Monday, July 12, 2010

A Night In Philly I'll Never Forget

It's been a long time, I know. A job will do that to your blogging skills. But I've been prompted to come back and write after what I witnessed this past weekend in Philadelphia. I watched the greatest single game I've ever seen in my life, a true testament to everything that makes baseball the best sport conjured up by human beings.

In just over three hours, I remembered everything that made me fall in love with the game 18 years ago this summer. Affirmed to me was that despite cries that baseball is dead and no longer matters in 2010, baseball is alive and well, will never die and will always matter. I'm going to tell you why.


My best friend Sam asked me to come with him to New Jersey and Philadelphia to pick up some furniture that belonged to a late friend of ours and his girlfriend. I agreed, and we decided to take in a Phillies game against Cincinnati as a result. This would be my fourth game at beautiful Citizens Bank Park on the south side of Philadelphia.

Citizens Bank Park is awesome. Like many of the new stadiums constructed in the last 20 years, it's a big ballpark that somehow feels incredibly intimate, and you're right on top of the action at all times. When you're there, you can tell the fans love the place, too.

Phillies fans are also great, they have a lot in common with Boston fans in terms of years of disappointment and dealing with unfortunate or bad situations when it comes to their teams. I've never been happier for a fanbase when the Phillies won the 2008 World Series because I knew just how much it meant to them. Now, like Red Sox fans, winning has made them want to win even more. You can feel that desire every time you walk into Citizens Bank Park.

Sam and I were pumped to find out Roy Halladay would be starting for Philadelphia Saturday night. We bought our tickets beforehand, knowing a Saturday night game in Philly with Halladay on the hill would sell out (we were right). But starting for the Reds was someone I'd never heard of, a rookie lefty named Travis Wood, who'd be making just his third big league start.

Wood was selected 60th in the 2005 MLB Draft, which I consider to be one of the best draft classes in history. To give you some perspective, Justin Upton, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Garza and Clay Buchholz were all taken in front of Wood, with Nolan Reimold, Chase Headley, Kevin Slowey, Yunel Escobar and Brett Gardner all going after him. So in such a deep class, going 60th was nothing to scoff at. But that didn't mean I knew anything about him before Saturday night's game.

We showed up a bit late thanks to traffic, and even though we were only about 20 minutes late we'd already missed the first two innings. It was National League ball at its finest. Little did we know what was in store as we made our way to the second row of section 416 in the upper deck along the first base line.

Halladay and Wood were both cruising. Halladay was laboring through some of his innings, scattering a few hits here and there, but typically getting out of jams thanks to his typically-awesome sinker.

Wood, on the other hand, was dominating a still-strong Phillies lineup that was missing Chase Utley and Placido Polanco. As a lefty with a deceptive delivery, he kept the Phils off balance with impeccable control which allowed him get ahead in counts and never fall behind. He got stronger as the game went along, at first spotting his fastball at 90-91 then working his way up to 92-93.

Wood was never overpowering Saturday night, seemingly getting all of his outs on fly balls. Shane Victorino hit a line shot down the third base line in the fourth but it was snared quickly by Miguel Cairo (who's somehow still alive) for the out. The Phils were making contact, but nothing found open spaces.

Wood retired nine in a row to start the game. Then 12. Then 15. That's when Sam and I started taking note that something very, very special was happening.

In historic terms, no-hitters and even perfect games have become somewhat common place in the last two years. There have been three official perfect games (including one by Halladay) in the MLB since the start of last season, and you'd have to be completely heartless to not count what Armando Galarraga did earlier this year as a perfect game, too. If you include Galarraga's performance, there have been six no-hitters or perfect games this year and we're just now at the All-Star break.

In most other years, I wouldn't get my hopes up about actually seeing a perfect game. Before last year, it had only happened 17 times since 1880, with 15 happening in the modern era beginning in 1900. The chances were so slim. I would have figured there'd be no way a rookie could possibly go on the road and toss a perfect game against the two-time N.L. champs. But in 2010, I had reason to believe.

Wood kept rolling. He struck out the immortal Cody Ransom to end the 5th, and then got Halladay to flail at strike three to finish the 6th. When that happened, I could feel a moment of unease in the stadium. Phillies fans were picking up on what was going on. A perfect game was being thrown against them, in their own park, by someone who might as well have been working behind the counter at Ishkabibbles on South Street.

Meanwhile, Halladay was also dealing, making the Reds hitters look bad with his Cy Young repertoire. Through seven innings he'd only allowed three hits and no one had crossed the plate for the Reds. We were looking at a situation where Wood could throw nine perfect innings...and still would need to keep going for a win.

Sam and I raced to buy programs so we'd have something to commemorate the game in case it was, in fact, historic. With my lifelong love affair with the history of baseball, this had potential to be one of the true highlights of my life. I told him that if, by chance, Wood were to throw nine perfect innings then finish the game with a perfect 10th after a hypothetical Reds go-ahead run, we'd probably have witnessed the single greatest pitching performance in the history of the game.

Upon conjuring this thought, my mind immediately centered on one man: Harvey Haddix. In case you don't know (and you probably don't), Haddix pitched what's considered the best single game in history on May 26, 1959. He threw nine perfect innings for the Pirates against the Braves, but his team couldn't score a run. So Haddix kept going, retiring another nine hitters before his third baseman committed an error. Later in the inning he gave up a walk-off double to Joe Adcock and lost the game 1-0 despite pitching 12 perfect innings.

Wood had a chance to do something similar to what Haddix did, but hopefully this time, he could walk away with the win. And I would be in the park to see it happen.

In the bottom of the 7th, Jimmy Rollins led off with a long flyout to center. Victorino popped out by the camera well on the first base line on an excellent play by Joey Votto (the game was pretty much devoid of excellent defensive plays except that one and the Cairo play, which is atypical for such a performance). Next up was Jayson Werth, the bearded, embattled right fielder who's experienced a sub-par season and has even been mentioned in trade rumors.

Werth worked the count. He was fouling off pitches, making Wood sweat out on the mound. He got to a three-ball count, which seemed to be the first time that had happened all game. It got to the payoff pitch. Three balls. Two strikes. Two outs. A chance to end the rookie's pursuit of perfection.

The crowd stood up and cheered louder than I could have imagined. The Phillies fans were willing Werth to get on base. They were cheering because there was a chance Werth might draw a walk. I had never seen anything like it, and I doubt I will again.

When Werth swung and missed for Wood's 21st consecutive retired batter, the stadium made a collective groan that was deafening. It was followed by complete silence as Wood paced his way back to the dugout. That's when I knew I was seeing the greatest game I'd ever witnessed. At that point, I honestly didn't care if Wood got the perfecto or not. I was seeing a great game. That's all that mattered.

Cairo doubled to start the top of the 8th and was successfully bunted over by Drew Stubbs. Next up was Ryan Hanigan, a no-name backup catcher who's primary job for the night was to call pitches for his rookie pitcher (and was doing a damn fine job at that). With the go-ahead run 90 feet away Hanigan staged a fantastic at bat against Halladay, but the ace got the novice swinging. Dusty Baker couldn't pinch-hit for Wood, and watched on as his pitcher killed the rally by striking out. I thought there was an outside chance Baker would call for the squeeze just to see if it would work, but it didn't happen.

The usher in our section was a jovial, portly fellow with a fine Philadelphia accent. I told him that Ryan Howard needed to take a swing at a first-pitch fastball to see if he could end Wood's dance with history, and possibly put the Phils ahead going into the ninth. Howard took my advice, but got under it too much and flew out to center. 22 down. Ben Francisco lined out to left. 23 down. Up next was Ransom, and about midway through the at-bat he turned on a pitch and launched it down the left field line, high and foul. It was easily the hardest-hit ball of the evening against Wood, but Ransom was just a bit out in front. The crowd gasped before realizing it was foul.

Ransom lifted a lazy pop fly to right that landed in the glove of Jay Bruce. 24 down. Only three to go. But he needed some help. Halladay wouldn't allow it. Votto laced a two-out single to left field, only to be stranded there when Jonny Gomes lined out to Werth.

Regardless of what happened in the bottom of the 9th, Wood wouldn't be getting his perfect game without the scenario I outlined a few paragraphs ago. It was a long shot, and I was pulling for him. It could happen. I could see the best performance ever.

Up first for Philly was Carlos Ruiz. If you've paid attention to the Phillies these past two postseasons, you'll know Ruiz is insanely clutch. He has a .905 OPS in the playoffs despite a pedestrian .726 OPS during the regular season. He hit 13 homers total in the '08 and '09 regular seasons but clubbed three dingers in those postseasons. I reminded Sam of this as Ruiz strode to the plate.

Ruiz got a pitch he liked, and drove it into the left-center field gap for a double. It was over. Wood's run with perfection died after 24 straight outs.

The crowd, understandably, went crazy. They didn't want to see a perfect game thrown against them. As a fan, I could understand their feeling. Mike Mussina lost a perfect game in 2001 with two outs in the 9th and two strikes on Carl Everett in Fenway Park. As much as I hated Everett, and that Red Sox team in general, at that time I had no desire to see the Yankees celebrate a perfect game on our turf. The Sox lost the game, but Everett saved us the embarrassment. The Phillies fans felt the same way.

