Archive for March, 2008

First Impressions

Sunday, March 30th, 2008

I know I’m supposed to comment on Mark’s AL predictions, and I will, but after attending this evening’s pre-season contest at Nationals Park I thought it best to offer some impressions for those of you who will soon see a game in the new venue.

Despite the cold (if you’re going to attend Opening Night wear winter clothing) it was an excellent night of baseball. The sight lines are very good especially from the concourse where you can continue to watch as you get to where you’re going. The exception being that if you are in the first row of the 300 Level seats, the top of the plexiglass wall (which is clad in metal) obstructs the view of the infield if you are in the range of 6 feet tall. I am 5′ 11″ and my friend is 6′ 2″ and it was a problem for both of us. Luckily our seats were two rows behind and we had no problem from there.

From section 313 the Capitol Dome was clearly visible and is a beautiful addition to the atmosphere of the park.

Some general observations:

Home Run Potential – With the fences 336ft. down the lines and 377 ft. to the power alleys the park won’t necessarily give up a lot more home runs than did RFK — especially with the wind blowing in as it was tonight. But only time will tell.

Staff – From the ticket takers to the beer guys to the food people in the concession stands everyone had a smile on and greeted fans as guests. A great touch if the Learners can maintain the feeling past the honeymoon period.

Getting There – I was lucky enough to ride with a friend who had a parking pass at Ft. McNair. A four block walk was all it took to get to the park. It will not be that simple for most people and from what I could tell the bulk of the crowd came from the Metro and streamed into the center field entrance. Most seats were full for the start of the game so I assume getting there by subway was not a problem. I don’t know how people fared getting home by Metro but reports will no doubt be in the newspapers. Two fans I spoke to said they parked at RFK and took the shuttle and thought it worked wonderfully. Being free was no doubt an added bonus.

Concessions – Lots of ’em and lots of variety with the best-named food stand being “Slice Down the Line,” a pizza joint along the first and third base lines. I didn’t try it but the kid three seats away seemed happy with his choice. The Ben’s half-smoke with chili, onion and mustard was very good and the coffee was tasty as well (no kidding). The service at the stands I used was attentive but slow; no doubt a result of tonight’s contest being the shake out cruise. Hopefully that improves since it was no better than the service at RFK. Fans put up with it in the old stadium — they won’t put up with it for too long in the new. On the upside, and this is no small matter as far as I’m concerned, there were plenty of condiment stands (unlike at RFK) and much like the system at Dodger Stadium (and Costco) you can churn out onion and relish to your heart’s content from stainless steel containers. Also, mustard and ketchup is available in almost limitless amounts from what I’m guessing is a tube-fed system from below the condiment counter. No more stupid packets of relish and plastic gallon-sized containers of ketchup!

Video Screen – In a word: awesome! Huge. Bright. Instant replays. Tons of information (although pitch speed wasn’t provided tonight). Like being at home in front of a 50-inch plasma.

Bathrooms – I only used the men’s of course but it was large (six stalls, 12 urinals) and had plenty of soap and papers towels. At RFK the dearth of washing items made me think the team was trying to save pennies to get a good arm in the bullpen. Alas, they were just skimping.

Disability seating – I didn’t do a count of spaces (I’m sure its on the Nats site somewhere) but since I have a friend in a wheel chair I made a point to look. There appeared to be plenty and several elevators service the upper decks.

Quibbles – A plastic cap for my coffee would have been nice — especially since it cost $3.50. And the much-touted cup holders are an improvement from the old place down the street but rather than being at the front of the arm rest on your seat they are on the rear of each arm rest of the seat in front of you. It’s not a huge problem but when people pass in front of you it will be easy for them, especially if they have food in their hands, to not see your draft beer cup at ankle level and give it a good kick and, in the process, soak their feet and waste a good chunk of your $7.50.

More than a quibble – Screech, that mangy, dirty, creepy-looking thing they call a mascot ought to be eliminated. And you can take that any way you wish. I’m not the first to make the recommendation and I won’t be the last. The worst thing about the franchise is that ridiculous pigeon masquerading as something lovable.

A secret – The elevators are separated from the concourse by a wall of glass with glass doors providing access which creates a vestibule for those waiting for the cars to arrive. That vestibule is heated (and I assume cooled in summer) providing a great respite from whatever the elements dish up. There is a very nice flat panel t.v. in the vestibule so you can still watch the game. Don’t tell anyone or they’ll be packed in April and August.

Teddy lost. “Sweet Caroline” played and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” was sung at the stretch. Baseball is back and it is wonderful.

