Let the games begin. Almost.
Well here in the south, the Blue bonnets are up, the swallows and flycatchers are arriving back by the day , which is good as the bugs they snack on are coming out by the hour. Spring is here. In places like Minneapolis, Detroit, and my old Toronto stomping grounds, not so much. Nonetheless, MLB is about to kick off the 2019 season… with an asterisk… (*) because two games already took place, of course, in Japan between Oakland and Seattle. For those of us over on this side of the Pacific, action will begin before the weekend.
The two games in Japan weren’t of huge importance for the most part. After all, it was only two games and neither the A’s or the Mariners are widely expected to be playoff contenders, although that said, Oakland sure fooled everyone last year. What the fan really got to take away from it though was one last chance to see a future Hall of Famer play. In front of his home crowd no less.
The great Ichiro Suzuki, who essentially retired as a player mid-season last year was back in a Seattle uniform one last time, to thrill both the Mariners faithful and his fans back home in Tokyo. Alas, he didn’t do a whole lot in the two games. If it was a Disney film, his last at bat would have been a walk-off homer or else a single, with him stealing second, third then home to win the game. Instead Ichiro went hitless and to no one’s surprise announced his retirement following the second game.
Ichiro was great. He had it all. He hit for contact like few others in the game, had speed on the bases and in the outfield, a good throwing arm and although not often on display, a decent amount of power. It was refreshing seeing a “throwback” player like him in the era immediately after the Steroids era, leading into the current era of Rob Deer or Dave Kingman wannabes. Ichiro showed that talent was talent. The Japanese pro league may not be the equal of MLB but a great player there is still a great player here. Most of all, Ichiro played with class. He set an example for young players watching the pros.
That Ichiro will be a first ballot Hall of Famer should be a no-brainer. Consider for a moment just his American totals. Parts of 19 seasons played. Ten Gold Gloves. Ten All Star teams. 2001 Rookie of the Year. Over 3000 hits and 500 stolen bases, a combination only equaled by Lou Brock, Paul Molitor and Rickey Henderson in modern times. Ranked in the top 40 all-time in at bats, hits, steals and runs. Ten straight .300 or better seasons to start his career. That’s quite a resume in itself… and that puts aside the fact that he was already an established star in Japan before coming across the ocean. There he hit .353 over 951 games, and actually clipped one more homer there (118) than in the MLB. Worth noting since it is the Baseball Hall of Fame,not just the MLB Hall of Fame.
With Ichiro gone, that leaves by my reckoning, two sure-fire, carved in stone, Hall of Famers to watch and appreciate this season as they approach their sporting twilight: Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols.
Cabrera may be the only thing to really make people want to watch the Tigers this season (particularly after, not if but when they trade Nick Castellanos) Miggy, surprisingly is still only 35 but you can be forgiven for thinking him older. He’s not exactly the picture of athleticism anymore and this will be his 17th season to boot. It makes it easy for the ADD crowd to forget that in 2012 he won a Triple Crown … and that wasn’t even his best season, if going by the all-encompassing OPS. Four batting titles, 11 All Star games, two MVP awards. three years with a .600+ slugging percentage. 465 career homers and 1635 RBI, to go with a .316 career average putting him just behind Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Vladimir Guerrero Sr. and Kirby Puckett among players who have graced the diamonds in the past three decades. While he might not get to 500 longballs this season, with just 13 he can pass Adrian Beltre to move into the top 30 all-time… and don’t utterly discount his chances of getting to 500 before 2020. Although he only hit 16 in a disappointing 2017 and 3 in a much-abbreviated (due to injury) ’18, reports are that he looks rejuvenated this spring and he’s launched 5 with a .739 slugging pct. in spring training. Get practicing those intricate “D”s for the cap, plaque carvers… Cabrera will be Detroit’s next inductee.
Even more of a shoo-in for Cooperstown, Albert Pujols gives you something to do when a certain outfielder whose name sounds like a fish isn’t at the plate for the otherwise rather run-of-the-mill Angels.
