Results tagged ‘ Toronto Blue Jays ’

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.

 

Jose Bautista’s Injury: The View From 25 Feet Away

I haven’t witnessed something like this before. I haven’t even seen something like it live on television since Moises Alou cracked his ankle doing nothing more risky than rounding the bag at first.

Jose Bautista of the Jays took a mammoth swing and put a ball – foul – into the furthest reaches of left field at Yankee Stadium tonight, 400 feet away, easily. And then he crumpled over in pain.

At first this looked to be a hamate bone break in the wrist. The Jays have since indicated there is no fracture and the injury seems to be a tendon. It isn’t necessarily that much better news for the battered Jays but psychologically it’s better than a break. We’ll see what the MRI says tomorrow

It does, however, bring invoke anew the endless accusations that Bautista is/was on Performance Enhancing Drugs. I’ve addressed this twice before with some first-hand recollections of the day a really knowledgable baseball man forecast all of Joey Bats’ success.

I’d like to re-post here what I wrote in May of last year, with a slight update on the whereabouts of the source. There are a lot of reasons a guy’s tendon might be strained or stretched or torn, but I think there’s something akin to “provenance” for Bautista that merits re-telling.

And while pausing only to thank you for again making this blog Top 10 in the MLB.Com “pro” division despite its spotty schedule, here’s what I wrote a season ago:

MICKEY MANTO FORESAW BAUTISTA’S SUCCESS:

I first told this story in the fall of 2010 as Jose Bautista crossed the 50-home run plateau and was victimized by assumptions about PED’s or corked bats or, I don’t know, deals with the devils. With the Jays’ slugger now having crossed the 20-home run plateau before the first of June (2011) I think I should tell it again.

I used to run into Jeff “Mickey” Manto all the time when he was the journeyman infielder (he played in 11 major league seasons and changed teams 10 times; he once went from Boston to Seattle and back to Boston in one season; he played for 15 minor league teams). Manto averaged 26 games per stint in his big league career, so whenever I’d see him on a field somewhere one of us would say “uh-oh – about to change uniforms again.”

So on March 3, 2007, I stepped off a flight from New York and went directly to the Pirates-Yankees exhibition game in Tampa and who’s the first person I see? Pirates batting coach Jeff Manto (naturally, it was his last year on the job). I asked him what he could tell me about his Pirate hitters that I didn’t know; who I should watch for; who might surprise me.

He pointed at the guy in the batting cage. “If we can get him to replicate his swing three days in a row, Jose Bautista could hit 25 homers a year. In fact, I think he could hit 40. He is just so easily frustrated when it doesn’t go right that he blames himself and forgets what he’s learned. Or ignores it. But of all these guys I have, if you want one of them who will eventually do something special in this game, I’d pick him. I wouldn’t be very surprised.”

With Jeff Manto, White Sox hitting coach and Bautista Prognosticator, last month at Yankee Stadium

Bautista had 569 at bats last year in Toronto and ended at 54-124-.260. If you took his rates of production during his first four full seasons and gave him 569 at bats each year, he’d have averaged 20-73-.238 – so the power was there; this was not Brady Anderson coming out of nowhere. As I noted last year, until George Foster suddenly hit 52 homers for the 1977 Reds, his career high for blasts was 29 – and he was already in his seventh season in the National League. Cecil Fielder spent four years unable to crack the line-up of the Blue Jays, topped out at 14 homers, went to Japan for one year, and came back to hit 51 for the 1990 Tigers.

It is a rare thing to see a slugger grow from good to great – but it’s not impossible. So lay off Bautista. And if you see Jeff Manto (the 2011 minor league hitting instructor for the White Sox) say hi for me, and congratulate him on his prescience (oh and the other kid he really liked back when he was his first manager in the minors, some guy named Ryan Howard), and tell him the Pirates shouldn’t have dumped him as battng coach, nor should they have dealt Bautista for catcher Robinzon Diaz.

Update: Manto was promoted, this year, to batting coach for the White Sox. You may have noticed he helped Adam Dunn re-find his mojo. The man knows his batters.

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.

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).

