Smoking II

Everybody was doing it. My position was like your mother’s. If everybody was crossing the highway blindfolded, would you do that? If everybody was poking themselves in the eye with a sharp stick, would you do that?

Mickey Mantle smoked, I knew, because a big ad in the sports magazine said so. Probably Joe DiMaggio too. I still thought it was stupid. We all wanted to try it because, what the hell, your dad did. Your big brothers too. Maybe even your mom and your big sister. Priests. Nuns, for all I knew. So we tried it but I was only doing it on the dare and, once I showed I could cough like all those guys coming back from the war, I said screw that. It stinks and it hurts. Also there was the time my father discovered my Chesterfields in a drawer. Pretty embarrassing to be that dumb. There wasn’t any real punishment for getting busted. After all, he was the guy who drove me to the family market with the window down in all types of weather so he could spit out all that crap he was coughing up with the boxes of Smith Bros. cough drops on the dash. There was plenty of coughing all around. They didn’t show that too much in the movies where all the cool people were firing up fags left and right. I was asthmatic at an early age and missed a lot of school with respiratory stuff.

Chewing tobacco was the baseball thing; still is, I guess. Nellie Fox with that squirrel mug did not look attractive to me but he was a hell of a player. Many others of course. We had a neighbor who was a truck driver and his thing was to mow his lawn while smoking a stogie with a pinch of snuff going at the same time and breaks for sipping dago red. We all admired Joey. But chew was, and is, way too gross for me. Adults did a lot of stupid things but I wasn’t going to be like that.

When someone got gassed on the base paths or after doing something strenuous, well that was a clue that this young man was a smoker. There were more than a few who were really good at 12 or 13 years old but who began to look suddenly old by 18 or 19. At the same time, if you were growing up to be a man there were certain things expected of you and then, if you did what was expected, well, you could choose your personal rewards and they were your own business and no one else could say shit. I understood that somewhat, but why anyone would choose such unpleasant, smelly things to do was a bit beyond me. I liked running as fast as I could more than just about anything. I had really had enough moments of difficult breathing and saw no reason to add more. That was for dumb asses.

Pitching Will Win the West

Houston or Texas? Seattle? The Mariners finished second in the American League West division in 2016 and on paper, where no game has ever been played, they look as though they have improved going into the new season. But the Texas Rangers have won it the last two years and the still mostly young Houston Astros have finished close to the top two years in a row. How it looks to this observer is that whatever team among the three receives the best from its pitchers will probably win a tight race. One thing you can take to the bank: it won’t be either California team in 2017.

 

Seattle would be the sentimental favorite just because they have never won it all. They’ve won the division before: in the weird 1995 season when Randy Johnson was nearly unbeatable while the rest of the pitching staff finished 3 games under .500, and again in ’97 when Johnson was 20-4 and the team smashed 264 home runs, led by Ken Griffey Jr., Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez and 21 year old Alex Rodriguez, and finally in 2001 when they celebrated the departure of both Rodriguez and the Kingdome by winning the absurd total of 116 games. However, sentiment doesn’t win games either and this year’s Mariners are not as strong as that team, which was managed by Lou Piniella and got knocked off in the playoffs by Joe Torre‘s Yankees. They do have several fine players, such as Felix Hernandez. The King  just turned 31 years of age and is looking to improve on his 2016 season, which was limited to 25 starts and a record of 11-8 with an ERA of 3.82, which is merely passable for an ace. One thing that should help him is the addition of  Jean Segura, the shortstop obtained from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for young pitcher Taijuan Walker. Segura bats leadoff after he comes off the disabled list and he poked 68 extra base hits and stole 33 bases last season for the Snakes. Defensively, he fits better at second base, but Seattle already has one of those and his name is Robinson Cano. Cano is a gold glove type at second and he also pounds the ball, hitting .298 with 39 home runs and 103 RBI in ’16. Third baseman Kyle Seager added 30 home runs and 99 RBI while designated sitter Nelson Cruz had yet another big power year with 43 and 105. Leonys Martin is great in center field and has speed and some power in his offensive repertoire while very capable catcher  Mike Zunino will be backed up by strong veteran Carlos Ruiz this year.  It will be interesting to see what new left fielder Jarrod Dyson can do as an everyday player because he has been excellent defensively in Kansas City and stole 30 bases in 107 games for the ’16 Royals. But, after Hernandez the pitching gets dicey. Hisashi Iwakuma  was effective last year, winning 16 games in 33 starts while young lefty James Paxton showed promise in 20 starts. After that, there is lefty Ariel Miranda, who made ten starts for the Mariners after joining them from Baltimore, and veteran  Yovani Gallardo, who compiled a 5.42 ERA for the Orioles last season. In the bullpen, young  Edwin Diaz  was effective in 49 appearances and then there is a group of mostly untested arms including Marc Rzepczynski, who should always be on the same team as Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

Adrian Beltre is an important factor in this race because the Texas Rangers, no matter what brave manager Jeff Banister might say, are not the same without him. Beltre, now 38 years old,  is currently on the disabled list and the Rangers need him not just because he plays better than most at third base and still hits like an MVP candidate, but also because he provides the type of leadership any team in a close race relishes. Young  Joey Gallo, his probable successor , will gain valuable experience in the meantime. The Rangers won 95 games in 2016  thanks in part to some good pitching. They may never fully recover their huge investment in Yu Darvish but that is not our concern. He will be 31 in August and was able to start 17 games last year and win 7 with a 3.41 ERA. Southpaw Cole Hamels led the way with 15 wins and 200 strikeouts and Martin Perez was a yeoman with a 10-11 record and a 4.39 ERA. A pair of veterans with mediocre histories, A.J. Griffin and Andrew Cashner, fill out the Texas starting rotation. There is no such thing as a complete game anymore so everybody spends millions on a bullpen. Matt Bush is the lead dog in the Texas pen but Sam Dyson, currently on the disabled list, recorded 38 “saves” last year. Lefty Jake Diekman hurled 53 innings in ’16 but he is on the DL for a long while. Another lefty, Alex Claudio, will be helping out as will righties Tony Barnette and former Brewer Jeremy Jeffress. This is what they call a work in progress, as most bullpens have been.

