April 23, 2004
Teams: A Critical Guide
The Branch Rickey Edition
Two weeks in, the sample sizes are still small but nearly 1/10th of the season is in the bag and some undeniable trends have emerged. The race now belongs to the quick, to those teams that spot their problems early and attacks them aggressively. As the iconic GM Branch Rickey said, "A man who isn't alert is usually in the second division, and that's where he belongs." Have at it, boys.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
BOSTON RED SOX
Mark Bellhorn can't hit, but he sure can walk, and maybe that's all you need. Back in the 1940s, there was a second baseman named Eddie Stanky. They called him "The Brat" because he was a gamer to the point that maybe he was overcommitted. Branch Rickey said of Stanky, "He can't hit, he can't run, he can't field, he can't throw. He can't do a damned thing except beat you." What's amazing was how many people failed to see that before Rickey's Dodgers picked him up. In the same way, Bellhorn was chased out of town by two organizations who saw only the things he couldn't do. Rickey also said that luck was the residue of design, which means you make your own breaks. The Red Sox know this, finally. GRADE: A
During spring training, I was having lunch with sometime-BP contributor Andrew Baharlias. After a few tongue-liberating glasses of Diet Coke, he leaned back in his chair and said, "Many commentators are predicting the Orioles will have stronger pitching than the Yankees this year."
"Who are they," I asked, "and why haven't they been institutionalized?"
"Well," he fumfered. "Um."
"What are their names?" I pressed. "I'd really like to read them."
"Eh? Oh. Hmm. Um?"
"You made the whole thing up just to waste my time, didn't you?"
"Yeah. Are you going to eat those?"
In revenge, I dialed Alaska on his cell phone, then sank it to the bottom of the restaurant's goldfish tank. It's early, but I'd like to apologize to Andy. GRADE: A
NEW YORK YANKEES
Among the many reasons why the Roman empire went, as Mad magazine might have put it, "Splut," was the increasing inability of the Romans to fight their own battles. Due to a declining birthrate and a general lack of enthusiasm for hiking up to the Danube and having one's skull caved in by a raging Visigoth, the Romans were forced to supplement their military with barbarian mercenaries. This process repeated itself, and by the end of the Third century, CE, the Roman army wasn't really Roman anymore. The Yankees are in roughly the same position. Unwilling, uninterested, or unable to grown their own soldiers, they've had to staff out the team with imports of unknown quantity--Hideki Matsui, Jose Contreras, and so forth. Some of them aren't as good as advertised, others lack the poise of "Yankees" and clearly have no clue what they're doing here, but the organization is stuck with them. Even if they wanted to replace them with farm-bred "Yankees," well, no one knows what that critter looks like. Post Alex Rodriguez, it sure ain't Derek Jeter. GRADE: D
TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS
The Turbot are by no means out of it at (currently) 6-7, which is a nice thing to get to say. Looking further down the line, B.J. Upton is off to a .378/.465/.541 start at Double-A Montgomery. It's only ten games, but it's better to start out 14-for-37 than it is to open with a 3-for-30, as old pal Jared Sandberg has at Triple-A Durham. Then there's Delmon Young. One walk in 55 Sally League plate appearances may not be what the Halibut had in mind. Back in the present day, Jeremi Gonzalez is a touch and feel pitcher, and the less consistent members of the breed have some years where they feel what they should be touching and touch what they should be feeling. That sounds faintly sinister, but it's just an expression. As for Mark Hendrickson, he remains impressively tall and will be moved downtown and converted into office space. The Haddocks' ultimate undoing lies with these two, the real estate market. GRADE: C
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Someone forgot to throw the on-switch. It could happen as soon as today, but with Boston playing well, the Jays may find themselves having to retake a great deal of ground. Pennant races come in all kinds of shapes, and the cult of the fast start--the one that says you fire your manager two weeks in if the team trots coming out of the gate--is right to panic in some years and acting precipitously in others; in some years that slow start can be compensated for by a hot everything else. However, it is equally true that many a good team has been doomed by an out of character beginning. Stay tuned. GRADE: F
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
The AL version of the Cubs is surviving their pitching on Murderer's Row-style hitting. Murderer's Row only lasts so long, and then Tom Hanks and the rest of the guards start escorting the murderers to the chair. They glow brightly, then slump. As far as their flip approach to talent deployment goes, U.S. Grant won the battle of Shiloh by using his vast numerical superiority over his opponents to absorb 14,000 casualties, but just because it worked doesn't mean it was sound strategy. Still the Twins are winners of six straight at this writing, so GRADE: A
