Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Season's greetings

A few thoughts on the new season while kind of missing the late, not particularly great Fox column . . .

Player you'll regret not taking with your first-round pick in fantasy: Hanley Ramirez, who is no longer that skinny kid who tailed Manny, Papi, and Edgar Renteria like a puppy in spring training three years ago. At age 24, he's now built like an NFL safety, and I wouldn't be stunned if his stats this season actually surpass those of last season's monstrous breakthrough (.332 average, 212 hits, 29 homers, 125 runs, 51 steals, 145 OPS+). He's that good.

Most likely to pay a career-altering visit to Dr. James Andrews: Albert Pujols, whose damaged elbow is apparently a porcelain remnant from the Scott Williamson Collection. It's noble of him to try to play through the injury, but the hunch here is that he'll shut it down sometime around July once the punchless Cardinals are hopelessly out of it. Honorable mention: The Rays' Scott Kazmir. Maybe the Rays are just being cautious, but this "elbow strain" sure seems to be taking a long time to heal.

One reason Joe Posnanski will enjoy writing about this baseball season even more than usual: The Royals are going to be better than most so-called experts think, and may even finish ahead of the Twins in the AL Central. Joakim Soria will emerge as a bona fide relief ace, Zack Greinke, finally at peace with the great expectations, will blossom, Billy Butler will stake his claim as one of the best young hitters in the AL, and Alex Gordon will justify last year's hype. Dayton Moore, formerly John Schuerholz's personal Smithers in Atlanta, is building this franchise on the Braves' model . . . and with little fanfare he's doing a swell job.

Two baseball writers (other than Poz) who have become must-reads: Jonah Keri, who writes with an easy affection for baseball and is doing his damndest to keep the spirit of the Expos alive at ESPN.com; and Keith Law, a former member of the Toronto Blue Jays front office who is still pissed J.P. Ricciardi took someone named Ricky Romero over Troy Tulowitzki in the '05 draft.

Most likely to be found dead in a hotel room with a needle stuck in his dumb #*^: Best-selling author Jose Canseco. And the suspects will be aplenty. (Man, I can't stop re-reading that Pat Jordan masterpiece/evisceration on Deadspin.)

Roy Halladay, No. 2 starter: Because Dustin McGowan, who had a 3.67 ERA in the second half last season, will take over the ace role from the former Cy Young winner, whose K-rate these days is less than impressive (partially by design, but still) and who hasn't won more than 16 games since '03.

And the awards go to . . .: AL MVP: All logic says to go with A-Rod, who will be aiming to win the prize for the third time in five season in pinstripes. If there's any justice, however, Papi, with his five top-five finishes in five seasons, will get his due one of these years. AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander, who takes no-hit stuff to the mound every fifth day and who should lead the league in run support for the second year in a row. NL MVP: Mark Teixeira, who will parlay a monster year with the Braves into huge pile of Old Man Steinbrenner's loot. NL Cy Young: The great Mr. Santana, which means WEEI listeners will be forced to spend the summer listening the banshees yowl "Why can't we get guys like that?" God help us, it's already starting.

The standings: AL East champion: It's my new tradition to pick the Yankees solely for reverse jinx purposes, but let's just say I like this Sox team a lot, provided, of course, that Josh Beckett makes approximately 30 starts. The trendy Jays? Third place, at least until Ricciardi starts returning my calls. And the Rays are intriguing, but they're a year away from being a legitimate contender. James Shields (184 Ks, 36 walks in '07) is a budding ace, and you can tell how good Evan Longoria is by how pissed his teammates were when he was sent to Triple A. AL Central champion: Cleveland. Detroit should thump out around 1,000 runs, but the Indians' pitching is vastly superior. AL West champion: Seattle. This is the year King Felix lives up to the nickname, and Eric Bedard makes a hell of a No. 2. AL wild card: Boston. You know my game. NL East champion: New York. Philly doesn't have the pitching. NL Central champion: Chicago. Here's hoping Kerry Wood, recast as a closer, survives the season with a healthy right arm. One of the game's most talented pitchers is long deserving of some good luck. NL West champion: Colorado. Am I the only one who doesn't think it was a fluke? NL wild card: Los Angeles. Hat tip to Joe Torre for playing the kids. He's making Grady Little look like a fool again.

