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MLB – National League 2012 Season Preview

04 Apr

The major league baseball season is right around the corner – actually, it’s already started with a series between Seattle and Oakland in Japan – so it’s time to preview the races in both leagues for 2012, starting with the National League.

The balance of power looks like it’s shifted from the NL to the American League this season, with 2 of the game’s premier hitters – Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder – signing with AL clubs. The defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals appear to be a classic one-year wonder champ, with Pujols gone, manager Tony LaRussa retired and pitcher Chis Carpenter recovering from injury. The San Francisco Giants, champs of the previous season, have arguably the best pitching in the NL and will be contenders. The best team in the league, however, has to be the Philadelphia Phillies, who have all the ingredients to reach the World Series, besides maybe a proven closer. The biggest challenge to the Fightin’ Phils in the NL East may come, surprisingly, from the up-and-coming Washington Nationals. They’ll be an improved club, especially if pitching phenom Steven Strasburg is recovered from injury. Another possible East challenger could be the Miami Marlins. The Fish are traditionally a scrappy team, and the boost they get from playing in their new stadium, coupled with the signing of shortstop Jose Reyes, should give them a lot of positive momentum.  I see both the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets headed for long losing years.

Despite the loss of Pujols and LaRussa, the Cards could have enough left to at least reclaim the NL Central title, although I believe the Cincinnati Reds will rebound from a disappointing 2011 campaign and win the division. The rest of division looks like a group of pretenders. The Milwaukee Brewers had a great 2011 campaign but lost Fielder and saw slugger Ryan Braun tainted with a possible steroids scandal. The doormat Pittsburgh Pirates could surprise and stay in contention if some of their youngsters develop, but at this point the Reds look like the better club. The Houston Astros definitely will bring up the rear in this division.

I see the Giants reclaiming dominance in the NL West, with defending division champ Arizona backsliding. The Giants’ biggest challengers will be their hated rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers, rejuvenated under a new ownership group that includes former Laker great Magic Johnson. The Colorado Rockies, in my opinion, are also a better team than the Diamondbacks, and will be right there in the race with San Fran and the Dodgers. The San Diego Padres, unfortunately, will finish in the basement of this division. In the end, I see the Phillies representing the Senior Circuit in the Series, although the health of Chase Utley is a concern.

 
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MLB – Playoff Updates

04 Oct

Major league baseball’s regular season ended recently with an exciting final night that saw the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox let playoff spots slip away. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals took advantage of the Braves’ fold to grab the National League wild card, and the Tampa Bay Rays staged a monumental comeback from 7-0 down to defeat the New York Yankees 8-7 and steal the AL wild card from Boston. The Red Sox collapse cost manager Terry Francona his job, which is a shame since he’s the best thing that ever happened to Red Sox baseball, winning 2 World Series titles.

The postseason is now well underway and it’s been just as exciting as the season’s final days. The overall favorites in both leagues have stumbled so far. In the AL, the Yankees won game one after rain delayed it a day, but the Tigers have stormed back to win the next 2 and take the Series lead. Detroit was red hot the second half of the season and if they hold on and beat the Yanks it won’t be a big shock. Still, I don’t think the Bronx Bombers are dead yet. If they can somehow win A.J. Burnett’s start tonight I feel they’ll win game 5 and take the series. In the NL, the Phillies cruised to a game one win over St. Louis, then held a 4-0 lead with Cliff Lee on the mound in game 2, so they were looking solid. Then the Cards stormed back to win 5-4 to tie the series. Philly is still the stronger club and one loss won’t fluster them, but in the Tony LaRussa era one thing has stayed consistent about the Cards – they are always a tough out. Some people said before the playoffs began that despite the Phils being the favorite, that the best team in the National League was the Milwaukee Brewers. They appear to be dispatching Arizona in quick order with a 2-0 lead in the series, so those experts may be right. The Brewers could be this year’s San Francisco Giants. Tampa got into the playoffs in dramatic fashion but they are now down 2-1 to Texas in the other AL series and may not have enough magic left to battle back against the reigning league champs. The Yankees and Phillies were clearly the strongest teams in the regular season, but in the short 5 game division series, anything can happen.

