We have yet to reach the two-week mark of the season so I suppose a preview is not utterly absurd. It is often useful to watch one of the teams in person that you thought might be good, before going out on a limb for them. Just watched the Rockies spit out consecutive infield errors and some dilatory work in the rightfield corner here in New York in one inning, and I don’t need to see any more.
Arizona: Buster Olney’s ESPN “insider” column noted, accurately, that Manny Ramirez’s next-to-last round of PED use in Los Angeles may have altered the careers of then-Diamondbacks Manager Bob Melvin and General Manager Josh Byrnes. When the juiced-up Manny led the Dodgers past the Snakes in ’08, it led to Byrnes firing Melvin in ’09, and then the team firing Byrnes in ’10. In fact Manny may have caused Arizona to screw up its whole franchise: they’re down to starting Gerardo Parra, Melvin Mora, Russell Branyan, and (at least for a time) Willie Bloomquist. The rotation actually has a little spark, particularly in Daniel Hudson, and it is possible closer J.J. Putz might not injure himself this year. But this team isn’t going anywhere. Thanks, Manny.
Colorado: there is much to revel in here but the fundamentals are not among them. Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki are joys to behold (and they nearly collided in the 8th inning tonight – that could’ve been $237,750,000 down the tubes – Tulo sometimes forgets he’s not alone out there), Ubaldo Jimenez is a staff ace if not necessarily the victory-machine he seemed to be last spring, and Dexter Fowler may yet be a star. But the rest of this club is pretty pedestrian and none of its cusp talent in the minors is yet ready to contribute.
Los Angeles: The Dodgers seem gradually to be back towards the ’60s all-pitching and defense teams. The Loney/Uribe/Furcal/Blake infield might be the least menacing quartet in the game and if the Dodgers are satisfied with Tony Gwynn, Marcus Thames, Jay Gibbons and, for all I know, Sweet Lou Johnson in left, they are the only ones. Given that contention requires Don Mattingly to succeed in his first shot at managing anywhere and Matt Kemp doesn’t freak out and Jonathan Broxton doesn’t blow up and the McCourt Divorce doesn’t get worse, I’m not optimistic. Three out of four, sure. All of them?
San Diego: In insulting the Dodger infield I forgot the Padres: Brad Hawpe, Jorge Cantu, Orlando Hudson, Jason Bartlett, and Chase Headley. Fortunately the outfield is just as weak and the Pods’ main power threat might be Kyle Blanks, who has been on the disabled list for a year. Sadly, gifted skipper Buddy Black’s shining moment was before the collapse last year. Now, A-Gone is; the rotation has vanished; and all that is left is a bullpen from which they must trade at least Heath Bell just in hopes of restocking the fridge. This could be a truly grim year.
San Francisco: The Giants would have to screw up – and badly – to not repeat in this division. Brian Sabean would have to do the exact opposite of what he did last year and trade away key components and I’m not betting on it. But I must say this: the Giants are rapidly becoming one of the most disliked teams in baseball – and not just because of the silly boastfulness of the ring ceremony and the rest. No World Championship team has ever been feted by fans who have been worse winners than have the 2010 Giants. I mean Red Sox Nation didn’t gloat this much like this after ’04. It’s understandable that a franchise that saw that much frustration and even peril might continue to celebrate for years to come, but there is a reason they coined the phrase “act like you’ve been there before.”
Overview: 1. San Francisco, 2. Los Angeles, 3. Colorado, 4. San Diego, 5. Arizona. I don’t think this is much of a race. he only ones who are.
National League: I like the Marlins for the wild card, drawing (and being quartered by) the Giants. Braves over the Reds in the other, Braves over the Giants in the NLDS. Red Sox over the Braves in the World Series – yes, I’m sticking with that although the Tampa Bay prediction looks weak with the injury to Longoria having deranged their batting order (I like Sam Fuld but I do not think he is your 2011 AL MVP).
