Thursday, April 14, 2005


NL Central Preview

1. Chicago Cubs
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.
A: (groans)
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

(Guitar Solo)

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”.

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