Last week, we talked about 8 of the 16 National league teams. This week, let’s finish up our MLB tour, and touch on a couple other odds and ends as well.
Atlanta Braves – 2008 record: 72-90, Vegas line: 84.5 wins. I’ll be honest, I don’t get this one. I don’t see 85 wins here, the rotation is too thin and the lineup has too many question marks. Chipper Jones is a great player, a Hall-of-Fame player, but he’s 37 now and suffers at least one injury per season. At present, the starting outfield is rookie Jordan Schaefer, perennial underachiever Jeff Francoeur, and retread Garrett Anderson. Brian McCann is the best catcher in baseball, and I like Kelly Johnson at second, but that outfield isn’t a winner. Derek Lowe is a fine starter, and I like Jair Jurrjens, but Tom Glavine is done like dinner and while the farm offers hope, it’s more for 2010 and beyond. This is one of the best ‘under’ bets I’ve seen, I think 75-80 wins looks about right.
Washington Nationals – 2008 record: 59-102, Vegas line: 71.5 wins. Well, it can’t get any worse, can it? In 2008 they had a terrible offense (less than four runs per game), terrible defense (82 unearned runs allowed, worst in the NL), and a terrible pitching staff. In the offseason, GM Jim Bowden got caught up in a scandal and resigned – you could say the last 12 months haven’t been that good for the Nats. Things DO look a bit better for 2009, especially on offense. The free-agent signing of Adam Dunn was very underrated, his power and patience will fit nicely into this lineup (his defense in the outfield is another matter). If Nick Johnson and Ryan Zimmerman can stay relatively healthy, this offense could be in the top half of the NL. The problem is the pitching, especially the rotation. John Lannan is no ones idea of an ace, but he’s the best of a bad lot in D.C. The likes of Daniel Cabrera, Scott Olsen, and a couple of rookies fill out the rotation – not exactly sterling stuff. Unlike Atlanta, I think Vegas is on the right track here – this offense will improve, making 70 wins a real possibility. Further improvement is unlikely, as the ERA will likely approach 5.00 again. I’ll say 68-73 wins.
Chicago Cubs – 2008 record: 97-65, Vegas line: 92.5 wins. In my opinion the safest bet for a division winner in all of MLB, the Cubs return almost intact for 2009. The Cubs led the league in runs per game and were 2nd in ERA – the most surprising thing about 2008 was their collapse in October (at least if you discount their history). The offense will miss versatile Mark DeRosa, but overall this is a deep, powerful offense that will almost certainly be in the top-5 of the league. The difference between 90 and 100 wins for this team will be the health of their pitching staff, especially Rich Harden and Carlos Zambrano. If they get 50-60 starts from their aces, 100 wins seems reasonable to me. If that number is 40 or less, the team win total will be around 90. Even at 90, the division is weak this season and the Cubs should win comfortably. I think Vegas is spot-on here, if anything take the over, I’ll say 92-96 wins.
Milwaukee Brewers – 2008 record: 90-72, Vegas line: 80.5. After a remarkable run in 2008, the Brewers are primed for a bit of a fall after losing their two aces, CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets, to free agency. The offense will score plenty of runs, but there is no depth and no balance – all the regulars except for Prince Fielder bat right-handed, making them easier to match up against late in games. The rotation will not approach last year’s heights, but if Yovani Gallardo stays healthy he could become an ace in short order, and the Brewers have plenty of inning-eaters. Even if they get all the breaks, I think 85 wins is about the max for this team, and .500 seems about right.
Houston Astros – 2008 record: 86-75, Vegas line: 73.5 wins. Speaking of teams headed for a fall, Houston seems on the precipice of a disaster. They’ve staved off the rebuild for several seasons, but that has only kept their farm system barren and likely made the inevitable crash that much more severe. Houston has legit stars in Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, and Carlos Lee. Hunter Pence is a decent RF, Jose Valverde is decent closer, and Miguel Tejada used to be a great SS. After that, this team is a barren wasteland of real-life and fantasy talent, and an injury to Oswalt, Berkman, or Lee could send this team to 100 losses in a hurry. They’ve fooled me before, but I see 90 losses here, and I think if anything the under is the play – call it 68-73 wins.
