Ah, the week where pitchers and catchers report to camp. It’s scheduled around Valentine’s Day for a reason, you know. It’s the time of year where hope springs eternal and love conquers all, and even if your favorite team doesn’t have a prayer of making the playoffs, it’s still all right to believe that they might make the playoffs. Faith, even blind faith, is a powerful thing, and it is never stronger for a baseball fan than it is right now.
For the people who actually play and manage the game of baseball, however, it is a much, much different story. Some have contract issues to deal with; others have to try and deliver the same numbers they racked up the previous year even when the lineup around them is depleted. Managers have to talk to reporters about taking baby steps with young players, while telling their shrink that they just can’t bear the thought of losing another 95 games. General managers have to find a way to fill that hole, and they all have a hole. Of the hundreds of players, managers, and baseball personnel currently working in the majors today, though, these are the ones we pity the most. (Thanks to the good people at Baseball Reference for their meticulous, endless stream of statistics and bread sticks.)
His contract (seven years, $126 million) was considered to be one of the most untradeable contracts in baseball, and his sub par performance after inking said contract only made it seem like an even bigger albatross. (Sports writers like using the word ‘albatross.’ It makes them look well read.) Granted, he broke his wrist in 2008, and dealt with the lingering effects of it in 2009, but no one remembers that; they just remember the numbers, and Wells was once again confirming his reputation as the “Star Trek” movie franchise of baseball players. Last year, wrist fully healed after surgery, Wells had a nice bounce-back year (he ranked 16th among outfielders in one of our points-based fantasy leagues), so you can see why The The Angels Angels of Anaheim, after missing out on Adrian Beltre and Carl Crawford, would view Wells as a worthwhile gamble.
Having said that, Wells is positively boned if he turns in a season less than, or even equal to, his 2010 numbers. Anaheim is taking on nearly all of the money remaining on his contract (a whopping $86 million), and given that the Angels traded Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli in order to get him, Wells will be expected to perform at astronomical levels for the remainder of the contract. Good thing he has his stellar defense to fall back on during the rough patches.
Poor bastard. When the Rangers asked Michael Young to move from second base to shortstop to make room for Alfonso Soriano (who’s now a left fielder, by the way), Young did so. When the Rangers asked Young to move from shortstop – where he had just won his first Gold Glove – to third base in order to make room for Elvis Andrus, Young did so, though a bit more reluctantly than he was the first time. Now the Rangers have signed Adrian Beltre, and they’re asking Young not to play at all; just grab a bat every couple of innings. This is not in Young’s DNA, and Young, understandably, has requested a trade. The Rangers, however, are having a hard time finding a suitor for Young, thanks to his backloaded contract (three years, $48 million), which will make for one awkward clubhouse in a few days.
It’s hard not to feel bad for the guy. He merely signed the contract that the Rangers offered him, and his batting numbers have remained relatively consistent (save for his nine home runs in 2007, though he did knock in 94 runs and steal 13 bases that year). The Rangers are trying to grant his trade wish – they’ve reached out to Colorado and Florida – but everyone in baseball knows the Rangers are stuck, and they’re telling the Rangers they’ll take Young if the Rangers eat the vast majority of his contract. As it stands, it looks as though Young will be a DH and part-time first baseman. As selfless as he’s been in terms of doing what was best for the team, it has to sting that this is how he’s rewarded for his selflessness.
Because the Colorado Rockies just paid him $80 million for one good season, one in which he batted 45 points above his overall average in the minors. There has to be some regression to the mean this year, and when it happens, the fans will turn on him like he was Vernon Wells. Breaking out is easy, because no one has a book on you yet; following up is hard. CarGo was a highly touted prospect during his time in the minors, so he has the talent to get over the hump. But this will be the biggest test of his career.
