Thursday, March 31, 2005

Bruce Blogs Baseball - The National League West

1. San Diego Padres
Pitchers: The Padres lose David Wells, but the starting rotation is still formidable. They signed Woody Williams (11-8, 4.18 in St. Louis) as a free agent. Typically a fly-ball pitcher, Williams should find some success in spacious Petco Park. 23-year-old Jake Peavy is a star in the making. He spent six weeks on the disabled list last year, but was very impressive when he was healthy (15-6, 2.27). Inning-eater Brian Lawrence (15-14, 4.12) is back, as is the inconsistent Adam Eaton (11-14, 4.61). The Padres hope Eaton will become more consistent. The team traded a minor-leaguer to Houston for Tim Redding (5-7, 5.72), who will serve as the fifth starter after Darrell May failed to impress in spring training.

When veteran Trevor Hoffman spent most of 2003 on the shelf, speculation became rampant that he was finished. Hoffman, 37, proved last year that he still has plenty of good pitches left in his right arm (41 saves in 46 chances). Hoffman allowed only 42 hits in 55 innings. He’s not quite as intimidating as he was a few years ago, but he’s still effective. The Padres have a good crew of relief pitchers to get games to Hoffman. Righthanders Akinori Otsuka (7-2, 1.75, 87 strikeouts in 77 innings) and Scott Linebrink work with lefthanders Dennys Reyes and Chris Hammond.

Position players: The Padres have adjusted to their new park. The 2004 lineup was built for power hitting, and this lineup still has some power hitters in it. But the aging Padres will use the spacious power alleys to their advantage, and the team figures to score more runs this year, especially at home. Dave Roberts (.254-4-35, 38 stolen bases) takes over as the leadoff man and everyday center fielder. He’ll use his speed to create problems for opposing defenses, and he’ll also use his speed in the huge outfield of Petco Park. Veteran Mark Loretta (.335-16-76) will bat second after an incredible 2004 season. The Padres need Brian Giles (.284-23-94) Phil Nevin (.289-26-105) to keep producing runs, and Ryan Klesko (.291-9-66) to return to past form. Third baseman Sean Burroughs only hit two home runs last year; more is expected in 2005 now that he will be hitting in the lower third of the order.

Overall analysis: The Padres’ big boppers spent a lot of time in the first half of 2004 wimpering about how hard it was to hit home runs in their new park. With Roberts setting the table and the whining over and done with, the Padres will score more runs. As Peavy continues to develop, the Padres have Williams and Lawrence, who are both capable of quality seasons. The bullpen is one of the better ones in the National League, especially from the right side. The Padres made some noise last year, and they’re ready to make the leap. Last year’s team was just 42-39 at home (45-36 on the road). If they can win 45 games away from home again this year, San Diego will win close to 95 games and walk away with the division title.

2. San Francisco Giants
Pitchers: San Francisco is poised to have a very strong starting rotation, with an established ace (Jason Schmidt), two solid veterans (Brett Tomko and Kirk Rueter), and two youngsters with great potential (Jerome Williams and Noah Lowry). Schmidt (18-7, 3.20) has really matured in San Francisco, using his high-90s fastball and nearly-unhittable sinker. Tomko (11-7, 4.04) and Rueter (9-12, 4.73) are steady, even though Rueter has trouble maintaining good habits on the mound. Lowry is 6-0 as a major-league pitcher, and Williams won ten games before elbow surgery ended his season. If Rueter can regain his control, the rotation is rock-solid in what can be a very tough park to pitch well in.

With Robb Nen having health problems that would eventually lead to his retirement, the Giants knew going into the offseason that they had to find a closer. They found one in Armando Benitez (1.29 ERA, 47 saves in Florida). Benitez has plenty of experience, and he give the Giants something they didn’t have last year: a legitimate fireballer to finish games. Setup men Jim Brower, Scott Eyre, and Matt Herges are all back, and veteran Wayne Franklin is available for long relief duty.

Position players: With veterans Ray Durham, Moises Alou, Edgardo Alfonso, and Marquis Grissom all on board, and all deteriorating defensively, the Giants answered the bell in the offseason. They signed shortstop Omar Vizquel, still a wizard with the glove, and Mike Matheny, who is as good a defensive catcher as you will find. However, much of this is meaningless, as the Giants’ best hitter, and possibly the best player in the game, Barry Bonds (.362-45-101) is out indefinitely with a knee injury. A recent press briefing seemed to indicate that Bonds will miss a significant period of time, and that he might not play this season at all. Without Bonds, the burden to produce runs falls on first baseman J.T. Snow (.327-12-60) and right fielder Alou (.293-39-106 with the Cubs). Even though Alou is a capable hitter, it’s hard to imagine the Giants being competitive for 162 games without Bonds. Matheny isn’t a great hitter (.247 last year), but he has come through in the clutch before. Pedro Feliz hit 22 home runs last year, and he may start in place of Bonds (Michael Tucker also contends for that job).

Overall analysis: Barry Bonds hasn’t won all those MVP awards by accident. He’s the most feared hitter in baseball, and his loss for an extended period of time will hurt this offense. The Giants simply don’t have the weapons in the middle of the order if Bonds isn’t available. Felipe Alou will be challenged to find ways to manufacture runs, which is not a strong suit of this team. The pitching staff is good, but the Giants won’t go far if they can’t hit and score runs. It will be a season-long struggle with the Padres, and the Giants don’t have enough weapons to win the division, unless Bonds comes back and is effective – something we can’t answer definitively right now.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers
Pitchers: The Dodgers wanted to bring in a quality arm during the offseason, just in case Brad Penny’s nerve problem was serious enough to sideline him this season. They settled on Derek Lowe (14-12, 5.42 in Boston), who helped the Red Sox to the World Series win last October, but had a very nondescript contract year. Odalis Perez (7-6, 3.25) appears to be the ace of the rotation. Penny (9-10, 3.15) should be ready sometime in April, if not by Opening Day. Veterans Wilson Alvarez and Scott Erickson bring up the rear of the rotation, with youngster Edwin Jackson waiting in the wings. Jackson’s ERA in AAA was almost six last year, so chances are he’ll start the season in the minors.

The bullpen is all about the closer. With Eric Gagne (2.19 ERA, 45 saves in 47 chances), the Dodgers have the best “Game Over” bet in baseball. Getting Gagne in the game with a lead became a problem after setup man Guillermo Mota was dealt to Florida. The Dodgers hope Yhency Brazoban, Giovanni Carrara, and others can fill in effectively. With veterans like Alvarez and Erickson, who haven’t been known lately for eating a lot of innings in their starts, in the rotation, the Dodgers are putting a lot of pressure on their middle and long relievers. But outside of Gagne, this bullpen is not very impressive.

Position players: General manager Paul DePodesta made some big-time moves to upgrade his team’s offense. Unfortunately for DePodesta, the moves might not work as well as he had hoped. Former Brave J.D. Drew (.305-31-93) will start in right field, former Astro Jeff Kent (.289-27-107) will play second base, and Hee Seop Choi (.251-15-46 overall), who was acquired from Florida in the Penny trade, starts at first base. Choi is in the last year of his contract, and the Dodgers hope he’ll hit better than the .161 average he put up in 31 games there at the end of last year. Milton Bradley needs to hit for a higher average and behave himself, and Jose Valentin has to improve after hitting .216 for the White Sox last year. The Dodgers traded pitcher Kaz Ishii to the Mets for catcher Jason Phillips, who has developing to do as a hitter, but is sound defensively.

Overall analysis: The Dodgers have made a lot of moves since the midway point of last season, and it doesn’t appear that they’ve really gotten better. Manager Jim Tracy has done a good job, but he will have a difficult time getting this team over the hump as long as he has Choi and Valentin in the lineup. The signings of Drew, Kent, and Lowe were too costly for the talents of the players signed, especially Drew (who didn’t consistently produce at this level until his contract year) and Lowe (who didn’t produce in his contract year until the playoffs). Management needs to figure out a direction for this franchise before it’s too late to right the ship. For now, the Dodgers will flounder in the middle of the West.

4. Colorado Rockies
Pitchers: The Rockies will never field an elite pitching staff, but things are getting better, as the organization has done a much better job of developing young arms. 2002 National League Rookie of the Year Jason Jennings (11-12, 5.51) has won double-digit games for three straight years. Lefthander Joe Kennedy (9-7, 3.66) was a castoff from Tampa Bay that turned in a very good season for Colorado. After a failed (understatement) stint as closer, Shawn Chacon (1-9, 7.11, 35 saves in 44 chances) is back in the starting rotation. As long as his 2004 season doesn’t affect his performance, Chacon should be a pretty effective starter for the Rockies (11-8, 4.60 in 23 starts in 2003). Youngster Jeff Francis and veteran Jamey Wright round out the rotation for now, with Aaron Cook (6-4, 4.28 in 16 starts) expected back in the first half of the season after surgery to repair a blood clot.

The bullpen lost 39 saves and blew 34 saves in 2004, so there’s nowhere to go but up. Chin-hui Tsao appears the favorite to take over as closer. Tsao made 18 appearances in the Rockies’ system last year (10 with the big-league club), so the jury is definitely out on whether he can handle being the team’s closer. The Rockies have some young candidates if Tsao fails, including Scott Dohmann and Allan Simpson. Also in the bullpen are setup men Brian Fuentes and Javier Lopez.

Position players: The Rockies have six losing seasons in seven years, largely because of a philosophy that had them adding cheap veterans on short-term deals. This year’s team is different, as veteran star Todd Helton (.347-32-96) will be surrounded by mainly young players. Besides Helton, 30, the oldest player in the projected everyday lineup is 30-year-old Preston Wilson (.248-6-29 in 58 games). Colorado has high expectations for young infielders Aaron Miles (.293-6-47), Clint Barmes, and Garrett Atkins, who hit .357 in 28 at-bats late last season. New starting catcher J.D. Closser hit .319 in 113 at-bats. He’ll be pressed to improve his work behind the plate, as well as his hitting fundamentals. But the team will be patient while he develops. The Rockies also picked up free-agent outfielder Dustan Mohr (.274-7-28 in San Francisco), who can play all three outfield positions well, and isn’t a terrible hitter (he should only get better in Colorado).

