Is it baseball season yet?

Wake me when it’s time for pitchers and
catchers to report.


Thoughts on Beanings

Buster Olney of wrote an interesting article about beanings today, and it made me think of how baseball has taken the game away from the players and moved it into the hands of executives and umpires.  For example, Brewers GM Doug Melvin – who was understandably irked by the beaning of Brewers CF Carlos Gomez in the head – proposed that the MLBPA levy a $25,000 fine on pitchers who bean any hitter in the head.  That’s well and good, but it brings up a larger point:  the players have had their own safety taken out of their hands in recent years by the commissioner’s office and the umpires.  

Here’s Melvin’s take on the issue:

This issue has a long history, and I believe it begins with the DH.  In the AL, pitchers can bean players with reckless abandon if they so desire.  They don’t, of course, but many pitchers gained an advantage by being headhunters without fear of retribution when they step to the plate.  Roger Clemens is a notorious example of this.  When he was with Boston, Toronto, and NYY, he was competitive to the point of viciousness (this may have been the steroids, but that’s beside the point).  He never had to step to the plate after a vicious beaning and face the music.  
My thoughts on this are simple:  allow the players to police the game, not the umpires or the commissioner’s office.  Given the chance, if there’s a headhunter out there, opposing pitchers will nip that in the bud.  That’s why there are fewer beanball wars in the NL – because pitchers know they have to step to the plate and if they’re aggressive to the point of dangerousness, then they will have to pay the price.  Melvin is right about one thing – it will happen again one day where a batter takes a fastball to the head and is blinded or worse.  The same goes with a batted ball back to the pitcher, but you don’t see a movement to move the mound back 30 feet.  The point is that the players have had the policing of the game taken away from them.  Let them do their jobs, let them retaliate as they see fit – with no ‘warnings’ or whatever such nonsense Selig and the umpires may come up with next.  

Trade Deadline rapidly approaching

Once again, it’s the third most interesting time of baseball season (after Opening Day and the playoffs, of course).  Trade deadline a’ coming!  Already, Ruben Amaro has proven his ineptness, Jim Hendry hasn’t done anything remarkably stupid (yet), and Ken Williams of the White Sox has a tranq dart loaded and ready for Adam Dunn.  But enough of that, let’s get to business.

The Oswalt trade.  I wrote of this before.  This was an absolutely ludicrous trade, and I hope Phillies fans clamor metaphorically for Amaro’s head.  METAPHORICALLY, PHILLIES FANS.  I in no way condone beheading of incompetent GMs.  Yet still, if there was a league champion team that has ever shot itself in the foot more than the Phillies did this offseason, I challenge you to bring it to my attention.  After the trade, they had a rotation of Halladay, Lee, and Hamels.  I don’t care who you’re facing in a playoff series, those top three are real hard to beat.  Especially with Lee’s proven playoff pedigree and his cast-iron balls (who can forget him catching that pop fly in the WS?).  The Phillies’ problems this year have had little to do with the pitching staff and more with the fact that they can’t keep anyone healthy (Victorino, Utley, Rollins).  Why can’t the Philly organization grasp that fact?  If your best players keep getting hurt, and even your table-setters – like Polanco – are out, than it’s no wonder you’re struggling (and I use ‘struggling’ loosely here – they’re 3.5 games behind a very, very young Braves team).  Oswalt is a great pitcher when he’s healthy – I’ve watched him for years in the Central and I’m glad he’s gone.  But he’s making 14 mil this year and Lee is apparently making 9.  Oswalt needs a shot in the back every three starts or so.  Lee is one of the most dominant pitchers in the league.  So now Philly is committed to $25 mil or so for this year and next with Oswalt, after they pissed and moaned about taking on contracts.  That’s inept management, folks.  Panic move.  Unless they get healthy, they’re not winning anything, no matter how much salary they take on.  

Second half predictions, NL

A week or so after the ASG – time for NL second half predictions.

