MLB 2006 SEASON PREVIEW
Sunday, February 19, 2006
Bolded records are predictions. Ranks are not official.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Over the offseason, the Diamondbacks have managed to unload two hefty contracts in Troy Glaus and Javier Vazquez, and restock their roster with proven talent. In the Vazquez deal with the Chicago White Sox, they got Orlando Hernandez in return; and for Glaus, they got a back-of-the-rotation starter with Miguel Batista and a talented second baseman in Gold Glover Orlando Hudson. They also picked up Johnny Estrada from the Atlanta Braves for relievers Lance Cormier and Oscar Villareal. Shawn Green needs to get back to his old offensive ways with around 30 HR and 100 RBI if the less-potent D-Backs are to contend with the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres. Chad Tracy is poised to emerge as a true offensive threat as their everyday third baseman, and Conor Jackson could end up becoming an early candidate for the 2006 Rookie of the Year award. However, they lack bullpen depth in every facet. Closer Jose Valverde has been more or less dependable throughout his three big-league seasons, but this will be the first season he'll be looking at more than 40 save opportunities; his career-high is 17. If he can stay fit and focused, or if the Diamondbacks end up shopping for a reliever before the trading deadline, Valverde may just be a diamond in the rough. Look for the Diamondbacks to improve by about five games in 2006, but it won't be enough to overtake the NL West, which is considerably better than last season.
Atlanta Braves: If the Braves made a checklist for things they need to go into April with to continue their NL East dominance, they'd be a few check marks short. Sans miracle-working pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who opted for Baltimore this offseason, their young corps of pitchers will have to carve their own path. Jorge Sosa, following a brilliant 2005 season under Mazzone's tutelage, may have merely been a flash in the pan; his head seemed to have been screwed on over and over again by Mazzone during the season. Aside from Sosa, their starting rotation is extremely experienced with John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, John Thomson, and Horacio Ramirez. The Braves, going into the 2006 season, are going to rely on encores from Andruw Jones and Jeff Francoeur, as well as the overall health of the team, as they can't expect their now-sophomores to carry the team to another postseason berth. Similar to last offseason, the Braves are heading into spring training without any real backup outfielders. Currently, they have two of them: a catcher, and someone who has never seen more than 90 at-bats in a season. More importantly, they have Chris Reitsma, owner of nine -- count 'em, nine -- blown saves last season, returns to the team as their ninth-inning answer. The ghost of Leo Mazzone will be rocking back and forth on the bench every time the Braves enter endgame with a small lead. However, those are only minor problems that can be fixed with a couple small signings or in-season trades, so the Braves figure to improve by as many as five games if they can check most or all of those items off the list.
Baltimore Orioles: The theme for the Oriole quest in 2006 may not, in fact, be baseball-related; rather, it will concern the wife, Anna, of newly acquired starter Kris Benson. Anna created tremors in the New York Met clubhouse, as well as in the national media, with some of her claims, which include her threat -- aired on Howard Stern's radio show -- to sleep with every member of the Mets if she had found Kris to be unfaithful. The Orioles are hoping the headlines refocus from Anna to Kris; if she pulls any similar stunts, the Baltimore clubhouse may prone to a rift. Going into 2006, the Orioles are unanimous underdogs, and they'll be working their way through the season with a chip on their shoulder. Pitcher Benson makes their starting rotation much better, but model Benson can be a powder keg that sets the team's entire campaign aflame. All Bensons aside, the Orioles didn't really take a noticeable step forward or backwards aside from giving Javy Lopez and his wobbly knees a job in the DH role, with Ramon Hernandez taking over the full-time catching duties. They shouldn't improve ny any more than a game or two, if at all.
Boston Red Sox: In one of the most underrated offseasons in recent memory, the Red Sox are poised to return to the playoffs with a lineup that is considerably better despite the loss of bearded centerfielder Johnny Damon. Replacing Damon is Coco Crisp, who finished the 2005 season with a .300 batting average, 16 HR, and 69 RBI. Damon has left some mighty big holes to fill, but Crisp may be ready to step into the spotlight and all but erase "Jesus" from the memories of the Boston faithful. At third base is the newly-acquired Mike Lowell, who had a dramatically poor season in 2005, yet still managed to come away with a Gold Glove award. As long as he doesn't have a season-long slump similar to last year, he'll be receiving nonstop accolades for taking advantage of the Big Monster a mere 310 feet away from home plate. His double-play compadre (no pun intended) is Mark Loretta, who, after two straight potent seasons in 2003 and 2004, finished 2005 with only 3 HR and 38 RBI. To his credit, he played in only 105 games and should return to the 15 HR, 70 RBI area if he has a healthy season. Last but not least is the starting rotation, anchored by veteran Curt Schilling, who only got 11 starts under his belt in 2005. If the Red Sox want to contend in the three-horse race that is now the AL East, they'll need every one of his quality starts. In the two-slot is Josh Beckett, the talented Marlin refugee. Behind Schilling, Beckett should find continued success similar to his 2005 season in which he went 15-8 with a 3.37 ERA. All in all, the Red Sox have improved, but considering each of the pieces that need to fall in place for them to succeed in what is arguably the toughest division in baseball, they'll find themselves barely crossing the 90-win plateau in 2006.
Chicago Cubs: The Chicago Cubs have had a successful offseason, acquiring another Marlin refugee (and there are plenty more strewn around the Majors) in Juan Pierre, who more than adequately fills their need for a leadoff hitter. In left field for the Cubbies will be Jacque Jones, whose offensive prowess is looked over because of his recently low batting averages, hovering at or barely above the .250 mark over the past two seasons. However, he almost guarantees a 20 HR, 75 RBI output, which is more than the north Chicago fanbase could hope for. As usual, they have question marks surrounding the health of Kerry Wood, who, for now, is in the bullpen. Can he pull a John Smoltz? Depending on his health and the success he finds in the bullpen, he may work himself back into the starting rotation, which would significantly improve the team. Their top-three include Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior, and Greg Maddux, which is nothing to frown upon, but with Maddux a year older, and Prior with injury concerns of his own, Wood could play an integral role in how their season turns out. The Cubs should improve by a game or two, but don't look for them in the playoff picture. It will be a surprise if they finish over the .500 mark.
