2012 Previews: N.L. Central
First of all, this photo of my six-year old niece helping me keep score at the Yankees’ opener doesn’t have a thing to do with the NL Central. It’s just that it represents her first tentative steps towards fandom, and is to my mind fully representative of the rituals of the sport. Just the other day she ceaselessly quizzed her ball-playing older brother about what all the players do. Now she’s trying to figure out what the hieroglyphics represent, and carefully entering abbreviations at my instruction, and asking with delighted amazement: “What does that mean?” (She also insisted we take a walk, I told her we’d go wherever she wanted in the park because she was in charge. “Yes,” she said matter-of-factly. “I know”).
The history of winning the World Series and then altering your uniform the next year to advertise the fact is a star-crossed one. The 2009 Phillies, 2007 Cardinals, and 2005 Red Sox all dipped their toe into the pool and wore special gold trim on their unis for their first one or two home games. The 2011 Giants wore a particularly garish patch all season long. Not one of them repeated their previous year’s triumphs. Go back into history and there are greater calamities still: the 1920 Cleveland Indians overcame the mid-season death of their star infielder Ray Chapman after he was hit in the head by a Carl Mays pitch, then surged past the scandal-ravaged White Sox to grab their first pennant, then won the World Series in large part because of an unassisted triple play by Chapman’s double-play partner Bill Wambsganss.
Next year, Wamby and his teammates dressed in these uniforms:The “Worlds Champions” finished second in 1921, did not seriously contend for the pennant again until 1940 (when they were decimated by an internal player revolt against their manager, earning the players the nicknames “The Crybabies”), didn’t win another Series until 1948, and haven’t won one since.
The 1927 Cardinals did something similar, although a little less garish, were punished by being crushed in the ’28 Series by the Yankees and the ’30 A’s, but were winners again by 1931.
The 1906 New York Giants wore these modest little outfits, at home and abroad, to celebrate their 1905 title. The Giants fell out of contention in ’06 and ’07, suffered the singular ignominy of the 1908 pennant race and the Merkle Game Controversy in ’08, watched the president of the National League kill himself over that controversy in ’09, didn’t compete in ’10, had their ballpark burn down in ’11, lost the epic series on the Fred Snodgrass “muff” and the Mathewson Wrong Call in ’12, lost another Series in ’13, watched one of their cast-off pitchers lead the last place team past them and to the Series title in ’14, saw the team break up amid gambling rumors in ’15, won 26 in a row and still finished only fourth in ’16, lost the ’17 Series when nobody covered the plate on a rundown from third base, and didn’t come out of it until they won the Series of 1921 and 1922.
I’m not suggesting wearing a uniform devoted more to bragging than team identification caused these calamities, but there is a remarkable amount of trouble associated with teams that merely tinkered with their jerseys after they prevailed. The Cubs went from wearing a simple “C” for their 1907 shirt to a “C” with the “Cubby Bear” nestled inside in 1908. They repeated the title that year, but changed the jerseys to an even more ornate version with “Chicago” spelled vertically down the buttons in ’09, and you might recall what ’09 was the start of for the Cubs.
This is a very very very long way of leading up to this question: This gold-lettered uniform the Cardinals wore Friday? Why did they wear it?
I mean, none of the teams in the National League Central are among baseball’s best this season. They just aren’t and more over, they know it. The division has been drained by the departures of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, and despite producing two playoff teams, a World Champion, and a (brief) Cinderella Team, it wasn’t a very good division last year, either.
I’m saying the title might come down to superstition. So why tempt it? I mean, the caps are a little kitschy but the unis are kinda nice. But did you notice that after wearing it for one day, David Freese is already hurt again?
ST. LOUIS has to be the default favorite, but Carpenter’s gone, Wainwright has looked like crap, Berkman’s already suffered two minor injuries that could linger and limit him, or explode and finish him. Among all humans who’ve never managed before, Mike Matheny is probably the 2nd best choice to try to start on the big league stage (Robin Ventura is the 1st), but on what experience will he call if the injuries continue, or the bullpen falters, or Carlos Beltran is sidelined by a scratched nostril,or the Cards all get blood poisoning from the jinxed gold-flecked unis?
