October 2010

They Might Be Phillies

This will not be as exhaustive a preview as was the one for Yankees-Rangers because I see this one more in terms of momentum, and expectations not met and others exceeded.

The Braves were in such desperate straits that they had to stick a career pinch-hitter at second base because he was less worse there than at third. Their closer’s career came to an end in the middle of an inning. Their rookie relievers barely held it together. Their outfield was made up of Jason Hayward and a variety of American League and Pittsburgh Pirate refugees. And they still rallied twice on the Giants’ bullpen and each of the four games of their NLDS was a one-run affair.

The re-loaded Giants couldn’t average even three runs a game off the gutsy, wobbly, fill-in Bravos, and now they’re supposed to go up against Halladay, Oswalt, Hamels, and a not-too-shabby Joe Blanton (6-1, 3.48 after the All-Star Break) and produce something closer to four or five a night to have any chance.
I just don’t see it.
Tim Lincecum’s starts might be classics, and Halladay and/or Hamels might repeat their dubious performances from the regular season against the Giants. But I doubt it. And more over, I doubt that a team that survived the season in which the odds caught up with them and put 17 different of their guys on the disabled list is going to be knocked off by anybody but the best – and the Giants are not the best. 
The series might be brief.

Rangers Run Past Yankees?

Whether or not his team actually beats the New York Yankees, I have to start this by standing up and applauding Ron Washington’s primary gamble.

He has in large part been forced into it by the reality of the fifth game against Tampa Bay, but there were other options and he chose the one in which unless the ALCS goes seven, he will only start Cliff Lee once. This means that one of the three key figures in this series will be not Lee, but C.J. Wilson.
Thus a lefthander will start Game One against the Yankees, and another one would start Game Seven, and because they are so scheduled, they would also each start a game in Yankee Stadium. Lefties in Yankee Stadium – your best bet to beat them. Provided they are good lefthanders.
The Yankees’ switch-hitters are all more powerful against righthanders. Their lefthand bats (Cano, Gardner, and Granderson) tend towards bad splits against southpaws. And Alex Rodriguez has mysteriously lost much of his punch against lefties (he hit .214 against them during the regular season). 
But is Wilson a good lefthander, or a bad one? Consider what the seven susceptible Yankee bats (Cano, Gardner, Granderson, Posada, Rodriguez, Swisher, Teixeira) did against the Twins’ southpaws:
Versus All Minnesota LHP                  11-39  .282  two 2B, two 3B
Versus Fuentes & Mijares                     1-7   .143
Versus Duensing & Liriano                  10-32  .313

Admittedly it’s a small sample (two starts and five relief appearances) but there are some indicators. Though Marcus Thames tattooed Brian Duensing for a home run, none of the Yankee Seven hit a long ball off any of the lefties, even though Posada, Rodriguez, Swisher, and Teixeira all batted righty against them.

