Wednesday, March 28, 2012

2012 MLB Preview: NL Central

Welcome back to the second to last edition of this six part blog. Thank you to all those who read last week's NL East preview. With just two divisions left, today I will be previewing the ever so eventful National League Central today, home of the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, etc. Each team for the most part had something (or some things) occur that altered its franchise forever. I also promised a shocking prediction for this division. So, let's jump right into one of the bigger headlines.

Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers was slated to face a fifty game suspension for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. Upon an appeal by Braun, he was relinquished of all accusations because of a technicality in the case and will be able to play all of the 2012 season. However, this wasn't the only headline circling Milwaukee this offseason.

Ryan Braun addresses the media, Brewers front office, and teammates in press conference following exoneration.

On January 24th, 2012 (my birthday nonetheless), the most talked about question for a while during the offseason was finally answered. Prince Fielder had landed in Detroit to play for the Tigers. After Victor Martinez was unfortunately injured and forced into season ending knee surgery, the Tigers has to make a move...and they did. With Prince Fielder gone, the biggest question that arises for Milwaukee is how to make up for the loss of Prince? Well, here's how.

The Brewers possess one of the better if not best starting rotations in the National League, hanging with clubs like St. Louis, Washington, and San Fransisco. Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo sit at the top as the Brewer's two aces. In the middle sits veteran Randy Wolf, who is having an outstanding spring so far. Bringing up the bottom of the rotation is Shaun Marcum, who had a very rough post season for the Brewers tagged with injuries this spring, and lefty Chris Narveson, who seems to being coming into his own. If these five guys can stay healthy, they can definitely make up for some slack they lose with Prince by preserving leads, especially with the best bullpen combo in the National League of Fransisco Rodriguez and closer John Axford.

The Brewer's number one goal this offseason was improving the left side of the infield, but at the same time keeping some power in the line-up to replace Prince in the clean up spot. Brewer's GM Doug Melvin received a phone call from then Cubs free-agent third baseman Aramis Ramirez and proclaimed to Doug that he wanted to play for the Brewers. Doug then took that information to owner Mark Attanasio and coach Ron Roenicke, and shortly after they brought in the right handed batter. The Brewers also got the defensive glove of Alex Gonzalez at shortstop, who is the former Braves infielder and a much needed improvement the Crew needed. The final move Milwaukee made in the offseason was winning a bid on Japanese outfielder Norichika Aoki, who later signed a two year contract with Milwaukee.

Increased productivity is something the Brewers will be looking for the most, especially out of guys like Corey Hart, Jonathon Lucroy, Rickie Weeks, and new comer Aramis Ramirez. However, the biggest spotlight will be on the man that will stand in the shadow for Prince Fielder at first base, Mat Gamel. In Gamel's defense, he hasn't been given a legitimate chance to show what he has to offer. But now, he has his chance. This is Mat Gamel's make or break year, as Milwaukee possess many substitutes if Mat can't come up with the goods Milwaukee is looking for. Here's what opening day will look like for the Brewers:

1. Rickie Weeks, 2B
2. Nyjer Morgan, CF
3. Ryan Braun, LF
4. Aramis Ramirez, 3B
5. Mat Gamel, 1B
6. Jonathon Lucroy, C
7. Alex Gonzalez, SS
8. Norichika Aoki, RF

Final Thoughts: With the freak injuries suffered to Corey Hart this offseason, expect him to miss at least the first series of the season, thus Nori Aoki in right field. With the Brewers lossing the talents of Prince Fielder, LaTroy Hawkins, Takashi Saito, Jerry Hairston Jr., the Brewers will look to their farm system and offseason signings to fill the roles. If each individual player can make a difference, I don't think the Brewers will have any problem doing the same amount of damage as they did in 2011. You take out power and add in speed and defense, you can have a just as successful team.

The St. Louis Cardinals were also in the news this offseason, but unfortunately for them, for the wrong reasons. Shortly after being honored in St. Louis with his own statue, free agent first baseman Albert Pujols packed his bags and headed out West to the L.A. Angels to sign a monster deal. So, the search was on for the Cardinals to find some sort of replacement for Albert. The one big move offensively was acquiring outfielder Carlos Beltran.

Carlos Beltran walks with coach Mark McGuire before a game in Jupiter, FL.

Cardinal's GM John Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny want Tyler Greene to make it as their second baseman because the 28-year-old has power and speed and is out of options. He probably will lead off early in the season, at least against left-handed pitching, so that he can see better pitches than if he hits eighth. World Series hero David Freese will hit fourth against left-handers and first baseman Lance Berkman fifth. Matt Holliday will hit third, where former first baseman Albert Pujols hit for the last ten seasons.

The Cardinals' spring training for the second straight year was interrupted by an injury to a starting pitcher. Last year, right-hander Adam Wainwright suffered a ligament injury to his elbow that necessitated season-ending surgery. This year, right-hander Chris Carpenter missed considerable time because of a nerve issue which has weakened his right shoulder and he is likely to be out a couple of months. Lance Lynn, a bullpen standout in the postseason, has moved into injured right-hander Chris Carpenter's spot. Garcia, a thirteen-game winner for the last two seasons, should be ready to take the next step to fifteen wins and beyond. Westbrook has more life on his fastball after losing twenty pounds in the offseason. Wainwright, who didn't allow an earned run in his first 14 spring innings, appears all the way back after elbow surgery of last year. Opening day will look something like this:

1. Tyler Greene, 2B
2. Carlos Beltran, RF
3. Matt Holliday, LF
4. David Freese, 3B
5. Lance Berkman, 1B
6. Yadier Molina, C
7. Jon Jay, CF
8. Rafael Furcal, SS

Final Thoughts: I think the Cardinals hurt more by losing Pujols then the Brewers by losing Prince. Not taking anything away from Prince, either. The Cardinals will enter a season for the first time in twelve years without Albert Pujols, a three-time National League Most Valuable Player. The club would seem still to have a good offense lead by left fielder Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman, who has moved from right field to first base. But no offense really can overcome the loss of a Pujols.

