No pepper, kids.
It’s time to return to the 2011 Pop Culture Has AIDS baseball preview with the less interesting, less talented, less Major league. I kid! The National League is great. Where else can you watch, 2-3 times a game, a gangly, uncoordinated guy watch two fastballs down the middle and then swing awkwardly at the third pitch with all the aplomb of a middle-aged housewife playing Whiffleball to appease her children? Or, if you’re even luckier, where else can you watch the thrilling spectacle of a poorly executed sacrifice bunt right back to the pitcher’s mound, and some light jogging down the first base line?
How dare I? The designated hitter isn’t in baseball’s original rules! The American League destroys the sanctity of the game! Well fuck that, fuck pitchers hitting, fuck the sanctity of the game, and fuck Bob Costas for good measure. The forward pass wasn’t in football’s original rules, and the three-pointer and shot clock are both relatively recent NBA additions. Those rules changes added excitement to the game, just as the DH does. There’s little more boring in sports than watching a pitcher with a .143 batting average go through the sham of an at bat.
Oh, but the strategy! Think of the precious stratagems we lose without the pitcher hitting! Bullshit. People act like you need a doctorate in statistics to manage a National League game. It’s seriously not that hard: Tommy Lasorda figured it out. The trade-off for having one or two extra (mildly) interesting decisions a game is that too often one of the best players in the game is removed too early, so fifth outfielder who’s slugging .390 can pinch hit. The only reason anyone on earth defends the National League is “tradition.” The National League is the league to root for if you’re a staunch conservative. Or a moron. Either way.
Anyway, on to a bunch of teams that will try to score a fluke, upset victory in the World Series:
Once again, we’re examining the most compelling storylines surrounding each team. Read the American League preview here.
National League East
Philadelphia Phillies: Will Chase Utley’s Knee Ruin Everything?
Oh my God, you guys! Halladay, Lee, Hamels and Oswalt! Might as well start printing World Series tickets now. First of all, let’s stop all the drooling about how this is the best rotation since the ‘60s Orioles or ’54 Indians. Let’s see how this thing unfolds. At least one, maybe more of those starters will struggle. At least one, maybe more of those starters will get hurt. Rarely do things go according to plan. Add in the fact that the Phillies’ bullpen is a mess, and their lineup is aging, and nothing is guaranteed. Then, take their 32-year-old second baseman, who as recently as 2009 was the best player on the team, and give him an uncertain injury. All of a sudden, the Braves have a real shot at this division. We don’t know how much Utley will play, or how crippled he’ll be when he’s in the lineup. Without Utley, the entire roster looks a lot less formidable.
Atlanta Braves: Who’s Going to Beat all of Georgia’s Women Now That Bobby Cox is Gone?
Seriously. It’s a big job. Not just anybody can fill Cox’s lady-slapping shoes. You’ve got to learn how to backhand slap, or use a bag of oranges, so you don’t leave marks. You’ve got to be an irascible wit so people don’t dwell on your abusive behavior. Can anyone dole out a little tough love and discipline to all those Southern belles the way Bobby could? Is John Rocker available?
Florida Marlins: Which Javy Will Show Up This Year?
Javier Vazquez: the ultimate head case. He can’t pitch in New York. He can’t really pitch in the American League. His velocity is declining. He may be injured. But a spot in the Marlins rotation, nestled comfortably somewhere behind Josh Johnson, suits him perfectly. He’s in the NL, he has little to no pressure on him, and all he has to do is turn in a decent year to beat expectations. The Marlins might have just enough depth to content for a the Wild Card, but to do so, they’ll need the good version of Mr. Vazquez.
New York Mets: The White Stripes Principle
In the documentary, “Under Great White Northern Lights,” Jack White spoke about the value of working under constraints. He explained that the reason the White Stripes did many of the things they did (no setlists at shows, recording albums in very short windows, retaining Meg as a drummer) because it forced the band to be creative. Without any restraints, there would have been no way to harness White’s wild impulses. Will the same concept work for the Mets, who for years have gotten the least bang for their buck out of any franchise in baseball? Will Leitch seems to think so, arguing the Mets’ Madoff-induced insolvency will help force a proper rebuilding under Sandy Alderson. For the sake of a franchise that’s been snakebit in every major decision they’ve made for half a decade, I hope Leitch is right.
