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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins

Monday, May 02, 2005

April Is The Cruelest Month

As disasters go, this isn't so bad in the grand scheme of things. However, I think it's safe to say that the first month of the baseball season has been a total flop. The Phillies are in last place, my fantasy team is in last place, and my preseason picks have been close to perfectly wrong. Basically, it's everything you'd expect from baseball season.

The Phillies - I mean, I should have seen it coming. I've been watching this team for over two decades; I should be totally used to this. This is their third losing April in the last four years. In 2001, the Phillies had their first winning season since the 1993 NL championship season and their second since 1986. That was supposed to be the jumping-off point for a South Philly baseball resurgence. Instead, the Phils have tanked it out of the gate in almost every season since then, and they haven't broken the 86-win mark which they reached in '01.

I thought the Phils were going to finish third in the division behind the Marlins and Mets. The Braves, as I've learned but still refuse to believe, always will turn in a division-leading performance, so I should just assume that they will also be in the mix this year. I figured the only team the Phils wouldn't have to worry about would be the MLB-owned Nationals. Really, if MLB can run a team better than a single organization can, the Phils' entire front office should be cleared out.

But there they are, a month into the season, and the Phillies are looking up at the rest of the division. They managed to lose 2 of 3 to the Nats at home in their opening series, and that's been about how the month has gone in general. A few bad outings in general have torpedoed the team's stats, and actually, there have been some decent players on the team in the early going. Pat Burrell looks like he relearned how to hit. He's got 5 homers and 21 RBI. Abreu and Rollins have looked alright also, especially with their baserunning (Abreu is 7/7, Rollins is 5/6 in steal attempts). The center field platoon of Jason Michaels (.375) and Kenny Lofton (.373) is hitting well. Super-utility man (he's played 1B, 3B, and SS already) Tomas Perez needs to get more regular playing time (although in an already crowded infield, this is nearly impossible) - he's 5-7 with 3 RBI in his two starts this season (and just 1-9 with 2 RBI as a pinch hitter). On the mound, Jon Lieber (4-1), Billy Wagner (6 saves, no earned runs allowed, 0.64 WHIP), and Brett Myers (34 strikeouts) have looked good.

I get the feeling that some of the problem might be new manager Charlie Manuel's fault. I just don't really like him as a manager - I think he throws the wrong lineups out there and makes the wrong pitching moves. Myers and Burrell's improvements indicate that it isn't the fault of new pitching coach Rich Dubee and hitting coach Milt Thompson. On the bright side (sort of), the Phillies have had the toughest schedule in terms of opponents' winning percentage so far (which, admittedly, might be a little skewed by the fact that they were able to beat up on the Phils), but that hopefully will not be the case for the rest of the season, even if they do have to compete in a tough division.

Watching a game on ESPN between the Phils and Nats a week or two ago, I heard the announcers say that those would be the teams duking it out for last place in the division. In April. Are the Phillies really that hopeless? The team president, Dave Montgomery, conducted an interview today in which he actually used the phrase, "We are far from dead." To me, that sounds an awful lot like the captain of the Titanic assuring his passengers that they would be arriving in New York right on schedule.

My fantasy team - The Sex Panthers, like the team's namesake, smell like a used diaper filled with Indian food. You'd think I'd be cruising early on, seeing how I was the only one in the league to actually draft live. That would be entirely wrong. I lost my first two series by scores of 3-6 and 3-7. I managed to tie the team with which I was then tied for last, 5-5, before dropping last week's series, 2-8. Like the Phillies, I am now solely in last place.

Injuries have hit my team pretty hard early on. The only injured players that I took in the draft were Curt Schilling and Lance Berkman. Schilling was expected to return soon, which he did. Except that he's now back on the DL. Berkman's still out. Justin Morneau, a guy I was hoping would pick up some big numbers, was beaned in the first week of the season and missed two weeks with a concussion. Bobby Crosby cracked a rib two at-bats into the season. He's still out. I picked up Khalil Greene to replace him. Greene promptly broke a finger. David Wells also landed his fat ass on the DL. That's six players and seven stints on the DL for my team in one month. This doesn't fly when there's only one DL spot and three bench slots on my team.

