Results tagged ‘ New York Mets ’

2013 Previews. NL East: Bryce Yourselves.

Having yesterday picked the Giants to surpass the more-talent/less-knowhow Dodgers in the West, we look ahead at the N.L. East:

Atlanta: And now, one of the great personnel questions in baseball history: If you put two underachieving brothers on the same team, in their home region of the country, for the first time in their lives, will they blossom? Can the purely personal premise of sibling rivalry (“Uptons Lead Braves To…”) overcome the undeniably statistical (27-year old B.J. Upton peaked at 22; his younger brother Justin has never been more than an average player when not inside the comfortable dome in Phoenix)?

The Uptons aren’t the only critical new couple in Atlanta. After years of tantalizing spring trainings, winter seasons, and MLB mini-hot streaks, Juan Francisco gets his shot to put up – and the Upton trade brought the Braves a useful righthander to platoon with him in Chris Johnson. Neither of them will make you think of Chipper Jones at his defensive peak, but nor did last year’s version of Mr. Chips. That they will not provide a speck of his leadership is a given.

Pitching is intriguing. Julio Teheran’s almost unhittable spring – climaxing in last Saturday’s six innings of being literally such – could combine with a full-season of Kris Medlen’s nearly unhittable 2012 finish. If so, the Braves could match the Nats arm-for-arm, especially if Mike Minor fulfills his promise. But if Fredi Gonzalez gets three lemons there, the Braves are finished, no matter how well the Uptons do, or Chipper’s successors do, or the bullpen does.

Plus there’s no Brian McCann. It’ll be at least May 1 before his shoulder quiets down and his travails this spring have the ring of one of those season-long things. Even though they let his perennial caddy David Ross walk over the winter, the Braves might have an intriguing Plan B in behemothian rookie Evan Gattis, who can catch, more or less, and lose a lot of baseballs because he seems to hit them into the clouds.

Nevertheless, there are too many “ifs” here. I hope the Uptons prove me wrong – even many of the people who let them leave Florida and Arizona last off-season speak nothing but praise for them as people – but as of today the record gives no reason to suspect they aren’t going to be busts in Atlanta, too.

Miami: Don’t get me wrong – the Marlins, Version Negative 2.0, aren’t going to win very much. But they might not be quite as repulsively bad as we all thought when the State of Florida’s bad bet on Jeffrey Loria’s business acumen predictably came up snake eyes – they might be better than the Mets. This will presumably turn on Miami’s willingness to promote the next great star who will eventually leave the team, Christian Yellich, who hit five homers and drove in 14 in 44 spring training AB’s. If the Marlins try to go cheap and keep Yellich in the minors not until May but until 2014, Miami’s huge holes could sink them completely. If they let Yellich up to join some combo of Giancarlo Stanton, Justin Ruggiano, Juan Pierre and Chris Coghlan, they will suddenly have an outfield nearly on par with Washington and the Phillies. The rest of the team is basically promising catcher Rob Brantly, and Other People’s Pitchers. Literally, outside of Ricky Nolasco, all the starting pitching candidates were underachieving pitching prospects obtained by trade (Alvarez, Eovaldi, LeBlanc, Slowey, Turner).

Far more interesting than the numbers put up by the team, will be those produced by the fans. I argued here last year that there was no chance Miami would suddenly turn into a 35,000-per-night city. Sadly I was right, and now we get to see how many will come to see these Dead Fish, and whether that spectacular new building might see an average as low as 3,500 a night.

New York: It has been postulated that the Yankees have let themselves go to hell because they saw a way to monetize the reality that the Mets just keep getting further away from respectability. One site specializing in such things suggested that New York’s opening day line-up could feature Marlon Byrd playing right and batting third. Last season, Marlon Byrd hit .070 in Chicago and then rocketed to a .320 slugging percentage in Boston and tested positive for a performance enhancing drug. Byrd said he wasn’t using it for that purpose. Man, I hope so.

If David Wright’s injury recurs, the Met infield could be Ike Davis, Justin Turner, Ruben Tejada, and Zach Lutz. The outfield could easily be Byrd (or Mike Baxter) and Collin Cowgill next to Lucas Duda. The latest rebuilt bullpen might be worse than last year’s and the rotation could be the worst since Tom Seaver was a rookie (and could provide similar contrasts for young right-handers who may be all Mets fans have to root for this season: Matt Harvey and Zach Wheeler).

New York knows the Mets are bad; it does not seem evident here that it’s very possible that they’re Worse-Than-The-Marlins-Kinda-Bad. Making things worse, the team’s first five series are against the Padres, Marlins, Rockies, Phillies, and Twins. Thus the Mets could easily be an utterly deceptive 10-6 or even 11-5 before – as the worn-out joke goes – the older kids get out of school.

Philadelphia: If you’re my age, or even close to it, you know the drill. Every morning some part is going to hurt, you just don’t know which one and how badly. Sadly the Phillies remind me way too much of me. Carlos Ruiz’s renaissance turned out to be an adderall-fueled illusion. Ryan Howard still doesn’t look 100%. Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are 34. Michael Young is 36. Roy Halladay had frightening moments of deadarmism this spring and it seems impossible to believe that it was only three years ago when we were assured he was the last puzzle piece to the greatest starting rotation in the history of mankind.

In a vast irony, perennial prospect Domonic Brown finally appears to be ready.

Don’t get me wrong: the Phillies could contend for second place here. I mean there are days when I creak less at noon than I did at 9 AM. Of course these only happen once or twice a month.

