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.
We’ll wrap this up tomorrow night with some thoughts on individual players and awards, but let’s do the last of the six divisional previews first.
seem to you as if Brandon Wood has been on the verge of breaking in to the LOS
ANGELES line-up since Mark Langston was the Angels’ pitching ace? Whether it’s
been four years or forty, this is the first time the team is actually relying
on Wood, and the
pressure is probably a lot more intense than generally understood. If Wood does not produce
a power-filled season, or doesn’t hold on to the job, the Angels will have to
revert to the Chone Figgins-driven line-up, only without Chone Figgins. It’ll
be tough enough adjusting to Erick Aybar at the top of the line-up, without the
Halos also failing to add the last layer of punch they missed so dearly in the ALCS
last year. The emergence of Kendry Morales and the resuscitation of Howie
Kendrick gave life to the club last year, but face it, four key positions are
beginning to creak a little bit with age, including the now three ex-Yanks in
the line-up. Torii Hunter should be terrified at Mike Scioscia’s insistence that
he may occasionally use Hideki Matsui in left. If placed between Matsui and the
periodically mystified Bobby Abreu in right, MLB might consider letting Hunter
ride a Razor. Pitching is deep but once you get past Jered Weaver, not very
intimidating, and Joel Pineiro might have been the off-season’s most overrated
signing (Fernando Rodney might have been the second, but with or without him,
the bullpen is the team’s top asset).
looks like an all-or-nothing proposition. Anderson, Braden, and Cahill might
emerge as world-beaters. Sheets and Duchscherer could make remarkable
comebacks. Bailey could expand on a ROTY season. Or literally any one of the
six could lose his job by June 1. The ailments of Joey Devine and Michael
Wuertz thin out an already thin pen, and the line-up, while energetic and
dynamic, does have to play 81 games on the road against teams that actually hit
those things where, you know, the ball goes past those walls behind the gents
standing on the far lawn – what are those called again? Honestly, if your
line-up looks like it could be beaten up, man for man, by that of the Royals,
you could be in for a long summer, even if every one of the pitchers come
strategic building in SEATTLE over the last two years – Figgins, Wilson,
Gutierrez, Lee, even Byrnes and Snell and League (to say nothing of Wakamatsu)
added to the Ichiro/Felix base, it would seem it would be almost impossible for
the Mariners not to be favored. But as I have suggested before, Jack Zduriencik
managed to make the one move that could undo all the good ones. Ask the 2004-05
Dodgers, who thought he was the guy who could take them over the hump. Ask the
2006 A’s, who thought he was the missing piece (and surrendered Andre Ethier to
get him). Ask the 2007 Padres, who brought him in for the stretch run (and
infamously coughed up the division to the Rockies). Ask the 2008 Rangers, who
signed him, only to start shopping him at mid-season. Ask the 2009 Cubs, who
gave him $30 million for three years and sent him home before the first year
ended because nobody could abide his presence any more. Ask the fans he’s
confronted, the reporters he’s confronted, the play-by-play man he ran up
several flights of stairs in hopes of knocking silly. It’s not as if Milton Bradley
has had a few problems. This is six clubs in six seasons and the longest he
lasted with any of them was until June 29th of the second year. I
don’t know what it will be, I don’t know when it will be, but Bradley will do
something to cost the Mariners the division. And if this somehow does not come
to pass, he will have earned an apology from me – but probably will not have
asked for it, because he would have already experienced an epiphany in which
his consistently uncontrollable behavior would have appeared as unacceptable to
him as it has to everybody else, and he would have apologized to the Cubs. And the Rangers. And
the Padres. And the A’s. And the Dodgers (and just for good measure, Cliff Lee
is not only hurt – he has the most nagging and unpredictable of injuries for a
baseball player, ‘something in the abdomen.’)
line-up in TEXAS frightens me. I know Josh Hamilton is not going to hit 57
homers. I understand Vlad Guerrero has aged. I’m sure Chris Davis could repeat
the first half of 2009. I noticed Ian Kinsler’s on the DL. Without them this
is still the most potent batting order in the division. So the Rangers’ questions are, as
ever, on the mound. But in addition to reclaiming Darren Oliver and bringing
back Colby Lewis from banishment, Texas has one other answer to those
questions: Neftali Feliz. It is impossible to watch him pitch and not see
either a super closer, or a 250-strikeout starter. Either one of them will do
the Rangers fine upon his maturation; for now, a dominating 8th-inning
presence will probably win them the division. And it will be fascinating to
watch any player struggles completely overshadowed by the good or bad conduct
of a manager – not to make a comparison that would be slanderous to the
good-hearted Ron Washington, but we haven’t seen that since Billy Martin died,
and it occasionally helps a team get on with its business while the skipper
takes the heat.
As suggested, I like Texas. Oakland’s pitching could jell to challenge them;
Milton Bradley could go AWOL on May 1 and save Seattle’s season; Brandon Wood
could be everything the Angels ever wanted from him. But I don’t think any of
those things are going to happen. Rangers by a five or six game margin, with
the others following in a jumble I can’t quite yet discern.
FORECAST: I think Tampa ends up with the best record, Texas the worst, and the
Rays will handle the Rangers easily. The Wild Card will go to Boston, most
likely, and they should probably dispatch Detroit, setting up a re-run of 2008,
including the TB victory. This time I like the Rays to win the Series, five
years after other owners seriously murmured about moving them or contracting