Joe Girardi

Your inaugural Power Rankings

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The only thing sillier than predictions about who wins each division several months before the season ends is judging which team is the best before any games are played.  But hey, that’s never stopped me before, so let’s have a Power Ranking, shall we?

And yeah, there is that big of a gap between the AL and the NL. It’s just astounding how much better the top teams in the junior circuit are.

1. Yankees: A 97-win team with rotation problems adds a couple of really good starters. Yeah, I think that plays.

2. Rangers: The two-time defending AL champs lose their top starting pitcher but add another one who, in my view anyway, will be better.  That plays too.

3. Angels: Huge additions in Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, obviously, but they also had ten games to make up from the Rangers.

4. Tigers: Fielder and Cabrera are gonna be awesome to see. But there are holes in the lineup and, while still awesome, Justin Verlander can’t match 2011’s numbers again because, really, no one can do that. Right?

5. Rays: The deepest rotation in baseball means that if they have any problems — say Luke Scott is a bust and the bullpen falters — they have the chips to make some deals.

6. Red Sox: Nowadays everybody wanna talk like they got somethin’ to say, but nothin’ comes out when they move their lips, just a bunch of gibberish, and motherf***ers act like they forgot about how good this team was until September last year.

7. Phillies: Infielders on this team have a worse life expectancy than the drummer for Spinal Tap. But having Halladay, Hamels and Lee hanging around makes up for a lot of stuff. The 1990s-early 2000s Braves won division after division with dudes like Mark Lemke and Keith Lockhart in the infield. I think  the Phillies will be fine.

8. Diamondbacks: Will Ian Kennedy have a repeat year? Exceedingly doubtful. But Trevor Cahill has joined up, I’m curious about an entire year of Paul Goldschmidt, Justin Upton is still awesome and I don’t think the Giants will be substantially better than they were last year. Ergo, the Dbacks.

9. Braves: If Freddie Freeman’s spring training is any indication of how he’ll do this year the perpetual offensive problems this team has will be somewhat mitigated.

10. Giants: Whether you think this team will return to 2010 form has a lot to do with whether you think Melky Cabrera’s 2011 season was indicative of some new normal for him and that he’ll repeat it in AT&T Park. I kinda think it was a fluke.

11. Cardinals: I’m feeling kinda shaky about this given the Carpenter and Furcal injuries, but man, I JUST picked them to win the Central an hour ago, so I have to stick with this a bit longer, no? UPDATE: I have no idea why I thought Rafael Furcal was hurt. I haven’t slept a lot lately.

12. Brewers: Prince Fielder gone, but Aramis Ramirez in (and Casey McGehee out) is pretty decent compensation.

13. Blue Jays: The rotation is kind of a mess and the lineup is depending on a handful of bounceback years. But I could see this team competing and even winning the NL West or Central. Unfortunately, they play in the AL East.

14. Marlins: A bigger deal than all of their offseason additions is the return of a healthy Josh Johnson.  But more than this team’s prospects, I’m curious to see if Carlos Zambrano and Ozzie Guillen can avoid their particular brand of performance art this season.

15. Reds:  I’d feel better if not for the bullpen injuries, but the Reds are going to be pesky and, if things break right — or wrong for St. Louis and Milwaukee — they could take the division.

16. Nationals: Still a year away, methinks, but they’re not that far behind Atlanta and Florida. Injuries to those two teams could push Washington toward second place.

17. Indians: They’re gonna do what they always do: surprise for a nice long stretch, disappoint for a nice long stretch and finish fairly far back of the Tigers. Then next winter we’ll all talk about how they’re underrated again.

18. Rockies: Jamie Moyer is a great story, but it is telling that a 49 year-old soft-tosser made this rotation.

19. Royals: So many people’s sexy, breakout pick. Still a year — and a couple of starters – away in my view. Especially in light of the Soria and Perez injuries.

