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Look for the site’s crystal ball predictions for October and unapologetic evaluations of every MLB team in the “October in April” post.

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October in April

Here is the view from early April of what the pennant races should look like in early October, after all the dust has settled on what should be a memorable 2016 regular season.

NL East:  The Mets have dominant starting pitching and good defense, so they can afford a punch-and-judy offense in a big home ballpark.  Once again the Gnats have retooled and have a new manager and the MVP, but the same holes, good enough for second place and a Wild Card trip to the playoffs.  Miami has Stanton and a healthy Jose Fernandez and should be better, in third.  My beloved Phillies are on the long road back, with Mikail Franco taking his place as one of the new generation of stars, but the loss of Aaron Altherr in a thin OF hurts.  The Bravos are a year behind in their dismantling, and still have to hit bottom before rebounding.  They will suck in their tanking year.

NL Central:  No one thought the Red Sox would ever win until they did, and the same holds for the Cubs.  They have the best team in the Division and the League, and a great manager.  They’ll get to the World Series this year, and what happens then is anybody’s guess.  You have to admire the Pirates for doing more with less than anybody else, but their pitching is stretched too thin.  That leaves the depleted Cardinals, who will resemble the team that limped home last year, and not the front-runners from last Spring.  The Brewers won’t be competitive, and the Reds have been in fire sale mode, with nothing left.  They look like the Sixers of baseball

NL West:  The baseball Giants are a trendy pick in an even year, but I resisted, until the Snakes lost A.J. Pollock, and the Trolley-Dodgers began looking like a M.A.S.H. unit.  This should still be a close race, but it looks like AZ and LA will be fighting with one hand (presumably in a sling?) tied behind their respective backs.  Oh yeah, the Padres and Rockies are in this Division too – as cannon fodder for the good teams.  Neither has any chance of competing this year.  Or next year.  They suffer in the strange twilight of not yet hitting bottom and no plausible road back.

AL East:  Intriguing.  I seriously think that any one of the five teams could win the Division under a plausible scenario.  My personal favorite has to be the Blue Jays, who have a lineup of sluggers and still solid pitching; although these things are not won on paper.  The Rays have improved remarkably and steadily, and part of that is just getting good pitchers healthy again and playing great defense.  That thing about not winning on paper applies to the Red Sox, who improved themselves and are sentimental favorites in Big Papi’s last year; but will fall short.  Sure the Yankees spent some money, as per usual, but they have age and holes in the lineup and pitching staff and at closer.  Which brings us to the Orioles, who are good enough to be competitive, but not good enough to win.

AL Central:  I like the Motor City Kitties as a rebounding dark horse this year.  Last year, they didn’t deserve to be favorites, but were not a dreadful as their record.  Another fascinating dark horse is the Twinkies, who have slowly built up a nucleus of talented young players and smart free agent acquisitions.  The Champion Royals get no respect; but that’s their fault, for not replacing Cueto or Zobrist.  And the Native Americans probably deserve better than fourth place, but they fall slightly short in talent.  Even the Pale Hose look to be better, and in truth this may be a year when no team in this Division wins or loses more than 90 games.

AL West:  I fully expect Houston to continue their remarkable improvement, with all that young and improving talent, right into the World Series.  They are very good and getting better.  Their closest pursuer should be the instate rival and defending champ Rangers, who could finish second this year with last year’s record.  Look for the Mariners to be improved.  The Halos look old and depleted to me.  And you’ll notice all the talk of Billy Bill has died down since the A’s tanked; although in fairness that may be because the other teams have borrowed the approach.

Wild Card:  In the NL it’s the Gnats over the Pirates.  While over in the AL the Royals beat the Twinkies.

LCS:  Cubs over the Mets in seven memorable games for the NL crown.  in the AL, it’s Houston over the Blue Jays in an equally-exciting seven games.

