Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Braves Blog: 6 Games into the Slide

It’s Still Early…But, Yes, You Should be Panicking

No Hope in Dope

We’re only 19 games into the season, and yet we’ve already seen enough of this Braves team to realize that whatever high hopes we might have had were (as usual) foolishly optimistic. It’s not that the Braves have dug themselves a hole that they can’t climb out of; it’s that there just isn’t much reason to believe that they will get drastically better. I mean it’s almost hopeless.

One of the great things about the baseball season is that its length allows for teams to stay “mathematically” in the race all year. Even if a team has 3 bad months, they still have 3 months left to make it up. The length of the season, however, can also be a bad thing if you realize early on that your team flat out sucks. This isn’t basketball or football where bad teams are “rewarded” with high draft picks. Baseball doesn’t really work that way. If you’re out of it in May there’s really nothing you can do but play the next few months and see what happens. For example, let’s say that Frank Wren ate some peyote and had a vision so clear that he woke up and knew without question that the Braves would not challenge for the postseason this year. It really wouldn’t do much good because his options would be limited until at least late June. Most teams will still feel they are in the race until late summer but most teams won’t be eager to make trades until that time. Few teams will be willing to trade future pieces for say, Billy Wagner, until late summer. During his short time as GM, Wren has made some early deals which have improved the team, but there’s probably not a deal he could make right now that would significantly alter things. We’ll just have to hope things get better. If they don’t, it’ll be a long summer.

It’s the Hitting

Nothing is going all that well for the Braves right now. The starting pitching hasn’t been as good as we’d hoped; the bullpen has been shaky in recent games; and the Braves have made a slew of costly mistakes in the field and on the bases recently. But forget all of that because it’s really irrelevant. I’m not saying that those things haven’t had an effect on the team’s record so far. It’s just that right now the hitting is 95% of the problem. Just take the recent 6 game slide that the Braves have been on. Yes, there have been some awful defensive mistakes and some poor performances by pitchers. But even with those things the Braves have only given up 23 runs over 6 games, an average of 3.83 runs allowed per game. That’s not bad. Last year the NL average for runs allowed per game was 4.49, and the Dodgers and Giants led the league averaging 3.77 runs allowed per game (the only 2 teams to average less than 3.83 runs allowed per game). The problem is that the Braves have scored only 9 total runs during the 6 game losing streak. Yes, 9 runs in 6 games. That’s an average of 1.50 runs scored per game. In case you’re wondering, the NL average for runs scored per game last year was 4.43, and no team averaged less than 3.94 runs per game (San Diego). So even if the Braves were doing just a poor job of hitting they might have gone 3-3 over the last 6 games. But they aren’t doing a poor job; they’re doing a horrendous job.

This Shouldn’t be a Shock

I came into this season hoping. I mean, I always come into the year hoping, but this season I was hoping specifically to be wrong. I did not think the Braves had done enough to improve the offense to be much better than they were last season. However, I thought the pitching would be good and I hoped that the offense would be decent enough to allow the team to compete for the Wild Card. After all, the Braves finished with 86 wins last year, and I like to think 90 wins gives you a shot. Right now it’s looking like I wasn’t wrong.

I’m not trying to say that I was the only one who saw this. It wasn’t hard to figure out that the Braves needed to score more runs this year, and that they really didn’t do anything this offseason that figured likely to dramatically improve the offense. But there have been some fairly new developments to go along with the same old problems the Braves have been having recently.

No Speed, No Power, No Runs

The inability to score runs without stringing together hits has been a problem for the Braves ever since Mark Teixeira was traded away late in the 2008 season. It has been glaringly obvious this year that the problem remains. The biggest problem is the lack of power. The homerun ball is important for every team but it’s even more important for the Braves. Why? Certainly Bobby Cox’s managerial style has to be mentioned here. Cox wasn’t the first manager to be accused of sitting around and waiting for the 3-run homer, but that is often the way that he manages the game. I don’t want to include Cox’s entire managerial career, for Cox certainly doesn’t manage today exactly the same way he did in the 80’s or even the early 90’s. But at least over the last 15 years or so Cox has used a fairly conservative brand of baseball, at least from the hitting side of things.

Understand, I’m not saying there are no exceptions; I’m talking on a general basis. Bobby’s teams normally don’t try to steal a lot of bases. He doesn’t hit and run often. For the most part, Bobby likes to leave things up to the batter to move runners and drive runs in. Part of it is definitely the cards he has to play with. You don’t want to try a lot of base stealing if you don’t have any capable base stealers, and you don’t want to put the hit and run on if you don’t have faith that the guy at the plate can put it in play. So Bobby seems to be inclined to put it in the hands of the batter and not risk getting guys thrown out on the base paths. In the past, criticism of this approach usually only popped up during the postseason, when the Braves would often struggle to score runs off the game’s top starters and relievers. Bobby’s approach of waiting for the home run generally worked during the regular season when the big bats could tee off against pitchers of the general population.

Actually, this approach really fit Bobby’s teams well most of the time, when there wasn’t always a lot of speed or even a lot of guys getting on base consistently, but there was power, occasionally all the way through the order. Also, for many years if the Braves got a couple of big hits a night it was enough because the pitching was the best in the league. In fact, the strategy of avoiding risks on the base paths and letting the batter go to work was really the correct strategy for any team from the late 90’s to the mid-2000’s. This is because the long ball had become so common place that it really didn’t make sense to try and steal bases unless you were very certain of being successful or extremely desperate for a run. In recent years, however, the Braves and the game itself have changed, and it doesn’t seem like Cox has been able to change his managing style (at least not enough to be successful).

The Braves are no longer a team that has pop throughout the order, and they don’t have a ton of power anywhere in the lineup. So waiting around for somebody to hit one out of the park just doesn’t work as well as it did in the past. In addition, while the Braves are certainly an above average pitching team, they are no longer truly elite, so the team needs to score more runs in order to win. And as mentioned before, the game as a whole has changed. While the power era isn’t going away quite as quickly as it came, there’s absolutely no arguing the fact that the homerun is significantly less commonplace than it was even a few years ago. It still doesn’t make sense to try and steal bases willy nilly, but it is more of a reasonable and useful tactic than it was in 2003. Even the hit and run, which I personally thought was going to become just about extinct 7 years ago, is starting to make sense again, as opening holes for batters and moving runners around the bases seems valuable.

One more quick point to make is that the lack of power isn’t just about a lack of homers, it’s about the lack of any sort of extra base hit. Doubles score fast runners from first and slow runners from second. They also put a guy in scoring position for the next batter. The Braves aren’t getting many doubles and triples either, so they really have to string together hits, and almost no team is going to be able to do that consistently.

The Need for Speed

I don’t want to make a big speech here about how important or unimportant speed is in the game of baseball. When I hear broadcasters opine about how great it is to see the speed game coming back to baseball, and how exciting the hit and run is when executed well, or how Jose Reyes is the most exciting player in baseball, I want to vomit. I can also understand why those who consider themselves on-board with modern baseball theory (sabermetrics, Baseball Prospectus, Money Ball, etc.) are inclined to downplay the importance of base stealing. However, I disagree with the idea that base stealing and just speed on the base paths in general is not relevant.

Having speed in the lineup for any team is good because it means it will be easier to score runs whenever the ball stays in the park. It can also help a team score a run without getting a hit or when they really need a run and they aren’t likely to get a homer or multiple hits in a row. The major point is that you don’t need speed to be a great run scoring team, but if you don’t have a lot of power, your lack of speed is going to be a bigger problem. The Braves’ lack of power is obvious, and it is also making their lack of speed a major issue.

Again, I’m not just talking about stealing bases, although the Braves certainly aren’t doing it much. The Braves are just not very fast, period. The contact hitters in the lineup aren’t particularly fast, so ground balls rarely turn into infield hits and once they get on base they aren’t base stealing threats. The bigger hitters in the lineup—or at least the guys who are supposed to be—are either not fast or incredibly slow. Chipper is a good base runner but he’s so worn down that he no longer qualifies as a speedy base runner. Escobar is remarkably slow for his position and style of play. He doesn’t get to first quickly and he doesn’t steal bases. The lack of speed of both Chipper and Escobar comes into play on ground balls, as they are more likely to turn into double plays. This is particularly important in Escobar’s case because he hits so many ground balls and line drives. And then there are the two slugs, Brian McCann and Troy Glaus. I don’t think enough is made of the importance of having guys in the middle of the order who are at least average runners. The guys in the middle of the order are expected to drive in runs but they are also expected to get on base. Especially in the case of the Braves lineup, the guys behind the 3 and 4 hitters are usually not going to have a lot of power, so if you don’t have guys who can score from second on most base hits or score from first on some doubles, it’s going to be a problem. The other problem is the double play. When McCann or Glaus hits a ground ball with a runner at first and less than two outs and it doesn’t get through, it’s almost always going to be a double play. This is a pretty big problem, especially because a lot of pitchers are just going to walk Chipper to get to McCann, or walk McCann to get to Glaus. If you add Escobar into the mix, you can basically say that when any of the 3 main hitters in the middle of the Atlanta lineup hits a ground ball with a runner on first and less than 2 outs, it’s almost always going to be a double play. That ain’t good.

A Workable Lineup

At this point, most baseball fans have come to understand the value of walks and getting on base. For those who think that the importance of walking has been overblown, the fact that the Braves are at the top of the league in walks might seem like a good example to support their argument. Actually, it doesn’t support that argument at all, but it does help to illustrate how pitchers are shutting down the Braves so far this season. Part of the importance of earning a walk is that by doing so you don’t make an out and you bring the next batter to the plate. If you don’t chase balls out of the zone you force a pitcher to work harder and throw more balls in the zone. The reason that the Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies are so tough offensively is that they don’t chase, they work the count, and they pass the baton to the next guy in line who does the same thing. However, it isn’t all about approach. These teams all have deep lineups full of players who are good at executing that approach, and they are all mostly dangerous hitters. Part of the high number of walks the Braves have amassed this season can be credited to hitters taking a smart approach to the plate. However, another major reason for all these walks is that pitchers are repeatedly choosing not to give certain players a chance of beating them and attacking other hitters who they feel they can get out. And it’s working.

