Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thirst for Knowledge Thursdays: Essential Angell

Baseball has begun. East and west, this is the week of the unfurled bunting, the flexed mayoral or gubernatorial wing, the restored hope, the repainted seat, the April fly ball falling untouched on resodded turf, the windblown shout, and the distant row of pitchers and catchers huddling deeper into their windbreakers as the early-spring sunlight deserts the bullpen. Now everything counts; from now until October, every pitch and every swing will be recorded. In another month, some order will begin to emerge from the standings. Infields will have hardened, some arms and expectations will have gone bad, and enormous crowds will pour out for their first weekend doubleheaders. The long season will engage us once again.
--- Roger Angell from The Summer Game
Keeping with the baseball theme we've maintained here for over a week now, the book I'm recommending this week is one of my favorite volumes of baseball writing. I've said before that baseball seems to attract the best writers of any sport and no sportswriting comes close to the eloquence of essayist Roger Angell. Every year I find myself returning to his books, the best of which cover the 60s and 70s era of baseball, and savoring them again so as to enhance my appreciation for this, the greatest of games.

Some consider his first collection of essays, The Summer Game, to be his best work and for anybody interested in great baseball writing it would be perfect place to start. The book contains Angell's baseball essays for The New Yorker written during the period of 1961 to 1971, including coverage of the World Series for each of those years. Most notably, it has Angell's essays on the brand new expansion New York Mets as they appeared in the early 60s. I don't often read purely for pleasure anymore but Angell's books are an exception. Reading him is like savoring a refreshing glass of chocolate milk. I like to refer to him as the Ralph Waldo Emerson of sportswriting because I often feel like I'm reading what Emerson (another writer who I read just for the experience of it) would have had to say about the game, such as when Angell recounts a raucous Mets game at the Polo Grounds where foghorn-blaring sign-carrying crowds came out to support their historically horrible team:
Suddenly the Mets fans made sense to me. What we were witnessing was precisely the opposite of the kind of rooting that goes on across the river. This was the losing cheer, the gallant yell for a good try---antimatter to the sounds of Yankee Stadium. This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and come from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us. I know for whom that foghorn blew; it blew for me.
He is a master with words and he employs them in such a smooth, readable manner yet always without pretense. On the surface, these are just paragraphs of a sensitive man's reflections on baseball games. But the way the simple way he describes the ebbs and flows of an at-bat, an inning, a game, a season, one is able to apprehend this ancient game as a timeless ritual. He writes of players, coaches, events that are buried in the past, from twenty or thirty years before I was even born, and yet his perspectives transcend the barriers of time and manifest into a game I'm viewing on an iPad with every little colorful blaring electronic distraction possible (pitch-tracker and other graphics). He is a baseball aesthetician and through his words one is encouraged to view the game in the same way.

I don't recall how I first stumbled upon his writing but I know it was during my first year of college at Pace University, when I was really not happy with my situation. I would often skip class and escape to explore the baseball section deep inside the school's vast library which had a whole big shelf filled with baseball books from the 70s and 80s. During that time, I devoured every Angell book they had and rounded out a burgeoning, broad baseball obsession that continues to captivate me with the yearly return of the game each spring on Opening Day. Happy baseball everyone!

2011 MLB Season Preview Part 6: AL East

Wrapping up our 2011 Season Preview with the most talked-about division in the sport. There are more words spilled on paper, more saliva spat between sports show hosts about the AL East teams than any in baseball. It seems at times that ESPN and SportsCenter are concerned with only two teams in baseball, the Red Sox and Yankees. So for this last part of the preview I will limit myself to just two sentences for each team since this is baseball's main-stream and it's already flooded.

AL East
Weaker Yankee and Rays teams open up the Wild Card door for AL contenders.

1. Red Sox
PECOTA: 93-69
My take: Over

Baseball's powerhouse features a deep lineup, rotation, bullpen, and even solid defense. They'll probably surpass 100 wins.

2. Rays
PECOTA: 85-77
My take: Over

Crawford is gone, the bullpen is a bargain bin bundle, but one of the smartest organizations in baseball continues to compete with the AL East beasts. Division's best rotation and a surprisingly strong offense led by a middle of Manny, Evan, and Danny (Johnson) leads the Rays to Wild Card playoff berth.

3. Yankees
PECOTA: 92-70
My take: Under

Explosive lineup and door-slamming pen keep them competing in baseball's best division but flimsy rotation falls short of Rays and Sox. Wild Card race should be exciting.

4. Orioles
PECOTA: 81-81
My take: Over

Interesting mix of young and old bats outscore opponents stifled by youthful rotation. With three "bona fide closers" in the pen, somebody ought to get the job done.

5. Blue Jays
PECOTA: 76-86
My take: Over

Fun team that relies on taters and a veritable factory of young arms. An 82-win season will leave them in 5th place, though they'll be a baseball novelty.

2011 MLB Season Preview Part 5: AL Central

The AL's best hitter: Miguel Cabrera

AL Central
The top 3 teams in this division are once again tightly bunched up. The Twins have come out on top each of the last two years but offseason additions in Chicago and Detroit have those two teams primed to battle it out for the top spot with the Twins probably lagging a couple games behind.

1. White Sox
PECOTA: 82-80
My take: Over

The Big Donkey is ready to blast this team into the playoffs.
There can't have been a more perfect match of a team and player than the White Sox and their new designated hitter, Adam Dunn. The 6-foot-6 behemoth known as "The Big Donkey" has been clobbering an average of 40 homeruns per season for the last seven years while playing for a few uncompetitive National League teams, lumbering around the outfield and first base bag and making a few fielding bloopers along the way. A seemingly natural-born DH, he now joins a lineup that got zilch from its designated hitter spot last season while still winning 88 games and their home park is one of the most homer-friendly ballparks in the major leagues. This should work out well.

The rotation doesn't really have one truly great pitcher but it does have four very good ones and, maybe, a still-effective Jake Peavy in the fifth spot. They're backed up by a sturdy bullpen that features a rare set of absolutely filthy left-handers, Matt Thonton and Chris Sale, both of whom average 96+ mph on their heaters.

The addition of Dunn, a breakout season from 24-year-old Gordon Beckham, and that flame-throwing dynamic duo of lefties pushes this team just barely past the Tigers in a tight race this year. 86 wins and the division title.

2. Tigers
PECOTA: 83-79
My take: Over

An extremely top-heavy team but they've got some of the game's absolute best talent at the top. This team reminds me a bit of the Cardinals (before Wainwright got injured) in the way they're constructed, look at it:

an other-worldly slugger
       Miguel Cabrera / Albert Pujols

next to a second solid bat
       Victor Martinez / Matt Holliday

while two of the league's best starting pitchers lead the pitching staff
        Justin Verlander / Adam Wainwright
        Max Scherzer / Chris Carpenter

The comparison is probably giving Scherzer a bit too much credit since he hasn't accomplished that much in the majors yet but last year was his first in the American League and he managed pretty well for a 25-year-old, putting up a superb 2.47 ERA in the second half. I expect big things from him this year. If the White Sox slip at all or suffer an injury to one of their best players, I think the Tigers will take the division. Regardless, I think they'll be an 85-win team that stays in the mix with the Twins and Sox all year. As always, I'll be rooting for a three-way tie just because those always mean extra baseball, i.e. tiebreakers.

3. Twins
PECOTA: 83-79
My take: Under

The Twinkies always puzzle me, they've really got a knack for defying expectations.* They were without their closer for the entire season and lost their best hitter for the second half yet they won 94 games last year. They'll probably prove me wrong again this year but I still think their lineup is weak behind the two big hitters, Mauer & Morneau. With the exception of Morneau (if he's recovered from the concussion he suffered), the infielders aren't reliable hitters at all. The team is benching Jim Thome in favor of a lesser batsmen to be the DH.

Francisco Liriano seems to have regained his ridiculous stuff (201 Ks in 191 innings last year) and he'll probably be great again but none of the other starters are anything special; overall the Twins have the weakest pitching staff of the three Central contenders. With the kinks in their lineup, I don't think this team overcomes the replenished Sox and Tiger squads.

*My older brother John, a baseball junkie who got me hooked on the game originally, once brought up an interesting theory that might account for this. When you think of the very best catchers, their teams are always competitive. Looking back at just the last 15 years or so, the best catchers have been Mike Piazza, Victor Martinez, Brian McCann, Jorge Posada, and Joe Mauer (with some big seasons by Javy Lopez and Pudge Rodriguez) and all of those guys, when they were on the field, played for strong teams. You think of the best catchers of all time (Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey) and they've all been on great teams. The true defensive value for catchers has always been hard for anybody to calculate and there's no doubt that a good-hitting catcher is one of the absolute most valuable gems in baseball. When Mauer is healthy, the Twins seem to be competitive no matter who they put on the field with him.

