The Hanging Curve – Baseball Opinion Blog with MLB Analysis that won’t Bend or Break

Pirates Club Manatees

Let me start by notifying any PETA representatives that stumbled across this that no actual animals were harmed, with the possible exception of whatever may have gone into the hot dogs they serve at the ballpark.

For the past several years, the Pirates tune up for their spring training schedule by playing Manatee Community College in an exhibition game.  While the school that sits just down the road from the Pirates spring facilities has changed their name to something along the lines of the “State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota”, the fierce rivalry has not been lost.  Last year they actually managed to beat a “Pirates” squad of minor leaguers, and it appears that this year they brought in the ringers to help assure victory:  Steve Pearce and Brandon Moss were two representatives with some major league experience.   John Van Every also came in off the bench (he has seen 31 plate appearances and 0.2 innings pitched for the Red Sox).

The Jason Bay trade contingent performed admirably, as Bryan Morris started off the game throwing a perfect inning with two strikeouts.  The aforementioned Moss (who has been offensively meek in Pittsburgh) went 2-2 with a double, 2 runs and an RBI.  Top prospect Pedro Alvarez went 3/4, also with a double, a run and an RBI.

For the Manatees, B.J. Zimmerman cranked a solo home run off Jeff Sues for their only run.  They did manage a respectable eight hits and four walks (it’s good to see Pittsburgh’s pitchers still know how to walk batters, even throughout the farm system).  Shortstop Nick Goody had a tough time in the field and committed three errors.

The game was only seven innings, I believe by design, and the final score was 6-1 for the Pirates.  Nothing quite like a local state college beatdown to get spring training started off right.

Pirates’ Spring Training Under Way

Well, folks, spring is here.  What’s that you say, there’s still snow outside?  OK, fair enough:  spring training is here.  Yesterday the final five Pirates position players reported to Pirate City, with a fairly unprecedented number of players arriving much earlier than required.

The pitchers and catchers have been working for a week already, with a few events of note.  Firstly, it was announced that Joel Hanrahan, one of the more decent relievers the Bucs have this year, suffered a flexor-pronator strain.  This was initially expected to land him on the DL to start the season, but it was reported today that his MRI showed the swelling had decreased substantially and that there was no structural damage.  His timetable for return is still not known, and I would rather see him miss a week or two to start the season than to have this flair up again (or worse still require surgery); nevertheless this information still bodes well.

Secondly, at his own request, Neil Walker reported to training camp with the pitchers and catchers to offer up his services at catcher, a position he hasn’t played at since 2006 when he played in A+ ball and five games at AA Altoona.  I find this interesting since he was moved to 3B (presumably because he couldn’t hack it defensively at C) when the current Coonelly/Huntington regime took over.  Of course, now the Pirates have Pedro Alvarez, who will almost assuredly start at 3B for AAA Indianapolis, and Walker’s future has been very much in limbo.  Pirates’ brass has made no attempt to publicly define a role for Walker moving forward.  Furthermore, Andy LaRoche blocks Walker at third in the majors.  I guess it’s pretty much a moot point if Walker never shows he can hit in AAA or the majors:  his AAA line in 1+ seasons is .248/.291/.428 and he performed poorly in a September callup last year too.  He’s shown good power potential, but .291 OBP isn’t going to cut it.  I suppose you could do worse for a backup plan at C:  the Astros will start another season with J.R. Towles at second string.

Lastly, Octavio Dotel, who should take over the closer spot vacated by Matt Capps after his less than stellar 2009 campaign, was shut down with a side strain.  It sounds like it isn’t very serious and shouldn’t set him back more than a few days.  The bullpen was a weakness after last year, and Dotel and Hanrahan might be two of the brighter spots in what should be an improved ‘pen, so here’s hoping they both come back healthy and soon.

