Friday, March 31, 2006

March Madness, For Baseball Fans

by Rob Hyman

No other single day in sports marks the end of one season and the beginning of another as does the first Monday in April. Just as the excitement of the NCAA Tournament comes to its end, baseball springs into action. It’s arguably the best single day on the sports calendar. I know you all enjoyed seeing our expert picks on Wednesday, but what better way to provide the BFT audience with yours truly’s 2006 baseball picks – NCAA Tournament style.

To remove any subjectivity to the seedings, they have simply been based on last year’s standings. Some may argue this is not fair as, for example, after the fish fry in Florida, the Marlins are clearly not the 6th best team in the National League any more. But the same goes for the NCAA Tournament – sometimes teams get seeded too high (Tennessee), too low (George Washington) or invited when they don’t deserve to be there (George Mason). Okay maybe not that last one, but you get the point.

Remember folks, this is a one-and-done situation – not a four out of seven series. So some crazy things might happen along the way.

National League Seeds

(1) Cardinals – Unlike the NCAA Tournament, this #1 seed will live up to its hype
(2) Braves – Will once again prove that they’re a great regular season team, getting upset by the Cubbies in the second round
(3) Astros – Houston has heated up in October the last two years, but they will finally deflate, losing a first round match-up with under-rated Los Angeles
(4) Phillies – Doesn’t it always seem like there’s one thing missing with them? Look for that to continue
(5) Mets – You have to like what they’ve done, but still feel like their pitching won’t hold up against the Cards in the NL Semis
(6) Marlins – Ranked too high after the off season send-offs, they’ll lose to equally unimpressive Arizona
(7) Padres – Great pitching, but 82 wins won’t do it this year
(8) Brewers – I agree with my colleague – Brew Crew is ready to compete. Unfortunately, they meet St. Louis in round two.
(9) Nationals – Soriano said he’d only play if the Nats could be a 6 seed
(10) Cubs – I see them finding some success with that pitching staff, but the Dodgers are going to be good!
(11) Diamondbacks – Marlins / D’backs first round game will not set any attendance records
(12) Giants – If Bonds doesn’t get suspended, Giants will compete, but Mets will take them out
(13) Reds – The curse of Marge Schott lives on in Cincinnati
(14) Dodgers – A 14-seed has never made it as far as LA will this year. Decimated by injury last season, look for LA to make a run.
(15) Pirates – Should be somewhat competitive this year, but NL Central is stacked and they’re the Pirates
(16) Rockies – Seriously, whose idea was it to put a baseball team here

American League Seeds

(1) White Sox – I know they added Thome and Vazquez, but I think the Indians late-season momentum will carry over
(2) Angels – They fell apart after the controversial loss in Game 2 vs. Chicago. They’ll be up there, but that was unimpressive
(3) Yankees – Same story – Enough great hitting to win a lot of games, but will get shelled when it counts
(4) Red Sox – ’03-’05 was a wild ride for the Sox. My gut tells me they need a breather and will have an off year
(5) Indians – This is the team! Indians have pitching, power, speed and heart. Sound like a certain Indians team with Hayes, Taylor and Cerrano – doesn’t it (Does anyone ever wonder how that team did in the playoffs?)
(6) Athletics – Billy Beane will once again prove that his teams know how to get to the playoffs
(7) Twins – Falling further behind the White Sox and Indians
(8) Blue Jays – This team will compete in the AL East, but I like the Rangers to beat them.
(9) Rangers - They’ve got an entire new pitching staff which will make things exciting, but they won’t take out Chicago
(10) Orioles – Let me guess – 10 over after May and then fall apart – sound familiar?
(11) Tigers – They always seem to be a year away, but that pitching staff is still young and now has experience
(12) Mariners – It’s almost like they’re still recovering from winning 116 games and losing to the Yanks in ‘01
(13) Devil Rays – If only they could play the Yankees for 162 games
(14) Royals – If only they could play Triple AAA Omaha for 162 games

Rob Hyman's column appears alternate Fridays

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Brew Crew Looking Good

by Scott Silversten

Let’s get something straight right now … the bandwagon doors get locked for good on Monday. If you want in, buy tickets immediately.

There are only a few spots still open. One is an aisle seat next to Ben Sheets, who prefers the window so he can keep his valuable and oft-injured right arm out of harm's way. If you are svelte enough, try finding an empty chair next to Prince Fielder, who just might be baseball’s next slugging superstar.

However, if the intellectual side of the game is more your speed, there is room next to Ned Yost, a manager who has helped build a team ready to give Milwaukee its first look at playoff baseball in nearly a quarter century. That’s right, it’s been 23 years since the Brewers have crashed the postseason party.

