Monthly archives: March 2007
HAPs: Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers are a team that haven't seen the playoffs in many a moon. Even so, with every year they grow in popularity as a pick-to-click for those who are tired of seeing the same few teams in the playoffs annually. (In other words, they're kind of like the new Phillies, except the current Phillies still fit the bill, having still not made a playoff appearance since '93.) In 2006 Milwaukee proved unready for the honor, as a rash of injuries and some curious decisions about which backups to elevate caused them to backslide all the way to 87 losses after a stirring .500 campaign in 2005. It's pretty unlikely for a team as young as the Brewers were last year to lose so many key players to the DL for such long stretches. For that reason alone, they ought to be back to threatening for a winning record this season. The chances of a playoff appearance, though, rest on a player for whom it's surely not safe to assume robust health in 2007.
If Ben Sheets is healthy all year, the Brewers are the best team in the NL Central. This is a division that's not rich in starting pitching depth (hence the Astros' trade of two top pitching prospects and their starting centerfielder to the Rockies for Jason Jennings). However, each team with hopes of imitating the Cardinals' 83-win-division-title feat from last year has an ace in the stable. The Cubs have Carlos Zambrano, the Astros Roy Oswalt, the Cards Chris Carpenter, and even the Reds have Aaron Harang. After those guys, it gets dicey quickly for all of those teams. Milwaukee by contrast has an entire functioning five-man rotation -- assuming that Sheets stays upright. With Chris Capuano, Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush, and Claudio Vargas slotting in behind the Brewers' seldom-functioning ace, Milwaukee arguably has the best #2 through #5 guys in the NL Central. Assuming Roger Clemens doesn't go back to Houston.
Offensively, the Brewers have had a good problem to have these last few years. Loyalty to their blue-chip prospects has paid mixed dividends, as Prince Fielder has been more or less all they could have expected while J.J. Hardy and Rickie Weeks haven't yet put it all together. Meanwhile young players with far less hype coming up have emerged to help ease the Brewers out of their Pirate-like veteran mediocrity obsession. Bill Hall isn't just the best everyday player on the team, he also plays seemingly every position on the diamond. This year he'll move from short to center so Hardy can attempt to shake off his lost '06. Corey Hart just kept plugging away in the minors until last year's injury epidemic afforded him the chance to prove he should be an outfield starter in Milwaukee. A big part of the challenge facing GM Doug Melvin for 2007 will be clearing away the veteran detritus that the Brewers' farm system has made obsolete. Geoff Jenkins is making an awful lot of money to be a platoon player, and Kevin Mench and Laynce Nix don't really bring anything at all to the table. There are enough teams with bad outfields out there to find soft landing places for these guys, and a team operating with the Brewers' financial constraints has to "win" almost every trade they make in order to improve.
Would that Milwaukee had as much luck constructing a working bullpen from system guys. Derrick Turnbow, who's not real young (29) and isn't a Brewers product anyway (Philadelphia via Anaheim), turned into a pumpkin violently last year. Consequentially, Melvin had to trade for the game Francisco Cordero, which would have been great except he brought Mench along with him. The Brewers' approach to constructing a bullpen from rehabbing veterans, minor league free agents, and pixie dust works better some years than others. Pitching coach Mike Maddux is one of the best in the business at wringing useful innings out of curiosities like Rick Helling and Dan Kolb. This year's group will be a little younger with Jose Capellan and Carlos Villanueva in the mix, but neither has a particularly high ceiling. We'll see what Maddux can do with the likes of Brian Shouse, Greg Aquino, Matt Wise, Chris Spurling, and Elmer Dessens. Some more fungible young relief talent would be the obvious target in any deal ushering Jenkins, Mench, and/or Nix out of town.
The Brewers have kind of an unusual model for a playoff-hopeful team, with an extremely young starting lineup and an almost all-veteran bench. Past the surplus of outfielders, none of these veterans are the wrong kinds to have in this situation. Craig Counsell, Tony Graffanino, and Damian Miller will all be very mildly productive and none will complain about playing time. The major question about playing time in the Milwaukee infield this season regards all-universe third base prospect Ryan Braun. The Brewers were counting on Corey Koskie to keep the seat warm while Braun worked out his defensive issues in Nashville, but Koskie's concussion issues will keep him out until May at the earliest. Can Milwaukee afford to go with Counsell and Graffanino until then? Or will Koskie come back from the DL to discover his job's been given to the rookie? That all depends on how the Brewers begin the season, how competitive the NL Central is shaping up to be, and how well Weeks and Hardy swing the bats. At there's no danger of Jeff Cirillo getting at-bats, as he's moved just west to the Twins.
As befitting a team with so many health and roster-construction question marks, the Brewers could finish anywhere from first to fifth this year. On paper they seem better than that 2005 team, but there's absolutely no telling what they will or will not get from the likes of Sheets, Weeks, Hardy, Hart, Cordero, and Braun. The Rockies play them once in July and once in August and could potentially see radically different teams each time. I don't have a lot of confidence about this number, but I'm going to put them down for 83 wins. Last year, that would have been good enough for a tie for first. This year? Well, like everything about the 2007 Brewers, that remains to be seen.
Over/under of 81.5, 50-1 and holding to win it all.
HAPs: Pittsburgh Pirates
Sometimes, at the end of the month when I am running out of groceries, I make cookies out of just the stuff I have at hand. You know, I'll use like a bunch of flour, one egg, a little baking powder, and then a whole bottle of vanilla because I'm running low on sugar. Even if I manage to hit upon a combination that keeps the dough together, and then I manage not to burn everything to a crisp in the oven, the results always end up tasting a little peculiar. As you can imagine. I mean, I'll eat them. You don't want to know what I'll eat come the 28th, the 29th. But even if they turn out the best leftover scrap cookies I've ever made, they're still not going to be in the same league as the store-bought oatmeal raisin delicacies my sister sent me for my birthday last month.
And that's the Pirates. They're making a team out of cheap scraps, and even in event that no one gets hurt and everyone plays out of their minds, their ceiling is low. There are worse teams in the National League. If the Pirates are weird leftover cookies, the Nationals are trying to make a meal out of ingredients that include numerous non-food items, like the "Mr. Show" episode with the peanut butter, eggs, dice, and sponge sandwich. And the Marlins are running out a bunch of things that will eventually be food, but aren't yet. Like a couple of baby chicks and a bag of seeds. OK, I think that's about as much fun as can be had with this analogy for now.
In an earlier Hastily Assembled Preview I riffed for a bit about how almost any team can optimistically look at the coming season and say that if every player who played well last year keeps it up and every player coming off a bad season recovers to their potential, they can make the playoffs. Well, there are few teams for whom that just isn't true. Pittsburgh is one of them. If Freddy Sanchez, Jason Bay, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, and new acquisition Adam LaRoche all have magnificent years, the Pirates will still be pretty bad. They have far too many unsettled spots in their rotation, their offense is filled with power sinkholes, and while their bullpen could surprise, they'll more than likely trade two or three of the best pitchers from its back end before the season is out.
