UCB Project: National League West

Each month the United Cardinal Bloggers try to do a network wide blogging project. For the month of March, our project is to preview the season. So this week at Redbird Dugout and other UCB sites will be preview week. Since I’ve already done the NL Central in a whole series, I’m going to skip that this week as I head around baseball. Over the last four days I have done the AL East, Central, and West along with the NL East. Tomorrow I will look at postseason predictions.

Last season it was the San Francisco Giants that rode their pitching to the World Series, despite being overlooked at nearly every angle. I thought they had a pretty good chance to get past the Braves in the first round, but I doubt anybody really foresaw them beating both Philadelphia and Texas. However, it was the San Diego Padres that collapsed down the stretch that allowed the Giants to get back into the division race and ultimately win the division.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks (75-87)
The Diamondbacks have been a seller as of late, but I like the direction that the team is heading in. They’ve dealt a lot of their talent away in exchange for young pitching, attempting to stock pile pitching talent, much like their divisional rivals in San Francisco. Their new manager, Dodgers legend Kirk Gibson should be a great leader for the team after they’ve struggled in the past few years.

While their direction is good, there are many questions surrounding the Diamondbacks this season. How are they going to fill the gaps on offense? Will their rotation hold up? They have a solid group of pitchers led by Daniel Hudson, who was incredible last season for the Diamondbacks after coming over in a trade. Why Chicago was willing to deal him was a little surprising. The guy who pitched the almost perfect game, Armando Galarraga is also in the rotation.

There is still a long way to go for the Diamondbacks, but they have a good core of talent and have made several steps in the right direction.

4. San Diego Padres (78-84)
The Padres have also been sellers lately. There is a big turnover in San Diego this year too as they’ve slashed payroll. The Padres surprised everyone last season with their 90 wins, but I don’t see them being able to repeat that at all.

They improved up the middle with the additions of Orlando Hudson and Jason Bartlett. They brought Ryan Ludwick back to hit cleanup behind Chase Headley. Other than that, they are pinning their hopes on a couple players who haven’t played well recently in Brad Hawpe and Cameron Maybin. If they break through, then it’d be very easy to win a few more games.

The question for the Padres is whether or not the bullpen can be the same form as they were in 2010 when they were one of the best bullpens in the majors. Also, can that offense provide enough runs to support the pitching staff. Petco is a pitcher friendly ballpark, so pitching can turn the tide, but it will be even more difficult for that offense to score runs because of that.

3. Colorado Rockies (81-81)
The Rockies made big moves in the offseason, locking up both Troy Tulowizki and Carlos Gonzalez to big deals. It’s a good move that locks up two of the best young offensive talents in the National League and recognizes their place as the core of the team. While Todd Helton might be the godfather of the team, he’s not the leader much any more. He’s not the go-to guy in the lineup.

A small amount of turnover for the Rockies, but I don’t see much improvement on the field. Obviously the young players should improve, but the question remains whether Tulowizki and Gonzalez can continue to give 110% knowing that they are locked into big money for years to come. To me, that’s always a question when you give guys a ton of money.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers (84-78)
The Dodgers’ ownership is having financial issues as well. When your owners go through a divorce, it’s tough for either to spend money on the team. There was the potential for the team to receive a loan to help it operate through this season, but that was turned down by Bud Selig. That put the Dodgers in rough territory this offseason as they had to be smart with the way they spent their money.

Their biggest move may have been the addition of Juan Uribe. Uribe was a critical part of the Giants’ 2010 World Series team. Jon Garland was another solid move to solidify that bullpen, especially with some of the success that Garland has had in a Dodgers uniform.

Their core remains mostly unchanged, but I feel that that does help them. These guys will know that it’s all on them to get the job done and that reinforcements aren’t likely to come. I expect them to rise to the challenge and compete for the division crown this season.

1. San Francisco Giants (89-73)
Magic is about the only word you can use to describe the Giants’ postseason run. Their team also remained mostly unchanged, but unfortunately they lost two of their biggest pieces. Juan Uribe and Edgar Renteria both left to play for other teams after playing instrumental roles in the Giants’ run to the playoffs. They added Miguel Tejada who should help a little bit and hopefully they will get Mark DeRosa back from his injury as well, helping absorb some of that loss.

