Of rhythmic strings and a bleeding syringe, baseball is often a paradox. The basic game is regulated chaos, carefully confined performance art often disguised in metaphor by swooning scribes drowning in reverie*. This is a show, a worthwhile exhibition, unrehearsed and unpredictable human drama preferably played out under a blazing sun. If our overall perspective were more precise, the importance of this particular athletic endeavor would be properly measured within a rational context, damn good entertainment, and nothing more. Alas… there are heroes to deify and villains to crucify, a snap response to the unavoidable entwinement of sports and reality. And while newspaper columnists breathe fire from a disintegrating perch, our heads are left spinning. There is a point they are missing, subtle and beyond their indignation, except we ourselves are unable to articulate it. All we know is… as they instruct us to wallow in pointless anger and meaningless disgust; the grief never touches the game. And that is the point.
It’s the game.
Players will leave, franchises will relocate, prospects will flame out and stars will shoot into the sky from absolutely nowhere. The everyday machinations of a big business will leave the fan cold, uninspired and jaded.
But the game abides.
Hanging sliders and nasty curve balls, diving stops and heroic relief performances, walk off home runs and broken bat bloopers. Baseball is music, a song that turns days into dreams and exposes the illusion of time. It’s all minutia, to the uninitiated, as Bobby Abreu steps out of the box after his fifth foul of the at-bat, adjusts his batting gloves, takes a deep breath, faces his adversary once more, eyes squinting… the pitcher takes a deep breath, shakes off the catcher, wipes his brow, winds up and delivers, another foul, the count remains full… our date shoots us a bored glance. Maybe they ask, “Is this baseball?” And we smile and say “Why yes,” before clapping in appreciation as Abreu bleeds a deserved walk. The score is 12-1 in the sixth inning.
Once those hidden musical notes are recognized, there really is no going back. Bernie Williams is forever loping after a lazy fly ball in our mind’s eye. Orlando Hernandez’s slider spirals across our cubicle. We count the days, until April, when a new symphony will begin. And deep down, we look forward to that first blow out. The stands are emptying, the dreary tone of boredom accompanies the voices of our local broadcasters, a wild reliever can’t find the strike zone and the players just want to go home.
Yes, this is baseball.
No, we can’t leave.
Tampa Bay Rays: 2008 Results: It was a breakthrough year for the previously inept Rays. Buoyed by intelligent transactions, courtesy of excellent general manager Andrew Friedman, and carried by a core produced from a loaded farm system, the Cinderella of last baseball season won the American League before falling in the World Series.
Three Observations regarding 2009:
- The bullpen, which performed way over expectations last season, may regress. Grant Balfour, especially, could fail to duplicate his success of 2008, a career low 1.54 ERA. J.P. Howell, featuring a confounding backdoor fastball to right-handed hitters, is a safe bet to be a reliable fixture in the pen. Howell was pilfered from the Royals for the fast but fungible Joey Gathright, and flourished in a short role after floundering as a starter.
- Any regression from the bullpen could be mitigated by the improved offense. Evan Longoria will contribute right from Opening Day, as he should have last season, if not for the arbitration shenanigans perpetrated by his employer. B.J. Upton possesses speed, power, and patience, and his stat line will climb. Carl Crawford had an off 2008, and should rebound. New addition Pat Burrell compliments Carlos Pena quite well, their offensive approaches similar. Burrell’s high on base percentage will provide productivity, even if he gets off to a slow start in a new league.
- The pitching depth on this team is just obscene. This strength allowed Friedman to part with erratic starter Edwin Jackson, in return for promising outfielder Matt Joyce. The Rays have a venerable stable in the minors. Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson, and Tommy John patient Jake McGee could all be factors on the Major League scene, not to mention potential beast David Price, a lefthander with a high-octane fastball who memorably closed out the American League Championship series.
Boston Red Sox: 2008 represented another notch for Boston in their recent run of prolific success. Despite dealing Manny Ramirez at the trading deadline for an inferior, though very good player [Jason Bay], they were a force in the regular season, scoring the best Pythagorean record in either league. They were barely outpaced by the upstart Rays for the American League East crown, and were upended by their new rivals in a climatic seven game duel for the pennant.
- The success of every club hinges on health, but this is especially the case as it concerns the Red Sox. David Ortiz and Mike Lowell are both question marks, as are new pitching additions John Smoltz and Brad Penny. In the latter case, however, the organization has tremendous secondary resources, legitimate talent like Clay Buchholz and Mike Bowden ready to assume roles in the rotation. Buchholz, a severe disappointment in 2008, is supposedly in a better frame of mind after seeing a sports psychologist in the off-season. Offensively, though, the Red Sox need Lowell and Ortiz to at least approximate past performance, or scoring runs could present difficulties for Boston.
- Did Kevin Youkilis establish a new baseline of performance, or simply enjoy a career year? The answer to this query will be another determining factor in the productivity of the Red Sox offense. Youkilis pounded 29 home runs last year, thirteen more than his career high. To a pessimist, this screams outlier. To an optimist, or Red Sox fan perhaps, it simply represents the next step for a hard worker with talent to spare.
- This bullpen has the potential to be simply vicious. General Manager Theo Epstein traded excess outfielder Coco Crisp to the Royals for heat throwing reliever Ramon Ramirez, who finally seemed to put it all together in 2008. He joins Manny Delcarmen, Hideki Okajima, Justin Masterson, and of course, Jonathan Papelbon to form a pen that just may be the best in baseball.
New York Yankees: Not much went according to plan for the Yankees in 2008. It was supposed to be a season combining player development with on-field success. Instead, the youth regressed, and injuries sidelined stalwarts such as Chien-Ming Wang and Jorge Posada. If it weren’t for Mike Mussina’s shocking twenty win output, the campaign could have been an utter embarrassment.
- The Yankees have fallen short in recent seasons primarily because of their pitching staff. In every postseason face-off since 2003, New York has trotted out an inferior rotation in comparison to their competition. It should come as no mystery, then, that they have only triumphed in one playoff series since acquiring Alex Rodriguez, the same winter they failed to adequately replace Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens. Indeed, there is no such thing as the “Curse of A-Rod”. In fact, “the curse of Javier Vazquez” would be far more appropriate, for many reasons. By spending an obscene amount of cash on C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, New York hopes to remedy these woes. Sabathia became a vastly improved pitcher upon mastering a cutter. This pitch allows him to dominate the inner-half against right-handed hitters, leaving the outside corner open for easy strikeouts. The oft-injured Burnett believes he has learned how to pitch, instead of mindlessly throwing, a strategy that led to his arm maladies. Time will tell. The performance of these two investments will determine whether the Yankees can conquer a treacherous division.
- The Yankees other major down payment was on Mark Teixeira. While his acquisition was essential for a sagging offense, his glove and range at first base will make a major difference, especially when sinkerball hurler Chien-Ming Wang is on the mound. Wang has been a true anomaly, excelling while being completely reliant on a consistently terrible defensive infield. Teixeira’s addition can only help.
- The uninformed are in a state of panic over Joba Chamberlain becoming a fulltime starter, even though his time as a reliever represented an aberration, not the other way around. Regardless of these worries, the Yankees bullpen, even in the set-up corps, should be excellent. Jose Veras and Edwar Ramirez seemed to establish themselves last season, and minor league stars David Robertson and Mark Melancon will be on call should either struggle.
Toronto Blue Jays: No one quite defines the 2008 Blue Jays like Jesse Carlson. Did you know Jesse had a 2.25 earned run average in sixty relief innings? Did you know the Blue Jays’ Pythagorean record had them winning 93 games? These are facts, even if the reader can’t actually believe them. Toronto has enjoyed a dignified run of respectable clubs who either lack in offense or were cursed by injury, falling just short of contention. That skein will probably be broken this season, and not in the manner that Blue Jays fans or management may have preferred. Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan are both out for the season, and while the offense will probably get more production out of key players Alexis Rios and Vernon Wells, it might not be enough to protect a rotation comprised primarily of pitchers forced into Major League roles.
- Sure, pessimists point to Travis Snider’s batting average on balls put into play as unsustainable, but the mere fact that this kid, all of 20 at the time of his call-up, held his own at the next level is a very encouraging sign for his future. Simply put, the Blue Jays have not produced enough home grown offense during the reign of J.P. Riccarddi, though they have been quite adept at developing arms. Snider is the undisputed offensive jewel of their system, and reflects the continued direction Toronto needs to traverse.