Eventually their cheers for Ruiz turned into cheers for Wood, who was being consoled by teammates around the mound. I was standing and cheering the entire time, mostly for Wood. He came so close, as so many others had, but couldn't do it. I felt for him. But I honestly wasn't sad I missed out on seeing a perfect game.

I was too happy that I was witnessing an incredible game to be sad about anything.

Now, the question was, how long would this last? With the winning run at second base, would Wood be dealt a terrible loss? Or would these two clubs, deadlocked at no score, play deep into the night? Wilson Valdez gifted the Reds an out by popping up a bunt, causing the entire crowd to briefly lose their shit.

Hitting in Halladay's spot was Raul Ibanez, a pro's pro if there ever was one. He hit a mammoth shot to dead center that I could have sworn was gone when it left his bat, but landed on the warning track in Victorino's glove. Rollins popped out. Wood trudged back to the dugout, his night finished. His line: 9 IP, 0 R, 1 H, o BB, 8 K, 108 pitches.

Wood might have a long, productive career in the big leagues. Or he could flame out and amount to nothing. Either way, for the rest of his life, he'll wonder what might have been that night in Philly. Baseball is a cruel game. Wood pitches the game of his life, goes nine innings, but couldn't give his team a victory.

Brad Lidge relieved Halladay and struggled mightily in the 10th, but held the Reds scoreless. Nick Masset, and later Bill Bray, shut down the Phillies in the bottom half. Still no score. The crowd began to get uneasy. The previously washed-up Jose Contreras dominated the top of the 11th, and Bray came back out to start the bottom half.

After striking out Ransom, up came that man Ruiz. He launched a drive to the exact same spot he'd reached to break up the perfecto, ending up on second once again. Valdez was intentionally walked, and after Ross Gload popped up for the second out, Baker made a curious decision. He elected to lift Bray, a lefty, in favor of Logan Ondrusek, a righty, to switch Rollins to the left side.

Our jovial usher said this was a bad decision. I was inclined to agree. On the second pitch, Rollins smacked a single to right field. Ruiz trotted home, and the crowd went wild. Rollins was mobbed at first base.

With the Phillies jubilation, I made sure to watch the Reds dugout as well for their reaction. They were devastated. It was like they'd lost Game 7 of the World Series. Their heads were hung low. They knew they blew a chance at history. If they'd just been able to push a run across before, they could have made sure their rookie pitcher was remembered forever.

As I walked out of the stadium amongst the happy Phillies denizens, I knew July 10, 2010 was a night I'd remember forever.


I feel so fortunate to love the game of baseball as much as I do. I appreciated every second I was in the ballpark. I'll never, ever forget the feeling watching that game. As an outsider, not rooting for either team, I could fully appreciate what I was seeing.

Baseball is awesome.

Monday, March 8, 2010

2010 AL West Preview

To those waiting on the edge of their seats for this preview I apologize for the delay. I felt under the weather most of last week and I'm just starting to pick up the pieces now. So, without further ado, here's my AL West preview for 2010:

LOS ANGELES - Manager: Mike Scioscia
Emotions ran high for the Angels throughout the '09 season. On April 9, starter Nick Adenhart, 22, was killed by a drunk driver, and the entire team rallied around his spirit for the remainder of the season. They battled through injuries, inconsistency and a difficult division to win 97 games and yet another division title. After finally overcoming Boston in an ALDS sweep, they took New York to six games in the ALCS before bowing out. The winter was not kind to the Angels, leaving major questions about the perennial AL powerhouse.

Gone are three main cogs in Scioscia's machine: John Lackey to Boston, Chone Figgins to Seattle and Vlad Guerrero to Texas. GM Tony Reagins signed Joel Pineiro to shore up the rotation and Hideki Matsui to man Guerrero's old DH spot. Free agent reliever Fernando Rodney could challenge Brian Fuentes for the closer's role, and in a bit of addition-by-subtraction, Gary Matthews, Jr. is finally gone, although the club is paying almost all of the $23.5 million remaining on his insane contract.

Reagins elected to explore in-house options to replace Figgins, and the most obvious candidate is former top prospect Brandon Wood. Wood burst onto the scene by clubbing 43 homers at Hi-A Rancho Cucamonga in 2005, and while he's averaged 25 homers over the last four seasons in the minors, he's hit .192 in 236 career Major League plate appearances. But Wood just turned 25 and has nothing left to prove in the minors, so it's a calculated risk by the Angels to hand him to third base job. Should he struggle, the versatile Maicer Izturis could wrestle up some ABs.

Despite losing Lackey, the Angels could still have the West's best rotation. Jered Weaver finally pitched like an ace in '09 with a 3.75 ERA in 211 innings. Both Weaver and Joe Saunders won 16 games last year, and if fully healthy we know what Scott Kazmir can do. Pineiro will need to prove his NL success can translate to the AL, and Ervin Santana is certainly the wild card in all this. Santana skipped winter ball this year and by all accounts his arm is healed after his struggles in '09.

L.A. needs a strong rotation because I don't see their offense improving upon last year's .792 OPS. Bobby Abreu will return to the second spot in the order, but Erick Aybar is simply not as good a table-setter as Figgins. Kendry Morales can't be expected to perform as well as last year, and younger guys like Wood and Howie Kendrick are big question marks. Matsui and Torii Hunter are both a year older. There's a chance things could turn out in their favor after the turnover in personnel, but luck is going to play a part.

Perhaps the Angels we're used to no longer exist. This is still a solid all-around crew, and Scioscia's always been great at coaxing excellent performances from unusual characters. Over the course of the season, anything can and will happen, but the glory days in L.A. might be a thing of the past.

Prediciton: 2nd place.

OAKLAND - Manager: Bob Geren
Remember that time I picked the A's to win the '09 AL West title but they wound up losing 87 games and came in last place instead? Good, me neither. My bad predictions aside, the A's struggled out of the gate last year and traded away Matt Holliday and Orlando Cabrera and Oakland is about to enter yet another rebuilding year.

GM Billy Beane, who can't really be considered anything close to a "genius" after three straight below-mediocre seasons, used a similar philosophy to the Holliday and Cabrera acquisitions with his biggest move of this past winter. The perennially-infuriating Ben Sheets will begin the year in Oakland after missing all of '09 following elbow surgery. His $10 million contract for this year is mind-blowing, especially since it's Beane that gave it out. Either way, if he can prove to be healthy, Beane will flip Sheets to a contender for some prospects well before the deadline. They might be forced to pick up some of the tab, unfortunately.

Otherwise it was a nondescript winter for Oakland. The A's should have a stellar defensive outfield with the addition of Coco Crisp to speedsters Rajai Davis and Ryan Sweeney, which is obviously helpful at their cavernous home park. The moves, or lack of moves, left the A's with a team that will struggle on offense. They finished dead last in the AL with a .397 slugging percentage in '09, and besides Jack Cust, nobody's a power threat, or even close to one.

Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill both enjoyed solid campaigns as 21-year-old rookies in '09, so they could improve and form a good rotation if Sheets and Justin Duchscherer (who also missed all of '09) are healthy enough to contribute. Andrew Bailey, who earned Rookie of the Year honors after posting a 1.84 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in 83 1/3 innings, returns as closer.

But like I said, this team won't hit at all. In a division with three other good teams, the A's will be left in the cold. This is a prediction I don't think I'll get wrong this time around.

Prediction: 4th place.

SEATTLE - Manager: Don Wakamatsu
Has any team had more ink spilled over their winter exploits than the Mariners? GM Jack Zduriencik went from "MLB executive on the rise" to "bona fide cult hero" in the course of one offseason after a bevy of terrific moves. After winning just 61 times in '08, the M's improved 24 games in the standings and should be even better after their winter of excitement and improvement.

Not only did the signing of Chone Figgins to a team-friendly four-year, $36 million contract allow Wakamatsu to team up Ichiro Suzuki and Figgins atop the order, but it also hurt their division rival Angels in the process. Jack Z traded three mid-level prospects for one year of Cliff Lee, a coup unlike anything we've seen in baseball in a long time. He turned Carlos Silva (aka "Bavasi's Folly") into Milton Bradley, the potential impact bat this team needed.

Casey Kotchman will get another chance to prove himself as an everyday first baseman, and he came at the small cost of utilityman Bill Hall. Eric Byrnes was signed for the MLB minimum after his release from Arizona, and he'll provide an energetic presence off the bench. Also, the enigmatic Brandon Morrow was moved for the more effective Brandon League as Zduriencik shored up his bullpen.

However well Seattle did this offseason, there are still plenty of questions. Certainly, teaming Cliff Lee with Felix Hernandez gives Seattle one of the best top-of-the-rotation tandems in the game. But beyond those two, it'll be a bit of a crapshoot. Ian Snell will be given every opportunity to prove he belongs in an AL rotation, while Erik Bedard won't be back until May at the earliest. Ryan Rowland-Smith was excellent in 15 starts last year (3.74 ERA), so they need him to prove his worth over a full season. Still, with Lee and Hernandez up top, teams won't want to face Seattle in the playoffs.

There's some question over the starting catcher job, with unproven prospect Adam Moore and longtime backup Rob Johnson set to share duties. It's no doubt a risky proposition, and I wouldn't be shocked to see them address this via trade during the season. Elsewhere, David Aardsma went from journeyman reliever to closer extraordinaire, converting 38 of 42 save chances with a 2.52 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 71 1/3 innings. Is it too much to ask for Aardsma to duplicate that success, given his lack of consistency in the past? The M's will find out, with League, Mark Lowe and Sean White waiting in the wings should he falter.

You'll be hard pressed to find a better defensive crew in baseball this year than these Seattle Mariners. It appears Figgins will be moved to second base so Jose Lopez can get the hang of third, a masterstroke for Wakamatsu and his coaching staff. Plus defenders litter this squad, with Jack Wilson at short, Kotchman at first, Ichiro manning right field and Franklin Gutierrez, who's quickly established himself as the best defensive center fielder of his generation, patrolling the vast expanse of Safeco Field. The questions in the pitching staff might not matter considering how good the Mariners will be defensively.

Offensively, the M's should be alright, and they can mask deficiencies with strong pitching and defense. A lot hinges on Bradley, now on his eighth different team in 11 seasons. Ken Griffey, Jr. has taken Bradley under his wing, and at the very least, his on-base abilities will be more appreciated by the forward-thinking Seattle front office. I expect a huge year for Bradley.

In any case, this is a Mariners team that can beat you any of a variety of ways. It's amazing how far they've come in just two years, and if everything breaks right, this is a team set up for continued success.

Prediction: 1st place.

TEXAS - Manager: Ron Washington
Last season went about as expected in Arlington, with the Rangers scoring a ton of runs but unable to sustain solid pitching. They spent most of the year in the Wild Card hunt but faltered down the stretch, finishing with 87 wins. It's not outlandish to expect a similar result in '10 for Texas, and given how much Seattle improved themselves, that's probably not going to be good enough for a postseason berth.

GM Jon Daniels elected to sell high on Kevin Millwood, who posted a 3.67 ERA at age 34 last year with one season remaining on his contract. But all he could extract from Baltimore was former closer Chris Ray. In Millwood's place will be Rich Harden, signed to a sensible $6.5 million contract with an $11 million option for '11. If they can strike gold with Harden, the Rangers have the chance to sport a top-notch rotation rounded out by young guns Scott Feldman, Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland. There's also lots of risk attached to each of those guys, and the Ballpark is far from an easy place to procure outs.

The offense was largely untouched, and despite the loss of Marlon Byrd to the Cubs, the Rangers don't feel like they've lost much with rookie speedster Julio Borbon likely to supplant him in center and rack up 50 steals. Vlad Guerrero comes on board, and should benefit from hitting in Arlington. Chris Davis gets another crack at first base, but he's struck out in nearly a third of his MLB plate appearances and that must end or prospect Justin Smoak will steal his job. Ian Kinsler, Michael Young, Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz round out the relentless crew of hitters.

Get ready to hear the name Neftali Feliz a lot if you haven't already. To describe his pitching prowess as "electric" doesn't really tell the entire story. He throws 100 mph as consistently as Daniel Bard but when you see him pitch the ball simply explodes out of his hand.

A starter throughout his minor league career, he was converted to reliever and called up by Texas in August. From there, he struck out 39 and walked just eight in 31 innings, allowing just six runs and 13 hits. Even though the Rangers long-term plan is to use Feliz as a starter, he's still just 21 and he will likely start '10 in the bullpen. Before long, he'll be starting in the big leagues and blowing away the world. I can't wait to see it happen.

But the Rangers won't be in the postseason, yet again, in '10. Until they put together a starting rotation predicated on power arms, they won't be leap-frogging Seattle or Anaheim for playoff contention. Feliz is a good start, but it's not enough.

Prediction: 3rd place.

Monday, February 22, 2010

2010 AL Central Preview

We're on to the AL Central today. I put off doing this because of one major transaction that was finally completed last weekend. You probably know what that is, but I'll get to it shortly. Without further ado:

CHICAGO - Manager: Ozzie Guillen
The question I always wonder when it comes to ChiSox GM Kenny Williams: Does he ever actually have a plan, or does he just suck at sticking to one? No team's vacillated between buyer and seller more than the White Sox over the last few seasons.

For example, last year they traded away Jim Thome and Jose Contreras yet still assumed the massive contracts of Jake Peavy and Alex Rios. It made no sense for '09, but after some moves this winter, it at least appears like the White Sox will be going for the division crown in '10.

Young infielders Josh Fields and Chris Getz were traded to KC for perennial disappointment Mark Teahen, who'll be the starting third baseman even though he's a novice defensively. That move does, however, allow Gordon Beckham, one of the most heralded rookies in the AL last year, to shift from third to his more natural position at second.

Williams did the Dodgers a huge favor and took Juan Pierre off their hands. Pierre will start in center field, and will only cost the White Sox $4.25 million each of the next two years. That's not a bad deal for an excellent defender who's super durable and had a .365 OBP last year. However, I'll be shocked if he's got more than 10 extra-base hits at the All-Star break.

Omar Vizquel will back up Alexei Ramirez at shortstop, and Andruw Jones ought to get most of the starts at DH. Williams took a low-risk chance on Freddy Garcia, who anchored the '05 World Championship staff but has been wracked by shoulder injuries each of the last three seasons.

The strength of the White Sox is their rotation, led by a finally-healthy Peavy and the ultra-reliable Mark Buehrle. Gavin Floyd and John Danks are also on the cusp of entering the top tier of AL starters. Bobby Jenks is the incumbent closer, but he could be supplanted by J.J. Putz, Matt Thornton or Tony Pena if Guillen once again loses patience with the hefty fireballer.

Many of the position players for Chicago are aged or injury prone, so they'll need some luck to get through the year with everyone healthy. Williams traded away most of the team's top prospects in the Peavy deal, so don't expect reinforcements. The White Sox will be good, unless Williams changes track again and deals away all the veterans. It's hard to tell right now.

Prediction: 2nd place.

CLEVELAND - Manager: Manny Acta
I'm pissed about what's happened to the Indians, and I'm no Indians fan. In October 2007, Cleveland was on top of the baseball world. They were up 3-1 in the ALCS against Boston with a diverse and fun team, set to go to the World Series and bring their city its first title since 1948. But then Josh Beckett dominated Game 5, and two games later the Indians went home empty.

After an uneven '08 season that saw CC Sabathia moved to Milwaukee, the wheels completely came off in '09. GM Mark Shapiro's "Firesale '09!" started in earnest. Cliff Lee was the second straight reigning Cy Young winner traded by Cleveland, team leader Victor Martinez waved goodbye, and Rafael Betancourt, Ryan Garko, Mark DeRosa and Ben Francisco were also cast away. The ragtag remains won just 65 games for Cleveland, and this was somehow deemed to be the fault of manager Eric Wedge, who was throwing out a Double-A lineup most of the last two months of the season.

Wedge was shitcanned with one series against Boston still remaining on the schedule, but stayed through as a lame duck. Enter Manny Acta, who's supposedly a great baseball mind even though his 158-252 record in two and a half seasons in Washington doesn't exactly scream "genius." All Shapiro added this winter was washed-up backup catcher Mark Redmond and mashing first baseman Russell Branyan, who hit 31 bombs last year but struck out 149 times in 505 plate appearances. So Acta will have about as much to work with as Wedge.

Despite the best efforts of Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta, Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera, this team is going to suck. They might be the only team in the AL to lose 100 games this year. Travis Hafner is done. Done. And he's still owed $40.25 million. Jake Westbrook is the only starting pitcher with a chance to be slightly below average. If Kerry Wood is actually decent, he'll surely be dealt by the deadline.

If all that wasn't bad enough for Cleveland fans, there's this recent bit of incongruous news: Shapiro will be promoted to team president after the '10 season, with longtime assistant Chris Antonetti ready to step into the GM seat. Clearly, anyone who takes a team within one win of the World Series to 97 losses (with potential for even more) in just over two years is certainly worthy of a promotion.

Prediction: 5th place.

DETROIT - Manager: Jim Leyland
I picked the Tigers to come in dead last in '09, and they were in the lead in the AL Central for most of the year before losing the exciting Game 163 against Minnesota. There has to be plenty of residual bitterness about how '09 ended as Leyland's club whimpered through the final few weeks and allowed a surging Twins team to get a playoff spot everyone had penciled Detroit into for most of the season.

GM Dave Dombrowski followed that up with a pretty controversial offseason, highlighted by the three-team deal that sent Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson away for youngsters Austin Jackson, Phil Coke and Max Scherzer. Granderson, a fan favorite and an all-around fantastic guy, was moved because the Tigers presumably didn't want to pay the $25.75 million remaining on his deal due to questions about his range and putrid performance against lefties (.484 OPS in '09). With over $50 million tied up in dead money for Dontrelle Willis, Nate Robertson, Jeremy Bonderman and Magglio Ordonez this year, it made some sense to cut down on payroll while getting some useful pieces back.

But after adding Jose Valverde for $14 million over two years, and now Johnny Damon for one year at $8 million, I think Tigers fans have every right to question why Granderson and Jackson were traded away if money isn't really a concern. Valverde is something of a luxury and they were obviously prepared to go into '10 without Damon on their roster. Granderson was only owed $3.5 million for this year. I'm just not sure what to make of all the moves, or if they Tigers will be better this season because of them.

