Results tagged ‘ Seattle Mariners ’

2013 Previews. A.L. West: But Who Can Pitch?

Before resuming our previews with the American League West, a quick postscript to the selection of the Miami Marlins ahead of the New York Mets in the basement of the National League East. As if I had asked them to do this, the Marlins underscored my prediction with the promotion of young pitching prospect Jose Fernandez to help replace two injured starters, despite the fact that the move accelerates the arbitration and free agency clocks for Fernandez.

The Mets’ version of Fernandez is Zack Wheeler. While Fernandez will be pitching against the Mets next Sunday, Wheeler will be opening up for your 2013 Buffalo Bisons. You can slam the Marlins all you want for the shell game they played on Florida taxpayers and for the dishonesty towards Mark Buehrle and others and for their fire sale last winter, but at least every once in awhile the Marlins try to act like they’re not a small market team. Unfortunately the Mets often do just the opposite.

Now to the A.L. West:

Los Angeles: The Angels are still as many as four starting pitchers short of a contender.

They can continue to sign the leading free agent slugger each winter for the foreseeable future, but if the pitching doesn’t come around, it isn’t going to matter.

It is certainly possible that their end of the Weird Delivery Deal with the Braves (Tommy Hanson for Jordan Walden) will flourish in the American League. The trimmed-down Joe Blanton might finally fulfill his promise while not fulfilling his appetite. Perhaps Jason Vargas can pitch in a pennant race. And maybe C.J. Wilson 2011 is the real thing and not C.J. Wilson 2012. But that’s a lot of ifs to gamble on in a division where it was proved last year that great hitting cannot carry average pitching, but great pitching can carry average hitting.

The Angels’ bullpen is also anything but a thing of beauty. Last year’s gift from the Padres, Ernesto Frieri, has lost miles off his fastball this spring – and his fastball is his only major league quality pitch. I suppose investing big bucks on the injured Ryan (One Season As A Closer And Then He Got Hurt) Madson makes more sense than, say, signing Jose Valverde – but not much more. Madson’s return may be soon, but it is certainly a gamble. The rest of the bullpen has proven itself erratic.

Trust me, I do not undervalue the Mike Trout/Albert Pujols/Josh Hamilton trio (although the decline in Hamilton’s game last year was evident and should crack a little further this year). I’ll even raise it to a quartet and note that Mark Trumbo is the most underrated hitter in the division. But the rest of the Angels’ position players are adequate at best. Chris Iannetta struggled on both sides of the plate, Howard Kendrick seems to be distancing himself from his great potential, Alberto Callaspo is just sort of there, and Peter Bourjos may be a great enough glove to shift Trout to left but he’s just not an offensive threat. Erick Aybar is one of the A.L.’s better shortstops but his main contribution is batting between Trout and Pujols.

Just the Pujols, Wilson, and Hamilton deals have cost owner Arte Moreno $440,000,000 in the last 16 months. That’s a lot of money to get a second or third place team as your receipt. When it happens again this year, Moreno is going to get unpleasant. If he doesn’t scapegoat General Manager Jerry DiPoto, DiPoto will surely scapegoat Manager Mike Scioscia, and that’ll be a shame.

But that’s what happens when you spend badly. You blame the guys beneath you. And often you blame the guys you spent to get.

Texas: This could all come apart quickly, too.

Last year I asked what would have happened if a team in New York or Boston or L.A. had a) had a manager test positive for cocaine use and have his job publicly threatened by his bosses as a result, b) blown a World Series to an inferior team, c) blown the next year’s World Series after needing one more out to win it, d) revealing later that the manager chose not to put in the defensive replacement who might’ve gotten the fly ball one more out that twisted the clunky regular rightfielder into a pretzel, and e) lost its best pitcher to free agency within its own division that winter?

Let’s raise the stakes a little this year. That same New York/Boston/L.A. club has now f) lost its best hitter to free agency within its own division the following winter, g) traded the face of its franchise and the soul of its clubhouse for nothing in particular, h) sent its top prospect to the minors rather than move some pieces and displace some average talent in the outfield, and, oh by the way, just for giggles, i) permitted the icon of the sport in its part of the country to engage in a front office power struggle with the team’s general manager, and j) lose it.

Texas baseball fans are an awfully forgiving lot, I guess.

