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April 13, 2004

Teams: A Critical Guide

April 5-11

by Steven Goldman

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RUSH TO JUDGMENT EDITION

This week's grades are based on getaways, fast, slow, or N/A, with a healthy allowance for the biases that a small sample size encourages. In other words, we can call Victor Zambrano the Cy Young award winner after just three starts and excuse it as a moment of vernally-inspired hormonal exuberance. Still, with just one week in the bag every team on this list has been possessed by Chicken Little-style paranoia or Pollyannaish optimism, and their plans are being altered accordingly. Maybe you can't trust TEAMS this week, but you can't trust teams either. Caveat lector, caveat emptor, and laissez les bon temps rouler!

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST

TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS
Connie Mack, who owned and managed the A's back before Billy Beane was a glint in Michael Lewis' grandfather's eye, had a fantasy which he was actually dumb enough to disclose towards the end of his life. He did not want the A's to win the pennant. Instead, he rooted for the team to get off to a hot start, then collapse. The hot start would drive attendance, the collapse would retard salaries. With their 4-3 takeoff, the D-Rays are surfing Mack's Vibe, giving the fans a little bit more than they're realistically going to receive. The big clue is in the runs scored/runs allowed column, where Lou's boys are breaking even. Imminent trips to Baltimore, Chicago, Boston, and New York should shatter even that illusion. Perhaps the fans are ahead of Mr. Mack, because only about 36,500 came out for the last three home games. Boosted a grade because a sustained run at .500 would be a sign to the faithful, however misleading. GRADE: B-

BOSTON RED SOX
It might be wise to supplement the BP mantra "There is no such thing as a pitching prospect" with "There is no sure way to build a bullpen." There are just a handful of relievers around baseball that are actually consistent--Keith Foulke is one of these. Everyone else is suspect. As such, good bullpens are created as much by luck as by science; in a given year, the staff clicks. The next year, they don't work anymore, or they still don't work, and it's back to the drawing board. One way to mitigate this may be to shrink the bullpen by identifying the three best relievers and ignoring everyone else--this was Joe Torre's tactic for years. It's far easier to find three good relievers than seven, a little fact that managers have been ignoring for years in their La Russian frenzy to lose games with the fringiest of pitchers. Of course, no matter how well you plan, one day you may have to place the game in the hands of Bobby M. Jones. It's Red Sox Year Two: the experiment continues. GRADE: C

NEW YORK YANKEES
Thus far, Baseball's equivalent of the "The Phantom Menace," a greatly-hyped product that generates less than constant excitement and on occasion inspires somnolence. You break open the piņata and instead of candy you're showered in dirty socks. Part of the problem has been the manager's sequencing of the lineup. Yeah, batting orders don't matter a lot in the grand scheme of things, but at the microcosmic level they can still bite the pinstriped bottom. In the first eight contests there have been numerous examples of rallies being broken because Torre had placed a joker in his deck of highly-paid sluggers. Specifically: (1) when Derek Jeter bats first, a question mark bats second, (2) when Jeter bats second, a question mark bats first, and (3) Hideki Matsui bats ahead of Jorge Posada, such a gratuitous insult to the most productive catcher in baseball that only pistols at dawn can restore his honor. That being said, though the Dream Team offense is struggling to hit for average, it the leads the league in walks, ranks second to last in strikeouts, and is one behind Minnesota for the home run lead. Those qualities will tell over the long season, even if they don't now. As for the pitching, it smells like 1985. GRADE: C

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
You lure David Segui to Cape Kennedy with the promise of all-you-can-eat buffalo wings. Knocking him unconscious, you quickly load him onto a rocket and aim it in the general direction of the Kuiper Belt (the Kuiper Belt is a region of space just past Neptune which produces comets and never, ever hits home runs). You press the LAUNCH button, then watch as the rocket fires and soars gracefully into space. Wearing a goofy grin, you turn away from the launch pad, only to run smack dab into David Segui. You mail him to Kohtla-Järve and he comes back the same afternoon, postage due. You move the franchise to Indiana in the dead of night, you find out he's been elected mayor of Terre Haute... Baltimore is going to be hurting for offense all year long, and even if Segui hits at 80% of peak form he won't be worth much more than a couple of wins over replacement. He won't help now, and since his contract is up at the end of the year, he won't help in the future. So why play him? GRADE C-

