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Happy Easter

Sorry I haven’t posted in a couple days but I was gone for a couple days.  The Cardinals won their first series down at Houston.  Thank you, Astros.  Seeing Pujols face Lidge, the only thing I could think of was this. It was nice to see the offense put some runs on the board.  You knew sooner or later, and I felt sooner, that Pujols would get going.  Wells looked good again.  Bad news on the Carpenter front.  He had swelling in his elbow and was sent for an MRI.  Looks like prospect Blake Hawksworth will make his debut.

So we are a week into the season and here are my thoughts so far.  Chris Duncan is picking up where he left off last year.  Leave him alone and let him play.  Jim Edmonds looks old.  Rolen looks lost.  I hope Yadi can keep hitting this way.  He is hitting .263 and I think everyone would be happy if he ended the season in the .260’s.  Preston Wilson has 6 K’s in 19 ABs.  I have said it before, he shouldn’t be on this team.  Wells has been strong so far.  If he stays healthy he can be a capable number 2.  Wainwright looked sharp on Friday night.  I think he has the potinetial to be a future number 1.  I have been a Reyes fan for a while.  He looked really sloppy on Saturday night.  His biggest weakness is consistency.  He can look like Cy Young one game and very mediocre in the next.  The left side of the bullpen and Ryan Franklin has been very good.  Izzy has been Izzy. 

I went to Nashville over the weekend and watched the Sounds (Triple A rep of the Brewers) take on the New Orleans Zephyrs (Mets).  Tim Dillard pitched for the Sounds and was impressive.  He seemed to be really locked in and looked sharp.  He went 6.1 and gave up 2 runs.  Jason Vargas pitched for the Zephyrs and also gave up 2 runs and went 6 innings.  Ryan Braun, one of the top prospects in baseball, played third for the Sounds.  He looks really good with the bat but uncomfortable in the field.  His defense is what is keeping him out of  Milwaukee right now.  During warm ups, he seemed to goof off and not take it too seriously.  Carlos Gomez played center for the Zephyrs.  Rated the Number 60 Prospect according to Baseball America, Gomez is an awesome athlete.  He is tall and lanky with plus speed and a terrific arm.  He projects to hit with good power and a good average.  With Carlos Beltran in the picture, he will probably move over to right when he reaches the Majors.  There were some blasts from the past if you are a Cardinal fan.  The Zephyrs catcher was Mike DeFilice.  Rightfield was manned by former Cardinal prospect Ben Johnson.  Remember the Cardinals traded him for catcher Carlos Hernandez.  Hernandez was catching when Ankiel had his meltdown against the Braves.  The Zephyrs thirdbaseman was none other than Mr. Two Grand Slams in one inning, Fernando Tatis.  Former Cardinal relief pitcher Luther Hackman is in the bullpen for the Sounds. 

Greer Stadium, the home of the Sounds, is an older ballpark with some character.  Built in 1978, it has seen players from Don Mattingly to Rob Dibble to Prince Fielder play on its field.  One of the unique features of the park is the guitar shaped scoreboard in left field.  The staff was incredibly friendly.  The crowd was into the game even though they were few and very cold.  And you have to love a stadium that has a concession stand named after Willie McGee.  I will have pictures up later.

I was also able to get down to Hawkins Field, home of the Vanderbilt Commodores, and check out Super Prospect David Price.  He was as good as advertised.  Even in the cold he dominated Alabama.  Price pitched a complete game, three hitter while striking out 10.  Vandy beat the Crimson Tide 3-0.  Hawkins Field is one of the most impressive college parks in the country.  Here is a picture from the Vandy website.  With a facility like this, Vanderbilt should be a top notch program for years to come.

The minor league season has started and some of the Top Cardinal Prospects are off to good starts while some are not.  Top Prospect Colby Rasmus is off to a slow start hitting .083.  But in each of his previous stops Rasmus has started slow.  Chris Lambert is repeating Double A and had an impressive debut pitching six shutout innings.  Jon Jay is hitting .333 at Double A. 

Sikeston native Blake Dewitt is repeating High A, this time at the Inland Empire.  So far he already has 2 HRs and maybe more, as his game is in progress.

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Ricardo Rincon released

The Cardinals released LHP Ricardo Rincon.  Rincon had a good spring but did not have a place in the bullpen.  Lefties Tyler Johnson and Randy Flores were good last October and deserved to be on this team.  It is surprising that Walt couldn’t find anything for him.  With the way Rincon performed this spring he should not be out of work long.

