Opening Day(s): musings from around the league

It was a glorious weekend with the return of baseball.  The story lines are numerous and intriguing.  We saw statements, trends, historic HRs, a triple play, stellar pitching, and April defense.  It was the beginning of the answers to all the pre-season questions, some of which will take a full 162 to answer.

Reds will wave another pennant.  We’ll focus our analysis on the 3 win and 3 loss teams, discussing which streaks will become trends and which were flukes.   Let’s start in the NL central, where the Reds made the boldest statement of the weekend.  The Reds were the favorite to repeat, until Milwaukee procured the two best arms that no one ever heard of (Marcum and Greinke).  Along with Gallardo, they have the potential to put up some great ERA numbers … that is, if their bullpen never has to pitch.

And that’s what did in the Brewers in Game 1, when the comeback Reds scored 4 in the 9th.  The bullpen also couldn’t put out the fire in a 12-3 debacle yesterday.  The Reds drew important first blood against the Brewers, taking advantage of the early injury to Greinke.  They batted .350 in the three game set, with an OPS of 1.053.  The Reds are balanced, they have experience and youth, heart and a chip on their shoulder, and they’ve got endless offensive talent.  The Brewers will make a run later in the year, but the Reds will secure their second straight pennant.

The Phearsome Phoursome notch their first of many sweeps. The Phillies showed why they are going to be so tough at times this year.  If you’ve ever played fantasy baseball, you know that Halladay, Lee, and Oswalt have gone entire months without losing a game (I’ll check that fact when I’m finished with the blog).  What’s going to happen when they do that once in the same month, FOR THE SAME TEAM?  The Phillies will struggle at times this year, the Braves might even have a winning record against them this year, and the WS is far from a lock for them.  But they are going to be a nightmare when the mediocre teams of the NL come into Philly.  The Phillies will win the NL East by taking care of business like they did this weekend.  The most impressive stat of the weekend:  the big three went 23-1, k’s to walk ratio.

No repeat for the Giants in 2011. I will expand this thought in a scathing, eye-opening, much-anticipated post later on (this week if I get my taxes done).  Their young arms and bats make them a sexy pick by analysts, but don’t be fooled.  Without some major patchwork later in the year, their youth, defense, and offense will be too much for them to overcome.  Their “lightning in a bottle” run to the championship last year made believers out of a nation, but they cannot defy the simple laws of physics for much longer.  By that I mean- they are exceptionally slow and/or woefully clumsy at more than half of their defensive positions (LF, RF, SS, 3B, 2B, C).  The theory goes, pitching and defense wins championships.  Without some SIGNIFICANT mid-season moves, they’ve only got half that formula right.  Much more to say on this in an upcoming post.

What this weekend in Chavez Ravine showed us was that the Giants now have a target on their back.  The Dodgers and Padres are MAD, and they are going to come after the Giants all year.  They may seize firm control of that division in a couple of years, but they’ll be too young to handle the huge target on their back.  That’s not a very good Dodger team that handled them this weekend.

Buck’s got the moxie in Baltimore. In case you didn’t think Showalter could manage, check out the 4-0 Orioles at the top of the AL East.  He’s got that town believing, and that’s a great thing for baseball.  They are still two years away from contending, but they are laying a great foundation right now.  The Orioles will end up in the basement, but they’ll be much peskier than they were last year, and they could make the difference in the playoff race by spoiling the Yankees party with a late sweep.

Angels’ got issues. A team that normally prides themselves on pitching has Jared Weaver as their Opening Day starter.  That’s really going to hurt when their division rival Rangers come into town.  But he was the one bright spot from a weekend debacle against the lowly Royals.  It’s going to be a long season in LA.

The Rays head into uncharted territory- the middle of the pack. They used to be horrible, then they shocked the best division in baseball.  They will finally settle in the middle.  Their’s too much speed and young talent on the team to envision a return to the cellar, but Yankees and Red Sox have adjusted to Maddon-ball.  The plus-side, more time for local hero Elliot Johnson.

The Rangers are for REAAAALLLLL! And they have an offense that you do not understand!  It’s already been historic with leadoff and perpetual homers.  Their offense somehow got better in the off-season.  What’s going to happen when Hamilton gets hot?!

Don’t worry, Boston.  The Red Sox got ambushed in Texas, but they’ll come around.  Too much talent, too much pride, and they added a 40-120 guy and a 20-50 guy.  The Yankees will win the pennant, but the Red Sox will have seven games to knock them out … if the Rangers don’t get to them first.

So, half the division winners are already on top, but that doesn’t include Baltimore and Kansas city.  But we’ve got another 159 to let it all shake out.  Glad to have baseball back!

