Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008: A Year in Review

As the year of 2008 draws quickly to a close, the opportunity presents itself to look back on the past events that made the year what it was. The past couple of months, particularly this last month of December, provide a glimpse into the year that 2009 is likely to become. Before I get ahead of myself with the 2009 Preview of Major League Baseball, I want to turn back the clock and do a Year in Review segment to highlight what made MLB in 2008.

The 2008 season started with a number of new faces in new places. It wasn't a notable year for free agent movement, for sure ... but it was notable for teams trading pieces to other places during the season as well as the emergence of new blood (rookies and other newcomers) . My own hometown squad, the Cincinnati Reds, certainly got most of my attention, and I wouldn't reference myself as a Reds Fan if they weren't the typical theme of my writing. They made a notable offseason move prior to the 2008 campaign that set the tone for the season in more ways than one.

Back in the early part of the year (actually at the tail end of 2007), the Reds and Texas Rangers orchestrated a swap that seemed pretty innocuous on the surface: Josh Hamilton, OF, to the Rangers for Edinson Volquez, SP, and Danny Herrera, RP, to the Reds. Hamilton was coming off of a 2007 campaign that showed why he was a former #1 draft pick (for the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays in 1999) but was also "under the radar" to a degree because his season was cut short by injuries on the field. His stat line of 90 games played with 19 HR, 47 RBI, .292 BA, and a great .922 OPS showed that he had tremendous upside potential if he could play anywhere near a full 162-game schedule. Volquez, conversely, was an unheralded prospect who lost his control so badly during the 2007 season for Texas that the team demoted him all the way to their Single A affiliate to "shock" him back into form. Nobody denied Volquez's "electricity" with a blazing fastball and high strikeout ability, but his propensity to lose focus was his biggest detraction. Herrera, who, like Volquez, was also unheralded, made his big league debut with the Reds during the 2008 season, but, since little was known to the general public on him prior to the season, he was a steady relief pitcher with above-average strikeout ability (playing at no higher than the AA level through the 2007 season). Outsiders reviewing this trade would have probably called it pretty equal, with the possible edge given to the Rangers because of Hamilton's proven ML ability versus potential for Volquez and Herrera.

As the 2008 season unfolded, it was very clear early on that Josh Hamilton did exactly what everyone expected him to do ... except for the mainstream media who really ignored his 2007 season and didn't treat him as the "special" commodity that he really is. The more surprising thing, however, might have been that Edinson Volquez jumped from near obscurity into the national spotlight, providing the Reds with their most electrifying young pitcher since the days of Mario Soto in the 1980's. Actually, the Volquez-Soto comparisons were quite evident for their style of pitching, ethnic origin (both are from the Dominican Republic), and ability to strike out opposing batters. For a very quick history lesson on Soto, check out this link (if you would like to know more about one of the potential greats whose career ended too soon). Since I don't intend for this entire entry to be a Hamilton-Volquez "love session", let's cut to the final numbers on these two gems (stats courtesy of
Josh Hamilton:
2008 27 TEX AL 156 624 98 190 35 5 32 130 9 1 64 126 .304 .371 .530 136 331 0 9 9 7 8
Edinson Volquez:
2008 24 CIN NL 17 6 33 32 0 0 1 0 196.0 167 82 70 14 93 206 14 10 838 5 1 3.21 4.51 140 1.327

The jury is still out for Herrera, but, at this point, if both Hamilton and Volquez continue to produce like 2008 in future seasons, historians will probably call this trade one of the best win-win trades of all time. Amazing what a change of scenery can do for a player in a "funk" like Volquez was.

Moving on to some of the rookie class, the Reds also produced two of the best in the business with 1B Joey Votto and OF Jay Bruce. Votto seriously contended for NL ROY, losing the battle to higher-profile C Geovany Soto of the Chicago Cubs, but, in terms of overall value provided to a team, Votto's presence in the Cincinnati lineup will likely produce greater long-term dividends than Soto will for the Cubs (given the typical high turnover rate for catchers). I say this in no way to diminish Soto's ability, but I am a big believer that Joey Votto is flying way under the radar for most of the national pundits to take him seriously enough (except for Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News). Jay Bruce might as well have been labeled the "best thing since sliced bread" since we've been hearing about him for multiple years now. This year marked his much-anticipated arrival into the Big Show, and he did not disappoint right out of the gate. After putting up some unworldly numbers with HR and BA in his first few weeks back in June, he cooled considerably but still put up a very respectable season in his less-than-fulltime status. Thankfully, the Reds realized that Corey Patterson wasn't the future by June ... and clearing the way for Bruce with some additional trades (notably of the two biggest names on the team in Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn) made the most sense financially and directionally as Chris Dickerson, a later-season call-up (and far more unheralded), filled an OF spot extremely well along with genius pick-up Jerry Hairston Jr. (who achieved far beyond expectations).

Rookies beyond the Reds contributed in immeasurable ways, notably the aforementioned Geovanny Soto (as NL ROY) for the Chicago Cubs as well as AL Rookie of the Year (the near-runaway choice) Evan Longoria (not to be confused for the gorgeous EVA Longoria (now Parker), who is in no way related to the third baseman. The Tampa Bay Rays, sans their "Devil" for the first time in franchise history during the 2008 season, were baseball's ultimate "feel-good" story. Longoria certainly contributed to the offensive success of that team, not to mention a solid pitching rotation (anchored by young studs like Scott Kazmir, James Shields, and Matt Garza) that carried the dramatic turnaround into a World Series berth. While the story didn't end in the ultimate "happy ending" that many (including yours truly) would have liked to see, it wasn't hard to root for such a team of underdogs, particularly in their excellent ALCS defeat of the heavily-favored (by national media, primarily) Boston Red Sox (defending World Series Champions from 2007).

Ultimately, the season was defined by teams with somewhat lower expectations to really win it all, most notably the team that actually did: the Philadelphia Phillies. Philly is, and almost always has been, most known in the professional baseball world as the losingest team of all-time. No team (in their long and storied franchise history) has lost more ballgames than the Phillies team in Philadelphia. While those Cubs in Chicago may have become known as "lovable losers" for their long suffering as non-contenders and lack of World Series appearances, the Phillies never fared much better. In fact, their season records and lack of playoff appearances would indicate they fared far worse. Up until the 2008 season, the franchise notched only ONE (1) World Series title, the 1980 club featuring Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton along with veteran (should be HOF'er) Peter Edward Rose (why the Reds let him go I'll never know) and a cast of characters that surprised baseball with an unexpected championship. The Phillies would appear again in the World Series in 1993, a great series against the defending champion (1992) Toronto Blue Jays, but, as usual, they fell a little bit short as those Jay notched back-to-back titles. As luck and timing would have it, the 2008 version of the Phillies was perhaps an unremarkable one with a mix of components as good as any other team in baseball.

What defined the 2008 Philly squad as MLB's best? The answer is not as simple as one player, but there were a handful that certainly made it possible. Start on the offensive side, and you need look no further than superstar 1B Ryan Howard, baseball's most prolific homerun hitter. Howard may not have a glitzy batting average, but he gets on base, drives in runs, and hits the longball with such relative ease (as a big man should) that he is as good as it gets for a "matinee idol" in MLB. The even better stories, in this author's opinion, come from the pitching staff, where starter Cole Hamels and closer Brad Lidge made for a lights-out combination throughout the playoffs. Hamels has been labeled a "star in waiting" for his uncanny ability to strike out batters despite not having particularly overpowering stuff. Lidge, on the other hand, was the fallen star, a multi-time All Star for the Houston Astros who was cast aside after his own playoff meltdown and eventual demotion from the closer role only a few short seasons ago. Lidge's dominance, and absolute perfection in converting EVERY save opportunity, made him the undeniable Comeback Player of the Year in all of baseball. Most had written him off, but the change in venue that Philadelphia provided (surprisingly, given its typical fan dissatisfaction with poor-performing teams / players) was just what the doctor ordered. Having the reigning NL MVP as well (Jimmy Rollins, who actually had a lackluster season and a fallout with the local media and fanbase) along with outfield slugger Pat Burrell (who appears to be headed out of town in 2009 as a free agent) certainly helped make Philly the champion in 2008.

