Tag Archives: Major League Baseball

Phils’ Vote for Pedro

Just two weeks ago to the day, I penned an article titled “What’s Wrong With the Phillies?” The answer apparently was as simple as a 9-1 homestand, highlighted by a 22-run outburst near the front end that my wife and I attended, and by a dramatic 8-7 comeback win in the 9th inning near the back end.

Thanks to the sudden burst of inspired play, the Phils moved back to 10 games over the .500 mark, and opened up a four game lead on their nearest challengers, the Florida Marlins. The rival New York Mets? They have been buried under an avalanche of injuries that has them sitting with a losing record, 6 1/2 games behind the Phillies.

One of the biggest reasons that the Phils turned things around was the long-anticipated emergence of the ‘real’ Jimmy Rollins. The straw that stirs the world champions drink finally began to hit on the homestand, and with the return of Raul Ibanez from injury the team appears to again be the best offensive club in the National League.

But the starting pitching remains an enigma. The early season loss of Brett Myers is beginning to catch up to the rotation. The ace, Cole Hamels, has been extremely inconsistent. He was outstanding in that 22-1 win over Cincinnati, but then got whacked around by the Pirates over the weekend. Jamey Moyer has been ineffective, to put it nicely. Joe Blanton had a strong outing to build on his last time out, and J.A. Happ remains the most consistently strong starter.

For all of the offensive and defensive talents of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, Raul Ibanez, Jimmy Rollins, Pedro Feliz and the rest, it will be the pitching staff that likely determines how far the team will go should it reach the post-season.

To that end, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr and the Phillies brain trust have left no stone unturned in an effort to improve the pitching staff. Today the club took their first step forward by signing former all-star and future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez to a 1-year contract.

From the time he truly broke out as a 25-year old with the Montreal Expos in 1997 through his 7 memorable season with the Boston Red Sox, and on into his first full season with the New York Mets in 2005, Pedro was one of the best pitchers in baseball. He has 214 career wins, a career 2.91 ERA, has struck out 3,117 batters, and has won the Cy Young Award in both leagues.

Unfortunately, the Phillies did not sign that Pedro Martinez.

Oh, he’s the same man. But at age 38, not having pitched all season in the Major Leagues, the Pedro whom the Phillies signed is a shadow of his former self. That said, I still believe that he can help this Phillies team win this year, and quite obviously the Phillies believe that as well.

Martinez has been placed on the DL with what is described as a mild shoulder strain to start his Phillies career. The organization believes that he will be able to compete again in 2-3 weeks. The guess is that in about two weeks he will be scheduled for a minor league rehab assignment, and his progress during those starts will dictate his callup to the Phillies sometime in the 2nd or 3rd week of August.

If the Phillies get 6-8 good starts out of Martinez that help win the pennant in August and September, that will have been well worth the investment. If not, they are probably out nothing more than the $1 million that he has been contracted for at minimum. It is a risk well worth taking, that Pedro’s guile, experience, and remaining talents can help the club down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Now with Pedro Martinez aboard, the Phillies have added a decent depth option to their starting rotation. But what they really need in order to nail down the division and advance deep into the playoffs again is a big improvement at the front of the rotation. Whether that comes from Cole Hamels finding his winning form, or from a trade for a true ace like Roy Halladay, or both, it remains a necessity.

