This is the last in a series previewing the teams the Cubs play this season. This year's interleague opponents include, as always, the White Sox (home and away), as well as the AL West clubs. The Cubs will host the Angels and Athletics (they still have not visited the Oakland Mausoleum), and take road trips to play the Rangers and Mariners. It will be the Cubs' second trip to Seattle (the first was in 2002) and Texas (they went to Arlington in 2007).
Once again, the team previews after the jump are in no particular order.
Chicago White Sox -- 2009: 3rd place AL Central, 79-83
The Cubs and White Sox have already met four times in spring training, so there's a familiarity -- even though the Sox have made significant changes from their team of last year. Gone are Jermaine Dye, Scott Podsednik, Chris Getz and DH Jim Thome (who was traded to the Dodgers last year and not brought back, even though he wanted to return). The Sox plan to go with a "DH by committee", according to Ozzie Guillen. Plans for "(baseball idea) by committee" rarely work and in my opinion, it seems likely that by midseason Andruw Jones, who has reported to camp in better shape than he's been in for years, will be the Sox primary DH. At the very least, they'll probably wind up platooning Jones and Mark Kotsay in the role.
The White Sox' strength this year will be starting pitching. Jake Peavy appears healthy and ready to take on the #1 role they envision for him. I still wonder whether his numbers, great in Petco, will stack up the same way in a league with better hitting, and in a home park that's known as a launching pad. Mark Buehrle, John Danks and Gavin Floyd make up a very strong first four. The fifth spot appears to still be up for grabs; Freddy Garcia, Daniel Hudson and Carlos Torres (who threw seven shutout innings vs. the Cubs last September 3) are candidates.
The rest of the Sox team appears to be an attempt to reconstitute the 2002 All-Star team, with the signings of Jones, Juan Pierre and Omar Vizquel (although Pierre finished 10th in MVP voting in 2003, he's never been on an All-Star team). I'm not quite sure how this aging of the roster is going to produce a winner, but Kenny Williams has never really cared what anyone else thinks. He makes bold moves. Sometimes they work -- he got a World Series title out of some of them -- and sometimes they don't.
Texas Rangers -- 2009: 2nd place AL West, 87-75
The Rangers surprised a lot of people in 2009 with their second-place finish (and contention for a wild card). A lot of credit was given to new pitching coach Mike Maddux; Nolan Ryan, now team president, put an emphasis on pitching and Maddux's pitching staff beat the league average in ERA, although they finished 10th in runs allowed. Scott Feldman, after having been a mediocre reliever/spot starter for several seasons, broke through with a 17-8 year in which he finished 16th in the AL with a solid 1.28 WHIP. He'll lead a staff that has added former Cub Rich Harden. Harden hasn't looked good yet in spring training, though. The Rangers' bullpen was also better than expected last year; a name to watch is Neftali Feliz, who could wind up as a relief help, or even in the rotation.
Texas' offense has always been their strength, ever since the hitter-friendly Whatever They're Calling That Ballpark At Arlington opened in 1994. The Rangers scored 784 runs with Josh Hamilton missing much of the year due to injury. Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz both hit 30+ home runs to pick up the slack. Marlon Byrd's departure opens CF for Julio Borbon, a minor league speedster. Vladimir Guerrero will attempt to resurrect his career as the DH.
The Rangers will be the Cubs' first interleague opponent, on the weekend of May 21-22-23; this will include a rare Fox-TV Saturday night date at 6:10 pm CDT on May 22.
Los Angeles Angels -- 2009: 1st place AL West, 97-65
This year will be a real test of the managerial skills of Mike Scioscia, generally recognized as one of the best in the game. In his 10 years as Angels manager, Scioscia has guided them to six playoff berths and a World Series. The last five postseason appearances have all ended in losses, though, and after six straight years of 89+ wins, the Angels said goodbye to several mainstays via free agency: the above-mentioned Vlad, plus Chone Figgins (who will face the Angels many times in his new role as a Seattle Mariner) and rotation star John Lackey.
Longtime top Angels prospect Brandon Wood, who burst on the scene with a .321/.381/.667, 43 HR, 116 RBI season between two minor league levels in 2005, will finally get a shot at the third base job -- the job is his to lose. He's almost exactly the same age as Felix Pie (one month younger), so you can see how some prospects can rise or fall. The rap on Wood is that he strikes out too much. If he can conquer that, the Angels could have a top power hitter.
They lured Hideki Matsui away from the Yankees to replace Vlad at DH. With no pressure to play the outfield at all, Matsui, who turns 36 in June, should provide consistent power and OBA (lifetime: .370).
