Time to Turn the Page
December 31, 2008

Well, I should not have been surprised that the Yankees ended up with Teixeira. After all, they had a ton of money coming off the books this winter and they always have plenty to spend, especially considering that next year's group of free agents doesn't appear to have too many star-level players.  And it's not as if there were a whole lot of players left in free agency that they could spend big money on.  So what if they overspend; they are the one team that can afford it.

Even with Teixeira, this is still a pretty terrible defensive team. They have below average gloves at every position except third and first. I give them credit for understanding this and opting for strikeout pitchers like Sabathia and Burnett instead of Derek Lowe types who put the ball in play.  But I think the sportswriters are rushing a little too quickly to hand over the AL East crown to them after their spending spree.  Even if they sign Manny Ramirez and create possibly the best offense of all time (because I'm sure that's what the pundits will call it) they will still have some pretty sizeable weaknesses catching the ball and possibly the weakest group of outfield arms in baseball.  That won't mean as much when the Yanks are trouncing the bad teams of the AL and boosting their pythagorean ratio, but in the match-ups against the Red Sox and Rays and some of the other good teams, those extra runs they give up will be significant.

As it stands now, except for signing Manny Ramierz which they still might do, they have made all the moves that were there to be made on paper this winter.  And if Sabathia and Burnett (and Wang) stay healthy their pitching staff will most certainly be better than last year's edition.  But left out of all the blah blah blah that they won't have Sidney Ponson and a half dozen other future grocery baggers of America pitching for them is the fact that last year in addition to having so many innings pitched by stiffs they also got career years from Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera, Brian Bruney, Phil Coke, Alfredo Aceves and if he can't hold up uinder the demands of being a starter, Joba Chamberlain.  So it's not as if the additions are replacing only bad innings; there's some good innings that are being lost as well.  And given the number of innings that Sabathia has logged the last two years and the obvious other factors, good health among the new guys is not a given.

In the NL, signing Randy Johnson was a pretty slick move by the Giants. The Big Unit looked pretty solid last year and moving from one of the best parks for hitters to one of the best for pitchers should make him pretty tough. The perception is that the Giants will have a tough time scoring runs for him but I'm not convinced. No, they won't come close to leading the NL in scoring, but Fred Lewis looks like he can be a pretty decent all around player (sort of a Reggie Sanders-lite) and Pablo Sandoval can flat out rake. Getting full seasons from those two guys will help their offense immensely. Travis Ishikawa isn't the power bat they need and at this point they'll be lucky if he's JT Snow's without the glove but at least he's young enough that they can hope for upside. If Emmanuel Burris can continue to get on base at a pretty good rate and swipe some bags, this isn't a terrible offense. With the winter addition of Jeremy Affeldt, the Giants bullpen suddenly looks decent. It shouldn't take too long for Johnson to get the 5 wins he needs for career win #300.

OK, you can call me a homer but even though the Nats didn't get Teixeira (not that they didn't give it a great effort) they still look pretty decent in a division that doesn't look all that intimidating.

On paper, the Marlins have some pop in the line-up with Cantu, Uggla and McPherson to go with Hanley Ramierz.  And they have a pretty impressive young rotation.  But the bullpen looks thin and no one - other than Hanley Ramirez - gets on base.  Defensively they look pretty terrible with no one except maybe Cameron Maybin being above average defensively.  This is a team that will vacillate all season between looking like a run-scoring juggernaut and a team that couldn't buy a run if you put a man on third base to start each inning.

The Braves offense doesn't look so great either. Chipper Jones is still a force but getting more than 130 games from him has happened just once in the last four years. Unless Francouer reverses his trend toward oblivion, the Braves will have only one other regular (McCann) with any real pop. Javier Vazquez should be a nice addition for the rotation but none of their other starters really scare anyone; they're solid but fairly unspectacular. And unless Rafael Soriano is fully recovered, their bullpen isn't all that intimidating either.  Re-upping a healthy John Smoltz to the back end will help the depth, but a full healthy season may be too much to ask for a guy who's on his 5th arm surgery.

I don't think it's a stretch to suggest that if the new medical staff can keep Nick Johnson on the field for 130 games - which sounds like a stretch but it is something Johnson was able to do in both of his first two seasons as a Nat, before his severe leg injury - then the Nats will have a much better offense than either of those two teams.  And more than just offense, a relatively healthy Johnson gives the Nats two gold-glove quality corner infielders. Depending on whoever ends up playing second base, the Nats would have below average defense at just one position (left field) and have at least six good defensive regulars (first, short, third, catcher, right and center). At least in theory, this will not be a team that beats itself with miscues.

That leaves the Mets (who if they sign Derek Lowe should be the favorites in the division) and the Phillies.  Frankly, it's a bit of a miracle that the Phillies won it all last year. There's no quesiton that they have some really good players and pitchers on that team. But their bullpen basically caught lightning in a bottle with mediocrities like Chad Durbin and other-worldly years from good talents like Brad Lidge and Scott Eyre.  But I don't buy that Jayson Werth is a 30/30 threat, or that Jamie Moyer can pitch another sub 4.00 ERA season or that Joe Blanton will have an ERA significantly under 5.00. Maybe the Brett Myers of the second half is the real one but other than him and Cole Hamels, the Phillies rotation doesn't have much to hang their hats on.  In fact, I would argue that they have the worst back end of the rotation in the division unless Carlos Carrasco makes a significant number of starts for them.  And even though the rumor is that he'll be able to play Opening Day, I'm not buying that Chase Utley will be Chase Utley to start the season.  It would not surprise me at all if this team finished with 85 wins or less.

