Friday, March 8, 2002

2002 NL East Preview

One dynasty, one heist flick, one domestic disturbance, and a French-Canadian seafood mélange. Yep, this must be the National League East.

Atlanta Braves:

Full disclosure time. When I was eleven years old, my father was transferred from Flint, Michigan to Parkersburg, West Virginia (which, given the state of Flint's economy at the time, represented something of a step up in the world for my family). For me the move had one major drawback: there was no major league baseball in Appalachia. For a kid used to spending July evenings listening to the great Ernie Harwell call Tigers games on the mighty WJR, the idea of a baseball-free radio dial seemed practically unimaginable.

And then, sometime during the long, hot summer of 1985, I discovered Ted Turner’s Superstation and his Atlanta Braves. The Braves weren’t very good, and they weren’t the Tigers, but they were the only game in town. Pretty soon, I started to feel a deeper connection with them as well. The fumbling, bumbling 96-loss Braves seemed like the mirror image of my own pre-teen awkwardness. And the Braves were exiles, just like me: the Braves from Boston and Milwaukee, I from Flint. Before long, the Braves were "my team," and they've stayed my team ever since.

Which just goes to show that there's no reasoning with the heart of a baseball fan. In the first place, the Braves haven't been underdogs for years. In the second place, they embody the opposite of everything I believe about running a successful club. Ted Turner was a megalomaniac in the Mark Cuban/Daniel Snyder mold (he once named himself manager for a day). The current owner – AOL/Time-Warner – is a corporate monolith that seems to regard the Braves as little more than cheap Superstation programming. On the one hand, AOL slashed the budget of the Braves' previously elite scouting department; on the other, it gave its broadcasting arm a sweetheart deal on the cost of Braves telecasts, padding the cable division’s bottom line at the expense of the team. Sure, that left more money to buy fresh syndication runs of "Who’s The Boss," and "Mama's Family," but it was a raw deal for the scouts and minor league instructors laid off by AOL’s HR functionaries last spring.

Even worse, despite the financial constraints AOL has imposed on the team, over the past five or six years Braves general manager John Schuerholz has shown an increasingly disturbing fetish for veteran players. He routinely signs middle-aged scrubs (Vinny Castilla, B.J. Surhoff, and Albie Lopez) to outrageous contracts that become albatrosses midway through their terms. Schuerholz made a smart trade this offseason by picking up slugger Gary Sheffield for peanuts, but moves like that have become few and far between in Atlanta. Unless the Braves get serious about developing their minor leaguers, they risk turning into Dixie’s version of the Baltimore Orioles (expensive, old, and hopeless).

Despite all that, the Braves have won like nobody’s business (they’re going for their eleventh straight division title this year), and another division title looks like a mortal lock. How has Atlanta been able to avoid the fate of other veteran-dependent, corporately-owned teams? Great freaking pitching. Last fall I mentioned how today’s baseball fans are blessed with the opportunity to see one of the game's all-time greatest hitters in Barry Bonds. What I didn’t mention, however, is that we are likewise blessed with the opportunity to see one of the greatest-ever pitchers of all time in Greg Maddux. I’ll save the statistical proofs of Maddux’s greatness until someone like Bob Costas spouts off about how there haven’t been any truly great pitchers since the 1960's. Suffice it to say that Maddux is a master, and along with near-masters Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, the Braves pitchers have given Atlanta a lot of margin for error over the past decade.

Now that several pre-AOL prospects like Marcus Giles and Wilson Betemit are starting to contribute on the major league level, there are stirrings of a youth movement in Atlanta. If Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz can hold up for another three or four years, the Braves may pull off the rare feat of rebuilding without having to suffer through a couple of painful 100-loss seasons. As a Braves fan, I'd love to see it happen; as a baseball fan, there's a part of me that wants to see AOL and Schuerholz pay the consequences for their shortsightedness.

New York Mets

You have to wonder whether Mets GM Steve Phillips saw Ocean’s Eleven this past winter. All the heist-flick clichés are present and accounted for on the Mets roster: the brains (crafty southpaw Al Leiter), the muscle (Mo Vaughn and Jeremy Burnitz), the master of disguise (manager Bobby Valentine, once suspended for appearing in the Mets dugout wearing a sunglasses and a fake moustache after being ejected from a game), the handsome charmer ("Mr. G.Q." Mike Piazza), the little guys with good hands (Roberto Alomar and Rey Ordonez), and the money man (Mets owner Fred Wilpon). Heck, the Mets are only a blonde bombshell and Sterling Hayden away from putting on a remake of The Asphalt Jungle.

But maybe Phillips ought to have taken a lesson from Rififi or The Killing. If Hollywood has taught us anything, it's that whenever career criminals get together for "one last score," their supposedly foolproof plan usually falls apart halfway through. The team Phillips has assembled (aging, expensive, and nearly washed-up) looks like it might be able to break into the vault; after that, you can expect the cops to move in.

Winning the NL East isn’t going to be like knocking over a neighborhood bank. The Mets have set their sights on the Atlanta Braves: the Fort Knox of baseball teams. No one has got past their defenses since 1990, and they just went out and bought themselves a mean new Doberman in Gary Sheffield. In order to take the Braves down, everything is going to have to come off like clockwork. Vaughn will have to stay healthy, Ordonez will have to hit more than his weight for once in his life, and Piazza will have to avoid the drop-off in productivity so many catchers his age experience.