So, starting at 9 AM this morning, the Pirates’ were back on the diamond getting ready for another season.  My expectations are somewhat more tempered this season than they have been in the past few years.  The roster isn’t much different from what we put on the field at the end of last season, but that’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of guys I’m excited to see.  McCutchen tops that list by far, but Lastings Milledge, Garret Jones, Jeff Clement, Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton and Andy LaRoche also have me eager to see what they can bring.  I also wouldn’t count this team out of performing well late in the season:  Pedro Alvarez, José Tábata and Brad Lincoln are some pretty high grade prospects who are probably long shots to make opening day but very likely to crack the roster by mid-season, and they certainly could help the team perform pretty well down the stretch.

At any rate, we can rest assured that while we still suffer (depending on where you live of course) below freezing temperatures and drifts of stale snow, there’s a bunch of guys down in Florida running around on some green grass,getting paid to throw and hit a ball around in 60° weather in late February.  It certainly brings a smile to my face.

Jeff Passan Writes Stupid Article

First off, here is the journalistic abortion that Passan published yesterday.

If you didn’t care to read it, you are not the only one who doesn’t want Passan stealing five minutes of your life.  Let me sum it up:  the GMs, the fans, hell even the press (the rest of the press), everyone except the players and Passan himself are responsible for fueling some “terrible fire of excitement” over prospects.  Not only does this fire exist, apparently it is bad too–he’s a little roundabout on that point, though.  The “promotion of talent long before it reaches the major leagues” is labelled an “uncomfortable reality”.  I guess that’s double talk for evil.

Now, I really don’t care too much about Tommy Hanson, Matt Wieters, or Gordon Beckham, but I do care about Andrew McCutchen (see previous post) and thank goodness, this article is mostly about him, presumably because he had the most sound bites to work with.  Personally, if I were supporting the rambling, reaching thesis of Passan’s article, I may use Wieters, 4-28 with 1 R, 0 RBI, and a .422 OPS as my example.

Passan seems to think McCutchen is not ready for the big show.  This despite four and a half years of minor league service where he has moved up and performed at each level he encounters.  This despite one and a half years in AAA.  This despite the fact that before this season management had areas of emphasis they wanted Cutch (yep, I call him Cutch “already” too Passan) to work on, like stolen base efficiency, which he promptly showed he could improve.  This despite the fact that every sigle time he’s gone to the plate he’s had a great at bat and looks like a guy who has been playing in the Majors for a couple years.  I know, I know, Passan probably hasn’t seen this.  I doubt he’s seen McCutchen’s stats, or watched him play, or even knows much about the Pirates in general.  No, Cutch is ready.  As I stated in my post on the McLouth trade, it was going to be a little difficult deciding who was going to lose playing time when he came up, but Atlanta’s begging made that choice a little easier.  So why isn’t Passan up in arms over Rick Porcello?  This guy is 20 years old and for the sum total of his professional career he pitched 125 innings in A+ league last season–and this year started on the Tigers’ rotation.  Instead, he spends a column lavishing him in praise of how mature and good he is.

Passan continues with this brilliant piece of journalism:

“All those guys are great players, and they’re going to bring a lot to this game when they settle in,” McCutchen said. “It’s a new regime coming in. I think we’re going to help keep the game going and bring excitement and fans.”

Never mind McCutchen’s delusions of grandeur. He’s 22. He grew up in a baseball culture whose fans and media deified him as a teenager, the way basketball has long done with its prime talent. He saw his every accomplishment broadcast to a frothing group of Pirates followers, the same ones who have to be so confused by this all: 17 straight losing seasons, and they’re trading a player in McLouth they had developed and locked up to a team-friendly contract, for … three more prospects.

This quote from Andrew is presumably about all the young baseballers in the article–Wieters, Hanson, Beckham–but it is not really clear from the context, and for all we know he could be talking about only the Pirates or for that matter all of the young athletes in combined professional sports.  Assuming he’s talking about the other youngsters, he basically says “those guys are great”, and “all of them [myself included] will bring excitement and fans” to the game.  Well, haven’t they?  Isn’t that your premise, Passan, that we are all salivating over these players already and too soon?  So where’s the delusion?  Enter brilliant segue into McLouth trade criticism.  There are legitimate criticisms of the McLouth trade to be made:  the Pirates didn’t get enough in return for McLouth or perhaps that the Pirates alienated much of the clubhouse with the trade.  The first concern is fair, but I think they did get enough.  The second concern I think is also fair but easy to counter:  these players get payed millions of dollars to play a game.  If they can’t deal with a common occurrence such as a trade, they don’t have to pick up their paycheck anymore.  They’ll cool down in a week or so anyways.

