March 26, 2003

Aaron's Baseball Blog 2003 Season Preview: NL West

Other Previews:

American League East

American League Central

American League West

National League East

National League Central

Last year's standings:

NL West           W      L    Win%      GB

Arizona 98 64 .605 ----
San Francisco 95 66 .590 2.5
Los Angeles 92 70 .568 6.0
Colorado 73 89 .451 25.0
San Diego 66 96 .407 32.0

This year's prediction:



1) SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

95-66 (.590) | 2nd Place (2.5 GB)

783 Runs Scored (3rd) | 616 Runs Allowed (2nd)

As many of you know by now, I am somewhat obsessed with Barry Bonds. I love watching him play, I think he's possibly the greatest player ever, I tend to write about him a ton and I generally refer to him as "Superman." Because of my (healthy) obsession with Barry, I have also written quite a bit about the Giants and their off-season moves. Instead of re-stating things I have already touched upon (and brilliantly!), here's some of what I said back in January:

One of my favorite things to do over the past few months has been to "project" San Francisco's lineup. I've done it several times on this very website. With Jeff Kent leaving and Durham, Alfonzo (and now Cruz) coming, along with the fact that they have Superman, it's always entertaining to try to figure out how Felipe Alou will fill out the lineup card.

Here's my latest guess:

2B     Ray Durham

3B Edgardo Alfonzo
LF Barry Bonds
RF Jose Cruz Jr.
SS Rich Aurilia
C Benito Santiago
1B J.T. Snow
CF Marquis Grissom / Marvin Benard

It might not look it at first glance, but that is a very good lineup.

Here are each player's EqAs from last year, along with MLB average at their position:

Durham = .296

AVG 2B = .259

Alfonzo = .307

AVG 3B = .264

Bonds = .457

AVG LF = .283

Cruz Jr. = .267

AVG RF = .283

Aurilia = .256

AVG SS = .256

Santiago = .271

AVG C = .246

Snow = .263

AVG 1B = .287

Grissom = .289

AVG CF = .270

For those of you without calculators handy...

1 position was as far above average as a human being can possibly be: Barry Bonds +.174 over the average LF.

4 positions were significantly above average: Durham +.037, Alfonzo +.043, Santiago +.025 and Grissom +.019.

1 position right at league average: Aurilia +/- .000.

2 positions significantly below average: Snow -.024 and Cruz Jr. -.016.

As much as I worship him, I do not expect Barry Bonds to hit .370 next year, so I would suspect he will not be +.174 over the average LF in 2003. I also think Santiago is almost a sure thing to decline quite a bit and Grissom is a good bet to do the same. Those declines should be somewhat off-set by what I think will be a bounce back year by Aurilia and an improvement by Snow, because he simply can't be any worse.

In 2003, I would predict the Giants will have 4 players significantly above average: Bonds, Durham, Alfonzo, Aurilia. 3 players hovering right around league average: Cruz Jr., Santiago and Grissom. And 1 player way below average: J.T. Snow. That is the formula for a very good offense, particularly when 1 of the 4 "above average" guys hits like Babe Ruth dreamed of.

What I just did is one way of looking at the offense. Another way to do so is to look at what the Giants did in 2002 and see how that might be different in 2003.

Bonds, Snow, Santiago and Aurilia are the only guys that return from last season. As I said, I expect Bonds to "decline" a little bit and Santiago a lot. But, I also expect Snow and Aurilia to improve, which should off-set that.

As for the newcomers...

Durham replaces Jeff Kent at second base. Kent was good for 123 "Equivalent Runs" last year, Durham clocked in at 97. I would expect Durham to play at about the same level, which would mean a dropoff of about 25 runs.

At third base, Alfonzo replaces David Bell. Bell created 80 EqR last year, while Alfonzo had 88, in slightly less playing time (he had some injuries). If Alfonzo plays a full-season, he should be worth at least 20 runs over David Bell's performance last year.

In the outfield, Grissom and Cruz replace Reggie Sanders and the Lofton/Shinjo/Goodwin/Benard 4-headed monster. Last year Sanders and the group of CFs combined for 180 EqR in 1449 plate appearances. Shinjo, Goodwin and Benard all appeared some as left fielders and pinch hitters too, which is why the plate appearance totals are more than a "normal" center fielder/right fielder combo.

Meanwhile, Cruz Jr. and Grissom combined for 121 EqR in only 881 plate appearances. Cruz missed some time with injuries and Grissom was a platoon player some of the time. Add in some Marvin Benard and some Tony Torcato to fill in some of those remaining plate appearances and the Giants should definitely be able to equal or better the production of their 2-non Barry Bonds outfield positions from last year.

So, here's what we've got...

LF, SS, C and 1B are all the same players and I expect them to, as a group, produce similarly in 2003.

2B will probably be worth about 25 less runs offensively this season than it was in 2002.

3B will probably be worth about 20 runs more, at least.

And CF and LF should be about the same, total.

What we've really got here is a whole lot of new faces and a very similar offense as far as overall quality is concerned. And, if the Giants can have a similar offense to last year's, it will be among the best in the league.

The Giants scored the 3rd most runs in the National League last year, but that stat is extremely misleading because of how tough Pac Bell Park is on hitters. Their team EqA (which adjusts for everyone's home ballpark) was the best in all of baseball, at .283.

Assuming Bonds doesn't go McGwire on us this year, the Giants should once again have one of the top 2-3 offenses in the National League.

That statement about Bonds not going "McGwire on us this year" was just an off-the-cuff remark, but once I re-read it I started thinking. I think we all assume Barry will once again be Barry this season, but at some point doesn't he have to stop? He'll be 38 this year and I would expect him to have a great season, the best of any baseball player in the world. But do you think he'll be able to do that at the age of 45? How about 43? 42? 40? Just assuming an older player that is performing at an incredible level will continue to do so is dangerous. All you need to do is look at Mark McGwire for a perfect example.

Now, McGwire was a lot more injury prone that Bonds, which is a huge factor, but stay with me on this.

McGwire hit .274/.393/.646 with 58 homers in 1997. He hit .299/.470/.752 with 70 homers in 1998. He hit .278/.424/.697 with 65 homers in 1999. At that point he was 36 years old and coming off of 3 historic seasons. Would I have predicted he would be out of baseball in 2 years? Of course not. He got injured, but was still great in 2000 and then was injured and no longer great in 2001. And now he's retired.

Age is a very powerful thing in sports and it is probably the only thing strong enough to stop Barry Bonds right now (you could say it is his kryptonite, but that would be cheesy, right?).

With the help of Lee Sinins' Sabermetric Encyclopedia, I looked up all the seasons of batters that were 38 years old or older. In the history of baseball, do you know how many 38+ year olds have had seasons with an OPS over 1.000 (Bonds' OPS was 1.381 last year and 1.379 in 2001)?

2, in the entire history of baseball.

Ted Williams did it twice and Babe Ruth did it once. (I guess it's fitting that those are the only two guys to have done it, huh?)

In 1933, Babe Ruth posted a 1.023 OPS, hitting .301/.442/.582 at the age of 38. He had one more good season in 1934, although he only played in 125 games, and then hit .181/.359/.431 in 72 at bats in 1935, the final year of his career. At 40, he was retired.

Ted Williams posted back-to-back 1.000+ OPS seasons in 1957 and 1958, at the ages of 38 and 39. He then had the worst season of his career in 1959, hitting .254 (his only year below .300), but bounced back with a very good 1960 season, in limited playing time. That was his final year and he was done playing at 41.

And that's it, in the history of the sport. Besides Ruth and Williams, 2 of the 3 greatest hitters ever - along with Barry - no other player has had an OPS of 1.000 at Bonds' current age. Not to mention that if Bonds does post a 1.000 OPS, it will be about a 400 point drop from his last 2 seasons!

If any player can successfully fight off age and continue to play at an extraordinary level, it is Barry Bonds. That said, it scares me a little that only 2 players in the history of baseball have had an OPS of 1.000+ after the age of 37. In fact, only 9 players have had OPSs over .900.

I'm not saying Bonds is going to collapse in 2003. In fact, I already said I expect him to be the best hitter in baseball this year. But history (and age) is not on his side.

Losing Jeff Kent is a bigger loss than most people think. He was really a dominant player with the Giants and a lot of his greatness is masked by Pac Bell Park. That said, I like what they did this off-season. I like Bonds. I like the ballpark. I like their announcers. I guess you could say I'm a Giants fan!



2) ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

98-64 (.611) | 1st Place

819 Runs Scored (1st) | 674 Runs Allowed (5th)

I don't particularly "like" the Diamondbacks for 2003. First, they are an extremely old team. They are also looking at having a lineup with Chad Moeller/Rod Barajas, Craig Counsell and Tony Womack taking up 38% of the non-pitcher spots.

Luis Gonzalez declined last year from his 2000/2001 level and he suffered a serious shoulder injury at the end of the year (which kept him out of the post-season). Steve Finley is a 38 year old center fielder that had a very good 2002, but is only one season removed from a serious decline. Danny Bautista is a nice outfielder, but he suffered a serious injury last year too and he's also a career .267/.306/.414 hitter.

They have a nice bench in theory, but Mark Grace is just about done and Quinton McCracken is still Quinton McCracken, despite what last year might have to say about it. And Matt Williams' best asset at this point is his wife.

On the pitching side, I like that they're moving Byung-Hyun Kim into the rotation, but that also means Matt Mantei and his 33 innings pitched in the last 2 seasons is the new closer.

So, as you can see, there are some reasons floating around in my head as to why I shouldn't have the Diamondbacks in 2nd place. But then I think about this:

90 Wins

24 Losses

2.75 ERA

1,026 Innings

1,315 Strikeouts

Those are the combined numbers of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling over the last 2 seasons. Look at it again. Simply incredible.

You put that into a rotation and it is automatically the best in the league, whether Byung-Hyun Kim and Elmer Dessens are the other starters or it's me and my little cousin Josh.

As with Bonds, at some point Randy and Curt are simply going to stop performing like this. Johnson is 39 and Schilling is 36. Is it going to be this year? Who knows?

If one of them gets injured or stops pitching like a human strikeout-machine, this team is going to be in trouble, despite what I think is a much improved 3-4-5 part of the rotation. I guess I am just banking on them being able to do it for at least one more year.



3) LOS ANGELES DODGERS

92-70 (.568) | 3rd Place (6.0 GB)

713 Runs Scored (7th) | 643 Runs Allowed (3rd)

I toyed with putting the Dodgers in second-place, I really did. In fact, I actually had them there up until about 30 seconds before I started typing this very sentence.

I really like the Dodgers and it is a sudden occurence and one that snuck up on me a little bit. I think they have a great manager in Jim Tracy. They have some very "likable" players in guys like Paul LoDuca and Dave Roberts. And they have a legit superstar in Shawn Green (who is, incidentally, my mother's favorite baseball player). Plus, they have one of the best announcers of all-time.

But the NL West is such a tough division. I honestly think that the D-Backs, Dodgers and Giants are 3 of the top 4 teams in the National League. And I think the Dodgers are very close to the Diamondbacks, but I just couldn't go against the power of Randy and Curt. I tried, but I chickened out. If they do end up finishing in 2nd or even winning the division (which they definitely could do) I am going to be really angry at myself for not going with my gut and sticking them ahead of Arizona.

I started looking at L.A.'s roster and I had some serious questions.

Shawn Green will once again be among the top hitters in the NL, that is a given. After that it gets a little sketchy.

Dave Roberts was great last year, getting on base 35% of the time and stealing 45 bases, but he was also a 29 year old playing in his first full-season and he hit .249 with a .340 slugging % in the 2nd half of the year. He's a valuable player if he's at last year's level (.277/.353/.365), but any kind of drop makes him a negative.

Their rotation is the very definition of sketchy. They have Kevin Brown and Darren Dreifort coming back off of injuries and Kaz Ishii, who got hit in the head with a batted ball last year and walked 106 men in 154 innings before that. They also have another 100+ walk starter in Hideo Nomo, who had a very nice season and won 16 games. Still, that was his first season with an ERA below 4.50 since 1997! Heck, probably the safest bet among the starters in Odalis Perez, who was awesome last year. He pitched 222 innings with a 3.00 ERA and won 15 games. But he's got a somewhat big history of injuries and even he scares me.

And this is not an offense that can support a banged-up/struggling pitching staff.

Green is great and they added Fred McGriff at 1B, which is a big upgrade from last year. Other than that, this looks just like the lineup that scored 713 runs last year. Now, Dodger Stadium had something to with the low run total, but it also helped their pitching staff, which finished 3rd in the NL in runs allowed.

I don't know, I am still going round and round in circles trying to decide if they should be in 2nd or 3rd. It is really that close in my mind and I really would like to make a somewhat "gutsy" pick and put them ahead of Arizona.

But look at these numbers again:

90 Wins

24 Losses

2.75 ERA

1,026 Innings

1,315 Strikeouts

For those of you with a memory like the guy from Memento, those are Johnson and Schilling's combined totals from 2001 and 2002. Unbelievable.

Sorry Dodger fans, I'm gonna leave them in 3rd place. I hope they prove me wrong (and my gut right).



4) SAN DIEGO PADRES

66-96 (.407) | 5th Place (32.0 GB)

662 Runs Scored (14th) | 815 Runs Allowed (14th)

Before Phil Nevin went down with a season-ending injury, I was giving serious thought to picking the Padres to finish in the top 3 of this division. It was probably a silly idea to begin with and, now that Nevin is out for the year, I have come to my senses and I'll stick with putting them in 4th.

