Saturday, February 26, 2011

Robinson Cano Should Bat Third

Spring Training games are often meaningless. The regular players don't often play at the same time (especially with split squads) and they don't play the entire game. As a result, often the team that wins is the one with better rookie or second tier players and pitchers. But today, the Yankees played their first game of the spring and all of the regulars filled the line up (except for Cervelli at catcher) and it was telling that the Yankees still penciled Robinson Cano into the Number 5 slot. That slot made sense last year as he had to prove he could handle such a move and boy did he ever. But now that Cano has proven that he is one of the best players in the game, he should be batting third in the batting order.

And the Fan's reasoning isn't because the third position in the batting order gets roughly fifty more plate appearances a year than the fifth place batter. That would really only account for three or four more hits over the course of the season (assuming Cano hits around .320 and Teixeira hits .270). And it's not really because it would make the Yankees more formidable in the first inning, though that is important. The Fan's reasoning is that you want your third hole to contain your most dynamic and consistent hitter. And that's what Cano is on this team of superstars.

The main reason for this assessment is simply that it assumes Cano's rightful place as the Yankees' most dangerous hitter and in this writer's judgement, gives them a better line up. Here's why: Say you bat Gardner first (which the Yankees should do) and bat Jeter second. Then you have left, right, left, right with your first four slots assuming that Jeter is followed by Cano and then A-Rod. A-Rod protects Cano, who led the team in intentional walks in 2010, and Teixeira protects A-Rod. If any two of the first three batters get on (or all three), there is all kinds of speed to deal with and all A-Rod has to do is put the ball in play and watch everyone run. If you leave Cano in the fifth spot, he will be walked in a tight spot because managers will fear anyone in the Yankee line up from the sixth position on less than they fear Cano. With Cano in the third spot, he can always be aggressive and that's exactly when he's the most dangerous.

The ironclad line up of Teixeira batting third and A-Rod fourth is giving them only one or two batters at most to drive in. Put Cano in front of them and it can be two or three. Isn't that what you want for your sluggers? Teixeira isn't the best Yankee hitter. Cano is. So why is Teixeira anchored in the third spot? Plus, this Fan really believes A-Rod is going to have a big year. Cano has a better chance of getting on base than Teixeira does and that's who should be in front of your big RBI guy.

The Yankee line up is circular. There is a richness of hitting one through nine. So there is no chance you are going to make everyone happy. Granderson would be a Number 2 hitter on most teams or somewhere in the middle. With the Yankees, he has to bat anywhere from six to nine. The same is true for Posada at DH, Swisher in right field and Martin at catcher (assuming he gets physically well enough to play which this Fan is starting to doubt). The perfect Yankee line up has to account for the left/right aspect of the batters and putting people in positions to do the most damage.

If the Fan had the line up pencil, this would be the Yankee line up:

1. Gardner (Left)
2. Jeter (Right)
3. Cano (left)
4. A-Rod (right)
5. Teixeira (switch)
6. Granderson (left)
7. Swisher (switch)
8. Posada (switch)
9. Martin/Cervelli/Montero (pretty please).

Cano is not only one of the most dynamic hitters on the Yankees, but he is one of the best in the league. Leaving him in the five hole exposes him to being walked and it means less plate appearances over the course of the season. It also means less chances for first inning damage and the deathly slow Teixeira to clog up the bases in front of A-Rod. Cano needs to bat third and it's time Girardi made that happen.

Disclaimer: Yes, the Fan agrees that Jeter should bat in the bottom of the batting order, but you know that's not going to happen, so why discuss it? But saying that, until Jeter shows he can hit like he has in the past, the Yankees should flash the hit and run sign whenever Gardner gets on base.

Jair Jurrjens a Huge Key for Braves

Jair Jurrjens was one of the great steals of this century when the Tigers traded the Curacao native to the Braves along with Gorkys Hernandez for Edgar Renteria. Renteria famously fizzled with the Tigers while Jurrjens, pitching at the major league minimum in 2008 and 2009 went on to put up seasons valued at $16.7 and $17.2 million for the Braves (per Jurrjens seemed like a rising star when he went 14-10 with the Braves in 2009 with a sparkling 2.60 ERA. Jurrjens made 33 starts in 2009 after making 31 in 2008. But his 2010 season was derailed by injury and while the Braves did make it to the playoffs, Jurrjens became almost forgotten.

But with the Phillies improving their rotation with Cliff Lee, it's imperative that the Braves get a bounce back season from Jurrjens to compete in the arms race of the NL East. All reports indicate that Jurrjens is completely healthy this spring and that's very good news for Fredi Gonzalez and the Braves. If he can take the ball every fifth day along with strong rotation mates, Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe and Tommy Hudson, the Braves can compete very well with the Phillies from a rotation standpoint.

The difficulty is in knowing what to expect from Jurrjens. Well, in some aspects, it's easy to know what to expect. Every year, his peripherals such as strikeouts and walks have been almost exactly the same--even 2010 in limited duty. But the results have varied a lot. Even 2009 where the ERA was so low, a large part of it seemed lucky as his BABIP was a career low .268 and his xFIP was 4.47 or +1.87. The other thing that is confusing about Jurrjens is his ground ball rate. In his first year with the Braves, his ground ball rate was 51.5 percent. That went down to 42.9 percent in 2009 and down again to 39.9 percent in 2010. Naturally, his fly ball rate correspondingly went up every year (his line drive percentage has gone down slightly every year). Despite the increase in fly balls, he kept the ball in the park in 2009, but had less success with that in 2010.

So what kind of pitcher will Jurrjens be? We'll have to see now that he is healthy again. He is basically a three pitch pitcher with a good fastball and slider. It was his change up that lost value last year. It was a plus pitch in 2008 and 2009 but hit the negative numbers in 2010 and thus he threw it less. It would seem that he needs the change up to come back as an effective pitch to give the batters something to think about. It would seem natural that a change up would suffer with injury problems. So that is a pitch to watch closely with Jurrjens in 2011.

The one bright spot on Jurrjen's limited 2010 season was his ability to get batters to swing at pitches outside the strike zone, a rate that jumped fairly significantly from previous years. And so the key to Jurrjens' season then seems to be for him to continue to get batters to bite at pitches off the plate, regain the touch with his change up and stay healthy. It's hard to believe that Jurrjens is only 25. He still has his whole pitching life in front of him. If the Braves can get a healthy Jurrjens throwing 33 starts for the team this season along with the rest of their rotation, they should stay in contention all season, all other things being equal. The reports of his good health have to be a very pleasing development and one that gives the team and its fans much hope for 2011.