The last three-plus seasons in Arlington have topped, at least in compression of events, anything that befell the Yankees’ “Bronx Zoo” of the ’70s and ’80s, or the Fightin-Among-Themselves-A’s in Oakland forty years ago. And yet on and on the Rangers go as if nothing matters and it’ll all be better if they can just bring Lance Berkman home to Texas.

What a mess.

I think this is the year they stop getting away with it. Unless Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt rise (and Olt had a terrible spring) to banish Berkman and Mitch Moreland or maybe the Leonys Martin/Craig Gentry platoon, the Rangers are in for a season of possible non-contention. Lord knows what they do if somebody like Nellie Cruz gets hurt (put Jeff Baker in right?).

I suspect a lot of people get fired here too.

Houston: It could be worse. They could’ve actually decided to go with Fernando or J.D. Martinez in right instead of Rick Ankiel and Brandon Barnes (which would’ve made their debut in the American League the dreaded – I apologize in advance – Two-Martinez Launch). There is the Jose Altuve Experience, which is nice. Bud Norris and Lucas Harrell show glimmers in the outfield and Brad Peacock tries to recover from a bad year in AAA by stepping down a notch into the Houston rotation.

But this is going to be a grim season for a franchise that was in the World Series only eight years ago.

do hear nice things about the back-up catcher, Carlos Corporan. He was stinging the ball in Florida, which belies one blog’s identification of him as the perfect Astro: no-field, no-hit.

I don’t mean to pile on, but while these new Astros uniforms have to be better than the 2012 versions, the attempt to merge the ’62-64 Colt 45s shirts with the ’70-71 Astros shirts doesn’t really work. The Houston franchise has an extraordinary heritage of great shirts: the 1965-66 Astros “Shooting Star” jerseys, the 1975 acid trip pullovers, and maybe best of all, the gunslinger unis from the original team. Remember, they didn’t drop the name “Colts” out of some sort of sense of inappropriateness – it was a purely business decision based on a dispute with the gun manufacturer, and a desire to capitalize on the astronaut program as it crested in the second half of the ’60s.

Seattle: I’m conflicted on whether the Mariners are capable of stepping up into contention or near it.

The critical off-season offensive improvement (the acquisition of DH Kendrys Morales from the Angels) blocks off the escape route for Jesus Montero’s stunning incapacity to catch. The likely critical mid-season all-around improvement (the promotion of 2012 top draftee and catching wunderkind Mike Zunino) would seemingly force Montero to the bench. If somebody would just take Montero aside and say, ‘Hey, you and your once-in-a-generation opposite field power on the high fastball? You don’t have to catch any more. Maybe you could see if you could play first base, but, honestly, just spend all your time in the batting cage,’ the kid might approach a triple crown.

Bringing Michael Morse back was a great move and Justin Smoak had an outstanding spring. But Dustin Ackley still has come nowhere close to his advance billing, and the team is relying on Ackley, Franklin Gutierrez and Michael Saunders to help drive the offense. Ackley is a career .243 hitter, Gutierrez is a .256, Saunders a .220. And apparently either Gutierrez or Saunders is going to lead off with the other batting second. Gutierrez’s lifetime On Base Percentage is .308 and Saunders’ is .283.

This makes pitching discussions somewhat academic, although it is curious that with these waves of young pitchers in the system – the Hultzens, Paxtons, and Walkers – the rookie who makes the rotation is Brandon Maurer, who two winters ago was pitching in the Australian League, and there was a need to sign Joe Saunders. The bullpen might be Seattle’s unexpected strength with Carter Capps, Charlie Furbush, and Stephen Pryor coming into their own.

But you have to hit a little and the Mariners seem intent (squeezing out Montero, putting out-makers at the top of the order) on not doing so. I can’t see them pushing upwards even as the Angels and Rangers collapse above them.

Oakland: So – to reprise our indexing from the Rangers’ entry – nobody believed in a) Yeonis Cespedes, b) Bob Melvin, c) the Oakland bullpen, d) Josh Reddick, e) the kid starters, or f) their ability to stay in contention. They merely jerry-built a line-up that started churning out runs in the second half and not only stayed with Texas but surpassed them with a mid-game rally on the final day. With a little luck and a little more experience they might have knocked off the Tigers in the Division Series.

And as the 2013 A.L. West is previewed, the A’s still aren’t being taken seriously.

