Before resuming our previews with the American League West, a quick postscript to the selection of the Miami Marlins ahead of the New York Mets in the basement of the National League East. As if I had asked them to do this, the Marlins underscored my prediction with the promotion of young pitching prospect Jose Fernandez to help replace two injured starters, despite the fact that the move accelerates the arbitration and free agency clocks for Fernandez.
The Mets’ version of Fernandez is Zack Wheeler. While Fernandez will be pitching against the Mets next Sunday, Wheeler will be opening up for your 2013 Buffalo Bisons. You can slam the Marlins all you want for the shell game they played on Florida taxpayers and for the dishonesty towards Mark Buehrle and others and for their fire sale last winter, but at least every once in awhile the Marlins try to act like they’re not a small market team. Unfortunately the Mets often do just the opposite.
Now to the A.L. West:
Los Angeles: The Angels are still as many as four starting pitchers short of a contender.
They can continue to sign the leading free agent slugger each winter for the foreseeable future, but if the pitching doesn’t come around, it isn’t going to matter.
It is certainly possible that their end of the Weird Delivery Deal with the Braves (Tommy Hanson for Jordan Walden) will flourish in the American League. The trimmed-down Joe Blanton might finally fulfill his promise while not fulfilling his appetite. Perhaps Jason Vargas can pitch in a pennant race. And maybe C.J. Wilson 2011 is the real thing and not C.J. Wilson 2012. But that’s a lot of ifs to gamble on in a division where it was proved last year that great hitting cannot carry average pitching, but great pitching can carry average hitting.
The Angels’ bullpen is also anything but a thing of beauty. Last year’s gift from the Padres, Ernesto Frieri, has lost miles off his fastball this spring – and his fastball is his only major league quality pitch. I suppose investing big bucks on the injured Ryan (One Season As A Closer And Then He Got Hurt) Madson makes more sense than, say, signing Jose Valverde – but not much more. Madson’s return may be soon, but it is certainly a gamble. The rest of the bullpen has proven itself erratic.
Trust me, I do not undervalue the Mike Trout/Albert Pujols/Josh Hamilton trio (although the decline in Hamilton’s game last year was evident and should crack a little further this year). I’ll even raise it to a quartet and note that Mark Trumbo is the most underrated hitter in the division. But the rest of the Angels’ position players are adequate at best. Chris Iannetta struggled on both sides of the plate, Howard Kendrick seems to be distancing himself from his great potential, Alberto Callaspo is just sort of there, and Peter Bourjos may be a great enough glove to shift Trout to left but he’s just not an offensive threat. Erick Aybar is one of the A.L.’s better shortstops but his main contribution is batting between Trout and Pujols.
Just the Pujols, Wilson, and Hamilton deals have cost owner Arte Moreno $440,000,000 in the last 16 months. That’s a lot of money to get a second or third place team as your receipt. When it happens again this year, Moreno is going to get unpleasant. If he doesn’t scapegoat General Manager Jerry DiPoto, DiPoto will surely scapegoat Manager Mike Scioscia, and that’ll be a shame.
But that’s what happens when you spend badly. You blame the guys beneath you. And often you blame the guys you spent to get.
Texas: This could all come apart quickly, too.
Last year I asked what would have happened if a team in New York or Boston or L.A. had a) had a manager test positive for cocaine use and have his job publicly threatened by his bosses as a result, b) blown a World Series to an inferior team, c) blown the next year’s World Series after needing one more out to win it, d) revealing later that the manager chose not to put in the defensive replacement who might’ve gotten the fly ball one more out that twisted the clunky regular rightfielder into a pretzel, and e) lost its best pitcher to free agency within its own division that winter?
Let’s raise the stakes a little this year. That same New York/Boston/L.A. club has now f) lost its best hitter to free agency within its own division the following winter, g) traded the face of its franchise and the soul of its clubhouse for nothing in particular, h) sent its top prospect to the minors rather than move some pieces and displace some average talent in the outfield, and, oh by the way, just for giggles, i) permitted the icon of the sport in its part of the country to engage in a front office power struggle with the team’s general manager, and j) lose it.
Texas baseball fans are an awfully forgiving lot, I guess.
The last three-plus seasons in Arlington have topped, at least in compression of events, anything that befell the Yankees’ “Bronx Zoo” of the ’70s and ’80s, or the Fightin-Among-Themselves-A’s in Oakland forty years ago. And yet on and on the Rangers go as if nothing matters and it’ll all be better if they can just bring Lance Berkman home to Texas.
What a mess.
I think this is the year they stop getting away with it. Unless Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt rise (and Olt had a terrible spring) to banish Berkman and Mitch Moreland or maybe the Leonys Martin/Craig Gentry platoon, the Rangers are in for a season of possible non-contention. Lord knows what they do if somebody like Nellie Cruz gets hurt (put Jeff Baker in right?).
I suspect a lot of people get fired here too.
Houston: It could be worse. They could’ve actually decided to go with Fernando or J.D. Martinez in right instead of Rick Ankiel and Brandon Barnes (which would’ve made their debut in the American League the dreaded – I apologize in advance – Two-Martinez Launch). There is the Jose Altuve Experience, which is nice. Bud Norris and Lucas Harrell show glimmers in the outfield and Brad Peacock tries to recover from a bad year in AAA by stepping down a notch into the Houston rotation.
But this is going to be a grim season for a franchise that was in the World Series only eight years ago.
I do hear nice things about the back-up catcher, Carlos Corporan. He was stinging the ball in Florida, which belies one blog’s identification of him as the perfect Astro: no-field, no-hit.
I don’t mean to pile on, but while these new Astros uniforms have to be better than the 2012 versions, the attempt to merge the ’62-64 Colt 45s shirts with the ’70-71 Astros shirts doesn’t really work. The Houston franchise has an extraordinary heritage of great shirts: the 1965-66 Astros “Shooting Star” jerseys, the 1975 acid trip pullovers, and maybe best of all, the gunslinger unis from the original team. Remember, they didn’t drop the name “Colts” out of some sort of sense of inappropriateness – it was a purely business decision based on a dispute with the gun manufacturer, and a desire to capitalize on the astronaut program as it crested in the second half of the ’60s.