Maybe I’ve seen too many heist movies, but I just don’t see it happening. The Mets are going to make a good run of it, and for a while, they’re going to look like they can pull it off. But count on it: some big twist late in the operation is going to sink them. Will it be an injury? Some clubhouse turmoil? A scheming dame? Who knows? The only thing for sure is that it’s going to be a suspenseful, but ultimately unsuccessful caper.

Philadelphia Phillies:

There’s a messy breakup going on in Philadelphia. Like most breakups, this one is about commitment, money, and backstabbing. Unlike most breakups, this one is going to last for the next seven months. Luckily, there aren’t any kids involved.

The Phillies have a great young third baseman in Scott Rolen. Unfortunately for the Phillies, Rolen is in the last year of his contract, and by all indications, he intends to become a free agent and walk away from Cheesesteak City after this season because his significant other is badmouthing him behind his back. Will anything keep him from leaving? "Sure," he says, "show me that you’re willing to make a commitment and I’ll consider staying."

The Phillies responded by signing Rolen’s teammate, Bobby Abreu, to a $64 million contract, and according to ESPN’s Jason Stark, they have made no secret that they consider this to be the "commitment" Rolen is so hot about.

As in most breakups, however, neither party is being completely honest. Commitment or no commitment, Rolen wouldn’t re-up with the Phillies if his life depended on it. He thinks he’s been treated like dirt for the past three years and he hates playing on the Astroturf of Veterans Stadium. For its part, management only threw big money at Abreu once it took its last offer to Rolen off the table, so what looks like a demonstration of commitment is merely a case of shifted affections. Why all the gamesmanship? When a couple breaks up, they each try to win over their mutual friends. When a baseball team and its star player break up, they try to win over the fans. Rolen wants to avoid being unmercifully booed by the ruthless Philadelphia crowd; Phillies management doesn’t want to look cheap.

The truth is, nothing they do is going to change the way anybody feels. No matter how much Rolen plays the "aw shucks, it’s not about the money, it’s about winning" game, he’s still going to be booed by Phillies fans. These are the people that threw snowballs at Santa Claus for cryin’ out loud. They’re not going to hold back from harassing some guy who thinks he’s too good for Philly. Similarly, no matter how much walking-around money management drops into the laps of guys like Abreu, it’s going to look cheap so long as it maintains a bottom-ten payroll while playing in the largest single-team market in baseball.

So how will it end? Like most breakups: ugly. The Phillies have painted themselves into a corner with all their talk about how committed they are to winning. If they had simply acknowledged that they weren’t going to be able to sign Rolen, they could’ve traded him for some prospects in the off-season and continued the nice little rebuilding job they’ve been undertaking the past few years. Now they’re essentially stuck, because if they flip Rolen now, the fans will think they were being lied to (though I think they should just trade him and deal with the unhappy fans as best they can). Rolen, for his part, could’ve just kept his yap shut about wanting to see commitment. It would’ve made his last season in Philly less painful.

All this drama is ruining what should have been a pretty good thing in Philadelphia this year. The Phillies are just starting to turn the corner, and locking up Rolen a year or two ago would have made the transition from up-and-comer to contender much easier. As it stands, the Rolen impasse kept the Phillies from making any improvements in the off-season. As a result, they’re looking at an outside shot at the playoffs this year, and tremendous uncertainty after that. Hard to imagine, isn't it? Rolen and the Phillies seemed so perfect for each other when they started going out.

Florida Marlins/Montreal Expos:

The Marlins and Expos get smashed together in one entry because, thanks to an off-season of asinine franchise-shifting, contraction rumors, and forced receiverships, it’s hard to untangle these two teams.

For those scoring at home, Marlins owner John Henry sold his team to Expos owner Jeff Loria so that Henry could buy the Boston Red Sox. Then Loria flipped the Expos to Major League Baseball, the entity that had threatened to eliminate the team all winter. After the transactions were complete, Loria brought most of the Expos' front office employees and field manager Jeff Torborg with him to Florida, and fired all the Marlin employees. Henry is currently in the process of firing most of the Red Sox employees, and it remains to be seen if he’s going to bring any ex-Marlin workers up to Beantown. Who’s minding the store in Montreal? A bunch of lackeys transferred from Major League Baseball headquarters.

It’s hard to say who was hurt most by all this, but ethically speaking, it stinks worse in Montreal. Given that Major League Baseball has shown that it doesn’t care what happens to the Expos, what’s stopping the recently-installed MLB puppets from trading away Expo stars Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Vidro to attractive markets like New York or Los Angeles for little or no compensation? Nothing really, and while it would enrage Expos fans and harm the integrity of the game, it would be great for TV ratings.

The prospect-stocked Marlins may be in just as much danger of losing their top players. When Loria took over the Expos, the previous ownership had left him with a talent base he could build on. Rather than follow through and try to make the Expos a winner, however, Loria chose to cut salaries and scouting budgets to the bone so that he could field a loser and rake in profit-sharing money. The conventional wisdom is that nothing could have saved baseball in Montreal, but I know this much: before Loria, the Expos used to draw over 2 million fans a year and field consistently competitive teams. If I were a betting man, I’d predict that Loria will hamstring the Marlins like he did the Expos.

It's a shame, really, because on the field, things should be looking up for these more than moderately-talented teams. But it's still spring, which is early enough to be optimistic. Maybe Jeff Loria has seen the error of his ways. Maybe this time he’ll choose to invest in his business rather than simply shaking it down for tipping money. Likewise, maybe MLB will realize that it's better to move Les Expos to D.C. than to slaughter them like Montcalm’s troops on the Plains of Abraham.

PROJECTED FINISH: Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, Florida/Montreal.