Sunday, October 08, 2006

What the #$@% Just Happened?
John Williams
When predicting sports, people will rightly choose the scenario that they believe is most likely to happen. Watching a baseball season unfold however doesn’t always tell you a whole lot about what is (or was) most likely to happen. In other athletics, generally the way to figure out which team is better is to match the two against each other and see which is better over a few games. Thus one can alter their opinions of the two teams in line with the result, which they now know is true (minus injuries, refs, home court advantage, etc. it’s not perfect but it’s much closer than baseball). In baseball, I think of the regular season each year more as an example of what could happen. Freddy Sanchez could, just based on statistics alone, bat .345 one year even though he might in fact have just a 28% chance of getting a hit before every atbat in that season. Just like you could flip heads 5 times in a row even though you only had a 50% chance of doing it each time before the flip. What he can’t fake though, at least not easily, is his OBP – AVG number, which sits squarely at .40 for his career and doesn’t fluctuate as his average might. Still some people might say “Well Freddy might not be a better hitter than Miguel Cabrera over his career, but he was this year.” I would say in response that no, if you replayed this season 1000 times with the same initial conditions and the same rosters for everyone throughout the year, the majority of those times Miggy would win the NL batting title. That he finished in second in this one “example” of a season doesn’t at all vindicate a Freddy Sanchez fan. It only says that he’s on an MLB roster and since the batting average leader gets a trophy, he stands a decent statistical chance of winning it any one year even if there are much better players around. Now if you then take W-L record as another example of a stat that doesn’t always converge to the highest probability event over 162 games, the standings really are just an example of what could have happened in a season, not what is most likely to be true.

That is the way I reason to stand by a lot of my choices in the preseason, as I still think the Indians were likely to do much better than they did this year, and the Mets were likely to do much worse than they did. But hey, time’s arrow points down and slightly to the left so we only get one shot at 2006. What I’m really trying to say is that if you took my predictions to the bank then I think I might owe you some money:

AL East

Position

Ben’s Guess

John’s Guess

2006 Result

1

Red Sox

Yankees

Yankees

2

Yankees

Red Sox

Blue Jays

3

Blue Jays

Blue Jays

Red Sox

4

Devil Rays

Devil Rays

Orioles

5

Orioles

Orioles

Devil Rays

I made so made predictions relating to this division before the season that I probably can’t touch on all of them, but I will try to get most of them. Basically the Yankees did what they have been doing for a few years now, except it appears they are getting better at it. Their lineup is at the point now where their starting pitching is almost irrelevant in the regular season. It really takes the sting out of the opponent’s bats when you’re putting up runs in bunches early like they do. That’s the only way I can explain Jaret Wright et. al’s relative effectiveness despite horrific peripheral pitching stats. Wang’s stats are just out of this world compared to his strikeout rate (which is double-check the math low even considering he is a groundball pitcher). Neyer recently wrote a column pretty much saying no one has ever been effective with a strikeout rate even close to his so why should we expect him to be anything but Carlos Silva for the future? I must admit I’m a little fascinated by this team at the present time. The lineup is so punishing to the opposition’s pitching staff that it doesn’t seem to matter how many holes they have in the other parts of their game. Even when Matsui and Sheffield went down there were only relatively small holes in the replacement lineup so it didn’t even matter. Adding a guy like Abreu was pretty much a no-brainer for Cashman, to insert another long atbat hitter right in the middle of all that thunder so instead of getting a break between sluggers the opposition actually has to work even harder. Sadly this type of strategy has never really succeeded in the playoffs despite the strength of lineup. Because when you get this out of your starters (2006 playoff starts by Yankee pitchers) Wang: 6.2 ip 3 er, Mussina: 7 ip 4 er, Johnson: 5.2 ip 5 er, Wright: 2.2 ip, 3er, you will not go far. Checkout my April 3rd column “Start Spreading the News…The Yankees are Flawed!” or just read the same basic information about the Yankee sized disappointment of a season on espn.com.

As strong of a team as the Yankees developed over the season, there really was a time early when the Red Sox could have buried them in the division. That’s not to say that any lead they mounted would have survived the 5 game disaster in August, but don’t you think they could have won a couple in there if they were still in charge of the East? On July 5th the Red Sox led the AL East by 4 games. Matsui and Sheffield were but a distant hope, Randy Johnson was a mess, and Mike Mussina was coming down to earth from his great start to the year. This was when the Red Sox could have pulled away. So we all know what happened, they went an incredibly frustrating 19-19 for a month and a half (against pretty unimpressive foes), to leave them 1 game behind the Yanks going into a 5 game series. The 5 game sweep left them completely out of the race even though the Yankees play right afterwards really should have let the Sox back into it.

