I know myself well enough to accept the fact that I like to be a contrarian much of the time, and this is especially true when it comes to baseball. Conventional wisdom? Must be wrong, it's so conventional. Anyway, what's the point of writing insightful analysis of teams and players if all you do is agree with all the other analysis that's already been done? Still, I don't just blindly oppose the prevailing winds, but when I sense some misdirection, I do tend to highlight the alternative view. And you know what? I'm not always wrong...
Thus, my strong disagreement with the giddy optimism about the Red Sox before the 2000 season (remember Sports Illustrated picking them to win it all? -- another curse fulfilled). I looked at the team that lost to the Yankees in the 1999 A.L. Championship Series, and saw marked inferiority to the Bronx Bombers, among others. I'm not pleased to report that I was on target with that prediction. Now we come to 2001, and the giddy optimism of February has turned into the morbid defeatism of April, for a variety of valid reasons: Nomar's injury first and foremost, which will keep him off the field for at least 2-3 months; Everett's juvenile delinquency; Ramirez's nagging hurt; questionable starting pitching after Pedro; and an apparent clubhouse revolt against the manager, possibly led by the GM. With many other A.L. teams having improved, highlighted by the Yankees' landing of Mike Mussina, the sentiment is that the Sox have lost before the games have even begun.
Well, here's where I get to be contrarian again. The more I look at it, the more I continue to like this Red Sox team's chances, at least to make the playoffs, probably by winning the A.L. East outright, rather than by the undignified Wild Card route. Let's start with the schedule. Writing this here on Opening Day, I'm astounded at how generous the schedule-maker has been to this year's Red Sox. In April, they face Baltimore, Tampa Bay, and Minnesota -- possibly the three worst teams in the league -- a total of 15 times, including the first 9 games. They could easily be 9-0 before they face the Yankees on Friday the 13th, and if Jimy Williams can maneuver the rotation so that Pedro pitches against New York twice, they could quite conceivably come out of April with a record something like 18-8, or even better. That's a nice cushion to work with when they start confronting tougher competition later in the Spring, and would give them some breathing room to wait for Nomar's return.
Moreover, the schedule is favorable all season, due to the somewhat dubious decision to introduce an "unbalanced" schedule, combined with interleague play. Because both the Orioles and Devil Rays are in the A.L. East, and they also face the lowly Phillies, Expos, and Marlins of the N.L. East, the Red Sox (as well as the Yankees and Blue Jays) may arguably have an unfair advantage relative to the A.L. Central and West teams, insofar as the Wild Card standings are concerned. In my view, you can't have a Wild Card and then have unbalanced schedules; it's especially unfair to West teams such as the Rangers. But that's the hand that's been dealt, and it could be decisive, especially given the April cushion that Boston should enjoy.
Jimy's madness. Another about-face for me involves my emerging view of Jimy Williams. His decisions regarding the Opening Day lineup have really heartened me, relative to both this season and beyond (assuming Duquette doesn't fire him for not kissing the right asses). It makes every bit of sense to bench Offerman and Bichette in favor of Hillenbrand and Hatteburg (and not just because I sagely picked Hillenbrand for my Rotisserie team). Now, try to follow my logic here, because it gets a little twisted. If, in fact, Nomar's loss would mean disaster for the Red Sox chances in 2001, then it's best to get playing time for younger players who might be part of the future, rather than aging veterans who won't be around. So it's a smart longer-term move, under the circumstances. At the same time, however, I agree with Jimy that this arrangement also gives the Sox their best short-term chance to win, at least for now. Offerman has been nothing but a liability since a year ago: he can't field at all, and both his OBP and his base-stealing have gone down the tubes. Why play him if he doesn't give you any positives, when a Stynes and Hillenbrand have been producing all Spring Training? As for Bichette, I do think he can contribute, but so can Hatteburg. The "book" says they'll each contribute optimally in a straight left-right platoon; why make Bichette the full-time DH, when he could be more valuable off the bench against lefty relievers, and vice-versa? I also expect that a thoughtful platooning of O'Leary and Nixon could be similarly productive.
Unfortunately, the players don't all see it that way. Bichette and Offerman are reportedly livid at the unanticipated demotions to the bench. This is symptomatic of a deeper problem with many players, and professional athletes in general these days, who so often put their personal interests above the team's. What the heck happened to the attitude that said "whatever the manager tells me, that's what I'll do"? Tim Wakefield has revealed a similar sentiment, as have others of late. To remain contrarian, however, I must say that I don't share the attitude of the pile-on media about Carl Everett's particular case. This is a guy who clearly doesn't think the rules apply to him, has a volatile temper, and can't stick to a schedule. Indeed, last year I was highly skeptical about his impact. But I'm starting to feel that it's been way overplayed around Boston, where the prevailing view seems to be that we should immediately dump any player who sneers or harrumphs. Everett may be a rebel, but he's still a player. I haven't heard him pouting or acting selfishly in the way that Offerman and Bichette are. And what's wrong with having a bad boy around? It didn't stop Reggie Jackson's teams from winning umpteen World Series, did it? Not to mention Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, etc.
