Monday, February 14, 2011
One question for each of the 30 teams
By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine
Spring training is about answering questions. Here are 30 of them, one per team (in alphabetical order by division).
American League East
Baltimore Orioles: Is this the year they finish .500?
They have added a new left side of the infield (Mark Reynolds and J.J. Hardy), strengthened their bullpen (Kevin Gregg and others), signed a first baseman (Derrek Lee) and a DH (Vladimir Guerrero).
They scored the second-fewest runs in the American League last year, and didn't have anyone with as many as 77 RBIs. Guerrero drove in 115 runs last season, and he gives the Orioles a presence that they didn't have in 2010. And, by signing Guerrero, the Orioles will move Luke Scott to left field. That sets up a scenario in which it's at least possible that Scott or Felix Pie could be traded for a starting pitcher. But more important than all that, the players are listening to manager Buck Showalter's message, and are aware of him at all times, as he is of them. This team played really well for Showalter the last two months of last season. A .500 record in 2011 is possible.
The Red Sox have a great lineup with the additions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford and presumably with better health, and you have to think their rotation will be better than last year.
They have also upgraded in the bullpen, but the closer role is still in question. Papelbon can be a free agent after the season and, chances are, this will be his last year in Boston. Logically, if he has a great year, he will be the closer all season. If he or the team labors, perhaps he will be traded to a contender down the stretch, allowing young Daniel Bard to close, with help from Bobby Jenks. Trading Papelbon before the season seems unlikely.
The inability to sign free agent Cliff Lee and the retirement of Andy Pettitte has left this rotation in peril. And remember, Yankees starters weren't that great last year, posting the 10th-best ERA (4.35) in the league, and tying for the fewest complete games (three).
A.J. Burnett is back as the third starter, and he was more like a fifth starter at the end of last year. Bidding for the fourth and fifth starter jobs are, among others, young Ivan Nova, old (37) Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Sergio Mitre and Mark Prior. Colon hasn't pitched in the major leagues since July 24, 2009, Prior hasn't pitched in the majors since Aug. 10, 2006. Garcia, 34, offers hope given that he won 12 games last year for the White Sox, but injuries have limited him to 17 wins in the past four years. If things don't go well early, the Yankees will make a major move for a starting pitcher. But it's hard to trade for a quality starter these days.
Last year, Rays relievers led the league in saves (51), ERA (3.33) and batting average against (.228). With setup man Joaquin Benoit and closer Rafael Soriano, the Rays owned the eighth and ninth innings, outscoring their opponents 174-97 in those two innings, by far the biggest run differential in the major leagues. But Benoit signed with the Tigers, Soriano signed with the Yankees, and Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Randy Choate and Chad Qualls are gone, too, leaving the Rays' bullpen in big trouble.
This is what happened to them in 2009 -- the year after they made the World Series -- their bullpen let them down, and they finished 19 games out of first place. For now, the Rays really don't have a closer -- Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta will battle for the job -- they won't have J.P. Howell (shoulder) until June and they likely won't give rookie Jake McGee the closer job without a little more time in the minor leagues.
Toronto Blue Jays: Is this team headed in the right direction?
Absolutely. They are rebuilding the organization through the draft, through scouting and player development, looking everywhere for athletes with big upside.
The dumping of Vernon Wells' contract on the Angels is another step in that youth movement, which won't help them in the standings this year, but will help them get Jose Bautista signed long-term, and will give them the financial flexibility to make them better in the long term. New manager John Farrell will be right in the middle of all of this. He is a very smart guy.
American League Central
Bobby Jenks was very good for several years, but it was time to move on for him and the White Sox. Now they have several closing options; the best two are power left-handers Matt Thornton and Chris Sale.
Thornton saved eight games last year, and struck out 81 in 60 2/3 innings. Sale, who was drafted in June, is 6-foot-6, throws 100 mph and struck out 32 in 23 1/3 innings last year. This team can win the AL Central with the improvements it made, and with a better bullpen. Thornton, Sale and the rest of the 'pen give the White Sox hope.
In 2006, Sizemore, then 23, played in 162 games, had an OPS of .907, had 53 doubles, 28 home runs and 22 stolen bases. His numbers have since gone up and down, but mostly down, especially the past two seasons when he was limited to 106 games played, then 33 in 2010, because of a knee injury.
Sizemore's knee supposedly is healed, and he's expected to play in exhibition games by mid-March. The Indians say they have no interest in trading him. It will be interesting to see what Sizemore, now 28, can do with healthy legs. And if he returns close to the form he displayed in 2006, it'll be interesting to see how many teams call to ask about his availability.
Detroit Tigers: How committed are they to winning?
Completely. Owner Mike Ilitch isn't getting any younger; all he wants now is to win a world championship, no matter the cost. The Tigers overpaid in the offseason for setup man Joaquin Benoit (if he's as good as he was last year, they will have a terrific bullpen) and DH/catcher Victor Martinez, but the Tigers badly needed a bat, and Martinez is a perfect fit.
Plus they re-signed outfielder/DH Magglio Ordonez. The Tigers are going for it. From all indications, if they need another player at the trading deadline, they'll make that deal, too.