 
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MLB – Indians Still Alive

22 Aug

You can look at where the Cleveland Indians are at this point of the major league baseball season in 2 different ways. A pessimist would say that after being swept by the Detroit Tigers and dropping to 4 1/2 games behind in the AL Central, that this is the point where they come crashing back to earth and settle in their annual spot somewhere near the bottom of the division. An optimist would point out that this is the furthest they’ve gone into a season with a record above .500 (after the sweep it’s barely there at 62-61) and that they still have a half dozen games left against the Tigers, including a huge season-ending series in Detroit, that they still have plenty of chances to right the ship and win the division. Either way, it’ll be interesting to see how manager Manny Acta handles his young team – whether he succeeds in keeping their confidence level up and they stay in the race, or if they implode after being dominated in Detroit and fade away.

For the first time in years, the Indians, instead of trading away Cy Young Award-winning pitchers at the deadline, made some moves to improve and try to stay in the race. The most daring trade was the move to acquire starter Ubaldo Jiminez from the Rockies. Jiminez was dominating the National League last year before fading somewhat late in the year, and if he is right can be the number one starter the Tribe has lacked since they gave away C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee. So far the results have been mixed. Jiminez was impressive in beating the Tigers in Cleveland but was rocked in a return start against the Tigers. There has been talk that his velocity is down from early last season and that he might be damaged goods, but if that were the case he should be bad in all his starts. Jiminez was friends with Acta before the trade and the fit seems good for him in Cleveland’s rotation. Hopefully Acta can get the best, and some consistency, out of him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ubaldo Jiminez                                                                                      Kosuke Fukodome

 

There wasn’t as much hoopla involved with Cleveland’s other trade deadline acquisition, outfielder Kosuke Fukodome from the Cubs, but he has done a good job both in the field and at the plate since joining the Tribe. The Indians have also gotten a shot in the arm from a couple of players called up from the minors, infielders Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis. You have to hand it to the long-suffering fans in Cleveland for their sense of humor in supporting their teams. When LeBron James was playing for the Cavaliers, the city’s basketball arena had a huge action mural of him on the side of the building with the caption “We Are All Witnesses”. When LeBron “took his talents to South Beach” the mural was quickly removed. Recently at an Indians’ game after Kipnis had gone 5-for-5 the night before against the Tigers, a fan held up a sign that read “We Are All Kipnises”.   

Jason Kipnis

 
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MLB – Five Players Who Changed The Game

27 Jul

In picking five significant players who changed the game in major league baseball, I broke my usual rule of only including those who I’d actually seen play. The contributions of the players included on the list from before my time were just too great and too significant to leave them off. Here are five players who changed the game in major league baseball:

1. Jackie Robinson – when he was called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946, breaking the color line in baseball, it was the most significant change in the history of the game. He handled the adversity of having to face racism in ballparks across the country with class and dignity, and paved the way for minorities to play in the major leagues. Some of that racism came not only from the bleachers, but from opposing dugouts and even his own clubhouse.

2. Babe Ruth – before “The Babe” came on the scene, baseball was in what is now referred to as the “dead ball” era, where the player who led the league in home runs hit around 10 or so for the whole year. The game was dominated by pitching and speed. Ruth, after starting his career as a pitcher, became the most prolific home run hitter of all time and lifted the popularity of the sport to new heights. He set major league records for single season and career home runs ( 60 and 714) that stood for generations. Ruth is probably the biggest icon in the history of American professional sports.

3. Bob Gibson – the big Cardinals’ right-hander dominated the game in the 1960s, and his contribution to changing baseball can be summed up in the 1968 season, known as the “Year of The Pitcher”. Gibson set an all-time standard by recording a 1.12 ERA and his dominance was directly responsible for baseball making significant rule changes for the following season – lowering the pitcher’s mound and tightening up the hitter’s strike zone.

