Please check out the Hippeaux's weekly posts at SNY affiliate, It's About The Money.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

April Showers bring NEW Bold Predictions

LaRussa's Mad Science:

I should really know better by now. I lived in St. Louis for six years, during which Tony LaRussa took the Cardinals to the playoffs four times, including an 105 win season and an NL Championship in 2004, when nobody (even St. Louis fans) expected the Cards would finish higher than 3rd place in the NL Central. Last year the Cardinals stayed in contention until the final two weeks of the season, even though nobody other than Pujols drove in more than 70 runs or scored more than 58. By comparison, the two teams they were chasing, the Cubs and Brewers, each had at least four players who eclipsed those numbers in both categories. What's more perplexing? St. Louis also had by far the worst team ERA of any of the three franchises. Yet somehow the Cardinals finished only seven games back, even after they lost 14 of 16 in mid-September.

Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan are the only managerial team in baseball (sorry Bobby Cox) with seemingly magical abilities. Let me just list a few players that they've transformed in the last decade:

Chris Carpenter - SP - Had a .500 record, an ERA over 4.50, and had just missed a full season before arriving in St. Louis. Since then he has gone 51-18 and won a Cy Young.

Woody Williams - SP - He went 45-22 with the Cardinals, 87-94 everywhere else.

Matt Morris - SP - Hasn't had a winning record or an ERA under 4.90 since leaving St. Louis, where he once posted five straight winning seasons, averaging 16 wins a year during that span.

Sure they've had some tough cases as well (Anthony Reyes, Mark Mulder, Jason Marquis, etc.), but in general they patch together pitching staffs and lineups from players that other teams have castaway (besides Carpenter and Williams, they've gotten significant contributions in recent years from Joel Pineiro, Jeff Weaver, Ryan Franklin, Russ Springer, and Todd Wellemeyer).

If St. Louis remains in contention all year, this will be, undoubtedly, their most impressive performance yet. They are already making me regret picking them to finish last in the division. Right now, LaRussa has a quartet of outfielders batting better than .311. Their names? No, not Walker, Edmonds, Sanders, and Encarnacion. Not even Ankiel. Their names are Schumaker, Ludwick, Duncan, and Barton. Add in Ankiel, Glaus, and Prince Albert and you've got a lineup that is 5th in the NL in scoring. It's early and I highly doubt these guys can continue this pace, but St. Louis had Colby Rasmus waiting at AAA, so if even one or two of these guys proves to be for real, they could have a very respectable outfield by the end of the season.

More surprisingly, perhaps, the Cardinals are 4th in the NL in ERA, despite having a patchwork staff which includes seven pitchers who have made multiple appearances as both relievers and starters during the last two seasons. Versatility may be nice from one or two guys, but it generally doesn't suggest an impressive corps, since going back and forth from the bullpen to the rotation usually means a player hasn't been particularly good at either. Yet, somehow, LaRussa and Duncan, have quietly made Ryan Franklin, who pitched 190+ innings as a starter for three season sin Seattle, into one of the league's best set-up men (32 Holds and an ERA under 3.00 in 90 innings over the last two seasons). They've converted Braden Looper, who hadn't made a start in eight full major league seasons, into a solid inning-eater at the backend of the rotation (15-13 with 190 IP in 34 starts). And they're looking to Todd Wellemeyer, Brad Thompson, and Anthony Reyes to make similar transformations (so far the trio is 4-1 with 3 QS, 1 SV, 2 HLD, and an ERA around 3.50).

I'm not ready to predict that the Cardinals will outlast the surgin, power-packed Cubs or the young, talented Brewers, but if St. Louis finishes over .500 in third place with this group of players, LaRussa will deserve another Manager of the Year award.

The Baby Backs:

Matthew Berry, ESPN's Talented Mr. Roto, whose self-deprecating fantasy advice I usually enjoy and often agree with, recently predicted that Justin Upton, despite his hot start will only finish with about 25 HR and a .275 average (he's currently hitting .368 with 5 HR). While I understand his justification. The league will adjust and the 20-year-old Upton will suffer some slumps as the season progresses, I think you need to moderate this assumption with a player of Upton's caliber. Remember, Upton struggled under prolonged exposure to the league at the end of last season, but made successful adjustments in the postseason (1097 OPS) which he's carried over into this year. The Diamondbacks made a wise decision in sticking with him last year and they're reaping the benefits now. The proper comparison for Upton is not to guys like Jeff Francoeur, Rick Ankiel, and Troy Tulowitski, who are susceptible to sophomore slumps, but to Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, and Miguel Cabrera, who were not. Cabrera hit 33 HR with 112 RBI in his first full year. In Arizona's lineup, where Upton is currently batting 6th and is not expected to be the dominant force, such numbers are not unreasonable. Remember, one of the things (there are many) which separates Upton from his teammate, Mark Reynolds, and guys like Ankiel and Francoeur, is his control of the strike zone. Don't get me wrong, he's going to strikeout, but it isn't going to be consistently on pitches way out of the zone. No matter how NL hurlers approach him, they will have to throw him strikes.

