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CHICAGO CUBS

With so many players coming off of better-than-expected seasons, it isn’t
hard to come up with a few potential floppers. A good bet is righthander
Kevin Tapani, coming off of a 19-win season despite pitching about as well
as unlamentedly departed Mark Clark. If lefty Terry Mulholland returns to
the rotation, his ERA should head back into the mid-4s, which is basically
his established level as a starter, but which will undoubtedly disappoint
some people. Third baseman Gary Gaetti basically has no chance of
sustaining what he did in a great six weeks for the Cubs.

In talking about which Cubs should break out, we’re talking about old men
who are bouncing back, not breaking out. For lack of any other candidates,
I’ll mention SS Jeff Blauser and C Benito Santiago. Both struggled with
injuries which significantly affected their performance in 1998. The Cubs
will desperately need Blauser’s ability to get on-base if they want to
finish as high as third in the division. After it becomes obvious that
Gaetti’s latest comeback won’t last, a healthy Blauser will make it easy
for rover Jose Hernandez to return to playing third regularly. As for
Santiago, if he pops out a 270/320/450 season, even if you discount that
for Wrigley and the current levels of offense, that would be the best
catcher the Cubs have had since Jody Davis. It may not be great, but it is
improvement.


CINCINNATI REDS

The Reds have already had some good luck in terms of breakouts and
bounce-backs in 1998, with righty Pete Harnisch and SS Barry Larkin
bouncing back, and Dmitri Young breaking out. In 1999, expect 1B Sean Casey
to break out to Olerud levels at the plate. That may still only be good
enough to be the third-best first baseman in the division (behind two guys
named McGwire and Bagwell), but good enough to give the Reds some sock to
go with Greg Vaughn and Dmitri Young in the heart of the lineup. For a
bounce-back, I’m optimistic that CF Mike Cameron will get straightened out
playing for the Reds, but I thought the same thing about Jon Nunnally
before Jack McKeon buried him. On a nastier note, if the Reds are foolish
enough to play infielder Pokey Reese regularly, I can guarantee you he’ll
have his best year ever at the plate, decisively better than Rey Ordonez
and most pitchers.

Flops? Well, I guess I won’t join the BP consensus on LF Greg Vaughn, in
that while I don’t expect him to hit 50 HRs, I expect that he’ll still be a
valuable hitter. There are enough players on the Reds that I’m generally
optimistic about that there isn’t a great candidate here. If you’re a
realist, you won’t be disappointed by what Aaron Boone is going to do, or
that Michael Tucker isn’t going to get 500 PAs, or that Nunnally will be
lucky to get out of town. I hope Stan Belinda is healthy, but I have no
idea how well he can pitch with multiple sclerosis. In terms of serious
picks to flop, I’d have to nominate Jason Bere and John Hudek. I’m
mentioning Bere on the basis of all of the eager jabbering surrounding him
in camp; even if Don Gullett brings him back to near-usefulness, we’re
talking about a guy with lousy control who wasn’t that good when healthy
and throwing over 90. As for Hudek, I don’t have much faith in wild
relievers who have serious problems keeping the ball in the yard.


HOUSTON ASTROS

Keeping in mind that we’re only talking about established players this week
(as in, we’ll talk about Lance Berkman and Mitch Meluskey next week), my
top choice for an Astro breakout is CF Richard Hidalgo. Limited by injuries
and Carl Everett‘s breakthrough year last season, Hidalgo should get 500 PA
this year, and make a significant impact defensively. Scott Elarton used up
his rookie status, so he sort of belongs in this space, and I share in the
general expectation that he’s going to be something special. Although the
Cubs shouldn’t be much of a threat to the Astros, matchups between Kerry
Wood
and Elarton will satisfy even those of us who aren’t gas addicts.

As for potential disappointing Astros, don’t be surprised in the least if
we’ve seen the best season you’re ever going to get out of RF Derek Bell.
Although the injury to Moises Alou should cool the trade rumors surrounding
Bell during the off-season, if Gerry Hunsicker and Tim Purpura play their
cards right, they’ll deal Bell right now, while the getting is good. Among
the starting pitching, I wouldn’t count too strongly on righty Sean
Bergman
. Even with Larry Dierker and the Astrodome in his favor, he was
hittable and homer-prone. Like Bell, I don’t think things will get any
better, and both have a chance to drop to previously established lows in
terms of performance.


