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1. St. Louis Cardinals (NL Ranks: 4th best Line-Up, 5th best rotation)
Why I Have Them Here
The best player in baseball (Pujols), 2 Cy Young candidates (Wainwright and Carpenter), a top-of-the-line manager and pitching coach and a relatively weak division. When the playoffs started last year, I thought they would represent the NL in the World Series, and all the key parts are still there.
Biggest Concern: Chris Carpenter’s Health
I was going to write a whole rant about how Ryan Franklin sucks, and there is no way he’s going to repeat his 2009 season, but I’ll settle for this sentence and move on to more important things. When healthy, Chris Carpenter is a perennial Cy Young candidate. 2009 was no different, as he posted the lowest ERA of his career, 2.24. But his injury history doesn’t give one a lot of confidence he can stay on the mound. He made 13 starts in 2002 before being lost for the season and then missing all of 2003. He pitched well from 2004-2006, but then missed virtually all of 2007 and 2008 with injuries. A healthy starter makes about 32 starts a year and since 2002, Carpenter has made just 54% of his possible starts.
Most Important Player: Matt Holliday, OF
Don’t get me started on this contract. 7 years, $120 million? Really? For Matt Holliday? When no one else was really bidding? When the guys has exactly 1/2 season of quality play outside of Coors Field? You think he’s going to be worth $17 million in 2016 when he’s 36? Don’t get me wrong, Holliday is a nice player, certainly worth some money. But there’s no way I’m going over 5 years, $70 million for him, especially when the priority should be to re-sign Pujols to a lifetime deal. He’s the most important player on this team because he has to live up to that contract by being a quality 2nd option to Pujols in that line-up, much like Jeff Kent used to be for Barry Bonds.
Best Newcomer: Brad Penny, SP
Will Penny follow Joel Pinero, Kyle Lohse and John Smoltz (among many others) as mediocre/over-the-hill pitchers that suddenly get awesome once Dave Duncan gets a hold of them? My guess is yes.
2. Milwaukee Brewers (NL Ranks: 6th Best Line-Up, 7th best rotation)
Why I Have Them Here
They are just above average across all areas. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun give them one of the best middle-of-the-orders in baseball. Alcides Escobar and Carlos Gomez give them some intriguing upside players and Yovani Gallardo could break out as a real ace this year. Trevor Hoffman continues to defy the odds as an effective closer.
Biggest Concern: Middle-aged, average starting pitchers
Jeff Suppan, Doug Davis, Dave Bush. Ages: 35 years old, 34 years old, 31 years old. Average fastball speed: 87.3mph, 85.1mph, 87.9 mph. Combined average season over the last 4 years: 181.1 IP, 4.66 ERA. Is it possible type “YAWN” big enough? Their offense and bullpen is good enough to overcome what might be a lot of high scoring games.
Most Important Player: Rickie Weeks, 2B
Weeks seemed to finally be on his way to realizing some of his potential last year. When he was lost for the season on May 17th, he was slugging .517 and on pace for a 40 HR, 105 RBI season. It’s unlikely he would have hit those marks, but it was certainly the worst possible time for him to get injured. If he can stay healthy and provide a big complimentary piece to Fielder and Braun, the Brewers could have one of best offenses in the league.
Best Newcomer: Randy Wolf, SP
Since leaving the Phillies after the 2006 season (seems a lot longer than that), Wolf has pitched for 4 teams (including the Brewers) and put together a 3.93 ERA in 507.1 IP. Shockingly, he put up the best season of his career last season at age 32. He set personal bests in GS (34), IP (214.1), WHIP (1.10) and ERA+ (122). Whether or not he was trying extra hard in his contract year, or has just become a better pitcher with age as many lefties do, will be a big question for the Brewers 2010 season.
3. Chicago Cubs (AL Ranks: 9th best Line-Up, 10th best rotation)
Why I Have Them Here
Too many questions. Can Aramis Ramirez stay healthy? Is Alfonso Soriano already washed up? When will Ted Lilly be ready? Can Carlos Zambrano keep his head on straight? Can Geovanny Soto bounce back? Can Carlos Marmol find the strike zone? They have the talent to take the division, but need a lot of things to go right. My guess is some goes right, some doesn’t and they wind up in the middle.
Biggest Concern: Bad contracts
Soriano has 5 years, $90 million left after his .726 OPS last year. Carlos Zambrano has 3 years, $54 mill left and hasn’t pitched or acted like an ace. Aramis Ramirez has 2 years, $30 million left and was hurt most of last year. Fukudome has 2 years, $26.5 million left and is a 4th outfielder. Carlos Silva has 2 years, $23 million left and is worse than Adam Eaton.