4. Indians
PECOTA: 74-88
My take: Under

This team might sneak up on people. If Grady Sizemore stays on the field, they've got a pretty potent group of hitters with Sizemore, Carlos Santana, and Shin-Soo Choo (such a wonderful name). Matt LaPorta was a monster in the minors and college ball but hasn't hit well at all in the majors thus far. He's only just turned 26 and could still break out, plus Travis Hafner is still an above-average hitter even though his power is depleted from his days of slugging around .600.

They won't win too many games because the pitching staff stinks but they'll at least be playing some exciting games this year with an offense that can score. I took the "under" on their 74-88 PECOTA forecast above but I think they'll win more than 70 games, definitely.

5. Royals
PECOTA: 68-94
My take: Under

I'm glad to see that the organization is finally getting some positive attention because of the historically fecund farm system they've got, but the current major league team looks as bad as ever. They have exactly one proven above-average offensive player in the lineup, Billy Butler, and he's not all that spectacular while the best pitcher in their rotation probably isn't good enough to be a 5th starter on any of the contending teams in baseball. Joakim Soria is an excellent closer, though, if that's good for anything.

While they'll surely sow some of those magic prospect beans into the major league roster this season, don't expect the harvest for another year at least. As currently assembled, this group could challenge the Astros for worst team in baseball.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

2011 MLB Season Preview Part 4: AL West

As we move into the American League portion of these previews, I'm going to try and keep the entry for each team a bit shorter as it's taking me far too long to assemble these previews and I want to have it all completed before Opening Day which is...tomorrow!

AL West

Baseball's only four-team division looks like it'll be a three-team race this year. Oakland has brought in a bunch of bats, Texas is a new powerhouse, and the Angels won't stay down for long. The Mariners look terrible once again.

(Note: the PECOTA numbers are as they appeared on 3-25-11)

1. Athletics
PECOTA: 83-79
My take: Over

This is my favorite American League team and I've been picking them to win the AL West each year for a while now.  They haven't won it since 2006 which was also the last time they played in the postseason. But the team has now established a(nother) strong trio of young front-end starters in Brett Anderson-Trevor Cahill-Gio Gonzalez. The team finished at exactly .500 last year, 81-81, with an anemic lineup and uncharacteristically shaky bullpen. They've completely revamped the lineup, adding three hitters who jump right into the 3-4-5 slots and pushing guys like Kurt Suzuki and Kevin Kouzamanoff down to the bottom of the order. Daric Barton established himself as an on-base machine (.393 OBP last year) atop the lineup and I think the overall result will be better run-production than the A's have had in many years.

The pitching looks to be strong again with a loaded bullpen and as long as they have the Ellis-Pennington combo at 2B/SS and Coco Crisp (if he's healthy) manning centerfield, this is a great defensive team. I've got them pegged for a big year, 87 wins and a playoff appearance.

2. Rangers
PECOTA: 85-77
My take: Even

The defending American League champs look strong once again this year. Adding Adrian Beltre to that lineup (as well as his superb defense in the field) will be a major boost to them. While this is an organization that looks to be prepared to compete for years to come, I think we'll see a tiny bit of regression from their 90 wins last season. Their pitching staff was outstanding last season, particularly the bullpen. If the two best starters, C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis, can match their excellence from last year, this team will be great again but I expect them both to fall back down to earth a bit. Same with the bullpen; while Neftali Feliz is an unquestionably superb pitcher, saving him only for the 9th inning and textbook "save situations" is a terrible waste of resources.

3. Angels
PECOTA: 78-84
My take: Over

My big brother John has been an Angels fan for something like 30 years so I commissioned him to share his thoughts on his favorite team's chances this year. Here's what he had to say:
Like every other Angels fan I am disappointed that they blew their money on paying off the rest of Vernon Wells' contract rather than overpaying for Carl Crawford. The fact that Boston chose Crawford out of all the big free agents of the last few years to really go overboard on should tell you that he was the guy to get.

But as far as 2011 goes, I feel the Angels have the widest degree of possible outcomes of any team out there. They might win 90 games or they might only win 72. Neither would surprise me.

Peter Bourjos' range knows no bounds
The key may be Peter Bourjos. He is another monster defensive centerfielder in the Gary Pettis and Devon White tradition. With him running down everything in sight out there (giving the Angels a full season of improved defensive efficiency %) and if the Angels deep farm system burps up a couple of talents a little early, they could receive a big boost. If Wells has one of his sporadic good years, and if Mike Scioscia can work his magic again where the Angels exceed the expected Pythagorean wins and then they use their money to take overpaid talent off the hands of some teams having disappointing seasons, then bam: 90+ wins.

I also expect the Rangers to regress (and Seattle to improve) based on the Plexiglass Principle. The A’s are just too poor and every free agent that Billy Beane signs never seems to work out. So the division is there for the taking.

But if the Angels' old players suddenly decline like old players do, and they get a couple of key injuries, some pitchers disappoint and they start slow, then they’ll stink.
My own guess for this group is right in the middle of that huge variance of possible outcomes John speaks of. I say 83 wins.

4. Mariners
PECOTA: 70-92
My take: Under

It seems like they can't possibly be as horrifically bad as last year. As shown in Baseball Prospectus 2011, they put up one of the 15 worst offensive seasons since 1954 last season (as measured by True Average). Things can only get better, right? Well, the team didn't really do much to improve the offense during the offseason. They brought in Jack Cust (a Three True Outcomes favorite of mine but not a reliable hitter) to be their designated hitter and catcher Miguel Olivo who, for his career, has an OPS+ of 86, sixteen percent below the league average. On the other hand, it is reasonable to expect that hitters like Chone Figgins and Franklin Gutierrez will see improvement. First baseman Justin Smoak was terrible after coming over in a trade last year but, as a first-year player having to adapt to the big leagues while also adapting to a brand new organization, he can be forgiven for his poor performance. I expect him to at least get on base a little bit more this season. And, of course, the amazing Ichiro is a guarantee to knock 200 hits.

The offense will be a little better but I actually think the pitching will be worse. Behind Cy Young award-winner Felix Hernandez, this rotation looks like crap. Rookie right-hander Michael Pineda ought to be fun to watch but this is also his first taste of the big leagues and so we don't know what to expect. With some regression on the mound balancing out the inevitable offensive improvement, I see them around 65 wins this year.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Tree of Life (Expectation)

Though it was first released to the public three months ago, I have only just recently had a chance to see the trailer for the upcoming film The Tree of Life. It looks pretty special, the trailer had my soul buzzing. Check it out:

Here is how writer/director Terrence Malick describes the film:
We trace the evolution of an eleven-year-old boy in the Midwest, Jack, one of three brothers. At first all seems marvelous to the child. He sees as his mother does with the eyes of his soul. She represents the way of love and mercy, where the father tries to teach his son the world’s way of putting oneself first. Each parent contends for his allegiance, and Jack must reconcile their claims. The picture darkens as he has his first glimpses of sickness, suffering and death. The world, once a thing of glory, becomes a labyrinth.
From this story is that of adult Jack, a lost soul in a modern world, seeking to discover amid the changing scenes of time that which does not change: the eternal scheme of which we are a part. When he sees all that has gone into our world’s preparation, each thing appears a miracle—precious, incomparable. Jack, with his new understanding, is able to forgive his father and take his first steps on the path of life.
The story ends in hope, acknowledging the beauty and joy in all things, in the everyday and above all in the family—our first school—the only place that most of us learn the truth about the world and ourselves, or discover life’s single most important lesson, of unselfish love.
From the looks of it, with its scenes of everyday life growing up, as well as the visual splendors of the planets, the cosmos, inner and outer space, this will probably be one of those extraordinary films that produces a feeling of the sublime; the static feeling of "aesthetic arrest" as described by James Joyce in his first novel. I'm definitely looking forward to it.

*   *   *

When looking up information about the movie, every site emphasizes that the director/writer, Malick, has kept the details about the film under tight wrap for years now, not letting anything leak out into the public sphere. This reminded me of another famous work of art with the same name: a magnificent, elaborate marble frieze entitled The Tree of Life by Viennese painter Gustav Klimt. Klimt worked on his Tree of Life for about six years, collaborating with many artists and artisans who he instructed to keep the work a secret. The final piece is one of Klimt's most famous images.

The two main motifs are (from left to right) Expectation and The Embrace. I have a print of this painting (hard to call it just a "painting" because the real work is etched into a marble wall) hung on the wall right behind me as I write this, the curling branches seemingly bursting out of my head.

