That Bootleg Guy: MLB Preview Part 5

Opening Day 2004 has come and gone…well, it actually came and went three times over the last week, but we’ll ignore the 2:00 AM happenings across the Pacific, as well as the Sunday Night sojourn when exhibition games were still being played.

This past Monday, the baseball season kicked off for real. The only thing that could surpass the excitement of packed ballparks and grown men and women playing hooky from work, is some of the hyperbolic and unintentionally hilarious conclusions that were drawn based on the result of one game.

Was that really ESPN’s Harold Reynolds telling viewers that Detroit’s 7-0 shellacking of Toronto was a “huge statement”? Memo to Uncle Junebug: there are 161 games left. And speaking of the Baseball Tonight crew, when did John Kruk turn into Fat Bastard? Sure, he was always “big-boned” or “festively plump”, but these days it looks like he swallowed his own neck. We’d probably find the remains of Lenny Dysktra and Jim Fregosi if we looked inside his belly.

Kruk and I are in agreement over one thing though…the San Diego Padres have the worst uniforms in the game and maybe ever. At least the 1979 “bumblebee” Pirates and 1980 “rainbow” Astros could claim they were products of a more fashionably garish era. The 2004 Padres road uniforms look like nine bottles of Gold Bond Medicated Foot Powder running around the diamond.

Enough already…we’ve got six more months to mock the good, the bad and the ugly Johnny Damon’s new look. Let’s wrap this thing up with a look at how the postseason picture will shake out and who’ll bring home the hardware this fall, followed by our team-by-team look at the NL East.

American League Playoff Teams: Yankees, Twins, A’s, Angels (wildcard)

Look for three tight races in the AL this year, as all three divisions will go down to the final four or five days before the contenders finally separate themselves from the pretenders. The Angels will win a one-game playoff at Fenway Park for the wildcard, as Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone are joined by….oh, let’s say Ben Molina in Sox opponents’ lore.

ALDS: Angels over Yankees in five, A’s over Twins in five – It’s a repeat of the 2002 AL Playoffs as the younger bats and arms of Anaheim squeak past a tired and aging Yanks team. Meanwhile, the A’s finally get over the first-round hump and dispose of a scrappy Twins team in front of 22,000 at the Oakland Coliseum.

ALCS: A’s over Angels in six – While the rest of America settles in for whatever the other networks trot out for their new fall season, California will watch as Hudson, Mulder and Zito match up with Vlad, Glaus and Garrett.

National League Playoff Teams: Phillies, Astros, Padres, Braves (wildcard)

The NL races won’t be as close as those in the Junior Circuit. No one will pull a 1984 Tigers and run and hide by Memorial Day, but both the Phils and ‘Stros should reach mid-September with room to spare in the standings. The Padres, who will have a tougher time of it, should win the West by 3-5 games.

NLDS: Astros over Braves in five, Phillies over Padres in four – The Buffalo Bills Braves continue their mastery of the postseason collapse and bow out to the Astros’ assortment of arms. The Phillies and Pads lock up in a battle of new parks where Citizen’s Bank will put Petco to sleep.

NLCS: Astros over Phillies in seven– Two of the better offenses in the game lock horns to determine NL supremacy. After years of October heartbreak, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio finally make it to the Fall Classic.

World Series: Astros over A’s in seven – Don’t look for any record Nielsen ratings, but you will be able to answer that age-old question: “What happens when good pitching meets good hitting”? The answer is, when the Astros have both, it’s usually enough to put one team over the top.

AL & NL Rookie of the Year: Joe Mauer, MIN Jeremy Reed, CHW & Andy Marte, ATL (Note: Neither is expected to spend much, if any time in the bigs this year, but I think each team’s needs will result in the fast track to the majors this year. The knee injury to Mauer could nag him all year.)

AL & NL Manager of the Year: Ken Macha, OAK & Jimy Williams, HOU

AL & NL Cy Young Award: Mike Mussina, NYY & Roy Oswalt, HOU

AL & NL Most Valuable Player: Alex Rodriguez, NYY & Jim Thome, PHI

National League East
2004 Predicted Order of Finish

1. Philadelphia Phillies
2. Atlanta Braves
3. Florida Marlins
4. Montreal Expos
5. New York Mets

1. Philadelphia Phillies – From 1991 through 1996, only two things kept the Atlanta Braves from six consecutive National League pennants: the 1994 strike (OK, and maybe the Expos) and the 1993 Phillies. This year’s version of the Fightin’ Phils are leaner than the David Wests and Pete Incaviglias that populated that team, with a left-handed closer who’s less “Wild Thing” and more “Sure Thing”. There’s a new ballpark ready to open and Larry Bowa’s crew will christen the grounds with their first division title in eleven years.