Chipper is just not going to go after pitches that he can’t drive most of the time and he’s not going to go after pitches that aren’t close to the strike zone. Many pitchers are going to pitch around Chipper to work to Mac instead. There are several reasons for this. First off, regardless of recent numbers, Chipper is still the more feared hitter, and pitchers know that they stand a better chance of getting Mac to hit their pitch than they do with CJ. Second, some teams are going to be willing to put Chipper on if they need a double play and first base is open. It just makes more sense, because they know they have a decent chance of getting Mac to hit a ground ball for a double play. Finally, if it’s a left handed starter, or even more importantly a left handed reliever, Mac is easily the safer choice because Chipper is a switch hitter and a strong right handed hitter, and McCann is still a much less dangerous hitter when facing a lefty.

However, McCann’s walk numbers are even more eye opening than Chipper’s because Mac is by nature a more aggressive batter. Teams are continually avoiding McCann, in large part because Troy Glaus has not proven that he can hit power pitching anymore. To be honest, he’s basically proven that he can’t handle power pitching, or even average hard stuff. Chipper has drawn 13 walks this season which is a lot, but he always draws walks. The fact that Mac has already drawn 16 walks is fairly amazing. Right now he’s on pace to draw 143 walks. He has 216 walks in his career! The highest BB/PA he’s had in any season was .099 in 2008. His current BB/PA this season is .232. It’s even possible that Jason Heyward is being pitched around, although it’s probably more accurate to say that pitchers are going to make him prove that he can hit other pitches before they bother throwing him any fastballs over the plate. Heyward is swinging and missing a lot of those tougher pitches, and when he doesn’t offer at them, he’s walking. Pitchers don’t mind putting him on. Rather than give him something that he’s proven he can hit, they just try to set him up with junk, and if he winds up walking they go after the next guy who they know they can get out.

I believe that the reason Heyward has hit so much better with runners on base is that pitchers are challenging him more often in those spots than they are when there’s no one on. At least that’s my best guess. As for why Escobar hits so much better with runners on, I think--and I have thought for a long time--that comes down to focus. I think it’s obvious that Escobar struggles to keep his head in the game and I think part of the reason he does so much better with runners on base is that he concentrates more in those situations. It could also be that he’s an aggressive hitter and he’s more likely to get a good pitch to hit with runners on base because pitchers want to get ahead of him. But I think it’s more about focus. Whatever the reason, Heyward and Escobar are the only guys hitting with RISP right now. Some of the other players aren’t getting a chance much of the time because they get pitched around. And this is where you can clearly see how teams are avoiding some guys and attacking others. In 16 plate appearances with RISP, Chipper has walked 7 times. In 22 plate appearances with RISP, Mac has walked 9 times! That’s not usual for McCann. Jayson Heyward has walked an astounding 12 times in 22 plate appearances.

Now to the other end of the spectrum. Troy Glaus has had 29 plate appearances with RISP and is 5 for 25 with 3 walks. Melky Cabrera is 1 for 17 with 1 walk in 18 plate appearances. Matt Diaz is 3 for 12 with 1 walk in 13 plate appearances. Nate McLouth is 0 for 8 with 5 walks in 15 plate appearances, but a lot of that goes back to him batting 8th with the pitcher behind him. This is why I think the Braves poor hitting with RISP is more relevant than it might be for other teams. In general, I agree with the belief that over the long haul things even out and you are basically the same hitter with RISP that you are any other time. For the most part, I think timely hitting is more about luck than anything else. But with the Braves I think there is more to it because it’s so obvious that teams are consciously deciding who they are going to allow to beat them, and those guys aren’t beating anyone.

The Old Man and the Catcher

While Chipper Jones and Brian McCann are two of the few guys who actually are producing at the plate, they are part of the overall problem with the Braves offense. For years now, I have been saying that one of the major problems with the Atlanta lineup is that two of its main cogs are a great but aging slugger (who can’t stay on the field) and a slow catcher who is greatly neutralized by left handed pitchers. It’s an even bigger problem now because they aren’t just two of the main cogs, they are the only big hitters in the middle of the lineup, and if they don’t carry the team, the team won’t score runs most of the time. Relying so much on Chipper is a problem because when he isn’t in the lineup it goes from being an average lineup (at best) to being a weak lineup. People are quick to get on Chipper’s case, but the fact is that he is still, without question, the most dangerous hitter in the lineup. He’s also the only guy that resembles a true #3 hitter. And Chipper is no longer the power hitter he once was. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that he still has more power than almost anyone on the team.

With Mac, the biggest problem is his position. Most #1 catchers rarely start more than around 120 to 125 games. So perhaps a quarter of the time he isn’t going to be playing. In addition, catchers wear down and they get banged up. There are going to be many times where Mac is able to play, but he won’t be 100% in terms of being able to hit. Also, Mac is very slow, so having him bat cleanup is an issue because of GDP’s and the fact that he’s basically going to go station to station. Finally, while Mac is decent against left handed pitching, he is nowhere near the threat he is against a righty. Also, tough left handers, especially specialists out of the pen, are often able to neutralize Mac completely. Last season Mac hit only .225 with 4 doubles and 4 homers in 180 at bats against lefties.

Too Many Holes, Too Many Square Pegs

I’m usually critical of Bobby Cox for being a bit too patient with players and sticking with the status quo for long periods of time even when it isn’t working. This season, however, I really don’t think you could make that claim. He has tried playing different guys; he has moved guys all over the lineup; he’s tried different combinations; he’s tried benching guys; he’s tried a number of different ways to find a lineup that works and nothing has worked. There are a few reasons for this. The biggest problem is that there simply aren’t enough better than average offensive players on the team. Despite some decent numbers at one time or another, McLouth, Melky Cabrera, Matt Diaz, and Omar Infante are basically average or slightly above average hitters. Not one of them has a lot of power or speed or the ability to get on base consistently. Making matters worse at the moment is that they’re all struggling at the same time. If they were all hot at the same time the Braves lineup might look really good right now. They should end up hitting better than they are right now but in the long run they probably aren’t going to be much better than average.

The other problem is that there are a lot of holes in the lineup right now and none of the guys who might be tried to fill those vacancies are good fits. There is not a prototypical leadoff man or even a solid leadoff man on this team. Bobby has tried a number of different players in that spot but nothing has worked. His latest attempt was to put Escobar at leadoff. This is probably the worst fit of all. For one thing, Escobar’s struggles with the bases empty have been consistent throughout his career. He’s also proven to be a very capable hitter with RISP, and in this lineup you can’t afford to take him away from one of the run producing spots. Furthermore, Escobar is the least patient hitter on the team. While he does walk every once in a while, he sees less pitches than anyone, and that’s not who you want leading off. Diaz and Cabrera are basically the same way. In my opinion, the best option is Nate McLouth, although his style is more suited for lower in the order as well. But it isn’t just the leadoff spot. I’ve already discussed why Mac is not exactly suited for hitting cleanup, but that’s the least of our worries.

The biggest problem right now is that Troy Glaus is basically a fixture in the middle of the lineup. He’s going to be batting in a key run producing spot no matter what. And right now he’s a major weak spot and teams are taking advantage of that weakness. Everyone knew that the Braves needed to go out and get a legitimate power hitter for the middle of the lineup this offseason. When it became clear that their answer was going to be Troy Glaus, I knew immediately that it was unlikely to work. I now believe that the chances of it working well are almost none. The real problem, as I stated going into this season, is that it has to work well. That’s how the Braves set it up. Troy Glaus had to be the answer, because nobody else is coming and there’s no one else currently on the roster capable of filling that spot. The only possible exception is Jayson Heyward, but again, it just isn’t a good fit. For one thing, Heyward is a rookie, and 99.9% of rookies, no matter how good they are, will not be able to produce consistently throughout the year in the heart of the lineup. We’ve already seen him struggle against the type of pitching that he simply didn’t see in the minors. He’s striking out a lot, and putting him in the middle of the order right now and asking him to protect Chipper and Mac could have a negative effect on him. He’s really best off hitting down in the order. He’s a good guy to have as a threat towards the back end of the lineup. Furthermore, he’s left handed, and the Braves need that big bat in the middle of the order to be a right handed hitter who can’t be neutralized by a lefty. So Troy Glaus has to fill that role and it doesn’t look like he’s physically capable of doing so. I said before the start of the year that if this thing worked out it could really improve the lineup, but that if it didn’t work the Braves would be in serious trouble. That’s why I thought it was so perilous to set up a situation like that when it appeared highly unlikely (at least to me) that it would end up working out.

Worries about the Team and the Future

In my opinion, it’s not simply a matter of this particular edition of the Braves being flawed. Many of the current problems have been present for years now. In fact, I’ve felt for years that the Braves lineup was flawed to the point that it would take more than one or two minor moves to make a big improvement. There are major flaws in the makeup of the entire team. Beyond even that, I have come to believe that the way this team is being constructed on a yearly and day to day basis is just wrong.

I’ve already covered a lot of this but there are other major issues. Some of these things go back before the end of the division title streak. Starting with about 2004, the Braves stopped trying to improve, and instead began focusing on “fielding a competitive team.” During the offseasons that have followed, it has always been pretty clear what the weaknesses were and where they needed to get better. What has happened year in and year out is that the team ends up taking the stopper out of one hole and plugging up another. In this way, management usually ends up “fielding a competitive team” but they’ve never come close to fielding a serious contender. At the same time, they haven’t committed to starting over, so they haven’t been able to rebuild either.

