Mr. Sunshine

Another Fourth of July has come and gone. Among other memories, it always reminds me of my favorite all time figure in baseball. No, I don’t mean George Steinbrenner, the famous crook who ran the Yankees for so long and was born on that date. I mean Chuck Tanner, who was born on that date in 1929 to German and Slovak parents in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Tanner had an eight year major league career that was mostly unremarkable except for the fact that he hit a home run in his very first at bat, pinch hitting for the venerable Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn on April 12, 1955. It took a few years for Tanner to  make it to the big league club after he was signed in 1946  when he graduated from Shenango High School. The team had moved in ’53 from Boston to Milwaukee  where 43,640 Opening Day fans cheered his home run that helped put Spahn and the Braves ahead as part of a three run eighth inning rally. Ted Kluszewski had put the visiting Cincinnati Reds ahead 2-1 with a two run clout off Spahn in the top of the inning.  A 21 year old outfielder named Hank Aaron contributed a triple  to the winning rally. Despite humble beginnings and less than superstar ability, magic moments followed Chuck Tanner throughout his life, especially after his playing career when he became a very successful manager.

Tanner’s managing career reached its pinnacle in 1979 with the We Are Family Pittsburgh Pirates. That team had a storybook season helped by  trades in season that brought them infielders Tim Foli and Bill Madlock to solidify a lineup that already had included  Dave Parker at his peak and Willie Stargell, who at 39 had enough left in his tank to play 113 games and blast 32 home runs, many of which were vital, clutch hits. The starting pitchers were not bad but not great, either, and it was innovative at the time the way Tanner used his deep bullpen No starter won more than 14 games but relievers Grant Jackson, Kent Tekulve, and Enrique Romo appeared in 345 innings combined to help the Pirates win the National League East by two games ahead of the strong Montreal Expos. Then they swept the Cincinnati Reds in the N.L. playoff for the pennant and went on to face heavily favored Baltimore in the World Series. The teams split the two opening games in Baltimore and then moved on to Pittsburgh, where the Orioles won the third game 8-4 and the fourth game 9-6 to take a 3-1 Series lead into the fifth game, which would be the final game at Pittsburgh. Before that fifth game, manager Chuck Tanner informed his players about his mother passing away and mentioned that she no doubt would have appreciated it if the Series did not end in Pittsburgh. Down 1-0 after five innings, the Pirates struck for seven runs over the next three innings to send the Series back to Baltimore. The Orioles had won their division title by eight games over the Brewers and then swept aside the Angels in the playoff in four games. They had Jim Palmer and Scott McGregor ready for game six and then seven if necessary.  John Candelaria and Tekulve combined to blank the Orioles, 4-0 in the sixth game and then  Stargell slugged his third homer of the Series and Pittsburgh won again, 4-1, using four pitchers. Cornball as seems, the Family prevailed, but that is the kind of guy Chuck Tanner was. He was referred to as Mr. Sunshine  because of his relentless enthusiasm. The man just loved baseball and it rubbed off on others. In his youth in New Castle, the family had no electricity until he was in tenth grade and they also did without indoor plumbing. His grandfather apparently worried about his future because he told Tanner that, “You’ll be a bum. All you want to do is baseball, baseball, baseball.” When he played for the Braves, he was known for his hustle. Playing outfield, he would race to the dugout after the third out and reportedly often made it to the dugout before the lumbering first baseman Joe Adcock.

After his eight years of playing Tanner’s less than Hall of Fame batting marks were a .261 batting average with 21 homers and 105 runs batted in. In 1957 he had his most productive season, batting .279 in 117 games. What was not so fortunate for him was that he was traded from the contending Braves to the seventh place Cubs during the season. That was the year that the Braves knocked off the Yankees in the World Series, and the World Series dough might have doubled what a reserve outfielder  was making in those days. He probably smiled about it.

