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March 2012

Baseball picks & Sports picksMarch 30, 2012

Predicted Order of Finish
1. Arizona Diamondbacks
2. San Francisco Giants
3. Colorado Rockies
4. Los Angeles Dodgers
5. San Diego Padres

Arizona Diamondbacks (94-68 in 2011) – In the wild west of 2011, Arizona came out of nowhere under manager Kirk Gibson and won the division, a remarkable turnaround for a franchise that as recently as 2004 was 51-111. The offense was an aggressive young unit, like their manager, that was No. 9 in the league in runs scored and No. 8 in slugging. Three players stole 20+ bases and the team looks similar to last year, which is a good thing.

The outfield is the strength of the offense with 28-year-old CF Chris Young (22 steals, 20 HRs), who needs to improve on a .228 batting average and a .244 OBP. Newcomer LF Jason Kubel hit 21 doubles and 12 homers with the Twins, while 24-year-old RF Justin Upton belted 31 homers, with 39 doubles, 21 steals and a .289 average.

SS Stephen Drew (.252, 21 doubles) continues to improve, 2B Aaron Hill hit .315 in only 124 at bats, and 3B Ryan Roberts can do it all with 19 homers and 18 steals. Gibson loves to run at opponents to disrupt pitchers and put more guys in scoring position. 1B Paul Goldschmidt (.250, 8 HRs) will play first after getting just 156 at bats and 28-year-old Catcher Miguel Montero busted out with 18 homers, 86 RBI and a .282 average.

While the offense is good, the pitching was good enough, No. 9 in the NL in team ERA (3.80) with a deep pen. 27-year-old Ian Kennedy (21-4, 2.88) is off a career season with 222 innings and 198 strikeouts, while 25-year-old Daniel Hudson (16-8) pitched the same number of innings and had a 3.38 ERA for a dynamite, young, one-two punch.

Arizona bolstered the starting staff by getting 24-year-old Trevor Cahill from the A’s, where he went 12-14 with a 4.16 ERA in 207 innings. Cahill is a sinkerballer who generates a high rate of ground balls, which should help in his new park. Junkball lefty Joe Saunders (12-13, 3.69, 212 innings) knows how to pitch, while Josh Collmenter (10-10, 3.38 ERA) was solid.

The bullpen has David Hernandez (5-3, 3.38 ERA), who is strong, Joe Paterson (2.91) is a lefty specialist and they get Craig Breslow from the Oakland A’s for depth. Then there’s ace closer J.J. Putz (2.17), who was dominating with 45 saves, fanning 61 in 58 innings. Many young teams catch lightening in a bottle and can come back to earth the next season after a surprising division title, but Gibson is such a serious, focused disciplinarian it’s unlikely that the D-Backs will get complacent. They also have the kind of balance and depth to make another postseason appearance, so look for 90+ wins again.

San Francisco Giants (86-76 in 2011) – The Giants went from defending champs to 86 wins and a second-place finish with the same weakness the 2010 title team had: little offense. They got away with it while winning the title, but it proved a problem last summer, No. 29 in runs scored, No. 28 in batting average, No. 29 in OBP and No. 26 in slugging. Up and down the lineup, they couldn’t hit, which is too bad as the pitching was dominant again, trailing only the Phillies with a team ERA of 3.20. They were great at home, but a below .500 road team (40-41).

So is the offense improved? The Giants scored the fewest runs in the National League last season. The outfield has new looks that they hope will upgrade the attack. RF Nate Schierholtz returns after hitting .278 with 9 homers, but the offense adds 27-year-old LF Melky Cabrera and CF Angel Pagan. Cabrera had 44 doubles and 18 homers with the Royals while hitting .305, and the 30-year-old Pagan hit .262 with the Mets while stealing 32 bases. Both are important acquisitions.

The defense should be very good in the outfield, but otherwise the Giants aren’t exactly world-beaters with the gloves. The infield has 2B Freddy Sanchez (.289) and SS Brandon Crawford (.204), with 3B Pablo Sandoval (23 homers, .315) providing some pop along with 1B Aubrey Huff (12 HRs, .240) and catcher Buster Posey (.284).  Posey didn’t play much because of a severe leg injury and is in bounce-back mode.

While the offense looks improved, the pitching really can’t get any better – one of the top rotations in baseball. 27-year-old Tim Lincecum (13-14, 2.74 ERA) didn’t get a lot of wins, but fanned 220 in 217 innings, while 27-year-old Matt Cain (12-11, 2.88) threw 221 innings and fanned 179. 22-year-old Madison Bumgarner (13-13, 3.21) is the latest great young arm. He fanned 191 in 204 innings and 34-year-old veteran Ryan Vogelsong (13-7, 2.71) was a big surprise.

In order to improve the offense the Giants had to trade lefty Jonathan Sanchez to the Royals. Barry Zito (3-4, 5.87) is in the mix somewhere, while the bullpen is deep with Jeremy Affeldt (2.63), Javier Lopez (2.72), Guillermo Mota, Sergio Romo (1.50) and Santiago Casilla setting up closer Brian Wilson (36 saves, 3.11). They are a threat to improve on 86 wins and make a run to the postseason again – and no one wants to face this pitching in October.

Colorado Rockies (73-89 in 2011) – That miraculous late-season run to the 2007 World Series turned out to be exactly a fluke. The Rockies haven’t been able to catch that lightening in a bottle since. Last season they had a losing record both home and away, despite an offense that was No. 7 in the majors in runs scored and on-base percentage, No. 9 in batting average and No. in slugging. Pretty good. But what was not pretty was the pitching, second to last in the NL in team ERA (4.43).

For this season the offense looks just as good. SS Troy Tulowitski (30 homers, 105 RBI, .302) and 1B Todd Helton (14 homers, 69 RBI, .302) are the anchors of a solid all around infield. 36-year-old veteran 2B Marco Scutaro (7 homers, .299) come over from Boston where he played shortstop and was productive offensively, though is a below-average fielder.

3B Casey Blake was brought in but then cut, so the Rockies are looking at Chris Nelson and Jordan Pacheco as options – both 26-years-old. Nelson was the Rockies first-round pick in 2004 while Pacheco is a converted catcher. 35-year-old catcher Ramon Hernandez was picked up from the Reds where he hit 12 homers and a fine .282 average. The outfield has LF Carlos Gonzalez (26 homers, .295), who stole 26 bases, CF Dexter Fowler (.266, 5 HRs) and RF Michael Cuddyer (20 homers, .284). Cuddyer was the big offseason acquisition by the Rockies from the Twins, but Fowler has struggled in spring training.

The pitching has some key changes, which was needed. 32-year-old Jeremy Guthrie comes over from the Orioles where he didn’t win games (9-17), but pitched fairly well, with a 4.33 ERA in 208 innings with few walks (66) and a respectable 213 hits allowed. He’s the type of sinkerball pitcher that is a plus in a park like this. Jhoulys Chacin (11-14) was decent for Colorado with a 3.62 ERA and in 194 innings allowed just 168 hits.

Beyond those two there is 23-year-old lefty Drew Pomeranz (18 IP), and newcomers Guillermo Moscoso (8-10, 3.38) and 22-year-old Tyler Chatwood (4.75). Moscoso comes over from Oakland, but his 55.6% fly ball rate was tops in the majors, not a good fit for Coors Field, while Chatwood was rocked often last year with the Angels (166 hits, 71 walks in 142 innings) and is clearly a long-term project.

There will be a ton of competition for the Rockies rotation and bullpen with Juan Nicasio (4.14), Josh Outman, Matt Belisle and Alez White. The Rockies dealt Huston Street to the Padres, but Rafael Betancourt (2.89, 73 Ks, 8 walks, 63 IP) has outstanding stuff. Newly acquired Zach Putnam is a promising prospect. All in all this team appears to have moved sideways, but they had to shake-up the pitching staff with some new pieces and they did, hoping to catch lightening in a bottle again. But a .500 season is more likely than approaching 90 wins.

Los Angeles Dodgers (82-79 in 2011) – The good news for the Dodgers is that disastrous owner Frank McCourt sold the team. Now they can rebuild, despite a slight winning record last season. This is a top-heavy team, with two stars (NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and NL MVP runner-up Matt Kemp) and little alongside them for manager Don Mattingly.

The offense has always been hampered by playing in cavernous Dodger stadium and last year’s group finished No. 21 in runs scored, No. 23 in slugging and No. 14 in OBP. The Dodgers brought in a lot of players this offseason, but not many that will upgrade the attack. 34-year-old 2B Mark Ellis comes over from Colorado where he had a .317 on-base percentage with 6 homers.

Speedy 23-year-old SS Dee Gordon steps in after hitting .304 in 224 at bats last season and stole 24 bases. 33-year-old 3B Juan Uribe (.204) is a weak spot at the hot corner. Gordon doesn’t yet walk much (.325 OBP), something he will have to improve to be a strong leadoff hitter. 30-year-old catcher A.J. Ellis returns (.262), who has no power, but has a very strong on-base percentage (.360). 1B James Loney (.288, 12 homers) hasn’t developed into a power hitter, so this infield is below average.

The outfield carries the offense with newcomer LF Juan Rivera (.274) and RF Andre Ethier (.292, 11 HRs, 62 RBI) flanking star CF 27-year-old Matt Kemp (33 doubles, 39 homers, .324, 126 RBI, 40 steals). That came on the heels of Kemp’s 2010 campaign, when he batted .249, was 19-for-34 attempting steals and fanned 170 times. The Dodgers had better hope that the 2011 Kemp was the real deal because this offense needs his awesome all-around offensive skills.

While the offense is thin, the pitching staff is the backbone of the team – fifth in the NL in team ERA (3.54). 24-year-old lefty Clayton Kershaw (21-5) is an ace, throwing 233 innings with 248 strikeouts and a sizzling 2.28 ERA. 27-year-old Chad Billingsley (11-11, 4.15) and veteran lefty Ted Lilly (12-14, 3.97) are reliable, though not outstanding.

