Let’s begin the annual dive into analysis, estimates, and hunches, with the National League West:
Los Angeles: In the original classic version of John LeCarre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” Alec Guinness as George Smiley corners Bernard Hepton as the treason-enabling Toby Esterhase with a telling colloquy:
Smiley: Ever bought a fake picture, Toby?
Esterhase (smiling): Sold a couple once.
Smiley: The more you pay for it, the less inclined you are to doubt its authenticity.
The Dodgers have the talent to win the National League West twice this year. But they probably won’t win it at all, and that’ll probably unleash a disaster in which the General Manager and Manager both get fired, because they’re sticking to the truth behind that quote. The new ownership will stick with the high-end counterfeits they saddled themselves last year simply because they bought them, and they bought them simply because they cost so much.
1. The Dodgers invested in the useless-in-a-pennant-race Zack Greinke, the untested Hyun-Jin Ryu, and traded for the finished Josh Beckett, and will start them while burying or trading the useful but unspectacular Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, and Ted Lilly. Among the eight possible Dodger starters, Beckett should be ranked eighth.
2. For two months or more, the Dodgers will attempt to replace the injured Hanley Ramirez with Nick Punto (or maybe Juan Uribe) instead of Dee Gordon. How much must they hate Dee Gordon? It’s remarkable enough that they chose to bet on a journeyman minor league lifer who got lucky last year (Luis Cruz) over Gordon, but to be forced to take a second bite of the apple and still bite your own tongue is amazing. Gordon is young and made lots of mistakes in the field and on the bases, but unlike Punto he can hit Punto’s weight, and unlike Uribe, in the field he doesn’t resemble a potted plant.
3. Brandon League – who has blown 29 percent of his career save opportunities – looks like he’ll be the closer. If my calculations are correct, six of these 84 opportunities have come during pennant races. I realize Kenley Jansen has these disturbing heart problems, but if that’s somehow a factor, how on earth are they letting him out on the field in the first place?
4. This is an Andre Ethier slash line: 23/89/.292/.368/.493, 3.2 Offensive War, -0.2 Defensive War. Those aren’t career numbers, or a forecast for 2013. Those are his stat-by-stat highs since his “breakout” season of 2009, which in retrospect looks like his high water mark. And yet the Dodgers and much of the L.A. media still think him a Golden Child who should be batting fifth. I believe this could be called “The Wes Parker Effect,” which was while I lived there the only portion of the dismissal of Southern California as superficial that I found true. For nearly a decade the Dodgers thought first baseman Wes Parker was it, because he looked like he was it. Graceful, good looks, dashing. His career slash was .267/.351/.375 – and his career defensive WAR was minus three. For a first baseman.
Ethier looks like he’s a great player. He’s not. He was an above-average guy with one pretty good year who is well into his post-age-28 decline and is just not going to get any better now (and have a hard time staying even this good). And he will play every day while Yasiel Puig – the closest thing there is to ‘this year’s Yoenis Cespedes’ – goes to the minors.
5. Even more amazingly, until Carl Crawford is ready to play every day in left field, the Dodgers will have Skip Schumaker and Jerry Hairston Jr fill in, and not Puig. This presumes, by the way, that when Crawford is ready to play he actually will play well, and not be consumed by the panic that destroyed him in Boston. And the Dodgers’ rationales for ignoring in Puig what might be their best athlete this side of Matt Kemp? Incredibly, they are a) blaming Dee Gordon (somehow he forced them to rush him and even though he played terrifically when they brought him up in 2011, because he didn’t last year, that’s a reason to send out Puig), and b) they are crying poverty or at minimum preaching economy. The team that assumed $261,000,000 in Dead Sox contracts on one sunny day last year is actually reported to be worried about Puig’s service time and the acceleration of his free agency and arbitration eligibilities.
6. Even if you think this line-up (A.J. Ellis/Gonzalez/M. Ellis/Cruz/Punto/Schumaker/Kemp/Ethier) is actually the best one the Dodgers can put on the field, my old ESPN colleague and figure filbert deluxe David Punto argues that the way Don Mattingly has ordered it will generate about half a run less than it could.