4. Ichiro Suzuki – there were a couple of Oriental players who played in the major leagues prior to Ichiro’s arrival, but none had the impact that he had in paving the way for the influx of Asians into the game as he did. He was the first Japanese-born every day positional player in the majors, and was an instant all star, sending GMs searching for the “next” Ichiro throughout Japan, Korea, etc.

5. Curt Flood – he had a decent major league career, playing 15 seasons, mostly with the St. Louis Cardinals. But he made his biggest impact on the game when, after the 1969 season, he challenged baseball’s “reserve clause” system by refusing to be traded to the Phillies. His challenge was ultimately unsuccessful, but it brought the players together in solidarity to eventually fight and break down the system, resulting in the free agency today’s players enjoy. Flood is mostly remembered for his role in baseball’s labor history, but his playing career, which included 7 Gold Gloves for fielding excellence, 3 all-star selections and 2 World Series rings, is also worth noting.

 

Top 5 Baseball Managers of All Time

24 Jun

My top five baseball managers of all time will not include legends like Joe McCarthy, Connie Mack or even Casey Stengel. McCarthy and Mack don’t qualify since they managed way before my time, and Stengel doesn’t make the list because I only remember him as manager of the hapless expansion Mets in the early 1960s (“Can anybody here play this game?”). My only other recollection of him is his being fired after the Yankees lost the 1960 World Series to Pittsburgh, and that must have been a good decision since his replacement, Ralph Houk, won the next 2 Series titles. I didn’t include any active managers – that might make a good future “list” post. Those who deserve mention but didn’t make the cut include Lou Piniella, Earl Weaver, Tommy Lasorda, Bobby Cox, Whitey Herzog  and Gene Mauch. Here are my choices, again, in no particular order:

1. Walter Alston – this guy is the reason why the Dodgers, from their Brooklyn days on into the move to Los Angeles and beyond, were always one of the most stable franchises in baseball – at least they were up until the last couple of years. He managed the club for 23 years and won 7 pennants and 4 World Series titles. He managed the NL to victories in the all star game 7 times. His long tenure as manager of the same team is even more remarkable when you add in the fact that he worked on one-year contracts for the entire 23 years. Alston was elected into Cooperstown in 1983.

2. Sparky Anderson – like Alston, Anderson’s longevity was his trademark, as he managed in the major leagues for 26 years. The difference is he did it with 2 different teams – the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers. Anderson guided the vaunted “Big Red Machine” to 2 World Series titles in Cincinnati, then won another title with the Tigers in 1984, becoming the first manager to win a World Series in both leagues. Anderson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000.

3. Billy Martin – there was much more to Martin’s managerial career than his celebrated feuds with owner George Steinbrenner and animated arguments with umpires. His stints with the Yankees became almost comical, as he was hired 5 different times as manager there, but he also helped revive a once proud franchise and returned them to glory in the mid-1970s, winning 2 pennants and a World Series. His best attributes as a manager were being a genius on strategy and turning losing teams into instant winners, which he pulled off not only with the Yanks but in Minnesota, Detroit, Texas and Oakland. Martin would probably be considered the best manager of all time had he not battled alcohol problems his entire career, which got him fired at almost every stop.

4. Dick Williams – this is one of baseball’s most under-rated managers. Williams won 2 consecutive World Series titles with the Oakland A’s in the early 1970s, and also had successful runs as a manager prior to that in Boston and after his Oakland years in San Diego. In Boston in 1967, he guided the underdog Red Sox to their first pennant since 1946 and although they lost the World Series to the heavily-favored St. Louis Cardinals in seven games (3 of the 4 losses were to Bob Gibson), it was considered a great job of managing by Williams. He led the talent-laden A’s to their titles, proving he could win with both underdogs and talented players. He managed the Montreal Expos for a short stint, turning that franchise into a winner also, and in 1984 led the Padres into the World Series with another ragtag roster, but they lost the Series to Anderson’s Tigers.