I would be remiss not the highlight the big names that changed teams via trades during the 2008 season (particularly since I dangled that carrot for all of you when this article began). Most notably, the aforementioned Cincinnati pair of Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn were let go by the Reds for seemingly peanuts (mostly in the effort to dump salary heading into 2009) with a small set of prospects (including a possible change-of-venue candidate in Micah Owings, pitcher extraordinaire more known for his excellent hitting ability) to help offset the talent / starpower void that both Griffey and Dunn possessed. Fans certainly had mixed feelings watching hometown kid Junior head to the Chicago White Sox for realistically next to nothing in return, but, unfortunately, watching Griffey flounder offensively and defensively in Chicago was a clear reminder that "The Kid" has seen better days. Retirement seems most certainly imminent for one of baseball's all-time greats, when his once-great franchise (Seattle Mariners) hasn't even offered to bring him back in free agency so far. Dunn provides the most polarizing character the city of Cincinnati has seen in some time. He was far from beloved, like the "Mayor" Sean Casey was (and to some extent still is). Dunn was appreciated, much like Philly's Ryan Howard, for driving the ball to all fields (usually right field) with prolific ability. His propensity to strike out combined with atrocious defense, however, labeled Dunn as "good but not great", lazy, and a wannabe talent whose potential would probably never be reached. Without question, Dunn's ability to hit homers is second to almost nobody (except Howard and probably Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez), but very few people outside of Cincinnati respect, or even seem to want, Adam Dunn. The Arizona Diamondbacks got a good rental player down the stretch for their own playoff bid, but even they ultimately fell short to the division champion Los Angeles Dodgers, who made the much, much bigger splash in landing Manny Ramirez in what may have been baseball's biggest pre-non-waiver-trading deadline in July. Man-Ram was everything LA could have wanted (minus the "Manny being Manny" nonsense we've all come to know), but the pieces the other two teams involved (notably those Boston Red Sox and the also-ran Pittsburgh Pirates) received might have been more valuable long-term than what the Dodgers got for only the last couple of months of the season. The Red Sox picked up arguably one of baseball's best "undiscovered" talents in OF Jason Bay. Bay's regular All Star Game appearances from typically poor-performing Pirate teams should have been a clue that he was special, and the Red Sox (with savvy GM Theo Epstein) knew exactly what they lost (Manny) for what they gained (Bay). The Pirates' moves were clearly what the 'Burgh has come to expect in recent years, but, as a very similar small-market city, I feel their fans' pain. I would love to see MLB return to the era when both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh were competitive teams, an era last seen prominently during the 1970s for the Big Red Machine and the 'We Are Family' clubs that produced some of the best talent baseball has ever seen. However, that is a different subject for a different day. The two most prominent names that floated on the "trade bait" list were clearly reigning AL Cy Young C.C. Sabathia and rising star Mark Teixeira. CC and Tex were valuable cogs for the teams that received them (the Brewers and Angels, respectively) in making runs into the playoffs, but even the Sabathia workhorse wasn't enough for the Brew Crew to overcome the Phillies in the NLDS and Teixeira's role on the Angels mattered little when the Red Sox shot right past them in the ALDS.

What does 2009 hold for baseball's best and brightest? We are all pretty certain of only ONE THING: the New York Yankees will have the largest payroll by a country mile over ANY other team, period. When you already have two of the biggest salaries for superstars A Rod and Derek Jeter on the payroll, you think that maybe, just maybe, you might reign in spending just a little. However, the month of December 2008 showed that not only was the Steinbrenner family willing to spend money, they were willing to spend MORE money. Signing free agents Sabathia and Teixeira was a clear and indelible sign that the Yankees WANT to win again in 2009. However, as the Rays and Phillies, among others, showed in 2008, money alone doesn't BUY or WIN a championship. The Rays had the lowest payroll and per player spending of any team in all of baseball ... one of the brightest indicators that "moneyball" (made famous by GM Billy Beane in Oakland) does actually work.

I like to close a year with a positive outlook that my team can actually win it all next year, something I haven't been able to say since the 1990 season. Winning the NL Central is probably going to be an uphill battle, however, with the Chicago Cubs probably still the biggest obstacle to that goal. Making the NL Wild Card as a "backup" option isn't completely far-fetched, though, given that Milwaukee won't be the same without Sabathia and the other league teams (Houston, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis) don't look nearly as dangerous as they have in some prior seasons. A lot can change before Opening Day 2009 ... and it probably will. I look forward to writing that 2009 Preview by the time Spring Training rolls around and doing (hopefully) a team-by-team review of who's where to start the season. I might even roll out my "Fearless Predictions" on divisional champs as well, but, for now, Happy New Year one and all. Baseball season cannot come soon enough.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving "Turkeys" ... Fit to Be Stuffed

We as Americans have so much for which to be thankful. We live in a society that encourages and provides rights to many freedoms that we take for granted but which are not available or even punishable in so many other countries. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press are but a few of those true freedoms which without we wouldn't function nearly as well as a nation. With the freedom of speech, we get to argue, complain, and debate about topics as trivial, in the grand scheme of things, as sports. Isn't this a great country?!?

