It’s Baseball, Ray

Is that Darth Vader? No. It's Terrance Mann.

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.” —Terrance Mann

That quote from James Earl Jones in the greatest sports film of all time (Field of Dreams) still gives me chills every time I hear it.

And as another baseball season approaches, I’m as excited as ever.

Perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve gotten older and grown a greater appreciation for the game my dad raised me to love, maybe it’s because I completed the last of my three fantasy baseball drafts Saturday, or perhaps it’s because of the unreasonable optimism I have for the 2010 Chicago White Sox, but I’m unusually giddy as I sit here getting ready to watch ESPN’s Sunday night broadcast of Red Sox-Yankees.

So what do I make of this season? It’s simple: Non-parity.

Baseball has been a game of parody ever since the Yankees’ original dynasty ended after the 2000 season. Since then, we’ve seen the Diamondbacks, Angels, Marlins, Red Sox (twice), White Sox, Cardinals and Phillies win the World Series before the Yankees reclaimed their crown last October.

But could parity be over? The Phillies have now been World Series participants for two consecutive seasons and seem to be overwhelming favorites to return this season. The Yankees are favored to get back to the World Series and, with the exception of a few, nearly every “expert” I’ve read has had some combination of the Red Sox/Yankees vs. the Cardinals/Phillies in the World Series.

In the same regard, it hasn’t been as easy for the small market, “moneyball” teams to win anymore. Sure, the Minnesota Twins are still annual contenders, but they just spent a boatload of money to keep Joe Mauer in town, and the original moneyball team, the Oakland Athletics, haven’t contended in years. Likewise, the Tampa Bay Rays have started spending their money a little more and the Florida Marlins have had trouble contending the National League East. So are the years of building a champion with cheap scrappers over? Hopefully not. But it’s seeming more and more possible.

But all arguments aside, it’s baseball season and that means two things: Another year of rooting for a White Sox Championship, and another year of enjoying the Cubs fail.

Is parity over? I hope not. But I think it might be. Here are my predictions on just about everything from the 2010 Major League Baseball season:

American League East

1. New York Yankees – It’s hard to imagine the best team in baseball from a year ago getting much worse given they didn’t lose anyone of any major significance (unless you consider Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon significant). Not only did the Yankees retain nearly all of their core contributors (Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Mariano Rivera, etc.) but they got worlds better defensively with the additions of Nick Johnson and Curtis Granderson. Granderson is an upgrade from Damon in every conceivable way, and Johnson (if he stays healthy) is great defensively at first base and can provide some pop as well. As long as everyone stays healthy, I can’t imagine any type of meltdown. The Yankees will rein supreme once again.

Curtis Granderson is a huge upgrade over Johnny Damon for the Yankees

2. Boston Red Sox – There’s no reason the Red Sox can’t flip-flop with the Yankees and take the division, but a lot of things need to go right for them. Last season, the Red Sox battled through a down year from Josh Beckett and injuries/inconsistencies from a plethora of players. Former American League MVP Dustin Pedroia didn’t play up to his potential (believe me, I know from a fantasy standpoint), but this season could be different with a full season of Victor Martinez and the additions of Adrian Beltre and John Lackey. I worry about Lackey living up to the hype playing under the pressure of the Boston spotlight, but Beltre is a great upgrade and should shore up third base defensively while hitting for power in a hitter’s ballpark. I can’t imagine the Red Sox not at least getting the AL’s Wild Card spot and they will challenge the Yankees throughout the season, but they just aren’t quite as deep as the Yankees to get over the hump.

3. Tampa Bay Rays – The biggest question mark about this year’s Rays team is the bullpen. They acquired former Atlanta Braves closer Rafael Soriano, but his durability is a question mark. Likewise, some of the stars that led them to the American League pennant, namely guys like Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, are another year older and you have to wonder if they can stay productive over the course of another season, especially for Crawford and his impending free agency. As always, there’s no shortage of young talent for the Rays and Evan Longoria will likely take another step forward in becoming the best third baseman in the league, but last season’s trade of Scott Kazmir leads to questions at the back end of the rotation. I see a lot of 10-9 and 13-11 scores in the future for the Rays.