The Dodgers signed a pair of veterans to fill out the back of their rotation in Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano. Harang may be about done, as he had a 3.05 ERA in San Diego’s Petco Park, but a 4.70 ERA in 11 road starts. The 33-year-old Capuano is a big question mark, off Tommy John surgeries in 2002 and 2008. He had a 4.55 ERA with the Mets last season and he cost them $10 million, so someone in the LA organization is staking a lot on him.

The bullpen is thin with veteran reliever Todd Coffey, adding to Matt Guerrier and Jamey Wright. A guy to watch is young Kenley Jansen, a prospect who throws hard and they have high hopes for him. They all set-up ace closer Javy Guerra (2.31, 21 saves).

This offense doesn’t look any better and the pitching staff has one dominant ace and a lot of holes, so another winning season will be tough to find.

San Diego Padres (71-91 in 2011) – The Padres were a last place mess with no offense and they traded away young ace Mat Latos. That’s not the way a bad team rebuilds – or gets better. San Diego was No. 28 in baseball in runs and scored and on-base percentage, plus No. 29 in batting average and slugging – awful across the board.

San Diego adds 29-year-old LF Carlos Quentin to try and upgrade the offense and he hit 24 homers and .254 with 77 RBIs for the White Sox. Spacious Petco Park won’t help those numbers, however. In addition, Quentin had minor knee surgery and will miss the first few weeks of the season. Beyon Quinton there is little power – or experience.

CF Cameron Maybin adds speed for defense in this big outfield, and had 40 steals, 9 homers while hitting .264 for San Diego last season. RF Will Venable (9 HRs, .246) mans right field and is a better defensive player than offensive one. Chris Denorfia (.277), Mark Kotsay and Kyle Blanks are below average backup outfielders with not much offensive punch.

The infield has a gem with 2B Orlando Hudson, who hit .246 with 19 steals for the Paders, a multiple Gold Glove winner, though at 34-years-old his best years are behind him. Shortstop Jason Bartlett his .245 with 23 stolen bases, coming over from Tampa Bay, while 3B Chase Headley puts the bat on the ball and hit .289 with no power (4 HRs).

Can first base provide some power? They hope so with young 24-year-old Cuban 1B Yonder Alonso, a talent who cost them pitcher Mat Latos. Catcher Nick Hundley is very good, hitting .288 with a.374 OBP in 281 at bats and even 13 steals. There are a few interesting pieces, but far too many dead bats in a lineup devoid of average and power.

Without Latos, the onus falls on newcomer 28-year-old Edinson Volquez to anchor the rotation. Last season, he went 5-7 with a 5.71 ERA for the Reds.  He’s a good strikeout pitcher, but walks far too many batters to be a workhorse. Even in the spring he walked 11 in his first 20 innings, so he doesn’t appear to be the ace this club needs. Righty Tim Stauffer (9-12, 3.73 ERA) has marginal stuff and last season had a 2.57 ERA at home, but was 3-7 with a 4.95 ERA on the road.

Clayton Richard (5-9, 3.88, 99 IP) and Dustin Moseley (3-10, 3.33 ERA) saw their 2011 seasons cut short with injuries and will get thrown into the rotation, along with Cory Leubke (6-10, 3.29). Veterans Luke Gregerson, Mitch Owings and Joe Thatcher anchor a below-average middle relief staff while hoping young Andrew Cashner can step up. They lose ace closer Heath Bell, but signed Huston Street who saved 29 games for Colorado last year, but had a 3.86 ERA. A huge plus is that he walked only nine in 58 innings with 55 strikeouts, so he should be terrific in this park – if he gets any leads to hold! This is a perfect park to pitch in, but this offense is anemic and should be the worst in baseball. If you like to play games UNDER the total, the Padres are a team to look at, especially at home.


Baseball picks & Sports picksMarch 29, 2012

Predicted Order of Finish
1. Philadelphia Phillies
2. Atlanta Braves
3. Washington Nationals
4. Miami Marlins
5. New York Mets

Philadelphia Phillies (102-60 in 2011) – The Phillies have won 97 and 102 games the last two seasons and it’s remarkable they didn’t win the World Series either time. They look even better for 2012 with the addition of hard-throwing closer Jonathon Papelbon to an already stocked pitching staff.

The Phillies have a pitching staff for the ages in Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. The 34-year-old Halladay anchors the staff off a 17-8 season, with a 2.35 ERA and 220 strikeouts in 233 innings. Since 2000 he has topped 235 innings five times. He is a remarkable ace, not walking anyone, a great strikeout pitcher, and a workhorse. The only concern, possibly, is age as he will turn 35-years-old in May.

28-year-old Cole Hamels (14-9, 216 innings, 194 strikeouts, 3.01 ERA) has been strong, adding a cutter alongside his outstanding changeup. Then there’s 33-year-old Cliff Lee, who went 17-8 with a 2.40 ERA, fanning 238 in 232 innings and just 42 walks. Throw in 27-year-old righty Kyle Kendrick (8-6, 3.22 ERA) and Vance Worley (11-3, 3.01 ERA) this team has more than enough to roll through the summer.

The bullpen won’t be needed much with Lee and Halladay piling up eight innings per start, but has a one-two punch of Antonio Bastardo (58 IP, 2.64), Chad Qualls and Papelbon, who saved 31 games in Boston with a 2.94 ERA fanning 87 in 64 innings with only 10 walks. This is an easy homerun park that can be tough on pitchers, but they appear to have no weak spots. This pitching staff was No. 1 in baseball last season with a 3.02 ERA.

The offense was No. 1 in runs scored in 2007, but slipped to No. 7 in 2010 and No. 13 last season. They probably should have been better with all this talent. The infield has age concerns with 33-year-old SS Jimmy Rollins (.268, 30 steals, 16 homers), 36-year-old 3B Placido Polanco (.277), 33-year-old 2B Chase Utley (.259, 11 HRs), a former star who is battling knee problems, and 33-year old catcher Carlos Ruiz (.371 OBP).

There are no concerns at first base, as the Phillies have 32-year-old 1B Ryan Howard (.253, 33 homers, 116 RBI). He still has the capability to hit 50 home runs, especially in tiny Citizens Bank Park. There’s more speed with 31-year-old CF Shane Victorino (.279, 19 HRs, 17 RBI) and RF Hunter Pence (.314, 22 HRs), so this offense is loaded for Manager Charlie Manuel.

The bottom line is that Philadelphia can score plenty of runs, play good defense and this pitching staff is stocked with four veteran aces. The Phillies will get back to the postseason and should dominate the NL East. Philadelphia is the favorite in Las Vegas to win the World Series – and should be.

Atlanta Braves (89-73 in 2011) – It’s the last year for Chipper! Chipper Jones is retiring after this campaign, but he’s one of the lone veterans on an interesting young team that had a winning record both home and away last season.  Pitching carried the load, ranking No. 4 in all of baseball in team ERA (3.48) while the offense struggled, ranking No. 22 in runs, No. 26 in batting average (.243), No. 26 in on-base percentage and No. 21 in slugging.

They look for better balance, but can that offense improve? The lineup is pretty much the same. 39-year-old 3B Chipper Jones (18 HRs, .282) is off a fine season and will have his farewell tour, and teams with 22-year-old first baseman Freddie Freeman (21 HRs, 76 RBI) to give the Braves a terrific punch at the corners. 32-year-old 2B Dan Uggla (36 HRs, 82 RBI) is off a monster season and provides plenty of punch, while they have a new look at shortstop with 22-year-old Tyler Pastornicky, who hit .314 at Double A and Triple A last summer.

The outfield should be better with LF Martin Prado (13 HRs, 57 RBI, .260) reliable, RF Jason Heyward (14 HRs, .227) is still learning the game at age 22 and CF Michael Bourn (.278, 22 steals) is in a contract year.

While the offense looks balanced and a little better, the pitching staff looks very strong again. Aging Derek Lowe is gone, which is addition by subtraction. That means the Braves can throw a one, two, three punch of Tim Hudson (16-10, 3.22 ERA, 214 IP), 25-year-old Tommy Hanson (11-7, 3.60, 142 Ks in 130 IP) and 26-year-old Jair Jurrjens (13-6, 2.96).

In addition, they like Mike Minor (5-2, 82 IP) and Brandon Beachy (7-3, 141 IP, 125 hits, 169 Ks), plus have young Kris Medlen waiting in the wings. Craig Kimbrel returns from his NL Rookie of the Year season with 46 saves and a 2.10 ERA to lead the bullpen that should be one of the best in baseball. There is depth and talent with lefties Robert Fish, Eric O’Flaherty (0.98, 73 IP) and Jonny Venters (1.84), plus Randall Delgado (2.83) and Julio Teheran. Good luck, NL hitters! No one really has a chance in the NL to catch the Phillies, unless injuries to the Philadelphia aces crop up. In which case, the door could be open to a sleeper team like the Braves to be playing in October.

Washington Nationals (81-81 in 2011) – Washington impressed last season, rebuilding but quietly getting to .500, a strong 44-36 at home. How? They play in a big park and finished No. 7 in pitching ERA (3.58), without potential ace Stephen Strasburg (just five starts). But that big park giveth and taketh away, with the offense at No. 24 in runs scored, No. 27 in batting average (.242), and No. 25 in OBP and No. 22 in slugging.

Can this offense improve? It starts with 30-year-old 3B Michael Morse, who hit .303 with a .550 slugging percentage and 31 home runs. But getting someone on base is a concern. They have a little table setter in 26-year-old SS Ian Desmond, who stole 25 bases though he had a poor .298 OBP. 2B Danny Espinosa belted 21 homers, but hit just .236. 3B Ryan Zimmerman (12 HRs, .298) anchors the infield, but battled injuries and had just 395 at bats.