Quite frankly, the Padres were awful last year. They ranked 3rd-to-last in the NL in both runs scored and runs allowed, which is why they won only 66 games.

There were really very few bright spots. Ryan Klesko had another great season, hitting .300/.388/.537 with 29 homers and 39 doubles. Mark Kotsay continued to be one of the most underrated CFs in the baseball, hitting .292/.359/.452 with good defense.

Pitchers Jake Peavy and Oliver Perez both made very nice debuts in the Majors, Peavy posting a 4.52 ERA with 90 Ks in 98 innings and Perez checking in at 3.50 with 94 Ks in 90 innings. Another young pitcher, Brian Lawrence, had an excellent first full-season, pitching 210 innings with a 3.69 ERA.

And that's about it for the good stuff. Phil Nevin was hurt a lot and didn't hit that well when he played. Deivi Cruz somehow got 514 at bats and had a .294 OBP. Bubba Trammell slugged only .414. D'Angelo Jimenez stunk at the plate and eventually was traded. Sean Burroughs made his MLB debut and didn't do well, then got injured and sent back to the minors. Kevin Jarvis, whom they signed to a multi-year deal in the off-season, was injured and pitched a total of only 35 innings. Dennis Tankersley had a horrible rookie year. I could go on and on.

And now this spring they got more bad news. Trevor Hoffman is going to miss at least half the year and Nevin is out for the whole thing.

In the long-term, I like the Padres. They have excellent young pitching in Lawrence, Peavy, Perez and Tankersley and they have a pretty good GM in Kevin Towers. They've just had too much bad luck lately though and I can't consider them a serious contender this year.



5) COLORADO ROCKIES

73-89 (.451) | 4th Place (25.0 GB)

778 Runs Scored (4th) | 898 Runs Allowed (16th)

Let's face it, the Colorado Rockies have no shot of winning this division or even the Wild Card. So, instead of breaking down their roster, I thought I'd take this chance to discuss something that has been on my mind for a while now...

Over the years, there have been many theories thrown about regarding what the Rockies can do to build a better, more consistent team.

Some people think they need strikeout pitchers, some people think they need ground ball pitchers.

Some people think they need power hitters, some people think they need guys that don't walk a lot and put the ball in play.

Some people think they need to focus on defense, some people think they should say "screw defense" and stick as many bats out there as possible.

And I am probably missing at least 20 other theories that have been discussed by very smart people that I respect a great deal.

While I agree with some of the theories and disagree with others, I have one of my own. The Rockies do not need to get this type of hitter or that type of hitter, they simply need to get better hitters, period.

Coors Field inflates offensive stats to such a degree that it is often hard to accurately judge players. At the same time, everyone (including the Rockies) knows how great Coors is for hitters and because of this, they often acquire a player because they think he'll do well in Coors. For example, when they traded for Preston Wilson this off-season, I heard several people, including their manager and general manager, say that they thought Preston Wilson could hit 40 homers in Coors.

That is all well and good and 40 homers from anyone, anywhere is certainly nice, but what they forget to mention is that Preston Wilson is still Preston Wilson, no matter where he is playing.

Let me try to explain...

Over the years the Rockies have acquired many different hitters and almost every single time they start talking about how "We think Player X can hit .330 here with 25 homers." I remember when Jeff Cirillo got to Colorado a few years ago they whipped out these computer projections they had done that said Cirillo could hit like .350 with 60 doubles or something like that.

By doing that sort of thing, the Rockies are missing the entire point. Almost any good hitter will put up fabulous numbers in Coors Field. Its effect on hitting cannot be emphasized enough.

In Cirillo's first year with the Rockies he hit .326 with 53 doubles, which is damn close to their "projection" for him. But guess what? That wasn't even a good season! That same year, the league offensive numbers, adjusted to Coors Field, were better than Cirillo's!

Cirillo had a .392 OBP.

The league had a .389 OBP.

Cirillo had a .477 SLG.

The league had a .502 SLG.

Despite hitting .326 with 53 doubles in 2000, Jeff Cirillo was actually a slightly below-average hitter, which tells you all you need to know about the effects of Coors Field.

The point is that the Rockies cannot get caught up in thinking the way that normal teams do about their hitters. They can't look at a .320 batting average and think the player is a great hitter. They can't look at 40 doubles or 35 homers and think the player is an elite power-hitter.

They simply need to go out and acquire the best possible hitters, without allowing what those hitters might do in Coors Field affect their decision-making.

Look at the players the Rockies have acquired recently...

Jay Payton, who is now their starting left fielder.

Chris Stynes, who is now their starting third baseman.

Preston Wilson, who is now their starting center fielder.

Jose Hernandez, who is now their starting shortstop.

Charles Johnson, who is now their starting catcher.

Ronnie Belliard, who is now their starting second baseman.

It is very likely that a lot of these guys will put up huge offensive numbers. Jay Payton might hit .320, Preston Wilson might smack 40 homers, Jose Hernandez will probably drive in 100 runs. But so what?

Masked by what their Coors-inflated numbers will be is the fact that Jay Payton is still Jay Payton. The same guy that had career hitting line of .278/.322/.413 before coming to Colorado at mid-season last year. Payton has a career OPS+ of 99, which means he has been an average hitter for his career.

Yet, I have no doubt that, if he stays healthy, Jay Payton will hit .300+ with 25+ homers for the Rockies this year. Let's say he hits .300/.350/.480, which would be his best raw numbers by a landslide. You know what that would make him? An average hitter! Last year the league, adjusted to playing half their games in Coors, hit .290 with a .470 slugging %!

The fact that mediocre hitters can hit .300 and smack 25 homers with ease in Colorado does not mean they are no longer mediocre hitters and I think that is the biggest problem for the Colorado Rockies right now - they do not seem to realize that.

Instead of filling their lineup with mediocre hitters that hit .260/.320/.400 like the rest of the league does, the Rockies fill them with mediocre hitters that hit .280 with .450 slugging percentages and they start thinking the players are a lot better than they are. I can't really blame them. When I see a .300 batting average, my first instinct is to think that the player is a good hitter, but if you learned that almost everyone in Coors has a .300 batting average, it wouldn't make it such a big deal.

Despite scoring about a billion runs, the Rockies have had very few legitimately great hitters in their history.

Todd Helton, Larry Walker and maybe Andres Galarraga and Ellis Burks are the only ones that I can think of.

Sure, Dante Bichette hit .313 with 31 homers and 141 RBIs in 1996, but you wanna know something? He had an adjusted OPS+ that was only 5% better than the league that year. For his career with Colorado, Bichette hit .316 with 201 homers, 270 doubles and a .540 slugging %. You know what that got him? An OPS+ of 111, which is the same as Scott Hatteberg's OPS+ was last year. For all the .300 batting averages and massive RBI totals Bichette had in Colorado, he was about as good as Scott Hatteberg was last year for the A's, which is to say good, but certainly nothing special.

Same thing goes for Vinny Castilla. Vinny had some massive "raw" power power numbers for the Rockies in the 1990s. He hit 40 HRs for 3 straight years and drove in 144 runs in 1998! Total, for his career with the Rockies, he hit .299/.342/.530 with 203 homers. His OPS+? 105. Which means that despite all those gaudy homer totals and 100 RBI seasons, Castilla was as good as David Bell was for the Giants last year. Actually Bell had an OPS+ of 108, which means he was slightly better than Castilla, but you get the point.

Coors Field affects a lot of different things in a big way - batting averages, ERAs, RBI totals - but perhaps the biggest thing it seems to affect is the front office of the Colorado Rockies. It causes them to fill their lineup with mediocre hitters. When the stars of your offense (which is what Bichette and Castilla were) are hitting like David Bell and Scott Hatteberg, it is no wonder you have problems winning games, which is why the Rockies have never won more than 83 games in a season, despite spending lots of money, drawing lots of fans and making tons of big trades and free agent signings.

They need to start focusing on finding more truly good offensive players, like Walker and Helton, instead of trading for guys like Jay Payton and then getting all excited when he hits .300. It's just mediocre in a costume.

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

March 25, 2003

Aaron's Baseball Blog 2003 Season Preview: AL West

Other Previews:

American League East

American League Central

National League East

National League Central

National League West

Last year's standings:

AL West           W      L    Win%      GB

Oakland 103 59 .636 ----
Anaheim 99 63 .611 4.0
Seattle 93 69 .574 10.0
Texas 72 90 .444 31.0

This year's prediction:



1) OAKLAND ATHLETICS

103-59 (.636) | 1st Place

800 Runs Scored (8th) | 654 Runs Allowed (2nd)

In the span of just a few seasons, the Oakland A's have transformed themselves from the Matt Stairs/John Jaha/Jason Giambi slow-pitch softball type team to one that revolves around their pitching staff.

The A's gave up the 2nd fewest runs in the AL last year and did so because of their big 3 (or "The Big Three") starting pitchers, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. Hudson is the oldest of the group at 27, so they should still be getting better, if that's possible.

Check out their numbers for the past two seasons:

Player     IP     ERA     W     L

Zito 444 3.10 40 13
Hudson 473 3.18 33 18
Mulder 437 3.46 40 15
TOTAL 1354 3.24 113 46

That's just sick.

The A's will once again ride their 3 horses as far as their arms will take them. Oakland has been very careful with how they handle them. Zito, Hudson and Mulder combined to make 99 starts and pitch 675 innings last season and threw 120+ pitches in a start exactly one time between them - a Zito start in early June, in which he threw 123 pitches.

Compare that 99:1 start to 120+ pitch ratio that The Big Three had to A.J. Burnett, whom I talked about in my preview of the NL East. Burnett started only 29 games last year and threw 120+ pitches in 10 of them!

The A's scout well and identify college pitchers that they feel can advance quickly through the minor leagues, they coach them extremely well and get them ready to make immediate impacts in the majors and, once the players get to the majors, they are very cautious with them.

There are two more young Oakland pitchers that are poised to join The Big Three and possibly make it The Big Five. Ted Lilly, whom Billy Beane acquired in a 3-team deal with the Yankees last year, and Rich Harden, Oakland's top minor league prospect.

I ranked Harden as the 13th best prospect in baseball back in January when I wrote my "Top 50 Prospects" article for BaseballPrimer.

Here's what I said about him:

Call it luck or scouting or whatever you want, but the A's have a unique ability to churn out high quality starting pitching prospects and the newest member of that ever expanding group is Rich Harden. The A's took Harden in the 17th round of the 2000 draft as a "draft and follow" and eventually signed him after he had a great sophomore season in junior college.

Harden has a great fastball that resides in the 93-95 range and a very good changeup. In addition to those 2 plus-pitches, Harden also works with a slider and splitter/sinker that are improving.

Right now, Harden's lack of control is his biggest problem. He started 28 games last season, but only managed to pitch 153 innings (5.4 per start) because the A's have strict pitch count limits and Harden often reached them very early in games.

Harden appears to be on the same path as Tim Hudson and Barry Zito - start the season in Triple-A and, if all goes well, make a second half Major League debut, pitch around 100 innings with the A's and then join the rotation full-time the next year.

Rich Harden is a legitimate #1 starter in the making, which would give the A's 4 of those, I guess.

John Halama will start the year as Oakland's #5 starter, but I really wouldn't be shocked if Harden takes his spot in the rotation sometime around mid-season. I also really like Ted Lilly. He's a lefty, he has good K rates and Billy Beane obviously saw something in him that he really liked, which is good enough for me.

So, Oakland's starting pitching should once again be among the best in baseball and could get even better as the year goes on. Their bullpen, which was right around average last season should be improved in 2003.

They have a new closer in Keith Foulke, whom they got in exchange for sending Billy Koch to Chicago. Koch has the 99 MPH fastball and the big save totals, but Foulke was a better pitcher in 2002 and has been for the last several seasons.

Billy Beane understands that "closers" are very highly valued in today's environment and he also understands that a closer is manufactured thing, the result of opportunity. Keith Foulke saved 76 games in 2000 and 2001 for the White Sox, but fell out of favor with Jerry Manuel after a rough week last year. Now he's back as Oakland's closer and he'll rack up another 40+ saves and once again be one of the better relievers in baseball.

Alongside Foulke in the Oakland pen is Chad Bradford, a right-handed sidearmer that pitched 75 innings with a 3.11 ERA last year for the A's. Bradford will serve as the righty setup man, while Ricardo Rincon does the same from the left-side.

Over the past 3 seasons, Oakland's pitching staff has ranked 2nd, 2nd and 3rd in runs allowed and I would be shocked if they aren't among the top 3 again in 2003.

So, the big question for Billy Beane and the boys will be their offense. After scoring the 3rd most runs in the AL in 2000 and 4th in 2001, the A's dropped all the way to 10th last season. That is what losing Jason Giambi will do to a team.

While not signing Giambi to a massive long-term deal was probably the best thing for the organization in the long-term, it no doubt hurt their offense last year. Scott Hatteberg stepped in at first base and had a very nice season, hitting .280/.374/.433 and providing the A's with an above-average first baseman. Hatteberg was a great low-cost/low-risk pickup, which is what Beane is best at (besides developing #1 pitchers), but he was still a far cry from Giambi, who hit .314/.435/.598 and was one of the best offensive players in the AL.

Hatteberg was probably worth about 45 runs less than Giambi was offensively last season. In addition to the big offensive drop-off at 1B last year, the A's had several everyday players that simply had awful seasons.

