MLB Previews: Cardinals, Rays, Rangers, Blue Jays, Nationals

St. Louis Cardinals
Last Season: 86-76, 2nd in NL Central
CHRIS PUMMER: The future of superstar 1B Albert Pujols hangs over the Cardinals’ season like the Sword of Damocles. Should the best player in baseball bolt, there’s probably no easy rebuild. No way to replace the production lost. And given the team’s financial constraints, paying Pujols-type money to two players might be just as big a risk as putting all of its eggs in Albert’s basket.

That makes the season-ending injury to ace hurler Adam Wainwright even more devastating. If this is Pujols’ last season in St. Louis, the uphill climb to another World Series title this decade got much steeper.

The Cards still have pitching. Chris Carpenter has been among baseball’s best when healthy (knock on wood, not Kerry). Jaime Garcia had a huge breakout season in ’10. Jake Westbrook should be solid, and there’s hope that Kyle Lohse is salvageable after he was hurt following his big contract extension. Kyle McClellan, who lost last year’s fifth-starter battle to Garcia, could be this year’s surprise. And the bullpen has some solid arms.

In the field things look more hit-and-miss. Pujols, LF Matt Holliday and Colby Rasmus are stars. C Yadier Molina is solid, which the Cards hope 3BDavid Freese can become (he was before injuries last year) and that RF Lance Berkman can stretch his career at least one more season without ruining himself or the team with his defense.

There are some sore spots in the middle infield. Ryan Theriot is not a starting shortstop, though he’ll be put in that role to start the year. 2B Skip Schumaker has to prove last year’s batting dropoff was just a blip, and not a journeyman aging suddenly and swiftly. Nick Punto is Plan B at both positions, which means someone will probably have to cook up a Plan C and D.

The fact is the Cardinals are a good, well-run team. Even without Pujols, St. Louis isn’t likely to descend into the Pirates’ neighborhood of bad. Without Wainwright this team can still be considered a co-favorite to win the NL Central, along with Milwaukee.

Tampa Bay Rays
Last Season: 96-66, 1st in AL East
CHRIS PUMMER: If there’s a real Moneyball team in baseball, it’s the Rays. Working with money constraints tighter than the A’s, and in a division where the path to the top couldn’t be more treacherous, Tampa’s done it. Sure, years of good draft position helped (though it hasn’t for the Pirates, Nationals or Royals).

They’ll have to do it now without their franchise player (Carl Crawford), their shrewdest free agent addition (Carlos Pena) and a pitcher who helped represent the turnaround from a doormat since the team’s inception, to a contender in baseball’s most brutal division (Matt Garza).

The rotation is still deep thanks to Cy Young contender David Price and a slew of other young pitchers (James Shields, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, Jeremy Hellickson). The bullpen might be a little scary as the Rays try to revisit Dayton Moore’s revival plan for the Royals, dragging in Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz. Still, those guys are just two potentially useful arms. The emphasis on potential, since proven relievers just don’t fit in the team’s budget.

Third baseman Evan Longoria is one of baseball’s brightest young stars, while SS Reid Brignac, 2BSean Rodriguez, 2B/RF Ben Zorbist, CF B.J. Upton, C John Jason return as a very solid supporting cast.

For the Rays to make up the difference lost when Crawford bolted for Boston, low-cost gambles on DH Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon will have to pay off. OF Matt Joyce will have to play well enough to keep Zorbist in the mix for infield at-bats as a position-sharing platoon emerges between him, Rodriguez and 1B Dan Johnson.

I think it’s asking too much to ask all of those things to work out well enough to capture a division title, or even the Wild Card. Maybe in the NL Central or AL West. Not the AL East.

The Rays could get creative, which they’ve certainly shown they’re capable of doing. But without the same resources to adjust on the fly like Boston or New York, I think this year’s edition is headed for third place.

Texas Rangers
Last Season: 90-72, 1st in AL West, AL Pennant Winner
CHRIS PUMMER: I really thought the Rangers’ pitching last year would be too thin, and have too many issues needing to be resolved to win the AL West outright. And that might have been the division been stronger.

That’s why the Rangers will have to look over their shoulders while trying to win a second straight crown.

C.J. Wilson thrived despite the uncomfortable walk rate, mostly by keeping the ball in the park. Colby Lewis justified his loudest boosters with a season that was even more impressive than Wilson’s. After that, there look to be more questions this year. Can Alexi Ogando, Tommy Hunter, Derek Holland and a post-injury Brandon Webb solidify the other three spots? While there are a lot of options, there’s also an opportunity cost to sorting those options during the course of the season. And the rest of the West might not spot the Rangers the same kind of lead.

