With my feet back on the ground–just barely, after the Scariest LAX Landing Ever–it’s time for me to join the endless line of writers putting out their predictions for the 2004 season.

Because of the Wild Card, we have to think of teams more as belonging to a league than to their respective divisions. It’s not quite as dramatic as it is in the NBA and NHL, but it’s enough so that I’m going to do my preseason rankings by league. You can infer the divisional standings from these, and I think doing it this way provides a better overview of each circuit.

  1. Boston Red Sox. Their current edges at the back of the rotation–where I expect Bronson Arroyo to be one the season’s better stories–and on the bench make the difference. As good as last year’s offense was, I can see declines from David Ortiz and Bill Mueller being offset by better years from Kevin Millar and, especially, Johnny Damon. The Sox won’t approach 1,000 runs again, but they won’t need to do so; Arroyo, Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke will help them to allow 50-80 fewer runs than the 2003 team did.

    Off-season pickups Pokey Reese and Brian Daubach will take on larger roles in the next few weeks, and while neither is capable of filling Garciaparra’s or Nixon’s shoes in the long term, both can contribute to a good team. Having Reese to play shortstop means that the Sox will avoid the disaster of 2001, when having no capable fill-in for Garciaparra crippled the team. Reese at shortstop and Mark Bellhorn at second base is a fair double-play combination, and certainly no reason for the Sox to panic. Bellhorn will end up as a valuable reserve, posting a .270/.360/.480 line in 400 plate appearances, making missed time by Garciaparra and Bill Mueller a virtual non-issue.

    Overall, this team is actually better than last year’s, with a stronger bullpen and bench, and a deeper rotation less reliant on Pedro Martinez. For the first time since they acquired the skinny right-hander, it’s possible to envision a Sox postseason appearance even if Martinez were to miss significant time to an injury. The rest of the team is that good, good enough to be called the best in the American League.

  2. New York Yankees. $183 million, Enrique Wilson. $183 million, Donovan Osborne. $183 million, John Flaherty.

    Shouldn’t $183 million buy more?

    The lousy bottom of the roster is why I’ll leave the Yankees in the #2 spot in the AL, still comfortably in the Wild-Card position, but a shade behind the Red Sox. Those empty roster slots are a testament to how thin this organization is beyond its high-priced major league talent. The Yankees’ system just doesn’t generate even the minor contributors that other good teams do, and their work in the secondary talent markets is an absolute disaster. The Columbus rosters for the past six seasons have been a joke, filled with players who not only aren’t prospects, but who aren’t even suspects or Quadruple-A players. They’re just Triple-A lifers who aren’t capable of coming up and contributing as needed.

    With each year, the Yankees’ need for depth increases. Already this spring they’ve watched Bernie Williams, Gary Sheffield, Travis Lee and Jon Lieber lose time to injury. All are either back now or expected to be back by the end of April, but the larger issue–an aging roster prone to nagging owies–is going to hang over this team all season.

    There’s an attitude in New York that the Yankees can treat the regular season as a warmup for the playoffs, that they’re so good a spot in the postseason is assured. I don’t see it. The 76 games they’ll play in the division will be as tough as any they’ve played since the unbalanced schedule made its return, and the second-place team in the AL West, be it the A’s or Angels, isn’t that far behind the Yankees in projected performance. There’s no lock here.

    If the Yankees go out and trade for Carlos Beltran, and get Edgar Renteria to play second base, and get Ben Sheets to fill out the rotation, well, what are you going to do? Until that happens, I’ll stick with them as a solid #2 to the boys from Beantown.

  3. Oakland Athletics. As difficult as it is to separate the Red Sox and Yankees, ordering the Angels and A’s may be even harder. Just two days ago, I was on the radio, picking the Angels over the A’s for the AL West crown. (I think that’s how it looks in the upcoming staff predictions article, too.) Now, after 48 hours of waffling, I find myself predicting the Athletics to win their third straight division crown.