Chicago White Sox: To those who think the only thing the world champions can do is move backwards, guess again. Surprisingly, general manager Ken Williams has been active over the offseason in improving his team. The acquisition of lefty slugger Jim Thome filled two needs at the time: insurance in case Paul Konerko didn't resign with the team, as well as to provide a potent offensive threat in the role of designated hitter. Regrettably, they had to give up one of the more influential members of the clubhouse during their heavenly run in Aaron Rowand, as well as two palable prospects in Giovanni Gonzalez and Daniel Haigwood, but with a healthy Jim Thome seeing less defensive time, he'll be a mainstay in an otherwise pungent White Sox lineup. They also bolstered their pitching staff -- hard as that is -- by trading Orlando Hernandez to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Javier Vazquez, who comes with a few minor concerns regarding his work ethic. The bullpen returns relatively the same; young hurlers David Sanders and Jeff Bajenaru replace the Pittsburgh-bound Damaso Marte (who brought Rob Mackowiak to south Chicago). Neal Cotts and Bobby Jenks emerged as bullpen gems and hope to back up that claim in the quest to repeat as world champs. Overall, though, the White Sox have not made a big splash in the offseason, but each move made has been a correct one. However, it will be tough to match last year's magical run of nearly 100 wins, and the White Sox should fall somewhere between 95-98 wins en route to another AL Central title.
Cincinnati Reds: There isn't much going right in Cincinnati, at least in terms of baseball, and the problems with the Reds are mounting. Instead of going after quality starting pitching, the Reds instead decided to suffice for Dave Williams, who sported a 10-11 record with a 4.41 ERA in 2005 to pitch after ace Aaron Harang -- a possible oxymoron -- who had one more loss than Williams in 2005. They now have an overflow of relief pitching but no definite closer yet, with their recent bullpen additions such as Grant Balfour, Mike Burns, Chris Hammond, and Rick White; none of whom you can confidently hand the ball to with a small lead in a must-win situation. Another of their new acquisitions is Tony Womack, who struggled consistently last season setting up and then hitting after death row, also known as Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, and Robinson Cano of the New York Yankees. That death row has turned into jailbait with Jason LaRue, Austin Kearns, Edwin Encarnacion, and the oft-injured Ken Griffey, Jr. Even in a hitter's ballpark, Womack will struggle just the same especially since he will be seeing fewer pitches. Griffey, if completely healthy for about 85% of the season, can push the Reds close to a .500 record, but if history is any indication of what's to come, Jerry Narron can start working on his disabled list forms right now. Felipe Lopez, coming off an impressive 2005 campaign, and Adum Dunn, a lock for 35 HR and 100 RBI (and 150 strikeouts), look to be the only consistent sources of offense for the Reds, who may just be eked out by the Pirates and Marlins for the worst record in the National League, but they'll still finish at a distant 5th place in the NL Central.
Cleveland Indians: After a plunge into contention following the All-Star break last season, the Indians slipped and fell just short of the AL Central title to the eventual World Series champion Chicago White Sox. The Indians have been fairly active this offseason, trying to shore up what is an impressive bunch of young players. They traded Coco Crisp to Boston for prospect third baseman Andy Marte and reliever Guillermo Mota in an essential three-way trade that also swapped reliever Arthur Rhodes with Philadelphia's Jason Michaels. They overpaid Paul Byrd to replace 2005 AL ERA leader Kevin Millwood, and he joins Jason Johnson as newcomers to the Cleveland starting rotation. Grady Sizemore replaces Coco Crisp in centerfield, a surprising upgrade: Sizemore had better offensive numbers than Crisp in 2005; the only concern with Sizemore is his propensity to the strikeout. Still at third base is Aaron Boone, whose shadow is recent acquisition Marte, and could lose his job if he doesn't live up to expectations; the sooner, the better for the Indians, who should be starting Marte regardless. Designated hitter Travis Hafner, following David Ortiz, was one of the most potent bats at his position last season and was among the nominees for the American League MVP award for his 11 HR and 26 RBI in the one-month stretch from September 2 to October 2. Southpaw Cliff Lee gets the nod to pitch on Opening Day after his nearly flawless performances throughout the 2005 season, earning him a record of 18-5 and a 3.79 ERA. Behind Lee in the rotation is C.C. Sabbathia, who almost averages a strikeout per inning, and earned a 15-10 record with an ERA just over 4.00 last season. In the bullpen, the Tribe are not only expecting great things from closer Bob Wickman, who will likely retire at season's end, but from 24-year-old Fernando Cabrera as well. Cabrera has shown the mentality to handle big-game situations and finished 2005 with a 1.47 ERA in nearly 31 innings pitched. He could be their choice for closer in 2007 in the highly likely event that Wickman calls it quits. Mota will be setting up, but his shoulder problems cause a concern for the team, another reason why if the Indians want to dethrone the world champs, their pitching is not only going to have to stay healthy, but stay consistent as well. That being said, they have needs to upgrade Ben Broussard at first base, Ronnie Belliard at second base, Aaron Boone at third base, and Casey Blake in right field. Until they do, their offense is going to be too inconsistent to give their pitching staff a chance to get into a rhythm, and they will hand the AL Central title to the White Sox on a silver platter when they finish less than 10 games over .500 in second place.
Colorado Rockies: Unfortunately, the Colorado Rockies really are as bad as you think they are. Despite promise shown by first-half Rookie of the Year candidate Clint Barmes before a grocery-related incident -- really -- gave him some valuable time riding the pine. First baseman Todd Helton returns after hitting over .300 for the eighth straight time in his career, which has lasted nine seasons. His offensive numbers dropped startlingly last season, even though he played in 10 less games than he did in 2005. Every single offensive category, batting average included, went down in 2005: homeruns dropped from 33 in 2003, to 32 in 2004, to 20 in 2005; RBI dropped from 117, to 96, to 79; hits dropped from 209, to 190, to 163. With an offense that is extremely inconsistent, even in their bandbox stadium, Helton is going to need to not only get on base for others to knock him in, but to knock in anyone who gets to second base and beyond. His LOB count will be watched closely, perhaps sparking a move further down in the batting order. Moreover, aside from closer Brian Fuentes, the Rockies don't know what they're getting out of their bullpen at any given time, either, and could see Ray King traded for young talent by the trading deadline if he doesn't impress. And the starting rotation isn't much better, despite an inspiring season from Aaron Cook, who finished 2005 with a 7-2 record, a 3.67 ERA, and averaged more than six innings per start (including two complete games, a feat at Coors Field). The rotation seems to be a collection of guys other teams got fed up with: Josh Fogg, Sunny Kim, Zach Day, and Byung-Hyun Kim. What is so depressing about that is half of them won't officially be in the rotation; they'll be moved to mop-up duties in the bullpen. On the outset, it looks as if Day and B.K. Kim will earn those fourth and fifth spots in the rotation, but could lose them at any given time. This season will be an improvement only in that their young players will get some more valuable playing experience -- and time to collect trade value -- as well as the fact that they might find a bit more success than they did in 2005, but only by two or three games. They'll still finish last in the NL West and have their mindset focused on 2007 by the time the trading deadline passes.
