Thursday, March 29, 2007

2007 Previews: The American League

We continue our 2007 predictions with a long look at the American League. In his NL preview, Mets2Moon called the AL "commie" and "fatboy" baseball. As you can see, we're not big on the junior circuit over here. To make matters worse, the AL has been clearly the better league in recent seasons, despite Detroit's failure to show up for the World Series this past October. A rash of offseason spending by NL clubs should theoretically begin to even things out, but when you look at the deals in question that's not really a lock. The Dodgers and Mets are good. The Cardinals and Astros are fair-to-middling. The Phillies could be pretty good. Maybe there will be one or two semi-surprise teams (e.g., Brewers, Diamondbacks), but that's about it. Compared to the Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels, et al, the NL still looks very much like Quadruple-A.

So who will emerge as our benevolent American League overlords this season? Do we have a shot at pulling a fast one like last year or '03? How does the big fatboy bully league shape up in 2007?

Let's take a look at the races . . .

* * *

1. New York Yankees

Make no mistake, this lineup is absolutley devastating up and down the order right up until you reach Doug Mientkiewicz in the nine hole (when the devastation comes to an abrupt halt). Jeter, Abreu, Rodriguez, Cano, and Matsui could bat anywhere in anyone's lineup. Looking for weaknesses turns up a couple things that are nothing new to the Bombers: poor team defense, particularly in the middle infield; Posada's reaching the Christological Age of catchers; sort of a weak bench, Melky Cabrera notwithstanding. But that order is crazy. They've got patient hitters; they've got aggressive hitters. They don't have much speed, but they have great baserunners. They won't score 1000 runs, but at times they'll make you think they can.

If haters like yours truly want a chance at feeling a little schadenfreude, it'll have to come from the pitching staff. The latest doom & gloom news is that either Carl Pavano or Jeff Karstens will pitch opening day, with various maladies affecting Chien-Ming Wang and the geriatric duo of Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina. Well, as panic-inducing situations go, this one's kind of a yawn. The big guys will be back in it soon enough, and might even see the nauseating return of Roger "Fathead" Clemens in June. Now, they do have kind of a crappy bullpen that Torre will no doubt abuse in his own inimitable way (Farnsworth and Proctor getting 99.9% of all non-Mariano innings until their rotator cuffs resign in protest). And the rotation is not as rock-solid as they'd like it to be. What does Pettitte still have in the tank and will he keep getting hurt? What does Igawa have to offer? And of course Pavano has to be considered a real wild card. But Yankee fans, before you jump on him too badly, listen closely: despite the bad press about him, I remember him as an anchor of that Marlins rotation in '03 when Beckett and A.J. Burnett were alternating turns on the DL, and he could easily do the same for the Yankees this season. Just give the guy another chance.

2. Boston Red Sox
First off, I want to take this opportunity to say a word about Curt Schilling's blog: it's fantastic, and Dan Shaughnessy can go fuck himself. I can't put it any better than Fire Joe Morgan does, so go see their take and we'll be all set. By the way, I was on my way to an NLDS game last year and saw Shaughnessy on the escalator down to the 7 train at Grand Central, and for some reason it was like someone threw a black cat right in my face. I wondered whether I should be panicking. Of course, we won, but boy, that was an iffy moment for the Gaupo.

On to this year's team, I don't know what the feeling in Red Sox Nation is, but personally I think they'll be pretty damn good, better than last season, in fact. Obviously a lot is on the shoulders of the injury-prone J.D. Drew, but if he's healthy there's a lot of runs to be scored, especially if the Sox take my suggestion and bat him second, behind Kevin Youkilis and ahead of Papi and Manny. And yes, I'm on the Dice-K bandwagon. This is how I see it going for him. His first start of the season (which will of course be hyped and overanalyzed beyond all reason) could go absolutely any which way: 7 shutout innings; run out in the second; something in between; whatever. From there, he gets off to a hot start, baffling hitters and showing his full array of pitches. Then, as we approach the All-Star break, the league catches up a bit and the scouting reports get filled in. Dice takes a few lumps. From there, it's kind of up to him but I see him (and this is of course just a hunch) responding and working it out, finishing strong down the stretch. In the end, he's looking it 15-16 wins and an ERA in the mid-3's. No Cy Young, but a better than solid first year.

As for the rest of the pitchers, the biggest news is in the closer role. Papelbon would be unquestionably be more valuable to the Sox as a starter than a closer, for the simple reason that starters are more valuable than closers, period. But with that said, it's a big plus for this team that the shaky closer situation has been settled in a way that has to be comforting to everyone involved. Even given a bit of a sophmore slump, Paps will be far less anxiety-inducing than experiments with Joel Pineiro or the ghost of Mike Timlin.

3. Toronto Blue Jays
Do you realize that the Jays finished a game ahead of the Red Sox last year? How did I forget about that? This is what happens when you declare your allegiance to one league. But that's remarkable because it seemed for a long time that the AL East belonged to two teams, one that would always win and one that would always come in second, close behind, with everyone else hoping only for a shot third place. Pitiful. I think much more could have been made of Toronto's accomplishment, and not only from a "How did the Red Sox blow that?" perspective (though that would be a legit interpretation too), but from the point of view of how one team from the East's bottom-dwellers gathered up the gumption and know-how, not to mention the Toonies-from-Heaven payroll, to make a run at runner-up. And more than that, how did they do it even while enduring 12 starts from Josh Towers?