Carlos Gomez played for both the Astros and the Rangers last year and he hit much better for the Rangers. He’s still a good flycatcher and possesses good speed. Young Nomar Mazara is an emerging star in right field who displays a good arm and a power stroke while it looks like they are trying infielder Jurickson Profar in left field. Shin-Soo Choo is aging and injury prone while Delino DeShields and Ryan Rua are still developing. Texas will benefit from a full season from catcher Jonathan Lucroy this season both defensively and when he bats. Mike Napoli joined the team and he can help as a power hitting first baseman while Rougned Odor is a slugger in more ways than one as a somewhat defensively challenged second baseman.Elvis Andrus is a solid rock offensively and defensively.

Houston is no longer the up and coming darlings of a couple of years ago but they are still mostly young and perhaps becoming even more capable. Their version of Hall of Famer Joe Morgan (a former Astro) is Jose Altuve (.338,24HR,96 RBI,30 steals) and he and his double play cohort Carlos Correa form a very strong up the middle base along with center fielder George Springer that should keep Houston fans happy for a number of years. They are not so strong at catcher but the combination of Brian McCann and Evan Gattis is adequate. The addition of Josh Reddick gives them a strong veteran presence in right field, but he has had trouble staying in the lineup throughout his career. Carlos Beltran, at age 40 not close to the outfielder he once was, can still hit and will be welcome at designated sitter. Nori Aoki will be in left field for now, guarding the line and letting Springer get whatever he can reach.  Another youngster, Alex Bregman, shows good potential at third base while 32 year old Cuban Yuli Gurriel will see what he can do at first base. Veteran Marwin Gonzalez can spell all of the infielders.

Questions will be asked and answered on the mound, starting with Dallas Keuchel (Dallas pitches for Houston against Texas?) and especially Collin McHugh. Keuchel disappointed in ’16 after a great 2015 season. McHugh has an elbow impingement problem after going 13-10 with a 4.34 ERA last season and is shelved for a while. A sore elbow limited Lance McCullers to 14 starts last season so he will be watched closely as will veteran Charlie Morton, who sometimes pitches as many as five innings and was able to make four starts for the Phillies last year. Joe Musgrove made 10 starts last season with a 4.04 ERA and is currently the fifth starter in a shaky rotation. The bullpen had fair results in ’16 but the likes of Ken Giles, Luke Gregerson, Brad Peacock and Tony Sipp do not inspire a lot of confidence.

Way back in 2014 the LaHabra Angels may have been the best team in baseball, winning 98 games and the A.L. West title. Today, they still have manager Mike Scioscia and some very good players but too much is missing. We all know about Mike Trout, who seems to keep getting better and is not yet 26 years old. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons is as good as you can get. Albert Pujols, in the middle of a 56 year contract and 37 years old, can still drop his crutches and belt over 30 home runs. Right fielder Kole Calhoun is a very good all around player. But that’s it. Their number one starting pitcher is Ricky Nolasco and they still have Huston Street under contract. If I was still selling Volkswagens in Westminster I could get a free ticket by having a good day. But I wouldn’t buy a ticket.

 

The best news this year for Oakland Athletics fans is that the Raiders are moving out. Once again the former A.L. representatives of Philadelphia and Kansas City have a roster dotted with young talent that could develop into a good team if they just stayed together. The pitching staff in particular is interesting because Sonny Gray, Jharel Cotton, Sean Manaea, Kendall Graveman, Andrew Triggs, Ryan Dull and others look very promising. Veterans Khris Davis, Rajai Davis, Yonder Alonso, and Marcus Semien help make a competitive lineup possible. The hope now is that management will stay with a plan and remain in a city that deserves major league ball and has a lustrous history. Tearing out the tarps is a good start. Here’s hoping they try, and then that they succeed.

 

 

The Unfriendly Confines

Now that the Chicago Cubs have finally won it all, are they still the cuddly Cubbies to baseball fans outside of the North Side? Probably not, but they remain heavy favorites to at least win another National league Central Division crown in 2017. Part of the reason for that is that the Cubs are a really good team. The other part is that their division rivals, with the exception of the St. Louis Cardinals, appear to have conceded the race, at least for this season.This was published just before I found out that Pittsburgh center fielder Starling Marte had been suspended for apparent use of a performance enhancing drug. Don’t do it, kids.

Willson Contreras will be 25 years old in May, Addison Russell is 23, Anthony Rizzo turns 28 in August, Kyle Schwarber is 24, Kris Bryant is 25, and Javier Baez is 24. In other words, this team may actually be getting better than the 103 game winners of ’16, so this division could be theirs for a while. Most of the pitching staff will soon be approaching their baseball expiration dates, but the organization has many resources and that now includes baseball smarts.

The Cubs lost center fielder Dexter Fowler to the rival Cardinals as a free agent and right fielder Jorge Soler in a trade with Kansas City but Albert Almora Jr. is a better defensive center fielder and he just turned 23. Plus, if he has troubles offensively they have Jason Heyward, the 26 year old who struggled offensively last season, who can move over from right field and candy armed Jon Jay, who regained his batting stroke last year in San Diego and has center field experience. The trade of Soler yielded Wade Davis, a superb reliever who has accomplished more so far than last year’s rent-a-closer, Aroldis Chapman. The rest of the bullpen looks sturdy with Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Carl Edwards Jr., Justin Grimm, and new acquisitions lefty Brian Duensing and veteran righty Koji Uehara.

Jon Lester was very tough last season despite his irritating inability to hold base runners, winning 19 and losing 5 with a 2.44 earned run average. The Cubs are the latest team to take a chance on another southpaw, Brett Anderson. Anderson is well traveled and has been injury prone, pitching in just 129 games in his nine seasons. He only pitched in four for the Dodgers last year but the Cubs would be happy if he could provide them with what he did for L.A. in 2015 when he was 10-9 in 31 starts with a 3.69 ERA. Jake Arrieta stopped being invincible last year, but he was still very good, winning 18 games with an ERA of 3.10 and 190 strikeouts. John Lackey is now 38 but he will no doubt continue to give them 5 or 6 innings every fifth day. Kyle Hendricks was possibly better than any of them last season and at age 27 he is back for more. With the exception of Arrieta, these guys don’t walk a lot of batters, and that is important in Wrigley Field. Rizzo and Russell provide power and excellent defense, Bryant keeps getting better at everything, and we haven’t even mentioned Ben Zobrist, the World Series MVP who plays well just about everywhere. Contreras displaced a good catcher, Miguel Montero and Matt Szcur and Tommy LaStella give Joe Maddon lots of depth to play with. Baez has to be the eventual second baseman but the rich Cubs can take their time.

St. Louis has a bit of a mystery team, but they seem like the only possible challengers within the division. Whereas losing Dexter Fowler may not hurt the Cubs that much,gaining him should help the Cardinals a lot because of his ability to lead off and reach base as well as steal a few bags. Left fielder Randal Grichuk and right fielder Stephen Piscotty are a pair of rising stars. Manager Mike Matheny seems a bit indecisive about his infield and that fact may be having a detrimental effect both offensively and defensively. The move of Matt Carpenter to first base has meant less playing time for big Matt Adams, who not so long ago seemed poised to become a consistent power threat but last year was limited to 297 at bats yielding 34 extra base hits and 54 runs batted in at age 27. Carpenter has become more of a power source than a running threat now that he is in his thirties and he will never win a gold glove anywhere so it is a puzzle. Kolten Wong at second base is the best defensive infielder St. Louis has but being in and out of the lineup seems to have affected his glove work as well as his batting stroke. The left side of the infield, third baseman Jhonny Peralta and shortstop Aledmys Diaz also provide more offense than defense. Diaz in particular was strong last season with a .300 average, 17 home runs and 65 RBI in 111games. So what do we do with Jedd Gyorko, who played second rate defense all around the infield last year but crashed 30 home runs? I don’t like to play general manager, but I would shop around the Other League for perhaps pitching help or another strong defender like Wong.

Yadier Molina is a Hall of Fame catcher to be who has become a tough offensive player over the years but even he, the last of the Molinas, is showing bits of wear and tear at 35. He is still much, much better than most. Former Pirate Eric Fryer backs him up and, no offense, Eric, but the pitchers like Yadi.

The pitching staff is potentially strong but full of mysteries as well. Such as, is Adam Wainwright still the dude? His 2016 numbers were adequate for most hurlers, but far from his peak seasons as he was 13-9 with a 4.62 ERA and this season has not gone well for the tall righty so far. They need him to be good. Left hander Lance Lynn is back after missing all of ’16 recovering from the ubiquitous Tommy John surgery. Michael Wacha and Mike Leake both seem to alternate between pretty good and pretty awful. Carlos Martinez emerged as the strong number one type starter that he had been expected to be. The bullpen seems set with the arrival of 34 year old Seung Hwan Oh as the late man and another southpaw, Brett Cecil, was a good free agent signing from Toronto. Kevin Siegrist has mostly been good in relief while sometimes Trevor Rosenthal is and sometimes he ain’t.

The Pittsburgh Pirates had a fun revival from 2013 to 2015, finishing second each time and getting a taste for the playoffs. Then came the regression of 2016 and it seemed to these eyes that the Buccos, as those near the Monongahela like to call them, were conceding that season in order to prepare for a possible post Cubs era in the future. It didn’t help that franchise player Andrew McCutchen played through thumb and knee injuries and fell off to a .254 batting average with modest power and stolen base numbers. However, at age 30 it would be ridiculous to assume that he is finished. In fact, it is wise to assume that the one undeniable asset that the Pirates have, their outfield crew, is only going to get better. McCutchen’s move to right field has more to do with the recognition that Starling Marte, only two years his junior, is firmly established as a gold glove type outfielder whose great speed and powerful arm make moving him to center an easy choice. Gregory Polanco is 25, covers ground with speed, and also throws well and will continue to hit better. No worries out there, but the Pirates have not been emphasizing defense in the infield. David Freese does okay with the bat but is a slow runner and has only slightly more range at third or first base than the statue of Honus Wagner that I used to see outside Forbes Field. Jordy Mercer has some pop in his bat but also lacks range at shortstop. Second baseman Josh Harrison is the exception at second and a very good all around player. If he walked more he’d be a great lead off hitter. They are hoping that switch hitter Josh Bell will hit for high average and big power at first base. If he doesn’t, the 24 year old big guy may end up the second coming of Pedro Alvarez. Catcher Francisco Cervelli is a serviceable defender who, like his predecessor Russell Martin, can occasionally steal a base and hits well.

