Seven offseason questions for baseball executives

November 10, 2011

Jerry Crasnick* wrote an interesting article over on ESPN.com today about seven major questions facing teams this offseason. He asked 28 baseball executives their thoughts. It’s a good read; I encourage you to go check it out.

* The most underrated writer on ESPN, and it’s not even all that close.

As always, Crasnick’s article gives me a great starting point for my own post. Here are my thoughts on each of the seven questions he raised:

1. Which free-agent first baseman, Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, will provide the best value over the life of his next contract?

20 votes for Fielder, 3 votes for Pujols, and five abstentions.

Um, what?

There was on point that was lost in the shuffle with all the talk of Albert Pujols having a bad season last year: Albert Pujols didn’t have a bad season last year. He had an ugly .245/.305/.453 line through April, but that was mostly because of a ridiculous .211 BABIP. That won’t happen again. Pujols will be Pujols.

And I get all the talk – Pujols is 32 and he might actually be older, because he was born in the Dominican Republic. Sure, Pujols may be older than 32. But Prince Fielder actually is fat.

Which leads me to the real inspiration for this post: a quote from an anonymous AL scout, dismissing concerns over Fielder’s weight: Fielder has “been fat since he was born, so he knows how to play with fat.”

Not only is that a dumb, meaningless thing to say, but that is some seriously dangerous logic coming from a scout. Let’s count down the ways that this quote is insanely stupid:

1. At first I thought that quote has meaning. It was certainly presented as a coherent thought. Don’t be fooled: of course he knows how to play with fat. He is either the first or second most coveted free agent on the market, and there really is no third place. But what in the world does that have to do with a free agent contract?

2. How exactly does someone play fat? The argument against being fat is that your joints wear down faster because you are carrying weight. Maybe Prince knows some sort of magical way to think the joint pain away. If so, I hope he reads this and calls me, because every day I age, I get a little sorer climbing out of bed.

3. Let’s play with that quote a little bit. If I’m missing something logically, let me know, but these all seem to be the same:

  • Mark Prior has been throwing in that motion since he was born, so he knows how to throw in that motion;
  • Rocco Baldelli has been playing with mitochondrial abnormalities since he was born, so he knows how to play with mitochondrial abnormalities; and most importantly
  • Cecil Fielder has been fat since he was born, so he knows how to play with fat.
Which leads me to my final point:
4. Krasnick points out that Fielder is durable: “since his rookie year, Fielder has appeared in 157, 158, 159, 162, 161 and 162 games.” Prince turns 29 this year.
Cecil Fielder was a part-time player until he turned 24. He played a full season in Japan at age 25 before the Tigers signed him. In the following four seasons, he played in 159, 162, 155, and 154 games.
In 1993, at age 29 just like Prince, he signed a 5-year, $36 million dollar contract with the Tigers. The contract made him he highest paid player in baseball in 1994 and 1995. Number of games per season from 1994 (when he turned 30) through the end of his career: 109, 136, 160, 98, and 117.
He had eaten himself out of the league by age 34 and inspired this magnificent quote on his baseball-reference page:
“If you’re ever running low on inspiration during your physical rehab, just think of Cecil Fielder and the endless hours he put in at the gym to become one of the best power-eaters of the 90s.”
So yeah, you might want to think twice about giving the already fat guy a boatload of guaranteed money. I take Pujols any day of the week.
2. Which free-agent closer, Joe Nathan or Frankie Rodriguez, has a better chance of regaining his former glory?
Um, neither. Have you seen these guys pitch lately? 13 scouts picked Nathan, 12 picked Rodriguez, with three undecided. I think we can assume the three undecided said something close to “Um, neither.” Perhaps Crasnick would have received more neithers/honest answers if he framed the question this way:
Which free-agent closer, the 37-year old who lost several miles off his fastball after Tommy John surgery or the headcase whose most notable accomplishment in the last two years was getting arrested for fighting with his own teammate, has a better chance of regaining his former glory?
Yeah, that sounds way better.
3. Which 2011 free-agent signee has the best chance of rebounding next season? Adam Dunn (.159 with 11 home runs), Carl Crawford (.255 BA, .289 OBP, 18 stolen bases) or Jayson Werth (.232, 69 runs scored, 58 RBIs)?
22 scouts went with Crawford, 5 with Werth, and one with Dunn. This seems easy – how can it be anyone but Crawford?
I don’t recall Werth ever being a very good player. Other than the Nationals front office, I don’t recall anyone else thinking Werth was a very good player. I’m just not entirely sure what Werth would rebound from, so he’s out.
Dunn built a career on two things and two things only: walks and home runs. He can’t hit home runs any more, so that leaves walks. He did walk last year – he somehow drew 75 while hitting .159 – but eventually pitchers are going to stop pitching around him. Home run hitters simply don’t have much value once they can’t hit home runs any more.* One scout compared Dunn’s potential 2012 season to Lance Berkman’s 2011 season, but I don’t see it. Berkman was a solid all-around hitter before a bad 2010 season; Dunn was not.
* See McGwire, Mark.
That leaves Carl Crawford by default. Crawford earned a spot on my fantasy baseball shit list after I wasted the ninth overall pick on him this season, but I still have to pick him for this question. I don’t know if he will rebound, but he is the only one of those three who has a chance to rebound.

4. Which vacant managerial job poses the toughest challenge: Boston, St. Louis or the Chicago Cubs?

Responses from the scouts: Boston 20, St. Louis 5, Chicago 3. I get the argument: Boston has a far more intense fanbase, while St. Louis will be less anxious after their World Series win and the Cubs are the Cubs – but I disagree. For me, it has to be the Cubs.

The Red Sox are still insanely talented. The manager doesn’t have that hard of a job. Besides, there’s a reason why managers tend to last five years or less: sometimes a team just needs a new leader. The circle of baseball life, if you will. It doesn’t even matter who the leader is.

Unlike the Cardinals and Red Sox, the Cubs suck. They had the sixth highest payroll in baseball last year and I couldn’t begin to tell you how that happened. I look at their lineup and it looks like the lineup of a team that would finish 71-91. They didn’t underachieve.

Then there’s the Theo Epstein issue. I like Theo and I hope he does well. But he came right out and told Ryne Sandberg that he wasn’t a candidate for the job. Cubs fans flat-out LOVE Sandberg. No other manager would draw anywhere close to as much fan enthusiasm.

So why didn’t Theo consider him? It has to be ego. I can’t think of any other rational explanation. Theo simply doesn’t want a manager overshadowing the work he intends to do to turn around the Cubs. And that is why the Cubs’ job will be the toughest.

5. Which lefty starter, 31-year-old C.J. Wilson or 32-year-old Mark Buehrle, is the better bet to perform over the course of his free-agent deal?

14 scouts voted for Buehrle, eight for Wilson, and six undecided.

Tough call. Buehrle’s the sure thing, while Wilson could be anywhere from great to terrible. I’d take Buerhle, but I could also see an argument either way.

With Buerhle, you know you’re getting a solid number two starter, nothing more, nothing less. And given that the Yankees lost Games 2 and 5 in the ALDS, I’d take the sure thing.

6. Which 2011 September-collapse team has a better chance of making the playoffs next year: Boston or Atlanta?

The scouts picked Boston and I’d agree. This team had no business missing the playoffs this year and they shouldn’t miss it next year. Furthermore, I don’t think Atlanta can win the NL East over the Phillies, so they’d have to rely on the Wild Card. The Red Sox, on the other hand, can win the AL East. Advantage: Boston.

