Every year, around the middle of May, when the Yankees are sitting around or even well under .500 a few members of the New York media freak out. They call for benchings, trades, and firings and for the obvious necessity of moving Joba Chamberlain to or from the bullpen. Inevitably, however, Yankees management ignore the panicked Chicken Littles and by the All-Star Break they are right where the need to be, neck-and-neck with the Red Sox.
The Yankees, the Phillies, and the Rockies are all notoriously slow starters, perhaps because they deal with some cold weather in the spring, or maybe because they employ some key players - Ryan Howard, Mark Teixeira, etc. - who are known for having a rough time of it in April. But these teams will not judge their seasons based on what happens in the first eight weeks. Come August, I have no doubt they will all be in the midst of the pennant race.
New York (AL), Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado, Minnesota, and Los Angeles (AL), all of whom, coincidently, made the playoffs last season, can afford early inconsistencies with the knowledge that, barring catastrophic bad luck, they have all the pieces in place to be competitive over the long haul. Many of the other dozen or so franchises with postseason aspirations, however, will sink or swim based on what they can prove in April and May, not only in terms of wins and losses, but in terms of players stepping up to fill crucial roles.
So, while the casual fan finds April baseball games less than enthralling because they seem inconsequential in comparison with the high stakes of the NBA and NHL playoffs, I'll be closely watching these teams in the early weeks to distinguish the difference between contender and pretender...
I think the D-Backs quietly had a very good offseason. Edwin Jackson, Ian Kennedy, and Kelly Johnson were underrated additions. They've got a number of talented young hitters in the big-league lineup who seem on the verge of becoming stars and there's even more offensive talent on the way in the form of Brandon Allen and Cole Gillespie.
The problem is, with Brandon Webb's return uncertain, Arizona's rotation is likely to include Rodrigo Lopez and Kris Benson at the backend. I don't imagine Lopez, Benson, or potential replacements like Kevin Mulvey or Billy Buckner will surprise anybody, which means it's even more critical that Webb gets healthy and that Jackson and Kennedy pitch well. If the Arizona rotation behind Dan Haren again devolves into a rotating cast of under-developed rookies and also-rans, as it did last season when nobody except Haren won more than nine games and the other six starting pitchers combined to go 33-55, the D-Backs don't have much chance of improving on their fourth place finish, much less chasing a postseason berth.
The Braves were clearly the trendiest "sleeper" team this March. Part of that has to do with it being Bobby Cox's swan song and also, probably, with the unfair expectation being placed on the Braves impressive young stars, Tommy Hanson and Jason Heyward.
Even if Hanson regresses a little bit, the Braves rotation should be pretty good, so long as they stay healthy. Tim Hudson has looked great this spring, but is returning from Tommy John. Shoulder soreness delayed Jair Jurrjens progress during camp. Kenshin Kawakami missed some time in 2009. When they traded Javy Vazquez, the Braves got rid of their rotational safety net, so they need at least four of the pitchers in their Opening Day rotation to be good for 25+ starts.
The health concerns extend to the lineup, where Chipper Jones and Troy Glaus, expected to be among the Braves primary run producers, are both notoriously fragile. Nate McLouth also missed extended time last season and got off to a very slow start in Spring Training. The Braves won't necessarily score runs easily even when the first stringers are on the field.
The Braves will inevitably have some stretches when they have to play without a couple key players and they will probably struggle in those situations, because their lineup isn't very deep. The question is how often and for how long will players like Jones, Glaus, and Jurrjens be disabled. If the list of nagging injuries is already getting long in the early stage of the season, Braves fans could be in for a long summer.
The Phillies strength makes it nearly impossible to win the division with anything less than 95 wins and the Wild Card race will, as always, be heated.
Chicago White Sox
Like most of the teams on this list, the Chi-Sox have starting pitching depth, and that factor alone makes them a borderline contender, especially in a division as shallow as the AL Central. The Sox also have a nice pedigree, a successful manager and general manager, and a core of consistent veteran producers like Paul Konerko and A. J. Pierzynski.
Konerko and Pierzynski, however, cannot carry a lineup, particularly at this stage in their career. Jim Thome and Jermaine Dye are gone. Carlos Quentin and Alex Rios are their replacements. Clearly, both players are talented and have had success in run-producing roles at in the past, but they are also both coming off disappointing seasons. Hot starts from them, as well as from potential table-setting guys like Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez, would go a long way towards soothing the anxieties of White Sox fans.
The Reds are, perhaps, the biggest darkhorse on this list, but there's no denying that Walt Jocketty has accumulated a whole lot of talent in a relatively short amount of time. Whether it happens this year or next, the Reds are positioned to be a dangerous team in the NL Central for the next five or six seasons.
