Continuing the countdown of the top 30 teams in baseball in 2007…
#20: Baltimore Orioles, 79-83 record, third in AL East, 791 RS, 809 RA. Is there a “Mazzone Effect” north of Atlanta? This may be the year we find out, as the longtime Braves‘ pitching coach enters his second season with the Birds. How Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen pitch under Leo Mazzone’s tutelage will make all the difference this season; my prediction assumes a small improvement for the two, as well as a better performance in the sixth through eighth innings by a revamped bullpen. I’m not sold on the offense, which includes a lot of low-OBP guys and doesn’t have the power that, say, last year’s Tigers did. In another division, this is a fringe wild-card contender.
#19: Los Angeles Angels, 80-82, fourth in AL West, 717 RS, 723 RA. This is a hard offense to predict, as so much depends on how the playing time gets distributed. Will Casey Kotchman hold the first-base job and provide a dose of OBP? Will Juan Rivera come back in the second half and hit as well as he did in ’06? Will Robb Quinlan play as much as he deserves to play, especially in the absence of Chone Figgins? The pitching is solid, but the defense has slipped in recent years, and won’t be an asset this year.
#18: Minnesota Twins, 81-81, fourth in AL Central, 727 RS, 723 RA. That’s an 84-run drop in runs scored, largely because I can’t figure where they’re going to gain runs over last year. Almost every position, save left field and maybe second base, was at or above expectations last season. They need Jason Kubel to play a full season, probably to play some left field, and post a .380/.480 year, and even that’s not going to make up for regression at seven spots. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are great hitters, but you just can’t reasonably expect them to be as good as they were last year. The bullpen and Johan Santana will keep them competitive; self-mutilating again, as they did last year, by making bizarre roster choices will cost them dearly.
#17: St. Louis Cardinals, 82-80, second in NL Central, 767 RS, 755 RA. Yes, I have the Cardinals allowing fewer runs this year, with all the questions about their rotation, then they did last year (762). That’s mostly a projected dip in offensive level, but it does indicate that I’m not pessimistic about their pitching staff. I do worry about their offense, with the 2002 Angels’ middle infield, OBP sinks in right field and behind the plate, and aging stars in center field and at third base. Remember, this was basically a .500 team in the regular season last year, and they return more or less the same team.
#16: San Francisco Giants, 82-80, fourth in NL West, 742 RS, 729 RA. I like the bullpen, especially if Armando Benitez is healthy, which is one reason why I see them allowing 61 fewer runs this season. If they can get Jonathan Sanchez into the rotation ahead of Russ Ortiz, that will help as well. Barry Zito may not be worth $126 million, but he should be worth $18 million this year, and he’s just their second-best starter. Barry Bonds is still, per at-bat, one of the three best hitters in baseball, which gives the offense a fighting chance.
#15: Seattle Mariners, 83-79, third in AL West, 746 RS, 729 RA. This is a bit higher than many people will have them. They have a strong defense behind a ball-in-play staff in a park that’s tough on flyballs. At that, I expect about half the improvement to come from Felix Hernandez, who becomes a true #1 starter this year. The bullpen is a problem, especially if their one solid reliever, J.J. Putz, battles injuries. The offense is just all right, with a lot of guys who might hit .300 with a .340 OBP, or might hit .275 with a .315 OBP.
#14: Philadelphia Phillies, 83-79, third in AL East, 796 RS, 772 RA. You can put the top 11 or so guys on this roster up against anyone, but the falloff to the next 14 or so is pretty steep. There’s little in the bullpen, below-average players at catcher and third base, and a fourth outfielder in right field. As with last year’s Cardinals-who also won 83 games-the stars might be so good that they carry the team into the postseason. Good subplot to watch: Pat Burrell being blamed when Ryan Howard drops 12 homers and 40 points of batting average, which would happen if Howard was protected by Jimmie Foxx.
#13: Chicago Cubs, 84-78, first in NL Central, 788 RS, 764 RA. The talent on hand is good enough to win the division, even before considering that it’s being managed by a guy who’s going to bat Matt Murton second. Welcome to the 21st century, Cubs fans. As much as adding Alfonso Soriano helps, a full season of Derrek Lee is as big a boost, maybe bigger. The bullpen is deep, provides tactical options and can get strikeouts. The middle infield is very weak for a contender, and if it goes awry, that will be a big part of the reason.
#12: Chicago White Sox, 84-78, tied for second in AL Central, 806 RS, 775 RA. This is a projected 62-run falloff, and it doesn’t feel like enough. Darin Erstad and Scott Podsednik starting? Guys like Jermaine Dye and Joe Crede were well over their career norms last season, and the other four starters are old enough to project, even expect, declines. If Jim Thome were to get hurt, it’d be a struggle to reach 780 runs. The rotation will be a little better, and the bullpen is a strength; remember that the raw run totals are inflated by the Cell.
#11: Detroit Tigers, 84-78, tied for second in AL Central, 751 RS, 721 RA. The low-OBP, high-SLG offense worked last season, in part because a lot of marginal guys had career years, in part because the team stayed healthy. This is a very old lineup with a number of players who have a serious injury on their track record, and while luck doesn’t swing predictably, if you were betting, you’d bet against a team that had everything go right for a year. There’s not much depth on offense, especially up the middle. The pitching is above average, and the defense should be good, if not great, but it’s hard to make up 70 missing runs.
We’ll hit the top ten Saturday.