Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Black and White Talk

Yes, I'm afraid to say it's that kind of black and white that I'm going to talk about.

I was in Atlantic City this weekend, and while I was in a drunken haze for the better part of the trip, I was mostly sober on Saturday afternoon before the NFL draft. I was watching a preview show on ESPN (one of several thousand ESPN has run since the Super Bowl). The show featured five analysts: Mike Tirico, Tom Jackson, Cris Carter, Ron Jaworski, and another white guy who I'm not familiar with. The candor was relaxed and jovial, and everyone on the set was getting along and joking.

Some reference was made to, I believe, an NBA playoff game that was being played that evening, and Carter said he was going to the game. He also said he had four tickets, to which Tirico asked, "There's five of us here, who are you taking?" Carter's response, which was responded to with laughter and smiles, was, "Well, you know I gotta take care of the brothers first."

Let me start by saying that I, personally, don't have a problem with that comment. As I said, they were all laughing and having fun, it was obviously not a malicious remark, and I generally don't find anything offensive. My problem is not that the comment was innately inappropriate.

My problem is that, had a white guy said, "Well, you know I gotta take care of the white boys first," he'd have been fired immediately, and probably beaten up. My problem is that this is the television station that spent several days decrying Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh (neither of whom I like, but both of whom got jobbed) for their insensitivities towards race. My problem is that ESPN has set a standard that any sort of racial discussion that reflects poorly on black people is a bad idea, and only Kornheiser and Wilbon can get away with it without bringing down the wrath from on high. But when you say that you're going to "take care of the brothers," that's not a problem.

I did a Google search for the phrase along with Cris Carter, and got zero hits. Zero hits. Not a single person on a site indexed by Google has made mention of this incident. Forty million bloggers in the country and not a single person has anything to say about Carter's comments.

[begin political rant]

I'm in favor of free speech everywhere. I get uncomfortable any time you restrict/discipline someone for saying something people find unpalatable, because how long will it be before you get in trouble for stating an opinion? How long before I get disciplined for what I say? It's not like I've never taken a controversial stand; hell, I'm one of like eleven people who doesn't care at all that steroids were such a big part of baseball for so many years.

My government is supposed to protect my right to say things like Cris Carter said. I'm happy he hasn't been disciplined (and won't be), but I want that same courtesy extended to people of every ethnicity, or no ethnicity at all. I want everyone to have the right to say whatever they want to say, whenever they want to say it. If you offend someone and you didn't mean to, you can apologize. And if you did mean to offend that someone, you shouldn't be expected to apologize.

I leave you with a quote from my favorite show, The West Wing:

Josh: What do you say about a government that goes out of its way to protect even citizens that try to destroy it?
Toby:
God bless America.

[end political rant]

I'm happy to protect Cris Carter's right to say he's going to give his basketball tickets to "the brothers," as long as we're also protecting Rush Limbaugh's right to speculate that Donovan McNabb gets favorable media attention because he's a productive black quarterback.

And in the word of Phil Collins, "That's all."

Monday, April 27, 2009

Re-Seeding: A Really Stupid Idea

I was discussing the NHL playoffs with a friend, and he mentioned that the teams in the Eastern Conference who had won their series already would have to wait until Tuesday night to find out who they'll play in the second round. I was confused, and asked for clarification: "What are you talking about? The Bruins were the #1 seed, the Penguins the #4 seed. They'll play each other."

"No," he says. "If the Rangers beat the Caps, they'll play the Bruins. Otherwise, the Bruins will play the winner of the other game." I was astonished. The NHL re-seeds teams after the first round. The NFL does the same thing and I don't like it. I enjoy being able to fill in a bracket when talking about playoff predictions. I like being able to map out the "road to the Super Bowl" for different teams, and with re-seeding, you can't really do that until after the first round games have been played.

What are the advantages of re-seeding? No, seriously, I'm asking. What does it do? It ensures that the highest-seeded team remaining will play the lowest-seeded team remaining in the second round. So, for example, if Anaheim completes the upset against #1 seeded San Jose, their reward will be to head to Detroit and face off against the third best team in hockey this season. I think that's just dumb. By beating San Jose, the Ducks should earn the opportunity to play against the 4/5 winner, not the opportunity to get thrown up against the boards by the Red Wings.

And that's not even the best argument against re-seeding your playoff teams. Think about the best postseason in sports: the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship Tournament. You may know it as March Madness, and it's one of the most widespread and exciting playoff in the world. Everyone fills out a bracket (or twelve), everyone checks scores all day long at work, everyone goes out to bars and restaurants to watch some of the games, everyone has something to talk about to everyone else between Selection Sunday and the national championship on Monday, three weeks later. It's as important as the Super Bowl when it comes to market penetration into people's everyday lives.

Now, add in a re-seeding mechanism, where #1 seeds would play the lowest seed remaining in their bracket. What happens? You lose the brackets. You lose the opportunity to project matchups through the middle rounds, because you don't know who will be playing who. By making that change, you'd be essentially crippling the marketing machine that is Bracketology. There is, of course, no way it would ever happen, but for some reason, the NHL and NFL have both decided it's a good idea. I just don't see how you gain anything from it, and you take away a little of the sports talk radio discussion you could have on it, by eliminating the possibility of a "full playoff preview show," where the commentators predict the playoffs all the way through.

Hmm...sports talk radio discussion...we'll have to get into that again sometime.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

AL East Preview?

So here we are, about 10% of the way through the 2009 MLB season and, in classic Joe & Joe style, we haven't finished our season preview. So rather than just pretend that these games haven't been played, we're going to change things up a little bit. Instead of a formal "preview", this post is going to focus on whether or not the first three weeks of the season was a true representation of each team. With the Blue Jays off to a hot start, the defending AL champion Rays struggling and the Boston/New York rivalry prominently involved it should be a fun column.


Toronto Blue Jays (Currently 13-6, 1st place)

The Jays have started the season red hot at the plate and it has propelled them to the best record in the American League. The biggest surprise has been the return of Aaron Hill, who missed most of the 2008 season with a concussion. Hill is hitting .375 with 5 home runs, well above his lifetime .289 lifetime average. The veteran players in the middle of the Toronto lineup have struggled out of the gate (Alex Rios and Vernon Wells are both hitting under .270), but the bottom half of the Jays lineup have definitely made up for it. Adam Lind is crushing the baseball in his first full-time role. Despite the fact that I would have bashed them as "over the hill" veterans before the season started, Scott Rolan and Lyle Overbay have both returned to their 2006 selves. With big-time prospect Travis Snider hitting well at the bottom of the order, the Blue Jays offense has definitely surprised early in 2009.

