Thursday, March 31, 2011

Over/Under: American League East's Best

With Opening Day upon us, I would be remiss if we did not set our crystal ball to the American League East, to see if spring training and past performances can shed any light on how the season itself will play out. Using existing lines from, let's play a little game of over/under for total wins of the AL East's Big 3.
Tampa Bay Rays: 84.5 wins


Despite the team losing such valuable commodities as Carl Crawford, Matt Garza and their bullpen, the 2011 Rays still have many potential weapons.

Notice what they did not lose: Evan Longoria, David Price, B.J. Upton, and the team's most underrated young star, catcher John Jaso. The Rays also have more mature versions of starters Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson.

This is certainly what sports folks call a rebuilding year for Tampa Bay, even though it does not fall under those exact standards. (Most rebuilding years do not call for aging stars of the rest of the leagues division to join the team for one last hurrah.) We will know this as more of a developmental year for the Rays, where the rest of the league catches glimpses of how good Hellickson and Davis will be in another year.

The crazy thing about the modern AL East is that you can still win a crazy amount of games in a rebuilding year. Last season the Red Sox still won 89 games despite injuries in a year that they were not supposed to contend. The rest of the league still has to play the Rays, so they will get their wins. Heck, even the replacement fielding players' WAR (wins above replacement) suggests that they have adequately replaced those that left.

The starters absent from the Rays batting lineup this year are Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, Jason Bartlett and Willie Aybar. Combined last year, those four had a WAR of 7.2.

Filling the place of Pena this season is Dan Johnson, who, in 40 games last season, had a WAR of .5. Johnson is 27 and can certainly match that production over more games played. If we multiply it by three for 120 games played, he should have no trouble reaching 1.5. (In his last full season as a starter, his WAR was 1.2, so this seems about right.)

Replacing Crawford in left field is Johnny Damon, a man who posted in 2008 and 2009, his last two seasons in New York, WARs of 4.5 and 4.4. This tailed way off last season in Detroit, down to 1.1, and given his age, I am more comfortable keeping it there.

Replacing Jason Bartlett is Reid Brignac, who, while playing multiple positions last season in only 113 games posted a WAR of 1.1. With more games played and the stability of playing a single position, I do not see why this could not improve.

Finally, replacing Willie Aybar at DH is Manny Ramirez .Ramirez only played in 90 games last year, while battling injuries and steroid suspensions, yet was still able to post a WAR of 1.5. Heck, with that production, even if he only plays only 120 games this year, he could still get up to 2.

Tally them up:
2010 players' WAR 7.2
2011 players' projected WAR 6.2

Seems to me that losing those fielders is only costing Tampa one game. Drop them down from 96 to 95 for that. Meanwhile, the rest of the young team is improving, and as a collective should be able to make up that one game. Batters = just fine.

Pitchers ... I'm not so sure about, and the projected closer is Kyle "You'd better wear two batting helmets" Farnsworth, but I am still confident that the team can reach 85 wins.


Hmmm. Though you immediately have to respect anyone who brings WAR into the equation — or Kyle Farnsworth — I’m going to have to tell you to calm down. While you’re right that the Rays did not lose as much as people think, let’s take a step back from the advanced stats world and look at a few anecdotal truths.

(…Fearing the rampage that is sure to come from the stat community that has zero tolerance for anyone who believes in the statistical value of an RBI …)

First of all, the Rays will take an unavoidable step back this year in wins simply because they are the only American League East team that did not improve. Let’s say your stat geekiness is correct and the Rays only marginally decreased in their talent level from last year — this past season’s Tampa Bay club would not 96 games in this year’s A.L. East. The Red Sox added Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, the Blue Jays are another year forward in their (latest) rebuilding project, the Orioles are going to get a full year of Buck Showalter, and the Yankees still have the best one-through-nine lineup in baseball; the Rays are the only team that cannot boast about expected improvement from last year in baseball best division.

Second of all, the Rays do not have the pitching arms to compete this year. Matt Garza did not have a fantastic year last year, but good luck relying on full seasons from talented but unproven guys like Davis and Hellickson

This is not to say the Rays will be bad this year, but something right around .500 seems likely given the competition of the division. If they were in the A.L’s Central or West, I’d probably go over.

