Anybody who tells you they can accurately forecast the World Series in April is lying to you.
Bob Costas once said he was coming around to the expanded (now re-expanded) post-1994 playoff formula. “Just so long as the World Series doesn’t become ‘The MLB Finals.'” Of course it has. Of course it has actually become something a little less exalted, because you could conceivably get there after playing the artificial and utterly unfair Wild Card Play-In Game.
The Play-In Game was hurriedly designed to try to force-replicate the drama of the inadvertent Play-In-Night that ended the 2011 regular season. What could not be replicated was the fact that the 2011 games were the results of weeks of what was left of the regular season pennant race while the 2012 games featured at least two teams that had all but secured the slots weeks earlier.
You remember Robert Andino and the Dan Johnson and Evan Longoria homers from 2011. What – unless one of them happens to be your team – do you remember of either 2012 Play-In Game?
Right. A vexing invoking of The Infield Fly Rule.
If that isn’t symbolic of those two games I don’t know what is. Don’t get me wrong: I’m at peace with the wild card, even with two wild cards. I’m at peace with pitting them against each other, Gladiator Style. But the randomness of one game just erases the remaining fairness of the thing. Make it three, but throw in a little torture. Make it best-of-three, and play a day/night doubleheader in one city. If one team wins both games, they go in. If not, everybody has to travel to the other city for a night game, the next night. You retain a little of the dice roll of the compressed time frame without the strong possibility that the better team will just happen to lose the only playoff game it gets after eight months of spring training and the 247-game regular season.
I mean, there are unfair weighted variables that you aren’t going to be able to control. To my knowledge nobody’s done the research but I would suggest an unusually high percentage of playoff teams since 1997 have been the ones with the softer inter-league schedule, and inter-league has gone from a set rotating division-versus-division plan to games assigned either for maximum tv ratings or for geographical convenience.
Worse yet is the advantage teams in divisions with extremely weak clubs have for home field advantage in the first round, and especially Wild Card eligibility. The American League East contenders used to have the doormat Devil Rays to fatten up against. Now (presumably) the National League East and American League West clubs will gain immeasurably by getting 19 opportunities to beat up the Marlins and Mets, and Astros respectively. There is no such dead wood in the A.L. East and N.L. Central, for example.
So those are the caveats – and the potential fixes – for anybody trying to forecast the playoffs (not that I’m saying they should be fixed to make forecasting easier; they should be fixed because theoretically you don’t want the true best team in the game wiped out by avoidable biases).
I’ve already picked the Rays, Indians, and Athletics to win the A.L. Divisions. I’m guessing Tampa Bay will still have the best record in the league and draw the wild card winner (which I’m thinking will come one each from the East and West, and the more I look at them the more I like Baltimore again – and L.A.). In lieu of flipping a coin I’m thinking the Orioles will be the better team by then and prevail again (I know; it’s a quaint notion that the ‘better team’ would win a one-game playoff). That would set up Tampa Bay-Baltimore and Cleveland-Oakland in the ALDS. An A’s pick is an easy one; I think the Rays-Orioles would be the full seven thriller and Tampa would finally prevail. So in the ALCS two great pitching staffs meet. Tampa’s is a little greater and they get a clutch home run from – who knows? Wil Myers? – to decide Game Seven. That puts them in the World Series.
In the National I already took the Nationals (waaay out on a limb there, I know), Cardinals, and Giants. The runners-up, Atlanta, Cincinnati and Los Angeles, will all be very good teams (although the Dodgers could easily have switched managers by mid-season). I’m forecasting kaboom-style disasters in Texas and for both L.A. teams so I might as well go whole-hog and say the Dodgers don’t even get the Card. So that’d be Braves-Reds and I’m assuming the Braves can survive their second such game in two years. That’d set up Washington-Atlanta and Cards-Giants and I’m afraid the obvious is true in both cases: Washington and San Francisco pretty easily. And as much as I like the Giants’ team I have already suggested the Nationals are going to have one of those triple-digit years so while I suspect San Francisco could give them a seven-game series I just can’t pick against this amazingly deep team from DC.