Terrence Long hit .240/.298/.390 and got over 600 plate appearances. Ramon Hernandez hit .233/.313/.335 and, if not for his good defense behind the plate, would have been a complete disaster. Jermaine Dye, who had been so great for the A's after they picked him up at mid-season in 2001, hit only .252/.333/.459.

Of course, they also had the MVP of the AL playing shortstop and Eric Chavez at 3B, so their offense wasn't all bad.

That said, I think Beane recognized that the strength of the team has become pitching and that their offense slipped quite a bit last season and needed a boost. So, he went out and acquired everyone's favorite slugger-in-need-of-a-full-time-job, Erubiel Durazo. Erubiel has been doing a lot of sitting on the bench the past few years in Arizona, but his bat is for real. In 901 career plate appearances he is a .278/.390/.528 hitter, with 47 homers, 38 doubles and 137 walks.

Durazo will likely DH for Oakland this year and will look to try to replace the power/OBP threat that they lost in Giambi.

Durazo has struggled in his career against lefties, but he has such limited playing time against them that I don't think you can completely dismiss him as strictly a platoon player. Oakland will probably give Durazo a chance to player everyday, but, if he struggles against lefties, they have my favorite lefty-masher, Ron Gant, available to platoon at DH.

If Durazo stays healthy (which has also been a problem for him) and gets 600 plate appearances, I think he could put up a .270/.390/.540 season, with about 35 homers, 25 doubles and 90-100 walks. That's not quite Jason Giambi, but it's pretty darn close.

If Jermaine Dye can bounce back and re-establish himself as the type of hitter he was from 1999-2000 and the second half of 2001, he could give the A's a dangerous middle of the lineup, with Tejada, Chavez and Durazo.

Another area of weakness last year for the A's was outfield defense, particularly in centerfield. As I said, this is no longer the softball league team that didn't care about defense that the A's were a few years ago, this is a team built around pitching and Beane felt that they needed an upgrade over Terrence Long in CF defensively. So, he brought in Chris Singleton, one of the last guys I thought Billy Beane would ever want. Singleton almost never walks, but he plays very good outfield defense, which is something Beane obviously felt was important for the team this year.

Here is how I see the Oakland lineup shaping up this year, along with some rough estimates for their performances:

2B - Mark Ellis - .275/.360/.400

1B - Scott Hatteberg - .275/.370/.425

SS - Miguel Tejada - .285/.335/.500

3B - Eric Chavez - .290/.370/.550

DH - Erubiel Durazo - .270/.390/.540

RF - Jermaine Dye - .275/.350/.475

LF - Terrence Long - .260/.325/.415

CF - Chris Singleton - .275/.325/.415

C - Ramon Hernandez - .250/.330/.375

That is potentially a very strong lineup. It is still quite weak in the 7-8-9 spots, but Long and/or Hernandez will probably improve quite a bit over last season, just because it'll be hard to play that bad again. Singleton is never going to be a great hitter and I don't think the A's expect him to be, but he has been talking a lot this off-season about trying to draw more walks and make himself into a better hitter, which is good to hear.

I think the key to the lineup will be Dye. If he plays like he did a couple years ago (he hit .321/.390/.561 in 2000) he gives the A's four players that are very capable of hitting 30+ homers and slugging .500+. Ellis and Hatteberg will get on base a lot in front of the big boppers and, if Long and Singleton can provide any sort of decent offense, the A's could easily score 60-70 more runs than they did last season.

I think the A's will have their 3rd straight 100+ win season in 2003 and will win the division somewhat easily.



2) SEATTLE MARINERS

93-69 (.574) | 3rd Place (10.0 GB)

814 Runs Scored (6th) | 699 Runs Allowed (5th)

2002 was a tough year for Mariner fans. After winning 116 games in 2001, the M's declined by 23 games last season and finished in 3rd place. Okay, so they still won 93 games, which is one less than my beloved Twins, but I still think it must have been tough going from winning just about every single game to finishing in 3rd place.

Why did they drop 23 games in the standings?

Well, the first reason is that, no matter how well you play, a team cannot be expected to win 116 games. There was some luck involved in them winning 116 in 2001 and that is not to take anything away from what they did in any way, it is just a fact (at least in my opinion). Even if they had returned every player from that 2001 squad and every single guy played exactly the same as he had in 2001, they would probably have seen their record drop by 5-10 games, simply because winning 72% of the baseball games you play is damn near impossible.

Beyond that, there were some key reasons for their decline...

Edgar Martinez was healthy enough to get 581 plate appearances in 2001, but only 407 last year. He was also a slightly better hitter in 2001 (he had a 161 OPS+, compared to 144 last year), but the thing that hurt was having to fill about 175 PAs with another DH.

Bret Boone came back down to earth from whatever planet he was on in 2001. Boone had a very good season in 2002, hitting .278/.339/.462 with 107 runs batted in. He was the 2nd best second baseman in the AL, behind only Alfonso Soriano, but that still didn't come close to the value of his 2001 season (.331/.372/.578 with 141 RBIs!).

Like Boone, Mike Cameron was among the best at his position in 2002, but it was still quite a bit less than what he contributed in 2001. His batting average dropped about 30 points, his OBP dropped 15 and his SLG dropped 40.

At third base, the Mariners replaced David Bell and his modest .260/.301/.415 with good D contribution with Jeff Cirillo, whom they felt would give them a big lift offensively. Cirillo was a huge bust and one of the worst hitters in baseball last year, hitting .249/.301/.328 with only 6 homers in 485 ABs.

Ichiro!, John Olerud, Dan Wilson and Carlos Guillen provided basically the same value that they did in 2001 and the 2002 LF platoon of Mark McLemore and Ruben Sierra was about as good as the 2001 LF platoon of McLemore and Al Martin.

On the pitching side of things, quite a few players had much worse seasons than they had in 2001.

The ace of the staff, Freddy Garcia, saw his ERA climb from 3.05 to 4.39.

After getting solid back-of-the-rotation work from Aaron Sele and Paul Abbott (combined 378 IP with a 3.88 ERA) in 2001, the Mariners struggled to find starters behind Garcia, Jamie Moyer and Joel Pineiro. Abbott pitched horrendously early in the year (26 IP, 11.96 ERA - and no, that's not a misprint) and finally shut it down with an injury, finishing with only those 26 horrible innings. James Baldwin, a free agent pickup expected to replace Sele in the rotation, pitched 150 awful innings with a 5.28 ERA.

The Mariners had a very good team in 2002 and they won 93 games, which is the amount a very good team should win. It is simply extremely difficult to approach 116 wins 2 years in a row, even if you get identical production from all key players, which the Mariners did not get.

For 2003, there are some new faces. Manager Lou Piniella is gone to Tampa Bay and the Mariners received their new left fielder, Randy Winn, as compensation.

Winn is not a great player, but he is good defensively, should provide a nice OBP and has good speed. The addition of Winn as the everyday LF allows the Mariners to move Mark McLemore around the diamond more and he'll probably see quite a bit of time at 3B, playing instead of Cirillo.

I see no reason why the Mariners can't win 90+ games for the 4th season in a row. Well, okay, I see one reason: age.

Jamie Moyer and Edgar Martinez are 40. John Olerud and Dan Wilson are 34. McLemore is 38. Boone, Arthur Rhodes and Cirillo are 33. Kaz Sasaki is 35. And Jeff Nelson is 34.

That is a whole lot of old and Moyer and Edgar are particularly iffy because one is a pitcher and one is a oft-injured DH.

Still, I think the M's will once again have a very good offense, built around a lot of good plate discipline and OBPs and a solid pitching staff, which will include what I think will be a bounce back season by Freddy Garcia. Seattle seems to be a forgotten team in the AL this year and I think they could surprise some people.

Finally...

You didn't think I'd finish my Mariners preview without discussing one of my favorite players, Ichiro!, did you? Of course not.

Ichiro!'s 2002 and 2001 seasons are really quite amazing because they are seemingly very similar, but actually quite different.

Let's take a closer look...

Year     PA     OBP     SLG    HR    2B    3B

2001 738 .381 .457 8 34 8
2002 728 .388 .425 8 27 8

Looking at those two stat lines, you see a guy with almost identical playing time and on-base percentages and someone who hit a few less doubles in 2002 and had a slugging % that was about 6% lower.

Those are the similarities, now let's look at the differences...

Ichiro! hit .350 in 2001 and "only" .321 last year.

He stole 56 bases at an 80% clip in 2001 and only 31 at a 67% clip last year.

Ichiro! had a non-intentional walk once every 36.9 plate appearances in 2001 and more than doubled his non-IBB rate last year, walking once every 17.7 PAs.

He was intentionally walked 10 times in 2001 and 27 times last year (and this is a leadoff hitter, remember).

But here's where it gets really interesting...

In 2001 Ichiro! hit .362/.396/.480 against right-handed pitching.

In 2002 Ichiro! hit .308/.377/.403 against right-handed pitching.

In 2001 Ichiro! hit .318/.343/.396 against left-handed pitching.

In 2002 Ichiro! hit .356/.416/.483 against left-handed pitching.

Basically, Ichiro! completely flip-flopped his platoon splits, which is a very tough thing to do for someone that got over 700 PAs in both seasons.

Some more fun with splits...

In 2001, Ichiro! dominated when he had runners on base:

Runners on = .420/.464/.559

Runners in Scoring Position = .449/.509/.544

That is really amazing. He hit .420 when he had people on base and almost .450 with RISP!

But then check out what he did in the same situations last season:

Runners on = .301/.402/.375

Runners in Scoring Position = .361/.494/.445

With runners on base, his batting average fell by over 100 points and his slugging % dropped almost 200 points. With RISP his average fell 90 points and his SLG dropped almost 100.

One more fun stat...

"Close and Late":

2001 = .400/.442/.526

2002 = .308/.387/.375

My uncle is the person responsible for getting me so into baseball and we often chat about the sport. He is more of the "old school" baseball fan, while I obviously am into more advanced statistics and stuff like that. One thing I like about talking with him is that he is genuinely interested in hearing about some of the newer stats and theories that I am into.

We have talked about Voros McCracken's DIPS work and I am always trying to convince him of the value of on-base % and slugging % instead of batting average.

Another thing we talked about was the idea that such a thing as a "clutch hitter" does not exist. I explained that there have been studies done that have determined that there is no relationship between how a player hits in the "clutch" (roughly defined as late in ballgames and/or with runners on base) one season and how he does the next season.

Obviously, a good hitter is likely to be a good hitter in any situation. But, if a player hits 150 points of OPS better in the clutch than in other situations in one season, he is no more likely to do so again the next year than a guy that hit 150 points lower in the clutch. It is sort of like the theory of flipping a coin. No matter how many times it turns up heads, it is no more or less likely to do so the next time.

The idea that such a thing doesn't exist interested my uncle, as I am sure it would interest many baseball fans who grew up listening to announcers tell them that "so and so is a clutch hitter" or he "steps up when it matters." I haven't been able to completely convince my uncle yet, but I think maybe him taking a look at Ichiro's stats from the last 2 years might sway him a little bit.

All throughout the 2001 season I kept hearing about what a "clutch hitter" Ichiro! was, as he smacked hit after hit after hit with men on base and late in ballgames. He was awesome in those situations and it was a key reason why the Mariners were able to win 116 games.

And then last year he was a completely different (and worse) hitter in the exact same situations. Like I said earlier, a good hitter will likely be a good hitter in any situation and that is what Ichiro! was in 2002. However, I also said that just because he outperformned his "normal" level of performance by a huge amount in certain "clutch" situations in 2001 did not make him any more likely to do so in 2002 - and he didn't.

This is by no means a scientific study and I don't want to draw any big conclusions from looking at two years of a single player's performance, but I think it is interesting nonetheless. (By the way, if any of you know of the study (or studies) on clutch hitting that I am referring to and you know where I can view it on the internet, please let me know)



3) ANAHEIM ANGELS

99-63 (.611) | 2nd Place (4.0 GB)

851 Runs Scored (4th) | 644 Runs Allowed (1st)

Anaheim fans, I anxiously await your angry emails. I'm really sorry to put a buzz kill on your championship, but I just don't think the Angels will be able to repeat what they did last year. But don't worry about it, it's not like I have the authority to take away the World Series trophy or anything.

And I formed this opinion before I heard the news about Troy Glaus possibly having some wrist problems.

Anaheim's offense was almost entirely based on batting average last year, which is great when it is all clicking and the whole team gets hot like they did last year. The Angels led the AL with a .282 batting average and were 11th in walks and 10th in homers. I just don't think they can keep that up.


Batting Averages:

Player 2002 2001 +/-
Salmon .286 .227 +.059
Kennedy .312 .270 +.042
Erstad .283 .258 +.025
Anderson .306 .289 +.017
Fullmer .289 .274 +.015
Spiezio .285 .271 +.014
Eckstein .293 .285 +.008
Glaus .250 .250 .000
Molina .245 .262 -.017

Those are the starters from last year, all of whom return for 2003. 6 of them had a better batting average in 2002 than they did in 2001, one was the same and one was worse.

I see the Angels' offense as sort of like a house of cards. It can be very good, while being completely unstable at the same time. But once it gets disrupted in any way, it could all come crashing down.

Batting average is one of the least stable stats for hitters and I just don't think they will hit .282 as a team again.

Their pitching staff was also very good last season and they allowed the fewest runs in the league, in no small part because they had the best defense in the league at converting balls in play into outs. The D will be the same, so the pitching should once again be very good.