4. Baltimore Orioles – The Orioles, believe it or not, are on the rise. Nobody’s expecting them to come out and contend in 2010, but they’re following the same pattern as the Rays in recent years: Stockpiling high draft picks and have an abundance of young talent waiting to breakout. It all came together for the Rays in 2007 when they went to the World Series, and as strange as it may sound, the Orioles might not be too far away from that point. Matt Weiters, Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman are just three young names that are expected to contribute this season and if you add them to the already-established Nick Markakis and Adam Jones, and things are looking up in Baltimore. Granted, they play in the AL East and have the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays to compete with, but it will be a positive year in Baltimore. Mark my words.

5. Toronto Blue Jays – The Blue Jays are a mess and could easily be the worst team in the American League this year, if not the entire league. They traded away Roy Halladay for several guys who are not expected to contribute for a couple of years, and their core group of players, Adam Lind and Travis Snider, aren’t exactly world-beaters. Not to mention the fact that their opening day starter, Shaun Marcum, didn’t throw ONE PITCH in 2009. Things definitely aren’t looking good in Toronto. It’s going to be a long year.

American League Central

1. Chicago White Sox – OK, so before you yell at me for being a stupid, biased homer, here me out. First, nobody can argue against the fact that the White Sox easily have the best starting rotation in the Central. Hell, an argument can be made that their rotation is the best in the whole American League. They have a perfect mix of veterans (Jake Peavy, Mark Buehrle), and young studs (John Danks, Gavin Floyd). And even if Freddy Garcia duplicates the 10+ ERA he posted in the spring during the regular season, young phenom Daniel Hudson is waiting in the minor leagues to take over the fifth starter spot. Likewise, the bullpen is as loaded as ever. Even if Bobby Jenks’ downward spiral continues as a closer, both Matt Thornton and J.J. Putz have the stuff to be a closer and Scott Linebrink will at least contribute during the first half of the season.

While the lineup is the biggest question mark, it reminds me eerily of the 2005 team. That year the team let Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Lee go and everyone was writing them off as being too weak. But Scott Podsednik and Jermaine Dye were perfect replacements for the style of baseball they wanted to play and those two were as key as anyone in them winning the World Series. This year, they have Juan Pierre (in the mold of ’05’s Podsednik) and the combination of Alex Rios and (don’t laugh) Andruw Jones provide stellar defense and the potential of a big bat in center field. While Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski are on the back end of their careers and Carlos Quentin’s health is always a question, Gordon Beckham will take over as the alpha dog of this team and is an absolute BEAST. Mark my words. He’ll be a top ten fantasy player by the end of the season. He’s going to have an incredible impact on this team and will finish in the top ten in MVP voting this season. Do I have a man-crush on Gordon Beckham? Maybe.

I may have a bit of a man-crush on Gordon Beckham.

The team everyone has been selling over the White Sox has been the Twins, and we’ll have more on them in a second.

2. Minnesota Twins – It’s really hard to pick against the Twins. After all, they’ve made the White Sox their whipping boys for a better part of the last decade. That being said, I’m picking against the Twins. Sure, they have Ron Gardenhire and all the so-called “piranhas” that Ozzie Guillen fears, but the team is too full of holes to ignore. Everyone knows about the loss of Joe Nathan and that’s impossible not to ignore. Aside from Mariano Rivera, Nathan has been the most consistent closer in all of baseball for the bast five-plus years, and it’s virtually impossible for Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier or whomever to adequately replace him. The Twins’ lineup is still anchored by Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, but once you get past them there are some big questions. How will J.J. Hardy adjust to playing in a far superior league? Is Orlando Hudson still as good as he used to be defensively? Why the heck does Nick Punto still have a job? Is there any proof that Delmon Young is actually alive?