NL East:  
BRAVES.  I would love to piss off my friends, who are all obnoxious Braves fans, and say that the Phillies or Mets will catch them.  Truth is, barring a massive slate of injuries or just an utter choke job, the Braves have this division.  I’m not buying into the claims that they’re a NL champion caliber of team – like some talking heads have claimed – but there’s no one in that division playing anywhere near well enough to overtake them.  
NL Central:
CARDS.  Hate to say it, and I still think the Cubs will make a serious run at them, but the truth is that about 85 – 88 wins will take this division easily.  However, if Pujols gets hurt, they collapse very quickly.
NL West:
PADRES:  How in the world do the Padres have the biggest run differential in the NL?  I know their pitching is good, but any team that starts not one but TWO Hairstons should have no business leading a division.  It’s very ironic that even their management planned on a firesale this year and now they’re in a position where the addition of a big bat – think Adam Dunn – could really make them a dangerous team come playoff time.  The way Garland, Richard, and Latos are pitching, that makes them very, very tough to overcome in a series – especially a best-of-five series.  Not to mention LeBlanc, who mysteriously has 8 losses with a 3,28 ERA.  And with that bullpen, the game is virtually over if the Pads are leading after 5 or 6 innings.  Bochy not getting near enough credit for what he’s done with this team.  
WC:  I think the WC is coming out of the West, but don’t count out a run by the Phillies, especially if they can add another SP at the deadline.  Ruben Amaro, the Philly GM, should be severely reprimanded for what he’s done to that team.  At the end of last year, they had Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Hamels – three of the best pitchers in baseball.  Stupidly (and I’m not a Phillies fan – in fact, I despise the Phillies and I think that Philadelphia fans in no way deserve a winning team in any sport), Amaro traded away Cliff Lee, the best LHP in baseball, using Lee’s salary demands as an excuse.  If I remember correctly, Lee was making about 4.5 million this year – although his next contract will be huge (hopefully when he agrees to terms with the Cubs).  Now, because Philly pitching has been so thin, Amaro is trying to get Oswalt from the Houstons – who makes over 15 million a year and is no longer the pitcher he once was (although he’s still a very, very good SP).  Now let’s go over this again:  trade a LH pitcher who has been the definition of dominant over the past three years and then run out of SPs by July?  And your idea of a cost-effective replacement is a guy who is on the books for like 15, 17, then 18 million the next few years?  Especially an injury-prone guy set to make that much?  It’s just asinine.  I can’t believe more people aren’t talking about that; I guess the talking heads have a memory span of about 5 weeks.  
I think the WC comes down to the Rockies and Giants, and it probably depends on who can remain healthy.  The Rockies haven’t been able to stay healthy all season long, so there’s no reason to think that they suddenly will in the dog days of August.  That being said, all they really need is for Tulowitski to come back and hit like he’s capable and then they become a very dangerous team.  The Giants are the Padres-lite, meaning that if they can get Posey to continue to hit and for Sandoval to rediscover his power, then they have more than enough pitching to capture the WC.  Lincecum, Sanchez, and Zito give you a chance to win every day, and I look for them hit a stride in August/September and capture the WC over the Rockies – hopefully in game 163.  

Piniella to retire at season’s end

News broke today that Piniella will retire at season’s end.  Lou’s logic was typical Lou – “I’ve been in the game since 1962.  I want to go home” (I’m paraphrasing).  Now the hunt begins for a new manager, and the Tribune already has some very interesting names up.

