Results tagged ‘ Tampa Bay Rays ’

2013 Predictions. The World Series Winner Is….

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.

2013 Previews. AL East: The Yankees Muddlers Row.

The ball was chopped slowly and to get the out the first baseman would have to pick it up barehanded in the grass corner between the foul line and the infield dirt. The pitcher would have to hustle over but as the game’s most abused cliche reminds us every 43 minutes, that’s why they have PFP in spring training. With a speedy runner it would still be close but this was the majors and he who executes best laughs last.

The fans at Yankee Stadium didn’t think twice about it when it happened in the top of the fourth yesterday. The play was difficult, but the pitcher was CC Sabathia and his hustle and athleticism have been one of the under-publicized aspects of the franchise’s success since 2009. And of course, the New York first baseman for exactly the same length of time has been Mark Teixeira and the goaltender-like whip-lash catches he makes at the bag and his other defensive wizardry obscures the fact that if that comparatively ordinary slow chopper is hit to him 500 times over a decade he’s going to pick it cleanly at least 499 times.

Except the Yankee first baseman yesterday wasn’t Teixeira, it was Kevin Youkilis. And no offense to Kevin Youkilis, but when he reached down to scoop up the Jose Iglesias chop and toss it to Sabathia for the out he got nothing but grass and air.

An inning later Jarrod Saltalamacchia shot one into the corner in left, where Brett Gardner should have made an adroit pick-up of the ball as it rattled around. Except Gardner was in center because like Teixeira, Curtis Granderson is hurt and it was Vernon Wells. And no offense to Vernon Wells, but when he waited for the straight bounce off the fence that never comes out there, it didn’t come, and he was left to play ‘go chase’ for awhile. All things considered Saltalamacchia probably would’ve gotten a double out of it anyway but there would have been a play and every tenth or twentieth time – an out.

In neither case did the Red Sox score. But those two plays alone added ten pitches or more to Sabathia’s count and send him packing after five innings down 4-to-2, which opened things for the Yankee bullpen, which may be the least recognized problem among the cascade of them that started yesterday, and soon it would 5-to-2 and then 8-to-2 and then just as in “Young Frankenstein,” it got worse – it started raining.

The effect on the offense of the subtraction of Teixeira, Granderson, Derek Jeter, and even Alex Rodriguez is obvious. What will kill the Yankees – and I mean last place kill the Yankees; this is not the collapse of 1965, that was last year in the ALCS, this is 1966 - will be its effect on the defense. Bad defense is not only its own punishment but it makes bums out of the best of the pitchers. And to re-use yet another old joke, kid, these aren’t the best of them.

And much of this mess will never show up in the box score. The Iglesias and Saltalamacchia plays were both clearly to be scored base hits. Unfortunately this Yankee team – the Muddlers’ Row of Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco, Travis Hafner, Lyle Overbay, Wells, and Youkilis – has been assembled through (in the memorable phrase of the equally memorable San Francisco baseball writer Hank Schulman) dumpster-diving. And defensively they’re just bad enough to not make the plays, but just good enough to not get the errors.

It’s hard to say how this impending disaster will be received in the Bronx. The Yankees haven’t had a losing season since 1992 and they’ve either won or been in contention every year since 1993. Hal Steinbrenner was still at the University of Florida Business School then, and the Yankees could and often did draw half of what they draw these days. A front office with no memory of the Bad Old Days never mind experience with alleviating them is likely to panic and throw some babies out with the bathwater (heck, the Yankees began panicking about mild media criticism more than a year ago). And the front-running fans who have filled the place during these later glory years will not know what that they were seeing, and never fully realize the implications of the fact that their new platoon third baseman was guy who had been released by the Red Sox exactly a week ago today.

Toronto: I’m not one of those stick-in-the-muds who looked at the Dodgers last year and tut-tutted “you can’t parachute in four new guys in mid-season and expect to form a team.” I mean, for one thing I’m an entirely different kind of stick-in-the-mud. But more importantly, that conclusion ignores the reality that the Giants have won two World Series while parachuting in four guys (last year) and five guys (2010).

So my refusal to jump on the Bandwagon going doing Blue Jay Way is nothing about team chemistry or parachuting or trying to meld a team while competing or Jose Reyes’s hamstrings on turf. I just think that the laudable effort to rebuild a once-great franchise has somewhat obscured some remaining problems – like a very average bullpen, very average production out of the DH spot, and trouble at third base until Brett Lawrie returns.

Plus there’s this little scandal from last year that sneaked in under everybody’s radar. The big trade for the noble Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey? It came less than a year after Dickey became one of a handful of major league pitchers to admit to taking painkiller injections during the season (Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, and Clay Buchholz were among the others). In Dickey’s case this was 2011; I’ve seen no reporting about him and the drug – Toradol – in 2012:

Dickey is among the players who believe Toradol is more effective than taking over-the-counter pain pills. He said he believed the injections helped keep him on the field to pitch 2082/3 innings last season (2011), despite his injured foot. Some doctors, though, said athletes might believe Toradol to be more effective only because of the way it is commonly administered.

The emphasis there was mine.

