March 28, 2019 by Darren Clarke (all player photos via Wiki Commons)
Even if the Major League Baseball establishment isn’t sure exactly why, there’s a lot of reasons to love baseball. While Manfred Mann and MLB begin another season moving minor league mounds and tinkering with time clocks in a confused attempt to reconcile their dreams of being the NFL (pro tip- play one game a week, continue your romance with gambling and you know, play football) let us choose to not dwell on the limited dreams of limited people. It is after all, in the words of Billy Bragg, “Talking to the taxman about poetry.”
Better we seek some joy.
And there’s joy to be found in the wild assortment of people and storylines lined up to begin the 2019 season.
Over the next few days I’ll look at eight compelling MLB story lines/people beginning with with one and two- The Best of Divisions and the Worst of Divisions. The NL Central and the AL Central.
1. The Best of Divisions: The National League Central
The NL Central has it all, great markets, great stadiums, great players, great teams. It has fallen Champions in the Cubs and Cardinals, it has scrappy underdogs in the Brewers, the Pirates, the Reds. This should easily be the most fun, most competitive, division in the league for 2019.
Let’s look at each team individually starting in Chicago-
“Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen.”
Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald
Ernest Hemingway often expressed his frustration with what he perceived as Fitgerald’s squandering of his talents. I feel much the same way about Weezer. At some point Weezer stopped being a great band. The Blue Album and Pinkerton are genius but everything after that is right on the cusp of Weird Al Yankovic meets the Bay City Rollers in a neon lit alley with too many cats. Why do I mention this? Because Joe Maddon’s glasses always makes me think he’d much rather be the lead singer of Weezer than a baseball manager. And, since effectively mismanaging his way into a World Series win Maddon and former management Chosen One Theo Epstein have fallen on hard times. I mean, not that hard, they have made the playoffs in the two seasons since their World Series win but the team that showed up seemed to suddenly lack mojo.
Now, I’m not complaining because I really dislike the Cubs. If I wasn’t sure of my distaste for the team, Maddon spending every day seemingly trying to show how clever and unconventional he was, i.e. the pitcher batting eighth, and things like Anthony Rizzo running around pounding his chest yelling, “RESPECT ME! RESPECT ME!” after the Nationals intentionally walked the hitter in front of him and Rizzo followed it up with a bloop single (why are you yelling after a bloop single?) sealed it for me. But that’s okay, it’s good to have a team to dislike sometimes.
What happened to the Cubs to have some pundits suddenly picking them to finish last in the division? A lot of things. Big contracts to disappointing players- Jason Heyward’s de-mergence into a replacement level player, Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow’s injury troubles and Tyler Chatwood’s journey far away from the strike zone, to start. Kris Bryant getting hurt last year then suddenly appearing mortal. A pitching staff void of a dominant pitcher.
So the Cubs begin this season as a relative underdog. But like all truly good villains the Cubs shouldn’t be counted out. Javier Baez is as electric a superstar as their is, Rizzo is still a very good player and Bryant is only 27 this season and greatness is in his wheelhouse. The problems of last year in large part remain this season- Maddon’s glasses, Morrow’s shoulder, Heyward’s diminished skillset, Chatwood’s lost control. But make no mistake this team has too many good players to finish last in the division and too good of an upper management team to not figure out a way to get the team into the hunt for first.
St. Louis finds players like a ship in the middle of the ocean finds water. Endlessly. Harrison Bader, Dakota Hudson, Jordan Hicks, Jose Martinez, Tyler O’Neill. The team seems to manufacture quality players via trade or development as effortlessly and surely as today produces tomorrow. And while many prognosticators lean towards the Brewers to win the division the Vegas odds show that the real money is being laid down on St. Louis. I couldn’t agree more.
St. Louis’s abundance of riches begins with a very good rotation backed by excellent depth. In today’s baseball world littered with broken and busted pitching elbows and shoulders having quality pitching depth is crucial. I mention the starting pitching first because it is the foundation for their success but the marquee guys are found on the field every day- Goldschmidt and Carpenter.
