March 30, 2004
Teams: A Critical Guide
This column marks the launch of Teams: A Critical Guide, Steven Goldman's weekly look at all 30 major league clubs, with grades, quips and arcane literary and pop culture references blended in to give it that rich, mountain-grown aroma. Even the last days of March are too early for hope to give way to easy cynicism, so the grades in this first of the weekly report cards are based on the most optimistic assessment of the preseason that credibility allows. After this first installment, the column will appear every Monday.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
The future Jeopardy category, "World Champion Teams that Began Their Title Defense with Darren Oliver in Their Starting Rotation" gets the first entry in what is certain to be a very short list. Trust that to be a temporary situation. On all other fronts the Marlins hum along, with a full season of a maturing Miguel Cabrera, a reasonably productive catching tandem, and a functional Hee Seop Choi making up for various trades and free agent defections, while a deeper bullpen takes some heat off the starters--even Oliver. GRADE: A-
Not even Larry Bowa can stop them, nor Roberto Hernandez. Second-line depth on offense could be a concern, depending on Bowa's proclivities; a month of Doug Glanville--as opposed to the more deserving Jason Michaels or even Ricky Ledee--could make the divisional race interesting for all the wrong reasons. Alternate unwelcome scenario: Byrd, Bell, and Burrell are mutant Killer B's that sting themselves to death.GRADE: B
This is a transitional period, but so was the Permian extinction, and we know how well that worked out for trilobites. Or maybe we don't, but trust me, it didn't go well for them at all. Last year's offensive machine is a thing of the past, which means the pressure is squarely on the pitching staff to prop up the pennant effort. That appears unlikely, though if Leo Mazzone can work his fabled magic on Jaret Wright, Juan Cruz, and Chris Reitsma, anything is possible. "Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable."--H.L. Mencken. GRADE: B
NEW YORK METS
Neither fish nor fowl nor prehistoric gorgonopsid. Geologist Peter Ward describes the ancient predator as having, "huge heads with very large, saber-like teeth, large lizard eyes, no visible ears, and perhaps a mixture of reptilian scales and tufts of mammalian hair...The Gorgons ruled a world of animals that were but one short evolutionary step away from being mammals"...in other words, nothing easily recognizable to us today. The same goes for the Mets, who possess a discomforting mix of the sublime and guys you couldn't give away with a free side of fries. Scott Kazmir, David Wright, you can't come fast enough. And guys, if you could bring along a young outfielder of promise we'd appreciate it. The last one we located on our own was Lenny Dykstra. GRADE: C-
Having been challenged to conserve space (the Internet is infinite but patience is not), the Expos in nine words: Should hit. Won't pitch. Should Move. Tout de suite. GRADE: C-
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
The threshold for changing managers varies from team to team. In Boston, an obviously wrongheaded move with Pedro Martinez was enough the get Grady Little handed his hat, whereas in Houston a more sustained failure of critical thinking (rather than a failure of intelligence, which means a whole different thing these days) gets overlooked. As Billy Joel sang, it's a matter of trust, though not in the "Will Billy Martin come to the park sober tonight?" sense, but rather the "Would you trust this doctor to prescribe you a Band-Aid?" aspect. Among the many underpublicized acts of suicide by a manager last year was Jimy Williams' overfondness for Geoff Blum, Orlando Merced, and a host of other fill-ins; plate appearances were thrown away with an alarming profligacy, more than enough to make the difference in a close race. This time around, the big question is not only if Williams will repeat the same mistakes with his Orlando Palmeiro, his Jose Vizcaino, and his Mike Lamb ("Sometimes, when you have nothing to do," says Sbirro in Stanley Ellin's classic 1948 short story, "The Specialty of the House," "you must turn your thoughts a little to the significance of the Lamb in religion. It will be so interesting." ) but if, when the time comes, the organization will forcibly divorce the team from its favorite crutches by trading for a real catcher or center fielder. GRADE: B+
In which the wealth of the ages is wasted on those who cannot appreciate it. It is said that Solon, the wisest of the ancient archons of Athens, was unimpressed by the vast riches of King Croesus of Lydia. "Tell me, Solon," Croesus said, fishing for a compliment, "have you ever seen anyone as well off as I am?"
"Sure, lots of people," said Solon.
"Off with his head!" Croesus shouted to no one in particular. "No one is richer than I!"
"Look, Dusty," Solon said to Croesus. "I don't pretend to know much, but I do know this: You don't count your money when you're sitting at the table."
