#TeamSuicide

This was meant to be written right after the two wild card games, but hey, I’m still alive. I figure this is an appropriate post to wrap up this dumpster baby of a blog.

Inspired by @firejerrymanuel: only teams not to make playoffs since 2006: Jays, Royals, #6org, Mets, Marlins, Pirates, Astros. #teamsuicide

— Joelsph (@CajoleJuiceEsq) October 3, 2012

Turns out I forgot the Padres in that tweet, but it’s not like that helps. That’s a depressing list.

Toronto Blue Jays – This is easily the best team out of the list, with the unfortunate status of playing in the AL East. I still can’t see the Orioles repeating what they did this year, but the Red Sox aren’t going to be a doormat for long. The only hope for this team is waiting for the Rays to run out of their top draft picks. But maybe they’ll move by then and make more money and sorry Jays fans. Douse yourself with inflammable maple syrup and light yourself on fire.

Kansas City Royals – The team of the future had two of its two big hitting prospects, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, have way below-average hitting seasons. They are still waiting for their pitching. It probably will not live up to the hype. Just end it all now.

Seattle Mariners a.k.a. #6org – I made the mistake of actually thinking they were a decent lock to finish 3rd in the AL West. Turns out Billy Beane is still ten times better than Jack “Savior” Z. “I am a false prophet; UZR is a superstition.” I guess fans can wait until King Felix gets hurt to finally drink bleach.

New York Mets – A team headed by broke owners who have no desire to sell the team. Sure, some might say they’ll be able to spend after 2013 due to the contracts of Jason Bay and Johan Santana ending, but almost every time someone writes about the Mets finances it’s bad news, despite a Madoff victims settlement I thought boded well for the Wilpons. Maybe they’ll just let the contracts come off the books and spend the money on shitty bullpen help again. Much like with #6org and King Felix, I’ll wait until David Wright is gone before putting a gun in my mouth.

Florida Marlins – No one fucking cares. Edit: Notice I said Florida Marlins. God, they suck.

Pittsburgh Pirates – This franchise’s streak of 20 straight losing seasons is the new 56-game hitting streak. It’s more impressive than whatever record Drew Brees just broke last night. Teams just fall into winning seasons every once in a while, like the Marlins, or the Orioles this year — even the Royals have had them in 10-year intervals the past 20 years (they are due for one in 2013!). This is an organization that signed a couple of Indian dudes because I don’t know, Slumdog Millionaire. But hey, your city identity is wrapped up in much more successful teams, so maybe just bang your head against a wall repeatedly until you are Sidney Crosby.

Houston Astros – A team totally and completely screwed by having to move to the AL. I hope to one day — like one of their recent hires who live-tweeted an eviction like a douchebag — to live-tweet them getting relegated to AAA. I just subblogged. Go swim in the ocean during a hurricane.

San Diego Padres – I like how this team ended up with neither Adrian Gonzalez nor Anthony Rizzo. Yet much like the Marlins, I can’t imagine anyone gives a shit. Your perfect weather has made you sports-dead inside.

HONORABLE MENTIONS (COLLAPSES EDITION):

Texas Rangers -5 games up with 9 to go. And then you get swept by the A’s to finish the season, losing the division and being relegated to a one-game playoff against the Orioles, facing Joe Saunders, and you lose that game too. Time to die of a drug overdose. With 9 games to go, even the 2007 Mets were only 1.5 games up on the Phillies, the 2011 Red Sox were only 2 games up on the Rays, and that brings us to…

Atlanta Braves – With 9 games to go, the 2011 Braves were 3.5 games up on the Cardinals. If the current two wild-card format were in place last year, the Braves would have still had a one-game playoff against them. Unfortunately that was not the case, and then this year they finished 6 games in front for the first wild-card, but managed to be victimized by St. Louis again, with the help of umpires. Impale yourself on a tomahawk?

I’m out.

Much Less Baseball Pain Than Expected

We came up with the idea for this blog because a bunch of us were naturally pessimistic and sarcastic fans of teams that were bound to be shitty this season (just ignore Paddy, as we only let him on because he’s a better writer than the rest of us). The Mets were sentenced to their first full season without Carlos Beltran or Jose Reyes in 8 years, while the White Sox were filled with declining veterans and disappointing youngsters. I thought the White Sox would be close to .500, but their terrible farm system had discerning fans a bit more wary about the future of the team. When it came to my own team, I was a bit more negative about their chances, especially considering the stacked NL East when compared to the mediocre AL Central.

It’s now May 30, almost one-third into the 2012 season, and the White Sox are in first at 29-22 and the Mets are right with them at 28-22 tied for second with the Marlins in the upside-down NL East. How did this happen? Were we wrong to be such miserable assholes going into the season? I’m not so sure.

The Mets and White Sox have gotten superhuman performances out of David Wright and Paul Konerko so far. These are two guys who aren’t supposed to be this good, at least not anymore. Wright due to his mysterious decline during what were supposed to be his peak years, and Konerko due to advancing age. Instead, Wright has reverted to 2008 Arguably Best Player in Baseball form while Konerko is pulling some Benjamin Button shit by getting better as he gets older. They’ll both come down to earth, but — barring injury — both teams will get more out of their franchise players this year than anyone expected.

Something that shouldn’t have been unexpected was Adam Dunn bouncing back. Sure, there was a chance that he was done being a monster at the plate, but the smart money was on the 32-year-old unbelievably consistent slugger reverting to form. To provide some contrast, I can’t imagine anyone believed Johan Santana would be this good again this quickly. His velocity might never be the same, but he’s pitching as dominantly as he ever has in a Mets uniform. It’s incredible to watch and only cements my thinking of him as Pedro-lite (one the few times when the “lite” version of something is still fucking awesome). Baseball players don’t get much more badass than Johan.

