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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Who's Brent Clevlen?

He's the reason the Detroit Tigers are the best team in baseball.

Let me explain.

Sometime around the beginning of February The Sporting News publishes the first of dozens of baseball preview magazines. While every one is slightly different - which is why I must own them all - they all provide a variety of preseason predictions and projections. And, for the hopelessly Emersonian among us who cannot believe in any conclusions we do not come to ourselves, they provide the likely opening day starting lineups and rotations for each of the thirty franchises. It's easy to see by looking at the murderers row that is the Yankees starting nine that they're the best team in the league, right? They very well may prove to be. But, last year's projected starters for the Yankees included Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, Shawn Chacon, and Aaron Small. Sheffield & Matsui totaled less than 350 ABs between them and only 40 of the Yankees' 1622 runs produced (Runs Produced = [R+RBI] - HR). Aaron Small made 3 starts, went 0-3 with an 8.46 ERA, and never made another appearance. Chacon made 11 starts, went 5-3 with a 7.00 ERA, and was dealt to the Pirates for Craig Wilson. Meanwhile, Melky Cabrera produced 118 runs, Bernie Williams another 114, and Jaret Wright went 11-7 with a 4.49 ERA. True, the Yankees also compensated for their injury bug by trading money for Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle. Had you not Cashman's financial resources, would you have hung a Sorry. sign in front of the stadium and given up on the season?

Yes, if you were the Cubs. On April 19 they were 9-5 when they lost Derreck Lee to a freak wrist injury much like Hideki Matsui's, in the following two months they replaced their top hitter (1080 OPS in 2005) primarily with a combination of Neifi Perez (609 OPS) and John Mabry (607 OPS). They went 19-41. Season over. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the Dodgers lost two of their best hitters, Nomar Garciaparra (867 OPS) and Jeff Kent (862 OPS), for extended periods. They went 24-16 without Garciaparra, 27-20 without Kent, and survived their downtime to make a late season run at a wildcard berth, primarily because their primary replacements were James Loney (901 OPS) and Willy Aybar (770 OPS). Because of the litany of injuries throughout the year, eighteen players got a hundred or more ABs for the Dodgers in 2006, as compared to 15 for the Cubs, and only one of them (Julio Lugo) finished with an OPS under 700.

So, getting back to Brent Clevlen. Brent Clevlen is, like James Loney and Willy Aybar, a top tier prospect, an outfielder in the Tigers organization. In a cup of coffee callup last season he hit 3 homers, accumulated 3 outfield assists, and had a 958 OPS in 39 ABs. Could he keep up that pace over the course of a season? Definitely not. Witness his 15 strikeouts. But could he give the Tigers a few dozen good ABs over the course of a couple of weeks? Quite certainly.

The sports cliche is that "you're only as good as the last player on your bench." In baseball, it extends all the way to the bottom of the 40 man roster. In extremely tight divisional races, like the ones we're likely to see this year in the NL West and the AL Central, the projected lineups and rotations published during the preseason aren't satisfactory evidence of a teams ability to compete over the 162 game stretch. Of the eight teams in the postseason last year, none had more than five position players who made it into 140 games. Only the Tigers and Twins were lucky enough to have five. And only the Tigers had four pitchers who made 30 starts. The Tigers know how lucky they were. And, this season, they bring superior depth. Brent Cleven isn't going to get a call if Gary Sheffield or Magglio Ordonez goes down. That call will go to Marcus Thames - he of the 26 home runs and 882 OPS in 2006. He may not even get the call if Gary Sheffield & Magglio Ordonez go down. Not with Chris Shelton (16 HR, 806 OPS in 373 AB) and Omar Infante (735 OPS in 224 ABs) already traveling with the team. On the pitching side Jim Leyland can call upon Zach Miner, Wil Ledezma, and Andrew Miller to give him quality starts, with Miner and Ledezma capable swingmen.

