Anybody who tells you they can accurately forecast the World Series in April is lying to you.
Bob Costas once said he was coming around to the expanded (now re-expanded) post-1994 playoff formula. “Just so long as the World Series doesn’t become ‘The MLB Finals.'” Of course it has. Of course it has actually become something a little less exalted, because you could conceivably get there after playing the artificial and utterly unfair Wild Card Play-In Game.
The Play-In Game was hurriedly designed to try to force-replicate the drama of the inadvertent Play-In-Night that ended the 2011 regular season. What could not be replicated was the fact that the 2011 games were the results of weeks of what was left of the regular season pennant race while the 2012 games featured at least two teams that had all but secured the slots weeks earlier.
You remember Robert Andino and the Dan Johnson and Evan Longoria homers from 2011. What – unless one of them happens to be your team – do you remember of either 2012 Play-In Game?
Right. A vexing invoking of The Infield Fly Rule.
If that isn’t symbolic of those two games I don’t know what is. Don’t get me wrong: I’m at peace with the wild card, even with two wild cards. I’m at peace with pitting them against each other, Gladiator Style. But the randomness of one game just erases the remaining fairness of the thing. Make it three, but throw in a little torture. Make it best-of-three, and play a day/night doubleheader in one city. If one team wins both games, they go in. If not, everybody has to travel to the other city for a night game, the next night. You retain a little of the dice roll of the compressed time frame without the strong possibility that the better team will just happen to lose the only playoff game it gets after eight months of spring training and the 247-game regular season.
I mean, there are unfair weighted variables that you aren’t going to be able to control. To my knowledge nobody’s done the research but I would suggest an unusually high percentage of playoff teams since 1997 have been the ones with the softer inter-league schedule, and inter-league has gone from a set rotating division-versus-division plan to games assigned either for maximum tv ratings or for geographical convenience.
Worse yet is the advantage teams in divisions with extremely weak clubs have for home field advantage in the first round, and especially Wild Card eligibility. The American League East contenders used to have the doormat Devil Rays to fatten up against. Now (presumably) the National League East and American League West clubs will gain immeasurably by getting 19 opportunities to beat up the Marlins and Mets, and Astros respectively. There is no such dead wood in the A.L. East and N.L. Central, for example.
So those are the caveats – and the potential fixes – for anybody trying to forecast the playoffs (not that I’m saying they should be fixed to make forecasting easier; they should be fixed because theoretically you don’t want the true best team in the game wiped out by avoidable biases).
I’ve already picked the Rays, Indians, and Athletics to win the A.L. Divisions. I’m guessing Tampa Bay will still have the best record in the league and draw the wild card winner (which I’m thinking will come one each from the East and West, and the more I look at them the more I like Baltimore again – and L.A.). In lieu of flipping a coin I’m thinking the Orioles will be the better team by then and prevail again (I know; it’s a quaint notion that the ‘better team’ would win a one-game playoff). That would set up Tampa Bay-Baltimore and Cleveland-Oakland in the ALDS. An A’s pick is an easy one; I think the Rays-Orioles would be the full seven thriller and Tampa would finally prevail. So in the ALCS two great pitching staffs meet. Tampa’s is a little greater and they get a clutch home run from – who knows? Wil Myers? – to decide Game Seven. That puts them in the World Series.
In the National I already took the Nationals (waaay out on a limb there, I know), Cardinals, and Giants. The runners-up, Atlanta, Cincinnati and Los Angeles, will all be very good teams (although the Dodgers could easily have switched managers by mid-season). I’m forecasting kaboom-style disasters in Texas and for both L.A. teams so I might as well go whole-hog and say the Dodgers don’t even get the Card. So that’d be Braves-Reds and I’m assuming the Braves can survive their second such game in two years. That’d set up Washington-Atlanta and Cards-Giants and I’m afraid the obvious is true in both cases: Washington and San Francisco pretty easily. And as much as I like the Giants’ team I have already suggested the Nationals are going to have one of those triple-digit years so while I suspect San Francisco could give them a seven-game series I just can’t pick against this amazingly deep team from DC.
The World Series: two great pitching staffs, two great managers, two dynasties that were built quickly. But the Washington bats will overwhelm even the Rays’ rotation, and you-know-who will be the star. This will be Bryce Harper’s year (one assumes the first of many) as the star of …your World Champion Washington Nationals.
Chicago: The cupboard is not as bare here as widely believed – but it’s close. Firstly, the Cubs have two of the game’s emerging stars in first baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro (when he’s watching the game he’s in). There is also an able and patient management structure, from field boss Dale Sveum through president Theo Epstein. Behind them are three of the higher-potential impact position prospects in infielders Javier Baez and Junior Lake, and outfielder Jorge Soler.
The problem is, the next most interesting thing about the Cubs is the debate over whether they should commemorate the centennial of Wrigley Field next year (to note 100 years since it was built, as Weeghman Park, for the Chicago Whales of the long-gone Federal League) or in 2016 (to note 100 years since Weeghman bought the Cubs and moved them to his stadium).
Because possibly for the next four seasons, Rizzo and Castro and the When’s-The-Centennial question might be the only things to talk about at 1060 West Addison Street. Cubs fans have to hope Rizzo and Castro are still there by the time Baez and Soler (and to a lesser degree, Lake) get there. And they have to hope that some pitching finds its way there, too. Because right now there’s none, other than the intriguing Japanese reliever Kyuji Fujikawa and his counterpart among domestic spelling confusion, Jeff Samardzija.