The Cards offence has long been very good but always seemed to lack definition. Paul Goldschmidt provides the centre of the offence. Over the past six seasons Goldschmidt has finished just off the top spot in MVP voting- 2nd twice, 3rd once, 6th once. His lifetime batting line is a batting average of .297 an on-base percentage of .398 a slugging percentage of .532. That’s a guy to run your offence around. What makes the Cards offence special is that across the diamond from Goldy is another insanely gifted run producer in Matt Carpenter. Carpenter started last season with an April to break bats over producing a hitting line of .155/.305/.274. From there though he went bonkers to finish the season at .257/.374/.523. Two big bats in your lineup who make pitchers work, take a walk and hit for premier level power that’s a leg up. But the offence is far from finished there.
Marcell Ozuna had a disappointing season for St. Louis last year but is still only 27 and clearly has more to offer, Harrison Bader, with his knee high socks and petal to the metal engine isn’t just a fan favourite he looks to be the rare type of overachiever who keeps on overachieving. Jose Martinez might be a full-time clank in the outfield but he is a full-time masher at the plate who provides valuable insurance at first base and the corner outfield positions. Tyler O’Neill is young and looking like he is on the verge of figuring out how to translate his strong-like-bull into results that are more than just smart-like-streetcar. There’s still more, possibilities abound in one of the best markets in baseball so it’s easy to see why the money is on them.
“What’s your biggest fear?”
David Justice’s character asked of Scott Hatteburg in Moneyball (to which of course the newly minted first baseman responded with, “A baseball being hit in my general direction.”). I’m picking St. Louis to win the division but what’s my biggest fear? For starters the bullpen. Hicks’ heater has enough gas to get a Winnebago from coast to coast but there is some question if it wouldn’t get lost along the way in middle America. Hicks’ fastball location continues in the Trevor Rosenthal/”Nuke” Laloosh tradition of the kind of erratic and unpredictable heaters that have mascots around the league, never mind the guys in the batter’s box, ducking for cover. Andrew Miller appears played out and the rest of the pen is good but not great enough to pick up the potential slack. Then there’s the challenge of abundance.
There was a time in life where I was deeply infatuated with two french girls. An observant friend of mine commented upon my efforts, “I know you well enough to know that you will end up not getting either one of them.” This is St. Louis’s problem (though with less French girls which makes some degree of success possible)- too many choices. Too many choices leaves you playing around with Dexter Fowler in the outfield and Adam Wainwright in your rotation when perhaps there are better possibilities readily available. How much the potential for indecision and/or wrong decisions in sifting through that abundance available to them will play a part in the end result for St. Louis remains to be seen.
The Brewers are the sexy pick to win the Central coming into the season. And how can you not love Milwaukee? Milwaukee is Laverne and Shirley, Lenny and Squiggy, it’s Brewers’ mascot Bernie Brewer sliding down a yellow slide into a vat of beer to celebrate a home run, it’s a small-ish payroll, small market, baseball team. When we last left the Brewers they were leveraging a heavily manned, heavily armed, bullpen to push the Dodgers to seven games in the National League Championship series. Corey Knebel and Josh Hader were at the forefront of cementing the Modern Middle Relievers Movement began by Andrew Miller a few seasons previous that had even the most lukewarm baseball fans talking about the fact high leverage situations didn’t just happen at the end of the game and the challenges facing starting pitchers heading into facing the opposition batting order for the dreaded third time.
The playoffs though presented a challenge beyond Hader and Knebel’s dominance in the form of certified closer Jeremy Jeffress’s tightrope act that appeared to be being performed while struggling with Vertigo. Jeffress followed up his regular season of dominance by putting the going to into, “OH MY GOD HE’S GOING TO BLOW IT!” No lead was safe from massive doubt when Jeffress was in the game as his thirteen base runners surrendered in four-and-two-thirds innings accurately attests to.
