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2008 MLB Preview: Cincinnati Reds

Brandon Phillips

Explanation of ratings system and other team previews here

CINCINNATI REDS

Ranks

Overall – 76 points (16th MLB, 9th NL)
Starting Rotation – 27 points (19th MLB, 11th NL)
Line-Up – 31 points (19th MLB, 11th NL)
Bench/Bullpen/Defense – 16 points (T-5th MLB, T-3rd NL)

Offseason Additions – Francisco Cordero, Jeremy Affeldt, Edinson Volquez
Offseason Subtractions – Josh Hamilton

Biggest Strength– Bullpen (in theory)

The Reds bullpen killed them last year, and they did a lot in the off-season to improve it. They made a big splash by signing (and overpaying) the 2nd best save guy in the NL last year, Francisco Cordero. They already had a decent closer in David Weathers, who will now move to 8th inning role, suddenly giving the Reds one of the best 8th-9th inning pairs in the NL. They also added a good lefty reliever in Jeremy Affeldt, who posted a 3.51 ERA in 71 games last year. If Jared Burton can continue to pitch well (2.51 ERA in 47 games) and take over the 7th inning role, it will take the pressure off of veteran relievers Mike Stanton and Gary Majewski, who are both better pitchers than they showed last year.  They also have a sleeper in Bill Bray, who has really good stuff when healthy.

Biggest Weakness– Back-end of Rotation (in theory)

It seems as though you really could say that this is a weakness for 80% of MLB teams. Going into spring training, it looked like the back-end of the rotation was going to be Matt Belisle, Homer Bailey and Edison Volquez. However, only Volquez has pitched well enough to earn a spot. Both Bailey and Belisle have pitched themselves out of the rotation and will likely be replaced by Johnny Cueto (1.00 ERA in Spring) and Josh Fogg (2.08 ERA in Spring). While it could very well turn out to be a positive thing, Volquez and Cueto have a combined 17 ML starts and Josh Fogg always has had an ERA around 5.00.

Key Player in ’08– Ken Griffey Jr.

I think a big factor this year will be if Ken Griffey Jr. can have one final, fully healthy season. The Reds have a solid line-up, but if Griffey is a threat, it makes it a lot better. He played 144 games last year and contributed 30 HR and 93 RBI. His SLG% was down but that is to be expected for a 37 year-old. If he can give them 30 HR, 100 RBI, and a near .400 OBP, the Reds could surprise.

 Player to Keep an Eye On– Jay Bruce and Homer Bailey

Bruce is widely considered to be the best prospect in the minor leagues. He has dominated at every level and will be the Reds starting center-fielder sooner rather than later. He has a great chance of being this year’s break-out star like Ryan Braun was last year. Bailey was once considered one of the best pitching prospects in baseball but struggled greatly after he was called up last year. He will likely start off the season in the minors, but if he puts it together, he could provide a huge boost to the Reds rotation around mid-season.

Outlook/Prediction– 2nd Place, NL Central. I picked the Blue Jays as my potential “surprise team” in the AL and here is why I’m going to pick the Reds as my potential surprise team in the NL. They have a very solid line-up with Dunn and Griffey providing the power, one of the most underrated players in the game in Brandon Phillips at 2nd, and a lot of young talent including Edwin Encarnation at 3rd, Joey Votto at 1st and Jay Bruce in CF. They have a really good 1-2 in their rotation in Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo. As I stated above, their 3-5 is unproven, but judging from the spring, Cueto or Volquez could very well surprise, and if they don’t, Homer Bailey might be able to put it together in the minors. As I also stated above, their bullpen is much improved over the squad that lost 31 games for the Reds last year. If everything falls into place, I think the Reds will be the surprise wild-card contender this year, much like (but not quite as good) as the Rockies last year.

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2008 MLB Preview: Milwaukee Brewers

 

Explanation of ratings system and other team previews here

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Ranks

Overall – 73 points (19th MLB, 11th NL)
Starting Rotation – 28 points (18th MLB, 13th NL)
Line-Up – 33 points (12th MLB, 7th NL)
Bench/Bullpen/Defense – 12 points (28th MLB, 15th NL)

Offseason Additions – Mike Cameron, Eric Gagne, Jason Kendall, Guillermo Mota, David Riske, Saloman Torres
Offseason Subtractions – Francisco Cordero, Johnny Estrada, Geoff Jenkins, Scott Linebrink, Kevin Mench, Matt Wise

Biggest Strength– Young Power

The Brewers boasted the best pair of corner infielders in the majors last year with MVP-candidate Prince Fielder at 1st and Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun at 3rd. Fielder was the youngest player in MLB history to hit 50 HRs and is such a good hitter that it would not surprise me if he hits .300 this year while going for 50 again. Braun hit 34 HR in just 113 games for the Brewers. Had he played the whole season at that level, he would have tied Mike Schmidt and Contract-Year Adrian Beltre for the NL record for HR’s by a 3B, with 48. Both are young, Fielder is 23, and Braun is 24, and provide the Brewers with a really good middle of the line-up for years to come.