Cincinnati: Lost in the debate that lingered through nearly the length of this lengthiest spring training – does Aroldis Chapman close, or get moved to the rotation – was the fact that on September 7, 2012 Chapman imploded. He faced seven Astros in the ninth, struck only one of them, gave up four hits (including a three-run homer to Matt Dominguez), and blew a 3-2 Reds’ lead. Three days later he walked three of the five Pirates he faced. Dusty Baker then gave him 12 days off, and although Chapman recorded saves in his last three appearances, he was no longer the untouchable pitcher of the season’s first five months (4 innings, 3 K’s, 3 BB, 1 hit). He then nearly coughed up Game 1 of the NLDS against the Giants (5-1 lead: two walks, two wild pitches, a hit) while following up with clean but irrelevant innings in the losses in Games 3 and 5.
My point is that, as often happens, debate obscures trouble. Any weaknesses Chapman showed in Arizona this spring (5 strikeouts, 4 walks, in nine innings – an opponents’ batting average of .294) could be attributed to the aborted starting experiment rather than something like, say, a pre-critical-mass arm problem.
That Cincinnati has at least one viable alternative in the pen (Jonathan Broxton was lights out this spring) is not the point. Chapman, as starter or reliever, is the pitching centerpiece of a team in a division where the contenders can all hit, and are separated by their mound strength. If Chapman is not the guy he was most of last year, the Reds are down one asset. As it is now, his failure to convert to the rotation means Cincinnati can’t survive any more of the past yo-yo seasons from the likes of Mike Leake and Homer Bailey. If something serious happens to Chapman, Broxton will adequately replace him – but the bullpen depth, which already hits Manny Parra levels surprisingly early, will be taxed.
Obviously the Reds are improved offensively. Shin-Soo Choo is one of the game’s underrated outfielders (career OPS: .847. Matt Kemp’s career OPS? .853 ) and provided his back woes of the last two weeks are transient, will handle both the leadoff spot and centerfield with ease. That’ll give Billy Hamilton a year to learn to play the position in the minors and become a Vince Coleman-like figure in Cincinnati (without so much of the throwing-firecrackers-at-fans part).
But as Chapman goes, so go the Reds.
Milwaukee: That the Brewers think Corey Hart will be back far earlier than the original July/August timeframe is indicated by their willingness to stick Alex Gonzalez at first base – rather than a prospect like Hunter Morris or a retread veteran – in his absence. With Hart’s bat, the Brewers’ new formula – in which at least four of the guys (Aoki, Gomez, Segura, Weeks) are as much about getting on as getting over – can churn out runs. Without him there’s a dead spot in the middle of the lineup and suddenly Ron Roenicke is depending on catcher Jonathan Lucroy to drive in 90 runs.
The Brewers’ starting pitching may have been better than thought even before they ransomed Kyle Lohse from The Island Of Misfit Scott Boras Clients. Yovanni Gallardo is a stud and Wily Peralta will eventually be one, leaving quality needed from only two of the group consisting of Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers, Chris Narveson, and the AAA rotation.
Milwaukee can win this division but all the ifs will have to turn in their favor. Lohse will have to succeed outside of St. Louis, Hart will have to heal quickly and hit hard, and Peralta will have to be ready now. Because the bullpen could be a disaster. John Axford blew 9 of 44 save chances last year, briefly lost his job to a terrified looking Jim Henderson – and there is no depth behind them short of imported lefty specialists Mike Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny.
Pittsburgh: With a few breaks the Pirates could leap into contention this season, but if the Brewers need all the ifs to run in their favor, Pittsburgh needs that from ifs nobody’s yet envisioned. It speaks to the degree the franchise has shed its farce label that Russell Nathan Coltrane Jeanson Martin chose to sign up rather than stay with the Yankees; it speaks to reality that only after he rallied with a strong September did Russell Nathan Coltrane Jeanson Martin manage to hit .211 last season.
There’s always something like that with the Bucs. Here they can go and trade off closer Joel Hanrahan for a hatful of Boston prospects and try to turn ace set-up man Steve Grilli into his successor – yet this also means that they are relying on a 36-year old novice closer, who made his major league debut five weeks into this millennium yet in all that time has had exactly 11 save opportunities (five of them last year – three of which he blew).
Andrew McCutchen is a great player and Pedro Alvarez and maybe Starling Marte have the potential to be nearly if not great. Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are living up to the pitching hype. But the Pirates can find a cloud for any silver lining. The same people who chose and developed all five of those men (and Neil Walker too) gave pitching prospect an over-slot bonus of $2,250,000 three drafts ago. Last year they had to convert him to being a first baseman. He hit .213 – as a 21-year old facing 18-year olds in rookie ball. That a draft choice named Stetson might prove to be all hat and no cattle as pitcher and hitter would just about sum up the Pirates.
St. Louis: You know what would be really cool? If Jon Jay could play shortstop and Oscar Taveras could play second base.
Over the last few years the Cardinals have developed a reputation as the Drs. Frankenstein of the middle infield. They’ve tried to make Allen Craig, Skip Schumaker, and now Matt Carpenter into second basemen, each with ineffective if not entirely unhappy results. Now would be the time for one of their creations to rise from the operating table, because the middle infield is the only hole in an otherwise dominant ball club – but what a hole it is.
Carpenter showed some usefulness filling in at first and third last year (and he’s due back to fill in for David Freese at third as the season starts), but there’s no sign he’s a second baseman. And Pete Kozma’s credentials as a defender at short are passable, but the hitting he did down the stretch and in the playoffs last September and October is just about all anybody should expect. The Freese injury may be the happiest of accidents, shuffling Carpenter off second and forcing the definitionally adequate Daniel Descalso into the lineup at second TFN.