The World Series: two great pitching staffs, two great managers, two dynasties that were built quickly. But the Washington bats will overwhelm even the Rays’ rotation, and you-know-who will be the star. This will be Bryce Harper’s year (one assumes the first of many) as the star of …your World Champion Washington Nationals.
Before resuming our previews with the American League West, a quick postscript to the selection of the Miami Marlins ahead of the New York Mets in the basement of the National League East. As if I had asked them to do this, the Marlins underscored my prediction with the promotion of young pitching prospect Jose Fernandez to help replace two injured starters, despite the fact that the move accelerates the arbitration and free agency clocks for Fernandez.
The Mets’ version of Fernandez is Zack Wheeler. While Fernandez will be pitching against the Mets next Sunday, Wheeler will be opening up for your 2013 Buffalo Bisons. You can slam the Marlins all you want for the shell game they played on Florida taxpayers and for the dishonesty towards Mark Buehrle and others and for their fire sale last winter, but at least every once in awhile the Marlins try to act like they’re not a small market team. Unfortunately the Mets often do just the opposite.
Now to the A.L. West:
Los Angeles: The Angels are still as many as four starting pitchers short of a contender.
They can continue to sign the leading free agent slugger each winter for the foreseeable future, but if the pitching doesn’t come around, it isn’t going to matter.
It is certainly possible that their end of the Weird Delivery Deal with the Braves (Tommy Hanson for Jordan Walden) will flourish in the American League. The trimmed-down Joe Blanton might finally fulfill his promise while not fulfilling his appetite. Perhaps Jason Vargas can pitch in a pennant race. And maybe C.J. Wilson 2011 is the real thing and not C.J. Wilson 2012. But that’s a lot of ifs to gamble on in a division where it was proved last year that great hitting cannot carry average pitching, but great pitching can carry average hitting.
The Angels’ bullpen is also anything but a thing of beauty. Last year’s gift from the Padres, Ernesto Frieri, has lost miles off his fastball this spring – and his fastball is his only major league quality pitch. I suppose investing big bucks on the injured Ryan (One Season As A Closer And Then He Got Hurt) Madson makes more sense than, say, signing Jose Valverde – but not much more. Madson’s return may be soon, but it is certainly a gamble. The rest of the bullpen has proven itself erratic.
Trust me, I do not undervalue the Mike Trout/Albert Pujols/Josh Hamilton trio (although the decline in Hamilton’s game last year was evident and should crack a little further this year). I’ll even raise it to a quartet and note that Mark Trumbo is the most underrated hitter in the division. But the rest of the Angels’ position players are adequate at best. Chris Iannetta struggled on both sides of the plate, Howard Kendrick seems to be distancing himself from his great potential, Alberto Callaspo is just sort of there, and Peter Bourjos may be a great enough glove to shift Trout to left but he’s just not an offensive threat. Erick Aybar is one of the A.L.’s better shortstops but his main contribution is batting between Trout and Pujols.
Just the Pujols, Wilson, and Hamilton deals have cost owner Arte Moreno $440,000,000 in the last 16 months. That’s a lot of money to get a second or third place team as your receipt. When it happens again this year, Moreno is going to get unpleasant. If he doesn’t scapegoat General Manager Jerry DiPoto, DiPoto will surely scapegoat Manager Mike Scioscia, and that’ll be a shame.
But that’s what happens when you spend badly. You blame the guys beneath you. And often you blame the guys you spent to get.
Texas: This could all come apart quickly, too.
Last year I asked what would have happened if a team in New York or Boston or L.A. had a) had a manager test positive for cocaine use and have his job publicly threatened by his bosses as a result, b) blown a World Series to an inferior team, c) blown the next year’s World Series after needing one more out to win it, d) revealing later that the manager chose not to put in the defensive replacement who might’ve gotten the fly ball one more out that twisted the clunky regular rightfielder into a pretzel, and e) lost its best pitcher to free agency within its own division that winter?
