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September 7, 2004

Teams: A Critical Guide

Hoagy Carmichael's Rockin' Chair Edition

by Steven Goldman

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Somewhere between late 1927 and 1929, singer/songwriter Hoagy Carmichael put the finishing touches on one of the most pleasantly morose songs in the American popular song catalog. More famous for "Stardust," "Lazy River," "Georgia on My Mind," and a score of other classics, not to mention his appearances in films like "To Have and Have Not," and "The Best Years of Our Lives," there is nonetheless something unique about "Rockin' Chair." It captures a moment of resignation, an acceptance of mortality, and then renders it in an idiom that makes it peculiarly American. "Goin' nowhere/ Just sit me here grabbin'/ At the flies 'round this rockin' chair… Old rockin' chair gits it/ Judgment day is here/ Chained to my rockin' chair."

The song remains relevant: not only is 2004 is the 75th anniversary of the tune, but with the American League races winding down, there are many teams in this week's survey that find themselves unwilling prisoners of Carmichael's rockin' chair.

ANAHEIM ANGELS

You'd have to call it a successful week when your team wins five of six games and hits .369/.415/.541, which would have been a pretty good season for Rogers Hornsby. Scoring 21 runs against the Royals always helps the bottom line, Kansas City having taken on the historic role of the St. Louis Browns, that being to roll over and help the other guy fatten up his stats (some modern day Eddie Gaedel may be playing for the Royals any day now). More impressively, the Halos also knocked off the Twins in two of three contests. Hero of the week was Jeff DaVanon, who went 8-for-16 with a walk. The Angels may not gain much on the A's, but every win brings them closer to the Yankees, who may plummet past them ere long. Keep hacking away in that coach Mickey Hatcher way, fellas, and watch out for falling objects. GRADE: A

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

Snapped a 12-game losing streak, losing six straight this week before winning the seventh. In this age of hit-first, think-second baseball, a team, even a bad one, that bats .221/.302/.302 over a full week is something special. When Bruce Chen is the savior of your pitching staff, you know it's time to re-evaluate your priorities. Then again, at least the farm has yielded some bodies of interest for the mound staff. On offense, the last homegrown Oriole to hit more than 30 home runs in a season was Cal Ripken, Jr. in 1991. Counting backwards, Jay Gibbons, a Rule 5 pick who never played in the O's farm system, hit 28 in 2002. If you don't count him, the next serious candidate for self-generated slugger is Chris Hoiles, but Hoiles was drafted by the Tigers and spent the first two years of his career in their system. Heck. There isn't anyone else. As Sarah Michelle Gellar crooned, "Give me something to sing about." GRADE: F

BOSTON RED SOX

It seems as if when the Red Sox are cold, Kevin Millar is hot, and when the Red Sox are hot, Millar is a penguin. Case in point: this week the Sox touched off one of the better stretch runs in team history (at least so far), but Millar chipped in just two hits in 22 at bats. Fortunately, Mark Bellhorn, underestimated everywhere but here, was around to pick up the slack. This is not to imply that he was the only one; there were others, but the real fun was on the pitching staff, which posted a 2.57 ERA and held the opposition to a 659 OPS. Everyone, no exceptions, pitched not well but excellently. A team with no weaknesses, and if the season ended today there is a good chance both the MVP and Cy Young awards would land here. GRADE: A+

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

The oldest story ever told, and also the longest: the Chi Americans posted an ERA of 6.41 ERA for the week, seeing Michael Jackson into unemployment. This has been a tough year for Michael Jacksons. One was released, one was indicted, and even the smooth radio talk how host Michael Jackson was out of work until very recently, rendered redundant by Rush Limbaugh, more's the pity… An utterly dysfunctional team, too good to lose 100 games, not good enough to win anything. The problems have been clear for a couple of years now, and none have been attacked with an aggressiveness that would signal that those in power had any understanding of what they were. As Michael Jackson recently said, "If ignorance was bliss, there would be more happy people in the world." We'll let you figure out which of the three said it. GRADE: D

CLEVELAND INDIANS

There has been a lot of talk about Coco Crisp as the team's leadoff man of the future, and as Chief O'Hara used to say, sure an' begorrah, his .444 batting average this week was pretty nifty. That his OBP was also .444, he had two caught stealings in three attempts, deletes the "essential" from "quintessential," which just leaves "quint," what you get when you take too many fertility drugs. This is, perhaps, a less desirable outcome than not having bothered to begin with, and since Crisp cannot be expected to hit .444, or even .344, on an ongoing basis, there is little doubt that colder weeks will find him in the category of the futile. Among other interesting questions to contemplate are whether this year's Casey Blake is a chronic or only temporary condition (.333/.448/.833 this week), and if Scott Elarton has truly been redeemed (2.40 ERA, 11 strikeouts in 15 innings). The answer in both cases is "probably not," but the real trick to applying Branch Rickey's "Better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late" maxim is knowing when. GRADE: C