Joey Votto coming off 25 HR and .322 AVG in 131 games appears positioned to become a superstar in 2010, but the key members of his supporting cast, especially Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs, and Juan Francisco, could still be a year or two away from being consistent contributors. Jocketty and Dusty Baker are hoping that cagey veterans like Scott Rolen, Orlando Cabrera, and Ramon Hernandez can protect Votto and Brandon Phillips in the interim.
The rotation also combines professional veteran innings-eaters (Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo) with high-upside youngsters (Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Aroldis Chapman, & Mike Leake).
For the Reds to challenge the Cardinals, Brewers, and Cubs, they definitely need Votto to become a premier slugger and Johnny Cueto to become a legit #1. Neither of those things are particularly far-fetched, but in Cueto's case especially, it is hardly guaranteed. Career years from the two of them might be enough to get the Reds above .500 for the first time since 2000. However, if the aim in a playoff berth, I think the Reds need at least one more breakout player on offense and in the rotation. They've got several solid candidates, so a big April from somebody like Bruce or Bailey could make Dusty Baker's postseason promises realistic.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The McCourt divorce handcuffed Ned Colletti this offseason, such that L.A.'s biggest moves were resigning 2009 placeholders Ron Belliard and Vicente Padilla. The Dodger have been to the NLCS in back-to-back years and plenty of the talent that fueled those runs is still around, but for them to return to the postseason and get another shot at the Phillies, they're going to need two things to happen.
First off, all the players who slumped through the second half of '09, namely Manny Ramirez, Russell Martin, Chad Billingsley, and Rafael Furcal, will need to rebound. There's no reason that wouldn't happen, considering all except Manny are in the prime of their careers, but clearly, the Dodgers aren't really depending on Padilla as their Ace and Belliard as a key table-setter.
Second, the bullpen which led the major leagues in ERA, strikeouts, and opponent's batting average, among other things, needs to again be very good, because the Dodgers don't have a single starting pitcher who is likely to pitch deep into games. They had only one complete game in '09, from Eric Stults, and the Dodgers front four have a grand total of seven complete games in their entire career.
Considering one of the key components in that bullpen, Ronald Belisario, isn't even in the country yet, producing at last year's rate is by no means assured. Joe Torre worked his young relievers, especially Jonathan Broxton, Belisario, and Ramon Troncoso, very hard in '09, as the Dodgers bullpen was 2nd in the NL in innings pitched.
The fact that Russ Ortiz and Jeff Weaver made the Dodgers Opening Day roster is not a great sign. Until Belisario returns, increased responsibilities will fall to George Sherrill and Hong-Chich Kuo (good), James McDonald (okay), and guys like Weaver, Ortiz, Charlie Haeger, and Rule 5 pick Carlos Monasterios (bad). Bullpen depth is clearly going to be an issue.
I'd say my riskiest prediction this March was projecting that the Brewers would join the Phillies, Cardinals, and Rockies in the playoffs. In fact, I claimed they'd beat out St. Louis for the NL Central title.
The main reason there aren't more people out on this limb with me is that the Brewers starting rotation in 2009 posted a 5.37 ERA, which placed them dead last in the National League by two-fifths of a run.
Many believe that adding Randy Wolf and Doug Davis, who are, most likely, middle-of-the-rotation starters, is not enough. I'm convinced, however, that the improvement is going to come from within, as Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra are a year older and Dave Bush is healthier.
What's important to note here is that the Brewers won 80 games in 2009, despite their pitching struggles. There is no reason to believe their offense will be any worse than it was last season, considering Corey Hart and Rickie Weeks are healthy, Jason Kendall has been replaced, and everybody is still very young, so if the pitching can merely move into the middle of the pack, Milwaukee becomes at least an 85-87 win team, which puts them right in the thick of the pennant race.
The A's may have the most to gain from a fast start. The projection systems - PECOTA, ZIPS, and the like - love the Athletics, but most commentators have treated the AL West as a three-horse race between Seattle, Texas, and L.A. That's probably because it remains somewhat unclear who's actually going to be taking the field consistently for the Athletics.
The Athletics intend to open the season with Jake Fox as their back-up catcher, which probably assures that they'll be making at least one roster move before Kurt Suzuki needs his first day off. They are also anticipating the return of Coco Crisp sometime around the beginning of May. As such, April will act as something like an extended Spring Training for many of Oakland's young hitters. Daric Barton, Jake Fox, Eric Patterson, Travis Buck, Cliff Pennington, and Adam Rosales all need to earn their roster spots all over again. I would guess that even veterans like Gabe Gross, Eric Chavez, Kevin Kouzmanoff, and Ryan Sweeney aren't absolutely safe.