Let’s raise the stakes a little this year. That same New York/Boston/L.A. club has now f) lost its best hitter to free agency within its own division the following winter, g) traded the face of its franchise and the soul of its clubhouse for nothing in particular, h) sent its top prospect to the minors rather than move some pieces and displace some average talent in the outfield, and, oh by the way, just for giggles, i) permitted the icon of the sport in its part of the country to engage in a front office power struggle with the team’s general manager, and j) lose it.
Texas baseball fans are an awfully forgiving lot, I guess.
The last three-plus seasons in Arlington have topped, at least in compression of events, anything that befell the Yankees’ “Bronx Zoo” of the ’70s and ’80s, or the Fightin-Among-Themselves-A’s in Oakland forty years ago. And yet on and on the Rangers go as if nothing matters and it’ll all be better if they can just bring Lance Berkman home to Texas.
What a mess.
I think this is the year they stop getting away with it. Unless Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt rise (and Olt had a terrible spring) to banish Berkman and Mitch Moreland or maybe the Leonys Martin/Craig Gentry platoon, the Rangers are in for a season of possible non-contention. Lord knows what they do if somebody like Nellie Cruz gets hurt (put Jeff Baker in right?).
I suspect a lot of people get fired here too.
Houston: It could be worse. They could’ve actually decided to go with Fernando or J.D. Martinez in right instead of Rick Ankiel and Brandon Barnes (which would’ve made their debut in the American League the dreaded – I apologize in advance – Two-Martinez Launch). There is the Jose Altuve Experience, which is nice. Bud Norris and Lucas Harrell show glimmers in the outfield and Brad Peacock tries to recover from a bad year in AAA by stepping down a notch into the Houston rotation.
But this is going to be a grim season for a franchise that was in the World Series only eight years ago.
I do hear nice things about the back-up catcher, Carlos Corporan. He was stinging the ball in Florida, which belies one blog’s identification of him as the perfect Astro: no-field, no-hit.
I don’t mean to pile on, but while these new Astros uniforms have to be better than the 2012 versions, the attempt to merge the ’62-64 Colt 45s shirts with the ’70-71 Astros shirts doesn’t really work. The Houston franchise has an extraordinary heritage of great shirts: the 1965-66 Astros “Shooting Star” jerseys, the 1975 acid trip pullovers, and maybe best of all, the gunslinger unis from the original team. Remember, they didn’t drop the name “Colts” out of some sort of sense of inappropriateness – it was a purely business decision based on a dispute with the gun manufacturer, and a desire to capitalize on the astronaut program as it crested in the second half of the ’60s.
Seattle: I’m conflicted on whether the Mariners are capable of stepping up into contention or near it.
The critical off-season offensive improvement (the acquisition of DH Kendrys Morales from the Angels) blocks off the escape route for Jesus Montero’s stunning incapacity to catch. The likely critical mid-season all-around improvement (the promotion of 2012 top draftee and catching wunderkind Mike Zunino) would seemingly force Montero to the bench. If somebody would just take Montero aside and say, ‘Hey, you and your once-in-a-generation opposite field power on the high fastball? You don’t have to catch any more. Maybe you could see if you could play first base, but, honestly, just spend all your time in the batting cage,’ the kid might approach a triple crown.
Bringing Michael Morse back was a great move and Justin Smoak had an outstanding spring. But Dustin Ackley still has come nowhere close to his advance billing, and the team is relying on Ackley, Franklin Gutierrez and Michael Saunders to help drive the offense. Ackley is a career .243 hitter, Gutierrez is a .256, Saunders a .220. And apparently either Gutierrez or Saunders is going to lead off with the other batting second. Gutierrez’s lifetime On Base Percentage is .308 and Saunders’ is .283.
This makes pitching discussions somewhat academic, although it is curious that with these waves of young pitchers in the system – the Hultzens, Paxtons, and Walkers – the rookie who makes the rotation is Brandon Maurer, who two winters ago was pitching in the Australian League, and there was a need to sign Joe Saunders. The bullpen might be Seattle’s unexpected strength with Carter Capps, Charlie Furbush, and Stephen Pryor coming into their own.
