Thursday, April 14, 2005
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?
'Thought & Humor'
Harvard Humor Club