2008 MLB Season Preview

It was with little (American) fanfare that Boston and Oakland brought in the MLB season last week in Japan.With painfully early start times in the states (3:00 a.m. on the West Coast), the earliest "Opening Day" date in human history (Do the MLB powers not know what the hell a March Madness bracket is?), and with players donning advertisements akin to NASCAR racers (although Tokyo is kind of in "Southern" Japan) there was little buzz about the Eastern Opener.

However, despite the suspect start, we can all be restfully assured that baseball will pick up steam from here. For those that read my previous post, perhaps you're in agreement that the Twins will be blowing more smoke than said steam, or maybe that is just one guy's opinion.

Speaking of which, here's some additional opining on what to expect from other teams around the league, in my 2008 season preview of division winners, wild card clubs, and sleepers:

American League

A.L. West Starting with baseball's smallest division, I find nothing minute about the chances of the Angels being great in '08. Coming off a 94-win season in which they won the West by six over Seattle, the L.A.A. of A. added OF Torii Hunter and P Jon Garland to the mix. Although the Angels didn't necessarily need Hunter, he'll man center while last year's starter, Gary Matthews, Jr. (no slouch himself) moves to a DH/4th outfield role. The other two guys out there? Just Vlad Guerrero and the aging, albeit silky-smooth Garret Anderson. That's just nasty. Speedy Chone Figgins will set the dish atop the lineup. They may run into some consistency issues with the hitting of the infielders, and the pre-season injuries to starters John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar won't bode well for their April -- but with Garland shoring things up as the projected No. 2 starter to date, a very good bullpen led by Scot Shields, and one of the game's top closers in Francisco Rodriguez, I'm liking the Angels to repeat behind one of the game's top Managers in Mike Scioscia.

A.L. East Look for defending champs Boston to recapture their 2007 division crown here, and for the Yankees -- now sans the great patience and strength of Joe Torre -- to miss the postseason for the first time since 1994. The Red Sox' lineup is just plain crazy with young studs Jacoby Ellsbury and scrappy Dustin Pedroia setting the table for David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Mike Lowell, Kevin Youkilis, and J.D. Drew. The starting staff -- even without the injured Curt Schilling -- looks very nice, and the bullpen is among the league's best. Closer Jonathan Papelbon is, for my money, the tops in the game at his position, just as (again in my little mind) Fenway is the majors' best ballpark. Josh Beckett looks to be starting the season with some back issues; however I think young guns Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz will keep opponents honest enough until Beckett returns to his Cy-worthy self.

A.L. Central For those that didn't see my prediction for the Twins, it's enough to say herein that the only "post" we'll be enjoying after 162 games will be of the cereal variety. Instead, I see the breakfast buffet being feasted upon by Detroit. Although I'm not necessarily buying into the merits that newly acquired Dontrelle Willis will offer their starting staff, I'm investing all I've got into the numbers that the other ex-Marlin catch, Miguel Cabrera, will add to the lineup. Offensively, this club is just stacked, 1-9, and terrific Manger Jimmy Leyland will likely pencil in his order akin to the following, according to ESPN: Edgar Renteria-Placido Polanco-Gary Sheffield-Magglio Ordonez-Miguel Carbrera-Carlos Guillen-Ivan Rodriguez-Brandon Inge-Jacque Jones. Note that stud CF Curtis Granderson will start the year on the 15-day DL, and will likely be replaced by Inge until his return. Relief pitching and defense will produce some problems for this group, and they should be involved in ample higher-scoring affairs, even though their starting staff is pretty solid with Justin Verlander at the top, and sneaky veteran Kenny Rogers at the bottom. In short: How the hell are the Boof Bonsers of the world gonna slow down these bats for 6 innings in a row?

A.L. Wild Card Having already said that the Yankees and Twins won't be here, I'm going with Seattle to snag the 4th and final post-season slot. The Mariners, coming off a solid 88-win '07, lost little in the offseason, and bolstered their starting staff with the likes of Erik Bedard, and streaky ex-Twin Carlos Silva. Furthermore, the lineup looks nice and sneaky with less-heralded, albeit battle-tested guys like Jose Vidro, Raul Ibanez, and Jose Lopez mixing in between the better-knowns Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson. And then, of course, atop the order is the great Ichiro Suzuki who has hit at least .303 and stolen 31 bases in every year since he came to the U.S. in 2001. There are some questions in the bullpen, and closer J.J. Putz may turn out to be one, but if young hurler Felix Hernandez lives up to the hype and Sexson hits his 40 bombs, these guys will beat out both the aforementioned pinstripes and the tribe in a tight wild card race.

