full of people who will be declining with age, and of course, Tony Womack. Boston's lineup doesn't suffer so many holes.

    Cliff: Is there a huge difference between "who has the better roster" and "which is the better team?" I really think these teams are very even. I give you the Red Sox lineup by a hair, but I like the Yankee pen. The rotations are pretty even if the Yanks can keep theirs healthy (though the Sox are the ones with two men on the DL). Sox win on bench, even on defense. I'd say it's even.

    Sully: Boston. While both teams are supremely talented, both teams carry considerable risks and, therefore, both will likely rely a fair amount on their respective benches, for better or worse. Boston's bench represents the largest advantage for either club, followed by New York's bullpen.

    Bryan: Yes, the bench is impressive. It seems that Theo really focuses on building a deep team, while the Yanks are more top heavy. A 162-game season has to favor the former philosophy.

    Sully: Absolutely. Theo is relentless in his pursuit of a complete roster. Jay Payton is an enormous upgrade over Gabe Kapler, as is Ramon Vazquez over Pokey Reese. Doug Mirabelli is probably the 15th best catcher in baseball or so. And boy, do I hope Roberto Petagine returns healthy.

    Bryan: Yes, Petagine could be a fantastic signing. His numbers in Japan were .317/.446/.633, and even given the tailoff last season, he's not far from Hideki Matsui when he left the Far East.

    Rich: Hideki is primed for a monster season or maybe I should say a Godzilla season.

    Cliff: Taking a closer look, I give you Mirabelli, but Vazquez and Payton don't really wow me. I don't know jack about Petagine, but I do know that if Steve Karsay helps Andy Phillips to a roster spot the Yanks could be in much, much better shape on the bench than you might think. He can play 3B/1B/2B and hit with power and patience.

    Sully: Payton has a career .285/.335/.443 line. How's the Bombers 4th outfielder looking? Bench players aren't meant to wow, but if they're average, that'll get you somewhere.

    Rich: I think Payton is a very capable fourth outfielder. He's better than what he showed in the pitcher's ballparks in New York and San Diego and not as good as he appeared to be in the extreme hitter's park in Colorado.

    Bryan: OK, I am going to agree that Flaherty, Phillips, Sanchez, Crosby and Sierra don't really compete. But my question, Cliff, is what's more important, bench or bullpen?

    Cliff: Bullpen, no question. Consider it a lesson learned from last year. The Yankees had a great top of the pen, but nothing to support it and distribute work. That's what cost them the ALCS, and they won the division and almost won the ALCS without any bench to speak of. This in a year when they lost Giambi almost completely.

    Sully: Well, Kenny Lofton was on the bench. Or was he?

    Cliff: Lofton was on the bench last year, Sully, and that points to one problem with the Yankee bench that's larger than the players sitting on it: how Joe Torre uses it. Which is to say, he doesn't. Lofton got on his bad side and, thus, despite the fact that the Yanks really needed him to spell Bernie in center with regularity, he got buried in favor of Ruben Sierra at DH and Bernie in center, which was just awful. They gave away 50 points of OBP every time they played Sierra over Lofton and who knows how many runs on defense (not that Lofton was great shakes but Bernie is a disaster out there now).

    Rich: I wouldn't look for a repeat of what the Yankees got out of the bullpen last year. As much as I like Mariano Rivera, he's 35 years old and I would look for his numbers to worsen at least a tad. Tom Gordon was worked extremely hard last year and, in fact, his numbers suffered in the second half as well as in the playoffs. So, while the Yanks' pen might be better than the Red Sox, I think the gap may not be as wide as generally believed.

    Sully: As for the pens, the Sox could make up the entire difference with a healthy Matt Mantei. "Healthy Mantei" is oxymoronic-sounding I know, but possible. But Keith Foulke is every bit as good as Rivera, and Mike Timlin and Alan Embree aren't that much worse than Quantrill and Gordon.

    Bryan: Not quite sure that's accurate, but I see where you're coming from, Sully.

    Sully: The Sox, by mid-May, will have six above-average starters. That will push a very good pitcher into the pen, thereby strengthening it. John Halama, too, has been excellent in relief the last three seasons.

    Rich: Bronson Arroyo, for example, could be incredibly effective in the more highly leveraged situations before turning the ball over to Foulke in the eighth or ninth inning.

    Bryan: Also, a quick look at the numbers tells that the Red Sox pen was 56 runs better last year. For the Yankees to make up all that and then some, it might be asking a lot.

    Cliff: You have to remember some of the disasters that made their way through the Yankee pen last year: Felix Heredia, Gabe White, Donovan Osborne, Esteban Loaiza . . .plus ungoodness like Prinz & Proctor and then there was the fact that Quantrill melted like a piece of cheese after the All-Star break. But Sully's right. We shouldn't underestimate the Boston pen. I think Gordon makes a huge difference, though.

    Bryan: So what about the rotations? My thinking is that Wade Miller and Jaret Wright are the difference makers there. Can Wade be the midseason acquisition Peter Gammons keeps boasting of, and can Jaret not sustain the negative Mazzone effect?

    Sully: I just don't see any reasonable way to project anything all that great for Wright while I think Miller ought to contribute 20 solid starts. The comparison gets us back to the depth question, though. If Miller contributes nothing the Sox still have a good-to-great rotation. If Wright stinks then its WOTS (Worcester's own Tanyon Sturtze) time in the Bronx!!

    Cliff: Actually, I'm liking what the Yanks are seeing from (and doing with) Chien-Ming Wang this spring. I think this kid is ready to be number five if need be. Of course that doesn't work if Brown goes down, too. The Yankee rotation has a wide range of possibilities, but the key is Randy Johnson should rival Johan Santana as the best pitcher in the league. Meanwhile, between Miller, Curt Schilling's still tweaky ankle and the ever back-balky stool-trippy, fight-havey David Wells, the Boston rotation isn't that much of a sure thing.

    Bryan: Well, I think you guys are forgetting the inevitable July trades. I think Boston will shore up their bullpen, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Yanks add a starter and get Soriano back to replace Womack. That would make a big difference.

    Sully: Tough to forecast trades, though it should be noted that the Sox farm system has made great strides. They probably have 5-8 valuable chips now. Other than Wang and Duncan, not sure what the Yanks could offer.

    Cliff: Remember, the Yankees big deadline deal last year was flipping Jose Contreras for Loaiza. I won't factor in deadline deals. And Soriano is never coming back to the Bronx unless he's a 38-year-old Sierra-style pick-up. Though I do hope the Yanks will identify a superfluous reliever and flip him and Womack or Sanchez for Placido Polanco at the deadline.

    Sully: Polanco on the Yanks could tip the balance...

    Bryan: I think Cliff might take his Polanco obsession to the grave. Anyway, both of you have admitted the Red Sox offense will be better. How many runs does the Boston offense have on them? It was 52 last year, mind you.

    Sully: 70...healthy Nixon, SS improvement plus a better bench more than covers for age regression.

    Cliff: I'm gonna say it hangs right about 50 still. Yanks could make up some ground with Giambi contributing and Sheffield healther, but I'll give it a status quo 50. Oh and Tino, even if he doesn't hit much, will tear up the OBP the Yanks got from Clark/Sierra last year.

    Rich: Remember, Cliff, the Yankees had John Olerud for part of last season, too. He could get on base a little.

    Bryan: I'll go with the middle, 60ish. Another good question will be how far is the difference between New York and Baltimore. It was 55 last time, and the Oriole offense is no doubt improved. Will they be an offensive factor?

    Sully: Baltimore is a decent bet to win 85 games, in my opinion. I say the O's score 875, right around the Yanks. Sammy Sosa plus improvement from Luis Matos and Larry Bigbie = significant improvement.

    Cliff: Sosa's replacing Jerry Hairston Jr. plus a chunk of David Newhan. He created 81 runs last year, Hairston 46 and Newhan 64. I give the O's 20 extra runs maybe -- that's assuming Raffy doesn't implode completely and Javy Lopez and Melvin Mora can keep it up. Besides, with their pitching they'll never reach .500.

    Rich: I actually like the Orioles more than most. Although the O's were only 78-84 last year, Baltimore scored more runs than they allowed.

    Sully: According to Davenport's W3% at BP, they were an 86-win team last year. I think they improved. To clarify, I think Matos and Bigbie will improve significantly upon 2004. So will Gibbons.

    Bryan: The question is definitely pitching. I think Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard and Matt Riley are all due for some improvement, though, given last year was essentially all of their rookie seasons. Sidney Ponson and Rodrigo Lopez aren't bad middle-of-the rotation starters, but they have no star. They might be able to put something together for 2006, but that's a ways away.

    Cliff: Ponson is bad.

    Rich: Suffice it to say, the Orioles are all about hitting, not pitching.

    Sully: As I said, they were unlucky last year and have improved. A good way to take some money from your friends will be to get some good odds (4-1, 5-1) and bet the O's to win more than the Yanks.

    Rich: I think the Orioles have a shot at beating out the Yankees but those odds seem a bit on the skimpy side to me.

    Bryan: Well Cliff, what odds would you set?

    Cliff: 50-1? Higher? I just don't see the Orioles being a good baseball team, I'm sorry.

    Rich: 50-1? Now we're talking, Cliff! You and me should talk afterwards.

    Sully: Maybe Rich and I are the only two in the world that like the O's, but I think they have reason for measured optimism for the first time in a while.

    Cliff: They were smart enough to sign Steve Kline (grrrr).

    Bryan: And dumb enough to trade Denny Bautista for Jason Grimsley. But speaking of their management, was the Sosa acquisition a good idea?

    Sully: Yup. Inexpensive and an improvement. That simple.

    Rich: Heck, the Tribune is paying for Sosa to play for Baltimore this year. Granted, the guy's not getting any better -- in fact, his batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging average have declined for three straight years -- but I don't think it's quite time to stick a fork in him. At least not yet.

    Cliff: Yeah, I don't really see the downside. It'll make them money and better in the short term.

    Bryan: As a Cub fan, I can tell you the downside will purely be a political one. The man is not a "pro's pro," but I'm not sure what difference that makes in the W-L column. Given the cheap price, I say good move. And surprisingly enough, that move alone might have made their offseason better than the one in Toronto. Who has the better roster: Toronto or Tampa?

    Rich: I'm not sure. Toronto is an enigma to me. They were 40-41 at home and 27-53 on the road. Will the real Blue Jays please stand up?

    Bryan: The old guy is quoting Eminem. I'm trying to find a way how that compares to the Blue Jays, but I got nothing.

    Cliff: Toronto easy.

    Sully: Toronto. Healthy Roy Halladay, better Miguel Batista, continued good work from Ted Lilly and this team may be ok. David Bush should be good, too.

    Bryan: Yes, that's a lay-up question, I think. I'm a bit concerned about whether there will be enough offense, but I think Tampa has that issue too. Toronto's staff is much more formidable.

    Rich: If Halladay returns to form, the Jays should be better than the Rays this year. However, I don't think it's a given that Toronto will beat out Tampa Bay.