Biggest Weakness– Expectations

I love the Brewers. They are one of my favorite non-Philadelphia teams and I really really hope they do well this year. However, we see a team like them every year. They made strides last year, but faltered down the stretch and just missed the playoffs. This year, everyone expects a move forward and a playoff berth, but more often than not, these types of teams disappoint and sometimes even take a step back. Not everyone is going to play as well as they did last year, some players will get injured, some off-season losses (Francisco Cordero) will hurt more than you think, and players you think you can count on have off-years. Hopefully, I’m wrong, but I think the Brewers will falter under the high expectations they have never had to deal with before.

Key Player in ’08– Ben Sheets

For the Brewers to prove me wrong (and as I said, I hope they do), they are going to need to get a lot out of their starting pitching. For the last 3 years, they key player on their team has been Ben Sheets. Following a dominant 2004, Sheets has missed an average of 10 starts to injury the next 3 years. When he has pitched, he’s been good, but unable to regain the dominant form he showed in 2004. He has looked OK in spring training, but it is much more important that he gives the Brewers 32 starts and 200+ innings than win a Cy Young (though that would certainly be nice).

 Player to Keep an Eye On– Rickie Weeks

Weeks came up through the Brewers systems just as hyped (if not more-so) than Prince Fielder. However, despite some promising spurts, he has been relatively disappointing for the Brewers. He has the talent to hit .300 and be a 30/30 guy who drives in 90-100 runs. It’s hard to believe that his career batting average is .249. He’s only 25, and many are predicting a break-out year from him this year. If he can live up to even half of the hype he came up with, it will be a big plus for the Brewers offense.

Outlook/Prediction– 4th Place, NL Central. I know, I know, 4th place is a little harsh for this team. I think that teams 2-4 in the NL Central will finish very close to one another, so even though I have them in 4th, I would think they will end only a game or two behind 2nd. Many people think the Brewers can contend for the division this year and those people are not wrong by any means. If Ben Sheets gives them 200 innings, Yovani Gallardo recovers from his injury, Chris Capuano joins the world of the living, Ryan Braun doesn’t hit a sophomore slump, and Eric Gagne can off-set the departure of Francisco Cordero, it’s certainly possible. Personally, I think they take a very small step back this year, maybe make a couple moves in the offseason, and will look real good in 2009.

2008 MLB Preview: Houston Astros

Explanation of ratings system and other team previews here

HOUSTON ASTROS

Ranks

Overall – 74 points (17th MLB, 10th NL)
Starting Rotation – 26 points (21st MLB, 13th NL)
Line-Up – 34 points (11th MLB, 6th NL)
Bench/Bullpen/Defense – 14 points (T-18th MLB, T-11th NL)

Offseason Additions – Miguel Tejada, Micheal Bourn, Doug Brocail, Kaz Matsui, Jose Valverde, Geoff Geary
Offseason Subtractions – Craig Biggio, Chris Burke, Adam Everett, Brad Lidge, Chad Qualls, Luke Scott

Biggest Strength– Offense

The Astros line-up is solid from top-to-bottom. Leading off, they have possibly the fastest man in baseball in Michael Bourn (18 steals in just 45 times on base last year. If Jose Reyes stole at this rate in 2007, he would have had 102 steals. Not saying Bourn will steal 100 in ’08. Just saying he’s fast). After that, newly acquired and potentially rejuvenated Kaz Matsui will bat second. These guys will be getting on base for big bats Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and the next-in-line to lie to congress, Miguel Tejada. If they can’t get Bourn and Matsui in, super-sophomore Hunter Pence (.322 BA, 17 HR, 69 RBI, 11 SB in ’07) probably will. Even the 7 and 8 spots won’t give pitchers a rest with Ty Wigginton (22 HR) and big-time catching prospect J.R. Towles (pictured).