7. Which young pitching phenom would you rather have: Yu Darvish, Stephen Strasburg or Matt Moore?

The respondents gave the slight edge to Moore with 13 votes to Strasburg’s 12. The other three respondents called it a coin flip between Moore and Strasburg.

Poor Yu Darvish. This is completely Dice-K’s fault. Dice-K flames out, and all of a sudden people forget how great Darvish is. Here’s a little secret: whoever gets Darvish is going to get a ridiculous bargain.

Now I’m not going to pretend that Dice-K wasn’t a really, really good Japan League pitcher. But in his best season, he finished with a 2.13 ERA and 200 strikeouts in 186.1 innings pitched. Darvish’s highest season ERA in the last five years was 1.88 ERA. Last season, he finished with 276 strikeouts and a 1.44 ERA in 232 innings. That’s insane.

I think Moore is going to be great. I hope Strasburg will be great, because he was awesome to watch before Tommy John surgery. But I’m going to be contrarian here and go with Yu Darvish. I think he’s being unfairly dismissed because of past Japanese flameouts. I have faith in the Yu!

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Recapping my Predictions for the 2011 MLB Season

October 24, 2011

October 24, 2011, 6:15 PM CST, Minneapolis, Minnesota. The sun has set and the streetlights are on.

That can only mean one thing: it’s time to start blogging again.

What better way to start than to check how I did with my 2011 MLB season predictions. Presumably you care far less about this than you do about actual expert predictions. Don’t worry – I’ll get to those in a couple days. In the meantime, it’s only fair for me to critique my own ten preseason predictions.

1. The Yankees will win the AL East.

Spot on. Too bad I made nine other predictions. In the preseason, I was astounded that all 45 of ESPN’s baseball experts picked the Red Sox to win the division. This made little sense at the time and makes even less sense now. I argued that Adrian Gonzalez, while immensely talented, would not make the Red Sox appreciably better (correct) even if Carl Crawford would make the Red Sox better (good god).* My bigger issue was with the lackluster Red Sox pitching staff. Fried chicken and beer aside, it was the awful, awful pitching down the stretch that doomed the Sox.

* There isn’t much to say about Carl Crawford that has not been said already, so I’ll take this asterisk to brag about my immense fantasy baseball skills. My first three picks this season were Crawford, Buster Posey, and Josh Johnson. Posey and Johnson were done for the season by May. I only wish Crawford was done by May so I could have given up on him three months before I actually pulled the trigger. Despite all that, I finished third and in the money. Well done, me.

Meanwhile, here are the Yankees win totals for each season since 2001: 95, 103, 101, 101, 95, 97, 94, 89, 103, 95, 97. None of the ESPN experts picked the Yankees. Another fascinating wrinkle on the expert groupthink I love to make fun of: even when the pundits think outside of the box, they can’t help but think outside the box together. Before the season I took my chances with the Yankees, figuring that Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson were due for big seasons (75% true for Teixeira; 125% true for Granderson) and that Russell Martin would help the team out (he did until mid-summer).

2. The Rays will be better than people think…or not.

So close. I was ready to pull the trigger on the Rays over the Red Sox for the AL Wild Card before the Rays were swept by the Orioles in the first week of the season. I also had a write-up ready to go that described the Rays’ record-setting comeback for the Wild Card, but decided not to publish it. Alas.

3. The AL Central will again be the worst division in the majors.

I think I got this one right, although not for the reasons I expected. The Tigers were a pleasant surprise, finishing 95-67 and reaching the ALCS. But man was the rest of that division bad. The remaining four teams finished with a losing record. Cleveland finished 80-82 – the only runner-up with less than 86 wins.* And I’ve chronicled before how bad the Twins were. I don’t even have the heart to link to the articles. Let’s just put it this way: the Twins finished 63-99 and that was three wins BETTER than they were expected to based on runs scored and runs allowed.

* In fairness, the Indians performed way better than expected. I picked them to finish with the worst record in the majors. See number five below.

4. The Rangers will be really, really good.

I did pick the Rangers to earn the #1 seed in the AL. I was off by a game and four games on my 100 win prediction. Still, this was pretty close to true. The Rangers were exactly as good as I thought they would be – I was more surprised that the Angels performed as well as they did.

The Angels finished 86-76, 10 games behind the Rangers. Even that’s a little deceptive, as the Rangers finished 16-2 down the stretch while the Angels limped to a 6-10 finish. I thought the Angels would struggle to finish .500 and the A’s and Mariners would be the A’s and Mariners. Two out of three ain’t bad.

5. Indians and Pirates battle for the worst record in the majors; the Rust Belt weeps.

A swing and a miss. Even if the Rust Belt cried for different reasons.

July 18.

The Pirates lead the NL Central by a half game. The Indians lead the AL Central by one game. The first time since 1921 that had happened this late in the season.

They finished a staggering 39 combined games back.

6. The Phillies will be the best team in the majors.

Done and done. Sometimes these things are too easy. The Phils brought in the best rotation since the 1990s Braves teams and cruised to a 102-60 finish…and they were probably even better than that. They were 98-52 before they stopped caring in baseball’s equivalent to the 13-0 NFL team that gives up on the perfect season after clinching the #1 seed.

Of course my fault came later, when I picked the Phillies to win the World Series. Only twice in the last twelve years has the team with the best regular season record won the World Series.*

* And we wonder why Game 4 of the World Series can barely beat a 62-7 NFL blowout in the ratings.

7. Five teams will be within eight games of the NL Central title. Nobody will care.

A miss. Flashback to the aforementioned July 18 day: the Pirates, Cardinals, Brewers, and Reds were all within four games of the division lead.

That worked out well for two of those teams.

Records after July 18 for the four teams: Milwaukee 45-20; St. Louis 40-27; Cincinnati 32-34; Pittsburgh 22-46. I give myself one-third of a point for having the right idea through July.

8. The Giants won’t make the playoffs.

I’m much smarter than I look apparently…although it’s much easier to predict a team won’t make the playoffs than they will make the playoffs.

Prior to the season, pretty much everyone was on board either the Colorado or San Francisco bandwagon for the West crown. 43 of 45 ESPN experts pick one of those two teams to win the division. I went with the Dodgers on a hunch.

Whoops. McCourts one, me zero. They need a win more than I do though.

9. The Phillies and the Rangers meet in the World Series.

One out of two ain’t bad.

Of my playoff teams, I picked the Rangers, Yankees, Phillies, and Cardinals (good), the Red Sox (meh), the Rockies and Dodgers (not even close), and the Twins (only off by a measly 33 games).

On an unrelated note, two records I didn’t realize until I looked up the standings now: the Nationals finished 80-81 and the Rockies finished 73-89. Two thoughts on those records: first, how in the world did the Rockies only win 73 games? And second, it’s probably not a good sign for your organization if you spent a bajillion  dollars in the offseason and I am surprised at the end of the season that you actually won 80 games.

10. The Phillies win the World Series.

I was bummed when I read this back – I could have sworn I picked the Rangers. Alas.

Bonus: Award winners.

Just for kicks, here are my picks for award winners. I suspect none of these will be anywhere close to correct at the end of the season; I will consider it a victory if any of these players picks up votes for their respective awards.