Putting talent aside - because all four contenders in the AL Central are rife with talent - this is why I believe the race for the divisional crown (and perhaps the wild card) will come down to the Tigers and Indians. While Minnesota and Chicago have struggled to fill out their rotations to begin the season, Cleveland and Detroit have no need to rush players dealing with injuries (Cliff Lee) or high end prospects (Andrew Miller). While there competitors make difficult choices between mediocre options (Rondell White or Lew Ford for LF in Minnesota; Darin Erstad or Brian Anderson for CF in Chicago), Cleveland has five outfielders spending significant time on the bench (David Dellucci, Shin-Soo Choo, Jason Michaels, Trot Nixon, and Casey Blake) any one of whom could be a everyday starter on many teams, including the Twins and the White Sox.

Meanwhile, much has been made of the Cubs offseason spending spree. Have they gotten deeper? I think so, but not deep enough. In the outfield they have nice rotating parts with Jacque Jones, Matt Murton, and Cliff Floyd vying for the cornes spots, as well as Mark DeRosa getting some time there and at second and third. Ryan Theriot also appears to be an extremely valuable utilityman, perhaps in the Chone Figgins/Ryan Freel mode. And it certainly feels less harrowing this spring to learn that Kerry Wood and Mark Prior are both going to stay behind for a little extended spring training, because of the presence of Wade Miller, Angel Guzman, and Sean Marshall. It could be better. But, in their division, it may be enough.

Bold Predictions - NL West

Rafeal Furcal says, "Check this blog."

Unlike the divisions which feature bottom-feeders like the Royal, Orioles, Devil Rays, Nationals, and Pirates, the NL West is composed of five teams for which contention is a legitimate argument. Some critics will scoff at the elderly Giants, others at the pitching-poor Rockies, but even those teams have enough indisputable strengths that good luck (a.k.a. bad luck for their opponents) could provide enough momentum to jetison them into the playoffs. Last year the NL West sent two teams. Both of which got knocked out in the opening round. This year the Phillies and Mets seem like Wild Card favorites standing head and shoulders above the rest of the competition in the East, but it is not altogether unlikely that two teams could again slip in from the West.

There are no easy innings in the NL West. In a style more typical of the American League, this division is defined by its depth. Their are no elite 3-4-5 combinations (although Helton-Atkins-Holliday could become one), but unlike teams that have potent hitters in the middle of the order like Houston and St. Louis, no team in the NL West has a starting position player that is a glaring offensive liability. The Rockies may be an exception, depending upon the productivity they get from Kaz Matsui at 2B and Chris Iannetta at C, but both those players have upside and Colorado makes up for it with as much potency 1-6 as any team in the division.

It's a similar story with the rotations. The Dodgers have so much depth in starting pitching that they have had to convert top prospect Chad Billingsley into a reliever, even though he went 7-4 with a 3.80 ERA during the stretch run in 2006. The Diamondbacks have a quartet of perennial 200-inning horses, and five of the last eight Cy Young awards. The young, fast lineup behind them will have to prove that they are major leagure ready defenders, as none of these guys - even Randy Johnson - can depend heavily on the K. The Padres added David Wells and Greg Maddux as dependable, strike-throwing veterans behind the powerful young trio of Jake Peavy, Chris Young, and Clay Hensley. And the Giants bost a similarly diverse rotation with two of the greatest curveballers of the past decade - Barry Zito and Matt Morris - balanced by young power arms Matt Cain and Noah Lowry.

Division Champs - Los Angeles Dodgers

In a division as tight as this one (or similarly, the AL Central), unfortunately a lot hinges on luck. Or, to put a more positive spin on it, how one prepares for and recovers from bad luck. The Dodgers are in better shape than any team in their division (and maybe the league) to replace injured contributors with at least league-average capable backups. In some cases, Dodgers fans may be praying for injuries. I have a hard time believing that James Loney isn't already a better middle of the lineup option than Luis Gonzalez. Similarly, I would rather see a Chad Billingsley at the back end of my rotation than a Brett Tomko. Matt Kemp, Andy LaRoche, Jonathan Broxton, and Hong-Chih Kuo are all young players ready to step up when the opportunity presents itself. And with injury-prone veterans like Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Kent, Jason Schmidt, and Brad Penny slated for key roles, there should be plenty of opportunities.

