Friday, April 08, 2005

 

Send in the Clowns: AL Central Preview

1. Minnesota Twins
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.

Comments:
At the A's/Royals game last Aug. 13th that you mentioned (the 10-3 Royals victory), on the ESPN highlights of the game they featured a grand slam by Abraham Nunez that broke the game open. Right after the grand slam, they showed a picture of a guy in a Royals jersey and hat, jumping up and clapping his hands.

That was me.

It's nice to come to an A's game, get picked on some by A's fans for wearing the Royals gear, then see your team smack the living crap out of the home team all while being shown on t.v. whooping it up.

BTW, the Royals' future is hardly as bad as you've pointed out. I could go into detail, but the fact remains that it isn't rosy, either -- it just fails to be miserable. Just don't be surprised if they aren't in the cellar come season's end, and are contending for a division title in 2006, and winning it in 2007.
 
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