Washington: I thought this was the best overall team in baseball last year, and after its achilles heel was revealed in the decisive game against the Cardinals, management didn’t just lick its wounds – it invested even more in the squad. I am surely not the first to suggest that when you upgrade your fourth starter to Dan Haren, your first three starters are probably Cy Young candidates. The Nats surely did not need to sign Rafael Soriano as closer; clearly one of the internal candidates would’ve stepped up. But the mantra here appears to be don’t just try to beat everybody else – make sure you kill them.

That ‘don’t just try to beat them, make sure you kill them’ front office scheme? It mirrors words to that effect that Bryce Harper said to me after his first MLB exhibition game in 2011. It is a bit much to ask Harper to be the National League’s MVP, but it isn’t too much to put a bet down on him even at some very short odds. He debuted with all the technical skills, then had his moment of zen against the Phillies on May 6. Cole Hamels tried to put the veteran of seven big league games in his place by hitting him in the back. Moments later, Harper put Hamels in his place by stealing home on him.

Harper gave me his view of life way back in 2011! That is the remarkable thing about Harper that gets lost in the reality that he seems to have been around forever as prospect and mega-prospect and cover boy: he turns 21 next October. He’s fourteen months younger than Mike Trout. From 22/59/.270/.340/.477 – as a teenager – what kind of improvement can we expect this year? Is there a reasonable prediction for how high you go off that launch pad?

And it’s not as if he’s all Washington has. The infield is airtight, and power-packed at every position, and has rookie third baseman Anthony Rendon banging on the door. A healthier Jayson Werth is joined by Denard Span and Harper in the outfield. Catching are the unglamorous but highly-skilled Kurt Suzuki and Wilson Ramos, and as referenced earlier the pitching staff is impossibly deep. Of course for the Nationals, there actually is a hole. The next power arm scheduled to join the Nationals’ bullpen is a fellow named Christian Garcia. He just partially tore a tendon in his pitching arm.

Other than that I don’t see anything missing here. And for those who think the Braves are going to keep pace with them, I disagree. It might be a race for awhile but it’ll probably end with Washington winning 100 games and lapping the field by 10 or more. Take the Phillies for somewhere around .500, and the Marlins and Mets amazingly out of contention.

2012 Previews: N.L. East

11 homers, 44 RBI, and a .769 OPS, in 103 games.

It’s kind of hard to believe that looking at those numbers, or more correctly looking at the loss of those numbers, would lead lots of folks to completely write off the 2012 chances of one particular club.

Those are, of course, the 2011 statistics of Chase Cameron Utley, who may or may not be the second baseman in PHILADELPHIA for part of 2012. Filling a similar role of not-quite-two-thirds-of-a-regular last year, Utley was part of a Phils squad that won its division by 13 games. In slightly fuller part-time duty the year before, Utley’s Phillies won the East by six games. In 2009, his last complete year, they also won by six games. In 2008, his last great year, they won by three.

It’s ludicrous to suggest that the Phillies have gotten better the less Utley has played. But it’s just as ludicrous to suggest that he is somehow irreplaceable. They replaced him fine the last two years, and even when he came back to hit .438 in the NLDS, they still managed to lose with him. But now Utley is a complete maybe, and the Phillies are supposedly dead.

Bolshoi.

The actual argument about the loss of Utley is that a healthy version would have compensated for the real damage done by the absence of Ryan Howard. Yes, he basically can’t hit lefties any more (in 2008 counting the post-season he drove in 52 runs against left-hand pitching; last year, 28, including 0-for-6 against Cardinal southpaws in the playoffs). But he’s still like the big fat kid on the playground: he tends to win nearly all the wrestling matches.

Utley’s presence was ultimately necessary because of Howard’s absence. Hell, they could’ve played him at first and saved a little wear and tear on him. But as immobile as Howard appears as the dawn of a new season breaks, his problem now is largely down to recovery from an infection that sounds suspiciously like a hospital bed sore. If and when it is fully knocked out, he will heal up quickly, and his stamina will recover adequately.

In short, the message to the assumed contending trio of the Braves, Marlins, and Nationals is: you’d better bury Philadelphia while Howard is still out. Because if you don’t, you won’t when he comes back. There’s just too much there there, especially in pitching, especially with the seeming Nostradamus act of Ruben Amaro almost re-signing the destined for injury Ryan Madson only to suddenly pull Jonathan Papelbon out of the hat. If the Phillies get any worthwhile production out of Jim Thome, Ty Wigginton, Juan Pierre and Freddy Galvis, they’ll be good if not great (and surely Galvis is a defensive upgrade at second base).

The three other contenders in this division are hard to sort out, and are probably all overrated. WASHINGTON has no pennant race experience, ATLANTA has too much, and MIAMI thinks it isn’t necessary.

The Braves are the likeliest to provide the challenge. Jair Jurrjens’ incremental velocity loss is a major concern, as are the horrific springs of Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran. So is the prospect that last season they actually burned out – rather than just wearing down – Jonny Venters. There are, however, waves of pitching options, and a strong offense that cannot again crater the way it did last September. I don’t think much should be expected of Chipper Jones, but on the other side of that coin, the Braves may have stolen a Jose Bautista-like player from Cincinnati in last Sunday’s trade for third baseman Juan Francisco.