Yet as amazing as Johan has been, Chris Sale has been even better for the White Sox. Despite being jerked around between the rotation and bullpen, Sale has been one of the best pitchers in baseball, evidenced by his total domination of the Rays in his last start. Jake Peavy has been just about as good, serving as the R.A. Dickey to Sale’s Santana. The rest of each team’s rotation has been mostly disappointing, though.

I’d talk about Alejandro de Aza and Dayan Viciedo a bit, but all I’d have to say would be from Fangraphs stats pages. Part of being a real blogger is acting like you know things you don’t, but I still feel uncomfortable doing that. With the Mets, I know a bunch of the marginal players that populate the roster have benefited from Terry Collins platooning everyone he possibly can. Scott Hairston mashes lefties and is used accordingly. Guys like Kirk Nieuwenheis and Mike Baxter get the vast majority of their PAs versus righties. Of course, there are also the inexplicable contributions from players like Mike Nickeas and Vinny Rottino. The Mets are doing their best with the spare parts they have, displaying patience that has them sitting 3rd in BB% among MLB teams despite any power to dissuade pitchers from giving them pitches to hit.

I’m not sure if the Mets can continue to withstand their injuries, and if David Wright goes down, they are in deep trouble. Johan Santana seems healthy, but coming back from such intensive shoulder surgery isn’t supposed to be this easy. Ike Davis rising from the dead, Daniel Murphy occasionally hitting a home run, and Jon Niese not walking so many damn hitters would go a long way to helping the Mets stay above .500.

White Sox fans would love to see John Danks and Gavin Floyd get their ERAs under 5.00, and it’s only a matter of time before they do. Addison Reed is also going to get better results considering that 11 K/9. Alexei Ramirez is currently the White Sox’s version of Ike Davis, probably an even more surprising development, considering his much longer track record of being a respectable hitter for his position.

Much like before the season started, I still think the White Sox have a much better shot at making the playoffs. They have the power that even Sandy Alderson admits the Mets don’t have, a more solid rotation from top to bottom, and a bullpen that’s a notch above the Mets’ (even if fWAR says otherwise). When it comes to the Mets, it’s hard to get over the no-names that comprise each lineup and that their best reliever is slated as the 7th inning guy. Only the perfect use of Tim Byrdak has saved the wild beast that is the Mets bullpen.

With the Tigers looking worse than anyone expected, the White Sox might have a shot at the division title Scott predicted. The Mets, even with this fast and exciting start, are still surrounded by teams objectively better than them. Except the Phillies.

The Perfect Game

What is it called when your team has a perfect game thrown against them?

A) An unperfect game?
B) A clusterfuck?
C) A day in Hell?

Answer: None of the above.

It’s called the Seattle Mariners.

Sympathy for Jason Bay

Mets fans hate Jason Bay. We hate watching him fail to fulfill his contract, we hate watching him strikeout, and we hate watching him hit weak groundballs, even when they lead to hits (his first two hits were off weak grounders). Bay just gives us nothing to latch onto to inspire any hope that he can turn it around.

Despite such despair in our second-highest-paid player, I don’t agree with the deafening chorus of boos Bay receives whenever he’s at the plate. Mets fans didn’t even give the poor guy a chance, booing him during Opening Day introductions. Why even pay to attend Opening Day if you’re going to be such a miserable piece of shit? Each season should be a fresh start, at least for a guy who’s never punched the father of his girlfriend or refused to be sent to the minors or gained 100 pounds. Francisco Rodriguez was a hotheaded asshole, Oliver Perez was a prideful headcase, and Mo Vaughn was an out-of-shape piece of shit (I bring up Vaughn because I still remember seeing firsthand how disgustingly lazy he was in spring training as a kid). Bay is just a player who has lost all hitting ability, so I basically agree with @emmaspan’s stance on the issue. Whatever the reason for the evaporation of his talent and power, it seems pretty clear that each out he’s made this season and the subsequent booing has blackened his soul. The guy soldiers on, but he looks completely despondent and defeated.

Of course, caring along with effort shouldn’t be enough to keep a player on the field. Jeff Francoeur always played full-out, but he looked like a moron at the plate, swinging at any pitch near him as his eyes grew to the size of baseballs to match the off-speed pitches in the dirt. I still hate how good of a season he had last year (at least it was wasted on the Royals). But hey, Francoeur never made $16 million per year. In this era of the 99%, anyone making lots of money while not pulling his weight is going to be vilified. Alex Rodriguez was vilified even when he was worth his ridiculous salary (at least relatively, in the insane world of professional baseball). Luis Castillo was booed even though he only made a fraction of what Bay does. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Mets fans have no qualms about verbally abusing a player on their own goddamn team.

I admit there’s no way I should be the person to moralize about something like this, but even though the Library of Congress has dozens of tweets from me wishing harm and misfortune on Jason Bay, I’ve never booed him in person nor wished for his death on Twitter–yet. I just find it impossible to feel anything but sympathy for him. When Bay struck out on two terrible called strikes on the outside corner on Wednesday (documented here by Amazin’ Avenue), I could only think about how much the universe has it out for him. Perhaps he has killed a homeless person or two and this is retribution. But going by what is public record, and how egregiously bad those calls were, I was shocked when I heard more boos after that strikeout. I like to imagine that they were for the umpire, but I doubt it.

