And now, an abbreviated look at the rest of the National…
we last looked at three teams of the central. Cinci, it should be noted will now be hard-pressed to hit their target 89 wins without high-price, high-profile closer Ryan Madson (out for the season with torn ligaments in his elbow.
Milwaukee: not looking as sure thing as they were last year and Aramis Ramirez, though still a solid hitter, is hardly a replacement for Prince Fielder. That said, the Brew Crew have the best bullpenin the division (co-headed by Canadian John Axford, of 46 saves last season and bar-tending at an East Side Mario’s in Ontario fame and Francisco rodriguez) and one which shouldn’t be too over-taxed with the decent starting rotation they follow. Greinke, Marcum (terrible playoffs notwithstanding), Gallardo and Wolf aren’t exactly the new 90s Atlanta Braves but are as good as any in their division if not better. Ramirez should hit 30 homers and with Ryan Braun dodging a bullet (bet it takes a lot of testosterone to do that!) and avoiding a suspension, Milwaukee should score quite a few runs.
Ace: Ryan Braun. Say what you will about the loophole he used to beat the drugging rap, he is cleared for April play and has averaged 187 hits and 107 RBI over past couple of seasons. No reason to expect that to change in ’12.
Wild Card: Norichika Aoki- Japanese free agent will face tougher pitchers than he did as a Yakult Swallow, where he hit .292 last season. The next Ichiro or the next Nishioka?
Joker: Alex Gonzalez- not terrible actually but at 35 his range in field and prowess with bat are on downslope and with Ramirez to his right and Rickie Weeks to left, middle infield balls might be a bit of an adventure.
2012 Prediction: 89 wins, 2nd place. (Yes I put Cincinnati at 89 also, but now, given Madson’s injury, I’d give the edge to Wisconsin)
Pittsburgh: After 17 straight losing seasons and an average of 98 losses per year over the previous five, last year’s 72-90 season seemed downright lofty and inspirational. Sometimes it pays to place the bar low. Thus expectations are high at Three Rivers this year; if everything falls into place they might hit .500 for the first time since the era of a skinny Barry Bonds. Tough to imagine that everything will fall into place however, as injury-prone Erik Bedard and excuse-laden AJ Burnett head up a rather uninspiring rotation and for all the talk of superstardom, Andrew McCutcheon hit just .259 with a .456 slugging percentage last year and has thus far only swatted 51 home runs in his young career. Perhaps he should be playing in the following team , as my reaction to him is “Show me.” Nonetheless, Neil walker is one of the best young second baseman in the game, veteran Rod Barajas will knock a few balls into the river and diminutive Alex Presley may be the next big thing if McCutcheon fails to live up to his hype. The Pirates are no longer terrible, and for now that might be enough for western Pennsylvanian fans to feel over-the-moon.
Ace: Neil Walker- only his third season but completed more Dps than any other 2Ber in league last season and thus far has a .280 career batting average.
Wild Card: Erik Bedard – everyone knows what the Canuck lefty can do if he’s got his A-game. Or any game for that matter; more than say tom Glavine, Bedard seems to channel Mark Prior. Has managed 212 innings, which would be respectable- if it wasn’t the sum for the past three years!
Joker: Nate McLouth- returning his career home to die , like an elephant. The elephant in the room is that Nate can’t play anymore.
2012 Prediction: 78 wins, 4th place.
St Louis– Big questions on the Mississippi; will the reigning World Champions soar like eagles or waddle like turkeys now that the two iconic redbirds have migrated? Few would argue that the 2011 crew were statistically the best team in baseball yet when it counted, they were. Thus the intangibles can’t be discounted when it comes to this team, however are they enough to overcome the very tangible loss of franchise player Albert Pujols and future Hall of Fame manager tony LaRussa? Lance Berkman isn’t quite a replacement for Pujols, but he was the NL Comeback of the Year and his .301/31 HR/.547 slugging was much closer to his usual norms than his previous enigmatically poor 2010 in Houston…and he’ll be back on comfortable ground, playing first this season. If he can match last year’s average and drive in 100, he’ll actually be doing better than Albert did last year for the cards; meanwhile Carlos Beltran replaces Berkman in the outfield. Beltran is apparently healthy now and played 142 games last year, driving in 84 while hitting an even .300. Out of the black hole that is the Mets, Beltran could still have a couple of all-star campaigns left in him and with Matt Holliday thrown in, the lineup is pretty powerful.