Francisco has always had a reputation for tremendous power and a throwing arm not exceeded anywhere in the minors. But the Reds had transformed him from prospect to suspect by bringing him up in each of the last three years – and not having him do anything. We all know Dusty Baker’s inexplicable twist of the ’60s catchphrase: Don’t Trust Anybody Under 30. But Francisco may be Baker’s most appalling victim, worse even than what he did to Todd Frazier. Until September 1st of last year, Juan Francisco had started consecutive major league games once in his life. With little to play for down the stretch, Baker gave him a few more shots – three streaks of three starts in a row and three more of back-to-backs. Francisco responded with what was basically a 19-games-as-a-starter sample slash line reading 3/15/.280/.314/.500/.814.

I know straight extrapolations are dangerous it stretches out, but in just 114 games in a theoretical platoon with Martin Prado, Francisco’s line stretches out to 18/90/.280/.314/.500/.814. The kid has a thick body and needs to work harder, but countless are the examples of the underachievers who blossom when somebody has no choice but to play them regularly.

I do not see the Nationals competing offensively unless Bryce Harper ascends early, and all the indications from spring training implied this would be a 2013 event. Desmond and Espinosa can be a valuable offensive tandem but strike out fearfully often, Michael Morse and Adam LaRoche begin the year hurt, and there is still no indication that Jayson Werth’s 2008-10 run was not his peak. The bullpen is very nice and the rotation is probably second in the division, but who has felt the heat, close and late? LaRoche, Werth, Lidge, and the ever-relocating Edwin Jackson.

The problem with the Marlins is that all of their offensive stars – Hanley Ramirez, Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Reyes, Gaby Sanchez, and Logan Morrison – could live up to expectations and the team could still linger around .500. I do not like this rotation. Josh Johnson is overpowering, but though he has been with them off-and-on since 2005, he has only once thrown a full complement of starts. Mark Buehrle is an innings eater but no all-star, and if you’re depending on Anibal Sanchez, Ricky Nolasco, or Carlos Zambrano, you haven’t been paying attention. It is intriguing that 74 percent of the homers hit by Morrison and Stanton last year came with nobody on board, but that rotation and most of that bullpen seems shaky.

As an aside, the Miami experience will be as important at the gate as on the field. If the Marlins underachieve – or achieve and the fans still under-attend – there could be a quick fire sale, or a desperate effort to move the mega-contracts. And this isn’t just about South Florida. It reflects no great insight to realize that the willingness of the state of Florida, and the cities of St. Petersburg and/or Tampa to contribute to a new ballpark for the Rays, is almost wholly dependent on what happens in Miami. If the Marlins don’t draw, there is no other conclusion to reach than that the Rays will almost certainly have to move before 2017. They have developed a winning machine in Tampa Bay, and a loyal fan base, but very few of those fans seem to want to express their loyalty by paying, and fewer still want to pay their way into that nicely redecorated aircraft hangar.

I don’t have the heart to be rude about well-meaning NEW YORK. It is infuriating, knowing how that organization is infused from almost the top, to the very bottom, with earnest, hard-working people, that a team in a smaller market and a younger mega-tv deal spent the winter vacuuming up Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, while this club with its own tv channel couldn’t even make a serious offer to Jose Reyes. Worse yet, despite a few bright spots on the horizon, there is no immediate hope of improvement. Barring somebody collapsing above them, the Mets are likely to finish last this year and for several to come.

2012 N.L. EAST FORECAST:

The Phillies hang tough long enough for Howard to return in time to beat back the Braves, Nationals, and calamity-stricken Marlins, in a tight but possibly anger-filled race. The last-place Mets will sparkle on some days and Johan Santana’s comeback will be heart-warming – and then they might still have to deal him off.

We Shall Not Forget (Provided You Pay)

For four years, MLB has exploited all the in-season holidays – Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day – plus on many occasions 9/11, by having all players wear special caps. Today, caps with an American flag patch stitched on the back, to the left of the inviolable MLB logo, were worn by all clubs and all players.

So, in New York, where in 2001 first the Mets and then the Yankees honored the fallen members of – and the heroic and selfless acts of – the New York Police Department, the New York Fire Department, New York EMS, Port Authority Police, New York Sanitation, and several others by wearing their caps during the games of the weeks after the attacks, Major League Baseball denied the Mets the opportunity to wear those caps again, just for tonight’s anniversary game, the only one being played within a thirty minute ride to the World Trade Center.

According to team Player Representative Josh Thole, the Mets players debated violating the dictum and wearing them anyway. Thole told reporters shortly thereafter that the league was adamant and it was a “no-go.” It is meaningful to realize that only three current Mets were even in the majors a decade ago: Miguel Batista, Willie Harris, and Jason Isringhausen. Evidently the Commissioner’s representative reminded them that the punishment – a heavy fine – would be meted out on ownership, not them (and for all we know, a major fine might cause this team to go out of business before noon tomorrow). For his part, David Wright wore a Police cap on the bench, but even he resisted the temptation to wear it on the field and incur the wrath of the Bean Counters in the Commissioner’s Office.

Those bloodless MLB individuals have been down this path before. Ten years ago, Bud Selig’s initially ruled the Mets and Yankees could not wear the caps during games. The Mets ignored the threat, and MLB decided to give them a pass for a game or two, and then the Mets kept wearing them, and MLB wisely backed off their nonsensical decision. Tonight’s ruling reminded everybody that at the moment of the nation’s greatest grief, MLB’s money-making instinct was unhindered by the blood and destruction and fear.