But you have to hit a little and the Mariners seem intent (squeezing out Montero, putting out-makers at the top of the order) on not doing so. I can’t see them pushing upwards even as the Angels and Rangers collapse above them.
Oakland: So – to reprise our indexing from the Rangers’ entry – nobody believed in a) Yeonis Cespedes, b) Bob Melvin, c) the Oakland bullpen, d) Josh Reddick, e) the kid starters, or f) their ability to stay in contention. They merely jerry-built a line-up that started churning out runs in the second half and not only stayed with Texas but surpassed them with a mid-game rally on the final day. With a little luck and a little more experience they might have knocked off the Tigers in the Division Series.
And as the 2013 A.L. West is previewed, the A’s still aren’t being taken seriously.
No, I don’t think Eric Sogard is going to hit .444 nor Josh Donaldson slug a homer every 20 at bats, as they did in Arizona. But Cespedes is a beast, and that 23/82/.292/.356/.505 (and 16 SB) line – with the now comparatively low 102 strikeouts – was just the warm-up offered by the man’s first season in this country, and he could easily win an MVP award now or in the near future. The line-up is strengthened with parts added like Chris Young, Jed Lowrie, and John Jaso (and if Sogard were to hit .274 they’d be ecstatic). The rotation has Brett Anderson added back into the mix, evidently in fine fettle, and even more power arms like Evan Scribner and Pedro Figueroa joining the now-experienced likes of Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle in the pen.
It’s a good team with a good manager. I’m biased towards him – he’s one of my favorite friends in baseball. But what I can tell from his players, they rely on Melvin’s rare combination of an encyclopedic knowledge of the strategy of the game, his calm leadership, and his always-unexpected wry humor. That Reddick could “pie” him after the season-ending win underscores the sense that he is not a part of them but nor is he apart from them – and that is the highest compliment players can offer a manager.
The division: I like the A’s to consolidate 2012 and add to it. Even in collapse the Rangers and Angels will give them a fight with L.A. finishing second and Texas third. Seattle will verge on contention but never quite reach it. The Astros are even money to lose 110 games.
Kansas City: Let me preface this by stating a few of my baseball loves.
I love Royals Stadium (original and remodeled). I love Ned Yost. I love George Brett. I love go-for-it risky trades. I love the Kansas City faithful who have suffered in the way Cubs fans have suffered or Red Sox fans had suffered – only without turning into professional victims about it.
Having said all that, they’re all going to get screwed in a new way this year, and good people are going to get fired. Because what Royals fans (and many of those handicapping the 2013 season) see as a renaissance forged by deft winter trading and a spectacular spring training, is in fact the disastrous sacrifice of very limited resources for a bunch of lousy pitchers.
The Royals will have to pay Wade Davis, Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, and James Shields a total of roughly $40,000,000 this year (and Guthrie’s salary goes up from $5 to $11 million next year). To get them they gave away some irrelevant parts like Jonathan Sanchez and Brandon Sisk and Patrick Leonard, and, oh by the way, they also gave away the store in Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, and Mike Montgomery (actually the last two are just icing at this point. If you traded Myers for Davis, Guthrie, Santana, and Shields in your fantasy league, they’d kick you out of your fantasy league).
I hear the cries of heresy even through the computer. Since arriving in the majors on Memorial Day, 2006, Shields basically hasn’t missed a start. He’s Big Game James and Complete Game James and if there’s a dependable pitcher in the American League, it’s him. And I look at him and see a guy who had five complete games in five years and then out of nowhere threw eleven of them in 2011 and then fell back to three last year and caused the phrase “arm fatigue warning” to start blinking on and off like a neon sign.
Shields has appeared in 218 major league games and started 217 of them. In the starts he’s averaged just slightly more than six-and-two-thirds inning. And he hasn’t had one serious injury even as he begins his eighth major league season at the age of 32. He is, in brief, four-months-on-the-DL waiting to happen.
