Thursday, June 30, 2005

Ryan Adams Gold

It's been an interesting season to be in New York. Of the year's great plot lines (the out-of-nowhere Nationals, the dumb-luck fortune of Ozzie Guillen and the White Sox, the competitive eating career of John Kruk), the Mets and Yankees certainly have to rank near the top. It's been a fascinating experience to watch first-hand as the Metropolitans have danced back and forth over the line of legitimacy while the Yankees try desperately to just stay above water. The fact that both clubs have essentially the same record is startling, both in terms of historical standing and fan perception. Met followers are pleased as rum punch, sensing that if Beltran can get right and Piazza can start hitting (former, likely; latter, impossible), their club might ride Pedro to the playoffs. Yankee fans however have been on a manic-depressive spree that would give Tom Cruise pause. They lose two and insist every coach be fired, then win one and state proudly that they're going all the way. The reality seems however, as we get closer and closer to the All-Star break, that these are .500 teams. And you don't need Rob Neyer to tell you that clubs like that aren't going anywhere.

The Yankees just released Paul Quantrill and Mike Stanton, two pitchers who haven't effectively gotten outs for over a year. But make no mistake, while fans should be pleased to finally see some initiative from the front office (what exactly took so long?), the chance that their replacements are an improvement is no better than random. If Scott Proctor and Colter Bean are the answer, then what is the question? There was a long-standing belief in New York that the Yanks were just having bad luck. Established veterans with impressive track records didn't all lose their skills at once. No one could be blamed, and after a win streak we'd all forget about this nonsense. Well, they had that streak and went right back to stinking. A streak that was, let the record show, born and bred almost entirely on the shoulders of Tino Martinez, a has-been mediocrity who was supposed to play twice a week. Without Bambtino's (throw up in mouth) miraculous home-run stretch, the NYY's season would be over right now. That's right, O-V-E-R. And The Ninth fakely apologizes, but who said good players aren't supposed to get old?

Whether the fault lies with Cashman, Georgey Fats, or the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, this is not a well-built club. Bernie Williams is done, everyone saw it last year. Giambi has gotten worse every year, and Matsui and Posada have never been more than very solid guys. The Womack and Jaret Wright signings were a joke, and sure, Pavano was bad luck, but Wang's emergence has evened that out. So this was a team, from the beginning of the year, that would need to be carried by Jeter, ARod, RJ and Sheffield, quite a feat with a lousy defense, good if not spectacular rotation, and awful bullpen in tow. Quantrill, Stanton, and Karsay were the rare trifecta of being extremely old, extremely bad, and extremely over-paid. Only wild arrogance or gross negligence would not have considered this a problem. Why wasn't it addressed? And who, may I ask, thinks it's wise to build a club with 4 DH's (Giambi, Bernie, Tino, and Sierra), none of whom are particularly good at hitting? Designated or not. New York radio Gods Mike Francesa and Chris Russo have pointed out, and accurately so, that no one saw this coming. The Yankees, therefore, shouldn't be held accountable. Fine. Ok. Vegas set their win over/under at 101, so they have a point. But very early on it was clear that something was up. The Yankees were not great, and we the viewer must have missed something in our pre-season evaluation. We realized our error, so why the heck didn't Brian Cashman? The flaws now seem obvious, shouldn't an astute baseball mind have picked them up a month earlier? Rob Neyer (second mention) pegged New York to win no more than 90 games season. How did he know it if the pros didn't?

The Yankees are now backed into a corner. Because they have no prospects, they're forced to consider trading valuable major leaguers, of which they have precious few, for reinforcements. Sheffield for Cameron. Cano and Wang for Clemens. These are on the table, and they might not be enough. And truly, realistically, how dare they even speak of such a thing? What other club in baseball would sit at .500, 6 games and two teams back of first, and rebuild for a stretch run? The Mets won't, I promise you that. Although jeez, Minaya sure is stupid. The Ninth rescinds its promise. The only way, the ONLY way the Yankees make this interesting is if the gentlemen currently on the roster manage to play much better than they have. The only legitimate candidates for that are Pavano and Johnson, two guys who have failed somewhat without explanation. But I'll tell you what, I wouldn't hold my breath. This is a club that seems to have gotten comfortable with losing, a notion so foreign to recent Yankees it's shocking to say. But after every surge there is a recession, and it's getting a bit late it the day for that. Brian Cashman will certainly maneuver, and the Yankees probably have one or two good stretches left in them, but this is a club that was built to fail. And it may be, finally, that they do just that.

We'll get to the Mets another time.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Ninth Begins Returns

Jerry Remy is now quoting "Meet the Parents" for no apparent reason.

