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March 30, 2008

Every Given Sunday

Opening (Sun)Day

by John Perrotto

Last week, with the American League jumping the gun on starting the season with Boston and Oakland playing two games in Tokyo, we took a look at a player on each AL team under the microscope in 2008. With the National League set to begin play tonight with the Braves visiting Washington, DC, to help break in Nationals Park, let's take a look at a player on each of the 16 NL teams who is under the microscope this season:

Arizona: Randy Johnson is coming off of back surgery for a second straight year, and was limited to 10 starts last season. While the Diamondbacks got to the NLCS last season with minimal contributions from the Big Unit, and have added Dan Haren to their starting rotation this season, they could still use another vintage Johnson season. PECOTA doesn't see it happening, though, projecting a 5-4 record and 3.94 ERA in 75 2/3 innings.

Atlanta: Mark Kotsay (and his surgically repaired back) was acquired from Oakland in an off-season trade to replace perennial Gold Glover Andrew Jones in center. PECOTA isn't too keen on the move, as it projects Kotsay to hit .258/.325/.358 with just one home run.

Chicago: Felix Pie was a disappointment as a rookie last season, and manager Lou Piniella has made it clear he is not extending the youngster a long lead as the starting center fielder this year. PECOTA, though, thinks Pie is a keeper, projecting him to hit .291/.344/.479 with 14 home runs.

Cincinnati: Joey Votto had a fine major league debut last September, and is penciled in as the Reds' first baseman, but new manager Dusty Baker has rarely been patient with young players. PECOTA has faith in Votto, though, projecting him at .278/.357/.494 with 26 home runs.

Colorado: Third baseman Garrett Atkins would be entrenched in most lineups, but prospect Ian Stewart is pushing him. PECOTA sees Atkins fending off the challenge, delivering a line of .301/.373/.501 with 25 home runs.

Florida: Shortstop Hanley Ramirez led the NL in VORP last season, but now he doesn't have Miguel Cabrera around to help shoulder the load. PECOTA sees only a slight drop-off for Ramirez, anticipating that he'll deliver at a .306/.371/.501 clip with 21 home runs.

Houston: Miguel Tejada's career was already on the downhill side in December when the Astros acquired the shortstop in trade from Baltimore; then he was then listed prominently in the Mitchell Report the next day. PECOTA doesn't see switching leagues as a bit positive, providing a projection of a .290/.340/.428 line, with 14 home runs.

Los Angeles: Nomar Garciaparra's career continues to be wrecked by injuries as he begins the season on the DL, this time with a broken hand. The Dodgers expect him back soon, and are counting on him as their third baseman (at least until Andy LaRoche heals up), an idea PECOTA thinks isn't so great with its projection of .283/.337/.411 and eight home runs for Nomar.

Milwaukee: Eric Gagné received a one-year, $10 million contract as a free agent to close despite imploding after his trade from Texas to Boston last July 31. Gagné is another prominent Mitchell Report name, but PECOTA has faith in him, projecting a 3.38 ERA and 34 saves in 52 1/3 innings.

New York: Carlos Delgado had an uncharacteristically bad year last season, and now the first baseman has a hip problem that could dog him for the rest of his career. PECOTA no longer sees Delgado as a feared slugger, saying that he'll only deliver .265/.344/.471 with 21 home runs.

Philadelphia: Ryan Howard received a $10 million salary after winning his much-publicized salary arbitration hearing, and notoriously tough Phillies fans will have high expectations. PECOTA sees the big first baseman doing just fine, with a projection of .273/.381/.574 and 44 home runs.

Pittsburgh: Jason Bay went from being an All-Star Game starter in left field in 2006 to an awful 2007. PECOTA looks for Bay to have a rebound, projecting him to hit .270/.360/.490 with 25 home runs.

St. Louis: Adam Kennedy was a complete bust at second base last season in the first year of a three-year, $10 million contract. PECOTA sees him being better, but far from great, contributing only .254/.313/.344 with three home runs.

San Diego: Brian Giles clearly isn't what he used to be, as age and Petco Park have taxed his numbers. The left fielder had microfracture surgery on his knee in the offseason, and PECOTA doesn't see a rebound, projecting him to a .268/.362/.405 season with 11 home runs.

San Francisco: Barry Zito didn't come close to living up to his seven-year, $126 million contract as a free agent in 2007, the first season of the deal. PECOTA sees him being somewhat better in the second year with a projection of a 9-9 record and 4.01 ERA in 158 innings.

Washington: Elijah Dukes' troubles during his time with Tampa Bay were well-documented, but the talented outfielder is getting a second chance with the Nationals. PECOTA sees him taking a positive step forward in his new surroundings, projecting him to hit .272/.358/.473 with 17 home runs.

---

It will be interesting to see how Nationals Park plays tonight. The Nationals' former home, RFK Stadium, was an extreme pitchers' park in the three seasons in which baseball returned there following the Montreal Expos' move to the nation's capital. The dimensions at Nationals Park are 336 feet down the left-field line, 377 feet to left-center, 404 feet to center, 370 feet to right-center, and 335 feet down the right-field line. There is only 42 feet from home plate to the grandstand, while the outfield walls are eight feet in left and left-center, 9.9 feet in center, and 14 feet, 8 inches tapering down to eight feet in right.