Red Sox: 95.5


My Red Sox friends back in Massachusetts are delighted by this squad, and seem to feel it in infallible, but there are some uncertainties that need to be addressed. Namely: Josh Beckett coming back from a bitter 2010 and not performing well in spring training; Matsuzaka's feast or famine approach to pitching; the rumors surrounding Jonathan Papelbon; and Youkilis and Pedroia coming off of major injuries last season.

If I am a Red Sox fan, I would not uncork the champagne just now. The game is not played on paper. That being said, I think this number is dead on, but I will go with the over, at 96 games exactly.

The fans have sat through their rebuilding year, and the bandwagoners have begun to fall off, despite last year being one of their most fun seasons to watch. (I don't mean that because they were constantly injured and I am a Yankees supporter. I mean that despite the AAA guys called up to fill in and the patchwork lineup, the team stayed competitive right up through September.) Yet, while going to the game remained a status symbol, generating a similar though smaller attendance, local television ratings dropped significantly, dropping them from first in the nation to fifth.

The team needs to be at the top to keep its viewers, so if there is any struggle, I expect them to be major movers before the deadline, despite being one of the most loaded teams in baseball. The fans need to be assured a postseason spot, and with the Yankees in the division, you will need to top 95 wins to clinch the division.

KELLY: Under

I’m an admitted New York Yankee homer, so it delights me that I get to take the under on this one. I’m not totally sure that I think that the Red Sox will go under, but, if they do, here is why …

Like you said, Youkilis and Pedroia are both coming back from major injuries, so anyone who thinks they can guarantee production from either of them carries as much water for the Red Sox as I do the Yankees.

Staying with the hitters, I think Carl Crawford is a lock for solid production, but we need to see Adrian Gonzalez if is the real deal or another NL-to-AL flop. That the former San Diego Padre did not hit a home run in Spring Training until March 26 was not the most encouraging sign for a Red Sox Nation looking for signs that Gonzalez’s surgery-repaired shoulder is ready to go.

Moving on to pitching, I really question the Red Sox’s staff’s ability to be consistent. Look at it — they’ve got Daisuke Matsuzaka, Josh Beckett, Jonathan Papelbon and John Lackey all coming off sub-par years. Also, all four of those guys are either already 30+ years old or they will turn 30 during this year.

Now, is it possible that the Red Sox’s offense may be so potent that they can overcome multiple starting pitchers with ERAs in the high 4’s to win in the high 90s? Possibly, but I would not bet on it happening in a season in which the offense’s top three players are coming off of surgery/injury.

New York Yankees: 92.5


The Yankees rotation is scaring fansoff, and people are pointing out how old the core of Jeter, Posada and Rivera are getting and where the production of each (even Rivera) is at.

While I understand their concern, I feel that most don't see that production being replaced. Gardner, Cano and Phil Hughes will continue to get better, and even if they can only match the production that Jeter and Posada are giving up, then this team is still as good as the one that came so close to reaching the World Series last year.

Plus, the Yankees have the Red Sox this year to push them on. Everyone is picking the Sox to be incredibly dominant (unless they are trying to jinx them like I may have earlier) and the Yankees players have acknowledged (see Thursday's Saratogian sports section) that they are not the team to beat. You think that will not fuel a bunch of guys who hear it louder from fans than any other club? That "nobody believes in us" stuff goes a long way.

The Yankees also have the means to make mid-season moves like I mentioned with the Red Sox, especially since they have been hyping up Jesus Montero and keep playing him at catcher, even though he likely will never play the position for New York. The kid smells overwhelmingly of trade bait, and the Yankees will pick up a valuable piece for him.

I see the Yankees playing like a late 90's Texas Rangers team during the regular season, piling on runs and hoping A.J. Burnett can keep opponents below 6 ... is 7 too much to ask? But, come post-season, it's business as usual, and New York will be in every game thanks to their improved bullpen and experience. I give them 91 wins, making the playoffs as a wild card, but not threatening the Red Sox at all after September, and certainly in no way reverse jinxing the team, specifically A.J., so they will do much, much better.