The trendy stat for Pirates spring previews is as follows: While the Bucs were 9-27 in one-run games in the first half of 2006, they went 15-4 after the break. Folks with a shaky understanding of how run distributions work are fixing in upon this as a ray of hope. Well, 9-27 in one-run games is incredibly unlucky. No doubt about it, that's not likely to happen again. But so is the 15-4 record after the break. Probably not a repeatable skill. The real stat to look at is the Pirates' overall record in one-run games, which would be 24-31. That computes to a winning percentage of .426, which is right in the neighborhood of Pittsburgh's overall winning percentage from last year of .414. Did the Pirates really develop a sudden unprecedented skill for winning the close ones late in the season last year? No, of course they didn't. They were only subject to a more rapid and immediate regression to the mean than we usually see in the course of a single season. They're still pretty bad.
Baseball Prospectus makes a more sophisticated point about Pittsburgh's futility that I think is worth repeating. BP's charge is that the organization has systematically selected nothing but low-ceiling, signability-type picks in the amateur draft the past several seasons, and for a team in the Pirates' financial situation, that amounts to waving the white flag on contention before they even get prospects into uniform. It's certainly true that even the Pirates "plus" starters, guys like Duke and Maholm, are not precisely imposing specimens. But I don't think the Pirates' reasoning is as bad as all that. They're in a situation much like the Rockies were a few seasons ago, where there's no core of homegrown talent to speak of and to even think of winning 70 games involves overspending for veteran talent. At this point, Dave Littlefield and the Pirates just need more guys who can play even a little bit. Until Pittsburgh has purged themselves of the need to carry never-weres like Xavier Nady, Tony Armas, and Shawn Chacon on their 25-man roster, they can't afford to be messing around with "tools" prospects.
The general lack of quality, particularly starting pitching quality, in the NL this year could help the Pirates to maintain the illusion of progress building off their 37-35 second half last year. Their full rotation of Duke, Maholm, Ian Snell, Armas, and Tom Gorzelanny doesn't feature a single guy who will sniff the low-4.00's in ERA, but in the NL, Arizona and their ninety-year-old #2 and #3 guys qualify as loaded. The Pirates are also unlikely to get out to such a poor start in one-run games as they did last season because their bullpen while penny-pinching has multiple useful arms. The loss of Mike Gonzalez (sent to Atlanta in the LaRoche trade) hurts a bit, but they still have Salomon Torres, Matt Capps, John Grabow, and Damaso Marte to fall back on. It will be a real testament to the mangerial acumen of Jim Tracy if he can maximize the efficiency of this group, each of whom has his strengths and his weaknesses.
While it's true that LaRoche will give Jason Bay the kind of protection he's never enjoyed before as a Pirate, I'm not a strong believer in the multiplicative power of proper lineup construction. The more important parts of the lineup are at the top and bottom where banjo hitters like Chris Duffy, Jack Wilson, and Jose Castillo lurk. They're not going to get on base enough, or hit for enough power, to score the runs the Pirates starters need to be successful. I doubt Pittsburgh fans will see a ton of improvement on the field this season, but at least they can console themselves with the knowledge their team is no longer wasting money on Jeromy Burnitz and Sean Casey.
I am penciling them down for 70 wins, but watch out if the bullpen does actually play well. Torres and Marte could be trade bait, and then where's Tracy to turn? Over/under of 71.5, 150 to 1 (and falling) to win it all.
I was going to try and take the high road and not mention SI.com's poll for the best Rockies page at all, but then last night my mother called to inform me that after my father saw an item regarding the vote in the magazine's print edition she had mobilized my entire vast extended Catholic family to vote early and vote often. Apparently a college-age cousin of mine was able to get his entire fraternity to turn out for Bad Altitude even though he was fully experiencing Spring Break in Cabo San Lucas at the time. Now Purple Row is casting aspersions on the loyalties of my fanbase, suggesting that Dodger and Cub fans are responsible for most of my votes. Well, I won't stand for it. Please go vote for me. Vote for the guy who actually lives in the Denver area! Vote for the guy who goes to Rockies games! Vote for the guy who bends over backwards trying to make Rockies baseball interesting to fans of other teams, and dare I say from time to time succeeds at doing so.
(That said, Purple Row is a really good site and I don't think any serious Rockies fan should go without visiting it regularly; you'll get a ton of information about minor league prospects that I don't get into and they keep a sharp eye on statistical studies involving the Rockies. Really our two sites are so different in style and intent that they complement each other quite nicely. But I still want to beat their brains out in this poll. Go! Go!)
The Rockies' roster is settled down to one final spot and there are almost no surprises. Byung-Hyun Kim's move to the bullpen is a bit of a shock, I guess, to him especially, but I don't know what else the Rockies were going to do with him after re-signing him for $2.5 million, bringing in a bunch of starter candidates they liked better, and then being completely unable to deal Kim during spring training. It's mildly unexpected that Steve Finley has managed to make the club, but he has had a good spring training, and the Rockies had several players with options remaining who didn't have springs as good as he. As for whom among the group of Alexis Gomez, John Mabry, and Ryan Spilborghs claims the last spot on the roster, well, they might as well have an Internet poll to decide for all the difference it will make.
So who are the 24 guys who already have their bags packed for Denver, where the weather at least as of this afternoon is just about perfect for non-fake baseball games? Here they are:
Lineup: CF Willy Taveras, 2B Kaz Matsui, 3B Garrett Atkins, 1B Todd Helton, LF Matt Holliday, RF Brad Hawpe, SS Troy Tulowitzki, C Chris Iannetta
Rotation: RHP Aaron Cook, LHP Jeff Francis, RHP Rodrigo Lopez, RHP Jason Hirsh, RHP Josh Fogg
Bullpen: LHP Brian Fuentes, RHP LaTroy Hawkins, LHP Jeremy Affeldt, LHP Tom Martin, RHP Manuel Corpas, RHP Byung-Hyun Kim, RHP Taylor Buchholz
Bench: IF/OF Jeff Baker, OF Steve Finley, C Yorvit Torrealba, IF Jamey Carroll
Is that 24? Why yes, it is. Well, that seems about right. Josh Fogg's spot will probably be taken by Brian Lawrence after a few starts assuming Lawrence's rehab assignment in Colorado Springs goes according to plan. Clint Barmes, Ramon Ramirez, and Ubaldo Jimenez will all start the season in AAA.
I got to see Daisuke Matsuzaka pitch for the first time in HD this morning against the Reds. Wow! The movement on his pitches, all of his pitches, is sick. So sick that at this early juncture the Japanese pitcher had seemingly little to no control over where his offerings went, as he walked five Cincinnati hitters in six innings. Of course, not a single Red was able to manage a hit against Dice-K. Oh, boy, now my heart is burning for a satellite dish. Stupid hill! Stupid neighbors! Stupid trees!
This Just In: Peter Gammons Knows There Is an MLB Team in Denver
Peter Gammons' blog from yesterday (ESPN Insider required) has one of those faint-praise titles that Colorado fans have come to hate over the years: "Even the Rockies have a shot." But the text of the article is somewhat more enthusiastic. Gammons quotes three unindentified veteran White Sox players as identifying the Rockies as "the best team in Arizona." On one hand, given the power production of some of the guys Chicago runs out to the outfield, I can see how Brad Hawpe and Matt Holliday would look terribly impressive to them. But on the other, the Tucson-based White Sox have played Colorado something like 20 times this spring, so if any team would know, they'd be the one.