Seattle: I’m conflicted on whether the Mariners are capable of stepping up into contention or near it.
The critical off-season offensive improvement (the acquisition of DH Kendrys Morales from the Angels) blocks off the escape route for Jesus Montero’s stunning incapacity to catch. The likely critical mid-season all-around improvement (the promotion of 2012 top draftee and catching wunderkind Mike Zunino) would seemingly force Montero to the bench. If somebody would just take Montero aside and say, ‘Hey, you and your once-in-a-generation opposite field power on the high fastball? You don’t have to catch any more. Maybe you could see if you could play first base, but, honestly, just spend all your time in the batting cage,’ the kid might approach a triple crown.
Bringing Michael Morse back was a great move and Justin Smoak had an outstanding spring. But Dustin Ackley still has come nowhere close to his advance billing, and the team is relying on Ackley, Franklin Gutierrez and Michael Saunders to help drive the offense. Ackley is a career .243 hitter, Gutierrez is a .256, Saunders a .220. And apparently either Gutierrez or Saunders is going to lead off with the other batting second. Gutierrez’s lifetime On Base Percentage is .308 and Saunders’ is .283.
This makes pitching discussions somewhat academic, although it is curious that with these waves of young pitchers in the system – the Hultzens, Paxtons, and Walkers – the rookie who makes the rotation is Brandon Maurer, who two winters ago was pitching in the Australian League, and there was a need to sign Joe Saunders. The bullpen might be Seattle’s unexpected strength with Carter Capps, Charlie Furbush, and Stephen Pryor coming into their own.
But you have to hit a little and the Mariners seem intent (squeezing out Montero, putting out-makers at the top of the order) on not doing so. I can’t see them pushing upwards even as the Angels and Rangers collapse above them.
Oakland: So – to reprise our indexing from the Rangers’ entry – nobody believed in a) Yeonis Cespedes, b) Bob Melvin, c) the Oakland bullpen, d) Josh Reddick, e) the kid starters, or f) their ability to stay in contention. They merely jerry-built a line-up that started churning out runs in the second half and not only stayed with Texas but surpassed them with a mid-game rally on the final day. With a little luck and a little more experience they might have knocked off the Tigers in the Division Series.
And as the 2013 A.L. West is previewed, the A’s still aren’t being taken seriously.
No, I don’t think Eric Sogard is going to hit .444 nor Josh Donaldson slug a homer every 20 at bats, as they did in Arizona. But Cespedes is a beast, and that 23/82/.292/.356/.505 (and 16 SB) line – with the now comparatively low 102 strikeouts – was just the warm-up offered by the man’s first season in this country, and he could easily win an MVP award now or in the near future. The line-up is strengthened with parts added like Chris Young, Jed Lowrie, and John Jaso (and if Sogard were to hit .274 they’d be ecstatic). The rotation has Brett Anderson added back into the mix, evidently in fine fettle, and even more power arms like Evan Scribner and Pedro Figueroa joining the now-experienced likes of Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle in the pen.
It’s a good team with a good manager. I’m biased towards him – he’s one of my favorite friends in baseball. But what I can tell from his players, they rely on Melvin’s rare combination of an encyclopedic knowledge of the strategy of the game, his calm leadership, and his always-unexpected wry humor. That Reddick could “pie” him after the season-ending win underscores the sense that he is not a part of them but nor is he apart from them – and that is the highest compliment players can offer a manager.
The division: I like the A’s to consolidate 2012 and add to it. Even in collapse the Rangers and Angels will give them a fight with L.A. finishing second and Texas third. Seattle will verge on contention but never quite reach it. The Astros are even money to lose 110 games.
I have a few more things gleaned among the cacti to report (besides the fact that Billy Hamilton is the fastest ballplayer I’ve ever seen, and seems to be going faster than freeway traffic).
But first, the photo album from a week in the incredibly convenient Cactus League:
No, this is not the world’s oldest, saddest boy band. Nor, despite the angles, are Manager Terry Francona of the Indians and President Theo Epstein of the Cubs actually resting their heads on my shoulder (they’d join me in saying ‘thank goodness’). I was privy to witness the reunion of the Men Who Made The Red Sox Great at HoHoKam Park, two weeks ago tomorrow. They’re both among my baseball friends and typically we spent almost no time talking baseball. Also got to see Billy Williams, Dale Sveum, and Brad Mills that day, too (“Nice to see you back with a Major League Team,” I said to Millsy. He smiled and was respectful enough to say nothing, but he looked 10 years younger – as did Tito).
This is not Jackson Browne, though I’ve seen them both in the last 18 months and if the gentleman spotted at Peoria during a Brewers-Mariners game dyed his hair, they’d look like brothers.
That’s Ted Simmons, now an advisor in the Seattle front office, and simply put one of the smartest men in the sport. When Pirates fans harken back to the last winning Pittsburgh team they invoke the names of Jim Leyland and Barry Bonds (and occasionally even Stan Belinda), they don’t mention the last winning GM: Ted Simmons. He was just getting into the rebuilding of the post-Bonds Pirates when he suffered a heart attack during the 1993 season and retired. He’s been a coach and executive since – and that was after his 46.5 WAR (greater than Hall of Famers with careers of similar length like Nellie Fox, Kiki Cuyler, Orlando Cepeda, Ernie Lombardi, and the just-elected Deacon White). Narrow that down to catchers (Bill Dickey 52.5, Gabby Hartnett 50.7, Simmons 46.5, White 44, Lombardi 43.6 – and you occasionally hear Jorge Posada’s name mentioned at 39) and it’s obvious that “Simba” is a Hall of Famer. Despite a career line of .285/.348/.437 and seven .300 seasons, his work was overshadowed by being Johnny Bench’s exact contemporary for 15 years, and then spending nearly all of his last five at DH or 1B.