If Texas is going to grab hold of the division, it will have to be with its offense and defense. MVP Josh Hamilton should play well as a left fielder, while CF Julio Borbon is playing because of his glove. RF Nelson Cruz is playing because he can mash with the bat.

Big free agent addition Adrian Beltre is expected to excel in both departments. He dislodges 3B Michael Young into a super-utility role, which might come in handy with 2B Ian Kinsler having been known to miss time. SS Elvis Andrus is a good defender and useful at the plate, while Yorvit Torrealba, Mike Napoli, Mitch Moreland and Young will be primarily responsible for filling catcher, first base and designated hitter spots.

After all the hemming and hawing, Neftali Feliz will be back in the bullpen with other strong relievers like Darren O’Day, Darren Oliver, Arthur Rhodes and probably a loser or two from the rotation battles.

That’s plenty to work with, which is why I think the Rangers can repeat in a division that doesn’t have any standout teams.

Toronto Blue Jays
Last Season: 85-77, 4th in AL East
CHRIS PUMMER: The Jays quietly won 85 games last year. Of course, everything you do is quiet when you play behind three great teams and in front of one awful team in the same division.

They did it in part because of huge power numbers from everyone in the lineup. Every regular cranked out 20 home runs, and LF and SS got that combined total from the players that shared time in those spots. Of course, the did this without getting on base very much, thus finishing in the middle of the AL pack offensively.

When something as extreme as this kind of power burst happens, you wonder if it can be repeated. I think some players will come back down, like RF Jose Bautista and 3B Edwin Encarnacion (with Encarnacion maybe losing all usefulness). CF Raj Davis likely won’t give the team what Vernon Wells did once you look past the size of their paychecks. And C J.P. Arencibia won’t likely do what John Buck did at the position last year.

It’s no out of the question, though, that 1B Adam Lind, LF Travis Snyder and 2B Aaron Hill have better seasons, especially with regard to getting on base. And Yunel Escobar, whatever his attitude problems, is a far better long-term solution than Alex Gonzalez was at SS.

The pitching staff is where I think the Jays lose ground. There is still a wealth of young arms, even after trading Shaun Marcum, but Marcum’s production is not easily replaced. He and Ricky Romero were by far the team’s best starters, though Brett Cecil could step up to that level this year. I doubt Brandon Morrow ever will as injuries and walks will haunt a hurler who must toss as many pitches as he must to be effective. Jo-Jo Reyes must also conquer his walk and HR problems if he’ll ever be good.

After successfully gaming the free agent compensation game with their solid group of relief pitchers, the Jays are going for it again with a handful of solid arms signed to short-term deals, like Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch. They also traded for Frank Francisco in the hopes that he’ll be healthy to net something in trade or from an arbitration offer.

Perhaps this is all the prudent course of action — building for the long term instead of going all-in to supplement a group of talent capable of making a run in the AL East. Without the big payroll advantage that the Yankees and Red Sox have, and maybe not the talent base the Rays currently have, the Jays must pick their spots. This most likely a third-place team at best.

But is there ever going to be a time when the Yankees or Red Sox don’t have the cash to spend their way out of setbacks? Are the Rays losing brain power in Tampa? Probably not. So if not now, then when?

Washington Nationals
Last Season: 69-93, last in NL East
CHRIS PUMMER: Lets cut to the chase. The Nationals will be bad. Livian Hernandez is starting Opening Day. 3B Ryan Zimmerman and RF Jayson Werth are the only players in the lineup to post above-average offense in full-time work last year. They’ve got some nice bullpen arms.

That’s not enough to finish in front of anybody else in the NL East. So what to watch for?

Well, if SS Ian Desmond, 2B Danny Espinosa or C Wilson Ramos can further establish themselves. If CF Rick Ankiel or 1B Adam LaRoche can salvage anything from the twilights of their sometimes odd journeyman careers. Will any young pitchers stay healthy and pitch well? Will someone get crazy and give up something good for Jason Marquis or Tom Gorzelany at the trade deadline? There’s this Bryce Harper guy we also hear about that might play in Washington this season.

Fun fact: Kevin Mench had 29 at-bats with the Nationals last year. That surprised the heck out of me, too.

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