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It’s here! TGG’s fearless forecast of the 2009 regular season, as bravely foretold by Eric Gouldsberry and Ed Attanasio. Who do we think will be this year’s Tampa Bay, or Detroit, or Seattle? Will Manny Ramirez implode once again? And who will win it all when it’s all said and done? Read all about it.
Herman Franks Remembered
In the last year we posted Ed Attanasio's interview with Herman Franks, the former player and manager who passed away this week at the age of 95. Take a read back to Franks on his role in Bobby Thomson's famed Shot Heard 'Round the World in 1951 and other experiences from his long baseball career.
If it looks like a dynasty, talks like a dynasty, walks like a dynasty…well, it still really isn’t one. Yes, for the second time in two tournaments, the Japanese national baseball team took the gold at the World Baseball Classic with its 5-3, 10-inning victory over Korea at Los Angeles before a raucous yet good-natured sellout crowd at Dodger Stadium. Yet the triumph only shows that Japan, besides being the best at the WBC, is also the country that gives a damn more than the otherscertainly more than, say, America.
Some see the failure of the Americans to yet again reach the final as a potential rallying cry for the country’s best of the best to prioritize WBC over spring training when the next tourney takes place in 2013. After all, the best of decliners could probably beat the acceptors who suited up for the U.S. Had it been Joe Mauer (back notwithstanding) instead of Brian McCann behind the plate, Ryan Howard or Mark Teixeira or Lance Berkman instead of Kevin Youkilis at first, a focused (and patriotic) Alex Rodriguez at third instead of David Wright (love you, David, but A-Rod is A-Rod), an outfield of Grady Sizemore, Matt Holliday and Josh Hamilton over Adam Dunn, Ryan Braun and Curtis Granderson, a starting rotation that would have included Tim Lincecum, CC Sabathia, and a bullpen with either Jonathan Papelbon or Joe Nathan closing instead of Matt Lindstrom, then it might have been the Americans fist-pumping in celebration instead of the Japanese.
To realize America’s Dream Team, there will need to be one or more prime motivators beyond MLB commissioner and WBC cheerleader Bud Selig, who’ll be pushing 80 in 2013. Major league teams will have to be convinced that the prevailing rule should be country over clubnot vice versaand the players themselves will have to shed themselves of their utter selfishness, a trait egged on by their agents.
In the perfect world, the WBC would be played in mid-summer, without mandatory pitch counts, without the ten-run mercy rule. None of these is likely to happen, and as a result the WBC will continue to struggle for respect. It might gain additional steam, however, if: It introduced qualifying rounds taking place as early as two years in advance, with best-of-five series determining who moves on (Selig acknowledged that advanced qualifying may be needed, so that’s a good sign); and an end to the loosey-goosey eligibility rules, allowing only players to perform only for the countries they are either natives or naturalized citizens of (with no more of this “I’m playing for the Netherlands because my mom was born there” stuff).
The WBC has four years to get it right. It won’t be easy, but to win the critics over, it has no choice.
Despite racking up some big-time numbers, Rafael Palmeiro probably won’t go to the Hall of Fame because he was never remembered for anything he didexcept pitching Viagra on TV and getting caught red-handed for steroids after lecturing Congress that he never used them. Curt Schilling, who retired this past week, has a far better chance to enter Cooperstownnot because of an overall 216-146 record, but because of the value of that record. He ran hot and cold throughout his career due to injuries, but when he was hot, he was on. Three times he won 20 games, three times he struck out 300 or more batters, was 11-2 in postseason play and won three championship rings with two teams and one bloody sock. He also had personality and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind (though we wish he had spoke it more at the 2005 Congressional hearings on steroids), and more than not, we had a tendency to agree with him. We think most Hall of Fame voters will agree. For those who dislike Schilling’s outspoken nature, don’t think for a moment that he’s going away. If anything, his mouth and opinions will run nonstop now that he’s no longer bound to the honor of the clubhouse code. And besides, the MLB Network always has room for another pundit.