Dale Murphy returned to the game last season in the Braves’ tv booth, and returned to uniform this spring as the first base coach for the USA team in the WBC. One of the older arguments for the Hall was the “wozzy” test – “was he considered for any length of a time one of the top five players in the game?” After two MVPs and a decade as one of the most feared hitters/least feared people in the game, Murph kinda flatlined starting with his 13th season in the majors. But again, WAR puts him in historical context. Lou Brock’s a 42.8, Jim Rice a 44.3, Chuck Klein a 41.5. Murphy: 42.6 – and in this time when one element in the Cooperstown ballot has suddenly taken on added importance (“character”), his was and is impeccable – and generous.
When I tweeted this photo I believe I said that I first interviewed George Brett in 1980. In fact, that was when we were first “introduced.” I actually interviewed him in 1976, 1977, and 1978 during the A.L. Playoffs – the “nice to meet yous” came during the 1980 World Series during a memorable and scatological interview about the hemorrhoids that plagued him during the post-season. This might have been the same day I met a mid-level Royals’ executive named Rush Limbaugh (how would you ever forget a name like that). He and Brett remain best friends, and George and I laughed our way through 15 minutes in the KC dugout, which no matter how you diagram it means baseball trumps politics every time. George remembered that ’80 interview of course, but also (to my surprise) recalled that I got to interview him – for Fox – after his election to Cooperstown in ’99.
This, of course, is Wash.
All the other guys on the photo tour are Hall of Famers, or should be, or might very will be (Terry Francona needs one more measurable success in his managerial career to cinch a spot – and he’s only 54 – while if Theo Epstein also turns the Cubs around, he’s a lock).
The first person to tell you he’s not getting to Cooperstown – surely not as a player – is the ever-affable skipper of the Rangers, Ron (.261/.292/.368, ten years, one as a starting player) Washington. But few figures in the sport are greeted with greater affection, by his players and rivals alike. Just to amp this shot up a little bit, check out the copyright. That’s Jon SooHoo, who I’ve known ever since I was a local sportscaster in LA and who has shot 30 years of incredible images on behalf of the Dodgers.
There were many other men I’m proud to call friends who I didn’t trouble for photos: Vin Scully, Bob Uecker, Bruce Bochy, Bob Melvin – the average was about three a day, and it emphasized that while we get swamped by scandal and controversy and stats and new-age stats and boasting and showboating, the game is about good people whom you get to know and cheer for, for a very long time.
But occasionally, even in middle age, you make new acquaintances. While I summarize my thoughts for a future post, take a look at this, which might be – pound-for-pound – the best baseball stadium built in this country at least since 1962:
Imagine for a second this scenario: a New York team wins consecutive pennants. They lose the first World Series to a lightning-in-a-bottle fast-finisher from the other league. They lose the next year to another one-month-wonder despite twice being one strike away from sealing the deal in Game 6. The New York team owner – one of the most famous men in sports – has to decide whether or not to retain his popular, African-American manager after the latter tests positive for cocaine. This was after he built the batting order around a recovered addict, who then falls off the wagon in the weeks before he was to get a nine-figure contract extension.
Can you picture that? It would be Armageddon every day at that ballpark as the media – not just in New York but nationally – struggled merely to decide whether these misceants were to be called the worst chokers of all time, or a bunch of druggies, or the team with the owner who needed to be run out of the game on a rail for letting such tainted underachievement continue. It would be, to adapt Dorothy Parker’s phrase to baseball, a Fresh Hell every day.
Of course, you don’t have to imagine anything here but the geography. This is not the imaginary story of the most controversial New York team of all time. It’s the 2012 Texas Rangers – and only their worst headlines – and in one of the most meaningful and revealing truths about baseball, and sports media, and America itself, they remain one of our feel good stories.
It’s not just New York, by the way. The 180 degree difference in how the New York Baseball Rangers would be treated, would also be true of the Boston Rangers or the Philadelphia Rangers or the Los Angeles Rangers. Regardless of the venue, it’s amazing, and it’s real.
And it’s relevant to a preview of the American League West because it means what is largely the same team can try it again for the third straight year – without Josh Hamilton being traded for Ken Phelps or Ron Washington being replaced by Dallas Green. There are only two notable changes: a real closer in Joe Nathan, and C.J. Wilson being swapped out for Yu Darvish.
The former move seems to reduce the variables; the latter may do the opposite. Darvish is the prototypical Japanese pitcher – with slight deception in the delivery, a mastery of five pitches and about four subtle varieties for each of them, and a rubber arm (at least for awhile). But Darvish is something Nomo and Matsuzaka and the rest are not: he is a Giant. He is 6’5”, 215, meaning he’s bigger than Nathan and Colby Lewis, and at least taller than Josh Hamilton. So the four different fastballs come in as fast as 95.
Watching Darvish against Colorado last week was watching the biggest kid in Kindergarten playfully slapping all the other ones. Half of them fell unconscious to the floor. The others? He missed them and he fell to the floor. The Rockies got their licks in, but in six at bats against him, Cargo and Tulo struck out six times and didn’t look close on any of the swinging strikes. It is almost a given (since we still condescendingly look at even Japan’s greatest veteran stars as our freshmen) that Darvish takes the Rookie Award in the AL. He may take the Cy. He may also go 12-15. The question isn’t whether or not he’ll make American batters look bad most of the time, but whether he might make American pitchers look bad most of the time.
