Wednesday, April 27, 2005
Random Recap of the Day (or How I Learned to Stop Hating and Love Feliz)
Just when you thought the Giants couldn't buy an easy win, they blast Tim Redding and the Pads today 10-3, behind a Pedro Feliz home run, three hits by Jason Ellison, and Kirk Rueter's second good start of the season.
Some random notes:
-I have this ongoing love/hate thing going with Pedro Feliz. On the one hand, I think the Giants should try to trade him while his value is still high to a team like the Devil Rays whose management is still in the statistical dark age. He has power, yes, but his selection at the plate is nonexistent and he simply swallows up too many outs to be a truly productive player. On the other hand, he just has to go and smack a single to put the Giants ahead in last night's game and then hit a 3-run bomb this afternoon to help give the Giants two big wins. His ability to play multiple positions is extremely valuable as well. When Bonds comes back, they need to find some way to keep him in the lineup, even if it means resurrecting the convoluted 1B/3B platoon they utilized last year. He may draw the ire of sabermatricians, but if Feliz can finish close to the .819 OBP he's sporting now, I won't complain.
-Do you think Jason Ellison is making some kind of statement? He had a perfect day today, going 3-3 with a walk and a triple and bumping his season average to .440, albeit in limited at-bats. He's certainly performed way better with the stick than anybody expected (Cody Ransom of the OF seemed to be the comparisons out of spring). Ellison didn't make any fans with his blunder against the Dodgers, but he's far from Jose Cruz Jr. territory. I'm not sure I'll go as far as to say that Ellison would be a better option now at center field than Grissom, but the difference isn't as big as you might think.
-Here's a story that has caught my interest because I'm an obsessive fan of the Mets of the 1980's. We all knew Lenny Dykstra was a bit of a sleazeball, but gambling on baseball would represent a new low. Nails is also suspected of taking designer steroids, which wouldn't be too surprising if you look at pictures of him with the Phillies as opposed to his younger days as a Met. With the Mets he was smallish and lean, albeit muscular. With the Phils, he suddenly became burly and ripped, with veins popping everywhere. Of course, avid weight lifting could be the the cause, but, as we know from Barry Bonds, that's not a good enough explanation in some cases.
-For gaming fans, here's a bizarre new XBOX game called "Raze's Hell", where you play as a monster who goes around blasting away at cute little creature things called Kewletts. It sounds depraved to be bludgeoning little forest creatures to death, until you realize that the Kewletts are trying to kill you and destroy your home, and they talk lots of trash and carry a shitload of heavy artillery while doing it. The game is a third person shooter that takes some getting used to, but it's pretty fun if you like non-stop blowing crap up and a lot of dark humor. Oh, and the plot is a none-too-subtle satire on Bush's Iraq war, making it a little more juicy, unless you're a flag-waving jingoist, in which case I direct you here for some mind-killing sustenance.
Tuesday, April 26, 2005
Some Words of Wisdom from the Late Douglas Adams
As always happens following a slow start, you're going to see a lot of whining and armchair GMing from message board denizens and other assorted idiots. You're going to hear the typical knee-jerk frothing at the mouth from mindless radio hosts and their equally cranially-challenged callers, screaming about how it's time to give up on the season, Sabean's an idiot, blah blah blah. Yeah, there's no denying that being a Giants fan sucks right now, but let's not drop the toasters in the bathtub just yet.
All we need to do is repeat to ourselves the immortal words uttered in Douglas Adams' great book Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, now being made into a motion picture, which looks awful beyond words. The phrase to remember: Don't Panic.
We still have the world's best player waiting to come back (who knows when, but if Giants fans are religious folks, they'd better start praying for the near future). The Giants now are a decent 6th in the NL in runs scored, and this despite the presence of Mike Matheny's "bat". When you insert Bonds and his unholy .600 OBP into the lineup, suddenly this looks like one of the best batting orders in the league.
Also, let's lend a little perspective to this whole thing. Championships are not won in April. Nothing in April really matters a whole hell of a lot. If you want proof just click here and check out who is posting this .396/.418/.604 line. Also, the Yanks are in last and the White Sox have the majors' best record, for crying out loud!
The Giants started last year off horrible as well, slumping to an abysmal 17-24 before righting the ship in late May. The team ended up winning 91 games. Did their early season follies cost them the division? Well, yes, but they also had several calamities in the final week of the season to blame (cough Steve Finley cough) and just the fact that they were in position to threaten for a postseason berth at the end stresses that slow starts shouldn't automatically trigger a mass exodus to the fallout shelter. The 2000 Giants got off to a horrible start also, and hovered around .500 until the All-Star Break until Marvin Benard's shining moment as a Giant triggered a scorching hot streak that the Giants rode to 97 wins.
It's easy to get fed up and complain about the Giants and their roster of old farts after less than a month, but let's reserve the brainless ranting until Bonds comes back and the season has taken off for good. If it gets to the All-Star Break, and Bonds is back, and the Giants are still mired in a fight-to-the-death with the Rockies for last place, then by all means, let the conjecture fly. Heck, I'll probably be joining in the yelling.
But until then, let's make like Ford Prefect and just stay calm.
Thursday, April 14, 2005
Damn you, Rollo Tamasi!
Well, then you get to class, and your pal comes up and tells you that no, the Giants have actually lost 9-8, and it was Benitez who blew it. Chaos, anarchy, and a sudden grueling temptation to just walk out of class and start drinking fast and hard. That's what happened to me, and the 4-1 loss last night was just a formality. Just like Game 7 of the World Series in 2002, there was just no way the Giants were going to win last night after the previous game's debacle.
I've had my doubts about Benitez throughout his career ever since his implosions in the 1996-1997 playoffs, but I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt after one bad game. If he continues to struggle and turns into the wild Benitez who was hated in New York and Seattle, God help us all and the three year deal we gave him.
The Giants are now 4-4 going into a series in Coors Field. Again, with Alou and Bonds out if the team can just hang and beat up on the crappy teams for a month they should be all right. I can understand losing two to a good Dodger team (boy, does it pain me to admit that!) without your two best power hitters. Of course, no matter how bad the Rockies may be, any series in Coors Field is pure hell, so I'll be glad if the Giants can win two of three.
Stacked: AL West Preview
Pro: Owner Arte Moreno’s attempts to nab a portion of the Dodgers’ fan base away by appealing to the City of Angels’ large Latino population with signings of Bartolo Colon and eventual AL MVP Vladimir Guerrero.
Con: Moreno’s attempt to blur the line between the two LA franchises by renaming the team the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, a moniker so goofy that it makes even WNBA teams giggle.
Pro: Coming back from a disappointing 2003 to win a division title on the last weekend of the season.
Con: Getting spanked in three straight by a Red Sox team of destiny in the ALDS.
Pro: Not giving in to fan pressure by resisting the temptation to overpay Troy Glaus and erstwhile Billy Barty-of-the-diamond David Eckstein.
Con: Continuing to toss Darin Erstad out there at first base and hammering to death the fact that he’s a “gamer”, despite the fact that he has a power bat that makes Doug Mientkiewicz look like Lou Gehrig.
Pro: Attributing your success to good managerial decisions, good team play, good pitching, good defense and a balanced lineup, and not some hackneyed primate on the Jumbo-Tron.
Con: The Rally Monkey, and everything associated with it. The day that god-awful thing goes Spuds MacKenzie or Taco Bell Dog and disappears forever will be a good one for humanity.
I’m not sure if one player can truly turn around a franchise’s fortunes, but Guerrero last year came about as close as possible. The Angels jumped on him last winter while too many teams were worrying about his bad back, and Big Bad Vlad responded by shredding AL pitching and winning the MVP. His approach at the plate isn’t the prettiest thing in the world, as he hacks at anything within five feet of the strike zone, but he’s so quick at the wrists that he can turn even those eye level junk pitches into home runs. Frankly, signing Guerrero was a genius move by the Angels. They have a focus of the offense for years to come, not to mention a franchise representative for a team that didn’t really have one since Wally Joyner was a kid. When casual fans think of the Angels, they can automatically think of Guerrero, and this is big if Moreno is trying to cobble up a non-local fan base and sell lots of Angels paraphernalia. For fans that had nightmares of a Mo Vaughn-esque contract debacle, Guerrero’s arrival in SoCal was certainly a success story in every way possible.
This year the AL West has four teams who can theoretically win the division, but the Angels are the only one with a lack of a glaring weakness, and thus are the favorites. It’ll be a successful season just as long as they don’t revive the Rally Monkey or bring in some other inane morale booster, like the Homer Hippo or something.
2. Oakland A’s
There’s been a lot of apocalyptic nay-saying over the A’s this winter after Beane dealt away Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, but I’m not buying it. Every time the A’s have lost a key player like Miguel Tejada or Jason Giambi, they just keep on winning like nothing ever happened. Like the teeth of a Great White Shark, when one significant element of the team pops out, another takes its place. Giambi leaves, Scott Hatteberg steps in and inexplicably doesn’t embarrass himself. Tejada leaves, Bobby Crosby comes in and wins the Rookie of the Year. There’s a reason Billy Beane has the reputation as the shrewedest general manager in baseball, and he didn’t get it by twiddling his thumbs and pondering the differences between butter and margarine. He got it by assessing the holes in the baseball market and astutely identifying a player’s strengths as opposed to simply dismissing him based on a pre-formed label. He gained league-wide respect by filling holes on the roster with either cheap or young talent, and by allotting his limited payroll to players who are genuinely worth it, like Eric Chavez. He also garners fear from fellow executives within his own organization by lording over every little thing that goes on during the day and by flying into psychotic rages on a whim, like when he chucked an office chair across a room when one of his scouts went over his head and took a high school pitcher in the 2002 draft. I have a feeling he’s like Kingpin from the Daredevil comic books; everybody around him is terrified of him. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those hated scouts from Moneyball suddenly disappears Jimmy Hoffa-style and a strange human-shaped lump mysteriously appears on the Networks Associates Coliseum center field grass. Sometimes Beane’s methods don’t work, like the Arthur Rhodes debacle, but more often than not they work like a charm, and it’s silly to see so many pooh-poohing Beane’s offseason moves without taking his history into account. This is the guy who got Jermaine Dye for Neifi-bloody-Perez for Pete’s sake.
