Baseball season is upon us. The boys of summer are back. All this week Playboy.com will be previewing the upcoming season team by team. Part one looks at the clubs well out of contention and what they need to do to get back into the thick of things.
The AL East is no joke in baseball circles; it’s a serious division for serious folks with four legit teams vying for contention. The odd man out is of course the Orioles who gambled last year on high risk/reward veteran free agent signings and lost, unable to restock the farm by flipping less than stellar numbers put up by temporary stop-gap solutions. This year won’t be much different. A lot of raw talent lives in their rotation, a lot of aged inconsistency in their lineup, but a fire sale come July is to be expected either way.
Best Asset: Unproven pitching depth. Look out for: C Matt Wieters. Strategy: Sell. Sell. Sell. Projected Finish: 5th in the AL East.
The Indians managed to take advantage of a deteriorating AL Central last season and finish second albeit miles behind the Tigers and with a losing record. Though they lost one half of the Cabrera combo that turned an inordinate number of double plays, the Indians are defensively sound. They can stay in ball games, they just can’t win them on the back of a young Carlos Santana, an inconsistently healthy Grady Sizemore and a sleeping giant like Travis Hafner. They can get guys on the base paths, they just can’t get them off them.
Best Asset: Their Defense. Look out for: SP Derek Lowe. Strategy: Things could actually work out for Cleveland if they were playing in the National League. They’re not. They’re built for small ball in a big ball league. Projected Finish: 4th in the AL Central.
It might be too easy to make an Apollo 13 joke here but there is most definitely a problem in Houston. After Carlos Lee (who is as old as time as far as baseball is concerned), Astros players become hard to tell apart. A 100 plus losses is a whole lot to handle for a club with only a few major prospects and even less on field talent so the road is long for ‘Stros fans. Like five to eight years long unless a cash cow dies on their doorstep.
Best Asset: Ummm… Look out for: SS Jed Lowrie. Strategy: Patience. The upside is not much money remains on the books for the Astros and some good free agent classes are on the horizon. Lowrie could be the start of a core; use these swoon year draft picks wisely. Projected Finish: 6th in NL Central.
The A’s have been playing the rebuilding game for some time now, tinkering and tweaking the farm and the big club hoping to find something that works. This offseason again saw them selling most of their top tier talent but they showed forward progress with the signing of Cuban import Yoenis Cespedes. He is the flagship and future of this club; the talent is there in all facets, it just needs a few years to grow.
Best Asset: Talented youth. Look out for: OFs Cespedes and Josh Reddick. Strategy: Patience. Projected Finish: 3rd in the AL West.
The Bucs acquired the closest thing they’ve had to an ace in a while this offseason in A.J. Burnett. Six years in the hard hitting AL East were unkind to the veteran who finally parted ways with the division owning a 4.38 ERA and periphery numbers going all the wrong ways. A return to pre-AL East form might bolster Pittsburgh’s play and if Erik Bedard can find his fastball again, a few wins could be found there but the talent all around just isn’t there to overcome other rising stars in the Central.
Best Asset: CF Andrew McCutchen. Look out for: 2B Neil Walker. Strategy: McCutchen, Walker and Jose Tabata stand as a core you can build on. Burnett and Bedard could be flipped to a contender midseason to sure up the Pirates’ weak left side. Projected Finish: 5th in the NL Central.
San Diego Padres
What to say about the Padres. Talent bought and sold with little improvement. They shipped their best young prospect in Mat Latos to the Reds, their franchise bat to the Red Sox and are left with a piecemeal staff of youngsters and veterans nowhere near ready to contend for anything but last place. The haul from the Reds is second tier at best, a mix of major league ready but decidedly average players and it will be a few years yet before the youth movement is ready to roll.
Best Asset: CF Cameron Maybin. Look out for: C Nick Hundley. Strategy: Play the waiting game ‘til Hundley, Headley and Maybin hit the same page. Sell high on Quentin, Hudson, Kotsay and Hermida if their numbers are good come the deadline. Projected Finish: 5th in NL West.
King Felix still sits atop his throne in Seattle but the supporting cast thins out considerably after that. His 14-14 record is telling of the talent around him; the Mariners finished dead last in runs scored, RBIs, batting average, slugging and on base percentage last season. Credit that to infallible Ichiro finally losing a few steps on both sides of the plate and the Chone Figgins experiment going horribly awry. The addition of the highly touted Jesus Montero should account for a few more wins in 2012 but not enough to put them in the same stratosphere as the Rangers or Angels and at the cost of a young solid arm in Michael Pineda.
Best Asset: SP Felix Hernandez. Look out for: C/DH Jesus Montero. Strategy: It might be time to consider what kind of haul Ichiro can bring in the July market. Or Felix. Or both and start from scratch. Projected Finish: 4th in the AL West.