Although no longer the superstar he was in his prime, and now often pointed to as an example of the perils of large, multi-year contracts for teams , Pujols’ career has really been something. Three MVPs, 10 All Star Games, two Gold Gloves (even though he’s never been one to come to mind for most when thinking about great defensive players), ten 100 run seasons, 8 years with an OPS over 1.000 and a career begun with 12-straight 30 or better homer seasons. Add it up and he’s got a .302 career average (despite diminishing returns of late), 3082 hits, 633 homers and 1982 RBI. By the time the summer heats up, every at bat of Pujols could be an event – just 18 more RBI and he’ll be only the fourth player of the post-WWI era to notch 2000, putting him on the same footing as Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and, umm, A-Rod. Speaking of the future Mr. Jennifer Lopez, Albert can top him with 105… a longshot, it would seem when looking at the last few years (in 2018, he hit just .245 with 19 homers, 64 RBI and struck out more than twice as many times as he walked) but if he gets slotted in behind Mike Trout in the lineup and keeps up his torrid spring pace (a .571 slugging percentage with 3 homers this spring in the cactus league) and don’t put it past him. And when he clips his 28th next homer, he’ll pass Willie Mays for fifth all-time. Mind you, last time he hit 28 HR in a year was 2016, but if not this year, don’t doubt he’ll get there. Los Angeles Anaheim have him signed through 2021, at no less than $28 million per season. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he’ll be there with Hammerin’ Hank and the Bambino as the only 700 home run hitter not tainted by PED scandal. Pujols is a no doubter, Hall of Famer five years after he retires, although whether he goes in wearing the St. Louis red cap, the Anaheim red cap, or as seems the current trend, no team emblem at all, remains to be seen.
The two players to watch to be able to tell future generations of fans, or Cooperstown visitors, “I saw them play.”
Yes, if Mike Trout keeps up even a fraction of his productivity for another three or four years, he’ll be in. Maybe Pujols’ former teammate Yadier Molina will make it. If little Jose Altuve is half as good over the next two or three years as he’s been for the past half dozen, he’ll represent Houston in that building in upstate New York. Perhaps a future blog will look at the careers of CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander and how they stack up compared to Hall of Fame pitchers… but for all that, mark it down. Pujols and Cabrera are guaranteed Hall of Fame players on the field this month. The list starts, and ends with those two.
Next up, we start to look at the predictions for the 2019 season…
Today we turn our attention west, and preview the AL Central.
Chicago- despite a bad ’14, with Kansas City not yet proven as an ongoing contender and Detroit’s veteran superstars beginning to fade, Kenny Williams’ Sox decided to take a run at it in ’15, adding a front-line starter (Jeff Samardzija), ace closer (David Robertson) and powerful first baseman (Adam LaRoche) to a decent foundation with superstars-in-the-making Chris Sale and Jose Abreu.
A: Chris Sale. As seen on the list of “Pitchers who pitched better than Cy Young winner Corey Kluber but didn’t win the Cy Young in 2014”, the lanky lefty was 12-4 with a stellar 2.17 ERA, not a huge surprise given that in he’s got a career ERA below 3 and an average of better than a strikeout per inning. This could well be the year he wins the Cy… if his injured foot lets him take the mound before May.
Q:Hector Noesi. Penciled in to make the starting rotation, he seemed to find a home in Chicago last summer after bouncing around from club to club and not winning any of five starts for Seattle or Texas early in the season. A repeat of his 170+ innings would be a big boost for Chisox.
Y: Adam LaRoche. Free agent first baseman is needed to bolster Jose Abreu’s bat in otherwise so-so hitting lineup; he could do big things in US Cellular Field but given that he’ll turn 36 this year, has logged only six games for an AL team and that his 26 HR/92 RBI, .817OPS last year were big improvements over ’13, he’s a bit of a crapshoot.
Z: Club seems to have the right attitude and enough pitching to win; 89 wins, first place.