Overall analysis: Things are looking up in Colorado. The Rockies have some nice young pitchers (the team posted a starters’ ERA of 4.86 after the All-Star break) with plenty of upside. The commitment to a younger lineup should reap some benefits, even if it isn’t immediately. They need Wilson to stay healthy and put up numbers similar to 2003, when he hit 36 home runs and led the National League in RBIs. If he’s hurt again, the team might not have enough run production available to remain competitive. If the team can keep hitting and scoring runs, they might be on their way to getting the pitching they need to make a move in this division.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks
Pitchers: Javier Vasquez (14-10, 4.91) is the new ace of the pitching staff in Arizona. Vasquez crumbled in the second half of the season for the Yankees (4-5, 6.92), but the Diamondbacks are betting that those numbers are a fluke. His career numbers were solid before his disastrous second half in New York, a fact that has club officials optimistic. However, asking anyone to take a spot (staff ace) that was previously occupied by Randy Johnson is asking a lot. Russ Ortiz (15-9, 4.13) was signed from Atlanta to take the second spot in the rotation, with effective youngster Brandon Webb (7-16, 3.59), who was the victim of terrible run support in 2004. Veteran Shawn Estes, who won 15 games for Colorado last year despite an ERA near 6.00, will serve as the fourth starter. Youngster Mike Gosling will serve as the fifth starter to open the season. Gosling impressed the organization in a late callup last season.

The Diamondbacks have a young and inexperienced group of relievers, led by a new closer who will have to prove that a solid late-season run wasn’t a fluke. Greg Aquino picked up 16 saves in 19 chances and allowed opponents to hit just .194 against him on the season. For now, the closer’s job is his to lose. If Aquino falters, the club will probably turn to Jose Valverde (1-2, 4.25), who had eight saves last season before suffering a torn labrum. Valverde, Mike Koplove, Casey Fossum, and Randy Choate should see most of the setup work.

Position players: Two major offseason acquisitions will be asked to carry a significant amount of weight in this offense. Injury-prone third baseman Troy Glaus (.251-18-42 in 58 games) got a huge contract despite shoulder surgery that cut his 2004 season short. Veteran outfielder Shawn Green (.266-28-86) comes to the Diamondbacks from Los Angeles, where he had his ups and downs after getting a huge free-agent contract. Veteran Luis Gonzalez (.259-17-48) was able to play in over 100 games last season, but the club needs more out of him. Chad Tracy takes over at first base, and veteran Craig Counsell, who hit .241 in Milwaukee, will likely take over as the leadoff hitter. Veteran Royce Clayton (.279-8-54 in Colorado) will man the shortstop position.

Overall analysis: The first key to the season is the pitching. Ortiz had his ups and downs in Atlanta, but he’s a durable workhorse pitcher who should do just fine. Vazquez is a wild card because of how his first and only season with the Yankees finished up. Also in question is the ability of Glaus to stay healthy and avoid the strikeout bug. Gonzalez and Green have both had ups and downs recently. Counsell and Clayton are in the decline of their careers, and the Diamondbacks are asking them to set the table for the meat of their lineup. Bob Melvin takes over as manager after the Wally Backman fiasco, which is quite fitting of an organization that grossly overspent for some players, and got less than full value for the best pitcher in the National League.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Bruce Blogs Baseball - The National League East

1. Florida Marlins
Pitchers: The Marlins’ starting rotation is good enough to carry them into October, but it could also sink them into the abyss of the division. In his first three big league seasons, Josh Beckett (9-9, 3.79) has had seven stints on the disabled list. A.J. Burnett (7-6, 3.68) rebounded from elbow surgery to have a decent 20-game run with the Marlins last year. 23-year-old Dontrelle Willis (10-11, 4.02) has great potential, but seemed to take a step back after a monstrous rookie season. If healthy, the trio should make Florida’ rotation one of the three or four best in the National League. Veteran Al Leiter (10-8, 3.21 with the Mets) joins the Marlins’ rotation, and Ismael Valdez (14-9, 5.19 with San Diego and Florida) had a decent run with the Marlins (5-3, 4.50) and figures to be the fifth starter.

With Armando Benitez gone to San Francisco, the Marlins are left without an experienced closer in the bullpen. For now, they’ll go with Guillermo Mota, who was unhittable with the Dodgers (8-4, 2.14), but very human with the Marlins (1-4, 4.81). It will be Mota’s first stint as a major-league closer. If he fails, veteran Antonio Alfonseca (6-4, 2.57 with Atlanta) will probably assume the role. Veterans Todd Jones and John Riedling were signed in the offseason to bolster the bullpen, and lefthanders Matt Perisho and Chad Bentz have a chance to win jobs.

Position players: The Marlins’ lineup is vastly improved over 2004. Leadoff man Juan Pierre (.326-3-45, 12 triples, 45 steals) is as good as they come, and number two hitter Luis Castillo (.291-2-47, 21 steals) isn’t bad, either. Now, they have someone to set the table for. Miguel Cabrera (.294-33-112) has limitless potential at age 21, and he now has a true masher joining him in the lineup, as Carlos Delgado (.269-32-99 in Toronto) was brought in as a free agent. Third baseman Mike Lowell (.293-27-85) is considered the leader of this team. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez (.232-23-79) needs to hit with more discipline. Defensively, the Delgado-Castillo-Gonzalez-Lowell infield is one of the best in the game. With Delgado’s big left-handed bat, the Marlins suddenly have a potentially formidable offense.

Overall analysis: This is a flawed division. No one stands out as a heavy favorite. The Braves are the easy pick because of their 13 straight titles. Everyone else is a risky pick because of that streak. The Marlins have never won this division, winning both their World Series after qualifying for the playoffs as the wild card. This will be the year. Their pitching is too talented, and the youngsters will benefit from the leadership of Leiter. With Delgado in the middle of the order, everyone becomes more dangerous. Not only that, but managers will no longer be able to match a right-handed reliever against the middle of the order, as Delgado gives them a left-handed presence they’ve really never had in Miami. The bullpen is a question mark because no one knows what Mota will do as the closer, but my hunch is that they’ll figure something out. The Marlins have enough offense and pitching to overcome the Braves and win the division.

2. Atlanta Braves
Pitchers: Lifelong Braves fan Tim Hudson is living a dream. He gets to play for the team he rooted for growing up. Hudson (12-6, 3.53 in Oakland) was acquired to assume the top spot in the Braves’ rotation, as Atlanta returns to a more pitching-oriented organizational plan. As part of that plan, the Braves have moved closer John Smoltz back to the rotation. Smoltz, 37, posted 154 saves in three-plus years as the Braves’ closer. Before that, Smoltz was one of the most consistent starting pitchers in the National League, posting a 157-113 record in 356 starts from 1988-1999. If Smoltz’s elbow holds up, he should be capable of 175-200 innings and 15-18 wins. Third starter John Thomson (14-8, 3.72) was almost unhittable in the second half of the season (8-1, 2.45). The Braves expect lefty Mike Hampton (13-9, 4.28) to pitch more like he did in the second half of the season (9-1, 3.13). Hampton and Thomson were huge keys to Atlanta’s second-half run to the National League East crown. Horacio Ramirez will serve as the fifth starter.

With Smoltz back in the rotation, John Schuerholz needed to go find a closer. Danny Kolb (39 saves, 2.98 ERA) was brought in from Milwaukee in a trade for flamethrowing prospect Jose Capellan. However, Kolb’s numbers are a bit deceiving. Four of his five blown saves came after the All-Star break, and his ERA in the second half of the season was an atrocious 4.88. The Braves best have a backup plan for Kolb, in case his second-half numbers are indicative of how he’ll pitch this season. Chris Reitsma is back in the pen, along with Kevin Gryboski, Gabe White, and youngster Roman Colon. None of them appear to have closer potential if Kolb falters.

Position players: Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi combined for eight home runs and 38 RBI in 2004. Those are the starting corner outfielders for this Braves team. Andruw Jones (.261-29-91) will ably man center field, as usual. The Braves will welcome a full season out of second baseman Marcus Giles (.311-8-48 in 102 games), and expectations are high that Rafael Furcal (.279-14-59) will continue to improve out of the leadoff spot. The first base platoon of lefty Adam LaRoche (.278-13-45) and 46-year-old Julio Franco (.309-6-57) should continue to work out well, provided Franco can still play. Chipper Jones failed to reach 100 RBIs last year for the first time since 1995 (.248-30-96). That won’t happen again.

Overall analysis: The Braves have won 13 straight division titles. It’s an amazing run by an amazing organization. They’ve always found ways to win, whether it’s with the pitching and defense or the offense. They’ve also found ways to make lightly-regarded players productive, as they did last year with castoffs Thomson and Hampton in the rotation and as they have with the ageless Franco. However, this is the year the run comes to an end. The Braves lost too much offense when J.D. Drew signed with the Dodgers, and they have a very shaky bullpen behind a potentially shaky starting rotation. If Bobby Cox is managing in October, he should get his face engraved on a mountain somewhere.

3. Philadelphia Phillies
Pitchers: Jon Lieber went 5-0 last September for the Yankees (14-8, 4.33 overall). Now, Lieber, 35, will serve as the staff ace in Philadelphia. He’s a good ground-ball pitcher, which will serve him well in Citizens Bank Park, and pitchers normally do well in their second season following elbow surgery, so the Phillies have high hopes. He’d better come through, too, because the Phillies aren’t exactly blessed with a deep pitching staff. The group behind Lieber, Randy Wolf (5-8, 4.28), Cory Lidle (12-12, 4.90 overall; 5-2, 3.90 in Philadelphia), and Vincente Padilla (7-7, 4.53) are all inconsistent. Lidle has the most upside of the group, assuming he can control his sinker and get ground ball outs with it.