Throughout most of this time, even when trying to fill a hole while allowing a strength to become a weakness, the Braves have attempted to fill those holes on the cheap. There have been occasional moments where management has spent money or has at least tried to spend money, but even then I feel they have gone about it the wrong way. In the common baseball era, the idea that it is not wise to pay for pitching is something I believe in strongly, especially for teams who aren’t trying to be among the top spending teams in the league. Pitching is just too unpredictable and the chance of injury too great to go out and sign guys to huge, multi-year contracts. A team is really better off developing their own pitching talent, something the Braves have had mixed results with over the years.

On the other hand, the one commodity it seems safe to spend money on is power. Indeed, teams pretty much have to pay for power. One reason for this is that players develop into power hitters over the years, so a power hitter becoming a free agent in his prime will many times still have his peak years ahead of him. Pitchers on the other hand, cannot be counted on to sustain their level of success over a long period of time. If you just go back and look at the top free agent signings for starting pitchers there are at least as many busts as there are booms. Power hitters, on the other hand, usually produce consistently year in and year out.

The Braves have gone against both of these rules of thumb in recent years. In 2008, the Braves traded away Mark Teixeira at the deadline, and for the first time in years they were aggressive in the free agent market the following offseason. At times Wren acted like he really didn’t care who he got, he just had some money and he wanted to spend it. In the end, Wren ended up giving a bunch of money to a pair of starting pitchers. One of them, Derek Lowe, had proven to be a fairly consistent, solid starting pitcher, but the Braves gave him #1 starter money; $60 million over 4 years. At the time, I have to admit that I was not upset by this deal. The biggest reason was that at the time I allowed myself to believe that ownership was going to start trying harder to win. The talk that offseason was different from the years before when it seemed like the GM’s hands were tied. Basically, I was just glad to see the Braves sign a big free agent like that, which they hadn’t done in years. And I thought it was just part of the plan. I was also relieved that the Braves had been turned down by AJ Burnett, and had given that money instead to a guy who did not have a history of injury problems or a history of not being as good as his stuff said he should be. However, as time went on, even as Lowe started off pitching well for the Braves in 2009, I realized that we had given a lot of money to a guy who wasn’t an ace and who might not have a reason to be motivated playing in a town where there is virtually no pressure. Obviously, my opinion of that deal now is very different. In retrospect I feel stupid for not realizing what a boner it was at the time.

But there was another pitcher signed to a big money contract that offseason. This one I also felt okay about at the time, though I can’t feel too bad about that. When a team pays that much money for a guy that you’ve never seen, you just sort of assume that he must be pretty good. Well, it turns out that the Braves made a major reach. They signed a pitcher from Japan, who was 34 years old, to a 3 year deal worth $23 million. Even if he had been the best pitcher in the Japanese League and only 25, it’s unlikely that he would have been worth the kind of money the Braves paid to get him. Instead, KK has turned out to be a below average, back end of the rotation pitcher with nothing to offer. He would have no use as a relief pitcher and he can’t go past 6 innings as a starter. He’s rarely better than okay and he’s often worse than that.

In hindsight, the Braves would have been much better off giving Tex the money they gave KK and Lowe, and bringing Hanson and Medlin into the rotation to go with JJ and Vazquez and Hudson. Shoot, they could have even let Glavine and Smoltz hang around as long as they could. Of course Tex may not have taken their money even if the Braves had offered as much as New York ended up giving him, but the point is that right now a huge amount of money is tied up in a couple of pitchers who are 4th and 5th starters at best. Lowe and Kawakami could be replaced by guys making less than $1 million combined and there would be no drop off. If you take things further, the Braves wouldn’t have had to trade Vazquez to New York this past offseason, and they may even have been able to land one of the other medium sized free agent hitters.

It’s Still only April

Maybe in a few months we’ll look back and I’ll seem silly for overreacting about a 6 game skid in April. There are, after all, 5 full months left to go in the regular season. So that’s good. I guess. Unless we really are this bad.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Braves Blog: Thoughts After 15 Games

Thoughts After 15 Games
It’s still early but we’ve already learned a lot about this Braves team. Actually, we haven’t learned so much as re-learned a lot about this team. This team seems very similar to the Braves teams of the last few years. Here are some of my thoughts on what we’ve seen so far.

Good so far but a little lucky. 8-7 after 15 games and only 2 games behind the Phillies and Cardinals for best record in the NL is nothing to cry about. The schedule hasn’t been easy either. The Braves have played series against the Cubs, Giants, Rockies and Phillies—all teams with winning records last season who are also expected to be among the contenders this season. The Braves other opponent, San Diego, was awful last season and will likely lose at least 90 games this year, but at the moment the Padres are 9-6. So again, being a game over .500 at this point is nothing to feel bad about.

At the same time, if you’re looking at things objectively, you have to admit that the Braves are a little fortunate to be 8-7. If you look at games that could have swung either way, the Braves “best case scenario” would likely be 9-6 at this point. “Worst case scenario” would probably be 5-10. You could even go as far as 4-11 if you include the season opener, when the Braves got a huge break on a blown call at a critical point in the game when the Cubs appeared poised to take the lead late. The Braves could/should have won the opener in San Fran when Billy Wagner made 1 bad pitch in the 9th and blew a 2 run lead. But 3 of the Braves 8 wins have come in games which they trailed by at least 1 run after 7 innings. On the one hand there is something very positive to take from that. It’s always fun to be a fan of a team with a knack for coming from behind late and winning games in dramatic fashion. But another way to look at it would be to concede that they’re unlikely to continue to pullout such wins on a regular basis.

The Braves have scored 67 runs and allowed 67 runs. They’re on pace to win around 86 games, the same number of wins as they had last season. If the Braves end the year with an equal amount of runs scored and runs allowed, they’ll need a lot of luck to do much better than win 86 games.

Same old offensive problems. The Braves are having trouble scoring runs. The occasional scoring explosion makes the numbers look a little better than the situation really is. The problems are very familiar. The lineup is prone to cold stretches because of holes in the lineup and the inability to manufacture runs. The Braves offense is overly reliant on the homerun, and this is a major problem because the Braves don’t have all that much power. They are having to rely on 2 out hits, and if they don’t get those key hits and they don’t hit homeruns, they don’t score. That’s a problem, especially against tough pitchers.

Another problem—again, one that isn’t new—is that the Braves lineup has more than one soft spot. John Smoltz’ performance as co-announcer has been shaky at best so far, but he made a great point during Thursday night’s game when he talked about the effect that the weak spots in an order can have on a team. If there is a major hole in the batting order it changes the way that pitchers work to the rest of the lineup. If runners aren’t on base when the best hitters come to the plate it makes those hitters much less dangerous. If the guys hitting behind the best hitters are no threat then pitchers won’t bother to mess around with those dangerous bats. This is a problem the Braves are encountering right now.

The leadoff spot is a major hole. As expected, the Braves are struggling to find someone to do even a decent job holding down the top spot in the batting order. As I always say before broaching this subject, if you don’t understand why the performance of the first batter in the lineup matters more than the performance of the #8 hitter in the lineup just skip to the next part of this article. It’s not worth explaining the obvious over and over. Now, back to the point, the Braves weakness at the leadoff spot, which was obvious going into the season, has been even worse than expected. It’s been so bad during the first 15 games that even those who brushed off concerns about the lack of a leadoff man before the start of the season can no longer deny the problem. Braves 1st place hitters are a combined 6 for 64 on the season with just 7 walks and 13 strikeouts. The Braves have gotten a .181 OBP out of the leadoff spot. That’s not going to work out well.

The 3 players that Bobby Cox has tried in the leadoff spot so far—Nate McLouth, Melky Cabrera, and Matt Diaz—have all started the season poorly, regardless of their position in the order. McLouth is hitting .171 with a .333 OBP; Cabrera is hitting .125 with a .250 OBP; and Diaz is hitting .167 with a .167 OBP. There’s no simple solution to this problem. There are major drawbacks to putting any of those players in the leadoff spot. McLouth has put up some decent numbers in his career; he has experience in the leadoff spot; and he is a solid base stealer. But McLouth’s style as a batter is not fit for the top spot in the lineup. He seems to have more value batting later in the order where his lack of walks and tendency to strike out don’t hurt as much. He has gap power but his batting style isn’t likely to produce a consistently high on-base percentage, which is most important for the #1 hitter in the lineup. It’s a similar situation with Diaz. Matty has also put up some decent numbers in his career. I actually think Diaz is a better offensive player than McLouth overall. But his batting style is even less fitting of a leadoff hitter than McLouth’s is. Like McLouth, Diaz is going to be streaky, and that isn’t what you want out of the leadoff spot. When Matty is hot he can literally be the best hitter in the game over short stretches, but his cold stretches are also likely to be worse than most. More importantly, Diaz’ “see it and hit it” style is just not well suited for the leadoff spot where taking pitches, working the count, and getting on base consistently are key responsibilities. Then there is Cabrera. With Melky it’s fairly simple: the guy just isn’t very good. People can continue to dispute this fact all they want but it’s really not even up for debate. On almost any day, Cabrera is going to be the weakest hitter in the lineup. The leadoff man is going to get the most plate appearances, and it doesn’t take a genius to comprehend that you don’t want your weakest hitter coming to the plate most often. In my opinion this is the Braves biggest issue at this point.

The Glaus experiment is not going well. The Braves signed Troy Glaus to replace Adam LaRoche as the everyday first baseman and be the big right-handed bat in the middle of the lineup. At the time of the signing and throughout the offseason, management gave off an air of total confidence that this move would be a success. I was surprised how easily many Braves fans accepted the team’s stance and believed that the idea of Glaus returning to his mid-2000’s form was something other than a long shot. Many of those fans are no doubt starting to question those beliefs. It would also be fair to say that a large number of the fans in attendance at Turner Field—many of whom likely have little or no knowledge of Troy Glaus’ career prior to becoming a Brave—have already formed the opinion that Glaus isn’t any good. Who can blame them? Remember: fans in Atlanta are among the least knowledgeable in the country, but they aren’t stupid. And if you didn’t know anything about Glaus’ past and you just watched him during the first 15 games this season, you wouldn’t think much of him.

