Two on Two: AL East Preview
By Patrick Sullivan and Marc Hulet

We have decided to do our little part to combat the rampant West Coast / Midwest sports bias so prevalent in the mainstream media and give the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and the rest of the American League East its due by saving it for last. Today we have Chad Finn of Touching All the Bases, one of the more enjoyable regular reads covering Boston sports and beyond out there on the web (think Simmons w/ self awareness). We also have R.J. Anderson of D-Rays Bay, your source for the best Rays coverage out there. Previous entries can be found below.

NL East
NL Central
AL Central
AL West
NL West

Sully: So the Red Sox won their second World Series in four years last season but more to the point for the purposes of this discussion, they won their first division crown since 1995. Is there a new world order in AL East, a blip on the radar and the Yanks once again rise to the top, or might we see other clubs make noise in 2008?

Chad: Well, I wouldn't necessarily call it a changing of the guard, because it will be a major surprise if Boston and New York aren't again punching and counterpunching each other at the top of the standings come August and September. But let's put it this way: their competition will be more capable and legitimate than it has been in years. If certain things right for Toronto - Vernon Wells bounces back, Roy Halladay stays healthy, Alex Rios and Dustin McGowan emerge as bona fide stars, and Scott Rolen somehow manages to avoid hemorrhaging any more body parts - they could really make things uncomfortable for the two superpowers deep into the schedule. And while I know it's trendy to say this, the other team in the division that really intrigues me is the Rays. It feels like he's been around for a decade, but Carl Crawford is only 26, and he's become the cornerstone of the franchise, which is a good thing; his OPS+ has increased each of the last four seasons, and he's the anti-Delmon in the clubhouse, a genuinely good and conscientious kid, the exact right player to be building around. With kids like B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria (when he inevitably arrives in a few weeks) and Carlos Pena intent on proving he was no fluke, Crawford finally has some help in the lineup; there's finally a core of legitimate talent to this team. I can't believe I just overviewed the division without really getting into the Sox and Yankees, but I guess that just tells you that there are some genuinely compelling storylines elsewhere this season.

R.J. This may have been the least active off-season for the AL East in quite a while, outside of Baltimore and Tampa no team was overly active. New York added LaTroy Hawkins, Boston Sean Casey, and Toronto David Eckstein and Rolen, but otherwise the major players in the division did little to get better, although Baltimore managed to get worse so that should help.

Sully: That's an interesting point, R.J. For all the dough the teams in this division tend to throw around, things did cool down this off-season. I can't help but think it is a testament to the strength of the Minor League systems in the AL East.

Marc: If another team besides the Yankees and Red Sox is going to take a serious run at first in the East, this is the year to do it. Both the Red Sox and Yankees are getting old and a number of players had career years last year, such as Mike Lowell. The Blue Jays organization has a shot but the players have to play up to their abilities, something they really haven't done in recent years. They also have to stay healthy. The Rays aren't quite ready yet, but the talented young players are close to being major league ready, so they should be quite fun to watch in a couple years. The Orioles are just a mess.

Sully: Let's talk about the Red Sox and in particular, their pitching staff. What happened to all of that depth people talked about last winter? All of a sudden, the rotation seems a bit thin.

Chad: You tell me if Josh Beckett is going to be healthy, and I'll tell you how good Boston's pitching staff will be. I know, I know, that's a cop-out, but it's the truth. As much depth as the Sox appear to have, everything falls out of whack if Beckett's back acts up or he starts getting blisters again or some other ailment knocks him out of the rotation for an extended period. He might be the single most important player in the division. Without him, they'd be asking Daisuke Matsuzaka to anchor the rotation, with Jon Lester likely sliding up to No. 2, and neither is capable of handling those roles. In the two games in Japan, both reverted to their maddening habits of nibbling against replacement level-and-below-caliber hitters.

R.J.: Beckett’s post-season made him a folk hero in Boston. I’m pretty sure he’ll never have to buy his own beer or go home alone again. Daisuke fell off in September, but in June and July, specifically June looked like he was worth the hype. Tim Wakefield is Tim Wakefield, steady as they come, and you could argue the Red Sox rotation is better without Curt Schilling since it allows the Sox to keep Clay Buchholz and Lester in there.

Marc: With Beckett and Schilling on the disabled list the Red Sox starting staff is human to say the least. Lester is a great story but he was just a No. 4 starter the last two seasons (104 ERA+ last year)… Yes he had a lot to overcome but the team still doesn't know what to expect from him. Matsuzaka is a good pitcher but I'm not convinced he would be able to shoulder the load as the No. 1 guy for an extended period. Wakefield is starting to break down and has been battling shoulder issues. Buchholz is extremely talented but he's young.

The Red Sox have three solid options in the pen: Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima and Manny Delcarmen but beyond that the pieces are easily interchangeable.

Chad: As for the bullpen, it's more or less the status quo - Okajima should be a little worse, Delcarmen a little better and Papelbon will continue to give us Goose Gossage flashbacks. By the way, it should be said that the pitching staff will miss Coco Crisp in center field if he is indeed traded; Jacoby Ellsbury covers a lot of ground despite a sometimes faulty GPS, but Crisp last season played the best center field seen at Fenway since . . . who, Dom DiMaggio?

Marc: Personally I think the Sox made a mistake resigning Lowell. He's on the wrong side of 30 (34) and they're paying for his career year. Sure he plays outstanding defence but his bat is going to become a drag on the offence, as it was when he was in the latter stages of his Marlins career. Pair him with Julio Lugo, who may or may not rebound, and you have below-average offence on the left-side of the diamond.

Dustin Pedroia is a nice little talent and should get even better this year but he's a sparkplug, not someone that can carry the offence. Kevin Youkilis at first base is an average offensive player at best. There really isn't anyone on the infield that is going to carry to team long-term. Jason Varitek, like Lowell, is going to start to be a drain on the offence sooner rather than later, although he has obvious value behind the dish. Ellsbury should pair with Pedroia to be explosive and ignite the offence but he's not going to be a star.

Of course Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz are going to be the offensive juggernauts but Ramirez started to slip last year. He's probably done being a great player, but he can still be a good player.

Sully: I disagree pretty strongly on Manny, Marc. I think he is poised for some big things in 2008, although that could be the fanboy in me buying into all those Spring Training "best shape of his life" stories. Aside from Manny, in my eyes, Lugo and J.D. Drew will have to be the ones to pick up the slack this season. I think regression candidates abound throughout the lineup for Boston but these three players could make up the year over year slack.

Chad: I see things similarly, Sully. The Red Sox scored 867 runs a season ago, and provided their aging core players stay healthy, they figure to be right around that number again. Lowell, who hit 44 points higher than his career .280 average last season and didn't tail off in the second half for the first time in years, probably will fall off at least a little bit from his .324-21-120 numbers; PECOTA has him at .285-14-79, which seems a little too conservative. Varitek, who will turn 36 April 11, seems unlikely to rank fourth among everyday AL catchers in OPS again this season; he looked like he was swinging a telephone pole this spring. But every downturn by a Sox hitter should be counterbalanced by someone else's improvement. Youkilis seems to add something to his repertoire each season, Drew, who salvaged a wretched season with one postseason swing against Fausto Carmona, is too gifted to post a .270-.373-.423 line again, and Lugo is another who must be put in the category He'll Be Better Because He Can't Be Worse. But the key to it all is one Manuel Aristides Ramirez, aka Manny Being Manny. At age 36, he is coming off the worst season of his 16-year big league career; his 20 homers and 126 OPS+ were his lowest numbers in those categories since he became a full-time player in '94, and his 88 RBIs was his lowest output since he posted the same number in '97. You don't need to be Bill James to realize that a bounce-back year for any slugger in his mid-30s is an unlikely proposition, but there are some factors that are working in Ramirez's favor. He's in phenomenal shape, he's as content in Boston as he has been since he arrived eight years ago, he looked like his old self in the '07 postseason, and perhaps most importantly, he has two option years coming up on his contract that he and his accountant dearly want the Sox to pick up. Ramirez is motivated, and a motivated Manny is historically a ridiculously productive Manny. I won't go as far as Gammons and pick him for the AL MVP, but I do think he'll approach his .321-35-121 numbers of a season ago while proving last year was an aberration and not the onset of a rapid decline.

R.J. And at this point you realize why the Sox did almost nothing to upgrade their team, because minus adding Johan Santana there really wasn’t a way to do so. Ramirez is in the ever mythical contract year and naturally reported in record time in great shape. Ortiz is still going to mash, and don’t be shocked if Lugo bounces back in a big way. I’m not sure I really get the Casey signing unless they just really don’t like Ortiz at first base, which effectively takes him out of road interleague games. Didn’t they try the same experiment with J.T. Snow not too long ago?

Sully: How about the Yanks? What they may lack in that bigtime top of the rotation guy they seem to make up for with depth, youth and live arms up and down the staff.

Marc: The pitching staff makes me very nervous. Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina are getting old and it's hard to know when they are just going to lose it completely… Mussina certainly showed signs last year that he is nearing the end (87 ERA+ in 2007).

You also have to be a little worried about Chien-Ming Wang who may have leveled off… He just doesn't strikeout enough guys (104 in just under 200 innings) to be a No. 1 or maybe even a No. 2 guy long-term.

Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy are talented but you just cannot expect young pitchers, who haven't played a full season, to shoulder 200 innings and win 13-15 games. At best you're probably looking at 180 innings, so you need a six starter to pick up the other 40 innings or so for each of them.

For the amount of money the Yankees have invested in the team the bullpen, beyond Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain, is thin. Billy Traber, Jonathan Albaladejo and Ross Ohlendorf really don't belong on a $200 million team.

R.J.: The expectations for Wang and the other veterans in the rotation are set. The more interesting focus will be on Hughes and Kennedy. How big of a leash will either be given if they come out struggling and will it affect their value to the Yankees? I don’t think Cashman is that temperamental, but a new boss and no contact extension in place could push him over the edge to deal one of the youngsters for another piece.

