MLB Previews: Brewers, Twins, Mets, Yankees, A’s

Milwaukee Brewers
Last Season: 77-85, 3rd in NL Central
CHRIS PUMMER: For even longer than the last decade, the Brewers have tried and failed to assemble good rotations. Since the turn of the century, the starting five has pretty much been one very good pitcher (first Ben Sheets, now Yovani Gallardo) and a bunch of dreck. Not concidentally, the only time the Brew Crew has made the playoffs was in 2008, when they traded for CC Sabathia to form a 1-2 punch with Sheets. They happened to get enough from the rag-tag collection of prospects and journeymen did enough to help Milwaukee win 90 games and the Wild Card.

For whatever reason, pitching has been hard to come by for the Brewers. They’ve rarely developed guys, haven’t drafted terribly well and have suffered plain old bad luck. They traded for Sabathia, but couldn’t afford to retain him. When they set their sights lower in free agency, they’ve ended up with Jeff Suppan and Randy Wolf.

Considering the problems with signing top talent, and the success of Sabathia, the Brewers made the right call in turning to the trade market for Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke. Combined with Gallardo, an overpaid but useful Wolf, plus some reasonable options for the fifth spot, the Milwaukee rotation might be the best in the NL Central, health willing.

The offense will be a force, especially if 1B Prince Fielder can bounce back from a “down” 2010 in which he still had 50 extra base hits and an OBP over .400. LF Ryan Braun also could very well improve, while Rickie Weeks and Cory Hart have hopefully established new levels for themselves.

Defense is going to be a problem as none of those guys come close to matching their hitting aptitude in the field. Neither does 3B Casey McGehee, and certainly not SS Yuniesky Betancourt, who will have to maintain his power (42 extra base hits last year) to have any value.

Carlos Gomez will get an extended look at wearing out his welcome and prospect status in CF. He has a terrific glove but looks lost at the plate. As long as he’s not a complete zero with the bat, he could be valuable for a team that’s deficient on defense elsewhere.

This rotation, a bullpen with a couple strong pitchers and a handful of palatable options, and offense, should still be enough to win the NL Central.

Minnesota Twins
Last Season: 94-68, 1st in AL Central
CHRIS PUMMER: The Twins did what they’ve done most of the last decade, winning with homegrown players who exceed expectations. There’s no reason to change a winning formula, but there’s reason to think the plan could come up short this year.

Former MVP Justin Morneau is still battling back from a concussion that prematurely ended what was probably the best year of his career. Superstar C Joe Mauer has battled his own less serious injuries which maybe only cause concern because of his position and the amount of money the Twins now have invested in him. Jim Thome was fantastic last year, but will be 40 this season. The rest of the infield is unproven, and nobody in the outfield is terribly good (Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span, Jason Kubel).

Except maybe Delmon Young. The one-time Rookie of the Year runner-up easily had his best year at the plate, slugging nearly 60 points above his career rate and nearly hitting .300 for the first time since his brief MLB debut as a 20-year-old. Still just 25 this year, Young has been around for a while. If he can build on what he did last season, Morneau comes back healthy and hitting, this could be the best offense in the division provided more of the Twins’ questions become good answers.

I don’t think those answers will come from the rotation. I will always have hard time trusting the health and productivity of the Twins’ top two starters, Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano. Among the other options, Minnesota is deep (Scott Baker, Brian Duensing, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and top prospect Kyle Gibson), but seems to favor the worst of those options (Duensing, Blackburn).

The bullpen won’t be as deep as last season, and while the Twins should finish near the top of the AL Central baring disaster, right now I don’t think they’ll slip past the White Sox.

New York Mets
Last Season: 79-83, 4th in NL East
CHRIS PUMMER: In late June the Mets were still within a half game of the division lead, but a 10-21 crushed their hopes as they only played around near the .500 mark the rest of the way. That July nosedive is significant because it ultimately cost GM Omar Minaya and manager Jerry Manuel their jobs and cemented the Mets’ course as a rebuilding team.