Their rotation, with Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner cannot be questioned. It is right up there as one of the best top-4 in the league. Also quite cheaper than the Phillies’ top-4. Brian Wilson has had some muscle issues in spring training, but hopefully that won’t nag on into the season. Even if it does, San Francisco is very deep in pitching.

The Giants are a team that relies on great pitching and timely hitting. The pitching is almost a guarantee as long as everyone stays healthy. Can the Buster Posey led offense continue to get timely hits? That will determine their outcome in 2011.

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UCB Project: National League East

Each month the United Cardinal Bloggers try to do a network wide blogging project. For the month of March, our project is to preview the season. So this week at Redbird Dugout and other UCB sites will be preview week. Since I’ve already done the NL Central in a whole series, I’m going to skip that this week as I head around baseball. Over the last three days I have done the AL East, Central, and West. Today we hit the National Least East.

Last season saw the Philadelphia Phillies and the Atlanta Braves make the playoffs out of the National League East. The Braves led for most of the season behind their young rotation, but the loss of Chipper Jones hurt the team’s chances as they fell and just barely held onto the Wild Card.

5. New York Mets (71-91)
Not a familiar place for the Mets, but while their ownership continues to sort out their financial troubles the Mets will continue to struggle. They are a team with question marks everywhere and that could lead to a big roster turnover by the time the trade deadline comes around.

On the offensive side of the ball Carlos Beltran is sliding over to right field in the hopes that he can play regularly since he can’t patrol centerfield quite like he used to. Beltran and Jose Reyes are in the walk years of their contracts, so you can bet that they will be giving it everything they have to raise their statistics. While the front five in the lineup are guys you know, the back half of the lineup has guys like Ike Davis, Josh Thole, and Brad Emaus. None of whom strike fear into the opposing team.

The pitching staff will wait for the return of Johan Santana, who is out until mid-season after shoulder surgery ended his 2010 season. The rotation isn’t anything special, but they do have a few gambles that might pay off. They signed Chris Capuano and Chris Young (no, not the hitter), who were both coming off of injuries, to round out the rotation in the offseason. Capuano went 2-2 with a 2.91 ERA over his final 6 starts for Milwaukee at the end of last season and I was surprised when they didn’t bring him back. Young went 2-0 in four starts with a 0.90 ERA for the Padres at the end of the last season.

The big question is whether this team will still be the same when the trade deadline rolls around. If some guys are having good years, you could definitely see them being willing to trade some of their key players to teams that need them in order to rebuild that minor league system.

4. Florida Marlins (76-86)
The Marlins hurt their offense when they dealt Dan Uggla to Atlanta in exchange for a handful of players. They will be looking at their young lineup to improve their performance to fill the gap without Uggla in the lineup. Mike Stanton is the young guy in the middle of the lineup that needs to turn in a great year in order to help the Marlins exceed my 76 win expectation for them.

Their rotation is still strong. Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, and Anibal Sanchez might not be known by everyone, but they each turned in great seasons last year. Javier Vazquez will join the team to add a veteran presence to that rotation.

The question for the Marlins will be the development of their young players. Will Stanton turn into a superstar and how will rookie Matt Dominguez adjust in his jump from Double-A, where he hit just .257, to the big leagues?

3. Washington Nationals (81-81)
I’m predicting a .500 season for the Nationals? No, I’m not smoking anything. I think the Nationals are one of the teams that everyone will underrate entering this season, but I expect them to be solid. The addition of Jayson Werth is big for the team, though expecting him to duplicate the numbers he put up in Philadelphia is naive. They have a solid lineup and if outfielder Michael Morse can continue to do what he did in the second half of last season, he could be a difference maker in that lineup.

The pitching staff is greatly downgraded with the loss of Stephen Strasburg, but it is still solid. Livan Hernandez is one of those pitchers that can eat innings and capable of spitting out a gem on any given night. John Lannan is a solid option if he can get back to his 2008 and 2009 numbers. Jason Marquis and Tom Gorzelanny will hopefully be solid for the Nats on the back end of the rotation.

The question here is how will the team react without Strasburg. Will Jayson Werth be able to carry the team? The pitching staff is fairly solid, but the offense will be what makes the difference.