In the spirit of my own personal freedom to debate the merit of achievements attained by certain athletic teams or particular athletes in a variety of sports, I decided that this Thanksgiving I would single out the "accomplishments" of those turkeys whose actions in 2008 made us wonder why they perform in the respective sports that they do. Here is my list, in no particular order across the sporting spectrum, of those noteworthy individuals / teams:

1) Michael Vick - It has been over a year since the allegations, indictment, and eventual conviction of the once-star quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons has come to pass. Why do we still care about a true turkey of the gridiron? We still see his name and face in the news even now because he was one of the "faces" of the NFL. What an embarrassment ... his behavior even helped lead to a league crackdown on miscreants, but have things really changed that much in the National Felony League? Vick is still the poster child for what is wrong when an athlete believes he is above the law, even though his imprisonment now proves otherwise. Now, the pundits await his release from prison … and who will sign him when next season rolls around?!? Who cares … once a turkey, always a turkey. He’s not contrite, and he wasn’t that good as a QB anyway … he was a glorified running back in a QB role. The lack of passing stats speak for themselves. NEXT!

2) Barry Bonds … Roger Clemens … etc. - A group designation befitting the caliber of once-great players who most likely will be remembered, unfortunately, for only one thing now: steroids. Bonds and Clemens, in particular, were arguably the two most dominant individuals in their respective roles of position player and starting pitcher. The MVP awards for Bonds and the Cy Young awards for Clemens lose a lot of their luster in the glaring spotlight of the drug scandal that Major League Baseball allowed to happen. Actually, MLB itself is probably the biggest turkey in this whole mess for not cracking down on the behavior sooner. Oh, wait … that’s right … top brass (like commissioner Bud Selig) liked it when two abusers (Mark McGwire and (not as clearly) Sammy Sosa) pushed their prolific home run battle into the national spotlight for baseball. Times were good back then … not so much now. Look at homer totals in recent years and tell me that every power statistic from around the mid-1990’s until early this decade (probably until 2002 or 2003) aren’t questionable. Yes, there are still individuals with 50+ HR seasons … but at least they’re the exception now and not the rule (Alex Rodriguez notwithstanding).

3) A-Rod - Speaking of the “illustrious” third baseman of the New York Yankees, what a crappy year it was to be him. His offensive production was still solid but notably off from what we have come to expect from the slugger in recent years. His 104 runs scored were the lowest from him in over a decade, his 35 homers were respectable but well off the 54 from 2007, and the 103 RBI were also the lowest in over a decade. Of course, contributing to those declines was certainly playing in only 138 games of the 162-game schedule, roughly 20 fewer than his average of recent years. However, A-Rod is not making my list for what he has done on the field … his off-the-field behavior is the issue. If the details of his romantic relationship with Madonna (yes, that one) weren’t enough, he divorced his wife (or she dumped him, it doesn’t really matter) and plans to spend his Thanksgiving with the aging Material Girl somewhere away from his actual family and friends. Thanks, deadbeat Dad, say the Rodriguez children … but they’re probably getting some great Christmas gifts to make up for papa’s absence this year.

[to be continued, if time permits]

Ramblings of a Reds Fan: MLB Journal (Cincinnati)
Rentz Racing Report: NASCAR News and Views
Ramblings of Rentz: Lot D Edition (Cincinnati's 1530 Homer - The Sports Animal)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Is This Series Over Already? Signs Point to YES

I have never been one to write off a team before a series is over, but the Philadelphia Phillies look to have taken control of their series with the Tampa Bay Rays. After "ageless wonder" Jamie Moyer pulled out the victory (or at least pitched well enough to get his team a win) in Game 3, the series took a turn for Philly. Head-to-head matchups would have favored any game for Philly with Cole Hamels (who won Game 1 convincingly), most for Tampa with James Shields (who held the Phillies scoreless in Game 2), and, at least going in, most for Tampa with Matt Garza. Garza did NOT fare well in Game 3, though. I would have called it a "toss-up" with Joe Blanton in Game 4, but Andy Sonnanstine is a roller-coaster variety starter who hit a low with his Sunday night start.

With Hamels again starting in tonight's critical Game 5, the Rays had better hope to get to him early. Scott Kazmir, the Game 1 opponent and tonight's rematch starter, shows little hope of being the tide-turner in this one. His Game 1 effort was respectable (three runs in six innings), but Hamels was better (two runs in seven innings). If Hamels turns over a lead to the Philly bullpen, I think this series is over tonight in five games. Kazmir needs an effort like the one he turned in in Game 5 of the ALCS, when he held the Sox scoreless over six innings ... but then better hope his bullpen returns to the form it had in the games OTHER than that one (when the Sox came back to win) or the one last night (where the Phillies torched Rays' pitching for 10 runs, eight earned, with five allowed in three innings by the 'pen).

If any team could pull off a miracle, it just might be these Rays. They weren't expected to win the AL East ... but they did. They weren't expected to beat the Red Sox in the ALCS (especially after the Sox forced a Game 7) ... but they did. Now, they aren't expected to win three straight, including tonight's game at Philadelphia followed by two at home, to pull out the series ... but can they?

