That Bootleg Guy: MLB Preview Part 4

It seems I can’t win for losing these days. This must be how Buck Showalter will feel some time around Labor Day 2004. Let’s recap…each day this series has run, the fans of teams who’ve felt slighted or dismissed by my prognostications have stepped up and defended their honor.

Part One of our preview produced the greater quantity of feedback, as Cubs and White Sox fans forged an uneasy alliance…unified in their common hatred of me. Part Two brought more in the way of quality hate mail as Red Sox fans finally crawled out of their Grady-induced stupor to pound out two or three sentences of bile my way. Quick note to Red Sox Nation…turn off the ‘caps lock’ key. It only takes a second and you don’t even need an opposable thumb to do it.

Yesterday, we took the spotlight out west and, true to the laid-back stereotype, the bulk of the responses had nothing to do with where I placed the Rangers or what I said about the Mariners. In fact, the most mail revolved around what I didn’t say:

Umm…I thought you were a west coast guy? So, how come there wasn’t a single syllable about the best third baseman (non A-Rod division) in the game: Eric Chavez? – Michael Ruiz

Yikes…pretty shameful on my part. In 50 words or less, Chavez will need a huge year for Oakland if the A’s are to contend. His big-money deal makes him a de facto leader (a label he’s shunned over the years) and if he improves against LHP, an MVP isn’t out of the question.

Did You Know…Chavez went to high school in San Diego? Now, that’s what I call segue…

National League West
2004 Predicted Order of Finish

1. San Diego Padres
2. San Francisco Giants
3. Arizona Diamondbacks
4. Los Angeles Dodgers
5. Colorado Rockies

1. San Diego Padres – Last year’s team lost nearly 100 games, but this ain’t the ’03 version of the Friendly Friars. They made a series of sharp moves in the offseason that flew under ESPN’s 24-hour Yankee-Red Sox radar, but went a long way towards improving a roster ready to debut in new Petco Park. Combine these moves with an overall downturn in the division and the Pads are ready to contend again.

The rotation includes some of the best young arms you’ve never heard of. SP Jake Peavy (12-11), Brian Lawrence (10-15) and Adam Eaton (9-12) all suffered from an abject lack of run support last year. All three had ERAs just a hair over 4.00 and while free agent fat man and hometown drunk David Wells (15-7) might not contribute a whole lot, he really might not need to. Closer Trevor Hoffman returns from an injury-marred ’03 to lead what should be a much-improved bullpen, with the underrated Jay Witasick back in the familiar role of set-up man.

The offense could either be very good or just about league average, depending on how their new home plays. 3B Sean Burroughs is an unconventional leadoff hitter, with a great batting eye and 15 HR potential. 2B Mark Loretta (.314-13-72) will be hard pressed to repeat his stellar 2003 campaign, but even with some drop-off, he’ll still be a fine choice for the number two hitter.

The middle of the order is not without its question marks, though. 1B Phil Nevin’s bum shoulder was re-injured this spring and his availability for Opening Day is up in the air. If he’s healthy, he’ll join OF Brian Giles (.427 OBP/.514 SLG) and Ryan Klesko (career .891 OPS) to form the team’s best power combination since Ken Caminiti and Greg Vaughn were hitting roid balls into the next county.

The only spring training battle was for the shortstop position. Clemson alum Khalil Greene beat out former Met Rey Ordoñez, who left camp in a huff and is rumored to be heading to Oakland. At the same time, the Padres lingering uncertainty at catcher has been solved with the acquisition of Ramon Hernandez (.271-23-78) from the A’s. In a division where 86 wins could take home the title, the Padres have the horses to be there at the end.

2. San Francisco Giants – Every year, it seems like all of the prognosticators are all too eager to start throwing dirt on the Giants’ grave. And every year, the G-Men ride the back of their prodigious slugger and the arms of a starting pitcher or two straight into the playoffs. The glass slipper that fit so well during the “Dust-iny” era and Felipe Alou’s grandfatherly goodwill of 2003 should shatter into a thousand shards this year, so watch where you step.