5. Joe Torre – Torre was a good but not spectacular manager in earlier jobs with the Mets, Braves and Cardinals, but found his niche when Steinbrenner hired him to lead the Yankees. His hiring wasn’t popular with the NY media, as they dubbed him “Clueless Joe”, but in 12 seasons as manager, he guided the Yanks to the playoffs every season and restored the Bronx Bombers to prominence, winning 4 World Series titles. It’s possible that Torre’s managing career may not be over, which would mean he’d have to be moved to the “active” list of great managers. If that happens, it would probably be Herzog who replaced him on this list.

 

MLB – Top 5 Left-Handed Pitchers of All Time

08 Jun

One of the most valuable commodities for any major league baseball team to have is good left-handed pitching. Today I am listing my choices for the five top left-handed starting pitchers of all time. I did not include players from baseball’s old “dead ball” era like Eddie Plank and Lefty Grove, since their stats are somewhat skewed. My choices are therefore limited to players that I’ve actually seen pitch. Here are my picks for the 5 greatest “southpaws” of all time:

1. Sandy Koufax – Koufax has been called a “Supernova” because he played 12 seasons in the majors, but his best work was compressed into 6 years, from 1961 to 1966, when he was the most dominant pitcher in the game. He won 3 Cy Young Awards, and was voted the award unanimously all 3 times. He was a seven time all star, won 4 World Series and was Series MVP twice. He pitched 4 no-hitters in his career, and in 1963 was voted NL MVP, an award rarely given to a pitcher. My personal memory of Koufax, which pushed him to the top of this list, is the 1965 World Series when his Los Angeles Dodgers met the Twins. He refused to pitch the opening game because it fell on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, and the Twins won the first 2 games. After the Dodgers battled back to tie the Series, Koufax pitched a complete game shutout in Game 5, then after the Twins won to force a game 7, he came back on 2 days rest and pitched a 3-hit shutout to clinch the title for the Dodgers.

2. Whitey Ford – it amazes me how little respect this guy gets when people discuss the greatest all-time pitchers in baseball history, and that probably is due to the fact that he played on New York Yankee teams, for 16 years, that were loaded with marquee players. Still, to his teammates and Yankee fans, Ford is “The Chairman of The Board”. He was a 10 time all star and pitched for 6 World Series-winning teams in New York. He won the Cy Young Award in 1961, when only one Cy Young was awarded, not one in each league, and was also World Series MVP that year. Ford was a dominant post-season pitcher, with 10 World Series wins. He started Game One in a World Series for the Yanks 8 times. The one year he didn’t, in 1960, the Yanks lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven games, and Ford only was able to start twice, winning both times.

3. Warren Spahn – if this list were based on longevity alone, Spahn would be at the top. He pitched for 21 years, and was a 20-game winner 13 times, including a 23-7 season when he was 42 years old. His 363 career wins are the most of any left-hander in baseball history. Baseball awards the “Warren Spahn Award” annually to the the game’s top southpaw. Really, you could rearrange the top 3 on this list in any order and get no argument from me. A story that best describes Spahn – on July 2, 1963, at age 42, he was involved in an epic pitchers’ duel with the Giants’ 25-year old ace, Juan Marichal. Both hurlers threw complete games in a battle that lasted 16 innings, finally decided, 1-0, by a Willie Mays solo homer in the bottom of the 16th off Spahn. Marichal threw 227 pitches that day, Spahn 201 in the loss.

4. Steve Carlton – Carlton’s career ended in 1988, and one stat he possesses is an indictment of today’s pitchers. He is the last pitcher from any team to throw 300 innings in a season. Also on his resume are 4 Cy Young Awards, 10 all star appearances, 2 World Series titles, a plaque in the Hall of Fame and even a Gold Glove Award for his fielding. In 1972, pitching for the last place Phillies, “Lefty” won 27 games, a remarkable feat considering his team won a total of 59 games all season. 