    Cliff: Keep your eye on Russ Adams at short. I liked what I saw from him at the end of last year. Add in Vernon Wells and Corey Koskie, Orlando Hudson is a solid defense-first 2B, Gregg Zaun is a strong-OBP catcher. The Rays' second-best hitter just might be Julio Lugo. Try that on for size.

    Sully: Yikes.

    Rich: Wait a minute now. Aubrey Huff...Carl Crawford...What am I missing here?

    Cliff: Okay, third-best hitter, but mind you that Crawford's career EQA is .254 and Lugo's is .252. Crawford is just 23 and should continue to improve, but I would like to see what he does this year before I commit. (I'm leaving out Rocco Baldelli because he's on the DL.)

    Bryan: How does Chuck Lamar still have a job? Might he have some info on Tampa ownership that he's blackmailing them with?

    Cliff: When Danny Bautista retires and it's a major problem for your team, you know you're in trouble. That said, why they're not giving B.J. Upton a job is beyond me.

    Bryan: I agree completely. He's proven at AAA, and they have very little to lose. Throwing as many youngsters out there as possible, like the late-90s Twins might be a good rebuilding idea. That means Cantu, Gomes, etc.

    Cliff: Gathright, Young . . .totally. Well, Cantu should start, but that's not enough.

    Sully: I agree. I can't wait to see Delmon play.

    Bryan: Not a lot of teams have a 1-4 like Upton, Kazmir, Delmon and Niemann. I really think they do have 2008-2010 potential.

    Cliff: But can they make it happen? Seems unlikely.

    Bryan: Not with current management, that's for sure.

    Rich: If not for being in the AL East, this is a team that would have a decent future.

    Bryan: OK guys, we've hit on it all. I need predictions now, 1-5. I'll start off by saying Red Sox-Yankees-Orioles-Blue Jays-DRays with the Yankees winning the Wild Card. As for Boston, I see Edgar Renteria having a huge playoff until they LOSE in the World Series.

    Cliff: Yanks, Sox, O's, Jays, Rays (of course). Sox Wild Card, sure.

    Sully: Sox-Yanks-O's-Jays-Rays. Sox depth, on the bench and in the rotation, catapults them to a second straight World Series appearence.

    Rich: I second Sully from top to bottom. He'll like to know that I actually think Boston will win by five to ten games. In fact, I think the Yankees will be closer to third place than first.

    Bryan: And Cliff, what do you think will happen in the playoffs?

    Cliff: I'm tempted to say someone not from the East makes the Series, but I'll go with Randy Johnson and Matsui propelling the Yanks there for yucks.

    Well, surprise, surprise. Sully picks the Red Sox and Cliff the Yankees. Who would have thunk? Interestingly, it's the first time in the Two on Two series that our guests have parted ways. On the other hand, Bryan and Rich agree for the first time.

    When you shake it all up though, the Baseball Analysts consensus has the Red Sox winning the division, followed by the Yankees, Orioles, Blue Jays, and Devil Rays. The fact that all of us see eye-to-eye on the third, fourth, and fifth place finishers means you can take it to the bank that the standings won't end up quite that way.

    How do you see the AL East?

    Baseball Beat/WTNYMarch 16, 2005
    Two on Two: NL West Preview
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    After previewing the AL Central, NL Central, and the AL West, the Two on Two series tackles the NL West. Jon Weisman of Dodger Thoughts and John Perricone of Only Baseball Matters join us this week to discuss (in order of finish last year) the Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Rockies, and Diamondbacks.

    Rich Lederer: Arizona and Colorado play home games in ballparks that are two of the three most favorable to hitters in the major leagues. Los Angeles and San Diego, on the other hand, play home games in ballparks that are two of the three most favorable to pitchers. Even San Francisco plays in a pitcher friendly stadium.

    Bill James claims "the lion's share of championships have been won by teams which play in pitcher's parks." Is the ballpark a major factor or is it just a coincidence that the Dodgers, Padres, and Giants are the three favorites to win the division?

    Jon Weisman: Well, to the extent that you believe that the Rockies may never figure out a way to become a consistent winner where they play, it's not a coincidence. But obviously, Arizona has been successful and became so in a very short time, so yeah, I figure that it is a matter of biorhythms and pixie dust that the three pitcher-park teams are favored.

    Bryan Smith: I'm not sure it's just magic for the pitcher-park favoritism, especially considering Colorado. This is simply a club that can't figure out its ballpark and needs a change of scenery. Arizona got by while they were succeeding by using starters that would dominate in Little League stadiums. It seems that the Dodgers, Giants and Padres are better built for their stadiums.

    Jon: I don't expect a significant jump in runs per game because of the shrunken foul territory in Dodger Stadium. This is very oversimplified reasoning, but...I would guess that a given Dodger Stadium game will lose no more than three outs per game on average because of the foul territory. I haven't checked how many foul popouts per game have been recorded at Dodger Stadium, but I can't imagine it's much more than this. The percentage of those outs becoming baserunners should be what, maybe 30 percent (keeping in mind that the batter will have at least one strike on him when he returns to the plate). So one extra baserunner a game? Even if it's sometimes a home run, what impact is that really going to have over the long haul?

    John Perricone: PacBell has a small, treacherous foul territory. Both bullpens occupy the outfield foul ground, meaning there are mounds and usually players in the way. I mean, past first base, there's just about nowhere to go. I doubt that it's as few as one baserunner per game, but it's certainly not five. I think the impact is more along the lines of the added loads on the pitchers and added pressure on the defense.

    The pitcher feels like he never gets an easy out via the foul pop. More foul balls out of play mean longer at-bats, and the defense (especially the ancient mariners in the outfield) -- already playing more towards center as it is -- must feel like they can never get to balls along the lines, let alone in foul territory.

    Bryan: I'm not sure the extra baserunners are as important as the additional pitches. I'm guessing that games in Dodger Stadium last year had (on average) about 5-10 fewer pitches than PacBell or Wrigley. And with more pitches, as John has mentioned, comes added stress.

    John: I guess if you're used to it, there must be some advantage. For visiting clubs, though, I'd bet it's no fun at all.

    Rich: I've been to Petco and it's a big ballpark in terms of distance from home plate to the fences as well as the amount of foul territory. I can't help but think the fact that the California ballparks are at or near sea level is another plus for the pitchers.

    Jon: Well then, all things being equal, how do you like these teams' pitchers?

    Rich: Jason Schmidt is, by far, the best pitcher in the division. He also has two teammates in Noah Lowry and Jerome Williams who could also contribute mightily to the Giants if they can throw 200 innings.

    John: Now that Randy Johnson is with the Yankees, Schmidt is the best pitcher in the NL. There is no doubt that his groin injury late last season cost the Giants the division. Kirk Rueter is having a terrific spring. I could see him having a bounce back season, something along the lines of 180 IP, 12-8 with a 4.00 ERA. That would go a long way towards the Giants efforts at a World Series title. I like the Giants rotation, but even if all of these pitchers do their jobs, I am very worried about the outfield defense. 81 games in a spacious, oddly configured ballpark with three old, old outfielders is going to produce some strange games. As much as Marquis Grissom has been a revelation these last two seasons, I was really pulling for the Giants to go after Mike Cameron, who would have been perfect.

    Rich: I wouldn't put too much stock in Rueter's spring, John.

    Jon: Kirk Rueter's days of defying gravity are over, I think. The sooner the Giants can get him out of their rotation, the better for them.

    Rich: Unlike the Giants and Padres, I don't think the Dodgers have an ace. What they do have though are four quality starters. If Derek Lowe comes up as big as his contract and Brad Penny stays healthy all year, then the Dodgers' staff is every bit as good -- if not better -- than the other teams in the division.

    Bryan: I am positive on Lowe and think that he is going to have a very, very good season. If I'm wrong, will someone blame Studes for me? Also, I should mention if injuries attack, having Edwin Jackson and Chad Billingsley will prove to be a good thing. But I'll admit that it is good to have an ace.

    Rich: Jake Peavy is, in my opinion, the second best pitcher. He won the ERA title last year while dramatically lowering his walk and home run rates and increasing his strikeout rate. Granted, Petco helped him but he was almost as effective on the road as he was at home.

    Jon: The Padre rotation is good, although I think the Padres are kidding themselves if they think Darrell May will solve their problems at number 5. The thing with the Dodger staff is that they should only get better as the season goes on, as the older guys heal and young prospects start to mature.

    Rich: Should Javier Vazquez return to his pre-second half 2004 form, he would easily rank as no worse than the third-best pitcher in the division. Going from Yankee Stadium to the BOB sure isn't going to help him though. Same thing with Russ Ortiz. Shawn Estes actually should benefit, but what does that mean -- going from a nearly 6.00 ERA to closer to 5.00?

    Bryan: I'm a big fan of Jeff Francis and think Colorado will have the best home ERA they have had in awhile. Francis and Jason Jennings are good pitchers, and Joe Kennedy and Jamey Wright have shown sample sizes of success in the high altitude. Throw in a decent bullpen with the solid Chin-Hui Tsao closing, and I look for them to improve on last year's 6.27 home ERA. But, similar to what Rich said, mid-six to mid-five still leaves a lot to be desired.

    John: Well, Bryan, I think it's time to accept the fact that baseball cannot be played at Coors. The park effects are so extreme they are going to send a pretty decent hitter into the Hall of Fame (Todd Helton), while simultaneously destroying just about anybody who pitches there.

    Rich: Turning to the bullpen, as long as Eric Gagne is Eric Gagne, the Dodgers should have the best one in the division. Wouldn't you agree, Jon?

    Jon: The Padres had a very nice bullpen last season with Trevor Hoffman, Akinori Otsuka and Scott Linebrink. I think the Dodgers overrate Giovanni Carrara, but yes, I do like the bullpen. They would love to have the luxury of Wilson Alvarez in there full time.

    Rich: Manager Jim Tracy uses Gagne the same every year. Literally. Get this, he has pitched 82 1/3 innings in each of the past three years.

    Bryan: Interesting for sure, though I think that's coincidence more than anything else. Reminds me of Billy Packer on CBS talking about how odd it was that a college basketball team had two starters with the same points per game totals. What wows me the most is that in those three years, hitters are managing a .473 OPS against him. Insane.

    John: As for the Giants bullpen, the Armando Benitez signing -- albeit pricey for my tastes -- was exactly what was needed. He allows all of the other relievers to operate in their comfort zones. Jim Brower can start the fifth or sixth inning and give Alou up to three innings if he needs it. Scott Eyre can concentrate on the opposition's one tough lefty. All of the spot guys can relax. Heck, even Matt Herges might be useful again. Benitez, or at least last season's Benitez, turns a weakness into a strength.

    Rich: Yeah, Benitez was flat out nasty last year. Hitters, if you can call them that, put up a .152/.220/.257 batting line against him. However, you have to expect that his batting average allowed on balls in play of .169 will regress toward the mean in 2005. I think he will end up closer to his DIPS ERA (3.26) than his actual ERA (1.29), but I have no doubt that he will give the Giants 70 or so quality innings in highly leveraged situations this year.