Best player on a hideous team: I suppose it could be Hanley, though I don't think Marlins are that bad - not Baltimore bad, anyway. So let's go with the Orioles' Nick Markakis, who hit .325 with 14 homers and 61 RBIs in the second half and appears poised to become one of the elite offensive players in the AL, despite the sludge that surrounds him in the lineup.

Most in need of a B-12 shot: Astros shortstop Miguel Tejada, who looks like he's been on the Pudge Rodriguez diet and has the defensive range of a cement-encased Jeter.

Sox pitcher most likely to cause the few remaining brown hairs on my head to turn gray: Jon Lester, who could be Chuck Finley reincarnated (minus the loony ex-wife) if only he would trust his repertoire. (Ed. Note: Dice-K's candidacy for this "honor" took a major hit with last night's masterpiece.)

The best young pitcher in the AL this season won't be Clay Buchholz or Bugs Chamberlain: It will be the Yankees' Philip Hughes, who will win well into double digits while emerging as the No. 2 starter the Bombers desperately need behind Chien-Ming Wang. The Twins are going to long regret not getting this polished 21-year-old righthander in a deal for Santana when they apparently had the chance.

The 1962 Mets, reincarnated? The San Francisco Giants, who have Bengie Molina (103 homers in 3,418 career at-bats) batting cleanup and who had 36-year-olds Rich Aurilia, Ray Durham, and Dave Roberts in their Opening Day lineup, along with Randy Winn (34) and Molina (33). If you're going to be brutal, shouldn't you at least be young? Two other questions: Will Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain combine to go 8-33 with a 2.95 ERA? And
how does Brian Sabean keep his job?

The J.D. Drew suck-it-up-and-play-you-wimp award: To J.D. Drew. Suck it up and play. You wimp.

Written proof that the Legend of Bo isn't some myth embellished through the years by 30-something pre-geezers like me: In this week's gem from the Sports Illustrated vault, here is a fun piece some guy named Gammons wrote in 1989 about the genuine awe Bo inspired in other big leaguers. My favorite part:

Jackson's one-on-one confrontations with pitchers are already legend. On May 11, Jackson struck out four times against the Rangers' Nolan Ryan. "It was really fun," said Ryan afterward. "By the last couple of times up, he was on almost every pitch, so with a lead in the ninth, I just reared back and threw as hard as I could, and he swung as hard as he could. I wonder what would have happened if he'd made contact." Ryan found out 12 days later. Jackson struck out in his first two at bats. Third time up, Ryan brushed Bo back, then sent him reeling on the next pitch with a 95-mph zinger over Jackson's head. Bo, popping his bubble gum all the while, wandered out of the box and stared at Ryan, then finally stepped back in. Ryan came in with a fastball. Jackson fouled it off. Ryan challenged him again. The ball landed high in the centerfield bleachers, 461 feet away, the longest at Arlington Stadium since they started measuring there. "They'd better get a new tape measure," said Bo.

They'd better get a new tape measure. What a great line. I've said it before and I'll say it again: If you didn't see Bo in his two-sport heyday, you missed one of the most enjoyable shows in sports history. Too bad it had such a short run, though I suppose that enhances the legend in the end.

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As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

As a 27-year-old rookie for the 1978 Red Sox, Wright went 8-4 with a 3.57 ERA in 116 innings. The next year he had 5.09 ERA in 23 innings, and after June 6, 1979, he never threw a pitch in the majors again. Any of you semi-old timers know what happened? An arm injury? Or was he a junkballing fluke? I ask only because until recently I forgot about Wright's surprising, relevant role with the doomed '78 club, and remembering him while poking around baseball-reference piqued my curiosity about what became of him.