Baseball Needs the Pirates to Return to Competitive Baseball

The Pittsburgh Pirates are a venerable franchise that has been in the National League since 1882. Their history includes such great players as Paul Waner, Honus Wagner, Bob Friend, Willie Stargell, Arky Vaughan, Roberto Clemente and Barry Bonds. They have won five World Series and ten National League Pennants. After 128 years of baseball, the team is slightly over .500 historically. And that is despite an exacerbating seventeen straight losing seasons. In other words, the Pirates are seeped with history and have known success. It just seems really important that the Pirates somehow get back to respectability.

The Fan was thinking about this on the ride to the mall. Story ideas were jumbling around and none seemed to crystallize and the nagging thought that kept occurring is that the Fan hardly ever writes about the Pirates. But then again, few people do. The Fan is active on Twitter and follows dozens of the top writers from around the country. Nary a word is ever said about the Pirates. They have become a persona non grata. They are, probably along with the Royals, baseball's biggest eyesore. But at least the Royals get some love these days for their prospects and the hope for their future. The Royals farm system was rated tops in baseball. The Pirates? The Hardball Times ranked them 16th despite the high draft position they've possessed for the past 17 years.

Let's face it, this team has been bad for a long time. They have finished in last place seven of the last thirteen years. But 2010 was a watershed bad season. The team had been staggering between 95 to 99 losses per season, but in 2010, they lost 105. It was so bad that Andrew McCutchen pulled off the rare feat of personally compiling more WAR by himself than the rest of the team combined. And he only added 3.3 wins. That's bad.

The easy part if so say that the John Russell years didn't exactly work out. Russell managed the team for three years and went 186-299. Woof. that's .383 baseball for three years. Sure, it's easy to give him the goat award, but it's not like he was in that thing alone. Want some other symptoms of how bad it went in 2010? The 52 players that got a plate appearance in 2010 set a team record. The 28 different pitchers that tossed off their mound was also a record. That shows a team that is desperately trying to find something that works. Nothing did.

So Russell is gone. But his partners in the front office are not and the owner is not. Russell certainly failed. But so did everyone else. But despite all the craters around this team and its fans' psyche, there are a few bright spots. The aforementioned McCutchen is a star in the making  Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata have a chance to become stars.

But the real failing is pitching. The high profile hiring of Joe Kerrigan, formerly of the Red Sox, failed dismally and he was fired for insubordination. Every pitcher under his care regressed to the point of viability. Once promising pitchers such as Pat Maholm, Ian Snell and Zach Duke crashed and burned. The Pirates lack of ability in developing pitchers is one of the biggest concerns considering eight of their top prospects are pitchers with high ceilings. Will those pitchers get the instruction they need or will they end up like those other former prospects, now waiver fodder?

New manager, Cllint Hurdle, and pitching coach, Ray Searage, will be asked for miracles here. And quite frankly, nobody is optimistic. Which is a terrible shame because Pittsburgh is a great baseball town with a proud heritage and baseball needs this team to become a proud franchise again. The sad fact is that no team that gets outscored by 279 runs is going to bounce back that quickly.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Making Peace with Yaz

When you are a fan and passionate about the sport you love, rationality has little to do with the process. We fall in love with teams and with players because for some reason they resonate with us in whatever mental or emotional state we happen to be in at the time. There is no rhyme or reason in being a fan. As such, favorite players over the years have been numerous. But the lack of rationality goes both ways. Just as we fall in love with certain teams and players, we fall in hate with others. As the years go by, the tenacity to which we hold onto those feelings knows no bounds. We may only be shaken from our resolve with some dramatic event. The O. J. Simpson thing comes to mind. As we get older, we develop some measure of insight and question our choices. Such is the case with Carl Yastrzemski. It's time to figure out why this particular Fan hates Yaz.

Yastrzemski (a name that is highly irritating to have to type) wasn't alone in the hated column. but he was darn close to the top of the list. Others on the list include(d): Bob Gibson, Maury Wills, Cal Ripkin Jr., Barry Bonds, Albert Bell, Eddie Murray, Chipper Jones, Tommy Lasorda, Tony LaRussa, Pete Rose, any player named Hairston, Jeff Kent and Reggie Jackson. There have been others, but that's a pretty representative list. In some cases, the competitive arrogance of the person turned into hate. Gibson, Chipper, Kent and Rose fall into those categories. Those same traits were loved in other players, so of course it makes little sense. Some are seen as selfish and self-serving like Lasorda, Bonds, Jackson,  Murray and Bell. But all players are like them to a degree, so again, it makes no sense. Others were hated because they were beloved by others but judged overrated by this Fan. Those include Wills, Ripkin, and yes, Carl Yastrzemski.

But with Yaz, it was more than the overrated thing. He just seemed like a jerk. Lord knows, that is an unfair conclusion. He just seemed in interviews to be condescending. He carried himself with an air of dignity and like he was a blue-blood. But it was the overrated thing that seemed to resonate most.

While Derek Jeter is beloved in this writer's heart, there is an understanding of how many would hate him. His fame is blown up by the media and the frenzy with which that media enshrines him is irking even for those that love the player. In his day, Yaz got the same kind of treatment. Curt Gowdy, the iconic play-by-play announcer for the Saturday game of the week for years was also the Red Sox guy on then Channel 38 in Boston. He always heaped lavishing praise on Yaz. But it wasn't just him. It was others.

Looking back, this Fan's perception of Yaz wasn't helped by the timing of the Fan's move to New England. That occurred in 1975 and that was the year that the Red Sox went to the World Series under Dick Williams. And they almost pulled it off. There was no cable television back then and if you moved to a different part of the country, the only option you had was to watch the ball games of the team the local stations covered. During the Fan's initial years in New Hampshire, the Red Sox were the only team on the tube.

The timing of that move made all the difference. 1974 was Yastrzemski's last great season. The Fan's first year in New England was the following year when he fell to a .776 OPS and batted .269. All that year, the Fan watched him on television while the broadcasters heaped praise in copious amounts and the guy was just a notch above average at that point. He would rally for a very good year in 1977, but the rest of those years were just a notch above middling. Plus, there were vivid reminders of his fallibility. Yaz made the last out in the 1975 World Series on a fly out. He popped out to end the infamous Bucky Dent game. It was a weak foul pop to third base with two men on against Goose Gossage. Everyone remembers that Dent hit that homer off of Torres, but Yaz could have won the game and he failed.

The move in 1975 was after all the great Yaz years. He won the Triple Crown in 1967. He led the league in batting average three times and OPS four times. He won an MVP and several Gold Gloves. He hit .410 in the 1967 World Series, the only guy who made any kind of dent in that series against Bob Gibson and crew. He had great years in an era when pitching was king. But the Fan didn't watch him in any of those years except the All Star Game and the World Series.

What the Fan got to see was an old guy hanging around for years and years after his best years. It's not that Yaz was ineffective from 1975 on. He wasn't. Only 1981 saw his OPS+ dip below 106. But he was no longer a superstar and yet he still acted like one and was treated like one. And that grated on the Fan month after month after month.

