Thursday, March 27, 2008

NL Preview & Sox Opening Series

So I'm a couple of days late on my promised NL preview. Sorry, don't hate me. I want to touch on a few other things to so here is the breakdown of this blog entry:

Part 1 - Quick take-away from the Sox two opening games
Part 2 - NL Preview

Part 1 - The Sox Opener

It is waaaaaay too early to draw any real definitive conclusions on the season, but I do think these two points bear mentioning:

1) Manny is clearly dialed in. Given his propensity for slow starts and all his offseason talk about contentment, wanting to play forever, etc, etc you cannot take this to be anything but a truly awesome sign. Will we see him and Papi combine for 85/280? Sure looks possible don't it.

2) The biggest elephant in the room for the Sox that nobody wants to talk about is the fact that two of their top 3 pitchers (Dice-K and Lester) require acts of god to make it through 5 innings in under 100 pitches. Look, I know pitch count is not the be-all-and-end-all but Lester since Day One in the bigs has been a 20-25 pitch an inning guy and Dice-K still seems to have the maddening habit of either dominating innings or letting five or so guys reach base while throwing 35 pitches. Because of these traits, the likelihood of these guys pitching deep into game consistently is not good. Therefore the tax on the bullpen which will be applied from the second and third starters will be significant which puts even greater pressure on the four and five guys to pitch six or seven each night and quite frankly that is kind of scary. Most teams - Red Sox included - are built to get seven out of the top guys on the staff and hope for six out of the bottom guys. A staff built around one consistent deep in the game threat (Beckett) and four other five to six inning guys is asking for trouble down the road because by August the bullpen will be shot. I'm not saying that this is a shoo-in to happen, but it certainly has to be considered the number one concern for Boston, especially when starting pitching is supposed to be a strength.

(And is there really anything more boring/frustrating than watching these guys pitch into deep count after deep count? You can take the twenty minute half innings to an extent in the playoffs but during a game in April...painful.)

Part 2 - NL Preview

NL MVP (Bandwagon Pick) - David Wright, NYM

Pretty tough to argue here right? The Mets will be the team everybody is watching in the NL this year thanks to last year's historic collapse and the Johan Santana addition. If they do win their division then the main reason why - offensively at least - will be David Wright. Plus he's a great defensive third baseman and a 30/30 guy to boot. Honestly, I would be absolutely shocked if the Mets win the NL East and David Wright does not win the MVP.

NL MVP (Neil's Pick) - Hanley Ramirez, Florida

Honestly, it's tough to pick against Wright. Part of me wanted to go with Chase Utley because if the Phillies are in it this year, he'll be a major reason why, and because over the last two years the other two main cogs in Philly's Big Three - Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins - have each won MVPs so maybe now it is Utley's turn. In the end I went with Hanley mainly because if the Marlins can somehow manage to win 75-80 games and Hanley has 35 homers and 50 steals from the shortstop position, he'd kind of have to be an MVP candidate right? MVPs from third or fourth place teams are tough, but I could see Hanley putting together one of those years that are SO good, you can't help but give them their props.

NL MVP (Sleeper Pick) - Aramis Ramirez, Chicago Cubs

Right now the Cubs are the presumptive favorites to win the NL Central. Last year they won the NL Central without big seasons from Derrek Lee or Alfonso Soriano. This year I think one if not both of them will rebound. Plus they have that Japanese Guy who they brought over who is supposed to be good and there are the daily rumors that Neil Williams Fantasy Man Crush of 2007, Brian Roberts is en route as well. Looks like a pretty good lineup to me and I think the main benefactor will be Aramis Ramirez. Honestly, there is an outside shot that he could drive in 140 this year and if he does that and the Cubs win the NL Central, I can all but promise you that he wins the MVP.

NL MVP (Super Sleeper Pick) - Matt Kemp, LAD

This sounds like complete lunacy. Consider this though; the Dodgers should be in contention all year in the NL West. Assuming they do this, their young studs need to step up. From all I have read, the one with the most upside is Matt Kemp. Now, if Kemp puts the Dodgers on his back in September and carries them to a division crown in September all while finishing the year with a .320/30/110 line then he certainly could steal the MVP from a more deserving candidate. I'm not saying I'd bet my life on this or anything, but this is a Super Sleeper Pick and as such requires a few leaps of faith.

NL Cy Young (Bandwagon Pick) - Johan Santana, NYM
Kind of a no-brainer right? The AL's best pitcher since 2004 moves to one of the best teams in the weaker league and seems ready to blaze through the competition. If Santana is healthy then there is really no reason why he should not cruise to this. If Santana is not completely healthy and all that talk about his possibly hurt shoulder or elbow and his lackluster last two months of last season is actually legit, then things might not go so swimmingly. Let's also not forget the last time a pitcher of Santana's ilk switched leagues to a New York team. Remember the Randy Johnson experience for the Yankees? Not too sweet right? And remember all the hype of him winning 25 games prior to the 2005 season? Exactly. I'm not saying that the situations are the same - Santana is younger for one and secondly he is downgrading from AL to NL unlike Johnson who upgraded - but I'm just providing a bit of a reality check to all the people who seem to be already handing him the Cy Young.