Billy Wagner (44 SV, 1.78 ERA) replaces Jose Mesa in the ninth inning this year in a move that cannot be understated. While the “save” stat is as overrated as they come, Wagner has increased his innings pitched and effectiveness in each season since his 2000 campaign that was ruined by injuries. His strikeouts per nine innings reached 10.98 last year and he could, at last, be that one sure thing that the Philly bullpen has lacked since…well, since Jose Mesa in 2001-02. How quickly they forget.

In the rotation, Kevin Millwood (14-12, 4.01 ERA) only has one great season on his resume, but last year’s no-hitter surely will help his reputation as an “ace”. He might add 3-5 wins to his 2003 total with a productive offense leading the way. Randy Wolf won 16 last year and will need to avoid a stretch like the one he suffered through last August and September when his ERA during that time was 6.61.

The back-end of the staff is something of mixed bag with more than a few questions. Vincente Padilla is coming off a 14-win season, but all eyes are on how he bounces back from an off-season car crash that he survived, but a childhood friend did not. Eric Milton (17 IP’s in 3 starts) comes over from Minnesota with not much left in the tank. As the #5 starter, his limitations could be hidden early on, but the Phils would be wise to keep looking for a better alternative.

1B Jim Thome (.385 OBP, .573 SLG) will once again be expected to carry the offense and he should be up to the task. His stats last year didn’t match his ’02 in Cleveland, but 47 HRs is never a disappointment. RF Bobby Abreu’s (.300-20-101) numbers have been on the decline for almost four full seasons, but he’s still a solid hitter with fine on-base skills. C Mike Lieberthal had a nice ’03 and has been good with the stick the last few years, but his defense is miserable and he’s approaching the age (32) when longtime catchers tend to decline.

While the top of the order is helmed by up-and-coming CF Marlon Byrd (.381 OBP after June 1 last year) and barely serviceable SS Jimmy Rollins, the eyes of Philly fans will be upon LF Pat Burrell. He endured a 2003 season (.209/.309/.404) so full of boo-birds, that when he homered late to win a game against Oakland, he refused to come out for a curtain call…and was booed again. The smart money says he rebounds, big-time, with numbers somewhere between his 2001 and 2002 campaigns.

2. Atlanta Braves – So, are we supposed to celebrate their extended regular season run of dominance that has stretched nearly a dozen seasons or mock their October pratfalls that are as timely as the changing of the leaves? They’ve lost their two best hitters from 2003 and hope that they can squeeze a little more magic out of a rotation that is short on name-value, but potentially long on results. The end is near, but there’s enough left here for one more run.

Russ Ortiz (21-7, 3.81 ERA) takes the #1 pitcher tag from the departed Greg Maddux. He’s one of these guys who puts up numbers that aren’t quite as good as they look and he’ll have to work harder with a good chunk of his 2003 offensive support playing elsewhere. There were times when Mike Hampton (14-8, 3.84 ERA) looked like the heavy-balling pitcher of a few seasons ago. Hopefully, he’s happy enough with the school system in Atlanta to focus on eliminating the big inning that short-circuited more than a handful of his starts. Expectations are high for John Thomson (13-14, 4.85 ERA) who spent the first few years of his career in hitter’s parks like Coors and Arlington. With pitching coach Leo Mazzone, he could have a one or two season renaissance.

John Smoltz (45 SV, 1.12 ERA) is supposed to be fully recovered from the injuries that turned him into a tentative one-pitch pitcher in the 2003 playoffs. Bobby Cox needs to do a better job of monitoring his usage patterns. There’s just no reason why someone with Smoltz’s volatile health history should be padding his save stats when the Braves are up by three runs in the ninth.

Gary Sheffield and Javy Lopez have moved on and the pressure is on for their replacements to pick up the slack. A big season out of local boy JD Drew (.374 OBP, .512 SLG) would go a long way towards keeping the Braves playing when the calendar changes from September. Somewhere in there, he’s got to have a monster 600 at-bat, 40+ home run campaign and this could…and should be the year. Lightweight Johnny Estrada will call the balls and strikes in place of Lopez. The Braves will have to hope someone else will make up the guaranteed drop-off in lumber.

OF Chipper Jones (.517 SLG) and Andruw Jones (.513 SLG) would normally be the obvious candidates for surefire offense, but their recent play has raised a few eyebrows. Chipper’s numbers have begun their slow slide downward, in a trend that’s likely to continue this year. Andruw had been talked about as a future superstar, but the numbers have translated into a player who falls a rung or two short of the top of the ladder. There’s a very real concern that he has peaked as a hitter, which is hard to believe for a 27-year-old.