I’d say I’m going soft, but I still have no problems with collisions at the plate or pitchers intentionally beaning hitters (as long as they’re not head-hunting). Maybe my stance is more about it being the beginning of the season. I can understand needing to vent your frustration over the past few years somehow, but fans shouldn’t be so angry when baseball is just starting up again. They should be ecstatic to be watching big-league baseball, lying to themselves about their team’s chances.

I realize Jason Bay is the perfect representation of everything that was wrong with the Minaya era, but the team is moving in the right direction. The payroll might have dropped by over $50 million in the offseason and the most exciting homegrown Met since Dwight Gooden might have relocated to an insufferable division rival, but chances are this team won’t end up with a record significantly worse than last year’s. It’s going to take at least a couple of years to compete for a playoff spot again, but in the meanwhile take solace in the competent front office and the young players on the field.

If you have watched a majority of the Mets games so far and you haven’t been able to enjoy Ruben Tejada’s approach at the plate, or David Wright’s hot start, or Lucas Duda’s two-HR game, or Ike Davis’ signature over-the-railing catches, or Jon Niese’s six innings of no-hit ball, or Johan Santana’s triumphant return, and instead have decided to boo a player who busts his ass yet still looks totally overmatched and knows he’s letting his teammates down, then in all likelihood you’re an unbearable asshole.

Mets Successfully Trolling Our Blog

Six days into the North American 2012 MLB season, the New York Mets own the best record in baseball. I can’t even pretend to have any sorrows with regards to this team. Sure, Ike Davis is still hitless and has looked as bad as Jason Bay at the plate, but it’s easy to shrug off a few games like that when you have some level of confidence in the player, despite any bizarre affliction that befell him during spring training. In the heat of an exciting winning streak, it has the opposite effect of making a fan dream about how good the team will be once the important hitter comes around. It’s easy to forget about regressing players in the other direction. Ruben Tejada and Daniel Murphy aren’t going to OPS at a 1.000 clip the rest of the season, and David Wright isn’t going to stay at 1.500.

I could naturally point to the vegetative state of Jason Bay’s hitting prowess as a reason for concern, but expectations are almost everything. I feel nothing as I watch Bay flail at an off-speed pitch for strike three. Once again, maybe four straight wins (including a sweep of the Braves) to start the season makes everything OK, but I don’t see myself caring about Bay’s ineptitude unless he’s still in the lineup in June. The potential replacements or platoon options aren’t that enticing, but Kirk Nieuwenhuis already has more home runs than Jason Bay has had since February, and I think Scott Hairston endeared himself to a few Mets fans last year. The problem is that cutting Bay’s playing time any significant amount of time destroys any chance the Mets have of trading him for something of value, so it’ll take a lot for Bay to become the sacrificial lamb, and rightfully so. It’s just unfortunate that the little hope his 2011 September gave seems to have already dissipated, or been drowned by Citi Field boos. It’s legitimately sad to watch at this point.

But everything else? I see reasons for optimism everywhere. It feels kinda wrong. I don’t know how to handle this. It’s like when I meet a girl and we immediately hit it off and everything’s going well. I don’t see any flaws and all my own insecurities melt away. Daniel Murphy made a great play to help save the game — maybe I don’t need to hold my breath every time a ball is hit to him at second base. David Wright looks like the hitter from 2008 — nevermind that I feel like I’ve said that numerous times over the past two years. Mike Pelfrey tied a career high with 8 strikeouts and recorded a double-digit swinging strike rate — ignore the 10 hits and 3 runs (that actually should have been at least 4). I’m just basking in the glory of a 4-0 start and the concurrent 0-4 start by the Atlanta Braves. Right now, I’m not worrying about Johan Santana’s shoulder or Lucas Duda’s defense. Instead, I’m giddy about the Santana-Strasburg matchup on Wednesday, just like I was recently anxious to have a date with someone I was honestly excited about.

I hope the game isn’t rained out.

Why Johan Santana Starting Opening Day Matters

I vividly remember when I heard about the Johan Santana trade. Driving home from a late class, I yelled and bashed on my steering wheel, and then screamed some more when I heard how little the Mets needed to give up. Johan Santana! Who cared about that massive contract? Johan Santana for table scraps! The trade represented the win-now philosophy that fueled the Omar Minaya era. And as a Mets fan in pain eagerly awaiting a World Series win headlined by homegrown superstars David Wright and Jose Reyes, I was ecstatic.

If the 2006 Mets postseason was a speed bump in the shape of an Adam Wainwright curveball, the 2007 season is approximated by this video of a Pontiac Firebird flying by its neighbors, only to crash spectacularly:

But like the driver of that car, the Mets survived. The trade for Santana was like getting right back in a muscle car and hitting 100 mph on the speedometer again.

The 2008 season didn’t go quite as smoothly as some fans hoped, but the Mets were holding onto yet another division lead as the regular season winded down. Johan had put the team on his back in the second half, going 7-0 with a 2.37 ERA going into his final start of the year (and we all know he should have had more wins). As @firejerrymanuel noted yesterday, that complete-game shutout in the penultimate game of 2008 was the last time the Mets were relevant. Johan was so good on three days’ rest, and the atmosphere at Shea so electric, that I contemplated putting down the dough to be on hand for possibly the final game at the stadium despite Oliver Perez being penciled in as the starter. I’m glad I came to my senses and wasn’t part of that depressing post-game “celebration.” Fast-forward through three seasons of depressing mediocrity, $1 billion civil suits, and stars traded or lost to rival NL clubs, and you are left with a team desperate for anything positive.