Then his exciting managerial career began with 8 seasons in the Angels’ system. He was named minor league manager of the year in 1968 and 1970. After the Chicago White Sox fired Don Gutteridge in 1970, Tanner got his first big league managing job. The highlight there was 1972. The Sox had improved their record by 23 games in ’71 with the likes of Jay Johnstone, Carlos May, Rick Reichardt, and Tommy John (the pitcher, not the surgery) but still were far out of the race.  In 1972, the White Sox acquired Dick Allen and everything got better. Allen, who grew up in Wampum, Pa., which is about a two and a half stones  throw from New Castle, was now 30 years old and, while a truly talented hitter of All Star caliber, he was considered by some to be an indifferent defensive player with perhaps a bad attitude. True to form, Chuck Tanner saw the good in the western Pennsylvania  neighbor. Allen, on his  fourth team in four years, was the American League MVP with 37 homers and 113 RBI and the White Sox contended all the way before finishing second to  eventual World Champion Oakland in the A.L. West.. Tanner was innovative with his pitchers in a different way that year. He had both Goose Gossage and Terry Forster in the bullpen but  knuckle ballers Wilbur Wood and Stan Bahnsen started 49 and 41 games respectively and Tom Bradley started 40, but I don’t know if he was a knuckler as well.

Managing the Oakland A’s in 1976, Tanner had another second place finish as the A’s  dynasty began to crumble in the wake of owner Charles Finley’s unfavorable reaction to free agency. That team showed Tanner’s love of the stolen base as they swiped 341 in 464 attempts. Then the Pirates wanted Tanner, who considered managing the team that played fifty miles from his home a dream come true. Finley balked, and a historic trade of sorts occurred as the Pirates had to give Finley Manny Sanguillen and $100,000 to get Tanner. Mr. Sunshine had his dream come true.

Fireworks, Bozos, and Replays

The foresight of our fondling forefathers cannot be denied. Whatever day that was in 1776, they were gathered near the future home of the Phillies not just to boo the Brits but also to set forth for all time the standards of freedom that could be enjoyed by all of the white people of this great continent for as long as they were willing and able to fight for them.

Somehow they knew that future generations would endure so long as certain freedoms were obtained and held dear. Here today we celebrate the fact that these freedoms persist. We will cite just a few of them.
1.The freedom to barbecue. More specifically, the freedom to consume as many hot dogs as possible, and the freedom to decide that chicken wings are actually nutritional.
2.The freedom to blow things up and set things on fire. Sparklers are the gateway weapon but there is nothing like the sound and fury of exploding gunpowder to signify all that we stand for and it looks so cool in the night sky. Our dogs have to be made of stern stuff, just like the dogs of 1776.
3. I believe it was Thomas Jefferson himself, although perhaps it was Ben Franklin, who predicted that, in future days, the freedom loving people of these United States would find a way to exploit the dead and wounded of this, our most important war by selling vast amounts of Toyotas, Volkswagens, and Chevrolets plus mattresses on long weekends so as to increase our wealth and consequent ability to fight more wars. Some historians have noted that John Hancock envisioned Taco Bell as the bell in Philadelphia was cracking.

It is a reminder as well that France has always been our ally, which brings me to the World Cup. This has, for the most part, been the best and most competitive tournament we have witnessed in our twenty years of observing the Women’s World Cup. There have been more good teams with deeper rosters this year than in any previous tournament and it’s been unforgettable good fun. Whether it is Holland or the United States that prevails come Sunday, the winner will have definitely earned it. The only drawbacks have been a)the increased rough and tumble play and flopping that mimic the men’s game and b)the use of the video assistant referee, or VAR that halts play and makes everyone wait for too long for the attempt to “get it right”. A continuous flow of play has always set soccer apart from other whistle happy sports to the delight of fans and the consternation of television executives. Now we have to override the human element with robotic interference that doesn’t add anything but anguish and boredom. I’ll take a wrong call any day. I don’t know about the NFL because I don’t follow it, but replay review is totally ridiculous in basketball and has proven to be a farce that wastes time in major league baseball. Where are we headed with this? Umpires are threatened with extinction. We don’t get to see the veins in the necks of managers pop out as they argue bad calls with other human beings. Will our games be played by robots as well eventually? Have you seen Rollerball? One last futbol note: the difference between Donald Trump and Megan Rapinoe is that, for one, Rapinoe is actually good at what she does and, two, even with the expletives she actually means what she says.