Strange as it seems to herald the achievements of a team that finished 10 games out of first, it's illustrative of what the AL is about these days, and why although it is the fatboy league, it's hardly a commie league. No true pinko could stomach the stratification that's so much more evident over there (note: this is not a value judgment or an "NL is holier" argument; just reading the lay of the land). It gets to the reason the AL has asserted its dominance over the NL lately: nuclear proliferation. The Yankees and Red Sox launch their mutually assured destruction-style arms race, with payrolls skyrocketing, while other teams either wilt under their power (Royals, D-Rays), try to spend along with them as much as they can (White Sox, Blue Jays, Mariners, Rangers), or launch into some kind of hyper-creative, guerilla-warfare ish (Twins, A's) on the theory that if you can't join them, beat them some other way. So, no, it's not just the money. It's the money plus the ingenuity and derring-do that go along with trying to beat the money. That's why the AL is better: Cold War tactics plus capitalistic ingenuity and balls-out spending money to make money. It is the League of Reagan. Ugly, brutal, and headed towards some sort of Mad Max-meets-Terminator dystopian future.

Okay, so maybe that is a value judgment.

4. Baltimore Orioles
The conventional wisdom has it that Peter Angelos is killing his team and blaming it on the Nationals, presumably because that's what he really believes. As much as I'd love to launch into a counterintuitive, contrarian take on why Angelos isn't the culprit here, I can't. He is the culprit. He's blocked any number of recent trades and signings, stepping in and yanking the car keys from his various GMs over the last few years. They've successfully made one big free agent signing in Miguel Tejada, and benefitted from the emergence of Melvin Mora and Nick Markakis. This season they're once again saddled with too many borderline first-base/DH hacks (Millar, Gibbons, Huff). The only thing that might save them from again spinning their wheels hopelessly is that good young pitching they've got.

5. Tampa Bay Devil Rays
It's appropriate that I've saved the Rays to write about last. Long the red-headed stepchild of the league, they'll likely remain so for some time to come. This year is actually the brightest it's ever been for the Rays. For several seasons they were afraid to bring up any of their prospects and start their service time clocks ticking (the sooner they bring them up the sooner they watch them sign free agent contracts elsewhere), but now they don't really have a choice. Delmon Young will be out there, they'll settle on a position for B.J. Upton where he can do the least defensive harm, and apparently they got some starting pitcher from the Mets a couple years ago, but I don't remember anything about that. Do you? No? Good.

It doesn't really seem worthwhile to get into the particulars, but the Rays deserve respect too, so here we go: Cantu's a good hitter and should rebound; Ty Wigginton will regress to the mean a little; Baldelli, Crawford, Young, and Upton will be terrifically fun to watch for the handful of fans who actually watch Tampa's games; and all of their pitchers will get absolutely murdered by those diabolical AL East lineups, not to mention the diabolical Central and West lineups.

* * *
1. Detroit Tigers
An unproven leadoff hitter (Curtis Granderson) could be this lineup's only Achilles heal. He has to prove he can get on base enough to justify his place, although, not knowing much about Jim Leyland's feelings on these matters, I guess he could fail to get on base and still bat leadoff. Like all blatant steroid abusers (isn't blogging fun?) Gary Sheffield's performance could go any which way. Let's assume he'll still murder fastballs and possibly a few luckless third base coaches.

But Tiger pitching is the real story, led by Bonderman and Verlander. Todd Jones needs to not be the closer anymore, but that will probably take care of itself as the season progresses. By which I mean a forward-thinking Tiger fan could take out his knee caps, freeing up the big chair for Joel Zumaya.

2. Minnesota Twins
They've got the best starting pitcher in either league, the best closer in either league, good young hitters led by Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, and they seem to have shaken whatever demon voice was telling them to lean heavily on crusty veterans like Rondell White and Ruben Sierra. White is back, but in a less crucial role with guys like Jason Kubel around. Luis Castillo and Nick Punto get on base a respectable amount (.358 and .352 respectively) to handle the top of the order. Jason Bartlett (.367 last year) might end up in one of those spots, too. Mauer-Cuddyer-Morneau need no introduction in the heart of the order, to the tune of a combined 74 home runs and 323 RBI.

The big question for the Twins is the rotation behind Johan Santana. It's just never a good thing when Sidney Ponson is involved, especially given the lineups of the Indians and Tigers. How the rotation question will be answered depends on Matt Garza and Boof Bonser, who have to step up and make sure Ponson and Ramon Ortiz's services will not be needed for long.

3. Cleveland Indians
According to Sports Illustrated, all of Jhonny Peralta's offensive and defensive problems last year were attributable to his poor eyesight and discomfort with contact lenses. He had offseason laser surgery to correct that problem, and a lot of Cleveland's hopes depend on it. He's paired with Josh Barfield, a much better defensive second baseman than they had last season, so the infield defense could be in for a huge improvement, especially when you consider Andy Marte replacing Aaron Boone at third.

Cleveland is playing around with a lot of platoons, which is a little troubling. Casey Blake is involved in seemingly all of them, along with Trot Nixon in right, Ryan Garko and Victor Martinez at first, and David Delucci in left. By all rights that first-base job should be Garko's, with Nixon and Blake starting in the outfield corners and Delucci coming off the bench. See, Cleveland, was that so hard?

4. Chicago White Sox
The AL Central is probably the strongest division in baseball, and one good team is going to have to finish fourth. So I'm not killing the White Sox when I say it will probably be them. I basically like their pitching, and of course they're only a year removed from winning it all, but the lineup's just got too much Scott Podsednik, too much Juan Uribe, and definitely way too much Darin Erstad to make me think they can crack the top three here, even with the power bats of Thome and Konerko. I don't see Jermaine Dye repeating his MVP-caliber year either, though he'll still be good.

