Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
It is hard to believe, but the 2007 Major League Baseball season is upon us. And believe me a lot has changed since last October when the St. Louis Cardinals became the seventh different team over the last seven years to hoist a World Series trophy.
Lou Piniella is back in the league on the North Side of Chicago, where they spent a ton of money this offseason. In addition to Piniella, the Cubs picked up the prize of free agency, as they inked outfielder Alfonso Soriano to a monster eight-year, $136 million deal. They also signed pitchers Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis, outfielder Cliff Floyd and infielder Mark DeRosa, while re- signing third baseman Aramis Ramirez.
While the team may not lose the 96 games they did in 2006, the supposed Curse of the Billy Goat will unfortunately live on for another season.
Other new managers for the 2007 campaign include Fredi Gonzalez in Florida, Manny Acta in Washington, Bob Geren in Oakland, Bud Black in San Diego, Bruce Bochy in San Francisco and Ron Washington in Texas.
Washington's hiring by the way automatically makes the Rangers the odds-on favorite to win the World Series, as the last two teams that fired Buck Showalter have walked away with titles the following year.
The biggest acquisition this offseason may have been someone that wasn't even in the league last season. You will be hard-pressed to find another Japanese player that has entered the league with as much fan-fare as Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka. Is it the $50-plus million the Red Sox bid just to negotiate with him, was it his MVP performance at the World Baseball Classic last spring, or is it the Gyroball? Either way Fenway is going to be jumping on the nights he pitches.
Imagine what the press box in Fenway will be like if Roger Clemens ever decides to return?
Dice-K-mania is running rampant in Beantown.
Some other big name players that changed addresses this winter were Barry Zito (San Francisco), Jason Schmidt (Dodgers), Gary Sheffield (Detroit), Carlos Lee (Houston), Jason Jennings (Houston), Moises Alou (NY Mets), Andy Pettitte (NY Yankees), Freddy Garcia (Philadelphia), J.D. Drew (Boston) and Gary Matthews Jr. (LA Angels).
The bigger news surrounding Matthews this offseason, though, was that he was allegedly sent human growth hormone in 2004 from a pharmacy that was part of a steroid investigation. Matthews, who had by far the best offensive season of his career in 2006, has vehemently denied the allegations.
And speaking of steroids, how can we go into a baseball season without talking about performance enhancing drugs' poster boy, Barry Bonds? Much to Bud Selig's dismay, Bonds is poised to overtake Hank Aaron as the game's all-time home run leader. Bonds enters the season 21 shy of Aaron and should get the record at some point. It will be very interesting to see how MLB handles that whole situation.
Bonds isn't the only one closing in on a milestone. Mets left-hander Tom Glavine begins the season 10 wins shy of 300, while Houston second baseman Craig Biggio is 70 hits short of 3,000.
A story that broke late Wednesday that could bear watching over the course of the season is the unfortunate divorce between George Steinbrenner's daughter Jennifer and Steve Swindal, who by all accounts was the heir apparent to "The Boss". Nobody values family more than Big Stein, so I would guess I have a better chance of running the Yankees at this point than Swindal does. And I would take that job, by the way, if it was offered.
No truth to the rumor that the final nail in the coffin for Swindal was when he ordered Steinbrenner's lunchtime calzone from another place instead of Paesano's.
Seriously, though, Swindal was the one that ultimately talked Steinbrenner out of firing Joe Torre last October and is also part of the brain trust that got the Yanks' to lower payroll and rebuild their farm system this offseason.
And if you think Swindal's days with the Yanks are not numbered, let me run this name by you, Joe Malloy. Who is he you ask? Well most Yankee fans remember him as the man that pretty much ran the Yankees on a day-to-day basis while Steinbrenner was suspended in the early 1990's. This was the time when the Yankees built up their farm system -- keeping players such as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte -- and laid the ground work for their dynasty in the late 90's.
Malloy was the husband of Steinbrenner's other daughter, Jessica, and was considered to be the heir apparent. Well, unfortunately things happen and Jessica and Malloy were eventually divorced. Malloy is now an assistant middle school principal in Tampa.
So with Swindal apparently out of the loop, the rumor is that Jessica's new husband, Felix Lopez, maybe the one to get the keys to the Yankees empire. Doesn't Steinbrenner have two sons of his own? We might be dealing with a Billy Madison situation there.
These are issues we'll be tuned into until October. For an insight into the season here's a brief synopsis for each division and a look at some of the teams that will try to unseat the Cardinals.