Sure, it looks like they got screwed in the Hudson and Mulder deals on the face of it, but when you look deeper, it doesn’t appear so one-sided. Beane locked up Danny Haren and Dan Meyer, two guys who some analysts project to be just as good as the two jettisoned Big Three members. He strengthened the bullpen with Juan Cruz and Kiko Calero, upgraded what was a dismal second base situation with Keith Ginter, and nabbed what is possibly the best hitting prospect in all the land in Daric Barton. Sure, Hudson and Mulder were All-Stars, but now the A’s have a rotation five deep in young flamethrowers, and they could be pretty scary in a few years. So to all of this nonsense I hear about the A’s finishing last, I say phooey! They have a lineup full of underrated hitters (watch out for Nick Swisher) and they’re primed for a “surprise” year where they should challenge Anaheim for the division crown into the last weekend of the season once again.
3. Seattle Mariners
I have a special place in my heart for derogatory nicknames that are sometimes handed to players or managers based on their sub par play. I’m not talking about something trite like “Poophead Malloy” or “No Good Bastard Wayne Franklin”(as I may have been heard to shout last October). I’m talking about clever, venomous monikers given to a person, one that essentially personifies their ineptness without being completely blunt, but which somehow plays on either their name or another, more honorable nickname given to a heroic figure. A perfect example is when George Steinbrenner dubbed Dave Winfield “Mr. May”, an insult so perfect in that it contained the right combination of cold disrespect and allusion to prior greatness (Reggie Jackson). Another hilarious example would be when Grant at "McCovey Chronicles dub Ricky Ledee as “Ofer Ledee”, a nickname he earned after 53 at bats of punchless flailing in a Giants uniform. In his Pro Basketball Forecast, incomparable NBA analyst John Hollinger recalled the Grizzlies’ former inauspicious GM, Stu “pid” Jackson.
Perhaps my favorite inflammatory nickname of all time, though, is “Stand” Pat Gillick, in honor of the ousted former Mariners GM, who got the name for practicing a pacifist philosophy at every trading deadline, while other teams in the division were swinging blockbuster deals and waving them in his face.
Well, those days are over, because you certainly can’t say the same thing for current GM Bill Bavasi, who brought in two major free agents (three if you count Pokey Reese…snicker, snicker) in hopes of rejuvenating the club after a brutal 2004. Bavasi signed sluggers Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre, adding some power to an abysmal offense that made the previous year’s Mariners incredibly dull. I mean, really, this team last year was unwatchable. Like with bad films, sometimes bad teams can be fun with the right amount of color or goofiness. Even when the Mariners were the joke of the league in the 80’s, they were cool to watch because every fly ball hit would drift over the Kingdome’s short walls and you’d get lots of 12-10 games. Every time Mike Moore would cough up another gopher ball, he’d get a look on his face like he was openly questioning which god he had pissed off to get stuck on this team.
The ’04 Mariners weren’t even good for this kind of gallows entertainment value. Instead of Cyborg bad, they were Armageddon bad, as in, if it came down to a decision to either watch the Mariners or subject yourself to a root canal via flaming power drill, the choice wasn’t quite so clear. The team couldn’t hit, couldn’t field, and didn’t have any good pitchers. If it weren’t for Ichiro’s brilliant season, Safeco field probably would have just imploded in mediocrity a la Michael Bolton’s singing career (assuming he didn’t have any other kind of career, God forbid). In 2005 it thankfully looks like fans can take the paper bags off their heads, because the team looks a tad more exciting.
Unfortunately, there are so many question marks that there’s simply little reason to think they can compete for the division title. Will Adrian Beltre continue his scorching hitting, or was 2004 just a career year? Will he regress while playing in the expansive spaces of Safeco? Can Richie Sexson come back without missing a beat after losing almost all of last season to injury? Can they find anybody who can hit at the bottom of the order? Olivo? Spezio? Is Doug Strange still around? Will they find any pitching? The Mariners last year had a total of one, count ‘em, one decent starting pitcher. His name was Bobby Madritsch, and he threw a whopping 88 innings and he's already hurt after one week, no less). I have to say, I don’t really have the answers to all of these questions. I mean, really, are you honestly reading this for insight and not random 80’s movie references? Because interweaving baseball and Critters is what I do best, not using critical analysis to project team and player performance. I mean, who the hell does that? Anyway, if anything happens to either of the new acquisitions, this team is dead, because the roster is largely unchanged otherwise, and that’s not good.
4. Texas Rangers
Ladies and Gentleman, your 2004 version of the 2003 Kansas City Royals! Will the Rangers plummet to 100 losses this year? No, of course not. They’ve got way too much talent for that, but they were playing over their heads last year, trust me. Am I being a fuddy-duddy party pooper by holding this overly cynical view of a nice comeback story? Look, you just can’t expect a team to go another 162 games with Ryan freaking Drese as their ace and think they’ll sustain some sort of consistent success. The Rangers had all kinds of problems with their starting pitching last year and did nothing, nothing, to address the problem this winter. By the end of the season, the team was so hard up for a warm body to throw out to the hill that they were basically recruiting anybody who could throw the ball within eight feet of the catcher’s glove to start games. At the rate they were going, it was a shocker they didn’t just pull that doofus who got nailed by the Frank Francisco-hurled folding chair out from the stands to go five frames. They’ll have the same problems this year, too, and maybe even more, because “ace” Ryan Drese’s peripheral stats (233 hits, 98 strikeouts in 207 innings) aren’t encouraging. If a few more of those ground balls find holes you’re looking at another Chan Ho Park, folks, only without the bloated contract or the park factor-aided track record from whence it was derived. Behind Drese they have the geriatric Gambler, Kenny Rogers, as well as a bunch of scrubby ne’er-do-wells who would get laughed out of the Tampa Bay bullpen. Pitching coach Orel Hershiser did a solid job just getting this bunch through a competitive season last year, but he has his work cut out for him this season, because it’s going to be uglier than a pile of Karl Rove Halloween masks.
The bright side is that they should stay aloft because of their offense and a reasonably solid bullpen. Frank Francisco didn’t do himself any favors in the court of public opinion by setting the record for most people domed with a flying chair, but he’s a key cog in the late innings if he can handle the inevitable taunting from the crowd. Francisco Cordero has also turned into a formidable closer, and they’ve got an imposing lineup, but I’d say matching their win total of 89 from a year ago is a lofty goal. Hell, I think 79 wins might be a stretch for this team, but there I go getting all cynical again.
Wait, I just thought up a great PR stunt for the Rangers. Instead of the Fast Pitch, have the Frank Francisco Chair Toss, a booth set up somewhere in Ameriquest Field that tests how far fans can throw different sizes of chairs. They’d have light chairs made of plastic for the scrawny contestants, and also big chairs made of granite to test the mettle of the burlier fans. It would be a great way to turn a horrible incident into a fun game, and a good way to attract more fans, as well as take some pressure off of Francisco himself. Of course, maybe it would just be bad taste, and would draw a lawsuit from the woman who got her nose broken in the incident. But what isn’t in bad taste these days, anyway? If we can laugh at Randall Simon for assaulting a bipedal bratwurst with a bat, why can’t we laugh at this?
NL Central Preview
With the Red Sox shocking baseball fans and witch doctors everywhere by winning the World Series for the first time since 1918, the Cubs are now the resident Bob Marley franchise in baseball, having been “Waiting In Vain” for a championship now since 1908. While Boston heard their “Redemption Song” to the tune of a group of “idiots” and a Keith Foulke fastball against St. Louis, the Cubs have continued to have their pennant hopes squashed by a “Natural Mystic” in the form of a goat. Will 2005 see a playoff “Exodus” that will result in a curse-smashing performance like in Boston’s, sending Cubs fans everywhere “Jamming”? “Time Will Tell.”
The most inexplicable event of last year, besides, of course, the Red Sox breaking the steel bonds of the Bambino Curse, was the fact that the Cubs couldn’t make the playoffs despite a roster chock full of All-Star caliber talent. Sure, the Cardinals left everybody in their dust, but the Cubs still should have won the Wild Card at the very least with a team that included a lineup of mashers and a pitching staff loaded with fire-breathing right-handers.
So what happened? Injuries took their toll on the pitchers, as Mark Prior and Kerry Wood both landed on the DL, but otherwise there was little excuse. This team under-performed, plain and simple, and gave their long-suffering fans a pitiful collapse in the last week of the season, in typical Cubs tradition. Their faceplant in the season’s final week resembled the franchise’s 1969 implosion; all that was missing was a black cat scampering back and forth in front of the team’s morose dugout, sounding a symbolic death knell.
With the talent at hand, it just shouldn’t have happened. Their worst starter was
Greg Maddux, for crying out loud. Their lineup, despite the noxious presence of Neifi Perez at season’s end, was a terrific medley of power bats like Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Moises Alou, Sammy Sosa, and half a season of Nomar Garciaparra. Even former specters Todd Hollandsworth and Michael Barrett chipped in with good seasons. So, again, how in the world does this team miss the playoffs? Mix in some bad luck, bad fundamentals, a disgruntled former franchise icon, and a completely asinine clash between players and the team's play-by-play announcers, and you have a recipe for disaster that even a plethora of talent couldn't overcome.
It shouldn’t happen this year. Sosa, after revealing to the world, as we had all suspected anyway, that he was really a selfish jerk hiding behind a façade of sparkling smiles and Pepsi ads, is now gone, and the clubhouse should be better for it. Replacing Sosa, however far into his decline phase, with Jeremy Burnitz is a brutal downgrade, and the team lost Moises Alou to the Giants, but they still have a nice nucleus with Ramirez, Garciaparra, Lee, and Corey Patterson.
And those arms. By Lucifer’s beard, those arms! If Dusty Baker can ever refrain from taking to his young pitchers’ throwing arms with a rusty chainsaw, the Cubs have a group of starters worth drooling over a la Homer Simpson (“Mmmm…dominance”). Prior, Wood, and Carlos Zambrano comprise the best top trio of any team in the majors, and Maddux fills in nicely as the fourth starter. The bullpen is a question mark, but as long as they keep LaTroy Hawkins as the closer and restrain themselves from doing something silly like throwing Ryan Dumpster in the role, they should stay afloat.
So, back to Marley, the “Sun Is Shining” on the Cubs at this point to take the NL Central and “Stir It Up” come playoff time. Barring some unforeseen shenanigans (hey, these are the Cubs, after all), this team should finally put a stop to the cries of the Wrigley denizens to “Satisfy My Soul.”
2. St. Louis Cardinals
Let’s look at a pair of Cardinal fans meeting in a St. Louis pub, sitting down with a couple of beers, pondering the oncoming season. Here is how I imagine their conversation would go.
Fan A: Hey, man, I hate the preseason, why can’t the Redbirds just start now, eh?
