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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Baseball ’09: Bright Forecast for Brewers?

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Predicting the results of Major League Baseball seasons is no easy task. One can’t rely on laws of science like the ones that bring lovely, snow-free weather to Wisconsin every April. Nor can one simply use common sense, like all those experts who foresaw so easily that greed, corruption and governmental apathy just might hurt the economy.

No, baseball seasons turn on thousands of variables involving skill, determination, strategy, health and plain ol’ luck. That makes prognosticating an art based on instinct and experience—plus, of course, bias for and against certain teams.

Questions abound as the first pitch of 2009 nears. Can the Milwaukee Brewers build on their first playoff appearance in a generation even though they lost CC Sabathia, the pitcher who got them there? Can the Chicago Cubs, now a full 100 years without a World Series championship, hold off the Brewers in the National League Central Division? Can the Tampa Bay Rays, who rose from utter futility to the American League title in ‘08, stay on top? Can Alex Rodriguez overcome hip surgery and the shame of a steroid admission to take the New York Yankees back to the playoffs?

The Fairly Detached Observers bring about 100 years of baseball fanaticism (and about 20 years of mediocrity in youth leagues) to the job of finding the answers. They start with the Brewers, who are coping with a very specific injury issue.

Artie: So what’s with this stuff about “oblique” muscles? They didn’t have those in the ‘50s.

Frank:
To say nothing of “intercostals.”

Artie: I can see someone going to Casey Stengel and saying, “Mickey can’t play today. He’s out with an oblique.” And Casey says, “Oblique? I thought her name was Betty.”

Frank: These are muscles along the rib cage, and they’re giving several Brewers trouble.

Artie: Only the all-star left-fielder, Ryan Braun, the Hall of Fame closer, Trevor Hoffman, and the big addition to the starting rotation, Braden Looper.

Frank: Not that we’re doctors, but these injuries can linger, as Braun knows well.

Artie: Last year he was hurting for about six weeks, and the problem ended only because the season did. Now it’s back, and how do you treat it? The only symptom is the guy saying, “Ooh, that smarts.”

Frank: You’re always twisting or stretching when you throw or swing. Do you cut down on your swing and risk messing it up?

Artie: I think that’s what happened to Braun last year, when his production fell off a lot. What works is

Frank: If Braun can get past this problem, the Brewer lineup looks mighty potent. Prince Fielder is happy with his two-year contract and might bounce back to his 2007 run production.

Artie: Still, it’s a pretty righty-centric lineup, ain’a?

Frank: Yup, Prince is the only starter who hits lefty. But it worked last year, and I think Bill Hall, for one, will be much better.

Artie: I hope Dale Sveum did something with Hall’s god-awful stance, leaning back with the bat slumped down his shoulder.

Frank: Another big question is whether Rickie Weeks will fulfill his potential.

Artie: Let’s see, with a few days left in spring training he’s hitting .322 with an on-base percentage of .437. Encouraging, even for exhibition games.

Frank: How about Corey Hart, who also faded down the stretch last year?

Artie: He’s hitting .400 with an OBP of .426, and he’s also leading the team in homers with six.

Frank: Hart had a crummy .300 OBP last year. If he and Weeks play well, it can mitigate any problems at third base, as well as things like Mike Cameron’s many strikeouts or even an injured Braun. If, if, if—but hey, ifs can come true.

Artie: Our $10 million pitcher, Jeff Suppan, was in mid-season form with an ERA over 5 until he pitched seven strong innings Saturday against Oakland.

Frank: The Brew Crew will score runs, but will the pitching give too many back? They lost a lot of quality innings in Sabathia and Ben Sheets, and Looper is a statistical clone of Suppan and Dave Bush—.500-ish record, ERA above 4.

Artie: It’s a camaraderie thing. “We’re all equal here. We’re all No. 5 starters.”

Frank: They’re relying a lot on the two youngsters, Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra. But maybe one of the three experienced guys will have a breakout year.

Artie: And if Hoffman’s injury goes away, they should be set for the ninth inning.

Frank: That leaves a problem that every team faces. Nowadays a starter who goes 200 innings in a season is have a great closer, the games often hinge on the sixth, seventh and eighth innings.

Artie: And who’s pitching those innings? Guys who aren’t good enough to be starters or closers. Well, at least they don’t include Eric Gagne or Guillermo Mota anymore.