And my Expectation is through the roof for this new film of the same name.

Monday, March 28, 2011

2011 MLB Season Preview Part 3: NL East

I feel the need to emphasize that, with the six-month 162-game marathon of a season, there is so much variability in the performance of baseball teams and the outcome of the season that it's almost fruitless to discuss them like this. But, we baseball fiends like to blabber about it anyway.

I bring this up also because you have to keep in mind that even the highly intricate forecasting system whose win numbers I'm using, PECOTA, has huge variance. The number they present is basically an average but it's to be understood that the end result could easily fluctuate 5-7 games in either direction. I just received my ESPN Magazine in the mail today which features Dan Szymborski's ZiPs projections for each team and they even look very different (the Phillies are projected to win 95 games as opposed to PECOTA projecting 90).

So there's a lot of expected variance inherent in all of this. I'm not pretending to be an oracle, just using the win numbers as a springboard. It's inevitable that somebody will get hurt, somebody will slump badly, somebody will unexpectedly turn in a huge season, and that's the fun of actually watching the games. I can tell you with confidence, though, that the Nationals will suck.

NL East
(note that the PECOTA numbers are as of March 25th, 2011. They might have changed a bit by now.)

1. Phillies
PECOTA:  90-72
My take: Over

Having assembled what might be one of the best pitching rotations of all time, the Phillies will try to prolong their dynasty which has seen them make it as far as the League Championship Series three years in a row and an increase in regular season wins for four straight seasons (89, 92, 93, 97). The only thing that could prevent this team from reaching 100 victories this season will be their rapidly declining lineup. The team scored just 772 runs last year, their fewest since 2002, while Chase Utley and Ryan Howard missed time with injuries. Jimmy Rollins is no longer a capable hitter and Raul Ibanez turns 39 years old this summer. Having 22-year-old rookie Domonic Brown, one of the best offensive prospects in baseball, step into the starting lineup certainly helps but he's got big shoes to fill as the departed Jayson Werth was the team's best hitter last year with a 145 OPS+.

If the offense manages to muster just league-average production, this team will still win a ton of games because of the pitching staff. Their #4 starter, Cole Hamels, struck out 211 hitters last year. Roy Oswalt showed us is still an elite pitcher, leading the NL in WHIP, recording 193 strikeouts, a 2.76 ERA, and 6th-place finish in the Cy Young voting. That's the #3 starter. The top two guys are arguably two of the top 3 pitchers in all of baseball.

It's a long season and so many of the stars in this lineup are over 30, but I see them winning at least 95 games and possibly heading to another World Series. If they suffer any long-term injuries, though, this next team is just about ready to usurp their hold on the division.

2. Braves
PECOTA: 87-75
My take: Over

I spoke very highly of the Braves in my preview last season and I think they look great again this year. It's all about the pitching. Tommy Hanson is the ace of the staff already at age 24 and I wouldn't be surprised if he's a Cy Young candidate this year. Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe are veteran groundball machines and 25-year-old Jair Jurrjens is an excellent pitcher when healthy. The bullpen looks to be a major strength with the young flame-throwing lefty/righty duo of Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel at the back end.

On offense, right-fielder Jason Heyward played a full season in the majors last year at age 20 and not only held his own but had a pretty damn good season (.393 OBP). The team as a whole can get on base, they were one of the top OBP teams in baseball last year and adding a homerun threat like Dan Uggla (30+ homers each of the last four years) into the mix along with highly-regarded rookie first baseman Freddie Freeman makes this an improved lineup.

The one area of concern might be their defense, especially with Dan Uggla taking over at second base. Chipper Jones isn't the best defensive player and that makes two liabilities in the infield with a predominantly groundball staff. Alex Gonzalez is still a great defensive shortstop though and I think this deep pitching staff will be able to succeed despite their second baseman's Uggla-ness. It'll be another 90 win season and a trip to the playoffs for this improving Braves team.  

3. Marlins
PECOTA: 84-78
My take: Under

Another NL team with a deep rotation, the Marlins will once again have to settle for floating on the peripheries of contention this year because of some weak spots in the lineup. While having Mike Stanton, projected to bash upwards of 30 homeruns, batting behind Hanley Ramirez all year will certainly put some runs up on the board, giving at bats to hitters like Emilio Bonifacio, Donnie Murphy and Matt Dominguez is badly detrimental to the team's success. The same goes for their decision to put Chris Coghlan, a mediocre left fielder, in charge of covering the vast center field pastures in LandShark Stadium (is that really the name of their stadium these days?). The bullpen also looks to be suspect.

A great rotation will make up for this team's shortcomings and keep them a game or two over .500. I expect a big season from Javier Vazquez who clearly doesn't enjoy pitching in the spotlight and should be content to do his duty in front of a mostly empty home ballpark in Miami. Josh Johnson is a perennial Cy Young candidate, he won the ERA title last year, and Ricky Nolasco continues to be unlucky and unheralded while posting great peripherals (4.45 K/BB ratio last season).

Because they always seem to be in the playoff mix even with a low payroll, no fans, and a jerky owner, I usually enjoy seeing this team succeed. But this year I don't think they'll come close to the Braves or Phils and the lowly Mets might even overtake them.

4. Mets
PECOTA:  78-84
My take: Over

The bumbling, clumsy ol' Mets...

As a Mets fan, at least I can say this: it's more fun to root for a team with imperfections. Even after they revamped their front office with some of the best minds in baseball, the Mets are still the butt of everyone's jokes because their owners got burned by the biggest Ponzi scheme in history and now have to borrow money from the league office in order to make payroll. Things don't look so great on the field either. Most projection systems forecast them to finish in fourth place, their rotation looks like crap and they've got a ton of injury risks in the lineup.

There is room for optimism, though. If there are no injuries, this is the best lineup in the whole division. The top seven hitters can all get on base at an above-average clip and even their new second baseman, rule 5 draft pick Brad Emaus (whose name is pronounced exactly like the name of Odysseus' swineherd "Eumaeus") is projected for a solid .330 OBP. David Wright is one of the best hitters in baseball and, when he's at full strength, so is Carlos Beltran though nobody really knows what to expect from him this year after a bunch of knee injuries. Jason Bay had a power-outage (career-low .402 slugging) last year before the lights went out in his skull after smashing it into a fence. He's another roll of the dice. When healthy he's a great hitter. Same with Jose Reyes. With good health, the offense alone could push this team over .500.

The pitching looks to be a fun adventure ride. Each of the top three starters relies exclusively on one pitch. Mike Pelfrey has a sinker, Jon Niese a cutter, and R.A. Dickey a whacky knuckleball. If they could combine those three pitches into a single repetoire, they'd get a lot of people out. Otherwise, they'll struggle to post league average numbers. The rest of the staff doesn't look so good either, although I do think Chris Young can be a very effective pitcher if he's healthy. In the bullpen, they've got so many new faces that I really don't know what to expect.

Every aspect of this team is pretty nebulous, really, nobody knows what to expect out of them this year. It does seem like their ceiling is no more than probably 85 or 86 wins but they could just as easily win 70 games and it wouldn't shock anyone. I think they'll provide plenty of excitement as well as frustration on the way to an 83-win season. And that should be considered a success.

5. Nationals
PECOTA: 71-91
My take: Under

Two Zimmermans and a Werth won't be enough to make this team reach 70 victories. The lineup is bereft of OBP and the pitching staff, aside from Jordan Zimmermann, looks like vintage Pittsburgh Pirates material. I do have a soft spot for Livan Hernandez because his strike zone craftwork is so fun to watch but he got very lucky last year with balls in play and is a good candidate to implode this year. They've got some promising prospects, sure, but they won't be playing any seriously competitive baseball until 2012 at the earliest.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

2011 MLB Season Preview Part 2: NL Central

My predictions for each team continue...
(See Part 1 for a description of the format.)

NL Central
Always a tight division, the Cincinnati Reds finally capitalized on all their potential and outlasted the Cardinals last year. Now, the Brewers have retooled and suddenly look like the favorites especially with the Cardinals losing Adam Wainwright and everybody loves the Cubbies. Here's how I see it all playing out.

1. Brewers
PECOTA: 85-77
My take: Even

Ever since I visited Milwaukee in the summer of 2008 and had the chance to observe the city and its baseball team, I've had a personal affection for them. Later on in that '08 season the team acquired corpulent ace C.C. Sabathia who led them into the playoffs but, Sabathia would leave for the Yankees after that season and the Brewers have been a major disappointment ever since. Their failures can be blamed entirely on an inability to pitch or, rather, an inability to put adequate pitchers on the mound (aside from ace Yovani Gallardo).