But here's some real insider information. Saturday night, I was at Denver's Oriental Theater engaged in conversation with a comely young record store manager who counted Clint Hurdle among her regular customers. I don't know about you, but I feel much better about the guy holding the reins in the Rockies' dugout now that I know Hurdle likes alt-country. Every time he sacrifice bunts in the second inning with the Rockies already down three this year, I'm going to be saying myself, "Oh, it's OK, he's into Uncle Tupelo, he can't be all bad."
The young lady also said that Hurdle counted her as somewhat of a good-luck charm and came in all the time at the beginning of homestands to buy stuff. After reading all of the speculation about Hurdle's future in the local press, she asked him whether he'd still be coming around after this season. Apparently Clint intimated that big things were in the works, and he'd be around for a while. So either the Rockies are going to give him an extension this summer, or Clint is just extremely confident in the team he has breaking camp with him. Either way, I hope he's a better prognosticator than Jamey Carroll, who told me on the second day of the season last year he had a "special feeling" about the 2006 Rockies.
Doesn't Anybody Want a Sidearmer, Slightly Used?
I have it on good authority that having too much starting pitching is "a good problem to have," but if a team can't act quickly and effectively to turn such length into players who can contribute elsewhere, it's a problem still. On the whole the Rockies are a much less dysfunctional organization than they were five years ago, but some troubles linger. Management's handling of the four-candidates-for-one-starting-spot problem this spring is a good example. Dan O'Dowd has apparently decided, possibly by lot, that Byung-Hyun Kim is the guy who has to go. That's all very well and good, and from a talent standpoint, I would certainly sooner deal for Kim than the roundly below-average Josh Fogg or the still recovering Brian Lawrence and Taylor Buchholz. The trouble is that O'Dowd in his reasonable exertions to obtain maximum return in trade for Kim is trying to market the righthander as both a reliever and a starter. A lot of teams can use a righty who can strike righthanded hitters out, which has never been in question with Kim.
However, the Rockies organization themselves have spent the last year and change, virtually as long as they've held the rights to Byung-Hyun Kim, loudly announcing to anyone who might listen that Kim is done as a reliever. All last year, whenever Kim would get pounded in the fourth or fifth inning of a start after pitching effectively his first time through the lineup, Hurdle or O'Dowd would grab anyone who would listen and explain that BK just didn't have the mental makeup, or whatever, to pitch out of the bullpen. I don't know whether this was supposed to motivate Kim, or confuse the opposition, or they're just mean guys, or what the deal is. But in any case, now no one is biting on Byung-Hyun. That shouldn't come as too much of a surprise since the Phillies have taken longer than expected in moving Jon Lieber (and will take even longer now that Freddy Garcia is injured), and it is Lieber and surely not Kim who will "set the market" for spring training starter trades.
That said, the Rockies could really use another relief arm. In fact, they could really use a righty who can strike guys out. Kind of like Byung-Hyun Kim. But we certainly wouldn't want to question Dan O'Dowd's unerring sixth sense for "mental makeup." The man did sign Denny Neagle.
I owe you folks another Hastily Assembled Preview, but I just rolled the Pirates. Not so much. I think instead of a HAP I will take a nap.
HAPs: Detroit Tigers
Let's get one thing straight: I don't like the Tigers. I don't like Jim Leyland, I don't like Kenny Rogers, and that time the Research Department and I spent a weekend in Detroit for an Orioles-Tigers series they had volunteers instead of real employees working all of the concession stands and it took like three entire innings just to get a frackin' cheese pretzel. Without the cheese. "We-don't-have-cheese-pretzels," the paper hat-wearing septuagenarian told me robotically. "But it's right there on the menu!" I protested. "I just watched you give someone nachos with cheese. You have cheese. You have pretzels. There's the price for it right there. I want my cheese pretzel!" "We-don't-have-cheese-pretzels."
Now it can be told. The real reason I have it in for the Motown nine -- no cheese on my pretzel.
Anyway. The Tigers went to the World Series last year. They led the AL Central virtually wire-to-wire until the Twins edged them out on the last day of the regular season. As a wild card, the Tigers calmly dismissed the Yankees and A's in the division series and ALCS losing only one game in the process. The World Series didn't go quite as well, but Detroit has returned virtually its entire playoff roster and brought Gary Sheffield on board to fill its vacancy at designated hitter. Almost every preview you read of the 2007 season has them back in the thick of things, favorites or at the very least co-favorites to win the division. A few prognosticators even have them winning it all this year. What do I think? I think they'll be lucky to go .500, and residual pretzel bitterness is way down on my list of reasons why.
First of all, the AL Central has gone in the blink of an eye from a punchline to the majors' most loaded division. The Tigers, White Sox, Indians, and Twins all think that they are playoff teams, and at most only two clubs can advance. The Royals are still miserable, but at least they have the vestiges of a competitive lineup this time around. The Tigers went 14-4 against Kansas City last season (14-1 before an entertaining final weekend gag job that gift-wrapped the AL Central for Minnesota) and will be awful lucky to do that well again. Detroit also rolled off a 15-3 record in interleague play at the expense of the sad-sack NL Central. In '07, they'll have to play Philadelphia, Atlanta, and the Mets in addition to Milwaukee and St. Louis teams that won't be sleeping on the Tigers' skills this year. That should chip five or six wins at least off of the lofty 95 Detroit won in 2006.
Secondly, who on this roster can possibly be expected to play better than they did in 2006? I'll give you Justin Verlander. Mike Maroth lost a lot of time to injury last season, but before last year his major league record was singularly unimpressive. People who think Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones will just keep steaming along at ages 42 and 39 respectively are deluding themselves. Veteran hitters like Sean Casey, Pudge Rodriguez, and Placido Polanco whose offensive value is linked primarily to their batting average are notoriously unreliable commodities. The talent level of the Tigers' young hitters was hugely overstated in the wake of their magical regular season last year. Past Marcus Thames, who still won't be a full-time player in 2007, the Detroit offense was driven by vets Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordoñez. Magglio is always an injury risk, which is why he's wearing a Tigers uniform and not still a White Sox one, and Guillen in a contract year is understandably curious about why Jimmy Rollins makes so much more money than he. Brandon Inge, Curtis Granderson, and Craig Monroe are all nice complementary players but none of them are likely to get any better than they already are and none of them are particularly young (Inge and Monroe will be 30 this year). In fact, the deal for Sheffield means that the Tigers are counting on fortysomethings more than ever this season.
Most of the writing you will read about the Tigers' rotation this preseason will assume that it will continue to be as dominant as it was last year. I'm not so sure. Maroth, Jeremy Bonderman, and Nate Robertson all pitched real well in '06 -- and all three had multiple craptastic years in the bigs before that. You can certainly argue that Bonderman was rushed to the majors, but Maroth and Robertson sure weren't. Suggesting that all three of these guys will be at least as good or better than they were last year is a stretch. Then take into account that Verlander threw a lot more innings than he ever had before in his life last year and the fact that Kenny Rogers is due a tremendous reprisal from the Baseball Gods for blatantly cheating in the World Series last year. One thing that's not in question is the depth and quality of the Tiger bullpen, so long as you don't ask any of those pitchers to field their positions.