Giving your starting pitcher a series of anti-inflammatory pain-dulling injections all seasons long is ok because the drug, while requiring a prescription, supposedly only has a slightly greater impact than a couple of Advil (injected directly into the source of your pain). Except, oh by the way, that pesky drug insert sheet references limiting its use to five days in pill form and two days for injections, and oh by the way in England physicians are instructed to start patients on Toradol only in a hospital, and oh by the way when Clay Buchholz was in a hospital with internal bleeding last June he said he thought his use of the drug contributed to his crisis and the fact that doctors had to transfuse him with three or four pints of blood.

Dickey is hardly deserving of being the only one with a finger pointed at him. My understanding is there isn’t a rotation in the majors that doesn’t have at least one regular Toradol, and that some of them may be in new uniforms this year in part because of their teams’ fears that the painkiller could mask necessary pain, the kind that warns you of impending injury. For as with any drug that dulls pain, or covers up muscular damage or exhaustion, or which neutralizes tiredness, the possibility is increased of sudden serious injury. You don’t know you’re hurting and you push it to far – and something snaps.

In short, if a Toradol scandal, or a Prescription Drug scandal, breaks in baseball this year the guys on the record as (past) users are few and far between. And only one of them is a defending Cy Young Winner.

Almost as an aside I also have doubts about the efficacy of Toronto’s rotation. Dickey went from 8-13 in 2011 to 20-6 last year. His strikeouts soared from 134 to 230 in only 25 more innings. His offensive support went up 8/10ths of a run. I don’t know if any of that is sustainable or repeatable this year – especially without the joy of facing pitchers every ninth batter. Tell me how much you’re willing to rely on Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, to say nothing of Ricky Romero, currently of the Dunedin Blue Jays.

Boston: The gift of Jackie Bradley being ready as much as a year early – and it is a gift, his at bats are those of a 10-year veteran who draws 100 walks every year – may hide some dubious free agent signings. When your key acquisition does so poorly on his physical that you (and he) agree to cut the deal from three years to one, that’s a problem. When you are hoping that Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, and Ryan Dempster all had ‘blips’ last year, that’s a lot of high-odds wagering.

The Red Sox probably did themselves a favor by sacrificing the stability that was Adrian Gonzalez in order to offload the franchise-sinking contracts of Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford. But as has been noted elsewhere, they were left with a lot of contract room and not that many people to spend it on. Instead of a Josh Hamilton they went for “Clubhouse Guys” – which is great for long road trips, flights, bus rides in traffic, rain delays, etc. – but rarely seems to be the corrective folks assume insomuch as the last time I checked the game was still played out on the field and very rarely in the clubhouse.

Bradley, of course, is the real deal (though I’ve never seen a player whose Dad didn’t reach the majors use the “junior” on his uni – his reads “BRADLEY JR.”). Will Middlebrooks is legit too. If Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia stay healthy that’s four of nine positions that will excel offensively and defensively. But with David Ortiz hurt and presumably waning there is no longer a feared hitter in this line-up and given the depth of this division that’s a serious impediment to contention.

Baltimore: As mentioned in the AL Central preview the Orioles could’ve easily offed the Yankees in the ALDS last year even though they were relying on two outfielders – Lew Ford and Nate McLouth – who had been released earlier in the same season (Ford, by a team in an independent league). The O’s were reshaped by two guys who were largely viewed as having been bypassed by the proverbial parade, Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette, and featured the contributions of only a couple of homegrown guys (Markakis, Machado, Wieters, Jim Johnson).

What becomes of the Orioles when the revivified farm system begins to contribute? Dylan Bundy was arguably the game’s top pitching prospect, until this spring when he was bypassed by his teammate Kevin Gausman. Will they step into the rotation or be used out of the bullpen a la David Price? Could WBC-tested infielder Jonathan Schoop help out? Or outfielder L.J. Hoes? Could any American League team add more key parts from its own farm system as 2013 rolls along?

Tampa Bay: Well, yeah, actually.

Even while trading off Wade Davis and James Shields, the Rays still have a complete back-up rotation (Jeff Niemann in the bullpen, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Alex Colome in the minors) to say nothing of a Cy Young Winner (David Price) and two possible future candidates (Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore) at the front of Plan A.

And if the primary bounty in the Shields trade, Wil Myers, is not summoned into the Tampa line-up it will only be because of injury, or because the traditional small-ball line-up is producing satisfactorily and there’s no need to squeeze out James Loney or the platooners at second or DH.

The key Tampa weakness would seem to be behind the plate. They kept Jose Molina intact enough to appear in 102 games last year and one wonders if that can be done again, or if Jose Lobaton is a satisfactory alternative. There isn’t a catching prospect in the system and despite the sense that the Rays hit the bullseye with every one of their very few economic darts, the minors are thin generally in terms of position players (2009 was a bad draft, and every year that passes makes the 2008 selection of Tim Beckham as the overall number one pick instead of some kid named Posey look that much sillier). But the arms keep appearing, the down-market free agent signings keep producing (you realize that Loney could out-hit his predecessor Carlos Pena by a hundred points and still not hit .300?), and the veterans get transformed either into more draft choices (or guys like Wil Myers. Good grief, the team with the thinnest tightrope in the sport was somehow able to trade for Wil Myers). Marc Topkin has a superb and concise explanation of how the Rays keep the machine turning here and I offer the usual disclaimer here that I went to college with the future Mrs. Stuart Sternberg and their oldest son was an intern for me one summer.