To be fair, Glaus has had a couple of very bright moments, including a 2 run blast with 2 down in the 9th on Tuesday night that made the heroics of Jason Heyward and Nate McLouth possible. However, the bright spots have been few and far between for Glaus. He has played in all 15 games, hitting in the heart of the lineup, and he is now just 9 for 53 on the season with 2 extra base hits (both homers), 4 walks, and 16 strikeouts. He is batting .170/.241/.283/.524. With very few exceptions, Glaus has been unable to catch-up to hard stuff, even when the ball is right down the middle and at the knees. Making matters worse, Glaus is very slow and has already hit into 3 double plays. And you always have to include the fact that Glaus is out of position at first base. While he hasn’t been terrible defensively, Glaus has botched several routine plays and is without question a liability in the field. Once again, there is no good or simple solution to this problem.

Lowe doesn’t look any different. There was a lot of talk during the offseason about Derek Lowe recommitting himself and making major changes that would get him back to being one of the better starters in the NL. I’ve come to ignore such talk, but when Lowe looked great during spring training I started to believe that perhaps he would have a bounce back year. It didn’t take long to blow those thoughts out of the atmosphere. Through 4 starts, Lowe has been just about as bad as he was last year. Pay no attention to his 3-1 record (again, if you don’t understand why won-loss record is not really meaningful, just move on to the next section); Lowe has been the benefit of great run support. In his 4 starts, Lowe has pitched just 22.1 innings and has allowed 15 runs on 22 hits and 14 walks. He has a totally unacceptable 1.61 WHIP and a 5.24 ERA. Batters are hitting .262 off of him. Whatever changes Lowe made, they don’t appear to have had any positive impact on his ability to not suck.

The Phillies are better than us. It didn’t take losing 2 of 3 at home to the Phils to realize that they are still the stronger team, but it did go a long way in crushing any hopes that we might have had that things were different. The Phillies lineup is by far the toughest in the National League. They are deep and powerful and they work pitchers in just the way that the Yanks and Sox do over in the AL. The Phillies are an elite defensive team. And while the Braves may have a better starting rotation from front to back—and even that is debatable—the Phillies have a true ace in Roy Halladay and their starting staff is anything but a weak spot. Remember that the Phillies are without 2 starting pitchers and Jimmy Rollins at the moment. The Philly bullpen is the only thing in the team’s makeup that resembles a question mark. The Braves are going to have a very hard time unseating the Phils atop the NL East.

It isn’t all bad. There have been some good signs for the Braves so far. The bullpen has been very solid for the most part during the first 15 games. After an injury scare a couple of weeks ago, Chipper Jones has started to get rolling. And of course there’s Jason Heyward. Hopefully the Braves can hang around and at some point find answers to a few of these problems. It is still very, very early in this season.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The NBA Blog: 2009-2010 Horse Collar Awards

2009-2010 NBA Horse Collar Awards

With most sports I like to wait until after the postseason to give out awards. That really doesn’t seem to work with the NBA. The main reason is that the NBA playoffs last so long that it almost seems like a second season, separate from the regular season. If you’re giving out regular season awards in July it feels like naming the Cy Young in February. It’s better to do it when the season is still fresh in your mind. Also, it seems like NBA awards are more strongly regarded as strictly for the regular season only than in other sports. Dirk Nowitzki winning the MVP in the 2006-2007 season is a good example of this. The Mavs were the #1 seed in the West and they lost in the opening round to the #8 seed Warriors in 6 games. It was a humiliating exit for the Mavericks. However, it didn’t make Dirk’s MVP award in any way fraudulent. Dallas was by far the best team during the regular season, winning 67 games, and Nowitzki led them to that success and deserved the award for being the most valuable player of that regular season. Anyway, here are my awards for this year.

Most Valuable Player
1. Lebron James
2. Dwight Howard
3. Kevin Durant
4. Steve Nash
5. Dwayne Wade
6. Kobe Bryant
7. Carmelo Anthony
8. Deron Williams
9. Rajon Rondo
10. Dirk Nowitzki

Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard
Rookie of the Year: Tyreke Evans
Sixth Man of the Year: Jamal Crawford
Most Improved Player: Andrew Bogut
Coach of the Year: Scott Skiles
Most Surprising Team: Milwaukee Bucks
Most Disappointing Team: New Orleans Hornets

First Team All-Horse Collar
G Kobe Bryant
G Dwayne Wade
F Lebron James
F Kevin Durant
C Dwight Howard

Second Team All-Horse Collar
G Steve Nash
G Deron Williams
F Carmelo Anthony
F Dirk Nowitzki
C Amare Stoudemire

Third Team All-Horse Collar
G Rajon Rondo
G Jason Kidd
F Chris Bosh
F Carlos Boozer
C David Lee

First Team All-Defensive
G Rajon Rondo
G Dwayne Wade
F Josh Smith
F Marcus Camby
C Dwight Howard

Second Team All-Defensive
G Jason Kidd
G Kobe Bryant
F Gerald Wallace
F Lebron James
C Andrew Bogut

The NBA Blog: 2010 Playoff Preview and Predictions

2010 NBA Playoff Predictions

The NBA regular season is over and very soon the long, long, long strange trip that is the NBA playoffs will be underway. It seems like every spring we start getting amped up for the possibility of a historically exciting playoff season but it never turns out to be anything special. During the regular season it seems like there isn’t much difference between the team with the best record and the team with the 10th best record. You start thinking that the Western Conference playoffs will be knockdown, drag out fight in which every series will go seven games and anything can happen. Then the playoffs actually start and the #4 seed sweeps the #5 seed. It’s been a bit of a letdown. Once again this year I found myself predicting the higher seeded teams to win almost all of the time. I guess it’s a little boring but I gotta call it how I see it.

Eastern Conference

The only lower seeded team that I think has any kind of a shot to win a first round series is Miami, and I don’t like their chances that much. I’ll be surprised if Chicago wins a game against Cleveland. The Bulls actually have a negative scoring differential and are just 18-27 against teams with winning records, while the Cavs had the best record in the NBA. I believe Charlotte would have been trouble for either the Hawks or the Celtics but not for Orlando. Charlotte is tough to beat at home and they allowed the least points in the NBA this season. But the Magic are just too tough. Orlando is even better at home than the Bobcats, and while Charlotte is 13-28 on the road, the Magic are 25-16 in away games. I believe Milwaukee would have been trouble for any of the higher seeds in the East if Andrew Bogut hadn’t gotten hurt. As a Hawks fan, I was definitely concerned that we might end up facing the Bucks in the first round because they had become a very good team. When they lost Bogut they went from being extremely dangerous to being a non-factor. The Bucks are just 18-26 against teams over .500. Also, while the Hawks struggle on the road, Milwaukee has lost 13 times at home this year, including recently to Atlanta. Miami has been playing well lately and the last couple of months have been a struggle for the Celtics. However, I think Boston will turn it on once the playoffs begin and they will get past the Heat. It could be an ugly series, as both teams struggle for offense at times, but both teams also play tough defense.

While I definitely like Boston’s chances against Miami, I still don’t think they’ll get by Cleveland even if they are playing at a high level. The Cavs are just as good as Boston defensively and (surprisingly, in my opinion) much better offensively. The Hawks have no chance of beating Orlando. I love the Hawks and I’m obviously hoping for some sort of shocking result but it just isn’t rational to think that we might upset the Magic. In fact, it seems likely that the Hawks will be eliminated in decisive fashion, setting up a Cleveland-Orlando rematch in the Eastern Conference Finals. Orlando is better than Atlanta in just about every aspect of the game and in 3 of 4 head-to-head matchups between the teams this season the Hawks were beaten soundly.

I know people will understand what I’m talking about when I say that you just get the feeling that it’s time for Lebron to win a championship. But that’s about the only justification I can think of for picking the Cavs to beat the Magic. Everything else, in my opinion, points to the Magic beating Cleveland again to reach the Finals. In most categories the Magic are as good as or better than the Cavs. Last year the Cavs had lost only 2 games at home all season and the Magic came in and took the opener in Cleveland and were a miracle Lebron shot away from taking game 2. The Magic would go on to win the series in 6, and 2 of their 4 wins in the series were by double digits. I don’t see why things would be that much different this time. Yes, the Cavs have Shaq and Antawn Jamison this time, but Orlando has Vince Carter and a healthy Jameer Nelson. Lebron James is the game’s best player but Orlando is the better team.

Western Conference

Once again the Western Conference is loaded with 50 win teams, but as I mentioned earlier, I still think there are clear favorites in most of the first round series. The Lakers do not go into these playoffs on any sort of a roll. If they are going to repeat they will have to be able to flip the switch and play their best when it counts. Oklahoma City is the 8th seed but there is no comparison between the Thunder and the Chicago Bulls (the other 8th seed). The Lakers finished only 7 games ahead of Oklahoma City in the standings. By comparison, the Cavs finished 20 games ahead of the Bulls, and the #2 seed in the East (Orlando) finished 6 games ahead of the #3 seed in the East (Atlanta). Kevin Durant is an absolute stud. All of that said, the Lakers are clearly the better team and they should win the series in less than 7 for sure.

Dallas is the #2 seed in the West and they appear to be the team most capable of stopping the Lakers from reaching the Finals for a 3rd straight year. However, the Mavs don’t exactly have a history of overachieving in the playoffs. In the first round they will go up against San Antonio; not exactly a light weight. It seems that the window for the Spurs to win a 5th title has closed but you still have to fear them because of who they are. I think the Spurs will push Dallas to the edge but I like the Mavericks to come out on top.