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Houston Astros

 

 2006 Finish:  82-80, 2nd place in the NL Central, 1.5 games back

Manager:  Phil Garner

Comings:  LF Carlos Lee, RHP Jason Jennings, RHP Woody Williams

Goings:  LHP Andy Petitte, RHP Roger Clemens(?), OF Willy Taveras, RHP Jason Hirsh, Taylor Buchholz

Offense:  The Astros added some pop to their lineup by signing LF Carlos Lee to a $100 million contract.  Lee will love the short porch in left but I am afraid the Astros may regret having Lee on the books in a couple years when he will be even less of a fielder than he is now.  1B Lance Berkman is a solid, throwback ballplayer.  Berkman put up MVP type numbers hitting .315 with 45 HRs and 136 RBIs.  Remember when those numbers would have easily won an MVP award?  2B Craig Biggio is entering what could be his final year.  His numbers were really down last year but I guess he has earned the right to call it quits when he decides.  3B Morgan Ensberg put up good power numbers but his average was really down.  Ensberg platoons a lot with left handed hitting Mike Lamb, who provides a better average but not as much power.  C Brad Ausmus and SS Adam Everett are both very good defenders but neither do much with the bat.  CF will be handled by Chris Burke, an outstanding young player.  I do believe the Astros would be better served with Burke playing second and finding a different option in center.  LH Luke Scott and RH Jason Lane will share time in Right.  Both had good springs and deserve more at bats.  Prospect Hunter Pence had a superb spring and will be waiting in the minors if any of the outfielders falter or get injured.  More on him below.

Rotation:  How good the rotation is depends on what Clemens decides to do.  A healthy Roger Clemens makes this a very deep rotation.  Without him, the rotation is top heavy and weak at the back.  RHP Roy Oswalt is one of the top pitchers in NL.  It this era of parity, Oswalt is a true ace.  RHP Woody Williams had an outstanding 06, going 12-5 with a 3.65 ERA in pitcher friendly Petco Park.  Williams will turn 41 in August and will be pitching in hitter friendly Minute Maid, I just don’t know how he will hold up.  RHP Jason Jennings is a good young pitcher from Colorado.  I look forward to see how he will react during a push for the playoffs, something the Astros do every year.  Withouth Clemens, the rest of the rotation is thin.  The front runners for the final to spots are LHP Wandy Rodriguez and RHP Fernando Nieve.  Rodriguez went 9-10 with a 5.64 ERA and Nieve appeared in 40 games, 11 of them starts, going 3-3 with a 4.20 ERA.  RHP Brian Moehler and RHP Chris Sampson were both in the mix.

Bullpen:  RHP Brad Lidge still doesn’t seem as dominate as he was before Pujols hit that game winning homerun off of him in the playoffs.  Lidge had 32 saves and 104 Ks in 75 innings, but he had an ERA over 5 and was really shaky at times.  RHP Dan Wheeler has a chance to take over as the closer.  He posted an ERA of 2.52 in 75 games in 2006.  RHP Chad Qualls is another solid option late in the game.  He was 7-3 with a 3.76 ERA in 81 games for the Astros.  LHP Trever Miller was very good for the Astros in 2006.  In 70 games, Miller posted a 3.02 ERA. 

Prospects:

Hunter Pence-OF-Astros second round pick in the 2004 First Year Player Draft.  Named the most exciting player in the Double A Texas League in 2006.  He hit .283 with 28 HRs and 95 RBIs.  Went on to hit .387 with 9 RBIs leading his Corpus Christi team to the championship.  Pence then hit .339 in the Arizona Fall League before being sent home as a disciplinary action.  Pence has a strong arm as witnessed by his 13 assists last year.  Pence will start the year in the minors after hitting .571/.647/1.071 in 28 at bats during spring training.

Analysis:  Like a lot of the other National League contenders, I question if the Astros have enough pitching to make it to October.  If a healthy Clemens comes back, the Astros should compete for the division title.  I really like the outfield and believe Pence will contribute this year.  I am a big Lance Berkman fan and feel you can go ahead and write him down for an MVP type season.

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Milwaukee Brewers

 

2006 Finish: 75-87, 4th place in the NL Central, 8.5 games back

Manager:  Ned Yost

Comings: RHP Jeff Suppan, RHP Elmer Dessens, INF Craig Counsell, C Johnny Estrada, RHP Claudio Vargas

Goings:  3B Jeff Cirillo, 3B David Bell, RHP Dan Kolb, RHP Toma Ohka, LHP Doug Davis, OF Brady Clark

Offense:  The Brewers have a young and talented everyday lineup.  Bill Hall is taking over in center so that the Brewers can keep him in the lineup.  Hall had a breakout year in 06, hitting 35 HRs and scoring 101 runs.  Expect 1B Prince Fielder to continue to improve.  He had a solid rookie year, hitting 28 HRs.  Like his father, he strikes out a bunch.  2B Rickie Weeks is a star in the making.  He appeared in only 95 games due to injury but hit .279/.363/.404.  There are concerns if he can continue playing second but the Brewers are sure he can handle the position.  SS J.J. Hardy is a solid defender with good range.  He is coming off an injury that limited him to only 35 games last year. Johnny Estrada was brought over from Arizona to take over behind the plate.  A talented switch hitter, Estrada hit .302 for the Diamondbacks.  RF Corey Hart got more playing time in 06 and proved he could be an everyday player.  He hit .283/.328/.468 in 87 games last year.  Geoff Jenkins and Kevin Mench will platoon in left and whoever sits out that day will provide power bat off the bench.  3B Corey Koskie is still suffering from post concussion syndrome and his return is up in the air.  For now the Brewers will use a platoon of veterans Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino.