Otherwise the Cards are just great. Won’t miss Chris Carpenter or Kyle Lohse. Still producing kid pitchers in clusters (this year’s – after previews last year – Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, and Joe Kelly), still two or three deep at the back end of the bullpen (Motte’s hurt? Get Boggs and Salas ready). The aforementioned Taveras could step in if (when) Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran get hurt. Yadier Molina is as good as they get.
So – how much does an offensive hole at short and a defensive hole at second hurt an otherwise impeccably built team? We’ll see. I think the Cardinals can get through the division. After that? Notice what happened to the Tigers when they tried to sneak poor execution past the Giants.
I’ll take the Cardinals in a tight race over the Reds with the Brewers finishing third – and I’m not sure if they’re a factor or not (ask Corey Hart). Pittsburgh’s fourth (maybe challenging for third). The Cubs will finish last.
But one passing thought: what if the Rangers, who have too many middle infielders but not enough outfielders and actually sent Jurickson Profar down, and the Cardinals, who have too few middle infielders but too many outfielders and actually just sent Oscar Taveras down, had the collective cajones to swap Taveras straight up for Profar?
First of all, this photo of my six-year old niece helping me keep score at the Yankees’ opener doesn’t have a thing to do with the NL Central. It’s just that it represents her first tentative steps towards fandom, and is to my mind fully representative of the rituals of the sport. Just the other day she ceaselessly quizzed her ball-playing older brother about what all the players do. Now she’s trying to figure out what the hieroglyphics represent, and carefully entering abbreviations at my instruction, and asking with delighted amazement: “What does that mean?” (She also insisted we take a walk, I told her we’d go wherever she wanted in the park because she was in charge. “Yes,” she said matter-of-factly. “I know”).
The history of winning the World Series and then altering your uniform the next year to advertise the fact is a star-crossed one. The 2009 Phillies, 2007 Cardinals, and 2005 Red Sox all dipped their toe into the pool and wore special gold trim on their unis for their first one or two home games. The 2011 Giants wore a particularly garish patch all season long. Not one of them repeated their previous year’s triumphs. Go back into history and there are greater calamities still: the 1920 Cleveland Indians overcame the mid-season death of their star infielder Ray Chapman after he was hit in the head by a Carl Mays pitch, then surged past the scandal-ravaged White Sox to grab their first pennant, then won the World Series in large part because of an unassisted triple play by Chapman’s double-play partner Bill Wambsganss.
Next year, Wamby and his teammates dressed in these uniforms:The “Worlds Champions” finished second in 1921, did not seriously contend for the pennant again until 1940 (when they were decimated by an internal player revolt against their manager, earning the players the nicknames “The Crybabies”), didn’t win another Series until 1948, and haven’t won one since.
The 1927 Cardinals did something similar, although a little less garish, were punished by being crushed in the ’28 Series by the Yankees and the ’30 A’s, but were winners again by 1931.
The 1906 New York Giants wore these modest little outfits, at home and abroad, to celebrate their 1905 title. The Giants fell out of contention in ’06 and ’07, suffered the singular ignominy of the 1908 pennant race and the Merkle Game Controversy in ’08, watched the president of the National League kill himself over that controversy in ’09, didn’t compete in ’10, had their ballpark burn down in ’11, lost the epic series on the Fred Snodgrass “muff” and the Mathewson Wrong Call in ’12, lost another Series in ’13, watched one of their cast-off pitchers lead the last place team past them and to the Series title in ’14, saw the team break up amid gambling rumors in ’15, won 26 in a row and still finished only fourth in ’16, lost the ’17 Series when nobody covered the plate on a rundown from third base, and didn’t come out of it until they won the Series of 1921 and 1922.
I’m not suggesting wearing a uniform devoted more to bragging than team identification caused these calamities, but there is a remarkable amount of trouble associated with teams that merely tinkered with their jerseys after they prevailed. The Cubs went from wearing a simple “C” for their 1907 shirt to a “C” with the “Cubby Bear” nestled inside in 1908. They repeated the title that year, but changed the jerseys to an even more ornate version with “Chicago” spelled vertically down the buttons in ’09, and you might recall what ’09 was the start of for the Cubs.
This is a very very very long way of leading up to this question: This gold-lettered uniform the Cardinals wore Friday? Why did they wear it?
I mean, none of the teams in the National League Central are among baseball’s best this season. They just aren’t and more over, they know it. The division has been drained by the departures of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, and despite producing two playoff teams, a World Champion, and a (brief) Cinderella Team, it wasn’t a very good division last year, either.
I’m saying the title might come down to superstition. So why tempt it? I mean, the caps are a little kitschy but the unis are kinda nice. But did you notice that after wearing it for one day, David Freese is already hurt again?
ST. LOUIS has to be the default favorite, but Carpenter’s gone, Wainwright has looked like crap, Berkman’s already suffered two minor injuries that could linger and limit him, or explode and finish him. Among all humans who’ve never managed before, Mike Matheny is probably the 2nd best choice to try to start on the big league stage (Robin Ventura is the 1st), but on what experience will he call if the injuries continue, or the bullpen falters, or Carlos Beltran is sidelined by a scratched nostril,or the Cards all get blood poisoning from the jinxed gold-flecked unis?
Conversely, managerial experience is no automatic indicator of success – ask CINCINNATI. We all love Dusty Baker, one of the great human beings, but his reluctance to trust youngsters has imperiled the career of Aroldis Chapman and is now reflected in his insistence on catching Ryan Hanigan more than Devin Mesoraco. The Ryan Madson injury will only make Dusty even less willing to trust anybody under 35, and I just have to wonder if at some point ownership is going to wake up in the middle of the night and say “we have committed 297 and a half million dollars to the least important quadrant, the right side of the infield” and disappear into the Arctic or something. How on earth is a market like Cincinnati supposed to produce such revenues? Is the news about the Minnesota Twins censored on the internet in the southern half of Ohio? More immediately, there’s a serious question about every Red pitcher (except Chapman, and of course he is used only as the 6th or 7th most important man on the staff).