The Trail Blazers won 50 games this season but their chances of doing anything substantial in the playoffs pretty much evaporated when Brandon Roy injured his knee a few a days ago. If they beat Phoenix in the first round I will be stunned. Utah gagged in their final game of the season, losing big at home to the Suns to fall from the #3 seed in the West to the #5 seed. Had Utah won they would have had the home court advantage in the first round against a crippled Portland team that they swept 4-0 in head-to-head competition this season. Now they will be going up against the Nuggets, a team they lost to in 3 of 4 head-to-head contests this season, without the home court edge. This is a pretty significant blow to Utah because they are much more difficult to handle at home…and so are the Nuggets. It looked like the Jazz would come into the playoffs on a roll but instead they will be coming off of a major letdown. In addition, the Jazz are not totally healthy. Denver isn’t completely healthy either and they will not have their head coach for this series. Still, I think the Jazz’s fate was sealed on Wednesday when they choked away the #3 seed.

Denver could not beat the Lakers in the conference finals last season and there’s no reason to think they would be able to win a series against LA this year either. A Phoenix-Dallas matchup in the semifinals would be pretty fun. The Suns are just 22-22 against teams with winning records and they still don’t do much to keep the other team from scoring. The Mavs should win that series.

I don’t think the Lakers are invincible by any means but I can’t imagine them losing in the Western Conference playoffs unless Kobe or Gasol gets hurt. They might have to go 6 games or so but eventually they should win, regardless of who they end up playing in the conference finals.

NBA Finals

I am expecting a rematch of last year’s Finals. The Magic lost in 5 games last time but it was not a one-sided series. The Magic were very, very close to evening up the series at 2-2 and making it a best of 3. Instead, they wound up losing game 4 to fall down 3-1 and that pretty much took them out of it. This time the Magic will have the home court advantage and they will be the healthier team. I think playing constantly for 3 years has taken a bit of a toll on Kobe and I just don’t know if he’ll be able to play at as high a level as he did last year when he was the MVP of the Finals. I think the Magic are the best team and I’m picking them to upset LA and win the title.


Eastern Conference

First Round

#1 Cleveland over #8 Chicago (4-0)
#2 Orlando over #7 Charlotte (4-1)
#3 Atlanta over #6 Milwaukee (4-1)
#4 Boston over #5 Miami (4-2)

Conference Semifinals

#1 Cleveland over #4 Boston (4-2)
#2 Orlando over #3 Atlanta (4-1)

Conference Finals

#2 Orlando over #1 Cleveland (4-3)

Western Conference

First Round

#1 Los Angeles over #8 Oklahoma City (4-2)
#2 Dallas over #7 San Antonio (4-3)
#3 Phoenix over #6 Portland (4-1)
#4 Denver over #5 Utah (4-3)

Conference Semifinals

#1 Los Angeles over #4 Denver (4-2)
#2 Dallas over #3 Phoenix (4-3)

Conference Finals

#1 Los Angeles over #2 Dallas (4-2)

NBA Finals

#2 Orlando over #1 Los Angeles (4-3)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Braves Blog: After Week One

It's Only One Week, Don't Panic!...But Go Ahead and Worry for Sure

Despite off days and rain delays, weird times and weird travels, and a bunch of other annoying things that take most of the fun out of the start of the baseball season, we made through a whirlwind first week of the year. The Braves and their fans have already experienced a lot in this young season. We've had our first comeback win; first come from behind late win; first hole in the wall game (as in: you threw something that left a hole in the wall); first extra inning loss; first shutout loss; first 1-run win and 1-run loss; first blowout win and first blowout loss; first Chipper homer and first Chipper injury; first Jason Heyward homer and first Jason Heyward golden sombrero; first Billy Wagner save and first Billy Wagner blown save; first home and road wins and first home and road losses; first series win and first series loss; we've been in 1st place, 2nd place and 3rd place; we've been over .500, at .500, and under .500; we've won consecutive games and lost consecutive games; and we've had our first Bobby Cox ejection. That's a lot of things to get out of the way in a first week.

We can't put a whole lot into one week of results. There's no reason to freak out yet. But if (like me) you got a bit caught up in all the positive vibes right there at the birth of the new season, feel free to come back into reality...or at least probability. As in: it's probably going to be a lot like last year and the year before that and the year before that going back to 2006. Which is pretty much what you should have expected if you were thinking rationally.

The numbers are fairly skewed at this point. The Braves have scored 35 runs and allowed 39. The hitting has actually been worse than that. After scoring 16 runs on opening day the Braves have scored 19 over 6 games, averaging about 3.17 runs scored per game. The pitching has been much better than the 39 runs allowed total looks. Prior to allowing 17 on Monday the Braves had allowed only 22 runs over 6 games, an average of 3.67 runs allowed per game. For the most part, the pitching has been solid and the offense has been poor. And that's basically what we should have expected.

Yes, things could easily be better. The Braves should have beaten the Giants in the opener in San Fran and they could easily have won the finale as well. But to be honest, the Braves are probably closer to 2-5 or 1-6 than they are to 4-3 or 5-2. It's sounds strange to say that a 16-5 game could have gone the other way but the Braves definitely could have wound up losing on opening day. The 1st inning explosion was built on a series of cheap hits. Then there was an absolutely enormous blown call that went in favor of the Braves later in the game. Had the correct call been made I'd say it's 50-50 whether or not the Braves win. Then in the 2nd game Chipper rescued the Braves with a 2 run blast in the 8th. If the Cubs intentionally walk CJ (or had Chipper's foul pop landed a few feet closer to Derek Lee) they probably win 2-1. So 3-4 isn't as bad as it feels.

There's no point in looking at the standings right now. Most realistic people thought the Braves shot at the playoffs was as a wild card team anyway. Also, the schedule is having an impact on things right now. The Phillies are 6-1, but considering that they've played 7 games against Houston and Washington, I'd be disappointing if I were a Phils fan.

While I don't think it makes sense to jump to conclusions after 7 games, I do think it's fair to point out the continuation of a pattern, whether it's a continuation from the end of last season, from spring training, or both. Let's look back at the 10 most major questions I listed for the Braves going into this season and see where we're at so far in terms of finding an answer.

1. What will the Braves get from Troy Glaus?

Prognosis after a week: Shaky. Very shaky. I admit that he's better than I thought he would be at first base but he still looks like an aging player trying to man first base because the NL doesn't have a DH. He should get better but he's not going to be anything like what we've been used to for the last few years. He's not going to be rock solid on routine plays and he's not going to save a lot of throws. Nothing will be smooth or instinctual.

As far as his performance at the plate (the most important issue), I'd say that I'm more worried now than I was a week ago. In 29 plate appearances (granted, a very small sample) he has 6 hits, but he has no extra base hits, just 2 walks, 7 strikeouts, and has hit into 2 double plays. Since coming back from shoulder problems late last year Glaus has 11 hits in 61 plate appearances with no homers, 2 doubles, 5 walks, and 15 strikeouts. He's hitting .200/.279/.236/.515 over those 61 PA (again, a small sample but not insignificant all things considered). This spring he had 0 homers and 13 strikeouts in 52 at bats. It's becoming more and more doubtful that his power will ever return. And if he doesn't have his power, he's basically worthless.

2. Can Wagner stay healthy?

Prognosis after a week: Don't know yet. He's pitched in 3 games but he has yet to pitch on back to back days. 6 strikeouts in 3 innings is encouraging.

3. Will Chipper bounce back?

Prognosis after a week: Well, he's back to being hurt. Other than that he is 2 for 12 with a big homer. He's played in only 4 of 7 games and he's come out of the game before the final out in 3 of those games.

4. What will we get out of Derek Lowe?

Prognosis after a week: I'd like to say a good outing and a bad outing but it's really more like a bad outing and a lucky outing. His opening day start was awful and highly reminiscent of last year, as he allowed 5 runs on 5 hits and 3 walks over 6 innings, giving up a pair of massive homers. In his second start, Lowe gave up only 1 run on 4 hits over 6 innings but he walked 7 batters and benefited greatly from a pair of runners being caught stealing and weak bottom of the order hitters coming up at opportune times. On the positive side, he did get more ground balls in his last start.

5. How good will Jason Heyward be?

Prognosis after a week: Damn good. But he's not going to win the MVP as a rookie. We basically already knew all of that. He has 3 homers, 9 RBI, and 5 BB. He also has 10 K. There will be good and bad, as with all talented youngsters.

6. What kind of a year will Nate McClouth have?

Prognosis after a week: Don't count on much. He did almost hit a slam on Monday but instead it was a foul ball and he then fanned. He's now 2 for 17 with 0 EXBH and 8 K on the year. He does have 5 BB, but remember that he's batting 8th where it's often difficult not to walk. He has yet to attempt a stolen base. That needs to change. I don't know if Cox has taken away McClouth's ability to go when he thinks he can make it or if McClouth has been shy on his own, but he needs to start swiping some bags. If he isn't going to hit for power and he isn't going to steal bases (and with great success) the way he did in Pittsburgh, McClouth isn't worth very much because he's not a high on-base guy and he's not that great defensively.

7. How will Kawakami be in his 2nd year?

Prognosis after a week: There's reason to be optimistic. In his only start of the year so far he allowed 3 runs over 6 innings, giving up 5 hits but only walking 1. He deserved better. However, he had only 1 K and the Giants faired much better against him the second time through the order.

8. How will the bullpen arms hold up?

Prognosis after a week: No way of knowing at this point.