St. Louis Cardinals – 2008 record: 86-76, Vegas line: 82.5 wins. It seems like every year pundits think the Cards are going to falter, and almost every year Tony LaRussa’s squad exceeds expectations. I won’t be fooled again – despite the recent news that Troy Glaus will miss at least 2 months, I think the Cards will be in the hunt for at least the wild card. Erstwhile ace Chris Carpenter appears healthy for the first time in several years, giving the Cards the best non-Cub rotation in the division. The offense, as usual, should be strong, powered by all-everything Albert Pujols and a supporting cast that’s probably stronger than you ralize. Ankiel and Ludwick provide a lot of OF power, and I’m bullish on new SS Khalil Greene’s chances to rehabilitate his career. If former LF Skip Schumaker successfully converts to 2B, they will have a bonus – a lefthanded-hitting second-sacker who hits for a decent average. The bullpen appears to be a bit of a weakness, but LaRussa is the master at finding the right role for each member of the staff. As long as Pujols is healthy and the rotation doesn’t suffer too many injuries, I look for this team to win 84-88 games and be Chicago’s only threat in the division.
Cincinnati Reds – 2008 record: 74-88, Vegas line: 78.5 wins. Everyone’s favorite NL sleeper, the Reds are indeed primed for a rise – but I think 2010 is their arrival date. Yes, the young core of Jay Bruce and Joey Votto should continue to improve, and overall the offense should definitely be above average – but the pitching isn’t quite ready yet. I’m a BIG fan of Aaron Harang, and expect a bounceback from him, but that will be counterbalanced by regression from young sensations Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez, one of whom I expect to suffer an injury – manager Dusty Baker pushes his young pitchers way too hard in my opinion. The bullpen is average at best, and with their homer-happy home park I expect a fair amount of struggles from the Reds’ staff. That, plus some growing pains from the Reds’ young bats, make me think .500 is the ceiling, and 75-80 wins is the correct range.
Pittsburgh Pirates – 2008 record: 67-95, Vegas line: 67.5 wins. You all know the recent history of the Pirates, and you know that the 2008 squad won’t be winning any pennants. I urge you to look past the wins and losses and judge this squad on certain individual gains – does Nate McLouth sustain his breakout from last season,? How about Doumit? Will talented but inconsistent starters Ian Snell, Zach Duke, and Tom Gorzelanny take steps towards becoming reliable starters? Will Adam LaRoche hit his weight before June (he has a long history of slumping until summer, then going on a tear in the final months)? Will prospects like Andy LaRoche, Andrew McCutchen, and some of the bullpen arms make good on their promise?
On offense especially, there’s the outline of a solid attack. McLouth, Doumit, and SS Jack Wilson give this team strength up the middle with the bat, and 2B Freddy Sanchez is a former batting champ. The corner OF spots are questionable, and the bench is pretty weak – but the offense will score some runs. No, the real question on this squad is the pitching – despite the ‘efforts’ of former GM Dave Littlefield, the Pirates were a disaster on the mound last season, sporting the worst ERA BY FAR in the NL at 5.10. The bullpen was decent at times, but the rotation (aside from emerging lefty Paul Maholm) was an utter disaster in 2008. If the Bucco starters can clip a half-run off their team ERA, they might make a run at .500. However, I think that’s wishful thinking, and frankly .500 is a bad place to be – it gets you bad draft picks and can fool a GM and a fanbase into thinking a team is closer to winning than it really is. Improvement would be nice in the win column, and I actually like the over here – I think 70 wins is quite reasonable, and to do worse than 67 seems unlikely unless they trade McLouth and Doumit. Let’s call it 70-75 wins, about par for the course in PNC Park. I do believe better times are ahead, though – just not until 2011.
On to the NCAA tourney, where my Final Four picks didn’t exactly pan out. I still see NC as the team to beat, and the Villanova-Pitt game was indeed a classic, but I never thought MSU could handle Louisville. Give Tom Izzo credit, he knows how to manage the game and get opposing teams to play his style of ball. With a decided homefield advantage this weekend in Detroit’s Ford Field, I look for them to give UConn all they can handle – but I think the Huskies will prevail by a few points. On the other side of the basket, Villanova will try to grind UNC down, but they will fall behind early and get run over by the Tarheel freight train. UNC by 15, and UNC by 10 in the final.
Last note: I’m sure Morelli OnLion will hit on this some next week, but kudos to the PSU hoops team for their NIT title. Frankly, once they won a couple of games in the NIT, I realized that missing the NCAA tournament might have been the best thing to happen to the Lions – better to get 3-5 games of experience against teams of roughly equal caliber than to get blown out in the 2nd round of the NCAAs by Louisville or UNC. PSU won at Florida and put a pretty good beating on a Notre Dame team ranked #7 earlier this year. I look for them to build on this for 2010 with so many players back, and become a real threat in the Big Ten next season.
Next week we’ll review the Penguins’ turnaround, and perhaps take a look at my breakout player predictions for MLB 2009.
Dave Glass lives in Clearfield with his wife, Suzanne, and their six children. He can be reached at email@example.com.