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Monday, February 14, 2011

A Fresh Start

Regardless of what Punxsutawney Phil predicted, it is officially spring time! Baseball is back and over the next couple days, pitchers and catchers will report to spring training. This is an exciting time throughout the baseball world, as every team and player, starts with a clean slate. No one has given up a walk-off home run or struck out to end the game. Nobody has been picked off first base or failed to pick up a sign, ending an 8th inning rally. At this moment, the grass has never been greener, and there is no other time during the season with as much hope and optimism. Everyone believes (yes, even the Cleveland Indians), that this is their year!

As pitchers and catchers report, there are many questions to be answered throughout the coming month and a half. Below, I answer a couple of the burning questions regarding the pitching that will most definitely heat up the Grapefruit League and Cactus League:

Will the youth movement in Cincinnati continue to progress?

I am weary about Mike Leake and Travis Wood. They threw a lot of pitches last year in a lot of innings. In the era of babying pitchers, restricting them to strict pitch counts and over analyzing every detail, these guys are not prepared to for such a heavy workload. Anticipate a downswing in their performance, but the slack will be picked up by Edinson Volquez. Volquez is two years removed from Tommy John surgery and we saw signs of his electric stuff return last year. But nobody compares (stuff wise), to the “Cuban Missile,” Aroldis Chapman. If able to stay healthy, even with his violent mechanics, he has a chance to be special.

Why the Brewers are the sexy pick this year?

Zach Greinke. Despite winning the Cy Young Award for a last place team in 2009, Greinke is a relatively unknown. Having the opportunity to pitch in a pennant race will provide everyone the chance to witness such a fantastic talent. Yovani Gallardo is also a really good young pitcher, giving the Brew Crew a legitimate chance to compete in the NL Central. John Axford will need to step up, and fill the void left by future Hall of Famer, Trevor Hoffman.

Can the Giants staff duplicate their 2010 performance, compensating for an anemic offense?

Absolutely. Living on the East coast, I never truly appreciated how good Matt Cain is. Also being overshadowed by two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, he’s always taken the backseat to “The Freak.” I predict Cain will be the 2011 Cy Young Award winner. Am I getting caught up in the moment? I don’t think so. From what I saw throughout the playoffs, Cain possesses an overpowering fastball with north to south movement, with an arsenal of wrinkles. I do question Madison Bumgarner though. He is young and full of potential, but his mechanics are unpredictable and often not in sync. He must harness his adrenaline and focus on each pitch, or else it could be an up and down year for the big lefty. And note to Brian Wilson…you’re not funny. Give the whole “crazy closer” character a rest.

Will the Phillies live up to the hype, as the greatest rotation ever constructed?

Nope. Roy Halladay is the best pitcher in baseball, and he will get his 20-24 wins, but I’m not drinking the cool-aid. Am I bitter about my Yankees losing out on Cliff Lee? Of course; have you seen their rotation? Lee is a really good pitcher, and I don't want him pitching against the Yankees, but the length of the proposed contact and the exuberant amount of money for a pitcher at his age was ridiculous. Lee has a poor track record of nagging injuries throughout his career, and was inconsistent last year. Cole Hamels has and will continue to underachieve following his strong performance in the 2008 World Series. I admire Roy Oswalt for his bulldog demeanor on the mound, constantly battling hitters, but father time is not on his side. Both he and Lee will gut out some wins but will this rotation be the equivalent to the second coming? Don’t hold your breath. Expect a strong year from closer Brad Lidge. He has struggled with injuries and confidence, but with all of the attention on the “Big Four,” he’ll be able to go out there and just pitch.

Can Chicago reach baseball immortality?!

Sorry Cubs fans, I’m referring to the team to the south. But don’t be down Cubbies, you guys are improving…but not this year. The White Sox pitchers will give up some runs, but they’ll be backed up with possibly the most feared lineup in baseball. Because of that, they’ll be more confident, knowing that if they do give up 3-5 runs, they’re still in it. Jake Peavy is returning from a detached latissimus dorsi muscle in his right posterior shoulder. In layman’s terms, it’s not good. No pitcher has ever returned, nevertheless attempted to return from such a devastating injury. He must breakdown his mechanics and start over. The trauma endured on Peavy’s shoulder may be too much to overcome, but Edwin Jackson improved and as Mark Buehrle is the constant professional; expect solid seasons from both men. First round draft pick Chris Sale will also be a major contributor, stepping in as the closer for overrated and often injured Bobby Jenks. If he falters, Matt Thornton is more than capable to fill-in if necessary.

