Yesterday, I examined the American League; now it's time for the senior circuit. The following player performances will determine team fate. Let's take a look.
- Philadelphia Phillies----Cole Hamels:
Which Hamels will show up this spring?
Will it be the gutty and fearless lefty who won both the NLCS and World Series MVPs in 2008 post-season? Or will it be the mentally fried and whiny baby who angered his teammates by saying he couldn't wait for the season to be over----mid-World Series----when there was a very real possibility that he'd be handed the ball in game 7? He didn't pitch very well during the 2009 season either. If Hamels doesn't pitch well, the Phillies are in a lot of trouble.
- Florida Marlins----Andrew Miller:
Miller has reminded some of a young Randy Johnson. I wouldn't go quite that far, but the comparison isn't unreasonable. Miller isn't the strikeout artist Johnson was; he's not as intimidating; but his motion is similar and he has the stuff to be a top starter in baseball. He's about to turn 25 and if he's able to stake his claim in the big leagues behind Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco in the Marlins rotation, they'll have a chance to dominate.
Randy Johnson didn't find his way in the big leagues until he was in his mid-20s either. It takes time for a lefty with that kind of gangly motion to bridle his stuff. If and when Miller puts it together, watch out.
- Atlanta Braves----Chipper Jones:
With their failed efforts to boost their offense to support a strong pitching staff (Troy Glaus? Melky Cabrera?) the Braves need Chipper Jones to be somewhere close to what he was in 2008 when he had a .364 batting average, and ridiculous .470 on base percentage as one of the biggest threats in baseball.
Jones showed his age in 2009 in losing a step----that 99% of the other big league players never had----as he fell to .264; his on base to .388. Jones is injury-prone and at age 38, the Braves are asking a lot for him to still carry the team. You can never count out a player who's known greatness----he can recapture that at any moment----but if Jones is what he was last year or (disaster warning) gets hurt, the Braves are going to have trouble scoring enough runs to be as good as they could've been.
- New York Mets----John Maine:
You'll hear names like Jose Reyes, David Wright or Jason Bay as the keys to the Mets; others will point to Johan Santana or even Mike Pelfrey and Oliver Perez; but the real key to the Mets season is John Maine.
It's reasonable to expect a return-to-normalcy production from the Mets bats; Santana will rebound to be one of the best pitchers in baseball; the bullpen will be okay; Pelfrey will improve simply by the presence of Reyes behind him defensively; and Perez could hardly be worse than he was last year.
Maine is the key.
With dominant stuff, a deceptive motion and fearlessness on the mound, Maine has to stay healthy and give the Mets 190 innings and 15 wins. If he does that behind Santana, the Mets are contenders; if not, they're an also-ran.
- Washington Nationals----Stephen Strasburg:
The Nationals have spent a lot of money on bargain basement junk/replaceable parts to make it look like they're trying to drastically improve from last season's 100-loss monstrosity; but the key to their season and off-season renovation is the righty with the 102-mph fastball, Strasburg.
The Nats are intent on giving Strasburg every chance to make the club out of spring training; the pressure on the club and the pitcher will be intense to start him in the big leagues. Personally, I would not under any circumstances start him in the big leagues. He'd start at Double A and I'd say that he's not coming to the big leagues until September, period; and only then if he shows he's completely ready. (I'd reserve the right to change my mind and only share that information with a few key people.)
That said, the Nationals might find themselves hanging within the vicinity of the Wild Card race if everything goes right for them and be a 1998 Chicago Cubs-type of club (interestingly managed by the same man, Jim Riggleman) that gets lit on fire by the emergence of the young fastballer. I wouldn't risk it, but with the moves the Nats have made this winter, they're having delusions of grandeur and I don't put it past them.
- St. Louis Cardinals----Matt Holliday:
Holliday was great after coming over in the mid-season trade with the Athletics and he'll provide much-needed protection to Albert Pujols that was non-existent for much of 2009. Holliday has to have an MVP-quality year for the Cardinals to be title contenders. If he slumps under the pressure as he did in Oakland, the Cardinals will still be good, but they'll have to rely on the wizardly managing of Tony La Russa more than they thought they would after spending all that money to keep Holliday.