SS Rafael Furcal (.292/.352/.443) and 2B Marcus Giles (.316/.390/.526) lead the infield (and the top of the lineup). Furcal took a huge step forward from a season or two of less productivity and could be ready to add his name to the short list of superb shortstops in the game in another year or two. Giles overcame a tragic 2002 and a midseason collision on the basepaths to put up some of the best numbers ever for a Braves second baseman. He might not perform as well in ’04, but even an expected dip will keep him in the top two or three second sackers in the league.

3. Florida Marlins – Crusty, chain-smoking Jack McKeon used a decidedly old-school approach to steer his team to their second World Championship last year. Some of the faces have changed, but the important ones have mostly stayed the same. With a few breaks and unlikely repeats of a few individual performances, the Fish could stick around long enough to be playing meaningful games down the stretch. If not, we’ll see how long their fair-weather (in Miami?) fans stick around this time.

Before Game Six of the World Series, Josh Beckett was a .500 pitcher who struggled with a lack of run support, while driving his managers mad with his inconsistent outings. For three hours on one night, he turned into the ace of the staff and enters 2004 with 20 win expectations. He’ll be better than his career line, but anyone who think they’ll get 20-30 starts like his last appearance in ’03 is kidding themselves.

Speaking of unreal encores, Dontrelle Willis (14-6, 3.30 ERA) is living on borrowed time. With his violent and unrefined delivery, along with McKeon’s ignorance of pitch counts, a tri p or two to the DL and a bump in his ERA is almost assured. Brad Penny, Carl Pavano and the corpse of Darren Oliver round out the staff.

In the bullpen, Armando Benitez, who’s been a fan favorite wherever he’s played, replaces Ugueth Urbina. Seriously, Mets fans…he’s not that bad of a pitcher. His failures are magnified one, because he played in New York and two, when he melts down it’s Chernobyl all over again. He’ll be no worse than Oogy and might just thrive out of the pressure cooker of Shea.

The Marlins feature a #3 hitter who began 2003 in the minors and a clean-up hitter who was nearly traded to the Cubs last summer. Miguel Cabrera (.468 SLG) is the real deal and gives Florida their first homegrown stud in franchise history. He could go either way this year, with a slight drop-off or moderate improvement both possibilities. I’m betting on the latter, as he’ll be a joy to watch over the course of a full season. Mike Lowell (.276-32-105) went from future Cub to team leader. His performance in the glare of the playoffs will assure that he’s no longer wearing that “underrated” label that’s been his badge of honor for the last few years.

Juan Pierre (.361 OBP, 65 SBs) brings his decent skill set back to the leadoff spot. With 2B Luis Castillo hitting behind him, he might score 100 runs this year. Castillo’s (.381 OBP) re-signing was huge, even if Florida overpaid for his services. Hee Seop Choi replaces the power and speed of Derrek Lee, with a lot less of both. He’s playing for another “throwback” manager who, like Dusty Baker before him, might not have the patience necessary to wait out the inevitable slumps of a young player.

4. Montreal Expos – I’m not sure if Frank Robinson favors the cancer sticks, but he’s just as crusty and curmudgeonly as ol’ Trader Jack. He returns for baseball’s most thankless job as he’s forced to go to war without his best hitter or pitcher from the previous season. The way Major League Baseball has universally botched their handling of this franchise borders on criminal, as last year’s team that was contending on September 1 last year will return to their wire-to-wire also-ran ways of the years prior.

The marketing slogan for the 2004 Expos is easy enough to write: “We’re not as bad as The Mets!” The offense (for now) actually features some quality hitters. 2B Jose Vidro (.310/.397/.470) might be the best player you’ve never heard of and is likely to be highly sought after this July, as the trade deadline nears. 1B Nick Johnson and his newly grown evil goatee should finally capitalize on the promise that’s followed him around from his days as a Yankee farmhand. Not surprisingly, he’s already on the DL to start the season with a back injury that some feel could be a problem all year.

Carl Everett’s (.287/.366/.510) talent has been buried under years of ill will caused by his run-ins with managers, fans and imaginary dinosaurs. He’s a terrific player who might have one last big year under his belt while playing for Robinson. The traveling Tony Batista (.270 OBP) show takes its act back to Canada, but don’t look for anything like the numbers he put up in Toronto. His stats have been eroding for years and his free-swinging style and one-dimensional approach don’t even ensure that he’ll make it the entire season on a big league roster.