WS:  These curse things, Bambinos and Goats, tend to last about a century.  The Baby Bears win a World Series over a Houston team that has a few titles in its future.

Thumbs Down

In my spare time, when not rooting for the Phillies, I’m entranced by the Cubbies, in part because they are now managed by my Lafayette College classmate, Joe Maddon, in part because I am in Chicago once or twice a year, and in part because they have not won a World Series in over a century.  The Cubs came dangerously close this past year, and they are gearing up for a serious run in 2016.  But a recent splurge to sign Jason Heyward to a bloated long-term contract is not going to help them.  It’s a step backward, IMHO.

Nothing against Heyward, or any athlete who accepts the money that professional sports owners are foolish enough to dole out.  It’s a business. I get that; but I still don’t have to like it.  I don’t begrudge Heyward the $184 million over eight years.  It’s just that only a few teams can afford that kind of coin, so it skews the competitive side of things (or would, if the teams spent their money wisely).  And these ridiculous contracts contribute to inflation at the ballpark.  Soon it will be hard to find a decent seat for under $50 bucks at Wrigley.  Oh, I’ll gladly pay it, fool that I am.  That’s not the point.  The point is, there is some kid whose dad or mom won’t be able to afford that; whole families will forego a trip to a major league baseball game; like football the game will continue to lose its proud working class roots, and become entertainment for the privileged classes. Which sucks.

What makes this worse is that Heyward is nowhere near worth that kind of money.  I’m not sure any outfielder who is not Bryce Harper or Mike Trout is worth that salary commitment.  Definitely not Jason Heyward, a .268 lifetime hitter, with all of 97 HR in six full major league seasons.  He has never driven in more than 82 runs in a season.  Last year for the Cardinals he drove in 60 and scored 79 in a full season, with 13 HR.  He was an All-Star once, in his rookie year.  If you prefer better metrics, he is one season removed from slugging .384 and an OPS of .735.  Mediocre. Oh, and in the post-season, a robust .208 BA.

Some would point to his speed, but this is a dude who is 6 foot 5 and 245 pounds.   His 23 SB last year were the most ever.  His average of 75 runs scored per year does not suggest blazing speed or wizardry on the base paths, either.  He’s not a bad player; but his total offensive contributions have been modest, to be kind.

Which leaves us with his much-touted defensive abilities.  He’s won three Golden Gloves as an outfielder, including last year, when he was fourth in OF assists with 10.  The advanced metrics are inconclusive.  His range factors, career and last year, are slightly below the league average.  His fielding average is slightly above the league average.  According to Baseball Reference, he was worth four fielding runs above average last year.  By a different measure, he saved the Cardinals 24 runs.

By the “Wins Above Replacement” metric, Heyward gained St. Louis two defensive wins in 2015 beyond what a typical OF would have yielded.  Based on the above stats, it’s hard to see where those two wins would come from, even in a 162 game season.  The total “WAR” figure is 6.5, good for 9th in the league, which, if I understand the math, means that Heyward somehow gained 4.5 more wins offensively, as compared to a replacement player.  That’s even harder to see, given that he was well into the middle range of offensive statistics.  My problem with WAR is that is doesn’t really tell you how a player makes the team better.  I find it hard to believe that the Cardinals won that many games, solely due to Heyward.

An issue for the Cubs is where to play Heyward.  His natural position is RF, which fits with his strong arm and limited range.  The incumbent there is Jorge Soler, an exciting young player with vast potential, already signed to a long-term contract.  It makes we wonder why the Cub management would overpay Heyward, when they are already set, and with a player who arguably has a higher ceiling.  Neither guy should be sitting on the bench next season.

LF will be manned by Kyle Schwarber and/or Kris Bryant, two young sluggers whose offensive production promises to far exceed Heyward’s.  Each is a defensive liability in the OF, but those limitations can be hidden in LF.  Schwarber can also catch, and Bryant played acceptable 3B last year, but each is expected to get time in the OF next year.  The Cubs also have 2009 Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan (Heyward was second in 2010), who has similar career numbers to Heyward (.268 BA, .340 OBP, .411 SLG vs. .268, ,353, 431 for Heyward); but is considered a below-average fielder and more of a fourth OF.