New York Yankees - The A-Rod opt-out clause is going to linger on all season, but shouldn't affect his play. The fans, on the other hand, could. Offensively the Yanks could approach 1,000 runs, but they will only go as far as their pitching staff will take them. Either way, they should still win their 10th straight AL East title. It is almost boring to talk about them at this point. By hook or by crook you know they will be their in October.
Boston Red Sox - Dice-K-mania is running rampant in Beantown. Unfortunately the Drew signing is going to prove to be the worst of the offseason. Moving Jonathan Papelbon back to the bullpen was the right move and it opens a rotation spot for someone. Let's see are there any starting pitchers out there on the market? Hmm...Stay tuned.
Toronto Blue Jays - We are waiting for another injury-free campaign from Roy Halladay, who in my opinion is as good as the great Johan Santana when he is on. A.J. Burnett must stay healthy, as well. Frank Thomas' big bat in the middle of the lineup will take some pressure off of Vernon Wells, who may have a down year after signing his monster extension in the winter.
Detroit - The class of the American League. From top to bottom there are really no weaknesses. If they stay healthy there is no reason to believe they can't represent the American League in the Fall Classic again. Gary Sheffield is going to have a monster season by the way. Is there any player that plays better with a chip on his shoulder than Sheff? And judging by his comments this spring, he is playing with a Yankee Stadium-sized boulder on his shoulder.
Cleveland - One of the biggest disappointments in the league last year. What is that saying? Sometimes you have to take a step back before you can go forward. Well it might apply to the Tribe this season. If their pitching stays healthy - C.C. Sabathia's final spring start is not a good sign - they could find themselves in playoff contention in late September.
Chicago - General manager Kenny Williams traded Freddy Garcia to make room for Brandon McCarthy, then dealt him to Texas. While the White Sox may take a step back this season, they are definitely better off for the future.
Texas - Like I said above the Rangers should be everyone's pick to win the series this season. It may not be a joke as far as the division is concerned, though. If Texas gets some good starting pitching and if Eric Gagne can stay healthy, with that lineup the Rangers could win a weak AL West.
LA Angels - Most people's favorite to win the division. I don't see it. Bartolo Colon is not ready yet and Jered Weaver will start season on DL. Weaver's health could be a problem all season. Matthews is definitely not the answer. Vlad shouldn't worry, though, because A-Rod will be there soon enough.
Oakland - The A's always find a way to regroup when one of their big players leaves for "greener" pastures. If Rich Harden can give the team 200 innings and over 30 starts, not only will he win a Cy Young, but the A's will win the division. Harden, though, just can't stay healthy and is probably a Tommy John surgery waiting to happen.
NY Mets - The Mets rode one of the best lineups in baseball to the best record in the NL a year ago, but injuries eventually caught up to the starting pitching staff and they fell in seven games to the Cardinals in the NLCS. We have heard all offseason how bad their starting pitching is. Yes it is bad, but is it any worse than it was last season. I know Pedro Martinez was there last year, but he battled injuries pretty much from May on. I think their staff will be better than people think. If it is better, then, with that lineup and Pedro returning for a stretch run, there is no reason to believe the Mets won't again be at the top of NL East at season's end.
Philadelphia - Shortstop Jimmy Rollins has already declared the Phillies as the team to beat in the division. Philadelphia's starting staff is improved with the additions of Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton, but their bullpen is still god awful. And outside of Rollins and superstars Chase Utley and reigning MVP Ryan Howard, what is there to like about this lineup? Either way, thanks to a weak NL, the Phils should make the postseason. Manager Charlie Manuel had better hope so anyway. I was almost tempted to pick Jimy Williams as my NL Manager of the Year because I think the Phils are going to get off to a bad start, fire Manuel, hire Williams, and finish the season strong enough to claim the wild card.
Atlanta - The Braves have quietly put together a pretty good team. Everyone is already conceding the division to either the Mets or Phillies, but don't be surprised if Bobby Cox is the one laughing at the end. For you fantasy people out there lock up either Rafael Santana or Mike Gonzalez because Bob Wickman is always a blown save away from being replaced.
Milwaukee Brewers - Last year the Brewers were a trendy pick to make the playoffs. The same thing is happening this year. The NL Central is down and to be honest I would not be surprised if any of the six teams win the division. And that includes the perennially pitiful Pittsburgh Pirates (say that five times fast). If Ben Sheets would have stayed healthy last year the Brewers would have won the division. This year he is as healthy as he has been in years and the starting staff is pretty deep in case he does go down. Milwaukee has a pretty underrated lineup, as well. Bill Hall may be the best player in the league you have never heard of. Keep Sheets healthy and the Brew Crew will have their first division title since capturing the AL East way back in 1982.
