Q: A friend of mine argues that multiple contenders in a division reduces wins, as they beat each other head-to-head. His argument concludes there will be no 90-win teams in the NL this year, and the second wildcard can get in with as few as 84 wins. Plausible?
— Mike Henn, Coronado, Calif.
A: There is no dominant NL team coming out of spring training; your friend is right about that. In fact, I wouldn't put any NL team in the MLB top five, who in my opinion, are the Angels, Yankees, Rangers, Tigers and Rays.
However, that doesn't mean a 90-plus-win team won't emerge in the NL. In fact, history shows one always does. Going back to 1996, the first full season of the three-division/wild card format (1994 and 1995 were strike-shortened), there hasn't been a season without at least one 90-game winner in either league.
Two close calls: In 2007, only the Diamondbacks won 90 in the NL, but the Phillies, Rockies and Padres were at 89, while the Cubs won the Central with 84 wins. And in 2006, the Mets led with 97 wins, the Padres and Dodgers tied for second-most with 88, and the Cardinals won the Central with only 83 wins (and went onto win the World Series).
The Phillies won 102 last season, so dipping below 90 will be quite a comedown. But injuries to Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, age throughout the Phils' roster, and expected improvements by the Marlins and Nationals should dramatically tighten up the NL East race.
The Diamondbacks won 94 games last season, but history says they're due to fall back after their dramatic 29-game improvement. That said, I like the moves Kevin Towers made — Trevor Cahill, Jason Kubel, Takashi Saito, Craig Breslow — and there are excellent starting pitching prospects about to emerge, so they could win 90 again.
The Giants also can bump up four more wins just by having Buster Posey back, staying healthy, getting a breakout from Brandon Belt, and solid contributions from new outfielders Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan.
The NL Central could be a three-team race, with the Cardinals, Reds and Brewers all looking like 85-90-win teams at this point. But the team I think has the most potential for a breakthrough is the Miami Marlins.
Everything will have to go right, but 90-plus wins are possible when you consider 1) the additions of Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buehrle; 2) Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez possibly returning to All-Star form after injury-interrupted 2011 seasons, 3) the potential breakout of Giancarlo Stanton, and to a lesser degree Logan Morrison; and 4) what could be a huge lift emotionally with the move from always-empty Sun Life Stadium to an energized, new ballpark.
As for the second NL wild card, 84 wins seems a bit low to me. In fact, in the 16 seasons of the three division-wildcard format, only once (1997 Angels) would 84 wins have been enough to qualify as the second wildcard. There also were two occasions (2006 Phillies, 1996 Mariners and White Sox), when 85 wins would have been enough; and the average has been about 89 wins.
At the other extreme, the 1999 Reds would have been the second wild card with 96 wins, and the 2005 Indians, 2003 Mariners and 2002 Red Sox would have been the second wild card with 93 wins apiece.
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Q: I see veterans like Roy Oswalt, Johnny Damon and Vladimir Guerrero who still can play, some of whom are close to Hall of Fame caliber, without jobs. Why aren't they getting offers?
— Dennis, Ocean Beach, Calif.
A: All three aren't the players they used to be; it happens to everybody. That said, they could be productive as part-time players, and that still could happen in all three cases.
Damon's agent said this week that he expects Damon to sign before May 1, and I won't be surprised if that's the case. You would think that the Indians would have interest — assuming the dollars are right — considering they just tried to trade for Bobby Abreu, who has similar skills to Damon.
The problem for Damon, and certainly Guerrero, is that they're both best-suited to be DH's at this point. That means only 14 jobs at most, and a handful of teams have established DHs — Michael Young, Justin Morneau, David Ortiz, Kendrys Morales, Travis Hafner, Jesus Montero.
Other teams prefer to either rotate veteran regular players through the DH spot to give them partial rest (the Yankees and Tigers are prime examples), or in non-contending situations, give the at-bats to younger players. That said, you'd think the A's would have wanted Guerrero or even Damon instead of Manny Ramirez, who can't play until June 1.
Oswalt preferred to sign with either St. Louis or Texas, mostly for geographical reasons (he lives in Mississippi). I'm sure he'll turn up somewhere a bit later this season, when a need develops with one of the top contenders.
Q: I saw that Barry Zito is ditching his new delivery. is there any hope of him ever being a good pitcher again?
— Jordan Rickers, Portland, Ore.
A: It's been a terrible spring for Zito, who has pitched through an injured right ankle (his landing ankle). Even taking that and the favorable hitting conditions in Arizona into account, it's hard to ignore Zito's terrible spring results: 7.91 ERA, .405 opponents' batting average and 2.28 WHIP (32 hits and 12 walks in 19.1 innings).
Unfortunately for the Giants, they don't have any better options at this point, as No. 4 starter Ryan Vogelsong has been behind schedule all spring due to injury, and will start the season on the disabled list.
The Giants take a lot of heat for the Zito contract (seven years, $126 million) and rightfully so. Signs of decline already were evident across the board when they signed him back in 2007, and they should have known better than give him such a long-term deal. ERA, strikeouts/nine innings, walks/nine innings, WHIP — everything was worse in 2004-2006 for Zito than it was in 2001-03. And it's only gotten worse in four seasons with the Giants.
But in Zito's defense, he has been durable as a No. 4-5 starter — a useful commodity, but obviously so far below expectation at that salary level. And at 34, that's about all he can be at this point, with his velocity down too far to offer enough differentiation between that pitch and his change-up.
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