Baseball Notes: Suprises, Disappointments & Peek at the Picks

Hello again everybody...

The beauty of a Wednesday after a Holiday weekend? It feels like it should be Tuesday, so the weekend seems even closer! Okay, it's not much, but it's something to help get you through the rest of the week.

By the end of the weekend we'll be 1/3 of the way through the 2008 Major League season. So it's time to start breaking down the season so far. Today I'll run down my Top 3 "Pleasant Surprises" of the season. Then it's my 3 "Biggest Disappointments". And finally it's this week's "Peek at the Picks" segment.

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So let's dig in and get after it...

Pleasant Surprises

1. Florida Teams Being Competitive

Who'd have guessed it? The Marlins and Rays in first place in their divisions on May 28th?! Clearly I wouldn't have. I had the Marlins finishing dead last in the NL East and the Rays finishing 4th in the AL East.

As I've pointed out several times, the Marlins are creating magic with the lowest payroll in all of baseball. They've half-buried my NL East favorite, the NY Mets, 5 1/2 games behind them. I keep waiting for them to falter, but their lineup - anchored by SS Hanley Ramirez and 2B Dan Uggla - is carrying through whatever pitching and defensive issues they may have.

Can the Marlins hang in for the rest of the year? Maybe their relative inexperience will catch up with them. But at this point I'm not seeing enough from the rest of the division to make me think they can't.

The Rays are combining solid young pitching with accountability amongst their every day players to compete with the Red Sox (whom I hate) in the AL East. Manager Joe Maddon has had some "interim manager" stints with the LA Angels (back in the California/Anaheim days) and has brought the things he learned in that organization to the Rays. Hard work, drilling the fundamentals and taking responsibility for one's mistakes. These are the qualities that Mike Soscia brings to the Angels and now the Rays are working off that model.

Can the Rays hang in for the rest of the year? I'm less optimistic if only because of the talent and experience of the Red Sox (whom I hate). It wouldn't surprise me a bit at this point if the Rays finish 2nd in the AL East and are perhaps even a factor in the Wild Card race, but I don't think they'll win the division.

2. Twins Starting Pitching

This is one of those "pleasant surprises" where you have to factor in the relative expectations at the beginning of the year. Are the Twins pitchers going to win awards and carry their team to the playoffs? Umm, no. But seeing as how I thought this staff had the potential to be a complete disaster, I'll also be the first to admit that I was wrong. And I'm happy to do it.

Livan Hernandez is 6-2 with a 4.22 ERA. Those numbers won't knock anybody over, but considering the guy's anchoring a staff in his 13th big-league season when most people saw him as an aging, back-end of the rotation type pitcher, I'm impressed. Hernandez doesn't throw hard, but he mixes his pitches extremely well. And most importantly, he works down in the strike zone. Given his age, 33, I still have some lingering doubts about his ability to stay healthy all year, but his track record makes those doubts fairly minimal.

Nick Blackburn was almost an afterthought coming out of Spring Training. He was "the guy who isn't Francisco Liriano". But he's quietly put together the 2nd best performance of any of the Twins starters. A 4-3 record doesn't catch your attention, but a 3.39 ERA is quite respectable. And with both Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey spending time on the DL at various times, Blackburn's been a workhorse averaging nearly 7 innings per start.

The Twins are 2 games behind the White Sox in the AL Central. And given some of their hitting woes, their starters deserve a large portion of the credit. Will they hold up? Let's say I'm cautiously optimistic. I didn't see them being as good as they've been, so I won't repeat the mistake and say they can't continue to perform at the same level.

3. Josh Hamilton/Texas Offensive Outburst

Some of Hamilton's teammates have nicknamed him "Hobbs" referring to the character played by Robert Redford in "The Natural". Roy Hobbs was a baseball prodigy who didn't make his major league debut til late in life due a series of unfortunate events. Hamilton's not as old as Hobbs was when he made his debut, but "a series of unfortunate events" could easily apply.

Hamilton was the #1 overall draft pick in 1999. For reference, Red Sox (whom I hate) pitcher Josh Beckett was #2. For a couple of years, Hamilton progressed through the Tampa Bay minor league system as one would expect. Then in 2001 he was involved in a car accident which cost him all but 27 games of that season. His 2002 season was also cut short by lingering shoulder and back injuries. Then, while trying to recover from those injuries, he was suspended for violating MLB's substance abuse policy. Mind you 2002 was pre-PED (performance enhancing drug) testing, so Hamilton's suspension was for some sort of recreational drug use.

Over the next 4 years, Hamilton's life spun out of control. There were a series of suspensions, rehab visits and suicide attempts. Finally in 2006, one of those rehab visits actually clicked with Hamilton and he managed to kick his drug habit and work his way back into independent baseball.

MLB reinstated him on June 1, 2006. He then became a Rule 5 draftee of the Cubs who traded him to the Reds where he spent 2007 chasing Milwaukee OF Ryan Braun in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.

This past off-season, the Reds traded Hamilton to the Rangers for P Edinson Volquez. And now, finally in 2008, Hamilton is finally realizing the potential that the Rays saw in him back in 1999.

He's currently leading the league (or tied for the lead) in batting average (.329) and RBI (58) and he's second in the AL in home runs (13). Those, folks, are Triple Crown-like numbers.