 

 

The Man Who Was Not Very Surprised

Virtually with each home run he hit this year, Jose Bautista surprised somebody.

I’m thinking he never managed to do so with Jeff Manto. Manto is now the minor league hitting instructor for the White Sox, the latest stop in one of baseball’s ultimate peripatetic careers: 16 minor league playing seasons, 15 minor league teams; nine major league playing seasons, nine minor league teams.
I saw Manto last on a raw Saturday afternoon in Tampa, Florida – March 3, 2007 to be exact – long enough ago that Brett Gardner was wearing uniform number 91 for the Yankees, and Manto was still the batting coach of Jim Tracy’s Pittsburgh Pirates. We got to talking about his hitters, few and far between as par of Pittsburgh’s perennial tradition, but he brightened up with the mention of one name.
“If we can get him to replicate his swing three days in a row, Jose Bautista could hit 25 homers a year,” Manto gushed. “In fact, I think he could hit 40. He is just so easily frustrated when it doesn’t go right that he blames himself and forgets what he’s learned. Or ignores it. But of all these guys I have, if you want one of them who will eventually do something special in this game, I’d pick him. I wouldn’t be very surprised.”
As the numbers have piled up for Bautista, each day I have gotten a comment, or a tweet, or an email, from somebody about how his homer explosion required a nefarious explanation. I am the first to be suspicious, but there is some data that really should be considered. Normalize Bautista’s first four full big league seasons to the 562 AB campaign he’s had this year, and you produce a line of 20 homers, 73 RBI, and a .238 average. It’s not much in comparison to 54-124-.263 he’s actually managed, but it suggests the power is hardly made out of whole cloth.
Then consider a player who finished his sixth full big league seasons with personal highs of 29 homers, 121 RBI, and a .306 mark. His name was George Foster and the next year he hit 52 homers and nobody thought there was anything amiss there, even when he stepped quickly back down to 40 blasts in 1978 and 30 in 1979.
Lastly in the cascade of numbers, there were a couple of prescient ones that nobody outside of Toronto or your nearest rotisserie league noticed. Last August, when the Blue Jays shipped Scott Rolen to the Reds, a spot in the line-up opened for Bautista. In the last 27 games of 2009, he blasted 10 homers and drove in 21 runs. That production, extrapolated to a full campaign, is 60 homers and 126 RBI.
So maybe we should be about as surprised as Jeff Manto might be: Not very.

2010 Forecasts: AL East

Having careened through the NL (Rockies beating the Braves in the NLCS, after the Rockies had beaten the Reds, and the Braves the wild-card Giants), we begin three nights’ worth of AL divisional previews, in the East:

Wow does
BALTIMORE not have pitching. Surely they could
have pitching by 2011, but right now
there is nothing on which to rely beyond Kevin Millwood, and no team relying on
Kevin Millwood has made the post-season since 2002 (and what is the excitement over
a pitcher who has produced exactly three winning seasons since that long-ago
last playoff appearance?). There are also worries offensively. Adam Jones was a
superstar at the All-Star break, but flatlined soon after, and any team relying
on Garrett Atkins clearly has not seen a National League game since 2006.

Here is
the unasked question in BOSTON: would the Red Sox rather have David Ortiz at DH
this year… or Luke Scott? Where, production-wise, will Not-So-Big-Papi fall in
2010? I think he’s behind Guerrero, Kubel, Lind, Matsui, Scott, and maybe
others. If the demise of the beast continues, the Red Sox are suddenly
presenting a very pedestrian line-up, one that might be the second weakest in
the division. Of course, Theo Epstein might have made this determination
already, which would explain the willingness to fill the big openings with the
great gloves of Beltre, Cameron, and Scutaro, rather than slightly bigger bats
that couldn’t have changed the overall new dynamic – the Red Sox are a pitching
and defense outfit. Mind you, as those outfits go, they’re among the best in
recent years. The rotation is deep enough to survive Matsuzaka on the DL, the
bullpen robust enough to survive if that soggy finish by Papelbon in the ALDS
was more than a one-game thing, and the cadre of young cameo pitchers has been
refreshed with the rapid maturation of Casey Kelly. But no matter how the Old
Towne Team fairs in 2010, keep the Ortiz thought in the back of your mind. What
if the second half of ’09 was the aberration, not the first half? Will the Sox
have to bench him? And if so, could the twists and turns of fate find them
suddenly grateful that they had been unable to trade Mike Lowell?