Detroit Tigers: If one was asked to point out the strength of the Detroit Tiger team, well, that's a troublesome task. Heading into the offseason needing upgrades just about everywhere, the Tigers seemed placated in neutral, but had enough momentum going to pick up starter Kenny Rogers and closer Todd Jones. Jones, joining the Tigers for the second time, is coming off of the best season of his career: a 2.10 ERA and converting 40 of his 45 save opportunities, a healthy 89 percent. Fortunately for Jones, his free agency timed with that of other premier closers, and was able to benefit from the monstrous contract the Toronto Blue Jays handed B.J. Ryan, subsequently setting the standard market price for above-average closers. Through Jones' career, he's never had two consistent seasons in which he's pitched at an adequate level. Last season was only the third of his 16-year career in which he's been called upon for 35 or more save opportunities, but perhaps last season is indicative that Jones is ready to be counted upon in pressure situations. Rogers, despite his infamous run-ins with cameramen, strung together a nice season in 2005. His 14-8 record marked the fourth straight season in which he's both won more than ten games, and lost less than ten games. His ERA was a paltry 3.46 and has been able to be counted on for at least 190 innings in his last four seasons. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez returns in his third season as a Tiger, and hasn't been able to return to his late-1990's form; his 14 HR and 50 RBI are not "Pudge"-worthy statistics. Their infield is rather-light hitting in terms of power, but shortstop Carlos Guillen, second baseman Placido Polanco, and first baseman Chris Shelton hit .320, .331, and .299 respectively last season. In the outfield, Magglio Ordonez returns to right field after his second straight injury-plagued season, playing in just over half of the 162 game season. In Chicago, Ordonez was one of the integral sources of offense and showed no signs of slowing down until he got injured. His recovery and return to normal will be of the utmost importance for the Tigers, as they lost the bat of Rondell White in the offseason, adding to their familiar offensive woes. As always, the starting rotation has potential, but inconsistency and an impotent offense will make for an unsuccessful season for the starting rotation. The Tigers may have bolstered their pitching staff, but it will not figure in to the Tigers improving in 2006. They'll be in similar standing as last year: fourth place in the AL Central with a record hovering at the .500 mark.
Florida Marlins: The upper management of the Marlins has all but packed their bags to leave the state of Florida with their second garage sale following a World Championship. After winning the 1997 World Series, the Marlins pawned off most of their superstars and went into hibernation until rising from their slumber to win the 2003 World Series. Uncharacteristically patient in auctioning off their starting lineup, the Marlins now look to rely on a young nucleus of unproven players -- and Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera, too. Their lease with the city of Miami runs out soon, so relocation is not completely out of the question, especially with cities such as Portland and Las Vegas being possible suitors for a professional baseball team. Don't be surprised though, if the Marlins host a couple of breakout seasons from players like Jeremy Hermida and Mike Jacobs. Statistically, the Marlins are the frontrunners to have one of their own win the Rookie of the Year award, but it will most likely be swept under the carpet of a very disappointing season following a very disappointing offseason. They don't, after all, have any reliable starting pitching aside from Dontrelle Willis every fifth game. Oh, and they have four outfielders for three outfield positions. What happens if two of them get injured or underperform (if that will be possible on the 2006 Marlins)? Considering those needs will most likely not be adequately met, expect the Marlins to sink rather than swim, barely reaching the 70-win mark.
Houston Astros: Commonly purported throughout the offseason was Roger Clemens' signing with another team. Although he has yet to sign with a team, and doesn't seem to be headed in that direction, the Astros can resign him at the start of May, which could be what returns them to championship form. Other than the swirling Clemens rumors, though, the Astros were one of the quietest teams in the offseason even though they had some holes to fill. They did sign Preston Wilson to add some power to an otherwise light-hitting Astro offense, but that is only the start of their concerns. Jeff Bagwell and his $17 million contract have also anchored the Astros to the bottom of the offseason ocean floor. A claim has been filed on behalf of the Astros to retain more than $15 million of what Bagwell plans to make in 2006, but until they do get that money, they're headed into spring with relatively no changes. However, they can more than adequately get by in a now-weaker NL Central now that Rookie of the Year candidate Willy Taveras has some experience against National League pitching to fall back on, Morgan Ensberg is due for a repeat performance, and Lance Berkman figures to play in 150 games in 2006, almost certainly putting him in the .285 average, 30 HR, 100 RBI spectrum. He missed 30 games last season and his absence was one of the more important reasons the Astros sweated their NL Wild Card lead down to the very last game of the 2005 season. The starting pitching, even without Clemens, is better than most, with a top-three of Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, and Brandon Backe. And, of course, Brad "Lights Out" Lidge will be there to put the final nail in the coffin in the ninth inning. Although the Astros didn't move forward, they didn't move backwards either, leaving them where they were after the 2005 season: National League champs. They'll improve by several games and skate by the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL Central title.
Kansas City Royals: A nice surprise in the offseason was the Kansas City Royals' ferocity in adding proven veterans to an otherwise unproven bunch of ballplayers. They acquired Scott Elarton (7 seasons of MLB experience), catcher Paul Bako (8 seasons), first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz (8 seasons), second baseman Mark Grudzielanek (11 seasons), and left fielder Reggie Sanders (15 seasons). Their closer, Mike MacDougal, is an excessively underrated closer who may draw interest from plenty of teams around the July 31 trading deadline. He finished 2005 with a 3.33 ERA, a 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and converted 21 of 25 save opportunities. The starting rotation needs some serious overhauling: the ace is Runelvys Hernandez, who has a career 5.00 ERA and finished 2005 with 8 wins and 14 losses. None of their top five starters (they have eight who are competing for those five spots) finished 2005 with a record of .500 or above, and the ERA's weren't any better. However, the additions of the seasoned veterans will be enough to give this team a huge turnaround, possibly of ten games or more compared to their 2005 finish. They'll still finish last in the AL Central, but they'll sink on a much more positive note. These Royals won't be setting attendance records in 2006, but the upper management has done enough this offseason to prove to their fans that they are committed to putting a winning team back on the field, but it just won't be this year.