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Wild Card: Fashion Faux Pas
If Jerry Seinfeld's right that we baseball fans really just root for laundry, then it only seems appropriate that, after all of the words spilled on new faces in new places (or rather, old faces in new laundry), we spill a few on the laundry itself. This year, the Diamondbacks and Reds have entirely new looks. New designs were sorely needed in both cases, though both could have done better than what they ultimately came up with. The Reds became victims of the dreaded black drop shadow in 1999 and, though they are one of the few teams with some historical claim to black as a team color, the Reds always looked better when they either stuck exclusively to red and white, or used navy instead of black. Their new duds greatly reduce the amount of black in their color scheme, but that blasted drop shadow is still there.
The Diamondbacks were the clear choice for worst uniform in the majors from the moment they entered the league in 1998. (So much for Buck Showalter's reputation as a traditionalist; even a dirt path to the pitchers mound couldn't make up for the Snakes' seemingly endless combinations of purple, teal, gold, and black.) They've finally toned things down, but now they just look like the Astros. Despite the lack of creativity in the D-backs' new design (see also the Washington Nationals), their wholesale color scheme change is actually rather historic.
Many teams have added or deleted third or even fourth colors (such as the Mets, Royals, Rangers, and Reds flirtation with black drop shadows in recent years). Some have completely inverted the significance of their main two colors (see the Angels and Rangers, who went from predominantly blue with red highlights to the reverse, and, in the case of the Rangers, back again). Others have made gradual changes to their color schemes, such as the Padres switching from yellow and brown, to yellow, orange, and brown, to just orange and brown, to orange and blue, to blue and "sand" over the course of a quarter century. Still others have made what amount to changes in tint, the most extreme being the Astros, whose colors had always been based in orange and navy, but who switched to rust and black in 2000. Similarly the White Sox have always used some combination of navy, black and red, though at different times they've reduced their color scheme to just one of the three, the most striking recent examples being their early ‘70s duds, the home versions of which looked exactly like their current home unis but whereas the current versions are entirely black and white, the 1971 to 1975 versions were entirely red and white.
What the Diamondbacks have done, however, is to change their entire color scheme in the course of a single winter, something that has only happened twice before in modern major-league history. The first time was in 1948 when the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had always worn some combination of blue and red, adopted the colors of the Pittsburgh city flag, the black and gold since worn by the city's other two major sports franchises, the NFL's Steelers and NHL's Penguins. The second came in the wake of Charlie O. Finley's 1961 purchase of the Kansas City Athletics. The Athletics too had worn only shades of blue with occasional use of red throughout their history in Philadelphia and Kansas City, but in their third year under Finley they took the field in colors Finley dubbed "kelly green," "Fort Knox gold," and "wedding gown white." Mickey Mantle said the A's, "should have come out of the dugout on tippy-toes, holding hands and singing." The Mick's homophobia aside, that sort of strong reaction was exactly what Finley was going for. His A's didn't just use their green and gold on stripes and text, they wore bright yellow vests and pants with green hats, green undersleeves, and green stirrups. Remember, this was back when uniforms were wool and the last active player to sport a moustache during the regular season was Frenchy Bordagaray in 1936. (Actually, there was a third instance, but the Brooklyn Dodgers' flirtation with green lasted just one season before they returned to their traditional Dodger blue, whereas the other two changes persist to this day, even despite such horrors as this).
What exactly the Diamonbacks are trying to accomplish with their new colors is more difficult to discern. The team's official press release stated that the new colors were "chosen to better represent the personality and beauty of Arizona." I get that. The connection between their new shade of red and the rocks in Sedona is obvious. But when the Pirates and A's made their palette changes, they distinguished themselves in the process. No other major-league team before or since has worn Finley's green and gold or Pittsburgh's green and black. The Diamondbacks, however, look almost exactly like the Astros, who have been wearing "brick red" and black since 2000, supposedly in tribute to the importance of railroads in Houston's history (which only makes sense for a team first named after a gun and then for the city's connection to the space program). Then again, anything that will prevent things like this from happening has got to be considered an improvement. It's just troubling that something so historic could seem so uninspired.
Cliff Corcoran is the co-author of Bronx Banter.
Labels: Wild Card
AL West: Young Guns
Glancing at AL West lineups, it doesn't take an expert to recognize the division's offensive ineptitude. Oakland won the pennant last season while batting .260 (25th in MLB) with a .412 slugging percentage (27th). Outside of the Rangers, no team finished in the top half of the mamjors in runs scored or home runs ... and that was before the division lost big boppers Carlos Lee and Frank Thomas in the offseason.