Anther question concerning the young arms is Joe Girardi’s usage of them, in his season with Florida he had something like six young pitchers in the top 60 of Pitcher Abuse Points and look at each of their performances last year, most falling off or getting hurt. That’s concerning to me if I’m a Yankee fan.

Chad: It all comes down to the trio of kid pitchers, and R.J. is right - it's going to be fascinating to see how Girardi handles them. The Yankees are saying all the right things about pitch counts and innings limits, and it's prudent to open with Chamberlain in the bullpen. But Girardi left A LOT of carnage behind in Florida - it can't be coincidence that Anibal Sanchez, Josh Johnson, and Ricky Nolasco broke down the year after Girardi managed them - and with the pressure to win so great in New York, you have to wonder if, say, Hughes will end up throwing 200+ innings should he pitch as well as his talent suggests. As for the rest of the rotation, it's iffy: I'm smart enough to pencil in Wang for 19 wins, but Mussina was throwing slop this spring, and Pettitte will have to endure his various ailments without turning to some of his favorite past remedies, which makes you wonder how effective he can be. It's not going to be an easy season for him, and overall this staff has more questions than answers.

Sully: There's not a lot to say about the Yankees lineup, is there? It's phenomenal, and I think has a chance to get better if Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon can bounce back a bit. These four returning to form could more than make up for regression from A-Rod and/or Jorge Posada.

Chad: As usual, it looks great on paper, and in reality it probably will end up being the second-most-productive lineup in the AL after the run-scoring juggernaut Dave Dombrowski has put together in Detroit. But there are some legitimate questions, mostly have to do with Father Time. Damon (34) and Matsui (33) both slipped noticeably last season. Giambi (37) is a cement-legged shell of what he once was. Abreu (33) slugged just .445 last season, the worst of his career. Posada (36) is unlikely to replicate his .330-20-98 numbers of his '07 contract push. And don't look now, Yankees fans, but Derek Jeter is no kid anymore, either. He turns 34 in June, and his .803 OPS in the second half last season has to be at least a mild concern. On the positive side, Damon and Abreu came into camp in great shape and with renewed motivation, Robinson Cano is going to put up .330-25-110 numbers one of these seasons, and any lineup with Rodriguez as its anchor is going to produce plenty of runs. The Yankees may not match the 968 runs they scored last season, but unless EVERYONE gets old overnight, they'll get pretty close.

R.J.: So all that hoopla just for A-Rod to remain? I’m not shocked, I mean it is New York and the Steinbrenner family, but talk about anti-climatic! The ironic thing is that Rodriguez is one of the only truly dependable bats in the New York lineup. Not that I believe it’s going to happen, but Jeter is about to turn 34; at what point does he slow down, or does he ever? Posada has nearly no chance of repeating last year’s performance, his BABIP was 0.030 points higher than his previous career high, and that was in 2000. Abreu certainly won’t help during the first half, and the list just goes on, really is it so far fetched to see the Yankees below .500 in early July again?

Marc: The offence is going to be good but it does have holes. Where is the average first baseman? Wilson Betemit? No. Shelley Duncan? He's Kevin Maas 2.0. Posada was given an extended contract after a career year but he's 36… I just can't see him being above-average for much longer. Regardless, the Yankees have Cano, Jeter and Rodriguez, all of whom are well above-average offensively. Giambi will be at DH but he is going downhill and slugged only .433 last year.

Damon and Matsui have also lost a step or two. Melky Cabrera is probably a better option than Damon at his point, but Cabrera is also overrated… He's does a bunch of things well but nothing really well with the bat.

Chad: This pitching staff could be the best in the division, or it could be mediocre - there are just so many "ifs" here that need to be sorted out over the long season. Halladay is a perennial Cy Young favorite, but he seems to be a magnet for bizarro injuries, and though it's partially by design, it's at least a little worrisome that he's really not a strikeout pitcher anymore (139 in 225.3 innings a season ago). McGowan is just 25 and has all the makings of a top-of-the-rotation starter, but he and the underrated Shaun Marcum both need to continue making progress. A.J. Burnett is a classic tease, the Ben Sheets of the American League. Who knows what they will get from B.J. Ryan and his reconstructed elbow, and losing Casey Janssen for the year was an under-reported but potentially devastating blow. He was outstanding last season (2.35 ERA, 190 ERA+).

Sully: I am not sure there is much in there I disagree with, Chad. I would just add that I think Toronto has four magnificent arms in the bullpen in Ryan, Jeremy Accardo, Jason Frasor and Scott Downs.

Marc: The Jays may have the best rotation in the league with Halladay, Burnett, McGowan, Marcum and Jesse Litsch. Halladay is a horse, but the Jays need to give him more rest – Manager John Gibbons ran up his pitch counts last year in games when the Jays were up or down by more than four or five runs. There is no excuse for that, especially when the pitcher has shown signs of wearing down in the last couple of years.

Burnett will be motivated this year because he can opt out of his contract with the Jays and seek more money elsewhere, much like JD Drew did a couple years ago. But he didn't look good in the spring because of a ripped fingernail that kept him from throwing the curveball. It's still not 100 percent so it could be a slow start to the season for him.

McGowan can touch the mid- to high-90s and is a lot like a young Halladay. Injuries slowed his climb through the minors but it looks like he's here to stay now and he could be very, very good. Marcum is a great No. 4 starter who strikes out more batters than his stuff might suggest but he has a great change-up and a solid slider. He's a former college closer who is still getting comfortable as a starter. His biggest issue is that he gives up too many homers.

Litsch is another underrated guy. He just gets results despite "average" stuff. Left-handers hit well against him last year but he added a sinking two-seamer in the off-season and really began throwing it well in his last two spring starts. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning in his last spring start.

Losing Janssen to shoulder surgery hurts a lot in the pen but once Ryan returns from Tommy John Surgery by the end of April, it will allow fill-in closer Accardo to slide back to the set-up role.

R.J: This really comes down to the health of their top three arms, if Halladay, Burnett, and McGowan stay healthy I can see them sneaking into a wild card spot. Accardo will fill in for Ryan for a while, and we’ll how the bullpen shakes out with Downs and Brandon League, but I don’t see much of a reason – barring the injury bug turning into a goddamned cthulhu - to think the Jays are the one legitimate threat to the Yankees and Red Sox finishing first-second, just as they have been for a few seasons now.

I’m a big John McDonald fan, so you can imagine my reaction when I saw they signed David Eckstein. A team that has Marco Scutaro, Russ Adams, Aaron Hill, and McDonald will have the defensively average at best Eckstein playing? That’s sure to hurt the amazing range the Jays had at their disposal up the middle.

Sully: Toronto's offense dragged last season thanks mostly to McDonald, a down year from Wells and major disappointment from Adam Lind, someone I thought would be very good. Shannon Stewart replaces Lind, Eckstein replaces McDonald and you have to think Wells gets better, right?

Chad: In a lot of ways, the offense is in the same boat as the pitching staff - there's a lot of talent, but they need a few breaks to go their way. Wells needs to prove his shoulder is healthy; it's strange to look at his stats and realize a prime-of-career player with truly immense talent hit just .245 with 16 homers, half of his '07 total. Alex Rios turned 27 in February, so all logic suggests this is the season he lives up to his superstar ability. He had a fine 297-.354-.498 season, but he has the skills to do even more than that, and the belief here is that he will starting now. One player I personally expect to have a fantastic season is Aaron Hill, the 26-year-old second baseman. The Bill James Handbook projects a .292-.346-.440 line with 13 homers, while PECOTA has him at .271-.325-.405 with 11 homers. I'm betting those numbers are conservative and he hits above .300 with at least 20 homers. The more you see Hill, the more impressed you are. He really can play.

Marc: The Jays are confident with the left-field platoon of 40-year-old Matt Stairs and the two-time Jay Stewart. But Lind is at Triple-A and had a great spring. He should be the future at that position but that future really should have been now.

Wells and Rios are above-average outfielders and above-average hitters, although Wells suffered through and injury-marred year last season. Don't be surprised if Rios becomes one of the best outfielders in the American League this year… His power numbers have been on the rise the last three years and he is always a threat to hit .300.

Lyle Overbay and Rolen, who is currently out with an injured finger, should be at least league-average on the corners. Hill is one of the top three to five second basemen in the league and should continue to get better. Shortstop is a bit of a black hole with Eckstein and McDonald, neither of whom will hit all that well. Eckstein will, though, add some much-needed intensity and energy.

Frank Thomas is getting older and his bat has slowed considerably. He still tries to pull everything, and he cannot get around on good fastballs. If he starts going the way a little more, his average will improve and he should become a little more reliable. Between Thomas and Stairs, the Jays have too many designated hitters.

R.J.: Wells and (soon) Rios will be getting paid like stars, and that’s because they are, despite a terrible season from Wells, I have to believe he’s going to bounce back. Stairs and Stewart will split time following Reed Johnson’s departure. Rolen, Thomas and Overbay need to remain healthy and if they can this lineup could be quite nasty.

Sully: I don't have much to say on Baltimore other than to their credit, they seem to have finally made a proper diagnosis. The treatment and recovery figure to be long and arduous, but they'll get better.

R.J.: This is the point in the movie where people start crying or dying, one of the two. Jeremy Guthrie was a nice find, but the pink elephant in the room is regression, and it’s not very happy with Mr. Guthrie. Fernando and Daniel Cabrera have live arms, and loads of potential, but will they ever live up to it? The bullpen has some good pieces; Chad Bradford, George Sherrill, Jamie Walker, and even the intriguing Randor Bierd. I’m sure if the Orioles don’t win a lot someone will blame it on their lack of a “true” or “proven” closer, but that’s the least of the team’s worries.

Chad: Where have you gone, Eric Bedard? There's not much to like here. Jeremy Guthrie knows how to pitch - you can definitely see fellow Stanford product Mike Mussina's influence when you watch him - but he had a 5.03 ERA after the All-Star break last season, so he's far from a sure thing. And he's the alleged ace. Yikes. Cabrera is the epitome of the phrase "million-dollar arm, 10-cent head," former No. 4 overall pick Adam Loewen is mildly intriguing if unproven, and when retread Steve Trachsel is your fourth starter, well, you don't really have a fourth starter at all, do you? On the plus side, Sherrill, the new closer acquired in the Bedard deal with Seattle, is capable of handling the job promotion; he had a 0.99 WHIP setting up J.J. Putz last season. And at least the Orioles probably won't give up 30 runs in a single game again. Hey, small steps.

