Happy Opening Day!

I should hate baseball.

I played it when I was little and stopped playing because I got bored -- and I was a shortstop.

I grew up in Northeast Ohio, which means I was born into a Cleveland Indians household.  They haven't won a championship since 1948 and have managed to find perhaps the most torturous way to lose the World Series in 1997.

There's no salary cap, so the players make ridiculous sums of money, paid by teams in large metropolitan areas who can afford to spend freely.  There's no such thing as parity.  The one year that there was even an ounce of it (the rule this year that teams had to give up draft picks as compensation for signing certain free agents) is already being taken away.

I really should hate baseball.

But I don't.  I love it.

Part of my love of baseball comes from the fact that there are an endless number of scenarios to think about.  I over think pretty much everything, but that's not even possible with baseball.  Every player, every position, every team, every manager, every general manager -- they all have stats and histories that can be dug into forever.  Trying to figure out any given moment in a baseball game is crazy, yet it's what we do.  People predict pitches, for god's sake.

It's a smart game.  There's so much strategy in any given baseball game, it puts all other sports to shame.  What the non-fan sees as a long, boring game, the fan realizes is a carefully executed, thoughtfully considered chess match involving a whole slew of people.

It's a long season.  Having the best starting nine in the line-up or the best starting five in the rotation at the beginning of the year ultimately means nothing.  Players get hurt, players have slumps, trades are made -- the
season is so long that even the worst team has an outside shot, even if it's not a particularly good one.

As my friend Matt pointed out, baseball is the only major sport that has no clock.  Baseball games end with the 27th out, which means you can keep playing as long as you earn it.  That is where optimism comes from.  There's cause and effect at work.  If you do well, you can make up any deficit; you're not fighting the other team and the clock.

Baseball reflects society.  That's not always a good thing, but more so than any other sport in America, it reflects our culture.  It changes as we do.  The history of the sport is the history of our country and I've always been fascinated by history.

Opening Day is always a holiday for me.  I take the day off and I watch 12 to 14 hours of baseball (with breaks here and there).  Being on the west coast, I can roll out of bed and start watching, as games sometimes start as early as 9 AM (the first game is at 10 this year).

April 1st.  The world is bright and shiny.  The impossible seems possible.  The flaws are dulled by optimism.

Baseball is back.

The 2013 Cleveland Indians

Who saw THAT coming?

At the end of last season, I figured that the Indians should just focus on building for 2014/2015, when star shortstop prospect Franicso Lindor would be ready for the big leagues.  Trade Choo, I said, trade Perez, trade Cabrera.  Get young arms and outfielders in return.  As far as I was concerned, there were just too many holes in this team to fill with a traditional Cleveland off-season.

We didn't so much get a traditional Cleveland off-season, did we?

Now, we shouldn't go too crazy about the extra spending we saw this winter.  Keep in mind that the Tribe had a bunch of money come off the books from Travis Hafner alone.  Add in Grady Sizemore and Casey Kotchman and we're right around $20M in savings, an amount that more or less covers what Swisher and Bourn will make this season (as their deals are all back loaded).  But those salaries are going to go up over the next few years, so the payroll is going to get even bigger, which means these deals were still out of left field for the Indians.

What's particularly interesting to me is how fans are excited while simultaneously admitting that the Indians probably can't catch the Tigers!  That's pretty impressive, to get a fan base hot and bothered for a team everyone assumes will come in second.  But at least we have hope to compete, and there are two wild cards now.

That's going to be a fight in and of itself.  There are a lot of vastly improved teams in the American League this year.  My projected AL Central standings (if I'm going with my head and not my heart) is pretty much the same as everyone else's:

1. Tigers
2. Indians
3. Royals
4. White Sox
5. Twins

The Twins are something of a disaster, but it's clear by their off-season moves that they know they're a disaster and they're taking the appropriate steps.  It could be a couple of years before they're back to where they used to be.

I don't think the White Sox have the pitching, offense, or defense to match what they did last year.  It's really just a matter of the fact that they had so many guys with career years last season.  It's just not going to happen again.