I really love Francisco Rodriguez and think he'll be one of the best relievers in baseball this year, but I don't think the offense will score enough runs for the team to repeat last year's success, particularly in what figures to be a very tough division once again.

I'll definitely be rooting for them though, because they were a lot of fun to watch all year (well, except for the part where they demolished my Twins!).



4) TEXAS RANGERS

72-90 (.444) | 4th Place (31.0 GB)

843 Runs Scored (5th) | 882 Runs Allowed (12th)

As always, the Texas Rangers' season is going to come down to pitching.

Their offense was once again very good last year, ranking 5th in the AL with 843 runs and they ranked 3rd in scoring in 2001. Assuming Alex Rodriguez is healthy, their offense will be among the best handful in the league this year too.

ARod was the best player in the American League last year; hitting .300/.392/.623 with 57 homers and 142 runs batted in and playing Gold Glove defense at shortstop. Rafael Palmeiro had his 8th straight season with 35+ homers and hit .273/.391/.571 with 43 homers and 105 batted in. They will once again be the 3-4 hitters in a Texas lineup that has made quite a few changes.

Juan Gonzalez had a poor 2002 season, hitting "only" .282/.324/.451 and staying healthy for only 70 games. Juan Gone is getting up there in age and is always an injury risk, but he hit .325/.370/.590 in 2001 for Cleveland and, if healthy, has shown himself to be a consistent .300 hitter with awesome power. He could potentially give the Rangers the best 3-4-5 in the American League.

Texas will be adding some new blood to the lineup this year, in Hank Blalock (who struggled in limited ABs last year) and Mark Teixeira, whom I think will be one of the best hitters of his generation. I ranked him as my #1 prospect in all of baseball in my article for Primer. Here's what I said:

I smell superstar.

The Texas Rangers selected Mark Teixeira with the 5th pick in the 2001 draft after he had an injury plagued final season at Georgia Tech.

Teixeira's pro debut was delayed quite a bit because he signed too late to play in 2001 and then had elbow and shoulder problems that kept him off the field for the beginning of 2002.

Texas played it very conservatively with Teixeira, choosing to start him at Single-A.

After 150 at bats, the Rangers decided to do the Florida State League's pitchers a favor and they promoted Teixeira to Double-A Tulsa.

Single-A, Double-A, it doesn't really matter. Mark Teixeira will hit wherever you put him. A big, strong, switch hitter, Teixera has the ability to hit for a good average while combining extraordinary power and great plate discipline with a highly advanced and mature hitting approach.

On defense, he is a great hitter. Okay, it isn't that bad. Teixeira is never going to win any Gold Gloves, but he is capable of playing a passable third base for sure. He has a strong arm, decent hands and the Rangers are hoping he can handle the hot corner, but, if not, he can always move across the diamond.

Texas may decide to start Teixeira at Triple-A in 2003, but he is more than ready to begin feasting on Major League pitching. Teixeira is a .300+ AVG / 40+ HR / 100 walk switch-hitting third baseman, which doesn't come around very often (and when it does, it sometimes gets moved to left field by the Braves).

He and that Rodriguez guy will make a pretty nice left side of the infield and a decent 3-4 combination in the Rangers' lineup for the next dozen years or so.

They'll have no problem scoring runs, despite a couple of complete dead-spots in the lineup (I'm looking right at you Mr. Glanville!)

I am not as confident in their pitching staff, obviously.

Once out of the friendly environment of Dodger Stadium, Chan Ho Park struggled big time last year and was also injured a little bit. Still, he should definitely be able to give Texas 180+ innings of league-average pitching, which is exactly what they need. Their #2 and #3 starters, Ismael Valdes and John Thomson, should also be able to give them a lot of decent innings, and I think Thomson is potentially a breakout player, capable of 15 wins or so with this offense.

The pitching will be improved over the last couple years, but it still won't be enough to seriously compete in what is the toughest division in baseball and has been for quite a while.

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

March 24, 2003

Aaron's Baseball Blog 2003 Season Preview: AL East

Other Previews:

American League Central

American League West

National League East

National League Central

National League West

Last year's standings:

AL East           W      L    Win%      GB

New York 103 58 .640 ----
Boston 93 69 .574 10.5
Toronto 78 84 .481 25.5
Baltimore 67 95 .414 36.5
Tampa Bay 55 106 .342 48.0

This year's prediction:



1) BOSTON RED SOX

93-69 (.574) | 2nd Place (10.5 GB)

859 Runs Scored (2nd) | 665 Runs Allowed (3rd)

Before all the Yankee fans get all upset that I have them in second place, let me point out the fact that I think the 2nd place team in the AL East will win the Wild Card this season, so it really doesn't matter what order they finish in. And, since the Red Sox haven't won the division since 1995, I figured I would make the gutsy pick and put them ahead of the Yankees. But fear not pinstripers, I expect both teams to thoroughly dominate baseball this year and each finish with 100+ wins.

My reason for liking the Red Sox so much is pretty simple. They had an excellent pitching staff last year and it should once again be very good. And they had the 2nd best offense in the AL last season and I think they have made several improvements to it during the off-season.

I actually devoted an entire column to breaking down the Boston offense back when they signed Kevin Millar in February:

Likely starters and 2002 EqA:

Manny Ramirez - .370

Jeremy Giambi - .322

Nomar Garciaparra - .304

Kevin Millar - .302

Johnny Damon - .292

Trot Nixon - .284

Shea Hillenband - .277

Todd Walker - .269

Jason Varitek - .257

Likely bench and 2002 EqA:

David Ortiz - .290

Bill Mueller - .270

Lou Merloni - .267

Doug Mirabelli - .260

Damian Jackson - .260

Some thoughts...

Aside from Barry Bonds, there aren't many hitters in the world that can say they are better than Manny Ramirez. He hit .349/.450/.647 last year, which was good for a .370 EqA. He had a .336 EqA in 2001, a .364 EqA in 2000 and a .353 EqA in 1999. Ramirez is also currently working on a streak of 8 straight seasons with an EqA over .315. The problem with Manny is, of course, that he is always missing a couple dozen games a year. He played in 120 last year and 147, 118 and 142 the previous 3 years. When he's in the lineup, he's most likely among the top 3-5 hitters in the world, but you can't count on him being healthy for 155-160 games, ever. Manny can pretty much be counted on to post a .340-.370 EqA.

Nomar Garciaparra had a very good season last year, hitting .310/.352/.528. Those numbers are awesome for a shortstop and pretty much the same stats the AL MVP Miguel Tejada put up (.308/.354/.508). But, Nomar's season was considered a slight disappointment, which tells you something about how great he was in previous years. Nomar's .304 EqA last year was his lowest since his rookie season, 1997 (he had a .281 EqA in 2001, but in only 83 at bats). From 1998-2000, Nomar posted EqAs of .311, .337 and .341. 2002 was a comeback season for Nomar, since he missed almost the entire 2001 year with a wrist injury. Because of that, I would expect him to boost his EqA by 10 or 15 points in 2003 and I wouldn't be surprised if it ended up at around .325 or so.

We might as well talk about the man of the hour, Kevin Millar. As you can see by the above chart (it is a chart, right?), Millar had the 4th best EqA of any projected Red Sox starter last year. That fact may surprise some of you, but it wasn't a fluke. Prior to the .304 EqA last year, Millar had posted EqAs of .277, .289 and finally .312 in 2001. He should be a good bet to post a .300 EqA in 2002.

Although, there is one major reason to not think that...

Here are Millar's home/road splits for the past 2 years:

2002:

Home = .333/.384/.558

Road = .275/.346/.454

2001:

Home = .355/.414/.667

Road = .271/.332/.443

Those are really odd stats, mostly because Millar's home park during that time was Pro Player Stadium, which is a definite pitcher's park and a horrible place for power hitters. During that 2 year stretch, Millar had 459 at bats at home and 428 on the road. He hit 24 homers and 41 doubles at home and 12 homers and 37 doubles on the road.

According to Diamond-Mind, Pro Player had a "Home Run Rating" of 85 for right handed hitters last year, meaning it decreased homers by righties by 15%. I don't have the numbers from 2001 in front of me, but I am fairly certain they were similar. Despite the park cutting down homers by righties (which is what Millar is) by 15%, Millar actually hit twice as many homers at home, in about the same amount of at bats. Like I said, very strange.

Before I get too carried away with those "splits" I want to point out what he did in 1999 and 2000 too:

2000:

Home = .241/.325/.444

Road = .278/.403/.556

1999:

Home = .284/.365/.426

Road = .286/.359/.440

Now, those numbers make a little more sense to me. But, I tend to want to go by the most recent numbers, which say that Millar was a much better hitter at home in the last 2 years, despite Pro Player being a not-so-great place for right handed power hitters. In case you're wondering, Fenway, Millar's new home, had a homer rating of 96 last year, which is pretty much neutral.

Like I said, I expect him to post a .300 EqA, give or take a few points, but his 2001 and 2002 home/road splits are a possible sign of concern.

After a horrible 2001 season with Oakland, Johnny Damon bounced back in a big way, posting a .296 EqA. That number goes right in line with his 1999 and 2000 seasons with Kansas City, when he posted EqAs of .294 and .297. I'd feel safe penciling Damon in for a .290-.300 EqA in 2003.

Trot Nixon posted a .284 EqA in 2002, which was very good. But, it was almost 20 points lower than his 2001 EqA of .303. I think Trot could very easily post another .300+ EqA this year, but the .284 does go right along with his 1999 and 2000 EqAs of .282 and .284.

I couldn't decide whether to put Shea Hillenbrand as the starter at 3B or Bill Mueller. A few weeks ago, I would have bet the house on Hillenbrand not being on the Sox come opening day, but the further we get to actual spring training games, the more I start to wonder. If he's on the team, I think he'll get most of the time at 3B, although the Sox didn't sign Mueller to a 2 year deal to sit on the bench. Hillenbrand posted a .277 EqA last year after a .237 EqA in his rookie year. I think somewhere in between is probably a good bet for his 2003 level, but with a player like Hillenbrand, who knows?

Todd Walker is Boston's new second baseman and he posted a .269 EqA in Cincinnati last season. That is not a great EqA, but I really think Walker is a perfect hitter for Fenway - or Fenway is a perfect park for a hitter like Walker. He isn't a power hitter as much as he is a doubles-hitter. I think he'll take advantage of that gigantic green thing out in left field and smack 50+ doubles in 2003 (he had 42 doubles last year). I'm gonna say he'll get his EqA to about .275 in 2003, but that's me being conservative.

The Red Sox bench is going to be a strength in 2003 after being a major weakness most of last season. David Ortiz had a .290 EqA with the Twins last year and, as a Twins fan, let me say that he posted that good EqA without really having a great season. Ortiz is incredibly injury prone and incredibly talented, so it wouldn't surprise me if he hit for a .320 EqA in 2003 and it wouldn't surprise me if he broke some bone in April and missed half the year. His EqAs the past 3 years have been .276, .273 and .290, so he's a very nice 1B/DH/Pinch-Hit bat to have off the bench.

Doug Mirabelli is another great bench threat. He absolutely destroys lefties.

vs lefties:

2002 = .364/.440/.750 (50 PAs)

2001 = .283/.367/.717 (60 PAs)

That is a very small sample size, but those are the kind of numbers that scream for a full-time platoon job. And Mirabelli might just get that in 2003, as I've heard talks of him not only catching, but playing 1B a little against lefties too. I will guarantee he gets more than 50 or 60 plate appearances against lefties in 2003.

Lou Merloni is a nice backup middle-infielder and also a very good hitter against lefties. He hit .321/.406/.518 against them in 2002 and .303/.343/.606 against them in 2001.

I wouldn't be surprised if he and Todd Walker (who struggles a little against lefties) were in a platoon situation at second base by mid-season.

Basically, I think the Red Sox have a tremdendous offense and I wouldn't be surprised if they topped 900 runs in 2002, possibly even coming close to 1,000. Speaking of which...



2) NEW YORK YANKEES

103-58 (.640) | 1st Place

897 Runs Scored (1st) | 697 Runs Allowed (4th)

The Yankees are an interesting team (then again, when aren't they an interesting team?) Their pitching is getting older and, in my opinion, weaker. Their defense has been mediocre for quite a while and is only getting worse. But, their offense seems to add a piece every single year and this year that piece is potentially an MVP-caliber corner outfielder. They may have the best everyday lineup that baseball has seen in quite a few years:

2B - Alfonso Soriano

SS - Derek Jeter

CF - Bernie Williams

1B - Jason Giambi

LF - Hideki Matsui

C - Jorge Posada

3B - Robin Ventura

RF - Raul Mondesi

DH - Nick Johnson/Bubba Trammell/Todd Zeile

Any of those first 6 guys (Soriano through Posada) could easily be the best player on a about half the other teams in the league. There is no question this team is going to score a lot of runs (they led the AL with 897 last year). The big question in my mind is whether or not they can score 1,000 runs - which is, in my opinion, the big milestone for a team.

The 1999 Cleveland Indians are the last team to do it. So if 1,000 runs were scored just a few seasons ago, why is it a big deal? Well, before the Indians did it in 1999, the last team to plate 1,000 runs were the 1950 Boston Red Sox!

Before I get to the 2003 Yankees, I want to take a look at the last two 1,000 run teams...

The 1999 Cleveland Indians were really an amazing team. Jim Thome hit .277/.426/.540 and he was probably the 3rd best offensive player on the team.