9. Will a true leadoff hitter emerge?

Prognosis after a week: No. This wasn't the best question because the Braves don't have a true leadoff man on the roster and they don't normally appear out of thin air. A better question would probably be "Will the leadoff spot be anything but a gaping hole?" And the answer to that question would also be "no." McClouth and Melky Cabrera have been manning that spot and failing miserably. They shouldn't be there, and there are better options, but it's doubtful Cox will explore them. As for Cabrera, he's so far 3 for 29 with 4 BB and a double. Let me make this clear: he's nothing more than average player and he's never been more than that. It was ridiculous during the off-season how many Braves fans were willing to argue this point. The guy now has a career OBP of .329. That isn't good. Since the start of the 2007 season his OBP is .320. So get used to him. Get used to him getting a lot of at bats (batting leadoff means you'll have the most plate appearances for those who still don't understand why batting order is important) and making a lot of outs.

10. How good will Huddy be?

Prognosis after a week: Excuse the cheesy pet name but you gotta love this guy if you're a Braves fan. He looked great in his only start of the year so far.

So let's hope the second week is better. I would like to wrap things up by discussing Jo Jo Reyes. Look, I know he's only pitched in 1 game and it was a game we had already lost. I also know that he's basically just filling a spot on the roster until Scott Proctor is healthy. All the same, I don't want to see anymore of him. The always plump lefty was downright pathetic in his first appearance of the year on Monday night, allowing 9 runs on 10 hits in 3.1 innings of mop-up duty (against those mighty Padres in that band box Petco Park). Reyes has now pitched in 41 games at the Major League level during parts of the last 4 seasons. He is 5-15 with a 6.40 ERA and a hideous 1.67 WHIP over 194 innings. He has surrendered 33 homers. For his career he has allowed 10.5 hits per 9 innings and 4.5 BB per 9 innings while striking out only 5.9 per 9 innings. He has a K to BB ratio of just 1.31.

There's no reason to stick with this guy any longer. Clearly he doesn't have it. After struggling mightily early last year, Reyes went down to AAA where he remained for the rest of the season. His numbers there weren't terrible but they weren't very good for a 24 year old pitcher with plenty of experience in the minors. In 66 innings he gave up 6 homers, struck out just 32 men, and had a WHIP of 1.394. If you have a WHIP of nearly 1.40 and you average less than 0.5 K per inning you probably don't need to be pitching in the Majors anytime soon. This spring he was awful in 9 appearances, giving up 12 runs on 14 hits and 6 walks over 13 innings. He needs to be cut loose. There have been many failed pitching prospects for the Braves over the years and not many have come back to succeed elsewhere. I say we use Reyes for a scapegoat and try and cleanse ourselves of that ghastly performance on Monday night.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Hockey Blog: 2010 Playoff Predictions

2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions

Eastern Conference

First Round

#1 Washington over #8 Montreal (4-1)
#2 New Jersey over #7 Philadelphia (4-3)
#6 Boston over #3 Buffalo (4-3)
#4 Pittsburgh over #5 Ottawa (4-2)


#1 Washington over #6 Boston (4-2)
#2 New Jersey over #4 Pittsburgh (4-3)


#1 Washington over #2 New Jersey (4-3)

Western Conference

First Round

#1 San Jose over #8 Colorado (4-1)
#2 Chicago over #7 Nashville (4-1)
#3 Vancouver over #6 Los Angeles (4-1)
#5 Detroit over #4 Phoenix (4-2)


#1 San Jose over #5 Detroit (4-3)
#2 Chicago over #3 Vancouver (4-3)


#2 Chicago over #1 San Jose (4-3)

Stanley Cup Finals

#1 Washington over #2 Chicago (4-3)

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Braves Blog: The Biggest Questions Entering the Season

10 Major Questions Entering the Season

The 2010 Braves season is set to begin later today. In recent years the Braves have faced many questions going into each season and there is no shortage of questions this year. It’s actually hard to say what to expect because there are simply too many unknowns. I think the worst case scenario is that the Braves have too many things go against them and end up finishing with 75 to 79 wins. At the other end of it, if the Braves have a lot of things go their way I believe the best they could do is win something like 89 to 94 games. It’s likely that some things will go well and other things well go against the Braves and they’ll end up somewhere in the middle.

The Braves have now gone 4 seasons without making the postseason or even finishing in the top 2 in the NL East. In 3 of the 4 years they finished 3rd and won between 79 and 86 games. Had Mark Teixeira not been dealt at the trade deadline in 2008 the Braves would almost certainly have won more than 72 games that season, though they would still likely have finished 4th. Then again, the Braves were a ridiculous 11-30 in 1-run games that year and with any kind of luck they could have been a .500 team even with the T-Rex trade.

I’m not sure if this team is better or worse than the last 4 editions. It seems like perhaps this year’s team might be the best the Braves have had since their run of division titles ended, but there’s always hope and optimism before opening day. If I had to guess objectively I’d say the Braves probably won’t be that much better than they have been over the last few years.

With that said, it’s possible that the Braves could have a tremendous season if everything goes right. I still doubt it would be enough to win the East but they might contend for the Wild Card. I think it will be there for the taking. But a lot of things will have to break the Braves way. I came up with a list of the 5 biggest and most critical questions facing the Braves as they begin their quest to return to October in Bobby Cox’s final year.

1. What will the Braves get from Troy Glaus?

This is the biggest question. The Braves are expecting (hoping) that Glaus will be their cleanup hitter and main power threat in a lineup that was seriously lacking in that department last year. He’s also supposed to be the right handed hitting threat the Braves desperately need and he’ll be counted on to give Chipper protection. If Glaus isn’t able to return to form and stay healthy the Braves will be in trouble because they did not sign another bat this offseason and they lost one in Adam LaRoche. This is troubling because it doesn’t seem all that likely that Glaus will be able to come all the way back from all of his shoulder problems and stay healthy for a full season. Making matters worse, Glaus will be playing first base, something he hasn’t done during his career. If this situation works out the Braves offense might be a lot better this year. If Glaus is a total bust the Braves are going to be screwed.

2. Can Billy Wagner stay healthy?

This is clearly a huge issue. Wagner is coming back from elbow surgery and he’s not a youngster anymore. If Wagner is able to stay relatively healthy he still may not be able to pitch as often as other closers. If Wagner stays healthy and is close to his former self the Braves will have one of the best 9th inning men in the game at the back of their pen. If Wagner can’t stay healthy the Braves pen will be a mess because Soriano and Gonzalez are gone.

3. Will Chipper rebound or continue to decline?

After winning the batting title in 2008, Chipper was not himself last season. He had one of his worst seasons, despite the fact that he was healthier than he had been in many years. The Braves need Chipper to be healthy again this year and they need him to be the Chipper Jones of 2007-2008. Because he’s in the latter stage of his career, it would make more sense if he played like something closer to the Chipper of Jones of last year. Also, you know he’s due for an injury here at some point.

4. What kind of year will Derek Lowe have?

Lowe was awful last season and the Braves need him to at least have a decent year in 2010. Though positioned as the staff ace, Lowe is not really a #1 starter even when he’s going great. He doesn’t have to have the best year of his career; he just needs to have a good year.

5. How good will Jason Heyward be?

This is big not only because he’s going to be the starting right fielder and one of the more capable hitters in the lineup, but also because his success or failure will have a major impact on the morale and confidence of the organization and the fans. If Heyward struggles early it might put an immediate damper on the hopes of the season.

Other Questions

You could make a list of 30 question marks for the Braves going into the year. The five above are the biggest in my opinion. Here are 5 of the next biggest questions going into the year:

What kind of a year will the Braves get from Nate McClouth?

How will Kawakami do in his 2nd year in the MLB?

Will there be enough fresh, healthy arms for the pen to hold up all year?

Will a true leadoff man emerge?

Can Tim Hudson come all the way back from the injury and be the guy he was in 07-08?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Baseball Blog: 2010 Season Predictions

Ready or Not, Baseball’s Back

Do you realize that the Yankees and Red Sox will be playing a game that counts a full 24 hours before a team is crowned the 2010 College Basketball National Champion? Baseball snuck up on me this year (in spite of the fact that I’m in a dozen fantasy baseball leagues), perhaps because I’m working a full time job this year as opposed to being a full time “student.” But I also think baseball has been less of a topic around the country this winter/early spring. Let’s face it: spring training may be both necessary and a worthwhile tradition, but it’s pretty dull and boring. It was especially boring this spring and it ought to be every year.

There are two main reasons that baseball has been an afterthought over the last month. One reason is that other than March Madness the Tiger Woods story has dominated everything in sports over the last few months. However, the most important factor has been the lack of any new steroids revelations for the media to blow up. Also, the media mania over PEDs has finally (mercilessly) begun to wane a bit in general. It’s been a welcome break for fans like me, who wish the “drug problem” in baseball had never been discovered. I suspect it’s even been a nice change for those who did care about steroid use in the game. I mean, when was the last time that the biggest (or most covered) story going into opening day had nothing to do with performance enhancing drugs? It’s been a while. I intend to enjoy it because it may not last. Anyway, here are some predictions and comments.

2010 MLB Predictions

Predicted number of wins and losses are exact.
(#)- Rank by win-loss record within League.
[#]- Rank by win-loss record in MLB.

American League


1. Yankees (1) [1] 101-61: I picked the Yankees to win the World Series almost every year of the last decade and they finally did it last year. They always have the best team on paper and after they hadn’t won in a while I just figured sooner or later it was going to happen. No champion has repeated since the Yanks won 3 in a row from 98-00, but considering that they didn’t win again until 2009, despite having the best team on paper every year, I’d say they are still due for another a title. They’re loaded this year, of course, and despite being older and losing some key players they still have the best team on paper. They don’t have many weaknesses and they are strong in all areas. I’ll be the first person to admit that "most expensive roster" does not always equal "best roster." Plus, with 3 rounds in the postseason the best team is not going to win it all every year. No, having by far the biggest payroll doesn't guarantee the Yankees the championship every year. It's not even close to that. But at this point it’s hard to see the Yankees ever being less than good for even one season. They have now put together 17 consecutive seasons with at least a .540 winning percentage. Over that time they have won 11 division titles, finished 2nd 4 times, and finished 3rd once, winning the wild card 3 times for 14 total playoff appearances out of 16 postseasons (strike in 1994). They’ve won over 100 games in 5 seasons over that time, going 21-9 in 30 playoff series, winning 7 pennants and 5 world championships. They’re pretty much always the safest bet.

