Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

May day- MLB Check-in

May 12, 2016

Spring felt like it was a long time in coming this year.

After a relatively mild winter, we got a taste of warm weather back in March, and just when everyone had packed up their muk-luks and thermal gear, we got hit with a fresh batch of freezing temperatures and blowing snow. Thanks to the weird weather, it’s just now starting to feel like spring, which naturally, means it’s time to start taking baseball seriously. I don’t believe in overreacting to early results on a serious level, and even at this point of the year, it’s easy to cry out “small sample size”, but as crazy as it seems,  we are 20% of the way through the season, which is plenty to go on for our purposes.

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My happy place.

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What’s on the line? Another look at legacy.

May 5, 2016

Every year, in every walk of life, people start careers and retire, work hard or quit and succeed or fail. From the beginning of an endeavor until the very end, everything we do contributes toward our reputation.

If you’re an actor, every role you take gets added to your IMDB page. For better or worse, if your name’s on it, it’s there forever. Robert De Niro is one of the greatest actors of all time, with roles in Godfather Part II, The Deer Hunter, Goodfellas and the Untouchables (among many others), but even De Niro has a few things on his resume he’d probably sooner forget. He’s great, but I don’t know if Dirty Grandpa and Meet the Fockers are going to be ones he remembers fondly on his death-bed. The good news for De Niro is that we tend to forgive actors for the terrible projects they’re a part of. When we look back at careers, we don’t care about the awful movies or shows, we just look at the things we love.

Fockers? What Fockers?

Like actors, athletes are judged based on what they produce throughout their careers. Unlike actors, we don’t forgive and forget  athletic failures quite as quickly and easily. We look at individual legacies in every sport, but with the exception of starting quarterbacks in the NFL, nobody is judged nearly as harshly as an NBA player. Karl Malone and Charles Barkley combined for 60,685 points and played significant roles on playoff teams throughout their careers, but they’re the first two players mentioned when lists of players without championships are put together.  Despite all the highlights and dominance, all we remember is Karl Malone clanking free throws against the Bulls and Charles Barkley’s forlorn expression as Jordan celebrated another title. With the end of Kobe Bryant’s career and the dwindling lights of Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan, legacy has been at the forefront of this whole season, and the playoffs are no exception. Every players’ reputation is going to be altered forever, but there are a few guys or teams who have more at stake than the rest.

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The road oft traveled: The ballad of Steve Clevenger and Scott Feldman

April 22, 2016

Every year in Major League Baseball, there is an average of 137 trades made involving 276 players, millions of dollars in salary and occasionally dinners and even broadcasters. Legendary Tigers’ announcer Ernie Harwell was once traded from the Atlanta Crackers to the Brooklyn Dodgers for minor league player/coach Cliff Dapper. My favorite trade of all time happened when Dave Winfield was traded to the Indians for a player to be named later at the trading deadline in 1994. But, two weeks later, before Winfield could play for the Indians, a strike ended the season. Winfield never played for the Indians and a player was never named. To settle the trade, executives from Minnesota and Cleveland decided to go out for dinner and the Indians picked up the check. It’s not often that players get traded for a fancy dinner, but the fact that it happened at all is just one more reason to love the zany game that is professional baseball.

While most trades don’t have long last impacts on the history of the game, every once in a while we have a trade that restructures the fabric of the game. The recent passing of long-time pitcher Milt Pappas prompted me to tell my wife about the Frank Robinson/Milt Pappas trade between the Orioles and Reds in 1965. Reds’ General Manager, Bill Dewitt labeled Robinson “an old 30” and shipped him to Baltimore. They got journeyman pitcher, Milt Pappas in return, and while Pappas was solid, going 30-9 for the Reds, Robinson reshaped the American League. He won the Triple Crown and MVP in 1965, and led the O’s to World Series’ wins in 1965 and 1971 on his way to the MLB Hall of Fame.

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R.I.P. Milt; it’s not your fault.

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Early Returns

April 19, 2016

It’s no secret that our society has the attention span of a juvenile squirrel. We’ve condensed everything down as far as possible. We had Facebook posts and when those got too long, we switched to Twitter and when 140 characters became too much, we switched to Snapchat to get our message out even more quickly. Similarly, we live our lives seeking as much instant gratification as possible. This doesn’t just affect our social (or social media) interaction, it bleeds over into our interests as well. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and all the other ways we have to watch TV has changed how we consume media. We binge watch shows because we can’t stand waiting for another new episode; if the show is currently airing, it drives us absolutely crazy having to wait a WHOLE WEEK to find out what happens. When it comes to the consumption of sports, its common practice to watch a game while simultaneously tweeting your reaction in real-time. It’s not enough to just see the play happen, you want to share your opinion and know the opinion others have of what you just saw. This shift in viewing habits has matched up perfectly with football’s condensed schedule, basketball’s uptempo play and even golf’s shot by shot importance. The one sport that could seemingly left behind is baseball.

 

Between the slow pace, relative lack of scoring and ridiculously long schedule, baseball definitely lends itself to a longer term way of consuming entertainment. In a world built around immediate reactions and judgements, the game preaches patience and dedication. With that being said, it’s still possible to glean some nuggets from what we’ve seen so far and also have some absurdly early reactions. So after two weeks, here are some way too early reactions, as well as my top and bottom 5 teams in the league.