5. Kansas City Royals
I don't know how to even begin talking about the Gil Meche contract, except to say that there should be a provision for the League to step in and block a deal like that in extreme circumstances. Call it the "Darren Dreifort Clause."

But the Royals are definitely finishing in last place, and they may actually be the first team in history to have been mathmatically eliminated in spring training, so let's just focus on the positive here. Alex Gordon and Mark Teahen are going to be really good hitters, and probably this year, and miraculously the Royals don't have ridiculous, useless veterans blocking their way. And ridiculous, useless veterans Mark Grudzielanek, Reggie Sanders, and Jason LaRue don't seem to be blocking the way of any prospects, so that's fine.

That's all I got, guys. Sorry.

* * *
1. Oakland A's
I should probably pick the big-money, Vlad-powered Angels, but I can't. More on them in a second, but as far as Oakland goes, their own version of Generation K looks awesome, and unlike the Mets version did, these guys actually stay healthy and productive. Rich Harden will be the Cy Young runner-up, Haren will shine as well, Huston Street will have a decent bounceback season, and the back of the rotation will be pretty much as decent as it needs to be. On the other side of the ball our old buddy Mike Piazza will settle comfortably into the DH role and hit 25 home runs. As for Milton Bradley: remember Milton, you too can be a winner at the game of Life. Just try not to take out the whole first row behind the dugout in Anaheim or something.

2. Los Angeles Angels
I just think the Sarge, Jr. deal is going to kill them. Even before the revelations came out about the HGH deliveries that looked like a foolish signing. Couple that with and aging Garrett Anderson limping around in left and I don't see the lineup coming together. Now, Casey Kotchman and Howie Kendrick could take over and make me look foolish, and John Lackey is a sleeper Cy Young candidate. Like I said, it's hard not to pick them to win the division, but I'm going with my gut here.

3. Texas Rangers
One circus leaves town and another arrives. With Matthews out of the picture, probably mercifully for the Rangers, they bring in Sammy Sosa to compete for a comeback bid. I honestly don't see Sammy amounting to much, certainly he won't be this season's Frank Thomas, but the team has so little invested in him it will hardly matter. What will matter is how weak the rest of the outfield is (Kenny Lofton?) and the shaky rotation (perhaps literally, in Vincente Padilla's case).

4. Seattle Mariners
Here are Seattle's win totals since 2000:
2000: 91
2001: 116
2002: 93
2003: 93
2004: 63
2005: 63
2006: 78
It can happen just like that, kids. One season you're rolling off wins they was nothin' and the next you're in the basement, wondering what the hell just happened. Not trying to be gloomy, Mets fans, I'm just saying you gotta take a good look around and appreciate what you've got. Payrolls guarantee nothing.

Any good news for the M's? Sure. They've got a good closer, for whatever that's worth. They've got all that Japanese marketing scratch pouring in. More importantly, King Felix is still young, only turning 21 early next month, and early disappointments should leave him both hungier and wiser. But Jeff Weaver, Miguel Batista, and Horacio Ramirez are in line to get murdered in the AL. Also, Rey Ordonez just made their opening day roster. Not Rey Ordoňez, Jr., not some other dude who happens to be named Rey Ordoňez: regular old Rey Ordoňez.

It's going to take the Mariners a while to dig themselves out of the mess they've made for themselves, but if the Mets can look at the Mariners as a cautionary tale (too close to the sun, wings of wax, etc.) then the Mariners can look back at the Mets as a reason for hope. You can ditch bad contracts if you're creative. Draft well, nurture your prospects, and then, when the time is just right, start throwing that cash around. Just make sure it's on the right guys next time, and not Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre.

* * *
EAST: Yankees

MVP: Grady Sizemore

Cy Young: Johan Santana
Rookie: Daisuke Matsuzaka

I don't make playoff predictions. This ain't the NBA: anything can happen.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Lost Classics: April 1, 1996

With Opening Day coming this Sunday evening, I thought it time to take another ride through the Annals of Mets History, to look at an Opening Day game from a time when optimism was abound for all Mets fans.

It is Opening Day, April 1, 1996. Following several years of non-competitiveness, the Mets are primed and ready to roll. The following season saw the arrival of a pair of pitchers who were going to set New York, and all of Baseball, on its ears.

Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen were the two stud pitchers who rocketed through the Mets minor league system, dominating hitters and creating excitement. A pair of charismatic personalities, they were expected to lead the Mets back to prominence. A third pitcher, Paul Wilson, was to join them. A phenom, Wilson had been selected #1 overall in the 1994 draft. These three pitchers were dubbed "Generation K."

These Mets are young, but spunky. In 1995, much of their high-priced talent would be dealt away, leaving a team of young, hungry, and emerging players such as Todd Hundley, Rico Brogna and Butch Huskey. They are also joined by a slick fielding Cuban defector named Rey Ordonez.

Led by manager Dallas Green, these Mets are expected to rise up against all odds and make a push for the team's first postseason berth since 1988.