NL Cy Young (Neil's Pick) - Jake Peavy, San Diego

Jake Peavy is the incumbent "Best Pitcher in the NL" and until Johan Santana actually takes that title from him, I am sticking with Peavy. Plus, let me just reiterate that according to ESPN's Buster Olney there were a bunch of scouts legitimately scared about Santana's performance at the end of last year and feel their could be a hidden injury there. Granted this is all just speculation, but I'm just saying....

NL Cy Young (Sleeper Pick) - Aaron Harang, Cincinnati

The Reds have been getting some buzz as a surprise team and if they make some noise this year, inevitably Harang - second only in K's to Jake Peavy in the NL the last two years - the ace of the staff will get some pub. If you combine that publicity with maybe 18 wins, 215 K, and an ERA in the low 3s then you are absolutely looking at a guy who can win it. And will voters give him bonus points for calling one of the most extreme hitters parks in MLB home? I say they will and they should. So there you go.

NL Cy Young (Super Sleeper Pick) - Ben Sheets, Milwaukee
OK so the guy has not been healthy since 2004, I'll give that to you. BUT, when he was healthy way back when he posted a 2.70 ERA and struck out 264 in 237 innings. The last few years have not been total busts for him either as he has been able to keep his ERA in the mid-threes. Sure his K rate has dropped but he's been hurt. Now, if the guy was a creaky veteran I would be going nowhere near this pick, but the fact is that he turns only 30 in July and he is playing on a team that should score runs. If he regains at least some of his mojo from years past and wins close to 20 - a possibility if he can make 32 starts (big if) - then he is right in the conversation and maybe the nice story puts him over the top.

NL Surprise Team (Positive) - Florida Marlins (82 wins)

In 2006 the Marlins somehow managed to win 80 games when they were supposed to be awful and then last year they reverted to form a bit - thanks in large part to a rash of injuries to their pitching staff - winning just 70 games. This year, Rob Neyer and Buster Olney have been really talking up the Reds as potential sleepers this year. Quite frankly, I love their reasoning - some young pitching that could breakout (Johnny Cueto and maybe Homer Bailey) plus a couple of young offensive A-listers that could be difference makers (Joey Votto, Jay Bruce) to go with an established number one starter in Aaron Harang and offensively Brandon Phillips, Adam Dunn, and maybe even Edwin Encarnacion. But, I don't want to side with ESPN just because that is too easy. Instead, I am choosing the Marlins and here is why:

1) They arguably have the most dynamic offensive player in the NL in Hanley Ramirez.

2) Beyond Hanley they still have plenty of other quality offensive players in Josh Willingham, Dan Uggla, Jeremy Hermida, Mike Jacobs, and they may get a mid-season infusion from former Tigers super prospect, Cameron Maybin who was acquired in the Miguel Cabrera deal. Right there you have five and maybe six if Maybin develops quality offensive players in their lineup. Sure, beyond Hanley there is no star power or superstar potential there, but a good five or six man lineup in the NL is certainly acceptable.

3) Their pitching really does not worry me. Sure it is a bunch of re-treads with the exception of Andrew Miller, another highly regarded prospect gained in the Cabrera deal but as the Nationals proved the last few years playing in RFK, an enormous ballpark can mask bad pitching.

OK so my logic is kind of awful because a team should not conceivably improve a year after getting rid of a player of Miguel Cabrera's caliber while not adding a sufficient replacement, but I have a hunch here and I'm going to go with it. I'm not putting them in the World Series or anything, just saying they'll win 82 games.

NL Surprise Team (Negative) - Colorado Rockies (78 wins)

It was tough for me to find a team in the NL to slap this moniker on just because beyond the Mets and the Cubs there really are not any teams out there with potentially outsized expectations. The Mets could be a big disappointment if they sustain a major injury to Pedro or Johan but it is not really fair to a) assume that or b) count that against them because a major injury to any contender's top of the rotation guys puts them in a massive hole. As for the Cubs, they seem to me like the team with the most potential in the NL - beyond even the Mets - just because they have the makings of one of those staffs that does not look good on paper but somehow manages to compete and win a whole lot just like the staffs of the 2005 White Sox or the 2007 Angels. Plus, I think their offense is going to be great, especially if they can bring Brian Roberts on board. Because of that, those two teams are ruled out in my mind. I think they'll both be pretty to really good.

Without another good fit for this I decided to throw the Rockies in here. Contrary to what would seem to be logic, the Rockies actually rode their pitching to the NL crown last year posting the best second half ERA in the National League and allowing only 17 runs in the 7 games they played - and won - in the playoffs leading up to the World Series. This is all well and good but I just don't buy that their pitching will be that good again. I knew the Sox had the World Series in the bag last year when in Game One they showed a picture of Colorado's "ace" Jeff Francis who looked more like an IT guy than the ace of a World Series team. Meanwhile, you really can't argue that Josh Beckett does not look the part. Once I saw that contrast I knew the Series was done - well maybe not completely because I am still very much a paranoid Red Sox fan. Either way, the bottom line is that I don't think Colorado's starters can duplicate last year's success and if that is the case then they are back to the 75-80 win mediocrity which their franchise has been marred in more or less since Day One.

Playoff Teams
Chicago Cubs (NL Central Winner, Best Record)
NY Mets (NL East Winner)
LA Dodgers (NL West Winner)
Atlanta Braves (Wild Card)

Cubs over Braves
Dodgers over Mets


Dodgers over Cubs

And that is the NL for you. Talk to you soon.

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