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
The Blue Jays are an unattractive woman with the compassion of a Buddha, a love of sports, and a sense of humor that buoys your spirits even as it amuses you. Be patient; what is aesthetically disappointing now will be spiritually moving later, plus there's always makeup...and surgery. GRADE: D

AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL

DETROIT TIGERS
The 1908 New York Highlanders (AL, natch) held first place for 38 days. On June 1, they sat atop the league with a 20-15 (.571) record. October found them in eighth place, 39.5 games behind the pennant-winning Tigers, with a record of 51-103. The 1929 Boston Braves opened the season 9-4 and finished 56-98. In other words, this too shall pass, though we should not underestimate the long-term morale value of a fleeting good start over another precipitous plunge. As it is written in "The Wizard of Oz," "The road to the City of Emeralds is paved with yellow brick." GRADE: A

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Tony Pena's starting pitchers have yet to earn a win; all four victories were picked up by the pen. Normally, this would not be a good sign; outside of the McKeon-managed 1999 Reds, all-bullpen/no-starter clubs have a tough time sustaining the act for more than a couple of months at a time. In KC's case, there is reason to believe that if they can lean on the bullpen now, the rotation will do its share later. And if not, everyone who jumped on the KC bandwagon is going to have a great deal of egg on their faces. GRADE: B+

CHICAGO WHITE SOX
A recent MLB.com article on Willie Harris informed readers that, "An overlooked function of the leadoff hitter is to be able to drive in runs when the order turns itself over." Translation: when not leading off, a leadoff hitter should be able to hit, because the leadoff spot does not detach like a Goldfinger mini-plane after the leadoff hitter's initial at-bat, during which he is doing that thing that he does when he's not driving in runs but is just leading off. We call that hitting, and if the leadoff hitter can hit leading off, then he can hit when he's not leading off. If he can't drive in runs when the lineup turns over, then he must not be able to hit, because driving in runs requires hitting.

Have we got that? Good. The concessions that human logic will make to fit an image are astounding. We can exempt a leadoff hitter from the basic responsibility of carrying his bat because he's a leadoff hitter, which means he does not hit, but lead off...during which time he has to hit. Only he doesn't, because leading off is a separate thing from hitting. The mind boggles. If God himself were to walk among us, it would be in his best interest to wear a beard and flowing robes. If he looks like Pamela Anderson we're all going to miss him. Heck, he might even disguise himself as Ozzie Guillen. Stranger things have happened. GRADE: C

MINNESOTA TWINS
Half the team is on the disabled list. Jose Offerman is the starting DH. He batted cleanup on Monday. Justin Morneau had seven hits in his first 16 at bats for Triple-A Rochester. Brad Thomas was effectively traded for Terry Mulholland. If you can figure out the Minnesota Twins you're either a genius or in need of psychiatric help. GRADE: F

CLEVELAND INDIANS
The Indians may be mounting the most admirable rebuilding effort ever. With the exception of Omar Vizquel, who was grandfathered in, and Matt Lawton, who seemed like a good idea at the time, the Indians are saddled with none of the bland Jeffrey Hammonds-style vets with which teams in their position traditionally humor themselves. If the result of this policy is sometimes less than aesthetically pleasing, as in last year's Brandon Phillips debacle, it also leaves them the flexibility to rotate through all of their options quickly, without worrying about how Kenny Lofton is going to take being benched. GRADE: B

AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
The strange fascination with Eric Karros suggests that the hardliners have staged a palace coup, but with this pitching staff they can let Karros be the DLS--Designated Lineup Sieve--and it won't matter. Meanwhile, a rejuvenated Jermaine Dye seemed an impossibility over the winter, but his hot start means the A's get the benefits of adding a brand-new slugger without having to make a single phone call. GRADE: A

ANAHEIM ANGELS
Darin Erstad OPS Watch: .433 at this writing. Acknowledging that Adam Kennedy is no Ryne Sandberg, and maybe no Tony Cuccinello, there is no reason he has to be hidden at the bottom of the batting order like the product of some illicit affair between second cousins while Erstad is allowed to waive proudly in the breeze like a nudist hogtied to the yardarm of the HMS Victory. From 2002-2003, Kennedy has averaged .291/.345/.425, (with most of the fun in those numbers coming from his excellent '02). This is hardly historic, but the numbers are Ruthian compared with Erstad's .274/.312/.373 over the same period. No doubt this Erstad stuff is growing tiresome; perhaps we would be better served talking about the shaky back end of the Angels' rotation. Nonetheless, it's Erstad and the Angels' misread on his usage that's most maddening. The Angels have put together a good-looking club in a wide-open division, and it's galling to think they might blow it over something so obvious. GRADE: C