Oh is this
a conflict of interest. This will be the 39th season my family has
had season tickets in NEW YORK, and I’m not convinced the Yankees will be
hitting me up for playoff ducats this fall. Things I do not expect to see
repeated from 2009: 1) A.J. Burnett’s reliability and perhaps even his stamina;
2) Joe Girardi’s ability to survive without a reliable fifth starter (if Phil
Hughes really can pull it off in this, his fourth attempt, he might become the
fourth starter if my instincts on Burnett are correct); 3) Nick Swisher’s
offensive performance (his average and his RBI totals have never
increased two years in a row); 4)
Derek Jeter’s renaissance (as the Baseball Prospectus
folks note, 36-year old shortstops
deteriorate quickly); 5) Jorge Posada’s prospects of getting 433 plate
appearances (which begs the question: if you were hoping to DH Posada on
occasion, why did you sign as your primary DH, a guy who cannot play the
outfield, and can barely play first base?). As I have written here before, I am
not buying the premise that what in essence was a trade of Melky Cabrera,
Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, for a full-time Brett Gardner plus Curtis
Granderson and Nick Johnson was necessarily an upgrade – even if Javier Vazquez (9
career post-season innings; 11 career post-season earned runs) was thrown in,
in the bargain. Anybody wanna buy some of my tickets?

In TAMPA
BAY, I’m betting 2009 was the fluke and not 2008. What does one not like about
this team? Is rightfield confused? Stick Ben Zobrist there and let Sean
Rodriguez have a shot at second. That doesn’t work? Wait for mid-season and the
promotion of Desmond Jennings. You don’t like Crawford and Upton? Bartlett and
Longoria? Pena? The law firm of Shoppach and Navarro? The Rays seem to summon a
fully-grown starter from the minors each year – Price in ’08, Niemann in ’09,
Wade Davis in ’10. I do not think Rafael Soriano is the world’s greatest
reliever, but his acquisition is an acknowledgment that championship teams do
not muddle through with closers who pitched in All-Star Games prior to 2001.
What is the most remarkable fact about this extremely talented and balanced
team can be summed up by the caveat I have to offer in praising them. Shortly
after they were ransomed from Vince Naimoli, I discovered to my shock that a
college pal of mine had, for all these years, been married to the man who had just
done the ransoming.
A
few innings later, Stu and Lisa Sternberg and I sat in their seats at Yankee
Stadium and he was earnestly asking how I thought he could convince the players
to accept a salary cap so the Rays could contend. I told him I wasn’t sure, but
he wouldn’t have to worry about it any earlier than our next lifetimes. So what
you are seeing in Tampa is, in fact, Plan “B” – and it may be the greatest Plan
“B” in baseball history. 

Did you
know TORONTO is a small market team? Here is something the writers apparently
promised not to tell: the Jays got almost nothing for Roy Halladay. Sorry. When
the reward was Travis D’Arnaud, Kyle Drabek, and Michael Taylor, it was only a
pair of pants being pressed. When the Jays inexplicably swapped Taylor to
Oakland for the lump-like Brett Wallace, it became the full trip to the
cleaners. One of the oldest rules of talent evaluation is: if a prospect has
been traded twice in four months, he may not be quite the prospect you think he
is (one of the older rules is: if one of your starting middle infielders has a
weight clause in his contract, you only have one
starting middle infielder). On top of
which, when you consider the Jays paid $6 million in salary offset for the
privilege of giving Doc away, this trade has to be called what it was: a salary
dump in which ownership was admitting it had no interest in competing. Jays
fans are left to cheer three very exciting hitters in Aaron Hill, Adam Lind,
and Travis Snider; to try to get the correct spellings and pronunciations of the
guys in their rotation (“excuse me, are you Brett Cecil, or Cecil Brett?”);
and, since there really won’t be much else to do under the roof this summer,
buy and read injured reliever Dirk Hayhurst’s marvelous book The Bull…
oh, sorry, did I already mention it?