Rotation:  RHP Ben Sheets is the key.  If he is healthy the Brewers have a good chance of playing in October.  Sheets only appeared in 17 games last year due to shoulder troubles.  The Brewers must have him in order compete at the top of the NL Central.  RHP Jeff Suppan comes over from the Cardinals.  He received the biggest contract in Brewers’ history and will help stabilize the rotation.  Not only will he eat up innings but he will be a positive influence on the Brewers’ young pitchers.  LHP Chris Capuano is establishing himself as a very solid, middle of the rotation starter.  He will provide plenty of innings and keep his team in the game.  RHP Dave Bush is getting better and better.  The key to Bush’s success is getting out lefties which he improved upon in 06.  The fifth spot in the rotation will be handled by RHP Claudio Vargas.  Vargas was 12-10 with a 4.83 ERA last year with the Diamondbacks. 

Bullpen:  RHP Francisco Cordero came over in the Carlos Lee trade and appeared in 28 games in 06.  The National League agreed with him a he had 16 saves and posted a 1.69 ERA.  Former closer RHP Derrick Turnbow will slide into a setup role.  He struggled last year, blowing 8 saves and posting a 6.87 ERA.  He has been really good this spring.  RHP Jose Capellan has a power arm but has not put all together up to this point.  LHP Brian Shouse is tough on lefties, they slugged .350 against him last year.  RHP Matt Wise was solid appearing in 40 games an posting an ERA under 4.  RHP Elmer Dessens was brought in this week to provide depth. 

Prospects:

Yovanni Gallardo-RHP-2nd round pick in the 2004 First Year Player Draft.  Led the minors in strikeouts last year with 188.  His fastball sits at 90-94 touching 96.  Has a good overhand curveball that is a definite strikeout pitch.  Shows good control, walking only 51 in 155 innings. Should start the year at Triple A Nashville and could be ready to contribute to the big club by the end of the season. 

Ryan Braun-3B-First Round selection (5th overall) in the 2005 First Year Player Draft.  Has the offensive prowess to contribute at the big league level now, but his defense is a work in progress.  Braun hit .303/.367/.589 with 15 HRs and 40 RBIs in 231 at bats at Double A after starting the year at Class A.  Hit .326 with 6 HR and 25 RBIs in 92 at bats in the Arizona Fall League.  A definite five tool player, the only question is what position he will play, third or left. 

Analysis:  The Brewers have the makings to be this year’s Detroit Tigers. I really like their everyday lineup and the veteran bench Manager Ned Yost can tinker with. I think Jeff Suppan will bring something that stats don’t measure and that is a winning attitude.  Not only will he teach this rotation how to win, but I think he will teach them to expect to win.  The bullpen is deep and has some talented power arms.  I think if things fall into place and everyone stays healthy, the Brewers could win a mediocre Central Division.

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Cincinnati Reds

 

2006 Finish:  80-82, 3rd place in the NL Central, 3.5 games back

Manager:  Jerry Narron, 3rd season with the Reds

Comings: RHP Dustin Hermanson, SS Alex Gonzalez, C Jason LaRue, LHP Mike Stanton, RHP Brian Meadows

Goings: INF Rich Aurillia, SS Royce Clayton, RHP Ryan Franklin, LHP Scott Schoeneweis,

Offense:  The Reds are capable of slugging it out when needed.  Ken Griffey missed most of the spring with a wrist injury.  The future hall-of-famer is also making a position change, moving from center to right. The Kid appeared in only 109 games but was still able to hit 27 HRs.  Ryan Freel takes over in center on a full time basis.  Freel hit only .271 but had on OBP of .363.  Freel also provides above average defense.  LF Adam Dunn still provides loads of power and loads of strikeouts.  Dunn hit 40 HRs and struckout 194 times.  First base will be handled by returning starter Scott Hatteberg.  He does not put up the power numbers you expect out of the position, but he gets on base and doesn’t strike out.  2B Brandon Phillips finally had a breakout season after coming over from Cleveland.  SS Alex Gonzalez comes over fom Boston and provides super defense.  3B Edwin Encarcion took over during the season and should be a mainstay for years to come.  C David Ross put up career highs in HRs with 21 and RBIs with 52.  This prompted the Reds to trade Jason LaRue.  Josh Hamilton was picked up in the Rule 5 Draft.  More about him below. 

Rotation:  The Reds paid out big bucks this winter, giving extensions to RHPs Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang.  Arroyo established himself as a NL front of the rotation starter. He went 14-11 with a 3.29 ERA.  Harang also established himself as a dependable innings eater, going 16-11 with a 3.76 ERA.  LHP Eric Milton was mediocre going 8-8 with a 5.19 ERA.  RHP Kyle Lohse was 5-10 with a 5.83 ERA.  The fifth starter should be RHP Matt Belisle.  He was 2-0 with a 3.60 ERA in 30 games, only two of those starts. 

Bullpen:   RHP Dustin Hermanson was picked up off the scrap heap and looks like he will be the Reds’ closer.  Hermanson missed much of last year with back problems.  Veteran LHP Mike Stanton will take on the late inning work against left-handers.  RHP David Weathers is a durable veteran saved 12 games last year.  RHP Todd Coffey had 8 saves and will provide depth.  RHP Kirk Saarloos is a very good swing man.  LHP Bill Bray had a solid first year, posting a 4.09 ERA and will continue to improve.

