Monday, April 24, 2006

Experts Finally Pick the Braves in 2006, One Year Too Late
By John Williams

Ever since the Braves began losing their starting pitching stars in the early 2000s the experts have been predicting their demise year after year. And year after year, the Braves win the NL East. Last year was seemingly the last straw for Braves nay-sayers, as injuries to nearly every key veteran forced a roster full of unproven talent to be used for most of the season. When the big guys finally came back in mid July, they suprisingly found themselves within striking distance of the NL lead and jumped ahead by August. Another round of injuries and bad luck losses late in the year meant that they barely hung on to the NL East title. Having survived this worst case scenario of unfortunate events, it has now been assumed by many that nothing could stop the Braves in the near future, especially since the youngsters who contributed last season should only be getting better.

In stark contrast to recent years, actually picked the Braves to finish 1st in the NL East for 2006. This is quite notable since espn is home to several Braves-hating analysts, the biggest among them Rob Neyer. The average vote was only for the Braves to finish 1 game better than the Mets but it seems like that was because of several individual analysts utterly infatuated with the Amazins, as a healthy majority 12 of the 19 contributors picked the Braves.

To me it seems like the Braves roster has been changing so much the last few years that hardly anyone has gotten a firm grasp on why they have continued to win. Dire predictions have been made when an important player has been lost in the offseason, only to be retracted when his production is replaced in other areas. Having seen the Braves’ unorthodox win of the division last year, analysts have suddenly resorted to just picking the Braves because they keep winning, despite the fact that the roster keeps changing. I would like to look back at the last few years and examine why the Braves won the NL East. My hypothesis going in is that when examining the 2006 offseason for the team, keeping in mind what the actual team strengths of 2005 were, it will be seen that the 2006 version is actually a weak team. Furthermore, the Braves should not be picked by everyone to win the NL East this year just because of the performance in recent years of both the Braves and the Mets.

2003: Of the fabled Big 3 who led the rotation during the 1990s, the Braves were without Tom Glavine and John Smoltz had moved to the bullpen due to arm troubles, leaving only Greg Maddux. Even worse, the fact that Greg Maddux accepted arbitration meant the Braves also had to let go another costly but valuable starter, the younger Kevin Millwood. They only scored 708 runs in 2002 but won as usual due to their pitching, allowing a ridiculously low number of 565 runs. It was said that the pitching losses here would bring the team close to a .500 record, which makes sense if you assume the hitting stays constant.

In reality, the 2003 team was primed for an offensive explosion. One of the most important changes was that in the roster turnover between seasons the anemic Kieth Lockhart had been supplanted by the rising star Marcus Giles. Veterans Javy Lopez and Vinny Castilla were horrible in 2002 (Javy also in 2001) but both were way too talented (and established in their past numbers) to continue premature declines in production. Lopez for one was dealing with knee problems both of those years. Castilla’s 2002 was a result of still recovering from shoulder problems. Gary Sheffield also had a very subpar and injury riddled 2002 campaign. In fact nearly every member of the lineup had a year in 2002 that looked like an aberration on their career path. The 2003 team promised to fill all the lineup holes with even slight bounceback years from the veterans, and putting the stable Robert Fick at 1st base to go along with the ever productive Julio Franco.

The 2003 team gave up a stunning (albeit widely predicted) 175 more runs than the 2002 team. But instead of this crippling the Braves, they cruised to 101 wins and a NL East title. The reason was the 2003 version scored a stunning 199 more runs than the 2002 team. Part of the amazing turn around was that Javy Lopez didn’t just have a bounceback 2003, he had one of the greatest offensive seasons ever for a catcher after having a miserable year the year before. But still, this wasn’t a team that snuck into the playoffs on the back of Lopez, they won 101 games and beat the Marlins by 10 for the division. The team slugged .475 for the year, a number so high that someone had to have seen it coming. Experts should have looked at the projected lineup and seen the likelihood for 850 runs scored (along with the likely 700 allowed), putting them in line for a low-mid 90s win season and a division crown.

2004: The roster turnover between 2003 and 2004 was enormous, leading many to say that the division winning run would finish, as if believing change in of itself was negative, without bothering to analyze the changes in expected production. The lineup changes were as follows: Johnny Estrada for Javy Lopez, Adam LaRoche for Robert Fick, J.D. Drew for Gary Sheffield, and a 3 player platoon for Vinny Castilla. Overall it’s a huge change, and a pretty big negative, mostly because of the Estrada for Lopez swap. It’s true that the 2004 team should have been expected to score many less runs than the 2003 offensive juggernaut. The problem I have with the logic for then saying they should have finished 2nd-5th is that the remaining lineup was still very productive on paper, so unless the pitching was getting much worse than the Braves should still win in the low 90s, making them a good bet to repeat the as divisional champs.

The pitching turnover was large as well, which was more ammunition for experts to pick against the Braves in 2004. Look at the changes though, in the rotation Greg Maddux was lost, how has a big name but who wasn’t at all dominant in 2003, going 16-11 with an era near 4. The replacement John Thomson should have easily been projected to equal those numbers once the park effects and switching to a pitching friendly league was taken into account. Elsewhere in the rotation, Paul Byrd was returning from surgery the previous year and would be replacing an old and completely ineffective Shane Reynolds from 2003. The bullpen going into 2004 on paper should have been remarkably improved, not that anyone paid attention. The 2003 bullpen was essentially a lights-out John Smoltz, a decent Ray King, and little else. Chris Reitsma, Antonio Alfonseca, and Juan Cruz were all good arms acquired for the 2004 team to setup Smoltz, who had almost no help in 2003.

These pitching changes should have equated to something like 30-50 less runs allowed in 2004 and thus another very good chance for a division winning team. Actually though the 2004 version allowed 72 fewer runs. This extra pitching was delivered by Jaret Wright, who took over for Horacio Ramirez when he went down. No one could have ever predicted Wright’s 15-8 (3.28 era) season and everyone besides George Steinbrenner knew it was just an aberration. The Braves went 96-66 in 2004 and won the division by 10 games again, this time over Philadelphia. The point is even without a “breakout” season from Jaret Wright, they still would have won the division by several games, and that is the kind of finish people should have been predicting, not a 2nd or 3rd place finish, especially not behind a Phillies team with a vastly overrated pitching staff.

2005: Things start to get tricky around here. The 2005 team should never have been expected to perform significantly worse than the 2004 version. Jaret Wright, Paul Byrd, and Russ Ortiz would be replaced in the rotation by Tim Hudson, John Smoltz (coming back from the bullpen), and Horacio Ramirez returning from injury. This was automatically a huge upgrade, even if some people were still making a habit betting against the hall of fame worthy Smoltz being an effective starter again. The lineup took a hit from J.D. Drew leaving but the remaining parts would be more than enough to make the Braves a good bet to repeat once again. In fact the pitching remained about the same in 2005 from 2004, allowing only 6 runs more while the hitting scored 34 less runs. It all added up to a 90-72 record and a narrowly won division over the Phillies again. Simple things on paper were not in fact so simple on the field however.