AL MVP: Mark Teixeira, Yankees
NL MVP: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
AL Cy Young: CC Sabathia, Yankees
NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
AL Manager of the Year: Joe Maddon, Rays
NL Manager of the Year: Don Mattingly, Dodgers
AL Rookie of the Year: Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays
NL Rookie of the Year: Brandon Belt, Giants

These were mostly for fun: award winners are pretty much a shot in the dark. A couple comments:

I picked the wrong Yankee to bounce back, although it’s unclear if Granderson will win anyway.

If it weren’t for Verlander turning into a demigod during the season, I would have nailed Sabathia. I did nail Kershaw – I think he wins the Cy Young. Also, allow me to be the 568,321st person to point out that the Dodgers are in the second biggest media market, have the NL MVP shoo-in (Kemp) and likely Cy Young winner (Kershaw) and virtually no one cared. Well done again McCourts.

Maddon has to win the AL Manager of the Year, right? As for Mattingly’s chances, see the previous paragraph.


The Worst Bullpen of All-Time

May 28, 2011

At the beginning of the season, I picked the Minnesota Twins to win the AL Central.

In my defense, I admitted a little bit of homer-ism with that pick. I knew the Twins would take a step back. Although they didn’t lose any key players from the team that ran away with the Central title last season, a series of minor free agent slip-ups lowered expectations coming into the season. Still, of ESPN’s experts, about one-fourth picked the Twins to win the division title. So it wasn’t that much of a stretch to pick the Twins to win the Central.

Then the season started.

The Twins have hit lows that few teams in any sport have hit. Baseball is unique among American sports in that teams can hit rock bottom…and then keep going, and going, and going. The NFL season is only sixteen games long, so a team can only sink so low.* The NBA and NHL seasons are longer, but over half of each league’s teams make the playoffs, so it’s hard to fall that far off the place. In MLB, only eight of 30 teams make the playoffs. At this point, it’s a given that the Twins won’t make the playoffs – they’d have to go 65-48 from here on out just to reach .500, something that they appear to be completely incapable of doing. But they still have to play all 113 of those games, 15 of which I unfortunately have tickets to. That’s way too much time to hit rock bottom and then keep digging.

* Ironically, the 2010 Vikings set the bar for sinking lower than any team in recent memory. But even that took an extremely unique combination of a team coming off an NFC Championship Game appearance, an epic collapse, a 40-year old quarterback’s penis, and the fans completely turning on them…and you can STILL make an argument that the Twins’ season has been worse. By the way, it’s only May.

Through April, Twins fans were still optimistic. Disappointing was the operative word when the Twins raced out to a 9-12 start by April 26. The team was ugly at times, but a 9-12 start is certainly nothing to panic about.

Disappointing then turned to frustrating. The Twins lost six in a row to fall to 9-18. Quotes about it being a long season are okay in April, but as soon as that calendar turns to May those same quotes are a red flag.

Then Francisco Liriano threw a no-hitter in what is shaping up to be the highlight of the season. Sure, it was sloppy (Liriano walked six), but it was a no-hitter nonetheless. Liriano struggled so much early in the season that rumors were that he would head to the bullpen with another lackluster start. He responded in dramatic fashion. And who knew? Maybe Liriano’s no-hitter would spark the team.

The Twins won the next day…and then lost nine in a row. After a three-game winning streak, they promptly lost four more games in a row, all of which they led or were tied in the eighth inning. Twice they led by three in the eighth inning. At this point frustration turned to something else. It is an overstatement to say that Twins fans are taking a perverse joy in watching this team, but I think morbid curiosity is the right term. We know going in that the Twins will lose, but they keep finding new ways to do it. Losing is a lot easier to take if your attitude isn’t “Will we win?” but rather “How will we lose?”

******************

Considering how terrible the entire team has been, perhaps it is unfair to single out the bullpen in this catastrophe. I’m going to do it anyway. While the Twins as a team have been merely really bad, the bullpen has been historically awful.

I thought the bullpen hit rock bottom in Monday’s 8-7 extra inning loss to the Mariners. Carl Pavano pitched seven decent innings and the Twins went into the eighth up 7-4. The bullpen promptly gave up three runs to send the game into extra innings. For the first time ever, I left a Twins game that was tied. Anthony Swarzak and his 7.71 ERA came out to pitch the top of the tenth. The Twins were due to send up Danny Valencia (.226 BA), Drew Butera (.115 BA), Denard Span (.291 BA), and Trevor Plouffe (.212 BA). It was already 10:40 PM, I had to work the next morning, and even if Swarzak could pitch a scoreless tenth (which probably wasn’t going to happen), the Twins had no chance to win the game in the bottom of the inning with that lineup.

Sure enough, Swarzak gave up a run in the top of the tenth and the Twins went 1-2-3 in the bottom of the inning. One of the worst feelings as a fan is knowing what negative result will happen and helplessly watching as that exact scenario plays out. That’s rock bottom.

Or so we thought.

********************

Taking a page from Bill Simmons’ book, I decided to write a retroactive running diary of the last three innings of last night’s Twins-Angels game:

Top of the seventh: Scott Baker enters the seventh with a 4-0 lead. Baker is famous for imploding in the late innings of the game and he’s already at 90+ pitches, but what else can the Twins do? The bullpen is completely incapable of holding this lead, so Baker goes back out for the seventh.

Baker allows two sharp singles to Torii Hunter and Alberto Callaspo. Russell Branyan then grounds out for the first out, but the runners move up to second and third. Then Baker makes a great play on a Mark Trumbo smash up the middle and throws home for the second out. Somewhat predictably given the Twins’ luck this season, Baker is shook up on the play but manages to get the third out on a liner to Alexi Casilla.

Bottom of the seventh: A Casilla double (seriously! And he even had a triple earlier!) and Morneau single give the Twins a 5-0 lead. With Morneau on first and two outs, Jim Thome draws a walk. Trevor Plouffe pinch runs for him. Let me repeat that: with a 5-0 lead, two outs in the seventh, and runs on first and second, Ron Gardenhire sends a pinch runner with one career stolen base in for his most dangerous batter in a misguided attempt to get a seventh run.* This will become important later. Delmon Young grounds out to first to end the inning, although Plouffe was so lightning fast that they couldn’t have forced him out at second.

* Joe Christensen of the Star Tribune reports that Thome’s shoulder may have been bothering him. I’m a bit dubious given Gardenhire’s awful pinch running decisions throughout the season. I also have to assume that an ailing Thome with one good arm is still better than Plouffe, should the Twins need more runs later in the game (hint: they did).

Top of the eighth: Scott Baker’s night is over for the Twins. The following stats from Elias Sports Bureau are called foreshadowing:

The last starting pitcher that pitched at least seven scoreless innings, left with a five or more run lead, and still lost was the Yankees’ Hideki Irabu against the Rangers on May 14, 1998. The Twins themselves had not lost a game when leading by five or more runs in the eighth inning since a July 30, 1971 loss to the Yankees – a streak of 755 games.

And one more stat:

Even with those previous stats, approximately 0% of all Minnesotans thought the Twins had the game locked up [citation needed].

Alex Burnett came out of the bullpen for the Twins. Burnett was one of the main reasons that the Twins felt comfortable giving up Jon Rauch and Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain and Brian Fuentes in the offseason. The 23-year old was converted to the bullpen in the minors in 2009 after three average seasons as a starter. He was solid with High-A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain in 2009 – 78 strikeouts, 26 walks, and only 16 earned runs in 77 innings.