1).  Sandberg.  The runaway fan choice.  Ryno is my all-time favorite player, and I would love to see him manage the Cubs.  I think the biggest hurdle to him is whether or not Joe Torre is available after his contract runs out with the Dodgers.  Torre has said publicly that he would enjoy the challenge of coaching the Cubs.
2).  Torre.  There’s no way you can go wrong with Joe Torre.  But Torre is three years older than Piniella (Torre is 70) and that would be a challenge.  Could he handle the day in/day out nonsense that goes with managing the Cubs at his age?  Joe has been a proven winner at every level, and is a fantastic playoff manager – which is just what the Cubs need (2010 nonwithstanding).  That being said, his Dodgers are underachieving this year (much like the Cubs) and he may welcome the chance to get the hell out of the ongoing soap opera that has been the LA owners’ divorce.  Joe would be great, but only if he still has the energy to manage and handle the treacherous, desperate, pessimistic, delusional, and rabble-rousing Chicago media.  I’m 27 and I couldn’t handle that without deserving a jail sentence or a serious psychological evaluation.
3).  Girardi.  He’s not leaving the Yankees for the Cubs.  Girardi is young, he’s finally got control of that team and gained the respect of the vets.  And honestly, I like Girardi, but I’m not sure he’s one of the top 5 managers in baseball.  I have absolutely nothing to back that up, since he’s won everywhere he went, but he’s had the good luck to manage in a place with incredible young talent (Florida) and a place with no apparent payroll (NYY).  All he had to do last year was sit back with a mouthful of sunflower seeds, make sure Sabathia and Burnett got some rest down the stretch, and pray that A-Rod finally produces – which he did.  Maybe a lot of that is Girardi; I don’t know.  But there’s no concievable way he leaves the Yankees for the Cubs barring a massive fallout with someone in the organization.
4).  Brenly.  I will never, for the life of me, understand why Brenly got fired by the D’backs.  He would be perfect for what they’ve got now.  He’s good with young players, he’s tough when necessary, he’s honest (some might say blunt), and he demands accountability.  That is the absolute blueprint for just what a team of young players needs, folks.  God only knows why he hasn’t gotten a serious shot at another job as a WS-winning manager.  Honestly, I think he’s in the wrong place if he’s thinking he’s getting the Cubs job, despite his accolades – although I could be dead wrong.  
The smart money is on either Torre or Sandberg.  Torre’s window would be very short – 2 – 3 years – and the Ricketts would be smart to ingratiate themselves with popular Cubs players like Sandberg, Banks, Grace, Williams, Maddux, et al. By signing Maddux as a coach, I think they made a great move and they would be doing well to make Sandberg an offer to manage.  He’s won everywhere in the minors he’s been assigned.  However, I worry about what could happen if that’s the road they take.  If Sandberg wins 66 games his first year, what happens to his popularity in Chicago?  It’d be a shame to ostracize a player who’s given his professional life to the Chicago organization, especially if it’s because management threw him in the deep end before he was prepared.  
What I’d like to see is the Cubs sign Torre to a 2 year deal, and hire Sandberg as a bench coach for 2 years.  Piniella and Trammell have worked well together, and I’d hate to see Trammell go, but Sandberg has clearly being groomed for the job at some point.  Give him a couple of years under Torre’s tutelage and let the ‘W’ flag fly!  Go Cubs!

Thoughts on Philly series, upcoming against the Houstons, first-half MVPs

The Cubs took 3 of 4 from the Phillies, and intimated their intentions for the second half with a stellar series.  However, the series also told us what a long road it is to contention.  The Cubs dominated Philly, and – Marmol meltdown aside – should have swept a four-game series against a really good team (and defending NL champs).  Still, any Cubs fan would have taken 3 out of 4 coming into the series as a great sign.  Yet – just to point out how hard it is to advance in the standings in baseball – the Cubs left Bastille Day 9.5 back, took 3 of 4 from the defending league champs, and as of 19 July are still 9.5 back.  For baseball novices, that’s why you don’t want to be behind two teams in the standings.  Generally speaking, on any given day, it’s irrational to expect the Cardinals AND Reds to lose simultaneously given their performance to date this year.  As per usual under La Russa, the Cards swept a good Dodgers team to begin the second half.  The Reds took 2 of 3 from a good Rockies squad, yet still fell out of first place – a big psychological blow, as the Reds were shut out for the 11th time – most in the majors.  So the Cubbies have some work to do, and taking 3 of 4 from the Phillies is a great start.