The 2005 team was absolutely decimated with injuries. Smoltz, Hudson, Thomson, Hampton, and Ramirez all missed time or pitched through injury at some point. In the lineup Chipper Jones and Estrada missed major time while Furcal and Giles played through injury for most of the year. Corner outfielders Jordan and Mondesi meanwhile were terrible and replaced by Kelly Johnson, Jeff Francoeur, and Ryan Langerhans (all minor league call-ups) by mid-season. The replacement for Smoltz at closer, Danny Kolb was a nightmare and had to be replaced by Reitsma after only about a month, meaning the bullpen setup core was significantly weakened as well. Injuries hit the bullpen as well, and for one stretch everyone besides Reitsma was a recent call-up.

The midseason turnover was so huge that it was hard to make sense of who produced and who didn’t. All told, production wasn’t really all that good. The Braves in 2005 finished 11th in MLB in pitching with a 3.98 era. But looking at the peripheral pitching stats, the Braves finished only 19th in MLB in whip (walks + hits per 9 innings), a stunning 28th in MLB in k/9 and only 24th in k/bb so it wasn’t like they just weren’t walking people either. The Braves did not pitch all that well in 2005. In fact the staff had been changing from 2002 until 2005 into one that relied much more on their fielders (the Braves have been for the last decade + a very good fielding team) to make outs out of balls put into play. This chart shows the k/9, whip and k/bb for the braves since 2002.


k/9 (MLB Rank)

Whip (MLB Rank)

k/bb (MLB Rank)


6.49 (14th)

1.26 (3rd)

1.91 (13th)


6.13 (20th)

1.36 (17th)

1.79 (22nd)


6.36 (20th)

1.38 (14th)

1.96 (13th)


5.79 (28th)

1.39 (19th)

1.79 (24th

Ever since the dominant pitching teams of the late 90s, the Braves starters had been letting increasing numbers of balls go into play and allowing increasing numbers of baserunners. They continued however to stay near the top of the league in ERA year after year, largely due to the fact that they played in a pitcher’s park with a sensational defensive team behind them. Defense isn’t that important to many teams, but to a team filled with control - as opposed to dominating - pitchers like the Braves, it’s very important.

The hitting all told in 2005 was good enough for the division (barely) but for all the talk of the successful youth movement, production was significantly down from 2004 after all the changes. The hope going into 2006 was that the youngsters would improve on their 2005 years, even though this isn’t necessarily likely. Jeff Francoeur and his swing-at-everything style was figured out late in the year, as pitchers finally strategized how to get him out and he slumped very badly. The core group of guys in 2005 was buoyed by Andruw Jones’ breakout year that he is unlikely to completely replicate in 2006. In addition, the sparkplug for the Braves for years at the top of the order, Rafael Furcal, has moved on to be replaced by a slightly less productive Edgar Renteria.

The changes to the pitching staff here aren’t big, but there are few good ones. Hampton, a serviceable back of the rotation arm in recent years, is shelved for the entire year after having arm surgery. Smoltz is a year older and has had more arm troubles. Tim Hudson who was supposed to reinvigorate the starting pitching in 2005 in fact regressed further down a disturbing career trend. The only starter likely to improve is Kyle Davies, mainly because in 2005 he had no major league experience. Few outside the Braves organization regard him as a serious prospect. The bullpen in 2005 was only really effective after Farnsworth was acquired in a brilliant trading deadline deal. He has since left, and only unproven youngsters and veteran retreads remain. The pitching staff should not be getting any better, and so far in 2006 through 17 games it isn’t: 1.42 whip (17th in MLB), 1.64 k/bb (22nd in MLB), and 5.50 k/9 (28th in mlb).

Those are pretty similar peripherals to the 2005 team though, which had a team ERA of 3.98, plenty good enough. I think one of the problems for this year's team is the decrease in team defense. Here is a table of the Braves’ main position players in 2005, the expected regulars in 2006, and their defensive ratings from both years (projected for 2006). Note: the defensive rating values are from Baseball Prospectus 2006 and are a measure of runs saved above average.


2005 Player

2005 Fielding

2006 Player

2006 Fielding












































Atlanta, we have a problem. Those 2005 stats explain the discrepancy between the 2005 Braves’ peripheral pitching stats and their team ERA. The 2006 team, with similar peripheral stats, has a team ERA so far of 5.19 (20th in MLB), which seems to be right in line with what Baseball Prospectus would be predicting for their 2006 fielding ability. The Braves are seriously hurting in the pitching department, and it is now showing in runs allowed since their defense has gone from stellar to suspect, albeit it in a series of subtle ways. Exchanging Furcal for Renteria hurts the infield defense immensely, and the other slight changes are all for the bad. The outfield defense (very important for all the fly ball pitchers on the staff) is weakened by missing the injured Kelly Johnson (a superb left fielder) and the fact that Andruw Jones continues to decline rapidly.

Conclusion: Experts have not paid enough attention to why the Braves really won in 2005 and what changes were made to the team in the 2005 offseason, instead just crowning them preseason favorites because of the shocking way in which they won in 2005, which really didn’t come out all that crazy on paper. The 2006 team is likely to allow many more runs, and unless the young hitting exceeds all expectations, they will struggle to win 85+ games, which won’t do it in a division with the much-improved Mets.

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Saturday, April 15, 2006

John's "Take 'em to the Bank" Predictions

Ben did a top notch job with his preseason predictions, I must say I don’t disagree hugely with anything in there, I'll try to point out what does differ. Normally I do mine the first day of the regular season but I’m a little behind this year. I also never pick preseason Cy Young, MVP, or ROY since those all tend to be decided too much on the most flawed of baseball stats. How would I even begin to predict what pitcher would get the run support, who would hit for the highest average, etc? I hope that my predictions here haven’t been influenced by what’s happened so far, but here goes:

AL East:

1. Yankees

If there is one thing I’ve learned about baseball from years of watching the results, it’s that if something keeps happening repeatedly that seems to defy mathematical or intuitive reason, the reasoning is probably faulty. The fact that the Yankees continue to finish first in the AL east year after year despite having slightly weaker teams than the Red Sox seems to be one of these things. And the fact that they have won it two years in a row with a great offense but with an utterly offensive pitching staff leads me to believe that this similarly put together team will do the same.

