Bad news for a great guy

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I lost contact with baseball for many years in the mid-to-late 90s. I followed it, generally, but I didn’t obsess. I rooted for my team, but it was fairly shallow. It happens to a lot of people in their 20s, even if they were hardcore fans when they were kids. Some of us find our way back. Some of us don’t.

One of the biggest reasons I found my way back was Mac Thomason. Mac is the proprietor of Braves Journal.  As Gleeman put it a few minutes ago, he’s one of the OG bloggers. Hell, he’s been around since before anyone was calling these things blogs. And it was by going to his site every day for Braves updates, analysis and fan chatter that I was able to make it all the way back from near-casual fan to the obsessive I am today.

Maybe worse than an obsessive for a while. Like a lot of people who find themselves reborn in some way, I was a bit too zealous for a little while there. By virtue of Mac’s comments section I let my vitriol regarding the late stages of the Braves quasi-dynasty run a bit too hot at times.  For example, after they traded Kevin Millwood for Johnny Estrada, I said that I wouldn’t watch the Braves anymore until John Schuerholz was “either fired or dead.” Oh, the things one says to a message board no one reads!

Except, people read Mac’s message board.  Important people. People like John Schuerholz, who actually quoted my comment verbatim, and the comments of several other Braves Journal readers, several years later when he wrote his autobiography. He quotes my intemperate words on page 71 in a section talking about how insane fans can be sometimes.  I apologized for that several years ago, but it still embarrasses me.

That whole episode is a testament to just how important and influential a great team-specific blog can be.  It can make and perpetuate fandom.  It can ruffle an organization’s feathers. Apart from wanting to get crappy players out of the lineup, Mac has never been one for crusades — and he has never been the type of team blogger who seeks to curry favor with the organization or get access — but he’s a smart, discerning fan who provides smart discerning (and often grumpy) commentary about his team’s travails on a day-to-day basis and that’s the kind of thing that institutions really don’t much care for. If I worked for the Braves I’d probably consider him a pain in the ass.  If I was Mac, I’d probably take tremendous joy from this.

I’m writing about Mac because today he shared some bad news with Braves Journal readers.  He’s been battling cancer for a while, but things have taken a bad turn.  He had surgery last week, but it was aborted due to the cancer having spread.  Here are Mac’s words from this morning:

From all appearances, the remaining cancer has entered a virulent stage. It is not likely to kill me directly; instead it will decrease the effectiveness of my organs by taking away the space they need to operate. The time frame is unclear, but basically I was told that the best measure if they don’t find a treatment is months rather than years.

We’re not giving up. We are, if we can, going to talk to the doctor in Indianapolis with whom I talked last year, and see if he has any ideas. There is a protocol in trials in Philadelphia which looks promising and applicable to my case. And dammit, a lot of people (including a great-uncle of mine) have lived for a long time with cancer hanging over them. Maybe it’s just the drugs talking, but I don’t expect to go any time soon. I fully expect to celebrate when the Braves lift the 2012 World Series trophy over their heads.

Great. The world’s foremost Braves blogger is depending on Philadelphia for treatment. And people wonder why I don’t believe in God.

OK, sorry. Humor and vitriol are how I deal with sad news, and this is pretty damn sad.  But, as Mac says, it’s not hopeless. And even if it was, I’m not going to give up hope because sometimes all we can do to keep our sanity in this world is to hold on to irrational hope. If not because it will make the situation better, then because it really, really pisses off the fates and dark spirits that seek to hurt us so. They want us broken. Don’t break. Ever.

If you pray, please think of doing so for Mac.  If you don’t, hold a good thought in your heart and mind.  If you’re able, please donate to Mac’s tip jar, on the right hand sidebar of the front page.  If none of those things work for you, at least consider starting ugly rumors about Fredi Gonzalez which may cause him to lose his job so that Mac doesn’t have to embark on his epic final showdown with cancer while annoyances like Fredi Gonzalez running his team float about.

I’m rooting for you, Mac.  Treat cancer like Chipper treats the Mets. Make it your bitch and then name your kid after the place it lives.

2017 Preview: Seattle Mariners

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Seattle Mariners.

The first rule of snapping playoff droughts is: You do not talk about snapping playoff droughts. The second rule of snapping playoff droughts is: You do not talk about snapping playoff droughts.

