April 2012

Rangers looking set to repeat

Through the first 16 games, it looks like the the American League could end up the same way that it did the last two years: with the Texas Rangers representing the league in the World Series.

Granted, it is way too early to say they are a lock. But at 13-3, they already hold a seven-game lead on the Angels — the team that was supposed to take the West from the Rangers this year.

The Angels went out and signed the best hitter in the game — Albert Pujols. They also signed C.J. Wilson away from the Rangers. The biggest move the Rangers made was to sign Yu Darvish. They also signed Joe Nathan as their closer and moved Neftali Feliz into the rotation. All of them have performed well. Nathan —  two years removed from his Tommy John surgery — has had some tightrope saves, but is regaining the form that made him one of the top five closers in the game before his injury. Feliz has been outstanding in the rotation. Darvish is starting to settle in. The rest of the rotation has been very good. Colby Lewis is throwing really well, as are Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.

But let’s get to the heart of this team. The lineup is deadly. Josh Hamilton is hitting over .400. So is Michael Young. There is not a place in this lineup for the opposing pitcher to take a breath. Hamilton has seven home runs and 17 RBI in 16 games. When your seven hole hitter (Mike Napoli) had 30 home runs last year, you have a stout line up. Their leadoff hitter (Ian Kinsler) had 32 home runs last year. When you have that kind of offense, it takes so much pressure off of the starting rotation. They know they don’t have to be perfect. They just have to keep the team in the game.

The team I picked to win the World Series this year was Detroit. They have started well, but the injury to Doug Fister has hurt them. They will still win the Central, but for them to reach the Series they will have to get Fister back healthy.

Right now there is not another team in either league that is even close to as balanced as the Rangers are. If the Angels expect to give them a run, they’d better start soon. Or the Rangers will put so much distance between them that they won’t be able to make it up.

Building from the back

Over the last few years general managers have started building their pitching staffs from the closer back. Why?

Kevin Towers I think was really the first GM to start doing this when he was the GM of the Padres. It proved to be effective. He had Trevor Hoffman then Heath Bell as his closers, and Mike Adams and Luke Gregerson as his 7th and 8th innning guys. If the Padres could get the game to the 7th, it was pretty much over.

Then Towers took over as GM of the Diamondbacks, where Kirk Gibson had been named interim manager after the firing of A.J. Hinch. The first thing Towers did was remove the interim tag from Gibson’s title, and hired him to manage the club. Then he hired a coaching staff that was what I would call old school. Adding Don Baylor and Alan Trammell, to go along with the coaches that were there: Matt Williams, Charles Nagy… guys that fit the mold of what Towers and Gibson wanted. Hard-nosed, play hard until the final out kind of guys that could teach the young talent on this team how to win.

Then in the winter of 2010, after having a bullpen that blew 27 save opportunities in 2010, he went to work on his bullpen. The two big names were J.J. Putz and David Hernandez. It proved to work and work well. They won the division in 2011.

After watching the first series of the season so far this season, it is abundantly clear that bullpens have to be strong, if you want to have any chance of winning.

I live in the Philly area, so being off work this weekend and being able to see the Phillies play every game on local TV, I saw how important the pen is. The three starters for the Phillies in the series against the Pirates went a total of 20 innings and gave up two runs. They lost the series two games to one. The one game they won, Jonathan Papelbon got the save in a 1-0 win.

But if we look at the starting pitching all over the game, it has been very good. Meanwhile, there have been some bullpens that have imploded.

In 2011, starters’ ERA at this point of the season was 4.06. So far in 2012 it is 3.66, just shy of a half a run lower than last year. Yet relievers’ ERA at this point in the season last year was 3.69, and this year it has risen to 3.88.

Big-name closers have blown save opps already this year: Heath Bell, Jose Valverde, and Mariano Rivera. Chris Perez of the Indians blew his first save opportunity this year, then he converted his second one, giving him 2.2 innings pitched in their first three games. That is only a third of an inning less than he threw all spring. I can’t understand how you can give a closer the ball in a save situation on Opening Day when he has only thrown three innings all spring to get ready for the season.

So anyone out there who questions why teams are building their staffs from the closer back and putting so much emphasis on their bullpen talent. The very first series of the year should explain it. Boston has two blown saves already. The Cubs have 2 blown saves already. The bullpen has become extremely important in the game. There is nothing that will demoralize a team faster than an offense busting their butts for eight innings to get a lead, only to lose it in the 9th.

D-backs will win National League pennant

Justin Upton

It’s time for my National League predictions.

I’ll start with the East where teams have made some big splashes with trades and free agency.

The Marlins landed Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, and Mark Buerhle, each a very good addition, not to mention new manager Ozzie Guillen. On paper, the Marlins are better than they have been in a long time. But beware: You can buy players, but you can’t buy a team. They will be better, but I don’t think they will learn to play as a team this year. I see a third-place finish for the Marlins.

You can always count on the Braves to compete. But the Braves have too many question marks with starting pitchers Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson coming off injuries. The bullpen is great, but with health questions in the rotation and with Chipper Jones, I don’t see them finishing higher than fourth ahead of the Mets, who are very young and very far away from being ready to compete.

That brings us to the two teams that will fight to win this division – Philadelphia and Washington. The Nationals added two very good starters to their rotation in Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson. And don’t forget about the return of Stephen Strasburg, albeit on an innings limit. The Nats have a very solid lineup, and their bullpen is stronger with the addition of Brad Lidge. The Nats will finish second.

The Phillies have the best starting rotation, and they added Jonathan Papelbon as their closer. The Phillies will have to play without Ryan Howard for at least the first month of the season, and the lineup is not as feared as it once was. It won’t be as easy as last year, but the Phillies will win the East.

On to the Central: St. Louis lost Albert Pujols and Milwaukee lost Prince Fielder. Cincinnati general manager Walt Jocketty saw that as a chance to pounce, adding starter Mat Latos and closer Ryan Madson. I was leaning toward the Reds until it was discovered that Madson needed Tommy John surgery. Now, I think St. Louis will win the Central.

The defending NL West champion Dbacks learned how to win last year, and they’ll be just as good this year. Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera are significant additions for the Giants, who also get Buster Posey back to help a bad offense from last year. The Giants have a very good rotation, but I don’t think this team has enough power to take the pressure off the rotation.

The Dodgers have the Cy Young winner from last year in Clayton Kershaw and arguably the MVP runner-up Matt Kemp, but I don’t think the rest of the team is proven enough to compete for the division title. Arizona will repeat as champs.

I see Washington and Milwaukee meeting in the one-game playoff, with the Nats advancing to play the Phillies in the Division Series. The Phillies have a big advantage in experience and will win this series, while Justin Upton (above/Getty pic) and the Arizona Diamondbacks beat St. Louis in the other NLDS.

I’m going out on a limb and saying Arizona beats Philly in the NLCS and advances to the World Series.

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