With a starting rotation void of a pitcher more than convincingly able to miss bats though the Brewers approach last year is going to have to be the approach this year. The positional situation is, while somewhat flawed, still a brilliant assemblage of the likes of NL MVP Christian Yelich in full bloom, the miles and miles of outfield eclipsing, Lorenzo Cain, the, if not, Who’s on Second? Why is he on second? Mike Moustakas, the underrated Travis Shaw at third and the team’s newest acquisition, sometimes baseball catcher, sometimes baseball misser, nonetheless, an offensive force at a position long on barren contributors, Yasmani Grandal.
These dudes are going to score runs. So an average rotation followed by a killer group of relievers just might work again in theory. Except it won’t. Because when you lean this heavily on one aspect of your team it eventually will break down. Because it has already started to break down. Knebel with elbow woes in Spring, Jeffress, who would have been hard pressed to duplicate last season anyways, with the most dreaded of pitching injuries, the always ambiguous, often career ending, shoulder issues.
The chinks in the armour have arrived just in time for Opening Day.
I love Pittsburgh. Beautiful town with a gorgeous park situated on the banks of the Allegheny River. The current era Pirates are also the small market team that is easy to fall in love with. They’re kind of like Kansas City if Kansas City wasn’t so prone to boom or bust. The Pirates don’t recklessly invest in the stock market instead they open low interest rates saving accounts. Yeah, you don’t win the World Series that way but you also don’t end up with Alex Gordon starting in left field for a 58-win team.
But they’re a good team.
The Pirates rotation has some quality talent with ceiling to it. Jameson Taillon was very good last year and at age 26 there’s room to grow, while full-time enigma Chris Archer brings his top end stuff and middle drawer results from Tampa and the rest of the rotation is at least good- Williams, Musgrove, Lyles. Beyond the current starting five the Pirates have some depth in the likes of the intriguing Nick Kingham and Top-20 prospect Mitch Keller. The bullpen is exceptional and deep- Vasquez and Kela have overpowering stuff and the likes of the Rich Rodgriguez and Kyle Crick provide first-rate depth for high leverage situations throughout the game.
The offence is a thing of things. It’s pure Pittsburgh. The ultimate Land of Misfit Toys. Josh Bell appears as comfortable around first base as Tin Man on a hot plate, Fransisco Cervelli was written off as an almost-good-enough backup catcher (maybe the lowest bar in sports beyond the requirement of overall athleticism in a football kicker) before suddenly realizing potential nobody thought he had in his four post-age-28 seasons during which he has managed to get on base at a .368 clip. Five-tool phenom and past-PED offender Starling Marte has found himself a regular rhythm in centre field as a solid batting average, low walk, decent power, type, Adam Frazier has managed to earn himself a regular job at second base where his size and contact skills make for an easy Poor Man’s Jose Altuve comp, Corey Dickerson has transitioned from an all-or-nothing power guy to a more complete (as in completely underrated) hitter in left and Gregory Polanco, already very good, might just bust out this year at age 26 and fully realize his superstar potential. There is of course also Erik Gonzalez starting at short stop. Which seems like Pittsburgh are pushing their transformative powers a bit, I mean, even Jesus took it easy on turning water to wine after that one time.
However awkward the the individual parts though the end result is good, potentially very good. This is the true sleeper in the Central.
The Reds have long been subjugated to the status of- The Team the Great Joey Votto Plays For. And nothing else. Rightly so too as Joey Votto is great and the Reds haven’t provided much else to think about since their brief trip to the playoffs in 2013 having won more than 70-games just one since, that being a very modest 76 in 2014.
2019 should be different for the Reds though.
The Reds are easily the riskiest proposition in the division but there’s potential here for some joy in Cincinnati. Votto, while a diminished star, still provides, along with young leadoff man Jesse Winker, an uncanny knack to get on base at an elite clip. Behind them is the exceptional bat of third baseman Eugenio Suarez and all the unpredictable possibilities attached to the mercurial presence that is the man dubbed The Wild Horse by one of America’s great poets (Vin Scully) Yasiel Puig. My first thought on Puig is that anybody who isn’t a wrestler (and come to think of it even if they are a wrestler, I’m looking at you X-Pac) who does a crotch chop for a celebration is a bit of an idiot. And the challenges of idiocy can manifest themselves in many ways when it comes to someone mastering their chosen craft (still looking at you X-Pac).