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: The goal of the offseason for the Angels was not to sit still and pick up Jeff Weaver at the last moment, it was to acquire a bat big enough to protect Vladimir Guerrero in the middle of the lineup. Looking back, it seemed like Mission Impossible for those in the City of Angels, who won the division last season by seven games without any offensive protection. They did acquire Edgardo Alfonzo, who is now their third-string third baseman and hasn't had a season to remember since we changed milleniums. Garret Anderson and Orlando Cabrera, the only other potentially powerful bats in the Angel lineup, have both regressed offensively over the last few seasons; Cabrera more so due to injury in 2003 and 2004, but in his first season as an Angel last season, he was never able to get it going. As a result, Vladimir Guerrero hit 7 less HR and drove in 18 less RBI as a result of walking at a slightly higher clip. However, offense isn't what the Angels are entirely predicated upon; they do have pitching, too. AL Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon returns at full strength after a postseason injury, John Lackey comes off of a career year in which he went 14-5 with a 3.44 ERA, and young Ervin Santana returns with enough professional experience to be taken seriously. Kelvim Escobar, who has waned recently as a result of injuries, and free agent signee Jeff Weaver bolster the back of the rotation, and prove there are really no weak spots in the starting pitching. In the bullpen, the Angels picked up a couple of gems in J.C. Romero and Hector Carrasco, formerly of the Minnesota Twins and Washington Nationals respectively. Romero has always been a reliable reliever, and Carrasco is coming off his finest season of his career with a career low ERA of 2.04, a figure that hasn't been matched since the first four years of his twelve year career. Scot Shields and Brendan Donnelly return and are just as reliable as Romero and Carrasco, and should make it a cakewalk to hand the ball to closer Frankie "K-Rod" Rodriguez, one of the finest in the game. As they say, pitching wins ballgames, and the Angel pitching staff -- Paul Byrd and Jarrod Washburn who? -- should win around 90 of them, which normally is good enough in the AL West, but with the new-and-improved Oakland Athletics, the Angels will fall a game short in second place.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Once again, things are looking up for the Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles. Eric Gagne and J.D. Drew should be at full strength in time for opening day; their infield has so much starting talent that newcomer Nomar Garciaparra (who played third base instead of shortstop last season) has to cover first base. This Dodger offense doesn't figure to be powered by the longball, aside from the 30 Jeff Kent will inevitably put up, and the 30 J.D. Drew figures to put up in an injury-free season. With Rafael Furcal and Kenny Lofton setting the table, and contact hitters Garciaparra and Bill Mueller, small ball could be just as potent a weapon as going yard. Their starting rotation is markedly better, featuring two could've-been aces in Derek Lowe, the ace by default, and Brad Penny. Neither had an impressive showing last season as neither had a positive record. Lowe, in the DH-less and small-ball prominent National League, saw a sharp increase in strikeouts and his ERA was at its lowest in three seasons at 3.61 for the former Bostonian. Penny, for the seventh straight season, failed to live up to expectations and seems unable to realize his potential. In the three-slot is southpaw Odalis Perez, who missed almost two months from mid-May to early July, and almost another month from mid-August to mid-September. Perez has been more dependable than his peers in Los Angeles, often finding himself striking out batters at four times the clip at which he walks them. The rotation rounds out with Brett Tomko looking for redemption following the worst season of his career record-wise. The 8-15 record he sported is deceiving, though, as his ERA was mediocre, not terrible, at 4.48. He almost reached 200 innings pitched, walked less batters while striking out more, and pitched a career-tying three complete games. In the final spot is former New York Met Jae Seo, who had a breakout season in 2005. He decreased his ERA by almost 2.5 runs to 2.59, and had an 80% winning percentage with an 8-2 record. Seo struck batters out 3.5 times more often than he gave them free passes, but had a problem with giving up the homerun in what is considered a pitcher's ballpark at Shea Stadium. Dodger Stadium won't be any more forgiving, as it is 8 feet shallower down the right- and left-field lines, and 10 feet shallower in centerfield. In addition, closer Eric Gagne's return from injury is lost in the news of all their latest acquisitions, but is prepared to return to his ninth-inning dominance we grew used to from 2002 to 2004. The bullpen took a hit with the loss of Duaner Sanchez, but recovered by acquiring Danys Baez from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to set up the eighth inning for Gagne. In mop-up, early relief, and seventh-inning duties, the Dodgers are going to rely on a lot of young pitchers to get the job done, and Gagne and the Dodger offense are no good if, in the process of putting the ball in Gagne's hands, the game is fumbled by the front of the bullpen. However, that won't happen, but neither will the Dodger postseason. They will have a drastic improvement over last year, probably by more than ten games, but will still finish second again in the weak NL West.
Milwaukee Brewers: Finishing .500 or better for the first time since 1992, the Milwaukee Brewers are showing some promise for the future. They acquired veteran third baseman Corey Koskie to lead an otherwise young bunch of infielders that includes J.J. Hardy, Rickie Weeks, and Prince Fielder. Fielder could be 2006's version of Ryan Howard played out through a full season; Weeks has drawn comparisons to Alfonso Soriano; Hardy has some real potential batting either second or sixth despite an unimpressive 2005 season sans September, when he hit over .300. Their starting rotation is deep and experienced, led by Ben Sheets and followed by the surprisingly successful threesome of Doug Davis, Chris Capuano, and Tomo Ohka; none of whom finished 2005 with a losing record or an ERA over 4.05. Dave Bush, acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays, rounds out the rotation in the five-hole. In the bullpen, Derrick Turnbow returns as their closer following a wildly impressive 2005 season that saw him convert 39 of 43 save opportunities while averaging almost a strikeout per inning, and earning a 1.74 ERA to complement a 7-1 record. Dan Kolb returns to Milwaukee after a 2005 season with the Atlanta Braves in which he was, well, cold. Perhaps familiar scenery will help him screw his head back on, or he can leave it up to Jose Capellan and Matt Wise to hold the fort down in pressure situations. Left fielder Carlos Lee returns as the big stick in the lineup, as he hit 32 HR and drove in 114 in 2005. Lee, unlike his complement in the outfield Geoff Jenkins, does not strikeout extraordinarily; working the count will be increasingly important for Weeks and Fielder, both of whom have shown a willingness to chase pitches in the wrong counts. The key to the Brewers' success will rest squarely on the shoulders of Prince Fielder: if he can become an asset to the offense rather than a liability, the Brew Crew will find themselves improving on their relatively successful 2005 campaign. If he doesn't improve throughout the season and if he doesn't learn how to work counts, it could be a very long season for the Brewers. With that being said, the pressure will prove to be a bit too much for Fielder, and the Brewers will finish in relatively the same spot last year -- third place -- but will cross that .500 plateau for the first time in 14 years.