Manny Ramirez hit .333/.442/.663 with 44 homers and drove in 165 runs, the most since Hank Greenberg in 1937! How in the world did he drive in 165 runs? Well, first of all he hit the snot out of the ball all season long. Aside from that however, he had guys on base in front of him pretty much constantly. Check out the first 3 hitters in the lineup for the 1999 Indians:

Player             AVG     OBP     SLG    SB

Kenny Lofton .301 .405 .432 25
Omar Vizquel .333 .397 .436 42
Roberto Alomar .323 .422 .533 37

That really is incredible. All 3 guys hit over .300, got on base about 40% of the time and had a lot of speed.

In fact, pretty much everyone on the team got on base at huge clips. The first 6 spots in the lineup had the following OBPs: .405, .397, .422, .442, .426, .413. You show me a lineup where the first 6 guys all get on base 40% of the time and I'll show you a ton of runs.

Richie Sexson had an OBP of only .305, the lowest of any of their significant contributors, but he hit 31 homers and slugged .514!

Cleveland even got decent production out of their starting catcher, Einar Diaz, who hit .281/.328/.362 with 11 stolen bases. Their backup catcher was Sandy Alomar Jr. and he hit .307/.322/.533 in 137 ABs.

Along with Alomar, the bench had some other guys that had very good years. Wil Cordero hit .299/.364/.500, Alex Ramirez hit .299/.327/.474, Jacob Cruz hit .330/.368/.511.

Heck, even their pitchers hit well in 1999! Cleveland pitchers had a combined 21 at bats and hit .190/.261/.476 with a homer and 2 runs batted in.

The team on-base % was .372! They hit .289 with 209 homers, 309 doubles and 743 walks. They slugged .467.

Despite their incredible hitting, Cleveland also led the AL in stolen bases with 147!

Their pitching staff was very mediocre, but with that offense it didn't even matter.

Charles Nagy had a 4.95 ERA and won 17 games. Dave Burba won 15 with a 4.25 ERA. Jaret Wright had a 6.06 ERA and still went 8-10.

The 1950 Red Sox are an interesting team too. They scored 1,027 runs...and did so in only 154 games and without the designated hitter. That's almost 6.7 runs per ballgame and about 1,080/162.

The star of the 1950 BoSox was none other than Ted Williams. The amazing thing about them scoring so many runs is that they only got 89 games out of Williams. He hit .317/.452/.647, but only got 416 plate appearances. The rest of the lineup more than picked up the slack though.

Nine different players got over 250 at bats and every single one of them had an OBP over .360. 5 of them got on base over 40% of the time.

Billy Goodman subbed for The Splendid Splinter in left field and hit .354/.427/.455. First baseman Walt Droppo hit .322/.378/.583 and drove in 144 runs. Second baseman Bobby Doerr hit .294/.367/.519 and drove in 120 runs. Their shortstop (and this was when shortstops hit like shortstops), Vern Stephens, hit .295/.361/.511 and drove in 144 runs.

Like the 1999 Indians, a lot of their pitchers racked up some nice win totals despite less than stellar pitching. Chuck Stobbs went 12-7 despite a 5.10 ERA and Willard Nixon went 8-6 with a 6.04 ERA.

In fact, there were 10 pitchers on the 1950 Red Sox that pitched 20 or more innings and only one of them, Mel Parnell, had an ERA under 4.00 and his was 3.61.

In looking at the numbers, the 1999 Indians and 1950 Red Sox have a lot of similarities...

First and foremost, they got outstanding offensive contributions from almost everyone on the team. Second, they had several players (Dropo, Williams, Doerr, Stephens for the Red Sox and Ramirez, Thome, Alomar for the Indians) that had MVP-caliber seasons.

In 1950, the AL hit .271/.353/.402.

In 1999, the AL hit .275/.344/.439.

Pretty darn close, give or take 10 points of OBP and 30 points of SLG.

In 1950, the Red Sox hit .302/.382/.464 with 32 SBs.

In 1999, the Indians hit .289/.372/.467 with 147 SBs.

Can the Yankees score 1,000 runs? One big drawback for them is that the current offensive environment is quite a bit less offensive than it was in 1950 and 1999. The AL hit only .264/.327/.424 last year, which is 32 points of OPS less than in 1999. I would assume the 2003 offensive environment will be very similar to what it was last year, which hurts the Yankees chances, but doesn't take them completely out of the running.

I think the #1 thing that a 1,000 run team must do is get on base throughout the lineup. No matter how much power a team has, in order to score that many runs you need to avoid making outs and keep turning the lineup over (and over and over...). The 1950 BoSox and 1999 Indians each led the AL in OBP by fairly healthy margins.

Last year, the Yankees also led the AL in on-base % at .354. That isn't as impressive as the .382 OBP by the 1950 Red Sox or the .372 by the 1999 Indians, but the leagues they played in had collective OBPs that were 26 and 17 points higher than the 2002 AL.

The way I see it, there are 2 big keys for the Yankees chances of scoring 1,000 runs: 1) Derek Jeter and 2) Hideki Matsui.

Derek Jeter had his worst offensive season since 1997, his second year in the league. He hit under .300 for the first time since 1997, slugged under .480 for the first time since 1997 and had his lowest OBP since 1997.

At the same time, he was still one of the best hitting shortstops in all of baseball, finishing with an OPS+ of 113 and a RARP ("Runs Above Replacement Position") of 52.0, which ranked 4th in all of baseball - behind only Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra and Miguel Tejada. Derek Jeter was definitely an elite player last year and a big part of the reason why the Yankees scored almost 900 runs. However, for them to have a shot at 1,000, he needs to hit like he did a few years ago.

Will he? I doubt it. A lot of people saw his season last year as the latest season of a multi-year decline that has been taking place since his big year in 1999.

1999 = .349/.438/.552 (.989 OPS)

2000 = .339/.416/.481 (.896 OPS)

2001 = .311/.377/.480 (.858 OPS)

2002 = .297/.373/.421 (.794 OPS)

Now, it is obvious that his raw numbers are declining. He has dropped from a .989 OPS to a .794 OPS in just 4 years and he OPSs have gone down 93, 38 and 64 points.

However, beyond the raw numbers you see that the overall offensive level of the American League went down quite a bit from 2000 to its current level. By looking at a stat that adjusts individual performance by the context of the league it was accumulated in, we see this:

1998 = 126 OPS+

1999 = 161 OPS+

2000 = 123 OPS+

2001 = 125 OPS+

2002 = 113 OPS+

Which one of those is unlike the others? Well, it is definitely his 1999 season.

Basically, I think Derek Jeter is a 115-125 OPS+ hitter - which is pretty great - and that his 1999 season was simply his "career year." Instead of him being in a serious decline since then, I think he has simply played up to his normal level, which is lower than his career year, obviously. Add in some decreased league offense and it appears as though he is dropping 50 points of OPS every year, when he has really been essentially the same hitter for his entire career, except for that 1999 season.

I expect him to have a better season than he had in 2002, but I definitely don't think he is going to approach his 1999 performance. If he can hit about .310/.380/.480, like he did in 2001, he'll be worth quite a few more runs than last season.

Hideki Matsui is the wild card here, because we simply don't know how he will do. Baseball Prospectus 2003 projects him to hit .281/.407/.547 with 31 homers in 501 at bats. That seems about right to me.

In fact, back in December when Matsui signed with the Yankees, I wrote the following:

It wouldn't surprise me to see Matsui hit about .290 with 35 homers, 90 walks and solid corner outfield defense, which would make him one of the better outfielders in baseball.

New York's biggest offensive weakspots last season were left field and right field. Yankee LFs hit .238/.282/.366 last year. Even if Matsui hits only .270/.350/.450, which would be a huge dropoff from what I expect from him, that would be a massive improvement over what the Yankees had in LF last year.

New York scored 897 runs in 2002 and did so while getting almost zero contribution from left field. Hideki Matsui has a chance to be one of the better LFs in the AL this year and should be at least a 30-40 run improvement over the junk they had out there in 2002.

New York returns the same starters at C, 1B, 2B, SS, 3B and CF. If I had to guess, I would say Soriano and Ventura decline; Bernie Williams, Posada and Giambi stay about the same and Jeter improves.

Right field was a bad spot in the lineup last year too, but they return the same RF, Raul Mondesi, that played almost the entire second half of the season there for the Yankees last year. Still, he should be able to improve slightly upon the .260/.331/.416 they got from their RFs last year (Mondesi hit only .232/.308/.432 last year, but he hit .252/.342/.453 in 2001 and .271/.329/.523 in 2000).

The potential DH platoon of Nick Johnson against righties and Bubba Trammell against lefties should also be able to put up some good numbers. When all is said and done, the Yankees return much of the same team that scored 900 runs last year and there chances of 1,000 are going to hinge on whether or not Jeter bounces back and exactly how great Hideki Matsui is in his first American season.



3) TORONTO BLUE JAYS

78-84 (.481) | 3rd Place (25.5 GB)

813 Runs Scored (7th) | 828 Runs Allowed (9th)

The Toronto Blue Jays have an outstanding young nucleus of players, a great front office and organization and, if they were in another division, perhaps the AL Central or even the NL Central, they would have a pretty good shot at winning it and might even be considered the favorites by some people. As it stands now, they will have to settle for their 5th straight year finishing in 3rd place, behind New York and Boston.

Toronto is right on the verge of making the leap from .500 team to legit contender.

This is what their lineup could look like, as soon as late-2003:

C - Kevin Cash (25 years old)

1B - Carlos Delgado (30)

2B - Orlando Hudson (25)

SS - Russ Adams (22)

3B - Eric Hinske (25)

LF - John-Ford Griffin (23)

CF - Vernon Wells (24)

RF - Jayson Werth (23)

DH - Josh Phelps (24)

That is a very promising group. Aside from Delgado, every player is 25 and under right now. There is power (Delgado, Phelps, Hinske, Wells, Werth), speed (Hudson, Adams, Wells) and even defense (Cash, Wells). Plus, it is an incredibly cheap lineup, as Wells and Hinske recently signed for about $3 mill a year and everyone else besides Delgado would be making the minimum still.

I would like to official jump on the "Toronto Blue Jays in 2004 and beyond" bandwagon and I hope you will all join me.

For this year, 82-88 wins seems like a good bet, although they could surprise some people and have a shot at 90+, depending on their pitching. After this year though, look out. If Toronto can find some top-level pitching to go along with Roy Halladay and Jason Arnold, the top 3 in the AL East is going to be very fun to watch for the rest of the decade.



4) BALTIMORE ORIOLES

67-95 (.414) | 4th Place (36.5 GB)

667 Runs Scored (13th) | 773 Runs Allowed (7th)

The Baltimore Orioles are the absolute worst type of team to be a fan of.

1) They have a long history of successful teams, which makes their current crapiness all the more painful.

2) They have absolutely no farm system to speak of, so fans can't even look forward to "next year" or even "next decade."

3) Their current team is filled with a bunch of old, over-paid, under-performing veterans, so you can't even root for young guys and think of them as an underdog type of team.

What can I say about them really? Not much, so I won't. They have no chance of finishing higher than 4th and will be in a dogfight with Tamoa Bay to stay out of the basement.

For Baltimore fans, check back in like 2015 - maybe Ripken's kid will be playing by then or something.



5) TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS

55-106 (.342) | 5th Place (48.0 GB)

673 Runs Scored (12th) | 918 Runs Allowed (14th)

In short, the Devil Rays have absolutely no chance of doing anything good this year. Lou Piniella can yell and scream all he wants (and believe me, he will) and they still won't win 75 games.

That said, there is one interesting aspect of the Devil Rays that is definitely worth tracking in 2003 (which I wrote about earlier):

Last year, Tampa Bay drew 456 walks, which ranked 12th in the AL. In the off-season, two of their big walkers, Steve Cox (60 walks) and Randy Winn (55) departed.

The Detroit Tigers drew 363 walks last season and I remembered hearing that 363 walks was the lowest total by a team in "X years," but I couldn't quite remember how many years or where I had heard it.

So, I enlisted the help of Craig Burley of Baseball Primer and the Batter's Box and he did the grunt work for me and found that Detroit's total of 363 walks as a team was the lowest total in a non-strike season since the 1967 Mets drew 362 walks.

That's pretty freaking amazing. But you wanna know something? I think the Tampa Bay Devil Rays just might draw fewer than 363 walks this season.

Let's take a look at the main players...

Their starting catcher will be Toby Hall. Hall is a pretty good hitter. He has a career AAA batting line of .328/.365/.533 in 163 games. And he's even done reasonably well so far in the Majors, hitting .270/.302/.402 in 2001 and 2002 combined.

Actually, he has a total of 138 games played in the Majors Leagues, which is a nice number for our purposes because I want to figure out how many he's likely to draw in a full-season's worth of playing time.

In 138 games, Hall has drawn 22 walks. So, let's say he's a little more mature now and a little more ready to be a Major League hitter and give him the benefit of the doubt of 25 walks in full-time (catcher) playing time, which is like 120 games or so.

The backup catcher is likely going to be Jorge Fabregas (seriously, don't laugh). Jorge drew 8 walks in 169 plate appearances last year and 3 walks in 157 PAs in 2001, so I'd say he's a good bet to walk about 5 times in approximately 150 PAs this year.

Okay, so we've got the catcher spot covered and we're giving them a total of 30 walks.

Now let's move to the infield...

Travis Lee is going to be their everyday first baseman. He walked 54 times in 153 games last year and 71 times in 157 games in 2001. I'd say Lee is a good bet to walk 65 times in 2003.