- Chicago Cubs----Carlos Zambrano:
Which Zambrano is going to show up? The unhittable righty who gobbles innings and battles his way through? Or the lazy and tempestuous flake who looks like he'd rather inhale the lunchtime buffet at Pizza Hut and take a nice, long nap?
At times, manager Lou Piniella looks as if he'd like to strangle Zambrano----with good reason. If Zambrano fulfills his potential (and he's about to turn 29; it's enough already with the "potential" crap) the Cubs are contenders. If not, they're going to stumble to mediocrity.
- Milwaukee Brewers----Yovani Gallardo:
Gallardo has 18-22 win, Cy Young Award stuff. At age 24, he has to step up and become the full-time horse for the Brewers. This is a club that has to get off to a fast start or manager Ken Macha is going to get fired. (He might get fired anyway and, truth be told, they'll be better off with Willie Randolph managing the team.) Gallardo is the key as the front man of a mediocre starting rotation.
- Cincinnati Reds----Jay Bruce:
Bruce slumped in 2009 after a hot start in 2008 and if the Reds are to continue to trend upward as they did late last season (take with a grain of salt, please), they need Bruce to hit. If he doesn't hit, they have one of the worst outfields in baseball and their offense is sorely lacking in firepower.
- Houston Astros----Roy Oswalt:
The best thing for the Astros to do would be to hope Oswalt is healthy and pitching well, and hold him up for ransom at mid-season to the highest bidder. He's guaranteed $33 million through 2011 and the Astros farm system is weak. They've discussed Oswalt in the past (he wants out), but have pulled back each time a deal was pending. He'd facilitate a rapid rebuild if the Astros got the bounty he'd be worth on the market.
- Pittsburgh Pirates----Andrew McCutchen:
McCutchen is going to be a MEGA-star. There's nothing he won't be able to do and has the potential to be one of the best players in baseball----better than Carl Crawford. It's hard to see the Pirates screwing him up as long as they write his name in the lineup and leave him alone, but these are the Pirates we're talking about and there's a history there that's hard to deny; a history of being dunderheads.
- Los Angeles Dodgers----Clayton Kershaw:
Kershaw's either going to bust out and become a dominating, Tim Lincecum-style ace at the top of the Dodgers rotation or he's going to struggle with his control and command. He has the stuff to blow people away and he'll probably still be on an innings-limit, but the Dodgers rotation is short and if they're going to make the playoffs again, they must have Kershaw step and be the ace of the staff, even at age 23. He could strike out close to 300 batters one day.
- Colorado Rockies----Jeff Francis:
If anyone thinks that Jorge De La Rosa is going to win 16 games again, I have a Luis Castillo for you----take him (please!). The Rockies got lucky with De La Rosa stepping into the injured shoes of former ace Jeff Francis last year; but now Francis is back and the Rockies need him to be at least as good as he was in 2006-2007 when he won 30 games and was their ace.
- San Francisco Giants----Pablo Sandoval:
The Giants made some ancillary, "sum of the parts" pickups in Mark DeRosa and Aubrey Huff; and they brought back Bengie Molina; but they need Sandoval to continue his development into a power-hitting, clutch, on-base threat. Their pitching is good from top-to-bottom; scoring is their issue and Sandoval has to produce.
- San Diego Padres----Adrian Gonzalez:
The fastest way for the Padres to rebuild as quickly as possible is to deal their remaining asset in Gonzalez. There will be teams lining up to get their hands on Gonzalez at mid-season and we'll see how quickly the Red Sox tune changes as their vaunted shift from power to pitching and defense fails miserably and leaves them on the cusp of missing the playoffs. New GM Jed Hoyer's tenure will be largely determined by what he does with Gonzalez.
- Arizona Diamondbacks----Brandon Webb: