The Weekly Comebacker: The baseball week in review
The Week That Was in Baseball: February 27-March 4, 2012
It's a Wild, Wild, Wild, Wild Postseason How Will the Teasers of 2011 Do in 2012?
A Kinder, Gentler Albert Belle? Jason Varitek Hangs It Up

And Then There Were Ten
Baseball fast-tracked its desire to include two extra wild card teams to the playoff mix for 2012 and got it agreed to by the players, meaning they’ll be ten total teams in the postseason this year—with both wild card teams from each league facing off against one another in a single-elimination affair.

Because 162 regular season games should be enough to determine a small number of teams worthy to move on to the postseason, our initial thought is to reject the idea of more playoff teams on that principle. Since the wild card was instituted 17 years ago, five second-place teams have won world championships—including the St. Louis Cardinals last season. With the new setup, it’s possible that a third-place team can now go all the way.

Of course, there’s one primary reason for the increase in playoff teams: Money. Baseball, and commissioner Bud Selig in particular, is practically obsessed with trying to manufacture as much interest as possible in the regular season’s waning weeks, when summer is dying and football absorbs center stage. Two more playoff participants, in theory, minimizes the pain, giving hope to those barely above the .500 mark when, really, they shouldn’t be experiencing that hope.

But before we thumb our noses at the proliferation of wild card teams, the new format does create one benefit to the more deserving, top-seeded playoff teams: By playing the all-important single-elimination contest to advance, the winning wild card team will likely have exhausted its top pitcher and have one or even two less days to rest than their next opponent, thereby handicapping their chances in the first round. Before, the wild card team could rest and set up its rotation to its liking on par with the other playoff teams—and it serves to note that wild card teams are 156-148 in the postseason since their 1995 inception, while top-seeded teams fare just a little better at 160-131. We’ll see if that disparity grows over the next 17 years.

By the way, the team with the league’s fifth-best record—which now will qualify for the second wild card—has averaged 89 wins since 1996. And while some are saying that the second wild card is a way to assure that popular AL East titans New York and Boston can make it to the postseason, it only would have helped them three times since 1996. We would have, instead, seen four more postseason appearances each for San Francisco and Seattle, three for Los Angeles, two each for San Diego, Cleveland and Oakland and one for Toronto, Houston and, yes, even the long-gone Montreal Expos (in 1996).

A Technical Argument
A week has passed since Ryan Braun was exonerated of steroid use on a technicality, and there’s still much doubt in his innocence among baseball’s general public. Washington Post columnist Dan Daly wrote that Braun’s lawyers, doing what they had to do, overstated the delay of the blood sample in question, as if it sat and deteriorated on a tropical desert isle for years a la Cast Away. Hall-of-Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt, never one to shy away from public comment, said this about Braun: “…The fact that he was exonerated does not mean that they’ve gotten to the truth, unfortunately,” adding that the Milwaukee slugger was abetted by “good lawyering.” And Andy Baggot of the Wisconsin State Journal, echoing many other columnists, felt bothered that Braun got off by attacking the process—but not the result itself.

The public’s real verdict on Braun will be heard directly from the fans on the road when he comes to bat this season. He heard it well in his first spring action on Sunday, in a "home" game—where fans of the visiting Giants voiced aloud chants of "Cheater!"

Forsaking the Juice
Speaking of steroids, Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones, now 40, once said he considered taking the juice but resisted the temptation. “You see peers doing it. You see contemporaries on other teams doing it and putting up (big) numbers,” Jones told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But at that point in my career, while I didn’t have kids yet, and I thought, I don’t want to jeopardize their lives (with the backlash) one day.” Jones believes that at the height of the steroid era, some 20% of players were taking them—a conservative estimate compared to much higher percentages volunteered by players like Curt Schilling and Jose Canseco.

Hey Hey, It's Fat Albert!
Last we heard of Albert Belle—one of the angriest guys to ever put on a major league uniform—he was reportedly harassing women in the Phoenix area. So who was this guy who showed up all smiles at Cleveland Indian camp this past week? (And as Bud Shaw of the Cleveland Plain Dealer added, “And what have you done with Albert?”)