But what the league lacks in offense, it makes up in pitching. Both the A's and Angels finished last season in the top seven in the majors in team ERA and the Rangers joined those two in the top seven in bullpen ERA. In the AL West, arms, not bats, are king. And this year should be no different.
Much of the division's finest pitching talent is young -- like carded-at-the-bar young. Whether starters, relievers or closers, a number of AL West hurlers enter the '07 campaign with an integral role and a birth date in the Reagan Administration.
Here's my top 10 best Reaganites (pitchers born between 1981 and 1989) in the AL West. In a tight division with little offensive pop (don't take it personally, Vlad and Tex), this group of adolescent arms will play a key role in deciding the final pecking order ... whether they can legally rent a car or not.
10. Chad Gaudin, A's, 24
2006 key stats: 64 IP, 3,09 ERA, 36 K, 42 BB
Skinny: After a solid year in the 'pen, Gaudin earns a chance in the rotation with the injury to Esteban Loaiza.
9. Brandon Morrow, Mariners, 22
2006 key stats: 16 IP, 2.25 ERA, 17 Ks in low-level minor leagues Skinny: Picked fifth overall in the 2006 draft, the fireballer made the Opening Day roster after just 10 months in pro baseball. He'll work out of a bullpen that lost Rafael Soriano (trade) and Mark Lowe (injury) from last season.
8. Robinson Tejeda, Rangers, 25
2006 key stats: 5-5, 4.28 ERA, 40 K, 32 BB
Skinny: Tejeda boasts an impressive arsenal of pitches, highlighted by a live fastball, but consistency is a big question for Texas' fourth starter.
7. Brandon McCarthy, Rangers, 23
2006 key stats: 84.2 IP, 4.68 ERA, 69 K, 33 BB
Skinny: Finally given a chance to start in Arlington, McCarthy will serve as the Rangers' No. 3 and must prove Texas made the right move in giving up top pitching prospect John Danks.
6. Ervin Santana, Angels, 24
2006 key stats: 16-8, 4.28 ERA, 141 K, 70 BB
Skinny: Santana, who excelled last season while mostly using just two pitches (fastball and changeup), claims he perfected a tight-spinning slider during spring training.
5. Rich Harden, A's, 25
2006 key stats: 4-0, 4.24 ERA, 49 K, 26 BB
Skinny: If he can stay off the DL (big "if"), he'll put together monster numbers on the strength of a high 90s fastball and unique splitter.
4. Jered Weaver, Angels, 24
2006 key stats: 11-2, 2.56 ERA, 105 K, 33 BB
Skinny: Currently on the DL for biceps tendonitis, Weaver must prove he can handle the grind of an entire season in the bigs. In 19 starts last season, Weaver showed highly advanced command of his pitches.
3. Felix Hernandez, Mariners, 20
2006 key stats: 12-14, 4.52 ERA, 176 K, 60 BB
Skinny: As evidenced by his Opening Day start against the A's, when he has command of his filthy arsenal, he's virtually unhittable.
2. Huston Street, A's, 23
2006 key stats: 37 saves, 3.81 ERA, 67 K, 13 BB
Skinny: Following a brilliant Rookie of the Year season in '05, Street's sophomore campaign was much more of a roller-coaster ride.
1. Francisco Rodriguez, Angels, 25
2006 key stats: 47 saves, 1.73 ERA, 98 K, 28 BB
Skinny: Yes, somehow he's still only 25. And yes, he may be the most dominant closer in the game today.
K-Fraud?Since taking the 2002 playoffs by storm, K-Rod has established himself as one of the nastiest pitchers in the game. But is his filthiness a byproduct of ball doctoring? "The Cheaters Guide to Baseball Blog" caught the Angels closer repeatedly going to his hat during his opening-day save. A close inspection of the pictures reveal some sort of white substance on the brim of his hat.
Labels: AL West
NL East: A Wicked Googly
Hello from London, where last night the streets near Leicester Square were lined with fans peering through pub windows to catch the latest bats n' balls action -– of the cricket variety, of course. Despite losing a nail-biter to Sri Lanka in Antigua yesterday, England, behind captain Michael Vaughan, slugger Kevin Pietersen and fan favorite Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff, remains barely alive in the Cricket World Cup, which is very unfortunately more than can be said for Pakistan's coach Bob Woolmer and this young India fan.
When I was a youngster living in England in the mid-80s, the only way for an American boy to follow the exploits of the Mattinglys and Strawberrys closer to his heart was to scurry downstairs as the sun rose each morning and pray that the kind editors of the many British dailies had deigned to publish tiny 8-point box scores in the back pages of their sports sections.