Predictions

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

When I was a kid I spent an inordinate amount of time each Spring assessing the relative worth of each team and its players and making predictions for the coming summer. It was easier then: there were only eight teams in each league — and only one league really mattered. Even so, my predictions were uncannily the same, year after year. This team always finished first. Now that I’m older (and here, by the way, is what I look like) …

mark_riverdogz.png

… anyway, now that I’m older I’m more mature in my picks. That is to say, no matter what, I always pick these guys last. Why? Because after I assess VORP values and OBPs, and walks per inning, I come down to the same thing: I hate ‘em. And I mean, I really hate em. But it’s a mature hate: if it weren’t for this showboat I’d probably think the Arizona Assholes (and so, they will always be) are just alright.

Which is to say (as I told me droogs last week when we had our first organizational meeting — er, well, as I forgot to tell them), we should all take some time to make our predictions and then (because it’s really fun) see how we do at the end of the year. But we’ve decided to add a wrinkle. This year in addition to me and me droogs making predictions, we’re going to add another wholly fictional picker (we’ll call him Ernie, after this guy) who will make predictions at random — from a hat. And we’ll see who’s better: the three of us brilliant analysts, or Joe Shit the Ragman.

So I’ll start with the junior circuit, because it’s the junior circuit: it’s not really baseball over there (they have the DH), one of its franchises is call the Texas Rangers (I mean, who really gives a damn) and it doesn’t have your Washington Nationals as one of its premier teams. Now, you can follow along at home and make your own predictions, and because we have a comment box here, you can write in to tell me just how full of beans I am. Oh, and in case you think there’s no accountability here, you should know that there’s a column beside each team that gives the reason “why” the prediction was made as is — ooooohhhhhh.

So, as a bow to Igor hisself, here’s my annual Rite of Spring, for the American League:

American League West

[TABLE=1]

[TABLE=3]

American League Central

[TABLE=4]

American League East

[TABLE=5]

My sage comments?

This is pretty simple: the premier league in baseball is no more. After Boston, the Angels, Indians and Tigers, the rest of the league is either in a free-fall (like the White Sox) rebuilding (like the Royals), or still two pitchers away from contending (like Tampa Bay). The Mariners may squeeze into the top tier, but not by much — and they’re an injury (to this guy) from last place. That said, the Cleveland Indians are still the class of the league, if they can get over their PTSD from last year’s playoff collapse to the Red Sox. I just don’t see how anyone gets pass “C.C.” and Carmona — and then there’s Westbrook and a strong bullpen. I know, I know: Manny and Dave and Jacoby and that unbelievable line-up. Yeah, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. The Red Sox are a fricking hitting machine. But they’d better be, because their rotation is a mess. It’s Beckett and Dice-K and a prayer — and Beckett’s not healthy. And even with Dice-K it’s a prayer.

So, knowing this — why didn’t the Indians improve over the winter. Here’s my answer: they didn’t need to. If it weren’t for Vlad, the best player in the junior circuit might be Grady Sizemore, who could hit 40 home runs, easy. And Travis Hafner is no Jacoby Ellsbury: he’s better. A lot better. Hell, Travis hit 24 dingers last year and everyone was disappointed in his “off year.” Yeah? Trade him to the Nats. We’ll give ya Ryan Langerhans and a player to be named.

What about the Tigers? Well, what about them? Dontrelle can’t hit the strike zone, Ordonez has seen his best years, Bonderman is jittery, and Leland is a walk-with-the-bases-loaded away from a stroke. I love Polanco, the great untold story of the team, but he’s not a Jimmy Rollins and once you get past him and Granderson and a 280 pound (headed to about 340) very rich Miguel Cabrera you have a second place team. Even with Verlander. Hmmm. Still (granted) who wouldn’t want to have a second place team with the likes of these guys? As for the Yanks: these are not your Granddaddy’s Yanks, hell they’re not even your daddy’s Yanks. So that’s it: Vlad is the MVP, Gil Meche wins the Cy Young, and this time the Indians go to the Series — after sweeping the Red Sox.

The Pitching Problem

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

OK, the John Patterson era is over. It’s time to look seriously at what the Nats are going to do about their pathetic pitching staff.

Here are some of the options –

1) Sign someone off the junk heap. Candidates include:

Rag-arm Jeff Weaver

Human dough-boy David Wells

Meatball specialist Rodrigo Lopez

Not a pretty picture.

2) Suck it up with Odalis Perez and Tim Redding

3) Make a deal.

Let’s not kid ourselves. As much as we’d like to unload the anemic Felipe Lopez, we don’t have much to offer. As much as I loath to suggest this, my friend Mark makes a good case for dealing our most valuable pitcher – the Chief.

Getting a Kick Out of Pitching

Saturday, March 22nd, 2008

A curious coincidence occurred a week ago when, on successive days, stories ran in major national newspapers about the height of a leg kick by a pitcher fighting for the fifth spot in the rotation of a NL East team.