Minnesota Twins: With an infield seemingly irreparable after the Bret Boone era, the Twins recovered rather nicely. At third base, they introduce Tony Batista to the astroturf, who did not play professional baseball in 2005; he was a Fukuoka Softbank Hawk in the Japanese Pacific League. However, he's always been an offensive bulwark for the six teams he's played for in his career. In fact, his 27 HR and 90 RBI in the JPL indicate that he has not lost the offensive swagger that netted him 32 HR and 110 RBI in 2004 as a Major Leaguer. At second base, the Twins pick up Florida refugee Luis Castillo at second base, who has hit .300 or above in three out of his last four seasons, and usually can be counted on for at least 20 stolen bases despite only finishing 2005 with ten of them. Elsewhere, the Twins look to get more offensive output from catcher Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, both of whom have shown the ability to become a dependable source for a 30 HR season. Gold Glover Torii Hunter returns after a broken ankle ruined the second half of his 2005 campaign. While on the disabled list, both his offense and defense were sorely missed with Lew Ford handling the centerfield duties. The offense will have to run on the power of these five players consistently for them to be able to give the rather unimpressive starting rotation a chance to win ballgames. Of course, "unimpressive" doesn't apply to 2004 Cy Young winner Johan Santana, who had another stellar season, finishing with a 16-7 record, a 2.87 ERA, and 238 strikeouts compared to his 232 innings (oh, and just 45 walks). Other than Santana, though, one can't really feel comfortable with the first five or six innings. Brad Radke had a disappointing 2005 season, even though he reached 200 innings pitched for the ninth time in his 11-year career. Radke has always been prone to giving up homeruns, and never was a power pitcher, and his 9-12 record is indicative of his loss of finesse. Middleman Carlos Silva was dependable last season, but wasn't anything to write home about. His 3.44 ERA and 188.1 innings are decent for a middle-of-the-pack starter, but won't be enough in 2006 behind what figures to be a questionable offense. However, if the starting rotation can hand the ball to the bullpen without digging an early grave, Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain, and Matt Guerrier are dependable relievers similar to the Angels' bullpen. The three finished with a 2.45, 2.71, and 3.39 ERA respectively in 2005. Any lead is save with closer Joe Nathan, who has quietly become a premier closer. He reached 40 or more saves for the second straight season as a closer. His 88% career save conversion percentage is impressive, and something the Twins can put their money on in the 2006 season. However, the offense figures to be inconsistent with all of the new faces, and Hunter returning from a broken ankle -- will he be as mobile in the outfield as we're used to seeing? The starting rotation is just as questionable, and will figure into the equation that doesn't see the Twins improving much from last year. They'll finish in third place behind the White Sox and Indians for the second straight season.
New York Mets: Taking a page out of their stately brothers' book, Mets GM Omar Minaya made like Yankees GM George Steinbrenner and sucked the water out of the free agent pool before anyone else had a chance to get their feet wet. Before the Marlins could finish selling off their team, the Mets had already slapped Mets logos on Paul Lo Duca and Carlos Delgado. Before the free agent closers could be compiled in a list, the Mets followed the Toronto Blue Jays' all-important B.J. Ryan signing by one-upping them with future Hall of Famer Billy Wagner. However, the Mets, in their quest for NL East dominance, sacrificed a build-it-yourself kit in Yusmeiro Petit and Mike Jacobs for a pre-built playoff-bound team that still has 162 games to play before any dreams are realized. In the starting rotation, things are peachy with numbers one and two, Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine; but after that, your guess is as good as mine. Steve Trachsel, Victor Zambrano, and Aaron Heilman follow, Heilman being the only one with any kind of a decent showing in 2005. However, those three will be protected by what figures to be a murderer's row of a lineup akin to the Yankees' with Jose Reyes and Kaz Matsui setting the table, and Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, David Wright, and Cliff Floyd knocking them in. Beltran endured a season-long slump after signing a contract worth over $100 million, obviously failing to live up to expectations. The five-tool star should see plenty of pitches to hit with Delgado waiting in his shadow, and figures to return to his offensive ways that Minaya fell in love with when Beltran was a Kansas City Royal. Ace Pedro Martinez, a Cy Young candidate before August rolled around, still has questions regarding his durability, and doesn't have any breathing room with a depleted starting rotation. Likewise, Tom Glavine has failed to succeed in a uniform without a tomahawk on it, and could be a make-or-break piece in the Mets' 2006 puzzle. If Glavine doesn't win consistently, more pressure will be placed on Martinez's arm, and as a result, the back of the rotation will also have to pick it up. All that adds up to a recipe for disaster; an implosion waiting to happen. If the Mets don't get some flawless performances from their starting rotation, and don't improve it at the trading deadline, the Mets will find themselves in a familiar position: trailing the Atlanta Braves. The Mets are going to be a drastically different team, but not different inasmuch to dethrone the Braves. Look for a 90+ win output from the Mets, but lose the division on the very last day of the season.
New York Yankees: Making, arguably, the best acquisition of the offseason, the Yankees and new centerfielder Johnny Damon look to continue the Yankees' stranglehold on the AL East, as they have won it every year since 1998. It helps that they took one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball from a division rival, but they already have everything they need to succeed again. Damon will leadoff for the Yankees, followed by team captain Derek Jeter, who, along with Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, and 2005 Rookie of the Year candidate Robinson Cano in the 3-4-5-6-7 slots, will knock in anyone in scoring position. Rodriguez returned to MVP form after a shaky inauguration 2004 season in the media capital of the world. Sheffield, if nothing else, has gotten better as his career has winded down, as he hit at least 30 HR and drove in 100 RBI for the sixth time in his last seven seasons. As with last year, the starting rotation is a question for the Yankees, but it may not be as bad as it seems with two Hall of Famors starting it off in Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina. Shawn Chacon, acquired midway through the 2005 season from the Colorado Rockies, has gone 7-3 in his new pinstripes. Following Chacon is Chien-Ming Wang, arguably the Yankees' most consistent starter last season. Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano will fight for both the number four and number five spots in the rotation with the loser likely headed to the bullpen for mop-up and spot-starting duties. The bullpen, which includes Aaron Small, who went 8-0 as a starter last season in an injury-plagued rotation. Free agents Octavio Dotel and Kyle Farnsworth were signed for late-inning duties to bridge the gap to closer Mariano Rivera, perhaps at the pinnacle of his career after posting his lowest ERA of his career in 2005 at 1.38. He also struck out 80 hitters, something he hadn't done since 2001 when he struck out 83. Their bullpen is surprisingly versatile, so even if their starting pitching is as bad as it was last year -- which was only bad by Yankee standards -- the bullpen can pick it up and, along with the impervious offense, carry the Yankees to another AL East title. There will be no need to look at head-to-head matchups to determine the AL East champion this season, the Yankees will win it by about five games and may even battle the White Sox for best record in baseball and quickest to 100 wins.
Oakland Athletics: Offensively lacking in the past two seasons in which they've failed to reach the postseason, GM Billy Beane, in an out-of-character sequence of events, traded for anger-mismanagement poster boy Milton Bradley and signed White Sox outcast Frank Thomas. With Jason Kendall and Mark Kotsay at the top, Thomas, Eric Chavez, Bradley, and Nick Swisher look to knock them in. Bobby Crosby, the 2004 AL Rookie of the Year winner, and Mark Ellis provide a talented, young middle of the infield for Oakland. With offense checked off their list, what other problems do they have? None really, considering they signed Esteban Loaiza to bolster an already fearsome group of starting pitching. Barry Zito struggled last year, but only by his standards, and still finished with a respectable 14-13 record and a 3.86 ERA. Elsewhere, Rich Harden impressed with a 10-5 record and 2.53 ERA, and Dan Haren and Joe Blanton were dependable enough in the back of the rotation not to be detriments. The bullpen is filled with talent from Kiko Calero, to Kirk Saarloos, to Justin Duchscherer, all three of whom had low earned run averages and the records to match. At closer is 2005 Rookie of the Year winner Huston Street, who, with his 5-1 record, 1.72 ERA, and conversion of 23 of his 27 save opportunities, gave Beane a reason to get rid of disappointing relief pitcher Octavio Dotel, who is now in Yankee pinstripes. With a bolstered offense, an improvement on an already versatile starting rotation, and a bullpen to match, the Athletics look to reclaim their status as AL West champions. They'll battle the Angels to the last few days of the season and win the division by one game, with about 92 games, an improvement of four games compared to their 2005 campaign.