For a sport known as being dominated by big-market teams and lacking parity, it’s quite ironic that the last two world champions have come from two of the largest cities in the country that had gone 86 and 88 years, respectively, without a world champion. Is baseball ready for a drought to end in a smaller market while extending the streak to six years of surprising World Series winners?

Envisioning the Brewers winning the 2006 championship is still hard to fathom, but for the first time in over a decade, Milwaukee sports fans should still be focused on the diamond when the Green Bay Packers start training camp in July. Here’s a recommendation for Brett Favre … retire now and reserve your spot on the blue and gold bus that just might leave other members of the National League in the rearview mirror.

The Brewers (81-81) are coming off their first non-losing season since 1992. How long ago was 1992 in baseball terms? Milwaukee is actually two divisions removed from their second place finish in the American League East that year. Realignment shifted the Brewers to the AL Central in 1994 prior to their departure to the Senior Circuit four years later.

Despite all he has accomplished as commissioner, former Brewers owner Bud Selig is still reviled by most fans and blamed for such mishaps as the steroids scandal, the All-Star Game tie and the 1994 players’ strike that caused the first cancellation of the World Series since 1904.

However, the real shame of his tenure has been the struggles of his former franchise. In 1970, Selig responded to the 1965 departure of the Milwaukee Braves to Atlanta by purchasing the Seattle Pilots and moving them to his hometown. With Robin Yount and Paul Molitor leading the way, the Brewers reached their only World Series in 1982 but over the last decade have averaged 71.9 wins, including a horrendous 56-106 campaign in 2002.

But last season has finally brought optimism to Milwaukee. After falling eight games under .500 on June 21, the Brewers slowly rebounded and had a chance for a winning campaign before dropping their last two games of the year in Pittsburgh. And they did it with Sheets, a Cy Young-talent, missing significant time after tearing a muscle behind his pitcher shoulder in the spring, straining an adjoining muscle in early March and then suffering a shoulder tear in August. Any optimism heading into 2006 is quickly tempered with the knowledge that he will likely start the season on the disabled list again after straining a back muscle near the one he tore last summer.

For a mid-market franchise, the Brewers took a huge risk when they gave Sheets a four-year, $38.5 million contract after he struck out 264 in 2004. Approximately 20% of the club’s payroll is tied up in Sheets, who also missed time last season with an inner-ear infection.

If healthy, Sheets leads a deep starting staff that includes lefties Chris Capuano and Doug Davis. Tomo Ohka is serviceable and David Bush won the fifth starter spot over Rick Helling, who has battled elbow issues this spring but appears ready to break camp in Milwaukee’s bullpen. Derrick Turnbow is back as the closer after posting 39 saves in 2005.

The everyday lineup is talented, but extremely young. Fielder, the son of former 50-home run hitter Cecil, and second baseman Rickie Weeks are potential stars, while shortstop J.J. Hardy will need to mature as he approaches his 24th birthday in August.

A big problem area could be defense, as the Brewers ranked last in the N.L. in fielding percentage and had the most errors in league last season. New third baseman Corey Koskie should help, but Weeks’ struggles (21 errors) have led the team to consider a move to the outfield.

The offensive star should once again be left fielder Carlos Lee, who came over from the Chicago White Sox prior to the 2005 campaign and, although he missed out on a World Series ring, accumulated 32 homers and 114 RBIs to help the Brewers stay on the fringes of the wild card race for a good portion of the summer.

So keep faith Milwaukee! Miller Park will be jumping throughout 2006 and Bernie Brewer should be doing more than waiting for football season to arrive.

Scott Silversten's column appears every Thursday

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Baseball For Thought: MLB Predictions, 2006

This week on Wild-Card Wednesdays, Baseball For Thought's eight dedicated columnists hover over a baseball-shaped crystal ball, and pick their predictions for the 2006 MLB season.

The following is a compilation of their picks:

East: Red Sox 4, Yankees 4
Central: White Sox 5, Indians 3
West: A's 6, Angels 2
Wild Card: Angels 3, Blue Jays 2, Indians, White Sox, Yankees
Champion: A's 2, Indians 2, Yankees 2, Red Sox, White Sox

Cy Young: Johan Santana 4, Roy Halladay 3, Randy Johnson
MVP: Alex Rodriguez 4, David Ortiz 2, Vladimir Guerrero, Travis Hafner

East: Braves 4, Mets 4
Central: Cardinals 8
West: Dodgers 6, Giants, Padres
Wild Card: Braves 3, Mets 2, Phillies 2, Brewers
Champion: Cardinals 5, Braves, Dodgers, Mets

Cy Young: Jake Peavy 4, Pedro Martinez 2, Roy Oswalt, Ben Sheets
MVP: Albert Pujols 6, Carlos Delgado, Andruw Jones

World Series Champion:
A's 2, Cardinals 2, Yankees 2, Mets, Red Sox

Number of HR's Barry Bonds will hit: 30.6 (SD 3.6)

Here are the detailed predictions for each columnist. We'll check back at the end of the season to see how everyone did. (Click pictures to see in full size)

Wild-Card Wednesdays appears every Wednesday

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Intelligent Farming

by Jeremy Bird

In this edition of "Bird's Eye View," Jeremy goes down on the farm to explore the components of a strong baseball farm system and explains why the Angels will dominate the American League West for years to come.