2. Red Sox (Wild Card)

This is not to say the Red Sox will not stay right with the Yankees as they do most year. The Red Sox have an extremely talented team. They might be one of the dominant teams if not for the fact that they are about a year and a half from all of their young pitchers coming together and they are a couple years too late for other pitchers who no longer seem to be as consistently effective (Schilling, Wells, Foulke). If they manage not to lose much offense the next few years they could finally get over the hump and take the division, but I don’t see it happening yet.

3. Blue Jays

A third place team most likely, but how much would really have to go right for them to be 1st or 2nd? I think it would take Wells, Glaus, Halladay, Burnett, and Lilly all being healthy for the entire year. If this happens then there could very well be three 90 win teams in the AL East, but even if not, this is still as strong as the division has been in years.

4. D-Rays

An endless stream of outfield talent from the minors still cannot bring this team up from 4th place. It’s almost as if they are playing in a different times, they hit for average, but don’t get on base enough. And they just have no pitching staff. Their extremely raw hitting talent will keep them out of the cellar but this is their destiny until some moves are made for starting pitching to complement Kazmir.

5. Orioles

Can anyone tell me what the Orioles are doing? Their “crop” of young pitching “talent” is laughable at best, and their lineup is a of mish mash of over the hill, overpaid, and slow-footed sluggers. This roster is an example of fluky hitting stats in a hitting park skewing the team’s perception of its own hitters. As guys like Mora and Roberts come back to earth and Tejada finishes his peak offensive output years, this team is just going to get worse and worse.

AL Central:

1. Indians

Your daddy’s AL Central this is not. The talentless void of the early 00s has been replaced with 4 strong teams. Leading the way is the sequel to one of the best teams of recent memory to not make the playoffs. Barring another huge unexplained slump, the Indians will take this division. Their lineup is the greatest ensemble of young but established hitters since…well…the Indians of the mid 90s. The pitching should round out nicely as well, Sabathia, Lee, and Westbrook are a fine top of the rotation to go along with the deep bullpen and big time lineup.

2. White Sox

Ugh do I really have to talk about the White Sox? Ok here goes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more misunderstood team than the 2005 White Sox. In the 2004 offseason the White Sox let go Ordonez and Lee in an effort to “shake things up”. Previously the White Sox had for years had trouble keeping pitchers healthy and/or effective and getting beaten squarely by the more well-rounded Twins who could just outpitch them year after year. Instead of improve what was lacking on the team, all the White Sox did was weaken their offense somewhat so as to appear more like the Twins lineup (small ball, if you will). Kenny Williams got tired of losing the same way essentially, and to change it, he let 2 of their best hitters go. So what happens instead of the team getting worse? Nearly every member of the pitching staff has a career year all at once and stays healthy, plus they both score more runs and allow fewer runs than their peripheral stats should indicate, and win 1 and 2 run games at a .750 clip (mostly luck here). This puts their record about 15 wins higher than it should have been, although some people would have even been surprised with a 90 win team going into the year. The White Sox did go into 2005 as being slightly underrated though, since years of not playing up to expectation obscured their true talent.

Kenny Williams makes bad moves hoping he will be seen as trendy, and his team works like magic (think the 2002 Angels). The same thing kind of happened in the 2004 Red Sox year, Nomar was traded and a few weeks later the team took off. Did they take off due to improved defense? Hah the Twins wish defense was that important. No, they were just a stacked team that took a while to achieve their expected output. Taking into account why the White Sox succeeded in 2005 one might think a repeat performance is unlikely, but this time Kenny Williams changing things up was a good thing. He either realized that his team wasn’t as good as advertised or he just likes making a lot of moves nomatter what happens. But in either case the team improved on paper a lot in the 2005 offseason, which should keep them in the hunt this year even if some guys come back to earth and the inevitable injuries to pitching occur.

3. Twins

Like the great Torii Hunter says, ownership just does not want to win in this case. It’s a shame because of the incredible pitching and outfield talent developed in Minnesota the last 5 years. Instead of trading excess for what was needed (a home run hitter please!!!), the Twins instead settled for logjams of talent at a few positions, unable to add any payroll, even if they had the minor league talent to trade for players to put them over the top. They could have won the World Series one of the last few years if only some established hitters were added (and I’m talking guys better than Shannon Stewart) or even if only they could have paid for David Ortiz. They still remain a very good team however, with a strong pitching staff and a couple mega-talented but raw hitters. Unfortunately opponent offenses have picked up in the AL Central recently, so they can’t just throw strikes anymore and hope to win 2-1 against everyone. Last year their lack of hitting really showed for the first time. Morneau and Mauer need to pick it up and quick to make the playoffs in 2006.

4. Tigers

Not a bad talent base on this team. But why oh why are they so preoccupied with throwing money at waaaay over the hill “veterans”. Let’s make a list of some players just since 2003 that made the roster based on accomplishments from the early/mid 90s: Dean Palmer, Steve Avery, Rondell White, Ugueth Urbina, Fernando Vina, Troy Percival, Kenny Rogers, and the list goes on (also Juan Gonzalez not too long ago). All players nearly useless at their age. And the bigger signings of late: Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Dmitri Young, all guys with big question marks or on the wrong side of 30. It’s almost as if the Tigers haven’t trusted their player development enough, because they have plenty of young talent now starting to make names for themselves, and hopefully there’s enough money left to sign them up so they can make a run at the Indians sometime soon.

5. Royals

Not much to say here, every effort at rebuilding fails miserably. The latest crop of young pitching, Hernandez, Affeldt, Greinke, etc. has fallen flat on its face once again. Signing Elarton, Mays, Elmer Dessens and company to improve the pitching is like pouring gasoline on a fire to put it out, but old gasoline, and overrated gasoline. If being horrible isn’t bad enough, the Royals have also been the least lucky mlb team at winning 1 run games the last 5 years, meaning instead of settling with 90 loss teams, the Royals annually threaten the century mark. There are a couple young guys to keep a look out for, and that’s it, this team is trying to tread water in quicksand with thousand pound weights on their legs.

AL West

1. A’s

I must say I agree whole-heartedly with Ben’s assessment of the A’s as being the team to beat in mlb this year. For all the moneyball misinterpretations out there, Billy Beane continues to find what is undervalued by his fellow gms and mercilessly acquire it. The A’s also seem to have a knack for spotting young pitching talent, as their staff is stocked to the brim with it, even after letting go co-aces Mulder and Hudson. It will take some real bad luck for them not to win 100 games 2 out of the next 3 years. I really think they’ll win this division running away this year and they will be a force to contend with come playoff time. T-minus 6 months before Rich Harden is a household name.

