Wednesday, March 31, 2004
Since the season is, technically, underway, its time to make predictions of the playoff teams for the 2004 season. Honestly, these are more seat-of-the pants than based on careful analysis, but the same method still has me alive in my NCAA pool, so what the heck....
NL East Division Winner: Marlins Many people expect the Marlins to follow the route of the '03 Angels -- from champ to also-ran. I'm looking at the facts that they had the best record in baseball in the second-half of last season (when I-Rod was not a major contributor), that they will have a full year of blossoming-stars Cabrera and Beckett and that the starting staff is ready to break out. Also, I'm not a Larry Bowa believer; my second choice would be the Braves.
NL Central Division Winner: Astros Their run differential was 48 runs better than the Cards and 87 runs better than the Cubs last year, WITHOUT PETTITTE OR CLEMENS and with Roy Oswalt making only 21 starts. Even without Mark Prior's injury, a clear choice. To me, the 'Stros are the best team in the league. Peter Gammons calls this race a "three team dogfight," but I think it's the clearest choice of any division, in a year where everything looks competitive.
NL West Division Winner: Giants They slipped some, but I can't see who else to pick, as the other teams in the division got worse, except for the Padres, who finished 36.5 games behind the Giants, and I don't think there will be that big a swing. The Giants could have won this division with 86 wins last year, and won 100. This year they will win it with something like 88.
NL Wild Card: Braves They have had such a run of dominance that I am reluctant to predict it ending. Giving them the wild card is a compromise. They slipped quite a bit, but they were the best team in the league last year, so they have room to do so. Also, recent pick-up of Reitsma will help.
AL East Division Winner: Yankees The Red Sox are already facing injuries to Nomar, Nixon and Kim -- each of whom will be replaced by someone much less good. I also do not understand playing Pokey Reese at 2nd. In comparison, when Enrique Wilson fails at 2nd, the Yankees will go get someone. I do not think either team will win 100 and would not count the Blue Jays out.
AL Central Division Winner: Twins Another really tough one. The White Sox lost their ace, and the Royals were probably over their heads. I don't think Cleveland is a .500 team (though it will not take much more than that), and I know Detroit isn't. Therefore: the Twins. Besides, their manager is an ex-Met and a Davey Johnson disciple.
AL West Division Winner: Angels Playing Darin Erstad at first and Garret Anderson in center seems crazy to me, but, no matter how you look at it, this team added a lot of talent and the A's and Mariners slipped.
AL Wild Card: Red Sox Foulke and Schilling are great additions, notwithstanding the issues discussed above. This is a very, very strong team.
And the Mets? Well, I think they have a better chance than last year. . .
Sunday, March 28, 2004
BACK FROM VACATION: ROSTER ADJUSTMENTS . . .
Mets Analyst is back from vacation, and the Mets have done some roster tinkering. First, a farewell to Timo Perez, a long time Mets Analyst favorite. Mets Analyst was calling for him to be promoted to the big club well before the All-Star break in 2000 (in the preblog days of sending e-mails) as he tore up the minor leagues. I went to a minor league game just to see him play for the Tides, but I missed the first pitch, on which he tweaked his hamstring running out a foul ball, and didn't get to see him. . . . The Mets did, finally, call him up that year, and they would not have made the World Series without his contributions on offense and defense. Although the bloom came off the rose with his baserunning blunder in Game 1 of the World Series, and then with the "age gate" adjustment that revealed he was unlikely to improve, he has earned a career as an extra outfielder who has a good glove and a useful bat against righthanders. Good luck with the White Sox! . . . This was, at the same time, a sensible move for the Mets. Timo did not fit into their plans (so obviously so, that it was hard to understand why they signed him to a two-year guaranteed contract), and the guy they got in return, Matt Ginter, has a legitimate chance to be a Scott Strickland. Yes, that is a back-handed compliment: he has terrific stuff, but he can't get lefties out (at AAA they hit .343 against him last year). Still, he is more likely to help the Mets in the future than Timo was. . . .
UTILITY INFIELDER: The Mets added Ricky Gutierrez as their utility infielder in return for a player to be named later. Gutierrez has suffered from serious neck/disk injuries that led to spinal fusion surgery in 2002 and spinal cord problems in 2003 so that he has had only 400 at-bats in two seasons of his three year $11.5 million dollar contract with Cleveland. He did have two very good years with the bat for the Cubs in '00 and '01, so he could be a nice addition to the bench if he can regain his health, but, since he will turn 34 in May, a return to a .750 OPS is unlikely, and he was a below average middle infielder before the injury. The bottom line, though, is that since he will be taking at-bats and innings in the infield away from Joe McEwing and Todd Zeile, he helps the team. The Mets need 150 games apiece from Matsui and Reyes, though, and if they don't get them, Gutierrez wont stop '04 from looking like '03. . . .
