Springtime Storylines: Will the real Cole Hamels please stand up?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30
teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally
breaking down their chances for the 2010 season.  Next up: the defending NL Champs.


The
big question: Will the real Cole Hamels please stand up?

Hamels was otherworldly in the 2008 postseason and damn good in the 2007 and 2008 regular seasons. Last year: slightly less than average in ERA and opposing batters hitting .273 against him, which was a career high. However, there is much to suggest that this was more about bad luck than bad pitching.

Hamels’ strikeout and walk rates stayed at basically the same level in 2009 as they had been previously, he was giving up the same number of grounders and fly balls and batters weren’t swinging on first pitchers or anything like that more than they used to, which would have meant that his pitchers were fatter than they used to be. This all suggests that his struggles were more a function of extra flares, gorks, ground balls with eyes and a few more dying quails than he was used to as opposed to some loss of his mojo.

My guess: we see a nice bounceback season from Hamels, which will go a long way towards getting the Phillies back to the World Series, my impudent and biased predictions notwithstanding.

So what else is
going on?

  • Placido Polanco takes over at third after not playing there regularly since 2002.  He’ll also bat second, it seems, moving Shane Victorino down in the lineup.  Polanco will likely be fine at third base and lineup construction is overrated, but I’m getting one of those “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it vibes” about all of this. Breaking up Rollins-Victorino-Utley-Howard at the top of the order just feels wrong to me.
  • Brad Lidge was terrible last year and he’s back, coming off elbow surgery to boot. Scott Eyre, Clay Condrey and Chan Ho Park were pretty decent, and they’re gone. J.C. Romero is also coming off surgery. I think the bullpen is going to be a problem for this team, and it’s one of the reasons I picked the Braves to win the division.

  • If I had to bet serious money on anything in baseball in 2010, I’d bet it on Roy Halladay being an absolute beast. Predicting awards is folly, but he’s my preseason favorite for the NL Cy Young. As much as it pains me to admit it, the NL just ain’t the league the AL is, Halladay avoids what will be one of if not the best NL offenses in Philly, and he gets a lot of innings against the Mets and Nationals.  Set your DVR for all Roy Halladay starts this season.
  • Raul Ibanez hit .232/.326./448 in the second half last year.  Was it a function of the sports hernia for which he recently had surgery, or was that his true level after playing clearly above his head in the first half?  I think it’s the latter, and I think there will be concerns about his production all year.

So how
are they gonna do?

Don’t get me wrong: I think the Phillies are just about the best team in the NL and I’d be utterly shocked if they weren’t in it all season. My pick of the Braves is more about my optimism for that club than about me being down on Philly.

Still, I think there are enough questions about the pen, the back end of the rotation and a couple of places in the lineup that mindlessly writing them down as the division winners in March is, well, mindless. I think they’ll win a lot of ballgames and if they make the playoffs — which I think they will as a wild card — they’ll be favored to win the pennant based on the one-two punch of Halladay and Hamels and the fact that they’ll have one of the best players in the league in Chase Utley on their side.  I just don’t think they’ll be able to run away from the Braves and that due to fate, karma, juju, the whammy and a handful of other phenomena, they’ll fall just short in what could be the best race in baseball this year.

Prediction:
Second place in the NL East. Sub-prediction: commenters will ignore all my praise for the team, focus on the second place pick and call me a hater or something.

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Indians sign reliever Tommy Hunter to $2 million deal

Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Tommy Hunter throws to the Miami Marlins during the seventh inning of a baseball game in Miami, Friday, May 22, 2015. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
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Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that right-hander Tommy Hunter has agreed to a one-year, $2 million contract with the Indians. It’s a major-league deal, so Hunter gets a spot on the 40-man roster and will be in the Opening Day bullpen if he’s fully recovered from core muscle surgery.

Hunter split last season between the Orioles and Cubs, totaling 60 innings with a 4.18 ERA and 47/14 K/BB ratio. He had a sub-3.00 ERA in both 2013 and 2014, and has generally been a setup-caliber reliever since shifting to the bullpen full time.

He has good control and a mid-90s fastball, but Hunter has never missed many bats despite the big-time velocity and often struggles to keep the ball in the ballpark. He’ll likely fill a middle relief role in Cleveland initially.

“YER OUT!” Jenrry Mejia permanently suspended for a third positive PED test

Jenrry Mejia
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You knew someone would be dumb enough to do this eventually, you just didn’t know who. Now we do: MLB just announced that reliever Jenrry Mejia has been permanently suspended after testing positive for Boldenone. That was his third positive test and under the Joint Drug Agreement that means his career is more or less over.

Mejia’s three strikes came in pretty rapid succession. On April 11, 2015 it was announced that Mejía had been suspended for 80 games after testing positive for use of stanozolol. On July 28, 2015 it was announced that Mejia had failed a test for Stanozolol again and Boldenone to boot, giving him a 162-game suspension, which he’d still be serving at the beggining of the season. Now this third test.