Let’s say I’m completely wrong about Shields. How about the other 3/5ths of the rotation? Davis, Guthrie, and Santana have a combined lifetime record of 179 wins…and 179 losses. And it’s only that good because Santana is 96-80 lifetime. And even Santana has only had one winning season since 2008. Guthrie last had one in 2007.
There are some extraordinary parts in the Royals’ lineup: Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, a bullpen full of power arms, and a probably resurgent Eric Hosmer. And it won’t matter a lick, because the Royals wrote the right checks and made the right trades – to and for the wrong pitchers. The disaster that will ensue will leave the executives, and maybe my friend Ned, out of work.
All the mediocre pitchers, of course, will still be there.
Chicago: In the last 56 years, the White Sox have finished in second place 17 times. That’s been easier to do since the advent of divisional play in 1969, but it’s still a neat trick and it seems to represent the franchise. Second in Chicago’s hearts, second in Chicago’s history, second in the standings.
You look at this team and almost everybody in the line-up also looks like the second best in the division. Paul Konerko? Terrific – but no Prince Fielder. Chris Sale? Probably the runner-up to Verlander. Alexei Ramirez? Tremendous, but behind Asdrubal Cabrera in the divisional depth chart. You get the point.
All of which makes last year’s collapse all the more shocking: not that the Sox fell from first place, but that they maintained it so long. Was that the work of rookie manager Robin Ventura? Was it Don Cooper and Bobby Thigpen juggling a very young bullpen?
Is there a chance it happens again? Chicago’s only significant changes are Jeff Keppinger at third instead of a mixture of disappointing prospects, and Tyler Flowers replacing the departed A.J. Pierzynski. The latter is, literally, the decision to go with the (what else?) second choice.
Here’s hoping the White Sox at least retain Phantom Ball…
Cleveland: All the White Sox did not do, the Indians did. They got themselves the best available manager (“Boy did I need that year off,” Terry Francona told me – and everybody else he saw this spring), a very good first baseman who can become a very good rightfielder if things go wrong (Nick Swisher), a really good centerfielder (Michael Bourn), and an interesting haul for trading away their previous best outfielder Shin-Soo Choo (Trevor Bauer and Drew Stubbs).
The Bourn move alone worries me. As noted here previously he batted .238 after the 1st of July last year. On the other hand, his stolen bases and On Base Percentage stayed relatively constant in both halves (or at least the OBP variability was relatively constant). Bourn can hit .238 all season as long as the OBP stays around .350 and he pilfers bags. Cleveland has a potentially punishing line-up to bring him, and others, home.
The most intriguing of the others is Lonnie Chisenhall. Say that name out loud and you might think he’s been an Indians’ prospect since Jim Thome was a rookie. In point of fact he was their first round draft choice in 2008 and has only 109 big league games under his belt. The season begins with him in a nominal platoon and batting deep in Francona’s order, but this is a protection against his primary enemy, self-induced pressure. Chisenhall absolutely stung the ball all spring and his emotional pendulum seemed to have swung all the way to unflappable from constantly flappable.
Thus the Indians’ hopes are pinned on what is still something of a patchwork pitching staff. Francona might be a tonic for the inconsistent Justin Masterson; they maintained a mutual admiration society before the Red Sox dealt Masterson to Cleveland. But can anybody fix Ubaldo Jimenez? Can anybody imagine the story if anybody could fix Scott Kazmir? Is Trevor Bauer’s idiosyncratic style the kind of thing that drove Kirk Gibson nuts in Arizona but wouldn’t get more than a shrug and a spit from Francona?
And is the bullpen ordered correctly? Besides Chisenhall the other lights-out Cleveland figure in the Cactus League was reliever Cody Allen. Allen struck out 80 in 72 innings last year as he rocketed from the Class-A Carolina League through Akron and Columbus to the Indians’ bullpen. He has the earmarks of a closer-in-the-making, especially if Chris Perez finally loses his balance on the pitching and public relations tightrope he’s been walking ever since Cleveland got him from St. Louis.