Johan coming back to start Opening Day 20 months after shoulder capsule surgery might not seem like a big deal, but it signifies some patience, discretion, and competence on the part of the Mets organization — characteristics not many people would attribute to the Minaya tenure. As has been likely driven into your head repeatedly, shoulder surgery isn’t the same as elbow surgery. Tommy John surgery is now as routine as the nosejob Jon Niese got during the offseason; shoulder surgery is something that seemingly ended Brandon Webb’s major league career, and took Chien-Ming Wang a full two years to come back from. Maybe I’m wrong to credit the Mets and Johan’s relatively quick return is just a function of his awesomeness.

And Johan’s velocity sitting in the same neighborhood as before his surgery in 2010 bodes well for his performance this year, even if he is lucky to throw 150 innings. Although maybe the new Citi Field dimensions (and Lucas Duda in right) make his ERA creep up a bit closer to his FIP and xFIP, who knows. The results don’t matter too much, though. It’s about Johan being healthy and standing on the mound like a goddamn badass. While no Mets fan wants to see him get bombed, there’s just something innately reassuring about seeing Johan pitch. So while the Mets aren’t exactly relevant again, having your multiple Cy Young award winner start off the season is a symbol of things possibly going the right way for once.

Division Previews: AL Central

Our other resident White Sox fan Scott was nice enough to let me do the AL Central preview. Looking back, it may have been one of those things where I was supposed to at least politely refuse once, but whatever. The point is the Central is a division that could be a lot more competitive from 2013 on, but where 2012 is almost certain.

1. Detroit Tigers (92-70)

Cabrera’s a star still, but I have to believe that him at 3B is going to hurt his overall added value. Beyond that Fielder is still a great player (no matter how bad that contract is) and Avila is really overlooked considering his position. Austin Jackson will still throw some leather in the outfield, but last season’s .249/.317/.374 slash line is probably closer to his true hitting talent than 2010′s BABIP fueled .293/.345/.400. Detroit’s biggest concert has to be the infield defense, which will hurt the non-Verlander starters on the staff.Despite this, a division crown is all but assured.

Upside: Wins the World Series.

Downside: Verlander hasn’t had a serious injury in his career, but pitching is weird and he’s still not invincible. However, even a hypothetical 1st pitch injury probably couldn’t make me pick against Detroit winning this sad division.

2. Cleveland Indians (84-78)

Grady Sizemore’s going to miss more time this season, and I’ve given up hope on him being a star ever again. Shin-Soo Choo, however, is a guy I expect to bounce back to all-star caliber play. Carlos Santana is going to continue to hit like crazy, and the Rotation led by Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jiminez is going to be strong. The major drawback is the rest of the order. Jason Kipnis could be one hell of a player and Asdrubal Cabrera is a fine shortstop, buy pardon me for being a bit put off by Michael Brantley, Shelley Duncan, Casey Kotchman, and Jack Hannahan.

Upside: The pitching and top of the order help Cleveland sneak into the race for that second wild card spot.

Downside: Choo doesn’t rebound, the starting rotation under performs and Cleveland falls to 4th place.

3. Kansas City Royals (81-81)

Alex Gordon finally was who we thought he was last season, and I think those gains were sustainable. Eric Hosmer is going to be a star at some point, and I think that starts this season. Mike Moustakas could do the same thing, but he’s much less of a sure thing. Throw in defensive stud Alcides Escobar at shortstop and Billy Butler’s boringly steady hitting production and this team has a bright future. The pitching, however,  just doesn’t seem to be there yet. Luke Hochevar just isn’t an ace, and much of the pitching depth in the minors is coming in 2013 or later.

Upside: Makes a run at the division into June, but Detroit pulls away down the stretch despite huge steps forward from young Royal players. I almost picked them second because of this.

Downside: Moustakas and Hosmer don’t progress while Alex Gordon regresses after last season’s breakout.

4. Chicago White Sox (76-86)

I got a case of spring training syndrome about a week ago. I had one of those weird moments of baseball hope where I said, “What if Paulie keeps it up at age 36, Beckham becomes what we thought he could be, Morel builds on his strong September, De Aza keeps playing well, Rios decides to give a shit, the Adam Dunn we paid for shows up, Jake Peavy’s arm stays attached, and Chris Sale becomes a front-line starter?”

Well that’s dandy, but the problem with the White Sox is that they pretty much would need all of these things to happen to compete for the playoffs. The reality is that Konerko’s well overdue to fall off, Beckham probably just isn’t an above-average player, Morel’s just a plus glove with a minus bat, Rios just doesn’t care or is bad, Dunn will never be the guy he was before the Sox signed him, and Peavy’s arm will quite literally fall off.

Not that I didn’t say anything about De Aza and Sale. That’s because I think De Aza’s breakout is very real. Even accounting for a .404 BABIP, 2.8 WAR in 171 plate appearances is nothing to brush off. De Aza could play a plus center field and provide a reasonable bat.

My other beacon of hope is Chris Sale. Sale has great stuff, 3 pitches, and even if things go as poorly as possible, his floor is filthy reliever.

Upside:Kind of hit on that above, but the Sox have a non-zero shot at a playoff spot. Not much more than that, however.

Downside: Sale can’t start, Beckham, Morel, and De Aza take steps back, and star shortstop Alexei Ramirez gets hit by a bus.

5. Minnesota Twins (69-93)

Wow this got bad fast. Some organizations age like fine wine, but the Minnesota Twins have aged like fine milk. Justin Morneau will likely never be the same player, Joe Mauer is going to go from a hall of fame caliber bat at catcher to a solid hitting first baseman, and Francisco Liriano can’t decide if he wants to be awesome or terrible. On the plus side… Miguel Sano might be good in 3 years?