2. Red Sox (2) [3] 99-63: Don’t ever believe that the whole thing about Red Sox fans being negative and thinking the sky is falling is just an old stereotype. It’s remarkably true and it didn’t go away just because the Sox won 2 titles in 4 years. And it’s not just the fans. Because the fans are so apt to go ape over potential problems, the media can’t help but speak in dire terms about any little bump in the road. “Oh no! Jason Bay is gone! Jason Varitek is finished! Mike Lowell is on his last leg! And what if Big Papi struggles again? Not to mention the fact that Dice-K sucks!!! Boo-hoo!” The truth is that there’s no issue here. The Red Sox are one of the 3 elite teams in the game right now and they are arguably as good on paper as both the Yankees and Phillies. They are strong in all areas and this year the rotation should be better than it has been in years. The Sox are probably the safest bet other than the Yankees. They’ve had a winning record and finished in the top 3 in the AL East in 14 of the last 15 years (.481 winning percentage and 4th place in 1997). Amazingly, they’ve won only 2 division titles over that time (and they haven’t had a single 100 win season) but they’ve finished 2nd in the division 10 times, winning 7 wild cards. They’ve made the playoffs 9 times in the last 15 years, going 9-7 in 16 playoff series and winning 2 titles. They’ve reached the postseason in 6 of the last 7 years and they’ve won at least 93 games in 7 of the last 8 seasons. They could easily win it all again this year. But let’s hope not.

3. Rays (4) [T-8] 88-74: These guys were known as the Devil Rays for the first 10 seasons of their existence and they never won more than 70 games or finished higher than 4th in any season. They take away the “Devil” and they’ve now posted back to back winning seasons while finishing in the top 3 of the AL East each year. And though it still seems hard to believe, they really did win the best division in baseball and make the World Series just 2 seasons ago. The Rays would be the best team in some divisions and no worse than the 2nd best team in any other division. Unfortunately, they are clearly the 3rd best team in the AL East. The bullpen should be better this year and the lineup is strong, but how good will the rotation be?

4. Orioles (11) [24] 68-94: Baltimore can’t seem to get out of this rut. After playing in back to back ALCS in 1996 and 1997, the Orioles have put together 12 consecutive losing seasons, finishing 4th or worse in the East in 11 of those 12 years. What’s got to be truly depressing for real Orioles fans is the fact that they actually seem to be going the wrong way. They won 78 games and finished 3rd in 2004 but their win total has decreased each of the last 5 years, going from 78 to 74 wins, to 70, to 69, to 68, and finally to 64 last year, finishing last in the East in each of the last 2 seasons. I don’t think things are going to be drastically different this season. The lineup is decent, the bullpen should be slightly better, and the rotation contains talent. But there are just too many question marks, particularly in the pitching department.

5. Blue Jays (12) [25] 66-96: From 1983 through 1993 the Blue Jays posted 11 consecutive winning seasons, claiming 5 division titles, and finishing off the run with back to back world championships in 1992 and 1993. Since that time they have largely fallen off the map. Considering the fact that they have not been back to the postseason since then and only finished 2nd in the East once in the last 16 years, the Jays have had surprisingly few awful seasons. They were on a streak of 3 straight winning seasons until they went 75-87 last year. In fact, in the last 12 years they’ve won at least 80 games and finished 3rd or better 9 times. Unfortunately, I think that could change this year. The Blue Jays have tried to win but puzzling underperformances by key players and injuries kept Toronto from ever breaking through. Whatever window of opportunity they did have, it is now closed with Roy Halladay traded to Philly. The Jays’ lineup has the potential to be very strong but the pitching staff is riddled with holes and question marks.


1. Tigers (5) [T-11] 87-75: Detroit had finished under .500 in their last 12 seasons when they came out of nowhere to win 95 games and reach the playoffs in 2006. After losing the ALDS opener they won 3 in a row over the Yankees and then swept the A’s in the ALCS to advance to the World Series where they would face the 83 win St. Louis Cardinals, one of the weakest WS teams of all time. It looked like the Tigers’ dream season would end in storybook fashion before their truly horrendous performance in the Fall Classic, during which they made 8 errors, got outscored 22-11, and lost in 5 games despite scoring first in 3 of the 4 losses. In a sense they have never really recovered from that disappointing and humiliating end to their season. The next season they were 57-36 and 2 games up in the Central on July 19th but they went 16-29 over their next 45 games to fall 7 games out, eventually finishing with 88 wins but out of the playoffs. Going into 2008 they were picked by many to win it all but they started the year 0-7 and never recovered, ending the year 74-88. Then last year they were 75-61 and up 7 games in the AL Central with just 26 games to play but they proceeded to go 11-15 the rest of the way and wound up tied with the Twins. In the 1-game playoff at the Metrodome they blew an early 3-0 lead and then blew a 5-4 lead in the 10th and went on to lose 6-5 in 12, ending their season.

My biggest concern for the Tigers at this point is their mental state. There are no great teams in the AL Central this year (there rarely are) but the Twins always end up finding a way to win the thing even when Detroit appears to be the best team in the division. I would have picked the Twins to edge out the Tigers again this season if Joe Nathan had not blown out his elbow.

2. White Sox (T-6) [T-14] 86-76: The White Sox are one of the few teams that I could see being a surprise division winner this year. It’s pretty amazing how relatively little coverage the Chi-Sox get considering that they are a pro franchise located in Chicago. And it’s not like they’ve been a dead team over the last quarter century. They have 13 winning seasons over the last 20 years, and they’ve won at least 79 games in 17 of 20 years, with only 1 last place finish during that time. They have won 4 division titles in that stretch (also finishing 1st in strike shortened 1994) and a world championship. The White Sox haven't had back to back losing seasons since the late 90’s so we shouldn’t be too surprised if they bounce back this year. True, some of the key offensive cogs are gone or at the end of their careers, but I think their rotation has the potential to be very good. The bullpen is usually solid and they should score enough runs.

3. Twins (8) [16] 85-77: The Twins have been one of the most pesky and resilient teams in sports over the last decade. From 1993 through 2000 the Twins had 8 straight losing seasons, finishing 4th or worst each year, and for a time it appeared that they could possibly be eliminated by contraction along with the Montreal Expos. But in 2001 the Twins surprised everyone by winning 85 games and Tom Kelly was able to retire on a very upbeat note. TK’s understudy Ron Gardenhire took over in 2002 with big shoes to fill. Remarkably, while Gardenhire has not matched the postseason success achieved by Kelly, he has already surpassed him in terms of regular season accomplishments. The Twins have won the AL Central 5 times in Gardenhire’s 8 years at the helm, despite the fact that the club is constantly among the cheapest in pro sports. The Twins have finished the season with a winning record in 8 of the last 9 years, never winning fewer than 79 games during that stretch, while finishing in the top 3 in the Central each season. Unfortunately the Twins are just 1-5 in playoff series during that time. The good news for the Twins is that ownership finally spent some coin and locked franchise player Joe Mauer up for many years to come. With the team moving into a new stadium, perhaps they will be able to use the increased revenue to be more of a player in terms of adding pieces during the stretch run. I really believe that if the Twins had ever been able to add another great starting pitcher for the postseason they would have had more success in the ALDS but ownership never wanted to add to payroll.

But in my opinion the move from the Metrodome to the new open air ballpark will hurt the Twins in the long run. For one, much of the money made from opening the new park will go to pay Mauer’s very long and very expensive contract. I believe ownership knew that if they were unable to keep Mauer they would suffer a tremendous loss both on and off the field. With Mauer now in place and the new park set to open I expect ownership will go back to their tight budget ways, knowing that the stadium and the iconic hometown hero will be enough to create revenue for years to come. However, the Twins--more than any other team--have been able to win consistently in spite of the overwhelming financial disadvantages.

The real reason I expect the move to the new park to have a negative impact on the team’s on field success is that in leaving the Metrodome behind they are giving up what I believe to be one of the ten greatest home field advantages in modern pro sports. No park was as difficult for opposing teams to play in. The noise; the ceiling; the odd lighting; these things wreaked havoc on visiting players. Furthermore, the Twins developed a style of play that took great advantage of the surface and the dimensions of the Metrodome and they built the roster around it. I believe a key to their success in spite of a lack of funds was that the power element was not as big of a deal at the Metrodome. Other clubs that could afford to sign the top sluggers did not have as big of an advantage over them in that place. Conversely, other parts of the game that became less valuable across the league in general (small ball for lack of a better term) were more valuable inside the Metrodome. I believe this home field edge will be taken away from the team and it could have a major impact on things. It wouldn't be the first time such a thing happened to a Minnesota team. Ironically, it was the move from Metropolitan Stadium to the Metrodome that took away an enormous home field advantage for the Minnesota Vikings, particularly come playoff time.

I probably still would have picked the Twins to win the Central again this year had it not been for the injury to Joe Nathan. I just think that will be a major blow and difficult to overcome. They always have strong relief pitching but Nathan’s absence will affect the entire pen. They are underrated offensively and they have some talent in the rotation. And of course they are those pesky Twins; “piranhas” as Ozzie Guillen once called them. They could very well get it done again.