TEXAS RANGERS
Laynce Nix represents a litmus test for a franchise that has never had an impact center fielder for more than a minute at a time. Sixteen years after he left town, Oddibe McDowell is still the franchise leader in games played at the position with a paltry 489. Juan Gonzalez hit well during his brief stint in center but was a poor defensive center fielder. In truth, the last and perhaps only time the Rangers had a center fielder who could both hit a little and offer decent defense was 1984, when Gary Ward hit .284/.343/.447. Mickey Rivers hit .333/.353/.437 in 1980, which was about the same deal. Nix has a chance to nix the Curse of the Absent Center Fielder (or, "Elliott Maddox's Revenge"), so now the race is on: can Nix click before a pitcher sticks? The Rangers haven't been without a pitching staff for quite as long as they've been without a center fielder--it's been seven years since Texas posted a staff ERA under 5.00, eight years since they came in under league average--but it seems like forever. GRADE: C-

SEATTLE MARINERS
No team, not even last year's Tigers, is truly as bad as a 1-5 record. That's 1899 Cleveland Spiders territory, and that team was a unique case of franchise assassination by syndicate baseball, kind of like the dance the Expos are doing now, just much faster. The Mariners are going to get better, but the question is how much? Probably not terribly much; there are vestiges of a good pitching staff here, but the offense is old and lacks a flashpoint. Then there's my Uncle Ivan. Why is it that whenever he comes over he spends the entire visit wearing an antimacassar over his sternum? He says he finds it spiritual, but I don't believe him. GRADE: D

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST

FLORIDA MARLINS
Five wins, five holds, five saves as McKeon's nonpareil ability to organize a pitching staff manifests itself. The bench is another matter, with Lenny Harris, Mike Mordecai, Damion Easley, and Abraham Nunez. "This is one of the strongest benches they have ever had," said Harris. Lenny was referring to the literal plank of wood on which he and his comrades sit, because it takes a mighty strong piece of wood to support that much dead weight. Pray for health. As for the 1.83 team ERA, it will last. Sure. GRADE A

NEW YORK METS
A visit to Kabala Koala, the Mystical Jewish Marsupial, reveals that Tom Glavine will have difficulty sustaining a low ERA on two strikeouts per nine innings, Cliff Floyd will continue to get hurt as often as the sun rises, and Shea Stadium will continue to be the ugliest ballpark in the majors long after the Jets' West Side stadium plan has died an ignominious death. KK also predicts six more weeks of winter. We're still working some bugs out of the program. Stand by. GRADE: B+

ATLANTA BRAVES
The TV series "Bonanza" ran from 1959 to 1973. There must have been people who had seen every episode, fans who had hung on the series for 10 years or more, who were crushed when it went off the air, who couldn't quite accept that the adventures of Ben, Hoss, and Little Joe were finally, irrevocably terminated. Braves '04 are a bit like Bonanza '73, with the long adventure that began in 1991 finally coming to a close. Habit conditions us to think it will be otherwise, but there is no component of this team that inspires confidence, especially not a pitching staff that spent the first week treating opposing hitters as if they were one big Mike Schmidt. The next sound you will here is John Smoltz hitting the DL. Ping! GRADE: D

MONTREAL EXPOS
In the first edition of this feature, it was stated that the Expos would hit but wouldn't pitch. Naturally, week one has seen them bat a collective .198. Highlight: Tony Batista's 2-for-22. The small sample demons certainly explain a lot of Batista's wretched early performance, but we should also consider that he had never been that good in the first place: His complete lack of plate discipline meant that 1999's useful utility flowering was succeeded by the least productive 40-homer season in the history of the game (compare/contrast with Tony Armas' 1984). Meanwhile, the pitching has looked surprisingly strong. It is said that Earth's magnetic poles reverse themselves once every 250,000 years. GRADE: C

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
Contract extension or not, Larry Bowa now has a bigger target on his back than Osama Bin Laden. The offensive outage is a fluke, but thwarted expectations often lead of precipitous solutions, not to mention that if the team is tight, there's nothing like switching from an intense manager to one of those "Hey, let's all have fun and play the game" guys. See Bob Lemon, 1978, and pray. GRADE: F

NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL

CINCINNATI REDS
It's amazing what reversing just a few dumb ideas can do. Last year, the Danny Graves as starter experiment was perpetuated beyond any expectation of success. It was, frankly, sadistic. Then there was the Teach Adam Dunn to Hit Movement, since jailed on charges of sedition. Some organizations are bad, some are unlucky, but it's the rare one that is willfully self-destructive, taking the few assets it has and attempting to pervert them. April's heat will fade, but at least they're done with the auto-mohel act. GRADE: A

HOUSTON ASTROS
Years ago, the Astros would boast of their "Killer B's," Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, and...I think it was Eric Banthony. Now all their B's do is sting, and the only killer is Jimy Williams. Praise the Lord and pass a can of bug spray. Latest: Williams wants to use Octavio Dotel to protect big leads. Memo to Jimy: it's not the score when you use him, it's when you use him. Repeat your mantra: "Earlier, not bigger. Earlier, not bigger." GRADE: D

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
No truth to the rumor that a guy with a staff and two clay tablets was spotted hanging around PNC Park chanting, "Let Craig Wilson go." And lo, Pharaoh McClendon hardened his heart, so the Lord reached out and smote Jason Bay so that his Wilson would have a place to play. And still, Pharaoh McClendon hardened his heart. That morning, it rained anvils on Randall Simon. Last night, Raul Mondesi heard a voice in the darkness. It said, "Raul, you see me comin' you better run" in a voice strangely like Bob Dylan's. GRADE: B

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Some hot hitting from unlikely sources has obscured the catastrophic failure of the starting rotation. One part of that equation is going to change, the other half will stay the same. Net result: disaster. GRADE: D

MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Another philosophy of Casey Stengel's was that you couldn't beat the Yankees with players not good enough to make the Yankees. Meet Adrian Hernandez and Ben Ford. On a more encouraging note, it's good to see that Scott Podsednik may be more than just a one-year wonder. Bumped a grade for being at .500. GRADE: B-

CHICAGO CUBS
Mark Prior's injury is Pittsburgh's miracle season. As Paul Simon sang, "Panic strikes deep in the heartland." GRADE: D+

NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST

LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Cesar Izturis led off over the weekend. Baseball managers are more rigid in their thinking than Hollywood casting directors, the guys and gals who use their broad imaginations to take an actor who had a mild success playing a car thief and offer him parts as a boat thief, a plane thief, a train thief, and on, over and over until he's too old for action parts, at which point they offer him the role of the car thief's father. To put this in junior high math terms, the set of potential leadoff men is equal to the complete set of everybody. Casey Stengel used to lead off Hank Bauer even though Bauer was not particularly fast and didn't draw many walks; he had good power, and Casey liked the idea of his leading off the game with a home run. Sometimes Casey led off with Mickey Mantle, who was only the premier power threat of his day. Casey's teams won more than any in history, so the worst you can say about his batting orders is that they didn't hurt anything and they may very well have helped. So Jim, lead off anyone. Lead off Shawn Green. Lead off Lorne Greene. Just don't give Izturis more appearances in the batter's box than any other player on your roster. You can't defend this on any grounds other than that of received wisdom, Jim. GRADE: B-

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Runs scored, 33. Runs allowed, 37. Record: 4-3. Which one doesn't belong? The weakness of their opponents will allow them to hang in for a while anyway. GRADE: C

SAN DIEGO PADRES
As Ryan Wilkins recently pointed out, but for Carl Mays every modern pitcher with over 200 career wins and a winning percentage north of .600 is in the Hall of Fame. Test of principles: David Wells, currently resting with 200/.610. In other news, Pads hitters are already complaining about the dimensions of the new ballpark, which presages one of those pointless fence-shufflings next winter. Grow up and earn your homers, Phil. GRADE: C+

COLORADO ROCKIES
Cole Porter's first Broadway show was called "See America First." It was not a hit. One reviewer advised theatergoers to "See America First last." This has nothing to do with the Rockies except as an indication of where the prospective summer visitor to Denver should rank the baseball team among the city's numerous tourist attractions. GRADE: D

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
On June 23, 1915, pitcher Bruno Haas of the Philadelphia A's made his major league debut against the New York Yankees. The good news was that Haas lasted all nine innings. The bad news was that he gave up 15 runs on 11 hits and 16 walks. Welcome to Casey Daigle's first start, and maybe his second and third. Knocked down a grade because Bob Brenly manages to lose. GRADE: F

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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