The Elias Sports Bureau has reported that 1,142 home runs were struck in the MLB in the month of June. That breaks the previous record for a month by 7. That record was set in May. It’s kind of like global warming. Also, a year after strikeouts exceeded hits for the first time ever, whiffs are ahead again, 21.871 to 21,554. Kind of like bankruptcies. If you peruse the MLB highlights programs you will mostly see one ball after another leaving the yard. Home runs were once very exciting. That was because they were relatively rare. Teams that were otherwise lousy would employ a Hank Sauer or a Ralph Kiner or a Gus Zernial so that the home crowd could have something to hope for other than victory. Now we are once again being subjected to the brainwashing that the Home Run Derby (along with the hot dog eating contest) is an exciting thing to watch that we won’t want to miss. I think I’d rather have a colonoscopy. At least they drug you for that. How about a suicide squeeze tournament? Hitting the cut-off man competition? Did Henry Aaron flip his bat? It reminds me of a high school basketball game I once attended. The game was out of hand and I was headed for the facility when I heard a big roar from the crowd. I turned back to see what the fuss was about. Somebody had dunked–successfully! Now his team trailed by only 83-38. Twisted values. Thomas Jefferson would not have approved.

Around the Metaphorical Horn

It is impossible for those of us cursed with an insatiable hunger for baseball news to get through a day without being inundated with manic speculations concerning the uprooting of major league rosters that will be occurring in the next few weeks. What great fun we all can have! We can pretend to be management material for a multi-million dollar business but, instead of fantasizing about replacing,say, those slacker truck drivers with self driving robotic vehicles that always show up for work ready to roll, we can imagine ourselves having enough cash on hand to “rent” or perhaps even “own” a guy like Madison Bumgarner, who might be that one addition to our team that will get us into that wondrous land of fame and even more cash, the playoffs! Of course, these fantasies can change with every passing day. For instance, in the case of Bumgarner, what if our new dude isn’t very good anymore? MadBum is just a little over 30 years old, but he really hasn’t been very good since 2015, so he may end up plodding along with the rest of his San Francisco teammates, pining for the good old days while still maintaining a good credit score.

While we are on the topic of roster additions, Manny Machado, a cinch first ballot Hall of Jerks candidate, has turned yours truly into a San Diego Padres hater all by himself. Well, maybe not hater, but I don’t wish them well. For decades I was neutral about that team, but no mas.

Summer is here and it’s time to feel good about some players who are bringing smiles to our faces. Max Scherzer, the old school pitcher with the occasional black eye who is keeping the Washington Nationals within shouting distance of the Atlanta Braves is one of them. Also, just about that entire Braves team, an invigorating collection of youth and experience. Josh Bell and Brian Reynolds of the Pirates are giving the Pittsburgh fans reasons to show up, or at least turn the tube on. Does anyone else still call it the tube? I meant the big rectangle. The Minnesota Twins are giving American League Central customers a reason to not ask for their money back. Hunter Pence, no relation to the stone faced clod of wayward marl who rides in the car behind the slanderer in chief, has been given a chance to revive his career in Texas and has come through very pleasantly indeed.

It’s feeling like 1955 again. I mean, there isn’t a grandfatherly general in the White House, and not everyone is buying a Chevy. On June 21 of that year, however, the Yankees and Dodgers were in first place. Brooklyn’s record was 47-16 after ace Don Newcombe moved his record to 12-1 by defeating Warren Hacker and the Cubs. The score was 7-2 in 11 innings and Big Newk went all the way. Hacker was a slouch, being lifted with two out in the eleventh. Roy Campanella was batting .339 and hitting clean up for the Bums. They had a 12 game lead over the second place Cubbies after that game. The Yanks had a more modest two game lead over the White Sox after running their record to 43-23 by beating the Kansas City A’s 6-2. Mickey Mantle hit his 17th home run. The looming World Series between those two teams is the only real resemblance to 1955 but it does seem to be what’s coming. It would be the first such meeting since 1981, another year in baseball infamy.

Packing It In

Baseball, for all of its flaws and weird new idiosyncrasies,remains superior among all of the professional sports. The only real contender would be soccer, but the popularity of that game in the United States may forever be hampered by its pace. It’s not slow enough. Consequently there are fewer opportunities for that game to be dominated by coaches with their incessant time out calls that enable the television masters to use stop action moments to sell all of those useless products that we are prodded to think that we cannot do without while non players demonstrate their varying degrees of genius. My curiosity got the better of me just the other day when, while the major league baseball game I was watching was drawing to an end, I noticed on the crawler that the Golden State Warriors had a 12 point advantage over Toronto with about five and a half minutes left in the game.