Mejia has played five seasons in the big. He started with so much promise, looking like a great prospect coming up. His performance only matched the promise in fits and starts, however, resulting in a 9-14 record with a 3.68 ERA and a K/BB ratio of 162/76 in 183.1 innings, all with the Mets.

Per the rules of the Joint Drug Agreement, Mejia can apply for reinstatement after being banned for two years. But it would obviously require him to spend two years doing a lot of smart things he hasn’t been doing in the past year. And it would also represent a near-unprecedented comeback. It could happen, I suppose, but it’s a far safer bet that his career is over.

I’m going to break it to you: some teams will stink this year. Like every year.

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There’s an AP story out today talking about how — brace yourself — some teams are going to be bad this year. It’s true. There are some teams, such as Atlanta, Philly, Colorado, Cincinnati and probably Milwaukee who seem certain to lose a lot of games.  The article’s author notes that, while a lot of money was spent in free agency this winter, not everyone was spending. He says “for some clubs, 2016 is basically over before it starts when it comes to contending.”

That sort of framing sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? Isn’t it exactly the sort of thing we heard back in the early 2000s when people were still stumping for salary caps? Boston and New York were outspending everyone, the low money teams couldn’t keep up and, as spring training dawned, the season was over before it even began for half the league at least. There were scads of articles like that written 10-15 years ago. Bud Selig and others even used that exact construction — teams going to spring training already knowing they couldn’t compete — as points of rhetoric in the leadup to the 2002 labor battle with the players. Indeed, here’s the exact language from the 2000 Blue Ribbon economic report that Bud Selig commissioned which, by the way, should be read as a piece of labor propaganda, not as an actually useful or illuminative report:

What has made baseball’s recent seasons disturbing, and what makes its current economic structure untenable in the long run, is that, year after year, too many clubs know in spring training that they have no realistic prospect of reaching postseason play. Too many clubs in low-revenue markets can only expect to compete for postseason berths if ownership is willing to incur staggering operating losses to subsidize a competitive player payroll.

Different circumstances, obviously, but the same general bogeyman: some teams have no chance to compete!

Using that as the concern for whatever ails baseball has never made much sense to me as there will always be teams that are bad. Really, go look at any year’s league standings going back to the 19th century and there will be bad teams. It’s sort of the other side of the coin of good teams. Hard to have one without the other. And it’s probably a good thing to have some good and some and teams. Who wants a total crapshoot every year? What is this, Lake Woebegone, where every team is above .500? God, how boring.

The real issue is not that some teams will be good and some will be bad. It’s why they’ll be good and why they’ll be bad and whether the dynamic which creates good and bad teams is itself positive or negative for the game.

In the 40s and 50s, almost the entire American League knew that it had no chance to compete with the Yankees but they kind of liked that because they were making a lot of money not fielding competitive clubs. That was bad. In the late 1990s maybe some felt the same way too and it was because of no revenue sharing or incompetent management. Not great, and a lot of tweaks were made. Now a small handful of teams can’t compete because they’re doing wholesale rebuilds which some people call “tanking” and others think is not an issue.

As I recently wrote, to the extent people do think “tanking” is a problem, it’s important to (a) put it in perspective; and (b) look at the incentives teams have to tank and talk about whether they should be adjusted. As far as the perspective part goes, I’d say that only having five or six out of 30 teams with no realistic shot is actually pretty good compared to other points in baseball history. There’s a lot more parity now than there used to be. As far as the incentives: look at the dumb draft rules which were imposed to save owners a buck when it came to paying amateurs but which GREATLY increases the importance of picking high and thus losing.

The AP article touches on that, but it’s buried fairly deep down, well after the hand-wringing about teams entering spring training with no chance to win. As spring training progresses, there will likely be a lot of talk of just how bad some of these rebuilding teams will be as well. Most of that analysis will stop at the current state of the team and the hopelessness the fan bases are supposed to be feeling.

As a critically-minded fan, don’t let it stop there. If your team stinks, think about why it does and why it’s pursuing the course it is. Twenty years ago you could probably be safe in saying “well, my team’s GM is dumb and the owner is cheap.” That’s not really the case for most teams now. Now, I think, it’s far more about the incentives in play which make putting a lousy product on the field in the short term preferable to not doing so. Call it tanking, call it whatever you want, but if this is concern for you — and if this is a problem for Major League Baseball — the focus needs to be on the incentives.  Not on the fact that some teams are going to stink. Because teams will always stink. The important question is why.

Marlins sign left-hander Craig Breslow

Craig Breslow
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After spending the past four seasons in the Red Sox’s bullpen left-hander Craig Breslow has signed with the Marlins on a minor-league deal.

Rob Bradford of WEEI.com reports that the contract comes with an invitation to spring training and will pay $1.5 million if Breslow makes the Opening Day roster.

Brewslow has struggled in back-to-back seasons, posting a 5.96 ERA in 2014 and a 4.15 ERA last year. At age 35 he’s not a great bet to bounce back in a huge way, but Breslow posted a 1.81 ERA as recently as 2013 and is certainly still capable of being a useful middle reliever.