Daily Jolt: Health Will Decide Most Races
We've only just begun to evaluate each of the 30 major league teams here at MLB FanHouse and we're still over a month away from putting our official predictions for the 2009 season on record, but that's looking like quite the daunting task. Parity is really, truly here, no matter what proponents of a salary cap would have you believe.
If you need proof, go ahead and try to pick the six division winners with any level of confidence. From where I sit, there is only one team approaching lock status -- the Cubs. The Rays broke up the hegemony in the AL East last year, the 100-win Angels took a significant step back in the offseason, the Braves and Marlins could cause trouble in the NL East and the other divisions are wide open.
Revenue sharing, pre-arbitration contract extensions and the proliferation of all different types of advanced analysis across the baseball landscape, along with a host of other factors, have leveled the playing field like never before. Put another way, teams are as smart now as they have ever been and they've advanced the learning curve at an exponential rate over the last decade.
The more they know about the game, the less we know about who will actually come out on top over the course of the season.
The sheer volume of teams that stay in contention deep into the season and the small talent gaps between those teams means that pennant races can turn on a dime, or in the case of baseball, a key injury or two. That's a fact we as fans often miss during the grind of the regular season. After all, there are plenty of other things to distract us, you know, like actual games.
It's in clear focus now. Spring exhibition games mean next to nothing. The main goal of each club is to leave Arizona or Florida with arm strength built up, swing kinks worked out and, above all, complete rosters intact. When something threatens the latter, everyone takes notice.
Until Sunday, the news out of Mets camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla. was getting progressively worse. Ace Johan Santana, entering the second season of a six-year megadeal, had his first spring start pushed back, then pushed back again, until finally an MRI on his ailing elbow was scheduled back in New York. As it turns out, Santana won't need that MRI after a positive bullpen session, but the week-long drama still left an impression.
The Mets are coming off of a pair of humiliating September collapses. They have some of the game's brightest stars -- names like Reyes, Wright and Beltran to go along with Santana -- and one of its highest payrolls, and after bolstering the bullpen by adding All-Stars Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz, they are expected to win the NL East, even with the reigning world champions in their way. Santana is the keystone of those hopes. Pull him out of New York's rotation for any significant period of time and suddenly the arch crumbles. That wouldn't be the best way to spend the first year in Citi Field, but the Mets are hardly alone, even in their own division.
At least one mechanical expert is on record as saying Phillies ace Cole Hamels is at risk for a serious injury. That would be equally devastating to Philadelphia. Elsewhere, the Tigers, undone by a rotation that resembled Swiss cheese in 2008, are dealing with all new aches in Jeremy Bonderman's right arm and the continued inconsistencies of Dontrelle Willis.
And that's just a small sampling of the health concerns facing every team. Even in the AL East, where the top three teams have stockpiled seven or eight viable starting pitchers apiece, injuries could decide things. The Yankees wound up in third place last year in large part because of season-ending injuries to Chien-Ming Wang and Jorge Posada. The Red Sox fell a pair of games short of the division title because David Ortiz, Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell and Daisuke Matsuzaka missed long stretches.
Staying healthy is part good fortune and part prudent planning, with plenty of gray area in between, but there is no arguing with its importance, particularly when it comes to starting pitching. The six division winners in 2008 featured 22 pitchers who took 30 or more turns in the rotation. The teams who finished in second had only 11.
Putting together a deep and talented roster is still the most important job every front office team has, but keeping everyone on the field -- a factor that can often be influenced by a heavy dose of luck -- is as crucial as ever. No surprise there.