So I tuned in. Oh, my goodness. Predictably, the home team Raptors shut down the Warriors’ offense with what the NBA calls defense, which seems to consist of TSA agents with billy clubs surrounding scofflaw boarding pass holders trying to avoid the inevitable. Now that summer solstice is nigh, the playoffs, or what Charles Barkley likes to call the real games, are almost complete. I used to jokingly quip that perhaps basketball, which used to be an indoor sport played during snow season that kept all concerned warm for a while, might wrap the season up by Flag Day, but that’s not been a joke for a good while. The apparent rationale is that the owners of the teams can continue to rake in the cash even while a high percentage of their employee players are confined to hospitals or at least the sidelines with the sort of injuries that only an overlong schedule complete with plenty of air travel can provide. It’s not WWI and they get paid extremely well, but the quality of the performances suffer indeed. Lots of fired or retired coaches become “analysts” with the emphasis on the first four letters of that word. They are there to catch us up on all of the advanced thinking that goes into these times out while seven footers clang free throws and scurry for rebounds. With 5.9 seconds left and Toronto having cut the margin to a mere two points, Andre Igoudala of Oakland, I mean Golden State,found himself open for a three point attempt which, as they say, he drained. Well, by God, we had an apparent winner with only three or four whistle blows to go. So I heard an analyst nearly sobbing that he shot “too soon” because, had he missed, the Raptors would have had “plenty of time” to tie the game or win it. That’s an old coach for you. He assumes the miss on a wide open shot.

Anyway, baseball.This game has a slow pace that people find fault with but, despite the commissioner’s wailing and his lame attempts to speed things along, the pace has usually not been a negative issue. After all, it was meant to be played in daylight during relatively pleasant weather. That was, of course, before the takeover by television, which brings you Balaclava Ball when the kids are in bed playing video games. One legitimate complaint, however, has emerged. That is, that perhaps more than a few teams, or at least their management crews, are not really trying to be competitive as far as winning games is concerned. Not throwing games like the infamous Chicago White Sox team of 1919, of course, but, rather, just not doing their best to put the best possible team on the field with the goal of a championship in mind. Sometimes it is time to rebuild, of course. The Philadelphia Phillies had to do that after they signed too many players to long term contracts while they were contending. The Tigers are doing it. When hard times come all businesses have to make do with less. No matter how many teams make it to the post season, only two play in the World Series. This is not really anything new. It’s just that with billion being the new million, all of the numbers, and consequently the stakes, are higher. For instance, there can be no logical argument that the Philadelphia A’s of 1954 were trying to unseat the Yankees. New York let them have Vic Power because he was black. But Lou Limmer, Marion Fricano, Bill Renna and Gus Zernial had no chance against the likes of Yogi Berra,Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and Irv Noren, and those Yankees finished second!

Are the San Francisco Giants one of the current teams that are packing it in? No one is officially saying so, of course, and the players are obviously not quitting, but what gives? This organization over achieved splendidly in winning three World Championships in this decade with very good, albeit not great, teams and understandably rewarded players with rich, long term contracts. Injuries and age have taken a toll but it is difficult to believe that so many core players have suddenly reached the end of the line. The inspirational Hunter Pence visibly seemed to have reached that point and was justifiably let go only to revive his career, at least offensively, in Texas. However, first baseman Brandon Belt is just 31 years old and has been healthy so far this season. Yet, his current .243 batting average is 22 points lower than his career mark. Buster Posey, a career .304 hitter, is now at .257 with 3 home runs. His career on base percentage of .373 and slugging percentage of .463 compare to 2019 figures of .321 and .408. That’s after off season hip surgery that was supposed to cure what ailed him the past couple of years. Joe Panik looks stronger than he did last season but his numbers are all significantly lower than his career averages. Evan Longoria just arrived from Tampa Bay last year, and his 2019 numbers of .220,7 homers, and .302 on base and .412 slugging compare to career marks of .266, 284home runs,.335, and .475. Brandon Crawford has an average of .214 compared to .250, 5 homers,an on base percentage 31 points lower, and a slugging percentage 59 points lower. It goes beyond the batting numbers though. The Giants have looked lost and listless at times, making minor league mistakes. Did Bruce Bochy wait too long to retire? No, I suspect the problem lies above the dugout.