Prospects:

Homer Bailey-RHP-Seventh overall pick of the 2004 First Year Player Draft.  Considered one of the two best pitching prospects in baseball (the other being the Yankees’ Phillip Hughes).  Baseball America rated him as the fifth best prospect in baseball. Has a fastball that sits 92-96 topping out at 98.  Throws two devastating curveballs, a 12 to 6 hammer and a 11-5 looper.  His change up is showing improvement and could become another plus pitch.  Got an increased workload last year, pitching 139 innings between Class A and Double A.  He struckout 156 hitters and posted an ERA of 2.46.  Had an outside shot at this year’s rotation, but will probably start the year at Triple A. 

Josh Hamilton-OF-Rule 5 pick from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.  Devil Rays chose Hamilton first overall in the 1999 First Year Player Draft.  Was on the fast track out of high school in Raleigh, N.C., before a substance abuse problem sidelined his career.  Was suspended for over 3 years by MLB.  Got reinstated in 2006 and played in 15 games before having to have minor knee surgery.  He is an elite five tool player.  Hamilton has above raw power.  He has above average speed and can play all three outfield positions.  Has an incredible arm strength as witnessed here.  Hamilton threw 95 MPH off the mound in high school.  Has to stay on the big league roster all season for the Reds to retain his rights and I am rooting for him.

Analysis:  As many deals as Wayve Krivsky made during the season, I was disappointed the Reds made minimal noise during this offseason.  The team is better than it was this time last year, but I still don’t think they have enough pitching to get it done during the stretch.  I am really looking forward to seeing Josh Hamilton play and hopefully he can turn his life around.

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Pittsburgh Pirates

 

2006 Finish:  67-95, 5th place in the NL Central, 16.5 games back

Manager:  Jim Tracy, 2nd year with the Pirates

Comings:  1B Adam LaRoche, RHP Dan Kolb, RHP Tony Armas

Goings:  LHP Mike Gonzalez, RF Jeromy Burnitz

Offense:   1B Adam LaRoche was brought in to provide left-handed power in the middle of the lineup.  last year he hit wit 32 HRs and 90 RBIs.  LF Jason Bay is one of the best young players in MLB.  he had a terrific 06, hitting .286 with 35 HRs and 109 RBIs.  2B Freddy Sanchez won the batting title, hitting .344.  All indications are he will start the season on the DL.  CF Chris Duffy leads off and provides pretty good defense.  Duffy is not an ideal choice as a leadoff man as he does not hit for average nor does he have a good OBP.  SS Jack Wilson is an ideal number 2 hitter.  He doesn’t strike out very much and is good about moving the runners over.  Wilson also provides terrific defense.  RF Xavier Nady came over during the season and provides another power hitting bat.  Nady hit 17 HRs and has 25-30 HR potential.  C Ronny Paulino burst onto the scene in ’06.  The backstop hit .310 in his first season in the bigs.  He also provided good defense, throwing out 36% of runners.  Jose Bautista beat out Jose Castillo to be the everyday third baseman but neither had a very good spring.

Rotation:  The rotation is young and talented.  Armas is the elder statesman and he is only 28.  The staff will probably continue to experience the growing pains Pirates’ fans suffered through last year.LHP Zach Duke suffered a setback in his sophomore season.  He went a mediocre 10-15 with a 4.47 ERA.  He has to get better vs. righties as they hit .310 against him last year.  RHP Ian Snell is having a good spring and looking to improve upon his 06.  Last year Snell went 14-11 with an ERA of 4.74.  He needs to improve against lefties as they hit over .300 against him.  LHP Paul Maholm went 8-10.  Righties hit .313 against him.  LHP Tom Gorzelanny went 2-5 but had an ERA of 3.19 in eleven starts.  He held hitters to an average of under .230.  RHP Tony Armas was brought in as the fifth starter.  Last year for the Nationals he was 9-12.  Armas has always had good stuff, he has just never been consistent.

Bullpen: Closer Mike Gonzalez was traded to Atlanta.  RHP Solomon Torres will take over in the ninth.  Torres saved 12 games and a 3.28 ERA in 06.  Something that concerns me is that he appeared in 94 games.  RHP Matt Capps will set Torres up.  He was 9-1 with a 3.76 ERA in 85 games.  RHP Shawn Chacon was moved to the bullpen and has closer’s experience.  He had 35 saves in 04 for the Rockies but that year he did have an ERA of 7.11.  RHP Dan Kolb was brought in to provide depth. He had 39 saves in 04 but has been really bad since, posting an ERA over 5.  LHP Damaso Marte had an ERA of 3.70 in 75 games for the Bucs in 06.  The bullpen could be solid but it will be interesting how the team will react to the loss of Gonzalez 

Prospects:

Andrew McCutchen-CF-First Round Pick in the 2005 First Year Player draft.  Hit .308 for the Pirates this spring.  An exceptional athlete, he is definitely a five tool player.  McCutchen hit .308 with 3 HRs in 78 ABs in a late promotion to Double A as a 19 year old.  He has 20 HR potential along with the potential to steal 40 bases.  Still strikes out too much, but pitch recognition should improve with experience.  An above average defender, should start in centerfield for the Pirates possibly by 2008.  Will most likely return to Double A to start the season.