The Twins’ rotation have a couple of high upside guys in Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey, but do you really want to go into war with those three over Peavy, Buehrle, Danks and Floyd? Additionally, how confident can they really be in Carl Pavano and the artist formerly known as Francisco Liriano?

Sure, the Twins annually prove doubters such as myself wrong, but I can’t help but do it. Put the White Sox on paper against the Twins on paper and it’s a no-brainer. And when the Twins are playing the Yankees in the ALDS this October, I’ll be eating these words.

3. Detroit Tigers – The Tigers are one of the toughest team for me to predict this season. With their starting rotation, I could easily see them winning the AL Central. Justin Verlander is a Cy Young candidate, Rick Porcello is one of the best young pitchers in baseball, and Max Scherzer is a strikeout machine who is deadly if he can ever figure out how to be a pitcher. But on the other end, they have rookies starting at second base and centerfield, traded Curtis Granderson, and their starting catcher is Detroit’s version of Delmon Young. But if Miguel Cabrera continues to hit, Magglio Ordonez’s corpse comes back to life and the rookies hit, watch out.

4. Kansas City Royals – I’ve been waiting for years for the Royals to finally make that next step toward being a successful franchise. Sometimes, they appear to be getting close, but then take a step backward. This year, the Royals are banking on some of their underachieving youngsters (Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Luke Hochevar) to finally break through. They know what they’ve got in Zack Greinke, but someone in the likes of Hochevar, Gil Meche, Kyle Davies, or SOMEONE else needs to step up in that rotation. I really like the acquisitions of Chris Getz, Scott Podsednik and Rick Ankiel, but for the love of God they HAVE to rid themselves of Yuniesky Betancourt if they want any hope competing.

5. Cleveland Indians – The Tribe got a boatload of young talent last year with the trades of veterans Victor Martinez and Cliff Lee. The problem is that most of that talent is still a little ways away from developing. Aside from Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera, the entire rest of the lineup is a question mark, as is the entire rotation, led by Jake Westbrook, who didn’t throw a pitch in 2009.

American League West

1. Texas Rangers – Yes, I’m a believer in this Texas squad. Everyone knows what this lineup is capable of and they will win a lot of games by themselves, but the rotation is the real question mark. Can Rich Harden re-acquire the magic he had in Oakland AND stay healthy? Can Scott Feldman duplicate the success he had in 2009? What about the rest of the rotation? I don’t know how good a lot of these guys can be, but I think they’ll be serviceable enough to keep the team in ballgames and let the lineup power home a lot of victories. I believe Chris Davis will have a comeback year. I believe Jarrod Saltalamacchia will play up to the potential he had as a hot Atlanta Braves prospect. I believe Vladamir Guerrero will have a career revival in a hitter’s ballpark. And yes, I believe the Los Angeles Angels’ rein over this division is finally over.

2. Los  Angeles Angels of Anaheim – Here’s my problem with the Angels. The trio of Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter and Hideki Matsui isn’t getting any younger. I think the year has finally come where age catches up to these three. I think Kendry Morales is being vastly overvalued by experts and fantasy owners alike, and I’m not confident that Brandon Wood will ever play at the level that made him one of the hottest prospects in the league a few years ago. The rotation has one stud in Jared Weaver, but nobody knows if Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders or Scott Kazmir will be in top form or even stay healthy. I never trusted Brian Fuentes in the bullpen, and I still don’t.

3. Seattle Mariners – I hate rating the Mariners this low. I really do. I think the Angels are locked into the two spot in this division, and the Mariners and Rangers will finish first and third, one way or the other. I’m a big fan of their acquisition of Cliff Lee and think Franklin Gutierrez is poised for a breakout year in the outfield. Ichiro is, well, Ichiro, and Milton Bradley will return to 2008 form in a no-pressure situation. The problems with this team are A) The rotation after Lee, Felix Hernandez, B) The middle infield (Jack Wilson, Jose Lopez), C) The catcher (Who the heck is Adam Moore?) But there is still a ton of upside on this team and I think they finish within five games of the division title at season’s end.