There are two kinds of superstars. There are those like Sandy Koufax and Kirby Puckett who shine brightly for only a little while. They are so good in their peak years that we can't help marvel at them. But there are others whose body of work amassed over two decades end up putting up massive rubbles of numbers. Dave Winfield is one of those. And so is Carl Yastrzemski. He had his great years during his peak. But he put up massive career numbers. He drove in and scored over 1800 runs. He hit 452 homers and 1,157 extra base hits. He had 3,419 hits. He played 23 FULL seasons for the same team. He walked 1845 times, almost 350 more times than he struck out. He compiled 195 assists as an outfielder and when he got old, he played first base. But he wasn't a liability at first base like most in that situation. He had positive fielding metrics at first base.

His statistics are massive. His career WAR was 88.7. He was maddeningly inconsistent. Two years after his Triple Crown season, he hit .255. The year after that, he hit .329. The year after that, he hit .254. But reflection insists that this Fan didn't see Yaz at his best. And at his best, he was quite a complete ball player. And as such, it's time to put away the old hatred and disdain for the man. It's time to understand and realize that Carl Yastrzemski was one of the best players of his era and as such, one of the best players this Fan has had a chance to watch.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Risk Can Bring Rewards - Thoughts on Brandon Webb

There were a lot of teams scrambling for starting pitching at the beginning of the off season. Heck, there are a lot of teams still in need of rotation help. It's not like there weren't arms out there. But there was a lot of risk involved. And there is an old saying that goes, "No risk, no reward." The phrase is used in golf with holes being considered good "risk-reward" holes. In other words, taking a risk can reap big rewards. It is acknowledged that such a risk could also mean sending a golf ball out of bounds. But when it works out, boy is it sweet.

Somebody who took a risk this off season is going to be smiling broadly. Certainly, one of the owners of the Chris Capuano, Brandon Webb, Jeff Francis and John Maine are going to be pretty pleased with themselves. What got the Fan to thinking about this was this piece on In the piece, Ron Washington, manager of the Rangers is quoted as saying, "Wow!" to the way Brandon Webb was throwing. The Rangers understood the risk and other teams are going to look pretty silly if Webb has a very good season.

Earlier reports said that Capuano was throwing really well for the Mets in early camp. Capuano's velocity notched up a bit at the end of last year and he would have been a risk worth taking. Only the Mets saw the possible reward. Jeff Francis and Chris Young were out there but they had injury rap sheets that were too long. But you know, one of those guys is going to have a good year. You can book it.

Has such a risk blown up in people's faces before? Sure. Just ask the Mariners about Bedard. But seasons can be won or lost with just a few wins swung from the loss column. A team that wins 80 games could have won 85 or 86 with just the right risk-reward signing. A lot of divisions are going to swing pretty close to 86 wins. The NL West, Central and the AL Central division winner may have such a win total. In the AL East, where three teams are beating their brains in for the 92 to 95 wins it will take to win that division, could have had a three game swing if the right risk had been taken.

And yes, I am talking to you, Yankees. Any of those pitchers mentioned in this post so far were better risk-reward guys than Garcia, Colon and Mitre. So why wouldn't you pull the trigger? The Fan is impressed by the Texas Rangers. They are shooting from the hip and taking those risks. And you know what? Brandon Webb, if he can get healthy enough to pitch this season, will be better than any of the Garcias, Colons or Mitres you want to put out there.

Of course, the Yankees don't appear to be risk takers any more. Such high stakes have ground them into inertia. If the Yankees were adept at risks, one of those guys would have been signed. If the Yankees were adept at the calculated risky deal, one of the trio of stud minor league pitchers in their present camp would go north with them. But they won't.

Sometimes it's much easier to turn a small craft than a Titanic. But a wise man once told the Fan that faith was like the rudder of a ship, it's useless and doesn't work unless you are moving forward. The same can be said about taking a good risk that can lead to a high reward.

Wishing you a big season, Misters Webb, Capuano, Francis, Young and Maine.

Down With Strikeouts!

The good folks of this morning posted a list of the forty-five players who have hit at least twenty homers in a season and hit more homes than they struck out. The list is fascinating and impressed the heck out of this writer. Joe DiMaggio did it seven times! That fact alone gave this Fan a new appreciation for the kind of player DiMaggio was. Yogi Berra did it five times. The last two to perform that feat are Barry Bonds and George Brett. Bonds accomplished his in that pug-awful season where chicken managers walked him on purpose over 200 times. Brett did the feat during his run at .400 in 1980. Again, this list simply impressed the heck out the Fan. The Fan hates strikeouts which makes these 45 seasons the heroes of the ages.

Most analysts today aren't concerned with a batter striking out. It's just another out like any other. What has never made sense to this Fan is that the same analysts help value pitchers based on the things pitchers can control, like walks and strikeouts. So when evaluating pitchers, the strikeout is a really big deal. But for a batter, it isn't? It's just another out? Again, the Fan doesn't see it that way. Say in a game, a team strikes out ten times and loses by a run. If the team had put the ball in play those ten times, the statistical odds say that they will be hits 30 percent of the time. Even this Fan's faulty math can figure out that would mean three more hits. Three more hits in a one-run game wouldn't have made a difference? The Fan understands the fundamental point that if player A makes 400 outs in 600 plate appearances that player is going to have a .333 on base percentage just the same way that Player B who makes 400 outs in 600 plate appearances but strikes out a hundred more times than Player A. It makes sense. But those 100 strikeouts drive the Fan bonkers.

Let's take a look at Joey Votto. Votto is the MVP for 2010. And yeah, the guy rocked with the unbelievable slash line of .324/.424/.600. But he struck out 125 times. That's not a lot like a lot of sluggers, but it's still a lot of strikeouts. People will say that Votto's strikeouts are acceptable because you don't want Votto to be less aggressive at the plate. Conventional wisdom says that you want Votto to be able to be able to take a shot with two strikes. But does that really work out? 

In 2010, Votto had his at bats decided 147 times with either a 1-2 or an 0-2 count. He had three homers in those at bats. That's one homer for every 49 such at bats. Votto struck out 66 times in those instances. That's 45 percent! Since the return on Votto swinging with gusto in those counts is very small, what would it hurt to cut back on the aggression and just make contact? Votto's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was .361. So say Votto puts half of those strikeouts in play. That's 33 more balls in play. If you apply his BABIP to those 33 balls in play, that's 11 more hits. Imagine how good Votto could be with eleven more hits!?

As the list from shows, it's possible to be a slugger AND not strike out very much. Albert Pujols and Robinson Cano both showed in 2010 that you can have a high slugging percentage without a high strikeout total. Maybe the Fan has a thick neck, but this old head just can't accept that a strikeout is just another out and not worth any less than a fly ball to center. While on some levels, that's true, BABIP tells this writer that those balls put in play could be a lot more valuable than those reaching the catcher's mitt.