Fan B: Yeah, man, I’m getting’ jittery waiting for Opening Day. I’m still hurting from that Series loss, but it’s clobbering time, you get me?
A: The BoSox were a team of destiny last year. No amount of Pujols, Rolen, or the ghost of Enos Slaughter was going to beat them. But when you win 105 games and a pennant, that’s a lot to be proud of.
B: And now we’ve got that ace we’ve been looking for, Mark Mulder. Damn, we sure stole him from Oakland.
A: It certainly looks that way, but Dan Haren and Daric Barton may turn out to be studs, and Mulder pulled a disappearing act in the second half. But I bet it was a fluke. 20 wins, for sure.
B: And no one can match our offense. We’ve got three potential Hall of Famers, plus Larry Walker, a guy who’s at the next level. Albert Pujols is the best hitter in a non-Bondsian world, and Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds are 40-homer guys. Plus, the Giants took Mike Matheny off our hands! And they paid him 10.5 million in the process! Wait til they see the diminishing returns on that investment. Boy, will their faces be red!
A: I think Brian Sabean must have been drunk or something when he made that decision. Any time you subtract a guy like Matheny from your offense, you’ve got yourself an improvement.
B: Ha, yeah. Wait, unless you replace him with Yadier Molina.
B: Eh, the lineup is still awesome. Losing Edgar Renteria sucks though.
A: Yeah, but Boston overpaid him, and he was a tad overrated. Getting rid of Tony Womack was a plus. Any replacements should be adequate up the middle. By the way, who did the Cards get to replace those guys?
B: Um, Mark Grudzielanek and David Eckstein.
Despite the horrifying reality of having those two lightweights covering the middle infield, Card fans really have nothing to get too worried about going into 2005. They still field the strongest lineup in the National League and sport a pretty good starting rotation with a strong bullpen. If Mulder can prove his second half implosion was an aberration, this team gets pretty scary. The 105 wins of last year was probably overachieving, but the 2005 version of the Cards is strong enough to reach the playoffs at the very least once again. I see the NL Central as a two-horse race between the Cards and Cubs, with the loser winning the Wild Card. With Mulder hypothetically providing the ace they lacked in last year’s playoffs, it’s a distinct possibility that the Redbirds can erase the haunting sound of the Mark Bellhorn home run clanging off the Pesky Pole that effectively ended their 2004 season.
3. Milwaukee Brewers
Let’s get in our De Loreon and take a trip all the way back to 1982, when world was somewhat of a different place. Disco was breathing its final breaths, soon to be put down for good by the execrable Travolta bomb Staying Alive. Ronald Reagan was confusing popular science fiction films with national defense policies. Leg warmers and Debbie Gibson were just becoming en vogue. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan deftly blended Melville with space opera to create one of the greatest movies of all time. Karl Rove was thin, evil, and ugly, instead of fat, evil, and ugly. Yours truly was conceived. And last but not least, the Milwaukee Brewers were in the World Series.
“Whoah, whoah, there, Ryder!” you say. “I can buy that Rove may have weighed less than an Orca at one point, but the Brewers in the playoffs? Now you’re just talking goofy.” No, no, it’s true. Backed by an unbelievable offense, dubbed Harvey’s Wallbangers in honor of the late manager Harvey Kuenn, the Brewers devastated the American League with an assortment of home run bashing and beer chugging and soared into the World Series, before losing in seven games to the Cardinals. Believe it or not, that was the last time the Brew Crew has even sniffed the playoffs. The team was more or less competitive for the next six or seven years, but as the Paul Molitor/Robin Yount Hall of Fame nucleus moved on, the team failed to adapt and fell into a chasm of despair and inept ownership that it has yet to climb out of.
The team has blamed poverty for their losing ways for the past 13 years, and with Bud Selig, who I’m somewhat convinced is Damien Thorn all grown up, as the owner of the team, their excuses are at least plausible. More likely, though, the culprit is that old grinch known as bad team management, from poor draft picks to bad free agent signings to bad trades. Jeffrey Hammonds would constitute a bad free agent signing. Bill Hall would constitute a waste of a draft pick. This team is sort of like the Jamie Foxx character in Collateral, who’s always making excuses for why he’s still driving a taxicab after 12 years instead of getting off his butt and living his dream by starting a limo company. The Brewers are too busy whining about baseball’s financial problems and the gap between rich teams and poor teams when they should be aggressively building a winning team with what they’ve got, like Billy Beane has done in Oakland. This franchise desperately needs a badass sociopath like Tom Cruise to show up one day and put them through a hellish wringer of a night to give them some perspective and teach them a lesson like Foxx learned.
I’m picking them to finish third in the NL Central, ahead of the Astros, no less, because I think they’re starting to learn a little. They’ve stockpiled a nice batch of young position players who should be ready by 2007, and in the meantime they’ve got a team capable of reaching respectability now. They stole Carlos Lee from the White Sox, and if they start Russell Branyan and live with his 300 strikeouts, they’ll have a decent lineup. They’ve also got their ace, Ben Sheets, and a solid #2 in Doug Davis. There’s a good chance they could start off well and then crap out at the All-Star Break like last year, but I think they’ll threaten .500, with a nice future just over the horizon.
4. Houston Astros
If you were to hear Astro fans singing “I think it’s going to be a long, long time,” it isn’t because they have a “Rocket Man” for an ace, but because they’ve now been in existence for 42 years and have yet to win a pennant. In that same dubious span, they’ve had more close calls than Jason Biggs in American Pie. Last year, they took the Cardinals to seven games, and had the lead in Game 7 with Roger Clemens on the mound, only to cough up the lead and the series. It echoed previous NLCS heartbreakers Astro fans endured in 1980 against the Phillies and in 1986 against the Mets.
Now the team has one last hurrah before they join Abe Simpson in the old folks’ home, because this is one aging team. Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, once the “Killer B’s”, are now merely the “Mildly Imposing B’s”. A total lack of preparation with this inevitable bout with molding has resulted in a lousy farm system, a dismal future, and, as a result, a frantic lunge at a pennant while the “B” Boys and Roger Clemens still have some juice in them.
This brings up a question: is it worse to be a franchise like the Astros who have more or less been competitive but have suffered a series of brutal playoff heartbreaks throughout the years, or to be a franchise like the Brewers, where you just plain suck for decades and thus spare yourself a bout with a Bill Buckner-esque playoff calamity. Obviously the answer would be to side with the competitive franchise, but maybe it's not as obvious as you might think. If you're Charlie Kerfled and your whole career hinges on one playoff series, maybe you'd rather stick with being a good reliever for a mediocre franchise for years instead of being remembered as a one-year flash in the pan who gave up a decisive hit to Gary Carter.
5. Cincinnati Reds
For years pitching performance had been evaluated mainly by wins instead of more telling stats like ERA, WHIP, or K/BB ratio. The flaw behind this, as most of us know now, is that wins are highly dependant on your team's performance around you. If you're a good pitcher on a crappy team with a horrible offense, you're going to be lucky to win 12 games (there's the occasional exception, like Steve Carlton in 1972, who won 27 games for a gawdawful Phillies team that won 59). This is why a guy like Jack Morris, who played for good teams virtually his entire career, and thus won a ton of games, tends to be a little overrated, while a guy like Bert Blyleven, who pitched on a bunch of bad teams, tends to be underrated. Luckily, thanks to the work of people like Bill James, we now know how to properly evaluate pitchers by ignoring wins and concentrating our attention on more stable peripherals like strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed. You still get the occasional moron who thinks wins are important, but the current movement being started by sabermatricians involves paying pitchers based on track record and good peripherals instead of win totals.
Apparently the Reds didn't get the message. By signing Eric Milton to a 3 year deal worth 25.5 million. Milton won 14 games last year. Those still in the caveman era of baseball stats would wet their pants at this, while the more enlightened simply say "whoopdy-shit" and point to his ugly 4.75 ERA and 43 homers allowed. His signing is the perfect example of how dumb teams overrated wins and innings pitched with the idea that these numbers somehow indicate that a player is a "gamer" or something. No, it just makes him a crappy pitcher with good run support. Shawn Estes won 15 games last season, break out the champagne.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that this signing symbolizes the plight of the Reds in the past few years. Ever since the Griffey signing, their free agent signings have been one bomb after another because of a terrible lack of foresight. To make matters worse, their farm system is a complete mess and their pitching staff is about as brutal looking as Britney Spears without her makeup.
They supposedly have a surplus of outfielders, but once Ken Griffey and Austin Kearns break a leg doing jumping jacks it'll turn into a problem. Adam Dunn is a bonafide superstar, even if most writers insist on focusing on his strikeouts. The team could get off to a fast start again liek last year, but it'll just be another fluke, and they'll sink under the weight of their brutal pitching staff for a second straight year.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates
Here are some lyrics I found recently to a song called “The Ghost of Dave Littlefield”. Any resemblance to the Pirates GM is, um, coincidental. Enjoy.
Dude walks along the vacant basepath
Surveying the wreckage of the opposing team’s wrath
Mr. McClatchey mumbles, stumbling over the bridge
“How the @#$%@! are we stuck with Jose Mesa, and not Brad Lidge?”
Man makes a phone call to the Chicago Cubs
And gives away a star third baseman for a pair of scrubs
Welcome to the Pirates’ 2005 roster!
Lots of hacks, lots of bums, putting up really bad splits
No wins, no runs, no hope, no Schmidt!
And PNC Park is alive tonight
Nobody’s foolin’ nobody with good play on this night
I’m hearing stories that these misbegotten spirits yield
Searchin’ for the ghost of Dave Littlefield
He pulls Jack Wilson’s uniform from out of his car
And says, “Hey, look, guys, we’ve got a freaking All-Star!”
Then in unison comes the response, like a razor sharp spike
“Yeah, ya no good bum, but your leadoff man is Tike!”
With a panic and a swig, he tries to make a trade colossal
And instead picks up a catcher who’s a prehistoric fossil
With another year in last makin’ many fans sob
He asks “How in God’s name do I still have my job?”
And PNC Park is alive tonight
Nobody’s foolin’ nobody with good play on this night
I’m hearing stories that these misbegotten spirits yield
Searchin’ for the ghost of Dave Littlefield
Now Dave said; Kev, whenever you see a guy getting screwed in the Rule 5
Wherever a suicidal Pirates fan emits a bloodcurdling cry
Wherever there’s a deal with Jason Schmidt for a sucky pair
Look for me, Kev
I’ll be there
Wherever there’s a guy favoring lousy players of old age
And a manager named McClendon whose chief trait is psychotic rage
Wherever a fan obtains a Bucs’ jersey on which to pee
Look in their eyes, Kev
You’ll see me
You’ll see me!
