by Matt Wells
Well, baseball is finally here. In fact, it has been here for a week and a half already. Spring Training is over, the home fields of all the baseball teams have been opened for the new season (or they are close to being opened). The World Champion Cardinals are attempting to repeat, the Tigers are looking to repeat last year’s success, the Red Sox are trying to dethrone the Yankees in the AL East, and a slew of teams that missed last year’s playoffs are looking to improve on last year’s performances (Indians, Braves, Cubs, etc).
So, one week has been completed. Players have begun to produce, while some haven’t. Teams have won games early, while some haven’t. So, what have I learned from the first week and a half of the regular season? Well…1. Major League Baseball doesn’t know how to produce schedules
The whole fiasco this past weekend in Cleveland was just unbelievable. Of course, I realize that when the schedules are made up during the off-season, nobody knows that snow will blanket a third of the country in April. But, why would you have a warm weather team (the Mariners) travel to a fairly cold weather city (Cleveland) in April. Don’t they realize that, in Anaheim, it is not beastly hot in April? I would imagine it’s quite pleasant.
Relocating the Angels/Indians series to Milwaukee is preposterous. How about switching the locations of the series? Play in Anaheim now, play in Cleveland in June or July or whatever month they are scheduled for?
Another bone I have to pick with the schedule makers is this: How is it that the Indians and White Sox have played on opening day for four out of the past five years? Mix it up a little bit! I’m sure Indians and White Sox fans would rather see someone else visit or see their team visit someone different on the road. You know, the Twins, Royals, and Tigers play in that division, too…
2. Brad Lidge is done
Brad Lidge was the superstar closer of the Houston Astros a few years back. In fact, the Astros let Billy Wagner go because they knew they had a young, hard-throwing reliever in Lidge. Sure, like most closers, he was prone to some mistakes; but, for the most part, he was a decent closer.
The 2005 playoffs then rolled around. In Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS with the Astros leading the Cardinals 3 games to 1, Lidge surrendered a game-winning homer to Albert Pujols that still hasn’t landed yet, from what I’ve heard. Thus, began the downward spiral.
In the middle of the 2006 season, the Astros actually removed Lidge from the closer’s role and placed a committee led by Dan Wheeler in there instead. Lidge’s ERA in 2006 was 5.28. You see, Brad, closers typically want an ERA of about…oh, I’d say 1.50 to 2.00. Somewhere in that range.
Lidge started out as the Astros closer this year, as well. One and a half weeks later, one blown save and one bad inning later, Lidge is shelved. Wheeler has taken over the closer’s role, and any team looking for a project this summer may want to acquire Brad Lidge.
3. Alex Rodriguez is more comfortable
Alex is now in his 4th year as the Yankees everyday third baseman. He has put up tremendous numbers in pinstripes; he even won the MVP during the 2005 season (.321-48-130). Yet, it has been his inability to produce during the postseason and in clutch situations that have led Yankee fans to get on his back and boo him relentlessly. Heck, on opening day, he was booed when he dropped a foul ball.
Baseball is a funny game, though. In the first seven games this season, A-Rod has hit six, count them, 6 homers. When the Yankees arrive back home, fans will think he is the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Perhaps A-Rod has finally said to himself, “The hell with what everyone thinks; I’ll just do the best I can.” Maybe he worked on his swing during the off-season. Any way you look at it, A-Rod is hitting the ball very well….he’s on pace for about 155-160 home runs this year. Niiiice.
4. The Mets pitching is better than you think
We all heard it during this past off-season. Pedro Martinez, who is injured, is 35 years old. Tom Glavine is 41. Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez is…let’s see now….um, carry the one…92? The point is that the Mets, coming into this 2007 season, had those three pitchers alongside a potentially good but still unproven Oliver Perez, young Mike Pelfrey, and John Maine. The Mets, said critics, are going to get burned; they better hope the offense scores A LOT.
The Mets went 4-0 in their first four games. They gave up three runs in the process. That’s right…three. The World Champion Cardinals scored two runs in three games against the Mets. Tom Glavine, despite losing the Mets first game, is pitching well. Hernandez is 1-0 and, if it weren’t for Aaron Heilman blowing a lead, he would be 2-0. John Maine got hit a little hard on Monday, but we all make mistakes.
The point is this: the Mets rotation is better than we thought and they will only get better once Pedro Martinez returns in that July timetable.