Most Important Player: Aramis Ramirez, 3B
Or Soriano, or Soto. In 2008, Ramirez, Soriano, Soto and Mark DeRosa combined for 359 RBI. In 2009, those 3 and DeRosa’s replacement, Milton Bradley combined for 207. The Cubs need 250+ RBI out of those 3 guys if they want to contend in 2010.
Best Newcomer: Marlon Byrd, OF
Another former big-time Phillies prospect. Byrd found his stride in Texas, where he delivered 3 straights seasons of an OPS over .800. He parlayed that into a 3 year deal with the Cubs this off-season, who hope he can add some quality depth to their line-up unlike their last 2 OF signings (Bradley and Fukudome).
4. Cincinnati Reds (NL Ranks: 11th best Line-Up, 13th best rotation)
Why I Have Them Here
In a very “blah” division, they have some upside here. Good young hitters in Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, starters with great stuff trying to find their way in Cueto, Bailey and maybe Aroldis Chapman – and a bunch of solid veterans. They have a pretty good farm system and enough young players that they could take a leap in the coming years, but for this year, I’m sure they’d settle for a tiny step.
Biggest Concern: Rising expectations
A lot of people are really high on this team, some going as far to put them in the wild card discussion. I think that this usually turns out to be a bad thing for the team. People predict that young players will take steps forward and older players will duplicate their previous years’ perfomance. It almost never works out that and the predictions for greatness usually come a year or two too soon.
Most Important Player: Jay Bruce, OF
Bruce was rated the #1 prospect in all of baseball prior to the 2008 season. Made sense as he was hitting .364 in AAA while showing 30-40 HR power at age 21. Since his promotion to the majors, he’s had a tough time adjusting. It seems to me that he has tried to hard to hit HRs (43 in 758 ABs) and not just making contact with the ball (.240 BA). Bruce has the talent to hit .300 while knocking 30 HRs. He hasn’t even turned 23 yet, so he’s got plenty of time, but it would make the Reds a lot less nervous if he starter this year.
Best Newcomer: Aroldis Chapman, SP
Talk about an intriguing prospect. Chapman is a 6’4” stringbean (185 lbs) that can whip a fastball in there in the high 90′s, sometimes touching 100. He defected from Cuba and the Reds (surprisingly) signed him to $30 million contract. He’s 21 and his issue is (not surprisingly) control. Could be a dominant starter, could be a dominant closer, could be a total and complete bust. I’ll be keeping an eye on him.
5. Houston Astros (AL Ranks: 13th best Line-Up, 12th best rotation)
Why I Have Them Here
There is a HUGE dropoff from their stars (Oswalt, Berkman, Lee, Pence) to the rest of their team. Their lack of depth across the board will eventually hit them in a 162 game season.
Biggest Concern: Is there enough to compliment Lee, Berkman and Pence?
No there isn’t, and there really isn’t a lot of potential for a young player to step up. Aside from the 3 players mentioned, the Astros have Michael Bourn (.738 OPS in 2009), Kaz Matsui (.659 OPS), JR Towles (.604 OPS), Pedro Feliz (.694 OPS) and Tommy Manzella (.695 OPS in minor league career). That’s Bourn and 4 black holes. You aren’t going to win a lot of games with 5 horrible hitters (including the pitcher) in your line-up.
Most Important Player: Brett Myers, SP
So if this team wins, it has to do it with pitching. They have decent starters at the top with Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez but the wild card is Myers. We know all about Myers, and I really don’t think he’s going to all of a sudden be amazing at this point in his career, but I think he is capable of a solid season with 200 IP and an ERA under 4.00.
Best Newcomer: Brandon Lyon, RP
Had to mention Lyon because he was unanimously thought of as the worst FA signing of the off-season (3 years, $15 million for a pitcher with a career 4.20 ERA and a 4.70 ERA just 2 years ago). So how was Ed Wade rewarded for this great move? With an extension of course!
6. Pittsburgh Pirates (AL Ranks: 15th best Line-Up, 15th best rotation)
Why I Have Them Here
Because this is where they have been since Silence of the Lambs won Best Picture in 1992.
Biggest Concern: Will it ever end?
The Phillies had John Kruk and Lenny Dykstra the last time the Pirates have had a winning season. Since then, they have put no money into the draft, drafted horribly and spent no money on decent free agents. They are finally changing their ways when it comes to the draft and have a promising system that will likely improve. However, they are still several years away from breaking the streak.
Most Important Player: Pedro Alvarez, 3B
The centerpiece of the rebuilding movement, Alvarez is a power hitting 3B who can also hit for average. Baseball Prospectus ranks him as the 6th best prospect in all of baseball. It’s likely Pirates’ fans will be more interested in his minor league numbers than any major league player (except maybe Andrew McCutchen).
Best Newcomer: Octavio Dotel, RP
The Pirates aren’t exactly in the market to make big moves. Dotel will come in with a chance to close – he was solid for the White Sox last year with a 3.32 ERA in 62.1 IP.