You’ll see me!
You’ll see me! (repeat ad naseum)
To be totally fair, David Littlefield doesn’t deserve all of the blame for the Pirates’ long plight, though his moves of recent years have left some fans screaming the lyrics to Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” whenever he appears on TV. No, this franchise has been horrid since Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla left in 1992 and the awfulness has spanned many a lame duck General Manager. Quite simply, it’s a franchise being strangled by its own idiocy. The Pirates keep smothering promising unknowns behind proven mediocrities like Benito Santiago and Matt Lawton. They waste their draft picks on guys like Bryan Bullington and have a bizarre fetish for Randall Simon and his sausage-beating ways. They have some exciting hitters in Craig Wilson and Jason Bay, but…
Look, I’m just going to end it there before I get too depressed, like a Pirates fan. Those people by now must resemble the denizens of the Kit Kat Klub at the end of Cabaret, gaunt and ghost-like, with all the energy and life sucked out of them. They’ve gone from “We Are Family” to “We Are the Addams Family”.
Friday, April 08, 2005
Send in the Clowns: AL Central Preview
It’s funny how differing the opinions are of Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. If you go by the general media reaction, they’d have you believe he’s the second coming of Casey Stengel, some sort of genius of in-game strategy. After all, he’s won three straight division championships and his players all rave about his communication and leadership skills. Then you go on Twins fan message boards, and they all think he’s a complete idiot. It’s absolutely amazing. They scrutinize Gardenhire over every move he makes and every breath he takes. If he makes a bad pinch hitting move, he gets shredded. If he leaves a starter in too long, fans gnash their teeth even more. If he puts too much butter on his toast, fans compare him to Osama Bin Laden like in a crooked Saxby Chambliss smear campaign. It’s hard to find two camps so divided on an issue
I tend to fall somewhere in between. Anybody who watched Games 2 and 4 of last year’s ALDS against the Yankees knows that a genius he most certainly is not. Gardenhire’s also made some silly decisions over the years, like keeping Johan Santana in the bullpen seemingly forever while Joe Mays received the Reservoir Dogs torture treatment from opposing hitters in start after start. Gardenhire’s three straight division championships also have a lot more to do with the overall stench of the AL Central than any magic powers he has. But there’s also something to be said about a guy who has had success like this, and about whom his players can’t say enough good things. It’s not the players are making anti-Christ comparisons like the Phillies with Larry Bowa or anything. The Twins under Gardenhire have also exceeded their projected win total (their Pythagorean Record, if you will; if you’re confused, pick up a copy of Baseball Prospectus) every year under Gardenhire. So the letter bombs being prepared by message board denizens as we speak should probably be put on hold, unless they want to redirect them to Jose Canseco or Bud Selig.
As I said before, the AL Central stinks, and in the land of the pungent, the man with Right Guard is king. That would be the Twins, even though they’ve sustained some hits this offseason. Due to trades and free agency, their vaunted “League of Nations” infield is now “League of Barren Nuclear Testing Sites”. I mean, Christian Guzman was bad and all, but when you bring in Juan Castro and Eric Munson and refuse to dump Luis Rivas, you’re just exposing yourself to all new levels of suckitude. The team also got shafted by the abominable Kyle Lohse in arbitration and gave a shiny new contract to DIPS theory nemesis Carlos Silva. In any other division in baseball these moves would mean a decline, but in the “Comedy Central” it shouldn’t matter. Hey, when you have Johan Santana, who is only the best pitcher in the league, and a lot of outfield depth, a good bullpen, and an endless supply of farm prospects, there’s a lot to laugh about. Chalk up 90 wins, another dominating year from Johan, a collective .210 batting average from the middle infield, and more beer bottles whisked at Gardenhire’s head from pasty chat room-dwellers from the stands.
2. Cleveland Indians
Whoah. Check out these names. Vic Martinez, Travis Hafner, Coco Crisp, Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta. That’s quite a collection of young hitting talent, guys that the Injuns have developed quite nicely, and guys who helped the offense rise to an impressive fifth in AL runs scored in 2004. Make no mistake, they’re all in their mid-twenties and they are all going to get better. It’s like John Sickels’ dream lineup. Up and down, you have…
Wait, what the hell are Juan Gonzalez and Aaron Boone doing in there?? Geez, that’s like seeing a film that you just absolutely love, that you know you’re just going to have to pre-order on DVD like three months in advance, only to suddenly have Kathy Bates do a walk-on nude scene and ruin it all. Boone was a cheap pickup after the Yanks dumped him (this just adds to my theory that the baseball gods put Boone in a Yankees uniform for the sole purpose of screwing the Red Sox), but Juan Gonzalez was a waste. All he’s going to do is get hurt a month into the season and then demand to get back in the lineup when he tries to return at 50%. Remember when the Royals picked Gonzalez up before last season in hopes that he’d be a boon to the team’s slugging? Look what happened to them.
The nice thing about being in the Central is that the Indians are in a good position for a playoff run. The Twins are just a Johan Santana injury away from disintegrating in a putrid heap of Juan Castros and Kyle Lohses, in which case the division would be ripe for the picking. And seeing as how the White Sox will be too busy bludgeoning each other with maple bats in the clubhouse and taking turns burning effigies of Kenny Williams, the Indians are the team most likely to stage a “surprise” rebirth this year and sneak into the playoffs. They almost did it last season, before realizing that they were supposed to be rebuilding and then dropping nine straight games in August and falling by the wayside. They’re a shining example of an organization that has shown that rebuilding can be successful as long as you know what you’re doing. When they went into full nuke mode in 2002, they didn’t waste their draft picks on Bryan Bullingtons or drugged out injury risks like Josh Hamilton. GM Mark Shapiro had a plan to go after good young pitching and build up the offense with strong young hitters through the farm system and trades. Dismal franchises like Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh would be wise to take note.
3. Chicago White Sox
Somewhere, in a dankly lit lab, a perspiring William L. Petersen pokes and prods and ruminates over just what happened to the Chicago White Sox, and how they’ve assembled a nice collection of talent over the past few years but to date have diddly-squat to show for it. It’s really a tough thing to answer, but maybe Petersen can get to the bottom of it by trying to get into GM Kenny Williams’ mind like he did with the serial killer in Manhunter. Every vaccine contains a virus, right?
“What are you dreaming?” whispers Petersen as he examines the corpse of the 2004 South Siders. “What do you dream you’re becoming?” he ponders, as his increasingly uncomfortable assistant sidles silently closer to the exit.
Heck, I don’t think even a super forensics analyst like Petersen could solve this mess. Since 2001, the White Sox have consistently put a talented team on the field, only to go home each October in a humiliating array of injuries, clubhouse self-destruction, Jose Valentin’s empty slugging, and former manager Jerry Manuel’s heroic campaign to wrest the title of “Most Incompetent Manager in History” from the hands of John McNamara. It hasn’t helped either that their GM has turned buffoonery into an art form. Among Williams’ more dubious transactions include shipping Keith Foulke to Oakland for Billy Koch, Carlos Lee for Scott Podsednik, and trading for Roberto Alomar and Carl Everett not once but twice, in successive trade deadlines no less! In this sense, you could forgive White Sox fans for having a bit of déjà vu in 2004. As if anyone needed any more evidence for how bad Williams is, he was thoroughly de-pantsed on the written page in Moneyball.
The area where the Sox certainly hurt themselves the most in during the offseason is chemistry, which isn’t particularly good since their chemistry already sucked in the first place. Frank Thomas and Paul Konerko are at each other’s throats more often than Grodin and Deniro in Midnight Run. Carl Everett hates everybody, and doesn’t even believe in dinosaurs (I’m not kidding, he really doesn’t; you can quote him). Then you bring in A.J. Pierzynski? Oh, man. This is like throwing a wolverine into a cage with a hyena and a cougar and hoping they get along. It’ll make for a nice game of “Which two White Sox players will go round for round behind the batting cage first?”, but as for producing a winning formula, this is a dubious strategy at best. As for which players get into a whirl of fisticuffs first, the smart money’s on Pierzynski and Thomas, but don’t rule out Everett and Morganna the Kissing Bandit either.
4. Detroit Tigers
The good news: the Tigers improved their record by 29 games over 2003, which is quite an accomplishment. The bad news: they still lost 90 games. So it goes for this dismal franchise, which is now starting to resemble that one guy at a party who drinks way too much more than anybody else. At first he’s hilarious, dancing wildly and throwing himself into potted plants, then singing along to Yaz’s “Situation” (hey, who amongst us hasn’t gotten down to Yaz after a few drinks?). But once it gets late and he starts losing control of his bodily functions, it just gets depressing, and you hope he’ll just pass out or die so you don’t have to watch him anymore. The Tigers are like that in that they used to be amusingly bad, like Last Action Hero, but now the thought of them simply induces the dry heaves, like Jingle All the Way.
El Tigres at least have a plan, in that they hope to sign as many free agents as possible to gain some respect around baseball. They know that their farm system is a nuclear wasteland, so this is the only plausible course of action. It works if they get guys like Ivan Rodriguez and Carlos Guillen. It doesn’t work if they get guys like Jason Johnson or Rondell White. They took a huge gamble on Magglio Ordonez, who suffered the same kind of knee injury that ended Bo Jackson’s career. If Ordonez does indeed stay healthy, the Tigers are probably going to improve toward .500. If he gets hurt again, the remaining four years of his contract are voided and the Tigers will say they at least gave it the old college try, as they sink back into oblivion. Of course, if Ordonez plays 150 games in 2005, then screws up his knee the next year, Detroit is left with a big, worthless contract and a whole lot of egg on its face.
In the category of redemption from notoriety that was richly undeserved, give a hand to Mike Maroth. After a hideous 2003 in which he lost 21 games and was sliced up more than an extra in Kill Bill, he put up a 2004 campaign that basically symbolized the Tigers’ improvement as a whole. Which is to say, of course, that he still wasn’t that good. But after you emit a 9-21 odor, an 11-13 record (with a 4.31 ERA) smells as enchanting as a field of roses. He benefits maybe more than anybody from his home ballpark, so he’s not even as good as his overall numbers indicate, but after the guy garnered so much press for something so negative, you like to see him prove that he’s not as bad as his image. Here’s hoping his post-20 loss career goes more like Steve Carlton’s than Brian Kingman’s.