- How about a moment of recognition for Scott Downs? The left-handed reliever has been sterling the past two seasons, refining his wicked breaking arsenal to the point of perfection. If the Blue Jays fall out of contention early, he could be a very valuable commodity on the trade market.
- How about a moment of reflection regarding the wayward career of Scott Rolen? In 2004, he was a supernova, a peak defender who ravaged National League pitching to the tune of 157 OPS+. Not only his finest season, it’s one of the best any third baseman has ever had. The decline began in 2005, and despite signs of life in ‘06; Rolen is officially, and unfortunately, a shadow of himself, dogged by nagging injuries. His star hasn’t turned black hole quite yet, but it is quickly burning out. If Rolen could improbably kick-start his career, the Blue Jays are suddenly a very different team.
Baltimore Orioles: Pre-season prognostication can easily veer into the realm of hyperbole. Who could ever forget Steve Phillips’ epic prediction that the 2008 Detroit Tigers would have the greatest offense of all time? The humble ’08 Orioles fell into this trap, many analysts ticketing them for a laughable number of defeats after they dealt ace Erik Bedard for a collection of prospects, a trade they seem to have won handily in retrospect. The O’s were also clearly victors in Miguel Tejada transaction, unloading their franchise player at just the right time, collecting on his slowly diminishing value. Small steps. The Orioles have been run in such incompetent fashion for the past decade that the rebuilding will be long term. But they are heading in the right direction.
- On paper, the Orioles have a terrible rotation. And while some scout just spit tobacco on my suede shoes and told me the game isn’t played on a damn spreadsheet, it’s pretty difficult making a case for Mark Hendrickson and Koji Uehara. Hell, Uehara was banished to the bullpen in Japan. That can’t be good.
- Felix Pie doesn’t profile as an everyday leftfielder, but his addition to the outfield makes for a fun mix. He’ll team with Adam Jones and Nick Markakis, forming a young, tool laden squad. Markakis has already established himself, undisputedly, as one of the best young players in baseball. Jones was coming on strong before injuring his left foot late last season. Pie will finally get his shot at everyday playing time, after the Cubs cut him loose, tantalized by his potential before souring on his production.
- Orioles fans should be applauded for surviving the Daniel Cabrera experience. Their baseball viewing experience probably won’t be the same in 2009. They will no longer immediately change the channel after watching Cabrera miss just a bit outside [Harry Doyle reference!]. They will no longer talk themselves into Cabrera in Spring Training, after he successfully changed his mechanics or finally tried on a pair of glasses. They will no longer be excited when he gets off to a respectable start in April. They will no longer be disappointed, perhaps hitching this perpetual wagon of disillusionment to a position player. Is it Felix Pie’s turn?
Now, for the less formal section of this article, my predictions! Bound to be wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.
AL East Standings:
- New York Yankees: The rotation leads the majors in innings pitched. The bullpen is better than people realize. The offense is good enough to support the pitching staff.
- Tampa Bay Rays: The offense will be far more explosive. Quality pickup Joe Nelson stabilizes the team’s Achilles heel.
- Boston Red Sox: Someone has to be left out, even if they win over 90 games. Ortiz is healthy but declines. Youkilis regresses. Lester feels the effects of a career high in innings pitched. Matsuzaka’s nibbling tendencies burn him.
- Toronto Blue Jays: Excellent bullpen and Doc Halladay save them from the cellar.
- Baltimore Orioles: Starting rotation collapses, young offense can’t quite pick up the slack. Aubrey Huff’s Incredible Hulk serum wears off.
AL Central Standings:
- Minnesota Twins: Deep, deep rotation secures division title.
- Kansas City Royals: Most improved team in baseball. Thin pitching depth keeps them from October.
- Cleveland Indians: Sandy Koufax departs the body of Cliff Lee, rendering him a quality number 2 starter. Hafner does not bounce back.
- Detroit Tigers: A year away. Robertson and Willis need to be replaced.
- Chicago White Sox: The league catches up to Gavin Floyd. The offensive core erodes.
AL West Standings:
- Anaheim Angels: The offense is horrifying, but pitching overcomes in a weak division.
- Oakland A’s: Rotation depth just isn’t there, despite vastly improved offense.
- Texas Rangers: Missing a decent rotation since… what… 1999?
