Yes, I know.
This is the latest “preview” of a baseball divisional race ever written. It is penned with the full knowledge of the Dodgers’ 10-3 start, and the injury swarm that seems to be forming in the Arizona outfield, and the demise of Brian Wilson. My apologies: I got kinda behind thanks to Ozzie Guillen and Fidel Castro and stuff.
I’ve known Don Mattingly for just under 30 years now. To try to define the eternal nature of Opening Day in a piece for CNN in 1983 I interviewed the oldest old-timer on the Yankees, my late friend Bobby Murcer, and the youngest kid on the squad, a guy who was still wearing uniform number 46 named Mattingly. He didn’t say much, but somewhere there is still a tape of him as the interview closed, thanking me (for some reason). Several seasons, one batting championship, an MVP, and about five Gold Gloves later, I remember going in to the Yankee clubhouse before a game to ask him one question, only to find him answering a question about selecting bats from a fellow fromSports Illustrated. Then there was a second question. And a third. And a tenth. And a twentieth. And Mattingly answered them all. A lifetime later, in his first trip back to New York as a manager, I watched him do every interview, sign every autograph, and smile at everybody who said hello.
Finally I asked him how, and why, he did it. “Why not? Doesn’t cost me much. I smile, or I do an impression of a smile, or I’m interested, or I try to be interested, and when I need something from that person, they usually do their best.” I thought that was deeply revealing, and although it might read a little cynical, I didn’t feel that it was. Don Mattingly is genuinely patient with everybody. But when the patience – as it inevitably must – runs out, he manages to simulate it a little longer than the rest of us.
This might define the greatest skill a baseball manager can have.
This might also define why, in his second season, Mattingly is beginning to be viewed as one of the game’s up-and-coming managerial stars. With no managerial experience at all, he willed a pretty limp ballclub with the worst ownership in the sport in at least a decade, which had four different closers, and exactly one guy with more than 65 RBI, to three games above .500 and the seventh best record in the league.
This does not mean he is going to put them in the playoffs this year. Simply put, the Dodgers are not going to get 224 RBI each from Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, nor 75 saves from Javy Guerra. They are going to be hard-pressed to compete if they don’t correct the disproportions of the offense through the first thirteen games:
PLAYERS HR RBI
Ethier & Kemp 11 36
Everybody Else 1 24
“Everybody else” in LOS ANGELES seems to be named Ellis. They aren’t, of course. But they do have something in common. With the exception of Jose Uribe, they’re all pretty good defensive players, and as he’s shown early, his sub Jerry Hairston can often be a defensive revelation, at least in short bursts. The Dodgers also have a deep bullpen with a lot more depth available in Albuquerque. I am suspicious of the starting beyond Kershaw and perhaps Billingsley. Still, if the starters come through and the inevitable fits-and-starts of young Dee Gordon prove a net-plus, the Dodgers could compete in what is evidently going to be a depleted division.
ARIZONA looks like it will be struggling along with a makeshift outfield. This may not be a fatal thing; the team loves A.J. Pollock, and Gerardo Parra is at minimum an asset on defense. But I think the Diamondbacks and those picking them to succeed again in this division are really guilty of making assumptions about the pitching. Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy were both likely to correct downwards under the best of circumstances, Josh Collmenter’s success was illusory, Joe Saunders is a journeyman, Trevor Cahill an uncertainty, and Trevor Bauer a rookie who likes to run up on to the mound and throw a warm-up pitch all in one motion and I keep thinking of the late Eddie Feigner, the softball legend from The King And His Court. The dominant bullpen of 2011 is – even if it repeats its success – made up of spare parts (and a lot of them, spare parts the Oakland A’s traded for reasons other than money, which scares me). The Diamondbacks’ best bet might turn out to be a largely rebuilt rotation, made up of Bauer and Wade Miley and maybe even Tyler Skaggs, because I think starting pitching is going to decide the division.