James Boone-OF-Third Round Pick in the 2005 First Year Player Draft out of the University of Missouri.  Has yet to put together a complete season due to injury.  Hit .192 in 99 at bats at Low A in ’06.  Led Mizzou in hitting and RBIs in ’05, hitting .340 with 72 RBIs.  A switch hitter with good bat control, if healthy could start the year at High A. 

Analysis:  The Pirates should be improved in 2007.  The rotation should continue to improve but I believe it is at least a year away.  LaRoche will be great protection for Bay and Sanchez.  The Pirates bullpen could be pretty good if it stays healthy and pitches to its potential.  I don’t like Duffy at the top of the lineup, as he does not get on base enough.  The Pirates will still probably be battling to stay out of the cellar in the NL Central.

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Chicago Cubs

 

 2006 Finish:  66-96, last place in the NL Central, 17.5 games back

Manager:  Lou Pinella, first year with the Cubs

Comings: OF Alfonso Soriano, LHP Ted Lilly, RHP Jason Marquis, 2B Mark DeRosa, LHP Neal Cotts

Goings: CF Juan Pierre, 1B John Mabry

Offense:  Alfonso Soriano was the premier free agent hitter this past offseason.  He was a 40/40 man last year and should continue to put up big numbers at wrigley.  My concerns are can he adapt to center in some of the larger ballparks and in what year of the contract will the cubs regret giving soriano this many years.  derek lee missed most of last year with a wrist injury.  Wrist injuries for hitters can be scary, but he has shown no ill effects this spring as Lee is knocking the cover off the ball.  LF Matt Murton was very steady in his first year as a regular.  He hit .297/.365/.444.  3B Aramis Ramirez got a nice raise from the Cubs during the offseason.  Last year he hit 38 HRs and had 119 RBIs.  RF Jacque Jones was the subject of much trade speculation this winter.  He played pretty well in right, hitting 27 HRs and driving in 85 runs.  C Michael Barrett is one of the best players most people have never heard of.  Barrett hit .307 with 16 HRs and 53 RBIs.  A side note on Barrett;  several years ago when he was with the Expos, the late Jack Buck was interviewing him on KMOX.  I was totally impressed with how respectful he was of Mr. Buck and just how gracious he was with his time.  I think Barrett would have preferred to interview Jack Buck more than him being interviewed.  Mark DeRosa was brought in from Texas to play second base.  He put up career numbers last year and was paid handsomely for it.  SS Cesar Izturis will provide the Cubs with very good defense but has not put up very good offensive numbers since his career year in 04.  Cliff Floyd was brought over from the Mets to provide outfield depth and pop off the bench.

 Rotation: The Cubs went out and spent big bucks and seem to still have lots of questions in the rotation.  Carlos Zambrano’s ability leaves little to question. A true number 1, he is good for 15-20 wins.  The big question with Zambrano is how will his contract negotiations or lack there of, affect his play on the field.  Ted Lilly was paid big bucks to come in and slide into the number 2 spot.  Lilly is a fly ball pitcher and when the wind is blowing out, Wrigley is not to kind to fly ball pitchers.  Jason Marquis was practically ran out of St. Louis and the Cubs gave him $21 million over 3 years.  They’ll be regretting this contract by the end of may.  Rich Hill has great stuff but his stuff has not translated to big league success.  He was much improved down the stretch going 3-1 with a 1.93 ERA and should reach double digits in wins.  The fifth spot has come down to a competition between the oft injured Prior and Wade Miller who has been limited due to shoulder problems.

Bullpen: If he can stay healthy, and with him this is a great big if, RHP Kerry Wood could be lights out coming out of the bullpen.  He could take over as the closer sooner than later.  RHP Ryan Dempster is the closer and I do not see him as a closer on a playoff team.  He saved 24 games but posted an ERA of 4.80.  RHP Bobby Howry is a good setup man, appearing in 84 games and posting a 3.17 ERA. The Cubs are loaded with left-handed relievers.  LHP Scott Eyre was good after coming over from the Giants but lefties hit .273 against him.  LHP Will Ohman was excellent against lefties, they hit only .158 against him in 101 at bats.  LHP Neil Cotts was brought over from the White Sox.  He really struggled, posting an ERA of over 5 in 70 games.  RHP Michael Wuertz was very good, appearing in 41 games and posting an ERA of 2.66. 

Prospects:

Felix Pie-CF-Numbers weren’t as good in 06 but he was a 21 year old at Triple A.  Had an outside shot to win the centerfield job with the Cubs this spring and move Soriano to right.  Strikes out to much and doesn’t walk enough, witnessed by his 126/46 K to BB ratio.  Has the potential to be an above average defender, put his defense still needs a lot of work.  Would benefit from another complete season in the minors.

Jeff Samardzija-RHP-Drafted in the fifth round of the 2006 First Year Player Draft.  Samardzija was a record setting receiver at Notre Dame and a possible first round pick in the NFL draft.  The Cubs gave him big money and a no trade clause to keep him from playing football.  He is still green on the baseball field but has a big time arm.  His fastball sits in the mid 90s and can touch 97.  His secondary pitches are raw and inconsistent.  He will probably start the year in Low A.