PREDICTIONS:
Tampa Bay steps back into the forefront in an exciting race with the
well-managed but decreasingly potent Red Sox, and bests Boston by a game or
two. The Yankees contend – possibly even dominate – into June or July before the
rotation, and/or Posada, and/or Jeter, blow up, and they fade to a distant
third. The Jays and Orioles compete only to be less like The Washington
Generals.

Best Baseball Autobiography Since Bouton?

Dirk Hayhurst’s description of himself for the author’s ID in his upcoming book The Bullpen Gospels reads in part, “Dirk is a former member of the San Diego Padres, and after this book gets printed, a former member of the Toronto Blue Jays.”

I’m not sure he’s correct. In fact, I’m not sure that in these times when so many fans feel like they’re constantly having the wool pulled over their eyes by athletes ill-equipped for the attempt, if Hayhurst’s constant honesty, his remarkable candor, his drumbeat of unadorned confessed self-doubt, and his seamless writing, won’t resonate through the sport like the first true wonderful day of spring when the game and the weather finally reassure you that winter has been beaten back, at least for a season.
In fact, I’m not sure that he hasn’t written the best baseball autobiography since Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. For Hayhurst, who bombed as a starter for the Padres in 2008 and then showed promise out of the Jays’ bullpen the season past, has written what Bouton wrote, and what a decade before Bouton, what Jim Brosnan wrote – a book that is seemingly about baseball but which, as you read further and further into it, is obviously much bigger than that. These are books about life: struggle, confusion, purpose, purposelessness, and the startling realization that achievement and failure are nearly-identical twins, one which gnaws and deadens, the other which just as often produces not elation but a tinny, empty sound.
Brosnan’s achievement, in The Long Season and Pennant Race, was to introduce to a world which previously had no information of any kind on the subject, the concept of athlete as human being. What did he have to do when demoted, or traded? What happened when management changed? Was there a Mrs. Athlete, and could they share a martini now and again? (answer: You bet). 
Bouton’s breakthrough was to show the concept of athlete as flawed human being. Too many martinis, some of them shared with women other than Mrs. Athlete. Athletes who might not have been geniuses on the field or off, but who seemed invariably managed and coached by men even less intelligent. The struggle to self-start as one’s team sank from optimism, to contention, to inconsistency, to irrelevance, to embarrassment. And yet, were they enjoying themselves, did their lives change for the better, was being an athlete fun? (answer: You bet).
And now here is Hayhurst, who may single-handedly steer baseball away from the two decades-long vise grip of Sport-As-Skill-Development. Since my own childhood, we have ever-increasingly devalued every major leaguer but the superstar. Late in the last century we began to devalue every minor leaguer but the top draft choice. If you don’t make it into somebody’s Top Prospects list, you might as well not exist. Dirk Hayhurst is writing of his days, his months, his years, as far away from the Top Prospects lists as imaginable. He is, in The Bullpen Gospels, often the last man on an A-ball pitching staff, and trying to answer a series of successively worsening questions cascading from the simplest of them: Why?
This, of course, is why the book transcends the game. It’s not just Dirk Hayhurst’s existential doubt about whether he’ll reach the majors or why he’s still trying or if he shouldn’t be helping the homeless instead of worrying about getting the last out of a seven-run inning. He is experiencing the crisis of reality through which we all pass, often daily: when our dreams about life crash head first into its realities, what the hell are we supposed to do then?
Thus The Bullpen Gospels is a baseball book the way “Is That All There Is?” is a Leiber-Stoller pop song by Peggy Lee from 1969. It is the primordial battle of hope and faith and inspiration versus disillusionment and rust and inertia.
Sounds pretty grim, doesn’t it? But of course therein lies the delightful twist: like Brosnan and Bouton before him, Hayhurst repeatedly rediscovers the absurd hilarity of it all, and the book is consistently laugh-out-loud funny. And like all great artists, he pulls back curtains we never thought to investigate: from how assiduously minor leaguers debate which “Come-out songs” they will choose or which numbers they will wear, to the pecking order of seat locations on the ever-infamous bush league bus trip.
My favorite is probably the mechanics of something the average reader will have never heard of before, let alone have contemplated. It’s “the host family” – the living arrangements by which the non-first-rounders survive their seasons in the minors. Hayhurst hilariously defines such temporary homes as ranging from Wackford Squeers’ Dotheboys Hall, to the visitations from In Cold Blood:

Some families are the perfect model citizens, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Host family with their white picket fence and adorable little children with their cherub faces who can’t wait to be just like their new older brother. Some families are wealthy and treat you like the draft pick you always wanted to be. Some host families aren’t even families at all; some are just one person: a well-toned Cougar looking for an after-hours power hitter to keep her company between filming.

Depending on the makeup of the player, all these choices are desirable. However, they only represent one side of the coin. On the flip side, there is the family who has a pack of misbehaved trolls for children with parents who don’t believe in discipline. The reason your PlayStation has peanut butter leaking from the optical drive can be chalked up to “youthful curiosity.” You may live with a super fan who wants to play coach, manager, and parent. He’ll live vicariously through you and evaluate, criticize, judge, blog, and call the organization about you. Or you may end up with a miserable old spinster who loves cats and hates men…

Players aren’t saints either, and it takes a special family to agree to house one. If you’re a devout Catholic family, getting a Mormon player can make things a tad awkward. If you’re parents of little children, getting that Bostonian player who uses “****” for greetings, good-byes, pronouns, adjectives, verb, and prayer, might be more than you bargained for…

As this excerpt suggests (and the asterisks are mine), it doesn’t hurt that Hayhurst is a fluid and gifted writer, whose prose can take off like a jet and compel you to read for half an hour more than you have. He populates the pages of The Bullpen Gospels with teammates, some identified, some amalgamated, some under aliases – and if the book takes off, ripping the Hayhurstian masks off the more colorful ones may become a low-key hobby after the book is published on March 30 (it’s already up for pre-orders on Amazon and no doubt elsewhere – I’d get it now because I think they’ll be able to raise the price later).

The reaction will be fascinating to see. In 1970, my father endured my clamoring and bought Ball Four and read it himself before handing it to me: “I know you know all these words. Just don’t use them around the house. Read this carefully, there’s a lot of truth in here.” But ever since, we fans have been bombarded for decades by altered versions of truth, all of them writ large and desperately trying to impress us with their essential-ness. Baseball books have tended to focus only on the big, and to try to make it bigger still. We’ve gone from the unlikely accuracy of Jose Canseco’s slimy indictment of the steroid era, through the analyze-all-the-damn-fun-out-of-the-game-why-don’t-you tone of Moneyball and its imitators, through what may in retrospect be seen as a Hayhurst-precursor in Matt McCarthy’s fraudulent Odd Man Out, through dozens of historical works insisting everything that has ever happened in baseball has re-shaped the nation – Jackie Robinson (yes), the 1951 N.L. pennant race (very possibly), the 1912 World Series (no way).
Here, instead, will be a modest book by a modest relief pitcher who has appeared in the modest total of 25 major league games presenting what the modest author thinks (incorrectly) is only modest truth. He has yet to get his own major league baseball card and as I write this there are exactly two of his souvenirs available on eBay and one of them is a photo for $6.99 (“Or Best Offer”). His preface warns you if you seek scandal or steroids, look elsewhere, and the only bold face name in the whole 340 pages, Trevor Hoffman, comes across as a low-key gentleman.
And yet there in the prologue Hayhurst offers a key to what he has written and why, self-guidance to which he sticks pretty neatly: “I also believe there is more to the game than just baseball. For all the great things baseball is, there are some things it is absolutely not. And that is what this story is all about.”
Of course, just as Bouton’s exposure of the real flaws of the real men who played baseball in 1969 made them even more appealing than the phony deities into which they’d been transformed, the great things are made somehow greater by how well Hayhurst contextualizes them, how honestly he tells his story, and how vividly he takes us inside his world.
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