11th and Washington

11th and Washington: January 2007

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Best infield in the National League?

So here's a question:

Can an infield that includes Wes Helms be considered the best in the National League?

That's the claim made by Jimmy Rollins (either on his own or through prompting by a reporter) on Tuesday.

Look, I won't deny the talents of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, who clearly make up the best right side of any infield in baseball. But Wes Helms? I'll reserve judgment on this claim until the season's been played -- and Helms has been a full-time starter in a pennant race -- and follow Rollins' logic on his more reasonable claim that the Phillies are the team to beat in the NL East in 2007: "But that's all on paper. You have to go out and do it on the field."

Let's see Helms do it on the field.

However, I guess only the Dodgers and Mets can challenge the Phils for best NL infield, and they've got weaknesses. Los Angeles has Wilson Betemit at third base and the Mets have Jose Valentin at second -- and neither of them was a regular starter in '06, either. If these teams are the top three around the horn in the NL, the Dodgers are clearly third because of the years Nomar Garciaparra and Jeff Kent have on them, while the Phillies' senior infielder is Rollins, who is 28, and the Mets' older players -- Valentin and Carlos Delgado -- don't have the injury issues or the apparent decline (yet) that Kent and Nomar have shown.

As for the Mets and Phillies, New York clearly gets the advantage on the left side of the infield with David Wright and Jose Reyes, who is a better leadoff hitter -- and probably a better hitter, not to mention five years younger -- than Rollins. So the question of who has the best infield in the league comes down to which player is better: Wes Helms or Jose Valentin?

It's a question that will have to be answered in 2007, but for now, on paper, perhaps we'll give Philly a slight edge. Below is a comparison of Valentin's and Helms' 2006 stats (in black). Valentin had 384 at-bats, while Helms compiled 240. The shaded numbers are what each player, at the same rate of production, would have put up with 600 at-bats last season. Valentin hit .271/.330/.490; Helms .329/.390/.575.

Hits Runs 2B HR RBI BB SO
Valentin 104 162 56 87 24 37 18 28 62 96 37 58 71 111
Helms 79 197 30 75 19 47 10 25 47 117 21 52 55 137

Helms' numbers are skewed, though, because he's on a new team with a different lineup and vastly different ballpark. Chances are, he'll hit fewer doubles and more home runs with Citizens Bank Park as his home field rather than Dolphin Stadium. His runs probably won't go up too much, because he'll be hitting low in the Phillies' order and won't necessarily have the studs coming up while he's on base. In any case, the expectation would seem to favor Helms, who is also seven years younger.

However, not only did Valentin put up his numbers over a longer period of time -- meaning he was (and is, on account of a longer career) more accustomed to performing with a regular starting gig. The big question for Helms will be whether he can maintain his pace in August when he's already started 100 games.

It will be interesting to see this NL East race play out. In 2006, the Mets had the division wrapped up in June. The only thing that should be decided this June is that the Nationals will bring up the rear.

Everything else should be determined in September.

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Knowing your South (Jersey) from your Central (Jersey)

At first I blamed it on Scott Schoeneweis, figuring that the town listed as his birthplace might be technically true, but that doesn't mean he grew up there. But that's not the case.

It's the Star-Ledger's fault.

OK, here's the backstory: The Mets last week signed Schoeneweis -- a New Jersey native, that's clear -- as a free agent to bolster the bullpen. When I read that he was a native of Long Branch, I was reminded that I already knew this information. It's not too often that you are surprised to hear of a professional athlete who was born 15 minutes away from where you came into the world.

The Associated Press story about the signing mentioned Long Branch and Schoeneweis' youthful allegiance to the Phillies. That seemed a little odd, but there is often an explanation. But when I got upset was when I read Schoeneweis' comment in the Star-Ledger's story:

Schoeneweis, the Long Branch native who signed a three-year, $10.8 million deal, has starting pitching experience but appears ticketed for the Mets' bullpen. He and Pedro Feliciano will serve as left-handed setup men for closer Billy Wagner, and having two lefty options late in games should help manager Willie Randolph strategically.

"I'm from South Jersey, so to come back and play here is a dream come true," Schoeneweis said. "Playing in New York is an opportunity that I think all athletes look forward to having."

Hang on a second, dude. Long Branch -- Monmouth County -- is not South Jersey. I don't understand why this state tends to see itself as north and south. Sure, the differences are clear, but to me it's always been a three-tiered state: north, central and south. Growing up in Monmouth County, I didn't see what I had in common with the northern part or the southern part.