The Toronto pitching staff has been decimated by injuries early in 2009. Starters Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum are probably both lost for the year with shoulder injuries requiring surgery. 4th starter Jesse Litsch is currently out with a forearm strain and Ricky Romero is also missing time. In the bullpen, BJ Ryan has been placed on the DL after struggling with command and velocity and he is joined by effective right hander Casey Janssen. Simply put, the Blue Jays pitching staff is just too thin and it's going to start catching up to them in the form of three run homers.

Conclusion: Toronto's offense has overachieved, while they have gotten by with a patchwork pitching staff, so it's tough to expect the Jays to keep racking up the wins. In fact, despite the hot start, I expect them to finish just below .500.

Boston Red Sox (Currently 11-6, 2st place)

The Red Sox have basically performed as expected to start 2009. Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia have performed nominally. David Ortiz has struggled, but he also struggled early in 2008 before catching fire later in the season. Kevin Youkilis has been ridiculous, batting .444 and getting on base at a .551 clip. Expect him to cool off at some point, although since he anchors my fantasy team, I'm staying optimistic. Jason Bay and JD Drew have been about what Boston fans have expected, while Mike Lowell is healthy and raking at the bottom or the lineup. Young shortstop Jed Lowrie may be lost for the year with a wrist injury, but Boston has enough fire power that this is barely a footnote.

The BoSox pitching staff has been a little underwhelming, but good enough. Josh Beckett and Brad Penny have both had one bad outing, which has skewed their numbers. Tim Wakefield has had the knuckleball dancing early in 2009 and has been terrific. Jon Lester struggled in his first two starts, but looks to have settled down, while Justin Masterson has done a nice job transitioning from the bullpen to replace a fatigued Daisuke Matsuzaka.

In the bullpen, Jonathan Papelbon has been overpowering hitters, as usual. While setup men like Hideki Okajima and Takashi Saito have struggled, Manny Delcarmen has been lights out and usurpted the 8th inning role.

Conclusion: Boston is pretty much on course, expect them to win the division.

New York Yankees (Currently 9-8, 3st place)

Don't we do this every year? The Yankees get out to a slow start, half the sports writers in America write them off before June and then the Yanks reel off 8 straight wins to get right back into the mix. The New York front office has invested a lot of money into this Yankees team, and it's going to pay off sooner rather than later.

The New York offense has been good out of the gates. It's tough to say whether or not the new Yankee stadium is inflating numbers, but the Yankees are definitely hitting. Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon are swinging hot bats at the top of the lineup. Mark Teixeira has struggled in pinstripes, but he is simply too good of a hitter to hit .235 all season. Where Teixeira has floundered, former underachievers Nick Swisher and Robinson Cano have picked up the slack. Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui have been OK. And of course there is that A-Rod guy who is scheduled to come back in a few weeks...he should help.

The Yankees pitching staff is kinda like the U.S. banking industry: they are just too big to fail. CC Sabathia has stumbled a couple times, but should still win 15+ games. A.J. Burnett has also struggled, but if he can stay healthy, he'll be effective. Andy Pettitte has been sharp this spring, but the Yankees need to be using him more like a #5 starter than a #3. The guy who should be their #3, Chien-Ming Wang has been terrible, where all New York really needs is for him to be "not terrible". Joba Chamberlain has been pretty effective in three starts, but expect him to have some natural growing pains. Look for a youngster like Phil Hughes to get a shot at a rotation spot.

Conclusion: New York is fine, I'm guessing that they win the Wild Card.

Baltimore Orioles (Currently 8-10, 4st place)

I've semi-adopted the Orioles as one of my teams. I think it has to do with several of my friends being O's fans, watching plenty of their games on local TV and Baltimore filling the underdog role in the AL East. Unfortunately for Oriole fans, I'm pretty sure that they are going to continue being the underdog for the next few years.

The Baltimore bats have definitely shown up to start the 2009 season, with veterans Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis and Aubrey Huff anchoring the Oriole lineup, while youngster Adam "Don't Call Me Pacman" Jones is growing into role he has only previously hinted at (seriously, if you go to a Baltimore game this year, don't get drunk and yell "Pacman!" or Jones will turn around and give you a wicked stare, ummm, or so I hear).

Despite all the offensive improvements, Baltimore won't take any steps forward until the pitching improves. The Orioles starting rotation may be the worst in the big leagues. Jeremy Guthrie is a legitimate starter, but he definitely shouldn't be your #1. Unfortunately for the O's, that's the role he has to fill. From Guthrie, there is a sharp drop off. Koji Uehara is a 34-year-old Japanese import, Adam Eaton has never really gotten it together in his 10 year career, and Mark Hendrickson is tall (pretty much the most positive thing I could write about him). This is a pitching staff that could easily drag the Orioles to 100 loses.

Conclusion: Once the bats cool off, the O's are sunk. Clearly the worst team in the division.

Tampa Bay Rays (Currently 7-11, 5st place)

I've got news for you Rays fans (all 1,452 of you), you aren't going back to the playoffs (see, this was a much bolder prediction 3 weeks ago, dammit, I wish I wasn't so lazy). Anyway, 2008 was a magical year for the Rays, and a natural recession could easily be expected.

The Tampa lineup remains mostly unchanged from last year (they did upgrade to DH Pat Burrell) and I think they will produce about the same results, if not get slightly better. The Rays starting rotation is also mostly the same as the 2008 squad and should get better with another year of seasoning and the addition of superstar-in-the-making David Price. So with an improved lineup and starting rotation, why do I think the Rays will miss the playoffs? The short answer is their bullpen (again, this would be a bolder prediction if the top two Tampa set-up men didn't currently have ERAs over 5.0).

It's not that I think the bullpen will be awful in 2009, it just won't be as incredible as it was in 2008. It's tough to see Troy Percival slamming the door another 28 times in 2009, especially since he has already flirted with some injury problems. Top set-up man Dan Wheeler had an incredible 2008, posting a 3.12 ERA with a 0.99 WHIP and a .183 BAA. This just isn't going to happen again for a guy who is a career 4.04 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and .249 BAA. As good as Dan Wheeler was in 2008, Grant Balfour was even better, posting 1.54 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and .143 BAA. Want another example? J.P. Howell was 2.22 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, .194 BAA. That's three guys with opposing batting averages under .200, that's amazing; amazing and impossible to be replicated in 2009.

Conclusion: The Rays are going to be slightly better than they were in 2008, with the exception of their bullpen, which will be more 'average' than 'historically dominant'. This alone pushes them out of the top spot in the division and closer to a .500 record.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

NFL Draft Preview

First things first, we here at Joe and Joe Sports know almost nothing about the NFL draft. Neither of us watches very much college football, and we certainly don't watch enough to be able to judge which college player translates to a better professional football player. That's for the college football acolytes, the ones who worship at the altar of college football. We like the pro game, and we're interested in how our teams are going to look next year.