No, I don’t think Eric Sogard is going to hit .444 nor Josh Donaldson slug a homer every 20 at bats, as they did in Arizona. But Cespedes is a beast, and that 23/82/.292/.356/.505 (and 16 SB) line – with the now comparatively low 102 strikeouts – was just the warm-up offered by the man’s first season in this country, and he could easily win an MVP award now or in the near future. The line-up is strengthened with parts added like Chris Young, Jed Lowrie, and John Jaso (and if Sogard were to hit .274 they’d be ecstatic). The rotation has Brett Anderson added back into the mix, evidently in fine fettle, and even more power arms like Evan Scribner and Pedro Figueroa joining the now-experienced likes of Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle in the pen.

It’s a good team with a good manager. I’m biased towards him – he’s one of my favorite friends in baseball. But what I can tell from his players, they rely on Melvin’s rare combination of an encyclopedic knowledge of the strategy of the game, his calm leadership, and his always-unexpected wry humor. That Reddick could “pie” him after the season-ending win underscores the sense that he is not a part of them but nor is he apart from them – and that is the highest compliment players can offer a manager.

The division: I like the A’s to consolidate 2012 and add to it. Even in collapse the Rangers and Angels will give them a fight with L.A. finishing second and Texas third. Seattle will verge on contention but never quite reach it. The Astros are even money to lose 110 games.

2012 Previews: A.L. West

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.

Sorry.

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.

UNRELATED NOTE:

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.

The Bob Wolcott Of 2011?

You remember Bob Wolcott, right?

One of the seminal figures in modern Post-Season history. A key to an exciting playoff series, a dramatic interjection into the–

No, huh?

Bob Wolcott made six indifferent starts for the 1995 Seattle Mariners. In the exhausting first-ever American League Division Series against the Yankees, he watched from the bullpen, an utter afterthought in a brilliant competition that marked the end of Don Mattingly’s last hope to reach a World Series. He was the last man on the staff, happy to be in the playoffs without having to buy a ticket.

And then Lou Piniella decided to give his overtaxed staff an extra day, and start him in Game One of the A.L. Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians. Frankly, nobody – least of all the Indians – knew what hit them. Wolcott pitched seven innings of eight-hit, five-K ball, gave up a homer to Albert Belle in the last frame, and left a 3-2 lead to the bullpen. Jeff Nelson and Norm Charlton hung on, and the Mariners had a 1-0 lead over the favored Indians. Not that they did anything: the Mariners’ rotation of Tim Belcher, Andy Benes, Chris Bosio, and Randy Johnson each lost a game and Wolcott never even got a second shot as a reliever. After a decent 1996 in the M’s rotation, he was dealt off, hurt his arm, went to college (Oregon State for mechanical engineering) and practices his craft in the northwest.

But the prospect of starting a mystery man against a team that had never seen him before – in the opening game of a playoff series – proved plausible. And in this case, Bob Wolcott was not the game’s top pitching prospect.

Matt Moore is. And Joe Maddon of Tampa Bay tonight decided to open him against the Texas Rangers in Game One of the ALDS. It is, to descend into the only appropriate vernacular, one of the ballsiest post-season managerial moves and Maddon will live or die by it – but why not? The other best option, Jeff Niemann, has been sharp lately after weeks of playing the role of the Rays’ Mr. Dynamite – the pitcher who gets into the box out in centerfield before the game and then gets blown up by the opposing team.

Moore has a shorter track record even than Bob Wolcott. He has just one Major League start, but in it, at Yankee Stadium, his heavy lefthanded fastball pulverized New York: eleven strikeouts and just four hits in five innings. He had come off a minor league season split between the Southern and International Leagues in which he finished just eight K’s short of leading all the minors in strikeouts – for the third consecutive season.

And not one Texas Ranger has ever crossed paths with him. Not in his brief stint in the majors, not in AAA, not in AA, nowhere. There is admittedly righthand power to be concerned with in the Texas lineup – Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre – but Moore only gave up eleven homers in 155 innings in the minors this year and if he just ties up Josh Hamilton, the Rangers could be stymied (ask last year’s Giants about that).

Remember what K-Rod did as a very, very late-season addition to the Angels’ roster in 2002? The Yankees had never seen him. The Twins had never seen him. The Giants had never seen him. Results? 18-2/3 post-season innings pitched, 28 strikeouts, and in eleven appearances: five wins and two holds – and Frankie Rodriguez wasn’t even the closer.