Talent evaluation is crucial for any organization. Also, character evaluation is important and often overlooked. Brian Sabean was very good at both. The new guy, Farhan Zaidi,seems to be over matched. Here is the deal. Professional athletes know who among them are strong and who are not. San Francisco has seen a long and troubling procession of athletes auditioning for roster spots that, at this point, have mostly proven to be weak except to the wandering eyes of Farhan Zaidi.Mike Gerber, Connor Joe, and Michael Reed all arrived with high recommendations from Zaidi. Giants fans wonder why and they are all elsewhere now. Aaron Altherr was there for a day. Gerardo Parra and Cameron Maybin are two proven outfielders who were sent packing and are helping other major league teams now. Mac Williamson, 28, was given one last long look. Now it is Mike Yastrzemski‘s turn. He’s also 28 and a career .263 minor league hitter, but he’s been useful so far. The point is, sometimes leaders lose confidence in their players but also, sometimes, players lose confidence in their leaders. I suspect that the latter is what gives with the Giants. The Dodgers look like a cinch for the National League West right now so what does a team 16 games behind in June do? Everybody seems to think trading Madison Bumgarner will be the start. I’d look a little higher.

First Quarter Results

Three and two counts. Mighty swings by muscular big guys and thin little infielders alike. Strikeout. Walk. Walk. Strikeout. Strikeout. Walk. Home run. Walk . Strikeout. Home run. Pitching change, hard thrower replaces hard thrower. Walk. Strikeout. Are you still awake? I’m having trouble. Last October 6, yours truly submitted for your consideration a piece entitled Beginning of the End? The subject matter was the decline in attendance at major league baseball games and the speculation was that the preponderance of strikeouts, which has reached the point that the average pitcher now fans batters at a Sandy Koufax pace,combined with the absence of some of the more exciting plays like stolen bases, sacrifices and squeeze plays and in general just putting the ball in play has begun to turn off baseball lovers while lengthening games and reducing the demand for over the counter and other sleeping aids. Whatever the causes, the decline in turnstile clicking has increased so far in 2019.

Another factor is what is politely referred to as economics. No one wants to mention the fact that many people have been priced out of going to a big league game but I strongly suspect that such is the case. Just as loads of folks who are devoted to live theater may not have had the gelt to see Hamilton without getting a second mortgage, many working stiffs may have had to go to their second job rather than blow a couple of hundred to see that Pirates versus Reds game. Are the owners, who are closer to the one per cent than to the rest of us, worried? We are seeing signs that they are indeed. The Dallas Keuchel mystery, for one thing. Really, no one could use this guy? What about the “generous” contract extensions for players who are not yet headed for free agency? That’s a lot more money than you or I make, Jake, but it tells me that both employers and employees see hard times ahead.

We still love the game though, don’t we? We made it past the strike years, the cocaine years, the steroid years where somebody who looked like he couldn’t carry two bags of groceries one year was blasting 50 homers the next, and all that stuff. We’ll make it past this too. Defensive shifts? We can adjust. The games on the field still hold interest. The first quarter has produced some fascinating stories. One has been that the Washington Nationals are struggling so much that manager Dave Martinez may be looking over his shoulder. Kudos to Eric Karros, who stated on Fox Whip Around that their big mistake was in letting go of Dusty Baker. Mike Schizzo should have patience but probably won’t.

And the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds are both better than expected thanks mostly to pitching. Josh Bell of Pittsburgh has been particularly impressive and the Reds lineup is looking pretty solid in the post (There goes another) Homer Bailey days. Jose Iglesias makes the infield respectable and once Joey Votto and Yasiel Puig start raking the Reds will cause trouble.

I’m sure the addition of Adam Jones has helped but the Arizona Diamondbacks are also better than expected. I still believe that the longer the season gets the more they will miss Patrick Corbin, though. Cody Bellinger is the big reason, in my never humble opinion, that the Dodgers are ruling the West again. The Giants could still figure in things if the new boss Farhan Zaidi could stop tinkering with the roster. He really liked Conner Joe, Mike Gerber and a few other guys in the outfield that you never heard of until he didn’t anymore. At the same time, established useful outfielders like Gerardo Parra and Cameron Maybin got brief trials and were sent off rather rudely. The catching position,usually locked up by a wobbly Buster Posey, has been running auditions since February and almost everyone in the catchers’ union has passed through.

Yes, I have been shocked by the strong showing of the Minnesota Twins so far and I hope it continues. Cleveland has problems. The big accomplishment of 2019 so far, though,and it provokes a thirst for a stiff drink to say it, is the amazing development by the New York Yankees and their “B” team. Wow! Well done, Aaron Boone and company. The brightest light in mid May of 2019 is not surprisingly, Houston.