The Conventional Wisdom suggests Aramis Ramirez was brought to MILWAUKEE to partially offset the loss of Prince Fielder. Nuh-uh. He was brought in to offset the disappearance of Casey McGehee. The Brewers’ swaggering line-up of 2011 looks awfully human with Gamel and Gonzalez and Ramirez in it in 2012. Randy Wolf looks like he’s at the end of the line and the internal dissatisfaction with Zack Greinke is astounding. It’s a very good bullpen, but in any other division this would not be a serious contender.
If Jeff Samardzija and either Bryan LaHair or Anthony Rizzo are for real, CHICAGO may be better than expected, but not much. LaHair has hit well in the NL and Rizzo in the PCL and the obvious move would be to stick LaHair in the outfield, which is already a defensive wasteland, call up Rizzo, and let ‘er rip. Or better yet, off-load David DeJesus or Soriano or Byrd for whatever you could get for them, and give Brett Jackson a shot out there, too. But even if the Cubs hit, past Garza and maybe Samardzija the rest of the rotation is dubious and the bullpen (with the possible exception of rookie Rafael Dolis) will give away a lot of games.
There is a narrow pinhead through which PITTSBURGH might squeeze, and force their way into contention. Revivals from Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett would give a good bullpen something to save. Andrew McCutchen might blossom into an MVP candidate. Starling Marte might come up next month and hit .330. But masked by the completeness of the Buccos’ post-play-at-the-plate collapse last year was what happened to the fuel of their brief spring in the sun. Jose Tabata vanished. Garrett Jones vanished. Kevin Correia vanished. Jeff Karstens vanished. Inexplicably, Pedro Alvarez vanished and the Pirates insist on still playing him. Midnight struck and Clint Hurdle was suddenly managing a pumpkin farm. Everything that went right last year has to go right again this year – and then some.
There is one bright spot in HOUSTON. If the new owner and Poor Brad Mills (the manager’s new first name) had had to have taken this team into the American League this year, the Astros might’ve gone 30-132. There may be sparkles from Jason Castro behind the plate, Jose Altuve at second, and Brian Bogusevic, J.D. Martinez, and Jordan Schafer in the outfield, but it is plausible that beyond Carlos Lee there might be nobody on this team who hits 15 homers. There certainly aren’t going to be any starting pitchers who win 15 games. Good lord, as I read this to myself, it dawns on me: all the starting pitchers might not win 35 games among them.
2012 N.L. CENTRAL FORECAST:
Man, I have no idea. If these teams were scattered among the other divisions there wouldn’t be a lead-pipe-cinch pennant contender among the six of them. I guess St. Louis will win, with Cincinnati and Milwaukee behind them, and Chicago and Pittsburgh arguing over fourth, and the Astros disappearing from National League history like the Cheshire Cat. The pennant race might prove variable and exciting, but it will not be good, and it will make fans in places like Toronto and Seattle and Miami wish that realignment were a reality.
They have gone out and spent the money on what looks like a fabulous and distinctive new ballpark.
They have gone out and spent the money on what is an often fabulous and always distinctive new manager.
They are evidently willing to go out and spend the money (“in the range of five years, $18-$20 million a year,” per Buster Olney on ESPN) on Jose Reyes and might be able to snare Albert Pujols as well.
They even went out and spent the money on rebranding themselves as a city, not a state, and on some decent looking new uniforms (although the basic premise of the attire struck me as an adaptation of the original 1977 Toronto Blue Jays’ unis, with orange substituted for powder blue).
And I think it will all end in disaster.
As the 20th season of Marlins baseball looms, there is still almost no evidence that South Florida is a major league baseball community, or that it wants or needs big league ball. The entire dynamic could be changed by the new roofed stadium, but the certitude about that – and the willingness to wager literally hundreds of millions of dollars on that certitude – is, to me, unjustified. With the caveat that I know from sopping-wet experience that Joe Robbie/ProPlayer/Whatever Stadium was a miserable place to watch a ballgame, I still think that it’s mortifying that the Fish averaged 37,838 fans per game in their inaugural season of 1993, and 33,695 in 1994 – and never came close to that figure again.
I mean, not close. The World Champions of 1997 played before an average house of 29,190. Otherwise they have had just five seasons of more than 19,007 paid admissions per game, and four that were below 15,766 a year.
Team president David Samson thinks some improvement on the squad and the ballpark will convert a city that has for two decades been saying ‘you fill me with inertia’ will suddenly convert into producing “30 to 35,000 every single game.”
This was a city that could not support AAA baseball in the ’50s, and never again tried higher than A-ball. And I don’t buy the idea that a high-priced indoor facility in Miami proper rather than it a remarkably hard-to-get-to corner of Fort Lauderdale is now going to entice 37,000 fans away from everything else the city offers, especially at night. Pujols and Reyes would be hard to resist. Then again the Marlins fans of nine seasons ago resisted the 2003 World Champions (except for 16,290 of them each game). I’m not even sure how a $95,000,000 investment in Reyes and lord knows how much in Pujols would translate into profitability or even break-even status.
Reyes alone will not do it – ask the Mets.
As if these doubts were not enough, late last night the impeccable Clark Spencer of The Miami Herald tweeted something to make Miami fans shiver:
Source: H. Ramirez is not at all pleased at prospect of changing positions if
#Marlins sign Reyes; the two aren’t the friends many portray.
