Saturday, February 23, 2002

2002 AL East Preview

It’s the Yankees' world. Everyone else is just living in it.

New York Yankees:

Star Trek fans know all about the Borg, a collective organism which roams the universe, assimilating the species it considers useful, and annihilating their individuality in the process. The Borg is virtually invincible; its credo is, "resistance is futile." I think the Yankees stole their business model.

Not content with four world championships in six years, Boss Steinbrenner has recently changed his approach from developing talent in-house to assimilating guys like Moose Mussina, Jason Giambi, Steve Karsay, and Robin Ventura into the Yankee collective. Though Yankees management hasn't yet resorted to force, it has shown a Borg-like contempt for the individuality of the players. When asked recently whether he worries about ego clashes among the Yankees' former team leaders, field manager Joe Torres responded, "[W]e don't have to have individual leaders. It's about a group approach to the game." Not to be outdone, Steinbrenner recently ordered Giambi to shave off his distinctive goatee.

What a shame. I’ve never really cared for the Yankees, but unlike the current group of boring model citizens in pinstripes, at least the Bronx Bombers of old had pizzazz. Past Yankees teams were made up of binge drinkers, prima donnas, and wife-swappers. They fought in the dugout. They painted the town red. They even managed to win a bunch of championships in the process. You may not have wanted your daughters to date them, but those Yankees had a certain joie d'vivre. There’s little doubt that they will dominate their opposition, but the 2002 Yankees are going to be the most uninteresting 105-win team in baseball history. They’ll say all the right things to the media. They’ll give each other friendly, but restrained high-fives after home runs. They'll show up with their moms in those Chunky soup commercials. Sad.

But I suppose Yankees fans would willingly give up a little color in exchange for another world championship, and it looks like they’re going to get one. Like the Borg, the Yankees will dispatch their opposition efficiently and dispassionately. The A’s, Mariners, and White Sox may have something to say about it, but from where I’m sitting, resistance seems futile.

Boston Red Sox:

Because of their eighty-three year championship drought, Red Sox fans labor under the delusion that their team is specially cursed. Ask anyone from Charlestown to West Roxbury, and they'll tell you there’s nothing tougher in the world than being a Sox fan. I used to think this was a charming tradition, but frankly, all this talk about The Curse has gotten way out of hand.

The Red Sox may not have won a World Series in our lifetime (or our fathers' lifetime, or hell, some of our grandfathers' lifetimes) but they have rarely if ever been a bad team. Not counting the strike-interrupted 1994 season, the Red Sox have finished in the cellar exactly twice in 70 years, and have contended for the pennant as often as anyone except the Yankees. Beantowners blubber and bawl about the heartaches of 1967, 1975, 1978, and 1986, but those four years of near-glory were better than anything the fans of a dozen franchises I could name have ever experienced (the Rangers, Padres, Cubs, and Brewers come to mind). It’s better to have loved and lost than never have loved at all, and the Red Sox have loved plenty.

But Sox fans won't acknowledge that they’ve had it better than everyone else. Well, almost everyone else. When they're not whining to you about their alleged misfortune, they're staring south down I-95 at the source of their inferiority complex: New York. New York and its grander theaters, superior restaurants, more prestigious museums, and most of all, its twenty-six-time world champion Yankees. Its an obsession, really. An obsession that they would do well to drop, because it makes talking baseball with Sox fans a really unpleasant experience. I mean, how churlish can you get?

Besides, there is a lot for Sox fans to like about their own team. Sure, the Yankees may have an all-world, GQ cover-boy shortstop in Derek Jeter, but the Sox have an even better all-world, GQ cover-boy shortstop in Nomar Garciaparra. The Yankees may have a fireballing ace (and former Red Sox star) in Roger Clemens, but the Sox have an even better fireballing ace in Pedro Martinez. The Red Sox may not be as strong as the Yankees from top to bottom, but they have the chance to be really damn good this year, and their fans should enjoy it.

One of two things is going to happen in Boston this season. Either fans will keep comparing the Red Sox to the Yankees, find their boys lacking, and give up hope (which, if history holds, will cause the local media to turn on the Sox as well, giving the Red Sox themselves their usual excuse to throw in the towel), or they’ll realize that their team is just as good as the A’s and Mariners and focus on competing for the wild card. Then maybe they can dream about sticking it to their Gotham rivals in a short playoff series where anything can happen. If they choose the former course, they will definitely be disappointed. If they choose the latter, they may very well find themselves watching October baseball. The choice is yours, Boston. Don’t blow it.

Toronto Blue Jays:

The great sabermetric experiment continues in Toronto. After apprenticing for several seasons under Billy Beane in Oakland, new Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi gets a chance to show Canadian baseball fans that OPS doesn’t stand for "Ontario Parcel Service." It's good to see a stat-head take over the Blue Jays, because sabermetrics is a thinking-man’s approach to the game, and if baseball needs anything, it needs smarter people making decisions.