Mariners Lack Bait

Here we are already a month into the new baseball season and so many things are still not clear. For instance, I can’t decide which new truck I should buy. In the early days of televised baseball, the choices were easier. All of the advertising was aimed at men, for one thing, although I suspected that it was really aimed at boys who were about 12 or 13 years old. You were supposed to shave, drink beer, and buy gasoline for your car, probably a Chevy. As I recall, I was supposed to shave with a Gillette blade, sting my face with some smelly after shave by Mennen, go get some high octane fuel pumped into my Chevy’s tank, and then get some Schlitz, all while the womenfolk smiled proudly in the background. Things are so much more complicated now, chiefly because you don’t get one ad per half inning but rather almost non stop plugs for any number of brands of the same thing. It wears me out.

Plus now I get stomach aches, because those pictures of all the various fast food nation items make me anything but hungry. That yellow gooey stuff that gets slowly poured over what Taco Bell tries to pass off as nachos that they have the gall to call cheese on their cravings value menu or whatever they call that! Just imagine paying millions to sell something for the people who just got ripped on marijuana at near midnight and only have two bucks in their pocket! And what’s the best phone deal? Damned if I can tell. I liked the deal where it was wired to the wall and I was able to speak and hear clearly to almost anyone anywhere and if it needed repair someone came to my house and fixed it. That was pretty good, even if it was tapped.

There are still a few good choices to be made, however, and one of them seems to be the Houston Astros to prevail in the American league West. Despite losing some key elements, like Charlie Morton, Dallas Keuchel, Marwin Gonzalez, and Brian McCann, they have so much of things like hitting, fielding, pitching, and running left that it doesn’t matter. They added Michael Brantley, Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve are healthy again, and Alex Bregman could get even better, so they don’t have much to worry about.

The Seattle Mariners looked very good out of the gate but I don’t know if it can last. Felix Hernandez looked more like Heathcliff Slocumb than Cy Young last year and, while the fearsome early power show from the likes of Edwin Encarnacion,Daniel Vogelbach, and Mitch Haniger has been impressive, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of depth on the squad. We who look favorably upon the Northwest Nine can only fantasize about how nice it would have been if Mike Trout had somehow been able to forsake the Fountain Valley Angels and become the center fielder for Seattle.

The Oakland Athletics have a very good, interesting team, a very bright manager in Bob Melvin, a ballpark that was pretty good before Al Davis called in an air strike, and disgusting ownership that has treated its fans shabbily for years and years. Matt Olson at first base and Matt Chapman at third promise to provide great defense and good power for years for whatever team they eventually play for. Ramon Laureano has been a real find in center field. The only element lacking for the A’s is a reliable starting rotation of pitchers, that element that used to be highly regarded throughout the game.

The Texas Rangers have a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and they are building a new yard for their fans to go to in order to watch them strike out and hit home runs. They are a bit lovable now though because they have Hunter Pence.

The Mission Viejo Angels have Mike Trout, the ghost of Albert Pujols, some very good defensive players like Andrelton Simmons, and eventually the fascinating Shohei Ohtani again, or at least half of him. Once they decide to get serious about the pitching portion of the game they might get past competing with Disneyland and start threatening the Astros.

Eastern Intrigue

It’s got to be the Phillies. I mean, look at all that power. Bryce Harper will hit at least 50. Andrew McCutchen had warning track power in San Francisco but now watch. Rhys Hoskins! The new Maikel Franco! Plus now they have J.T. Realmuto, who is probably better than Roy Campanella and Johnny Bench combined.

But wait! The Atlanta Braves were a little surprising last year but now they are confident and ready and they have Josh Donaldson. Great young pitching to go with Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies! Brian McCann is back.

Hold on, these New York Mets can’t ever be out-hyped. More strikeouts than Donald Trump if he was on welfare! Jacob deGrom, the five inning Steve Carlton!

Well, you can’t really blame those Eastern seaboard writers and talk show hosts. That whole Mueller thing just got lengthy and boring and the Democrats are way out to lunch. There had to be something more interesting to talk about and, in fact, the National League East Division will probably stay interesting all summer long.

From way out here in left field it looks very much as though the best of them all might just be the Washington Nationals. Yes, the team that God and Bryce Harper (who gets paid more) abandoned. All things considered, including defense, Anthony Rendon was probably their best player in 2018. If he stays healthy and Trea Turner gets healthy, the Nationals have a very sturdy lineup with the exciting probability that Juan Soto and Victor Robles are getting better. Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki make for a solid catching duo and Patrick Corbin adds a very skilled lefty starter to what had previously been the most hyped pitching staff in baseball before that award went to the Mets. With Harper gone to the Philadelphia bandbox, Michael Taylor should get more deserved time to patrol the outfield and that’s good for all of the pitchers.