2. Angels

Where is this team going? I’m not exactly sure. I don’t think it’s up though. They keep coming up empty on some players who could really help, and everyone keeps getting older without the young guys really threatening to pick up the slack. I think this team could fall hard and fast given a carefully placed injury (VLAD!), but if everything goes according to plan their starting pitching will be decent, their relief work stellar, and their lineup eh… This team isn’t as bad as Gritz would have you believe though, there is a lot of value for a team’s W-L from a pitching staff that refuses to walk people, but as long as the lineup also doesn’t walk or protect their precious few baserunners the Angels won’t see 1st for a while.

3. Rangers

Fast becoming recognized as the Rockies of the AL, the Rangers seemed destined to not being able to win with their park. Their hitting stats are widely divergent on the road and home, and that hot Texas heat and small ballpark are murder on their pitchers. No one wants to pitch there but some do it if given enough money, not the best ones though unfortunately. A couple good seasons from starters (step it up Millwood!) could get them to 85 wins or so since the bullpen and lineup are strong, but there will be no playoffs this year for the Rangers.

4. Mariners

Remember when Seattle won 116 games in the 2001 regular season? Jamie Moyer was there, so was Joel Pineiro. Actually that team’s success said more about the AL talent base in 2001 than their actual strength. It was a team that got on a hot streak and refused to get off the wagon. Since riding their 5 starters hard that year, everyone got old and real fast. The team today is a mix of youth and the elderly. There just aren’t enough solid players around the youth to give them any shot of competing this year. Sluggers Beltre and Sexson just do not fit in this pitchers park that requires patient contact hitters to build an offense around, not swing and miss home run hitters. This will probably be another 90 loss season unless some players have bounce back years. Now before I finish, it is pretty impossible to talk about the Mariners, nay baseball in general, without mentioning Felix Hernandez. He is the pitching prospect that comes along once in a generation. The last one was Dwight Gooden, and he flamed out as fast as he started, so it’s been a long time since a guy like King Felix was around. He has a moving 100 mph fastball with good control, a ridiculous big sweeping curveball that has caused minor leaguers to fall down in fear as it bends back over the plate, and a very good changeup that he will throw anytime but usually doesn’t even have to. He has already dominated 4 minor league levels where he was the youngest player in the league, and it won’t be long before he’s doing the same in the majors. His only weakness is his tendency to try to overthrow when things aren’t going well. He’ll learn to trust his stuff in the majors quickly though. Pitchers in the future may strive to win the Felix Hernandez award.

NL East:

1. Braves

The talent pool of the Braves pitching staff has been steadily and painfully eroding the past few years. Digging deeper into last year’s numbers makes for much worrying, as I plan to write a blog about soon. Position player strength has been increasing steadily though, as their very young hitters continue to mature. The question is, can a team with a pitching staff held together by duck tape and a whole lot of raw hitting talent win the NL East over the Mets? Probably not, but with Bobby Cox at the helm anything seems possible. This year is the most likely one yet for their string of 15 straight divisional titles to end but I’m going to pick them for 1st one last time.

2. Mets (Wild Card)

After spending ridiculous amounts of money 2 years straight the Mets finally have a contender. What they have is a kind of “let’s win now and pick up the pieces later” kind of team stocked with over the hill talent. It’s the widely spaced young studs (David Wright chiefly) that will take them where they’re going though. This team should not miss the playoffs, and very well may win the division. The coming years should be very interesting as their pitching and sluggers continue to age quickly, the question will be whether they will be able to rebuild around Wright and Reyes.

3. Phillies

Finishing only 2 games out of the division title last year was this teams last hurrah. The window is closed for the playoffs until they get some pitching. After coming up empty looking for a #1 starter, this team is destined to play another year like the Rangers, never being able to score enough to offset the terrible pitching. It’s too bad because Utley, Howard, Abreu, and Burrell is one of the best middle of the lineups out there.

4. Nationals

This team has good enough pitching to keep it somewhat interesting, it’s the hitting that is terrible. Gritz is right the stay at the top of the division in 2005 was a fluke, but not the overall pitching the Nats received, which should keep them out of last in 2006. Nick Johnson would be a serviceable #3 or excellent #5 hitter in a lot of lineups, but in Washington he is just pitched around. Low obp guys like Soriano and Guzman (or worse yet his fill-in Clayton) are the norm here, meaning they’re not going to score more than 3-4 runs most nights. Patterson is a fine young pitcher, but there’s not much else to be excited about for the future of the Nat’s pitching. The young Ryan Zimmerman is a faint ray of hope at 3rd.

5. Marlins

How can you predict a team’s success when nearly the entire roster has been turned over? Well it’s pretty easy when all the replacements are prospects who probably shouldn’t even be in the majors yet. The pitching on the other hand is more a bunch of retreads behind Willis than promising youngsters. They do have Cabrera and Willis for the time being, and this is the talent thin NL we’re talking about, so they won’t lose 115 games this year. An even 100 sounds about right.

NL Central

1. Cardinals

I don’t necessarily see this as a weaker team than last year’s 100 win team. I think any regression will mostly be due to the division strengthening and less important parts of the lineup not being as good. The main pieces of the juggernaut of the last few years are still here, so I expect nothing less than a division title along with a strong playoff showing. The big worry would be if all those innings finally started to catch up with Carpenter.

2. Brewers

This team is good. They’re better than your neighbor thinks they are, and they’re better than most baseball fans think. Good starters, good lineup, good bullpen, a balanced team that doesn’t wow you with any part, but nearly every part is steadily improving. Like the Blue Jays in this way, they only need one of their elite talents to step it up to push them over the top into the limelight. If Ben Sheets can just stay healthy, then he may push for the NL Cy young this year, and the Brewers definitely threaten 90 wins. The team is in a very good position right now, young players all over the diamond along with increased fan interest/revenue from a winning team should propel them into playoff contention for the next several years.

3. Cubs

The Cubs and question marks, two things that were made for each other. Will Prior be healthy? Will Wood finally get healthy? Will Miller recover from surgery? Will the bullpen work together? Can Pierre bounce back and provide stability at the top of the order? Those are just the big things, meaning there are very few sure things on this team. I don’t think they will contend unless they get all the breaks this year, and when was the last time that happened for the Cubbies?

4. Astros

Barring a Clemens return the rotation is much weaker here. It’s just unlikely that Pettite and Oswalt are going to duplicate their spectacular seasons and make this team a contender. This they could easily finish 3rd but I think there is going to be a rapid dropoff pretty soon (like the Mariners team a few years ago that suddenly got old).

5. Reds

Great hitting, terrible pitching, what else is new for the Reds? I don’t think they’ll be cellar dwellers just because their hitting is that good. The pitching might actually not be as terrible as recent years, since Harang and Arroyo are at least average starters, not something the Reds have had a whole lot of in recent years. There are also some young effective arms in the bullpen for once. The Reds could get real hot at times, but shouldn’t finish any higher than this.