Remember the Anaheim Angels of 2003? The team that won the Series, returned like 24 of the 25 guys on their roster from that championship team, and then was absolutely gobsmacked when they went 77-85? Yes, Gary Sheffield is a little bit more of a get than Robb Quinlan. Nonetheless, this Tiger team wasn't as good as their record last year and is due for a close encounter with the Plexiglass Principle this season. Realistically I expect Detroit to win between 85 and 89 games next season, not at all a bad performance but comfortably out of the money in the cutthroat American League. However my memory of that terribly cold, dry pretzel is really sticking in my craw. For that reason, my "official" prediction for the Tigers will be 79-83, fourth place, and an explosion of ill-considered Dave Dombrowksi signings next offseason.
Almost forgot: 10-1 to win it all, over/under of 86.5. That's a pretty low over/under, isn't it? Maybe I know of what I speak.
Is the Hurdle Thing Going to Be a Problem?
I really don't want to begin dwelling on this lame-duck manager situation more than is really necessary before the games even begin. Indeed, I am way behind with my Hastily Assembled Previews -- the dice came up on the Tigers yesterday, and I don't feel adequately prepared to scale that hurdle (get it?) quite yet. But the fact remains, Clint Hurdle doesn't have a contract for next year. Rockies ownership has rather indelicately sent signals that it intends to extend Dan O'Dowd and not Hurdle unless the team wins substantially more games in 2007. Hurdle has evidently already tightened up and is far more likely to cost his team wins than boost their total with the two things he knows how to do: 1) order pitchers to throw at guys and 2) bunt a lot.
The reason I am bringing this up again is I was reading Jon Heyman's piece for SI.com about general managers who might be on the hot seat this year and Heyman's entry for Dan O'Dowd at #8 seemed to cast more doubt on Hurdle's future than on O'Dowd's: "[The Rockies'] young starters are solid, and few teams have better positional prospects on the cusp. If the team proves to be a year away, it seems more likely that manager Clint Hurdle could be in trouble than O'Dowd."
If the national writers at Sports Illustrated have correctly read the Monforts' intentions, it's impossible that Clint Hurdle doesn't know the score. Unless the Rockies actually shock us all and play winning baseball this season, this is going to be the story all season long.
Elsewhere: Gratuitous NCAA tournament bashing from yours truly, an NBA partisan.
Clint Hurdle Tries to Get Noticed, With Ugly Results
I haven't mentioned the fact that Jeff Francis got thrown out of a spring training game a few days ago for throwing at a batter because the moment I see any blog post describing the activity from a fake baseball game, my eyes glaze over. But when stupid managerial decisions in the spring come back to hurt a team in the actual games, the silence must be broken.
Francis has been suspended for five games -- five regular season games -- because Clint Hurdle forced him to throw at Kevin Kouzmanoff. This means that the first time through their rotation in April, the Rockies will be forced to skip Francis, and they'll also be unable to fully take advantage of a light early-season schedule with enough days off to let them get away with not overexposing their fourth and fifth starters.
I wrote a few weeks ago that there are only three kind of managers, bad ones, indifferent ones, and indifferent ones who are good interviews. In the last year of his contract, Hurdle already seems dead set on moving from the indifferent category to the bad one. What is he trying to prove? Both the Rockies and the Padres had already received the dread "warning to both benches" when Hurdle made Francis throw a purpose pitch. Of course, it being mild-mannered Jeff Francis on the mound, the "purpose pitch" when released barely had enough juice to reach all the way to its target. But still, Hurdle should have known better than to assume that because it was a spring training game he could "show his resolve" without there being any real-season consequences. Highly dumb, and it's already cost the Rockies at least one ticket sale. I was planning on buying a ticket for the second game of the year (I already hold one for Opening Day, when I assume Aaron Cook will be starting) to see Francis pitch; now I won't be going, since Rodrigo Lopez does nothing for me. Of course, the Rockies will get my money on the other end when Jason Hirsh (who but for the Francis suspension would have started his season on the road against San Diego) goes on Wednesday the fourth, but...I dunno. I'm still mad.
Clint: Given that you have held your job for as long as you have, the Monforts are clearly not holding you to particularly stringent standards. Quit drawing attention to yourself. Fill out the lineup cards, pat players firmly on the rear when you come in to make pitching changes, stop bunting before the late innings, and knock it off with the vendetta nonsense. No one is questioning your manhood. We're beginning to question your common sense, but as long as you've got that classy soul patch your macho bona fides are safe.
HAPs: Philadelphia Phillies
I'm glad that I've decided to determine which teams I preview by dice throw this season. If I'd picked on my own, I surely would have avoided some of these more difficult cases. Take the Phillies. I don't know what to make of these guys. For seemingly every year from 2000 to 2005 I picked them to end the Braves' division title run. It never happened. Then last year I didn't pick them (as revenge, I think), and they showed some real life for the first time in ages. This was of course after they shipped Bobby Abreu to the Yankees in what was supposed to be a white flag trade. Ryan Howard was like, yeah man. They replaced Billy Wagner with Tom Gordon and barely thought twice about it. Cole Hamels successfully negotiated the transition between Starter of the Future and Starter of the Present, and if Ryan Madson was unable to do the same at least the Phillies know for sure he's a reliever now. Mike Lieberthal's contract finally expired. Chase Utley was pretty like, yeah man himself. And if Aaron Rowand didn't hit much, he did such a good job of being the all-hustle anti-Abreu that now the White Sox are all hot to get him back.
Still, I don't want to pick the Phillies to win the East in 2007. It just seems like for as much positive change as has taken place in Philadelphia, too many things still seem the same. The names have changed, but...you know how the song goes. They've still got an underrated outfielder who just can't win with Philly fans, with Pat Burrell sliding into Abreu's old role. They've still got a pitching staff that looks better on paper than it will on the field, with red flags all over. Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla are gone, but you can probably think of a boatload of good reasons why the Phillies won't get the production they expect from Hamels, Jamie Moyer, Adam Eaton, Brett Myers, and featured offseason acquisition Freddy Garcia. Match them up: age, too little age, flyball pitcher in a groundball ballpark, questionable defense, unsettling domestic abuse incidents, too fragile, so historically un-fragile that they're just due for a letdown...I realize that's more question marks than the Phillies have starters, but most of them carry more than one. I believe Pat Gillick and Philadelphia management are highly overestimating the trickle-down effect Garcia will have on the rest of the staff. This is compounded by a bullpen that nobody is overrating. They're going to be bad. Rockies bad.
I often think it's foolish to write off a team with a good offense and a competitive rotation because their bullpen has some holes, but this Phillies situation could become ridiculous. Tom Gordon is a weapon but sadly he's a single-shot musket that takes two or three days to reload. Geoff Geary is good. After that there's Madson, and...Eude Brito? Clay Condrey? Brian Sanches? Matt J. Smith? Stop me if you've heard of any of these guys. (Not you, Phillies fans.) It's not like the Phillies or Gillick to not overreach on a few veteran mediocrities, but there's still a lot of March left. I know the Rockies would give them Byung-Hyun Kim pretty much just for the sake of dumping his contract. The sad part is the Phillies could really use Kim, which tells you all you need to know about the state of their relief pitching.