This past offseason the team traded for Zack Greinke and Shawn Marcum and now, suddenly, their rotation looks terrific. The way I see it, Gallardo is still the ace. One of my favorite players in the league, Gallardo has continually been underrated by the general baseball community but the guy simply dominates as evidenced by his top-10 finish in strikeouts the last two seasons. And he's only now coming into his age-25 season. I expect him to be terrific again.
Say it with me now: "Yo-vah-nee Guy-yar-do"
With Greinke and Marcum behind the great Yovani, this is a totally different team. The offensive firepower has always been there and this year they've got at least 5 players capable of bashing 25 homers. Prince Fielder is in the final year of his contract so he'll probably be extra motivated after finishing with "only" 32 homeruns last year and a sub-.500 slugging percentage.

The bullpen appears to be their only weakness as John Axford cannot be relied upon to close all season. He performed admirably last year in 50 appearances but throughout his career he's been prone to give up way too many walks. The addition of Takashi Saito helps and 23-year-old lefty Zach Braddock looks legitimately great but otherwise this isn't a great bullpen. It shouldn't matter nearly as much if their combination of high-powered offense and deep starting pitching creates big enough leads for the relievers to work with.

They're a trendy pick this year and I'm drinking the Kool-Aid. I don't think they'll win 90 games but a playoff appearance and possible championship run seems to be a realistic possibility.

2. Reds
PECOTA: 82-80
My take: Over 

Usually, I find it hard to have confidence in any team managed by bumbling Dusty Baker but this a very talented group. For one thing, they've got last year's MVP in the middle of the lineup, Joey Votto, who might be the second-best hitter on the planet behind Albert Pujols. Votto turns just 27 years old this year and should continue to mash although I'd be shocked if he comes close to last season's .357 True Average. The other player to be excited about on this team is another "V" surname, Edinson Volquez. The young right-hander came back from a year off recovering from surgery to post career-high strikeout and ground-ball numbers last season and as he continues to recover from the surgery, he can be reasonably expected to further improve this year. He reminds me of Pedro Martinez on the mound and I'm excited to see what he'll do this year.

Along with Volquez they've got a wealth of young arms in the rotation plus veteran Bronson Arroyo who continues to get by with a funky arsenal of slop. The bullpen has been a strength of theirs for a couple years now and this year they'll have the Cuban lefty Aroldis Chapman coming out of the pen. Chapman came up during the summer last year and was throwing harder than any human being in recorded history, frequently touching 103-mph. He should be ready to step in and usurp the closer job from Francisco Cordero at some point this year though Baker the decision maker has been known for disregarding logic. A perfect example of this is the very presence of Chapman in the pen where he'll pitch probably 70 innings max, instead of in the rotation where he could pitch at least twice as much.

The lineup is pretty solid from top to bottom (although, again, Baker is known for batting slappy out-machines in the leadoff spot) with young outfielders Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs providing plenty of pop behind Votto. They've also got one of the best overall defenses in baseball. Look for them to be in the heart of the battle for the division crown but I don't think they'll reach the heights of last year's 91 wins.

3. Cardinals
PECOTA: 85-77
My take: Under

To me, this team has underachieved for a while now. They've got by far the best player in baseball and two of the best pitchers yet they didn't reach 90 wins last year and, though they won the World Series back in 2006 (thanks to the Mets faltering in the NLCS) they haven't won more than 91 games these last five years. I place some of the blame on Tony LaRussa who insists on forcing his convoluted strategies into every game to such an extent that he gets in the way of his team's performance.

At any rate, the lineup this year is the usual stars-and-scrubs variety with Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday in the heart of the order surrounded by mediocre hitters. Centerfielder Colby Rasmus looks like the real deal but LaRussa clashed with him last year so much so that Rasmus supposedly wanted to be traded. If he gets the playing time he deserves, Rasmus might blossom into a star but it seems like he has to do it on Tony LaRussa's terms.

Their best pitcher, Adam Wainwright is out for the season and suddenly the starting rotation doesn't look so great. Chris Carpenter is a great pitcher, although he displayed his disturbing douchebaggery to the whole world last season, and sophomore lefty Jaime Garcia is a good bet to post another solid season but behind the two of them there's not much to be excited about. The bullpen has some nice throwers along with a few of the whackiest beards in baseball and it's a given that LaRussa will employ every single reliever on the roster.

But there's seems to be a lot of outside drama hovering over this team. LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan are getting up there in age and LaRussa especially seems to be growing grumpier. Pujols is signed through the end of this year but after that he's a free agent and so there's the lingering possibility of his imminent departure on everyone's mind. With all of the drama and LaRussa's continued descent into senility, this team will finish around .500 at best. It's sad really, because Pujols deserves better.

4. Cubs
PECOTA: 80-82
My take: Even

Everybody's favorite sleeper team this year. A couple weeks ago I was listening to Jonah Keri's podcast when he had Rob Neyer on as a guest. Neyer was asked for a sleeper pick this year and he was given about 5 minutes to ponder it. While listening, I considered each of the divisions in my mind and realized by a process of elimination that he'd say the Cubs. In my head I was saying "Cubs...Cubs...Cubs" and Neyer finally responded saying "I think the Cubs will surprise people." Jay Jaffe just wrote a piece at Baseball Prospectus analyzing his own intuitive choice of the Cubbies as a sleeper, coming away a bit disappointed after researching their roster this year.

They will definitely be better than last year's 75-87 performance that had them finish a game behind the lowly Astros. The strength of the team is an all-around solid starting rotation that doesn't really have an ace but Ryan Dempster, Crazy Carlos Zambrano, and Matt Garza are all pretty damn good. Randy Wells is a perfect #4 starter, and I mean that as a compliment. Andrew Cashner, a big 24-year-old right-hander will be the 5th starter and, if he can harness his control, he could be something special as he's got great stuff.

Everyone, including me, is excited about young shortstop Starlin Castro and he's a nice player (with a great name) but at age 21 he's still learning how to hit in the majors. I wouldn't be surprised if opposing pitchers have figured him out and he struggles this year. Then again, it also wouldn't be a big shock if he bursts forth with a .330/.380/.440 type season and keeps the Cubs playing exciting, contending baseball all year. He'll be batting in the leadoff spot so what he does will certainly go a long way towards determining the team's offensive output.

Bringing in Carlos Pena to play first after he produced a sub-.200 stinker last year was actually a good move. The 2009 homerun leader should benefit both from playing in dinger-friendly Wrigley Field and getting out of baseball's toughest division, the AL East. If Aramis Ramirez can stay healthy and if Marlon Byrd shows a little more power, this has the makings of a nice lineup but those are pretty big IFs. Byrd and Ramirez are both on the wrong side of 30, they'll be 33 this year just like the team's mildly productive left fielder Alfonso Soriano.

The team's best hitter is probably catcher Geovany Soto but they usually keep him down in the bottom of the batting order for some ridiculous reason. I guess it's because he's a catcher? I don't know. I'm stumped. New manager Mike Quade might be a distant relative of mine (years ago my grandfather briefly changed his name from Quadrino to Quade to bypass prejudice against Italians) and the team played well for him last year but keeping poor OBP hitters like Castro and Byrd at the top of the lineup is not a good way to get the most out of this offense. And, aside from closer Carlos Marmol who is a specimen unlike any in baseball history (his frisbee slider is practically uncontrollable leading to lots of walks but historically awesome strikeout rates) the group of relievers Quade has at his disposal looks a bit shaky.

I think they'll be a more exciting team to watch this year but the end result will be a bit short of .500.

5. Pirates
PECOTA: 71-91
My take: Under

They've finished at the bottom of the division five out of the last six seasons and last year was one of their worst years ever. Rock bottom has been struck. Things should really start to change this year as they've established a pretty solid core of young hitters. Andrew McCutchen (24), Pedro Alvarez (24), Jose Tabata (22), and Neil Walker (25) can all hit. Alvarez especially is someone to be excited about as the 2008 #2 overall draft pick displayed some serious power last year with 16 homeruns and 21 doubles in barely half a season. He's a good bet to knock 30 or maybe even 40 homeruns this year.

The huge problem with this team is its rotation. They've got nobody. Well, James McDonald has some potential but besides him, they've got nobody. The organization has two young prospects in Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie who are studs and could be great major league pitchers some day but that's at least a couple years from now. This current pitching staff will undoubtedly struggle.

New manager Clint Hurdle should be able to rile this group up though and I think they'll be much improved from last year's 105-loss stinker. But the ceiling for this group looks to be about 70 wins.