Cleveland: Biggest problems might be off-field, where despite having only their second winning season in last 6 years and all but retiring their politically incorrect “Chief Wahoo” logo, attendance continues to fall. An inactive off-season won’t help on-field though.
A: Michael Brantley.One of only 2 AL players to collect 200 hits in ’14, set career highs in most categories including runs (94), doubles (45), homers (20) and average (.327); given his age (28) and that generally his numbers have been steadily improving he could be set for a monster, MVP-type season.
Q: Rotation. Corey Kluber was excellent last year, though whether he was worthy of his Cy Young Award is open for debate. Hard-throwing Danny Salazar has flashes of brilliance but hasn’t yet put it together regularly, and assuming Gavin Floyd (who’d pitched only 78 innings over past 2 seasons) was a good-to-go #3 was a mistake- he faces the all too familiar Tommy John surgery. Rest of rotation is no treat…
Y: Plate Comebacks. Carlos Santana saw his average drop last year (.231) but still posted good home run and walk tallies. Nick Swisher and Jason Kipnis saw pretty much all their significant factors plummet; for the team to contend, they’ll have to score a lot of runs and see this trio return to form.
Z: Much like Toronto, they have some key components in place but were too passive over the winter and rely too heavily on unproven arms on the mound. 79 wins, third place.
Detroit: Glass half-full types will note the Tigers have won the division four years in a row and have majority of roster returning. Glass half-empty folk will notice they struggled to do so last couple of years despite having Max Scherzer, and that their stars all appear to be in decline.
A: Miguel Cabrera. Remarkably, the 9-time All Star will only be 32 when he appears in his tenth Mid-summer Classic…and expect he will. However, he’s not the superstar that won the Triple Crown in ’12. Coming off surgery, Tigers say he’ll be ready sometime in April but it may be first year since ’03 he’s not playing 148+ games. And for most anyone else, his ’14: .313 avg, 25HR, 109 RBI, 191 hits, would be outstanding. For Miggy it was a rather shocking drop in productivity. Imagine a .300 avg, 25HR/100 RBI/70 BB year for him possible… but a .333/40/130/100 tally might be what Detroit need to win.
Q: Justin Verlander. Back when Cabrera was the best in the game with the bat, Verlander was his equal on the mound. Like Miggy, things have gone downhill since then for JV, and even more quickly. Last year’s 15-12 record looked tolerable, but his ERA of 4.54 was worst since ’08 and marks third year in row of significant decline; worse, strikeout rate falling with fastball velocity and opponents average against him a career-worst .275 show he’s not become a finesse pitcher. He’d better do so quickly. But at least he still has super-model Kate Upton on his arm.
Y: Nathan, et al. The closer’s role has been a bugaboo for Tigers lately. 40 year-old Nathan is still penciled in for the job, but few closers have done so much (376 career saves) and so alienated the fans. Last year he was 35 for 42 in save opps, and had a terrible 4.81 ERA. Fellow Texas cast-off Joakim Soria is a backup plan, but the ‘pen still looks concerning, especially with weakened starting rotation.
Z: David Price is a good anchor to rotation and will be pitching for a monster contract; Miggy still one of the game’s best and Victor Martinez’ injury looks less serious than first believed, so he may play most of year. Lots of upside for team, but given their struggles last couple of years and aging star-base, look for 85 wins, second place.
Kansas City: Everybody’s Cinderella team last year came agonizingly close to winning their second World Series and in all likelihood bankrupting Vegas bookies! Busy off-season saw a few new faces enter but more importantly, integral ones (James Shields, Billy Butler, Aaron Crow) walk away.
A: Greg Holland. In the post-Mariano Rivera era, the closest thing baseball has to a Mariano Rivera. Over past two years, 133 appearances, 93 saves with only 5 blown ones, ERA a stunning 1.33; he was even better in the playoffs last fall, being 7 for 7 in saves and allowing an ERA of 0.82.