But will Ricciardi be successful? It's hard to say. On the one hand, sabermetrics doesn’t do a bit of good if you lack top shelf players, and with a few exceptions, Toronto doesn’t have the talent to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox. On the other hand, I have found that one of the keys to job security is appearing to be the smartest person in a group of morons, and Riccardi seems to be doing a good job of that. As Baseball Prospectus writer Chris Kahrl reported, the Blue Jays recently caused a stir by being the first team ever to use PowerPoint in an arbitration presentation. If that’s what passes for cutting-edge in baseball these days, Ricciardi has nothing to worry about. The first time he finds himself in trouble with his bosses, he'll only need to threaten them with the "magic" of a laser pointer or a microwave oven, and they’ll back down in a heartbeat.

Though Riccardi’s sabermetric voodoo will probably bring on-field results at some point, the Jays are still a couple of years away from contending. First baseman Carlo Delgado and centerfielder Shannon Stewart are superstars, second baseman Homer Bush and most of the pitching staff are dreck, and that sort of mix usually adds up to a .500 season. Like Boston, however, Blue Jays fans can choose to be pessimists and despair about their team being only the third-best in their division, or they can be optimists and enjoy rooting for the best team in Canada. I have this feeling, however, that they won't be doing either much past August, when the hockey training camps open and everyone traditionally stops paying attention to the Blue Jays. Is apathy worse than pessimism? We’ll find out over the next seven months.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays:

Before the Devil Rays started play in 1998, baseball in Tampa was just a useful bogie that greedy team owners used to scare cities and taxpayers into funding new stadiums or renovating old ones. The Minnesota Twins, Oakland A's, Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers, and Seattle Mariners all threatened moves to Tampa, but once they got their public subsidies, tax abatements, or shiny new mallparks, they decided to stay put. Later, almost every one of those teams admitted that it never seriously considered moving to Florida.

Tampa's last unsuccessful flirtation with baseball came when current Rays owner Vincent Naimoli agreed to purchase the San Francisco Giants and move the team there in 1993. When Major League Baseball moved in to block the deal, Naimoli threatened to sue. Baseball caved, and in exchange for dropping the lawsuit, Naimoli was promised an expansion team within five years. In the midst of the 1994-95 player’s strike, baseball owners infamously approved Tampa Bay and Phoenix to begin play in 1998, bypassing larger or more dynamic markets such as Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, and Portland.

Was there ever a demand for baseball in Tampa? Probably not, judging by the sparse crowds at Tropicana Field. But thanks to greed, threats of litigation, and shady backroom deals, Tampa got itself a club. What a club, though. Maybe it's because of the unnatural way baseball came to Tampa, but there's something not quite right about the Devil Rays.

Does it strike anyone else as odd that the Rays play in a depressing eyesore of concrete, steel, and Astroturf even though they're based in what is supposed to be "the sunshine state?" Tropicana Field is a lousy ballpark even by dome standards. Batted balls hit the ceiling of the joint on a regular basis, turning would-be home runs into ground rule doubles. Old Man Alvord’s Buick used to be an automatic double when my buddies and I played sandlot baseball, but we were twelve years old. What’s Tampa’s excuse?

Then there's the unsettling phenomenon of so many star players reaching career milestones while wearing Devil Rays uniforms. Jose Canseco and Fred McGriff both hit their 400th career home run while playing for Tampa, but five or ten years from now no one will remember they ever played there. Even more disconcerting is the curious case of Wade Boggs. After becoming a legend in Boston and winning a championship with the Yankees, Boggs collected his 3000th career hit as a Devil Ray, and had his number retired in Tampa before the Red Sox had a chance to do him the honor. Rumor has it that the Rays and Boggs have a secret deal in which Boggs’s Hall of Fame plaque will show him wearing a Devil Rays cap, even though his tenure there was short and for the most part unremarkable. I’ve not much of a traditionalist, but even I don't like seeing a four year-old team vulture so much baseball history.

And the Devil Rays' unnaturalness shows itself in more harmful ways as well. In late January, prospect Greg "Toe" Nash was arrested and charged with rape, felony theft, and "aggravated crime against nature." I'll say it again: there's something not right about this team.

So how will they do? Terribly. Given their four-year history of ineptitude, that shouldn't come as any surprise. And it shouldn't leave too many people feeling disappointed, either. I mean, ask yourself: have you ever met a Devil Rays fan? Neither have I.

Baltimore Orioles:

Orioles owner/master litigator Peter Angelos made his bones suing asbestos manufacturers, the tobacco industry, makers of lead paint and distributors of the diet drug fen-phen. His legal practice has made him a billionaire. It also taught him everything he knows about running a baseball team.