Feel free to post a comment, I know you’ve got some thoughts on these highly speculative early season blogs.

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Roster Moves

The end of Grapefruit League Baseball 2011 is upon us and the Phillies are right where they should to be:  at the top of the league.  Of course, this fact does not mean that everything is going according to plan.  Their solid record was a result of two things:  great competition for 2B and OF roster spots and very good pitching.  One will carry over, but the other will probably not. The Phillies left Clearwater with more questions than answers.  Here’s what we still don’t know (and this fan’s astute guesses):

Who will make the roster? This should be an easy one:  Francisco will play right with Gload and Mayberry as OF and PH extraordinaires.  Valdez will play 2B, 3B, and even a little SS and will prove to be one of the more valuable Phillies this year.  Castillo will play lots of 2B until Utley comes back.

Michael Martinez will be the last utility player.   Yes, I know that Barfield, Orr, and Young all had solid springs, better than Martinez, and that they each have a fair amount of big league experience.  They all impressed this spring, but Martinez gets the last spot for three reasons:  stellar defense (the unsung secret to the Phils success since 2007), he’s a right-handed power bat, and he’s a toolsy rule 5 pick.  If they don’t keep him now, he’s gone.  So there’s really no decision here.  He’s not their best option right now, but you want to keep guys that have 30+ steals and double-digit homers in the same season.

Who will close in Lidge’s absence? Contreras.  He’s more experienced and he’s more phlegmatic.  Plus, Madson is a free agent this year.  If he’s succesful as a closer, it’s just going to drive his price up, and the Phils would love to have him back.  Now, I’m not so cynical to think that Manuel won’t put him in if Contreras can’t get the job done, but since it’s a toss up between the two, go with the Vet.

How long will Utley be out? I have no idea.  Don’t ask because I’m denial.  He just isn’t at the park right now. I think he’s shooting a tv show called “You are the MAN,” (baseball’s version of 24).  Maybe he’s in Haiti on a relief project.  I’m sure there’s a good excuse somewhere.  Look for him in June.  Otherwise, don’t get your hopes up and don’t draft him in the first round of your fantasy baseball league.

Will Howard, Rollins, and Ibanez return to form and make us forget about the Utley injury? They will all improve their numbers over last year and make for a more consistent offense.  Ibanez will be the most consistent, while Howard will carry the team at times like he used to.  Rollins?  He may end up being the league’s worst 3 hitter, and hopefully Manuel has the guts to make him the league’s best 7th hitter.  None of them had particularly good springs, but that’s okay.  We saw one very important sign:  Ibanez and Howard drove the ball to left.  If they continue to think that way, the Phils offense will do what they need to do to win 100.

Will we get enough production out of the RF spot? Yes.  Francisco is making me look like a genius this Spring (see March 10th post).  Mayberry is making me look like an idiot.  I’m glad to see him doing well, and I’m really glad to see that he’s shortened his swing.  Still, a righty need only throw him some soft stuff to get him out.  Fransisco is the professional hitter out of the two.  Werth will out perform the 4-headed monster (Gload and Valdez will also see time out there), but Francsisco will often make us glad that the Phils didn’t fork over $125 mill.

Phillies 2011 Opening Day Roster:

SP- Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, Hamels, Blanton.  RP- Contreras, Madson, Romero, Baez, Bastardo, Kendrick, Zagurski.  C-  Ruiz and Schneider.  OF- Victorino, Ibanez, Fransisco, Gload, Mayberry.  IF-  Howard, Valdez, Rollins, Polanco, Castillo, Martinez.  DL- Utley and Lidge

Lidge’s return will send Zagurski to the minors, and Utley’s return could be the end of either the Castillo Experiment or the Martinez Trial.  If both are performing, Mayberry may have to return to Lehigh Valley Pigdom.

Speaking of Castillo, is it odd to anyone else to see him in a Phillies uniform? It’s from the same crazy universe in which Dale Murphy, Wally Backman, and Lance Parrish all spent time in a Phightins’ uni.  Amaro has taken us to bizarro world a few times since he’s been here, with guys like Sweeny and Pedro Martinez, but Castillo takes the cake.  I know that it’s happening more now that everyone wants to play in Philly, but a look through the annals of history uncover some pretty unusual roster names that are former Phillies.  Stayed tuned for that article, it will be full of great stories and memories.