Not content to let Burnett develop further, the Twins rushed him up to the majors in 2010. He performed admirably for two months…and then fell apart in the summer before he was sent back down to Triple-A Rochester. Including a late September call-up, he gave up 18 runs in his last 16.1 innings.

Still, the Twins saw enough in those early months to entrust him with a bullpen role this season. It has been nothing short of a disaster. His previously solid control is gone: he has seven strikeouts and ten walks in 12.2 innings this season. Coming into the game, he had allowed 24 baserunners and his ERA is now over 7.

Like the Twins, Burnett found new ways to suck this game. Peter Bourjos hit a routine grounder to first that Justin Morneau briefly bobbled. He recovered in time to get the ball to Burnett at first, but Bourjos beat the throw. Morneau was charged with an error and this seemed reasonable. At least until they showed the replay. The throw would have made it in plenty of time, but Burnett inexplicably lingered on the mound for a second before moseying over to first. The official scorer changed the ruling to a hit. Burnett then walked Macier Izturis and his night was over.

In comes lefty Dusty Hughes. This was an extremely questionable decision, mostly because Hughes sucks, but also because the next batter, Erick Aybar, is a switch hitter. Granted, Aybar has been markedly better against righties this season, but over his career his numbers as a lefty and a righty are nearly the same.

In an offseason filled with inexplicable moves, the Twins’ waiver pickup of Dusty Hughes might have been the most inexplicable. There are few universal truths in baseball, but one of them is this: If the Kansas City Royals outright waive a player making only $400,000, DO NOT sign him.

With no context, Hughes’ numbers weren’t terrible last season: 34 strikeouts, 24 walks, and a 3.83 ERA in 57 innings. Then you remember that he was a left-handed specialist and most of the batters he faced were lefties. Estimates vary, but anywhere from 400 to 600 other lefties could put up those same numbers in the majors. Of course, statistics of any kind have never been the Twins’ strong suit and they fell into the trap of egregiously small sample sizes: Hughes had posted a 2.03 ERA in ten appearances against them last season.

The season started and it quickly became clear that Hughes was not a major league pitcher. He was actually worse than his already poor track record indicated. He gave up three runs on Opening Day and never looked back. He was sent down to the minors on May 1 after giving up 24 baserunners and 12 runs in just 10.2 innings of work. Luckily for us, he was called back up three weeks later because of an injury to Jose Mijares.

Hughes’ first pitch really had to be seen to be believed. Because of MLB’s nonsensical Youtube ban, the best I can provide is this Pitch F/X chart. It was a belt-high fastball, right down the middle, that clocked in at 89.5 miles per hour. Now I’m not saying I could have hit that pitch well, but I’m convinced I could have made decent contact. I don’t get pitches that perfect in the batting cage. Anyway, Erick Aybar is a better hitter than me and he crushed the ball 401 feet to left center. This was Aybar’s ninth career home run as a righty in 1,361 plate appearances.

5-3 game. Still no outs in the eighth.

The next play reads as “Bobby Abreu singled to center,” but that’s probably not fair to Hughes. Gardenhire – who put in a pinch runner for his most dangerous batter up by five in the seventh – did not find it necessary to put in a defensive replacement for Michael Cuddyer at second base. This despite the fact that Cuddyer has started 58 career games at second base in eleven MLB seasons and that Matt Tolbert is on the bench specifically because he plays decent defense at every infield position. Cuddyer did the Ole’ move on Abreu’s grounder and Hughes was charged with the single. Because Cuddyer didn’t make contact with the ball, he wasn’t charged with an error; we’ll call that Exhibit A on how stupid the error stat is.

In comes Jim Hoey. If the waiver pickup of Hughes was the most inexplicable move of the offseason, the acquisition of Hoey might have been the dumbest. The Twins traded J.J. Hardy and Brendan Harris to the Orioles for Hoey and minor league pitcher Brett Jacobsen. Granted, it was nice to be rid of Harris, but the Twins are sorely missing Hardy at shortstop. Twins’ shortstops sport a .603 OPS (25th in the majors); Hardy’s OPS for the Orioles this season is .710.

Hoey throws the ball really hard. And really wildly. I assume that the Twins brass thought that pitching coach Rick Anderson would teach Hoey control. They were wrong. Hoey couldn’t crack the roster out of Spring Training and was sent down to Rochester.

He was called back up on April 18. In his first appearance, he recorded four key outs to preserve a victory over the Orioles. First impressions stick. Largely because of those four outs, Hoey was thrust into a high leverage, eighth inning role that he was ill-equipped to handle. Amazingly, nine appearances after he was the team’s setup man, he was back in the minors.

Like Hughes, injuries forced the Twins to call him back up; this was his first appearance back. Quite the microcosm of the Twins season: a bad trade for a pitcher; the pitcher can’t make the team out of Spring Training; three weeks later, he is called up; one appearance later, he is thrust into a high leverage role; three appearances after that, he loses the role; six appearances after that, he is back in the minors; and two weeks after that, he’s back with the Twins, pitching in the eighth inning as the Twins cling to a lead. Needless to say, fans were not optimistic.

Hunter crushes a double off the wall. Callaspo hits a grounder to second that Cuddyer again can’t field. 5-4, still no outs. Branyan hits a deep fly ball to left and Delmon Young overthrows the cutoff man, allowing Callaspo to reach second. 5-5, but at least we have an out. Mercifully, Hoey induces two ground balls and the Twins escape the inning tied 5-5. Considering that Hoey and his 10.61 ERA came out with a runner on first and no outs, that was probably a best case scenario.

Bottom of the eighth: Danny Valencia walks to start off the inning. Not a bad start. Drew Butera sacrifices to move Valencia to second. Although I’m not normally a big fan of the sacrifice, Butera can’t actually hit the ball, so sacrificing Valencia to second is by far the best result we could hope for.*

* Butera’s batting average is .120 and his on-base percentage is .156 this season. Although I know I couldn’t get on base 15 out of every 100 at-bats, I’d like to think I could draw some walks simply by not swinging. If Mario Mendoza gave us the line at which major leagues need to hit at to stay in the majors, perhaps Drew Butera can give us the line in which fatass fans think they can actually do better than a major leaguer.

The thing about the Twins this season is that they haven’t just been bad, they’ve also been unlucky. The next two plays were unlucky at its finest. Denard Span crushed a line drive to deep center that hung in the air juuuuuust long enough for the speedy Bourjos to track down. Then Casilla hit a shallow popup to right. The popup initially looked harmless, but then we saw that Bourjos and Hunter were each hustling to get there. The crowd got louder as the potential Texas Leaguer dropped. Both went for it and – I’m not making this up – each touched the ball two times before Bourjos finally grapped it out of midair. Fantastic.

Top of the ninth: Hoey trots back out. Had I been in attendance, I might have walked out. If you have read all 2,640 of my words up until now, you know that what follows is completely predictable. Bourjos hits a triple and Izturis follows with a single. 6-5 Angels. Hoey’s night is over and it’s Phil Dumatrait’s turn.

Dumatrait is an interesting story. A 29-year old reliever originally drafted in 2000, he has spent time in the minors with five organizations. He made 42 major league appearances over his career, posting a 6.87 ERA. In short, he’s not a major league pitcher. Yet as I’ve pointed out, the Twins take a pretty short view of things. Never mind that he is a pretty crappy pitcher – he posted a 1.72 ERA in 15 Triple-A appearances this season.* With all that said, Dumatrait recorded three quick outs and the Twins escaped the inning down one.