Billy Wagner, 33, pitched in just 45 games in his first season as a Phillie (2.42 ERA, 21 saves). He was overpowering, as usual, but health issues kept him from playing a full season. That caused other issues in the bullpen, as Tim Worrell (5-6, 3.68, 19 saves) had to close when Wagner was out, and the workload increased for setup men Rheal Cormier (84 games) and Ryan Madson. Worrell and Cormier are going to turn 38 during the season, so the burden is on the starters to get deeper into games, and on Wagner to stay healthy.

Position players: The top half of the order is pretty good. The bottom half has some issues. Jimmy Rollins (.289-14-73, 30 steals) has become a legitimate leadoff man. Kenny Lofton will get the job done out of the second spot, helping set the table for the power hitters. Bobby Abreu (.301-30-105) and Jim Thome (.274-42-105) are veteran sluggers who will produce plenty of big hits. Then, things get a bit shaky. Pat Burrell (257-24-84) has great power, but also strikes out more often than anyone else on the team. He’s followed in the lineup by Chase Utley (.266-13-57), who has great potential but has never gotten it done at the big league level. Also in the mix is catcher Mike Lieberthal (.271-17-61), whose overall numbers were good, but he hit just .142 with runners in scoring position. Third baseman David Bell (.291-18-77) is coming off a good season, but his production is at least in part predicated by the production of those around him. One thing’s for certain: Bell will give Philadelphia good effort and solid defense at third base.

Overall analysis: New manager Charlie Manuel will make sure his team scores runs, and he’ll make sure the players are relaxed, a stark contrast to the reign of Larry Bowa, in which players constantly complained of the poor dugout/clubhouse atmosphere. Manuel will get the most out of this offense, and there’s plenty of potential to tap into. However, the pitching staff has holes. The Phillies are relying on a 35-year-old with a 100-91 career record as their ace, and none of their other three main starters have shown any real consistency at the big league level. The aging bullpen needs less work, not more work. With the rotation Philadelphia has, the odds are high that they’ll get more work than they can handle. In a division full of elite pitching, the Phillies don’t have enough to be a huge factor.

4. New York Mets
Pitchers: If anything, the signing of Pedro Martinez (16-9, 3.90 in Boston) signals a change in the makeup of the Mets. Martinez, 33, has had his share of arm problems (which some reports say are more serious than anyone has let on), and he is prone to rough outings in hostile environments. He’s also capable of huge performances when the spotlight is on (in other words, it’s sometimes hard to figure him out), and the Mets think the health risk involved in giving Martinez a four-year deal is worth the reward they expect from him. His presence takes pressure off 39-year-old Tom Glavine (11-14, 3.60), who is no longer suited for the role of staff ace. Japanese import Kaz Ishii was brought in from Los Angeles (the Dodgers, that is) in a trade, and he should win a job in the rotation. Expectations are also high for Kris Benson (12-12, 4.31 overall), who got a big contract from the Mets in the offseason after they picked him up from Pittsburgh at the deadline. Victor Zambrano (11-7, 4.37 overall), another deadline pickup, will also work out of the Mets’ rotation.

New closer Braden Looper (2.70 ERA, 29 saves in 34 chances) did the job for this team last year, but getting leads to him was a bit of an adventure. For all the improvements made to the starting rotation, the Mets never found the right combination in the bullpen. Mike DeJean is back, along with Felix Heredia, Tyler Yates, Orber Moreno, and lefthanded Korean import Dae Sung Koo.

Position players: In Carlos Beltran, the Mets hope they’ve solved some of their hitting woes. However, as good as Beltran is (.267-38-104 overall), the Mets need to get Beltran in the lineup four or five times to cover up their offensive deficiencies. Jose Reyes (.255-2-14) and Kaz Matsui (.272-7-44) are okay at the top of the order. Beltran will do everything he can to get runs across, but he needs a healthy season out of catcher Mike Piazza (.266-20-54), and continued improvement out of third baseman David Wright (.293-14-40 in 69 games). Right fielder Mike Cameron has 30/30 talent, but his 2004 numbers (.231-30-76) weren’t nearly good enough despite the home run total. Cliff Floyd (.260-18-63 in 113 games) needs to stay healthy and improve his average. Miguel Cairo (.292-6-42) was signed as a free agent from the Yankees and might be able to help with his bat if the Mets can find a position for him to play. He’ll probably start as a backup for the middle infield spots.

Overall analysis: The Mets should have a solid starting rotation. If Martinez is healthy, that means the Mets’ top four starters all have the ability to log more than 200 innings, and fifth starter Zambrano isn’t bad, either. However, the Mets still have serious bullpen issues, and unless Beltran finds a way to manufacture enough runs on his own, they’ll still have trouble making things happen offensively. All in all, the Mets can contend if Beltran gets enough help in the lineup, but despite the money they committed to making the team better, the Mets enter 2005 with the odds stacked against them.

5. Washington Nationals
Pitchers: As The Artist Formerly Known As The Montreal Expos makes their debut in our nation’s capital, the hope is that fans will appreciate the efforts of old-school staff ace Livan Hernandez (11-15, 3.60, 255 innings) and not pay attention to the other four projected starting pitchers. The Nationals are hopeful (hope brought on by necessity) that free agent Esteban Loaiza (10-7, 5.70 overall) will recapture the magic he had with the White Sox in 2003 (21-9, 2.90). Loaiza will serve as the second starter, followed by Tony Armas (2-4, 4.88), Tomo Ohka (3-7, 3.40), and Zach Day (5-10, 3.93). Of the three, Day has the most upside, but all three of them have missed significant time in recent years because of injuries.

The overworked bullpen put up some good numbers as a group in 2004 (27-29, 4.00, 31 saves). Chad Cordero (2.94 ERA, 14 saves) should open the season as the closer, but manager Frank Robinson and his coaches think Cordero is better suited for setup duty. Luis Ayala (6-12, 2.69) might get a chance to steal the closer’s job at some point. Also in the mix in the bullpen are Joe Horgan, Joey Eischen, T.J. Tucker, and Claudio Vargas. It will probably be an overworked bullpen again, as the starters (outside of Hernandez) don’t appear capable of consistently pitching deep into games.

Position players: General manager Jim Bowden had a bit more success bringing in some talent to help in the batting order. Vinny Castilla (.271-35-131 in Colorado) and Jose Guillen (.294-27-104 in Anaheim) were signed to provide some pop in the middle of the order, and Cristian Guzman (.274-8-46) was signed to help steady the top of the order. Big things are expected out of center fielder Endy Chavez (.277-5-34), who should bat leadoff ahead of Guzman and star second baseman Jose Vidro (.294-14-60), who missed most of the last two months of the season because of knee surgery. First baseman/left fielder Brad Wilkerson (.255-32-67) needs to cut his unsightly strikeout total (152) and drive in more runs. Nick Johnson (.251-7-33) should see some time at first base. Catcher Brian Schneider (.257-12-49) isn’t a bad hitter, but he’s an even better defensive catcher.

Overall analysis: The Nationals are expecting a lot out of the aging Castilla, who hit .218 away from Coors Field last year. They’re also expecting big things out of Guillen, who was run out of Anaheim because of attitudinal problems before the playoffs. Given the numbers he was putting up for the Angels, the problems must have been serious to warrant a rest-of-the-season suspension. We’ll see how he gets along with Robinson and the other coaches. Outside of Hernandez, the pitching staff is extremely unstable, both in the rotation and in the bullpen. Robinson will need a Herculean effort out of Loaiza, Armas, Ohka, and Day to keep this team afloat. It’s not the best way for baseball to reintroduce itself to Washington, especially considering that this franchise, which has been floundering for years, still doesn’t have a real owner.

Bruce Blogs Baseball - The American League Central

1. Minnesota Twins
Pitchers: The Twins pitching staff isn’t nearly as stacked as it used to be, but with the history this team has of finding guys who will get the job done, it’s foolish to not have faith in their starting five or bullpen. The rotation is led by unanimous 2004 Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana. By now, you probably know about Santana’s overall numbers (20-6, 2.61, 265 K, 13-0 after the All-Star break) from 2004, and you should probably know about this: he was coming off elbow surgery last season, which contributed to his slow start, he’s only 26, and he’s entering just his second full season as a starting pitcher. If that’s not enough, the steady veteran Brad Radke is back, joined by Carlos Silva and Kyle Lohse. Joe Mays, who missed last season recovering from elbow surgery, is poised to rejoin the rotation. If Mays is 100 percent, the Twins will boast four starting pitchers who are capable of logging 200-plus innings.

Like Santana, Joe Nathan spent his first full season in a new role in 2004, and he thrived like no one could have rationally expected. Nathan was the Twins’ closer after Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins both left in free agency, and his numbers were incredible (1.82 ERA, 44 saves). The All-Star leads a bullpen that contains some uncertainty heading into 2005, but uncertainty is nothing new for these Twins. Jesse Crain, 23, figures to hold down a more significant role this season, joined in the pre-Nathan corps by Juan Rincon, J.C. Romero, and Grant Balfour (once he’s fully healthy).

Position players: Super-rookie Joe Mauer played just 35 games last year because of knee problems, but his presence is key to the Twins’ offense and pitching this season. The Twins will keep him behind the plate, but common sense dictates that they won’t tolerate too many more problems with his knees before they move him. His bat’s too valuable. With the power of Justin Morneau available for 600-plus at-bats this season, the Twins’ offense looks much more formidable than in past years. They’ve always scored enough runs to be a winning team because of their pitching and defense. If Lew Ford avoids a sophomore slump, Michael Cuddyer proves he can play every day, and Shannon Stewart can stay healthy, the Twins suddenly have some serious offense. With Morneau hitting in front of him, Torii Hunter becomes a serious 30/30 threat, and Jacque Jones should be better after a streaky season (.254-24-80).