The Division: I know this is viewed as a three, four, or even five team race. I just don’t see anybody seriously challenging the Rays, especially when Myers comes up. I’m not certain on whether the Orioles’ Tampa-like structuring and youth flood can overcome the value of Toronto’s mass additions in the race for second place; either way it’ll be close. The Red Sox are not likely to compete but also not likely to be challenged by the Yankees who – even in the disaster of last place – will still be the division’s lead story.

Tomorrow we’ll finish it up with the Tarot Card reading that those one-game wild cards make trying to predict the playoffs six months in advance.

The Marlins: A Modest Proposal

So. Time to take Marlins Park and: A) Disassemble it; B) Crate it; C) Sell It; D) Ship it to San Jose (or Oakland, or Portland, or San Bernardino, Austin/San Antonio/Round Rock, or – wherever).

Now that the Miami experiment is over (as forecast here a year ago next week, and reiterated here last June) and Hanley Ramirez, Heath Bell, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, and the merely arbitration-eligible Emilio Bonifacio have either been offloaded in A Going-Out-Of-Business-Sale (or are about to be), the Marlins are officially the Montreal Expos of the 2010′s and baseball is unofficially dead in Florida.

Notice I did not write South Florida. All of it. Rays’ owner Stu Sternberg was already less than sanguine about getting significant scratch from the state and local governments for a new ballpark that is absolutely essential to his survival in Tampa/St. Petersburg. If he had any hopes left after the disastrously low crowds for the free ballpark the good burghers of Florida gave Jeffrey Loria, they have to be gone now and he has to be looking elsewhere.

There are all sorts of other implications if the Reyes/Buehrle/Johnson deal to Toronto is completed as advertised. Obviously, this revivifies a Toronto franchise that was already showing signs of being on the upswing last year and as far back as 2010-11. It sure knocks the price down for whoever is the Jays’ first choice for the manager’s job. It might make John Farrell a little remorseful. And it buries the Yankees in the American League East; there would now be at least three other teams in the division with more talent than New York. The prospects of Alex Rodriguez going to the lame duck Miami franchise (first reported blah blah blah here and blah blah blah ) might actually have increased, on the premise that Loria and MLB have to do something to make it at least look like they’re trying to field a product worthy of 2013 big league ticket prices).

But the biggest long-term implications are fairly simple: the franchise carousel, all but quiet since the upheaval of the 1953-72 era, will begin to spin again.

Miami has a slight chance of survival (that stadium is standing, and a mess of prospects can suddenly win a division – ask the Oakland A’s about that) but Tampa Bay is gone. One would assume that at the latest the season of 2020 opens without a Florida team in the majors.

Where do the Rays (and probably the Marlins) move?

Here are the top U.S. Metropolitan Areas without MLB teams ranked by population, on 2011 estimates drawn from the Official 2010 United States Census:

12. Riverside/San Bernardino/Ontario CA          4,304,997

23. Portland OR/Vancouver WA                            2,262,605

24. San Antonio/New Braunfels TX                      2,194,927

25. Sacramento/Roseville CA                                  2,176,235

26. Orlando/Daytona Beach FL                             2,171,360

30. Las Vegas                                                               1,969,975

31. San Jose                                                                  1,865,450

32. Columbus OH                                                        1,858,464

33. Charlotte/Gastonia NC                                       1,795,472

34. Austin/Round Rock TX                                      1,783,519

35. Indianapolis                                                          1,778,568

36. Virginia Beach/Norfolk                                     1,679,894

37. Nashville                                                                 1,617,142

Nashville you say? Virginia Beach? Hahahahahahaha?

Not so fast. Every metropolitan area on this list is larger than Milwaukee and Riverside, Portland, San Antonio and Sacramento are bigger than Cincinnati. There are certain practacalities here. All of Southern California is Dodger/Angel territory and the Magic Johnson group that just spent Eleventy Billion on the Dodgers isn’t going to give up claim on anything. Though Texas is a big place don’t tell that to the Rangers and Astros, who claim both the San Antonio and Austin zones. Columbus is Cleveland’s territory (unless it’s Cincinnati’s), Orlando would have at least some of the same problems as Tampa/St. Pete, and the Giants and Athletics are in their fifth different decade of arguing over San Jose.

So the Rays go to Portland and the Marlins to Sacramento? Not so fast.

You know who’d be 15th on the list – right between Phoenix and Seattle – if we made it of not American metropolitan areas but North American?

Right.

15. Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Regional population: 3,824,221.

But wait, didn’t things go very badly in Montreal before? They certainly did, but not because of the city nor its love of baseball. Corrupt government and underfunded ownership and a betrayed fan base – all of them saddled with the greatest white elephant in the history of North American sports construction, Olympic Stadium. In every full season between 1979 and 1983 – even in that XXL Airplane Hangar - Les Expos drew at least 2,102,173 fans a year.

