Monday, April 2, 2007

We're talkin' baseball... finally

Ahhh How sweet it is. The sun is out the weather is mild and it’s opening day. There is nothing better than sitting in the truck with my feet propped up listening to the ballgame on my lunch break. At least there’s nothing better than to do on a Monday afternoon at the No Limits Fun Factory. After a lot of off season speculation and trepidation the 2007 Tampa Bay Rays took the field in a cold and dreary New York.

Unfortunately the outcome was just as cold and dreary as the weather. The bullpen blew a lead and the Yankees won going away 9-5 behind the timely hitting of Jason Giambi. Scott Kazmir started for the Rays and couldn’t make it out of the 6th inning (due in part to a 35 pitch 1st inning). As feared the bullpen couldn’t keep the other team close as they surrendered 4 runs

We’re not here to dwell on the negative – at least not yet. It’s too early in the season. Lets look at the positive. Elijah Duke’s first major league hit was a home run. BJ Upton and Carl Crawford both went 2-4.and no one committed an error.

It’s a day late, but here it is – my preseason predictions. This year (the 2nd Annual Baseball Prediction Column) the list grows to 10 in honor of a decade of Rays’ baseball. Here we go:

1. No playoffs for the Red Sox

Everyone likes their line up. Julio Lugo is the greatest free agent signing since time began. Their pitching staff will be the first since the 1971 O’s to have four 20 game winners. There are no holes in this team.

Then again maybe not. Their starting pitchers are not as solid as they may appear on paper. Curt Schilling is an old 40. His 3.97 ERA last year was his highest ERA as a full time starter since 1993. Coming into this season his arm has logged 3110 innings during his 19 year career. Joining him in the starting rotation is fellow 40 year old Tim Wakefield and journeyman Julian Tavarz.

With Jonathon Papelbon moving to the bullpen Josh Beckett is the young gun in the rotation at 26. While his performance in the 2003 World Series is quickly becoming legendary during the regular season his numbers are rather pedestrian (57 wins in 6 seasons and a 3.85 career ERA). The fifth member of the starting staff will be Daisuke Matsuzaka – more on him later.

On the offensive side of the ball the Sox added enigmatic and oft injured JD Drew as well as the highly paid shortstop Lugo. Coco Crisp is still patrolling center field and 34 year old Jason Veritek will be crouching behind the plate and looking to improve on his .238 average from last year. This team could get old very, very quickly as the summer wears on.
I see the Yankees taking the east and the wild card coming out of the AL Central again this year. No room for the Sox.

2. Roger Clemens will return

He will be gloriously overpaid and not make a major difference. I don’t know who’s going to sign him (it definitely won’t be the Rays) but whoever does will be desperate to stat in contention. When he announces that he is ready sometime around June the as of yet undecided team will throw $15 million dollars at him for about 10 starts and their return of investment will be 6 wins.

It’s time for him to hang it up. His blackmailing of teams for a half season of work is setting a damaging precedent for baseball. It’s time for teams to stop playing his game.

3. No playoffs for the Tigers

They were the darlings of baseball last year. The Tigers shot out to an overwhelming lead in the AL Central behind the bat of Chris Shelton and the arms of Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander. In the off season they added a “fearsome” hitter in Gary Sheffield.

While they may be the favorites to start the season I have a feeling that they are going to take a step back. Sheffield is a malcontent and only happy when he’s playing and winning. He’s fragile at this point in his career and will be lucky to play 125 games. Look for his power numbers will decline playing in Comerica Park.

The Indians and the Twins will battle for the division and the wild card.

4. Barry Bonds will break Hank Aaron’s record

He only needs 22 home runs this season (he hit 26 last year) and for once there is less pressure on him going into the season. The other Barry (Barry Zito) will take a lot of the press off of Bonds and his relaxed good nature may rub off on the normally surly outfielder.

He still has no protection in the line up, but he is healthier than he has been in years. That should be good for 25-30 homeruns. After the season he retires.

5. Matsuzaka will not win 20 games

All the hype and all the money the Red Sox spent on him will translate into about 16 wins. By all means that will be a good year (talk started last season that 16 is the new 20 as far as wins is concerned) but not what is expected out of a pitcher that cost about $102 million to acquire.

He does possess more pitches than the rest of the Red Sox pitchers combined, but he is still untested against major league hitters. He will be competing in the American League East where all the teams from top to bottom can roll out above average hitters.

Over the last few seasons he could throw up to 140 pitches in a game routinely while he pitched for the Seibu Lions in Japan. The longer season in the majors will take it’s effect on the right-hander and no matter how durable he claims to be he will suffer in August.

6. Scott Kazmir will win 15 games

Look for the lefty to be healthy all season long for the Rays. If he is then 15 wins is a lock with an outside shot at 20. His stuff is that good. Behind Johan Santana he may be the filthiest lefthander in the American League right now.

It will be important for him to find control and limit his pitch count. With a shaky, at best, bullpen he needs to go deep into games to ensure the relievers don’t blow wins for him.

7. Rocco Baldelli will go on the DL

This is by far the easiest prediction of the year.

8. Rays MVP – Dioner Navarro

He’s only 23, but it seems like he’s been the next big thing for catchers for a decade now. Entering his 4th big league season it seems that the comparisons to Ivan Rodriguez might have been a little premature, but he is developing into a solid major league backstop.

The Rays will look to him to be a leader on the field. With the young pitching staff it will be up to Navarro to guide them through the season. He will also be counted on in the line up. A switch hitter the Rays will look to him to make contact and get on base for the young guns in the batting order.

While Carl Crawford and the Nefarious Three (Young, Upton and Dukes) may garner the headlines the Rays will only go as far as Navarro takes them.

9. Miguel Cabrera – monster year

Playing on a one year contract after a bitter arbitration battle with the Marlin’s ownership the Florida 3rd baseman may leap over Albert Puljos as the best right handed hitter in the game today. With rumors of Alex Rodriguez maybe opting out of the remainder of his contract at the end of the season Cabrera could be auditioning for the hot corner in New York next season.

He has driven in over 100 runs in 3 of his 4 big league seasons and the year he didn’t drive in 100 he drove in 62 in only 87 games. With 105 home runs in 564 career games he shows the power that teams look for in a corner infielder.

Despite what he may say to the contrary he is playing with a chip on his shoulder. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him contend for the triple crown this season.

10. The Rays will won’t win 70 games

I really want to be bold and predict a 75 win season for the Rays. Then I watched Kazmir throw 35 pitches in the first inning of his opening day start. He gave up only two wins, but the game could have been a replay of one from last year. Ineffective starting pitching, blown leads and a shaky bullpen seem to point to 2007 just being a continuation of the woes from 2006.

Other than the signing of Akinori Iwamura the Rays haven’t really improved their team. The bullpen is cobbled together – like last year and their isn’t really much new on the offensive side of the ball.

You know what…. Screw it…. I’m going to call it – 75 wins for the Rays. Let’s have some hope folks, it’s a new day in Tampa Bay. No longer do we have to wonder what the future is going to hold – all of the prospects (save for Evan Longoria) are on the big league team and starting. Upton, Young, Dukes are all going to get significant playing time.

The pitching staff seems to be stable and a year more experienced. Barring a major catastrophe all of the starters should improve on their win totals from last season. A closer will emerge from the pack to close out games. Al Reyes and Gary Clover will bridge the gap from the starters to the as of now unnamed closer.

So there you have it. Don’t worry unlike some talking heads who conveniently ignore their predictions I will review these at the end of the year and admit where I was wrong.

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