Results tagged ‘ Washington Nationals ’

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. NL East: Bryce Yourselves.

Having yesterday picked the Giants to surpass the more-talent/less-knowhow Dodgers in the West, we look ahead at the N.L. East:

Atlanta: And now, one of the great personnel questions in baseball history: If you put two underachieving brothers on the same team, in their home region of the country, for the first time in their lives, will they blossom? Can the purely personal premise of sibling rivalry (“Uptons Lead Braves To…”) overcome the undeniably statistical (27-year old B.J. Upton peaked at 22; his younger brother Justin has never been more than an average player when not inside the comfortable dome in Phoenix)?

The Uptons aren’t the only critical new couple in Atlanta. After years of tantalizing spring trainings, winter seasons, and MLB mini-hot streaks, Juan Francisco gets his shot to put up – and the Upton trade brought the Braves a useful righthander to platoon with him in Chris Johnson. Neither of them will make you think of Chipper Jones at his defensive peak, but nor did last year’s version of Mr. Chips. That they will not provide a speck of his leadership is a given.

Pitching is intriguing. Julio Teheran’s almost unhittable spring – climaxing in last Saturday’s six innings of being literally such – could combine with a full-season of Kris Medlen’s nearly unhittable 2012 finish. If so, the Braves could match the Nats arm-for-arm, especially if Mike Minor fulfills his promise. But if Fredi Gonzalez gets three lemons there, the Braves are finished, no matter how well the Uptons do, or Chipper’s successors do, or the bullpen does.

Plus there’s no Brian McCann. It’ll be at least May 1 before his shoulder quiets down and his travails this spring have the ring of one of those season-long things. Even though they let his perennial caddy David Ross walk over the winter, the Braves might have an intriguing Plan B in behemothian rookie Evan Gattis, who can catch, more or less, and lose a lot of baseballs because he seems to hit them into the clouds.

Nevertheless, there are too many “ifs” here. I hope the Uptons prove me wrong – even many of the people who let them leave Florida and Arizona last off-season speak nothing but praise for them as people – but as of today the record gives no reason to suspect they aren’t going to be busts in Atlanta, too.

Miami: Don’t get me wrong – the Marlins, Version Negative 2.0, aren’t going to win very much. But they might not be quite as repulsively bad as we all thought when the State of Florida’s bad bet on Jeffrey Loria’s business acumen predictably came up snake eyes – they might be better than the Mets. This will presumably turn on Miami’s willingness to promote the next great star who will eventually leave the team, Christian Yellich, who hit five homers and drove in 14 in 44 spring training AB’s. If the Marlins try to go cheap and keep Yellich in the minors not until May but until 2014, Miami’s huge holes could sink them completely. If they let Yellich up to join some combo of Giancarlo Stanton, Justin Ruggiano, Juan Pierre and Chris Coghlan, they will suddenly have an outfield nearly on par with Washington and the Phillies. The rest of the team is basically promising catcher Rob Brantly, and Other People’s Pitchers. Literally, outside of Ricky Nolasco, all the starting pitching candidates were underachieving pitching prospects obtained by trade (Alvarez, Eovaldi, LeBlanc, Slowey, Turner).

Far more interesting than the numbers put up by the team, will be those produced by the fans. I argued here last year that there was no chance Miami would suddenly turn into a 35,000-per-night city. Sadly I was right, and now we get to see how many will come to see these Dead Fish, and whether that spectacular new building might see an average as low as 3,500 a night.

New York: It has been postulated that the Yankees have let themselves go to hell because they saw a way to monetize the reality that the Mets just keep getting further away from respectability. One site specializing in such things suggested that New York’s opening day line-up could feature Marlon Byrd playing right and batting third. Last season, Marlon Byrd hit .070 in Chicago and then rocketed to a .320 slugging percentage in Boston and tested positive for a performance enhancing drug. Byrd said he wasn’t using it for that purpose. Man, I hope so.

