Get me out of this jam!

When the seventh inning came around, Javier Vazquez started out HBP-BB to the first two batters he faced. The first thought in my mind was, "Here we go again."

And then something strange happened.

He rolled a garden-variety double play, leaving one man on third and two outs in the inning. Andrew Sisco came in and struck out Jeff Cirillo on four pitches. And just like that, the Sox were safe once again. I never thought I’d see the day.

You see, I was still in the mode of thinking that Vazquez would get through the lineup unscathed twice, and then let it go the third time. Instead of folding, though, it seemed that he almost got stronger the third time through the lineup. He was able to vary his pitches more because instead of going to his third and fourth pitches every time he got in trouble, he relied on his fastball more in the early part of the game so that if he ever got into a jam later on, he could fall back on those other pitches more readily and catch the batter unawares. Let’s see if he can have that same confidence in his fastball and changeup in the next few starts because it was certainly working for him yesterday.

And now the Twins play the game they’ve been playing since ’04 now: "Santana, Crain, and pray for rain…"

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The ever-so-rare fantasy baseball posting

I abhor talking about fantasy sports. I love playing them, and enjoy partaking in both a fantasy football and fantasy baseball league each season, but I see little merit in talking about fantasy sports in a public medium. That being the case, I’m going to contradict myself right away and say a few words about it, mainly because the Sox and Twins have decided to stay in tonight (and rightfully so, considering the low is predicted to be 19 degrees with 25-30 MPH winds coming in off the lake).

The league I joined this year features 14 of us bloggers here on MLBlogs. It’s a neat concept, and so far in my week 1 matchup I’m leading Corey Hart for MVP (link unavailable, I can’t find his blog link so please inform me!) 16-10. I think I have a pretty good offensive lineup, with Posada catching, Cuddyer and Garciaparra splitting time at first base, Josh Barfield at 2nd, the Baltimore tandem of Mora and Tejada at third and short respectively, and Josh Willingham, Milton Bradley, and Ichiro Suzuki in the outfield (with Garret Anderson coming off the bench in case one of them falters). As a utility man I have White Sox 2B Tadahito Iguchi. In addition to Anderson coming off the bench, I also have Brandon Inge, Kenny Lofton, and Nick Johnson (mainly to hold for when he comes off of the DL).

I think the offense is solid – a good mixture of contact hitters and power hitters to provide good coverage in all the statistical areas. There are a couple of stretches (Willingham and Barfield the most obvious examples) but having strong backups in those areas means that I can afford to make a small gamble.

Pitching might be a slightly bigger question, as I have Johan Santana, Jake Peavy, Felix Hernandez, Jeremy Bonderman, and Tim Wakefield as my starters. For relievers, my corps includes K-Rod, Bobby Jenks, Matt Capps, and Pat Neshek. The spare pitchers I have on the roster include Scott Olsen (Florida) and Darren Oliver. Off the bench, I have Cliff Lee (holding on the DL for now), Mike Hampton (another hold), Jermaine Van Buren, Kason Gabbard, and Humberto Sanchez. I don’t have a lot of depth so I still have a few moves to make but I want to see how the roster shakes out for the first couple of weeks of the season. So far, so good.

Here’s hoping for warmer weather tomorrow (or at least more manageable weather for tomorrow’s game!).

Two out of three ain’t bad…

…except if it’s losing two out of three.

Still, there were some promising signs, especially out of today’s win. The Sox were able to successfully manufacture runs today, on a day where their power swings were just not quite getting the ball out of the park. Through six innings, the game was tied at 2, but the White Sox had scored those two runs on one hit. They were able to move runners over, put them on third, and get them in through timely production.

Nick Masset also turned in a pretty impressive performance. 4.2 innings in relief of an injured Mark Buehrle (who himself showed signs of settling in after an early home run), giving up only a solo home run to Jason Michaels. Masset looks like he’ll be a valuable asset in long relief for the White Sox, who may also turn to him as an emergency starter and a possible future replacement should one of the starters succumb to injury or ineffectiveness.

Of course, there are always concerns…Matt Thornton blew leads in both yesterday’s game and today’s game, and both on home runs off of pitches that were straight-line fastballs over the meat of the plate. Those are pitches you just won’t get away with throwing in the Major Leagues. Ozzie might do well to keep him on a short leash for the first part of the season until he works his command issues and pitch selection problems out.

