Saturday, April 4, 2009

Play Ball!

Since The Underrated Blog-a-Thon is completed (a final thanks to everyone who read and participated) and I have plans for quite a few book essays in the coming weeks, I figured I'd do a look at the upcoming Major League Baseball season. There's really no doubt that I'm part of a minority right now, being one of a handful of people feeling more excited about Opening Day than the current Final Four. Everyone who knows me well knows that I'm a baseball fanatic, caring and knowing more about it than any other sport. The more I think about the 2008 season, I realize that there weren't too many offseason plotlines drumming up excitement, other than speculations as to where (and if) Barry Bonds would find a team with whom to sign. Granted, everyone (myself included) wanted to hand the World Series trophy to the Chicago Cubs during most of the regular season. So far, there haven't been too many outlandish predictions for my favorite team in 2009, other than a general agreement that they'll take home another National League Central title. This is fine by me; they seem to perform much better without the entire country holding their history up, assuming that one hundred years without a championship guarantees one.

There were plenty of surprises last season, with the biggest one being the American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays (note to Tampa fans: go to their home games consistently, even if they start the season 12-25; you have a special team that deserves attention). Other noted surprises were the emergence of the San Francisco Giants' Tim Lincecum, the 2008 NL Cy Young winner. Manny Ramirez carried the Dodgers to the NL Championship Series, headaches aside (this reminds me of a quote by Casey Stengel regarding team chemistry, something along the lines of "I don't mind a few oddballs in the clubhouse as long as they help the team.") In my only mention of the New York Yankees, owner Hank Steinbrenner managed to embarrass himself more in one season than his father did in thirty-five years.

I normally shy away from making sports predictions, but baseball is a game forever tied to both its past and its future. Since the 2009 season begins tomorrow, here are some probable happenings, at least in my mind.

At best, the Kansas City Royals will win 85-90 games and compete for the American League Wild Card: The chic thing to do this off-season has been to pick "the next Tampa Bay." This is silly, since nobody could have foreseen their wonderful season. However, of all the current losing teams with bright futures, one cannot be faulted for liking Kansas City. Third baseman Alex Gordon still hasn't hit his peak, and for some strange reason, a lot of people consider him a failure at age 25. However, since nobody is expecting a stellar season from him (after visions of 30 home runs and 100 RBIs for 2008), he should have a more relaxed approach, and therefore a breakout season. He should lead a lineup that might not be the strongest, but plays with an emerging starting rotation. Last April, I had the good fortune of seeing pitcher Zack Greinke pitch against the Seattle Mariners. Even from the stands, it was easy to tell that he's a potential Cy Young winner in the future. He's getting better every season and will eventually be their ace. Even if Kansas City fails to make the playoffs, they will challenge other teams in the American League; they're no longer doormats.

Forget the Yankees and Red Sox; the best division race is now between the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets: The World Series Champion Phillies return with more or less the same team, but with the excellent addition of Raul Ibanez (a definite upgrade over Pat Burrell). The Mets finally have a strong bullpen, led by new closer Francisco Rodriguez. Right now, it's hard to say which team will end up winning the National League East, but this season should be more exciting. Even if the Mets finish in second place, it won't be because they choke in late September, as they've done the past two seasons. 2009 should bring a division race that goes back and forth until the end of the season, and the National League Wild Card should come out of the East this season.

The San Diego Padres should not trade Jake Peavy, no matter what: During the off-season, Jake Peavy was nearly traded to both the Chicago Cubs and the Atlanta Braves. The reasoning behind this is that the Padres are not going to compete this season, and they should trade Peavy for some strong prospects. Of course, I don't know the business side of baseball as well as actual general managers, and there's a good chance that Peavy is unhappy in San Diego. However, he's signed until 2012, and he's undoubtedly their staff ace. While the Padres are looking to cut payroll, trading their best player would obviously hurt their fan base, no matter how good the potential returns would be in the future. Peavy is the kind of pitcher you build a team around. Some low-key free agent signings or trades could make the Padres a lot better either this season or next, especially since there is no definite favorite to win the National League West division. Even as the lineup is right now, they have the potential to be better than most people predict. Especially after their poor handling of franchise closer Trevor Hoffmann, they should start fresh and build around Peavy.

Expect excellent intangibles from players returning to their original teams, even if their numbers aren't stellar: This season, the Seattle Mariners have Ken Griffey, Jr., the Oakland Athletics have Jason Giambi, and the Atlanta Braves have Tom Glavine. Nobody is really expecting any of these players to have seasons reminiscent of their prime years, but they should show the value of leadership to younger players. Griffey's return is a nostalgic boost to a very poor Seattle baseball team, and while they should improve somewhat, his occasional presence in the lineup is ceremonial as opposed to productive. If he stays healthy, he should hit around twenty-five home runs and maybe hit for a .275-.280 average. Giambi seems to have put his steriod scandal behind him, and returns to an A's team in need of a clubhose presence. He's not the venerable leader that Griffey will be for his team, but a little toughness and some dirty jokes in the clubhouse could ease what might be a long season for a team that has traded away their best pitchers. I've long hated the notion that players fail because of the New York (pick one) a.) media, b.) expectations, or c.) fans. Tom Glavine didn't fit well with the Mets due to injuries, and a quiet, steady season back in Atlanta should be what he needs to close out a possible Hall-Of-Fame career.

Fine, will the Yankees fare?: Yes, no look at any baseball season in the past thirteen years has been complete without excessive coverage of America's most hated (I mean, most beloved...wait, no, most hated) team. CC Sabathia has proved from his time with the Cleveland Indians that he can succeed in the American League. However, despite their early inconsistencies, the Yankees could have earned much more respect by giving chances to Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy to succeed at the big-league level. Hughes could very well be a mainstay in the Yankee rotation, as he's shown flashes of brilliance. Of course, as it's been noted many times, the Yankees won their championships with strong play from lesser known players (Scott Brosius, Luis Soto, et. al). Since they've spent so much money for 2009, there's really no happy medium. They're either winning the American League championship or not making the playoffs at all.

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