If David Wright’s injury recurs, the Met infield could be Ike Davis, Justin Turner, Ruben Tejada, and Zach Lutz. The outfield could easily be Byrd (or Mike Baxter) and Collin Cowgill next to Lucas Duda. The latest rebuilt bullpen might be worse than last year’s and the rotation could be the worst since Tom Seaver was a rookie (and could provide similar contrasts for young right-handers who may be all Mets fans have to root for this season: Matt Harvey and Zach Wheeler).

New York knows the Mets are bad; it does not seem evident here that it’s very possible that they’re Worse-Than-The-Marlins-Kinda-Bad. Making things worse, the team’s first five series are against the Padres, Marlins, Rockies, Phillies, and Twins. Thus the Mets could easily be an utterly deceptive 10-6 or even 11-5 before – as the worn-out joke goes – the older kids get out of school.

Philadelphia: If you’re my age, or even close to it, you know the drill. Every morning some part is going to hurt, you just don’t know which one and how badly. Sadly the Phillies remind me way too much of me. Carlos Ruiz’s renaissance turned out to be an adderall-fueled illusion. Ryan Howard still doesn’t look 100%. Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are 34. Michael Young is 36. Roy Halladay had frightening moments of deadarmism this spring and it seems impossible to believe that it was only three years ago when we were assured he was the last puzzle piece to the greatest starting rotation in the history of mankind.

In a vast irony, perennial prospect Domonic Brown finally appears to be ready.

Don’t get me wrong: the Phillies could contend for second place here. I mean there are days when I creak less at noon than I did at 9 AM. Of course these only happen once or twice a month.

Washington: I thought this was the best overall team in baseball last year, and after its achilles heel was revealed in the decisive game against the Cardinals, management didn’t just lick its wounds – it invested even more in the squad. I am surely not the first to suggest that when you upgrade your fourth starter to Dan Haren, your first three starters are probably Cy Young candidates. The Nats surely did not need to sign Rafael Soriano as closer; clearly one of the internal candidates would’ve stepped up. But the mantra here appears to be don’t just try to beat everybody else – make sure you kill them.

That ‘don’t just try to beat them, make sure you kill them’ front office scheme? It mirrors words to that effect that Bryce Harper said to me after his first MLB exhibition game in 2011. It is a bit much to ask Harper to be the National League’s MVP, but it isn’t too much to put a bet down on him even at some very short odds. He debuted with all the technical skills, then had his moment of zen against the Phillies on May 6. Cole Hamels tried to put the veteran of seven big league games in his place by hitting him in the back. Moments later, Harper put Hamels in his place by stealing home on him.

Harper gave me his view of life way back in 2011! That is the remarkable thing about Harper that gets lost in the reality that he seems to have been around forever as prospect and mega-prospect and cover boy: he turns 21 next October. He’s fourteen months younger than Mike Trout. From 22/59/.270/.340/.477 – as a teenager – what kind of improvement can we expect this year? Is there a reasonable prediction for how high you go off that launch pad?

And it’s not as if he’s all Washington has. The infield is airtight, and power-packed at every position, and has rookie third baseman Anthony Rendon banging on the door. A healthier Jayson Werth is joined by Denard Span and Harper in the outfield. Catching are the unglamorous but highly-skilled Kurt Suzuki and Wilson Ramos, and as referenced earlier the pitching staff is impossibly deep. Of course for the Nationals, there actually is a hole. The next power arm scheduled to join the Nationals’ bullpen is a fellow named Christian Garcia. He just partially tore a tendon in his pitching arm.

Other than that I don’t see anything missing here. And for those who think the Braves are going to keep pace with them, I disagree. It might be a race for awhile but it’ll probably end with Washington winning 100 games and lapping the field by 10 or more. Take the Phillies for somewhere around .500, and the Marlins and Mets amazingly out of contention.

So: What Does Bryce Harper’s Hitting Coach DO?

Hadn’t visited with my friend Rick Eckstein since he worked with the kids on the anachronistically named Vermont Expos of the New York-Penn League in 2006. Tonight, as for all this year and in spring training of 2011,  Eckstein now works with Bryce Harper with the Washington Nationals.

Well what exactly can you DO with Bryce Harper?