4. Royals (13) [T-27] 62-100: Man, the Twins sure make the Royals look awful. Kansas City’s team has now gone 24 years without a postseason appearance. They have not won more than 84 games in any season over the last 20 years. They have now finished with a losing record in 6 straight seasons and 14 of the last 15. They have lost at least 93 games in 9 of their last 13 seasons. They have lost 100 games or more 4 times over the last 8 years. They won’t be any good this season either. They have Zach Greinke and that’s about it. In contrast to the Twins, the Royals have failed to develop talent from within their own system and they foolishly continue to sign over-the-hill veterans to idiotic contracts. Those overpaid, washed up veterans then take away playing time from young players, thereby stunting their development. The Royals are nowhere near climbing out of the state they’ve been in almost constantly for the last 15 years.

5. Indians (14) [30] 59-103: The Indians are hard to figure out. They were able to rebuild much faster than I had anticipated, and yet, they got only 1 postseason appearance out of that team and here they are rebuilding again. On paper, they honestly look like the worst team in baseball to me. They are poor across the board.


1. Angels (3) [4] 95-67: The Angels are one of the great organizations in the MLB today and they don’t appear to be going anywhere soon. Last year I thought they might be down a bit but they were excellent again and they will be this year as well. In Mike Scioscia's 10 seasons as manager of the Angels they have had 8 winning seasons, won 5 divisions, made 6 playoff appearances and won a world championship. They have finished with a winning record in 6 straight years and they have won the AL West in 5 of the last 6 seasons. They’ll be strong in all areas again this season but I think they are just a notch below the Yanks, the Sox, and the Phillies.

2. Rangers (T-6) [T-14] 86-76: The Rangers finished with a winning record for just the 2nd time in the last 10 years last season. They appear to be a team on the rise. The pitching problem still exists but it seems to be getting much better. They have some young arms that they will need to come through if they want to win the West this season. They’ll also have to stay much healthier. They had very bad luck with injuries last year and the problem has continued this spring, with Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler banged up already.

3. Mariners (9) [17] 84-78: In 2007 the Mariners were a surprising 88-74 and they had people expecting big things in 2008. They lost 101 games that year. Last season they were a surprising 85-77 and many people are expecting big things this year. I’m a little gun shy. What’s interesting is that Vegas seems to like the Mariners and that’s not always the case when it comes to teams with a lot of hype going into the year. Vegas tends to stay with the status quo. I’ve been dead wrong about the Mariners 3 years in a row, hence my conservative prediction.

4. Athletics (10) [T-21] 73-89: Did you know that it’s been 52 years since the A’s have alternated winning and losing seasons over a 3 year period? I don’t know, maybe it’s just me but that seems kind of weird. It doesn’t do much for us going into this season because the A’s are currently on a streak of 3 consecutive losing seasons. But if they do surprise us with a winning season this year then they’ll probably have a winning record the year after. Then again, maybe history means nothing. Either way, unless the A’s have a team ERA of 3.00 I don’t think we have to worry about them winning 82 games this year.

National League


1. Phillies (1) [2] 100-62: After the Braves hex over the NL East was lifted it looked for a while like the Mets would take their place as perennial division champ. Instead, the Phillies have become the dominant team in the NL East. And their status as king of the division can’t be denied anymore, as they’ve now won 3 straight titles and are a safe bet to win at least 1 more. They won the WS in 2008 and last year they became the first NL team to win back to back pennants since the Braves in the mid-90’s. They’ve now won at least 80 games in 9 straight seasons and had a winning record in 8 of the last 9 years. They are easily the best team in the NL on paper and are among the favorites to win the whole thing.

2. Braves (T-2) [T-5] 89-73: I try to be objective when making these picks but it’s always hard. This might be a little optimistic but if the Braves have good luck with injuries and close games they could be right in the thick of the playoff race.

3. Marlins (T-5) [T-8] 88-74: The Marlins won’t sneak up on anybody in the NL East. They’re a very dangerous team and if they end up winning the Wild Card, lookout! It’s happened twice before and both times they won the World Series.

4. Mets (10) [19] 82-80: Again, I try to be objective with these predictions but what usually happens with the Mets is that I subconsciously overrate them in the hope that I will end up jinxing them. In the MLB there are the so-called “small market teams” who never spend any money; there are the Yanks and Red Sox; and then there is everyone else. All of the teams in the middle have spent money and busted at least once or twice but the Mets have done it more than anyone. Last year I still think they would have won at least 85 games or so if they hadn’t had the single worst season in terms of injuries that I have seen in my lifetime. This year even if they do have better luck with injuries (and it’s already going badly again) I still think they’re going to struggle to be more than a .500 club. They aren’t strong in any area and the entire organization is pretty much a mess.

5. Nationals (15) [T-27] 62-100: They’re gradually getting closer to being slightly better than terrible but I don’t think the Gonats are there quite yet.


1. Cardinals (T-2) [T-5] 89-73: Tony LaRussa is my least favorite manager of all-time but I’m now utterly convinced that he is the best in baseball. I know it doesn’t sit well with a lot of baseball fans when people say that the postseason has become a crapshoot but it’s getting harder for people to deny. LaRussa’s career is further evidence that it’s really a toss-up once you get to the playoffs. LaRussa’s managing style is annoying because it slows the game down but it’s based on solid reasoning and I truly believe it makes a difference over the course of a 162 game season. And yet it hasn’t seemed to help him (much) in the postseason. LaRussa’s teams have made 13 postseasons, many times (if not most times) going in as the favorite to win the championship, but he has just 2 WS rings. Last year was actually a rarity, as LaRussa’s team was eliminated by a club with a better regular season record. In his previous 12 trips to the playoffs, LaRussa’s teams had lost to a team with a worse regular season record 8 times. Ironically, none of LaRussa’s 4 100+ win teams have won the title, while his 83 win 2006 St. Louis team did. LaRussa is both a great regular season manager and a great in-game manager and yet his teams still don’t seem to have an advantage in the postseason.

In the 14 years that LaRussa has been in charge in St. Louis the Cards have had 11 winning seasons, won 7 division titles, and made the playoffs 8 times. They’ve played in 6 NLCS, won 2 pennants, and won 1 championship. The Cards are the favorites to win the Central again this year. They did what they had to this offseason and resigned Matt Holliday. LaRussa will always make the most of what he has but in order to get to the World Series I think they needed a legitimate slugger to go along with Albert Pujols.

2. Cubs (T-7) [T-11] 87-75: The long drought goes on for those lovable (so I’ve heard) losers from the Windy City. It used to make sense that the Cubs never won: they always sucked and nobody seemed to care or try to make things different. Now that the Cubs are actually making an asserted effort to be consistently good it’s interesting that they still can’t seem to get it right. They have finished with a winning record the last 3 years but they definitely took a step back last year. Suddenly you take a look at their roster and you wonder if perhaps their window has already closed. They just don’t have many guys you can really count on to perform. The talent is there so they could bounce back. That’s not normally the way things work out for the Cubbies though. At least Milton Bradley is gone.

3. Brewers (9) [18] 83-79: The song remains the same: lots of hitting, not much pitching.

4. Reds (12) [T-21] 73-89: The Reds have now had 9 consecutive losing seasons and they’ve missed the postseason 14 years in a row. That’s unlikely to end this season. They have major question marks everywhere. Injuries have held them back but the cheap payroll hasn’t helped things either.

5. Astros (13) [23] 70-92: You used to be able to count on the Astros to make a run at the playoffs but they’ve now missed the postseason 4 years in a row and I don’t think they’ll be able to turn things around without starting over. They have lots of weak spots and question marks on their roster. Key players like Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, and Carlos Lee are getting older, struggling to stay healthy, and declining in productivity. And there’s no help coming from within the organization.

6. Pirates (14) [26] 63-99: The Royals of the National League.


1. Rockies (T-2) [T-5] 89-73: I haven’t had good luck with predicting the future of the Rockies lately. They look solid and it seems like the changes brought on by the humidor are here to stay.

2. Dodgers (T-5) [T-8] 88-74: I really don’t know what to expect from LA this year. They have a lot of talent all over the place. If their younger players perform up to their potential they might challenge the Phillies for the pennant. I could also see them being just another good team struggling to reach the postseason. I can tell you this much for sure: Manny will play a major role one way or the other.

3. Giants (T-7) [T-11] 87-75: The Giants have an excellent pitching staff and they are well built for their home park and their division. However, I still think their offense is lacking.

4. Diamond Backs (11) [20] 81-81: The D-Backs have screwed me over several times in recent years. They looked to be a team on the rise a few years ago but some of their young players haven’t blossomed and their ace has been stuck on the shelf. Then there is the bullpen which is a total mess. I think they’ll be average.

5. Padres (16) [29] 60-102: Suddenly the Padres are the worst team in the NL on paper and among the worst in baseball. The offense is pathetic and now they’ve lost Peavy. If they don’t lose at least 100 games I’ll be surprised.

American League Playoffs

Yankees over Tigers: 3-1
Red Sox over Angels: 3-1

Yankees over Red Sox: 4-3

National League Playoffs

Phillies over Rockies: 3-2
Cardinals over Braves: 3-1

Phillies over Cardinals: 4-2

World Series
Yankees over Phillies: 4-3

Awards and Leaders (not going out on too many limbs here)

NL MVP: Albert Pujols
AL MVP: Alex Rodríguez
NL Cy Young: Tim Lincecum
AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez
NL ROY: Jason Heyward
AL ROY: Wade Davis
NL Manager of the Year: Tony LaRussa
AL Manager of the Year: Joe Girardi
NL Rolaids Reliever of the Year: Jonathan Broxton
AL Rolaids Reliever of the Year: Mariano Rivera
NLCS MVP: Roy Halladay
ALCS MVP: Mark Teixeira
World Series MVP: Alex Rodriguez
NL Batting Champ: Albert Pujols
AL Batting Champ: Joe Mauer
NL Home Run King: Ryan Howard
AL Home Run King: Mark Teixeira
NL Win Leader: Roy Halladay
AL Win Leader: CC Sabathia
NL Save Leader: Francisco Cordero
AL Save Leader: Mariano Rivera