* Also never mind his 12 to 11 strikeout to walk ratio and his ridiculously low and unsustainable .209 BABIP this season.

Bottom of the ninth: At this point, the Twins were going to lose. No doubt in my mind. But the middle of the order was up, so I had to keep watching.

Kubel quickly flies out and Morneau quickly strikes out. With two outs, Cuddyer hits a sharp single (no wonder they left him in to play second!).

In steps Luke Hughes. Remember two innings ago when Hughes pinch ran for Thome up by five? Yeah…it would have been awesome to have Thome up. In all my years of being a baseball fan, I’ve never seen anything as exciting as Thome coming up in the ninth inning tied or down by one run. It’s an experience. It sure would have been nice to have that experience last night.

To Hughes’ credit, he beat out an infield single to bring Young up with runners on first and second. Strictly by the numbers, it is certainly better to have Young up with runners on first and second and two outs than have Thome up with a runner on first and two outs. But it sure didn’t feel that way. And though Young had an exciting at-bat (running the count full after falling behind 0-2), the harmless fly out to right seemed inevitable.

As Hunter caught the final out, the Twins hit rock bottom. For now.


The Unfortunate 2011 Twins Season

April 29, 2011

You’ve probably noticed a lack of baseball posts for me. This is partly because I’m working two jobs, partly because no one wants to hear about my fantasy baseball teams, but mostly because the Minnesota Twins suck.

The Twins started off the season slumping, haven’t gotten much better, and show no signs of being any good at all.

This is what it must feel like to be a fan of the New York Mets, who are perpetually terrible despite a ridiculous payroll and optimistic preseason expectations.

Before the season, most Twins fans were cautiously optimistic. Granted, they lost several contributors from last season’s team. But they returned Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, two of the best hitters in the league. And they did flat-out dominate the AL Central last year and flirted with the best record in the majors until late September, when a 2-8 finish dropped them to 94-68 on the season.

Then the 2011 season started.

In stunning fashion, every single one of the organization’s many missteps over the past year was exposed in stunning fashion.

It started at the trading deadline last year, when the Twins’ brass decided to deal catching prospect Wilson Ramos for reliever Matt Capps. This trade was stupid on many levels, none more so than the overvaluing of the save. Twins’ fans have largely come to terms with the organization’s complete shunning of advanced statistical analysis, mostly because the team still wins fairly consistently. But this situation was a different situation altogether: not only were the Twins not paying attention to valuable statistical tools, they were actively paying attention to the wrong ones. They paid $3 million and gave away one of their top prospects to get a guy who was decent at accumulating a statistic invented out of thin air by a guy named Jerome Holtzman in 1960.

Of course almost anything is defensible and you can certainly defend the trade on its merits. After all, Capps is probably the best reliever on the team this season, his 3.55 ERA and $7.15 million paycheck not withstanding.

Then you remember that Joe Mauer had offseason knee surgery and is currently dealing with bilateral leg weakness, which sounds and awful lot like one of those nebulous injury definitions that last forever.

And that Ramos (who is making $415K this season) has a beautiful looking .373/.421/.569 line this season so far.

And that the Twins also traded away one-time backup catcher Jose Morales in December for a single-A reliever.

And that Drew Butera is the worst hitting starter in the league, with a .125/.167/.175 line that makes you wonder if you couldn’t get on base in the majors 17 out of every 100 times.

And that Butera’s backup is 31-year old Steve Holm, a career minor leaguer with 53 major league games under his belt.

And that Mauer knew all of this, so hurriedly came back before he was ready. Those aren’t my words, those are his trainer’s words.

Suddenly that trade doesn’t look so hot.

Then you consider the rest of their offseason moves. For non-Twin fans that happen to be reading this, I did not make any of these terrifying details up:

They traded SS J.J. Hardy to the Orioles for minor league reliever Jim Hoey. Hoey has managed to work his way from the minors to a high leverage bullpen role to a low leverage bullpen role in just four weeks and four major league games. Seriously.

They turned the shortstop position over to Alexi Casilla, who somewhat uniquely has been below replacement level OFFENSIVELY and DEFENSIVELY over the past three years. Yes, italics and caps were completely necessary. And no, it doesn’t matter that Hardy is hurt. Hardy will eventually be healthy and Casilla will still suck.

They chose not to re-sign the always solid Orlando Hudson at second base after winning the bidding war for Japanese batting champion Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Nishioka promptly broke his leg. This sounds like a tough break, until you realize that the Twins already had Nishioka work all spring training on not getting his leg broken on breakups of double plays.

Even this wouldn’t be too bad…except that the Twins finally decided to ditch Nick Punto this offseason after paying him $4 million each of the last two seasons. Apparently the $750,000 that the Cardinals pay him was too much for the Twins to match.

The preceding four paragraphs serve as the long-winded answer to the trivia question: how do you end up with guys named Matt Tolbert, Alexi Casilla, Luke Hughes as your middle infielders? It’s probably not a good sign when none of those three guys would crack a starting lineup in a 12-team AL-only fantasy league.

There was the decision to guarantee Nick Blackburn a rotation spot in Spring Training despite a brutal 2010 season that saw him briefly get demoted to the minors. Even after a decent September, he still finished with a 5.42 ERA and an ugly 68-40 strikeout-to-walk ratio on the season.

But that pales in comparison to the team’s inexplicable handling of Francisco Liriano. Liriano was the Twins’ best pitcher last year, with a 3.62 ERA (despite having the highest BABIP in the league) and a stellar 201-58 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Of course the Twins weren’t content with this, so pitching coach Rick Anderson decided that Liriano needed to learn how to “pitch to contact.” Somewhat predictably, Liriano was shelled in two of his last three starts and is reportedly one start away from heading to the bullpen. Again, this was their best starting pitcher last season.

Middle relievers are fairly interchangeable. This is why everyone understood the Twins’ decision not to re-sign Brian Fuentes the huge paycheck that he expected to be paid as a potential closer. No one could argue with that.

Then they decided not to re-sign Matt Guerrier. And Jesse Crain. And Jon Rauch. And Pat Neshek. And Ron Mahay. And Rob Delaney.

Instead, they went with a reliever so bad that the Kansas City Royals let him go (Dusty Hughes); a guy clearly not fully recovered from Tommy John surgery (Joe Nathan); a converted crappy starter (Glen Perkins); and well…I gotta be honest, there isn’t even really a whole lot else to say about the remaining relievers. I’m not even sure what their plan was, other than just letting a bunch of below average pitchers duke it out in spring training.

All that maneuvering adds up apparently.

Twins fans were optimistic because the team returned all of the “good” players from last year’s AL Central champions. Yet the “bad” players and the unknowns contribute too. Enough of those silly moves, and you end up with box scores like this one. A whopping eight of the fifteen players the Twins played on Thursday had little or no role on last year’s squad. They lost 15-3.

Sometimes baseball sucks. Twins fans are in the rare position of being fans of a small market team expected to contend…at least until the season started and all of our worst fears came true.

At least the Royals’ fans have the minor league system in their 30-year rebuilding project. Pirate fans are happy with 70 wins. The Marlins and Rays don’t have any fans to be upset. Clevelanders are used to their bad luck; so long as Travis Hafner doesn’t sign with the Yankees in an offseason special, they’ll bend over and take what the Indians give them. And so on.