Pitching wise, the good news is that Adam Wainwright is back from Tommy John surgery and throwing this spring . The bad news is that co-ace Chris carpenter is out indefinitely with neck problems. However, with Kyle Lohse and jaime Garcia in the middle of the rotation and a very sound bullpen, the pitching should be solid until Carp returns and better than that after.
The Cards aren’t the best team in baseball again, but they are the best in this division. Can history repeat? No one should be betting on the Cards to repeat as World Series winners if they can’t afford to lose their money. Nonetheless, a Wainwright-Carpenter one-two on the mound and a Beltran/Berkman/Holliday combo mid-lineup could surprise people once again if they got red-bird hot in October.
Ace: Chris Carpenter. Sure he’s out for a little at the start of the season, but this is a guy who won threw 237 innings and had an ERA under 3and a half last year in a “bad” season then outdueled his buddy Roy Halladay in a playoff game 7.
Wild Card: Adam Wainwright- if he’s back to 100% health, he can dominate like few others and should be back to his .654 career winning percentage. If he’s back. Many arms take more than a year to regain full former speed and control.
Joker: Rafael Furcal- one time “can’t miss” infielder wore out his welcome in Atlanta and LA, hit all of .232 last year and is erratic with the glove. And now, at a surprisingly old 35, he’s not likely to discover the superstar stuff under the Arch.
2012 Prediction: 90 wins, 1st place.
Sometimes it seems baseball can’t win for losing. Hot on the heels of the most exciting September and last day of the season, perhaps ever, and a nail-biting World series; fresh off the signing of a new labour deal ensuring labour peace for another five years while the NBA miss still more scheduled dates due to their feud; with all this, Major League Baseball finds itself with another scandal on its hands. Thanks a lot, Ryan Braun!
Sometimes referred to as the best player under the age of 30, a 2005 first round draft pick sporting a .311 lifetime average and and an average of some 39 homers per 162 games played, Braun is a poster child for all that baseball wants to be. Young, photogenic, skills improving constantly, happily signed on to a long term deal with a small market team, and last month, the winner of the NL MVP award. What could go wrong with that?
Well, of course, a failed drug test could. What started as rumours only days ago now appear confirmed; Braun failed a drug test during the NLDS against Arizona. Braun’s spokesman doesn’t even particularly contradict that fact, he just notes that “there are highly unusual circumstances” and that there was “absolutely no intentional violation of the program” by his client. Which sounds uncomfortably close to a lawyer trying to explain away his client’s DUI by saying that he didn’t know the ten drinks he quoffed were doubles rather than singles.
Insiders say not only did Braun fail, he failed spectacularly. Richard Griffin , long time baseball scribe for the Toronto star claims that Braun’s sample was tested a failed by two different labs although that a test three weeks later was clear. The New York Daily News reports that the level of artificial testosterone was “twice the level of the highest test” previously.
He is appealing his forthcoming 50 game suspension, but should he win, it would be a first. No player has successfully appealed a failed drug test in the sport.
The question which I asked right away is being repeated throuhout the baseball world: if he indeed failed a drug test during playoff games , only days after voting for the MVP Award closed, should he be stripped of the award? Alas the answer seems clear. Hello Mr MVP by default, Matt Kemp.
It was bad enough when Alex Rodriguez admitted years after the fact that he had taken steroids while playing with the Rangers . Jays fans fumed about the 2003 award and petitioned to get then Toronto first baseman Carlos Delgado (that years runner-up) named the winner. But Rodriguez never failed any test at that time and was playing in a situtation where rules were laxer in 03. Braun is well aware of the new, stringent rules and one has to believe, if he was guilty in the first week of the post-season, he was in all likelihood guilty during at least some weeks of the regular season. He doesn’t deserve to be awarded , particularly in a season when the vote was fairly close anyway.
The sad part of the spectacle is that MLB is being bashed again. People turn a blind eye to the unnatural behemoths found in pseudo-sports like the UFC and “ rasslin’ “ , sweep under the carpet comments from retired NHL-ers like George Larocque who tell of rampant performance-enhancing AND illegal street drug abuse in the NHL and wag their fingers at baseball.
Fact is, baseball is the only sport really trying to combat the problem and set a good example for kids. The very fact that Braun, a superstar playing for the team formerly run by the Commish, was outed when he failed a test shows that they are serious about cleaning up the problem. So did the public admission of one-time superstar Manny Ramirez’ two failed tests . The game isn’t trying to hide superstar cheats in order to continue to sell tickets based on individual players’ charisma.