Jake Arrieta and the other Phillies hurlers might not be so fond of the dimensions at Citizens Prank Park but McCutchen and Jean Segura add good veteran presence to the lineup and young starters Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez, and Nick Pivetta could perhaps relax with a few 9-2 leads.

It’s hard to find a weak spot on the Braves, especially since Nick Markakis seems to have found new vigor at age 34. That infield looks mighty strong around the horn with Freddy Freeman at first and Donaldson at third.

And, yes, the Metropolitans will win their share of games, especially if they can relax and let Juan Lagares patrol center field regularly. Amed Rosario is an emerging star but Robinson Cano shows some wear and tear at 36.

As for the Miami Marlins, good on you, Derek Jeter, for showing a commitment to long term team building. Sixty three wins in 2018 was pretty good. It will be hard to beat that this year but good fortune is wished.

Who Wants It?

Most of out assumptions are based on what we have seen happen in the past. Most frequently we base these assumptions on the most recent past. For instance, if it’s been raining for three or four days, we tend to assume that we will have rain tomorrow. Therefore, of course, we are frequently wrong. No president could ever be worse than W. Wrong! They didn’t tow my car the last time I parked in that red zone so I’ll try it again. Wrong!

Lots of people are assuming that the Cleveland Aboriginals are going to win the title in the American League Central again this year. Well, in this instance, they are probably correct. That title, however, may not amount to much more than a hill of presidential rhetoric. That’s because winning the title in a division so much weaker than the others doesn’t necessarily mean that you are equal with the rest of the playoff participants. Cleveland does have a lot of good pitchers. Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer make for a very sturdy starting rotation indeed. Things do change though, and the rest of the roster does not look as bright and shiny as it had in the recent past. For instance, the lustrous Michael Brantley is now with Houston. The once bright and shiny all around star Hanley Ramirez is now Cleveland’s designated sitter and that doesn’t seem right.They are doing a bit of a makeover and it doesn’t look great from here. There is also a rebuild going on in Kansas City. The fact that the Royals are admitting that they need to start from scratch could mean that they will ultimately be the ones to dethrone Terry Francona and the Lakeside Lads. Not this year though.

Whit Merrifield broke through with a big season in 2018 for the Royals while playing several positions. Second base seems to be best for him. He combined with Raul Mondesi‘s son Adalberto for 77 stolen bases to remind KC fans of the glory days of speed and defense in the past. Mondesi plays a pretty good shortstop. It may be a while before any of the Royals pitchers reminds us of Bret Saberhagen, Dennis Leonard or Dan Quisenberry, however. With Salvador Perez out for the season, Alex Gordon is the sole remainder from the more recent days of Royals glory.

Detroit and Minnesota look as though they both have improved their teams. Every year we hear about how, no, really, this time the White Sox mean it. Sure. Eloy Jimeniz from the Dominican Republic is highly touted this year the way Jose Abreu and Avisail Garcia once were. We’ll see. Chicago seems to be a lousy place for a pitcher and there are certainly not many Cy Young candidates on that roster. It’s Miguel Cabrera and a bunch of young guys in Detroit and Ron Gardenhire is the kind of manager that can make a good soup out of that. Jordy Mercer will not be an upgrade over Jose Iglesias at shortstop but he’s who they’ve got. Jose Berrios is a very good pitcher for the Twins but after him it is Question Mark and the Mysterians. Byron Buxton could help a lot if he could play center field every day and Max Kepler is a keeper in the outfield as well.

Let’s just say that the World Champions of 2019 will not be coming out of the A.L. Central. Of course that’s an assumption.

Midwest Brouhaha

One team is making strides toward getting back into contention. Another has apparently decided to take a few years off after being a strong contender that didn’t quite finish the job. In the National League Central, it is looking like the other three teams—Milwaukee, Chicago, and St. Louis, will be fighting it out all season long and, as usual, the one that gets the best pitching should win.

The Cincinnati Reds acquired a pitcher who has shown great potential in the past but hit the skids in New York City. Sonny Gray remains a candidate as a staff ace but the rest of the starting rotation for the Reds is iffy. Tanner Roark had some success in Washington and there are young pitchers that scouts are high on but the Reds can only hope to pass Pittsburgh into fourth place with their staff as it is. They still have the venerable Joey Votto at first base, a solid catcher in Tucker Barnhart, an emerging star in third sacker Eugenio Suarez, and a double play combination of Scooter Gennett and Jose Peraza that is productive offensively. If they are patient with new skipper David Bell, good things may start to happen.

