Crazy Predictions
March 27, 2007

I have the second best job in the world.  The best job, of course, is being Stephen Colbert.  How cool would it to be to chat with the likes of Randy Newman, Ken Burns, Richard Clarke, Steve Wozniak, Mark Cuban, James Woolsey and Daniel Ellsburg on a daily basis?  Or to sing a duet with Barry Manilow or Willie Nelson, guitar jam with Peter Frampton and Rick Nielsen or to have a light saber fight with George Lucas? Or to get a Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavor named after you?  Or better yet, to expose the likes of Dinesh D'Souza and Bill O'Reilly for the buffoons that they are by feeding them their own garbage on national TV?  That's easily the best job in the world.  

Some might suggest that Jon Stewart has the same job, but as much as I like the dialogue he brings to the national stage, he's really just a late night version of Kermit the Frog.  Listen to his voice the next time he introduces a guest, and also after each guest segment concludes... and then remember how Kermit sounded at the beginning of each Muppet Show introducing the guest... sound familiar?  I have enjoyed Stewart's work on the Daily Show immensely and I think he's brought issues to the forefront in a responsible manner that otherwise might not have garnered much spotlight.  But being Kermit just doesn't rank in the top two best jobs... maybe third.

OK, enough chatter.  Here are some observations from spring training so far.

Sosa's bat speed looks as slow as it did in Baltimore.  He's still plenty strong enough to knock a few out of the yard but the other aspects of his game look unchanged.  I expect maybe double digit homers and a low batting average this year.

Likewise Bonds is getting a lot of attention, and he has hit a few homers this spring, but what is different about this year is the very thing that seperated Bonds from most hitters: his walk to strikeout rate.  Even in spring in previous years he always had more walks than strikeouts and for the past several years those totals haven't been particularly close, always in favor of the walks.  This year, just the opposite.  He has opened up his swing in an effort to get those homers and I think pitchers will be able to pitch to him.  Notice he has 12 strikeouts in 35 spring at bats (only 2 walks) and that's in the thin air of Arizona where breaking pitches don't break as much and where pitchers are still trying to get a feel for the ball.  I know a lot of people are predicting him to fly passed Aaron by July or August, but I think it's going to take him much longer and it's not going to be pretty, on the field or off.  

Leo Mazzone must feel like he's back in Atlanta circa 1991.  He's got three starting pitchers on the verge of stardom plus an improved bullpen.  Erik Bedard will be playing Tom Glavine, Daniel Cabrera as John Smoltz, Adam Loewen as Steve Avery and Steve Trachsel in the Charlie Liebrandt role... and Jaret Wright as the Beaver.  The parallel works on several levels as Bedard should have won more games last year for as well as he pitched; Cabrera, like Smoltz, has taken a while to take to understand what Mazzone wants him to do and Loewen, like Avery, is a precocious young lefty with lots of upside who comes up huge in big games, like last year's WBC tilt against Team USA.  And like Charlie Liebrandt, Steve Trachsel has given up a famous home run - Liebrandt gave up Kirby Puckett's game winner in Game 6 of the 1991 Series and Trachsel gave up McGwire's #62 in 1998.  The O's have a pretty deep offense and the bullpen will be better than it was last year.  John Parrish has been lights out from the left side this spring.  I know I sound crazy when I say this but just hear me out... the Yankees have an old, injury-prone rotation, the Jays have questions in the #4 and #5 spots, the Red Sox have their own share of questions - bullpen depth, can Drew and Crisp stay healthy, etc... it's not inconceivable that the Os might actually contend this season.  

Another surprise team will be the Royals.  No, they won't come close to winning the division, and their rotation is terrible even if Gil Meche manages to stay healthy enough to make 30 starts, but their bullpen has some guys who have looked really impressive this spring.  Octavio Dotel, Joel Peralta and Joakim Soria have been lights out.  They still need a lefty but this is a bullpen that can actually keep a lead if they can get it.  Last year that just wasn't true.

Likewise, the Nationals have a pretty solid bullpen, perhaps even dominant once Luis Ayala gets completely healthy.  With Cordero closing it out and Jon Rauch, Ryan Wagner and Ray King setting him up this is another team that will be able to keep a lot of leads.  Getting those leads will still be a problem, though, especially in that division.

I really like Salomon Torres as the closer in Pittsburgh.  Well, let me rephrase that - I like the direction of Torres' statistical trends.  His K/BB rate, K rate, G/F rate and pitch efficiency are all increasing in a good way, and last year he was incredibly unlucky when it came to balls in play.  My concern is that he pitched in 94 games and that kind of workload can really grind down an arm.  I suspect his poor performance this spring is as much due to lingering fatigue as anything.  If that's all it is and he just needs some extra rest, then I think he'll be a solid closer for the Pirates.  However, if last year's workload has caused an injury then the Pirates will have to find someone else.  If that happens, I know a lot of people are looking at Matt Capps as the guy who will step in.  But he pitched in almost as many games as Torres and is also having a rough spring.  Plus, his best pitch is a fastball that's about as straight as an arrow.  Damaso Marte has some experience closing but cracked under the pressure last time and he's a lefty, two factors that work against him.   It might come down to whoever has the hot hand if Torres struggles, which could mean someone who is not even on the radar at the moment ends up with the job.

And my final and craziest prediction is that Justin Upton will finish the season as the D-backs starting centerfielder.  It's not that I don't think Chris Young has talent but he has some pretty big holes in his swing and Upton, who is three years younger, already has a better plan at the plate than Young.  The D-backs don't have enough bullpen to contend, nor does their rotation have enough quality.  They can trade Eric Byrnes at his peak value for prospects and move Young to left.   Upton has been compared to a young Ken Griffey Jr, but I think that comparison is grossly unfair to both players.  First, Griffey was/is truly a once in a lifetime talent.  He was 19 years old when he played his first full season in the majors and had it not been for injuries we certainly would be watching him passing Ruth this year.  During his peak seasons from 1993 (age 23) to 2000 (age 30), he averaged 47 home runs per season when healthy.  Because of injuries, he's averaged 21 per season the last six years.  Those extra 20-25 home runs per season could have put his total in the neighborhood of 700 for his career.  As for Upton - he doesn't have Griffey's sweet swing or his power but he has better speed so maybe a better comparable would be Eric Davis.  That's still plenty good and as calm and relaxed as he looks at the plate it wouldn't be at all surprising to see him in the majors by the end of this season.

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