The Royals have the best prospects in baseball, so say scouts across the game and many others. They are everywhere: third baseman Mike Moustakas, first baseman Eric Hosmer, catcher turned outfielder Wil Myers, second baseman Christian Colon and left-handed pitchers Mike Montgomery, Danny Duffy and John Lamb, to name a few. Moustakas may be ready by midseason, but the frustrated fans in Kansas City will want to see these new guys sooner rather than later.
The Royals rushed Alex Gordon to the majors, and he hasn't figured it out four years later, so chances are they won't rush the kids.
On July 7 last year, Morneau was kneed in the head while sliding into second base, suffered a concussion and hasn't played since. GM Bill Smith said that Morneau is making "good progress,'' but he will brought along carefully in spring training. Concussions are a serious matter in all arenas, especially in sports, especially in baseball. It is the hardest game in the world to play even when everything is working properly in your head, but it is simply impossible to play -- and extremely dangerous -- if anything is spinning in your head.
Morneau was hitting .345 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs -- an MVP candidate -- when he got hurt last year. The Twins played amazingly well without him, but they will need him to be at full strength to win a much improved American League Central this year. And we won't know everything we need to know about his condition until he plays a bunch of games in the spring.
American League West
The Angels scored 202 fewer runs last year than in 2009, an enormous drop. The return of first baseman Kendry Morales from a broken leg will really help, but not getting either Carl Crawford or Adrian Beltre in free agency will really hurt.
Vernon Wells will be an upgrade offensive, but not at $21 million a year, and not if he doesn't hit left-handers better than he did last year. Offensive questions remain at third base, left field and catcher.
That's a stretch, but the A's were very active this winter by acquiring useful players. With the additions of Hideki Matsui, David DeJesus and Josh Willingham, they should score more runs. And with the additions of Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour, the bullpen should be loaded. And the starting staff is filled with young, talented arms. It's easy to overlook the A's, but that would be a big mistake to do that.
Seattle Mariners: Are they any better offensively?
They can't get worse. The M's scored 100 fewer runs than any AL team in 2010, 346 fewer than the Yankees. The Mariners didn't even reach base 30 percent of the time, the worst OBP in the league by far.
DH Jack Cust and catcher Miguel Olivo will add some pop, but not enough to improve a team OPS of .637 -- no AL team was under .700 last season.
Texas Rangers: Did they mess too much with a pennant-winner?
Adrian Beltre had a terrific 2010, and is way better than Michael Young defensively at third base, but now Young wants to be traded rather than be the Rangers' DH.
"Why would they do that to such a pro?" one GM asked. "Wouldn't they be better moving Young to second and making [Ian] Kinsler the DH, [for] just chemistry's sake?" Maybe they could do that, but Kinsler is a better defensive player than Young is. The Rangers are also considering moving closer Neftali Feliz, the 2010 rookie of the year, to the rotation. He might be better off there in the long run, but in the short term, will that have a negative effect on the bullpen?
National League East
All signs point toward yes, but a big test will be the first time he takes ground balls at third base in Florida. If the Braves are going to make it back to the playoffs, they are going to need Jones at his best.
It was shown in the postseason last year what a weak club offensively the Braves were without Jones. With a healthy Chipper, with Dan Uggla at second base, and if rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman is as good as everyone says he is, the Braves could go back to the playoffs.
This is a bigger move than his switch two years ago from third base to left field, but he handled that beautifully, and chances are he'll also be able to make this one. It won't be easy, and it might affect his hitting, but Coghlan in center gives the Marlins a pretty good every-day club with outfielders Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison in the Opening Day lineup for the first time.
After Coghlan, the next question is whether the revamped bullpen will be better than in 2010.
New York Mets: Is there any way they could just skip 2011?
There's not much that this franchise, which has serious financial issues, can do until about $55 million in salary comes off the books after this season. In the meantime, the Mets will consider trading center fielder Carlos Beltran, they will begin rebuilding the farm system, they will hope ace Johan Santana has recovered enough from shoulder surgery to make an impact as early as June and they will hope more starting pitching emerges from within.
But the new regime -- general manager Sandy Alderson and manager Terry Collins -- can't be fairly judged until they have a new team in 2012.
Domonic Brown and Ben Francisco are expected to platoon in right, replacing Jayson Werth.
Brown has the potential to be a very good player, and Francisco is a favorite of manager Charlie Manuel. It is easy to forget Werth's importance to the Phillies in light of the huge contract he received from the Nationals, and they certainly will miss him, especially given how easily the Phillies were pitched to at points last year. They scored 48 fewer runs than in 2009, and they scored three runs or fewer in a game an astounding 74 times last season. Obviously, they will need some production out of right field.
His seven-year, $126 million contract could take him one of two ways: He could either wilt under the pressure of having to perform like an $18 million-a-year player, or he could consider himself out of the shadow of all the great hitters in Philadelphia and assert himself as the man in Washington. Chances are, Werth will be somewhere in the middle of that.
