Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Calm Before The Storm

Everyone is talking about how quiet things are in Yankee-land. George is happier than ever, and is yukking it up with Snorre and Cashman. Damon seems to be fitting in nicely, and Johnson and Moose have been quiet. The only guy to pop off has been Sheffield (what else is new). Perhaps the Yanks, after seeing the circus that was the Red Sox offseason, are trying to look like the ones who have it all together. Maybe George is still beaming after grabbing away Damon.

There's also a feeling of bravado in Yankees camp. One columnist said he hadn't seen the Yankees like this since 1998. Time to get scared, folks?

I say, wait till the exhibition games begin. George takes spring training more seriously than anyone else. If the Yanks start struggling then, the old George will come back. And take control. And come April, if the Yanks have a slow start like last year, George will get mad.

So until the Yankees win 114 games this season (or 125 according to Michael Kay), there's no reason for Yankee fans to party like it's 1998.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Another Great WBC Piece

At this rate, I might have to change the name of the blog to "World Baseball Classic Despiser," but I couldn't help putting this one up. This one's from Mike Downey of the Chicago Tribune:

Nothing classic about world baseball event
Mike Downey

February 20, 2006

A week from Friday, a new tournament known as the World Baseball Classic will get under way in Tokyo with a game between Korea and Chinese Taipei.

A few days later, the United States and Mexico will meet in Phoenix, followed by a game I know most of you have been waiting for all of your lives—yes, hold onto your hats, world baseball fans, it's Canada vs. South Africa.

Wow, the betting in Vegas must be furious on that.

Of all the misbegotten, low-interest, no-need, who-cares athletic events ever dreamed up, the World Baseball Classic has to be high on the charts.

The only possible benefit of this entire 17-day ballapalooza is to remind fans for the billionth time that the White Sox are the World Series champions—not, as so many of you stubbornly insist on calling them, the "world champs."

I previously considered the Davis Cup of tennis to be the most meaningless and ludicrous sports spectacle of the ages, mainly in the way it wants people to be pleased about a tour pro "representing our country" in a match with some guy from Chile. I defy anyone to reflect your entire time on the planet Earth and come up with a single memory about a Davis Cup.

But this baseball thing also is a real doozy. I have heard it called a once-in-a-lifetime event, so let's hope it turns out to be once in our lifetime.

Sixteen nations have entered teams in the WBC, including those international men of mystery known for their great baseball in much the same way Iraq is known for its great NASCAR races, Italy and the Netherlands.

I haven't felt this kind of global excitement since, oh, Sunday, when there was a Winter Olympics showdown between Japan and Britain in women's ice hockey. (Japan won 10-5. British fans must be desolate.)

I recently went into a sporting-goods store that prominently displayed authentic World Baseball Classic jerseys from a variety of teams. Hanging on a rack in all their splendor, there they were: Dominicana, Nederland, Italia. Stores like these give the Dutch-American population of the greater Chicago area a rare opportunity to show its support for Netherlands baseball.

I believe that I can safely speak for Nederlanders everywhere when I say that they haven't been looking forward to a baseball game this much since the days when the red-bearded pitcher Bert Blyleven took the mound bearing an uncanny resemblance to Vincent van Gogh.

Last I looked, Netherlands' roster included a lot of names familiar to Major League Baseball's fans from coast-to-coast—by which I mean from the Atlantic to the Pacific, not from Amsterdam to Rotterdam.

Among them are Andruw Jones, Randall Simon, Shea Hillenbrand, Danny Haren and Mark Mulder, all of whom can't wait, I expect, to go out there and show America that when it comes to baseball, nobody can play it like the Dutch.

Mulder is from South Holland. I don't mean the southern section of Holland. I mean South Holland, a south suburb of Chicago. He grew up near Justin Huisman, who also is on Netherlands' roster for the WBC. Huisman was born in nearby Harvey, which as you know is a hotbed for Dutch-American baseball talent.

I am sure that when Mulder and Huisman were little kids, playing catch in their back yard, they dreamed of the day they could play baseball for the kingdom of the Netherlands.

