Wednesday, July 12, 2006

It's Not You, It's Me

I owe major league baseball an apology. Between the excitement of the NBA and NHL playoffs, and a strangely compelling World Cup tournament, I haven’t been paying proper attention to my true sporting love, baseball. I’ve been trying to atone for that recently, watching a couple of Sunday Night Baseball games, and even sitting through a Cardinals-Indians game two weeks ago (amusingly, this was my pre-season prediction for the World Series matchup). Hopefully, 2500 words today will help too. I’m still trying to catch up on everything that’s happened, but here are some things I have enjoyed so far, and am looking forward to in the second half. And before anyone asks, no, I’m not using this as an excuse for my fantasy team’s poor performance to date. My fate was sealed when I picked Casey Kotchman in the seventh round.

One bright spot from the Cards-Astros broadcast on Sunday Night Baseball was the inning and a half where they lost the English audio feed, sparing us Joe Morgan and giving us the brilliant commentary from ESPN Deportes. In particular, play-by-play man Ernesto Jerez turned out to be a gem, mostly for his scintillating home run call of “Sólido, conectando. A lo profundo... y ¡no... nono, nono, no...! ¡Dígale que no a esa pelota!" Using what I remember from high school Spanish, and with a lot of help from Babel Fish, the best translation I could work out for this was “solid, connecting, deep…and no, nono, nono, no…he’s not getting to that ball!”

Awesome. Is there any moment in sports that better lends itself to a play-by-play call than a home run? I think not.

(Any corrections on my translation of Jerez’ call will be appreciated. And if you haven’t listened to the audio clips on his espn page, do it. Do it now).

Building on Avi’s earlier post, here are some stories I’m watching:

Break Up The Tigers
At the all-star break, they have the best record in baseball, and thus far, have held off the defending champion White Sox in the AL Central. The keys to their success? For one, after spending the past few years trying to manufacture a contender by overpaying for veterans like Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, they’ve finally let their kids develop, and they now have a good mix of youth and experience. While the vets have played well, the kids, especially on the mound (Verlander, Bonderman, and Zumaya), have really stepped it up. The second is the presence of Manager Jim Leyland, who has brought stability, and a hard working attitude to the club. They’ve also benefited from the resurrection of Kenny Rogers, who has gone from pariah to all-star game starter in twelve months.

Speaking of, who would have predicted that the all-star game starters would be Kenny Rogers and Brad Penny? What were the odds of that at the start of the year? A million to one? Two?

The big question for the Tigers is whether or not they can keep up this pace for the final three months. I’m inclined to think they can, and will. They’re built a lot like the White Sox, with a deep rotation complemented by a serviceable bullpen led by a couple of strong arms, and an offense built around high-character, high-effort, if not spectacular players. If they can get a healthy Mike Maroth back in the rotation, and a left-handed bat (Aubrey Huff, perhaps), they could win it all.

(Edit: They're not getting Aubrey Huff. About five minutes after posting this, I noticed that he has been traded to Houston).

Can The White Sox Repeat?
Yes. For now, I have to consider them the favorites to win it all. They are certainly the best candidate to repeat since the 2001 Yankees (who were a half-inning away from completing the four-peat). The core of their lethal pitching staff remains intact, and the acquisition of Jim Thome has proven to be a great move. General Manager Kenny Williams can’t get enough credit for his moves. He could have rested on his laurels, hesitant to break up a squad that seemed to be built more on chemistry and character than pure talent. However, he swapped Aaron Rowand, one of those high-character guys, for Jim Thome, who was coming off an injury-plagued season. He also managed to grab Javier Vasquez from Arizona, giving his club the most talented 5th starter in the bigs. If he can add some insurance in centerfield, I don’t see a weakness with this club. The real race might be to see who wins the Central and gets home-field advantage in the playoffs, them or the Tigers.

Youth Is Served
One of the most intriguing stories of this season has been the number of blue-chip prospects who have stepped in and played major roles for their clubs already. In no particular order,

• Jonathan Papelbon, who in his first full major league season, has emerged as a dominant closer for the Red Sox.

• Francisco Liriano, who has stepped into the Twins’ rotation to post a 10-1 record, and a sub-2.00 ERA (best in the majors).

• Justin Verlander, who is one of the young arms that has propelled the Tigers to the best record in baseball. Another one, Joel Zumaya, is filling the KRod/Mariano role (to Todd Jones’ Troy Percival/John Wetteland), and has 54 Ks in 43 innings.