The argument is that they could have pulled away, not that they should have though. Go back once more to July 5th. They held a 4 game lead in the division, but looking more closely, at this point their run differential was actually worse than the Yankees. At that point they had beaten many inferior teams by small margins consistently (especially their romp through interleague play, at least in terms of W-L), and gotten blown away by the AL big boys. Given their roster they really had no chance of ever pulling away (no thanks to Francona’s tomorrow’s next month’s win will probably be more important than tonight’s managing style). That begs the question though, should Epstein have mortgaged the future to really give the team an actual shot of winning the division? It was a tough question at the time, really it was. Now, I don’t think it’s tough at all. Yes we should have. If we’re already hemmoraging talent in trades and free agency (10% of players in the postseason this year have Red Sox experience), what’s the problem with losing one more prospect who may or may not produce (and who may or may not have cancer).

Theo’s been jerking us around for over a year now in more ways than one. What does he want, a self perpetuating organization who sticks by their main prospects till the bitter end and only uses free agents and trades to complete the fringes of the roster (like holding onto Lester and Hansen) or an organization who makes rash FA acquisitions to immediately fill holes due to departing superstars (like signing Renteria and Clement and Crisp and …). I mean I’m fine with both kinds of decisions, just pick which one you want already! Instead we’re both overpaying for FA (while refusing to sign our own better talent because their price is slightly too high) and picking and choosing random prospects to be the future. Heads up Theo, the second part of that statement NEVER works. The only way to effectively rebuild from within is to amass every prospect you can, and then some more. Then you hope that a few become stars, not that they all become middle relievers and one becomes a 3rd starter. Anyway I really do understand Theo’s dream for the organization and I wish that it could happen. I’m starting to think that it can’t though in Boston. The reason is it will take a few real ugly years to actually become a fully functioning organization. This year was about as ugly as Bostonians can take and they still finished 12 games over .500! Maybe we should just keep pretending to be the Yankees and overpaying 2nd tier free agents across the board and then vilifying them when they don’t hold up to our lofty standards. Looking back, I now do wish some deals were made in July. What the Red Sox had in 2006 was Ramirez and Ortiz at their absolute peak in production, something any organization in sports dreams of, and instead we treated it like a reloading year, when it really should have either been a go for it all year or a complete rebuilding year. I’ll tell you what, in a rebuilding year you would not have Papelbon trying to throw like superman to close out a game against the Orioles in May.

Oh yeah, and did I mention most of the team got injured at the most critical point in the year too? In the end this is really what kept the team’s win total out of the 90s. As for the Blue Jays, some other-worldly force must have kept their win total out of the 90s (which I had predicted for both teams pre-season). I argued for the Red Sox winning in the 90s again pretty much based on a player by player comparison in actual 2005 versus expected 2006 production. For catcher I expected a slight dropoff in production and what I got was a guy who fell off the deep end. I think Tek played hurt for most of the year before actually getting injured so I favor very highly the scenario of him having a few productive years left rather than him being completely done. In 2006 though, Varitek gave the Red Sox absolutely nothing and what offense might have been made up with Josh Bard was squashed by getting Mirabelli back. I think I can argue both ways for the Mirabelli trade, but what I would never argue for is him starting 6 games a week at this point in his career, but that’s what we were forced to after the trade and subsequent Varitek injury (trying to forget about Javy Lopez experiment…). At first base I expected about the same amount of production for 2006 and I think the Red Sox actually got a little more. Youkilis proved to be a definite offense asset. Though not much of a run producer, his ability to make the opposing pitcher work and his on base quality definitely helped, and would have been more profound with a complete lineup behind him the rest of the year.

At second base I expected Loretta to easily eclipse the 2005 production. His average sure was nice to look at but what happens when you take that average out to dinner? Well you exchange a few pleasantries (like the .345 OBP) but once you both relax and have a drink the .361 slugging percentage inevitably comes up and you suddenly have to awkwardly excuse yourself. Turns out Fenway doesn’t turn every guy into a doubles hitter, just Mike Lowell. Loretta had value at many points in his career but he won’t be missed next year. Speaking of 3rd base, Lowell returning to something resembling his normal production pretty much saved the team in the early going. He then went into his customary second half swoon. The Sox should probably try to squeeze one more above average year from him but that’s about it. He wasn’t much of a dropoff from Mueller (who will probably never be a healthy player again anyway), but we’re now at 2 (or 3) positions that the Red Sox need upgrades for already. Shortstop going into the year was fully expected to be a complete void of offense while being a strong defensive spot. This is pretty much exactly what happened, with maybe a little more offense than was expected. A-gone is not a long term solution here however, he is essentially a one trick pony (the best damn SS defense you’ll see) at the top of his stardom at the moment and we really need someone more complete. Remember how quickly Rey Ordonez (the 9th defensive wonder of the world) wore out his welcome despite his yearly home run trot in NY?