The second base job is between Brent Abernathy and Marlon Anderson right now. Abernathy walked 25 times in 117 games last year, while Anderson walked 42 times in 145 games. I am not sure who will get the everyday job, but either way we are looking at about 40 walks from second base.

Their shortstop is none other than Rey Ordonez. At first glance, Rey's walk totals simply look horrible. Upon further inspection, we find out that, because he was batting in front of the pitcher in the NL, he was walked intentionally 17 times in 2001 and 11 times last year, making his walk totals ridiculously awful.

I can assure you that if Rey Ordonez stays in AL he will not see 11 intentional walks for the rest of his career, even if he plays till he's like 167 years old. When you take the IBBs away, Ordonez had 13 walks in 144 games last year and 17 walks in 149 games in 2001. Let's say he's good for 20 walks in 2003.

The third base battle in Tampa Bay isn't quite won yet, but I have heard that Aubrey Huff will likely play there quite a bit. Huff was Tampa's best hitter last season, hitting .313/.364/.520 with 37 walks in 113 games. Huff walked only 23 times in 111 games the year before. Let's assume he continues to be their best hitter and pitchers become somewhat scared to pitch to him and he is able to draw 45 walks this year.

The loser of the 2B battle will be one of the backup infielders and the other will likely be Jared Sandberg. Sandberg drew 39 walks in 102 games last year. He actually walks quite a bit (and Ks even more), so I would say he could walk 30 times if he's given about 250 plate appearances between 1B, 3B and DH.

Speaking of DH, Greg Vaughn is still there for the D-Rays. Vaughn actually walks quite a bit too. He walked 41 times in only 297 plate appearances last year. Let's say he gets another 300 PAs in 2003 and walks 40 times.

In right field the D-Rays have Ben Grieve, who is quite the walker. In fact, if the D-Rays don't break the Tigers' record, he'll be to blame. Grieve walked 69 times in 136 games last year and 87 times in 2001. I think he's a good bet to walk about 75 times in 2003.

Now, at this point you might be wondering why this team is even being mentioned as a possibility for walking even less than the Tigers did in 2003. After all, they have Grieve and Vaughn and some other guys that walk a little bit.

Oh, but we haven't gotten to the good parts yet.

Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford, two 21 year olds, will be manning center and left field in 2003. Crawford got significant time with Tampa Bay last year and walked 9 times in 278 plate appearances, which is really tough to do. Before coming to Tampa, Crawford played 85 games in AAA and walked 20 times. So, combined between AAA and the Majors he walked 29 times in 149 games.

As I mentioned in my prospects article from earlier this year, Rocco Baldelli spent time at three different levels on Tampa's organization last year and walked a total of 23 times in 117 games.

I don't think it is crazy to suggest that, if given every day playing time in 2003, Crawford and Baldelli could combine for 1,200 plate appearances and 40-50 walks. Let's be kind and give them 50.

The D-Rays' backup outfielders will probably be Damian Rolls (13 walks in 347 career Major League PAs) and Jason Conti (26 walks in 349 career PAs). Let's say these two guys combine for 300 PAs and mark them down for 20 walks.

Okay, so let's see what we've got here...

Toby Hall - 25

Jorge Fabregas - 5

Travis Lee - 65

Brent Abernathy - 25

Marlon Anderson - 15

Aubrey Huff - 45

Jared Sandberg - 30

Greg Vaughn - 40

Ben Grieve - 75

Rocco Baldelli - 25

Carl Crawford - 25

Damian Rolls - 5

Jason Conti - 15

That comes out to a total of 395 walks and that was with me giving most everyone the benefit of the doubt and going with the high end of estimates. Obviously this was a very "quick and dirty" calculation, but I really think the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have a good chance of doing something that no team has done in over 35 years, which is draw fewer than 350 walks in a full, non-strike season. Hey, every team needs a goal, right?

The 1966 St. Louis Cardinals drew 345 walks, making the last team to have less than 350 in a year. Wanna know the most interesting thing about that? The Cardinals won the World Series the next year!

But wait, this gets even more interesting. That 1967 Mets team that is the last to draw fewer walks than the Tigers did last season? Well, they won the World Series two seasons later!

So, for those Tigers fans out there (and I assume there are still a few of you left), that is some good news for you to ponder while watching your team hack its way to another 90+ loss season. The last two teams to walk less than you did last year each won the World Series within the next two seasons!

All the more reason for the D-Rays to shoot for less than 363 walks this year. If they can do it, they'll get that World Series trophy by 2005!

Since I wrote that, the D-Rays released one of their biggest walkers, Greg Vaughn, and traded another guy with decent plate discipline, Jason Conti. I'll make sure to keep everyone updated throughout the season as the Devil Rays try to complete "Operation: Swing Away."

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

March 23, 2003

Aaron's Baseball Blog 2003 Season Preview: NL East

Other Previews:

American League East

American League Central

American League West

National League Central

National League West

Last year's standings:

NL East           W      L    Win%      GB

Atlanta 101 59 .631 ----
Montreal 83 79 .512 19.0
Philadelphia 80 81 .497 21.5
Florida 79 83 .488 23.0
New York 75 86 .466 26.5

This year's prediction:



1) PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

80-81 (.497) | 3rd Place (21.5 GB)

710 Runs Scored (8th) | 724 Runs Allowed (9th)

After almost a decade of consistent losing following their 1993 World Series appearance, the Phillies finally broke through in 2001 and posted their first winning season since 1993, finishing 2 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East.

Last season, the Phillies took a step backwards. They scored almost 40 fewer runs than they did in 2001 and saw their record drop below .500, finishing 21.5 games back of Atlanta.

After years of having one of the lowest team payrolls in the league, despite their huge market size, the Phillies finally opened up the wallet this off-season and made some very significant acquisitions in the hopes of ending the Atlanta Braves' run as the kings of the division.

First and foremost, they signed Jim Thome to a six-year contract worth $85 million dollars. There are some serious questions regarding the long-term ramifications of the contract, but, in the short-term, it is a no-brainer. The Phillies replace one of the worst hitting first basemen in all of baseball, Travis Lee, with the best hitting first baseman in baseball, Jim Thome.

It is obvious that such a massive upgrade at a key offensive position is going to have a huge impact on Philadelphia's offense in 2003, but it will likely be even bigger than you can imagine.

Player     PA     AVG     OBP     SLG    HR    2B     BB     EqA    EqR

Thome 613 .304 .445 .677 52 19 122 .369 138
Lee 592 .265 .331 .394 13 26 54 .258 66

Short of something involving Barry Bonds replacing Neifi Perez at shortstop for some team, an upgrade at first base from Travis Lee to Jim Thome is about as big as a realistic upgrade can possibly be.

Exactly how much better was Jim Thome with the bat than Travis Lee last season? Well, the short answer is about 70 runs.

Now, Travis Lee is a very good defensive first baseman and Jim Thome is, at best, average. So, the Phillies are downgrading their defense slightly, but they are doing it at the least important defensive position and the effect of the switch won't even be a blip on the radar screen compared to the offensive difference. Accounting for defense, Jim Thome was probably about 60 runs better than Travis Lee last season.

The obvious difference between Thome and Lee is their power. Travis Lee has never hit like a prototypical first baseman and hit only 13 homers last season. Jim Thomee hits exactly like the prototypical first baseman and smacked 52 long balls in 2002.

The aspect that is being overlooked a little bit in this upgrade is not that Thome hit 40 more homers than Lee did, but that in doing so he used up about 60 fewer outs. Think about that for a moment. In essentially the same amount of playing time (Thome actually had about 20 more plate appearances), Jim Thome used 60 fewer outs than Travis Lee did. That is more than two entire games worth of outs.

The Phillies have several other accomplished hitters in the lineup and acquiring Jim Thome not only allows them to add his bat to the lineup, but also to spread out those 60 outs. Instead of batting Travis Lee at the bottom of the lineup and watching him make out after out after out, without providing any sort of offensive punch, they now have Jim Thome hitting smack dab in the middle of the lineup. He'll hit the snot out of the ball and he'll do so while not wasting outs and thus turning the lineup over more often.

Jim Thome will obviously be the centerpiece of the Philadelphia lineup, the straw that stirs the drink, but there are some other Phillies hitters that are among the best at their positions and will combine with Thome to form an exceptional middle of the lineup.

Bobby Abreu has been and will continue to be one of the most underrated players in baseball. He is a major offensive force, a good defensive player and about as consistent as humanly possible:

Year     AVG     OBP     SLG     BB    SB

1998 .312 .409 .497 84 19
1999 .335 .446 .549 109 27
2000 .316 .416 .554 100 28
2001 .289 .393 .543 106 36
2002 .308 .413 .521 104 31

Bobby Abreu is a walking, talking .400 OBP. He hits for a good average, he draws a massive amount of walks and he is even a little bit dangerous on the bases.

Abreu is also good for a .500+ slugging % every year. How he gets there changes though. One year he hits .335 with 11 triples and only 20 homers. Another year he hits only .289 with four triples, but smacks 31 homers and 48 doubles. And last year he hit .308 with 20 homers, 50 doubles and 6 triples. If I were building a #3 hitter in a lab somewhere (which, contrary to rumors, I am not doing), he would look a lot like Bobby Abreu.

And to think, Bobby Abreu was actually acquired from the Devil Rays in exhange for Kevin Stocker!

On an awful lot of teams, Abreu and his string of .300/.400/.500 seasons would be far and away the best hitter on the team. On this current Phillies team, he might be the third best hitter - which is why their offense is potentially so awesome.

I devoted an entire entry to Pat Burrell earlier this off-season and, instead of repeating myself, I'll re-use what I said then:

The Phillies picked Pat Burrell with the #1 overall pick in the 1998 draft. He was an extremely successful hitter at the University of Miami and a lot of people projected him as a future superstar at the time. Burrell has hit everywhere he has played, but for some reason he has been able to sneek under the radar of most fans. 2002 was his 3rd Major League season and, although he isn't a superstar yet, he has established himself as one of the top young power hitters in baseball.

His batting average has never been great, which is probably why he has yet to reach true star status. It did improve a lot in 2002 though and he has everything else you'd want in a hitter. Burrell smacked 37 homers, which ranked 7th in the NL, and added in 39 doubles, which ranked 10th. He even added in some very good plate discipline, with 89 walks, although he strikes out a ton (162 and 153 in 01 and 02).

Predicting someone's batting average is a really tough thing to do, much harder than predicting power numbers (in my opinion). That said, I think Burrell's average will continue to improve in the next couple of seasons. He was an outstanding hitter for average in college and his minor league numbers were very good. He hit .303, .333 and .294 in his 3 minor league stops. I don't think he'll ever hit .320, but I wouldn't be surprised if he settled into the .285-.300 range. Add in 85-100 walks, 35-45 homers and 40+ doubles and you've got a star player, no doubt about it.

Defensively, he's not great, but he is definitely improving. Diamond-Mind gave him a left field rating of "FAIR" in 2002, which was a huge improvement over his "POOR" in 2001.

If he gets a chance to hit behind Thome all season long it wouldn't surprise me if Pat Burrell led the National League in RBIs this season (he was 3rd in the NL last year with 116). If Burrell improves his batting average a little bit (which I think he can definitely do) he will give the Phillies three .300/.400/.500 players, two of whom are very capable of hitting 40+ homers.

The way it is looking right now, Abreu, Thome and Burrell will bat 3-4-5 for Philadelphia this year, which is downright scary.

Okay, so we covered Philadelphia's tremendous middle of the lineup, but what about the other five spots? I'm glad you asked, because I think that is going to be the key to their season.

The other five regulars in the Philly lineup are Mike Lieberthal, David Bell, Placido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins and rookie Marlon Byrd.

As long as I am quoting from past entries, I might as well re-use some of the stuff I said about the Philadelphia lineup a while back:

Here's what their lineup might end up looking like:

SS   Jimmy Rollins     .247 EqA

2B Placido Polanco .258
RF Bobby Abreu .323
1B Jim Thome .369
LF Pat Burrell .313
C Mike Lieberthal .279
CF Marlon Byrd .268*
3B David Bell .273

*Marlon Byrd spent 2002 in Triple-A, so his EqA is his minor league performance, adjusted to the National League.

Compared to the Major League average at their position, the Phils have quite a few guys that had EqAs significantly above average:

Jim Thome +.082 (.369 minus the MLB 1B average of .287)

Bobby Abreu +.040

Mike Lieberthal +.033

Pat Burrell +.030

David Bell +.009

Placido Polanco -.001

Marlon Byrd -.002

Jimmy Rollins -.009

They've got 4 guys that were among the best in baseball at their position offensively last year. According to Baseball Prospectus' "Runs Above Replacement Position" (RARP) Thome was #1 among all MLB first basemen, Abreu was #5 among right fielders, Lieberthal was #4 among catchers and Burrell was #6 among left fielders. That is pretty impressive.

David Bell was slightly above-average in 2002. Philly has two guys that were right around average (Byrd and Polanco). And one guy that was slightly below-average (Rollins).

Byrd is the real wild card, because what he can do at the ML level is an unknown. I am a fan of Marlon Byrd's and I think he will be an excellent player. For 2003, I would put Marlon's EqA somewhere in the .265-.275 range, which would make him about average offensively for a center fielder.

