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May 12, 2004

Teams: A Critical Guide

Teams is Not Your Ex-Girlfriend Edition

by Steven Goldman

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It's mid-May, when TEAMS' thoughts turn to love, unrequited variety. The Royal-ty that resembled a virtuous maiden in the winter has blossomed into a faithless coquette who spends far too much time with the mailman, the milkman, and Jack McKeon. This analogy has its limits; in this case, infidelity and broken promises are not, as Bob Dylan sang, just like a woman, but rather just like baseball. Or maybe both qualify; this may seem misogynistic, but our readership skews solidly to the male and TEAMS won't tell the wife if you don't.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST

ANAHEIM ANGELS

Since Disney no longer owns the Angels, there's little chance of "Angels in the Infield," the story of the heavenly host summoned to Anaheim to send Darin Erstad back to the Dark Place Whence He Came (near Tenafly, New Jersey). Then there's the film that might almost be a documentary. Here's the tagline: Casey Kotchman is Lou Gehrig, Darin Erstad is Wally Pipp in..."The Angels Win the Division In Spite of Themselves." For the Angels, the disabling of Erstad is the equivalent of the day Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and proof that fortune really does sometimes favor the foolish. Tuesday's New York Times says: "The Angels come to Yankee Stadium with three of their best players--Garret Anderson, Tim Salmon and Darin Erstad--on the disabled list." The Times apparently has the 2000 Angels on the brain, the last time the above description would have applied. GRADE: A

TEXAS RANGERS

R.A. Dickey is obviously a fringy pitcher to begin with, so when he shows signs of getting on what is for him a major roll, it is the manager's job to coddle him in every way possible to make sure that the hot streak is not disrupted, including leaving a mint on his pillow at night--even on homestands. This is one of the reasons that the great Yankees teams managed by Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel tended to employ about 10 starting pitchers a year. The manager would look at his staff and say: "It's Bump Hadley's turn to pitch, but I don't like him against the six lefties in the Senators' lineup. I'll go with Marius Russo instead." A day later, Hadley would face St. Louis and frustrate their eight righty hitters. It wasn't symmetrical, it messed up the starting rotation, but it worked. On May 2, Buck Showalter allowed Dickey to throw 131 pitches in pursuit of a shutout. On May 8, Dickey threw just 74 pitches, but that was because he had his lunch fed to him. For pitchers not named Roger Clemens, this is the usual order of things. Docked a grade for changing the name of their stadium to "Ameriquest Field." GRADE: C+

OAKLAND ATHLETICS

One game below sea level at this writing, would be at least .500 if they had only kept Arthur Rhodes in street clothes against the Yankees. Pinstripes seem to sap his will. Say, there's a chance ex-teammate Rafael Palmeiro has a case of something in his garage that might help with that. As for Bud Selig's visit, can a team refuse to entertain the commissioner? Having Selig come to town to shill for a new stadium is like calling on Jack the Ripper to testify in favor of legalized prostitution. Probably should have gotten a warranty on Mark Kotsay; as the old joke goes, he's parked between 5th and 8th--allll the way between 5th and 8th. GRADE: C

SEATTLE MARINERS

After beating the M's on Saturday, Mike Mussina paid tribute to his vanquished foes, calling them a good team with a solid lineup. Pass that peace pipe, Moose. The solid lineup included Pat Borders and Quinton McCracken. Many breads sold in supermarkets list high fructose corn syrup among their ingredients. Peter Gammons writes: "Hats off to GM Bill Bavasi for recognizing the Mariners' problem is that they need to get younger, more athletic and energetic." Bavasi also recognizes that the sky is blue, the sea is wet, and you can't make a workable paper airplane out of toilet paper. "Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad." - Acts, 26:24. GRADE: D

AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

Slugging .465 as a team, pitching decently, and they have a share of first place. Yet, it's somehow hard to become religious about them, and it's not just that they're pacing the league in sac bunts. Their good players are just good, not great, and as wonderful as Magglio Ordonez is, there is just very little to focus this New York-area observer's attention, except for perhaps Damaso Marte, who the Yankees dealt for Enrique Wilson back in 2001. That doesn't get nearly the play that it should. In any case, there's something more troubling going on. I'm sure many of you caught the 10-minute Harry Potter preview that was on television the other night. Back in '02, Roger Ebert, reviewing the last Potter film, said of actress Emma Watson that she was "in the early stages of babehood." From then on, each time I caught the picture--and thanks to cable TV and a vicious channel-surfing habit, I caught it a lot--I was forced to wonder if she really was in an early stage of babehood, and if so, is it really appropriate to think such things about a 12-year-old girl? Could it be that Roger Ebert is just a dirty old man, or am I, overreacting to an innocuous observation, the one who's dirty? Now that the new film is upon us, it is clear that Ebert's observation was correct, opening up additional questions such as, if she was in an early stage of babehood two years ago, what stage of babehood is she in now? Is it OK to notice it? If you ran into her, could you bring it up? "Hey, Emma. I've really admired your work in the Potter films. Your indeterminate stage of babehood is really showing. Care for a cup of tea?" I can't sleep anymore and my wife has left me. I need help. If you're within sound of my voice, please send graham crackers, Harold Baines. GRADE: B

MINNESOTA TWINS

Back in the late 1930s, the St. Louis Cardinals had amassed so many good prospects that Commissioner Landis was going around freeing them, donning wispy robes and tapping them with his "magic wand." The Cards were in danger of losing outfielder Pete Reiser, a player they quite liked. Cards GM Branch Rickey asked Dodgers GM Larry MacPhail for a favor. The Dodgers would "acquire" Reiser until he was ready to play in the majors, at which point the Dodgers would give him back. This worked up to a point, but when Reiser was ready to go, MacPhail said, "No, I'd rather hold on to him." Rickey couldn't protest publicly without revealing that he had made a crooked deal in the first place. As a Dodger, Reiser made the All-Star team three times, was top-10 in the MVP voting those same three years, and would have been even better had his career not been interrupted by World War II and frequent collisions with stationary objects. After hitting for average and baserunning, Reiser's main skill was forgetting to duck, but he was still a great player. This has nothing to do with the Twins, except that any number of their minor league players could benefit from a commissioner interested in freeing things--beyond freeing the Brewers from fiscal responsibility, I mean--or a team willing to "borrow" players. The starting first baseman has a .716 OPS and Torii Hunter has been seen at DH, both of which go to show why the White Sox are keeping up in a race that ought not be that close. GRADE: B-

DETROIT TIGERS

Maybe it's just a question of desperation pushing a manager to do something intelligent, but confronted by two conflicting propositions--"(A) Ivan Rodriguez is my best hitter, and I need him everyday, and (B) Pudge-Rod is a catcher and cannot play everyday lest he turn into Mush-Rod, which would leave me catching a Hodge-Podge-Rod"--Alan Trammell resorted to the simple expediency of using Ivan as his designated hitter on his days off. This is a thought further than Joe Torre has gone with Jorge Posada, who once a week yields to John Flaherty like a door slamming shut on the history of life on Earth. The rebirth of the Tigers might not have been as overhyped as the "Friends" finale (as Paul Simon is heard to say to Art Garfunkel on "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright," "Good-bye already, Artie!"), but as cultural moments go, it will be just as ephemeral. Take away the opening four-game winning streak and the Felids are just 11-16, a record synonymous with "not competitive." They still have further to fall. Cole Porter said it best: "It was just one of those things/ A trip to the moon on gossamer wings/ just one of those things." GRADE: D+

CLEVELAND INDIANS

Deep thought: The only thing preventing the Indians from being the first pennant-winning team with a bullpen ERA of 7.07 is that they keep blowing saves. If they stop blowing saves, they probably won't have a 7.07 ERA anymore. Conclusion: Given a weak division, lackadaisical thinkers in charge of the front-runners, a loaded system, and an offense that looks strong to begin with and might get a Sizemore powerful later in the year, this is the one organization that could benefit immensely by dealing a 'spect for a Reliable Reliever. GRADE: C

KANSAS CITY ROYALS

Quick quiz: which of these AL bottom-feeders will stage a recovery? (A) The Royals, (B) The Devil Rays, (C) The Mariners, (D) Don't talk about my grandmother that way, or, (E) None of the above. Jumped to sign Angel Berroa to a multi-year deal, which was a bit premature given that he's 26 and has displayed lousy plate discipline in the majors. As he's showing this year, he was way over his head in 2003, migraines notwithstanding. Something smells like albatross in the City of Fountains. GRADE: F

AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST

NEW YORK YANKEES

In a February 2003 edition of The Pinstriped Bible, I wrote this of Derek Jeter: "Reminiscent of Travis Jackson, Glenn Wright, and Cecil Travis. All were done before age 32. Jackson and Wright suffered injuries; Travis suffered the Second World War. Will Jeter endure the same fate? I'm pretty sure he can steer clear of injuries, but I'm less certain about the war...Jeter needs to arrest his steady retreat from his peak season of 1999. Who would have guessed that when George Washington wrote, 'Let me now warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party' in 1796, he was talking to the Yankees' shortstop of 2003?" I was wrong about the injuries--Ken Huckaby knocked Jeter's left arm out of its socket about a month later--and the dig about the parties got turned into a long-running series of credit card commercials. With Jeter's 27-for-135 opening, it's possible I was correct but premature. Meanwhile, Homer Bush returns. "The fever's gonna catch you when the bitch gets back." - Elton John. Actually, he made for a handy pinch-runner on Tuesday night. Homer, not Elton. GRADE: A

BOSTON RED SOX

At this writing, the starters have a combined ERA of 3.71, which given the watered-down era in which we live is something like 1971 Orioles territory. The bullpen has been even better. In their recent five-game losing streak, they lost three one-run games (we call this, fortune, fate, luck, karma), with a fourth loss coming from the best start of R.A. Dickey's career. The fifth was an uncharacteristically bad outing for Pedro Martinez, and he pitched just fine in his next two starts. So what can we read into this about the imminent demise of the Red Sox? Not much. GRADE: C-

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

This year's Yankees are an exception to the unrecognized truth that bullpens aren't bought or made, but found. In any given season there are about 12 actual closers, relievers who are consistent enough to earn their pay, and a bunch of other guys who earn their share of saves by virtue of the way their managers use them. Add in the 20 or so really reliable middle relievers and you have the total population of relievers worth building around. At present, the Orioles don't have any of those guys--even the indefatigable Buddy Groom generally gets smacked around, not that that's anything new. The O's have an aggregation of no-names who happen to be pitching well at the moment. This may or may not continue, but it had better, as the starting rotation looks like something that was dreamed up by Wile E. Coyote. Meanwhile, all bets on offense have panned out with the exception of Luis Matos. That's about to change as Lee Mazzilli makes Jerry Hairston Jr. the DH, a huge misapplication of baseball's version of Free Parking. "Sometimes you look for the prototypical DH who's a power-type guy, but with our lineup and the way I like to run the guys, Jerry fits in fine for me," said Mazzilli, who doesn't quite recognize he's giving up the initiative to teams with DHs who can hit for power--that is, the teams in front of and behind him. In a productivity contest in which the winner gets to eat the loser's DH, it's going to be a barbecued Hairston every time. Then again, it could be a showcase. If this fustian writing leads to Custian time/ you'll forgive the bad writing, and even this rhyme. There's a better chance of hell freezing over, on both counts. GRADE: B

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

The best one can say about their current winning streak is that Vernon Wells and Josh Phelps seem to be waking up a bit and that Orlando Hudson is slugging .534, which licks every other keystone cop in the division by about 100 points, give or take Brian Roberts' momentary flirtation with Nellie Fox-dom. Timing is everything: Having whipped the White Sox and Royals--not unlike, say, invading Grenada--the Jays get three more gimmes with KC, then spend the rest of the month with the Red Sox, Twins, Angels, and Rangers. We call this a moment of destiny. GRADE: A-

TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS

Scoring 3.3 runs a game, proving that you haven't gained much if you've revived Tino Martinez but lost everybody else. With Eduardo Perez out for the year with a flat tire, it is reported that his replacement on the roster will be either the recently demoted Damian Rolls, a 26-year-old with career OBP/SLG marks of .296/.350 in 228 major league games, or Jonny Gomes, a 23-year-old whose minor league career numbers in the same categories coming into this season were .403/.525. Gomes has hit eight home runs in his first 56 at-bats this year and is slugging .875. Guys, you're the Devil Rays. You're not going anywhere. You know what you've got in Rolls. You know what you might have in Gomes. As John Lennon sang in "The Ballad of John and Yoko," "THINK!" Late update: They picked Rolls. Lou Piniella, meet Charles Darwin. GRADE: F