Key Player : Russell Martin - C

Be prepared to here a lot about Russell Coltrane Martin in this blog as he catupulted to the top of my most soulful players list with his impressive rookie campaign and his tear-jerking backstory. But, personal preference aside, this is the one position the Dodgers can't afford to turn over to the next in line. There was a time when Mike Lieberthal was a solid choice as an everyday starter and he's still an enviable offensive backup backstop, but even in his prime he never provided the combination of power, speed, discipline, and defense that Martin brings to the ballpark on a daily basis.

Runner-Up - San Francisco Giants

This is an unpopular choice. Besides the constant outrage towards the original Bay Area Barry, the Giants are now taking flak for paying too much for Barry Z. and generally not getting younger. I won't aim to invalidate those criticisms. Soon, very soon, San Francisco needs to shed the model which has brought it great success for over a decade and move in a new direction so they can keep filling those seats in that beautiful ballpark while Bonds is racking up a hundred or so homers in the American League. But this was not the year. The Zito signing aside, rebuilding your roster with free agents in the winter that Jason Marquis gets Jason Schmidt money, and Jason Schmidt gets Jason Giambi money is not a viable solution. The free agent crop next year includes Andruw Jones, Mark Texeira, and, possibly, Alex Rodriguez. Start with one of them.

The team they are putting on the field is mediocre at best on offense, but so was San Diego last year, and Oakland, and they both made the playoffs. The pitching staff, if the bullpen comes together, is potentially dominant. Cain & Zito are both Aces in 2007, mark my word. Zito will mow down unprepared NL hitters (and pitchers) in one of the hardest ballparks to hit home runs out of (unless you're you know who). Cain will make the next logical progressive step towards his inevitably strong-if-not-spectacular career and the Giants will get at least one unsuspected performance from either Noah Lowry, Brad Hennessy, or Jonathan Sanchez. There is too much talent there for none of them to step up. Granted, all this merely means getting a few games above .500, but in the NL, as St. Louis proved again last year, that may be enough.

Key Player : Matt Morris - SP

Obviously, the Barrys have to be the Barrys. But that goes without saying. If Bonds, Zito, or Cain goes down, that's the ballgame. See you next year. Morris is the key, because if Morris steps up the Giants posses among the best rotations in the league, that alone makes them a contender. I don't have any delusions of Morris becoming the pitcher that was in 2001 & 2002 for St. Louis. But how about the one he was in 2004 & 2005. If he can stabalize the back end of the rotation with another 200 innings and an ERA below 4.50, he has a legitimate shot at 15+ wins, and there are still some days when that 12:30 curveball is nearly unhittable (even last year he threw two complete games). He does that and it takes a hellavu lot of pressure off the newbies.

3rd Place - San Diego Padres

Yes, it's a good rotation. Yes, it could be a great rotation. But on the other side of the ball: Could it be a great lineup? No. Every starter would have to hit his ceiling for San Diego's offensive production, particularly at Petco Park, to look anything better than league average. Of course, they haven't even been that good and they've advanced to the playoffs two years in a row on the backs of their pitchers. The competition is stiffer this time around. Don't look for it to be a three-peat.

Key Player : Adrian Gonzalez - 1B

Other than Gonzalez, the sources of power in San Diego's lineup are swift-footed doubles hitters like Mike Cameron, Khalil Greene, and Brian Giles, none of which are likely to surpass 20 dingers (again, especially at Petco). Adrian Gonzalez bested all of them with 24 HR in 2006. There is no more Mike Piazza, so Gonzalez is going to have to step up and prove that he can be the big bopper position in San Diego's lineup.