    Even after they lost Mark Ellis, I see this A’s team as being much improved over last year’s edition. Billy Beane saw that the team had moved too much in the direction of pitching and defense and made moves designed to rebuild the team on-base percentage and get the offense back to respectability.

    The loss of Miguel Tejada was anticipated, and will hurt some. There’s no way you can lose one of the top 15 players in the league and not feel it. However, not only is Bobby Crosby likely to provide 80% of Tejada’s value, but the difference in their salaries is what pays for Mark Kotsay and Bobby Kielty, who are huge upgrades over last season’s holes in center field and left field. Add in any improvement from Erubiel Durazo and Jermaine Dye, and you’ll have an above-average offense more than capable of supporting this pitching staff. As much as the A’s love Ellis’ defense, they’ll also get a boost with either Esteban German–a personal favorite–or Marco Scutaro at second base.

    The pitching should be as effective as ever, with depth beyond the big three and and a balanced bullpen. The hip injury that ended Mark Mulder‘s 2003 season hasn’t shown itself in ’04, and the back soreness he’s pitched through this spring appears to be subsiding. Rich Harden may start the season in the minors due to scheduling issues, not his performance. Joe Blanton lurks on the horizon as a mid-season addition or, perhaps more likely, trade bait for help behind the plate or at second base.

    Knowing that Beane has cards to play and a history of playing them pushes me into choosing the A’s to win the West. There’s precious little difference between the A’s and Angels, however.

  4. Anaheim Angels. I have a lot of respect for Mike Scioscia, who has as impressive a managerial record–not just win/loss, but decision-making–as any skipper in the game. This year, however, he’s going to preside over one key mistake, perhaps not entirely his doing, that will undermine his talented squad’s chance to win the AL West.

    The decision to make Darin Erstad a full-time first baseman hurts on two levels. One, it commits the Angels to a first baseman who can’t hit. While he has a reputation as a good hitter, Erstad has been a league-average batsman just once in the past five years, that all the way back in 2000. He’s established himself as a below-average player at the plate, and there’s not much reason to believe he can provide the .290 Equivalent Average (EqA) that a team needs to get from its first baseman.

    Moreover, moving Erstad denies the Angels a big competitive advantage: his glove in center field. The Angels’ excellent defense, led by Erstad’s tremendous work in center, was perhaps the key component in their 2002 championship. Over a full season, Erstad is worth between two and three wins just with his glove. Replacing him with some combination of corner outfielders–the Angels don’t have another true center fielder on the roster–is going to cost them a lot of runs, especially given the flyball tendencies of their pitching staff.

    For all the noise the Angels made this winter, signing four free agents including Vladimir Guerrero, this one decision has the potential to undermine it all. They need Erstad’s glove in center field, and they have to get his limp bat off of first base. The current alignment, designed in part to keep Erstad healthy, may cost them enough to keep them out of the postseason.

    The Erstad decision is the only thing standing between the Angels and the AL West crown. Moving him to center field and giving Jose Guillen or Tim Salmon a crash course in slow-corner play would make them the favorite, and I say this as a guy who hates on-the-job training in baseball. Erstad’s importance to this team isn’t in his bat or in his grittyguttyness. It’s in his glove, and that glove has to be in center field for him to be worthwhile as a player, and for the Angels to prevent enough runs to win.

  5. Toronto Blue Jays. It’s tempting to be cute and pick the Blue Jays to win the AL wild card. This isn’t that team, though; it’s actually a transitional roster, with the core of a contender in place, but placeholders in the outfield corners and at shortstop. In two years, when the middle infield is Russ Adams and Aaron Hill, and the corner outfielders are Alexis Rios and Gabe Gross, and the Yankees have a $230 million payroll and an average age of dead, then you can pick the Jays to run away and hide.

    For now, this mix of yesterday, today and tomorrow will probably take a step back from last year’s 87 wins. The Jays have upgraded their pitching staff–Miguel Batista may have been the winter’s biggest free-agent bargain–and will likely be a less frustrating team in ’04, but the improvements around them and their stopgaps at left field, right field and shortstop will mean a slight step back, perhaps to .500.

    There’s a big dropoff between the #5 and #6 teams.