20. Pirates:  A.J. Burnett, Erik Bedard and James McDonald could — if they all hit the top end of their potential — make this team a potentially dangerous one. Still, the most realistic goal here is breaking the streak of sub-.500 finishes, not going to the playoffs.

21. Dodgers: Kershaw and Kemp, then a whole lot of nothing, all mitigated by optimism about the new owners.

22. Twins: If Mauer and Morneau are both really back this will look like a really low ranking in hindsight. But they gotta show me first.

23. Athletics: It’s probably going to be more fun to watch the farm system this year — which is stocked — than the big club.

24. Padres: Same here, really. They got a lot of talent back in the Mat Latos deal.

25. Cubs: The future is pretty darn far from now. How long will Theo and Jed’s honeymoon last?

26. White Sox: On the early stages of a rebuild. There will not be any sneaky contention here.

27. Mets: The legal cloud over the team has lifted. Johan Santana appears to be healthy again. Beyond that, I’m kind of at a loss as to where to find optimism here.

28. Mariners: They’ll score more runs this year. But that’s not saying much. They should still have one of the worst offenses in baseball, even with some dramatic offensive improvement.

29. Orioles: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: how they do will depend on young pitching taking a step forward.

30.  Astros: I think they’re gonna settle in this position for the long haul.

Eddie Perez likely to be Braves’ interim manager if Fredi Gonzalez is fired

Atlanta Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez, left, stands with manager Fredi Gonzalez during a spring training baseball workout, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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There’s been a lot of rumbling that Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez will soon get the pink slip. His team is 7-20 entering Thursday’s action. Historically, front offices — particularly those of rebuilding/restructuring teams — respond to that by making coaching and/or managerial changes.

Per MLB.com’s Mark Bowman, bullpen coach Eddie Perez is likely to fill in as the Braves’ manager on an interim basis if and when Gonzalez is fired. Perez has been with the Braves as a coach since 2007. He played for the Braves in 10 out of his 11 seasons from 1995-2005. Perez wasn’t known for his bat, but was respected for the way he called games and handled the Braves’ then-elite pitching staff.

Bowman notes that Gonzalez isn’t expected to be fired over the weekend. If the team plays well, that could extend Gonzalez’s leash, so to speak.

First baseman Freddie Freeman issued a vote of confidence for his skipper, saying, “I think everything is getting magnified since we’re off to this start. I don’t know if it’s fair to put it all on [Gonzalez] because he’s not a player. We’re the 25 guys [who have to] go out there and play every day. We’re obviously not playing to our capabilities. To say that’s Fredi’s fault is unfair in my opinion.”

What’s on Tap: Previewing Thursday’s action

Chicago Cubs' Anthony Rizzo, left, and Kris Bryant celebrate a 7-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, May 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
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The Phillies and Cardinals got started a little early, finishing up their four-game series on Thursday afternoon. In the evening, we have 10 games on our slate, including Cubs-Nationals.

The Cubs have jumped out to a 20-6 start, looking like baseball’s best — and scariest — team. Entering Thursday’s action, the Cubs have a +93 run differential (runs scored minus runs allowed). That’s by far the best in baseball. The next best are the Nationals at +50, the Mets at +44, and the Cardinals at +41. In fact, the Cubs’ run differential is so good that they have under-performed relative to their expected won-lost record of 22-4.

This is without Kyle Schwarber. This is with Jason Heyward hitting a miserable .211/.317/.256, Jorge Soler hitting .185/.276/.292, and Addison Russell hitting .224/.356/.329. It’s with John Lackey pitching to a 4.32 ERA.

What makes the Cubs so good? They’re on-base machines. The club’s aggregate .364 on-base percentage is second best in the majors behind the Pirates. Dexter Fowler has an outstanding .470 OBP and Anthony Rizzo is at an elite .403. In fact, of their regulars with 100-plus plate appearances, Heyward is the only one with a sub-.350 OBP. The league average is .319. The Cubs steal bases, too, as they’re 17-for-24 (~71 percent) in that department.

