Sunday, February 28, 2010

Season 11 outlook: AL East

Durham Doormats

The Doormats took over the reigns of the AL East last season after Philadelphia's 6-year run of division titles came crashing down (as yours truly foresaw in this very blog). Along the way, management and fans alike saw some glaring problems-- namely, their mediocre pitching (16th in majors with a 4.45 ERA), their middle-of-the-road hitting (13th in majors with a .777 OPS) and their below average fielding (19th in majors with a .981 fielding percentage). Failing to excel in any aspect of the game doesn't exactly scream "division winner," so Durham responded by signing... no one. The Doormats, in fact, did not make a single signing outside of arbitration this season. They did manage to lose Alfredo Kelly, a capable hitter who was underutilized last year, and a pair of relievers in Jumbo Appier and Jin Pan, both of whom have had success in the past. They also took the unusual step of releasing Yamil Mateo, a hitter who belted 40 homers just 2 years ago, and Reagan Washington, a streaky reliever whose career ERA (4.14) is nevertheless lower than Durham's team ERA was last year. The men who are supposed to keep Durham's playoff hopes alive this year, then, are all minor leaguers who have been promoted, and they are the following: Zach Foster (a long reliever whose ERA the last time he played in the majors was 6.88 over nearly 83 innings), Sammy Lira (a man with a 4.25 minor league ERA who would otherwise be entering his fourth year in AAA), Sammy Azocar (a 1-inning setup man whose minor league ERA is nearly 5), and Paul Maxwell (an admittedly capable fielder who has nonetheless OPSed .654 in his 636 major league at-bats and is 29 years old). Color me slightly unimpressed with this ragtag group; given that some would say Durham overachieved last year, one wonders if they have what it takes to be an above-.500 team this year. Maybe playing in this division will help get them some extra wins.

Philadelphia Cheesesteaks

Rumor has it that Philadelphia's rapid decline (from 100 wins in season 9 to only 72 in season 10) was the result of the league's new rigorous steroid testing policies. While some would beg to differ (having a 4.86 team ERA doesn't inspire much confidence), the players' union's new deal for relaxed 'roid testing might be a boon to a Cheesesteaks team that suffered a severe power outage last season (186 homers in season 10 vs. 304 in seaason 9). And it seems management is keen to either prove that last year was a fluke or die trying; the Cheesesteaks team you see before you is practically the exact same one we saw last year (except, as Philadelphia might not be quick to point out, one year older). The injury suffered by Paul Wang last season will likely keep him out until at least the All-Star break, but other than that, there are no real additions or subtractions; what you saw last year is what you'll get this year. This isn't exactly a good thing, of course; former ace Rich Meyers is now 39, and age has taken its toll (his 4.99 ERA last year was a career high and his 153.1 innings was a career low except for season 5 when he recovered from elbow surgery). The average age of the current 25-man roster is a bit over 30, and 13 of those 25 players are 30 or older. Yes, maybe some of Philadelphia's problems last season were due to a lack of power hitting, but you'll also remember that the Cheesesteaks barely made any moves last offseason as well, leading one to wonder whether Philadelphia has much of a plan for rebuilding this once-proud franchise.

Atlanta Red Tide

In their final season in Hartford, this franchise was sometimes painful to watch. Registering a franchise-record 99 losses, this team seemed lost out on the field, and frankly, it seemed as if they didn't care. Their ML-worst 6.21 ERA was an absolute embarrassment, and their .794 team OPS seemed to be the only thing saving them from the utter dregs. Under new management and having moved to Atlanta, the franchise has been hard at work making sure their past failures don't continue to haunt them. Their new GM has publicly stated that there will be a major emphasis on pitching for the next few seasons; while there is still plenty of work to be done, it is obvious that this year's staff will be improved. Players like Vince Lilly and Sal Bryant have been tossed to the scrap heap where they belong, and the new management even saw through Freddy Franklin's mirage of a season (he had a 3.90 ERA but opponents hit .289 against him and induced a 1.41 WHIP). Antonio Reid and Herm Redman were big acquisitions that will immediately serve to stop the bleeding on this pitching staff. Jo-jo Loiselle hasn't had much success, and seems like an odd choice, but some claim there may be some talent there so a 1-year reprieve on this decision may be in order (he did have a great season 9). Chet Spencer, one of the few relative bright spots on the staff, was signed to a 3-year deal (which will strangely take him no farther than his arbitration years). Former 1st round picks Cecil Nixon and Charley Shelley should also be a boon offensively and defensively. Make no mistake: this franchise isn't going anywhere this year. But if they build correctly, a few seasons down the road, don't be surprised to see the Red Tide creep ashore in this division.

