Monday, March 30, 2009

Gregg Scores Upset; Hill wins Backup Job

Darn. I have Carlos Marmol on one of my fantasy teams.

It looks like Kevin Gregg has been anointed the Cubs' 2009 closer, besting the heavily-favored (and from I'm reading, heavily disappointed) Marmol. It's hard to dispute Lou Pinella's call on this one. In nine appearances, Gregg has given up no runs, four hits, and has struck out 10. You really couldn't have asked him to do much better. Marmol, on the other hand, has a 4.50 ERA and has hit five batters, something that is being blamed at least partially on the dry Arizona heat, which keeps his filthy slider from moving like it should.

I do like Marmol and see him as the Cubs' closer in the future. Gregg is signed for this year only, and if he's effective, the Cubs will probably not try to retain him at a heavily inflated price, given that they will still have Marmol in-house. Marmol will get his chances to make a difference. This guy has a special talent, and his contribution was enormous last season. Putting him in the setup role again this season gives the Cubs one of the best 1-2 punches in baseball. Besides, if for some reason Gregg can't seem to handle the pressures of closing games at Wrigley, Marmol is only a bullpen call away.

It seems that the amazing story of Koyie Hill will play to fruition, as the man who had his fingers severed in a horrific table saw accident is now officially the Cubs' backup catcher. Chicago just released veteran Paul Bako and are going with Hill, a move that from all accounts is exactly what the fans wanted to see. No disrespect to Bako. He is a seasoned pro, but I thought Hill would be the better selection from the start and questioned the signing of Bako to begin with.

So, with those questions answered, the only ones that remain involve the remaining bullpen spots. Aaron Heilman, Luis Vizcaino, and Neal Cotts appear to be set along with Marmol and Gregg, leaving two spots open. Chad Gaudin, Angel Guzman, Chad Fox, Jeff Samardzija and David Patton are the guys vying for those spots, and if I had my way, I'd go with Fox and Patton. Gaudin has been Gaud-awful (10.54 ERA) as has Guzman (8.71 ERA). Samardzija looked a little sharper today, but should go to AAA Iowa to fine tune some things. Fox could also go to Iowa, since he is on a Minor League deal and currently is not on the 40-man roster, but he has ben pretty effective so far (nine strikeouts in 10 innings and a 2.70 ERA). Patton, the Rule-5 pick who has never played above Class-A ball, has been outstanding (12 strikeouts in 10.2 innings and a 0.84 ERA). You'd hate to see the Cubs give him back if he's the real deal.

Just my opinion.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

My NL West Prediction

Continuing on with my predictions of who going to finish where and why, it's time to finish up on the National League and go over what I think will happen in what I believe will be the weakest division in the NL, the National League West.


5. San Diego Padres - As bad as the team from our nation's capital is going to be, I still can't see any team being worse than the Padres. My best friend lives in San Diego and is a Padre fan, and I feel for her. I really do. Last year, this team was one loss shy of 100 for the season. And what did they do this off-season? They traded their over-priced shortstop (Khalil Greene) and spent the better part of the winter meetings trying to unload their ace pitcher (Jake Peavy). They are slashing payroll, and they have just found a new owner. I think 110 losses isn't out of the question this season.

4. Colorado Rockies - I think the 2007 postseason run was nothing more than a fluke for these guys. Last year the Rockies finished with a 74-88 record, which is about where I would put them in 2009, if not worse. They traded their best hitter (Matt Holliday), and their ace, Jeff Francis, is out for the season. They do still have some pop in their lineup, but the back end of the rotation is very weak.

3. San Francisco Giants - This team has the best starting rotation in the division, but because they did not go out and add an impact bat, I cannot see them being more than a .500 team. Tim Lincecum is great, and Randy Johnson still has some stuff left in the tank, but Bengie Molina is the cleanup hitter, and that just won't cut it. Fred Lewis is quick, and Aaron Rowand is dependable, but the Giants overpaid for an aging Edgar Renteria and will have a ton of inexperience at the other infield positions. Still, this starting staff will be enough to win a number of games, but this team needs to add a power hitter by the trade deadline, or they will be going nowhere but home at season's end.

2. Arizona Diamondbacks - The D-Backs, much like the Giants, boast a strong starting rotation that includes possibly the best 1-2 punch in baseball, Brandon Webb and Dan Heren. They added Jon Garland to the mix, and their offense, while not the strongest, is better than San Francisco. but like the Giants, they lack that true impact player on offense. Mark Reynolds can hit, but this team needs guys like Chris Young and Justin Upton to step it up if they are going to take the division in 2009.