Take a Deep Breath Cardinal Nation

Today's social media often brings unexpected results. One of them is this writer in northern Maine becoming acquainted with bloggers and baseball fans from areas of the country that normally wouldn't ever cross the Fan's path. Two favored writers are from Toronto and from following their work and interacting with their fans, an appreciation has been built for Toronto baseball. In the last few months, the same social media has taken another funny path and acquaintances have been made with avid St. Louis Cardinals fans. Many of them gather on Blog Talk Radio for podcasts that include chat. Under the banner of Ivie League Productions (run by blogger Bill Ivie and often hosted by BBA president, Daniel Shoptaw) these wonderful folks have become familiar greetings and though this Fan doesn't share their passion for the Cardinals, they are baseball fans, and that binds us all together. Obviously, the past month has been tough on these folks. When one such fan (Angela) mourns the loss of Brendan Ryan, how much more so is an injury to Adam Wainwright going to hurt? And of course, the Pujols contract distraction hasn't helped their anxiety any. The Fan has one message for his new buds in Cardinal Nation: Relax, it's going to be okay.

Of course, it's easier to say that being an outsider with no emotional stake to the outcome. But it is reality too. It wasn't long ago when the Cardinals won a World Series after finishing with a record near .500 and having one quality pitcher in their rotation (Carpenter). For a team like the Cardinals in their current division, there is no need to panic or hang heads. Here are some valid reasons to stay optimistic:

1. The NL Central - There are no clear cut powerhouses in this division. Yes, the Reds won the division last year. Yes, they still have Joey Votto. But this Fan isn't convinced you can count on their rotation of Volquez, Arroyo, Cueto and the rest. Volquez and Cueto have never been able to consistently go out there start after start and shut people down. And there are other reasons for doubting the Reds. First, Scott Rolen had an enormous year for the Reds last year. He keeps getting older, has a history of injuries and this Fan can't see a repeat of that success. Both their catchers hit over .300 last year. Can't see that happening again. They have questions at shortstop and at least one outfield position. This Fan just doesn't see them running away and hiding. The Cubs got better, but how much better? They have to hope Aramis Ramirez bounces back and Soriano has something left and so on. Beyond Dempster and Garza, who can shut down teams consistently in that rotation? The Brewers have improved dramatically and should be a contender. But they aren't a perfectly constructed team. Weeks has to play well and Braun has to stay healthy and if they don't start off quickly and stagger a bit out of the gate, fur will fly. So the Cardinals could win 86 to 88 games and be right in the thick of things.

2. They still have a strong front three of Carpenter, Garcia and Jake Westbrook. Those three should win their fair share of games. That leaves two spots to fill and they have some internal candidates like Lance Lynn and others that can step up. The rotation won't be quite the same without Wainwright, who has been one of the five best pitchers in the NL the last three or so years, but it's still good enough to compete.

3. The Cardinals still have the best player on the planet. It may be for just one more year or it may be just another year in a career with the Cardinals, but Albert Pujols is going to win you some games in 2011. He is a force that no other team can match. The Fan doesn't know about you, but when you have the best guy in the world, a lot can fall in place behind him.

4. Best case scenario: Holliday, Berkman, Pujols knock the snot out of the ball. Eww. Sorry for the yucky graphic on that one. But it's true. If all goes according to plan, you have three guys in the middle of the line up that are going to be a force. Even if Berkman doesn't hit the same way as his peak years, he'll get on base because he's one of the most patient hitters in baseball. Add a (cross your fingers) healthy David Freese and an improving Colby Rasmus and you have five guys in your line up that can do some damage. If Molina gets some offense back and Theriot has a good year (not counting on that), then this team will score a lot of runs and not need to win 2-1 games all season.

5. Love him or hate him (the Fan leans toward the latter), Tony LaRussa is a proven commodity. He's taken teams to the promised land on many occasions, and as one of the Fan's new friends said last night, LaRussa seeems to do his best work when things are a bit of a mess. Now certainly qualifies. Whenever you have LaRussa in your dugout, you should never panic.

Yes, Cardinal Nation, this injury hurts. It's a big loss from a big stud who has been the rock for the Cardinals the past few years. But there is no reason to panic. 162 games is a long time and a lot can happen. If the Cardinals can stay in the race and sneak into the playoffs, they have just as good a chance as anyone else. Cheer up. Things can always be worse. The Cardinals are still viable contenders in a fluid division and one injury, no matter how important a player that guy is, is not going to automatically mean a ticket to the bottom of the division. Not in that division, and not with that manager.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

History is Against Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper has become the Beatles of baseball. Accounts have been given of the young phenom for the Washington Nationals getting mobbed at the team's Spring Training complex. Along with the intense interest in the Nationals' Number One pick comes the pressure to see what the kid can do. This observer can't recall a single instance where this much attention was shed on an eighteen year old player with just a few professional games to his resume. Granted, he blew away that professional competition and in his own words, he's spent a lifetime overcoming expectations. But the odds and history are against Harper being anything but a minor league player this season.

First, the Nationals are intent on him playing in the minors this year. His invitation to camp is part of his deal signed when he was drafted. There are just as many pressures for the Nationals to start him in the minors as there is from fans who want to see him play at the top level. First and foremost, the Nationals aren't going to rush the clock on Harper's time in team control. We've talked about that here a half a dozen times. Non-contending teams simply don't rush prospects as big as Harper simply to keep the watch from ticking. The Nationals did break precedent with that last year when Strasburg was called up just a year after he was drafted. But that was a little different because Strasburg wasn't as young as Harper and pitched college ball.

And the injury to Strasburg probably gave the team pause to trying that sort of thing again. But again, Strasburg is a pitcher and Harper is not. But there is not just the matter of a team wanting to hold Harper back for financial reasons. There is also history.

Since 1901, only two players in all that time accumulated at least 100 hits at the age of 18. Both of them were from a long, long time ago. One of them just died in Phil Cavaretta of the Cubs, who broke in with that club in 1935 at the age of 18 and compiled 162 hits. The other was Johnny Lush with the Phillies way back in 1904 when Lush had 102 hits. And the odds don't get any better as a 19 year old either. Only 17 of those since 1901 have managed 100 hits. It's at the age of 19 where you start seeing players like Junior Griffey, Edgar Renteria, Robin Yount, Mel Ott, Rusty Staub, Al Kaline, Tony Conigliaro and Ed Kranepool. All of those players were precocious phenoms of their day. All became good players and many of them made the Hall of Fame. But that's still not a large number.

Harper has some things in his favor. For one, the Fans really want to see him. And given the Nationals need to build fan interest as they cope with a higher payroll after the Werth signing, those dollar signs might be too hard to fight. Secondly, Harper has a guy named Scott Boras working for him which exerts a pressure all its own. We don't know what guarantees the Nationals gave Boras and Harper when Harper signed. We do know his Spring Training invitation is one of them. But who knows if any kind of timetable was hammered out.