Justin Verlander, armed with a new five-year contract extension, will anchor the staff. Hopefully the reins will be eased and Rick Porcello can get close to 180 innings in '10. With the addition of Scherzer, the Tigers have a solid foundation for the top of their rotation for years to come. It's the bottom two spots, likely to be manned by some combination of the aforementioned "dead money" pitchers, that will almost certainly hold the Tigers back.

It'll be interesting to see what kind of season Miguel Cabrera can muster after a winter of sobriety. He let down so many people with his behavior at the end of last season, and he's made a concerted effort to turn his life around through substance abuse rehab. By all accounts, he's feeling great and could even improve on last year's .942 OPS, which would be bad news for the rest of baseball.

But I don't think this is going to be a great year for the Tigers. They're likely to start two rookies at the key positions of center field (Jackson) and second base (Scott Sizemore), as well as all-glove no-bat shortstop Adam Everett. If they can't get any production out of the back end of the rotation, this team will struggle to reach .500.

Prediction: 3rd place.

KANSAS CITY - Manager: Trey Hillman
Sure, being a Royals fan must suck. But they can express a semi-optimistic sentiment coming into '10, which is something they probably haven't been able to do much recently: "Well, at least we have Greinke and Soria." It's a start, right? Unfortunately, GM Dayton Moore did little to improve the team this offseason and KC's headed for the basement once again.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that Kansas City should have been in the sweepstakes for Damon, but instead they signed three offensive black holes (Brian N. Anderson, career OPS .660, Scott Podsedik, .720, and Rick Ankiel, .763) to compete for two open outfield spots. That's pretty much par for the course for the Baird/Moore Era Royals.

In one of the more comedic signings of the offseason, Moore brought in Jason Kendall to catch, the same Jason Kendall who hit 30 homers in over 5,500 plate appearances during the Aughts (10 of those homers came in 2000). Such production was rewarded with a two-year deal from KC, prompting a hilarious stream of mocking tweets led by Keith Law after the deal was announced. One that stood out: "Three out of three Molinas agree Jason Kendall is the easiest catcher to run on in baseball."

Alas, they do have Zack Greinke, the reigning AL Cy Young champ who at 26 is just hitting his prime. It's a joy to watch him mix up his pitches and make the opposition look silly. He's been dubbed a harder-throwing Maddux, and it's hard to disagree with such an assessment. Greinke is under contract through '12, or until Moore trades him for 40 cents on the dollar. You can pretty much bet on that latter scenario coming first. Joakim Soria is quietly one of the best closers in the AL, with a career 2.09 ERA, but some arm issues might hold him back.

The Royals aren't particularly interesting. Or good. Or competent. Or worth watching. But at least they've got Greinke and Soria.

Prediction: 4th place.

MINNESOTA - Manager: Ron Gardenhire
While observers have been tripping over themselves to declare the Mariners the franchise with the best offseason, I think the Twins deserve plenty of praise themselves. It's hard to say Minnesota, who won the '09 AL Central title after a mad charge despite missing Justin Morneau due to a back injury, didn't improve themselves immensely through some excellent trades and free agent signings. Plus, they might not be done.

Carlos Gomez was shipped to Milwaukee for J.J. Hardy, one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball coming off a poor season at the plate but hit 24 homers in '08. With the emergence of Denard Span, Gomez was rendered somewhat irrelevant, so for GM Bill Smith to turn him into a player like Hardy is remarkable. Shortstop has been something of a difficult position for the Twins to fill the last few years, so Hardy will be a welcome change.

The middle infield makeover was completed when Orlando Hudson was signed for this year at $5 million, an extremely modest sum for a still-excellent defender at second with a career .348 OBP. He's also likely to replace that other Orlando (Cabrera) as vocal team leader and solid clubhouse veteran. Jim Thome was signed for the even more modest sum of $1.5 million guaranteed, giving Ron Gardenhire the option of scaring the piss out of weakling righty relievers late in close games.

Smith signed Carl Pavano, a solid piece who contributed much to the Twins' surge, to a one-year deal as well. Like always, the Twins rotation is mostly homegrown talent, including ace Scott Baker plus Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey. But Francisco Liriano might be the key to the Twins' entire season. We're still yet to see any consistency from Liriano since his Tommy John surgery nearly four years ago, and his fastball velocity has never really come back. He might open '10 in the bullpen, but if he shows some promise I'm sure Gardenhire won't hesitate to start him.

Joe Nathan needs to put his October difficulties behind him, but at 35 he hasn't showed many signs of slowing down and is still one of the best closers in the game. The bullpen, with Matt Guerrier, Jose Mijares, Jon Rauch and the return of Pat Neshek, will be a significant strength.

But as the Twins open their new roofless stadium, the focus will be on reigning AL MVP and hometown hero Joe Mauer. The impending free agent has been involved in prolonged negotiations with Twins management about a contract extension, and it looks like something will get done soon. I'm not sure how much money Mauer will get, but the guy who swatted 191 hits in just 138 games last year should be paid handsomely. Only Pujols is a better player right now.

With Mauer leading the way, the Twins will reap the benefits of a great winter and win the AL Central in the first year of Target Field. Minnesota's hoping the tandem of Mauer, the Twins, their new park and, most importantly, winning, will last well beyond '10.

Prediction: 1st place.

Monday, February 15, 2010

2010 AL East Preview

Just like that, it's almost time.

After a winter of down contracts (and many Scott Boras clients still looking for jobs), players, managers, coaches and fans are packing their vehicles and making that annual trek to Florida or Arizona to begin a new season.

With that comes my annual AL preview. I start, as always, with the AL East sans Boston, who I'll preview in depth just before the regular season commences.

BALTIMORE - Manager: Dave Tremblay
Another year, another miserable season to be a Orioles fan. Baltimore rounded out the decade with its 12th consecutive losing season, losing 98 games, finishing dead-last in AL ERA, hits, runs and homers while striking out more than any AL offense. Lots of rookies were broken in, while several veterans played out the string or were eventually traded.

It's been a difficult start for O's GM Andy MacPhail, but based on some excellent rebuilding moves the last few years, and a couple prime moves this winter, perhaps the worst days for Baltimore are in the past. MacPhail signed Garrett Atkins and Miguel Tejada to one-year contracts totaling $10 million to shore up the corner infield spots. He also traded overrated closer Chris Ray to the Rangers for Kevin Millwood, and signed Mike Gonzalez to be the new ninth inning fireman.

MacPhail was able to make these moves while actually keeping the club's payroll in the $80 million range, roughly that same as it was in '09. That's at least partially because the team's going to rely on plenty of young, cheap talent, many of whom got their feet wet during the '09 campaign.

It all begins with Matt Wieters, the catcher with a power bat who showed plenty of potential after making his big league debut last May. The kid gloves come off this year for Wieters, giving him ample opportunity to grow into a star at age 24. Young outfield guns Adam Jones and Nolan Reimold are set to be firmly entrenched in center and left field, respectively, for years to come. Jones and Reimold combined for only 223 games last year due to injury, so expect them to fill out one baseball's best young outfields alongside super-duper star Nick Markakis.

The starting rotation behind Millwood and Jeremy Guthrie will be three kids with miles of upside. Brad Bergesen, 24, was rather impressive in 19 starts with the O's last season, sporting a 3.43 ERA and 1.28 WHIP in 123 innings. He should be joined by 23-year-old Brian Matusz and 21-year-old Chris Tillman, both terrific pitching prospects Baltimore's been so lacking the last decade or so.

The Orioles should actually be fun to watch this year, especially if the kids round into form. After I spent much of last fall watching "The Wire," the city of Baltimore has a soft spot in my heart. As if things weren't crappy enough in that city, they've had to be subjected to such crappy baseball too. Here's hoping the new decade is kinder to Baltimore, both on the field and off.

Prediction: 4th place.

NEW YORK - Manager: Joe Girardi
Everything that could have gone right for the Yankees last year went right. They had the perfect team for their new wiffle ball stadium, combining power hitting with power pitching, harnessing one of the best offenses in recent baseball history while winning in the playoffs with just three starters and a manager who often seemed over-matched.

GM Brian Cashman responded to winning the '09 World Series with a strong but curious offseason. (I realize I just inadvertently made an Altoids reference. Let's move on.) He solidified their rotation by dealing away Melky Cabrera for strikeout machine Javier Vazquez, and replaced Cabrera with Curtis Granderson in a three-team deal that saw Phil Coke and Austin Jackson wave goodbye. He also signed Nick Johnson to be the club's primary DH, and brought in Randy Winn to shore up the outfield.

But Cashman held firm to a seemingly arbitrary $200 million payroll limit and refused to give Johnny Damon, a proven commodity and fan favorite, anything close to his asking price. Sure, the initial asking price (three years, $39 million) was insane, but the Yankees could have made more of a serious effort to keep him. His swing is tailor-made for Yankee Stadium. The Yankees knew this, but still shooed Damon out the door like some kind of rodent.

While I think most Yankee fans realized World Series MVP Hideki Matsui wasn't coming back, the way the Damon negotiations went down upset millions who saw Damon as the consummate pro and someone who helped change the clubhouse culture. Now he's going to be replaced by a Winn/Brett Gardner platoon? With all the Red Sox potential issues on offense, they don't have to worry about anything like a Winn/Gardner platoon, not even mentioning how abhorrently awful Granderson is against lefties (.484 OPS last year, and that's not a typo). They should have worked something out with Damon and left Johnson to his own devices. The Yankees will be weaker as a result.

