Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Triple Crown for Pujols?

Albert Pujols is in a league of his own. He seems bigger and better than anyone else in the game. Alex Rodriguez has put up the numbers for a decade and could ultimately challenge Aaron, but he can look vulnerable. Pujols never looks vulnerable. Will this be the year that he owns the Triple Crown?

In fourteen games, Pujols has ten homers and twenty RBI. Both lead the league. He is batting .364, and although it's early, there is too much history to believe that Pujols can't keep up this pace.

Pujols has walked fourteen times and struck out only five. His on base average is over .500. What we are seeing is an amazing baseball player.

It doesn't seem as if the Cardinals are as good as in the past two years. But with big Albert in the lineup, they will never be out of it.

Another team that doesn't look impressive is the Yankees. Despite the fact that the team is batting well, the pitching looks uninspiring and after a couple of good starts, Randy Johnson got knocked around tonight.

Giambi has handled the post-steroids transition really well. He took his lumps, got ill, most likely due to his stupidity, and has rebounded nicely. Giambi has already walked twelve times and has a .543 on base average to go along with his .343 batting average.

Giambi's teammate, Derek Jeter is also off to a great start. Batting second and behind Damon and Cano gives Jeter lots of RBI opportunities and he currently leads the team with thirteen.

Looking back to a former entry, some of the Fan's predictions seem unfortunately to be on target. Jeff Conine is 3 for 27 for the season with two homers and a double. He has yet to hit a single.

Houston's Biggio has also started slowly as has Eddie Guardado. It's hard to watch good players get old. And Mr. Bonds looks the oldest of the bunch.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Is Parity Becoming More of a Reality?

To be sure, there are still the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels. But the early signs are that more teams will be in the mix this year and the new competition should be fun. Teams like the Brewers, Reds, Tigers and Cubs look early like they can compete.

The Tigers, Reds and Brewers are the most fun to watch so far. As with all up and coming teams, pitching will be the key for all three teams.

The Brewers have won seven of their first ten games. Their starting pitching has been suspect, but their bullpen boasts six pitchers who have yet to give up a run (in 16 and two-thirds inning). Their offense is spotty as well, but Carlos Lee is a real star and Prince Fielder will get more scary as the year goes along. Geoff Jenkins is batting .323 but has only one extra base hit.

Maybe we'll even get to see a Brewer game on national television this season. And just wait until Ben Sheets returns!

The Tigers are mashing the ball. They have already hit 47 homers with the amazing Chris Shelton already sitting at seven. They are batting .289 as a team with Polanco and Ivan Rodriguez joining Shelton above .300. Magglio Ordonez looks solid. This team is going to hit and play sound fundamental baseball. Only the pitching will hold them down.

Mike Maroth, Jeremy Bonderman and Kenny Rogers will be okay as starters. Youngster, Justin Verlander had one terrific start but got shelled today. The bullpen has been decent and there are some young guns in there.

The Tigers are in a very good division and will go as far as their pitching will take them.

The Reds are going to be an interesting team. Adam Dunn is a monster and has had a monster start. Austin Kearns is finally healthy. Felipe Lopez is off to a great start and Ryan Freel will find enough at bats to make a big difference. Hopefully, Griffey will be okay and Bronson Arroyo continues to hit a homer in every start!

The Red Sox made a big mistake with Arroyo. He was their second best pitcher and only got Cinncinati's fourth best outfielder in return. Arroyo is 2-0 with two great starts.

Eric Milton has had two good starts. Claussen, Harang and Dave Williams need to give them enough quality starts in between. The bullpen has been banged around but even so, the Reds are 7-3, which isn't something anyone has been able to say in a long time.

Two teams going in the opposite direction seem to be the Phillies and the Texas Rangers. The Rangers really seem to miss Soriano in the middle of their lineup and their pitching isn't any better than it has been. They are off to a horrible start.

Likewise, the Phillies seemed to make the wrong decision on Jim Thome, who is proving (if his health holds up) that he still has some pop in his bat (six homers already) and had a major downgrade from Billy Wagner to Tom Gordon as closer. Jon Leiber has given up 10 runs in 10.1 innings and the rest of the pitching doesn't look much better. Has this team's window of opportunity already closed? It appears so.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Some Early Observations

The the Fan has been busy working on his company site (see link). That doesn't mean that the interest hasn't been there. The season is a week old now and there are some early signs worth watching and some comments worth making:

- What's with the season opening with a bunch of night games? Some East Coast teams started out on the West Coast with games starting at 10:00 or 11:00 in the evening (Eastern Time). That's just great for the young fans that want to see their teams for the first time. To be sure, it's a money-induced decision, but it's poor consideration for the fans.

- ESPN's Rob Neyer wrote the best steroid essay yet. Good luck to George Mitchell (from the Fan's state BTW) and to all of baseball for what the former senator might uncover. The jury is still out whether the average fan really cares. This one doesn't.

- How could Tony Womack get another starting position? What do managers and general managers see in this guy?

- Derrek Lee is proving that last year was not a "career" year, but a progression of a superstar. Lee is starting this year where last year left off.

- Randy Johnson looks a lot better this year for the Yankees. Too bad the rest of the team doesn't look very good right now.

- Pennsylvania is still "Oh" for the season as the Phillies and Pirate have gone the season without a win. How weird is that.

- The Brewers are 5-0! That's great to see. Is it an a sign of the season to come or just a good start against easy teams?

- Who is Chris Shelton and what is he eating for breakfast? The first week of the season shows the 33rd round draft choice batting .700 for the season with five homers and nine extra base hits in just 20 at bats. Wow!

- Oakland has great young pitching, but little or no offense. It will be difficult to keep winning games batting .212 as a team.

- The Reds look pretty good. If they can just get some pitching...

- Albert Pujols is simply amazing. A-Rod is the only one close and both are the players of this generation as much as Mays, Mantle and Aaron were the players of theirs.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

It's Almost Here!

Three more days! Three more days until the 2006 baseball season begins. Life begins again and like springtime in nature, we'll swat away the flies of steroid talk and watch another season unfold. Here are the Fan's predictions:

National League East:
1. Mets: Reyes and Wright have big years and Beltran comes out of his sleep like Rip Van Winkle.
2. Phillies: Ryan Howard hits 49 homers but pitching keeps them from the top.
3. Nationals: Nick Johnson has his first 100 RBI season and Jose Vidro wins Comeback of the Year.
4. Braves: Smoltz will find the DL and the glorious reign of the Braves finally ends.
5. Marlins: Florida fans will wonder how this hapless team ended up in Las Vegas.

National League Central:
1. Cardinals: Pujols drags this team back to a playoff loss one more time.
2. Brewers: The Brewers will be fun to watch. The Prince has arrived! He'll hit 33 homers.
3. Reds: The rising of the Reds starts this year. All three outfielders have big seasons.
4. Pirates: Another fun team to watch with pitching woes bogging them down.
5. Cubs: Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez and another year of injuries to Prior and Wood.
6. Astros: Roger won't be back. Bagwell is gone and Biggio has little left.

National League West:
1. Dodgers: Good pitching. Great fielding. Just enough hitting. Gagne is back!
2. Diamondbacks: Will be better than expected in a weak division.
3. Padres: Great young infield. Chan Ho and Woody Williams? Nope.
4. Giants: The only team older than the Yankees. Thank goodness for the Rockies
5. Rockies: Not a Rocky Mountain High.

American League East:
1. Yankees: If their pitching falters early, they will buy more. Wang has a big year.
2. Red Sox: Hard to believe they won't have enough hitting. No wildcard either.
3. Blue Jays: Climbing back, but not there yet. Burnett will burn out.
4. Devil Rays: A year or two away from being great. Close to .500 this year.
5. Orioles: Tejada will not be enough to save this flawed team.

American League Central:
1. Indians: If the young talent gels, this team is scary. Hafner will give David Ortiz a run for his money.
2. Tigers: You just have to believe in Leyland and letting his young fireballers play. Magglio Ordonez had a big spring and is back to star strength.
3. White Sox: Leaked too much in the off season. Pitching isn't as strong as predicted.
4. Royals: Buddy Bell doesn't inspire confidence, but they will be better than they have been.
5. Twins: Joe Mauer becomes a big star, but there isn't enough pitching or offense.

American League West:
1. Athletics: Best pitching in baseball. Enough offense to win close games. Billy Beane is amazing.
2. Angels: Sagging around the edges. Oakland will beat them too often head to head.
3. Rangers: Texas will really miss Soriano in their lineup. They didn't replace his production.
4. Mariners: Ichiro will miss the WCS

Cy Young:
National League - Brett Tompko. Oh my! He finally lives up to his talent.
American League - Roy Halliday. Clearly the best pitcher in the American League.

Batting Champ:
National League - Aramis Ramirez
American League - Derek Jeter

National League - Albert Pujols. He could win it every year for the next ten.
American League - Bobby Crosby

Home Run Champion:
National League - Ryan Howard (49)
American League - Jim Thome (44)

Rookie of the Year:
National League - Prince Fielder
American League - Jonathan Papelbon

Comeback Player of the Year:
National League - Nomar Garciaparra, Jose Vidro
American League - Jim Thome

Final Career Total for Barry Bonds - 729

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Watching the Transaction Wire

The 2006 Major League Baseball season begins right around the corner and the transaction links get more and more interesting. As we get closer to the season, veterans, as well as young prospects start getting pinched from rosters. Today it was Carlos Pena (Tigers) and Darrell May (Twins).