St. Louis Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak
He just let Albert Pujols – the best player of his generation – begin the season without a new contract, knowing that Pujols intended to test the free agent market at season’s end should that happen. And worse, there is rampant speculation that Pujols has a good chance to become a member of the rival Cubs, since the spend-happy Yankees and Red Sox have, or will have, in the case of Adrian Gonzalez, long-term options at first base. If Mozeliak is unable to keep Pujols, he will be a pariah. If Pujols becomes a Cub, he will need to enter the witness protection program.
The Cincinnati Reds starting rotation
We’ve seen this movie before. Dusty Baker gets a Cinderella team into the playoffs, where the clock strikes midnight and the carriage is turned back into a pumpkin. (Seriously, did anyone expect them to give Philadelphia a fight last year?) And that’s all right; not everyone can win the World Series. The following year, though, Baker goes out to prove that the previous year was no fluke, and he does that by riding his pitchers into the ground. Any Chicago Cubs fan will tell you that Baker has no sense of when to pull a pitcher, and the trail of dead he’s left in his wake is the proof; Matt Clement and Mark Prior, a mere 28 and 22 respectively when the Cubs were five outs away from the World Series in 2003, were both out of the league by 2006 due to lingering injuries (Prior is currently attempting a comeback with the Yankees), and former Reds pitcher Aaron Harang still hasn’t recovered from the four innings of relief he pitched in an epic – and ultimately meaningless – game against San Diego in 2008.
Now take a closer look at the Reds starters. Edinson Volquez recently returned from Tommy John surgery. Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey have both gone on the disabled list with shoulder injuries. This could very easily be a one-and-done for the Reds. Someone better let Joey Votto know that he might be carrying more than the offense on his back this year.
GAWD, imagine how popular this guy would be if he played anywhere but Cleveland. Hell, teammate Grady Sizemore still has a better Q factor than Choo does, though that owes less to Sizemore’s performance on the field (he only played 33 games last year) and more to him posting a naked picture of himself on Twitter. Choo, on the other hand, must have at least considered throwing the Asia Games in order to serve in the Korean Army; even if it meant dying on the battlefield, he would be freed of his obligation to play for the lowly Indians. Ah, but pride is an extremely valuable commodity among the Far Eastern countries, and despite racking up back-to-back 20-20 seasons with a .300 batting average for a team that lost 190 games during that same span, Choo is willingly coming back to play for a team that will likely finish in a dogfight for last place with Kansas City. And don’t be surprised if Kansas City leaves them in the dust.
Now, if you want to look at the silver lining, Choo is surrounded by oodles of potential, from Matt LaPorta to Michael Brantley to Carlos Santana (is there a better name in baseball than that?), and Travis Hafner still has the ability to surprise. But you can’t help but think that even Choo is looking at the fact that his manager wasn’t good enough to keep a job managing the Washington Nationals, and is hatching an escape plan. Unfortunately for him, the Indians have him under control until 2014, and while his bump in salary this year will be nearly ten times what he earned last year, it’s still a pittance compared to other players performing at the same level. Whether it’s as a member of the Cleveland Indians or as a soldier in the Korean Army, Shin-Soo Choo is spending the next three years of his life as an indentured servant. Sucks to be him.
Because he will almost never get a chance to close a game this year. Now, some will tell you that closers on bad teams are busier than closers on good teams, because the good teams tend to win their games by more than three runs. But this is the Pittsburgh Pirates we’re talking about, losers of 105 games last season and not at all improved during the offseason. The entire bullpen saved a total of 31 games last year (there were 12 individual players on other teams who saved more games than that), and none of their starters eked out more than nine wins. MLB surely has a ‘no tweeting during the games’ policy, so don’t be surprised if you see Hanrahan with a pair of knitting needles and yarn before June.