Would Abreu ever have been traded if the Phillies suspected 2006 would end the way it did and they'd be entering 2007 as at least division co-favorites? Don't believe it for a second if you hear that the Abreu trade is the reason they started playing better. Now the Phils are looking at Rowand and Shane Victorino as two of their three starting outfielders. And Burrell and his 30 homers guaranteed is the guy for whom Phillies fans save all their wrath? Philadelphia also has a bit of a problem at third base, where neither Wes Helms nor Abraham Nuñez is a complete player. Rod Barajas is the catcher. You may remember him from that magical year two seasons ago when he hit like Mike Piazza away from the Ballpark in Arlington and like Danny Ardoin at his normally offense-incubating home stadium. He'll get to play all of his games away from Arlington in 2007, so pencil him in for fifty homers.
I feel certain Gillick will make some moves to shore up the bullpen, and I also feel quite confident that these moves won't help the Phillies at all for '07 while weakening them for future pennant runs. Another fearless prediction: With his ERA over 7.00 in mid-May, Bud Selig will reject Jamie Moyer's petition to have all his home starts moved to Safeco Field. I predict that Pat Burrell will hit for the cycle in a game at Citizens' Bank Park and will be booed lustily after striking out for his fifth at-bat. I predict that Aaron Rowand will hurt himself running into something, but I'm not sure whether it will be on the field or off. I predict that Brett Myers is a piece of you-know-what. Oh wait, that's not a prediction.
This is: 83 wins, out of the money in the NL once again, and a new personal best in blank 1000-yard stares from Charlie Manuel. Vegas says: 18-1 to win the Series, over/under of 88 wins.
The New Nationals Owners Aren't Just Suckers
They're also not very observant. Within this article regarding Washington's plans to plant cherry trees behind the outfield fence at their new ballpark, opening in 2008, team president Stan Kasten is quoted as saying, "We couldn't find another ballpark that had trees in the ballpark." That's kind of a cumbersome way to say what you're trying to get across, Stan, but it also indicates that you must not have looked very hard.
From the "Coors Field A-Z Guide" on rockies.mlb.com: "Trees used are Colorado spruce, pinon pine, bristle cone pine, con color fir, limber pine, gamble oak and curl leaf mahogany." Italics mine!
Stupid Nationals. You totally deserve to have Peter Angelos siphoning off all of your profits for the next twenty years.
Also, as reported on the Toaster and elsewhere, Javy Lopez received his walking papers from Colorado yesterday. Nice career, Javy. More significantly, Troy Tulowitzki has no broken bones in his injured wrist.
HAPs: Minnesota Twins
Here is an interesting one. The Twins spent exactly one day alone in first place in the AL Central last year -- the one that counted, the last day of the regular season. The franchise took home almost every award they have to give away in the American League, with MVP Justin Morneau, Cy Young winner Johan Santana, batting champ Joe Mauer, and ML Executive of the Year Terry Ryan. But as is so often the case the postseason didn't go according to script. The Tigers, the team Minnesota hunted down like dogs to finally edge at the finish line, rolled through the AL playoffs with little mercy while the Twins got punked by the overdue A's in their ALDS. The Twins also lost their #2 and #3 starters, Francisco Liriano (for the '07 season) and Brad Radke (permanently) to injury. It's nagging questions about their rotation that have most folks picking Chicago and Detroit ahead of the Twins in 2007.
Me? I disagree. I think they're going to be real good again. 2006 seemed to me like a new beginning for Minnesota baseball. Yeah, Morneau didn't deserve the MVP. (It's killing me to say this, but that award should have gone to Derek Jeter.) Yeah, Torii Hunter has at least one foot out the door already. And yeah, they're relying an awful lot on the likes of Carlos Silva to be named as a World Series favorite. Despite all that, I think the Twins more than any other team will benefit from the absurd levels the free agent market reached this offseason. They might have reached on some fifth-class veteran starter if the Brewers and Royals weren't much more excited about doing so. Now the Twins' rotation after Santana and Matt Garza will be determined wholly on merit, and they have enough organizational talent to turn their perceived Achilles' heel into a net strength.
The biggest questions on the roster are the ones about the veterans they do have. Why is Rondell White back for an encore when Jason Tyner can so obviously play? Wouldn't they be better off dealing some of their surplus of slugging corner types for an upgrade from Luis Castillo at second? What possible reason could there be to bring a washed-up whiner like Jeff Cirillo into camp? If anything I have too much faith in the Minnesota organization's ability to generate highly effective tiny-salaried players from thin air, but like the A's, they've earned that respect over the past several years.
And that's why I think the Twins' rotation is going to be fine. They've got barely a proven major leaguer from three through five, but it means the world that #1 is Johan Santana, who has powers beyond the imaginations of mere mortals like you and I. Seriously, if you know you're going to have to face Santana one game in a three-game series, aren't you going to be pressing like mad in the other two games? I wonder if that has a demonstrable effect. Of course, if somehow you manage to beat Santana, like Oakland did last year in the playoffs, it has a reciprocal effect on the Twins. So no problem, just beat Johan Santana! Easier said than done. It appears that veteran Ramon Ortiz is going to crack the rotation out of camp, so I guess the Twins have more experience than I thought. With the Twins willing to give Silva the benefit of the doubt for now at least, that leaves it for young'ns Matt Garza, Glen Perkins, and Boof Bonser to settle among themselves who gets the last two spots. I feel fairly confident that Sidney Ponson will not be able to elbow two of those guys out of the way. As it stands, the Twins are set up nicely to make the switch sooner rather than later if Ortiz or Silva is ineffective.
As for the offense, all of the guys who Ozzie Guillen perfectly nicknamed "the f---in' piranhas" last year are back. Morneau had a slow start last season and probably won't this time around, so by that logic he'll win the MVP again. Joe Mauer is one of those guys. I met somebody who had seen him play three sports in high school at a wedding a while back and their voice was hushed as they described his absurd physical gifts. Torii Hunter in a contract year is a good bet to perform at his highest possible level. Their offensive role players like Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett are reliably productive for guys with such short major-league résumés. For young mashers Jason Kubel and Mike Cuddyer, the only things that can get in the way are injuries. Or veterans, but for once there aren't any here. See what I mean?
When it comes to the bullpen, the Twins have shown an admirable tendency to look for in-house solutions before opening up the checkbook. Thanks to the largesse of the Giants' front office, they seem to have reasonably hard-throwing righties falling out of lockers left and right. Joe Nathan is a top-five closer, Jesse Crain and Pat Neshek have yet to peak, and Juan Rincon is a trusted veteran at 28. It bodes well for the Twins' plans to fill the rotation with rookies that they have so many guys capable of multiple-inning shutdown relief appearances plus a hammer like Nathan. As you can tell, I'm quite bullish on this team.
Vegas has Minesota at 15-1 to win it all, and I don't see a better bet on the board. If I had fifty dollars I would put it on the Twins right this minute. Only I don't have fifty dollars. Their over-under is 83.5, which I think is ridiculously low -- they should cover that with a month left in the season. I expect the Twins to comfortably win 90 games and the AL Central as the Tigers return to planet Earth and the White Sox disappoint. If anyone gives them a scare, it'll be the Indians.
I Knew I Shouldn't Have Looked at the Spring Box Scores
Troy Tulowitzki got hit on the wrist by a pitch yesterday, and pretty much everyone in a Rockies uniform trying to throw balls past opposing hitters got beaten like a drum, including starters Jason Hirsh and Rodrigo Lopez. The lesson here is obvious: Never, ever look at spring training box scores. No good can come of it.