That is what SAN FRANCISCO has. No offense, a lot weaker bullpen than everybody thinks (and that was before Wilson’s injury), and the sport’s second-worst management of young players next to the annual abuse drama in Cincinnati. But of course nobody since the 1971 Orioles has had exactly enough starting pitching, and even their four 20-game winners somehow contrived to lose the World Series. Here are Cain and Bumgarner under contract forever, and a revivified Barry Zito, and a Ryan Vogelsong who is surprising even the Giants with unexpected health – and yet there is Lincecum pitching as if that painful-looking delivery of his has become a painful-feeling delivery. With Eric Surkamp ailing and Jonathan Sanchez traded there is very little depth should something prove genuinely wrong with the Little Lord Fauntleroy of the Pitcher’s Mound.
And speak to me not of Santiago Casilla and Bullpen By Committee – the problem with the Committee isn’t the need to rely on multiple closers but the way that need deranges the roles of the set-up guys, and without the set-up guys fitting tightly into well-grooved slots, the 2010 World Champs don’t even make the playoffs. This team might fall away quickly, which would at least allow them to audition Heath Hembree as Wilson’s successor (unless Bruce Bochy decides it would be fun to give Guillermo Mota or maybe Al Holland a 47th shot).
There is something wrong in COLORADO and it is being obscured by the ultimate feelgood story for rapidly aging fans and writers alike (“Guy Who Cubs Wanted To Make A Minor League Coach 29 Years Ago Wins Big League Game”). It’s lovely to see Jamie Moyer still successful when his exact contemporary Bo Jackson already has an artificial hip and is throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, but it does remind me of Phil Niekro’s relative success in his career codas in New York and Cleveland: What is this, baseball during World War II? All the non 4-F’s are on the richer teams? Where are the Moscosos and the Chatwoods and the Pomeranzes and the Whites and why did you trade for them if you weren’t going to use them? And by the way, why are you auditioning a 37-year old first-time closer? And how come there is no actual third baseman, nor even one in AAA to fill in until Nolan Arenado is ready?
This means SAN DIEGO might sneak out of last place. Cory Luebke is on the verge of greatness and Chase Headley might be joining him. If Carlos Quentin comes back early enough to make any kind of contribution the Padres will have a better day-to-day line-up than the Rockies. Their rotations and bullpen already seem about even (though I’m not sure who takes over for Huston Street when they deal him at the deadline).
THE 2012 NL WEST FORECAST:
OK. You give me a 10-3 start and the injuries in Arizona and San Francisco and I’ll take the still-long odds against the Dodgers, with the Diamondbacks second, Giants third, Padres edging the Rockies for fourth. The problem, even with two weeks of baseball clarifying the view in the crystal ball, is that all five of these teams have paper-thin depth and another injury (Ethier again? Maybe Tulowitzki’s six early errors are hinting at one?) could topple all forecasts.
THE 2012 OVERALL FORECAST:
Again, kind of late. But I do not abandon my forecasts even when the early season suggests they’re bad ones (I’m looking at you, Phillies). In the NL I’ve already picked the Phils, Cardinals and now Dodgers. The east will produce both Wild Cards, probably the Braves and Nationals, and I guess I like the former (though now we see just how much a built-in one-game playoff will blunt not just the last-day excitement, but also predictions – you’re supposed to pick two wild cards and then choose which will win their single-game decider?). Let’s assume the Wild Card winner knocks off the best record (probably St. Louis) and the Phils’ experience propels them past L.A. That means a Braves-Phillies NLCS and I can’t see anybody beating the Phils’ front three.
The American League is a little easier. Tampa, Detroit, and Texas win the divisions. The Angels and Jays are the Wild Card and the Angels are likelier to win that. Detroit has the weakest division and thus the best shot at the best record, but sadly all that pitching and all that offense only prevails over intervals of ten games or more when the defense is as bad as it is. Thus the Wild Card Angels over Detroit, Tampa (finally) over Texas, and the Rays over the not-quite-good-enough Cherubs in the ALCS.
This leaves me with the same Rays-Phillies World Series I wrongly picked last year, which proves that even making your seasonal predictions 15 days into the season may not be any advantage at all.
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.
11 homers, 44 RBI, and a .769 OPS, in 103 games.