Hope for the future in Pittsburgh rests mostly on the arms of a mostly young and inexperienced but talented core of pitchers. Gerrit Cole, brilliant at times, was limited to 21 starts last year and ,at age 26, retains a Sistine Chapel type of ceiling. Great things are also expected of Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, and Tyler Glasnow. If those great things start to happen this year, it could get interesting. Pitching coach Ray Searage has worked wonders over the years with retread hurlers like Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez. Now he has 30 year old former Yankee Ivan Nova, who has pitched much better since coming to the Pirates last year. He should steady that rotation. Mark Melancon is gone since there wasn’t much left to “save’, but Tony Watson heads what is still a good crew of relievers. Jung Ho Kang is on the restricted list, but would provide more power but similar defense as Freese at third if he joins the team.

It’s a full on youth movement in Milwaukee and it might get them somewhere if all goes well–like maybe leapfrogging the Pirates and Cardinals into second place. Ryan Braun is still there in left field most days and, at 33, he showed last year that he still has a lot left with 30 homers, 91 RBI and 16 stolen bases. For a free bratwurst, name three other Brewers. Okay, I’ll do it for you but hold the brat and pass the brew. How about Domingo Santana, a right fielder who hit .256 with 11 home runs in 77 games last season? He’s 24. So is their ace starting pitcher, Zach Davies, who was 11-7 in 28 starts in ’16. Shortstop Orlando Arcia is 22.Second baseman Jonathan Villar is an established major leaguer at 26 who stole 62 bases last year while hitting.285 with power. The big news so far is first baseman Eric Thames, who is back from Korea and hitting about one homer per game so far. Third baseman Travis Shaw showed power potential in Boston while filling in for William Howard Taft. If starting pitchers Matt Garza (an old man at 33) and Junior Guerra (9-3, 2.81 ERA) can come back and help, the Brewers might have some fun this year.

Scott Feldman, who pitched for Toronto and Houston mostly in relief last year, is the Cincinnati ace starter so far in 2017. Billy Hamilton, who is so fast he answers his phone before it rings, is back in center field and getting on base more often. Yep, that’s still Joey Votto over there on first. Now, if you didn’t win the bratwurst, here’s your chance to win a free empty bottle of Pete Rose‘ hair dye: name three more Reds, not counting Warren Beatty. Okay, catcher Devin Mesoraco is correct, but he’s still not playing after missing most of 2016 but he is supposed to be back soon. If not, Tucker Barnhart is perfectly capable. Zack Cozart is a really good shortstop who missed about a month last year but looked good at the plate as well. Former Giant (he’s still big) Adam Duvall hits the long ball and plays a decent left field. Right fielder Scott Schebler drove in 40 runs in half a season last year and Arismendy Alcantara backs up everybody, it seems, and can run very fast. Eugenio Suarez will be 26 in July and has power potential at third base. If 24 year old southpaw starter Brandon Finnegan comes off the disabled list and pitches like he did last season he will keep them in a lot of games. Second baseman Jose Peraza is looking like an apt replacement for Brandon Phillips with speed and power. So no one should relax against the Reds. They also have Anthony DeSclafani, who pitched very well in 20 starts in ’16, due to come off the DL in June. I mean, if Jumbo Diaz can’t make the team, watch out.

Beantown Breeze? Probably

The once fearsome while also fiercely competitive American League East does not seem to be as strong this new baseball season. Whereas Toronto, New York, Baltimore, Boston and even Tampa Bay have been consistently fielding good teams over the years, only one team, the Red Sox, look like championship material today.
In 2012, Boston won 69 games and finished fifth in the East, The next year they were very good, winning 97 games and going to the World Series. Then came two more consecutive fifth place finishes that brought on a change of management until suddenly last year, there they were again, threatening to win it all in the last season of Big Papi. It now looks as though a foundation for continued success has been built even though David Ortiz will not be around to lead the way. That foundation includes three very good young outfielders, a budding superstar shortstop, some veteran leadership and, of course, some reliable pitching.

The big off season acquisition was left handed hurler Chris Sale, mainstay of the Chicago White Sox in recent years who was 17-10 last season for a pretty bad team. He was traded to the Reds from the Whites for another touted superstar to be, Yoan Moncada. What that means for Boston’s infield is that Moncada will not be groomed as the next third baseman and that heretofore portly and injury prone Pablo Sandoval will be given one last chance to realize the potential that he showed in his San Francisco years. Xander Bogaerts will be 25 in October and he took a giant step in realizing his potential in 2016 with improved fielding at shortstop and a .294 batting average, 89 runs batted in, and 13 stolen bases. Veteran leader Dustin Pedroia is still going strong at 33. He is a gold glove defender who hits the ball hard and often and runs well. Mitch Moreland is the new fancy fielding first baseman after he hit a modest .233 for the Texas Rangers with a smattering of power. Sandy Leon hit well in 78 games at catcher last season and Christian Vasquez is his capable backup.