The Phils could very easily have a 2003 lineup with 4 guys in the top 5 in baseball at their position and 4 guys hovering right around average. That may not sound like it, but that's a recipe for a very good offense and I wouldn't be surprised if they led the NL in runs in 2003. I would almost guarantee they will be among the top 2 or 3.

Defensively, the Phillies should be very good too. Bell is excellent at third and Polanco is outstanding at any infield spot. Rollins is above average at SS and while Thome is poor at 1B, defense there doesn't mean much and he isn't completely miserable. In the outfield, Byrd should be above average in center and Abreu is very good in right field. And we already talked about the improvements Burrell has made out in left.

As you can see, I really think the Phillies will have an excellent offense this year. Of course, offense is only half the game...

Besides signing Jim Thome, the Phillies other big move of the off-season was trading for Kevin Millwood. This was a great move on two different levels. First of all, Millwood is an excellent pitcher, capable of giving them 200+ innings and winning 15-20 games. Just as importantly though is that they not only added him to their roster, they subtracted him from Atlanta's.

What did the Phillies have to give up in order to get one of the better pitchers in the National League away from a division rival and onto their team? Believe it or not, Johnny Estrada.

It has become obvious that the Braves trading Millwood was strictly a "salary-dump" move, which is okay, I suppose. What boggles my mind is why they would dump his salary to a team in their own division. Not only a team, the team that looks as though they will be the big challenger to the Braves in 2003.

Here is what Millwood has done recently:

Year      IP      ERA    K/9     W/9     HR/9     DIPS
1998 174 4.08 8.4 2.9 0.93 3.96
1999 228 2.68 8.1 2.3 0.95 3.63
2000 213 4.66 7.1 2.6 1.10 4.27
2001 121 4.31 6.3 3.0 1.49 4.93
2002 217 3.24 7.4 2.7 0.66 3.62

I wouldn't classify Millwood as an "ace" in the same way that Pedro or Schilling or Randy Johnson are aces, but he is certainly a guy that a playoff caliber team can have as a #1 starter. With a good defense behind him (which the Phillies have) I would think that Millwood could give them 200+ innings of 3.50-4.00 ERA pitching. And, with this offense, that should be good for at least 15 wins.

The rest of the Philly rotation isn't too shabby either. Right now it looks like the #2-5 starters will be Randy Wolf, Vincente Padilla, Brandon Duckworth and Brett Myers. Duckworth has had some injury problems in spring training, so he may not be ready to go right away, in which case Joe Roa would likely step into the rotation.

Wolf and Padilla were both excellent last season. Wolf pitched 211 innings with a 3.20 ERA and held batters to a .223 batting average. Padilla was an all-star and pitched 206 innings with a 3.28 ERA. Neither of them won a whole lot of ballgames (only 25 combined) but that had more to do with Philly's poor offense than it did their pitching.

Wolf and Padilla, along with Millwood, give Philadelphia three starters that could reasonably be expected to pitch 200+ inning with ERAs under 4.00.

The back end of the rotation is a little shakier. I really like Brandon Duckworth a ton and I think that, if he is healthy, he is one of the biggest breakout candidates in all of baseball. He pitched 163 innings with a 5.41 ERA last year, which is very poor. However, he struck out 9.2/9 IP, which is an excellent sign of future success. That said, if he isn't healthy, none of that matters much.

Brett Myers was a very highly rated prospect and the Phillies seem to think very highly of him, but I am not as optimistic. He is really the exact opposite of Duckworth in that his minor league performances have been very good, but he has done it with poor K rates and I don't think he is a good bet for long-term success. He struck out only 6.8/9 IP at AAA last year and only 4.3/9 IP in 12 starts with the Phillies. The 6.8/9 at AAA isn't horrible, but it isn't a good K rate for such a highly thought of pitcher, and the 4.3/9 with the Phillies is damn near awful. That said, he is certainly an acceptable back-of-the-rotation starter in 2003, which is what he'll be in Philly.

The Philadelphia bullpen is led by Jose Mesa, Dan Plesac, Rheal Cormier and Turk Wendell, which would sound really good if this were the mid-90s. In case you haven't noticed, it is 2003 and those guys are 37, 41, 36 and 35 years old.

That said, Jose Mesa has been pretty good since coming to Philly in 2001. I wouldn't want him as my team's closer, but he has saved 87 games in his two seasons with the Phillies and had ERAs of 2.34 and 2.97. While his K rate remained good in 2002, his walk rate almost doubled from 2001, which is bad sign. That said, I would be just as confident in Mesa as a closer as I was prior to last year, although you can take that whichever way you want.

Fearless Prediction:

The Phillies have a much improved offense that looks like one of the best in the NL and a very solid rotation that should be able eat innings and rack up wins courtesy of Thome, Burrell, Abreu and company. The bullpen scares me a little bit, but not enough to make me think they won't win the NL East pretty easily in 2002. Picking against Atlanta hasn't been the smart thing to do since I was 8 years old, but all good things must come to an end at some point, right? Barring a serious injury to one of the big three hitters, the Phils are headed to the playoffs and I don't think it'll be particularly close.



2) ATLANTA BRAVES

101-59 (.631) | 1st Place

708 Runs Scored (10th) | 565 Runs Allowed (1st)

I know this has been said by many people in many different places over the past decade or so, but I really think this is the year that Atlanta's streak of division crowns comes to an end.

Why is this the year? Well, I already discussed the big changes the Phillies have made for this season, including one move (trading for Kevin Millwood) that simultaneously added to the Phillies and subtracted from the Braves. Aside from what I expect to be a much improved Phillies team, the Braves have made some wholesale changes this off-season, some of which I think will prove to be bad moves this season.

The biggest problem I see for the Braves in 2003 is that they allowed only 565 runs last season, which was by far the fewest in the NL. Quite frankly, that aint gonna happen again.

Check out the players from last year's incredible pitching staff that are no longer Braves:

Tom Glavine - 225 IP, 2.96 ERA

Kevin Millwood - 217 IP, 3.24 ERA

Damian Moss - 179 IP, 3.42 ERA

Chris Hammond - 76 IP, 0.95 ERA

Mike Remlinger - 68 IP, 1.99 ERA

Kerry Ligtenberg - 67 IP, 2.97 ERA

Tim Spooneybarger - 51 IP, 2.63

That is an awful lot of good pitching to lose in one off-season. If you add up those seven pitchers, you get 883 innings pitched and a 2.85 ERA. So the Braves not only lost about 60% of their total innings from last year, they lost most of the good innings.

Who have they brought in to fill those 900 innings? I'm glad you asked...

Paul Byrd - 228 IP, 3.90 ERA

Russ Ortiz - 214 IP, 3.61 ERA

Mike Hampton - 179 IP, 6.15 ERA

Ray King - 65 IP, 3.05 ERA

Roberto Hernandez - 52 IP, 4.33 ERA

Mike Venafro - 37 IP, 4.62 ERA

Those are the main guys that figure to step in and plug the holes in the Atlanta pitching staff. There are also some minor league prospects that could see extended action. It's not really a bad group, as much as it isn't a group that is likely to pitch 900 innings with a sub-3.00 ERA.

Roberto Hernandez, Ray King and Mike Venafro as key figures in a bullpen doesn't exactly inspire confidence in me. That said, this time last year how many people would have predicted Chris Hammond, who hadn't pitched in the majors since 1998, would have been one of the top relievers in baseball last year (he had a 0.95 ERA!)?

Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone has been doing incredible things with not-so-incredible pitchers for years now and it wouldn't surprise me if he turned a couple of their new pitchers into very valuable players in 2003. If ever a pitching coach deserves mention for the Hall of Fame, it is Leo Mazzone - that is how highly I think of him. That said, I just don't see Roberto Hernandez posting a 1.50 ERA or Mike Hampton pitching 220 innings with a 2.95 ERA or Paul Byrd giving them 215 innings and a 3.25 ERA - and those are the types of things that need to happen if the Braves want to allow anywhere close to 565 runs again this season.

What is more likely to me is that Mazzone is able to work some of his magic on Hampton or Byrd or Hernandez or Venafro. If he can get 200 innings out of Hampton and Byrd in 2003, it has to be considered a victory. And if he can get Ray King, Roberto Hernandez and Mike Venafro to combine for 150 innings of sub-4.00 ERA pitching, that should be a plus as well. But those things, as nice as they would be, would mean the Braves pitching staff will be considerably worse in 2003 and, with their offense, that is not something they can afford.

The Atlanta offense scored only 708 runs last year, 10th in the NL. They were bad despite getting very good seasons from Chipper Jones (.327/.435/.536), Andruw Jones (.264/.366/.513), Gary Sheffield (.307/.404/.512) and Matt Franco (.317/.395/.517).

No one else on the team that got over 200 PAs had an OPS over .748 and they gave tons of playing time to complete offensive disasters like Vinny Castilla, Javy Lopez, Keith Lockhart and Henry Blanco.

Despite all the changes Atlanta made with their pitching staff this off-season, their only real change to the lineup was adding Robert Fick, in place of the Matt Franco/Julio Franco platoon at 1B.

Robert Fick is a nice hitter to have on a team, but the problem with adding him is that he is going to play first base, which wasn't even a problem for the Braves last year!

Atlanta first basemen hit .300/.367/.459 last year, which is certainly decent production.

Compare that to...

Atlanta 2B = .227/.293/.349 (.643 OPS, 16th in NL)

Atlanta C = .216/.282/.340 (.622 OPS, 15th in NL)

Atlanta 3B = .243/.277/.368 (.645 OPS, 15th in NL)

Fearless Prediction:

The Atlanta offense will almost certainly be at least slightly better than they were last year, just because Castilla and a couple other guys can't possibly be worse. That said, their pitching is likely to decline quite a bit, which means the offensive shortcomings will become a huge deal pretty quickly.

Barring a miracle by Leo Mazzone (which is certainly possible), the Braves will not win their division for the first time since 1990.



3) NEW YORK METS

75-86 (.466) | 5th Place (26.5 GB)

690 Runs Scored (13th) | 703 Runs Allowed (7th)

The New York Mets are dangerously close to the edge. They are hanging onto "somewhat competitive" by their fingernails and I think they know it. They signed Tom Glavine (37 years old), Cliff Floyd (30) and Mike Stanton (35) to go along with the following "core" of players:

Mike Piazza (35)

Roberto Alomar (35)

Mo Vaughn (35)

Jeromy Burnitz (33)

Pedro Astacio (33)

Armando Benitez (30)

Al Leiter (37)

Steve Trachsel (32)

If it wasn't for their remarkably solid farm system, the New York Mets would be the Baltimore Orioles, constantly trying to sign enough aging players to finish with 82 wins until the end of time.

I suppose everyone on that list could hold off father time for another year and the ones that had awful 2002s could have good 2003s, but it aint gonna happen.

Their offense is old and declining. Their pitching is just plain old. Their defense, particularly if Roger Cedeno plays in CF, is beyond bad. The sooner they realize this current team isn't going anywhere but mediocre, the better. They need to clear the decks of the over 30 crowd, so they can begin setting up for the Jose Reyes/Scott Kazmir/Justin Huber era.

Fearless Prediction:

Once again, the Mets will hover right around .500 this year and will finish with just enough wins to make their front office go out and acquire a few more 35 year old pitchers to make "one more" run at it ("it" being 85 wins) in 2004.



4) MONTREAL EXPOS

83-79 (.512) | 2nd Place (19.0 GB)

735 Runs Scored (6th) | 718 Runs Allowed (8th)

The Expos were a very pleasant surprise last season. They finished above .500 for the first time since 1996 and can refer to themselves as the 2nd place team in the NL East (although they should probably leave out the part about them being 19 games back).

Montreal will once again be home to Vlad Guerrero, although for possibly the final season. Vlad hit .336/.417/.593 and drove in and scored 100+ runs for the 5th straight year.

Despite what some casual fans may think, there are a couple other good hitters on the Expos. Jose Vidro hit .315/.378/.490 for his 4th straight year with a OPS of at least .820. Brad Wilkerson was one of the better rookies in the NL, hitting .266/.370/.469, while spending time in LF, CF, RF and 1B. And catcher Michael Barrett finally had that second good season that people have been waiting for since his first good season back in 1999.

There is only one big change in the lineup for this year. Lee Stevens was exiled to Cleveland at mid-season last year and the 2003 first baseman will likely be Jeff Liefer or a Liefer/Wil Cordero platoon, which could be decent.

The pitching staff lost Bartolo Colon, who was very good in the 2nd half for them last year, but they should still have a good rotation. Javier Vazquez had a somewhat down year last year and still pitched 230 innings with a sub-4.00 ERA. Tony Armas also took a step backward last year, but he still is potentially a very good pitcher. Tomo Ohka went 13-8 with a 3.18 ERA in 193 innings last year and new arrival Orlando Hernandez is still a very capable starter.

All in all, it isn't a bad team - it just isn't a great one.

Fearless prediction:

The sun will rise in the east and set in the west, Vlad Guerrero will score 100 and drive in 100, Jose Vidro will hit .300 and Javier Vazquez will pitch 200 quality innings.

This is a decent team and the "core" of Vlad, Vidro, Wilkerson, Vazquez, Ohka, etc is very good, but there just isn't enough depth in the lineup or the bullpen for them to do anything more than what they did last year (~80 wins).



5) FLORIDA MARLINS

79-83 (.488) | 4th Place (23.0 GB)

699 Runs Scored (12th) | 763 Runs Allowed (12th)

I have always loved fantasy baseball, whether it was the roto leagues I was in a few years ago or the Diamond-Mind keeper leagues that I enjoy today. That said, the one thing I hate about fantasy baseball (or simulation baseball) is that even if you are right, you can still be wrong. Let me try to explain...