Big free agent RF Jayson Werth (20 HRs) was mostly a bust, hitting .232, which will happen in a big park like this. CF Roger Bernadina has a better glove than bat and C/RF Bryce Harper, a top pick, isn’t quite ready for the big leagues yet. 2B Mark DeRosa, 3B Mark Teahen and OF Rick Ankiel all come aboard as free agents to help the offense.

While the offense still has weakness, the pitching staff looks pretty good. Ace Stephen Strasburg is on pace to start opening day, though he is going to be capped at around 160 innings this season. Newcomer lefty Gio Gonzalez comes over from Oakland and went 16-12 with a 3.12 ERA, and should like pitching in this park (as well as not facing a DH). Righty Edwin Jackson (12-9, 3.79) also comes aboard, a strong young arm and a good strikeout pitcher.

Former Yankee Chien-Ming Wang (4-3, 4.04) has the kind of sinker that would be perfect for this park, if he can stay healthy and give them more innings, while John Lannan (10-13, 3.70) is above average. The bullpen has good arms in closer Drew Storen (6-3, 43 saves, 2.75), along with middle men Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett, plus they add righty Brad Lidge. Once again, the pitching staff will be very good (and could be great), but this offense has some weak spots. Totals bettors may want to look at the Nationals UNDER the total, especially at home in their cavernous park.

Miami Marlins (78-84 in 2011) – The Marlins have new name, a new manager and a new stadium. Unfortunately, they have the same budget, limited talent and no pitching.  New manager Ozzie Guillen will bring plenty of fireworks on the field and at postgame press conferences, especially when he sees all the errors this young team will make and all the walks the pitching will allow. He could go ballistic by the fifth inning!

A lot will depend on the health of former ace righty 28-year-old Josh Johnson (3-1, 1.64 ERA), who gave them 60 brilliant innings last season before shoulder problems shut him down. Spring training reports have been very encouraging, hitting 96 MPH on the gun and looking sharp.

The new manager had better hope Johnson stays healthy, because the rest of the staff has lefty Mark Buehrle (13-9, 3.59), Ricky Nolasco (10-12, 4.67), Anibal Sanchez (8-9, 3.67) and wild man Carlos Zambrano (9-7, 4.82). Buehrle is 33-years-old and allowed more hits than innings pitched and his strikeouts were way down (109 in 205 innings). A move to the NL was a good one, though he doesn’t know the NL hitters or how this new park plays.

Sanchez has great stuff and fanned 202 in 196 innings, but Nolasco was pounded for 244 hits in 206 innings, while Zambrano is a powder keg and inconsistent, walking 56 in 145 innings and opponents hit .277 off him. At age 30, his best years are probably behind him. Wade LeBlanc (5-6, 4.63), Brad Hand (1-8, 4.20) and Alex Sanabia are also young arms in the mix.

The bullpen has a new look with closer Heath Bell (43 saves), and set-up men Juan Oviedo (1-4), Mike Dunn and Randy Choate. Bell’s 132 saves since the start of the 2009 season are the most in baseball. Of concern is that his strikeout numbers dropped significantly and lefties hit .283 off Bell, as opposed to .164 for righties.

The weak offense was No. 23 in runs, No. 22 in batting averages, No. 16 in OBP and No. 19th in slugging last summer. The infield has a pair of five-tooled talents in 3B: Hanley Ramirez and SS Jose Reyes (.337, 16 triples). Reyes is a dynamic leadoff hitter who won the NL batting title last season. Ramirez battled injuries and hit just 10 homers and a .243 average with 20 steals. Both of these guys will be fun to watch – if healthy.

2B Omar Infante (.276) is average at second, while Matt Dominguez and Greg Dobbs will battle at the hot corner. 28-year-old 1B Gaby Sanchez (.266, 19 HRs) is solid and drew 74 walks to lead the team. The outfield has a 22-year-old budding star in RF Giancarlo Stanton (.262), who smacked 34 homers with 87 RBI, along with 26-year-old CF Emilio Bonifacio (40 steals, .296) and LF Logan Morrison (23 HRs, .247). This offense should be much better, and the pitching staff badly needs a guy like Johnson to stay healthy, but that has been a major problem of late. This is an intriguing young team that could top 80 wins with a healthy Johnson, or become dysfunctional if Ozzie flips out too often and hurts the confidence of the kids.

NY Mets (77-85 in 2011) – The Mets don’t mind spending money, but they certainly haven’t got their money’s worth the last five years. There are some big names for 2012, but they are past their prime – just like the organization. The pitching staff ranked No. 21 in all of baseball last season and has question marks again.

They hope lefty Johan Santana (11-9, 2.98 ERA in 2010) still has ace stuff, but at age 33 his shoulder is shaky after logging a ton of innings the last ten years. Santana missed the entire 2011 season following surgery to repair a torn capsule in his shoulder and even in spring training Santana was battling shoulder problems and they were careful with his workload. He is a big unknown. This is an organization that overpaid for Santana and Pedro Martinez and didn’t come close to getting their money’s worth.

28-year-old Mike Pelfrey (7-13, 4.74) started 33 games last summer, but was very hittable and isn’t a strikeout pitcher. Starters Jon Niese (11-11, 4.40), knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (8-13, 3.28) and Dillon Gee (13-6, 4.43) are marginal, but that team has few other options.

If they have a late lead there are more question marks. 32-year-old Frank Francisco (1-4, 17 saves, 3.55 ERA) had a good second half, but his drop in strikeout rate and poor home run rate (7 in 50 innings) is a concern. The middle relief is average at best, with Jon Rauch (5-4, 11 saves, 4.85), Ramon Ramirez (2.62) and Tim Byrdak (3.82). Mets’ relievers posted a 4.33 ERA and finished with 24 blown saves!

The offense can hit and get on base (No. 6 in batting average and on-base percentage), but ranked No. 12 in runs scored and No. 18 in slugging. The infield has 29-year-old 3B David Wright (.254, 14 HRs, 13 steals), who struggled to stay healthy while getting just 389 at bats. They can build around Wright and 25-year-old lefty 1B Ike Davis (.302), who quietly had a .383 OBP and 7 homers in 129 at bats. They would love to see him do that for a full campaign.

2B Daniel Murphy (.320) is another young player (age 26) who impressed in 391 at bats, though he has little power (6 HRs), along with SS Ruben Tejada (.284). They could use a few big boppers in this lineup that is good at getting on base. Part of the problem is the ball park, which is better for pitchers. That’s been the main reason LF Jason Bay (.245, 12 HRs) has seen his numbers plummet since leaving the American League.

26-year-old RF Lucas Duda (.292) hit 10 homers in 301 at bats and is the lone young player in an outfield that also has 34-year-old CF Andres Torres (.221). Torres had a terrific 2010 campaign and then fell off the map last season. They will start him in the leadoff role, but that will change if he has another season like 2011. The Mets were odd last season in that they were poor at home (34-47), but 43-38 on the road! That’s more likely an anomaly, but another losing season wouldn’t be a surprise.


Sports picksMarch 28, 2012

Predicted Order of Finish
1. St. Louis
2. Milwaukee Brewers
3. Cincinnati Reds
4. Chicago Cubs
5. Pittsburgh Pirates
6. Houston Astros

St. Louis (90-72 in 2011) – Are the defending champs in for a fall without Albert? Pujols is gone, along with manager Tony LaRussa. However, they get back ace Adam Wainwright, who missed 2011 for Tommy John surgery. It’s tough to find fault with an offense that was so strong last summer, fifth in batting average and runs scored, third in on-base percentage and sixth in slugging.

Even without Pujols they still have 1B slugger Lance Berkman (34 HRs, .301, 94 RBI), postseason hero 3B David Freese (10 HRs, .297, World Series MVP) and catcher Yadier Molina (14 HRs, .305) to provide an offensive punch. 2B Daniel Descalso (.264) would be better in a platoon role, while 34-year old SS Rafael Furcal is far past his prime. In 2011, he posted a career-worst .231 batting average.

At least the outfield has more pop with 32-year old LF Matt Holliday (22 HRs, 75 RBI, .296), who had a strong season despite injuries and missing games. He played in just 124 games and had a solid .388 OBP. CF Jon Jay (.297) had 24 doubles, ten homers, and the Cardinals add 34-year old RF Carlos Beltran (.300, 22 HRs), who had a fine season with the Mets getting 520 at bats and 84 RBI. Beltran actually had a better on-base percentage than Pujols in 2011 (.385-.366), so this lineup looks like one of the best in the NL.

Three of La Russa’s longtime coaches also departed, including highly regarded pitching coach Dave Duncan. New pitching coach Derek Lilliquist gets to see the comeback of 6-foot-7 Adam Wainwright, one of the NL’s top starters from 2009-10. Wainwright went 20-11 with 2.42 ERA in 2010. Veteran 36-year old righty Chris Carpenter (11-9, 237 IP, 3.45 ERA) was a postseason hero and workhorse. He went 12-2 with a 3.01 ERA during the rest of the regular season and postseason but is battling a nerve condition to start this season.

Righty Kyle Lohse (14-8, 3.39 ERA) was a big surprise, staying healthy and walking just 42 in 188 innings, while lefty Jaime Garcia won 13 games for the second straight season and reduced his walk rate (2.3) by more than one per nine innings. Veteran Jake Westbrook (4.66) is penciled in, but has marginal staff and opponents hit .290 off him.

LaRussa and Duncan were masters at utilizing bullpen depth and they leave the new coaching staff with a ton of reliable arms with closer Jason Motte (2.25 ERA, 9 saves, 18 holds), Fernando Salas (24 saves, 2.28), Lance Lynn (3.12), Eduardo Sanchez and Kyle McClellan (12-7, 141 IP). Rookie Shelby Miller is from Texas and has a terrific fastball in this deep far system.

