Gammons: Six teams to watch
Rockies among most intriguing clubs in Arizona
Joe Torre makes the point daily, not defensively, but matter-of-factly.
"We're in the best division in the National League," he says, "so we can be really good and not make the playoffs. It's our reality."
Indeed, the Dodgers and Rockies were first and third in the National League in wins, and for the third year in the last four, the West had the Wild Card. The Dodgers and Rockies were first and fourth in run differential (Colorado one behind St. Louis), the Rockies second to the Braves in quality starts, in that ballpark.
Now, the NL East is pretty good, with the Phillies, the Braves much improved and Mets players texting "we are a lot better than people think." Still, right now there are more managers, general managers and scouts who think the Rockies are close to the Phillies as the league's best team, even if Huston Street can't pitch until May. They are five deep in the outfield, they have a legitimate No. 1 starter in Ubaldo Jimenez and pitching depth, and they have one of the game's premier stars, Troy Tulowitzki.
One of those fun Spring Training conversations is about players who could win the MVP, in case something happens to Albert Pujols and the Cardinals. Tulowitzki came up in every conversation. So did Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. And Justin Upton. Hey, Adrian Gonzalez if the Padres were to win 85 games.
"And," Torre added, "Pablo Sandoval is legit."
Kemp and Tulowitzki are 25 years old, Upton 22. That's a lot of great young talent that most nights take the field at 10 p.m. ET.
Other than their talent, the unknown factor that makes most teams take Colorado over Los Angeles is the ownership situation in Los Angeles, which likely will prevent the Dodgers from being able to acquire any players during the season unless their trade partner pays for the player's contract. That necessitates giving up top prospects, as happened with Carlos Santana and Josh Bell.
The Dodgers have an $83M payroll. They couldn't offer salary arbitration to Jon Garland and Randy Wolf because ownership didn't want to pay for additional Draft picks, and have spent the least money on Draft and international signings of any of the 30 teams the last two years.
The Rockies won't be able to add a major contract, but they will make deals to try to win.
So it's an easy choice where to start the list of teams training in Arizona that are better than you may think:
Three rival managers in the division called Jimenez "one of the few elite starters." Jeff Francis is back, with Aaron Cook, Jorge De La Rosa and Jason Hammel, with Jhoulys Chacin the next in Colorado's stable of international talent. Jim Tracy's energy never wanes, and instead of complaining about Street, he points out that "Franklin Morales can close, we have Rafael Betancourt for the eighth inning, I really like what we've seen in Matt Belisle, Matt Daley is going to throw strikes and give it his all ... we'll be fine."
Tracy is hitting Tulowitzki in the cleanup spot between Todd Helton and Brad Hawpe to break up the lefties in the middle of the order. With Tulowitzki, Clint Barmes, Helton and Ian Stewart; they have superb infield defense, with Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler in left and center they can cover the gaps; and few teams have better role players than Ryan Spilborghs and Seth Smith.
Tulo is 25, Fowler and Gonzalez are 24, Jimenez 26, and Stewart turns 25 on Opening Day.
"These guys are really talented and they're coming into the primes of their careers," says Jason Giambi. "They're good guys, they care and they play to win. This is going to be a lot of fun.
"I look at the Dodgers, think about [Rafael] Furcal leading off, [Matt] Kemp, Manny [Ramirez] and [Andre] Ethier 3-4-5, see [Clayton] Kershaw, [Chad] Billingsley and [Jonathan] Broxton and see a lot of star-quality players," says one GM.
Kemp and Ethier are exploding into superstardom, with the character to boot.
Torre says, "This will be James Loney's breakout season. It is all coming together." As Don Mattingly points out, Loney is already a very good situational hitter who's knocked in 90 runs two years in a row, "but while he's very good hitting in the gaps, there's a lot more as he learns."
Russell Martin put his weight back on, says, "I have my legs back and can drive the ball again," which means he can be a 50-doubles hitter at any time.