Upside: Everyone gets healthy, and the Twins make a run at a second place finish.

Downside: Morneau has to retire from his concussions, Mauer makes the permanent move to 1B/DH status, and Liriano never sniffs his 2010 performance.

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Division Previews: NL Central

Along with the NL West, I feel like this division is not one our group of bloggers cares about much. We have Mets fans and a Braves fan concerned about the aging specter that is the Phillies in the NL East, two White Sox fans in the middle of the shitpile that is the AL Central after the Tigers, and a Mariners fan who probably just wants his team to not be an embarrassment and end up in last place behind an atrocious Athletics team. Probably every baseball fan finds itself in the know about the AL East due to the YankeesRedSox Monster and now the Extra 2% Rays. And even though Scott called the NL West boring and awful, I’d argue the collection of superstars in that division is much more scintillating than the group here. Maybe I just hate the Cardinals and their recent World Series championship runs pulled out of the asses of an 83-win division winner and the flaming plane crash that was the Braves’ wild-card berth.

St. Louis Cardinals (88-74)

So I hate the Cards, yet I’m picking them to win the division. Blame Beltran. Or Freebald, since I’m stealing his schtick from the AL East preview.

The Cards might have lost Pujols, but a full season of Adam Wainwright is probably as valuable as the human version of Pujols we saw last year, and they also picked up the aforementioned Carlos Beltran. Even though Lance Berkman won’t repeat his 2011, I think Beltran has another great year left in him. On the other side of the outfield, Matt Holliday will continue to be the most boring superstar in baseball. I feel comfortable calling him a superstar since he’s been pretty much as valuable as Ryan Braun over the past 4-5 years. He might not hit 30 HR since he’s not on the Rockies anymore, but he’s a patient doubles machine that plays solid defense.

This team is better than you think in a few ways. Jon Jay and David Freese are solid at CF and 3B; Rafael Furcal is only a year removed from a fantastic season (or at least two-thirds of one); and the bullpen — despite the confusion last season — is set with Jason Motte closing and Fernando Salas and Marc Rzepczynski being the righty-lefty set-up combo. The only black hole looks to be second base. I looked at Tyler Greene’s Fangraphs page and the BB% looked nice, but then I remembered he was probably hitting in front of the pitcher’s slot most of the time, inflating that number a bit. I’m proud of my saber-ing right there.

The fate of the Cards probably lies with the rotation. Chris Carpenter might be broken all year. Maybe it takes Wainwright a while to truly get back to 100%. Maybe Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook turn to heaps of garbage without the magical old man guidance of Dave Duncan. But nevermind, Dave Duncan, the entire team could collapse without the drunken lineup and bullpen maneuvering of Tony La Russa. I shouldn’t be so harsh though, as his methods were obviously superior to the coked-up managing of Ron Washington in the World Series.

Fun team-related fact to pad this preview: Did you know that the only time Wainwright has gotten out Beltran was that one time? Hate you, Yadier Molina.

Cincinnati Reds (87-75)

I originally had the Reds winning this division, but the loss of Ryan Madson pushed me to add up the WARs again, and this time my spreadsheet put them below the Cards. But if there’s one thing that could push them to a division title, it’s their defense. Rolen-Cozart-Phillips-Votto makes for a filthy infield, and the outfield — particularly Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce — isn’t too shabby, either. I was going to say that the Reds are the NL version of the Rays, only with a bit more pop, but the stats indicate that’s just a mirage created by their home parks. And the Reds staff certainly doesn’t have four potential aces like the Rays. It would help if Aroldis Chapman was kept in the rotation, but the last Reds-related tweet I saw in my feed last night was a Reds fan preemptively complaining about him being moved back to the bullpen, ostensibly to help offset the loss of Madson. It feels weird to say that Dusty Baker having someone throw less innings is dumb, but here we are. They did add Sean Marshall in the pen as well, and considering how much of a beast he’s been the past two years, they should be content with him closing. And they have Bill Bray as the lefty specialist. I can’t believe I just mentioned Bill Bray in this preview — it’s like I’m trying to be serious.

There’s so much youth on this team that it’s a very real possibility they run away with the division while the Cardinals collapse due to age and injuries and lack of Tony La Russa sunglasses. Mat Latos could weather the transition from Petco and maintain an ERA in the low 3s. Maybe Johnny Cueto somehow manages to keep his ERA under 3.50 due to an increased groundball rate, taking advantage of his infield defense and spitting on xFIP. Chapman could actually be given the 5th starter role and absolutely devastate hitters (18:2 K:BB ratio this spring!) before his arm inevitably flies off his body. On the offense side, the Jay Bruce Breakout is always on the horizon, Joey Votto is now unquestionably the best first baseman in the NL (obligatory lol Ryan Howard), and there’s potential for above-average production at pretty much every other position. If only Ryan Hanigan and Devin Mesoraco were able form a nice and tidy lefty-righty platoon at catcher, everything would be perfect. But alas, I have them finishing second. I just hope they don’t.

This man claims to be herpes-free.

Milwaukee Brewers (85-77)

The more I look at this team, the more I think they could pull out the division somehow. But then I notice that Mat Gamel is now their first baseman instead of Prince Fielder. Greinke-Gallardo-Marcum is still a great top-3, but it’s only the third-best in the NL, amazingly. And the other two starters aren’t going to be mistaken for above-average pitchers. So to have any realistic chance at the division, they’ll need Greinke’s results to match his performance, Gallardo to continue his improvement, and for Marcum to stay healthy. Well, the last thing has already hit a speed bump, but let’s just ignore that, shall we?