Marc: The Orioles' staff has really taken some injuries hits in the past year-plus, when you consider Loewen, Chris Ray, Troy Patton, Danys Baez and so on.

This year's pitching staff is ugly. Loewen is back from the DL but for how long? He hasn't even pitched a full major league season. Guthrie had a great year but played above his head and could be in for a fall. He's had one full major league season and he's turning 29 in April.

Cabrera has shown no signs consistency whatsoever and is more likely to kill someone with his wild 100 mph heat than harness it. Brian Burres is really just a middle reliever playing the part of a starting pitching. And Trachsel should be allowed no where near a major league staff. He struck out 56 batters in 158 innings last season and walked 76 – 20 more than he struck out and almost one every other inning. That's hardly a 60-win rotation.

It's funny to think how much the Orioles spent "improving" the bullpen two years ago. The only two left standing: Bradford and Walker have been OK but they are not impact players – in fact between the two of them they make one average pitcher. Walker held lefties to a line of .228/.279/.392 in 2007 but was hit harder by righties. Bradford held righties to a line of .238/.277/.301 but was creamed by lefties.

Sully: What about their bats? There's some hope for the future in Nick Markakis and Adam Jones but not much to look forward to after that.

Chad: Free Brian Roberts! Free Brian Roberts! Seriously, beyond Markakis (14 homers and a .939 OPS in the second half last year) and remarkably talented but raw Adam (Don't Call Me Pacman) Jones, there's not much to be inspired about here. To be more blunt: this is just a terribly operated and constructed baseball team. Congratulations again, Mr. Angelos, for turning
one of baseball's model organizations into a punchline. However, I must give them their due for
dumping the decomposing Miguel Tejada the day before the release of the Mitchell Report. That was one shrewd, play-the-Astros-for-suckers move by Andy McPhail, so maybe there's hope for them straightening out this mess yet. At worst, they know there's one team dumber than they are.

Marc: Any time you have Kevin Millar, 36, at first base, you know you're in trouble. He doesn't hit for average, or for much power, and he doesn't have a knack for driving in runs (just 63 in 140 games last year). The other corner man, Melvin Mora, is also 36 and starting to decline both offensively and defensively. Luis Hernandez has been pegged as the shortstop but will be lucky to hit .220 with a .300 slugging average.

Roberts is the only really offensive talent on the infield and the Orioles really should have dealt him when they had the chance. That said, the club could have a nice little nucleus with Roberts, Markakis and Jones. But those three could never make up for the painful lack of pitching, even if all three made the next five All-Star teams.

R.J.: On the positive side and as Chad alluded to, they couldn’t have traded Tejada at a more opportune time, and got a nice coup for him. Jones, Luke Scott and Markakis have the potential to become a very good outfield. And then there’s the infield, Brian Roberts could gain some value, but probably not too much, otherwise Aubrey Huff, Mora, and Millar should be pawned off if possible – they won’t be contributing when this team will be competing anyhow.

Sully: R.J. - I want to stick with you here as we turn our attention to Tampa Bay. Pretty exciting times for the Rays. How's the pitching/defense?

R.J.: The Rays owner Stuart Sternberg recently said the team’s defense is a reason to watch his team, and he’s right. For once the Rays have a solid defensive team all the way around, including the agile Jason Bartlett, Akinori Iwamura, and an outfield that – minus Jonny Gomes/Eric Hinske will be quite fast.

Scott Kazmir’s health is the key factor in the Rays season along with Matt Garza’s development. James Shields should be solid, but after that Edwin Jackson and Jason Hammel have Rays fans praying for Jeff Niemann’s arrival.

Troy Percival, Al Reyes, Dan Wheeler, and Trever Miller give the Rays a veteran bullpen and quite an upgrade over last season’s which ranked amongst the worst ever.

Chad: Provided we don't hear "Scott Kazmir" and "Dr. James Andrews" mentioned in the same breath anytime soon, there are the makings of a terrific young rotation here. Kazmir is obviously the key, and the Rays have been appropriately cautious with the reigning AL strikeout champ's tender left elbow this spring; hopefully, the soreness proves to be nothing serious, because there has always been the fear that the little lefty could turn into his generation's Don Gullett. Shields whiffed five times more batters than he walked last season - think about how impressive a feat that is for a young pitcher - and is a legitimate No. 2, and cocky former Twin Garza has the stuff to make a huge leap forward this season. For the first time in their existence, the Rays can go into a series with the Red Sox or Yankees and, if the rotation is lined up right, actually own the advantage in starting pitching in a three-game set. And I'm curious to see how Percival impacts the Rays' perennially flammable bullpen. He was downright excellent for the Cardinals (0.85 WHIP in 40 innings) after coming out of retirement late last season. He could make a huge difference if that wasn't a mirage.

Marc: Make no mistake, Rays pitching is getting better. But it's still not quite league average. Kazmir, if he's healthy at some point this year, is a great anchor for the staff. Garza was a nice pick-up but he's going to be overexposed as the No. 2 guy in the rotation until Kazmir returns. Shields is a little like Shaun Marcum in Toronto – they both get results above what you might expect based solely on their stuff.

One out of the trio of Hammel, Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine really needs to step it up this year. My bet is that it will be Sonnanstine, who has less stuff but better pitchability over the other two. If they don't, we'll be seeing rookies Jacob McGee, Niemann and Wade Davis before long.

Pervical and Reyes have a lot in common: both have closing experience, both have significant, and worrisome medical histories and both are in their declining years but are expected to stabilize the bullpen. The pen doesn't offer much else beyond that.

Sully: The Rays had a 103 OPS+ last year and figure to get better. What do you guys think about this lineup?

R.J.: Rocco Baldelli’s career is likely over, which leaves the aforementioned Gomes/Hinske platoon in right field. It’s not ideal, however the Rays have the resources – financially and prospects – to possibly make a run at a full time right fielder if they so desire. Dioner Navarro, Willy Aybar (until Longoria comes up), and the right field platoon will decide whether the Rays are a top offense or middle of the pack, and don’t discount Upton and Pena returning to Earth ever so slightly.

Chad: Well, I got into the Rays' offense a little bit in my overview, but let me add this: I'm convinced Pena was no fluke. Remember, this is a guy who was once one of the premier prospects in the game, and even though he never really lived up to the early hype, he did have some fairly productive seasons, posting an OPS+ of at least 106 in every season from 2002 to 2005, and slugging 27 homers in '04 for the Tigers. While he has some damaging flaws - namely, his penchant for striking out - he's always been regarded as a hard worker, and it looks to me like he's one of those super-talented prospects for whom it just took a little bit longer for it all to come together (Brandon Phillips is another). Now, he may not hit 46 home runs again, but he'll hit enough that the Red Sox and Yankees will both continue to lament letting him go during and after the '06 season.

Marc: Pena had an amazing year last year (.627 slugging average) but I doubt he'll come close to repeating it… I can maybe see 30 homers and 100 RBI. His average will probably also go back to around .260 since he is a .252 career hitter.

The club needs to get rookie third baseman Longoria back up to the majors… He showed he belongs in the majors and he'll hit better than Alex Gordon did in KC last year. Bartlett is an under-appreciated player and he should really offer some stability at the shortstop position and as a table-setter in the batting order.

Depth offensively speaking is a bit of an issue. Elliot Johnson has little experience as a utility player and Nathan Haynes is the fourth outfielder… If he starts more than 30 games, the Rays are in trouble. And considering that Cliff Floyd is on the club, the fourth outfielder is almost assured of more starts than that.

Sully: How about AL East surprises? I am cheating a bit after having seen last night's performance but I will take Dice-K for a 20-win, top-5 Cy Young vote season.

Chad: I'll give you three: 1) The Rays will finish at or above .500 for the first time in their history. 2) McGowan will win more games than Halladay. 3) Derek Jeter will actually field a ground ball more than two steps to his left.

R.J.: How emotional the All-Star game will wind up being at Yankee Stadium. A lot of tears will be shed, no doubt.

Marc: I really think people are going to be surprised how old the Red Sox and Yankees are getting. New York has really come on strong in the second half the last couple of years but I think they're going to do the exact opposite this year. Both the veterans and the first-full-year players are going to wear down by August.

Sully: How about awards candidates?

Chad: A-Rod has to be considered the favorite for MVP at the beginning of every season. He'll turn 33 in July - yep, another 30-something Yankee - but his OPS+ of 177 last year was the best of his magnificent career, and with the new contract he should finally have some peace of mind in New York. He'll be a beast again, despite Jose Canseco's pathetic, cartoon-villain efforts to besmirch him. If I can admit my bias as a Sox fan, there'd be some justice in Ortiz finally winning an MVP after finishing in the top five in each of the past five years. And if Toronto ends up in the postseason hunt, you have to figure Rios probably had that breakthrough, Dave Winfield-like .295-35-120 season. As for the other major awards, Beckett's going to win a Cy Young one of these years, so what the heck, let's say it will be this one. And with the influx of young talent in the division, there are numerous legitimate candidates for rookie of the year (Longoria, Ellsbury, Buchholz, Chamberlain). I'll go with Ellsbury, the Brett Butler wannabe whose candidacy will benefit from playing every day for a marquee team.

Marc: I'll go with Ian Kennedy for rookie of the year. He doesn't have the stuff of some of the other young pitchers but he is advanced for his age and knows how to pitch. New York is going to score runs for him so he should have a nice superficial win-loss record which should get him votes for the award.

If Josh Beckett can shake off the back issues and stay healthy for most of the year he is probably the best bet for the CY Young award in the league. Roy Halladay's numbers just aren't sexy enough for the voters.

Carl Crawford is entering his prime and is a very good ballplayer with power and speed. With some protection from BJ Upton and Carlos Pena, I think he be the stealth MVP in 2008.