New Chicago Cubs manager Dale Sveum spent an uneventful spring getting to know his players and coming away satisfied that they had given full effort and had played smart baseball. The Cubs, winners of seventy-one games last year, still have plenty of question marks about whether the offense will produce and how new faces will fit into the starting rotation. New faces at first base, Bryan LaHair, and third base, Ian Stewart, will try to fill the offensive void left by Carlos Pena and Aramis Ramirez.

Ryan Dempster, shockingly to some, won the Opening Day start over Matt Garza, who emerged last year as the team's best starter. Dale Sveum named his one, two and five starters first and saved the third and fourth spots for last. Paul Maholm gives the Cubs their first full-time rotation lefty since Ted Lilly was traded in July 2010. Samardzija looks to have pitched himself from the bullpen and into the rotation with a strong spring. The final spot will come down to a battle between newcomer Chris Volstad (obtained from Miami in the Carlos Zambrano trade) and Randy Wells, and inconsistent holdover from the previous two seasons. Closer Carlos Marmol had an up-and-down spring, prompting a little chat with Sveum.

All eyes will be on Starling Castro, as he moves from the leadoff spot to the No. 3 hole. Castro had much more success batting leadoff last year than he did hitting third. The 22-year-old says he doesn't change his approach from spot to spot in the order and is ready for the new challenge. The Cubs need David DeJesus to look more like the lifetime .356 on-base percentage guy he is rather than the .323 OBP guy he was at Oakland last year, when a thumb injury hampered him. The number four through eight spots could vary by day, based on matchups. Cubs should look like this for Opening Day:

1. David DeJesus, RF
2. Darwin Barney, 2B
3. Starling Castro, SS
4. Alfonso Soriano, LF
5. Bryan LaHair, 1B
6. Ian Stewart, 3B
7. Marlon Byrd, CF
8. Geovany Soto, C

Final Thoughts: The Chicago Cubs definitely lit up the headlines this offseason with signing new President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. Though not contenders now, the Cubs will be led by Theo and his team to help rebuild and construct a winning team again on the Northside of Chicago.

Theo Epstein addresses media at his inaugural presser in Chicago.

The Cincinnati Reds offseason was mainly focused on improving their starting pitching. Mat Latos, the big offseason acquisition, looked great in camp. The Reds gave up a lot to get Latos from the Padres, but many see the move still more beneficial to the reds. He only allowed three runs over his first four starts. Johnny Cueto, who began last year on the disabled list with biceps tendinitis, is healthy and pitching well going into this final week of spring ball.

The only thing that shook it up was that RHP Ryan Madson, the new closer, had a setback in his recovery from a sore elbow two weeks before Opening Day, and will miss the entire 2012 season. Sean Marshall likely will close in place of Ryan Madson, with Aroldis Chapman there if needed. Nick Masset and Bill Bray are dealing with injuries, so the Red's bullpen looks extremely thin. The Reds are hoping the young right-handers, Logan Ondrusek and Jose Arredondo, can stay healthy. Both had 3.23 ERAs, but both spent time on the disabled list.

Red's newly acquired closer will be out for the 2012 season with Tommy John's surgery.

Manager Dusty Baker was consistent with the top three in the order. Cozart has a great spring. He was hitting .441, twenty plus games in. Scott Rolen is key. If he's healthy, he can be the right-handed bat to split Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. Scott Rolen looked good in spring camp. The surgery on his left shoulder gave him more range of motion. He should have good pop. The left field split remains up in the air, although Ryan Ludwick seems to have the edge.The catcher spot on the team will most likely be split by Devin Mesoraco and Ryan Hanigan. Here's what Opening Day will look like for Cinci:

1. Brandon Phillips, 2B
2. Zack Cozart, SS
3. Joey Votto, 1B
4. Scott Rolen, 3B
5. Jay Bruce, RF
6. Ryan Ludwick, LF
7. Drew Stubbs, CF
8. Devin Mesoraco/Ryan Hanigan, C

Final Thoughts: The Reds came to spring training with a very set roster and there were no big surprises. The best news of camp was how healthy and productive Scott Rolen was. Plus, their starting rotation is much improved and ready to go. Unfortunately, with the loss of Madson, I think they lost their bid to win this division.

The Pittsburgh Pirates had a spring in which they were mostly healthy, minus the broken orbital bone of RHP A.J. Burnett that should keep him out until May at the soonest. The pitching has looked fine, as has some of the hitting from a reconfigured bench, but the defense and fundamentals have been sorely lacking. Furthermore, nine of their first twelve games are on the road. It's going to be a tough test for this soon to be promising team to start the season. A.J. Burnett, Erik Bedard, Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens are known commodities, but the same can't be said for Charlie Morton and James McDonald, the wild cards in the rotation.

The Pirates continue to hope for two left-handers in the bullpen, but that seems unlikely with only Tony Watson pitching well in the spring. Management is seeking help here from the outside if Evan Meek's recovery from shoulder trouble in 2011 continues. His fastball was back up to 94 mph by the third week of March, and that will solve the issue of a setup man for the 40-save closer Joel Hanrahan. If it doesn't, Chris Resop or Jason Grilli could be pressed into that role. Daniel McCutchen established himself as a good long man last summer before being overused.

Pirates CF Andrew McCutchen making a diving catch in spring ball.

The Pirates made a smart signing moving forward with the improvements to this team by signing Andrew McCutchen long term. They have a very promising line-up with a lot of speed that can manufacture some runs. But, the key is getting guys on base. The Pirates in 2011 had a huge first half of the season, making a lot of people believers out of them. They showed a spark last year, and will somewhat again this year, although they need to develop a more stable middle of the order to spread out the rest to even everything out. Neil Walker will bat clean up this year, and we know as well as he does he really doesn't fit that role. Pirates will have this Opening Day line-up:

1. Alex Presley, LF
2. Jose Tabata, RF
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
4. Neil Walker, 2B
5. Garrett Jones, 1B
6. Rod Barajas, C
7. Pedro Alvarez/Casey McGehee 3B
8. Clint Barmes, SS

Final Thoughts: The main problem for this team comes with a bottom half of the order in which no one batted as high as .250 last year. There's some pop with Jones and Barajas, but Alvarez has miles to go at the plate. There could be some quick innings down there. The Pirates have prioritized offense over defense in building the bench, and they're hopeful that having various options will help undo the sub-.250 component of the bottom half of the regular lineup. That will be underscored if McGehee ends up taking Alvarez's place. Nice try, again, Pitt. But, you still aren't there yet.