5. Kansas City Royals
I watched the Royals play the A’s in Oakland last season in a late August game, after they had traded Carlos Beltran, and damned if I could identify more than three guys in their starting lineup…and this is from a guy who lives and breathes baseball 24/7. Basically, if I haven’t heard of you, you either suck really, really bad, or you just beamed down from Uranus and threw on a major league uniform. Mark Mulder was starting the game for Oakland, and I just figured that he’d cruise to a complete game win; the only guy in the Royals’ lineup who wasn’t an utter incompetent with the bat was Mike Sweeney. Of course, they play the games for a reason, and three hours later the Royals had won 10-3, had hit two grand slams, and had received an inexplicably solid pitching performance from something named Mike Wood. Sadly, it may have been the highlight of their season.
After surprising the league in 2003 with an apparent resurgence back into respectability, the Royals plunged back into the dumpster last year with a 104-loss campaign. It must be just awful to be a Kansas City fan. The last time this franchise was a legitimate threat, they had names like Gubicza, Saberhagen, Seitzer, and Willie Wilson. Bo Jackson was wowing the populace with his outfield acrobatics, George Brett was still taking out his rage with baseball bats on helpless urinals, and Tom Gordon was a young phenom who had yet to have a Stephen King novel named after him. It was 1989. If this same thing were going on with the Giants, I would have pulled a Cat Stevens and moved to Nepal and changed my name to Mother Shabubu a long time ago. The legendary analyst Bill James even denounced the team and defected to the Red Sox a few years ago after growing up with Kansas City. Apparently fond memories of Freddie Patek can only take you so far.
If you’re looking for someone to blame for this long era of suck, just fire a bullet into the dark and you’re bound to hit somebody responsible. There’s a rogue’s gallery of idiots who have corrupted this organization, from Allard Baird to Tony Muser to the moronic pitching coach who famously said that ERA doesn’t matter, only wins, after the Royals threw a ton of money at Storm Davis, something that went about as well Elvis Costello performing at a Pantera concert. There’s really nothing to be optimistic about, either, not even the uber-stud Zach Grienke, because I’m sure the team will screw his potential up somehow, like making him a batboy or something. The lineup you’ll see on Opening Day contains the same ratio of unknowns to knowns that I saw in Oakland that summer night. Unfortunately, it says everything you need to know about this franchise that five years from now those same unknowns will probably still be unknown.
Tuesday, April 05, 2005
Giants 4, Dodgers 2: Just Writing It Makes Me Giddy
Schmidt started off a bit rocky, giving up a leadoff homer to Cesar Izturis, of all people, but he settled down after the third and pitched like the flamethrower we all know and love, blowing assorted Chois and Phillipi away with high heat and deadly changeups.
Edgardo Alfonso hit a frozen rope home run, but the Giants' other runs came on defensive flubs by L.A., so the offense looks a tad creaky, but it's Opening Day and nothing looks too pretty without Bonds in there. Overall, a great way to begin the season.
Better than John Smoltz's start, anyway. Eegad!
Beast of the East: NL East Preview
I was going to do the trendy thing and pick the Mets to win this division, but how do you vote against the Braves? They keep on winning division titles and dominating opponents every single year despite constant roster turnover and endless naysaying from the peanut gallery. Last season, just about every known sportswriter doomed the Braves to a third place finish in the East, only to have the team blow past everyone and win 96 games. I’m not a huge Bobby Cox guy, but I guess I have to acknowledge his brilliance at this point, as well as that of Leo Mazzone, the pitching coach who has taken countless formerly mediocre pitchers and turned them into effective starters. I mean, taking the cybernetically reconstructed Jaret Wright and turning him into a top-flight hurler with a top-15 ERA can be called nothing short of miraculous, am I wrong?
Great pitching has always been the chief characteristic of the Braves’ 13 straight divisional winners, and much of the credit should go to Mazzone. His record of developing young pitchers is unmatched, and he helped turn Tom Glavine and John Smoltz into borderline Hall of Famers. He got great years out of guys like Kevin Millwood and the aforementioned Wright, and even his failures have ended up being terminally hopeless cases like Terrell Wade that have fallen under the radar. Now Mazzone gets to work with Tim Hudson, which is like letting Martin Scorsese work with Olivier. They’re both already brilliant on their own, but put them together and they form some sort of superhuman monster bent on destroying the league and making mincemeat of opposing hitters, and only the first round of the playoffs can hope to stop them.
Wait, did I just say the first round of the playoffs? D’oh! The rolling Braves juggernaut just stumbled to a stop and died at the mere mention of that most vile of adversaries, the NLDS. In the past three years the Braves have been ousted in the first round, and have begun to pick up a choke artist reputation that would make Albert DeSalvo proud. You might say that the first round is the Kryptonite to the Braves’ Superman, the Sherlock Holmes to their Moriarty, the Dio to their Black Sabbath, the Hiding Out to John Cryer’s movie career.
It’s hard to really say why this team hits such a wall when they enter the playoffs. Is it bad luck? Does Bobby Cox suddenly turn into a Larry Bowa-esque numbskull once the playoffs start? Does Leo Mazzone’s bizarre rocking get so frantic that his players are thrown off their collective gourd by it? I think the latter is certainly plausible. I see it as highly likely that Gary Sheffield’s 1 for 16 performance in the 2002 NLDS against the Giants occurred because every time Sheff got up to the plate, he’d see, out of the corner of his eye, Mazzone rocking away on the bench. The constant sight of this surely got into Sheffield’s brain like Norman Bates and his mother. It’d drive me crazy, too. Of course, this team won the World Series in 1995 and made it back in 1996 and 1999, so most likely their strange collapses in the first round are a product of a confluence of bad luck, tough breaks, and tough pitching. It’s also possible that they just flat out weren’t as good as the teams they were facing, an easy answer that somehow flies under the radar amidst the accusations of choking.
2. New York Mets
Despite being a West Coast native, I will always have a place in my heart for the New York Mets. When I was very little and just getting interested in baseball, the Frank Cashen/Davey Johnson Mets were just entering the end of their prime. My dad was a huge Giants fan but for some reason I loved the Mets and, in particular, Darryl Strawberry. The Mets of that era were sort of a team that I grew up with. I would play backyard baseball, emulating Strawberry’s high leg kick, Doc Gooden’s blazing fastball, Keith Hernandez’s peerless glovework, Tim Teufel’s single-minded hustle, and even Kevin McReynolds’ apathetic slugging. Those Mets fielded some of the most colorful teams you would ever see. They were a mixed bag in terms of personality, with sleazebags (Lenny Dykstra) and pretty boys (Ron Darling) mixed with goody-goody choirboys (Gary Carter) and borderline psychos (Kevin Mitchell). Those Mets won a World Series in 1986 and a division title in 1988, and from 1984 to 1990 they only won less than 90 games only once. The team was assembled brilliantly from top to bottom with deft trades and astute drafting; free agency was hardly a factor. Stars Hernandez and Carter were brought in via trade and Strawberry, Gooden, Mitchell, Dykstra, Wally Backman, Jesse Orosco, Roger McDowell, and Mookie Wilson were amazingly all products of the Mets’ rich farm system. Their success was a testament to brilliant execution in the front office, of competently evaluating talented players and building a dominant team from top to bottom without having to shell out the major bucks to big name players.
The 2005 Mets certainly are not constructed this way. Tired of being mired in quicksand for the past four years, the Mets decided to pull out all the stops to get back into contention by throwing gobs of money at free agents everywhere. New GM Omar Minaya, apparently peeved over being depicted as a complete and utter tool in Moneyball, set out to recruit every living free agent in the offseason by luring them in with promises of big bucks and bright lights. The new bottomless well of payroll must have seemed like some sort of epiphany for Minaya, who had spent the past four years being quashed under the collective boot of 29 MLB owners with the Expos. With enormous sums of cash now at his disposal, he must have felt like Michael Jackson at Chuck-E-Cheese. So who does he sign with this money? Only Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez, the former being one of the premier players in the game, the latter being arguably the best pitcher in baseball since 1997. The team even went after Carlos Delgado like mad but, after falling short in these efforts, settled on trading for Stankeye fave and spelling bee nemesis Doug Mientkiewicz.
Do these moves mean that the 2005 Mets will suddenly dominate the National League like their 1980’s predecessors? Let me be as delicate as I can in answering that: BWA-HA-HA-HA!! Sorry, I love Beltran and Pedro as much as anyone, but they aren’t enough to magically turn a mediocre team into a great one, especially since Beltran’s numbers have been somewhat inflated by friendly ballparks and Martinez is basically a six-inning pitcher hitting his decline phase. The Mets have too many rotation and bullpen holes to contend for a title, and their lineup is filled with guys who are either injured half the time (Mike Piazza or Cliff Floyd) or whiffing half the time (Mike Cameron). The offseason moves made by Minaya are enough to get this team over .500, and the Mets should battle the Braves at least until September. But their magic button attempt to win a quick championship using money of C. Montgomery Burns proportions will fall short for the time being because of some silly past moves (Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano…what were they thinking???).
3. Florida Marlins
Forget a hare-brained Marlins-themed retread of Monty Python’s incomprehensible “Find the Fish” bit from The Meaning of Life, the Marlins are currently stuck in the middle of a game of “Find the Fans.” You’d think that a World Championship and a group of fresh-faced, talented pitching arms anchored by media darling Dontrelle Willis would help bring Miami fans to Pro Player Stadium in droves, but the team drew an anemic 21,000 per game last season. Apathy like this is what has owner Jeffrey Loria visiting cities like Portland and Las Vegas, implying with a wink and a nod that a baseball franchise would look just snappy in the middle of their respective municipalities.
Of course, Marlins fans have had a lot of reason to stay away, starting with everybody’s favorite Emperor Palpatine doppleganger H. Wayne Huizenga’s nuking of the Marlin championship team in 1998. Fans were understandably bitter, because Huizenga’s mass whizzing on the Miami populace came as a result of anger over not being able to get a new ballpark secured using taxpayer money. The fans have since never truly come back, except for a minor blip in the championship 2003 season, partly because Huizenga still has his grubby mitts all over the franchise, but mostly over bitterness remaining from ’98 and apathy. It’s a shame, because this team has a decent nucleus and some fine talent in the pitching staff, and Marlin fans showed in 1997 that they could be some of the most loyal and rambunctious of any in baseball. Sadly, the story of the Florida Marlins looks to have a Montreal Expos/Charlotte Hornets-esque unhappy ending. Expect to see the Las Vegas Dogfish taking the field in 2008 or something.