Having said all that, the Yankees are still a juggernaut. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are both entering contract years, Alex Rodriguez is finally comfortable, and Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett are the new generation of Yankees heroes. There are some questions about outfield defense, rotation depth, and of course the annual "What the Hell are We Going to Do With Joba?" debate.

While I can't pick them to win the division solely based on the Red Sox-shaped helices in my DNA, the Yankees are definitely going to the playoffs, and will definitely be one of the three best teams in baseball this year. Now pardon me while I puke my guts out.

Prediction: 2nd place.

TAMPA BAY - Manger: Joe Maddon
A year after making it to the Fall Classic, the Rays took a step back, winning just 84 games while experiencing inconsistency and injury throughout the year. It wasn't hard to see this coming, what with the luck the '08 Rays had with their young pitching staff. If the Rays don't get off to a hot start in '10, some of their big pieces could be shipped away.

Let's start with the positives: the Rays finally got their hands on a bona fide closer in flamethrower Rafael Soriano, who was offered arbitration by the Braves and incredulously accepted it even though they'd already signed Billy Wagner. GM Andrew Friedman took advantage, sending peanuts to the hamstrung Braves for Soriano. The move allows J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler to fall back into their more natural roles as setup men. The Rays had a whopping nine relievers earn saves in '09.

Friedman dealt away Akinori Iwamura after Ben Zobrist claimed second base for himself in '09. Zobrist had one of the most unexpected breakout seasons in recent memory, posting a ridiculous .948 OPS and playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at both second base and center field. Kelly Shoppach was brought in to compete with Dioner Navarro for the starting catching gig.

Otherwise, it was a relatively quiet offseason for Tampa, as they've experienced a significant money crunch. They will still have one of the finest young rotations in the game, with James Shields and Matt Garza leading the way in front of Jeff Niemann, David Price and Wade Davis. With another year under their belts, they could be poised to put together another season like '08.

They need Pat Burrell to prove he's not washed up, and B.J. Upton to play up to his capabilities. Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena are in walk years, and they could be deadline bait unless the Rays are leading the pack. Of course, they've still got Evan Longoria, a true superstar and one of the game's best all-round players.

I don't think Tampa's got enough to crack the postseason this year. It would be sad to see them go into seller mode just two years removed from a World Series berth, so hopefully they won't fall too far behind during the year.

Prediction: 3rd place.

TORONTO - Manager: Cito Gaston
Rejoice, Jays fans! You're finally out from under the terrible wrath of J.P. Ricciardi! Now all you have to do is go through years of rebuilding and you'll be fine!

OK, maybe things aren't so rosy for the Jays, but with Ricciardi finally out of the picture, and Alex Anthopoulos clearly wanting a fresh start, at least Toronto is headed on the right path. Anthopoulos finally consummated a deal for Roy Halladay, bringing in prospects Kyle Drabek, third baseman Brett Wallace and catcher Travis D'Arnaud for their pending free agent ace.

It's going to be odd watching the Jays without Halladay. For so many years, he was their identity. If your club had a series with the Jays coming up, you probably felt good, but you needed to know if Halladay was going to make an appearance. Hopefully you'd win the other two and take the series that way. Without Halladay, nothing about this team is scary. Or interesting.

Aaron Hill smashed 36 bombs last year and is no doubt one of the best second basemen going right now. Adam Lind added 35 homers of his own, and Travis Snider should be developing some more pop this time around. Otherwise, the only thing really of note about the Jays' offense is this number: 107. That's how many millions of dollars they still owe Vernon Wells, who's sporting a .743 OPS since signing his mega-extension in December '06.

On the pitching front, their rotation is highlighted by underachievers with unpronounceable Polish names. In the bullpen, the savage battle for the closer spot between titans Kevin Gregg and Jason Frasor is about to ensue.

So fear not, Jays fans. You're only a decade away from relevance.

Prediction: 5th place.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Attention Wal-Mart Shoppers...

The clock is ticking ever closer to the 2010 season, with pitchers and catchers set to report to Florida and Arizona in about three weeks. But like last winter, there are plenty of bargains for teams yet to fill out their big league rosters. In fact, you could probably field a halfway decent club using the cream of the remaining crop.

Take, for instance, Jim Thome. The Twins signed the lefty DH for a song, committing just $1.5 million plus incentives for 2010. Thome can't play the field anymore but his .881 OPS against RH pitching in '09 will surely come in handy in the close AL Central. Adding Thome's pop could wind up being the difference at minimal cost to Minnesota.

The difference makers are still out there. Let's take a look at a few of them:

Hank Blalock: The lefty-hitting corner infielder will play somewhere other than Arlington for the first time in his career this year. At 29, Blalock may no longer be serviceable in the field but can still hit, knocking 25 homers in 462 plate appearances in '09. The problem: Blalock struck out 108 times compared to 26 walks with a career-low .277 OBP. The Orioles had been linked to Blalock throughout the winter before they signed Miguel Tejada last week. Some team willing to take a chance on his power can probably get Blalock for a Thome-like contract.

Ryan Garko: After trading for Garko for the stretch run last summer, it seemed odd for the Giants to non-tender him, considering he's only 29 and hit 21 homers in '07. But then I looked at his splits: his '09 OPS against lefties (.870) was over 150 points higher than against righties (.713). Garko offers some versatility with the ability to play corner outfield in addition to first base (although his catching days are far behind him). The Rangers have emerged as a possible suitor, but it's hard to imagine them blocking Justin Smoak in any fashion. Garko might make sense for an NL team in need of a righty power bench bat.

Orlando Hudson: Why can't the O-Dog get any love? Last winter he was forced to wait until February 22 to sign a one-year deal with the Dodgers, and it's looking like he might have to wait nearly as long this time. It's especially inexplicable this time around because Hudson's coming off an All-Star, Gold Glove season during which he played 149 games. Rest assured that if the Mets weren't tied down to Luis Castillo's contract he'd be gearing up for a season in Queens right now. Unfortunately, it looks like his last best option is Washington. Poor O-Dog!

Felipe Lopez: A solid pickup for the Brewers in July, Lopez made the transition to full-time second baseman in '09 with strong results (7.6 UZR/150). In addition, he was fifth in the NL in hits (187) and ninth in average (.310). His .810 OPS was the second-highest of his career (.838 in '05, his best season). Yet as February nears, he doesn't have a job. If Hudson doesn't sign with the Nats, a return engagement there for Lopez appears likely. Or he could go back to the Cardinals, where he spent half the '08 season. Whichever team gets him will likely be tickled pink to have him at a discount.

Orlando Cabrera: Perhaps Cabrera is best suited for the bench at this point in his career. Sure, he's undeniably durable, playing in under 153 games just once since '01, but Cabrera's .705 OPS the last two years isn't exactly spectacular and he took a huge step back in the field in '09 with a -13.7 UZR/150. Regardless, your team is likely to be better for having Cabrera than not because of his ebullient personality and tremendous leadership qualities. Since joining the Red Sox in '04, his teams have only missed the playoffs once, and that was an 89-win '06 Angels crew. The Reds really like Cabrera, so for a couple million he might have a new home there.

Joe Crede: If not for three back surgeries the last three years, Crede would likely be one of the top-paid third basemen in baseball. He's long been one of the most defensively under-appreciated players at his position, and still hit 32 homers between two half-seasons in '09-'10. The experiment didn't really work out last year in Minnesota, and with the Orioles plugging their corner infield holes, the options are limited for Crede. The Cardinals might need a third baseman, but money is an issue for them. If he's willing to play for less than his '09 $2.5 million salary, something might get done there.

Johnny Damon: The most perplexing of all the names on this list. Damon put up stellar '09 numbers, albeit ones aided by playing his home games in a park tailor-made for lefty hitters. Still, 24 homers, 107 runs and an .854 OPS are nothing to scoff at. His defense dropped off in '09, but he's by no means a liability out there yet. So is it really possible Damon, who hoped to continue earning $13 million per year, might have to settle for as little as $2 million for '10? The A's appear to have the upper hand right now. If you ask me, the team that really screwed the pooch when it comes to Damon is Kansas City. If they hadn't stupidly thrown money at Scott Podsednik and Rick Ankiel, Damon, a Kansas native, would have been a perfect fit. You mean to tell me the fans wouldn't have loved to see Damon back? Who cares if he sucks in the outfield; are the Royals going anywhere? A real missed opportunity.

Jermaine Dye: It's hard to find a worse defensive player in baseball than Dye, at least if advanced metrics tell us anything. His UZR/150 each of the last four years: -21.5, -21.5, -21.4 and -24.5. This winter of heightened emphasis on defense was a horrible time for Dye to hit the free agent market, and that's why he finds himself jobless. It also doesn't help that his offense has fluctuated significantly over the last few seasons. The number of teams interested in Dye continues to dwindle. He can still hit, so at the very least a team will be happy securing his power for their bench.

The pitching crop is more thin at this point, with Erik Bedard the only remaining potential top-tier starter. If healthy, Noah Lowry, Mark Mulder and Jarrod Washburn could also pay significant dividends for frugal teams.