Yes, it was actually Albert Belle, bulging belly, gray hair and all, looking as relaxed as you never expected, laughing and smiling with old teammates and current Indian players in his first connection with the team since his 1996 departure. One wonders if Belle has turned a new leaf and is attempting to become an ambassador of sorts for the Indians. What a test for diplomacy that would be.

Tek Out Time in Boston
When Tim Wakefield stepped down from the game two weeks ago, Jason Varitek became the longest tenured active Boston Red Sox player.

Now he’s gone, too.

The highly popular and loyal Red Sox catcher announced his retirement this past week, saddening the hearts of Red Sox Nation but certainly bringing back lasting and very positive memories of his time in Boston. Varitek collected 1,307 hits and 193 home runs over his career, but that’s not what Red Sox fans will remember him for. They’ll remember him for the four no-hitters he caught. They’ll remember him for making the pitchers he caught better. They’ll remember him for stuffing his glove into Alex Rodriguez’s face. And they’ll remember him for being the backstop on Boston’s first two world championship teams since 1918.

Varitek probably won’t make the Hall of Fame, but if entry into Cooperstown was solely based on leadership and guts, he’d be a shoo-in. Oh, here’s one other fact you may not know about Varitek: He’s the only player to have ever participated in a World Series, the Olympics, the College World Series, the World Baseball Classic and even the Little League World Series.

The Curious Case of Evan Gattis
One of the more unique characters to be found at spring training is Atlanta’s Evan Gattis, who was knocking out one pitch after another in batting practice, turning heads among the Braves’ more veteran players and pitchers. Even more amazing is the turbulent last eight years Gattis has lived, taking drugs, dropping in and out of baseball and slumming his way around the country like a drifter seeking advice from one new age guru after another. Check out the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s story on Gattis.

Love , Spring Training Style
Two years ago, reliever Brad Ziegler—then pitching for the Oakland A’s—saw a pretty face in the crowd during a spring training game and was smitten. After the game, he quickly dressed and went into the parking lot in search of her. After a few laps, he finally located her, rode up in his car and introduced himself. Understandably cautious at first, the girl, named Kristen, eventually warmed up to Ziegler. This past November, they got married. So you see, love as well as baseball is in the air during the spring.

Do You Have Something Against Drunken Sailors?
The Houston Astros are apparently looking forward to their intra-state rivalry with the Texas Rangers when they join the AL West in 2013. This past week, new Astro general manager Jeff Luhnow publicly commented on the Rangers’ impressive new local TV deal (which will pay them $150 million a year) and remarked that the Rangers, as a result, are spending away on the international market like “drunken sailors.” No comment from the Rangers, but it’s safe to assume that new Texas pitcher Yu Darvish, the Japanese import, has already generated more interest at spring camp than the Astros will all season long.

Wounded of the Week
Often, the goal of spring training is just to stay healthy for Opening Day. That mantra is failing miserably with just a handful of exhibition games in the books.

Veteran pitcher A.J. Burnett said hello to his new teammates in Pittsburgh but shortly afterward had to say goodbye when, during bunting drills, a ball ricocheted off his face, fracturing the orbital bone surrounding his eye; he underwent surgery and will be out of action for at least two months. It’s bad news for a Pirate team that’s had more than its fair share of bad news over the last two decades.

Also saying goodbye—to the entire 2012 season—is Oakland infielder Scott Sizemore, who tore an ACL in practice; oft-injured Seattle outfielder Franklin Guitterez, out a few months with a torn pectoral; and the New York Mets’ Ike Davis, an offseason Arizona resident, who’s been diagnosed with Valley Fever and will need at least a few days to recover. (This is the same malady that fell the Diamondbacks’ Conor Jackson in 2009, disrupting a rising career that has since yet to rebound.)

He Said What?
Former Baltimore Oriole (and current Tampa Bay Ray) Luke Scott on Boston Red Sox fans: “(They) come in and they take over the city. They're ruthless. They're vulgar. They cause trouble. They talk about your family. Swear at you. Who likes that? When people do that, it just gives you more incentive to beat them.”

The Comebacker’s Greatest Hits
Click here to look at the TGG Comebacker archive going back to the start of the 2007 season.