Conversely, managerial experience is no automatic indicator of success – ask CINCINNATI. We all love Dusty Baker, one of the great human beings, but his reluctance to trust youngsters has imperiled the career of Aroldis Chapman and is now reflected in his insistence on catching Ryan Hanigan more than Devin Mesoraco. The Ryan Madson injury will only make Dusty even less willing to trust anybody under 35, and I just have to wonder if at some point ownership is going to wake up in the middle of the night and say “we have committed 297 and a half million dollars to the least important quadrant, the right side of the infield” and disappear into the Arctic or something. How on earth is a market like Cincinnati supposed to produce such revenues? Is the news about the Minnesota Twins censored on the internet in the southern half of Ohio? More immediately, there’s a serious question about every Red pitcher (except Chapman, and of course he is used only as the 6th or 7th most important man on the staff).
The Conventional Wisdom suggests Aramis Ramirez was brought to MILWAUKEE to partially offset the loss of Prince Fielder. Nuh-uh. He was brought in to offset the disappearance of Casey McGehee. The Brewers’ swaggering line-up of 2011 looks awfully human with Gamel and Gonzalez and Ramirez in it in 2012. Randy Wolf looks like he’s at the end of the line and the internal dissatisfaction with Zack Greinke is astounding. It’s a very good bullpen, but in any other division this would not be a serious contender.
If Jeff Samardzija and either Bryan LaHair or Anthony Rizzo are for real, CHICAGO may be better than expected, but not much. LaHair has hit well in the NL and Rizzo in the PCL and the obvious move would be to stick LaHair in the outfield, which is already a defensive wasteland, call up Rizzo, and let ‘er rip. Or better yet, off-load David DeJesus or Soriano or Byrd for whatever you could get for them, and give Brett Jackson a shot out there, too. But even if the Cubs hit, past Garza and maybe Samardzija the rest of the rotation is dubious and the bullpen (with the possible exception of rookie Rafael Dolis) will give away a lot of games.
There is a narrow pinhead through which PITTSBURGH might squeeze, and force their way into contention. Revivals from Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett would give a good bullpen something to save. Andrew McCutchen might blossom into an MVP candidate. Starling Marte might come up next month and hit .330. But masked by the completeness of the Buccos’ post-play-at-the-plate collapse last year was what happened to the fuel of their brief spring in the sun. Jose Tabata vanished. Garrett Jones vanished. Kevin Correia vanished. Jeff Karstens vanished. Inexplicably, Pedro Alvarez vanished and the Pirates insist on still playing him. Midnight struck and Clint Hurdle was suddenly managing a pumpkin farm. Everything that went right last year has to go right again this year – and then some.
There is one bright spot in HOUSTON. If the new owner and Poor Brad Mills (the manager’s new first name) had had to have taken this team into the American League this year, the Astros might’ve gone 30-132. There may be sparkles from Jason Castro behind the plate, Jose Altuve at second, and Brian Bogusevic, J.D. Martinez, and Jordan Schafer in the outfield, but it is plausible that beyond Carlos Lee there might be nobody on this team who hits 15 homers. There certainly aren’t going to be any starting pitchers who win 15 games. Good lord, as I read this to myself, it dawns on me: all the starting pitchers might not win 35 games among them.
2012 N.L. CENTRAL FORECAST:
Man, I have no idea. If these teams were scattered among the other divisions there wouldn’t be a lead-pipe-cinch pennant contender among the six of them. I guess St. Louis will win, with Cincinnati and Milwaukee behind them, and Chicago and Pittsburgh arguing over fourth, and the Astros disappearing from National League history like the Cheshire Cat. The pennant race might prove variable and exciting, but it will not be good, and it will make fans in places like Toronto and Seattle and Miami wish that realignment were a reality.