The Royals are going to be a pretty volatile team.  Their offense looked so promising two years ago, but the young players that seemed to be the future of this team took huge steps back last season.  The rotation is obviously much better, but it's still not overwhelming.  Both Guthrie and Santana can be as awful as they are great and losing Soria is a big blow for that bullpen.

So if I work under the assumption that the Tribe has to go through the Tigers to win the division, how do they match up?  Let's take a look.

Offense

For all the moves that the Tribe made in the off-season, it was always going to be impossible for them to match Detroit's offense.  They were 6th in the AL in runs scored last season and that was without Victor Martinez.  Cabrera and Fielder could be the best 3-4 combo in baseball and now they're going to add Martinez in.  Imagine Fielder batting between Cabrera and Martinez.  That's just crazy.  Add Tori Hunter and Austin Jackson to that line-up, and you've got a pretty potent offense.

That's not to say the Tribe don't look great on paper.  They actually might have a more consistent offense through the line-up than the Tigers, and they certainly have more speed.  But getting through that 3-4-5 is just too intimidating to give this category to anyone but the Tigers.

Defense

How's this for an easy breakdown of this position: the Indians traded away Peralta so Cabrera could move to short, because Cabrera is a better shortstop.

But if we really want to dig into it, how about the fact that the Tribe has what could be one of the top 5 outfields in all of baseball?  Add in potential all star Kipnis at second, and it's clear that the Indians take this category.

Starting Rotation

Here's where it falls apart.

You would think that the problem is Justin Verlander, but it's not.  No, no one should expect the Tribe to have a pitcher who can match up with the Tigers' ace.  That's just not going to happen.  The problem is that the Tribe doesn't even match up very well after that.  Doug Fister, in particular, is a problem for the Tribe, because at this point we don't even have a starter as good as Detroit's #2.

That isn't to say that we couldn't.  I think Ubaldo is a lost cause, but I think there's hope for Masterson.  He's only been a starter for two years, so his sample size is small.  He also spent last season forced to be perfect, because he had the second worst offense in the American League backing him up.  He'll have more leeway this year, and I think that will make him better.

Beyond Masterson and Jimenez, there's the unlikable Bret Myers, probably Zach MacAllister, and then I would say either Dice-K or Scott Kazmir.  This gives Bauer and Carasco more time in AAA.  I would imagine we'll see both of them in the second half, though.

Regardless, we'd have to have a lot go right to match the Tigers' 2-5, adding in Verlander makes it pretty much impossible.  Tigers take this category.

Bullpen

We might actually have a better bullpen than we did last year, and we had a pretty good one.  We bring back one of the best 7-8-9 combos in baseball in Smith, Pestano, and Perez.  Our two lefties will go from Sipp/Perez to, I would guess, Hagadone/Hill, which should be an upgrade.  That leaves two spots.  If I had to guess, I'd go with Matt Capps for one, assuming he's recovered from his injuries.  He could be a nice addition, if that's the case.  He's saved more games than anyone else on the team.  The last spot will go to either Matt Albers, Bryan Shaw, or Cody Allen.  My guess at this point would be Shaw; he's got better numbers than the other two.  Shaw might still have options, though, and I'm pretty sure Allen does, so it's entirely possible that good spring gives Albers the edge based on experience.

I honestly have no idea who's in the Tigers' bullpen anymore, aside from, I think, Daniel Schlereth, who we generally shell, and Al Alburquerque.  Oh, there's that Benoit guy, who we also generally shell.  I'm glad Valverde is gone, because he was an ass.

The bottom line, however, is that the Tribe takes this category.

Total

It would seem that we're split 2-2 in the breakdown above, but starting pitching will always be the deciding factor, and offense is generally more important than bullpen.  While defense may win championships, it only wins divisions if they other teams are just god awful, and the Tigers are at least average.