But it will soon appear to be a mirage. Injuries and inconsistency will wipe out the seasons of many of these players. As Opening Day arrives, Pulsipher is already lost for an undetermined amount of time with what is called a "strained elbow." Little do we know. Green's demand for high pitch counts and loads of innings have already ruined Pulsipher's elbow, and cost him the 1996 season. He will then suffer from both physical and mental struggles that will prevent him from returning to the Majors until 1998. And he will never recapture the brilliance that made Mets fans so excited about him in '95. Isringhausen too will suffer. His 1996 season will be marked with pain and problems as well. He will miss most of the 1997 season with injuries, and all of 1998. Wilson will be the only one of these three to pitch out the entire season, but he too will fall victim to injuries, and will not return to the majors until 2000, after he is dealt to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

But this will all happen later. What we know on April 1st is that this new generation of Mets is set to ride on this day against the St. Louis Cardinals. It is a mucky, miserable afternoon, with temperatures falling into the 40s, and rain falling on and off throughout the day. It doesn't matter. We're here, and we came to see some baseball.

I am in attendance, having for the first, last, and only time, snuck into the stadium through an unguarded door, and, with some friends, are milling around the Field level. We end up in section 37, merely 5 rows behind the Mets dugout. Nobody has noticed us, and nobody cares. We're just some kids.

And I've got my camera with me, for this rare look through my eyes at this afternoon's ballgame. It's about noon when we're inside. We mill around for some time, watching batting practice and soaking in the atmosphere of Opening Day.

Here, past meets present. Ron Darling chats with John Franco outside the Mets bullpen.

Finally, the ceremonies begin. First, the Cardinals are announced. This is Tony LaRussa's first game as manager of the Cardinals, hired away from the Oakland A's during the offseason. For the Mets, it is an odd Opening Day lineup, looking back on it. But examine.

Dallas Green manages. Dallas has already unwittingly ruined Pulsipher's arm with his demand for loads of innings and high pitch counts from young arms. He will wreck more arms before he's done. He'll also basically sleep through most of this season, before being fired after a miserable 7-16 stretch in August, replaced by the man who will lead the Mets to prominence in the late 90s, Bobby Valentine.

Lance Johnson and Bernard Gilkey are new Mets for this season, and both will respond with career years. Rico Brogna was thought to be the linchpin of the team's offense following a brilliant 1995 season. The clutch hitting, slick fielding first baseman will miss most of the 1996 season to injury before being dealt in a bewildering deal to Philadelphia for two forgettable relievers. He will respond with consecutive 100-RBI seasons. Butch Huskey was anointed the Mets cleanup hitter following a Spring Training where he hit 8 HRs. He will struggle all season. Jeff Kent will quickly become the team whipping boy before being dealt in July in the now-infamous trade for Carlos Baerga. Todd Hundley was about to embark on a historic season, which I'll cover later. Jose Vizcaino failed to build on a successful season in 1995, and also left in the Baerga deal. Rey Ordonez would struggle to bat his weight, but he would show early on why his glove was so well hyped.

The rest of a Runaway mob. OF Kevin Roberson, Pulsipher, P Pete Harnisch, P Robert Person (whose most significant contribution to the Mets will come a year later when he is dealt to Toronto for John Olerud), P John Franco, Paul Wilson, P Blas Minor, P Doug Henry...

...Wilson, Minor, Henry, P Dave Mlicki, P Juan Acevedo, P Paul Byrd, Isringhausen and P Jerry DiPoto. The fabled Rocky Point Marching Band is in the background.

All these names bring back many memories. Most of them not so good.

But here we go! It's Bobby Jones on the mound for the Mets, back when he was the only Bobby Jones on the team. Fresno earned his Opening Day start mainly by being the senior member of the starting rotation. Jones was never spectacular, but he always did enough to keep his team in the game every time out. A former phenom, Jones was often maligned for what was a decidedly unsexy repertoire of pitches, and numbers that were never quite eye popping. But he would plug away for several seasons, leading all Mets pitchers in victories for the 1990s, and he would cap his Mets career by tossing one of the most unlikely masterpieces of all time when he one-hit the Giants in the 2000 NLDS.

On this Opening Day, Jones will not pitch well at all. By the time he departs after 3 and 2/3 miserable innings, the Mets will not only be dazed, but on the wrong end of a 6-0 score. But Jones will start off strong in the first. He's opposed by Andy Benes for the Cardinals, who also starts solidly. But Jones will run into trouble in the top of the 2nd. He walks Ron Gant to lead off the inning. Gary Gaetti follows by singling up the middle, moving Gant to third. John Mabry will follow with a long sacrifice fly to center, scoring Gant.

In the third, it's Willie McGee and his hideous face poking a single to center. Royce Clayton, who is unceremoniously unseating Ozzie Smith at SS for the Cards, follows by lining a long double to center, scoring McGee. But Clayton will be thrown out trying for third on a great relay throw from Ordonez. More disaster averted.

But Jones will fall apart in the 4th. With 1 out, Mabry will launch a long HR to right-center. Pat Borders (still remembered as the 1992 World Series MVP with the Toronto Blue Jays) and Luis Alicea will follow with consecutive singles. Andy Benes will bunt the runners over. And then it is McGee, still hideous, who launches a long fly ball out to right that drifts, and drifts, and drifts, and Huskey is lumbering back, and back, and back . . . and his big ass is climbing up the wall . . . but he can't get it. A 3-run HR. Jones is done. Cards lead 6-0.

By this point, the 42,060 in attendance are fed up. Not only is it raining, and cold, and windy, but the Mets are getting their asses kicked. Most of the crowd heads for the exits. We stay. We believe.

And, for this day, we are slowly but surely rewarded. It begins in the last of the 4th.

It is Rico Brogna leading off with a single to left, inside-outing a tough pitch from Benes. Huskey and Kent will make outs. Todd Hundley bats.