Overall analysis: The Twins are in good shape, contrary to what many will believe. They aren’t the sexiest team in baseball, and many still think their success is predicated on pitching and defense. But these Twins are different than the last three years. Morneau and Hunter could combine for 65-70 home runs. Mauer is a legitimate .325-type hitter with good pop in his bat. Cuddyer is a good hitter who should benefit from a chance to start and play every day. The bullpen is full of flamethrowers, and the starting staff is as strong as any in baseball. Though this division as a whole is better, only the Indians appear improved enough to contend, and the Twins still have to be considered the favorites.

2. Cleveland Indians
Pitchers: With the free-agent signing of Kevin Millwood (9-6, 4.85 in Philadelphia), the Indians hope they have upgraded their rotation and added a solid veteran arm. If healthy, he should fit in the third spot in the rotation behind sinker specialist Jake Westbrook (14-9, 3.38) and 300-pound lefthanded C.C. Sabathia (11-10, 4.12). Sabathia struggled with weight and control issues in 2004, but at only 24 years old, he has time to tap into his vast talent and fulfill his potential in Cleveland. Cliff Lee and either Jason Davis or Scott Elarton will finish out the rotation. Lee won 14 games as a rookie, but posted an unsightly 5.43 ERA. Without Millwood and Sabathia at 100%, the staff will likely bog down and underachieve, which would be a deadly blow to the team’s chances.

Bob Wickman appears fully healthy and ready to reassume the role of closer for the Indians. Off arm issues, Wickman posted 13 saves in his return, and Cleveland felt strongly enough about his recovery to re-sign him. Arthur Rhodes was brought in as the primary left-handed setup man, with David Riske and Rafael Betancourt also filling setup roles from the right side. Bobby Howry should also win a job in the bullpen after he bounced back from elbow surgery in 2003. Rhodes will get left-handed help from Scott Sauerbeck.

Position players: While it’s not as potentially deadly as the Yankees or Red Sox, the Indians boast a talented lineup. With Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez, Ben Broussard, Casey Blake, and Coco Crisp (combined 111 HR, 458 RBI in 2004), it’s hard to imagine the Indians not scoring enough runs to post a winning record and make serious noise in the division. The addition of Aaron Boone, assuming he can stay healthy, helps both in the lineup and in the field. Brewer castoff Ronnie Belliard and Crisp set the table for the power hitters, and the Indians are hoping for a big year out of the middle of their order, where they signed Juan Gonzalez to shore things up. Gonzalez will start in right field, and the Indians hope his numbers will improve with a healthy season (.276-5-17 in just 33 games). However, since his huge 2001 season in Cleveland, Gonzalez has only played in 185 games in three years.

Overall analysis: Fair or not, there have been some questions about Eric Wedge’s managerial skills in Cleveland. Some have wondered if the Indians have had the necessary focus defensively and on the bases. Other observers think Wedge is one bad stretch away from potentially losing this team. On a young club hungry to contend and play into October, the last thing needed is a managerial change. Wedge might not need to deliver a division title, but a step back from last year’s 80-82 record, which was surprising to many in baseball, will not be tolerated. Unfortunately for Wedge and his team, they don’t have the offense or the consistent pitching to beat out Minnesota, though a healthy Cleveland club could certainly make things interesting in the Central.

3. Chicago White Sox
Pitchers: With the additions of Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras, the White Sox hope they have solidified the bottom of their starting rotation. The organization is confident that they have a talented 1-2 punch in Mark Buehrle (16-10, 3.89) and Freddy Garcia (13-11, 3.81). Hernandez and Contreras will fight with Jon Garland (12-11, 4.89) for the final three spots in the rotation. The Sox like the ability of Buehrle and Garcia to eat innings (both were over 200 innings last season), and they’re banking on Contreras and Hernandez to stay healthy and provide stability.

White Sox fans have taken a quick liking to closer Shingo Takatsu, who had 19 saves in 20 chances and should reclaim the closer’s job to start the season. Even though he’s 36, the Sox figure he has at least one or two good years in his arm given how he pitches (he keeps hitters off balance with his slow stuff, ala former Brewer closer Doug Jones). Damaso Marte is better suited for a setup role than closing. He bounced between the two roles last year, and his numbers paid a price (6-5, 3.42). Chicago picked up Luis Vizcaino (4-4, 3.75) from Milwaukee in the Carlos Lee trade. There was speculation he would have a chance to close in Milwaukee when Danny Kolb was traded, but he’ll work as a setup man for the Sox. Vizcaino has mid-90s heat, but is prone to the home run ball.

Position players: With Lee traded and Magglio Ordonez having signed as a free agent in Detroit, the White Sox needed to upgrade the offense. They got leadoff man Scott Podsednik from the Brewers in the Lee trade, and they signed outfielder Jermaine Dye and catcher A.J. Pierzynski as free agents. Podsednik (.244-12-39, 70 steals) has to prove his numbers from last year were a fluke, Dye (.265-23-80 in Oakland) has to prove he can stay healthy, and Pierzynski (.272-11-77 in San Francisco) has to shed his “clubhouse cancer” image acquired with the Giants. Frank Thomas (.271-18-49 in just 74 games) needs to prove he can stay healthy at age 36, and he’s not off to a good start, being that he probably won’t be ready for Opening Day. Aaron Rowand (.310-24-69) is ready for a breakout year, and Paul Konerko (.277-41-117) is coming off his breakout year. The Sox have a solid infield with Konerko, Willie Harris, Juan Uribe, and Joe Crede. Podsednik should be better off defensively in left field, as Rowand will continue to man center field.

Overall analysis: Manager Ozzie Guillen wants to run more, as he tries to employ more of a National League style. This team is more capable of playing that style effectively, but there could still be glitches. Guillen needs to hope his rotation stays together, and that his bullpen doesn’t fall apart. Because of depth problems in the pen, this might be easier said than done. Without Lee and Ordonez, the offense won’t be nearly as good, especially if Thomas and Dye have more health issues, and if Podsednik hits anything close to .244 out of the leadoff spot.

4. Detroit Tigers
Pitchers: The youth of this staff is encouraging and discouraging at the same time. On one hand, the progress guys like Mike Maroth (11-13, 4.31) and Jeremy Bonderman (11-13, 4.89) have made is very encouraging, especially considering their age (27 and 22, respectively). Bonderman has been named Detroit’s Opening Day starter. Nate Robertson (12-10, 4.90) was the only starter to post a winning record. The elder statesman of the rotation, 31-year-old Jason Johnson (8-15, 5.13) needs to improve his consistency. He’s joined in the rotation by Gary Knotts (7-6, 5.25), who will serve as the fifth starter.

The Tigers took a huge step toward making their bullpen a strength when they signed closer Troy Percival (2.90 ERA, 33 saves) from Anaheim as a free agent. Percival is 35, but still has a powerful arm and a deadly fastball to go along with an improved mix of pitches. Late news this spring had former closer Ugueth Urbina requesting a trade because he wants to be a closer somewhere else instead of a setup man in Detroit. As of this writing, Urbina was still a Tiger. If he stays, he’ll serve as the primary setup man, with Jamie Walker, Fernando Rodney, and Chris Spurling also working out of the bullpen. Knotts will see some long relief work during stretches where the Tigers don’t need a fifth starter.

Position players: If Magglio Ordonez’s knees hold up, there is a chance that he won’t be a huge free-agent bust in Detroit. Ordonez played in just 52 games last year, and many around baseball thought it was foolish of Detroit to give him $70 million. The Tigers jettisoned Alex Sanchez in spring training, opening up center field for Craig Monroe (.293-18-72). Rondell White (.270-19-67) is back, as are infielders Carlos Pena (.241-27-82) and Dmitri Young (.272-18-60). Former catcher Brandon Inge (.287-13-64) starts at third base, as the Tigers are set behind the plate with veteran Ivan Rodriguez (.334-19-86), who is the unquestioned team leader. The pitchers are comfortable with him, and his numbers show he is still a huge offensive threat. The lineup, though, is likely predicated on the health of Ordonez, who gives the Tigers a legitimate veteran thumper in the middle of the order if his body holds up. Sanchez’s departure leaves a hole at the top of the batting order. The Tigers are likely to give second baseman Omar Infante (.264-16-55) the first shot to win that job, with shortstop Carlos Guillen (.318-20-97) also in the running.

Overall analysis: The Tigers have the makings of a very good starting rotation. Bonderman and Robertson will be keys this year as they continue to come into their own. Maroth will get better, and the Tigers hope Johnson can be a steadier influence on the staff than he was last year. Monroe could hit 30 home runs playing every day in center field, and Ordonez has that kind of power if he’s healthy for 150 games. There’s no doubt the Tigers need to score more runs, but they also need the pitching to continue to improve. Even with veterans like Rodriguez and Ordonez around, everything points to the Tigers still being a year away from making serious noise in the Central.

5. Kansas City Royals
Pitchers: The youth movement in Kansas City (and you thought they couldn’t get any younger…) starts with the rotation, led by 21-year-old Zack Greinke (8-11, 3.97 in 24 starts). Greinke is joined in the starting rotation by 23-year-old lefty Jimmy Gobble (9-8, 5.35), 26-year-old righty Runelvys Hernandez, who did not pitch in 2004 but looks good after arm surgery. Veterans Jose Lima (13-5, 4.07 in Los Angeles) and Brian Anderson (6-12, 5.64) should earn jobs in the rotation as well. Youngster Denny Bautista might force his way into the rotation, too. Greinke is a big key for the Royals. They’re banking on his continued development in a “learn on the job” mode, a situation not unlike that of Jeremy Bonderman in Detroit the last two years. Greinke, though, is off to a much better start than Bonderman was.