Philadelphia Phillies: Heading into spring training, the expectations on the Phillies are significantly lighter than they have been over the past three seasons. The starting rotation doesn't have a true stopgap, especially if Brett Myers' breakout 2005 season was a fluke. The bullpen, with the losses of Billy Wagner to free agency, and of Ugueth Urbina to criminal justice, has been replenished with two older-than-you'd-like -- but proven -- relievers in closer Tom Gordon and setup man Arthur Rhodes. With Rheal Cormier, whose performances are spotty at best, and Aaron Fultz, who enjoyed remarkable success in 2005 with the Phils, will work out of the 'pen in lefty-specialist roles. The rest of the bullpen shapes out to be rather cloudy: Eude Brito, Chris Booker, Geoff Geary, Aquilino Lopez, Julio Santana, and Robinson Tejeda will vie for the final spots. Mediocre is the pitching staff, even after the Phillies dangled Bobby Abreu relentlessly throughout the winter meetings. The starting lineup is relatively similar to the 2005 version with the only change being Aaron Rowand replacing the former platoon of the recently departed Kenny Lofton and recently traded Jason Michaels. With a bench now infield-heavy, David Bell's job at third base is his to lose. With that said, the Phils need a lot to go right if they want to compete with the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves in the NL East. For starters, Ryan Howard cannot go into a sophomore slump after winning the 2005 Rookie of the Year award; Brett Myers must not only match his 2005 efforts, he must continue improving and emerge as the ace the Phillies had been trying to find all offseason; David Bell must hit more consistently against right-handed pitching. The most important thing, however, is a fast start in the first month of the season. With a poor April last season -- negating a promise then-debuting manager Charlie Manuel had made regarding a great first month -- the Phillies found themselves wishing for a better start after a 9-3 win against the Nationals on the last day of the season left them one game behind the Astros in the NL Wild Card. When it's all added up, the Phillies will not answer those burning questions, especially with the new-and-improved look in the National League. They'll fall back a few games and barely make it over .500 for third in the NL East.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Pittsburgh is elated with the Steelers' Super Bowl XL victory, but they'll slowly deflate with the demise of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pound-for-pound, the Pirates have the best young pitching staff in baseball from Oliver Perez, to Zach Duke, to Paul Maholm. They acquired veterans on both corner infield positions; Sean Casey, a career .305 hitter, at first base, and Joe Randa at third, who had a career-high 17 homeruns in 2005. Jason Bay is similar, if not better than Bobby Abreu offensively, considering his 2005 totals: .306 batting average, 32 HR, and 101 RBI (Abreu hit .286 with 24 HR and 102 RBI). And, hey, they added some more pop with Jeromy Burnitz in right field, too. With all that said, the Pirates sound like sure-fire candidates for at least a .500 record, right? Wrong. Kip Wells is their #2 starter, and he was 8-18 with an ERA higher than 5.00 in 2005. Sean Burnett is their fifth starter, and he has only 11 games under his belt and an ERA that also surpasses 5.00. The middle infield has disappointed offensively; they have a light-hitting catcher who strikes out four times as much as he draws walks. Of the starting eight position players, Casey is the only one that even comes near a decent strikeout-to-walk ratio (which is an impressive 1:1). More importantly, their closer has seven -- count 'em, seven -- career save opportunities, and has only converted four of them. Damaso Marte, acquired from the Chicago White Sox for Rob Mackowiak, and Roberto Hernandez, add some much-needed veteran depth to their bullpen, but they are still the only bright spots there. The current configuration of Pirates figures to be a streaky bunch and will not be able to consistently put it together for an impressive turnaround. They will improve by a couple games, but still find themselves in the NL Central cellar, well below .500.
San Diego Padres: Third baseman Vinny Castilla's offensive averages in hitter's ballparks: 29 HR, 91 RBI; in pitcher's ballparks: 9 HR, 36 RBI. Granted, four of his six seasons in pitcher's ballparks play in less than 90 games, but there is no question that Castilla's offensive prowess is inflated a bit by the light air at Coors Field in Colorado, where he has spent 8 of his 16 seasons. PETCO Park is a pitcher's ballpark in every sense of the term, just look at right fielder Brian Giles' averages before coming to San Diego: 22 HR, 73 RBI; after coming to San Diego: 14 HR, 65 RBI. The "rest" of the offense, Ryan Klesko, Khalil Greene, and Mike Cameron (and Mike Piazza in the spare instances he plays), will have to become on-base percentage demons, as that's been the only ironclad way to score runs in San Diego. The pitching staff, aside from Jake Peavy, is dull and unimpressive. Peavy, though, finished 2005 with a 13-7 record, a 2.88 ERA, and 216 strikeouts in 203 innings pitched. Following him is newcomer Chris Young, Woody Williams, Shawn Estes, and Chan Ho Park. Young was the only one of the four to finish 2005 with a winning record, and all of them had an ERA in the 4.75 range. Surprisingly, the Padre bullpen is unimpressive aside from Scott Linebrink and closer Trevor Hoffman. Linebrink was one of the best relievers in baseball last season, earning a 8-1 record and a devilishly low 1.83 ERA, also finding himself striking out batters at a clip of almost one per inning. Hoffman also turned in a fine season of his own, converting 43 of his 46 save opportunities, and figured to either retire or cash in on the inflated relievers' market this offseason, but chose to return to San Diego for the fourteenth time in 15 seasons. Despite winning the NL West last year (remember, it was incredibly weak last season), the offense will prove too inconsistent to match their starting pitching, and will not be able to keep up in an improved National League. The Padres will fall back a couple of games and all the way down to fourth place.