"Excuse me?" said Croesus, polishing his vorpal sword.
"I heard that in a song once. What it means, I think, is that life is pretty variable, and just when you think you've got it all figured out, you get taken by surprise. Unless you've got it in writing somewhere that the gods have put you down for permanent, unmolested success and happiness, we can't really call you well off until you shuffle off this mortal coil with all your riches intact. You dig?"
"No, not really," said King Dusty Croesus. Solon sighed. "It's like Sinatra sang in 'That's Life,' babe. 'I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king.'"
"Catchy, but you're still not getting out of here with your casaba attached to your spine."
"Neither will you, Frodo, not unless you take a real inventory. That's what I've been trying to say." GRADE: B+
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
To paraphrase R. Lee Ermey's Gunnery Sergeant Hartman on God, Tony La Russa plays his games and we play our games. In both cases, the end results are obscure and often frustrating, but anger at Tony's more onanistic pitching adventures should really be directed towards the keepers of the farm system. This is a team with good resources and a tradition of intelligent management that cannot locate a league-average left fielder, second baseman, or catcher. Julia Stiles turned 23 Sunday and she's not great, but she's still a better prospect than anyone in this organization. Upped a grade for the pleasure of Albert Pujols' company. GRADE: B-
America loves Craig Wilson like he was the seventh Friend, fifth Beatle, or fourth Stooge, but let's not exaggerate and say that Jason Bay's injury represents a turning point for the Pirates franchise. Still, like James Garner hauling Donald Pleasence westward in "The Great Escape," Bay may take Wilson to the borders of salvation. Wilson will now get a chance to hit his way out of the gulag archipelago. Should he hit, oh, 12 home runs in the first two weeks--it takes a truly spectacular show to give eyesight to the blind--that would put pressure on manager Lloyd McClendon to send Raul Mondesi to the bench when Bay returns. At least, it would in an organization looking at its future instead of gazing into its navel. Yeah, this is more of a fantasy than anything you'll find in the Gormenghast novels. Still, hope is the thing with feathers, and so is Randall Simon. GRADE: C
One of the fascinating things about bad teams is how many good players they have. The problem is, they're in the wrong context to be good players. There are no full-time players on the Brewers, but just about everyone on the team would look great getting 250-300 at bats from a contender. Is that progress? Maybe, if you can flip the vets for depth while waiting for Weeks and Fielder to hit the big time, which is to say that if Junior Spivey isn't a Yankee by June 15, something has gone very right for the Yankees or very wrong for the Brewers. GRADE: C--
Control dude Cory Lidle (2.35 walks per nine innings) heads up their latest unrotation. Leader in games started by team, 1999-2003:
ATL Greg Maddux 172
MTL Javier Vazquez 159
SF Kirk Rueter 158
SEA Jamie Moyer 158
ARI Randy Johnson 157
NYA Roger Clemens 157
OAK Tim Hudson 156
NYN Al Leiter 155
MIN Brad Radke 154
PHI Randy Wolf 142
BAL Sidney Ponson 136
BOS Pedro Martinez 135
KC Jeff Suppan 132
LA Kevin Brown 129
ANA Ramon Ortiz 123
CHIN Jon Lieber 121
TOR Roy Halladay 117
CLE Bartolo Colon 112
FLA Ryan Dempster 110
DET Jeff Weaver 109
HOU Wade Miller 108
PIT Kris Benson 106
CHIA Mark Buehrle 104
TEX Rick Helling 104
STL Matt Morris 93
MIL Ben Sheets 93
COL Pedro Astacio 88
TB Ryan Rupe 83
CIN Elmer Dessens 80
SD Brian Lawrence 79
Over the last five years, the Reds have failed to uncover a single starting pitcher worth keeping in the rotation for as long as three seasons. It wasn't a question of the young pitchers getting expensive and leaving. There were no young pitchers. There were also no veteran pitchers. Having eliminated both of these groups, we are forced to conclude that there were, in fact, no starting pitchers at all. As Sherlock Holmes remarked in The Sign of Four , "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." GRADE: D
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
It's rare that one team contains four of the most unusual careers of our time. Randy Johnson is unique, Luis Gonzalez is the rare late-blooming star, Steve Finley has had incredible staying power, and while it may seem early to call sophomore Brandon Webb unusual, a rookie who bursts onto the scene with a G/F ratio of 3.4-to-1, better than Tommy John (about 2.5 for his career) or more pertinent to our times, Kevin Brown and Derek Lowe, the only pitchers who got more batters to hit low and brown, is definitely unusual. That should be the extent of our interest for 2004, except that Arizona is likely to win the NL West through absenteeism on the part of the competition. GRADE: B
SAN DIEGO PADRES