In 1995, Todd Hundley began to emerge as a serious offensive threat. His skills as a catcher were already top notch. But he was always getting hurt. He was on his way to a standout season in 1995 before a wrist injury suffered in a home plate collision sapped his power. Still, many astute fans noticed that over the 1994 and 1995 seasons, he had hit 31 HRs and drove in 93 runs in what amounted to about a season's worth of plate appearances. We know that if he can stay healthy, he could be as good an all-around player as another catcher, who at this point played on the opposite coast, who we will come to know quite well a little over two seasons later.

And Hundley, on this day, will respond by ripping his first HR of the season, a long shot into the Mets bullpen.

Little do we know just how good Hundley will be. He will begin ripping HRs at a frenetic pace, shattering the Mets club record, and, by seasons end, he will break Roy Campanella's single-season HR record by a catcher with 41 HRs. A record that will later be broken, but a number that still stands, tied for first as the highest HR total in Mets History.

How close are we? It's New York's then-#1 fan, Mayor Giuliani, departing in the middle innings. We know now where his true colors are. "Friggin' Giuliani!"

On the other side, the Mets bullpen has taken over. A unit that will be frightful over the course of the season, they are rock solid on this afternoon. Blas Minor will hold the Cardinals in the 4th and 5th. Jerry DiPoto holds the line in the 6th and 7th.

In the 6th, the Mets will chip away some more. Bernard Gilkey, in his Mets debut, is playing the team that traded him away. Gilkey will play all season with a chip on his shoulder, posting one of the best offensive seasons in Mets history. He will hit at a .317 clip, with 30 HRs. His 117 RBIs set a club record, and his 44 doubles still stand as the club mark. But, following this season, Gilkey will vanish completely, into obscurity. He will never come close to matching these numbers again.But on this day, he will aid the Mets, hitting a HR into the Loge section, down the line in left field. He pumps his fist as he crosses the plate. What was a 6-0 lead is now 6-3, and maybe one more rally can put the Mets back in this one.

But there will be one pivotal play in this game that will swing the momentum fully in the Mets favor. And it will come on the defensive side. In the top of the 7th, the Cardinals will threaten. With 2 outs, Royce Clayton will reach on a scratch single, a slow roller up the third base line that dies before anyone can pick it up to throw him out. Ray Lankford follows by ripping a line drive down the left field line. Clayton crosses to third, and picks up speed as he rounds the base and heads for home. Gilkey in left has trouble picking it up, and his throw to Ordonez is low, and off to the side. No chance to get Clayton.

But wait.

Ordonez will show us just why his defense is so highly praised. In one motion, Ordonez will drop to his knees, slide to his right to field Gilkey's throw, rear back and fire a bullet home to Hundley...Just in time to nail Clayton! From his knees! Clayton is dumbfounded at the plate. Ordonez gets a standing ovation as he runs off the field.

And this play will prove to spur on the Mets in the bottom of the 7th.

With one out, Jose Vizcaino will start the rally by singling to center off of new Cardinals P Rick Honeycutt. Ordonez follows by singling sharply to right, just under the glove of a diving Mabry. Another standing O for Ordonez. It's his first major league hit. Honeycutt is replaced by Cory Bailey. But the Mets continue. Chris Jones, who made his claim to fame with the Mets as a key pinch hitter, will follow with a clean single up the middle, scoring Vizcaino.

Ordonez crosses to third. Bailey is replaced (think LaRussa was overmanaging?) by another ragtag lefty, Tony Fossas. Fossas will fare no better. Lance Johnson will check his swing, and produce a weak grounder to third. But Gaetti was playing back. By time he charges and fields, he's too late to throw out anyone. Mets are flying around the bases. Ordonez scores, and it's 6-5. And Gilkey will follow with another hit, a looping single to right, to score Jones with the tying run, and moving Johnson to third. And the crowd, quiet most of the day, is now screaming. Rico Brogna bats, and everyone's up. And Brogna will deliver a sacrifice fly to right, just deep enough to score Johnson. But just to make sure, Gilkey will purposely tag up and get into a rundown. He's tagged out, but the Mets have come all the way back. After being hopelessly behind, they now lead 7-6.

It's Doug Henry on for the 8th, walking Gant to lead off, but getting the next three batters. The Mets will also go down quietly in the 8th. John Franco enters for the 9th.
It's still Franco's heyday. Sure, the agita was always there, but not today. He gets the Cards 1-2-3, the final out coming on a great play on a short hop by Ordonez. Mets Win! Mets Win!

The team is ecstatic. The fans are beside themselves. 162-0! is the cry.

The scoreboard tells the story.

But the euphoria of this Opening Day will be short lived. The season will quickly become a washout, indistinguishable from the several seasons before that. It will begin with the next day's news that Pulsipher is lost for the season, and spiral downhill from there. It will not be until the following season, with a mostly new-look team, that the Mets will begin to emerge from a half-decade's slumber and return to respectability.

It is a far cry from the Mets team we are looking at as we approach Sunday night's season opener.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Fatboy-Free 2007 Previews

I was watching a Mets game in 2001 or 2002, I can't quite remember when, but it was late in the season, the Mets were languishing out of the race, and Tug McGraw was in the booth. I believe it was one of his last appearances before he passed away. But he was his usual loquacious self in the booth, and he said one thing in particular that stuck with me. It's a loose interpretation, not an exact quote, but it went something like this:

"I don't consider what they play in the AL Baseball. That's Commie Baseball. Who the hell can call that real Baseball?! There's no strategy! There's a DH! Commie Style Baseball."