• Jered Weaver, 6-0 in 6 starts with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Oh, and a positively Bob Gibson-esque 1.12 ERA. He was so good it took him less than two months to convince the team to ship his brother to the National League to create a permanent spot for him in the rotation (won’t that make for an interesting Thanksgiving dinner this year). The Angels, though they sport a 43-45 record, are lurking a mere 2 games behind Oakland and Texas for the AL West lead. He could end up being the difference down the stretch.

• Jon Lester and Mike Pelfrey, recent additions to the rotations of the Red Sox and Mets, respectively; both of them are looming as difference-makers in the second half of this season.

• Two catchers in SoCal have made an impact. Russell Martin, the catcher of the future with the Los Angeles Dodgers, has played so well that it took him less than 200 at-bats to convince their front office to move Dioner Navarro for pitching. Navarro, of course, was the catcher of the future at Chavez Ravine as recently as the start of the season. Meanwhile, in Anaheim, Mike Napoli has replaced another rookie, Jeff Mathis, and hit 11 homers in only 140 at-bats to date. Neither of these kids are going anywhere for the next few years.

• The quintet of rookies in Florida (Jeremy Hermida, Josh Willingham, Dan Uggla, Hanley Ramirez, and Mike Jacobs) who helping to position the Marlins as a second half sleeper. Uggla also became the first player to go from the Rule V draft to the all-star game in one season.

The Baby Marlins Are For Real
Here’s what I said about the Marlins in my off-season review:

Grade: F. I might have given them a C for the prospects they acquired in the fire sale, but the fact that they will be fielding a terrible team in 2006 and the likelihood that they’ve killed major league baseball in South Florida for good outweighs it all.

And in my season preview

5. Florida - 64-98
After purging nearly every established major leaguer from their roster, the Marlins will be bad. However, they have enough young talent in place that they won’t be as bad as, say, the Royals. Look for them to get better as the year goes along, and to be a sleeper in the second half of 2007.

On the field, they’ve exceeded expectations, but off the field, their attendance is down by about 10,000 fans per game compared to last year (they’re averaging 12,000 to date), which puts them just above Expos territory. On the field, they’ve come around, and are about a year ahead of where I thought they would be. A 10-game winning streak in June helped pull them within about 6-7 games of .500 at one point. In addition to a strong year so far from Miguel Cabrera, they’ve gotten great contributions from Mike Jacobs, Hanley Ramirez, and Dan Uggla. With Jeremy Hermida finally healthy, he should come around too. With a healthy every day lineup complementing a serviceable (at this point) young pitching staff, they should play .500 or better ball down the stretch and finish second in the division. They’re currently 10 games below .500, meaning they’re unlikely to make a run at the Mets, or even the wild card spot, but I think they’re going to be very tough to play the rest of the way.

The story here, for me, is the work of the Marlins front office. They executed a fire sale/rebuilding the proper way; they held on to a pair of franchise players (Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis), and moved everyone else they could for value. In particular, they acquired a lot of talent that was in the high minors, and was major-league ready. Most franchises wouldn’t have fully committed to the process, and would have been likely to wallow in mediocrity for far longer than the Marlins will. They could be back in the playoffs as soon as 2007, depending on how things shake down in their division.

I would almost anoint Larry Beinfeist executive of the year in the National League, were it not for the fact that it looks like he might have been successful in killing off much of the little remaining interest in baseball that’s found in southern Florida. (The other big reason I’m holding off is because of a fellow named Omar Minaya). The Marlins have had a tenuous relationship with their fans dating back to the post-World Series fire sale in 1997, which has been compounded by the ongoing difficulties securing financing for a new ballpark, and the corresponding threats to move the club. Frankly, I’m not sure many people care anymore, and the fire sale this off-season didn’t help. While I’m pretty certain that the club will come all the way back, I’m not sure the fans will.

Of course, the plan all along could have been to kill off interest, and rebuild so that no one notices that they have a really good team until they land in Vegas three years from now. It wouldn’t be the first time Jeffrey Loria scorched the earth in a baseball market before packing up shop and moving.

The Bonds Watch
Which one, you ask? Take your pick. The following questions about the second all-time home run leader are worth following:

• How close can he get to Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record?
• Will the Giants put him on the market before the trade deadline?
• Can his body hold up, or will it break down like the bluesmobile?
• Will he be subpoenaed by the grand jury?
• Will he be charged by the grand jury?
• Will he test positive for steroids?

I’m excited for the first two, from a baseball perspective. Any of the last three also have the potential to create the most sensationalized media storm about an athlete since the O.J. Simpson trial.