Given that, we still enjoy the NFL draft, because that's when teams make wholesale changes to their rosters, adding several impact players and other guys whose names you'll hear for at least a couple months, and potentially for years to come. Chris Horton was a solid contributor for the Redskins last year, and he came from the 7th round.

So while I can't offer firsthand opinions on any of the guys I'm about to talk about, I can tell you that I've read a lot of material on them, and on the teams in the top 15, and I'm excited to predict the first 15 picks of the NFL draft. Alright chumps, let's do this!
  1. Detroit Lions - Matthew Stafford, QB, Georgia. The Lions really can't afford to foul up this pick. They were the first 16-loss team ever, and they've got a tremendous recent history of blowing high draft picks. The rule that I keep hearing is that if you don't have a franchise quarterback and one is available when you draft, you take him. Daunte Culpepper is not a franchise quarterback, so there you go.
  2. St. Louis Rams - Jason Smith, OT, Baylor. I've found that I have to trust NFL scouts to figure out who the best offensive linemen are, because I just have no idea. Smith is the consensus best OL in the draft, and there's talk he may go #1 if the Lions can't come to a pre-draft contract agreement with Stafford. I doubt that happens, but if Stafford doesn't go to Detroit, he'll be picked here. The top two picks are a virtual lock.
  3. Kansas City Chiefs - Eugene Monroe, OT, Virginia. I imagine I'm not the only person interested to see how Scott Pioli acts without the grim reaper Bill Belichick looking over his shoulder. My thinking is that he'll stick with a lot of the same tactics that were so successful in New England, and New England had a very strong offensive line to protect Tom Brady and new Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel. Monroe is a top-tier offensive lineman (so I'm told), and since Smith will almost certainly be off the board, this is where KC will go.
  4. Seattle Seahawks - Mark Sanchez, QB, USC. I'm actually thinking that my ill-fated Redskins will trade up and acquire this pick so that they can pick Sanchez and the Seahawks can take a running back, but I can't realistically predict trades, so I'm going with the draft board they give me. Even with the Seahawks holding onto this pick, though, Sanchez still makes a lot of sense. He's a potential franchise quarterback, and Matt Hasselbeck seems to be on the back end of his career.
  5. Cleveland Browns - Aaron Curry, LB, Wake Forest. The talk is that Braylon Edwards will be traded, and that, combined with Donte Stallworth killing a guy while drinking and driving, means that the Browns will have a very weak WR corps. That makes Michael Crabtree an intriguing pick here, but the reality is that the Browns are back in rebuild mode, and Curry falls under the category of "best available." He's among the best players, and he's also one of the best bets to be a productive player immediately and for a long time. He's a guy to build a defense around, and Cleveland could sure use one of those.
  6. Cincinnati Bengals - Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech. Crabtree isn't Calvin Johnson, but in all fairness, nobody is Calvin Johnson. What Crabtree can be is a great possession wide receiver who can give the Bengals the kind of player they lost when T.J. Houshmandzadeh signed with the Seahawks. Say what you will about Chad Johnson, but I have to believe the ability is still there, and Crabtree can slide into his role in a strong passing offense right away.
  7. Oakland Raiders - Jeremy Maclin, WR, Missouri. The Raiders have paid a lot to acquire a couple of disappointing wide receivers recently (Randy Moss, Javon Walker), so it shouldn't be surprising that they'd go a different route to acquire receiving talent. Maclin is faster the Crabtree, and is the consensus #2 receiver in the draft. And if you're going to give a ton of money to a quarterback (as they did with Jamarcus Russell a couple years ago), you'd better give him some targets. Maclin should be able to come in and contribute immediately.
  8. Jacksonville Jaguars - B.J. Raji, DT, Boston College. Raji fits into most systems because he's a big, wide defensive tackle who can slide perfectly into a 3-4 scheme. He's plenty effective in a 4-3 as well, and Jacksonville runs both at times. Raji would give them the flexibility to choose their scheme based on situation rather than personnel. Raji is one of the wild cards of this draft; he could realistically go anywhere from 4 through 12. So I figured, why not put him smack dab in the middle of 4 and 12? PS: If the Jags hadn't signed Torry Holt, they might've reached for a second-tier WR here, but as is, I seriously doubt it.
  9. Green Bay Packers - Andre Smith, OT, Alabama. It's fair to say that seeing Smith drop to this spot would be something of a surprise, but character issues seem to have more and more impact these days. Still, the talent is there to be as good as any offensive lineman in the draft, and Green Bay would definitely like to solidify their offensive line to allow their potent passing game plenty of time to shred opposing defenses. I don't think they'll be scared off by his skipping out of the combine, but you never can tell with the "classic" franchises. If they do pass on Smith, I'd look for Tyson Jackson to be the pick here.
  10. San Francisco 49ers - Aaron Maybin, DE, Penn State. Maybin is a fantastic athlete with a lot of upside, but he's something of a project. Thankfully, the 49ers have plenty of time to wait. Brian Orakpo is a more polished player, but Maybin projects as the better player, and because San Francisco isn't going to be winning this year (sorry Niner fans, both of you), the long-term move is the smarter one.
  11. Buffalo Bills - Tyson Jackson, DE, LSU. Jackson is a balanced defensive end, capable of stopping both the run and the pass, and he'll fit into most teams' schemes. Jackson is the kind of player who might not register as much over the course of his career with big stats, but people in football will know he's a game-changer, and I expect he'll be selected for multiple Pro Bowls. The Bills also love tight end Brandon Pettigrew, but he's not an elite player like the tight ends who've been taken in the first 15 picks in recent years. The impression I get is the Bills would love to trade down a few picks, get some more picks, and nab Pettigrew. If they can't do that, I believe they'll go with the better value pick and take Jackson.
  12. Denver Broncos - Brian Orakpo, LB, Texas. I believe that the Broncos are hoping and praying that somehow Mark Sanchez will fall into their laps, but I have to think that if Sanchez slips past #4, someone will take him or trade up to nab him. If that's not the Broncos, I think they address their lack of playmaking ability on the defensive side of the ball and take Orakpo. He's a physical freak, he's intense, and he's a fantastic tackler. I'm not going to call him Ray Lewis, but that's really just because Lewis is an inside linebacker, and Orakpo plays outside. Seriously, he could be extremely good.
  13. Washington Redskins - Rey Maualuga, LB, USC. I feel like it's been too long since my Redskins went batty for a player and drafted him way earlier than he ought to have been drafted, so why not now? Maualuga could certainly be a productive player, but there are concerns about his maturity that would scare off some teams. But to the owner who signed a 32-year-old Deion Sanders for $56 million over seven years, intangibles are overrated. I'm not wild about it, but should the draft pan out the way I've predicted, this is probably what we'll see at this pick.
  14. New Orleans Saints - Malcolm Jenkins, CB, Ohio State. As much as I'm sure Drew Brees loved throwing the ball 635 times last season, I imagine most people in the Saints' organization would rather they didn't have to throw that often. New Orleans has spent big money and draft picks on improving their secondary without much success, and so it makes sense that they'd be looking there again in this draft. Jenkins may not be fast enough to play corner in the NFL, but he's got all the tools to be a longtime starting safety. If any other team needs a corner, though, they're probably looking at Jenkins, so the Saints may have to settle for Tyson Jackson or Everette Brown and hope that the increased push up front will help stifle opponents' passing games.
  15. Houston Texans - Clay Matthews, LB, USC. First things first, Clay's uncle Bruce is on the Texans' coaching staff, so you have to think that boosts his chances of landing here. But in addition to that, Matthews is a fiery player and from all accounts, a pretty good teammate. I don't know why, but I get the impression that the Texans have a lot of good teammates already, and in football (the ultimate team sport), a team is most successful when the players are all looking out for each other. Of course, if Jenkins is still on the board, the teammate bull goes out the window and they draft the best DB in the draft.
So there you have it, Joe and Joe Sports' official predictions for the NFL draft. The draft starts at 4:00 PM, and though I'll be in Atlantic City, I'm hoping to watch at least through the Redskins' pick, and make as many prop bets as possible with the people around me. Prop bets are the lifeblood of America.