The Rangers have competition in Orange County, but the ANGELS are the most tragically snake-bitten of all teams, and investments like the zillions spent on Wilson and Albert Pujols have always ended in tears – usually the late Gene Mauch’s. Despite the addition of Pujols and the resurrection of Kendrys “Just Shake Hands” Morales, the Cherubs are nowhere near a match for Texas offensively (hell, the ’27 Yankees might not be). The Mark Trumbo third base play comes at considerable defensive risk, and the bullpen remains a series of risky albeit probably good gambles. Ironically, for all that money, the difference-maker for Mike Scioscia might be his fifth starter, either retread Jerome Williams or rookie Garrett Richards, who at times looked lights out this spring.
There might be something to watch in SEATTLE. My affection for Jesus Montero’s opposite field power has been elaborated upon here before. But there is a flock of young hitters around him who might also blossom, and not just Dustin Ackley. Smoak, Carp (hurt), Saunders, Liddi, Gutierrez (hurt), and behind them Catricala and another Fernando Martinez might make the Mariners Wild Card eligible in a year. Probably would’ve helped if they hadn’t traded Doug Fister, because the rotation gets dicey just about the time you ask “Kevin Millwood is still alive?”
My friend Bob Melvin gets his first full year managing again, in OAKLAND. He loves to do it and was born to do it, and if anybody can drag this team back into respectability after its latest re-casting, it’s Bob. Unfortunately, even though he only played 11 games there in his career, Bob might be the best first baseman he has, and that’s a problem. The base hits get thin once you get past the exciting Jemile Weeks and the possibly exciting Yoenis Cespedes. And I won’t write anything long-winded on the latter for fear of being accusedof being Cespedes-sesquipedalian.
It’ll be fun watching the A’s continue their role as baseball’s breeding and/or training grounds for B+ pitchers. Mulder, Zito, Hudson, Harden, Haren, Street, Gonzalez, Cahill, Bailey, Anderson, et al. The new names are De Los Santos, Milone, Parker, and Peacock and maybe baseball can get on the stick and get the A’s into San Jose before they become eligible for the A’s Alumni Association, too.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST FORECAST:
TEXAS wins again, with Darvish filling the Wilson vacuum. LOS ANGELES/ANAHEIM/THE OC, afflicted by some calamity, still has enough to claim a wild card. SEATTLE approaches .500, and OAKLAND does better than you’d think.
Love the Braves taking a flier on third baseman Juan Francisco. He may amount to nothing, but he is capable of a Jose Bautista like breakout, and he’s no more of a load defensively than Cabrera or Trumbo. He was dying a slow death in Cincinnati where I believe Dusty Baker never played him two games in a row. Because he isn’t 37.
Was that the greatest World Series game ever played?
For games in which a team, having put itself on the precipice of elimination because of managerial and/or strategic incompetence, then stumbles all over itself in all the fundamentals for eight innings, and still manages to prevail? Yes – Game Six, Rangers-Cardinals, was the greatest World Series Game of all-time. I’ve never seen a team overcome itself like that.
But the Cardinals’ disastrous defense (and other failures) probably disqualifies it from the top five all-time Series Games, simply because it eliminates the excellence requisite to knock somebody else off the list. Mike Napoli’s pickoff of Matt Holliday was epic, and the homers of Josh Hamilton and David Freese were titanic and memorable. But history will probably judge the rest of the game’s turning points (Freese’s error, Holliday’s error, Holliday’s end of the pickoff, Darren Oliver pitching in that situation, the Rangers’ stranded runners, Nelson Cruz’s handling of the game-tying triple, the failures of both teams’ closers) pretty harshly.
For contrast, in chronological order here are five Series Games that I think exceed last night’s thriller in terms of overall grading.
1912 Game Eight: That’s right, Game Eight (there had been, in those pre-lights days at Fenway Park, a tie). The pitching matchup was merely Christy Mathewson (373 career wins) versus Hugh Bedient (rookie 20-game winner) followed in relief by Smoky Joe Wood (who won merely 37 games that year, three in the Series). Mathewson shut out the Red Sox into the seventh, and the game was still tied 1-1 in the tenth when Fred Merkle singled home Red Murray and then went to second an error. But the Giants stranded the insurance run, and in the Bottom of the 10th, as darkness descended on Fenway (the first year it was open) there unfolded the damnedest Series inning anybody would see until 1986. Pinch-hitter Clyde Engle lofted the easiest flyball imaginable to centerfielder Fred Snodgrass – who dropped it. Hall of Famer Harry Hooper immediately lofted the hardest flyball imaginable to Snodgrass, who made an almost unbelievable running catch to keep the tying run from scoring and the winning run from getting at least to second or third. Mathewson, who had in the previous 339 innings walked just 38 men, then walked the obscure Steve Yerkes. But Matty bore down to get the immortal Tris Speaker to pop up in foul territory between the plate and first, and he seemed to have gotten out of the jam. Like the fly Holliday muffed last night, the thing was in the air forever, and was clearly the play of the inward rushing first baseman Merkle. Inexplicably, Mathewson called Merkle off, shouting “Chief, Chief!” at his lumbering catcher Chief Myers. The ball dropped untouched. Witnesses said Speaker told Mathewson “that’s going to cost you the Series, Matty” and then promptly singled to bring home the tying run and put the winner at third, whence Larry Gardner ransomed it with a sacrifice fly.
1960 Game Seven: The magnificence of this game is better appreciated now that we’ve found the game film. And yes, the madness of Casey Stengel is evident: he had eventual losing pitcher Ralph Terry warming up almost continuously throughout the contest. But consider this: the Hal Smith three-run homer for Pittsburgh would’ve been one of baseball’s immortal moments, until it was trumped in the top of the 9th by the Yankee rally featuring Mickey Mantle’s seeming series-saving dive back into first base ahead of Rocky Nelson’s tag, until it was trumped in the bottom of the 9th by Mazeroski’s homer. There were 19 runs scored, 24 hits made, the lead was lost, the game re-tied, and the Series decided in a matter of the last three consecutive half-innings, and there was neither an error nor a strikeout in the entire contest.