It would be an intense shock if the Nationals broke camp with Harper on the team. Their general manager is on record as stating Harper will be in the minors in 2010. The manager says, "Never say never." So at least he's open minded. It wouldn't be a surprise if Harper did very well and crushed minor league opponents and got called up later in the year (at least September). But history is against Bryce Harper having any kind of major league impact until 2013 at the earliest. But stranger things have happened and Harper has shown above all else that he's build his entire life for breaking such barriers.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Steve Hamilton's Folly Floater

There once was a long and lanky left-hander who pitched for several teams from 1961 to 1972. Eight of those twelve years were with the New York Yankees. It seems every lefty is given the long and lanky moniker, but Hamilton earned it. He was six feet, six inches tall and he weighed only 190 pounds. His hair grayed early which made him seem ancient even when he wasn't. His name was Steve Hamilton and he is one of the treasures of my childhood.

Hamilton was never a star reliever. He was the mop up kind of guy who pitched in games that got out of hand. He came in when the starter left early. His only real pivotal season was 1968 when he saved eleven games and had a sparkling 2.13 ERA and a 0.937 WHIP. But even that didn't matter since the Yankees finished in the bottom of the standings. But when you are a kid, you latch on to guys like Steve Hamilton. Just like my favorite New York Knick was Phil Jackson. Jackson didn't get much playing time, but we lived for when he actually got in the game and used that big lefty hook of his. Hamilton was the Phil Jackson of baseball. He was the middling reliever.

But he wasn't just any middling reliever. He was pretty darn good at it. He pitched in 421 games and ended his career with a 3.05 ERA. He even started seventeen games along the way and completed three of them with one shutout. But mostly, he was a middling reliever. And he was a lefty. Hamilton was born and died in Kentucky (1935-1997) so not only was he an older looking gentleman, he was a southern gentleman.

But what made Steve Hamilton one of the true heroes of my childhood was the Folly Floater. What's that, you ask? That's what Hamilton called his slow ball. Others who threw them, like Satchel Paige, called it an Eepheus pitch. But Hamilton called his the Folly Floater. Now baseball has always been somewhat of a conservative game. Baseball frowns upon gimmicks. Baseball hated Bill Veeck's "midget." An infielder may get away with the hidden ball trick, but he will get knocked down the next time he gets to the plate. The slow ball is about as gimmicky as you can get away with in Major League Baseball. And to be sure, Hamilton probably wasn't very popular around the league for throwing it.

But what the heck. The Yankees were terrible during that period of time. They couldn't hit. They could pitch. They had starting pitchers that swapped wives. It was a really bad time for New York Yankee baseball. But that's the period I grew up and that's all there was. And we loved it. Actually, it was a great time to be a kid and a Yankee fan because it was dirt cheap to get into the bleachers and since the stands were so empty, we could get down by the dugout in the box seats after the fourth inning when the ushers left. So who cared much that Steve Hamilton would throw his slow ball and risk embarrassing the game when the Yankees would probably lose either way?

Fortunately, there is video evidence of one such at bat with Hamilton throwing his silly pitch. The batter in this case was Tony Horton, one of the roughest and toughest hombres in the game at that time. The year was 1970 and the game took place on June 24th at Yankee Stadium. The video shows the stadium and you might not even recognize it! Anyway, Horton was big and strong and batted right handed. That's just what you needed against Hamilton. But...wait...we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's set the game up first.

The Yankees were actually playing well in 1970. After some really dark years, on June 24, 1970 under Ralph Houk, they were in second place with a 40-27. Cleveland was in seventh place, one of their usual positions during those years. The Indians had a record of 30-34 and were managed by Al Dark. Both teams started their aces. The Yankees started Mel Stottlemyre and the Indians started Sudden Sam McDowell, one of the blazingest fastball pitchers of his era. Stottlemyre was 8-5 and McDowell was 10-4. The Yankee pitcher would go on to win 15 that season and McDowell would win 20 and come in third in Cy Young voting. He struck out 304 batters that season.

McDowell had his best stuff on June 24, 1970 but Stottlemyre didn't. The Yankee pitcher was knocked out by the fourth inning and McDowell went on to pitch a complete game. The only two runs McDowell gave up were homers to Curt Blefary and a young Bobby Murcer. The Indians had a third baseman by the name of Graig Nettles. But getting back to the game, Stottlemyre was lifted after four innings and was lifted for Mike Kekich, one of the guys in that wife-swapping thing mentioned earlier.

Kekich must have been born under a dark cloud because he was terrible and June 24, 1970 was no different. But he also got no help from his fielders as the usually slick-fielding, Gene Michael, made two errors. But after Kekich pitched his two innings, the score was 6-2 and that was all McDowell needed. The rest of the game was just filler. So they thought.

The next Yankee pitcher was a guy I don't even remember. His name was Ron Klimkowski. It's no wonder I don't remember him as he only pitched 90 games of major league baseball. Klimkowski somehow ended his career with a 2.90 ERA despite a K/9 of only 3.8 and a walk rate of 3.4 per nine innings. In other words, Klimkowski didn't fool anyone. But he pitched two innings and gave up a run on two walks and a hit. His innings bring us to the top of the ninth and Steve Hamilton was asked to do what he did best: pitch a meaningless ninth inning. The Yankees had no chance of beating McDowell on this day and everyone knew it. It was just another meaningless inning for a middling reliever who had a twelve year career making these kinds of appearances.

But it wasn't meaningless for those of us glued to the television sets (black and white) and sipping our cokes in the old green bottles. Our guy was in the game! Steve Hamilton. The very first guy he faced was Tony Horton. Horton was only 25 and nobody knew it on June 24, 1970, but Horton would only be in the major leagues for two more months. For that story, click here. But on that day, nobody knew Horton's breakdown would happen and he was just another good-looking young stud of a ball player. Graig Nettles said that Horton was one of the best hitters he ever saw. But the game wasn't for Horton and he never played again after 1970. But Horton was the guy that Hamilton would face first in the ninth inning. The linked story seems to indicate that Horton and Hamilton had communicated and that Horton wanted Hamilton to throw his Folly Floater. When viewing the video, it certainly appears that Horton wanted Hamilton to throw it a second time.

But there is no use in describing what happened. That's best left to the video and to the immortal Phil Rizzuto that described the happenings. What happened between Hamilton and Horton is legendary to all of us that grew up watching baseball in those times. We'll never forget it. Take it away Uncle Phil:

Lousy Catchers.- Maybe it's the Vowels

Last week on the Fan's podcast, it was mentioned that there were 123 players last year (2010) that finished with a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) score of zero or in the negative numbers. Generally, this is in the same percentage as always. But when going down the list for the listening audience, it was noticed that a large preponderance of those "neggies" (the Fan's bid to coin a new word) were catchers. Why are there so many crappy catchers in baseball today? Has it always been that way? And why can't major league teams find better catchers? Whoa, that's a lot of questions. Let's take them one at a time.