Critiquing the trade in terms of the 16 straight losing seasons (that’s right, I think its still only 16 so far Passan) is ridiculous.  Running a franchise based on 16 seasons of the past with the short-sighted goal of one winning season is folley.  Just look at past management’s free agent and trade acquisitions for how this turned out:  Jeromey Burnitz, José Hernández (twice), and the granddaddy of them all, Matt Morris.  Yes, if the Pirates were the Yankees they could simply buy a new team every year and would only have to worry about a couple of their prospects working out, like Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes.  The Pirates, like many other teams, must always develop through the farm system, constantly acquiring prospects at every level of the minors through every possible means (Trades, Latin America, Amateur Draft, Japan…India), developing most of their big leage team internally, and this means you have to trade your veterans before they leave on their own.  The fact of the matter is the Pirates weren’t shopping McLouth, they would have much rather traded Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sánchez, Jack Wilson, or John Grabow, but the Braves were willing to part with enough of their own future the pry McLouth away.

Passan has the balls to end his column with this gem:

They are the next wave of heroes who haven’t done anything particularly heroic. Oh, well. That’s how it goes. And it’s something for which no one in baseball seems too terribly eager to apologize.

Oh that’s right, Passan.  Last Tuesday you were drafted in the amateur draft, made it through four or more levels of minor league play with legitimate results, and then were called up to the big show.  That one-in-a-million accomplishment is not very heroic at all.

I’ll leave you now with this query:  Passan, three weeks ago you devoted an entire column to the fact that Stephen Strasburg won’t play in the majors this year (No shit?  He won’t?).  Is this the hype machine of which you speak?

Nate McLouth Has Been Traded

Nate McLouth, trotting the bases

Nate McLouth, trotting the bases

The timing of this is really quite shocking to me.  It was financially advantageous to keep Nate around for most of the remainder of his reasonably-priced three-year contract (this was not a salary dump–of the $15.75 million Nate was guaranteed, about two was already paid out, and take into account the major league minimum the three players will make for their first three years in the bigs, and you’ve got about 10 million net over three years…not a dump by any measure), and while I would expect a move like this in the second-to-last or final year of his contract, right now was seemingly not the time for such a trade.  However, let us look closer.  The Pirates outfield, antetrade, was Nyjer Morgan, Nate McLouth and Brandon Moss.  Andrew McCutchen was on cusp of making the major league team this spring, but the management had a couple legitimate (if “nit-picky”) aspects of his game that they wanted to see improved, like stolen base efficiency.  Another concern, which was not publicly voiced by management, was Major League service time.  He has performed admirably in AAA so far this season, and looked primed to come up to the big league club, especially since call him up now makes it unlikely that this entire year will count against his service time, thus basically adding another year to how long the Pirates control him (or so I understand it).

So why didn’t they just bring him up?  Well, who do you replace?  Theoretically, none of these players should block a prospect of McCutchen’s caliber.  It was generally accepted in the “Pirates Community” (all seventeen of us) that McLouth would give way in center field to McCutchen; but you don’t just bench him, he hits home runs and has speed.  You would move him to a corner:  likely right field because left field in PNC park is much larger than right and has an odd (and deep) notch in left-center.  Nyjer Morgan can absolutely fly in left field, and has much improved his defensive presence this year, so much so that he is currently the best defender, regardless of position, in the major leagues according to “ultimate zone rating”, as well as other metrics.  Morgan will save at least 35 runs (over average replacement) this year with his glove, so if you put McLouth who (despite a Gold Glove award) does not fare well according to most defensive metrics, in left, you lose a lot of runs defensively.  However, if you put him in right, you put Moss on the bench, which is tantamount to giving up on him:  25-year-olds do not generally develop well as fourth outfielders.  The power isn’t there and he hasn’t played well this year, but you still can’t sit him down, not until he proves vehemently that he can’t do it.  So, pragmatically, he is a little blocked by this outfield.  What are we to do?