1. Los Angeles Dodgers - This is the best all-around team in the west. After Manny Ramirez re-signed with the Dodgers, fans began making postseason plans. Any why not? No other team's offense in this division comes close to matching what the Dodgers will bring. Along with Ramirez, Los Angeles has Russell Martin, James Loney, and Matt Kemp to go along with their other new addition, Orlando Hudson. The rotation is not as strong, having lost both Derek Lowe and Brad Penny to free agency, but the offense will make up for their shortcomings. I give them anywhere from 85-87 wins, which should put them in front by a few games at the end of the season.

Just my opinion.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

My NL East Prediction

My last article on the NL Central has my mind going about the other divisions in baseball. Who else do I think will make the playoffs? Who is going to tank? Who could be a big surprise a-la the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays? Well, I have tried to follow all of the offseason moves (trades, FA signings, injuries, etc.) and with that, I think I can make a pretty good prediction on what we are going to see this year in each division. Injuries aside (they just can't be predicted, folks) I am going to cover the rest of baseball. Today, my picks in the National League East.


5. Washington Nationals - Nothing groundbreaking or shocking here. The Nats did add Adam Dunn and Scott Olson, but they are far from a team that will compete in this division, and nobody can explain to me any way they can.

4. Florida Marlins - The penny-pinching Marlins always seem to find themselves in contention until late in the season. Remember, they won the World Series in 1997, then again six years later in 2003. Well, it's again six years later, but I just don't see them getting over the hump this year. Their rotation is solid with Ricky Nolasco, Josh Johnson, Chris Volstad and Anibal Sanchez. Their offense touts Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla, one of the best middle infield combinations in baseball. But they are again counting on contributions from a number of rookies and other young, inexperienced players. Not to mention, they traded their closer Kevin Gregg and will now lean on Matt Lindstrom who has five career saves. They'll contend, and they may even end up over .500, but a trip to the postseason is unlikely.

3. Atlanta Braves - The Braves are trying to get back to their glory days and are doing it the same way they did it in the 90's: pitching. This team has greatly improved their starting rotation, adding Derek Lowe, Javier Vazquez, Kenshin Kawakami and a healthy Tom Glavine. Chipper Jones isn't getting any younger, but he's still a force, and this offense also has solid players like Kelly Johnson, Brian McCann, Casey Kotchman and Garret Anderson among others. Their bullpen, however, is where it gets tricky. Mike Gonzalez is a serviceable closer, but his spring has been shaky, as has many others in the Braves' projected opening day roster. This team may contend, but it could come down to whether or not the pen can close out games on a regular basis.

2. Philadelphia Phillies - Here is my Wild Card pick. Their offense in potent, with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley (who looks to be ready by opening day), Jimmy Rollins and Jayson Werth. They added Raul Ibanez to replace Pat Burrell and will have virtually the same pitching staff that took them to the 2008 World Championship. But there is one big question. While Cole Hamels is a bonafide ace, there are health concerns entering the season. If he is lost for a period of time, it's up to a more mediocre group (Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton) to pick up the slack. Now, Brad Lidge is lights-out again, and the rest of the bullpen also looks solid. Add it all up, and I can see another post-season appearance for the Phillies - as long as Hamels is not out for too long, if at all.

1. New York Mets - Yes, after two consecutive seasons of last-second flops, I think the Mets are going to be the team to beat in the NL East in 2009. Let's look at why they lost last year. Billy Wagner, while far from his best days, was injured. The bullpen couldn't do anything right last September. Just a couple more games held by the bullpen would have gotten New York into the playoffs. Well, they went out and fixed that problem. Signing saves monster Francisco Rodriguez and trading for former all-star closer J.J. Putz has boosted the Mets right back to the top, in my opinion. Carlos Beltran, David Wright, Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado lead an impressive offensive attack that could mask any rotation questions this team has. Johan Santana is one of the best in the game, and while there are no other "superstar" names in the rotation, they can all win games, especially with the pop in the everyday lineup.

Just my opinion.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

My NL Central Prediction

Opening day is right around the corner! The ridiculous World Baseball Classic has forced Major League Baseball to extend Spring Training to a painfully long period of time equal to about a quarter of a full season. Here's to hoping that there are no ill effects from all of this.