And the Cubs signed two-time All Star Ben Zobrist as well.  Zobrist’s career OPS of .786 is equivalent to Heyward at .784.  He is a super utility guy who can play 2B, 3B, and all three OF positions.  At $14 million bucks a year, he is not going to sit the bench, even for a guy making $23 million.  In theory he was signed to play 2B; but the Cubs have a bunch of young talented infielders, even after trading Starlin Castro away.  Javier Baez has power and speed and vast potential.  Addison Russell presumably takes over for Castro at SS.  Zobrist will play plenty of games in the OF, mostly in CF.

With this group, I’m not convinced that Heyward is an everyday player.  Meaning, if I were Joe Maddon (we both attended Lafayette College at the same time; but his success – richly deserved – has far surpassed my modest legal career), I would not sit Zobrist, or Bryant, or Schwarber, or Soler, or Baez, just to play Heyward.  Sure, Heyward is in the mix, but he is not the dominant player that his contract would suggest.  He does not stand out offensively, and the case has not been made that his defense would justify sitting any of the others.  None of the aforementioned would qualify as the mediocre “replacement” player in the WAR computations.

My point is, the Cubs, having added Zobrist and John Lackey, had a great chance to run the table in 2016, without Heyward.  Why pay such an obscene amount of money to a guy who, on merit, might not crack the Opening Day lineup for this team?  They are among the wealthiest of MLB teams, but that is a lot of money to pay for what amounts to a spare part.  Clearly management sees Heyward as a key part of the everyday lineup, but where?  Speed at the top, sluggers (including Anthony Rizzo as the cleanup hitter) in the middle, the highest I could see Heyward would be 7th, maybe 6th, but not enough pop for 5th in that lineup.

One thought I do buy into is that losing Heyward hurts the Cardinals more than signing him helps the Cubs.  Heyward’s offensive contributions were more important in a weakened St. Louis lineup last year.  Only Matt Carpenter topped 2o HR, and no one drove in more than his 84 RBI.  The Cards are looking at an entirely new outfield of Stephen Piscotty, Tommy Pham, and Randal Grichuk, LF to RF.  Each has the potential to eclipse Heyward someday.  None has played a full season in the bigs.

At the end of the day, which is to say the end of the season, St. Louis may miss John Lackey as much as Heyward.  They’re clearly expecting Adam Wainwright to pick up where he left off, as a dominant #1 starter.  That might happen.  They are also counting on four younger starters to pitch as well as they did last year, when each of Wacha, Martinez, Garcia, Lynn arguably enjoyed a career year.  That might happen too.  Or, as the stat heads would say, they could, collectively, regress to the mean.

Chicago should be the favorite to win the Division in 2016, over the Pirates and the Cards; but not because of the Heyward signing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dads & Sons

Baseball is a special gift passed on by dads to their sons, and their daughters, too (though not in my experience, with three sons and no daughters).  No one like me, who lost their father, before having kids, can easily forget the scene, in “Field of Dreams”, when Kevin Kostner, as Ray Kinsella, gets to introduce his dad to his grandkids.  On a ball field, where they can have a catch.  I’ve been to that ball field, in Dyersville, Iowa, where I had a catch, and thought of my Dad, and my kids.

My Dad remembered seeing Lou Gehrig, his favorite player, hit a long  home run to centerfield off of the Philadelphia Athletics in Shibe Park, between the LF grandstand and the flagpole, a distance that was 447 feet when I much later saw Phillies games in what became Connie Mack Stadium.  The distance was even longer, back when Lou was still playing.