The peak total – 2,320,651 in 1983 – edged out the Cardinals for second place in National League attendance, and was just about a million more than the Mets drew in New York. It was about then that stuff started falling from the roof of the tribute to provincial graft, and star players started falling off the Expos’ roster. But make no mistake about it: Montreal supported baseball. As late as 1997 the Expos still brought in a million-and-a-half fans (more than the Mets or the Giants).

If all that could not be done in the ’90s and ’00s could be put together – a downtown stadium with government support, plus a well-run franchise making a long-term commitment – baseball’s second try in Montreal could be a triumph. And consider if it were the Rays fleeing north. Not only would Montreal get that well-run franchise, but it would suddenly find itself in a division with rivals from hated cities like Boston and New York…

…and Toronto.

Montreal and Toronto in the same division. Genius, I tells ya. Genius.

It’s a win-win. Unless you’re one of those few Florida baseball fans.

Oh yeah, I left out a fifth thing to do about the Marlins and Marlins Park: E) Ship Giancarlo Stanton separately. And while you’re at it, you might as well start wrapping uber-prospect Christian Yelich too.

 

Bye, Hanley. Bye, Marlins. Bye, Rays.

The Miami Marlins have dumped all of Hanley Ramirez’s contract (“an original Eovaldi - how lovely”). They have traded Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez for a Detroit Tigers’ can’t-miss pitching prospect (how well did that work out when they offloaded Miguel Cabrera for Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin?). They threw Randy Choate overboard and might flip Carlos Lee. They are begging somebody to take Heath Bell off their hands. They might still deal Josh Johnson (update: there’s now even a rumor-let today about trading Jose Reyes).

But unlike when Wayne Huizenga did it in 1998 and 2004, owner Jeffrey Loria claims with a straight face that this is not a fire sale.

“It’s no secret I love [Ramirez],” Loria told Fox Sports and MLB Network reporter Ken Rosenthal. “He needs to have a fresh beginning, a new beginning … This is a very painful moment for me. But we had to do something.”

Uh-huh. The people who are having the “very painful moment” and who “need the fresh beginning” are Florida baseball fans. If any.

In the new stadium, the Marlins have averaged 28,397 fans per game, which is 12th in MLB in terms of percentage of capacity (that’s about three-quarters full). But a) it’s not as big as it seems (the Brewers have averaged 83% of capacity) and the raw numbers are below need, not growing, and disturbingly static during the most marketable moments. Since June 3rd, Miami has hosted 10 marquee games against divisional rivals Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, and three more against the Red Sox. They’ve only drawn even 30,000 fans on four of those dates.

Check, please.

The Marlins’ billion-dollar bet – that people would go to an area with no parking and little public transportation to go see a sparkly new ballpark and an all-star team – was failing even before the team began to stumble on the field. The sadness here is that I don’t know what you do with a great new ballpark that can’t draw enough customers to permit you to make money off it. Crate it and ship it to San Jose for the A’s? Airlift it to Montreal and try that again?

Of course the Marlins’ failure will kill the Tampa Bay Rays, too. Only a miracle would’ve given the state of Florida or the local governments the kind of political cover necessary to even chip in to a new baseball stadium (well, baseball stadium) in St. Pete or Tampa. The Rays have excited an initially ambivalent fan base with a superior job of planning and growth and innovation. And their new loyal fans can’t figure out the equation. They’re a little hurt that the team expects them to pay to get into the park.

So Florida baseball, 20 years old, isn’t going to get much older – at least not as we know it now. The Marlins are stuck there, doomed to live forever in a mansion with no furniture. The Rays aren’t. They’re almost certainly going to have to move. It’s a shame, too, because in those two decades the two clubs have produced three World Series trips, which is exactly one less than the five California franchises have produced in the same span.

The other shame here is, it’s not as if some of us didn’t see this coming. This is the blog entry from last November 15th (and that was before they’d actually signed Reyes or Bell, and before Guillen’s Castro gaffe):

Miami In A Vice

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 alwaysdistinctive 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.

2012 Previews: N.L. East

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

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

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

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

Bolshoi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2012 N.L. EAST FORECAST:

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

2012 Previews: A.L. East

AMID all the curiosity and nostalgia about the sudden unretirement of Andy Pettitte, there rested one question that is absolutely fundamental to understanding the 2012 American League Eastern Division race.

Why?

I heard people ask Pettitte about how it happened, when it happened, why he wanted it to happen, how his arm was, how his legs were, how his head was. I heard questions about when Brian Cashman called him and how often and how much he was offered and how much he eventually signed for and why it took him so long and when he’ll be ready.

What I did not hear was a question about why – in the wake of trading the best hitting prospect they’ve produced since Robinson Cano for a starting pitcher, and in the wake of signing a free agent starting pitcher, and with a training camp full of young starting pitcher prospects – why did the Yankees feel they needed Pettitte?

Even at the point when Cashman traded Jesus Montero to Seattle for Michael Pineda (and then incongruously compared Montero to Miguel Cabrera), the Yankees had a surfeit of starting pitchers. CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia, and Phil Hughes were all back (and Bartolo Colon could’ve been). Manuel Banuelos, Dellin Betances, and Hector Noesi were awaiting opportunities. And then Pineda was added. And then Kuroda. And then Pettitte.