Let’s see if we can get through the rest of the divisions before the All-Star break…
Atlanta: I am not sold on the idea that Freddie Freeman is ready (yet), lord knows what they do when Chipper Jones breaks down, and I have some doubts about the set-up men in the bullpen. But the rest of this team is solid, The Ted has long been Dan Uggla’s favorite ballpark to hit in, and I like the starting depth with Mike Minor already pressed into service for the injured Jair Jurrjens. Hope if you play fantasy ball you were not misled by Fredi Gonzalez’s insistence he would be giving Jonny Venters a share of the closer’s job; Craig Kimbrel will soon be regarded as one of baseball’s bests. If you were to pick one team not widely believed to be a division winner to pick as a division winner, it’d be this one.
Florida: If Mike Stanton is healthy and the bullpen doesn’t fall apart, this is another contender. Power is down with the trade of Uggla, but up with the acquisition of John Buck and the maturation of Logan Morrison and Gaby Sanchez. The three younger players already mentioned, plus Chris Coghlan, join Hanley Ramirez as five of the highest-ceiling hitters in the league and there are scenarios in which they all reach their apogees simultaneously and the Marlins crush the division. I don’t think that’s likely and I don’t think a Leo Nunez/Clay Hensley/Mike Dunn bullpen is going to get them very far, but it might be enough to put them into Wild Card consideration.
New York: This might not be as bad as it seems, and Terry Collins might be just the right guy to get the maximum out of Jason Bay, Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, and David Wright, and the giant franchise disaster that is the Madoff Lawsuit might not distract from whatever is done on the field. But that’s a lot of mights – and we haven’t even gotten around to what might be the implications of having to play a Rule V draftee at second base, and having built a set-up staff exclusively out of guys released by other teams, and being stuck dragging around an injury-prone leftfielder for another three years whose fly ball arcs end at the warning track and was only signed because ownership insisted.
Philadelphia: If everybody had been healthy, they still would’ve been overrated. Win all the divisions you want – eventually an unreliable closer will cost you too much to survive it. Now he’s hurt, and his heir presumptive is so incapable of stepping up that his manager and general manager have publicly expressed their doubts about him. There’s the outfield, already a problem spot before Domonic Brown was hurt (Raul Ibanez is its power – he hit 16 homers last year). And most disastrous of all, deranging everything from the infield defense to the entire batting order, is the combination injury/enigma of Chase Utley. I’ll repeat what I wrote here in my Fantasy Notes last week: everything I heard from everybody I know connected to the Phillies says that Utley’s options are season-ending knee surgery, or virtually-season-ending rehab. Either way, offensively the Phillies are reduced to Ryan Howard with very little line-up protection, the hustle and skill of Shane Victorino, and lord-knows-what from Jimmy Rollins. The Phillies are not contenders. Oh yeah – nice rotation. Unfortunately it’s like living in a mansion with no furniture.
Washington: It is yet to be explained why this franchise yoked itself to Jayson Werth. He’s a fine component for a contending team. He is not a franchise player, and has been evidenced by where they’re hitting him, the Lerners inexplicably invested $126,000,000 in a number two hitter. Here’s a young team with exciting young players like Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond (though they should switch defensive positions) and Jordan Zimmermann and Wilson Ramos (and maybe Drew Storen) – and even a young superstar in Ryan Zimmerman. Why not invest that money in Zimmerman? I know he’s locked up through 2013, but 2014 is when Bryce Harper is probably going to hit 67 homers while Stephen Strasburg wins 24 games. Or if you really feel like spending money on veterans, make them bargain buys like Adam LaRoche, or at least make them pitchers to relieve the despair created by some of those who will toe the slab in the Capitol this year.
Overview: I liked the Braves before Utley got hurt. I still do. I will take them: 1. Atlanta, 2. Florida, 3. Philadelphia, 4. New York, 5. Washington (Washington could vault into 4th if things go really sour in Queens). I think the Marlins and Phillies are Wild Card prospects but I’m not sure yet.