6. Pirates

Think the Brewers two years ago. That means there is finally some talent on the farm and some very young talent on the major league roster. It’s not going to produce many wins this year, but it is nice to finally see them start to go in the right direction. They do have one of the better all-around outfielders in baseball in Jason Bay too, so at least there’s a reason to watch right now as well.

NL West

1. Padres

By far the hardest division in baseball to pick, there just simply is not much talent in this division, any team that wins it is going to do it despite having serious flaws. Take the 2005 Padres for example: a horrible back end of the rotation, a barely mediocre offense, and a division title. I think it will end up this way again because I do think they had the best team last year and were held back somewhat with injuries, and if anything they improved the roster over the offseason. Just look out, if Peavy is not at top form they are in serious trouble.

2. Dodgers

None of these picks are easy, since you can make a case for every single team here to win the division. The Dodgers, compared to everyone else here, probably have the best talent available. The problem is that so much of it is injured. Gagne’s injury problems change the whole complexion of the bullpen. If the lineup could ever stay healthy together (namely if Drew and Garciaparra could play 150 games each) runs would not be a problem. Lack of a dominant rotation hurts more due to the likely weak lineup, and this should keep them struggling for .500 as opposed to leading the division.

3. Giants

The team with the oldest position players in baseball needs Bonds to be healthy to be considered a playoff contender. The roster is essentially in place the way it is because of Bonds, if he wasn’t around the organization would have gone younger a long time ago. Guys like Alou and Vizquel remain as valuable producers to compliment Bonds but without him the lineup’s numerous problems are completely exposed. Similarly the pitching is good enough with a healthy Schmidt but suspect otherwise. A tough pick to make, the Giants could run away from the pack with healthy years from their stars, but since that is looking less than likely I think a 3rd place finish is a pretty good bet.

4. D-Backs

Only in this division would Arizona be seen as a plausible threat. The major league team is still a mess leftover from the World Series winning team of 2001. Webb is a bonafide ace but the rest of the rotation is suspect as best (an injury to the useless Ortiz would be seen as a good thing). The hitting has a chance to be ok (also relying on old middle of the lineup players here in Gonzalez and Green), but lacks in the power department sorely after trading Glaus in the offseason. The minor league system has actually been redeveloped surprisingly quickly in recent years, loading up on an amazing number of talented outfield mashers for the future. Fourth place is likeliest I think but with a few breaks and an aggressive deadline deal or two for some pitching could thrust them into playoff contention. The front office probably won’t mortgage the future though, since the current state of the team is not one to win any titles until the team’s major league core turns younger.

5. Rockies

Sure they’re bad, but they might not be as bad as you think. The pitching (bullpen and starters) might be about as good as it’s ever been, and there are a few young lineup pieces to watch. It appears there just isn’t enough hitting here, which is exposed with their play on the road. Tightening up the pitching and defense on the road would really go far. That combined with a bounceback year from the injured Helton could get this team within 10 or so games of .500, a notable accomplishment in their uneven history.

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Monday, April 10, 2006

2006 Indians Need to Eliminate Choking Label but Change Little Else

In an often replicated exercise, it has been shown that the Cleveland Indians run differential should have put them ahead of the Chicago White Sox in 2005 in the AL central division, as they allowed about the same number of runs but the Indians scored about 50 more. Much has consequently been said about the Cleveland Indians’ inability to get the “big hit” in the “clutch situation” in 2005, going only 22-36 in 1 run games. The White Sox, on the other hand, made the best of their base-runners, and with a strong bullpen were able to win the close games, going 35-19 in 1 run games, and 9-0 in 1 run games against the Indians. The Indians finished only 6 games behind Chicago for the division and would have won had either of these teams posted 1 run game winning percentages close to .500, as one would expect.

Looking broadly at the statistics, it appears this assessment of the Indians season is justified enough. The team as a whole batted .271 on the year, good for 6th in mlb. Their team slugging was .453, 3rd in the mlb. With runners in scoring position, their average dropped down to .259, only 23rd in mlb in these situations. And their diminished slugging percentage of .414 with risp ranked 16th in baseball. The stats were similarly bad with the runners in scoring position and 2 outs and in bases loaded situations, where the team only batted .241. These numbers would suggest as the situation got more important, the Indians’ hitters performed worse.

That said, it’s hard enough to define what (if anything) clutch hitting is exactly, so it’s harder still to measure it. While examining every individual hitting situation in a season would probably be best, I think a case could be made that a good measure of a team’s clutch hitting ability would be their ability to get runners home from scoring position. This should combine the ability of the team to get hits with runners in scoring position with their ability to make productive outs when needed, as most people would probably agree that a sac fly to win a game against a tough reliever would count as a clutch at bat.

One stat that has been developed for examining the important hitting spots in a game is the stat “close and late”. These are stats for at bats occurring in the seventh inning or later with the batting team ahead by one, tied, or has the tying run on base, at bat, or on deck. The Indians in 2005 batted .261 in these situations, closer to their team average of .271.

I think though perhaps pure batting statistics may not be the best measure of a team’s clutchness so much as the results that happened, ie how many runs scored. I’m not trying to argue whether it is better to make a productive out versus get a base hit in these situations, but it should be evident how efficient a team was during a given season at driving in runners in scoring position by dividing a team’s rbi total in these spots by the number of at bats the team had. The Indians’ rbi/ab-risp in 2005 was 0.3783 which puts them at 14th, right in the middle pack of mlb teams.

Looking at the White Sox for comparison, they had an identical team avg with risp as the Indians did, with (in fact) a lower slugging percentage. Those numbers should be more expected for Chicago however, since they scored 49 less runs than Cleveland. Chicago was a little more efficient in terms of rbi/ab-risp, finishing at 10th in baseball at 0.3953. This is a noticeable difference, but I don’t think in any way does it show that Indians were significantly less clutch than the White Sox in 2005. If anything, both teams struggling in important spots in terms of hitting. And in terms of close and late situations, the White Sox only managed a .247 number.

The other side of the argument for the close game success of the White Sox in 2005 was due to their strong bullpen arms. Looking at the stats though, by almost every measure the Indians in 2005 had the strongest bullpen in baseball. Their relievers’ WHIP ranked 1st with Chicago a distant 9th and their era ranked 1st with Chicago 4th. While both teams had very good bullpens, Cleveland had the better of the two, enough so that any difference shown between the two in trends of choking at the plate should have been negated.

If the Indians did indeed choke at the plate in the tough spots, the White Sox were nearly just as guilty. On the pitching side, without a doubt, blown leads from the bullpen were not the problem as the Indians had shutdown relievers who also had a good W-L record of 22-18 (White Sox were a little better at 24-19). As far as baseball statistics have come, there is no dependable one so far for predicting the success of teams in close games. Common sense suggests clutch hitting and bullpen pitching should help, but the White Sox in 2005 managed to excel at 1 run games compared to the Indians without significant advantages in either of these stats.