At least in 2001 the sport was smart enough to shut up. Not this year. MLB first blocked the Washington Nationals from wearing military caps in tribute after a disaster in Afghanistan last month. Then came this decision, complete with in the kind of stupidity that would make a megalomaniac proud: they blamed it on MLB Vice President Joe Torre, the native New Yorker who wore these caps at the end of the 2001 season. So if it hadn’t been shameful already, pinning it on Torre made it doubly shameful.

As an aside, I should note that I actually got a tweet from an idiot who wondered why I thought wearing the NYPD/NYFD/PAPD/EMS caps was somehow “patriotic.” It never crossed my mind. It has nothing to do with patriotism. 343 firefighters and paramedics died that day. 23 New York policemen did. And 47 from the Port Authority Police. This is about remembering them – and acknowledging what all those who survived did for this city and the wounds they still have. For me, as the grandson of a New York fireman, and the descendant of several others, and many NYPD and regional PD, this is something deeper than patriotism.

CitiField is, of course, ringed with commemorations and in particular the “We Shall Not Forget” logo placed in the ad right behind the batter’s box. And it has all been rendered utterly hollow because of the crassness of the decision about the NYPD/FD/EMS caps. If you still haven’t figured out why MLB is permitting this public relations disaster to happen; why Commissioner Bud Selig didn’t get on the phone and tell the Mets they could wear those caps right away and damn the consequences, the answer is to be found here.

In case you don’t want to follow the link, here’s your answer: this is available as of tonight directly from MLB for just $36.99.

I guess we should be happy it has an American flag, and that MLB just didn’t sell the space to the highest bidder.

Jeter’s Chances Of 3000th Hit At CitiField Wane

So I was sitting there beating myself up: of course nobody gets an MRI the same night they sustain an ordinary injury, every doctor wants to wait for the swelling to go down on anything and everything. But you cannot posit this, even with the caveat that it’s a conspiracy theory and you don’t necessarily believe it.

Besides which, I told myself, the math just didn’t work. The stint on the disabled list was long, but it wasn’t long enough. They couldn’t possibly be deliberately putting him on the shelf for a minor or non-existent injury just to delay his milestone to make sure it happened at home and not on the road, because the day after he was eligible to be activated they’d be playing in New York all right – but in the wrong ballpark.

The Yankees were not faking or exaggerating Derek Jeter’s injury just to make sure he got his 3,000th base hit in Yankee Stadium and that they could sell to a memorabilia-addicted public everything up to and including a commemorative Mason Jar full of air from the ballpark during the moment he got it.

They couldn’t be; Jeter was eligible to return from his strained right calf on Thursday, June 30, and he could resume play that day against Milwaukee, and then move into  CitiField needing only six hits or less with three games to play against the Mets, and the Yankees would rather return the franchise to the league than to let Jeter achieve his milestone in Queens and not the Bronx. Of course it wasn’t a conspiracy! They’d have to come up with some additional story that Jeter might not be ready to be activated on June 30.

Well, looky here: tonight an additional story that Jeter might not be ready to be activated on June 30.

Frankly, if he’s late by six games in coming off the DL, he misses the last game of the Yankees’ Milwaukee game, and the entirety of the Mets’ series, and the first two games of the subsequent series in Cleveland. Bring him back on July 6 and maybe he gets a knock or two or three (but not six) there, and he walks back into the Stadium with four games against Tampa Bay and still needing six hits or fewer.

Obviously, they do conduct MRIs on injuries in the hours after they occur. Even at night. But to my mind those tend to be for serious head or spinal injuries. Just a year ago, when Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies strained his calf on Opening Day (in the early afternoon no less), the Phillies waited until the next day to get his MRI done. But Jeter had his the same night as the injury and before sunrise it was evident he was going on the DL and missing the long road trip and golly if he couldn’t come back right on time he couldn’t possibly set the record at CitiField, and if he couldn’t come back within six or seven days, he couldn’t possibly set the record in Cleveland but would have a damn good chance of doing it at Yankee Stadium.

For the record, these are other important Derek Jeter dates: Sunday, he turns 37 years old. And if this is a really serious strain, and he misses three weeks more than originally expected, he’d be back on Friday, July 22, when the Yankees begin a 10-game homestand.

The truth is out there.

Exactly What The Mets Need

So it’s official now: The Wilpons have found a minority investor who is willing to fork over $200,000,000 for 49% of the Mets’ franchise – but unless the terminology is deliberately misleading, no final say over a team that the majority investor just mentioned the other day was “bleeding cash” and could lose $70 million this year.

So…now the team is going to bleed some of the new investor’s cash? Did $34 million of David Einhorn’s still-unapproved investment just go sliding down the proverbial rat hole before they could get him his new souvenir jersey with his name on it, right above the number “49%”?

And after what was thought to be a solid if lunkheadedly-run ballclub turned out to be in economic quicksand due to its association with the supposedly fabulous investment mega-money making genius Bernie Madoff, is it smart for the Wilpons and the Mets to now get into bed with a supposedly fabulous investment mega-money making genius David Einhorn?

2011 Previews: N.L. East

Let’s see if we can get through the rest of the divisions before the All-Star break…

Atlanta: I am not sold on the idea that Freddie Freeman is ready (yet), lord knows what they do when Chipper Jones breaks down, and I have some doubts about the set-up men in the bullpen. But the rest of this team is solid, The Ted has long been Dan Uggla’s favorite ballpark to hit in, and I like the starting depth with Mike Minor already pressed into service for the injured Jair Jurrjens. Hope if you play fantasy ball you were not misled by Fredi Gonzalez’s insistence he would be giving Jonny Venters a share of the closer’s job; Craig Kimbrel will soon be regarded as one of baseball’s bests. If you were to pick one team not widely believed to be a division winner to pick as a division winner, it’d be this one.