What was especially good about the Phillies series was that our bats woke up against really good pitching.  Scoring 6 on Halladay – by any account one of the top 5 pitchers in MLB – should instill some confidence in the young boys and, most importantly, Lee had a big 3-run double last night and Rami had a huge series.  As I said before, if those guys start producing, and if Colvin, Castro, Theriot, Byrd, Soriano, et al keep going like they have been, then we can make the second half very interesting.  
Now the attention turns to some of the more mediocre teams in the NL Central, and this is where the Cubs will have to make their mark.  We start a series tonight against Houston and Wandy Rodriguez, who has not been good by any stretch this year (11 losses, nearly a 5 ERA).  Not to mention, we match up well:  Silva tonight, Dempster tomorrow, and Lilly next.  I like our SPs against almost any team in the NL, and this series is no exception.  However, the Cubs have had a tendency to play to the level of their opponent.  Here’s to hoping that trends changes in the second half.  The Houstons are an easy team to solve, from my perspective – keep Bourn off base, be careful with Pence, and keep Berkman and Lee from getting RBI opportunities.  You do that, and that makes the game a lot easier.  And if Jaramillo can teach Cub hitters to recognize sliders; well, then, Lee and Ramirez will end around .280, won’t they?
First Half MVPs:
I should have done this during the AS game, but didn’t get around to it for whatever reason.  However, better late than never.  
Offensive MVP:  Marlon Byrd
You really can’t contest this.  Byrd is the best signing Hendry has had since Lilly, at the very least, and you can even argue that he’s the best since the Ramirez/Lofton trades in 2003.  Byrd brings exactly what the Cubs need – a positive attitude, hustle on every single play, fantastic clubhouse guy by all reports, willingness to play/bat anywhere in the lineup.  If the Cubs had 8 other players like Byrd, then life would be much easier for Cub fans.  What I really love about the guy is that he plays the game the right way.  If he hits a HR, there’s none of the posturing/pimping/preening that goes on with other players.  MB busts his *** out of the box and usually is around second base by the time the ball lands.  I love that – you can celebrate with your teammates in the dugout, where it should be done, unless it’s a GW HR.  As my HS baseball coach used to say, “act like you’ve been there before.”  Now for the underlooked parts of the game.  Byrd catches every single thing that should be caught in CF, and he more than makes up for the rookie Colvin/Fukudome in RF and Soriano’s defensive liabilities in LF.  He’s the best possible person to have around useful young players like Cashner, Colvin, and Castro – to show them what’s needed on a daily basis and how to forget yesterday and focus on today.  Marlon is what all baseball players should strive to be – a no-nonsense, hustle every day, remember-it’s-just-a-game-and-I’m-getting-paid-millions-to-play kind of guy.  I can’t say enough good things about Byrd and how valuable he’s been to the Cubs.
Sean Marshall.  Much of what I said for Byrd applies to Marshall as well.  Unlike other pitchers, who throw tantrums at the drop of a hat, Marshall has accepted whatever role he can fill that can best help the team.  You never hear a peep from Marshall about salary demands, a SP role, or what have you.  Marshall understands it’s a team game, and that with our bullpen, he is the one guy we can use to get to Marmol with any degree of confidence.  And this is what he’s done for years – he has been an SP, RP, closer on occasion, and he excels everywhere he goes.  He’s never pissed or moaned about moving to the bullpen; he shut his mouth and did his job.  He realizes that the bullpen is not a demotion; he understands that the bullpen gets the most important 6 – 9 outs of the game, and that a hold is every BIT as important as a save.  Billy Beane of the A’s always understood that you should use your best pitcher in the most demanding moments of the ballgame, and Marshall has taken to and excelled in that role for the Cubs.  Here’s to hoping that Lou will ensure that Z and Marshall are roomies for the remainder of the season, should Z return to the majors.
Up next will be trade thoughts with the deadlines quickly approaching for NL teams.  

1st-half thoughts, 2nd-half hopes

One of the best things about baseball is the fact that over 162 games, the best teams will advance to the postseason.  One of the worst things about baseball is that a team that wins 97 games gets no advantage over an 85-win wild card team in a short series, generally speaking.  But I digress.  