As the Houston Astros look to recover from a league-worst 106-loss season in 2011, the starting rotation looks to be at it's best in years, which actually isn't saying much.  Kyle Weiland, acquired along with SS Jed Lowrie in the trade for RHP Mark Melancon, is hardly a lock. The Astros could still go with RHP Jordan Lyles, their top pitching prospect in 2011 who struggled a bit upon debuting. No matter who starts, it is expected to be a fluid situation over the course of the season. Lyles has little else to accomplish in Triple-A and is seen as a starter long into the future. And RHP Paul Clemens, who wowed the Astros in spring training before being sent down, appeared like he'd be ready at some point in 2012.

The only major change from the beginning of spring is the addition of Chris Johnson, who had a great spring after losing his spot to Jimmy Paredes in 2011. When Paredes was injured at the beginning of spring and new management wanted to move him back to second base, he went back to the minors and an opportunity for Johnson. At the beginning of spring, it was thought that the player who could move the most within the lineup would be Jed Lowrie, and this has been the case. He's gone up to the No. 2 spot, while Jose Altuve has dropped. The Astros have liked most of Jose Altuve's skill set for the top of the order, so if he can find a way to draw walks and get on base more, he could reverse his personal downward trend.

The look of the rest of the roster changed when OF Jason Bourgeois was traded. Not only was the club deprived of one of its few center fielders, which could benefit J.B. Shuck, but also one of its few right-handed backup possibilities. Brian Bixler, who came in as a non-roster invite and played well this spring, could hold down both of those roles. Here's what the Astro's Opening Day roster will somewhat look like:

1. Jordan Schafer, CF
2. Jed Lowrie, SS
3. J.D. Martinez, LF
4. Carlos Lee, 1B
5. Brian Bogusevic, RF
6. Chris Johnson, 3B
7. Jason Castro/Chris Snyder, C
8. Jose Altuve, 2B

Final Thoughts: Perhaps the best news for the Astros this spring is that this is the last year they will get destroyed by the NL Central teams of the Brewers, Cardinals, and Reds. The bad news, they are heading to the AL West to get demolished by the Rangers and Angels. Who knows, maybe the DH spot will get them a World Series again. Until then, happy rebuilding!

Astro's owner Jim Crane addresses the media after announcing the Astros move to the AL West in 2013.

Predicted Final Standings

1. Milwaukee Brewers (92-70) (Division Champions)
2. St. Louis Cardinals (90-72) (Wild Card)
3. Cincinnati Reds (89-73) (Wild Card)
4. Chicago Cubs (76-86)
5. Pittsburgh Pirates (74-88)
6. Houston Astros (61-101)

(Yes, my surprise to you all is that both Wild Card teams will come out of the NL Central. It's going to be a tight race. And please understand, I may not be right, but it's a bold prediction I have and all around gut feeling.)

And that does it! Next week I will preview the National League West to wrap up the 2012 MLB season preview series. Thank you for reading, I hope everyone enjoys reading this. Please leave your thoughts on here or on the Twitter feed (@WISportsBlog) if you agree, disagree, or want to make a point. I look forward to reading your comments.

Until next time, Beers, Brats, and Championships.

-Andrew Vrchota (@WSB_Andrew)

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Badgers & Golden Eagles - Path To The Sweet 16

Greetings Wisconsin Sports Fans, it has been a very exciting March Madness thus far. Many brackets have already been busted after just the second round, but it has been exciting nonetheless. In particular for the Marquette Golden Eagles and the Wisconsin Badgers. Both teams are making Sweet 16 appearances in back to back years. Stellar play and great effort pared off as Marquette finished with a record of 25-7 and earning a #3 seed in the tournament. The Badgers finished the season with a record of 24-9 and were rewarded with a #4 seed in the Big Dance.
Buzz Williams’ Golden Eagles matched up with the 14th seeded BYU Cougars.  Marquette was the first to score and did not stop the whole game.  Whenever BYU made a basket, Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder had an answer for the Cougars.  The Golden Eagles led by as much as 18 points in the first half and finished the First half with the lead by a score of 49-34.  As the the second half, it was just like the first. Marquette continued to score baskets and hold the BYU Cougars to thirty four points in both halves. Brandon Davies was the top performer for BYU, scoring 19 points and grabbing 12 rebounds for the Cougars.  Jae Crowder had an outstanding double double; finishing with 25 points and 16 rebounds, while also dishing out 4 assists and 4 steals. The Fourth seeded Badgers squared off with thirteenth seed Montana Grizzlies.  This was just another example of Bo Ryan’s excellent defensive style of play.  The Badgers held Montana to just 49 points for the whole game. The Badgers were led by the offensive efforts of Ryan Evans and Jordan Taylor.  Evans led the Badgers with 18 points while Taylor scored 17.

Jordan Taylor attempting a three-pointer against Vanderbilt.

In the third round of March Madness, both the Golden Eagles and Badgers were, as expected, matched up with somewhat tougher teams with Murray State and Vanderbilt respectively.  The out-of-nowhere 31-1 Murray State Racers led the Golden Eagles 28-25 at the end of the first half.  However, as we have seen Marquette a lot this season, is come back in the second half and just completely take control of the game. The Golden Eagles outscored Murray St. 37-25 in the second half to win 62-53.  Marquette has continued to impress with their efforts with the absence of a healthy big man to play that five spot, and as always they were led by Jae Crowder and DJO; both scoring 17 points.  As for the Badgers third round match up with Vanderbilt, things got down to the wire and the Badgers squeaked out a close win by a score of 60-57. Both teams were pretty evenly matched but the Badgers 10 three pointers looked to be the determining factor for this game.

Now for a preview of the upcoming games for Marquette and Wisconsin.