Which means the Nats can at least theoretically contend this season.  Of course, every team says that before spring training, but with a few more additions to the roster - and I'm not talking like some Yankee fan who thinks the Mariners would give up Eric Bedard for a bag of beans - but realistic adds that could make this a really solid club.  So here is my wish list to make the Nats an 85-win team in 2009: A second baseman, preferably Orlando Hudson. I could live with Ray Durham but they would need to have a pinch-fielder on the bench for the late innings.  I know Anderson Hernandez is having a great winter ball season after his terrific September call-up but I'd like to see more.  Maybe he was injured most of last season and that contributed to his woeful performance in Triple A.  Even more worrisone is that was his fourth year at the level and only his first half season in the high minors was worth getting overly excited about.  If he can do the job, more power to him but I'd like to see the Nats have a back-up plan just in case.

I'd like to see the Nats sign a couple of bullpen arms from the following group: Luis Ayala, Denny Baustista, Juan Cruz (please!) or Aquilino Lopez.  A lefty specialist would be good too, either Joe Beimel or Eddie Guardado or Will Ohman or Dennys Reyes.  And at least one, maybe two reclamation starting pitchers... Mark Prior, anyone? Maybe Freddie Garcia?  I know he was a fan- and front office- favorite in DC, and Livan Hernandez is great guy to have in the clubhouse because he's definitely a role model for young pitchers on how to approach the mental side of pitching... but I can't wish him on the Nats' defense. Personally, I'm a big fan of Oliver Perez but I think the perception is that he's a lot like Tony Armas in that he has a world of talent but lacks the mental focus and toughness to fully realize his potential.  I also think he's gonna gets some serious dollars, perhaps more than the risk is worth.  Still, if the Nats came away from this winter with Daniel Cabrera, Mark Prior and Freddie Garcia... mmm that is some high upside goodness.  I'd like to see Ben Sheets in a Nats uni but it seems like he's got his mind set on pitching closer to his Texas home. 

OK, so I know what you're thinking: the Nats?!? 85 wins? C'mon, they only won 52 games last year. There's no way they can improve by 30+ wins in one offseason without signing a major free agent, right? Well, their bullpen ERA was ranked 19th in baseball and their starting pitching posted the 8th worst ERA.  Give Randy St. Clair some more quality arms to work with and those numbers will improve.  The offense was ranked 28th out of 30, but unless you believe that Austin Kearns is as productive as Elijah Dukes, or that Willie Harris is the offensive equivalent of Josh Willingham, or that Kory Casto's bat is as potent as Nick Johnson's, or that Ryan Zimmerman is no more productive playing with bad shoulders than he is with healthy ones, then a full un-injured season from their regular players will cure the run scoring dearth in a hurry.   Not that they can equal their output because they don't have a Dustin Pedroia or a David Ortiz, but a healthy Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman, Elijah Dukes, Lastings Milledge and Cristian Guzman comes pretty close to matching Boston's Youkilis, Lowell, Drew, Ellsbury and Lowrie in run production.  Again, their are some big missing pieces to be filled before I want to compare the Nats offense with that of the Red Sox straight up, but the makings are there.  And I would take the production the Nats will get from Jesus Flores this year over what the Red Sox will get from their catching crew any day.

Speaking of which, it was reported that the Red Sox signed Josh Bard to be Tim Wakefield's personal catcher.  Why?  Didn't they trade him to San Diego in the first place precisely because he could not handle that very job?   Maybe I missed the dispatch that reported that Jake Peavy and Greg Maddux had added the knuckler to their repertoire so that Bard could get used to handling the pitch.  I think more likely is that he will be their primary catcher.  Won't that be a relief to the rest of the division who ranked first (TB), fourth (NY), eighth (BAL) and tenth (TOR) in the AL in stolen bases, with Baltimore getting decidedly speedier this winter with the additions of Ryan Freel and Cesar Izturis.  And the Jays signed Michael Barrett.  I guess neither team cares that Bard threw out just 16% of baserunners last year and Barrett only threw out 12%.  Fantasy ballers take notice - your stolen bases are gonna come cheap from the AL East.

I'm also not sure about the Red Sox signing of Brad Penny.  On paper it looks like they got a great deal - an ace for about half of what one normally costs.  But he's had a tough time staying healthy for a full season throughout his career - in his eight full seasons in the majors he's topped 200 innings only twice and topped 150 innings just 5 times.  And he's not done very well against the AL in interleague play.  Against only four teams (Kansas City, Oakland, Texas and Toronto) does he have an ERA under 4.00, which is as many teams that he has a career ERA over 7.00 (Boston, Detroit, Minnesota and Seattle) against.  That's a small sample size I'll grant you, but there's little here to instill confidence that this was a bargain, especially since pitchers usually have a tougher time making the transition from NL to AL than the other way around.

Alright all, here's hoping your 2009 is better than your 2008.  Namaste.

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