These days, thanks to the magic of the Internets, the task is far easier; and ironically, it's easiest of all for fans of the Washington Nationals. Although the team fielded an Opening Day lineup that many think might rank among the worst in decades, the Nationals' blogosphere ranks as baseball's best, which can be attributed to two primary factors. First, D.C.'s a blog-mad town, the most famous examples being Wonkette and the salacious and now-defunct Washingtonienne. Second, the art of blogging thrives more on the ridiculous than the sublime -– and there's been a healthy dose of the former in the Nats' short history, and promises to be a good deal more in 2007.
The Nats' brass views its fans' chatter -– even the incessant (and deserved) "whinging," to use a favorite British-ism -– as nothing but a positive. "We want them to be talking about the Nationals all day, all night, at breakfast, at lunch, at dinner, after dinner," G.M. Jim Bowden told me in Florida this spring. "We want them to blog, we want them to read the Internet ... We want the fans to be part of us rebuilding this franchise. Stick with us in the tough times, and that way you really enjoy the great times that are coming." Sticking with the scuffling team are committed blogs that number in the dozens; the best include Federal Baseball, The Curly W, Ball-Wonk, District of Baseball, Nats 320, and Nationals Farm Authority.
The class of the so-called 'Natosphere,' however, is Capitol Punishment, authored by Capitol Hill worker Chris Needham, a die-hard Nats fan and blogger savant who posts several times a day. More often than not, his posts are of the tough love variety, such as his "StanSpeak" series in which he parses the public pronouncements of Nats president Stan Kasten. Needham was stunned -– and slightly afraid -– when he opened his inbox after he'd written a particularly colorful StanSpeak installment in early February to discover an e-mail from the former overseer of the Atlanta Braves' dynasty himself. All Kasten wanted to do, the Washington Post reports, was to express his love for Capitol Punishment; he later had Needham call him and inquired as to why Needham hadn't renewed his partial season-ticket plan.
Needham's still at it this spring: In an opening day post called "... At Least It's Baseball," he writes, "Screw you to Kasten/Aramark/Whoever for 1) raising beer prices 2) eliminating the one place that had cheap beer in the park." Kasten never had to deal with this in his heady days in Atlanta; one imagines him reaching for the phone and entering "Needham" into his speed-dial.
Until next week, when I'm back on American soil ...
Labels: NL East
NL Central: Break up the Bucs!
I'm not ready to say that the Pittsburgh Pirates will be crowned 2007 NL Central champs six months from now. Not quite yet, anyway. I'll say this, though: Nowhere else in baseball is it as wide open as the NL Central, where even the Sanjaya Malakars of the division have a legit shot at first place. That is especially true if the Astros continue to roll out Brad Lidge -— eminently hittable for over two years now -— in save situations (the right-hander threw 26 pitches in his blown save against Pittsburgh on Opening Day and the Pirates swung and missed just five times and if Chris Carpenter, who's averaged 215 innings a season since returning from multiple shoulder surgeries in 2004, is indeed DL-bound (the Cards ace will miss at least one start because of elbow stiffness.
While the Astros and Cardinals, the giants of the NL Central over the last few years, both fell to 0-2 last night with losses to the Pirates and Mets, respectively, the Brewers -— my preseason pick to win the division -— improved to 2-0 thanks to two guys GM Doug Melvin netted in return for free agent-to-be Carlos Lee last July.
After posting a .500 record for the first time since 1992 in 2005, the Brew Crew took a step back last season, finishing fourth, but I agree with the NL exec I recently talked to who thinks the Brew Crew could own the division this year -— and beyond. "I like Carpenter as much as the next guy but when he's healthy Ben Sheets is the best pitcher in the league," said the exec. "If he makes 30 starts, he's going to win a Cy Young and [the Brewers] will be the team to beat in the Central. And you know what? It could be the first of many first-place finishes. With Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, and now Ryan Braun on the way, they have a pretty impressive young infield that could be the best out there in a few years."
When the Brewers go for the sweep against the Dodgers tonight, Milwaukee will get its first look at $42 million free-agent acquisition Jeff Suppan, who last year had a 5.36 ERA away from the new Busch Stadium and in his Brewer debut faces his hometown team.
Labels: NL Central
AL Central: Meche's Revenge
Gil Meche is underpaid.
In one start -– excuse me, one masterpiece -– the 55 Million Dollar Man quickly quieted skeptics who thought him vastly overcompensated. Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, as he still might be, but Meche almost effortlessly shut down the vaunted Red Sox lineup, yielding just one run in 7 1/3 innings and striking out six.
Perhaps more importantly, he left to a standing ovation from the 41,257 fans at Kauffman Stadium. Officially, that's 101.2 percent of capacity. Shy of anything commemorating the 1985 World Series, what other recent reason have Royals fans had to get excited? Plus, Boston fans are known for traveling well -– they averaged the second-most fans per road game in 2006 -– but the Kauffman crowd seemed overwhelmingly full of the local faithful, creating a rare homefield advantage.