Why are there so many crappy catchers? Well, "crappy" is an unkind word, is it not? Perhaps to soften the blow, we should call them WAR-deficient catchers. There. That's better. Why are there so many WAR-deficient catchers? The 123 players listed in the first paragraph had at least 100 at bats. But when dropping that quantity amount, we find that 46 catchers finished 2010 with a WAR of zero or worse. 46!  In fairness, a third of those guys didn't even have 100 at bats, so we can take that with some grain of salt. But some of those with the worst WAR totals played a lot. Among the group was Bengie Molina (-0.6), Koyle Hill (-1.0), Jeff Mathis (-1.3) and Adam Moore (-1.4). Moore proved that Seattle's tough season was no fluke as his WAR was the lowest for any catcher in baseball. And it seems to be catchy. Jake Fox, who just a couple of years ago was hammering all kinds of minor league pitching for the Cubs' system put on the tools of ignorance for the first time in a while and hit all of .217.

Seventeen of these 46 guys were over 30 years of age. Which again proves that managers and GMs are much more comfortable if the catcher has major league experience. It doesn't matter or not if they stink...err...are WAR-deficient. They just want a veteran. Nothing else can explain why guys like Kevin Cash,  Mike Redman, Chad Moeller and others can have ten to twenty year careers despite not offering anything of value other than the willingness to put a mask on and get beaten up during the course of a game or season. Brad Ausmus finally hung up his catcher's mitt after turning 41 last year. That's a lot of years of mediocrity. Consider if you will that only 25 catchers that saw any playing time last year were 25 years of age or less.

If you were to do a survey of all the major league teams, only about a third of them would have catchers to be proud of. Oh sure, for many, you'll get the "gamer," "good with pitchers" and "good clubhouse guys" thrown in there to make it sound like teams were happy with these WAR-deficient catchers. But if you got behind those euphemisms, most GMs were giving the Giants dirty looks for having a guy like Buster Posey.

According to the Fan's searches (which should always be open to scrutiny), there were 111 catchers that played last year. The fact taht 46 of them had zero or a negative WAR is terrible. But is it unprecedented?

In 2009, 109 catchers got into games in the majors. 45 of them were at zero WAR or in the negative numbers. Nearly identical. Let's go back ten years to 2001. In 2001, 109 catchers got into games and 56 of them ended with zero WAR or a WAR in the negative numbers. That's even worse! If we go back to 1991, 51 of the 101 catchers that got into games in that season finished with a WAR of zero or in the negative numbers. It's beginning to look like a plethora of crappy catcher...oops...WAR-deficient catchers have always been with us. Back in 1955, 31 of the 61 catchers in baseball were just as ba...deficient.

The Fan is going to go out on a limb here. Feel free to chop it off if you'd like. But it seems that teams don't value a good catcher very much. If there has been nearly 50% of catchers in the game that can't even crack positive value, then we can term it chronic. Catchers that come up in the system that can do some damage at the plate get converted out of the catching position (Bryce Harper and Biggio are two that come to mind). Guys that are not perceived as good receivers but are good hitters often get to the big leagues in other positions. Jesus Montero may never be an every day catcher for example.

The Fan has noticed another trend. Forty of the 111 catchers that saw big league action last year have names that end in a vowel. Think about it. There's Jaso and Navarro and Blanco and Cervelli and LaRue and Molina   (thrice) and Sardinha. Is the Fan right or what? Perhaps this is part of the problem for some strange reason. 

Perhaps the catching position is considered fungible. Perhaps it is a position to save money. But it seems to this non-astute observer that teams with great catchers also have great teams. Where would the Braves be without McCann? The Giants get Posey and win the World Series. Posada was a terrific offensive catcher for this current Yankee generation of pennant winners. Whatever the case, it would seem to be a position of importance and yet there is so much lacking at the position. The only other position that is like it is shortstop. Of the 111 shorstops that played in the majors last year, 56 of them ended up with a WAR of zero or in the negative numbers. Again, this includes many who have the "Utility" tag next to their position. And as the Fan wrote last week, a lot of these guys hang around too long and clog up the lower rungs of the WAR ladder.

To give the game a break, we must admit that the percentage of WAR-deficient catchers is lower now than it was twenty, thirty or forty years ago. But that isn't saying much. The Fans advice for all this is that as long as so many of baseball's catchers are going be of little or not value, teams might as well always have their back up catcher as a rookie. At least then the catcher will make minimum instead of one of these Buteras or Blancos that play for ever, make millions and add nothing of value year after year.

Candidates for Unexpected Seasons - NL Central

This morning in this space, a short series was started on just what baseball teams and players can surprise us this upcoming season. Who will be the next Aubrey Huff or Jose Bautista? As mentioned in the first installment, if the Fan could know for certainty who or what team that would be, it would be genius. But alas, there is no genius here. Just speculation and musings on who could be this year's big surprises. Those surprises are out there and that's one of the reason why each new season is as highly anticipated as the last. This post covers the National League Central Division. Let's start with the Cubs.

Chicago Cubs - If this team contended in 2011, that would certainly be a surprise. While their payroll is high and the fans are diehard, the team still feels too dysfunctional to be taken seriously. They did make some improvements such as Matt Garza, so you never know. If the Cubs were to contend, Garza would have to be one of the surprises with a big season. Garza has been tantalizing, but has simply never been able to consistently have a great season. Will it be this year in a new league? Could be. If Alphonso Soriano had one more big year in him, that would be a surprise.

St. Louis Cardinals - The Cardinals could be capable of anything this year. It all comes down to pitching of course, but the Cardinals have hurt their pitchers by seriously weakening their defense. LaRussa has pulled it off before, but if this team won the division, nobody would be more surprised than the Fan. As for players, if Lance Berkman had a big year after last year's snooze-fest, then that would be a major surprise. Berkman can be a dynamic and effective offensive weapon. The question is whether he still has that in him or has time passed him by.

The Milwaukee Brewers - The Brewers have put all their chips on the table by acquiring Zack Greinke and Marcum at the expense of most of their minor league talent. If the Brewers did NOT contend this year, that would be a major surprise.  It would also be devastating to the organization that has done a fabulous job of building the fan base the last few years. Players who could surprise are Jonathan Lucroy, the young catcher who made his debut last season. He showed about as much patience at the plate as a three year old that has to go to the bathroom. But his minor league stats show lots of patience. He could be a big surprise if he gets 400 at bats. Matt Gamel is going to play multiple positions in 2011. At least that's the plan. If he finally does anything in the big leagues, that would be a surprise.