Reynolds, also off to a very hot start, is something of a different story. He's looking great right now, but last year his K to BB ratio was almost 4:1. At one point, he struck out in ten consecutive at-bats. He's averaging more than one strikeout a game even during his hot streak. Reynolds is going to go cold much more often than Upton and his position is not nearly as secure since the D-Backs will have Chad Tracy coming back soon. Sure, there are plenty of studs like Ryan Howard and Adam Dunn to strike out as much as Reynold does, but even when they are slumping, as Dunn has been recently, they get on base via the walk. Reynold hasn't shown his ability to do that yet and until he does, he's risky business.

Finally, I'll conclude my discussion of the Baby Backs with Chris Young. Superficially, one would say he looks pretty consistent. Last year he hit .237 with 32 HR, 27 SB, 147 K. This year he is on pace for .227 with 40 HR , 24 SB, and 168 K. Great numbers, but the average and strikeouts aren't what you'd look for from a leadoff man. There is a difference though, Young has raised his OBP to a very respectable .348, more than fifty points higher than last season, by drawing more walks. Young is probably never going to hit .300, but a .350 OBP with 40/40 potential and top-tier centerfield defense is damn admirable.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Tribute to Doc

It's may be hard to believe that a former Cy Young winner, who has averaged 15.5 wins a season for the past six seasons could be the most underrated player in baseball, but I believe that is the case. When pundits and prognosticators discuss the best starting pitchers they inevitable, and appropriately, point to Johan Santana, Jake Peavy, Brandon Webb, C. C. Sabathia, and Josh Beckett. Here on the west coast, the name John Lackey might be thrown into the mix. In the midwest, you might get arguments for Chris Carpenter, Aaron Harang, and Carlos Zambrano. But, the name you never hear is Roy "Doc" Halladay, Toronto's soft-speaking, soft-throwing Ace, who has quietly accumulated a record of 112-56. That's right, exactly a 2-1 ratio of wins to losses. Among active pitchers with 100 or more decision, only Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez post better winning percentages. More impressively, however, among ALL pitchers in baseball history, Roy Halladay ranks 13th, ahead of legends like Sandy Koufax, Roger Clemens, and Randy Johnson. And, as he is only an inning away from shutting out the Rangers as I'm writing this, it appears that number will be edging up.

At age 31, this is Doc's 10th major league season. He is a pitcher who relies on control, movement, an impenetrable calm on the mound, and an absurd ability to roll a ground ball almost every time the situation dictates. Much like Greg Maddux, he actually urges the opposition to put the ball in play by working quickly and throwing strikes. One of the reasons he goes unnoticed is that he hasn't struck out more than 140 hitters since his Cy Young season in 2003. It is also one of the reasons he has more complete games than any other pitcher in baseball over that span, and has pitched 220+ innings in four of the last six season. His ambivalence towards velocity suggests an ability to pitch effectively for at least another decade, quite possible deep into his forties (again, like Maddux). That would give him an outside shot at 300 wins and a ticket to the hall of fame.

Halladay, quietly, as always, signed a $40 Million extension in 2006 (more than a season before his contract expired) which keeps him in Toronto through 2010. Doc's presence is a big reason why Toronto had one of the best rotations in baseball last season and is likely to be even better in 2008, as Shawn Marcum and Dustin McGowan mature (and, hopefully, A. J. Burnett stays healthy). If Toronto does make a run at the postseason this year, it will be because the backend of the Blue Jay rotation takes cues from the Doctor.

Friday, April 11, 2008

When do you worry?

