Tuesday, April 03, 2012

A Semi-Epic Meditation on Myth-Making, Declining Peripherals and Busted Piggy Banks




Fenway Park, bathed in the warm glow of the east sun late on a summer’s morning, is one of the truly spectacular and transcendent experiences that a baseball fan, let alone a human being, can ever aspire to have.  Even after two world championships in the last decade, night games at the park still feature a palpable buzz, an excitement akin to the late ‘70s New York (heresy!) of CBGB’s and Studio 54, but it’s in the daytime that the place really comes alive. 

Because no one is there.  Because in those still quiet moments before Yawkey Way is closed off for the game day traffic of food vendors and the throng of crimson-clad diehards and bandwagon jumpers (the dreaded pink hats, in the local lexicon, so dubbed for the women’s pink ballcap that the club started hocking around the time when Johnny Damon was still a hirsute matinee idol in those parts), when custodial workers are spraying down the street, when the Yawkey Way Souvenir Store (surely one of the best located retail spots in the country) has yet to give its first ballpark tour of the day, the true magic and grandeur of the place is revealed.  As the sunlight gradually illuminates the exterior corners of the old girl, the aged concrete crevices of Yaz and Teddy Ballgame’s day seem to perfectly blend with the reconstructed brick and Green Monster Seats of the Pedroia/Pedro/Nomaaah era.  It’s a fitting metaphor for the cocktail of nostalgia and modernism that is the Red Sox fan experience. 

So it was that I stood on Yawkey Way several summers ago, strolling around the exterior of the park taking pictures of the championship banners here, the Ted Williams statue there.  So engrossed was I in forever capturing these indelible features on film that I only noticed too late that my wallet was gone.  Spinning around, I tried to retrace my steps, but couldn’t figure out how I had lost it.  Then it hit me: that damn extreme Dutch angle.  In my thirst for the most memorable of shots, I had laid on my back on the pavement in the hopes of shooting those numerous banners from a perspective that would make future viewers question just what it was they were seeing.  In pursuing the shot, I had removed my wallet so that I could lie completely flat.  And I had forgotten to pick it back up.

By this point, I had walked halfway around the park, so it was with exquisite haste that I flew back around to where I had left the wallet.  But, of course, it was nowhere to be found.  My mind flew back to Paris, 1995, when, as an 18 year-old fresh out of high school, I had accidentally left my wallet on the airplane from America.  That cumbersome and annoying experience rang through my head until I heard a deep voice behind me.

“Hey man, are you lookin’ for this?” the voice bellowed.

I spun around and there he was.  David Ortiz.  Big Papi.  The clutchest of all clutch hitters, the post-season legend, the cartoonish object of New England’s adoring attention.  The man himself.  And he had picked up my wallet on his way into the park for that day’s pre-game practice.

I’d like to say that I was calm and collected about the whole thing, but come on now.  Like you’d believe that.  Amidst my jitters and stuttering, I managed to squeak out a “geez, you really saved me there.”  Ortiz’s benevolent smile said everything that I was trying to muster, so I just shook his hand, thanked him again and made my way back into Kenmore Square.

It’s a great story that I’ll always remember.
It’s also almost entirely a pack of lies.

And it illustrates what seems to be a growing trend in modern baseball coverage.  In the last few years, but especially this spring, national baseball prognosticators have seemingly fallen head over heels in love with certain teams and players, starstruck like a pack of teenage girls gone gaga over the latest celebrity mega-hunk.  And like those young gals, they’d much rather focus on what’s drool-inducing about these players than on the stark truths about their faults.  The stories are enticing and romantic, but they’re often just that: stories.

It’s enough to make a level-headed guy look like the world’s greatest cynic.  Take Stephen Strasburg, the Washington Nationals’ stud pitching prospect who electrified the game in his first handful of starts in his 2010 rookie campaign.  As he blew away hitter after hitter, the popular narrative became one of the next Randy Johnson, of Dwight Gooden without the drug problems and epic flameouts. 

I saw Mark Prior.

Yep, the highly touted Cubs prospect out of USC, the guy who, when he arrived on the scene in 2002 was touted as having perfect mechanics for a future ace and Hall of Famer.  The same guy who is now hoping for at least one more stab at a comeback after a career derailed by arm problems, many caused by arm problems from that same delivery (which turned out to be more herky jerky than Hall of Fame.)  When Strasburg debuted two years ago, I saw tremendous raw talent, but I also saw mechanics that put too much stress on his elbow.  One Tommy John surgery later, he’s making his way back with the hopes of fulfilling that potential.