But here's the silver lining: of the categories listed above, pitching is always going to be the most mercurial.  The Indians have enough depth in the bullpen that they should be able to withstand any flukes in performance.  They also have a lot of depth in the starting rotation, even if that depth is fairly average across the board.  It still means consistency.  If the Tribe can get a spike up and the Tigers a spike down, the Indians definitely have a chance of taking the division.

The Future

Something else to consider: the Tribe is in good shape for years to come.  They have a potentially great rotation of Bauer, Carasco, Masterson, and MacAllister all signed for years to come.  They have a superstar replacement in waiting when Cabrera's contract is up after 2014 to go with Kipnis and Chisenhall in the infield.  Swisher and Bourn are all around through 2016 with options through 2017.  Brantley and Santana are also under club control for a few more years.

The moves the Indians made this off-season weren't just for this year, they were for the future, too.

The only thing that really matters at this point, though, is that the Indians are better than they were last year and that they're an intriguing team.  Hopes have never been higher for Indians' fans, and right now that's enough.

2012 WILL Be The End of the World: The Tribe Will Win the World Series

Note: I started this a while ago, but finally got around to finishing it.  Given the events of the last few days (big signings by the Red Sox and Phillies), I'm honestly not as optimistic about baseball in general, let alone the Indians.  Evidently, I wrote this in a simpler time...


You're probably thinking, Kyle, you're insane!  What possibly reasons could you have for thinking this, particularly given how bad the Indians were this year?  Well, notice I didn't say they were going to win the World Series NEXT year.



In fact, I have some advice for the Tribe front office going into the winter of 2010: don't spend any money.

Two Team Town

Anthony Castrovince, the former Tribe beat writer for MLB.com, once mentioned that Cleveland is a 2 sport town that has 3 teams.  If you look at the area's economics, its media market, and the amount of competition around it (I have a friend who grew up in Toledo who's a Tigers fan -- an Ohio native who supports a team from another state!  But Detroit is closer than Cleveland), Castrovince is totally right.  There's no reason to believe that a city like Cleveland could ever truly support 3 teams, aside from keeping one on life support while the other two flourish.

Sadly, one of the two teams supported by Cleveland will always be the Browns.  I don't say "sadly" because I don't love the Browns -- Ernest Byner's fumble made me cry -- but because the Browns sell out every game no matter how bad they are.  What kind of a message is that sending to their front office?  I'm sure the people in charge are very nice and truly want to win, but they are making money even when they lose.  There's no real accountability for the Browns.

(There are legitimate factors for why the Browns always sell out, not the least of which is the fact that you can go to all 8 home games and have seen 50% of the Browns' season, whereas 8 home games in basketball is 1/10 of the season, in baseball it's 5%)

This leave the Cavs and the Indians to fight over the second spot in Clevelanders hearts and wallets.  Over the last few years, obviously, this hasn't been much of a battle, given one particular player.  But that d-bag is gone now, which means the #2 spot is, in theory, up for grabs again.

So wouldn't it make sense for the Indians' front office to start shelling out the cash to put a better team on the field since, in theory, the fans are there to be won over?  Doesn't it seem like the perfect opportunity to actually invest money and know they'll make it back?


Hold Steady

Looking at it from a strictly marketing standpoint, it's going to be a year before those fans buying Cavs tickets will be looking at other options.  A lot of this will be out of defiance in the fact of King D-bag.  Fans are going to support the Cavs perhaps like never before, although I'm sure a certain percentage will jump ship right away.  But slowly fewer and fewer fans will show up, no longer willing to spend cash on a team that's lacking the entertainment value it once had.

Again, this will probably take another year, and while that means the Tribe could take advantage of it for the 2011 season, it's not the only opening they'll get.

Then there's the most obvious reason to not spend money this winter: what would they spend it on?

Even if the Tribe added $50M to their payroll, who would they sign?  This team currently has holes pretty much everywhere, and $50M would be like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping chest wound.  Not only that, but any truly talented players would go elsewhere, as it's clear the Tribe won't compete next year because of the aforementioned holes.  On top of that, most high end players aren't going to sign single year contracts, which means any deals signed this winter would be on the books for the following year, at least.