  6. Minnesota Twins. Once again, the Twins will play big fish in a small pond. For three years, Terry Ryan has failed to convert his glut of outfielders and first basemen into some middle infielders who don’t cripple the team’s offense. With no one else in the division capable of making him pay for that error, though, the Twins will once again have Cristian Guzman and Luis Rivas combining for more playing time than Lew Ford, Justin Morneau, Michael Restovich and Michael Cuddyer. If OBP is life, the Metrodome is a crypt.

    My stance on Joe Mauer provoked a lot of unhappy e-mail. To recap, Mauer is 6’4″, and history indicates that 6’4″ catchers don’t become superstars. Many people pointed out that a number of great catchers, such as Mike Piazza, are 6’3″, and questioned the sense of assigning so much importance to one inch. I see the argument, but the gap between the caliber of 6’3″ catchers and 6’4″ ones is so significant that I think that one particular inch may represent a dividing line. Perhaps 6’3″ is the maximum height at which a player can both catch and be a great hitter.

    My opinion of Mauer comes down to this: Either he’s not going to hit, and he’ll be Joel Skinner or someone like that, or he is going to hit, and he’ll be moved out from behind the plate within four years. I’d like to be wrong, because it’s no fun being the guy not projecting stardom.

    With Matt LeCroy and Rob Bowen around, Mauer isn’t the Twins’ biggest concern, anyway. Their problem remains OBP sinks at three lineup spots, with Torii Hunter completing the set. Moreover, a pitching staff that wasn’t all that impressive last year lost 150 of its best innings, and now has a bullpen that includes virtually no players with any track record of throwing strikes on demand.

    If anyone else in the division impressed me, I’d pick them ahead of the Twins.

  7. Baltimore Orioles. This team should lead the league in 7-6 games, with a powerful lineup that could approach the team record of 257 home runs, but a pitching staff that will match it shot for shot. Sidney Ponson looks like he’ll be this year’s Willie Blair or Paul Byrd, a mediocre pitcher who leveraged a good half-season into a contract that will look silly four months into it. No other Orioles’ starter is ready to be more than a league-average pitcher, although all could top out at that level this year. I have a soft spot for Eric DuBose.

    As much power as the O’s have, the addition of players like Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez just increases the need for Melvin Mora and Luis Matos to provide OBP in front of them. Those two have to get on base at a .350-.360 clip for this offense to work; any less, and the O’s could devolve into a 1987 Indians kind of dysfunction, with Rafael Palmeiro playing the Brook Jacoby (32 HR, 69 RBI) role.

  8. Chicago White Sox. A core principle of building a winning team is that it has to be strong up the middle. The White Sox go into ’04 with Miguel Olivo, Jose Valentin, Willie Harris and Aaron Rowand/Timo Perez up the middle. That may suit Ozzie Guillen’s desire to keep everyone running, but it will also suit opposing pitchers’ desire to pitch from the windup a lot.

    The White Sox are the spitting image of an 83-79 team. They don’t have any overwhelming strengths or glaring weaknesses, and their roster is a mix of old and young, expensive and cheap, overrated and underrated. They’re going to be worse than they were last year largely because the front of their rotation is going to slip considerably. Esteban Loaiza will regress towards his career norms, while Mark Buehrle continues his slide back from 2001’s peak. They’ll miss Bartolo Colon‘s innings as well.

    For the White Sox to win the Central, they’ll have to add a starting pitcher and find a solution at the top of the lineup. Kenny Williams goes back and forth between good moves and, well, other ones, but it was his trades for Colon and Carl Everett that kept the Sox in the mix all last season. His ability to make similar additions this year will go a long way towards determining not only whether the Sox make the playoffs this year, but whether they can keep Magglio Ordonez for the years that follow.

  9. Seattle Mariners. I don’t see why this team is perceived as a contender, other than that it has been one for a while and returns mostly the same set of players that has won 402 games since 2001. Unfortunately, that core hasn’t made the playoffs the past two seasons, mostly because of an inability to move runners around. Adding Raul Ibanez and Scott Spiezio doesn’t address that problem, while replacing Mike Cameron and Jeff Cirillo with those two takes a chunk out of the Mariners’ main competitive advantage: their defense.