Monday, April 13, 2009

NL Central Preview

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs and their fans have been eagerly anticipating the arrival of the 2009 season ever since they were rapidly dismissed by the Dodgers in a 2008 Wild Card match up. While the Cubs are loaded with talent, North-siders expecting another 97 win season are probably going to be disappointed.

On the surface, the Cubs lineup looks absolutely stacked. Leadoff hitter Alfonso Soriano is one of the elite power/speed players in the league, but with an OBP below .350 he should really be hitting lower in the lineup. Shortstop Ryan Theriot should be hitting first and setting the table for the bashers hitting behind him. Speaking of those bashers, Derrick Lee, Milton Bradley and Aramis Ramirez look like they could be the best 3-4-5 in the NL, but they don't come without warts. Among those warts: All three are on the wrong side of 30, Lee and Ramirez appear to have diminishing skills and Bradley has only been over 450 ABs once in his nine year career. And of course there is the concern that Bradley has fought (either physically or verbally or both) with all of the following: managers, umpires, GMs, fans, teammates, announcers and the police. These should be more than small concerns for Lou Piniella. One concern Piniella doesn't have is his catcher. Geovany Soto established himself as one of the game's elite young talents in 2009 and should slide into the middle of the Cubs lineup if anyone stumbles. Kosuke Fukudome and Mike Fontenot leave a lot to be desired at the bottom of the order, especially considering one of these spots could have been filled by Mark DeRosa, had he not been traded to Cleveland.

The Cubs starting rotation also has a lot of luster, but isn't the most trustworthy group. Carlos Zambrano can unquestionably pitch like an ace, but is legitimately nuts, not exactly a trait you want from your #1. Ryan Dempster's transition from closer to starter in 2008 was much, much better than could have been expected and I would not expect Dempster to post another sub 3.0 ERA, well,... ever. Rich Harden has ace stuff, but has only posted one season with more than 128 innings in his 6 year career. Ted Lilly is the about as reliable as they come and, frankly, the Cubs would be much better off if they had 5 Ted Lillys.

The Chicago bullpen is solid and doesn't seem to be as shaky as the rest of the team. Recently crowned closer Kevin Gregg has a solid track record and has been lights out in spring training. Carlos Marmol is the best setup man in the game and gives Lou Piniella an option to get out of almost any late inning jam. Lanky righty Jeff Samardzija had an effective rookie season, while Aaron Heilman, Chad Gaudin and Neal Cotts bring plenty of experience to the Cubs bullpen (that's what you say about guys when they aren't exactly good)

Projected Record: 88-74

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds 2009 season will ultimately be decided by whether or not their young talent finally takes the step from elite prospect to elite major league player.

The offense has plenty of pop in the middle of the order with Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnacion all having 30+ home run potential. Ideally, Votto and Bruce, both in their second full year in the bigs, would continue their development and allow manager Dusty Baker to slide Brandon Phillips up to the number 2 hole to better utilize his speed. New comer Willy Tavaras will be a terror on the basepaths if he can actually get on base more that 30% of the time, a pretty pathetic number considering Tavaras has zero power. Ramon Hernandez comes over from Baltimore to take the catching duties and has the possibility of adding 20+ homers. Alex Gonzalez plays shortstop... and I was going to rag on him, but he did hit .272 with 16 homers in 2008, which for the number 8 spot in the NL aint that bad.

The Cincy rotation is pretty solid and has the potential to be great. Aaron Harang ran into some trouble in 2008, but I would expect him to return to form as the Reds ace in 2009. Edinson Volquez is the present and future of the Reds rotation and with another year of seasoning could be mentioned in the same sentence as the Santanas, Lincecums and Peavys of the NL. The other young fireballer of the Reds staff is Johnny Cueto who, like the Reds young hitters, could be really dominant if he takes the next step. Bronson Arroyo will eat up some innings and Micah Owings may be adequate, but if either of these guys stumble expect big-time prospect Homer Bailey to get the call up from triple-A.

The Reds bullpen is seasoned (see: old) and without much potential. Francisco Cordero is coming off a successful first season as the Reds closer and is a reliable 9th inning option for Dusty Baker. Primary setup men David Weathers and Arthur Rhodes were both born in the 1960s. Not sure I could put a lot of faith in them.

Ultimately I see the Reds having some more growing pains this year, but growing enough to be on the happy side of .500 for the first time since 2000.

Projected Record: 84-78

Houston Astros

The Astros were a slightly better than average team in 2008 and didn't do a whole lot to get better in 2009. I could break down their pretty decent lineup or tear apart the unreliability of their pitching staff, but is that really necessary? Wouldn't that just be wasting both my time and yours? Of course it would, but I'm doing it anyway.