Lost in all the madness of the September finger pointing at Manny was that for a while this was pretty much Manny Ramirez’s best offense season. Despite getting very little to hit with nothing scary behind him in the lineup, Manny once again hit for astounding average given his indifference in running once he makes contact and his prodigious power. Every year in the last 10 there has been a right handed hitter having a better season than him in MLB, but no one’s been as good over that span consistently. No one’s close. Not Pujols (not yet that is), not A-Rod (pffft), not Vladimir Guerrero, not anyone. And also, if you didn’t know, Manny does give a shit about his own success and his team’s success. What, you never bothered to get up early enough to watch him workout? And he probably has the most applicable and successful mindset that a baseball player can have, but no let’s keep blaming him for letting his injury heal when the team is out of contention (also props to me for forecasting his injury this year). He’ll probably get traded to the Angels and make them an instant playoff hopeful. Now onto centerfield, let me change my statement earlier this year into “aside from a weird discrepency in batting average, Damon and Crisp used to be essentially the same hitter.” Well you’d be surprised what the short porch in right can do for a flyball hitter’s slugging percentage and what a finger injury can do to your average, but don’t be. Crisp really is still about the same hitter, he just got hurt at a bad time and wasn't hitting in the same kind of lineup that Damon was turns out. In right field Nixon’s last days for the Sox weren’t very productive at all, but Willy Mo’s were, so that’s probably the direction the organization is going.

At designated hitter I knew David Ortiz was Big Papi, but no way did I foresee a home run spike in his numbers after all he’s done in recent memory. If he just had a halfway decent supporting cast he could have hoisted the Sox to the playoffs but instead all he did this year was give us some more moon shots to oooo and aaah over. When the inevitable decline phase for him starts (along with Manny’s possible departure), we’ll see just how little there really is else in this lineup. Overall, the Red Sox offense came up about 80 runs short of the 2005 number, not a small decrease. They were on pace though for much of the season before a number of injuries and tailspins in production hit. I still feel like the 2006 team could have approximated the 2005 version in terms of hitting, but now I think I see it would have taken some luck to get there and it was in no way likely to surpass the 2005 version.

The way I had the pitching setup at the time of my preseason predictions was a rotation of Beckett, Schilling, Wakefield, Clement, Papelbon, and Arroyo and Wells as backup/trade bait. Arroyo sealed his own fate by signing a hometown discount contract with the Red Sox when he didn’t really have a spot, and ended up being traded. This was fine with me, working under the assumption that Papelbon would be contributing to the rotation. At some point between the end of spring training and the end of the 2nd game of the year though the organization decided Papelbon should close, so there went our 5th starter. And since they didn’t even need a fifth starter for most of April the Red Sox could afford to wait for David Wells to get healthy. Wells never got healthy. Then Clement got hurt. This left the once deep rotation in shambles, and that was before Beckett became stubbornly ineffective, Schilling slowed down, and Wakefield broke a rib. There it was, the entire rotation scrapped. Aside from Schilling pitching pretty well, everyone else was a disappointment in 2006, something I didn’t see coming. Of course Beckett’s no Byung-Hyun Kim, he just needs to make a few adjustments and he’ll get back to being one of the best in baseball (despite his troubles he was still 12th in baseball in opponents batting average). He won’t get there though without adjustments and so far he doesn’t seem like he wants to make them. Nothing really went right with the rotation despite the allusion of copious depth early. I didn’t think the rotation would be amazing in 2006, but better than 2005. It wasn’t.

As for the bullpen, that I expected to be a “slam-dunk” improvement after the absolute disaster that was 2005 for the relief corps. It was an improvement in 2006, but in the end it wasn’t very good either and was only an improvement because 2005 was so bad. Papelbon closing masked the problems for a while which was nice. After he went down the pen was really exposed for what it was. Between the guys who couldn’t strike out anyone (Timlin, Tavarez, and Lopez), the guys who could strikeout batters but who also walked way too many (Delcarmen, Hansen, and Seanez), that really only left Papelbon and Foulke wth good looking numbers, and Foulke barely contributed anything because he was hurt so much. We’ll see what solutions Theo comes up with this offseason to throw in the fire. It seems like if you want to have any success against the lineups in the AL, you better have pitching, pitching, and more pitching.