Syracuse/Wisconsin:     #4 Wisconsin will be playing #1 Syracuse on Thursday at 6:15PM CT.  Even with the loss of Fab Melo, Syracuse is still going to be a tough team to play because they have good depth and lots of talent on that team.  So, with Melo not playing, I think a key to victory for the Badgers is Jered Berggren, who is going to have to step up and lead this team.  I know that Jordan Taylor is the All-American senior and is the sure fire leader of this team, but I feel that Berggren is going to have a big impact on the outcome of this game.  He is going to have to get those points in the paint and grab those rebounds as well as being consistent throughout the game.

Florida/Marquette:     #3 Marquette will be taking on the #7 Florida Gators on Thursday 9:17PM CT.  As I’m sure everybody knows, the Gators are coached by Billy Donovon and is known to always have a decent team year after year, as he has had 14 straight 20+ win seasons.  Both teams have the ability to score and one thing that I think Marquette is going to have to do is limit the turnovers.  One thing that I have noticed is when Marquette doesn’t turnover the ball a lot, they play very well, but when they have have a lot of turnovers it leads to them getting into a funk and playing sloppy.  Hopefully this upcoming game does not turn into one of those funks because I believe that the Golden Eagles are a final four team and have great potential.

Jae Crowder is turning enough heads in this tournament that may lead to him as a high NBA draft pick.

After Thursday’s games, I am really hoping that I can report that it is on the the Elite Eight for both the Badgers and Golden Eagles because they both have been playing really good basketball as of late and I hope that it will continue on to the Championship.  

Until next time Wisconsin, Beers, Brats, and Championships.

-Michael Schuster (@WSB_Mike)

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Brewers To Honor Bob Uecker With Statue

Mr. Baseball Bob Uecker is getting a well deserved statue outside of Miller Park later on this season, which raised this question by Brewers blogger Adam McCalvy: What took so long?

“I didn’t have enough for the down payment,” Bob Uecker said.

Bob Uecker throws out the first pitch in Game 3 of the 2008 NLDS

The Hall of Fame Brewers broadcaster, film and television star, and all around baseball legend will be revealed to Brewers fans on August 31, alongside the three other members of the Mt. Rushmore of Milwaukee Baseball: Hank Aaron, Robin Yount, and MLB Commissioner Allan H. “Bud” Selig.

Bob Uecker grew up watching the then minor league Milwaukee Brewers, who played at Borchert Field on North 8th Street in Milwaukee. He began his playing career with the Milwaukee Braves in 1956 and made his major league debut as a catcher in 1962. Although his playing career was only for just six short years, Uecker managed to also play for the St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies, and the Atlanta Braves. Uecker was a career .200 hitter with fourteen home runs and seventy-four RBIs. Uecker was known for his great defense rather then his bat. Bob ended up winning a World Championship with the Cardinals in 1964. Uecker called it a career in 1967. Forty years later, the catcher turned broadcaster turned actor is a baseball legend.

“It’s going to be there forever and ever,” Uecker said. “My family, my friends, are all excited about it,” Uecker said. “I’m honored, and I’m pleased with it. I thank the whole organization. Mark Attansio. The players. Who are we as broadcasters without the guys who make the game to call and make the games exciting? I hope the fans have enjoyed listening as much as I’ve enjoyed doing the games. I don’t think I’ve ever gone to the park where I’ve had a bad day. Discounting playing,” Uecker adds. “A lot of bad days there.”

Asked how they would keep pigeons away, he said, “We’re going to invite pigeons. We are. That’s the other enhancement, I’m holding a stand. It’s a feeder-type thing.”

Uecker was asked what the statue will look like, he said, “I have posed for the statue,” Uecker said. “Kind of a Schwarzenegger-type thing. Beefcake. Speedos. Pretty buffed. It’s really enhanced. I’ve seen pictures of the finished product, and, yes, I’m very pleased as a matter of a fact. It’s drawing a lot of attention. More than that swimsuit issue.” (Uecker appeared in some skimpy swimwear in the background of a 2008 Sports Illustrated photo. He has since dubbed it, “My swimsuit issue.”)

Bob Uecker announcing a game for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011
Uecker said his statue will portray him standing, hands in his pockets. He said he didn't want to be holding a radio microphone.

"I didn't want to be holding a mic, not while I'm standing," he said. "It's like I'm just standing around the batting cage. The guy told me that people really like this pose."

Selig said last year that it's humbling when you actually see your statue unveiled. Uecker understands that thought.

"I thought that about Buddy's statue," said Uecker, who spoke at that ceremony. "I thought it about Robin's and Henry's. They're two of the greatest players that our game has ever had. I knew how it was for them.
"When you realize something's going to be there as long as Solomon Juneau. His statue is there some place. It's been there since he found Milwaukee, and it's still up. When you look at it in that light, that it's going to be there long beyond you, beyond any of us, it's a pretty neat thing. It really is."

Bob, who has had a few heart issues and operations over the past two seasons, said this about taking the measurements for the statue. He said, "I've thought about it a lot since Mark told me they were going to do this a year ago, that they wanted to do this. I actually got measured at BrewersFest two years ago. This guy is good. This is one thing I told him. I said I'm doing this one time, these measurements. Save this stuff and send it to the Schramka Funeral Home because I'm not doing this again. That's what I told him. I ain't getting remeasured."

(Quotes courtesy of Tom Haudricourt and Adam McCalvy)

Until next time, Beers, Brats, and Championships.

-Andrew Vrchota (@WSB_Andrew)

Listen to our podcast, "Wisconsin Sports Blog Roundtable", available on iTunes and! Subscribe for free today!

Follow us on Twitter for up to date news on Brewers, Packers, Badgers, Bucks and more. Live in game commentary, breaking news, previews, and post game discussion. @WISportsBlog @WSB_Andrew @WSB_Nick @WSB_Brandon @WSB_Mike @WSB_Harrison

Monday, March 19, 2012

2012 MLB Preview: NL East

Welcome back for the fourth installment of this six part series of previews from the 2012 MLB season. Last time, I wrapped up the American League with a preview on the AL West. Today, we are jumping into the National League and previewing the NL East. The East had a lot of changes this offseason, including the remodeling of the then Florida Marlins, now Miami Marlins.