The only threat the Dodgers should face in this division is from themselves. Unfortunately it seems like a mortal one.
Arizona: So apparently Justin Upton, Chris Young, Trevor Bauer, John McDonald, Henry Blanco, Chris Johnson, Sam Demel, Takashi Saito and a bunch of other guys just weren’t the ‘right types’ for somebody in the Diamondbacks’ hierarchy. Kirk Gibson? GM Kevin Towers? Owner and T206 Wagner trimming scandal victim Ken Kendrick? Who knows, and, frankly, who cares?
The purging of players by dint of character or philosophy or whatever may have once been a productive means of shaping a team. But in the modern game, what it gets you is…the Colorado Rockies. I don’t know what personality trait is shared by the incoming Acceptable Diamondback Personality Types like Eric Chavez, Martin Prado, Heath Bell, Cody Ross, Brandon McCarthy, Eric Hinske, Cliff Pennington, Randall Delgado and Didi Gregorius (although everybody likes McCarthy and Ross, nobody likes Bell, and in terms of defensive prospects Gregorius might be the best one in the game). I only know that engineering a line-up based on anything other than talent is madness and usually results in big “Kaboom” sounds and incendiary lightning strikes.
The one pure baseball consideration in the off-season clean-out also didn’t go well. Chris Young (the centerfielder, not the pitcher) was moved in part to make room for Adam Eaton (the centerfielder, not the pitcher). While the latter may not be quite the prospect Arizona thinks him, it was a defensible argument. Until Eaton got hurt.
The team isn’t bad, per se – just ‘meh.’ The pitchers are mostly A.L. refugees (McCarthy, Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, J.J. Putz, David Hernandez, Tony Sipp, the injured Daniel Hudson). There are some pretty good position players here and there but absolutely nobody you’d point to and say “All Star!,” which is an irony by itself given that the coaching staff behind Gibson (Alan Trammell, Matt Williams, Don Baylor, Charles Nagy, and now Steve Sax) is illustrious.
Fortunately when they finish a distant third the Specially-Selected Quality-Character D-Backs will all be good sports about it, I guess.
Colorado: Wanna hear something sad? In my fantasy baseball league, based solely on the NL, we had gone 140 players into the auction with every position player having inspired at least two bids (somebody opens for $1 and then another says $2 or $20 or whatever). Then Todd Helton was nominated.
Todd Helton cost $1 in our fantasy league.
The Rockies’ franchise he represents isn’t that bad, nor that sad. There is a disturbing fragility about its superstars (Cargo, Tulowitzki, and from the in-residence emeritus department, Helton) and just when the franchise seemed to be on the verge of recovering from the same kind of Character First nonsense Arizona will now suffer through, somebody decided to reinvent pitching. It’s well-intentioned (pitching has already been reinvented while pitching staffs have merely been enlarged and categorized) but seems to have incorporated only the worst of the old (four man rotation!) and the most dubious of the new (perpetual pitch counts and Vice Presidents of Pitching Developmental Personnel Evaluation Coordination).
There is this to consider, of course. The Rockies don’t have one outstanding pitcher right now, in the rotation or out of it (maybe Rex Brothers or Rob Scahill will become that, but not yet). And yet you don’t hear about that, do you? You only hear about The Executive Director of Coloradoean Pitching Prowess And Succor.
Clever diversion. It still means last place, but it’s clever.
San Diego: What, exactly, did the Padres get out of trading Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs? Oh yeah, Andrew Cashner (possibly not hurt this year) and outfielder Kyung-Min Na (he hit .155 last year). And, oh yeah, this gave the Pods an excuse to pack Mat Latos to Cincinnati for yet another first base prospect, Yonder Alonso (slugged .393 last year) and crack catching prospect Yasmani Grandal (Team Biogenesis; see you in June).