In New York, the Times ran a piece on Orlando Hernandez and how, after a career chock full of high leg kicks, El Duque will now forgo his trademark windup for a more traditional delivery. The reason? Hallux valgus. That’s bunions to you and me. No, really. Bunions.

Evidently, when he lifts the heel of his right foot off the rubber during the high-kick version of his delivery it has caused a bunion to develop. Presumably, the lower leg kick causes less lift on the right foot, thereby resulting in less pressure and reduced risk of bunions. Personally, I think that bunions are common in 66 year olds and it’s more a function of age than foot stress. O.k., so he’s 50. But still, age is probably catching up with him.

There is also some question about whether Hernandez can maintain, with the new windup, the deception and effectiveness the high leg kick has afforded him in the past. Mets Skipper Willie Randolph declared that it won’t have an impact on the deceptive nature of his delivery. We’ll see.

The next day the Post published a story about Matt Chico who, at the behest of pitching coach Randy St. Claire, reverted to his high school-era delivery that included a high leg kick. Why the Diamondbacks had him jettison that style wasn’t explained but with the new delivery Chico said he felt like his old self. Hopefully it’ll help him improve on a mediocre rookie year.

Almost on cue Manager Manny Acta noted that the new windup “gives him more deception.” Take that, Mets.

It’ll be fun to follow the story lines this year and see if both guys adjust to their new form. As an experimental control we can watch how Dontrelle Willis – now of the Detroit Tigers – will do this season.

He’s had a high-leg kick since he came up in ’03 and will continue to use it this year. Both Chico and Willis will have to do some pitching to match El Duque’s .581 lifetime W/L percentage.

Wily Mo

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

Willy Mo

Wily Mo (aka “Wily Modesto”) Pena is this year’s Washington Nationals left fielder — exhibit number one that this guy has a hankering for molding the Nats into Cincinnati East. Not great news, considering the senior circuit’s oldest club just hired this destroyer-of-perfectly-good- pitching-arms. But Jimmy never saw a Redleg he didn’t love, and he absolutely loves Wily Mo: “His power works at any stadium,” Bowden said soon after Wily Mo arrived on the scene. “He is a good kid with a big heart. He has got to be driven. You have to stay on top of him. You have to get him to work hard.” At 6-3 and 215, Wily Mo can drive the ball: he hit 26 home runs for the Reds in 2004, with 66 RBIs. The downside? Wily Mo swings through the ball: 118 strikeouts in 336 at bats. You’ve got to get him to work hard?

You’ve got to get him to make contact — that’s what you’ve got to do.

After the next year — after 2005 — the Reds had seen enough of Wily Mo and dealt him to Boston for Bronson Arroyo. The deal looked like a brilliant move for Cincy, and one of the few knuckleheaded moves made by Boston Red Sox (“oh, those dirt dogs”) wunderkind Theo Epstein. Theo had it all figured out. “Pena strikes out on a rate basis more than anyone else in the big leagues,” Epstein said in his usual snooty neo-empiricist meanderings right after the trade. “There is precedent for those (type) players developing a little bit more discipline, increasing their walk rate and becoming better all around hitters as they adjust to the big leagues.” Oh yeah, Theo, like who? We might point out (dearest Theo) that, while with Cincinnati, Pena struck out more times than Arroyo had struck out batters.

Stick that in your “rate basis.”

In 2006, Arroyo was 14-11 with a 3.29 ERA for the Reds while Wily Mo continued to battle the breezes: 94 strikeouts in 289 ABs. We might imagine Theo rethinking this just a tad and looking around the league to see just who would take Wily Mo off his hands. So Pena came to the Nats for a player to be named, who turned out to be 25-year-old first baseman Chris Carter. Not bad really: Wily Mo is a solid citizen, a team player, and has a lot of heart (Jim is right about that, but you can dismiss his other statement — “his power works at any stadium” — really Jim, no shit). Then too, while Wily Mo doesn’t run a lot of sprints, ya gotta luv him. For all of Jim’s talk about how ya gotta stay on him, Wily Mo works hard. I’ve seen him run up the steps onto the field. As our friends at Nats320 point out, he is “big, strong, and incredibly confident.” And yahavtaluvaguy who is modest about what he needs to work on: “I need to work on my defense and my hitting,” he told Nats320. And his baserunning: no one would ever mistake Wily Mo for Willie Mays Hayes.

There’s an upside, which no one who saw him play in RFK last year will forget. Before he arrived the Nats averaged 3.9 runs per game, but with him in the line-up they averaged five runs a game, and his defensive statistics were surprisingly good. He’s quicker with the glove than he looks: no errors in 57 chances. He ate up NL East pitching, hitting .324 with six HRs in 30 games. Which makes him my pick to put one out on Opening Day, against the hated Braves. But the moment I can’t wait for (next year, methinks) is when Wily Mo sticks one in the parking garage and Theo takes out his slide rule, does a few calculations — and tells us “told ya so.”