- Seattle Mariners: Will be way better than the traveling Miguel Cairo first base freak-show of 2008, but not good enough to escape last. Best outfield defense in baseball.
- Florida Marlins: Young rotation is solid one through five. Nolasco breaks out. Maybin wins rookie of the year.
- New York Mets: Improved bullpen gets them into the playoffs.
- Philadelphia Phillies: J.C. Romero is missed. The rotation isn’t strong enough. Ibanez wasn’t the right call for this team.
- Atlanta Braves: Interesting rotation is good, but needs to be great when offensive centerpiece Chipper Jones begins feeling the effects of age.
- Washington Nationals: Offense is greatly improved, kept down by an inexperienced rotation.
- Chicago Cubs: Overall talent level is undeniable.
- St. Louis Cardinals: Chris Carpenter’s performance is Spring Training has Cardinal fans thinking big, but Ryan Ludwick still needs to do it again, and Troy Glaus is brittle. These are the two primary bats protecting Pujols, and their success is essential.
- Cincinnati Reds: This is a club just overflowing with elite level talent. Joey Votto wasn’t receiving enough respect from the Reds hierarchy last Spring Training, but he locked up the first base job long term with his impressive regular season. Jay Bruce can be a MVP caliber player. Brandon Phillips, despite his poor plate discipline, is a top five National League second-baseman. In the rotation, Johnny Cueto has fabulous stuff, and just needs experience. It’s only a matter of time before he reaches an elite level. Edinson Volquez, acquired last winter for Josh Hamilton, emerged as a legitimate ace. And Aaron Harang should be given the benefit of the doubt after his first substandard big league season. The bullpen, featuring David Weathers and Jared Burton setting up Francisco Cordero, actually looks solid as projected. The Reds are a team with a ton of upside that could fail due to their poor overall plate discipline. But they are definitely one to watch.
- Milwaukee Brewers: Manny Parra and Yovani Gallardo, though extremely talented, may not be ready to carry the staff. The Braden Looper signing was quite astute, but the Brewers are probably asking too much of him and the disappointing Jeff Suppan.
- Houston Astros: Can’t quite crack last, even after their nightmarish spring training. The rotation would be superb if Doctor Emmett Brown discovered 1.21 jigowatts under Tal’s Hill and took baseball back to 2003, a simpler time, when Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton were venerable anchors. As it is, the Astros have absolutely no depth, primarily because their farm system just hasn’t produced in recent years. The core talent is impressive, but there is just nothing else. They won’t hold up over 162 games.
- Pittsburgh Pirates: This team is terrible. The ownership should be ashamed of their product. As I write this, they are counting their money and laughing. And shredding Pat Meares’ medical records.
National League West:
- Arizona Diamondbacks: There are plenty of question marks here. The Diamondbacks could have had Dan Uggla playing second and Carlos Quentin patrolling left. They callously cut ties with these two jewels from their system. Overall, Haren and Webb will provide enough for this team to win the division. Watch out for Max Scherzer.
- Los Angeles Dodgers: This team is like a front loaded action movie from the nineties. The producers spent a ton of money for Sly Stallone to blow stuff up, but forgot to pay a decent screenwriter. The Dodgers signed Manny, sure, but severely neglected their starting rotation, and it will keep them out of the playoffs.
- Colorado Rockies: The needle is still pointing up for the Rockies. They will improve upon a disappointing 2008, and young players such as Dexter Fowler will keep the proceedings exciting. Jeff Francis is also a solid rebound candidate. A front two of Jeff Francis and Ubaldo Jimenez may be way better than people realize.
- San Francisco Giants: There are whispers of possible contention coming out of San Francisco, but a closer look at their abysmal lineup should dispel that notion. Edgar Renteria is a plus, sort of, but this team feels very similar to the previous edition.
- San Diego Padres: Exhibit A in support for prenuptial agreements.
American League Champion: The Yankees.
American League Rookie of the Year: Travis Snider, Toronto Blue Jays
American League Most Valuable Player: Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays
American League CY Young: Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
National League Rookie of the Year: Cameron Maybin, Florida Marlins
National League Most Valuable Player: Carlos Beltran, New York Mets
National League CY Young: Ricky Nolasco, Florida Marlins
World Series: New York Yankees over Florida Marlins in 5
* Yeah, I’m a hypocrite, but I admit it