As I look at the central division in the National League, I can't help but predict what I think will happen. Teams are dwindling down to a point where roster spots are becoming pretty clear. After looking at what each team brings to the table, here is my "unofficial official" prediction of what the NL Central will look like at the end:

1. Chicago Cubs
2. St. Louis Cardinals
3. Cincinnati Reds
4. Milwaukee Brewers
5. Houston Astros
6. Pittsburgh Pirates

Now, you may think I am being a "Cub homer" by predicting another first place finish, but that's not it. They simply have the best team on paper by a wide margin. Barring multiple injuries (which we know can happen as it did in 2004 and 2006) the Cubs should repeat as division champions. I go NO FURTHER than that in my predictions. The Cubs need to prove they can handle postseason pressure before I will predict anything else. Now I'm not saying that they will make the playoffs and then be a one-and-done team again. You Cardinal, White Sox and Brewer homers can "predict" that all you want, but we all know it's a brand new season once the playoffs begin, and the Cubs aren't cursed to lose as you would like to believe. Still, though, I will give my reasons for each of these picks.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates - I don't think anyone is predicting anything other than a last place finish for the hapless Pirates. Frankly, its a good thing that town has the Steelers because it's a lost cause when it comes to baseball. In 2008, the Pirates finished with a 67-95 record, third worst in the National League, and did little to improve their team for 2009. Matt Capps is a serviceable closer, but how often will he get the ball with the game on the line? Their pitching staff is very weak, although Paul Maholm is a workhorse who had a very respectable 3.71 ERA last year in 31 starts. After that, it's guys like Ian Snell and Zach Duke who can't seem to put anything together. Their offense boasts solid hitters Nate McLouth and Ryan Doumit but very little else.

5. Houston Astros - Oh how the mighty have fallen. In 2004, the Astros were within a game of the World Series. In 2005, they won the NL pennant. In 2006, they barely missed a third straight postseason appearance. Now look at this team. What do they have? Well, they do have a very potent offense that touts Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence, and now Ivan Rodriguez. Where they lack is in the pitching. Roy Oswalt is an ace, no doubt about it. After that, though, it doesn't look good. Their projected number two starter is Wandy Rodriguez, who is stellar at Minute Maid Park but lousy on the road. Brandon Backe, who I personally thought had a great career ahead of him after seeing his 2004 and 2005 playoff performances, had a 6.05 ERA in 2008 in 31 starts. Mike Hampton looks to be penciled in for the rotation, but he hasn't played anything close to a full season since 2004 when he started 29 games for Atlanta. It's not looking good in the state of Texas.

4. Milwaukee Brewers - Yes, I believe last year's NL Wild Card representative will fall and fall hard. Why? The two biggest reasons this team made the postseason are gone: CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets. They have been replaced by Braden Looper and Yovanni Gallardo (who did pitch last year, but only four games due to injury). Gallardo has the stuff to be very good, but after that, the starters are very mediocre at bast. Jeff Suppan followed his successful run in St. Louis with two disappointing seasons in a Brewer uniform. Looper, Dave Bush and Manny Parra will all win some games, but none are overwhelming. Now, on the offensive side, Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun would make any team better. Add Corey Hart and J.J. Hardy to the emix, and you have a pretty good offensive club. But like the Astros, this pitching staff is going to be tested, and the history of the individuals in that starting staff is not favorable.

3. Cincinnati Reds - This is where I may get burned come season's end. Some are saying that this year's Reds are going to be like last year's Rays. I don't think they are there just yet. This is a much improved team, and while they finished 2008 with a 74-88 record last season, Aaron Harang had an awful year. Turn his numbers around, and this is an over-.500 club. If he bounces back, and the rest of the staff (Bronson Arroyo, Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto) continue to produce, this team will be tough to score runs off. Where it gets a bit tricky is the offense. The Reds added speedster Willy Taveras to lead off, but Taveras had a dismal .308 OBP last season. He has to get on base in order to make a difference. Joey Votto and Jay Bruce are leading the offensive charge, but will sophomore slumps hit either player? After that, there isn't anything to really write home about. This team will need to win a lot of low scoring games to be able to contend, but they have the starting staff that might be able to do that.

2. St. Louis Cardinals - Yes, Cardinal fans, I truly believe that the Redbirds are the second best team in the National League Central. Any team with Albert Pujols should contend, but the Cardinals of the past two seasons have not been serious threats after September 1. Perhaps the loss of Chris Carpenter was part of the problem, although it was the bullpen who blew more than 30 saves last year. The Cardinals rotation is hoping for a repeat in the performances of Todd Wellemeyer and Kyle Lohse while praying that the health of Carpenter and Adam Wainwright (who I personally think is the best pitcher on that staff) holds up for an entire season. If that happens, this team will win ballgames. But what about the bullpen? Chris Perez and Jason Motte are expected to be late inning saviors, and nobody knows how they will turn out. The offense, aside from Pujols, is also solid. Ryan Ludwick is coming off a great season, and Rick Ankiel is a Scott Boras client in his contract year. I predict 40 homers and a near .300 average from Ankiel given those circumstances! Troy Glaus should come back by May and provide more power, and Colby Rasmus will have a chance to show what he's made of.