6. Astros
PECOTA: 68-94
My take: waaaaay Under

Along with the Mariners and Royals, this is the worst team in baseball. A college team could outscore this lineup. Their best hitter is Hunter Pence and he neither gets on base enough (.325 OBP last year) nor hits with enough power (.461 slugging) to even be a league-average hitter for his position. Carlos Lee, the team's highest-paid player, absolutely fell off a cliff last season batting .246/.291/.417 and making almost $20 million for it. Formerly known as "El Caballo" (Spanish for "The Horse") the 34-year-old tubby outfielder better fits a description made famous by one of Salvador Dali's essays: "The Rotten Donkey."

The pitching rotation does carry some major-league caliber players and might win them a few games this year. Wandy Rodriguez is a tough little lefty (listed at 5'11" though probably more like 5'9") and Brett Myers, while a terrible person, isn't a terrible pitcher. Bud Norris can rack up some strikeouts (9.3 per 9 innings last year) but he walks too many batters and is prone to giving up homeruns. J.A. Happ is hapless, Nelson Figueroa needs to figure out how to pitch. I'm just being silly now. This team literally boggles the mind. It amazes me that an organization would trot out a group like this and expect customers to pay large amounts of money to see them play baseball. I'd be surprised if the team reaches 60 wins this year.

2011 MLB Season Preview Part 1: NL West

Over the next week I'll be posting my preview for the 2011 baseball season, covering each of the six divisions.

The format will be the same as last year. For each team I've included their projected 2011 record as predicted by Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system. The system determines playing time for all players on each team, derives Runs Scored and Runs Allowed totals from their 2011 forecasts, and extrapolates that into wins and losses (take a look at it here). We'll be using the PECOTA record as a baseline and then I will offer my take on each team's chances and how it will all stack up. Please feel free to agree, disagree, hurl obscenities at me, whatever. Let's talk baseball. 

NL West
Last year the San Diego Padres surprised everyone by sitting up in first place for most of the season before the rival Giants made a late charge and toppled them during the regular season's final series. San Francisco carried that momentum all through an exciting playoff run culminating in the franchise's first World Series since they moved from New York in 1958. They'll try to defend their division title this year against a strong collective that features a number of young, burgeoning superstars like Mat Latos, Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Upton, and more. There's plenty of talent in this division, especially pitching-wise. The top four teams all boast potent pitching staffs and so it should be an exciting year in this competitive division once again.

1. Giants
PECOTA:  91-71
My take: Under

An elite pitching staff and patchwork offense carried this team all the way to a championship last year. Can they get back to the playoffs?

All the important pitchers return this year and they'll even get to have Madison Bumgarner in the rotation right from the get-go this time. The bullpen of bearded bombasts returns mostly intact as well. Collectively, this was the best run prevention unit in baseball last year (barely nudging past the Padres with a 3.36 team ERA) and I think we'll see more of the same. Their top four starters (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, and Bumgarner) might only be eclipsed by the quartet assembled in Philadelphia and this group is so young that they could even improve upon last year's performance.

Panda is expected to pick it up this year
The big question mark is, once again, can their offense produce? With such stifling run prevention, the lineup doesn't have to reach all that high. They just have to outscore the opponent. Having Buster Posey for a full season will certainly make a big difference and the same goes for their other add-ons from last year, Cody Ross and Pat Burrell. Aubrey Huff is due for a regression after blasting his way to a career year last season at age 33 but, even if he slips, the team has their best prospect, Brandon Belt, waiting to pounce on an opening. Pablo Sandoval stunk last year but PECOTA projects him to have a nice bounceback season with a .299/.346/.465 batting average/on-base/slugging percentage. New shortstop Miguel Tejada was rejuvenated after escaping the dreary Baltimore atmosphere last season and, though he's not a very good fielder nowadays, he can still hit a little.

So, can this offense outscore its opponents? I think they can. But I don't think this team will win 90 games this year. It's a very tough division once again and, while I think they'll finish ahead of the pack, I see them battling it out with a young Rockies team all year. My prediction is 87 wins and another playoff run.

2. Rockies
PECOTA: 84-78
My take: Over

Just like the other top teams in this division, the Rockies are a team with a deep pitching staff and an unspectacular overall lineup. They do feature two young sluggers in Troy Tulowitzki (26 years old) and Carlos Gonzalez (25) who are only just now coming upon their peak years. These two are arguably the best hitters in the whole division. But the bats around them have been weak. Last year, none of the other regular hitters managed an OPS+ better than the league average and the only addition they made in the offseason was to bring in second baseman Jose Lopez, a free-swinging out-machine (career .297 OBP) though he can hit some homers and should enjoy playing in Coors Field.

Observe the stirrups
The strength of this team is the pitching staff and theirs is deep enough to match up with anyone in the division. The euphoniously named Ubaldo Jimenez has been improving his strikeout rate and ERA in each year of his career thus far and he'll only be 27 this year. He's a good bet to be one of the best pitchers in the NL this year. I'm excited about 23-year-old Jhoulys Chacin (another cool name) getting a chance to pitch in the rotation for a full season and the rest of the rotation is solid with Jason Hammel, Jorge de la Rosa, and Aaron Cook all capable of at least average production. The pen is deep and they've added a couple of flame-throwers in Matt Lindstrom and Felipe Paulino.

Though the lineup relies heavily on two players for run production, the Rockies can reasonably expect to see bounceback seasons from Dexter Fowler, Ian Stewart, and Seth Smith all of whom are still young. Not surprisingly, PECOTA has each of them tabbed for pretty strong seasons (a combined line of .275/.353/.465) and if they come through then this might actually turn into the best offense in the division. I think the Rox will be in the mix all year and I have them finishing in a tie with the Giants at 87 wins.

3. Padres
PECOTA: 80-82
My take: Over

The time is now for Chase Headley
I had a bunch to say about the Padres in a post the other day, the gist of it was that they've done a pretty good job patching up the gaping hole left by the Adrian Gonzalez trade. The lineup doesn't have anyone who's really imposing at all but they don't really have any major weakness either. Everyone in the lineup, with the possible exception of Cameron Maybin, can hit. And Maybin is so young that he just might still turn into a good player. Ryan Ludwick was horrible after coming to San Diego at the deadline last year but if he can hit closer to his normal established performance it'll be a huge boost.

Last year I thought Chase Headley would finally break out and have a big year at the plate but he finished with a measly .266 True Average (a stat that looks like batting average but encompasses every aspect of a hitter's performance). There's more pressure on him to produce now and he's entering his prime so I'm optimistic once again. Petco Park saps offensive numbers to a ridiculous degree but I don't think it's crazy to suggest he can put up a .280/.350/.415 line this year. That doesn't look spectacular but, for his home park it's pretty good and it would represent a big jump in performance for Headley.

The rotation just might be better than last year as they've plugged their only gaping holes. Mat Latos was a beast in his first year and finished in the top 10 of the Cy Young voting. Watching all of his games last year, it seemed his only real problem was immaturity. If he missed a couple pitches or gave up some hits, he'd put on a whole big fuss for everybody to see. He'll only be 23 this year but it would be very surprising if he's still pulling that shit on the mound again after an offseason to reflect on it. I expect him to have another big year.

The amazing San Diego bullpen (something of a Padre tradition, really) is back in full force and should continue to dominate. Even if the team trades closer Heath Bell, they've got at least two other guys who can step in and close games with Mike Adams and Luke Gregerson. This is a team that wins entirely on pitching & defense (with or without Adrian). The pitching is back and the defense has actually been improved with a new double-play duo and the fleet-footed Maybin in center. It wouldn't surprise me if the Padres are in the race for the division title again this year but I expect them to finish a couple games over .500.

4. Dodgers
PECOTA: 87-75
My take: Under

This organization is a Metsian mess. Let's talk about the positives first: they can pitch. Ned Colleti has assembled a very solid rotation with the young aces Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley backed up by a trio of Hiroki Kuroda, Ted Lilly, and Jon Garland. In a league with stacked rotations (the Giants, Phillies, Brewers, Rockies, Marlins) this group can go up against any of them. Don Mattingly gets his first shot at managing and should be able to better connect with the team's young players than senior citizen Joe Torre did.

Now, the bad news. Manny Ramirez is gone and his replacement looks to be Jay freakin' Gibbons, a washed up veteran who was out of professional baseball for a couple years until the Dodgers gave him a job. Matt Kemp was once supposed to be a superstar but he played like he didn't give a shit about anything last year, looking pathetic on the basepaths and generally lolly-gagging all over the field. Things can't really get much worse for him this year and a new, younger manager ought to be able to motivate him better. Andre Ethier is an all-around good hitter when healthy and the same goes for Rafael Furcal but after that, nobody else can hit. James Loney is a perennial disappointment, Casey Blake is 37 and he collapsed last year, and they've plugged the second base hole with Juan Uribe, a fun portly player with some power but not somebody you can really rely on. They also gave a bunch of money to Rod Barajas to be their starting catcher and, like Uribe, Barajas can hit the ball out of the park but makes far too many outs as his pathetic .284 career OBP attests to.