Carlos Pena was a surprise. It doesn't seem long ago when he was a "can't miss" prospect for the Tigers. He was the Cape Cod League MVP in 1997 and then had a great college career.

Pena joined the Tigers in the 2002 season (Pena started the year in Oakland) after a brief stint in Texas the year before. The Tigers have been terrible for a while and Pena became another cog in the next and continuing youth movement for the Tigers.

His first year, Pena showed promise, batting .253 and hit 12 homers, 4 triples and 13 doubles in just 273 at bats. With more playing time in 2003, Pena hit 18 homers but his average dropped 5 points. His average dropped a few more points in 2004, but he did hit 27 homers and drove in 82 runs. He also scored 89 runs since he walked 70 times.

Last year, Pena got off to a slow start and was sent to the minors for a while. With the major league club, his average dipped further but did manage 18 homers and 44 RBI in 260 at bats.

Pena would be a good gamble for another club with a more favorable hitting park than Detroit's cavernous park. Left-handed power can help a club if a team can get him back on track. Pena does walk a lot and has a decent on-base percentage for his career despite the mediocre batting average. Some team should give him a shot.

Darrell May never had the advanced billing that Pena received. May is a left-hander who has pitched for parts of ten seasons with seven different teams. Last year was particularly painful for May.

He caught on with the San Diego and started eight games for that team and had a 1-3 record with a 5.61 ERA. He was then traded to the Yankees for Paul Quantrill. That didn't go very well at all for the pitcher.

With the Yankees, he pitched twice and started once. In seven innings of total work, May gave up 17 baserunners and 13 runs, including four homers. The Yankees sent him packing.

He signed on with Minnesota and after an unimpressive spring, the Twins cut him loose. Since MLB seems to value left-handed pitching no matter how uninspiring, May might catch on with someone. He did have one good season with the Royals (2003) where he went 10-8 with a 3.77 ERA. But the man has given up 123 homers in his career in 660 big league innings.

Baseball is a tough business and careers can end abruptly. That's why the transaction wire is such an interesting place. Every day carries a different story. Here's hoping that the story for Darrell May and Carlos Pena didn't end on March 26, 2006.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Felix Heredia Was Released Today

The transaction wire is a great place to hang out during Spring Training. A lot of great stories are found there. One of today's cuts was Felix Heredia. Heredia is one of those players that makes the Fan wonder how a player such as Heredia could hang around as long as he has.

2004 was a typical year for Heredia. He pitched in 47 games for the Yankees. A left handed pitcher, it was Heredia's job to take the ball when Joe Torre needed to get a left handed batter out. Giving the ball to Heredia 47 times makes the greatness of Torre's management skills come in to question.

Asking Heredia to perform such a task was like spraying lighter fluid into a fireplace. In those 47 appearances, Heredia pitched 38.1 innings. In those innings, he gave up 44 hits and walked 20 batters and hit two others. That's 66 base runners in 38.1 innings. That doesn't make that lefty/lefty situation make much sense. His ERA was over 6.00 for the year for the second time in his career.

Heredia pitched for nine years and pitching primarily to his supposed-strength (lefty batters), he pitched 458.1 innings and gave up 798 base runners. Ouch. How much do you want to bet that Heredia gets a job somewhere.

Here is a word to the wise to MLB managers: Never hire a pitcher named Heredia. There have been four pitchers with that name in the majors and besides Felix, here are their results:

Gil Heredia (1991 to 2001): Gil had one decent season, but his overall career featured a lifetime 4.46 ERA and 1328 base runners in 954 innings.

Ubaldo Heredia (1987): Pitched in two games for the Expos. Finished with a 5.40 ERA.

Wilson Heredia (1995, 1997): Wilson pitched 31.2 innings for the Rangers and walked 31 batters. Yeesh.

Over the years, there have been other players that cause the Fan to wonder why they played so long. Here are a few that come to mind:

Alfredo Griffin (1976-1993): Alfredo Griffin played for 17 seasons for the Indians, Blue Jays, Athletics, Dodgers and the Blue Jays again. Griffin was a shortstop who finished with a lifetime .249 batting average and a .285 on-base percentage.

In 1984, Griffin batted 429 times for the Blue Jays. He walked four times. Four. His batting average for the year was .241 and his on-base percentage was .248.

Well, lots of shortstops were weak hitters. Eddie Brinkman comes to mind. But fielding made up for it. Griffin had four years with more than 30 errors. Maybe Griffin was a great base runner. Not exactly. In 326 attempts, Griffin was thrown out 134 times.

Horace Clarke (1965-1974): Clarke played nine years--all but one of them with the Yankees. Those Yankee teams of the late 60's and early 70's were brutal and no one summed up who they were more than Horace Clarke.

The thing that makes Clarke's career remarkable is that, despite pathetic hitting for 600 at bats a season, he led off for the Yankees for almost all of his career. How can you have a lead off hitter for half a dozen years with a lifetime on-base percentage of .308 and a batting average of .254? The defining Horace Clarke statistic? He had 4813 lifetime at bats and ended up with 200 extra base hits.

Darren Oliver (1993 - 2004): Oliver pitched for eight different teams in his Major League career--badly. Remarkably, Oliver finished with a winning record, but he ended with a career earned run average of 5.07.

Oliver had four seasons where he finished with an earned run average over 6.00. The year 2000 was a career lowlight. He made 21 starts for the Texas Rangers and ended up with an earned run average of 7.42. For those not in the know, that is 7.42 runs per nine innings.

Despite the fact that Oliver gave up 2247 base runners in 1407 innings in his career, he never lacked a team willing to give him the ball.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Random Thoughts

- The Fan is glad that the Soriano crisis is over. Things could get bumpy in left field for the Nationals slugger, but at least he is playing the game he so obviously loves. He will continue to be one of the Flagrant Fan box score watches.

- The Fan doesn't want to talk about steroids or even think about them. The situation is the kind of story that the thrill-seeking journalists of our era love so much. It's so much more fun to find stories to tear down the high and mighty than it is to build interest in the game they supposedly love.

The key for the Fan is that testing is now in place to stop it and both the owners and the players understand that steroids and hormone injections are bad for the game. What happened before this time happened. It's not dissimilar to the free 70's when free sex and our hippie past led to STD's and drug addiction. We learn and we move on. Let's play ball already.

- The traditionally losing teams that have the best chance to turn it around this year are the Tigers and the Devil Rays. New managers and some interesting talent could turn them around.

- It was sad to see Ricky Bottalico waived two days ago. Bottalico can no longer blow away batters like in the past, but he can still get some people out. Here's hoping that he catches on somewhere.

- Sons of former players are always interesting when they come up to the big leagues. There is more anticipation and curiosity in the arrival. Will Prince Fielder be the bomb that he seems to be? It looks like Jesse Barfield's son, Josh, has a good chance for the starting second base job with the Padres. There are two more box score watches.

- For a catcher to go to the hospital as Jorge Posada did with his broken nose, it must have been pretty bad.

- It looks like Sidney Ponson is going to get one more chance with the Cardinals. Let's hope the pitcher realizes that he's had more chances than most would with his history.

- There aren't too many sadder stories than those of Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden. Those two men had so much talent and just could not get past their problems. It hurts inside to think of the road they both traveled.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Three Points for the National League

The Fan is finding it hard to think about baseball after the dreaded Colts signed Adam Vinatieri. Ugh! What were the Patriots thinking? Oh well...focus...focus...baseball...baseball...

A couple of days ago, this space created some lists for the American League. Let's take five for the National League.

Five NL players would could have break-out seasons:
1. Nick Johnson - Nationals: Okay. Johnson has been around now for several seasons, but injuries have slowed his progress. Now that he's signed his first big contract, Johnson can relax and know that he is counted on. Already one of the best fielding first basemen in the league, Johnson's lifetime .383 on-base percentage and power potential could make 2006 the year that Johnson becomes a break-out star.

2. Chase Utley - Phillies: Utley played his first full season last year for the Phillies and put up 28 homers and drove in 105 runs. Even more impressive, Utley had 39 doubles and learned to be patient at the plate. In his second full season, Utley should become the next great second baseman.

3. Felipe Lopez - Reds: Another second baseman and shortstop, Lopez had his first 500+ at bat season last year and scored 99 runs while driving in 85 to go along with 23 homers. He batted .291 with a .352 on-base percentage. The Reds picked up Tony Womack, but he isn't the answer. The Reds should play Rich Aurilia at short and Lopez at second and he will become a star.

4. Austin Kearns - Reds: Austin Kearns was the can't miss prospect when he came up a few years ago. His career has taken some twists since then, but with Wily Mo Pena off to the Red Sox, Kearns is going to get his chance to finally grow into his billing. Look for 30+ homers and over one hundred RBI.

5. Chris Young - Padres: Chris Young was one of the Rangers' best pitchers last season. He's never had a full season and yet has a career winning record. Only 27, Young could blossom into the next great pitcher now that he's in the National League and has two less hitters in the lineup to worry about.