As for the Pirates, it’s probably fair to say that this is an organization that has quit trying, at least for a while, to win. The days of playoff and World Series contention were fun but the Buccos look like they will ride it out so long as the turnstiles are clicking and bide their time until the Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals slow down. The trade for Chris Archer solidified a pretty good starting rotation with young talent Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove and Jordan Lyles but the lineup has lost a lot. Francisco Cervelli is a good player and a fine person but he and the others might be looking over their shoulders at Cincinnati in the battle for fourth in the Central.

From here it looks like the St. Louis Cardinals are going to have enough this time to win the division. Paul Goldschmidt really adds a lot to the offensive side and plays the best defense at first base that the Cardinals have seen since the days of Keith Hernandez. Pitching worries will be significantly lessened if Adam Wainwright comes all the way back and Miles Mikolas continues his 2018 success. Harrison Bader is a star in the making and Marcell Ozuna should be better in his second St. Louis season. Matt Carpenter makes them wish that the N.L. had the DH but hits very well.

The Milwaukee Brewers acquired two outfield gems before the 2018 season began in Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain and rode that and a very strong bullpen to a division title, edging the Chicago Cubs by a game. That is not a traditional formula for success, however, and it’s hard to see it happening again. There seemed to be a continual tryout going on in the infield last year and, while it seems to have settled down a bit now (Mike Moustakas at second base?) there are no defensive gems there except for shortstop Orlando Arcia, and Craig Counsell doesn’t seem to really trust him. They will score a lot of runs, as usual, but who on that pitching staff, other than Josh Hader, really scares you?

The Cubs still have enough talent to match the ego of manager Joe Maddon but there seems to be a lack of cohesion, possibly due to most of the roster being reduced to “roles”. There is no denying the ability of Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, and Willson Contreras, however,and Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jose Quintana will keep them steady as they roll. They seem to be lacking a spark, but it could change when the weather warms. All in all, an interesting summer awaits us in this division.

It Won’t Be the Orioles

The American League East is where the reigning World Champions play, and the Boston Red Sox, despite being slow out of the gate, are apt to repeat. They have so many of the ingredients necessary for winning whereas their main rival, New York, has power hitting and a good bullpen. Chris Sale, Rick Porcello, Nathan Eovaldi, David Price, and Eduardo Rodriguez provide more than adequate starting pitching, and that remains a key factor in the game despite all of the efforts to marginalize it. The outfield defense is superb. We all watched Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, and Jackie Bradley Jr. perform well together last year and they hit a little bit too.  Importantly, Alex Cora  has been able to keep the focus on whatever it takes to win. It helps to have J.D. Martinez as designated sitter.

The Yankees won 100 games in 2018 and they could do it again. They have lots of muscle and a P.O.N.Y. League yard. If they were in the Central Division, Cleveland would finish a distant second. Aaron Boone is a smart manager and funny enough to keep the stress level moderate. If Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Brett Gardner, and Aaron Hicks all stay in the lineup for most of the games, they could win the division.

Probably the most interesting team in the A.L. East this season will be the Tampa Bay Rays. They won 90 games last year while not many people were watching. It’s a good outfield with Tommy Pham, Kevin Kiermaier. and  Austin Meadows and Ji-Man Choi looks very solid as a first baseman with  a strong bat. Beyond all of the talent there is the  new fangled strategic thinking from manager Kevin Cash. The Rays employ what has come to be known as “openers”. Those are pitchers that pitch the first inning or two and then hit the showers no matter what. It means that the opposing manager can’t  stack the lineup the way that has always been done according to whether the pitcher is a righty or a lefty. Beyond that I don’t know what it means, but I think that Charlie Morton, Blake Snell, and Tyler Glasnow are considered actual starting pitchers which, these days, means they might go five innings.

Toronto appears to be one of the teams that are packing it in for a while but they did lock up Randal Grichuk.

I left out the San Diego Padres when I was sizing up the National League West but, now that they have that jerk Manny Machado they will probably do as well as the Baltimore Orioles did last year. Just kidding. I’m blaming my error on the grosbeaks but, speaking, or rather writing, about the Orioles, they have come out of the gate looking competitive, but do they really still have Chris Davis at first base? Here’s hoping that they can win 60.