In a division in which every team has a flaw there’s a lot to be said for the one that brought in a guy who got booed out of Philadelphia and in his next year managing won Boston’s first World Series in 86 seasons. Francona brought Brad Mills and Kevin Cash with him as coaches (Cash will be the next Francona protege to manage somewhere), and the three of them might be the most significant free agent signings in the division.
Minnesota: This is a bad baseball team. This is not a Florida-level bad baseball team, but it’s bad. And it went bad because no matter how tempting it is, if you are a small market franchise, you cannot tie up all your resources in either a) a hitter at a high-risk defensive position (Joe Mauer, Catcher) or b) a first baseman (Justin Morneau), let alone c) both.
There’s no way around this. What you are left with is a line-up in which four of the guys should be in AAA because they’re not good enough to be in the majors, and a fifth (Aaron Hicks) should be in AAA because he hasn’t played in a baseball town bigger than New Britain, Connecticut. The same is probably true of two of the team’s starting pitchers and two or more of its relievers. The trades of Ben Revere and Denard Span were probably necessary but yielded nothing of immediate value, and unfortunately one of the assets it yielded (Vance Worley) is supposedly the ace of the team.
Worst of all, general manager Terry Ryan – who retired and stayed retired just long enough for the entire game to change while he was away and render his vast knowledge outdated – seems to be hinting that this mess is somehow the fault of people like Ron Gardenhire. Gardy deserves better than that, and better than this godawful lineup Ryan has put together.
Detroit: “Closer By Committee” does not work. Does not work. Does not work. Does not work.
Any questions about this? I’ll answer them by asking you one: when was the last time a World Series winning team has had a save from more than one guy in the same Series? (Answer below).
The Tigers, of course, are not really planning to use five different guys to finish games. They will do what the Giants did after Brian Wilson got hurt last year: Keep trying new closers until you get one who sticks. Now, of course, if Joaquin Benoit doesn’t stick, and Phil Coke doesn’t stick, and Octavio Dotel doesn’t stick, and Al Alburquerque doesn’t stick, and Brayan Villareal doesn’t stick, and a Bruce Rondon reprise doesn’t stick – if all this auditioning isn’t over with in a hurry, the Tigers could find themselves in a mess long before they make a trade for an established closer.
The Tiger window to make the Central theirs is a lot smaller than people think. Since the game began, forecasters have proved themselves almost always incapable of seeing anything besides what happened the year before. The annual tables in The Sporting News used to show 50% or more of writers taking the incumbent Champions to repeat, year after year. Apart from the substitution of hindsight for foresight, this also sometimes masks any holes in those defending champs.
This is a long-winded way of saying that the Tigers weren’t nearly as good as they looked last year. They entombed the Yankees in the ALCS, which completely obliterated the fact that the week before the Orioles came thisclose to beating the Yankees in five or maybe even four. Detroit’s World Series woes had nothing to do with the layoff; they executed poorly on the basepaths and in the field and their pitching had been scouted perfectly.
Flatly, the Tigers are an old and defensively-challenged team. Miguel Cabrera might be their second best infielder, and while Torii Hunter will do wonders in right, Andy Dirks will give that advantage back in left. There is simply nothing special about the double-play combination, I’m not buying the bullpen even with a good closer emerging or on order, and beyond Justin Verlander the rotation could produce any result from superb to sub-.500.
By the way, the last World Series winner to get saves out of two guys was the 2005 White Sox and one of those, the one from Mark Buehrle in Game Three, spanned exactly one at bat in the bottom of the 14th inning, and happened only because Real Closer Bobby Jenks had pitched the 11th and 12th.
The Division: I think this is the only one in which I’ll go out onto the crazy limb and take my chances that a recent also-ran will jell in a hurry. I think the Indians can and will do just that, in what might be a crazy race with the Tigers and White Sox. I have no faith in the Royals’ acquisitions and see nothing but carnage ahead there when they finish fourth. The Twins will be last and will have no one to blame but themselves.