The most balanced lineup and pitching staff the Padres have had since 1998, and moving into a new ballpark to boot, there's every reason to think they can win a weak division except for two problems with the outfield: (a) it's defensively thin, and (b) Terrence Long is the first fallback after an injury. It is said that the walls at Petco Park are very, very soft. GRADE: B+
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Should Mr. Bonds be taken off the board for any length of time, be it due to age, injury, or indictment, this team will fail even to tread water--and even if Barry pops 80 homers, they still might not keep their heads above the wet stuff. In Green Lantern #87 (second series), Elliot S. Maggin and Neal Adams confronted Green Arrow with the classic question, "What can one man do?" The Giants are about to get the answer. Question Green Arrow never had to consider: How much can one man do to overcome the pernicious effects of Neifi Perez? GRADE: C-
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
This week on The Twilight Zone: a 21st century team finds itself inexorably being transformed into the 1960s version of itself, only without the talent. Guest-host: Wes Parker. GRADE: D-
There's a conspiracy of silence afoot in baseball. Tom Verducci has written about the lack of African-Americans coming into baseball (Sports Illustrated, July 7, 2003)--only it's not just African-Americans, but everybody. Baseball is scouting from a bigger world than ever before; racial and national barriers have fallen, allowing teams to go prospecting in the U.S., Dominican Republic, Korea, and Japan, among others, and yet fewer exciting youngsters are turning up than ever. We've got a bigger world, bigger ballparks, a bigger audience, and smaller prospects. Case in point: three-fourths of the Rockies' infield, which features a semi-prospect at second and non-productive retreads at short and third, and their outfielders, a veteran crew that couldn't cover the kind of gap that sells blue jeans. Meanwhile, Shawn Estes may be the opening day starter. Draw your own conclusions, but when you consider the number of teams that are short of quality youngsters you can't chalk it all up to incompetence. GRADE: D
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
BOSTON RED SOX
From Peter Gammons' Beyond the Sixth Game to Howard Bryant's Shut Out, the notion that the Red Sox are fortune's fools has been revealed to be thoroughly mythical, a convenient excuse for decades of entrenched failure. There is something to be said about the perseverance of the Curse of the Babe and the fact that no matter how far America runs from Calvinism it never quite escapes, but we'll be damned if this is the place to say it. The good news, if our philosophical system permits good news, is that this is the closest the B-Sox have come to getting it right since the last time that they came close to getting it right. With the depth to survive anything except one more injured outfielder, a starting rotation that on paper is competitive with any in the history of the franchise, and the ace reliever (notice we eschew the word "closer") they've never had, the only obstacle left to surmount is Johnny Damon in the leadoff spot. If that's their only self-inflicted wound, the 2004 edition will officially takes its place in the team media guide as the club with the fewest suicidal inclinations in club history. GRADE: A
NEW YORK YANKEES
A Yankees haiku:
Deeply shallow pond Stocked with stars, their aging light Will gutter and dim
Thank you. When I first got into baseball, Yankees like Don Mattingly were roughly 10 years older than I. Twenty years later, most Yankees are still somehow 10 years older than I am. I'm not sure if we should ask Brian Cashman to explain this, or Brian Greene. GRADE: A-
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Deeper than the Marianas Trench in outfielders and catchers, but the pitching remains conceptual. If the Jays deal with problems aggressively, upgrading with a Rios, Gross, or McGowan no later than the exact moment they're ready, they'll still be standing when injuries have done in the Yankees. McGowan is the real key. GRADE: B
The philosophy seems to be right, but the revolution is still conceptual, the putsch stillborn. The stage has been set for the biggest second-album setback since the Spin Doctors released Turn It Upside Down, or maybe the Bush '92 re-election campaign. Javy Lopez, Larry Bigbie, Luis Matos, and Melvin Mora are unlikely to reach their 2003 levels, and the pitching staff has less name recognition than the cast of next year's "American Idol." At less than their peak, most O's players can hit with a little power or a nice batting average, but not enough of either to scare anyone. These are the kind of overqualified to be on the bench/underqualified to be starting players that bad organizations accumulate until something better comes along. GRADE: C
TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS
In an otherwise fine piece in this weekend's New York Times Magazine, Michael Lewis referred to Lou Piniella as a "legendary baseball manager." Before criticizing, it's important to ascertain the author's intent by asking, "Legendary to who?" It's not only hasty but entirely uncalled for to put Piniella on a pedestal, but should he accomplish anything of note with this year's D(o not resuscitate)-Rays we might have to shove John McGraw out of the pantheon to make room for him. GRADE: D