Along comes Atlanta:  “We have an absolutely god-awful outfield with the likes of Gregor Blanco, Garret Anderson, Matt Diaz and Jeff ‘almost one month out of every year I can legitimately hit’ Francouer.  We want Nate McLouth.”  Interesting.  To me, it is fairly clear that this deal was Atlanta driven:  they came to the Pirates, desperate to get McLouth to shore up their outfield and energize a lineup anchored by Chipper “Methusala” Jones.  According to Huntington (Pirates GM for those not in the know), Atlanta was up front with the idea that Tommy Hanson and whoever their second best prospect is would not be involved in any deal.  The demands the Pirates made were initially turned down.  They eventually caved to the original demands.  The package:  Charlie Morton, who will replace Snell in the rotation after he gets bombed for 5 earned runs in 5 innings with 6 walks versus a lowly Houston team on Sunday, Jeff Locke, a high upside young pitcher (a lefty, tantalizing) who throws heat and an excellent curveball, as well as a work-in-progress changeup, and Gorkys Hernández who was in Baseball America’s top 100 prospects last year and ranked fourth among Atlanta prospects this year.

Hernández is perhaps the most interesting piece of the trade.  Gorkys’ speed is indisputable, and his patience and bat at the plate are quite good for a 21-year-old.  I’ve heard comparisons to Nyjer Morgan and Juan Pierre–that is, that he completely lacks power.  However, Pierre had one home run in his approximately 1500-plate-appearance minor league career, while Gorkys has 14 in an almost identical number and Nyjer had only seven in over 2200 plate appearances.  Clearly, he already has more power than these guys, and he has bat speed.  They say his power could develop:  sometimes “they” are right about this, sometimes wrong.  Take a look at McLouth’s own minor league numbers:  yearly homerun average is not dissimilar.  What’s that you say, he hit twelve in one year at Hickory?  Turns out, Hickory is the same place where Nyjer hit four of his seven in one year.

What this trade comes down to is the Pirates new working model.  Gone are the days of trading Aramis Ramírez and Kenny Lofton (yes he was old but still putting up a useful OPS) for José Hernández (a 33-year-old who literally sat out the last week of 2002 so he would remain one shy of Bobby Bonds strikeout record) and Matt Bruback–even at the time I don’t believe this guy was considered a prospect.  Pretend that he was though.  One lousy prospect (at a time when teams were far more willing to part with top prospects than nowadays) and a well below-average aging veteran for an above-average aging veteran and possibly the best young third baseman in the game.  Now that is a salary dump.  Here to stay are the days of taking comparatively small financial risks on lots of talented youngsters, developing them in your minors, and controlling the good ones for five or six years of their young career, signing some to fairly cheap extensions while young, before trading them away for more prospects.  Or worst case scenario letting them go in free agency for draft picks.  It’s all about calculated risk, delaying most financial risk until players are already showing promise at the major league level.  Compare this with signing extremely expensive “proven” veterans who still fail at an alarming rate.  How’s Putz, New York?  Boston–you liking Brad Penny?  Not only can the Pirates literally not afford to do that while still fielding an entire baseball team, it is not a model that has worked well for any team like the Pirates.

One more thing.  We must force ourselves to judge this trade as we see it now, not as things pan out.  Sure, all the prospects could fail, but it is the potential and consensus upside seen by scouts that makes them valuable now.  Look at it from the other side:  Nate McLouth has just come off a very good year, and that could turn out to be a career year, but even if it does, I think both sides suceeded in this trade.  Atlanta got a guy who is playing with pop and speed, and doesn’t miss any plays he gets to (even if he doesn’t get to enough), who is fairly cheap for this year and then two more, while the Pirates got some players who might be on the next good Pirates team, because face it:  even if they don’t have a losing record this year, the next good Pirates team probably won’t hit the field until at least 2011.

