Monday, April 04, 2005


Two-Headed Monster: AL East Predictions

With the season now beginning (finally) for just about every team today, I'll go with an extended look at each division, in order of predicted finish. There's a lot of writing here, so be warned, and grab yourself a latte or something in between teams so you don't doze off. Enjoy.

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.

Ah crap.

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.

TB: What?

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)

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