Five NL stars would could slip to age this year:
1. Woody Williams - Padres: Williams had his first losing season since 1997 and will be 40 this year. It seems hard to imagine that Williams has anywhere to go but down.

2. Omar Vizquel - Giants: Vizquel seemed human during the WBC and at 38, his long and productive career is headed down. The Giants make the Yankees look young.

3. Jeff Kent - Dodgers: Kent had another very good year last year, but he is 38. The Fan is predicting that Kent will show his age this year.

4. Carlos Delgado - Mets: Between Delgado and the AARP's Julio Franco, the Mets have 37 years of experience at first base. That can't be a positive for the team. Other Mets that are destined to falter eventually: Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez.

5. Craig Biggio - Astros: This could be the last hurrah for Biggio who is now 40 years old. Hard work and pure guts can only carry a body so far. Biggio hit 26 homers last year and hit 40 doubles, but had his lowest on-base percentage since his rookie year (way back in 1988).

Five most important NL players to their team's success:
1. Barry Bonds - Giants
2. Pat Burrell - Phillies
3. Chris Carpenter - Cardinals
4. Lance Berkman - Astros
5. Pedro Martinez - Mets

Five biggest NL question marks:
1. Barry Bonds - How well will he play? How will baseball deal with the issues?
2. Miguel Cabrera - Will he flounder without any stars around him? Will anyone pitch to him?
3. Bobby Cox - Can he pull another rabbit out of the hat...without his pitching coach?
4. Mark Prior and Kerry Wood - Will the Cubs twosome ever have full seasons?
5. Ryan Howard - Can the young bopper do it over a full season?

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Line is Drawn

The "plight" of Alfonso Soriano has been discussed recently in this spot. The line was drawn today when Soriano refused to take his spot in left field. The Nationals are not going to back down and would just as soon send Soriano home to lose his $11 million for his pride. There is no way that Frank Robinson is going to back down either.

Soriano is in a precarious position here. If he gets put on the disqualified list, he won't become a free agent at the end of the year. And if he doesn't play, he doesn't start earning that next big paycheck.

Frankly, Soriano's stance is pathetic and he should go out and play left field. It's not like the Nationals are asking him to clean out a safe house in Iraq. Get real, Alfonso, and grab your glove.
Red Sox Go Against Wisdom

The old saying is that you never have enough pitching. The Red Sox apparently were not comfortable with their offense and overly comfortable with their pitching and traded Bronson Arroyo to the Reds for Wily Mo Pena. The Fan isn't sure about this trade.

The Red Sox gave up their most consistent pitcher last year and will rely on a rotation of: Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Matt Clement, Tim Wakefield and either David Wells or a young Jonathan Papelbon. That makes two starters who will turn 40 this year, and Wells who will turn 63 or something.

Beckett could be ready to grow into the stardom predicted for him for the past five years and Clement may bounce back from what was a real up and down year (and a line drive off his head). Papelbon seems like the real deal after his September call up, but he was their backup plan if Foulke doesn't make it back as the closer.

Arroyo filled up innings and will certainly help the Reds who have been desperate for pitching for years now. Arroyo signed a three year contract at less than market value because he loved it in Boston. Surprise! At least Cincinnati is a great baseball town like Boston.

The Red Sox got a fourth outfielder in Wily Mo, who besides having one of the coolest names in baseball, also has a lifetime average of .347...of striking out. Pena does have tremendous power from the right side, something the Red Sox lack.

The move gives the Red Sox four outfielders and the possibility of Juan Gonzalez somewhere else in the mix. Where will they put them all? Pena goes from a similar outfield situation with the Reds that just seemed to sort itself out for him to get 500 at bats for the first time in his career.

Pena should benefit from playing with David Ortiz and gives the Red Sox some insurance in the unsteady world of Manny Ramirez. But the Fan still can't get past wondering if Schilling has something left, Wakefield can throw knuckleballs forever, Beckett is past the blister days and Clement or Wells have something to offer.

You never have too much pitching...

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Major League Elevator

Al Leiter retired the one batter he faced today and then retired from Major League Baseball. In another story, the Red Sox signed Juan Gonzalez to a minor league contract. That's the elevator that is baseball in Spring Training. The elevator goes up and down and sometimes people get out for the last time.

Al Leiter was a pretty good pitcher for a long time. Known just as much for his heart as for his fastball, Leiter won 162 games in his 19 year career against only 132 losses. His lifetime ERA was 3.80, which is very good in the hitting era he pitched in.

Leiter was a late bloomer who wasn't a star until seven years after his career started with the Yankees in 1987. Starting in 1995, Leiter won 133 games in the next ten years with Toronto, Florida and the Mets.

His best year was 1998, his first year with the Mets, when he was 17-6 with a 2.34 ERA. It was no coincidence that his career took off when his strikeout to walk ratio improved dramatically. It is also no coincidence that his career showed signs of being over when his walk count increased while his strikeout count plummeted.

Leiter always rode the edge of the strike zone and his talent and poured his heart into every performance. It was an act of grace that allowed him to end his career today on his own terms with an out. His career was a joy to watch.

On another elevator stop, the Red Sox signed Juan Gonzalez to a minor league contract. If Gonzalez can come anywhere close to the kind of bat he had in his career, this could be an incredible move for the Red Sox.

Despite the enigma that has surrounded his career, Gonzalez has had some of the greatest years in MLB modern history. Gonzalez was Manny Ramirez before there was a Manny Ramirez, and, in fact, replaced Ramirez in Cleveland when Manny signed in Boston.

Juan Gonzalez has had three seasons with 140 RBI or more (144, 157, 140). He had an eleven year run where he hit 392 homers and 1263 RBI. He had a four year run (1996 through 1999) where he hit 173 homers and drove in an incredible 560 runs. He has batted over .300 five times and over .320 twice.

Unfortunately, Juan Gonzalez has had a history of going on the disabled list. But so has Nick Johnson and the Nationals just gave him $25 million for three years. Dare the Fan say this out loud? Perhaps Gonzalez has a bad rap because he is a Hispanic ballplayer? Why else would his injuries be eyed with suspicion when Chuck Finley was a gutty pitcher who kept trying to come back from his injuries?

What is known is that Gonzalez would be threatening some pretty big numbers if he had been able to get 600 at bats a season. In the one season that he did hit that mark, he scored 110 runs, 193 hits, 50 doubles, 45 homers and 157 RBI. Wow! Even with injuries, Gonzalez has 434 career homers and over 1400 RBI. Not too many players have seen that kind of production.

If Gonzalez can come back and give the Red Sox 30 homers and 80 runs batted in, that will be a huge boost for that team. At least one Fan will be rooting for him.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Yesterday and Today

A couple of years ago in this spot, it was mentioned that we are living in the best time to be a fan of Major League Baseball. With instant access to games, statistics, analysis and commentary, everything is right there for the Fan. But is it really better? Let's take a look at some major areas and compare eras.

The Game: It would be easy to say that the game was more pure in the past. There wasn't the big money. The players were less athletic and so on. Money was just as much a part of the game in the 60's as it is now. The teams with more money then could keep their great players. Those without the money traded their second tier stars to keep one or two franchise players. The Senators didn't have money. Other teams did.

The top athletes of the 60's rival those of today. Cesar Tovar was as athletic as Alfonso Soriano. Injuries occurred then as now with no less frequency. The one major difference is that pitchers can get Tommy John surgery when they blow out their elbows. That allows pitchers to hang on longer than in the past.

Other than that, the game is mostly the same. There are still nine innings and the game's strategy ebbs and flows just like before. The biggest changes since Harmon Killebrew played are:

1. The closer. A starting pitcher was expected to pitch nine innings then. Advantage today? Not really. The starter was a better pitcher in those days than anyone in the bullpen. The bullpen was full of guys that weren't good enough to start. Now they have blow-them-away-for-three-outs specialists. The results are the same: The losing team makes a comeback, or doesn't. It's a wash.

2. The Designated Hitter. It's been quite a while now since Ron Bloomberg (Yankees) collected the first hit by a designated hitter. Before the DH, there was a weak hitter in the eight hole who barely got anything to hit and then the pitcher. The pitcher, if a good hitter, might have a batting average of .167 and would either strike out or lay down a sacrifice bunt.

Now, there is an extra bomber in there swinging the bat, meaning higher run production and careers for those all hit and no field kind of players. "Purists" will claim that the DH is unnatural and removes strategy. That may be so, but the Fan's 45+ years of watching baseball qualifies him as a "purist" and the Fan would much rather watch David Ortiz rattle a baseball off a wall than watch the manager go out to the mound, pull the pitcher, remove the left fielder, sacrifice bunt, pinch hit and all the other semi-boring "strategies" the DH nay sayers enjoy so much.

Advantage to the present.

3. The Umpires. The umpires are much more aggressive now and will show up a player and instigate arguments. That never happened in the past. Plus, the strike zone is more like the twilight zone. Today's strike is from the top of the knees to the top of the belt and from two inches off the outside of the plate and two inches in from the inside edge. The strike zone is terrible and it has changed the game. In order to prevent a walk, a pitcher has no choice but to put the ball in most player's happy zone. As a Fan watching...as a "purist," the strike zone is not enforced correctly.

Advantage: The past, which makes the game a wash.