Washington Nationals: And Two Douchebags Shall Lead Them
Make no mistake: Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper are pricks. We want to root for them, because we enjoy witnessing true greatness, and because prodigies are always fun, but man these guys are hard to cheer on. They’re both arrogant and aloof, and give the impression that giving an interview or signing an autograph is a massive imposition on time that could otherwise be spent doing something worthy of their stature and ability. And the Nationals’ future depends on these guys, almost completely. If the gods of the Montreal Expos have any power left, Strasburg won’t regain his command until he’s pitching for another team and Harper will be a colossal bust.
National League Central
Cincinnati Reds: The Problem Children
The Reds have somehow become a home for wayward boys. I mean that mostly in the baseball sense. The roster is filled with players who appeared at one time (or still appear) to be busts unable to fulfill their potential. Even manager Dusty Baker fell from grace in Chicago when everyone realized that Barry Bonds, not his own innate genius, won him those manager of the year awards. Brandon Phillips, Homer Bailey, Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto, Jay Bruce…this team even invited Dontrelle Willis to camp in a non-roster capacity. Things worked out for the Red last year when Bruce finally came into his own in the second half. Will Bailey be this year’s enfant terrible redemption story?
Milwaukee Brewers: Zack Greinke – Anxiety Disorder or Just a Dick?
The media tends to treat Greinke with kid gloves, and that’s probably fair. The right-hander spent more than a year away from the game because of anxiety issues. If something’s serious enough to almost convince a kid to walk away from untold millions of dollars, then it’s serious. But now that Greinke’s established as a big leaguer, his personality is emerging. And anxiety disorder or now, he seems like an asshole. Reporters keep referring to his intensely competitive nature, which is definitely a codified term for “jerk.” And Greinke pestered the Royals for a trade last year (asking on four different occasions) just one year after signing a long-term contract (presumably not at gunpoint). Then, this spring, Greinke implied his Kansas City teammates annoyed him. A lot of people claim they find Greinke’s honesty refreshing. Maybe it is. But honesty and decency needn’t be mutually exclusive.
St. Louis Cardinals: The Last Stand of Big Al and Tony
I wrote more extensively about the Cardinals, Tony LaRussa and the Albert Pujols contract situation here, so I’ll just add this: if it’s been proven that truly great players remain great longer than average players, do truly great players also have better contract years than average players? We’re about to engage in the ultimate case study.
Chicago Cubs: Where Have You Gone, Sammy Sosa? The Right Field Bleachers Turn Their Lonely Eyes to You
What the Cubs are lacking, more than anything else, is star power. Their roster is decent if ill-composed. But not only do they not have any established stars, they don’t have any on-the-cusp-of-greatness stud prospects either. Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza are fine. But they’re not going to get you anything better than fourth place, even in a shitty division. Jim Hendry (how does he still have a job?) has taken the opposite of a stars-and-scrubs approach with this team, seemingly trying to get as many average big-leaguers on one roster as possible. They’ve taken different paths to their mediocrity, from Alfonso Soriano’s decline to Starlin Castro’s quick ascent to Tyler Colvin and Randy Wells’ striking overall averageness, but they’re all here, and together, they can win 80 games! From a fans’ perspective, if you’re not going to contend, wouldn’t you rather have that one charismatic superstar who gives you a reason to come out to the ballpark?
Pittsburgh Pirates: Holy Shit, They’re Not in Last Place!