Or take the Rays’ Matt Moore, the current darling of the press set, with his phenomenally easy cheese and fluid mechanics.  With their deep farm system, scrappy playing style and ace pitching staff, the Rays are once again the trendy pick to return to the top of the American League East, and Moore is being touted as one of the key pieces of the starting rotation.  Hey, I wish the guy all the best, and I’ll take more young and talented pitchers any day.  But here’s that reality check again: Moore has thrown a total of 9 1/3 major league innings.  Yes, they were dominant innings, including his masterful seven inning taming of the eventual AL Champion Rangers in Game 1 of the Divisional Series.  But they were 9 1/3 innings.  Has everyone forgotten that whole thing about teams adjusting to pitchers their second time around the league?  Hell, Moore hasn’t even it made it halfway through his first time around the circuit.

Now, I don’t want you to think that I’m pulling out my cane and stogie and pontificating about how rotten the game is these days.  On the contrary, this might be one of the most exciting times in modern baseball, with an influx of youthful superstars around the league and a revenue sharing system that is keeping the game more unpredictable than in past years.  But enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily have to equal irrationality.  Maybe it’s the hype-driven times that we live in, where it’s much easier to buy into the narrative of the emperor’s clothes than to take an extra few seconds to check him out in the buff, but it’s still okay to take a step back and remember what has come before in looking at this coming season (and yeah, there’s a big stinkin’ mixed metaphor fer ya!  Now get offa my lawn!)

NATIONAL LEAGUE



EAST
Philadelphia
Miami (Wild Card)
Atlanta
Washington
New York

These are precarious times for a Phillies fan.  That once potent office is starting to look increasingly threadbare.  Ryan Howard is out for the first part of the season, Chase Utley is a question mark healthwise and the top of the lineup (Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco and Shane Victorino) is investing in more Just for Men than stocks.  But there’s still the starting rotation, one of the most dangerous combos in all of baseball.  In Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, they have the most consistent, reliable duo that anyone could ask for, and now that Cole Hamels has fully  bounced back from his 2009 hiccup, he provides the Phils with a legitimate third #1.  Add in the promising Vance Worley, the still reliable Joe Blanton and a peaking Jonathan Papelbon (who should benefit from the senior circuit’s weaker offenses) to close out games and Philadelphia still has enough to hold off the competition, especially if Howard and Utley don’t log significant time on the DL.

But that sixth straight divisional title won’t come easy, for the NL East has become vastly improved over the last few years.  It might not rival its American League counterpart for pure firepower, but each team has a much more solid nucleus than even five years ago.  Until Arte Moreno opened up his piggy bank, the Marlins were the clear superstars of the winter meetings, inking Mark Buerhle, Jose Reyes and Heath Bell to extravagant contracts, a win now mentality taking the organization in its grasp.  Realistically, you could poke quite a few holes in the Miami dream of a championship in the first year of their newly christened electronic pleasuredome..I mean, stadium.  Closers have a notoriously short lifespan, and for all of his recent success, Bell is 34 and the owner of a K/BB ratio that took a sharp plunge last year (a fairly reliable precursor for decline.)  The Reyes story (all-world talent, fragile body)  is well-known.  Ace Josh Johnson is returning from a long injury layoff.  And of yeah, there’s that pesky situation with budding malcontent Hanley Ramirez and his plummeting OPS and initial grumbling about switching to third base to accommodate Reyes.  But the Marlins also have breakout star-in-the-making Giancarlo Stanton and his otherworldy power to anchor the lineup.  And for my money, Buerhle is the best signing they made all offseason.  He’s proven himself as a reliable innings eater in the brutal American League, and even though his days of touching twenty wins are receding, he’s still a valuable veteran presence on a young club.  There’s enough volatile energy in South Beach to give their rivals up north a run for the riches.

On paper, Atlanta still fields a strong team and a possible contender, but the return of key players from injury (Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson) and the comeback of one of those aforementioned future stars (Jason Heyward, who was hyped to the moon as Willie Mays Mk. II in 2010, only to crash to earth last year) will dictate whether the Braves will pester the Marlins and Phillies or whether Fredi Gonzalez will have to wait out a painful recovery process until 2013.  The potentially punchless nature of the lineup is also a concern, although the Atlanta bullpen (with shutdown studs Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel) remains one of the strongest in the game and might help ease the burden of the somewhat tattered rotation.