1. Chicago Cubs - That's right, they are the best team, and I'm not being biased here. Cardinal fans have even (begrudgingly) admitted that this division is the Cubs' to lose. The pitching staff (even without the addition of Jake Peavy) is one, if not THE best in the National League. Carlos Marmol and Kevin Gregg will provide a great 1-2 punch at the end of the bullpen. The offense is extremely balanced, especially wiht the addition of Milton "can I stay healthy for a full season" Bradley and Mike Fontenot, who will be the starting second baseman. The Cubs are the team to beat, folks. And they have the depth to handle a hiccup or two throughout the season. Not to mention, the July 31 trade deadline has resulted in some of GM Jim Hendry's best work, so who knows what will be available this year.

Just my opinion.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The (almost) 2009 Chicago Cubs

With Spring Training in full gear, the Cubs upcoming lineup is becoming a bit clearer, with only a few question marks here and there. Lou Pinella has stated that he will be giving his regulars more rest to make sure they are fresh for the stretch run, so that will give opportunities to some of the other guys to show the boss that they belong. In this blog, I will take a look at each position, the starters and the backups, and see if I can make some sense out of what the Cubs have and still need to do before opening day.

Starter: Derrick Lee - While D-Lee will probably never match his 2005 numbers, he is still a lock to hit 20-25 home runs, drive in 90 runs, and produce a .360 OBP. I’ll take that from the first base position every year, especially with the supporting offense this team touts. Lee also still provides gold glove caliber defense and is a team leader in the clubhouse. Backup: Micah Hoffpauir – A younger version of Daryle Ward, Hoffpauir can earn playing time by producing as a backup to Lee and a solid left handed bat off the bench. He can also play the corner outfield spots, but don’t expect him to ever be Soriano’s defensive replacement.

Starter: Aaron Miles/Mike Fontenot – This is the one spot where the starter’s role is still up in the air. While Lou Pinella has given a tentative lineup that includes Miles, expect Fontenot to battle for that spot all throughout the spring. As of right now, both Miles and Fontenot are the projected backups for shortstop and third base respectively, so both should see quite a bit of playing time, unless Jim Hendry goes out and gets another utility infielder to help. Backup: the one who doesn’t start (also, Soriano can sub in an emergency).

Starter: Ryan Theriot – This guy’s not going anywhere. After posting a .307 average with a .387 OBP in 2008, I think the Cubs have their answer at this position for a number of years to come. He will never hit for power, but how many shortstops actually do? Hanley Ramirez is not available, so there’s no question that Theriot is the right man for the job. As long as he doesn’t run out of gas come September, he should be okay. Backup: Miles.

Starter: Aramis Ramirez – A mainstay since 2003, Ramirez is signed through 2012. His 2008 numbers were still impressive, and I expect another 25-30 homer season with 100+ RBIs and a .285 average. A-Ram may be moved down to the fifth spot in the order which may provide for even more RBI opportunities, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him top 120 if he stays healthy. He will get some time off, though, but his numbers shouldn’t suffer. Backup: Fontenot (yikes!) - I’m not sure I like this option, but as of now, there is no other choice.

Starter: Alfonso Soriano – Oh, please let this guy have a full, healthy season! Soriano missed 53 games last season but still led the team in home runs (29). What would happen if he made it through all of 2009 injury free? I’m foaming at the mouth just thinking of the possibility. He will never be a 40-40 guy again, but when he is on, he carries an offense on his shoulders. He has shown that in both of his Cub seasons. Defense is not his specialty, but he has a cannon for an arm, and can throw out base runners wherever they are headed. Backup: Hoffpauir, Reed Johnson and Joey Gathright – The outfield depth is very apparent, and when Pinella needs a late inning defensive replacement, he’s got Johnson and Gathright to turn to. How well the backups perform will ultimately determine how much playing time they get. I do, however, expect Johnson to get the most playing time, as he is considered the fourth outfielder who can sub at any of the three positions.

Starter: Kosuke Fukudome – As I have stated before, I am willing to see how this season plays out for Fukudome before labeling him a bust. He will play in the World Baseball Classic, and hopefully that will get his confidence back to where it needs to be. Defensively, he’s one of the best in all of the National League, but he needs to get it together at the plate if he wants to stay in the lineup. I think he can adjust and will have an improved offensive season, even if he hovers around the .275 mark. He is not going to be a power bat, and anyone who thinks he should obviously knew nothing about him when the Cubs signed him last season. Backup: Johnson, Gathright – Johnson is projected in an almost platoon role with Fukudome, again, depending on how the Japanese star fares in his second season.