Speaking of speed bumps (nailed that segue), it looked like the Brew Crew was going to be without its MVP for the first 50 games of the season, and then we found out some dude stored his urine sample in his fridge overnight and testosterone spontaneously generated and oh ok I better not talk about this because PEDs. Right now, PED talk is the only thing worse than Moneyball talk. I still can’t believe Jonah Hill got nominated for that. He gets an Oscar nom while Michael Fassbender and Michael Shannon are left in the indie movie cold. And Dodgers fans cried about Matt Kemp getting shafted.

Getting back to baseball, I can’t wait to see Rickie Weeks play less than 120 games again. Corey Hart seems to start every season injured now. Nyjer Morgan is insane. But hey, Aramis Ramirez. Plus, John Axford and K-Rod in the back of the bullpen is pretty nice to have. So yeah, I think this team has a shot at the playoffs, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Or take steroids. Wait, what?

Chicago Cubs (78-84)

Wait, why do I have this team winning 78 games? Playing the Astros 18 times will help, but this team isn’t very pretty. Perhaps I’m weighing Geovany Soto’s 2011 too much, or I’m wrong to expect Ian Stewart to be dogshit, or I’m being unfair to Carlos Marmol’s massive K and BB rates. Who knows, it’s an even-numbered year, Alfonso Soriano could be good! It’s the mirror image of Odd-Year Beckett! Or the inverse. Definitely the inverse.

I’ll admit the Starlin Castro is pretty cool. And maybe Matt Garza is truly a new pitcher. But they’ve got to hope Bryan LaHair’s PCL power translates to the majors, Jeff Samardzija* pans out in the rotation, and Darwin Barney doesn’t hit .230. What else is there to talk about? There was something else. Oh yeah, Anthony Rizzo. So the Cubs don’t really need to depend on Bryan LaHair, as they have a Theo favorite waiting in the wings. The boy wonder Theo Epstein. I could talk about him, too. But I won’t, for the sake of our White Sox writers.

Playoffs ETA: 2014

*I contemplated going for the easy misspelling joke here, but his name really isn’t that bad.

Pittsburgh Pirates (78-84)

When you finish under .500 one season, and then your big offseason pickup is A.J. Burnett, you’re not finishing over .500 the next season. Even if Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez have the seasons many people predicted for them last year, they still need nine games of improvement to reach .500, or eleven imaginary Pythagorean games. They’ll need Erik Bedard to bahahaha, oh god forget it.

James McDonald is another young guy who disappointed in 2011. It’s almost as if this is a pattern in Pittsburgh. Which is probably why the Pirates made sure to have control of certified stud Andrew McCutchen through 2018, and at a shockingly good price. So they’ve got that going for them, which is nice. They’ve also got a nice core of top prospects from the last few years of drafting. Sure, none of them are going to contribute this year (except possibly Gerrit Cole at the tail end of the season), so I shouldn’t be talking about them at all, but it’s all I’ve got, ok?

.500 Record ETA: 2014

Houston Astros (57-105)

Amazingly, this record would be better than last year’s. But hey, regression works both ways!

God, this shit is bad. The double-play combo of Jed Lowrie and Jose Altuve has a chance to be alright, I guess? Jesus Christ, this team’s star is now Wandy Rodriguez after the jettisonings of Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn. Carlos Lee was once a star, but even with the Crawford Boxes in left, he couldn’t manage 20 home runs last season. Jason Bay could hit 20 HR if he had that disgustingly short porch.* Bud Norris and Jordan Lyles could be average young pitchers, which would make them stars on this team.

Oh, apparently this J.D. Martinez is supposed to be good? I swear, I had no idea who he was until I scoured the internet for material to wrap up this post. There’s really no point in even discussing Jordan Schafer or Brett Wallace or anyone else. I’m out.

Relevancy ETA: 2015

*This statement will come back to haunt me when Bay can’t even hit 15 HR with the new Citi Field dimensions. He has a .286 SLG this spring. Kill me.

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Division Previews: NL East

I am two things that are relevant to this post: terrible at predictions and an occasional reader of The Awl. The first is relevant because, as with any set of preseason predictions, you can pretty much write off whatever I say as worthless (but hopefully entertaining). The second is relevant because they are fond of answering odd and/or difficult questions with a simple: Sure, why the hell not. “Is this Britain’s stupidest looter? Sure, why the hell not,” is one example of what has become my favorite response when a question is presented that I either (a) do not care or (b) am unqualified to answer. Or, I guess, (c) when I’m hungover. Which: irrelevant here! Remember? Good.

So ANYWAY it is with that preamble that we head into the den of iniquity that is the National League’s eastmost division. I cannot say with any certainty that there is any actual iniquity transpiring there, but lord knows John frigging Buck and his compatriots are up to no good, so it’s at least plausible. And this is how we gon’ do this: I’m going to approach each team’s preview with this question in mind:

Can they make the playoffs?

And the answer, each and every time, is going to be:

Sure, why the hell not.