Frank: Riske business, as in David Riske, will continue, and they still have Carlos Villanueva, Todd Coffey and Seth McClung, who had their moments in ‘08. Mitch Stetter replaces Brian Shouse as the “situational” lefty, and they’ve added a former closer in Jorge Julio.

Artie: The bullpen just might work out. So do we see the Brew Crew playing in a second straight October?

Frank: I say yes, enough of the “ifs” will pan out into an N.L. Central title. Weeks and Hall and Hart will raise their numbers, except for strikeouts. Braun will get past the injury and combine with Fielder for 80 or 85 homers. They’ll give Hoffman enough time to fully recover. Suppan will win, say, 16 games, Bush will win 14, and the bullpen will turn out fine.

Artie: A lot of hope there. As a die-hard pessimist, I’m afraid this pitching staff doesn’t come close to the Cubs’.

Frank: But Chicago has to worry over whether Rich Harden’s health will hold up. Carlos Zambrano has had arm problems, too—and if he starts off poorly he’ll have head problems.

Artie: Then toss Milton Bradley into that clubhouse.

Frank: A loose cannon for sure. He’ll test Lou Piniella’s newfound mellowness.

Artie: They might need a good human resources person, not a bench coach.

Frank: Then there’s St. Louis. Any team with Albert Pujols is a contender.

Artie: But to me, the Cardinals have as many questions as the Brewers.

Frank: Can Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel be as good as they were last year?

Artie: And does their highly touted young outfielder, Colby Rasmus, really have the goods?

Frank: In their rotation, they’re depending an awful lot on Chris Carpenter coming back from almost two full seasons on the shelf.

Artie: I think Kyle Lohse’s 15-6 of last year won’t be repeated. But still, with Pujols they have a shot.

Frank: The Astros have run producers in Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee, but Miguel Tejada is over the hill at shortstop now that he can’t “juice up.” They added Pudge Rodriguez at catcher, but he did nothing after the Yankees picked him up last year.


Artie: After Roy Oswalt, Houston’s pitching is nothing but question marks. They have their own Carpenter in Mike Hampton, who missed all of 2006 and ‘07.

Frank: Next we come to... Hey, is that a gleam in your eye?

Artie: My sleeper team, the Cincinnati Reds! Good young hitters in Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips and Edwin Encarnacion, even though they lost Adam Dunn. The pitching looks strong with young starters Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez and a closer, Francisco Cordero, who is not having oblique trouble. I see the Reds contending seriously for second place. Of course, everything depends on injuries, potential and luck.

Frank: Almost anything is possible, but here’s one safe prediction: The Pirates will finish last.

Artie: Six teams in the N.L. Central, right? I’m picking Pittsburgh for seventh.

N.L. East

Frank: The Mets moved decisively to fix what killed them last year: a horrific bullpen. They signed “K-Rod,” Francisco Rodriguez, who set the saves record last year with 62 for the Angels. And they added another potential closer, J.J. Putz, a setup guy.

Artie: On paper, it should work. But closers often have up-and-down careers, and Rodriguez apparently lost velocas 2008 went on.

Frank: After Johan Santana, I don’t think the Mets’ rotation is all that strong. Oliver Perez walks too many, never goes deep in a game but got a contract for $12 million a year.

Artie: But the Mets sure will score runs with David Wright, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran.

Frank: Those guys flopped at crunch time in the last two years, when the Mets blew their playoff chances.

Artie: I think this is their year. Of course, Santana has to stay healthy, but they sure do have hitters.

Frank: As do the Phillies. There hasn’t been a repeat N.L. pennant-winner since Atlanta in 1995-’96, but I think they’ll it.

Artie: Assuming Chase Utley is OK after hip surgery, they have him and Ryan Howard and they added Raul Ibanez from Seattle. He bats lefty, so they’re less vulnerable to righthanded pitchers.

Frank: Their rotation looks great, but again there’s a question with Cole Hamels feeling “elbow irritation” this spring.

Artie: The rest of this division is also-rans, although the Marlins, as always, have lots of good young arms.

Frank: Atlanta is rebuilding and the only safer last-place prediction than the Pirates is the Nationals.

N.L. West

Frank: The division champs, the Dodgers, re-signed ManRamirez—the eternal head case but the most feared hitin the league, except for Pujols.