Analysis:  The Cubs went out and spent a whole lot of money this offseason to hopefully put themselves in the playoffs.  I feel they will be improved, but I don’t think they have the pitching to make much noise.  I like they are not counting on Prior and Wood.  Soriano is a special talent, but the contract was too long.  I don’t like Marquis or Lilly in this ballpark.  The Cubs will be better but I don’t think they are improved enough to win the division. 

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Philadelphia Phillies

 

2006 Finish:  85-77, 2nd place in the NL East, 12 games back

Manager:  Charlie Manuel

Comings: RHP Freddy Garcia, 3B Wes Helms, RHP Adam Eaton

Goings: C Mike Lieberthal,

Offense:  Leadoff man SS Jimmy Rollins is coming off a career year in the power department.  He hit 25 HRs (his previous career high was 14) and drove in 83.  He scored 127 runs.  He was down in the average and on base areas, his lowest totals since 03.  2B Chase Utley has become the premier secondbaseman in the NL if not all of Major League Baseball.  He hit .309 with 32 HRs and 102 RBIs.  He signed a big dollar extension during the offseason and I like to see how players react after signing a big deal such as this one.  1B Ryan Howard is coming off an MVP season.  He put up incredible numbers last year, hitting .313, 58 HRs, and 149 RBIs.  He needs to improve with runners in scoring position, hitting only .256 and he struck out 181 times.  LF Pat Burrell has been considered a disappointment since signing his big extension.  What is amazing is that hitting 29 HRs and driving in 95 is a disappointment.  He doesn’t hit for a high average and strikes out too much, but you could stick that production in almost any lineup and make that team better.  CF Aaron Rowand only appeared in 109 games due to injury and has been the subject of quite a few trade rumors this offseason.  He is probably just average offensively, but provides tremendous energy and excellent defense.  Right field will be handled by Shane Victorino.  He performed admirably last year, appearing in 153 games while hitting .287.  He also plays above average defense.  Wes Helms was brought in to play third.  Last year with the Marlins, Helms hit .329 with 10 HRs and 47 RBIs in only 240 at bats.  He also provided valuable leadership to the young Marlin club.  Rod Barajas will be the regular catcher. He has above average power but seems to wear down and that tremendously affects his offensive production.  Carlos Ruiz will also get some of the time behind the plate.  OF Jayson Werth was brought in from the Dodgers and should get time in the outfield.  Werth did not play in 06 due to two wrists surgeries but provides good athletiscm off the bench.

Rotation:  The rotation is strong but has a lot of health questions.  RHP Brett Myers has ace type stuff, he just needs to find a little more consistency.  Last year he was 12-7 with an ERA just under 4.  He, also, had the off the field incident with his wife.  Hopefully all that is behind him and he can put all his focus on the field.  LHP Cole Hamels has the stuff to be one of the elite lefties in baseball.  His biggest problem is staying healthy.  His first season in the bigs saw him go 9-8 with an ERA of 4.08.  He had an impressive strikeout rate of 145 in 132 innings.  LHP Jamie Moyer came over from the Mariners and was really impressive in September, going 4-1 with a 3.43 ERA.  RHP Freddy Garcia was brought over from the White Sox and is being counted on to provide big innings and big game experience.  He has had some health problems this spring and the White Sox are anxious for him to bounce back.  RHP Adam Eaton was brought in for big bucks to anchor the back of the rotation.  Eaton has always had good stuff, he just has had a problem staying healthy.  He started only 13 games last year, 22 in 05, and only 6 in 02.  RHP Jon Lieber is the odd man out.  He is being relegated for the time to the bullpen, but is readily available for trade for the right price.

Bullpen:  This is a big area of weakness for the Phillies.  Closer, RHP Tom Gordon, saved 34 games last year.  Flash is getting older and injuries are always a concern with him.  RHP Antonio Alfonseca was brought in to set up.  He was injured last year, appearing in only 19 games and pitching 16 innings.  RHP Ryan Madson is a durable swing man with good stuff.  I feel he just needs to be let be and allow his stuff to take over.  I think he has just been shuffled around too much.  LHP Matt Smith is the only lefty in the bullpen and has less than 21 innings of big league experience.

Prospects:

Adrian Cardenas-SS-Won the Baseball America High School Player of the Year in 2006.  Hit .647 with 18 homers, leading his high school to the Florida State Title.  Teammate of Nationals’ first round pick Chris Marrerro. The Phillies made him the 37th pick overall in the 2006 First Year Player Draft.  Had a very solid debut hitting .318/.384/.442 in 41 Gulf Coast League Games.  Cardenas is an above average defender at shortstops but many scouts see him shifting to second.  Should start the season at low Class A.

Kyle Drabek-RHP-First Round selection (18th overall) in the 2006 First Year Player Draft.  Son of former Cy Young award winner Doug Drabek.  Considered by most scouts to be the most talented player in the draft, fell due to concerns about his make up.  Is considered hard to instruct and gets upset when errors are made behind him.  Only 5’11”, has a fastball that tops out at 97 and usually sits 93-95.  Has an above average curveball.  Throws a slider and is developing a feel for his change up.  Was knocked around in 23 innings in Rookie Ball.  Was also considered to be one of the top high school hitters in this draft and some projected him as a big league shortstop.