R.J.: Beckett, Wang, Halladay, and Kazmir seem like the possible Cy Young candidates. Alex Rodriguez is probably a shoo in for a top two finish in MVP voting; depending on what Miguel Cabrera does. Longoria or Jacoby Ellsbury are the most likely Rookie of the Year

Sully: How about the order of finish?

Chad: 1. New York (reverse jinx, my friends) 2. Boston 3. Toronto 4. Tampa Bay 5. Ottawa Lynx 6. Baltimore

R.J.: I won’t go too radical, but: Sox, Jays, Yanks, Rays, Orioles. Just feels right, although how great would it be to see the Rays slide up a few more spots?

Marc: Either Boston or New York is going to get really old, really quickly: Boston | Toronto | New York | Tampa Bay | Baltimore

Sully: I will go Yanks, Sox, Rays, Jays, O's. Thanks to all.

Two on Two: 2008 NL East Preview
By Patrick Sullivan and Marc Hulet

We have come down to the two final divisions in our preview series. Today we turn to the NL East with repeat participants Chris Needham of the Washington Nationals blog, Capitol Punishment and Dave Studeman of The Hardball Times. Previous division discussions can be found below.

NL Central
AL Central
AL West
NL West

Sully: The two-team race seems to be a theme this year. In both Central divisions it seems that two teams have emerged. The Boston-New York duopoly of the American League East sure seems in tact. The NL West probably figures to be a three-team battle and the AL West looks a bit more unpredictable now that Kelvim Escobar will be shelved for the year. So what about the NL East?

Chris: I think what's most exciting is that nobody has any really firm clue what's going to happen. There are three pretty good, but flawed teams at the top. And two younger, somewhat interesting dregs at the bottom. Last year's chokeapalooza by the Mets leaves some lingering doubts in my mind about how they'll play, even with Johan in town. The Phillies pulled off a miracle run, but some of that was smoke and mirrors. And Atlanta? That offense was pretty scary last year, and if the back end of the pitching holds up a bit better and with a full season of Mark Teixeira, won't they be better?

I can make a good argument for any of those teams winning the division or finishing third.

Dave: I see things a bit differently. Everyone is tired of talking about the Johan Santana trade, but it really did change everything in the NL East. We went from having a potential three-team race to looking at a clear front-runner. You really do have to pick the Mets as the most likely team to win it all this year, but they're not a certainty. Atlanta and Philadelphia are still strong teams, and any number of up and down years could change things. Not to mention injuries...

Marc: I'd be shocked if the NL East was not a three-team race, with Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York battling it out for first place. It may very well come down to who has the best depth and who manages to stay the healthiest. All three teams have shown weaknesses this spring, and not surprisingly, those weaknesses all revolve around pitching.

My feeling is that New York is not going to be as dominant as everyone thinks they will be. Sure they have Santana but can Pedro Martinez pitch a full season? Is Orlando Hernandez' fastball going to get above 85 mph? Can Oliver Perez finally find consistency long-term? I don't know…

I like Philadelphia's offence – Who doesn't? – but, again, the pitching gives me pause. Where is the guy that you're guaranteed to get 200 quality innings from?

Washington and Florida just have too many holes in their pitching staffs to make any sort of competent runs at the top of the NL East. Washington should have flipped both Ronnie Belliard and Dmitri Young for prospects last season at the trade deadline when the players had some value.

Florida has just been snake-bitten with its young pitching… and it's been so bad that it seems to be more than just coincidence… They've lost Josh Johnson, Sergio Mitre, Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco and Scott Olsen all for a variety of time over the past year. I almost fear for Andrew Miller.

Sully: With the way Philadelphia hits, they can afford a below average pitching staff. But I think that after Brett Myers and Cole Hamels the back of the rotation and bullpen get too thin too quickly. There's just not much there after those two.

Chris: Kyle Kendrick is a perfect example of that smoke and mirrors approach I mentioned earlier. His success, despite a 3.6 K/9, screams fluke. I don't like to read too much into spring training stats, but his 9ish ERA isn't assuaging any of those fears.

The Phillies might've made the most underrated move of the offseason, too, when they signed Brad Lidge. It's not that Lidge is anything spectacular anymore, but that it frees up Myers to move back to the rotation. Even with questions at the back of the rotation, he shores up one of the top spots and is probably the second best pickup (if you will) of any team in the division. They don't lose much of anything at closer, but gain 180+ innings of pretty good starting pitching.

Dave: You know, I always have a tendency to think that the Phillies' pitching will be better than it turns out to be. For this year, Hamels is an ace and it's nice to see Myers back in the rotation. I'd put those two against the Mets' top two. However, the rest of the rotation is very iffy -- I'll be shocked if Kendrick duplicates last year's success. And the bullpen has two big question marks at the top in Lidge and Tom Gordon.

In the field, Pedro Feliz, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley should provide outstanding defense, as should Shane Victorino in center field. The fielding will help,but it won't be able to save the Phillies beyond their top two starters.

Marc: A rotation is in trouble when it relies heavily on a 45-year-old (92 ERA+), an inconsistent rookie (119 ERA+) and Adam Eaton (73 ERA+). Yes, you have Hamels and Myers – both of whom can be great – but they have yet to show consistency. You can't really call Hamels an ace until he throws 200 innings. Myers could be a solid No. 2 if he can bounce back from an ill-advised move to the pen. I know it's only spring training but any time I see 19 hits in less than 10 innings, I worry. And Kendrick only struck out 3.64 batters per nine innings last season in the majors and he had a line drive rate over 21 percent… so he's not fooling a lot of guys.

The bullpen is bad… outside of maybe Gordon (98 ERA+) and Lidge (131 ERA+). Who else would you want to see pitching in the seventh or eighth inning with the game on the line? Francisco Rosario? Clay Condrey?

Dave: Wow, the Philly offense was just awesome last year. I think it will be very good this year, too; the best in the division. But it won't be as good as last year's.

Aaron Rowand and his fluky good year are gone, Feliz is at third, Rollins likely won't hit 30 home runs again. As much as I love Utley, it's hard to see him matching last year's numbers (setting aside the playing time issue). But Pat Burrell is a known commodity, isn't he? Slugging Average the last three years: .504,.502, .502. And Howard should at least improve his batting average of .260.

Sully: Everyone knows how fantastic Philly is at short, second and first. Once again, they will get a lot of punch out of these three spots. On a year-over-year basis, at first glance, it's hard to see how there won't be considerable fall-back offensively. Rowand and his 123 OPS+ now toil in San Francisco. Feliz, the former Giant and one of the very worst offensive regulars in baseball, now starts at third for the defending NL East champs. But a Geoff Jenkins/Jayson Werth platoon should go a long way in making up for the loss of Rowand and the Phillies OPS at 3rd in 2007 (PHI third basemen hit .255/.321/.368) was last in the league; just behind - you guessed it - the Giants. Amazing though it may be, Feliz may provide an offensive uptick! I think this offense rakes again.

Marc: Obviously the offence is this team's strength with Howard (134 RBI, 144 OPS+), Utley (103 RBI, 145 OPS+) and Rollins (139 runs, 118 OPS+). The scary thing is that they could all still get better – they're all under 30 years of age. Burrell is a nice fourth option offensively (127 OPS+) although his contract is cumbersome and likely limits their ability to improve the pitching because they can't throw money at free agents.

Third base is a black hole for Philly… Feliz plays nice defence but I doubt his bat is going to make much of an impact, if at all. But with the other offensive cogs, maybe it doesn't have to. Victorino is a nice immediate option for centerfield but I don't think he's a long-term solution. The minor league system is pretty dry – especially with impact bats. There isn't much depth to absorb injuries either.

The Phillies can probably come close to generating 5.51 runs per game again, but they are also probably going to surpass allowing 5.07 runs per game.

Chris: That's one scary infield! Of the three main guys, the only one playing over his head was Rollins, but it wasn't that much over. The only performance they'll have a hard time duplicating is Rowand's impressive .309/.374/.515, but Feliz at third might make some of that up. Feliz doesn't have a good bat (other than power), but as Sully mentioned, he's better than Abe Nunez ( .234/ .318/ .282)!

Sully: With regard to their Mets and their chances at winning the division, I come down somewhere between Dave and Chris/Marc. Sure three teams have a chance at winning, but I see the Mets as the favorites. As far as I am concerned the two most meaningful changes in the NL East come in the form of Santana's addition and Martinez's comeback. The Mets won 88 games last season and sported about a dead average pitching staff while getting a combined 28 innings from the two stars. Conservatively, they figure to get at least 325 innings or so out of the pair. The math is not that tough.

Chris: If they stay healthy, Johan, Pedro and John Maine are an elite rotation front. But I think you're starting to see some questions about the depth beyond that. Last season, they started Brian Lawrence and Phil Humber in key games down the stretch with predictable results. Unless Mike Pelfrey proves that he belongs, they're likely to be scraping the bottom of the barrel there as well. And if Pedro goes down...

Dave: The Mets have Santana, who really is as good as the New York hype he's receiving. Pedro has looked good this spring; and Maine has had a tremendous spring and could be poised for a very good year. However, the next two spots are a bit up for grabs: Perez could be awesome, or he could not be. And the fifth spot is totally in the air: neither El Duque nor Pelfrey looked good in the spring. Really, if the Mets hadn't made the Santana trade, their starting pitching would be looking much thinner.

The Mets' bullpen should be solid. Billy Wagner is showing signs of age, but the depth is decent. Duaner Sanchez is coming along slowly -- he'll be a key guy for the Mets.

Defensively, the Mets have standouts at catcher, center and shortstop. Overall, they're a good fielding team, maybe a bit better than average.

Marc: I don't have much to add on the rotation other than to say I don't like Pelfrey one bit – how a former No. 1 pick got this far with no usable breaking ball is beyond me.

Wagner (34 saves or more in six of the last seven seasons) continues to get it done at the backend of the bullpen. Jorge Sosa is a nice option for the middle innings and I think Matt Wise could be a steal. Aaron Heilman (BB/9 has gone down in each of the last five seasons) is one of the more reliable relievers, who will not beat himself, in the east and the southpaw situation is solid with Pedro Feliciano and Scott Schoeneweis.