MILWAUKEE BREWERS

I suppose I have to say CF Marquis Grissom will get better, but even if he
adds 30 points of OBP and 50 points of slugging, he’ll be an offensive
sinkhole. Steve Woodard is well-primed for a breakout season; he’s very
capable of being the token Brewer for the All-Star game, but he’ll be good
enough to deserve it, assuming dumb luck gives him good run support.
Infielder Mark Loretta may get the opportunity to claim the shortstop job
on an everyday basis. Although I don’t expect his rates to go up, with
full-time play he should rack up some good numbers.

The flip side to Loretta getting a shot is that SS Jose Valentin has
probably worn out his welcome, and whether or not he gets traded somewhere
he’ll get to play regularly is unknowable at this point. Second baseman
Fernando Vina is a tough call, at least for me, in that he was the player I
was most dramatically wrong about in 1998. The chances that he’ll play as
well as he did in ’98 seem doubtful, but then it remains to be seen whether
he’ll even be a Brewer by Opening Day. Lefty Scott Karl is a good candidate
to completely blow up this year; he’s lost ground every year since he’s
come up, and he wouldn’t be the first or last pitcher Phil Garner has
slagged. Finally, although I’ve loved watching Jim Abbott pitch over the
course of his career, he’s going to get smacked around.


PITTSBURGH PIRATES

I’m already pretty thoroughly disgusted with the Pirates as a team
stillborn on the brink of opportunity, so I’m probably blind to some of the
good things. Who could break out? Jason Schmidt is probably ready to make
the next step and become an ace starter. I guess it’s theoretically
possible that Jose Guillen will finally become a useful player. Third
baseman Aramis Ramirez should have been allowed to build on a rookie season
where he was rushed, but Ed Sprague‘s worthless carcass has been dragged
into town.

Calling somebody a flop would imply that they’ll fall below current
expectations of performance, and in the Pirates’ case, there aren’t too
many players in that boat. Mike Benjamin or Pat Meares or Sprague have all
been awful recently, so you can’t really be surprised when that continues.
I suppose somebody will be disappointed when Brant Brown doesn’t slug .500
this year, but in terms of building your expectations on the basis of
what’s happened before, the miserable truth about the Pirates is that if
everyone plays as well as they have before, they’re going to be a worse,
more expensive team than they have been recently.


ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

The Cardinals are the wildest of dark horses, in the sense that it’s
possible they could win the division, and it’s possible they could finish
in fifth place. One of the basic reasons for that is that so much depends
on whether or not Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan start using their rotation
more sensibly, or if that’s impossible, at least getting that big year from
the starting pitchers they’re abusing. So far, they haven’t gotten either,
which is what separates LaRussa’s petty abuses of a Matt Morris or Alan
Benes
from Billy Martin‘s cashing in on Ed Figueroa or Mike Norris. Lefty
Donovan Osborne has been touted widely as the big candidate to bust out if
he has more than a dozen starts, and I suppose I’ll reluctantly subscribe
to that line of thinking. The difference between Osborne and the other
victims is that Osborne’s so fragile LaRussa hasn’t had a clean shot at
overusing him. Given what happened in ’98 to Alan Benes and Todd
Stottlemyre
, if Osborne’s consistently healthy, I expect LaRussa will burn
him out by mid-August.

On a more positive note, closer Ricky Bottalico is as good a candidate as
any to bounce back. SS Edgar Renteria should have a good year, freed from
the heavy Florida air. You’ll see improvement from C Eli Marrero, not as
much as some hype would have you believe, but he’s going to be a solid
offensive contributor and good defensive player. Not exactly a breakout,
just something that’ll be nice to see.

Guys to be pessimistic about? I have little faith in lefties Darren Oliver
or Kent Mercker at this stage. Both have been tender-armed when they
haven’t been pitching poorly. I could be cruel and mention Curtis King, but
that’s sort of pointless. Second baseman Carlos Baerga should have been
primed to be the kind of guy who the Pirates would bring in: dubious or
negligible skills in every phase of the game, a basic inability to get on
base, and plenty of veteran seasoning ought to have had him in the company
of similarly lousy players now in black and gold. Instead, he’ll waste the
Cardinals’ time. He’s a great candidate for outright release by August,
especially if the Cardinals want to get serious about winning right now, or
ever for that matter.