Maybe being a fan of all those teams is far worse than having unmet expectations. I have no real argument about that. I just know that I can’t handle watching this team much longer.


Meaningless Opening Week Statistics

April 11, 2011

Subtitled: Why the Red Sox and Rays should or shouldn’t panic.

Or why the Orioles should or shouldn’t be excited.

The Opening Week of the AL East inspired this post. The Red Sox and Rays both came out of the gate and immediately fell flat on their faces with 0-6 starts.  Both teams’ worst fears were realized: the Red Sox’ weak pitching gave up 38 runs in six games and the Rays’ biggest free agent signing retired six games into the season.

Meanwhile, Orioles’ fans are cautiously optimistic for the first time since the late 1960’s. The Orioles started out 6-1 and will enter April 12 in first place. Regardless of how the rest of the season plays out, the Orioles will consider the season a victory after that first week.

The general consensus is that Opening Week is meaningless. Teams have played either six or seven games of a 162-game season. It stands to reason that 4% of a season has very little baring on the rest of the season.

Or does it?

Curious, I went back and looked at the standings after the first week of each season since the league expanded to three divisions in 1994. These statistics are almost certainly meaningless, but they are fairly interesting.

As a tiebreaker, I used run differential to determine which team was in first and last place a week into the season. Not a perfect tiebreaker, but the idea is to pick which teams got off to a hot start and which got off to a cold start, so run differential will do.

Teams that were in first place after Week One:

1st place – 35
2nd place – 25 (13 wild cards)
3rd place – 18
4th place – 17
5th place or last place – 7

Teams that were in last place after Week One:

1st place – 12
2nd place – 12 (4 wild cards)
3rd place – 20
4th place – 14
5th place or last place – 44

***************

Starting out hot is certainly no guarantee of a playoff appearance, but it doesn’t hurt: 48 of 102 first place teams ended up making the playoffs. And the 48 isn’t limited to teams that were predicted to be good. Five examples stand out – the Marlins in 1997, when they rode a hot start to a wild card and World Series championship in only their fifth year of existence; the White Sox in 2005, when they won their first World Series since 1917 (and the Astros, the very same year, when they made their first World Series); the Tigers in 2006, when they shocked everyone to make the World Series just three years after finishing 43-119; the Brewers in 2008, when they eventually qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1982; and the 2010 Giants, who finally won their first championship in San Francisco.

Only six teams that led after the first week ended up finishing last. Even that is a little deceptive though. The 1994 Angels (4-3), 1999 Angels (3-3), and 2002 Mets (3-3, 5-way tie for first) all happened to be leading the division after the first week despite being near .500. Only the 1997 A’s (4-2), 2001 Expos (5-1), and 2008 Orioles (4-1) fell all the way to last after solid starts.

On top of that, starting with the league’s best record is a pretty solid indicator of a playoff team, which should bode well for this year’s Rangers. In twelve of seventeen years, at least one team that had the best record after one week qualified for the playoffs.* Only the 2001 Expos (5-1) started off with the best record in the league yet finished last in their division.

* In several years, teams were tied for the best record after one week. Last year, for example, the Phillies, Giants, Tigers, and Blue Jays all started 5-1. The Phillies and Giants both went on to division titles, while the Tigers and Blue Jays missed the playoffs in emphatic fashion. In other years, like 1997, both teams that started out with the best record – the Marlins and Astros at 5-1 – both made the playoffs.

So that’s good news for this year’s first place teams. Teams that start off hot tend to at least contend for a playoff spot well into the season.

The news isn’t as bad for this year’s train wrecks. While a whopping 44 of 102 last place teams have finished fifth or worse in their division, sixteen of them have come back to make the playoffs.

Most of these teams were around .500 and just happened to be in last, but the Red Sox and Rays can take heart with several other teams. The 1995 Reds started off 0-6 before winning the NL Central by nine games in the 144-game season. The 1999 Diamondbacks won the NL West in their sophomore season by a whopping 14 games after finishing 100-62 after starting the season 1-5.

Then there is the 1998 Yankees. One of only a handful of teams in the conversation for the best team ever, the Yankees actually started the season 1-4. Lucky for them, they close well: they won 113 of their next 157 games en route to a 114-48 record. The wild card Red Sox finished 22 games back.

On the down side, only two of the 23 teams that were tied for the league’s worst record after one week managed to come back and make the playoffs: the aforementioned 1995 Reds and 1999 DBacks. A ridiculous 17 of those finished fourth or worse in their division.

Hard to tell what this means for the Red Sox and Rays (other than nothing). Most of the teams on that list were all expected to be terrible. After it turned out they actually were terrible, it is no surprise that they kept sucking. The Red Sox and Rays were not expected to be that bad, so who knows how they will react.

********************

The full list of teams that finished first after leading one week into the season: 1994 Reds (5-1), 1995 Red Sox (4-2), 1995 Mariners (5-1), 1995 Braves (5-1), 1996 Rangers (6-0), 1996 Padres (5-1), 1997 Orioles (4-2), 1997 Indians (4-2), 1997 Astros (5-1), 1998 Indians (6-0), 1999 Yankees (5-1), 1999 Indians (5-1), 2000 Braves (4-2), 2000 Cardinals (5-1), 2001 Indians (3-2), 2001 Mariners (4-2), 2001 Astros (4-2), 2002 Yankees (5-1), 2002 A’s (5-2), 2003 Yankees (5-1), 2003 A’s (5-1), 2003 Giants (6-0), 2004 Angels (4-2), 2004 Dodgers (4-2), 2005 White Sox (4-2), 2005 Braves (4-2), 2006 A’s (5-2), 2006 Mets (4-1), 2007 Angels (5-2), 2007 Diamondbacks (5-2), 2008 White Sox (4-2), 2008 Angels (4-3), 2009 Cardinals (5-2), 2010 Phillies (5-1), and 2010 Giants (5-1).

The full list of teams that finished last after leading one week into the season: 1994 Angels (4-3), 1997 A’s (4-2), 1999 Angels (3-3), 2001 Expos (5-1), 2002 Mets (3-3), 2008 Orioles (4-1).

The full list of Opening week first placed teams that qualified via wild card: 1994 Indians, 1994 Braves (were both in position when season canceled), 1995 Rockies, 1996 Orioles, 1997 Marlins, 1998 Cubs, 1999 Mets, 2000 Mariners, 2002 Giants, 2004 Red Sox, 2005 Astros, 2006 Tigers, 2008 Brewers.

The full list of teams that finished first after being stuck in last place after one week: 1994 Expos (3-4), 1995 Reds (0-6), 1995 Dodgers (3-4), 1997 Giants (4-2, only 1/2 game back), 1997 Mariners (2-4), 1998 Yankees (1-4), 1999 Diamondbacks (1-5), 2001 Diamondbacks (2-4), 2003 Braves (2-4), 2006 Padres (1-4), 2006 Twins (1-5), 2008 Phillies (2-4).

The full list of wild card teams in last place after one week: 2001 A’s, 2005 Red Sox, 2008 Red Sox, 2009 Red Sox (Take heart Red Sox fans!)