The Miami Marlins are heading in the right direction to become a serious threat in the National League. It was a very busy offseason for them as they renovated its logo, name, jerseys, and its brand new stadium. They brought in new manager Ozzie Guillen. They signed 3 major free agents this offseason. The first was signing closer Heath Bell to a three year contract. Next was the signing of former Mets short stop and 2011 National League batting champion, Jose Reyes (below) to a six year deal. Finally, former White Sox hurler Mark Buehrle signed with Miami to a four year deal.

2011 batting champ Jose Reyes looks to spark the Marlins offense in 2012

Other moves by Miami included the trade that brought Carlos Zambrano over from the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Chris Volstad and cash. Other free agent signings consisted of third baseman Greg Dobbs, outfielder Austin Kearns and outfielder Aaron Rowand.

The Marlins were in heavy talks with now Angel, Albert Pujols. Pujols was Miami's main target this offseason. The idea to bring Pujols in was important for two reasons. It would give Miami a for sure face of their franchise. And secondly, it would attract the heavily populated Latin community in the Miami area which would have put a lot more people in its new stadium's seats. But unfortunately, that didn't happen for them. Lets look at what Miami's line up should look like Opening Day.

1. Jose Reyes, SS
2. Omar Infante, 2B
3. Hanley Ramirez, 3B
4. Giancarlo Stanton, RF
5. Gaby Sanchez, 1B
6. Logan Morrison, LF
7. John Buck, C
8. Emilio Bonifacio, CF

Final Thoughts: The main concern for the Marlins is the transition of Hanley Ramirez going from short stop to third base to make room for Jose Reyes. Hanley was coming off a very off 2011 season. The Marlins did add to there already good pitching rotation of Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez, and Ricky Nolasco with Buehrle and Zambrano. There bullpen has the potential to give them problems. Finally, with Jose Reyes leading off and Ramirez and Stanton batting third and fourth respectively, this team will be a run scoring machine.

The Philadelphia Phillies are undoubtedly the best team in this division. They are going to win the NL East championship again this year. And, the race isn't going to be close. They are, in my book, the NL's New York Yankees. The Phillies had an awfully quiet offseason. The Phillies made a big splash, though, by signing former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon (below) to a four-year, $50 million deal to take over the closer duties. Ty Wigginton was brought in to be a back up first baseman and possible starting third baseman.

Jonathon Papelbon is introduced to the Philadelphia media.

The Phillies benefit more then any other team for one reason, their starting rotation. They have two Cy Young winners in Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, a great lefty in Cole Hamels, and two very consistant four and five pitchers Joe Blanton and Vance Worley, who both could pass on other teams as their number two or three in the rotation.

A year ago the Phillies were looking for the right number five hitter to replace departed free agent Jayson Werth. The challenge is a bigger one this year since former MVP and regular cleanup hitter Ryan Howard is coming off left Achilles surgery and is likely to miss the first month or two of the season. Ty Wigginton, John Mayberry Jr. and Laynce Nix all could see time at first base, and Hunter Pence is the odds-on favorite to move up into the fourth spot in the lineup. Chase Utley will be seeing a knee specialist and is doubtful to be ready by opening day.

1. Shane Victorino, CF
2. Placido Polanco, 3B
3. Jimmy Rollins, SS
4. Hunter Pence, RF
5. John Mayberry Jr., LF
6. Ty Wigginton, 1B
7. Freddy Galvis, 2B
8. Carlos Ruiz, C

Final Thoughts: The biggest concern for this team is it's health. Knock on wood, this team has been pretty healthy. But, recently, with Ryan Howard's Achilles injury, Chase Utley's injury woes, and the ages of players like Placido Polanco, this team should be a little concerned this year about staying healthy. But, regardless, they have a great farm system that can help if need be at any position. Plus, their front office isn't afraid to make a move when it's needed.

The Atlanta Braves are coming off a heartbreaking end from their 2011 season. Much like the Red Sox, they watched a nine game Wild Card lead get taken away by the St. Louis Cardinals with in a months time. But, unlike the Red Sox, their wasn't any clubhouse issues of beer, chicken and video games. It was simply bad baseball.

The starting rotation will once again be a big part of keeping the Braves afloat in this division. Tim Hudson recently began tossing in the yard following surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back, something he'd been hoping to put off until his playing days were over. And the Braves aren't going to rush his return since they have a lot of good young pitchers. Jair Jurrjens may again find himself on the trading block as this year carries on. Tommy Hansen is becoming a very dominate pitcher. Finally, their is a lot of hope for Brandon Beachy in Braves camp. He is entering his third (second full) season with Atlanta. If Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran make the Opening Day roster, it will be part of the starting rotation; they will not be in the bullpen.

Who hits where depends on the return of Prado, McCann, Uggla and Heyward to their usual form. But the 3-4-5 hitters should be Jones, McCann and Uggla in some order. Pastornicky, no matter how well he hits, will start at the bottom of the order because manager Fredi Gonzalez doesn't want to put any pressure on him as he takes over the shortstop position.

1. Michael Bourn, CF
2. Martin Prado, LF
3. Chipper Jones, 3B
4. Brian McCann, C
5. Dan Uggla, 2B
6. Freddie Freeman, 1B
7. Jason Heyward, RF
8. Tyler Pastornicky, SS

Chipper Jones may be entering his last season as a player in the MLB

Final Thoughts: As much as I'd like to see the Braves win this division and dethrone the continuous success of the Phillies, I don't see it happening this year. Chipper Jones (above) is becoming of age and will plan on retiring soon. Jason Heyward had a "sophmore year", so he needs to bounce back. And as I mentioned earlier with pitching, even with Hudson missing a start or two, the pitching staff will hold its own. This is a Wild Card team at best, though.