NATIONAL LEAGUE

NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST

LOS ANGELES DODGERS If you were the cynical type, and TEAMS is nothing but cynical, you might raise an eyebrow at Adrian Beltre going Babe Ruth on the league in his walk year. In any other season, you might say the Dodgers were a Nomo short of serious contention, but in this division, dropping Cesar Izturis down in the order and Juan Encarnacion out of it altogether might have the same value as a major trade. What can Mr. DePodesta put together for Carlos Beltran? Winners of five straight at this writing. GRADE: A

SAN DIEGO PADRES

Trailing the universe in home runs, the result of injuries (this team desperately needs its Klesko contribution) and a new ballpark that is doing its best to compensate for Coors Field's effect on league batting. The Pads have hit nine home runs in 517 home at-bats, not quite the one home round-tripper the Senators hit in 1945, but probably as close as we're going to see in the 21st century. GRADE: B

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

Called up Scott Hairston but continue to play Matt Kata, who at this writing has hit .250 with one walk in May. We now have more than the usual sample size to show that the universe has selected the Boones, Bells, and Griffeys for professional survival but the Hairstons may be flat out of luck. Still, let's cheer the original Jerry Hairston's 1984, in which he drew 41 walks in 271 plate appearances. Early man had a periscope in his ear that allowed him to see around corners, very handy for avoiding big cats with scimitar teeth. Raised a grade for boosting Chad Tracy to the leadoff spot after a generation of Womackian madness and assorted other digressions. GRADE: B-

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

In 1935, Wally Berger led the National League in home runs while playing the outfield for a Braves team that lost approximately 100,000 games. Barry Bonds, meet your destiny. Then there's Pedro Feliz, whose name is Spanish for, "Slow Alfredo Griffin with power." GRADE: C-

COLORADO ROCKIES

To paraphrase Walt Whitman, I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric Brad Hawpe over the roofs of the world. That is, with the collection of hobbled horses that have been limping around the pastures, you might as well let one of the more promising hitters in the chain Hawpe to it. No more puns, not even to say that at a heifer-sized ERA of 9.16 it might be time to let Scott Elarton move on. At some point, continually flogging a pitcher who is clearly unequal to the level of competition is as disrespectful of the game as Spider-Men on the bases. GRADE: D

NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL

HOUSTON ASTROS

Rather than indulge in the manly American sport of shooting fish in a barrel, we'll give Jimy Williams a pass this week (though Dayn Perry won't) and simply thank Andy Pettitte for making the return of the Rocket possible. The greatest pitcher of all time rides high at 7-0, 1.99. This is the closest thing in baseball we'll see to a Beatles reunion. GRADE: A

CHICAGO CUBS

In other news, Ben Christensen was released. If there is any justice in the world, the next team to sign him will be the one Rick Vaughn played for before the Indians--California Penal, wasn't it? Only a felicitous lack of major league playing time prevents Christensen from vaulting onto the list of most reprehensible ballplayers of all time with Hal Chase, Jake Powell, and Chick Gandil. Readers (OK, one reader) excoriated TEAMS after a previous edition complained that Kerry Wood was being worked too hard. "Get a clue," he said, "Wood's capable of pitching a lot of pitches just fine and I'm sure Prior will be back fine as well." Well, Kerry Wood left Tuesday's start after two innings with a strained triceps. The injury may or may not be serious, and it may or may not be related to his heavy workload, though it sure seems likely that any injury would be less likely with judicious handling. Either way, it's Dustiny. GRADE: C

CINCINNATI REDS

Just released Jimmy Haynes, who by the sole measure of his 5.37 career ERA is the worst pitcher ever to throw over 1,000 innings. Even cutting him some slack for the high-scoring era in which he plays, Haynes is still more than 100 runs worse than the average pitcher. Ironically, his replacement, Todd Van Poppel, is also one of the least effective pitchers of all time, with a 5.48 career ERA in more than 800 innings. It's not likely, but with a really bad season, Van Poppel could surpass immortal Phillie Claude Willoughby for highest ERA of all time, 800-inning division. Something to root for besides the next Adam Dunn base on balls. Paging Brandon Claussen. GRADE: C+