Chris: What's not to like about the bats? If rigor mortis doesn't set in with Carlos Delgado or Moises Alou, they've got as deep an offensive core as any team in the league. If they can shore up some outfield depth to cover for Alou's inevitable injuries, they should be ok. As a Nats fan, I'm intrigued to see the reaction to Brian Schneider and Ryan Church. Schneider doesn't have much of a bat. And Church puts up good rate stats, but some of the ABs he has are U-G-L-Y, the kind that bring out the boo-birds, especially in New York.

With Jose Reyes, it's amazing how much the expectations game affects our view of a player. Last year, he had a .354 OBP, hit 36 doubles, 12 triples and 12 homers. He had more stolen bases than anyone since 1992, played every day, upped his walk total by over 20 for the second consecutive year, and he was a disappointment? Sure, he slumped at the end, but I think almost any Mets fan would've signed on the dotted line for a year like that before the season began. Rearrange his hot and cold streaks a little, and everyone would be raving about him instead of complaining about him.

Dave: I think Reyes will bounce back fine andDavid Wright will have another fine year. It would be nice for Mets fans if Delgado bounced back and Alou stayed healthy, but it probably won't happen. Can it be that Carlos Beltran is underappreciated? Last year, he 33 home runs, created over 100 runs, played a fine centerfield and continued to be one of, if not the best, base runner in the majors.

According to Bill James, the Mets manufactured the third-most runs in the National League last year. They were first in the majors in runs manufactured by deliberate acts, such as stolen bases, but tied for last in the majors in manufacturing runs from things like wild pitches, moving up on batted balls and taking extra bases on singles. That's a weird dichotomy. I have no idea what it means.

Marc: Re-signing Luis Castillo was a mistake. His value always lay in his speed but he stole only 19 bases and his slugging percentage hasn't toped .374 in more than four seasons – and it's never been over .400 in his career. I proudly display my Carlos Delgado autograph on my baseball bookshelf (the only autograph I have) but he's pretty much done. He slugged under .500 in 2007 for the first time in 10 seasons and his OPS+ was only 103. It doesn't sound like his body is going to hold up over an entire season so I don't see him improving on those numbers in 2008. Overall, the offence looks like it's going to be a little worse this season; I don't see any areas of significant improvement.

Sully: I know that John Smoltz is out for just one start but at his age, I think it may be cause for concern. Of more concern is just how mediocre Braves starting pitching is after Smoltz. Tim Hudson is still decent but there is not much else.

Chris: There are definitely reasons to be a bit skeptical about the Braves pitching, but there's also a possibility of some upside. Smoltz' injury supposedly isn't serious -- the kind of thing a little rest heals. But if you look at the disaster that was the back end of the staff last year, it shouldn't be that hard to improve.

The Braves got 64 games from starters with ERAs over 5 (5.37 to be precise). Combined, those 219 innings totaled up to a 6.28 ERA. Even a nearly washed-up Tom Glavine should be able to knock that down a bit. They won't have Mark Redman or Lance Cormier to kick around anymore!

Dave: I can't see Atlanta having much pitching this year, particularly given Smoltz's questionable health. The rest of the rotation is filled with huge, yet intriguing, question marks. Can Hudson repeat last year's performance (almost certainly not). Glavine andMike Hampton? Great stories, but don't count on much. Jair Jurrjens? Great name.

Marc: Atlanta has an advantage over all the other teams in the east – They have six solid starters with Hudson (128 ERA+), Smoltz (137 ERA+), Hampton, Jurrjens, Glavine (96 ERA+) and Chuck James (100 ERA+). You know you're probably not going to get 30-34 starts out of Hampton, Smoltz or Glavine at this stage of their careers, so you have to hope they don't all break down at the same time, which will allow Jurrjens to fill in most of the time.

As for the 'pen, if Rafael Soriano's elbow does not continue to bother him, he could be a nice anchor in the bullpen – He had a 0.86 WHIP last year. Peter Moylan's command has improved since he first appeared in the majors and is slowly becoming a dependable reliever for Atlanta. Chris Resop and Blaine Boyer have looked good this spring and could help out at some point this season, if they don't both make the opening day roster. Royce Ring (.205 career average versus left-handed batters) and Will Ohman (.196 average) should be successful LOOGIES. Mike Gonzalez could return from Tommy John surgery later in the year and offer the bullpen a boost.

Sully: The Braves are going to mash though, aren't they?

Dave: Teixeira has got to be an early candidate for MVP and perhaps the most-watched potential free agent of the year. The Braves also have some excellent young hitters, particularly now that Francoeur has apparently learned to walk. I wonder when Chipper Jones will ever stop hitting? Doesn't he know he's getting old?

Hey, I'm getting old, too. Believe me, it's hard to miss.

Marc: Even with the loss of Andruw Jones, the offence looks nice, with Jeff Francoeur (103 OPS+), Teixeira (150 OPS+) and old man Chipper (166 OPS+) leading the way. The collection of Kelly Johnson (117 OPS+), Brian McCann (100 OPS+) and Yunel Escobar (119 OPS+) is a nice supporting cast. And I have always been a fan of Matt Diaz – even when he was struggling to get out of Triple-A and receive the shot he deserved. However, I don't think he's an everyday corner outfielder.

I don't like the Braves' centerfield options: Mark Kotsay or Josh Anderson. I would rather see them try Gregor Blanco in center – or see if Brandon Jones can handle it. There is no point in them keeping non-roster outfielder Joe Borchard, who has had a nice spring. He is not going to hit .300 in the majors – or even .250. If Jordan Schafer is for real – then they really only need someone to hold down the fort for one season.

Chris: The Braves were a pretty elite offense last season even with a first baseman who slugged .394 for two-thirds of the year and with a centerfielder batting .222. Even with a step down from Chipper (I wonder how many people realize how spectacular he was last year) and with Edgar Renteria out of town, there's no reason to think they won't finish in the top 3 or 4 in runs scored.

Sully: Chris, let's stick with you here since you are the resident Nats expert for this chat. Will the pitching improve this season?

Chris: Your guess is as good as mine at this point. The Nats seem confident enough in their kids (who seem like future 4th starters to me) that they could jettison a still-rehabbing (eternally rehabbing?) John Patterson. The Nats succeeded last year because Manny Acta minimized the damage the starting pitching could do by turning the game over the pen as early as possible. It worked last year. Can it work again this year?

The Nats starters (other than Shawn Hill) are mostly flyball pitchers. That worked really well when the power alleys were 390+ feet away, and when you had Church, Nook Logan and Austin Kearns roaming around there, catching anything. With 370-something power alleys and Wily Mo Pena and Lastings Milledge (who is either great or terrible in the field depending on who you're listening to), can the arms hold up? Signs point to no!

The one arm to watch is Joel Hanrahan, the former Dodgers pitching prospect. The Nats gave him a crack at the rotation last year and he walked the park (when he wasn't giving up homers). They converted him to relief, and it's allowed him to focus more, especially on repeating his delivery. His hard stuff got even harder, and he was utterly dominant all spring, and not just against the bench scrubs. He'll likely start out as the 6th-inning guy, but on this team and with this starting pitching, that's a pivotal role for Acta.

Marc: As the broken record continues, Washington has some question marks in the rotation… but that's not surprising when any club is looking to Odalis Perez as a savior and/or innings eater. Jason Bergmann has shown promise, but I want to see him over the course of a full season… I think he might be better in the bullpen. Matt Chico (91 ERA+), Hanrahan (70 ERA+) and Tim Redding (career 88 ERA+) are all probably middle relievers at best on other teams. Garrett Mock, Ross Detwiler and, to a lesser extent, Tyler Clippard offer some hope for later in 2008 or 2009.

Washington might have one of the better pens in the east, especially if Hanrahan and/or Redding end up there as a long reliever. The bullpen has some depth with Luis Ayala, Jesus Colome, Jon Rauch, Saul Rivera, Chris Schroder and closer Chad Cordero (career 154 ERA+), although his biggest value to the club might be as a trading chip. Does a team that's going to lose 90 games really need a topnotch closer? Non-roster player Ray King should be an acceptable left-handed reliever.

Dave: Boy, I feel like I don't know a single pitcher on the Nationals. Tim Redding? Well, he's been around for a while. Matt Chico? Jason Bergmann? I mean, I've heard of these guys, but wha?

Like last year, the Nats will lean heavily on their bullpen. And from what I understand, the ballpark is likely to be a pitcher's park. So the Nats' pitching will look better than what we might expect, but we probably just won't understand how they did it.

Sully: The guy I am pulling for bigtime is Nick Johnson. I really hope he can somehow stay healthy this season. He is a real pleasure to watch at the plate.

Chris: It's going to be a shock seeing the team bat in a normal park. If it's neutral, it's a big jolt to the bats. The offense should probably be middle-of-the-pack, which is a big step up. The Elijah Dukes acquisition is key in that it gives the Nats a legit 4th outfielder (although he'll be starting initially because of Wily Mo Pena's injury). Last year, the Nats gave far too many ABs to Ryan Langerhans, Robert Fick, Kory Casto and other guys who couldn't hit their children's weight.

I'm excited, too, because there are quite a few breakout candidates. Ryan Zimmerman still has oodles of potential. Kearns was brutalized by RFK's walls and he's turning 28. The sky's the limit with Milledge, too. If they do what we expect, the runs will come. If one or more of them break out like they're capable of doing, the offense could surprise some people.

Dave: It will be fun to see how some of the young players develop in Washington. Milledge, Dukes, Pena. I also think Kearns is a fine player, as is Ryan Zimmerman. I hope they can both gain some power at bat, but I'm not sure they can. I wouldn't bet on it, anyway.

Marc: It looks like Cristian Guzman (career 74 OPS+) is going to win the shortstop job over Felipe Lopez (career 89 OPS+), but you really don't win with either guy in the starting lineup. If Washington had traded Belliard (100 OPS+ ) at last season's trade deadline, instead of offering him an extension, they could have more prospects in the system and Pete Orr or Willie Harris holding down the fort for less money. The same can be said for Dmitri Young (career 114 OPS+)… Sure, they didn't know if Johnson would make it back but you can always find a replacement level first baseman at Triple-A and that's probably what Young is going to end up as by the time his contract extension expires. First base prospect Josh Whitesell, whom the Nats just lost to Arizona on a waiver claim, could probably perform as well as Young will this season.