5. Randy Johnson –  “The Big Unit” was clearly not only one of the top southpaws of all time, but one of the top pitchers period. He won more Cy Youngs (5) than the others on the list, had more career strikeouts, and threw 2 no-hitters, including a perfect game. He is third on the all-time list for hit batsmen, so he was a throwback intimidator who used his 100+ MPH fastball and cutting slider to his advantage. Johnson was also a 10-time all star, and not only won a World Series (with the Arizona Diamondbacks) but was MVP of the Series. The stat that landed him at the #5 spot is his paltry 100 complete games in his 22-year career. By comparison, Spahn had 382, Carlton 254, Koufax 137 in 12 seasons, and Ford 156 in 16 seasons.

 

Happy Birthday, Yogi Berra!

12 May

When you’re a sports fan, over the years you develop a “love” for the teams you follow in each sport, and almost as much of a “hate” for the teams that are their rivals. As more and more time goes by, however, you come to realize that that “hate” grows into what is more of a respect – respect that the “hated” team gave you a lot of aggravation because your team just couldn’t beat them. My “hatred” for coach Don Shula was monumental during the years that his Miami Dolphin teams dominated the Buffalo Bills, but looking back, there was no way those Bills’ teams were going to compete with Shula’s Miami teams. So the “hatred” becomes respect once you have the perspective of realizing that the guy was one of the best, arguably THE best, NFL coach of all time.

I’ve been a Cleveland Indian fan my whole life, and my “hatred” for the New York Yankees goes back a good 45 years, since the Indians have been consistent losers most of those years while the Yankees have been dominant. I still catch myself checking out the baseball scores and being momentarily upset when I see that the Yankees beat say, the Twins or the Tigers, then realize – “wait, that’s a good thing for the Indians.” Old habits die hard. In the case of the old Yankee teams I grew up despising, I really have a great deal of respect for them now. Looking back, the 1950s/’60s dynasty was winding down in the first few years I remember following baseball, and in actuality they struggled for most of the decade of the ’60s. I have the utmost respect for the Yankee players of that era now – guys like Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, Clete Boyer, Elston Howard, Moose Skowron, Tony Kubek, Bobby Richardson and especially Roger Maris. In my mind, Maris’ single-season home run record of 61 still deserves an asterisk, only now the asterisk should be followed by the statement – “the REAL non-chemically enhanced single-season record.”

Out of all those old Yankee players, the guy you can’t help but love is Lawrence “Yogi” Berra, whose birthday is today. Yogi was nearing the end of the line when I remember him playing, but I do remember him being a tremendous clutch player, even at the end of his playing days. With apologies to Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk, Berra is the greatest major league catcher of all time. He may also be the greatest ambassador for the game that baseball has ever had. I don’t know if there has ever been a person born on the planet who loves baseball more than Yogi, and any time I catch a show that includes him telling old baseball stories or giving a tour of his museum, I can’t help but stop and watch. Thank you, Yogi, for being a part of an era in baseball when I learned to love the game, even though at the time I thought I “hated” you. And Happy Birthday, Yogi! Here’s wishing you many, many more birthdays too, even though, as you would say – “the future ain’t what it used to be.”

 

MLB – Surprising Cleveland Indians

11 Apr

                                           Pitcher Carlos Carrasco (left) and OF Shin-Soo Choo.

 

At the start of every major league baseball season there are a few teams that unexpectedly come out of the blocks flying high, only to crash land at some point over the long 162-game season, settling back into their losing ways. This year, one team that had zero expectations outside of their own clubhouse is the Cleveland Indians. The Indians have been poster children for small market franchises that trade away all their star players for financial reasons to stay afloat in the skewed “haves and have-nots” system in the game today. Two years ago, when Cliff Lee and C. C. Sabathia faced off in the opening game of the World Series, it was a slap in the face to all Indian fans, who could only dream of what might have been if the Tribe had been able to keep them both. The team also dealt Jake Westbrook, Kerry Wood, Ryan Garko, Aaron Laffey, Ben Francisco and fan favorites like Casey Blake and Victor Martinez.