The failed drug test of Ryan Braun should be viewed as a failure, a major error, by a talented young player. But it should also be seen as a victory for the sport itself. It’s policies are working.
I suppose we need to wait til spring training to see the roster the Blue Jays take down to Dunedin, but it’s getting harder and harder to get behind Alex Anthopolous’ vision for the team. No one really expected him to go on a drunken sailor spree like the Marlins and Angels have this off-season, but given late season comments from Paul Beeston on behalf of the owner, most had hoped for something. Something to show the Jays were serious about getting better, fixing the holes which sunk them in 2011 and taking advantage of both the extra wildcard spot and turmoil in the Red Sox nation. Instead we have nada.
Miami fans have a new superstar shortstop, the second best #2 starter in the game (conceding that Cliff Lee would be the best second best) and a shiny new All-star closer. The Angels bolstered their spotty hitting with one of the best ever hitters and supplemented their great pitching with yet another great pitcher, at the same time kicking sand in the face of their divisional rivals, Texas, that he bolted from. Even our small spending divisional rivals, Tampa , have a nice new catcher—err, yeah, Jose Molina formerly of Toronto. The Jays have to show for it Sergio Santos, to be our closer (a guy who was a shortstop in our own minor league system four years back) and now Ben Francisco—a backup outfielder.
It’s not that the Jays gave up an adequately promising young lefty pitcher, Frank Gailey, to land Francisco. Gailey is at least a couple of years away from the Bigs, and as Anthopolous himself told reporters last week “you can look at Baseball America Top 30 list (of prospects) and know not all 30 will make the majors”. Nor is it that they in turn took another young pitcher, jesse Chavez, off the 40 man roster to make room for the veteran bench warming Francisco. The problem is that there seemed no need at all for a player of his ilk in the Jays organization- and if there is a need, it merely confirms what fans like me have been suggesting. That we are being duped as to the talent level of the existing roster.
Francisco, the team tells us, is an outfielder “who’s hit left handers pretty well in the past” and he “gives us flexibility against tough left-handers.” Well, one can argue over that but can’t argue that Rajai Davis, Eric Thames, Colby Rasmus, Travis Snider and hot prospect Athony Gose was already an excess of outfielders vying to share the terrain with Jose Bautista. Why in the world do we need to add yet another ?
Of course, maybe it is just setting up another trade. But Alex A denies that. He instead points to Francisco’s hitting prowess- a .261 career average against southpaws, including a .245 clip last year. In 2011 overall he hit .244 with six homers in 250 AB. Pretty marginal numbers, unless you compare them to those of Rasmus and Snider, both of whom hit .225 last year, Snider with only a .348 slugging pct. Those two lefties , managed to hit all of .215 and .116 against left handed pitchers respectively. Even everyday playing Eric Thames failed to match Ben’s meager numbers against lefties. Which all suggests perhaps not so much that the team needed Ben Francisco, but rather they need to jettison Rasmus and Snider- and fast!
It’s looking like it will indeed be a Blue Christmas for jays fans this year. Compared to the All-star game roster, the Jays are now undeniably a weaker, less competitive team. Jeff mathis replaces Jose Molina; a defensive tradeoff but significant drop-off in hitting; Kelly Johnson has replaced Aaron Hill, approximately an equal value move but Mark Teahen is no John McDonald as a backup infielder nor fan favourite. Teahen at over $5 million is a boat anchor for the team.
Ben Francisco and Colby Rasmus might equal Corey Patterson and Adam Loewen, but i’m not convinced of it. The everyday starting rotation is the same, but future prospects are not as bright with the loss of Nestor Molina and Zach Stewart. But the real crime is the already lacklustre bullpen. Since the All star game, the Jays have waved ‘bye bye’ to jason Frasor, Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, Octavio Dotel, Jesse Carlson and Mark Rzepcynski. They’ve added sergio Santos to the mix. Anyone else see how this is going to cut the number of blown saves in 2012?
Bob Elliott of the Sun noted this weekend that no matter what the merits of the Jays current system, the “problem Anthopolous faces is getting fans on his timetable.” Indeed. I’m starting to think that the thing most Jays are going to hope for under their tree is not Prince Fielder nor Yu Darvish in a stylish new Jays jersey, but a brand new GM to run the team in time for April.