Houston Astros - This team was a surprise in the second half as they put together an excellent run after starting out as the worst team in the National League. It really would be a surprise if they approached .500 baseball this season. It was a pretty big surprise the success that Brett Myers put together last year. If he were to come close to those numbers again would be a huge surprise. It would be a big surprise if Nelson Figueroa has actually come into his own as a pitcher at the age of 37. But last year he was pretty darn good in the second half. Now that he will start in the rotation, if he stays that good over 30 starts would be a major surprise.

Cincinnati Reds - Their division win last year was one of the year's big surprises. Among the team's surprises were two catchers that hit so well, Joey Votto going all superstar on us and Jay Bruce finally gelling into a fine every day player. Oh, and the Fan would consider Arroyo's season a big surprise as well. Who could surprise us this season?  For one, Drew Stubbs could become a star this season. He showed some promise last year once he got his chance, but was inconsistent. If he were to approach a .900 OPS, then that would be a really nice surprise.

Candidates for Unexpected Seasons - NL West

Every year in Major League Baseball we get surprises. These surprises are what make the game so fresh and rewarding to follow year after year. There are surprise players and surprise teams. Last year, we had Adrian Beltre, Yovanni Gallardo, the San Diego Padres, C. J. Lewis, Jose Bautista and Aubrey Huff among the many surprises that thrilled us all season long. And yes, sure, projection systems are designed to predict the norm for players and teams and often come close. But there are always those that defy projections and expectations. Who will they be this year? Well, if the Fan knew that, he would play the stock market. But it's fun to speculate. The Fan is going to cover all 30 teams and six divisions and whether any teams will surprise us or one or two of its players. We'll start in the National League West. Later  today will jump to the NL Central and continue with two more divisions tomorrow.

San Francisco Giants: This team does not seem poised to repeat as World Champions. But if they did, that could be considered a surprise. Players who could have surprise seasons would include Pablo Sandoval, who could get back to his 2009 form after his off-season conditioning program, and Cody Ross, who will need to come up big in a pondering and older outfield.

San Diego Padres: It would be a surprise if this team was again competitive after losing their best player to the Red Sox. But the NL West doesn't have a clear cut powerhouse, so anything could happen and that indeed would be a surprise. As for their players, Kyle Blanks could bust out this year. Reports are that he lost some weight and worked on his conditioning. Among the other players, perhaps Will Venable will become a productive player and live up to his once highly-regarded promise.

Los Angeles Dodgers: This could be the surprise team of the NL West with a new manager and a new start. Several players were below their norms last year and they have good pitching.  Rafael Furcal has not played a full season in a while due to injuries. He's in the walk year of his contract. Expect a big year as your Dodger surprise. It would be a surprise if both Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier did not bounce back and have very good seasons.

Colorado Rockies: The home/road splits for this team are always a problem. Perhaps this year they will put it together in both instances. That would qualify for a surprise. The Rockies have a couple of players that could surprise us. Dexter Fowler has good patience at the plate and at 25, just seems like a better player than he's shown so far. If he finally busts out, that would be a surprise. Ian Stewart is another one who at 26 just seems like a better player than what we have seen. He could have a surprising season. And of course, if Tulowitzki stayed healthy the entire season, that would be a surprise.

Arizona Diamondbacks: As bad as they were last year, if they were competitive at all this year, that would be a huge surprise. But Kevin Towers has been busy, so it's possible, eh?  For that to happen, their pitching staff as a whole would have to qualify as a surprise. As for position players, 2011 could be the season when Stephen Drew finally becomes a superstar. He is only approaching his 28th year and perhaps the shake up on the team will shake him up as well.

This was a fun division to start with because it is so wide open. Any of these teams could win the division and any team that does will be a surprise.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Why Does Hideki Matsui Still Have an Interpretor?

We are a funny people, we Americans. For example, despite the fact that we fought two wars with England and badly wanted our independence from that country, whenever we are faced with an Englishman or woman, we are overly charmed by the accent. Once, while on a training trip, the trainer was Irish and spoke with that area's lilt. We were charmed and mesmerized. We tend to credit people of foreign countries with a nobility that might not be there. We do this to foreign baseball players to a degree as well, particularly those from Japan. We imagine that guys like Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki play and act with more class than the average ball player. Certainly, they are treated differently by the media. The Fan was contemplating this when reading the terrific Susan Slusser's account of Matsui's arrival at the Oakland A's camp. But one thing about the piece struck this Fan and it led to the question: Why does Matsui still need an interpretor or "translator" as she calls it?

Again, the Fan acknowledges that we as a nation are funny about foreigners. And perhaps this is not the most open minded and gracious thought the Fan has ever had. But it is still the thought and it needs to be expressed so the feelings can at least be dealt with. But the thought is, with Matsui entering the ninth season in his productive career, shouldn't he have mastered English by now? The same can be said for Ichiro, who still uses an interpretor. Ichiro is entering his eleventh season. Don't interpretors insert a layer of insulation for the players, not only from the press but from their teammates? If they go out to dinner, does a Mariner player have to ask Ichiro's interpretor to ask Ichiro to pass the salt? It's just weird to this observer, that's all.

When many players are signed from Latin America, one of the first thing teams do is to attempt to teach these players English. There is more effort to give these players assimilation skills to cope with playing in this country. Part of the reasoning behind the assimilation sessions is to benefit the player as it will be much easier for that player to function in this country if they have a working knowledge of our language. But the other part of it is for the fans who will be interested in interviews given by Latin ball players. Lord knows, Pedro Martinez and Luis Tiant gave some of the best interviews the fans ever were allowed to hear. That would not have been the same if those players were using interpretors. And yet, there are many interviews to this day where Hispanic players use interpretors and those interviews are more annoying than pleasurable.

While the Fan attempts to be enlightened and not pig-headed, the acknowledgement here is that the Fan has this old-fashioned notion that if you are making a living in this country, you should speak the language. To be fair, the Fan has no knowledge of whether U. S. players that go play in Japan attempt to do that. Bobby Valentine appears to speak Japanese from his stints as manager over there. But the Fan doesn't know if other players learn the Japanese language when they play over there. But if you asked the Fan's opinion, they should. They are the visitors there and they should know the language if they are earning their daily yen in that country.

There are many times when the Fan has watched a ball game and the pitching coach goes out to the mound to talk to the pitcher. The pitcher is Japanese and the catcher might be Hispanic. And yet the pitching coach does a bunch of talking and both the pitcher and the catcher nod a lot as if they understand. Do they? You have to wonder, don't you? And of course, in the past, there have been stories of Ichiro not meshing well with his teammates. Is that from Ichiro's personality or his lack of English language skills? Don't know.

