Monday, March 30, 2009

NL East Preview: The Good, the Bad and the Utley

My Prediction:
1 – New York Mets
2 – Philadelphia Phillies
3 – Atlanta Braves
4 – Florida Marlins
5 – Washington Nationals

New York Mets
I'd like to put away any discussion of "choking," first of all, mainly because I don't really believe in it. Choking is a way for fans of other teams to make fun of their rivals, and it's a way for lazy commentators to turn a complex baseball season into a narrative. Yes, the Mets did a terrible job in September, both last year and in 2007. But it was due to normal, everyday baseball reasons. It's possible that there's some personality flaw that plagues the Mets and prevents them from performing well in tight situations, but that's a little far-fetched to me.

Does Willis really have anxiety?

Detroit Tigers pitcher Dontrelle Willis was placed on the team DL Sunday. The stated reason for disabling him was "anxiety disorder."
This was news, mainly because there had never been any report before that Willis suffered from the disorder or even any speculation on the subject. However, it's certainly possible for someone with anxiety to conceal it, or for it to be mistaken for something else.
I've suffered from generalized anxiety disorder for a number of years now. It's not a stretch to say that it is "disabling." At its worst, the anxiety becomes so intense that it interferes with your ability to function on basic levels: to take care of yourself, to go outside, to interact with friends, to keep a steady job, to form a romantic relationship, as well as many other things.
But here's the most baffling part of the Dontrelle Willis story: Willis doesn't report having any symptoms of anxiety. This article in the
Detroit Free Press quotes him as saying that this is "not something where I'm too amped up, I don't know where I'm at, and I'm running sprints up and down the parking lot ... (The doctors) see something in my blood that they don't like."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Shilling for Schilling

Curt Schilling recently announced his retirement from baseball. Schilling missed 2008 due to injury, and it was looking less and less likely that he would be able to return in 2009. So at the age of 42, he's hanging it up. I personally think Curt is a future Hall-of-Famer, but the thing that's most interesting to me about his career, isn't the bloody sock, of the 2001 World Series. It's the strange way it unfolded.
Not many future Hall-of-Famers were included as throw-ins in three separate trades. If you're considered that expendable, it's usually for a reason. By the time Curt Schilling became a star, he was pitching for his fourth major league organization. After being drafted by the Red Sox in 1986, he spent the next few years as a promising but flawed pitching prospect whose commitment to excellence was called into question. He certainly wasn't unique. There have been countless pitchers like that, who had enough talent, but for a variety of reasons just never fully committed themselves. Those guys end up as relief pitchers or minor leaguers or just high school coaches.
But Curt Schilling was unique. It may have taken him a while, but he became not just a good pitcher, but a great one. Part of that talent was always there, just waiting for him to activate it. But it also took a new work ethic and a commitment to excellence to push Schilling into elite company.
It's ironic that the first team to give up on Schilling was the Red Sox, where he would later put the final touches on his brilliant career. The Sox drafted Schilling in the 2nd round of the 1986 draft. Schilling got off to a good start in the minors, but in 1988 the Sox were in the postseason hunt and sent Schilling (and Brady Anderson) to the Orioles for veteran Mike Boddicker. Boddicker pitched brilliantly down the stretch and helped the Sox win the division by just one game over Detroit. The Orioles, on the other hand, were on their way to a 54-107 season.
Schilling showed good numbers, but the O's had several promising young starters at the time, and they decided (unfortunately) that Schilling was expendable; they were coveting slugging Astros first baseman Glenn Davis. But Davis was coming off a season where he'd hit just 22 HR in 93 games. And he was about to turn 30. But the Orioles traded for him anyway, giving up Schilling, Steve Finley, and Pete Harnisch. That's one of the most unbalanced trades in recent years, especially since Davis tanked in Baltimore and never hit well again. And Schilling and Harnisch both would perform better than the young pitchers the Orioles decided to keep (Ben McDonald, Bob Milacki, John Mitchell, Anthony Telford, and Jeff Ballard wouldn't make any All-Star teams. Schilling made six, and Harnisch made one).

AL West Preview: Angels and Demons

My Prediction:
1st: Los Angeles Angels
2nd: Oakland Athletics
3rd: Texas Rangers
4th: Seattle Mariners

Los Angeles Angels

The only team that needed Mark Teixeira more than the Yankees was the Angels. With the injuries to Vladimir Guerrero, the Angels just don't have an impact bat anymore – period. They finished 10th in the AL in runs scored last year, and that was with half a season of Teixeira hitting 358/449/632*. Their 100-62 record in 2008 disguised a roster whose Pythagorean record was a disappointing 88-74. Stuck in a division with two of the best farm systems – Oakland and Texas – churning out prospects left and right, there's no room for disappointment.

AL Central Preview: Anybody's Game

Over the past three years, four of the five teams in the AL Central have gone to the postseason. Each year, one team takes a step forward and then stumbles back. Is this the year that somebody finally dominates? Or will it be another photo finish?

My Predictions:
1st: Minnesota Twins
2nd: Cleveland Indians
3rd: Chicago White Sox
4th: Detroit Tigers
5th: Kansas City Royals

Minnesota Twins
The Twins made a valiant effort in 2008, finishing the season tied with the White Sox for the AL Central title. They lost a one-game playoff for the division crown, but none the less they made a great effort.
Still, when you have such a close call, you have to look for those opportunities you missed to improve your team. With the Twins, these were pretty clear. They left Francisco Liriano in the minors far longer than was necessary, with Livan Hernandez wreaking havoc in his place. More importantly, they utterly failed to improve the left half of their infield, even though they've had the same problem for years. If the Twins had been willing to spend just a moderate amount of money to acquire a decent third baseman a few years ago, they may have made it to the World Series, after failing to get there with postseason appearances in 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2006.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

2009 AL East Preview

The time had come for a change in Yankee-ville, and the Bronx Bombers were more than ready to seize the day. They started out by signing ace starter CC Sabathia (7 yrs., $161 MM) and strikeout master A.J. Burnett (5 yrs., $82.5 MM). And to bolster their offense, they brought in 28-year-old Mark Teixeira (8 yrs., $180 MM) to play first. The changes gave the Yankees a huge boost and put the spotlight on them as the team to beat in the AL East.
But the story isn't that simple. The Rays are still there, and while they may be destined to take a step back from the 2008 brilliance, that's no guarantee. The Red Sox spent the off-season adding spare parts like Josh Bard, John Smoltz and Ramon Ramirez, but they still feel confident that their core producers can compete with anyone, rich or poor.
It's tough to choose a winner out of three significant contenders. But here's how I see it happening ...

2009 Prediction
1st — New York Yankees
2nd — Boston Red Sox
3rd — Tampa Bay Rays
4th — Toronto Blue Jays
5th — Baltimore Orioles

New York Yankees
Not only have the Yankees added a significant upgrade at three positions (two starters and a first baseman), they also have a lot of room for improvement from within.

Mr. Selig Goes to Washington

Bud Selig's master plan was for baseball to return to Washington. In the dying days of the Montreal Expos, Selig made clear his desire that the team move out of Quebec and into the nation's capital. There were rumors that other cities were being considered, sure, but few people took seriously the idea that major league baseball could succeed in Monterrey, Mexico. Washington had a baseball-ready stadium and, not so coincidentally, would put baseball in the back yard of the movers and shakers on Capitol Hill.
Well, it didn't work out that way.
The Nationals inherited a front office run on a shoestring budget, a fallow farm system, and a team that hadn't been interesting in ten years. In 2008, the team lost 102 games, the worst record in baseball, and the worst mark for the franchise since 1976. But on the bright side, at least the front office wasn't under investigation by the FBI.
Oops . . .
Over the past year, federal investigators have been investigating charges that a handful of baseball teams were skimming bonus money away from young Caribbean players. The Nationals were among the teams named, with GM Jim Bowden and special assistant Jose Rijo targeted by the investigation. Rijo was fired by the Nats a week ago, and
the axe fell on Bowden on Sunday. He "resigned" days after word got out that the team was probably going to fire him.
Things weren't supposed to happen this way. But if you look at the situation realistically, we shouldn't be surprised. Well, the FBI investigation is surprising, but the team's overall failure was almost predictable given the circumstances.
There were three different problems that essentially "doomed" the Washington Nationals to this period of futility. They were: the city, the franchise, and the personnel. Each one played a part in bringing about the team's humiliating 2008-09 performance.