For the uninitiated, we’re now up to 15 years in which the Mariners have failed to contend for a championship title. The highlight reel of their 1995 and 2001 playoff runs has worn thin; so, too, have the slogans and promises of the nine managers and four general managers who have cycled through the franchise during their 15-year drought.

That all could change under the direction of general manager Jerry Dipoto, who is approaching his third year at the helm of the Mariners’ organization after making the most single-year offseason trades in club history. In February, MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince estimated Dipoto’s totals had reached 13 trades involving 36 players since the start of the 2016-17 offseason. “Go back to when [Dipoto] arrived in Seattle at the tail end of the 2015 season,” Castrovince writes, “and it’s 37 swaps involving 95 players.”

That’s an insane number of players to be moving around, especially when a team is leaning toward playoff contention rather than a fire sale, and you have to hope that Dipoto has a reason for the high-stakes shuffling.

One possible reason? There’s an expiration date on Seattle’s most treasured veterans, including Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, even Hisashi Iwakuma. Hernandez hasn’t received a Cy Young award in seven years, hasn’t tossed a perfect game in five years, and hasn’t maintained an ERA below 3.00 in three years. Iwakuma nearly crested 200 innings for the second time in his career, but his good health and durability was punished by a career-worst 1.3 HR/9, 6.6 SO/9 and 4.12 ERA. As expected, Cano, Cruz and Seager all turned out solid performance at the plate, and but it’s the hazards that come with aging and inevitable decline that exert pressure on Dipoto and the rest of the Mariners to deliver a postseason finish sooner rather than later.

Dipoto’s machinations have, for the most part, been both team- and fan-friendly this offseason. He didn’t move any major contracts or trade away any familiar faces on the Mariners roster, choosing instead to excise fringe players and adding short-term depth where it was needed. He reinforced a rotation of Hernandez, Iwakuma and James Paxton with right-handers Yovani Gallardo, Chris Heston, Max Povse and Rob Whalen and left-hander Drew Smyly. The bullpen received right-handers Shae Simmons, Dan Altavilla and lefty Marc Rzepczynski, the latter of whom inked a two-year, $11 million deal, while Carlos Ruiz gave the Mariners another option behind the plate. Jarrod Dyson was thrown into the outfield mix alongside Leonys Martin and Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura took over for Ketel Marte at short, and infielder/outfielder Danny Valencia lined up behind Dan Vogelbach at first base, where he later won the starting role.

It’s enough to make your head spin, but the takeaway is simple enough. Investing in younger, cheaper players provides the Mariners with enough defense and athleticism to compete for a postseason berth without the drawbacks of weighty contracts and long-term commitments. If the experiment doesn’t pan out as expected, there’s nothing to stop Dipoto from making another dozen trades during next year’s offseason and restarting the whole process.

As with any roster overhaul, there’s no predicting how much the Mariners of 2017 will improve on their 2016 counterparts. The starting rotation still leaves much to be desired, and without productive turnarounds from Hernandez and Iwakuma, even the cavernous maw of Safeco Field won’t be able to stave off another collapse. James Paxton and Drew Smyly, while not rotation headliners, project to be the most stable of the bunch so far.

The bullpen profiles a little better, notwithstanding Steve Cishek’s lengthy recovery from hip surgery this winter, Ariel Miranda’s demotion to Triple-A Tacoma and the unexpected forearm issues that cropped up in Shae SImmons’ right arm. At one point, manager Scott Servais said he was considering an eight-man bullpen featuring Edwin Diaz, Dan Altavilla, Casey Fien, Marc Rzepczynski, Nick Vincent and Evan Scribner, though the details have yet to be worked out before the team opens their season on Monday.

While some kinks still need to be worked out among the Mariners’ pitching staff, their offense and defense look sharper than they have in years. According to FanGraphs, Dipoto invested in some pretty sizable upgrades with Jarrod Dyson, Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura and backup outfielder Ben Gamel, enough to make them the most improved outfield defense in the league.

It’s plausible that the 2017 Mariners have improved as a whole. It’s also plausible that all of Dipoto’s frenzied offseason moves were more focused and premeditated than they appeared. It’s even plausible that the tinkering and trimming and restructuring of the Mariners’ defense could attract a heftier win-loss record and a participation trophy — heck, even a championship title — in this year’s postseason.