…if only due to the ineptitude of Houston. The Bucs have Andrew McCutcheon, an All-Star by most measures. They have Pedro Alvarez, who could turn into the power threat they’ve been missing since…Bobby Bonilla? There are a few other miniscule glimmers of hope on the roster, but this is definitely still a terrible team. At this point, wouldn’t 5th place be considered a moral victory in Pittsburgh? Best of all, we could look forward to a whole season of Clint Hurdle puns, thanks to the always-creative baseball crew at The Worldwide Leader. (Jayson Stark: “The Pirates have faced many hurdles these last 18 years. But they love this Hurdle.”)
Houston Astros: Can Someone Please Give Drayton McLane the GMS III Treatment?
The Yankees won four World Series in five years beginning in 1996 for one simple reason: George Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball in 1993. For the first time since the early ‘70s, the Yankees scouts, general manager and coaching staff were allowed to perform all the tasks for which they were being paid, and with relative autonomy. If Steinbrenner hadn’t been banished, there’s little doubt that Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera would have been traded for an aging Wally Whitehurst. Now Commissioner Bud or someone needs to step in and save the Astros from their owner. Houston’s major-league roster is barren, and their farm system tapped. They’ve made too many bad trades, and more to the point, bad non-trades – many due to McLane getting involved when he doesn’t need to be involved. Now he’ll reap the reward of his meddling: last place in baseball’s weakest division. Congratulations. What more could you expect from Sam Walton’s tennis partner?
National League West
Los Angeles Dodgers: The Power of the Mustache
This division is too evenly matched for me to believe the Giants will win two years in a row. So I’m picking the Dodgers, mostly because of my long-standing man-crush on Evansville, Indiana’s own Donald Arthur Mattingly.
Just as Joe Torre was so clearly the right man for the right team in New York in the ‘90s, so was he the wrong man for the wrong team with this Dodgers squad. Torre was just out of touch enough (even in his later days with the Yankees) that he couldn’t connect with his young team (to the extent that a manager connecting with players even matters). Look for Mattingly’s old-school but still laid-back approach to work with the likes of Matt Kemp and Chad Billinglsey.
San Francisco Giants: No Repeat
It’s remarkable that the Giants won the World Series, given that they had as little offense as any World Series winner since 1991, and a general manager considered incapable of putting together a big-league roster. But Brian Sabean can draft young pitching, as he’s shown with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner. But the stars would have to align again for the Giants to repeat, and that’s unlikely. Lincecum is compiling a tremendous number of pitches, innings and strain on his skinny right arm, and Cody Ross is going to turn back into Cody Ross.
Colorado Rockies: The Young Studs
Does any team in baseball have a more talented twosome than Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki? If both those guys play 155 games, this team can absolutely contend for the division title. That’s unlikely, especially given Tulowitzki’s history. It’s rare that any franchise has two players this good in their primes at the same time, let alone the Rockies, who for years led the NL West in dysfunction. The addition of the humidor seems to have made some sort of karmic impact, and the team and system have stabilized. They don’t swing wildly between disparate philosophies anymore, and Tulo and C-Gone are their beautiful reward.
Arizona Diamondbacks: The Ballad of Livan and Motuzas
Out of the somewhat uninteresting Dbacks camp comes this delightful story about bullpen catcher Jeff Motuzas, who will do anything for a buck, and former Dback Livan Hernandez, his sadistic patron:
The following is a list of things Hernandez has paid Motuzas to do:
-drink a gallon of milk in 12 minutes
-take a punch in the balls whenever Hernandez felt like it
-get blindfolded by Hernandez and beaten with nunchuks
Why does Livan have to be on the Nationals now? Damn it! Think of what he could have paid Motuzas to do given another full season:
- Eat six saltines in 30 seconds
- Eat a tablespoon of cinnamon
- Do a Bear Fight
- Do an Irish Truck Bomb
- Shave his eyebrows
- Chew Livan’s used gum
- Put on a straitjacket, dislocate his shoulder and snap it back into place like Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon
- Get blindfolded and get beaten with a lead pipe
- Get blindfolded and go to a glory hole
San Diego Padres: Are the Camouflage Uniforms the Worst Thing in Baseball?
Yes. Yes, they are.