That strong outfield corps consists of Andrew Benintendi, a rookie last year, in left, Jackie Bradley Jr., currently on the disabled list with a sprained knee and reminiscent of the great Jackie Jensen in center field, and fleet, strong armed, power hitting Mookie Betts in right. Chris Young is still around to spot each of them. It may once have been considered a bad idea to use lefty pitchers at Fenway Park but the Red Sox will defy that with, not only Sale, but also David Price when he gets healthy,Eduardo Rodriguez, and Drew Pomeranz as starters as well as Fernando Abad, Robby Scott, and Robbie Ross Jr. in the bullpen. Rick Porcello may never win another Cy Young award but he’s a good righty starter and knuckle baller Steven Wright is too. At designated sitter, Hanley Ramirez, who had a good comeback year at the plate in ’16, should inherit most of Ortiz’ appearances.

The New York Yankees always get most of the media attention and this spring it mainly featured oohs and ahhs about how new and youthful they were getting now that part time first baseman Mark Teixeira and full time jerk Alex Rodriguez have retired. It’s partly true now that Greg Bird will play first and Aaron Judge right field and Gary Sanchez will catch. They will join youthful Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro in what becomes a pretty solid lineup with veterans Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Chase Headley. However, new designated sitter Matt Holliday is now 36 and not useful on defense anymore and his offensive numbers last year in St. Louis were mediocre. The old man of the pitching staff, C.C. Sabathia, had a bit of a rebirth last season but cannot be called a workhorse at this point. The pitching staff is close to being good though, with Aroldis Chapman around to thrill lovers of the radar gun. Masahiro Tanaka (14-4, 3.07) is solid, Michael Pineda a bit spotty, and Luis Severino a work in progress. Beyond Chapman the bullpen is good, with Dellin Betances, Tommy Layne, Adam Warren, and well traveled Tyler Clippard. With the avoidance of injuries the Yankees may contend. They have added Chris Carter to perhaps take advantage of the easy to reach seats at home.

Going into the 2016 season the Toronto Blue Jays looked like the best team in the division, but then certain things happened. Even though their yard is a good place for hitters, Troy Tulowitzki never came close to matching his Colorado output, but he did play frequently and is still a good shortstop. Jose Bautista, now 36 years old, was limited to 116 games and hit .234 with 22 homers and 69 RBI, though he did receive 87 bases on balls. Russell Martin, now 34, was still a fine catcher but his offense did not flourish. Still, the Jays tied the Orioles with 89 wins and had good things happen like J.A. Happ. The lefty won 20 against 4 losses with a 3.18 ERA, darned good for that park. They lost 1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion and knuckler R.A. Dickey to free agency after the season, however, and gaining Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce will probably not make up for that. Josh Donaldson is still all-bad ass at third base and Kevin Pillar is a jewel in center field. Devon Travis has become their latest good second baseman and they have depth with Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney available to help out. The youngster Roberto Osuna has been a find for the bullpen. This team, however, does not strike fear like it did not so long ago.

Baltimore’s manager caught holy hell for the way the Orioles lost that wild card game to Toronto, but Buck Showalter has won me over as a keen baseball mind since he burst on the scene looking uptight. Stellar defense and power are still the mode of operation in the city The Wire made infamous. Wellington Castillo is not apt to make Baltimore fans happy that Matt Wieters is gone, but otherwise the Orioles are strong up the middle with Adam Jones in center field, Jonathan Schoop at second, and J.J. Hardy at short. Chris Davis is also very good at first and his on base percentage and power make up for his .221 batting average. However, Mark Trumbo should stick to offense as DH and Hyun Soo Kim and Seth Smith in the corner outfield spots are also not noted for their glove work so Joey Rickard should get a lot of work when his sprained finger heals. Manny Machado combines Brooks Robinson defense and Frank Robinson offense at third base. The pitching is all fairly ordinary until you get to Zach Britton in the bullpen but let’s not harp on that.

It’s not like the glory days when Joe Maddon was around, but the Tampa Bay Rays are once again the best team that no one knows. You have to feel sorry for Rays fans, Almost always they have a fun team with young talent but they still have to watch their team play in that building that should be offered to Donald Trump so he can lock up all of us who disagree with him. The team has bad luck too. They signed a fine catcher in Wilson Ramos, but only after he had ripped up his right knee last September. Now they have to hope that he’ll be fine some day, but it won’t be this year. They have a great center fielder in Kevin Kiermaier but he was limited to 105 games last season. They traded for a great third baseman who also plays shortstop in Matt Duffy but he has been shelved with heel problems almost ever since. Steven Souza Jr. is a very good right fielder but he also has missed a lot of games. Mallex Smith is an exciting new addition to the outfield who can gallop and he stole 16 bases and hit .238 in 72 games with Atlanta last season. They do have good luck in coming up with good pitchers but again, that yard! It’s hard to hit there. Alex Colome is good out of the pen and Chris Archer, Blake Snell, and Jake Odorizzi are the basis of a good starting corps. Maybe some day they will play outdoors on grass with bricks for a background instead of a playing surface. I’m rooting for that and for them but I don’t have much hope.