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
With nine outfielders currently on the 40-man roster, Minnesota has more pasture men than one team could possibly use. That's been true for years, but so far only Bobby Kielty and Dustan Mohr have left town. Of the current non-starters--Lew Ford, Mike Cuddyer, Mike Restovich, and Mike Ryan--all, with the exception of Ryan, have a decent upside, and even Ryan might be good for a hot streak or two, as evidenced by his 61-AB, .393/.441/.754 cup of coffee. The Twins have been hoarding these guys like they were vintage wines while ignoring their shaky middle infield. The biggest irony of all is that all three starting outfielders, Shannon Stewart, Torii Hunter, and Jacque Jones, are not quite as good as the Twins think they are. Sure, the Twins win anyway, but a more even disposition of their resources could boost them into a higher strata than first-round cannon fodder. GRADE: B
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
The most stubbornly right-handed club since the Brooklyn Dodgers needs Jeremy Reed to come on in a hurry. No slight against Aaron Rowand--he's capable enough--but a slashing, lefty hitter would go a long way towards reinvigorating an offense that has been plodding even as it pretended to play little ball in the time-honored futile White Sox manner. Meanwhile, the big test for rookie manager Ozzie Guillen will be if he can resist playing Juan Uribe--that is, himself--more than once a week. The smart money says he can't, and that when Uribe plays, he'll bat leadoff. Check, please. GRADE: B-
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Injuries to the pitching staff may finish them before they start, unless they Greinke themselves back into contention come May. As with many teams on an upward swing, they're just beginning to acquire the necessary depth to compete on a sustained basis. Given where the Royals have been, that's quite an accomplishment in itself. GRADE: B-
Sorting through their prospects in methodical fashion; stay tuned. "Scarecrow and a yellow moon/And pretty soon a carnival on the edge of town/King Harvest has surely come."--The Band, "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" GRADE: B-
A crime story: you kidnap a general manager and hit him with a dose of sodium pentothal, then go down his roster asking, "So this guy--what does he actually do? How does he get you closer to winning?"
"Alex Sanchez, he catches the ball."
"Yes, sir, he does, except when he attacks by way of Hoboken. I'm going to ask again until I get a different answer. Ready? Bobby Higginson, what does he actually do?"
"Bobby Higginson, we pay him."
By the end of the evening, you're begging for the police to come and take you away. GRADE: F
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
Likely winners of the AL West, more than they deserve given their insistence on starting Darin Erstad at first base, but that's been said enough times that it's not worth harping on, except to return to the question we wish our hogtied GM would answer: "What does this guy do that's going to help you win?" Your honor, we ask that 'We owe him money,' be stricken as non-responsive. If Casey Kotchman is hitting .320 in the minors and the Angels stick with Erstad anyway, you'll know they're not serious. GRADE: B
The AL West is wide open, and great pitching will keep the A's in the thick of it, but the only A-level player on offense is Eric Chavez, and even he needs a caddy against southpaws…Eric Byrnes, Billy McMillon et. al. make a superb second-tier outfield, and if manager Macha is willing to indulge in some Stengelian mixing, he could turn the pasture into a positive. Troubling sign: the blind eye turned to Scott Hatteberg's shortcomings, suggesting that stubbornness has replaced pragmatism, at least at first base. GRADE: B
Decaying faster than yesterday's sushi. The lineup is unimpressive, Baseball America grades their last three drafts as C+, D, and D, and the pitching staff has its Ryan Franklins and Rafael Sorianos hopelessly confused. A wise course of action would be to buy airline tickets for any position player over 30, but since Scott Spiezio and Raul Ibanez are reserves being paid (and played) like starters, they're going to be a tough sell. So long M's, it was fun while it lasted. From Pat Putnam thou came and to Pat Putnam thou shalt return. GRADE: C+
How much of a rationale do you need to topple the corrupt regime that is Einar Diaz at VORP speed? Gerald Laird is not going to make anyone forget Pudge-Rod, or even Jim Sundberg, but when a team is going to be laboring against its pitching staff all season long, the offense had better be optimized. The team ERA is going to be 5.50 whether the catcher is Ray Schalk or Mackey Sasser, so you might as well try to score a few extra runs. GRADE: D
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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