Biggest Weakness– Everyone but Roy Oswalt

As good as the Houston offense is, that’s how bad their rotation is. They have a true ace in Roy Oswalt at the top, but after that they have young unproven pitchers. Their 2nd starter is Wandy Rodriguez, who was decent last year, but should really be a 4th or 5th starter. After that, who knows. Is Woody Williams still alive? Can Brandon Backe ever return from injury? Can Chris Sampson or Felipe Paulino step-up? Too many questions, and you never get all the right ones during a baseball season.

Key Player in ’08– Michael Bourn

I mentioned Michael Bourn’s speed above, but I didn’t mention the fact that he is really not all that great a hitter. He hit .277 but only had 7 extra-base hits in 119 ABs. But IF, IF Bourn can get some walks, smack some singles here and there, and hit about .280, he is going to score a TON of runs. I think if he can set the table for this talented line-up, their offense might be able to overcome their starting pitching.

Player to Keep an Eye On– Hunter Pence

One of my favorite quotes from last season came from a slightly perplexed scout talking about Hunter Pence. “He has a hitch in his swing, but he can hit, he doesn’t throw properly, but he can throw. He doesn’t run right, but he can run. I love him.” Houston fans love him too. Pence is a five tool talent who does it all a little differently than most, but does it really well. It will be interesting to see if he can play at as high a level as he played last year.

Outlook/Prediction– 3rd Place, NL Central. They have the offense of a contender and a solid back-end of the bullpen with Doug Brocail and Jose Valverde, but I just don’t see this pitching staff taking them to the playoffs. Also, even though Tejada reportedly played well in the Caribbean Series, I’m not convinced he won’t start the post-PED break down this season. And even if they do get close, their new GM Ed Wade isn’t exactly known for making big deals at the deadline.

2008 MLB Preview: Texas Rangers

Explanation of ratings system and other team previews here

TEXAS RANGERS

Ranks

Overall – 63 points (29th MLB, 13th AL)
Starting Rotation – 20 points (30th MLB, 14th AL)
Line-Up – 30 points (23rd MLB, 11th AL)
Bench/Bullpen/Defense – 13 points (T-23rd MLB, T-13th AL)

Offseason Additions – Milton Bradley, Josh Hamilton, Kazuo Fukumori, Jason Jennings
Offseason Subtractions – Kenny Lofton, Sammy Sosa, Brad Wilkerson

Biggest Strength– Can I pass?

There isn’t anything to get really excited about with the Rangers. They have a pretty good farm system, but lack elite “can’t miss” prospects. They have a couple good young hitters who could blossom in Josh Hamilton and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Their bullpen should also be pretty solid. But I can’t really envision a whole lot of Rangers fans excited about this year or the future.

Biggest Weakness– Starting Rotation

The Rangers have the worst rotation in the Majors. Their #1 starter, Kevin Millwood, had a 5.16 ERA last season. Their #2, Vicente Padilla, had a 5.76 ERA. #3 starter Jason Jennings had a 6.45 ERA for Astros. Maybe the Phillies can convince them to take Adam Eaton back, he would fit right in as their #4.

Key Player in ’08– Brandon McCarthy

There was a time when Brandon McCarthy was an untouchable prospect in the White Sox system. Apparently, they changed their mind about him last year when they traded him to the Rangers for fellow pitching prospect Jon Danks. McCarthy wasn’t as bad as the other starters last year (4.87 ERA), but wasn’t terribly good either. The Rangers need someone, ANYONE, to be a solid pitching option for them every 5th day. McCarthy is only 24, and perhaps this is this year he can show why he was once one of the best prospects in baseball.

Player to Keep an Eye On– Josh Hamilton

Hamilton was the #1 overall pick by Tampa Bay in 1999. He was called “The Natural” because of how perfect his swing was. He could hit for average and power, steal bases and play excellent defense. However, drug problems derailed his career, and in 2002 he was suspended from baseball. From 2002-2005, he was in and out of rehab 8 times and tried to commit suicide on 3 separate occasions. However, he finally got clean in 2005 and started his comeback, which came to fruition in 2007 when he joined the Reds and hit .292 with 19 HR and 47 RBI in just 90 games. He was traded to the Rangers in the off-season and will have his first chance at a full MLB season in 2008. As an extremely gifted left-handed hitter in the Ballpark at Arlington, it could be a big one.

Outlook/Prediction– 4th Place, AL West. The Rangers have not been able to put together a decent starting rotation for years. It has been 10 years since they’ve even had two pitchers pitch over 200 innings with a sub 4.50 ERA (Rick Helling and Aaron Sele). This year’s crop is so bad that it’s going to take a whole lot of comeback years for the Rangers to avoid the basement.