Good, I get to be the homer again!

I actually really do think the Yankees will get into the mid-90s for wins, with an outside shot at getting to 100. Here’s why ….

The playoffs are all about pitching, but the regular season — at least in the American League — is still all about hitting and the Yankees still have the game’s best 1-to-9 lineup. New York scored a league-best 859 runs last season, despite off years from Derek Jeter and (for the most part) Curtis Granderson. I think we can safely assume Jeter to bounce back (or at least not hit .270) and Granderson already showed us at the end of last season that he’s back on the upswing.

At the very least, the Yankees’ 3-4-5 in the lineup (Teixeira-Rodriguez-Cano) is the game’s best three-man unit and likely good for something in the ballpark of 100 home runs and 325 RBI on its own.

I’m not sure I agree with you that Montero is trade-bait, but what the Yankees do have is a sampling of elite prospects to infuse the team with energy and talent come July/August, especially on the pitching side. I have the benefit of writing this after the Yankees’ first game, in which I got to see the team’s three-headed monster of a bullpen dominated the game’s final innings — but, can you image this team’s pen come August when the team maybe calls up someone like Dellin Betances or Manny Banuelos? Either one of them could be Joba-in-2007 all over again.

I’ll say 96 wins for the Yankees and another year in the postseason.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

New York Yankees First Look: Catchers in the NY, Martin, Montero and Cervelli

While the Yankees' worst problem may be their starting pitching, their best problem is certainly their logjam of talent at catcher. The position has been Jorge Posada's for so long that many young fans have no idea who he took the job from, even though he is sitting in the dugout managing the team today.

Playing catcher puts the most wear on a baseball player, squatting, being in the way of a leather cannonball traveling at 95 mph and colliding with baserunners tends to put a half life on a career that is more Pu-242 than Pu-241.

I'd say this is U-235, more of a left fielder.

So the Yankees want to go in another direction with the position to extend Posada's productivity at the plate and to prepare for the future of the position. Enter Montero ... er, Cervelli. No wait, Russel Martin.

Martin appears to be the forerunner to start at catcher when the season begins. In 2008, he was a two-time All-Star, batting .280 and coming off a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger season in 2007. Then something happened. While Martin was still a highly capable defensive catcher, throwing out 39% of would-be base-stealers last season, his bat has not followed suit. Last year in an injury-shortened season, Martin could only manage to hit .248 and drove in 26 runs. Martin tore the labrum in his hip early in August of last year and missed the rest of last season, then came to New York as a free agent when the Cliff Lee money became available.

At $4 million dollars, if Martin can return to his pre-2009 form, he will be a great bargain. Catcher is a shallow position, and finding one that will not be a black hole  in the lineup is rare in the best of seasons. Also, Yankees fans rejoice, because through the age of 27, claims Martin is most comparable historically to Thurman Munson. It is just a shame that comparison is not visual.

Wasn't Munson a character in "Animal House"?

Francisco Cervelli actually started more games at catcher than did Posada last season. I remember feeling especially confident whenever he came to the plate with runners in scoring position, and the numbers back that confidence up. While a .271 hitter the rest of the year, that number jumped to .316 with runners in scoring position, then jumped to .381 with runners in scoring position with two outs, and finally jumped again to .545 with the bases loaded.

Cervelli is a scrappy, unheralded game-changer on a team of highly paid and media hyped superstars, and there is something very endearing about that. In a perfect world, he would have a small cult following of fans who call themselves "Cisco's Kids", who know off the top of their heads that his career range factor through 9 innings would put him 5th among active catchers if he hit the 1000 inning minimum, (He is 21 innings shy of eligibility. Also, Russell Martin is 2nd on this same list.), and wear his jersey over a Mexican caballero outfit.

 Dude, where's your jersey? I thought I was pretty specific.