I agree with Tug. A colleague of mine refers to the AL as "Fatboy Baseball," in reference to the stature of some of the gentlemen masquerading as ballplayers, calling themselves "Designated Hitters."

It's true, the AL lacks in strategy and pitching. Moreover, they still boast three teams that actually still play on carpet. It is for this reason, that this preview for the 2007 will consist of a preview for the National League, for that is the league that plays a pure style of baseball, where the grass is real, the pitchers bat, and the ballparks are spacious (unless you're Philadelphia, Houston or Cincinnati).

It should be another bizarre season in the NL. As per usual, a number of teams will present completely different looks than they had the season before. But last season, we saw a number of underdogs prevail, particularly the Mets, who came in as a contender and ended the season with the league's best record. San Diego seems to be forever undermanned, but they continued to win. LA shook off injuries and inconsistency. The Cardinals, it could be said, underperformed in '06, falling from 100 wins to 83, before a miraculous postseason run, culminating in a World Championship.

In the words of Joaquin Andujar, "Youneverknow."

1) New York Mets (94-68)
Would you expect any less from me? The Mets should and probably will repeat as the class of the NL East in '07. The league's best offense is more or less completely intact, Alou replacing Floyd and it should be only a matter of time before Milledge unseats Green in RF. But here's the wrinkle I think the Mets will have. With my Carlos Beltran inflection, "I do believe..." that the Mets Starting rotation will emerge as the team's strength. Glavine will be Glavine. El Duque will miss his share of starts, get shelled his share of times, and pitch well every other time. But it is the back end that has intrigued me for months. I think that the Mets have some bigtime emerging talent in Maine, Perez and Pelfrey, and I look for these three to step it up as the season progresses. Consistency will be the key for all three of them. Yes, they'll have their spotty moments, but they will prove themselves up to the challenge, and take the pressure off of the bullpen, which will once again be one of the league's most often used. Do their jobs, and the offense will take care of the rest.

2) Philadelphia Phillies (87-75)
Much has been made of the additions that Philadelphia made. Much has also been made of the flapping of the gums done by Jimmy Rollins. Rollins is great, no doubt, and with the thunder in the lineup behind him consisting of Utley, Howard, Rowand and Burrell, they're sure to light up the scoreboard in that tiny abomination of a ballpark.

But here's the problem.

Yes, they've added some skilled pitchers in Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton, working in front of Hamels, Lieber and Moyer. But Garcia has had the benefit of pitching in a couple of the rare spacious pitcher's parks on the other side, and even then pitched to some high ERA's in front of some good hitting lineups. And Eaton is a talented mystery who has never quite put it together. And the bullpen isn't much to write home about at all. Closing is the ageless Flash Gordon, far from a lock. So the question is, can the Phillies hit enough to offset what should be some questionable pitching? Perhaps, but it will only take them so far.

3) Atlanty Braves (82-80)
They put a great deal of emphasis into restocking their bullpen in the offseason, and while that will prove to be better than it was last year (I believe they have a real closer now, since Wickman appears to have eaten most of his competition), I'm not sold that the rest of the team is any better. The pitching staff consists of a struggling Tim Hudson, the ageless John Smoltz, Mike Hampton coming off Tommy John surgery, Chuck James (who could surprise and break out) and most likely some combination of Kyle Davies or whoever else has a warm arm and can throw 5 innings. The offense is about as exciting as the latest Van Halen album. Wow. Larry and Andro Jones shall ride again. Jeff "Charboneau 2006" Francoeur and Brian McCann. Yay. Kelly Johnson and Ryan Langerhans. Be still my heart. Best of all: Chris Woodward off the bench. Fun times in Dixieland!

4) Florida Marlins (75-87)
Contingent on the performance of Dontrelle, mainly, and how Miguel Cabrera will respond when some (and there will be some) of his teammates experience a sophomore slump. They are young, and talented and emerging, but not contenders. But the pitchers are good (particularly Johnson and Sanchez) and they can beat you if you catch them on the wrong day. But it will still be an uphill climb, and we don't know how they will respond to their new manager Fredi Gonzalez following the departure of the popular but embattled Joe Girardi.

5) Washington Nationals (70-92)
Funny thing about the Nationals. Have you ever noticed that they have all these guys with Jewish first names and Hispanic last names? Saul Rivera? Bernie Castro? And I think they have a rookie pitcher named Irving Sanchez, too.

1) St. Louis Cardinals (90-72)
Yeah, I guess they'll ride again. But the bullpen is a shambles. I think Isringhausen's arm is in danger of flying off at any given moment, and his knees are completely shot. Their best relievers, Wainwright and The Jerk, are both in the starting rotation, backing Carpenter, injury prone Kip Wells and youngster Al Reyes. But they'll ride again, behind the wave of good buddy Poo-Holes and the geriatric ward of Rolen and Edmonds, and find their way into October yet again.

I will now go and vomit.

2) Houston Astros (88-74)
So, when's Clemens coming back this year? Or will Berkman have to shoulder the load by himself as per usual. Actually, with Carlos Lee now hitting behind him (although Lee, formerly the perfect fatboy ballplayer, is stuck in the field now), Berkman could conceivably better his lofty numbers of '06. He's an elite player, but he doesn't have the chips around him. Ensberg returning to his All Star form of '05 is key, as is the performance of pitchers Jennings, Woody and a couple of inconsistent rookies, pitching behind Oswalt, who will again be one of the game's best. There are a lot of variables that need to fall into place to make the Astros a success this season, but I have the feeling that they'll be able to do what's necessary and reel in the Wildcard.

