11th and Washington

11th and Washington: March 2006

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Reviewing 2005

Soooo ... new season starting up next week. Sunday for the White Sox and Indians; Monday for most everybody else.

About time I start up this here blog again, don't you think? The good news is that I start a new job tomorrow, one that brings me closer to baseball and also leaves my days free. I'm hoping this change in schedule allows for more frequent posting. I plan to make this thing better than it's been. Actually, I think it's been pretty good, and since I'm really only doing it for my own enjoyment, that's the only vote that matters. But it's been infrequent, and that's my main issue with it. So here's to more regularity, without the need to add prunes to my diet.

Now, before I get to my thoughts and predictons for this season, I need to review what I did last year. That's how undisciplined I've been. Let me get that out of the way now. Last year's full NL predictions are here and the AL ones are here.

2005 NL East predictions
Marlins (wild card)

2005 NL East reality
Marlins (tied with Mets)

Asterisks in all divisions indicate when I pegged that slot correctly. In 2004, I doubted the Braves and decided last year that I'd stick with them until they didn't do it. It got me three out of five right for a good start. When I get to this year's picks, we'll see if they can live up to my thoughts on them this year.

What I got right: 1. "I’m also not sold on Dan Kolb at the back of the bullpen. Something tells me he’s going to have his share of struggles. Offensively, Rafael Furcal will have a stellar season in his contract year ... Brian Jordan will probably lose his job after further injury and may end up retiring after this season."

2. "The [Mets'] The bullpen scares me." While Roberto Hernandez and, in the second half, Aaron Heilman were much better than expected, if they'd been stronger in the 'pen, Pedro might've won 20 and the Mets might've won 90.

3. "It won’t be like 1973, when nobody wanted to take first place and 82 wins was enough. But it could be like that year in that the fourth-place team is still within five games of first place." Fourth place in the NL East was the Mets' and Marlins' .512 winning percentage, which put them seven games out of first. It also would have put them in first place in the horrendous NL West and in third place in any other division.

4. "[The Phillies'] have had high expectations for a couple of years now and have been unable to perform under that pressure. Maybe the lowered expectations and the new, laid-back manager will allow this team to relax and play to its potential." Two games out of first and one behind Houston for the wild card.

5. "The crowds will be there, and [the Nationals] will be an exciting team at times, but they just don’t have the horses to keep up with the thoroughbreds in this division. ... I also like the chances for Jose Guillen to turn things around. Again." Everyone got swept up in Washington's fast start and first-place standing in June, but their lack of depth showed in the second half.

2005 NL Central predictions

2005 NL Central reality
Astros (wild card)

I'm now 5 of 11 in slotting teams; just short of .500.

What I got right: 1. "Can Matt Morris be an 18-game winner again? Can Jason Marquis and Chris Carpenter pitch like front-of-the-rotation starters like they did in 2004?" I asked these questions saying that the Cards needed a healthy staff to repeat as division champions. Morris won 14 after missing three weeks to start the season, so while not 18, it was close enough. And I think Carpenter pitched like a "front-of-the-rotation" starter.

2. "Having [Mark Prior and Kerry Wood] healthy for a full season (or five and a half months) may be the difference between third place and first place" for the Cubs. Obviously, they didn't have those two for much of the season, and it dropped them all the way to fourth place.

3. "[T]his season could be where we see the true emergence of Corey Patterson, Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee. All three had strong seasons last year, but I think this year they all do it again, cementing their star status – or elevating it to the next level." We did see the true emergence of all three, though Patterson's status fell short of not just "everyday starter," but also that of "major leaguer," let alone "star."

4. "[T]he Astros might make a run this season despite their off-season losses." I'll say ...

5. "[T]hey’ve got promising replacements in Jason Lane and Wily Taveras. And there’s also Andy Pettitte. Though his totals were low because of injury last season, the lefty’s peripherals (a 3.90 ERA, 2.5:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio) were enough that a full, healthy season would make a big difference to the team."

6. "The [Brewers'] addition of Carlos Lee and the development of youngsters like Lyle Overbay and Junior Spivey give Milwaukee some more oomph in the order. With Ben Sheets, Doug Davis and Chris Capuano developing, this Crew has some promise. Not enough to end a streak of 12 consecutive losing seasons, tied with the Pirates as the longest active streaks in the majors, but enough to give fans reason to hope things could soon be changing." I was wrong on the bit about the losing seasons -- an 81-81 record isn't losing -- but fans have reason to hope things are changing.