It’ll be worth the strikeouts.

Acta on Lannan: The Kid’s Got Moxie

Friday, March 7th, 2008

lannan-iii.jpg = moxie.jpg

In an interview with Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post the other day Nats manager Manny Acta summed up his impression of 23 year-old hurler John Lannan this way: “Lannan has moxie and command. He can hit the glove.”

Gotta love Manny: a 39 year-old Dominican native going ‘old-school’ with the 100 year-old moxie reference.

If you’re young and the ‘moxie’ expression isn’t something you’ve heard before you’re probably more familiar with other words that have similar meanings such as ‘chutzpah’ (from Yiddish), ‘bollocks’ (from the Brits) or ‘cojones’ (from Madeline Albright).

mox·ie (mok – see) n. Slang, The ability to face difficulty with spirit and courage.

And unless you grew up in New England decades ago you probably have no knowledge of what Moxie, the soft drink, is all about. Since the name of the soft drink is the origin for the term meaning ‘spunk,’ here is a brief primer:

Moxie, the cola, originated in Maine in the 1870s and was originally marketed as a tonic for what ails you. Among the afflictions it was said to cure were “softening of the brain” and “loss of manhood.” Apparently it was the Viagra of its day. I have a feeling that wasn’t what Manny was referring to.

By the 1880s the boys on the Moxie marketing team must have realized the soda would never measure up to popularity of the little blue pill so they added carbonation and repositioned the drink to be used for ‘refreshment.’ I use the term lightly. If you’ve ever tasted it you know, despite its deceptively pleasing orange can, it is the most vile concoction ever invented. The one and only time I tasted it I think I looked like this:

eww-kid.jpg

First off, in your Flintstones jelly glass it looks like 10W40. There is no sparkle to it at all. It is the black hole of colas. If there is carbonation in there it gets bogged down in the sludge. Second, Robitussen by comparison, is a sweet-tasting elixir. There is no amount of aspartame that could make Moxie taste pleasant.

Even so, it supposedly sold well in its hey-day. Included among Moxie’s famous adherents was Calvin Coolidge. But then again, ‘ol Cal always looked like he had just downed a glass of the stuff:

coolidge.jpg

I think this is a picture of him on his wedding day.

Anyway, Moxie (the soft drink) is not completely unknown to baseball lore. Ted Williams is said to have endorsed the product once upon a time. So, this is another indication that Manny knows his baseball history. And he also knows a gutsy kid when he sees one.

Why is Dmitri Smiling?

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

Dmitri Young, the 34 year-old erstwhile first baseman for the Nats, seems to be enjoying his spring. And with good reason: he’ll likely be starting at the bag on Opening Night, March 30. Yes, I’m sticking my neck out. But that’s what spring training is for, no?

Over the winter the hot-stove league chatter concerned what the Nats were going to do with two first basemen. Neither Dmitri nor Nick Johnson can play another defensive position so one of them, if no trade were made, would have to sit on the bench while earning his $5 million. Given the Learner’s frugality that isn’t likely to happen. One of them has to go.

That assumed, of course, that Johnson had completely recovered from the broken leg he suffered at the end of the 2006 season. Well, early indications are that he has indeed recovered although he isn’t up to his pre-injury skills. In an interview with the Post on Feb. 26, Ryan Zimmerman noted that Johnson “looks better now than he did his breakout year” in 2006.”

High praise after just one outing but its probably just what GM Jim Bowden wanted to hear. If true, that will make it all the easier to deal him. After all, it was Bowden who said “I’m not sure you can actually field this team without making a trade.” (Cue foreboding music).

There are numbers reasons for keeping Young. First, his lifetime batting average is 20 points higher than Johnson’s (.292 vs. .272) and his on-base percentage is 82 points higher (.477 vs. .395). Second, there is that $5 million price tag for someone (Johnson) who gets hurt – a lot. A wrist problem in 2002, a broken cheekbone in 2004, a bruised heel in 2005 and the broken leg in ’06. At this point he could play an extra on Grey’s Anatomy (this guy for instance). Third, is Johnson’s age. At five years younger than Dmitri he’ll be more attractive to prospective buyers.

Then there are the intangible reasons for keeping Young. First, he’s a fan favorite here given his .320 batting average and comeback player of the year award in 2007. Second, can you say Elijah Dukes? The troubled 23-year old who hit 10 homers in 52 games last year with the Marlins could be the future face of the Nats if he doesn’t repeat his run-ins with the law. Luckily for him the Nats were willing to give him a look and Young has been tasked with keeping him on the straight and narrow.

By trading Young the Nats would in no small way be pulling the rug out from under Dukes and, by connection, their rebuilding plans. Something that I think is unlikely to happen.

So long, Nick. And good luck.