Yanks suck, Mets Suck, Knicks suck

And boy does it make me happy.

Just got finished watching the Sox rip the Yanks AGAIN, boosting the season series record to 5-0.

 

Questions:

Do the Yanks have a bullpen?  Maybe a promo night where a random fan pitches the 6th or 7th.

Will they need one once A-face comes back?

AL Divisional Breakdown

Now that the AL is beginning play, here are my predictions. I will add commentary later, but for now, here’s the breakdown:

AL West

  1. Oakland Athletics
  2. Los Angeles Angels
  3. Texas Rangers
  4. Seattle Mariners

The Mariners.  I mean, what can I say?  They’ve started out the season with Russell Branyan hitting cleanup.  The Rangers have a potent lineup of young hitters, but I don’t think this is the year for them.  Salty still needs some “seasoning” and Kinsler will have to show he can stay healthy all year, and I don’t think their pitching is quite ready for a playoff run.  The Rangers’ bullpen is mostly full of scrubs with 6+ ERAs last season, and their rotation contains Kris Benson, who never was good and is now on his first season back from surgery.  I believe the Angels will slip from last year.  They swapped Tiexeira and Rodriquez for Abreu and Fuentes, neither of which were ridiculous downgrades, but they didn’t exactly move forward.  Their lineup now centers entirely on Vlad Guerrero, who is good but appears to be on the decline the last few years.  Plus, they start the season lacking a couple of their key starters.  Oakland I think kind of wins this division by default.  Billy Beane is a good GM and I think a standard Beane team beats the other teams in this division.  He picked up probably the best hitter from the National League to go with his usual mix of cheap youngsters and aging or mishapen players that no one else wants (see Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Giambi).

AL Central

  1. Minnesota Twins
  2. Cleveland Indians
  3. Detroit Tigers
  4. Kansas City Royals
  5. Chicago White Sox

The Chicago White Sox I believe will fail miserably.  I’m sorry, there is just not too much fear struck in my heart by the likes of Jermaine Dye, Carlos Quentin and Paul Konerko.  I could be wrong, since this team somehow always seems to pull three to four extremely good pitchers out of a heap of pitching shit.  The Royals have a decent mound of good young talent, including a pretty good rotation, but they also have the likes of Jose Guillen and Tony Peña Jr.  I really don’t have too much to say about the Tigers here.  Galaraga looks good, their lineup is OK, but they are going to be feeling that HUGE payroll for years now.  Where’s Sheffield by the way?  I don’t think the Indians are the second best team in this division, but they’ve always seemed to come out pretty good the last few years.  Cliff Lee is not going to pitch anywhere NEAR 22-3 2.54 ERA.  Try more like 4.75.  Maybe.  Finally, I think the Twins will come away with this division, but I don’t think they will next year.  Their new batch of youngsters (Gomez, Span, Casilla) don’t seem to be up to the par of what the Twins usually farm up, but with a pretty well rounded team I think they take the division.

AL East

  1. Boston Red Sox
  2. Tampa Bay Rays
  3. New York Yankees
  4. Toronto Blue Jays
  5. Baltimore Orioles

The Baltimore Orioles.  These guys might race the Mariners for the worst record in baseball.  Their rotation has been plundered of everyone but Jeremy Guthrie, who would actually probably have a good record and such on a decent team.  Barring Markakis, Roberts to an extent, and Wigginton, who actually puts up some pretty decent stats for any team not named the Pirates, their lineup is stone cold barren.  Opposing pitchers could walk these three every time they come up and just take their chances with the rest of the lineup.  And they would probably win.  It’s a shame the Blue Jays are in the AL East.  Any other division they could probably compete very well, they have a pretty athletic and solid lineup, but with the loss of Burnett and Marcum on the DL recovering from “Tommy John” surgery, I don’t think they’ll challenge the Yankees for third this year.  The Yankees have the most godawfully high payroll and a new godawful stadium to play their mercenary ball in, but baseball is about more than money.  At least I hope it still is.  The Rays have a sweet young team and should challenge for the division every year of the next four or five.  The Gabe platoon is the only real hole they have in the lineup, and their pitching is scintillating, with a couple different pitchers who could make a run at the Cy Young.  However, I think the Sox will blast their way to the division, with the Rays picking up the wild card.  Finally, the Red Sox, with probably the best lineup in baseball, although the Dodgers are pretty close.  They’ve started the season with Jason Bay hitting sixth.  I know that no one in the civilized baseball world realized he existed untill last year, but the guy has slugged .520 over his career and he’s batting sixth?  THAT is a deep lineup.