When the Reyes rumors first started, Spencer had quoted Hanley Ramirez with words that bring honor to the role of wet blanket: “I’m the shortstop right now and I consider myself a shortstop.”
One can easily see where all this will go if a) Ramirez and Reyes squabble; b) Reyes gets hurts again; c) the Marlins don’t sign enough new talent to compete in a daunting division; d) the fans don’t show up; or e) all of the above, in any order you choose. When the ’97 Marlin World Champs did not yield a new stadium, 17 of the 25 men on the World Series roster were gone by mid-season 1998 and three more by mid-season 1999.
Imagine Jose Reyes being traded in a fire sale in the middle of 2013. Or Albert Pujols.
SPEAKING OF ALBERT…
A quick thought about the new Cardinals’ manager.
I met Mike Matheny during the nightmarish 2000 NLCS when Rick Ankiel was hit by the same psychological trauma – damage to a close male relative or friend who had taught him the game – that befell Steve Blass, Chuck Knoblauch, Steve Sax, the ex-pitcher-turned-author Pat Jordan, and others. Matheny had cut up his hand opening the odd gift of a really big hunting knife, and had to turn over Cardinals’ catching to Carlos Hernandez.
Matheny was devastated, but less for himself and far more for what his absence meant to Ankiel. I don’t know that this has been reported since the time Ankiel’s problems crested (I know I put it on our Fox broadcasts of the Cards-Mets playoffs), but Matheny told me that several times during the season Ankiel had begun to spiral out of control the way he did in that heart-stopping start against New York. “But I could calm him down, I was able to stop him. Last night, watching it, I felt helpless. Worse, I felt paralyzed. I could’ve talked him out of it.”
Consider this in the later context. Ankiel was collapsing under the weight of his father – who had driven him throughout his youth and into his career – going to prison for drug-running. The problem would run Ankiel out of the majors the next year and make him an outfielder two years after that. Yet Matheny was somehow able to encourage him, reassure him, or simply bullspit him, into overcoming this set of complex psychological phenomena.
Put that into a skill set that includes good game judgement, an ability to easily relate to everybody from batboys to announcers who wouldn’t give anybody a hunter’s knife as a present in a million years, and all the other non-healing powers a manager is supposed to have, and I think it’s safe to infer Matheny will be a pretty good big league skipper.
Fascinating that the St. Louis Cardinals have asked the Phillies for permission to interview their AAA manager Ryne Sandberg – and received it.
For the second consecutive year, Sandberg will not get the managing job with the team for which he starred. When new Cubs’ President Theo Epstein outlined his minimum standards for the next manager (experience as a major league skipper or coach) it essentially eliminated Ryno from consideration because his stints with the Phils last spring and last September do not formally rise to that level.
Yet oddly, the Cardinals are happy to at least kick the Sandberg tires. I’m not sure what it proves, but it would seem to suggest that the division of thought on Sandberg’s managerial potential may now split into those who have seen him, the Hall of Famer, willing to ride the buses of the Midwest League, and those who have actually employed him to manage their bush leaguers. Everything I heard as of March, 2010, was that the Wrigley Field job was likely to be Sandberg’s whenever Lou Piniella left. But by August, when Piniella really did leave, the Cubs had soured on Sandberg and no longer thought him viable. Off he went to the Phillies, and now they are willing to let him talk to a National League rival, and there hasn’t been a peep about Sandberg even getting a promotion to the Phillies’ major league coaching staff. Even stranger, is that before he took the Phils’ offer last winter, Sandberg interviewed for the equivalent job in the Boston system – with Theo Epstein, the same man who’s ruled him out in Chicago.
I’m reminded of Babe Ruth’s quixotic hope that the Yankees would make him their manager (they’d seen him do that with his teammate, Bob Shawkey, who had only one season managing in the minors before he got the job in New York in 1930). Perhaps the more apt comparison is Gary Carter’s campaign to get the Mets to consider him for any of their last few managerial openings.
If Sandberg doesn’t get the St. Louis job, the Cubs-Cards rivalry might still be ratcheted up by the inclusion of Terry Francona in the mix. While Epstein has said a few polite things about possible Chicago interest in Tito, the Cardinals are scheduled to interview him tomorrow. I still think St. Louis is leaning towards LaRussa’s third base coach Jose Oquendo (although I would have considered it more than “leaning” if they had brought Oquendo back into the dugout as bench coach), but it would be a fascinating dynamic if Francona got the Cardinal job and was pitted against his old cohort Epstein in Chicago.
Besides the headline names, the Cards and/or Cubs seem interested in a lot of the same men the Red Sox are interested in: Rangers’ pitching coach Mike Maddux, former Brewers’ interim skipper Dale Sveum, and Phils’ bench coach and ex-Reds and Pirates’ interim manager Pete Mackanin. If you want to follow all this on a day-to-day or even hour-to-hour basis, your best resource is the terrific MLBTradeRumors.Com site, which is a clearinghouse for every local newspaper story, every significant radio interview, and every last damn tweet on anything moving in the majors. It puts the ESPN’s and SI’s sites to shame.