In the off-season, Angels GM Bill Stoneman refused to trade Howie Kendrick and Brandon Wood for Manny Ramirez.

Say what? Howie and Brandon who? Has the man gone crazy?

Stoneman had the money but passed on a 100-plus-RBI machine to keep a class A shortstop and double A second baseman no one has ever heard of.

He also refused to pick up Miguel Tejada for young prospects like Cuban first baseman Kendry Morales.

No, Stoneman has not lost his mind. In fact, Angels GM Bill Stoneman is one of the most intelligent GMs and talented farmers in all of baseball.

When his Angels dominate the American League West for years to come – in part because of the 6-4-3 combo of Wood, Kendrick and Morales – we will all be wishing we were Halo fans. And wondering why our GMs did not go to farming school with Stoneman.

According to L.A. Times sports writer Mike DiGiovanna (who tuned me into the Angels' intelligent farming), A’s GM Billy Beane actually wished that the Angels had traded for Ramirez or Tejada in the off-season. “I’ve seen enough of those guys to wish they’d go away,” Beane said of Stoneman’s farm system. “Unfortunately, I’ll see more of them over the next 10 years than I care to see. They’re not going to be just good. They’re going to be real good.”

Today, the Angels have five of the top 50 ranked minor league players in the game and seven among the top 100. They have four young players expected to make an impact on this year’s club and a plethora of near-ready talent in the minors.

Stoneman has refused to sacrifice his team’s future for the immediate gratification of a fan-drawing, media-enticing superstar this off season. He learned his intelligent farming by watching one of the best.

Farming lessons from Cox
Stoneman says he came to his senses watching Bobby Cox of the Braves in the mid-1980s. In the early 1980s, the Braves had one of the highest-revenue teams in baseball but underachieved with free agent spending sprees and high-priced overrated veterans. When Cox took over as GM in 1985, the Braves started getting rid of those veterans and investing in the farm.

Cox’s focus on the draft and real player development produced Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, Chipper Jones and David Justice, just to name a few. Fourteen consecutive division titles later, I believe most people would agree that Bobby Cox was a wise, wise farmer.

Cox also traded overpriced veterans for young talent. His most famous: sending Doyle Alexander to the Tigers in 1987 for a minor leaguer named John Smoltz. (Sorry Tigers fans. I know it hurts).

Components of intelligent farming

The Angels are not just committed to a farm system; they have developed intelligent farming skills. Those skills have three key ingredients: developing a strong scouting program, taking risks in the draft and investing in a Latin American program.

The Angels’ draft philosophy under Stoneman has been to take risks on talented players even if they are younger and less ready for the majors. He has bypassed some of the more refined, quicker-to-the-big-league players to go after raw talent. He says he goes after the potential All-Star not just the potential Major Leaguer. “If you go after the safer pick, you have a chance to be an average club.”

That takes risks and patience. Recently, Stoneman drafted a high school pitcher who had just undergone reconstructive elbow surgery during his senior year in high school. The 6-foot-3, 185 pound, 17-year-old right handed Nick Adenhart was a gamble. But, he has the potential to be an All-Star with his dominating fastball and overall potential.

“Intelligent risks,” Stoneman calls it. I call it intelligent farming. Like a good farmer, Stoneman goes out to find the right crop. A strong Latin American program has helped the Angels land Morales, who has power from both sides of the plate. His domestic program has produced Wood (.321, 43 homers and 115 RBI in single A) who draws Cal Ripken, Jr. comparisions and Kendrick, a second baseman who can hit for average and power.

And, he does not sell the farm to the highest bidder. That takes a long-term view of your program and tremendous courage to deny your fans Manny in exchange for the promise of Howie and Brandon.

As with all intelligent farmers, Stoneman is going to enjoy a plentiful harvest. Oh, to be a Halo fan come harvest season...

Stoneman's harvest: “Wood to Kendrick to Morales for the 6-4-3.”

Jeremy's column, "Bird's Eye View," appears alternate Tuesdays

Monday, March 27, 2006

Yankee Diary #2

by Michael Carlucci

In this edition of Yankee Diary, Michael Carlucci discusses Graig Nettles, how hating the Yankees is anti-American, and who else may have been using steroids.