2. Atlanta Braves (96-66)
The Braves made some great additions during the offseason. They brought in Dan Uggla to add another offensive threat to their lineup. Combine him with Jason Heyward, Brian McCann, and hopefully a healthy and productive Chipper Jones and you could have the makings of a team that could make a run. Also, first base prospect Freddie Freeman could look to be a big part of the team this year too.

While the Phillies might have the names, the Braves pitchers have the stats. Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe are known commodities at the top of the rotation. Tommy Hanson is becoming capable of being the ace of a rotation and top prospect Mike Minor will likely make the rotation too.

There aren’t many questions with the Braves. They lacked depth on offense and it cost them last season, but with the addition of Uggla and the hopeful emergence of Freeman this could be a playoff team once again. They might even legitimately challenge the Phillies for the division title.

1. Philadelphia Phillies (99-63)
It was pretty big move when the Phillies jumped into the Cliff Lee contest and stole him away from the Rangers and Yankees. This gives the Phillies potentially the best starting rotation in history. Lee will sort in with Roy Halladay (who he was traded for last season), Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels as the top-4.

With all the money being spent to court Lee, there was very little change on the offensive side of the ball as they continue to age. Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley have had problems staying healthy in recent years and Raul Ibanez will turn 39 this season. They will need to stay healthy and productive to give that rotation the best chance at winning games.

Age and health are the only two questions for the Phillies offense. Their pitching staff is likely deep enough to absorb an injury and continue to win, but the offense looks pretty thin right now.

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UCB Project: American League West

Each month the United Cardinal Bloggers try to do a network-wide blogging project. For the month of March, our project is to preview the season. So this week at Redbird Dugout and other UCB sites will be preview week. Since I’ve already done the NL Central in a whole series, I’m going to skip that this week as I head around baseball. I’ve already done the AL East and Central, tonight is the AL West.

Last season, despite the Angels’ best attempts to close the gap with their acquisition of Dan Haren, the Texas Rangers were uncatchable. Then, on the arm of Cliff Lee and the bat of Josh Hamilton, the Rangers became the first team since the 2002 Anaheim Angels to make the playoffs while coming out of the American League West.

4. Seattle Mariners (66-96)
It will be little improvement for the Mariners this season. Last year the team’s offense was horrible and they didn’t really make any moves in the offseason to directly address that issue. Their best offensive improvement was the addition of Jack Cust as their designated hitter, but even Cust is coming off a lack luster year. Their defense improved with the addition of former Cardinals’ short stop Brendan Ryan, who was just named the starting short stop this week.

For the Mariners to exceed expectations, they are going to need performance from their starting pitching behind Felix Hernandez, though there are even rumors that the Yankees are making a big play to trade for Hernandez. Erik Bedard will need some return to form behind Hernandez and on the offensive side of the ball, Chone Figgins is going to need to return to the player that the Mariners thought they were getting when they signed him to a big deal.

3. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (78-84)
Ultimately the Angels will regress this season. They moved a couple pieces of their 2010 offense and didn’t bring in much to replace them. They did make a trade for the overpaid Vernon Wells. With Wells, and Torii Hunter expected to play corner outfield this season, it could make for a pretty solid defensive outfield. That should help the team’s pitching staff.

That pitching staff is pretty young with Jered Weaver sitting at the top. Each of their starting pitchers is capable of being an ace in the rotation. Their bullpen added Scott Downs, who I heavily wanted the Cardinals to pursue as their primary left handed reliever.

The team should be better off with Kendrys Morales back with the team after his freak injury last season, but I still don’t think they will be able to battle for the division.

2. Oakland Athletics (85-77)
The Athletics boasted the best team ERA in the American League last season by quite a margin. However, they were poor on offense with Kevin Kouzmanoff leading the team with just 16 home runs. However, the A’s addressed that issue in the offseason, bringing in three hitters: Hideki Matsui, David DeJesus, and Josh Willingham. They should help bring some offense to a pitching heavy team and make them one of the best teams in the American League.

Their question will be whether or not their young pitching continues to improve in 2011 or will they regress as the league catches up to them. Personally, I hope not as rotation leader Trevor Cahill is on my fantasy team and with the loss of Wainwright (who I also had), I need all the help I can get.