Sully: It figures to be a long one for the Fish. The pitching was a complete disaster last year but there were injuries all over the place. What do we think for 2008?

Dave: Florida will not prevent runs. They have no pitching and they have no fielding. Okay, maybe that's an overstatement. They do have young arms. Young arms can surprise and come through when you least expect it. But even if they have some young guys--say, Andrew Miller--turn in good years, I still think they'll give up more runs than any other team in the league.

Sully: I agree, Dave.

Chris: It's amazing how quickly that pitching staff collapsed last season, going from 5th in ERA to 15th. What was it? Rookies playing over their head? Fatigue from workload? I'd like to say some of it is the defense (they do have a pretty terrible defense!), but most of the same guys played both seasons.

They had a pretty significant bump up in offense, too. And the one-year park factor went from extreme pitcher's park to slight hitter's park. Might some of it just be the weather? I don't think there were any structural changes to the place. If it was just bad luck with weather, can we count on the pitching to 'improve' if the park returns to its historical level of offense?

Can I keep asking a bunch of questions without answering them? Perhaps?

Marc: Does Florida have any healthy pitchers left? Actually, the options are mostly guys brought in from other organizations: Mark Hendrickson and Andrew Miller. The other pitching options are going to have to be held together with duct tape: Ricky Nolasco, Scott Olsen. Rick VandenHurk appears to be an option as well, but I'm really not sold on his command and control. The same can be said for Andrew Miller – I would be shocked if his ERA is not above 5.00 by the end of the season. Rookie Chris Volstad should begin the year in the minors but he might be the team's most reliable starter by the end of the year.

Sully: Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla aside, does the hitting figure to be much better?

Chris: They're sure going to miss Miguel Cabrera's bat (though the pitchers won't miss his glove!)

Hanley's season last year was absolutely incredible. It looks like something Nomar would've put up in 1999 -- had Nomar been able to steal bases or play more than 130 games! I'm really surprised that he didn't get more support in the MVP push by statheads. By VORP, he was the choice. By Runs Above Position, he was neck-and-neck with David Wright. He was easily the best shortstop in the game, and I think everyone went to great lengths to contort his defense to knock him down a few pegs. If the numbers are the biggest factor, and you're going to disqualify leadership and team's position, doesn't he have to be your guy?

Dave: How much will the Cabrera trade hurt the Marlins? A lot, a whole lot. Of course, Hanley Ramirez is awesome, Jeremy Hermida may break out, yada, yada. But losing Cabrera and replacing him with Jose Castillo and/or Jorge Cantu hurts a lot.

Marc: Like most of the NL East, the Marlins have the makings of a nice offensive club, although the offence still has a ways to go before it can match up with Atlanta, Philadelphia or New York. Ramirez (145 OPS+) and Uggla (108 OPS+) have a lot of offensive upside. Josh Willingham is a nice complimentary player and Hermida could become a nice force, if he can build on his 2007 season. Ramirez has an impressive combination of power and speed. Uggla is probably going to remain a one-dimensional slugger but the offence he offers at second base is pretty impressive as long as that batting average doesn't sink too low and drag down is on-base percentage.

Mike Jacobs is probably an average offensive first baseman at best. At third base, Cantu has been solid, but he's motivated as a non-roster player. Once he has his guaranteed contract and the losses begin to mount, how much effort is he going to put forth? The same question can be asked for Castillo, although he at least has a guaranteed contract. Florida needs to resist the urge to rush Cameron Maybin… He's barely played above A-ball and needs polish – they're not going to win this year and probably not next year so there is no point in rushing him.

The cynic in me wonders how many more years Ramirez and Uggla will be in Florida… Both are entering their arbitration years so they are going to start to get expensive. Is Florida finally prepared to build a foundation? We'll see soon enough.

Sully: How about surprises in the NL East this season? It's a mild surprise but I will call Atlanta leapfrogging Philadelphia in the standings. The Phils finish third.

Chris: I think the surprise is going to be how few fingernails fans in Atlanta, Philly and New York are going to have by the time mid-September rolls around. It was a heck of a pennant race last year, and with three teams fighting for the division, we could have a pretty exciting stretch run. Or, as David suggests, the Mets could run and hide!

Dave: I think the Marlins have a chance to be just awful this year; worse than some might think.

I also think that something surprising will happen with the Braves' rotation. I don't know what it will be, but it will be something. Career-ending injury for Smoltz? Final career meltdown for Glavine? Hampton makes incredible comeback? Jurrjens wins ROY? Someone comes out of nowhere to lead the rotation? I don't know what will happen, but watch that rotation.

Marc: Surprise? Tough to say. Perhaps it will be how really, really bad the starting pitching will be outside of Atlanta and New York. I'm not sure any of the other clubs have more than two reliable starting pitchers. Florida and Washington might not even have one.

Sully: The awards candidates are pretty obvious this season. Who do you guys like?

Chris: Carlos Beltran never seems to get the love. If he can finally stay healthy... Otherwise, I think that Jose Reyes is in a good position because of those lowered expectations. If he improves, and the Mets do break through, he's likely to be looked at as the catalyst for their success.

If you're betting against Santana for the Cy, you're crazy. If it's not him, then it's Tim Redding. (I can dream, can't I?)

Rookie? Hmmm... are there really any impact rookies out there? Jurrjens seems like the only one with a job.

Dave: MVP's: Lots of guys: Teixeira, Beltran, Wright, Howard, Utley. Maybe even Reyes. I predict Jimmy Rollins won't win the MVP this year.

CYA: Santana. If he falters, Hamels.

ROY: Maybin is the big name, but he was sent down for at least the start of the season. Of course, that doesn't mean that much, but it's not a good start. Otherwise, Jurrjens.

Marc: Outside of Johan Santana, I don't think there is a CY Young candidate in the east… Although if we're thinking outside the box, maybe John Maine... He looks so much better than he did three years ago when I saw him pitch in Triple-A. He was a one-pitch pitcher on that day.

For MVP, I'm going to say David Wright or Mark Teixeria… It depends on who finishes first overall, likely. Wright is a better all-around player so I'd give him the edge but Teixeria may be motivated by dollar signs.

I don't know if there are any real good, realistic, contenders for the Rookie of the Year… maybe pitcher Carlos Carrasco can develop quicker than anticipated and save Philadelphia? Maybe Cameron Maybin will turn into Hanley Ramirez?

Sully: Now the order of finish. I have the Mets by five or six games. Then Atlanta, Philly, the Nats and the Marlins.

Chris: I was confident in the Phillies last season. This year, I'm torn. Let's guess: Mets, Atlanta, Phillies, Nats, Marlins.

Dave: Mets, Phillies, Braves, Nationals, Marlins

Marc: Atlanta | New York | Philadelphia | Washington | Florida

Sully: There you go, Marc. I like it. Thanks, guys.

Baseball Analysts 2008 NL Central Preview
By Patrick Sullivan and Marc Hulet

Due to a series of unforeseeable circumstances, we are going to break from our Two on Two format and simply go around the room with three of us. Al from Bleed Cubbie Blue has joined Marc Hulet and me. You can find the previous Two on Two's below:

AL Central
AL West
NL West

Sully: Well guys, what do we think about the NL Central in 2008. Just like the American League Central, which pits Cleveland and Detroit as the only two teams one can really see winning it, in the NL Central we have Chicago and Milwaukee. I don't see Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Houston or even the consistently competitive St. Louis Cardinals mustering much of a threat to the Cubbies or the Brew Crew.

Al: This is the first time in a while that the Cubs go into the season as, legitimately, the favorite to win their division. And barring massive injuries, a collapse of any kind, or some sort of miracle year by Milwaukee (the only other team that's any good in the Central), the Cubs should repeat as division champions. This would be the first time in one hundred years that the Cubs qualify for the postseason in consecutive seasons, if it happens.

Marc: My first response after looking up and down the National League Central is that there are going to be some ugly, ugly seasons… especially for St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Houston. Who is going to start games for Houston and St. Louis? They each have one reliable pitcher - Roy Oswalt for the Astros and Adam Wainwright, one season removed from the bullpen, for the Cards. Aside from Albert Pujols and Troy Glaus – if he can stay healthy – who strikes fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers? Pittsburgh is made up of a bunch of fourth and fifth starters and position players who would mostly be role players on championship teams.

Sully: The Cubs are the defending division champs and bring back an excellent rotation more or less in tact. No problems there, right?

Al: Cub starting pitching was the best in the division in 2007 and one of the better ones in the National League. I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be the same this season. Rich Hill has one full season under his belt, Ted Lilly was one of the most consistent starters in baseball last year, and the Cubs are now dealing with a strange commodity, TOO MUCH starting pitching. Jon Lieber, Ryan Dempster and Jason Marquis are battling for two spots. One of them will not make it and will either go to the bullpen (unlikely) or be traded (probably).

Cubs defense has been steadily improving over the last year or so and this year, they will have an outfield with speed and plus arms at all three positions. Alfonso Soriano had 19 assists last year, the most for a Cub outfielder in more than 50 years. Felix Pie has a terrific arm and range and Kosuke Fukudome comes from Japan with a reputation for having a howitzer (he once threw out a runner at first on what should have been a clean single to RF).

Marc: Hands down, Chicago has the best and deepest starting rotation in the division… if not the league. One-through-three Carlos Zambrano (118 ERA+), Lilly (122 ERA+) and Hill (119 ERA+) are rock solid.

Sean Marshall (199 ERA+ in 21 games) and Sean Gallagher could probably be penciled in the No. 4 or 5 spots for a lot of teams but they could both be in the minors on opening day, if they're still in Chicago. Personally, I wouldn't trade either one in a Brian Roberts deal. Pitching is just too valuable – and delicate. Lieber, Marquis and Dempster are all aging pitchers who are, at best, No. 4 starters.