San Francisco Giants: Left fielder Barry Bonds is returning from three knee surgeries and doesn't figure to play in any more than 110 games, if that. However, his presence in the lineup makes the Giants viable playoff contenders, but it's unfortunate that the rest of the offense is rather impotent. Fellow outfielders Randy Winn (in centerfield) and Moises Alou (in right) each hit at least 19 HR last season with an average above .300, but that's about all the offensive output they can rely on. Infielders Pedro Feliz, Ray Durham, and Lance Niekro don't work counts too well and Feliz is a huge strikeout liability. Durham, entering his thirteenth season, hasn't stolen 20 bases since 2002, which indicates that his speedster days are well behind him. The Giants will likely be team predicated around the homerun, as they don't have a true leadoff man or a reliable base stealer in their starting lineup. The starting rotation is surprisingly stable, despite the youth stationed in the back with Noah Lowry, Matt Cain, and Brad Hennessey. Lowry was impressive, despite losing as many games as he won (13); he notched 200+ innings and a decent ERA of 3.78. Cain has only seven career games, but already has pitched a complete game. In his seven starts, he is 2-1 with a 2.33 ERA, good enough to make earn him the fourth slot in the rotation. At the end is Hennessey, who pitched well in the first half of 2005, but followed it up by going 1-5 in August and September. He has some room to improve, and will need to sooner rather than later, as he is averaging almost four walks per nine innings. However, he will be protected by the strength of the rest of the rotation, which will hand the ball to ace Jason Schmidt on opening day. Schmidt, the subject of many trade rumors since the offseason began, had an off-year by his standards, going 12-7 with a 4.40 ERA and only 172 innings pitched after a 2004 season which saw him go 18-7 with a 3.20 ERA in 225 innings pitched. However, the Giants added former Cardinal Matt Morris to give him some breathing room; Morris has never had a losing record in his eight-year career. The rotation will be handled by another former Cardinal, Mike Matheny, who knows all about handling a pitching staff. Matheny isn't known much for his offense; rather, he is known for his ability to build a rapport with all five members of a starting rotation, as well as his defensive prowess as a backstop: he has a .994 fielding percentage. The Giant bullpen has some question marks, but they have Armando Benitez at closer, which should prove to give them confidence in the later innings of the game. The rest of the bullpen is question marks, though, especially with Tim Worrell in his second stint in San Francisco. Worrell had a shaky 2005 season with both the Phillies and the Diamondbacks, and looks to recover. With all that said, a Giant lineup with Barry Bonds at cleanup is an instant playoff contender, and should notch around 90 wins in 2006, good enough to win a slightly tougher NL West division. The starting rotation will prove to be rock solid throughout the course of the season, and should be even tougher should they make a mid-season acquisition.
Seattle Mariners: "Progress" will be the theme of the Seattle Mariner season, as they have bolstered what was surprisingly a mediocre starting rotation last season. Jamie Moyer had a huge turnaround quite literally, going 13-7 in 2005 after a 7-13 2004 season. Moyer has pitched 200 or more innings for the last five seasons of his career, and looks to continue that streak this season. Joel Piniero and Gil Meche both have not pitched well since the 2003 season, but will be split by southpaw Jarrod Washburn, acquired as a free agent during the offseason. Washburn finished 2005 with a 3.20 ERA and is likely to match that figure pitching at home at vast Safeco Field. Right fielder Ichiro Suzuki hit above .300 for the fifth-straight time in as many seasons, although he hit 69 points lower in 2005 than he did in 2004, but he did almost double his homerun total from 8 to 15. First baseman Richie Sexon had another superb season, hitting 39 HR and driving in 121, but other than him and left fielder Raul Ibanez, the offense was rather inconsistent, especially with third baseman Adrian Beltre, one of their two big free agent signings in the 2004 offseason. After a 2004 season in which he hit 48 HR -- tops in the Majors -- and 121 RBI, he struggled in 2005, finishing with only 19 HR and 80 RBI despite playing 156 games in both seasons. At catcher, they introduce Kenji Johjima, who has a career .299 batting average with 211 HR and 699 RBI in 11 seasons Fukuoka Softbank Hawks of the Japanese Pacific League. To boot, Johjima was also a Gold Glove winner seven straight times from 1999-2005. Their offense looks to run on four legs providing that Ichiro continues to get on base at a .350 clip: Beltre, Sexson, Ibanez, and Johjima. Should any of these legs fold, their pitching staff will have trouble winning games, even with the help of the huge dimensions that make Safeco Field. The bullpen isn't anything special, even with Eddie Guardado at closer, who continues to improve as he's lowered his ERA in four straight seasons. He notched 36 of his 41 save opportunities and rarely walks a batter; Guardado is someone the rest of the Mariner bullpen will be taking notes on. The Mariners should improve a little in 2006, but will once again finish last in the four-team division.
St. Louis Cardinals: "A real head-scratcher" is the only phrase that really describes the Cardinals' offseason. They let loose some integral parts of their recent success in the NL Central, including Ray King, Matt Morris, Reggie Sanders, Julian Tavarez, and the multi-talented Larry Walker. The replacements for those ubiquitously appreciated players are scrubs in every sense of the word. Reggie Sanders has metamorphosed into Larry Bigbie; Larry Walker has turned into Juan Encarnacion; Julian Tavarez has turned into Braden Looper; Ray King has turned into Ricardo Rincon. On the bright side, Chris Carpenter is returning from a Cy Young-winning 2005 season, perennial Gold Glove-winning third baseman Scott Rolen will be returning from injury, and their starting rotation isn't so bad with Mark Mulder and Jeff Suppan behind their Cy Young Winner. In the bullpen, Looper sets up for closer Jason Isringhausen, but other than that, the Cardinal Bullpen is all question marks. Brad Thompson has some potential after going 4-0 with a 2.95 ERA and converting his only save opportunity working out of the 'pen for the Cardinals in '05, but Adam Wainright, Randy Flores, and Rincon are going to need to take some of the pressure off the back of the bullpen, especially now that their offense is significantly weaker. The Scott Rolen of the outfield, Jim Edmonds, saw his numbers drop significantly in every standard offensive category despite playing in only eleven less games in 2005 than in '04, not to say that 29 HR and 89 RBI don't make for a decent season, but it will just be more weight put on the shoulders of Rolen and relentless triple crown threat Albert Pujols. With their relatively impotent offense and their questionable bullpen front, the Cardinals may have the biggest dropoff in the Majors in 2006, possibly by as many as 15 games and in second place behind the NL champion Houston Astros.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: In all honesty, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have an offense with a lot of potential. With Carl Crawford guaranteeing you as much as, if not more than 50 steals per year; with Jorge Cantu breaking out for a .286 batting average, 28 HR and 117 RBI last season; with Aubrey Huff doing his best Gomes impression, this bunch of potential "Tarpons" could provide a spark to a division that has focused the spotlights squarely on everyone else: the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays competitively, and the Orioles aesthetically for model Anna Benson, wife of -- hmm, give me a second to think of his name -- Kris. Unfortunately, the Devil Rays don't have bright light at the end of the other tunnels, including the starting rotation and bullpen, which accounts for two-thirds of the success equation. Ace Scott Kazmir is the only starter primed for success; the rest are going to wallow with their sub-.500 records and mediocre talent. It seems anyone that left Tampa Bay over the offseason was a pitcher: starter Dewon Brazelton, and relievers Danys Baez, Joe Borowski, and Trever Miller all headed to new locales this past winter. Enter Chad Harville, Edwin Jackson, and Dan Miceli to the bullpen to try and fill the All-Star shoes left by Baez and Carter. They have yet to determine who will handle the ninth-inning duties, but at this point, it really doesn't matter, as no one is truthfully qualified for the position. It will be a wonder if they will ever put it together this decade, let alone this season, so expect them to surrender to a 65-67 win output and a distant last place in the toughest division in the American League.