ERRATA : Reports indicate that the Mets will pay about $1 million of the $4.65 million left on Gutierrez's contract. Since this is found money for the Indians, the PTBNL should not be much of a prospect; if only the Mets could find someone to pay even $1 million of Roger Cedeno's contract. . . . Speaking of Cedeno, these moves leave Cedeno as the only lefty on the Mets bench (against a righthanded starter), with the other spots belonging to Spencer, McEwing, Zeile and Wilson; it would help to replace McEwing or Zeile with a useful lefty or switch hitter (Tony Clark anyone?), but don't look for that to happen. . . . The most discouraging thing about the Gutierrez trade are indications that Don Baylor's view that he will be good in the clubhouse influenced the decision. Baylor is a great guy, but he was a terrible manager and the Mets need guys who are good between the lines. . . . Both of the Mets new acquisitions were first round draft picks. Gutierrez, was the 28th pick of the 1988 draft (a sandwich pick of the Orioles), and Ginter was the 22nd pick of the '99 draft (by the White Sox). The Mets took David Proctor #1 in '88 (never played in the Majors) and in '99 they had no first round pick but used their first choice (2nd round)on Neal Musser, a left-handed starter who may be promoted to AA this year. . . . Larry Bigbie was picked just before Gintner and Kurt Ainsworth was picked just after; both should make significant contributions to the Orioles this year. No one picked in the first round in 1988 is still a significant contributor. The best player picked in that round was Robin Ventura, taken by the White Sox at #10. . . . Gutierrez was once traded for Ken Caminitti AND Steve Finley (oh yeah, Derek Bell and Phil Plantier -- who went with him -- may have been more important components of that deal).
Thursday, March 18, 2004
WHERE HAVE YOU GONE MARCO SCUTARO? METS FANS TURN THEIR LONELY EYES TO YOU.
The answer of course, is "to Oakland, on waivers." To borrow from another 60's classic: Oh when will they ever learn?" As the Mets look for a useful utility infielder so that McEwing is not their only middle infield sub, their fans recall that long time Mets Analyst favorite Marco Scutaro would have been perfect for the job. By the way, Scutaro is sporting a nifty 1.500 OPS so far this spring, with 3 home runs in his seven games . . . .
Another Mets Analyst favorite, Orber Moreno, has a rising chance to make the club. The New York Daily News reports, in a style suggesting that they have inside word without actually saying so, that Erickson and Roberts are in front for the fifth starter spot, with Heilman ticketed for more AAA seasoning. Moreno is a former Royals phenom (he reached the majors as a fire-balling 22-year old late in the last century) who blew out his arm. The Royals finally gave up on him, and the Mets shrewdly picked him up last year, as he came back from the dead to devastate minor league hitters (before getting rocked in a brief and overdue late season call up to Shea). This Spring he has been dominant so far: in 8 innings over 5 games he has struck out 7 and walked 0 without allowing an earned run.
If Roberts wins the fifth starter spot, the Mets pitching staff looks like this:
Glavine, Leiter, Trachsel, Seo and Roberts
Looper, Weathers, Stanton, Franco + 2 or 3 from Yates(?), Wheeler(?), Moreno(?), Erickson (?), Bottalico (?ugh!), Feliciano (?? terrible spring!).
If Erickson or Heilman wins out, then Roberts is in the pen, and only 1 or 2 spots are left. . . . Heilman's 15 strikeouts lead national league pitchers, (Roberts' 12 tie him for fourth), but Heilman has given up
3 homers in his 13 innings, which was a real bugaboo for him last year.
Thursday, March 11, 2004
Go Go Grant
Of course, the fifth spot in the starting rotation is easily the biggest decision facing the Mets in camp. The player who breaks camp with that role will likely have to pitch well right out of the gate, because the replacements will be ready at Triple-A. Personally, I went in thinking of Erickson and Heilman as the front-runners for the spot, but hoping that Grant Roberts would have the right stuff and am pleased at his strong beginning to camp.