2008 MLB Preview: Oakland A’s

Explanation of ratings system and other team previews here

OAKLAND ATHLETICS

Ranks

Overall – 69 points (26th MLB, 11th AL)
Starting Rotation – 26 points (22nd MLB, 9th AL)
Line-Up – 29 points (26th MLB, 12th AL)
Bench/Bullpen/Defense – 14 points (T-18th MLB, T-9th AL)

Offseason Additions – Carlos Gonzalez, Dana Eveland
Offseason Subtractions – Dan Haren, Nick Swisher, Mark Kotsay, Marco Scutaro

Biggest Strength– Farm System

When you trade your best pitcher and best hitter in the same offseason, its clear that you are in rebuilding mode. However, GM Billy Beane is very good at getting good value in his trades (even though he’ll just trade the prospects away once they get good in the majors, but that’s another story). After this off-season, Baseball Prospectus has then ranked as the 2nd best farm system in league, behind only the ridiculous Rays system. Daric Barton, Carlos Gonzalez, Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez could have the A’s competitive again in a couple years.

Biggest Weakness– Offense

There is just not much here that is going to scare opposing pitchers. Eric Chavez could almost be categorized as a below-average offensive third-baseman at this point. SS Bobby Crosby, once mentioned as an MVP candidate, has never lived up to the hype. They have plenty of young players including Barton, Gonzalez, Kurt Suzuki and Travis Buck who could step and surprise, but none of them have proven they can perform consistently yet.

Key Player in ’08– Rich Harden

Harden has never pitched 200 inning in a single season, and hasn’t even pitched 150 since 2004. However, when he does pitch, he’s a true ace. In his 2nd full year (2005), Harden was on his way to a potential Cy Young (10-5, 2.46 ERA, 121 K in 128 IP) when he got hurt. He has only pitched 72 innings in the last two years combined. However, he is pitching in spring training and appears to be healthy. He’s 26, so he can certainly come back from injury, if he does so this year, it will be a big boost to the A’s (or just give Beane someone new to trade).

Player to Keep an Eye On– Daric Barton

Barton was the key piece in the Mark Mulder deal a couple years ago. He has been the top prospect in the A’s system since then and hit .347 with 4 HR in 74 ABs with the big league squad last year. This will be his first full year in the majors and it will be very interesting to see what kind of numbers he can put up.

Outlook/Prediction– 3rd Place, AL West. The A’s missed their chance with Hudson, Mulder, Zito, Giambi and Tejada and are now in full fledged rebuilding mode. Billy Beane is a good talent evaluator so it’s possible they will have a resurgence in a couple years. As for 2008, if everything goes right for the A’s, they will be a .500 team, but if they young players have growing pains and Harden can’t get on the mound it could very well be a long season.

2008 MLB Preview: Seattle Mariners

Explanation of ratings system and other team previews here

SEATTLE MARINERS

Ranks

Overall – 82 points (8th MLB, 6th AL)
Starting Rotation – 35 points (1st MLB, 1st AL)
Line-Up – 32 points (17th MLB, 7th AL)
Bench/Bullpen/Defense – 15 points (T-11th MLB, T-5th AL)

Offseason Additions – Eric Bedard, Carlos Silva, Brad Wilkerson
Offseason Subtractions – Jose Guillen

Biggest Strength– Starting Rotation

The Mariners rotation rated as the best in MLB going into 2008. While all the fuss in the media is about Johan Santana going to the Mets, you could argue that the better pitcher in 2007 was the one the Mariners picked up, Eric Bedard. Bedard had a better ERA (3.16), K/9 rate (10.93, best in baseball) and H/9 rate (6.97, 2nd best in baseball). If were on a team a decent record, he would have been talking about a lot more in the Cy Young race. The Mariners also picked up a solid 5th starter in Carlos Silva. They may have paid him like a #2, but to have someone who has been real solid 3 of the last 4 years as your 5th man says something about the depth of the rotation.

Biggest Weakness– Offense

Seattle still has Ichiro getting hits like a crazy person, but after that, it’s anyone’s guess who will hit him in. A couple years ago, the Mariners went out and got Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexton to bolster their offense. Beltre has been average and Sexton has been atrocious. Last year’s 2nd leading RBI man is gone (Jose Guillen) and they did very little to replace his production. They have a lot of solid hitters (Jose Vidro, Kenji Johjima, Raul Ibanez), but no big-time bat to carry load. One of their younger players (Yuniesky Betancourt, Jose Lopez) is going to have to step up.