7. "The [Pirates] still have a long way to go. It’s a shame their classy manager, Lloyd McClendon, likely won’t be the one to get there with them." They do, and he isn't.

2005 NL West predictions

2005 NL West reality

The cumulative tally: 8-for-16. Back to .500.

What I got right: 1. "This could be another three-team race, but the two who don’t finish on top aren’t going to be playing for a wild card." Only part I missed was that the Diamondbacks were the third team in the race, not the Dodgers.

2. "I don’t like either the Dodgers or Giants for second place ...". The ellipsis is there because of the part where I say, "but one of them will get it because it won’t be Colorado or Arizona." Whoops.

3. "Eric Gagne’s injury is bad news, and if he’s out too long, they may slide too much." Bingo. The team did get off to a hot start, leading the division through the first month.

4. Siting age, I wrote, "I think the Giants will put up a fight (Barry always does, whether or not it’s warranted), but it won’t be enough."

2005 AL East predictions
Red Sox (wild card)*
Blue Jays
Devil Rays*

2005 AL East reality
Red Sox (wild card)
Blue Jays
Devil Rays

I'm now 11-for-21 with the slotting.

What I got right: 1. "I do, however, think we're going to see a sharp decline in the skills of at least one of these three players: Bernie Williams, Gary Sheffield or Mariano Rivera." In hindsight, that was pretty easy to foresee. Might we see it happen to Sheff this year?

2. "I also think either Carl Pavano or Jaret Wright will turn out to be a questionable signing, if not downright horrible, though the latter is really only in the case of Wright. And it's Wright whom I think will be the bust much more than Pavano. Though I still have my doubts about him." If I could see these coming, why couldn't the Yankees?

3. "I also think Tino Martinez and Jason Giambi will combine for 40-50 homers ...". Giambi's 32 + Martinez's 17 = 49.

4. "I would love to see this division come down to the final series in Boston. ... Boston will finish a close second." I guess a tie is a "close second."

5. "[Matt Clement] was 9-13 with the Cubs last year; I could see him going 13-9 this time." He went 13-6.

6. "I do see a chance that Bill Mueller or Mark Bellhorn won't be the starters at third or second, respectively, come August ..." Bellhorn's last game with the Sox was July 17 against the Yankees; the next time he took the field, he was playing for the Yankees on August 30.

7. "Unless Rodrigo Lopez and Daniel Cabrera take two big steps forward, each, to something like 13-15 wins, this team will lose a lot of games when it scores six or seven runs." Lopez went 15-12; Cabrera 10-13, so close. Bruce Chen came out of nowhere -- or everywhere, considering the teams he's played with -- to go 13-10.

8. "Well, Tom Verducci has some numbers that say Toronto will improve upon its 67-94 record from last year, though I doubt it will be by much. Maybe 72 wins? Seventy-four? Tampa Bay won 71 last year and could do so again." I give props where they're due, and Verducci's numbers were more accurate than my gut feeling. He also pegged the Diamondbacks for a boost. Nice work.

2005 AL Central predictions
White Sox

2005 AL Central reality
White Sox

The division tally: 14-for-26. Improving, but as we're about to see, I had little else right in this division.

What I got right: 1. "Coco Crisp may become a 20-20 guy this year, and if Grady Sizemore is given a chance, might have found himself among the top three Rookie of the Year names come November, had he not had 138 at bats last year." Sizemore did; Crisp was 16/15, but that 20/20 could come this year in Boston.

2. "... Detroit should at least match last year's 72 wins." They were one short with 71. Close enough for government work.

2005 AL West predictions

2005 AL West reality


Overall, 18-for-30 in predicting the correct position in the standings for all 30 teams. This division may be easy because it only has four teams, but at least last year, it seemed pretty apparent who would come out on top and who would contend. I wasn't too good with team-by-team specifics again in this division, but I also wrote less specific things.

What I got right: 1. "I like Chris Young, but that's about it." The 6'10" Princeton graduate went 12-7 and is now in San Diego, where he's getting even more love this spring.

2. "I don't think Texas will lose 100 games, but can they win 85? Not so sure of that. I do see a return to 30-30 for Alfonso Soriano ..." They went 79-83; Soriano had 36 HR and 30 SB.

In the next couple of days, I'll sort out what I think about each team for 2006. It's just days away ...

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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Tuning in to the WBC

Now that the World Baseball Classic has begun, I find myself interested. There was little chance of me truly getting pumped up for this new tournament beforehand, but now that the games have begun, several factors have drawn -- and held -- my interest.