The pen has some good arms but their big closer fell off a cliff last season. PECOTA has an extremely optimistic projection for this team but I'll definitely take the under. I don't think they'll reach .500 this year although I do wish the best for Mattingly.

5. Diamondbacks
PECOTA: 75-87
My take: Even

Well, they definitely won't be nearly as bad as last season's 65-97 stinker. As discussed in this year's Baseball Prospectus annual, they might have finished a lot closer to .500 had it not been for one the absolute worst bullpens in baseball history last year. In general manager Kevin Towers, the D'backs brought in the perfect guy to fix that. If there's anything he's known for, it's putting together a strong bullpen on the cheap. Towers made a couple of quiet moves, bringing in J.J. Putz to close and a few other relievers with some potential and this definitely looks like an improved team. The rotation is young and lacking a true ace but overall it's a pretty solid group. Daniel Hudson looked great in 11 starts (70/16 K/BB and a 1.69 ERA) after being acquired from the White Sox last year and he's only 24. Who knows, maybe he'll become a star.

Their lineup might do some damage. Chris Young finally put together a nice season, fulfilling the high expectations we've had for him right when people started giving up hope. He drew a bunch of walks and just barely missed a 30/30 season (he had 27 homers and 28 steals). Miguel Montero is one of the best young catchers in the league, Kelly Johnson and Stephen Drew can both hit, and while Justin Upton saw his power slip last year, the kid is entering his fourth full season and he's only 23. Don't count him out yet. They picked up Russell Branyan to split first base time with Brandon Allen and both of those guys have prodigious power.

This team certainly won't come close to losing 100 games again this year. They'll keep things competitive in this fun, talent-laden NL West division but look for them to finish under .500.

(Photo credits: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images; David Zalubowski/Denver Post; Icon SM)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Thirst for Knowledge Thursdays: Diamonds are Forever

Continuing my weekly series of illuminating one book (or more) each Thursday...

I completely lucked out in finding this book. As I've mentioned a couple times before, there is a great bookstore chain here in Austin called Half Price Books that sells used books in usually perfect condition for very low prices. There are a bunch of these stores around here but the one on North Lamar Blvd has an absolutely tremendous selection including a separate room for extremely rare books (I scooped up an obscure Finnegans Wake study there not too long ago plus a great book of Joyce's poetry published in Poland).

My girlfriend and I stopped in the other day for a quick look around and I scooped up yet another Joyce study, this one a detailed analysis of Ulysses called The Book as World. It had an infinity symbol on the cover and great reviews so I couldn't resist adding it to the stack I'm studying for my own soon-to-come Ulysses breakdown. But just as my girlfriend was getting on line I thought to go take a quick peek at their baseball section to see if there were any gems. I ended up with exactly that, an immaculate gem of a book.

The book is called Diamonds are Forever: Artists and Writers on Baseball and, just as the title suggests, it's a rich collection of artwork, poetry, and essays on the eternal aura of the game of baseball. It's a pretty large book, soft-cover but the size of an art book or so-called "coffee table" book (I've never owned a coffee table but I've got a bunch of these type of books) and it was published by Chronicle Books, a San Francisco-based publisher who seems to produce just about every highly awesome artsy book I come across. For example, my girlfriend received a huge spectacle of a book this past X-Mas from her dad: a collection of New York City subway art images published by Chronicle.

The apparent polar opposite of most of the baseball literature I read which contains lots of stats and objective analysis, this is an aesthetic appraisal of the game's archetypal and timeless aspects. I've been buried in it for the last couple days and it's stunning. It's got plenty of passages from my all-time favorite baseball writer, Roger Angell, the Ralph Waldo Emerson of sportswriting, plus material from poet Donald Hall (a gifted wordsmith who collaborated with Dock Ellis on a book I've been itching to read for a while now), David Halberstam, Thomas Boswell, Woody Allen, Roger Kahn, John Updike and a whole bunch more. The visual art is rich and diverse and, along with the poems and lyrical essays, it all gels together for a beautiful study of baseball as an eternal, mystical ritual. Which is, of course, the whole point of artwork as the introduction states:
[Isn't] that the "job" of the artist? They take those experiences that many of us have and transform them into something new---into paintings and poems and essays that challenge us, or delight us, or touch us so deeply that we're convinced there's magic going on there somewhere...The artist has that rare ability to make the ordinary extraordinary, that rare ability to have us see and experience with "new eyes."
The book is in such perfect condition that it wasn't until a few hours ago that I realized it was actually published in 1987. It's apparently a pretty rare, limited edition book that was printed for a traveling exhibition with the Smithsonian Institute. I paid 9 bucks for it! Can't recommend it highly enough if you can manage to find it anywhere.

Warmups: Succeeding in a Post-Gon Padre World

When the Padres executed the tough but inevitable decision to trade hometown hero and superstar Adrian Gonzalez over the winter, I objectively praised the bountiful return Jed Hoyer brought back but also subjectively whined about the system that allowed this to happen. At the time I wrote that post I was sitting in an apartment less than 4 miles north of the Padres' home stadium. Now I'm in Austin, Texas with a new view on things and the Padres have retooled their roster through shrewd moves and are set to begin the season next week.

Many analysts and baseball blabbers have been writing them off for 2011, not giving them any chance this year, arguing that their offense will be putrid without the anchor of Adrian entrenched in the heart of their lineup. I've been thinking about the Padres a lot lately and today I'd like to take a look at how Jed Hoyer reconstructed the team in the wake of A-Gon's departure and what we can expect to see from the Friars this season.

The Elite Pitching Staff Remains

The Padres shocked the world by winning 90 games last year and just barely missing out on the playoffs, falling to the eventual World Series-champion San Francisco Giants on the final weekend of the season. The success of the San Diego squad was not an illusion as their run differential was that of a 91-win team and, while their hitting was pretty unspectacular, their pitching staff was absolutely superb.

That's the first thing to keep in mind when evaluating the 2011 Padres: the elite pitching staff is still relatively intact. In fact, they might be a little bit better. The team traded away some relievers but they were arguably the worst relievers in the pen (except for maybe Adam Russell, a solid righty sent to Tampa Bay in the Jason Bartlett trade, though Russell didn't see much time in the majors) and will be replaced by highly capable arms like 25-year-old Ernesto Frieri.

In the rotation, starting pitcher Jon Garland was let go and he did have a nice season last year but he's been replaced by Aaron Harang, another veteran right-hander who has a higher ceiling than Garland and who will inevitably benefit from leaving Cincinnati's tiny park for San Diego's vast pitcher-friendly expanses. As good as the Padre pitching was last year, they did have problems with finding any consistency from the back of the rotation as both Wade LeBlanc and Kevin Correia struggled for the most part (4.83 ERA between them). Correia is gone and LeBlanc might get another shot as a 5th starter if he can stop giving up so many homers but he'll most likely start the season in the minors.

Tim Stauffer, a former #4 overall pick, has been strong out of the pen the last two seasons and will finally get a chance to step into the rotation this year as the #4 starter. It looks like young lefty Cory Luebke will start the season as the team's 5th starter and, while he's a soft-tossing lefty like LeBlanc, he's not nearly as prone to giving up bombs.

Where will the runs come from?

So, the pitching staff that made this team so good last year will be back. But the guy they lost is a hitter, so how will they replace him?

Brad Hawpe will step into the vacated first baseman's role and, while his name certainly doesn't strike fear into the hearts of pitchers, he's actually put up some pretty damn good numbers (.279/.373/.490 AVG/OBP/SLG for his career). While they don't have much money to spend, Jed Hoyer and the think tank he's assembled know what they're doing, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that they scooped up an under-the-radar slugger. While Hawpe had been playing most of his games in the elevated Colorado environment, his hitting is no illusion: he's hit .273/.369/.470 away from Coors Field and he even hit well in his appearances at Petco Park thus far (.281/.371/.451 in 175 plate appearances). That kind of production doesn't match up with what Adrian regularly produced but it's a start.

Hoyer did a nice job making up for the loss by strengthening the Padres up the middle. For all the team's success last year, their middle infield was pretty crappy. Shortstop Everth Cabrera was allowed to bat 241 times even though he hit a puny .208/.279/.278; Jerry Hairston spent lots of time at shortstop and second base and did bop 13 homeruns but overall hit pretty poorly (83 OPS+ where 100 is average) even for Petco's standards; David Eckstein had some exciting hits but matched Hairston's 83 OPS+ on the year. The team did bring in Miguel Tejada and he managed to hit pretty well but he's 37 years old and they had to let him go (to the rival Giants, actually).