Moving on from the stale Red Sox/Yankees soap opera, the Blue Jays finally succeeded in mixing up the division by finishing 2nd, just ahead of the Red Sox in the division. They won 87 games and widely were considered to have had a pretty successful year. I’m not impressed though, I wanted to see more from them. This was a team that finished 80-82 in 2005 but with a whopping +75 run differential, and did it with only 19 starts from Roy Halladay, one of the top 5 pitches in mlb. In the offseason they fixed the biggest problem on the team, the closer spot, acquired more pitching help in Burnett, more hitting help with the powerful Troy Glaus and the very steady Overbay, and since the core of the team was so young some improvement was likely anyway. Glaus hit 38 homers with 104 rbi, Overbay had 22 and 92 with an ops of .880, Burnett contributed a 10-8 record with a pretty tight 1.30 whip when he was healthy, Halladay went 16-5 with a 3.19 era, and the “overpaid” B.J. Ryan was incredible with 38 saves and a 1.37 era. All of these guys barely or didn't at all contribute to the 2005 team. But that’s not it, Vernon Wells had a huge bounceback year and was the best hitter on the team, and both Reed Johnson and Alex Rios had legitimate breakout years. Just doing a quick examination doesn’t really show me why they only scored 30 more in 2006, but the main problem was a significant regression in the pitching staff overall, which left there run differential actually worse this year than last. Not wanting to spend too much time talking about the Jays, I’m just going to go ahead and blame Josh Towers entirely. In many other media markets, Josh Towers would have been so vilified for his 2006 nonperformance that he would have had to move to Canada. In his 62 innings he got hit pretty much as hard as a major league pitcher possibly can, after being a dependable starter in 2005.

All apologies to Orioles and Devil Rays fans, there really isn’t much interesting to talk about with them. The Devil Rays managed to improve their awful pitching a little, but thanks to Aubrey Huff and some other guys having off years they lost a ton of offense. Offense shouldn’t really be the problem in the somewhat distant future because of all the hitting talent developing here, but they’re not anywhere close to being competitive. The Orioles have a couple interesting players now as Bedard, Markakis, and Ray have made strides, but not enough to get them any closer than 27 games behind the Yanks.

AL Central

Position

Ben’s Guess

John’s Guess

2006 Result

1

Indians

Indians

Twins

2

White Sox

White Sox

Tigers

3

Twins

Twins

White Sox

4

Tigers

Tigers

Indians

5

Royals

Royals

Royals

I might not even bother trying to predict this division next year. There’s so much talent in this stocked division that any one of the top 4 teams could go on a run at any time. I’m supposed to know something about baseball and I picked the Twins and Tigers 3rd and 4th! Every team in the division except the Royals were very surprising in at least one manner. Starting off with the Twins, 2005 was disappointing because it looked so promising at the end of 2004. All those memories were erased though as both the good prospects and super prospects on the team did very well in 2006. Morneau and Mauer were incredible all year long, while Cuddyer, Bartlett, Punto all had very good years too. That lineup still wouldn’t have gotten them anywhere in that division if not for the fact that the pitching staff lived up to its promise of dominance. When the Twins had Liriano and Santana pitching back to back they were a force for the ages, and every time their lesser starters were going, the bullpen (with an absurd 2.91 collective era) was there to bail them out.

Almost everything went right for the Tigers pitching this year. All the talented young guys (Verlander, Bonderman, Zumaya, just to name a few) had good to great years and everyone else pitched up to their highest levels of expectation too. The offense wasn’t anything amazing, but it was good enough, and it was especially good to start the year. This led them on a first half rampage that took baseball by storm, and still managed to hang on to the wild card lead despite a 35-39 second half regression. Whether this year was a precursor of more future success or just a premature fluke year in an overall improving trend remains to be seen. Nomatter what the future brings, their accomplishment in 2006 in that division with their recent history was phenomenal.

The White Sox added Javier Vazquez and Jim Thome among others to their championship team, and also got much more production from Dye this year, and still ended up with only 90 wins, finishing 5 out of the wildcard. I think that is pretty much exactly where this team should have finished, given their individual players' performances. That they might have played better in the regular season in 2006 than 2005 but went from 1st to 3rd is more a result of the flukey nature of their 2005 success than a failure for this year. To Kenny Williams’ credit, he didn’t stand pat after the world series, but identified the problem areas on the team and improved them accordingly. They did all they could to make it back to the playoffs, but the odds were against them in this tough division.

The Indians followed up an unlucky and excruciatingly disappointing 2005 with an unlucky and disappointing 2006. They might have, in fact, been one of the best teams to ever finish below .500, and they finished 6 games below. Their run differential was 40 runs better than the A’s, who won 93 games, and only 10 games worse than the Mets, who won 97 games. In fact, in the NL they would have been the second best team in the league (likely the best if they played their the whole year). Think about that for a second, a team finishing 4th in the AL Central probably would have finished with the best record in the NL this year. To just compete in the AL however, they will have to improve on the bullpen and starting rotation and hope one of these years things start breaking in the right direction.

One interesting thing to note about the Royals is that they aren’t completely terrible now. Their lineup actually isn’t that bad. When they had Shealy, Teahen, DeJesus, and Sweeney all healthy at the same time, they actually had a little thunder. Now they just need a closer, some reliable bullpen arms, 5 better starting pitchers, and some defense, they’ll be able to finish 3rd or 4th in this division.