Texas Rangers: It will be all or nothing for the Texas Rangers in 2006, as six of their nine starters struck out 90 or more times last season, including newcomer Brad Wilkerson, who led the Majors in that category. However, AL batting average champion and shortstop Michael Young should be on base plenty for sluggers Hank Blalock, Mark Teixeira, and Phil Nevin, to get driven home. Wilkerson reached career offensive lows (excluding his rookie season in which he only played 47 games), finishing with a .248 batting average, 11 HR, and 57 RBI. The offense should be capable enough to power an improved starting rotation that introduces three newcomers at the top of the rotation. Kevin Millwood, who had the lowest ERA in the American League in 2005 (2.86), can be counted on for around 190-200 innings pitched, and his performance in another hitter's ballpark (he pitched at Citizens Bank Park in 2003 and 2004) will set the tone for the rest of the rotation. Former Padre Adam Eaton had his best season at 11-5 last season, isn't a workhorse by any means, but should be solid enough for 6 quality innings. Vicente Padilla, often labeled a headcase, flashed brilliance at times during the 2005 season, but not consistently enough for the Phillies to continue paying for his services. Padilla's biggest problem is his control, although he only averages two per start; those walks tend to happen in pressure situations, when he's excessively prone to mentally unravel. He is durable, though, averaging seven innings per start in his last four seasons, when the Phillies started to feature him as a starter. In the four-slot is 6'8" Kameron Loe, who was impressive in his first full season as a Major Leaguer. At 9-6 with a 3.42 ERA coming out of the bullpen moreso than as a starter, the Rangers look for him to make a smooth transition into his full time job. Following Loe is Juan Dominguez, who is similar to Loe in that he was used both out of the bullpen and in the rotation, but was less inspiring. The back of the rotation will be critical in the Rangers' quest to return to the top of the division for the first time in six seasons. The bullpen is not very intimidating, even with Francisco Cordero at closer. Cordero had a career year in 2004, earning just under 50 saves and a 2.13 ERA, but had eight blown saves last season and increased his ERA by more than a full run, at 3.39. The rest of the bullpen is both unimpressive and inconsistent, and will prove to be the downfall of the Rangers' season, as they'll finish in third once more at around the .500 mark.
Toronto Blue Jays: Expensive is an understatement when describing the Blue Jay offseason. Not only did they sign coveted starter A.J. Burnett to a 5-year, $55 million deal, they also signed B.J. Ryan to a 5-year, $47 million contract. Bengie Molina, one of the better offensive catchers nowadays, was signed, and third baseman Troy Glaus was swapped with Arizona for Gold Glover Orlando Hudson and reliever Miguel Batista. Ace Roy Halladay returns from injury; he was a viable Cy Young candidate at 12-4 and a 2.41 ERA before landing on the disabled list. Things are finally looking up for the Blue Jays, who have failed to win the division since 1993, when they won the World Series for the second time in a row. Designated hitter Shea Hillenbrand and newcomer Lyle Overbay look to support an offense that will be driven by the bat of Glaus, who can be counted on for close to 40 HR and over 100 RBI in a mostly healthy season. The starting pitching has questions, though, primarily concerning Burnett and whether or not he will reach his potential; not settling for a .500 record at 12 wins, his career high. Burnett also faltered in the month of September, which ultimately landed the then-competitive Marlins in the scrap heap. Gustavo Chacin and Josh Towers had decent showings in 2005 and will need to repeat as the Blue Jay offense could shut down at any given time. In the bullpen, only three of their nine possible relievers finished 2005 with an ERA over 4.00. Ryan will be used as a closer for only the second time in nine seasons, but with his 100 strikeouts in 70 innings, and conversion of 36 of 41 save opportunities (87%), the back-end of the bullpen looks to be steadfast for the Jays this season. Only three things can keep the Jays from success in 2006, only two of which they're in control of: the success of the back-end of the starting rotation, the consistency of the offense (and the health of Troy Glaus), and the play of the Red Sox and Yankees, their two chief competitors in the AL East. Plenty of people are picking the Jays to win the East for a change, considering their wild offseason, but they will become one of the most overrated teams in recent memory. It will be a surprise if they cross 85 wins and move anywhere higher than third place.
Washington Nationals: The Rookie of the Year award could be locked up early by Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. In the 20 games he played as a Major Leaguer last season, he hit .397 and almost half of his 23 hits were doubles. However, the focus will be on one National this season: newcomer Alfonso Soriano. His acquisition was questionable at best, as he doesn't fit in with the Nationals' scheme, especially since he's a volatile bat in a pitcher's ballpark. That, and second base is already taken by Jose Vidro, one of the more well-rounded infielders in baseball. Soriano may take over shortstop if Cristian Guzman doesn't recover from a letdown of a 2005 season. He was barely over the Mendoza line at .219 and killed an immeasurable amount of rallies that the more consistent bats of Nick Johnson and Jose Guillen had created. For now, Soriano will grudgingly trot to the outfield on opening day and try to repeat his 2005 total of 36 HR and 104 RBI (and 30 SB as well). When the Nationals were on the top of their game in the first half of the 2005 season, they had two areas to thank: starting pitching and closer. However, half of their rotation has changed with Ramon Ortiz being picked up in free agency and Brian Lawrence being traded for; both of whom coming off of disappointing seasons. Ace Livan Hernandez and John Patterson return though, after a very successful season. Hernandez pitched 246.1 innings, and pitched over 200 innings for the sixth straight time in his career. Patterson almost reached 200 innings himself, at 198.1, and the 9-7 record he finished with is misleading as he suffered from the Nationals' impotent offense (when Johnson was out with an injury). His 3.13 ERA and 185 strikeouts are impressive totals and doesn't appear to be just a flash in the pan. Closer Chad Cordero was quite possibly the biggest surprise of the 2005 season, clinching all but seven of his 54 save opportunities, cutting down his walks significantly, and finished with a 1.82 ERA. Their bullpen is talented and experienced, with Luis Ayala, Joey Eischen, Gary Majewski, and Mike Stanton handling the lion's share of the bullpen duties. The four finished 2005 with a 2.66, 3.22, 2.93, and 4.64 ERA respectively. The Nationals, though, are going to suffer from a NL East that only got better, as well as from "the Soriano effect," which is just the whining the overpaid second baseman will do when he doesn't get the job he wants at second base. The starting pitching got worse -- much worse -- and Cordero will be hard-pressed for an encore; the Nationals can only go backwards this season. They won't finish last, though, thanks to the fire-sold Marlins, but the Nationals won't cross 80 wins.
How It'll Turn Out