Cervelli also has the best feel for the AL East, having been calling games there for the last two seasons. Experience is the best commodity for being a game-calling field general, and while Cervelli does not have have it in spades, he does have the most of the three signal callers we are looking at, although it seems obvious that Jorge Posada will be sharing his wealth of knowledge with each.

Jesus Montero is the much-ballyhooed prospect that has recently been rated No. 4 overall. He is 6'4", which many consider too tall to crouch behind the plate for one's entire career. (Joe Mauer is 6'5" and at 27 has already began to face the strain that comes with the position.)

The kid can hit though, batting .289 with 21 home runs at AAA Scranton last season. Many fans feel that Montero would be better suited to play left field or first base when not DHing. He has not done much to silence critics this spring, hitting .222 with no home runs. The NY Daily News has called his catching defense "not major league ready," and believe the Yankees will send him back down to AAA to work more on his hitting and defense.

He is still called a can't-miss slugger, and could use some big-league reps, but the window on the Yankee dynasty of the late-90'-00's is closing with Jeter, Rivera and Posada's age and the fact that Andy Petitte has already retired. The team came within spitting distance of the World Series last season, and making it this year is not out of the question, but getting struggling youngsters with potential their reps comes at a costthat I do not believe the Yankees are willing to pay right now.

Based on all this I believe the Yankees are doing the right thing starting Martin and using Cervelli as a backup. Martin is still of high potential and has proven to me a more than capable All-Star in the past, and a change of scenery may be all that he needs. If it does not work out, we can always plug Cervelli back in. Asking Posada to catch for a few games this season is also not out of the question. Montero will be called up this season at some point, but barring injury, it should not be as a catcher yet ... if at all. The team wants to win this year and or next year for the 90's vets, and I would prefer Montero hitting for 15 years instead of catching for 10.

I've said my piece, but with so many combinations, how would you juggle the catching position? I'm fairly certain the Yankees brass are regular readers, and they will certainly take this to heart.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

New York Yankees First Look: Ivan Nova

Buzz surrounds New York Yankees prospect and probable No. 5 starter Ivan Nova following his recent spring training starts. In three starts and one appearance, Nova has accumulated 14 IP, and five Ks, sporting a 1.29 ERA and a WHIP of 0.83. Nova's single blemish this spring (two earned runs on a home run) came against reigning MLB home run champion Jose Bautista.

The Yankees need a reliable starter at the back end of the rotation, since after the Sabathia-Hughes-Burnett combo, the options are Nova, Sergio Mitre, Freddy Garcia and the Bavarian cream doughnut himself, Bartolo Colon.

We signed him for peanuts, nyuk nyuk nyuk.

Nova has shown great promise on the mound, and given his youth (he's 24), he looks to be a solid member of the Yankees pitching staff for many years to come.

So those numbers you sited are just spring training you may say, and that carries as much weight as Greg Anderson's testimony in the Barry Bonds trial thus far. Fair enough.

At Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last season, Nova compiled a 12-3 record in 23 starts and 145 innings, a 2.38 ERA and a 1.262 WHIP. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was the highest of his minor league career at 2.4. By comparison, Tim Lincecum had a SO/BB ratio of 3.0 last season, and everyman starter Jon Garland had a SO/BB ratio of 1.56. Nova struck out 7.1 batters per 9 innings in AAA, and did little to suffer the long ball, giving up only 10 home runs in AAA last year in his 145 innings. Kevin Correia, who pitched exactly 145 innings, the home games in spacious PETCO Park, gave up 20 homers last season.

Those numbers were more than enough to give the youngster a look in the big leagues, and Nova proved himself as a fighter. As a late August call-up Nova had fine outings against Toronto and the Chicago White Sox. In the 5th inning of the White Sox game, a double by Gordon Beckham followed by an RBI single and stolen base by Juan Pierre threatened the Yankees' slim lead. Unlike the car that bears his name, Nova persevered. Nova struck out Omar Visquel (one of his 7 over 5.2 innings he pitched) to preserve the 2-1 lead, and the game ended with the same score.