The Marlins Finally Snare a Tank of Their Own
It took over a decade and, at the end, a series of contentious public meetings, but the Florida Marlins finally will get their ballpark. The Miami-Dade County Commission voted 9-4 in favor of a new facility for the Marlins to be located at the former site of the Orange Bowl, which recently was demolished. The county vote followed a more lengthy and razor-thin vote of approval from the City of Miami. The new ballpark will seat 37,000, sport a retractable roof to defend against typical summertime thunderstorms, and is budgeted at $634 millionwith $150 million coming from the Marlins. Groundbreaking is scheduled for July; once finished, the team will rename itself the Miami Marlins. This leaves only three major league teamsOakland, Tampa Bay and Torontowithout a facility of their own looming on the horizon.
Sigh of the Tigers
Last week we reported on some of the new and unusual ways the Detroit Tigers are initiating to get fans to fork over money at the ballparkfor instance, paying $750 for the chance to go out on the Comerica Park outfield before the game and play catch, or $1,500 to walk out with manager Jim Leyland to hand the lineup card to the umpires. We found out why the Tigers are so desperate to collect the income: Season ticket sales are barely half of what they were last year in Detroit, with 15,000 of 27,000 frequenters from last year renewing. The economic meltdown in Motown doesn’t help, but neither does last year’s meltdown of the Tigers, which finished last in the AL Central after many had predicted a World Series title for them. Joel Sherman of the New York Post is predicting financial doom for the Tigers, saddled with a $130 million payroll, if attendance plummets. If that’s the case, maybe it won’t be long before Tiger owner Mike Ilitch stands at an intersection in Gross Pointe with a cardboard sign reading “Tiger tix available.”
Sin or Sun?
As if the Tigers didn’t have enough problems, they now have to wrangle with the Pope. Catholics are upset at the Tigers because the team has scheduled its first home game of the 2009 season on the afternoon of Good Friday, during Holy Hours. Reps for the Tigers claim that a night game, especially for Opening Day at Comerica Park, is not an option in early April when Detroit is still thawing out from winter. If you believe, Tigers, it’s best not to upset the Big Man Upstairs; your voluminous payroll is already treading on thin red ice.
Heaven and Kell
George Kell, who passed away this past week at the age of 86, broke into baseball during World War IIand he was told by his manager of the time, the great but aging Connie Mack, that he wouldn’t last long in the majors once the regulars came back from military duty. Kell not only defied expectations by hanging on, but by getting better, when major league rosters returned to full strength after the war. After Mack let Kell go to Detroit in 1946, the right-handed hitting third baseman began a run of eight straight .300-plus seasons, capped by back-to-back efforts of over .340 in 1949-50including a .343 mark in 1949 that barely netted him an AL batting title over Ted Williams by a hair. Kell was named to ten All-Star teams, led his position in fielding percentage seven times, finished his 15-year career with a .306 average and then embarked on a long tenure as a broadcaster for the Tigers alongside Ernie Harwell. Kell was named to the Hall of Fame in 1983.
Johnny Blanchard, 1933-2009
Also leaving us this past week was Johnny Blanchard, a back-up catcher and outfielder who was there in the final years of the New York Yankees’ Webb-Topping dynasty of the early 1960sand the beginning of the team’s downfall under CBS ownership in 1965. The left-handed slugger never performed full-time, but when he did play he possessed good power, aided by the short right field porch at old, old Yankee Stadium; his best year came in 1961, cracking 21 homers with a .305 average in just 243 at-bats while Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle hogged the headlines with their own home run theatrics. In Ed Attanasio’s interview with the late Jesse Gonder, the story is recalled of how Blanchard was once the target of manager Casey Stengel’s scathing sense of humor. Blanchard was 76.
Please Please Me, Madam
A-Rod fatigue is apparently starting to settle in with the masses. The New York Daily News reported this past week that the same escort service that provided prostitutes for New York governor Eliot Spitzerleading to his downfallalso counted Alex Rodriguez as one of its clients. To Rodriguez, the main entrées were not good enough; he wanted the chief madam of the whole operation, Kristin Davis. (No, not the Kristin Davis from Sex and the City.) Despite this sensational melding of sex and superstardom, the element of surprise in regards to Rodriguez has been reduced to almost zero among us, so this story merited little more than a yawn in the media in the aftermath of Madonna, the divorce and the steroids.