Florida: If Mike Stanton is healthy and the bullpen doesn’t fall apart, this is another contender. Power is down with the trade of Uggla, but up with the acquisition of John Buck and the maturation of Logan Morrison and Gaby Sanchez. The three younger players already mentioned, plus Chris Coghlan, join Hanley Ramirez as five of the highest-ceiling hitters in the league and there are scenarios in which they all reach their apogees simultaneously and the Marlins crush the division. I don’t think that’s likely and I don’t think a Leo Nunez/Clay Hensley/Mike Dunn bullpen is going to get them very far, but it might be enough to put them into Wild Card consideration.

New York: This might not be as bad as it seems, and Terry Collins might be just the right guy to get the maximum out of Jason Bay, Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, and David Wright, and the giant franchise disaster that is the Madoff Lawsuit might not distract from whatever is done on the field. But that’s a lot of mights – and we haven’t even gotten around to what might be the implications of having to play a Rule V draftee at second base, and having built a set-up staff exclusively out of guys released by other teams, and being stuck dragging around an injury-prone leftfielder for another three years whose fly ball arcs end at the warning track and was only signed because ownership insisted.

Philadelphia: If everybody had been healthy, they still would’ve been overrated. Win all the divisions you want – eventually an unreliable closer will cost you too much to survive it. Now he’s hurt, and his heir presumptive is so incapable of stepping up that his manager and general manager have publicly expressed their doubts about him. There’s the outfield, already a problem spot before Domonic Brown was hurt (Raul Ibanez is its power – he hit 16 homers last year). And most disastrous of all, deranging everything from the infield defense to the entire batting order, is the combination injury/enigma of Chase Utley. I’ll repeat what I wrote here in my Fantasy Notes last week: everything I heard from everybody I know connected to the Phillies says that Utley’s options are season-ending knee surgery, or virtually-season-ending rehab. Either way, offensively the Phillies are reduced to Ryan Howard with very little line-up protection, the hustle and skill of Shane Victorino, and lord-knows-what from Jimmy Rollins. The Phillies are not contenders. Oh yeah – nice rotation. Unfortunately it’s like living in a mansion with no furniture.

Washington: It is yet to be explained why this franchise yoked itself to Jayson Werth. He’s a fine component for a contending team. He is not a franchise player, and has been evidenced by where they’re hitting him, the Lerners inexplicably invested $126,000,000 in a number two hitter. Here’s a young team with exciting young players like Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond (though they should switch defensive positions) and Jordan Zimmermann and Wilson Ramos (and maybe Drew Storen) – and even a young superstar in Ryan Zimmerman. Why not invest that money in Zimmerman? I know he’s locked up through 2013, but 2014 is when Bryce Harper is probably going to hit 67 homers while Stephen Strasburg wins 24 games. Or if you really feel like spending money on veterans, make them bargain buys like Adam LaRoche, or at least make them pitchers to relieve the despair created by some of those who will toe the slab in the Capitol this year.

Overview: I liked the Braves before Utley got hurt. I still do. I will take them: 1. Atlanta, 2. Florida, 3. Philadelphia, 4. New York, 5. Washington (Washington could vault into 4th if things go really sour in Queens). I think the Marlins and Phillies are Wild Card prospects but I’m not sure yet.

False Spring In New York

Pitchers and Catchers report, New York temperatures clear 40 degrees, and somebody issues a forecast that references “55” by the end of the week and it’s not the age of the latest pitcher the Yankees invited to camp.

These should all be good signs for baseball here in Big Town, and once again optimism balloons like CC Sabathia before his gallant off-season knee-saving conditioning program. And I’m not buying a word of it. In fact, 2011 is shaping up as one of those rare seasons in which neither of the local teams seriously contend, perhaps a year like 1967.
That was my first true season of baseball awareness, inspired by the events of a birthday party for a neighbor named Wolfgang (Wolf wasn’t originally from around here) at which each of us was given a pack of baseball cards and everybody else’s contained the bonus “miniature poster” and mine didn’t and I vowed to get one and I was hooked. This minor childhood trauma is recounted because my vague memory is that Wolf’s birthday was May 10th, which the record books will show you was the last 1967 day in which either the Mets or the Yankees were at .500 or better. Between them the ’67 New York clubs lost 191 games and had the 17th and 20th worst records in all of baseball in a time when all of baseball consisted of 20 teams.
I didn’t see it at the time. I was eight. But clearly, the missing “miniature poster” was a sign of things to come during that awful season.
It’s not going to be that bad, but I continue to get the impression that not one correspondent or fan or executive of either of the teams has any idea exactly how bad it is going to be. The telltale sign is the Mets and Yankees both ended 2010 in decided spirals, yet if the Yankees had not spent gaudy money on the largely unnecessary Rafael Soriano, identifying this city’s biggest off-season acquisition would require an argument over the relative merits of Russell Martin, Ronny Paulino, and Brad Emaus.
The Mets are bleeding at second base, dependent in the outfield on the comebacks of two mega-contract free agents who might not have been good ideas when they were healthy, and absolutely without hope if their closer doesn’t put both his problems with the law and his fastball behind him. The Yankees are facing a superstar’s existential crisis at shortstop, and a far greater drama behind the plate than anybody’s letting on. And barring the kind of luck you only find in Fantasy Leagues, neither team has the starting pitching to expect to compete in their divisions.
I don’t have to fully regurgitate my stance on Derek Jeter. I am as sentimental as any baseball fan, ever. But I get far more choked up about a team making the post-season every year than I do about whether one player performed for 17 seasons with one team or “only” 15. As near as I can figure it, instead of cutting the cord now (or at least keeping their obligations to a minimum), the Yankees have designed some sort of plan by which Jeter will be permitted to deteriorate further at shortstop this year and next, and then be moved to the outfield where he will squeeze out Nick Swisher while producing a quarter of Swisher’s offensive value. 
I get it. Everybody loves Jeter. I’d like to point out the Yankees released Babe Ruth, fired Yogi Berra, trashed Tino Martinez, demoted Bernie Williams, and traded Elston Howard to the Red Sox. Not every great player stays that way until he’s 40 and gets to go out on his own terms. The Yankees’ decision on Jeter will not only cost them playoff appearances, but it will still end in tears, and an even messier conclusion in which Jeter hits .217 and is benched or released or put on waivers or all of the above.
Something also has to give in this odd mish-mosh at Catcher. Jesus Montero is supposedly ready, despite wildly varying reports on his ability to hit or catch anything that isn’t straight down the middle. If there wasn’t already uncertainty about the youngster, it would have been supplied by the acquisition of Russell Martin, who clearly still has the capacity in him for a strong comeback. And then there is Jorge Posada, supposedly still a vibrant presence at bat if not behind the plate, and ready to slide in to the DH role much of the time. Where ever the truth lies here, there are still three guys going into two positions, along with some thought that the DH spot will be used as a parking place for Alex Rodriguez and an At Bats opportunity for Andruw Jones, Ronnie Belliard, and Eric Chavez.
By the by, did you know that Chavez – the new utility cornerman and presumptive emergency middle infielder – has played twelve years in the major leagues and has spent exactly 28 and two-thirds innings playing anywhere except third base? Not games – innings. 