Toledo Addicts

In all my years of watching baseball, I don't believe I have ever seen a team have turnover in the offseason like Toledo has had this year. To be fair, after going 59-103, it's hard to blame them. But after jettisoning much of one's team, one has to realize that the good will be gone with the bad, and it's not usually a good idea to toss the baby out with the bathwater. Some of their more notable departures were 2-time All-Star slugger Aurelio Rodriguez, slugger and 350-home run club member Harry Maduro, highly capable hitter Reggie Bowman, and the aging Lonnie Cox who nevertheless hit .306 with an .808 OPS last year. Then the trades started. The aging but studly Richard Tanaka was dealt to Ottawa for Octavio Santos (a good fielding CF whose hitting is up for judgement) and young catcher Benny Linton (I once overheard a scout say that watching him hit major league pitching was "like watching a 5-year old on a sugar rush try to smash a pinata and miss every time," though he is a good defender). Chico Sanchez was acquired for Cal Durham, even though Sanchez isn't very well thought of while Durham is a prospect with good upside. They then acquired innings-eaters Matthew Helton and David Samuel, neither of whom is too impressive, for Rob Michaels, a Gold Glove winner last year. They also dealt a couple of prospects for the fairly useless Felipe Rosario. Then, they dealt prized catching prospect Pablo Maduro to Fargo for 3 big leaguers who likely won't even be around when this team manages to get good. They also managed to acquire thus-disappointing pitcher Orber Torres for the mediocre Leon Leonard in perhaps their best bang-for-their-buck deal this winter, but I fail to see the logic in mortgaging to much of the future for moves that likely won't even put the team around .500. Their free agent signings are even more bizarre; they spent $17,480,000 in free agents this season, only 2 of whom have ever played an inning of Major League baseball, and those two are Rafael Pichardo (6.26 career ERA) and Joshua Meyer (turned 35 this winter). Frighteningly, this team shows no signs whatsoever of slowing down as they continue to solicit deals through Spring Training. Either this is an imploded team that will lose 120 games this year, or the new GM is an evil genius who will manage to win 120. Time will tell which we'll get, but I'd bank heavily on the former.


1. Durham
2. Philadelphia
3. Atlanta
4. Toledo

Frankly, it doesn't much matter who wins this division, as it could very well be one of the worst in baseball, if not the worst. All teams seem to have either gotten worse or not gotten better enough to make a splash. 1 & 2 may switch and 3 & 4 may switch, but I'd be shocked if we saw anything other than that. I'd also be shocked if any of these teams were playing past the first week in October; this is one of those times when it seems hard to accept that baseball rules dictate that one of these teams will have to make the playoffs while one AL North team will have to miss it. I sorely hope that I am proven wrong by at least one of these teams this year.

Season 11 outlook: AL North

It's that time of year again! The winter meetings are finished, all players have reported, and spring training is well underway. Before the season gets started, we here at the official Pine Tar League blog will give you a complete rundown of all 32 teams, and, unlike last year, I'll be tossing some predictions into the mix as well.

The AL North seems as good a place as any to start-- after obliterating the MLB record for most single-season wins by a division, this division somehow seems like it will be even better this season. Let's take a look at all four teams in the North:

Ottawa Otters

Ottawa led the majors with an astounding 113 wins last year and capped off their incredible season with the franchise's first World Series victory. They could have simply kept their team intact and produced similar results this year... but naturally, they had to keep their division rivals on their toes (after all, the last-place team was a 95-game winner) so they decided to step up their game even more this offseason. Starting pitcher Don Corey is unquestionably the Otters' biggest loss, but the Otters quickly filled that hole by dealing for bona fide stud Felix Wilson. They did give up reliever Chick Linden, but to make matters worse for the Otters' opponents, Ottawa also dealt for Richard Tanaka to anchor an already excellent rotation. They even replaced Linden with free agent signing James Gibbs. The Otters had a few other losses-- most notably Jesus Roque, who was released when Ottawa decided not to offer arbitration-- but the addition of these pitchers while maintaining their brutal offensive core makes Ottawa again the favorites to win the World Series this year and, dare I say, top their win total from last season barring injury.