It’s kind of hard to believe that looking at those numbers, or more correctly looking at the loss of those numbers, would lead lots of folks to completely write off the 2012 chances of one particular club.
Those are, of course, the 2011 statistics of Chase Cameron Utley, who may or may not be the second baseman in PHILADELPHIA for part of 2012. Filling a similar role of not-quite-two-thirds-of-a-regular last year, Utley was part of a Phils squad that won its division by 13 games. In slightly fuller part-time duty the year before, Utley’s Phillies won the East by six games. In 2009, his last complete year, they also won by six games. In 2008, his last great year, they won by three.
It’s ludicrous to suggest that the Phillies have gotten better the less Utley has played. But it’s just as ludicrous to suggest that he is somehow irreplaceable. They replaced him fine the last two years, and even when he came back to hit .438 in the NLDS, they still managed to lose with him. But now Utley is a complete maybe, and the Phillies are supposedly dead.
The actual argument about the loss of Utley is that a healthy version would have compensated for the real damage done by the absence of Ryan Howard. Yes, he basically can’t hit lefties any more (in 2008 counting the post-season he drove in 52 runs against left-hand pitching; last year, 28, including 0-for-6 against Cardinal southpaws in the playoffs). But he’s still like the big fat kid on the playground: he tends to win nearly all the wrestling matches.
Utley’s presence was ultimately necessary because of Howard’s absence. Hell, they could’ve played him at first and saved a little wear and tear on him. But as immobile as Howard appears as the dawn of a new season breaks, his problem now is largely down to recovery from an infection that sounds suspiciously like a hospital bed sore. If and when it is fully knocked out, he will heal up quickly, and his stamina will recover adequately.
In short, the message to the assumed contending trio of the Braves, Marlins, and Nationals is: you’d better bury Philadelphia while Howard is still out. Because if you don’t, you won’t when he comes back. There’s just too much there there, especially in pitching, especially with the seeming Nostradamus act of Ruben Amaro almost re-signing the destined for injury Ryan Madson only to suddenly pull Jonathan Papelbon out of the hat. If the Phillies get any worthwhile production out of Jim Thome, Ty Wigginton, Juan Pierre and Freddy Galvis, they’ll be good if not great (and surely Galvis is a defensive upgrade at second base).
The three other contenders in this division are hard to sort out, and are probably all overrated. WASHINGTON has no pennant race experience, ATLANTA has too much, and MIAMI thinks it isn’t necessary.
The Braves are the likeliest to provide the challenge. Jair Jurrjens’ incremental velocity loss is a major concern, as are the horrific springs of Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran. So is the prospect that last season they actually burned out – rather than just wearing down – Jonny Venters. There are, however, waves of pitching options, and a strong offense that cannot again crater the way it did last September. I don’t think much should be expected of Chipper Jones, but on the other side of that coin, the Braves may have stolen a Jose Bautista-like player from Cincinnati in last Sunday’s trade for third baseman Juan Francisco.
Francisco has always had a reputation for tremendous power and a throwing arm not exceeded anywhere in the minors. But the Reds had transformed him from prospect to suspect by bringing him up in each of the last three years – and not having him do anything. We all know Dusty Baker’s inexplicable twist of the ’60s catchphrase: Don’t Trust Anybody Under 30. But Francisco may be Baker’s most appalling victim, worse even than what he did to Todd Frazier. Until September 1st of last year, Juan Francisco had started consecutive major league games once in his life. With little to play for down the stretch, Baker gave him a few more shots – three streaks of three starts in a row and three more of back-to-backs. Francisco responded with what was basically a 19-games-as-a-starter sample slash line reading 3/15/.280/.314/.500/.814.
I know straight extrapolations are dangerous it stretches out, but in just 114 games in a theoretical platoon with Martin Prado, Francisco’s line stretches out to 18/90/.280/.314/.500/.814. The kid has a thick body and needs to work harder, but countless are the examples of the underachievers who blossom when somebody has no choice but to play them regularly.
