The momentum builds now, we can practically touch and taste the heightened tension, as Mike Lowell’s rage literally lifts him skyward, and Ryan Braun icily eyes down a game deciding moon shot, preening as he plays an action movie assassin. Oh yes, the merciless dog days have arrived.
God bless us, everyone.
For there are trades to celebrate, executives to excoriate, victories to relish and heinous losses so hellish… prepare for sensory overload, a hypnotic season’s mysteries unwinding by the inning. In Spring Training, the contenders and pretenders gathered, surrounding palm trees swaying, whispering the impossible. Reality intervenes in April, the distilled winter chill slicing and dicing through the Opening Day pomp and circumstance, delivering winners and losers, preparing us for the grind ahead. What has happened to the thirty elite? Who rises or falls, disappoints or enthralls?
The American League East
Tampa Bay Rays:
Perennially hapless, Tampa Bay’s baseball franchise sought to prove wrong a classical Shakespearean assertion concerning the importance of names. It was former Devil Ray Russ Johnson, a talented, hard luck infielder never quite able to attain job security at the Big League level, who insisted the beleaguered club would never escape it’s demons, so long they put “the devil… on a pedestal”. Time often seems designed to make fools of us, yet in this instance, it casts Russ Johnson as a practical baseball prophet. Funny game.
For, the long discussed name change finally became official this past off-season, the Rays’ new ownership casting the devil from their lot. Judging the team from a perch of logic and reason, where no devil ever truly resides, one is left marveling at the peerless work of Andrew Friedman, the young General Manager who previously served as director of player development.
Friedman has made sensible moves, avoiding crippling trades or contracts that could derail his vision, which ultimately arrived a year or two early. His gutsy trade of Delmon Young, netting him Matt Garza and steady shortstop Jason Bartlett, has been an absolute win. Less publicized transactions, such as his acquisition of former top prospect turned suspect Edwin Jackson and reliable reliever Dan Wheeler were solid philosophically, and have paid dividends on the diamond.
Unlike other hapless small market clubs, the Rays have drafted aggressively, grabbing top talent regardless of price tag. Frugal is often foolish, just ask the Padres, usually a well run club that drafted Matt Bush instead of Justin Verlander in the 2004 draft, burdened by the first overall selection. The Rays have experienced no such difficulty, David Price their latest prize. The future couldn’t be brighter for the aptly titled Rays.
What’s in a name?
Surprising player: J.P. Howell.
The former starter has flourished in the bullpen. Acquired for Joey Gathright, who still can’t steal first, but can jump over cars. Eric Hinske could also qualify.
Disappointing player: Carl Crawford
Currently hitting beneath capabilities, part of a largely underachieving offense that would have been in deep trouble without the arrival of Evan Longoria.
Boston Red Sox:
The defending World Champions enjoyed a placid off-season, preferring to simply tweak a roster that cultivated a mind blowing Pythagorean record in 2007. In October, the team made another memorable run, overcoming a 3-1 League Championship Series hole and breaking hearts in Cleveland.
The 2008 edition has been forced to cope with injuries and dissension, the former putting the productivity of David Ortiz in serious question, and the latter provided entirely by Manny Ramirez, who has taken his contractual concerns public. Despite these issues, the Red Sox remain a deadly threat because of their stellar pitching staff, which arguably features three aces, the ascendant Jon Lester, fully acclimated Daisuke Matsuzaka, and overpowering Josh Beckett. While Beckett hasn’t carried the same precise breaker into 2008, his fastball remains wicked, postseason resume bulletproof.
The Red Sox’s key deficiency resides in the bullpen, where the set-up crew has regressed, most notably Hideki Okajima.
Surprising Player: Jon Lester.
Previously dogged by control problems, Lester’s command and repertoire have both markedly improved. He developed a dirty, fading two-seam fastball to right-handed hitters, honed in the winter with the help of Braves Ace Tim Hudson.
Disappointing Player: Jacoby Ellsbury
Dazzled in a 2007 cameo, but his 2008 performance has rendered the Grady Sizemore comparisons patently ridiculous.