Occasionally the Pods hold on to somebody whom they should’ve given away for a bag of magic beans (Chase Headley) but, not to worry. He gets injured, the team’s faint prospects for a wild card slide back into the ether, and the happy, becalmed residents of San Diego continue to come out in sufficient numbers to keep this somnambulant franchise alive.
It’s really a shame. Hall of Famers Jerry Coleman, Ted Leitner, and Dick Enberg are among the Padres’ announcers. The impeccable Buddy Black is still the manager. And the weather is soooo nice. Shouldn’t somebody be complaining about fourth place?
San Francisco: OK, I admit it. Even after watching the Tigers melt the Yankees in the ALCS last year I had this sneaking suspicion that a good team with fewer stars but better defense, which could execute on both sides of the ball, might destroy the Tigers in the World Series. And then I looked at the San Francisco lineup and I just couldn’t go with my hunch.
I feel great shame.
Bruce Bochy and Brian Sabean just don’t make mistakes (well, Sabean shouldn’t have run his mouth when Buster Posey got planted in ’11, but I mean more pertinent-to-the-job mistakes). The rotation may get a little thin as early as Tim Lincecum and I’m not convinced Sergio Romo is the long-term answer in the bullpen. But in a doctrinal division, Giants management is non-denominational. The Dodgers throw money at everything. The Padres throw money at nothing. The Rockies tried religious tests. The Diamondbacks got rid of the ‘bad’ guys.
Bochy and Sabean (and coaches Dave Righetti and Mark Gardner) tried…everything. They did not hesitate to go to Plans B, C, D, or E when their Plan A failed. There were five closers last year, and somebody was invested in all the ones who weren’t Romo. Yet they changed, and changed again, and changed again, and finally were willing to go into the post-season with a closer who had pitched in 276 major league games but seen only 23 save opportunities.
The 2010 championship was won by midseason pickups like Cody Ross. 2012’s was sparked by Marco Scutaro and the finally at-home Hunter Pence. Who will make the difference for the 2013 Jints? Somebody Sabean goes and gets in July (although this year there are some actual farm products who could play a role, like outfielder Gary Brown, starter Kyle Crick, or closer Heath Hembree – who looks like one of those walk-the-bases-loaded-then-strike-the-side-out types).
And oh yeah, the Giants have Posey and Panda and the emerging Brandon Belt.
But mostly they’ll get 100% out of what they have while the more talented and monied Dodgers seem intent on getting 50%. I think they’ll have to keep the pedal down all season to beat L.A. and it might still be close around September 1, which is when the Dodgers will fold for good and finish 4-to-8 games out.
Division: Giants, Dodgers in a pennant race second, Diamondbacks not competitive in third, Padres struggling to fourth, pitching-free Rockies fifth.
Tomorrow the NL East.
Mike Piazza has written a new book in which he claims that Dodgers fans turned against him during his ill-fated contract negotiations in 1998 because Vin Scully asked him about it during a Spring Training interview.
“He wasn’t happy about it. And Scully’s voice carried a great deal of authority in Los Angeles…The way the whole contract drama looked to them (the fans) — many of whom were taking their cue from Scully — was that, by setting a deadline and insisting on so much money, I was demonstrating a conspicuous lack of loyalty to the ball club. I understood that.”
As he started the season poorly at the plate, “Vin Scully was crushing me,” Piazza concluded.
The ‘crushing’ 1998 Scully interview on my alma mater KTLA is available online. Watching it, it can only be hoped that Mike hasn’t seen it, and had it (mis)interpreted for him by someone who has since been treated for paranoia or at least crippling – maybe the right word is crushing – tone deafness.
“We’re visiting with Mike Piazza, and I’m sure neither one of us would like to talk about it, and yet the millions of people out there watching are interested in it, it is a big story, so consequently we have to address it. And that is, you’re down here, playing out the last year of your contract, coming up hopefully for you will be a multi-year multi-million dollar contract. Is that on your mind?”
Piazza answered generically about trying not to think about it and being blessed with a great family and agent. Twice he said he hoped “it’d just take care of itself.” He went to nearly every cliche except ‘Employees Must Wash Hands.’
