April 1, 2007

Opening Day & Predictions


Little darling, it's been a long, long lonely winter
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, the smiles are returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since they've been there
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right

Little darling, mmmmmm, I see the ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear
There goes the sun
Here comes the sun
And I say, it's all right


- Here Comes the Sun

As you might expect, Opening Day is without question my favorite day of the year, which is why I have a somewhat sappy annual tradition of quoting "Here Comes the Sun" to kick off the season (I greatly prefer the Richie Havens version, but it works either way). The full slate on non-stop baseball that I'll be watching today is great, but the real reason why I'm downright giddy on a Monday morning is that today marks the beginning of seven straight months of baseball.

After spending the too-long winter in snow-covered Minnesota and being forced to suffer through the Vikings, Timberwolves, and Gophers (pick a sport), there's no doubt that "it seems like years since it's been here" and "the smiles are returning to the faces." Today is like Christmas morning, except if the first present you opened was "161 more Christmas mornings" and there was a second present under the tree for you to possibly open later that contained "a few more Christmas mornings in October."

I'm only about 50 percent moved into my new house, but the 60-inch television is in place and the MLB Extra Innings package will soon be in full effect, so it's the most important 50 percent (the bed is bare and I've unpacked zero boxes, but that's all secondary). I'll be spending the day sitting in my new leather chair, flipping back and forth between games while getting paid to do so, which is otherwise known as "heaven."

Before things get rolling, here are some predictions for the season ahead ...

AMERICAN LEAGUE

WEST CENTRAL EAST
Los Angeles Angels Minnesota Twins New York Yankees
Oakland Athletics Detroit Tigers Boston Red Sox
Texas Rangers Cleveland Indians Toronto Blue Jays
Seattle Mariners Chicago White Sox Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Kansas City Royals Baltimore Orioles

MVP: Joe Mauer CYA: Johan Santana ROY: Alex Gordon
ALDS: NYY over LAA ALDS: BOS over MIN ALCS: BOS over NYY

NATIONAL LEAGUE

WEST CENTRAL EAST
Arizona Diamondbacks St. Louis Cardinals New York Mets
San Diego Padres Milwaukee Brewers Philadelphia Phillies
Los Angeles Dodgers Chicago Cubs Atlanta Braves
San Francisco Giants Houston Astros Florida Marlins
Colorado Rockies Cincinnati Reds Washington Nationals
Pittsburgh Pirates

MVP: Albert Pujols CYA: Brandon Webb ROY: Chris Young
NLDS: NYM over ARI NLDS: STL over PHI NLCS: NYM over STL

WORLD SERIES: BOS over NYM

I'll no doubt catch a lot of heat from angry White Sox fans by ranking them fourth in the AL Central, but someone has to finish above only the Royals. While the division doesn't have a truly elite team, it very well may contain four of the 10 best teams in all of baseball. The Twins, Tigers, Indians, and White Sox are all perfectly capable of winning 90-plus games and taking the division, but it also wouldn't shock me to see any of them--including the Twins--finish fourth.

As I've written here many times over the past few months, the Twins mishandled their starting rotation during the offseason and entering the season with Carlos Silva, Ramon Ortiz, and Sidney Ponson in the rotation gives up whatever margin for error they had in an extremely tough division. With that said, the Twins still have the best front-line talent in all of baseball with Johan Santana, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Joe Nathan, and the entire bullpen is second-to-none.

Beyond Santana I don't expect the rotation to be of much value in the first half, but he remains the best pitcher on the planet and the bullpen should be able to shorten games to minimize the other damage. An oft-stated "key" for the Twins is whether they can coax at least one productive, full season out of Silva, Ortiz, or Ponson, but I think a much bigger key will be how quickly they're willing to cut bait on that trio when it becomes clear that the one productive, full season is going to be difficult to come by.