Are the Teasers of 2011 Ready For 2012?
It’s become an annual tradition at This Great Game to have us sift through the young players (September call-ups, mostly) who gave last-minute sparks to the end the previous year and wonder: Can they leverage off that statistical promise and keep it going for 2012? Some of the following players are already noted as highly ranked prospects, while others rate under the heading of, “Where did they come from?” So here’s our mix for the year, in alphabetical order:

Yonder Alonso, San Diego. The third overall pick in the 2008 draft, the left-handed hitter from Cuba had a sensational September for Cincinnati, hitting .330 with five home runs and 21 runs batted in over 88 at-bats. Not bad for a guy who’s hit no more than 15 in any year at the minor league level. The Padres were thrilled to snap him up in the trade that sent he and three other players to San Diego in exchange for pitcher Mat Latos. Alonso will be given the opportunity to win the everyday first base job at San Diego, but he’ll have to understand that Petco Park is a bit less forgiving than the relative bandbox he had fun back in at Cincinnati.

Matt Angle, Los Angeles. Normally we don’t praise teasers who hit .177, so what exactly was the tease about the 26-year old Columbus native? With Baltimore late last year, he was a bit of a hitless wonder—stealing 11 bases and working out a healthy supply of walks. But the Orioles waived him and the Dodgers are now considering whether to include him on their roster as a back-up outfielder. Angle does own a career .285 minor league average.

Joel Carreno, Toronto. The 25-year old Dominican right-hander jumped from Double-A ball to a expanded roster spot for the Blue Jays and impressed, authoring a 1.15 ERA in 11 appearances with 14 strikeouts in 15.2 innings. Carreno likely will start the year at Triple-A, but if his spring is anything like last September, it’ll be hard for the Jays to say no to him.

Randall Delgado, Atlanta. A career 23-39 pitcher in the minors with a fair ERA, the 21-year old right-hander was put in place of injured Tommy Hanson late last year and made a case to stay, going 1-1 with a 2.83 ERA in seven starts. The Braves are taking a close look at him this spring to see if he can grab the number five spot in the Atlanta rotation.

Jesus Montero, Seattle. The 22-year Venezuelan catcher was highly thought of by the New York Yankees, who signed him at age 16—and his .328 average with four homers in brief duty last season vindicated the Yankees’ beliefs. But the Yankees need pitching more than hitting and thus dealt Montero to the Mariners, one-up for potential ace Michael Pineda. The Mariners have a sackful of young sluggers who burn through a ton of strikeouts to bash the occasional dinger, but Montero might give them more homers with a higher batting average. Because he’s not in the majors for his defensive skills, Montero will likely perform at the DH spot.

Matt Moore, Tampa Bay. Another in a solid line of pitching prospects to rise through the Rays’ organization, following David Price and Jeremy Hellickson, Moore drew praise by shutting down the Yankees over five innings with 11 strikeouts in his first major league start—then threw seven more zeroes at Texas in the first game of the ALDS. The Rays are convinced enough that they’ve already given him an eight-year deal totaling $40 million. Some feel the AL Rookie of the Year award is his to lose in 2012.

Chris Parmelee, Minnesota. The Twins’ first-round draft pick from 2006 had only ascended to Double-A last year when the Twins decided to give him a shot at the bigs in September. Suddenly, Parmalee hit better than he ever had in the minors, with a .355 average, six doubles and four homers in 76 at-bats. Because he can play first base and Justin Morneau continues to struggle with the after-effects of his 2010 concussion, Parmelee may stick around and see a bit of action in Minnesota this season.

Brett Pill, San Francisco. Will Pill be the medicine the Giants need to fix their hitting woes? San Francisco will take anyone right now after its abysmal performance at the plate last season, and with Pill hitting .300 with a pair of home runs in 50 at-bats in September, the Giants will certainly take a good look at him. But the first-base position is a crowded market with veteran who-knows-what-he’ll-do Aubrey Huff and evolving slugger Brandon Belt, so Pill’s spring numbers will say much about his chances of making the Opening Day roster, if not the starting lineup.