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Baseball; it’s supposed to be fun

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Round 1- The West

April 15, 2016

The balance of power between the two conferences has been fully slanted toward the West since Jordan’s retirement,

and while this type of thing is cyclical in nature, it’s been extreme enough and consistent enough to cause conversation about whether conferences should be eliminated completely, and playoff seeding assigned strictly based on record. While this idea is a bit intriguing, we’re a long way away from it becoming a reality, so it was a relief this year to see that while the top teams in the league were in the West, the East was the stronger conference from top to bottom. One area where the conferences are equal is in the amount of intrigue that the playoffs provide. These teams are going to beat the holy hell out of each other, and it’s going to start from day 1.

Dunk you very much, Blake. 

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The Stoppers

April 14, 2016

“Defense wins championships”. The saying is as old as the game itself, and for the most part, it’s been true.

The Celtics were a run and gun team that never won anything until they drafted Bill Russell and dominated defensively. NBA fans drool over the 1970’s Knicks with their passing and ball movement, but they really made their money with big stops on the defensive end and led the league in points allowed multiple times. The Showtime Lakers dominated offensively, but their titles were earned on the backs of Michael Cooper and A.C. Green and their ability to slow down elite scorers. Phil Jackson’s Bulls were famous for the triangle offense, but they didn’t win because of their scoring; they won because they could unleash a defensive troika of MJ, Pippen and Grant for the first run and MJ, Pippen and Rodman the second time. While MJ was the greatest scorer in basketball history, the biggest key was the fact that his teams finished in the top-10 in defensive rating every year from 1990-1998. That’s dominance.

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Play defense, get rings.

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The Microwaves

April 13, 2016

The Microwaves:

The Detroit Pistons of the late 80’s and early 90’s were successful primarily based on their defense and toughness of Bill Lambeer and Rick Mahorn as well as the leadership provided by Isaiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. However, they did have to find scoring in an era where the run and gun style was in vogue.  One often overlooked aspect of those teams was their spark-plug off the bench: Vinnie Johnson. Nicknamed “The Microwave” for how quickly he could heat up after coming into the game, Johnson was never shy about shooting, averaging 18 points and 16 shots per 36 minutes for his career. Like any other prolific bench scorer, he occasionally drove his coaches crazy, but he also carried the team offensively when the rest of the lineup couldn’t get it going. He provided them with consistent offense throughout his career, but his finest moment came in Game 5  of the 1990 finals when he hit the series clinching shot with .7 seconds left and cemented his Detroit legacy for all time.

Dating back to the 1950’s era Celtics, nearly every title winner has a microwave type of guy on their roster. Bill Simmons refers to them as “Irrational Confidence Guys”. They have no reason to believe that they’re superstars, but in their own mind, they’re equal with the best players in the league and assert themselves on offense accordingly.  Oddly enough, the Warriors don’t have any guys like this since the entire Golden State system is based on the players all having a permanent green light; with the understanding that too many bad shots will get you benched, but aside from the them, the rest of the contenders have at least one Microwave on the roster. (Author’s note- JR Smith is the ultimate Microwave, but he’s a starter now, so he doesn’t qualify.)

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Linsane in the membrane

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The Other guys- Hack a Backups

April 12, 2016

There’s no question that the NBA is a star driven league.

Every title-winning team has at least one dominant player, most have two and with the high level of talent in the league today, it’s become a near necessity for contenders to put together a roster with three All-Star  caliber players in order to have a realistic chance at winning. The desire to group stars together brought us multiple tanking efforts and offloading of contracts in the last few years, and while it is the stars that get you to the playoffs and ideally make the big plays for you, the back half of your roster is nearly as important.

Ever since Red Auerbach helped popularize the concept of the “Sixth Man” with the 50’s and 60’s Celtics, a powerful bench has been a key component for contending teams.

The teams of the 80’s had guys like Vinnie Johnson, Danny Ainge, Michael Cooper and Andrew Toney (Pistons, Celtics, Lakers and 76ers respectively). The 1990’s Bulls had John Paxson and Steve Kerr hit game winners, and there’s no way the 2000’s Lakers make the runs they did without guys like Rick Fox and Robert Horry. The Heat had Shane Battier and Chris Anderson and it’s impossible to overrate the impact of guys like Boris Diaw and Danny Green for the Spurs. I could go on all day about the number of important guys who don’t get top billing, but suffice it to say, winning or losing the biggest games often goes beyond the top players and boils down to the other guys.

Last years’ Playoffs may have been the high water mark for role players getting their 15 minutes of fame. In the first 3 rounds of the playoffs,  Kelly Olynyk swung the course of the playoffs with his part in Kevin Love’s shoulder injury, Matthew Dellavedova initiated scraps with Taj Gibson of the Bulls and Al Horford of the Hawks; helping to get them ejected in key moments and Thabo Sefalosha’s absence completely scrapped the Hawks’ offensive flow. The Warriors were on life support against the Memphis Grizzlies until Steve Kerr switched his defense to force the Memphis role players to take a larger part in the game. They were unable to step up their game, and the Warriors cruised from that point on. The Rockets were dead in the water when Kevin McHale got tired of James Harden’s B.S. and pulled him in Game 6 against the Clippers. With the league’s MVP runner-up on the bench, Houston went on a historic run led by Josh Smith and Corey Brewer. I’ve seen a lot of strange things in sports, but nothing prepared me for the headline “Clutch plays from Josh Smith key Rockets’ rally”.