Then Scully went for the kill:
“Well to be honest, you know, the outsiders, myself and all the other fans, we pick up a newspaper: ‘Piazza issues an ultimatum,’ and you say ‘whoa! What is that all about?”
While branding himself just a fan, Scully has actually done something that a fair reporter does (and so it is rarely seen or heard or done). He offers Piazza the opportunity to say that the characterization as an “ultimatum” of the timeline he set for the Dodgers to sign him to a new deal – a very fair thing for Piazza to do with free agency seven months away – was inappropriate or incorrect.
Piazza will have none of it. He doesn’t criticize the reporting, he doesn’t criticize the Dodgers. He gives it the old c’est-la-vie: “We basically just made clear our intentions that for me, I mean, I made all along that I would love to work things out with the Dodgers. We didn’t mean it to be threatening, we didn’t mean it to – unfortunately it comes out that way sometimes – but again, I stated I would love to be a Dodger for my whole career and I hope we can work things out and again that remains to be seen. If for some reason I happen to be a free agent at the end of this year I hope the Dodgers are the number one team that’s interested. So, again those things, unfortunately sometimes get a little bit misconstrued in the paper and they come out maybe a little bit aggressive but for me again, I try to be very professional about it and realize my job is on the field and my representative, what he does is his job, so I have to trust him on a lot of things.”
Scully, Question Three:
“Sure. Well ultimatum is a heavy word. That’s the kind of the thing, ‘if you don’t do this, we bomb you.'”
Here that stinker Scully goes again, giving Piazza a chance to say it’s not an ultimatum, that he doesn’t want the thing to drag through the season and potentially ruin 1998 for him, or the Dodgers, or the franchise for the next decade (or, as it proved, all of the above).
But instead of taking this second opportunity to paint himself in a good light, Piazza again tries to have it both ways. Instead of saying ‘it’s not an ultimatum,’ or ‘I don’t think of it as an ultimatum,’ or ‘the Dodgers have unfairly leaked this to make me look bad,’ or even ‘Vin, you’re being unfair to me,’ he again tacitly accepts the term: “Well, again, that wasn’t the intention at all, we just wanted to make clear that for me, again, I basically came up through this organization and my intentions are to work things out and it remains to be seen. But again, as far as I’m concerned, it’s done, it’s over with, I’m here to play baseball, I’m signed to play through this year and I’m going to go out there and give 110% as far as not short-changing myself, the fans, or the organization. And everything else, again, remains to be seen.”
Ah, but that’s when Scully absolutely destroys Piazza.
“Absolutely. And well said.”
At this point Scully literally turns the interview to the question of Piazza’s knees, and then how many stolen bases Piazza had in 1997, and the next we hear of this almost milquetoast chat, it’s fifteen years later and this – not Piazza’s intransigence in negotiations nor the lunkheadedness of the Dodgers’ then-new owner Rupert Murdoch – this Scully interview is what induced Armageddon at Chavez Ravine.
Scully was understandably mystified. “As God is my judge, I don’t get involved in these things,” he told The Los Angeles Times. “I can’t imagine I would ever put my toe in the water as far as a player and his negotiations.
What Piazza was trying to do in the interview, of course, is exactly what he has so belatedly and unfairly accused Scully of so many years later. He was trying to influence Dodger fans. He wanted them to rally to his side. He wanted them to help him pressure the team to give him the money (now a ridiculous-sounding $105 million over seven years – $15,000,000 a season). He didn’t want to issue an ultimatum, but he wanted them to think there was an ultimatum dictated by circumstances and he had done all he could to avoid it and would continue to do so and gee don’t the Dodger Dogs smell good?
Again, one hopes Piazza hadn’t seen the interview and simply had it recounted to him by somebody who didn’t get it. You know: somebody who doesn’t understand English. That Piazza had a totally hit-and-miss record with, and understanding of, the media (if asked in 2000 to identify the most cooperative MLB star and the least cooperative one, my answer each time would’ve been “Mike Piazza”) suggests otherwise.
