The 2009 Major League Baseball season is just days away, when the 2008 World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies begin their defense of the title against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday, April 5. Which players are going to stand out this year, and which are going to underperform? It would be easy for me, or anyone else, to tell you that I like Albert Pujols, Hanley Ramirez, or Johan Santana to have great years. It also wouldn’t take much to convince you not to expect huge numbers from Nick Punto or Adam Eaton. So here are some less familiar names that are in position for big years, and some really popular guys who won’t live up to expectations.
Guys to watch:
Matt Cain, SP, San Francisco. His record does not jump out at you, going 30-43 in his four professional years with the Giants. However, the Giants have been miserable the past few years, and haven’t helped their pitchers much, minus Tim Lincecum, of course. Cain’s lifetime ERA is 3.74, and last year he was on par to that, notching a 3.76 ERA. He has improved on his innings pitched each year, reaching 217.2 last year. His strikeouts also jumped from 163 to 186. In the offseason, the Giants infused their offense with some younger talent, so expect better run support and more wins. The Giants now have a surprisingly good pitching staff, and at 24-years-old, Cain will form a very good one-two punch with Tim Lincecum.
Jayson Werth, OF, Philadelphia. Werth began the ’08 season as a fourth outfielder/platoon player. He went on to earn the every day job with his gritty performance at the plate, in the field, and on the base paths. At the plate he hit a respectable .273, but really impressed with his 24 home runs. On the bases, he surprised with decent speed and base running skills, swiping 20 bases and only getting caught once. He also flashed the leather, committing only 2 errors, earning 9 assists, and just making some great defensive plays to save runs. Look for Werth to hit in the five-hole spot in the Phillies lineup to break up the Phillies’ lefty triumvirate of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Raul Ibanez. Werth will be a part of a high octane offense in a hitter-friendly park, and as the everyday starter in right field, especially with the recent release of Geoff Jenkins. Some analysts say he has the potential to be a 30 homeruns-30 stolen base guy this year, and I like those chances.
Jorge Cantu, 1B, Florida. Talk about coming out of nowhere. Cantu was signed to a minor-league deal by the Marlins in January of ’08. Out of camp he won the starting third baseman job. He showed some major pop at the plate, hitting 29 home runs and driving in 95 runs, while still hitting a respectable .277. He had a solid showing in the ’09 World Baseball Classic this spring; .360 batting average, two home runs, and six RBIs. This season he moves to first base, a position he played in 66 games last year, to accommodate rookie Emilio Bonifacio. While the Marlins can be a frugal team with their post-World Series fire sales, they do a great job of restocking their squad, and someone in the organization should be getting a raise for finding Cantu.
Gavin Floyd, SP, Chicago White Sox. Last year, Floyd finally showed why he was a top five draft pick by the Phillies in ’01. He was an electric pitcher in the minor leagues, including tossing a no-hitter in his first professional season in ’02. However, he began to struggle once he reached the majors. The Phillies grew impatient and shipped him to the White Sox. It took him some time to get his footing, but he finally broke out in ’08. He won 17 games and had a 3.84 ERA, as well as pitching a career high 206.1 innings. He’ll open up ’09 as the staff’s number two pitcher. Expect his added experience, success, and confidence to help him grow as a pitcher this season.
Guys to ignore:
C.C. Sabathia, SP, New York Yankees. I know this won’t win me over with Yanks fans back home. But what’s the last vision we have of him on the baseball field? He was getting shelled by the Phillies in game 2 of the NLDS, lasting only 3.2 innings and giving up 5 runs, including walking pitcher Brett Myers, who only had four hits all season, after going ahead 1-2 in the count in the second inning and being worked for another ten pitches in his second at-bat. While he was dominating down the stretch for Milwaukee, he wasn’t as great before he was traded from Cleveland, where he went 6-8 and a 3.83 ERA while giving up 117 hits and 34 walks in 122.1 innings, compared to 106 hits and 25 walks in 130.2 innings as a Brewer. Then he signed a huge $161 million contract with the Yankees over the summer. The Yankees don’t have a very good track record signing starting pitchers. Do the names Kevin Brown, Carl Pavano, and Randy Johnson ring a bell? All were signed to large contracts, all were supposed to greatly improve the starting rotation, and all pitched miserably for New York. Sabathia may not be able to live up to the astronomical expectations the city has for him.
J.D. Drew, OF, Boston. Drew’s production as a Red Sox player, or for any other team for that matter, in no way merits the 5-year, $70 million contract he signed in ’07. Going back to his first full season in the majors in 1999 only twice has he hit for over 25 home runs and 90 RBI. His best year was in 2004 with the Atlanta Braves, where he hit .305, 31 home runs, and 93 RBI. Since then he’s only hit 20 home runs once. In two seasons in Boston, he has only played in 249 games out of a potential 324 because of numerous stints on the disabled list. His numbers don’t match his contract, he is an injury waiting to happen, and at 33, he isn’t getting any younger.
Vladimir Guerrero, OF, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. This is a tough one. It’s not that his numbers are terrible. Vladdy can still hit for power and average. His numbers are immensely better than the aforementioned Drew. It’s the fact that Guerrero’s numbers are on a steady decline. His 2002 season was probably his best year, hitting .336, 39 home runs, and even stealing 40 bases. Since then, his average has lowered to .303. He’s down to 25 home runs last year, and hasn’t stolen more than 5 bases since 2002. Last year was also the first time he didn’t reach 100 RBI since 2003, knocking in 91. It looks like he has less and less left in the tank every year, and at 34-years-old, expect his numbers to continue to dip.
All photos from ESPN.com