4. Oakland Athletics – As noted in the beginning section of this article, the “moneyball” era is dead. If nothing else, Billy Beane is dead. OK, not really (as far as I know), but the once-hailed genius just doesn’t seem to have it anymore when it comes to scouting young talent. Perhaps he just started to out-think himself? I don’t know. Either way, I don’t see one guy in that lineup from 1 through 9 who scares me, and nobody really knows whether Ben Sheets will pitch, not pitch, or his arm will fall off mid-pitch. One guy I AM sold on is Brett Anderson, who I think will emerge as an ace. But whether or not the Athletics can score 100 runs the entire season remains to be seen.

National League East

1. Philadelphia Phillies – It seems impossible to pick against the Phillies, the runaway favorite to win the National League pennant. The two-time defending NL champs return all their core players. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Jayson Werth are all back to solidify the most feared lineup in the National League and arguably the best lineup in all of baseball. Add to that the addition of Roy Halladay to an already solid rotation, and there’s a good chance the Phillies will have clinched the National League East by mid-July.

Roy Halladay may not lose a game for the Phillies.

2. Atlanta Braves – Fun piece of trivia courtesy of ESPN’s Jayson Stark: Who is the only team this season who’s cleanup hitter and closer were not on an opening day roster a year ago? The answer, as you would assume by the fact that I’m asking in this section, is the Braves. With Troy Glaus patrolling first base and Billy Wagner closing games at the end, it seems to be a senior citizens circuit around Atlanta these days. But at the same accord, these Braves are much improved with four quality starters (Derek Lowe, Jair Jurrjens, Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson), and a plethora of young talent (Martin Prado, Yunel Escobar, Matt Diaz, Jason Heyward). There’s no reason the Braves can’t be the frontrunners for the National League Wild Card and give the Phillies somewhat of a run for their money in the East. They might be a few years away from catching the juggernaut Phils, but they will make leaps and bounds this season.

3. Florida Marlins – If the Tigers are the American League’s toughest team to predict, the Marlins are the National League’s version of Detroit. Everyone knows about Florida’s propensity for developing young, hot-shot prospects, but every year there are questions as to how well these young guys will play and how they will produce. The rotation is the team’s strength, led by young fireballer Josh Johnson and a revitalized Ricky Nolasco. As far as the lineup goes, everyone knows how good Hanley Ramirez is and Dan Uggla has turned into a younger version of Adam Dunn, but what else do they have? The Marlins have been waiting for Cameron Maybin become the superstar they envisioned him as. Will he turn the corner this year? Can Chris Coghlan and Jorge Cantu duplicate their stellar 2009 seasons? These all appear unlikely, and while the Marlins have a good shot of staying in the NL Wild Card race, I can’t imagine them surpassing Atlanta with the Braves’ talent.

4. New York Mets – Maybe the best news for the Mets this season is that everyone expects them to suck. For the past five years the expectations in New York have been monumental, and every year they have fell short of expectations. But this year, the Mets are supposed to be bad so maybe they’ll turn things around. Not likely. In the rotation, once you get past Johan Santana the rest is questionable at best. While David Wright, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran still pose a formidable threat when on the field, it’s actually keeping them on the field that is the problem (Reyes and Beltran will both start the year on the disabled list). The addition of Jason Bay will help, but I just don’t see enough depth for this team to compete. Expect another down year for the Mets.

5. Washington Nationals – Nobody ever seems to actually know what the Nationals are trying to do. Three things will keep the team relevant this season: 1. When will Stephen Strasburg pitch in the majors? 2. Ryan Zimmerman is the best hitter in baseball you’ve never heard of. 3. Can the Blue Jays surpass the Nationals as the worst team in baseball? After those three storylines, there’s really nothing else. Trust me.