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The inference, I think, is not a very complicated one. The entire Yankee line-up save for Jeter and Thames are stymied by effective lefties and merely slowed down a little by bad ones. We can pretty well guess to which category Cliff Lee belongs (although the second time the Yankees faced him in the World Series last year they beat him up for five runs, even in defeat). The question is, which kind is Wilson (the guess is: the good and improving kind). The indeterminable is whether either of the Rangers’ righties steal a win against New York, which would obviously reduce the Texas reliance on their former closer and their mid-season acquisition.
I described Wilson as one of the three key figures in this series. Given that Manager Washington tipped his hand against the Rays, the other two are Francisco Cervelli and Jorge Posada. The Rangers were the runningest team in the first round, and they are now facing the team with the fewest caught-stealings in the major leagues in 2010. Cervelli, Chad Moeller, Posada and the Yankee pitching staff stopped just 23 out of 155 would-be thieves during the year.
Minnesota didn’t try to swipe one bag in its cameo against the Yankees. Texas tried seven (and succeeded six times) against Tampa. Rays’ catchers had nailed 25 percent of runners during the season. The Yanks only caught 15 percent.
I think you see where Washington is going with this. Try to at least slow the “Susceptible Seven” down with Wilson and Lee, to say nothing of Darren Oliver in relief. But much more impressively, run the Yankees crazy. Five Rangers stole 14 or more during the regular season, Josh Hamilton had eight, and Jeff Francoeur had eight while with the Mets.
The Rangers may literally steal this series. I think the Yankees are utterly unprepared for this kind of onslaught, and if you think there’s a Plan B about swapping Cervelli in for the decreasingly mobile Posada, think again. Posada may have only caught 13 of 85 bandits, but Cervelli only got nine out of 64.
As suggested here when New York swept a series which I thought they’d lose, the Yankees are vampires. Manage passively against them as Ron Gardenhire did, let them up off the mat for a second, and you lose. But Ron Washington has already shown an absolute unwillingness to sit back, and that aggressivenes won him Game Five against Tampa. Take the chance with me. Rangers win, and might just get to hold Mr. Lee back to start Game One of the World Series.

Roy Oswalt Channels His Inner Goofball

Mid-game TBS interview in the Phils-Reds’ third game at Cincinnati tonight and Greg Dobbs and Roy Oswalt exit the dugout behind interviewee pitching coach Rich Dubee. Oswalt is staring at the camera, then pauses and produces this very un-Oswalt-like Full Cheese:

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(C) MLB, TBS

Vampires Eliminate Twins

It is 6-1 Yankees, one out in the top of the eighth, the bases are loaded and Kerry Wood has just left the mound to deafening silence. 

The Twins are 1-for-15 with runners in scoring position to this point, and Delmon Young with the eighth most RBI in the game this year on deck. 
Lefty specialist Boone Logan is in, and he’s tough, but then again he has yet to spend a full season in the major leagues.
And you are Jason Kubel.
What is the one thing you do not want to do in this last-chance situation for your Minnesota Twins? Swing on the first pitch.

Kubel popped up the only pitch Boone would need to throw all night. Young would follow him with just slightly more patience against David Robertson and pop up the third pitch and the Twins would be swept in a series in which, in seemingly just a blink of the eye ago, they were beating CC Sabathia in the opener.
There is nothing to suggest that more patience would have necessarily resulted in the five runs the Twins needed to tie, and Ron Gardenhire insisted afterward that both Kubel and Young got the pitches they wanted and just screwed them up. But that final gurgle of an eighth inning was emblematic of a team that just does not rise to the occasion and despite repeated exposure, does not understand the equation: the Yankees are the Vampires of baseball. If you have them down, and you do not succeed in putting the stake through their hearts, you will wind up with nothing left but a choice of your fave: Jacob or Edward.
In Game One in Minnesota on Wednesday, Ron Gardenhire managed as if it was Opening Day of the regular season. He is, incredibly, up 3-0 on Sabathia, but instead of managing as if he had Vampires to kill and pulling his starter Francisco Liriano at the moment he began to go south in the 6th, he waits and waits and waits. If he’d waited any longer to go get Liriano, an usher would have asked to see his ticket (inexplicably, before the game, ownership described a contract extension for the lovable Gardy “a no-brainer” – sometimes that means something different than the speaker thinks it does).
Note to Mr. Gardenhire, note to Mr. Washington or Mr. Maddon, note (perhaps) to National League managers (and note to morons like me who picked against them): The Yankees are not the most talented team in the American League, not even the most talented team in their own division. But they are the most Undead.
Sticking with your bleeding starters, and swinging at their first pitches, is not going to cut it against Vampires.
Now some snapshots of a less serious nature:
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To the left, the Twins’ immortal and should-be-Hall of Famer Tony Oliva, in uniform before the game. It struck me that almost nobody on the field would have known that Oliva was one of the reasons for the institution of the DH in 1973. Apart from the guesses at how it would affect A.L. offense, the main argument was that it could extend the careers of stars who could no longer acquit themselves in the field; people like Oliva, Cepeda, Killebrew, Kaline. To the right, one of the game’s class acts and a survivor of Olbermann interviews since 1995 or so – and another should-be-Hall of Famer, the current Twins’ DH, the great Jim Thome.
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Tonight’s seating line-up with me: my friends Ken Burns, whose work you know, and at the right, Jon Klein, formerly president of CNN and prior to that CBS News.
I tweeted this photo and was advised by a respondent that I was an elitist. Two points: the Yankees are 14-and-1 when I used the seats this year. More importantly: nearly all of the other 67 games so far, the tickets have gone to Make-A-Wish.
And to close, there are jokes to be made here but I’m not exactly sure what they are. But… cobwebs? Spiderwebs? In the screen behind the plate at Yankee Stadium? Should they save them until Halloween?
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Minor League Cards: Playoff Edition