1975 Game Six: Fisk’s homer has taken on a life of its own thanks to the famous Fenway Scoreboard Rat who caused the cameraman in there to keep his instrument trained on Fisk as he hopped down the line with his incomparable attempt to influence the flight of the ball. But consider: each team had overcome a three-run deficit just to get the game into extras, there was an impossible pinch-hit three-run homer by ex-Red Bernie Carbo against his old team, the extraordinary George Foster play to cut down Denny Doyle at the plate with the winning run in the bottom of the 9th, and Sparky Anderson managed to use eight of his nine pitchers and still nearly win the damn thing – and have enough left to still win the Series.
1986 Game Six: This is well-chronicled, so, briefly: this exceeds last night’s game because while the Cardinals twice survived two-out, last-strike scenarios in separate innings to tie the Rangers in the 9th and 10th, the Met season-saving rally began with two outs and two strikes on Gary Carter in the bottom of the 10th. The Cards had the runs already aboard in each of their rallies. The Red Sox were one wide strike zone away from none of that ever happening.
1991 Game Seven: I’ll have to admit I didn’t think this belonged on the list, but as pitching has changed to the time when finishing 11 starts in a season provides the nickname “Complete Game James” Shields, what Jack Morris did that night in the 1-0 thriller makes this a Top 5 game.
There are many other nominees — the Kirk Gibson home run game in ’88, the A’s epic rally on the Cubs in ’29, Grover Cleveland Alexander’s hungover relief job in 1926, plus all the individual achievement games like Larsen’s perfecto and the Mickey Owen dropped third strike contest — and upon reflection I might be able to make a case to knock last night’s off the Top 10. But I’m comfortable saying it will probably remain. We tend to overrate what’s just happened (a kind of temporal myopia) but then again perspective often enhances an event’s stature rather than diminishing it. Let’s just appreciate the game for what it was: heart-stopping back-and-forth World Series baseball.
We will never know what would’ve followed: Adrian Beltre could have popped up on the next pitch, or homered igniting a 15-run rally, or torn his ACL running out a grounder, or anything in between.
But replays, taking less than sixty seconds of real time to watch, showed conclusively that Beltre fouled a ball off his foot with one out in the ninth against Jason Motte of the Cardinals in Game One of the 2011 World Series, and, unfortunately, home plate umpire Jerry Layne missed it, and called Beltre out on a grounder to third.
There has got to be a way to make those replays useful in the process by which the toughest calls, requiring the keenest judgment and the most chances to get them right, do not become unfortunate shadows on critical games – especially ones as well played as this Series opener.
I’m not calling for mandatory replay, just what I asked for after the heartbreaking screwup by Jim Joyce that cost Armando Galarraga his perfect game in 2010: some kind of option that lets the umps utilize the staggering advances in technology that appear on the scene every year. I know that the Airport Screening Cam added tonight by Fox looked hysterically funny and even grotesquely retro – but why not utilize it? You can go with an umpire’s option to check a replay himself, or a seventh ump in the booth with a replay array, even something that requires the replay review be completed in 90 seconds, or anything you like, but let’s get the right call made, as often as possible.
And I’m sorry, I don’t buy the “human element” argument in the least. Can anybody argue that tennis has been adversely affected since the electronic systems started determining baseline calls, rather than the imperfect ruling of an official too far away to see it clearly? I honor the umpires and think them among the most noble figures in the game, and agree that nobody’s perfect nor should be expected to be. But these aren’t arguments against improved and increased replay use – they’re arguments for it. Let’s give them every tool, and stop making them feel ashamed or incompetent if they choose to use them.
If it’s at all possible, I don’t want to know what an umpire thought happened. I want to know what happened.
The Beltre play may have been decisive, or it may have been trivial. But with a batter incapable of faking a wince fast enough on a ball off his foot, plus Beltre’s not running to first, plus the likelihood that only contact with an uneven, hard surface such as the front of his shoe could have made a ball angling so oddly off the bat then move on such a straight line to the third baseman, all the factors were present for exactly the kind of call the best of umpires should love to have a second look at, and all the technology is now available to get that second look accomplished in literally seconds.
Firstly, Rangers fans should be delighted by the headline – my 2011 predictions have been execrable (according to this blog, the series opens in Atlanta tomorrow night with the Red Sox as the visitors – or maybe it’s in Boston; maybe I got the All-Star Game wrong too).
Worse still I have a great affection for Ron Washington, his third base coach Dave Anderson, and his Game One starter C.J. Wilson. Beyond that, there is no love lost between me and Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa. The purist in me is offended that the regular season is so irrelevant that what it proved was the fourth best team in the National League is my pick to win the Series. And I happen to hate team catchphrases and don’t particularly care about whether the Cardinals’ flights are happy or morose.
Nevertheless, here are a few points that made this forecast unwelcome but necessary. You know that dreadful Cardinals’ starting rotation? Its post-season ERA is a nauseating 5.43 – and the Rangers are at 5.58. That anemic St. Louis line-up with the pitcher and the relief pitchers and a few popgun bats off the bench all hitting? It’s batting .288, getting on base at a .345 rate, slugging .448, for an OPS of .793. The awe-inspiring Texas line-up so deep with the DH that Boomstick Himself hitting way down there in the seventh? .259/.330/.434/.764. Having thus far played one more game than the Rangers, the Cardinals have outscored them 62 to 55.
Speaking of Boomstick, what if that tweak in Game 6 of the ALCS, that seeming oblique injury, merely hinders Nelson Cruz in the Series? What happens to a slugger who can’t twist his body fully without searing pain? Cruz has been fragile enough that to begin with his health is always in doubt. Worse still, there are probabilities in play here, and if your performance in the Division Series was 1-for-15 with no homers and no RBI, and then your performance in the Championship Series was 8-for-22 with six homers and 13 RBI, your performance in the World Series is much likelier to look like the first set of numbers than the second.