I do not see the Nationals competing offensively unless Bryce Harper ascends early, and all the indications from spring training implied this would be a 2013 event. Desmond and Espinosa can be a valuable offensive tandem but strike out fearfully often, Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche begin the year hurt, and there is still no indication that Jayson Werth’s 2008-10 run was not his peak. The bullpen is very nice and the rotation is probably second in the division, but who has felt the heat, close and late? LaRoche, Werth, Lidge, and the ever-relocating Edwin Jackson.
The problem with the Marlins is that all of their offensive stars – Hanley Ramirez, Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Reyes, Gaby Sanchez, and Logan Morrison – could live up to expectations and the team could still linger around .500. I do not like this rotation. Josh Johnson is overpowering, but though he has been with them off-and-on since 2005, he has only once thrown a full complement of starts. Mark Buehrle is an innings eater but no all-star, and if you’re depending on Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco, or Carlos Zambrano, you haven’t been paying attention. It is intriguing that 74 percent of the homers hit by Morrison and Stanton last year came with nobody on board, but that rotation and most of that bullpen seems shaky.
As an aside, the Miami experience will be as important at the gate as on the field. If the Marlins underachieve – or achieve and the fans still under-attend – there could be a quick fire sale, or a desperate effort to move the mega-contracts. And this isn’t just about South Florida. It reflects no great insight to realize that the willingness of the state of Florida, and the cities of St. Petersburg and/or Tampa to contribute to a new ballpark for the Rays, is almost wholly dependent on what happens in Miami. If the Marlins don’t draw, there is no other conclusion to reach than that the Rays will almost certainly have to move before 2017. They have developed a winning machine in Tampa Bay, and a loyal fan base, but very few of those fans seem to want to express their loyalty by paying, and fewer still want to pay their way into that nicely redecorated aircraft hangar.
I don’t have the heart to be rude about well-meaning NEW YORK. It is infuriating, knowing how that organization is infused from almost the top, to the very bottom, with earnest, hard-working people, that a team in a smaller market and a younger mega-tv deal spent the winter vacuuming up Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, while this club with its own tv channel couldn’t even make a serious offer to Jose Reyes. Worse yet, despite a few bright spots on the horizon, there is no immediate hope of improvement. Barring somebody collapsing above them, the Mets are likely to finish last this year and for several to come.
2012 N.L. EAST FORECAST:
The Phillies hang tough long enough for Howard to return in time to beat back the Braves, Nationals, and calamity-stricken Marlins, in a tight but possibly anger-filled race. The last-place Mets will sparkle on some days and Johan Santana’s comeback will be heart-warming – and then they might still have to deal him off.
It will be one of those freaks of baseball nature, not unlike the year the St. Louis Browns won the pennant because all their players were just physically bad enough to not be drafted for World War 2, or the year the Reds won the most games in the National League yet did not make the playoffs. The Detroit Tigers, with probably the worst defensive starting line-up in the majors today – and one of the worst of all-time among serious contenders – will likely blow through the American League Central and could easily start the playoffs as the odds-on favorite to win the ALCS and even The Series.
Consider them, and leave your images of them at bat, back in your mental dugout:
— Prince Fielder at first base: Decent forward motion for a man of his size, and unexpected ups, too. But going after a liner to either side should be accompanied by a public address system announcement of “timber.”
— Ryan Rayburn at second: You need to see the video again of him doing the Jai-Alai bit in left field to send Miguel Olivo’s fly ball over the fence? Here’s the link.
— Jhonny Peralta at short: This is an ex-shortstop turned third baseman and reconverted to short. And he’s the infield stalwart.
— Miguel Cabrera at third: No.
— Delmon Young in left: This will make you hanker for Raburn.
— Brennan Boesch in right: Immobile.
— Alex Avila catching: He’s a gifted receiver but, without Victor Martinez to help him out, the temptation for Jim Leyland to play him 133 more times behind the plate will be huge. His exhaustion down the stretch last year was ultimately disastrous.
You’ll notice I left out Austin Jackson. Obviously he is one of the best centerfielders in the game, not just fast but instinctive on balls off the bat, and in his throwing. But between Young and Boesch (or any of the alternatives) in that of all ballparks, they are asking him to cover a lot of ground.