Last year at this time I took over an abandoned team in a Diamond-Mind keeper league. It was my first experience in such a league and the roster I took over wasn't all that promising. I decided that what I needed to do was find a few young players that were currently not all that well known or hyped, but that I felt could break out in a big way. Basically, I was looking for a cheap stock that I thought could turn into something down the road. One of the guys I felt this way about was Marlins' hurler A.J. Burnett.

He had been a pretty good prospect coming through the minors and had already pitched parts of 3 seasons in the majors at age 24. However, (prior to last year) his numbers weren't all that great. He had a career ERA of 4.18 and, despite his great "stuff," he wasn't even striking anyone out (only 6.6 Ks/9 IP). Still, I had seen him pitch a number of times and always liked what I saw and everything I read about him was very positive. So, I went out and traded for him.

Three-fourths of the way through last season, I looked like nothing short of a genius. On August 14th he pitched a complete-game shutout against the Giants, winning his 12th game of the year and dropping his ERA to 3.25. He was striking tons of people out and was establishing himself as one of the most promising young pitchers in baseball.

Just a few short days before he pitched that gem against San Francisco, I wrote my first ever entry on this blog. The subject was non other than A.J. Burnett. Here is what I wrote:

I just finished watching Marlins' ace A.J. Burnett improve to 11-7 by shutting out the St. Louis Cardinals.

Burnett has been one of baseball's top pitchers throughout the season and he was awesome tonight, but the way his manager, Jeff Torborg, is using him has me worried about his future. A.J. threw 128 pitches tonight in shutting out the Cards, which in itself is not really a bad thing.

But...

Last Saturday he threw 132 pitches in 8 innings against Montreal.

And for the season, he is averaging over 112 pitches per start.

All that, and he is only 25 years old.

According to Baseball Prospectus' "Pitcher Abuse Points" Burnett has been the 2nd most "abused" pitcher in all of baseball this season, behind only Randy Johnson. There is just no way that a 25 year old pitcher in his 2nd full season in the majors should be allowed to consistently throw that many pitches, start after start after start. The only starts in which Burnett throws less than 100 pitches are ones where he gets shelled.

Torborg and the Marlins have had plenty of opportunities to take Burnett out of a game that is already pretty much decided and save him a little stress on his young arm, but they rarely (if ever) choose to do that. Tonight was a perfect example of that:

Burnett finished off the Cards in the 8th inning with a 3-0 lead.

In the bottom of the inning the Marlins added another run to lead 4-0.

At that point, Burnett had allowed only 3 hits and had already thrown 112 pitches.

Instead of taking Burnett out of the game and letting the bullpen close out a 4 run lead, Burnett was left in and ended up throwing 16 more pitches, for a total of 128.

16 pitches may not seem like a whole lot, but consistently throwing 10 or 15 or 20 additional pitches in each start is a lot for a young pitcher.

Burnett has been great this year and he looks like he will be a stud for years to come. But the way he is being treated makes me think he is in line for some arm troubles.

I hope I am wrong.

Sadly, I was about as right as right can be.

A.J. Burnett went on the disabled list with a "bruised elbow" on August 19th, just 2 weeks after I wrote that entry about him and just 4 days after his shutout against the Giants. He ended up missing slightly less than a month of action and came back to appear in 2 games as a reliever, before finishing the year with 2 decent starts.

Fast forward to last week. I check RotoTimes.com every day for baseball injury news and A.J. Burnett's name popped up quite a few times:

March 15th: A.J. Burnett left Saturday's spring training game with tightness in his right forearm. The Marlins say that the problem is nothing serious, but Burnett spent time on the DL last August with an elbow injury.

March 17th: A.J. Burnett will throw lightly today to test his tight right forearm, according to the Miami Herald. If all goes well, Burnett will throw a normal bullpen session on Tuesday.

March 18th: A.J. Burnett will be examined by Dr. James Andrews on Wednesday after leaving his last spring start with tightness in his forearm, according to the AP. He had planned to play catch on Monday if he felt OK and was set to make his next spring start on Friday.

March 19th: A.J. Burnett will be shut down for 3-to-5 days could miss his opening day start because of an inflamed elbow, according to the AP. Dr. James Andrews examined Burnett on Wednesday and did not discover any ligament damage. Burnett was given a cortisone injection and will be re-evaluated after he is cleared to throw.

March 23rd: Jeff Torborg is leaning toward placing A.J. Burnett on the DL in the hopes the pitcher will be ready to go by the second series. Burnett is scheduled to test his sore elbow by throwing on the side tomorrow.

Now, for all I know, Burnett might just have a little problem, come back in 2 weeks and pitch 220 innings every single year for the next 15 seasons. However, if I could bet on such a thing, I would put quite a bit of money on A.J. Burnett suffering a serious injury and/or needing a serious surgery on his pitching arm/elbow/shoulder within the next 6 months or so, which brings me back to my original thought: Sometimes in fantasy baseball (and in real baseball), even when you're right, you're wrong.

I identified an underrated young player that I thought could become a star, I traded for him, he had a great season and, yet, this time next year, A.J. Burnett might be in the middle of a 12-month rehab plan for a torn something in his something.

I talk a lot about some organizations being "good" and some being "bad." But really, the line between the two isn't as defined as I often imply. Sure, I think Oakland is the best run organization in baseball, but they could very easily lose Tim Hudson or Barry Zito or Mark Mulder (or all 3) to a serious arm injury next month, while the Baltimore Orioles could go the next 10 years completely healthy. Still, there are some instances when that line of good and bad is incredibly well defined and so damn obvious it is almost criminal. A pretty good example of that would be the way Jeff Torberg and the Florida Marlins have handled A.J. Burnett.

I think it was obvious throughout most of last season that he has as much potential as any young pitcher in the world, but I fear he'll never get to realize it, through absolutely no fault of his own. Again, "I hope I am wrong" - but I doubt it.

Obviously this is supposed to be a preview/prediction about the Florida Marlins, but, quite frankly, I don't have that much to say about them.

If you really need some discussion of the 2003 Florida Marlins, check out this post from the day after they signed Pudge Rodriguez or this post from the day my computer broke and I ranted about their crappy outfield.

In short, I think the Marlins will be pitiful offensively this season. They will likely have the worst offensive outfield in all of baseball and a shortstop that can't hit either.

The lone bright spot for the organization is their young pitching. They have 3 potential aces in Burnett, Josh Beckett and Brad Penny. Of course, Burnett and Penny have already had a few injury problems (Beckett missed time last year too, but it was because of blisters). If you go back in time a couple of seasons and trade those 3 to the A's, I would feel a whole lot better about their futures and they could easily be talked about in the same manner Zito, Hudson and Mulder are right now.

Basically, the Marlins aren't only bad, they are actually sad and depressing. They have some amazing young talent, but some equally amazingly bad people in charge of things that will probably ruin it all.

Fearless Prediction:

The Marlins are a stone cold lock to lead all of baseball in stolen bases in 2003, which should at least be somewhat interesting (and frustrating for Marlins fans) to watch. They led the Majors with 177 steals last year and I wouldn't be shocked to see them steal 250+ in 2003.

To (sort of) quote the great Carl Spackler: "So they've got that going for them, which is nice."

Aside from that, they are going to lose a lot of 3-2 games and I think they will finish near the very bottom of the league in runs scored and somewhere near the middle in runs allowed. If they don't finish in 5th place, I will be shocked. And we should all probably say a prayer or two for the arms of their young pitchers.

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

March 20, 2003

I'm back!

My internet is working again! Yay!

I've been unable to do much of anything computer wise the last couple days and thus have been slacking off on my blogging duties. But no longer!

Here we go...

The Padres sent Bubba Trammell and Mark Phillips to the Yankees for Rondell White.

This strikes me as a really strange trade.

Bubba Trammell and Rondell White are, essentially, interchangable players.

Trammell has EqAs of .279, .277 and .270 the last three years. He is strictly a corner outfielder/DH type and would probably best be used as a strict platoon player, getting playing time against lefties, against whom he hit .295/.375/.485 over the past three years.

White has EqAs of .288, .301 and .237 the last three years. He is a pretty good fielder in left or right field and can handle centerfield if needed, but is extraordinarily injury-prone and coming off of a horrible season.

Basically, White is a better, more versatile player when healthy - but he is almost never healthy.

If I were a GM and you told me I could pick either Bubba Trammell or Rondell White to be my left fielder for the next couple of seasons, I would probably take White, but they are very close. And that is why this deal is strange to me.

The Padres and Yankees are swapping above-average outfielders of similar skill levels and ages. Yet the Yankees received a second player in the deal, left-handed starter pitcher Mark Phillips. The reason being given for the Padres including Phillips in the deal is that by taking on White and getting rid of Trammell (and his contract), the Padres will free themselves of $5 million dollars for next year.

White is a free agent after this year, while Trammell has another year on his contract for $4.75 mill and a $250,000 buyout. So they'll save $5 mill, but they will be without Trammell for the 2004 season. That's not a bad thing, since Trammell is basically just an average player, but is it worth giving up one of your top prospects for?

I really like Mark Phillips. He's a big left-handed starter with awesome stuff. Baseball America ranked him as the #3 prospect in the San Diego system and I would agree with that ranking.

Phillips was San Diego's #1 pick (ninth overall) in the 2000 draft. He runs his fastball up there in the mid-90s and also works with a great curveball that one of my readers who has seen him pitch quite a bit once described to me as "disgustingly filthy," which is about the highest compliment you can give a pitcher.

The caveat for all pitching prospects is that they need to stay healthy (which Phillips has done) and show they can pitch at the upper-levels of the minors (which Phillips has not done). Still, as far as pitchers that haven't pitched at Double-A yet go, I like Phillips quite a bit.

He struck out 9.5 batters per 9 innings last year at Single-A. His control was pretty bad at times (5.7 BB/9), but I don't worry about that as much in a 21 year old pitcher. Mark Phillips is still a long way from the Major Leagues and may never get there, but he is potentially a #1 or #2 starter at the Major League level and has awesome stuff and good results in the minors so far.

Basically the Padres sold him and an extra season of Bubba Trammell to the Yankees for $5 million dollars. I'm just not sure I would have been willing to do the same.

A side note on this trade: Fellow blogger Geoff Young of "Ducksnorts" has been singing the praises of Mark Phillips for quite a while now and I am sure he is upset by this trade, to say the least. Check out his blog for what is sure to be more on this trade.

I have talked before about how I think a good general manager/manager is able to look at a player and see what he can do and not what he can't. A player might be a horrible everyday starter, but can he hit lefties? Can he hit righties? Is he good defensively? For example: It is easy to say that Kevin Young stinks and, while that is true if he is getting 500 ABs a year, he could be a very effective half of a first base platoon. There are hundreds of players like that throughout baseball, in both the majors and minors.

One manager that I have been impressed by in this regard is Jim Tracy of the Dodgers. He did a marvelous job making Marquis Grissom a very valuable player over the last couple years by platooning him and he has worked wonders with several minor league veterans, like Dave Roberts and Paul LoDuca.

Well, apparently other people think the same thing about Jim Tracy. Fellow Baseball Primer author Eric Enders wrote a great article that examines Tracy's track record with unproven players, usually of the "veteran minor leaguer" variety. It's a really good article and I recommend you check it out.

Jim Tracy: A Dash of Genius, or a Lot of Luck? (by Eric Enders)

I know I have written about this subject enough already for several lifetimes, but since I last wrote about Johan Santana and Kenny Rogers, Johan has gone from asking to be traded to being happy with being put in the bullpen once again.

First, the anger:

"We'll see what my agent has to say," Santana said. "I want to be part of this team. I love this team — great teammates. But you have to look out for yourself, too. You have to take care of yourself, and if they're not going to do it, you have to find somewhere else."

"I know they're looking for a replacement (for injured starter Eric Milton), but to me it looks like I don't mean nothing to them...I feel screwed."

First of all, Johan should probably be told that if he "don't mean nothing to them," he, in fact, means something to them. Of course, that's beside the point. As you can probably guess, I almost passed out when I saw the headline, "Rogers' signing angers Santana, request for trade possible."

Johan gave me about a week to worry about it and now this is the new spin on the situation:

Time apparently was all Twins pitcher Johan Santana needed to heal his wounded ego.

Five days after saying he felt "screwed" by the team's decision to sign veteran Kenny Rogers to join the starting rotation, Santana settled back into his role as a set-up reliever by striking out five Boston batters over two innings during a 7-6 victory over the Red Sox on Tuesday at Hammond Stadium.

"I'm just looking for a chance to make the team, and right now I'm a part of the team. So somehow I've got to help the team," he said. "You just have to keep going, and keep my head up, and keep doing the same things I did last year."

I am sure Johan is still quite unhappy about not being in the rotation and I can't say that I blame him, since I am quite unhappy about it too. But it sounds like he "talked to his agent" and his agent told him to shut up and pitch, which is generally good advice. I am confident he'll get his chance to start before the year is up and he'll have a very good season. But Johan, please no more talk about trade requests, I don't think my heart can handle it again.

And finally...

If you haven't entered already and you are interested in doing so, this is your last chance:

Enter the 1st Annual Aaron's Baseball Blog Pre-Season Predictions Contest!

The deadline for entries is Monday, so if you want to do it, do it now. I'll be unveiling my predictions sometime next week.

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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