The games. Quite simply, I'm drawn to the competition. I love baseball and I'll watch spring training games, but other than catching an at bat by Lastings Milledge and a couple of batters faced by Mike Pelfrey, I couldn't even stay glued to Sunday's Mets-Puerto Rico exhibition game. But for games that mean something -- even if that something is a trumped-up "world championship" -- it's held my interest. On Tuesday, when play began stateside, I kept the Venezuela-Dominican Republic game on at work and then watched the U.S. and Mexico both at work and at home. While I spent yesterday afternoon at the opening-round doubleheader for the Big East Tournament, I caught a little of the early innings of the U.S.-Canada game at a bar while I had dinner. Later that evening, I watched the end of the game -- the Miracle on Grass! -- at a friend's house.

Yankee-hating. George Steinbrenner hates the WBC. So I'm inclined to like it. Besides, the deeper into the tournament the United States goes, the longer the Yanks are without Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Johnny Damon. They're also without Al Leiter, but I don't see how that hurts them. The fact that Leiter -- a Jersey guy himself who pitched quite well for the Mets -- is even on the team is ridiculous. The guy is far from an effective pitcher. Obviously past his prime, he's also clearly past the point of being a solid contributor to a major-league pitching staff. Why he's believed to be a pitcher worthy of representing the United States -- actually, he's worthy of representing the U.S., but not worthy of helping them to a title -- is perhaps the biggest question on this roster.

The matchups. Yes, it's only spring training, but there are still some matchups I've been drawn to. Watching Carlos Beltran single in two runs against Billy Wagner in the exhibition on Sunday was nice when I realized, as a Mets fan, I don't have to worry about facing Wagner in the ninth inning anymore. He's ours! I know we're treated to a Johan Santana-David Ortiz at bat once or twice a season, but because the Twins can't seem to get past the Yankees in the playoffs, we've yet to see it in a setting any bigger than a Tuesday night July meeting. Ortiz's bomb on Tuesday seemed a little bit more impressive to me. And last night, as the U.S. tried to rally in the eighth, the Phillies' Chase Utley came to the plate with the tying runs on base and two outs. On the mound was Canadian Scott Mathieson -- one of the Phillies' top prospects. When Mathieson left a pitch out over the plate, Utley drilled it high and deep to center, flicking his bat away with the flair of a 40-home run hitter who had just hit one he was sure was leaving the ballpark. Only Utley hit it to straightaway center in a pretty expansive Chase Field, where Adam Stern sprinted back to the warning track and caught it just before he slammed into the wall. The kid let the young stud hit it, but he got him to hit it in the right place.

The best-laid plans ... The favorites are obviously the United States and the Dominican Republic, with Japan, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Canada expected to put up a fight as well. Cuba is a wild card because they're isolated and so little is known about them as a team. The way the draw is set up, the U.S. and Japan would meet in the second round, ideally advancing and facing off in the one-game semifinal in San Diego on March 18. But Canada's upset of the U.S. yesterday means the Americans have to beat South Africa tomorrow and hope that Mexico either loses to Canada tonight or, at least, doesn't win by a score of either 1-0, 2-1 or 2-0 (something about the tiebreaker of runs per nine innings). A Mexican win by one of those scores means Steinbrenner gets his stars back on Sunday. Not having the U.S. get to Round 2 would be a nightmare for Bud Selig and his pet project. He's maintained that the primary purpose of the WBC is to expand global interest in the game, but having the U.S. eliminated so early would deal a significant blow to any efforts to increase American interest in the tournament. But hey, it might influence the International Olympic Committee to reconsider its decision to do away with the sport after the 2008 Summer Games in China. As I understand it, there is one last chance for another vote in 2009, but unless the rest of the world catches up quickly and the U.S. fixes the political mess its made in Iraq and elsewhere in the world, there's little chance that any further votes would produce a different outcome.

There are still some kinks to be worked out, but I think this is a tournament that could become something. Finding a way to ensure the best from each country participate is the biggest need; not having guys like Manny Ramirez and Vladimir Guerrero playing dilutes the whole package. But unless they find a way to fit the tournament into the November period after the World Series and before Thanksgiving, they're always going to have that problem. I can't say I felt a powerful urge to see such a tournament, nor do I think I'll miss it if it doesn't return in 2009 or 2013, but it's here now and so long as the games are on, I don't see a reason not to tune in.

It's still baseball, after all.

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