Although the optimism regarding the Tigers may have been a bit extreme, considering their obvious bullpen concerns and additional question marks in the rotation, nobody could have predicted they would start the season 1-8 and be the lowest scoring team in the American League. Detroit was repeatedly booed during the final games of their winless homestand to open the season, which is, in my opinion, inexcusable. The fans of the Tigers and Cubs (who were also booed on occasion at Wrigley Field last season) would do well to remember the decades of mediocrity which preceded a renewed dedication to winning on the part of their franchises. Such vulgar fairweather displays will make Detroit's return to the postseason this October much less sweet. Jerry Crasnick of ESPN has a good piece about teams which have recovered from similar (or worse) situations that Detroit, many of them within the last few years.

This week, however, I'm taking a look at some of the individuals who are getting booed or, at least, having April slumps which are getting noticed.

David Ortiz - DH - Boston Red Sox

Big Papi's average has dropped to .077 and he has only three hits and one homer in his first 40 at-bats. There has been a lot of speculation about the lingering effect of his off-season knee surgery. This is definitely a good opportunity to preach patience. April has generally been a problem month for Papi. In 2003, Ortiz hit only .212 with a single dinger. Along with several of the Red Sox, he may be suffering from prolonged jet lag after the opening road trip that would've made Jule Verne proud. Big Papi, like Albert Pujols, is a professional hitter who is more-or-less slump-proof. He will start punishing pitchers shortly.

Prince Fielder - 1B - Milwaukee Brewers

One thing I'm sure of, Prince Fielder's April power outage is not, as widely hypothesized, a result of his decision this offseason to become a vegetarian. If you see Fielder with sallow cheeks, twiggish forearms, and no gut, you can begin blaming his diet, but I watched him drive a ball into the gap against the Mets this evening and nothing about him looked malnourished. This is simply the case of a young, supremely-talented hitter coming off a breakout MVP-caliber campaign and trying to do too much in the early going, much as Ryan Howard did last year. You, remember, right? Ryan Howard hit only three homers in April last year. Oh, you don't? That might be because he had 44 HR and 123 RBI during the next five months. Maybe he should give Prince a call, tell him what he started eating for dinner.

Russell Martin - C - Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers' sparkplug is batting .156 and has already struck out ten times in the young season.  He struck out less than 90 times in more than 600 plate appearances in 2007.  I would love to say that this is not cause for concern, but Martin's heavy workload for last season might be catching up to him.  Very few catchers have been able to play 145 games a season and maintain their offensive performance.  Jason Kendall did for a few years, but suffered a dramatic drop-off in both power and speed before he had even turned 30.  Joe Mauer struggled with injuries a year after posting his first 140-game campaign.  Even that mighty I-Rod has suffered four years of declining SLG%.  Martin has on his side that he is only 25, is a tremendous athlete, and didn't start catching full-time until 2004, so he doesn't have an entire lifetime of wear-and-tear on those knees.  Hopefully, he will respect Joe Torre's desire to rest him more consistently.

Andruw Jones - CF - Los Angeles Dodgers

What was supposed to be a strength for L.A., has turned out to be a major weakness in the early going.  Outfielders Andruw Jones, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and Juan Pierre have combined for a single home run, six runs, and twelve RBIs.  None of them have an average above .278 or an OPS above 750.  Just for comparison: right down the road in Anaheim, the Angels outfield foursome has combined for 11 HR, 25 run, and 26 RBIs.  None of them has a OPS below 800.  

Andruw has been the biggest disappointment.  Coming off the worst year of his career, he has begun 2008 batting .114 with one extra-base hit and 1 RBI.  He looks lost at the plate, going 1-for-17 with 8 Ks in the last five games.  For me it is hard to believe that a player of Andruw's caliber could be declining at age 30, but unless he turns this season around pronto, that's what we will have to conclude.

C. C. Sabathia - SP - Cleveland Indians

C. C. has started the season going 0-2 with an 11.57 ERA in three starts.  I hate to say it, but this is what the Indians get for making him throw 255 inning last season.  Pitchers, even pitchers as good as Sabathia, break down after throwing that much.  The good news for the Indians is that the presence of Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, and Adam Miller means they can give Sabathia a bit of an in-season vacation and still be very competitive.  They will be best served by getting him on the D.L. shortly, if things don't improve dramatically in his next couple starts, and bringing him back renewed and refreshed a month or so down the line.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Bold Predictions (American League)

Detroit has fallen to 0-5, being man-handled by the Royals and White Sox. The Yankees are in danger of being swept by their arch-rival...the Tampa Bay Rays. Are these flukes or omens? Here's my preview of the American League.