Just when we thought we hit the apex of glue guy impact, everything climaxed in the Finals with Andre Iguodala winning the MVP award for his part in “slowing down” LeBron James. Even though he’s 2 percent body fat and looks like a superhero, Iggy represented the scrappy little guy. When he won that MVP, everyone who had ever come off the bench in a sport puffed their chest out a little bit; one of our own had helped beat the best player in the world. 

While we may have hit the super-sub apex last year, that doesn’t mean the importance of these guys has eroded in any way. I can’t say that I have all the answers, in fact, I probably have next to none of them, but that never stops me from trying to find them. It’s easy to pick out the stars in this years’ playoffs, but let’s take a look at which non-stars are going to swing the title.

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You’ve gotta love the Big Diesel.

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My fave 5 (plus a bonus)

April 6, 2016

Every time I watch a game with my wife, I bore her to tears with useless tidbits about all the bench guys, role players and reclamation projects on each team. She claims to find this interesting, but she’s a normal human being, so there’s no way on earth that she actually feels that way. So in the name of saving my marriage, I’ve decided to sacrifice the sanity of you the reader by subjecting you to my 5 favorite players to watch in baseball this season. These could be superstars turned ring chasing veterans, former top prospects given a second chance, guys with funny names or just a guy I find myself drawn to for no rational reason. I did a similar exercise last year, and while I didn’t keep up with all my favorites as much as I’d like, I did enjoy keeping tabs on them throughout the year. So in the interest of consistency and entertaining myself, let’s run it back with my Fave 5 (plus one bonus minor leaguer).

Matt Bush- Pitcher- Frisco RoughRiders– The 2004 MLB draft was absolutely stacked. The first round alone produced 7 All-Stars (Justin Verlander, Billy Butler, Jered Weaver,Glen Perkins, Phil Hughes,Gio Gonzalez and Huston Street) 3 pitchers who threw No-Hitters (Verlander, Homer Bailey, Philip Humber) and multiple solid starters (Stephen Drew, Trevor Plouffe and Neil Walker). The later rounds produced mainstays such as Dustin Pedroia, Yovani Gallardo, Hunter Pence and Ben Zobrist. Of all the drafts, the MLB draft is the hardest to get right and has the most moving parts and variables. It’s not always just a question of drafting who you think is best. Teams also have to factor in whether the player will sign or go to college, how affordable they are on the bonus scale and stupidly enough, how the fans will react to the selection. There have been a lot of bad choices made with the first overall pick, but the Padres’ selection of local shortstop, Matt Bush, is possibly the worst on record.

His troubles began before his career ever started, with his arrest and suspension stemming from an assault charge prior to the start of his first minor league season, and got worse from there.   When he did get on the field, he struggled to perform, batting just .221 in his first season before breaking his ankle halfway through the year. His next year on the field wasn’t any better and the Padres moved him to pitcher in an attempt to get something out of his talent. Sadly, injury struck again, as he tore his UCL, necessitating Tommy John surgery. He was never able to work his way back, and was released in 2009. From there, he bounced around to the Blue Jays and Rays minor league systems with further legal troubles at each stop . After a semi-successful season in 2011, he was sentenced to 51 months in prison after he drunkenly ran over a 72-year-old man during spring training.

After 2 years in prison (and 4 years sober),  Bush was released on probation and signed by the Texas Rangers last fall. The Rangers have a history of dealing well with players with substance abuse issues (I.E. Josh Hamilton), and have put him on a zero tolerance policy.  This spring, Bush appeared in 2 games and pitched only 3 total innings. In those innings, he struck out 3 batters, gave up 1 hit and even touched 100 m.p.h on his fastball. This story isn’t complete and doesn’t even have a happy ending yet, as he was sent down to Rangers’ Double-A affiliate to serve as one of their primary set up men.

There’s a segment of our population that could never forgive him for his past mistakes, and I can’t completely blame them, but by all accounts, Bush seems to have his stuff together, and I’m a big fan of redemption stories. There’s no guarantee that he’s going to ever make it as a big league player, and he’ll never shed his “bust” label, but I’m going to be paying attention to the Frisco RoughRiders all season and hoping that even if it’s just for one inning, he can claw his way up to the big leagues.

Billy Hamilton- Outfielder, Cincinnati Reds-   Billy Hamilton is scary fast.  He’s fast enough that if John Candy were around, he’d absolutely try to find a way to make Hamilton push a bobsled. Luckily for us, Hamilton roams the outfield in Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. Even with all the speedy young players in the game today, there’s no player who makes me say “whoa” quite like Hamilton. My first exposure to Hamilton came in 2012 when he stole 155 bases in 132 minor league games and also hit an inside the park home run where he made it around the bases in 13.8 seconds. To put that in perspective, the second fastest trip around the bases that season was Peter Bourjos at 14.3 seconds. Geesh.