Rays, your only chance to claim victory in this series starts tonight - simply put, you must beat Cole Hamels. IF you defeat Hamels in Game 5, you won't have to face him again in the series. Then, you will see Brett Myers again in a Game 6 (facing your new postseason "ace" in Shields) followed, likely, by Moyer (who, seriously, are you going to not figure out his soft-tossing style by a Game 7?) in a finale. The Phillies could throw you a curve by bringing Blanton back on short rest instead of Moyer in Game 7 (assuming you make it that far), but I like your chances with (presuming a return to form from) Garza. Those last two games are simply moot if Kazmir doesn't come out blazing tonight. For good measure, there is one *minor* element that you, the Rays, need to have a chance as well - OFFENSE.

What has happened to B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, and Carlos Pena, to name but a few key elements of the Rays' offense? If the middle of the lineup cannot produce, I cannot see Akinori Iwamura, Carl Crawford, Dioner Navarro, et. al. making up the difference. It's not to say that they can't, but those top three guys have got to produce and produce NOW.

Philadelphia - your only key to winning is to keep doing exactly what you're doing. Keep dominating with the starting pitching, stifling bullpen, and, oh yes, the high-powered offense that I expected to see this postseason. Ryan Howard picked a good time to "return" to the lineup in a productive manner.

Is this series over already? Yes, the signs do point to "yes", but stranger things have happened.

Postscript section for Fantasy followers out there... I was burned by my mostly Tampa offensive lineup for Game 4 (as well as Game 3, really), but I don't have the trades to hope to change things much for Game 5 or the rest of this series. For those in similar situtations, hope the Rays can survive this game to get back home, where the home field (and warmth of an indoor environment) will probably "heat up" those cold bats as well. If you're lucky enough to have (or have picked up) Ryan Howard by Game 3, you are finally paying dividends. Many probably jumped on Howard for Game 4 (after seeing the previous performance) and reaped the rewards. I think that Cole Hamels is a no-brainer starter pick in Game 5 (even though I have to hope for a no-decision if I hope to get more series points beyond tonight). Even though my own roster has Rays' bullpen members, they look best to avoid at least until proven once again reliable.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Let The Games Begin ... World Series Preview: Rays / Phillies

Today, Wednesday, October 22nd, is the first day of the 2008 World Series. I am truly excited about watching two teams with historically losing records (the Phillies for most of their long franchise history (most losses of any team) and the Rays in every year of their shorter existence until this one) battle it out for baseball supremacy this season. While I may be in the national viewing minority (likely the case with smaller market Tampa / St. Pete and shrinking market Philadelphia), the case could be made for a potentially balanced matchup of these two teams. It may not be the Red Sox / Dodgers matchup that TV executives likely wanted, but this could be a very watchable series.

My predictions leading up to this series have mostly been wrong, so I won't even attempt to tell you who I think is going to win and in how many games. I will guess that this one probably goes six or seven games, though, based on pitching balance of the squads. Cole Hamels is probably the hottest starting pitcher on either team, and Matt Garza is probably the next best after him (and both won their respective LCS MVP titles).

Hamels could pitch up to three games in this series, while Garza is not up until Game 3 (with staff "ace" Scott Kazmir the Rays starter for Game 1). I have liked Kazmir historically, but the second half of his season has not been pretty at all (including most of this postseason). Arguably, James Shields or Garza should be facing Hamels in Game 1 (imho), but Garza pitched on Sunday and isn't an option on only two days rest. Shields could be (having pitched Saturday), but three days rest is probably not as good as full four-day rest. All of the Phillies' players should be well-rested ... but may also be rusty with the week-long layoff since last Wednesday.

Offensively, the season stats would favor Philadelphia, one of the best offensive clubs in all of baseball. Philly scored the second-most runs in the NL (behind only the Cubs and tied with the Mets) and ranked in a tie for eigth in the ML. Tampa Bay was a steady producer as well but well behind most of the offense-driven AL (in ninth) and in 13th overall. Philly also was the majors' leader in HR.

What Tampa Bay may lack in offense (which isn't all that much, really) it offsets with the third-best pitching in baseball (3.82 ERA, ranking second in the AL behind only Toronto), which is very impressive, again, in the more offense-driven league. Philadelphia is no slouch here, either, with a robust 3.88 ERA, ranking close behind at sixth overall.