Analysis:  This team should challenge for the NL East title.  The pitching is deep if healthy.  Howard and Utley give the Phillies one of the best young twosomes in baseball.  The bullpen has a lot of question marks and the Phillies are going to have to keep looking for help.  Pat Burrell is going to be counted on mightily to protect Howard.  If the rotation stays healthy and help is found for the bullpen, this team could play well into October.

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Atlanta Braves

 

 2006 Finish:  79-83, 3rd place in the NL East

Manager:  Bobby Cox, 17 seasons with the Braves

Comings:  LHP Mike Gonzalez, RHP Rafeal Soriano, LHP Mark Redman, RHP Tanyon Sturtze, 1B/OF Craig Wilson,

Goings:  LHP Horacio Ramirez, 1B Adam LaRoche, RHP Danys Baez, 2B Marcus Giles, RHP John Thomson

Offense: CF Andruw Jones is in the walk year of his contract.  Expect big numbers from him.  Last year he hit 41 HRs and drove in 129.  Jones is still one of the elite centerfielders in the game. 3B Chipper Jones appeared in only 110 games last year, but hit .324 with 26 HRs and 86 RBIs.  RF Jeff Francoeur did not experience a sophomore slump hitting 29 HRs with 103 RBIs.  He has a cannon in right with 13 assists last year.  C Brian McCann has established himself as one of the elite young catchers in the game.  McCann hit .333 last year with 24 HRS and 93 RBIs.  SS Edgar Renteria enjoyed his return to the National League after a terrible year in Boston.  Edgar hit .293 and drove in 70.  Left field will be a platoon of some sort.  Left handed hitting Ryan Langerhans seems to be the logical fit vs.  righties, even though he hit lefties better.  Right-handed hitting Matt Diaz was a good find off the waiver wire as he hit .327 in 297 at bats.  Craig Wilson will also get a look in left.  First base seems like it could be a platoon situation, also.  The Braves are going to have to find a combination to make up for LaRoche’s 32 HRs and 90 RBIs.  Left-handed hitting Scott Thorman figures to get most of the at bats.  He struggled last year in limited action in the bigs, hitting .234 in 128 at bats.  He did hit almost .300 at Triple A in 2006.  Craig Wilson will probably get most of the bats vs. lefties.  He hit 17 HRs in limited at bats last year.  Second base looks to be rookie Kelly Johnson’s. 

Rotation:  This looked to be a huge strenth until LHP Mike Hampton strained an oblique and will miss about the first month of the season.  RHP John Smoltz was 16-9 with a mid 3 ERA.  Some analysts wonder how his recent separation/divorce will effect him.  I say Smoltz is the ultimate professional and it will not be a distraction.  RHP Tim Hudson is looking to bounce back from a 13-12 season with an ERA near 5.  It is safe to say he has been a disappointment since joining the Braves.  LHP Mark Redman was recently signed to fill in for the injured Hampton.  He will eat up innings and be effecient but not anything special.  LHP Chuck James lived up to the hype and went 11-4 with a 3.78 ERA in his rookie season.  The final spot will come down to RHPs Kyle Davies and Lance Cormier.

Bullpen:  This was one of the league’s worst last year, but this year it could be one of the best.  Bob Wickman came over from Cleveland during the year and had 18 saves and posted and ERA of just over 1 for the Braves in 28 games.  The Braves brought in LHP Mike Gonzalez and RHP Rafael Soriano in trades during the offseason.  Both of these guys have fantastic stuff and are capable of closing.  RHP Tanyon Sturtze was brought in for depth.  He has been solid yet unspectacular for the Yankees the past couple of years.  RHP Oscar Villareal will get to slide into the middle innings where he seems to be more comfortable.  He blew 4 saves last year but ended the season 9-1 with a 3.61 ERA.  LHP Mackay McBride is very tough on lefties holding them to a .181 BA last year.  RHP Chad Paronto posted a 3.18 ERA in 65 games.  RHP Tyler Yates was good when not having to try and close.  For the year he finished with and ERA of 3.96.

Prospects:

Jarrod Saltalamacchia-C-The switch hitter is one of the top catching prospects in baseball.  Had a down year in 06 hitting only .230/.353/.380 quite a drop from 05 when he hit .314/.394/.519.  The upside of the year was he hit .338 with 5 HRs in his final 23 games after missing time with a wrist injury.  Raked in the Arizona Fall League, going 13 for 23 with 3 HRs before going home with a hamstring injury.  Should start the year at Double A, but a quick promotion to Triple A would not be a surprise.  Brian McCann is one of the top young catchers in the majors so Salty will need a position switch or will be trade bait.

Cory Rasmus-RHP-Supplemental first round pick in the 2006 First Year Player Draft (38th overall).  Younger brother of Cardinals’ number 1 prospect, Colby.  Was on the team with Colby that won the 2005 High School National Championship.  Throws 92-94 and can touch 97 at times.  Has a knee-buckling curveball that is already a plus pitch.  His mechanics are poor, but he will pitch this complete season as a 19 year old so there is no need to rush him.  He will open the year at low Class A.