    Bryan: Regression to the mean is a good comment, because I look for that to happen in a lot of the bullpens. Benitez, Hoffman/Otsuka/Linebrink, and Yhency Brazoban all may have pitched over their heads last year. But even regression makes them better than Colorado and Arizona, who have a lot of inexperience coming in the game during key situations.

    Jon: So after all this discussion of ballparks and pitching, here's a question for you. If the Rockies' starting lineup played 81 games a year in Los Angeles, San Diego or San Francisco, what would the expectation be?

    John: Colorado was 14th in runs scored on the road last season (.246/.315/.403/.718 OPS) and first in runs scored at home (.303/.375/.506/.881 OPS). I have a hard time imagining them winning any more games if they played somewhere else because the team has been put together in an effort to utilize the effects of Coors. In fact, looking at their team doesn't inspire me at all. Playing at sea level would reduce their offense, by 10 or 15%. Their pitchers would obviously benefit, but again, it's still not much of a team.

    Bryan: Normal career curves for Vinny Castilla, Dante Bichette, Andres Galarraga. Less popularity for Matt Holliday, Aaron Miles, Jeromy Burnitz. Far, far, far less runs than 833, that's for sure.

    Rich: I think the biggest difference is that Colorado's pitchers wouldn't get beat up so quickly and lose their confidence at such an early stage in their development or tenure with the team.

    John: The positive benefits for their pitchers could never make up for the fall-off of their hitters. Most of their best guys are washouts at sea level (again, with the exception of Helton, who isn't the superstar on the road that he is at Coors ). Let's face it, they are a terrible, terrible offensive team. To succeed in a pitcher's park, their pitchers would need to drop their ERA from the 6 and change at home last season to something like 3 and change. Is that even remotely possible? No. They have a couple of decent pitchers and about 10 unknown commodities.

    Jon: The Rockies look down and out. So, to me, does Arizona. Take this with a grain of desert sand from someone who was as wrong about the 2004 Diamondbacks as one could be, but I think rumors in certain parts of their rebirth are erroneous. Talk all you want about potential holes in the Dodger lineup, but here are the Diamondbacks with Royce Clayton, Craig Counsell and Koyie Hill/Chris Snyder/Kelly Stinnett in three lineup slots. Jose Cruz Jr. brings a league-average OPS+ to the outfield, and the best days of Luis Gonzalez and Shawn Green, if not Troy Glaus, are behind them.

    Rich: I agree, Jon. The D-Backs might win the "We Try Harder" Avis award for what's taken place this offseason, but I'm not sure they are materially better. It's hard to believe but those G-Men you mentioned averaged 49 home runs just four years ago. I'd be surprised if they averaged much more than half that total this year.

    Living in the past might work for Jethro Tull but not when it comes to building a baseball team.

    John: I don't know if I am as down on the D-Backs as you guys seem. Their pitching staff will be better than it was. Glaus will be the most productive third baseman in the NL West. Cruz is an excellent defensive outfielder. Not to suggest that they will contend, but the moves they made put them well above the Rockies, in my book. They spent a lot, but they did pick up some decent talent, Ortiz, Glaus, Vazquez, Green. This team will probably fight with San Diego for second this season.

    Bryan: I'm with John here. I think while they overpaid a lot this season, they improved a ton. No team in the West (even the Giants) will get that kind of production from the four corners. The rotation, while without Randy, is deep this season. They won't be fantastic, but it's possible they will make some noise.

    Jon: I don't think we were saying that the Diamondbacks wouldn't finish ahead of the Rockies. Certainly, Arizona is not without talent. But...saying that their pitching staff will be better than it was is a) dubious because of Randy Johnson's departure and b) not much of a statement, even if it's true.

    As far as the Diamondback offseason goes, I have mixed reviews. Some good moves, but I don't think Russ Ortiz really passes as decent talent anymore. And Jose Cruz may be a good defensive outfielder, but that's not going to make much of a difference.

    Rich: Beating out the Rockies is one thing but finishing ahead of the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres is a whole 'nother matter. I'm sorry, but I just don't see that happening.

    John: Well, I didn't like the Dodgers offseason at all.

    Jon: Since you say that Arizona will fight San Diego for second place and you don't like the Dodger offseason, do I gather that you think that their respective offseasons will eliminate the 40-odd win gap in 2004 between the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers?

    John: I think the Dodgers will be way off from the 90-win plateau and, yes, I think the D-Backs will come up quite a bit from their 100-plus loss season. It's hard for a team that bad not to improve from just plain old regression. The Dodgers lost a lot of pitchers and a tremendous amount of offense in Adrian Beltre and Green. That said, 40 games is a lot. I will stand corrected. The Dodgers will be in the race, their pitching should be strong, top to bottom. The question is, do they have the offense to battle the Padres and the Giants?

    Jon: I don't know if they will have enough offense, John. I do think that most people are assuming mediocre-to-worst case scenarios for Los Angeles. Even supporters of Paul DePodesta seem to think that mere adequacy is the best they can get from third base, catcher and first base, among other positions. But some of those folks are young and do have upside potential. On the other hand, few seem to have factored in that aging might hit the Giants anywhere but in outfield defense. Basically, I see three or four teams in the NL West with the potential to win as many as 95 games or as few as 75.

    Rich: I think it is safe to say that the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres will all win at least half of their games. The Diamondbacks and Rockies, on the other hand, have no chance of winning 81 games. Zero.

    Bryan: Rich, you have Arizona at a zero delta? C'mon, after seeing the Royals in 2003 and the Rangers in 2004, you should know better. If Arizona was an option, I'd buy them from you all day.

    Rich: I'd sell you an option at 81 games, if that is what you'd like. Remember, they only won 51 last year. Even the Tigers only improved 29 games from 2003 to 2004. Add the same number of wins to the Diamondbacks and you come up with 80. What I'm saying is that there is no way they can win half their games this year.

    Jon: I'd be willing to predict that one of the three favorites you mentioned will finish below .500. I just don't know which one.

    Rich: Moving on, San Francisco outscored Los Angeles and San Diego by about a half of one run per game while allowing about a half of one run more per game than both teams. Is there any reason to think those differentials will narrow or widen this year?

    John: The Giants are a good bet to both lower the runs allowed and score more runs. I think the Giants pitchers are going to be a lot better this year. Benitez alone will eliminate probably 10 or more losses. The Giants relievers had 29 losses and 46 saves against 28 blown saves last year, converting just 62% of their chances. By comparison, Florida with Benitez had 53 saves, 22 blown saves and converted 71% of their chances, behind only LA and the Cardinals. Alou will be an upgrade, shortstop will be better in every way, Feliz seems to be on his way to an everyday job, and of course, there's Barry Bonds.

    Rich: I like Benitez, John, but eliminating 10 or more losses? That seems like way too much to me. He only had 16 Win Shares last year when he put up a career-best ERA. I can see Benitez accounting for, maybe, five or six wins, but I wouldn't attribute his presence to much more than that.

    Jon: I can certainly see the Giants being the favorite in the division. Bonds, like the Atlanta Braves, is going to have to show me he can't do it anymore before I'll predict it. San Francisco should have pitching as good or better than last year (despite a regression from Brett Tomko, I suspect). But I'll go along with most of the crowd and say that San Francisco better do it in '05, because they don't look well-positioned for the coming years.

    Bryan: Yes, if the Giants "Wait 'Til Next Year" they are finished. But pardon me for being contrary, not sure about the Giant pitching staff improving. Benitez should do some work on helping the bullpen, but I think the starters' ERA will move up from 4.18. Tomko and Noah Lowry both pitched over their heads last year, though I do expect Jerome Williams to improve this year. Schmidt and Kirk Rueter should be at about 4.30 combined, leaving the ERA slightly worse in my mind. And when you factor in that bad defense, even Barry Bonds might not be able to offset all that.

    Rich: OK, let's talk a little bit more about the man who can't get rid of that "S" word. Settle down now, John. I was referring to Superman. I say Barry hits .340 with 40 home runs and 200 walks. What do you say?

    Jon: I'll knock at least 10 percent off of your Bonds numbers, Rich - which still makes for an excellent season.

    Bryan: I'm kind of with Jon here, I think, age and health should force him to regress at some point. I'll say 350 at-bats, .330 average, and 35 home runs. And for every at-bat, there will be at least five annoying hecklers mentioning BALCO.

    John: I think Rich's predictions are right on, unless he gets hurt. I'm beginning to worry about the steroids thing more and more. The hype is just overwhelming any dialogue or reason. Bonds' exclusion from the hearings seems to indicate that he is in the BALCO's prosecutors sights for perjury. Going for the record and everything that entails will be enough, but oh my God, what a circus it will be if somebody comes forth with evidence against Barry.

    Health, however, remains the 2005 Giants biggest worry. If Head Trainer Stan Conte can work his magic, I think the Giants will emerge from the NL West with an eye on the team's first San Francisco ring.

    Rich: Speaking of health, I think J.D. Drew needs to play 140 games or so and put up something along the lines of a .300/.400/.500 season for the Dodgers to feel as if they got their money's worth this year.

    Bryan: To get their money's worth, the Dodgers must get a lot from Drew, Jeff Kent and Milton Bradley. Los Angeles got about an .855 OPS from lineup spots 3-5 last year, and will need that again in 2005.

    Jon: I doubt that the Dodgers honestly expect Drew to play more than 145 games. They may well treat him like Barry Bonds, or a catcher, and schedule days off for him to keep him fresh and productive. The Dodgers may compensate for the days he (or Kent, or any big starter) sits by using quite a few guys as super-utility players, trying to find good batter-pitcher matchups. Jim Tracy has a history of getting guys like Paul Lo Duca or Jose Hernandez in the outfield to bridge some injury gaps.

    John: Watching San Diego last season, they looked like a team with a lot of upside. A lot of their top talent is young, and some of it is very impressive, like Khalil Greene.

    Jon: I agree, the Padres will be in almost every game they play with their pitching. Their lineup, on the other hand, does not intimidate at all.

    Rich: Brian Giles, Ryan Klesko, and Phil Nevin are all 34 years old. At their peaks, they were outstanding. Giles is still one heckuva player, but his numbers were held back by Petco. I like Greene, but I'm beginning to wonder if Sean Burroughs is ever going to fulfill his promise?

    Bryan: No, just think of him as Jerry Royster, without Royster's strengths: speed and versatility. I do love Greene, who has every tool, and should explode this year.

    Rich: Well, I think we have covered the division from California to Colorado and Arizona, if you will, in between. It's time to go on record with your picks. One through five. Bring 'em on.

    John: OK, here goes...

    San Francisco 95-67
    San Diego 90-72
    Los Angeles 88-74
    Arizona 79-83
    Colorado 70-92

    Jon: It's tough, man. I can't remember having this much trouble choosing among three teams in this division. But I'm going to give Bonds and Schmidt's team the benefit of the doubt, with the Dodgers and Padres close behind, Diamondbacks fourth and Rockies fifth. Then the Dodgers in a runaway in 2006.

    Bryan: I think the Dodgers are going to get it this year. Derek Lowe is going to make DePo look smart, and they have room to fill holes midseason. I'll say the Giants second again, with the Diamondbacks my surprise pick for third. Look for the Padres to fall off a bit and be right around .500. Also, the Rockies should be the worst team in the NL, and battle with the Royals for worst in baseball.