The full list of last placed teams that stayed in last: 1994 Padres (1-6), 1994 Tigers (2-5), 1996 Royals (2-4), 1997 Cubs (0-6), 1997 Phillies (2-5), 1997 Blue Jays (2-3), 1998 Tigers (1-5), 1998 A’s (1-4), 1998 Pirates (3-3), 1998 Diamondbacks (1-5), 1999 Marlins (2-4), 2000 Cubs (2-6), 2000 Phillies (2-4), 2000 Devil Rays (2-5), 2001 Devil Rays (1-5), 2002 Padres (1-5), 2002 Rangers (1-5), 2002 Tigers (0-6), 2003 Brewers (0-6), 2003 Rangers (2-4), 2003 Tigers (0-6), 2003 Devil Rays (2-5), 2004 Diamondbacks (2-4), 2004 Mariners (1-5), 2004 Blue Jays (1-5), 2005 Rockies (1-4), 2005 Pirates (2-4), 2005 Mariners (2-4), 2005 Royals (3-3), 2007 Giants (1-5), 2007 Rangers (2-4), 2007 Royals (2-4), 2008 Mariners (2-4), 2008 Tigers (0-6), 2009 Diamondbacks (2-4), 2009 Nationals (0-6), 2009 A’s (2-4), 2009 Indians (1-5), 2010 Royals (2-5), 2010 Orioles (1-5).


Ten Predictions for the 2011 MLB Season

April 4, 2011

Four days into the season and I finally am getting around to writing a prediction column for the upcoming/ongoing MLB season. I had grand plans for long division previews for each division, but decided to go a different route when I realized that there is not really anything I could write that hasn’t already been written by someone else already. So instead here are ten, somewhat bold predictions for the year:

1. The Yankees will win the AL East.

I made fun of the Yankees’ train wreck of an offseason in this fun post back in February. I stand by that: it was an absolute mess of an offseason.

They will still win the AL East.

The Yankees’ batting order is fine. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are getting older and figure to keep slipping. But Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson are due for huge bounce back seasons. Their one good offseason move landed them Russell Martin – only one of the best catchers in the league up until two years ago and someone they can easily replace with Jorge Posada if he does not pan out.

Pitching is weak after C.C. Sabathia and Phil Hughes. A.J. Burnett is a 50/50 proposition. Freddy Garcia and Ivan Nova round out the starting rotation…but does anyone actually think those two (and Burnett, if he struggles) will be in the rotation after the trade deadline? Not a chance – they will make a trade for one or two starters. Their pitching will be fine too.

Meanwhile, 45 of 45 ESPN.com experts picked the Red Sox to win the division. 33 of 45 picked them to win the World Series.

Um, what?

Lost in the shuffle of all the news of the high profile acquisitions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez is the fact that the Red Sox weren’t really all that good last season. Granted, injuries were a problem, but at no point did they seriously contend for a playoff spot.

Crawford is a great pick up for the Red Sox – he will make the team appreciably better. Gonzalez is a great player and the Red Sox made the right move to pick him up. But I fail to see how Gonzalez makes the Red Sox that much better. Offense and defense considered, is Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis really that big of a step up from Adrian Beltre and Youkilis? I guess a lot of that depends on how well Gonzalez hits in Fenway and how well Youkilis plays third, but I just don’t think they will be that much better.

As good as Crawford and Gonzalez are, acquiring both didn’t really address their biggest problem: pitching. After Jon Lester, is any Red Sox fan really thrilled about John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett, and Dice-K? I know I wouldn’t be.

Looking at their roster, I see a very good team. I do not see a team so good that they should be a unanimous pick to win the AL East and a runaway favorite to win the World Series.

The Red Sox will falter under the heightened expectations and the Yankees will win the division.

2. The Rays will be better than people think…or not.

Speaking of the AL East, the Rays are by far the most confusing team in the league. They could win 100 games or lose 90 games and I wouldn’t really be surprised. For the record, I think they will be a lot closer to 100 wins than to 70 wins.

The general consensus seems to be that the Rays’ time has passed, until they rebuild through their farm system. Only four of the 45 ESPN experts picked the Rays to win the wild card. Like most small market teams, the thinking goes that they had a three year window where they were dynamic, but now they are doomed to irrelevancy because they cannot afford to keep all their players.

Their offseason was even weirder than the Yankees. Their two big moves consisted of signing Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon (combined age: 114) to one-year deals. Those would have been bizarre moves for any team, let alone the perpetually young Rays. Their roster looks like a bizarre Kansas City Royal-like experiment: two superstars (Price and Longoria), two participants in the 1979 All-Star Game* (Damon and Ramirez), one very good, but incredibly inconsistent player (B.J. Upton), and a bunch of random role players.

* Citation needed.

But here’s the thing: that lineup isn’t really that different than the 96-win AL East winning team from last year. They will miss Carl Crawford in left and their bullpen could easily be the worst in the league. Besides that, their team is pretty much the same. Reid Brignac replaces Jason Bartlett at shortstop – can’t imagine anyone will notice. Dan Johnson replaces Carlos Pena at first, but that can’t be a big step back either, since Pena batted .196 and finished 20th of 22nd in OPS among qualifying first basemen in the majors last season. If the Rays get anything out of ManRam and Damon, they can’t possibly be that much worse than last season.

Then they go out and get swept by the Orioles at home in the opening series. This could be a fun roller coaster ride.

3. The AL Central will again be the worst division in the majors.

I wanted to write something about the Twins winning the division, but I think that would make me a homer. To be honest, I think they had a terrible offseason. I disagreed with every single move they made other than re-signing Jim Thome. Seriously, every move. In what might be a first, I even disagreed with every single trade rumor they were involved with.

The best thing that the Twins have going for them is that the Tigers and White Sox don’t impress me either. The Royals are still a year away (although they might surprise some people if their prospects move up fast).* The Indians might be historically bad both on the field and in the stands (they drew a ridiculous 9,800 in their second game of the season – even the Marlins are embarrassed).

* Soon, the Royals might dominate the Central division. They have five of Baseball America’s top 19 prospects and a record-setting nine of the top 100. Most of them will start to hit the big leagues in 2012. They might be very, very good, very soon. The counter to that argument is that they are the Royals. So who knows?

The AL Central has not won a playoff series since 2007. That will continue this year – the division winner takes the division with a 84-78 record, good for seventh best in the AL, and are promptly dispatched in three games by the #2 seeded Yankees.

4. The Rangers will be really, really good.

The #2 Yankees, eh? That’s right – the Rangers finish with the best record in the American League and become only the third AL team since 2005 (2008 Angels, 2009 Yankees) to win 100 games.

Everyone is making too big of a deal about the Rangers not re-signing Cliff Lee. These people do realize that they didn’t get Lee until the trade deadline, and they had already essentially locked up the AL West at that point, right? The loss of Lee will hurt come playoff time, but the Rangers pitching staff was the toast of the league last season well before they traded for Lee. If they come up with anything close to last year’s performance, the Rangers will be dominant.

The real story shouldn’t have been Lee, but the fact that they got BETTER this offseason.

Joe Posnanski helpfully pointed out this week that five of the last 15 AL MVPs have played with the Rangers, a team that was pretty terrible up until last season. He was nicer about it than I was, but there is only one conclusion to draw from that: the writers are too stupid to realize that the Rangers’ offensive stats are ridiculously inflated in Arlington.

With that said, Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli are huge pickups for Texas. Those guys are going to mash the ball. Mostly because of these two guys, the already potent Rangers offense will be even better this season.

And we haven’t even mentioned the quietest offseason pickup in the entire league. The Rangers snagged Brandon Webb after he missed the last two seasons with shoulder problems. If he gives the Rangers anything close to his Cy Young winning-form of a few years ago, that will be a major coup, especially in an offseason in which neither the Red Sox or the Rangers added to their starting pitching staffs.