Hamilton “only” stole 57 bases last year, and still hasn’t developed into a consistent hitter,  but he showed maturity as a player by cutting his number of times caught stealing from 23 to 8 between 2014 and 2015, and clearly the raw speed is still there. We haven’t had a player steal 100 bases in a season since Vince Coleman did it 3 straight years from 1985-1987, but the Reds are going to be absolute garbage this season, and probably the next couple of seasons, so I would love nothing more than to see Hamilton with a permanent green light. Aside from a great ball park and Joey Votto, there’s not a whole lot to cheer for. At the very least, Hamilton can keep us (and Reds fans) entertained for the summer. 

 

Cameron Maybin- Outfielder, Detroit Tigers:  When the Marlins traded Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to the Tigers in 2007, it was viewed as a bit of a coup for Miami, as they acquired high-end prospects in Andrew Miller, Mike Rabelo and some spare parts for 2 guys they didn’t feel like paying. The centerpiece to the whole deal, however, was uber-prospect Cameron Maybin. Labeled as a highly coveted “5 tool prospect”,  Maybin was pegged as a game changing player, one capable of anchoring the outfield defensively with his strong arm and great anticipation, while also holding down the middle of a lineup with his speed and power. Unfortunately for Maybin, things don’t always go as expected, and after a poor start in Miami, he was shuttled back and forth between the Marlins and the New Orleans Zephyrs before being traded to San Diego in 2010. It seemed like he had found a home with the Friars when he stole 40 bases and was named the team’s MVP after the 2011 season. He signed a 5 year deal and seemed poised to cash in on his seemingly endless potential. 3 frustrating and injury filled years later, he was shipped to Atlanta as part of the Craig Kimbrel/B.J. Upton deal last year and despite a solid season with Atlanta, he was traded once again; this time back to Detroit.

Maybe it’s the hopeless romantic in me, but I absolutely love seeing players get second chances, especially in places where they started their careers. I loathe the Detroit Tigers, but very few things would make me happier this season than to see Maybin put together at least one solid season in Motown. He’s on the 15 day disabled list right now with a wrist injury, but once he’s healthy, it looks like he’s going to get every opportunity to claim the starting Center Field job. He’s still relatively young at only 29 years old, and showed flashes of the 5-tool talent last year in Atlanta, so my optimism isn’t entirely blind. Detroit has had a tough time filling the hole in center, and if you can say nothing else about the fans up there, they love their scrappy underdogs. Maybin probably won’t ever turn into the multi time All Star people thought he would be, but it would be cool to see him capture the imagination of the Tigers’ faithful, even if it’s just for a brief time.

 

Ichiro Suzuki- Outfielder, Miami Marlins-It’s crazy to think now, but before he came to the MLB, no other Japanese position player had played in the Major Leagues. There was a healthy level of skepticism regarding his ability to succeed here, but 16 years later, Ichiro has 10 All-Star game appearances, 498 steals, the 2001 Rookie of the Year and MVP, 2 batting titles, single season hit record and 2935 career hits. If you add in his Japanese league statistics, he has 4213 hits and 697 stolen bases in 25 years of professional games. Japanese league baseball is on par with our minor leagues when it comes to talent, but the numbers are still mind-blowing.

When he came into the league in 2001, he was accompanied by a horde of media usually reserved for royalty or a late 90’s pop star. Crowds of photographers from Japan spent every game photographing his every move. From his unorthodox and methodical stretching routine to the Matrix-style sunglasses and samurai level focus, Ichiro was the epitome of cool.  With all the focus on his arrival, it seemed impossible for him to possible live up to expectations. 116 wins, 56 steals, the Rookie of the Year, MVP, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger and my favorite throw of all time later, he somehow managed to surpass all the hype.

16 year later, at the age of 42, the hype is gone. There are no hoards of reporters anywhere at Marlins games and Ichiro’s skills have eroded to the point that he’s a glorified bench player. With that being said, he’s still Ichiro. He still plays like a church softball veteran, slapping the ball to the opposite field and still doles out fantastic quotes. Side note: my personal favorite “Chicks who dig home runs aren’t the ones who appeal to me. I think there’s sexiness in infield hits because they require technique. I’d rather impress the chicks with my technique than with my brute strength. Then, every now and then, just to show I can do that, too, I might flirt a little by hitting one out”. Oh Ichiro, don’t ever leave, and please, don’t ever change.

 

Byung Ho Park- First Baseman- Twins-  It’s obviously on a much smaller scale, but what Jackie Robinson did for black players, Ichiro did for Asian position players. If not for his massive success, we would still have the idiotic idea that players from the Far East couldn’t succeed in the Major Leagues. Thanks to him, this generation of Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean players have a much better shot at making it.

My favorite such player is “rookie” First Baseman Byung Ho Park in Minnesota. After averaging 43 homers and 123 RBI  over the last 4 seasons, Park had accomplished all he could in the underwhelming Korean Baseball Organization. Much like the Japanese baseball leagues, Korean leagues are nowhere near the level of American baseball, but Park’s numbers in a 144 game schedule are still mind-blowing enough to believe he can make the jump to MLB competition. Early returns are somewhat promising, as Park didn’t look overwhelmed in Spring Training, and he’s fortunate to be in a lineup with solid veterans like Brian Dozier, Joe Mauer and Trevor Plouffe. Along with young stars in training like Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, those mainstays can take much of the pressure off of Park as he adjusts to big league pitching and travel rigors.