Television: ESPN has changed the landscape. The highlight shows in the evening are a godsend for the happy fan. At first it was good enough to get baseball game highlights in between the other sports on SportCenter. Now, there is Baseball Tonight with highlights, lively banter and commentary.

Plus, you can watch three or four games a week on ESPN, four or five from TBS and, if your cable company still gets WGN, four or five Cub games. This is great except, if you are a fan of a home town team, free television used to carry every game of the season. WPIX in New York showed every Yankee game from the start of the season to the finish. That's gone with the advent of cable. You can pretty much watch a team's every game, but it's going to cost you.

Camera angles and instant replay from several angles have been major improvements. The biggest improvement? Color television. Oh come on. Some of you watched the games in black and white.

The broadcasters seemed to be a bit better back then. Phil Rizzuto wasn't polished, but he was much more fun than the slick and secure Mr. Buck on Fox broadcasts. The analysts are better prepared now and seem much less hokey than the old days of retired players collecting easy paychecks.

Advantage: Today.

The Writers: There are good writers today. Peter Gammons is the star among stars. The Internet gives you instant access to many baseball writers but there doesn't seem to be the substance there used to be. All the writers are either trying to find some statistical analysis made possible by mass databases, or they are trying to be flashy and cute.

There was nothing like getting the Sporting News on a Friday and spending three hours reading the best writers in the country. They talked about the game and the players and what it all meant in personal terms and with exciting depth. Gammons is the only one today who comes close. His new blog means he is writing more and that's manna from heaven.

On the other spectrum, Buster Olney fills his blogs with links to other articles all over the Web. Who wants to click here and there and resize the window to read someone else's small article. What do YOU think, Buster? That's what we want to read. It was better to turn the page.

It was also better when some of the dirt was left under the rug. The writers respected the player's privacy and wrote about the game. Now, there is the infernal rush to be first to expose a star to shame. Thanks, but that isn't fun for the Fan. But you can't blame today's writers. Watergate opened that floodgate.

Advantage: The past.

Statistics: The Internet is such a huge factor for the statistical junkie. Up to the minute statistics are at the fingertips at bat by at bat. With a few clicks, you can sort leaders for hits, doubles, RBI, ERA, BA, slugging, OBP, saves, wins and many others by player, by position or by team. How good is that!

In the past, you had to wait until the Sunday paper, or the Friday arrival of the Sporting News. But there was something fun about following those long lists of stats in the paper as one looked for favorite players. Maybe it's hindsight, but it seemed a bit more magical then.

Advantage: Today (you just can't beat having all that information instantly)

Going to the Game: First of all, going to the ballpark was a safer experience back in the 60's. There was crime, but not the fear that is walking today's city streets. Plus, for $3.75, you could get in the bleachers and buy a soda and snack. That made for an everybody type of crowd. Blue collar, white collar, blacks, whites, urban and suburban, we all became one at the ballpark.

Today's prices have closed out the game to most of the middle and lower classes. Going to the game is more of an event or a privilege and not the experience gained by the everyman. There were no cell phones. The ballpark wasn't filled with only the Docker crowd and SUVs. The ballpark was a bonding experience. Now it is more of an experience the more well to do can experience.

Of course, once you are there, the experience is the same, with the stir and the excitement. There is still the anticipation, batting practice, watching the infield dampened and raked. It's still pretty darn special.

Advantage: The past.

The Ballparks: MLB has done a great job at going back to making distinct and wonderful ballparks. The trend of the past toward cookie-cutter, astro-turfed and sterilized parks is going away for good. There is much concern about losing older parks such as Tiger Stadium and soon, Yankee Stadium.

Advantage: The present.

The Players: For those of us who have to work for a living, the players needed more say in their careers and their future. The ownership of the past were slave laborers and revenue sharing should be somewhat equal between ownership and the product.

As the players have become richer, however, it is harder to identify with them as those of us who had dreams of youth that came true. They aren't us anymore. They are more like movie stars with pimped up rides and fancy clothes.

Since so much money is at stake, the players are more concerned with their conditioning and that had the side effect of the steroid issue. After all, the temptation to take steroids are much greater if it can mean a five year, $40 million dollar contract.

It seems that ownership and labor have gotten the message and are working together at cleaning up the game. Once accomplished, the fans will have more faith and trust in the product they are watching.

But still, it all comes back to the money, which means that the average fan can no longer relate to the players they are rooting for.

Advantage: A wash.

Let's tally the score. There were a couple of washes, a couple of the pasts and three votes for today. The final analysis is that today's Major League Baseball is a slightly better product than in the past.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Take Five

This is a great time of year. It's not as great as when the real games actually start. Think of a hungry man anticipating a night at a new restaurant. To actually eat will be the bomb. But to anticipate what might be on the menu gets the blood pumping before dining. In the spirit of anticipation, here are some lists of what might be on the menu.

Five AL players who could have breakout seasons:
1. Jorge Cantu - Tampa Bay: In reality, he already broke out last season with 28 homers and 117 RBI. But few noticed. If he does it again or picks it up another notch. He will be noticed.

2. Robinson Cano - New York: Cano got his feet wet and Torre ran him out there every day. He's had a season to learn what he can do. Now he can become a star.

3. Joe Mauer - Minnesota: He knows his strike zone, puts the ball in play and now in his third year, could break out to be a big star. His 61 walks with only 64 strikeouts bode well for his future.

4. Jhonny Peralta - Cleveland: If he can cut down on his strikeouts and put the ball in play more, he will greatly improve his decent .342 on-base percentage and 24 homers as the newest power shortstop.

5. Dan Johnson - Oakland: In Johnson's first big chance last year, he walked 50 times in 375 at bats to go with 15 homers and 58 RBI. If he gets the playing time, Johnson can be the next big star.

Five AL stars who could slip to age this season:
1. Jorge Posada - Yankees: Posada's on-base percentage, slugging percentage and RBI were at their lowest levels last year since 1999. He's 35 now, which is long in the catching tooth.

2. Mike Timlin - Boston: Timlin's season last year was deceiving. He did have an E.R.A of only 2.24. For the first time in several years, he gave up more hits than innings pitched. And his WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched was his highest since 2001. He is 38 this year.

3. Jeff Conine - Orioles: Conine has been a personal favorite for a long time, but the man is 38 and has always played hard. He may be a role player at best for the Orioles after a fine .304 season last season.

4. Garret Anderson - Angels: Anderson has had a nice career. He hasn't reached a hundred RBI for the last two seasons after four in a row previously. It just seems that he has slipped.

5. Eddie Guardado - Seattle: Everyday Eddie is 36 and though he had 36 saves last year, he had his lowest strikeout to innings pitched ratio in several years. Look for him to slip further this year.

Five most important AL players to their team's success:
1. David Ortiz - Boston
2. Mariano Rivera - Yankees
3. Vladimir Guerrero - Angels
4. Michael Young - Texas
5. Travis Hafner - Cleveland

Five biggest AL question marks:
1. Hank Blalock - What happened to this once promising career?
2. Mike Lowell - Is he really done as a player?
3. Darin Erstad - Was that one year a fluke?
4. Adrian Beltre - Seattle must be scratching its head.
5. Vernon Wells - This once budding star has had some aphid problems.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Devil Rays Could Be Maddoning

If the Devil Rays can get any pitching at all, Joe Maddon's Devil Rays could drive some teams (like the Yankees) crazy. Maddon brings more fun to the Devil Rays than the taciturn Lou Piniella and is intent on running the Devil Rays all over the league--and the Devil Rays have the legs to do it.

The image is still painted painfully of Game 5 of that fateful League Championship Series with the Yankees up 3-0 with a one run lead and six outs to go. Dave Roberts is up first against the great Mariano Rivera. He walked. That single walk led to a stolen base, a single and a tie score. The Fan knew the series was over with that walk. That's what speed does to teams like the Yankees. It was the secret weapon.

And the Devil Rays drove the Yankees crazy last year. The Rays will be even better this year. Rocco Baldelli is back after being injured all of last year. Carl Crawford becomes more and more of a star each year. Julio Lugo knows how to get on base with a .369 on-base percentage. Jorge Cantu burst on the scene last year. And all kinds of talented young players are on the way.

Aubrey Huff needs to stop his downward trend the last three years where his statistics in every category have fallen. If he can get back to where he was in 2003, the Rays will be even more dangerous.

And then there is Maddon himself. The Fan loves Lou Piniella and has since he awkwardly played right field in New York and hit the cover off the ball to all fields. But the man seemed in pain the last couple of years. He is such a competitive and impatient man that the losing seasons weren't part of building something. It was more of a bitter taste for him. But Maddon has a sense of humor that will connect with his players, with the fans and with the media.

The Devil Rays may be a year or two away from contending, but they will make stodgy teams like the Red Sox and Yankees nuts.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Doesn't Ring a Bell

The Kansas City Royals hired another new manager this year. David Gus "Buddy" Bell became the Royals' fourteenth manager in their young history. Forgive the Fan if Bell's management history (with his 345-462 career managing record) doesn't give much optimism for the Royals.

Perhaps this is an emotional reaction. The Fan had a drunk of a stepfather nicknamed, "Buddy." That must be it. Or maybe it's just the name, "Buddy," that is the problem. The name invokes a good old boy. Could you report to a boss named, "Buddy"?