AL East:

1. Boston Red Sox
2. Toronto Blue Jays
3. New York Yankees
4. Tampa Bay Rays
5. Baltimore Orioles

I've been forecasting the end of the Yankees run of postseason appearances for several years, never to any avail, obviously, but I look at New York and again see a team that, despite massive offensive potential, failed to address the issues that very nearly kept them out of the playoffs in 2007. They've got a shaky rotation and a shakier bullpen. Yankee fans will cite the arrival of Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, and Joba Chamberlain as indicators of inevitable improvements in the pitching staff, but beware this heavy reliances on very young, very inexperienced arms. While Joba was truly dominant late last season and probably will be again as Mo Rivera's set-up man, the Yankees pitching was actually worse in the second half of 2007 (during the vaunted arrival of the Baby Yanks) than it was before the All-Star Break. Unlike the Red Sox and Blue Jays, the Yankees do not have strong candidates to step into the rotation in case of injuries or ineffectiveness, nor do they have a bevy of strong bullpen arms. Once again, all three of these teams will be very difficult opponents (as will the Rays, with their renovated rotation), but I surmise that pitching will make the difference, and Toronto and Boston hold the advantage in that department.

Division MVP: David Ortiz (Red Sox)
Division Cy Young: Roy Halladay (Blue Jays)
Division Rookie of the Year: Joba Chamberlain (Yankees)
Division Comeback Player of the Year: Manny Ramirez (Red Sox)
Sleepers: A. J. Burnett, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin McGowan, Cliff Floyd, Jon Lester, Coco Crisp

AL Central:

1. Detroit Tigers
2. Cleveland Indians (Wild Card)
3. Chicago White Sox
4. Kansas City Royals
5. Minnesota Twins

There are no patsies in the AL Central. Each of these teams is full of talent, with lots of potential on both sides of the baseball. The Royal and Twins will probably suffer some rough stretches with their young rotations (especially since they have to face incredibly deep lineups), but pitchers like Zach Greinke, Boof Bonser, Kevin Slowey, and Brian Bannister aren't far away from being dependable, quality starters.

Detroit's shaky relief corps could keep them from living up to expectations (some analysts are already talking about scoring records). If Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya cannot return and be at full strength by June and Zach Miner and Denny Bautista don't mature into competent middle-inning guys, the Tigers will need to mortgage more of their deep farm system to patch up the 'pen. The Indians team may not be as sexy, since they don't have big-ticket free agents like Sheffield, Cabrera, and Willis, but they do have a deeper pitching staff and a lineup that is remarkable in its own right.

Chicago could be the darkhorse in this race. Nearly every member of the White Sox underachieved in 2007, so even without the additions of Orlando Cabrera, Nick Swisher, Octavio Dotel, and Scott Linebrink the Sox would be good bets to be among the most improved teams in the league. Chicago is going to hit and they have an impressive collection of power arms in the bullpen. The starting rotation will end up dictating whether or not they are serious contenders. With the exception of Mark Buehrle, it is a staff full of underachievers. Veterans like Javier Vazquez and Jose Contreras who have not lived up to perennial Ace status and top prospects like Gavin Floyd and Jon Danks who are short on options and have yet to produce in the big leagues. Even Buehrle, only 29, who posted five consecutive seasons of at least 14 wins and 220 innings to go with an ERA well under 4.00 from '01 to '05 has shown signs of premature decline the last two seasons (22-22, 4.31 ERA). In 2005 the White Sox came out of nowhere to be the best team in baseball. The division is much better now, so I don't think they can do the same thing again, but they aren't going to get rolled over by good teams the way they did last season (18-33 against playoff-bound teams).

Division MVP: Gary Sheffield (Tigers)
Division Cy Young: Justin Verlander (Tigers)
Division Rookie of the Year: Billy Butler (Royals)
Division Comeback Player of the Year: Cliff Lee (Indians)
Sleepers: Javier Vazquez, Franklin Gutierrez, Gil Meche, Alexei Ramirez, Jensen Lewis

AL West:

1. Los Angeles Angels
2. Seattle Mariners
3. Oakland Athletics
4. Texas Rangers

This is probably the easiest division to forecast. Seattle made it more interesting when they went out and got Erik Bedard. They now possess a formidable pitching staff to go with a respectable lineup. However, L.A. (of Anaheim) still has to be the clear favorite. Even with Kelvim Escobar out until at least mid-season and John Lackey missing a few starts to begin the year, the Angels have plenty of pitching. Jered Weaver is on the cusp of excellency and before last season Ervin Santana was considered equally promising. The addition of Torii Hunter and improvements from Gary Matthews, Casey Kotchman, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, and Mike Napoli with easily give the Angels the best lineup in their division. Plus, the Angels always strong farm system can buoy the major-league club with promising rookies like Nick Adenhart, Brandon Wood, and Hank Conger as the season unfolds.