DETROIT TIGERS

Allowed just 19 walks and three home runs in 59 innings on the week, striking out 52, despite which the team ERA was 4.58 as 70 safeties were allowed… Alan Trammell has done a fine job of mixing in spare outfielders when one of the top three--none of whom exactly deserve that designation--was unavailable, but more talent is needed for next season. Bobby Higginson is still signed for another year--one of the worst contracts of all time, and the Yankees weren't involved--so there may be some hesitancy to go out and spend, but it would be good to see this team make even a token effort to sign Carlos Beltran. They need a center fielder, they need legitimacy. It's a perfect fit. The elephant in the room: with Alex Sanchez about, they may not think they need a center fielder. Or legitimacy, for that matter. GRADE: D

KANSAS CITY ROYALS

Lost seven of eight on the week, the one exception coming in a game in which Brian Anderson allowed 11 baserunners in six innings but somehow the benighted Mariners just didn't connect the dots. The Royals had a truly spectacular pitching week, with an aggregate ERA of 7.68, 134 baserunners in 68 innings, and 17 home runs allowed. In a full season of 1450 innings that would come to 362 home runs, 2217 hits and 640 walks. The first two would be records by good margins. The Angels' 21 runs on August 25 are distorting the stats, but a staff of this quality is bound to have a day or two like that in a season. In spite of the letdown by the defense, several hitters had encouraging weeks, including David DeJesus, John Buck and Abraham Nunez. So much for the future: Angel Berroa's OBP for the week was .206. GRADE: F

MINNESOTA TWINS

Won just three of seven as facing Texas and Anaheim on the road proved too tough, something to keep in mind for the future… Justin "The Island of Doctor" Morneau hit like something out of H.G. Wells with on OBP/SLG of .435/.722, Johan Santana was 2-0, 1.20 ERA in 15 innings. It still burns to think that these players could have gotten started much earlier than they did. Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer wrote a great song about this kind of hesitancy. "Maybe it happens this way/ Maybe we really belong together/ But after all/ How little we know." GRADE: C-

NEW YORK YANKEES

Went 5-2 on the week but you wouldn't know it because with the exception of Mariano Rivera, the whole of the pitching staff was uniformly scary. Not Kansas City scary (see above), but just enough so that the playoffs seem more fraught with peril than an invitation to shoot pool with Joe Sheehan. Gollum! Gollum! This offense hit 15 home runs over its last seven games, but doing that against Johan Santana or Pedro Martinez or (crikey!) Jason Marquis, should the Yankees get that far, is unlikely, so you want to keep those games close. GRADE: B-

OAKLAND ATHLETICS

Went 7-0, outscored the opposition 44-26, including an 11-3 edge in home runs. You can't do much better than that without an insider tip… There were some duds on the week: Mark Kotsay batted .190 and slugged the same, and Bobby Crosby batted and slugged .100. On the other side of the ledger, Eric Chavez continued a remarkable season (injury aside), batting .448/.484/.931 with nine runs scored… Note Mark Mulder, 12 innings, nine walks, five strikeouts. That's a Cy Young candidate? GRADE: A+

SEATTLE MARINERS

Swept by Tampa Bay, then took four of five from Kansas City. To paraphrase Johnny Mercer, when the inept meet the indolent, something's gotta give. Here's hoping no one is going to be dumb enough to give Ichiro Suzuki an MVP for having more singles than an American cheese factory. GRADE: C-

TAMPA BAY DEVIL RAYS

Swept by Oakland after sweeping Seattle. A .500 week is still a virtue for this ballclub… Admit it, showtunes buffs: when you see Jorge Cantu's name in a box score, you channel Irving Berlin and start humming, "Anything you Cantu, I Cantu better." TEAMS does, and TEAMS far prefers Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, or the great Carmichael to Berlin among classic songwriters. Actually, Cantu did do better, with a 908 OPS week, but the best of the offense, improbably, was Geoff Blum, who batted .438/.591/.750 in a week probably stolen from Barry Bonds' locker. Blum, if you found it in a bottle, please, don't tell anyone. It's not in the best interests of baseball. GRADE; C+

TEXAS RANGERS

Scored 38 runs, allowed 36, and came out on the winning side, going 4-3. Texas has been unable to make a major move in recent weeks because the offense can't quite get ahead of the pitching, or vice versa. Given 14 games remaining with Oakland and Anaheim, it's unlikely to change. At least they'll have no one to blame but themselves should they fail to come back. GRADE: C-

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Went 2-5, were outscored 53-35 and lacked any real heroes but for Orlando Hudson, who had an Eddie Collins hitting week to go with his Eddie Collins fielding. As for the rest of the team, well… this here imported JSP Hoagy Carmichael box set has ten different versions of "Stardust," but none of "Small Fry." There's a lesson in there, somewhere. GRADE: D

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  Win Mercer,  The Who,  Year Of The Injury

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