    Rich: I agree with Jon. This is a tough division to call. In the so-called winner's bracket, I'm going with the Giants, Padres, and Dodgers, in that order, with the range between first and third no more than six games. In the loser's bracket, I think it's a coin flip. I'll be different and go with the Rockies fourth and the Diamondbacks fifth with both teams right around 70 wins.

    There you have it, folks. The San Francisco Giants are the consensus choice among the Baseball Analysts panelists to win the NL West. Bryan is the only one of the four not to pick the Giants. In fact, he is fast becoming known as the Lone Ranger as he has differed from his fellow participants in three of the four previews thus far. Interestingly, Rich was the one standing on the ledge all by his lonesome last week when he selected the A's over the Angels.

    Our guests, on the other hand, have always agreed on which team is going to win the division. Will that streak continue? Be sure to check back next Wednesday for the fifth installment of our Two on Two series when we cover the much-ballyhooed AL East.

    Baseball Beat/WTNYMarch 09, 2005
    Two on Two: AL West Preview
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    Our third Two on Two segment (AL Central, NL Central) takes us westward, as in the American League West. How will the West be won this year? We asked Tyler Bleszinski of Athletics Nation and Jeff Shaw of U.S.S. Mariner to join us in a roundtable discussion.

    Will the Angels repeat? Are the A's in transition? Can the Mariners come back? And are the Rangers for real? Let's find out what our panelists have to say...

    Bryan: Blame east coast bias if you want, but every single year the AL East is drastically favored to take the Wild Card. Yet, the West has had two teams make the playoffs twice in the last four years, and they've been right there every season. Is the West disrespected generally and, if so, why?

    Blez: I think there is a tangible disrespect for the West. That's what happens when almost all national media outlets are located along the eastern seaboard. But overall, the West is the most competitive division in the American League, especially now that Texas isn't a cakewalk any longer. Seattle was bad last year, but they should have a mashing offense this year, although I'm not sold on Richie Sexson's health and whether or not Adrian Beltre's was a one-hit wonder. I'm always suspicious of guys in their contract years.

    Jeff: I wouldn't call it "disrespect" necessarily because the term is overused by folks looking for controversy or bulletin board fodder, but I do believe there is something to this. East coast bias is too easy to blame (though I think that's because it's generally true and, hence, an easy fallback).

    Rich: Well, let's face it, the AL East perenially sports two of the best teams in baseball so I don't think you can attribute the lack of respect in the West solely to east coast bias.

    Jeff: I think what's truly at work is economics. Until Arte Moreno brought his princely checkbook to Anaheim, the Mariners were the financial big dog in the division. The East has the Yankees and the Red Sox, who are not only the most high-profile teams in baseball, they are also the biggest spenders.

    Bryan: Jeff, good point about the economics issue. I think the West has gotten a little more press since Moreno took over, and the Mariners definitely were helped by the publicity from the Ichiro signing. The Rangers didn't get much out of Alex Rodriguez, so they are almost an economic joke.

    Blez: The West doesn't feature a Tampa Bay, Toronto or Baltimore to beat up on and, with the in-division weighted schedules, Boston and New York have a distinct schedule advantage from day one. Not that they need it. If the truth be told, Boston looked like a far superior team to the Angels last year in the playoffs.

    Bryan: Blez, what do you think the new owner will do for the A's -- from both a payroll and PR sense?

    Blez: I think people are approaching Wolff right now as you would embrace a new stepfather. You don't really know what he's all about just yet. I also think that the financial constraints will remain with the team for now and not just because Wolff is as frugal as Schott, but because that's when Billy Beane is at his creative best.

    Bryan: I don't know, Blez, that seems flawed to me. It almost sounds like an insult to Billy, like he couldn't operate under a $60-70 million payroll. I like to think he'd be even better, but I could be wrong. I'll tell you what I do know -- moving the club to Sacramento was not the bad idea that some made it out to be.

    Rich: Gosh, I must be out of it. I knew there was an NBA team in Sacramento but hadn't realized that the A's had moved there.

    Bryan: You are out of it, but you're right, the A's didn't make it to Sacramento. Between this post by Blez and the article he links to, I was sold on the idea. The Kings do quite well there, and I think success there could give Beane more to work with. Imagine that...

    Jeff: I would tend to agree that more resources are generally better than less. Could Gustav Klimt have created memorable art without gold inlay? Yes. Would it have been wise to deny him helpful materials? Nope. If Billy's a genius with a quarter, drop a dollar in his pocket, and he'll rock your world. As a Mariners fan, of course, I hope somebody mugs him for the quarter, but that doesn't mean I'm any less appreciative of his skills.

    Blez: That's pretty funny, Jeff. I wasn't implying that Billy is better with a small payroll, I was just saying that you get a chance to see his genius because of the limited payroll. Trust me, I think the team would be better if it had Hudson, Tejada, Mulder, Damon, Foulke and company. But watching Billy manuever within the unofficial cap is like watching Mikhail Baryshnikov dance in a phone booth. You know it will be beautiful regardless of the constraints and it makes it much more fascinating to see how he works with the limitations.

    Jeff: I wonder if the A's GM sees his limits as a kind of gift? It's analogous to that old double-bind discovered by working class folk who prosper: growing up broke teaches values and skills that you might not learn otherwise, but you work your whole life so your kids won't have to learn 'em that way.

    Rich: Limits or no limits, Beane has put the A's in a position to go to the playoffs nearly every year since he has been in charge.

    Blez: The truth is that being an A's fan you have to realize that we're going to lose stars, so don't get too attached. Beane is often heard saying that people root for the name on the front of the jersey instead of the name behind.

    Bryan: Well, with that being said, let's talk about the group of players that will be wearing Oakland uniforms. Is there reason to trust Billy still, after what may have been his most controversial offseason yet?

    Rich: Man, speaking of disrespect...I don't understand the pre-occupation with questioning Beane as if he was a rookie GM without a track record. I think the moves he made this offseason were nothing short of brilliant. I like the fact that they were proactive rather than reactive.

    Jeff: When evaluating someone, you can't just look at the last few moves they made, regardless of the fact that those are most fresh in your mind. Beane's track record is such that you have to believe he knows what he's doing.

    Blez: I completely agree. Beane has shown he knows how to be ahead of the game on a consistent basis. While it hurts to lose talent like Mulder and Hudson, you have to realize he has a vision. 95 wins per season is nothing to sneeze at.

    Bryan: Yes, I agree with those comments. While mainstream media is quite harsh on the A's this year, talking about how much they've gotten worse, I'll think they'll be OK. Is a prospect guy the only one that thinks that rotation could be better overall than last year?

    Blez: Well, they don't have that much to live up least in the second half. Mulder and Hudson were both average. And Hudson was out for six weeks. I'm also not convinced that Mulder is 100 percent right yet. I read an advance copy of Aces and it sounds like he's having a mind problem more than anything.

    Jeff: Could the rotation be better? Sure. Will it be? The jury is out from my perspective. I believe that Beane made the team better for sure in 2006. If Dan Haren and Joe Blanton are ready for prime time, maybe 2005 as well.

    Blez: I think Haren and Blanton are going to surprise some people. Dan Meyer will probably start the season in AAA unless he's stellar the rest of the spring.

    Rich: Have we forgotten about the new ace of the know, a guy by the name of Rich Harden?

    Bryan: No, I don't think any of us have forgotten about him. He is more of a given in my mind. I'm guessing he takes a big step, and replaces Hudson in that rotation. 4.24 was the staff ERA last year. Barry Zito is going to need to be a lot better if they get under that.

    Blez: All the reports say that Zito believes in himself again...which if you know much about Zito, he thinks 95 percent of pitching is mental.

    Jeff: Zito is one of my favorite players in baseball, and not just because he got with Alyssa Milano. But I'm not sure he's going to be as good as he once was again. His strikeouts are down, walks are up, and I'm not sure any kind of visualization exercises, surfing of lefty guitar strumming is going to help him strike out Adrian Beltre.

    Blez: Don't forget yoga.

    Jeff: I'm going to yoga tonight, baby! Maybe I'll see Barry there. Hope, against all odds, he brings Alyssa.

    Blez: Jeff...I hate to break this to you. It's as painful as Brad and Jennifer, I know. But Barry and Alyssa are no more.

    Bryan: OK, gossip squad, unless Alyssa is in his head while pitching, the break-up won't do much. One thing that shouldn't be in any starter's head this year is worrying about who they give the ball to. I love how Billy has set that group up.

    Blez: I personally love the pen, although losing Chad Bradford to back surgery hurts. At the same time, it opens a spot for Huston Street, who appears ready to go. To me, the main question mark in the pen is actually going to be Dotel. Can he really close? Juan Cruz, Kiko Calero, Huston Street. Billy's been paying attention to those Angels Angels of Anaheim.

    Jeff: At this point, the A's bullpen looks ridiculously good. That's likely true for the foreseeable future, given that Jairo Garcia is probably going to start the year at AAA. The Oakland 'pen is stacked like 3 a.m. hot cakes.

    Rich: I like Dotel a lot and think the A's bullpen will rival the Angels as one of the best in baseball this year.

    Bryan: Well, I know dumping Dotel if he falters won't be too hard. My Cubs are more than willing to take him off your hands.

    Blez: That actually could come quickly if the A's falter out of the gate.

    Bryan: I think the concern with the A's is that the lineup doesn't have a lot of pop. With pitching so reliable on 25-year-olds, don't they need more power to win from the LAAoA?

    Jeff: The Angels certainly ought to be the division favorite. Barring a complete meltdown from their starters -- or Bartolo Colon falling off a ladder and crushing Vlad Guerrero -- I think they win.

    Blez: The offense actually does concern me a bit. Although Bobby Crosby did hit 22 bombs as a rookie, Erubiel Durazo could hit more than he did last year and if Eric Chavez stays healthy the entire season, I wouldn't be shocked to see 40 from him.

    Bryan: And that's before you get to the Rookie of the Year...

    Rich: Nick Swisher? Michael Lewis would be happy about that.

    Blez: But I agree with Jeff, the Angels should be the favorite to take the division, despite their silly name.

    Jeff: I think baseball writers should just agree to start calling the Angels by random city names, cities they aren't from. The Fresno Angels. The San Luis Obispo Seraphim. The Rancho Cucamonga Cherubs.

    Bryan: This division just seems weird to me. Every team has a serious issue. That Angel rotation is so bad, unless Bartolo changes a lot...

    Blez: I think each team has a lot of variables that need to go right in order for them to take it, but to me, the Angels have the fewest question marks. The starting pitching doesn't need to be great with that offense pounding the ball.

    Jeff: Blez is correctamundo, as the Fonz would say. All the teams have issues, but relatively little has to go right for Omar's Army compared to the Mariners, A's and Rangers. Better than the Giants? I don't know about that. Good enough to be a playoff favorite? Yup.

    Bryan: The Angels can sure pound the ball from top to bottom. Is that lineup better than the East Coast giants?