The sadness here is that until the release of his new book, Piazza’s exit from Los Angeles had been seen as one of the sharpest downhill turning points in the years between Kirk Gibson’s homer and the day the franchise was wrested away from Frank McCourt. If Dodgers fans did have it in for Piazza – because of Scully or their frustration or the shape of his mustache – they quickly turned. For nearly all of the last fifteen years he had been viewed as the victim in the equation, and his departure as an unnecessary and uncorrectable mistake.
Until, that is, he went and blamed Vin Scully, of all people, and forever made it look like Rupert Murdoch was the good guy in all this.
The comparisons have been made for years, and tonight one of them comes true. Like Mickey Mantle, Bryce Harper will make his major league debut tonight, slightly out of position, and at the same age – 19.
Dismissing for the moment the relative validity of the comparisons of the players, something startling dawned on me this afternoon. We all know Mantle broke into the majors at Yankee Stadium on April 17, 1951, batting third and playing in right field (and wearing number 6) and grounding out to second base in his first at bat against Bill Wight of the Red Sox. Mantle would go 1-for-4 and notch his first of 1509 career RBI on a single that plated the third run in a 5-0 shutout by Vic Raschi.
But that wasn’t Mantle’s first game in New York as a bona fide member of the Yankees – and that’s where the startling part comes in.
Check this out:
That’s exactly what it looks like. Mantle posing with Joe DiMaggio – at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. The date is Saturday, April 14, 1951 and it’s part of the annual pre-season exhibition games the Yankees and Dodgers used to play. The seriousness of these games (though they didn’t count) is evidenced by those patches on their left sleeves. It’s the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the American League and the patches were brand new. Mantle has just gotten off an overnight flight from Kansas City, having just again been classified as medically unfit to serve due to osteomyelitis by yet another draft board. DiMaggio played CF and Mantle RF, and in the second exhibition, on Sunday the 15th – as Jane Leavy reports in her epic biography The Last BoyMantle merely went 4-for-4.
Update: This was not just Mantle’s first game in New York, it was also his first game in a Major League stadium. In 1951 – and only in 1951 – the Yankees spent spring training in Phoenix. There were no big league parks west of St. Louis then, and when the team began the “tour” that annually preceded the regular season (and to some degree still does) it went west to places like Seals Stadium in San Francisco. On March 26, 1951, Mantle hit a home run at USC’s field that went at least 550 feet, possibly as much as 600. But then came a letter from the draft board and Mantle had to leave the Yankees for nearly two weeks.
Note what’s painted onto the press box level in the fabled Brooklyn ballpark. WMGM was the Dodgers’ radio flagship station (at 1050 AM, it had been, and would again, become WHN). But it was just an exhibition game. Would Mantle’s debut have even been on the radio that day?OK, so I can’t find the television listings for April 14th.
But there you have it: at minimum, Mantle’s first game ever in New York, on Saturday April 14, 1951, was broadcast by the Yankees’ station (WINS, with Mel Allen and two new colleagues who were replacing Curt Gowdy, named Bill Crowley and Art Gleeson), and was also carried by the Dodgers’ station, WMGM, with their announcers.
The Dodgers announcers? In 1951?Red Barber on the left, then beginning his 13th year in the Brooklyn booth. In the center, Connie Desmond, Barber’s sidekick since 1942. And on the right, the kid, the local fellow who had just joined the team in the middle of the prior season…Vin Scully.
Updating: I asked my old friend (and my second boss) and Dodgers’ broadcaster Charley Steiner to check with Vin this evening to make sure he didn’t have that weekend in 1951 off for some reason. Vin says he has no recollection one way or the other (I mean, it was at least 10,000 games ago) but doesn’t think he wouldn’t have been working the exhibition games, especially the ones in New York, and recalls doing so throughout that era. So I think it’s safe to say that Vin Scully broadcast both Bryce Harper’s Major League debut tonight, and Mickey Mantle’s first game in New York just 61 years, and two weeks, ago!