As those financial shows on TV often do, I will provide full disclosure here as well. I don't have any vested interest in either team, although my Postseason Fantasy Baseball squad (which I am playing here at TSN) is driven mostly by Tampa offense (such as Upton and Longoria) and Philly pitching (Hamels and Lidge) as well as some crossover on both teams (such as Shane Victorino and Matt Garza). I loaded one of my teams with almost the entire Tampa offensive lineup (from Navarro to Iwamura to Upton to Longoria to Aybar, etc.). It should be interesting, once again, no matter what happens. I would love to see the small-market Tampa squad (29th of 30 teams) make it all the way to give hope to all of our other small-market teams around the country.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Cubs Going Down in Flames ... and Other 2008 Baseball Playoff Observations

I can now confirm what I subsconsciously knew when I wrote my "useless" predictions about the baseball playoffs only a short few days ago: most prognostications are just a random chance guess. An entry headline where "Cubs Going Down in Flames" doesn't begin to tell someone how painful it has been to watch the NL's best regular-season team failing to deliver by any measure so far in the postseason.

One may want to blame all of this on a "curse", but the manner in which the Chicago north side team played on Wednesday and Thursday can most certainly be called "ugly". There is no doubt about that. Their pitching has been poor (7+ runs in each game), they haven't shown any offensive muscle (2 and 3 runs, respectively), and the defense has been uncharacteristically bad (1 error in Game 1 followed by 4! in Game 2). When starter Carlos Zambrano, the "ace" of the staff", gives up seven runs but only three are earned thanks to two miscues in one half inning alone, you know the team is self-destructing. Realistically, the Cubs have dug themselves into a hole from which recovery is not probable. Possible, yes, but not likely. The next game will feature the Cubs' "next best" starter in Rich Harden, who gives them some hope, but then a Game 4, if there is one, would likely feature the Dodgers' Derek Lowe, who shut them down in Game 1. Of course, both games are being playing on the road, away from the "Friendly Confines" and in Chavez Ravine (i.e. Dodger Stadium). The sweep that I projected was not supposed to happen like this ... are the Dodgers really this good? Dodgers lead 2-0. Game 3 in LA on Saturday.

Around the rest of playoff action ...

How about those Rays? Evan Longoria, rookie extraordinaire, provided much of the offense (and possibly en route to a series MVP) with two homers and three RBI. The Rays bullpen, not suprisingly, was stellar in Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell, both notching two K in their appearances. Dan Wheeler made one mistake (homer to Paul Konerko) but was otherwise in control in recording the save. The White Sox offensively could have kept pace but stranded 11 runners on base. The top of the seventh inning was really the critical moment, as starter James Shields walked Alexi Ramirez and then hit A.J. Pierzynski with a pitch to load the bases (after Konerko had reached base earlier with a single). Balfour came in and struck out the only two batters he faced - Juan Uribe and Orlando Cabrera - to escape unscathed and preserve the lead. Keep an eye on Tampa the rest of the way. Rays lead 1-0. Game 2 Friday in Tampa.

CC Sabathia has officially run out of gas. The fatigue factor of pitching so many innings with so few days rest appears to have finally caught the big guy. Couple that with Philadelphia starter Brett Myers walking in a run in the first (avoiding more possible damage) but then settling down to work the next five scoreless innings before surrending only a second in the seventh, his last inning. Sabathia couldn't make it out of the fourth inning, leaving with the bases loaded but rescued by reliever Mitch Stetter. The real damage against CC happened in the bottom of the second, notably where five runs scored (all of the Philly offense for the game) in a sequence that saw him walk, unexpectedly, his counterpart Myers followed by Jimmy Rollins, both with two outs. That left the bases loaded, and Sabathia made a mistake to Shane Victorino that resulted in the centerfielder's first career grand slam. Phillies lead the series 2-0 and appear easily in control heading to Milwaukee for Game 3. Game 3 Saturday in Milwaukee.

No new games played in the only other series - Angels vs Red Sox - where the home team Angels must rebound tonight behind starter Ervin Santana, who reversed a trend this season by pitching better away from "The Big A" home field than on it. Hopefully, he pulls some of his 2006 and 2007 success of home dominance to the park in Game 2. His counterpart is Dice-K (Daisuke Matsuzaka), who had an outstanding season with a sub-3.00 ERA (2.90, to be exact) and a measly .211 BAA. He faced the Angels only once this season (his first time ever) and was shelled at Fenway for seven hits and six runs in only five innings of work, one of his few season losses. Santana did not face Boston this season, making him a bit of a wild card. His last appearance against Boston was late in 2007, where he won in Boston by allowing only one run in 6 1/3 innings. Red Sox lead 1-0. Game 2 Friday in Anaheim.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

