May 7, 2012
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May 10, 2012
Happy Opening Day! Once upon a time, the season commenced with lone games in Cincinnati (in honor of its status as home of the first professional team) and Washington (where President Taft started a tradition by ingesting an entire beer vendor). Today, a slate of six games – only one of them in a place with hospitable weather in late March, Los Angeles - will begin the schedule’s languorous grind toward Halloween.
Only a fool would pretend to know what will happen over a six-month period containing 2,340 games, at least 21,000 innings, 46 Tommy John surgeries, and, inexplicably, two sets of rules. So pay no attention to the bells on my cap as I present my 12 predictions for the 2011 baseball season.
1. The Philadelphia Phillies will not win the National League East. Most fans and pundits were ready to hand the World Series trophy to the Phils as soon as they signed Cliff Lee in December. The rotation of Roy Halladay, Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels will be formidable. So will the ranks of its disabled list. Chase Utley’s goal is to return by the All-Star break. Brad Lidge won’t touch a ball for 3-6 weeks. It’s not even April yet. Old players get hurt, and the Phillies are an old team. Stepping into the opening left by the Phillies will be …
2. The Atlanta Braves. Jason Heyward was just the beginning. Other young Braves who’ll have an impact are first baseman Freddie Freeman and starting pitchers Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor (who will begin the season in a league appropriate to his name). They’re not going to win 14 consecutive division titles again, but they’ll be very good for a good long time.
2a. Bonus Prediction: Bobby Cox will be the first man ever ejected from his number-retiring ceremony.
3. The Pittsburgh Pirates will not finish in last place. They won’t have a winning season, not yet, but they won’t be hopeless. Some good young pieces are falling into place in the lineup: third baseman Pedro Alvarez, second baseman Neil Walker, outfielders Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata. The pitching staff is dreadful, but they’ll be better than the Astros, who have a decent shot at losing 100 games.
4. We will see Stephen Strasburg in a major-league uniform this year. Just not on the mound. There’s nothing to gain for him or the Nationals in rushing his return from Tommy John surgery. We’ll see him in 2012, when the Nats will be the surprise team of the National League that surprises no one.
5. There will be a major brawl between the Yankees and the Red Sox. Josh Beckett will throw a fastball up and in to Derek Jeter. After a lifetime of overreacting to any high inside fastball, Jeter and his slowing reflexes will just manage to get his head out of the way. Joe Girardi will order Ivan Nova to hit Dustin Pedroia, who will charge the mound throwing punches upward toward Nova’s chest. Kevin Youkilis and Mark Teixeira will square off in a main event that’s as close as we’ll come to Klitschko vs. Klitschko, while Alex Rodriguez and J.D. Drew stand off to the side, chatting amiably. It will end when Mariano Rivera floats down from the heavens to restore order.
6. This will be the last season of one wild-card team in each league. Beginning in 2012, there will be two, who will meet in a two-of-three series while the division champions rest at home. This will be part of the labor accord that will make baseball look positively golden next to the ugly lockouts in the NFL and NBA.
7. Neftali Feliz will be the next Joba Chamberlain. Starter or reliever? Closer or ace? These should be happy decisions, but it’s important to make ‘em and stick to ‘em. He will be dazzling again out of the Rangers’ bullpen, but when the club can’t get a starting pitcher to shore up its rotation at midseason, it will trade for Jonathan Papelbon and make Feliz a starter in July. They’ll think they’re protecting Feliz this way by having him pitch fewer innings than if he were a starter all season, but the shift will wreak havoc with his command and his endurance.
8. The long-awaited managerial debut of Don Mattingly will not go well. Joe Torre didn’t do his protégé any favors by leaving him a roster of disgruntled underachievers. The Dodgers should be able to contend purely on the basis of the pitching staff, but the expected primes of Matt Kemp, James Loney, and Andre Ethier are looking a lot less valuble than they did a year ago. This would be a fascinating team in the hands of Jim Leyland; instead, there’s a novice at the helm, and no help coming thanks to the ownership mess caused by the ongoing McCourt divorce.
9. Albert Pujols will re-sign with the Cardinals. A deal will be reached during the season – why not? who believes this no-talking, deadline nonsense? – that will involve some lifetime role and quiet promises of a small ownership piece, a private plane, and the lower two-thirds of the Gateway Arch. The team knows what the lineup would look like without him; his agent knows the Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies are set at first base; he knows how much karma he’d be messing with if he went to the Cubs.
10. The hot phrase in the game will be “situational closer.” At last teams will break free of the shackles of the save definition, and use their best relievers in the highest-leverage at bats whenever they come. It’s a point of stathead orthodoxy that anyone can close, while uniformed lifers insist the ninth inning is different from the earlier ones. We’ll see some teams test the theory out of necessity (Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Washington, Los Angeles) or out of abundance (Boston). You didn’t really think Joe Maddon was dumb enough to make Kyle Farnsworth a traditional closer, did you?
11. The most interesting race will be in the NL Central. The Brewers and Reds will battle to the end, with the Cardinals lurking just behind despite losing Adam Wainwright. The Reds’ biggest problems will be keeping Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto healthy and finding bullpen catchers willing to work with Aroldis Chapman. The Brewers will ride their Big Three starters – Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, and Shawn Marcum – to the pennant, thanks to home run and RBI champion Prince Fielder.
12. And the playoff teams will be … Boston, Minnesota, Texas, Tampa Bay; Atlanta, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Philadelphia. The Red Sox will beat the Giants in their first Series meeting since Freddie Snodgrass’s “$30,000 muff” in 1912.