What Puig will end up doing in Cinci is beyond my reckoning however there’s a lot to like about him now being in a smaller market, a smaller stadium, with relatively smaller expectations. At 28 the time is now for Puig and with the table conceivably set for him it’s not hard to see why Reds management reached for the brass ring in acquiring Puig. The Reds full lineup beyond the four players already mentioned is solid, not spectacular but solid. The loss of Scooter Gennett, a special run producer at second base, for 8-12 weeks, hurts the team, but Jose Peraza and Jose Iglesias provide at the very least the rarely seen- Jose-Jose Double Play in the middle infield. Tucker Barnhart is a decent catcher, Scott Schebler a decent depth hitter in the outfield.
Which brings us to pitching. Here’s what I like about the Reds rotation- they have a couple guys who could be great in Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo. Gray has managed to be great before, mind you it was early in his career in a far more pitching friendly park in Oakland. Castillo has shown flashes of greatness with a big league heater clocking in upwards of three-digits at times, he has also shown great control but the final results in his first full season in the rotation last year were ably represented by his 4.30 ERA. And sure, it’s a tough park in a tough division but there’s no doubt that Castillo has yet to fully translate his great potential into great results, there’s no doubt that as sure as Gray has yet to re-find IT, Castillo has yet to find IT for the first time. For pitchers finding the elusive IT is everything. Trevor Bauer found IT last year and Chris Archer has never found IT. What is IT? It’s the thing that separates pitchers with great stuff from having great results. And the thing with IT is it the least predictable of all things. That’s where the Reds rotation fate lay, that small ambiguous space between good and great, between getting to meaningful games and not. Pay attention to Castillo and Gray, their fate is the Reds’ fate.
Beyond Gray and Castillo Anthony Desclafini is a potentially solid #3 guy who likes to work up in the zone in the dead wrong park to do so, Tanner Roark is the beige suit you wear when every other piece of formal clothing has been burned in a fire and you’re hoping nobody notices you and Tyler Mahle is the other, not as good, beige suit. He’s your beige suit backup.
The pen in Cinci is good. I could say more words but just trust me. It’s good. If not overly taxed by the rotation they will give the offence opportunities to win games.
Final Prediction, NL Central
1- St. Louis Cardinals 2- Pittsburgh Pirates 3- Chicago Cubs 4- Cincinnati Reds 5- Milwaukee Brewers
2. The Worst of Divisions, The Tortoise and the Hare, The AL Central
The odds on favourite to win the AL Central is the Indians. Mainly the Indians are favoured because everybody else in the division is varying degrees of lost to completely lost. The comparison for the rest of the teams in the division that most immediately comes to mind would be from the first season of The Surreal Life. If you don’t recall The Surreal Life it was a show where B-List and former A-List celebrities lived together in a house, participating in various unlikely events, for a week or two. Season One was actually pretty decent. The event that I will refer to now involved three teams of two competing in an competition that involved a three-legged race, rowing a boat and burying one person up to their neck in beach sand. The teams were former Playboy model Brande Roderick and the kid from Webster, Emmanuel Lewis, Motley Crue frontman Vince Neil and Gabrielle Carteris from 90210 and Corey Feldman and MC Hammer.
Somehow Webster and Roderick won pretty handily. Carteris and Neil finished second and way, way, back, Feldman and Hammer finished a very distant third due to their pronounced inability to row a boat.
That is how lost the rest of the AL Central is, they are Corey Feldman and MC Hammer in a row boat lost.
Which brings us to Cleveland’s utter lack of urgency this off season. The proverbial Hare in the Tortoise and the Hare story. Arrogantly sure that they don’t have to really try all that hard to beat Corey Feldman and MC Hammer in a row boat.