The bullpen for Chicago isn't too shabby either. Carlos Marmol, Kerry Wood, Bobby Howry, Michael Wuertz, and Scott Eyre should be solid one-through-five. I have been an advocate of Carmen Pignatiello's for a while and think he can be a solid second lefty out of the pen to make up for the loss of Will Ohman. Kevin Hart has looked good this spring and could be the sleeper pitching prospect to keep an eye on.

Sully: Chicago's offense was about dead average last season. Replace Jacque Jones with Fukudome, give the majority of the catching at-bats to Geovany Soto and keep Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez healthy all season and they should be a good bit better.

Al: This is where Cub fans grit their teeth and hope. On paper, the offense looks great -- Lee, Ramirez and Soriano can all hit 35-plus HR. But will they? Lee's HR power was down last year. Fukudome hit HR in Japan, but many Japanese players see their power drop coming to the US. Will the two rookies in the lineup -- Pie and Soto -- hit the way they did in Triple-A last year? If they do, the Cub offense will be a powerhouse. If not, they could struggle.

Marc: Count me as someone who thinks Fukudome is going to be a poor man's Hideki Matsui… not someone who is going to take a lot of offensive pressure off of Lee and Ramirez. People talk about his .400-ish on-base percentage but I think it's going to take a significant hit against better pitching in the majors.

I'm not sold on Soto at catcher; I think his breakout last year was partially due to it being his third go-around with Triple-A Iowa and he also had an unsustainable .415 BABIP. The worst part is that Chicago does not have a fall-back plan in place if Soto bombs… none of the other guys in camp can play regularly behind the dish at the major league level.

Chicago just needs to give Pie the shot in centerfield. I think he can handle it… I've seen the guy play and he has some rough edges but the talent is obvious. Sam Fuld is a great fifth outfielder but they're asking for trouble if they think he can play regularly… and I doubt they do. Maybe they should look into someone like Toronto's Reed Johnson to help out in center on a platoon basis.

Al, what do you make of Milwaukee's pitching and defense?

Al: The Brewers' pitching and defense are the single biggest reason that they finished second in 2007. Ryan Braun was so bad at third base that the Brewers had to go sign Mike Cameron, so that Braun could move to LF and Bill Hall back to 3B. Their bullpen was horrendous; despite Francisco Cordero's 44 saves, he had several spectacular blown saves, and their setup relief was poor. With Cordero gone, they have to count on Eric Gagne, who's not the Gagne of five years ago.

Sully: In Ben Sheets, Yovani Gallardo and Dave Bush, I think they have three starting pitchers that represent a championship caliber front-end. In Jeff Suppan, Chris Capuano, Manny Parra and Carlos Villanueva I think they have the back end and depth to mitigate the effects of the inevitable Sheets injury stints. Al is right to point out the problems defensively and in the bullpen, but the starting pitching is solid.

Marc: It's a battle between Cincinnati and Milwaukee for the second best starting rotation in the division. Milwaukee has more experience and a little better depth, but Cincinnati has a higher upside with Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez. Last season Milwaukee's pitchers allowed 4.79 runs per game (R/G) and Cincinnati's allowed 5.27 R/G in a tough park to pitch in. My feeling is that Gallardo and Parra are closer to taking their games to the next step than Bailey and Volquez.

The loss of Cordero is going to hurt Milwaukee but I don't think he's going to save 44 games again for anyone. My instinct is that Gagne's days of domination are over and Derrick Turnbow is not a reliable back-up option. Gagne should be good enough, though, to gut out 30 saves. The Brewers probably have 10 or 12 guys in camp who could legitimately start the year in the bullpen; that's nice depth as long as some of those guys don't get lost on waiver claims or to free agency at the end of the spring… but none of them are difference-makers.

Al: The Brewers can hit. And hit, and hit, and hit. They have excellent young hitters up and down their lineup, capped by Braun, who drove in 97 runs in only 113 games in 2007, and Prince Fielder, who became the youngest player ever to hit 50 HR in a season. And that's not even counting guys like J. J. Hardy and Corey Hart, who became solid regulars. Milwaukee finished fifth in runs in 2007; they could be even higher-ranking this year.

Sully: I would say that Jason Kendall might hurt this Brewer lineup but how far is there to fall off of Johnny Estrada's 2007 effort? A big key for the Brew Crew will be Rickie Weeks, who quietly put together a .251/.422/.488 second half last season. If he can fulfill his promise and put together a big year, Milwaukee will push Chicago for the division.

Marc: Milwaukee's offence generated the most runs per game in the Central Division last year (4.94 R/G) and this season should be even better, as all the young players have another year of experience under their belts. Fielder and Braun will probably regress a bit offensively but I expect others to pick up the slack. Hart… the boy may be poised to break out of the box. I also think Hall will rebound offensively now that he is back in the infield.

Count me as one of the few that thinks Weeks will not break out and that he is going to be a classic underachiever. It's just a feeling I've had since he was drafted second overall in 2003. In more than 1,100 at-bats he's hitting under .250 and there has been very little progression, although his OPS has gone up the last three seasons. I'd love to be proven wrong. I have mixed feelings on Hardy… I think his overall offensive breakout was for real, but I don't think the power surge was... if that makes any sense.

Sully: St. Louis is a team that just does nothing for me. They have become a mediocrity laden, uninspiring bunch. Wake me up when Colby Rasmus gets to town.

Al:The Cardinals are on the Let's-Reclaim-A-Sucky-Pitcher plan. This began last year with the acquisition of Joel Pineiro, who admittedly didn't do too badly (6-4, 3.96 in 11 starts). Now, they've added Matt Clement and Kyle Lohse to this motley collection of starting pitchers. Jason Isringhausen is still a pretty good closer at age 35, but how many games will he even get a save opportunity?

If Albert Pujols is out for any length of time in 2008, the Cardinals' defense will be less than mediocre (to say nothing of their offense).

Marc: Let me sum up St. Louis' pitching potential in one word: Painful. The club's No.1 starter is a guy who was a reliever in 2006, allowed more hits than innings pitched in 2007 and walked 70 guys (3.12 BB/9). Sure Adam Wainwright has potential (and, now, some financial security) but he's not the guy I'd want to be pinning my hopes on – not yet anyway. Braden Looper is another guy thrust into a starting role in 2006 and struck out 4.47 batters per nine innings last year – yikes. And he could be your No. 2 starter. Both Pineiro and Todd Wellemeyer played better for St. Louis in 2007 than anyone could reasonably have hoped. Pineiro is injured and Wellemeyer has a career BB/9 of 5.62. I doubt he finally figured out how to throw strikes at the age of 29.

Free agent holdout Lohse finally settled on St. Louis and he's going to make things a little less ugly, but he's just a league average pitcher. Who knows what, if anything, St. Louis will get from injured right-handers Chris Carpenter and Clement, as well as southpaw Mark Mulder. Carpenter probably won't pitch this year and the other two have only an outside chance of being effective after missing so much time due to injuries. St. Louis' bullpen is in a little better shape than the starting rotation but that's not saying much.

Sully: Is Cesar Izturis enough to get this offense where it needs to be?

Al: Very funny, Sully. I repeat what I said above: if Pujols is out for any length of time in 2008, the Cardinals' offense will be less than mediocre. In fact, I might even call it an "expansion team offense" without Pujols. If St. Louis starts out badly -- and I expect them to -- and Pujols' elbow is still bothering him by, say, Memorial Day, I'd expect him to bite the bullet, go under the knife, and be ready for 2009.

Marc: You have Pujols, Glaus and maybe Chris Duncan and that's it. I'd be shocked, though, if Glaus makes it through the season... I've watched him hobble pretty badly the past two seasons. And St. Louis fans really need to be concerned about Pujols' injuries... he could have a blowout at any minutes, or he could be perfectly fine. You never know but he is such an important figure on the team; everything revolves around Albert.

Rick Ankiel is a dark horse but seems to have serious confidence issues and is prone to significant slumps. Beyond Duncan (115 OPS+) and Ankiel (120 OPS+) there is nothing in the outfield. Skip Schumaker and Joe Mather are fourth outfielders. St. Louis was lucky to get Ryan Ludwick's one good season but he'll probably go back to having trouble hitting .220 (he has a career 98 OPS+).

Sully: Anyone have anything nice to say about Houston?

Marc: As far as pitching goes, Roy Oswalt is great… a true No. 1 starter, but Houston lacks a No. 2 guy and Wandy Rodriguez is at best a No. 3 but probably realistically he is a No. 4 guy. His ERA+ last season was only 96. The sad collection of Chris Sampson, Woody Williams and Brandon Backe are No. 5 guys who could be asked to pitch as high as the third slot in the rotation. The Astros best pitching prospect Felipe Paulino probably could have helped out at some point this season but he has a pinched nerve and will be out for while… He thinks as much as three months. And he's going to need more minor league seasoning after that, so you can write him off for 2008.

In the bullpen, former Arizona teammates Jose Valverde and Oscar Villarreal have been reunited after separate trades this winter. Valverde is coming off an awesome season but he has always been inconsistent. And he's walked almost four batters per nine innings in his major league career. Villarreal is an OK set-up guy but is better left to the six or seventh inning. Geoff Geary was a nice pick-up but he allowed 289 hits in 267 innings in his career with Philadelphia and things are not going to get any easier pitching in Houston.

Al: Roy Oswalt.

That's about all you can say about the Houston pitching staff. And Oswalt's human now, not the 20-game winner he was in 2004 and 2005. Sure, the Astros got a good closer in Valverde -- but just as with St. Louis, how many games is he going to get the opportunity to save? Woody Williams is probably the #2 starter on this staff. That's frightening.

Sully: There's a lot to like about this offense. They are pretty much covered with very good hitters at the corner outfield spots, the corner infield spots and shortstop. If Manager Cecil Cooper does the right thing and gets J.R. Towles the majority of the time behind the plate, that will help as well. I have concerns about Michael Bourn and for the life of me don't understand the Kaz Matsui acquisition.