Replacing Lackey may not be as easy. The Angels signed Joel Pineiro as a free agent. He takes Lackey's spot in the rotation -- Jered Weaver becomes LAA's #1 -- but will he replace Lackey's production? Pineiro had a fine comeback year for the Cardinals last year; was that a product of Dave Duncan, or has he really gotten back to his earlier productive self, when he was a Mariner? Pineiro is only 31, so he may still have some good years left.
The Angels make their first-ever visit to Wrigley Field on June 18, 19 and 20.
Oakland Athletics -- 2009: 4th place AL West, 75-87
GM Billy Beane rolls the dice often. Last year he acquired Matt Holliday, hoping Holliday would provide some of the "bash" that the A's have been famous for over the last couple of decades. Instead, Holliday's numbers in Oakland were mediocre (some say adjustments he made at the suggestion of new Cardinals batting coach Mark McGwire were responsible for that), and Beane traded him to St. Louis for the half of the Cardinals farm system that didn't go to Cleveland for Mark DeRosa.
None of those players will help the A's this year, so Beane's productive (well, at least it used to be) farm system will have to help out. Also, Billy acquired veterans Kevin Kouzmanoff and Coco Crisp to fill vacancies at third base and center field, respectively. Kouzmanoff is the type of player who, if he ever could play a full season in a hitter's park, might put up a .300/30/100 season. Unfortunately for him, he's played most of his career in the hitter's graveyard known as Petco, and the Oakland Mausoleum isn't likely to help him. I suppose a lot of Cubs fans will be watching the A's to see how ex-Cub Jake Fox does this year, too.
The A's also signed Ben Sheets, in one of the most head-scratching moves of the offseason. Oakland finished last in the AL West in 2009 and isn't likely to contend this year. Sheets got pounded early in spring training, but had a good outing vs. the Cubs last weekend. The pundit consensus is that Beane is probably hoping that Sheets has a good first half so he can ship him off for more prospects.
I was hoping the Cubs would go to Oakland this year -- they have not yet played there -- but the series will be at Wrigley, June 15-16-17. The A's last played at Wrigley in 2004, the only time the teams have met in the regular season. The Cubs won two of three.
Seattle Mariners -- 2009: 3rd place AL West, 85-77
The Mariners are a puzzle. In 2008 I thought they'd win the AL West. They lost 101 games, so I picked them to do that again in 2009. Instead, they floated around the edges of contention last year and wound up with an apparently solid 85-77 record.
That might have been a mirage. The Mariners scored 640 runs -- dead last in the AL, and that total would have been pretty bad in the lower-offense NL, too (15th). They allowed 692 runs, making a Pythagorean projection for a W-L record of 75-87.
If you've studied how Pythagorean projections forecast future performance, you know that teams that outperform their projection by a significant margin tend to regress in the following season. You need look no further than the 2007-08 Diamondbacks for an example. Arizona won 90 games and the NL West title in 2007, despite being outscored by 20 runs (712-732). Their projection that year was for a 79-83 record, and sure enough, in 2008 they almost matched that, going 82-80.
So if that pattern holds, the Mariners should be forecast to regress by as many as ten wins. Do I believe that? Yes, and with this Seattle team, almost anything can happen. They do happen to have one of the best pitchers in baseball with King Felix Hernandez, who finished second in AL Cy Young voting last year, won 19 games with a 2.49 ERA, and he won't be 25 until next month. The Mariners added former Indian and Phillie star Cliff Lee, only to have Lee get into a beanball war in spring training that may cost him a start during the regular season. Still, those two are a solid top of the rotation. The rest of Seattle's rotation: not so much.
They'll have to try to win with that and a pretty decent bullpen. Ichiro is, well, Ichiro, still going strong at 36; Chone Figgins will help offensively, but he's really their only big threat. 40-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. struggled last year, hitting .214/.324/.411. He's there to be a franchise icon and sell some tickets. He is fifth on the all-time HR list with 630, 30 short of Willie Mays. Griffey hit 19 homers last year; I suppose, if he's healthy and motivated, he could muscle up enough to have one last 30-HR salvo. If you don't believe older players can do this -- have one final great season at an older age -- check out Ted Williams, who hit 38 HR and .388 at age 38 in 1957, or Stan Musial, who hit .330 and nearly won a batting title in 1962 at age 42, after having a couple of years almost as bad as Griffey's the last couple years.
The Cubs have played the Mariners twice, once in Seattle in 2002 (the Cubs won two of three), and once in Chicago in 2007 (again, two of three for the Cubs). This time, the series will be in Seattle, on June 22, 23 and 24.
Oh, and the Mariners have a new left fielder this year. He may or may not have an impact on the team.