First, like any good lawyer, Angelos tries to find the loopholes. Outfielder Albert Belle remains on the Orioles roster despite not having played an inning since the end of the 2000 season, and not being expected to play baseball again due to a degenerative hip condition. Why is Belle still listed as a member of the team? Because if the Orioles keep Belle on the roster, their insurance carrier will cover 70% of the remaining three years of Belle's contract, which calls for $13 million annually. Could the Orioles waive Belle and make room for a good young player? Sure, but then they’d have to pay for the mistake they made in signing Belle in the first place.

Second, like any good lawyer, Angelos tries to put a good face on bad facts. With the retirement of Cal Ripken, the Orioles are marketing their team with the slogan "Come out and see the kids play." I have no idea whether the average Oriole fan is buying into the idea that their team is rebuilding with young players, but in reality, the Orioles youth movement isn’t all that youthful. The three players they are counting on the most this year are David Segui, Jeff Conine, and Mike Bordick. Their ages: 35, 35, and 36. I guess you might call them kids if they were thoracic surgeons, but they’re fossils as far as baseball players go, and not very good players at that.

Third, like any good lawyer, Angelos exploits technicalities to gain advantage. Last season, Angelos ordered the outfield fences at Camden Yards moved further out so that the opposition wouldn't hit so many home runs off of his pitching-impaired team. When opponents still hit buckets of dingers, and the O’s bats remained silent, Angelos ordered the fences moved back in to help his anemic offense. Unfortunately for the Orioles, this year’s experiment is unlikely to be any more successful than last year’s. Might it have been more effective in the long run to develop some decent pitching and hitting rather than trying to create the illusion of it by moving the fences? Sure, but why put in the hard work when you can get by on procedural sleight-of-hand?

Going by Angelos’s track record, it would seem that the skills of a good lawyer don't necessarily translate into the skills required to run a successful baseball team. I can’t decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, as a lawyer who dreams of running a baseball team one day, I worry that Angelos is setting a bad precedent by running the once-proud Orioles franchise into the ground. On the other hand, I’m nowhere near as good a lawyer as Peter Angelos, so maybe some enlightened owner out there would take that as a sign that I'd do a much better job. It’s a toss-up.

I do know this much: this year’s Orioles are going to be the worst thing to happen to Baltimore since Frank Pembleton left Homicide. They’re going to start slow, get worse, and end in last place after a season of uninspired play, empty seats, and nasty press conferences. When that happens, we’ll all get to see Peter Angelos drag out his big bag of lawyer tricks one more time as he employs the litigator’s favorite tactic: shifting the blame. Come late September, he’ll likely fire manager Mike Hargrove for not being able to turn a roster full of talentless, overpriced senior citizens into a pennant winner.

PROJECTED FINISH: New York, Boston, Toronto, Tampa Bay, Baltimore.

2002 AL West Preview

You know, there's a lot to love about Ohio: the $600 rent, the eleven-minute commute. But even so, I sometimes find myself wishing I lived in California, or Washington, or even Oregon, or anywhere I could see games in the AL West -- the best division in baseball -- up close and personal.

Here in the heartland, we only get the West Coast highlights on the ESPN 2:00 AM wrap-up, and unfortunately even famous baseball writers have to get up in the morning and slave for The Man. So until I can afford a summer home in Eureka, Yakima, or the greater Eugene, Oregon Metroplex, it looks like I’ll be satisfying my jones for the deep pitching, patient hitting, and solid defense of the AL West by surfing the boxscores over my morning coffee.

Oakland A’s:

Despite having one of the lowest payrolls in the game, the A's just keep on winning. To understand why, you need to know something about a relatively new school of baseball analysis called sabermetrics. Here's the Cliff Notes version.

In the early 1980's, former school teacher, boiler-room attendant, and night watchman Bill James started to think hard about what makes a baseball team successful. He tossed out the conventional wisdom, dug into existing statistics, invented several of his own, and published his findings in an annual publication called Baseball Abstracts. These books, along with his other writings, represented a huge advance in the use and understanding of baseball statistics.

Before James, people generally assumed that a player hitting .300 was a good offensive performer, and a player hitting .250 a mediocre one. James showed, among other things, that on-base percentage and slugging percentage, not batting average and RBI, were the best measures of a player's offensive ability.

This observation led him to some surprising conclusions: that walks are just as important as hits, that strikeouts are ok if you compensate with home runs, and that stolen bases, bunting, and the other one-run strategies known as "small ball" are vastly overrated, and even counterproductive.

James's work inspired a legion of followers, often called "sabermetricians" after the Society for American Baseball Research, an organization of amateur stat-heads. If you imagine a bunch of skinny guys carrying 20-sided dice around in little pouches, you wouldn't be far off, especially since many of them got bitten by the sabermetric bug while playing what is in effect a baseball role-playing game called Strat-o-Matic involving dice, imagination, and, yes, a total absence of women. Until recently, the undeniable nerdiness of the sabermetricians, along with their sometimes-confrontational rhetoric, tended to keep them on the margins of respectable baseball commentary.

