Saturday, February 13, 2010

Spring Ahead: Most important players

We are a few days away from four wonderful words: Pitchers and catchers report.

As we look forward to spring training getting into full bloom, there are a lot of questions for a lot of teams. However, for some teams to succeed, there are certain players that really need to step up. Let’s take a look at some players that are integral to the success of their teams.

RAFAEL SORIANO, TAMPA BAY RAYS: This is a young and talented team, with a line up that many MLB clubs will envy. However, more than anything else the Rays pitching needs to be good to be able to keep pace with the Yankees and Red Sox in the powerhouse AL East. Starters David Price and James Shields are extremely important pieces and the Rays MUST have a big time year from at least one of these guys, but for the Rays I feel that new Closer Rafael Soriano is the key. The Rays won the AL East in 2008 and competed last year without a real closer. This year they have a guy who has the stuff and the experiance… if he can just stay healthy. Soriano was fairly healthy last year playing just about the full season so there is reason to be optimistic. He has the talent to save 40 games… but does he have the stamina? If he does, the Rays will be that much more likely to be able to outlast the big guns in their division.

RICH HARDEN, TEXAS RANGERS: There is no doubt the Rangers are a hitting team. To play in their ballpark they have to be. I considered the idea that slugger Josh Hamilton, the feel-good-story of 2008, might be the guy the Rangers really need to return to prominace after an injury riddled 2009, but looking at the Rangers I see what they REALLy lack is a true Ace… a guy at the top of the rotation that can step it up every five days and make you say, “We’re winning today”. Scott Feldman’s excellent 2009 not-withstanding… the Rangers don’t have that. Or do they? They took a chance that Rich Harden can stay healthy for a full (or at least most of) season. They really isn’t too much doubt about Harden’s ability. If he can make 30/31 starts for the Rangers the teams chances to truly contend take a nice upswing.

JOSE REYES & JOHN MAINE, NEW YORK METS: Ok, yeah I’m cheating a little here. This is one of the few teams that I just couldn’t pick one guy. There is going to be a lot of debate about the Mets in this upcoming weeks. This is the exact same team (swapping out Carlos Delgado for Jason Bay) that was picked by many to win the World Series last year… so why does everyone seem to think they will be terrible in 2010? Mainly because of the large amount of players coming back from injury. However none are more important than Jose Reyes and John Maine. Reyes is the key to the Mets’ offense. When he gets on base and runs, the Mets score. A lot. Look it up, but a productive Reyes means a productive lineup. As for the pitching, the last time Maine had a fully healthy season was in 2007, when he won 15 games with a 3.91 ERA. The Mets would sign up this second for those numbers. Without a real #2, Maine seems the most likely to be able to fill that spot. I considered Mike Pelfrey instead, as he has the stuff (if not quite the fortitude) to be a top of the rotation starter, but Maine has already done it. The problem is, that he HASN’T been healthy the last two years and it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine he’ll be 100% all year. But if he is, and Reyes is healthy, the Mets are going to surprise a lot of people expecting them to come in fourth this year.

BILLY WAGNER & TROY GLAUS, ATLANTA BRAVES: The other “tie” in my list here. The Braves are a hard team to figure. Their rotation is a strength, but the strange trade of Javier Vasquez for 4th outfielder (Melkey Cabrara) weakened what could have been a killer rotation and made them into just a solid one. They have enough arms to start, but lost two excellent arms in the bullpen. One of the new arms is NL East leapfrogger Billy Wagner, with his 3rd NL East team (the Mets and Phillies being the other ones) in the last six years . Wagner looked pretty good in a limited role with the Mets and Red Sox late in the 2009 season after have Tommy John surgery in 2008, but is he ready and able to handle a full season workload as a closer again? He needs to be for the Braves to keep pace with the Phillies with that reworked bullpen they have. Also, offense isn’t quite the name of the game in Atlanta. All-Stars Chipper Jones and Brian McCann are the big bats for this team with Nate McLouth adding some firepower, but considering Jones’ age and injury history the Braves need someone else to step it up. Bringing in Veteran slugger Troy Glaus is a risk because of his injury history. Glaus barely played in 2009 hitting .179 with no home runs and 2 RBI. However in 2008, Glaus hit .270 with 27 hrs and 90 rbi for the Cardinals. If the Braves can get 515 st bats from him, a .265/24/85 season is not out of the question and would go a long way towards balancing out that lineup.

YOVANI GALLARDO, MILWAUKEE BREWERS: The Brewers are a team that are on the edge between contender and also-ran. They have a good club but with some holes and no more so than in their starting rotation. Like the Rangers, the Brewers need someone to step up and claim the Ace’s job and no one is in a better position to do it than Yovani Gallardo. Gallardo had a good 2009 winning 13 games with a 3.73 ERA and 204 strike outs. This year he needs to step it up more and strive for a 17/18 win season and extend the flashes of brillance he’s shown from time to time. Having a stopper in the rotation keeps teams from going into long losing streaks and Gallardo needs to be that stopper.

BRANDON WEBB, ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS: The NL West is going to be a divsion that is totally up for grabs and to me, the key for Arizona to be in that mnd erase memories of a lousy 2009 is the rreturn of Brandon Webb. Arizona is one of those rare teams that has basically two #1 pitchers. Dan Haren is an Ace himself, and having a 1/2 punch with Webb gives the Diamondbacks a serious pitching advantage over anyone in that division. If Webb is healthy, he is fantastic… a guy on par with Johan Santana and Roy Holliday. With him, Arizona goes from a decent team to a strong team. They need 35 starts from him to storm to the top of a strange, strange division.

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