The Washington Nationals are going to be an interesting team to watch this year, as the "When will Bryce Harper make his major league debut?" guessing game will surround the organization all year. Before my preview, my quick opinion on Harper: He's good. Very good at that. But, he's nineteen years old. He needs to develop the discipline needed to be a major leaguer, and he doesn't have that now and he's showed that this spring. (Bryce went 0-4 with 4 strikeouts in a game against the Tigers) Like it or not, Washington is handling Bryce Harper (below) the right way.

19 year old sensation, Bryce Harper of the Nationals during USA Baseball tryouts

The Nationals went out this offseason and really built up a great starting rotation. This is one of the best young rotations in baseball. Strasburg appears ready again after his Tommy John surgery and the acquisitions of Gonzalez and Jackson by GM Mike Rizzo were big moves. If Strasburg, Zimmermann and Wang can stay away from the injury problems that have bugged them, then the Nationals will have an outstanding young starting rotation. They'll be able to stay in most games just based on their pitching.

Offensively, this team my struggle. Michael Morse should have another outstanding year if he isn't bugged by injury. Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman need to step up and have great years, given the fact that they are the two highest paid players on the Nationals. The Nationals do not have a legitimate lead off hitter, which will effect their runs scored per game.

1. Ian Desmond, SS
2. Jayson Werth, RF
3. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B
4. Adam LaRoche, 1B
5. Michael Morse, LF
6. Danny Espinosa, 2B
7. Rick Ankiel, CF
8. Wilson Ramos, C

Final Thoughts: The Nationals are on a rapid pace to be successful in this division. They have all the components. They just need to tie a few loose ends and become a consistent team. If they struggle offensively, expect the dreams of baseball fans in Washington and around the country to come true with the call up for Bryce Harper from the minor leagues.

The New York Mets are rebuilding. Plain and simple. There is more then just on field issues with this team. Off the field, the Mets owners reached a $162 million settlement with Irving Picard, the trustee for the victims of the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme. This is obviously a huge distraction not really for the players, but the focus of the Met's front office (below) on improving the New York Mets as far as competing is concerned.

The Met's front office has more to worry about then just money scandals with their organization. 

The Mets hope that Santana will be ready for Opening Day and able to provide something similar to the 2.85 ERA he produced over his first three seasons in New York. But it will be weeks, perhaps even months, before the Mets have a better idea. The rest of the rotation is up in the air, although barring injury, Dickey, Niese, Pelfrey and Gee are guaranteed spots. Should one of them not produce well, Miguel Batista, Jeremy Hefner, Garrett Olson and Chris Schwinden will be next in line for starts.

After losing Jose Reyes this offseason, how the lineup fares will depend largely upon what the Mets receive from Wright, Davis and Bay, all of whom have battled injuries or under-performed over the last two seasons. The Mets moved in Citi Field's outfield fences this winter, which should help the power numbers of the right-handed Wright and Bay.

1. Andres Torres, CF
2. Daniel Murphy, 2B
3. David Wright, 3B
4. Ike Davis, 1B
5. Jason Bay, LF
6. Lucas Duda, RF
7. Josh Thole, C
8. Ruben Tejada, SS

Final Thoughts: Ten years from now, they might have a good team.

Predicted Final Standings

1. Philadelphia Phillies (94-68) (Division Champions)
2. Atlanta Braves (87-75)
3. Washington Nationals (87-75)
4. Miami Marlins (84-78)
5. New York Mets (69-95)

And that does it! Next week I will preview the National League Central and will have some predictions that might surprise you all. Thank you for reading, I hope everyone enjoys reading this. Please leave your thoughts on here or on the Twitter feed (@WISportsBlog) if you agree, disagree, or want to make a point. I look forward to reading your comments.

Until next time, Beers, Brats, and Championships.

-Andrew Vrchota (@WSB_Andrew)

Listen to our podcast, "Wisconsin Sports Blog Roundtable", available on iTunes and! Subscribe for free today!

Follow us on Twitter for up to date news on Brewers, Packers, Badgers, Bucks and more. Live in game commentary, breaking news, previews, and post game discussion. @WISportsBlog @WSB_Andrew @WSB_Nick @WSB_Brandon @WSB_Mike

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Monta Ellis Trade Is Great For Milwaukee

Monta Ellis, the newest member of the Milwaukee Bucks

The Warriors and Bucks finalized the first major trade of 2012 last night, with Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh, and Kwame Brown heading to Milwaukee in exchange for Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson. After this season, Ellis is owed $11MM annually over the next two seasons, with an opt-out for the second year. Udoh is still in the midst of his rookie contract that will be guaranteed until he is eligible for a team option after the 2012/2013 season. Brown and his $6.7MM salary falls into the deal as an expiring contract. Bogut is still owed a total of $27MM through the end of the 2013/2014 season, and Jackson has one year remaining after this season that will pay him approximately $10MM. Each side of the deal totals about $21MM in 2011/2012 cap figures, so neither club is adding or reducing salary for this season. In the end, the Milwaukee Bucks ended up freeing up about $15MM in cap space for next year.

Stephen Jackson returns to the team in which he had a tumultuous exit in 2009, but with reports of unhappiness in Milwaukee due to an irreparable relationship with coach Scott Skiles, he finds himself out of that situation. The deal also hinges on the health of Andrew Bogut. If he can fully recover from a broken ankle suffered earlier in the season, Bogut becomes the mainstay at center for Golden State. Milwaukee receives a dynamic and explosive combo guard in Ellis, who had been averaging 21.9 PPG, 6 APG, and 1.5 SPG in 36.9 MPG. It will be interesting to see how Skiles handles the shots between Ellis and Brandon Jennings, as the Bucks traded two players that are not currently in the rotation for Ellis' 19 FGA (Jennings currently averages 17 FGA). Udoh, formerly picked by the Warriors with the 6th overall selection in 2010, is an intriguing prospect for the Bucks moving forward. Most importantly, it may help cover up the potential loss of forward Ersan Ilyasova to free agency, who recently said that he may leave the Bucks in the offseason for whoever offers the most money. It is questionable if Brown fits in Milwaukee's long term plans, as he is due to be out for the rest of the year while recovering from a chest injury and is slated to become a free agent this summer. 