But you didn’t hear it here. The first rule of playoff droughts, after all, is that we don’t talk about them until they’re finally, mercifully snapped.

Prediction: 2nd place in AL West.*

(Note from Craig: I did the Rangers preview and picked them to be in second place. I did so without coordinating with Ashley on where she’d place the M’s because, let’s face it, details are not my strong suit. Upon reading the preview above and thinking harder I’m probably leaning more toward the Rangers coming in third to be honest, but I won’t change either preview because taking predictions seriously is pointless. We’ll all just check back in October and see who was right. Ashley was probably right). 

2017 Preview: Houston Astros

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Houston Astros.

Every preview of the 2017 Astros is obligated to mention that, back in 2014, Sports Illustrated projected them to win it all this year. It got a lot of laughs at the time, but that was actually sort of bearish given that they pushed the eventual World Series champs to five games in the 2015 ALDS, which suggested 2016 could’ve even been a step beyond that. Houston faltered last year, however, and in their latest baseball preview, SI didn’t repeat that World Series claim from three years ago. They’re picking the Dodgers. So sad to see such lack of courage in one’s convictions.

I’m not sure I’d pick them to win it all this year either, but it should be a better year for the men in orange.

It all starts with their core. Jose Altuve, is a batting champ and MVP contender. 2015 Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa was just 21 last season and still put up a line of .274/.364/.451 in his first full season, fighting through some nagging injuries to do it. George Springer isn’t as good those two but he’s talented enough to feature as a key supporting player on a championship-caliber club. Alex Bregman had a nice debut season last year and will now look to consolidate success at multiple minor league levels into a solid full season in the bigs.

While last year the hope was that success would be be ensured by the young players progressing, the front office decided this past winter to beef up the roster by adding some quality veterans. In comes Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran via free agency, and in comes Brian McCann via a trade. Reddick will slot in right field, Beltran will take over at DH and McCann becomes the starting catcher. Those additions make the Astros lineup one of the best in the American League. And that’s before you allow for the possibility that young guys like Correa and Bregman could break out in a big way. It’s also before you realize that Evan Gattis — who hit 32 homers last year — is now basically a bench bat. It’s a deep offensive attack that gives A.J. Hinch a lot of options, both to play the best matchups and to rest veterans.

Things aren’t perfect, however. The rotation is a problem.

2015 Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel had a profoundly disappointing 2016 campaign. As did just about everyone else to whom Hinch gave the ball. Only Lance McCullers had an ERA+ over 100, but he only started 14 games. Jeff Luhnow went out and got Charlie Morton, but that’s not a big get. Otherwise the rotation is going to be fairly similar to last year: Keuchel, McCullers, Morton, Mike Fiers and Joe Musgrove. Collin McHugh will likely start the year on the DL and contribute eventually.

Keuchel had shoulder problems. Morton is coming off a big hamstring injury. McCullers was hurt last year and McHugh has dead arm now. It’s not a pretty picture. A bounceback season from Keuchel or a full season of health from McCullers would go a long way toward solidifying things. As of now, though, Houston may score a ton of runs, but they are going to have some trouble preventing them. There’s a reason why they are still rumored to be in on Jose Quintana. They could use him.

Thankfully the bullpen was a clear strength last year and it should look pretty similar this year, personnel-wise. Ken Giles will close with Luke Gregerson and Will Harris setting up with Tony Sipp, Chris Devenski and Michael Feliz contributing. It’s a nice group that, while not featuring any Andrew Miller-type relief aces, was the most valuable bullpen in baseball as measured by WAR. Even if WAR is not your favorite stat, it’s still a super solid group.

What does a a great lineup, a solid bullpen and a rotation full of question marks amount to? In the AL West I think it amounts to a good bit, actually, as no contender is perfect. If you do a bit of wishcasting with the rotation, it’s not hard to find a ton of separation between it and Texas’ overall. If Jeff Luhnow goes out and gets a starter, which I think he will, it could easily be better. That doesn’t make the Astros a runaway favorite, but I think it gives them a shot at a win total in the high-80s to low-90s, and I think that amounts to . . .

Prediction: First Place, American League West. But they’ll be battling for it all year in what I think will be a close division.