Whenever a team has a fire sale with its’ star players like the Indians have the last few years, the only hope for the fans is that a miracle happens and the “prospects” acquired for the stars actually turn out to be real players. It’s early, but that may actually be happening in Cleveland this season. The young Indians, as of Sunday, have ripped off seven consecutive wins and played some impressive baseball in doing it. Cleveland management may have ignited this current success with a transaction that didn’t involve trading any players. The good fundamental baseball being played this year can be traced back to the hiring of Manny Acta as manager prior to last season. The Indians were a losing team last year, but one thing I remember about the season is that the losses were mostly due to the team fielding a young, inexperienced lineup and a young pitching staff that was a bit overwhelmed facing major league hitters, some for the first time ever. Despite the losing, to me the team was playing better fundamental baseball – fielding better, running the bases a lot better, and actually executing sacrifice bunts – than it ever did under former skipper Eric Wedge, even in the seasons that Wedge guided them to the playoffs.

                                              Pitcher Josh Tomlin (left) and catcher Carlos Santana.

The one recognizable player the Indians have, centerfielder Grady Sizemore, has battled injury problems and started this season on the disabled list. Michael Brantley has filled in admirably, both in centerfield and in the leadoff spot. The Tribe’s lineup is dotted with youngsters acquired in trades – catcher Carlos Santana, first baseman Matt LaPorta, shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and outfielder Shin-Soo Choo (above). The pitching staff is loaded with young talent, like Carlos Carrasco (above), Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin (above) and closer Chris Perez. Management added some experienced players with postseason backgrounds in second baseman Orlando Cabrera and utility man Adam Everett. The one player not traded away – designated hitter Travis Hafner – is healthy and off to a good start at the plate. The impressive thing about the Indians’ pitchers is that, so far, they are trusting their “stuff” and throwing strikes, a tribute to pitching coach Tim Belcher.

This team is likely to come back down to earth at some point, but the feeling here is that Acta is the type of manager that will keep them competitive throughout the season. They may be too young to be a playoff contender, but hopefully they’ll make some noise in the AL Central race. Then again, who ever expected the San Francisco Giants to accomplish what they did last season?

 
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MLB – American League Season Preview

31 Mar

Picking the best team in the American League in any season usually means deciding between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, but the Texas Rangers proved last year that surprises can happen. Here’s an AL 2011 preview.

AL East

The Red Sox are the darlings of a lot of prognosticators this year based on the free agent signing of Carl Crawford and trade for slugger Adrian Gonzalez. The Yankees have a lineup just as potent as Boston’s, but their starting pitching is suspect after C.C. Sabathia and Phil Hughes. The Sox, so long as Josh Beckett is his usual self, have the best team on paper in the division. As for the rest of the division, Toronto and Baltimore look like teams on the rise, while Tampa Bay appears to be on the decline. The Blue Jays won 85 games last season with a young developing roster and a bonafide power hitter in Jose Bautista. Buck Showalter breathed some life into a lowly Baltimore team when he was hired as manager, and the Orioles look primed to do some damage in the division this year. Tampa manager Joe Maddon has his hands full trying to keep his team competitive after losing Crawford, and others, to free agency.

AL Central

If things go according to form in this division, the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers will start fast, then fade at season’s end while manager Ron Gardenhire’s Minnesota Twins sneak past them and win the division. Things could change this year as the White Sox look ready to stay in it for the long haul. They added Juan Pierre, Alex Rios and Adam Dunn to an already potent offense so they appear to be favorites to win, if manager Ozzie Guillen can control his mouth. The return of closer Joe Nathan from injury makes the Twins a stronger team, and I see them battling the Chisox down to the wire. Detroit has got to figure out how to shake their reputation for choking at the end of the season, although slugger Miguel Cabrera’s problems with alcohol may signal troubles for the Tigers at the start of the campaign this year. Cleveland and Kansas City, unfortunately, are glorified farm teams for the big spenders in baseball and have no chance of winning anything. The only race either of them will be involved in is against each other to stay out of the division basement. Cleveland has some young stars in Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana while KC traded away its’ lone recognizable player – pitcher Zach Grienke – so the Royals look destined to finish last.