Even if Ramirez is somewhere between what he was in 2008 and what he was when he came back, 25-30 homers and a .900 OPS in Dodger Stadium will do just fine. He did get paid the remainder of his 2009 contract this year, but how happy he'll be knowing his 2010 salary is deferred could be an issue, although this is a contract season.
Blake is a leader and consummate professional, Blake DeWitt can hit and is improving at second, and the players are thrilled with what GM Ned Colletti got for virtually nothing in Reed Johnson, Garret Anderson, Ronnie Belliard, Brad Ausmus and the ever-undervalued Jamey Carroll to give Torre a solid veteran bench.
The issues over the long haul will be pitching depth. Kershaw, Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, Vincente Padilla and either Russ or Ramon Ortiz are the starters. How Kuroda and Padilla hold up will be interesting, and with Ronald Belisario unable to get into the U.S., and Hong-Chih Kuo on the DL, there will be more pressure on George Sherrill and Broxton.
In time, Chris Withrow and Josh Lindblom could come out of the Minors to help down the stretch. Withrow, two years off injury and Steve Blass-like control problems, was one of the most impressive young pitchers in Arizona.
The Dodgers are really good, and like the Rockies, the soul of the team -- Kemp, Ethier, Kershaw -- are coming into their primes. They just can't afford to have holes to fill come the Trade Deadline.
I wrote about the Reds being one of the teams that has surprised almost everyone, with Aaron Harang getting his delivery back with Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey coming off a 7-1 finish, Johnny Cueto and a deep bullpen that finishes with Nick Masset and Francisco Cordero. One scout thinks Logan Ondrusek can come up from Triple-A in May and be a big-time seventh- and eighth-inning guy.
If Jay Bruce comes on, Joey Votto produces, Scott Rolen can play 135 games and they get Chris Dickerson or someone to improve that abysmal .306 leadoff on-base percentage, they can make a run at the Cardinals and/or the Wild Card.
4. White Sox
This team confuses me at times, and Ozzie Guillen is right when he says, "We have to be healthy, we can't have happen to us what happened to Cleveland last year." They are not deep, so Carlos Quentin and Gordon Beckham have to be healthy.
But they can pitch. Mark Buehrle, Jake Peavy, John Danks and Gavin Floyd comprise a solid foursome; they're hoping on Freddy Garcia, but he's been 84-88 mph all spring, so Daniel Hudson could become important. If Bobby Jenks' ankle holds up, they have a chance for a power bullpen. Matt Thornton could close, J.J. Putz's stuff has come back, Scott Linebrink, Sergio Santos and Tony Pena give Guillen a lot of flexibility, and they fall into the very capable and winning hands of A.J. Pierzynski.
Scoring runs, however, could be an issue and put a lot of pressure on Beckham and Quentin. Alex Rios' spring moments have been in and out, Andruw Jones is carving a comeback, Juan Pierre brings speed and hustle, and they think Mark Teahan will produce at 28 off a year in which he hit 12 homers and had a 37-123 walk-strikeout ratio.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, the economy and demographics are bad, season tickets are down to 8,000 ... Kerry Wood is already hurt ...
But this has been a very encouraging spring with Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, Jake Westbrook and Fausto Carmona all looking as if they're all the way back physically.
Westbrook and Carmona are really important. Westbrook averaged 15 wins from 2004 to 2006 before he got hurt, and he looks close to his old self. Carmona has allowed one run all spring and looked very much like the guy who was fourth in the Cy Young balloting in 2007, when the Indians were one win from the World Series.
If they can get 400 innings from Westbrook and Carmona, the pressure is lessened for Justin Masterson (who still may end up a closer), David Huff and Mitch Talbot, with Aaron Laffey in the shadows and Carlos Carrasco coming off the kind of spring that gives them second-half hope. Those innings lighten the load on the bullpen, as they find out if Chris Perez can close.
If the pitching holds up, the Tribe will be back in the hunt with the Twins, White Sox and Tigers. Because they are going to score runs.