While all eight teams are still there (for the moment) I thought this was a suitable time to salute the managers, and show them in the blossom of youth, on minor league (or in two cases, even more exotic) baseball cards from decades back.

Some you’ve seen before and some you haven’t, and we’ll start with the American League matchups:
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We’ve shown the “Only Maddon” here before, from the 1976 TCMA Quad City Angels set. That’s Ron Washington from ProCards’ 1987 Rochester set. Washington appeared in about half a dozen minor league sets over more than a decade, dating back to his days as a top infield prospect in the Dodgers’ system. To continue:
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Yup. Gardy, captured in the Pacific Coast League in ProCards ’87 edition. A year later he’d be shown again, as the rookie manager of the Twins’ farm at Kenosha, Wisconsin – part of the same set that shows the young Joe Girardi of Pittsfield of the Eastern League. One of his pitchers that year was Mike Harkey, and joining both of them on the EL All-Star Team, Dave Eiland of Albany. Eiland and Harkey are Girardi’s pitching coaches today.
To the National, and we go very far afield for these:
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That is a TCMA 1979 Japanese Leagues issue card of Charlie Manuel, DH of the Kintetsu Buffaloes, clearly the creators of the busiest batting helmets in baseball history, American, Japanese, or probably anywhere else. By ’87 Manuel would be back in Portland, serving as Ron Gardenhire’s last manager! The Dusty Baker card on the right is from a team-sponsored set put out by the Richmond Braves of the International League in 1971.
And to finish off the playoff managerial match-ups:
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   We’re getting very international here. That, in a 1982 TCMA Tidewater Tides card, is the only French-born manager in the bigs, Mr. Bochy of the Giants. To the right, the 1967-68 Venezuelan Winter League card of Bobby Cox, still, at that point, three or four months away from his major league playing debut with the Yankees.

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Of course as I write this, Coxy has already been ejected from Game 2 of the NLDS, so obviously I’d be remiss to not include the bench coach who succeeded him at the helm of the Braves. That victim of misspelling on the 1987 ProCards Gastonia set is indeed Chino Cadahia, not “Cadania,” now on Cox’s staff in Atlanta just 23 years later.
Cadahia had some team in that season in the South Atlantic League: three kids named Dean Palmer, Juan Gonzalez, and Sammy Sosa. In something that should tell you something, Cadahia and Gastonia finished with 58 wins and 82 losses.
And let’s just finish things off with two of the announcers covering these division series. On the right is a familiar figure on the Mets’ telecast (and that same 1982 TCM
A Tidewater set that depicted Bochy). The other one is a rookie and he’s bounced around among three teams this year: TBS, MLB Network, and PeachTree, but he might make it. I mean, if he can survive the experience of being on the Pro Cards’ 1987 Glens Falls Tigers card set, I suppose he can survive anything. 
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Surprise: Twins, Rays To Advance

It’s the kind of story line that can overshadow the reality of a playoff series in any sport: A superstar with an amazing season and an amazing story of overcoming the nightmare of drug addiction, facing the team that originally drafted him, with the prospect of eventually getting to a World Series against the team that gave him a second chance (and then traded him away anyway). 