I understand no team divides its 162 starts evenly among five men and if you go through a year with only two rotational changes it’s been a blessing from above. But to add so much is to suggest not that you’re worried about injury or attrition, but about the quality of what you already have. I don’t think the Yankees trust Nova, I think they feel Hughes’ moment is passed, I presume they have no faith that the moment will arrive for Banuelos and Betances. And after his flaccid spring, I’m sure they’re wondering if the Pineda thing was a disaster too.

It was.

Jesus Montero probably can’t catch a lick and the Yankees didn’t have first base open for him to move to. But a player like him, with that kind of high ball opposite field power, is far more scarce than a Michael Pineda at his best, let alone a Michael Pineda who didn’t gain velocity in the off-season, only weight. The Yankees seem deliberately intent on ignoring the reality that they are aging dangerously on offense. I realize that part of the solution to that is to free up the DH spot that Montero would’ve filled, by a rotation of the wheezing Alex Rodriguez, the unpredictable Nick Swisher, the aging Derek Jeter, and the calcified Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez. But it would seem those guys, and the offense, would’ve benefited a lot more from taking days off and letting the kid get 600 plate appearances and 30 homers.

And while my theory of Cashman getting as much pitching protection as he can speaks well to his preparedness for the ever-growing chance of injury or unreliability among his hurlers, there is no similar cushion being built for the line-up. This is a dreadful bench, from Francisco Cervelli (no power), to Eduardo Nunez (no glove), to Jones (no future). And there’s nobody in the farm system to fill the deficiencies before Gary Sanchez and Mason Williams arise during the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign. There was a guy but they traded him for a starting pitcher so good that they had to talk a 39-year old out of retirement to replace him. Lord help the Yankees if Curtis Granderson hits like he did last September, or if Rodriguez (“he’s in great shape; oh yeah, he was in great shape last year before he broke”) or Teixeira or Russell Martin get hurt. Or Cano. No Cano and they might not be even a factor in the pennant race.

That’s why I’m picking TAMPA BAY in this division, and handily. This is still a popgun offense, although I giggle every time I read somebody rip them for bringing back Carlos Pena to replace folk hero Casey Kotchman. Casey Kotchman had 560 plate appearances last year in Tampa and drove in 48 runs. A first baseman almost has to try to achieve a statistic that pathetic. In any event, Andrew Friedman has upgraded the offense from anemic to serene, improving by small measure at first, at DH, and at short (where Jeff Keppinger is bound to supplant the .193/.223 boys, Sean Rodriguez and Reid Brignac). Desmond Jennings is clearly blossoming into a star, and if B.J. Upton can hit merely .275, he will finally become one as well.

And the Rays have the best pitching staff in baseball. Even if Matt Moore is hyped and James Shields returns to earth and David Price keeps underachieving, they can pull Wade Davis back from the bullpen, and bring up Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, and half a dozen other guys from Durham. If the magic spell that made Kyle Farnsworth a top closer suddenly snaps, they have Fernando Rodney and Joel Peralta and Jake McGee and J.P. Howell to give it a try. The Rays probably have not just the best staff, 1-through-14 in baseball; they may have the best staff, 1-through-28. Who knows: if everything doesn’t go wrong maybe they dangle some of those prospects at mid-season and get some hitting?

The problem in BOSTON last year was pitchers drinking before the games were over. The problem in Boston this year could be fans drinking before they begin. Outside of Adrian Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury there isn’t a player on that 25-man roster about whom there is not one huge question. How soon will Kevin Youkilis’ crazy grip finally irreparably damage his hand? Can Carl Crawford actually face a pennant race? Is Buchholz healthy? Or Lester? Or Beckett?

Most importantly, to paraphrase long-ago skipper Joe M. Morgan, “who is running this nine?” New manager Bobby Valentine, showing my earlier criticisms of him may have been extreme and unfair, wanted Jose Iglesias at shortstop and hard-hitting, rapidly-improving Ryan Lavarnway behind the plate (Lavarnway being the only Red Sox player who didn’t panic down the stretch last year). He was overruled – and he certainly wasn’t overruled by newbie GM Ben Cherington. Years ago Terry Francona, John Farrell, and Theo Epstein came to the realization that Daniel Bard didn’t have the emotional chops to be a starting pitcher, and was best served firing gas out of the pen. They’re all gone, Bard was shoved into the rotation, is flailing just as the former bosses knew he would, and now presumably staggers back to the bullpen as broken goods behind the physically sketchy Andrew Bailey (Mark Melancon might close for them yet).

It’s a mess. It’s a mess that could almost accidentally come together in triumph and bolt into the pennant race, but – and heaven help me I’m agreeing with Curt Schilling – it looks like it is going bad quicker than he and I expected it to.  Ah well, maybe they can hire Francona back at some point and he can sift through the ashes and rebuild The Olde Towne Team with an eye towards 2014.

