Sure, there’s some tarnish on America’s pastime. But the 2008 season promises plenty of drama (the good kind) to help restore Major League Baseball’s glow.
MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL took a fastball to the ribs during what was possibly its worst off-season ever, what with the release of the Mitchell Report and the growing taint of the steroids scandal. But armed with fresh optimism, which infects the sport’s supporters every spring (even Tampa Bay Rays fans), it’s time for everybody to finally get back to doing what they do best: playing the game. Happily, especially in the wake of a massively undignified off-season, the 2008 campaign is rife with potential plotlines.
There’s a chance we’ll be throwing around the D word, dynasty, with regard to the Boston Red Sox -- a proposition that was once as unlikely as snow is in Guyana. A few hundred miles south of Beantown, the New York Yankees will be initiating a new manager, Joe Girardi, during their last campaign in fabled Yankee Stadium, which will get a classy send-off in the form of the 2008 All-Star Game.
The National League West, with the injections of new Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre off the field and new Arizona Diamondbacks hurler Dan Haren on it, could prove to be the game’s most competitive division. Monster arm/free-agent-to-be C.C. Sabathia could be dealt if the Cleveland Indians get off to a slow start, just as, not long before spring training, the Minnesota Twins shipped their monster arm/free-agent-to-be, Johan Santana, to the New York Mets. Manager Tony La Russa could finally wear out his welcome in St. Louis, while his counterpart in Atlanta, Bobby Cox, could depart of his own volition at season’s end.
Frankly, we’re giddy just thinking about it all. Let the games begin.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Last September’s collapse wasn’t pretty, but the Mets boast a solid everyday core (3B David Wright, SS Jose Reyes, and CF Carlos Beltran) and two 26-year-old strikeout pitchers (RHP John
If 3B Chipper Jones stays healthy -- he hasn’t played 150 games since 2003 -- this offense will mash the competition. As this is the final year of manager Bobby Cox’s contract, the Braves are a sentimental pick. Even in that context, the decision to bring LHP Tom Glavine home feels a little desperate.
They have oodles of frontline talent (1B Ryan Howard, 2B Chase Utley, SS Jimmy Rollins) but no rotation or bullpen depth. How will newly acquired closer Brad Lidge handle the Philly boobirds?
They smartly spent the off-season buying low on toolsy outfielders (CFs Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes) rather than addressing their pitching deficit in a seller’s market. With their shiny new stadium, they won’t be able to fly under the radar much longer.
By trading 3B Miguel Cabrera and LHP Dontrelle Willis, they’ve thrown up the white flag until at least 2010. The owners don’t care about fielding a winning team. The fans don’t show up. Why bother?
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
They snagged the one free agent -- lefty RF Kosuke Fukudome, an on-base-percentage machine -- who fits their lineup just perfectly. They still have questions up the middle, though.
They’re positioned to contend for several years, courtesy of young mashers like 1B Prince Fielder and LF Ryan Braun. It’d help if ace RHP Ben Sheets could stay healthy for more than four consecutive starts.
Too soon to expect greatness? Maybe. The franchise would be wise to closely monitor new manager Dusty Baker’s usage of promising young arms like that of RHP
There’s a nice righty pop in the lineup now with the addition of SS Miguel Tejada, but the starting rotation and bullpen lack depth. Beware the huge defensive downgrade at shortstop.
It looks ugly on paper -- declining vets at 2B, 3B, and CF, and only one reliable starter -- but manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan do their best work on the fl y. Plus, 1B Albert Pujols makes any lineup look better.
This team has two promising young starters in RHP Ian Snell and LHP Tom Gorzelanny but little else. Fantasybaseball general managers who point to the Pirates and say “I could do better” have a legitimate point.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
They won 90 games last year despite once being outscored by 20 runs, but the development of RF Justin Upton and SS Stephen Drew should prevent a repeat of the latter. Besides, RHP Micah Owings hits better than half the game’s catchers and middle infielders.
Forget the additions of CF Andruw Jones and skipper Joe Torre. Key to the season’s outcome will be whether kids like 1B James Loney, C Russell Martin, and RF Matt Kemp are ready to carry a winning team.
Boy, that outfield sure looks punchless. On the other hand, the Padres haven’t fielded a big-slugging team in years but always manage to contend. Having RHPs Jake Peavy and Chris Young atop the rotation probably has something to do with that.
I’m not saying that their fabulous late-season run to the 2007 World Series was a fluke, but, well, I don’t know how to finish that thought. Expect some regression now that opponents are paying attention.
Last season, they barely scored any runs -- and that was with LF Barry Bonds in the lineup. Pity the poor pitchers, especially aces-in-waiting Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum: Anytime they give up more than three runs, they’re going to lose.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Dynasty? They won’t get as much from C Jason Varitek and 3B Mike Lowell, but the kids -- CF Jacoby Ellsbury and 2B Dustin Pedroia -- should make up the difference. Look for RHP Clay Buchholz to take the next step toward acedom.
This is a team built to annihilate
In the National League, they’d be a pennant favorite, with the trio of RHPs Roy Halladay/A.J. Burnett/Dustin McGowan atop the rotation. In the big-boy league, they can’t hope for much more than a few games above .500.
As witnessed by the deals in which they secured promising young arms in return for their high-talent, lowcharacter outfielders, the Rays (no longer demonic) finally get it. They’ll contend in 2009.
Trading SS Miguel Tejada was the first step in admitting that a comprehensive rebuilding effort is long overdue. And then LHP Erik Bedard was shipped to
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
The only fl aw is the absence of a corner-outfield slugger. LHP C.C. Sabathia heads a staff deep in live arms, even if RHP Joe Borowski isn’t exactly a sure thing in the ninth. Another showdown with the Red Sox is looming.
With the additions of 3B Miguel Cabrera and SS Edgar Renteria, the Tigers are a devastating offensive team. They’ll miss injured RHP Joel Zumaya in the late innings, though, and it’s anybody’s guess whether right-handed starter Jeremy Bonderman will rebound.
Which will hurt more: the loss of ace left-hander Johan Santana (to the Mets) or the Twins’ inability to produce runs? If 1B Justin Morneau and C Joe Mauer don’t return to 2006 form, this could get ugly.
Adding RF Jose Guillen for $36 million has bought the franchise more “See? We’re trying now” goodwill with the fans. But the young arms lag behind the lineup, which is anchored by Guillen, 3B Alex Gordon, and 1B Billy Butler.
They’re a curious case in that they return just enough veteran power (DH Jim Thome, 1B Paul Konerko, RF Jermaine Dye) to be interesting, if everybody stays healthy. But who gets on base in front of the mashers?
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
The acquisition of free-agent CF Torii Hunter will protect RF Vlad Guerrero in the lineup somewhat, but the last thing the Angels needed was yet another walk-resistant hitter. Still, a deep pitching staff equips them to win lots of 3–2 contests.
Last year’s playoffs flirtation obscured the fact that they trotted out below-average players at three of four infield positions; they won’t get away with it again. Though the acquisition of LHP Erik Bedard should shore up the rotation quite nicely.
Even after dealing ace RHP Dan Haren, the A’s have to be taken seriously as a contender. Why? Because they catch the ball and get on base, which is what winning teams do. See, baseball isn’t complicated.
They’re a devastating offensive team at home and a half-okay one on the road, with pitching that simultaneously inspires pity and horror. You could’ve written this same thing about the Rangers before each of the last three seasons.
NL Division Series: Arizona over New York, Chicago over Los Angeles
AL Championship Series: Boston over Cleveland
NL Championship Series: Arizona over Chicago
World Series: Boston over Arizona