But Matt Moore is more than just a power pitcher. One of the most astute judges of pitchers I’ve ever known gushes about his composure, his tendency to greet trouble not with panic or fear but with anger, his ability to unintentionally elevate with the fastball so that the batter is eventually swinging at balls at his neck, and lastly a change-up that’s brilliant and that Moore is only beginning to understand the value of. “It has two-plane depth,” my guy explains. Two-plane depth, I ask, sweetly? “It moves through two planes: as in downward, and tailing to the left.”

Can you imagine what that does to a lefthanded hitter, especially one assuming a fastball at his letters? I’d retire immediately.

The advice to the Rangers from my eyewitness: “Swing at the first good heater you see.” The advice from him to Moore: “use the change-up… if I’m hunting fastballs— and the Rangers historically are— making them guess heater or change will set up the hammer, which is devastating.”

What exactly does Moore have to buy the Rays for this to work? A win – in Arlington – would be dandy. Six good innings – win or lose -in which they don’t have to run through the entire bullpen and they establish Moore as a new weapon in the arsenal that Texas might just have to face again in a Game Five, or Hamilton might have to face all by himself in any of the remaining games, would be a great second prize. Five innings that don’t devastate the bullpen is enough to keep Tampa alive until James Shields takes the mound in Game Two.

Maddon’s decision – and how many managers would have the cajones to do this – was enough to make me trash the prediction I made on the air tonight: a good, safe assumption that a gifted but no doubt exhausted Rays’ team could not hold a candle to the rested Rangers. I like this call on so many levels: I like Moore against them, I like Moore as a potential part of the rotation, I like Maddon saying to his team “we have a secret weapon.” Until tonight, the Rangers had been the beneficiary of the madness of the Wild Card race. Now they may have become its victim.

I also note my Matt Moore scout sums it up this way: “Matt is advanced and his stuff, though not pin-point, is better than (David) Price’s.”

I like Tampa in five, I like the Phillies possibly as quickly as three games (hats off to the Cardinals, but they are running on fumes here), and the Brewers, probably in five. And I particularly like the Tigers over the Yankees, quickly. Lost in the tumult of the Red Sox collapse and the Rays spectacular (you do realize that home run was Dan Johnson’s first major league hit since April 27th, right?) is the fact that after August 21st, the Yankees won just 20 of 37 games, and, after September 6th, the Yankees won 10 and lost 12. They didn’t win the American League East: the Red Sox fell past them like the meteor they keep telling us will some day crash to earth and kill us all (the usual caveat: if the Tigers or anybody else give the Yankees four outs an inning, the Yankees will win – they are vampires).

We’ll look at the Championship Series and the World Series after we see how Matt Moore does. But I gotta tell you: I also like those Brewers.

Eduardo Nunez Of The Above

As I watched the replay of Eduardo Nunez’s 127th fielding chance of the season turn into his 11th error of the season (and open up the gates of hell for five unearned Toronto runs in the New York Yankees’ defensive inning of the second half), I was reminded of two virtually identical sentences about Nunez that were spoken, months apart, by two different Major League General Managers.

“As near as I can tell,” the first told me, “there are only two clubs who believe Nunez is anything more than a glorified utility infielder – the Yankees and Seattle.” The other said “I believe only two teams believe Nunez is more than a utilityman – maybe a Wilson Betemit. Seattle and the Yankees. And I’m not sure the Yankees really believe it.”

Both of these GM’s believed, but could not offer evidence about, the story that the Yankees and Mariners had agreed on a deal last summer of Cliff Lee for Jesus Montero and somebody, and then when M’s GM Jack Zduriencik demanded that the somebody be Nunez, Brian Cashman bailed out.

So if you’re Seattle, sometimes your best deals are indeed the ones the other GM isn’t sharp enough to take you up on, and take you to the cleaners with.

Nunez is not a major league infielder. There was a joke going around the Yankees earlier this year that he was on the roster entirely to make Derek Jeter look like a defensive all-star. Now the joke is, the Yankees feel they can trust all those whistling liners towards left that A.J. Burnett and Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia and Sergio (“Who Am I? What Am I Doing Here?”) Mitre will surrender in the second half, to Eduardo Nunez and what was his .920 fielding average before #11 dribbled away tonight.