National League Central

1. St. Louis Cardinals – The Cardinals are the only team in the National League who can threaten to dethrone the Phillies. Last year’s they surprised everyone and ran away with the NL Central thanks to Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright miraculously staying healthy for an entire season. This year they will need the same to happen to repeat their dominance because once you get past the big two the rest of the rotation is frighteningly thin. Of course, they still have Albert Pujols and keeping Matt Holliday around for a full season will undoubtedly help. Likewise, I expect Colby Rasmus to finally emerge as a solid everyday player. The one weakness you might see in St. Louis is the bullpen. Ryan Franklin pitched out of his mind in 2009 and it remains to be seen if he can repeat that performance this season. If he can’t, they’re in trouble because once you get past Franklin the rest of the bullpen is very shaky. Even still, the Cardinals are easy favorites to repeat as NL Central Champions.

2. Chicago Cubs – Here’s me proving I’m not incredibly biased and can pick a team I hate more than AIDS to be competitive. The Cubs are poised for a bounce back year and will be in competition for the NL Wild Card right down to the wire. They underachieved last season thanks to an abundance of injuries and inconsistent play from superstars like Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano. I can’t imagine Soriano and Zambrano duplicating their 2009 seasons and, in case the injury bug bites the likes of Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee or whomever again, the Cubs added a lot of depth with additions like Marlon Byrd, Xavier Nady, Chad Tracy and Jeff Baker (who they traded for last season). The rotation is solid 1-4 and they will hope to get some production out of either Tom Gorzelanny or Carlos Silva in the five spot. I don’t know if the Cubs are quite good enough to compete with the Cardinals this season, but they will remain competitive and don’t be surprised for them to snag the NL Wild Card spot.

3. Milwaukee Brewers – I was tempted to go out on a limb here and pick the Reds to finish in third, but went with the Brewers for a couple of reasons. One is that they can easily out-slug any team in the National League with the exception, perhaps, of the Phillies. And while their starting pitching is a weakness, it’s at least good enough to keep the team in contention. Everyone knows how good Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder is, and I think the Carlos Gomez acquisition was sneaky good. Gomez never lived up to his potential in Minnesota, but is a perfect fit for National League baseball. He will be an on-base and steal machine for the Brewers. The reason they will finish in third is because, quite simply, they just aren’t as good as the Cardinals or Cubs. Their pitching, as I said before, is pretty weak. The bullpen is old, and I don’t see how out-slugging teams night in and night out will work in the long run.

4. Cincinnati Reds – The Reds intrigue the hell out of me. I really like their rotation because I think Aaron Harang will pitch more like 2008 and less like 2009. I think Bronson Arroyo is serviceable, Johnny Cueto is a stud, and Homer Bailey has a boatload of potential. And if and when they get Edinson Volquez back, look out. The lineup is led by Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips, but they’re bogged down by veteran wash-ups like Scott Rolen, Orlando Cabrera, Ramon Hernandez and Jonny Gomes. I like the Reds because of pitching, but think they’re in an identity crisis right now. They need to quit pretending their contenders by signing these washed up veterans and go completely young. Once they do that, they’ll be in line to make a run in the NL Central.

5. Houston Astros – Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee certainly aren’t getting any younger for the Astros, and while Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez are a solid 1-2 punch at the front end of the rotation while healthy, Houston seems to be fading in recent years and I don’t believe they have enough depth to compete in the NL Central. Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn are fine players in the outfield, but they have questions at shortstop, catcher, the back end of the rotation and the bullpen. The Astros are just a few years removed from being annual contenders in the National League, but the time is nearing where they will have to start unloading their expensive veterans and rebuilding for a hopefully better tomorrow.

6. Pittsburgh Pirates – The Pirates finally made the full-on leap to rebuilding mode last season when they traded away everyone but the bat boy. They have a ton of young talent but are a few years away from contending. The one thing that I look for in Pittsburgh this year is to see when Pedro Alvarez gets a shot in the majors and how well he produces, but it will undoubtedly still be a long year for Pirates fans.

