In stacked AL, Blue Jays and Orioles will again suffer the most
The unnbalanced schedule has been especially harmful for Toronto, Baltimore
They're not stars, but these Opening Day starters deserve some recognition
The Dodgers' new ownership group has a lot to do to turn the franchise around
With the injury problems that have beset the Phillies, it is very possible that if you ranked the major league teams from 1 through 30, you might go through six American League clubs before you reached your first National League squad. See if you agree with this order: 1. Angels. 2. Yankees. 3. Rangers. 4. Tigers. 5. Rays. 6. Red Sox. 7. Phillies.
Such a sequence means an AL team that would finish out of the playoffs would be the best team in the NL. One league's non-playoff team is another league's number 1 seed. Such is the imbalance of power, particularly with stars such as Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Yu Darvish, Carlos Peña, Hiroki Kuroda and Kendrys Morales (who missed 2011 due to injury) all new to the elite AL teams this year.
What happened? The Boston-New York rivalry has caused tides to rise in the AL, especially lately with the new game-changing regional sports network money for the Angels and Rangers, the impulsiveness of Tigers owner Mike Ilitch and the pitching development acumen of the Rays. This didn't happen overnight. Check out the table at right for the best records in baseball from 2009-11:
What's so crazy about that list is that three of the four best teams in baseball over the past four years play in the same division. Poor Toronto and Baltimore. I started thinking about how the second wild card this year might benefit the Blue Jays and Orioles. Toronto has waited 18 years for a postseason game. Baltimore has waited 14 years. Only two cities are experiencing a longer drought between postseason games: Kansas City (26 years) and Pittsburgh (19 years). At least Toronto and Baltimore have the excuse of playing in baseball's toughest division.
(Keep in mind that the AL is much more top-heavy than the NL, which is better balanced and should have more teams in contention come the stretch run.)
The unbalanced schedule works so much against the Jays and Orioles, I'm not sure the extra wild card is going to help them much. Just how difficult is their task? First, consider that over the past four seasons the Jays and Orioles have played 33 percent of their games against the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox (216). By comparison, the Rangers have played just 17 percent against the Big Three (109) and the Tigers only 9 percent (60).
Of the 24 season series Toronto and Baltimore have played against the Big Three over the past four seasons, they are 1-19-4. Here are the composite won-lost records from 2009-11 against the Big Three and against all others for Toronto and Baltimore, as well as Texas and Detroit for comparative purposes:
It's clear that the Blue Jays and Orioles are getting hammered by their division rivals. Don't make the mistake of entirely excusing Baltimore's organizational woes on the schedule or that Toronto deserves a free pass. Both teams have done less with more money and better ballparks than the Rays. The point is that the schedule and the strengths of the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox have made Toronto and Baltimore appear worse off than their talent level. Here's one way to look at it: If you set aside the Bataan marches through New York, Tampa and Boston, the Blue Jays over the past four years have a better record than every NL team except the Phillies -- and yet they haven't sniffed the postseason.
I don't see much room for improvement this year for Toronto and Baltimore. The key for those teams (and many others) falls not so much with the extra wild card as it does the 2013 schedule. With Houston moving to the AL West next season, we will get two 15-team leagues and year-round interleague play that require a major change to the schedule.
The most important issue will be how many intra-divisional games each team will play. Commissioner Bud Selig is adamant about keeping some form of an unbalanced schedule (to protect rivalries and as many local starting times in prime time as possible). But will the intra-divisional games be scaled back? Will the Jays and Orioles get some relief from the Big Three? Major League Baseball must present a 2013 preliminary schedule to the players association this summer. The added wild card gets all the attention, but the schedule format may have an enormous impact on teams, especially the Blue Jays and Orioles.
There are 30 Opening Day starters in the big leagues, but not 30 aces. Somebody has to take the ball on Opening Day, just as Kevin Correia, Carl Pavano, Livan Hernandez and Tim Stauffer did last year.
But no matter how the assignment is derived, an Opening Day start is an honor, especially when it is the first one in a pitcher's career. Not all Opening Day assignments officially have been announced yet, but here are seven guys who are getting the ball on Opening Day for the first time. In many cases, it's been a long, hard road to Day One.
Bruce Chen, 34, Royals. He has pitched for 10 teams across 13 years in the big leagues, but only once threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.
Wandy Rodriguez, 33, Astros. He didn't make his big league debut until age 26, and has become what on most staffs would be a reliable middle-of-the-rotation starter.
Colby Lewis, 32, Rangers. At age 30, he had a career record of 12-15 in the majors and 26-17 in Nippon Pro Baseball. He since has become a reliable Rangers workhorse with a postseason record of 4-1 with a 2.34 ERA in eight starts.
Brandon McCarthy, 28, Athletics. Until last year, McCarthy was 20-24 with a 4.56 ERA over an injury-riddled career while joining his third organization. But he had a breakout year in 2011 (the best FIP among AL starters) to earn the honor of throwing the first pitch of this MLB season.
Justin Masterson, 27, Indians. He owns a career record of 28-38, but also did have a breakout 2011 season with a 3.21 ERA over 216 innings.
John Danks, 26, White Sox. He also has a losing career record (54-56), but he's young, durable and under contract for five years and $65 million.
Stephen Strasburg, 23, Nationals. There is a pretty good chance this will be one of many more Opening Day assignments for him. Looking for career win number seven. His time is now for a breakout year. (He is older than the Tigers' Rick Porcello and the Giants' Madison Bumgarner.)
The sale of the Dodgers to Mark Walter, Magic Johnson and Stan Kasten could alter the landscape of the National League -- and quickly. Major League Baseball has been hurt in the past two years by the decline of its NL franchises in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. With new ownership and windfall of TV money about to drop in their laps, the Dodgers are best positioned for the quickest turnaround. In chronological order, here are the items the new owners need to address to make it happen:
1. Improve lighting and security presence in and around Dodger Stadium. The ballpark has developed a reputation as an unwelcoming, even unsafe place. Advance scouts talk about the trepidation of leaving the grounds late after night games. That image has to change to something much more family-friendly. Last season the Dodgers' attendance dropped to its lowest level in 11 years and the Angels outdrew the Dodgers for the first time.
2. Invest in amateur talent. The Dodgers used to have the reputation as an industry leader in finding international talent. In each of the past two seasons under Frank McCourt, they ranked dead last in money spent on international signings. According to Baseball America, they spent just $490,000 combined on international players over the past two years. They also ranked 25th in spending on 2011 draft picks.
3. Add payroll at the trade deadline. GM Ned Colletti has worked deftly to improve the team in July, but almost always with payroll-neutral deals. The Dodgers were 41-28 after the break last year, have franchise players in Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp and are close enough to the postseason to now treat July as an important acquisition period.
4. Own free agency. Hello, Cole Hamels. On deck: Joey Votto. It is typical for new owners to put their stamp on the club quickly. The Red Sox tried with Jose Contreras and succeeded with Curt Schilling. The Giants did it with Barry Bonds. The Dodgers, in their first winter under Fox, did it with Kevin Brown. Hamels, Matt Cain and Josh Hamilton, all entering their walk years, must be thrilled that a major market team is ready to spend big this winter.
The Dodgers are spending about $120 million on payroll this year -- about the same as the Giants but $20 million less than the Angels. Other than a contract that pays Kemp through 2019, they have almost no money committed beyond next season (one year of Chad Billingsley). They could soon be spending 20 percent more above everybody else in the division.