The Houston lineup is pretty good and will probably keep the Astros in alot of games. The top of the lineup is shaky at best, with Kaz Matsui leading off and Michael Borne hitting second. If Matsui can keep the anal fissures under control this season (sidebar: seriously, did we really need to know that Matsui missed alot of 2008 games due to that particular ailment, I mean, couldn't the Astros have just lied and said it was a hernia) and if Michael Borne can actually get on base once in a while (a pathetic .288 OBP in 2008), they are probably goning to score alot of runs. Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman hit in the middle of the Astros lineup and do it very, very well. Both Lee and Berkman slugged over .560 in 2008 and both hit for plenty of power without sacrificing average. Superstar-in-the-making Hunter Pence will have a cushy spot in the lineup hitting behind Lee and Berkman, and if he shows any more development he will be a top tier player in the NL. Miguel Tejada, Ivan Rodriguez and Geoff Blum are unreliable options at the bottom of the lineup (not to mention defensive liabilities) and the Astros need to start getting replacements ready.

The Astros pitching situation will probably be the team's Achilles heel in 2009. Roy Oswalt has been terrific in his eight year Houston career (never posting an ERA higher than 3.54 and racking up six seasons with more than 14 wins), but there isn't a lot after that. Wandy Rodriguez developed nicely in 2008, but as any fantasy player knows, he can't be trusted on the road... a characteristic I'd rather not have in my #2. Brian Moehler would be a nice #5 starter for the Astros, but he's going to have to pitch like a middle of the rotation guy, since Houston has Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton at the back of their rotation. Even the most optimistic GMs would have a hard time penciling Ortiz or Hampton in for more than 25 starts , so I'm not quite sure what Houston is doing here.

The Houston bullpen is decent to above average, but even if they are incredible I don't see the Astros as a playoff caliber team. Jose Valverde is a quality closer, really nothing we didn't know. Other bullpen options Tim Byrdak and Doug Brocail are were both terrific in 2008, but are definitely fighting father time. Other relievers (Chris Sampson and Wesley Wright) aren't really worth discussing and, like I said above, it doesn't really matter anyway.

Projected Record: 78-84

Milwaukee Brewers

The 2008 Milwaukee Brewers had an opportunity to win a World Series title and they took it. They traded stud prospect Matt LaPorta for a four month rental of CC Sabathia who used a 1.65 ERA and a 11-2 record to propel the Brew crew into the playoffs. Of course then CC had a(nother) playoff collapse and Milwaukee was easily dismissed by the eventual champion Phillies, but, hey, gotta give the Brewers credit for taking a shot.

Turns out taking a shot was the right move for the Brewers organization. Ace Ben Sheets was headed to free agency in 2009 as was not going to be resigned by Milwaukee even before he needed elbow surgery. Young gun Yovani Gallardo spent most of 2008 recovering from a torn ACL and he will probably continue to develop in 2009, but probably won't be a lights-out ace for another year or two. The rest of the Milwaukee rotation is far from playoff caliber. Jeff Suppan, Manny Parra, Braden Looper and Dave Bush would all be nice end of the rotation inning eaters, but you really don't want them starting 80% of your team's games.

The Brewers bullpen doesn't make it any easier to project the Brewers back into the NL playoffs. Carlos Villanueva takes over as the closer temporarily while Trevor Hoffman is injured, and with three career saves is far from a sure thing in the ninth inning. The rest of the 'pen is alot like Villanueva: unreliable. Seth McClung has a career ERA over 5.0, David Riske has lights out stuff... sometimes and Todd Coffey is about as average a middle reliever as you are going to find. To make matters worse, the Brewers have exactly one lefty in the bullpen: Mitch Stetter and his 31 career innings. Yeah, Brewers fans, be very nervous if Ryan Howard comes up with 2 runners on in the eighth inning.

Fortunately for Milwaukee, the Brewers offense can score a lot of runs. The lineup remains unchanged from 2008 and should continue to develop in 2009. Lead off man Ricky Weeks just doesn't get on base enough with a career batting average of 0.245. The Brewers really need to find a better solution at the top of the lineup, since they have plenty of guys that can drive in runs hitting after Weeks. JJ Hardy and Corey Hart have swapped between the #2 and #5 spots for a couple years and both supply plenty of power, but neither is the OBP monster Milwaukee needs at the top of the lineup. Bashers Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are both capable of 40+ home run seasons and could put up huge RBI numbers if Brewers ever find a more conventional options at the top of the lineup. At the bottom of the lineup, Mike Cameron and Bill Hall have, surprise, surprise, more power, but just don't hit for a high enough average. If the Brewers are ever going to become an elite offensive team, they are going to have to trade in their slow pitch softball approach for more of a station-to-station philosophy.

Projected Record: 80-82

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates haven't won more that 70 games in the any of the last four seasons (no joke, look it up, it's a train wreck). And while I think they might be headed in the right direction, I'm not willing to commit to a full review of the 2009 squad. So here are your quick hitters:

Lineup: Sub-standard by any evaluation, Nate McClouth and Adam LaRoche are the only reliable bats, youngsters Nyjer Morgan, Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss may be there someday, but that day will not be in 2009.

Rotation: Maholm looks like the real deal, Duke and Snell could be the base of a good rotation if they ever make the leap from quad-A players. Russ Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens are not major league quality.

Bullpen: Yep, they've got one, it's okay.

Projected Record: 74-88 (good news Pirate fans, if I'm right you get a review next year!!!)

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals are going to be the surprise team of the NL. While I can't exactly put my finger on why, I think it has alot to do with Tony LaRussa and his career 0.534 winning percentage, 5 pennants and 2 World Series titles. A future Hall of Famer, LaRussa is both a great motivator and terrific in-game tactician and is a tremendous asset on the St. Louis bench. With several pieces appearing to be in place, expect LaRussa to guide this team to a big season.

The Cardinals lineup is reliable and should improve in 2009. Skip Schumaker enters his 2nd full big league season and will be a good table setter for the St. Louis offense. Schumaker hits for a nice average, but does need to draw a few more walks and steal a few more bases to be really effective. Former pitcher turned basher Rick Ankiel is out of position hitting in the #2 spot, but should see plenty of meaty pitches with proverbial MVP candidate Albert Pujols hitting third. Speaking of Pujols, there is really nothing I can write that you don't already know about him. He hits for power, he hits for average, he's putting Hall of Fame type numbers and at the age of 29 he should be in the prime of his career. Chris Duncan is slotted in the enviable position right behind Pujols and is one of the Cardinal's big question marks, since he has never played a full big league season. Ryan Ludwick will look to follow up his massive 2008 campaign and should solidify the St. Louis lineup if he can stay healthy for the second year in a row. The bottom of the Cardinals lineup has potential, with Khalil Greene escaping the hitter unfriendly Petco Field and David Freese making the jump to the majors after a 26 HR, 0.305 season in AAA.