But while sabermetrics has slowly gained acceptance in the mainstream media, it still hasn't found its way into most professional baseball organizations. Few teams employ sabermetric analysis when scouting, drafting, and training ballplayers. More often than not, scouts still evaluate players on their speed or physiques rather than their ability to get on base or hit for power, and most teams continue to ignore park effects -- the sometimes profound impact stadium configuration and elevation can have on player performance -- when signing free agents. If these teams have a lot of money (and some good luck), they can outspend their shortsightedness and still put a winning team on the field (e.g. the world champion Arizona Diamondbacks). If they don’t have much money, they find themselves struggling to score runs and wondering why they keep losing year after year (i.e. the Kansas City Royals).

The Oakland A’s have neither a lot of money to spend nor management willing to wait around for good luck. But they have had great success applying sabermetric principles when scouting and developing players. Led by general manager and self-professed James-disciple Billy Beane, the A’s have managed to turn a low-revenue club into a consistent winner by stressing plate discipline in their hitters and never being afraid to pass on an established veteran when a lower-paid but sabermetrically sound player was available for the same job. Not surprisingly, the A’s have become the darlings of the sabermetric community.

While I'm not a certified stat-head myself (too much math), I’m a big fan of sabermetrics. Still, the cult of Billy Beane and the Oakland A's is getting to be a bit much, even for me. It’s as if the stat-heads idolize Beane just because he acknowledges their existence and likes the same books. It’s similar to the way Trekkies like the guy who played Tuvok better than the guy who played Chakotay, because the guy who played Tuvok actually shows up at the conventions and shakes their hands.

It got to the point where I started fantasizing that the A’s would crash and burn. And for a while there, it looked like they might. When Beane let all-star and former MVP first baseman Jason Giambi go to the Yankees as a free agent, I seriously started to wonder whether the admirable work Beane had done over the past few years was about to come undone, and the A’s would sink back into mediocrity. Truth be told, the prospect of the A’s falling and bringing the cult of Beane down with them kind of jazzed me up for a while just before Christmas.

It isn't going to happen. Not long after losing Giambi, Beane pulled off one of his patented heists in trading a couple of average minor leaguers to the Texas Rangers for Carlos Pena, a stud of a first baseman who is going to tattoo the ball all over the East Bay for years to come. Giambi will be better than Pena for the next year or so, but Pena will be putting up Giambiesque numbers long after the goateed one has started making withdrawals from Boss Steinbrenner’s pension plan. Add in the maturation of Beane’s army of Giambi-lite players such as Eric Chavez, Miguel Tejada, and little brother Jeremy Giambi, and the presence of perhaps the best rotation in the American League, and it looks like the A’s are set for another fantastic season.

All in all, I suppose it’s a good thing that the A’s are winning and look to keep winning. The longer Beane’s boys stay on top, the more old-school baseball men will start to see the world the way I do. Already, the Toronto Blue Jays have hired former Beane assistant J.P. Ricciardi to be their general manager, and Ricciardi looks to be doing the things I like to see GMs do (e.g. cleaning out overrated veterans and signing solid young prospects who know how to take a walk). Even better, Ricciardi hired one of the writers of Baseball Prospectus -- Keith Law -- as a full-time assistant to aid in player evaluation. Did you hear that? A lowly baseball writer with no practical experience has been hired to help run a Major League baseball team. It’s like Captain Kirk picking some geek out of the crowd in the Sheraton convention room to help fly the Enterprise. Meanwhile, guys like me sit back by the action figure displays trying to look cool while desperately hoping that we get beamed up next.

Seattle Mariners:

Wow, they won a lot of games last year. No, they won’t win that many this year. You know, statistical regression and all of that. Ichiromania and Brett Boone’s previously dormant slugging ability will both fall back toward the mean, leaving the Mariners a pretty damn good team rather than a dominant force. That's still impressive when you consider that their best hitter (Edgar Martinez) is approaching 142 years old, their first baseman suffers from the lingering effects of a sub-arachnoid hemorrhage, and their manager was once cut from the terrible Seattle Pilots team that Jim Bouton made famous in Ball Four.

Still, even beyond the recent renewal of Frasier, Seattlites have plenty of reason to worry.

Reason one is that they lost starting pitchers Aaron Sele and Brett Tomko. Tomko spent most of last year in the minor leagues, but he is a legitimate major league starter, and having him available in case of an injury helped Lou Pinella sleep at night. Sele is being replaced by journeyman James Baldwin, which is not too terrible a downgrade, but again, if something happens to Baldwin -- or even more likely, if something happens to ancient Mariner Jamie Moyer -- there isn't as much pitching depth available to pick up the slack.