AL West

Position

Ben’s Guess

John’s Guess

2006 Result

1

Athletics

Athletics

Athletics

2

Angels

Angels

Angels

3

Rangers

Rangers

Rangers

4

Mariners

Mariners

Mariners

Pre-season I said the A’s would run away with the AL West (they didn’t, at least until late September), that they would win 100 games the next 2 out of 3 years (not yet), and they would be a team to contend with in the playoffs due to Rich Harden (well they have already advanced past the division series but Harden hasn’t even pitched yet, so this could still be true). Here follows my case for why the Athletics were a good pick for the best team in baseball for 2006. Take the fact that they won 93 games during the regular season (only 4 less than the best in baseball), and then consider the following:

  1. Rich Harden, who was 10-5 in limited time with a 2.53 era and almost one k/ip only made 4 starts of longer than 5 innings due to injury problems.
  2. Eric Chavez, looking ready to breakout early in the year and who was the main offensive threat on this team entering the year, had only 22 homers and 72 rbi (very few of either coming in the second half) and missed 25 games due to injury.
  3. Bobby Crosby, picked by both Peter Gammons and Buster Olney to be the AL MVP in 2006, played in only 96 games, batting .229 with a .338 slugging.
  4. Mark Ellis lost a whopping .150 OPS points in a disappointing and injured year.
  5. Dan Johnson lost .100 OPS points in an even more disappointing year.
  6. Joe Blanton, the reliable #3 pitcher for the 2005 team, was over a run worse in era and much worse than that on a lot of his other stats.
  7. Huston Street, and his replacement Justin Duchscherer, both missed time with injuries at critical points in the season.

Adding to those big tears in the fabric were some other disappointments, like small regressions in Haren and Zito’s numbers and some other mild disappointments on offense. These types of injuries on most other contenders would have left them decimated, but Beane did another great job of filling in the back end of the roster and getting a lot out of bargain basement one dimensional retreads. Frank Thomas might not have been so much a retread as a superstar near the end of the line, but he had a huge part in holding the A’s offense together. The pitching was just so deep that the Harden injury didn’t even matter that much. Zito, Haren, and whoever else was pitching well still was a pretty formidable 1,2,3 for the regular season. If not the best team in baseball currently, the A’s certainly might be the most balanced, and look extremely likely to continue to have success for the next several years.

As you can see, this division played out pretty much exactly as I (and Ben) were expecting. The A’s are going up, the Angels are dying a slow death, the Rangers are solid enough but need pitching to contend, and the Mariners have some rebuilding to do. The Angels could conceivably become a serious contender again soon because they do have some pretty solid pitching now. Jered Weaver looks like a stud, John Lackey keeps improving past my expectations, and Kelvim Escobar is a solid 3 or even 2. That’s not even mentioning Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders, two talented young pitchers already helping out. The bullpen should always be just about set as long as K-Rod’s arm is still healthy. The problem is that there is just an organizational lack of hitting and hitting instruction it seems. No one in their lineup is really capable of getting on base which means Vlad Guerrero can only drive in himself. They need to add a few hitters while Vlad is still producing, and still it would be hard to compete with the A’s.

The Rangers had a pretty decent year in a long line of pretty decent years with no real playoff hopes. Padilla and Millwood proved to be competent pitching leaders but there is little else help for the rotation. A number 1 pitcher would do wonders for the Rangers. The bullpen really isn’t bad at all, so there aren’t that many problems to fix, just the same problems that have plagued them since the late 90s. I am positive that they wish they had held onto Chris Young, who would have helped a lot more than Adam Eaton did this year. As for the offense, they shouldn’t be pressed for hitting for the time being, with lots of talented young sluggers, but it is a little strange how schizophrenic the individual performances have been. Teixera had a really up and down year despite the solid cumulative numbers, while Gary Matthews Jr. and Mark DeRosa had productive years out of nowhere. Kevin Mench was real hot and real cold at times in 2006, and so was Blalock before he got hurt. Carlos Lee helped smoothed things out this year and so did Ian Kinsler. I might not be sure who will be leading the offense next year, but someone is going to help them score a lot.

The Mariners exceeded my expectations in terms of Win-Loss but not really in terms of run differential. They’re really not very good and they’re probably not going to be good again for a while. The talent that is producing is mostly old and overpaid talent and the limited young talent is doing much yet (yeah I’m looking at you King Felix). I would look for an even further drop next year.

NL East

Position

Ben’s Guess

John’s Guess

2006 Result

1

Braves

Braves

Mets

2

Mets

Mets

Phillies

3

Phillies

Phillies

Braves

4

Marlins

Nationals

Marlins

5

Nationals

Marlins

Nationals

Well I kind of thought the Braves were done this year, I just wasn’t confident enough to really predict it from the start. And I would never have thought they would have fallen to third. Their year really wasn’t that bad aside from the fact that they were terrible in all close games. This was mostly due to the fact that everyone to be relied on in the bullpen either got hurt or was terrible. The rotation not coming together just made things worse. Because of their offense, which keeps getting better, their run differential was still very good, only 60 behind the Mets (despite 18 games separating them in the standings). The offense still stacks up really well for next year so I’m thinking any kind of improvement in pitching will really make a big difference for next year.