3) Milwaukee Brewers (83-79)
I'd expect the Brewers to be a decent and thoroughly unexciting club to watch over the course of the season. Sheets should finally return to form and he's backed by some very solid pitchers in Capuano and Bush. The offense will miss Carlos Lee, but Bill Hall came out of nowhere to emerge as a star, and I've always been impressed by Johnny Estrada. But outside of that, a pretty ho hum bunch.

4) Chicago Cubs (81-81)
Spend, spend, spend! $136 million for a 50 HR guy...and they're batting him leadoff? The Cubs will certainly produce some major thunder on offense. Soriano is just the appetizer, hitting in front of a finally healthy Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. Good friend Cliff Floyd will platoon in left with the emerging Matt Murton and we certainly wish him all the best.

And then there's the pitching...

It's Carlos Zambrano (the good Zambrano, in case you forgot) and who exactly? Ted Lilly is next, and I'd like to see who gets the better of the first fistfight between him and Piniella. Rich Hill could be good, and then there's Glendon Rusch, Jason Marquis and Mark Prior and his 83MPH heater. The bullpen is assembled mostly of castoffs from the 1999 Chicago White Sox.


5) Cincinnati Reds (76-86)
Out of all the teams that probably figure to be bad, I think Cincinnati has the best chance to "hang around and give those guys a great big shitburger," in the words of Cleveland manager Lou Brown. If Freel can lay off the booze, Griffey can stay healthy, Dunn can cut down his strikeouts, and guys like Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang can prove last season wasn't a fluke, the Reds could surprise a few people.

Then again, their bullpen is anchored by a couple of familiar faces. David Weathers and Mike Stanton.

Probably another long season in Cincinnati.

6) Pittsburgh Pirates (68-94)
Blah, blah, blah, BAY, blah, blah, blah.

1) Los Angeles Dodgers (89-73)
The race in the west will probably come right down to the wire, with last season's culprits, the Dodgers and Padres doing battle once again. Last year, the Padres came up with the necessary pitching and clutch hitting to get the job done. I think the Dodgers have it in them this year. The pitching is suspect, with Penny always a mystery, Schmidt coming off a couple of injury plagued seasons, followed by Lowe, Randy Wolf also fresh off the operating table, and finally, mysteriously, Brett Tomko. Brett Tomko???

But, they'll hit in bunches, especially if they let some of their youngsters like Matt Kemp and James Loney play. The geriatric bunch of Nomar, Luis Gonzalez and Kent will also be there, and Pierre at the top of the lineup should be an improvement over Kenny Lofton. It seems a similar formula to the Cardinals recipe for success last year, with the exception of the breakaway talent of you-know-who. Might work, but not as well as it did for St. Louis.

2) San Diego Padres (86-76)
The Padres will, once again, field a team that looks to be low and leaky on paper, and yet somehow manages to produce and be competitive throughout the season. This year will be no different. They have a number of question marks on offense, especially in Left Field and Third Base, but they have solid options everywhere else. Similar to Milwaukee, nobody will light up the scoreboard, but they are a plucky bunch. The rotation is anchored by Peavy and Crybaby Jerkins in front of Chris Young who could really emerge as a star. The bullpen is strong up front with Linebrink and Hoffman, but weak after that, and that could very well spell their doom in the end.

3) San Francisco Giants (81-81)
I heard that the entire team is going to be doing the "Just for Men" ads this season, unseating Keith and Clyde. And they should be advertising for some sort of Men's health/appearance improvement product. One that's legal, that is.

4) Arizona Diamondbacks (79-83)
Randy Returns, but will it help much? The future has arrived in earnest for the D'Backs, replete with some hideous new uniforms. Stephen Drew, Conor Jackson, Carlos Quentin and Chris B. Young round out a quartet of youngsters that will anchor the club's future. The pieces around them are good, albeit a middling bunch. Orlando Hudson is OK and so is Chad Tracy, but behind Brandon Webb and Mr. Unit, there's not much help to be had from the pitching staff.

5) Colorado Rockies (67-95)
Yawn. I'm tired. It's tough putting all these short team capsules together. You know, I thought about calling it a night by time I got to the NL West, but no, I kept on. And that is what a true winner does. When he's tired, he finishes what he started before he goes to bed. And he makes sure that we all have something to read in the morning with the coffee and the donuts and the New York Times in the staff lounge at work.

(Yeah, I thought this might be a little more interesting than hearing about the Rockies.)

And so your playoff teams are:
NL East Champ: New York Mets
NL Central Champ: St. Louis Cardinals

NL West Champ: Los Angeles Dodgers

NL Wildcard: Houston Astros

Mets over Astros (4)
Dodgers over Cardinals (5)

Mets over Dodgers (6)

And if you want to read an AL preview? Well, maybe El Guapo will write one. Don't look for one out of me.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Taking the 5th...

There has been, over the course of the past few years, been a great contest throughout the Mets Spring Training camps over who, exactly, will round out the 5th spot in the Mets starting rotation. In the past, we have seen this role go to such luminaries as Brian Bannister, Tyler Yates, or Masato Yoshii.

Usually, it's a rookie, maybe a marginal prospect. More often than not, that guy hasn't lasted the season.

Things may be different this season.

Although Willie continued to insist right to the end that guys like Chan Ho Park and Aaron Sele had realistic chances at competing for the 5th spot in the rotation, the spot was, today, justifiably handed to Mr. Michael Pelfrey.

