A's, Royals might surprise; Brewers could disappoint

Updated: March 19, 2009

Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire

Jason Giambi's bat could make a huge difference to Oakland's run-starved offense.

WHO WILL SURPRISE? WHO WILL DISAPPOINT?

I think the Oakland A's will be a fascinating team to keep an eye on this season. They have made some upgrades and should be way better than they were last season. They could still turn out to be too old and too injured to get what they want, but they are significantly better offensively with Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera and Nomar Garciaparra. Just as important to their chance is getting back a healthy Mark Ellis and Eric Chavez, even if Chavez isn't quite as healthy as they would like.

Nonetheless, they have a real chance to score 100-150 runs more than they did a year ago, when they had a pathetic offensive season. If they do score that many more runs -- given that the Angels have taken a step backward with the loss of Mark Teixeira and Francisco Rodriguez -- the A's could be a surprise contender in the American League West.

It will all come down to their young pitching. They have three of the best young pitchers in the game in Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill and Vin Mazzaro. It's unlikely that all three of those guys will make the Opening Day roster, but there's a chance that one or maybe two of them will be there, depending on how the rest of the spring goes. It's always tricky to count on young pitching to turn you into a dark-horse team, but these guys are pretty good. It will be a really interesting team to watch. If the A's aren't good enough, they'll have to trade Holliday at the end of July. If they are good enough, I could see them holding on to him the whole season and trying to win with him the way they did years ago with Giambi and Miguel Tejada.

Another team people are talking about is the Royals. Makes sense to me. Keep in mind how well they played at the end of last season. They went out and got Mike Jacobs and Coco Crisp to fill a couple of spots in their lineup. They have addressed some of their issues. Plus, after trading a couple of relievers, they've added relief help with Juan Cruz and Kyle Farnsworth. I don't think there are any bad teams in the American League Central. For the life of me, I have no idea how to pick that division.

The Royals could surprise because they've upgraded their offense a little and the pitching has a chance to be pretty good. Now, I don't think they will win the AL Central, but almost anything is possible in that division. This might be the best team they've had in Kansas City in 15 years. The Royals have a chance to get to the mid-80s in wins and if you do that in that division, you have a shot.

One team I'm a little worried about in the National League is the Brewers. I understand they are not being picked to win anything this year, and I know they have a very good offensive club. In my opinion, though, they've just lost too much pitching to return to the postseason. Still, they will be awfully fun to watch, and having Yovani Gallardo back for the whole season is going to help them. I know they point to the fact that they had CC Sabathia for only the final two months of last season but they were really good before that. Yet, when you lose him and Ben Sheets, I'm not sure you can replace those guys easily. Milwaukee was a great place to be a baseball fan at the end of last season, and lots of people turned out to see it. I'm just afraid for their sake that, without that pitching, it's not going to be as much fun this year.

Past Baseball Tonight Clubhouses: March 17 | March 16 | March 15 | March 12 | March 11

BEST OF THE BLOGS

Each day, ESPN.com's contributors offer a wide array of thoughts and analysis in their blogs. Buster Olney checks in on the latest A-Rod episode:

Alex Rodriguez has nine years and about $275 million remaining on his contract, and he'll probably outlast everybody currently in the organization not named Steinbrenner. He'll be with the Yankees after Derek Jeter retires, after CC Sabathia's contract expires, after manager Joe Girardi is fired. He isn't going anywhere.

So in that respect, he's increasingly viewed as the eccentric uncle in the Yankees' family. He's part of the clan, and that isn't going to change. So the Yankees live with his personality quirks, which don't surprise any of them anymore.

The rest of the world might ask: Why has A-Rod befriended Madonna? Inside the Yankees' family, the response is That's Alex.

The rest of the world might ask: Why would A-Rod host a news conference about his past steroid use and create more questions than he answers? Inside the Yankees' family, the response is That's Alex.

And today, the rest of the world might ask: Why would A-Rod pose for a picture in which he appears to be kissing himself in a mirror? Inside the Yankees' family, the response is That's Alex.