The Twins surprised a lot of people with their success last season, and if they can stay healthy, they can make some waves this season as well. Similar to my thoughts on Maybin, I despise the Twins, but it’s a very respectful hatred as they tend to play the right way and churn out quality players. I’m intrigued by how a player like Park can come into such a successful system after years of dominance and adjust his style and game plan to succeed in his new surroundings. The other minor storyline that interests me is the potential of a Korean superstar in lily-white Minnesota. The last iteration of successful Twins was based on Northerners like Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, so the concept of this generation being lead by guys like Buxton, Sano and Park is fantastic. Nothing is more fun than watching a blend of cultures succeed, and this Twins team will be no exception. My heart says I should root against Park’s success, but my brain tells me it would be awesome for baseball.

 

Jorge De La Rosa- Pitcher-Colorado Rockies- Nearly every baseball team builds the pitching rotation the same way: You have your number one pitcher, or “ace”, at the top of the rotation, and then ideally 3 or 4 solid options behind him. You want to be able to count on your ace to win at least 2/3 of his starts and then get the rest of the guys to win half their games. There are 2 very different and also very interesting scenarios with a team’s ace. On one end, you have the dominant super-team with a guy who can make a run at historic levels of wins and strikeouts and captivate audiences with his greatness. On the other end, you have pitiful tanking teams who have a guy who has no business being a number one starter. When that perfect storm of bad comes together, you have a chance for something truly dreadful. The most recent example was poor Mike Maroth with the 2003 Detroit Tigers. The Tigers threw out the worst team in the modern era on their way to 119 losses. The biggest benefactor of this ineptitude, Maroth finished at 9-21 with a 5.73 earned run average in his 2nd season in the Bigs. While he was never a terrible pitcher (he had a career record of 41-46 outside of that season), he was completely unqualified to be an ace. With all the awful teams in the league this year, there are a few potential “Maroths” in 2016, but the best candidate is the Rockies “ace”, Jorge De La Rosa.

Like Maroth, De La Rosa has been a very adequate, but underwhelming pitcher throughout his career with a record of 93-75 and a 4.57 E.R.A. When you combine his lack of ability with the awful Rockies’ team and the Coors Field effect, De La Rosa is going to have a long season. Much like a car wreck, ugly baby or political debate, this Colorado team is going to be so bad that I can’t look away. They have just enough young talent on offense to make them interesting, but the shortcomings throughout the rest of the roster are going to make every one of Jorge’s starts must watch TV for me. The whole country has loved watching the Warriors chase the Bulls wins record this year, and I’m going to be equally fascinated to watch De La Rosa chase down Maroth this summer. I know it’s not kind to enjoy others’ failure, but I just won’t be able to look away.

Whether these guys succeed or fail is anyone’s best guess. They could be All-Stars, they could be scrubs, but at the very least, they’ll be interesting, and I know I’ll be watching.

Play Ball.

April 4, 2016

“For lo’ the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. Happy New Year, everybody. It’s baseball 2016.” Famed Tigers’ broadcaster, Ernie Harwell opened every spring with this quote from Song of Solomon, and  there are few better ways to open the season than with words from one of the greatest baseball people of all time. Despite the decline in ratings and a general feeling that the sport is outdated and boring, the arrival of baseball season still serves as an organic transition from winter to spring.

One of the things fans love so much about the sport is the belief that anything can happen with the coming of a new season. So you came in last place last year? No worries, the 2013 Red Sox won the World Series the year after losing 95 games. You haven’t made the playoffs in 30 years? Whatever; the Royals made the World Series in back to back years and won last years’ series. The Astros, Rangers, Mets and Cubs all made the playoffs last year after losing a combined  359 games in 2014 and are all being picked to make playoff runs again this year. Those are just a few examples from recent history showing the crazy things that can happen in a given season. We all love to have fresh starts and reboots in life, and that desire along with the limitless optimism is part of what makes baseball so beloved and refreshing.

While every season has its’ share of surprise contenders, the flip side is also true. The undisputed “winners” of last years’ offseason were the White Sox, Padres, Red Sox and Cubs. Of those 4, only the Cubs made the postseason, and the other 3 finished a combined 52 games out of first place. After signing Max Scherzer, the Nationals were proclaimed as a potential super-team that could make a run at 100 wins and walk through to a World Series win. After an awful start, they fired their manager, had players choking each other in the dugout and finished with 83 wins and never had a realistic shot at the playoffs. It’s pretty impressive when a team can have a free agent acquisition live up to the hype (Scherzer), have the undisputed MVP of the league (Harper) and somehow still completely suck.

I’ve stated before that it’s a fools’ errand to make predictions as they’re never completely right, and often make you look like an idiot. Despite that caveat, I continue to make my predictions, since I’m apparently a glutton for punishment. In my defense, baseball picks have been a tradition in my family. My dad and I have been making picks for as long as I can remember and I plan on doing the same with my kids someday. So without further ado, my 2016 predictions, which are sure to be obsolete and proven wrong before the end of the first week of the season.