MLB 2009: American League

Our World Series Champion Philadelphia Phillies will open up defense of their crown on Sunday night at Citizens Bank Park in a nationally televised game against the Atlanta Braves. For the next three days leading up to Opening Day, I will take a look at Major League Baseball’s upcoming 2009 season, beginning today with a look at the American League, continuing on Friday with the National League, and then finally on Saturday taking a close look at the Fightin’ Phils in particular. All talk about contention for the American League pennant has to start in the East Division, home to three of the best teams in baseball. The defending A.L. champion Tampa Bay Rays didn’t do much in the off-season, but they did make the one move that they really needed, adding a strong, veteran right-handed bat to their lineup. I think most of you may have heard of him. His name: Pat Burrell. Yup, ‘Pat the Bat’ (pictured), who helped dash the Rays hopes in last fall’s World Series with a booming double high off the top of the centerfield wall to lead off the bottom of the 7th inning of a tied-up Game #5 signed with those Rays as a free agent. The fact was that the Phils never really made an offer to Burrell, who was beginning to become a defensive liability in left field and whose bat was always streaky. That double was in fact his only hit of the World Series. Still, thanks to a nice career overall and that final ringing heroic moment, Burrell will always deserve and receive affection from Phillies fans. He comes to a team that remains one of the youngest in baseball, but also one of its most talented. 3rd baseman Evan Longoria and outfielder B.J. Upton are two of baseball’s biggest rising stars. 1st baseman Carlos Pena and outfielder Carl Crawford are two of game’s biggest offensive threats. Their middle infield of 2nd baseman Akinori Iwamura, who just helped Japan win the World Baseball Classic for the 2nd straight time, and shortstop Jason Bartlett, who was thrown out at home plate in that ‘fake throw’ play in the deciding World Series game by Chase Utley that is legendary in Phillies lore, are both underrated and make a strong doubleplay combination. On the mound, the Rays sent perhaps their future best pitcher in David Price to the minor leagues to begin the season. He will be back by May at the latest, and he will be one of the game’s elite arms this season and in years to come. Along with Price the Rays bring talent and depth to the rotation with James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza and others. The one weak link could perhaps be the bullpen, which performed well a year ago, but whose closer Troy Percival got hurt late in the year and is always an injury risk. The Rays may need to dip into that young talent pool to solidify the back end of their bullpen, but given health they will battle the Yankees and Red Sox for the AL East crown and another trip to the World Series. Those Yankees are moving into new digs this year at the billion dollar ‘New Yankee Stadium’, which replaces the legendary ‘House That Ruth Built’. It will be new surroundings for the Bronx Bombers, and they will have some dynamic new faces to play there after a typical free agent signing spree. The new 1st baseman, Mark Teixeira, is perhaps the best all-around player at his position in the game. His bat should help ease the sting of losing 3rd baseman Alex Rodriguez to injury. A-Rod suffered through a difficult off-season that was mostly of his own making, but it may be the injury that proves most hurtful to the Yanks chances. The team needs him to recover and come back in May as the ARod of old, or it may struggle all year on offense. Shortstop Derek Jeter is slipping a bit, but remains the consummate team leader. On the mound, the Yanks shored up their rotation by signing both C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and get a healthy Chien-Ming Wang back from injury. They team with veteran Andy Pettitte and young phenom Joba Chamberlain to give the Yanks one of the best rotations