Unlike guys like Yates and Bannister, Pelfrey will arrive on the scene with more than a modicum of hype. He's a phenom, no doubt. El Guapo and I thought enough of him to take him late in our recent fantasy league draft--before knowing he would be guaranteed a spot in the rotation. We knew that the talent was there.

But was he ready? That was the question.

Pelfrey appeared in merely 4 games last season, 4 starts sandwiched around the All-Star break. This after being drafted in the first round of the 2005 Amateur Draft, signing late and not appearing in a pro game until the Spring of 2006. He blew through A and AA ball quickly, and fans, tiring of sitting through starts by Jeremi Gonzalez and Jose Lima, began clamoring for Pelfrey to be brought up. He would finally arrive on July 8th.

His debut against the Marlins produced a few sweat-inducing innings, jams he managed to work out of with a minimum amount of damage. He also had the benefit of his offense staking him to a large early lead, ending in a 17-2 rout for his first Major League victory.

Pelfrey's second outing was even better. Pitching in Cincinnati's tiny Great American Ball Park, Pelfrey hurled shutout ball into the 6th before giving up 2 runs and being lifted from the game. The Mets put away a close game late and he was 2 for 2 in the bigs.

But Pelfrey's next two starts would be less than stellar. At home, on a Sold-out Sunday afternoon against the Astros, Pelfrey struggled, allowing 5 runs over just over 4 innings of work. A second outing against the Marlins on August 1st would produce a no-decision, 6 innings, 4 runs allowed.

Pelfrey would be demoted to AAA following this start, and didn't appear in any more games for the Mets in '06. A brief glimpse. Flashes of brilliance, flashes of youth. But definitely a star in the making. We all saw how hard he was bringing it. An explosive fastball in the high 90s. Big, powerful curve. He needed that third pitch to complete the package. And we saw it this spring. The new slider. The one that was shattering Oriole bats all night last week. The one that turned him into a veritable ground ball machine all spring.

The one that would eventually seal his ticket for New York come April.

We likely won't see Pelfrey until Mid to Late April. With the number of off days that the Mets have, he won't be needed. He'll remain in Port St. Lucie, keeping sharp until the Mets are ready to unleash him on the National League, the bullet at the back end of their rotation.

We can expect more flashes of brilliance from Pelfrey in the upcoming season. We can also expect more flashes of youth from this 23-year old fireballer. He'll be great someday, and maybe sooner rather than later. He'll be fun to watch. Most importantly, he's earned the right to be here.

I know we'd all rather see him and have him struggle instead of having to watch Chan Ho Park and Aaron Sele. That's for damn sure.

Randolph names Pelfrey fifth starter []

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Takeover

We did it! We're Number 1!

This whole thing has been very tacky of me, I know. What's embarrassing is that the first post that you see when you do the search is one of me begging to have higher search results. I'm shameless.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Big Blog Roundup: Gilbert Arenas Edition

Coming next week, deep, thought provoking division-by-division picks and analysis. Or the picks will be obvious and the analysis scant. We'll see.

And now, this week's roundup.

Chicks dig the stolen base
Jessica at Chicks Dig the Pitchers Duel makes an excellent point about something I hadn't thought of before: Jose Reyes is bound to steal home one of these days with Delgado at the plate, because the Big Lefty Shift employed against Carlos will prevent the 3B from holding Reyes on. That'll be something to see. I agree. $10 says it happens sometime this season.

Chicks also dig the at-bat music
Metsgrrl points out that you can now vote for David Wright's theme song on We mentioned last month that David had retired fan favorite "Brass Monkey" and was thinking about a new tune. Metsgrrl's point is that this whole thing was her idea, so hear her out. By the way, I voted for "10th Avenue Freeze Out" but I really couldn't blame anyone for going with the A-Team theme song, or "Fame" by David Bowie. You can also write in suggestions. Have at it, kids. (Writing in "America's Most Blunted," however tempting, is probably futile.)

Don't worry, Coach Floyd, he'll put his people on it
Freedarko is all over the wild New York Times piece on Tim Floyd's account of how he came to sign high school prodigy OJ Mayo. Read that article if you haven't already (and you probably have; it's reaching near-legendary status in weblogdom). It's absolutely shocking but not at all surprising, if that makes any sense. I love Freedarko's notion that it was a shady figure like a cross between Cancer Man and Stringer Bell who walked into Floyd's office and gave Floyd the news, with that "don't call OJ, he'll call you" stuff. Unbelievable. And Mayo: "Don't worry about the recruiting. I'll take care of that." The kid's in HIGH SCHOOL!!!

"We need to go back to the love."
I know this won't shut up Gilbert Arenas's critics, but it should. Once and for all. Just take some time, print this out and take in into the can at work; let Gilbert set it all straight about his "quirky" "antics" that stupid people don't get. Personally I think it should win the Pulitzer, just like Jay Sherman's "Stop Going" speech from English for Cab Drivers, but that's just me.

  • Deadspin fills us in about how Ryan Dempster is studying to be a ninja, working with a sensei in Vancouver. I think we can all agree that closers and ninjas need a remarkably similar skill set, but I'm just not sure that a Canadian sensei is going to get you very far.
  • Quick note from Mets Blog: Reports are that there will be no fireworks at Shea this season. Well, no literal fireworks anyway. Due to the construction of Citi Field they're going to cut the fireworks until the new park opens.
  • On this Charles Barkley Quotes blog you've got .... Charles Barkley quotes! Tons of them! And when you're done with those, there's more Charles Barkley quotes! This might be in my top ten favorite things on the whole Internet.