The question in TORONTO is: could it be going good quicker than anybody expects it to? Seven spots in the Jays’ lineup don’t particularly startle you, until you reach the conclusion that the guys occupying them could all, realistically, hit 20 homers apiece this year. This does not include Jose Bautista, or the first full year of The Brett Lawrie, who might become Canada’s first true homegrown baseball hero since The Larry Walker. The Blue Jays might be good for 250 home runs – Adam Lind could easily jump from one of the “other seven” to All-Star status – and the only defensive liability of the bunch, catcher J.P. Arencibia, could soon be supplanted by uber-prospect Travis D’Arnaud.

The Jays will hit and field. Their bullpen – fresh-armed Sergio Santos, protected by the underappreciated Coco Cordero, joining the incumbent Casey Janssen – with Darren Oliver actually finding a team he hasn’t previously played for – is newly solid. The questions are all among the starters. Only Ricky Romero has a resume, but during Toronto’s remarkable spring in dreary Dunedin (I know, I know, spring training stats, but they are 22-4 as I write this), Henderson Alvarez, Brett Cecil, Brandon Morrow, and even Deck McGuire and Kyle Drabek have looked sharp. Dustin McGowan is, in a tradition as old as time itself, hurt again – but perhaps only for a few weeks. If there’s one thing John Farrell knows it’s how to translate pitching potential into success. Just slight success out of the rotation and the Jays could vault into contention.

As to BALTIMORE they seem to be planning to use Wilson Betemit and Nick Johnson as part-time Designated Hitters. End Communication.

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST FORECAST:

Faint heart never won fair predicting contests. I’m convinced about the winner, and taking a flier on the runners-up. It’s possible one of the Wild Cards comes out of this division but I’m not convinced any more. The Yankees and the Red Sox are not locks, and they are so not locks that I will assume New York will finally suffer the kind of position-player calamity that accelerates its decrepitude. TAMPA BAY is your champion, TORONTO second, NEW YORK third (close), BOSTON fourth, and BALTIMORE should’ve been relegated already.

NEXT TIME…I don’t know, I haven’t written it yet.

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.

Dances With Betances As Opposed To Disco With Cisco

On September 28, 1930, with the New York Yankees firmly locked into third place and the Boston Red Sox even more firmly pinioned in last, the Yankees unveiled a surprise starter for their season finale in Boston.

George Herman “Babe” Ruth.

Batting in his customary third position,  and having already hit his customary 48 homers, Ruth scattered 11 hits, struck out three of the scrub-riddled Boston line-up, and pitched a complete game victory (his first pitching win since 1921).  A crowd so otherwise disinterested that the attendance figure is lost to history presumably roared as Ruth harkened back to his days as the best left-hand pitcher in the American League. The Yankees and Ruth would repeat the stunt at Yankee Stadium three years later:  this time Ruth added a homer and surrendered 12 hits, hanging on for the 6-5 win that ended the season, long after the vagaries of the pennant race had assured that the only question was whether the Yanks would finish six, seven, or eight games out of first.

There is no comparison here to the latter-day Yanks starting rookie Dellin Betances tonight in Tampa with the Rays and Red Sox tied for the Wild Card. But it is one of the infelicities of the modern pennant race and the treating of pitchers as if they were Thoroughbred Race Horses that Joe Girardi – or any manager in his situation – must throw out a sacrificial lamb in this situation. Bartolo Colon started yesterday, Freddy Garcia has looked like crap, Ivan Nova and CC Sabathia are needed for the playoffs, and Phil Hughes had to miss a start earlier due to whatever Phil Hughes Syndrome he’s suffering from at the moment.

Who do you want Girardi to start? Babe Ruth?

In 1964 – in a far more complex four-team scramble to win the National League – as the Phillies collapsed they had to face, in the season’s last three games,  career 193-game winner Curt Simmons, then seasonal 17-game winner Jim O’Toole, and then Cincinnati fifth starter John Tsitouris, who could at least claim he’d won nine games that year. The Reds, challenging for the pennant, had to face Joe Gibbon of Pittsburgh, but then Chris Short and Jim Bunning of the Phillies. The eventual fourth-place Giants were stuck facing Dick Ellsworth, Bob Buhl, and Larry Jackson, who among them had won an astonishing 53 games for the deadbeat Cubs. But the last three games the Cardinals played saw them face the hapless (53-109) New York Mets – at home – and the star-studded rotation of Al Jackson (10 wins), Jack Fisher (10), and Galen Cisco (5). They shelled Fisher, but were promptly staved off by five innings of five-hit relief by rookie Tom Parsons, who was getting half his career wins that day (2-13 lifetime, though they would trade him for Jerry Grote).

On the last day of the insane 1964 NL season, the Giants were opposed by a 24-game winner (Jackson), the Reds had to go up against a future Hall of Famer who’d just thrown a perfect game early in the season (Bunning), and the Cardinals had to somehow overcome Galen Cisco.

Wanna see Galen Cisco’s line that day?

New York Mets   IP H  R  ER BB  SO 

Cisco L (6-19)        4  7   5    5     4      0

Galen Cisco lifetime? 25-56, 4.56 ERA.

Did you hear the Phillies bitching that the Cardinals got a soft opponent at the end? Even after St. Louis went on to win the World Series and the ’64 Phillies went on to eternal ignominy? Anybody even mention it when Cisco wound up as pitching coach…of the Phillies?