Cabrera coming into his own
Asdrubal Cabrera will take his .308 average into the leadoff position. He rated near the top among offensive shortstops at the age of 23 last season.
Sizemore played through a hernia and bone chips the size of his fingernail and is completely healthy, which means he'll be one of the best players in the game. Manny Acta is batting him second, as it was pointed out to him that using his best player in the leadoff position means that if he starts 150 games, that means at least 150 times -- "A quarter of his at-bats," says Acta -- he comes up with no one on base. Acta remains the only manager who ever laid a VORP on me, and is a very bright, open man.
Then comes Shin-Soo Choo, one of the All-Star-level players few know.
Then Travis Hafner. Now, they expected Sizemore would be back. But Hafner at 32? Before his shoulder went, Hafner was the David Ortiz of his time. From 2004 to 2006, he hit 114 homers and in '06 had a 1.098 OPS; the last three years, he hit 45 homers and saw his OPS fall to .628 and .825.
But this spring, he has hit monstrous home runs, and even more important has regained his eye.
"When I was hurt and afraid I couldn't catch up to some pitches, I lost what I had developed in terms of never being afraid to hit with two strikes," says Hafner. "That allowed me to sit and wait for what I hit. But I couldn't turn on balls, and I became afraid to get to two strikes, so I was waving at the first pitch I saw. I feel just the way I did before I got hurt. With me, the best way to judge how I feel is watch how I take pitches."
They have Matt LaPorta at first, Michael Brantley in left, and some very good hitting prospects coming. It's not Sizemore's fault Cleveland hasn't had a champion in generations. But that and the crashing of the Greater Cleveland economy makes their comeback more difficult, necessitating the smallest payroll in the division.
Don't laugh, or think their finish to the 2009 season is the reason for this mention. Are they going to challenge the Rockies and Dodgers? No. Will they finish ahead of the D-backs again? Not likely. But while their record may not be better than the 75 wins they snuck up with in 2009, the corner seems to be turned.
"One of the most important factors is that we're finally addressing the need for speed and defense in the outfield in our ballpark," says Gonzalez. "[Will] Venable, [Tony] Gwynn, Scott Hairston can run balls down, and that's huge in PETCO."
The Pads have Gonzalez and the office building known as Kyle Blanks in the middle of the order, with Chase Headley appearing far more comfortable back at third base. Everth Cabrera and either Gwynn and Venable bring speed at the top.
The pitching is pretty good. Chris Young had a strong spring, Kevin Correa (12-11), Mat Latos and his gas, Clayton Richard and Jon Garland are a competent rotation. Heath Bell's setup men, Mike Adams and Luke Gregerson, are good.
The only story anyone talks about is trading Gonzalez and Bell, but they have Gonzalez cheap through 2011, which makes a Mark Teixeira-like $180 million deal irrelevant until and if Gonzalez plays two more years, becomes a free agent and leaves "a situation I don't want to leave."
Then, there are 10 questions in Arizona that the season will answer:
1. Does Arizona have enough pitching? The team in the field is potentially dynamic, with Upton, Stephen Drew, Mark Reynolds and Miguel Montero coming into their primes, Conor Jackson back healthy and the astute offseason pickups of Kelly Johnson and Adam LaRoche. Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson are very good and Ian Kennedy seems to be a solid starter, but they don't know what Brandon Webb will be and Billy Buckner has not had a good spring. There's a lot of talent here and very bright leadership, but the rotation enters April a question.
2. Will Brandon Wood step in at third base for the Angels? I, for one, think so, and with Scot Shields back and the rotation five deep, the Angels are again the team to beat in the AL West. Wood has hit 43 homers in the Minors, and he's had problems recognizing pitches. But last year in Triple-A Salt Lake, he improved his OBP to .357 and isn't about to go through his career with his current 7-74 walk-strikeout numbers. "He's going to have a couple of times when he has streaks when he struggles," says hitting coach Mickey Hatcher. "But he's really improved. He has 30-homer power, he can hit .250 and he's a Gold Glove third baseman."