Q: Alex Rios. One of the most frustrating players in the game, having an excess of talent but seemingly a deficiency in desire and day-to-day effort. Last year hit an adequate .280 with Rangers but smacked only 4 HR (lowest since his 2004 rookie season), well below career average of 1 per 36 AB; and his strikeout total exceeded walks by 4:1. Royals could use the Rios of 2012-13 to add some pop to the lineup, over those two years he averaged about .291 with 86 RBi and 32 steals a year.
Y: Bullpen. With fair to poor offense and a rotation lacking a defined “ace” this year, the bullpen can’t be bull**** if the Royals have any hope at all. This shouldn’t be a problem, last year it was brilliant beyond compare and most of the pen is back. However, expecting Holland, Davis and Herrera all to log 65+ games and keep the ERA below 1.5 may be too tall an order.
Z: the bullpen will likely still be great, the starting rotation adequate, Mike Moustakas may carry over the growth he showed last October. But seems a team with a lot of question marks and no clear leader. 77 wins, fourth place.
Minnesota: after a long run of surprising glory, Twins suffered through fourth straight losing season in ’14 and did little in off-season to change that. However, outstanding prospects mean the future may not be as bleak as a St. Paul January.
A: Torii Hunter. Torii will turn 40 mid-summer and had his first big league at bat in 1998. He returns to where he started and won seven Gold Gloves, probably as much to help run the clubhouse as to perform on field, but he remains a viable outfielder… his 142 games played, .286 avg., 17 HR and 83 RBI last year aren’t bad for any OF, let alone one his age.
Q: Paul Molitor. The Hall-of-Famer returns to his hometown to take on his first manager’s job. Molitor had an abundance of talent and great hustle as a player but that doesn’t always translate to leading great teams. Comments he made about limiting electronic devices and music in clubhouse may show an old school formula for winning but could also quickly alienate young “Millenial Babies” players.
Y: Next Generation. Outfielder Byron Buxton is widely considered one of the three or four best prospects in game and third baseman Miguel Sano not far behind. Both are 21 and could be seen in Minnesota this year, and fans hope, turn the Twins’ tide. However, as of now, both are already sent back to minors and both had their best junior success in 2013, so…
Z: When things were rosy in the Twin Cities, Torii was a youngster, Joe Mauer was an All-star catcher. Now he’s an overpaid, under-performing first baseman and Torii is the senior statesman. Paul Molitor was one of my favourite players in Blue Jays history, but isn’t a sure bet to run a team that’s a mix of old-timers and young pups. Not much to hope for here. 66 wins, fifth place.
The Central has long been rather the red-headed stepchild of the American League, not as good as or watched as the siblings around it. That might be changing, but not to any great extent, or quickly.
Chicago last year were the only AL team to not score at least 600 runs. But to even out the equation, they didn’t pitch or field well either. No big surprise they ended up in last place for the first time since the 80s. Don’t look for any big changes this season, although they may escape the basement. The big change will be highly-touted Cuban Jose Abreu taking over at first from Paul Konerko, the best Chicago player of the post-Frank Thomas era. Abreu has power and raw skill, but may not come close to the impact of a Konerko in his prime, or of his own 2013 season in the Mexican League where he hit .316 with 60 ribbies in fewer than 300 at bats. Adam Eaton is a nice addition, Adam Dunn should do what he does- hit three dozen or so dingers and strikeout most of the rest of the time, and in Chris Sale they at least have one of the best and emergent young pitchers in the game. On a winning team, he’d be a household name and good bet for a Cy Young soon. With the Sox, he’ll have to be content with merely getting a winning record this year. Prediction– 67 wins, 4th place.