Marc: The Astros have a solid outfield with slugger Carlos Lee, rookie sensation Hunter Pence and speedster Bourn. It's a nice mix of power, speed, contact and defence. I am a supporter of Bourn and think he'll steal 50 bases this season in Houston and be an effective hitter – at least league average for a centerfielder. He's shown some improvements with his patience at the plate in spring training… hopefully it's not just a tease.

From all reports Miguel Tejada has looked terrible this spring, at the plate and in the field. With his name also having been mentioned in the Mitchell Report, I think it could be an ugly, ugly season for him and I wouldn't expect that much of an offensive contribution… maybe some homers but a low average.

Al: For every Lance Berkman, there's a Mark Loretta. For every Tejada, there's a Brad Ausmus. For every Lee, there's a Matsui. For every Pence, there's a Ty Wigginton. The Astros were 13th in the NL in runs scored in 2007. They won't be last this year, but they'll be close.

Sully: Cincinatti's an interesting team with a stud hitter in Adam Dunn and one of the very best starting pitchers in the game in Aaron Harang. They also boast a number of enticing youngsters. Let's start on the run prevention side. Marc, you have touched on them already but let's talk about the Reds a bit more.

Marc: Every time I get really excited about the Reds' potential, I remember one thing: Dusty Baker. He's not a bad manager but I can't stress enough how wrong he is for this team.

There isn't a starting pitcher in the central that I like more than Harang. He is a workhorse who knows how to get batters out and survives being a flyball pitcher in Cincinnati. Interestingly, half of the flyballs put into the air against Harang are hit to centerfield – the deepest part of the park. For me, Bronson Arroyo is an OK second fiddle. Ideally, he's a No. 3 starter but he's better than his 2007 record of 9-15 indicates.

The additions of Josh Fogg and Jeremy Affeldt are not going to help Cincinnati trim the 5.27 runs allowed per game, especially if they're in the rotation. Fogg's ERA+ has never surpassed 97. I also think Cincinnati is going to rue the day they gave Josh Hamilton away for Volquez… he's just so darn inconsistent. He's turning 25 this year and hasn't proven anything. Cueto… I don't know what to expect from him this year. He's looked good in the spring and could be ready sooner than I – or anyone, really – anticipated.

Early I said I wasn't a fan of the Cordero signing, but he is the best closer in the division – at least until Marmol establishes himself. David Weathers has been good but he's 38 now and shouldn't be relied on as a set-up guy. But the other guys behind him are going to give up a lot of runs.

Al: It's hard to prevent runs when your ballpark is a launching pad. Harang tries really hard, and was one of the best pitchers in the NL last year. But the Reds staff allowed the second-most HR in the NL in 2007. That's not likely to change under the "aggressive" management style of Dusty Baker.

Cincinnati defense could be good -- or it could be injured much of the year, which it was in the second half of 2007.

Sully: This is an offense, where, if each player played his very best for one season together, it would be remarkable. There is nobody bad per se at any position but injuries loom large and questions surround players like Jeff Keppinger, Brandon Phillips and Edwin Encarnacion. These guys might be very good. They might not be.

Al: Prediction: Adam Dunn, who has never walked fewer than 100 times in a season (in a full year) in his career, will draw 80 or fewer in 2008, as Dusty Baker's managing style has him up there being hackalicious. I'll also be interested in seeing what Corey Patterson, who was either helped or hurt by Baker with the Cubs (depending on what story you're believing this week), does as the starting CF in Cincinnati.

The Reds finished 7th in the NL in runs scored in 2007. They will rank lower in 2008. They ranked 6th in the NL in walks in 2007. They will rank lower in 2008.

Marc: I like Cincinnati's offence, but I'd like it better if they'd trust starting jobs to Joey Votto and Jay Bruce… and I don't think that is going to happen in April. Phillips is good… but his numbers are probably going to slip from last year's. Encarnacion should be better this year, which will pick up the slack. If you take out April and June, he had a very nice season and more consistency will come with age and experience.

An outfield of Ken Griffey, Dunn and Bruce (ed note: Bruce has since been sent down) will generate a lot of runs, and I like Corey Patterson as the fourth outfielder – but not the starter in center. Yeah, Dunn scrapes .250 but he has hit at least 40 homers the last four seasons and he has walked at least 100 times five out of the last six seasons. He has also averaged 100 runs scored and 100 runs driven in over the last four years. Griffey is a nice complimentary player in the outfield, but he is definitely no longer a star, even if he remains healthy. He has posted OPS+ of 99 and 119 the last two years. Patterson has only posted an OPS+ over 100 once in his career and that was in 2003.

Sully: Pittsburgh?

Al: The Pirates have a surprisingly good young pitching staff. Though they were nearly last in the NL in 2007 in ERA, between Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell and Paul Maholm, they've got three pitchers 26 and under (two left-handed) who could have breakout years this year. If Zach Duke ever recovers his 2005 promise, and if whatever remains of the carcass of Matt Morris can produce, the Pirates could move rapidly up the pitching food chain.

Defensively, Jack Wilson's pretty good. Um, yeah. That's the ticket. Jack Wilson.

Marc: The Pirates actually have a better starting rotation than Houston and St. Louis. Snell is a nice No. 1 for them, but he would be a No. 2 on a lot of teams. He's only 26 so he should continue to get better. The Pirates lack a No. 2 guy but they have an OK collection of guys to fill out the rotation with Duke, Gorzelanny, Maholm Morris – although why they took his contract, I'll never understand.

I am worried about Duke though. He's only 25 but he's regressed the last three years. If they can use him as the No. 4 or 5 guy, maybe he'll be OK. Gorzelanny, who turns 25 this year, is an underrated lefty who posted an ERA+ of 112 last year and 117 in 2006. Morris is a placeholder who has been league average or below for the past four seasons. I was a huge fan of his when he first came up but he's done. Maholm is another guy who should be a No. 5 starter… he's been below average in both of his two full seasons in the majors. But he doesn't turn 25 until mid-season and he's a former No. 1 pick so I wouldn't give up on him… yet.

This rotation is going to give up a lot of runs, but they should also provide innings. The staff allowed the third most runs per game in the league last year (5.22 R/G) and they're probably no better in 2008… But lucky for them Houston and St. Louis are worse. Pittsburgh also has youth on its side.

Sully: Matt Capps is tremendous and we all know Damaso Marte sports a live arm but really that's about it in the Bucco bullpen. What about the bats?

Marc: Adam LaRoche was pressing last year when he came to Pittsburgh and I think he'll have a big year. He hit .239/.324/.439 before the break and .312/.371/.482 after. I also think Jason Bay will rebound and those two will form a nice one-two punch. If Jose Bautista can hit 20 homers this year, he'll offer some protection for Bay and LaRoche. Freddy Sanchez is a nice guy at the top of the order but I wish he'd take a few more walks and improve that on-base percentage… it's very reliant on his batting average. Regardless of who the Pirates throw out in center – Chris Duffy, Nate McLouth, or Nyjer Morgan – they're going to end up with basically the same output.

Steven Pearce is a sleeper for this club. If he can handle the outfield, I think he could have a pretty nice offensive season. He held his own last year and showed an ability to hit the ball without trying too hard to hit a homer every time up.

Al: The Pirates scored one more run than the Astros in 2007. That's surprising, since Houston had big boppers like Lee, Berkman and Pence, and the Pirates had... well, Bay on the decline, leadoff men who didn't get on base, and no one with more than 21 HR, 77 runs scored or 88 RBI.

This is likely why the Pirates lost 94 games last year. Still, I think that someone (LaRoche sounds about right, Marc) will break out and have a big year in 2008.

Sully: Now I would love to hear some surprises coming out of the Central in 2008. Mine? I say the Cards end the year at least 20 games under .500. They're bad.

Al: The real question mark, I think, is whether the Reds will have the "Dusty Baker effect". In both of his managing jobs, he took a 90-loss team and turned them around by more than 20 wins, making the playoffs with the Cubs and missing by only one game with the Giants (and winning 103 games in doing so). If the Reds suddenly start playing well under Baker, they could be a surprise team.

I don't expect this, but it COULD happen.

Marc: The major surprise could be that Pittsburgh is better off than Houston and St. Louis. Houston has zero depth and no pitching. St. Louis has little depth and no pitching. Pittsburgh has some starting pitching – although they won't wow you – and I think their offence is going to be more consistent game-in and game-out than Houston and St. Louis… although the Pirates lack an impact hitter.

Sully: How about awards candidates? I will take Harang in the running for the Cy, Pujols and Braun for MVP and Bruce for ROY should he ever make his way back to the Queen City. Fukudome could well take ROY as well.

Al: The Cubs have two ROY players -- Soto and Fukudome, who is eligible even though he's 30, since this is his first year in the majors. Bruce might have had a chance to be ROY, except not with Dusty Baker managing. Bruce will spend the summer in lovely Louisville.

Obviously, the Brewers have MVP candidates in Braun and Fielder.

Perhaps this is the year that Zambrano will have that ONE big year that all Cub fans have been hoping for and he'll be a Cy Young candidate. One sleeper from an up-and-coming team who might surprise is Gorzelanny. And I like Gallardo a lot -- the Brewers have a keeper there. He may be a couple years away from Cy Young contention, though.

Marc: I'll pick Towles in Houston because he's a good hitter playing in a hitter's park, he plays a premium position and his biggest threat to playing time is Ausmus.

As for MVP I think I'd have to take Aramis Ramirez… especially if the Cubs win the Central. He's been really consistent over the last couple of years (138, 135, 126, 129 OPS+ the last four years) and he's flown under the radar. If the Cubs are really good this year, people will take notice.

Zambrano gets a lot of attention, but what about Harang in Cincinnati… He's a horse (two straight years of 230-plus innings). He threw more innings, struck out more batters and had a better ERA+ than Zambrano last year, but Harang gets no love.

Sully: Predictions, guys?

Marc: I'll go out on a limb and be a little controversial and say: Chicago | Milwaukee | Cincinnati | Pittsburgh | Houston | St. Louis


Sully: I like the same order as you guys but I will flip Milwaukee and Chicago. Weeks goes nuts this season. Thanks, Al, for contributing. It was fun.