New York Yankees:
Eschewing Johan Santana, the Yankees rolled the dice in 2008, praying an impressive stable of young pitchers would deliver, lest their campaign degenerate into an absolute disaster. Unfortunately for them, Phil Hughes was awful before being shut down with a broken rib, and Ian Kennedy completely lost control of his prime secondary pitch, the changeup, rendering him similarly ineffective. Even worse, their ace, Chien-Ming Wang, suffered a freakish injury in Houston, breaking his foot running the bases, trapped on the DL until September.
This was all nightmarish news, to be certain, but the Yankees simply refuse to die, ala Jason Voorhees, hatchet in head yet ever vigilant, pursuing that last camp counselor.
New York’s season floats on because Alex Rodriguez is phenomenal, Mike Mussina resurrected, and Mariano Rivera beyond words. Joe Girardi’s superb bullpen management has turned a potential weakness into a fortified strength; almost all of the Yankee relievers rocking obscene K rates while sharing a steady workload. Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras, afterthoughts just months ago, have become stalwarts. Joba Chamberlain has graduated from the prologue of his career, flashing signs of dominance as a starter. Indeed, the Yankees, despite the devastating loses of Wang, Jorge Posada, and Hideki Matsui, are still knocking at the door, wielding a chainsaw, coming for you next.
Surprising Player: Mike Mussina.
The intellectual pitcher smartly opted to ebb the velocity on his breaking stuff, throwing a wider variety of curves, sliders, and splitters at differing speeds, all while sporting an obscene, and perhaps unsustainable, level of command. It adds up to a remarkable comeback.
Disappointing player: Melky Cabrera.
Despite a promising skill-set, Cabrera’s game hasn’t been the same since ’06, his plate discipline nothing more than a fond memory.
Toronto Blue Jays:
J.P. Ricciardi is still standing, despite the dismissal of manager John Gibbons and instillation of Cito Gaston, which appears, from the outside at least, an obvious ownership choice.
Despite a couple of winning records, the Blue Jays under Ricciardi have been largely forgettable, though injuries did destroy a promising unit in 2007. J.P. tried bringing a grittier attitude to the clubhouse with the additions of Scott Rolen and David Eckstein, but he may have considered the theory that grittiness, when pitted against talent, is often exposed as a fallacy invented by lazy sportswriters.
In any event, the Jays’ will be respectable again, riding the arm of Roy Halladay, an accomplishment that appeared bleak after the shocking release of Frank Thomas and aforementioned dismissal of Gibbons, whose ridiculous saunter to the mound when changing pitchers will be missed.
It must burn hardcore Blue Jay fans to be lapped by Tampa Bay, whose General Manager never publicly rued the presence of the Yankees or Red Sox in the American League East, as if conceding.
Surprising Player: Jesse Carlson.
The 27 year-old rookie has been an invaluable member of a rock solid bullpen.
Disappointing Player: Scott Rolen
Injured at the onset of the season, just hasn’t rebounded the way Toronto hoped, and is being soundly outperformed by Troy Glaus in St. Louis.
Though we pretend to forget now, many analysts had anointed the Orioles as the worst team in baseball before the arrival of April, as the aimless franchise, at long last, fully committed to a rebuilding project. Despite the doom and gloom prognostications, Dave Trembley’s troops deserve an A for effort, consistently fighting for nine innings or more every single night. The cracks are becoming evident, but one hundred loss forecasts will definitely be proven wrong by the likes of Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and Jeremy Guthrie.
Surprising Player: Jim Johnson.
The sterling relief pitcher relies on a plummeting fastball to coax harmless grounders from the opposition.
Disappointing Player: Daniel Cabrera.
Appeared to finally figure something out earlier this season but… never mind.
American League Central
Chicago White Sox:
There is, of course, a method to Kenny Williams’ madness. Often unfairly derided in the sabermetric community, the White Sox’s GM was deserving of ridicule following Chicago’s putrid 2007. Adhering to amendment instead of total teardown, Williams’ added pieces to his flawed roster, scooping up Orlando Cabrera, signing international free agent Alexei Ramirez, and pulling off a blockbuster for Nick Swisher.