5. One and a half weeks does not make a season
Ryan Howard: .222, 1 HR, 5 RBI
Albert Pujols: .167, 1 HR, 2 RBI
Alfonso Soriano: .200, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 1 SB
David Wright: .267, 0 HR, 3 RBI
Manny Ramirez: .240, 0 HR, 3 RBI
I could go on like this, but I won’t. We all know that the season is 162 games long. One and a half weeks of struggles does not mean that these players will endure a miserable 2007 season. They still have 155 games or so to get things right. Thank God for that.
6. The AL Central race is going to be great
The Twins, despite having very little pitching after Johan Santana, are a force to be reckoned with. Santana will most likely win another Cy Young, and Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Michael Cuddyer (among others) will lift this offense to victory. Add in closer Joe Nathan, and the Twins are a pretty good team.
Last year was a forgetful season in Cleveland. The Indians finished 78-84, good for 4th place in the AL Central. This year looks like it will be different…if all the games aren’t snowed out. Grady Sizemore is playing out of his mind, and the Indians still have Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez as well as C.C. Sabathia on the mound. This year is looking better already.
The Tigers, of course, were American League Champions last year. They have kept basically the same team and they have added Gary Sheffield to the lineup. Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Verlander, and the rest of the rotation will have to overcome the absence of the injured Kenny Rogers, but they should stay in contention until he comes back.
Finally, the White Sox shouldn’t be forgotten; after all, they won the whole thing in 2005. A lineup with Jim Thome, Paul Konerko, and Jermaine Dye should continue to produce runs. Mark Buerhle, Jon Garland, and company will have to “pitch” in more because of the absence of Freddy Garcia, who was traded to Philadelphia.
Yes, the AL Central will be tight all season.
7. The Washington Nationals stink
I feel bad for them, I really do. They were unable to re-sign Alfonso Soriano this off-season, and Livan Hernandez was traded to Arizona last year. Nick Johnson, perhaps the best offensive player left, is on the disabled list for quite some time. The starting rotation features John Patterson and four other starters who either have no major league experience or have failed with other teams. Chad Cordero may get about 10 saves this year.
In one and a half weeks, the Nats are 1-7; they’re only win came when they made a ninth inning comeback and tripped up the Marlins. Poor Nationals. Hey, at least they’re only 1/2 of a game behind the Phillies entering Wednesday’s action.
8. Some teams are getting better
I like what the Rays have done with young players Elijah Dukes and Akinori Iwamura, the Japanese-imported third baseman. The only thing that needs fixing now is that starting rotation; it’s just Scott Kazmir and four other pitchers who are not that talented.
The Kansas City Royals, though we all know they are not going anywhere, are taking mini strides. They looked impressive on opening day when the bashed Curt Schilling and the Red Sox. Alex Gordon and Ryan Shealy are two young prospects who could have big seasons. Again, like the Rays, the Royals problem is starting pitching. Outside of Gil Meche and maybe Zack Greinke, the Royals rotation isn’t so hot.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are hot, having won half of their first eight games. Hey, it could be worse. Xavier Nady has gotten off to a hot start, though he has cooled off of late. The pitching has been halfway decent and Salomon Torres has been a steady closer, despite blowing a save Tuesday night. The Pirates may have a decent season; I’m not talking playoffs mind you, I’m just talking a decent season.
Let’s see if these teams can keep up the better-than-usual start.
9. Dice-K is good…very good
He dominated the Kansas City Royals in his major league debut. I know we haven’t seen him against the likes of the Yankees, Angels, Tigers, and the like, but he has a barrel full of pitches that keep opposing batters off balance frequently. He should be able to pile up 12-15 wins this year if he can keep up that unbalancing act. The real tests come with the Yankees: if he can dominate them, then the Yanks have no shot at catching up to Boston in the standings. I don’t care how good the Yankees offense is.
10. 2006 is a distant memory in Atlanta
Entering Wednesday’s play against the Nationals (a team they should beat), the Braves are 6-1. Remember last year when the Braves weren’t so hot and their run of consecutive division titles ended? Well, their bullpen is stronger this year and, even though they no longer have Rafael Furcal or Adam LaRoche, the Braves have built this team around starters John Smoltz and Tim Hudson, and they have solid pieces in place for the time being in Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, and Jeff Franceour.
Bobby Cox is a managerial genius and he has his team playing Braves baseball again. Yes, it’s early, but expect to see the Braves battling for the NL East lead all season long with the Mets.
Plenty of stories will develop during the 2007 baseball season, each one being better than the last. Will Ryan Howard hit 58 homers again? Will the Tigers repeat as AL Champs? Will Dice-K Matsusaka continue his good start? Only time will tell.