It will be interesting to see if any of these players I've highlighted wind up pushing a team over the threshold into the playoffs, or even contribute to a World Champion.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Tackling the Sox Offseason

The Red Sox always do a fantastic job stealing headlines away from Boston teams that actually play in the winter. While the Patriots prepare for a playoff tilt with Baltimore, the Celtics keep winning despite missing come key pieces, and the Bruins experience a hangover from the glorious Winter Classic, the myriad moves Theo Epstein and company have made to reshape the Red Sox for a new decade are on seemingly everyone's lips.

I've liked, to varying degrees, every move the club has made this winter. I'll go in depth shortly, but they've added a top-of-the-rotation starter, vastly improved team defense (especially on the left side of the infield), shored up the bench with useful pieces who can play everyday if needed, gotten younger, assured themselves of four picks between the 20th and 53rd choices in the June draft, signed only one player to a guaranteed deal longer than two years and did not dip into the farm system to address any of these needs. They set a goal to improve run prevention and defensive efficiency, and they've followed through on it. During a winter with a depressed free agent market, the Red Sox have done extremely well.

Apparently, lots of people don't share with my feelings. On Wednesday, I drove down to Boston for a Passion Pit concert and listened in to Mike Felger and Tony Massarotti's radio show on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Maybe it's because I'm stuck in my little cocoon in northern New Hampshire, but I had no idea the Red Sox offseason has been so loathed by so many.

I wasn't necessarily surprised by the sour feelings of the hosts; Felger was melting down while Massarotti was a bit more measured in his distaste. That's surprising because it's been more than a year and Mazz still isn't over the failed Mark Teixeira signing, and he couldn't resist tossing in a barb on that while I was listening.

Felger accused the Red Sox of not being truthful about their offseason mission (which is hilarious coming from a guy who's primarily covered the Patriots, surely the most forthcoming of organizations in sports) and being unwilling to spend big money on the bat he feels this offense sorely needs.

He also made the following claim, which would be more astonishing if it wasn't so hysterical: the Red Sox need give out more risky, long-term, bad contracts (yes, he actually endorsed "bad contracts") because they have the financial muscle to do so. I want to analyze this statement in more detail, but I'm afraid it would cause the bursting of multiple blood vessels in my brain. Instead, I'll just say that same philosophy has worked out beautifully for the Mets and leave it at that.

The callers for the Felgie and Mazz "Let's Rip Everyone Whether They Deserve It or Not Power Hour sponsored by Schlitz Beer" were mostly in agreement with the hosts, bitching as usual about the high cost of a potentially disappointing team, its affect on ticket prices, the lack of the one big hitter, how they haven't addressed a bullpen that's now awful because they blew one game in the playoffs, and plenty of other stuff I've blocked out of my memory.

Am I missing something here? All the sound and fury about not spending big money signifies nothing to me. Every argument against the spendthrift Sox of '09-'10 leaves out the John Lackey signing, and I don't recall a time when $82.5 million wasn't big money in baseball.

Lackey coming aboard caught me by surprise, and I think it caught the Red Sox by surprise too. He's had some injuries and some trouble in Fenway Park, but at worst he's an ultra-competitive no. 2 starter who wants to ball in a big game. The Red Sox signed this winter's best free agent starter to a market value contract and solidified a rotation that should rank amongst the finest in baseball in '10. Lackey also protects the Red Sox in case Josh Beckett flees via free agency after this season.

To me, the Lackey signing was unassailable, except that five years may wind up being excessive for a 31-year-old with an injury history. (The Sox even protected themselves here with an unprecedented "conditional" league-minimum option for 2015 if he misses "significant time" due to a preexisting elbow injury. Epstein is always thinking. He's like Omar Minaya in reverse.)

Announced at the same time was the Mike Cameron signing. Cameron's been a premiere defensive outfielder his entire career, and Epstein & Co. decided Lackey would be their "big money" move and went on the cheap to replace Jason Bay. Although no one could consider Cameron offensively superior to Bay right now, the not-overwhelming difference in their OPS over the last three years (Bay: .855, Cameron: .786) tells me Cameron's excellent defense will help make up the difference.

I would not have minded the Red Sox keeping Bay. Unfortunately, all of his value comes from his bat, as he's been abhorrently awful statistically in left field with UZR/150s of -11.4, -18.2 and -11.2 in the last three years. Bay's deal with the Mets should keep him in Queens for five seasons, but after three I'll be shocked if he's still patrolling the cavernous left field terrain of Citi Field.

It took a couple weeks for this to be confirmed by the team, but Cameron will be the Red Sox center fielder in '10 with Jacoby Ellsbury shifting to left field. It won't be a permanent move for Ellsbury's career, and his bizarre -18.3 UZR/150 in '09 isn't indicative of the kind of defender he'll become. But with Cameron's defensive toolkit (Felgie made fun of Francona's assertion that Cameron is better suited to play center because of his "long strides," as if that's somehow worthy of ridicule), it didn't make much sense to stick him in left field. Now the Red Sox can sport a starting outfield with three center fielders.

Also, I can't take anyone seriously who claims Ellsbury's offensive game doesn't work for a left fielder. What the hell difference does it make? Because he's playing left that means he can't be a leadoff hitter? Ever hear of this guy? Yikes.

Already armed with the best free agent shortstop available on the market in Marco Scutaro, Epstein set his sights on the best third baseman available. He got his man, Adrian Beltre, whose signing became official Thursday evening. The contract for Beltre is a dandy, one of the best by any team this offseason.

Scott Boras went into the winter expecting a four-year contract for Beltre north of $10 million annually. It didn't happen, especially since his client missed over 50 games due to injury last year and posted a .683 OPS when he was playing. Still, a few teams came in with multi-year offers, including the A's.

The deal he wound up signing for Beltre with Boston was fantastic for so many reasons. First, the one-year commitment at $9 million is exactly the kind of move the Red Sox love. The $5 million player option for '11 is low enough that Beltre will probably decline it. But, there's an escalator clause that bumps the option up to $10 million if he reaches 640 PAs this year. That might be enough to keep him, and if Beltre hits that PA plateau, the Sox will probably want him back anyway.

When healthy, Beltre has proven himself to be one of the best defensive players of his generation. Check out this gushing Dave Cameron post on FanGraphs about him, and this YouTube clip that somehow hasn't been taken down yet. (UPDATE: It's gone.) Seems hard to say this is a bad move, no? Minimal commitment, spectacular defense, potential for strong offense in Fenway; I'm not seeing the downside.

Mike Lowell is still on the Red Sox for now, but he clearly represents what the team used to be. Despite the trade of Casey Kotchman to the Mariners for Bill Hall, the Sox will continue to try and unload Lowell before the season starts. I expect that to happen, as long as Lowell can prove himself healthy in spring training. Perhaps a team will take a chance beforehand.

Hall provides a versatile backup on the left side of the infield and could be the fifth outfielder behind Jeremy Hermida, too. The Sox are only on the hook for $1.25 million of his $8.4 million '10 salary. He hit 35 homers four years ago and Epstein's always liked him. Hall is one of those guys I always expected would end up in Boston, and here he is.

So outside of finding a new home for Lowell, it appears the Red Sox will go into the season with what they have. The starting lineup will be comprised of Ellsbury, Pedroia, Martinez, Youkilis, Ortiz, Drew, Beltre, Cameron and Scutaro. Only Beltre had an OBP in '09 lower than the AL average of .331. Everyone can hit double-digit homers, but no one is likely to hit much more than 30. Will everything work out? Maybe not. But to assume in January this team will stink offensively is at the very least shortsighted.

If the offense does lag, the farm system is still well-stocked because of these moves and they could add that impact bat during the season when the cost won't be so high. But this wasn't the right offseason to add tons of offense. Next winter will be different. With over $50 million coming off the books, and Epstein not showing much effort to keep Martinez from hitting free agency, I firmly believe Boston will be going hard for Joe Mauer next winter.

How's that for an impact bat?

But the Red Sox have done the right thing this winter. Instead of tying themselves down in a bad market to those "bad contracts" Mike Felger so craves, they're trying to stay ahead of the curve by taking the undervalued run prevention route.

Go back and watch that Beltre video again. On nearly every play, Beltre kept those scorchers or dribblers from becoming base hits that could eventually become runs. This isn't rocket science, folks. It's how you play winning baseball, and that's what the Red Sox are going for.

Maybe they aren't doing what many Sox fans want. But no one will remember the bickering of these winter headlines if the Red Sox are holding the hardware in October.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Backdoor Slider Managers & Teams of the Decade

We've already covered the best position players and pitchers of the Aughts. Today, we're going to run down the finest managers and teams the last ten seasons have offered. I don't have any specific criteria for my managers list. For the teams list, I'm considering only single seasons and those teams had to win the World Series (apologies to the '01 Mariners). Let's begin with the managers list:

5. Bobby Cox - Atlanta ('00-'09) 6x N.L. East Champs - N.L. Manager of the Year in '04, '05 - Record: 892-727 (.550)

Sure, the '90s were really the Braves' decade, only one Atlanta team made it past the NLDS in the last 10 years ('01), and the run of 14 straight division titles ending after '05 with the Braves rising no higher than 3rd place since. But six of those 14 division titles came during this decade when Cox and GM John Schuerholz were still outclassing so much of the National League. Cox still represents the old school, a no-nonsense guy who manages to command both respect and love from younger players and veterans alike. Is it any wonder why guys like Chipper Jones and John Smoltz stayed with Atlanta for so long? They loved Cox, and Smoltz only left because the front office pushed him aside. Part of that love comes from his willingness to stand up for his players. In '07 he passed John McGraw for first in all-time ejections, and unlike McGraw, Cox isn't a jerk. At the very least, Cox has always been entertaining, but players have fed off that intensity for 28 years. Sitting fourth all-time in managerial wins, Cox turns 70 next year and has pledged that '10 will be his last season. It won't be just Braves fans that will miss him.