Key Player in ’08– Felix Hernandez

You could make a fair argument that “King Felix” has the best raw ability of any pitcher in baseball. He has a 99 MPH heater, and 92 MPH slider. When he is on, he is nearly unhittible (ask the Red Sox). However, he is only 22, and hasn’t been as dominant as he could be. He had a respectable 3.92 ERA in 2007, but really should be below 3.00 once he matures. Whether or not that maturation starts this year will be huge for the Mariners. A Bedard/Hernandez 1-2 COULD be the best we’ve seen since Johnson/Schilling and WOULD mean a trip to the playoffs.

Player to Keep an Eye On– J.J. Putz

J.J. Putz was the most dominant reliever of 2007, it wasn’t even close, and you probably never saw him throw 1 pitch. For the season, Putz pitched 71.7 innings, with 82 K, a 1.38 ERA and an absolutely unfair 0.698 WHIP. That WHIP was the 3rd lowest in ML history by a pitcher with 70+ IP in a season. The #2 pitcher on that list won the Cy Young and took steroids (Eric Gagne), the #1 pitcher is Dennis Eckersley. Not only was Putz the best reliever in 2007, but had one of the best seasons ever for a reliever. Check him out when you get a chance.

Outlook/Prediction– 2nd Place, AL West. The Wild Card team in the AL will come down to the Yankees, Blue Jays, Indians and Mariners. I’m very tempted to go with Mariners because I really love their rotation and back of their bullpen. They would be an absolute shoo-in for me if Felix Hernandez was coming off his breakout season. However, they are banking that this is the year he breaks out. They could use some help on offense. Maybe Brad Wilkerson will turn back into the guy who was traded straight up for Alfonso Soriano, maybe Adrian Beltre will think he’s in a contract year again, maybe Richie Sexton will hit .220 instead of .200….and maybe not. If this team does make the playoffs though, they are definitely a sleeper contender for the title.

2008 MLB Preview: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Explanation of ratings system and other team previews here

LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM

Ranks

Overall – 84 points (4th MLB, 3rd AL)
Starting Rotation – 34 points (3rd MLB, 3rd AL)
Line-Up – 34 points (10th MLB, 5th AL)
Bench/Bullpen/Defense – 16 points (T-5th MLB, T-3rd AL)

Offseason Additions – Torii Hunter, Jon Garland
Offseason Subtractions – Orlando Cabrera, Bartolo Colon

Biggest Strength– Starting Rotation

The Angels had two legit Cy Young candidates last year in John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar. Following them in the rotation were 2 young studs in Jered Weaver and Joe Saunders. In the offseason, they added another reliable arm in Jon Garland. This rotation has everything you could want. A true ace at the top (Lackey), potential ace in the middle (Weaver) and 200 IP, 3.50-4.00 ERA guys at the other spots. The big question mark is Escobar, who is scheduled to miss the first month of the season.

Biggest Weakness– Health of Vladimir

When healthy, there may not be a better RBI guy in baseball than Vladimir Guerrero. However, he has rarely been healthy the last couple years for the Angels. In fact, the last time he was fully healthy, he won an MVP. He doesn’t miss a lot of games, but it’s clear he’s not 100%. He has already stated this spring training that the same elbow that hurt him last year is still bothering him. I’m not sure we will ever see Vlad at 100% ever again.

Key Player in ’08– Jered Weaver

With Kelvim Escobar out for the first month of the season, and who knows how he will pitch when he gets back, it becomes very important that Weaver step up into that spot and pitch very, very well. Weaver, 25 has an 3.33 ERA in 284 IP and has not yet reached his prime. This season could very well be the first of a couple dominant prime years. If it is, AND Escobar comes back healthy, the Angels might be the team to beat.

Player to Keep an Eye On– Howie Kendrick

Based on his talent-level, Kendrick should be the best 2nd baseman in the AL and be in the running for a batting title for next decade or so. Unfortunately, he has experienced some growing pains, and injuries that have slowed down his rise. Still, he hit .322 in 88 games last year. This year, the Angels are hoping he can stay healthy the whole year, throw out of .330 BA with some doubles mixed in and become a real asset to their line-up.

Outlook/Prediction– 1st Place, AL West. Before the Escobar injury, I was leaning towards picking the Angels to win the World Series. I envisioned them having a serious 1-2-3 punch in the playoffs with Lackey, Escobar and Weaver. They made some good changes to their line-up (Torii Hunter) and have good young players who are due to break-out (Kendrick, Casey Kotchman) and have a great back-end to their bullpen with Scott Shields and K-Rod. However, I just get the feeling that Escobar is not going to be back at full strength this year. Either way, this team should win the division – and I’m still not ruling them out for my WS pick.