“His swing gets a little big sometimes. I point that out to him,” Rick said with a smile, not long after Harper hit a seemingly low line drive that appeared to just clear the batting practice pitcher and then wound up around 440 feet away, and 30 feet up, on Shea Bridge in right-center here at CitiField. “He’s great about it. He constantly asks. He constantly wants to know if I’m seeing any little things he’s not.

“And of course I work with him with his prep for each night’s pitcher. Talking knuckle balls in advance of R.A. Dickey tonight, for instance,” added Eckstein, who is whipsaw smart and has a kind of directed version of his brother David’s frenetic energy. “But your implication is correct. I don’t have to fix a lot with him. And,” he interrupted himself with a chuckle, “obviously I don’t have to motivate him.”

There is, however, one fascinating component to The Care And Feeding Of Bryce Harper that figures to keep Eckstein busy, at least as long as the Nats continue to rank somewhere near their current fifth in NL team slugging and fourth in NL team OPS and he remains content to be their hitting guru: “People forget he’s still growing. I mean, he’s nineteen. He’s likely to grow another inch at least, and with that he’ll fill out and when he fills out he’ll add power. There will be adjustments to make.”

Which leaves Rick Eckstein trying to come to grasp with the intimidating realization that the 19-year old who has opened his career with 75 games of 9 homers, 29 RBI, and a .272/.343/.449 and as fast a pair of hands as anybody in the bigs is actually just the compact version of Bryce Harper.

The Opportunistic Genius Of The Bryce Harper Call-Up

In my pre-season notebook, where I scribble all the useless data and hot tips for the year ahead (and occasionally jot something down like what I did in 2007: “Manto sez watch Bautista. Could hit 40″) I made this little note on my Washington Nationals page:

It was not the most outlandish forecast of all time. Predicting in March that Bryce Harper would be called up on April 25 was a less than even-money wager (and it was wrong, by two days). But when Harper looked ordinary in the spring, and anything but dominant in AAA this month, I nearly crossed out the note in order to write “September” instead.

In short, all of us who thought Harper would have played so well that he’d be “up” by April 25 were wrong.

Upcoming 2012 Topps Harper "Rookie" Card

That’s why the move to bring Harper up because of the injury to Ryan Zimmerman is, as the title of this post suggests, opportunistic genius. It’s a controlled experiment with a time limit, and that’s the variable none of us (maybe not even GM Mike Rizzo foresaw). Let me quote from my post here early last month:

…the most amazing question of the spring isn’t about whether or not Harper is going to open the season with the Nationals, nor the one that goes “are the Nats seriously considering it?” The answer is: what happens if it doesn’t work?

(19-year old Mickey) Mantle was sent down to AAA Kansas City after the game of July 13 (1951)…American League pitchers had begun to deny him fastballs late in May, and in his last six weeks before the demotion Mantle had hit just .211…

But Mantle’s demotion came 61 years ago. There was no internet, no cable, no tv sports news to think of, no radio call-ins, no blogs. The Yankees who didn’t get sent to the minors that season included Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Ed Lopat, coach Bill Dickey, and manager Casey Stengel. They were the two-time defending World Champions and, frankly, it is possible that a lot of Yankee fans had no idea for days or weeks that Mantle had even been sent back to the minors.

That will most assuredly not happen if Bryce Harper struggles in the majors – if he bats .211 over 100 agonizing at bats and Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson decide they have to send him to AAA. The coverage would be intense, uninterrupted, and brutal, and it would not stop the day Harper went to Syracuse or Harrisburg. It would be relentless.

Except now, it wouldn’t. If Harper hits .211 over 100 agonizing at bats (or just 50), and the Nats get healthy – gee, he showed flashes of brilliance and we know exactly what the later Harper will look like, but, gosh, Ryan Zimmerman is indeed coming off the disabled list on time on May 6 – the Nats can send him back to Syracuse and tell him and the world that this was the plan all along, see you real soon.

He would not have failed. The message would be: He did exactly what we needed him to do, on a short-term basis – and now having given him a taste of the real thing, we’re going to put him back in the oven because he isn’t going to play here every day and blah, blah blah, blah blah…

Of course, if he’s hitting .290 when Zimmerman comes off the DL, they can abandon the “plan” and stick him in the line-up for good.

And that is opportunistic genius.