Four years ago, the Diamondbacks were poised to break out with an unprecedented youth movement driven by Chris Young, Stephen Drew and Mark Reynolds – not to mention a staggering left-field performance from Eric Byrnes, who hit 21 home runs and swiped 50 bases – after they swept the Cubs in the first round of the playoffs. Today, virtually everyone from that team is gone (only four position players remain, and no pitchers), and the team that new manager Kirk Gibson has been handed is both very inexperienced (Juan Miranda, 46 games played at major league level) and very old (Melvin Mora, just turned 39). Like the Pirates, none of the pitchers broke double digits in the win column, though Daniel Hudson stands an excellent chance of fixing that. Still, Gibson has an uphill battle from day one against a very tough NL West, and if they start off poorly, he will get the blame, though he shouldn’t. This team is in no position to contend, and should be treated accordingly. It’s not an ideal scenario for a first-time manager, but on the plus side, he has Kevin Towers as his GM, so maybe next year. Definitely not this year, though.
The slap-hitting Ichiro’s best skill is getting on base and scoring runs. But when there is no one behind you capable of knocking you in, you can’t score, which would explain why, after racking up eight straight seasons of 100 runs or more, Ichiro scored a mere 74 runs last year, which is one more run than Ian Kinsler scored…in nearly 300 fewer at-bats. The heart of the 2011 Seattle Mariners batting order consists of Jack Cust (13 HR, 52 RBI, 127 KO), Miguel Olivo (14 HR, 58 RBI, 117 KO), and Justin Smoak (13 HR, 48 RBI, .218 BA), which means Ichiro is going to have to try harder than ever to manufacture runs. Don’t be surprised if his caught stealing ratio shoots up as he searches for ways to boost his stats.
You picked a fine time to enter a contract year, Lucille. The Mets are only slightly younger than the Yankees, and their pitching staff, now that ace Johan Santana is out until at least June, consists of guys with #3 starter stuff at best. And don’t look for any help via trade, either: the Mets don’t have any chips to deal, and no money to lure in top-tier talent thanks to that whole Bernie Madoff thing. Some are even speculating that the Nationals will finish ahead of the Mets this year. It’s hard to make a case for why you should be one of baseball’s highest-paid players when your team’s in the cellar.
Sure, he’s the manager of the New York freaking Yankees and has a murderer’s row of hitters to jot in his lineup card each day (only Montgomery Burns had more mashers on one team), but Girardi has two big problems on his hands: his starting rotation is the thinnest it’s been during his tenure as coach, and he can’t put the team’s best leadoff hitter (Brett Gardner) in the leadoff spot. Why is that, you ask? Because that’s Derek Jeter’s spot, and he’ll be damned if you’re going to take that away from him, even though he turns 37 this year and is coming off the worst offensive season of his career. Of course, Jeter won another Gold Glove, which made baseball writers the world over choke on their inhalers.
With the Red Sox and Orioles much improved through the free agent market, and the Blue Jays and Rays hanging tough (remember, four teams from the AL East finished above .500 last year), this season will test Girardi’s mettle more than ever, because the hitters are going to slump from time to time; the average age of the starting lineup is 31.5, and their youngest player (Gardner) is 27, which is luck would have it is the same age that Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain were when they died. If A.J. Burnett can’t get it together, that leaves the Yankees with two solid starters to get them to the All-Star break while GM Brian Cashman is forced to deplete their already depleted minor league system in order to land an arm. Until Cashman can pull a trade, though, all eyes will be on Girardi, as if he’s the one in the batter’s box and throwing the pitches. Don’t be surprised if he rues the day that he didn’t lobby for the Cubs managerial position when he had the chance. At least their fans can handle losing gracefully.
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Posted in: MLB
Tags: 2011 MLB Season Preview, Albert Pujols, Carlos Gonzalez, Dusty Baker, Ichiro Suzuki, Joe Girardi, Joel Hanrahan, Jose Reyes, Kirk Gibson, Michael Young, MLB, Shin-Soo Choo, St. Louis Cardinals GM John Mozeliak, The Cincinnati Reds starting rotation, The Scores Report, Vernon Wells