But it wasn't his fault. As his MLB.com bio explains, he graduated from Lenape High School in Medford -- which is decidedly south. It's a suburb not far from Philadelphia. That makes sense. How the Star-Ledger missed this -- or felt that mentioning his birthplace, Long Branch, was sufficient -- perplexes me. There are two explanations that I can think of: 1.) They don't care, or 2.) Those Ledgerites take a biased view and consider anything south of I-287 (where it passes the Driscoll Bridge at the Parkway) is South Jersey.

Unfortunately, it could easily be either one.

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Ballpark impressions: Yankee Stadium

I, of course, haven't hidden the fact that I'm a Mets fan. Nor have I made any attempt at being discrete in my distaste for the Yankees.

The olden days, with obstructed-view seats and the facade.

However, I have a deep appreciation for baseball, for the game and its history and for the dichotomy of how the game can be so simple -- throw, hit, run, safe or out -- yet so intricately complicated -- infield fly, double-switch, hit-and-run. I love looking at the sepia-toned or black-and-white images of baseball played only during the day (and, unfortunately for too long, only by white men) and I have it in my mind to establish a modest collection of black-and-white photographs of old ballparks. But that should probably wait for a new home and more wall space on which to display such an exhibition.

I love going to Wrigley Field or Fenway Park not just for the baseball and the talent on display these days, but for the unique feeling -- the icky, sticky feeling of layers of paint slathered over decades-old concrete tunnels and iron railings and the overhanging upper decks and small, darkened concourses. When walking into those ballparks, I feel like I'm walking through history, entering a structure that has been standing for 90 years.

Tight quarters.

I get the same sense navigating Yankee Stadium's tunnels, only the sensation leaves me the moment I walk out into the sunshine and see all that gleaming blue and find myself enclosed in a behemoth of a ballpark. Yankee Stadium was renovated in 1976, the same year I was born, so I didn't get to experience it as a 50-year-old relic, a monument to the dynasties and the days of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle. I don't know how it looked with Death Valley to left-center, what the original configuration looked like or just how much ground the Yankee Clipper had to cover.

The emerald diamond.

I've only known it as the home of Mattingly, Winfield, Pagliarulo, Bernie and Jeter. Yet I can appreciate the need to give Yankee Stadium the All-Star Game in its final season.

But to me, it's a 1970s multipurpose stadium since converted to full-time baseball use. It's not the dump that Shea Stadium is -- though I do love every trip to Queens, particularly because I don't have to fight off too many urges to overindulge on lukewarm food and overpriced crappy beer -- but it's not far off. I'm sorry, but I just don't get that nostalgic, historical feeling when I walk in, and no amount of camera angles or new black-and-white shots can change that.

Way out in left field.

Nearly two years ago, I used a day off I had during the week to go to a Yankees-Devil Rays matinee. (It turned out to be the last time Carl Pavano pitched at home for the Yankees -- June 22, 2005.) Though no plans had been announced yet for a new ballpark, my intentions were to take my camera to spend some time shooting the nooks and crannies, capturing the intricacies of a classic ballpark before its days are numbered. They are, of course, now numbered -- two seasons, 162 scheduled regular-season home games, plus an undetermined number of postseason contests are all that remain before the new ballpark opens in 2009. Finding the historic, old-timey corners is what I was hoping to accomplish, but in my long absence, I'd forgotten just what the park actually looked like.

Monuments in play.

It had been a couple of years since I'd been to the ballpark in the Bronx, and so my memories of it were not consistent with current reality. For one, I hadn't yet been to a post-9/11 game at Yankee Stadium, so I found that I had to consult a certain member of the security detail at a certain gate in order to bring my camera bag inside. Arriving just as the gates opened for batting practice, I was dismayed by two new discoveries. First, the line for Monument Park -- which I've never visited in all my trips -- was way too long to allow for an enjoyable, leisurely look while still leaving time to enjoy batting practice. I can remember games in the 80s when there was no line and it appeared that you had more than enough time to take in all the plaques that are on display.

Soon to be a new stadium over that way.

The other saddening discovery was the high netting that runs beyond the visitors' dugout and prevents foul balls from reaching the seats down the left-field line. It also stops fans from leaning over the wall to scoop up grounders that come down the line, a treat my friends and I always enjoyed during BP. (Except for that time in eighth grade when I had a cast on my left arm. I managed to get my glove on and hoped to finally get my first batting practice foul ball. On my best shot, I had it lined up until the last moment, when some dirtbag bratty Yankee fan deliberately knocked my glove out of the way with his free hand and grabbed the ball with his own glove right after it passed the spot where my mitt had been waiting. I hope that jerk is miserable at a dead-end desk job while I spend my days at what many would consider a dream job.)

Anyway, Yankee Stadium is far from what it was, not that I ever knew it that way. I wish I did. Instead, I can only look at the past in photographs and try my best to compose shots I can enjoy whenever I make it back there myself. But I look forward to exploring the new ballpark, which will be given a classic look, complete with elements from the original Yankee Stadium design.