So stay tuned to the prospect of Sandberg or Francona in St. Louis, and if you’re a Cub fan again tearing out your hair about Ryno, consider this Cooperstown fact. These are the Hall of Fame players who, since 1900, went on to manage “their” team: Honus Wagner (Pirates), Ty Cobb (Tigers), Walter Johnson (Senators), Tris Speaker (Indians), Nap Lajoie (Indians), Eddie Collins (White Sox), George Sisler (Browns), Rogers Hornsby (Cards and Cubs), Fred Clarke (Pirates), Jimmy Collins (Red Sox), Frank Chance (Cubs), Johnny Evers (Cubs), Joe Tinker (Cubs), Frank Frisch (Cardinals), Pie Traynor (Pirates), Mel Ott (Giants), Bill Terry (Giants), Gabby Hartnett (Cubs), Ted Lyons (White Sox), Joe Cronin (Senators and Red Sox), Lou Boudreau (Indians), Dave Bancroft (Braves), Yogi Berra (Yankees), Eddie Mathews (Braves), Red Schoendienst (Cardinals), and Tony Perez (Reds). That’s 26 guys, who managed a lot of years, yet won only 18 pennants among them — and 13 of the 18 were as player-managers and four of those were by Frank Chance. In other words, of the other 25 hometown heroes who later managed, they could collectively amass only five pennants as non-playing skippers.
Was that the greatest World Series game ever played?
For games in which a team, having put itself on the precipice of elimination because of managerial and/or strategic incompetence, then stumbles all over itself in all the fundamentals for eight innings, and still manages to prevail? Yes – Game Six, Rangers-Cardinals, was the greatest World Series Game of all-time. I’ve never seen a team overcome itself like that.
But the Cardinals’ disastrous defense (and other failures) probably disqualifies it from the top five all-time Series Games, simply because it eliminates the excellence requisite to knock somebody else off the list. Mike Napoli’s pickoff of Matt Holliday was epic, and the homers of Josh Hamilton and David Freese were titanic and memorable. But history will probably judge the rest of the game’s turning points (Freese’s error, Holliday’s error, Holliday’s end of the pickoff, Darren Oliver pitching in that situation, the Rangers’ stranded runners, Nelson Cruz’s handling of the game-tying triple, the failures of both teams’ closers) pretty harshly.
For contrast, in chronological order here are five Series Games that I think exceed last night’s thriller in terms of overall grading.
1912 Game Eight: That’s right, Game Eight (there had been, in those pre-lights days at Fenway Park, a tie). The pitching matchup was merely Christy Mathewson (373 career wins) versus Hugh Bedient (rookie 20-game winner) followed in relief by Smoky Joe Wood (who won merely 37 games that year, three in the Series). Mathewson shut out the Red Sox into the seventh, and the game was still tied 1-1 in the tenth when Fred Merkle singled home Red Murray and then went to second an error. But the Giants stranded the insurance run, and in the Bottom of the 10th, as darkness descended on Fenway (the first year it was open) there unfolded the damnedest Series inning anybody would see until 1986. Pinch-hitter Clyde Engle lofted the easiest flyball imaginable to centerfielder Fred Snodgrass – who dropped it. Hall of Famer Harry Hooper immediately lofted the hardest flyball imaginable to Snodgrass, who made an almost unbelievable running catch to keep the tying run from scoring and the winning run from getting at least to second or third. Mathewson, who had in the previous 339 innings walked just 38 men, then walked the obscure Steve Yerkes. But Matty bore down to get the immortal Tris Speaker to pop up in foul territory between the plate and first, and he seemed to have gotten out of the jam. Like the fly Holliday muffed last night, the thing was in the air forever, and was clearly the play of the inward rushing first baseman Merkle. Inexplicably, Mathewson called Merkle off, shouting “Chief, Chief!” at his lumbering catcher Chief Myers. The ball dropped untouched. Witnesses said Speaker told Mathewson “that’s going to cost you the Series, Matty” and then promptly singled to bring home the tying run and put the winner at third, whence Larry Gardner ransomed it with a sacrifice fly.
1960 Game Seven: The magnificence of this game is better appreciated now that we’ve found the game film. And yes, the madness of Casey Stengel is evident: he had eventual losing pitcher Ralph Terry warming up almost continuously throughout the contest. But consider this: the Hal Smith three-run homer for Pittsburgh would’ve been one of baseball’s immortal moments, until it was trumped in the top of the 9th by the Yankee rally featuring Mickey Mantle’s seeming series-saving dive back into first base ahead of Rocky Nelson’s tag, until it was trumped in the bottom of the 9th by Mazeroski’s homer. There were 19 runs scored, 24 hits made, the lead was lost, the game re-tied, and the Series decided in a matter of the last three consecutive half-innings, and there was neither an error nor a strikeout in the entire contest.
1975 Game Six: Fisk’s homer has taken on a life of its own thanks to the famous Fenway Scoreboard Rat who caused the cameraman in there to keep his instrument trained on Fisk as he hopped down the line with his incomparable attempt to influence the flight of the ball. But consider: each team had overcome a three-run deficit just to get the game into extras, there was an impossible pinch-hit three-run homer by ex-Red Bernie Carbo against his old team, the extraordinary George Foster play to cut down Denny Doyle at the plate with the winning run in the bottom of the 9th, and Sparky Anderson managed to use eight of his nine pitchers and still nearly win the damn thing – and have enough left to still win the Series.
1986 Game Six: This is well-chronicled, so, briefly: this exceeds last night’s game because while the Cardinals twice survived two-out, last-strike scenarios in separate innings to tie the Rangers in the 9th and 10th, the Met season-saving rally began with two outs and two strikes on Gary Carter in the bottom of the 10th. The Cards had the runs already aboard in each of their rallies. The Red Sox were one wide strike zone away from none of that ever happening.
1991 Game Seven: I’ll have to admit I didn’t think this belonged on the list, but as pitching has changed to the time when finishing 11 starts in a season provides the nickname “Complete Game James” Shields, what Jack Morris did that night in the 1-0 thriller makes this a Top 5 game.