Jeremy Affeldt converted from a starter into a reliever last year, then became the Royals’ closer. Affeldt was okay in that role (13 saves in 17 chances), but has been positively horrible this spring, leading to speculation that Mike MacDougal (1-1, 5.56 in 13 games) could win his old job back. For now, the Royals seem committed to Affeldt as closer and MacDougal working primarily as a setup man. As for the rest of the bullpen, expect Scott Sullivan, D.J. Carrasco, Chris George, and Jamie Cerda to see some innings.

Position players: The Royals have more of a veteran presence in their lineup than they do their pitching staff. Team captain Mike Sweeney (.287-22-79) missed more than 50 games because of back issues, but went through an offseason program designed to help his back. Ken Harvey (.287-13-55) is trying to become more of a pull hitter and better utilize his strength. The Royals need him to hit for more power. Terrence Long (.295-3-28) was signed as a free agent after a season of part-time play in San Diego and should start in left field. The Royals also have 31-year-old Eli Marrero (.320-10-40 in Atlanta), who could make for a dangerous fourth outfielder and emergency catcher. Projected leadoff man David DeJesus (.287-7-39) was impressive in center field after Carlos Beltran was traded. The Royals also have veteran Matt Stairs (.267-18-66) available for duty in the outfield. The Royals have some youth along the infield, with 22-year-old Ruben Gotay set to start at second base, and 23-year-old Mark Teahen trying to force his way into the lineup at third base over veteran Tony Graffanino. Catcher John Buck, 24, hit for good power (.235-12-30) after being acquired in the Beltran trade, and he should be the starter this season.

Overall analysis: The Royals have gotten younger, as Allard Baird responded quickly when the 2004 season went downhill pretty much from the start. Manager Tony Pena will do everything he can to keep things positive in the clubhouse, but can he squeeze enough wins out of this team to keep it out of the cellar? The answer is probably “No”, unless Sweeney and Harvey have big years with the bats, and Greinke develops into a number one starting pitcher quicker than can be realistically anticipated.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Bruce Blogs Baseball - The American League West

1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Pitchers: The Angels are blessed with a ton of potential in their starting rotation. The problem is that the potential that exists has yet to be fulfilled. Bartolo Colon was signed as a free agent because of his sometimes-unhittable stuff, with the Angels hopeful that he would watch his weight and pitch with a more consistent focus. While Colon’s weight wasn’t as big an issue in 2004 as it was in 2003, his 5.01 ERA went a long way to offset his 18 wins. He was better in the second half of the season, and the organization is betting that the 31-year-old will continue to improve. While he only went 11-12, Kelvim Escobar was much more consistent than Colon, posting a 3.93 ERA. Escobar did a good job not getting frustrated over a lack of run support and plethora of no-decisions. Jarrod Washburn has to show he can stay healthy for a full season and be productive, and John Lackey needs to be more consistent out of the fourth spot. The rotation is impressive in terms of overall talent, but the Angels need more production and more consistency out of the four.

Francisco Rodriguez, the 23-year-old fireballer, takes over for Troy Percival as the Angels’ closer. The move should help Rodriguez stay fresh throughout the season after he pitched 84 innings in 2004. Brendan Donnelly and Scot Shields, who are better served for the seventh and eighth innings, will be the primary setup men, with Esteban Yan also expected to pitch in key situations. The Angels need to be wary, however, because Shields logged over 100 innings last year, and Donnelly wasn’t healthy. The bullpen is talented, but Percival’s move to Detroit saps some of its limited depth.

Position players: The Angels have a lineup full of guys who love to swing the bat. Darin Erstad, Vladimir Guerrero, Garret Anderson, and Orlando Cabrera aren’t known for being cheated in their at-bats. Guerrero is best-known for his wild swings at just about any pitch his bat can reach, and he can hit just about any pitch for power. The Angels need big numbers out of young Dallas McPherson, who hit 40 home runs in the minors last year, and they also need continued success out of the seemingly ageless Steve Finley in center field. The Angels aren’t a bad defensive team, either, especially with Finley taking over in center and moving Anderson to left. Erstad is very good at first base, and Cabrera isn’t a slouch at shortstop.

Overall analysis: While the Angels are not a sure thing in the West, they are the favorites. Their status is helped by the rebuilding and subsequent uncertainty in both Seattle and Oakland. The pitching staff isn’t deep and has the potential to implode, but Colon was solid after the All-Star break, and the Angels are banking on the lineup not to miss a beat without Glaus and former leadoff man David Eckstein. Mike Scioscia is as good a manager as you’ll find in baseball, and the Angels are too dangerous in all facets of the game to not be considered the team to beat in this division, despite their stupid new name (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim).

2. Oakland Athletics
Pitchers: With two of the Big Three gone, the Oakland starting rotation has a completely new look. Tim Hudson was dealt to Atlanta, and Mark Mulder to St. Louis, leaving Barry Zito, 26, as the ace of the starting rotation. Zito struggled (11-11, 4.48) in 2004, but he developed a fourth pitch last season, and he seems to be relishing the leadership role he now has on this staff. 23-year-old Rich Harden (11-7, 3.99) was solid as a rookie, and he takes over the second spot in the rotation. Danny Haren was okay in a late-season stint in St. Louis, then was shipped to Oakland in the Mulder trade. Fellow youngsters Dan Meyer (brought in from Atlanta in the Hudson deal) and Joe Blanton are expected to finish out the rotation. If that is the starting five, the A’s will boast a rotation with an average age of 24.

The success or failure of the bullpen comes down to one player: closer Octavio Dotel. Dotel became a gopher-ball machine last season, posting a 4.09 ERA and making 22 saves in 28 chances after being acquired from Houston in a midseason trade. The A’s bullpen as a whole posted a horrifying save percentage of 55.6. They’re counting on Dotel to get that number closer to 70-75%, with help from some solid setup men like Juan Cruz, Kiko Calero, Ricardo Rincon, Chad Bradford, and Justin Duchscherer. If Dotel returns to the numbers he put up as a setup man in Houston, the A’s bullpen could become one of the best in baseball. If not, look for the A’s to possibly bring Huston Street, drafted last year after a successful career as a closer at Texas, up from AAA.

Position players: There are some question marks in the Oakland lineup, but a healthy Oakland team should score bundles of runs. Jason Kendall was acquired from Pittsburgh and will bat behind leadoff man Mark Kotsay (.314-15-63). Eric Chavez is back after an injury-plagued season, and the A’s expect continued improvement out of Bobby Crosby, Erubiel Durazo, and Eric Byrnes. Charles Thomas, impressive in AAA last season, will take over in right field for the departed Jermaine Dye. Second base is a major question mark, as Mark Ellis didn’t play last season. The A’s brought in Keith Ginter (.262-19-60) from Milwaukee in case Ellis can’t go, but Ellis has been penciled in as the Opening Day starter.

Overall analysis: General Manager Billy Beane made some major offseason moves, dealing Hudson and Mulder and acquiring Kendall to start behind the plate. If the young starting rotation works, Beane is on to something. If Dotel doesn’t implode again, Beane is on to something. If Chavez and others can stay healthy and produce big numbers, Beane is on to something. However, if any of these three things doesn’t happen, the A’s will find themselves chasing the Angels all season. I love what Beane has done in Oakland, and it’s hard to pick against this team, but there is too much uncertainty and too much youth for them to beat out Los Angeles (seriously, this doesn’t look right…it’s ANAHEIM).

3. Seattle Mariners
Pitchers: The Seattle starting rotation is led by a 42-year-old slop-thrower and anchored by a former Northern League star. None of the Mariners’ four regular starters last year (Jamie Moyer, Gil Meche, Joel Piniero, and Ryan Franklin) posted an ERA under 4.67. The former Northern League star, 29-year-old Bobby Madritsch, was impressive in a late-season callup (6-3, 3.27) and should serve as the fifth starter to start this season. Obviously, the Mariners need better numbers out of the top four, especially Moyer (7-13, 5.21), and a healthy season out of Piniero, to have any chance in a tough division.

The team is banking on a healthy season out of closer Eddie Guardado (18 saves, 2.78 ERA), who pitched in just 41 games. Guardado needs to stay healthy, because Shigetoshi Hasegawa, 36, is the backup for the closer’s role. Hasegawa will be counted on for big innings no matter his role, and manager Mike Hargrove is hopeful he’ll turn it around after an awful 2004 (5.16 ERA). Expect J.J. Putz, Ron Villone, and Julio Mateo to work as setup men with Hasegawa. With how shaky the starting rotation is, the Mariners’ setup men could see significant work.

Position players: Seattle spent over $110 million to upgrade their lineup. Now fingers are crossed throughout the organization. Richie Sexson (.233-9-23 in Arizona) missed most of last season after shoulder surgery. He was a prolific power hitter in Milwaukee, and the Mariners hope he is fully recovered and ready to hit 40 home runs again. Adrian Beltre had a career year for the Dodgers last year (.334-48-121), but had never hit more than 25 homers or drove in more than 90 runs before that. Both Beltre and Sexson are good defensive players, so the infield should be pretty solid. Bret Boone had eye surgery to correct a vision problem that may have contributed to his slide last season (.251-24-83), and shortstop Pokey Reese can field, even if his hitting is suspect (.221 in Boston in 2004). Ichiro set the single-season hit record last year with 262 on his way to a huge season (.372-8-60). He’s joined in the outfield by Raul Ibanez and Randy Wynn. Look for youngster Bucky Jacobsen to get plenty of at-bats as a DH and part-time third baseman.

Overall analysis: The lineup is potentially prolific, but it might be asking a lot out of Sexson (injury) and Beltre (contract year syndrome?) to produce big numbers for the Mariners. If GM Bill Bavasi’s huge financial gamble pays off, and Hargrove manages like he did in Cleveland instead of like he did in Baltimore, the team will have a chance to compete. However, like Oakland, there are too many question marks surrounding the Mariners. Will Beltre return to past form and prove to be a huge bust? Can Boone rebound? Can Moyer improve at age 42? Can Meche and Franklin combine to win more than 11 games? Is Madritsch the real deal? With so many issues, it’s hard to pick them any higher than third.