4. Mike Scioscia - L.A. Angels ('00-'09) '02 World Series Champ, 5x A.L. West Champ, 1x A.L. Wild Card Champ - A.L. Manager of the Year in '02, '09 - Record: 900-720 (.556)

The Angels spent the last few years of the '90s mired in Terry Collins-led mediocrity but the franchise turned over a new leaf with Scioscia, the former All-Star Dodgers catcher, at the dawn of a new decade. In two rebuilding seasons Scioscia completely reinvented the Angels from also-rans into a perennial A.L. force. Behind the awesome power of the Rally Monkey, the Angels rallied their way to the World Series title in '02, and Scoiscia has taken them back to the playoffs five more times since with a rotating cast of players. GMs Bill Stoneham and Tony Reagins have constantly tried to supply Scioscia with the type of players he craves: versatile, fundamentally-sound ones who can grind out 2-1 and 3-2 victories, with the occasional power presence like Vlad Guerrero and Mark Teixeira thrown in. It's always been said that Scioscia prefers a N.L.-style team, but the truth is Scioscia just wants players that know how to win. More often than not, they have. Considering Scioscia is signed through 2018, the Angels are in his sure hands for years to come.

3. Tony La Russa - St. Louis ('00-'09) '06 World Series Champ, '04 N.L. Champ, 6x N.L. Central Champ, 1x N.L. Wild Card Champ - N.L. Manager of the Year in '02 - Record: 913-706 (.564)

When La Russa took an 83-win Cardinals team to a World Series title in '06, it was perhaps the greatest accomplishment in a career littered with milestones. Just ahead of Cox on the all-time wins list, La Russa won his second World Series 15 years after his first, and joined Sparky Anderson as the only managers to win a ring in both leagues. La Russa's enjoyed so much consistent success despite all kinds of changes to the Cardinals roster. Of course, having someone as good as Albert Pujols makes any manager look good. But the hallmark of St. Louis during the La Russa era has been pitching, and much of the credit goes to pitching coach Dave Duncan, who's worked with La Russa since 1983. From the late Darryl Kile through Adam Wainwright, the seven Cardinals playoff teams were driven by pitching and La Russa's creative bullpen configurations. He's not always easy to get along with (just ask Scott Rolen), but any player knows they'll win under La Russa's leadership.

2. Terry Francona - Philadelphia ('00), Boston ('04-'09) '04 and '07 World Series Champs, 4x Wild Card Champ, 1x A.L. East Champ - Record w/Philadelphia: 65-97 (.440), w/Boston: 565-407 (.581)

Not unlike his New England coaching counterpart Bill Belichick, Francona needed to fail before he could succeed. Tito never won more than 77 games in four Philadelphia seasons and was run out of town on a rail in '00. Then came a year in the Cleveland front office, and a year each coaching in Texas and Oakland. Theo Epstein gave Grady Little the heave-ho after '03, and Francona blew the Boston brass away with his interview. Here was a forward-thinking baseball man respected throughout the industry that just needed a chance to succeed. To say Tito's "succeeded" is an understatement. Besides '06, when a talented team was decimated by injuries, the Red Sox earned a playoff spot every season of Francona's tenure. When the chips were down against the Yankees in '04, and when things looked grim against the Indians in '07, he didn't allow his players to give up. He was rewarded both times with eventual World Series sweeps, making him the only manager to win multiple titles in the Aughts. Could I have imagined the Red Sox would have this kind of success when Francona was hired? Probably not. But he's become the best manager in franchise history due to his perfect mix of attributes (calmness, intellect, astute and clear handling of the media, warmth and dedication toward his players) at a time when the front office gave him the game's best talent. A lesser man certainly could have screwed all that up. But not Terry Francona. I hope he manages this team until the day he dies.

1. Joe Torre - N.Y. Yankees ('00-'07), L.A. Dodgers ('08-'09) '00 World Series Champs, '01 & '03 A.L. Champ, 7x A.L. East Champ, 1x A.L. Wild Card Champ, 2x N.L. West Champ - Record w/New York: 773-519 (.598), w/Los Angeles: 179-145 (.552)

The no. 1 manager of the Aughts was also the no. 1 reason why, as a Red Sox fan, it was always so hard to hate the Yankees this decade and most of the last. The Yankees were so often a likable, professional, classy bunch and it began with the most likable, professional, and classy of them all in Joe Torre. Always so grateful in victory, always so graceful in defeat. He was seldom confrontational with anyone, and never looked to start problems. Torre just wanted to win, and do it the right way, and win he did. Teams managed by Torre have made the postseason every year starting in '96, a mind-boggling reality only matched by Cox's 14 straight division titles. Like Francona, he's been blessed with amazing teams. But in the pressure-cookers of New York and Los Angeles, Torre has consistently managed personalities at Phil Jackson-level while commanding respect and an adherence to winning, team-oriented attitudes. It's a testament to his longevity and an undying love for the game. Never a fantastic manager before coming to New York, he survived the wrath of George Steinbrenner longer than anyone, which is no small feat. In L.A. he's presided over a wonderful mix of veterans and youngsters, not to mention Mannywood. With the franchise in turmoil, no one knows how much longer Torre will be around. L.A. is probably his last stop, and he'll deserve every ounce of praise when he retires. He's become the best manager of my lifetime, without a doubt.

Before I get to the teams of the decade, you will notice none of them are N.L. teams. I've railed against the N.L. many times on this blog, but know that A.L. teams won six of the last 10 championships and none of the N.L. teams won more than 92 regular season games. Had the 105-win '04 Cardinals not run into the Red Sox they certainly would be here, and the '07 comeback Rockies were close. I tried to combine regular season and postseason factors here, and the five best A.L. teams were better than any N.L. club. On to the list:

5. 2002 Anaheim Angels - regular season: 99-63, A.L. Wild Card Champs by 6 games - ALDS: 3-1 over NYY - ALCS: 4-1 over MIN - WS: 4-3 over SFG (11-5 postseason record)

Sometimes all you need are some new uniforms, a new manager and some faith. As I mentioned above, Mike Scioscia was in his third season reforming the Angels when all the sudden they were a force to be reckoned with in the A.L. Vets like Garret Anderson, Darin Erstad and lifelong Angel Tim Salmon shined for this club while 25-year-old Troy Glaus provided all the pop they needed. In the rotation, Ramon "Mini-Pedro" Ortiz, Jarrod Washburn and Kevin Appier earned sub-4 ERAs. On June 24, a 23-year-old from Abilene, Texas named John Lackey made his Major League debut and carried the Angels the remainder of the season, going 9-4 with a 3.66 ERA. At the back end was Troy Percival, the fearsome, herky-jerky closer with a 1.92 ERA and 40 saves during the regular season. This was a fun bunch, personified by grinders like Erstad, David Eckstein and Adam Kennedy. Fans came to games armed with those annoying ThunderStix and went wild with every Rally Monkey appearance on the scoreboard. The team rolled through the A.L. playoffs, and a 20-year-old bespectacled Francisco Rodriguez came out of nowhere to dominate hitters with that ungodly curveball. Only Barry Bonds and the Giants stood in their way, and an epic series ensued. Three of the first four games were decided by one run before San Fran issued a 16-4 beatdown in Game 5, and all seemed lost with the Giants up by five late in Game 6. But the power of the Rally Monkey prevailed, the Halos scored six unanswered runs and captured the first World Series title in franchise history the next night. Glaus took home MVP honors by clubbing three homers with a 1.313 OPS in the series, while Lackey became the first rookie starter to win a World Series Game 7 in 93 years. Thus began the decade of success for the Angels, but they haven't reached the heights of '02 since.