From 97 wins in 2002, 85 in 2003, 105 in 2004, 100 in 2005 and its first World Series championship in 24 years in 2006 and another last season, the Cardinals have used talent, defense, good pickups and a great farm system to stay competitive. They made it to the World Series in 2004, too, reached 100 wins in 2005 and overcame injuries in 2006 and 2011 for remarkable runs to World Series titles. For 2012, the team will hit and their looks to be enough pitching depth for 90+ wins and another postseason – and from there, as Cardinal fans know, anything can happen.

Milwaukee Brewers (96-66 in 2011) – Lost in the shuffle of the Cardinals surprising run to the World Series is the fact that the Brewers actually won the NL Central with an impressive (and overlooked) 96-win campaign. They lost slugger Prince Fielder and his 38 homers, but return a lot of talent to an offense that was 11th in runs, 5th in slugging and 10th in on-base percentage in baseball, plus an outstanding starting rotation. They were a dominant team at home (57-24), but a losing road record (39-42), so there are some flaws.

The Brewers’ top pitchers Zach Greinke and Yovani Gallardo produced 33 wins and an ERA of 3.65 combined, plus Shaun Marcum rounds out a solid starting trio. The 26-year old Gallardo is an ace, off a 17-10 campaign with a 3.52 ERA in 207 innings fanning 207. The 28-year old Greinke (16-6, 3.83, 201 Ks) settled in nicely as did the 30-year old Marcum (13-7, 3.54). The trio eats innings, strikeouts out plenty and keeps them in every game.

Veteran lefty Randy Wolf (13-10, 3.69) was out of baseball a few years ago after leaving the Dodgers, but keeps throwing well and threw 212 innings, while Chris Narveson (11-8, 4.42) holds down the No. 5 slot. Their three aces made 33 starts each, while the other two made 28 starts, so it was a durable staff. Marco Estrada (4.08 ERA) and Mike McClendon (2.63) provide middle relief along with Francisco Rodriguez (1.86) for closer John Axford (46 saves, 1.95 ERA, 86 Ks in 73+ innings).

While all the focus was on the loss of fielder, they still have 2011 National League MVP LF Ryan Braun (33 HRs, 38 doubles, 111 RBI, .332 average, 33 steals). CF Carlos Gomez (.225) is a weak spot offensively though RF Nyjer Morgan (.304, 13 steals) gets on base but has little pop.

The offense, however, picks up a pair of key pieces for the infield. Alex Gonzal was signed to play shortstop after the team lost out on Jimmy Rollins who re-signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. Gonzalez hit 15 home runs for the Atlanta Braves in 2011 in 149 games, while they nabbed third baseman Aramis Ramirez (26 HRs, .307) from the Chicago Cubs.

Ramirez will play third, which pushes Mat Gamel to first, a top prospect who has done all his damage in the minor leagues but has yet to make the jump to the big leagues. 2B Rickie Weeks (20 HRs, .269) is terrific and catcher Jonathan Lucroy (12 HRs, .269) provides more offense from behind the plate. All in all look for this to be one of the top offenses in the league again, especially at home. In a wide open division, the Brewers will be in contention to repeat as division champs again. They have to learn to win on the road, however, to take the next step.

Cincinnati Reds (79-83 in 2011) – The young Reds were competitive much of last season before a second half fade, finishing with a losing record. They were probably a little better than that record suggests, 7th in baseball in runs scored, 9th in on-base percentage. Too much young pitching did them in as they were 20th in team ERA.

The Reds look better for 2012. The infield is very strong, anchored by star 1B 28-year old Joey Votto (.309, 29 HRs, 103 RBI), who had a stellar .416 on –base percentage. 2B Brandon Phillips (.300, 18 HRs) provides more pop and stole 18 bases, while veteran 3B Scott Rolen (5 HRs) has had a strong spring and 26-year old SS Zack Cozart is back after going through Tommy John surgery. He hit .324in just 11 games before getting injured.

The Reds have a terrific prospect in 23-year old catcher Devin Mesoraco, who can hit and throw out runners, while Ryan Hanigan (.267, 6 HRs) is reliable if the kid isn’t yet ready. The outfield is impressive with 24-year old RF Jay Bruce (.256, 32 HRs, 97 RBI), LF Ryan Ludwick (.237) and CF Drew Stubbs (.243, 15 HRs, 40 steals). Stubbs was only caught ten times, but had a whopping 205 strikeouts and can struggle against right-handed pitching.

The offense will be very good, but what about the pitching? This is a young staff with above-average potential. 26-year old righty Johnny Cueto (9-5, 2.31) didn’t have a lot of wins but was outstanding, throwing 156 innings in 24 starts and is their young ace. They got 24-year old Mat Latos (9-14, 3.47) from the Padres, who has excellent stuff but benefitted from the huge outfield at Petco Park. Latos had a 2.95 ERA in 27 Petco starts the past two seasons combined, compared to 3.40 in 35 on the road. There’s no denying his stuff and he fanned 185 in 194 innings last summer.

Veteran righty Bronson Arroyo (9-12, 5.07) is passed his prime, but is still a decent starter, much better on righties than lefties. He surrendered a whopping 46 homers last year (and only 45 walks!). Young Mike Leake (12-9, 3.86) and Homer Bailey (9-7, 4.43) round out a quality rotation with little experience to go along with enviable overall talent.

Adding middlemen Ryan Madson and highly touted Sean Marshall should improve the bullpen depth alongside Bill Bray (2.98) and Sam LeCure (3.71). While the Cardinals and Brewers lost some key pieces, the Reds have assembled a talented young group that appears to be on the rise in the NL Central. Cincy should be able to creep over the .500 mark and has a good farm system that could help add some key pieces in mid-season if they are in contention.

Chicago Cubs (71-91 in 2011) – Yes, the Cubs did win the World Series — in 1908. So it’s been 100+ years, which is where the term “Long suffering Cubs’ fans comes from.” And if anybody knows about long suffering fans it’s Chicago’s new general manager, Theo Epstein, who helped win two World Series building the Red Sox before undertaking this new challenge.

He inherits a team that finished in fifth place, ranked 25th in baseball in team ERA , 18th in runs and was dreadful in the field. The kid GM has a lot of work to do. The infield is young and there will be growing pains. 22-year old Starlin Castro (22 steals) is at shortstop and impressed with a .307 average, 10 home runs and 66 RBIs last year, but has made 27 and 29 errors the last two seasons, numbers that are far too high.

1B Brian Lahair is a newcomer who won the Pacific Coast League MVP award last season for driving in 109 runs and hitting 38 homers for Triple-A Iowa. Second base has 26-year old Darwin Barney (.276, 9 steals), who doesn’t get on base much, while Ian Stewart and Blake DeWitt will compete for third base. Stewart comes over from Colorado (48 games) while Dewitt his .265, 5 homers and 26 RBIs for the Cubs last summer. Catcher Geovany Soto (.228) hit 17 homers but struggles to get on base.

And speaking of shaky defense, LF Alfonso Soriano (26 HRs, .244) provides offense but is not good in the field, while David DeJesus (.240, 10 homers) comes over from Oakland and will play right field. They will go with CF Marlon Byrd who has a fine glove but is average as an offensive force. They will be in the middle of the pack offensively in baseball and can only get better defensively – they hope.

The pitching staff led the NL in walks allowed and they finally tired of Carlos Zambrano and shipped him out. They have one reliable starter in Matt Garza (10-10, 3.32 ERA, 198 IP), a terrific strikeout pitcher (197) and a guy who can eat innings. Beyond that, though, the rotation drops off sharply. Righty Ryan Dempster (10-14, 4.80 ERA) is aging while Chris Volstad comes over from the Marlins where he was just 5-13 with a 4.89 ERA in 29 starts. And that was in a friendly pitcher’s park – Wrigley Field will be a challenge for a guy who allowed opponents to hit .289 and gave up 23 homers in 165 innings.

Jeff Samardzija (8-4, 2.97) and Travis Wood are battling for a starting job. Wood comes over from the Reds where he didn’t impress (6-6, 4.84 ERA) and Samardzija (88 innings) didn’t start a game last year and is better suited for middle relief. Arms for middle relief are Pat Maholm (6-14, 3.66 ERA for Pittsburgh,) veteran Rodrigo Lopez (6-6, 4.42 ERA) and Randy Wells (7-6, 4.99 ERA).

Carlos Marmol gets the nod at closer, and while he saved 34 games he had a 4.01 ERA and walked 48 in 74 innings. Don’t be surprised if they have to find another closer, or use the 29-year old Marmol as trade bait before the deadline. This team has a lot of holes and is in Year 1 of the rebuilding job under a new GM that will take several years. They will be closer to 90 losses than 90 wins.

Pittsburgh Pirates (72-90 in 2011) – The young Pirates finished fourth in the six-team NL Central last summer, but still lost 90 games with a losing record (36-45) both home and away. There was little to get excited about with a team that ranked 11th in the NL in team ERA and the offense was worse, 27th in runs scored in all of baseball, 24th in OBP and 27th in slugging. They were bad across the board.

The pitching staff decided to bring in some veterans with lefty Eric Bedard and A.J. Burnett. The 35-year old Burnett (5.15 ERA, 11-11) was hittable with the Yankees, but is battling injuries (orbital bone) and figures to return sometime around May 1. The 33-year old lefty Bedard was 5-9 with the Mariners but had a 3.62 ERA in 129 innings and 125 Ks. He was a good gamble and appears healthy enough to start opening day.

29-year old Jeff Karstens (9-9, 162 innings) can shift to a No. 2 or 3 role and was very good with a 3.38 ERA and only 33 walks. Beyond that depth and quality are major problems with James McDonald (9-9, 4.21), Kevin Correia (12-11, 4.79) and Charlie Morton (10-10, 3.83).