It’s not new – the Yankees did the same thing with Derek Jeter for a long weekend in 1995 when they came up short in the infield – and it’s a mid-season cousin to the standard procedure with standout rookies: bring them up in September and stick them in the line-up. If they succeed, great. If they fail, the season is ending in three weeks, nobody will consider them as having flamed out. Heck, in 1977 the Tigers brought up Jack Morris, Lance Parrish, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker over an eight-week span (the latter two debuted in the same game). Same idea, and it works nicely.

Of course, with Jayson Werth scratched, Michael Morse lost in some kind of injury ozone, and centerfield a mess, take the odds and wager on Harper overstaying his visit. Heck, he may have to overstay it in centerfield, and the other farmhand just promoted today Tyler Moore (is he a fun guy? Is he a merry Tyler Moore?) in a platoon of some kind in left.

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.

Bryce Mantle?

So as the spring training games begin, Bryce Harper (1-for-2 against the Astros this afternoon) now says “I want to be up here. I want to play, and I want to play in D.C.” This after Davey Johnson was publicly pushing for him to be on the Opening Day roster and General Manager Mike Rizzo confessed Johnson had convinced him to “keep an open mind.” Thus the most amazing question of the spring isn’t about whether or not Harper is going to open the season with the Nationals, nor the one that goes “are the Nats seriously considering it?” The answer is: what happens if it doesn’t work?

The historical “comp” is Mickey Mantle, who worked his way from a wild-armed shortstop in a pre-Spring Training special showcase camp of top minor league prospects for the benefit of Manager Casey Stengel, to the Yankees’ Opening Day lineup in 1951 (batting third, in an outfield also featuring Joe DiMaggio and an even-more prized youngster that spring, 56-game big league veteran Jackie Jensen). The comparison between Harper and Mantle as players is speculative at best, but the useful history might be what happened when Mantle made the Yankees out-of-nowhere as a 19-year old rightfielder – and then failed.

When Mantle was sent down to AAA Kansas City after the game of July 13, his numbers didn’t look all that bad. In 69 games, he’d batted .260, logged nine doubles, five triples, and seven homers, and driven in 46 runs, while stealing seven bases. But American League pitchers had begun to deny him fastballs late in May, and in his last six weeks before the demotion Mantle had hit just .211. The rest is history: Mantle said he got to Kansas City, called his father to say he now doubted he could cut it, was surprised to find his father in his hotel room a few hours later. Instead of the pat on the back he expected, Mickey saw “Mutt” Mantle begin to empty his son’s clothes into a suitcase and tell him he wasn’t a man and he should come back home and join him in the copper mines.

That worked.

Mantle drove in 50 runs in 40 games and returned to the Yankees on August 24th: six homers, 20 RBI, .284 in his last 27 games.

But Mantle’s demotion came 61 years ago. There was no internet, no cable, no tv sports news to think of, no radio call-ins, no blogs. The Yankees who didn’t get sent to the minors that season included Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Ed Lopat, coach Bill Dickey, and manager Casey Stengel. They were the two-time defending World Champions and, frankly, it is possible that a lot of Yankee fans had no idea for days or weeks that Mantle had even been sent back to the minors.

That will most assuredly not happen if Bryce Harper struggles in the majors – if he bats .211 over 100 agonizing at bats and Mike Rizzo and Davey Johnson decide they have to send him to AAA. The coverage would be intense, uninterrupted, and brutal, and it would not stop the day Harper went to Syracuse or Harrisburg. It would be relentless.

Thus the question isn’t whether or not the Nats are thinking of taking Bryce Harper north or summoning him early in the season. The question is how much time they’ve spent game-planning the worst case scenario.

2011 Previews: N.L. East

Let’s see if we can get through the rest of the divisions before the All-Star break…

Atlanta: I am not sold on the idea that Freddie Freeman is ready (yet), lord knows what they do when Chipper Jones breaks down, and I have some doubts about the set-up men in the bullpen. But the rest of this team is solid, The Ted has long been Dan Uggla’s favorite ballpark to hit in, and I like the starting depth with Mike Minor already pressed into service for the injured Jair Jurrjens. Hope if you play fantasy ball you were not misled by Fredi Gonzalez’s insistence he would be giving Jonny Venters a share of the closer’s job; Craig Kimbrel will soon be regarded as one of baseball’s bests. If you were to pick one team not widely believed to be a division winner to pick as a division winner, it’d be this one.