The DH “thing”? The Cardinals led the majors in hitting on the road, finishing third in road home runs behind only the Yankees and Red Sox. The Cardinals, thought to be comparatively weak sisters at the plate, basically led the National League in every offensive category except home runs, and struck out the fewest times in the NL. To be fair, Texas struck out even less – 48 times less – but without pitchers hitting the stat is slightly deceptive for comparison purposes. Cardinals’ pitchers struck out 111 times as batters during 2011, meaning their eight position players (and pinch-hitters and DHs) only struck out 867 times in total.
Then there is the little matter of the efficacy of starting three lefthanders against the Cardinals (in point of fact, if all three games scheduled for Arlington are played, St. Louis would face the three southpaws in a row). I appreciate the fact that the Cardinals did better against righties than any other NL team (and overall sit behind only Texas throughout the sport), and I’m aware that the key to beating the Cards this year has been to make Lance Berkman bat from the right side, where he is useful but not a force. But it still strikes me as inherently dangerous to offer Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, a blossoming David Freese, and Allen Craig the opportunity to face the likes of Wilson, Holland, and Harrison. To me the play is to bag one of the lesser two and opt for Alexi Ogando, rather than waiting for Holland to blow up again and then going and getting Ogando. Against lefties in the post-season the Cardinals battered Cliff Lee, were bewildered by Randy Wolf, and held their own in a loss to Cole Hamels.
The bullpens have both been superb – the Cardinals’ particularly – and the fact that neither team had to go to a seventh game in the LCS means both sets of relievers are likely to be fresh. If there is one intangible in Texas’s favor in this series, it’s that they’ve faced Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski this year, with some success. In fact they hung a loss Rzepczynski as recently as July 23, even though the Eyechart Man was effective against David Murphy (0-2) and Mitch Moreland (0-1) in four appearances. As images of Rzepczynski nearly getting Pujols killed Saturday night dance in the heads of Cardinals fans, it is trivially noteworthy to remember that his loss in Arlington nearly three months ago resulted from his own throwing error on a Moreland sacrifice.
So if you want to get an exotic wager in on the weirdest thing that could happen in the World Series, it would be Rzepczynski blowing an inning, or a lead, or a game, by picking up a bunt and running face first into Pujols for a solid E-1 and possible concussion.
Of course, just picking the Cardinals is an exotic enough wager.
You remember Bob Wolcott, right?
One of the seminal figures in modern Post-Season history. A key to an exciting playoff series, a dramatic interjection into the–
Bob Wolcott made six indifferent starts for the 1995 Seattle Mariners. In the exhausting first-ever American League Division Series against the Yankees, he watched from the bullpen, an utter afterthought in a brilliant competition that marked the end of Don Mattingly’s last hope to reach a World Series. He was the last man on the staff, happy to be in the playoffs without having to buy a ticket.
And then Lou Piniella decided to give his overtaxed staff an extra day, and start him in Game One of the A.L. Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians. Frankly, nobody – least of all the Indians – knew what hit them. Wolcott pitched seven innings of eight-hit, five-K ball, gave up a homer to Albert Belle in the last frame, and left a 3-2 lead to the bullpen. Jeff Nelson and Norm Charlton hung on, and the Mariners had a 1-0 lead over the favored Indians. Not that they did anything: the Mariners’ rotation of Tim Belcher, Andy Benes, Chris Bosio, and Randy Johnson each lost a game and Wolcott never even got a second shot as a reliever. After a decent 1996 in the M’s rotation, he was dealt off, hurt his arm, went to college (Oregon State for mechanical engineering) and practices his craft in the northwest.
But the prospect of starting a mystery man against a team that had never seen him before – in the opening game of a playoff series – proved plausible. And in this case, Bob Wolcott was not the game’s top pitching prospect.
Matt Moore is. And Joe Maddon of Tampa Bay tonight decided to open him against the Texas Rangers in Game One of the ALDS. It is, to descend into the only appropriate vernacular, one of the ballsiest post-season managerial moves and Maddon will live or die by it – but why not? The other best option, Jeff Niemann, has been sharp lately after weeks of playing the role of the Rays’ Mr. Dynamite – the pitcher who gets into the box out in centerfield before the game and then gets blown up by the opposing team.
Moore has a shorter track record even than Bob Wolcott. He has just one Major League start, but in it, at Yankee Stadium, his heavy lefthanded fastball pulverized New York: eleven strikeouts and just four hits in five innings. He had come off a minor league season split between the Southern and International Leagues in which he finished just eight K’s short of leading all the minors in strikeouts – for the third consecutive season.
And not one Texas Ranger has ever crossed paths with him. Not in his brief stint in the majors, not in AAA, not in AA, nowhere. There is admittedly righthand power to be concerned with in the Texas lineup – Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre – but Moore only gave up eleven homers in 155 innings in the minors this year and if he just ties up Josh Hamilton, the Rangers could be stymied (ask last year’s Giants about that).
Remember what K-Rod did as a very, very late-season addition to the Angels’ roster in 2002? The Yankees had never seen him. The Twins had never seen him. The Giants had never seen him. Results? 18-2/3 post-season innings pitched, 28 strikeouts, and in eleven appearances: five wins and two holds – and Frankie Rodriguez wasn’t even the closer.
But Matt Moore is more than just a power pitcher. One of the most astute judges of pitchers I’ve ever known gushes about his composure, his tendency to greet trouble not with panic or fear but with anger, his ability to unintentionally elevate with the fastball so that the batter is eventually swinging at balls at his neck, and lastly a change-up that’s brilliant and that Moore is only beginning to understand the value of. “It has two-plane depth,” my guy explains. Two-plane depth, I ask, sweetly? “It moves through two planes: as in downward, and tailing to the left.”
Can you imagine what that does to a lefthanded hitter, especially one assuming a fastball at his letters? I’d retire immediately.
The advice to the Rangers from my eyewitness: “Swing at the first good heater you see.” The advice from him to Moore: “use the change-up… if I’m hunting fastballs— and the Rangers historically are— making them guess heater or change will set up the hammer, which is devastating.”