The Pirates’ bullpen has the potential to be very good with Joel Hanrahan (40 saves, 1.83), who allowed only one home run, and Evan Meek (3.48) closing out games. Middle relief looks above average with Jason Grilli (2.48), Chris Resop (4.39) and Daniel McCutchen. The biggest concern is control as the Pittsburgh staff walked 535 batters, fifth most in the NL.

The offense is fairly anemic, especially when you realize they play in a hitter friendly park. The old joke is, “Everyone can score runs in this stadium except the Pirates.” This offense lacks both speed and power. CF Andrew McCutchen (23 steals, 23 homers, 89 RBI) is a good player, but doesn’t have much help in the outfield with LF Alex Presley (.298, 4 HRs) and RF Jose Tabata (.266, 21 HRs). 30-year old CF Nate McLouth will serve as the team’s fourth outfielder, who returns to Pittsburgh after spending three years in Atlanta.

The infield has 1B Garrett Jones (16 HRs, .243) and 2B Neil Walker (12 HRs, .273), along with 25-year old 3B Pedro Alvarez (.191, 4 HRs) and 36-year old Catcher Rod Barajas (.230, 16 HRs). Replacing Ronny Cedeno at shortstop is 33-year old Clint Barmes, who comes over from Colorado where he hit .244 with 12 homers and a .312 OBP. He will help the defense but do nothing for this below average offense. It’s hard to see the Pirates improving much, an organization moving sideways more than forwards.

Houston Astros (56-106 in 2011) – The young Astros were dreadful in 2011, the only club to lose 100 games. They were 26th in runs scored, 23rd in OBP and dead last in team ERA (4.51) in the NL. This staff walked the second most batters in the National League.

The staff really doesn’t look that bad on paper. 33-year old lefty Wandy Rodriguez (11-11, 3.49 ERA) allowed fewer hits than innings pitched and fanned 166 in 191 innings. He’s a good anchor to have atop the rotation, but at his age he will likely be traded around the All Star break. 27-year old Bud Norris (6-11) pitched better than that record, with a 3.77 ERA allowing 177 hits in 186 innings while fanning 176.

Houston signed veteran Livan Hernandez to eat innings, who had a 4.47 ERA and an 8-13 record pitching for Washington last season. That was a big park, so he should struggle at home in 2012. J.A. Happ (6-15) has been awful since leaving the Phillies and had a 5.35 ERA last season walking 83 in 156 innings, a good pitcher to look at over the total, while 21-year old Jordan Lyles (2-8, 5.36) has upside but may be better suited for long relief.

The relief staff is very good behind David Carpenter (2.93) and Wilton Lopez (2.79) for closer Brett Myers. Myers was a starter last season and was 7-14 with a 4.46 ERA in 216 innings, but moves back to the role he had with the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies. Former Red Sox starter Kyle Wieland was added, who can start or relieve but has marginal stuff.

New general manager Jeff Luhnow has made some moves to try and upgrade the offense but it won’t be nearly enough. New shortstop 27-year old Jed Lowrie comes over from Boston and has a decent bat, hitting .252 with 6 homers and 14 doubles in half a season. Lowrie, who is a switch-hitter, has mainly been hitting second this spring. Houston had two players who stole over 30 bases but both are gone, so this offense needs to find new speed and ANY power!

3B Jimmy Paredes (.286) and 2B Jose Altuve (.276) played well in limited action and get the full time nod. 1B/LF Carlos Lee rounds out the infield and belted 18 homers and 38 doubles while hitting .275, a quality bat in the middle of the lineup – if they don’t trade him. The outfield has LF J.D. Martinez (.274), CF Jordan Schafer (.245) and RF Brian Bogusevic (.287, 4 HRs), all who played limited time last season, so there are a lot of question marks.

Chris Snyder was brought in to back up and mentor Jason Castro (2 HRs, .205) behind the plate, so this looks like the worst offense in baseball. And with a pitching staff that has more holes than solid performers, Houston won’t be looking at a winning season but will be trying to avoid 100 losses again.


Baseball picksMarch 24, 2012

Predicted Order of Finish
1. Los Angeles Angels
2. Texas Rangers
3. Seattle Mariners
4. Oakland Athletics

Los Angeles Angels (86-76 in 2011) – The Angels are ready to make a run at the Rangers. Los Angeles struggled offensively last season, finishing No. 17 in runs scored and No. 21 in on-base percentage, but was tops in the AL in team ERA (3.57), sixth best in all of baseball. For 2012 they loaded up on offense with the addition of 32-year-old 1B Albert Pujols, who smacked 37 homers and 99 RBI with the champion Cardinals. His bat will go a long way to improving things!

SS Erick Aybar (30 steals, 10 HRs), 2B Howard Kendrick (18 HRs, 14 steals), and CF Peter Bourjos (.271, 22 steals) will be table-setters, with a slew of talented sluggers alongside Pujols to drive them in. 38-year-old LF Bobby Abreu (21 steals, .353 on-base percentage) doesn’t have the power he used to, but still wears down opposing pitchers by drawing walks, a great addition anywhere in the lineup.

RF Torii Hunter (23 Hrs, 82 RBI) adds more power along with DH Vernon Wells, who stroked 25 homers and 15 doubles while getting healthy last season, though just a .218 average. 3B Alberto Callaspo (.288), 2B/SS Maicer Izturis, 1B Kendry Morales and catcher Chris Iannetta (14 HRs) give Mike Scioscia plenty of tools and flexibility, one of the best managers in the game. This offense is significantly upgraded.

The pitching staff looks as strong as 2011. 6-foot-7, 29-year-old Jered Weaver (18-8, 2.41 ERA) is an ace, fanning 198 in 235 innings and allowing only 182 hits. Dan Haren (16-10, 3.17) threw 238 innings and fanned 192 with only 33 walks, giving this team a dominant one-two punch. Ervin Santana (11-12, 3.38) has been up and down at times, but still threw 228 innings and struck out 178, while newcomer lefty C.J. Wilson was stolen from the rival Rangers where he went 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA and 206 Ks despite throwing in a small park.

The middle relief is deep with Scott Downs (1.34, 53 IP), Rich Thompson (3.00), veteran LaTroy Hawkins all setting up for 24-year-old Jordan Walden (32 saves, 2.98 ERA). Scioscia gets all his guys to exemplify the team-concept and loves to attack on the base paths to disrupt opposing pitchers. They won the World Series in 2002 and have had several playoff appearances since. October of 2012 will be another one.

Texas Rangers (96-66 in 2011) – Yes, it still hurts. Not many franchises lose back-to-back World Series, but October of 2011 was excruciating, blowing a sure championship in an epic Game 6 not seen since the 1986 Red Sox folded, also in Game 6. And what happened to the defending AL Champion Red Sox in 1987? Everything went wrong in a losing season. Texas hopes their hangover isn’t as bad in 2012.

There’s plenty of talent on a team that ranked third in baseball in runs scored, tops in batting average (.283), fifth in on-base percentage and second in slugging. Playing in a homer-happy park helps the offense and the pitching ranked No. 13 in team ERA in all of baseball.

The pitching will be the key for 2012. They lost 16-game winner C.J. Wilson to the Angels, so the four starters remaining are Matt Harrison (14-9, 3.39 ERA), Alexi Ogando (13-8, 3.51), lefty Derek Holland (16-5, 3.95) and Colby Lewis (14-10, 4.40). The plus side is that all four don’t walk anyone and are reliable, but none are dominant aces.

That’s where 25-year-old Yu Darvish comes in, a 6-foot-5 hurler from Japan. For his career, he has a 93-38 record, with an ERA of 1.99 and a 0.83 WHIP, fanning 1,259, while walking 333 in 1,268 1/3 innings. Last year in Japan Darvish was brilliant at 19-6, with 1.44 ERA, 276 strikeouts against just 36 walks in 232 innings. He won’t be doing that in the Ballpark in Arlington, however. His repertoire features a 94 mph fastball and a hard slider, complemented by a cutter, curve and a splitter.

Neftali Feliz saved 32 games in 62 innings last season with a 2.74 ERA, but they’ve tried him as a starter this spring because Joe Nathan arrives from the Twins as a free agent. The middle relief is deep, anchored by Mark Lowe (3.80 ERA) and Scott Feldman (3.94).

While the pitching looks good enough, the offense looks great again. 30-year-old CF Josh Hamilton (25 HRs, 31 doubles, .298) is a four-tool player that anchors a strong outfield alongside LF David Murphy (11 HRs, .275) and RF Nelson Cruz (29 HRs, 87 RBI). The infield has plenty of pop and defense with 3B Adrian Beltre (32 HRs, .296), 2B Ian Kinsler (32 HRs, 30 steals), 1B Michael Young (.338, 11 HRs) and SS Elvis Andrus (37 steals).

Throw in 30-year-old catcher Mike Napoli (30 homers, 75 RBI in 369 at bats) and this team can win in so many ways: pitching depth, base stealing, defense in the field and/or slugging it out. Expectations will be high for manger Ron Washington, but you have to wonder about the loss of their top starter and how to new kid from Japan will fit in. And, of course, there’s no denying the potential albatross hanging around their necks that will be a burden until this franchise wins it all. If you doubt that, ask Red Sox fans.

Seattle Mariners (67-95 in 2011) – The Mariners won 88 games as recently as 2007, but they’ve bottomed out since then, with a lousy offense and a revolving door of aces, trading away Cliff Lee and Michael Pineda. Seattle was No. 30 in baseball in runs scored last season, No. 30 in batting average (.233) and No. 30 in on-base percentage.

That’s why they traded Pineda for promising 22-year-old catcher, Jesus Montero. He has had a great spring and is projected to be the No. 5 hitter in the Mariners’ mostly young lineup. Having some bats to provide some thump is imperative, as they have two potentially strong speedsters atop the order.