Play By Play

(Editor’s note: the following piece has been inspired by the clueless executives at MLB and ESPN who decided to schedule their first “prime time” baseball telecast of 2017 as a night game in Chicago which, someone should let them know, is situated pretty close to Lake Michigan)

Good evening everybody and welcome to our broadcast here from the Arby’s radio booth at Raytheon Stadium. This is Mike Swarthy and my partner Jake DeRayle will be back with the starting lineups after this word. (commercial break)
Jake: Thanks Mike and, folks, here is tonight’s lineup, brought to you as always by Sharkey’s Bail Bonds in Courthouse Square. (Jake gives the lineups)

Mike: Thanks, Jake, and we’re ready to get underway, brought to you by Osgood’s Funeral Parlor and Tobacco Shoppe. Lipschitz winds and here’s the first pitch and Olson fouls it back out of play. That foul tip was sponsored by Charles Schwab. Lipschitz fires again and this time it’s a called strike, sponsored by the UAW, whose motto is “where have we gone, anyway?” So it’s Oh and Two now and the next pitch is a high fly ball to right field where Kravitz is waiting and he makes the catch. Olson’s fly out is sponsored by the makers of RAID.
Jake: Mike, while Olson was batting I paid a visit to the restroom here at Raytheon Stadium and it was a pleasant experience, as always, thanks to the people at Charmin Tissue.
Mike: Now here is Jorge Espinosa and he swings at the first pitch and hits a UPS Ground ball to third…Regalado has it and throws oh! his throw is over Altobelli’s head at first and Espinosa is safe, just like you will be with homeowner’s insurance from Allstate! So there is a runner at first with one out and O’Brien steps to the plate, sponsored by Shenango China. Espinosa takes a short lead…Lipschitz will throw from the stretch, brought to us by the Aardvark Rubber Band Co. and here’s the pitch Oh! it gets away from the catcher Evan Gattis and Espinosa takes second base! That will be ruled a passed ball, sponsored by Metamucil…It may be time for a Slo Motion Replay, brought to us by the U.S.Senate, where the motto is “If you need a bill passed, get in line and bring money”

Watch Out For Climbing Rockies

Has the rest of the National League conceded it all to the Chicago Cubs before we even really get started? Well, certainly not the Dodgers, who are spending almost as much on ballplayers as the Secret Service does on the president’s children, er, advisers. The La La Land organization should breeze to another Western Division crown even though the health and safety of their pitching staff remains as a cause for manager Dave Roberts to fear the sandman. The team that will likely leapfrog the seemingly content San Francisco Giants and become the sharpest thorn in the Dodgers’ side is the Colorado Rockies.

The Dodgers finished six games ahead of the Giants in 2016 despite the fact that all-world left handed pitcher Clayton Kershaw was limited to 21 starts and Zack Greinke went to the Arizona desert to become mediocre. It doesn’t figure that Kershaw will be ailing again and he was fine when healthy with a 12-4 record and an earned run average of 1.69. However, the one vulnerability that Los Angeles has is the fact that so many pitchers have not pitched very many innings in recent years. Veteran righthander Rich Hill , who was plucked from Oakland mid season, pitched well when he pitched, with an overall record of 12-5 and a 2.12 ERA, but he missed several starts with blister issues. Hyun-Jin Ryu has been a quality lefty hurler in recent times but pitched in just one game last year. Brandon McCarthy made just 9 starts with varying success last year and relievers Yimi Garcia, Josh Ravin, and Brock Stewart will all begin 2017 on the disabled list. So will lefty starter Scott Kazmir, who was 10-6 with a 4.56 ERA last season. The Dodgers will draw strength from Kenta Maeda, who made 32 starts and was 16-11 and great reliever Kenley Jansen, who is back in the fold for more late game success. Ross Stripling, who made 14 starts last year, starts this one in the pen. Perhaps the most intriguing addition to the Dodgers roster is Sergio Romo, the reliever with a 2.57 career ERA after 10 seasons with the rival Giants
The outfield is young and capable with Andrew Toles in left. Joc Pedersen in center, and the always interesting Yasiel Puig in right. Scott Van Slyke is a good man to have around to back each of those up while also occasionally spelling the soon to be 35 year old Adrian Gonzalez at first base. Gonzalez still had it last season, driving in 90 runs while remaining an elite defender.
Yasmani Grandal became the everyday catcher in ’16 with improved defensive work and good power numbers. Logan Forsythe comes west from Tampa Bay and adds sturdy defense and steady hitting at second base. Chase Utley got a lot of work there last season but both his offensive and defensive work , while still useful, are below his previous high standards. Cory Seager is a very good hitting shortstop and Justin Turner, who could hit even back in his Mets days, has worked himself into being a better than average third baseman. Kike Hernandez backs up infielders and outfielders and has occasional pop in his bat.
San Francisco was one of the worst teams in the majors for the second half of 2016 but managed to sneak into the wild card game with a strong final week thanks to a surprisingly good first half. Many folks blame their bullpen, which did, indeed, allow many late inning comebacks, but there was a lot of blame to share. So the Giants had a bit of a relief corps purge as Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt retired and Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla were set loose on the bay with little dinghies. Mark Melancon is going to be paid big bucks to fix all that but there may not be a lot to “save” this season.
They still have that incredibly good infield with Brandon Belt at first, Joe Panik at second, and Brandon Crawford at shortstop. Last year’s mid season acquisition, Eduardo Nunez, is no Jimmy Davenport at third but brings needed speed and adequate hitting. Of course, even as he nears the ripe old age of 30, Buster Posey is as good as it gets at catcher. However, the outfield is in general decline. Hunter Pence hasn’t slowed down much, but he’s not on the field every day anymore and, when he’s not, the Giants are not the same. Denard Span was signed a year ago to be what he’d been in 2014 in center field but it didn’t happen. His numbers were not awful but rather ordinary and he showed hesitance to go full speed after his hip surgery. Veterans Gregor Blanco and Angel Pagan went floating on the same little boats that Romo and Casilla took, and that may have been appropriate if young stars were ready to take their place, but Mac Williamson and Jarrett Parker are not that young nor apparently that good.
Madison Bumgarner won 15 games and left 8 other games with a lead in another stellar season for the big lefty. Johnny Cueto was better than many number one starters with an 18-5 record and a 2.79 ERA. After that, the starting pitching gets rather iffy with Jeff Samardzija, Matt Moore, and the seemingly finished Matt Cain. In the bullpen, the still very good Melancon joins a stable of largely inconsistent and untested young arms.