Way back in 1984, Earl Weaver wrote a very good book (with Terry Pluto) called "Weaver on Strategy" (apparently it's still in print). As reported in the book, Weaver's Seventh Law is "The best place for a rookie pitcher is long relief." Weaver's Seventh Law (like his sixth law -- use a four-man rotation), is hardly common wisdom today. My subjective sense is that what used to be a common practice -- breaking in future starters from the bullpen -- has become the exception. While they will work fewer innings in the bullpen than they will as starters in the minors, the fewer innings might not be a bad thing health wise, and lets them learn and acclimate to the majors in lower pressure situations.
The reality is that many pitchers struggle when they frist come to the majors (Glavine and Leiter pitched almost as badly as Heilman when they started their careers). The immediate major league success stories -- like Gooden and Prior -- are, I believe, more the exception than the rule. It's sort of like quaterbacks in the NFL. College performance (like minor league performance) tells a lot about who will be a good QB in the NFL, and a few can succeed even as rookies. Most quarterbacks, however, need some time in the NFL before they can be quality starters. The bullpen used to be the place for this to happen in baseball.
That brings us to Grant Roberts. Roberts' minor league success as a starting pitcher and overall good stuff had him rated as one of the Mets top 5 prospects by Baseball America every year from 1997 to 2001, peaking at #1 in 1998. (As an 18-year old at Kingsport (Rookie League) in 1996, he struck out 92 in 68.2 innings.) When he first reached the majors, he was certainly not ready for the rotation. Although he made his major league debut in 2000, he's still only 25 years-old (less than one year older than Heilman and Griffiths) and (due to injuries) has pitched less than 100 major league innings. He is ready for the Weaver route to the rotation.
Roberts is also the only fifth-starter candidate to have pitched well in the majors this century (actually, James Baldwin was O.K. in 2000 if you count that as this century). And he has pitched very well: compiling a solid K/BB ratio, an excellent HR/9 ratio and E.R.A.'s about 12 percent better than league average. Earl Weaver knew a lot about this game, and the Mets may be heeding his old-fashioned advice to let a pitcher get acclimated, show his stuff, and then move him into the rotation. Roberts should be adjusted to the majors now and has shown he can succeed. Here's hoping. . .
Thursday, March 04, 2004
Notes from First Three Innings of Opening Day
Had a tape in the VCR, so later in the day got to watch the first 3 innings of the Mets Spring Training opener against the Dodgers . . . . Took notes . . . Ugh! Cedeno is starting and leading off. Hope Howe doesn't mean by this that Cedeno will get playing time in N.Y. . . . Cedeno swings at a ball, takes a strike, then grounds out weakly. . . . Boy, Reyes does look stronger, and he's tall. . . . Reyes swings at first pitch, which is 6 inches high, and laces a double . . . . ball is between outfielders but still in front of them, but makes an easy double for lightning fast Reyes . . . . Floyd, Cameron and Wigginton all take a couple of pitches before doing good things. . . . Lineup including Cedeno, Wilson and McEwing brings back bad memories. Change them to Garcia, Piazza and Matsui, and its a good lineup, but the Mets have no bench at all, nada, zip, zilch. . . . Heilman had a sharper breaking ball than I saw from him last year, and got them to chase it. Also hit 90 with fastball. Umpire squeezed him on a couple of pitches, and then he started nibbling, but he got it done. A pretty good outing . . . . Nice throw from Wilson gets runner, but Heilman gave him chance to make the play. . . . Sure hope announcer Brantley does not know what he's talking about when he says Wilson will start a lot of games. . . . Griffiths totally cannot find the plate . . . . Second time up, Cedeno again is weak, Reyes again swings at first pitch and again hits it hard; this time 1B Shawn Green makes a nice pick (hope Piazza picks it up that fast). . . . Assume those Orange Orange shirts they're wearing will not make it out of Florida. . . . Great to be watching the Mets again. . . . In between inning interview, Duquette certainly makes it sound as though Mets will make a trade either during Spring Training or in first weeks of season. I doubt many very good players will become newly available in the next 6 weeks, so perhaps he has some offers out there already that he is considering. . . . Checked the box score at home and see I didn't miss much after first three innings. . . . will fast forward tape to get a look at Diaz. . . . Keep an eye on Franco. Outing in first week of March meaningless, but will have to improve greatly on last year's horrible 16/13 K/BB ratio over 34 innings. . . . Rest of his career K/BB is 2-1 and K/9 is about 7. He needs to be close to those for success. At least he struck out 2 and walked none in his inning today. . .