    Blez: Actually, it scared me a lot more with Troy Glaus than Dallas McPherson and Steve Finley. And I'm just glad to be rid of that pest David Eckstein. Better than the Yanks or Sox though? Probably not.

    Bryan: So you guys actually do agree with the mainstream about the division favorite. What bothers me most about popular opinion is the praising of the Rangers. Does anyone else think they could be the '04 Royals?

    Blez: Yeah, Kenny Rogers isn't going to get 10 runs of support again this year.

    Jeff: Under no circumstances. Counting on the emergence of Ryan Drese, the triumphant return of Chan Ho Park and the continued ability of the Gambler to draw to repeated inside straights is a sucker bet.

    Blez: Who's the best offense in the AL West, since you brought up the Rangers?

    Bryan: Top to bottom, it has to be the Angels.

    Rich: The Angels have the best offense in the division. The Rangers may put up comparable numbers but remember that they benefit by playing half their games in a hitter's ballpark.

    Blez: Better than the Rangers and the suddenly potent M's? The A's will also on-base you to death.

    Jeff: It's gotta be the Angels, doesn't it? Assuming McPherson gives them anything at all, even if he doesn't break out. I think Texas' home park makes us think they're a hair better than they actually are.

    Blez: The Rangers infield is ridiculously good. Does anyone think Michael Young can duplicate his 04 campaign?

    Bryan: I think Young will have a small dropoff, but not the kind I'm expecting for Carlos Guillen. He's a solid player, a great sign by the Rangers. The real issue up the middle should be when Hart pulls the trigger on an Alfonso Soriano trade.

    Jeff: The Rangers' infield is seriously young and seriously good. Even if Young regresses -- which I believe he will -- he will be a valuable element, surrounded by emerging gems.

    Blez: Hank Blalock will be monstrous this year, I think.

    Bryan: Yes, me too. But I tell you guys, with Ian Kinsler coming up, it would be idiotic not to deal Soriano for pitching.

    Blez: Here's a quick you think it's predestined that A-Rod steals Chavez's gold gloves? I think East Coast bias plays into this too. I think if A-Rod stays healthy, there's no way Chavez wins the Gold Glove this year. But I'm a bit biased.

    Bryan: Well, I think that all depends on whether Chavez gets to that 40-HR plateau you mentioned earlier. And whether the A's shock the world in the win category. Offense and team wins, that decides the Gold Glove.

    Jeff: Even if Chavez wins the Gold Glove, A-Rod will just run up the third base line and try to slap it out of his hand.

    Blez: Jeff, that's a classic line that should be framed and inducted into the blogging hall of fame right now.

    Bryan: But wait, there's a new man to that argument...Jeff....

    Jeff: Adrian Beltre should be a perennial Gold Glove candidate. I truly haven't watched him enough to know how compares to Chavez, but his reputation and performance in defensive stats is superlative.

    Rich: I've watched Beltre for a half dozen years, and the guy can pick it. Outside of Scott Rolen, he was as good as any third baseman in the NL defensively.

    Jeff: Can I just say how thrilled I am about the Beltre deal? With the way the market went, the M's got a steal. His deal isn't far off from Glaus', and Beltre a) is young, b) is better, and c) has an arm that may stay attached.

    Bryan: Yes, that deal was one of the three best of the offseason, without question. Bavasi went from game's most questionable GM, to serviceable. It's like Neifi Perez's performance with the Cubs last year.

    Jeff: Truly. It goes back to what I said about Beane and his record of performance. One good offseason -- and Bavasi did have one -- does not wipe out seven mediocre efforts.

    Rich: Let's not forget, it's also a function of how much cash your owner lets you spend.

    Bryan: Which third basemen will lead the AL West in Win Shares?

    Jeff: Man, the Win Shares question is a stumper. Both Chavez and Beltre are exceptional, and you have to consider that guy who allegedly gets up earlier and works out harder than anyone else, too.

    Bryan: Don't forget Blalock, my friend.

    Blez: Well, I'd say Chavez easily, but he might not get too many pitches to hit unless Durazo or someone else provides adequate protection. I'll actually say Blalock because he's got that offense around him.

    Jeff: Fair enough. If pressed -- and Bryan is pressing -- I am going to homer out and say Beltre. He is young, does everything well, and bats behind Ichiro! I would not be surprised to see any of the others take that honor, though. so much can happen.

    Bryan: I think that Beltre is going to kind of be Paul Konerko in the sense that he goes back and forth into greatness and simply being solid from year to year.

    Blez: I'm not 100 percent sold on Beltre not being a one-year wonder either. Players can be very motivated by contract status, as we've seen many times in the past.

    Rich: This isn't saying much but put me squarely in the camp that says Beltre winds up somewhere between last year's numbers and those from his first five years. In other words, he won't be as good as he was in 2004 or as indifferent as he was prior to that.

    Bryan: The other stumper question I could throw is which AL West player wins Rookie of the Year? Dallas? Swisher? Jeremy Reed? Stacked group there, too.

    Blez: I gotta be a homer here and say Swisher. The kid played all last season with a busted thumb. He's got the attitude combined with ability.

    Bryan: I agree with Blez, even though I ranked Dallas the highest in prospect rankings. Though I think there is a possibility that Reed adjusts to major league pitching faster than the power hitters.

    Jeff: Yes. Hey, you're the prospect guy. I am higher on Reed than a lot of my cohorts, and I think his line-drive power to the gaps will serve him better in Safeco than some believe. He won't have the power that McPherson will, though.

    Rich: Are we talking raw numbers or ballpark adjusted? Reed and Swisher play in tougher hitting environments than McPherson but the latter is more likely to break the strikeout record than win Rookie of the Year honors, if you ask me.

    Blez: And don't forget Blanton. I wouldn't be surprised to see him jump in the mix somewhere. Although it's tough for a guy who isn't playing every day.

    Bryan: So Jeff, you are positive on Beltre and Reed. What about the rest of that offense?

    Jeff: Fair to middling. I think Sexson has the potential to be a real disaster: an aging first baseman coming off two major injuries entering a park that's tough on righthanders. Given that, I think the offense will still be much improved. If Sexson just stays healthy, he will dramatically improve output from that position. Any injuries, though, and this team is hosed. They have no bench.

    Rich: Well, if Sexson tanks, I don't think you can say Bavasi had a good offseason. In fact, if he doesn't hit .275 with 30+ home runs, I think it is safe to say that the Mariners overpaid for him.

    Bryan: I, personally, find the M's to be a bit overrated. I think they have .500 potential, but then its about plus or minus five after that I think.

    Jeff: I think they're a low-80s win team. I predicted 82 victories, but I see substantial variance possible around that number. It would not shock me to see them contend, but it would shock me less to see them falter and slip below .500.

    Blez: To me, the M's variables are whether Sexson can stay healthy, Beltre isn't a contract-year phenom and whether or not that rotation can hold up. To quote Tony Montana, "Jamie Moyer's like 103 years old."

    Bryan: Jeff, what's your take on the M's and how they should handle the Phenom?

    Jeff: I think they should baby King Felix as much as possible. If he forces the issue with a Goodenesque spring, so be it. But you still have to watch his pitch counts closely and keep tabs on his health above all else. The M's have a terrible record with pitching prospect injuries, as I'm sure you know. I would rather delay his debut by a year than turn him into Ryan Anderson 2: electric surgeroo.

    Bryan: Yes, they do. As do pitchers who get called up at 19. There aren't a lot of things that bodes well for Felix's health. He does have one amazing arsenal, that's for sure.

    Bryan: OK guys, let's get some predictions...

    Blez: I think the Angels win 93, the A's 90, the Rangers 83 and the M's 78. The West could be the most competitive division in the majors. But whoever wins it this year better enjoy it because the A's will be reclaiming it for many years to come.

    Rich: A's are my surprise pick this year. The Angels will finish second and probably not make the playoffs. The Mariners edge out the Rangers for third with both teams struggling to win 80.

    Blez: I truly believe that Beane looked at 2006 as a new age of A's baseball, and that's why he made preemptive moves. It also wouldn't shock me though to see the A's struggle this year while some of the newer players figure out MLB pitching.

    Jeff: After consulting the I Ching, divining for sweet water, getting my palm read and counting the frosted blond hairs on Bret Boone's head to arrive at numbers, here's what I got: Angels win 92, A's 85, M's 82 and Rangers 75. The beauty of baseball is the ample surprises, of course, so I may look silly -- er, sillier -- at the end of the year.

    Bryan: I'll say Angels 93, A's 92, M's 80, and Rangers 72.

    Jeff: I think every team but Texas could win the division, but a ton has to go right for the M's, a bit less for the A's, and not much for the Angels. If I were laying odds on the division title, it'd be 70 percent, 20 percent, 10 percent.

    The consensus is pretty clearcut. Rich is the lone dissenting voice this time, making it three-for-three that a Baseball Analysts panelist diverges from the others. The A's are picked to finish second, the Mariners third, and the Rangers fourth or, ahem, last -- but fourth sure sounds better, doesn't it?

    Baseball Beat/WTNYMarch 05, 2005
    Two on Two: NL Central Preview
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    To continue our look at each of the six divisions, we move on this week to the National League Central. Here to help us in the analysis are J.D. Arney of Red Reporter and Alex Ciepley from The Cub Reporter.

    Bryan: As an NL Central fan, I can say what bothers me about the division is the disparity that exists, almost representative of the disparity in Major League Baseball. Three of the last four years the division has been dominated by the three high-spending teams -- the Cards, Astros and Cubs. Is this something that might be fixed or will it take either a salary cap before the other three are legitimate contenders?

    Alex: I think GM competence is the big factor in the division, not money. The Cubs have almost always been near the top of their division in payroll. And, for most of their time in the Central, they've struggled.

    Rich: I don't think it is coincidental that the AL Central and NL Central both sport a number of "small market" franchises. Many of the teams in these two divisions simply don't have the resources available to them to retain and compete for free agents.

    J.D.: I don't think a salary cap is necessary for the NL Central to see different teams contending. I think it's altogether possible that the Astros are about to go into a bit of decline, and there are things to like about the Brewers, Reds, and Pirates. The biggest problem with the NL Central is that all three of the second-tier teams thought that building a new stadium would be a panacea, when it clearly is not. I think now that stadium construction is finished for the Brewers, Reds, and Pirates, they'll all focus more on trying to build contenders because that's the only way to increase attendance for the next 20-30 years.

    Bryan: Yes, the small-market teams are showing that the right order is a good team and then a new ballpark rather than the other way around. You have to spend money to make it, not tax the public, right?

    J.D.: Absolutely. I'm pretty tired of teams blackmailing cities into financing their stadiums with promises of future success. Cincinnati's been through that twice now, with the Bengals and Reds, and it's failed twice.

    Alex: Sure, though I think one (good team) and the other (new ballpark) have little to do with one another. If you have a good team, you're likely to get good crowds, no matter how bad the stadium. Look at Montreal in the '80s.

    Bryan: Yeah, the Cubs were first place in the division in attendance.

    Rich: Surprise, surprise. The Cubs are the largest market team in the NL Central.