What exactly does Moore have to buy the Rays for this to work? A win – in Arlington – would be dandy. Six good innings – win or lose -in which they don’t have to run through the entire bullpen and they establish Moore as a new weapon in the arsenal that Texas might just have to face again in a Game Five, or Hamilton might have to face all by himself in any of the remaining games, would be a great second prize. Five innings that don’t devastate the bullpen is enough to keep Tampa alive until James Shields takes the mound in Game Two.
Maddon’s decision – and how many managers would have the cajones to do this – was enough to make me trash the prediction I made on the air tonight: a good, safe assumption that a gifted but no doubt exhausted Rays’ team could not hold a candle to the rested Rangers. I like this call on so many levels: I like Moore against them, I like Moore as a potential part of the rotation, I like Maddon saying to his team “we have a secret weapon.” Until tonight, the Rangers had been the beneficiary of the madness of the Wild Card race. Now they may have become its victim.
I also note my Matt Moore scout sums it up this way: “Matt is advanced and his stuff, though not pin-point, is better than (David) Price’s.”
I like Tampa in five, I like the Phillies possibly as quickly as three games (hats off to the Cardinals, but they are running on fumes here), and the Brewers, probably in five. And I particularly like the Tigers over the Yankees, quickly. Lost in the tumult of the Red Sox collapse and the Rays spectacular (you do realize that home run was Dan Johnson’s first major league hit since April 27th, right?) is the fact that after August 21st, the Yankees won just 20 of 37 games, and, after September 6th, the Yankees won 10 and lost 12. They didn’t win the American League East: the Red Sox fell past them like the meteor they keep telling us will some day crash to earth and kill us all (the usual caveat: if the Tigers or anybody else give the Yankees four outs an inning, the Yankees will win – they are vampires).
We’ll look at the Championship Series and the World Series after we see how Matt Moore does. But I gotta tell you: I also like those Brewers.
Let’s check in first on “Signal-gate”…he’s baaack…
Brett Weber, the Yankees’ coaching assistant, was nowhere to be found Saturday after my little tweeted photo of him giving hand signals to Alex Rodriguez in the on-deck circle landed in the Commissioner’s Office. But for Sunday’s finale against Detroit, the former minor league pitcher was had returned to the third row back of the plate at Yankee Stadium. I didn’t stare at him – when I don’t give away my seats to Make-A-Wish I am there to watch the game – but I saw no signals today and only one player (Rodriguez) even looked fleetingly in his direction. MLB reportedly accepted the Yankees’ explanation that he was only indicating pitch speed on Opening Day because the team’s stadium scoreboard gun was busted.
That indeed explains Opening Day. It does not explain a different series of signals directed by Weber to Yankee on-deck hitters last year (especially Rodriguez). (By the way – and barring more developments, I promise to leave this trivial incident alone, but if you’d like to read a reasoned, calm blog about the response to it, here you go).
Now, having picked the Red Sox and Twins, and the Rays for the Wild Card (that’s right, they’re 1-and-8 among them – with only 477 left to play), let’s finish off the A.L. predictions:
Los Angeles: This once dynamic team is rapidly falling back into the ranks of The Dullest Place On Earth Angels of the ’80s and ’90s. There are two brilliant starters in Dan Haren and Jered Weaver, and a brilliant outfield (although if you’re going to add a gigantic salary, you reach for Vernon Wells?). But until Kendrys Morales comes back there is nothing else to distinguish this team, except for the shocking inadequacy of the bullpen (who knew Brian Fuentes could have meant so much?). I mean, even The Rally Monkey seems to have outlived his usefulness.
Oakland: Every season has a boutique, insiders’ favorite, and this year it’s the A’s. And I don’t see it. Mind you, I love this rotation and in particular Gio Gonzalez, but I am not impressed by a batting order that has allegedly been improved by adding David DeJesus, Josh Willingham, and Hideki Matsui at 3-4-5. You cannot win every game 3-2.
Seattle: And you especially can’t win them 0-2. There is a scenario in which Erik Bedard ransoms his talent from the depths of injury, and the rookie Michael Pineda blossoms, and the two of them and Doug Fister form a rotation with King Felix that puts Oakland’s to shame. But, even then, whence the offense? Ryan Langerhans is starting in centerfield. Ryan Langerhans has a lifetime .228 batting average and is just four years removed from batting .167 over 210 at bats with three different teams. Tom Wilhelmsen has made the bullpen after five years off, bartending.
Texas: Here is the most under-reported statistic of the 2010-11 off-season. The Rangers lost a pitcher who made exactly 20 starts for them, won 7, and lost 8 – and they were then promptly declared rudderless and hopeless for 2011. I am not suggesting that that is what Cliff Lee would’ve done for Texas this year (4-6 in the regular season, 2-0 in the Division Series, 1-0 in the ALCS, 0-2 in the World Series) but that is exactly what he did for them last year. Ten separate Texas pitchers won as many as Lee did for them during the regular season of 2010, including Dustin Nippert. Would things have been better for them if they’d re-signed him? Yes. You know what else would help? A farm full of Nolan Ryan clones. I’m sorry, there are no other significant downgrades here from a team that absolutely beat up the Rays in the ALDS and the Yankees in the ALCS and should’ve given the Giants a far better fight in the Series, and the additions of Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli make a potent line-up even moreso. I don’t see them being challenged – unless Josh Hamilton breaks in half.
OVERVIEW: 1. Texas, 2. Oakland (distant), 3. Los Angeles (a good run for 3rd), 4. Seattle (not as bad as last year). The Lee panic and the Lee reality are two different things. You want to worry in Texas? What exactly would happen without Hamilton?
LEAGUE OVERVIEW: Gotta stick with Boston, which if I’m right about the Rays and the Card (although with Evan Longoria out, I very easily may not be), would presumably draw the third-place record which I am guessing is Minnesota’s. Thus it’s Texas-Tampa again and I like Texas this time, with the Red Sox finally stopping them in the ALCS.