Now, for some awards:

MVP

Probably deserves it: Josh Hamilton
Dark horse: Jason Bay
Will end up being: Mark Teixeira

Cy Young

Probably deserves it: Roy Halladay
Dark horse: Scott Kazmir
Will end up being:CC Sabbathia

Batting Champion

Probably deserves it: Kevin Youkilis
Dark horse:
Will end up being: Someone out of left field like it always is

Most Improved/Bounceback Season

Probably deserves it: David Ortiz
Dark horse: Hideki Matsui
Will end up being: Derek Jeter, regarldess of how poorly he plays

Rookie of the Year

Probably deserves it: Matt Wieters
Dark horse: Jeff Niemann
Will end up being: Matt Wieters

NL Divisional Breakdown

Before the Braves and Dodgers kick this whole thing off tonight, I decided to roll out some of our famous predictions.  First, I’ll start with division-by-division standings, in bottom-up fashion:

NL West

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers
  2. Arizona Diamondbacks
  3. San Francisco Giants
  4. Colorado Rockies
  5. San Diego Padres

The Padres are bad, and they just aren’t getting better any time soon. The sad thing is that they are sucking away the primes of guys like Gonzalez, Peavy, and Young’s careers. The Rockies: meh. They lost one of the best hitters in baseball and haven’t really added anything. But at least they have some real young talent like Chris Ianetta, Troy Tulowitzki, Seth Smith and, farther off, Dexter Fowler. Everyone seems to be raving about the Giants’ upwelling of young talent, but really it’s the same team they had last year. The new additions: Rentaría and a 45-year-old Johnson. Their “pitching depth” is young Cy-Younger Lincecum, followed by Matt Cain who had pretty brilliant seasons last two years but only managed a 8-14 and 7-16 records, and then Zito? Does anyone really still think this guy is good? Jonathan Sánchez? Noah Lowry is alright, but only alright and right now he is only injured. Anyways, I’m not seeing it. The Diamondbacks are going to be good but not great. Same under-achieving lineup, but perhaps Upton will be better with another year under his belt, and great pitching. Finally, the Dodgers, they of the Manny Ramirez, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier outfield (probably the best in baseball). Offensively this team is bristling: I haven’t even mentioned James Loney or Russell Martin yet. If Kuroda, Billingesly and Kershaw can keep doing what they’ve done, and Randy Wolf can use Dodger Stadium’s massive dimensions to keep some of his impressive HR/IP numbers down, this team has a chance to go deep in the playoffs.

NL Central

  1. Chicago Cubs
  2. Cincinnati Reds
  3. Milwaukee Brewers
  4. St. Louis Cardinals
  5. Pittsburgh Pirates
  6. Houston Astros