The Hardest Thrower in Baseball
Evoked in Steve Henson’s story on Yahoo of San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburgwho recently threw what is believed to be the fastest pitch in college ball history at 103 MPHis the name of Steve Dalkowski, a wild thing of wild things said to have been the hardest throwing (and hardest drinking) pitcher known in baseball annals. There’s a fantastic review of Dalkowski’s career and life on www.hardballtimes.com, exposing some of the most outrageous statistics you’ll ever see from a pitcher as well as numerous great quotes and stories from those who witnessed and played with Dalkowski.
The Price Isn't RightYet
It was something of a surprise this past week when the Tampa Bay Rays announced they would send pitching prospect David Price, who appeared ready for the majors based on his short time there late last season, to Triple-A Durham to start the season. The Rays gave two reasons for the move: To work on mastering his change-up, and to limit his total innings pitched throughout the season. We’re certain there’s a third reason as well; by keeping him off the parent roster on Opening Day, the Rays keep him arbitration-eligible and delay his future free agent status for an extra year, something of a trend in baseball of late. It’s what the Rays did with Evan Longoria last year, and it’s likely what the Baltimore Orioles are doing with dynamite catching prodigy Matt Wieters.
To Save His Seoul?
Baseball has come across many generations of ballplayers affected by military service, especially during the two World Wars and the 1950s and 1960s when America was involved in Korea and Vietnam. But now comes this previously unheard-of news within the majors: Cleveland outfielder Shin-Soo Choo may have to bow out on the Indians to serve two years of military service in his home nation of South Korea. Such duty is mandatory of all South Korean men before they turn 30, and Choo, 27, is trying to find a way to delay his obligation while he’s making a good living stateside. The Indians publicly insist that they’re washing their hands of this and letting Choo and South Korea work things out. Of course, Choo has the option of becoming a U.S. citizen, which would cancel out any obligation to his homeland.
Lyon Down on the Job
Projected Detroit closer Brandon Lyon may be projected into orbit if he performs as he did this past Monday in an exhibition against Boston, when he allowed four consecutive home runs to the Red Sox in the sixth inning of the Tigers’ 7-6 loss. Just two years ago, Lyon allowed two homers in 74 regular season innings for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Spring Trained? Who's Ready and Not for 2009
Every year we take a good look at the best and worst of Spring Training as a way of forecasting the regular season to come. We know the comeback: Stats don’t mean anything in camp. We’ve seen it all before ourselves: The players you never heard of batting .500 and lucking themselves onto the final roster, only to hit .195 in the first few months of the season when everyone gets “serious.” Or the All-Star pitchers who struggle in exhibitions, only to suddenly regain that magic form after Opening Day.
Yet one look at our list from last year, and it appeared that, yes, maybe the scrimmage numbers do count for something. We anticipated something good from Josh Hamilton and something rotten from Khalil Greene, Joe Crede and Erik Bedard. So view the following as if to look through a crystal ball, but as the mutual fund ads often advise, past results are not an indication of future performance. (Note: The spring training statistics listed below are through Saturday, March 28.)
Ready: Ryan Howard, Philadelphia. Eight homers, 18 RBIs in 58 at-bats. Nuff said.
Not Ready: Hanley Ramirez, Florida. After a shorter-than-expected stint for the Dominican WBC team, the All-Star shortstop has found it hard to get on track with the Marlins, with just three hits in 33 at-bats. Perhaps he feels too naked without the long hair and bling, decreed off-limits by his manager, Fredi Gonzalez. (See “It Said It” below.)
Ready: Chris Carpenter, St. Louis. Meet Tommy John’s new best friend. Largely absent over the last two years after recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery, the 2005 NL Cy Young Award winner appears to have regained his form in camp, pitching 19 scoreless innings.
Not Ready: Cliff Lee, Cleveland. Last season’s AL Cy recipient is pitching more like the lost Cliff Lee of 2007; he’s allowed 23 earned runs and 37 hits over just 16.2 innings this spring, leading to an 0-3 record and 12.42 ERA. Maybe this is the reason the Indians don’t want to be talking about a contract extension for Lee right now.