But of course this is academic. When Salvador Perez and Joakim Soria went down, they postponed any chance of a KANSAS CITY uprising until next season. The Royals needed everything to break their way to offer a serious challenge, and we already know it won’t. They can live without Soria but pulling either Greg Holland or Jonathan Broxton out of their set-up pool will wind up overburdening the rotation. I still think the Royals could manage a second-place finish, but it’ll be distant behind a Tiger offense and pitching staff that are each 50% better than anything else in the division.
CLEVELAND is beginning to understand that if Ubaldo Jimenez did not hit his high water mark at the 2010 All-Star Game, he did so in the “Zander?” commercial with Jorge De La Ros about the bicycle license plates. How they could not see that he had lost command and speed suggests the Indians need to sign up for cable or a dish. That he cost them Drew Pomeranz and Alex White may come to haunt the Indians the way the Mike Napoli deal haunts the Angels. Manny Acta will get everything out of this team, but exactly who is going to make the decision to pull Jimenez out of the rotation?
Sometimes rebuilds can be fun. Consider the rookies and sophomores in CHICAGO: closer-in-waiting Addison Reed, relievers Hector Santiago and Nate Jones, third baseamn Brent Morel, rightfielder (well, hitter in right field) Dayan Viciedo, and, the most intriguing prospect of them all, Manager Robin Ventura. The White Sox will struggle to see .500 but Ventura’s extraordinary equanimity, devious humor, and quiet command will set a tone for quick recovery. Whether the White Sox have enough coming up through the pipeline to make them contenders in the near term is another thing all together.
Before you cast stones at MINNESOTA – be honest. Did you cry “no” when they gave then-recent-MVP Justin Morneau the big money? Did you say it was ludicrous when they gave Joe Mauer his $184,000,000 or did you extol the virtues of the small market team that could somehow afford to keep its hometown hero? You didn’t warn, I didn’t, the fans didn’t, and Twins ownership didn’t. And now we’re all on a possibly-irreversible trip to an AL Central version of the current events in Houston or Pittsburgh: exquisite new ballpark, faithful fans, and a team that can’t even afford to retain a Delmon Young during a season or a rehabbed Joe Nathan following it. It’s grim and it’s a reminder that Cincinnati is one blown-out kneecap away from having to give 51% of the franchise ownership to a suddenly-retired Joey Votto in lieu of paying a suddenly-retired Joey Votto.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL FORECAST:
Tigers, with or without a Statuary Defense, should win this division by double digits. The Royals and Indians will fight for second (and fight to stay over .500) and the White Sox will likely come in a few notches under. The Twins may be bad enough for the team to have to put up twelve-foot high fences to keep their most loyal fans from throwing themselves into the Fire Pits at Target Field.
Imagine for a second this scenario: a New York team wins consecutive pennants. They lose the first World Series to a lightning-in-a-bottle fast-finisher from the other league. They lose the next year to another one-month-wonder despite twice being one strike away from sealing the deal in Game 6. The New York team owner – one of the most famous men in sports – has to decide whether or not to retain his popular, African-American manager after the latter tests positive for cocaine. This was after he built the batting order around a recovered addict, who then falls off the wagon in the weeks before he was to get a nine-figure contract extension.
Can you picture that? It would be Armageddon every day at that ballpark as the media – not just in New York but nationally – struggled merely to decide whether these misceants were to be called the worst chokers of all time, or a bunch of druggies, or the team with the owner who needed to be run out of the game on a rail for letting such tainted underachievement continue. It would be, to adapt Dorothy Parker’s phrase to baseball, a Fresh Hell every day.
Of course, you don’t have to imagine anything here but the geography. This is not the imaginary story of the most controversial New York team of all time. It’s the 2012 Texas Rangers – and only their worst headlines – and in one of the most meaningful and revealing truths about baseball, and sports media, and America itself, they remain one of our feel good stories.
It’s not just New York, by the way. The 180 degree difference in how the New York Baseball Rangers would be treated, would also be true of the Boston Rangers or the Philadelphia Rangers or the Los Angeles Rangers. Regardless of the venue, it’s amazing, and it’s real.