It barely looks like the same stadium.

The entry way is what I'm most interested in. It once had a grand facade out front, a towering, regal welcome area that, I imagine, seemed to announce you were entering some place special. Now, you approach from a parking garage with a skywalk over the underwhelming plaza.

So many of the fans there today know less of this grand stadium's past than I do. The kids have grown up knowing nothing but Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and division titles. They're spoiled, actually. In the 80s, the Yankees were regular outdrawn by the Mets, and it's almost unbelievable that Yankee Stadium never saw 3 million fans pass through its turnstiles in one season until 1998. And who knows how many fans would've showed up for a Sunday afternoon game against the Twins were it not for a Beanie Baby giveaway; otherwise, who knows how packed the park would've been for David Wells' perfect game.

So it's not a bad idea to give the 2008 All-Star Game to the venerable old structure in the Bronx. Give it one last hurrah. It's not like the Yankees have hosted it once a decade; the last one in New York was in 1977, the first season after the renovation. (The Mets hosted it at Shea Stadium once, in 1964, that stadium's first year.) Teams must request the game, and neither franchise has expressed much of a desire to have an All-Star Game in the past 30 years.

The 2009 game will go to St. Louis, which just opened Busch Stadium III this past season, and you have to figure that the frontrunner for the 2010 contest would be the new ballpark in Washington, where the All-Star Game would be held for the first time since 1969. The 2011 Midsummer Classic could potentially go to the new Cisco Field in Oakland -- if it is open by then. Otherwise, shortly after that year, when it is up and running. Is four or five years too soon to have it in the same area as the 2007 game, which will be in San Francisco? Possibly, though Philadelphia and Pittsburgh hosted in 1996 and 1994, respectively, with Pittsburgh of course getting it again this past season. The Twins might want it some year, if they ever get started on their new ballpark. And the Mets, should they want it, would get it sometime before 2015, showing off Citi Field, which is sure to be a gem of a facility that will quickly make us all forget about Shea Stadium.

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Samardzija chooses the national pastime

Rather than drag out the process, Notre Dame two-sport star Jeff Samardzija signed a five-year deal with the Cubs on Friday that guarantees him $10 million and means an end to his NFL dreams.

Prior to last June's draft, Samardzija said he hoped to play both sports as long as he could. But then his "hometown" Cubs took him -- "hometown" in the sense that a kid growing up in northwestern Indiana, as Samardzija did, will probably choose the Cubs or White Sox as his team, and "Shark" was drawn to the Northsiders.

That changed things, and he and the Cubs chose Friday's team convention to announce the deal.

As he got his first taste of pro ball, pitching seven games between the Cubs' short-season Boise affiliate and their low-Class A Peoria team, he was drawn more to the bush-league life, it seems. He drove to Idaho shortly after the draft -- but before he'd signed a contract, such was his dedication to what he knew would be a short initiation to the minor leagues. But who does that? Who drives to the team he'll be joining as a negotiating ploy? Usually, amateur players are heading to school as a threat that they'll enroll rather than sign unless their contract demands are met.

In his short time with Boise and Peoria, though, Samardzija seemed to enjoy the experience (including an amusing Xbox anecdote) so much that in signing his deal on Friday, he insisted that the contract read that he must return his $2.5 million signing bonus should he go back to catching footballs -- or pursue any sport other than baseball.

My guess is that, in addition to the security that this baseball deal offers, Samardzija was drawn to the mound because of several other factors. For one, his signing bonus likely surpasses what he'd make from his first NFL contract -- and those things are not guaranteed.

I also wonder what projections he was hearing regarding the draft. With several top juniors foregoing their senior seasons -- Calvin Johnson, Dwayne Jarrett, Ted Ginn Jr. (though I don't know if he's strictly a better receiver -- as a prospect -- than Samardzija) -- to enter the draft, Samardzija's draft stock was falling. His performances against top defenses like Michigan and LSU -- while not horrible -- may have also raised enough doubts in scouts' minds about how he would handle the bump-and-run world of the NFL.

Finally, it sounds like his career upside is brighter -- and likely much longer -- on the diamond as opposed to the gridiron. Those who know such things -- or at least project them -- seem to think that if he were to devote all his efforts to improving his pitching, he could be a No. 2 starter in the major leagues. With a high-90s fastball and good command of his changeup and slider, there are some who put his ceiling as a No. 1 starter.

It'll be interesting to see how his spring goes, how he takes to pro ball in spring training and how his season starts down at Daytona. His ability suggests he should make it to Double-A Tennessee sometime this season, though no one's making any predictions on when he'll get his locker at Wrigley Field.

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