Considering the Ellis deal put the Bucks in a better position to make a run at the postseason this year, I'd guess the trade they're discussing would bring in short-term help. Mbah a Moute's contract isn't especially burdensome, since its annual value declines each year, but it does run through 2015. It will be interesting to see whether Milwaukee would have to take back another long-term deal, or whether they'll look to add another expiring contract to Kwame Brown's. With Bogut gone and Mbah a Moute potentially on the move, it seems the team hopes to clear cap space to re-sign Ersan Ilyasova.

The Bucks have taken Brandon Jennings off the trade block, as we heard yesterday, telling Jennings' camp that he remains part of the team's future plans. Before Milwaukee made Jennings unavailable, the Hornets were interested in acquiring the young point guard to pair him with Eric Gordon. (All stats and contract info courtesy of

One thing to point out about this trade is that Jennings has anyways said that he wants another star around him, and Monta Ellis provides that star power. This might be a sign that the Bucks are serious about keeping Brandon Jennings in Milwaukee. They need more then just Ellis, however. The Bucks need to focus on replacing the center position they lost in Bogut. But, that's been a concern since Bogut went out a month and a half ago to his ankle injury. The NBA draft will consist of a lot of talented centers, so the Bucks should be fine in that aspect. I think the other big focus will be to keep Ersan Ilyasova in town and not lose him to go play in Turkey. Ersan, who was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week yesterday,  is averaging 12.2 PPG and 8.7 RPG for the Bucks this season, which is formulating to be his breakout year. As far as the bench is concerned, the Bucks have a deep, reliable bench that I think has helped them on numerous occasions so far this season. And, as far as their contracts look, in theory they should almost all be back next season.

So, what do the Bucks do now? Do they build the team around Jennings and Ellis? Do they forget about this potential playoff run and focus more on the draft lottery? One thing is for sure, they have a big weight lifted off their shoulders with the departure of the injury prone Bogut and the locker room moral killer Jackson. Bogut is a great player, but he is useless when he gets injured every year over long periods of time. There is equivalent talent out there, both free agent players and also available in the upcoming draft. And for Jackson, well, Jackson will always be Jackson no matter where he goes. If Hammond and Buck's front office are smart, which they showed signs of by making this trade, there just might be a glimpse of hope for Milwaukee and its future success.

Until next time, Beers, Brats, and Championships.

-Andrew Vrchota (@WSB_Andrew)

Listen to our podcast, "Wisconsin Sports Blog Roundtable", available on iTunes and! Subscribe for free today!

Follow us on Twitter for up to date news on Brewers, Packers, Badgers, Bucks and more. Live in game commentary, breaking news, previews, and post game discussion. @WISportsBlog @WSB_Andrew @WSB_Nick @WSB_Brandon @WSB_Mike

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

2012 MLB Preview: AL West

Sorry for the long gap in between previews, I've had a lot going on and I finally was able to acquire some time to sit down to do another installment of the MLB preview series. Same goes for the podcast, we will be getting that started up again soon. Thank you for your patience and thank you to those who have read the first two installments of this six part series. Without any more waiting, here is the preview on the American League West.

It was a busy and eventful offseason for the Los Angeles Angels. They made a lot of moves and signed lots of key players that they lacked last year which prevented them from making it to the post season. None were bigger then the free agent signings of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. December 8th was an exceptional day for the Angels this offseason. They signed Albert Pujols to a 10 year, 254 million dollar deal. Later that day, they acquired C.J. Wilson from free agency for a 5 year, 77.5 million dollar deal. Earlier in the day they acquired free agent relief pitcher LaTroy Hawkins and signed him to a 1 year deal.

Albert Pujols addresses Angels fans in his introductory press conference.

The Angels proved that there is a such thing when agents bounce around the term "mystery team" when talking about free agency, With those 3 major signings, it left the Angels in no position to acquire any other big names to big contracts, but they did however sign some very decent players to minor league deals. They signed infielder Jorge Cantu and relief pitcher Jason Isringhausen to minor league deals and will likely make the main roster. They also traded for catcher Chris Iannetta and lefty pitcher Brad Mills. Finally, they extended Howie Kendricks for 4 years and will be the Angels' second baseman until 2015.

The Angels made all the right improvements this offseason to potentially give the Rangers a run for their money as far as defending the AL West Championship is concerned. The depth the Angels have offensively is spectacular. They have a great, young, effective starting rotation in Wilson, Weaver, Haren, and Santana. There bullpen looks to be the only part on the team in question. Hawkins and Walden are good, but they will need way more then that for late inning help. Lets look at their opening day line-up:

1. Erick Aybar, SS
2. Howie Kendrick, 2B
3. Albert Pujols, 1B
4. Torii Hunter, RF
5. Mark Trumbo, DH
6. Vernon Wells, LF
7. Alberto Callaspo, 3B
8. Chris Iannetta, C
9. Peter Bourjos, CF

Final Thoughts: To stay above the Rangers this year, the Angels pitching staff has to do much better through the whole season and fall off at the end like in 2011. I'm not sure with their weak bullpen that they can stay afloat over the Rangers. Also, Albert Pujols cannot have a slow start as he did with the Cardinals last season. His transition will be the big deciding factor in the success of the Angels.

The Texas Rangers have a lot to prove in 2012. They were mere outs away from capturing their first World Series championship in franchise history. However, they fell short of that task. The Rangers were one of the rumored teams to be contenders for Prince Fielder in the offseason. That was true up until they won a 51 million dollar bid on Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish. They would later sign Darvish to a 6 year, 60 million dollar contract. This turned out to be a great acquisition for Texas, as they lost C.J. Wilson to free agency to divisional rival L.A. Angels. The Rangers are hoping that Yu Darvish lives past the previous attempts of successful Japanese stars coming to the MLB.

Ron Washington (left) and Jon Daniels (right) welcome Yu Darvish (center) to Texas with his jersey.