Certainly, Cubs fans were treated to a massive dose of disappointment in the first half of 2010.  It seemed that everything that could go wrong did.  The two guys we depend on to do all of our big damage, Ramirez and Lee, are having years so far off of their career averages that it’s ridiculous.  Lou would call it a “Cubbie occurrence,” but I don’t think he’s been in the mood for levity recently.  Z threw yet another sh*t-fit, after promising in the off-season that we’d seen the last of his childish, churlish behaviour.  We re-signed Bobby Howry, for god knows what reason. The only Cubs who have been up to snuff have been the SPs (led by the shocking Silva), Marlon Byrd, and to a lesser degree, Soriano.  Marshall has done his usual fantastic job, but that’s what we expect from him.
We start the second half 10 games out, with the Cards and Reds in a neck-and-neck race for first.  That seems daunting, but the great thing about baseball – as mentioned above – is that there’s plenty of time for a comeback.  Especially if our hitters start performing anywhere near their career levels.  I don’t think this season is over yet by any means, and I think the Cubs can still make a serious run at another NL title.  Here are my (semi-) rational thoughts for such optimism:
1).  The Reds are managed by Dusty Baker.  Baker’s Reds have overachieved by almost anyone’s estimation, even though they have had a solid core for a number of years.  Yet what should scare the pants off of any Red Legs fans is the pitching staff, and in particular, who manages them.  Cinci has leaned time and time again on the young Leake, who has done a fantastic job without ever pitching in the minors.  Cueto has been a stud when he throws strikes since the day he came up.  And Volquez will return soon after the AS Break.  Not to mention the Chapman kid, who certainly will come up at some point this summer.  Let’s see, Cub fans, four very, very good young pitchers, managed by Dusty Baker?  If I was Chapman, Volquez, and Cueto, I would stick my elbow in front of Votto’s bat during BP in preparation for what will come.  Baker has never understood how to manage young pitching.  His core pitching staff is dependent, in the second half, on at least two of those four guys eating valuable innings down the stretch.  Leake is 190 pounds – how will August treat him?  Volquez and Cueto have both had elbow trouble (sound familiar, Kerry Wood?), and Chapman is an unknown commodity.  Look for the Reds to fade in a serious way in August.  
2).  The Cardinals have been underwhelming.  Look, aside from Wainwright and Carpenter, you can beat the Cardinals.  Garcia has been incredible all year long, but he’s a rookie.  Let’s see how he handles the big pressure of a pennant race and how he handles his first long big league season.  Not taking anything away from what he’s done – he’s been fantastic – but rookies generally don’t post the stats he has over 162 games, and the Cardinals really lean on him.  Secondly, the Albert factor.  This is what’s so amazing about him – he’s hitting .313, and is on pace for around 40 hrs and well over 100 RBIs, and ESPN’s talking heads have said he’s been off all year long.  Yet the Cardinals’ real problem is that Holliday.  Before his recent power surge, he hadn’t provided the kind of Pujols protection that the Cards desperately need.  Beyond those two guys, you can also beat the Cardinals.  They need to get a big bat or a Cliff Lee-type pitcher, and with Pujols’ forthcoming free agency, I don’t see it happening.  I’d learned (the hard way, I might add) never to count out Dave Duncan and what he does over the years.  I have to put down the Cards as the favorites to take the NL Central, but I can’t see them going beyond the NLCS – too many question marks in the SP, and they rely too much on Pujols and Holliday.  
3).  The Cubs are due to put it together, at some point.  Let’s hope it doesn’t happen too late to matter, but Murphy’s Law has been in full effect all season long for the Cubbies.  So far in the second half, Rami is on fire.  He’s due to go about .320/15/60 for the rest of the year and if he can pull that off and Lee gives us something, then the Cubs can make a good run.  He’s really the key player.  As for the bullpen, since Grabow has been hurt, it’s really solidified.  Marshall gets all the pressure situations as a prelude to Marmol, who is the most unhittable pitcher in MLB, period.  The last stats I saw he was averaging 17 K/9.  Those are video game numbers, folks.  The SP has been strong – Dempster and Lilly have relatively poor records, but both have good ERAs.  Silva needs to keep competing like he has all season long.  Gorzellany has been a good 4th/5th starter all year when he’s gotten the chance, and gives us a chance to win every game he starts.  
The fact is these things tend to average out, and the Cards and Reds have had no issues this year.  That doesn’t generally hold steady over 162 games.  I’m not saying the Cubs are going to take the Central, but I do think they can make this very, very interesting.  Ten games is a big head start, but as Cubs fans (and elderly Dodgers fans) can attest, it’s not insurmountable.  
Crystal ball prognostication:  The Cubs have been traditionally strong in the second half, winning 40-45 games or so in Lou’s reign.  The smart money is on the Cards, but I look for the Cubs to give them a run.  If the Cardinals start to flounder or if Albert takes a FB in the elbow, this division is eminently winnable.  
Postscript:  The Cubs have now taken 2 out of 2 from the defending NL champs – by scoring 12 runs one game and by getting a clutch Rami HR and a key Byrd HR in the other.  Marmol Ks Werth, Howard, and a PH in the 19th for his 17th save.  Teams in red, beware!