OF Barry Bonds (.341/.529/.749) had another deserving MVP campaign last year and there’s no reason to think he’ll slow down as he approaches 40. It’s the rest of the lineup that should cause concern amongst the chardonnay sippers who populate Pac Bell SBC Park. Especially if Alou acts on his threat to make 3B Edgardo Alfonzo (.391 SLG) into his clean-up hitter and primary Bonds protection.

A.J. Pierzynski (.312-11-74) was a solid acquisition this offseason, as his numbers have improved across the board in each of his first full three seasons. He’ll likely experience a slight park- related drop-off in his output, but it should be negligible. There are bigger problems on the offensive horizon and they can be found at the bottom of the Giants’ order.

OF Marquis Grissom (.300 BA, 20 HR) put up a deceptively solid season in 2003. He’s nothing more than a platoon player at this point who’ll be 37 on opening day and primed for a huge fall if he gets nearly 600 at-bats, again. OF Michael Tucker enjoyed his last good season in 2000 for Cincinnati and has regressed ever since. While SS Neifi Perez (.285 OBP) might be the worst hitter in baseball.

The starting rotation will have their work cut out for them as Jason Schmidt (likely headed for the DL) must bounce back from elbow surgery and lead a staff that features a declining Kirk Rueter (10-5) and young Jerome Williams (7-5) as their #2 and #3 arms, respectively. And the verdict is still out on the health of closer Robb Nen. If he’s not 100%, the Giants will likely plug Felix Rodriguez or Matt Herges into Nen’s spot, which would do more harm to the middle relief than solve the closer conundrum.

3. Arizona Diamondbacks – The D’backs sacrificed some of their long-term future for the opportunity to win it all in 2001. This was an old team then and it’s an even older team now. The difference is that some of those multi-year deals that ownership was offering up looked a lot better when the Yankees were getting dethroned three years ago, than they do today for a middle-of-the-pack team in serious flux.

SP Curt Schilling takes his manipulative and self-serving act to Boston and the rotation is left with his 40-year-old creaky-kneed soul mate, Randy Johnson (6-8, 4.26 ERA) and the very promising Brandon Webb (10 wins, 2.84 ERA), who actually put up better numbers than 2003 ROY Dontrelle Willis. From there, it gets ugly in a hurry. Elmer Dessens (5.07 ERA) and Shane Reynolds (5.43 ERA) were nothing short of brutal last year and 36 combined starts in Bank One will keep their ERAs in line with the average noontime temperatures…uh, minus the decimal point. Moving on.

Matt Mantei (29 SV) returns after throwing his highest number of innings in three years. After a mostly unreliable tenure, it’s not realistic to expect an entirely healthy 2004. Not that it would be a bad thing…the D’Backs have an unhittable closer-in-waiting in Jose Valverde (12.70 K/9), who could step in, if needed.

It’s the same old, same old on offense and yes, the pun is intended. OF Luis Gonzalez (.934 OPS) will never hit 57 HRs again, but as he showed in ’02 and ’03, he doesn’t have to. There is huge concern over the ligament damage in his throwing elbow, though. He’ll attempt to play through it, but if it requires surgery, he’ll be done for the year. Moving him to first base isn’t an option (as the Cardinals did with Albert Pujols with a similar injury) due to the acquisition of underrated 1B Richie Sexson (.272-45-124) from Milwaukee.

Their home park has been helping hitters for years, but don’t look for any marked improvement out of declining 2B Roberto Alomar or spectacularly average 3B Shea Hillenbrand. Although, if OF Steve Finley puts up another .363 OBP and .500 SLG along with an encore performance from SS Alex Cintron, they could leapfrog the Giants.

4. Los Angeles Dodgers – Here in Southern California, the continued ineptitude of the Dodgers franchise is no longer sports bar conversation. The rise of the Angels has relegated The Blue Crew to stepson status in the market that they created with their move west over 40 years ago. That divide is expected to widen in 2004 as an ownership change in the offseason stalled any efforts to upgrade an offense that was one of the worst-ever in the post-1993 expansion era.