    J.D.: I think crying poverty is just a good way to excuse failure.

    Bryan: When really, some of these good teams should be crying bad management/ownership.

    Alex: I understand the point about the stadiums, I just think that the general incompetence of the Brewers, Pirates, and Reds is why they've not been successful recently.

    Bryan: Yes, I agree Alex. J.D., would you say that the incompetence of the GMs or the small pocketbooks of the owners are to blame more?

    J.D.: It pains me to say it, but all three of those teams have been run into the ground for one reason or another. I'd say the incompetence of front offices definitely. It's certainly a handicap to operate with a smaller budget, but quite a few teams have shown that it's possible to succeed on a shoestring. You have to be creative though, and Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati have all spurned that route and instead gone the stadium route.

    Alex: The Reds have been the unluckiest of the bunch, but their moves this offseason don't give one any confidence.

    Bryan: Are you optimistic that a new regime and maybe some luck could turn things around?

    J.D.: I think the Reds are going to need a great deal of luck, but I've seen things in the past year that do give me some hope. Dan O'Brien didn't draft the way I'd like, and he made some (very) questionable free agent moves, but he's still an improvement over Jim Bowden.

    Rich: I think the Reds are the most fun-to-follow sub-.500 team in baseball. They have a collection of big-name talent that ranks among the game's best-known players (in the case of Ken Griffey Jr.) or most promising youngsters (Adam Dunn, Wily Mo Pena, Austin Kearns). If Junior and the Outfielders -- sounds like a '60s group out of Motown -- can stay healthy, it stands to reason that the Reds are going to put up a lot of runs this year.

    J.D.: Dan O'Brien seems conservative to a fault, so I think he's getting off on having insurance in case one of the outfielders (or Sean Casey) is injured. However, if the Reds make it to the trade deadline relatively intact, and in striking distance then I think Pena's going to be dealt. I don't see Austin Kearns going anywhere because if he's healthy then he'll put up monster numbers. Everyone forgets how good he was in 2003 before Ray King sat on his shoulder, but he was among the league leaders in quite a few offensive categories at that point (April: .303/.431/.640; May: .287/.368/.455). I expect him to exceed virtually everyone's expectations this year because I don't think he's as fragile as people are making him out to be. His injuries have been completely of the fluky variety, not the chronic.

    Rich: I agree with you, J.D. I think Kearns is apt to surprise a lot of folks this year, but I won't be among them.

    Bryan: I think the Reds have a lot to get over, and expecting anything this year will be a disappointment for their fans. But there is some sign of pitching being developed.

    Rich: Boy, I just don't see it, Bryan. The Reds were next to last in pitching in 2004. Eric Milton should help but not as much as one would expect from a starter with an $8.5 million annual salary. Ramon Ortiz wasn't good when he was good. What am I missing here?

    J.D.: I can't really disagree when it comes to Milton or Ortiz (although I think both can do pretty good imitations of league average pitchers, which would help the Reds tremendously), but there is some talent coming along. Thomas Pauly and Richie Gardner are two names that don't get a great deal of publicity, but both are looking like they'll be solid major league pitchers. You look at their strikeout and walk rates last year (Gardner: 7.6 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 2.56 ERA at AA; Pauly 10.0 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 2.97 ERA at high-A), and they both look like really solid prospects that haven't gotten enough attention from prospecters, in my opinion. If the Reds can just develop one or two solid starters in the next few years -- years in which they still have Kearns, Pena, and Dunn pretty cheaply -- then they could find themselves in good shape.

    Alex: While I've seen some writers get all in a tizzy over the Reds' potential improvement in 2005 -- and I myself think they could be okay -- I still think the Brewers are the bottom-dwelling team with the higher upside. Rob Neyer's recent column on Team Efficiency (via the Bill James handbook) indicated that this might be true as well: the James handbook points out that the Brewers were actually a "77-win" team last year, while the Reds were a "66-win" team -- a virtual flip in their actual records.

    J.D.: I wrote a little about the Brewers a couple of weeks ago, and I just don't see them climbing out of the hole they've dug anytime soon.

    Rich: The Brewers are on their way up. I'm not suggesting that they will be good this year, but there is cause for some optimism a couple of years out.

    Bryan: I think a lot depends on the new owner and whether he'll take that budget up. They need to keep Ben Sheets and Carlos Lee, that's for sure.

    J.D.: They've got some good minor league talent, but their method of operation seems to be almost entirely draft dependent, and they really don't seem to draft well enough for them to have a sustained run. I could see them becoming quite good in a year or two and for a year or two, but I think that's the best Brewer fans can hope for.

    Rich: Hope is on the way in the form of Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, Prince Fielder. But I'll defer to Bryan on this subject.

    Bryan: Prince is definitely the best of the three; it won't be long until he is right in the heart of that order. Weeks' struggles worry me, but I think he'll have a good year and allow the team to trade Junior Spivey. And while I might be a seller of Hardy, he's going to be an everyday player. Maybe Royce Clayton, but an everyday player.

    Rich: Don't get me wrong here. I'm not suggesting that Hardy and Weeks will become the next Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. But Fielder certainly looks as if he would have fit right in there on Harvey Kuenn's Brew Crew ballclubs in the '80s.

    Bryan: Well, Doug Melvin has proven to be quite good at finding cheap talent. Podsednik, Davis, Kolb...

    Alex: ...and then trading those three. I actually applaud their trading methods more than anything else.

    J.D.: I will admit that I'm a big fan of the Posednik for Lee trade. Most teams come out ahead when they trade with the White Sox though.

    Rich: Trading Kolb for Jose Capellan is exactly the right type of move a team like the Brewers should make. What good is Kolb going to do them?

    Bryan: I will say that I think Mike Maddux is now the second best pitching coach in the game. If they can recreate some offensive numbers of old, I think success is likely.

    Rich: That's about as unlikely to happen as Carlos Beltran playing for the Astros this year.

    Bryan: Does everyone look for the Astros to completely fall from grace this year?

    Alex: I think it's become in vogue to unfurl the "Astros Suck" banner -- and I know I've been guilty of that bit of heraldry -- but, in actuality, I think their demise is a bit overblown. Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt will again be among the best pitchers in the league. The offense has a lot of question marks, but it still has a good amount of talent.

    Bryan: Yes, preventing runs won't be the problem, though I must say I won't be the one to reach on Brandon Backe in fantasy leagues this year. I think scoring is the issue here. Jeff Bagwell -- and I'm sorry to say this Alex -- won't be around forever.

    J.D.: They've got to be worried about Lance Berkman as well.

    Rich: The Killer B's may kill the Astros this year rather than the opposition.

    Alex: I only hope that the Astros worry, worry, worry about Berkman, and decide he's not worth the investment. I hope the Astros worry about Berkman so much they fail to offer him a contract.

    Bryan: You want him in Cubbie blue?

    Alex: He'd look mighty good in left field for the Cubs come 2006.

    J.D.: How about that Cubs outfield? Kind of the Achilles heel, isn't it?

    Alex: Don't say the word Achilles around a Cubs fan, J.D.

    Rich: Although Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou have seen better days, Jeromy Burnitz and the Hairston/Hollandsworth combo are unlikely to come close to replacing their production.

    Alex: Corey Patterson could go either way -- I've seen projections all over the place. Ron Shandler thinks he's a huge risk, but BP seems to think he may be about to explode into an All-Star.

    Rich: Now that's one outfielder I do like.

    Bryan: I just hope he's out of the leadoff hole. It's funny, I was happy with the idea of a Hairston-Patterson-Dubois outfield, but now it looks like it will be Hollandsworth-Patterson-Burnitz.

    Alex: Jason Dubois is their second-best hitter in the outfield...and he'll be in AAA. That's what he gets for having an option left! I don't like Hairston at all. I like...can you guess...AUBREY HUFF.

    Bryan: I don't think Aubrey will be dealt until next winter, when the Cubs have already found something else.

    Alex: You're probably right. Tampa Bay actually should trade Huff this year, when his value is highest, but when do the Devil Rays actually do something that makes sense?

    Bryan: You know Jim will go get somebody at the deadline.

    Alex: Hendry has proven himself adept at the "big deal," so I'd be surprised if he doesn't pull out a trick or two this season. It's just the small details that cause the problems.

    Bryan: Maybe that he signed Jeromy Burnitz?

    Alex: I'm not a fan of Burnitz, but it wasn't a horrid pickup under the circumstances.

    Rich: Let's face it, the Cubs are only going to go as far as their pitching takes them. If they stay healthy and pitch like they are capable of, even Steve Bartman won't be able to derail them this year.

    Alex: Why are Mike Wuertz, Jon Leicester, Todd Wellemeyer, and Sergio Mitre fighting for one bullpen spot? Those are the types of pitchers that you use to fill in the back of your bullpen cheaply and effectively, not Ryan Dempster.

    Bryan: Yes, I like Leicester a ton, and he's just never going to see the ninth.

    J.D.: Ahh, Ryan Dempster, what a fun guy. I attended a game where he gave up nine in less than four innings to the Phillies. Great day.

    Alex: Yeah, he was awesome in Cincinnati.

    Bryan: Yes, and now talk is that JoeBo is going to get his job back.

    Alex: Well, there's an article out on that says he is hitting 90 mph again. If so, then that would be most of the way back (better than last season), but I don't know if it is enough. He walks a thin line with his stuff; he's a pitcher who does need the extra mphs on his fastball to be effective. I think Wuertz is the best of the lot.

    Bryan: OK, we're showing our Chicago bias. Will this matter, or will the Cardinals dominate this division again?

    J.D.: I think last season for St. Louis was one of the flukier ones I've ever seen to be honest.

    Rich: I don't understand why the Cardinals' season would be categorized as a fluke other than it was perhaps unexpected. They had a trio of players -- Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols, and Scott Rolen -- who were among the best in the league last year. If not for Barry Bonds, you could easily make a case on behalf of all three for MVP honors.

    Alex: I agree, Rich. The numbers supported their wins. This wasn't a team that got lucky in the number of runs saved/runs scored.

    Bryan: I think they are worse this year for sure. It may sound corny, but losing the leadership that Edgar Renteria and Mike Matheny provided is going to hurt.

    Alex: Last year's version was a team in which many risks turned to gold and bad signings turned out well.

    J.D.: Yeah, but you look at how healthy they were, especially their pitching. Maybe that's a comment on their team health staff, but generally you're going to have people go down at some point. Their five starting pitchers all pitched over 180 innings.

    Alex: Yes, you're right. I thought of them as a healthy team, but I also thought of them as a team where Chris Carpenter went down. Rolen and Pujols played through injuries.

    Bryan: "Played through" being key there. If that doesn't happen again, the Cubs could walk into the playoffs.

    Rich: Hold on, Bryan. Dusty Baker's Cubs don't know how to walk.

    Alex: I don't think Pujols and Rolen are too big a risk though. I'd be much more concerned about the other two Big Boppers. Iron Men Edmonds and Larry Walker.

    Rich: Come on now, Alex. Edmonds may not be an Iron Man but Jimbo isn't the injury risk that everyone makes him out to be. Do you realize that he has played 150 or more games in three of the past five years? He actually ranks fifth among all center fielders in games played during the 2000s.

