Monday, March 28, 2016

The More Fool You (2016 National League Preview)

I realize that I've been absurdly slacking from a blogger's standpoint over the past few weeks, since Spring Training is going on and there's all sorts of posturing and pontificating about the upcoming season, but there hasn't really been a ton of substantial things to talk about. I could give a whole dissertation about the Mets and how they break out at each position, but I have a tendency to ignore numbers and go with what I see, and basically I haven't seen that much. I've watched a sparse few innings of a few games from Florida and otherwise, all I have to go on is what I read about on the internet. That's not saying much.

But what I have noticed is that there's more than a few teams that have sort of been anointed as "The Darlings" of MLB, and this is nothing new, it happens every season, but perhaps I'm just noticing it more because now, after this run they had last season, the Mets are actually among them. Nobody's sleeping on the Mets this season, or at least they're not sleeping on them like they did last season, so as the pundits like to point out, it's going to be a more difficult road to get back to where they were. This is a bit of a fallacy. Getting to the World Series is hard whether you're a favorite or not and while the Mets ought to be able to hold serve, other teams have gotten better so it's the same challenge, just with a different cast of characters. So, with that in mind, here's my 50-cent offering of the National League, replete with approximated records and bells and whistles. Read at your own risk.

(For the record, last season, I picked the Mets to win the Wildcard at 89-73, take out the Padres in the Wildcard game, and beat the Nationals in the NLDS before losing to the Cardinals in the NLCS.)

1) New York Mets (94-68)
It's easy to look at the Mets of 2015 and see a team that probably overachieved and made it to where they did probably before they were supposed to. You could also look at them and wonder how they did it all seeing as how for half the season they struggled to plate 3 runs a game. But once they added Yoenis Cespedes to the mix and got Travis d'Arnaud healthy, and Michael Conforto going, the offense clicked and this is again going to be that recipe. But more than anything, this is an offense that has a healthy amount of depth, much moreso than in prior years, so that if anyone does go down for a period of time, someone can easily slide in to replace them and the team likely won't lose a beat. But that's not the reason everyone is all in on the Mets. It comes down to the pitching. These pitchers that the Mets have had already done enough to raise some eyebrows before the 2015 season even started and when it came to crunch time, the ensemble of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz would not be moved. They weren't perfect, but for young guys pitching in big spots for the first time, they all held their own. These guys were billed as Aces and they pitched like Aces. What makes this even more tantalizing is the realization that none of these guys have peaked yet. They can all get better. If they're on the rise and still managed to kick some of the top teams in the league in the teeth, out.

2) Washington Nationals (88-74)
The Unstoppable Force that was the 2015 Washington Nationals ended up imploding on itself in laughable fashion, as they played like a team of overconfident schmucks, and by the time they were caught and then passed by a hard-charging Mets team, they had no recourse to recover and instead they just turned on each other, culminating in Jonathan Papelbon choking Bryce Harper in the dugout. Fortunately, most of the team is returning, so everyone's up their butt again in with the thought that they can't underachieve twice, can they? Or can they? I think they can. Their lone big acquisition was Daniel Murphy for fuck's sake! I know the thought process behind that was something like this: "Heh heh...we'll show those Mets! We're gonna steal away their Postseason hero!" I'd love to see the look on everyone's face come September when Daniel Murphy's hitting .268 with 12 Home Runs and just spent the entire month of August grounding out to 2nd Base and getting thrown out at 3rd with 2 outs and Harper on deck.

3) Philadelphia Phillies (78-84)
I know that the Phillies are still sort of in this rebuilding and retooling process but I just have a feeling that they might be better than they look on paper. I watched both Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff pitch against the Mets late in the season and I wouldn't sleep on them—they're good young pitchers. In fact, their pitching staff at large is pretty good, but they still have Ryan Howard's carcass clogging up the middle of their lineup and they don't have much offense to speak of.

4) Mickey Mouse Marlins (71-91)
Once again, it's Spring Training and I'm hearing too many people saying things like "OOH, THE MARLINS LOOK GOOOD!" My guess is that they're simply mollified by the allure of the Celebrity Manager and the Celebrity Batting Coach to pay too much attention to the fact that this is still the same crappy team that's going to get off to an 8-22 start and spend the rest of the season annoying everyone by continuing to exist.

