Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Monk's Baseball Preview: AL = part 1

Yes, we're two weeks into the season, therefore a baseball preview is a bit of a misnomer. Nonetheless, The Monk hopes there will be some value in this. After all, as the Yanks themselves proved after their 11-19 start last year that ended with an 8th-straight division title, it's a long season.

Thus, without further ado, The Monk presents his predictions and analysis for the season. First, we start with the American League, which is vastly superior to the NL as I noted it would be right after the ChiSax finished wiping out the Astros last October. In the AL, no fewer than 9 teams have legitimate reasons to believe they can win 85+ games, and many of those who can only dream of the playoffs (Tampa, Seattle, Baltimore, Detroit) have enough talent and ability to cause trouble for better teams throughout the year (the Royals are another story). So let's go division by division once again.

AL East

The Yankees should again win the East, for the ninth-straight time. This off-season, the Yanks remained relatively quiet -- they obtained Johnny Damon and Kyle Farnsworth and some bullpen filler. They liked their end-of-season rotation of Johnson-Moooooooosina-Chacon-Wang and with Pavano as a possible fifth starter (!), they should be ok. The keys are Wang keeping the ball down, Mooooooooose staying healthy, and Randy regaining his slider (which should be possible considering that the Yanks pitching coach is former fastball-slider lefty Ron Guidry).

Strengths: that lineup, especially the #1-6 hitters. Damon and Jeter are potential 130-run scorers, Sheff, Arod, Matsui and Giambi are all 30+ HR hitters with 100+ RBI likely. The addition of Damon means Jeter will threaten the 100-RBI mark for the first time since 1999. Other strengths include Arod's defense, Rivera (as usual) and Jeter's leadership.

Weaknesses: defense on the right side of the infield is a sieve; corner outfielder range is limited; no power pitching starters other than Johnson; health issues among the pitchers; Posada's decline.

Question marks: How will Farnsworth handle being Rivera's valet? Who will hold their rotation jobs after RJ and Mooooooose? Can the Yanks improve their defense and clutch-hitting?

The RedSawx made a number of upgrades in the field with appreciable degradation of the lineup. No more Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar (who stank last year) or Damon. The trade for Josh Beckett could be the best move any AL team made this off-season, or be a complete flop if Beckett continues his Kerry Wood/Mark Prior health profile.

Strengths: the rotation if Schilling and Beckett are healthy; Jon Papelbon is a fine pitcher so the Sawx need to find a permanent role for him; the defense improved with the additions of Coco Crisp, Mike Lowell and JT Snow; the two fatboys in the middle of the lineup are deadly; the upside -- if Schilling and Beckett are healthy all year, this team can win more than just the AL East.

Weaknesses: health questions abound among the starters -- physical for Schilling, Wells and Beckett; mental for Clement. The Sawx outfield defense is still questionable on a good day.

Question marks: Foulke's health, Wily Mo Pena's adjustment to platooning, Lowell's hitting, whether the fatboys will continue to have tons of men on base.

The third-best team in the division could have the best rotation, if it's healthy. The Blue Jays have Halliday, Burnett, Chacin, Towers and Lilly -- a five-man rotation that is the equal, on paper, to anything the Yanks or RedSawx can put together. The question is whether that rotation will be on the mound or in the training room. Halliday lost the back half of his season to injury, Lilly lost much time and Burnett has already missed starts this year.

Strengths: the closer, BJ Ryan; the rotation if Halliday anchors it; additional pop with Glaus and Overbay; a top defensive catcher in Bengie Molina.

Weaknesses: consistency is often lacking; set up relief cannot match the ability of the closer; offense only about 4th-best in division.

Question marks: Rotation health (notice a trend yet?); will the young players who performed above expectations last year improve? Will Burnett get his head and his arm in proper alignment?

Bringing up the rear will be the Orioles and D-Rays. The Os gained Kris Benson and his nutball slut wife, Leo Mazzone, and LaTroy Hawkins. That's not enough to overcome the pitching deficit the team had at the end of last season. The Os have 76 games against the best division in baseball and have too few difference makers to win. The D-Rays are better than they've ever been -- then again, The Monk has a vertical leap that would take him over most phonebooks so condemning with faint praise is about the best the D-Rays can get. Somehow, they won the season series from the Yanks last year. But their lineup is a mishmash of hasbeens and won't-bes; the pitching has no top young hurlers other than Kazmir and lost their closer from '05. Too little ammo to take on the AL East.

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