"We're all curious about the new park," Nationals manager Manny Acta told the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. "We want to get a feel for the batter's eye, how the ball comes off the bat. It's a work in progress."

Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden believes the park will be fair. "It's not going to be a bandbox," Bowden said. "It's not going to be a hitter's park, like Philadelphia and Cincinnati; it's not going to be a pitcher's park like RFK. I think it's going to be a balanced park that leans toward the pitchers. I don't think any of us are going to know for sure, though, until we actually play ball there."

So tune in tonight, folks, as we get the first of 81 answers this season.

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There has much talk of the Tigers having the potential to become just the eighth team in major league history to score 1,000 runs. However, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel believes his team could reach that lofty plateau, especially with a lineup that includes such stars as Howard, reigning NL Most Valuable Player Jimmy Rollins, and Chase Utley. At the very least, Manuel believes the Phillies can break the club record of 944 runs set in the great hitter's year of 1930. The Phillies challenged that mark last season by scoring 892 times.

"I'll go out on a limb and say that," Manuel told the Philadelphia Daily News about breaking the record. "Don't get me wrong, things have to fall for us. We have to work hard. The players still have to go out and do it. But, yeah, we have the talent to do that. From an offensive standpoint, we definitely have the talent."

The only team to score 1,000 runs in a season since 1950 have been the 1999 Indians; the hitting coach for that team happened to be Manuel. Less happy in terms of club history, though, is the fact that the Phillies' record in 1930 was 52-102, as they finished last in the NL. They gave up 1,199 runs that year, 271 more than any other team in the league. PECOTA isn't banking on the Phillies getting to 1,000 this season, as it projects a total of 839 runs.

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That the Twins traded left-hander Johan Santana to the Mets and allowed center fielder Torii Hunter to jump to the Angels during the offseason perpetuates the idea that owner Carl Pohlad refuses to pay top dollar to keep his best players. However, the Twins take exception to that idea; they point out that Santana turned down a four-year, $80 million offer, and that Hunter rejected a three-year, $45 million deal. Of course, Santana wound up getting six years and $137.5 million from the Mets, the largest financial package ever given to a pitcher, while Hunter signed a five-year, $90 million contract.

However, the recent signing of closer Joe Nathan to a four-year, $47 million contract with a fifth-year option gives the Twins four players signed to hefty contracts. First baseman Justin Morneau begins a six-year, $80 million deal this season, while catcher Joe Mauer is in the second year of a four-year, $33 million contact, and right fielder Michael Cuddyer is beginning a three-year, $24 million contract. All are signed through at least the 2010 season. The Twins also have control of center fielder Carlos Gomez through 2013, and left fielder Delmon Young through 2012.

"I get excited, thinking about that," Morneau told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "I get to play with these guys for a long time. We're going to have Gomez, Young, Cuddy, Joe, and now Nathan. That's a big move for us. I want Joe to sign a six-year contract, and then I'll sign another one, and we'll both be here until we're 45."

---

The Rays finished exhibition play with an 18-8 record, best in the major leagues. That may not sound like anything to get excited about, but consider that the Rays haven't won more than 70 regular-season games since joining the American League as an expansion franchise in 1998. In fact, Tampa Bay had only one other winning spring, going 11-8 in 2004.

Thus, the Rays can't help but feel a little excited as they get ready to open their season Monday in Baltimore. "We can build off this, big-time," right-hander James Shields, who will start the opener, told the St. Petersburg Times. "This is huge for us. We're a bunch of young guys out here and, along with some veterans, I think we can feed off it. The last couple years I think we've been in last place in spring training and it carried on through the season, so hopefully it will be different this year."

Added left fielder Carl Crawford, "With this team, we need everything to be going right all the time; spring training, whenever, things just need to be going well for us to get some momentum. We had a good spring and you never know what that's going to mean, but it definitely gives up a better feeling going into the season. You just want to try to go out and do well and get rid of all this negative stuff that's been going on."

However, recent history shows that a good record in the Grapefruit or Cactus leagues does not necessarily foreshadow regular-season success. Of the 12 other teams who have compiled a winning percentage of at least .700 in exhibition play since 1980, just seven had winning regular seasons. Five of them did qualify for the postseason: the 1982 Braves, the 1983 White Sox, the 1987 Cardinals, the 1997 Marlins, and the 1998 Red Sox.

Rumors and Rumblings does not appear this week, because the weekend maneuverings made by clubs as they set their final Opening Day rosters made almost all of the potential items irrelevant. The feature will return next week. However, here's my three series to watch in the week to come, in what's going to be a new regular addition to Every Given Sunday:

Blue Jays at Yankees (March 31, April 2-3)
Probable pitching matchups: Roy Halladay vs. Chien-Ming Wang; A.J. Burnett vs. Mike Mussina; Dustin McGowan vs. Phil Hughes

Mets at Braves (April 4-6)
Probable pitching matchups: John Maine vs. Tim Hudson; Orlando Hernandez vs. Tom Glavine; Johan Santana vs. John Smoltz

Red Sox at Blue Jays (April 4-6)
Probable pitching matchups: Tim Wakefield vs. Shaun Marcum; Clay Buchholz vs. Roy Halladay; Daisuke Matsuzaka vs. Jesse Litsch

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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