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7 Reasons the Braves could beat the Phillies this year

If you’ve been following the blog, or talking to me around the office, you know that I think it’s very unlikely that any team in the NL will keep up with the Phightins this summer. But here’s my list of teams, in order, that could compete. It’s got a couple surprises if you listen to the national media:

1. Colorado Rockies
2. Atlanta Braves
3. Cincinnati Reds
4. San Fransisco Giants

I think the rest of the nation would put the Giants first and the Reds second. But I fear the Braves more than the Reds and, for reasons that I will outline in a future blog, the Giants will not repeat their 2010 fluke run. It’s the Braves that will shock the nation and gel as a team a little quicker than anyone is expecting. They might catch the Phillies, and not because the Phillies may fall out of their wheel-chairs and be sent to the retirement home.  Here’s why the Braves will make a strong showing:

1) Heyward’s .420 OBP–  Phillie fans know just how powerful it is to have one hitter in your lineup that you just can’t get out in crunch time, and that always seems to be on-base when it matters (Utley).  Heyward had a great first season, has a lot of talent with the bat, and has a great eye.  There won’t be any Sophomore slump for this kid, at least not in the OBP deparment.  Pitchers will take their chances with the aging Chipper and the k-prone Uggla.  It’s just going to seem like he’s on base all the time, and that makes good hitters behind him seem great.  Just ask Ryan Howard.

2)  Youth Movement–  What made the Rays so successful against the favored Red Sox and Yankees the last few seasons is their youth.  Many look at the Phils’ age as a liability, but it really isn’t.  It means their prime performers are going to be on point for most of the season, and if they stay healthy they are a lock in the NL.  However, if you are an underdog team that has to make everyone believe in a coup, then you need youth on your side.  You need a bunch of players that don’t even know that they aren’t good as the Phillies.  Freeman, Schafer, Heyward, Jurjjens, Venters, Hanson, Minor, Medlen, and Kimbrel will be the x-factor for the Braves.  They have the talent to put them over the edge, and they may have a problem respecting their elders.  They may all have career years this year, and don’t know enough to know that’s not supposed to happen.

3) Fredi Gonzalez–  When one of the greatest (regular season) managers retired, did the Braves go out and sign the best available candidate?  Heck no, they got Fredi Gonzalez.  In the long run, this won’t be a good move, but this year it could work out for the Bravos.  Why?  For this year, they will have access to the advanced scouting of two teams, Braves and Marlins, that have been trying to trip up this Phillies team for 4 years.  Both of Fredi’s franchises have been intently fixed on figuring out how to beat the Phillies.  That hire was about putting some heads together to bring down the giant.

4)  Bullpen–  The Bullpen is pretty good for the Braves.  This is the weakest part of the Phillies team.  It could tip the balance in the head-to-head matchups.

5)  Role Players–  Remember the 2001 Sixers?  They had a bunch of great role players and one really talented scorer.  Everyone knew their role and they scrapped their way past more talented teams.  The Braves still have the grit leftover from the Cox area, for the time being, and they’ve got solid role players.  Prado, Jones, Hudson, Linebrink, Hinske, Conrad (with the bat, not the glove), Proctor, Sherrill, Ross, and Gonzalez all fulfill their roles as bench and supporting players quite nicely.  They will have this edge over most of the NL.

6) Chipper’s Ire–  Jones just couldn’t step aside after last year because he didn’t make it back to the top.  He was so used to winning the NL East every year, and his uncharacteristic comments last year shows that he’s so sick of the Phillies winning every year now.

You remember when he talked trash about how much trash the Phillies and the Mets talk to each other.  You remember when the classy Chipper went classless for a second because he’s never experienced a true baseball rivalry.  Well, he wasn’t right in those comments, but an angry Chipper is just right for the Braves and their fans.  Chipper is a great competitor, and he could have a month or two to start the year which carries the team and inspires the young folks to bring it home.

7)  Formidable Foursome– Jurjjens, Hanson, Hudson, Lowe is a great set list for any team.  They are pesky, they have a good mix of youth and experience, they have a great combo of power and sink, and they grind.  You couldn’t ask for much more than that from your starting four (unless Amaro is your GM).  At times, this set is going to be unbeatable.  Sure, they’ll be outclassed if they get to the playoffs, but their grinding through the regular season will rival the Phils staff.  They won’t have as many wins or k’s as the Phils starters, but their ERAs will be very similar.  Unfortunately for the Braves, you have to factor in offense, defense, and ballpark to that equation, but it will still be an impressive stat for the Braves.

So you see that it’s not so much that the Phillies geriatric club could get injured or go on life support.  No, the Braves have some really legitimate reasons to believe this season- just enough to make a defeat of the Phillies a minor miracle instead of a major one.  The problem is, I had to dig for 7 about the Braves winning, but I could easily think up dozens of reasons why the Phillies will win:

53 Gold Gloves … 31 Cy Youngs … 12 MVP awards … 7 future HOFers … 127 All-star appearances …



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Fransisco Can Hit!