I got to see Johnny Callison, then my favorite player, hit an inside-the-park home run in old Connie Mack Stadium, when his long fly ball landed on a catwalk at the bottom of the RF scoreboard, and bounced, as the opposing right-fielder jumped and swatted desperately at it.  Nothing quite like an inside-the-park HR.

I attended the first game at Philadelphia Veterans Stadium, in 1971, and later each of my sons would see many games there.  Ben and I saw Chase Utley hit his first major league HR – a grand slam!  Ben and I also were at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, to see Wilson Alvarez of the White Sox pitch a no-hitter against the Orioles.  My son James somehow became a fan of the old Montreal Expos of the mid-1990’s, with Tim Raines, Andres Galaraga, Dennis Martinez.  And my youngest, Michael, was with me when Citizens Bank Park opened with an exhibition game against the Indians, on a cold rainy day.  We thought the game would be called, and headed up late, when we heard it was still on, just delayed by the storm.  Most fans stayed away, and we were free to wander about the stadium and explore.

What I remember of that first visit to the new ball park is that first glimpse of the impossibly green field, under the lights on a gray blustery day, looking inviting and perfect.  So improbable amidst the brick and concrete and iron in an industrial area.  So much like the first view of the magical green field at Connie Mack Stadium, just as incongruous, in the middle of North Philadelphia row houses and urban decay.  As a kid I could not quite believe that was real grass and dirt, so my Dad took me down to the field after the game.  On that cold rainy day opening Citizens Bank Park, I could attribute those tears in my eyes to the wind, and not the pure joy I was feeling.

One night, as a kid, I went to a game at Connie Mack with my Dad.  He drove one of his big Buicks, and we arrived early enough (or the crowd was small enough) to park in the lot next to the stadium.  Parking spots were scarce, so the cars were parked head-to-toe, which meant that no one could leave early, or until the driver of the car ahead appeared.  After the game we hustled down to the lot, only to find that the car had a flat tire.  The cars were packed so close together that Dad could not find room to use the jack or remove the tire.  We waited until everyone else had made their way out, honking at us, leaving us in a big empty parking lot.

As my Dad finally worked on replacing the tire, he noticed a door open across the street at the ball park, and two figures emerge.  He told me they must be ballplayers, so why not take our scorecard and get an autograph?  Needless to say, I ran over and asked.  One of the guys bent down and signed.  I ran back, and in the dim light inside the Buick, my Dad read “Ray Culp” – a solid if unspectacular right-handed pitcher who would go on to have a long career.  I was pretty proud.  Then my Dad asked, “Why didn’t you ask the other guy too?”  And I froze.  No idea.  I was too excited.  I asked my Dad if he knew who that was.  “Jim Bunning”, my Dad laughed.  The year was 1964, and Jim Bunning had pitched a perfect game, and was leading the Phils in the pennant race that would culminate in a legendary collapse.  But all I could think of was what I had just missed.  My Dad gave me a hug and said, “next time”.  Jim Bunning went on the become a United States Senator from Kentucky.  Ah, no autograph.

I’ll post a recent photo of my sons and me at a Phillies game, still living the dream.  They know that I will not leave a game early, no matter what.  It’s the nature of the game itself.  No matter how far the Phils are behind, something special might happen – – an inside-the-park home run, or a triple play, or maybe just the debut AB of a guy who ends up in the HOF.

Here’s an example why my sons know not to ask to leave early.  Years ago, before they were born, I attended by first (and last, regrettably) Grateful Dead concert, in Williamsburg, Virginia.  Driving back north that night, we got as far as Richmond, Virginia.  The next morning, at breakfast, I happened to read in the local paper that the irrepressible Jim Bouton was attempting a comeback with the Braves.  So of course we went to the afternoon game, with the Rochester Red Wings.  Bouton sat in the bullpen and didn’t pitch.  But we did see a rare 5-4-3 around the horn triple play on a ground ball.  A Dead concert and a triple play in less than 24 hours!