That group has been replaced by a solid keystone combo of Orlando Hudson and Jason Bartlett. Both are strong defensively (probably a few runs better than the men they're replacing) and have been at least average hitters throughout their careers. That represents a major step up from what the Pads had last year. In terms of runs, we can use Baseball Prospectus' VORP statistic (Value Over Replacement Player---expressed in runs) to quantify the difference offensively: the Tejada/Eckstein/Hairston/Cabrera combo put up 17.2 VORP last year while extremely conservative preseason projections peg Hudson/Bartlett at 30.3 VORP.

Manning centerfield will be 23-year-old Cameron Maybin, formerly a future superstar. That sounds kinda silly but Maybin's been traded twice and been written off because of struggles in the major leagues even though he doesn't turn 24 until next week and has barely enough at-bats to qualify for a full season in the bigs. His minor league batting numbers have been superb (.871 OPS) and he has excellent range in the outfield. Last year's centerfielder Tony Gwynn, Jr. had great range too but he was a deplorable hitter. Maybin is, at the very least, a big step up and he just might still blossom into a star.

Does all of that make up for the loss of Adrian? No. But it's a big step in the right direction. The Padres won 90 games last year and, according to WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) Adrian was worth about 6 or 7 wins. The up-the-middle upgrades will make up for a huge chunk of that plus Hawpe should be worth at least 2 wins (Baseball Prospectus has his projection at 1.8), then you have to remember that the Padres have a hulking slugger in their system who should be ready to return and play some first base as well: Kyle Blanks. Blanks struggled last year with an injured elbow and then actually had Tommy John surgery to fix it but he should be back at full strength this year. A full strength Blanks should be expected to mash. In 2009 when he was just 22 years old, he came up and had a 137 OPS+ in 172 plate appearances. Not too shabby.

Don't underestimate the Padres this year.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Warmups: Stadium Stories

Baseball season is on its way. Opening Day is a week from tomorrow and, before I start posting my previews for each division, I'd like to first get a little warmed up for baseball writing with a few posts on various things related to baseball. First up is an inventory of all the major league ballparks I've ever been to.

Doubtless, there are better places to spend summer days, summer nights, than in ballparks. Doubtless.
Nevertheless, decades after a person has stopped collecting bubble-gum cards, he can still discover himself collecting ballparks. And not just the stadiums, but their surrounding neighborhoods, their smells, their special seasons and moods.--Thomas Boswell, How Life Imitates the World Series
1. Yankee Stadium
It was here that I attended my first baseball game ever on July 21, 1995. My brother John brought me to a game as a birthday present (it was a few days after my 10th birthday) and the annual outing to Yankee Stadium would become a birthday staple over the next few years until I defiantly renounced my Yankee fanhood right around the same time everybody started jumping on the bandwagon. My favorite player growing up was Jim Leyrtiz, the bat-spinning back-up catcher and first baseman (who was obscure in those days but went on to become a World Series hero). Each year, John would choose the perfect game to attend, somehow always knowing which games Leyritz would be starting. That first game in '95 Leyritz actually started at first base against the Texas Rangers' lefty Kenny Rogers (Leyritz was replaced by Don Mattingly later in the game). The Yanks won 8-3 and the winning pitcher was Dave Eiland who went on to become the Yankees' pitching coach for these last three years.

I saw a bunch of games here over the years with various people: John and I went to Game 1 of the World Series in 1996 when the Yanks got shellacked by the Braves (though I got to see Jim Leyritz catch the whole game); during the summer of my first job in 1999, working as a messenger for the company both my mom and John worked for in lower Manhattan, a co-worker named Lou decided one day that we should skip work and go watch an afternoon Yanks-Blue Jays game from the bleachers; Baseball Prospectus writer Jay Jaffe brought me along to an ALDS game against the Tigers in 2006; and I got to say my last goodbyes in an early season game against the Rays in 2008, right before moving to San Diego (that was the Yankees' last season in the old stadium).

2. Veterans Stadium
My Aunt Jeanie brought my brother Billy and I to a game here in '95 or '96. It was Billy's first game ever and it was the Phillies against the San Diego Padres, an interesting augur because ten years later Billy would take up residence across the country in San Diego (which led to me moving out there too). That night, Billy caught a foul ball in his hat (!) that was lined off the bat of Pads' outfielder Melvin Nieves. I remember the stadium was enormous and imposing.

3. Shea Stadium
Shea Stadium in 2003
Although I can't recall my very first visit to this lovable old dump, it was here that I would watch more games than anyplace else over the years. After the Yankees started throwing money around (and dumping players like my old fave Jim Leyritz who went on to lead the Padres to the World Series) I grew sick of them and jumped on the bandwagon of my father's team: the Mets. This was during the years of Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura so it was a fun team to follow. I've been a diehard Mets fan ever since and I get maudlin and misty-eyed thinking about this place because, even though the building was a dump, I had so many great memories here. A few that stick out in my mind are these:
  • A Saturday night interleague game against the Angels (John's favorite team) in which the Mets rallied twice in the late innings and won. Marlon Anderson tied the game in the bottom of the ninth with an inside-the-park homerun (!) against current Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez. After surrendering a run in the top of the 10th, the Mets put two guys on base with their best hitters, Carlos Beltran and Piazza, coming up. They both struck out. It was all up to Cliff Floyd. He worked a full count, fouled off about a hundred pitches, then struck a monster homerun to win the game. Floyd was hurt so much in his career and is retired now but he provided a bunch of great evenings for Mets fans during a two year stretch. This was probably the most exciting game I've ever witnessed in person. I was sitting with John and his wife Kristina in one of my favorite spots in Shea: near the foul pole in fair territory out in left field.
  • A Friday night game against the Phillies that was rain-delayed for about 3 or 4 hours before getting under way. I was at the game with John, Kristina, and my little sister Emily. John and Kristina left early because it was late, wet, and freezing. Me and Em stayed til the bitter end and got to see Carlos Beltran launch a walk-off bomb which had us jumping up and down and screaming with our cheap ponchos on.
  • Witnessed the last two games in Montreal Expos history as they played two meaningless matches against the Mets on the last weekend of the season at Shea. The Mets and Expos both stunk that year and I lucked into having tickets to both of the last two games fall into my lap. For the final game, I remember Todd Zeile started at catcher for the Mets in his own last game before retirement. I watched that last game with three of my siblings on a crisp, sunny October afternoon as the Mets won 8-1 and the Montreal squad tossed a bunch of memorabilia to a group of devoted fans gathered above their dugout.
4. Stade Olympique
When it first looked like the Montreal Expos were going to be no more (the league was seriously talking about cutting two teams, they'd eventually settle for moving the Expos to Washington), my brother John, ever ambitious to go on a baseball trip (a trait he instilled in me, thankfully) drove us up to Montreal for a weekend set against the Toronto Blue Jays. The Expos were a pretty good team in those days and we saw two entertaining games in that funky old stadium including a Sunday afternoon battle won on a walk-off smite by the 'Spos.

5. Toronto's SkyDome *
I'll use a * to indicate the stadiums I visited without getting to see a game there. My old Staten Island pal Joe and his mom brought me up to Toronto and Niagra Falls one year and we stayed in the hotel inside of the Blue Jays' home stadium. It was the offseason, though, so nothing was going on but we did sleep within the stadium and could see everything just outside our window.

6. Turner Field
Went to a game here while visiting my sister Laurie in Atlanta years back. I don't remember much about the game except that we sat in dead center, right next to the Braves bullpen (which has three mounds) and a few relievers, Paul Byrd chiefly among them, threw unopened sunflower seed packs to me and Billy after the game.

7. PNC Park
Another weekend baseball roadtrip with brother John. It was a beautiful, scenic drive through Pennsylvania and the stadium is one of the nicest I've ever seen, situated right at the intersection of Pittsburgh's three rivers. The Pirates played the Dodgers in a couple of forgettable games but the beauty of the stadium and the city sticks out in my mind the most. After the first game there was a fireworks show that was surreal---it incorporated not only the three yellow bridges beyond the outfield wall, but even the skyscrapers across the river. Best fireworks show I've ever seen.

8. Citizens Bank Park
When it first opened I took the train one day by myself (I was 18) and watched a game between the Phils and Tigers. The Tigers were atrocious in those days and the Phillies killed them. Over the years, I went to a handful of games here with my brother James and his three sons. In a homerun derby type of game against the Brewers, the guy sitting directly next to us caught a homerun on a line-drive (and we were in the second deck).