I am also probably belaboring a point I’ve made here before about the Yankees’ starting rotation: They don’t have one. While Sabathia is, simply, one of the best free agent signings in the history of the sport, the questions that follow him do not begin with “who replaces Andy Pettitte?” or “what about A.J. Burnett?” They start with the presumed number two, Phil Hughes, who was a flaccid 7-6, 4.90 after the All-Star Break and was eviscerated twice in the ALCS by Texas. Assuming Hughes enters 2011 as an established front-line major league starter is itself a leap. Then comes the nightmarish implications of the Burnett mystery. Then come the Ivan Novas, Sergio Mitres, and the veritable Old-Timers’ Day grouping that greets new pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Freddy Garcia? Mark Prior? Bartolo Colon? No wonder Kevin Millwood is generating enthusiasm by comparison. Why not Scott Sanderson? Dave LaPoint? Kevin Mmahat?
This team is going to compete with the Red Sox and Rays? This team is going to compete with the Blue Jays who off-loaded the Vernon Wells contract. This team is going to compete with the Orioles in their Buck Showalter Honeymoon Year.
And still the Yankees are in better shape than the Mets. From the middle of last summer onwards, what passed for buzz inside CitiField was some sort of vague sense of doom. It had to do with the jailed Ponzi Schemer Bernie Madoff, but no other details emerged. It didn’t seem to make much sense; the Wilpon family had insisted it had not suffered greatly at the hands of the ultimate financial snake oil salesman, and all evidence backed up their assertion. Now it becomes clear that the owners were in trouble not because Madoff had stolen their money, but because he hadn’t. They are the defendants in an extraordinary billion-dollar suit that claims they knowingly pocketed the profits from a kind of privatized Enron disaster. While the action is headed to mediation by former New York Governor (and former Pittsburgh Pirates farmhand) Mario Cuomo, it has already paralyzed the team’s finances and threatens to continue to do so for an indefinite period.
Which explains why the Mets, when still vaguely competitive last June and July, added no payroll. Which explains why the bullets were not bitten on the statues that replaced Luis Castillo and Ollie Perez. Which explains why, when another bat was needed, the Mets could reach only for Mike Hessman. Which explains why men named Wilpon did not take the fall in October.
Jason Bay and Carlos Beltran are enigmas. Jose Reyes is at the critical step, forwards to greatness or backwards towards underachievement. Ike Davis and Josh Thole are dedicated and gifted players who may not bring enough power to their respective positions. The second baseman could be a Rule V draftee. There isn’t one starting pitcher who isn’t weighed down with a huge question mark (Mike Pelfrey’s head, Jon Niese’s endurance, Johan Santana’s shoulder, Dillon Gee’s inexperience, the overall health of Chri
sses Young and Capuano, and the likelihood that R.A. Dickey actually found himself last season at the age of 35). And the bullpen? You don’t want to know about the bullpen.
So as winter today loosened its grip just slightly after a mean-spirited winter, I am thinking not about the warm spring breezes in the Bronx and Queens. I am thinking again about Wolfgang’s birthday party and the prospect that this year, every New York fan’s pack of cards will be missing something he was counting on getting.

Even Big Market Fans Have A Right To Kvetch, Too

I wonder sometimes if I am still living in the baseball city in which I was born.

At almost any point from my teen years to several months ago, the New York newspapers would by now have been calling for the dismissal of Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman, and the public shaming and court-martialing of the Wilpon family.

Instead I am reading a lot about how the Yankees will be “better balanced” without Cliff Lee; that they can get the bullpen depth they need instead, and a righty bat off the bench. Yes, having Sergio Mitre as your third starter and thus sinking to a record around .500 is about as balanced as you can get.