5) Atlanta Braves (67-95)
The Barves are following the recent trend of "Total Rebuilding" made popular by the Astros. Basically every serviceable player they had on their roster was dealt away for prospect, the most recent being the departure of Andrelton Simmons, who's now in the AL West and out of our hair so we don't have to hear about how great he is anymore. Though the lineup isn't totally desolate—Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis are still in the middle of things, and they'll probably win their fair share of idiot games over the Mets this season—I wouldn't expect too much in the way of meaningful noise from this bunch. So not only is it the last season of Turner Field, but the team's gonna stink!

1) Chicago Cubs (119-43)
I mean, hey, why fight it, right? If you believe everything you've read, not only did the Cubs win the World Series last season, they went out and signed every Free Agent, so now they're a mortal lock to win it this year too. Magic Joe Maddon has everyone breathing through their eyelids. Jake Arrieta is going to pitch 6 No Hitters, Baseball Jesus is going to hit 75 Home Runs, Rizzo is going to bat .420 and everyone's going to be doing back flips around the bases at Wrigley Field. If you thought Cubs fans were obnoxious already, well, just you wait because they're going to be absolutely insufferable now.

2) St. Louis Cardinals (90-72)
I'm not even sure that the Cardinals are that good this season, but I guess I feel impelled to just pencil them in for 90 wins and a Wildcard just on general principle at this point. It'd be nice if this were the season that everyone got fed up and put them in their place, though, or at least just exposed Genius Mike Matheny as the hack he really is.

3) Pittsburgh Pirates (88-74)
The Pirates right now simply have the poor fortune of being an exceptionally good team stuck in a division with two of Baseball's Darlings right now, and what this unfortunately means is that they may end up on the outside of a numbers game when it comes to a Playoff spot because they're going to end up in a race where it's basically everyone beating each other up. Where it ends up being most important is, of course, in starting pitching and that's where the Pirates are a bit short, because where the Cubs have their guys, and the Cardinals have their guys, the Pirates have Gerrit Cole, and Francisco Liriano and...Jon Niese.

4) Milwaukee Brewers (81-81)
When I do these capsules, there's always one team that I pick to finish 81-81 which means I have absolutely no feel for them whatsoever. And this year, the Brewers are that team. They're not good enough to hang with the big boys in this division, they're not bad enough to clog up the cellar, they're just...The Brewers. They've got Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy who are perfectly good players, and this fellow Keon Broxton looks interesting, but who's pitching here? Their deGrom-like prospect Josh Hader is still a year away which leaves them with a lot of boring dreck at the Major League level. 

5) Cincinnati Reds (73-89)
The upshot for the Reds this season is that they won't spend the entire second half of the season using an all-Rookie starting rotation...because none of them are Rookies anymore. 

1) San Francisco Giants (91-71)
I know the Giants are kind of the chic pick to win it all, or at least they are behind the Cubs, since it's an even year and that's when the Giants strike. It continues to be the regular cast of characters for the Giants for the most part: Buster Posey is still there, and Hunter Pence and his coif, and Madison Bumgarner, and they poached Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija for the middle of their rotation, so they look pretty solid, and then just tack that even-year thing on and, well, all they have to do is figure out a way to get to the Playoffs and then take it from there, right? What could go wrong!?

2) Los Angeles Dodgers (89-73)
The Dodgers are a chic pick too, not for any other reason than they're the Dodgers and when your payroll is pushing $300 million people expect you to play like it. But the Dodgers kind of have the same problems that they had last season, which is that after Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, they're lacking in pitching and now they don't even have Greinke to fall back on. They're putting an awful lot in the basket that is Scott Kazmir and also in the unknown quantity that is Kenta Maeda. Offensively, they're returning basically everyone, which is fine but they're all a year older, although Üœberprospect Corey Seager will take over at Shortstop and is certain to light Baseball on fire.

3) Arizona Diamondbacks (88-74)
I know the Diamondbacks are "kinda going for it" this season, because they made the biggest prestige moves during the offseason, signing Zack Greinke and going balls-in to get Shelby Miller from Atlanta,  but in reality they're in the same boat as the Pirates. They're a team with a healthy amount of talent but none of the razzle-dazzle of the division's Big Boys, and so when push comes to shove, they may well be the ones pushed off the floor.