Analysis:  The bullpen is deep and shouldn’t give up many leads.  The Braves front office definitely went out and made the Braves’ games shorter with the depth they brought in.  If Kelly Johnson gets on base in the leadoff spot and the veterans stay healthy, this team could put up lots of runs.  The starting pitching is solid, but if Hampton can get healthy and Hudson can put it together, the Braves could find themselves back on top of the NL East.

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Florida Marlins

 

2006 Finish:  78-84, 4th place in the NL East, 19 games back

Manager: Freddi Gonzalez, first year as a manager

Comings: 3B Aaron Boone, Matt Lindstrom, Kevin Gregg,

Goings:  Manager Joe Girardi, Closer Joe Borowski, 3B Wes Helms

Offense:  3B Miguel Cabrera is a perennial MVP canidate.  Last year was the same, hitting .339, 26 HRs, and 114 RBIs.  He can be inconsistent defensively and seems to let bad at bats affect his play in the field.  SS Hanley Ramirez came over from Boston and went out and won the Rookie of the Year award.  Ramirez hit .292, 17 HRs, and 59 RBIs in the leadoff spot.  He also stole 51 bases and had 11 triples.  His biggest weakness is the strikeout.  Last year he struck out 128 times to only 56 BBs.  2B Dan Uggla might have been the biggest surprise in baseball.  Not only was he a Rule 5 pick that started for his team, but he led the Marlins with 27 HRs.  He hit .282 and had 90 RBIs.  He, too, strikes out to much, 123 Ks to 48 BBs.  1B Mike Jacobs was another rookie that had a sensational debut.  Jacobs hit 20 HRs and had 77 RBIs.  Like the other Marlin rookies mentioned, he strikes out too much.  RF Jeremy Hermidia was a preseason canidate for Rookie of the Year.  He got injured in only 99 games and never appeared find his groove.  Look for better things from him this year.  LF Josh Willingham yet another Marlin’s rookie with a big debut season.  He hit .277 with 26 HRs and 74 RBIs.  And you guessed it, he struck out too much.  C Miguel Olivo had a respectable year offensively, .263, 16 HRs, and 58 RBIs.  He is more valubable defensively, where he provides good leadership for this young Marlin’s staff.  Alex Sanchez seems to be the centerfielder by default.  He has blazing speed but has never been able to put together a good year.  Also, with his speed you would think he would be a better fielder, but he is below average in the outfield.  Aaron Boone will be brought in to be used in the utility role that was handled by Wes Helms.  Helms’ leadership role will be missed.

Rotation:  LHP Dontrelle Willis is the face of the franchise and is hoping to bounce back from a 12-12 record.  LHP Scott Olsen was very good in his debut season going 12-10 with a 4.04 ERA.  Another rookie, RHP Josh Johnson, was even more impressive with a 12-7 record and an ERA of 3.10.  He will miss at least the first two months with an arm injury.  RHP Anibal Sanchez pitched a no hitter. He went 10-3 with a 2.83 ERA in 18 games, 17 of those starts.  RHP Rick Nolasco was also a rookie and went 11-11.  RHP Sergio Mitre was not good posting an ERA over 5.

Bullpen:  The closer role is up in the air.  The Marlins are rumored to be in on both Jorge Julio and former Marlin Armando Benitez.  LHP Taylor Tankersley posted a 2.85 in 49 games and is the projected closer if the Marlins don’t make a deal. He has 3 career saves and has been injured this spring.   LHP Renyel Pinto was 3.03 in 27 games.  RHP Matt Lindstrom, who should make his major league debut, has hit 100 on the radar gun.  He does seem to walk a lot of hitters so control is an issue.  He has pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings this spring.  RHP Kevin Gregg came over from the Angels and provides quality innings.  He has pretty good stuff but has not been able to be consistent.  RHP Henry Owens has not allowed a run this spring. 

Prospects:

 Brett Sinbeil-RHP-Drafted in the first round of the 2006 First Year Player Draft (19th overal).  Drafted by the Cardinas in the 38th round of the 2003 draft but did not sign.  Went on to attend Missouri State University.  Missed three weeks durinng the 2006 college season with a strained oblique.  Has a fastball that can reach 95.  He has an above average slider that he will throw in any count.  Dominated in the New York-Penn league, posting a 1.23 ERA and striking out 22 in 22 innings.  Promoted to Low A and struggled, finishing with a 4.99 ERA.

Sean West-LHP-Stands 6’8″.  Had elbow surgery in the last week that will probably cost him this season.   West missed a month last season due to shoulder problems.  Throws 91-94 touching 96 from a 3/4 arm slot.  Was considered to be on the fast track but that will have to wait until next year.

Analysis:  This team defied expectations last year and was in the playoff hunt until the last week of the season.  I wonder how the young Marlin players are going to react to Girardi not being brought back.  The kids seemed to rally around him.  Another thing, will these guys go into a sophmore slump, ala the 2006 Cleveland Indians.  The starting pitching is young and talented, the offense is exciting and explosive, and the bullpen is in shambles.  The centerfield situation is also a glaring weakness on a really talented team.  I really feel this team will take a step back before it takes another step forward.

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