4. Texas Rangers
Pitchers: The Rangers have a better rotation than people think. It’s all led by veteran Kenny Rogers (18-9, 4.76), who will need to show he can still bring it at age 40. Sinkerballer Ryan Drese (14-10, 4.20) emerged as a good second starter in 2004. Youngsters Chris Young and Juan Dominguez need to step up, as third starter Chan Ho Park (4-7, 5.46) has done virtually nothing since getting a big free-agent contract. Ricardo Rodriguez will be available if anyone falters or is injured. The odds of both Rogers and Drese pitching over 200 innings again aren’t high, especially given Rogers’ age, but manager Buck Showalter is hopeful that he can get four pitchers over 150-175 innings each.

After a strong 2004 season, the Rangers’ bullpen must prove it wasn’t a one-year wonder. Closer Francisco Cordero might get better, thanks to his three deadly pitches and the fact that he posted 49 saves in his first full year as a closer. Setup man Frank Francisco was good last year, but the team is hopeful the chair-throwing incident in Oakland doesn’t have any kind of long-term effect on him. Veteran Doug Brocail is joined by R.A. Dickey, Carlos Almanzar, Ron Mahay, and Brian Shouse in what should be a solid bullpen. Showalter hopes to cut into their workload, but the Rangers are deep here, assuming everyone stays healthy.

Position players: Though Alfonso Soriano has struggled with his health in spring training, he can still hit. In fact, just about everyone who will swing the bat for this team can hit. Soriano is joined in the lineup by Michael Young (.313-22-99), Hank Blalock (.276-32-110), Mark Teixeira (.281-38-112), and Kevin Mench (.276-26-71). Richard Hidalgo will try to rejuvenate himself after an awful 2004 (.235-25-82). Laynce Nix is expected to improve offensively as he plays every day in center field, and DH David Dellucci could put up big numbers if he gets 550 or more at-bats. Though the Rangers have a lot of power at the top of the lineup, they are taking gambles on players like Nix, Hidalgo, and Dellucci. It’s not a very deep team, and they are prone to long strings of poor at-bats (Blalock, Soriano, Teixeira, and Nix all posted over 100 strikeouts in 2004).

Overall analysis: While the frontline hitters have great power and the potential to get much better in terms of making contact and having quality at-bats, it’s not all there yet. Showalter is hoping to get solid innings out of his rotation so he can avoid wearing down his bullpen. Even though the ‘pen is rather deep, it won’t last if the starters can’t pitch deeper into ballgames than they did last year (outside of Rogers and Drese). If Rogers falters at age 40, the staff is really in trouble. Texas used 17 starting pitchers last season, and if that trend continues, the Rangers will lose more than they win. Seattle is better, Oakland isn’t as bad as some people believe, and the Angels are still a top team. The division got better overall in the offseason, but the Rangers really didn’t follow. Their overall record will likely suffer as a result.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Bruce Blogs Baseball - The American League East

1. New York Yankees
The Yankees have remade 60% of their starting staff, bringing in 41-year-old Randy Johnson, along with Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright. Pavano landed a big contract for the first time, but has never been considered a consistent pitcher until he put up big numbers in a contract year. Pavano is only 29, though, so he might be hitting his stride. Wright was 15-8 in Atlanta last season, but was virtually invisible since 1998 until last year. He’s never thrown 200 major-league innings, and has had a multitude of arm problems during his career. Wright did seem to shed his past reputation of headhunting in his big-league return last year. Johnson was the prize acquisition for the Yankees’ brass. He’s 41, but threw a perfect game and managed to win 16 games on a dreadful Arizona team. Kevin Brown, also over 40, and Mike Mussina, 36, are also expected to log significant innings for a team that doesn’t have much in the way of starting pitching prospects on the farm.

The bullpen is anchored by Mariano Rivera, who posted 53 saves and held hitters to a meager .225 batting average. Hitters still have trouble with his cut fastball, though he’s not thought to be as overpowering as in recent years. Steve Karsay, Mike Stanton, and Tanyon Sturtze need to be sharp, as Paul Quantrill won’t hold up if he’s asked to pitch in another 86 games in 2005.

Position players: The offense, if the veterans continue to play at a high level, will be the most dangerous in baseball. Tony Womack was signed as a free agent and will bat leadoff. Love him or hate him, Derek Jeter is one of the best in the business, especially when his team needs a pick-me-up. One would think that Gary Sheffield is in for a big year after he went .290-36-121 with only one good shoulder; now he has the bad shoulder fixed. Alex Rodriguez will only improve now that he’s more comfortable in the New York limelight.

Now for the question mark: Can Jason Giambi return to old form? In a season full of controversy, injury, and illness, Giambi hit a putrid .208 and only drove in 40 runs. He seems to have the support of the organization as he tries to bounce back from whatever it was that caused his problems last year, but at age 34, is Giambi capable of completing the comeback? Even if he isn’t, the offense has enough weapons to score runs.

Overall analysis: The addition of Womack is a good one. It stabilizes the top of the Yankees’ order with a solid hitter who will get on base and “set the table” for Jeter, ARod, and Sheffield. However, the pitching staff is a greater question mark. There are enough potential problems because of age, lack of depth, and the injury history of players such as Brown and Wright that it’s hard to imagine the Yankees being unbeatable. With the pain of watching the Red Sox celebrate an ALCS comeback win on their field serving as motivation, and the hunger to win that comes from the team’s front office (read: George), the flawed Yankees should be expected to beat out the flawed Red Sox for divisional supremacy.

2. Boston Red Sox
Playoff hero Derek Lowe is now an overpaid Dodger. Cult hero Pedro Martinez is now an overpaid Met. Replacing them in the Sox rotation will be 41-year-old David Wells and Matt Clement, who’s always had a great arm but rarely has put up great numbers. The rotation will be led by veteran Curt Schilling. If healthy after ankle surgery, Schilling provides a reliable presence. He’s 38, but won 21 games last season and finished as the runner-up in Cy Young Award voting. Besides Schilling, Wells, and Clement, Bronson Arroyo figures to play a big role. Only 28, he improved as the season wore on last year, and was very good for the Sox in the postseason. Tim Wakefield is also available to start, but the knuckleballer is best used as a part-time starter. Luckily for the Red Sox, free-agent signee Wade Miller should be available by then, as he returns from rotator cuff surgery.

The bullpen is full of veterans who thrived in their roles during the playoffs last year. Closer Keith Foulke was amazing in October, and now his job is to carry that success over to 2005. Mike Timlin, Alan Embree, free-agent signee Matt Mantei, and John Halama are all expected to play key roles this season. The key is the short relief work of Timlin and Embree. The average age of the two is 37, and both were shaky at times last season.

Position players: The Yankees have the best lineup in the American League, and the Red Sox are right behind them. Johnny Damon drove in 94 runs out of the leadoff spot. Edgar Renteria is a great hitting upgrade at shortstop, and he isn’t all that bad with the glove. The Sox can mash with the best of them thanks to Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Kevin Millar, undisputed team leader Jason Varitek, and Trot Nixon are all solid hitters. Renteria’s signing, combined with Bill Mueller at third and Mark Bellhorn at second, gives the Sox a decent defensive infield, though Millar is a question mark at first base. Ramirez will drive the Sox nuts in left field, but they’ll put up with it as long as he hits (.308-43-130 last year).

Overall analysis: When a team wins a world championship, it leaves at least some observers curious about the hunger of the team to repeat. This team has the look and sound of a team that wants to go all the way again this year. Schilling is back to lead the rotation (after he misses the first couple weeks or so finishing his recovery from ankle surgery). Can Wells prove to be an upgrade over Lowe? Can Clement be solid as the third starter? Like Pavano in New York, Clement has never truly lived up to his potential. Renteria helps the lineup and the defense, but if everything goes according to plan, the Sox won’t be good enough to beat out the Yankees in the division. They should make the playoffs, however, and we all know what the American League Wild Card did last year.

3. Baltimore Orioles
What pitching? In all seriousness, the Orioles staff is the only thing keeping them from being a contender. Sidney Ponson lost half a kindergartner during the offseason, and the hope is that a leaner (relatively speaking) Ponson will put up better numbers than the 11-15-5.30 masterpiece from last year. The Orioles need it, because only Rodrigo Lopez looks to be a sure thing in this rotation. Lopez won 14 games and emerged as a solid starter for Baltimore, but the bottom three in the rotation are a huge question mark. The best prospect there is third starter Daniel Cabrera, a 12-game winner last year who needs to improve his control (89 walks and just 76 Ks in 147 innings). Eric Bedard will start regularly after a solid effort in 2004 after Tommy John surgery. Eric DuBose and Matt Riley are the best of the mediocre bunch competing for the fifth starter job.

The bullpen has issues, mainly because closer Jorge Julio was shaky (at best) in 2004 (4.57 ERA, 22 saves, 11 HR allowed in only 69 IP). If Julio can’t close effectively, the Orioles could up a proverbial creek. The rest of the bullpen is okay. B.J. Ryan is a good setup man, and fellow leftie Steve Kline was signed as a free agent. John Parrish can also be effective in a short relief role.

Position players: The Orioles have a top-notch lineup, even if Sammy Sosa, acquired from the Cubs in a trade late in the offseason, doesn’t get the job done. Javy Lopez can still hit, but expect him to DH some this season as the Orioles begin to use Geronimo Gil behind the plate more often. With Melvin Mora (.340-27-104) and Miguel Tejada (.311-34-150) joined by solid hitters like Lopez, B.J. Surhoff, and Larry Bigbie, there’s little question the Orioles will score runs. They’ll be okay defensively, too, provided Sosa isn’t an albatross in right field. Rafael Palmeiro drove in 88 runs in 154 games last season. The Orioles want him to DH, but the options at first base are limited, which is why Jay Gibbons will probably get a chance to win a job there. Offensively, this isn’t a terribly deep club, but if the front-line players stay healthy, they will score plenty of runs.