Jason Grilli is a pitcher on Italy's roster for the tournament. Grilli had a cup of espresso with the White Sox a couple of seasons ago, but he didn't get to be a part of the 2005 World Series team. So this WBC could be a career highlight for a fine young Italian, even one like Grilli who actually comes from a suburb of Detroit.

NBC even promises to call him Grilli on the air, not "Grill."

I don't know what this WBC hopes to prove. The ballplayers will play baseball, but will they slide hard into a guy to knock the ball out of his glove? Will they hum a fastball under a guy's armpit to back him off the plate?

With a month of spring games, a 162-game schedule from April to October and then three more weeks of playoffs involving the White Sox, this is the last thing I feel the world needed in 2006 ... a longer baseball season.

But if the U.S. wins, get ready. There will be a wild victory parade, with at least 10 or 20 people in the streets.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

George Being George

I have barely talked about the WBC, but with not much else going on, I figured I'd chime in on the situation.

George is ticked off about his players joining the WBC, and I must say I actually agree with him. As Mike Vaccaro points out in his excellent piece in today's Post, the injury factor will loom large over the whole tournament. As a Red Sox fan, if Jason Varitek plays in the tournament and gets injured, I'll be mad as hell. To me, it would be as ridiculous as Aaron Boone's injury in a pickup basketball game: when compared to the 162-game season and October, both the WBC and Boone's pickup game are equally meaningless. And if Selig wants to spread baseball's PR, to that I say: charity begins at home. Get a salary cap, and give the fans in Pittsburgh and KC something to watch.

And George's position here is just Steinbrenner as usual: winning comes first. And last. And when it comes to telling his players not to waste their time in something which doesn't affect the standings, I agree with the guy. When it comes to spending $200 million and killing the small-market teams' chances, I can't stand the guy.

A few months ago, when New York Giants owner Wellington Mara died, the papers were full of praise for how the guy was good for the game, like this statement from USA Today:

But he also was the patriarch of the NFL, a man who was willing for more than 40 years to split the millions in television revenues he could have made in the nation's largest market with the Green Bays and Pittsburghs of the league.

Or as Paul Tagliabue said, "He always ensured that the Giants were one of the premier franchises in sports, but he kept the interests of the league at the forefront."

You sure as hell won't hear anything like that about George.

-- In other news, Pavano and Sturtze are starting off slowly; and if Curt Schilling can put his money where his mouth is, the Red Sox will be in excellent shape.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Yankees vs. Red Sox - Position by Position

Even as New York is covered in snow, I can't ignore the fact that spring training is right around the corner. And with the Red Sox done retooling for the winter, time for a position-by-position comparison:

1B: Giambi vs. Youkilis/Snow - If Giambi picks up where he left off last year, the Yanks will be in good shape. His turnaround was a huge, huge factor in the Yanks' second-half run. Defensively, the guy's a wreck, though. Youkilis has potential to be a Nick Johnson type at 1B - not much power, but a very high OBP. Yeah, and unlike Johnson, he better be able to stay off the DL for more than a week at a time. Ex-Yankee farmhand Snow (traded for Jim Abbott before the '93 season) is good for D; maybe his offense will pick up out of Pac Bell/SBC/AT&T park.
EDGE: Yanks

2B: Loretta vs. Cano - Mark Loretta has been one of the NL's best-kept secrets over the past few years. He's got a .301 career average, and a solid .365 career OBP. Cano had a pretty good rookie year, but has no track record. I would watch out for the sophomore jinx here.
EDGE: Red Sox

3B: Lowell vs. A-Rod - I hate A-Rod, I think Lowell will have a big comeback year, but this one honestly isn't even close.
EDGE: Yanks

SS: Gonzalez vs. Jeter - Gonzalez defensively is excellent, and his hitting should improve out of Florida, but Jeter's offensive numbers are much better. And those intangibles....
EDGE: Yanks

LF: Manny vs. Matsui - Shemp can hold his own, but not against one of baseball's best offensive machines. It makes up for all those times he's taking a whizz in the Green Monster. And late last year, Matsui's defense became quite erratic. Is the streak taking its toll on him?
EDGE: Red Sox

CF: Crisp vs. Damon - Yankee fans were horny and Red Sox fans pissed after Damon left town, but Crisp is just as good, if not better. His offensive numbers are comparable (.810 OPS to Damon's .805), he's also fast, he's got a better throwing arm, and most importantly, he's six years younger.
EDGE: Red Sox