The Astros were terrible last year.  This year they are worse.  Just attrocious.  They signed Iván Rodríguez for Hell’s sake.  The Pirates are almost ready to blossom into a beatiful flower.  But probably not this year.  Their Minor Leagues hold three of the most impressive prospects in baseball, and they all showed well this spring.  Pedro Alvarez crushed a homie that, due to the dimensions of the park and the fact that it cleared a pond behind the park, was estimated at about 550-ft.  People are beginning to forget about the holdout.  With the weakness of the division, they could bump up a spot if they had an unbelievable year.  The Cardinals are not that good either.  Their staff is pretty terrible behind Wainwright:  will Lohse have as good a season as the obvious devation from norm that was last year?  Will Wellemeyer continue his conversion from crappy reliever to fairly dependable starter?  Will Joel Pineiro not suck?  Will Carpenter come back from massive injury and pitch well?  All these are not questions you want to be asking of 4/5ths of your rotation.  Ludwick will probably still crush homies (can you believe this guy is older than Pujols?–who, by the way, will have his usual ball-crushing season).  Ankiel will probably continue to hit as well, but the rest of the lineup really is just terrible. The Brewers are said by many pundits to compete for a playoff spot.  I don’t believe so.  They lost CC Sabatthia and Ben Sheets is MIA.  That leaves Jeff Suppan as their “ace”.  Suppan?  Yeah, he had a couple…literally two…intriguing years for the Pirates and Cardinals, but the dude has a 4.63 ERA and a 1.67 K/BB ratio (both career);  that’s not ace material.  Their pitching is key.  Yes, their lineup, even with the likes of sub-.250 hitting Weeks, Cameron, and Hall, will score some runs, but does the pitching keep them in it?  I really think 3-5 could all move around here, depending on such things as injuries and standout campaigns by key contributors, because their talent is all fairly similar IMO.  The Cincinnati Reds have a nice (for the most part) looking lineup with plenty of youngsters, and absolutely dynamite pitching.  WIth Harang likely to return more to his career norm, the likes of Volquez, Cueto, and even Arroyo could be pretty impressive.  Finally, the Cubs, who take the first spot merely by virtue of having the best team last year in a division that did little to change.  I don’t think they will do as good as last year, but so long as Alfonso Soriano avoids any prancing injuries while mincing about like a goddamn fairy they should be OK.

NL East

  1. NY Mets
  2. Philadelphia Phillies
  3. Florida Marlins
  4. Atlanta Braves
  5. Washington Nationals

Mets and Phillies is such a toss up here.  I gave it to the Mets because I think they have maybe one more really good batter in the lineup and similar situations with the pitching.  I figure for the intangibles, maybe Philly lets up a little this year after winning the championship.  Whoever doesn’t win this will likely get the wild card, as all the other non-first-place NL teams are not as good as these guys.  I picked the Marlins next, even though the Braves dominance of yore probably forced many to put them high in the standings, but it is a new era in NL east play.  The Marlins have a great looking young rotation, and while Hanley, Uggla and Cantu may not be the flashiest middle of the lineup, this team is scrappy, and scrappy teams win with good pitching.  So long as the youngsters hold up, I’ll take them for 3rd.  The Braves really haven’t shown me any reason to get excited about their team.  Jair Jurrjens looks good, but all in all their team seems like players that are pretty good, but just maybe shouldn’t be starting.  At least they shouldn’t all be starting for the same team.  Chipper Jones’ O/U for ABs this year is probably about 400, and I’ll take the under.  Finally the Nationals.  Their lineup is entirely bizarre:  Cristian Guzman and Ronnie Belliard up the middle, Adam “I single-handedly (pun intended) lost the WBC for the US” Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman manning the corners, and Willingham, Milledge and Dukes in the outfield.  Jesus Flores is a great youngster behind the plate, watch for him to have a breakout season, unless they decide to hide him behind an aging and terrible Wil Nieves.  If ever a team had no leader, I would have to say this must be the team.  Their pitching staff has a couple of good guys (and no, Daniel Cabrera is not one), but absolutely no depth.  It’s a shame that, like the Pirates, the Nationals built a beautiful new stadium in which they will now play some number of losing seasons in.

Now, for some awards:

MVP

Probably deserves it: Manny Ramirez
Dark horse: David Wright
Will end up being: Another damn Philly

Cy Young

Probably deserves it: Johan Santana
Dark horse: Brandon Webb
Will end up being: Tim Lincecum

Batting Champion

Probably deserves it: Albert Pujols
Dark horse: Lance Berkman
Will end up being: Someone out of left field like it always is

Most Improved/Bounceback Season

Probably deserves it: Aaron Harang
Dark horse: Kosuke Fukudome
Even darker horse: Andy LaRoche
Will end up being: Some Giant because their team did terribly and the pundits thought they would be good

Rookie of the Year

Probably deserves it: Andrew McCutchen
Dark horse: Seth Smith
Will end up being: Some Giant (see above)