Paging Nolan Ryan…please report to Rangers Ballpark…

After losing Cliff Lee to the Phillies, the Rangers need help. Lee was the catalyst of the Rangers run to the World Series. With the young Athletics improving, and the Angels a constant factor in the AL West, reality will kick in, as Texas will stumble without a bonafide ace on the staff. Lefty CJ Wilson has tremendous stuff, and has the most potential of their pitchers. The manner in which he pitches with a big looping breaking ball and cut on his fastball, is similar to Lee. After Wilson, the remainder of the staff is a collection of back of the rotation fillers. Texas should leave Neftali Feliz in the bullpen. He was phenomenal last season, and by losing him to the rotation would leave a gaping hole in the 9th inning. But because of the current rotations weaknesses and limitations, the Rangers might feel it’s necessary for Feliz to start.

Will the new look offense compensate for Boston’s meager starting pitching?

Similar to the White Sox, Boston is going to put runs on the board. They’ll bail out the starting pitching more times than not, but in the ultra-competitive AL East, they’re going to need the staff to step up. Clay Bucholz shows glimpse of what General Manager Theo Epstein has envisioned by rejecting several trade offers for the young righty. After throwing a no-hitter in his rookie year, Bucholz has struggled with injuries and mental problems. If he’s able to straddle the rubber every five days, and get out of his own head, he’ll secure himself a spot on the All-Star team. Jon Lester is a warrior on and off the field. His potential has peaked, but he still is a very good pitcher. After that, it’s all fluff. Josh Beckett is the most overrated and overpaid player in baseball. Both he and John Lackey will try to intimidate hitters, but it’s not realistic at this point in their careers. The $50 million burned to just negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka is comical. After the Marlins are eliminated from contention in June, look for Boston to go after Josh Johnson. Their bullpen is still very shaky. Daniel Bard is a stud, and he’s being wasted as the 7th inning bridge to Bobby Jenks and Jonathon Papelbon. Jenks was a waste of money and they should have traded Papelbon for a 23rd round draft pick while they had the chance.

Open auditions to be held at George M. Steinbrenner Field…

I will be heading down to Tampa, Florida to tryout for the Yankees rotation. Why not? They don’t have anyone else. Sure they have CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes, whom both will perform at an elite level, but that’s it. After being rejected by Cliff Lee, turning down a ridiculous amount of money and future Hall of Famer Andy Pettitte retired, New York went to a garage sale and found worthless crap that nobody wants; Bartolo Colon was working at a McDonalds (and you thought he was fat while he played), Mark Prior, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2006, and Freddy “Put Your Infield to Sleep” Garcia couldn’t find a job until the desperate Yankees came calling. Instead of hoping for a miracle, Manager Joe Giradi should consider a young movement. I know that’s unheard of in New York, but they don’t have any other realistic options. It’s time for first round giant Andrew Brackman (listed at 6’10”) to emerge as the guy. Keep an eye out for Adam Warren; Warren is the most complete pitcher in the Yankees farm system, and doesn’t back down from anyone. AJ Burnett is a clown. If the Yankees are to compete for the wild card, they need him to focus and compete. His mechanics are fine; it’s all mental with Burnett. As previously mentioned, the offenses will assist with Chicago and Boston, but it’ll be the Yankees bullpen that keeps them in ballgames. By signing Raphael Soriano, New York has the best 1-2 punch in baseball. Mariano Rivera, at 41 years young, is still the best closer in baseball. The Yankees will also be pursuing the Marlins Josh Johnson, as they will need to acquire someone if they are interested in competing this year. To make this feasible and realistic, New York needs Joba Chamberlain to improve, as he will be a significant trading piece.

Throughout the next month and a half of spring training, I will be dissecting each division going into the 2011 baseball season. Each blog will include an in-depth synopsis of each team, and whom I predict to advance to the playoffs. On the day of opening night, when the defending Champion San Francisco Giants face their archrival, Los Angeles Dodgers, I will make my World Series prediction.

To all baseball fans throughout the world, Happy Pitchers and Catchers Report Day! And thank God for baseball!

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