While all the W-L results were bad for the Braves, the results couldn’t have been better for the Mets. Sure Pedro and some others were hurt, but every team has injuries and the Mets didn’t have any injuries that were any kind of surprise. Meanwhile everyone who played produced to their maximum capacity and every close game was won. So that must tell us that Willie Randolph was really doing a great job at the helm. He got the most from his players and squeezed out the most wins he could have gotten from the production he received. It’s a nice theory but then why did the Mets only win 83 games (despite a +74 run differential) in 2005 with him at the helm? In fact their run differential was only 30 runs better in 2006, but they got 14 more wins out of the team. What happened here is that the Mets were really unlucky in 2005 but really lucky in 2006. If they had normal luck both years they probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs in either year, but instead they stink one year and are a dominant team the other year. Yeah I don’t have a very good opinion of this Mets team. What I can’t deny is that they are one of the more talented teams in the National League , what I can argue is that even with some young exciting players they don’t have much chance of remaining an NL “superpower” unless Minaya continues to buy every free agent he can (but he probably will keep doing that sigh...).

Stop the presses…the Phillies were actually interesting for once! Finally Ryan Howard was allowed to unleash his awesomeness on major league baseball and everyone stood in awe. Meanwhile Chase Utley continued his awesomeness. The rest of the team was really quite average so just goes to show you how important middle of the lineup mashers are. For some reason it took until Abreu got traded until they started playing up to their capability, but they almost made the wildcard in the end which is as exciting a thing that’s come from this team in a long time. Now someone get them pitching already so they can really compete!

The Marlins sold off all their good players, fielded a team of minor league players, and they finished fourth place, big deal right? But wait, there’s more! The Marlins became the first team ever to be so many games below .500 and then actually reach the mark later in the year (I think it was 20 games under?). In fact if they had just started off the year with a competentent closer (or even a "closer" as incompetent as Joe Borowski), they probably would have made the playoffs. Anyway the young guys for the most part produced like seasoned veterans and the Marlins sniffed the wild card leaders on a few different occasions. I’m going to have to claim ignorance on this one (I won't do that very often) because I just didn’t know anything about most guys in their lineup going into the year. Turns out Uggla and Willingham are pretty darn good hitters already and Johnson/Nolasco/Olsen are pretty good pitchers. Anibal Sanchez and Hanley Ramirez, well I knew they were talented, but who knew they would produce so soon? Add a player like Miguel Cabrera to the mix and once again you have a Marlins team absolutely loaded with cheap young talent, ready to win another World Series soon so they can they blow it all up and start over in another few years. Book it.

At the bottom of the division, the sheen came off the Nationals after a pretty good 2005 in their new ballpark and the other teams in baseball noticed they didn’t have any pitching. They do have some pieces to work with now though, with the incomparable Ryan Zimmerman and the injured John Patterson looking to come back next year. Now with a shrewd deadline deal they have Felipe Lopez and Austin Kearns added to the mix. This core of players could possibly lead to something here, stay tuned.

NL Central

Position

Ben’s Guess

John’s Guess

2006 Result

1

Cardinals

Cardinals

Cardinals

2

Cubs

Brewers

Astros

3

Brewers

Cubs

Reds

4

Astros

Astros

Brewers

5

Pirates

Reds

Pirates

6

Reds

Pirates

Cubs

With parody in baseball now at an all-time high (for my lifetime), there have been some seriously flawed teams reaching the postseason recently. Even with the Padres winning the west at only 82-80 last year, a bigger train wreck of a team has never made the playoffs in my lifetime. The Cardinals pitching was so bad in 2006 that twice during the year they lost 8 games in a row and then when they finally looked like they might have righted the ship late, they lost 7 in a row and nearly missed the playoffs altogether. Marquis, Mulder, Ponson, and even Weaver put up some disgusting numbers as starters. Somehow Jason Marquis managed to give up 12 runs in one start this year. And not just once, twice (that's right, two times!). The bullpen stunk it up as well. Even when Izzy was “healthy” the Cards were still blowing leads left and right. Between Aaron Miles, Yadier Molina, So Taguchi, Ronnie Belliard, and (shudder) Juan Encarnacion getting regular playing time and Jim Edmonds dealing with enough injuries to keep the team doctor busy all by himself, it’s easy to see why the Cardinals finished so far below .500. Oops scratch that, the Cardinals have Albert Pujols so there’s pretty much nothing the rest of his team can do to prevent them from making the playoffs, short of someone hexing his bat. Pujols hit 49 homers in 2006 (despite missing weeks with an oblique injury, one of the toughest for a hitter to deal with), and struck out only 50 times, ‘nuff said. He’s the MVP this year and the MVP for the next 5 years. Hopefully the Cardinals are now able to improve the weak areas of the team in the offseason as the rotation is now Chris Carpenter and pray for Pujols.

