Tuesday, April 05, 2005


Beast of the East: NL East Preview

1. Atlanta Braves
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.

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