There are many other nominees — the Kirk Gibson home run game in ’88, the A’s epic rally on the Cubs in ’29, Grover Cleveland Alexander’s hungover relief job in 1926, plus all the individual achievement games like Larsen’s perfecto and the Mickey Owen dropped third strike contest — and upon reflection I might be able to make a case to knock last night’s off the Top 10. But I’m comfortable saying it will probably remain. We tend to overrate what’s just happened (a kind of temporal myopia) but then again perspective often enhances an event’s stature rather than diminishing it. Let’s just appreciate the game for what it was: heart-stopping back-and-forth World Series baseball.
We will never know what would’ve followed: Adrian Beltre could have popped up on the next pitch, or homered igniting a 15-run rally, or torn his ACL running out a grounder, or anything in between.
But replays, taking less than sixty seconds of real time to watch, showed conclusively that Beltre fouled a ball off his foot with one out in the ninth against Jason Motte of the Cardinals in Game One of the 2011 World Series, and, unfortunately, home plate umpire Jerry Layne missed it, and called Beltre out on a grounder to third.
There has got to be a way to make those replays useful in the process by which the toughest calls, requiring the keenest judgment and the most chances to get them right, do not become unfortunate shadows on critical games – especially ones as well played as this Series opener.
I’m not calling for mandatory replay, just what I asked for after the heartbreaking screwup by Jim Joyce that cost Armando Galarraga his perfect game in 2010: some kind of option that lets the umps utilize the staggering advances in technology that appear on the scene every year. I know that the Airport Screening Cam added tonight by Fox looked hysterically funny and even grotesquely retro – but why not utilize it? You can go with an umpire’s option to check a replay himself, or a seventh ump in the booth with a replay array, even something that requires the replay review be completed in 90 seconds, or anything you like, but let’s get the right call made, as often as possible.
And I’m sorry, I don’t buy the “human element” argument in the least. Can anybody argue that tennis has been adversely affected since the electronic systems started determining baseline calls, rather than the imperfect ruling of an official too far away to see it clearly? I honor the umpires and think them among the most noble figures in the game, and agree that nobody’s perfect nor should be expected to be. But these aren’t arguments against improved and increased replay use – they’re arguments for it. Let’s give them every tool, and stop making them feel ashamed or incompetent if they choose to use them.
If it’s at all possible, I don’t want to know what an umpire thought happened. I want to know what happened.
The Beltre play may have been decisive, or it may have been trivial. But with a batter incapable of faking a wince fast enough on a ball off his foot, plus Beltre’s not running to first, plus the likelihood that only contact with an uneven, hard surface such as the front of his shoe could have made a ball angling so oddly off the bat then move on such a straight line to the third baseman, all the factors were present for exactly the kind of call the best of umpires should love to have a second look at, and all the technology is now available to get that second look accomplished in literally seconds.
Firstly, Rangers fans should be delighted by the headline – my 2011 predictions have been execrable (according to this blog, the series opens in Atlanta tomorrow night with the Red Sox as the visitors – or maybe it’s in Boston; maybe I got the All-Star Game wrong too).
Worse still I have a great affection for Ron Washington, his third base coach Dave Anderson, and his Game One starter C.J. Wilson. Beyond that, there is no love lost between me and Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa. The purist in me is offended that the regular season is so irrelevant that what it proved was the fourth best team in the National League is my pick to win the Series. And I happen to hate team catchphrases and don’t particularly care about whether the Cardinals’ flights are happy or morose.
Nevertheless, here are a few points that made this forecast unwelcome but necessary. You know that dreadful Cardinals’ starting rotation? Its post-season ERA is a nauseating 5.43 – and the Rangers are at 5.58. That anemic St. Louis line-up with the pitcher and the relief pitchers and a few popgun bats off the bench all hitting? It’s batting .288, getting on base at a .345 rate, slugging .448, for an OPS of .793. The awe-inspiring Texas line-up so deep with the DH that Boomstick Himself hitting way down there in the seventh? .259/.330/.434/.764. Having thus far played one more game than the Rangers, the Cardinals have outscored them 62 to 55.
Speaking of Boomstick, what if that tweak in Game 6 of the ALCS, that seeming oblique injury, merely hinders Nelson Cruz in the Series? What happens to a slugger who can’t twist his body fully without searing pain? Cruz has been fragile enough that to begin with his health is always in doubt. Worse still, there are probabilities in play here, and if your performance in the Division Series was 1-for-15 with no homers and no RBI, and then your performance in the Championship Series was 8-for-22 with six homers and 13 RBI, your performance in the World Series is much likelier to look like the first set of numbers than the second.
The DH “thing”? The Cardinals led the majors in hitting on the road, finishing third in road home runs behind only the Yankees and Red Sox. The Cardinals, thought to be comparatively weak sisters at the plate, basically led the National League in every offensive category except home runs, and struck out the fewest times in the NL. To be fair, Texas struck out even less – 48 times less – but without pitchers hitting the stat is slightly deceptive for comparison purposes. Cardinals’ pitchers struck out 111 times as batters during 2011, meaning their eight position players (and pinch-hitters and DHs) only struck out 867 times in total.
Then there is the little matter of the efficacy of starting three lefthanders against the Cardinals (in point of fact, if all three games scheduled for Arlington are played, St. Louis would face the three southpaws in a row). I appreciate the fact that the Cardinals did better against righties than any other NL team (and overall sit behind only Texas throughout the sport), and I’m aware that the key to beating the Cards this year has been to make Lance Berkman bat from the right side, where he is useful but not a force. But it still strikes me as inherently dangerous to offer Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, a blossoming David Freese, and Allen Craig the opportunity to face the likes of Wilson, Holland, and Harrison. To me the play is to bag one of the lesser two and opt for Alexi Ogando, rather than waiting for Holland to blow up again and then going and getting Ogando. Against lefties in the post-season the Cardinals battered Cliff Lee, were bewildered by Randy Wolf, and held their own in a loss to Cole Hamels.