It's never easy to understand the relationship between the manager and the team's bottom line performance. Is Joe Torre a great manager, or has he just benefited from having the best players money can buy? Did Casey Stengel suddenly get great when he joined the Yankees and then get really terrible when he finished with the Mets?

So one has to give Mr. Bell the benefit of the doubt. So what does he have to work with? He has a few good players, a few question marks and a whole lot of young people.

Of course there is Mike Sweeney, one of the good guys of the game. Sweeney wants to stay with the Royals in the worst way, and he deserves that distinction. He's been a great player for a long time and being 33, it would be easy to understand wanting to finish where he started. But there is one question to ask here.

Does Sweeney stay because it is comfortable and if so, does that make him a winner? It reminds the Fan of a worker who stays in a decent job and turns down promotions because it feels safer to stay where he is. If Sweeney has endured ten years of losing, does that make losing okay? And now he has a manager that is used to losing. Hmm...

Emil Brown was one of the best surprises of 2005. But few are aware of it. Here is a guy drafted by the Athletics eleven years ago. In five years, Brown batted 404 times in the major leagues with 81 hits for an even .200 batting average. From 2001 through 2004, Brown didn't get any major league at bats. Then he got a job for the Royals.

Brown played 150 games for the Royals and batted .286 with 17 homers, 86 RBI, ten stolen bases in eleven attempts and finished with an on-base percentage of .349. What a great story! Here's for rooting for a repeat performance! Go Emil!

The Royals actually signed a few free agents over the winter that people heard of! Reggie Sanders, most recently of the Cardinals, will provide great fielding and occasional pop with his bat. Sanders is now 37 and is seven homers shy of 300 for his career. Kansas City is a hard place to hit homers though and Sanders could have warning track power there.

Sanders can also run the bases and even at the age of 36, stole 14 bases in 15 attempts. He is just three shy of 300 in that area as well and will easily join the 300/300 club.

The Royals also acquired Mark Grudzielanek and Doug Mientkiewicz to play second and first respectively and respectfully. Mientkiewicz is a wonderful first baseman of questionable hitting prowess. But great fielding first basemen are vastly underrated in helping a team win ball games. The Fan just feels sorry for the equipment guy who has to sew those names on the uniforms.

John Buck, behind the plate, is a decent player who could improve greatly by being more patient when batting. He only walked 23 times in 400 at bats last year. Between Ivan Rodriguez and Buck, the two A.L. Central catchers had less than 40 walks between them!

David DeJesus is another young player that had a good year last year. The home-grown Royal batted .293 with a .359 on-base percentage.

The pitching is where the Royals get dicey. The combined record of newcomers Joe Mays (formerly of Minnesota) and Mark Redman (of just about every other team in the majors), along with K.C. hurler, Runelvys Hernandez was 19-39. Ouch.

Scott Elarton was a nice pickup. He had an 11-9 record with the Indians last year and could flourish further in pitcher friendly Kansas City. But the Royals didn't help themselves at all in the bullpen with just Mike MacDougal the only bright spot out there.

The Fan hopes that Zack Greinke can sort out things and return to his career. He has a job that most of us can only dream about. It would be great if he could learn to enjoy it.

After reading back this post for edit, is it the Fan, or do the Royals have the strangest player names in baseball? And they lead the league in players with names ending in the letter "O" (Paul Bako, Andres Blanko and Andrew Sisco).

Names not-withstanding, Buddy Bell will have to hope the pitching staff gives him something to work with or his career .428 winning percentage will dive further south.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Tracy Not a Swashbuckler

The Fan doesn't know much about Jim Tracy. Public records show that he played unspectacularly for the Cubs, managed in the minors for years and then took over the Dodgers and had four very good years and one bad one. Since Tracy's Dodgers always played on the opposite coast, there isn't much empirical data to add to the record.

The few times that the Dodgers did manage to make it to ESPN or worse, TBS, against the Braves, watching those few games were fairly boring. Tracy seemed stoic and stiff. He never seemed overly animated. What is remembered is that the Dodgers always seemed to have the pitcher batting with one out and a runner on first or second. The pitcher always tried to bunt.

There is a trend with Major League Baseball, for managers to be fired and replaced by an opposite. The Fan, again, doesn't have enough observed data to know if Lloyd McClendon was a good or a bad manager. The results certainly weren't there. But evidence seems to indicate that McClendon was a fiery kind of guy. ESPN's Baseball Tonight always seemed to have a clip of the former Pirate manager getting tossed from a game after screaming at the umpire.

From most accounts, the Pirates weren't very good with fundamentals either. Tracy is the polar opposite and preaches small ball and fundamentals and seems to stay pretty low key--which could be a quiet intensity.

Tracy did have a commendable record in Los Angeles including a division championship in 2004. Last year's poor season seems more related to the Dodgers losing Beltre to Seattle and Green to Arizona and the injury to Gagne. But does he have anything to work with in Pittsburgh--perennial losers since the end of the "We Are Family" days?

Tracy's Pirates should have a pretty good offensive team. Jason Bay is a true superstar and as such, improves his stats every year. New acquisition, Sean Casey, won't kill you with power, but is a clog-the-bases kind of player with a high average and on-base percentage. Randa and Burnitz are both turning 37 this season, but may help with the bat and with leadership.

Two offensive keys are the spectacular fielding duo of Jack Wilson at short and Jose Castillo at second. Castillo needs to improve his on-base percentage and should start to do that as he enters only his third full season. Is Jack Wilson the .300 hitter he was in 2004 or the .250 hitter he was in 2003 and 2005?

A wildcard in the mix is Craig Wilson. Two years ago, Wilson was a rising star who hit 29 homers to go along with 35 doubles. Last year, wrist injuries limited him to 59 games and cost him his starting job. Wilson is learning to catch and could be one of those 400-at-bat-play-him-anywhere kind of guys. Though a good on-base percentage guy, Wilson needs to cut down his strikeout ratio (nearly one strikeout for every three at bats).

Like every other team in baseball, the Pirates will live and die with pitching. The Pirates don't have any stars on their pitching staff. They do have some fascinating possibilities. Zach Duke came up last year and went 8-2. Ryan Vogelsong shows flashes. Oliver Perez could pitch like he did in 2004 instead of like he did in 2005. Paul Maholm went 3-1 after his call up last year with a 2.18 E.R.A.

The bullpen could be decent with the ageless Roberto Hernandez, Salomon Torres and the exciting addition of Damaso Marte. Marte is nasty and could develop into the next great relief pitcher. The Pirates also have a proven arm in Mike Gonzalez.

Tracy has a proven track record and good reports are coming from his players. He may appear boring to this Fan, but the Pirates don't need a swashbuckler. They need a winner. They may have one.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Dodgers Go Old School

Grady Little (or is it William Grady?) doesn't fit with the trend in MLB. In fact, his manage-from-the-hip style cost him his job in Boston after two very successful years. Leadership in Boston is enamored with the Billy Beane school of baseball with its statistics and probabilities. Little never fit that mold, but he won. The Dodgers will take that chance because they need to win.

Jim Tracy seems like a heck of a guy. But he seemed kind of nondescript. The Dodgers have see-sawed back and forth between the staid and the homespun. They went from the quiet Walter Alston to the flamboyant Tommy Lasorda to the staid Tracy and now to the folksy Little.

The Fan has been in New England for 30 years and Grady Little was entertaining to watch. He was kind of the mischievous uncle that had the twinkle in the eyes and seemed to know more than he was telling. And he knew a great deal.

When Little joined the Red Sox, they were a mess. There was discord and inconsistent results on the field. Jimy Williams was fired and Little took over and there was an immediate drive to the team.

And then he made his big mistake in AL Championship Series. It's game seven and the Red Sox are up 5-2 over the dreaded Yankees with six outs to go. Little went against the modern game.

Pedro Martinez, the American League's best pitcher, had pitched his 100 pitches. He got the Red Sox to the eighth inning. Modern baseball dictates that you go to the bullpen. There was one problem. Grady Little is old school. He felt that his best pitcher was on the mound and that's the call he made.

We all know the rest of the story. The Yankees tied the game, and go on to win in the 11th inning with the famous Aaron Boone homer against Tim Wakefield. Red Sox Nation was crushed and Grady Little was the scapegoat and paid for his gut with his job.

His mistake is only a mistake in hindsight. If you had the best pitcher on the mound and needed six more outs, what would you do? He got paid to make the call, and a month later, faded out of view.

The announcement that the Dodgers hired Little was a surprise. Wherever Little was, it was low key and he had sunk from the radar. And now here he is. He also has a few old friends around him.

Bill Mueller, Nomar and Derek Lowe all played for Little in Boston. To hear Lowe's excitement at the Dodgers' choice speaks volumes. And the Dodgers have some talent.

In fact, the Dodgers have the makings of a great infield. Big free agent acquisition, Rafael Furcal, will bring excitement and a tradition of winning. Just 28, Furcal should be coming into his prime years and give the Dodgers a major boost.

Bill Meuller, if healthy, is a great third baseman and he brings a high on base percentage and is a former batting champion. Jeff Kent is a year or two away from cementing his Hall of Fame career. Last year, Kent drove in 100 runs for the eighth time in the last nine years. Garciaparra showed flashes of his former skills last year and will learn first base. He is a good athlete and will be just fine over there.