American League

East Champions:

Toronto Blue Jays– With the bombers in their lineup (Bautista, Donaldson, Encarncion, Martin and Tulowitzki) the Jays bludgeoned opponents into submission last season while scoring 127 more runs than the 2nd most proficient offense in the league. The offensive proficiency was nothing new as the Jays have finished in the top-10 in runs each of the last 3 seasons. The key to their jump up in the standings was the improved pitching staff. Thanks to largely unexpected contributions from the trio of Buehrle, Hutchison and Price, they jumped up to 12th in the league in ERA last season. That’s slightly better than league average, but after years spent in the bottom third of the league, even that improvement made a drastic difference. Unfortunately for Toronto, those three pitchers are gone, along with their 425 innings pitched and 30 quality starts. Wins aren’t the end all-be all of pitching evaluation, but 37 wins is nothing to take lightly.  The front office is hoping that a full healthy season of Marcus Stroman and continued development from youngsters like Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna can help offset those losses, but after last years’ blockbuster moves, the cupboard isn’t as well stocked as it was previously. They’ve gone from having a top-10 farm system over the last 5 years to having one in the bottom 10. Management has made it clear that they plan on going all in this year, and with several key players ready to hit free agency, this is the best shot they’ll have at a championship for quite some time. There’s no question that the offense will hold up, but there are question marks all over the pitching staff. If the young staff can’t take a step forward, we could see a regression to the 2000’s Blue Jays teams that lost a lot of 9-8 ball games and finished in the middle of the pack.

Central Champions:

Chicago White Sox:  It was incredibly en vogue to pick against the Kansas City Royals last season as everything about their 2014 season pointed toward a massive regression. They were (and are) led by a shaky manager in Ned Yost and were the beneficiaries of a massive amount of luck throughout the season. I, and a lot of writers, could not have been more wrong. While the rest of the division fell apart, the Royals blitzed the entire league on their way to their first World Series title since 1985. With that being said, I’m making the same mistake this year and picking against them in the A.L. Central.

Last years’ White Sox team underperformed from the opening day of the season, getting career worst seasons from the Melky Cabrera, Adam Eaton and the now departed Adam LaRoche. If you remove Jose Abreu’s production from the team, they operated as a sub-replacement level offense for the majority of the season. Sometimes players just aren’t very good, but the second half production of guys like Cabrera and Eaton give reason for some optimism in 2016. Their mediocrity would have been enough to submarine the offense, but they got historically bad production from their 2nd and 3rd basemen last year, so even league average production would have a dramatic impact. Considering the offensive pedigree of Brett Lawrie and Todd Frazier, it’s reasonable to expect more from those positions than league average; the offense can’t help but be better.

His comments about the Adam LaRoche situation showed Chris Sale to be a bit of an idiot, but he’s still one of the 5 best pitchers in baseball and my Cy Young pick for the American League. With Sale, Rodon and Quintana, the Sox only need to get mediocre production from the combination of Danks, Latos and eventually, Carson Fulmer. They made waves with their expensive bullpen acquisitions last season and were rewarded with further mediocrity. Bullpen production has proven to be the hardest thing to predict in baseball, but guys like David Robertson, Nate Jones and Zach Duke have proven that they can get the job done. Everyone is lining up to replicate the Royals and Yankees bullpen setup- dominant set-up men and closers shorten the game to essentially a 6 inning affair- and while these guys aren’t up to that level, they should be good enough to at least help Robin Ventura’s ever-growing ulcer. The Sox are the opposite of Toronto- if they can get league average production from their lineup, the elite starting pitching should be enough to carry them to the top of this messy division.

West Champions

Houston Astros: When 76ers fans dream, they dream that they’re Houston Astros fans. After a decade of success through the late 90’s and mid 2000’s, the bubble showed signs of bursting beginning in 2007 as Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio limped to the end of their careers, and as often happens with successful franchises, Houston clung to relevancy with veterans like Carlos Lee and Roy Oswalt buoying the roster, but the rest of the team was downright ugly, with no help in sight from the barren farm system. After consecutive mediocre seasons in 2008 and 2009, the front office shifted gears into a full teardown and rebuild of the franchise. Starting in 2010, they sold off everything that wasn’t bolted down, trading away Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn, Wandy Rodriguez and Billy, the clubhouse attendant responsible for refilling the Gatorade cooler. This made them less than popular, both around the league and with their fans, and they lost a combined 502 games between 2010 and 2014. The pain was worth it, as they rebuilt the farm system from the bottom up, going from the 26th ranked system in 2011 to being the 2nd ranked system coming into this season. Having a loaded system enabled them to call up young players and let them learn at the big league level, and they’ve been rewarded with stars like Jose Altuve, George Springer, Dallas Keuchel and Carlos Correia. As a team, they overachieved to some extent last season, but the continued development of Springer and Correia, along with a full season of Carlos Gomez and the inevitable midseason call-up of another top prospect or two, this season should build upon last year’s success.

The pitching staff is headed by Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, and backed by solid, if unspectacular hurlers like Mike Fiers, Colin McHugh and Luke Gregorson. They splurged by trading for closer Ken Giles, but ideally, having a lockdown option at the back of the bullpen should allow the rest of the relievers to settle into a rotation, a la the Kansas City Royals. There’s always some risk with younger players, as the league has a tendency to catch on to their weaknesses, but the ‘Stros young guys can really play and will be able to battle through those growing pains. It’s important to remember that these guys were a fluky Royals rally away from probably going to the World Series, so the sky is the limit for 2016 and beyond.