Matt Clement: Sometimes pitchers can get away with smoke and mirrors for a while. In Pete Schourek's second go-around with Boston he shot out of the gates quickly. His first several starts were near shutouts, and by the pitching line it looked maybe he had found his younger self. Like that was possible. Anyone who was watching the games live could tell he was just sneaking by. Bad pitches being just missed, miraculous plays to end innings, generous calls from umps - Pistol Pete needed them all. But his stuff really wasn't there even though the results were, and soon enough those disappeared too. The point is, Matt Clement is not one of these guys. Long way to go for that, hu? Clement's stuff has been exceptional, far better than The Ninth expected, and in some ways, better than the results. His numbers are great, no question, but I don't know his ERA isn't in the low 2's. He throws hard, with a lot of movement, and has been pitching strikes. Matt can run his fastball or straighten it out, and has that nasty little slider. As good as anyone the Sox have faced all season. A brilliant signing that in a lot of ways Theo lucked into.

David Wells: He and Terry Francona have combined to give away two games this year. On opening day Wells was not in shape to pitch. After he came of the DL from a foot injury, Wells was not in shape to pitch. Yet he started both games. And got shelled. Why? Because Tito didn't have the guts to tell a gruff, loud veteran that he can't go. So the Sox handed away two games, but maybe it's worth it. Maybe over the course of the season a happy Wells will win you two extra. Not really sure, but on paper it sure seems dumb. Other than that, David has been more good than bad.

Bronson Arroyo: In his last start Arroyo realized it's better to have a third pitch! Imagine that. The really surprising thing is how long he's been able to get by with just the 1 and 2. But hitters have been starting to catch on, especially lefties, and Bronson is starting to believe more in that changeup. He should, because it could turn him into a 20 game winner.

Wade Miller: His first couple of starts reminded The Ninth of Roger Clemens. His last couple, more like Pat Rapp. That wide body with hard fastball and good control was Rocket-like at first, with a curve instead of split. But he's lost a little something lately. Needs to throws his slider more, but right now is looking less like savior and more like solid starter.

Curt Schilling: Less talky, more pitchy.

Tim Wakefield: Thoroughly uninteresting. The usual up and down year from Wake. Good guy though. I think he's throwing that curve less, don't you?

John Halama: I dont want to write about him anymore than you want to read about him. Nothing less exciting than a long reliever. Except Dennis Lamp -- always liked that guy. Must've been the moustache.

Mike Timlin: Got to love Mike Timlin. I've spoken to Terry and we've agreed he'll be placed on the All-Star team. I had to make some allowances, sign a few things for the kids, but we got it done. Somebody's talked both Mike and Embree to trust their secondary and tertiary pitches more, and it's paid off. Somebody, thy name is Jason Varitek. Forget the closer talk Boston Herald, he was never good at that, but he could pitch set up 'til he's 45.

--Game Interjection: Wade Miller was just lifted after giving up a bases loaded single to Casey Blake. Problem is, the count was full and umpire Larry Vanover's right arm was on sabbatical. So Blake's no idiot, he's not swinging unless it's perfect because Crazy Larry won't call a strike. Miller has to throw down the pipe, and Casey shoots a single to left. Boston, you've just been Vanovered.

Alan Embree: While we're talking game, how about Alan Embree? Comes into a bases loaded, nobody out sitch and gets a strikeout and the double play. No runs score. And what do they turn two on? A slider, his secondary pitch. The Ninth's brain grins at it's own accomplishment. Last week people were talking release, today he's at the top of his game. Make it last Alan.

Mike Myers: Got him for free, third best reliever. Oh Theo.

Matt Mantei: A little Scott Williamson, a lot Chad Fox. If Matt can reverse than ratio, maybe we'll have something. Right now he's got a curve that can't find the strike zone and a straight fastball in the mid 90's. That's ok, but it's not exactly ready for prime time. If he's not careful he's going to find himself replaced right around July 31st.

Keith Foulke: He's found it again, by the way. Forget two nights ago in Cleveland, he's got his stuff back. The pop and location are there, he'll be fine. As nasty as that change-up is, Keith is all about spotting with the fastball. Watch what uses to get outs - it's not the change.

And Francona just brought in Mike Myers, who wasn't warming up. Let's see what happens!

Monday, June 20, 2005

The Ninth Begins

Oh all right, I'll come back.

How to comprehensively catch you up on the Ninth's thoughts about this year's team? I know, it's not your fault, it's mine, but we can get past this. Let's go one by one.

Jason Varitek: Uh, did you see the plate block he pulled on Jack Wilson this weekend? For those of you who missed it, Jason leaned to his right to receive an incoming throw while dropping his leg like a New Jersey barrier over the left side of the plate -- and Wilson bounced off it like a drunk kid at a Green Day concert. It was the greatest bit of plate protection since Eric Byrnes simply gave up and went back to the dugout in the 2003 ALDS. I'm sorry (really I'm not), but Varitek must win the Gold Glove this year. Enough of this Pudge nonsense. And going into tonight's game, his OPS was more than 100 points higher than any other catcher's. Guess what - best in the game.