And then I’ll explain the ‘hell not’ part of it, or whichever part I have to explain that’ll tell you why the team could taste sweet, sweet postseason cash and champagne (probably the best kind of cash and champagne, though that is admittedly a highly subjective assertion). However, because this is at least nominally a predictions post — seriously, it’s right there in the title — I’ll do my best at casting my lot by ordering the individual previews according to how I believe they will finish in the divisional standings. It is with a rousing cheer and a lustful boo in the direction of the Mets and their faithful, then, that we begin with …

Philadelphia Phillies (95-67)

I’ll start with the bad here: the Phillies are not likely to have more than two or three good hitters in their lineup. Take your pick from Shane Victorino, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Hunter Pence, Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz; I don’t particularly care which. The point is, there’s roughly zero chance that all six hit — and there’s a very good chance that only Victorino and Pence produce as expected. Howard’s been rehabbing a torn Achilles, and had his return postponed when the ligament became infected. Utley is battling a chronic knee problem that deflated his numbers last season, and is only going to get worse. Rollins is aging and impatient at the plate; if his wheels abandon him (as his nagging injuries over the past few seasons suggest is more than just possible) then he’ll provide little value with the bat, and Ruiz I’m including because he’s gotten on base at around a .385 clip over the past two seasons. There’s hope for Domonic Brown to produce, but given the way he’s been treated in Philadelphia, it might be best for them to salvage what value he has by shipping him out for another bat.

However, the Phillies have the best starting staff in baseball, with their three legitimate Cy Young candidates in Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee heading up a rotation that was beyond dominant last season. If offensive numbers are as depressed as we saw last season, then the Phils won’t need to do much to provide their starters with enough runs to stay in the game, and if Jonathan Papelbon is as effective as he was last season, the bullpen shouldn’t miss a beat in the absence of Ryan Madson. If Halladay, Hamels and Lee each put up Cy-caliber seasons as they did in 2011, the Phillies figure to win the division yet again.

Atlanta Braves (87-75)

It’s probably a function of rooting for the team that I’m slotting them here despite having very few positive feelings about the season to come. They’re likely going to roll with an offensive black hole at shortstop and in left field (especially as and when Martin Prado, hopefully fully recovered from an injury-plagued season fills in for The Injured Chipper Jones at third base), and Michael Bourn, for all his speed, isn’t a great hitter.

But Brian McCann is arguably the best catcher in the game, Dan Uggla boasts probably the most power of any second baseman in the game, and the young first baseman Freddie Freeman has a full season of Major League ball and weight training/filling out under his belt. If Jason Heyward hits like he did in his rookie year, then the right side of the field should be able to compensate for everyone else — especially since shortstop, third base and center field are generally weak areas for offense anyway.

And if the Braves can hit, then they, like the Phillies, should be able to pitch well enough to win games. What they may lack in a 200-inning ace — Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson and Brandon Beachy can each pitch well enough to fill the role, but have significant injury concerns — they make up for in depth, as the aforementioned trio join with Jair Jurrjens, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran to give the Braves the luxury of not having to ride three or four pitchers into the ground every fifth day. And while there are concerns in the bullpen — how likely is it, really, that Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel are as dominant as they were last year? — predicting how relievers will perform is a fool’s errand. I’ll merely say that there’s enough talent there, as well as throughout the rest of the roster, to assuage the concerns raised by last year’s collapse (*sob* I swore I wouldn’t mention it *wipes tear*) and bring home one of the National League’s Wild Card spots.

Miami Marlins (85-77)

The Marlins are a high-beta team. Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson are each among the very best at their jobs when healthy, but that is a risky-at-best proposition, as neither has shown much of a propensity for a full season of play in their careers. But let’s imagine that they do stay healthy, and then imagine a lineup of Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Giancarlo Stanton, Logan Morrison, Gaby Sanchez, Omar Infante, John Buck and Emilio Bonifacio supporting a staff of Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Carlos Zambrano, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez. There are three guys in that mix whom I would confidently say could have bad seasons: Infante, Bonifacio and Nolasco. Infante is aging and didn’t hit well last year; Bonifacio has no power and had his line buoyed significantly by a high BABIP, and Nolasco has, throughout his career, gotten infuriatingly poor results.

But the new ballpark figures to be an extreme pitchers’ park, which should help Buehrle and Zambrano, and there’s a chance the team actually draws some fans for a change, which can only mean good things. Had Javy Vazquez stuck around, I’d feel good about putting money on the Marlins to win the division, despite what could easily be a crippling lack of depth at just about every position on the diamond. If they stay healthy, they’ll do impressive things.

Washington Nationals (84-78) 

People seem to be all about the Nationals these days, as I’ve seen more than a few people picking them to finish as high as second in this division. And there is indeed reason for optimism; there are some real talents on this team. Ryan Zimmerman is an elite third baseman, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa, while flawed, are certainly better than most of the double play tandems in the league, Mike Morse had a breakout 2011 campaign, Wilson Ramos is an above-average catcher, and the pitching staff boasts excellent depth and also some guy named Stephen Strasburg, who’s kind of good, atop the depth chart.

Beyond Strasburg, the Nats are rolling seven deep if you count Ross Detweiler and Chien-Ming Wang as viable starters. Gio Gonzalez, who apparently became good when I wasn’t looking, Jordan Zimmermann and Edwin Jackson should be an outstanding 2-4, helping alleviate the damage of whatever the Nats get from the fifth spot. The bullpen looks a little shaky right now, as the health and effectiveness of Drew Storen and Brad Lidge, respectively, are in question, but if the two of them can perform to the best of their abilities, the Washington ‘pen could be a lockdown bunch.

The concern I have with the Nationals is that I’m not too hot on Roger Bernardina or Adam LaRoche, and I don’t know that I’m going to believe in a rebound from Jayson Werth until I look at some leaderboards in September and he’s leading every major category. And I know that Bernadina’s spot could be ceded to Bryce Harper, but as talented as the kid is, I doubt he’s ready to hit Major League pitching. And in this division, even two holes in the lineup could sink you if you’re not getting consistently excellent starting pitching — which the 150 IP limit on Strasburg is going to make a difficult proposition indeed.