I suspect the vast difference in 1 run game records was most simply and chiefly an example of a small statistical sample size showing a lot of noise and no real explanation. If the 2005 season was replayed 100 times, the Indians would probably take the AL Central in the majority of those seasons, with a few statistical anomalies like the actual season in 2005 standing apart from the norm.

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Sunday, April 09, 2006

National League predictions.

I don't really have the time I thought I did, so these predictions are going to be short and sweet. If people thought there were a lot of potential contenders in the American League this season, the National League is incredibly more equalized. Is Bud Selig's parity mantra finally realized?

NL East:

1. Braves

Never bet against Atlanta until you lose the bet. Fielding a squad largely of young players, the Braves should still win the division on the backs of their youth movement, the "brothers" Jones, and their uncanny front office and coaching staff. They'll miss Mazzone, and hopefully Hudson figures out what's wrong with him (it better not be the shoulder). They've lowered payroll consistently the last few years, but their relative roster depth will help them this year more than it ever has, not to mention that every season they consistently best the Mets head-to-head. If you look at blown saves last season (KOLBBBBB), and the absurd rash of injuries, it's hard not to imagine the Braves being a better team this season than last.

2. Mets

With all the flurry of moves Omar Minaya made this offseason (including an essentially one-sided romance with Boston over Ramirez) the Mets became one of the "it" teams of the offseason. While their lineup is certainly bolstered (David Wright should NOT be hitting fifth), the Mets pitching will ultimately doom them. Pedro's durability is a big question, and beyond him the rotation is extremely thin. The bullpen in comparison is average, and while Wagner is a welcome improvement over Looper, the Mets pitching staff won't be consistent enough to carry them over a full season. Too much hinges on aged arms. Also, can someone please tell Randolph to hit Reyes 8th? Thank you.

3. Phillies

Philadelphia, like the Mets, lacks the pitching depth that keeps a roster afloat over 162 games. They have some intriguing bats on their squad (Abreu, Utley, Howard and Burrell are all excellent), but Brett Myers is not an ace pitcher. Ryan Madson should probbly be in relief on this team too, I'd even consider handing him the closing job over Tom Gordon. I feel like the Phillies' window closed about two seasons ago, and they need to build a credible rotation to supplement some of the excellent hitters on their squad.

4. Marlins

All that talk about 100+ losses was an exaggeration. The Marlins 1) have some incredibly gifted prospects 2) have Miguel Cabrera 3) have Dontrelle Willis. Expect them to play spoiler this season and be in title contention in another 3 years or so.

5. Nationals

Last year was a fluke. Get this team an owner and a rudder.

NL Central:

1. Cardinals

People say this is a weaker team than last year, and, well they're probably right. However, Scott Rolen did miss the balance of the season, and early looks show him hale and hearty. No one else in the NL can field 3-4-5 hitters on par with St. Louis, and their pitching staff is very deep and retooled in all the right ways. You give St. Louis two leadoff hitters who get .370+ OBPs, and Pujols wins the Triple Crown. Eh, he could win it anyway.

2. Cubs

Chicago really needs a bullpen, if only so that Dusty Baker stops running his starters into the ground. If Wood and Prior come back from their ailments, this team begins to look almost as intimidating as they did a few years ago. Their bullpen is still a mess waiting to happen, and like the last couple of years it's going to be a serious sore spot for this team. Serious wild card contender.

3. Brewers

The NL Central is tight as always, and decent arguments could be made for anyone but Pittsburgh to win the division. But this is the year the Brewers go over .500 and finally emerge as an NL force. They have some great young players under development who are finally being handed the wheel. The Brewers season however will come down to Sheets, if he regains his should've-been-Cy-Young-over-Clemens form, we may be talking postseason. If not, the Brewers will still be a thorn in the National League's side and this squad is only getting better.

4. Astros

If Clemens returns and is back to his "old" self, then the Astros might make another serious run. The feeling here though is that if he comes back, it will be to whoever can pay him the most, and I don't think Houston has the capability to match Yankee/Red Sox/Mets dollars at this point. Houston has some absolutely spectacular players (Lidge, Oswalt, Berkman, Ensberg) and I love the Astro bullpen in general, but this team lacks the depth to survive until October. It's unfortunate to see injuries wracking what's left of Jeff Bagwell, but Craig Biggio is still putting up strong numbers year-in and year-out.

5. Pirates

They seem to have a plan put together. Keep Jason Bay happy at all costs and keep developing those pitchers.

6. Reds

Remember when Ken Griffey Jr. traded himself to the Reds and it looked like the glory days were back? The Reds are in for a long season, here's hoping Adam Dunn and company pick up some hobbies to maintain their sanity. The lineup is actually one of the more gifted in the National League, but the pitching staff is maybe the worst in baseball.

NL West:

1. Giants

The NL West is so equally awful you could essentially take the team names out of a hat and you'd be just as skilled at picking a winner as anyone else. I'll take the Giants because of their improved rotation, and in the best interests of chaos Barry Bonds will have a healthy and controversial season. When he plays, the Giants are a completely different team than when he doesn't.

2. Padres

Jake Peavy gets almost no respect around the majors. Some day he will. The Padres have some good pieces and could win the division, but they're just as likely not to. Will Hoffman be worth the investment health-wise?

3. Diamondbacks

Arizona is a team in transition while they undergo a management and team-philosophy overhaul. Expect the national commentators to be yukking-it-up about their young talent more and more as the year goes on. Again, this is another division contender, but an unlikely one.

4. Dodgers

The Dodgers came out of nowhere to sign Furcal and they also largely undid the changes Moneyballer DePodesta did in his incredibly short stint as GM. Will it pan out this season? Possibly. If Gagne returns from his latest surgery even close to what he used to be, this team looks well anchored from a pitching perspective. They're going to be even more offensively challenged than the last two seasons, and all New England eyes will be tuned in to see if Nomar ever regains his old stroke and health. That's a recurring theme, the Dodgers seem to have division-caliber pieces but they're injured all the time. I picked them to win the West last year, so I'm probably going to be wrong about them again this year.

5. Rockies

There's nothing I could really say besides read John's article on what ails the Rockies.

NL MVP: Pujols. The best. I don't really see anyone close unless Derek Lee gets even better, Helton hits .400, or Cabrera takes the Marlins to the playoffs. Bonds could probably hit 74 home runs and still not win MVP at this point.

NL Cy Young: Peavy/Oswalt/Sheets. Zambrano?

Wild Card: Miracle $105 Million Mets! The Cubs and Phillies might be close, and I'd love to see the Brewers capture it over their more expensive brethren.