My Useless Attempt at MLB Playoff Prognosticating

I preface my writing with the knowledge that my predictions (for sporting picks in general) are correct slightly better than 50% of the time. Given my invested time in watching / analyzing baseball, though, my stats are only slightly better. Last season, I managed to pick four out of the six division winners and one of the wild card teams. For whatever reason, I didn't formally declare preseason picks this season. I can honestly say here's what I probably would have picked (in hindsight) had I made those choices: NL Central - Cubs or Brewers, NL West - Diamondbacks, NL East - Mets, NL Wild Card - Brewers or Cubs; AL Central - Indians, AL West - Angels, AL East - Red Sox, AL Wild Card - Tigers. As you can see, I would have missed badly on a couple of those picks, but I still would have hit about 50% overall for the postseason (if not quite in the right spots). But, enough of my backwards-looking, forward-thinking writing ... on to the future picking.

AL Playoffs
Angels vs. Red Sox
I am a major fan of the baseball that Mike Scioscia's Angels play. The team scores runs in a variety of ways (particularly adept at advancing runners and scoring runners from scoring position), and their addition of Mark Teixeira only made the offense better. In no way do I belittle the accomplishments of the Red Sox, but this Angels team is as solid as they come from top to bottom. No Josh Beckett for the starting rotation (possibly only in Game 3, at best) does not bode well for the Sox. John Lackey has had his own share of ups and downs throughout the season, but he is formidable ace of the Angels staff. I'll take the Angels in 4 games, 3-1.

Rays vs. AL Central Champ (Twins or White Sox)
OK, how confident am I in what the Rays have accomplished this season? Manager Joe Maddon is a leader in the style of Scioscia in LA, no less, and has managed to keep this team afloat, and successful, despite injuries to key offensive players throughout the season. The same can also be said of other managers, but none have done it better than Maddon. This team was expected to be better, but it wasn't expected to be the AL East champion. Regardless of who the Rays play, neither the Twins nor the White Sox will match-up well with them in a series. If the Twins make it, I think they pose the better threat (the generally one-dimensional White Sox offense is simply not the same without Carlos Quentin) but still fall short. I choose the Rays in 4 games, 3-1.

Assuming my two previous picks come to fruition, a Rays-Angels series looks quite interesting. Similar managerial styles and similar playing abilities (more or less) make this one tough to call. I lean towards the team with more depth, and overall experience, by choosing the Angels in 6 games, 4-2. My head says the Angels, but my heart says the Rays figure out a way to overcome experience. Maybe this one even goes seven games ... I'll be watching either way.

NL Playoffs
Phillies vs. Brewers
On paper, this looks like a potential mismatch in many ways. The Phillies dominated the regular season series 8-1, and CC Sabathia will start Game 2 (at the earliest) after having to start Sunday's clinching finale. The rest of the Brewer starting rotation is a mess, particularly with Ben Sheets being a big question mark. Yovani Gallardo may have been a solid starter from a year ago (before injury) ... can he really be a factor now? I'll give the Brewers' heart a factor here but not enough to overcome. My pick is the Phillies in 5 games, 3-2. (which might be generous to Brewer pitching ... Phillies bullpen can be lights out)

Cubs vs. Dodgers
In a short series, LA could play Chicago tough, but I don't think Dodger pitching can stop the Cub offense. Conversely, Chicago pitching is more than up to the task of shutting down the Dodger offense (just keep pitching around Manny). I'll go slightly out on a limb here and say Cubs coast to 3-0 sweep. Zambrano might be the only real question mark I have ... Harden, Dempster, and Lilly are solid in my book.

Again, assuming good choices in the first round, a Cubs versus Phillies matchup poses some intrigue (and likely better ratings than the alternative ALCS, which won't get much if the Red Sox aren't in it). In a longer series, the depth of the Cubs will be even more obvious, although strong pitching (Cubs) versus strong offense (Phillies) can be counteractive ... pitching still usually wins. I'll choose to see this one go longer, but I still pick Cubs in 6 games, 4-2 to make their first World Series in over half a century (since 1945).

World Series
Making a pick this far out is even tougher, as I have to bank on my previous choices being right. A series featuring the Cubs and Angels would not be devoid of interest ... but I'm sure a Red Sox - Cubs matchup would draw gigantic ratings. The Angels are not likely to be quite the draw (if their 2002 WS ratings are an indication), but anything involving the Cubs, who draw on the same "inspiration" as the 2004 Red Sox did, will probably draw viewers. I truly believe this is it ... the year (100 years to the last time) that the Cubs win the series, in 7 games, 4-3. No team has gone longer between Championships (excluding, of course, franchises that have never won a title), so why not the Cubs and why not now?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

About the Reds?!? Yes, It’s True!