The Braves’ running mates in the division are where we run into the slightly irrational excitement that I described way back at the beginning of this essay.  Sure the Nationals are exciting and young.  A full season of Strasburg could prove to be something special, and after years of futility, this franchise is finally starting to emerge from the post-Expos hangover.  But that youth movement also carries with it a load of questions.  Can Gio Gonzalez sake the control problems that dogged him in Oakland?  How will Michael Morse’s season-opening DL stint affect his continued growth?  If mega-prospect Bryce Harper spends significant time with the big club, will he blossom or just annoy people with a mouth that seems to match his prodigious talents?  And will veteran Jayson Worth regain any of his former stroke, or will his signing go down as one of the last bum moves for this star-crossed franchise (assuming that the seemingly prescient locking up of Ryan Zimmerman pays off as expected)?  Yep, a load of questions translates into continued improvement, but this club is still a year away from making a run at a playoff spot.

The best news that the Mets received this offseason was twofold: the end of the Bernie Madoff/Wilpon family fiasco and the return of Johan Santana after nearly a year and a half on the shelf.  And maybe the promise of David Wright regaining some of his power now that the club has moved in the fences at Citi Field.  But aside from those matters, this is still a franchise in dire straits.  With Sandy Alderson running the show, there’s always hope for a return to glory, but the only New York team that’ll be flirting with the postseason for the next few years is run by the Steinbrenner family.



CENTRAL
Cincinnati
St. Louis (Wild Card)
Milwaukee
Pittsburgh
Chicago
Houston

As opposed to the NL East, the Central requires much less of a word count, if only because it’s (as always) less stacked with talent, especially in the cases of the bottom three clubs.  Now after preaching the value of restraint in evaluating teams earlier in this essay, I’ll cop to having fallen prey to overestimating a seemingly up and coming club in recent years.  Case in point: the Reds.  For four years now, I’ve been high on them for the division crown, only to see them go from 78 wins to 91 wins and then back to 79 wins.  The pitching has been wildly inconsistent and the offense has at times been baffling.  But if this offseason showed anything, it was that Walt Jocketty was going all in to win now.  He gave up quite the ransom to pry Mat Latos away from the Padres, but his peripherals and age make the acquisition a shrewd bet.  With Johnny Cueto evolving into a dominant front line starter, a steadily improving Mike Leake and the likelihood that former prospect Homer Bailey might be a decent number five, Cincinnati can afford to gamble on Bronson Arroyo rebounding from a subpar 2011 to fill out what could be the premiere staff in the division.  And now that Joey Votto is signed up through his age 39 year, the offense has reliability in the middle for some time to come.  The keys to the Reds’ success will be if Ryan Ludwick, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips can maintain any consistency in their offensive output.  Bruce has prodigious power, but will need to increase his walk rate if he’s going to be Votto’s partner in crime in the heart of the lineup.  As well, Ryan Madson’s season-ending injury has thrown the bullpen into some doubt, but it’s still deep and could benefit tremendously from the addition of the always ready to bust out Aroldis Chapman.

If Chris Carpenter is healthy, the Cardinals will contend.  If Chris Carpenter is out for long stretches of time, the Cardinals will still contend.  Remember the script from last year, when co-ace Adam Wainwright missed the entire season, thus supposedly signifying a St. Louis collapse?  See how that worked out?  It’s old hat at this point, but the Cardinals are such a sound organization that they’re able to retool and rehab pitchers while plugging bit players and aging vets into the lineup.  If the Reds underachieve (which is always a possibility with that franchise), St. Louis could once again take the division, although the loss of Albert Pujols is going to be tougher than most of their recent losses.

And speaking of Central sluggers who took their act to the junior circuit, Prince Fielder’s departure is likely enough to derail a repeat from the Brewers.  The starting three of Zack Greinke, Yovanni Gallardo and Shaun Marcum have the potential to be lights out, and the K-Rod/John Axford bullpen duo is strong enough to give credence to the possibility of Milwaukee surprising everyone.  But there are a few too many if’s there, and Fielder drove the offense so much that his absence is probably too tough to overcome.  At least for this year.

The bottom of the division contains a trio of once proud franchises who are all in a state of flux.  Theo Epstein’s arrival gives the Cubs the most immediate hope for a return to glory, although he and Jed Hoyer have a lot of work to do before Wrigley Field hosts a playoff game again.  The Pirates continue to build a strong offensive core, but the starting rotation is still too weak.  And the Astros are marking time until they switch over to the American League in 2013.