Cleveland started to distance themselves from their Chief Wahoo logo last season, largely to appease Native protesters, but perhaps a little as well to distance themselves from the decade or so of lacklustre teams that had worn the Chief on their hats. The Indians surprised many in ’13, so it’s not surprising that they are back relatively untouched. The team seemed to have chemistry galore last year and Terry Francona and his crew should ensure that continues which is worth a win or five over the season. Danny Salazar dazzled in his debut against the Jays last year; he’ll probably end the year as the ace of northern Ohio, though Justin Masterson is no slouch either. Yan gomes is quickly erasing the adjective “first Brazilian player” and simply being acknowledged as an above-average catcher, free agent David Murphy likes his new ballpark…but there’s still not enough here, nor a good enough replacement for Jimenez and Kazmir to expect a repeat of ’13. Prediction– 82 wins, third
Detroit- the Tigers know the key to success, like any good real estate agent does: “Location, location, location”. Detroit aren’t close to the best team in baseball, but they are the class of this division and thus get darn near a free pass to the playoffs. Having to not battle for that should make them very nearly the faves to win the World Series this year. Giving up Prince Fielder was a huge risk of course, but a team that hit .283 last year and was second in runs scored can afford to lose a run or two. Rajai Davis, in from Toronto, will bolster the offense with his speed (45 steals in 108 games last year) and Ian Kinsler, if he quickly matures and focuses on his game rather than his anger at Texas, will be a good presence on base for Miggy to drive in. Speaking of, don’t look for another triple crown for Cabrera…but don’t expect him to slump like others (not mentioning any Anaheim stars for example…) did after receiving monster contracts. I’d be surprised if he hits less than .310 or clips under three dozen homers. Letting Doug Fister go may go down as a major blunder, but Justin Verlander (expect a bit of a resurgent year from him), Anibel Sanchez and disgruntled Max Scherzer – now pitching for a free agent megadeal- should provide pitching enough for the tabbys to cruise to the division title for the fourth year in a row. Prediction– 95 wins, first
Kansas City- the Royals gained 14 wins last year, bested only by Boston and Cleveland in the AL. Another 14 tacked on could make them the kings of the world– but isn’t likely. Nonetheless, they are a team heading the right direction. Sal Perez is quickly establishing himself as the best catcher in the league (at the plate, .292, 21 homers, behind it 137 games, second best and fewest passed balls of any catcher with triple digit games) and could come to be recognized as a legitimate superstar this year. Expect Eric Hosmer’s power to return this year and if Mike Moustakas ever develops into the star he was expected to be KC should score runs by the bushel. James Shields is dominant – he matched his career best 34 starts last year and is 44-31, 3.28 over the past three years- and will likely get even better in his year leading upto a big free agency payoff. However, Jason Vargas is no Shields,nor even an Ervin Santana (whom he replaces) so seeing him as the #2 guy in the rotation makes me think this team still has a ways to go to cause the Tigers to break out in a sweat. Prediction– 86 wins, second.
Minnesota- the Twins had never gone three years without winning 70 before last year. Needless to say, this year they have a chance to extend their futility streak. The league’s only starting rotation to sport an ERA of over 5 last season is only marginally improved with the addition of Phil Hughes, meaning there’s not much for the Twins to pitch to the fan base in way of hope for 2014. Interesting to watch will be Joe Mauer’s transition to first base; on the plus side he should stay healthier and play more , on the downside, his usual .870 OPS and 8 home runs (averaged over the past 4 seasons) make him a star catcher but a mediocre at best first bagger. Down the road things look brighter- of Byron Buxton and IF Miguel Sano are two of the best prospects in all of baseball but both are at least a year removed from making the bigs. Prediction – 66 wins, fifth.
Next we’ll go to the increasingly evenly-matched AL West.
And to get the predictions over with before the All Star game, the rest of the AL outlook:
Chicago: Adam Dunn may – must- rebound from horrible 2011; Alex rios, not so much. Should be a calmer losing clubhouse without Ozzie Guillen.
