SI baseball writer Tom Verducci recently wrote an article speculating on what teams in 2009 could be like last year’s Rays — from losers to winners. While I usually like Verducci’s work, this one was a clunker. His picks? The Tigers, A’s, Braves and Orioles.
For three of them, he’s not really going out on a limb. Would anybody be really surprised if the Tigers, Athletics or Braves contended this year? Nobody who follows baseball, even moderately. The Tigers underperformed last year, but they are still stocked with talent. The A’s are always contenders, and were last year until Billy Beane kicked the legs out from under his team and dealt Harden and Blanton. And the Braves are always a possibility, especially now that they’ve revamped their pitching staff. No news here, Tom.
And the Orioles!? To give Verducci credit, he does say they have no shot at making the playoffs in the division. They do have some talent, but I don’t think their pitching can even make them moderately good this year. Maybe I’m missing something.
But there are a lot of longshots — true longshots — that do have a very good chance at contending this season.
Rangers – For years the Rangers have struggled behind the Angels and Athletics, and occassionally the Mariners. Given the AL West is more attainable now that the Angels have taken a step back this winter, the Rangers could make a move. They have the thunder in their offense. But, like always, their pitching is a big question. If they stock up on some bargain pitchers — ala Ben Sheets and Pedro Martinez, they could take the division.
Mariners – Yes, the Mariners were terrible — Holy Terrible — last season. And given they’ve dealt players like JJ Putz, they look like they have no intention of contending this season. But they could end up with maybe the best 1-2 punch in baseball with Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard in their rotation. If those two pitch how they are supposed to, that alone can make anyone a contender, especially in the wide-open AL West. On top of that, they still have Ichiro at the top of the lineup generating runs.
Pirates – A longtime loser who I’ve picked to surprise for years. Eventually, I’ll be right. And it could certainly be this season. More often than not, the reason a team like the Rays come out of nowhere to be a contender is their pitching comes together. Besides last year’s Rays, check out the 2002 Angels, the 2003 Marlins, the 2005 White Sox, 2006 Tigers and 2007 Rockies. The pitching staff on all these teams suddenly gelled and put together a winner. The Pirates’ front four of Ian Snell, Tom Gorzellany, Paul Maholm and Zack Duke are all young and all have boatloads of talent. Snell and Gorzellany took steps back last season, but could be ready to have big bounce-back years. And with the NL Central rather mediocre, they could pad their record and grab the Wild Card with a finish behind the Cubs. And they have been a team linked to Pedro.
Rockies – Again, its about pitching. And this team has some. Quite frankly, I was shocked they dealt Matt Holliday. This is a good team. They had a bad season last year, with a few guys having off years and injuries. They were a lot like the 2006 Indians. But people forget that after a disasterous first half, they were clawing back into the race by late-August last year. This division is wide open. Tulowitski will be back for a full year. And Ubaldo Jimenez is ready to become one of the best arms in the game. Him along with the talented Jeff Francis (and a resurgent Josh Fogg) could carry this team to a division title. (If they kept Holliday, they’d have it in a walk,.)
Giants – Again, a team with pitching that plays in a weak division. With Linecum, Cain and now Randy Johnson, they have the pitching. If they sign one of the big bats still out there, they can contend.
Marlins – Maybe they can’t be considered losers. They had a good year last year, despite injuries. Still, is anyone really giving them a chance to compete with the Phillies and Mets? Not many, but I am. They have some excellent hitters with guys like Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez. But, like the Pirates, their pitching goes four talented young arms deep. If those arms stay healthy, they will have a deeper, better rotation than either the Phillies or Mets.
- How do I get through the offseason? Preparing for fantasy baseball. It’s never too early to build a champion.
- At this point, there’s only one way the Jason Varitek saga can end: The Sox get him at a bargain-basement price. The Sox still want him back, but on their terms. And they have the captain over a barrel. With other teams signing catchers, his potential other options have all but dried up. Given that, he has zero negotiating leverage. Sure, the Sox could still go out and get a young catcher like Saltalamacchia or Montero, but if they don’t like the pricetags — which they don’t — they know they can just wait Tek out at this point. He’ll come calling. He’ll end up with a base salary around $2 or $3 million, with a bunch of incentives built in.
- I keep thinking about doing pre-Spring Training team predictions, but there are still so many impact free agents that it is impossible to do them. I’m surprised the Angels – weakened after losing Teixeira and K-Rod — haven’t been more proactive in pursuing a bat like Abreu, Dunn or even Manny (despite that they’ve said they’re not interested). I also keep waiting to see when the Rangers will pull the trigger on Ben Sheets, who could be a difference-maker in Arlington. If the Angels don’t improve themselves, with the A’s bringing in Holliday and the Rangers possibly snagging Sheets (and/or a power bat), the AL West could turn out to be surprisingly open. And — call me crazy — don’t be surprised if the Mariners have a big bounce back year; they could do it with Bedard and King Felix carrying their rotation, and if they sign one of these available bats . . . well, remember you heard here first.
- I love the Pirates, and would love to see a bounce-back year from Pedro in Pittsburgh. With talented young arms like Ian Snell and Tom Gorzellany hitting the age of 27, you could see the Pirates start moving in the right direction. (But, then again, I’ve been saying that for years.)
- Considering how the prices for free agents have been dropping, don’t be surprised if the Yankees make another move that drives fans crazy.