He was signed to bring credibility to a franchise and eventual stability to the lineup. In 2012 or 2013, when Bryce Harper is the every-day right fielder, Werth will be a playing left field as a key piece to the club, not the guy around whom the lineup revolves. He was signed for those years more than this one.
National League Central
Chicago Cubs: Will Mike Quade be the answer?
We have been fooled by the Cubs before, and vowed we won't get fooled again. But there's something refreshing and new about them hiring a career minor leaguer as their manager to restore thoughts that they can indeed contend in a winnable division.
The Cubs played much better for Quade than they did for Lou Piniella last year. And now they have Matt Garza in their rotation and a determined Carlos Pena on a one-year deal at first base. It still might not work, but it's certainly worth a try.
He will begin the year in the bullpen as a setup guy. Anything more would be too much for one so young and so raw. But his stuff is stunning, and it may only take a couple of months -- a la Neftali Feliz in Texas -- before he works his way into the closer's role. Or, if the young, talented Reds rotation needs help, Chapman's stuff will work three times through the lineup once he learns more about the art of pitching. But he has a lot of weapons with which to work.
Houston Astros: Was the purge the right idea?
The Astros weren't going anywhere anyway with Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt and the rest of the veteran players; moving some guys along to let the young guys play was the thing to do.
Now we'll see if Chris Johnson takes another step forward at third base, Jason Castro does the same behind the plate and first baseman Brett Wallace becomes the hitter so many think he will be.
Now, if the Astros can trade left fielder Carlos Lee, that would be a bonus, but it's highly unlikely.
He will be a free agent after the 2011 season, and he won't sign long-term in Milwaukee, not at what likely will be for around $20 million a year. So the Brewers either will try to win the division with him -- they have a chance, having added Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum to their rotation -- or they will trade Fielder during spring training, or sometime during the season.
It's a tough call for the Brewers: when to trade Fielder, and for whom. Teams these days are so unwilling to part with good young pitching. But one way or another, eventually Fielder is going to leave Milwaukee.
There is no hope of ending the Pirates' major league record of 18 consecutive losing seasons. But at least they will lose with a full season of Neil Walker at second base, Pedro Alvarez at third, Jose Tabata in left and Andrew McCutchen in center.
They still need a lot of pitching help, and maybe trading backup catcher Ryan Doumit can bring something.
Logically, there is no way the Cardinals can let Pujols leave via free agency. He has had, in some respects, the best first 10 years of any player in baseball history. Pujols is on his way to surpassing the great Lou Gehrig as the greatest first baseman of all time. He wants a contract done before spring training begins.
The Cardinals have the money to afford him; they have been gearing up for this negotiation for years. But they're not going to give him a 10-year deal. If he gets to free agency in November, all bets are off. But even if he does, how many teams can afford to give one player $30 million a year? The Yankees and Red Sox have long-term answers at first. The Cubs? Can they afford that? The Angels? This is a complicated story, but a simple one: We can't imagine the Cardinals letting him walk away.
National League West
Arizona Diamondbacks: Will new look improve their W-L record?
Maybe not much, but getting rid of nearly 400 strikeouts (Mark Reynolds and Adam LaRoche combined for 383 strikeouts) will begin a change in culture that was imperative around the Diamondbacks. An even bigger change will come from the new manager (Kirk Gibson is now the full-time skipper after the interim tag was removed after last season), a few new coaches and a new GM (Kevin Towers), all of whom are expected to bring a new toughness to the team.
There is no plan to trade right fielder Justin Upton, but this team isn't fooling around. More change is ahead, if results aren't achieved.
They have Jose Lopez, who was acquired from Seattle. They have Ty Wigginton, signed as a free agent. They have Eric Young Jr., a speedy holdover from last season.
Lopez and Wigginton can also play third base to give Ian Stewart a rest against a left-hander. The second-base competition should be an interesting one in camp.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Is Don Mattingly the right guy for the job?
He was a terrific player, one relentlessly committed to playing the game the right way. Now he has to teach the Dodgers players how to do the same, something they didn't do as often as they should have last year. Mattingly is a rookie manager, but he has an edge to him. It was Mattingly who, as a player, pulled Ruben Sierra up the runway and told him that the Yankees don't ham it up around the bases after a home run. Sierra listened.
Mattingly has a lot to work with on this Dodgers team. Now we'll see if he can get Matt Kemp and rest of that club to listen.
He had a great year as a closer and anchored what was a sensational bullpen.
With Adrian Gonzalez having been traded to Boston in a cost-cutting move, it's possible Bell will go next if, as expected, a number of teams start calling as the season goes along. It's not something the Padres want to do, but if the offer is right, they will have to consider trading Bell.
San Francisco Giants: Will magical postseason carryover to 2011?
The Giants' staff will be terrific again, even though most of their pitchers worked more innings last year than they'd ever pitched before in a single season. The Giants were last in the National League in hitting with runners in scoring position and weren't a patient hitting team last season. They also weren't a good defensive team and they had no speed, but they did everything right in the postseason. And they can still pitch with anyone, and they can hit home runs.
But it is tough to repeat, especially when they've added only one major league player (Miguel Tejada) to the roster from last year.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.