2012 Prediction: 74 wins, 4th place.
Cleveland: Ubaldo Jimenez is apparently one angry Indian, but it looks more and more like it was Cleveland that got scalped in the Colorado trade. If this team could stay healthy, it might have a shot at respectability . Then again, if pigs could fly , umbrella salesmen would be millionaires. For now, the best bet for both is to hope for rain-outs. 2012 Prediction: 76 wins, 3rd place
Detroit: Quite a trifecta with the addition of Fielder to the potential duo of MVP’s, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. As good as Cabrera has been, one might suspect his best is yet to come and ’12 could be it. Like a grumpy porcupine, Detroit is simply untouchable.
2012 Prediction: 100 wins, 1st place
Kansas City: good high draft picks starting to pay dividends, but still a pitcher and a year away from real competitiveness.
2012 Prediction: 81 wins, 2nd place
Minnesota: Justin Morneau seems to be over his concussion finally; now the only headache for the Twins is a general lack of pitching and hitting. Cuddyer’s departure will leave a big hole in clubhouse and lineup.
2012 Prediction: 68 wins, 5th place
LA-Anaheim: A good team which got better in the off-season. Yet it’s worth noting that Pujols has been in a steady decline for the past three years (though at 99 rbi and over .500 slugging last year, he’s still pretty formidable!) and his bat may not be enough to compensate for the other aging, declining bats in the outfield. Morales could be a big return ; still in this division it would take divine intervention for the Angels to win it all.
2012 prediction: 94 wins, 2nd place
Oakland: hey, Brad Pitt almost won an Oscar wearing an A’s cap! Can the Yankees or Phils say that? And Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, their surprise off-season signing, is off to a flying start in the USA. So they have that going for them too. Beyond that… well, if the rules are ever changed so that the team with most yellow and green on hat wins, Oakland might have a sporting chance again.
2012 Prediction: 62 wins, 4th place
Seattle: no one loves Oakland more than the Mariners. Or at least they should; without the A’s Seattle would have little chance to ever climb out of the basement. Ichiro is a national treasure in two countries and a surefire Hall of Famer down the road, but at almost 39, a guy who’s career has been built largely on speed who had a lower on base percentage than fellow oldie Juan Pierre and hit fewer extra base hits than kurt Suzuki last year may be past his “best before” date.
2012 Prediction: 64 wins, 3rd place
Texas: you must have been hibernating if you didn’t know about Yu this past winter. Darvish may be a big gamble and won’t dominate like he did in Japan, but his work ethic seems solid and he won’t need to dominate opponents with a team that can produce runs like Texas. Feliz a starter? Remains to be seen. But even the downside of questions about the Rangers seem to point to an easy ride to the playoffs again. Jays looks silly for trading Napoli to them so easily. Cruz will have massive year; only question about hamilton should be his physical durability, not his sobriety.
2012 Prediction: 101 wins, 1st place.
American League miscellania:
Batting Title: Cabrera (DET), Cano (NYY), Young (TEX)
Home Runs: Cabrera (DET), Bautista (TOR), Cruz (TEX)
RBI: Cabrera (DET), Granderson (NYY), Pujols (LAA)
…that’s right, I called it here first… look for Miguel Cabrera to win the first Triple Crown in over 40 years.
Wins: Verlander (DET), Weaver (LAA), Shields (TAM)
ERA: Verlander (DET), Romero (TOR), Holland (TEX)
MVP: Cabrera (DET), Cano (NYY), Cruz (TEX)
Cy Young: Verlander (DET), Shields (TAM), Romero (TOR)
Rookie: Darvish (TEX). Too bad Alvarez tossed 63 innings for Toronto last year and isn’t a technical rookie.
Playoffs: Tampa over Anaheim (1 game)
Texas over Tampa
New York over Detroit
Texas over New York
World Series: oddly enough a rematch of 2011 teams but this year
Texas over St Louis in 5 (with home advantage) or 6 (with Cards holding advantage)
So there you have it… after almost four decades it is finally the Rangers time to shine. But Miguel Cabrera will steal the spotlight during the regular season. And our Blue Jays– our Jays will continue to be tolerably decent and once again talk of “next year”.