Leadoff hitter Peter Bergeron spent all of last year at AAA, while Brad Wilkerson (.380 OBP) steps in to replace Johnson at first base to start the season. One good by-product of the Johnson injury is that it should lead to some additional playing time for rookie Termel Sledge. He was expected to be recalled last September, before the baseball owners (who also “own” the Expos) denied his and all other late-season call-ups for Montreal on the grounds of financial reasons. Conflict…meet interest.

As the Expos will have to replace Vladimir Guerrero in their everyday lineup, they’ll also have to find a way to make up for the loss of Javier Vazquez from their rotation. To start, Livan Hernandez (15-10, 3.20 ERA) will need to reign in his infatuation with all the rich creamy sauces they pour over everything up there in France, Jr. His weight is hovering around 250 pounds and he’ll need better conditioning if he hopes to go 7 innings a start for the next six months.

Tony Armas, Jr. is the only other legitimate starter they have on this team and he’s injured. The rest of the rotation is a collection of fragile arms such as Tomo Ohka and Zach Day, who failed to average even six innings a start last year. In the bullpen, Rocky Biddle proved how irrelevant the save stat truly is, with a fantasy-friendly 34 saves and a reality-sucking ERA of 4.65.

5. New York Mets – Twelve years ago, a New York sportswriter penned The Worst Team Money Could Buy. It was a caustic and critical look at the 1992 Mets, who crashed and burned under a bloated payroll and a bushel of bad apples. The Mets have long since rid themselves of the clubhouse cancers that littered their locker room from back then, but, unfortunately, they still don’t seem to know how to best spend their money. At least the headlines from the Post should be a fun read: “100 Losses? And Howe!”…”Matsui? Aw, phooey!”…and, so forth.

Let’s start with the good…the signing of Mike Cameron (.253-18-76) was a nice move for a team that didn’t have good outfield defense last year. He’s the best centerfielder in the game and patrolled spacious Safeco Field with a flair for the spectacular. Offensively, his critics point to his strikeouts, but he’s a 20-20 talent for at least the next few years. The Mets’ other notable signing was former Japanese League All Star, Kaz Matsui. He homered in his first regular season swing, but projections of 20-25 home runs this year aren’t realistic. He’ll play 81 games in a tough pitcher’s park, opponents will make adjustments and he’ll have to prove he can handle the rigors of a full big league season. I’ll take 12 home runs in the Kaz pool.

The Mike Piazza drama has taken on a life of its own in recent years. Gay or straight….who really cares? Catcher or first base…? Now, there’s an argument worth having. His chasing of Carlton Fisk’s record for all-time home runs by a catcher is so transparent, that he should just come out (no pun intended) and admit that’s what he wants. Creaky catchers in their mid-30s move to less demanding positions all the time…only in New York is this a front page (or back page, in this case) story. If he’s healthy and gets regular time away from the backstop, he’s good for 25-30 bombs.

OF Cliff Floyd (.376 OBP, .518 SLG) is an above average talent whose skill set is tainted by his frequent injuries. OF Karim Garcia and 3B Ty Wigginton are both better served as parts of a platoon, but they’ll get the everyday nods here. 2B Jose Reyes (.307 BA in 69 games) is going to be a good, maybe even great one. When he returns from the DL, he’ll surely be expected to fulfill the lofty expectations. Is he godsend or Gregg Jefferies?

A lot of stupid money was thrown at Tom Glavine (9-14, 4.52 ERA) last year and the returns were not promising. He benefited from a terrific defense in Atlanta and suffered through a campaign where many of the outs the Braves made behind him were falling in for hits in 2003. His WHIP reached 1.48, which was still better than Al Leiter’s. The Fountain of Youth has apparently run dry and the curious hiring of Rick Peterson as pitching coach might not be the cure-all some think. He’s a micro-manager whose approach is infinitely better suited to a young staff (i.e. Oakland’s). And, trust me…Steve Trachsel won’t win 16 again in your lifetime.

Braden Looper got a raw deal out of Florida and he should thrive as the closer here. He doesn’t have great stuff by any means, but he gets outs and is capable of going two innings at a time, if necessary. And, of course, John Franco returns for yet another season as a left-handed specialist. How many other players from the 1969 World Championship team are actually still alive, much less playing?

Aaron Cameron’s “Bootleg” column appears every Friday in the Music Zone. The fact that he’s picking the A’s to reach the World Series is completely coincidental and no reflection of his decades and decades of blind loyalty to the mighty Green and Gold.