Wild Card Winners:

Kansas City Royals: Come on, I’m not that stupid. Everything about this team says that they’re primed for a regression, but when you win the World Series and bring everyone back, you deserve the benefit of the doubt. Eventually the “swing at everything and give up outs with small ball” technique will backfire on them, but former wunderkinds  Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas  and Lorenzo Cain finally turned into real players last year and showed signs of potential growth moving forward. They drastically overpaid for Salvador Perez, the bullpen will eventually come back to earth and Kendrys Morales is not going to be a 3 win hitter again this season, but there’s still enough talent  in the franchise piggy bank to buy another postseason trip.

Boston Red Sox: So after warning against picking the offseason champions, I’m going to ignore everything I said and pick the Red Sox to snag the second wild card spot. I’m not crazy about the David Price contract, but he is an elite pitcher in today’s game, so I understand it on some level. The Pablo Sandoval contract looks to be one of the worst in league history, but at least the Sox have the guts to play the better guy at 3rd base. I love the bullpen with  Craig Kimbrel, Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa, and the pipeline has finally delivered on years worth of promise with players like Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts to lead them into the post-David Ortiz era in Boston. I’m more than a little skeptical about the team’s defensive prowess and lack of depth in the starting pitching,  but they’ll be able to slug their way through enough of those issues to make it to the second week of October.

National League

East Champions:

Washington Nationals:  Between Matt Williams ineffective leadership, Max Scherzer’s creepy eyes and Ian Desmond’s aversion to catching baseballs, last years’ preseason champion could not have been a bigger disappointment unless they had actually had a ‘Lord of the Flies’ style rebellion in the dugout. Things were bad enough, and then they decided to add world-famous A-Hole Jonathan Papelbon the mix.  Papelbon posted a negative WAR, blew multiple leads and choked out the best player in the National League in front of a worldwide audience. Aside from that, everything went great. The response to all this was to bring Papelbon back and add Daniel Murphy and his mighty October bat into this roiling pot of strangeness.

With all that, why am I picking them? Pitching, a first year boost from Dusty Baker and the insanity of Bryce Harper. Scherzer may be a mutant, but he’s downright dominant on a consistent basis and he allows guys like Stephen Strasburgh and Gio Gonzalez to avoid the pressure of being “the guy” in the rotation. When you can throw Gonzalez and Strasburgh out as your 2nd and 3rd starters, you’ve got a pretty good shot at success. Looking at the bullpen,  Papelbon wasn’t very good at the end of last season, but he was at least competent for the rest of the year, and there’s enough depth in the rest of the pen to cover for him if he blows up at any point this season. Dusty Baker has shown a propensity for wearing out pitching staffs and lineups over a long stretch of time, but he wasn’t brought in to be the long-term manager; they just need to squeeze a year or 2 out of him before he drives everyone crazy.

Even bigger than the pitching and improved coaching, they have a cyborg playing right field in Bryce Harper. After a solid start to his career with 10 wins above replacement over his first 3 seasons, Harper exploded with a 9.9 win season in 2015. To put that in perspective, his season tied him with the age 26 seasons of Tris Speaker and Rickey Henderson, as well as the age 28 seasons for Barry Bonds and Ted Williams. That’s ridiculous company, and at the age of 23, there’s reason to believe he’ll get better as he develops mentally and emotionally to match the obscene physical skills he brings to the diamond. So, to recap the Nats: elite pitching, plus elite superstar, plus shaky fielding and combustible bullpen equals a fascinating, high variance season that I can’t wait to see.

Central Champions:

Chicago Cubs: Early on last season, I wrote about how exciting and far ahead of schedule the Cubs were. At that point they were a couple of games under .500 and just showing signs of becoming the elite team they morphed into. As a lifelong Cubs’ hater, it was the most painful writing experience of my life, but I genuinely loved watching the young stars evolve and grow in real-time. With that being said, nobody expected them to win 97 games and blitz the Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs; we just don’t see young teams go from awful to elite that quickly. Last years’ ahead of schedule success has made it easy to look at the glut of talent on the roster, the additions made in the off-season and the weakening of the division around them and anoint them champions of the world, but there are a few minor issues that could cause some problems.

We’ve never seen a stretch like Jake Arrieta’s second half last year- he went 12-1 with a .75 ERA and entered into 1999 Pedro Martinez territory, where we expected greatness every time he took the ball. The only “downside” to that level of greatness, is that it is impossible to replicate over the long haul. Even if Arrieta performs at an All-Star level, which is no guarantee, he’s not going to meet the raised expectations last year caused. The hope would be that the combination of Jon Lester and John Lackey can pick up anywhere that Arrieta may tail off from last years’ ridiculousness. The 4th and 5th starters are question marks at this point, but there’s so much young talent in the farm system, the Baby Bears can afford to part with a prospect or two to add a second tier starter or two.

Aside from the usual year-to-year unpredictability of bullpen performance, the only other potential hangup is the faulty defense at a couple of spots in the field. No team should be pushing harder for integration of the Designated Hitter in the National League than the Cubs. With Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Dexter Fowler and Jason Heyward, the Cubs have more bats than they have positions, and while that’s a good problem to have, I’m sure they’d prefer the ability to throw Soler in the field and just have Schwarber hit things with a stick. They’ve committed to having him behind the plate at least once every time through the pitching rotation, but with his sub-replacement level defense and Jon Lester’s inability to hold runners, they do run the risk of having teams run wild on 40% of their pitching staff. I know I’m nitpicking, but when it comes to winning a title or coming in 2nd, it’s the little things that matter. One poorly timed throw into center field or a 5 steal game by an opponent could be what it takes to send them home disappointed.