I’ve got great news for the Phillies offense. It’s just in time for those in Eastern Pennsylvania who are ready to walk off a ledge when they hear just how bad Utley’s injury really is. Here’s the news: Ben Francisco can hit!

Okay, so it’s not really news. I didn’t develop this opinion after his great start in Spring Training. I developed this opinion watching him play in Cleveland at the end of the 2008 campaign. It was genius to get him thrown into that old Cliff Lee deal.

As soon as Werth went south to the interim U.S. capital (still waiting for Congress back up to Philly … or at least New York), Francisco was my pick to take the RF spot. That is, if Amaro couldn’t snag Magglio Ordonez. I guess he had other plans. What does he want with four ace pitchers anyway? They can’t even all play at the same time!

Brown isn’t ready. Gload can’t really defend, but is an above-average stick. Mayberry will never be a consistent major leaguer. Fransisco is the best hitting and fielding combo of them all right now. I know that Phillie fan is going to take little while to wash that imagine of him stranding a runner at 3rd base with one out in game six last October. But Ben will make lots of happy memories in South Philly this summer, you watch.

Fransisco is a pure hitter, and when he gets consistent chances to play, he makes good contact. He’s a line drive hitter that can go to all fields. He has a fair amount of multi-hit games, and that’s what I really started to notice about Fransisco in Cleveland. You can’t do that consistently without a good approach and the ability to make solid contact.

And here’s the best part- Fransisco can hit both fastballs AND curveballs. It’s been well-documented that the NL is throwing the Phils more and more breaking pitches, but that’s just fine for Fransisco. He eats righty sliders for lunch. And don’t worry about lefty-righty splits, his are pretty consistent throughout the career. Besides, Gload getting a few at-bats off righties will not be a bad thing.

My predictions for Fransisco: 18-75, .270 in 450-500 at-bats. He will bat some 6,7,2, and even some 5 when he gets blistering hot or when Utley’s out. He will also make us not miss Brown when he’s rehabbing and rebuilding his swing in AAA for the next year and a half.

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An American Infatuated with Cricket

I don’t know if it’s my anglophilia flaring up, or if the baseball off- season has dragged on too long, or if I’m just being called back to the roots of the game I love, but I’m an American who’s giddy for Cricket.

And as I’m sure you are all well-aware, the Cricket World Cup is currently being played in South Asia.  But what you may not know is that the World Cup has only been played since 1975.  So despite the longevity of Cricket (early 16th century), this is only the 10th World Cup!

This is an interesting story:  Cricket in its most purest version, is supposed to be played all day for 5 days.  In that time, however, they manage to fit in just 44 at-bats and 2 innings.  But in the World Cup, they play a one day version with one innings (not a typo) where each team effectively gets 300 pitches.  Each team will score between 175-350 runs typically, depending on how “bowler-friendly” the pitch is that day.

The first time they ever played this one day version on the international stage was when England flew to Australia, but got rained out for the first four days of a 5 day test match.  Each team got 400 balls in a shortened, one-day match and the frustrated Ausy fans were riveted.  The shortened style became increasingly popular.

Can you imagine a sport where an 8 hour version is considered a bastardization?  I remember a NASCAR fan trying to convince me that the 3.5 inning version of World Series, Game 5 in 2008 was the future of the sport.  I about wanted to knock the guy out.  But that’s effectively what baseball and rounders did to cricket in the mid-19th Century.  AG Spalding declared that baseball was the American sport because it was fast, short, to-the-point, violent, edge-of-your-seat.  Now those who appreciate baseball are the ones who like to sit back and don’t mind bringing a picnic blanket to a sporting event.

So is the insufferably long British version of baseball at all palpable for Americans?  I don’t know, but I’M currently fascinated.  Let me drop two facts on you that changed the way I see the sport.  First, even though it’s only played by former English colonies (all of them except America), the Cricket World Cup is the third most-watched sporting event in the world.  I know this argument does not work one bit for soccer (have you seen that sport?  It’s boring and they need to learn a thing or two about offsides rules from hockey), but since only about 20 countries play it and it’s still 3rd most watched in the world means that EVERYONE in those countries is glued to the sport.

Second (this is the fact that finally drew me into the sport in a way that the movie King Ralph just never did), former cricketers are 6 times more likely to commit suicide than the former athletes of any other sport.  To me, this could only mean one of two things:  either cricketers live in regret for having wasted so much time on so silly a sport, OR there is something about this game that is so captivating that it’s a major emotional adjustment to not play it all day every day.  I’m not trying to make light of this tragic statistic, but rather the seriousness of it all drew me in.