The Home Of The Braves….Looking Up In The Standings
The Atlanta Braves’ streak of 14 consecutive division titles is in serious jeopardy. Actually, it’s worse than that; since they’re sitting 13 games out of first place, it’s pretty much dead, barring a second-half collapse from the New York Mets. However, on the heels of a 7-3 run to end the first-half, the Braves are a mere 6 1/2 games out of the wild card, though they’d have to leapfrog 8 teams to take the lead.

Atlanta has overcome first half deficits in the past, but this year, things look different. For one, their pitching has struggled. This past off-season, long-time pitching coach Leo Mazzone left for Baltimore, and was replaced by “The Spitter” Roger McDowell. Mazzone’s importance to the club has been seen in the failure of many of the young arms on the club to improve – Jorge Sosa and Horacio Ramirez, in particular, were expected to step up, but they’ve struggled all season long. Of the 6 Braves’ pitchers who have started 8 or more games, only John Smoltz has a sub-4.00 ERA, and everyone but Smoltz (1.18) and Hudson (1.40) has posted a WHIP of at least 1.50. Because they’ve come back so many times before, I’m not writing the Braves off in the wild card race yet, but if they can’t get those pitching numbers down, they’re not getting much closer to the playoffs than they are now.

The Joe Mauer Watch
He’s hitting .375 at the break, leading to the following questions:

• Can he hit .400? (probably not)
• Can he post the highest batting average ever for a catcher, eclipsing the record of .362 held by Bill Dickey (1936) and Mike Piazza (1997)? (likely not, since he’ll wear down, but it’s more likely that he’ll accomplish this than hit .400)
• Can he become the first catcher to win a batting title since Ernie Lombardi in 1938? (probably)

The Red Sox Watch
Now that they can’t beat up on the National League (they were 16-2 in interleague play), can they hold off the Yankees and Blue Jays? If Jon Lester keeps pitching well, and Schilling and Beckett hold up, I think they can. My guess is that Theo is more likely than Ricciardi to make a couple of moves to shore up his club, while the rumored Yankee acquisitions (Jacque Jones or Bobby Abreu) won’t have a huge impact in the Bronx. Pitching will win this race, and I have more confidence in the ability of Boston’s staff to hold up than I do in those of New York or Toronto.

So Many Teams, So Few Playoff Spots
Only one of the eight playoff spots looks to be locked up at this point – the NL East, where nobody is going to catch the Mets. As for the other spots in the league, the Central is still up for grabs, with the Cardinals sputtering, and the Reds, Brewers, and Astros all within striking distance. The group of death in the West is even closer, with all five teams within five games of each other, and only one (the D-Backs) sitting below .500.

In the AL, the Tigers and the White Sox are sitting pretty for the Central crown and wild card right now, but a slump from either of them (like the one the Sox experienced in August/September last year) could see the Twinkies, or the Red Sox/Yankees/Jays leapfrog them in the wild card race. The aforementioned three-head monster of the AL East will duke it out – only 5 games separate them now, while in the West, Texas and Oakland are tied for first, while the Angels sit 2 back, and the Mariners, two and a half.

In the NL, 9 of the 16 teams have a real shot at the playoffs, while in the AL, 10 of the 14 teams can say the same. Add in a few NL sleepers who could get hot and make a wild card run (Philly, Atlanta, Florida), and there should be some great baseball to look forward to down the stretch.


At 3:34 PM, Blogger mudcrutch79 said...

the kids, especially on the mound (Verlander, Bonderman, and Zumaya), have really stepped it up.

The Doctrine!

Speaking of, who would have predicted that the all-star game starters would be Kenny Rogers and Brad Penny?

Pete Munro would have.

Jered Weaver, 6-0 in 6 starts with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Oh, and a positively Bob Gibson-esque 1.12 ERA. He was so good it took him less than two months to convince the team to ship his brother to the National League to create a permanent spot for him in the rotation

It took him even less time to convince the Pete Munro Doctrine that he was a keeper.

The Joe Mauer Watch

I've been watching him since I stole him from Grabia at the start of the year.

Thanks for the review of my fantasy team Alex!

At 3:42 PM, Blogger Andy Grabia said...

Oh, God. Here we go.

Do we wanna talk about Liriano, Papelbon, Swisher, Ortiz, Sizemore, Santana, Uggla, Ramirez and Fielder? Because we can, any time you want.

At 4:34 PM, Blogger Alex said...

The thing that kills me about Weaver is that I saw when he was first added to the free agent pool, but I had maxed out my roster moves for the week. Figuring I could wait until Monday morning and still get him, I was horrified to find out a couple of days later that he was given a start on the Saturday, and promptly added by another team.

In conclusion, I hate you Tyler.


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