No, the absolute best thing the Tribe can do this winter is save their money for the winter of 2011, when they have a better idea of what they need.  Because they have to fill SOME holes from within or they are completely done.


Why Is There Hope For 2012?

Over the course of a full season next year, we'll see if Matt LaPorta will get better at first and if Jason Donald will get better at second.  I have reason to believe that both will, as they seem to have the type of make-up that suggests they'll only get better with time.  LaPorta has been a streaky hitter, so a full season at the major league level (without getting booted for a rental like he was this year) will show us just which way his streakiness is going to take him.  Donald's actually been pretty consistent at the plate, so given a full season next year I'd expect him to be a .260 hitter with a good OBP.

Next year also gives the Tribe time to find a third baseman.  Is it the much hyped, now cooling Goedert?  Or will Chisenhall make a smooth transition to Columbus next year, proving he's ready to take the reins in 2012?  Or will they have to take that money they saved and go get a free agent?  I have no idea, but we'll know better AFTER 2011.

Two big factors in considering 2011 another lost season are the injuries to Grady SizemoreSizemore and a healthy, experienced Santana in the middle of our line-up.  That's big time.

Another season also gives Michael Brantley time to mature.  He's looked like the guy we all expected him to be since he got recalled from Columbus this last time, and it would be shocking if he weren't in the line-up every day next season.  Again, a full season at the major league level will only help him.

That's two injuries, three guys who need more experience, and a giant question mark that will start to clear up over the course of the 2011 season.


But What About Pitching?

Of the 8 starters the Tribe has used so far this year, only 2 of them have really earned starting spots next year: Fausto 4.0 and Mitch Talbot.  Fausto 4.0 is clearly better than original Fausto (the closer) or Fausto 3.0 (send to rookie league), but I'd love to see movement towards Fausto 2.0 (4th in Cy Young voting).  I think that a full season with his new mechanics will start moving Carmona in that direction.  I would not be surprised to see him have a great year in 2011, ideally to set up him up for another fantastic year in 2012.  Talbot, on the other hand, appears to be fading as the season goes on, but that's not surprising, considering a stint on the DL to go along with his first year in the majors.  Another year will only bring maturity.

What do we do after those two?  Carlos Carrasco is definitely in that group.  Yes, he had a horrid time of it last September, but I think he was rushed up to prove the Lee deal wasn't a complete bust.  He's really turned his season around in Columbus and he definitely has the raw stuff to dominate.  I'm hoping he finds his way into the rotation next year so he can get a full season under his belt before the championship campaign of 2012.  I think he could be a front of the rotation type of guy.

I consider Carrasco and Justin Masterson to be equals, but only because they came over at the same time.  But Masterson clearly has front of the rotation stuff and proved it a few times over the season.  He also proved that has some work to do.  Again, though, the talent is there.

The last member of my 2012 rotation will most likely be a rookie, but he's a guy who is dominating in Akron right now and also has the stuff to be a front of the rotation type of guy.  That would be Alex White, and if you don't believe me go check out his numbers for the Aeros.  Assuming he keeps up his performance, I would be shocked if he didn't start 2011 with the Clippers, then ideally fighting for a rotation spot in Cleveland come 2012.

Moving up along with White from Akron will be big time arm Nick Hagadone, who has been used out of the bullpen, but who could get moved to the rotation.  I'm going to assume they'll stick with him as a reliever for now.  He came over in the Victor Martinez deal.  He's a lefty, which is nice, as I don't have much faith in Rafael Perez or Tony Sipp, regardless of how well they've pitched as of late.  I don't see R. Perez returning to his 2007 form.  I figure the 2 lefties in our 2012 bullpen will be Hagadone and Laffey, who also gives the Tribe length.

I don't know if I consider Joe Smith a part of the bullpen's future and I'm not entirely sure when his contract is up, anyway.  I think we've seen the real Frank Hermann who, like Josh Tomlin and Jeanmar Gomez, managed to pitch well despite himself when first getting the call.  Germano is interesting, but I honestly can't imagine a guy who was formerly in the Japanese league and could only get an audition from the Tribe is going to maintain the level he's pitching at now.  If so, more power to him, but I just don't see it.