Overall analysis: Lee Mazzilli had a good learning experience in his first year. He works well with pitching coach and former big-league manager Ray Miller, and overall, he lets his coaches deal with players. Mazzilli did a good job dealing with young pitchers like Cabrera and Bedard late in the season, and the confidence they gained from pitching well needs to carry over to 2005. With the offense Baltimore has, they can outslug teams. But to become a contender in a top-heavy division, the Orioles need Ponson, Lopez, and especially Cabrera to consistently give them solid innings. If that happens, and Julio can re-emerge as an elite closer, the Orioles have a chance to surprise. Otherwise, they’ll be a distant third, just like 2004.

4. Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays are blessed with two strong starting pitchers. 2003 Cy Young winner Roy Halladay slumped for a time, and missed most of the second half of the season. It’s expected he will rebound after an 8-8 campaign. Ted Lilly tried to pick up the slack, as he pitched well enough (12-10, 4.05) to represent the Blue Jays in the All-Star Game. The Jays expect Halladay and Lilly to anchor the rotation. The end of the rotation will be led by youngster Dave Bush, who was pretty good as a rookie (5-4, 3.69 in 16 starts). Former starter Miguel Batista spent time in the bullpen last year, making five saves, and he has been moved back to the pen after the Jays tried out Justin Speier as the closer. Inconsistent Josh Towers will serve as the fourth starter, and youngster Gustavo Chacin, who went 18-2 in the minors last year, will have a chance to win the fifth starter job.

While the rotation is potentially stable, the bullpen is anything but. The Blue Jays don’t have an established closer and will go with Batista, who was perfect in five save opportunities in 2004. The former ten-game winner will yield to Jason Frasor if he fails. Frasor picked up 17 saves in 19 chances last year. Speier, Billy Koch (a former closer), and Kerry Ligtenberg will eat plenty of innings for Toronto.

Position players: The Toronto lineup is filled with talented players who have underachieved, mixed in with some solid veteran bats. The Jays signed Corey Koskie away from the Twins. The oft-injured third baseman has the ability to hit 25-30 home runs if he can stay healthy, which is a big question mark annually. Russ Adams and veteran Frank Catalanotto will set the table for Koskie (.251-25-71 in 118 games), Vernon Wells (.272-23-67), and Reed Johnson (.270-10-61). The Jays need Wells and Johnson to drive in more runs and hit for more power than they did last year. Expect Alex Rios, 24, to win a job in the outfield and provide a solid bat and good speed to the lineup.

Overall analysis: While they’re more balanced than Baltimore, the Jays have more question marks. Can Batista get it done for a full season as closer? Can the Jays fill the gap in the rotation left by moving Batista to the ‘pen? Will Halladay stay healthy? Will Lilly have another solid season? Can Vernon Wells recover from a rough season? Can Koskie, now $17 million richer, stay healthy for a full season? Manager John Gibbons hopes his team can stay healthy, and that his big bats in the middle of the order can produce some runs. Bush, 24, becomes a key presence in the starting rotation in his first full season in the bigs because of Batista’s move. With so many question marks and so little key depth, the Blue Jays have the look of a team that won’t be able to stay in this race.

5. Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Pitchers: With few available options, the Rays will turn to 24-year-old Dewon Brazelton as their top starter. While Brazelton has shown some promise, he has yet to win on the road in 15 career starts. Luckily for him and his team, his first three starts are at home, so he has a chance to develop some confidence before he starts a road game. Youngsters Mark Hendrickson (10-15, 4.81), Scott Kazmir (stolen from the Mets last summer for Victor Zambrano), and Doug Waechter (5-7, 6.01) are competing for spots in the rotation, along with veteran free-agent acquisitions Denny Neagle and Hideo Nomo. Neagle might not make the team, but Nomo’s job appears safe at this point.

The bullpen will be called on again this season to pitch more than its fair share of innings, as none of the Rays’ starters can be counted on for consistently long outings. Closer Danys Baez slumped last summer, but had a decent season overall, and appears to have adapted well to the new role. Jesus Colome throws in the high 90s and will serve as the main setup man. They are joined in the ‘pen by former All-Star Lance Carter, Travis Harper, Trever Miller, and Bobby Seay.

Position players: Like the pitching staff, the Devil Rays’ lineup is stacked with young players. They recently signed Detroit and Milwaukee castoff Alex Sanchez, who will play center field. Carl Crawford (.296, 19 triples, 59 steals) will play left, and Jose Cruz, Jr., will open in right field. Aubrey Huff (.297-29-104) will hit cleanup, and the Rays are hopeful that Josh Phelps (17 HR) and a returning Rocco Baldelli will provide protection for Huff in the middle of the order. Julio Lugo returns at shortstop, and the Devil Rays are banking on B.J. Upton to be ready to play every day at the big-league level. Toby Hall is an okay defensive catcher who handles the young staff well, and he hits well enough to stay in the everyday lineup. The problem for this team will be finding a run producer to complement Huff and take pressure off him. They’ll be in a real mess if Huff slumps at the start of the season like he did last year.

Overall analysis: It’s another year, and another insanely young team for Lou Pinella in Tampa. Pinella hasn’t run out of patience yet, but he’s appeared close at times to imploding in the dugout. With so many young players on board, it’s hard to imagine Pinella being able to relax at any point. Because there is no true veteran leadership available, Pinella sometimes speaks up to try putting a charge in his team. This won’t work forever, but if management thinks Neagle or Nomo can be an answer to the leadership void in the clubhouse, they’re sadly mistaken. If the young players produce as expected, and the pitching staff matures under Chuck Hernandez’s leadership, the Rays have a chance to surprise. However, minimal run production outside of Huff, and underdeveloped starting pitching probably dooms the Rays to last place again.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Do NOT follow this bracket

Since there's a chance I got a few games right, I'll post my predictions for the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. You would be foolish to take any of this as gospel, as my bracket is usually in the circular file by the end of the first weekend.

I keep thinking I'm due. I keep thinking that I'll do well one year. In the event that this is the year, I need to make sure everyone sees the bracket before the tournament starts. If I end up stinking up the joint, as usual, just remember that I warned you. I stink at this. Unless you want to blow money, do not place money on this bracket.

First round
North Carolina over Oakland/Alabama A&M
Minnesota over Iowa State
Villanova over New Mexico
Florida over Ohio
Wisconsin over Northern Iowa
Kansas over Bucknell
North Carolina State over Charlotte
Connecticut over Central Florida

Duke over Delaware State
Mississippi State over Stanford
Old Dominion over Michigan State
Vermont over Syracuse
Utah over Texas-El Paso
Oklahoma over Niagara
Iowa over Cincinnati
Kentucky over Eastern Kentucky

Illinois over Fairleigh Dickinson
Nevada over Texas
UW-Milwaukee over Alabama
Boston College over Pennsylvania
LSU over Alabama-Birmingham
Arizona over Utah State
Southern Illinois over St. Mary's
Oklahoma State over Southeastern Louisiana

Washington over Montana
Pacific over Pittsburgh
Georgia Tech over George Washington
Louisville over Louisiana-Lafayette
Texas Tech over UCLA
Gonzaga over Winthrop
Creighton over West Virginia
Wake Forest over Chattanooga

Second round
North Carolina over Minnesota
Florida over Villanova
Kansas over Wisconsin
Connecticut over North Carolina State

Duke over Mississippi State
Old Dominion over Vermont
Utah over Oklahoma
Kentucky over Iowa

Illinois over Nevada
UW-Milwaukee over Boston College
Arizona over LSU
Southern Illinois over Oklahoma State

Washington over Pacific
Georgia Tech over Louisville
Gonzaga over Texas Tech
Wake Forest over Creighton

Regional semifinals
Florida over North Carolina
Connecticut over Kansas

Duke over Old Dominion
Kentucky over Utah

Illinois over UW-Milwaukee
Arizona over Southern Illinois

Georgia Tech over Washington
Gonzaga over Wake Forest

Regional finals
Florida over Connecticut

Duke over Kentucky

Illinois over Arizona

Gonzaga over Georgia Tech

Final Four
Duke over Florida
Illinois over Gonzaga

National Championship
Illinois over Duke

What happened to UMD?

After a Frozen Four run in 2004, the UMD men's hockey team entered the 2004-2005 season with high expectations, easily the highest expectations in Scott Sandelin's time as UMD head coach. With eleven seniors back who had combined for 273 points in the Frozen Four season (an average of almost 25 points per player), fans had good reason to expect big things from the team.

The result? A 15-17-6 record, and a season that came to an end with a playoff sweep at the hands of low-scoring North Dakota. The 'Dogs were beaten in the two-game series by a combined score of 14-3.

So much for high expectations. A season that had "Columbus" written all over it in the summer came to an end before the WCHA Final Five.

With that in mind, it's time to play The Blame Game: UMD Edition. After all, a disappointment like this doesn't just happen. It has to be someone's fault.