Chicago: The cupboard is not as bare here as widely believed – but it’s close. Firstly, the Cubs have two of the game’s emerging stars in first baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro (when he’s watching the game he’s in). There is also an able and patient management structure, from field boss Dale Sveum through president Theo Epstein. Behind them are three of the higher-potential impact position prospects in infielders Javier Baez and Junior Lake, and outfielder Jorge Soler.
The problem is, the next most interesting thing about the Cubs is the debate over whether they should commemorate the centennial of Wrigley Field next year (to note 100 years since it was built, as Weeghman Park, for the Chicago Whales of the long-gone Federal League) or in 2016 (to note 100 years since Weeghman bought the Cubs and moved them to his stadium).
Because possibly for the next four seasons, Rizzo and Castro and the When’s-The-Centennial question might be the only things to talk about at 1060 West Addison Street. Cubs fans have to hope Rizzo and Castro are still there by the time Baez and Soler (and to a lesser degree, Lake) get there. And they have to hope that some pitching finds its way there, too. Because right now there’s none, other than the intriguing Japanese reliever Kyuji Fujikawa and his counterpart among domestic spelling confusion, Jeff Samardzija.
Cincinnati: Lost in the debate that lingered through nearly the length of this lengthiest spring training – does Aroldis Chapman close, or get moved to the rotation – was the fact that on September 7, 2012 Chapman imploded. He faced seven Astros in the ninth, struck only one of them, gave up four hits (including a three-run homer to Matt Dominguez), and blew a 3-2 Reds’ lead. Three days later he walked three of the five Pirates he faced. Dusty Baker then gave him 12 days off, and although Chapman recorded saves in his last three appearances, he was no longer the untouchable pitcher of the season’s first five months (4 innings, 3 K’s, 3 BB, 1 hit). He then nearly coughed up Game 1 of the NLDS against the Giants (5-1 lead: two walks, two wild pitches, a hit) while following up with clean but irrelevant innings in the losses in Games 3 and 5.
My point is that, as often happens, debate obscures trouble. Any weaknesses Chapman showed in Arizona this spring (5 strikeouts, 4 walks, in nine innings – an opponents’ batting average of .294) could be attributed to the aborted starting experiment rather than something like, say, a pre-critical-mass arm problem.
That Cincinnati has at least one viable alternative in the pen (Jonathan Broxton was lights out this spring) is not the point. Chapman, as starter or reliever, is the pitching centerpiece of a team in a division where the contenders can all hit, and are separated by their mound strength. If Chapman is not the guy he was most of last year, the Reds are down one asset. As it is now, his failure to convert to the rotation means Cincinnati can’t survive any more of the past yo-yo seasons from the likes of Mike Leake and Homer Bailey. If something serious happens to Chapman, Broxton will adequately replace him – but the bullpen depth, which already hits Manny Parra levels surprisingly early, will be taxed.
Obviously the Reds are improved offensively. Shin-Soo Choo is one of the game’s underrated outfielders (career OPS: .847. Matt Kemp’s career OPS? .853 ) and provided his back woes of the last two weeks are transient, will handle both the leadoff spot and centerfield with ease. That’ll give Billy Hamilton a year to learn to play the position in the minors and become a Vince Coleman-like figure in Cincinnati (without so much of the throwing-firecrackers-at-fans part).
But as Chapman goes, so go the Reds.
Milwaukee: That the Brewers think Corey Hart will be back far earlier than the original July/August timeframe is indicated by their willingness to stick Alex Gonzalez at first base – rather than a prospect like Hunter Morris or a retread veteran – in his absence. With Hart’s bat, the Brewers’ new formula – in which at least four of the guys (Aoki, Gomez, Segura, Weeks) are as much about getting on as getting over – can churn out runs. Without him there’s a dead spot in the middle of the lineup and suddenly Ron Roenicke is depending on catcher Jonathan Lucroy to drive in 90 runs.