Still, that leaves 3 spots open in the bullpen for guys like Jess Todd, Josh Judy, and perhaps even a free agent.  At the very least, I think the back of our bullpen should be pretty tough.

I Know

Yes, I realize there are a lot of "if's" up there.  There are an awful lot of players who need to pan out, but in my defense I've left out a bunch of guys in the minors who could step in if need be.  And, again, not spending any money during this off-season means we should have some money for next off-season.  I also think that if we should real improvement on the field, to the point of ending the year above .500, the front office will pounce and add the free agents we need.  Because at that point we'll have fewer holes and at that point time will be on the Tribe's side as far as winning over fans is concerned.

So, yes, the Indians will win the World Series in late October and then six weeks later the world will end...

...but it will end with me happy.

Why the Yankees Are Bad For Baseball (and why it's appropriate)

A friend of mine, quoting someone else, once explained that the appeal of baseball was the fact that there was no clock. The reason that guys like us love the game so much is because, if you are playing well, then you always have a chance to win, because there's no predetermined expiration. During any given baseball game, there's hope, hope born from hard work and determination.

That is one of the many reasons I love baseball. In the grand scheme of things, though, I think there's something else. For me, it's the same reason that Batman is my favorite comic book character -- not because of the character himself, but because of his history, one which has reflected American society over the years. Each incarnation of Batman is different, but it's possible to see how its determined by our culture. Baseball is much the same, so much so that fans and historians generally embrace the more shameful sides of the sport. As Chris Claremont would say, we love the sport, warts and all -- and, I think, in part because it HAS those warts.

And that brings us to the newly crowned champions of baseball, the New York Yankees. Like the Negro Leagues and Mark Maguire, the 2009 New York Yankees accurately reflect the times, even if that reflection isn't all that pretty.

It's not hard to see that the American middle class is shrinking. It's also not hard to see that rampant greed, left unchecked, has left this country in the worst economic state in decades. And it's no coincidence that the Yankees would be the champions of baseball during all of this.

Yankee apologists generally point towards the fact that the Bronx Bombers haven't won a World Series since 2000 as proof that money doesn't equal success in baseball. This is a hallow argument. Money doesn't matter as much in the post-season, it's true, because they're short series; even an average team can pull out four wins in seven tries with a little bit of luck and resourcefulness. Ironically enough, that's the beauty of baseball's post-season, the fact that anything can happen.

The same, however, cannot be said for baseball's regular season, because over 162 games, money most certainly matters.

Quick, pick the teams that will make post-season from the American League next year! You probably said the Angels, Yankees, Red Sox, and whoever loses the least number of games in the Central. And you know what? Chances are good you'd be right on all counts. You don't have to look any further than the last decade to see that.

A team like the Royals or the Pirates can't afford to invest large sums of money into a single player, say a pitcher, and expect to make the post-season if that pitcher gets hurt. The Yankees gave Carl Pavano nearly $10 million a year. He spent the majority of that time on the DL. The Yankees made the post-season 3 of those 4 years. Losing a player who made that much money wasn't a problem for the Yankees, who could simply get other players who cost just as much. That's not an option for mid and small market teams.

And it infects every aspect of baseball. People seem to believe that the Red Sox trade for Josh Beckett was a brilliant move created through pure, baseball savvy. What they forget is that, aside from sending Florida the exceedingly talented Hanley Ramirez, the Red Sox also had to agree to pick up the tab for Mike Lowell who, at the time, was signed to a monster of a contract. Lowell was the rider on any Beckett deal, which automatically took all but the richest teams out of the running.

There is no parity in baseball because the season is so long and the money gap is so huge. The post-season means nothing; the regular season tells the tale.

But we are a society that has slowly but surely been ruined by greed, slowly but surely watched as the divide between the upper class and the middle class grows. Baseball is a reflection of our country, and the Yankees are the perfect champions for 2009.

Let's just hope something changes soon on both counts.