But the most important machination was probably read as transaction blotter filler for the average fan. Those in more knowledgeable circles wondered why the Diamondbacks would abandon such a talented outfielder after one injury plagued season, and Carlos Quentin did nothing to dissuade those questions, breaking through as a star in the Show with Chicago instead of Arizona.
The 2008 White Sox are, in fact, a team that relied heavily on young players finding their potential. Without the solid work of young guns John Danks and Gavin Floyd in the rotation, they wouldn’t be a first place team, and all of Kenny Williams’ hard work this off-season, which included transforming an abysmal bullpen into one of the best in baseball, would have been for naught.
Surprising Player: Carlos Quentin
Carlos Quentin has 27 bombs, a phenomenal OPS + of 145, and a slugging percentage of .555. Fortunately for the Diamondbacks, Eric Byrnes is a much better skateboarder. Jermaine Dye also deserves mention. An age related decline seemed in the offing, but he is enjoying a vintage season. Never, ever count out Jermaine Dye.
Disappointing player: Paul Konerko
It seems like Paul Konerko is barely out-hitting Miguel Cairo these days, as the ghost of 2003 inexplicably returns.
Bill Smith probably worries most Twins fans. Here is a man who totally blew the Johan Santana trade, overplaying his hand, eventually forced to scrounge a downright lousy package from the Mets. Adding insult to injury, he traded homegrown starting pitcher Matt Garza for the prodigiously talented but mercurial Delmon Young, a player who seems to have made it his mission to swing at as many pitches as possible.
Garza felt alienated by prior Twins’ management, complaining to the press after being passed over in favor of the immortal Sidney Ponson, setting tracks for his exit. The latest unhappy camper is Francisco Liriano, dominating the Minors, clearly ready to return and contribute mightily to a team in contention, yet being held down, apparently so Livan Hernandez can attack the hits to innings pitched record.
Despite this turmoil, the Twins rode a shockingly stable pitching staff and explosive offense, anchored by Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer [.400 OBP for a catcher!], toward the upper echelon of an utterly confounding American League Central.
Future outlook: Unknown.
Surprising Player: Alexi Casilla.
The diminutive second baseman is putting together a fantastic season, striking a mere 25 times in 235 plate appearances. Deserves to be in the discussion with Pedroia, Cano, and Kinsler.
Disappointing player: Boof Bonser.
His name is sure to be rattled off by baseball fans nationwide whenever that insane A.J. Pierzynski kamikaze move executed by Brian Sabean is discussed, but he’s essentially a mop-up man at this point, and has been largely a disappointment with the Twins.
The Tigers just may have been doomed as a playoff team the second Steve Phillips proclaimed they would be the greatest offense ever, but in actuality, their real mistake was overlooking the bullpen, whose incompetence decimated them throughout the first half. Most Tiger fans have probably seen enough of Freddy Dolsi to last a lifetime.
The bullpen was of paramount importance to Detroit, because the front five in their pitching staff each came with hefty baggage, issues ranging from age to injury and overuse.
The collapse of Dontrelle Willis was sickening to watch, while the continued failings of Jeremy Bonderman become less mystifying by the season. Kenny Rogers and Justin Verlander have seen their performances fluctuate from exceptional to abysmal, though Verlander seems to have turned it around for good in July.
Armando Galarraga has been a revelation, allowing 86 hits in 107 exceptional innings.
While their offense hasn’t fulfilled the bombastic predictions, it is undoubtedly one of the best in baseball. Miguel Cabrera, in particular, has raked of late, though that was inevitable.
Surprise player: Armando Galarraga.
If the Tigers surge in a similar fashion to the Yankees last season, Galarraga’s admirable pitching will be part of the reason. Matthew Joyce deserves honorable mention.
Disappointing player: Dontrelle Willis.
Where has that brilliant, charismatic pitcher vanished? Sad story so far.
Kansas City Royals:
Dayton Moore sure is trying, but he still hasn’t reversed the futures of the Royals. They sit comfortably in fourth place, actually playing two games above their Pythagorean record. Billy Butler hasn’t lived up to expectations, though David DeJesus just might be establishing a new baseline of performance. The young pitching staff has been steady, but not nearly good enough to carry a weak offense.