    The Mariners have as much potential for collapse as any team in baseball. Their rotation has been reliant on park and defense, and the loss of Cameron could cost them 40 to 50 runs. There’s no way the offense is going to make that up. The Mariners needed a significant power bat, and added exactly the kind of players in Ibanez and Spiezio who don’t provide enough punch.

    There’s a big dropoff between the #9 and #10 teams. In fact, the bottom five teams in the league could end up in any order.

  10. Tampa Bay Devil Rays. This is all about the defense. With Jose Cruz Jr. replacing Aubrey Huff in right field, the D-Rays have the best collection of flycatchers in the game. That’s important, because the D-Rays also have a pitching staff that should lead the league in fly balls, and home runs, allowed. If they can at least cut down on the number of doubles and triples allowed, it will be a big help.

    The infield defense is pretty good as well, with Rey Sanchez brought in to play second base and the handsy, if slow, Tino Martinez at first. Comparisons to the Sid Bream/Rafael Belliard Braves are far out of line, but the principle–back up the young staff with good defense and see if they’ll develop better–is a good one. For the first time since the franchise’s first two seasons, some optimism is in order.

  11. Detroit Tigers. At some point, adding lots of average players matters. The Tigers aren’t going to win anything, not with that pitching staff. They should have a league-average offense and defense, maybe even a little better than that, and given the competition, that will be enough to not only cause a 30-win improvement, but I’m betting will keep them an interesting story–around .500, around the division lead–well past the All-Star break.
  12. Kansas City Royals. The trendy pick to win the AL Central, the Royals have a pitching staff that might not strike out 800 batters and a defense that won’t support those tendencies. Kevin Appier? Brian Anderson? Jimmy Gobble? I appreciate the respect people have for Tony Pena; I just think there’s a line between “respect” and stories involving loaves and fishes. Winning with this rotation would be a miracle.

    Carlos Beltran will be the most valuable player in the league. He may not win the MVP award, but he will certainly deserve it. His defensive value will only increase in the bigger Kauffman Stadium, and he’s the best basestealer in the game today.

  13. Texas Rangers. The trade of Alex Rodriguez for Alfonso Soriano only cost them about two games, maybe three, in the short term. They’re listed here not because of that deal, but because they continue to show no growth from year to year.

    The infield is amazing, even with Michael Young sliding to shortstop. The outfield is amazingly bad, and for the fifth straight season, will feature a corner outfielder trying to play center field, this time, Laynce Nix. Until the Rangers develop a true center fielder, they will struggle to both limit run scoring and develop pitchers.

  14. Cleveland Indians. Even before the Milton Bradley fiasco, I saw this team plummeting to Municipal Stadium depths. For the sake of argument, let’s say that Bradley is dealt this weekend and C.C. Sabathia has a lousy first two months. Who is the Indians’ All-Star? Ben Broussard? David Riske? Victor Martinez?

    Mark Shapiro, Chris Antonetti and Neal Huntington have a lot of work ahead of them. The Indians are going to be an interesting franchise to watch, in that their front office includes people at both ends of the scouting/performance analysis spectrum. How those people blend the two methods of evaluation in drafting, acquisition and development is going to determine whether this franchise gets back to its 1990s level sooner rather than later.

    In 2004, however, it’s just not going to be pretty.


MVP: Vladimir Guerrero
Cy Young: Mike Mussina
Rookie of the Year: Bobby Crosby
Manager of the Year: Terry Francona

Playoffs: Yankees over A’s, Red Sox over Twins. Red Sox over Yankees.

Monday, I’ll preview the National League, which has a much larger group of teams capable of making some noise, and include my World Series prediction.

I’ll also be chatting about those things at 2 p.m. EDT Monday afternoon, most likely with one hand, as the other flips among an assortment of REGULAR SEASON BASEBALL GAMES!!!!

(What, me excited?)

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