As for the team itself, they have some young arms to drool over, but their offense fell off a cliff last season and never came back in one piece for the next scene a la Wile E. Coyote. To the consternation of exactly no one, trading for Juan Encarnacion at the trade deadline did nothing to help. After utilizing a speed/power offensive game that terrorized the NL in 2003, the Marlins were less effective on the basepaths and had several glaring holes in the lineup, like Jeff Conine, Mike Redmond, Alex Gonzalez, and Paul LoDuca’s evil second-half twin. Signing Carlos Delgado is certainly a step towards a remedy, and with Mike Lowell and Miguel Cabrera it sets up a fearsome middle of the order. Now if only they could just not play LoDuca for the first half of the year and just plain not play Gonzalez, they’d really be on to something.
As for the young arms, Josh Beckett keeps getting hurt but he’s primed for a Curt Schilling-in-1997 type of breakout soon; the Marlins hope it’s this year. A.J. Burnett has J.R. Richard-type talent, but he’s a victim of Jeff Torborg’s hideous abuse and always finds himself sidelined with some sort of injury. Willis is overrated because of the media circus that surrounded him during his rookie year, but as a third starter he’s pretty nifty, and bringing in Al Leiter was deft. So only injury can keep this from being one of the best pitching staffs in the league, and the Marlins should battle with the Braves and Mets for right to represent the NL East in the postseason until the slugs at the bottom of their batting order do them in once again.
4. Philadelphia Phillies
Somewhere, deep underneath the streets of the City of Brotherly Love, trudging through pungent, rat-infested sewer lines, knee deep in sludge and unmentionable waste products, a group of courageous preteens make their way towards the subterranean center of the city, swallowing their fears as they prepare to confront and destroy the evil heart of the alien scourge of Philly, known by the earthly moniker of Larry Bowa, which has been terrorizing the Phillies for the past several years. After a courageous battle, the evil is exorcised, and the thing known as Bowa is gone forever. The city of Philadelphia can live on in peace, enjoying a fresh new start for their beloved Phillies in a lovely new ballpark.
Larry Bowa’s inexplicably long tenure with the Phils has mercifully ended, and not a moment too soon. Bowa did enough in his four years as manager to get tarred and feathered in a public square, much less get fired. All of his players absolutely hated him, and this had to play some sort of role in this talented team not making the playoffs at all, and choking down the stretch run at least a few times. Bowa’s abrasive and standoffish personality rubbed almost everybody the wrong way, to the point where Phillies players must have been packing silencers with their equipment before each game, just in case things reached the boiling point.
We all know Bowa is intense, but there’s intense in the good Scott Skiles way, where that intensity rubs off on the players because of the manager’s leadership skills or his charisma. Then there’s intense in the bad, Bobby Knight way, in which your desire to win involves screaming at your players and waving soiled toilet paper around in the air to demonstrate what the team has been playing like. In an anonymous Sports Illustrated player poll taken a few years ago, MLB players voted Bowa the worst manager in the league by a wide margin. If this isn’t a ringing damnation, I don’t know what is. The fact that Bowa was kept around for so long, despite the fact that his players were virtually on their hands and knees begging for him to get canned, is perplexing. Maybe he carried that 1977-80 powerhouse Phillies-era magic with him, or maybe he made a deal thirty years ago that if he shaved off the silly mustache he wore back then he’d be made manager of the Phillies one day. Charlie Manuel takes over as manager now, which is interesting because he’s almost the exact opposite of Bowa. I just wish for one thing before I die, and that’s the sight of Philly Phanatic paddling a sore-assed Bowa with a giant oar in front of a packed Citizens Bank Park, in punishment for the sins of his managerial career.
As with the past three years, the Phils are the trendy preseason pick to win the East. I don’t see it. Their lineup is good, but not good enough to support a pitching staff that is going to get eaten alive in that bandbox called Citizens Bank Park. Jon Lieber and Corey Lidle might seem like reasonable solutions, but come July and their ERAs are at 5 and rising with the humid summer temperature, the notoriously cranky Philly fans will begin to lose patience. Then again, they might just be happy with a one-year honeymoon period of liberation from the grip of Bowa.
5. Washington Nationals
Welcome to the exclusive premiere of Jim Bowden’s Series of Mind-Numbingly Idiotic Events! It stars Vinny Castilla for two years and $6.2 million, Christian Guzman and $16.8 million, Esteban Loaiza and $4 million! See the newly relocated team make lots of outs, give up lots of runs, and score as often as Napolean Dynamite! It’s the Nation’s Capitol, home to smarmy politicians, Karl Rove’s unabashed evil, and now a last place, terminally boring dead fish franchise further undermined by a goofy GM’s spacy offseason moves! See what you’re missing, Montreal?
After a half decade of brazenly kicking sand in the faces of Expo fans in Montreal, Major League Baseball finally signed off on the team’s long-awaited move to Washington, giving the nation’s capital its first MLB franchise since the Washington Senators became the Texas Rangers in 1972. Usually when a franchise makes a move like this there’s at least some sort of optimism from the city on the receiving end of the new team, with the idea that moving somehow equals winning. Not this time. Everybody from Dulles, Virginia to Annapolis, Maryland has pretty much resigned themselves to the fact that the Nationals are going to be a dismal team for this year and each foreseeable one following it. If the club had settled on a GM who had any idea what he was doing, the road to competition might not be so long or painful. Sadly, that isn’t the case with Jim Bowden, who signed useless fodder like Castilla and Guzman to onerous contracts instead of focusing on players who might, you know, help this team return to decency.
I can empathize with Bowden a little, though. With the move to a new locale, there’s a temptation to make an instant splash with the new fans by signing recognizable names. Vinny Castilla led the league in RBIs last year and Guzman played on winning Twins teams for the past four years. The problem is that these guys just aren’t very good. Castilla was abysmal away from Coors Field’s warm embrace last season, and his RBI title was more an indication of the mashing going on around him than anything he did. Castilla’s career away from Colorado has been less than inspiring.
As for Guzman, there is nothing even remotely deceptive about his stats in the past couple of years; he just plain blows. This signing is the crème-de-la-crème of craziness in a winter rife with strange moves. However, I do believe Bowden is smarter than this. I truly believe that he realizes that two years of Brendan Harris at a bargain basement price is better than two years of Vinny at over 3 mil. I’m sure he also realizes that four years of Pennywise the Dancing Clown is better than the same of Guzman at 4 mil. It’s just that many people think name value alone will bring fans to the ballpark, and this is the trap Bowden fell into. The best thing to ensure consistent attendance, of course, is winning baseball, and the Nats won’t be offering much of that in the next few years thanks in no small part to Mr. Bowden.
Monday, April 04, 2005
All Hope Abandon, Ye Who Enter Here: 2005 Giants Bullpen
I’m happy to report that the 2005 incarnation of the Giants bullpen will be better than the 2004 version, but that’s really just saying Fever Pitch will be better than Gigli; once you’ve hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up. The signing of a solid closer in Armando Benitez should create a kind of domino effect on the entire bullpen, so instead of having Herges coming in for a key spot in the 8th inning, he should only have to be used during mop-up situations, and Jim Brower’s ample workload should be reduced.
But even with the improvements, I hate to say, this is still not a very solid pen. Benitez is stud material, but the rest of the guys are groundball/nibbler-types, and those are not the kind of pitchers you want making up a championship-caliber bullpen. The most effective kind of bullpen is a group of flamethrowers or high strikeout guys like the Giants had in 1998-2002. The bullpen is still a weakness, but as Joe Cabot would say in Reservoir Dogs, the only thing you can do in this situation is s*** your pants, dive in, and swim. So with clothespin fastened firmly to my nose, I’ll delve into each individual bullpen member. If I don’t return in 20 minutes, assume I’m dead and call William L. Petersen.
Armando Benitez I think I’ve already made clear my distaste for paying “Proven Closers” a lot of money. In my opinion, you can take any guy who throws hard and who can strike guys out, and he’ll be an effective closer. The whole “closer mentality” thing is nothing more than media-fed dreck that has somehow made its way into everyday baseball conversation. If you don’t have the mental toughness to get three outs in a pressure situation, how the hell did you even make it to the big leagues in the first place? There’s usually a more reasonable explanation for why some guys fail when they become closers, and usually that reason is that they suck (see Herges, Matt). So when some team shells out a lot of money to keep a Danys Baez on the basis of his 30 saves, it make me shake my head, because there’s probably some poor dope out there somewhere who can be had for nothing who is better.
But after seeing the Giants bullpen reenact Waterloo again and again last year, the 21.5 million for 3 years of Armando Benitez seems plenty reasonable. Yeah, it’s probably too much money, but if it means stability in the 8th and 9th innings, I’ll take it. Benitez has a reputation for coughing up big hits in big situations (J.T. Snow, anyone?), but his most egregious failings came when he was still a young hothead with the Orioles. It’s not like he’s Jose Mesa or anything. His strikeout rates fell last year and he certainly won’t post another ERA in the ones, but so what? He still throws hard as hell and has a nasty slider to back up the heat; opponents hit .152 against him last year for cryin’ out loud. Upgrading the bullpen was the most pressing offseason need for Brian Sabean and he got the best available reliever, and it should go a long way toward improving the Giants’ playoff chances.
Jim Brower It’s probably goofy to say that a middle reliever was one of the Giants’ most valuable players last season, but Brower might have been just that. His ability to throw multiple innings late in games and hold the fortress down while the offense did tis thing was a huge lift for the team, at least until the nitro-loaded Matt Herges train came barreling in to blow everything sky high. His 3.29 ERA was well below his career norms, and his WHIP was higher than you’d expect, so don’t look for a repeat, but there’s no reason Brower can’t at least be as effective as he was in 2003. Limiting his appearances would be nice also, since Brower led the league with 89 games pitched, and I can’t imagine his arm taking to well to that.
I love Brower and all, and I think he’s one hell of a gamer, but when you realize that he’s the team’s second-best reliever, it gives you a good idea of what we’re dealing with in this bullpen.
Scott Eyre Is there any job more cushy than generic LOOGY-dom? The pay is good, the benefits are great, you only have to face one or two batters per appearance, and if by chance you post a flukishly low ERA (see Cormier, Rheal), you can make a whole lot of money dished out by short-sighted front office people. Eyre is well aware of the perks of being a LOOGY, having been the recipient of a juicy 2 year/2.45 million deal before 2004. Of course, LOOGYs are a dime a dozen, but do you really think Eyre gives that a second thought as he cruises Lombard Street in his shiny Mercedes?
Eyre does what he does, getting lefties out by the bushel, holding them to a .608 OPS last year. I’m sure he’ll do the same thing again this year, but if he somehow cuts his ERA by two runs and Sabean is impressed enough to give him another raise, I’m going to hock a LOOGY on Sabean’s doorstep.
