On Early Season Baseball…

(Welcome to my first post of the year.  I plan to keep the blog updated around once a week, so check back when you can)

Yes, I know that games played in April count.  I know each game won early is one that doesn’t have to be won late.   I think teams can’t afford to give away games right now with the idea that they can be made up later, because it may not be true.  People have purchased real tickets for real games and players should play hard. 

I just don’t think the standings should be in the paper until May 1, at the earliest.   Why?  Because while the games are important right now, where teams are in the standings generally isn’t.  Are we really going to read too much into the fact that Tampa Bay, at 7-6, is just a game and a half out of first?  Or that the Reds are just a single game behind the Brewers in the NL Central?  Or that the Angles and Oakland have barely managed to play .500 ball?

C’mon.

The problem, of course, with printing the standings is that it forces us to do discuss those very things when everyone knows that come August, the Reds will have given up 8,281 home runs and buried themselves, the Devil Rays won’t be 1.5 games out of first*, and the A’s and Angels will be among the elite teams in baseball. 

*Although I will go out on a limb and say this will be the year they don’t lose 90+. 

The only exception, of course, is with the Royals.   Their fans (who at this point either deserve medals for their faith and devotion to the team or forced commitment to a mental institution for the same reason) should take every opportunity to enjoy being 4.5 games out of first as of Monday, because we all know that number is only going to get bigger.  Really, how can a major league baseball team have nobody on their roster that would get drafted in the first five rounds of a deep fantasy league?   Even the Marlins have two in Willis and Cabrera. (Maybe, maybe, maybe with KC you take a stab at Sweeney, but considering he’s the Sergeant-at-Arms of the Fraternal Order of the Frequently Injured, I’m thinking later rounds are more appropriate.)   The other caveat, of course, is the NL West, where every team is so deeply flawed that you can actually construct believable championship scenarios for every team based on today’s standings, including Colorado.  It helps that the division king may not need to win more than 85 games, but hey, a pennant is a pennant, right?

On the other side of the standings coin are early season statistics.  Those I love, mostly for the outrageous projections you get to make.  For example, Detroit’s Chris Shelton, leading the AL in homers, is currently on pace for 112 of them after his dinger Monday afternoon against Cleveland.  Plus, he’s batting .471 and has 18 RBIs.  Who knows what will happen for the rest of the year, but he’s currently stalking April’s AL Player of the Month like a hungry panther after a wounded deer.  Kind of makes you weepy for Tuffy Rhodes, circa ’94.

And I love the randoms that pop up in significant statistical categories (again, Chris Shelton is currently on pace for 112 home runs). How about your MLB wins leader… Oscar Villareal! How about Casey Blake (career .259) sitting sixth in the AL at .447.    Of course you predicted Garrett Atkins would be leading the NL in hitting.  Who else would you pick?  Albert Pujols?  Yeah, he may be on pace for 108 homers of his own, along with about 230 RBIs (tough to maintain, even for him), but he’s no Garrett Atkins.  By the way, G.A. is also tied for the NL lead in doubles.  Sure, plenty of guys who you’d expect to see (Pujols, Berkman, Ensberg, Wright, Jones, Guerrero, etc.) are right up there as well, but we have all year to praise them.  They shouldn’t get all hoggy with the spotlight. 

The sad thing is that each game makes the stats a little less outrageous and the standings slightly more meaningful, but while water inevitably seeks its own level, not all water is created equal. So around June 1, it’s still a little early to be making major predictions regarding division and wild card winners, but most of the early season statistical surprises will have leveled off.  At that point you have to find other sources of fun.  You know, like the actual games. 

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An early season word on the Cardinals….

I missed out on making a preseason prediction on this site for the Cardinals and the NL Central in general.  Here’s the Cliffs Notes version:

Cardinals- Division winner, get back to the World Series (less a reflection on them, more on a weakened league). 

Standings for the NL Central, full of solid teams, not spectacular ones, but still one of baseball’s most balanced, to the point where teams 2-4 could all switch places:

1. Cardinals- still too much offense and top end pitching.  The defense stays solid, the closer remains indigestion inducing but effective.  If the relief pitching holds and injuries aren’t a big issue (hello, Jim Edmonds!) they should win 95 games.

2. Astros- Oswalt, Pettitte, Lidge.  That’s a good start.  And the lineup, with Preston Wilson taking shots at the short left field porch, a healthy Lance Berkman, and an emerging Morgan Ensberg will be better than last season.  Still, without Clemens, they just don’t have enough star power to compete.

3. Brewers- They’ll win more than they lose, and if everything goes well, could even approach 90 wins and a wild card birth.  But I’m not buying it just yet.  Last year, they snuck up on people.  This year, everyone’s watching.  Hardy, Weeks, and Fielder need one more year.  Still the pitching staff is strong, so the postseason isn’t out of the question. 

4. Cubs- If you could guarantee Wood and Prior would be active for 300 games between them, the Cubs would rank higher.  I don’t see it happening. 

5. Pirates- Covering games in LA means I had the opportunity to become familiar with new manager Jim Tracy, and I think he’s perfect for them.  Solid young talent on the field (Bay) and the mound (Duke) make them a good bet to improve on last year’s 67-95 record.

6. Reds- The pitching staff *****, the lineup will break down, and they don’t catch the ball very well.  What’s to like?

Back to the Redbirds…

The St. Louis media was about as rough as they get on ownership this winter, saying they didn’t do enough to improve the team, and should have spent more money.  While I agree that this year’s Cardinals are not as strong on paper as last year’s version, I just don’t agree.  I think Walt and the Gang did what they should have.  They made an offer for A.J. Burnett, as big as any they’ve ever made for a pitcher. Too big, in my estimation, for a guy who’s never healthy and where the premium is on potential and stuff, not results.  What the Jays gave him was nuts.  People threw around Brian Giles as a stopgap in the outfield.  Except, like Burnett, he’s always hurt and costs a ton.  I wanted them to shore up the outfield as much as anyone, perhaps by trading Marquis.  But assuming Johnny Damon wasn’t an option- even with a new stadium, he’s probably out of the budget- who else was around?  Juan Encarnacion strikes out too much, sure, but he’ll hit 25 home runs, drive in 85, and play a decent right field. 

They still have holes in the bullpen, the bench (though that seems to work itself out every year) and both long and short term in the outfield (get well soon, Jim Edmonds!).  I would have liked to see them keep Reggie Sanders.  But for a team like the Cardinals, the worst thing they can do is pay for reputation and get locked into bad contracts.  The temptation is always there to get what you can when you can, but it’s a mistake to overpay for certain players just because a thin market in a given winter sets the bar too high.   

If, come July and August, ownership won’t step up to strengthen the team, then fans and media alike have every right to complain.  Thus far, their track record is pretty good.  I would have loved for the Cards to get stronger this offseason, but how?  They can’t afford to give away what top prospects they have, and other than Marquis, the roster doesn’t have many chips other teams would want in a trade.  At least not anything they can actually have, that is.

So in the end, we’ll all have to wait to see how this year plays out and how ownership responds.  Right now it’s unfair, even with the new stadium revenue, to call them cheap or greedy.  Six months from now?  Who’s to say?  But I’d put my money on the Cardinals going out and getting what they need.   They’re obligated to spend some of the windfall from the new park, no question.  But there’s no rule that says they had to spend it last winter.

BK 

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