Florida: If Mike Stanton is healthy and the bullpen doesn’t fall apart, this is another contender. Power is down with the trade of Uggla, but up with the acquisition of John Buck and the maturation of Logan Morrison and Gaby Sanchez. The three younger players already mentioned, plus Chris Coghlan, join Hanley Ramirez as five of the highest-ceiling hitters in the league and there are scenarios in which they all reach their apogees simultaneously and the Marlins crush the division. I don’t think that’s likely and I don’t think a Leo Nunez/Clay Hensley/Mike Dunn bullpen is going to get them very far, but it might be enough to put them into Wild Card consideration.

New York: This might not be as bad as it seems, and Terry Collins might be just the right guy to get the maximum out of Jason Bay, Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, and David Wright, and the giant franchise disaster that is the Madoff Lawsuit might not distract from whatever is done on the field. But that’s a lot of mights – and we haven’t even gotten around to what might be the implications of having to play a Rule V draftee at second base, and having built a set-up staff exclusively out of guys released by other teams, and being stuck dragging around an injury-prone leftfielder for another three years whose fly ball arcs end at the warning track and was only signed because ownership insisted.

Philadelphia: If everybody had been healthy, they still would’ve been overrated. Win all the divisions you want – eventually an unreliable closer will cost you too much to survive it. Now he’s hurt, and his heir presumptive is so incapable of stepping up that his manager and general manager have publicly expressed their doubts about him. There’s the outfield, already a problem spot before Domonic Brown was hurt (Raul Ibanez is its power – he hit 16 homers last year). And most disastrous of all, deranging everything from the infield defense to the entire batting order, is the combination injury/enigma of Chase Utley. I’ll repeat what I wrote here in my Fantasy Notes last week: everything I heard from everybody I know connected to the Phillies says that Utley’s options are season-ending knee surgery, or virtually-season-ending rehab. Either way, offensively the Phillies are reduced to Ryan Howard with very little line-up protection, the hustle and skill of Shane Victorino, and lord-knows-what from Jimmy Rollins. The Phillies are not contenders. Oh yeah – nice rotation. Unfortunately it’s like living in a mansion with no furniture.

Washington: It is yet to be explained why this franchise yoked itself to Jayson Werth. He’s a fine component for a contending team. He is not a franchise player, and has been evidenced by where they’re hitting him, the Lerners inexplicably invested $126,000,000 in a number two hitter. Here’s a young team with exciting young players like Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond (though they should switch defensive positions) and Jordan Zimmermann and Wilson Ramos (and maybe Drew Storen) – and even a young superstar in Ryan Zimmerman. Why not invest that money in Zimmerman? I know he’s locked up through 2013, but 2014 is when Bryce Harper is probably going to hit 67 homers while Stephen Strasburg wins 24 games. Or if you really feel like spending money on veterans, make them bargain buys like Adam LaRoche, or at least make them pitchers to relieve the despair created by some of those who will toe the slab in the Capitol this year.

Overview: I liked the Braves before Utley got hurt. I still do. I will take them: 1. Atlanta, 2. Florida, 3. Philadelphia, 4. New York, 5. Washington (Washington could vault into 4th if things go really sour in Queens). I think the Marlins and Phillies are Wild Card prospects but I’m not sure yet.

Judge And Nyjer…eeeee

Here’s the least likely sentence I’ve ever written: Nyjer Morgan has truly damaged the great tradition of The Washington Nationals franchise.