The strength of the team lurks at the bullpen’s backend, where Joakim Soria, Ramon Ramirez, and Ron Mahay have been lights out. Leo Nunez, when healthy, has an electric arm.
Tony Pena has an utterly unfathomable OPS + of -1. I didn’t even know that was possible. Poor guy.
Surprising Player: Mike Aviles.
Written off by some as a slot signing by a cheap Royals regime, Aviles rescued shortstop from the nefarious clutches of Tony Pena and has probably produced enough to lock down the position.
Disappointing player: Brian Bannister.
His DIPS luck may have run out, but he’s still way better than a 5.40 ERA.
Sometimes, the window closes quicker than we expect. The Indians were one elusive win from the World Series in 2007, where they probably would have wiped out the Colorado Rockies. Alas, the Boston Red Sox rallied, Joel Skinner didn’t wave Kenny Lofton home, and the painful image of Victor Martinez crying alone at the top step of the Fenway Visitor’s dugout became a defining, indelible blight on a marvelous season that came up short.
In hindsight, Tribe boosters are down on Mark Shapiro’s off-season, in which he didn’t even replace Joe Borowski, shaky closer du jour. One could easily argue, though, that the Indians wouldn’t have stood a chance anyway, not with the injuries incurred to cornerstone players such as Fausto Carmona, Travis Hafner, and the aforementioned Martinez.
Despite standout performances from Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee, this just isn’t the Indians’ time. Shapiro was in the right dealing C.C. Sabathia.
Matthew LaPorta could put the Tribe over the top, when the time is right.
Surprising player: Cliff Lee.
The lefthander’s career appeared in limbo following a disastrous ’07. But he has returned with a vengeance, a potential Cy Young winner.
Disappointing player: Ryan Garko
There are many candidates, including Hafner, who has just fallen off completely. But Ryan Garko gets my vote, an awful season that nobody saw coming.
American League West
Los Angeles Angels:
Tony Reagins closed the Torii Hunter deal at Del Taco, in Corona, California. Now, he’s free to watch his team feast on a mediocre division for the duration of the season. The Angels are not as good as their record would indicate, but they are still the undisputed class of the American League West, with a downright loaded staff of pitchers. They are one of the few teams in the game that can roll out five quality starters, without even the slightest contribution from Kelvim Escobar, felled by a devastating shoulder injury.
Ervin Santana adjusted his wayward mechanics, distancing himself from a lackluster ’07 with every quality outing. Joe Saunders has made the leap, ace caliber for the first time in his career. And as if those two weren’t enough, Jon Lackey hit the ground running after escaping the DL, piling up 8 wins in 13 starts.
Though they could use another reliever behind Scot Shields and save record seeking Francisco Rodriguez, it’s a pointless practice to quibble with the Angels’ pitching. The offense may not be overpowering, severely damaged by the immovable Gary Matthews Jr., but it is efficient, opportunistic.
As off this writing, the Los Angeles Angels are the best team in the American League.
Surprising Player: Joe Saunders
Seemed primed for a solid run as a back of the rotation lefty after allowing 129 hits in 107 innings last year, compiling a 4.44 earned run average. The improvement of his numbers across the board in ’08 is staggering. The hits are way down, walks way down, and strikeouts trending up. Can Saunders maintain this pace? Even if he doesn’t, his contribution to the ’08 Angels, in the wake of injuries to Lackey and Escobar, has already been invaluable.
Disappointing player: Gary Matthews Jr.
Not the least bit shocking to anyone beside the Angels, who were crazy to give him that contract, a rare mistake on their part.
Billy Beane isn’t easily fooled. His 2008 Athletics were overachieving big time, arguments being made whether or not he should continue dismantling a core group that peaked with a trip to the ALCS in 2006. So, he waited, and signed Frank Thomas, just for kicks.
But as the Angels began pulling away, the Wild Card likely to arise from the AL East, it became apparent that these A’s were not bound for glory. Beane could have tried leaning on his roster for a .500 season, strictly for aesthetic reasons.