Netherlands Shocks the Dominican Republic

Yurendell de Caster just knocked home the game-winning run in the Netherlands’ improbable come-from-behind win, once again against the Dominican Republic.  After beating one of the WBC favorites in their first game, the Dutch team, whose biggest name is probably Randal Simon, found itself down 1-0 in the bottom of the 11th inning facing Carlos Marmol.  De Jong promptly led off with a double, and was driven home by Kingsale (who earlier that inning missed Bautistas drive to the outfield, facilitating the Dominican’s one run).  Marmol promptly threw the ball away and allowed Kingsale to advance to third.  Yurendell de Caster, after working a full count, rocketed the ball off Willy Aybar, who ironically replaced David Ortiz as a late defensive replacement.

Netherlands advances.

Team Netherlands Brings Back Memories

Red Tulips

Lush Tulips of the Netherlands

The Pirates, like much of MLB today, played an exhibition game against one of the World Baseball Classic teams, in this case Team Netherlands.  The story lines behind this game are as numerous as they are hilarious.  The Pitching coach for the Netherlands is Bert Blyleven, who pitched for the Pirates in the late 70’s, but perhaps has made his biggest impression by cursing like a Russain sailor on live TV.  Somehow, he still broadcasts for the Twins.  Spend a few minutes looking at some Blyleven clips, you won’t be disappointed.

Other familiar faces include Randall Simon, who had a stint as the Pirates’ lazy-first-baseman-du-jour for parts of the 2003 and 2004 (other entries include Daryle Ward and Ty Wigginton) and made international acclaim not through his mediocre play, but through what has become known as the “Randall Simon Sausage Incident”.  The Milwaukee Brewers hold a Sausage Race, featuring an interracial group of hot dogs (honestly, take a minute to check out their names on the Wikipedia page) loping around the diamond during the seventh inning stretch.  In July of 2003, Randall Simon nailed “Guido” (how the Brewers get away with that I don’t know), the Italian sausage, with a baseball bat, who fell and tripped the hot dog as well.  The Polish sausage helped Guido get up again while the Bratwurst craftily raced on for first place.  Simon was later arrested, paid a fine for disorderly conduct, served a suspension, apologized, and above all else was asked to sign the bat he used and give it to the victim.  Truly, I wish I could make this stuff up; I’d be rich.

Finally, let us not forget Yurendell de Caster, a former Pirates farmhand, who started at third for the Netherlands.  Actually that’s it, I just wanted to make a quick mention even though he doesn’t have a controversial history.  De Caster does have a minor league deal with the Tiger’s now,

Even though the Pirates paraded out a pretty sorry lineup of minor leaguers, some of which I haven’t even heard of before, they still managed to edge out the Netherlands 5-4, taking starter Sydney Ponson for four of their runs in his three innings of work, and then holding on to the lead with a nice showing by the Pirates bullpen, including Matt Capps with 1 IP, 1 H, 2 K and Rule 5 pickup Donald Veal throwing a three strikeout sixth inning.  First round draft pick Pedro Alvarez went 0-4 with 2 Ks.

Image provided courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and it’s author.  Please click the image for licensing details.

Preseason is Upon Us

Today, MLB preseason kicked off, with everyone except the Padres and the Mariners playing their first games.  Hope abounds throughout the league, with every team believing that the carte blanche of the new season brings them playoff hopes.

The Pirates trotted out their predicted starting lineup minus Andy LaRoche, who had some back spasms, against the defending champion Phillies.  The starters came out plenty early, and every Pirate pitcher tossed one inning.  The second base position was strong:  Freddy Sanchez went 2-2 while prospect Shelby Ford blasted a 3-run home run which helped solidify the win.

The Phillies couldn’t muster much against the Pirates pitching, although closer Matt Capps struggled uncharacteristically through the second inning by walking the bases loaded with 12 straight balls.  Donald Veal, a Rule-5 pickup this offseason, picked up the win as the Pirates came through with the 8-2 win.  They face off with the Red Sox tomorrow.