Darvish obviously took a lot if not all of the money the Rangers had to work with this offseason. The Rangers made some improvements in their bullpen, with the signings of closer Joe Nathan, relief pitcher Sean Green, and relief pitcher Mitch Stetter. Offensively, the signed first baseman Brad Hawpe and outfielder Conor Jackson. The biggest signing of that group is clearly Joe Nathan, who will be replacing Neftali Feliz as the teams full time closer. Feliz is heading to the starting rotation to join Harrison, Darvish, Lewis, and Holland. The bullpen of Texas is still very deep, though. Here's a look at the Rangers' opening day line-up:

1. Ian Kinsler, 2B
2. Elvis Andrus, SS
3. Josh Hamilton, CF
4. Michael Young, DH
5. Adrian Beltre, 3B
6. Nelson Cruz, RF
7. Mike Napoli, C
8. David Murphy, LF
9. Mitch Moreland, 1B

Final Thoughts: Notice anything about that team? Minus Mitch Moreland, it's the same opening day roster as they had last year against the Red Sox. Offensively, this team is an absolute dream team power house. The battle between the Angels and Rangers for the AL West crown will be an absolute dog fight, and I can't wait to sit back and watch.

The Seattle Mariners were one of the quiet teams this offseason. Minus a trade here and a signing there, the Mariners made no big offseason transactions. The biggest story to come out of Mariners camp this offseason was the talk of where Ichiro would fall in the batting order. Here is a excerpt from ESPN on Ichiro:
"Manager Eric Wedge made the announcement that Ichiro will bat 3rd in the batting order this season. Ichiro said he has a new, wider batting stance that he worked on all winter, but that he won't change his approach at the plate, except when runners are on base. Even with a lineup that should show signs of improvement this season, the Mariners will likely have to manufacture a number of runs and it's likely that Suzuki will continue to receive a steady green light on the basepaths. Wedge said that Chone Figgins will take over the lead-off spot." Courtesy of  
Ichiro will bat 3rd in lineup for Mariners in 2012.
The Mariners sent pitcher Michael Pineda to the Yankees in exchange for prospect catcher Jesus Montero. Montero will little swap starts with Miguel Olivo at catcher as well as serve some time as the DH as he possesses a great bat. The Mariners inked the veteran arm of Kevin Millwood to a minor league deal, as well as signing Oliver Perez. And lets not forget of the tragic death of left fielder Greg Halman that the Mariners family had to endure this past November as well. They also lost a few players to free agency. Adam Kennedy went to the Dodgers and Wily Mo Pena went to play in Japan. With all of these losses, lets look at their opening day roster:

1. Chone Figgins, 3B
2. Dustin Ackley, 2B
3. Ichiro, RF
4. Jesus Montero, DH
5. Justin Smoak, 1B
6. Miguel Olivo, C
7. Mike Carp, LF
8. Brendon Ryan, SS
9. Mike Saunders, CF

Final Thoughts: I don't think anyone expects the Mariners to compete at all this year in this division. I think it is in their best interest to work with their minor league players and prospects as much as possible to start the rebuilding process in Seattle. Ichiro is nearing the end of his career, which is sad because just 10 years ago he was reigning Rookie of the Year and American League MVP.

There is a lot to say about the Oakland Athletics. There's the bad, there's the good. There's the "What the ^&*$% are you people thinking?" All in all, this has been a business as usual yet effective and improving  offseason for the Athletics. They did trade away all of their good starting pitching yet again, resuming their role as MLB's farm system. They sent Trevor Cahill to the Diamondbacks in exchange for Collin Cowgill and two other players. They traded Andrew Bailey to the Red Sox for Josh Reddick in a five player deal. And, finally, they sent Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals for Brad Peacock and two others in a six player deal. They also lost Josh Willingham to the Twins and David DeJesus to the Cubs due to free agency.

Yoenis takes batting practice for the first time with A's.
As far as acquisition go, none was more surprising and important then the A's landing Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes (above). They inked him to a 4 year deal worth about 36 million dollars and he will be one of the leaders and stars of this team. The A's also re-signed outfielder Coco Crisp to a 2 year deal. In addition to Crisp, they also signed pitcher Bartolo Colon and outfielder Jonny Gomes to 1 year deals. They landed outfielder Seth Smith in a trade with the Rockies. And, with a head scratching move, the A's signed outfielder Manny Ramirez to a minor league deal. Manny has to serve a 50 game suspension before he can return to the field. Finally, third baseman Scott Sizemore is out for the season with a torn ACL. Here's what the A's will throw together for opening day:

1. Jemile Weeks, 2B
2. Coco Crisp, LF
3. Yoenis Cespedes, CF
4. Seth Smith, DH
5. Josh Reddick, RF
6. Kurt Suzuki, C
7. Daric Barton/Brandon Allen, 1B
8. Josh Donaldson/Eric Sogard, 3B
9. Cliff Pennington, SS

Final Thoughts: I have no idea what Oakland has planned for third base. They just lost Scott a few weeks back so I'm sure they are still figuring it out. Also, first base is up in the air due to health issues but Brandon Allen is having a monster spring so far so if he continues to put up numbers he will start opening day. Offensively, this team looks okay on paper. Starting pitching, however, will haunt this team from April to August. Don't look for a Moneyball season out of this A's team.

Predicted Final Standings

1. Texas Rangers (101-61) (Divisional Champs)
2. Los Angeles Angels (97-65) (Wild Card)
3. Seattle Mariners (70-92)
4. Oakland Athletics (66-96)

And with that, we are halfway done. Which means Opening day is that much closer. As a matter a fact, a month from today, March 6th. Next week, I will be jumping over to the National League and will be looking over the NL East division in the same structure as this blog. I hope everyone enjoys reading this. Please leave your thoughts on here or on the Twitter feed (@WISportsBlog) if you agree, disagree, or want to make a point. I look forward to reading your comments.

Until next time, Beers, Brats, and Championships.

-Andrew Vrchota (@WSB_Andrew)

Listen to our podcast, "Wisconsin Sports Blog Roundtable", available on iTunes and! Subscribe for free today!

Follow us on Twitter for up to date news on Brewers, Packers, Badgers, Bucks and more. Live in game commentary, breaking news, previews, and post game discussion. @WISportsBlog @WSB_Andrew @WSB_Nick @WSB_Brandon @WSB_Mike