Texas isn't usually one of those teams that I'd recommend you go and see. But now, Hamilton's batting practice sessions are worth the price of admission by themselves. When he last visited the Metrodome here in Minnesota, he reportedly hit a ball off the banner with the Twins Division, League and World Championships listed on it. That's a solid 500+ foot shot to the upper deck in right field.

Josh doesn't have a lot of help in the Ranger line-up, but here's to hoping that he's able to stay clean, stay sober and keep hitting the ball a country mile!

Biggest Disappointments

1. The Detroit Tigers

I debated whether to make their line-up or their pitching staff the bigger disappointment. But they've both been so terrible that it's nearly impossible for me to separate them.

The lineup was supposed to be Murderer's Row '08. Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffield and Carlos Guillen were all mainstays, but the addition of superstar Miguel Cabrera in a trade from Florida was supposed to put this team over the top.

Not so much.

Thanks to some big games recently, the Tigers have eeked into the upper half of the AL's batting statistics. But for the greater part of this first 1/3 of the season, they've been wallowing in the lower half. And given their enormous payroll and high expectations, that's a huge disappointment.

Detroit's pitching staff has been equally unspectacular. They have the second highest ERA in the league, while having given up the 3rd most runs. Not good. Jeremy Bonderman (3-4, 4.34), Justin Verlander (2-7, 5.19) and Nate Robertson (2-5, 5.88) have all taken drastic steps-back from last year.

Combined, the Tigers are making my World Series pick look awfully silly. Thanks fellas. Get it going would you?!
2. Seattle Mariners

The Mariners are another team that made a big off-season trade and added copious amounts of payroll in an attempt to make a playoff push.

Time for Plan B.

Much like the Tigers, the Mariners have failed in nearly every aspect of the game. Unlike the Tigers, they've buried themselves so far behind the division leader (19-34, 12.5 games behind L.A.) that it would take a near miracle to save this season.

I'd say that you should look for a big-time salary dump coming out of the Pacific northwest sooner than later, but when I look at their roster, the guys they'd most likely trade have cost-prohibitive contracts. That doesn't mean they can't be traded, only that Seattle would have to pick up large portions of their salaries. Which sort of defeats the entire purpose of a salary-dump in the first place.

What a mess!

3. New York Mets

The Mets are 24-26, 5 1/2 games behind the Florida Marlins. If you'd told me that was going to be the case in late May prior to the season, I'd have asked what particular brand of crack you were smoking!

Long story short, the Mets got old virtually overnight. Carlos Delgado has been a shell of his former self. Carlos Beltran has been giving spotty efforts at best. Johan Santana has gotten off to his usual solid, but unspectacular start. And Pedro Martinez has been hurt since his first start of the year.

And because this team's in the glare of the New York media, there've been all kinds of off-field distractions to go along with the on-field woes. Manager Willie Randolph and closer Billy Wagner have both had to backtrack from comments made in frustration.

Poor play? Media distractions? These things don't spell success. They spell "shake-up".

Finally it's time for this week's "Peek at the Picks" segment.

NL East - Florida Marlins, 30-21 (Dan's Pick: NY Mets, 5.5 Games Back)
I discussed most of my feelings on this back in the "Biggest Disappointments" segment. The Mets need to shake things up somehow. I hate advocating for someone to get fired, but it might be time.

NL Central - Chicago Cubs, 31-21 (DP: Cubs)
The Cubs are tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for the best record in baseball. I think someone just forecasted a cold front in hell. The Astros and Cardinals are hovering 1.5 games back of the Cubs, so the Cubbies are far from having a stranglehold on the division. But so far the North Siders are rolling right along.

NL West - Arizona Diamondbacks, 30-22 (DP: D'backs)
Arizona's been struggling somewhat as of late. The offense has fallen off, and their once invulnerable rotation has looked awfully human. Fortunately they're in the worst division in baseball which not only means they have a lot of games coming against bad teams, but also means they can afford some losing streaks along the way.

AL East - Tampa Bay Rays, 31-21 (DP: Boston Red Sox (whom I hate), 0.5 GB)
The Rays continue to set club record after club record in terms of the standings. I'm not sure they've been within 10 games of the lead this late in the season before. And that really isn't an exaggeration. But the Red Sox (whom I hate) are right there and odds are their talent will overwhelm the Rays as the season moves along.

AL Central - Chicago White Sox, 28-23 (DP: Detroit Tigers, 7.5 GB)
Okay... I'll say this right now. Detroit's on the clock. If they're more than 5 games out by the All Star Break, I'm going to officially write them off! I keep hoping Jim Leyland has fiery speech left in him that will finally get this thing turned around. But that hope dwindles as the Tigers fall further and further behind.

AL West - L.A. Angels, 32-22 (DP: Seattle Mariners, 12.5 GB)
Yeah, I blew this one. And I'll keep admitting it. This is going to be a LONG year in Seattle.

That's all for today. Back on Friday with more Baseball goodness!


  1. If nothing else, it's a very literate (and slightly biased) look at the baseball season thus far.

    I liked it, and learned stuff (like some Twins pitchers' names).

  2. As long as the people are entertained, I figure I've done my job! Thanks!