The bottom line will be how well Jimy can contain and massage the various egos and agendas on the roster, and point everyone toward a common goal of actually winning baseball games. I hope that the Offermans, Bichettes, Lansings, Wakefields, et al., will notice the professionalism of some of their teammates (Nixon, Beck, Garces, among others) who accept their roles and try to contribute. I also hope that the standoffs with Everett may lead to a certain mutual respect, rather than long-term bitterness, and perhaps fuel a desire to succeed in the same way a rebellious son unintentionally lives up to his father's expectations. Finally, and most important, I want to believe that the Red Sox actually do have the pitching necessary to win their Division. No one has commented on the potential positive psychological reinforcement that Nomo and Okha may have, as members of the only Japanese rotation duo in the majors. Castillo has done nothing in Spring Training to cast doubt on his exceptional 2000 performance. And where Crawford may be untested, there are encouraging signs that Saberhagen is ready to come back in a big way. And let's not entirely dismiss David Cone's potential to contribute later on; it's a long season. Meanwhile, the bullpen was the best in the league last year, and well could be again. The offense will have holes until Nomar returns, but even without him, Manny makes it better than last year's edition.
Out on the limb. So there you have it, my contrarian optimism on the 2001 Red Sox, here on Opening Day. Extending that thinking to the rest of the American League, here are my predictions. (Remember, I don't do National League.) Keep in mind that I'm the one who picked the Oakland A's last year, and also the one who predicted that the Chicago White Sox would finish last...
1. Boston Red Sox. A much better non-Pedro pitching staff than anyone wants to credit them; and anyway, Pedro is worth two of anybody else. Seriously: would you rather have Clemens + Mussina, or Pedro + Castillo? Think about it. The Godsend April schedule will help offset injuries, and Saberhagen's later arrival should vault them over mediocre competition to the top of the weakest Division in the league.
2. Toronto Blue Jays. Everyone forgets about this team, perhaps because they gave up David Wells for a broken arm. And their starting pitching is quite forgettable. But they have a nuclear offense behind Delgado, which may get even better if the other Wells, Vernon, lives up to expectations.
3. Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Ridiculous, you say? Fine, you believe what you want, but I'm looking at what these guys are putting on the field, and it ain't half bad. They can't find room for either Jose Guillen or Josh Hamilton, who could arguably start in both right and left field ahead of the Yankees' present incumbents. They've got a similar surplus in the infield. This means they have bodies to trade if they get into a pennant race -- or out of it. Yes, the pitching is suspect, particularly the bullpen. But Paul Wilson will surprise a lot of people this year, and Albie Lopez is good. If one of Guzman or Alvarez comes back, that's a decent rotation. The real key will be how Larry Rothschild handles the pitching staff, including the inevitable callups from the minors. This isn't a Wild Card contender, but it's a team on the rise.
4. New York Yankees. I don't want to hear one more word about the "greatest rotation since the 1969 Orioles". For one thing, the Atlanta Braves accomplished that feat years ago. For another, rotations today consist of five starters, not four, and the Yankees have no one to take the ball on the fifth day. As to the first four, of course they're good. How good? Orlando Hernandez was under .500 with a 4.51 ERA last year: about equal to Kenny Rogers, only slightly better than Hideo Nomo; plus, he's nursing an injured elbow. Clemens is a machine, but realistically not worth more than about 14 wins, and Pettitte has been only decent the past 3 years (ERA around 4.50), despite his 19 wins in 2000. The best rotation in the league? We'll see come August. Meanwhile, their hitting looks ready to collapse around them. Why are they so desperate to keep Knoblauch's .283 average and 5 home runs in the lineup? And lest we forget, there's another banged-up superstar shortstop in the A.L. East, which could be a portent of injuries to come to this aging, if noble, team. George Steinbrenner himself may have a heart attack if this prediction comes true.
5. Baltimore Orioles. No chance of a contrary opinion here. This team sucks, and is a disgrace to the great Baltimore traditions. Well, I guess it might live up to a different tradition, the team that lost 19 straight to start the season.
1. Cleveland Indians. Last year was an abberation, one of those things that sometimes happens when a team is so good for so long that it becomes a little complacent. I think they'll be hungry again this season. Plus, with the additions of Burks and Gonzalez, as well as Russell Branyan, their intimidating offense of the '90s may be even more deadly. The starting staff is strong 1-2-3, questionable after that, but the bullpen should be exceptional, with Wickman pushing Karsay to a setup role, plus Shuey.
2. Minnesota Twins. What? This is silly, right? Well, everyone likes to say how pitching is 90% of the game, and even though I don't buy that, I don't understand why the Twins are summarily dismissed when they have a pitching staff this good. How many teams have a better 1-2-3 corps than Radke, Milton, and Redman? And they, too, have a deep bullpen. As for the lineup, there are no superstars, but virtually everyone is still on the upward curve of career performance, so we can expect the likes of Ortiz, Mientkiewicz, Jones, Hunter, etc., to be better this year than last, and they've all shown they can hit. My prediction is that this team will be the media's Cinderella darlings all summer.