The rest of this division finished way out of whack with what I was thinking. The Astros are playing in some kind of alternate universe (like 1998) where they keep being contenders despite what their roster looks like and they can fall as far behind as they want before making a crazy run at the end. Berkman was amazing down the stretch and so were a bunch of pitchers. One of these years they’ll realize how past their prime they are, I swear. What’s amazing is that they did it this year getting very little from Brad Lidge, who is either really unlucky or is really good at aiming pitches right at the barrel of the bat. He’s still striking out everyone the rest of the time so he should bounce back to the level of an elite reliever.

And then come the Reds, who actually were leading the NL Central for a while during the summer and then held onto the wildcard lead much longer than anyone would have guessed. This is what the Reds do though, and it sucks. They have fluky years where the fans think they are contenders, but what is worse is that management thinks they are contenders too. Management then tries to add to the team with a few rash trades but they end up missing the playoffs and fall further because of the moves. Or worse, management thinks the team is better than they are and then doesn’t do anything in the offseason to improve. This has happened at least 3 times in the last decade. I just can’t think of a worse situation for fans. Fans of the Cubs and other perennial losers can at least enjoy baseball in a no pressure environment. Reds fans though have to see inferior baseball and see management continually screw up any chance of them getting out of the basement. But they also get regular tastes of the playoffs just to see their team come out worse off because of it. They haven’t been to the playoffs since 1995 and even that team was built on a bunch of young guys who were destined to do nothing (Pete Harnisch, Hal Morris, John Smiley, Kevin Jarvis, Pete Schourek, Benito Santiago, Ron Gant, Reggie Sanders). A veritable who’s who of early peaking, overrated young players who failed to improve past their raw skills.

After several poor seasons following 95, 1999 proved to be a completely random good year mostly because Greg Vaughn decided to hit 45 home runs, many of them at the perfect times. Check out the ridiculously overrated young talent on this team: Aarone Boone, Pokey Reese, Mike Cameron, Jeffrey Hammonds, Chris Stynes, Sean Casey, Juan Guzman, Ron Villone, Brett Tomko, it goes on and on. Only Sean Casey went on to have a decent career, though he remained overrated for most of it. That team won 96 games! And all it did for them was get them into a one game playoff with the Mets for the wildcard. The one game playoff only had to happen because the Red lost 2 of 3 to finish the season against the lowly Brewers. Thank goodness it would be played at Cinergy Field, home for the Reds. In all my many, many (not that many) years of following baseball I have never seen a more frenzied atmosphere for a baseball game, not in Yankee Stadium, not in Fenway Park, not in Wrigley Field. A deafening roar was present when nothing was happening, and if the Reds got a baserunner then it was complete mayhem. Of course the Reds immediately fell behind and got shut out 5-0 to reward the faithful. Following that year, management helped out by trading the entire farm system for Ken Griffey Jr., who “led” them to an 85-77 mark the next year. Meanwhile the Mariners would build their 116 win year and subsequent good years around players from that single trade. By 2001, the Reds were 66-96.

Flash forward to 2002, another horrible Reds roster going into the season sprints ahead of the NL Central and as late as August 10th, was still only 2 games behind the Cardinals. Wondering who made this run for them possible? Me too. Their starting rotation that year: Jimmy Haynes, Elmer Dessens, Chris Reitsma, Ryan Dempster, and Joey Hamilton. Talk about some household names! Well the Reds management seemed to think they had something here. They re-signed a lot of those guys (who eventually would be released) in lieu of trading them at their peak. It wasn’t hard to find overrated guys in that lineup either: D’Angelo Jimenez, Juan Castro, Reggie Taylor, Ruben Mateo. There was barely a single legitimately talented contributor on the team as Bob Boone knew he had to platoon at almost every position to get it to work. And what happens when that team falls to a 69-93 mark in 2003? Oh well time to fire the manager, actually 2 of them.

Let’s play the game again. Forward to 2006. A team becoming increasingly stocked with good young hitters gets some surprising pitching performances (see where I’m going with this) and some surprising hitting performances (Brandon Phillips, Rich Aurilia, Scott Hatteberg), so what does management do when they are leading the wild card at the trading deadline. Well, trade away two legitimate solid prospects (Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez) for middle relievers! Clearly they had a team here that was just a couple relievers away from the pennant, and had no reason to keep together a core of good young talent. Watch for the fall off next year, and then you know the rest of the story already. Stick with it fans, one of these years…

Uh oh, time to talk about the Brewers. They were one of my biggest disappointments in 2006, behind probably just the Indians. I was really excited about this team and for a while I felt justified, as they stuck around the .500 mark while waiting for Ben Sheets and Tomo Ohka to triumphantly return and lead them past the Cardinals. They weren’t really close enough at any point to get any real hope though, so Carlos Lee was let go and the white flag was put up early. They remind me a little bit of the Blue Jays in that you would think the sum of the parts would be more. Usually this means the team is just looking for one or two more players to put them over the top. A healthy year for Ben Sheets next year will definitely get them going in the right direction hopefully, as he is possibly the best pitcher in the NL when right.