The Cubs have baseball’s best pitching staff, which has yielded a major league-best 2.54 runs per game. Only four teams are below 3.00 runs allowed per game. Of course, reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta is the big contributor to that with a sterling 0.84 ERA, but Jon Lester has put up a 1.58 mark and Jason Hammel 1.24. Closer Hector Rondon has found himself in only four save situations but has converted each of them with an even 1.00 ERA and a 15/0 K/BB ratio in nine innings. The Cubs’ aggregate bullpen ERA of 2.66 is fifth-best in the majors.

It’s too early to use defensive statistics with any degree of certainty, but even the eye test shows the Cubs to be elite defenders at the important positions, particularly shortstop (Russell), right field (Heyward), and third base (Kris Bryant).

The Cubs’ success isn’t exactly surprising. The club rode five consecutive fifth-place finishes into some high draft picks and that talent is starting to establish itself in the majors. Whether it was fans, writers, or Vegas oddsmakers, the Cubs were preseason darlings.

Kyle Hendricks starts for the Cubs opposite the Nationals’ Joe Ross at Wrigley Field tonight at 8:05 PM EDT.

The rest of Thursday’s action…

Detroit Tigers (Michael Fulmer) @ Cleveland Indians (Trevor Bauer), 6:10 PM EDT

New York Yankees (Masahiro Tanaka) @ Baltimore Orioles (Kevin Gausman), 7:05 PM EDT

Texas Rangers (Derek Holland) @ Toronto Blue Jays (J.A. Happ), 7:07 PM EDT

Arizona Diamondbacks (Robbie Ray) @ Miami Marlins (Adam Conley), 7:10 PM EDT

Milwaukee Brewers (Chase Anderson) @ Cincinnati Reds (Alfredo Simon), 7:10 PM EDT

Boston Red Sox (Henry Owens) @ Chicago White Sox (Erik Johnson), 8:10 PM EDT

Seattle Mariners (Wade Miley) @ Houston Astros (Chris Devenski), 8:10 PM EDT

New York Mets (Jacob deGrom) @ San Diego Padres (Colin Rea), 10:10 PM EDT

Colorado Rockies (Chris Rusin) @ San Francisco Giants (Matt Cain), 10:15 PM EDT

The Phillies are seeing to it that their minor leaguers eat well

Crop of vegetables. Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and other vegetables.
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For years we’ve talked about how odd it is that baseball teams are in the extraordinarily competitive business of developing highly-trained athletes yet, for whatever reason, it pays minor leaguers virtually nothing and all but forces them to subsist on junk food and other cheap options.

As Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, however, the Phillies are changing that. Indeed, they’re plowing serious money into nutritious food options for their minor league players:

The Phillies are teaching their minor leaguers how to play baseball, so why not teach them how to eat well, too?

“We want them to not have to worry about anything other than baseball,” assistant general manager Ned Rice said. “When they’re playing for the Phillies, they’ll have that stuff taken care of for them.”

 

That this is a news story — and it is a good and novel one — is kind of sad in some ways. How teams haven’t been on board with this approach for decades is beyond me.

Tracking baseball’s “Naturals”

The Natural
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Rob Neyer has a great column in today’s New York Times in which he tracks the real life players who, at one time or another, were dubbed “The Natural.” A la Roy Hobbs in the book and movie of the same name.

There are some that a lot of people probably remember: Jeff Francoeur and Ken Griffey, Jr. as “The Natural” come to mind easily. There are some who I don’t ever recall being called “The Natural” but were, apparently, like Terry Pendelton and Karim Garcia. There are also some whose stories were far odder and far more tragic than any version of Hobbs’ tale (oh man, a Toe Nash sighting!). Then there’s Rick Ankiel, whose path may be the closest one to Hobbs’ of them all, at least broadly speaking.

Fun stuff that, in addition to being a walk down memory lane, is also an instructive lesson about how the power of narrative works in sports.