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
Without Frank Thomas in the line-up, they're just a bunch of guys who won't walk, rarely go to the theater, and haven't read The Da Vinci Code, so interesting conversation is hard to come by, even when Ozzie is in the mood to discuss the relative value of the sacrifice bunt versus self-immolation, playing in traffic, or the good old suicide squeeze, which in this case means sashaying into a cowboy bar in a frilly pink ballerina costume and hugging anyone who looks like Jason Giambi. Still, the starting rotation won't be wrong as long as it's not Wright, and the pen will endure if Ozzie remembers that just as home is anyplace you hang your hat, your closer is whoever you hand the ball to with the game on the line. All official "closers" were branded as such ex post facto. GRADE: B
Walter Johnson being unavailable at the present time (though "Jurassic Baseball" DNA experiments now being carried out give us hope), Randy Johnson being past his prime, and Lyndon Johnson having pitched his arm off in the Hanoi Invitational, Jason is the best Johnson available, or to paraphrase Voltaire, if Jason is the only possible Johnson, he must be the best Johnson. But it's a close thing, and who said you had to have a Johnson anyway? The Detroit Tigers are 3-5 since last we convened this little coffee klatch, which puts them in a better place than the Sumatra Tigers, Bali Tigers, and Java Tigers, but not by a whole lot. GRADE: D
The great thing about baseball is that history repeats itself every so often. Events are like busses. You miss one, pretty soon another one comes along. You miss Babe Ruth, you've got Barry Bonds. They're not analogous individuals by any means, not in personality, celebrity, or impact on the game, but the results, the jaw-dropping spectacle of it all--now you can tell your kids that you saw it. This year's Indians provide a chance to revisit the promising Tribe squad of 1986. Cleveland led the league in runs that year, and even finished over .500. The result was that the more credulous baseball pundits concluded that the team's years in the wilderness had concluded. The next year they lost 100 games. The Problems were two-fold: the Indians' offense was built around limited hitters like Joe Carter, Cory Snyder, and Mel Hall, and the pitching staff was Tom Candiotti and pray for a meteor to crash into the Yucatan peninsula and wipe out all life on Earth. Substitute C.C. Sabathia for Candiotti, Iraq for the meteor, and Jersey City for Yucatan and you've got this year's team. As for the sustainability of the offense, that's what they're figuring out now. GRADE: C-
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Still in the Xeno's Paradox stage of putting together a pitching staff, where you keep dividing the distance between you and good pitching by half and never quite get there. There are ways out of that trap if you know more about the nature of the space-time continuum than (a) Xeno, or (b) your typical set of baseball coaches. I know less than either, so my solution would be to wish upon a Greinke and then start dealing spurious position players to contenders. Yes, it's early to throw in the towel, but a starter's ERA of 7.84 is a pretty big towel, say a dish cloth about the size of Shelbina woven from enough fine Egyptian cotton to swab the mites from the ears of 350,000 Missouri ground hogs. Heck, if you move quickly enough, you might just save this season. GRADE: F
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
We won't concern ourselves with the generosity of dollars lavished on Garret Anderson, because what a team chooses to bid in the eBay of reality is its own business. The real matter of concern is--forgive another Branch Rickey reference--whether the four-year deal puts the California Seraphim in the position of keeping the player for a year too long, worse, as the Mahatma said, then parting with him a year too early. We're in the grey land of prediction here, but given that Anderson will be 32 this year, the answer is very likely to be yes. He is, at this moment, a very good player, especially if you count him as a centerfielder. Prior, he's been quite mediocre, despite some superficially impressive numbers. It won't take much slippage for him to get back there. Take away a few doubles, a few home runs, a few points of batting average, and the lack of walks, which we're now encouraged to disregard, will sink his production like a stone. This player is rated a short-term "Buy," a long-term "Sell." GRADE: C
Hemorrhaging middle infielders, and Jermaine Dye has been the whole offense, making him an early candidate not just for comeback player of the year but comeback player of the galaxy. After last season, even Lassie would have said, "Timmy, leave him in the well." Due to their fine pitching, the A's will hang in until the point that Billy Branch Rickey Beane decides to reload either via trade or by promotion of a fun prospect. Assuming a healthy pitching staff, he could choose to deal the less-than-reliable but still tantalizing Rich Harden for--well, it's safe to assume just about anybody--and then promote Joe "Gern" Blanton in his place. As von Moltke (the elder, not the goofy one who ineptly led Germany into World War I with a von Schlieffen plan that had been de-von Schlieffenized) said, "First ponder, then dare." And may the sleeve of the third baseman touch San Francisco bay. GRADE: B