The 11 seniors: Schwabe, Peluso, Brosz, Hammond, Stauffacher, Anderson, Miskovich, Caig, Hambly, Smith, and Petruic are the eleven players in question. With speculation rampant (from very reliable sources) that at least some in this group didn't work hard in the offseason, you have to at least start looking this way. I'm not going to single guys out, but the group went from 273 combined points last season to 179 this season. Only three of the eleven actually increased their point production from the previous season. With the news that at least some didn't show up in very good physical condition for the start of practice, combined with things we saw out of them on the ice during games, the bulk of the blame has to be laid at their feet. If the only crime was a couple guys not being in shape in September, UMD would still be playing. The series against North Dakota was symbolic of the season, as the team got down on themselves as soon as UND got a couple bounces to go their way. Flat play and uncharacteristic mistakes were the rule this season, instead of the exception. Discipline was lacking, both on and off the ice. The leadership didn't get the job done, and that falls on the feet of the seniors. Blame: 55%

Goaltending: Neither Issac Reichmuth nor Josh Johnson played terribly this season, but neither stood out. Both goaltenders had streaks of good play, with Johnson stepping up after a poor outing and nearly getting a shutout against St. Cloud State, and Reichmuth playing well in the team's last two regular-season series. But both were subpar for much of the season, failing to keep the team in close games, and failing to help hold leads. Both had a propensity for giving up poorly timed goals, and both gave up their share of soft goals. Soft goals can be killer, especially when your team isn't scoring many goals of their own. I've maintained for much of the season that the goalies deserve more of the blame than people are placing on them. The focus was on the sputtering offense so much, that many forgot how good UMD's goaltending was in 2003-2004. If UMD could have gotten that kind of play out of Reichmuth and Johnson, they might still be playing now, though they still wouldn't have gone far without better play from the five skaters in front of the goalies. Blame: 25%

Injuries: While the core of the team was able to stay healthy, UMD was forced to play almost the entire season without defenseman Ryan Geris, whose career came to an end because of concussion problems. They also faced time without freshmen Matt McKnight, Mike Curry, and Blair LeFebvre, along with sophomore forward Bryan McGregor. Though the team always had enough players available to field four full lines and three defensive pairings, its depth was tested early and often, and injuries did play a role in the line-juggling that dominated UMD's season. Blame: 10%

Coaching: Sandelin won the Spencer Penrose Award, and Steve Rohlik and Lee Davidson have made their mark both as assistant coaches and as recruiters. I don't think these guys suddenly forgot what they were doing this season. However, the bottom line is that the team failed to come anywhere near meeting expectations. Some of that falls at the feet of the three men in suits who stand behind the player bench every night. For some reason, they couldn't connect with the players and push the right buttons. Blame: 10%

This season was a letdown almost from start to finish. When the clock hit 0:00 in Grand Forks on Saturday, I felt relieved. I'll miss the seniors, and I thank them for all the good things they did (great run at the end of the 2002-2003 season, Frozen Four the next). But it was a season that needed to end. We all need to move on, and there are reasons to be excited about UMD hockey.

Eleven seniors means plenty of holes to fill in 2005-2006. UMD has eleven committed for next season, including Duluth News Tribune Area Player of the Year Matt Niskanen (Virginia/MIB). Niskanen is a two-way defenseman who will see plenty of ice time as a freshman. Some players are clearly not ready to play Division I hockey when they're in high school. Niskanen is not only ready to play now, but he might have been ready to make the jump as a sophomore. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more mature, level-headed high school senior in the state. He should make an immediate impact when he pulls on the UMD jersey.

The other ten are listed here in order of expected impact on the UMD lineup:

Michael Gergen - 6' - 185 lbs - Shattuck-St. Mary's - Forward
Mason Raymond - 5'11" - 170 lbs - Camrose (AJHL) - Forward
Jared Boll - 6'2" - 180 lbs - Lincoln (USHL) - Forward
Andrew Carroll - 6' - 187 lbs - Sioux Falls (USHL) - Forward
Nick Kemp - 6'2" - 205 lbs - Sioux City (USHL) - Forward
MacGregor Sharp - 6'1" - 195 lbs - Camrose (AJHL) - Forward
Jason Garrison - 6'2" - 205 lbs - Nanaimo (BCHL) - Defenseman
Matt Greer - 6'1" - 183 lbs - Des Moines (USHL) - Forward
Josh Meyers - 6'3" - 180 lbs - Sioux City (USHL) - Defenseman

From what I've heard, Boll is a big, nasty forward who likes to play the physical style of hockey and doesn't mind hanging out in front of the opponent's net to cause trouble. Kemp is another power forward who will cause problems out in front of the net. Gergen might be the superstar of this group if Niskanen isn't. He has tremendous natural ability. Great scorer who gets his teammates involved. Sharp and Greer might be the most underrated players in this class. Meyers will be a huge factor if he can put on some lbs (6'3" and only 180 says "skin and bones" to me).

I'm guessing UMD will be opening the season on or around the weekend of October 7-8. It can't come soon enough for this season-ticket holder.

Monday, March 14, 2005

The bubble has to burst for someone

As usual, when the NCAA announces the field for the Men's Basketball Championship, there is celebration for the 65 schools that made the cut, and something less than that for the 10 or so who thought they had a shot but didn't make the cut. This year, the bubbles burst for teams like Notre Dame, Indiana, and Maryland, all of whom are housed in "power conferences" (the term used to describe the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, and SEC). Other teams left out included DePaul, St. Joseph's, Buffalo, Miami (Ohio), and Wichita State.

So far, the most whining on record has come from Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon, who told The Buffalo News that "I just feel bad for the guys because . . . I think it's their belief that there's really a process and a selection and there's criteria to be looked at. I don't want to be the one to tell them that there are agendas." Witherspoon was quoted in a whine-fest by Bob DiCesare, in which DiCesare tries to mislead his readers into thinking that Buffalo lost out to a bunch of mediocre teams from "power conferences".

In the real world, the numbers indicate that Buffalo didn't lose out to power conference members. The numbers indicate that the last three at-large bids went to Alabama-Birmingham, Northern Iowa, and UCLA. Yes, UCLA is in the Pac-10. But when did UAB and Northern Iowa join power conferences? The numbers don't support an argument that the NCAA is only looking out for the "big-money schools". That argument died about a decade ago.

There were 34 at-large bids handed out for this year's NCAA Tournament. 25 of those bids went to teams in the "power conferences". 23 of those 25 bids are difficult, if not impossible, for rational people to argue. An amazing nine bids went to "mid-major" teams. I don't know for sure, but I think that's at least close to some sort of record. It's hard to imagine mid-major teams whining about an overall lack of exclusion in this tournament. Big steps have been made to make this process fairer for everyone involved.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Breaking down the Big Ten bubble

As the league tournament gets underway, the Big Ten is short on storylines and long on locks. The conference will send three teams to the NCAA Tournament as top seven regional seeds (Illinois, Michigan State, and Wisconsin). One other team (Minnesota) appears a lock to make the field, regardless of their performance in the league tournament. There are only two other teams (Indiana and Iowa) that are looking to play their way into the tournament this week.

Let's break down the Big Ten's possible NCAA Tournament teams:

Illinois (29-1 overall, 15-1 Big Ten, #1 seed)
-->The Illini are the heavy favorite in the league tournament, and they're one of the top five teams in the nation. A loss between now and the Final Four would probably be considered an upset, regardless of the opponent. A potential conference championship matchup with Wisconsin could be a doozy, as the Badgers beat up Illinois in last year's Big Ten title game, and Illinois beat Wisconsin twice during the regular season. Unless they lose to Northwestern on Friday, Illinois will be a #1 regional seed, and could end up as the tournament's #1 overall seed.

Michigan State (22-5 overall, 13-3 Big Ten, #2 seed)
-->Michigan State has the talent to win the league title, but they are inconsistent on the outside. As March rolls on, guard play becomes more and more important. That'll put more and more pressure on Maurice Ager, Chris Hill, Shannon Brown, Kelvin Torbert, and Drew Neitzel. They have to be consistent, both in ballhandling and outside shooting, for this team to get by Wisconsin and Illinois in the later rounds of this tournament. The Spartans have a chance to go far if the guards get on a roll.

Wisconsin (20-7 overall, 11-5 Big Ten, #3 seed)
-->Bucky is an NCAA lock with 20 wins and a pretty good non-conference resume. Wisconsin is going to be considered a major target for a first-round upset because of their inconsistent guard play. Last year, they had Devin Harris at the point, but they didn't have much at the two-guard spot. While Kammron Taylor has played well at times, the Badgers no longer have a truly reliable point guard, and they've also been unable to find a reliable shooting guard. Mike Wilkinson and Alando Tucker are a nice one-two punch inside, but the Badgers won't go far without improved outside shooting and better defense down low.

Indiana (15-12 overall, 10-6 Big Ten, #4 seed)
-->Playing good non-conference teams is nice, but it usually helps if you can beat one or two of them. The Hoosiers have an impressive strength of schedule, but their winning percentage isn't good, and they only won three games away from Bloomington. To make the Dance, Indiana needs to beat Minnesota on Friday, and they can't afford to be blown out by Illinois in the semifinals. The Hoosiers are in a lot of trouble, and a loss to the Gophers will probably send them to join Notre Dame in the Not Important Tournament.

Minnesota (20-9 overall, 10-6 Big Ten, #5 seed)
-->The Gophers have surprised many this season, thanks to the performance of Vincent Grier, who was named to the all-conference team. If it weren't for the season Illinois put together, Dan Monson would have received serious Coach of the Year consideration. The Gophers, like many, don't have great guard play, and their defense hasn't been very good for most of the season. However, their work ethic, along with the play of Grier, has them a virtual lock to make the national tournament. A win over Indiana would be great, but the Gophers probably don't need it to go dancing.

Iowa (20-10 overall, 7-9 Big Ten, #7 seed)
-->Once Pierre Pierce was dumped at midseason, Iowa was written off as a possible contender for the NCAAs. Down the stretch, though, they were impressive. Iowa has now won four straight after waxing Purdue in the first round of the Big Ten tournament on Thursday. With 20 wins, four straight down the stretch, two close shaves against Illinois, and non-conference wins over Louisville, Texas, Texas Tech, and Iowa State, Iowa should probably get in, regardless of the result Friday against Michigan State in the quarterfinals. However, if Iowa wants off the bubble, they'll beat Michigan State. Not having Pierce will leave the committee in a tough spot, because Iowa is allegedly a lesser team without him, despite recent results.

Ohio State is ineligible for the NCAAs because of self-imposed sanctions.

The Big Ten has at least four right now (Illinois, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota), and there are two teams have a chance to play their way in this weekend. For a conference that has been ripped left and right, getting six teams in the Dance would be a great accomplishment.