Things are looking up, meanwhile, for the Colorado Rockies.Can the team that won 75 games a year ago improve enough to head the pack? The lineup is solid, offensively and defensively, and the relief pitching should be more than adequate. The big question to be answered is: can new manager Bud Black, who did so well with pitchers in San Diego, get enough good starting pitching to pass those California teams in the standings for a change? What you generally want to do is, because of Lousy Beer Stadium, deduct about a run from a pitcher’s ERA to compare it with guys who pitch in saner yards.If you do that, Jon Gray (10-10, 4.61), Tyler Anderson (5-6, 3.54), and Tyler Chatwood (12-9,3.87)all had more than decent seasons last year. So did Chad Bettis, but he is out battling cancer now.
What helps those pitchers a lot is the defensive work of Nolan Arenado at third base and D.J. LeMahieu at second. They both hit a little as well, Arenado banging 82 extra base hits in 2016 and LeMahieu hitting .348 including 32 doubles. They are joined in the infield by Trevor Story, who is no Crawford at shortstop but hits with power, although he tailed off in that department as the season wore on. That brings us to Ian Desmond,who once played short and probably could again. The Rockies want Desmond at first base after his injury heals, but Mark Reynolds is capable there in the meantime. Charlie Blackmun provides speed and power at the top of the lineup and is a good center fielder, which you need at Lousy Beer Field. Carlos Gonzalez, still in his prime at 31, is a skilled right fielder who hit .298 with 100 RBI last year, and Manny Parra will help a lot in left field if he can play more than the 102 games that he did in 2016 because he can hit, run, and chase down fly balls well. Alexi Amarista, who does everything but pitch and catch, will be a good bench addition. David Dahl did a good job replacing Parra when he was injured last year and may eventually displace him.

The Arizona Diamondbacks may not look a lot better than they did last year because they still earn first prize in the ugly uniform contest. They should, however, play a lot better just because A. J. Pollock, who only appeared in 12 games last season, is looking like his old self again. That means severe danger at the top of the lineup along with superb coverage of center field. David Peralta also missed a lot of games in 2016 and he is also very good. Plus, Zack Greinke had, for him, an off year (13-7, 4.37), and Shelby Miller, a starting pitcher acquired from Atlanta to help the Snakes overtake the Dodgers,had a disastrous season instead. So can it get much worse? No, the Diamondbacks and new manager Torey Lovullo should improve but not contend. They improved the catching with Jeff Mathis, the bench with Jeremy Hazelbaker, and the starting pitching with Taijuan Walker from Seattle but that last move cost them Jean Segura, the excellent second baseman/shortstop who hit .319 for them last year. After Greinke the starting pitching gets a bit shaky and adding the inconsistent Fernando Rodney will not stabilize a bullpen that has to contend with a park that heavily favors hitters. Paul Goldschmidt is a great all around ballplayer at first, Jake Lamb hits the long ball but gives up runs at third, and the middle guys, Chris Owings and Brandon Drury, are journeyman types. Daniel Descalso will fill in adequately just about everywhere.

The San Diego Padres are currently a pretty good AAA team but, with their youth movement, may be considerably better by August. Wil Myers will represent them at the All Star game. Christian Bethancourt is both a catcher and a relief pitcher but he is not fast enough to catch himself. Hunter Renfroe is a possible star of the future.

Cleveland Almost Has It All

They were so good last season that Cleveland almost won it all before the Chicago Cubs finally managed to win the World Series. They have a shrewd, personable manager in Terry Francona. They have that most important ingredient of all, pitching. The pitching staff is not so brilliant that it brings to mind the glory days of Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia, Early Wynn, Ray Narleski, Don Mossi and Herb Score but it is very deep and young with the throwback bullpen work of Andrew Miller now available for the entire season. They have power and they have speed. For the most part, they also have the under rated quality of defense anchored by the brilliant young shortstop Francisco Lindor. There is only one thing that might jinx them and hold them back from ultimate success. That is that horrible, racist image of Wahoo Sam, the goony looking mascot that is ugly in the extreme and embarrassing to look at unless you are the sort of insensitive lout who thinks that Birth of a Nation is a great movie.

The Central Division of the American League should be theirs for the taking this year because two of their most recent rivals, Detroit and Kansas City, appear to be fading from contention at the same time that the Indians are getting better. Cleveland should be stronger because, in addition to Miller, they will have star left fielder Michael Brantley back in the lineup after he missed all but eleven games last year. Right now sterling second baseman Jason Kipnis and the usual right fielder, Lonnie Chisenhall, are on the disabled list but when they return Cleveland will have a wealth of talent and versatility. Tyler Naquin performed well in 116 games last year and can handle center field while Abraham Almonte is no slouch filling in for Chisenhall. Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez are the catchers and they both are strong defensively while each of them batted under .200 in 2016.
Jose Ramirez will man second base until Kipnis is back and then probably start at third base. The 24 year old played all over the infield and outfield last year and hit .312 with 76 runs batted in. Cuban import Yandy Diaz plays third now and projects to be the same type of versatile player Ramirez has been.
We all witnessed the work of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin, and Trevor Bauer late last season and with Tomlin the old man of the group at 32, chances are that we will continue to see the starters perform well for quite a while. Besides Miller, the bullpen features effective right handers Cody Allen,Zach McAllister, Dan Otero, and Bryan Shaw. Boone Logan joins Miller as the only lefties.