4th Place - Arizona Diamondbacks

They have those four horsemen: Brandon Webb (2006 Cy Young), Randy Johnson (5 Cys, 3 Runner-Up, 280 W), Doug Davis (630 IP with Milwaukee '04-'06), and Livan Hernandez (7 straight seasons of 216+ IP). Every one of them was an opening day starter in 2006. They compiled a 57-43 record. Not bad. Take away Webb, it falls to 41-35. Still fine. Of course, Johson was pitching in front of one of the most potent lineups in baseball history, but...O. K. I digress. The problem here is not the pitching. The pitching will be reliable, possibly excellent. This is last year's Florida Marlins, but they won't get as much credit because they aren't exactly doing it on the cheap. I expect at least two or three players from the Diamondbacks to be in the running for Rookie of the Year honors, with center-fielder Chris Young the obvious favorite. It will be a fun team to watch. Besides the horsemen and the rookies, they have Chad Tracy and Conor Jackson, two potent young corner infielders coming into their prime. But, the D-Backs are still at least a year away from returning to the postseason.

Key Player : Eric Byrnes - LF

As the most veteran presence in the everyday lineup (at the ripe old age of 31), Byrnes will have to build off his own breakout year - in which, as a guest commentator during the playoffs, he coined the term "tickler" in reference to a peculiarly long soul patch - and keep his twenty-something teammates heads up during the inevitable dry stretches. We know the Big Unit isn't going to do it, but Byrnes is a suitable candidate, so long as he doesn't suffer through his own prolonged slump.

5th Place - Colorado Rockies

Last year, the pitching improved, drastically. Their 5.01 R/G was the best since their inception in 1993, by almost half a run! And, for the first time they were not among the two worst in the league. They continued to score runs even as their longtime centerpiece, Todd Helton, struggled with various ailments and offensive inconsistencies. If he returns to a moderate .320-25-90 plateau (moderate for him), the middle of the lineup will begin to rate among the best in the league, up with New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, and Houston. The pieces are falling into place in Colorado, especially if the swap of Jason Jenning to Houston for Willy Tavarez, Jason Hirsh, and Taylor Bucholz turns out to be the bonanza it appears to be. If the pitching makes another significant step forward, Colorado could be this year's Detroit Tigers.

Key Player(s) : Aaron Cook & Jason Hirsh - SP

Nobody believes that Colorado can put together a strong starting rotation, but they continue to try. The traded the winningest pitcher in franchise history for some additional pieces. Hirsh is apparently ready now and will be inserted the #4 slot, behind emerging Ace, Jeff Francis, journeyman, Rodrigo Lopez, and Aaron Cook. Lopez and whoever the #5 is, Josh Fogg or B. Y. Kim, will undoubtedly have difficulty keeping their ERAs around 5.00. Cook and Hirsh must do considerably better than that.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Soul Sleepers

It's spring. The season is a week away. Countless fantasy baseball drafts are taking place everyday. The preparation for those drafts takes many forms, but among the most exciting aspects of it is the prediction of "sleeper" candidates. Players who can be had in the middle or late rounds of the draft, but have the potential to outperform many of the players taken ahead of them. It's easy to highlight players who are coming off of injuries or who struggled last year, there are an abundance of them. Experts dig into their statbooks to find reasons why Jose Vidro will hit for more power in AL West or Ian Snell will win 15 games in Pittsburgh. Casual players usually rely more on their instincts. They pick up sleeper candidates because they play for their favorite team or because they once saw them hit a pair of homers in a Triple-A game. Experience shows that both methods have about the same chance of succeeding. Only a handful of the sleeper candidates talked about incessantly during spring training will have a sizable impact on the season. But that impact can be dramatic. Last year Justin Morneau (AL MVP), Francisco Liriano, and Michael Cuddyer took the Twins to the playoffs and fantasy teams to the top. Today, rather than telling you which sleepers I'm drafting, I'm going to take a look at the most soulful players on my sleeper radar. Players who, were they to succeed, would provide this season with outstanding storylines.