The GM who doubted that the Yankees really thought highly of Nunez said if I could see his scouting reports on Yank prospects and compare them to New York’s own I would assume there were 50 or so Yankee farmhands who had the same names as other, far lesser players. It is not atypical for teams to hype prospects – the trade market is now largely based on prospects – but it is awfully unusual to see a team actually begin to believe its inflated opinion of a minor leaguer.

Nunez already disproved theories that he might be a big league shortstop (91 chances, 9 errors). Now he’s working on third base. They’ve only experimented with him in the outfield and there might yet to be salvation there. He seems to have a viable bat, with a little pop, and a propensity to get very hot for very short periods of time. But if this is all he’s going to be, and they didn’t trade him and Montero for Cliff Lee, the Yankee front office is sillier than it seems even from the outside.

My goodness, as I was finishing this up, he just fumbled another one and just barely got the ball to second for the force (on a high throw). Which makes this headline laugh-out-loud funny.

2011 Previews: A.L. West

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.

Piniella, New Managers; More Fun With Minor Leaguers

It is a little unnerving to consider a baseball world without Lou Piniella – he’s been part of the major leagues, either as prominent prospect, trade chip, rookie of the year, grizzled veteran, coach manager, general manager, or broadcaster, almost continually since he didn’t make the Washington Senators out of spring training in 1964. 
Besides the obvious about Lou, you should consider that he was traded four times before he got his first major league hit, had the principles to honor a symbolic work stoppage in 1969 even though he had only ten big league games under his belt, was perhaps the most notorious arguer among the active players of his time, and managed to have a knock-down, drag-out fight with his ace reliever (Rob Dibble) while at least one tv news camera captured it, in the Cincinnati clubhouse.
I think Piniella would have happily managed until he was 80 if he had a bunch of guys like Dibble – nuts as he was – who cared enough to take a swing at him. There is a certain irony to the mindset that his retirement today in Chicago was just the capper to a season that saw Carlos Zambrano detonate, again. I got the impression that Zambrano was the least of Lou’s problems, and that Piniella had a lot to do with the attempts to resuscitate Zambrano’s status with the Cubs.
It was all the other guys with whom he’d had it.
SO WHO’S NEXT?
It’ll be Ryne Sandberg. The new ownership can’t resist, and nobody can argue Sandberg would be getting the job just for his name. He’s worked his way from the bottom up in the Cubs’ system, a rare thing for a Hall of Famer to do.
There has been a lot of new information about 2010 job vacancies flying around baseball’s seamy underbelly of rumor. I have now heard “Joe Torre, Mets” and “Ted Simmons, Mariners,” several times each, and the two old St. Louis teammates would be superb choices. In New York, where Jerry Manuel has done the best he could, the Torre situation is intriguing and disturbing. The club has financially hamstrung its executives ever since ownership got leveled in the Madoff scandal, so it’s hard to believe they could pay anything approaching the five million dollars Torre’ss getting from the Dodgers these days, unless Oliver Perez retires to a monastery.
As to Simmons, he’s the should-be-Hall-of-Fame catcher from the Cardinals and Brewers, and it is forgotten now because he had to leave the position so prematurely because of health issues, but he was one of the up-and-coming General Managers, in Pittsburgh in the early ’90s. More lately he’s been a valued bench coach at Milwaukee and San Diego and would, at the age of 62, be an unlikely, but inspired choice as a rookie manager next year.
SPEAKING OF MANAGERS:
We go back to this well – or perhaps it’s better described as “this bottomless pit” – of the prominent baseball figures of today, as they appeared on minor league baseball cards as recently as 1990 and as long ago as 1975.
In this edition, three of the 2010 managerial changes are fully represented in the bush league cards of 1987 and 1990. Most of what we’ll see is from the panoramic, 2,000+ card set issued, one team at a time, by the ProCards company.
And we’ll do these in chronological (well, 2010 chronological) order. Let’s start in Kansas City:
The former manager of the Royals, then a prospect in A-ball for the Indians, no longer has the job but still has the mustache. The new manager of the Royals (right), no longer has the mustache, but has long since stopped having to deal with his given name and goes exclusively by Ned. He, of course, had already been a major league receiver for the Brewers and Braves and would shortly begin his coaching and skippering career.
The wayback machine now takes us to the prom pictures of the two men involved in the managerial drama of the Marlins:
87FGonzalez.jpg
87RodriguezE.jpg
Fredi Gonzalez was in AA-ball in the Yankee system in 1987 and Edwin Rodriguez a notch further up in the Padres’ chain, long before one left the Florida dugout and the other entered it earlier this year. Have to say the years have treated them both pretty well. Rodriguez looks a little like the current president in the Las Vegas pose.
One side note here. In going through prospects to replace the current big league managers, I suggested that the Marlins might off Fredi and he would thus move to the top of the possibilities to succeed Bob Cox in Atlanta.
But back to our fun, and the most recent change, in Seattle:
87Wakamatsu.jpg
90Brown.jpg
I’m pretty sure it’s the angle of the photography at Cedar Rapids of the Midwest League in 1987 that makes it look like ex-Mariners’ manager Don Wakamatsu is trying to hit with a souvenir bat. Interestingly, his successor, Daren Brown, already had something of a manager’s stare-down in just his second season as a pro, at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in 1990.
We have plenty more of these to go through, everything from GM’s to ex-GM’s to popular announcers, to superstars and possible Hall of Famers. I can be bribed into not sharing them, by the parties depicted, and you birds know who you are.