3. Does Texas have enough pitching? By the end of the season, probably. Scott Feldman and Colby Lewis will be economical, Matt Harrison has looked very good, Rich Harden battles to repeat his delivery, but was up to 93 mph Friday and C.J. Wilson is confident his changeup will work and he can start. Can Chris Ray, Frank Francisco and Neftali Feliz finish the last three innings? We'll see. But with Alexi Ogando, Tanner Scheppers and Derek Holland on pitching coach Mike Maddux's horizon, there is a lot on which to build.
4. Can Oakland compete? Forget the need to be in San Jose, which is still a dream while they play in the Al Davis City Dump. Brett Anderson is one of the best young pitchers in the game, Ben Sheets has finished strong and Trevor Cahill is on the brink of being a frontline starter. Justin Duchscherer is fine, when healthy, and Gio Gonzalez can come on at any time. They need Andrew Bailey healthy. They have an All-Star catcher and leader in Kurt Suzuki, Daric Barton came on this spring, and they need the pitching to bide time as Chris Carter, Ryan Sweeney, Michael Taylor, et al develop. Sheets can make them very interesting.
5. Why are Cubs fans in such panic? Everyone was a genius when they were in first place; now everyone's dumb. They need Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez to have big production years, as Alfonso Soriano is now a six-hole hitter who they say can't steal bases any more. They need Ted Lilly healthy and they need Carlos Marmol to close. If that happens, they'll be right in the NL Central race.
6. Do the Brewers have enough pitching? Milwaukee has two star hitters in Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, the bulked-up Rickie Weeks can be a major factor, shortstop Alcides Escobar is really good. Yovani Gallardo was average this spring, but he should be a No. 1, and Randy Wolf was a nice signing coming off a year in which he went six or more innings in 17 consecutive starts. But the rest of the rotation must come from Manny Parra, Chris Narverson, Jeff Suppan, Doug Davis, Dave Bush ...
7. Can the Giants' core carry them into the NL West race? They have four star-level players in Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Brian Wilson and Pablo Sandoval. Barry Zito pitches his heart out, and Mark DeRosa and Aaron Rowand play their hearts out. But using Madison Bumgarner to win the South Atlantic League playoffs showed a dramatic falloff in velocity this spring, their defense is, well, not very good, and one groin pull for Lincecum or Cain could make for a long season.
8. Where will the Mariners find offense and the back end of their rotation? Cliff Lee throws across his body and this current problem, similar to what sent him to the Minors in 2007, is enough of a problem that they think he may not be right until May. Ryan Rowland-Smith, Ian Snell, Jason Vargas and Doug Fister then fall in behind Felix (The Great) Hernandez. Never underestimate Jack Zduriencik, and remember that if you go by the defense matrix numbers, Franklin Gutierrez, Chone Figgins, Jack Wilson and Ichiro Suzuki were the best at their positions, which makes the building of the pitching a lot easier.
9. Whither Milton Bradley? Yes, he was ejected from two Cactus League games, and yes, he's said some things about Chicago. "I do know that I have to be more careful with umpires and not get frustrated with myself," says Bradley. "But the situation here is really good. I've got great support, with people like Mike Sweeney and Ken Griffey. It will work." For those of us who have had Bradley's remarkable support after suffering a life-threatening situation, there is the hope that Milton will remember who and what he is and let all the other stuff drift off into the ozone.
10. What made us feel the best about who we are? The way stricken Red Sox Minor League outfielder Ryan Westmoreland, one of the best prospects anywhere, has attracted the caring and legitimate encouragement of players and teams out here. On Monday, Ethier is taking off to spend time with Westmoreland, as his brother Adam Ethier is Westmoreland's physical therapist and trainer. Justin Upton visited Westmoreland. The Padres and D-backs have reached out and visited him. If you're sick of Tiger and scandal and selfishness, think about Andre and Adam Ethier, and Upton. Some people get a day off to play golf, Andre Ethier took his day off to try to help the rehab of a 20-year-old kid who a week ago was fighting for his life.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.