1. Texas Rangers (86-76)
Yes, that’s right. Only one game apart. That’s mainly because I think it’s a toss up between the two teams. The Athletics’ pitching against the Rangers’ offense. While pitching may win you championships, it’s hitting that gets you there. While the team let Vladimir Guerrero go, they did bring in Mike Napoli and Adrian Beltre to help play offense. Also, Yorvit Torrealba is taking the place of Bengie Molina who took his two postseason shares and seems to be riding off into the sunset.

Unfortunately for the Rangers they were in the headlines for all the wrong reasons this offseason, despite the solid additions. Cliff Lee elected to go play for Philadelphia after helping get the Rangers to the World Series for the first time in franchise history. Replacing him will be difficult. The team signed Brandon Webb, the former Arizona Diamondbacks ace who has spent more time on the disabled list than pitching the last two years. If he can get close to back to form, it will be a big boon for the Rangers who need someone to step up to fill those shoes.

The other reason is for the handling of Michael Young. Young has been the career Texas Ranger and changed position for everyone through the years. He played second while Alex Rodriguez player short stop. He took over short stop when Rodriguez left. Then he played third after the arrival of Elvis Andrus to the major leagues. With the addition of Beltre he was moving to first base, but the addition of Napoli changed that too. He is looking to be the team’s DH and spot starter in the infield. It was a role he wasn’t happy with and he requested a trade. No trade has been made, probably because Young’s salary is prohibitive.

The team will need to sort these out, otherwise they have a solid club that I still like, even without Lee in the rotation. Who will step up in the rotation to help fill the empty shoes and how will Young respond to still playing in Texas in a role he doesn’t want?

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Cardinals narrow down roster

With less than 10 days remaining in Spring Training, the Cardinals made a major step towards finalizing the Opening Day roster by cutting 10 players.

Included in that number is Matt Carpenter who, as I expected, was reassigned to minor league camp and is expected to be the Memphis Redbirds’ starting third baseman. It’s also likely that he will be the first to get a call if anything happens with David Freese.

The other players cut are C Tony Cruz, P Brandon Dickson, P John Gast, 1B Mark Hamilton, P Joe Kelly, P Blake King, P Lance Lynn, OF Shane Robinson, and P Raul Valdes. They were reassigned to minor league camp where they will then receive their minor league assignments.

With the moves, it confirms that Daniel Descalso and Tyler Greene will be the backup infielders on the bench, joining Gerald Laird, Jon Jay, and Allen Craig. Also, Kyle McClellan is the only fifth starter candidate left in camp as well, securing his position with the team.

The moves should leave four relievers battling for two spots in the Cardinals’ bullpen. Those would be Bryan Augenstein, Miguel Batista, Eduardo Sanchez, and Fernando Salas.

Salas should have one of the spots in the bullpen as, beyond McClellan, he has been the most impressive pitcher, statistics-wise as he has only allowed one hit in his over 9 innings on the mound.

I expect the final spot to come down between Augenstein and Batista. Both have pitched well in spring training thus far, and each offer something different. Augenstein is younger and is more of a strikeout pitcher with his 9 Ks in 8 innings. Batista is older, but he is more versatile since he is capable of spot-starting if the Cardinals need him to. I’d prefer Augenstein, but I expect Batista to make the club because of that versatility.

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UCB Project: American League Central

Each month the United Cardinal Bloggers try to do a network-wide blogging project. For the month of March, our project is to preview the season. So this week at Redbird Dugout and other UCB sites will be preview week. Since I’ve already done the NL Central in a whole series, I will skip that one as I head around baseball. Last night I touched on the AL East and today I will tackle the AL Central.

Last season the Minnesota Twins took the division lead in mid-August and then cruised their way to the title, only to lose to the Yankees in the playoffs. Aagain.

As far as the division has historically gone, there wasn’t much change in that either. For the last few years, the Twins, White Sox, and Tigers have had their time at the top while the Indians and the Royals find themselves as nearly perennial cellar dwellers. But will that change in 2011? We shall see.

5. Kansas City Royals (69-93)
For the Royals, that isn’t likely to change this year. However, the future is looking bright. It was an offseason that saw them deal away their ace pitcher and former Cy Young Award winner Zach Grienke to the Brewers for a haul of prospects. The Royals are very young, with second baseman Mike Aviles as the team’s oldest player and he just turned 30 a week ago.