AL West

The Texas Rangers surpised everyone by reaching the World Series last year, but the free agency loss of pitcher Cliff Lee will make it difficult for the Rangers to even repeat as AL West champs this season. This is the weakest division in all of baseball and the move of Lee to the Phillies makes it even weaker. The Oakland Athletics, like Cleveland and Kansas City seemingly always operating as a major league “farm” team for the big money boys, have collected an impressive group of young players and the A’s will contend this year if they can pull this group together. In a division like this with no clear favorite, I have to favor the team with a winning background and capable veteran manager. That would be Mike Scioscia’s Los Angeles Angels. The Angels have added Vernon Wells’ bat to their lineup and I see them overtaking the Rangers and winning the division. The Seattle Mariners had Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez at the top of their pitching rotation last year and couldn’t win, so there’s no reason to believe they’ll go anywhere this year.

 
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MLB – National League Season Preview

30 Mar

The major league baseball season gets underway on Thursday, and after last season’s shocking World Series win by the San Francisco Giants, just about every team, not just the big spending high-rollers, have championship dreams going into the new year. Today we’ll preview the National League.

NL East

The Philadelphia Phillies would most likely have been the favorites to win this division anyway. Then they went out in the off-season and signed pitcher Cliff Lee, who they had traded before last season to acquire ace Roy Halladay. Now the Phils have the strongest starting pitching staff in the majors seen in a long time, drawing comparisons to Atlanta’s staff of the 1990s and Baltimore’s of the 1960s. They are without a doubt the overwhelming favorite to win the World Series this year. The loss of outfielder Jayson Werth, a clutch hitter, in free agency can’t be overlooked, and the Phils didn’t really replace him . Also, Chase Utley will start the year on the disabled list, so the Phils may be scratching for offense early on. Still, they should win this division easily. The Atlanta Braves will play for a manager other than Bobby Cox for the first time since 1990, and stars like Jason Heyward, Brian McCann and Martin Prado make them the most likely challenger for Philly. The New York Mets have a new manager in Terry Collins, and showed signs of coming on last year behind youngsters like Ike Davis. They need big years from veterans like Carlos Beltran, Johan Santana and Jason Bay to compete with the rest of the division. The Florida Marlins are always a pesky team in the division and always play competitive baseball, despite losing players to free agency every year. However, manager Fredi Gonzalez is now in Atlanta, so the Fish look headed for a down year. The same goes for the Washington Nationals, who made a big splash in free agency by signing Werth but will be hard-pressed to overcome the loss of young pitching phenom Steven Strasburg.

NL Central

The Cincinnati Reds came out of nowhere last year to win this division, and with manager Dusty Baker and reigning NL MVP Joey Votto, are the favorites to repeat. Tony LaRussa’s St. Louis Cardinals are always a threat, but the club has had injury troubles with their pitching staff which may hold them back. Still, any team with Albert Pujols in their lineup is going to be dangerous. The other teams in this division, the Cubs, Astros, Brewers and Pirates, are also-rans, although the lowly Pirates have some intriguing young talent, led by outfielder Andrew McCutcheon, and a new manager in Clint Hurdle who has a history of getting the best out of average rosters. Milwaukee, uncharacteristically, went out and traded for an ace for their pitching staff – Zach Grienke – and have some big bats in their lineup. They are even being looked at as a dark horse to win the division by some, but I can’t see that happening.

NL West

The San Francisco Giants won it all last year with solid pitching and timely hitting from a lineup made up of mostly journeymen and castoffs, so to me they have the look of being the ultimate one-year wonder. Their closer, Brian Wilson, will start the 2011 season on the DL so the Giants’ opponents won’t have to “fear the beard” for awhile anyway. The Giants may have trouble repeating as NL West champs, let alone winning the Series again. The San Diego Padres gave them a strong run before folding at season’s end, but the loss of Adrian Gonzalez from their lineup will hurt. The biggest threat to the Giants should be the Colorado Rockies, who have a potent lineup and the pitching to match San Fran’s. The Los Angeles Dodgers figure to be rejuvenated under new manager Don Mattingly and should make some noise in the division also, but the Arizona Diamondbacks are in major rebuilding mode and appear to headed for the division basement again.

 
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