The Brewers’ starting pitching may have been better than thought even before they ransomed Kyle Lohse from The Island Of Misfit Scott Boras Clients. Yovanni Gallardo is a stud and Wily Peralta will eventually be one, leaving quality needed from only two of the group consisting of Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers, Chris Narveson, and the AAA rotation.
Milwaukee can win this division but all the ifs will have to turn in their favor. Lohse will have to succeed outside of St. Louis, Hart will have to heal quickly and hit hard, and Peralta will have to be ready now. Because the bullpen could be a disaster. John Axford blew 9 of 44 save chances last year, briefly lost his job to a terrified looking Jim Henderson – and there is no depth behind them short of imported lefty specialists Mike Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny.
Pittsburgh: With a few breaks the Pirates could leap into contention this season, but if the Brewers need all the ifs to run in their favor, Pittsburgh needs that from ifs nobody’s yet envisioned. It speaks to the degree the franchise has shed its farce label that Russell Nathan Coltrane Jeanson Martin chose to sign up rather than stay with the Yankees; it speaks to reality that only after he rallied with a strong September did Russell Nathan Coltrane Jeanson Martin manage to hit .211 last season.
There’s always something like that with the Bucs. Here they can go and trade off closer Joel Hanrahan for a hatful of Boston prospects and try to turn ace set-up man Steve Grilli into his successor – yet this also means that they are relying on a 36-year old novice closer, who made his major league debut five weeks into this millennium yet in all that time has had exactly 11 save opportunities (five of them last year – three of which he blew).
Andrew McCutchen is a great player and Pedro Alvarez and maybe Starling Marte have the potential to be nearly if not great. Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are living up to the pitching hype. But the Pirates can find a cloud for any silver lining. The same people who chose and developed all five of those men (and Neil Walker too) gave pitching prospect an over-slot bonus of $2,250,000 three drafts ago. Last year they had to convert him to being a first baseman. He hit .213 – as a 21-year old facing 18-year olds in rookie ball. That a draft choice named Stetson might prove to be all hat and no cattle as pitcher and hitter would just about sum up the Pirates.
St. Louis: You know what would be really cool? If Jon Jay could play shortstop and Oscar Taveras could play second base.
Over the last few years the Cardinals have developed a reputation as the Drs. Frankenstein of the middle infield. They’ve tried to make Allen Craig, Skip Schumaker, and now Matt Carpenter into second basemen, each with ineffective if not entirely unhappy results. Now would be the time for one of their creations to rise from the operating table, because the middle infield is the only hole in an otherwise dominant ball club – but what a hole it is.
Carpenter showed some usefulness filling in at first and third last year (and he’s due back to fill in for David Freese at third as the season starts), but there’s no sign he’s a second baseman. And Pete Kozma’s credentials as a defender at short are passable, but the hitting he did down the stretch and in the playoffs last September and October is just about all anybody should expect. The Freese injury may be the happiest of accidents, shuffling Carpenter off second and forcing the definitionally adequate Daniel Descalso into the lineup at second TFN.
Otherwise the Cards are just great. Won’t miss Chris Carpenter or Kyle Lohse. Still producing kid pitchers in clusters (this year’s – after previews last year – Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, and Joe Kelly), still two or three deep at the back end of the bullpen (Motte’s hurt? Get Boggs and Salas ready). The aforementioned Taveras could step in if (when) Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran get hurt. Yadier Molina is as good as they get.
So – how much does an offensive hole at short and a defensive hole at second hurt an otherwise impeccably built team? We’ll see. I think the Cardinals can get through the division. After that? Notice what happened to the Tigers when they tried to sneak poor execution past the Giants.
I’ll take the Cardinals in a tight race over the Reds with the Brewers finishing third – and I’m not sure if they’re a factor or not (ask Corey Hart). Pittsburgh’s fourth (maybe challenging for third). The Cubs will finish last.
But one passing thought: what if the Rangers, who have too many middle infielders but not enough outfielders and actually sent Jurickson Profar down, and the Cardinals, who have too few middle infielders but too many outfielders and actually just sent Oscar Taveras down, had the collective cajones to swap Taveras straight up for Profar?