It’s almost as if it’s just Josh Hamilton versus the Tampa Bay Rays.
Actually, it is almost as if it’s just Josh Hamilton versus the Tampa Bay Rays. Ian Kinsler and Michael Young had ordinary seasons, the bottom third of the line-up is a mixture of Mitch Moreland, Julio Borbon, Jeff Francoeur, David Murphy, Bengie Molina, and Matt Treanor, and the starters – Cliff Lee included – had long dead spots, and despite Nolan Ryan’s pronouncements about longer outings from them, the Rangers actually got the shortest efforts from their starters of any A.L. team. 
But, you say, what about those two hitters behind Hamilton? Boomstick Cruz is the real thing, but human history divides evenly into those times when he’s out with a hamstring pull, and those times when he’s about to sustain a hamstring pull. And Vladimir Guerrero found the fountain of youth, but only in the first half. His second half was a very pedestrian .278/.322/.426 and he has deteriorated on the basepaths to such a degree that a foot race between him and Molina would probably continue into November.
By contrast the Rays have largely been underachieving all year long. One of Joe Maddon’s lineups against Texas might feature three sub-.200 hitters. But Tampa is a disciplined, designed ballclub at the plate and in the field, their pitching is deep and even writing off Jeff Niemann, startling, and the irony of ironies is that the key to the series might not be Tampa castoff Hamilton but Texas throwaway and Rays set-up man Joaquin Benoit.
I like the Rays, and quickly, unless Texas somehow batters David Price tomorrow – and Price is 9-and-2 at home this year (and a tidy 17-and-5 there lifetime).
Meantime, trust me, I have front row seats at Yankee Stadium, there’s nothing I’d like more than to watch World Series games from them. I’m not even sure I’m going to get to see two playoff games there this weekend. I haven’t liked the chances of this Yankee team since spring training and while I commend and am heartened by their accomplishments despite glaring holes and what has become one of the most parochial and even jingoistic eras in New York media history, I think they’re not going to reach the ALCS.
The key here is the fact that the Yankees should face lefthanded starters in three of the five games (possibly, if Ron Gardenhire wants to gamble, in three of the first four). Lefthanders turn Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher to their weaker sides (and in Yankee Stadium force them to aim at the tougher fences in left), hurt Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, and, unexpectedly, Alex Rodriguez: 6-35-.217-.441 and make Brett Gardner into a .252 hitter. The trade-off is that they enable Marcus Thames at DH and actually make Derek Jeter look like his old self (6-24-.321-.481 – correct: Jeter hit .246 against righties this year, with a slugging percentage of .317 and an on-base of .315).
You’re not overwhelmed by Minnesota southpaws Francisco Liriano and Brian Duensing? How about the prospect of Brian Fuentes coming out of the bullpen, right before or right after Jon Rauch, with Matt Capps warming up for the 9th.
We have not even discussed Yankee pitching. There is a reason CC Sabathia should be the Cy Young winner. Without Felix Hernandez, the Mariners wouldn’t have been much worse. The Rays without David Price might not be post-season favorites, but Jeremy Hellickson could have stepped in. Right now, Sabathia is the only Yankee starter who is not attached to a question mark the size of, well, Sabathia. On the other hand, I wouldn’t worry too much about Mariano Rivera’s September slump, although the Yankee set-up men are hardly what they were a year ago and I’ll believe Boone Logan in the clutch when I see him whiff Jim Thome twice.
The Twins did not prosper down the stretch (none of the AL playoff teams did) and would have loved just the thought of Justin Morneau returning later on. But since the Yankees saw them last in the playoffs, the rest of the infield has been upgraded, Jim Thome has been added at DH, and Delmon Young has gone from a dubious platoon guy to a 112 RBI man. Young struggled over the last two months, then seemed to come alive in the last ten (3-7-.293). The Twins’ lineup is also staggered to minimize repeating same-side bats, which could completely befuddle the pitching-change challenged duo of Joe Girardi and coach Dave Eiland.
Frankly, if Minnesota somehow beats Sabathia in the opener, with an ailing and/or rusty Pettitte and an erratic Hughes behind him, the Twins could sweep. I doubt that. I like them in four or five.