With Carl Crawford already under the Red Sox Christmas Tree, Jayson Werth inexplicably paid as if he’d had the durability of a lesser Albert Pujols, the Yankees having tied themselves to an aging shortstop well on his way to batting 7th, and the Mets having deftly acknowledged without admitting that their biggest free agent signing this winter will probably be D.J. Carrasco, nearly all the baseball questions I’m getting are about Cliff Lee.
We’ll wrap this up tomorrow night with some thoughts on individual players and awards, but let’s do the last of the six divisional previews first.
seem to you as if Brandon Wood has been on the verge of breaking in to the LOS
ANGELES line-up since Mark Langston was the Angels’ pitching ace? Whether it’s
been four years or forty, this is the first time the team is actually relying
on Wood, and the
pressure is probably a lot more intense than generally understood. If Wood does not produce
a power-filled season, or doesn’t hold on to the job, the Angels will have to
revert to the Chone Figgins-driven line-up, only without Chone Figgins. It’ll
be tough enough adjusting to Erick Aybar at the top of the line-up, without the
Halos also failing to add the last layer of punch they missed so dearly in the ALCS
last year. The emergence of Kendry Morales and the resuscitation of Howie
Kendrick gave life to the club last year, but face it, four key positions are
beginning to creak a little bit with age, including the now three ex-Yanks in
the line-up. Torii Hunter should be terrified at Mike Scioscia’s insistence that
he may occasionally use Hideki Matsui in left. If placed between Matsui and the
periodically mystified Bobby Abreu in right, MLB might consider letting Hunter
ride a Razor. Pitching is deep but once you get past Jered Weaver, not very
intimidating, and Joel Pineiro might have been the off-season’s most overrated
signing (Fernando Rodney might have been the second, but with or without him,
the bullpen is the team’s top asset).
looks like an all-or-nothing proposition. Anderson, Braden, and Cahill might
emerge as world-beaters. Sheets and Duchscherer could make remarkable
comebacks. Bailey could expand on a ROTY season. Or literally any one of the
six could lose his job by June 1. The ailments of Joey Devine and Michael
Wuertz thin out an already thin pen, and the line-up, while energetic and
dynamic, does have to play 81 games on the road against teams that actually hit
those things where, you know, the ball goes past those walls behind the gents
standing on the far lawn – what are those called again? Honestly, if your
line-up looks like it could be beaten up, man for man, by that of the Royals,
you could be in for a long summer, even if every one of the pitchers come
strategic building in SEATTLE over the last two years – Figgins, Wilson,
Gutierrez, Lee, even Byrnes and Snell and League (to say nothing of Wakamatsu)
added to the Ichiro/Felix base, it would seem it would be almost impossible for
the Mariners not to be favored. But as I have suggested before, Jack Zduriencik
managed to make the one move that could undo all the good ones. Ask the 2004-05
Dodgers, who thought he was the guy who could take them over the hump. Ask the
2006 A’s, who thought he was the missing piece (and surrendered Andre Ethier to
get him). Ask the 2007 Padres, who brought him in for the stretch run (and
infamously coughed up the division to the Rockies). Ask the 2008 Rangers, who
signed him, only to start shopping him at mid-season. Ask the 2009 Cubs, who
gave him $30 million for three years and sent him home before the first year
ended because nobody could abide his presence any more. Ask the fans he’s
confronted, the reporters he’s confronted, the play-by-play man he ran up
several flights of stairs in hopes of knocking silly. It’s not as if Milton Bradley
has had a few problems. This is six clubs in six seasons and the longest he
lasted with any of them was until June 29th of the second year. I
don’t know what it will be, I don’t know when it will be, but Bradley will do
something to cost the Mariners the division. And if this somehow does not come
to pass, he will have earned an apology from me – but probably will not have
asked for it, because he would have already experienced an epiphany in which
his consistently uncontrollable behavior would have appeared as unacceptable to
him as it has to everybody else, and he would have apologized to the Cubs. And the Rangers. And
the Padres. And the A’s. And the Dodgers (and just for good measure, Cliff Lee
is not only hurt – he has the most nagging and unpredictable of injuries for a
baseball player, ‘something in the abdomen.’)
line-up in TEXAS frightens me. I know Josh Hamilton is not going to hit 57
homers. I understand Vlad Guerrero has aged. I’m sure Chris Davis could repeat
the first half of 2009. I noticed Ian Kinsler’s on the DL. Without them this
is still the most potent batting order in the division. So the Rangers’ questions are, as
ever, on the mound. But in addition to reclaiming Darren Oliver and bringing
back Colby Lewis from banishment, Texas has one other answer to those
questions: Neftali Feliz. It is impossible to watch him pitch and not see
either a super closer, or a 250-strikeout starter. Either one of them will do
the Rangers fine upon his maturation; for now, a dominating 8th-inning
presence will probably win them the division. And it will be fascinating to
watch any player struggles completely overshadowed by the good or bad conduct
of a manager – not to make a comparison that would be slanderous to the
good-hearted Ron Washington, but we haven’t seen that since Billy Martin died,
and it occasionally helps a team get on with its business while the skipper
takes the heat.
As suggested, I like Texas. Oakland’s pitching could jell to challenge them;
Milton Bradley could go AWOL on May 1 and save Seattle’s season; Brandon Wood
could be everything the Angels ever wanted from him. But I don’t think any of
those things are going to happen. Rangers by a five or six game margin, with
the others following in a jumble I can’t quite yet discern.
FORECAST: I think Tampa ends up with the best record, Texas the worst, and the
Rays will handle the Rangers easily. The Wild Card will go to Boston, most
likely, and they should probably dispatch Detroit, setting up a re-run of 2008,
including the TB victory. This time I like the Rays to win the Series, five
years after other owners seriously murmured about moving them or contracting