It's one thing to pin the hopes of a downtrodden franchise on a core of prospects as promising as Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and Luke Hochevar, but it's another thing to do it while losing 100 or more games for three straight years (and counting). Attendance has declined in K.C. each of those years, and that's not a coincidence.
That's why new Royals general manager Dayton Moore was wise to up his team's payroll to $60 million this offseason; though paltry compared to Opening Day victim Boston, it is a club record and that is a sign of progress. Meche, who at the time of his signing had only one career win for each of $1 million he was to receive from the Royals (perhaps that's why he wears jersey No. 55), is unproven as an ace but has room to grow at 28. And, though the intense focus on his contract might have suggested otherwise, he was not the Royals' only acquisition -- they also added closer Octavio Dotel, setup man David Riske, catcher Jason LaRue, outfielder Ross Gload and shortstop Tony Pena Jr.
None of those players are true difference-makers -– and Dotel already might be DL-bound with an oblique injury -– but it's a cast of role players who will keep the team competitive in a challenging division, especially when supported by Gordon, baseball's top prospect, and first baseman Ryan Shealy, who could thrive in a full-time role. It won't be long before Butler, the 20-year-old hitting phenom, is summoned from Omaha despite his defensive deficiencies; he won a batting title in Double-A Wichita last year and hit .419 in his 31 at-bats in big-league camp this spring.
Around the AL Central yesterday, Johan Santana struggled in a Twins win; the Tigers raised their AL pennant but lost; and the Indians pounded Jose Contreras and the White Sox; but it was the Royals who were the talk of the division.
Kansas City improved its roster from top to bottom, which admittedly wasn't hard for a club with a majors-worst -214 run differential last season. Meche gained headlines for signing a seemingly ludicrous contact this winter, but at least it provided some notoriety for an attention-starved team. That's a step in the right direction toward relevancy.
And that's why Meche is the current leader for the title of offseason's biggest bargain.
Labels: AL Central
For the record
NL West: Recognize the Rockies
Let me begin with a disclaimer: I have a soft spot for the state of Colorado. I'm a sucker for its mountains and mountain air, its entire outdoors-infused, breathmint-fresh way of life. The most mundane activity takes on a cleaner, crisper feel when I picture it at Rocky Mountain High.
Colorado's baseball team has been sort of a reality-check to this travel-brochure fantasy. The Rockies have begun most baseball seasons DOA. It has been more than six years since their last winning season and more than 11 since their one and only playoff appearance, which immediately went downhill when Don Baylor's managing left Colorado with pitcher Lance Painter (10 career hits) striking out as a pinch-hitter with the bases loaded at the end of a 5-4 defeat in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.
Look around the Internet, and few expect the Rockies to put an end to their misfortune in 2007. But there's a wind blowing out of Denver -- one that perhaps should send a little shiver down the spines of the Rockies' National League West rivals.
As Rockies blog Purple Row pointed out over the weekend, the Rockies have a middle of the lineup that people should take notice of. Garret Atkins (.310), Todd Helton (.291), Matt Holliday (.304) and Brad Hawpe (.287) form the only foursome in the division with park-adjusted equivalent averages last season of .285 or better, according to Baseball Prospectus. For the uninitiated, that's a fancy way of saying these guys can hit, and that it's not just Coors Field souping up their numbers.
So why isn't that enough to put Colorado in the prognosticators' pockets? Well, there's uncertainty at the top of the lineup, where Willy Taveras and Kazuo Matsui inspire little fear, and at the bottom, which is dependent on promising but unproven rookies Troy Tulowitzki and Chris Iannetta. And though Aaron Cook and Jeff Francis form an underrated front of the starting rotation, the back is shakier than the ground beneath an avalanche.
In all likelihood, the Dodgers, Padres, Diamondbacks and Giants can probably hold their breath as they push through the heart of the Rockies' batting order and exhale by most games' ends. But when SI.com asked me to pick a surprise story of the year, my thoughts soon landed on those rugged Rocky peaks. If Atkins, Helton, Holliday and Hawpe can just get their good games in sync with the pitchers, I can't help thinking that long-suffering Colorado, which actually found itself tied for first place on Independence Day last season, might finally follow through on its promise to bring us the most frigid October baseball we've ever seen.
Some other Opening Week notes:
Jon Weisman is an SI.com columnist and founder of Dodger Thoughts.
Labels: NL West
AL East blog (Monday)
NL West blog (Monday)
AL Central blog (Tuesday)
NL Central blog (Wednesday)
AL West blog (Thursday)
NL East blog (Thursday)
Wild Card (Friday)