in the game, one that will keep them in the pennant race to the end. Closer Mariano Rivera, a future Hall of Famer, is still around to shut the door at the end. In Boston, the beloved Red Sox are also talent-rich on the mound. The rotation is led by Josh Beckett and Daisuke ‘Dice-K’ Matsuzaka, who was just named the MVP of the World Baseball Classic for the 2nd straight time. These two veterans will be sandwiched between one of the best young arms in the game in Jon Lester, who overcame a cancer scare a couple years back and is ready to step to the elite level. The Bosox bullpen, finished off by closer Jonathan Papelbon, may be the best in the division. On offense the key will be whether David ‘Big Papi’ Ortiz can continue to be a legitimate big power source in the middle of the batting order. The club also has some aging and injury-prone veteran bats in outfielder J.D. Drew, 3rd baseman Mike Lowell, and catcher Jason Varitek. But it also has a couple of exciting youngsters in gritty MVP 2nd baseman Dustin Pedroia and outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. That is my prediction for the 1-2-3 positions in baseball’s strongest division, with the Rays edging out the Yanks and Red Sox. The Central Division looks to me to be a complete toss-up, with everyone except the Royals having a legitimate shot. The Minnesota Twins chances hinge on sensational catcher and team leader Joe Mauer being able to stay healthy for most of the season, because they have enough pitching to stay with the others. The Cleveland Indians are led by MVP candidate centerfielder Grady Sizemore, but have a ton of questions. Get the right answers and they contend as well. The Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox, who won the division a year ago in a playoff with Minnesota, have similarly solid lineups with question marks up and down. In this division, I will go with the White Sox and manager Ozzie Guillen to find a way to again come out on top, with Cleveland and Minnesota hot on their heels if they stay healthy. Out in the West Division, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have been the perennial favorites, but they are starting to come back to an improving pack. They lost record-setting closer Francisco ‘KRod’ Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira to free agency, and now their top two starters in John Lackey and Ervin Santana are hurt and will at least begin the season on the DL. With veteran superstar Vlad Guerrero perhaps aging quickly, this could be a struggling season for the Halos. On their heels if they can find any reasonable starting pitching will be the improving Texas Rangers. The Rangers have some of the most explosive bats in the game. Outfielder Josh Hamilton, whose remarkable comeback from drug addiction has been highly publicized, is an MVP candidate. 2nd baseman Ian Kinsler rivals the Phils’ Chase Utley as the top offensive player in the game at the position. 1st baseman Chris Davis and 3rd baseman Michael Young are also premier offensive talents. The play of rookie shortstop Elvis Andrus could be a key here, along with that pitching. The Oakland A’s picked up a trio of veteran bats in the off-season in 1st baseman Jason Giambi, shortstop Orlando Cabrera, and outfielder Matt Holliday. Combine these with a young but talented pitching staff and the A’s could surprise as well. I am going way out on a limb here and picking the Rangers to take the west, followed closely by the Angels and A’s. In the playoffs, I just cannot see any of the other teams being able to matchup with the Rays-Yankees-Red Sox combination. Funny thing is, only two of those clubs can make the post-season even though they will likely be the three best teams in the A.L. overall. Call it a Rays-Yankees showdown for the pennant, with the youthful Rays overcoming the Yanks’ first playoff appearance in their new ballpark. As long as Longoria, Upton, Pena, Crawford, and Burrell stay healthy, Pat the Bat could be returning to the big stage of the World Series this coming fall.