The St. Louis starting rotation looks solid, if unspectacular. Adam Wainwright isn't a lights out ace, but if he can stay healthy, he will give the Cardinals a chance to win every game he starts. Kyle Lohse is coming off a career year and has pitched very well in 2 starts so far, but should still make Cardinal fans a little nervous in the #2 spot. Todd Wellemeyer is another "effective"-type pitcher coming off a great first season in a starters role. Chris Carpenter is a huge wild card with only four starts in the last two years, but will be a huge boost to the Cardinals rotation if he stays healthy.

The Cards bullpen looks to be better than the unit that undermined the club in 2008. The live-armed Jason Motte slides into the closer role after posting tiny ERA and WHIP numbers in 2008. Ryan Franklin is back in the setup role after struggling as a de facto closer in 2008 and should be more successful without the ninth inning pressure. Lefthanders Dennys Reyes and Trevor Miller join the Cardinals for 2009 and should give Tony LaRussa two veteran options for late game matchups.

Projected Record: 93-69

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

NL East Preview

Atlanta Braves
This is where the cheesy part of me wants to say that Derek Lowe will probably have a great opening day start, but you come here for better than cheesy. After like a million straight years of winning the division, the Braves haven't been in the playoffs since 2005. They've fielded some solid teams and competed for the division title, but fans in Atlanta expect more out of their team. It's not impossible that this is the year they get back to the postseason.

The hitting, as it has for the past decade, starts with Chipper Jones. He's one of the best hitters in the league, and he's putting together a decent Hall of Fame resume despite his history of injury problems. Brian McCann has put together a couple of really solid campaigns, but after those two, the bats are suspect. Kelly Johnson, Yunel Escobar, and Casey Kotchman are all 10-15 HR guys, but none of them scares you at the plate. The outfield boasts an over-the-hill guy (Garret Anderson), a rookie who hasn't played above AA (Jordan Schafer), and last year's most-hated fantasy player (Jeff Francoeur). To say the offense could go in any direction would be a gross understatement.

The pitching is similar, but with a little more talent. The aforementioned Lowe is a reliable, consistent starter. He's followed by Jair Jurrjens and Javier Vazquez, both of whom are solid #2 pitchers. Kenshin Kawakami and Jorge Campillo round out the staff, and while neither is proven, both have upside above their 4th and 5th slots. The bullpen is less exciting, with Mike Gonzalez trying to recapture his success from 2006, but if he can stay healthy, he might be able to do just that. He's always walked too many batters for a closer, but as long as you can get out of jams, you can close. Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan are other closer possibilities, should things go poorly for Gonzo.

Projected record: 79-83

Florida Marlins
The Marlins feel like they're a year or two away from competing for a World Series again, which means they're two or three years from dismantling again. I don't love any part of their team, but I don't hate any part either, which means you can probably guess where I'm going to project their record to finish up.

Hanley Ramirez is one of the premier hitters in baseball. His double-play partner, Dan Uggla, has as much power as any second baseman around. Questions abound elsewhere, though. Can Jorge Cantu keep up his production this time, and avoid falling off the planet again? Is Cameron Maybin finally ready for the majors? Will Emilio Bonifacio be a shrewd acquisition or an overpriced speed guy? Can Jeremy Hermida stay healthy and put together a productive season? Lots of questions, but that means the potential for high-caliber production is there.

Somehow, the Marlins always seem to have an up-and-coming pitching staff. Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson are a promising young 1-2 punch that have the potential to be the best in the majors. Chris Volstad is 6'8" and if he can work on his control, he'll be another top tier starter. Anibal Sanchez isn't a stud, but he has thrown a no-hitter, so he's got the tools. Former Tigers prospect Andrew Miller will take the #5 spot for now; if he still needs seasoning, Rick VandenHurk will take over when he comes off the DL. Matt Lindstrom, he of the 100 mph fastball, is the new closer. I'm not crazy about him, but he should be sufficient. Kiko Calero and Leo Nunez are very good bullpen guys.

Projected record: 83-79

New York Mets

The Mets always spend a lot of money, but they'll remain in the Yankees' shadow until they start performing in October. And to perform in October, they'll have to play better in September. Back-to-back late season collapses have Mets fans wondering how much money it will take to right the ship.

The offense is a little top-heavy. David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Carlos Beltran are elite players, and Carlos Delgado showed he's still got plenty of pop to make opposing pitchers fear him. After that, though, it's slim pickings. Ryan Church had a great start to last season, but wasn't the same after a concussion. Fernando Tatis and Daniel Murphy are on opposite ends of their careers, but figure to both be just decent this year. Brian Schneider calls a decent game but can't hit worth a lick, and Luis Castillo's best days are behind him.

The rotation has a couple of wild cards, but could be pretty good. Johan Santana is a multiple-time Cy Young award winner, and figures to consistently be among the best pitchers in the National League. Oliver Perez and John Maine are both strikeout pitchers with a propensity for bad games. They're the kind of pitchers you send out there and just hope for the best. Mike Pelfrey is still young, but performed adequately in his first full season, and the Mets have high hopes for him.

The Mets' bullpen gets its own section, because it's probably the most discussed bullpen in baseball. Billy Wagner is out for the season, so New York inked Francisco Rodriguez ("K-Rod") to a trillion dollar contract. Then they traded for J.J. Putz, hoping to avoid the utter collapse that happened last year when Wagner went down. The rest of the 'pen is unproven, but the two big acquisitions should give the Mets a boost, both talent-wise and psychologically.

Projected record: 90-72

Philadelphia Phillies

Last year's World Series champions field an eerily similar team this season. Pat Burrell leaves, but in comes Raul Ibanez. Jayson Werth goes from part-time to full-time. And the ageless Jamie Moyer comes back to help the Phillies defend their crown. There's no reason this team can't do it again.

The offense is keyed by three elite players: Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins. But unlike two years ago, they've got some complementary pieces in place now that help make this offense go. Shane Victorino scored over a hundred runs and became the bridge the Phillies needed between Rollins and the boppers. Werth became a 20-20 player, and could be even more productive with 150 more at-bats. This might be the best offense in the league.

The pitching doesn't look that great to me, but it also looks pretty similar to last year's pitching, which was good enough. Cole Hamels is a true ace, but Joe Blanton, Brett Myers, and Moyer aren't sure things at all. They've swapped Adam Eaton out and Chan Ho Park in as the #5 starter, but I have a hard time believing that a guy like Park, a fly ball pitcher with a history of trouble keeping the ball in the park, will finish the season in the rotation in Philadelphia. Luckily, they've got Ryan Madson and Chad Durbin in the bullpen, who've both been spot-starters at some point in the past three years. Brad Lidge is one of the best closers in the NL, but there's not a lot of depth behind him, so he can't really afford to slip up.