And it’s relevant to a preview of the American League West because it means what is largely the same team can try it again for the third straight year – without Josh Hamilton being traded for Ken Phelps or Ron Washington being replaced by Dallas Green. There are only two notable changes: a real closer in Joe Nathan, and C.J. Wilson being swapped out for Yu Darvish.
The former move seems to reduce the variables; the latter may do the opposite. Darvish is the prototypical Japanese pitcher – with slight deception in the delivery, a mastery of five pitches and about four subtle varieties for each of them, and a rubber arm (at least for awhile). But Darvish is something Nomo and Matsuzaka and the rest are not: he is a Giant. He is 6’5”, 215, meaning he’s bigger than Nathan and Colby Lewis, and at least taller than Josh Hamilton. So the four different fastballs come in as fast as 95.
Watching Darvish against Colorado last week was watching the biggest kid in Kindergarten playfully slapping all the other ones. Half of them fell unconscious to the floor. The others? He missed them and he fell to the floor. The Rockies got their licks in, but in six at bats against him, Cargo and Tulo struck out six times and didn’t look close on any of the swinging strikes. It is almost a given (since we still condescendingly look at even Japan’s greatest veteran stars as our freshmen) that Darvish takes the Rookie Award in the AL. He may take the Cy. He may also go 12-15. The question isn’t whether or not he’ll make American batters look bad most of the time, but whether he might make American pitchers look bad most of the time.
The Rangers have competition in Orange County, but the ANGELS are the most tragically snake-bitten of all teams, and investments like the zillions spent on Wilson and Albert Pujols have always ended in tears – usually the late Gene Mauch’s. Despite the addition of Pujols and the resurrection of Kendrys “Just Shake Hands” Morales, the Cherubs are nowhere near a match for Texas offensively (hell, the ’27 Yankees might not be). The Mark Trumbo third base play comes at considerable defensive risk, and the bullpen remains a series of risky albeit probably good gambles. Ironically, for all that money, the difference-maker for Mike Scioscia might be his fifth starter, either retread Jerome Williams or rookie Garrett Richards, who at times looked lights out this spring.
There might be something to watch in SEATTLE. My affection for Jesus Montero’s opposite field power has been elaborated upon here before. But there is a flock of young hitters around him who might also blossom, and not just Dustin Ackley. Smoak, Carp (hurt), Saunders, Liddi, Gutierrez (hurt), and behind them Catricala and another Fernando Martinez might make the Mariners Wild Card eligible in a year. Probably would’ve helped if they hadn’t traded Doug Fister, because the rotation gets dicey just about the time you ask “Kevin Millwood is still alive?”
My friend Bob Melvin gets his first full year managing again, in OAKLAND. He loves to do it and was born to do it, and if anybody can drag this team back into respectability after its latest re-casting, it’s Bob. Unfortunately, even though he only played 11 games there in his career, Bob might be the best first baseman he has, and that’s a problem. The base hits get thin once you get past the exciting Jemile Weeks and the possibly exciting Yoenis Cespedes. And I won’t write anything long-winded on the latter for fear of being accusedof being Cespedes-sesquipedalian.
It’ll be fun watching the A’s continue their role as baseball’s breeding and/or training grounds for B+ pitchers. Mulder, Zito, Hudson, Harden, Haren, Street, Gonzalez, Cahill, Bailey, Anderson, et al. The new names are De Los Santos, Milone, Parker, and Peacock and maybe baseball can get on the stick and get the A’s into San Jose before they become eligible for the A’s Alumni Association, too.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST FORECAST:
TEXAS wins again, with Darvish filling the Wilson vacuum. LOS ANGELES/ANAHEIM/THE OC, afflicted by some calamity, still has enough to claim a wild card. SEATTLE approaches .500, and OAKLAND does better than you’d think.
Love the Braves taking a flier on third baseman Juan Francisco. He may amount to nothing, but he is capable of a Jose Bautista like breakout, and he’s no more of a load defensively than Cabrera or Trumbo. He was dying a slow death in Cincinnati where I believe Dusty Baker never played him two games in a row. Because he isn’t 37.