2009 World Baseball Classic Reaches Finale

While many sports fans are preoccupied this weekend with the opening rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and their own bracket pools, another big tournament is coming to a conclusion. The 2nd-ever World Baseball Classic has been taking place over the past two weeks, and the original 16 competing nations have been whittled down to a Final Four through two rounds of play. Opening round drama was provided by a tremendous pair of upset victories by the Netherlands in eliminating the powerful team from the Dominican Republic. In this past week’s 2nd round, it was a dramatic 3-run rally in the bottom of the 9th inning by the U.S. against Puerto Rico that enabled the Americans to advance into the semi-finals. Meanwhile the Cuban team was eliminated, meaning that for the first time in almost five decades they will not reach the finals of a major international tournament. Advancing into those semis which will take place tonight and tomorrow night are the United States, Venezuela, Korea, and the defending WBC champions from Japan. While the game of baseball was invented in the United States and became our ‘National Pasttime’, and while the depth of talent in America remains far above that in other nations, the fact is that the rest of the world has caught up at the top levels of competition. The team rosters in Major League Baseball are now made up of 40% players from nations outside the United States. Teams from the South American nations such as Venezuela and Mexico, from the Caribbean such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominicans, and from Asia in Japan and Korea, as well as the team from Canada are all highly competitive and most are now capable of winning any international competition, even one involving professional players. In today’s first semi-final, Korea will battle the Venezuelans. The Koreans advanced to the semis back in the first WBC in 2006, and used that success as a springboard to winning the gold medal at last year’s summer Olympics in China. They have just one Major League player in young Cleveland Indians outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, and have perhaps the youngest team in the semis. They also have the best defense in the tournament and a pitching staff that is sporting a 3.05 ERA. Their offense is led by third baseman Bum Ho Lee, who is hitting .375 with 3 homers and 6 rbi and first baseman Tae Kyun Kim, who is hitting .364 with 2 homers and 9 rbi during the tourney. Venezuela is loaded with 21 players from MLB, including stars such as Bobby Abreu, Miguel Cabrera, and Melvin Mora. They have the best offense in the tournament, hitting .309 as a team with almost half of their hits going for extra bases. It is a classic matchup of great pitching and defense against big bats. The pitching matchup will feature Carlos Silva for Venezuela against Suk-Min Yoon for Korea. Yoon has not yet allowed a run in the tournament. The other semi-final will take place on Sunday night pitting the United States against defending champion Japan. The Japanese are fully capable of winning again with a veteran cast of formidable players led by living legend outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and two of the best pitchers in the world in Daisuke ‘Dice K’ Matsuzaka and young phenom Yu Darvish. The Japanese team suffered a serious blow in their last game when slugging first baseman Suichi Murata, who was hitting .320 with 2 homers and 7 rbi, suffered a torn right hamstring and will miss the rest of the tournament. His loss takes most of the power from Japan’s lineup, but they still have the pitching, speed, and experience to win it all. The Americans’ 9th inning rally against Puerto Rico advanced them to the semis after missing them in 2006. This year’s squad is led by third baseman David Wright, shortstop Derek Jeter, and a pair of Phillies in Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, along with a number of other familiar big leaguers including Ryan Braun, Brian Roberts, Brian McCann, and Evan Longoria. The depth of American talent has allowed them to overcome injuries to Chipper Jones, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis. The semi-final pitching matchup will be one of talented veterans, with the Red Sox ace ‘Dice K’ going for Japan against Houston Astros ace Roy Oswalt for Team USA. The weekend’s semi-final winners will advance to the championship game of the WBC on Monday night. Whichever teams are involved, it will surely be a baseball classic worthy of your attention. In the 2006 WBC, the Japanese offense opened up on Cuba for a 10-6 win that ended a classic three-week period of play, and this year has been no less exciting. So while you follow the NCAA basketball tourney this weekend, remember too that on the next three nights you can also follow the best that international baseball has to offer with the conclusion of the 2nd-ever World Baseball Classic. NOTE: The games of the WBC can be followed on ESPN and ESPN2, and the title of this story is a link to further information on the topic, in this case to the official WBC website complete with video, stats, and feature columns.