When the city isn’t making excuses for the Yanks’ impenetrable player acquisition strategy, it is commending new Mets’ GM Sandy Alderson as a great baseball man. So’s John McGraw, and what’s more, McGraw’s made just as many big moves this winter as Alderson has.

Seriously, I’m a baseball fan who happens to be a Yankee customer, and I did not have an irrational rooting interest in whether or not Lee ended up in the Bronx. But between the Yanks’ two failures to get him, and the sudden signing of Russell Martin, I’m very dubious about the chain of logic in the front office – if any.

As I recall, the trade with Seattle for Lee fell through last summer because Brian Cashman refused to part with both catching prospect Jesus Montero and shortstop prospect Eduardo Nunez. Nunez, of course, later came up to New York and showed he might survive as a utilityman but right now doesn’t come close to being even a reliable .250 hitter. I have heard two completely conflicting sets of information about Montero: the first that he is the Super Prospect: an influential catcher in all aspects of the job, and a potent bat. The second is that he has not grown either as a defender, handler of pitchers, or check on baserunners, and that his swing has more than one hole.

In 25 years of carefully watching scouting reports, when they conflict this much, I’ve never seen the positive ones prove correct. More over, it is clear that the real catching prospect in the Yankee system is young Gary Sanchez, who cut across rookie ball and at Staten Island like lightning this summer.

And now mix Russell Martin into the recipe. And the re-signed Derek Jeter, with the loose plan that he’ll play shortstop for another two years, by which time Jorge Posada will have presumably retired and Jeter can slide over to become a 39-year old DH without any measurable power.

So Montero has no role in 2010 and Nunez won’t be thought of for a job (one he probably can’t handle anyway) until 2012? And they are in New York and Cliff Lee is not? And even assuming the statistics, the history, the precedent, and the hands of time are wrong about Jeter and Cashman is right – nobody is yelling at Yankee management? Even though there are no prominent pitchers to trade for (and don’t say “Felix Hernandez” – he has a no-trade deal and the Yankees are reportedly on the no-way list)?

And the Mets of this winter make the Yankees of this winter look like the Red Sox of this winter. When you are operating in the nation’s largest community, and your team is without a single nearly-ready position prospect, and you still haven’t bitten the bullet on Luis Castillo and Ollie Perez, and you insist there are no economic restrictions on your personnel budget, and your top free agent signees are two guys dropped by the Pirates, surely some member of the Enraged Fourth Estate that has made this city the cuss-filled territory it is today should be demanding that the team either get on the stick or let the fans in for free.

It would be nice to dismiss this as the ranting of a big market fan with a sense of entitlement and a terrible fear he is finally facing his comeuppance. But face it, in the smaller markets, when the ownership misleads you and puts an inferior product on the field, they do not have the further gall to charge you $100 a ticket in the upper deck. 

What Price Jeter?

Let’s put aside for a second the premise that Derek Jeter believes he should be baseball’s second-highest paid player after a season in which he batted .241 against right handed pitchers. Let’s not address what it must look like in that higher plane of consciousness in which a team should pay a man $25 million a year through his 42nd birthday not because he is performing at that a supreme level of production, but out of loyalty and recognition of past greatness, and because he deserves to make nearly as much as Alex Rodriguez does.

Let’s start with reality. If the Yankees actually have offered him three years at $15 million – is there any team prepared to outbid them? The first part of that question is obviously simpler: for how many teams would Jeter be an upgrade at shortstop – or even second base – and have any marquee value?
It’s best to begin inside the division. The Red Sox are out; it would look pretty funny to see Jeter in a Boston uniform and Theo Epstein would delight in the gigantic nose-thumbing it would constitute. But the Sox believe themselves overstocked up the middle as it is with Dustin Pedroia, Jed Lowrie and Marco Scutaro, and are trying to unload Scutaro as it is (one can almost see them offering Scutaro to the Yankees as a Jeter replacement). Tampa Bay might think Jeter a better second base option than Sean Rodriguez, but they’re seeking to trim payroll, not engorge it. Toronto is set with Escobar and Hill. On the other hand, the Orioles don’t really have a shortstop despite Robert Andino’s flashes of adequacy last September.
Could any of the other big market teams be interested? At first blush you could envision a scenario in which the Mets actually do unload Jose Reyes and grab Jeter (or grab him to play second). But don’t be fooled if the first half of this shuffle takes place. Reyes would be moved to lighten the payroll and there are serious doubts about whether ownership will sign even the most economical of free agents this winter. The only real bidding war the Yankees might face for Jeter would be over before it got back to the dealer. 
In Los Angeles, Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis had weak seasons in 2010, but the Angels love them both. Owner Arte Moreno may be enough of a Yankee emulator at heart to have named his ballpark “Angel Stadium” (and not “Angels Stadium”) but he’s probably not enough of one to spend the money on Jeter when he could spend it on Adrian Beltre and/or Carl Crawford. Surely Jeter would be an improvement for the Dodgers at second base, but as at CitiField, ownership questions remain the deciding factor in the ever-deepening Chavez Ravine. 
In Chicago, the numbers have yet to explain the Cubs’ interest in Blake DeWitt but jettisoning him to pay Jeter to play second seems unlikely. As we move into the high-end middle markets, the Rockies have just cleared the way for Eric Young, Jr., at second. The Tigers would probably be happy to add Jeter to replace the Will Rhymes/Scott Sizemore uncertainty at second, but not at these prices. The Giants need a shortstop, but the field of free agents includes two incumbents from their own club in Edgar Renteria and Juan Uribe. The Reds are in a similar situation with Orlando Cabrera testing the waters. The Cardinals are inexplicably satisfied with their middle infield mish-mosh of Daniel Descalso, Tyler Greene, Brendan Ryan and Skip Schumaker but Jeter would be an upgrade on any of them.
So now we begin to move down market. The Astros like what Jeff Keppinger did for them last year and have just traded for Clint Barmes. Jeter would clearly be an improvement here. The same for Oakland and shortstop Cliff Pennington and second baseman Mark Ellis. The Padres likewise have unappealing options in Everth Cabrera and David Eckstein. The Indians are not sold on second baseman Jason Donald, but the Pirates probably would not think Jeter enough of an improvement to demote cheap shortstop Ronny Cedeno. And in Seattle, Jack Wilson can’t hit but the Mariners rightly fell in love with his glove. Perhaps these non-spending teams could all get together and offer Jeter one large contract and share him at a rate of 27 games each.
The Jeter market, then, is Baltimore, San Francisco and maybe St. Louis.
That’s the market at $15,000,001 a year. 
The market at $25,000,000 is in Jeter’s imagination. Or in the year 2000.