AMID all the curiosity and nostalgia about the sudden unretirement of Andy Pettitte, there rested one question that is absolutely fundamental to understanding the 2012 American League Eastern Division race.
I heard people ask Pettitte about how it happened, when it happened, why he wanted it to happen, how his arm was, how his legs were, how his head was. I heard questions about when Brian Cashman called him and how often and how much he was offered and how much he eventually signed for and why it took him so long and when he’ll be ready.
What I did not hear was a question about why – in the wake of trading the best hitting prospect they’ve produced since Robinson Cano for a starting pitcher, and in the wake of signing a free agent starting pitcher, and with a training camp full of young starting pitcher prospects – why did the Yankees feel they needed Pettitte?
Even at the point when Cashman traded Jesus Montero to Seattle for Michael Pineda (and then incongruously compared Montero to Miguel Cabrera), the Yankees had a surfeit of starting pitchers. CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia, and Phil Hughes were all back (and Bartolo Colon could’ve been). Manuel Banuelos, Dellin Betances, and Hector Noesi were awaiting opportunities. And then Pineda was added. And then Kuroda. And then Pettitte.
I understand no team divides its 162 starts evenly among five men and if you go through a year with only two rotational changes it’s been a blessing from above. But to add so much is to suggest not that you’re worried about injury or attrition, but about the quality of what you already have. I don’t think the Yankees trust Nova, I think they feel Hughes’ moment is passed, I presume they have no faith that the moment will arrive for Banuelos and Betances. And after his flaccid spring, I’m sure they’re wondering if the Pineda thing was a disaster too.
Jesus Montero probably can’t catch a lick and the Yankees didn’t have first base open for him to move to. But a player like him, with that kind of high ball opposite field power, is far more scarce than a Michael Pineda at his best, let alone a Michael Pineda who didn’t gain velocity in the off-season, only weight. The Yankees seem deliberately intent on ignoring the reality that they are aging dangerously on offense. I realize that part of the solution to that is to free up the DH spot that Montero would’ve filled, by a rotation of the wheezing Alex Rodriguez, the unpredictable Nick Swisher, the aging Derek Jeter, and the calcified Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez. But it would seem those guys, and the offense, would’ve benefited a lot more from taking days off and letting the kid get 600 plate appearances and 30 homers.
And while my theory of Cashman getting as much pitching protection as he can speaks well to his preparedness for the ever-growing chance of injury or unreliability among his hurlers, there is no similar cushion being built for the line-up. This is a dreadful bench, from Francisco Cervelli (no power), to Eduardo Nunez (no glove), to Jones (no future). And there’s nobody in the farm system to fill the deficiencies before Gary Sanchez and Mason Williams arise during the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign. There was a guy but they traded him for a starting pitcher so good that they had to talk a 39-year old out of retirement to replace him. Lord help the Yankees if Curtis Granderson hits like he did last September, or if Rodriguez (“he’s in great shape; oh yeah, he was in great shape last year before he broke”) or Teixeira or Russell Martin get hurt. Or Cano. No Cano and they might not be even a factor in the pennant race.
That’s why I’m picking TAMPA BAY in this division, and handily. This is still a popgun offense, although I giggle every time I read somebody rip them for bringing back Carlos Pena to replace folk hero Casey Kotchman. Casey Kotchman had 560 plate appearances last year in Tampa and drove in 48 runs. A first baseman almost has to try to achieve a statistic that pathetic. In any event, Andrew Friedman has upgraded the offense from anemic to serene, improving by small measure at first, at DH, and at short (where Jeff Keppinger is bound to supplant the .193/.223 boys, Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac). Desmond Jennings is clearly blossoming into a star, and if B.J. Upton can hit merely .275, he will finally become one as well.