RF: Sheff vs. Nixon - When Trot Nixon is healthy, he's very, very good. He's also better in the clutch than Sheff - remember game 3 of the 2003 ALDS? But over the course of a season, Sheffield has much better numbers, and has been much more reliable than the injury-prone Nixon. I'm just hoping this is the year that Sheff's age finally catches up to him.
EDGE: Yanks

C: Posada vs. Varitek - Posada had been rapidly declining over the past few years. '06 will probably be his last year in pinstripes. Varitek might be the best all-around catcher in the AL.
EDGE: Red Sox

DH: Bernie vs. Ortiz - (I'm simply not going to bother with this one)
EDGE: Red Sox

SP: Schilling, Beckett,Wakefield, Clement, Wells, Arroyo, Papelbon vs. Johnson, Moose, Pavano, Wright, Wang, Small, Chacon -- both teams have their fair share of questions here, but the Red Sox have more sure deals and a higher upside - you know that Wakefield, Clement, and Arroyo will be decent, and if both Schilling and Beckett are healthy, they'll give the Red Sox a formidable presence at the top of the rotation. As for the Yanks, even if Johnson is healthy, he'll never be the Big Unit of old. Mussina has very little left in the tank, and everyone else is just a question mark. Will Wright and Pavano ever succeed in New York? Will Wang stay healthy? Were Small and Chacon just one-year wonders?
EDGE: Red Sox

RP: Foulke, Timlin, Tavarez, Riske, Seanez vs. Rivera, Farnworth, Myers, Sturtze, Dotel, Villone -- Red Sox have more depth here, much more. While you can't discount having the excellent Rivera at the end rather than a questionable Foulke, the Yanks will really miss Gordon. Farnsworth will probably be another Jaret Wright, Myers is good for lefties, and Villone is better off with the Pirates or Mariners. And who knows how Dotel will be after surgery? He could be another Jon Lieber, or he could be another Sterling Hitchcock. As for the Red Sox, even if Foulke stinks it up, they've got enough depth to cover for him, and still have adequate relief for the 7th and 8th.

And at 36, Rivera is bound to lose it at some point. One thing's for sure: he won't be doing as many two-inning saves as he did in '01, although Farnsworth and Co. might make that necessary.
EDGE: Red Sox

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Juice Man, One Year Later

It seems like a million years ago that Jason Giambi was on the cover of the New York Post, with the Post calling for the guy to be fired. It seems like a million years ago when the Yanks tried every way they could to get out of that ridiculous contract. It seems like a million years ago when the Giam-baby made a press conference and apologized for something.

Yet it was only about a year ago when Giambi made his infamous apology. And suddenly, he's a good guy all over again, as discussed in the Times by Tyler Kepner.

The Daily News, too,
has nice things to say about Giambi. One thing I found intriguing, however, was the mention that the Juice Man has gained significant weight since last year. Gee, I wonder how that happened?

Why is Giambi suddenly a hero? Did the guy stop taking the juice? Did he go back on the stuff? And if not the juice, then HGH? Or whatever designer product BALCO has in mind? The speculation still has to be there.

Giambi should still be getting the Barry Bonds treatment. Not much has changed since that press conference last year, except that Giambi's numbers were closer to his old self, closer to that goateed guy on the A's taking the clear, the cream, whatever. It brings to mind an excellent Mike Lupica piece from last year, discussing how Sheffield didn't get burned by the BALCO testimony because his numbers were far better than Giambi's in '04.

I think it's awful, simply awful, that the press is now giving Giambi a free pass. What's changed? What more do we know about Giambi that we didn't know on the day of that infamous New York Post cover story?

If anything, after last year's mysterious turnaround, I'm a lot more suspicious of the Juice Man now than I was after that February 10, 2005 press conference.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Kiss and Make Up?

A report in today's Newark Star-Ledger mentions that Pettitte does not rule out a return to the Yanks after his contract ends this year.