St. Louis Cardinals - The champs still have the best player, as well as one of the best pitchers in the NL. That maybe it, though. Scott Rolen is old and is starting to breakdown, while Jim Edmonds is always hurt. As good as Albert Pujols is he is going to need some help from that lineup. I don't think Chris Duncan is the answer. And is Braden Looper really in the starting staff?
Houston Astros - If the J.D. Drew signing wasn't the worst of the offseason, then the Astros giving over $100 million to Carlos Lee was. Lee is an alright player, but is he worth all that money? Probably not, but then again who is?. Last year he had a career year at the plate, not surprisingly it came in a contract year. He has down year written all over him. I am sure all of Houston is waiting for Roger Clemens to finally decide if he is coming back or not. When I saw him on television at a Yankees spring training game a few weeks back, he looked as if he was one doughnut away from staying retired for good, though. So we will wait and see.
Los Angles Dodgers - The Dodgers went out may have made the move of the offseason in signing right-hander Jason Schmidt. I know Barry Zito is good, but the Dodgers got Schmidt at three years and $47 million. That is a bargain and he will headline a pretty deep staff. LA got a taste of the playoffs last season. This year the Dodgers will take the next step and should enjoy their first championship since 1988.
San Francisco Giants - By all accounts The Basher is in tremendous shape and has had a pretty solid spring. Bonds, though, was great last March and it did not carry over into the season. Zito will be a monster in the NL. The Giants, though, just do not have enough to catch LA this season.
San Diego Padres - New manager Bud Black may have his work cut out for him this season. For one, he is in a very competitive NL West and two he has a ton of age in that starting rotation. How much can Greg Maddux and David Wells possibly have left in the tank? Both will be pretty good tutors to Jake Peavy and Chris Young, though.
BEST OF THE REST
Minnesota - After Santana, the starting rotation is abysmal. The Twins always seem to find a way in the end, though.
Chicago Cubs - As I stated above even with all the moves the Cubs will still struggle.
Seattle - Felix Hernandez will be better this year, but it won't be enough to save manager Mike Hargrove and general manager Bill Bavasi's jobs.
Arizona - The Big Unit is back in the desert. The Diamondbacks are a really good, young team. This is not the year they take that next step. Watch Arizona in 2008.
Colorado - The Rockies have a potential fantasy stud in Matt Holliday, but you don't get points in the NL West for that.
Cincinnati Reds - The Reds were a nice little surprise last season and a lot of people like them this year. I am not one of them. I have seen enough of Bronson Arroyo in my time to know last year was a fluke.
Pittsburgh Pirates - For some reason I like this team. I don't know why, but I almost picked them as my surprise team to make the playoffs. I love their young pitching and Jason Bay and Adam LaRoche are going to have huge seasons. They are still the Pirates, though, and are probably a year away from competing.
Baltimore - You know it is going to be a long year when your ace gets shut down on the first day of spring training
Tampa Bay - As long as Delmon Young does not attack any umpires with a bat, he should be a top contender for AL Rookie of the Year.
Kansas City - If Young does not win the Rookie of the Year in the AL, then KC third baseman Alex Gordon will. People from the Royals say Gordon reminds them of George Brett with more pop. Gordon's emergence will keep the fans in KC interested well after the team falls out of the playoff hunt sometime in late-April.
Florida - Worst move of the offseason was the Marlins firing Joe Girardi.
Washington - Nats have a chance to be one of the worst teams of all-time.
AL EAST - NY Yankees
AL CENTRAL - Detroit
AL WEST - Texas
AL WILD CARD - Cleveland
ALDS - Yankees over Cleveland
Detroit over Texas
ALCS - Detroit over Yankees
NL EAST - Philadelphia Phillies
NL CENTRAL - Milwaukee Brewers
NL WEST - LA Dodgers
NL WILD CARD - New York Mets
NLDS - Dodgers over Mets
Phillies over Milwaukee
NLCS - Dodgers over Phillies
WORLD SERIES - Dodgers over Detroit
AL MVP - Bobby Abreu
NL MVP - Ryan Howard
AL CY YOUNG AWARD - Roy Halladay
NL CY YOUNG AWARD - Jason Schmidt
AL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR - Alex Gordon
NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR - Kevin Kouzmanoff
AL MANAGER OF YEAR - Eric Wedge
NL MANAGER OF YEAR - Ned Yost
This year, too, we will have a running blog on the baseball season. We toyed around with it a bit last year, but this season we will be updating on more of a daily basis. In addition to some general news and game notes, we will also have some fantasy stuff, as well as some other little nuggets along the way. So starting Monday, when we will pretty much cover all of Opening Day, be sure to check it out at http://ruddickmlbblog.blogspot.com.