There is also something else to consider about Betances. Though we live in a time when fans are more aware of minor league prospects than ever before, last week the Rays drew weird looks when they gave Matt Moore his first big league start against New York. Moore merely struck out eleven in five innings. Betances is not quite the prospect Moore is, but he has superb motion on his fastball and is one of the top 20 or 25 pitching prospects in the minors and frankly the Yankees needed to see what he could do, eventually. Moreover, all I heard about yesterday was how, with Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek out, the Red Sox were “stuck” starting rookie catcher Ryan Lavarnway in the penultimate game in Baltimore. All Lavarnway did was hit a three-run homer, a game-cinching solo homer, and then save the contest in the bottom of the 9th when Jonathan Papelbon froze on a squib in front of the plate and Lavarnway calmly threw the batter out at first.

Red Sox fans have every right to feel frustrated that their hopes of avoiding a play-in game hinge in part on a guy whose career consists of having gotten two outs while giving up two hits, four walks, and a hit batsman. But they have no right to complain nor claim the Yankees aren’t living up to some kind of sportsmanship standard. And ultimately – whose fault is it that the Sox are in this mess to begin with? Betances? The Babe?

 

2011 Previews: AL East

Did pretty good last year: picked five of the eight post-season teams, including the Rangers and Giants. So, a little late, let’s get started on the 2011 forecasts with the American League and the East:

BALTIMORE: The Orioles have a lot going for them, not the least of which is information I couldn’t have known until tonight. Brian Matusz’s injury forces their hand on young lefty Zach Britton, who drew the most oohs-and-aahs in Florida as he mastered veterans like they were platoon guys in the Eastern League. For the Orioles to be anything more than a Cinderella team, Britton, Jake Arrieta, and Brad Bergesen will have to form a “Baby Birds” rotation as effective as the Milt Pappas/Jack Fisher crowd of 50 years ago – but less likely things have happened. The O’s have a confused but deep bullpen, and a powerful line-up that also presents an airtight infield defense if Derrick Lee and Brian Roberts can stay healthy. J.J. Hardy was described in Florida as “re-born” and Vladi Guerrero is still hitting anything that doesn’t hit the mascot. It’s also Buck Showalter’s Honeymoon Year – his second season in each job (1993 Yankees, 1999 Diamondbacks, 2004 Rangers) has seen a playoff contender grow out of almost nowhere.

BOSTON: I need to tell you about this? The Red Sox added two ex-closers to the bullpen, have a line-up with six potential All-Stars in it, and Mike Cameron on the bench? And that in my night in their dugout in Fort Myers last month, the focus of the stars was cheering everything that the then-struggling Jarrod Saltalamacchia did? There is just so much depth that unlike last year the team could contend even with a star – or maybe two – falling to injury. Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford are also tremendous teammates, not merely tremendous talents. Buster Olney said it best, in mime. He put one hand by his belt to indicate the other 29 teams. He put the other at his neck: “The Red Sox are here.”

NEW YORK: The aforementioned Mr. Olney tracked the end of the Yankee dynasty to Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, but this kind of overlooked the fact that they made the post-season in eight of the next nine years, reached the Series twice, and one once. This is the year the whole dynasty ends. Alex Rodriguez is healthy again and poised for an epic campaign, and there is no reason to doubt Cano or Teixeira. But otherwise I’d rather have Baltimore’s lineup. Or Toronto’s. The treatment of Jorge Posada (he can’t even be the back-up catcher? Not even the emergency back-up catcher?) and the reliance on such late-round fantasy fodder as Russell Martin, Andruw Jones, Eric Chavez, Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and maybe Kevin Millwood is just startling. What? Juan Acevedo and Scott Erickson weren’t available? There is always the chance that Derek Jeter is right and everybody else is wrong about his deterioration at bat and in the field. On consecutive at bats in the second inning on Opening Day, a Miguel Cabrera screamer cleared Jeter by at least ten feet yet he jumped anyway as if unable to judge its height; then, a pretty ordinary liner by Victor Martinez nearly took his glove off. It seemed prophetic. I cannot see this team in the post-season, and none of its prospect-saviors: Banuelos, Betances, Brackman, or Montero, are ready yet.

TAMPA BAY: One of the explanations I heard for Austin Jackson’s blossoming in Detroit last year was that they put Johnny Damon’s locker next to his. This year he’s supposedly tutoring the gifted but so-far underachieving B.J. Upton. You’ve already heard the story of Manny Ramirez – hearing either the call of the clock or of the diminished paycheck – volunteering for spring training road trips and extra work in left. You know that Dan Johnson can produce the same kind of power/low batting average at first that Carlos Pena did. You have noticed the Rays’ rotation is as young and as deep as anybody’s this side of Philly (and might have improved with Matt Garza clearing space for Jeremy Hellickson). But Tampa is being written off because Joe Maddon and Jim Hickey have to fabricate a whole new bullpen. The readily forgotten reality is that they had pretty much done the same thing in 2010, with just as unlikely a cast. The key men: the closer Rafael Soriano (Atlanta), the 8th-inning guy Joaquin Benoit (hurt in the minors), and the lefty specialist Randy Choate (minors) had all been elsewhere in ’09. They are not likely to have the wire-to-wire reliability of a Soriano, but there is no reason why Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta shouldn’t hold the fort until Jake McGee or Brandon Gomes is ready. The Rays are not in Boston’s class – who is? – but they are Wild Card-worthy.