It's been lost in the shuffle with all the rotation talk, but the Twins' lineup has the potential to surprise people if Jason Kubel and Rondell White stay healthy. Most numbers-based projections don't think much of the Twins' offense because they're based largely on what Kubel and White did last season, but Kubel finally appears healthy after two lost seasons following a severe knee injury and White bounced back from a historically awful first half to hit .321/.354/.538 once his shoulder healed up.

Of course, keeping injury risks healthy is tough, and the Twins have a concerning lack of position-player depth beyond Jeff Cirillo and Mike Redmond. Should a rash of injuries strike the lineup, the cavalry consists of Jason Tyner, Luis Rodriguez, Lew Ford, Matthew LeCroy, and Josh Rabe, which is perhaps the league's worst collection of spare bats. The Twins can withstand some pitching injuries--in some cases it may even make them stronger--but if hitters start going down things could get ugly.

Along with that general overview of the Twins, here are 25 very specific predictions (feel free to leave your own in the comments section) ...

  • Santana will win his third Cy Young Award in four seasons (and what should be his fourth in a row) by leading the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts for the second straight year and discovering a cure for cancer during an off day in July.
  • Regression to the mean will bring Mauer's batting average down significantly, but he'll hit for more power than ever before while remaining the best catcher in baseball and the most valuable all-around player in the league.
  • The actual people who vote for AL MVP will virtually ignore Mauer for the second straight season and give the nod to some slugger with a bunch of RBIs and little defensive value.
  • However, that slugger won't be Morneau. He'll be almost exactly as effective as he was last season, yet will not a receive a single first-place vote in the AL MVP balloting.
  • Nathan will blow a save.
  • Boof Bonser will assume the Brad Radke role by having more homers served up than walks allowed, and will rank second on the team in wins.
  • Radke will give up a long homer on the ceremonial Opening Day first pitch, but will then settle down and get into a groove for a great retirement.
  • Kubel's OPS will be within a few points either way of Torii Hunter and Michael Cuddyer, and by June none of the fans who gave up on him last season will be anywhere to be found.
  • Silva will have a losing record and an ERA over 5.00.
  • Ortiz will have a losing record and an ERA over 5.00.
  • Ponson will be more effective than Silva or Ortiz at a fraction of the cost, but still won't be particularly good.
  • Matt Garza, Glen Perkins, and Kevin Slowey will combine for a sub-3.00 ERA at Triple-A.
  • Scott Baker will pitch well enough alongside Garza, Perkins, and Slowey in the Triple-A rotation to deserve another chance in Minnesota, but will instead be traded.
  • White's numbers will look a whole lot more like his 2006 second half than his 2006 first half.
  • Cirillo won't hit as well as he did in Milwaukee over the previous two years, but will get more at-bats than he has in any season since 2002.
  • Nick Punto will not stop needlessly sliding head-first into first base, but will stop hitting as well as he did in 2006. Those two things will annoy me equally throughout the season.
  • By the end of the season, Ron Gardenhire will come to his senses and flip-flop Punto and Jason Bartlett in the batting order.
  • During an inevitable rough patch during which he's struggling, Hunter will blame the fact that he's a pending free agent. The local and national media will buy into it completely, and then Hunter will get an incredible amount of praise for succeeding despite his status when he just as inevitably starts hitting well again.
  • Hunter will not be as nearly good in center field as he was in the past, but will not be nearly as bad in center field as he was down the stretch last season. Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven will fail to make note of either of those things at any point during the 100-plus games they broadcast.
  • Denard Span will hit poorly at Triple-A, but no one will let that faze them when they continuously refer to him as Hunter's long-term replacement in center field.
  • Jesse Crain and Pat Neshek will both post a better ERA than Juan Rincon.
  • Alexi Casilla will end up with more at-bats than Rodriguez.
  • Dennys Reyes will see his ERA quadruple.
  • Chris Heintz will have fewer hits during the whole season than Mauer has in one game.
  • Many of these predictions will look silly by June and most of them will look silly by September.

  • Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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