Minnesota PeaceFrog

Simply put, the PeaceFrog were devestated this winter by the departure of future Hall of Famer Jonathan Grebeck. Though he just had his 36th birthday, Grebeck went 15-6 with a 3.04 ERA last season, clearly showing he's got plenty left in the tank. Surprisingly, Minnesota has done little to replace their departed ace, singing the equally aging (but more rapidly declining) Phil Shaw, whose 4.06 ERA over the past three years pales in comparison to Grebeck's 2.87 ERA over the same span. Other than those developments, however, all has been relatively quiet out of Minnesota this winter. The PeaceFrog lost CF Rob Buckley, but gained a very similar player in Victor Ramsay to replace him (though Ramsay is the markedly better fielder). They also released servicable reliever Antonio Reid, now a member of the Red Tide. Time will tell if Minnesota's strategy works-- they did win 100 games last year, so even with the loss of one of baseball's best pitchers, it's hard to imagine them taking a large backslide-- but there is little question that unless Minnesota finds some more help, either externally or internally, they might be in danger of falling behind in this crowded division.

Syracuse Snow Pirates

Syracuse finished 4th in the majors in team ERA and 1st in opponents' batting average last year, and that was without mega-fielding SS Aramis Aybar for the first few weeks. The Snow Pirates' OPS was a respectable .786, but at only 7th in the majors, this, not pitching, was clearly the area Syracuse felt needed improvement. Enter Rob Lee, arguably the best hitter in the majors and, with a contact totalling nearly $110 million, decisively the biggest free agent signing this season. Lee brings his lifetime .993 OPS into a Snow Pirates lineup that sometimes had trouble scoring runs last year and gives them a desperately-needed jolt against right-handed pitchers. He is a huge upgrade over Daryle Moran who, despite OPSing .810 last year, was shipped to Oakland with longtime Snow Pirate Chris Damon for John Wolf, a hitter who Syracuse is banking will give them a bit more stability in the middle of the order. A few other pieces have been cast off too, like Marino Fuentes (who has yet to find a home) and Charley Shelley (who was quickly given a large payday by Atlanta), but Fuentes was a disaster last year and Shelley's role will be made obsolete when young fielding phenom Yorvit Ortiz makes his way onto the roster sometime early this season. It seems clear that Syracuse is in win-now mode, and with the moves they've been making and with stud Cyrus Torres returning to the fold after missing much of the season with an elbow injury, winning is something Syracuse may just have to get used to this year.

Milwaukee Cream Citys

Much of Milwaukee's fortunes this year may rely on the play of right fielder Frank Martin, who sat out nearly all of season 10 with a devestating neck injury. Martin is back now, and his first two spring training games seem to hold promise, but some are questioning whether Martin will return to old form this year, and more importantly, whether he can manage to stay healthy the entire season. To be fair, none of that really mattered last year, when the Cream Citys managed to win 95 games even without the services of Martin. Great pitching years by the likes of Walt Stark and Zephyr Wasdin, coupled with a well-rounded offensive attack, kept Milwaukee's playoff hopes alive for most of the year, but Milwaukee isn't taking any chances this year. They've gone out and made a flurry of free agent signings, including innings-eater Placido Fernandez and infielder David Bako (who replaces the departed Footsie Gray) and the re-signings of Archie Metzger and minor leaguers Al Aguilera and Lewis Cloud. The offseason did not, however, come without its share of losses-- reliever Richard Moreno, SP Patsy Cummings, and 1B/DH Ichiro Kondou are all gone, leaving possible holes for Milwaukee this year. But of course, it all comes back to Martin-- if the 4-time MVP can play well enough to add another trophy to his mantle, he just may give the Cream Citys a chance to earn him a ring as well. If not, this has the potential to be another bittersweet season for Milwaukee.


1. Ottata
2. Syracuse
3. Minnesota
4. Milwaukee

Ottawa is scary good this year and doesn't seem like they're planning to slow down. Syracuse addressed one of their few issues from last year and, with a few stud prospects ready to come up soon, only look to improve. Minnesota lost a big piece which may allow Syracuse to leapfrog them, but they should still be strong enough to easily contend for the 2nd wild card spot. Milwaukee figures to be the odd team out again, as I believe Frank Martin's best days are behind him. But then again, in this division, you just never know...