Division MVP: Vladimir Guerrero (Angels)
Division Cy Young: Jered Weaver (Angels)
Division Rookie of the Year: Wladimir Belentien (Mariners)
Division Comeback Player of the Year: Ervin Santana (Angels)
Sleeper: Adrian Beltre, Rich Harden, Howie Kendrick, Milton Bradley, Jose Lopez, Emil Brown

Friday, April 04, 2008

Bold Predictions (NL)

We're five days into the regular season and it appears that the Kansas City Royals and the Washington Nationals are the best teams in baseball, Blake DeWitt is on pace to win a batting title, and Rich Harden is headed for that long-awaited Cy Young season. Perhaps it is unfair for to have waited this long to make my "preseason" predictions. Nonetheless, I hope you'll forgive me this small advantage and I'll promise not to pick Xavier Nady as MVP.

NL East:

1. New York Mets
2. Philadelphia Phillies
3. Atlanta Braves
4. Washington Nationals
5. Florida Marlins

Pedro Martinez's hamstring has many experts and at least as many Mets fans declaring a state of emergency in New York, as the Mets will have to rely on pitchers like Orlando Hernandez and Mike Pelfrey. While I understand that El Duque is not the pitcher he once was and that Pelfrey has yet to live up to his top-prospect billing, but the Mets primary competition, Philadelphia and Atlanta, aren't exactly famous for their rotation depth. The Phillies are relying on Kyle Kendrick, Adam Eaton, and Jamie Moyer at the back-end, while the Braves feature Jair Jurrjens and 42-year-old Tom Glavine, that is, after the return of Chuck James, Mike Hampton, and John Smoltz, who are all beginning the season on the D. L. as well. Atlanta has been getting a lot of love from Peter Gammons and the ESPN crew, but I see a team without a single establish bullpen arm, relying heavily on Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar in their sophomore seasons, and with only one legitimate offensive threat in the outfield (Jeff Francoeur). While the Phillies have a ton of offense, they also have serious bullpen issues (to go along with the shakiest rotation of any NL contender). Meanwhile, the Mets have Jorge Sosa, Duaner Sanchez, Pedro Feliciano, Joe Smith, Aaron Heilman, and Billy Wagner, half-a-dozen arms, any of which would be regularly pitching in the eighth or ninth in Philadelphia or Atlanta. And, lest we forget, it isn't like the Mets are short on offense.

While Washington's hot start isn't likely to last (Do you see Tim Redding and Odalis Perez winning 15 games apiece?), they may be ready to make a serious run at .500. They won 73 games last year, without Lastings Milledge, Wily Mo Pena, Nick Johnson, Elijah Dukes, Christian Guzman, Paul Lo Duca, and Perez, all of whom represent at least modest upgrades over their predecessors. Young pitchers like Shawn Hill, Jason Bergmann, and Matt Chico have a full year of big-league experience, while cast-offs from other franchises (Perez, Dukes, Pena, Milledge, etc.) all have something to prove. The increased competitiveness of Washington will make it more difficult for their NL East foes making runs at the Wild Card.

Division MVP: Hanley Ramirez (Marlins)
Division Cy Young: Johan Santana (Mets)
Division Rookie of the Year: Brandon Jones (Braves)
Division Comback Player of the Year: Nick Johnson (Nationals)
Sleepers: Jeremy Hermida, Jeff Francoeur, Nick Johnson, Pedro Feliz, Angel Pagan

NL Central:

1. Chicago Cubs
2. Milwaukee Brewers (Wild Card)
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
4. Cincinnati Reds
5. Houston Astros
6. St. Louis Cardinals

I previewed this division a few weeks ago and I don't see any reason to change my choices. I will admit that I am a bit worried about choosing the Cardinals to finish in the cellar. They haven't finished last during the Tony LaRussa era (1996-Present) and LaRussa and Duncan have a history of making something out of nothing, especially with pitchers like Matt Clement, Joel Pineiro, Braden Looper, and Kyle Lohse. And, when management comes to its senses and hands centerfield over to Colby Rasmus, the outfield of Rasmus, Rick Ankiel, and Chris Duncan/Brian Barton could develop into an offensive and defensive strength.