And the Rays have the best pitching staff in baseball. Even if Matt Moore is hyped and James Shields returns to earth and David Price keeps underachieving, they can pull Wade Davis back from the bullpen, and bring up Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, and half a dozen other guys from Durham. If the magic spell that made Kyle Farnsworth a top closer suddenly snaps, they have Fernando Rodney and Joel Peralta and Jake McGee and J.P. Howell to give it a try. The Rays probably have not just the best staff, 1-through-14 in baseball; they may have the best staff, 1-through-28. Who knows: if everything doesn’t go wrong maybe they dangle some of those prospects at mid-season and get some hitting?
The problem in BOSTON last year was pitchers drinking before the games were over. The problem in Boston this year could be fans drinking before they begin. Outside of Adrian Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury there isn’t a player on that 25-man roster about whom there is not one huge question. How soon will Kevin Youkilis’ crazy grip finally irreparably damage his hand? Can Carl Crawford actually face a pennant race? Is Buchholz healthy? Or Lester? Or Beckett?
Most importantly, to paraphrase long-ago skipper Joe M. Morgan, “who is running this nine?” New manager Bobby Valentine, showing my earlier criticisms of him may have been extreme and unfair, wanted Jose Iglesias at shortstop and hard-hitting, rapidly-improving Ryan Lavarnway behind the plate (Lavarnway being the only Red Sox player who didn’t panic down the stretch last year). He was overruled – and he certainly wasn’t overruled by newbie GM Ben Cherington. Years ago Terry Francona, John Farrell, and Theo Epstein came to the realization that Daniel Bard didn’t have the emotional chops to be a starting pitcher, and was best served firing gas out of the pen. They’re all gone, Bard was shoved into the rotation, is flailing just as the former bosses knew he would, and now presumably staggers back to the bullpen as broken goods behind the physically sketchy Andrew Bailey (Mark Melancon might close for them yet).
It’s a mess. It’s a mess that could almost accidentally come together in triumph and bolt into the pennant race, but – and heaven help me I’m agreeing with Curt Schilling – it looks like it is going bad quicker than he and I expected it to. Ah well, maybe they can hire Francona back at some point and he can sift through the ashes and rebuild The Olde Towne Team with an eye towards 2014.
The question in TORONTO is: could it be going good quicker than anybody expects it to? Seven spots in the Jays’ lineup don’t particularly startle you, until you reach the conclusion that the guys occupying them could all, realistically, hit 20 homers apiece this year. This does not include Jose Bautista, or the first full year of The Brett Lawrie, who might become Canada’s first true homegrown baseball hero since The Larry Walker. The Blue Jays might be good for 250 home runs – Adam Lind could easily jump from one of the “other seven” to All-Star status – and the only defensive liability of the bunch, catcher J.P. Arencibia, could soon be supplanted by uber-prospect Travis D’Arnaud.
The Jays will hit and field. Their bullpen – fresh-armed Sergio Santos, protected by the underappreciated Coco Cordero, joining the incumbent Casey Janssen – with Darren Oliver actually finding a team he hasn’t previously played for – is newly solid. The questions are all among the starters. Only Ricky Romero has a resume, but during Toronto’s remarkable spring in dreary Dunedin (I know, I know, spring training stats, but they are 22-4 as I write this), Henderson Alvarez, Brett Cecil, Brandon Morrow, and even Deck McGuire and Kyle Drabek have looked sharp. Dustin McGowan is, in a tradition as old as time itself, hurt again – but perhaps only for a few weeks. If there’s one thing John Farrell knows it’s how to translate pitching potential into success. Just slight success out of the rotation and the Jays could vault into contention.
As to BALTIMORE they seem to be planning to use Wilson Betemit and Nick Johnson as part-time Designated Hitters. End Communication.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST FORECAST:
Faint heart never won fair predicting contests. I’m convinced about the winner, and taking a flier on the runners-up. It’s possible one of the Wild Cards comes out of this division but I’m not convinced any more. The Yankees and the Red Sox are not locks, and they are so not locks that I will assume New York will finally suffer the kind of position-player calamity that accelerates its decrepitude. TAMPA BAY is your champion, TORONTO second, NEW YORK third (close), BOSTON fourth, and BALTIMORE should’ve been relegated already.
NEXT TIME…I don’t know, I haven’t written it yet.