38-year-old RF Ichiro Suzuki comes off another terrific season: .276, 40 steals, 184 hits. He is past his prime, sure, but is still a strong weapon, and let’s not forget 10 Gold Gloves and one MVP! 34-year old 3B Chone Figgins (11 steals, .188) has been a bust, but they will try him at leadoff again and in 2010 he hit .259 with 42 steals, so it’s worth a try.

The infield has contact hitters with 1B Mike Carp (12 HRS in 290 at bats, .276 average), SS Brendan Ryan (3 HRs, 13 steals, .248) and 2B Dustin Ackley (.273) but is short on power. 1B /DH Justin Smoak (15 HRs, .234) is average, while CF Franklin Gutierrez stole 13 bases in half a season, but had a miserable .261 on-base percentage. Gutierrez battled injuries late last season that wore him down, so he could be better.

The ballpark like Safeco hurts offense, but helps pitchers, and the Mariners have one great arm already and outstanding young arms on the farm. 25-year-old Felix Hernandez will turn 26 in April, but he has been around a long time and is an ace – the top pitcher in the AL. After winning the Cy Young Award in 2010 he went 14-14 with a 3.47 ERA last season, fanning 222 in 233 innings. Oh, if the Yankees could have traded for this guy King Felix might win 30!

It’s a sharp dropoff after that. With Pineda gone, Jason Vargas (10-13, 201 IP, 4.25 ERA) steps into the No. 2 spot and 23-year-old Blake Beavan (5-6, 4.27 ERA) gave them 97 innings and only 15 walks last summer. Charlie Furbush (3-7, 6.62 ERA) gave up 11 homers in 61 innings and veteran Kevin Millwood can get by in this big park as he has excellent control, but will likely struggle badly on the road as a starter.

Japanese import 30-year-old Hisashi Iwakuma has been a starter, but will begin the year in the pen. Veteran lefty George Sherill (3.00 ERA) and Hong-Chih Kuo provide bullpen relief that will dominate lefties. 29-year-old closer Brandon League was a beast with 37 saves, a 2.79 ERA and only 10 walks in 61 innings. This team has a rare ace in Hernandez, but little else, so they are several years away from improving much in this tough division. A third-place finish should be the goal.

Oakland Athletics (74-88 in 2011) – After winning 96 games in 2006, the small-market A’s bottomed out in 2007 with 76 wins and have been roughly a .500 team ever since, including 81-81 in 2010 and a losing record last season. Offense was again a major problem ranking No. 24 in the league in batting and No. 20 in runs and No. 22 in OBP. The A’s were actually good at home (43-38), but was 31-50 on the road as their pitchers struggle away from their big home park.

It’s been a revolving door of free agent bats that haven’t produced the last five years, with Mark Kotsay, Nick Swisher, Milton Bradley and Shannon Stewart, so now they are trying (gulp) Manny Ramirez! As if this franchise doesn’t have enough trouble.

But they won’t see Manny for a while because of a suspension (50 games), so no one will notice when he makes his debut for a last-place team. 26-year-old lefty 1B Brandon Allen (.205) is penciled in at first, with 2B Adam Rosales (21 at bats) and SS Cliff Pennington (.264, 14 steals), as weak an infield as you could fine.

Catcher Kurt Suzuki hasn’t lived-up to the hype and is off a season where he hit .236 with 14 homers. The outfield looks weak with LF Coco Crisp (.265, 42 steals), but the big story is 26-year-old Cuban Yoenis Cespedes, who will play center field. He signed for $36 million (4 years) and is an unproven gamble. Former Boston RF Josh Reddick is in the mix, but all-in-all this looks like one of the worst offenses in the game.

They had better hope the pitching carries the load, which was No. 10 in team ERA in the majors last year. Brandon McCarthy (9-9) is the only established starter and threw 170 innings with a 3.32 ERA, not exactly an innings-eater. Dallas Braden (3.00 ERA) was a reliever last season, but can start and they bring aboard 38-year-old Bartolo Colon (8-10), who was pretty good with the Yankees last season with a 4.00 ERA. Playing in a big park like Oakland could actually help him put him good numbers, though wins will be tough to come by with this offense.

They lost closer Andrew Bailey (24 saves), so 36-year-old lefty Brian Fuentes (12 saves) steps in, with Jerry Blevins (2.86), Grant Balfour (2.47) and Tyson Ross (2.75) decent options in middle relief.  Oakland’s farm system has been able to turn out quality arms, but no good bats. The A’s won 91, 88 and 96 games in the middle of the last decade and won the AL West in 2006, but this organization has heads straight down since then. They don’t have the offense to compete in the competitive AL West, and might be worth a look under the total, especially at home in their pitcher-friendly park.


Baseball picks & Sports picksMarch 24, 2012

Predicted Order of Finish
1. Detroit Tigers
2. Minnesota Twins
3. Kansas City Royals
4. Cleveland Indians
5. Chicago White Sox

Detroit Tigers (95-67 2011) – The Tigers rode the golden right arm of ace Justin Verlander all the way to the ALCS last October before falling to Texas in six games. This team was no fluke, finishing fourth in runs scored, on-base percentage and slugging, plus third in batting average. Meanwhile, the 28-year-old Justin Verlander went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA, fanning 250 in 251 innings winning the MVP and Cy Young. He’s a rare workhorse ace to build a staff around.

27-year-old Max Scherzer is an up-and-coming talent, a good strikeout pitcher winning 12 and 15 games the last two seasons. 28-year-old Doug Fister was picked up at the trading deadline and went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA and 0.84 WHIP in 10 starts as a Tiger, while they have high hopes for 23-year-old Rick Porcello (14-9, 4.75 ERA). Throwing in a big park like Comerica is a huge plus for their pitchers.

A bad postseason (8.01 ERA) shouldn’t diminish what the Detroit bullpen accomplished, which was very good, led by ace closer Valverde (2.24 ERA, 49-for-49 in save opportunities). Righty Joaquin Benoit (63 strikeouts in 61 innings) is a fine middle man, with Phil Coke and Daniel Schlere situational relievers, plus they add Octavio Dotel for depth and flexibility.

The offense was outstanding despite playing in a pitcher-friendly park. The bad news is that DH Victor Martinez will miss the 2012 season after surgery to repair a torn ACL, but the Tigers moved quickly to sign Prince Fielder to play first and DH. The 27-year-old Fiedler is off a 38-homer, 36-double season in Milwaukee, hitting .299 and driving in 120 runs. He probably won’t duplicate that in this park, but is still a potent weapon in a deep lineup.

That means Miguel Cabrera (.344, 30 HRs, 105 RBI, on-base percentage of .448) moves to third. As the Marlins’ full-time third baseman in 2007, Cabrera made 23 errors.  SS Jhonny Peralta is off a career-high .299 batting average and hit 21 HRs, while Ramon Santiago and Ryan Raburn (14 HRs, .256) will platoon at second base. Catcher Alex Avila (19 HRs, .295) provides more offensive punch.

The outfield is solid behind CF Austin Jackson (22 steals, 11 triples), who has speed atop the order and provides Gold Glove-caliber defense, with RF Brennan Boesch (.283, 16 HRs) reliable and LF Delmon Young getting an early shot to live up to his abilities. The Tigers look better in 2011 and should be in the running for another division title.

Minnesota Twins (63-99 in 2011) – The Twinkies bottomed out to last place, losing 99 games, but don’t forget they won 94 games in 2010. Will we see a revival? Or are they somewhere in the middle? The rotation was beset by problems last summer, but could be much improved behind Francisco Liriano (9-10, 5.09 ERA), Nick Blackburn (7-10, 4.49), Carl Pavano (9-13, 4.30), Scott Baker (8-6, 3.14) and Brian Duensing (9-14, 5.23). This is an organization that teaches strong fundamentals in the field and for their pitchers to not walk anyone. Duensing had a 1.80 ERA in the pen and could be moved there if newcomer Jason Marquis settles in as a starter. Marquis pitched 132 innings combined for Washington and Arizona last year before breaking his right leg in mid-August.

The bullpen is a concern as they got hit hard with losses, including ace closer Joe Nathan. Matt Capps (15 saves, 4.25 ERA) has a fine young arm, and Glen Perkins (2.48) was terrific while fanning 65 in 61 innings. After ranking last in the majors in bullpen ERA (4.51) they can only be better.

The offense ranked No. 25 in the majors in runs scored and clearly needs 1B Justin Morneau (.227, 4 HRs) and catcher Joe Mauer (.287, 296 at bats) to return to health, as the heart and soul of the offense. Morneau has been encouraged by the health of his wrist but, has had a poor spring. And while Mauer appears fully healthy, he had only 47 starts behind the plate last season. Third baseman Danny Valencia (15 HRs, .246) is decent, though the Twins signed Sean Burroughs to a minor league deal as insurance.

38-year-old SS Jamey Carroll should help solidify the middle infield, hitting .290 and .291 the last two seasons with the Dodgers. Alexi Casilla (15 steals) is solid/unspectacular at second base.

The outfield has a new look and has speed, which will help defensively in cavernous Target Field. 33-year-old LF Josh Willingham comes over from Oakland where he belted 29 homers and 98 RBI, while center fielder Denard Span (.264) has looked good in spring after playing just half a season in 2010 because of a concussion and Ben Revere is a solid defensive backup outfielder. One of the most intriguing players is catcher Ryan Doumit, who comes over from Pittsburgh after hitting 15, 10, 13 and 8 homers the last four years. They will use him behind the plate, at DH and even the outfield. They don’t have the payroll to improve if injuries crop up again, but with a little luck in the health department the Twins could look more like their impressive 2010 team than last year’s last place squad.