9. U.S. Cellular Field (aka new Comiskey Park)
When my brother Billy finished Navy bootcamp in June 2006, my whole family went over to Chicago for the graduation ceremony. After seeing him for a very short time, we had the whole night to ourselves in Chicago. Of course, I wanted to go see a baseball game and the Dodgers were in town for an interleague game with the Sox. Unfortunately, nobody in my family would join me but I took up my dad's offer to drop me off in the South Side and went to the game by myself. It was a lovely June evening and they were commemorating the 1959 World Series between the Sox and Dodgers. The Pale Hose won behind a great game from Mark Buehrle and I somehow ended up with a White Sox towel and then a White Sox credit card which I used for a few years.

10. Wrigley Field *
The next day after the White Sox game, my dad and I went to Wrigley and took a guided tour of the whole stadium. Great experience and, interestingly enough, the Cubbies were in New York playing the Yankees at the time. When I passed through Chicago on my way to California in the summer of '08, my brother Billy and I walked a lap or two around the outside of the stadium while the Cubbies were playing in...San Diego.

11. Petco Park
Oh Petco, how I love thee. After my first visit in 2006 (a memorably explosive game against the Braves) for my 21st birthday, I saw probably 25 games there over the next four years. I absolutely love this place and have so many good memories from there. Thankfully, many of them are preserved on this very blog but I really, really miss going to games there and hopefully will be back in San Diego one day. When I first moved there I got to live my dream: I was living in a rinky-dink studio apartment only two miles from the stadium so, on more than one occasion, I walked from my house to a baseball game. I could go on forever about this place but I'll stop now.

12. Fenway Park
First, did a stadium tour in the summer of 2007 while in Boston for my cousin Mary's wedding. Then, less than a year later, spent a weekend with Mary and her husband and they took me to a game. We sat out in the bleachers and watched the Red Sox and Milwaukee Brewers trade bombs all day. The Sox won 11-7. I've been itching to get back there ever since.

13. Miller Park
During the 2008 cross-country road trip, one of the main stops was in Milwaukee so we could see a baseball game. They played the Arizona Diamondbacks with the roof closed (it was raining outside) and smoked 'em. After the game, Billy and I got to walk along the field because it was Senior Citizens Day and the elderly couple seated next to us said "come with us, you can pretend we're your parents." The people of Milwaukee are great.

14. AT&T Park
Another blurry photo from my clunky old camera.
In August of 2008 I visited San Francisco to look at a grad school I planned to attend, the California Institute of Integral Studies. The school was nice although far too expensive for me but I did get to go see a game while up there. It was an absolutely frigid, cloudy night in August and the Giants played the Braves in a meaningless game when both teams were out of the race. Yet, the stadium was packed and rowdy. This was a rare instance where I didn't stay for the entire game because I was just too cold, didn't prepare for winter weather in August.

15. Citi Field *
Got to do a full tour of the stadium, including dugout and clubhouses while the teams were present. Even spoke to Howard Johnson while he was on an elliptical machine. Did it all while posing as an electrician, hard hat and everything. Amazing and memorable experience, though I won't reveal how I ended up having the opportunity. Don't want to get anyone in trouble.

16. Angel Stadium
Fun, rowdy place. Went there this past summer with my girlfriend for my 25th birthday. Fun time though it was sweltering until the sun finally went down. We sat in the absolute last row of the stadium along the first base line and yet the view of the field was actually pretty good. Our view of the mountain range beyond the stadium was even better.

17. Dodger Stadium
An absolutely gorgeous stadium that seems like it was plopped down in the middle of a dense verdant forest. Went with bro Billy for a September matchup between the classic old New York rivals, the Giants and Dodgers. Sat very close to the field but was annoyed most of the people around us didn't seem to care that much about the game. When the game was over we got to walk right onto the outfield grass and watch a fireworks show, though.

Now that I've listed everything, I realize that during my three years living in California I went to every major league baseball stadium in the state except the Coliseum in Oakland. It's known as one of the worst facilities in professional sports but still, the A's are one of my favorite teams. All the more reason to go back there.

I'm currently situated in the middle of Texas, at least three hours from a pro baseball team but, as a diehard seamhead, I will definitely be taking the long drive to both Houston and Arlington to add those to my list.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Dali & Disney

My girlfriend's dad recently drew my attention to this awesome collaboration between Salvador Dali and Walt Disney from 1946.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

My First "Published" Piece

Coming on the heels of a post all about the struggles of writing and creating, my first ever "published" piece has just now appeared online in Slant Magazine. It's a review of Kevlaar 7's new EP Who Got the Camera? Check it out, let me know what you think! LINK

The Three Stages of Creative Struggle

This friction causes resistance,
which is the cause of all existence
-Killah Priest

This past month or so has been a struggle for me in a number of ways. Though we are now settled into our apartment in Austin, I don't have a job yet and my money is dwindling very fast. Each day I feel an increasing guilt and pressure because I haven't brought in any income in a distressingly long time.

At the same time, I am rigorously trying to fully tap into my creative flow and harness my ability as a writer. As I've been doing this, it has become very clear that there is a whole heck of a lot of struggle involved with being creative, with making something out of nothing. It's a stress unlike anything experienced at my old day job, a profession of performing menial automatic tasks that are given to me. Entering numbers in a computer mostly, doing paperwork, that kinda stuff. And now here I am piling up personally important writing projects for myself and oftentimes it becomes a major struggle to discipline myself into devoting my full focus and creative energy to completing these projects. As this struggle has gone on, I've reflected on the stages an artist must go through to exist and succeed in the world. It's not easy and it is seemingly a constant battle. Here's how I break it down:

Stage 1: Inner Struggle
This is the stage in which I seem to most often be. This is the battle against one's own self. It is certainly much easier to be passive (read a book, watch sports) than it is to be creative and so I often find that I have to push myself, discipline myself to sit down and devote a chunk of time to pursuing my craft and channeling creative energies, letting my creative soul breathe. I have found that, for me personally, when a task or project seems big (the Joyce paper I'm working on, music reviews I'm trying to write), the inner defense against doing it is even stronger and I procrastinate or find something else that should be done first. There is also the voice that says "why bother, you're no good anyway" or "why waste your time? It's not going to amount to anything"---this is the little Mephistopheles sitting on the artist's shoulder and he has to be defeated in order to proceed. It is out of all of this resistance and struggle that an artist's work is manifested.

Stage 2: One Voice in the Maelstrom
Once the initial stage of creating and pushing through blockages has been overcome, the artist has his completed work. But it's like the tree falling inside a forest: If nobody hears it, does it even make a sound? If nobody is there to apprehend or appreciate your art, what good is it? For some people the very act of channeling creativity is a therapeutic one and that's satisfying enough, thus there is no need or desire to share it with the world. But if one is trying to establish themselves as an artist in the world, this is the stage in which one struggles to be recognized, to have their work read or looked at and appreciated. With so many books, paintings, films, etc in the world, why would someone look at yours? This second stage can be a harrowing one for some people. Once they've passed the first stage of struggle and realized to appreciate their own art, it is so important to them that other people see it as well. It is surely a battle, a struggle to have their voice heard amidst a maelstrom of other creative voices.

Stage 3: Can You Handle the Heights?
After establishing a personal creative discipline and manifesting works of art, if one manages to reap the benefits of attention and recognition they are now an artist. A professional artist, as most of us hope (everyone wants to pursue their love and their calling in life as a career). But, success always breeds hatred. Success breeds jealousy. A successful artist, whether a novelist or musician or whatever, will inevitably be met with harsh criticism, people who think you suck or shouldn't be doing this. Oftentimes they can be vicious. These are the stillborn or unborn creative souls stuck in Stage 1 (or perhaps defeated from the Stage 1 struggle) trying to drag the successful artist back down to their level. A weak-hearted artist can be easily consumed at this stage and immediately be pulled off their perch of success. There is another aspect to this stage---the higher the heights one reaches as a successful artist, the more likely they are to lose touch with the true nature of their aesthetics and fall victim to greed, to selling their artistic souls and integrity. We've all seen this happen to people (seems to be common with musicians).

With all of these stages it is also easy for one to wobble, lose their balance and fall back down to the previous stage. There is nothing easy about being an artist. Personally, as someone who has spent most of my working life sitting in boring offices, I've often been jealous of those who live the artistic life but after just a month of trying to do it consistently myself, I realize it's harder than anything I've ever done. It is a constant struggle. I don't think anybody can quite understand this until they've tried it themselves.

You may notice that this is almost exactly what the Bildungsroman story deals with and especially the so-called Kunstlerroman, the growth, maturity, and struggle of an artist. It should come as no surprise that my mind has been supersaturated with thoughts on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for many months now as I'm trying to finish up a paper on it.

I am interested to see what other people think of this outline of stages.