4. 2007 Boston Red Sox - regular season: 96-66, A.L. East Champs by 2 games - ALDS: 3-0 over LAA - ALCS: 4-3 over CLE - WS: 4-0 over COL (11-3 playoff record)

This wasn't the same team that won it all in '04, not by a long shot. During the course of '05 and '06, Theo Epstein jettisoned many aging members of the '04 squad and infused the Red Sox with young draftees and hungry veterans from both sides of the Pacific. The '06 season ended in a bitter malaise of injuries, so armed with new blood like Daisuke Matsuzaka, J.D. Drew, Hideki Okajima and Julio Lugo, the Red Sox set out for something better. Dustin Pedroia struggled so much those first two months, but Francona stuck with him, and he wound up Rookie of the Year. Mike Lowell experienced a career renaissance, batting .324 and playing sterling defense at third base as the true team MVP of the Sox that year. Coming off a 54-dinger season, David Ortiz had to settle for 35 with a 1.066 OPS while still at the zenith of his hitting prowess. Josh Beckett bounced back from inconsistency in '06 to blow away everyone in his path in '07, evolving into a true ace with 20 victories, a 3.27 ERA and 194 strikeouts in 200 innings while anchoring a staff with a league-best 3.87 ERA. Jonathan Papelbon allowed just 12 earned runs all season and secured his spot as the game's best closer. In the playoffs the Red Sox found themselves in familiar territory, down 3-1 in the ALCS to the Indians. But Beckett lifted them up in Game 5, and Drew, who'd experienced a terrible first season in Boston both professionally and personally, crushed that grand slam early in Game 6 off Fausto Carmona. They feasted on the bad Cleveland bullpen in Game 7, and then swept the Rockies for the crown. It was never easy with the '07 Sox, as so many players battled injuries, ineffectiveness and expectations, but they stood tall once again. The best moment came when Jon Lester, who'd been diagnosed with lymphoma just a year before, pitched the Red Sox to victory in the clinching Series game.

3. 2009 New York Yankees - regular season: 103-59, A.L. East Champs by 8 games - ALDS: 3-0 over MIN - ALCS: 4-2 over LAA - WS: 4-2 over PHI (11-4 playoff record)

So far, each team on this list had to overcome some type of disappointment the previous season to prevail with a World Series title. For the Yankees, '08 was Joe Girardi's first year at the helm and an older Yankees squad experienced their fair share of injuries, missing the playoffs for the first time since the strike. In an winter of down contracts, GM Brian Cashman spent like a drunken sailor, but spent it on all the right guys for a change, bringing in CC Sabathia (19-8, 3.37 ERA in 230 innings), A.J. Burnett (13-9, 4.04 ERA in 207 innings) and Mark Teixeira (39 HR, 122 RBI, .948 OPS). The '09 season was far from a cakewalk for the Yankees; they stumbled out of the gate, Alex Rodriguez dealt with drama after drama, they lacked a fifth starter for the entire season and strong options in front of Mariano Rivera until Phil Hughes was converted to a full-time reliever. But they hit their stride in the summer, and a new, hitter-friendly park spurred an offense that ranked first in the A.L. in hits, runs, homers, OBP and OPS. Girardi employed a three-man rotation in the playoffs that somehow worked despite facing the Phillies and Angels, the second- and third-best teams of '09. Late in World Series Game 4, when it appeared the Phillies would rally to tie the series, Johnny Damon stole second off Brad Lidge and then stole third when he noticed no one was covering the base in the over-shifted infield. Lidge imploded, the Yankees prevailed, then took the title in six games. Unlike every Yankees team since '01, this was an amusing, loose group that captivated fans far outside the Bronx. Hell, even A-Rod finally had a good time, and it showed with his clutch playoff performance. Despite some deficiencies in pitching and a manger who often looked overmatched, this was the finest Yankees team since their '98 juggernaut. With that said, I will now take a kerosene bath and bring my Zippo with me.

2. 2005 Chicago White Sox - regular season: 99-63, A.L. Central Champs by 6 games - ALDS: 3-0 over BOS - ALCS: 4-1 over LAA - WS: 4-0 over HOU (11-1 postseason record)

The baseball gods were smiling upon long-downtrodden teams in the middle of this decade. The Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years in '04, and a year later, the White Sox and their fans were blessed with a championship club for the first time since 1917. They'd sucked for most of their history, yet for the entirety of the '05 season these South Side warriors were the team to beat, and few could. Fiery Ozzie Guillen was in his sophomore season as White Sox manager and while his ubiquitous personality made waves off the field, the players did most of their talking on it. Paul Konerko hit 40 homers and Jermaine Dye 31, while leadoff man Scott Podsednik swiped 59 bags. Podsednik and center fielder Aaron Rowand tracked down each fly ball with reckless abandon for an excellent defensive group. While they may have represented the end of an era for great MLB teams on the offensive side (they were just 11th in the A.L. in team OBP at .322, adopting what Guillen called a "smart ball" approach), their pitching was undeniably awesome. Their top four starters (Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, Jon Garland and Jose Contreras) all made either 32 or 33 stars, all had ERAs under 4, and only Contreras exceeded 60 walks. Longtime starter Dustin Hermanson was converted to closer, notching 34 saves with a 2.04 ERA before injuring his back in September and losing his job to 24-year-old flamethrower Bobby Jenks. The staff dominated October, most impressively in the ALCS. Outside of 2/3 innings by Neal Cotts to finish the Game 1 loss to the Angels (the team's only postseason defeat), the four aforementioned starters pitched the entirety of the series, all four victories coming on complete games. In the Series against Houston, Podsednik blasted the Game 2 walkoff (he hit no homers during the season), Geoff Blum provided the heroics in the epic 14-inning Game 3, and in perfect '05 White Sox fashion, Juan Uribe made a fantastic play up the middle to finish off the sweep in Game 4. Cubs fans everywhere are still shaking their heads.

1. 2004 Boston Red Sox - regular season: 98-64, A.L. Wild Card Champs by six games - ALDS: 3-0 over ANA - ALCS: 4-3 over NYY - WS: 4-0 over STL (11-3 postseason record)

Hard to believe it's been five years, huh? Of the 25 members of the '04 World Series roster, only Ortiz, Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek remain in Boston, and by '11 even they'll probably be gone. But, no matter how much they may have angered Red Sox fans after the fact, all 25 were part of the most amazing sports story of my lifetime, an iconic piece of American history and the greatest baseball team of the last 10 years. That story begins in October '03, when Grady left Pedro in too long and Aaron Bleepin' Boone took the Yankees to the World Series, leading to another winter of discontent. Theo Epstein got to work, spent Thanksgiving with the Schillings and returned home with his ace. The '03 Sox lacked a closer, so in came Keith Foulke, who'd wind up tossing a whopping 83 regular season innings with a 2.17 ERA. Alex Rodriguez nearly hopped aboard, but went to New York instead. Nonetheless, Boston was an offensive powerhouse, leading the A.L. in runs, average, OBP and OPS, with Ortiz and Manny Ramirez each topping 40 HR and 130 RBI. The starting pitching quintet of Schilling, Martinez, Wakefield, Derek Lowe and Bronson Arroyo started all but five games in both the regular season and the playoffs. Just reaching the playoffs was a concern for much of the season's first half. We all remember the Vartiek-Rodriguez brawl, but the sea change came a week later when Epstein bravely dealt franchise hero Nomar Garciaparra for veterans Orlando Cabrera, Doug Mientkiewicz and Dave Roberts. Sitting at 56-47 on August 1, the revamped Red Sox went 42-18 the rest of the way. They gelled unlike any other Red Sox team, unifying behind free spirits like Ramirez, Cabrera, Johnny Damon and Kevin Millar. I was at Fenway on a misty August night when an injury to Mark Bellhorn forced Mientkiewicz to play second base for just the second time in his career. He didn't complain, and the Red Sox still won, 8-4. It was the best time to ever be a Red Sox fan, and it would only get better. Ortiz walked-off the Angels series with a Game 3, 10th-inning blast over the Monster. For the second straight year, the Yankees were waiting in the ALCS. Everyone knew it was over after the 19-8 Game 3 demolishing. Everyone, except the Red Sox, and specifically Millar, who was telling everyone who wanted (or didn't want) to listen that New York couldn't let them win Game 4. Roberts swiped second off Rivera in the ninth, Bill Mueller brought him home, and then Ortiz found the bullpen in the 12th. You know the rest; Papi broke his bat in the 14th in Game 5 to keep it going, Schilling's bloody sock made its debut in Game 6, then Damon hit two blasts and Lowe, who wasn't supposed to start in the playoffs, pitched to victory in Game 7, capping the greatest comeback in sports history. Yet there was still one mountain left to climb. The '04 Cardinals were a force, a 105-win behemoth with no weaknesses. That was until the World Series, however. Only Albert Pujols, Edgar Renteria and Larry Walker proved they had a pulse. In the final three games, Sox pitchers allowed three runs, and when Damon went deep in the first inning of Game 4, it might as well have been a grand slam, because that's what it felt like. Foulke, who allowed one run in 14 postseason innings (and never pitched anything like that again), fielded a Renteria grounder and the '04 Red Sox passed into legend. What the Red Sox accomplished went so far beyond winning eight straight October games and breaking an 86-year string of disappointment. They untied an entire region, captivated an entire country and accomplished a comeback that will be talked about for generations to come. How could something like this happen? How could 25 guys who play a game so deeply affect millions who will never meet them? How could one of their most prominent fans write a book called "Now I Can Die In Peace" and nobody thought he was exaggerating? It's probably because baseball always meant a little too much to the people of New England, caused in part by a rampant desire to shake the Curse. Couple that with a skilled, exceedingly likable team, and the recipe for baseball romance was in place. For once, the Red Sox had a team that knew how to win, didn't feel sorry for itself down 3-0 against the Yankees, and refused to let up until the trophy was theirs. They were, more than anything, a team, in every sense, down to the very end. The '04 Red Sox didn't stay together past that final out and the ensuing duckboat ride. But trust me. There's no way the '04 Red Sox can ever die.

Thanks for reading.