NL Preview: Phillies, Giants

Nothing would please me more than to see Bobby Cox walk off a field for the last time, on his way to a World’s Championship Trophy presentation (well, except maybe watching him get ejected on his way to the presentation, but now I’m just being silly).

I don’t think it’s going to happen. As much as Cox patched together just enough breathing players to manage to hang on to the Wild Card, the tank is pretty empty now. The Braves were barely surviving the loss of Chipper Jones by turning super-sub Omar Infante into a regular, when Martin Prado followed Jones on to the out-for-the-year-list. This reduces the Atlanta infield to Infante, Alex Gonzalez, a Derrek Lee who has been pretty lethargic since coming over from the Cubs, and Brooks Conrad, who has shown a strong bat at the plate, but some evidence that he brings the same bat with him onto the field.

Similarly the Bravos’ rotation is a mess. Jair Jurrjens turned his season around after his first injury, then came back from his second one overweight and ineffective, and then injured himself for a third time. Tim Hudson has been effective all year, but Derek Lowe and Tommy Hanson have been up and down, and heaven help Coxy and Roger McDowell if they have to rely on either Mike Minor or Brandon Beachy.

The one wild card for the wild card team is production from the outfield. When you have Jason Heyward plus a combination of any two of Ankiel, Cabrera, Diaz, Hinske, and McLouth, the possibilities that Cox could catch lightning in a bottle for a short series in CF and LF, should not be discounted.

But we haven’t even started trotting out names like Buster Posey or Brian Wilson or Tim Lincecum yet. The Giants, barring a dry-up of biblical proportions, should handle the Braves easily, possibly by sweep. If they don’t, they have some serious explaining to do.

Similarly, as fond as I have been of the Reds’ chances since last March, I cannot see them getting past Philadelphia. The depth of Cincinnati’s rotation – such an advantage during the regular season in the fluid N.L. Central – means that they could get everything or nothing from Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo, and Johnny Cueto.

More over – understandably under the radar in a year of chaos, injury, and perseverance in Philadelphia – were remarkable improvements Ryan Howard and Chase Utley made against lefthand pitching. This, you’ll recall, was Philly’s undoing in the World Series last fall (particularly in the case of Howard).

But look at Howard’s splits this year:

VS LHP                 12 HR     39 RBI    .264 BA      .492 SLG
VS LHP at home      6 HR     16 RBI    .260 BA      .470 SLG

The cohort is not exactly small, either. Howard had 193 at bats versus lefties, 100 of them in Philadelphia. He obviously learned something. And while he went just 2-for-12 against Reds lefties during the season, one of the two was a game-winning two-run blast off Arthur Rhodes to win a game in Philly on July 9th. Howard has not seen Aroldis Chapman, but unless Dusty Baker plans to use Chapman as his specialist against lefty bats and switch Rhodes or some righthander to 8th inning duties, the onus will fall on Rhodes, not Chapman.

Utley actually did better against southpaws this year than righties:

VS LHP                 10 HR     27 RBI      .294 BA      .581 SLG
VS RHP                  6 HR     38 RBI      .266 BA      .381 SLG

Those numbers are even a little more extraordinary than they seem. Utley had 289 ups against righties and only 136 against lefties yet his power came against the southpaws. He has no track record against the Reds this year – 1-for-3 off Cueto in the June 28th game in which he hurt his thumb.

So if the Chapman versus the Phils’ power bats thing may not really be an issue, we’re back to the idea of which trio of starters is more likely to get punished: Volquez, Arroyo, and Cueto, or Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt? It would be a bigger upset than the Braves over the Giants if the answer turns out to be the latter.

 

These Were Pretty Decent Predictions

Before we look ahead, it’s necessary to look back. The divisional forecasts from this blog, from the end of March and beginning of April, beginning with the American League East:

Things I do not expect to see repeated from 2009: 1) A.J. Burnett’s reliability and perhaps even his stamina; 2) Joe Girardi’s ability to survive without a reliable fifth starter (if Phil Hughes really can pull it off in this, his fourth attempt, he might become the fourth starter if my instincts on Burnett are correct); 3) Nick Swisher’s offensive performance (his average and his RBI totals have never 

PREDICTIONS: Tampa Bay steps back into the forefront in an exciting race with the well-managed but decreasingly potent Red Sox, and bests Boston by a game or two. The Yankees contend – possibly even dominate – into June or July before the rotation, and/or Posada, and/or Jeter, blow up, and they fade to a distant third. 

Boston’s injury festival clearly threw a monkey wrench into that view, but in its defense, three of the four flaws with the Yankees arose as predicted, leading to the big one about New York dominating, then falling, to eventual division champs Tampa Bay.
To the AL Central:

Manager Ron Gardenhire of MINNESOTA knows 447 times more about baseball than I do…The new double-play combo is also symbolic of some serious problems. It is made up of two very nice men named J.J. Hardy (who was run out of Milwaukee even before the ascent of Alcides Escobar), and Orlando Hudson (who has been run out of Arizona and Los Angeles and who somehow lost his job to Ronnie Belliard in the middle of the pennant race last year). It is also the direct result of what must be viewed as two disastrous trades (Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza to Tampa for Delmon Young, and Johan Santana to the Mets for Carlos Gomez – now swapped for Hardy – and nothing of even impending value). Nothing would please me more than to see the Team They Tried To Contract rear up and fulfill its potential. I don’t think they have the front office personnel to pull it off.



PREDICTIONS: I like Detroit to get more lemons out of the slot machine of chance that is this division, than I do Chicago. Thus, the Tigers, close, over the White Sox. Minnesota and Cleveland will spar for third place…

Well, I got the part right about Gardenhire knowing 447 times more about baseball than I do. I do wonder about this team’s long-term prospects given the Garza and Santana trades, and its short-term’s prospects given its stumble to the title.
My forecast for the AL West was, if I must say so, pretty darn sharp:

With the strategic building in SEATTLE over the last two years – Figgins, Wilson, Gutierrez, Lee, even Byrnes and Snell and League (to say nothing of Wakamatsu) added to the Ichiro/Felix base, it would seem it would be almost impossible for the Mariners not to be favored. But as I have suggested before, Jack Zduriencik managed to make the one move that could undo all the good ones…It’s not as if Milton Bradley has had a few problems. This is six clubs in six seasons and the longest he lasted with any of them was until June 29th of the second year. I don’t know what it will be, I don’t know when it will be, but Bradley will do something to cost the Mariners the division. 

The line-up in TEXAS frightens me. I know Josh Hamilton is not going to hit 57 homers. I understand Vlad Guerrero has aged. I’m sure Chris Davis could repeat the first half of 2009. I noticed Ian Kinsler’s on the DL. Without them this is still the most potent batting order in the division. 

DIVISION FORECAST: As suggested, I like Texas. Oakland’s pitching could jell to challenge them; Milton Bradley could go AWOL on May 1 and save Seattle’s season; Brandon Wood could be e
verything the Angels ever wanted from him. But I don’t think any of those things are going to happen. Rangers by a five or six game margin, with the others following in a jumble I can’t quite yet discern.

Texas, as you know, won not by five or six or by nine, with the Angels ten back and the Mariners having screwed themselves into the ground thanks to the continuing curse of Milton Bradley.
Over in the National League:

ATLANTA is the obvious sleeper, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron. If Troy Glaus and Jason Heyward produce as Atlanta expects them, Bobby Cox will have a competitive final year. If they exceed expectations (and Heyward gives off the vibe of a Pujolsian, From-Day-One-Superstar) the Braves might actually air out the division. The rotation gets a little sketchy behind Hanson and Jurrjens, and there is little or no room for injury...Florida’s biggest question mark is the bullpen, where Leo Nunez may or may not succeed.

All that can be said about NEW YORK is: Sigh. I love the people who run this club, from the ticket takers to the owners. But this year the wheels could fall off even worse – and farther – than last…Plus, the silence 

DIVISION PREDICTIONS: I’ll take the long odds that the Braves’ breaks fall the right way and Cox goes out with a winner in a tight race over the Phillies. The Marlins will hit a ton but waste the brilliance of Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco by using 11 different fifth starters and half a dozen closers. The Mets will have their nightmare collapse and be wondering if they can unload not only Castillo, but maybe Beltran and Reyes, too.

It is amazing that the prediction about the Braves wasn’t a bad one, and the forecast on the number of injuries in Philly rolled out pretty much as expected – and Philadelphia still won the Division. It is why the Phils must be considered the early line post-season favorites, and why the fact that the NL Manager Of The Year Award discussion is farcical if Charlie Manuel isn’t the odds-on winner.
Here’s another prediction I am proud to recount, from the NL Central:

CHICAGO…The starting line-up is five-eighths made up of guys who significantly regressed from 2008 to 2009…The Cubs are a mess…But there is at minimum some sense of upswing in Cincinnati. Dusty Baker gave Drew Stubbs the chance to play last year, and might even find spots for Aroldis Chapman, Mike Leake, and Yonder Alonso this season. The bullpen is strong, the rotation potentially deep… What’s the psychological saw about repeating the same unsuccessful action with confidence that this time it will succeed? The Brewers are confident Dave Bush, Doug Davis, and Manny Parra and/or Jeff Suppan constitute three-fifths of a pitching staff. They’re certain Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart will harness their talent. Everybody knows this is the year Yovanni Gallardo leaps to the forefront of NL starters. This is a recording….

ST. LOUIS is the most overrated team in the majors. Albert Pujols glitters so brightly, he makes you forget that the rest of the infield is an assortment of Brendan Ryans and Felipe Lopezes and David Freeses. Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright were so dominant that they obscured the reality of what happened if you actually beat them on consecutive days – the Cards’ season would be snuffed out in a sweep. This is a team that was ready to trot out a rotation in which Kyle Lohse, Brad Penny, and Rich Hill would pitch more often than did Carpenter and Wainwright (the first light bulb going off: giving the fifth spot in the rotation not to Hill but to Jaime Garcia). The bullpen is a jumble, the bench non-existent, and lord help Tony LaRussa if Yadier Molina is really hurt or Pujols’ back is cranky for more than 45 minutes at a stretch.

PREDICTIONS: You know what? I’ll take the long-odds bet on the dice coming up for the Reds and not the Cardinals. 

Pretty much got that division correct, right down to the ascension of Jaime Garcia and the injury to Yadier Molina, to say nothing of being one of only two forecasters I’m aware of to pick the Reds, who won by five over the only other team to finish above .500 in baseball’s biggest division.
I will not claim I did as well in the West, but this does wind up describing what actually happened:

COLORADO…This is a well-rounded, deep team, and Troy Tulowitzki, batting clean-up, may reassert himself this year on the path to being one of the league’s top ten hitters. In LOS ANGELES or anywhere else, I would trust Joe Torre with my wallet or my vote or my house keys. But I think he’s in for a dreadful year. The Dodgers cannot get a full season out of Ronnie Belliard, haven’t gotten one out of Blake DeWitt. They may have burned out Russell Martin. And Manny Being Just Manny (No PEDs) is a just slightly better offensive force than, say, Mark DeRosa. The McCourt Divorce may be a lot more interesting than the 2010 Dodgers, and a lot less painful to watch.

SAN DIEGO might catch lightning in a bottle, if Mat Latos and Kyle Blanks and Nick Hundley get off to explosive starts and there is no need to unload Heath Bell and Adrian Gonzalez…Watch, hope; rent, don’t buy.

I don’t much like SAN FRANCISCO’s outfield (maybe they should have given John Bowker’s spring training resurgence more attention), and their third best all-around player might spend most of the season backing up Bengie Molina, but that’s some pitching staff Bruce Bochy and Dave Righetti have to play with…if Colorado falters, this is the West’s best bet.

PREDICTIONS: Colorado in a runaway, unless the Giants put everything together early. The Dodgers finish third, just ahead of the Diamondbacks – unless the Padres blossom early as mentioned above and don’t trade everybody, in which case the three teams will place within a few games of each other.

So all in all, the only division I got wildly wrong was the AL Central. Tampa, Texas, and Cincinnati were picked outright. I had the Braves winning the NL East and they go in as the Wild Card, and the Giants winning the Card and they instead go in as West Champions. Swing and a miss on Minnesota and Philadelphia, and all I can say is to repeat: when do we stop thinking of Charlie Manuel as an affable guide of talent-heavy teams, and start thinking of him as one of the top managers of the early 21st Century?

The Man Who Was Not Very Surprised

Virtually with each home run he hit this year, Jose Bautista surprised somebody.

I’m thinking he never managed to do so with Jeff Manto. Manto is now the minor league hitting instructor for the White Sox, the latest stop in one of baseball’s ultimate peripatetic careers: 16 minor league playing seasons, 15 minor league teams; nine major league playing seasons, nine minor league teams.
I saw Manto last on a raw Saturday afternoon in Tampa, Florida – March 3, 2007 to be exact – long enough ago that Brett Gardner was wearing uniform number 91 for the Yankees, and Manto was still the batting coach of Jim Tracy’s Pittsburgh Pirates. We got to talking about his hitters, few and far between as par of Pittsburgh’s perennial tradition, but he brightened up with the mention of one name.
“If we can get him to replicate his swing three days in a row, Jose Bautista could hit 25 homers a year,” Manto gushed. “In fact, I think he could hit 40. He is just so easily frustrated when it doesn’t go right that he blames himself and forgets what he’s learned. Or ignores it. But of all these guys I have, if you want one of them who will eventually do something special in this game, I’d pick him. I wouldn’t be very surprised.”
As the numbers have piled up for Bautista, each day I have gotten a comment, or a tweet, or an email, from somebody about how his homer explosion required a nefarious explanation. I am the first to be suspicious, but there is some data that really should be considered. Normalize Bautista’s first four full big league seasons to the 562 AB campaign he’s had this year, and you produce a line of 20 homers, 73 RBI, and a .238 average. It’s not much in comparison to 54-124-.263 he’s actually managed, but it suggests the power is hardly made out of whole cloth.
Then consider a player who finished his sixth full big league seasons with personal highs of 29 homers, 121 RBI, and a .306 mark. His name was George Foster and the next year he hit 52 homers and nobody thought there was anything amiss there, even when he stepped quickly back down to 40 blasts in 1978 and 30 in 1979.
Lastly in the cascade of numbers, there were a couple of prescient ones that nobody outside of Toronto or your nearest rotisserie league noticed. Last August, when the Blue Jays shipped Scott Rolen to the Reds, a spot in the line-up opened for Bautista. In the last 27 games of 2009, he blasted 10 homers and drove in 21 runs. That production, extrapolated to a full campaign, is 60 homers and 126 RBI.
So maybe we should be about as surprised as Jeff Manto might be: Not very.
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