5. Indians and Pirates battle for the worst record in the majors; the Rust Belt weeps.

Hard to imagine that the Indians were only one game away from the World Series just four years ago. They got really terrible, really quickly. I seem to recall that they had a lot of really good young players. Now…well…

Their third baseman was the worst position player in the majors early last season for the Mariners before he was cut at the end of May. The Mariners, by the way, finished with the worst record in the AL.

Their Opening Day starter gave up ten runs in three innings, and no one was even a little bit surprised.

They have Adam Everett and Orlando Cabrera on their roster. I couldn’t decide on just one joke, so I’ll just go with this. Combined age: 70. Combined teams since 2007: 11.

On the bright side, Carlos Santana is one of the top young catching prospects in the league. So there’s that. It won’t be enough – the Indians finish an AL worst 61-101.

As for the Pirates? They have been one of the three worst teams in the NL every year since 2005. The other teams that periodically join them in the cellar (Nationals, Padres, Diamondbacks, and Cubs) all tend to make concerted efforts to get better. The Pirates do not. They again finish with the worst record in the NL at 59-103.

6. The Phillies will be the best team in the majors.

When I wrote my NFL prediction review column a few months ago, I pointed out that there tended to be a groupthink thing going on with NFL experts. The analysts seemed to make the same picks over and over, and my theory was that they were all scared to look stupid at the end of the season. Turns out they did all look stupid for the most part, but at least they looked stupid together.

The same thing went on with the Red Sox and the Phillies. When the Phillies shocked the majors by picking up Cliff Lee this offseason, they were quickly anointed World Series favorites. Then at some point this spring every analyst talked themselves out of the Phillies. We heard many arguments for why the Phillies wouldn’t be as good as people thought. Pitchers won’t stay healthy, Chase Utley is on the DL with a mysterious injury, Jimmy Rollins and Raul Ibanez are getting older, and so on.

My response to that: Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels.

Yeah, let’s not overthink this one. They are going to be historically good.

7. Five teams will be within eight games of the NL Central title. Nobody will care.

In the aforementioned ESPN.com article, only the Pirates weren’t selected by at least one expert to win the NL Central title. No other division even had four teams picked to win the division.

That can only mean one thing – mediocrity will rule in the NL Central.

I actually applaud the experts for this one. Judging by their track record, I would have expected all of the experts to pick one team and all go with that team. They didn’t, and that was the right move. I can’t really differentiate between any of these teams either.

When in doubt, go with the best players. The Cardinals have two of the three best players in the division in Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. The Cardinals win by being the slightly better than the rest of the teams in the division.

8. The Giants won’t make the playoffs.

I think the Giants will be very good for a long time. They have the best young pitcher in the league (Tim Lincecum) and the best young hitter (Buster Posey). They will contend for a playoff spot for as long as they can afford to keep their current lineup intact.

Yet I see this team as a clone of the 2009 Rays. In 2008, the young Rays surprised everyone by coming out of nowhere to capture the AL pennant. In 2009, expectations were too high in and the Yankees and Red Sox were too good. The Rays came up short of the playoffs before making it back in 2010.

That should remind you of this season’s Giant team. Buoyed by young stars Lincecum and Posey, they came out of nowhere to win the World Series title. Expectations are extremely high coming into this season. The Rockies and Dodgers are both very good teams in the NL West.

I actually like the Dodgers to pull the minor upset and win the division. I have no rational reason for this – on paper the Rockies and the Giants are better teams by far. Just call it a hunch.

9. The Phillies and the Rangers meet in the World Series.

Every single person that watches MLB knows that the playoffs are a crapshoot. After 162 games, the league decides its champion by a best-of-five series followed by two best-of-seven series. The system has pros and cons (more cons, in my opinion), but we accept it.

So why in the world would 42 of ESPN’s experts pick the Red Sox to win the AL pennant? It is one thing to pick them to win the AL East. After 162 games, the best team will almost always win the division thanks to the law of averages. If you really think the Red Sox are the best team in the AL East, by all means, pick them.

But we know going in that each team has a roughly 25% chance of winning the championship series after they make the playoffs. Since the wild card era began in 1995, the team with the best regular season record has won only seven of 16 AL pennants – and three of those were the great Yankee teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Even if the Red Sox do have the best record in the AL, they have less than a 50% chance of making it to the World Series…and only three people on ESPN.com picked a different team to make the World Series.

I suppose if no one else will step out on a limb, I will. The Rangers will become the first team since the Yankees’ 1998-2001 run to win back-to-back AL pennants. Last season, they proved that they could win in the playoffs. I think they are going to be even better this season. To top that off, I think they are probably the safest bet to make the playoffs. The AL Central is a mess and only two of the Rays, Yankees, and Red Sox can make it.

My prediction for the AL: #1 Rangers over WC Red Sox, 3 games to 2; #2 Yankees over #3 Twins, 3 games to 0. Rangers over Yankees 4 games to 2.

And yes, I realized afterwards that if you replace the Red Sox with the Rays you get last season’s playoffs. Whatever. I’m still going with it.

**********

I already gave my National League pennant winner away with my discussion on the Phillies’ pitching staff. I look at that team and can’t figure out how any team will be able to beat them in the playoffs. You can argue that injuries and age will catch up with them in the regular season but, assuming they make the playoffs, how can they lose?

In 2001, the Diamondbacks rode Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling to the title. This season’s Phillies have four pitchers they can ride to the title. What happens if they scale down to a three-man rotation for the playoffs? Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, with Roy Oswalt the first one out of the bullpen? Wow.

The Braves and Rockies are trendy picks in the National League. I don’t like picking the trendy teams, but even with my division winners, one of these teams has to make it as a wild card almost by default. I’ll go with the Rockies for the same logic as I used with the Giants above. The Braves are a very good young team, but will face some pressure after they surprisingly qualified for the playoffs last season. The Rockies were in that position last season after they were the 2009 wild card. They put it together and make it in.

My predictions: #1 Phillies over WC Rockies, 3 games to 1; #3 Cardinals over #2 Dodgers, 3 games to 1. #1 Phillies over #3 Cardinals, 4 games to 1.

Did I just pick two #1 teams to make the World Series after typing how stupid that is several paragraphs ago? Yes, yes I did. Hey, I never claimed that I was very good at following my own advice.

10. The Phillies win the World Series.

The poor Rangers make it back and meet a buzzsaw. No team has lost back-to-back World Series since the Atlanta Braves in 1991 and 1992. It will happen again this year after the Phillies’ pitchers mow the Rangers down, especially after the NL wins home-field advantage with their second consecutive All-Star Game victory. Phillies take the Series, 4 games to 1.

Bonus: Award winners.

Just for kicks, here are my picks for award winners. I suspect none of these will be anywhere close to correct at the end of the season; I will consider it a victory if any of these players picks up votes for their respective awards.

AL MVP: Mark Teixeira, Yankees
NL MVP: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
AL Cy Young: CC Sabathia, Yankees
NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
AL Manager of the Year: Joe Maddon, Rays
NL Manager of the Year: Don Mattingly, Dodgers
AL Rookie of the Year: Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays
NL Rookie of the Year: Brandon Belt, Giants


Opening Day

March 31, 2011

“Ray, people will come Ray.

They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.

Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.

People will come Ray.

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

–Terence Mann