Artie: The Dodgers have good young players in Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, James Loney and Casey Blake. It’s aweak division, and I don’t see how L.A. can fail to win it.

Frank: Yeah, there are too many questions with Arizona, Colorado and San Francisco. And San Diego is pretty hopeless.

Artie: The Giants have the best starting pitching in the league with Tim Lincecum, the Cy Young winner, Matt Cain and Randy Johnson, who’s five wins away from 300. But where’s the offense coming from? You’d think they’d be looking to trade an arm for some hitting.

Frank: Hey, if the Brewers need a lift this summer, Johnson could be this year’s “rent a lefty.”

A.L. East

Frank: What a division. The Rays, Red Sox or Yankees could go all the way.

Artie: And the Blue Jays shouldn’t be dismissed, either. They could win in the A.L. West or N.L. West.

Frank: Having grown up with the Yankees, I’d love to pick ‘em. And they certainly improved by spending bazillions to add Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira. But Burnett is injury-prone and the team is getting old—Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, Andy Pettitte and even, I fear, Derek Jeter.

Artie: And then there’s A-Rod. Even if he returns as early as May, will he be the same? And how much will the media circus around him affect the clubhouse?

Frank: Too many questions. But if I can’t pick the Yankees there’s still one thing I will NEVER do. And that’s pick the Red Sox.

Artie: How did I know that was coming?

Frank: I admit Boston has everything. Tons of offense, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester in the rotation, a great closer in Jonathan Papelbon.

Artie: And maybe John Smoltz in a couple of months. He’s coming back from shoulder surgery.

Frank: Anyway, I’m picking the Rays to repeat, all the way to the World Series. Aside from the Yankees’ stretch a few years back, there hasn’t been a pennant repeat in the A.L. since Toronto in 1992-’93. But the Rays are still loaded.

Artie: Many folks put them in third place, and I don’t know why. They added Pat Burrell to DH and they have all those young players in B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford. And their pitching, led by Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza, is the best in the A.L.

A.L. Central

Frank: Every year this division is totally up for grabs.

There’s not a lot of difference among Cleveland, Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit. And this year I think Kansas City could be a real surprise.

Artie: Your version of the Reds?

Frank: Exactly. Lots of young talent, two top-notch starters back holds up and whether the young lefty, Francisco Liriano, continues his comeback.

Artie: He missed all of 2007 with elbow surgery but had decent numbers the second half of ‘08.

Frank: The rest of their rota- tion is pretty good, guys like Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey. And their closer, Joe Nathan, has been solid for five years now.

Artie: Cleveland could be strong if Cliff Lee stays close to last year’s Cy Young performance and Fausto Carmona gets back to his ‘07 form. But they have a huge question mark as their closer, namely Kerry Wood. He resurrected himself with the Cubs, but can he hold up for a second straight season?

Frank: Like Cleveland, the Tigers have above-average offense but the pitching is just too iffy. And I just don’t see the White Sox winning again.

Artie: Be careful, though. This is Mr. Obama’s favorite team, and we don’t want to be pulling a Limbaugh by saying, “We hope they fail.”

A.L. West

Frank: Another weak division here.

Artie: Totally the Angels’ to lose.

Frank: Seattle is hopeless and Texas, as always, will score plenty but lose too many 12-10 games.

Artie: Oakland is a mystery, with GM Billy Beane always in “shift the pieces around” mode.

Frank: Their No. 2 starter, I read, is our former Brewer lefty, Dana Eveland.

Artie: Last year for them he was 9-9 with a 4.34 ERA. Suppan-esque, one might say.

A Bit More Madness

Frank: Because the Observers are all about integrity and accountability, I must report that I correctly picked exactly one of the NCAA basketball Final Four. Namely, North Carolina.

You, my friend, had three of the four—the Tar Heels, Connecticut and Michigan State—but you did, in your words, “re-bracket” last week from Louisville to the Spartans.

Artie: I did indeed, sir. As a candidate for the Sports Forecasters Hall of Fame, it’s enough for me to say that I was for them before I was against them.

Frank: To salvage something out of this, I’ll pick North Carolina to beat Villanova and then UConn for the title. And you?

Artie: Since I’ve established re-bracketing as a precedent here, I say Villanova all the way, baby.

Frank: What, I wonder, should the discerning reader take from all this, in terms of our reliability as prognosticators?

Artie: My friends, simple economics: You get what you pay for.

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