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.
T.J. Simers of The Los Angeles Times has an almost unbelievable column today (and trust me, I’m using “almost” deliberately – some of them are unbelievable), which quotes a Dodgers’ season ticket-holder as saying he’s received a survey from the team asking him (and presumably others like him) to grade the performance of Vin Scully.
While that sinks in, let me regurgitate some basic facts. Vin Scully joined the Dodgers early in the season of 1950. He has been connected with that team so long that two of the eight National League franchises the day he got there, have since moved, and a third has moved twice. Four of the other five have each twice replaced their ballparks. Between expansion and relocation, two-thirds of all the big league clubs are newer at this than Scully is. The late Bob Sheppard, considered an institution at Yankee Stadium since time immemorial, started the year after Scully did, and retired three years ago. He has broadcast Dodger games under twelve U.S. Presidents. Scully has been with the Dodgers for 100% of their seasons in Los Angeles and is generally credited with personally selling the sport and the franchise in its new home. If he isn’t the game’s all-time greatest announcer – if he isn’t sports’ all-time greatest announcer – he’s no worse than second or third.
And the unceasingly tone-deaf Dodgers are asking their fans if he’s any good, in the way that – well, I don’t know, maybe the way ESPN would have asked its viewers after I did the one and only game I ever did (or am ever likely to do) as a major league baseball play-by-play man, in 1993:
On a scale of 1 to 5, “They wanted my opinion of Vin Scully in the following eight areas: 1. Knowledge of baseball; 2. Knowledge of Dodgers organization; 3. Objectivity; 4. Accuracy of calls; 5. Storytelling ability; 6. Focus on the game; 7. Style; 8. Overall performance.”
Simers infers (and I think it’s a reasonable assumption) that somebody in The Fortress Of Solitude On Elysian Park Avenue must be seriously thinking using the poll results against Vinnie. Seems unlikely they’re going to give him an award or a bonus based on whether Steve From Pasadena has given him a 4 or a 5. More likely this is an anti-Scully move in the making, either in an effort to get him to retire, or perhaps in contract negotiations. Either way, it’s madness. Sandy Koufax and Fernando Valenzuela have their enduring legacies but you could add their reps together to those of Don Drysdale and Steve Garvey and pretty much any other fan favorite, and the cumulative weight still wouldn’t reach up to the top of Vin’s ever-polished shoes.
Moreover, if anybody actually attempted to run Vin out of his job before he was ready, the Dodger faithful would rise up with righteous wrath and run the McCourt ownership group out of town faster than you can say “Bankruptcy Referee.”
I am reminded of something that happened years ago. And I put this in this context: I was so nervous about meeting him that I couldn’t screw up the courage to even attempt it until I’d been on television and radio in L.A. for two years. When I finally did, Vin said “I thought maybe you didn’t like me, and it’s funny, because I listen to you every afternoon on KNX. Where on earth do you get those ‘This Day In Baseball History’ facts?” I blurted out my admiration, and my sources, and I’m proud to say he has been dropping these delightful nuggets into his broadcasts for the last 25 years.
Anyway, more recently than that, maybe ten years ago (or about a sixth of his career ago), I found myself in the extraordinary position of sharing one of those priceless “Let’s Complain About Our Bosses” sessions – with Vin Scully! The bosses were two branches of the same octopus (I worked for Fox, and the Dodgers were owned by them) and Vin couldn’t understand why the team suddenly wanted to make changes in his telecasts without consulting him. “I think, just by accident, I probably have a good idea what these viewers want from us, after fifty years. I mean, just humor me and let me go on thinking that!” Why, he wanted to know, did Fox insist on making his game telecast look just like that of the Pirates? “I love Pittsburgh. No offense meant to Pittsburgh. But why should my broadcast look like Pittsburgh’s? Or Pittsburgh’s, like mine?”
The Dodgers defended the poll to Simers by saying they ask their fans about lots of stuff, including all the announcers.