National League West

1. San Francisco Giants – In case you haven’t figured out my trend throughout this unnecessarily long blog post, I love pitching and I’m picking the teams with the best pitching rotations. That being said, there is no rotation in baseball as scary as the Giants’ and they will lead the team to the West Title. Everyone knows how good Tim Lincecum is, but few know that Matt Cain was the “next big thing” in San Francisco even before Lincecum. I think Cain makes the leap this year and Lincecum-Cain become the best one-two punch in baseball alongside Hernandez-Lee in Seattle and Halladay-Hamels in Philadelphia. Aside from the pitching, San Francisco has also assembles an interesting lineup that is veteran-led but has a nice mix of youngsters as well. The additions of Mark DeRosa and Edgar Renteria fit will into a lineup with young power hitter Pablo Sandoval, proven-winner Aaron Rowand and catalyst Freddy Sanchez. The Giants are expected to be good this year, but I think they will win the West and make a run at the NL pennant, reaching the level of the Cardinals and Phillies, or at least pretty damn close to it.

2. Colorado Rockies – The Rockies have become a trendy “sleeper” pick in the National League and I can sort of understand why. Colorado has a sneaky good rotation with flamethrowers Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge De La Rosa, and their lineup, led by Troy Tulowitzki and the ageless Todd Helton. I really have no qualms with the Rockies other than their questionable bullpen (I’m not sold on the health/effectiveness of Houston Street), but I just think the Giants are that much better. The Rockies will contend the whole season and this race will likely come down to the wire, but the Rockies will be in the hunt for a Wild Card berth as well.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers – The Dodgers have been on the verge of making the World Series for the past couple of seasons, but I think this season they take a step back. They still have most of the players who got them to back-to-back NL West Titles in Matt Kemp, James Loney and, yes, Manny Ramirez, but I just don’t feel like their pitching staff is strong enough. Chad Billingsley has strikeout power but has struggled with consistency throughout his career. I still wonder if Clayton Kershaw will become the ace the Dodgers project him as, and after those two I am not at all sold on Hideki Kuroda, Vincente Padilla or Charlie Haeger. The Dodgers will likely remain competitive throughout 2010, but don’t expect their rein over the NL West to continue any longer.

4. San Diego Padres – I knew the Padres were bad, but didn’t realize how bad they were until I looked and saw that David Eckstein is their starting second baseman and Jon Garland is their opening day starter. Sure, they’re stockpiling young talent, but the Padres are really, really bad. It will be a three-team race between them, Toronto and Washington for the worst record in baseball this season.

Recap

Division Winners

AL: Yankees, White Sox, Rangers

NL: Phillies, Cardinals, Giants

Wild Card Race

AL: 1. Red Sox, 2. Twins, 3. Mariners

NL: 1. Rockies, 2. Cubs, 3. Braves

Playoffs

ALDS: Yankees over White Sox; Red Sox over Rangers

NLDS: Cardinals over Rockies; Giants over Phillies

ALCS: Yankees over Red Sox

NLCS: Cardinals over Giants

World Series: Yankees over Cardinals

Season Awards

MVP: AL – Mark Teixeria; NL – Albert Pujols

Cy Young: AL – Justin Verlander; NL – Roy Halladay

Rookie of the Year: AL – Scott Sizemore; NL – Jason Heyward

Albert Pujols as NL MVP? Duh!

I know, I know, little drama in these predictions. “Yankees over Cardinals” doesn’t exactly set the world on fire with drama, nor do my MVP picks, but that’s the theme of the year for me. Parity is over. Expect the expected.

But then again, what do I know? Every baseball season brings a new level of suspense and drama that we never see. Hopefully we see more excitement this year. I expect it, and I think it’s bound to happen. But whatever happens, I’m excited.

Play ball.

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