March 13, 2006

You know you're nearing the end of useful programming when you see a Yankeeography on Graig Nettles. Don't get me wrong -- I like Nettles. He's just not a fertile topic for an hour-long love fest. After you talk about his home run title and his great defense in the World Series against the Dodgers, you're spent. Let's see if I can boil him down to his essence. He hit 32 homers in 1976, which led the American League. He won 2 Gold Gloves ('77 & '78), was nicknamed Puff, and wrote a book called "Balls." His lifetime OPS was .750 which is not bad for the pre-steroid era in which he played, but he ain't Mike Schmidt. He played for 22 seasons on six different teams. Much to his credit, his best years were with the Yankees. There -- I saved you an hour.

I didn't see the entire Yankeeography, but I'd be interested in a discussion of the unusual spelling of his first name (it's pronounced "Greg," for those of you who don't know). My wife's name has a similar oddity, being spelled Debora without either dropping the O or adding an H. It sometimes confuses people, but one woman recently erred in a unique way. She wrote my wife a memo and twice addressed her as "Bebora." I don't know if that amuses you, but I think it's the most hilarious thing I've ever seen. Bebora! And the lady wrote that twice.

March 18, 2006

Hating the Yankees -- an unpleasantly common affliction -- is no different than hating America. Think about it: both have been disproportionately successful, and both are reviled for it. Before either America or the Yankees were born, other groups suffered the same fate.

My wife has felt this kind of hatred. When she was little, some neighborhood kids threw pennies at her, attempting to mock her Jewish heritage. They laughed, proud of their wit and powerful social statement. Honestly, did they expect to her to excitedly pick them up and run in to her parents, crying "Look, I got money!!!!" At least those kids were just kids. Not long ago a doctor asked me, upon learning my last name, if I had any family in the mafia. You'd be surprised how often I get this. Maybe there really is a Carlucci in the mafia somewhere. Anyway, my usual response is to say, "yes, so be careful when you start your car." It is not that I am offended by the Italian slur. I am offended by the lazy comedy. Any idiot can link an Italian to the mafia or throw pennies at Jews. Take potshots all you want, but be original. David Sedaris (the funniest writer in the world) explained how his sister was given a week off so that her Italian bosses could attend a week-long annual family event that occurs in October. She said it should be called "Woptoberfest." I remember struggling to breathe after reading that line, I laughed so hard.

But Yankee hatred, the venomous Yankee hatred that Mets and Red Sox fans have always felt, is at a peak because of the Yankees' recent success. It is part of the trappings of exceptional achievement. As Wilt Chamberlain said, "Nobody roots for Goliath." Instead, even when the Yankees win, fans complain, citing the Yankees' unfair monetary advantage. These are people whose favorite teams spend more than literally every team except the Yankees, and they complain about money.

March 22, 2006

You have to laugh at people who express outrage over the recent Barry Bonds steroid allegations. This should not be a shocking revelation. Has anyone with eyes doubted that Bonds' transformation from a wiry five-tool superstar to a muscle-bound, other-worldly slugger came courtesy of "performance enhancements"?

Bonds is a non-story. The real story is that so many other players not connected to BALCO have gotten a free pass. It's not enough to throw up one's hands and say there's no proof. That's the point of an investigation: to uncover the truth. I'm not suggesting a witch hunt, but journalists have missed some obvious clues (Brady Anderson hitting 50 homers; Trot Nixon gaining 25 pounds in the winter before his best season in the majors). Rather than covering the McGwire-Sosa home-run chase as a feel-good story, there should have been more critical analysis.

Here are a couple stories I'd like to see pursued.

Everyone is angry at Rafael Palmeiro after his finger-wagging lie. People grew even angrier when he appeared to blame Miguel Tejada's injectible Vitamin B12. As far as I can tell, no one has questioned why Tejada needs injectible B12. You need a prescription for it, and there are very few conditions where it would be appropriate. Needless to say, a young healthy athlete is unlikely to have such a condition. Of course, Major League Baseball tested whatever Tejada provided and it came back clean. But is there any way to prove that Tejada gave them what he was actually injecting? And did they really test it or did they only look for substances explicitly banned in the Collective Bargaining Agreement?

David Ortiz, the out-of-nowhere behemoth, has never been accused of any wrong-doing either. But check out this link. Scroll down a bit and see two photos, one from 1997 and another from 1999. He's not the bloated, textbook example of steroid excess he is today.

I don't have any proof on Tejada, Ortiz, Anderson or Nixon (or anything on any of the many others). But really, are we that stupid?

Michael Carlucci's column, "Yankee Diary," appears alternate Mondays

"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine

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