What? A Milton Bradley Controversy?

Several sources, including this Seattle radio station, are reporting – gasp! – that Milton Bradley left the Mariners mid-game last night after manager Don Wakamatsu tried to remind him that a manager runs a team and not an outfielder who keeps getting traded because he believes that the breeze he feels is actually the universe revolving around him.

So if you had May 4 on the over-under for Bradley’s meltdown, you win the pool.
There is one glimmer of encouragement – although it has echoes of previous false self-awareness alarms – a second report that this morning, Bradley asked Wakamatsu and GM Jack Zduriencik “can you help me?”
Peter Gammons now tweets a text from Bradley: “Any reports I said I’m packing up and leaving are 100% fabricated.”
You will recall that the longest Bradley has gone without one of these, as he’s played his way in and out of LA, Oakland, San Diego, Texas, and the Cubs, is a season-and-a-half. Incredibly, people keep getting fooled.

2010 Forecasts: AL West

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.

Does it
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).

OAKLAND
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
through.

With the
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.’)

The
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.

DIVISION FORECAST:
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.

LEAGUE
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
them.

Milton Bradley Makes The Worst Teams In The World

Jack Zduriencik was one move away from completely rebuilding a shaken franchise in a little over thirteen months.

And then he made the move.
How much easier could this be to understand? You do not trade for Milton Bradley. You do not trade for Milton Bradley. You do not trade for Milton Bradley. 
He’s a “good teammate and a nice guy,” said the Mariners’ GM, hours after guaranteeing that all the startlingly good work he and his manager Don Wakamatsu had done in the last year would be washed away by some cataclysm (or “event,” as the nuclear plant engineers pleasantly call them) involving Bradley next season. Since April 1978, when his Dad filled out the name on his birth certificate without his Mom’s consent, there’s always been something. Tearing an ACL while having to be restrained from hitting an umpire. Bumping an umpire. Charging a third umpire. Suspended for the season by the Cubs. Trying to get to the press box during the game to confront the visiting announcer. Fighting with Eric Wedge. Fighting with Lou Piniella. Throwing the baseball bag on the field. Throwing a bottle back into the stands. Throwing the game ball into the stands – after the second out.
And by the way, we are talking about a player whose career highs are 34 doubles, 22 homers,  77 RBI, 17 steals, and a .321 average. This is not Albert Belle. This is not even Carl Everett. Statistically, this is a poor man’s Ben Grieve (my apologies to Ben Grieve).
And after signing Chone Figgins and Russell Branyan (and maybe even re-signing him), and dealing for Franklin Gutierrez, Jack Wilson, Cliff Lee, Ian Snell, and David Aardsma, all the good work by Zduriencik is undone by adding a player who is being described as looking for a “fresh start.” This’d be his seventh. 