There really isn't anything crazy that could happen in the National League that would surprise me. Unless the Rockies, Nationals, Pirates or Reds make the postseason. How close is Bonds going to be to Aaron at the end of September???

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Thursday, April 06, 2006

It's that time of year again. The laptops are open, the baseball enyclopedias are thumbed through, ESPN Insider accounts are renewed. Opening Day '06! And what does that mean for baseball fans everywhere? Predicting the outcomes of 2,430 games before they occur!

Here are my American League predictions for 2006. There are excellent races in all three divisions and it should be a very exciting year for everyone outside of Kansas City, Tampa, and Baltimore. I'll get to the Parity National League later this week.

AL East:

1. Red Sox

The Red Sox worked very proactively in the offseason despite alleged chaos at the top of their administrative ladder. They refused to cripple their payroll by letting go Damon, and dramatically overhauled their two biggest sore spots last season: lineup age and the bullpen. That said, will it be enough to win the division?

I really like the Coco Crisp trade (that is until Marte is an All-Star and Crisp is on the Yankees in 3-6 years), and the Sox got younger at third, catcher and the outfield too. Loretta (health-permitting) is a very solid 2B and if Lowell finds his stroke and head he won't make the loss of Mueller seem quite as horrible (although they'll miss the latter all season). First base continues to disappoint, will the Sox ever replace Mo Vaughn, and they're a Manny injury away from third place. The bullpen went from arguably the worst in the AL to arguably the second-best (Cleveland/Oakland), Red Sox fans are chomping at the bit to give Hansen/Delcarmen/Papelbon regular innings, and the rotation is actually quite solid (we have four #3 and #4 pitchers and no true #5). If Keith Foulke has an epiphany, watch out. I personally think that the Sox-Yankees-Jays will be in a race for the title down to the last two weeks of the season, every divisional game will feel like the playoffs, and whichever team remains healthy or gets career years out of a few guys will claim the title. What's the Red Sox's ace in the hole? They have the most energetic and creative front office this side of Beanetown.

2. Yankees

Do the Yankees possibly have their greatest lineup within the last 10, 20, 30 years? Yes. Do they have a hall of fame pitcher or two? Yes. Are they locks? Hell no, and the recent annointment of '06 World Series champions by the likes of Stark and Gammons is quite puzzling.

No amount of guts or derring-do is going to hide the fact that the Yankees are 1) Old at the starting pitching position 2) Thin at the pitching position. While true that the free agent market did not particularly tremble with starting depth (how dare Tim Hudson and Ben Sheets sign extensions!), the Yankees still did nothing to address their Achilles' heel. The odds of the Small, Wang and Chacon repeating last year's luck-a-thon is quite low based on their abilities (see John's Yankee column, it's quite illustrative). While the Yankees did add Johnny "mo' money mo' problems" Damon, their lineup already finished with nearly 900 runs the previous year. I suspect they'll end up around the same point next season, perhaps even as high as 915 runs. Damon is certainly a huge upgrade over Cano/Womack at the top of the order, but the end of the Yankee lineup continues to decline. Their 'pen has new faces (Farnsworth is an able pitcher), but I expect a wash at this position by the end of the year. The Yankees could mash their way to the top of the incredibly competitive AL East, but they could pitch/injure themselves into third in a hurry, too. Basically, you don't spend $200 million on your payroll and come away with two 40-year-olds and three (+Wright/Pavano makes five)crappy pitchers. If Rivera ever gets hurt things may unravel in the Bronx in a hurry.

3. Blue Jays

B.J. Ryan is a pretty good reliever, but overpaid. A.J. Burnett is a decent starter, but more overpaid. However, that's the cost of respectability and many trendy pre-season Division/Wild Card picks by the media.

The Blue Jays are a very good team. I can't emphasize that enough. They suffered not one but TWO crippling injuries during '05 and still probably should've at least finished ahead of the Red Sox, if not gone farther. I'm not really sure if they vastly improved themselves with their acquisitions, but if Halladay and Wells have a healthy season for a change (not to mention the health woes of Burnett and Lilly) then the Red Sox and Yankees could be in a for a rude awakening. Again, I seriously doubt we'll know who wins the AL East until we're well into September, and while the Jays may not be quite as startling as their post-signings buzz indicated, they are more than prepared for the season. Is it possible to have three 90 win teams in the AL East in one season?

4. Devil Rays

The Devil Rays are still bad, but they aren't Devil Rays bad. They have a plethora of young players transitioning to the majors, hopefully they'll get the bulk of the work rather than the Dan Micelis on the roster. People have said for the last three years that the Devil Rays are improved and "for real," and while I simply think there aren't enough AL wins to go around to give them much more than 70 wins, they are an improved squad. Hand the ball to your young players, and let them and their young manager form a work ethic and a uniform system. Expect Tampa to be the giant killer that probably decides who wins the AL East more than the contending teams will. If they find an ace pretty soon we might be looking at a very challenging squad in a few years. Expect another barrage of Aubrey Huff trade rumors starting in, oh, the third week of the season and onward.

5. Orioles

Horrible team. The main reason to watch Baltimore this season is to see if Tejada has really aged and fallen off as sharply as some pundits asserted. Maybe Mazzone works some wonders with the pitching staff, but Cabrera and Bedard are not young versions of Glavine and Smoltz, I'm sorry. Expect to see Baltimore in fifth for quite some time to come if their owner doesn't drastically rethink his franchise's relevancy. Hopefully they hand the big innings to Chris Ray as he appears to be one of their few young players ready to shoulder a major load.

AL Central:

1. Indians

This is one of the most fun teams to watch in baseball right now and I've had my eye on them since the day they sent away Colon et. al. They are incredibly gifted on the field and in their lineup. I <3 size="4">2. White Sox

The Chicago White Sox are currently the most overrated team in modern baseball history. They did everything they could to lose the division last season, and made the playoffs because of three factors: 1) Their absurdly spectacular record in one-run games (they were 9-0 against the Indians in such situations alone!) 2) The unheard of durability of their top four starters, who averaged 222 innings, or 6.8 innings per start 3) Incredible good fortune in keeping players off the disabled list.

This year the Chicago bullpen will undoubtedly be busier, and their bullpen depth or durability is questionable, especially since Bobby Jenks is beginning to show why he maybe never caught on with a major league club until last season. While the White Sox did a credible job reinforcing their squad and didn't stand pat (but someone please get McCarthy in the rotation), any sort of injury to their top four starters might have tremendous rippling effects on the roster. All the innings pitched last season and into the playoffs may catch up on a couple arms, too. Offensively speaking the White Sox are a dizzingly inefficient team, and while I know Ozzie thinks "on-base percentage" is an expletive, their play style is going to catch up to them eventually (Scott "energy guy" Podsednik only steals at a 78% clip for example, let alone his and many other players' woeful OBP and SLG statistics). However, expect a banner year from brilliant acquisition Jim Thome, since he gets to concentrate on his hitting and his health rather than having to shoulder the leadership and public relations burdens like he did in Philadelphia and Cleveland. Ken Williams seems to have his head on straight (while I disagree with how he dismantled the Ordonez/Lee/Thomas White Sox he's certainly proactive), but teams tend to go .500 in one-run games, 'ere the fall of the White Sox this season.