Ready: The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. They’re the hottest team this spring, with a 21-5 record, a .320 batting average and the best ERA (4.13) in the offensive-minded Cactus League. As of this writing, the Angels have, over their last seven games alone, scored 85 runs with 23 home runs and a .375 batting average.
Not Ready: Denard Span, Minnesota. Coming into camp, the flashy 25-year old looked to be a threat to unseat Michael Cuddyer in left field. Right now, Cuddyer appears safe; Span is batting .154 (10-for-65) this spring.
Ready: Khalil Greene, St. Louis. Last year, we listed the San Diego shortstop as anything but ready, and he followed suit with a miserable regular season which ended early after he broke his hand taking out his frustrations on some clubhouse furniture. Greene has a new lease on life with the Cardinals and, so far, is making the most of it, batting .417 with 17 RBIs in 60 at-bats.
Not Ready: Joe Crede, Minnesota. If the 30-year old third baseman has rejuvenated himself after two underwhelming, injury-plagued seasons, it hasn’t shown in camp, where he’s batting .174 (8-for-46) with a single homer.
Ready: Josh Fields, Chicago White Sox. If Crede’s subpar output for the Twins isn’t making White Sox fans forget about him, his replacement in Chicago certainly might be. The 26-year old is tearing up the desert with a .453 average and three homers.
Not Ready: Magglio Ordonez, Detroit. It doesn’t matter if it’s the WBC (5-for-27) or the Tigers (1-for-17), the veteran slugger has been awful. Worse, he doesn’t have a single home runor even a run batted in. Maybe Ordonez’s good buddy Hugo Chavez can give him words of encouragement.
Ready: Mark Teahen, Kansas City. Considered the odd man out after failing to live up to early expectations, the 27-year old is forcing the Royals to reconsider. After all, you can’t seat a guy on the bench who’s hitting .500 (21-for-42) with five homers and 12 RBIs this spring.
Not Ready: Jacque Jones, Cincinnati. Among other things, spring training is for once-solid talents to reprove themselves. Jones is one among those, but his comeback audition (four hits and 15 strikeouts in 43 at-bats) has been so bad, it’s making Andruw Jones’ comeback bid for Texas look respectable.
Ready: Chris Shelton, Seattle. Remember Chris? He was on top of the baseball world at the start of the 2006 season when he batted .500 with nine home runs through the Tigers’ first 13 games. It’s gone downhill since, and steeply so, but Shelton has returned to his old, early form this spring with a .489 mark (23-for-47), eight walks, three homers and nine RBIs. The Mariners don’t appear to be giving Shelton a benefit of a doubt; he’s forecast to start the year in Triple-A.
Not Ready: Corey Patterson, Washington. Released by the Reds after a .205 average last year, Patterson signed a minor league contract with the Nationals. It looks like the minors it will be for the 29-year old outfielder based on these spring numbers: Five hits and no walks in 40 at-bats.
Ready: Todd Helton, Colorado. Is this the young, more powerful Helton who averaged 35 homers a year from 1998-2004? Or the humidor-affected Helton who’s struggled to reach 20 a year since? For now, it appears to be the former; he’s smacked four homers (with 12 RBIs) in 29 spring at-bats to go with a .448 average.
Not Ready: Kaz Matsui, Houston. You can take your pick of any number of Houston players who left their bats at home this spring, but the veteran second baseman’s performanceten hits and two walks in 64 at-bats with no homers and no RBIsstands out as the worst. Unlike last year, he can’t lay the blame on his ass (he was on the DL last spring for an “anal fissure”).
Ready: Paul Maholm, Pittsburgh. Well, here’s one guy on the Pirates who can pitch (our count ends there). Following up on a solid 2008 showing, Maholm has allowed just one run on ten hits and a walk in 19.2 innings this spring.
Not Ready: Jason Marquis, Colorado. With an 0-3 record and 14.14 ERA this spring, the Rockies are finding out why the Cardinals and Cubs shed no tears in letting Marquis go. Here’s the scary thought: Wait ‘til he gets to Coors Field.