Seriously, MLB has to step in – and quickly – on what you can smell from a thousand miles away is a serious and blossoming anger management issue. The Washington outfielder has, in less than a fortnight, thrown a ball into the stands (apparently at a fan), collided brutally with two catchers on two occasions when he should have slid, slid too aggressively into basemen at second and third, precipitated a bench-clearing brawl after a message pitch that didn’t come close to him, and then shouted obscenities at the Florida crowd in full view of the television cameras. And we’re not even bringing up what happened last May, when he threw not a fit nor a ball, but a glove when he mistook a ball in play for an outside-the-park homer.
That Morgan was pleasant and even nonchalant in interviews afterwards suggests the dimensions of his disconnect. The ex-junior hockey player described himself as simply playing hard, and his supporters suggested it was just ‘the hockey coming out in him.’ In hockey, if you did all this in a week or two, they’d have sent you back to Medicine Hat.
Most disturbingly, perhaps, is that his manager Jim Riggleman seemed to address only Morgan’s pair of steals in tonight’s disaster in Florida. Rig was right: the steals were fine. Nothing else about Morgan is, at the moment, and the Nationals or MLB might be doing him a favor by suspending him for the balance of the season and getting him some help. 
A QUICK NOTE ON SEPTEMBER NL CALL-UPS:
Freddie Freeman is the marquee name and it certainly was a surprise to see him and not Derrek Lee starting against the Mets on September 1st, but I don’t really know how much work he’ll get in Atlanta as the Braves go all out to wrap up Bob Cox’s career with a winner.
The premium player among the immediate recalls – at least in terms of opportunity – would seem to be Brandon Allen of the Diamondbacks. Arizona hasn’t had a leftfielder all year and the converted first baseman seemed to take to the position neatly in his seasonal debut (and added the grand slam). Brian Bogusevic of Houston, Yonder Alonso of Cincinnati, and Mat Gamel of Milwaukee were immediately summoned but seem to have little to do. Of all possible rotation inserts only the Mets have made a move, bringing back Jenrry Mejia and putting him right in against the Cubs at Wrigley on Saturday.
Oh and this Chapman guy might be of some use. Somebody around here picked the Reds to win the NL Central, as I recall.

More Haircuts Of The Now Rich And Famous

If you didn’t see part one please feel free to enjoy Bruce Bochy, Joe Maddon, and Omar Minaya as minor league players, while we move on to a couple of more fun flashbacks.

This would be the 1979 TCMA West Haven Yankees card of one William Nathaniel “Buck” Showalter, who spent his entire seven-year career as a nominal first baseman-outfielder with no power in the Yank system. He batted .292 lifetime during a span in which other Yankee farms produced Don Mattingly and Fred McGriff, and by his second year in the minors, Buck was doing a lot of DH’ing. 
This same West Haven set also includes Dave Righetti, Willie McGee, Joe Lefebvre, Mike Griffin, White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, and the fabulously-named pitcher Mark Softy, and was a popular set among collectors in the early ’80s, largely because of Righetti’s early dominance as a starter. Even then they were talking about Showalter as a future manager, and you have to acknowledge, he sure has aged well (it has been often suggested that Mr. Showalter does not age, in large part because he is a carrier of aging).

1980Rothschild.jpg

And now we bring you a couple of pitching coaches. Larry 

1980kranitz.jpg

Rick Kranitz never made it to the bigs as a pitcher and Larry Rothschild only had two cups of coffee with the Tigers, but both have had extensive coaching careers – they each worked with the Marlins and Cubs (at separate times; Larry is with the Cubs right now, Kranitz with the Orioles). Both cards are from 1980: Rothschild is from a series of excellent team-produced cards from the Indianapolis Indians from the mid-’70s into the ’80s, and the Kranitz shows him with the Holyoke Millers, the Eastern League farm of the Brewers. Kevin Bass and Steve Lake were among Kranitz’s teammates in the Massachusetts city.
And now we move into the front office, courtesy two of the great Mid West League sets issued by the late Larry Fritsch of Fritsch Cards in the early 1980′s (the cards show Jose Canseco before steroids – no, it’s not just a picture of an empty uniform on the ground, although the only thing about Canseco 1983 was his hair). 