The nice thing for the Nats is that their biggest holes — corner outfield (especially if Morse doesn’t rebound) and first base are the easiest positions to fill in terms of trades and freely available talent. So they’re in a position to address their biggest competitive disadvantages, while also fielding a roster that can definitely compete.

New York Mets (67-95)

Sigh … ok, I tried. I really, really tried. But if you want a “sure, why the hell not” to “can the Mets make the playoffs?”, then you’re going to have to settle for literally just “sure, why the hell not.” Here’s a telling image:

I don’t know if you can click to enlarge it, but you don’t really need to — the point is all those little red injury indicators. Jason Bay, David Wright and Ike Davis — for my money, the only three legitimate hitters on the team — are already red flagged, and while Johan Santana has actually been throwing real live baseballs, what you’ll get out of him is anyone’s guess. Andres Torres is banged up and old, Scott Hairston is banged up and hasn’t made good on the promise he briefly displayed in San Diego, and Adam Loewen is trying to resurrect his career by hitting even a fraction as well as hitters did against him when he was on the mound. That’s, um, unlikely.

In the rotation, Mike Pelfrey, Jon Niese and R.A. Dickey are fine, but unless you’re fielding an elite offense or playing in a weak division, those aren’t three guys you want to be leaning on for a playoff push. Frank Francisco is somehow still kicking around, and is the back end of a bullpen that has a handful of quality pitchers, but no one you’d really call a shutdown reliever; while the ‘pen shouldn’t be an unmitigated disaster like it has been in recent years, the Mets aren’t likely to be a team that have you shaking in your boots if your team isn’t leading after six innings.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Lucas Duda in his own little space here, since he seems to be basically all Mets fans have going for them. Personally, I’m glad he’s relevant; every time I hear his name, I cast my mind to Blazing Saddles, and I briefly forget I’m watching a game that involves the Mets. Anyway, the 26-year old should still be in his power peak, and if he can avoid the Mets Injury Bug (I jest, I jest; we all know that’s an impossible feat), then he should sell some jerseys and inspire some hashtags. And for the 2012 Mets, well … that’s not too shabby.

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Division Previews: AL East

1. New York Yankees 95-67

Full disclosure:  I hate the Yankees.  For me, as much as sport requires someone to root for it also requires someone to root against.  The Yankees fill the latter role for me.  They are the bully I want to see learn a lesson.  Since they lost the World Series in 2001 I’ve been picking against them and predicting the demise of their dynasty every season.  Strictly in terms of winning the AL East I’m 3 wins, 7 losses in the last decade of picking against the Yankees.  Perhaps it’s time for some reverse psychology.  To wit, I am picking the Yankees to finish 1st because:

  • CC Sabathia is in The Best Shape Of His Life
  • Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and especially Mariano Rivera laugh at the concepts of time and gravity
  • The wind blows in from right field whenever any right handed Yankee pitcher takes the mound at home
  • Anything that does happen to go wrong will be swiftly corrected by a bottomless well of cash
  • 12 of the Yankees 28 September games are against the Orioles, Athletics, and Twins
2. Tampa Bay Rays 91-71

Full disclosure:  The Rays are the franchise I wish my favorite team, the Mets, would model themselves after.  Attention to drafting and development of pitchers goes a long way when money is tight.  The Rays are choosing between Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis for the role of 5th starter.  The Mets are choosing between Dillon Gee and I don’t even know who.  But I digress.  I am picking the Rays to finish 2nd and claim a wildcard berth because:

  • James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, and Jeff Niemann pitch for them
  • Seriously, have you seen how good these pitchers are
  • Joe Maddon manages them
  • Evan Longoria and the Sisterhood of his Traveling Cap play third and bat third for them

3. Boston Red Sox 86-76

Full disclosure:  I lived in Boston for roughly half of my life.  I’ve been a partial season ticket holder.  I love Fenway Park and Yawkey Way.  I would pick the Rays for 1st place and the Red Sox for 2nd but I’m trying out the reverse psychology thing I noted above.  Therefore I pick the Red Sox to finish 3rd because:

  • Carl Crawford’s contract and wrist are both bad, very bad
  • Jacoby Ellsbury can’t possibly do that again, can he
  • Pitchers Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront are currently scheduled to start games regularly
  • Bobby Valentine is a polarizing manager who some players will want to die for, others will want to kill

4. Toronto Blue Jays 81-81

Full disclosure:  I spent a long weekend in Toronto in 1993.  I paid $5.00 American for two box seats to a Blue Jays game at what was then called Skydome.  During the game I did not witness any couples making love in the hotel located beyond the outfield fence.  It was a bachelor party weekend so I don’t recall much else.  I pick the Blue Jays to finish 4th because:

  • Jose Bautista is very good, and Brett Lawrie seems like he’ll be very good, but that’s about it for the lineup
  • Ricky Romero is very good, but the rest of the rotation isn’t, at least not yet
  • It will be fun if I live to regret asking the question who is Eric Thames
  • The farm system is very highly regarded, but it’s not here yet

5. Baltimore Orioles 63-99

Full disclosure:  I don’t know jack shit about the Baltimore Orioles.  The mere fact that I’m writing a preview of the American League East is quite farcical.  Luckily you paid as much to read this as I received to write it.  If you’ve even read this far please accept my apology.  I pick the Orioles to finish 5th because:

  • They’ve done so for 4 consecutive years
  • Adam Jones and Matt Wieters are solid players, and the lineup is filled with above average hitters, but
  • Pitching prospect Zach Britton is hurt, and aside from reliever Jim Johnson, the staff gets routinely crushed
  • O’s pitching was last in the AL in ’11 in ERA and quality starts so there is nowhere to go but up

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