Starter: Milton Bradley – Why Bradley, who has played more games in center field, is projected to take over in what is probably the most difficult right field in Wrigley Field is beyond me. Why not have Fukudome in right and Bradley in center? Perhaps Pinella is going to look at this and determine who belongs where before opening day. With Lou, anything’s possible. My main concern is the health of Bradley. We know that when healthy, his bat is lethal, and his defensive skills are not the worst out there (Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu would have been brutal). Backup: Hoffpauir, Johnson and Gathright.

Starter: Geovany Soto – Last year’s National League Rookie of the Year will be tested in his second full season with the Cubs. Pinella has warned Soto that the league will adjust to him, and it is now up to Soto to adjust to the league if he wants to keep up. Last year he handled the pitching staff like a veteran, which helps him greatly going into this season. Losing his mentor, Henry Blanco, will hopefully not be a factor. Backup: Paul Bako or Koyie Hill – This one is a bit of a conundrum. Why not bring back Blanco? His leadership and guidance was something that is not easily replaced. Who cares if Bako is left handed? It doesn’t sound like he is even guaranteed to be the backup. If Hill outperforms him, he’s the one who’s in. I’m guessing that Bako signed a minor league deal, thus giving the Cubs the option of sending him to Iowa if Hill beats him out for the spot.

Starters: Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, Rich Harden and Sean Marshall – Even without the addition of a certain San Diego import, this is one of the best rotations (on paper) in the National League. While Marshall hasn’t officially earned the fifth spot yet, I can’t imagine him not getting it unless he just doesn’t perform well in the spring (or gets injured). There are question marks about Zambrano’s shoulder, given how last year ended. Harden is penciled in for 25 starts (although he hopes to get 30). Can Dempster come close to repeating his 2008 regular season performance? You can pretty much count on Ted Lilly giving you innings and wins, even if his ERA hovers around 4.00. Overall, I think they’re looking good. Backups: Jeff Samardzija, Aaron Heilman, Chad Gaudin - The question now would be who spells Harden if he needs extended rest? Who is first to take over if an injury pops up? The Cubs do have depth and will be stretching several others out. Samardzija could start in Iowa just because of the bullpen depth, but also to keep him extended for when a spot start is needed. Gaudin started 34 games for the A’s in 2007, so it would not be a stretch for him to go back to that role. Heilman wants to be a starter, but he may be better served in the bullpen. Mitch Atkins and Randy Wells are starts in waiting, but I don’t expect to see them much, if at all, in 2009.

Obviously there are not starters and backups when it comes to relievers. As it stands, the Cubs will have a 1-2 punch at the end of their bullpen in Kevin Gregg and Carlos Marmol, with the closer to be determined during Spring Training. I fell Marmol is the closer of the future while Gregg will be a one year pickup. The Cubs do need to determine another late inning reliever. Newcomers Heilman and Luis Vizcaino could fill that role if one has an effective spring. Samardzija is a possibility, but I truly do not believe this will be his role this season (but I could be wrong). Neal Cotts is the primary left handed reliever and could be the only one if Marshall gets into the rotation. Mike Stanton, who is not on the 40-man roster, is at camp, and being left handed could give him a slight edge. I believe Gaudin will be the swingman/long reliever. Angel Guzman, Jose Ascanio and Kevin Hart are long shots, as are David Patton, the Rule 5 draft pick, and Jeff Stevens, one of the three pitchers acquired in the Mark DeRosa trade.

The biggest question mark for me right now is infield depth. By trading DeRosa and Ronny Cedeno, the Cubs are taking a huge risk should Ramirez get injured. Can Fontenot really handle third base? Could the Cubs perhaps benefit more from trying to get someone like Nomar Garciaparra who could backup all infield spots? Sure, Soriano could be used at second base if needed, but losing DeRosa created a big hole on this ballclub. Josh Vitters is a third baseman and the team’s highest ranking prospect, but it doesn’t look as if he is ready to make the jump right now.

The backup catcher spot is not decided, and the bullpen roles need to be solidified, but that’s what Spring Training is for. Let’s see who brings what to the table, and those spots will work themselves out. All in all, I like what this club brings to the table, especially given what the rest of the NL Central is bringing to their camps. The Cardinals are good but have several question marks, the Brewers lost their top two starters, the Astros did little to improve, the Reds have good starting pitching but not much else, and the Pirates are the Pirates.

Let the games begin!