Now here's a miracle worthy of a Marty Balin ballad: the Rangers currently stand fourth in the American League in team ERA. Should they somehow stay at 4.12 through the entire season, the Rangers will have had their best pitching season since 1990, when their 3.83 ERA was just a touch below league average. The starting rotation that year had Bobby Witt, Charlie Hough, Nolan Ryan, Kevin Brown, and Jamie Moyer. Kenny Rogers was the closer, something very difficult to believe given the way the pitcher waffled his way through his Yankees years. Yes, the world was young then, and it's just as likely that girl who turned you down for the prom that year will divorce that accountant she married because of her unresolved feelings for you as it is that those days will come again. GRADE: B
In the words of Abraham Lincoln, if this is tea, please get me some coffee, but if this is coffee, please get me some tea. Bumped up for a four-game winning streak which is more inspirational than predictive of future greatness. GRADE: B-
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Meet the 1985 Royals, complete with all-star third baseman--if Mike Lowell is not quite George Brett, he'll do. It was a dark day in New York when the Yankees chose erratic Scott Brosius over the talented but testicularly endangered Lowell, but that's a comment about another franchise. The Marlins are not going anywhere anytime soon, so look ye to the wild card, non-aquatic NL Easterners. The sweep at the hands of the Braves was a whole other kettle of fish, mostly fluke. GRADE: B
Whaddya mean Jeff Francoeur is playing at Myrtle Beach? Notify the boys in the boiler room... It may be time to defrost Brad Komminsk again. GRADE: C
They Phillies cry out for martyrdom. Sadly, they're going to get it if they don't start hitting soon. More adroit handling of the bullpen would help. Forgetting what Rheal Cormier did last year and concentrating on the sour vanilla quality of the rest of his career would be a start. Forgetting Roberto Hernandez completely would be even better. Even the guy from Memento should tear up his baseball card. GRADE: C-
You're more likely to find a solid hit on the ABC network than you are at an Expos game. Things will get better fast, in only because no team is actually this bad. Disclaimers: this warranty will be void if (1) the included Vidro-unit is detached, (2) Pete Bergeron (3) syndicate ownership. Do not submerge in water. Do not attempt to use outdoors. Do not attempt to use in Puerto Rico...It's intriguing that they were permitted to extend Livan Hernandez as opposed to, say, any other living male, but long-term the move will have the same significance as the team's decision to give up its 1982 first-round draft choice to sign Tim Blackwell. ...In his spare time, Omar writes bad poetry: "Shall I trade my second baseman? Do I dare to eat a peach? And Bud Selig comes and goes, talking of Michelangeltoes." GRADE: F
NEW YORK METS
Losing two of three (so far) to the Expos is an indictment. It's been said before, but Vlad Guerrero would have made this team a heck of a lot more interesting. With Piazza on the down side and Cliff Floyd perpetually hurt, this was a team in desperate need of one solid way-above-league bat. From ex-GM Steve Phillips' compulsive bullpen fascination to this spring's dump Roger Cedeno at all costs movement (which you can't really blame them for), the offense has been curiously neglected since 2000--at latest. GRADE: F
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Ladies and gentlemen, silence please as Morgan Ensberg demonstrates why some careers get made into movies, while others crash on takeoff. Lesson One: no matter your past record, it is a very bad idea to start the season 6-for-38 if playing for a manager who has no confidence in you. Corollary One: You will soon be traded to the St. Louis Browns. Corollary Two: If the St. Louis Browns are defunct, you will soon be traded to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Corollary Three: The receiving team will rise slightly, the punting team will decline slightly, but your career still won't be made into a movie. GRADE B
Pounding the cream cheese out of the ball (this is rhetorical cream cheese, not a reference to the infamous cream cheese-centered ball that depressed National League scoring in 1931-1932), so bad omens on the pitching staff can be ignored until they jump up and bite someone on the knee cap. Example: Kerry Wood threw 131 pitches on Saturday before being removed, then ejected. So much from learning from Prior experience. Speaking of Prior, back in 1939 an ill-informed sportswriter suggested that Lou Gehrig had caused the Yankees to get off to a slow start by "infecting" them with his illness. Gehrig threatened a lawsuit and an embarrassed retraction followed. All those who would speculate on the state of Prior's arm without proper knowledge, ye be warned. GRADE: B+