Nova went on to exclusively face the AL East for the rest of the season, with mixed results. He pitched well against Baltimore when the Orioles were playing like a real big league team under Buck Showalter, but gave up six earned runs to Tampa Bay in 4.2 innings. Against Boston on Sept. 25, a bad 3rd inning cost the Yankees four runs before he was pulled in the top of the fifth, but in the 1st, 2nd and 4th innings, Boston was set down in order.

While the season did not end with the aspirations with which the initial August starts generated, it was still promising. Nova's numbers came down from what he was producing in AAA, but that is to be expected. His ERA ended at 4.50 -- climbing after the Baltimore game -- while his SO/BB ratio was 1.53 and K/9 was 5.6. Again, the vast majority of his starts were against the AL East, and I would be happy with average performances from my No. 4 or 5 starter against the toughest division in baseball when the Yankees' lineup has his back.

Dressing like the Baseball Furies is a clause in the Yankee dress code.

It is likely that Nova still has some growing pains left, but that is to be expected from any 24-year-old. Nova's  talent is not a question though. His solid 2010 campaign proves that he is ready for the majors, and while he probably will not be a star this season, he will be a fine contributing member to the Yankees rotation and deserves a rotation spot over Garcia, Mitre and Colon.

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Friday, March 11, 2011

And the Band Played On: Scouting the Sendai Sports Scene after Friday's Tsunami

In the wake of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan, it will take an enormous amount of time for the citizens of Sendai to get life back to any semblance of normalcy. Natural disasters have a way uniting a population against a common enemy with a goal putting smiles back on the faces of those who have stared down an unimaginable horror and now face the prospect of a rebuilding project.

The closest we can relate to stateside in recent memory has been hurricane aftermaths like those of Andrew in '92 and Katrina in '05. In both of those cases, much ado was made about the sports teams the cities of Miami and New Orleans rallied around, using their stadiums for temporary shelter and as a common point of strength for the communities.

Sendai itself is an up-and-coming sports city. As recently as 1999, they had no top-flight sports clubs, yet today sport three teams at the height of the nation's standards.

They offer a currently second-place team in the Basketball Japan League called the Sendai 89ers, so named after the city's modern foundation in 1889. The team starts three Americans, F/C Tommy Swanson, F Michael Bell and Chris Holm and is coming off of a two-game sweep of Saitama Bron. The 89ers are in game 36 of a 53-game schedule, and last season were the Eastern Division runners up.

The league founded in 2005 and currently features such up-and-coming American players as 19-year-old Jeremy Tyler of Tokyo Apache, who is taking the Brandon Jennings route of playing overseas professionally instead of playing in college prior to the NBA draft.

Sendai also is home to Vegalta Sendai of the J-League (the Japanese soccer league). The team had been playing since 1988 as the Tohoku Electric Power Co., Inc. Soccer Club and played in the second tier of Japanese soccer, the Japanese Football League from 1992 until the league contracted and they were promoted with the J-League's expansion in 1999.

The J-League is swiftly gaining popularity on the island nation with younger generations who like the self expression of the sport over the sacrificial, team-oriented Nippon Baseball League that has been so popular since professional baseball began in 1934.

Vegalta plays in the league's third smallest stadium, reportedly seating 19,694 spectators, and the team itself has yet to be competitive since their promotion from the second division in 2009, barely avoiding relegation with their 14th place performance last season. (They finished with 39 points, and the last team relegated had 36.) The team opened the season on March 5 with a 0-0 tie against Hiroshima, and were slated to face Nagoya this week in a game that, with all other scheduled J-League games, has been canceled with no reported make-up date set.

Baseball fans were displeased when the Orix Blue Wave (Ichiro's former team) and Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes combined out of financial stress to form the Orix Buffaloes in 2005. The merger caused the already weaker Pacific division to only have five teams, sparking the first strike in Japanese professional baseball history. 

The winners were the cities of Sendai and Miyagi, who started the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. The team has fielded the Brooklyn-born Luis Lopez at third base and currently starts former New York Yankees pitcher Darrell Rasner. The MLB blog Bombers Beat interviewed Rasner:

"We were not in town when that hit," Rasner wrote in an e-mail. "The guys on the team were in Kobe and I was on the bullet train going to Tokyo when the earthquake hit. By the time the tsunami hit, I was in a hotel room glued to the TV, watching it unfold."