Reason two is that between the seemingly unlimited talent of the A’s organization, the seemingly unlimited cash flow of the Texas Rangers, and the fact that even the Anaheim freakin’ Angels look to be at least respectable this year, the AL West figures to be the toughest division in baseball. In other words, the Mariners don’t have much margin for error, and despite last year's 116-win season, they are an injury and a run of bad luck away from third place.

The Mariners' long-term prospects are bright, however. The young prospects down on the farm are poised to start contributing to an already talented club and the new stadium has transformed the Mariners from a perpetually struggling franchise into a financial juggernaut. If they stumble in 2002, you can bet the plantation that they’ll right the ship in 2003 and beyond. When I was younger, I never thought I’d live to see the day the Mariners would be among the strongest franchises in baseball. But then I never thought Pearl Jam would end its career spinning out covers of 1960's rock tunes, either.

Texas Rangers:

Last year’s Texas Rangers (along with the Orioles, Mets, Dodgers, and Red Sox) are proof that the Bud Selig-spun conventional wisdom holding that low revenue clubs are doomed to failure while high revenue clubs are guaranteed success is hooey. If the Rangers’ dismal record means anything, it means that just because a team spends nearly $100 million on payroll, that's no guarantee they'll walk away with all the post-season hardware. Despite plunking $250 million into A-Rod and several million more into veterans like Andres Galarraga, Ken Caminiti, and a cast of thousands, the Rangers stank last year. This was because the Rangers, like so many teams, didn’t understand the difference between a player with a great reputation and a player who can actually still play. Galarraga showed every bit of his 40 years last season, and Ken Caminiti’s performance made his post-season arrest for possession of crack cocaine seem a little less shocking than it should have been. Throw in a complete absence of effective pitching, and it’s little wonder the Rangers finished in last place.

Of course, the highest-profile move of last year was the quarter-billion the Rangers gave to Rodriguez. But lost in all the hoopla over the amount was the fact that last year Rodriguez was probably the best player in baseball not named Bonds, and that while it is shocking to say so, he may prove to be worth that money over the life of his contract. The kid really is that good.

What about this year? Well, for starters, the Rangers hired former Cleveland Indians GM John Hart. Hart isn’t my favorite GM in the business, but he will do a much better job of spending owner Tom Hicks’s money than his predecessor. At the absolute worst, Hart won’t bring in expensive, washed-up players to fill the roster; all his washed-up players will be cheap, which, truth be told, is an improvement. To be fair, Hart has done a good job of signing as many pitchers as he can with the hopes of cobbling together a staff that will improve upon last year’s (not a tall order). None of these new faces are sure things, but the law of averages should be on his side; none of them can be worse than the pitchers Texas ran out to the hill last year.

Among these new acquisitions is the infamous John Rocker. Rocker may find life easier in Texas, and not simply because he finds himself south of the Mason-Dixon line once again. Having watched Rocker -- an immensely talented pitcher when his mouth isn’t getting him into trouble -- pitch for the last several years now, it is clear that he has a very fragile ego. His on-the-field struggles last year may have had a lot to do with being shuffled from Atlanta to Cleveland in mid-season, and the feelings of rejection a trade can instill in a young player like him. The fact that Hart sought him out as a free agent this off-season may actually make everybody’s favorite redneck feel wanted; feeling wanted may make Rocker comfortable, and a comfortable John Rocker is an effective relief pitcher.

Even if Rocker goes into full meltdown mode in mid-season, at least he'll have company. Hart also traded for volatile outfielder Carl Everett (you may recall that he head-butted an umpire during a game a couple of years ago), notorious clubhouse cancer Dan Miceli (Miceli got his manager fired last year after complaining to the media for weeks), and historical sulker Juan Gonzalez. I have never believed those who say that a team has to have good chemistry in order to win games. Indeed, the fact that no one ever talks about losing teams with good chemistry makes me think that winning causes good chemistry rather than the opposite. This crowd in Texas, however, is going to test my assumptions. The Rangers may score a thousand runs this year, but they may also lead the league in restraining orders. Either way, they’ll be entertaining.

Anaheim Angels:

Though they get little respect in their own division, it should be remembered that the Angels were in the thick of the wild-card race last year. At least for a while. For some reason they swooned terribly in September, finishing with a record (75-87) that was far worse than it should have been, given their talent.

The good news is that the Angels appear to be on the right track. The Halos traded over-priced, out of shape, and oft-injured first basemen Mo Vaughn in January, unburdening themselves of an $80 million headache while bringing them workhorse starting pitcher Kevin Appier in return. With Mo’s money freed-up, they were able to sign another reliable starting pitcher in Aaron Sele. Adding Appier and Sele to a rotation that fronted three up-and-comers last year (Jarrod Washburn, Ramon Ortiz, and Scott Schoeneweis), and the Angels have what looks to be an above-average starting five. Even better, the fact that Angels’ owner ABC/Walt Disney -- a conglomerate who had no idea what to do with the club beyond pimping it out in a bad Tony Danza movie a few years back -- is looking to sell the team. Fans can only hope the eventual owners want to bring back the glory days of the late 70s and early 80s when singing cowboy/Angels owner Gene Autry spent like a drunken sailor, fans flocked to the Big A to see Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson, and Fred Lynn, and the Angels actually won a lot of games.