I’ll group the Pirates and Cubs into one paragraph. The Pirates were doomed by their poor roster and it took an unlikely year from Freddy Sanchez and another good year from Jason Bay to just get out of 6th place. The Cubs once again set the standard for showing just how badly plans can go as Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and Derek Lee essentially missed the entire season. Well how can you compete when 2 of your best pitchers and an MVP candidate center of your offense miss the year? Oh well, I’m sure next year will be the year when they are all healthy and the Cubs make it to the big dance. (Also it might help if they sign some guys to get on base ever).

NL West

Position

Ben’s Guess

John’s Guess

2006 Result

1

Giants

Padres

Padres

2

Padres

Dodgers

Dodgers

3

Diamondbacks

Giants

Giants

4

Dodgers

Diamondbacks

Diamondbacks

5

Rockies

Rockies

Rockies

Time for a big pat on the back, I nailed this division (sure the Padres/Dodgers and D-Backs/Rockies actually tied in the standings, but tie-breakers exist for a reason). I did say that if Peavy wasn’t in top form the Padres would be in trouble, and both things were true. The Padres pulled it out because of a very solid pitching staff besides Peavy and juuust enough offense to squeak by. The fact that Peavy did have an off year (from which he’s very likely to quickly rebound) and that they still won 88 games bodes well for the future. Adrian Gonzalez took big strides this year and so did Barfield. Khalil Greene was also hurt for most of the year so there are many reasons to expect the Padres to be right in the thick of it again next year.

The Dodgers turn over their roster almost as often as the Red Sox do, so it’s kind of hard to keep track of what’s going on all the time. What I’m sure about is that this was a good hitting team who had solid enough pitching to make the playoffs and who made some very good moves through the year to strengthen the lineup. They also showed some promise from young hitters such as Looney which has been hard to come by recently for them. The present pitching setup doesn’t scream longevity, but it doesn’t matter because there will probably be a bunch of moves in the offseason to fill those holes. Next year there will be more of a separation between the Padres/Dodgers and the rest of the division.

I find the Giants pretty boring most of the time lately, mainly due to the fact that their team is filled with players who were already established when I was a child so there’s not much excitement. Yay Ray Durham had a big year, but what does it matter, he can’t reverse the aging process. I also just don't really like their young pitchers, it's just too easy to make your era look good in that ballpark and that division. The team is destined for last place and soon, it’s just annoying that Barry Bonds’ presence forces the team to hold onto veteran talent because his presence means they might still make a run. Jason Schmidt, their ace and one of my more favorite pitchers, is probably leaving this year, so why don’t they just blow this tired bunch of players up already.

The Diamondbacks on the other hand are filled to the brim with young hitting prospects but it won’t matter for a while since the pitching is so bad. The reverberations from the Russ Ortiz deal will be felt in the organization for a while, as that money could have been well spent on pitching help in the future. At least they do have what a lot of teams would die for, a legitimate young ace at the top of the rotation, so there is definitely a core to work with here as time goes on.

If someone can understand the Rockies I’d like to hear it. Suddenly Coors field is a pitcher’s park and a bunch of unremarkable guys are putting up nice looking numbers. Apparently the humidor has been perfected and the thin air is now being counteracted effectively. Meanwhile the lineup actually has a few productive young hitters (Atkins, Hawpe) and a young masher (Holliday) to boot. If only someone could figure out how they can win on the road (road record: 32-49, home record: 44-37) then they could get out of the basement maybe? I find it hard to predict the success of a team when the park factor wildly swings between seasons. And how do you evaluate the pitching talent of the team when guys like Jennings, Cook, and Francis have never pitched anywhere else and who’s stats only seem to reflect whether Coors field is playing like a crazy hitter’s park or a normal park in any given year. I sure can’t. At least those guys give them innings, so probably an improvement in offense would finally get them over the .500 mark.

Another year of baseball finished, another long list of surprises and disappointments. Many things that weren’t likely to happen happened and vice versa. It’s why we watch…

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2 Comments:

Blogger ben said...

yeah the Reds are the poster child for inept management. Can you imagine a National League hitting lineup featuring Lopez, Kearns, Dunn, Pena all about to hit their prime seasons, plus the aging Griffey in the 6th hole. Put Ryan "I actually get on base in addition to stealing" Freel at the top and wheeeee.

3:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What necessary phrase... super, excellent idea

6:48 AM  

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