The Cubs and Brewers will benefit from beating up on the weak rotations in Houston, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, which is why I think they might squeak past strong teams in the East and West (Philadelphia, Atlanta, Arizona, Colorado, etc.) which will spend a lot more time beating up on each other.

Division MVP: Derrek Lee (Cubs)
Division Cy Young: Carlos Zambrano (Cubs)
Division Rookie of the Year: Kosuke Fukudome (Cubs)
Division Comeback Player of the Year: Miguel Tejada (Astros)
Sleepers: Geo Soto, Manny Parra, Yadier Molian, Zach Duke, Steven Pearce, Colby Rasmus

NL West:

1. Los Angeles Dodgers
2. Arizona Diamondbacks
3. Colorado Rockies
4. San Diego Padres
5. San Francisco Giants

I've preached the importance of depth, particularly pitching depth, repeatedly over the last year, and depth is the primary reason I predict the Dodgers to surpass the three teams that finished (slightly) ahead of them in the West last season. They've got consistent and underrated top-of-the-rotation studs, Brad Penny and Derek Lowe, a probable future Ace, Chad Billingsley, and a bevy of talented arms fighting to be part of the back end of the rotation (Hiroki Koruda, Estaban Loaiza, Jason Schmidt, Chan Ho Park, Clayton Kershaw, James McDonald, and Hong-Chih Kuo). Whereas Colorado, Arizona, and San Diego can ill afford injuries to their starting pitchers, the Dodgers will never struggle to find somebody to fill-in. Similarly, as has already been demonstrated by Blake DeWitt's strong performance at third base and Andre Ethier's assumption of the starting job in left field, the Dodgers are sitting on several young players who, while not future stars, perhaps, are solid major-league regulars. Andy LaRoche, Chin-Long Hu, Tony Abreu, and Delwyn Young are all rookies who will give L.A. productive at-bats when needed sometime this season.

While both Arizona and Colorado will give L.A. good competition this year, I don't expect either of them to repeat their 90-win performances of a year ago. Colorado, especially, will have trouble filling out their starting rotation. And, while Troy "the Toolbox" Tulowitski is worthy of the future-star status being heaped upon him, expect some drop-off in his offense. Sophomores forced into leadership roles often suffer slight setbacks and Tulowitski (unlike, say, Ryan Braun) is not so supremely talented that he will make adjustments swiftly and almost unconsciously at the major-league level. If their pitching (including Randy Johnson) remains healthy throughout the season, the D-Backs have the best chance to upset the Dodgers. Arisona's offense really struggled last year, yet thanks to great pitching (especially from the back-end of the bullpen bullpen), they managed to win anyway. I wonder whether the won't feel the loss of Jose Valverde in the 9th. Arizona had the best save percentage in the NL last season. Will Brandon Lyon or Tony Pena handle the pressure as well without Big V finishing game out? The good news is it seems hard to believe that the D-Backs won't be better at scoring runs. Only Eric Byrnes seems likely to suffer and offensive set-back, while Stephen Drew, Conor Jackson, Chris Snyder, Chris Young, and Chad Tracy all seem primed for breakout years. If Mark Reynolds and Justin Upton also develop quickly at the major-league level, Arizona could suddenly have a lineup which rivals L.A. and Colorado for depth.

At the bottom of the division, San Diego and San Francisco boast perhaps the two worst lineups in all of baseball (with S.F. taking the field with quite possible the worst starting lineup of my lifetime). However, neither will be an absolute patsy, because they have two the the league's best rotations. Jake Peavy, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Chris Young, and Greg Maddux are all safe bets for around 15 wins. And, Barry Zito, Randy Wolf, Jonathan Sanchez, Noah Lowry, and Mark Prior are capable of dominating with some regularity as well. What that means is that San Diego and San Francisco will be taking a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 games from the division's top teams, making it more difficult for them down the stretch. Perhaps, like Colorado last year, somebody will get hot and leave all other wild card competitors in the dust, but such seasons are very rare. Much like the 2005 Indians and the 2006 Tigers, I think Arizona and Colorado are going to need another year to improve upon their breakout seasons.

Division MVP: Matt Holliday (Rockies)
Division Cy Young: Brad Penny (Dodgers)
Division Rookie of the Year: Chase Headley (Padres)
Division Comeback Player of the Year: Andruw Jones (Dodgers)
Sleepers: Matt Kemp, Chris B. Young, Stephen Drew, Andre Ethier, Jason Schmidt, Chad Tracy