Josh Hamilton - OF - Cincinnati Reds

Anybody who knows anybody who's struggled with addiction, particularly that especially abominable variety brought about by crystal meth, can appreciate what an unbelievable fete it would be for Hamilton to recover from years on the tweak to become an productive professional athlete. Hamilton is a former bonus-baby #1 draft pick whose biggest claim to fame so far is being the subject of an HBO documentary about drug abuse. Despite the aggressive deterioration of the body (and passion for mediocre tattoos) which accompanies meth addiction, he still makes even the most hyper-homophobic sports commentators use phrases like "perfectly sculpted baseball body." He's batting .440 in 50 spring training ABs, playing great defense, and as a Rule 5 pick he must spend the entire season in the majors or be returned to his former team, so he seems destined to be the Reds fifth oufielder. Cincinnati's current starting outfield features Ken Griffey Jr. (43% of games since 2000 spent on DL), Ryan Freel (27% of games in last two seasons spent on DL), and the uber-healthy, but defensively-challenged Adam Dunn. With Dunn likely to share some time with Scott Hatteberg at 1B, it's fairly safe to say Hamilton should get 300-400 ABs and, depending on what he does with them, maybe considerably more. He will have to compete with another talented young Reds outfielder, Chris Denorfia, which could impede his opportunities. But in the age of performance-enhancing drugs, Josh Hamilton has the potential to bring good old-fashioned performance-impairing substances back into the limelight where they belong.

Russell Martin - C - Los Angeles Dodgers

He's the only African American starting catcher in the major leagues. His father is a Canadian street saxophonist. His middle name is Coltrane! What more can you possibly ask for? Oh, yeah, he's a pretty damn good player too. Last year, at age 23, he became only the third rookie catcher in MLB history to get to double digits in home runs and stolen bases. One of them, John Roseboro, perhaps most famous for being the object of a brutal beating by Juan Marichal, never did it again, but was a four-time all-star. The other, Benito Santiago, went on to be a five-time all-star and one of the best catchers of his era, offensively and defensively.

Sammy Sosa - DH - Texas Rangers

His .429 spring batting average, with 4 home runs and 13 RBIs, has put Sosa into the position to start the season as the Rangers everyday DH. Still, it's been three seasons since he put wood - corked or otherwise - on a breaking pitch, and the fastballs he's been pounding haven't exactly been of the John Lackey, Rich Harden, Felix Hernandez variety. But, were Slammin' Sammy, the man born to be a bobblehead, to rediscover the stroke that netted him six consecutive years of 40+ homers for the Cubs, he could really do some damage at Ameriquest Field, a ballpark that has made such luminaries as Rusty Greer, Lee Stevens, Herb Perry, and Gary Matthews Jr. into perennial 20-homer candidates. And, of course, if he joins fellow beefy-headed alleged 'roid-ragers Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield in climbing the all-time leaderboard, Bud Selig will have even more historic moments to avoid.

Kerry Wood & Mark Prior - P - Chicago Cubs

There is a tradition in Arizona every March. Bushy-tailed beat reporters gather around a dirt mound and wait for one of the Cubs highly talented homegrown pitchers to emerge from the dugout. The long and short of it is, when he sees his shadow, he promptly fall and dislocates his right shoulder and the Cubs are in for eight more months of winter. It's been winter in Chicago for three straight years and - guess what? - just announced this week, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior are going to start 2007 on the disabled list. Just for a few weeks though, Lou Pinella says, just to be safe. It's a familiar song and dance. Will Rich Hill be next? Or Jeff Szmrajx#@r*za, their $8,000,000 bonus-baby from Notre Dame? If I were a successful amateur pitcher, a guaranteed 100% surefire future all-star, one thing is for certain, no amount of Tribune money could get me to sign in Chicago. You might as well lay your arm down in the middle of Michigan Ave., year after year after year.

So what's the story here? Well, it's pretty simple. If Wood becomes a dominant back-of-the-bullpen arm, joining Dempster, Howry, Eyre, and Cotts, and Prior sands the rust off his golden arm and slides into the middle of the rotation, than the Cubs cannot help but be a contender. They have too much offense not to be. In the weakest division in the weaker league, they have the opportunity to perhaps put an end to the last century-old baseball jinx. If that doesn't happen - and, of course, it never does - they might still make the playoffs, but lets put it this way. The St. Louis Cardinals, last year's World Champs, when they put together their postseason roster, they took Aaron Miles (671 OPS, 2 HR), they took Randy Flores (5.62 ERA), they took Tyler Johson (4.95 ERA), and the took Jeff Weaver (8-14, 5.76 ERA), but they left off the Cubs current #4 starter, Jason Marquis. Why? Because he had a 6.02 ERA, nearly as many walks as strikeouts, and led the league in one crucial category: Home Runs Allowed. The only thing about him that's changed: now he gets to face Albert Pujols about a dozen times. I'll take Mark Prior at 80%, Lou. How 'bout you?