As solid as the infield appears, the outfield seems just as unsettled. Two of the three spots are taken by enigmas. And the other to an aging speedster.

J.D. Drew and Jose Cruz Jr., came into the league as can't miss prospects. Drew has been in the game seven seasons now and has reached 500 at bats once. He is an on base machine and if he wants to excel, still has time to do so.

Cruz Jr. just can't seem to climb out of the need to swing and miss. He has played nine years and has struck out 1019 times in 4196 at bats. He only has 30 more hits in his career than strikeouts. It's hard to believe that he can change at this stage of his career.

And then there is 39-year-old Kenny Lofton. Lofton did manage to hit .335 last year with the Phillies in 110 games and he still managed to steal 22 bases in 25 at bats. Does he have another year in him? Ricky Ledee provides capable back up, but there is little else to turn to if these three question marks falter.

Starting pitching is another question mark for Little. The stable of Lowe, Seo, Brad Penny, Odalis Perez and Brett Tompko all have the potential to win 15 to 17 games. They have just as much potential to lose that many. If they pitch to their talent, it could be exciting days in a pitcher's park. Relief pitching is solid, especially if Eric Gagne returns to form.

The Dodgers could be really good or they could be mediocre. Grady Little is a winner (despite the one inning he is known for) and could get the most out of an enigmatic team. The National League West is not a strong division and so anything can happen.

One thing is sure, the Los Angeles press will enjoy Grady Little's interviews a lot more that Jim Tracy's.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Last Word on Barry Bonds

The Fan really didn't want to talk about Barry Bonds. The best player of our generation has been defended in this space many, many times. And in fact, he was already a Hall of Famer before the 73 homer season.

The Fan isn't overly bothered by the steroid history in baseball. If a high percentage of players were using, and if MLB wasn't smart enough to ban it earlier, then it is what it is. You still have to hit the ball and throw strikes.

What was really troublesome was the revelation that Bonds went the steroid route out of jealousy for McGwire and Sammy Sosa. If that were indeed true, then a lot of respect is lost. It would be a truly shameful way to end a career of the ages.
Jim Leyland Managing the Tiger?

"Tiger's manager, Jim Leyland," just doesn't sound right. In fact, it doesn't sound any better than, "Rockies' manager, Jim Leyland," which was Leyland's last managing post. Of course, Tiger fans should be thrilled.

There are several questions here. First, Leyland has been away from managing since 1999. There is precedent for success in that situation. Frank Robinson was in the front office a long time between managing assignments, and he has done wonders with the Expos/Nationals considering the upheaval of that situation. And Leyland knows what he is doing and has a track record.

Leyland's success in the past well documented. His Pittsburgh teams in the early 90's won an average of 95 games for three years in a row. And then he won the World Series in Florida.

But a good manager won't succeed without a good team. Leyland endured terrible times in Florida after the "fire sale." And his teams had terrible years in Pittsburgh and Colorado. Consider that the highest batting average on the Tigers last year was .277. Twenty-one homers led the team! The best E.R.A on the team was 4.48

And the only significant addition in the off season was an elderly Kenny Rogers, whose off-field temper has tainted a pretty successful career. Will he have anything left?

And what of Ivan Rodriguez? I-Rod was a superstar just a few short seasons ago and was the cornerstone of the Marlins' World Series team. He had a good season in 2004, his first season with the Tigers. But last year was a disaster.

Rodriguez, who had never struck out 90 times in the first twelve seasons of his career has done so the last three years. Last year's 93 strikeouts were the highest of his career. What's worse, he only walked eleven times. Eleven! He batted .250 and had an on-base percentage of .290. Ouch!

If reduced production was the only concern with Rodriguez, that would be concern enough, but stories filtered out of Detroit the last two seasons of Rodriguez having the ear of the owner and circumventing his manager. It would be hard to imagine Leyland standing for that kind of behavior.

Leyland is a great manager of good players and an ordinary manager of lowly players. He has a 42 year old starter, a 38 year old closer (Todd Jones), a questionable star catcher who may have left his best days behind him and then a lot of other piece players who may or may not respond to their new manager.

Leyland says his fire is back. It will be interesting to see if he can keep it stoked if the Tigers get off to a terrible start.

Monday, March 06, 2006

You Just Never Know...

Kirby Puckett died today at the age of 44. His death comes 22 years after he burst on the scene with the Minnesota Twins in 1984. Nothing in Puckett's life was expected. His death, like his retirement in 1995 came suddenly and with much sadness.

There was no fade in or fade out for Kirby Puckett. He didn't have any cups of coffee before sticking full time in 1984 with 557 at bats. He used the Metrodome carpet and slapped the ball to all parts of the ballpark. He didn't hit any home runs his first year and only four the year after in 691 at bats!

The following year, twenty years ago...Puckett listened to some good advice that he should attack the ball instead of slapping at it. The results were stunning. Not only did his average improve, but Puckett hit 31 homers and raised his slugging percentage a hundred and fifty points. Kirby became a star, an All Star and a Hall of Famer.

And he did all those things with such exuberance. Always hustling, always smiling, crashing into walls to make spectacular catches at historic moments and pumping his fists all the way to the dugout. He exuberance was a large part of two world championships for the usually-lowly Twins.

Pucket played twelve years and averaged 190-plus hits a year along with 90-plus runs scored and runs batted in. Despite his slow power start, Puckett averaged over 56 extra-base hits a year. And he made crashing into the baggie famous long before Torii Hunter.

And then in 1996, at the age of 34, the stunning news came that Puckett was finished. An eye condition took away his vision and that was it. No fade out. He was gone.

It was a surprise when Puckett was elected to the Hall of Fame five years later. Lack of longevity would have presumed that Puckett wouldn't have enough time played to qualify. But he was special and he was in and it seemed right.

Puckett seemed to drift out of our consciousness after his election. A couple of disturbing news reports here and there, a rare appearance once in a while, but that was it. And then suddenly the news came yesterday that he suffered a stroke. Emergency surgery was performed, but it was too late. He was gone.

Kirby Puckett was not the kind of superstar that was like a comet. We didn't see him arc into view and slowly drift away. He was more the shooting star that suddenly flashed, thrilled us with it's light and then burned out quickly leaving nothing but wonderment at the moment we just witnessed.

Perhaps it is better this way. You just never know. And like all the other events of his life, we never saw this coming.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Some Old Dogs and Two New Kids

Six managers are managing their teams for the first time this year. Four of them are old friends and the other two are getting their first managing shots. The next series of posts will focus on the new jobs for Sam Perlozzo, Jim Leyland, Buddy Bell, Joe Madden, Grady Little and Jim Tracy.

Perlozzo, who had two cups of coffee in the major leagues, finished the year for the Orioles last year after being the bench coach. The dreaded "interim" has been removed from his title. Many of the problems from last year have also been removed.

Gone are Rafael Palmiero, Sammy Sosa and Sidney Ponson. Those kinds of headaches were what probably gave Perlozzo his job. But that doesn't mean that the Orioles are without question marks.

First on the list is Miguel Tejada. His earlier demand to be traded has to leave an uneasiness in Baltimore. Statistics from last year look pretty good for Tejada, but he never seemed like the force he was the year before. If the team starts slowly, will he lose the fire that seems to define his play?

Starting pitching seems questionable. The Orioles picked up Kris Benson, the most acclaimed pitcher who has never done anything. Perhaps Benson will finally grow into his billing. But just as perhaps not.

The other starters are interesting as well. Erik Bedard and Daniel Cabrera could be a real stars. If they can find the strike zone more often, they can sure make batters swing and miss. Rodrigo Lopez is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He can look brilliant and terrible within the same week. Finally, Bruce Chen gives the Orioles solid innings and can win 15 to 17 games.

The Oriole core of hitting is pretty much intact. The familiar names of Mora, Matos, Gibbons and Roberts join Tejada in giving the Orioles some run producting capability.

Javy Lopez was a dissapointment last year and it's possible that his career year in Atlanta was a last hurrah. Lopez is now 36 and nearing the end of his career.

Also joining the Orioles are Corey Patterson and Kevin Millar. Millar, the leader of the "idiots" in Boston became unfunny after his third straight season with declining power numbers there. Likewise, the Cubs gave up on Patterson, who was touted with such promise and has proven an enigma. Perhaps they can revive their careers in Baltimore.

For the last two years, the Orioles showed flashes of outhitting their opposition and flashes of futility. After years of poor pitching, the Orioles have a chance to be respectable in that department this year.

It doesn't seem likely that the Orioles can threaten for the top of the division this year, and though Perlozzo has a chance to put his own stamp on this team, the questions seem to outnumber the possibilities.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Baseball, the Beatles and Hobbits

The Fan was going to write about teams with new managers this year, but maybe that will wait until tomorrow. Why is baseball such a defining sport in some people? The Fan has to consider that other sports may hold the same passion for others that is baseball here at heart. All that can be said is that there are three defining themes that underline life for this author: Baseball, the Beatles and Hobbits.