The 8-6 start is just a pleasant dream that will vanish with the direct light of summer. As Bob Dylan sang regarding Junior Griffey's prematurely lauded comeback, "I wouldn't pay it any mind... It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing." GRADE: C+
In an interview last week, Lloyd McClendon "smirked" as he fantasized that his treatment of Craig Wilson had led to the Wilson's emergence this season. This is a bit like an abusive father rationalizing a lifetime of beatings by saying, "I wanted to teach you to be tough." Never you mind that this isn't football, and players don't learn by sitting on the bench (and even in football that is just the product of received wisdom and time-honored practice; certainly on the surface it makes little sense); you would like your manager to have more of a plan for his players than "I'll just wing it and hope for the best." It's like Christian Science managing. The farm system will provide, the Lord will decide, and the manager will just hang around hoping. Bumped down a grade for hubris. GRADE: D
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
In precisely the same position as the Royals, with two significant differences: (a) most of the busted rotation is imported, not home grown, and (b) they haven't the depth of minor league talent to trade anything, anywhere. Over .500 ATW, when the hitters cool its freefall time. GRADE: B-
MILWAUKEE BREWERS And on Thursday, PECOTA woke up with a deep sense of disquietude. Had it been too conservative with its Junior Spivey forecast? PECOTA rolled over and went back to sleep... Swept by Houston but (at this writing) sweeping Arizona, which shows just how far Arizona has fallen as much as it does how far the Brewers have come... Dave Burba is only 37 as of the first week of July and he's been a reasonably strong pitcher as recently as 2000, but it seems as if his career has been hanging by a thread for about ten years. Back in the 1930s there was a pitcher named Jack Quinn, who hid his age so teams wouldn't realize he was flirting with 50. Rumor had it that he had fought in the Spanish-American War as an underage volunteer. Whenever anyone asked him about it, he would pretend that he had never heard of the Spanish-American War. "Admiral Dewey who?" he would ask to peals of laughter. "Splendid little what?" he would choke, all the while insisting that William Randolph Hearst never said, "You furnish the pitchers and I'll furnish the war" to Frederic Remington. This is Burba's future, only he'll be denying he served with MacArthur at Inchon, or LaRussa at Los Angeles. GRADE: C-
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Jeff Weaver's younger brother is going to be one of the top pitchers chosen in this June's draft, but it would behoove the selecting teams (ironically, it could be the Tigers) to do a little psychological testing. You would hope that that Jered didn't have Jeff's sense of resiliency. GRADE: A
SAN DIEGO PADRES
So far the home ERA is nearly two runs higher than the road version. Batting splits the opposite way (better on the road), so the jury is still out on what it is they've built out there. ...Might look better playing in Bill Veeck's short pants or frilly pink lingerie than they do in their new uniforms. Then again, Tony Gwynn spent most of his career wearing the same clothes as a McDonald's fry cook, so maybe things aren't all bad. GRADE: B-
According to the AP, Larry Walker "discovered the body of an unidentified man Sunday on his property near Evergreen." Authorities denied that the body Walker found was in fact his own. "That would be just too weird," said a sheriff's department spokesman. "We're not really set up to deal with metaphysical questions like that." ...The sheer number of positions at which the Rocks are flirting with replacement level, essentially every one not manned by a Helton, buttresses the TEAMS theory that it isn't just organizational incompetence but a baseball-wide shortage of young talent at work. As the old saying goes, even a blind squirrel finds a few nuts. Better send that rodent back to Triple-A, Dan. GRADE: D
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
BALCO wasn't about steroids, it was about cloning. The reason that Barry Bonds has been so impossibly good this year is that every night it's a different Barry Bonds! Entirely a one-man show, but what a show! Bumped up a grade for spectacle. GRADE: C-
Robbie Alomar having been rendered inoperative, Chad Tracy comes back from the minors, not that he should have been sent there in the first place. With Denny Bautista hot 'n' healthy for the nonce, Tracy should be allowed to challenge Shea Hillenbrand for everything from the team Scrabble championship to the starting job at third. A platoon would seem like a good idea, but the righty Hillenbrand has a backward platoon and his polished his ineffective record against southpaws with an 0-11 start this season. All of this is small beer next to the travails of the starting rotation, which is currently Brandon Webb, Refurnished Randy Johnson (maybe), and "Aaaaagh!" GRADE: D
Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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