Ready: The San Francisco Giants’ offense. Where did these guys come from? The team that finished dead last in the majors last year with 94 home runs has belted 40 in 32 Cactus League games. And it’s not the veterans doing the damage, but the young ‘ens, including Pablo Sandoval, Emmanuel Burriss, Travis Ishikawa and a couple of guys we really never heard of, Jesus Guzman and Andres Torres. If the Giants are hoping for a youth movement to revive its sorry hitting of the past few years, they’re crossing their fingers that these spring numbers are for real.
Not Ready: The San Diego Padres’ pitching. No team has thrown worse than the Padres, who have a spring ERA of 7.07 with 47 home runs allowed. Not even expansive Petco Park may be able to save this staff once the games start to count.
Ready: Milton Bradley, Chicago Cubs. The oft-traveled, oft-injured and oft-steamed outfielder is showing his better side this spring, batting .500 (17-for-34) with three homers. But the three operative words remain in place for the regular campaign: “If he’s healthy…”
Not Ready: Mark Reynolds, Arizona. The Diamondbacks’ slugger is hitting the ball just fine (.327 with a couple of homers), but the guy who far and away led the majors with 35 errors in 2008 continues to have problems with the glove at third base; his six spring errors have translated into a .786 fielding percentage. In other words, he’s botched nearly one out of every four plays he’s been involved in. Maybe Reynolds will get the message once someone replaces his uniform number with “DH.”
It Just Don't Add Up!
Boston pitcher Clay Buchholz made the Red Sox’ starting rotation last year despite an exhibition ERA of 10.03. This year, Buchholz whittled it down to a microscopic 0.46and he’s been assigned to Triple-A Pawtucket. Nothing personal for Buchholz, who threw a no-hitter in his second career start in 2007 but struggled even after his horrendous spring of last season, going 2-9 with a 6.75 ERA; the Red Sox are just too deep in the rotation right now to consider his rejuvenated presence.
It Said What?
“I’m sick of this s#@t”A T-shirt worn by Hanley Ramirez (with the dingbats removed and real letters inserted), part of an apparently well-organized ad-lib fit this past week as an angry reaction to Florida manager Fredi Gonzalez’s edict to bar his players from sporting long hair and jewelry on the field. Additionally, the All-Star shortstop demanded out loud that he wanted to be traded before cooling off and taking it all back moments later.
Wounded of the Week
As Opening Day draws closer, we’re beginning to see baseball’s disabled list take shape. In Oakland, ace Justin Duchscherer, already assumed to be missing the start of the season, underwent elbow surgery that will keep him out of action until mid-May at the earliest. Another ace from the AL West, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s John Lackey, is experienced tightness in his pitching forearmand he’s increasingly hinted at being doubtful for the season’s first pitch. Also hurting to the point that the DL looms is Milwaukee closer Trevor Hoffman (rib cage), St. Louis third baseman Troy Glaus (shoulder) and Tampa Bay outfielder B.J. Upton (hand). But the strangest tale of the week comes from Toronto camp, where the Blue Jays are thinking of shutting down closer B.J. Ryannot because he’s in pain, but because the Jays are perplexed as to why Ryan’s fastball has suddenly dropped into the mid-80s.
This Spring's Challenger to Joe DiMaggio
When the regular season opens on April 5, Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox will step to the plate with a 18-game hitting streakthe longest active run in the majors spilled over from 2008. Ellsbury's streak bumped his batting average 16 points to a season-ending .280; after connecting for hits in the first three games of the postseason, the outfielder went hitless in his final 18 October at-bats.
TGG Spring Break
The Comebacker will take next week off but will return with a new edition on April 12 at full strength, featuring the return of the week’s best and worst hitters, pitchers and teams based on the regular season’s first dose of action. In the interim, there’s plenty else to look at within the site, including our picks for the 2009 season, successful call-ups from last year who may or may not make an impression for 2009, a review of the 2008 campaign, and a new opinion piece from TGG’s Eric Gouldsberry on the strikeout: An overrated statistic?
The Best of 2008's Call-Ups: Can They do it in 2009?
The list of players we provided in last week’s Comebacker who impressed at the end of last seasonand their chances for 2009can now be reviewed in our Opinion section.
The Comebacker’s Greatest Hits
Click here to look at the TGG Comebacker archive going back to the start of the 2007 season.