The hitters on my team have also been underperforming with uniformity. The best hitter on my team so far has been Alfonso Soriano, but his .266 average and 10 RBI are still far short of his top-10 pick status. Todd Helton, my first-round pick, has the same .266 average with only one home run and nine RBI. Come on, he plays in Coors Field! And Jason Kendall, batting .247, has been a complete dud. I know he doesn't hit homers anymore, but he's still supposed to hit, right? At least some of my pitchers have picked it up. Roy Oswalt and Mark Buehrle have been off to good starts, and I was able to snag Odalis Perez and Javier Vazquez off the waiver wire.

Even still, it's time to start clearing out some of the dead weight. Jeff Bagwell, gone (not that he was playing too badly, but someone dropped Sean Casey). Angel Berroa, gone. His .247 average was terrible, and he was my third option at shortstop when both Crosby and Greene went down. Someone dropped Kaz Matsui, who's not great, but he's at least better than Berroa, plus he's eligible at shortstop. And, just the thought of having a Royals hitter on my team was demoralizing. Crosby - gone. His sorry injured ass was taking up space on my bench (Schilling gets the DL spot), and Victor Diaz is coming on strong out of nowhere for the Mets. Now watch him come back to earth after I've picked him up. I also dropped Wells and the very disappointing Erubiel Durazo (if you're a designated hitter, you should actually hit), and picked up Dave Roberts (who better pick up his numbers if he wants to stay on my team) and Tony Womack (who should get runs and RBI just by virtue of being in the Yankees' lineup).

Apparently, this team, which was born out of a stretch of bad luck, is showing the traits of its lineage. But now that I've spotted my leaguemates a sizable lead, it's time to flex the ol' ESPN Baseball Researcher Muscle. It's on.

My preseason picks - Aside from the Marlins, not one of my eight postseason picks would be correct if the season ended after a month (well, the Twins, whom I picked to win the AL Central, would be the AL Wild Card). There's been some serious duds on that list of picks. The Yankees are five games under .500.; the Rangers are also under .500. The Mets and Padres, too, have losing records, while the Cubs are at .500. Only three of the eight teams which I picked to reach the playoffs have winning records (the Red Sox are the other one, and they're in second in both the AL East and Wild Card). That's pretty bad. There's still a lot of baseball to be played, however, and, with the exception of the Phillies, I think the above-mentioned teams will still turn it around.

As for the individual award picks, A-Rod and his nine homers still are in good position to win the AL MVP (although Brian Roberts, whom I said "isn't spectacular," has been ridiculous, leading the AL in runs (23) and steals (12), and posting other phat numbers, too). Miguel Cabrera has been solid (17 runs, 18 RBI), although not MVP material so far in the NL. Derrek Lee, leading the league with eight homers and 30 RBI, is probably at the front of that race.

As far as pitchers go, Randy Johnson is also doing alright (43 strikeouts), but not Cy Young alright. Johan Santana, with 52 strikeouts, is looking like he might repeat as the winner of that award. Santana's very long win streak was snapped the other day despite the fact that he pitched a brilliant game himself. I wouldn't be surprised to see him snap off another 10-plus straight wins. Dontrelle Willis, at 5-0 the NL's only five-game winner, looks like the early favorite for the NL Cy Young award. Don't count out my pick Jake Peavy, though - he's second in the league with 41 strikeouts, and he hasn't lost yet (2-0) with an ERA under 2.00 and a WHIP under 1.00.

Early favorites for Rookie of the Year have to be Gustavo Chacin in the AL (4-1, 1.04 WHIP) and Clint Barmes in the NL (.417, 20 runs). At 0-2, Scott Kazmir, my AL pick, isn't looking too good, and neither is Gavin Floyd (14.14 ERA in 14 innings pitched). Floyd's just been rocked in his last three outings, in which he actually has a 27.00 ERA. So he fits right in with the Phillies bullpen.


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