Barry Bonds - LF - San Francisco Giants

Despite everything, it is difficult to make a case for the greatest player in the history of the game as a "sleeper." But, in the various drafts I've participated in and read about, Bonds has not once been picked before the 10th round. Considering his second half tear a year ago and his 5 home runs in just 30 spring ABs, that's too low. Not to mention: He's Barry-Fucking-Bonds! If you're not rooting for him to break the record and win another MVP, you're a racist. You hate baseball and America. You know why he's going to hit 30 homers and draw 150 walks? Because he feels like it. I don't care how old he is. His agent, Jeff Moorad, predicted this offseason that Barry wasn't just going to pass Hank Aaron, he was going to hit 1000 homers. I buy it. Remember Michael Jordan. Remember Miles Davis. Remember Frederick Douglass. Barry's that class of pimp. Draft his sweet ass (in the middle rounds). You won't be sorry.

Sure, despite looking sprier this spring than he has since his second divorce, Barry might only play 75% of the Giants games. And they haven't exactly built a powerhouse lineup around him (He's batting between Rich Aurilia and Ray Durham!?!), but San Francisco has the potential to surprise. They've got a solid starting rotation. They've got no shortage of "veteran presence." They've got solid defence up the middle. And it's a wide open division. If the Giants are still in the playoff hunt in August...well, check out Barry's August and September splits from 2002, and last year for that matter. You all remember that home run he hit off Troy Percival in the first game of the World Series. P. I. M. P.

Dr. Bold Protects America's Pastimes

This is my first foray into the blogosphere. It's a foray I've been hesitant to make. But, alas, it seems that this is the future of writing, so I may as well make the best of it. Like most blogs, there will be musings here. Probably musings on a variety of topics. But, for now at least, it is, at heart, a baseball blog. It is not a fantasy baseball blog. But neither isn't it a fantasy baseball blog. The two are not irreconcible. Fantasy baseball is, in certain circles, a perversion; an offense against the sport. Like online poker, Golden Tee, or "professional" wrestling. There are fantasy baseball "experts" who go the whole season without going to a game, or even so much as watching one on TV. For them, fantasy baseball is a grand equation. And, perhaps, for the right-brained among us, there is a savant beauty even in that. As I see it though, fantasy baseball has had a dramatic impact in creating an informed, passionate fan base. Rarely do I see fantasy loyalties affecting team loyalties, but inevitably fantasy players understand more about baseball as a whole: the league, the sport, and the industry. To be a great fantasy GM, one must consider many of the same nuances that concern a real GM, because even if they don't effect your fantasy team directly, anything that effects the game effects its players. Baseball remains "the thinking man's game," as it has often been called, partially because of the popularity of fantasy.

When it comes down to it though, my passion is not baseball business, but baseball aesthetics. Baseball is an analogy for everything I love - and hate - about America. Gerald Early says that America has made three great contributions: the Constitution, Jazz, and Baseball. And baseball history, like Jazz history, is inextricably linked with the triumphs and tragedies of our history. The game is filled with characters, heroic and otherwise. And the great baseball stories inevitably bring tears to my eyes. The tragedy of Roberto Clemente. The comedy of Pete Rose. The epic of Barry Bonds. The villians of baseball - Ty Cobb, Reggie Jackson, Gary Sheffield, Elijah Dukes - like the villians of America - John Brown, Robert E. Lee, Richard Nixon - are inevitably as compelling as the heroes. Much of the time, hopefully, this blog will be an inking of those anecdotes from the game that mean well more than the accumulation of wins and statistics. And sometimes, wins and statistics will be more than enough.