4) San Diego Padres (82-80)
There's teams that are middling and there's teams that are boring, and I think the Padres are a little bit of both. They made all sorts of posturing moves last season to bolster their lineup and their pitching staff and nothing really worked. So...let's bring back mostly the same group!

5) Colorado Rockies (75-87)
But those guys got BEARDS!

NL MVP: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
NL Cy Young: Zack Greinke, Diamondbacks
NL Rookie of the Year: Steven Matz, Mets

NL Wildcard Game: Cardinals over Dodgers
NLDS: Cubs over Cardinals; Mets over Giants
NLCS: Mets over Cubs

Ha! You thought I was buying into a letdown? Fallen victim to the Cubs Mojo? One thing the Mets have going for them is the sort of starting pitching that will grab you by the neck and not let go. Don't be misled by what went down in the World Series last season; we haven't seen the best of this group yet. Yet. Let the Cubs draw all the ink they want during the regular season, let people fawn over them and cream in their pants like ESPN does on a daily basis. They got stoned last season and in a short series like that they can easily get stoned again.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

That Baseball Mood

Spring Training, at least for me, has been mostly a study in the mundane. I barely know what's going on with the Mets; I don't particularly care whether or not they win or lose, just so long as the players that need to play well do so and there are no significant injuries. The less there is to talk about, the better.

That being said, since it's now merely two weeks until Opening Day, I figure I ought to get back into the swing of things, and there's a spate of new literature for me to go through in preparation for the season. With apologies to Greg Prince, whose book was unavailable during a recent trip to The Strand (hardly a good excuse on my part), my current reading material is the latest offering from our own Ron Darling.

I've always been a fan of Darling's analytical abilities; perhaps I'm biased from having not only watched him in my youth but also having listened to him broadcast the Mets for the last decade. This of course comes forth in his writing, his first book offered up a study of specific games in his career as opposed to a particular memoir. This book is more of a memoir, but condensed into his life approaching, and during, Game 7 of the 1986 World Series.

You'll of course remember the result of the game. Most tend to forget that Darling started for the Mets but was long gone by time things were decided. He's the first to admit that under the harsh glare of the World Series spotlight, he didn't have a very good game, lasting only into the 4th inning and departing down by 3 runs.

But in reading this book (aside from learning the odd fact that Darling lived on 33rd and 3rd, while I, 7 years old at the time, resided at 36th and 3rd and on occasion frequented the same Italian restaurant on 34th Street owned by former Red Sox pitcher Jerry Casale) I kept drawing the parallel between Darling pitching in the 1986 World Series and the crazy ride that we followed the Mets through last season. Probably because I've been carrying it around with me all Winter. Not so much the ride to get to the World Series, but particularly the way it ended, and that final Sunday Night where the bottom fell out so quickly.

The end result is usually what's remembered more than the journey that gets you there, particularly when it comes down to a Championship series, and yes, perhaps even if the Mets had won that final game, they could have just as easily lost the next one and had their season end with the same result. Darling talks about being too much in his own head going into that 7th Game, and feeling out of rhythm, and out of sorts, and those such things can wreck a pitcher's night. It doesn't detract from the fact that he had a generally good career and is remembered fondly among Mets fans, although maybe if that 7th game had ended differently, that might not be the case.

And this is the sort of stuff I've been thinking about all winter, because consider that 5th Game against Kansas City and what ended up happening to Matt Harvey. The prevailing thought, what everyone remembers, is that Hotheaded Matt Harvey demanded to stay in the game for that 9th inning and blew it, and the Mets lost (and they suck and Harvey sucks).

I sometimes have a tendency to over-romanticize games like this but while most of the talk this Winter made a punchline of Harvey, I don't think what happened in that game up to the 9th inning should be overlooked. I've gone over many times about Harvey pitching angry, and how he's at his best when he has that look, and for 8 innings, he had that look. The Royals couldn't touch him. Harvey was pitching with smoke coming out of his ears. You know that's what's going on when he comes charging off the mound screaming at the end of a key inning. By contrast, when you consider the fragility of an athlete's psyche in a big spot, Darling allowed himself to be psyched out. Harvey had no such problems.

But in the end it's the final score that determines everyone's perception of the game. Mets 8, Red Sox 5, and Darling is a footnote. Royals 7, Mets 2 (12), but Harvey shit the bed.

Sometimes the perception of the players can bother you just as much as the end result. Particularly when you're on the losing end of things.