OF Shawn Green (.280-19-85) played nearly all of last year with a shoulder injury that sapped his power and created a huge hole in the middle of the line-up. Everyone’s saying he’s healthy for 2004, but even if that’s true, it won’t be enough to carry an offense that won’t be as bad as last year, but still has issues.

OF Dave Roberts (.331 OBP, .307 SLG) had a terrible campaign as the leadoff hitter in ’03. Sure he steals bases, but that on-base percentage belongs at the bottom of any batting order. C Paul Lo Duca (.335 OBP, .377 SLG) is a mediocre player who’s been living off his fluky 2001 season. 2B Alex Cora and SS Cesar Izturis continue to collect hundreds of wasted at-bats a year for no discernable reason. And someone please tell me that Robin Ventura (.242/.340/.401) is not going to be their opening day first baseman.

The pitching staff returns four of its five arms from last year. Shell-shocked RHP Jeff Weaver will replace Kevin Brown and don’t be surprised if he has a nice renaissance away from the New York experience. He’ll have a better defense behind him and a more favorable park, to boot.

Can Hideo Nomo (16 wins, 3.09 ERA) and Wilson Alvarez (2.37 ERA) continue their rise from the ashes? They’ll be expected to hold down the front and back of the rotation, respectively. There’s no such uncertainty in the bullpen, as Guillermo Mota and Paul Shuey will continue to set-up the best closer on the planet in Eric Gagne (55 SV, Cy Young Award). Too bad they can’t hit.

5. Colorado Rockies – Team Mile High is entering their 12th season of play. The quaint novelty of their home park’s Playstation effect on offense has dimmed as attendance has dropped from its 1996 peak of 3.89 million down to about 2.3 million last year. Rubbing additional salt in the wound, the Florida Marlins, who joined the league with the Rockies in 1993, have won a pair of world championships in that time. And the 2004 Rockies team isn’t likely to bring back those lost fans.

1B Todd Helton (1.088 OPS) continues to be the backbone of the offense. While he’s undeniably been helped by Denver’s rarified air, he’s also arguably been building the foundation for a Hall of Fame career. OF Preston Wilson (.282-36-141) put up career highs in nearly every category last year, after coming over from Florida. At 29 years old, he should be able to maintain that level for a few more seasons.

And that concludes our “good news” portion for the evening. OF Larry Walker (who’ll start ’04 on the DL) endured his worst full season in ten years in 2003. He’s 37 years old and his slugging percentage has declined precipitously since 1999. 3B Vinny Castilla was an absolutely terrible signing, as his skill set is better suited to a team like his former employers in Atlanta, who had enough offense to hide his bat. Why sign a fading old man (who isn’t as good as his ’03 numbers), when your team is sure to lose more than half its games?

OF Jeromy Burnitz (31 HR) might be primed for a decent season as he moves out of the pitcher’s parks where he’s played for the last few years, but C Charles Johnson (.230 BA, .320 OBP) has eroded into just an average defensive player and a one-dimensional hitter.

Pitching is almost an afterthought with this team, as the big news involved Shawn Chacon moving from the rotation to the closer’s spot. There’s a great deal of concern regarding his tender elbow, so don’t be surprised if he’s unavailable to throw in consecutive days…a potentially huge handicap for a team makes so many calls to the bullpen. And with rotation candidates like Joe Kennedy (6.13 ERA) and Denny Stark (5.83 ERA) lining up with holdover Jason Jennings (12-13, 5.11 ERA) for their 3.1 innings of nightly shellings, Clint Hurdle should have the ‘pen phone on speed dial.

Next: National League East Preview

Aaron Cameron’s “Bootleg” column appears every Friday in The Music Zone. He has 1/4 of a 40-game half-season ticket plan for the Padres this year and hopes to eat his weight in fish tacos at each home game.