Despite those tiny warts, this is a team built to win; not just this year, but for the foreseeable future. The only question remaining is whether they can make the final push through the glass ceiling and send the North Side into complete hysterics this November.

West Champion:

Los Angeles Dodgers: I’m well aware that I’m tempting fate by picking against the San Fransisco Giants, and I do think they’ll win the Wild Card, but daggone, this Dodgers team is terrifying. Lost in all the well deserved publicity received by Greinke and Arrieta last season, was the fact that Clayton Kershaw is The Man. After a “slow” start to 2015, he went 10-1 with 141 strikeouts and only 15 walks in the second half of the season. I know he’s had his postseason struggles, but there’s still no one I want more for the top of my staff than Kershaw. They round out the rotation with solid starters like Scott Kazmir and Alex Wood and finish by handing the ball to a downright scary closer in Kenley Jansen. A top-heavy rotation and bullpen always leaves the risk for injury as a huge concern, but the Dodgers have both the human and financial capital to acquire more talent if needed.

When the new ownership group took over the team and spent nearly a billion dollars in payroll (give or take), the common refrain heard was that L.A. was going to buy their way to a title. What’s actually transpired has been something much scarier. Rather than just throwing money at every major free agent, the Dodgers have poured those seemingly endless resources into the scouting and development of their young players. This has allowed them to build the strongest farm system in the league, while simultaneously competing on the Major League level with the higher priced top end talent. I’m sure they’d rather not have to rely on players like Carl Crawford and Chase Utley as those two limp toward the finish line, but if they can buy just a few months, there’s plenty of help on the way with the further development of young studs like Cory Seager, Joc Pederson and Julio Urias. If they can get anything resembling the best out of Yasiel Puig (no guarantee at this point), then they’ll be downright terrifying for years to come.

This has been a team over the last few years that was consistently picked to contend for a title, only to come up short each time when it mattered most. Much of the blame was cast on skipper Don Mattingly, and whether it was fair or not, those failures cost Donnie Baseball his Los Angeles residence. New Manager Dave Roberts is known as a savvy baseball guy who balances old-school thoughts with an analytic mindset. He better hope that they come through big time this year, because few other markets draw attention (both negative and positive) quite like Los Angeles. All the excuses are gone for this group, and much like last year, they enter the season as my favorites to win it all. Whether they can fulfill that promise or not remains to be seen.

 

Wild Card Winners:

Pittsburgh Pirates: Much like the Royals in the American League, the Pirates had been a laughingstock for so long, that it was hard to ever picture them as a successful franchise. Also like the Royals, they promised a revolution based on prospects coming through the system for what felt like forever. Well, those prospects have arrived, and this team is loaded. Andrew McCutchen is a legitimate superstar, and combined with Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte, there’s not a better outfield in all of baseball. There’s lots of talk about 5 tool players in baseball, and all 3 of these guys have all the tools. It’s beautiful to see them cover ground in the outfield and make plays on a daily basis that they have no business making. The bullpen has been downright dominant the last few years, and Gerrit Cole is a real Cy Young contender for the coming future. It’s been amazing to see the Bucs go from a downtrodden team to one that is not just good, but also cool. We’ll see them ‘Raise the Jolly Roger’ early and often this season.

 

San Fransisco Giants: Often overlooked with the odd year, even year phenomenon in San Fransisco is the superb job of player development being done. In the last decade, the Giants’ farm system has produced All-Stars in Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, along with B level guys like Joe Panik, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, and Matt Duffy. Most of their guys aren’t household names, but they can flat-out play. While there’s no discernible superstar in this lineup beyond Posey, there are also no discernible weak spots. Every spot on the roster has a guy who can field his position and hit to at least an average level. Throw in the pitching depth with Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardjiza, Jake Peavy and former ace Matt Cain, and this staff has scary potential. Even if Cain and Peavy are shadows of themselves, there’s enough there with the rest of the staff to make the Dodgers sweat throughout the entire season. I don’t trust the bullpen or bench depth enough to call them a World Series favorite, but there will be no shortage of competition in the N.L. Wild Card race this season.

Like all the other sports, getting to the playoffs doesn’t guarantee anything in baseball. All making the postseason gets you is an entry into the lottery. With scoring down and scouting constantly improving, more than ever it comes down to timing and quite a bit of luck. With that in mind, I tend to pick teams that have either a stronger pitching staff or a surplus of superstar bats. Last year, I picked the Dodgers over the Indians (ouch), and while my pick was bad, my logic was solid.  I am following the same principles this year-  World Series- Blue Jays over Cubs.

With so much to consider for each team, it’s difficult to be concise in breaking down this crazy league. So I’d like to thank you for your dedication, and congratulate you on your fortitude in getting to this point. I’ve pointed it out before, but it bears repeating: nobody know anything about what’s actually going to happen throughout the course of a season. Whether your team is good, bad or mediocre, it’s important to remember that the worst day watching baseball is better than the best day doing anything else. Play ball.