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Imagine if Whistler had painted a moustache on his mother, or the Empire State Building had a giant Groucho nose and glasses attached to the façade just below the observation deck. That's this year's Cards club, which has good pitching, a great core of talent on offense, and Hoovers up more balls than an elephant with--well, we'll just let that hang (bear with me, folks--the first metaphor that came to mind was inappropriate for a family site), but just misses greatness. They're only hanging around the .500 mark and just lost two of three to the Euthanasia Expos. This is the direct result of marking two positions, left field and second base as "staff" rather than actually filling the two positions. Pure negligence. GRADE: C-

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Reached .500 with a spectacular comeback win against the Expos on Tuesday night, making this the most successful Brewers club since Benjamin Franklin caught for the 1731 edition. There are enough middle infielders on hand here that the Brewers could bail out both the Yankees and the A's and still have a few extra left over. With intelligent trading, they'll add some pitching to their already impressive collection of prospects come July. GRADE: B

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Raul Mondesi's decision to take the rest of the year off differs only slightly from previous occasions where he decided to take the rest of the year off, in that this time he's actually going to stay home. When the Pirates get around to placing him on the restricted list, possible replacements include Nashville Sounder Ruben Mateo, who is slugging .711 in nearly 100 at-bats. Yeah, I don't believe it either, but if he can play a bit of center, the Buccos might be able to banish the pipe dream that was Tike Redman's 56-game flirtation with relevance. Late update: They called up Daryle Ward, and Rob Mackowiak continues to see time. It's your lucky day, Tike. Losers of six straight at this writing. GRADE: F

NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST

FLORIDA MARLINS

Hanging onto first place, all due to Lenny Harris. GRADE: C

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Their problem is very much like that of the Yankees, in that they've done very well against everyone except the team they have to beat, in this case the Marlins, against whom they are 0-6. Obviously, this can lose you pennant races. There are many examples of number-two teams who were the 1927 Yankees against everyone but the team in front of them. The 1933 Yankees were a .650 team against everyone but the Washington Senators, who beat them in 14 of 22 contests, winning the American League by seven games. Otherwise, there's not a whole lot to complain about aside from the deathly slow starts by Marlon Byrd and Jimmy Rollins. Bet on Byrd to come out of it, first and only. GRADE: B+

ATLANTA BRAVES

Called up Wilson Betemit due to lingering injuries to Marcus Giles and Rafael Furcal. If this career can be resurrected, there's hope for Pee-wee Herman… "The thrill is gone/ to linger on/ would spoil it anyhow/ let's creep away/ the party's over now." - Noel Coward. GRADE: D

NEW YORK METS

Jose Reyes makes "phenom" sound a lot like "phantom," and so does the rest of this team. During Monday's contest with the Diamondbacks, one of the Mets radio announcers noted with surprise that "James Baldwin seems very hittable tonight." Baldwin has a 5.06 career ERA. He's always hittable. With 1,262 innings in the bank, Baldwin is not only a historic flop, he's one of baseball's longest running flops, like some hell-spawned version of Cats setting box-office records of the damned. Meanwhile, on offense, the best players are the ones the Mets didn't intend to play… Jason Phillips' slow start--slow, heck, let's call it terminal--and Craig Brazell's hot start at Triple-A (11 home runs, .640 SLG) argue in favor of making at least a temporary switch. Brazell is a limited player, but Mets first basemen are hitting .200 with zero home runs on the season. Waiting for this kind of problem to fix itself is like putting off emergency bypass surgery so you can attend the International Fried Kielbasa Festival. Then again, promoting Brazell would leave Norfolk with only Mike Glavine, a travesty that just might prompt the natives to put the ballpark to the torch. GRADE: F

MONTREAL EXPOS This has bugged me for years: When I was 11 I developed a crush on a fellow sixth-grader named Liz. Liz was tall, cute, blonde, funny, and completely wrong for me, though it would take me another 10 years for me to figure out that kind of thing. When you're 11 you don't approach girls directly--you get a friend to do it for you. I got a pal (Derek Jeter) to tell Liz that he thought I "liked" her. A few minutes later, Liz came tearing up to me, tears in her eyes, and shouted, "WHY DON'T YOU JUST HIT ME OVER THE HEAD WITH IT?" At first, I wasn't even sure what she was talking about. After she had calmed down, I asked her what was the matter. She denied that anything was wrong and pretended that nothing had happened. We went on like that for the rest of our acquaintance. GRADE (EXPOS): D. GRADE (LIZ): INC

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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