But don’t get too excited too soon. The Angels have some holes in their lineup and several everyday players like Tim Salmon and Garret Anderson who seem to be on the decline. (Not that Anderson has that far to come down; he’s never been as good as everybody thought he was) They don’t have a first baseman either, but decent-hitting first basemen aren’t that hard to find if you’re willing to take a chance on a kid or a minor league veteran. The upshot is that the Angels offense is a work in progress.

Finally, the killer for the Angels is that neither the A’s nor Mariners seem to have lost much in the off-season, and the Rangers can’t be worse than they were last year (and if they are, they will likely spend big bucks to improve). If the breaks go Anaheim’s way and the younger 60% of the rotation matures as expected, they could surprise some folks. Unfortunately, given the competition, they are unlikely to surprise their way into anything other than third place.

PROJECTED FINISH: Oakland, Seattle, Anaheim, Texas.

Saturday, February 16, 2002

Damn Yankees! 2002 AL Central Preview

At long last the 2002 baseball season has arrived. Pitchers and catchers reported to spring training on Valentine's Day, and the regular season opens on Sunday, March 31. That means that John Q. Public has a little more than a month to get back up to speed on the national pastime.

Luckily, your Uncle Craig is here to give you the lowdown on what to expect from each team in the coming season. Between now and Opening Day, I'll be previewing each of the six major league divisions.

First up, the American League Central. That’s right, the AL Central. You were probably expecting the obligatory pre-season genuflection towards the New York Yankees and the AL East. Forget about it.

Every damn baseball writer begins his season preview with the Eastern Division and works his way west. Writers are taught to lead with their best stuff, close with their next-strongest stuff, and bury the mediocre junk they don’t want anyone to notice in the middle. From the standpoint of the New York and Bristol, Connecticut-based sports media hegemony ("NYBCBSMH"), that means leading with the Yankees, closing with the Dodgers, and lumping all the ugly stepsisters of baseball (Kansas City, Cincinnati, Minnesota) in the middle.

Well, I’m from Columbus, Ohio, not Park Slope, and its about time someone stood up for the great Midwest. Sure, I suppose it's possible that the NYBCBSMH doesn’t have it in for what we right-thinking people call God’s country, and it’s possible they treat us so badly because most of the Central Division teams, well, kind of suck. But apart from my dateless adolescence, checkered job history and unceremonious removal from tour group at FBI headquarters 1996, I've had pretty good luck with conspiracy theories, and I'm the kind of guy that sticks with a winning formula.

So to hell with the Yankees. I’ll get to them when I’m good and ready. Instead, I’m leading off with teams that play in stadiums surrounded by shopping malls, auto plants, and amber waves of grain.

Cleveland Indians:

In 1890, the Cleveland Infants (look it up) of the short-lived Players League had a slugging first baseman named Henry Larkin who nearly led the league in RBI. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much else, and as a result, they finished seventh in the eight-team league’s only season. The 2002 Cleveland Indians of the American League have a slugging first baseman named Jim Thome who, since new management decided to gut the team of payroll, is about all they have left of the offense that terrorized the AL Central for the past seven or eight years. I imagine that the Indians will finish better than seventh (and not just because there are only five teams in their division) but they certainly won’t finish first.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for a team cutting expensive veterans who perform no better than some hungry twenty-three year-old kid who makes the league minimum. Indeed, cutting payroll in such a way would be a great way for moribund franchises like Baltimore, Los Angeles, and the New York Mets to make their transition from mediocre to competitive all the easier. But Cleveland didn’t cut some overpaid veteran; Cleveland traded away Roberto freakin’ Alomar, who is one of the three greatest second basemen who ever lived. Alomar was certainly no hero (As you may recall, he spit in some umpire’s face a few years back), and it isn’t as if Alomar was a Cleveland institution (He gets traded by or is allowed to walk away from whatever team he plays for every three years or so -- amazing for a future Hall of Famer). But Alomar can flat out rake, and at the rate Cleveland has shed offense over the past few years, they can use all the raking they can get.

Let us also not forget the fate of every team that has let Alomar go in the past. The Padres let Alomar go in the early '90s, and soon after became a laughing stock. The Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series with Roberto leading the way, but when they let him go, they slipped into a funk from which they have yet to recover. The Orioles, despite being run by a certified lunatic in plaintiffs’ lawyer Peter Angelos, managed two playoff appearances with Alomar in the mid-1990s (and in 1997 became the first and only team since Clinton’s first term to unseat the Yankees at the top of the AL East), only to ditch him and then watch as their once proud franchise turned into the support staff for the farewell tour of the corpse of Cal Ripken. If history has shown us anything it has shown us that dumping Roberto Alomar = imminent suckiness.