Also: Former Colorado outfielder Jeromy Burnitz has decided to pack it in. Burnitz finishes his career with 315 long balls, one of which is displayed in a place of honor in my apartment. Burnitz is part of a new class of players that have only existed since the early 90's: the mediocre 300-home run hitters. It's a less-talked-about group than the non-Hall of Fame 500-home run hitters, but look and see how many of them will be retiring in the next few seasons. Speaking for the integrity of the game, let's get that universal humidor rule into effect sooner rather than later, please.
I refuse to spend valuable time I could be devoting to poring through my new Baseball Prospectus 2007, which arrived in the mail yesterday, reading spring training box scores. I know full well that's there's nothing conclusive to be determined from a few weeks' worth of half-hearted competition against either major leaguers just trying not to get hurt or minor leaguers pressing to make an impression. Which is why it's silly that every year major league teams make big decisions about the games that count based on distorted spring samples. Sometimes this blind spot can work out for the best, getting a young player established as a major leaguer in a timely manner. Sometimes it can mean disastrous roster decisions. For example, what if a washed-up non-roster veteran pitcher strings together a couple of decent four-inning starts in split-squad games? Not only could you end up throwing away games in April and May trying to recapture that lightning in a bottle, you might lose someone really useful for good when you have to take them off the 40-man to make room for Mr. March. I love watching Spring Training games, but I hate that anybody takes them at all seriously, ever.
The most hilarious example of this is the Online Cubs Panic Empire, who in the course of one go-around of the team's starters' spring pitching schedule decided that Mark Prior was done and Kerry Wood was back, and then three days later maybe Prior wasn't done but Wood was. The way I see it, the team ought to cut both of those guys right now just to save their fans the suffering. What am I saying? This is the Cubs. Sometimes I lose perspective.
Unfounded faith in Spring Training stats looks like it will help rather than hurt the Rockies this year, as Dan O'Dowd and Clint Hurdle seem disinclined to make Jason Hirsh wait until midseason to crack the major league rotation. It makes sense, since even if Hirsh isn't quote-unquote "ready" he's still a very good bet to be better than the likes of Josh Fogg and Byung-Hyun Kim, who are the chief victims of Hirsh's good camp. When pitchers and catchers reported it looked like there might be a free-for-all among several candidates for the fourth and fifth starters' jobs, but things have fallen into place ahead of schedule. Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook, Rodrigo Lopez, and Hirsh are all in. Taylor Buchholz will relieve. That leaves Fogg, Kim, Denny Bautista, and Brian Lawrence to work it out amongst themselves who will get the fifth starter's spot. The Rockies, who know exactly what last year's starters Fogg and Kim can and can't do, I suspect are leaning towards one of the new faces. If he can prove he's healthy, Lawrence ought to be the guy. (He was born in Fort Collins, and the Monforts love local guys.) That is one thing -- the one thing -- that does matter in Spring Training. Proving you're healthy, especially for guys like Lawrence who are coming back from major surgery. Lawrence will start tomorrow against the White Sox, whom the Rockies have now played no fewer than six times this spring. Good thing they're in different leagues. Maybe it is time for the Rockies and D-Backs to throw in the towel and move along with the White Sox and Dodgers to the Phoenix area with everybody else.
Mike Hampton is hurt again (HA!), so the Rockies have offered Kim and/or Fogg to the Braves, who unsurpisingly said no thanks. Todd Helton apparently isn't going to play in any spring training games outside of Tucson this year, so tough luck if you're like me and love Helton but are really creeped out by that huge plane graveyard. Keeping in mind that we place no significance whatsoever on spring training stats, it's still fun to note how many Rockies are hitting above .300 as of this morning: Garrett Atkins, Helton, Matt Holliday, Kaz Matsui, Brad Hawpe, Yorvit Torrealba, Troy Tulowitzki. Even Willy Taveras! But Clint Barmes is hitting .167. Good thing I changed the name of this page last year, huh? Clint does have options left, so it looks like he has a SkySox uniform in his very near future.
The first five articles I read in this year's BP, in order: Rockies, Cubs, Braves, Devil Rays, Indians.
HAPs: Los Angeles Dodgers
If I was choosing which teams to write about for my spring previews, I would stay the heck away from the Dodgers. There are a lot of people who read this page who know way, way more about Dodger baseball than I do, and you can be most certain that they're not shy about letting me know when I screw up. But I'm not the one making the picks, the polyhedral dice are. And the dice today say Dodgers. They are indeed cruel masters.
Since I'm a fan of another team in the same division, I'm not exactly broken up about the Dodgers' mystifying disorganization. Speaking as a wholly impartial observer, though, you have to ask: What is this team doing? Why does Los Angeles owner Frank McCourt let ignorant blowhards like Bill Plaschke influence his decision-making while ignoring more qualified blowhards like the Dodger Thoughts crowd? I don't know why. Certainly McCourt's firing of the highly qualified Paul DePodesta was inspired by distorted media coverage, as was his hiring of the decidedly old-line Ned Colletti. Colletti and McCourt's record in free agency seems like the work of men who are trying to do what's expected of the Dodgers rather than what is most likely to lead them to championships. Jason Schmidt? Yeah, well, okay, I guess maybe. Juan Pierre? That seems like a bit of a stretch. But what on earth are the Dodgers, who have prospects coming out of their ears, doing messing around with the likes of Luis "O.G. Original Gonzalez" Gonzalez and Mike "I Totally Thought He Was Retired" Lieberthal? It's the Chewbacca Defense all over again, people. This does not make sense.
That said, with the power outage in San Diego, the obsolescence of the Giants, and the Rockies and Diamondbacks still marshaling their forces for 2008 runs, the Dodgers might get back to the playoffs in 2007. Their rotation looks all right, even Colletti's best efforts can't keep all of the kids down, and while their lineup doesn't have any obvious superstars it doesn't have any colossal weak spots either. The Dodgers don't have the power bats you like to see at the infield and outfield corners, but they're not trying to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox. They seem terribly inefficient in terms of turning their obvious financial advantage over the other teams in the division into sustained dominance, but as the Cardinals proved last year, all you need to do is get into the playoffs. Anything can happen after that. And while I think the mainstream press has completely overstated Colletti's role in it, who had a more magical regular season in 2006 than the Dodgers? Nobody.
After years of reading about the Dodgers' incredible wealth of minor-league pitching talent, it's a little strange to take a look at their projected 2007 rotation and see retread city...Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Randy Wolf. I'm not yet prepared to label him as a retread, but Jason Schmidt seems no lock to earn the amount of money he's set to receive. For the moment the only up-and-comer is Chad Billingsley. As a consequence of Colletti's Proven Veteran fetish, Los Angeles has spectacular starting pitching depth. But that was never the problem here. Can Schmidt reclaim the ace's mantle he once wore in San Francisco? I think he's a better bet than the Giants' candidate to replace him, Barry Zito, but I wouldn't put money down on either. The Dodgers needed to either get guys who can go deep into games or lengthen their bullpen significantly, and they haven't done either. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, though, look at the other offenses in the division. Los Angeles can surely get away with staffing their middle relief corps with a bunch of frustrated starting prospects this season. Big financial commitments to the likes of Schmidt, Pierre, and Nomar Garciaparra seem like a poor read of the cost/benefit analysis charts, though.