Matt Herges I’ve been dumping on poor Herges a lot in this post, so let me retract a little bit. Herges has been a very effective relief pitcher for the majority of his career, and he dealt in his half-season with the Giants in 2003. Last year, though, for whatever reason he was so unbelievably bad that Mark Dewey would have had a coronary at the sight of him. Instead of filling in nicely for Robb Nen and Tim Worrell, he conjured up memories of Tim Scott and Chris Hook. Maybe the whole closer mentality theory applies to Herges and he in fact doesn’t have to juice to close. Or maybe he’s just plain awful. I can’t see him being any worse than he was last year, and hopefully low-leverage innings will bring him back to the solid pitcher he was with the Dodgers and Padres. If he’s back in the closer role next season, though, one of two things is going on: A) The Giants are in last place, or B) Felipe Alou has lost his mind and has begun wearing ladies’ dresses in the dugout, prompting an unexpected clubhouse visit/beatdown by erstwhile crappy pitcher/homophobe Todd Jones.
Jason Christiansen The second LOOGY in the Giants' pen, though Christiansen makes Scott Eyre look like Willie Hernandez circa 1984. He walked more batters than he struck out last year and he hasn't been any good since Tommy John surgery in 2001, so I don't see what the Giants were thinking by bringing him back for a million bucks when any lefty off the scrap heap would have done just as good a job. When you're a one-dimensional lefty who can't get left-handed counterparts out, you cease to be a LOOGY and become cannon fodder.
Tyler Walker Taken off the dung heap last year, he provided 64 bland innings. Sometimes he looked great, sometimes he had no idea where the ball was going. He was much better on the road than at home for some reason, so look for his ERA to drop a little this season, but he's pretty much a sponge who shouldn't be used in high-leverage situations. His upside is Julian Tavarez's 1997, without the idiocy.
Jeff Fassero I guess it was only natural that this ancient fossil would find himself on the Giants' team of crotchety old curmudgeons. At first glance, it's easy to dismiss Fassero's 5.46 ERA as a Coors Field-aided aberration. His road ERA was a shiny 3.23. However, the guy is 43 years old and was horrid when pitching on Planet Earth in 2003. It's possible that he could defy the odds and give the Giants around 60-80 innings of solid relief with an ERA under 4. Of course, it's also possible that I might get a date with Jessica Alba. It's possible that Michael Bay's next movie might not suck. It's possible that George W. Bush could make an intelligent foreign policy decision. It just isn't likely. So let's temper our already low expectations and hope to see Jesse Foppert back on the major league roster by June, and Fassero cracking open a Corona in retirement somewhere.
Two-Headed Monster: AL East Predictions
1. New York Yankees
Quick recap of the Yanks’ 2004 season: They nab Gary Sheffield in the offseason and, despite the loss of their slugging first baseman to a plethora of maladies, roll to a relatively easy division title behind an incredible offense and an unhittable closer. Then they devastate the Twins with two comeback victories in the Division Series and go up 3-0 in the ALCS against the hated Red Sox, setting up a trip to the World Series for the sixth time in seven years. Yankee fans gloat, cheer, and dance around in their usual ape-like manner in anticipation of another rout of their erstwhile whipping boys.
As it so happens, the ghosts of Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Dick Drago, Jim Lonborg, Carlton Fisk, and Bill Buckner all suddenly show up to give the Yankees the spiritual de-pantsing they’ve had coming to them for 80 years. The Yanks fall apart, dropping four straight games with a combination of bad pitching, bullpen flameouts, Tony Clark’s hapless flailing, and Alex Rodriguez’s last-ditch attempt to put a patent on the Robert Fick Clothesline Move on Bronson Arroyo. After years of taunting the Sox with chants of “26”, “1918”, and “Who’s your Daddy?” the Yanks go and perform history’s greatest collapse. It’s the kind of poetic justice you just can’t find anywhere but baseball and no team deserves it more than this group. It’s a special kind of indignity when the ’64 Phillies and the ’69 Cubs can look down on you and laugh hysterically. I’m sure that after the Yanks were pummeled in Game 7, George Steinbrenner retreated to his bunker and, with George Costanza no longer around to blame the team’s blunders on, began berating cowering batboys like they were the hideous, illegitimate love children of Dave Winfield and Ed Whitson. Steinbrenner is the kind of guy who goes into meltdown mode if his team wins the World Series in five games instead of four. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be on the receiving end of a Big Stein tongue-lashing after last October’s debacle.
In the post-mortem dissection of the ALCS, GM Brian Cashman astutely realized that pitching was the key factor in the historic collapse, and, backed by Steinbrenner’s “screw the luxury tax” spending philosophy, he nabbed starters Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright to fill the holes in the starting rotation.
Wait, is that laughter I hear? What’s that you say? Pavano is an injury-prone 30-year old who has low strikeout rates and who put up superficially good numbers last season because he played in the NL, in a pitcher’s park? Wright is a head case with an injury history that would make J.D. Drew do a double-take, and who has had one good year in the last six? Well, now that you mention it, I guess it is kind of funny. Usually the Yanks go out and pay an arm and a leg for a Carlos Beltran-type and go to war with that, while the other teams in the market simply cry poverty and wave their middle fingers in the air. Now they go and get these guys, with Tony Womack and the ghost of Tino Martinez thrown in for good measure. OK, you were right, it is pretty hilarious that Cashman would think these guys are the missing link in a championship run. My sides are officially splitting. Big Stein has lost his touch. So much for the Yankee dynasty.
Hold on, I’m getting a message from a little bird in my ear. There’s one other guy they got, too. Big guy, 6’10’’, looks sorta like a mad stork, throws 100 mph with a slider from Hell. Hall of Famer-type, I hear. Oh yeah, now I remember his name: Randy Johnson.
So the Yanks are the same old Yanks. Don’t win a championship? That’s okay, we’ll
just corner the superstar market and exploit our ceiling-less payroll to get the best players in the game. Pavano and Wright may be overrated and overpaid, but as third and fourth starters behind the Big Unit, that’s pretty deep. As for any idea that Randy will succumb to the pressures of the Bronx: fuggetaboutit! Add the improved pitching behind that same monstrous hitting (no, even Womack isn’t bad enough to slow this offensive beast down) and you’ve got your division champions for the eighth consecutive year.
2. Boston Red Sox
To be honest, even with the Sox up by three runs in Game 4 of the World Series, with two outs and nobody on in the ninth, I still thought they were going to blow it. I mean, we’ve seen so many inexplicable things happen to the Red Sox over the years, from Mike Torrez’s ill-fated encounter with Bucky Dent, to Bill Buckner’s fumble and Calvin Schiraldi’s doe-in-the-headlights act in 1986, that it was just natural to expect something crazy to happen. I just had a gut feeling that Trot Nixon would get nailed in the eye by falling bird stool and drop a fly ball, enabling the winning runs to score, and the Cards would go on to win the series. But nothing happened. Keith Foulke closed out the Cards without incident and Terry Francona didn’t repeat John McNamara’s famous Buckner/Stapleton gaffe by getting his defensive specialist in at first base and getting Queer Eye reclamation project Kevin Millar the hell out of there. And indeed, the Sox won the World Series for the first time since 1918. Pandemonium struck, frogs fell from the sky, dogs and cats started living together. Mass hysteria.
And guess what, Sox fans, the 2005 team looks even better. Instead of “Schilling and Pedro and pray for El Nino”, you’ve got Matt Clement, David Wells, and Wade Miller (if healthy) filling out the rotation, a huge step up from the charred corpses known as Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield from last year. They didn’t lose anything in the lineup and they’ve still got a decent enough bullpen, so it’ll basically be a two-team race with the Yankees for the pennant again this year. Who will win this clash of the titans? Come on, you don’t honestly think the Sox will do it twice in a row do you?
The Yanks had their slip-up, like a Halo 2 champ getting careless and letting the naïve rookie start whooping ass with that power sword-thingy (God, I hate that thing so much). But now the Yanks will simply begin a new era of terror against the Sox, because that’s just the way it’s supposed to be. It’s Chaos Theory, or some such nonsense like that spouted by Jeff Goldblum. Every once in a while, like in 2004, a wrench is thrown into the works, and the system gets all screwed up. But soon life rights itself and the same bad things start to happen again to the BoSox. Aaron Boone will be traded back to the Yanks for the sole purpose of ripping the collective hearts out of Boston fans with a killer home run, yet again. Bucky Dent will eventually be reincarnated into someone even smaller, who’s an even worse hitter, and who has an even goofier name, and will once again beat the Red Sox with a shocking gopher ball. Just as dogs chase cats, the Yanks beating the Red Sox has become a fact of life, a necessity, if you will. It’s all pre-ordained, so enjoy it while it lasts, Sox fans, because the Great Famine Part Deux now begins. Of course, I’m not sure what Ruthian event would trigger this drought; the only guy they traded away was their backup first baseman, who stole the championship ball to stick on his own trophy case. Maybe they’ll attribute it to the Curse of the Mientkiewicz.
3. Baltimore Orioles
Even with the sour aftertaste of Syd Thrift’s reign of boobery washing away, the Orioles are still stuck behind the Yanks and Red Sox once again, and there’s really no reason to think they’ll rise from underneath those teams’ shadows anytime soon. Hey, that’s what you get for awarding a big, fat contract to a big, fat Sidney Ponson to be your “ace.” Pitching is the big problem here, especially starting pitching. The Orioles spent a lot of money last offseason on Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, and Rafael Palmeiro, and those guys certainly didn’t disappoint. The problem was that the O’s failed to address their rotation needs, and as a result they were stuck with whomever Lee Mazzili picked out of a hat to start a given game. They certainly have some high-potential guys (Eric Bedard, Matt Riley, Danny Cabrera), but those same guys didn’t look ready last year and 2005 projects to be another season of early-inning visits to the pitcher’s mound for our favorite Italian Stallion. At least he can leave Ponson out there to eat some innings, because Ponson is durable, and also because he carries a newly acquired rep for giving unprovoked poundings to authority figures. So if you ever find yourself questioning a Mazzili decision to leave Sir Sidney on the mound during one of his frequent impersonations of cannon fodder, just realize it’s due to self-preservation, not bad managing.