    Alex: Come on right back, Rich. Even our deepest crushes can't blind us to the realities of life. Realities like...aging. Edmonds has shown an ability to play through aches and pains, and you're right -- he's played often recently -- but he's no spring chickadee. Like all good things, or at least like all bleach-streaked showboats, he can't last forever.

    Bryan: I almost forgot about Walker. Full season of him now, too. Walt Jocketty definitely deserved that raise of his.

    Alex: I think that the Cards take a step back -- maybe a 10-15 game step back -- but they will still make the playoffs easily. Mark Mulder's great, but is he better than Dan Haren or Woody Williams at this point? Didn't both Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan pitch over their heads?

    J.D.: The Cardinals are a lot like the Braves. Everything they touch turns to gold.

    Alex: I'm actually just bitter about the Cards' pitching last season.

    Bryan: One thing Ken Rosenthal noted was that the Cards had more groundballs than anyone else last year and, believe me, they are losing a ton of range up the middle.

    Alex: You don't think David Eckstein and Mark Grudzielanek are the second coming of Ozzie Smith and Tom Herr?

    Bryan: I know you guys thought if no one else mentioned it we might not talk about it, but we can't just forget about the Pirates. In my opinion, this team is marginal at best, terrible at worst. I feel like Dave Littlefield is just waiting for the trade deadline, desperate to trade Kip Wells and Matt Lawton. I'm just not sure their draught will ever end.

    J.D.: It's really a shame the Pirates' offense is so dismal because they've got some very interesting pitching. In a year or two, they could have two bona fide aces in Zach Duke and Oliver Perez -- but it seems as if it's going to be wasted because of their lack of offense. If they ever decide to spend money, they could probably get good in a hurry because offense is generally cheaper than pitching. But I can't really envision a world where Pittsburgh signs big-name free agents.

    Rich: Do you realize that the Pirates haven't fielded a .500 ballclub since winning the NL East in the first three years of the 1990s? A dozen years and not one in which they won as many games as they lost.

    Bryan: Simply put, they have to be the worst-run team in the Majors.

    Rich: Well, it just seems like the Pirates are always rebuilding. Renewing Jason Bay's and Oliver Perez's contracts sure isn't going to win them any points either.

    J.D.: Do you guys think the Wild Card will come out of the Central again?

    Alex: I think the Wild Card is more likely to come from the NL Beast this year.

    Bryan: The NL East? Gosh, no. The Cubs are far better than any team there, in my humble opinion.

    Rich: What do the Cubs have to do with the Wild Card, Bryan? I know you are going to pick them to win the division.

    J.D.: I could see the Wild Card coming from the East. I was actually surprised that it didn't come from there last season.

    Alex: I'm picking the Cubs for last this year. I'm tired of having any expectations...65 wins is a goal! I think the Cubs win in 2008. A tidy 100th anniversary party.

    Bryan: Alright guys, let's close this out with some actual predictions. I'll lead it off: Cubs, Cards, Astros, Brewers, Reds, Bucs.

    Rich: Just as I thought, Bryan. OK, this is a tough one for me. The only way the Cubs are better is if they get full years out of Nomar Garciaparra, Mark Prior, and Kerry Wood...

    J.D.: Well, while you're thinking, Rich, I'll go with the Cardinals, Cubs, Reds, Astros, Pirates, Brewers.

    Alex: I say Cardinals, Cubs, Astros, Brewers, Pirates, Reds.

    Rich: Put me down for the Redbirds and Cubs 1-2. No way any of these other teams finish first or second. I'll pick the Astros for third but with a record right around .500. Pirates fourth. Reds fifth. Brewers dead last once again.

    So, for the second straight week, it looks like Bryan is by himself in the divisional prediction. The official Baseball Analysts consensus has the Cardinals on top, followed closely by the Cubs. The Astros, despite most of the roundtable participants expecting a reasonable regression, are projected to place third.

    Outside of J.D., the Reds, Brewers and Pirates are picked to finish anywhere from fourth to sixth. While we hope promising farm systems and new regimes will even out the division, color us skeptical. Dollars don't always have to be the determining factor in success, but a lot more sensibility will be needed than what Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh have shown in recent years.

    Baseball Beat/WTNYFebruary 26, 2005
    Two on Two: AL Central Preview
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    Season previews come in all shapes, sizes, and color. Divisions will be analyzed up and down and around between now and the beginning of the year. In an attempt to stray from the norm, we decided to make our previews a bit different here at Baseball Analysts. Beginning with today's column, we will tackle one division each week, discussing the 2005 outlook with two other Internet writers. We hope this combination of perspectives proves to be informative and entertaining.

    To avoid the usual format, we will discuss the divisions by starting in the middle, then moving to the West, and finishing with the East. In week number one, we break down the AL Central.

    Two on Two: Rich Lederer and Bryan Smith of Baseball Analysts meet up with Aaron Gleeman and Brian Borawski of The Hardball Times. Gleeman also writes about his hometown Minnesota Twins through, while Borawski covers the Detroit Tigers at his TigerBlog.

    Grab a cup of coffee, pull up a chair, and enjoy.

    Bryan: For three years, fittingly the streak in which the Twins have taken the division, the AL Central has been hailed as the worst division in baseball. This has probably been a fair accusal, in my opinion, but a notion that soon will be dying. Do you think criticizing this division was fair in 2002-2004?

    Aaron: Criticizing the division is absolutely fair, because it has been a horrible division pretty much since it was created back in 1994. I wrote a column about how horrible the AL Central has been a little while back, but the short version is that the division has rarely had a combined winning record against non-Central opponents and has rarely produced an elite team.

    Rich: I think they may have named that BBC show -- "The Weakest Link" -- after the AL Central. The Twins had the fewest wins for a division leader in two of the past three years (the exception being the Cubs in the NL Central in 2003). And it's not just that the best team hasn't been all that great. The team finishing last has had the worst record in the majors in two of the past three years as well. Say no more.

    Brian: I'm going to agree with both of you. Perennially, the worst team in the league (outside of maybe Tampa Bay) has been in the AL Central. Compound this with the fact that the Central has never had a Wild Card team, and it goes to show that the best team coming out of the Central is usually not the best team in the league.

    Aaron: I have also maintained -- while trying to remain eligible for Twinsfandom -- that the Twins would probably still be looking for their first post-1991 trip to the postseason if not for the fact that they are in the AL's worst division. Stick them in the East and they have no chance; stick them in the West and they have a shot, but I think we'd see just how quickly these 90-win seasons erode when you play a tough schedule.

    Bryan: So, the worst team has been the worst, and the best team is the least best. Yikes. But optimistically, I feel that the Central is starting to gain some solid depth and might avoid the same judgments in the future.

    Brian: I agree that the division is getting deeper. I'm not sure about the Indians' and White Sox's prospects, but the "homer" in me wants to believe the Tigers are going to be right there with the Twins this year.

    Aaron: The obvious opinion is that the division is improving, simply because the Twins figure to be good again and the Indians have a lot of really intriguing young talent. However, what happens if the White Sox decline a bit (which I expect them to do) and the Indians improve -- then isn't the division right back where it has been over the last few years, with the Twins at the top, one other solid-but-unspectacular team in second place, and a mediocre club in third?

    Rich: Yes, I don't think much has changed. I see the Twins finishing first and the Royals last. Who winds up in second, third, and fourth place is anyone's guess.

    Bryan: It sounds as if -- and Las Vegas agrees -- that the Twins are the obvious favorites to win the division. Call me a skeptic, but I just don't see it. Just judging by my own eyes, it seemed as if Carlos Silva had to be the most overachieving pitcher in the majors last year. I don't see him sustaining his level of performance at all.

    Aaron: I'm not sure why Silva would qualify for that distinction. He gave up 17.7% line drives last year, which is exactly league average. He doesn't strike anyone out, which will obviously keep him from being a great pitcher, but he also doesn't walk anyone (35 BBs in 203 IP) and he gets a ton of ground balls. He now has a career ERA of 4.04 in 374.1 innings, after ERAs of 3.70 and 3.83 at Single-A and Double-A. I'm not saying he's a lock to repeat his 2004 performance, but I don't see why he can't toss another 180-200 innings with a league-average ERA in 2005.

    Bryan: Yeah, my thought process there is simply by seeing him a couple times against the White Sox. Seemed like fringy stuff, but I also don't know that it's the best way to evaluate a pitcher. Anyway, this whole rotation seems a bit mediocre to me. I think a level of decline is likely from Brad Radke.

    Brian: As long as Radke and Johan Santana do their job, they can probably play .500 ball with the rest of the starters in there and still be right at or near the top of the division in September.

    Aaron: I agree that Radke is likely to regress, since he's 32 and coming off arguably his best season. Still, the Twins didn't exactly dominate in his starts and he went just 11-8.

    Bryan: I think the weight of this rotation lies squarely on the shoulders of Kyle Lohse and J.D. Durbin. If they pitch poorly, they could pitch Minnesota to third.

    Brian: I think if you look at the Twins rotation as compared to the rest of the division, they're right where they need to be. You might not have a lot of confidence in Lohse and Durbin, but the Tigers are throwing out Jason Johnson and Wilfredo Ledezma.

    Aaron: Lohse is the biggest question mark. I would bet on him improving, simply because he has proven he can be a decent middle-of-the-rotation guy in the past and, considering what he's making from arbitration this year, he won't be around in 2006 if he doesn't.

    Rich: Overall, the Twins starting pitchers are certainly not the caliber of the Cubs, Red Sox, or Yankees, but any team with Johan Santana as its ace ain't half bad. Heck, a rotation of Santana and the four of us would be better than what a lot of teams are likely to put out there.

    Bryan: I don't know, Rich, there isn't really a precedent for pitchers as far over the hill as you. Aaron, who will be at the end instead of Mr. Lederer?

    Aaron: The fifth spot is Joe Mays' if he's healthy. I wasn't a big believer in Mays back when he was healthy and pitching well, so I'm not optimistic about him having a good year. If he struggles, the Twins can either turn to Terry Mulholland (yuck) or one of their prospects like Durbin and Scott Baker. Is the Twins' rotation great? No, but as long as Santana is, that'll be plenty in this division.

    Brian: Not to skip away from pitching, but Justin Mourneau's condition sounds pretty worrisome. If he's not fully recovered from pneumonia, it could be a huge set back because he's their best bat.

    Bryan: That's a good point, Brian. The Twins are relying on Morneau and Joe Mauer probably more than any two hitters this year, and both have legitimate health concerns. If either falters, the offense suddenly is a lock to be the fourth best in the division. The training staff and Mother Nature just might be key to the Twins season.

    Aaron: Health is going to be huge. They already lost Jason Kubel, who would likely have been their rightfielder for the entire year. Mauer is a major question mark and now, seemingly out of nowhere, Morneau's health is a big concern. On the other hand, their offense stunk last year and it's hard for me to imagine it getting significantly worse.