So you'd think Cleveland would have realized the lunacy of letting Alomar go. Of course, considering this is the city that named a beer after its greatest moment of shame, expecting Cleveland to have a firm grasp on history may be asking too much.

The Cleveland Infants, er, Indians, will pay for their folly in the form of inferior defense at the keystone, and a lack of production from anyone but Henry Larkin, er, Jim Thome. I predict uncharacteristic mediocrity as a result of the off-season mistakes made in the mistake by the lake.

Detroit Tigers:

The Tigers have never really been a good team. Oh, sure, they used to win a World Series once every 15-20 years, but they have never had the kind of success that their fellow charter American League teams like the Yankees and Red Sox had. In my lifetime, they had one brief run of success in the mid-1980s, and that was about that. Nevertheless, despite all the fair-to-middlin’ baseball taking place on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull over the years, Tigers fans at least had the luxury of watching games in one of the best parks in baseball. Tiger Stadium had double-decker bleachers. Tiger Stadium had irregular dimensions. Most importantly, Tiger Stadium had those old horse trough-style urinals in the men’s rooms, and nothing says baseball like peeing in a trough. Those little touches made the mild-mannered Michigan baseball fan’s life much sweeter as they sat through the inevitable 79 win-83 loss seasons.

Since 2000, the Tigers have played in shiny, new Comerica Park, which is really more of a carnival midway than a ballpark, complete with an operating carousel and Ferris wheel to go along with their overpriced concessions. And judging by the Tigers' complete failure to develop a decent farm system over the past couple of years, it would appear that Mike Ilitch, the pizza baron who owns the club, was more interested in off-the-field entertainment than quality between the lines.

Things may soon be changing in Detroit, however. Even if it came half a decade too late, Ilitch effectively replaced the inept General Manager Randy Smith this winter (Smith, you may recall, traded away half of the teams prospects for an ailing and sulking Juan Gonzalez two years ago) with veteran baseball man Dave Dombrowski, who was named team President. Smith has yet to be fired, but he is obviously no longer making final personnel decisions, which is a good thing. Dombrowski’s track record with his previous employers does not suggest that he is the Messiah, but at least he knows the difference between talent and the flotsam that Smith had been bringing to Motown for the past five years.

So far, Dombrowski has added a needed bat (Dimitri Young, in a decent trade with the Reds), locked up budding ace Jeff Weaver and fireballer Matt Anderson to long-term contracts, and made the faithful feel good by hiring Tiger legends Al Kaline and Willie Horton as his special assistants. Nice moves, all, especially hiring Horton, a man who, in addition to swatting massive home runs in the 1960s and '70s, was instrumental in helping putting a stop to the riots that rocked Detroit in 1967, and probably saved Hall of Famer Kaline’s life by performing on-the-field CPR after a violent outfield collision in 1970. Detroit has never treated its heroes well, and its good to see them start now.

Make no mistake, it’s gonna be 95-loss ugly this year in Wayne County as the Tigers try to generate runs in perhaps the worst hitters’ park in baseball. However, with the demotion of Randy Smith, at least Tigers fans now have a glimmer of hope for the future. After a decade in which they had only the dulcet tones of broadcasting god Ernie Harwell to calm them, a glimmer is enough.

Minnesota Twins:

There was a great deal of hubbub this off-season about contraction. All of it, however, focused on what a crime it was to contract the Twins, with very little complaint about contracting the Montreal Expos. I, for one, think contraction is a pretty lame idea on the part of the owners (as do they apparently, having recently shelved the plan until next year) but if it is ever going to happen, I don’t see why we should shed tears about the Twins getting the axe.

Though most people don’t remember it, the Twins began as a franchise when Calvin Griffith moved the Washington Senators to Minneapolis in 1961 in order to take advantage of a sweet stadium deal. While Griffith’s robbery of the original Senators was partially absolved by the expansion version of the Senators that started playing in D.C. that same year, Minnesotans obviously got the better end of the deal. After all, while Washington got ten seasons of terrible baseball played by stiffs like Coot Veal and Gene Greene (again, look it up), Minnesota got Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, and the 1965 World Series. They got their good deal by screwing another city, so they should have known that they were due for some Karmic vengeance eventually, right?

Ok, maybe even Karma has a statute of limitations, and 41 years is too long. Maybe they have already paid their price by having to watch games in a stadium that looks like a giant trash bag for the past twenty years. I'm no theologian, so I can’t say for sure. In any event, thanks to litigation and the fecklessness of Commissioner Bud Selig, talking about contracting the Twins is a moot point for now, so let’s just see how last year’s surprise team stacks up this year.