The Kansas City Royals were the team looking like the wave of the future in this division a couple of short seasons ago but they slipped badly last year to a .500 record and do not appear to be rebounding well. A solid core remains with shortstop Alcides Escobar, center fielder Lorenzo Cain, first baseman Eric Hosmer, and tower of strength catcher Salvador Perez. However the pitching staff, even before the tragic loss of Yordano Ventura, was not looking so solid. Now top notch reliever Wade Davis has been traded to the Cubs for right fielder Jorge Soler. A pair of ex-Cubs, starter Jason Hammel and reliever Travis Wood, are aboard to help out. You can’t say the Royals have bad pitching, but it’s not nearly as scary to opponents as it was in ’14 and ’15. Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy are pretty good starters and lefty Jason Vargas still has time to break through. Nate Karns, who was 6-2 with a 5.15 earned run average for Seattle, is also there.
Raul Mondesi is a good second baseman who may eventually hit and can already run. Mike Moustakas is back at third base after missing 135 games last year and Cheslor Cuthbert showed talent as his replacement in 2016. Christian Colon will again be around to spell people in the infield. Paulo Orlando emerged as a good hitter with speed in the outfield. So the Royals will be tough, but probably not as tough as Cleveland.

Detroit’s time of contention appears to be past. The combination of a smattering of speed mixed with guys who hit the ball hard but don’t move so fast produces nice looking offensive statistics but not so many runs and the Tigers seem permanently committed to using outfielders who cannot cover all of their vast outfield space. Thus, despite a high quality defensive infield of shortstop Jose Iglesias and second baseman Ian Kinsler, the Tigers are not a fun team to pitch for unless, like Justin Verlander (16-9,3.04),you strike a lot of batters out. Michael Fulmer has come along to help out. Francisco Rodriguez,one time fireballing closer, is now 35 but produced well for Detroit last season. I don’t put value on saves numbers (he had 44) but in 61 games he had a decent ERA and 52 strikeouts in 58 and one third innings. Jordan Zimmermann has had much better seasons as a starter than his 9-7, 4.87 year for the Tigers last year but he is not a strikeout type guy. Lefty Matt Boyd was mediocre and lefty Daniel Norris was pretty good in 13 starts. We all recognize Miguel Cabrera as a bad ass future hall of famer and Victor Martinez still stings the ball at 38 but much of his prowess goes for naught since the big leagues don’t permit courtesy runners. J.D. Martinez, currently confined to the disabled list, is another guy who clogs up the base paths if he doesn’t hit it out. James McCann is a first rate defensive catcher who hits well enough and he is backed by returning former Detroit catcher Alex Avila, who went off to the White Sox for a while. Nick Castellanos hits with power and is adequate at third base and Kinsler provides power and speed along with his great defense. Justin Upton will never win a gold glove in left field but he continues to hit with great power and he is not yet 30 years old. Andrew Romine is a valuable all around bench player.

A lot of dreamers are selecting the Minnesota Twins as the 2017 dark horse. While they don’t have to do much to improve over 2016’s 59 victories, the Twins are still far from contention, mainly due to their lack of pitching strength. They signed catcher Jason Castro to help with the young staff and he would seem to have his work cut out for him. Ervin Santana is a good ace at age 34, and lefty Hector Santiago has been okay. Adalberto Mejia is a highly touted lefty acquired from the Giants in the trade for Eduardo Nunez. Phil Hughes is well past the great expectations part of his career and I frankly don’t know jack about the rest of the staff for the twin cities.
Brian Dozier, who had 82 extra base hits, 18 stolen bases, and 99 RBI last year is a real star because he also plays a very good second base. Jorge Polanco at shortstop and Miguel Sano at third may be up and coming stars but they apparently both need to clean up their glove work. Sano hits the long ball. Joe Mauer, one time all world catcher, is now confined to first base and designated sitter after his concussion of 2013 and his batting numbers have dwindled to run of the mill but we’re all rooting for him. Byron Buxton is a speedy, strong armed center fielder but so far his offensive numbers are more like Rick Manning than Kirby Puckett. He will be flanked by Eddie Rosario in left and Max Kepler in right. All show potential and none are over 26 years of age.

Since they don’t have Chris Sale anymore, the Chicago White Sox might have Yoan Moncada some day. That’s their big story. In the meantime, they promise to be less boring if not more victorious than in their recent past. Once the next great Cuban star, Avisail Garcia has looked rather ordinary so far. He’s in right field and the largely unknown Jacob May is in center. Melky Cabrera patrols left field with a good arm and good power numbers. Todd Frazier plays third base and hits lots of home runs. Tim Anderson was impressive in 99 games as the shortstop last season. He hit .283 with 9 home runs and average defense. Tyler Saladino was similarly impressive at second base while Jose Abreu produced like a first baseman with size should, hitting .293 with 25 homers and 100 RBI.Omar Narvaez is the promising new catcher.
Without Sale, the White Sox still have quality on the mound with lefty Jose Quintana (13-12,3.20 last year),lefty Derek Holland, who was 7-9 with Texas,Miguel Gonzalez, and the somewhat puzzling James Shields, who was a combined 6-19 with a 5.85 ERA with the Sox and San Diego last year. The bullpen was pretty sturdy last season with right handers Nate Jones and Dan Jennings getting most of the work and David Robertson “closing”.
So it looks good for Cleveland. If they blow it, blame Wahoo Sam.