WEST
San Francisco
Arizona
Los Angeles
Colorado

This division is a pretty simple case, as it depends on one thing: pitching.  If the Giants can get any kind of offense out of their lineup, if Buster Posey returns to his pre-injury form, if Brandon Belt’s swing is rehabbed to their satisfaction, they win the NL West.  Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner are more solid than what the other staffs have to offer, and that will make all the difference.  Kirk Gibson’s hard-nosed style helped Arizona to finally reach the potential they’d been teasing for several years, but the offense is still not much better than what the Giants throw out there, and the starting rotation is shaky beyond Ian Kennedy.  These factors and an expected regression to the mean will deny the Diamondbacks another division title. 

Now that the McCourt family soap opera has been yanked offstage, the Dodgers and their new owners can concentrate on restoring the franchise to its past glories.  All credit to Don Mattingly, who kept this team together last year through all the off-field drama and lack of finances for additional on-field help.  Again, pitching is the key question here.  Aside from Clayton Kershaw, whose breakout season firmly established him as an elite starter, there are question marks aplenty, especially with the loss of the reliable Hiroki Kuroda and an untested bullpen.  Offensively, Matt Kemp appears to have come into his own with his MVP campaign.  The ability of Andre Ethier to build on his progress and Dee Gordon establishing himself as a reliable leadoff hitter will be important, but this club is still several players away from challenging again.  But now that they have some scratch to throw around, that might come sooner rather than later.  The same can’t be said for Colorado, although the Rockies aren’t that far away from making another prolonged run.  Say it one more time with me: pitching is the key to this division.  And the Rockies’ staff is both too young and too mediocre to make many waves.  But in two years…

PLAYOFFS

WILD CARD PLAY-IN
Miami over St. Louis

DIVISIONAL ROUND
Philadelphia over Miami
San Francisco over St. Louis

NLCS
Philadelphia over San Francisco

AMERICAN LEAGUE



EAST
Boston
Tampa Bay (Wild Card)
New York
Toronto
Baltimore

It’s entirely appropriate for a division that’s home to two mythical franchises to have so many myths encircling it entering this year.  So to set things straight:

MYTH: The Red Sox are a beer guzzlin’, fried chicken chompin’ disaster with too many large egos and a new manager primed for an epic flameout.

REALITY: From May-August, this team dominated baseball like no other.  With John Lackey having a historically atrocious season.  And J.D. Drew’s bat finally disappearing.  Both are gone this year, while the rest of the league’s best offense returns with bit players like Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney filling in some of the blanks.  And that’s not even considering the likelihood that Carl Crawford returns to at least his average career numbers.  Sure, Josh Beckett’s peripherals will likely regress a bit, and Jon Lester might never quite make it over the hump into dominant ace territory.  But they don’t need to for Boston to take the division, especially with Clay Buchholz returning and a strong spring from Felix Doubront.  Andrew Bailey’s potential thumb surgery at press time complicates matters, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Daniel Bard returns to the bullpen to anchor a deep core of relievers.  And yeah, Bobby Valentine is destined to flame out at some point, but he traditionally gives his teams a bump in his first year.  Don’t be fooled by the once in a lifetime epic September collapse; this team is still a beast.

MYTH: The Rays’ offense will be scrappy enough to support the excellent pitching.

REALITY: This is a potentially deeply flawed lineup.  Carlos Pena is in decline, Jose Molina could be a black hole at catcher and Luke Scott is Luke Scott.  Yes, Desmond Jennings is a star in waiting, but he has yet to play an entire season.  And the Matt Joyce/Ben Zobrist combo equals one all-star player, but that’s not enough. 

MYTH: The Yankees!  They’re the Yankees!
REALITY: There are holes everywhere in this team.  Robbie Cano and Curtis Granderson (if he repeats his 2011) aside, this is an aging lineup that’s running out of second winds.  A-Rod is in decline, Mark Teixeira’s peripherals are headed in the wrong direction and Derek Jeter isn’t getting any younger.  And for all the hype about the resurgent pitching staff, New York begins the year with Michael Pineda on the DL after an inconsistent spring in which he displayed inconsistent velocity, the enigma of Phil Hughes, Hiroki Kuroda having to jump from the offensively impotent NL West to the shark tank of the AL East and Ivan Nova trying to prove that his sensational rookie campaign was no hoax.  Yes, CC Sabathia is as reliable as they come, but the last year the Yanks took advantage of Boston’s collapse and Tampa’s last minute run to take the division.  Lightning won’t strike twice this year.

MYTH: Toronto is the sleeper team in this division.
REALITY: They really are a sleeper, although not for a division crown.  But this is a team on the move, so watch out in 2013.