3. Chicago White Sox. Well, I picked them last in 2000 and they finished first. Interestingly, I pegged them for the cellar because of what I saw as a bargain basement pitching staff, and they won the Division mostly due to the most productive offense in the league. So how much does pitching really matter? Actually, quite a bit, because they also had strong years from a number of previously subpar pitchers. Of those, Sirotka was the best, and he's gone. Baldwin was second, and he's hurt. Parque and Eldred pitched some good games, but they're very average pitchers at best. As for newcomer Boomer Wells, sure he won 20 games, but he was lousy in the second half, and now he weighs 475 lbs. The lineup will produce again, but it says here that they overachieved in 2000, and will fall to the middle of the pack this year.
4. Kansas City Royals. The story is pretty simple: great, young hitting; crappy young pitching. Jeff Suppan would be a decent 3rd-4th starter on most teams. The other guys, from Suzuki to Reichert to Stein, are all below-average, blah pitchers, going nowhere fast. Trading Johnny Damon for Roberto Hernandez is a shame that once again reflects the painful economic disparities of the game. Luckily, they can replace Damon with Mark Quinn, and only lose about 20% of his offense, but Hernandez isn't even worth that much. Another forgettable season in KC.
5. Detroit Tigers. With all the scorn being heaped on the Orioles, it's surprising that the Tigers have gotten off so lightly. This is almost as bad a team as Baltimore's, with little hope on the horizon. Roger Cedeno (250 AB, 2 doubles) is as overrated as they come; Tony Clark has squandered his chance at stardom; Dean Palmer and Mitch Meluskey are hurt. What's there to like about this team? Jeff Weaver is probably the real deal, but he goes 11-15, 4.32 and he's an "Ace"? The rest of the staff is only slightly better than KC's, without even remotely as good a lineup.
1. Oakland Athletics. No argument here. They won last year with great talent, and they got better this year. Pundits trying to find a weakness cite "Jason Giambi's contract status", which only tells you that this team has no weaknesses. Replacing Grieve with Damon is a gamble, in the sense that they're going for it all in one season, but that's a gamble worth taking. Hudson is obviously already an elite starter, although personally I'll wait until Zito pitches 200 major league innings before I'll anoint him a superstar, too. And Isringhausen isn't totally proven, either, but Jim Mecir may be the best setup man in the business. Anyway, when you have the kind of offense that this team has (see my analysis from last October), you can survive a couple of below-expectation performances from your pitching staff. It's too bad they play in Oakland, which has won far more than its share of Pennants and World Championships in the past 30 years, because this is a team, like the Indians, that a baseball fan can be proud to root for.
2. Anaheim Angels. See my comments on the Twins, above. Why the heck is everyone so disparaging of this team? Granted, they underperformed in the run-scoring department last year (see the same analysis as for Oakland), and now they have to live without Mo Vaughn. But this remains a deadly hitting team, that will pummel many opponents. The same resume is getting the Rangers rave reviews. The conventional wisdom is that the Angels have terrible, unproven pitching. Unproven, sure -- who doesn't? But terrible -- says who? Ramon Ortiz looks like a legitimate Ace in the making, and both Jarrod Washburn and Scott Schoenweis can be solid major league starters. If Ismael Valdes could return to his 1997-99 form, this staff would be every bit as good as the Rangers'. Plus, they've got a much more established closer in Percival, and an excellent setup man in Hasegawa. In a head-to-head matchup with Texas, I see a virtual draw, with the contrarian edge to Anaheim.
3. Texas Rangers. Adding A-Rod to I-Rod certainly gives them two of the most exciting and satisfying players of any generation. But beyond those two, the team is surprisingly suspect. They're relying on either aging veterans -- Palmeiro, Galarraga, Caminiti, Velarde -- or injury prone youngsters -- Kapler, Mateo -- and hoping that all the pieces fit together. Meanwhile, Darren Oliver is still in the rotation, the other kid pitchers have proven nothing to date, and there's no closer. They didn't finish last in '00 for no reason, and they won't rise much higher this year.
4. Seattle Mariners. The joy ride they've experienced since jettisoning both Randy Johnson and Junior Griffey will not continue following the loss of A-Rod. In the first place, they actually got decent compensation for the first two (Garcia, Guillen, Cameron), whereas the only new addition following Rodriguez's departure is Ichiro Suzuki, a glorified Triple-A hitter from Japan. Jamie Moyer is probably all done, and the pitchers who are supposed to be their salvation (Meche, Anderson) are all trapped in the doctor's office. Their best asset is their bullpen, which is ironic since in the past they won the Division with horrendous relief pitching. You can bet Piniella will find a way to screw up Nelson, Rhodes, et al.
Bottom line: Division winners: Red Sox, Indians, Athletics; Wild Card: Blue Jays. Pennant winner: Cleveland Indians, who I fervently hope (assuming the Red Sox don't make it) will go on to win their much deserved World Series title at last.
Comments? Questions? Silly, irrelevant side remarks?
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