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.
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.
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.