I don't really feel like writing a paragraph about the Dodgers' lineup, since it seems like much the same thing I just wrote about with the pitching. Is it great? Not hardly. Is it good enough? More than likely. Only the chance to once again celebrate my deep abiding hatred for Jeff Kent keeps me powering through. I personally loathe Kent, but I've never undersold his abilities as a player. I'm never surprised even as old as he is when he continues to be the most reliable offensive contributor for whichever team he's on. This year Los Angeles is depending on Kent's annoying reliability more than ever. Who else is going to hit home runs for the Dodgers? This is where Garciparra's extension really handcuffs them, because with their system depth they either have a guy who can mash already (James Loney) or failing that can generate one through trade in a hurry. The Juan Pierre signing is another knee-jerk dumb move by a GM and owner who care way too much about what The Los Angeles Times thinks. These signings are so bad in fact that they might end up canceling themselves out when these bums either get hurt or play themselves out of the lineup. It's not that there are better players the Dodgers could have signed, it's that they already have better players right there in camp. That doesn't reflect real well on management, but on the other hand, unless Colletti has another one of his brilliant trade brainstorms, these better young options are still available.
Another season in the high-eighty-win range and another playoff appearance seem preordained, but the buzz around the Dodger organization that built up the last few years among brainy baseball types has dissipated and moved on to Arizona. (And maybe soon Colorado? Anybody? Anybody?) Only the anticipation of whiling away a few lovely summer afternoons heaping verbal abuse on Kent has me at all excited about the Dodgers' many trips to Denver this upcoming season. It didn't used to be like that, and it doesn't have to be still. Free Hong-Chih Kuo!
(Full disclosure: I was one of the loudest non-Dodger partisans when it came to the Free Hee Seop Choi! movement. Maybe I don't know what's best for Big Blue after all.)
Vegas: 88.5 wins, 10-1 to win it all.
I Shouldn't Be Dignifying This with a Response
According to Forbes.com, Kevin McHale is the best general manager in pro sports. Yes, that Kevin McHale. Secret-under-the-table deal with Joe Smith McHale. Best seven-footer in the game and only one season making it past the first round of the playoffs McHale. Hysterical. Dan O'Dowd is 65th, but the methodology of the survey is frankly demented. GMs are credited for continuing to win while cutting payroll, so pretty much every NHL team that spent tons of money before the salary cap kicked in is represented in the Top 20. Other howlers in the top ten include the Bears' Jerry Angelo (who just managed to infuriate Lance Briggs by sticking the dread franchise tag on him, let his defensive coordinator walk over money issues, and came very close to losing head coach Lovie Smith over nickels and dimes) and the 76ers' Billy King (where do I even begin).
At least the franchise power rankings ESPN does every year make some effort to include fan satisfaction in the formula. I find it funny that two of the guys in Forbes' top three would easily make another list of the most loathed GM's in pro sports. The highest-ranking local GM on the list is the Avs' Pierre LaCroix, who while fully aware of the implications the salary cap would have on his premium-priced roster didn't manage to turn all of the veterans Colorado lost into any new talent and randomly traded David Aebischer straight up for a goaltender who was older, more injury-prone, and less good.
Even accepting that it fits Forbes' whole image to ignore quality of product and focus in on the bottom line, a lot of these guys have killed their teams. After mismanaging Philadelphia to the point where their one marketable star forced a trade, how is Billy King possibly going to sell tickets to Sixers games the next few years? If they don't get the first or second pick in the draft, they're going to be Clippers East for years to come. LaCroix managed to break the Avs' home sellout streak (which dated to when they first moved to Denver) and is gunning for their playoff appearance streak (ditto). So if Forbes want to do this again next year and not look very, very silly, they ought to work in some kind of future projection adjustment to their formula.
That ought to kick D O'D up a couple of spots.
HAPs 3000: Texas Rangers
Last spring I introduced something I called the Hastily Assembled Previews series, which basically meant I stepped away from the intense glare of the Rockies beat for a couple of weeks to check in on what some of the other baseball teams were doing. The name was wishful thinking; what were conceived as capsules ended up being as time-consuming as any writing project I've ever undertaken and I barely tackled a third of the teams. But on the other hand something great came out of last year's HAPs: the Bad Altitude-Jim Leyland feud. For the whole 2006 postseason I was rejoicing that I'd been so completely wrong in March about the Tigers' chances.
I don't mind being wrong. If I did, I wouldn't make nearly as many completely unsubtantiated insane claims. And my grip on reality isn't so firm that I can't creatively interpret the Tigers' reaching the World Series only to not play at all well and lose in five games as vindicating my preseason claim that they would be stuck in 70-win limbo for a decade. It amounts to the same thing, right? You either win the championship or you don't. If you look at it that way, the Rockies are on the exact same footing as 28 of the 29 other teams. And hey, the team that did win the hardware only won seven more regular season games than Colorado last year!
Anyway, there wasn't any particular team I really wanted to write about, I just felt a sudden urge to start looking at depth charts and home/road splits. This is a natural effect of the spring thaw, I believe. Not that we've quite thawed yet where I live, but you know what I mean. As I usually do when I need to make an arbitrary decision, I set up a little table and got out my polyhedral dice. I won't bore you with the methodology but the dice and I have decided to do the Rangers first. It's a bit of a funny coincidence, but my desktop wallpaper at the moment is this goofy photo of Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash at the Ballpark in Arlington in full Rangers gear. I just happened to see it somewhere a few days ago, long before I'd even decided for certain I was going to do HAPs this spring, and certainly before I rolled the dice. The dice work in mysterious ways.
At 80-82, the Texas Rangers finished third in the AL West last year, spending about $78 million to do so. The biggest story of 2006 for Texas was probably the emergence of the foundations of a competitive pitching staff, after years of failure in that area. The tone last spring was that the Rangers had overpaid for Kevin Millwood, who had a career year in Cleveland, to anchor a rotation completely turned over from April 2005. Millwood didn't pitch quite as well for Texas as he did for the Indians, but he got more run support and won 16 games. What's more, he stayed healthy all year, making 34 starts and consuming 215 innings. That's just what the Rangers were looking for from Millwood. On the other hand, they had to be pleasantly surprised by the work they got from Vicente Padilla, whose season stats were almost identical to Millwood's except for his salary, which was halved. The team also boasted a much-improved bullpen led by Akinori Otsuka.
On offense, the Rangers got a spectacular season from Gary Matthews, Jr., one he has little chance to repeat, but that's now the Angels' problem. Michael Young will remain a Ranger with the generous extension he's just signed, but as I've already reflected, Young's best years are most likely behind him. Shortstops who win batting titles are nice things to have, but Young is a lousy shortstop who's over 30, and the Rangers have too many other good infielders to move him easily to second or first. On the negative side in 2006, Hank Blalock didn't yet evidence the development all of the experts have long projected for him, and Brad Wilkerson was a stunning bust after every baseball blog on the Internet wrote that Wilkerson was the better player in his trade for Alfonso Soriano.