Pedro Strop, Baltimore. A 2-0 record, 0.73 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 12.1 innings is music to any team’s ears—but especially to those of the Orioles, who have been desperate for good pitching since the turn of the century. Strop is out of options, so the Orioles either need to put him on the Opening Day roster or expose him to waivers; he could be the Oriole closer of the future. Somebody needs to be.

...And What of the Teasers For 2011?
Here’s what’s become of those we spotlighted on last year’s list:

Lorenzo Cain appeared in just six games for the Kansas City Royals, collecting six hits. He spent the bulk of the season at Triple-A Omaha, where he hit .312 with 16 home runs. With Melky Cabrera’s departure to San Francisco, the center field job is Cain’s to lose.

Dillon Gee won 13 games to lead the New York Mets, losing only six. His 4.43 ERA could use some improvement, but he should be a lock for this year’s rotation.

Pretty much everyone knows how Jeremy Hellickson’s season went, winning the AL Rookie of the Year award with a 13-10 record and stellar 2.95 ERA, eighth best in the league. Needless to say, he’s in the majors to stay.

So is Craig Kimbrel, who won NL rookie honors with an electrifying 46 saves, 2.10 ERA and 127 strikeouts in 77 innings as Atlanta’s closer. Throughout most of last summer, he was untouchable.

Michael Kirkman had a superb short spell in Texas to end 2010, but he struggled at both the major- and minor-league levels last season, producing an underwhelming 5.56 ERA between the two. All this, and he still has a shot at making the Rangers’ Opening Day roster because the team could use a left-handed reliever.

Another Ranger, Mitch Moreland, had a full yet somewhat shaky encore to his 2010 debut; he spent the offseason breathing a sigh of relief that his first base job at first base wasn’t given to Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, both of whom were rumored to be headed Arlington’s way. The Rangers hope Moreland can improve on his 16 homers and .259 average for 2012.

Infielder Eduardo Nunez came in handy for the Yankees last season with injuries to Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, hitting .265 with five homers and 22 steals in 309 at-bats. He’s likely to stick around this year, but a better glove (.916 fielding percentage between shortstop and third base in 2011) would be nice.

Chris Sale didn’t disappoint in the Chicago White Sox’ bullpen after an impressive rise from college to the bigs over a three-month period at the end of the 2010, furnishing a 2.79 ERA, eight saves and 16 holds in 2011. The closer spot is essentially open with Sergio Santos’ departure and you’d think Sale would be the next best thing for the ninth, but the White Sox want to convert him into a starter.

Casper Wells went the other way in the trade that brought Doug Fister from Seattle to Detroit and became one of too many undisciplined young sluggers later in the year for the Mariners, providing some punch but striking out all too often. With center fielder Franklin Guitterez out with injury (again), Wells may find himself in the Opening Day lineup.

Photos in Flames?
A small fire broke out this past week at Fenway Park, and although it was put out quickly by the Boston Fire Department, $100,000 in damages were assessed—including, it was feared (and still yet publicly unconfirmed), a collection of archival photos. Sounds like one less source for us to hit up on to beautify our site.

Hey, It Doesn't Count
The major league record for most home runs allowed by a pitcher in one game is six. On Sunday, Atlanta's Julio Teheran tied that mark—in just two innings of work, as the Detroit Tigers teed off on him and a handful of other Brave pitchers with nine homers overall in an 18-3 rout.

A-Team, Bee Game
On Sunday at the year-old Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale, a swarm of bees in search of a new home found it on a parabolic mike at the end of one of the dugouts—during the second inning of a game between the San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks. Players, umpires and fans avoided the swarm as it circled about the field before settling on the dish, causing a 40-minute delay.

TGG Goes to CafePress
We’ve always gotten raves for how we look at This Great Game, and now you can own a piece of the brand. We’ve opened a page at the popular CafePress site, with apparel, mugs, clocks and other items dressed in the TGG brand now available. We don’t just throw the logo and be done with it, adding in some fun baseball trivia. We even have a boy brief for the ladies that says on the backside: “If baseball is on your mind at this point, we’re just what you need.” Now you can show the world that you’re a baseball expert...and you’ll look good, too. Check it out now!

Now Playing at TGG
Our review of the 2011 season is now live in our Yearly Reader section. Check out the season that was now!

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Fun facts About Your All-Time Hit Leaders
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