The bullpens have both been superb – the Cardinals’ particularly – and the fact that neither team had to go to a seventh game in the LCS means both sets of relievers are likely to be fresh. If there is one intangible in Texas’s favor in this series, it’s that they’ve faced Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski this year, with some success. In fact they hung a loss Rzepczynski as recently as July 23, even though the Eyechart Man was effective against David Murphy (0-2) and Mitch Moreland (0-1) in four appearances. As images of Rzepczynski nearly getting Pujols killed Saturday night dance in the heads of Cardinals fans, it is trivially noteworthy to remember that his loss in Arlington nearly three months ago resulted from his own throwing error on a Moreland sacrifice.
So if you want to get an exotic wager in on the weirdest thing that could happen in the World Series, it would be Rzepczynski blowing an inning, or a lead, or a game, by picking up a bunt and running face first into Pujols for a solid E-1 and possible concussion.
Of course, just picking the Cardinals is an exotic enough wager.
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.
Having already tabbed the Rockies for a possible runaway in the West (pursued perhaps by the Giants), we move to the Central:
may represent a startling fact about this division – there not only isn’t a
great team here, there isn’t even a good one. The starting line-up is
five-eighths made up of guys who significantly regressed from 2008 to 2009,
plus Marlon Byrd. The new ownership seems to have already committed to the age-old easy way out of worrying more about the ballpark than the ballclub. Larry Rothschild has gratefully plugged Carlos Silva and Tom
Gorzelanny into his rotation. The bullpen is headed by a shaky Carlos Marmol
and not one experienced right-handed set-up man. The Cubs are a mess.
didn’t make any sense for CINCINNATI to invest in Scott Rolen, nor bring back
Ramon Hernandez, and with considerable irony, this might as well still be 2007
when the Reds were pinning their hopes on Homer Bailey and Jay Bruce. Their
epiphanies – Bailey’s last September, and Bruce’s during his injury – must be
lasting for the Reds to compete. But there is at minimum some sense of upswing
in Cincinnati. Dusty Baker gave Drew Stubbs the chance to play last year, and
might even find spots for Aroldis Chapman, Mike Leake, and Yonder Alonso this season. The
bullpen is strong, the rotation potentially deep.
Terry Francona’s top lieutenant, Brad Mills, has deserved a major league team
to manage. He may yet get the chance – for now he’s stuck with Houston. There
is an outfield and there are two starting
pitchers (providing Roy Oswalt isn’t seriously hurt, and doesn’t go home to his
ranch in sheer frustration). The rest of the line-up, and the pitching staff, are disaster areas, made no better by today’s news than Lance Berkman’s bionic knee is ‘cranky.’ Things could brighten somewhat if
Matt Lindstrom harnesses his talent, and if Jason Castro or J.R. Towles squat
up behind the plate, and if three fans turn out to be viable starting pitchers.
Otherwise, this is a franchise that has gone to seed.
psychological saw about repeating the same unsuccessful action with confidence
that this time it
will succeed? The Brewers are confident Dave Bush, Doug Davis, and Manny Parra and/or Jeff Suppan constitute three-fifths of a pitching staff. They’re certain Rickie Weeks and
Corey Hart will harness their talent. Everybody knows this is the year Yovanni Gallardo
leaps to the forefront of NL starters. This is a recording. The Brewers will be
deceptively entertaining as long as Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are around,
and they could get a wonderful spark if Carlos Gomez decides not to style his
way out of the game before his 25th birthday. But all the bullpen depth in the world
isn’t going to help that rotation.
deserves better. Surely they are, on average, a better set of players than the
Astros. But nothing seems to progress in Pittsburgh; Andrew McCutchen and
Garrett Jones arise fully grown from the minors, but Freddy Sanchez and Jack
Wilson are dished off. They make a seeming salary dump to Atlanta and in fact
rip the Braves off, selling Nate McLouth at his high point, opening up a spot
for McCutchen, and getting the remarkable arm of Charlie Morton – and Morton is
the only guy in the state who doesn’t believe he has a remarkable arm. And still, if
lightning strikes – if Pedro Alvarez, Chase D’Arnaud, and Tim Alderson were all
productive big leaguers by June 1, they’d suddenly have an actual real-life
.500 team. And a .500 team might run away with this division.
Pittsburgh can hope, because
ST. LOUIS is the most overrated team in the majors. Albert Pujols glitters so
brightly, he makes you forget that the rest of the infield is an assortment of
Brendan Ryans and Felipe Lopezes and David Freeses. Chris Carpenter and Adam
Wainwright were so dominant that they obscured the reality of what happened if
you actually beat them on consecutive days – the Cards’ season would be snuffed
out in a sweep. This is a team that was ready to trot out a rotation in which
Kyle Lohse, Brad Penny, and Rich Hill would pitch more often than did Carpenter
and Wainwright (the first light bulb going off: giving the fifth spot in the rotation not to Hill but to Jaime Garcia). The bullpen is a jumble, the bench non-existent, and lord help
Tony LaRussa if Yadier Molina is really hurt or Pujols’ back is cranky for more
than 45 minutes at a stretch.
You know what? I’ll take the long-odds bet on the dice coming up for the Reds
and not the Cardinals. It’ll be an exciting race, to see if you actually can
get into the playoffs with 79 victories. Chicago third, Milwaukee fourth just
ahead of Pittsburgh, and Houston sixth, unless they decide to conserve energy
and just forfeit all games in lieu of much needed fielding practice and weeding
through resumes of infielders and pitchers.