A.L. Sleeper Toronto hasn't made the playoffs since they won the series in '93, and they have finished above 3rd in the A.L. East just once since that time. But if they stay healthy in '08, the Blue Jays are my American League sleeper club for the season. The left side of the St. Louis Cardinals' infield from last year has migrated north, with 2-time World Series champ David Eckstein now at SS, and Scott Rolen at 3B. Rolen looks to miss the first month with a fractured finger, but this is a guy who has played more than 151 games just thrice in a 12-plus M.L.B. seasons. Again, it's the health factor with this club: Tough lefty closer B.J. Ryan is coming off Tommy John surgery and doesn't look to be ready to do much in April. No. 2 starter A.J. Burnett is perennially hurt. Starting 1B Lyle Overbay broke his hand last year. But with Roy Halladay atop the rotation, and stud hitters like Alex Rios, Vernon Wells, and Frank Thomas meshing with the aforementioned, seasoned infielders, these dudes have the potential to win 90.

National League

N.L. West In what I believe to be baseball's toughest division, I'm looking for defending N.L. Champs Colorado to be atop after 162, with San Diego, Arizona, and the Dodgers jockeying for a tough 2nd. The Rockies rocked-out 90-wins in '07, and possess a great lineup with the likes of Willy Taveras, Troy Tulowitzki, Todd Helton, Matt Holliday, Garrett Atkins, and Brad Hawpe going 1-6. The Helton/Holiday adjacency in the order is the best back-to-back in the N.L., and- for my money- compares with Manny/Big Papi in the A.L. Pitching wise, young lefty Jeff Francis should anchor a decent rotation, although it should be readily noted that the Rocks have a tough bullpen with Brain Fuentes and Manny Corpas. Over the duration of the season, the lineup will be too much for their competitive divisional opponents to handle.

N.L. East The Mets took a nose dive at the closure of last year, and Philly took the Division by a game. Look for that incentive, plus the addition of Johan Santana and the health of Pedro Martinez to propel N.Y. to the title in '08. True, the Mets are starting the year with an active trainer's room, but once the season gets moving, their lineup features so much balance, neither age nor injury will stop them. With a great combination of speed (Jose Reyes), savvy (Luis Castillo), power (David Wright, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado), and incoming talent (Ryan Church, Brian Schneider), N.Y. should reach 95-wins by beating opponents in myriad forms. Add a strong rotation and a veteran closer in Billy Wagner to the mix, and their average bullpen shouldn’t slow them much.

N.L. Central This is a screwy Division with about 76 teams- but only one of them is the clear choice to rise atop: the Cubs. The Brewers should finish above-.500 again, but Lou Piniella-led Chicago has a very sound 2-5 in the lineup, led by Alfonso Soriano and Derrek Lee. The addition of Japanese-import Kosuke Fukudome, and the ascension of CF Felix Pie adds further intrigue. Their rotation has a few questions beyond ace Carlos Zambrano, but the bullpen is sound, and Kerry Wood should prove a tough closer if -- as per usual -- he can stay on the field. The Cubs won the Division with 85-wins last year. Look for them to better that total by a handful of games in '08.

N.L. Wild Card In what will be a zany wild card race, I like the San Diego Padres to act the proverbial patriarch, "fathering" the rest of the pack in what should be an extremely close race between themselves, Philly, Arizona, and L.A. Their starting staff look very tight with the great Jake Peavy leading the way before Chris Young, Greg Maddux, and Randy Wolf. The bullpen is solid, and veteran closer Trevor Hoffman- with his 524 career saves- should have something left in the tank to add to that total. The lineup is sneaky with Brian Giles, Adrian Gonzalez, and ex-Chi Sox 2B Tadahito Iguchi mixing with a young left-side of the infield in SS Khalil Greene and 3B Kevin Kouzmanoff. They also added the aging, albeit oft-injured Jimmy Edmonds, and veteran slugger Tony Clark should pop the occasional bomb off the bench. These guys won 89 games last year, and really lost little in the offseason.

N.L. Sleeper Perennially, I have a weird/bad habit of delving into the boxscores of strange teams on a daily basis. For '08, my strange team is Washington. The team unveils a new, $600 stadium that they'll fill with a bizarre and somewhat ratty lineup that I believe will surprise many, and surpass their 73- ins from last season. But the names intrigue, in the forms of Cristian Guzman, Lastings Milledge, Austin Kearns, Paul Lo Duca, Elijah Dukes, Wily Mo Pena, Ryan Zimmerman, and the 1B combo plate of Nick Johnson/Dmitri Young. The latter has some health issue to confront, but he did hit .320 last year. And although the starting staff is morbid, their bullpen features enough talent to bail them of more than a few games. Playoffs? Hell no -- but they could surprise with 85 wins.

Blogger's Note: Based on the early success with this blog, the powers at City Pages have seen fit to send Yours Truly down to Acapulco, Mexico for ten days, for the purpose of scouting a little-known pitching talent named Jorge Gomez Luis Rivas Gomez. I'm being shipped off on 3/31, armed with only a catcher’s mitt and a speed gun. I'll post from the road as I'm able, however if I'm not back by 4/11, tell my mom that I love her, and put a Kirby Puckett quote on my gravestone.

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