Rockies fans who have been paying attention the last few seasons might recognize, wistfully, what seems to be happening to the Rangers these days. Now that the pitching is finally coming around, the offense seems in decline. They've gone old to replace Matthews (Kenny Lofton) and young to fill Carlos Lee's spot (Nelson Cruz). They might miss Mark DeRosa (who was the Cubs' one good offseason signing) more than either of those fellows. Due diligence requires me to report that Sammy Sosa is in their camp, but I highly doubt that Sosa will be good enough to be worth the off-the-field headaches his presence will no doubt breed. I'm kind of surprised that the Panther managed to finagle a spring invitation at all. Could well be another example of ownership meddling with management, something with which the Rangers have had recurring problems over the years.
The most intriguing guy in Rangers camp has got to be Brandon McCarthy, subject of a curious show-me trade between Texas and the White Sox. Texas shipped out John Danks, one of the D's (the first one, I think) in their famed DVD trio of pitching prospects, for Chicago's McCarthy. McCarthy might be a little more ready to be in the big leagues right now than Danks, but Texas needs him to be a stalwart immediately. He can't go back to the minors, because "McVD" just sounds wrong. (Or wait, isn't that a character on "Grey's Anatomy?") Arlington will also be the staging ground for Eric Gagne's comeback, although everything about Gagne's career path makes it seem as if that amazing but fleeting period of dominance will be impossible to recapture. It won't hurt the Rangers any if Gagne pitches effectively as the closer, but with Otsuka still in the fold they really need starters much more than further relievers, particularly ones who will need their inning counts strictly monitored. In the mix to fill the spots behind Millwood, Padilla, and McCarthy are John Koronka, Bruce Chen, Kameron Loe, Robinson Tejeda, and our old buddy Jamey Wright. I like Tejeda and Chen best among that group, but the Rangers expect to see the "V" and the other "D," Edison Volquez and Thomas Diamond, in the rotation to stay some time in the very near future. You won't see him mentioned in a lot of other season previews, but I made a point of making sure that Joaquin Benoit was still in the Rangers' bullpen. Benoit isn't good exactly, but he does throw a ton of innings every year without complaint, and rubber-armed guys are worth their weight in gold in the launching-pad atmosphere of the Metroplex.
I don't want to write anything facetious like, "If all the guys who were good last year stay good and the guys who were bad last year get better, they can contend," but isn't that true of every team? Perhaps not every team. What we really want to get into is how likely it is that the above case will happen for each team. For the Rangers, the chances are solid that the offense will rebound a bit after what by Ballpark standards was an off-year. It doesn't seem like there's any reason for Blalock and Wilkerson not to recover, and Young's new contract won't go into the regret phase for another few years at least. Mark Teixeira is as sure a thing as there is in the game to rake reliably for the full 162. Frank Catalanotto seems a little miscast as a designated hitter, but given that the alternative would be a Sosa/Jason Botts platoon, Rangers fans know for a fact their team could do a lot worse. The starting catching job ought to have been Gerald Laird's three seasons ago; now that it's finally his he ought to motivated to become one of the better two-way backstops in the American League. With Ian Kinsler, Young, Teixeira, and Blalock the Rangers just have a nasty infield; you can live with Cruz, Wilkerson, and Lofton in the outfield.
As for the pitching, that's the question as always. Millwood seems like he's due for a bit of a trouble year, but I thought that last year and he sure showed me. Both he and Padilla seemed to accept the realities of pitching in Arlington (which is rapidly eclipsing Coors Field and its perfected humidor as the goofy hitters' park), living with the inflated ERAs and trying to stay in games rather than shut offenses down. The enigmatic Padilla got a big offseason contract extension, so if he doesn't start swiftly there will be murmurings about complacency. I'm pretty bullish on Brandon McCarthy, although I expect an adjustment period, but I just don't see how any combination of the other rotation candidates will give Texas enough depth to match up with the pitching in Oakland and Anaheim. Next year, after McCarthy, Volquez, and Diamond have all taken their lumps a little at the big league level, I think the Rangers make their move. This year they ought to be around .500 again, more likely a little above than a little below, and as a Rockies fan, let me tell you, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
For entertainment purposes only: Vegasinsider.com lists the Rangers as 50-1 shots to win the World Series. The Las Vegas Hilton line sets the over/under for their win total at 82.5.
It's a Beautiful Time to Be Alive
Well, not so much in Boulder, where it snowed with a vengeance again yesterday. But in Arizona there are guys wearing spikes and gloves swinging sticks at balls and it's like poetry.
I'm not a box score breakdown guy. I tried doing that sort of thing my first year over on MLBlogs and it doesn't really suit my style. You get into this whole synonym game trying to find new/old ways of saying "he hit a homer" and "he went 2 for 4" that really don't add anything to the discussion. I mean, you guys know that what's great about box scores is how much information they present in an easy-to-understand, quickly absorbable manner. On the other hand as a writer I rather enjoy being misunderstood. Box scores and I are kind of at cross purposes, in that sense. With that said, I don't see how any Colorado fan could possibly avoid rejoicing in the first box score of 2007. Atkins 2 for 3! Hawpe 3 for 3! Holliday 2 for 3! Brian Fuentes, four batters faced and three strikeouts! Only two walks for Rockies batters (a sore spot for me since way, way back in the day), but on the other hand look how many White Sox Colorado pitchers struck out: twelve! It doesn't mean very much of anything, of course. If I really wanted to darken your day, I could mention that Javy Lopez was ominously two for three with a pair of doubles. He could make the team! That would be horrible: Chicago was 3 for 3 attempting steals on Lopez. I don't want to darken anybody's day, though. It's spring training! It's the most wonderful time of the year!
Big extension for Michael Young. I love Young if I'm drafting him for my fantasy team, but I don't know about signing guys whose chief skill is batting average to long-term deals after their age 27-28-29 seasons are behind them.
There's been plenty of discussion on Murray Chass and his Ludditism this week, and I reflected for a while on whether I had anything particular to add to the debate. I mean, I like stats. I think one thing I have in common with a lot of passionate, intellectual baseball fans my age (an interest group, by the way, which is a lot smaller than it by all rights ought to be) is that while I loved baseball as a kid, it was learning about the underlying mathematical pulses of the game in high school and college that really made me into an obsessive. I've become less dogmatic of a Bill James disciple since I've gotten a little older and a little wiser (and considerably more romantic), but there are still some statistical breakthroughs the utility of which are so obvious that it makes me sad when people resist them for no good reason. Does it make the dazzling variety of the game any less spectacular having a probablistic framework for what's likely to happen in my head at all times? Of course not. In fact, it makes it more enjoyable, because when something ridiculously improbable does happen I am able to quantify just how far-out it was. And that's pretty cool.
I'm not saying every baseball fan in the country ought to carry around a little laminated card with the Expected Runs Matrix in their wallets as the research department and I do, but it is every man's journey to come to better understand the world before he leaves it. Why throw out obviously useful information based on antiquated and illogical principles that not even those who parrot them really believe? That ain't baseball, that's religion. And I hate religion. Given the choice between VORP and baby Jesus, I'll choose VORP every time. But even making the comparison points out how silly it is to suggest that one necessarily supecedes and invalidates the other.
Anyway, all I really wanted to share was this image I keep coming to in my head. I have this vision of Chass wearing a Civil War uniform and leading a squadron of guys armed with breech-loading single shot muskets over a hill towards a mechanized infantry squadron. After the rout, limbless and alone, he moans: "No fair! They're ruining war with their technology!"
Not trying to win, but at least ticket prices won't rise (again)
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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