So I looked into it further and whenever a gathering of Americans give me more than a minute of attention on the subject, they end up asking all kinds of questions.  Here are some points to consider:

-you are expected to score 30-50 runs yourself … in ONE at-bat, and if you don’t you likely let your team down for the match.

-there’s no foul territory, and sometimes you can hit a home run (called a “six”) by hitting it directly behind you.

-one strike gets you out, but your bat is half the size of the strike zone (called “wickets”).

-there’s a fielding position called “silly leg slip.” Look how freakin’ close these guys are to the batter:

-when you hit the ball, you don’t have to run (a fact to which my former college baseball coach responded “that sport’s communist.”)

-the ball is harder than a baseball, and yet only the wicket-keeper (catcher) and the batter (batter) are allowed to wear gloves.  Yes, that means that 200 foot lazy fly balls are snagged with calloused, bruised, gnarley hands.  But each out is so precious that it’s well-worth the pain for the fielder.

And now you know more than 99.9% of the American public about the sport of Cricket.

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Predictions for the 2011 Phillies

As a transplanted Northerner, or “ex-pat” as they call us here below the Mason-Dixon line, I find myself in college basketball country.  They loooooove the month of March down here, and I don’t blame them.  March Madness is one of the best sporting seasons around, but right now I’M watching Pete Orr lay down a bunt in a meaningless game rather than the last games of the ACC regular season.

Because for me, March Madness is great, but it’s just a warm-up for the boys of summer.  And this upcoming season, if your a Phillie fan, is pregnant with anticipation.  Thanks to the 2008 Phils, we have hope without cynicism and a team that can live up to out lofty expectations.

It’s still new for us Phillie fans to be able to dream as big as this team warrants.  Reports of Utley’s knee, Brown’s hand, and Baez’s um … performances, are signs of what might go wrong and tarnish this golden team in its golden age.  I’m here to tell you that things will go wrong for this team this year, but like last year’s regular season, they will keep together and even set a franchise record.  Another banner and post-season trip is imminent.  But here’s a little description of the bumps, and milestones, along the way:

Prediction #1-  The 2011 Phillies will set the franchise record in wins in a single season.  The current mark of 101 is held by the 1976 and 1977 Phillies (you know, when Schmidt and Maddox had giant fros).  The cheese-steak eaters in South Philly are clamoring for 120, and this team is talented enough to do it, but their sole goal is post-season victory, so they will pace themselves heading into October.  This, plus the injuries destined for this aging team, will keep them in the mid-100s.  Which leads me to my second oracle:

Prediction #2-  Yes, Philly fans, you’re worst nightmare will come true: not one, but two of the Phearsome Phoursome will spend time on the DL.  That means that when you finally get to the park this summer with your scalped tickets, instead of Lee or Hamels or Halladay, you are going to gag when you see Kyle Kendrick.  When the first ace goes down, Manuel will stick with Kyle just a little too long.  When the second goes down, Vance Worley will step in and do a formidable job.  And when the first injured ace comes back, Manuel will still give Kendrick a final fateful try before finally turning the reigns back to Worley.

Prediction #3-  Ibanez and Rollins will return to form.  There is a fountain of youth for these aging players- it’s called a contract year.  Ibanez is playing to keep a starting role in the bigs and Rollins wants Utley-type money.  I know it’s cynical of me to say, and I do think these guys do put winning and team above all else.  But in the dog days of late July, the money will keep these two motivated when 120 wins just doesn’t seem that important.

Prediction #4-  Howard will silence the critics … for now.  He will return to 40, 120 form and he will do it the way we all have been clamoring for the last few years- he will hit the ball to left field.   Don’t get me wrong, he’ll still go weeks a time trying to jerk the ball to right, but he’s learning his lesson and returning to his roots.  Go with the pitch, Ryan.  Sorry Alfonso, it’s still you with the worst contract in baseball.

Prediction #5-  Fransisco will hit.  Stay tuned for a post tomorrow on why.

Predictoin #6-  Amaro will surprise us one more time.  Either in the bullpen or the outfield, Ruben JR. will pull in somebody that we never thought would be a Philly.  Somebody like Johnny Damon or Jermaine Dye or Brian Fuentes.  And again we’ll say, “I thought we didn’t have money for all these players,” but then we’ll remember that the Phillies have already sold 3 million tickets, and haven’t even stepped on the field.

Enjoy the uncharted territory, Phillie fan!




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