A lot of Yankee fans really miss Pettitte. Between seeing Brown and Vazquez lead their team to their biggest choke ever in 2004, and seeing Pettitte lead the Astros to the World Series in 2005, the guy is missed in New York. And all the potential Pettitte replacements - Vazquez, Pavano, Wright - simply have been disasters.

The Yankees, in an effort to make up for the botched negotiations they made after the '03 season, will make Pettitte an offer he can't refuse. They'll be willing to pay him anything, just to bring him back to the Bronx. It's clearer and clearer that pitching for the Yankees is not for everyone, so to find someone with the mettle to handle New York is quite a precious commodity.

This, of course, will all hinge upon whether Pettitte will still be miffed at the how the Yanks treated him in '03. From the way Pettitte sounded, it seemed like he wasn't too peeved at the Yanks. But, if he really loves Houston, he seems like the kind of guy that would stay there. Then again, Johnny Damon said he would never come to New York. Pettitte, however, does strike me as more of a genuine and sincere guy than Damon.

I would love to see Pettitte go to Boston, just to piss off all the Yankee fans. And if not that, how about going to Shea, Andy? Your kid already has the cap (as George let you know), so you may as well just join the team.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Massarotti - On Balance, Sox Better

In a bit of a Despiser echo, the Boston Herald's Tony Massarotti says the Sox might well be a better team in 2006 than in 2005. Not bad for a team that finished 2005 tied for first in their division.

Their defense looks better, their offense looks worse, their pitching remains a relative unknown. But if things break how the Red Sox want, one of the more unsettling offseasons in memory may produce one of the more balanced and versatile teams.
How’s that for an amusing twist?
The 2006 Red Sox still have more questions than answers as things stand, but for a moment try to envision what this team might be. With today’s expected announcement of the Alex Gonzalez acquisition, the Sox will fill the last major hole on their roster. In 2005, Gonzalez made 14 fewer errors than then-Sox shortstop Edgar Renteria, which means the infield defense may be considerably better.
Of course, Gonzalez couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat. He rarely walks, provides little power and seldom runs. And because of that, he embodies the new philosophy being implemented at 4 Yawkey Way more than anyone else on the revamped Red Sox.
For months now, we have heard Sox officials speak of how the team needs to improve in the area of “run prevention,” which is a nice way of saying the 2005 Sox could neither pitch nor play defense. Last year, the Sox allowed more runs than all but six teams in baseball: Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Colorado, Texas and Arizona. Combined, those clubs averaged 70 wins and finished a miserable 134 games under .500.
The Red Sox? They went 95-67 and qualified for the postseason, which was both a wildly deceiving number and a testament to their prolific offense.
And when the playoffs started, they got smoked.
Not so coincidentally, the Red Sox now have the look of a team more like the defending world champion Chicago White Sox, who unceremoniously ousted them from the postseason in October. If the Red Sox pitching staff can stay healthy, and that is an enormous, colossal and gargantuan if, the Sox will have a much deeper staff to go along with better defense up the middle. That means they should be equipped to win more low-scoring games than a year ago.
The idea, it seems, is to make the Sox much more like the team from August, September and October of 2004 than the one-trick pony of last summer.
Also, as we approach the dawn of spring training 2006, remember one thing: the game is changing again. During baseball’s Helium Age, the use of steroids and performance-enhancing substances inflated numbers and made offense far more predictable. It hardly seems a coincidence that statistical analysis exploded during a time when, on the mound and in the batter’s box, baseball executives developed an insatiable thirst for power that had nothing to do with the recent upper-management struggle at Fenway Park.
Last offseason, as baseball prepared to penalize steroid users for the first time ever, the White Sox were a step ahead of the competition. The White Sox hit home runs, to be sure, but they did not entirely rely on them. And when it came time to execute a pitch or make a big defensive play, Chicago was just as capable of relying on Neal Cotts or Aaron Rowand as Paul Konerko. And the White Sox could run and bunt to boot.
As for the 2006 Red Sox, only heaven knows if this team will come together because so many parts have changed. The entire infield is new. Much of the bullpen is new. Curt Schilling is a year older and Josh Beckett has a worrisome right shoulder, all while Keith Foulke attempts to return from the train wreck that was 2005.
For now, all of those questions remain. But at least now we know who has been asked to answer them.
And why.