Rasner said that his family is not currently in Japan, but he expressed sympathy for those who are suffering there.

"I just feel really bad for the people up there right now and what they are going through," Rasner wrote. "I have a couple guys on the team I talked with last night that are up in Sendai right now. I talked to them for a couple minutes and [they] said all the power was out. They were staying in a big tent by the field with a whole bunch of people.  It's really too bad."

Despite growing pains of an expansion team, the Golden Eagles posted their first winning record in 2009, finishing second in the Pacific League. After an unremarkable performance in 2010, the club was looking forward to the beginning of the 2011 season, which was set to begin in April. While reports  are slow coming in, it has been reported to the site that Toma Irokawa, an infielder from Sendai, who played with the Marysville Gold Sox team in California last season, reported that all his family and friends in Sendai are just fine. 

As for Sendai's home stadium, reports, "We expect no impact to the tour.  It is, however, likely that the stadium in Sendai will be impacted.  In that event, the Sendai club would play their home games on the road or at an alternate home stadium.  The April tour, however, does not have a game in Sendai on the schedule.  All April tour games are in Tokyo and to the south, areas far less impacted than Sendai."

In golf, the Yokohama Tire PRGR Ladies Cup in Kochi has been suspended due to the spreading turmoil and respect for those afflicted by the disaster. The World Figure Skating Championships to be held in Tokyo will go on as planned on March 21-27. Most other events, such as the freestyle mogul national championships which are being held away from the city of Sendai, will also go on as planned.

Sendai is truly breaking out in the world of Japanese professional sports, but after Friday's tsunami, all that is on the back burner for now. But when the city needs to focus on something besides their rebuilding effort this year, their teams will always be there.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The First Step Toward Giving the Capital Region a Big 4 Sports Voice: The UFL

Other than what I presume is a fresh lilac scent, what do Las Vegas, Virginia Beach, Hartford, Omaha and Sacramento have in common?

Each falls just outside the realm of a major sports city, yet is trying to make the next step. These are the cities that comprise the UFL. They are what the sports world would refer to as "B" cities if it knew they existed. (Sacramento has the Kings, but after their mayor Kevin Smith announced the Maloof brothers' plans to move the team to Anaheim, how long will it be before California's capital can lay claim to a Big 4 team?)

None of these cities can lay claim to the title of "college town" either. Vegas has UNLV, Omaha has Creighton and Virginia Beach has poor kid's spring break, but in many instances you'll find locals supporting colleges outside the city limits. These are the no-man's lands of the sports geography who have banded together behind a fledgling football league to give themselves an identity and be recognized by the sports world.

The thing is, I do not see why the Capital Region has not done everything they can to support the league with their own eyes drawn towards the future. Does the area not fit the criteria for expansion? We have ravenous sports fans, but our closest Big 4 teams are on opposite ends of the state. We have many DI colleges nearby, yet the majority of fans most closely follow bigger schools like Syracuse.

So here we are, a region without a major sports voice, especially since the magic run of Siena men's basketball has hit a snag. Granted, the UFL is no sure-thing. The league lost $35 million in its first season and $50 million last season. It is, however, broadcast now on Versus and has enough talent that over 100 players have been taken from the ranks of the UFL to play in the NFL.

The NFL itself has the issue of the current CBA disagreement. And if you have been following it with any detail, you have probably been reviled at the squabbles of the bloated league, the children of billionaires bickering over inheritance.

If the NFL is locked out for a series of games, that could draw more interest for the UFL ... or just redirect the attention to the MLB playoffs. It could go either way, but as a sports region we should celebrate every time the UFL takes a step forward, because if they make it and to make it big, there is no doubt that the Capital Region is the type of area that the UFL would look to to expand.

Scoff at it today, but the American League and ABA and American Football League had major mergers to help make MLB the NBA and NFL what they are today. If we want to be a part of something bigger, this may be the first step.

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