Which brings me back to a version of Scully’s question from 2001:
When you’ve got Vin Scully, why would you want him to be exactly like anybody else? Why would you even reduce him to being compared to anybody else?
We have yet to reach the two-week mark of the season so I suppose a preview is not utterly absurd. It is often useful to watch one of the teams in person that you thought might be good, before going out on a limb for them. Just watched the Rockies spit out consecutive infield errors and some dilatory work in the rightfield corner here in New York in one inning, and I don’t need to see any more.
Arizona: Buster Olney’s ESPN “insider” column noted, accurately, that Manny Ramirez’s next-to-last round of PED use in Los Angeles may have altered the careers of then-Diamondbacks Manager Bob Melvin and General Manager Josh Byrnes. When the juiced-up Manny led the Dodgers past the Snakes in ’08, it led to Byrnes firing Melvin in ’09, and then the team firing Byrnes in ’10. In fact Manny may have caused Arizona to screw up its whole franchise: they’re down to starting Gerardo Parra, Melvin Mora, Russell Branyan, and (at least for a time) Willie Bloomquist. The rotation actually has a little spark, particularly in Daniel Hudson, and it is possible closer J.J. Putz might not injure himself this year. But this team isn’t going anywhere. Thanks, Manny.
Colorado: there is much to revel in here but the fundamentals are not among them. Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki are joys to behold (and they nearly collided in the 8th inning tonight – that could’ve been $237,750,000 down the tubes – Tulo sometimes forgets he’s not alone out there), Ubaldo Jimenez is a staff ace if not necessarily the victory-machine he seemed to be last spring, and Dexter Fowler may yet be a star. But the rest of this club is pretty pedestrian and none of its cusp talent in the minors is yet ready to contribute.
Los Angeles: The Dodgers seem gradually to be back towards the ’60s all-pitching and defense teams. The Loney/Uribe/Furcal/Blake infield might be the least menacing quartet in the game and if the Dodgers are satisfied with Tony Gwynn, Marcus Thames, Jay Gibbons and, for all I know, Sweet Lou Johnson in left, they are the only ones. Given that contention requires Don Mattingly to succeed in his first shot at managing anywhere and Matt Kemp doesn’t freak out and Jonathan Broxton doesn’t blow up and the McCourt Divorce doesn’t get worse, I’m not optimistic. Three out of four, sure. All of them?
San Diego: In insulting the Dodger infield I forgot the Padres: Brad Hawpe, Jorge Cantu, Orlando Hudson, Jason Bartlett, and Chase Headley. Fortunately the outfield is just as weak and the Pods’ main power threat might be Kyle Blanks, who has been on the disabled list for a year. Sadly, gifted skipper Buddy Black’s shining moment was before the collapse last year. Now, A-Gone is; the rotation has vanished; and all that is left is a bullpen from which they must trade at least Heath Bell just in hopes of restocking the fridge. This could be a truly grim year.
San Francisco: The Giants would have to screw up – and badly – to not repeat in this division. Brian Sabean would have to do the exact opposite of what he did last year and trade away key components and I’m not betting on it. But I must say this: the Giants are rapidly becoming one of the most disliked teams in baseball – and not just because of the silly boastfulness of the ring ceremony and the rest. No World Championship team has ever been feted by fans who have been worse winners than have the 2010 Giants. I mean Red Sox Nation didn’t gloat this much like this after ’04. It’s understandable that a franchise that saw that much frustration and even peril might continue to celebrate for years to come, but there is a reason they coined the phrase “act like you’ve been there before.”
Overview: 1. San Francisco, 2. Los Angeles, 3. Colorado, 4. San Diego, 5. Arizona. I don’t think this is much of a race. he only ones who are.
National League: I like the Marlins for the wild card, drawing (and being quartered by) the Giants. Braves over the Reds in the other, Braves over the Giants in the NLDS. Red Sox over the Braves in the World Series – yes, I’m sticking with that although the Tampa Bay prediction looks weak with the injury to Longoria having deranged their batting order (I like Sam Fuld but I do not think he is your 2011 AL MVP).