For the rest of this entry from Buster Olney's blog, click here.


Rob Neyer isn't sold on the idea of somebody signing Pedro Martinez:

Hey, the economy's rough on everybody. Even future Hall of Famers:

    Free agency isn't what it used to be. Pedro Martinez, a three-time Cy Young winner with 214 career victories, is still without a contract, but that could change soon.

    According to MLB.com, the most realistic suitors for Pedro at this point seem to be the Dodgers and the Mets, though the Mets said Pedro would not be returning to Queens.

    Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti didn't throw the entire idea out the window the way the Mets did, and admitted L.A. has some interest in the right-hander.

    Manny Ramirez, a former teammate of Pedro's in Boston, said he called Martinez on Sunday after hearing rumors that the Dodgers were a possible destination.

    "He said he has two options," Manny told MLB.com. "I don't know what he's going to do. He has to do what's best for him."

    Recent reports had Pedro signing with the Houston Astros, but Astros general manager Ed Wade dispelled those rumors.

    "We have had zero conversations with Pedro," Wade told MLB.com.

    Pedro's search for a John Smoltz-type contract is the reason he is still on the market. Teams are not willing to give the oft-injured starter $5 million of guaranteed money.

A few points here …

One, there's a really, really good reason nobody's leaping at the chance to offer Pedro a Smoltz-type contract: Smoltz won 14 games in 2007; Pedro won 17 games in 2006, 2007 and 2008 combined.

For the rest of this entry from Rob Neyer's blog, click here.


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SIMON SAYS

Simon Says ESPN researcher Mark Simon digs deep, looking for the night's best baseball numbers.

Tonight he looks at Hiroki Kuroda, the Dodgers' Opening Day starter:

Hiroki Kuroda (2008)
First 20 starts Last 11 starts
W-L 5-8 4-2
ERA 4.40 2.57
BB Per 9 innings 2.4 1.5
BA against .264 .233
OBP against .313 .273

MANNY BEING MANNY …

WEDNESDAY'S BEST AND WORST

BEST
Greg Maddux• The Cubs announced they will retire the No. 31 in honor of Ferguson Jenkins and Greg Maddux. Jenkins, a Hall of Famer, and Maddux, undoubtedly a future Hall of Famer, will join Billy Williams (No. 26), Ernie Banks (14), Ron Santo (10) and Ryne Sandberg (23) in having their number retired by the team.
WORST
Kevin Youkilis• The growing list of those sidelined by injuries at the World Baseball Classic got another name Wednesday. Kevin Youkilis left Team USA with a sore left ankle. Chipper Jones, Dustin Pedroia, Matt Lindstrom and Ryan Braun already have been plagued by injury at the event.

NUMBERS TO KNOW

Chien-Ming Wang started for the Yankees on Wednesday, allowing one run and three hits over five innings in New York's 4-1 win over Houston.

This is a reassuring sight for Yankees fans, as Wang has been one of the winningest pitchers in baseball over the past three seasons, with 46 wins. Wang surely would have more wins had he not been forced to miss the final 3½ months of last season with a foot injury suffered while running the bases in an interleague contest. His .754 win percentage over the past three seasons is tops in the majors among pitchers with 40 decisions.

Wins and losses, however, are not the best way to judge a pitcher. What makes Wang so effective that he continues to put himself in a position to earn these wins time and again? It's his superior ability to generate ground balls, limit opponents' power and induce double plays:

Chien-Ming Wang
2006-08 Wang MLB rank
GB/FLY 1.5 T-7th
SLG .366 T-7th
GDP 77 3

If Wang continues to induce ground balls with his sinker and limit opponents' power (and avoids running the bases), he should have no problem racking up wins for the Yankees this season.

-- ESPN Stats and Information

ALL IN THE DETAILS FOR A-ROD

FANTASY BASEBALL

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Insider Which numbers actually mean something in spring? Which numbers should we ignore? BP Daily examines. BP Daily

For more, check out ESPN Insider.