Eh. I can’t say that I am impressed. Last year, as the severely under-funded Twins mounted their improbable run at the division title, they made a trade they thought would put them over the top. They shuffled leadoff hitter Matt Lawton to the Mets in exchange for pitcher Rick Reed, best known in organized labor circles as scab valedictorian during the 1994-95 strike.

Ok, not fair. Reed has been a pretty damn good pitcher for the past few seasons (a poor man’s Greg Maddux if you believe the scouts, but I don’t believe the scouts when it comes to comparing palooka pitchers to deities), and having him on your team is not a liability no matter what the shop steward says about it. Still, Reed didn’t help them down the stretch last year, and at nearly $7 million this season, his salary could pay for a lot of cheap spare parts the Twins actually need.

Management couldn’t move Reed in the off-season, and they didn’t bring in any spare parts, so the Twins -- who are not going to sneak up on anybody this year like they did last year -- are going to have to count on their fellow AL Central contenders to regress in order to have a chance this year. As previously noted, Cleveland has accommodated them in this regard, however, the same cannot be said for the . . . .

Chicago White Sox:

The White Sox were the Minnesota Twins of the 2000 season. Actually, they were better than that, winning more games and actually making the playoffs. And unlike the Twins, the White Sox didn’t rely on smoke and mirrors. They broke the Indians' five-year stranglehold on the division with good young talent, the resurgence of Frank Thomas (a man who, until 1998 looked like a first-ballot Hall of Famer), and the guidance of their vastly underrated manager, Jerry Manuel.

Last year, some bad pre-season signings and trades and an early season-ending injury to Frank Thomas caused the Sox to fall from grace. Instead of sticking with the live young arms that pitched them to the 2000 playoffs, the Sox traded for the often injured and seriously overweight David Wells who, to no one’s surprise except White Sox management's, broke down midway through the season. (This is a man who has been on the disabled list for gout. More than once.) In addition, rather than give a chance to the young prospects who helped them win it the previous year, last year’s Sox signed fossils Harold Baines and Sandy Alomar, Jr., and wasted precious at-bats on the punchless Royce Clayton. The party line was that these players were brought in to add the "veteran presence" that general managers like to talk about. What they forgot was that "skilled baseball players" beat "veteran presence" every single time.

This year looks to be better. Thomas will presumably be back, and if he posts an average-for-him year, the lineup will be dramatically improved. Hoagie-eater David Wells is gone, replaced by innings-eater Todd Ritchie, recently acquired from Pittsburgh. Add to that the maturation of the kids who played so well in 2000, and the White Sox look to be the class of the AL Central. Heck, given the direction of the Indians and the sorry state of the other teams in the division, let’s just pencil the White Sox in as division champs for the foreseeable future. Now, if they would only bring back those 1970s uniforms with the clam digger pants, real progress will have been made.

Kansas City Royals:

It is ironic that the Royals, who are owned by Wal-Mart CEO David Glass, know very little about how to shop on a limited budget. Indeed, the Royals are perhaps the best example of a team that cries poor to the newspapers and then wastes its money on overpaid and overrated veterans, all the time wondering why its best players leave and its record never improves. As frustrated Royals fan and excellent baseball writer Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus has recently noted, over the past two years, the Royals have committed over $17.5 million a year to players whose talents the Royals didn’t need, or who don’t have any talent to begin with.

At the same time, the Royals have allowed two of their best players -- Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye -- to walk away because they allegedly cost too much money to keep. Dye and Damon, however, recently signed contracts that lock both of them up for several years at a combined annual cost of $ 18.42 million. Keeping in mind that Dye and Damon are both much younger and vastly more talented than any of the stiffs they’ve brought in, it is clear that Royals’ management doesn’t know what in the hell it is doing.

Important to note here is that when the Royals unloaded Dye and Damon (as well as valuable role-player Jeremy Giambi in 2000), the team on the other side of the trade was the Oakland A’s. With the help of the Royals’ castoffs, the A’s won over 100 games last year and look to do the same this year. The A’s are under more serious salary constraints than the Royals, but still manage to field a winning team. The difference is that the A’s scouts and front office know how to evaluate talent and price it accordingly; the Royals do not.

The Royals have one certified stud left in their stable, and his name is Mike Sweeney. Sweeney is getting to the point where the Royals have to decide whether to sign him to a long term deal or trade him for some residual value before he walks away as a free agent. I would not bet against (a) the Royals claiming that they cannot afford him sometime around June of this year; and (b) Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane placing a call to Kansas City soon afterwards. If I were in the Kansas City front office, I would consider screening my calls. Fooled once, shame on you. Fooled twice, shame on me. Fooled repeatedly, you’re the Kansas City Royals.

Projected Finish: Chicago, Cleveland, Minnesota, Detroit, Kansas City.