To some, there is the belief that we all long for Eden. The heart yearns for the simple, the beautiful and the fulfilling. But we've been kicked out of the garden and the simple always turns to complex. At first, we accept the complex and believe that it's an evolutionary necessity. We are mistaken of course and find whatever we can that brings us back a bit to the garden.

Baseball was and is such a haven. From childhood to having a giddyup when crossing the street, baseball is a trip back to the garden no matter how crazy, sad and messed up life can become. Even the ball parks are these emerald green islands in the middle of grey cities.

That's not to say that baseball is always stress free--and not just with drama and close games. Between labor issues, drugs, corked bats, hold outs, lock outs and the Chicago Black Sox, there have always been threats to the game.

And there is evolution with the emphasis on conditioning, statistics, specialists and technology. But take the game back to the field and it's simplicity itself. It's the same simplicity that some find tedious. No matter how evolutionary, as the commercial says: "It's still 90 feet from third to home."

This isn't the space to delve into the place in the soul held by the Beatles and Hobbits, but these are Edens for the Fan and so is baseball.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Body Fails Us

The Fan has a bum knee. It hurts so badly that the simple act of kicking off a pair of slip-on shoes sends shards of pain throughout the body. The situation has led to reflections of athletes who prematurely faced the breakdown of their bodies. There is an appreciation for the desire to at least attempt what is now beyond reach. The reflection gives new appreciation for why Jeff Bagwell is in Spring Training.

Jeff Bagwell has hit 959 extra base hits in his career. 449 of them were homers. Remember that most of his career was played in the Astrodome...one of the worst hitting parks ever. He has a lifetime on base percentage of .408. Between runs scored and runs batted in, Bagwell has contributed to 3046 runs for the Houston Astros.

He has been an All Star and a heralded player for a dozen years. He is the worst front office mistake made by the Boston Red Sox since Babe Ruth.

But several years ago, Bagwell's shoulder deteriorated to the point where he couldn't even throw the ball. Remember that Bagwell is not old by baseball standards. He is only 36 and it is certainly understandable that Bagwell wants to do what he's done his whole life.

The Fan's reflection led to memories of other players over the years who struggled the same way with youthful desires to do things their bodies no longer had the ability to fulfill. Some had some success in the attempt. Others tried and couldn't make it happen. Here are a few of those memories:

Rico Carty
Rico Carty came up as an outfielder with the (then) Milwaukee Braves and hit well over .300 for five of his first six years with the team. Carty's last two years with the (now) Atlanta Braves were spectacular with batting averages of .342 and .366.

Carty then began a series of lost years as chronic injuries derailed his promising career. The advent of the designated hitter in the American League allowed Carty to hit, and though it was painful to watch him limp around the bases, he did some damage for the Indians, A's and Blue Jays. Although Carty had some good batting years, particularly for the Indians, he was never the player he could have been.

Don Mattingly
Don Mattingly had a four year run rarely seen in the history of MLB. Besides being a perennial gold glove first baseman, Mattingly averaged 46 doubles, 30 homers, 121 RBI, and 210 hits. His batting average during those years: .343, .324, .355 and .327. He was widely held to be the best player in the game. He was the Pujols of his time.

Back problems short circuited his career and he couldn't muster 20 home runs for the last six years in his career. He finally retired after only 13 years.

Tony Conigliaro
Tony Conigliaro, or "Tony C" as his passionate fans used to call him, led the American League in homers at the age of 20. Two years later, after 95 games, Conigliaro was beaned by a Jack Hamilton fastball and never fully regained the full vision in his damaged eye.

Tony C missed all of 1968 but returned in 1969 and received the Comeback Player of the Year award as he came back to hit 20 homers. He hit 36 the following year, but his vision plagued him and, at the age of 27, was finished as a ball player. Tragically, he had a major heart attack ten years later and died at the age of 55.

Tony Oliva
The same year that Tony Conigliaro hit the scene in 1964, he battled another Tony for Rookie of the Year and might have won if he hadn't broken his arm in August. The other Tony...Tony Oliva, ended up winning the award as he hit 32 homers and batted .323.

For the next eight years, Oliva was one of the most exciting players in baseball. But Oliva blew out his knee and lost all of 1972. The injury was so severe that Oliva's career would have been over. But he also benefited from the new designated hitter rule and was able to prolong his career as a DH for three more years, but never to the effect of his earlier years.

He played long enough for the Fan to remember his limp, even more pronounced than Carty's.

Frank Tanana
Frank Tanana could throw the ball through a wall when he first came up for the California Angels in 1974. He struck out 269 batters in his second year (in 257 innings!) and in the following year, struck out 262 while winning 19 games. He also led the league in E.R.A. that season.

But after a few years, Frank Tanana blew out his arm. The story is similar to dozens of other players over the year. But Tanana loved baseball and adapted to become one of the best and most crafty pitchers for another 15 years. Tanana won 158 more games after blowing his arm out and ended up with 240 career wins.

Frank Tanana is a good place to end this retrospective. His win for the Tigers on the final day of 1987 put them in the playoffs. Tanana's unique tenacity makes him overlooked for the Hall of Fame, where he belongs.

With this throbbing knee, the Fan is rooting for Jeff Bagwell.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Who Are Those Marlins?

You can tell the Florida Marlins had another "cleansing" this off-season when, behind Miguel Cabrera, Wes Helms and Pokey Reese, their most experienced batter is probably Dontrelle Willis. If Florida's fans like young players, this year should be their nirvana.

The Fan has to wonder how the loss of all those experienced players will affect Cabrera. The young star has improved every year in homers, runs batted it, average, on-base percentage and slugging and last year blossomed into a full-fledged star. Will anyone pitch to him this year? And if not, will Cabrera lose the patience that he has steadily gained over the past two years?

The Marlins have an incredible 17 rookies on their 40 man roster and eight others have three years of major league service or less. Two of those eight are viable stars in Willis and Cabrera. The rest are a collection of young players that are unproven. It could be a fun year for Marlin fans...or it could be a very long one.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Nasty Stuff?

There was an article on ESPN.com today about Derek Lowe that got the Fan thinking of pitchers labeled in recent years with "nasty stuff." The three that come to mind are Lowe, Jeff Weaver and A.J. Burnett. Far too often, nasty stuff for these three has meant stinging hands for the winning team.

Lowe is the only one of the three who has won more than 50% of his games. And that, in large part, is due to his one brilliant 21-7 year with Boston. Lowe also has the advantage of seizing a big game and making himself part of something special. He has been the hero.

The rest of the time, Lowe has only been so-so with a lifetime E.R.A. of 3.84. Last year's so-so year has been explained by off-field problems. Okay, let's see what happens then. Lowe does have the advantage of pitching half his games in Los Angeles, a good pitcher's park.

Weaver has always had nasty stuff. In watching several of his games over the years, what you see is the story of his career: two nasty slider strikes and then a double in the gap. Weaver has a career earned run average of 4.44 with a sub-.500 lifetime record. In Detroit, he looked like an up and coming star. And then he hit New York.

Unlike Lowe in Boston, Weaver folded in New York like a bad American Idol contestant. He has put together two unremarkable years for the Dodgers. His stats show the enigma he is. His WHIP (walks plus hits compared to innings pitched) was terrific at 1.17. But he gave up 35 homers and lost 12 games to his 14 wins. And though he won his last four decisions, he only pitched well in one of them.

A.J. Burnett is the younger of the three and as such, garnered a big contract in free agency this off-season. But is a big contract of merit to someone who has a career record of 49-50? Like Weaver, Burnett had some pretty impressive stats last year. He struck out 198 batters in 209 innings. But he was still 12-12.

Burnett finished with three straight wins, but by then, the Marlins were out of it. When they were still in the race, he lost seven straight.

Now Toronto has pinned part of its hopes on the 49-50 star. Like Lowe and Weaver, sooner or later, Burnett's "nasty stuff" has to translate into more wins than losses.
No Other Game

There is no other game like this. There is no game with the history, the subtleties, the nuances, the speculation, the expectation, the statistics and the aura. And there is no other time of year like this one. The winter has been long, but after months of rain and snow and freeze and thaw, baseball is alive again. Spring Training is here.

We have the Olympics out of the way. Football is speculating on the draft. Major League Baseball blooms like the first crocus of spring and like the first flowers, you never know what to expect or what range of colors will appear this year.

Major League Baseball is this rich continuing book that writes a new, fresh chapter every year and gives as much anticipation as the next Harry Potter book.

Will Clemens pitch again? Will Damon put the Yankees over the top? Will Pedro help resurrect the Mets? Will Toronto be a force again after a dramatic off-season? Will Mike Lowell return to greatness and have a big season in Boston? Will the White Sox repeat? Contend? Will Soriano play left field? Will Bonds come close to Aaron? Will Griffey stay healthy? Will Texas get enough pitching? Can the Pirates or Royals ever get to .500? Who will be the breakout star? Who will have a career year? Whose career will crash and burn?

Last year's breakout stars were Derrek and Carlos Lee. How many of us saw that coming? After the previous year and a half, who would have wagered that Andy Pettitte would win 17 games and have the best second half in baseball? Who saw Bob Wickman saving 45 games?

And so we start fresh. Forget about steroids. Everyone is watching now and no one wants to have to bow out like Palmiero. Forget about labor issues. The two sides never were more cooperative or more fearful of a work stoppage. Baseball has always had side issues. But they still have to play the games and no one knows how they will turn out.

