Tuesday, February 20, 2007

TATB's Long-Awaited, Half-Assed, Red Sox-Slanted, Spring Training Preview Capsules: NL West

(First in a six-part series, teams listed in predicted order of finish.)

Foul tips and other observations:
Confession: I had no idea until recently that Derek Lowe tied for the NL lead in wins last season (16). Yes, I wish he was still in Boston, and so do most of the bars . . . The Juan Pierre signing was ignorant enough on its own merit, but the fact that it effectively blocks Matt Kemp (a Dave Winfield wannabe) from the big leagues makes it downright inexplicable . . . Andre Ethier? Eh, he's a JAG . . . I'm immediately docking them five victories due to the Grady Factor. The dope still can't manage a bullpen without an illustrated manual.

Breakthrough player: Jonathan Broxton. Sure, he looks like he swallowed Sidney Ponson whole, but with 97 strikeouts in 76 innings a season ago, he's reminiscent of a young Eric Gagne. No wonder the Sox insisted on including him in any trade discussions for Manny Ramirez. Come to think of it, last year was kind of his breakthrough, so let's just say the Dodgers have a number of other candidates who qualify here, most notably starter Chad Billingsley, third baseman Andy LaRoche, and first baseman James Loney.

Breakdown player: We're resisting the temptation to suggest Nomar. The longer he is gone from Boston, the more fondly we remember him, and we can't help but wish him good health. So let's go with Jeff (You're A Redneck If . . .) Kent, who at age 38 is coming off his least productive season since '96 and whose greasy fingerprints were all over those anonymous quotes critical of J.D. Drew. He was a lot more tolerable as clubhouse a foil for Barry Bonds.

Completely random Bill James stat: Brad Penny led the NL in pitches at or above 95 MPH with 817, and also had the fastest average fastball (93.9). I'm beginning to think he and Josh Beckett were separated at birth.

Foul tips and other observations:
Quick, who's managing this crew now? . . . If you said Bud Black, nice work, Gammons . . . Count me among those who don't think Marcus Giles of the Incredibly Shrinking Giles Brothers will rejuvenate his career in San Diego . . . Definition of underachieving: Jake Peavy, 11-14, 4.09. He should win 15 games on stuff alone . . . Has Kevin Towers figured out how he's going to pants Theo Epstein in a trade yet ? After the Mirabelli debacle, Theo would be wise to stop talking his mentor's calls . . . That said, Josh Bard won't come within 60 points of last season's batting average (.333) . . . God bless Todd Walker for his performance in the 2003 postseason, but at this point, his glove is nothing more than a prop.

Breakthrough player: Kevin Kouzmanoff. Scouts say he can swing it, but question whether he will be able to handle third base defensively. Given the lack of thumpers in the Padres' lineup and the price (Josh Barfield) the Padres paid to acquire him, he won't lack for chances. Hit .389 in Double A and .353 in Triple A before coming up to Cleveland late last season.

Breakdown player: David Wells. Boomer's long overdue for another bout with gout.

Completely random Bill James stat: Cla Meredith held opposing batters to a .170 average, best among NL relievers. And somewhere, Bob Lobel twitches with delight.

Foul tips and other observations:
I didn't get the Randy Johnson trade at first - why give up anything of substance when the Yankees so clearly wanted nothing to do with him anymore? - but given his popularity in Arizona and the fact that he could probably win 10 games just by showing up in the National League, I suppose it can be justified somewhat . . . I still can't forgive former Sox assistant GM Josh Byrnes for letting the Yankees off the hook, however . . . Brandon Webb is nasty, but he has to be the most obscure NL Cy Young winner since John Denny in '83 . . . If you predicted during his .207-3-29 tank job with the 2002 Sox that Tony Clark would still be employed as a big-league baseball player five years later, I guess your crystal ball is superior to mine . . . Beanbag reliever Casey Daigle is married to softball icon Jennie Finch. Call me finicky, but I don't consider him quite as fortunate as others do.

Breakthrough player: Let's see . . . there's Stephen Drew . . . Carlos Quentin . . . Chris Young . . . Conor Jackson . . . geez, take your pick. The D-Backs are as loaded as any team in the game.

Breakdown player: Johnson. He's 41, stands a gawky 6-foot-10, has a chronically bad back and shot knees. Yeah, he'll hold up just fine.

Completely random Bill James stat: Johnson led the American League in run support last season (7.51).

Foul tips and other observations:
New slogan: Baseball Has Been Barry, Barry Good To Me! . . . All right, sorry for that. Hey, some people think Lenny Clarke is funny, so you never know what jokes will fly . . . There's no doubt the two Barrys are sharing the Bay Area spotlight, as Bonds tries to catch Aaron before the feds catch him, and Zito tries to pitch up to a contract that will pay him at least twice what he's worth . . . As fun as he his to watch, make no mistake, Zito has officially become a junkballer - he was second in the AL in pitches thrown below 80 MPH. A certain Boston knuckleballer was first . . . But what we said about the Big Unit applies here: In the NL, he should win double figures just by making 30-plus starts . . . If the Giants were better, I'd be tempted to throw a few bucks down on Matt Cain as the 2007 Cy Young winner. He's the real ace here . . . Dave Roberts: wonderful guy, hero for all ages, atrocious long-term signing.

Breakthrough player: Tim Lincecum: No, I haven't seen him pitch either, but just about every prospect guide says he's K-Rod's doppleganger in terms of delivery and stuff. That's good enough for me - and besides, just about everyone else on this team other than Cain qualifies for AARP.

Breakdown player: Bonds. Here's hoping Henry Aaron pulls a Gillooly on him before he can completely tarnish the record books. Hell, Bud Selig might beat him to it.

Completely random Bill James stat: Zito led the American League in pitches per start last season (107.8) and batters faced (945) . . . so at least he's durable, which is nice.

Foul tips and other observations:
The babbling owner can deny it all he wants, but I still say Todd Helton is an ex-Rocky before the ballclub breaks camp . . . Any chance the Yankees might pounce, preventing Theo from bringing the aging albatross to Boston? . . . Given how productive they are, I probably shouldn't admit that I wouldn't recognize Garrett Atkins and Matt Holliday if they showed up as ringers on a rival softball team . . . You say Clint Barmes, I say Dustin Pedroia in a higher altitude . . . Lefty Jeff Francis has a chance to be the Rockies' first homegrown ace: at age 25, he was 13-11 with a 4.16 ERA . . . Remember when skipper Clint Hurdle was pegged as baseball's next surefire superstar as a kid with Kansas City? Man, I am getting old . . . The mummified remains of Javy Lopez are on the Rockies' active roster. Suddenly, Doug Mirabelli's continued employment makes slightly more sense.

Breakthrough player: Francis. Bet you didn't know he led the NL in shutouts last season (7).

Breakdown player: Is Vinny Castilla still around? No? The we'll cop out and go with Helton continuing his four-season decline, should he surprise us and stay.

Completely random Bill James stat: Holliday hit two of the five longest homers in the NL last season.

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