But this is an intellectually dishonest approach, beyond Beane, really, so he dealt Rich Harden to the Cubs, mainly for Sean Gallagher, signaling that the white flag had risen over the Oakland Coliseum. He’ll be ripped in the mainstream press for doing the right thing, for trying to build a consistent Division winner instead of maintaining a nice 85 win surprise. Beane is prepared for the venom, if he were to deal Justin Duchscherer, having a sublime season, or Huston Street, whose velocity has significantly dropped. But he will endure, fully aware this offense would ultimately collapse, or come close, their lineup page on Baseball reference near vomit inducing.
Beane can take the heat. It’s why he is the best general manager in baseball. It’s why he was able to write “Moneyball”, at least according to Joe Morgan. And it’s why the 2010 A’s will be much more interesting to write about than this team of transition.
Surprising player: Justin Duchscherer.
A reliever before this season, Justin has totally blossomed in the starter’s role, doing a pretty nifty Greg Maddux impersonation, for the time being, anyway.
Disappointing player: Daric Barton.
Thought of as the crown jewel in the Mark Mulder swindling, Barton may need more time in the minors, despite his sound approach at the plate.
Ron Washington was in danger of being fired this April, but that’s when the hits started, and just kept coming. General Manager Jon Daniels may ultimately never recover from giving away Chris Young and Adrian Gonzalez, but he sure put together an amazing offensive team this season. With Josh Hamilton pounding the baseball, Milton Bradley enjoying a possible career year, Ian Kinsler solidifying his status as a star, Mike Young being Mike Young, and David Murphy surpassing expectations, all the planets aligned for the Rangers to have a magnificent summer with the lumber. Hell, even Ramon Vazquez is getting in on the action.
Unfortunately, in the game of baseball, a team must also pitch to the opposition. If the Rangers had a way to circumvent this rule, they would surely make the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Sadly, this isn’t even an option. Nope, they can’t even use a super juiced pitching machine.
Bitterly enough for Texas, they have developed pitching, it just happens to be reaping benefits for other teams. Dealing Edinson Volquez for Josh Hamilton is imminently defensible. Parting with Chris Young and John Danks is inexcusable, especially with Brandon McCarthy missing in action.
Surprising player: Josh Hamilton.
His play is Hall of Fame caliber right now. That’s surprising to me, anyway.
Disappointing player: Kevin Millwood.
Failing to earn his money for the second straight season. C.J. Wilson hasn’t built off his impressive 2007, but he does lead the league in matching wits with Jeff Pearlman.
“The Mike and the Maddog” radio program is pretty popular out here in New York. The two middle-aged hosts, Mike Francesa and Chris Russo, are often criticized for refusing to acknowledge pronouncements and predictions that go terribly wrong, a common occurrence. Listeners even insinuate the two are bad luck, suggesting any team they vouch for ultimately falls apart. In a recent, memorable example, Chris Russo predicted that the Giants would be blown out by the heretofore undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, cackling as he said “This is gunna get sick,” in an obvious attempt to rile Giant fans. We all know how that one worked out. A similar, though far less memorable incident played out in March, as Mike and Chris both backed the Mariners to win 90 plus games.
Well, as Mike so eloquently put it:
“Uhhh, Dog, the Mariners won 88 games last season. Add Bedard. That’s 95 wins.”
I picture Dog chiming in with a solid “Case closed Mike”, but can’t verify this.
Mariner fans, Mariner players, Mariner management, they all wish the mathematics were this simple. I suppose that was strategy behind adding Bedard to a team with a mediocre offense and bullpen due for a drastic letdown. It’s hard to believe, but the Mariner organization really believed they could win a World Series with Jose Vidro as their everyday Designated hitter.
In the aftermath of this carnage, Miguel Cairo has forty starts at first base, and counting. The utter insanity of that sentence is tough to comprehend, but then again, Willie Bloomquist is holding down centerfield, so we’re all going to have recalibrate our crazy meters.
Simply put, the Mariners are worthy of ridicule because they paid so much to earn it.
They are a colossal failure in need of a severe overhaul.
Surprising player: The Mariner Moose
For not killing himself.
Disappointing player: Kenji Johjima.
It’s not every year that a player with a .249 .OBP gets a contract extension. Yeah, Kenji is probably pretty cool with spending the rest of his career in America.