MYTH: Baltimore is really that bad.
REALITY: They’re bad.  But not that bad.  And if Dan Duquette can work the organizational rebuilding that he did in Montreal and Boston (before he became the most hated man in Beantown), the O’s might regain their former glory in a few years.  Or more.



CENTRAL
Detroit
Cleveland
Kansas City
Minnesota
Chicago

This division seems like a foregone conclusion, as on paper the talent gap between Detroit and the field is massive.  The Tigers will still win it, but any consistence in offensive production from the Indians could keep them in the race, especially if Ubaldo Jiminez regains some of his ace form.  The Tigers still face questions of consistency in the rotation after Justin Verlander (although Doug Fister could be the solid two that Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer have been aiming to be) and their offense might not be the beast that everyone is predicting.  Prince Fielder will still produce, but his numbers are going to take a hit in the spacious confines of Comerica Park.  And the impact of Miguel Cabrera’s move to third base is still unknown; the defensive hit alone will likely hamper the pitching staff.  Past these two mashers, there’s a lot of incosistence and what if’s in the rest of the offense, enough that Cleveland’s vaunted youngsters could give them fits.  A return to form for Shin-Soo Choo and continued improvement from Asdrubal Cabrera will go a long way toward making sure that Carlos Santana doesn’t have to shoulder the burden himself.  If the Shelley Duncan, Casey Kotchman, Jack Hannahan/Lonnie Chisenhall triumvirate can be better than league average, then watch out for the Tribe.

Which leaves us with the Twins and the White Sox.  Minnesota is facing the possibility that Joe Mauer will be the highest paid average part time catcher in the league for years to come, and Justin Morneau is a question mark.  That seemingly impossible formula of youth, bit players and timely pitching that the Twins rode to success for years has apparently run out, so it might be a rough year up north.  And Chicago is clearly in rebuild mode.



WEST
Texas
Los Angeles (Wild Card)
Seattle
Oakland

And so we end with one of the other great media narratives of the offseason: the amazing healing powers of Albert Pujols.  The Angels were widely criticized for their reluctance to outbid their competitors for free agents over the last few years, so it’s no surprise that, facing the slow closing of this team’s championship, Arte Moreno threw his mad money everywhere and landed both Pujols and C.J. Wilson.  As a result, the Los Angeles starting rotation will be a beast, possibly the best in baseball.  And Pujols is still the best player in the game and headed toward being one of the best of all time.  But it can’t be denied that his overall numbers have been in steady decline, and that decline has occurred in a league with weaker competition and overall weaker pitching.  He’ll mash for the Angels, but he’s not getting any younger, and even if he defies the average aging pattern he still won’t keep up his production for that long.  Which is a problem, because people seem to forget how bad this offense was last year.  Their OPS leader?  Howie Kendrick, with a subpar .802.  I keep hearing that Torii Hunter is in great shape, but he’s also 36.  And don’t even start with the Vernon Wells comeback talk.  Throw in the question of Kendrys Morales returning from injury and a relatively unproven gaggle of youngsters and you have a club that’s better, but not quite up to par with Texas. 

Now the Rangers face the opposite problem, as their starting staff is slightly up in the air after losing Wilson.  If Yu Darvish bucks the trend of recent Japanese pitching flameouts, the relative depth of the starting five should be enough to keep them in games.  Which should be enough to win the division, because the Rangers’ offense remains scary good.  Josh Hamilton is a regression candidate, but even if his numbers fall off he has such a stellar supporting cast around him one through nine that it might not make a difference.  Normally, I’d preach the good gospel of great pitching outlasting a great offense, but with Los Angeles’s anemic offense in play, the Rangers should have enough to edge them in the West.

And then there are the Mariners and Athletics, two teams still building for a future of some sort.  For the A’s, there’s the promise of relocation to San Jose, so this year will likely focus around the American debut of Yoennis Cespedes and whether Manny Ramirez has any production left in him.  The Mariners still have the amazing Felix Hernandez and a good core of young hitters (led by Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak), but they’re several years away from returning to the postseason.

PLAYOFFS

WILD CARD PLAY-IN
Los Angeles over Tampa Bay

DIVISIONAL ROUND
Boston over Texas
Detroit over Los Angeles

ALCS
Boston over Detroit

WORLD SERIES
Boston over Philadelphia
-One year later, the trendy 2011 pick comes true.  Philly makes what might be one last run at a title, while Boston picks themselves up and resumes their pre-August 2011 form.

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