Doubling Doug Mirabelli: Other than his moderately homophobic behavior on "Queer Eye For the Straight Guy", Douglas has done little of note this season. Who thought that episode wasn't going to be offensive?

Kelly Shoppach: Somehow managed to strike out more times than he actually went to the plate.

Kevin Millar: I've gotta say, I was getting entirely sick of the Kevin Millar act. Play like crap, talk your mouth off, pretend like you're important. He kept saying "wait for me to get hot", and then asked for hard foul liners to be counted as hits. Then, whether it was closing his stance or Olerud putting on the pressure, he actually did get hot. He may end up with .280, 15, 80 after all. And his defense is better than he gets credit for. Who woulda thought. Now, if he could just hit to right field...

John Olerud: The Ninth has always loved Johnny O, ever since he watched the Mets entirely collapse after they replaced him with Todd Zeile. He's got enough left in the tank to be a perfect fit for pinch hitting and defensive replacements. Should start no more than twice a week.

Mark Bellhorn: Here's the thing, Mark Bellhorn stinks. The strikeouts are a hilarious running joke, but there are worse things in the world. And you know what's one of 'em? A .355 slugging percentage. The only everyday second basemen worse is Orlando Hudson, but at least he's a gold glover. Mark's OPS is under .700, which is not really acceptable for a major leaguer. He's still a major leaguer, right? He's great around the bag, but the hitting must be addressed. The Ninth has long heralded the numbers Bellhorn put up last year, but if doesn't improve soon, Theo will have to make a move.

Ramon Vazquez: Possibly the biggest disappointment on the Sox. Sad, but true. Has been a wasted roster slot all year, and somewhere in there he has talent. Could've helped pick up the slack for Bellhorn, but it ain't happening. Anyone have Mike Lansing's cell phone number?

Edgar Renteria: Very good, but not great. What exactly were you expecting? Wouldn't mind if he opened up that batting stance a little, give him a chance to use that wall.

Bill Mueller: A key to the Red Sox offense. Have you noticed how well they've clicked since he started hitting? I hope you haven't, because then that last sentence would be kind of boring. Gives Boston that vital, Scott Brosius-esque hitter at the bottom of the lineup. He'll be a very interesting contract case this winter, largely because of....

Kevin Youkilis: Peter Gammons says Theo has him starting at third in '06. He's ready for it. Good enough gap power and a nice little .870 OPS in limited action. According to various reports, Youk has taken ground balls at every infield position including shortstop, so you know Francona wants him involved. Could he use a little Rogaine, sure, but which of us is perfect?

(We've gotten to the outfield. You, and more importantly I, have earned a cocktail.)

Manny Ramirez: Leads the league in OF assists. How odd. The AL began this season the way they did '03, pitching Manny religiously on the outside corner. While he can certainly hit that pitch, it's hard for even Manny to consistently knock it out of the park. So he started to jerk the ball, flying open in an effort to pull. It's taken Ramirez at least a month to get out of the habit, but it looks like he's starting to come around. If Manny's offense is your only concern though, you're living a charmed existence. Hit a rope tonight, by the way.

Johnny Damon: More hits than any other AL'er, which is always nice. If there is a critique, it's the lack of power. Has had double digit home runs every year since '98 except for one, and right now Damon's got only two. But he's on pace for 115 runs scored, and that's what he's here for. Another tricky contract issue for the offseason, if only because Hanley Ramirez is going to play somewhere.

Trot Nixon: Cooled off a bit lately, as his OPS has dropped under .900, but having a very solid year. Wouldn't it be a good time to see if he can hang in against lefties just a little bit? If/when it comes playoff time, do you really want to see Jay Payton, or, more likely, Kapler-son getting starts? Maybe this is a dead issue, it's clearly never going to happen.

Jay Payton: A tricky situation. The guy wants to play, and I get it, The Ninth wants to play too. And if it weren't for this chronic knee problem and total lack of ability, I would. Problem is, he truly is a 4th outfielder. He's mostly started in his career, but for either bad teams or ones that needed a centerfielder. But there are still plenty of those clubs around, so if he wants 162, he could get it somewhere. Will probably get moved because Theo is a good guy, and because Kapler's presence is missed. He is what he is: good glove, decent stick. Have fun in Detroit.

David Ortiz: The best DH in baseball, an MVP candidate, and he looks funny when he runs. What more could you ask for? Oh, also he's ridiculously underpaid. Sure, we traded Jeff Bagwell for Larry Anderson, but Minnesota traded David Ortiz for an empty roster slot. Youch. We woulda thrown in Heathcliff Slocumb if they'd asked.

Ok, Sox are winning 9-4 and Bellhorn just struck out. It's sort of like watching Saturday Night Live and thinking, "wait, they're doing the Cheerleaders sketch again?". But they do, and it's always sort of fun. Anyway, we're almost caught up. Next time, the pitching...