Ace pitcher Johan Santana, LF Jason Bay and RF Carlos Beltran are three star-level performers with serious injury questions. Catcher Josh Thole and 1B Ike Davis have to prove they are ready for full-time work in the big leagues, CF Angel Pagan must show he’s really reached a new level and not just enjoying his peak seasons as a journeyman the last two years. Somebody has to play second base. Whoever loses that job should be required to console superstar 3B David Wright between innings for having to witness this on-the-field disaster.

The Mets hope R.A. Dickey’s breakout continues, and that Mike Pelfrey or Jon Niese can maybe improve. After that, it’s a cast of retreads (Chris Young, Chris Capuano). The bullpen could be similarly structured after closer Francisco Rodriguez.

With the financial mess Mets ownership has also landed itself, and the unlikelihood all of these question marks work out in the team’s favor, it’s hard to rate the chances of contending as anything other than poor. And the odds of staying in front of the Nationals might only be fair.

New York Yankees
Last Year: 95-67, 2nd in AL East, AL Wild Card
CHRIS PUMMER: The last time the Yankees were this thin in pitching was 2008. That year they got an ace performance from Mike Mussina, a solid season from Andy Pettitte, and not much else. And they missed the playoffs.

This year they’ve got an ace (CC Sabathia), a solid performer (Phil Hughes) and a bunch of guys who might resemble what the Yankees put out there during their lone postseason miss since baseball came back from a strike. A.J. Burnett is the wild card. If he can pitch like a solid No. 2, New York can work out the rest of the problems on the back end. If he can’t and pitches like he did last year? And Hughes gets belted like he did the second half of last year? Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon are not going to be able to pick up the slack.

It’s paramount that the Yankees resolve this because the the AL East is deep enough to drag down New York’s win totals, possibly spoiling a Wild Card berth if Tampa Bay or Toronto doesn’t just claim it outright.

That’s where having vast sums of money and resources will help.

The offense will churn out runs again with a deep outfield (LF Brett Gardner, CF Curtis Granderson, RF Nick Swisher); an infield loaded with superstars (3B Alex Rodriguez, 2B Robinson Cano, 1B Mark Teiexeira and yes, SS Derek Jeter); plus Jorge Posada at DH and two top prospects (Austin Romaine, Jesus Montero) waiting in the wings if Russell Martin can’t bounce back behind the plate.

Of course Romaine or Montero could be big pieces of trade bait to fix what’s wrong in the rotation. Or the Yankees could just offer to take some money off someone’s hands (Johan Santana? Jake Peavy?). Whatever it takes.

That’s why New York will probably finish at least second in the NL East, probably with Wild Card in hand.

Oakland Athletics
Last Season: 81-81, 2nd in AL West
CHRIS PUMMER: The A’s have the same problem this year that they had last season. There just isn’t any superstar level talent in the everyday lineup, with 1B Daric Barton being as close as it comes. The addition of RF David DeJesus, LF Josh Willingham and DH Hideki Matsui did not address this.

The A’s did try to add Adrian Beltre, Lance Berkman and probably others, but were spurned. So it’s not like they didn’t do the best they could with the situation. But marginal upgrades like DeJesus and Matsui, and relievers like Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour, just won’t be enough to become favorites in the AL West.

This is despite a great rotation that is getting ace Brett Anderson back from injury to join Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Dallas Braden. I think that trio certainly performed above expectations last year, and can be expected to come down a little this season. But that won’t matter if Anderson is healthy and another option emerges from the back end of the rotation.

It’s still hard to see past an offense that will be playing SS Cliff Pennington, 3B Kevin Kouzmanoff and CF Coco Crisp, while getting nothing extraordinary from 2B Mark Ellis or C Kurt Suzuki. That’s why I think second place is this team’s upside, while third in the AL West might be the most likely landing spot.

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