The current weakness of choice amongst Major League franchises is being too clever for good and great players. It’s The Process after all. It’s the shift, it’s micro managing pitchers, it’s making value signings, it’s gaining an extra year of control on players contracts by keeping them far out of the sight of as many eyes as possible in the minors. It is in short obnoxious. It is how you end up with your starting lineup littered with a catcher who hit .168 last year, it’s how you end up with suspects Leonys Martin in centerfield, Tyler Naquin in right and a youngster with uncertain upside in Jake Bauers playing left.
Beyond the catching and outfield the bench is awful and the bullpen iffy. The counterpoints though are compelling- Lindor and Ramirez are MVP quality players in the field while their rotation- Kluber, Bauer, Carrasco, Bieber, Clevinger, is beyond brilliant. That rotation looks like it will carry the cocky Hare to another easy division win.
But man you have to want to see that arrogant almost-a-rabbit-but-not Hare get his comeuppance.
Who is there to beat the Tortoise? Surely rowing a damned boat ain’t that hard?
Let’s go through the teams-
Kansas City– The best thing about Kansas City is Rex Hudler’s raspy, late-night beatnik poetry recital, his ability to stay positive despite being overwhelmed by the hot mess that is the Royals right now. They have less than no chance. They are sub-zero, they are the Antartica of chances- sure maybe it’s warm up but it will still be Antartica.
Detroit– Detroit is a team on pause. As in, “Hold on a second we are going to see how this whole Matt Moore thing goes… don’t wait up.” Miggy Cabrera looked re-animated, brought back to life, this spring, Nick Castellanos can mash with the best of them but Mikie Mahtook is their starting center fielder, Jordy Mercer their starting shortstop, Jeimer Candelorio slated to bat cleanup. Their rotation includes Moore, Jordan Zimmerman and Tyson Ross. Good news for tired radar guns I guess but bad news for the, “Man Most Likely to Be Picked Off Second Base,” Mikie Mahtook and the rest of the outfield who will spend a lot of this season chasing balls back to the wall only to watch them regularly find the great beyond in the stands. And Shane Greene is their closer.
Chicago– I never know what Chicago is doing. It is like an organization set to random. They do have some intriguing possibilities from 21 year-old rookie Eloy Jimenez who looks ready to rake, underrated Jose Abreu at DH, Yoan Moncada at third, Yonder Alonso at first, powerful but free swinging Daniel Palka in the outfield and electric but free swinging Tim Anderson at short. They are going to swing at a lot of pitches and hit some home runs. They are going to score some runs. But not enough.
The White Sox bullpen is a disaster already happening and the rotation of decent possibilities with Reynaldo Lopez and Carlos Rondon at the top too quickly slides into the middling ability of Ivan Nova and the fraudulent prospect revealed, Lucas Giolito. No way this group is propping up a surprise, sustained, challenge of the Indians.
Which leaves us with one team. One shot at someone usurping the Indians lazy undertaking to win the division-
Minnesota– This is the ultimate underacheiving team. Ask ex-Twins manager Paul Molitor. But maybe, maybe, this is the year for our Tortoise. Maybe this is the year Miguel Sano returns from injury and shows us exactly why he was such a huge prospect for so long (as opposed to simply being a physically huge prospect) and former number one prospect Byron Buxton figures out how to complement his other worldly defence with consistent offensive production devoid of his usual forays into the big empty. Maybe this is the year Max Kepler takes his sweet left handed swing and veers away from average. Maybe this is the year Jose Berrios translates his great peripherals into even greater results and provides the shut down ace the team needs. Maybe this is the year the Twins free agent purchases, all solid acquisitions- CJ Cron, Nelson Cruz and Marwin Gonzalez, meet expectations and get them over the hump. Maybe this is the year that the forever suspect bullpen overachieves.
It’s a lot of maybes though, a lot. But here is our hope, our earnest Tortoise sent off to battle the overly clever, slothful, hare.
Problem is, while they don’t tell the story of the many other races between the tortoise and the hare, the reality is the Hare won every won of them. Because he’s better.
Overly Optimistic, Final Prediction, AL Central
1- Minnesota Twins 2- Cleveland Indians 3- Chicago White Sox 4- Detroit Tigers 500- Kansas City Royals