FROM A RESEARCHER’S NOTEBOOK:

This was my favorite part of the annual SABR Journal – the curious things the late Al Kermisch found, presumably in pursuit of grander truths (an example from his last “From,” published after his passing in 2002: as a professional, Phil Rizzuto never played on a team that finished worst than third, and in 17 years, he was on 14 pennant-winners). I can’t hope to emulate the quality of Mr. Kermisch’s work but I do hope to touch the curiosity factor, both with nuts-and-bolts research and, in the case of my first effort, whimsy.
Meet the greatest name in baseball history: Phifer Fullenwider. 
Don’t go looking him up in the Baseball Encyclopedia; he never actually pitched in the big leagues (though he did make it to Spring Training one year, at a time when less than 30 men per team did so).
Fullenwider graduated with a degree in pharmacy from the University of North Carolina in 1908, but instead of to a drug store, he headed to the Carolina Association, where, as Baseball Reference’s superb minor league database indicates, he opened a fourteen-year minor league career with a 13-4 record for Charlotte. But it would be 1911 before he really broke through with a 26-9 mark for Columbia of the South Atlantic (SALLY) League.
And that impressive season leads us to this rather remarkable public domain image from the Polo Grounds in New York:
Fullenwider1912,jpg.jpg

That is none other than our Mr. Fullenwider, in the uniform of the Columbia Commies (had a different meaning then), standing in New York’s Polo Grounds, most likely late in the season of 1911, or possibly early in 1912. In those days before extensive farm systems, major league teams not only drafted players from minor league teams, but did so wholesale – and usually days after the minor league season ended. Thus it was not unusual for “bushers” to report to the big leagues – and apparently to bring their uniforms with them.

The Giants thought enough of Fullenwider to bring him to spring training in 1912. The camp was in Marlin, Texas, and the team picture indicates just how few prospects were included among the veterans:
1912 Giants.jpg
NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME

The bottom row is, left to right, Giants aces Red Ames and Hall of Famer Rube Marquard, an otherwise unidentified “trainer,” Fullenwider, and outfielder Josh Devore. The legendary John McGraw is second from right in the middle row (almost right behind his prized pitching prospect), and in the back are the only two guys not wearing the goofy hats: catcher Chief Meyers (fourth from the right) who is capless, and next to him, wearing his cap backwards, Christy Mathewson. For this team photo is nothing less than a 1912 manifestation of that which we purists fear may some day happen in the future – players wearing advertisements on their uniforms! Those caps are ads for “ANGER’S Ice Cream Cones.” And evidently Mathewson and Meyers are having none of it (and yes, that’s my boy Merkle, back row, far right).
But back to Phifer Fullenwider, and something even stranger than an ad for ice cream cones on his uniform.
Fullenwider1912.jpg
The one-time UNC pitching hero is still wearing his Carolina cold-weather baseball sweater. The thing is four years old at least, he’s the property of the defending National League Champion New York Giants,  they took him to spring training in hopes that he might pitch alongside Christy Mathewson – and nobody gave him his own Giants’ sweater!
As it proved, Fullenwider never would pitch alongside Matty, nor any other big leaguer. The records of 1912 are a lot less precise than today, but while nearly everybody else in that photo went on to win the N.L. crown again in 1912 and 1913, Fullenwider shows up pitching for Buffalo of the International League (where the Giants often sent their extra players, in an informal arrangement), where he would win 20, 19, and 17 games in the next three seasons and yet never get a call to the big time. After a 19-victory season at Atlanta in 1917, he apparently quit. A 1919 entry in the University of North Carolina alumni review notes that Fullenwider (“Phar. ’08″) “is a druggist, with the Rose Drug Co., of Rocky Mount. He will be remembered as a star pitcher on the varsity baseball team. He has a one-year old child.”
The game was not gone from his system, however. Phifer Fullenwider, at the age of 34, reapp
ears in the minor league record in that same city – Rocky Mount, pitching for the Tarheels of the Virginia League for two seasons, then Columbia in 1922 and Greenville in ’23. He’d finish up with a record of 194 and 146, with memories of a trip to Marlin, Texas with McGraw and the boys, and at least one winter of the greatest kind of hope and optimism. One wonders if he got to keep the Ice Cream Cone hat.
There’s one other note before we let Mr. Fullenwider out of the clutches of the researcher. He may not have gotten a big league game under his belt, but he did make it onto a baseball card. From the Contentnea Cigarettes series called T209, dating from the 1909 season — and a dandy it is, I might add.
Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Fullenwider.jpg

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