TORONTO: Like Baltimore, rookie manager John Farrell has an airtight batting order with 20-homer power at every spot in the line-up, and a rotation and bullpen that could be heaven or hell. I prefer Baltimore’s starters to Toronto’s, but Farrell’s unique background of college head coaching, major league talent development, and major league pitching coaching, might enable him to get more out of the Jays’ mix of what I think is an overrated Ricky Romero and a cast of dozens. It is simply tough to imagine a team hitting as many home runs as the Jays will and still finishing last.

THE FORECAST: I don’t think the top two spots are at issue. Boston wins, the Rays probably take the wild card. The question becomes whether the Yankee collapse, and the Oriole and Jay growth spurts, happen rapidly enough to unleash Steinbrennarmageddon in the Bronx: the Yankees finishing last. I suspect we will see them occupy the basement long enough for the kind of good old-fashioned accusation firestorm and managerial firing speculation that used to make 161st Street the Bronx Zoo. But I do not think both sets of birds will fly with equal success. I may have Toronto and Baltimore switched here, but I see it: 1. Boston, 2. Tampa Bay, 3. Baltimore, 4. New York, 5. Toronto (and the last three, very close indeed).

 

 

Rangers Run Past Yankees?

Whether or not his team actually beats the New York Yankees, I have to start this by standing up and applauding Ron Washington’s primary gamble.

He has in large part been forced into it by the reality of the fifth game against Tampa Bay, but there were other options and he chose the one in which unless the ALCS goes seven, he will only start Cliff Lee once. This means that one of the three key figures in this series will be not Lee, but C.J. Wilson.
Thus a lefthander will start Game One against the Yankees, and another one would start Game Seven, and because they are so scheduled, they would also each start a game in Yankee Stadium. Lefties in Yankee Stadium – your best bet to beat them. Provided they are good lefthanders.
The Yankees’ switch-hitters are all more powerful against righthanders. Their lefthand bats (Cano, Gardner, and Granderson) tend towards bad splits against southpaws. And Alex Rodriguez has mysteriously lost much of his punch against lefties (he hit .214 against them during the regular season). 
But is Wilson a good lefthander, or a bad one? Consider what the seven susceptible Yankee bats (Cano, Gardner, Granderson, Posada, Rodriguez, Swisher, Teixeira) did against the Twins’ southpaws:
Versus All Minnesota LHP                  11-39  .282  two 2B, two 3B
Versus Fuentes & Mijares                     1-7   .143
Versus Duensing & Liriano                  10-32  .313

Admittedly it’s a small sample (two starts and five relief appearances) but there are some indicators. Though Marcus Thames tattooed Brian Duensing for a home run, none of the Yankee Seven hit a long ball off any of the lefties, even though Posada, Rodriguez, Swisher, and Teixeira all batted righty against them.

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The inference, I think, is not a very complicated one. The entire Yankee line-up save for Jeter and Thames are stymied by effective lefties and merely slowed down a little by bad ones. We can pretty well guess to which category Cliff Lee belongs (although the second time the Yankees faced him in the World Series last year they beat him up for five runs, even in defeat). The question is, which kind is Wilson (the guess is: the good and improving kind). The indeterminable is whether either of the Rangers’ righties steal a win against New York, which would obviously reduce the Texas reliance on their former closer and their mid-season acquisition.
I described Wilson as one of the three key figures in this series. Given that Manager Washington tipped his hand against the Rays, the other two are Francisco Cervelli and Jorge Posada. The Rangers were the runningest team in the first round, and they are now facing the team with the fewest caught-stealings in the major leagues in 2010. Cervelli, Chad Moeller, Posada and the Yankee pitching staff stopped just 23 out of 155 would-be thieves during the year.
Minnesota didn’t try to swipe one bag in its cameo against the Yankees. Texas tried seven (and succeeded six times) against Tampa. Rays’ catchers had nailed 25 percent of runners during the season. The Yanks only caught 15 percent.
I think you see where Washington is going with this. Try to at least slow the “Susceptible Seven” down with Wilson and Lee, to say nothing of Darren Oliver in relief. But much more impressively, run the Yankees crazy. Five Rangers stole 14 or more during the regular season, Josh Hamilton had eight, and Jeff Francoeur had eight while with the Mets.
The Rangers may literally steal this series. I think the Yankees are utterly unprepared for this kind of onslaught, and if you think there’s a Plan B about swapping Cervelli in for the decreasingly mobile Posada, think again. Posada may have only caught 13 of 85 bandits, but Cervelli only got nine out of 64.
As suggested here when New York swept a series which I thought they’d lose, the Yankees are vampires. Manage passively against them as Ron Gardenhire did, let them up off the mat for a second, and you lose. But Ron Washington has already shown an absolute unwillingness to sit back, and that aggressivenes won him Game Five against Tampa. Take the chance with me. Rangers win, and might just get to hold Mr. Lee back to start Game One of the World Series.
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