3. Twins

Remember when the Twins were the sweethearts of baseball, storming out of the contraction controversy to practically bowl MLB over? The years since have been hard on the team as they've consistently been fored to say farewell to a battery of veterans, suffered an inordinate amount of bad luck, and they non-tendered a certain Papi. If Mauer and Morneau produce this year like everyone thought they would last year, good things are going down in the Metrodome. They possess the least-hyped ace in baseball not named Peavy, and Minnesota has one of the deeper rotations and bullpens in the league. This versatile staff will have to cover a lot for a rather thin lineup, especially by AL standards. If Mauer and Morneau don't mash, and Stewart doesn't remember his contract is up, it's going to be a lonely year for Torii Hunter and expect trade rumors to boil over. They're going to make a big-budget team cry many tears while they vye for a playoff spot in the waning summer sun; and I wouldn't be at all surprised if they leap Chicago this season.

4. Tigers

Detroit seems to be on a mission to acquire every aging former closer on the market. Last year they acquied Urbina and Percival, and while Oogie was sent to Philly (and now jail?), they've turned around by signing Todd Jones. Considering how much of an improvement they've made to their team after that 100-loss season a couple years back, is there a team in the league that gets discussed less? Their lineup is quite serviceable, although I can't imagine Polanco repeating last year's performance when he came close to winning the batting title in both leagues. The rotation has been "bolstered" by the addition of Kenny Rogers, but I can't make up my mind whether that move hurts the Tigers or is merely a wash. The Tigers are unfortunately in a similar position to Baltimore; they have dollars to spend but no one wants to sign, and they can't attract anyone but players who are trying to prove they can still play in the majors. If something crazy happens (the Tiger rotation becomes a powerhouse or another of the Central's Big Three is decimated with injuries) the Tigers may make some noise this summer, but likely not for long.

5. Royals

To quote a friend, "The Kansas City Royals. It's all about the name on the front." While the rest of the AL Central has dramatically improved themselves the last half dozen years, (cf: the late years of the 1990s Cleveland dynasty when they could feast upon 4 awful teams in the AL Central), KC is perpetually stuck in neutral. While I'd hate to see this franchise leave the city, the situation for improvement here seems hopeless unless the next genius GM is discovered by Royal ownership.


1. Athletics

East Coast-bias aside, Oakland is probably the team to beat in the major leagues this year. Which is somewhat of a scary proposition considering Oakland has a history of making large-scale roster improvements midstream. No team is deeper 1-25, and Oakland has versatility at every position. Power hitters, defensive specialists, inning eaters, strikeout artists, etc. If Chavez and Crosby stay healthy and consistent enough to claim the mantle of stardom everyone expects, we might be looking at a team that remains scary good for at least three more years. Like every squad there are pivotal health concerns on this roster, and I'm sure old-timer baseball guys will crow about a lack of "experience" all season (weren't they in a pennant race until the last few weeks in '05?), but believe-you-me, the Athletics are for real and they're out for revenge after receiving no love from the playoff gods during the Zito-Hudson-Mulder era (slide Jeremy, damnit!). Rich Harden AL Cy Young '06? Frank Thomas reborn?

2. Angels

I was tempted to pick a different team second in the West, but I'm a sucker for that Angel bullpen. While the Orange County Los Angeles of Anaheim California Angels have a competitive pitching staff, their lineup continues its steady decay and they're likely to have a rather anemic offense all season. It's too bad the Yankees didn't seal the deal when Guerrero was a free agent, if only for Vlad's sake. Did he know he was leaving an awfully weak offensive team for another awfully weak offensive team that featured quadruple the payroll? If Ervin "we won't trade Manny for him" Santana is the player the Angels think he is, and Weaver adjusts to a league that features home run hitters, then Anaheim might remain competitive. But I just don't see the depth (besides the bullpen) to see the Angels making a significant run this season.

3. Rangers

Honestly, for me spots 2-4 in the AL West is a pick 'em. I don't think a whole lot separates the Angels, Rangers and Mariners from each other. That said, I'll give the Rangers the edge over Seattle because of the effort they've put into their pitching staff in the offseason. While they lost out on Beckett, they acquired or have developed a number of decent-looking arms to supplement their offensive output. Gone (for now) are the Chan Ho Parks of the roster. But, is it just me or does their offensive lineup not seem as intimidating as it did in years past? It must have something to do with a bizarre insistence by Showalter to hit Nevin cleanup. I suppose invariably Nevin's porcelain body will shatter and the lineup can get juggled, but it just seems out of whack right now. Expect the Rangers to continue putting on a show at home, but to fade as the season drags on and the Texas sun takes its toll. They need a dome.

4. Mariners

All hail King Felix! The baseball fan Rapture has arrived in the form of barely 20-year old brilliant Felix Hernandez. But beyond the baseball equivalency of LeBron James, the Mariner roster isn't as awful as you'd expect from a last-place team. The problem is that whether you look at the lineup, bullpen or rotation, there is a significant dropoff in talent after the first few best players. Seattle has a lot of payroll issues they need to work out and they need to start better apportioning who they hire to play baseball. Seattle could be a sleeper team if certain dominoes fall their way, but I don't really expect much beyond the baseball world tuning in every 5th day to praise thine King.

AL MVP: Eric Chavez, although I'd love to see a DH-war between Hafner and Ortiz materialize. A-Rod is a perpetual contender as well, and Thome if the White Sox continue make me tear my hair out for another season.

AL Cy Young: Rich Harden. Johan Santana has an equal shot, and King Felix has such a swarm of buzz behind him he could easily finish in the top voting. If the Blue Jays make the playoffs, expect Roy Halladay in this mix.

Wild Card:
Yankees, mashing their way to a first round playoff exit. Toronto if Halladay makes 30+ starts.

The above predictions are my safer, less absurd forecast. Here's how I'd like the division races to turn out if crazy stuff shakes down in '06.

American "What the #$@% Just Happened!?" League Predictions:

1. Boston
2. Toronto
3. New York Yankees
4. Tampa Bay
5. Baltimore

1. Cleveland
2. Minnesota
3. Detroit
4. Chicago White Sox
5. Kansas City

1. Oakland
2. Seattle
3. Texas
4. Anaheim

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