Kansas City Royals  (71-91 in 2011) – Kansas City took some important steps-up last season. They wwere No. 10 in baseball in runs scored, No. 4 in batting average, No. 8 in on-base percentage and No. 7 in slugging. They were one game below .500 at home, but 31-50 away. The farm system has been very good and 12 players made their big league debuts last summer.

When they traded away ace Zack Greinke, they got shortstop Alcides Escobar in return and the kid is a fine player. He had 26 steals last year, a .254 average and a lot of acrobatic plays defensively. Johnny Giavotella (.247) is penciled in at second, though that could change. 22-year-old first baseman Eric Hosmer (19 HRs, .293, 78 RBI) is terrific and 23-year-old third baseman Mike Moustakas (5 HRs, .263) has nothing but upside after being the second overall pick in 2007. This is a pretty good infield. The outfield also has a No. 2 overall pick (2005) in LF Alex Gordon (23 HRs, 17 steals, .303 average), who teams with reliable rightfielder Jeff Francoeur  (20 HRs, 87 RBI) and defensive CF Lorenzo Cain.  Throw in DH Billy Butler (95 RBI) and there’s plenty like about this Kansas City offense and defense in the field.

If this team is to take a step-up it needs to come from the pitching staff, which is why they grabbed 29-year-old lefthander Jonathan Sanchez, the former Giant. He has been up and down and last season, throwing 101 innings with a 4.26 ERA, but allowed only 80 hits as opponents hit .220 off him and fanned 102. He helped the Giants reach the postseason in 2010 by posting a 2.61 ERA after the All-Star break, including a 1.04 mark in his last seven starts.

The Royals like 28-year-old righty Luke Hochevar (4.68, 198 IP), who was 6-3 with a 3.52 ERA in the second half. Veteran lefty Bruce Chen is a junkball pitcher, but has been very good as a starter and went 12-8 last year (3.77 ERA). The No. 4 and No. 5 spots are wide open with righthander Felipe Paulino and lefty Danny Duffy available. The stocked farm system has lefty Mike Montgomery (a top prospect) and righty Aaron Crow.

The bullpen has a strong setup man in Joakim Soria (60 Ks in 60 innings, 17 walks) and adds Jonathan Broxton and Jose Mijares to one-year deals. Broxton is a former closer and a two-time All-Star. The Royals are no longer the laughing stock of the division and if Sanchez and Hochevar develop as an above-average, one-two punch atop the rotation, eating innings, Kansas City could improve and may have a shot at getting over that elusive .500 mark.

Cleveland Indians (80-82 in 2011) – The Indians have fallen hard from making the ALCS in 2007, to selling off Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia while rebuilding again. This young team overachieved last season, with a winning record at home (44-27), but 36-45 away. They were fortunate to be near .500 with an offense that was 16th in runs in baseball, 17th in OBP, 16th in slugging, and 23rd in team ERA.

The Cleveland infield has an ace in 26-year-old shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera (25 homers). He hit .293 in the first half of the season, but only .244 in the second half. Young 2B Jason Kipnis (.272 in 136 at bats) played well in limited time, but is a converted center fielder and is still raw defensively. That will be a concern with this young pitching staff. Cleveland signed 29-year-old Casey Kotchman to play first base, and he hit 10 homers with a .306 average with Tampa Bay in 2011. His .378 OBP will help clog the bases and perhaps bring some plate discipline to the young players, which is needed as the Indians were 17th in OBP as a team.

23-year-old 3B Lonnie Chisenhall (7 HRs) will get time at the hot corner, but there is a lot of youth in this lineup. 25-year-old Carlos Santana, a switch-hitting catcher, hit just .239 but belted 27 HRs, 79 RBIs with 97 walks. The outfield has LF Shin-Soo Choo (.259) and Grady Sizemore – two often injured talents. Sizemore has had five surgeries in the last three years, so get him off of any fantasy teams! RF Mike Brantley (.266, 7 HRs) got 451 at bats, but missed all of September with a broken hamate bone in his right hand, so there are huge question marks with this outfield.

And speaking of question marks, the pitching staff is a handful for new pitching coach Scott Radinsky. There is a potentially good one-two punch with submariner Justin Masterson (12-10, 216 IP, 3.21 ERA) and Ubaldo Jimenez (5.10 ERA, 27 walks in 65 IP). Jimenez was a one-year wonder in Colorado, but hasn’t found any control since, while Masterson is good, but has struggled with lefties his whole career, so managers load-up often. Last year, righties hit .210 off him, lefties .291.

Veteran 38-year-old Derek Lowe (9-17, 5.05 ERA) is far past his prime and returning to the AL won’t help. His command has been a problem, as his 3.37 walks-per-nine-innings ratio was his highest in seven years. 27-year-old Josh Tomlin (12-7) is an under-the-radar arm with a 4.25 ERA, few walks and fewer hits than innings pitched. 31-year-old Roberto Hernandez (5.25 ERA, 7-15) is another sinkerballer on the team, but is off a terrible campaign.

The bullpen is a mixed bag. They’ve got reliable Rafael Perez (3.00 ERA) and Vinnie Pestano (2.32) to help closer Chris Perez (3.32 ERA, 36 saves), but little depth. They hope Tony Sipp and side-arming righty Joe Smith can improve, along with hard-throwing righty Frank Herrmann. Getting some reliable innings out of Masterson, Jimenez and Tomlin will be the key, but 2011 looks like another season of 75-80 losses.

Chicago White Sox (79-83 in 2011) – Things will be quieter on the south side of Chicago that’s because loud mouth Ozzie Guillen is gone, replaced by new manager Robin Ventura! After winning 88 games in 2010, the White Sox slid below .500 and are rebuilding. After ranking No. 18 in runs scored, No. 15 in OBP and No. 19 in team ERA, there is a lot of work to do.

The infield has a good all-around player in SS Alexei Ramirez, who has led AL shortstops in homers and extra-base hits over the last three seasons, and is a terrific defensive player. He doesn’t have a lot of help, however, though this team ranked third in baseball in fewest runs allowed. 2B Gordon Beckham (10 HRs, .233) was a disappointment with his bat and 3B Brent Morel (10 HRs, .245)  is back after a weak rookie season – a better glove than bat.

First baseman Paul Konerko (31 HRs, 105 RBI) is still an offensive force, but is 36-years-old and didn’t get any protection from DH Adam Dunn (.159, 11 home runs), a free agent bust and a major flop. The bad news is that he’s back (or more to the point, they are stuck with his four-year, $56-million contract). Catcher A.J. Pierzynski (8 HRs, .287) is serviceable but on the downside of his career at age 35.

31-year old CF Alex Rios is a talent, but slumped badly with 11 HRs, 11 steals and a .227 average, while 23-year-old RF Dayan Viciedo gets his shot in the outfield after hitting .255 in 102 bats last season (1 HR). They are searching for a left fielder, and 34-year-old Kosuke Fukudome and 27-year-old Alejandro de Aza will battle for time.

As shaky as the offense looks, the pitching is worse. Reliable Mark Buehrle and Edwin Jackson are gone (327 innings) and the staff looks super-thin. Aging Jake Peavy (7-7, 4.92 EA) has battled injuries and hasn’t been the same since he left the NL, so look for Gavin Floyd (12-13, 4.37) and John Danks (8-12, 4.33) to carry the load after sub-par seasons. They turn their lonely eyes to lefthander Chris Sale (2.79 ERA), who was a reliever, along with Philip Humber (9-9, 3.75 ERA, 163 IP) and Zach Stewart, who was acquired for Jackson.

Veterans Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain and Will Ohman are aboard to fix the pen and they hope Sergio Santos (3.55, 30 saves) can repeat his numbers as closer, a position that is still in flux. There is little talent in the minors, so despite being close to .500 last season, look for the White Sox to slide in the wrong direction in 2012. They are a long way from that 2005 championship season.


Baseball picks & Sports picksMarch 22, 2012

Predicted Order of Finish
1. New York Yankees
2. Tampa Bay Rays
3. Boston Red Sox
4. Toronto Blue Jays
5. Baltimore Orioles

New York Yankees (97-65 in 2011):  The Yankees led the American League in wins last season and outscored opponents by a whopping 201 runs – easily the best in baseball. But no one remembers that after another postseason flameout. One World Series title in 10 years won’t cut it for the fans of the team with the highest payroll in the game.

The good news is that this team is loaded for 2012 and should win the AL East. Offense is never a problem for this lineup, second in runs scored last summer and tops in home runs with 222. There are some age concerns in the infield, but they are loaded with power and defense behind 37-year-old SS Derek Jeter (.297) and 36-year-old 3B Alex Rodriguez (16 HRs) are past their primes but still formidable with a bat, as is 31-year-old Mark Teixeira (39 HRs, 111 RBI). Second basemen 29-year-old Robinson Cano is the kid of the group and finished second in the league in extra-base hits and ranked among the top four in total bases for the third year in a row. He set career highs in runs (104) and RBIs (118).

29-year old catcher Russell Martin (.237) was a good pick-up and belted 18 homers. He loves this small park, but hits just .217 on the road, buying time for prospects Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez.  The outfield has a valuable weapon in LF Brett Gardner, a leadoff hitter who swiped 49 bases and was caught just 13 times. RF Nick Swisher (23 homers, 123 Ks) and newcomer Raul Ibanez will take some of Swisher’s at-bats against right-handed pitching. The team MVP, though, was 31-year-old CF Curtis Granderson who had a monster 2011 with 41 homers, 10 triples, 25 steals and 85 walks. Age and injuries and a concern with this offense, but they will be one of the best in the league again.

The pitching staff was surprisingly strong last summer despite age, and they look improved. 6-foot-7 newcomer 23-year-old Michael Pineda comes over from Seattle with electric stuff and a 3.74 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 171 innings. Opponents hit .211 off him. He’s a fly-ball pitcher who might struggle in this park, but was an excellent addition.