By The Beard Of Hercules; New 113-Year Old Baseball Cards

The most telling observations off Twitter yesterday: The colored-in beard sticking out from Brian Wilson of the Giants makes him look either like Bluto from Popeye or Bill Murray playing Hercules (“That boulder is too large. I could lift a smaller one”) on Saturday Night Live.


Absolutely fitting news from college football. Brian Jordan did color on a telecast of the Memphis-Southern Mississippi game yesterday. He spent the baseball season doing color on the telecasts of the AAA Gwinnett Braves, and a handful of broadcasts for the big league club. The former two-sport player is now a two-sport announcer.

My review of Jane Leavy‘s marvelous Mickey Mantle biography is now online at the Sunday New York Times Book Review. However, if you go to the editors’ notes in the front you will read a story about me, but apparently featuring an illustration meant to look like British Foreign Secretary William Hague if he had glasses and a little hair.
Impressive, no, that in three games of League Championship play we have already seen CC Sabathia, Tim Lincecum, and Roy Halladay, and none of them have been sharp enough to write home to Mother about. Doesn’t exactly set the bar high for Cliff Lee tomorrow night in New York.
Finally, if you want to try to understand some of the joy of antique baseball cards, consider late breaking news from the first comprehensive set ever issued, the 1887-1890 sets put out by Old Judge Cigarettes. 512 players were shown, in well over 2000 different poses (New York Giants outfielder Mike Dorgan had 17 different), with an almost incalculable number of caption and team variations, in transcendent photographs in which baseballs were often hung by string from the ceiling of the photographer’s studio.
And two new variations were discovered yesterday. 

OldJudgeOrrA.jpg

One of the most-collected parts of the series is a subset of 16 players from the original New York Mets of the then-major league American Association. The cards were put out early in 1887, when the Mets played on Staten Island, more or less exactly where the current ballpark for the Yankees’ affiliate now stands. The fellow who owned the then-private Staten Island Ferry bought the club and put up a ballpark next to his Wild West show and outdoor theater in hopes of drumming up business to Staten Island. It didn’t work and the Mets wound up moving to Kansas City in 1888.
The players are all inexplicably shown wearing the same kind (maybe even just the same one) spotted cravat tie and are thus known as “Spotted Ties.” The card shown here is of Mets’ first baseman Dave Orr, one of the few sluggers of the time and a genuine Hall of Fame candidate despite a career cut short by a stroke after just eight seasons. 
At left is the Orr card depicted in the masterful The Photographic Baseball Cards of Goodwin & Company compiled by Joe Gonsowski, Richard Masson, and my friend Jay Miller, which shows every known pose of every known player (a vendor is referenced here at Rob Lifson’s blog). For all everybody knew, this was the  
OldJudgeOrrB.jpg
way all Dave Orr Spotted Ties looked. 
Then Jay emailed me yesterday to say that a minor variation had been noticed in the card of Mets’ catcher Charlie Reipschlager (identified on the card and in the box scores of the day as “Ripslager”). It was simply how the name “Ripslager” was lettered across his uniform. It was clear that it had been re-done for some reason, possibly owing to the mechanical process by which the original photographs of the players were re-photographed using the big box cameras of the day, to creete one large photograph from which the sheets of cards were printed.
in any event, Jay suggested I should check the Ripslager card in my collection (and the other “Spotted Ties”) for the variation. I didn’t have the two different versions of the catcher, but lo and behold, there are at least two different versions of Orr. This second card on the left shows a larger, bolder identification, the letters nearly touching the tie, and far more spread out. 
The change may be difficult to see, so a picture of the two cards side-by-side is shown below. Intuition suggests there may be similar lettering variations on all of the Spotted Ties. It’s impossible to say if one kind is more valuable than the others (the most expensive Spotted Tie depicts Steve Behel, an early Jewish player). But the variations should not have come as a surprise. An entirel
y new pose of Jim Tyng (inventor of the catcher’s mask) was discovered just last year, not long after we had all realized that the “only” card of Baltimore manager Billy Barnie was actually two different photos, taken within seconds of each other, and showed only a slight change in where his gaze was directed, and a previously unknown player, Whitey Gibson, was only unearthed in 1980. And thus the charm of collecting: we’re still getting new cards, 113 years after Goodwin & Co. first made them.
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