The Fan has to do some soul searching on this one. The only thing for sure that the Fan knows is that when Hideki Matsui talked to the press after his glorious World Series heroics, this Fan wanted him to answer in English. The Fan wanted Matsui to talk to us in our language and not his own to his interpretor. Call that wrong if you will and you may be right. This Fan may be displaying some closet Neanderthal type of thought. But that's how the Fan feels. And how do we know that the interpretor is saying exactly what the player actually says. For all we know, Matsui could have been telling the interpretor that the guy with the microphone sure has a big nose. We don't know. The Fan doesn't want to think those kinds of things. The Fan only wants the honest to goodness truth about what Matsui was thinking and feeling at that big moment.

Slusser's article went to great lengths (she really is a good writer) to point out that Matsui's teammates did a lot to make their new DH feel welcome in that clubhouse. The Godzilla doll in his locker was very touching and very funny. But the question remains on how close knit the locker room can be if the baseball Godzilla can't talk to his teammates in their own language.

So what do you think? Is the Fan all wet on this? Probably. But that's the way this Fan was feeling here on Presidents Day when we celebrate our country with yet another patriotic holiday.

Annual President's Day All Star Team Post

In honor of our presidents, here is a repost of the all presidential All Star team:

Since it is President's Day here in the United States, a holiday that means that the government and the banks are closed, but most everyone else is still working, it might be fun to come up with an all President All Star Team. Come up with your own if you can think of those that were missed.

  • DH - Joe Carter
  • LP - Whitey Ford
  • RP - Grover Cleveland Alexander
  • C - Terry Kennedy, Gary Carter
  • 1B - Benjamin ("Ben") Harrison Taylor - Negro League player/manager in the Hall of Fame
  • 2B - Jack Roosevelt Robinson - Jackie Robinson!
  • SS - Derrel McKinley Harrelson - You'd know him as Bud Harrelson
  • 3B - Travis Jackson
  • OF - Otis Nixon or Willie Wilson
  • OF - George Washington Case - three time All Star in the 40s
  • OF - Joseph Jefferson Jackson - Shoeless Joe!

For another take on the holiday, check out fellow BBA member, Shawn Anderson's take over at the Hall of Very Good.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

84 Wins for the Tampa Bay Rays?

Baseball Prospectus has projected the American League East to finish with the following win totals: Boston (93), Yankees (92), Bay Rays (84), Orioles (81) and Blue Jays (76). Granted, those folks are pretty smart. But geez Louise, none of those looks right. For one thing, this is the second year in a row the Blue Jays have been projected behind the Orioles. How can that be? The Blue Jays have a better rotation, a better offense and prospects all over the place. The Orioles won't win 81 games. They might if they played in the AL Central. But they don't. But to this Fan, the 84 win total for the Bay Rays seems...well...ridiculous.

Let's list the reasons why the Bay Rays will blow past 84 wins. First, let's start with the rotation. David Price is simply one of the top five pitchers in the American League and he keeps getting better. 2010 was no fluke and Price is going to be just as good or better in 2011. Jeremy Hellickson will have a full year in the rotation and should be more consistently better than the departed Matt Garza. Well, Hellickson may not be better than Garza when Garza is on, but he'll be just as good overall. Jeff Niemann is a guy just waiting to put things all together. The guy is a monster and sometimes, those tall guys take a little while to figure it all out. But Niemann has been very good at times even when not putting it together. You can see the superstar there waiting to bust out. And then you have Wade Davis as your fourth best starter? Puhleese. Wade Davis and Phil Hughes are two solid young guys that are going to be good starters for a long time. Davis rebounded nicely last year after a poor start. If he gets his homer rate down and gets more confidence, look out. And let's finish off with James Shields. If Shields was your Number 2 or 3 starter like last year, you could be concerned. But if he's your number five starter, wouldn't that be better than 28 of the 29 teams out there? This rotation is very, very good.

The young players just keep coming. In the Fan's mind, the Rays are improved at shortstop, second base, first base, DH and utility. Desmond Jennings is projected as the next big thing. He hasn't shown it yet, but if he gets 600 plate appearances, he should show that his minor league days were no fluke. Jennings is a more disciplined hitter than Crawford and can be just as good an outfielder and base runner. Jennigs could be the rookie of the year if he gets off to a good start.

Reid Brignac is one of this Fan's favorite young players. Love watching this kid play. If he starts at shortstop every day and settles himself down into his major league career, you could see fielding as good as Brendan Ryan. He is also poised to be a lot better on offense than Bartlett. The Fan loves him some Reid Brignac.

Sean Rodriguez should improve at second base as well in his second year. He seemed to have some limitations in his game, but he's a fiery little guy and could become one of the better second baseman in the league. But if he falters, you have Ben Zobrist right there who can play second base every day with the best of them. Zobrist is a bit of a mystery. Was 2009 the real Zobrist or 2010? The two seasons don't even come close to looking like the same player. But Zobrist can play so many positions well that if he offense returns at all, he's the safety valve for any position.

Carlos Pena was so bad last year that anyone could be an improvement...even Pena himself if he had returned. The Bay Rays have some options with Zobrist and Dan Johnson. Any combination they come up with will be better than what Pena put together last year. This Fan is rooting for Pena to rebuild his career. But it won't be with the Bay Rays.

What can you say about the Bay Rays at DH? The position has been abominable for several seasons. Nothing they tried worked. This year, their DH will work. Even if Manny Ramirez doesn't have anything left, you have Damon and either one of those guys can out hit any Rays' DH of the last several years in their sleep. Personally, those signings were brilliant. Not only are they two veterans that have won before, but they can anchor down a young team and lead the way. This Fan feels that Manny is going to have a monster year. None of the projections do justice to how well Manny can hit this year since he doesn't have to play the field and can stay healthy. And like mentioned earlier, if he falters, there is Damon. And the amazing thing about those two signings? They were both cheaper than Pat Burrell!

The bullpen lost a lot of good arms. But bullpens can be rebuilt and the bullpen is less important if you have a great starting rotation. Rays' fans shouldn't worry about the bullpen. Maddon and others will work it out.

So what's left? Oh yeah, you have the best third baseman in baseball in Evan Longoria. You have an enigmatic centerfielder who never seems to figure it out. He can anytime. But if he doesn't? You can trade him, put Jennings out there. Then there is Matt Joyce. Joyce had a strange year last year. His final stats are not impressive. But he came on toward the end of the year and was a force in the post season. Joyce still has superstar potential just waiting to come out. And John Jaso is just fine behind the plate. He's not the best defensive catcher and his offense wore down toward the end of last season. But he is a useful player and better than a lot of teams' catchers.

The great thing about the Bay Rays is that they have so many options. The Bay Rays are not afraid to play young players, try them at new positions and mix and match to come up with the best outcome. Maddon is one of the best young managers in the game.

So yeah, 84 wins seems like a breeze for this team. So many divisions in baseball are going to be fascinating in 2011. But the AL East might just be the most fun three-team dogfight in history. Yeah, a lot has to go right for that to happen, but whenever the Fan thinks about the roster of the Bay Rays, 84 games seems ridiculous.