1983KWilliams.jpg

In any event, if the White Sox and Nationals make an Adam Dunn deal before Saturday’s 

1983Rizzo.jpgthese are the men who did the dealing. You would’ve seen plenty of Kenny Williams in the majors in the ’80s, and just four years after his stint with the ’83 Appleton Foxes, he had an outstanding season in center for the White Sox. Mike Rizzo, GM of the Nationals, drafter of The Strasburg and The Harper, was a far more obscure figure. This was the middle of his three seasons in the California Angels’ farm system, as a utility infielder. The ’83 Peoria Suns were pretty good, all things considered. Wally Joyner would make his pro debut (but isn’t in the set) and join Devon White, Mark McLemore, Bob Kipper, and a couple of others.

But none of them ever grew up to draft The Strasburg.

Foul Balls; And 2010 Forecasts: NL East

Before we
wrap up the National League forecast, the Denard Span incident this afternoon
in Tampa (he hits his own mother with a foul ball – and she is wearing one of
his uniforms at the time) called to mind three equally unlikely events with
players and fans and balls flying into the stands:

1. August
17th, 1957. Richie Ashburn, who got to the Baseball Hall of Fame largely by
virtue of his ability to keep fouling off pitches he didn’t
like, until he got one he did like, fouled one off into the stands
at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. It struck – of all people – Alice
Roth, the wife of the sports editor of the newspaper The Philadelphia Bulletin. They
had to carry Mrs. Roth (and her broken nose) off on a stretcher. While
they were so doing, Ashburn, who was still
at bat and still fouling pitches off, hit Mrs. Roth with another foul
ball.

2. Of
course, on June 17th, 2000, Chuck Knoblauch of the New York Yankees picked up a
ground ball and threw it wildly towards first base. It instead hit a fan
sitting behind the dugout, breaking her eyeglasses. The fan, of course, was my
mother.

3.
And perhaps the unlikeliest of the events: After Span got hit, the Associated
Press was reminded of the Bob Feller incident (reminded by Bob Feller, of
course). On May 14, 1939, when the Hall of Fame flamethrower was still just 20
years old, he threw a pitch at Comiskey Park which some member of the White Sox
fouled into the seats – striking Feller’s mother. May 14, 1939 was, of course,
Mother’s Day.

Now to
finish up the NL:

ATLANTA is
the obvious sleeper, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron. If Troy Glaus and
Jason Heyward produce as Atlanta expects them, Bobby Cox will have a
competitive final year. If they exceed expectations (and Heyward gives off the
vibe of a Pujolsian, From-Day-One-Superstar) the Braves might actually air out
the division. The rotation gets a little sketchy behind Hanson and Jurrjens,
and there is little or no room for injury (if Glaus gets profoundly hurt or
Heyward is Jordan Schafer
, Eric Hinske and Omar Infante will be playing nearly every
day). And of course it would not be the Braves without another new closer.
Here, updated from its first appearance in this space last summer, is the Bobby
Cox bullpen honor roll:

1. Joe
Boever, 1990

2. Mark
Grant and Kent Mercker, 1990

3. Mercker
and Juan Berenguer, 1991

4.
Alejandro Pena, 1991-92

5. Jeff
Reardon, 1992

6. Mike
Stanton, 1993

7. Greg
McMichael, 1994-95

8. Brad
Clontz, 1995

9. Mark
Wohlers, 1995-98

10. Kerry
Ligtenberg, 1998

11. John
Rocker, 1999

12.
Ligtenberg and Mike Remlinger, 2000

13.
Rocker, 2000-01

14. Steve
Karsay, 2001

15. John
Smoltz, 2001-04

16. Danny
Kolb, 2005

17. Chris
Reitsma, 2005

18. Kyle
Farnsworth, 2005

19.
Reitsma, 2006

20. Ken
Ray, 2006

21. Bob
Wickman, 2006-07

22. Rafael
Soriano, 2008

23. Manny
Acosta, 2008

24. John
Smoltz, 2008

25.
Soriano, 2008

26. Mike
Gonzalez, 2008-09

27.
Soriano, 2009

28. Billy
Wagner, 2010.

If FLORIDA
could make just two starters out of Anibal Sanchez, Nate Robertson, Andrew Miller, Sean West,
Ryan Tucker, Rick Vandenhurk, and Chris Volstad, the Marlins might be the
favorites. By mid-season this could be the most potent offense in the league,
because all Florida needs to produce seven house-wreckers in a row is for one
of the following three kids to live up to his promise: Logan Morrison, Gaby
Sanchez, Mike Stanton (if the Heyward-esque Stanton explodes to big league
quality, you put him in the outfield, you put the fabulous Chris Coghlan back at second or third,
and move either Jorge Cantu or Dan Uggla to first). Florida’s biggest question
mark is the bullpen, where Leo Nunez may or may not succeed.