How to Handle the ‘Steroid Era’ in Baseball

I wanted to wait a bit before fully forming and stating my opinion after last week’s announcement by Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees that he had previously used steroids to enhance his on-field performance. I’ve been asked about it by a number of people already who know of my life-long love affair with the game. Most of them come with their opinions already made up on the issue. Many of them appear to be knee-jerk reactions and spoon-fed opinions that sound as if they’ve been developed by too much listening to radio and television commentators. I’ve largely stayed away from that kind of editorial on the issue, and so the opinion that I am going to give comes purely from my mind and my heart. I think that what baseball should do in regards to records set and player performance during the so-called ‘Steroid Era’ is largely this: nothing. No one ever put an asterisk next to Hank Aaron’s homerun record and said “If only World War II wouldn’t have happened, Ted Williams would have this record.” When Aaron and Mays were taking their runs at the all-time homerun record as it was held by Babe Ruth, no one suggested putting an asterisk next to Ruth’s record and said “If Ruth had to face the great black and Latino pitchers and keep the same travel schedule as today’s stars, he would never have come close to 714.” The fact is that baseball has come through a number of different eras during its long development into our national pastime. Many of these eras saw dynamic shifts in the way that the game was played which had dramatic effects on the games collective and players individual records. No one in their right mind can possibly argue that players such as Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Christy Matthewson, Jimmy Foxx and all of the other white players who played through and set their records during the era of ‘whites only’ baseball could possibly have amassed those same statistics had the Major Leagues been integrated. These players would, of course, have still been superstars. They would have still put up strong numbers. But having to face a largely expanded skillful talent pool day-in and day-out? There is no way that with the increased black and Latino competition that their numbers would be quite as high as they are today. In the days when I was growing up with the game during the entirety of the 1970’s all seemed innocent to me. Men caught, threw and hit balls, ran the bases, and played the game with love and passion. Here in Philadelphia, my beloved Phillies began to win while I was still a young teen, and continued that winning for years. The players on that team were my idols: Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Tug McGraw, Pete Rose, Larry Bowa, Bob Boone, Gary Maddox and so many others. Their sweat, sacrifice, and sometimes their blood were left on the field. They played the game hard everyday, from city to city, all throughout the spring and summer and into early fall. Little did I know that these men had a glass bowl in the middle of their locker room containing tiny colored pills. These ‘uppers’ of ‘greenies’ as many called them were simply illegal narcotics that were available and used almost as if they were a bowl of M&M’s candies. Many of the players of that era could not have performed at those high levels over that time period under those conditions without the help that these performance-adhancing drugs provided them. Unlike many people who look at the game from the outside, I find two of the most unlikeable superstars of this recent steroid period to be somewhat sympathetic characters. Mark McGwire came out of college in the late 1980’s as simply a longballing beast. He was raw power, bashing 49 homeruns during his first full season of 1988 to win the A.L. Rookie of the Year Award. Over his first seven seasons, Big Mac slammed a total of 220 homeruns. He was just 28 years old at that point, just entering the prime of his career when he would make large amounts of money and put up the numbers that would establish his legend for all-time. And then the wheels fell off as his health deteriorated under the strain of a bad back. In 1993 & 1994, McGwire missed the vast majority of each season due to back troubles. He finally began to get some control over the problems in 1995, and it is my opinion that he used steroids to overcome the back troubles. I believe that Mark McGwire saw what was supposed to be a glorious career going up in smoke and made a deal with the devil to get back to health and his former superstar status. It worked, and as the results got better and better, McGwire got into the usage more and more, bulking himself up into the obvious physical monster that he eventually became when he broke the single-season homerun record in 1998 by hitting 70 bombs that year. I believe it was during that same summer of 1998 that the problems began for Barry Bonds. I believe that Bonds, all massive talent and massive ego, looked around at the pure adulation given that summer to McGwire and Sammy Sosa as they chased the homerun record and wondered why he, the greatest player in the game, was not afforded that same adulation. I believe that Bonds saw performance-adhancing drugs as necessary to catch-up to the new production levels that the game was now embracing, and so he jumped in head-first. The resulting combination of Bonds natural gifts and the drugs was something that the game had never before witnessed. Bonds broke McGwire’s record by hitting 73 homers in 2001, and then broke Aaron’s career mark in 2007, leaving his new career homerun record sitting at 762. McGwire began using steroids because he simply could not have physically continued playing the game without them. Bonds used because he believed that his true greatness would not be acknowledged without them. In both cases the players used during a period when these substances were not against the rules of baseball as relates to substance abuse. Like Bonds, I believe that Alex Rodriguez saw what was going on around him in the game and decided to see what levels he could achieve if he too tried these substances. His results were remarkable as well, and so the usage continued. Someone decided to take a fun nickname given to him once by Bowa of ‘A-Fraud’ and run with it. Really now, is there anyone out there who does not believe that Bonds, ARod and Roger Clemens would not be among the game’s greatest all-time players in any event? You can probably plug in many other names across the game over the past decade and a half, from Rafael Palmeiro to Juan Gonzalez, from Sammy Sosa to Mike Piazza, and any number of others as users of one substance or another. If Jose Canseco is to be believed, and it is looking more and more like he can be, then steroid use and the use of other substances has been rampant in the game. Just as in the 1970’s when not every player reached into the bowl of greenies, not every player used steroids during this most recent era, and not all those who tried them continued their usage. But with really no way of knowing truthfully who did what and when, there is little recourse for the record books. As for the standing of the individuals, the question remains as to how to evaluate players such as Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, ARod and others for Hall of Fame purposes, and simply for the purposes of their places among the pantheon of the legends of the game. I for one do not believe that these players should be dismissed. Barry Bonds was the first-ever 400-400 player by 1998, the first player in the history of the game to have hit 400 homeruns and stolen 400 bases. He was a multiple Gold Glove winner in left field. He was quite simply one of the half dozen greatest players in the history of the game long before he every likely used any type of performance enhancing substance. I believe that these players need to be judged against one another over this era, that the substance use should be taken into consideration at some level, but that it should not be the single determinant when evaluating their Hall of Fame credentials. The best way to handle the ‘Steroid Era’ in baseball is simply to acknowledge it, ensure that baseball is doing everything in its power to end it, and then move along with no asterisks and with common sense considerations for individual players, just as was done for the players of the ‘Whites Only’ era.