The big story of the Baltimore offseason was the team’s hosing of the Cubs for Sammy Sosa. Yes, you better believe the Orioles made out like bandits in this deal. Sure, the Cubs were being held at gunpoint to deal Sosa, and the formerly genial Slammin’ Sammy has been outed as a malcontent. And, yeah, lots of writers whined about Sosa’s decline and whatnot, but come on, people, even if he does decline a little more, he’s good for 35-40 homers and above average run production. He certainly looks like a major upgrade when you remember that the Orioles were trotting out the likes of B.J. Surhoff, Larry Bigbie, and Luis Matos out there every day. I mean, even Dave Matthews’ worst songs sound like fine art after you’ve been listening to John Mayer whining for hours on end. And they got Sosa for the low-low price of Jerry Hairston Jr. and some C-grade prospects. That, friends and neighbors, is a spicy meatball. It might not be Milt Pappas for Frank Robinson, but it’s at the very least a good one-year rental deal. Sosa will look pretty scary to opposing pitchers when batting around Tejada, Lopez, Melvin Mora, and Palmeiro, at the mention of whom, I wonder if they have pills to stimulate your career instead of your…well, never mind. 85 wins is probably a reasonable goal here, and considering the dismal outlook this franchise had just two years ago, I’d say that would be quite an achievement.
4. Tampa Bay Devil Rays
If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it. At the trade deadline, D-Rays GM Chuck LaMar, long the Ralph Wiggum of MLB front office execs, traded starter Victor Zambrano to the Mets for stud pitching prospect Scott Kazmir. Kazmir, despite being a high school draftee, something that gives sabermetric-types heart palpitations at the slightest mention, is projected by most scouts to be a wicked Steve Carlton-type, and his numbers thus far have backed up the hype. Zambrano was a mediocre starter who issued more free passes than a roadie at a Bread comeback tour. In short, it was a colossal steal, a trade that, ten years from now, might look like Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi. And yes, it was Chuck Lame-ar who orchestrated the deal. Not since George W. Bush beat John McCain in the 2000 primaries has there been such an instance of a half-wit getting the best of an intellectual superior. It was truly an inexplicable upset, something you never thought you’d see in a million years, like the talking gorilla in Congo besting Stephen Hawking in a game of chess. After years of Kevin Stocker-for-Bobby Abreu-type foibles and disastrous Greg Vaughn signings, LaMar shocks us all with this masterpiece.
Of course, in typical Devil Ray fashion, Kazmir, just like Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli, was rushed to the majors and now the team will have to worry about arbitration and paying him free agent money that much earlier. It’s the kind of short-sighted move that has become a mainstay of this franchise. There’s also the inherent injury risk involved in tossing a 19-year old out to the wolves in the major leagues, and Lou Pinella has been especially dangerous to the arms of young pitchers in his managing career (somewhere Jose Rijo reads this and begins to weep). In case you hadn’t noticed already, the Devil Rays aren’t the most competent franchise in the world. Basically, the Kazmir deal was an aberration, a coincidental blip of brilliance on the radar, or a “Waiting for a Girl Like You”-like fluke in Foreigner’s long list of crap.
For every good move by the D-rays there’s about ten pointless signings of a Roberto Alomar or an Alex Gonzalez to negate it. For every shrewd draft pick there is a hideous contract given to a Danys Baez to send loyal fans running for the paper bags. Most franchises, even those in the dark ages, have a plan, whether it be a full-blown rebuilding project or a quick-success scheme via free agency. The Devil Rays are taking whacks at an imaginary piñata in the dark, just hoping something might go right if they swing hard enough. This franchise is, to quote a great U2 song, running to stand still. Even the young guys keep being rushed to the majors, and management has a strange knack for labeling potentially solid major leaguers like Jonny Gomes (who Baseball Prospectus shockingly has projected as the fifth best left fielder in 2005!) as Quadruple-A vagabonds without giving them a chance. There’s also no pitching, and signing guys like Denny Neagle and his lurid rap sheet certainly do nothing to remedy the problem. So even when Chuck Lamar does miraculously make a Day the Earth Stood Still-style masterpiece, it doesn’t hide the fact that the rest of his history is an Ed Wood film festival.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however, at least not unless they completely screw things up. Devil Ray fans (all five of them, according to the latest census, though three of them might have actually been dead or have since gone into the Witness Protection Program) do have something to be optimistic about. The team has a nice batch of youth coming in, like the aforementioned Kazmir, Baldelli, Crawford, B.J. Upton (whose initials stand for Bossman Jr., quite possibly the most badass baseball name ever), and even Joey Gathright. These guys can already play, and a couple (most likely Upton and Kazmir) should develop into bona fide stars. So in a couple of years the famous Tampa Bay heckler might actually be able to go to some games to root a winning team on, not just to get under Erubiel Durazo’s skin for a cheap laugh. By the way, if you’ve never watched a Devil Ray game and had the pleasure of hearing this heckler guy pick on a random player on the opposing team for the duration of a series, you’re missing some great theater. He just sits there and screams during the whole time his target player is at bat, causing his victim to repeatedly shoot perplexed glares up into the stands, wondering why in the world they’re being picked on by this guy. It’s the most hilarious thing you’ll see in a baseball game, outside of maybe watching Calvin Pickering leg out a double.
The Rays should inch their way out of the Eastern Division cellar for the second year in a row. While that’s more of a commentary on the Blue Jays than anything else, it’s certainly the kind of positive vibration that this franchise has had their ear to the tracks listening for unsuccessfully for a while now.
5. Toronto Blue Jays
The following is a transcript of an interview I had with the mascot for the Toronto Blue Jays, whom I feel best represents the franchise as a whole. Not J.P. Ricciardi, not Roy Halliday, but the freaking mascot. Yes, I thrive on being unconventional. Or, as the prestigious journalists of the world call it, pathetic. During the interview, the mascot’s words were rather muffled under his big costume, and it seemed as though he might collapse from heat stroke at any second, but I think I got the gist of it.
JR: Hi, Mr. Jay, I want to thank you for joining me. Isn’t it hot in that suit? You must be boiling.
TB: Man, I’ll tell you, I’m sweating like Roger Ebert underneath this wool. But it’s my job. I have to represent the franchise, no matter what damage it does to my hygiene or how much weight I lose due to dehydration under this god-awful thing. ‘Cause I’m Mr. Jay!
JR: (smiles and laughs politely) Well, you smell like crap. First, with the move of the Expos, how does it feel now to be the only Canadian franchise in Major League Baseball?
TB: Well, we never considered the Expos a real franchise anyway. (chuckles) But seriously, we think it’s pretty prestigious. I mean, now only we can lay claim to a bunch of disgruntled athletes bitching about their kids having to learn Canadian instead of U.S. history.
JR: Does it feel good to know that in the 27 years since the two franchises were born, you not only outlasted them, but won two championships and made the playoffs several times, while the Expos didn’t ever make a World Series?
TB: (laughs) Well, I think you have to blame Rick Monday for that.
JR: (laughs) Oh yeah, the guy who rescued the American Flag from a couple of hippies at Wrigley Field that one time! That was pretty patriotic, don’t you think?
TB: Well, for you, perhaps, but I’m Canadian, so I’m rather laid back and apathetic to the whole thing, as we Canadians tend to be. And it wasn’t my country so it didn’t affect me, really.
JR: Oh, yeah I guess that would be true…you lousy bastard.
JR: Oh, I just said, uh, your last year. As in…in your year last year you guys fell to 94 losses after it looked as though the franchise might be coming out from a prolonged spell of mediocrity. With Billy Beane-alum J.P. Riccardi calling the shots, and a stud offense to boot, it looked as though you might actually challenge the Yanks and Sox after coming off an 88-win season. But you guys fell apart. What gives?
TB: Well, I hate to play the blame game, but you have to remember that we lost Carlos Delgado and Roy Halliday to injuries, and that pretty much derailed our season from the get-go. Greg Myers and Frank Catalanatto got hurt. Vernon Wells hit a season-long slump and Orlando Hudson hit like…well, Orlando Hudson. You get where I’m going with this. We had all kinds of bad luck. I mean, we had Gregg freaking Zaun starting at catcher or DH half the time. Gregg Zaun!!! Add to that a crappy pitching staff and that’s where you get your 94 losses, my friend.
JR: Do you think you’ve made any improvements for this season?
TB: Well, we’ve got Halliday back and healthy. Corey Koskie is a solid hitter and a great fielder, plus he’s a local boy. Wells is bound to bounce back. (a shrug) Sure, we lost Delgado, but Shea Hillenbrand is…er, good, I think. (an uncomfortable pause) Then there’s Russ Adams, who, um, might be as good as Eckstein. Then we get to…(throws up hands in disgust) Ah, who am I kidding? We were horrible last year and we’re going to suck butt again this year. We’ve got no hitting, no pitching, no bullpen, no plan! Ricciardi doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing! Shea Hillenbrand? What the hell is that? I thought J.P. was a sabermetric guy, and I thought those guys hated Hillenbrand, with good reason! I…I can’t take it anymore! (begins tugging savagely at his costume) Get this (expletive) thing off me!
JR: Um, Mr. Jay, we’re in the middle of an interview and with all due respect…
TB: Hey, (expletive) you, buddy! Why am I talking to you? I’m tired of this awful franchise, and this hideous job! I get paid less than twenty grand a year to demean myself in front of some sick kids and to talk to hack journalists like you! I’m sick of it! I don’t have to answer to any of you! I’m going back to Wal-Mart! Where’s my bourbon?
It was at this point that Mr. Jay stormed out of the room in a foaming huff, ignoring the pleas of the Toronto PR ladies who were trying to restrain the demented mascot for fear of their high-paying jobs. As Mr. Jay left the building, he apparently screamed obscenities at some autograph-seekers, took a swing at a crippled panhandler, and drove off before smashing into a police car Randy Moss-style. He’s now serving two weeks in a local jail, bird suit and all. Ugly, ugly stuff.
There you have it. You know a franchise isn’t in its best days when the team mascot flies into a psychotic rage during a simple Q&A session. But when you weed through the manic, mescaline-induced (we can only assume) ravings, Mr. Jay is right. This is one bad team. The Jays lost Delgado and will replace him with Eric Hinske, which is even worse than bringing in Danny Glover to replace Schwarzenegger for Predator 2. Halliday and Ted Lilly are good, but behind those two the pitching drops off a cliff and the lineup is easily the worst in the division. And the less said about the bullpen the better (I’ll restrain myself from snide Jason Frasor/Dr. Frasier Crane comparisons for now). Ricciardi is a smart man and knows that a rebuilding project is the only thing that will save grace here. If he follows the Billy Beane model then the process should go quicker than usual, which would be fortunate for fans, and for the sake of poor Mr. Jay.
(NL East tomorrow)