All that
can be said about NEW YORK is: Sigh. I love the people who run this club, from
the ticket takers to the owners. But this year the wheels could fall off even
worse – and farther – than last. I think Jason Bay is a legitimate power
source, and I thought Jeff Francoeur a steal, but that begs the question of
what the Mets now expect from the guy who is still their top offensive
prospect, Fernando Martinez. If Bay, Beltran, and Francoeur are to be the
outfield for awhile, why is Martinez still there? Plus, the silence
about Beltran is ominous. The
ominousness of Daniel Murphy’s bat is silent. And there is nothing – nothing -
dependable in any of the three categories of pitchers, except for Johan
Santana, Pedro Feliciano, and Frankie Rodriguez, and the latter is just another
closer now. It is absolutely plausible that by June 1 the only questions will
be whether or not to give Ike Davis a taste of the majors, whether or not to
start screwing up Jenrry Mejia the way the Yankees messed with Joba
Chamberlain, and if some Japanese team will take Luis Castillo off their hands.

I’m not
the only person who believed Buster Olney’s story about PHILADELPHIA and Ryan
Howard – if not the plausibility of a swap for Pujols, then at least internal
musings about his decline against lefthanded pitchers and his decreasing
success against breaking pitches. When you are chewed up and spat out by Damaso
Marte, you are not exactly still in the same league as Pujols, or Adrian Gonzalez
for that matter. I’m a little suspicious of the assumed improvement in putting
Placido Polanco in at third (he’s 34, he fell off appreciably last year, he is
moving to a tougher position). Raul Ibanez seems to represent that Sword of
Damacles hanging over any team trying for three in a row (if you haven’t had a
significant position player injury in the first two seasons, you’re going to
in the third). I am not sold on the
rotation (Blanton, Contreras, Moyer, Kendrick – two of these guys must do well),
and the bullpen looks to be sketchier than a year ago.

There are
ways WASHINGTON can suddenly stop being a last-place team (the Ian Desmond
decision was superb – it needs to be followed by similar decisions involving Drew
Storen and Stephen Strasburg, and maybe new limbs grown by Jordan Zimmermann
and Chien-Ming Wang – quickly). Also, I think he’s a quality individual, but
the retention of Jim Riggleman as manager – after ten seasons that have produced
only one finish better than third (a weak second for the Cubs in 1998) – makes
little sense here. Unless Mike Rizzo is thinking of Pat Listach or Rick
Eckstein as a future big league manager, respectability for this club is going
to be the time it takes them to swap out Riggleman plus
the time it will take to break in his
replacement. Why not skip the first step?

DIVISION PREDICTIONS:
I’ll take the long odds that the Braves’ breaks fall the right way and Cox goes
out with a winner in a tight race over the Phillies. The Marlins will hit a ton
but waste the brilliance of Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco by using 11
different fifth starters and half a dozen closers. The Mets will have their
nightmare collapse and be wondering if they can unload not only Castillo, but
maybe Beltran and Reyes, too. They will finish a few games ahead of the
Nationals – but only a few.

Tillman1967.jpg

LEAGUE PREDICTIONS: As mentioned, I like the Braves, Reds and the Rockies for the division titles. The Wild Card would seem to be a battle between the Phillies and the Giants – I really like San Francisco’s rotation, and I really do not like Philadelphia’s chances of getting through another season without physical calamity. So let’s assume the Rockies finish with the best record – they should handle the Giants, and the Braves’ experience should make them favorites over the Reds. An Atlanta-Colorado NLCS? I think the Rockies win that one, as much as I’d be rooting for the man I always greet as the guy the Braves once traded to the Yankees for Bob Tillman, who had been traded to the Yankees for Elston Howard, meaning Coxy was as good as Elston Howard….

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