While they have a glut of prospects in their system getting ready to come up, they aren’t quite ready for prime time this season. Though I do expect them to make some noise, I don’t see them with the pitching staff to contend regularly or even compete to be .500. With Grienke gone, they’ve lost their stopper. They added Jeff Francis to add a veteran voice to the rotation, but Francis is coming off a rough year in Colorado and historically he’s always pitched better in Coors Field than he has anywhere else.

What they need to answer is whether or not their potential success can turn into actual success over the coming seasons. That’s something that the Royals have tried and failed on before, hopefully for Royals fans they will get a shot in the arm in the coming years.

4. Cleveland Indians (76-86)
The Indians didn’t really lose anyone during the offseason, yet added some depth, so they should improve in 2011. That said, they still don’t have a team that is worthy of contending in this division. Grady Sizemore is injured, though coming back early in the season, and entering what is likely his final season in Cleveland. Carlos Santana proved himself to be a capable catcher last season and Shin-Soo Choo could be one of the most underrated players in the major leagues.

In their rotation, they have five solid (if not spectacular) starters. Fausto Carmona has the potential and has shown it, but can he be their ace? That’s always the question with young pitchers. The team does have a solid closer, though, with former Cardinals reliever Chris Perez getting the ninth inning call. So if the Indians do take a lead into the ninth inning, if Perez can repeat his success from last season they should be able to pull out the victory.

Cleveland is still working on their rebuilding, but really not. they have a lot of the pieces they need to contend, but they aren’t complete. I don’t expect them to contend for the division, not with the shape of the other teams ahead of them.

3. Detroit Tigers (87-75)
Detroit made some solid signings in the offseason as they bring in Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit. They also signed Brad Penny who, if he can stay healthy, could be a valuable addition to that starting rotation.

The Tigers are once again a very capable team and could make another playoff run this season. That will require a healthy year from Brad Penny, the successful conversion from reliever to starter for Phil Coke, and Max Scherzer finally reaching his potential. Should that be done, the Tigers will definitely challenge for the division title.

Their question mark will be how Miguel Cabrera responds. After spending the 2009-2010 offseason in rehab for alcohol abuse and staying clean through the 2010 season, Cabrera was cited for suspicion of drunk driving before spring training this year. Can Cabrera hit the Tigers to wins while battling his personal issues? It’s easier for young players, and Cabrera is reaching the point where he isn’t young in baseball years anymore.

2. Chicago White Sox (88-74)
To me, the White Sox and the Tigers are two very comparable teams. They added Adam Dunn in the offseason and his legitimate power threat in the middle of their lineup should definitely boost the offense. With Paul Konerko coming back to play again and if some of their young talent in the lineup continues to improve they can be the division champs.

Their question mark seems to be in the pitching staff. Jake Peavy is back after having shoulder surgery last season. He will need to return as a top half of the rotation starter to help out John Danks and Mark Buerhle. In the bullpen, longtime closer Bobby Jenks is gone and their setup guy, Matt Thornton, will get the chance to be the closer. New signing Jesse Crain is expected to take Thornton’s role. While Thornton put up better numbers than Jenks did last season, can Thornton take the pressure of being the closer? White Sox fans are hoping yes.

1. Minnesota Twins (90-72)
I expect it to be a very close three-team race once again for this season’s AL Central crown. The Twins were depleted in free agency as they lost a total of 7 players to free agency, most of those from the bullpen. Luckily, the major players will be back for the Twins and that is good news. Their rotation remains intact and Justin Morneau‘s return should be a boost for the offense.

I see two major questions for the Twins entering the season. Their bullpen will be juggled around between new signings and young talent. Joe Nathan makes his return after receiving Tommy John surgery last spring. How the players adjust to their new roles on the club will be key for the Twins.

Then you also have the infield defense. Going into 2011, the infield combination has not played very much together. Morneau spent most of last year on the DL after sustaining a concussion, Japanese player Tsuyoshi Nishioka is expected to play second base with Alexi Casilla at short and Danny Valencia at third. How quickly they adjust and learn each other will be important for the team’s early success.

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