There's a similar situation on the pitching staff, as Trevor Cahill, Joey Devine, Josh Outman, and Michael Wuertz begin the season on the DL, while Vin Mazzaro and Clayton Mortensen are lurking at AAA.
The Athletics will probably run out a slightly different lineup almost every day in April. Either the cream will rise to the top and we'll see a few players show that they have the ability to be the run-producers the Athletics desperately need, or the uncertainty will have everybody playing tense and the team will sink like a stone.
San Francisco Giants
You should never underestimate a franchise that has as much quality starting pitching as the Giants do. The scary truth is that, based on their ages, it wouldn't be totally unrealistic for Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez to all be better in 2010 than they were in 2009.
Obviously, the Giants have a well-documented run-scoring problem. Aubrey Huff and Mark DeRosa aren't going to fix it, but they should at least offer some improvement over the pathetic 738 OPS the Giants got from their positions (1B & LF) in 2009.
My biggest concern on the 2010 Giants isn't their ability to support the pitching staff offensively, but rather their ability to support it defensively. The seven players who take the field behind Lincecum on Opening Day will have an average age of 32. In '09, these were their defensive ranks among fielders at their position according to Ultimate Zone Rating (among players who played 800+ innings):
1B - Aubrey Huff - 20th (-2.3 UZR)
2B - Freddy Sanchez - 6th (7.4)
3B - Pablo Sandoval - 16th (-4.1)
SS - Edgar Renteria - 16th (-0.2)
LF - Mark DeRosa - DNQ (2.0)
CF - Aaron Rowand - 14th (1.3)
RF - John Bowker/Nate Schierholtz - DNQ (NA/5.1)
As you can see, the Giants only above average defender is Freddy Sanchez (and, possible, Schierholtz, when he plays). This is particular troublesome in the cases of Renteria and Rowand, who play critical defensive positions and don't provide much production on offense either. I'll be watching who gets playing time from Bruch Bochy in April and whether guys like Juan Uribe, Emmanuel Burriss, and Fred Lewis can occasionally crack the starting lineup and perhaps play well enough on both sides of the ball to steal more time from the veterans in the summer months.
One of the drawbacks to getting so much attention this offseason is that pretty much everybody knows the Mariners are going to struggle to score runs. Chone Figgins should be a very positive addition to the lineup, but it's very difficult to predict what Milton Bradley and Casey Kotchman will do hitting third and fourth.
The Mariners weren't only the lowest scoring team in the AL last season, they scored 46 runs less than the #13 team, Kansas City, 101 runs fewer than next lowest scoring team with a record of .500 or better (Detroit), and 177 runs fewer than the lowest-scoring playoff-bound team (Minnesota). And, while they added Figgins, Bradley, and Kotchman, they lost their most consistent source of power, Russell Branyan.
Although I totally buy into Zduriencik's emphasis on run prevention, the fact remains, you cannot win on prevention alone. Teams like the Yankees and Red Sox inevitably pick up some 13-to-10 and 9-to-8 type wins. The Mariners cannot win zero to negative one.
Many pundits still haven't recognized that the Rangers won 87 games last season on the strength of their pitching. They scored less runs (784) than in any season since 1995. If Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler stay moderately healthy they should easily surpass that total in 2010, perhaps by a long shot. So the big question for the Rangers is whether the pitching staff can at least hold steady in the middle of the pack in the American League.
The Rangers have some depth, with Tommy Hunter starting the season on the DL, Neftali Feliz in the bullpen, and Brandon McCarthy and Derek Holland at AAA, so nobody who made the Opening Day roster will have a particularly long leash. It also gives the Rangers some insurance during Rich Harden's seemingly inevitably trip to the DL. However, it's very hard to predict what any of these pitchers, save Harden, will do when their opportunities come.
Scott Feldman has some worrisome indicators following his 17-win campaign. His FIP was pretty high (4.31) compared to his ERA (4.08), his BABIP was pretty low (.275) compared to his career (.284), and nothing about his previous performance in the majors or minors suggested he had the potential to become a front of the rotation starter. Hunter and Matt Harrison do have promising minor-league track records, but they still need to prove their ability to pitch consistently at the major-league level. Colby Lewis is a total enigma, having spent the last two seasons in Japan.
Part of the reason I picked the Rangers to win the AL West was because they have so many interesting pitching options. That said, I'd really like to see a couple of their young arms get a little momentum in early weeks of the regular season.