Football has overtaken baseball as the sport of the day, but that's all it is: A day a week. It's an exciting day, it's true. But MLB is a 162 game adventure where we are sure to see things we've never seen before, even though we've watched with interest for decades. The Fan loves football. But MLB is the PASSION.

And this is the time of year where the passion takes hold and a thousand memories are rekindled and expectation is rampant for the start of something new and exciting. Here we go, fans. Our new garden of delight is about to bloom again.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The New Yankee Stadium

A recent spate of news articles announced that the New York Yankees have agreed with the city to build a new $800 million stadium across the street from the present site. Why does the Fan have the same feeling as the announcement several years ago of New Coke? It may have been touted as a good thing, but the Pepsi-like soda couldn't replace Coca-Cola Classic.

Information on the new park (for more information, click here) mentions that the new field will have the same dimensions as the original. Dirt from the original will be brought to the new park. The new facade will duplicate the original. The truth culled from this news implies the truth: It won't be the original.

Well...even the original isn't the original. Three decades ago, the original original was renovated and the Yankees spent two (or was it three?) long years in Shea Stadium. The renovation prettied up the old park and left enough of the original to at least remind fans of the old place. But besides ending Bobby Murcer's Yankee career, it wasn't the same place.

The right field corner was fifteen feet further back. The death valley that was center field and left-center was shortened with a new fence (though they left the old fence back there and created monument park behind the new one). The monuments that used to be in play in Center were no longer.

But at least it was still on hallowed ground. Now the ghosts of Yankee glory will have to find their way across the street. It could have been worse. The Yankees were seriously tempted to find a new home across the bridge in New Jersey.

Part of the Yankee mystique is their ballpark. When teams come to play the Yankees, the House that Ruth Built is a big part of what happens. The Fan remembers the Horace Clarke days too well to call Yankee Stadium a weapon. A bad team will still play bad there and the Red Sox comeback took part in the Yank's ball yard. But it does give the Yankees something that no one else has: the history of more than two dozen championships.

The good news is that Steinbrenner's team will have a brand new home in 2009 that will at least have the feel of the old park. It won't be New Jersey. The bad news is that once accomplished, unlike with Coca-Cola, there is no turning back.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Real Questions

What happens when a superstar finds himself with diminished physical abilities due to injuries and wear and tear and is faced with trying to regain former glory. Junior Griffey thrilled us all with a resurrection last season before he again went down. This year other stars are faced with the question if there is anything left.

The big story this week is the return to Spring Traing for Jeff Bagwell. In what has to be a difficult and uncomfortable story, the Astros want Bagwell to hang it up and he wants a chance to earn the paycheck he is going to get either way.

The Astros are in the most uncomfortable position as they can recoup their loss on Bagwell's salary if he is physically unable to play. Their insurance policy on him will kick in and the Astros can get much needed funds for other players.

At the same time, Bagwell has been a warrior for the franchise and they have to walk a fine line for him and their fans that have appreciated and loved Bagwell over the years. It has to be a bad business situation when you want to open your arms to your long time star while at the same time hoping he isn't capable of playing.

It will be interesting to find out how this all plays out and if Bagwell has anything left.

In a much less awkward situation, Jim Thome will try to revive his career with the White Sox. Thome--in all reality--lost the entire year last year due to back and elbow injuries.

Thome is one of those big guys and is now 35 years old. Please refer back to a previous blog entry that makes the case that big guys like Thome only have an eight to ten year shelf life. Thome has had his ten years and is working on the twelfth. Can he defy history and be close to the player (and hitter) he was? The odds are against him.

The one player who can defy the odds is Barry Bonds. Bonds is just plain bigger than life and will, by his inner force, have one last historic year. If he does, he'll put the steroid talk away forever. There has never been a smarter hitter, nor a more determined one.

Bonds may or may not catch Aaron this year, and he may or may not play beyond this year, but he will go out with a bang, and when he does, no matter how much he is disliked, the fact will remain that he is the greatest player of this generation.

One has to wonder if the people of Babe Ruth's day recognized the history they were watching. Do the people of our time appreciate Ruth's significance more than they did at the time? Will the same be true for Bonds?

Whether it's because of race or because of the negative perception concerning his personality, Bonds is not appreciated for his greatness. Bonds is among one of the three best Major League Baseball players of all time.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Plight of the Marlins

Nine years ago, the Fan spent his fortieth birthday watching a Marlin home game. This was before the championships and the subsequent fire sales. The Marlins were a new franchise and there was a good crowd in the stands.

The Marlins were the new kids and there was some magic in the park. Lots of kids filled the stands and it had a wholesome and family feel to it all.

There was the magic of watching the game with a young friend with the same name as Chipper Jones' ex-wife. She loved baseball and the Fan taught her how to keep score. It was a joy to teach this baseball fanatic who had such passion for life, something new and special about the game.

These magic memories include a homer by then hero, Jeff Conine, that won the game. It wasn't like a childhood spent in Yankee Stadium, but it was pretty darn close.

It has been painful watching the franchise sink to a point when even a playoff-contending team can only draw six or seven thousand fans. What other franchise has won two championships in its first decade? How could something that special languish like it has.

Part of the problem, of course, is the ballpark. Though pretty and homey inside when watching, it doesn't suit the climate when the combination of 90 degree heat combines with 90 percent humidity, not to mention the downpours that can appear in a matter of minutes.

It seems ironic that an area that boasts multi-million-dollar condo expansions everywhere one looks, can't support a new ballpark for a professional team that brings in 25 wealthy athletes.

The lack of support, whether it be the ballpark, the weather, or all the other things to do in the area, has left the owners no choice but to sell off talent twice in the past six years. That compounds the problem of attendance as loyalty takes a hit whenever the sell off happens.

Now the Marlins are listening to offers from other cities that would love to have them. It's a sad scene. It would be hard not to have a future pilgrimage possible to remember that memorable birthday with that memorable, passionate, and lovely girl who left her team and this world far too soon.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Sorry Soriano

So Alfonso Soriano doesn't want to play left field. The Fan bleeds for him. If you gave the Fan $10 million in hard cash, he's cook the hotdogs, mow the outfield, and catch batting practice.

It is hard for the average Joe watching from the inner city, suburbia or the cornfields of Kansas to identify with a man living out our dreams and making money we'll never dream about, refusing to play a position out of his comfort zone.

Let's face it, Soriano never looked comfortable at second base either. He always looked awkward and it's hard to imagine him looking any less awkward anywhere else. Jose Vidro is a great second baseman, and before his injuries, an All Star caliber player. Get real, Alfonso.

There are so many stories to root for this year. Can Griffey bring it back like the second half of last year? Will Giambi continue his resurrection? Can Nomar play first base in Los Angeles and hit like the Nomar of old? How close will Bonds get to Aaron in this his final year?

With all these great stories, the true Fan can only hope Soriano sits on the bench or is released. He is the anti-Jeter...the anti-Schilling of baseball and doesn't deserve his good fortune.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Flagrant Fan is Back

After a two year hiatus, and inspired by Peter Gammons getting into the blog environment, it's time to get the Fan back to the game. What has happened between two years off and the Fan's 284 previous blogs? The steroid scandal, another Yankee post season loss, the decline of Sammy Sosa, the World Baseball Classic, the White Sox winning the World Series (??!!) and an ERA win for the Fan's favorite pitcher--Roger Clemens.

Let's start with the World Baseball Classic. I'm a fan of Major League Baseball. The WBC means nothing to the Fan. I understand conceptually and empiracally about the desire to celebrate the world with baseball. But to a MLB fan, the whole thing is just a distraction.

You see, the Fan doesn't have a desire to see Roger Clemens pitch for the last time against South Africa or Jamaica. The Fan doesn't want to see one of the best players in the game get hurt in a game that doesn't count. And maybe, just maybe--if the Fan was honest--there is the fear that the WBC will give Cuba one more chance to shine.

The commissioner speaks of the WBC in glowing terms of globalizing the game. Players on rosters such as: Wang, Ichiro, Godzilla, Seo, Rodriguez and others don't already do that? A significant percentage of MLB rosters already include players born outside of the United States. The point has already been made and the reality already exists. If you want a worldwide tournament, wait for the Olympics.

The Fan applauds the Red Sox for their trend of signing young emerging players such as Beckett and Crisp. The strategy is less expensive and has a greater chance at being a great move for years to come. Contrast this with New York's strategy the last few years.

When is the last time the Yankees lured a superstar who was less than 32 years old? I believe this trend has led to the breakdowns we have seen in the last three post-seasons. I just read Peter Gammons' blog where he stated that 43-year old, Randy Johnson, was the key to the season. Isn't that a bit like making a '69 Cutlass the key to successfully making a cross country trip? A '69 Cutlass is a great car, but it's expensive to maintain and its best days are behind it.

It saddens the Fan that Sammy Sosa has turned down the National's offer to play in Washington this season. The Fan appreciates that Sosa doesn't want to play if he is no longer good enough to be Sammy. But Sammy Sosa was fun and explosive and a bit of a primadonna, but he wasn't boring. The Fan--remembering the bombs off of Sosa's bat in the Home Run Derby--will miss him.