I haven’t written a post about the Cincinnati Reds in a VERY long time. So long, in fact, has it been that I haven’t said anything the ENTIRE 2008 season … until now. This fact remains more than a bit contradictory given that my off-site blogs have primary subjects of NASCAR (for which I have written a few things) and baseball / MLB / Reds (which I only apologize for not writing things). Given how ugly most of this season has been, I really don’t have as much need to be forgiven as the team does.

We have come to that point in the season where the role of the Reds is spoiler. Being a “spoiler” is exactly what it means … to spoil the season(s) of contending team(s). So far, so good on that front, considering that our Redlegs took 2 out of 3 (dramatically on Sunday versus closer Kerry Wood) from the front-running Chicago Cubs and now the first game of their series in Milwaukee (again a dramatic, come-from-behind effort versus Brewers’ closer Solomon Torres) on Monday night. If this team found a way to play with this much energy all season, things certainly might have been different. But, in the same vein, I doubt they would be with the former cast of characters.

Gone are both Ken Griffey, Jr. (who was going to be gone after the season anyway) and Adam Dunn (who probably was, too), who were the respective faces of the team (as evidenced by both formerly being on team scorecards, wall signs, etc.). While I admire Junior’s career as a total, his best days are behind him. Dunn still has a decent offensive career ahead of him, but his defensive liability (as well as Griffey with his aging body) was worth abandoning to bring up some newer faces. Dunn was good for mammoth homers and a solid OBP … and not much else. Junior was surviving on legacy (as further evidenced by his lack of playing time for the White Sox).

How have the Reds been producing lately? Well, the new “faces” of the team are clearly Joey Votto, who has been on fire of late, and Jay Bruce, who has had the “next great thing” label for a while now. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the whole season has been the quality starting pitching. Edinson Volquez goes without saying, with his 17 wins to date and anchoring the staff. Aaron Harang has been the unpleasant surprise, never quite recovering after his short-rest relief appearance in San Diego … even he has looked more like his old self in recent starts (and has been burdened with nearly the worst run support in the league). Bronson Arroyo has been steady and picked it up notably in the second-half of the season … finally looking like a smart decision on that contract extension. Johnny Cueto has shown the makings of a potential excellent starter next season and beyond. The fifth-starter slot still has question marks around it, but folks like surprising Ramon Ramirez or even a mentally refreshed Homer Bailey (our former “sliced bread” ace) might do nicely in 2009.

There appears to be a core to work around here. Votto and Bruce are no-brainer choices, as is my personal favorite Brandon Phillips, who deserves far more credit for his defensive abilities at second baseman than national coverage usually gives him. Jerry Hairston Jr. may or may not be in the plans for starting next year, but his versatility (much like injured fan favorite Ryan Freel) is hard to ignore. Chris Dickerson, who came with little fanfare to fill Dunn’s absence, has been nothing short of excellent to start his MLB career. The aforementioned pitching staff is finally a strength after years of being a liability. Third base and shortstop are still questionable spots, with the streaky Edwin Encarnacion who may or may not be part of the future plans and Jeff Keppinger who is a dependable, but average, choice both offensively and defensively. Catcher remains a weak position for the team, although defensively former backstop David Ross (since released) seemed more successful at throwing runners out. Ryan Hannigan may or may be the future choice (leaning towards not), but he, too, has been dependable of late. Team deadweight, like Corey Patterson and Paul Bako, just need to be let go come season’s end.

I would much rather be writing about a postseason run by my Reds, but at least I feel reason enough to be optimistic about next season not to write them off completely. Of course, I say that every year … we just haven’t seen a winner since the beginning of the century (sounds more dramatic than just the decade).

Reds – have fun being spoilers for all of those “actual” contenders down the stretch. At least give them something to think about … for next year.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday the 13th: A Perfect Day for a Move

Ah, the superstitious day of Friday the 13th conjures up images of bad luck, movie horror, and countless potential for mayhem.

As of this date, June 13, 2008, which happens to be a Friday, this blog (as well as its counterpart blogs) have moved from the former home of my website (, which is now inactive) to Blogspot, which was where they were generated anyway. Hopefully, no bad luck will follow this move, but I hope any former readers are fortunate enough to find their way here. I figure some new content will at least get Google to redirect the old links to these new locations.

There isn't a whole lot new I want to say immediately, especially since I have written anything in eons. When over a year passes (give or take) between posts, you are doing a poor job as a blogger. Given that some bloggers write many times daily, that fact would make me a big slacker.

Since blogging doesn't pay the bills (yet ... or probably ever), look for something slightly more frequent (hopefully) in the future.

Later all...