Projected record: 88-74

Washington Nationals

Ahh, the Nationals. My hometown team. I'm still trying to warm up to them, which has been more difficult than I had imagined, especially considering I was a big Expos fan. I'm a little more excited this year than in previous years, but I'm not expecting a whole lot. A lame duck manager and front office turmoil don't usually point to big gains.

The offense is at the very least intriguing. No less than five starters have 20 HR potential, as do Nick Johnson and Elijah Dukes, both currently bench players. While the team does have a distinct lack of .300 hitters, if you get that slugging percentage high enough, you can generate enough runs with smaller rallies. The acquisition of Adam Dunn finally gives Washington a legitimate, dangerous bat in the middle of the order, and it gives everyone else in the lineup greater run-scoring potential. It's about time for Ryan Zimmerman to take that next step, though, if he's ever going to take it. He's a great defender, but you've got to score runs.

The pitching is utterly terrifying. John Lannan is a mediocre pitcher, a solid #3 in a decent pitchig staff. But in Washington, he's far and away the best pitcher. Scott Olsen is trying to harness his velocity and become a pitcher, as is Daniel Cabrera, though Cabrera might be attempting the impossible. Julian Tavarez will round out the rotation, though he or Cabrera will probably slide in a higher slot to separate the lefties Lannan and Olsen. Jordan Zimmermann is a big time pitching prospect that will probably join the team as soon as they need a fifth starter (notice the additional 'n' at the end of his last name; he's unrelated to Ryan).

Surprisingly, the bullpen isn't terrible. Though the team lost their last two closers in the past 12 months (Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch), they've found another guy who can fill the job in Joel Hanrahan. He's a strikeout pitcher who walks too many hitters, but on a bad team, you're willing to accept that. Steven Shell showed a lot of promise last year, and the righty-lefty combo of Saul Rivera and Mike Hinckley gives manager Manny Acta some options early this season. Prospect Shairon Martis figures to get some exposure in the starting rotation as well as the season goes on, but will probably be in the bullpen to start the season.

Projected record: 72-90

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

How To Get Kids To Stay In School

In case you forget, here's the draft projections that I suggested might hold the key to keeping kids in school.

Check out those salaries. In case you were unaware, players selected in the NBA draft have pre-determined salaries. They are assigned 2-year contracts with 2 more years as team options. Derrick Rose, last year's #1 overall pick, will average under $5 million a year over the first four years of his career. Corey Maggette, a career 16.3 point-per-game scorer who's thirty years old and hasn't started 70 games in any of the past five seasons, signed a contract last offseason that will pay him an average of $9.5 million a year over next five years. Rose, by the way, is averaging 16.6 points per game in this, his rookie, season.

The discrepancy here is that incoming college players don't get to negotiate their contracts; they're assigned a value. In this small part of the American economy, capitalism is completely ignored. In the sport where one player can make the biggest difference, and where the teams at the bottom of the draft are in more desperate need of superstar talents, those superstar talents are not being allowed to negotiate within the market to try to obtain their true value. I believe that this is contributing to the exodus of great college players from college basketball. How? I'll try to draw you the line.

I am a very good college freshman basketball player. I'm not the best player around, but everyone likes me and I'm sure to go around pick #15. In the current draft system, I'll make about $1.7 million a year for the first couple of years, then be eligible for free agency. As long as I play well and show promise, I'll get at least $5 million a year, and potentially a good deal more if I can really excel in my role. I don't have to be a superstar, because I'm young, and it takes time for people my age to grow into their NBA bodies.

I could stay another year and improve my draft stock to around #8, but the advantage is only $700K per year for those first four years. Sure that's a lot of money, but it keeps me another year away from my big payday. A little chart to compare (option A is to stay in college another year; option B is to leave now):
  • 2010: A - $0, B - $1.7M
  • 2011: A - $2.1M, B - $1.85M
  • 2012: A - $2.35M, B - $2.0M
  • 2013: A - $2.5M, B - $2.55M
  • 2014: A - $3.2M, B - FREE AGENCY
It makes better financial sense to leave now, because I'm four years away from free agency once I go pro, and hitting free agency is when I can actually make my money. The sooner I hit free agency, the better. Every year I stay in college is a year when I'm lengthening the amount of time it's going to take for me to obtain my actual basketball worth.

Do I think this is the only factor? No, of course not. Lots of players don't want to go to school at all, but end up doing so for a year because the NBA created a rule requiring players to be 19 to be eligible for the draft. This rule again is artificially skewing the market. Who exactly is our cautionary tale among high school players? Certainly not Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, or Kobe Bryant, for these players are all superstars. Then perhaps it's the ill-fated 2001 crop of high schoolers: Kwame Brown, Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler, and Sagana Diop. Well, each of them is making at least $4 million this year.

No, this isn't for the good of the players. It's an image thing. The average, ignorant American thinks that it's "wrong" for an 18-year-old to be making millions of dollars, so they shout about how these kids should be forced to go to school, "for their benefit." All of the cries were that these kids should be forced to go to school because, hey, maybe they actually want to go to school; we're just giving them an easy way out. Turns out they all stay one year and then head to the pros anyways. So now, the discussion has moved to a 20-year-old minimum age.

If your goal is to have a greater number of people enrolled as freshman in college, then the 19-year-old limitation is a great idea. But if your idea is to re-establish the continuity that made college basketball great for so many years (which is really all I care about), then allowing elite high school players to enter the NBA draft will prevent them from being the one-and-done players who skew college basketball from year to year (see the aforementioned Rose).

Do I wish the best 18- to 22-year-old basketball players were all playing college basketball and helping to make the NCAA tournament as good as its ever been? Of course I do. But I'd rather watch the same sons of bitches at Duke for four years than get annoyed at a new bunch of bastards at UNC every year. So open up the contract negotiations, and let high schoolers go into the NBA draft. We'll get over ourselves eventually.

Monday, April 6, 2009

AL Central Preview

Chicago White Sox
The White Sox might be the one team I most want to see fail. I like seeing the Yankees fail, too, but there's no question that postseason baseball is more exciting when the Evil Empire is in the mix. The White Sox, however, offer no tradition of overspending and domination. The mere existence of A.J. Pierzynski is reason enough to root against them. Rargh. Okay, now that that's off my chest, let's move on to the preview.

The White Sox boast one of the more potent middles of the order in the American League, with Quentin, Dye, Thome, and Konerko all capable of 35+ homers this year. A lot will be asked of Alexei Ramirez, who perhaps deserved to win the Rookie of the Year award over Evan Longoria last year. Chicago fans are hoping he's more Hanley Ramirez than Angel Berroa. The concern this year, as in past years, is whether or not they can generate enough offense with a .263 batting average again.

