Monday, April 21, 2008

Austin Popsicles Season Preview

If Vancouver is allowed to go on and on, then so can I...

After a second season remarkably like the first--horrendous first half followed by inspiring second half leading to 82- and 81-win seasons respectively--the Popsicles appear ready to make the leap into serious playoff contention. I'm always willing to put players into the majors about a year before they're ready. This season is no exception. But some of our fruit has begun to ripen.

Our major problem last year, other than the usual inconsistent bullpen, was the lack of a true leadoff hitter, which left few runners on base for our big power hitters and forced us to play MVP candidate Darren Rossy in the top spot for most of the season. That has changed with the arrival of our new left-fielder Andy Newman, fresh off a AAA campaign where he posted a .443 OBP and stole 57 bases.

We're well-represented in the number two hole as well, which was a revolving door of platoon players last season. A dangerous experiment has converted last season's starting catcher, nightly-news legend David Brinkley, into a first baseman. We assume that his impressive contact rating and excellent splits will offset his teeball-level range. This is David's second full ML season, and he's coming off a solid rookie season where he hit .290 with 12 homers and 61 RBI.

Then the big guns fire, first with Darren Rossy, a serious MVP candidate last year for a third-place team while hitting 47 HRs with 113 RBI, batting .313 and OPSing 1.004--mostly from the leadoff spot. Batting fourth is the amazing Bucky Hernandez, one of CAPB's elite players, who hit 52 HRs for the second season in a row, drove in more than 130 runs for the second season in a row, stole more than 20 bases for the second season in a row, and made one error in 900-plus innings in CF.

Darren and Bucky have good protection this season, thanks to our 3B William Suzuki, acquired early last season from Pittsburgh. Between his two squads, William hit .286 with 36 HRs and 119 RBI. Hitting sixth is our outstanding young shortstop Pedro Guzman, who socked more than 20 HRs for a second straight season and hit a solid .279. Pedro's ratings continue to rise. Hitting seventh is another rising young star, right-fielder Quinn Lorraine, who won his way onto the big-league squad with a stellar spring. Last year at AAA, Quinn hit .316 with a .409 OBP, 12 HRs, and 83 RBI. He's certainly ready to contribute to the big club. Finally, hitting eighth, we have yet another rookie, the physically unattractive yet talented Babe Flair. He has the makeup of a two-bit hood, but the pitch-call rating of a God as well as quite a bit of power. His career minor-league OPS of .943 and flat-out excellent defense bode well for us.

Our bench is led by utility infielder and 3B heir apparent Tomas Goya, another budding star barely of drinking age. Tomas hit .282 with 10 HR and 14 SB in limited action last year, but we're grooming him for big things. Pinch-hitter and LF/1B fill-in Les McNeil, who hopes to return to his season one .292 form after last year's forgettable numbers, and Albert Lopez, unforgivably benched after a season where he won the Gold Glove and stole 21 bases, will both play key roles. Rounding out our position players are Napoleon Larson, providing veteran leadership while playing out his lousy contract, and the insanely overpaid Mo Leach, who got a four-year contract by accident one night when I was drunk. Still, if your 25th man has a career OPS of .782 and can play excellent outfield defense, you're probably in for a good season.

Our pitching staff also looks very good. Opening day starter Jesus Rijo is a high-end workhouse with a career OAV of .240 and a career WHIP of 1.16. He's given me 230-plus innings two years running, and has never faltered. Future Cy Young winner Matthew Harris, another Popsicle rushed into big-league service far too early, is the second starter, coming off a season where he allowed a .230 OAV and a .294 OBP, while proving increasingly unhittable as his ratings soared toward the stratosphere. He starts off this season stronger than ever, with frighteningly limitless potential. Yes, his 2 rating on the GB/FB is a little alarming, but if you strike out 200 batters in 198 innings, you can give up a dinger now and then.

Claude Wilson, our third starter, is a veritable graybeard on our team at 24. He comes off a fine season where he allowed a .242 OAV and a 1.26 WHIP. Fourth is Cristobal Beltran, who had a somewhat disappointing second season, with an ERA near five after a good first season, but he eats innings and has excellent control. Hector Graham, who had a rough rookie season but improved remarkably in the offseason, is our fifth starter.

Our bullpen is headed by hotshot closer Billy Gutierrez, who was nearly unhittable last year, saving 36 games out of 37 opportunities, with an OAV of .145, an OBP of .225, a WHIP of .081, and an ERA of 0.89, while giving up one home run. Nothing can compare with that, but setup men Doc Everett, Vern Garcia, Patrick Webster, and the veteran Joe Maas should be able to get him the ball with regularity.

In a departure from the norm, the Popsicles signed two older free-agent relievers to round out the pen. Brutus Barkley, solid for two years with the former Oakland franchise, now gets a two-year deal in the Popsicles green or whatever the hell that color is. Heath Woods, after two years with LAA, is asked to provide some long relief before he retires to his upstate New York McMansion.

In short (or long), I expect big things from the Popsicles this season. Our division doesn't lack quality squads, but it has balance, and we can win. With that one-two punch at the top of the rotation, a really good lineup, and a great closer, postseason success, while never a certainty, is definitely possible. Assuming we don't start 5-13 for a third straight year, we could be one of the NL's best teams.

No comments: