April 2011

2011 Previews: AL Central

With the fans of the 0-2 Red Sox and 2-0 Yankees having all taken the wrong instructions from these starts, let’s move into the Central:

Chicago: There are a lot of good players on this team. In fact, in a remarkable evenness ranging all the way from the bullpen to the outfield, the average White Sox player is above-average or better. Just – with the exception of Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko – not very much better. There are two men, coincidentally the team’s doubleplay combination of Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez, who are on the verge of stardom. If they achieve it, if they take the cliched next step, the White Sox can compete in the division. If not, this is a team that is indeed just above-average, and bound for nothing better than second place.

Cleveland: Three unheralded stars (Carlos Santana, Shin-Soo Choo, Chris Perez), the very good Asdrubal Cabrera, and filler. Quite awhile ago the Indians stopped taking competing seriously. The ’90s saw the Kenny Loftons et al locked up early and often (in the model since successfully copied in Tampa), but the ’00s saw ownership refuse to spend the money early enough to keep the Cliff Lees and CC Sabathias, and to have clearly also not spent it on careful study of the prospect yields when that talent had to be moved (quick: who besides Matt LaPorta did they get for Sabathia? Who did they get for Lee? And it’s not enough to say, ‘yeah but they got Santana, Choo, and Perez for almost nothing’ – Lee and Sabathia should have produced at least two blossoming stars each). And this decade seems to be the time of refusing to promote prospects when the season was still fresh and up for grabs. Even when placeholder Jason Donald went down with injury, the Tribe refused to promote third base stud Lonnie Chisenhall. And an approach like that gets you not just mediocrity now, but mediocrity later – when Chisenhall leaves anyway, by trade or free agency.

The answers, by the way? Sabathia produced LaPorta, Matt Jackson, Rob Bryson, and Michael Brantley. For Lee it was Donald, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Knapp, and Lou Marson. Not acceptable.

Detroit: The Tigers should have as much pitching as they have confidence. Brad Penny is the Number Two Starter? Brad Penny, who had a 5.61 ERA in his 24 starts in the AL in 2009? One also has to doubt Phil Coke’s ability to return to starting (the Yankees traded him because lefty hitters – especially those who saw him more than once – seemed to solve him), and there is the continuing non-afterglow of Rick Porcello. Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer are studs, but Penny’s placement at #2 implies some lack of confidence in Scherzer, who might still be one of baseball’s best starters. There is also a certain creakiness here: Carlos Guillen is hurt, Magglio Ordonez is a question mark, and the major investment in the off-season was in a catcher who cannot catch: Victor Martinez. I am not excited by the Tigers and in the first two games in New York there was a certain sloppiness to their play in the field – particularly by shortstop Jhonny Peralta and sub second baseman Will Rhymes – that must have Jim Leyland ready to break up the furniture.

Kansas City: If lightning were to strike and present the Royals with some kind of Cup-A-Soup Five-Pack of instant starters, they might actually be competitive. There is a decent infield with improvements coming up at the corners by mid-season, and the all ex-prospect outfield of Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera, and Jeff Francoeur. But there are no Cup-A-Soup Five-Packs of instant starters (even if Aaron Crow and Mike Montgomery were to step into the rotation tomorrow).

Minnesota: The Twins’ main competition in this division is their own health. If Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan do not fully relapse (and a Nathan partial relapse would be neatly covered by Matt Capps) and no other star comes acropper, I don’t see Minnesota being severely tested. The infield is stronger with Danny Valencia at third and the guy I’d bet on as of tonight for ROTY (Tsuyoshi Nishioka) at second, and the rotation deep enough to move the aptly named Kevin Slowey to the bullpen. There is much more of a gap between the Twins and the rest of the division than conventional wisdom suggests.

OVERVIEW: 1. Minnesota (in a comparative romp); I’ll go for the Beckham-Ramirez growth spurt to make it 2. Chicago and 3. Detroit. The Royals will put up a valiant fight, but it’s got to be 4. Cleveland and 5. Kansas City.




 

The Yankees, My Tweet, C-4, And Shamwow

The reaction by most who saw the photo I posted on Twitter on Thursday seemed to be: “Are you sure that isn’t Vince, the ‘Sham-Wow’ Guy?

Apparently that was not the reaction from Major League Baseball.

Writing in The New York Daily News, Anthony McCarron reports that MLB was to contact the Yanks today about the possibility that their version of infamous infomercial pitchman and battery defendant Vince “Fettucine, Linguine, Martini, Bikini” Shlomi may have violated the ominous sounding “baseball operations bulletin C-4“:

Major League Baseball officials will call the Yankees Saturday to remind them of baseball operations bulletin C-4, which forbids team staff from communicating pitch types and pitch speed to players via hand signals, an MLB spokesman said.

This is NOT Vince and he is NOT trying to sell you four Slap-Chops

McCarron identifies the signaler as Brett Weber, a former minor league pitcher who was hired by the Yankees more than two years ago to pitch batting practice, then run the radar gun and compile offensive and defensive charts during the game.

Apparently sequences like this – which I finally captured on camera during Thursday’s season opener at Yankee Stadium – may be ‘C-4 Transgressions’:

That’s Weber on the left (behind, as another wag suggested, Mother Teresa) and Alex Rodriguez on the right, more or less in the on-deck circle. He is not looking to see if Cameron Diaz is in the seats.

I sit more or less between them. Weber has, since at least the start of the 2010 season, been seated about dead center behind the plate, four or five rows from the backstop. I have not watched him through an entire game to be certain of this, but it is my impression that the signaling is heaviest early in a game, and that not it is not done to all players (and no jokes about how that’s because Weber “can’t do this all day”). I can say without fear of contradiction that this is no coincidence. I have seen Rodriguez look for the signal, nod, look away, and the signal stop.

Last year, on at least one occasion, the Yankee employee had some sort of card or card-shaped object with which he also gestured towards the players in the on-deck circle. I do recall at least one occasion last season in which I did not see Weber at the game. I can’t speak to 2009; my seats that year were about seven rows back and more or less lined up with the on-deck circle.

While McCarron concludes that Weber is signaling pitch speed to the players, and more to the dugout than to the batter in the on-deck circle, my sense was that these signals were more likely to indicate the type and location of the pitch, and specifically to the next hitter. But I’m just drawing a conclusion.

As odd looking as this has always been, it has struck me as being something less than cheating and I wasn’t looking to portray it as such. As I wrote earlier, I noticed this last year and made a few desultory attempts to capture the images, but none had been to my satisfaction until Thursday – so it was not as if I was trying to catch the Yankees at anything, and, obviously I’ve been in no hurry to do so. The same information – pitch type and speed – is flashed on the gigantic centerfield scoreboard more or less simultaneously with Weber’s gesture. McCarron explains:

Some Yankee hitters waiting on-deck look for pitch speed from that employee instead of on the scoreboard – where it is shown in most every ballpark, including the Stadium – believing the staffer is more accurate.

The thing that amplifies this strange saga is history. In the ’70s and ’80s the Yankees and MLB were frequently at odds over an “Eye In The Sky” – an innovation by the late George Steinbrenner in which a Yankee employee (beginning, I believe, with Gene Michael, and lasting so long that the last one may have been Buck Showalter) worked from the press box level and was in communication with the dugout during games, relaying goodness knows what. The Commissioner’s Office frowned on this and monitored it regularly.

Still, two other things surprise me more than anything else about this tempest-in-a-teapot. First, it went on all last year and nobody noticed? Based on relative seat location, the signals should be visible on television, although the players looking into the crowd would not necessarily have attracted any attention.
More importantly: At Yankee Stadium, it’s a shock to consider that the club surrendered the income from the seat. That, friends, costs at least $500 a game.

2011 Previews: AL East

Did pretty good last year: picked five of the eight post-season teams, including the Rangers and Giants. So, a little late, let’s get started on the 2011 forecasts with the American League and the East:

BALTIMORE: The Orioles have a lot going for them, not the least of which is information I couldn’t have known until tonight. Brian Matusz’s injury forces their hand on young lefty Zach Britton, who drew the most oohs-and-aahs in Florida as he mastered veterans like they were platoon guys in the Eastern League. For the Orioles to be anything more than a Cinderella team, Britton, Jake Arrieta, and Brad Bergesen will have to form a “Baby Birds” rotation as effective as the Milt Pappas/Jack Fisher crowd of 50 years ago – but less likely things have happened. The O’s have a confused but deep bullpen, and a powerful line-up that also presents an airtight infield defense if Derrick Lee and Brian Roberts can stay healthy. J.J. Hardy was described in Florida as “re-born” and Vladi Guerrero is still hitting anything that doesn’t hit the mascot. It’s also Buck Showalter’s Honeymoon Year – his second season in each job (1993 Yankees, 1999 Diamondbacks, 2004 Rangers) has seen a playoff contender grow out of almost nowhere.

BOSTON: I need to tell you about this? The Red Sox added two ex-closers to the bullpen, have a line-up with six potential All-Stars in it, and Mike Cameron on the bench? And that in my night in their dugout in Fort Myers last month, the focus of the stars was cheering everything that the then-struggling Jarrod Saltalamacchia did? There is just so much depth that unlike last year the team could contend even with a star – or maybe two – falling to injury. Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford are also tremendous teammates, not merely tremendous talents. Buster Olney said it best, in mime. He put one hand by his belt to indicate the other 29 teams. He put the other at his neck: “The Red Sox are here.”

NEW YORK: The aforementioned Mr. Olney tracked the end of the Yankee dynasty to Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, but this kind of overlooked the fact that they made the post-season in eight of the next nine years, reached the Series twice, and one once. This is the year the whole dynasty ends. Alex Rodriguez is healthy again and poised for an epic campaign, and there is no reason to doubt Cano or Teixeira. But otherwise I’d rather have Baltimore’s lineup. Or Toronto’s. The treatment of Jorge Posada (he can’t even be the back-up catcher? Not even the emergency back-up catcher?) and the reliance on such late-round fantasy fodder as Russell Martin, Andruw Jones, Eric Chavez, Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and maybe Kevin Millwood is just startling. What? Juan Acevedo and Scott Erickson weren’t available? There is always the chance that Derek Jeter is right and everybody else is wrong about his deterioration at bat and in the field. On consecutive at bats in the second inning on Opening Day, a Miguel Cabrera screamer cleared Jeter by at least ten feet yet he jumped anyway as if unable to judge its height; then, a pretty ordinary liner by Victor Martinez nearly took his glove off. It seemed prophetic. I cannot see this team in the post-season, and none of its prospect-saviors: Banuelos, Betances, Brackman, or Montero, are ready yet.

TAMPA BAY: One of the explanations I heard for Austin Jackson’s blossoming in Detroit last year was that they put Johnny Damon’s locker next to his. This year he’s supposedly tutoring the gifted but so-far underachieving B.J. Upton. You’ve already heard the story of Manny Ramirez – hearing either the call of the clock or of the diminished paycheck – volunteering for spring training road trips and extra work in left. You know that Dan Johnson can produce the same kind of power/low batting average at first that Carlos Pena did. You have noticed the Rays’ rotation is as young and as deep as anybody’s this side of Philly (and might have improved with Matt Garza clearing space for Jeremy Hellickson). But Tampa is being written off because Joe Maddon and Jim Hickey have to fabricate a whole new bullpen. The readily forgotten reality is that they had pretty much done the same thing in 2010, with just as unlikely a cast. The key men: the closer Rafael Soriano (Atlanta), the 8th-inning guy Joaquin Benoit (hurt in the minors), and the lefty specialist Randy Choate (minors) had all been elsewhere in ’09. They are not likely to have the wire-to-wire reliability of a Soriano, but there is no reason why Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta shouldn’t hold the fort until Jake McGee or Brandon Gomes is ready. The Rays are not in Boston’s class – who is? – but they are Wild Card-worthy.

TORONTO: Like Baltimore, rookie manager John Farrell has an airtight batting order with 20-homer power at every spot in the line-up, and a rotation and bullpen that could be heaven or hell. I prefer Baltimore’s starters to Toronto’s, but Farrell’s unique background of college head coaching, major league talent development, and major league pitching coaching, might enable him to get more out of the Jays’ mix of what I think is an overrated Ricky Romero and a cast of dozens. It is simply tough to imagine a team hitting as many home runs as the Jays will and still finishing last.

THE FORECAST: I don’t think the top two spots are at issue. Boston wins, the Rays probably take the wild card. The question becomes whether the Yankee collapse, and the Oriole and Jay growth spurts, happen rapidly enough to unleash Steinbrennarmageddon in the Bronx: the Yankees finishing last. I suspect we will see them occupy the basement long enough for the kind of good old-fashioned accusation firestorm and managerial firing speculation that used to make 161st Street the Bronx Zoo. But I do not think both sets of birds will fly with equal success. I may have Toronto and Baltimore switched here, but I see it: 1. Boston, 2. Tampa Bay, 3. Baltimore, 4. New York, 5. Toronto (and the last three, very close indeed).

 

 

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