Let’s check in first on “Signal-gate”…he’s baaack…
Brett Weber, the Yankees’ coaching assistant, was nowhere to be found Saturday after my little tweeted photo of him giving hand signals to Alex Rodriguez in the on-deck circle landed in the Commissioner’s Office. But for Sunday’s finale against Detroit, the former minor league pitcher was had returned to the third row back of the plate at Yankee Stadium. I didn’t stare at him – when I don’t give away my seats to Make-A-Wish I am there to watch the game – but I saw no signals today and only one player (Rodriguez) even looked fleetingly in his direction. MLB reportedly accepted the Yankees’ explanation that he was only indicating pitch speed on Opening Day because the team’s stadium scoreboard gun was busted.
That indeed explains Opening Day. It does not explain a different series of signals directed by Weber to Yankee on-deck hitters last year (especially Rodriguez). (By the way – and barring more developments, I promise to leave this trivial incident alone, but if you’d like to read a reasoned, calm blog about the response to it, here you go).
Now, having picked the Red Sox and Twins, and the Rays for the Wild Card (that’s right, they’re 1-and-8 among them – with only 477 left to play), let’s finish off the A.L. predictions:
Los Angeles: This once dynamic team is rapidly falling back into the ranks of The Dullest Place On Earth Angels of the ’80s and ’90s. There are two brilliant starters in Dan Haren and Jered Weaver, and a brilliant outfield (although if you’re going to add a gigantic salary, you reach for Vernon Wells?). But until Kendrys Morales comes back there is nothing else to distinguish this team, except for the shocking inadequacy of the bullpen (who knew Brian Fuentes could have meant so much?). I mean, even The Rally Monkey seems to have outlived his usefulness.
Oakland: Every season has a boutique, insiders’ favorite, and this year it’s the A’s. And I don’t see it. Mind you, I love this rotation and in particular Gio Gonzalez, but I am not impressed by a batting order that has allegedly been improved by adding David DeJesus, Josh Willingham, and Hideki Matsui at 3-4-5. You cannot win every game 3-2.
Seattle: And you especially can’t win them 0-2. There is a scenario in which Erik Bedard ransoms his talent from the depths of injury, and the rookie Michael Pineda blossoms, and the two of them and Doug Fister form a rotation with King Felix that puts Oakland’s to shame. But, even then, whence the offense? Ryan Langerhans is starting in centerfield. Ryan Langerhans has a lifetime .228 batting average and is just four years removed from batting .167 over 210 at bats with three different teams. Tom Wilhelmsen has made the bullpen after five years off, bartending.
Texas: Here is the most under-reported statistic of the 2010-11 off-season. The Rangers lost a pitcher who made exactly 20 starts for them, won 7, and lost 8 – and they were then promptly declared rudderless and hopeless for 2011. I am not suggesting that that is what Cliff Lee would’ve done for Texas this year (4-6 in the regular season, 2-0 in the Division Series, 1-0 in the ALCS, 0-2 in the World Series) but that is exactly what he did for them last year. Ten separate Texas pitchers won as many as Lee did for them during the regular season of 2010, including Dustin Nippert. Would things have been better for them if they’d re-signed him? Yes. You know what else would help? A farm full of Nolan Ryan clones. I’m sorry, there are no other significant downgrades here from a team that absolutely beat up the Rays in the ALDS and the Yankees in the ALCS and should’ve given the Giants a far better fight in the Series, and the additions of Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli make a potent line-up even moreso. I don’t see them being challenged – unless Josh Hamilton breaks in half.
OVERVIEW: 1. Texas, 2. Oakland (distant), 3. Los Angeles (a good run for 3rd), 4. Seattle (not as bad as last year). The Lee panic and the Lee reality are two different things. You want to worry in Texas? What exactly would happen without Hamilton?
LEAGUE OVERVIEW: Gotta stick with Boston, which if I’m right about the Rays and the Card (although with Evan Longoria out, I very easily may not be), would presumably draw the third-place record which I am guessing is Minnesota’s. Thus it’s Texas-Tampa again and I like Texas this time, with the Red Sox finally stopping them in the ALCS.