    Rich: I know we're not talkin' Mantle & Maris here or Mays & McCovey, but those M & M boys could be a pretty damn good tandem this year and for years to come. Well, at least until they become free agents.

    Bryan: I think the main question with this team is, in what area are they significantly better than the Indians and White Sox? And, of course, the age-old question with the Twins, can they continue to out-do their Pythagorean record?

    Brian: I don't think they're significantly better, but Aaron's point about them never having a good offense is valid. When you have one of the best starting pitchers in the game, that gives you a nice advantage, and I haven't been really impressed with the moves the White Sox and Indians made. El Duque and Kevin Millwood, in my opinion, aren't going to put them over the top.

    Aaron: The Twins won last year, and the year before, and the year the real question is "In what way have the other teams significantly closed the gap?"

    Rich: Don't look at me, Aaron. That's a question for the Brians...err, Bryans -- ahh, forget it -- to answer.

    Bryan: Rich, The only way to spell BrYan is with a "Y." It's funny, the White Sox almost made themselves more Twins-like this offseason, going with a fast, better defensive team. The hope by Ken Williams, I think, is to make them stop doing worse than their Pythagorean record expects them to.

    Aaron: I love that the White Sox are going to try to out-Twin the Twins, because frankly I don't see that happening. I've been watching the Phoenix Suns a lot this NBA season and it is always amusing when opposing teams decide they will try to run and fastbreak with the Suns.

    Rich: I'm confused here. Are the Suns in the AL Central?

    Brian: I'm projecting the White Sox to finish fourth. Paul Konerko can't seem to put together back-to-back solid seasons. Unless Frank Thomas gets back, I don't seem them being in the mix.

    Bryan: The problem is that through all these moves, he's put a considerable weight on Aaron Rowand's shoulders, especially while Big Frank sits on the DL. If he falters, this offense might be forced to steal home with runners on third.

    Rich: I imagine Thomas would be a considerable weight on anybody's shoulders. As far as Rowand is concerned, put me in the skeptical camp. No way he finishes seventh in slugging this year. He has some talent but his walk-to-strikeout ratio makes me think he could easily lose 30 points off his batting average. I say he winds up under .300, under .350, and under .500 this year.

    Bryan: The club is filled with a lot of players that go up and down a lot, with Konerko, Rowand, Jermaine Dye, Jose Contreras, Freddy Garcia...I could go on all day. The ball will have to bounce pretty perfectly for them to take the division.

    Aaron: I'd be shocked if they finished lower than third (sorry, Brian), but I don't think they are in better shape now than they were last season.

    Brian: Do you think I'm nuts for thinking the Tigers have a chance? First, their pitching should be at least a little better. Kyle Farnsworth and Troy Percival (injury risks aside for the moment) should prevent us from blowing games in the later innings. But yeah, it's all going to come down to their starters.

    Bryan: I think, from a fantasy sense, Jeremy Bonderman is going to be huge this year. His second half -- and particularly September -- numbers were spectacular, and it's time he took ahold of this rotation.

    Brian: Ledezma is supposed to have nearly as much upside, depending on who you listen to. Nate Robertson showed some flashes, too.

    Aaron: I love Bonderman. I also like Ledezma, but their 2-5 in the rotation is a bunch of #4/5 starters, at best.

    Brian: Second, it looks like Magglio Ordonez will be ready for opening day. While he'll never live up to his contract, if he hits 25-30 homers and hits .300, that will be a huge addition to the lineup.

    Bryan: Yeah, they got a .731 OPS from right fielders last year. That's on the way up for sure.

    Rich: If Maggs is healthy, I believe the Tigers could surprise a lot of folks this year. On the other hand, if he stays off the DL and doesn't produce, the bigger surprise will be if Dave Dombrowski keeps his job after this season because Detroit will be forced to pay an aging player no less than $75 million over five years.

    Aaron: I like Detroit's offense quite a bit, particularly if they get smart and ditch Alex Sanchez.

    Brian: I was pretty disappointed he was signed, even for a million. You know Tram is going to bat him leadoff, too. I'm hoping Curtis Granderson is playing in July.

    Aaron: Also, what's Carlos Guillen's health status?

    Brian: Well, the injury is definitely a concern. While nobody is saying when he'll be back, it seems doubtful he'll be ready for opening day.

    Aaron: I'd be surprised if Guillen put together another great year, but people said that about Melvin Mora. If Guillen is going to take that deal with the devil into a second year, he'll need the use of his knee.

    Bryan: It might not even matter. I looked into Guillen a while ago, and it's weird how closely his season matched the breakout years by shortstops Rich Aurilia and Hubie Brooks. I can't help but think that he's going to go right back to the .700 OPS range that he came from.

    Aaron: Ramon Martinez is the backup shortstop, right? Martinez isn't horrible...he'll out-hit the Twins' shortstop.

    Bryan: It seems like the Indians almost have the market cornered on middle infield depth. I mean, I really think the club has six players that can play up the middle and hit better than than the Twins' shortstop and second baseman. Shapiro did a masterful job building depth with this team.

    Aaron: Even assuming Brandon Phillips has fallen off the face of the earth, the Indians are stacked in the infield. What I wouldn't give for Alex Cora or Jose Hernandez...

    Rich: Wow, I never thought Cora or Hernandez would be so coveted. Maybe I better rethink my position on the Twins.

    Brian: A lot comes down to Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez repeating what they did last year.

    Bryan: I don't see why the Indians aren't the frontrunners of this division...I really see them winning it by five games or so. with the Twins declining a little bit (reasonable expectation, probably) -- and given the massive number of injuries that the Indians took last year -- it's not out of line.

    Aaron: They lost by 12 games last year...I don't know that they are 17 games better than they were. That's an awful lot of games, particularly since they improved by 12 the year before. Who have they added that is an impact player? Millwood? How many wins is he worth, really?

    Brian: Is Cliff Lee the wild card of the team? And can Jake Westbrook repeat what he did last year?

    Bryan: Well, between Lee and Westbrook, you had a 4.31 ERA last season. I think Westbrook will decline a bit this year, but if they can post a 4.31 again this year, then Millwood and C.C. Sabathia makes a nice top four.

    Rich: Mark my words, Lee's numbers will get better and Westbrook's will get worse.

    Aaron: I like Lee a lot, but he really fell apart in the second half. I also like Scott Elarton for some strange reason...their rotation should be pretty solid.

    Brian: Arthur Rhodes could turn into a nice pickup as well if he can get back into his old form.

    Aaron: Rhodes and David Riske setting up Bob Wickman is pretty good, potentially. Throw in Rafael Betancourt, Kazuhito Tadano, Bobby's a deep group.

    Rich: Well, I can see where the Indians might Wedge their way into second place. But I think it's a stretch to expect anything more than that.

    Bryan: I'm going to go out on a limb here. Call me crazy, but I think we have a consensus on the last place team in this division. Am I right?

    Aaron: Yeah, are the Royals still in the Central? I like Zack Greinke. I'm trying to think of nice things to say.

    Brian: Who will end up with Mike Sweeney, and will he put together a full season? I like David DeJesus, too.

    Aaron: Yeah, that's true, DeJesus is solid. And...the ballpark is very nice.

    Bryan: The return on Carlos Beltran was just not enough. I know he had to be dealt and that was probably the best offer, but then it means they should have dealt him the winter before.

    Rich: Given the situation, I believe the Royals did about as well as they could with Beltran. They had no chance of resigning Carlos so giving up a half season of Beltran for three decent prospects -- John Buck, Mark Teahen, and Mike Wood -- is a pretty good tradeoff in my book.

    Aaron: Here's all you need to know about the Royals: Over at, their depth chart has Terrence Long starting in both outfield corners.

    Rich: The Neifi Perez of outfielders.

    Bryan: I'll say this: if Tony Pena starts Ken Harvey over Calvin Pickering, it will be the worst possible thing the team can do. Pickering is their second-best hitter right now, if not better than Sweeney.

    Rich: Did I hear someone mention Sam Horn?

    Aaron: It's a good thing they moved the fences back though, because their pitching staff could be really ugly. Imagine if Kauffman would have been a hitter's paradise last year!

    Bryan: How about this question, do they have any hope of not finishing last in the Majors? Is there a worse team than the Royals right now? Or are they our official favorites for the Andrew Miller race?

    Brian: I'd say Pittsburgh, but they actually have some young talent. But it should be a long season for Royals fans.

    Aaron: Well, KC has the advantage of playing in the AL Central. They went 26-60 outside of the division last year.

    Bryan: OK, I can't talk about this team anymore. There has to be something else with the other four...

    Brian: Has anyone looked at the schedules? I looked at the Tigers, and April is almost all AL Central, 6 games against the Twins, 6 against the Indians.

    Aaron: Twins finish with 4 vs KC and 3 vs DET, at home. The White Sox finish with 13 of their final 17 vs MIN and CLE.

    Bryan: So it looks like no matter where the White Sox finish in the division, their September performance could determine the winner. Alright, man up, let's get some predictions here...

    Brian: Twins-Tigers-Indians-White Sox-Royals

    Aaron: Twins-Indians-White Sox-Tigers-Royals

    Rich: Twins. Hmmm...Indians-Tigers-White Sox. Royals.

    Bryan: Indians-Twins-White Sox-Tigers-Royals

    Brian: How many wins will the division winner have? I was thinking high 80s.

    Aaron: 88-92. I'm pegging Minnesota at like 90, Cleveland and Chicago at like 85-88.

    Rich: I can't remember the last time a first-place team finished with less than 88 wins so I gotta think the Twins will win at least that many. Don't forget, they get to play these other four teams more often than anybody else. However, I don't see how the Indians and the White Sox can both win that many. I mean, that's just too many victories coming from this division.

    Despite the conversation turning into one of weakness, we thank the strong-minded Aaron and Brian. The official Baseball Analysts consensus calls for the Twins to finish first, the Indians second, with Chicago and Detroit fighting it out for third, and the Royals very, very far out of the picture. Maybe, for Bryan, the title should read "Three on One."

    Baseball Beat/WTNYFebruary 22, 2005
    Welcome to the Baseball Analysts
    By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

    Richard Lederer and Bryan Smith have joined forces and created Baseball Analysts (, an online site devoted to examining the game's past, present, and future. The Baseball Analysts will fully integrate Rich's Weekend Baseball Beat and Wait Til Next Year. The new site will feature full-length articles, interviews, and roundtable discussions daily, plus guest columnists weekly.

    Lederer will write his columns under the name Baseball Beat, while Smith will use WTNY. The topics of discussion will include college, minor league, and major league baseball. Lederer and Smith will generally write individual columns as in the past, but they will also collaborate on articles and with others on several new features to offer a unique online magazine.

    Tuesday's launch includes a column, "Who Was Your Favorite Player Growing Up?" This is the first of a three-part special, featuring 38 well-known baseball writers, analysts, and baseball executives. Next week will feature a multi-part series, entitled "Breakfast With Bill James." Lederer spent two hours with James at the Winter Meetings in December and this exclusive interview is the culmination of Rich's "Abstracts From The Abstracts" series.

    Be sure to bookmark Baseball Analysts, update your sidebars, and remember to visit us daily.