Mark Buehrle anchors what has suddenly become a pretty solid pitching staff. Gavin Floyd and John Danks are 26 and 24, respectively, and showed enough promise last season to be relied upon as the #2 and #3 starters this year. The back of the rotation will be Jose Contreras and Bartolo Colon, and while I don't know if you can count on either of them, they've got the experience to be decent starters. Bobby Jenks has lost several miles per hour off of his fastball in the past two years, but was still an effective closer last season. It remains to be seen if he can keep it up if the velocity doesn't come back. If he falters, Octavio Dotel and Matt Thornton could step in.

Projected record: 84-78

Cleveland Indians
The Indians were a sexy pick last season, but it took a solid second half and a huge season by Cliff Lee just to get them up to .500. Expectations are high again this year, but a lot of guys are going to have to take steps forward for it to pan out.

The offense hinges strongly on Grady Sizemore, who inexplicably looks like he'll still be batting leadoff. Sizemore was near the top of the AL in home runs all season (he finished tied for 6th with 33), but will once again be setting the table for lesser hitters. Jhonny Peralta and Ryan Garko have solid power, and there's nobody outside of Cleveland who doesn't think Victor Martinez will bounce back and once again be among the best hitting catchers in baseball. In my opinion, the most important piece of this offensive puzzle will be the development of right-fielder Shin-Soo Choo. He hit .343 after the All-Star break last year, and if he can continue to improve, his bat near the top of the order could generate a ton of runs.

Even with the Cy Young winner Lee acing the staff, though, the pitching is pretty scary. Fausto Carmona exploded after a productive 2007, and showed absolutely nothing that would make you feel encouraged about his potential for 2009. Anthony Reyes was a pleasant surprise, but he was unable to stay productive in three-and-a-half seasons with the Cardinals; I'm wary of his ability to suddenly turn it on for Cleveland. Carl Pavano is in the rotation for the Indians. Yeah, that's the scary part. They did the right thing by going out and paying for a closer after their recent difficulties, but Kerry Wood's injury history leaves open the door for more disappointment in the 9th inning again this year. Rafaels Betancourt and Perez are good middle relievers, bad closers.

Projected record: 84-78

Detroit Tigers
The Tigers might have been the biggest disappointment in baseball last year. They sent six prospects to Florida to acquire Miguel Cabrera to anchor their lineup, and got Dontrelle Willis in the trade as well. A tame first half by Cabrera and an anxiety disorder for Willis is making that trade seem a little less exciting. Cabrera did round out to lead the AL in HR, but Willis is on the DL, and the rest of the team isn't looking as good as they did going into last season.

Cabrera is obviously the best hitter in the lineup, but the whole outfield features proven and productive players. Carlos Guillen is just one year removed from 100 RBI, and Magglio Ordonez has hit that plateau in each of the past three years. Meanwhile, center fielder Curtis Granderson is among the most exciting players in the league, with a power/speed combination as potent as anyone in the AL other than Sizemore. The remainder of the infield is of the makeshift variety (Placido Polanco, Brandon Inge, Adam Everett), but they can slide in around the boppers to offer some solid production.

I think the pitching staff is where you're going to see this team made or broken, and my money is on broken. Justin Verlander figures to bounce back a little bit after an awful start to last season, but after him, the rotation is suspect. Jeremy Bonderman has been pitching too long to still have any upside left; he is what he is, a 4.50, 12 win guy. Armando Galarraga showed some nice savvy last season, but probably has reached his upside. Edwin Jackson got some coverage as possibly the next Cliff Lee, but the reason Lee was such a story was that it doesn't happen very frequently. I'm not counting on a second explosion in two years. I don't like anything about the Tigers' bullpen, either. Stop me when you hear the name of a guy you want to be your closer: Fernando Rodney, Joel Zumaya, Brandon Lyon, Bobby Seay, Juan Rincon...that's what I thought.

Projected record: 77-85

Kansas City Royals
Ahh, the lowly Royals. They've been out of contention in this division by July for a dozen years, and while I think they're getting better, there's really no reason to think things will be any different this season. The inexplicable acquisition of Mike Jacobs this offseason makes me think that this team might have to overcome its management if they're going to be successful.

The offense has a lot of holes, but certainly a lot of potential as well. Third baseman Alex Gordon and DH Billy Butler were both super prospects, and while they may not develop into superstars, they've both shown they can at least be productive major leaguers. David DeJesus, Coco Crisp, and Jose Guillen make up a somewhat surprisingly productive outfield. If I'm wrong about Jacobs and he's actually got room to improve, the offense could be decent.

Gil Meche and Zack Greinke are a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. Horacio Ramirez and Kyle Davies are two former Braves who you'd have to be "brave" to put in your rotation. I crack myself up. But seriously, neither of them has shown that they can be much more than a #5 starter, but the Royals are counting on them to eat innings. I wouldn't hold out much hope for that. Jamey Wright or Robinson Tejeda will likely be the team's actual #5 starter. Joakim Soria is a top-tier closer, and Juan Cruz showed flashes of being a very nice short reliever and setup man. Kyle Farnsworth is available if the team needs to spear a hit batsmen who's rushing the mound.

Projected record: 68-94

Minnesota Twins
The Twins may have gotten screwed out of the AL Central divison crown last season through a bogus rule regarding the one-game playoff. The home/away decision was made by a coin flip, rather than by the 10-8 record the Twins compiled against the White Sox during the season. Both teams were 53-28 at home and 35-46 on the road; the home field advantage was pronounced. The rule was changed this offseason, which is no consolation for Minnesota, but there's every reason to think the Twins will be right back in the hunt for the division crown in 2009.

The top of the order has Carlos Gomez and Delmon Young, a couple of young players with legitimate upside. Joe Mauer, though he'll be opening the season the DL, is one of the best overall players in the American League, and 1B Justin Morneau was 2006's AL MVP. Nick Punto and Alexi Casilla make up one of the weakest offensive middle infields in baseball, but the Twins scored the 4th most runs in baseball last year with that kind of middle infield, so I'm still optimistic.

Their pitching staff is fantastic. Francisco Liriano started to show some of the magic from his dominant 2006 season again last year, and he looks like he's a legitimate ace. Kevin Slowey was among the sharpest pitchers in baseball last year, with 123 strikeouts and just 24 walks. Scott Baker, Glen Perkins, and Nick Blackburn are as good a 3-4-5 as you'll find in baseball. The bullpen is highlighted by Joe Nathan, possibly the best closer in baseball. The middle relief crew isn't as good as it's been in the past, but I trust Minnesota's pen to always be effective; they seem to have a gift for finding great arms.

Projected record: 96-66

Top 500 Songs - Dave Matthews Band

This was always going to be the hardest of my band lists, because I like so many of DMB's songs, and have liked them so differently over...