31-year old lefty C.C. Sabathia (19-8, 3.00 ERA) is a dominant ace. Young Ivan Nova (16-4, 3.70 ERA) was a huge addition last summer and they still have high hopes for Phil Hughes (5.79 ERA), who battled injuries. If the kids have problems, the Yankees have veterans Freddy Garcia (12-8) and newcomers Andy Pettitte and former Dodger Hiroki Kuroda to lean on. The bullpen is deep with Joba Chamberlain,  Scott Proctor, Rafael Soriano  (4.12), David Robertson (1.08) and 42-year-old Mariano Rivera (44 saves, 2.04 ERA). We keep waiting for Rivera to break down but he never does. The Pinstripes are the team to beat in the AL East.

Tampa Bay Rays (91-71 in 2011):  If you’re looking for a small-market team to root for and slay the big boys, the Rays could do it! Tampa Bay’s offense loves to run under manager Joe Maddon, second in baseball with 155 steals. CF B.J. Upton (71 walks, 23 HRs, 36 steals), LF Desmond Jennings (20 steals), OF Sam Fuld (20 steals) and 2B Bob Zobrist (20 HRs, 19 steals) are back and love to attack the base paths and disrupt opposing pitchers.

3B Evan Longoria (31 HRs, 80 walks) and RF Matt Joyce (19 HRs) provide the power to knock them in. 33-year-old 1B Carlos Pena returns after a one-year visit to the Chicago, where he hit 28 homers but just .195. He had his best years in this park and hit 46, 31 and 28 homers the previous three years with Tampa.

While the offense is good enough, though not great, the pitching is loaded. Start with a pair of aces in hard-throwing David Price (12-13, 3.49 ERA, 218 Ks in 224 innings) and James Shields (2.82, 11 complete games, four shutouts). A guy to watch is 24-year-old Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson (13-10, 2.95 ERA), who has ace-stuff, and 22-year-old phenom Matt Moore, who fanned 15 in 9 innings last season. Tall veteran Jeff Niemann (11-7, 4.06 ERA) is decent and 24-year-old Alex Cobb (52 IP, 49 hits, 37 Ks, 3.42 ERA) can start or relieve.

The bullpen will make or break this team, but looks above average with Joel Peralta  (2.93) and J.P. Howell in middle relief for 35-year-old Kyle Farnsworth (25 saves, 2.18 ERA). Fernando Rodney comes aboard and they hope he’s over back problems. Tampa Bay has outstanding defense in the field, which helps them on the road with an impressive 44-37 road record last summer. With all these arms, this is a team built for the long haul and they could be playing in October – again.

Boston Red Sox (90-72 in 2011): After a miserable start in 2011, the Red Sox were the best team in the AL – until Labor Day. A talented team (tops in runs scored) stumbled through a stunning September collapse, missing the playoffs. As a consequence, the owners cleaned house, firing the manager and GM. New manager Bobby Valentine takes over and has been the opposite of Terry Francona, working the players hard in spring training. A slow start is unlikely again, but do they have the pitching for the long haul?

They do on paper.

Lefty Jon Lester (15-9, 3.47 ERA) and Josh Beckett (13-7, 2.89) were outstanding last summer until September when they fell apart along with everyone else. They are a terrific one-two lefty/righty punch. The injury to righty Clay Buchholz (back) was the biggest blow to the staff, throwing only 82.2 innings (3.48 ERA), but he’s back and looks to return to this 2010 form (17-7, 2.33). He’s been strong in the spring, a great sign.

Injuries to Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey (both out for 2012) have strained the rotation’s depth, so they are rolling the dice with lefty Andrew Miller, often erratic with walks, and former middle man/closer Daniel Bard. Bard throws 100 MPH and wants to be a starter, but has only two pitches, so don’t pencil him in for 15 wins and 200 innings yet.

The bullpen lost closer Jonathan Papelbon to Philadelphia. Middle man Alfredo Aceves is outstanding, but beyond that there are a lot of question marks. They will be leaning on Franklin Morales, Matt Albers and Rich Hill. Aceves started four games last season, and posted a record of 10-2 with a 2.61 ERA in 55 appearances overall. They really need him or Bard in the pen.

At least the offense has no problems, at No. 1 in baseball last season in runs, on-base percentage and slugging, plus second in batting average! CF Jacoby Ellsbury is in a contact year and was sensational with 39 steals, a .321 average, 32 homers and 105 RBI last year. LF Ryan Sweeny was picked-up from Oakland and is a lefty bat that is made for Fenway park, and will battle Darnell McDonald and Carl Crawford (.255, 11 HRs) for time. Crawford was a colossal bust and is not as well suited to play on natural grass.

Former MVP 2B Dustin Pedroia (21 HRs, .307) is in his prime along with 1B Adrian Gonzalez (.338, 27 HRs, 117 RBI). DH David Ortiz (.309, 29 HRs) continues to hit and they expect 3B Kevin Youkalis (17 HRs) to bounce back from injuries from hernia surgery and case of hip bursitis. Shortstop is a concern with Mike Aviles as they don’t expect young Jose Iglesias to be ready. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia (16 HRs) turned into a good find and Boston brings in Kelly Shoppach to provide defense behind the plate, which has been a problem for several years.

The Red Sox will be good enough to win 90 again, and if the pitching improves they are a threat to steal the division. But with the new skipper working them hard in March, will they be prone to burning out down the stretch again?

Toronto Blue Jays (81-81 in 2011): The Blue Jays actually have some good young talent, but have the misfortune to be stuck in this brutal division. This offense is very good, at No. 6 in baseball in runs scored last summer, and No. 10 in slugging.

The outfield is the strength of the offense. 31-year-old CF Rajai Davis (34 steals) and DH Edwin Encarnacion (17 HRs, 70 runs) try and get on base for RF Jose Batista, who stroked 43 homers with 103 RBI while hitting .302. That came on the heels of his 2010 season with 54 home runs. Bautista led the majors in OPS (1.056) and walks (132).

1B Adam Lind (26 HRs) provides more sock along with catcher J.P. Arencibia (23 HRs), and SS Yunel Escobar (.290, 11 HRs, 77 runs) was a great acquisition from the Braves. But despite all that power, the Jays finished No. 18 in on-base percentage. 2B Kelly Johnson (.270) and 3B Brett Lawrie (.293) round out the infield. Johnson struggled for the Diamondbacks last season, but in 33 games with Toronto he batted .270 with a .364 on-base percentage and three homers.

While the offense is above average, the pitching staff is young and thin. Only five teams had a higher earned-run average from their starters last season than the Blue Jays at 4.55. They are relying on 27-year-old lefty Ricky Romero (15-11, 2.92 ERA) and erratic Brandon Morrow (11-11, 203 Ks in 179 IP, 69 walks) to anchor the rotation. Beyond that are the youngsters with promise in Kyle Drabek (6.06 ERA), Henderson Alvarez (3.53) and Brett Cecil, the lefty who earned 15 victories in 2010 but was shipped back to Class AAA last April.

The bullpen is deep with veterans Jesse Litsch and Carlos Villanueva (4.04), and they reacquired righty setup man Jason Frasor (2.98). Toronto traded for closer Sergio Santos (Padres) and still has Francisco Cordero, the former Reds’ closer.  Toronto will sock the ball at home, but struggle on the road with this suspect pitching and defense. A team to look at over the total, especially at home?

Baltimore  Orioles (69-93 in 2011): The Orioles haven’t done much right in a decade. They were in last place last year with a terrible road mark (30-51), No. 14 in baseball in runs scored, No. 19 in on-base percentage and dead last in team ERA (4.89).

The offense has a gem in shortstop J.J. Hardy (30 HRs, 80 RBI), a steal from the Twins. His .990 fielding percentage and .491 slugging percentage led AL shortstops.  Throw in Gold Glove catcher Matt Wieters (22 HRs) and center fielder Adam Jones (25 HRs) and the Orioles are surprisingly strong up the middle – a terrific building block.

But second baseman Brian Roberts (concussion) wasn’t on the field much and there are long term concerns. Robert Andino (.263) filled in and was decent, but 3B is a weak spot with Josh Bell and Wilson Betemit. 28-year old Mark Reynonds is on first and belted 37 homers, but just a .221 average, along with 86 RBI, so no one was getting on base in front of him.

RF Nick Markakis (.284, 15 HRs) is solid and won a Gold Glove in right field after going 160 games without committing an error. Jones didn’t win a Gold Glove, but he was outstanding in center field, though left field is wide open with Nolan Reimold I and Jai Miller vying for time.

Then there’s the pitching, which looks brutal. Righthander Jeremy Guthrie was very good the last two seasons, but was traded to Colorado. Tommy Hunter went 3-3 with a 5.06 ERA in 12 games after being acquired from the Rangers, but is no ace. Jake Arrieta (10-8, 5.05 ERA) underwent surgery in August to remove a bone spur from his elbow, though he’s been good in the spring. Lefthander Zach Britton will stay in the rotation after going 11-11 with a 4.61 ERA as a rookie.

That’s why they signed 26-year-old Taiwanese lefthander Wei-Yin Chen, hoping to catch Asian lightening in a bottle. Chen threw 165 innings with a 2.68 ERA and 94/31 K/BB ratio for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan last season and will move right into the Orioles’ rotation at age 26. They also signed Japanese lefthander Tsuyoshi Wada, but he’s a soft thrower and won’t be effective in the rugged AL East parks.

The bullpen is thin with Kevin Gregg (40 walks, 59 innings, 7 blown saves) and former first-round pick Brian Matusz (1-9, 10.65 ERA). Former set-up man Jim Johnson was closing games in September and could remain in that role. They also grabbed three guys from the Rangers in Pedro Strop, lefty Zach Phillips and submariner Darren O’Day.

All in all, they will be closer to 100 losses again than 100 wins.

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