Today’s freak accident notwithstanding, the Sox starters in the next series need to find a way to get through six or seven strong innings before dipping into the bullpen. The ‘pen got a lot of work in this season-opening series and I’m sure Guillen and Cooper wouldn’t mind if they can avoid going to the bullpen so much for the next few days. Obviously, you can’t predict something like Buehrle’s injury (which was only a contusion, meaning that Buehrle should be set to go for his next scheduled day in the rotation) but if it can be helped, it would be advantageous for Javier Vazquez and John Danks to go deeper into the ballgame than Contreras and Buehrle did in this past series.

Sunday’s game could be an early key game – the Sox hitting will certainly get a true read on how far they’ve come when they go up against Johan Santana. Jose Contreras will also get a challenge, and after Monday’s debacle, let’s hope he’s up for it.

Musings on a new season

Well, after having had 24 hours (or so) to reflect on the debacle yesterday, it’s time to put it past and get ready for game #2, tomorrow.

I’m not yet worried about Jose Contreras, nor am I worried about the rotation. I want to see Contreras over three or four outings, and I won’t begin to judge the effectiveness of the entire rotation until I see the complete package over two or three weeks.

In terms of offense, I’m very excited. The Sox are starting to ratchet up the bats and not only are they hitting home runs, they’re getting singles and doubles and starting to string hits together. I was a bit disappointed that they blew bases loaded and one out at a point in the game where a 4- or 5-spot would have vaulted them back into the game, but if they can avoid making that the norm for the season, I’ll let it pass.

My early thanks to the Angels for passing Erstad along to us, as well… 🙂

In other news:

Apparently DWI does not apply to zamboni drivers.

One of the most hushed-up stories of the new season: Apparently Ray Durham is batting cleanup behind Barry Bonds. I remember when Durham was leading off for the White Sox, and he couldn’t find the outfield wall with a compass. My, how times change.

If only Mike Tyson had this opportunity.

Speaking of Bonds and prison, the Bonds watch begins tonight. I’m not particularly interested, one way or the other; if he breaks Aaron’s record, great. Congratulations to him. If he doesn’t, life will go on. I’ve not ever been a big fan of the HR records. I’d rather see someone chase DiMaggio, Williams, or another one of the fundamental hitting records. Even Hack Wilson’s 191 RBIs holds more allure for me. Still, I do have this opinion: whether morally/ethically correct or not, MLB did not begin testing for steroids and performance-enhancing drugs until a couple of years ago. Because of this, it was never against the rules of the game. If Bonds did use any performance-enhancing drugs, the burden is solely on his own conscience. He deserves the record and the recognition as much as anyone else because despite everyone else’s moral obligations, he played the game by the rules laid out under the jurisdiction of Major League Baseball.

Now, if he broke the law and goes to jail under the U.S. legal system, that’s his fault and I don’t feel the least bit sorry for him. You make your bed, eventually you’ll have to sleep in it.

Oh, and some have been asking for playoff predictions. So here they are:
ALDS:
White Sox over Angels
Tigers over Red Sox

ALCS:
White Sox over Tigers

NLDS:
Phillies over Cardinals
Dodgers over Braves

NLCS:
Dodgers over Phillies

World Series:
White Sox over Dodgers

Come on, you don’t think I’m actually going to bet against my hometown boys, do you?

I do actually think they’ll go to the playoffs. If anything, they’ll lose to the Tigers in the ALCS, but the Tigers will still beat the Dodgers in the World Series. So there. If I have to do it impartially, I’ll say that the Tigers will win.

Opening day and the AL Central predictions

Yeah, it was ugly. I knew it was going to be a long day when Contreras gave up a home run on his second pitch.

There were some good points, and some highlights – Erstad’s home run in his first White Sox at-bat, the bullpen’s promise, and others…but 12-5 is just not the way to start it up.

That being said, it’s also only one game. Take a day off, get a breather, and come back strong on Wednesday.

And the final set of predictions: the AL Central, which I originally composed this morning, but for whatever reason it did not post correctly. So here you are, for your viewing pleasure.

Chicago White Sox
Some national pundits a few months ago were claiming that it was the fact that the White Sox did not have enough hitting that contributed to their demise in 2006. This could not be farther from the truth. An inconsistent rotation that had a dismal two-month stretch in the early fall sealed doom for the South Siders. The rotation will need to improve and not give up early runs in order to be successful. The lineup will have no problem – they easily have one of the best offenses in the American League and will continue to improve with the addition of Darin Erstad. The bullpen is vastly improved from a year ago, with additions of Nick Masset, Andrew Sisco, and David Aardsma – all hard-throwers that will confuse hitters with movement on their pitches. Everything hinges on the starting five – they will literally make or break this team in 2007.

Cleveland Indians
Everyone believes that this is the year for the Cleveland Indians, but the pitching has a lot to prove in order to convince this writer. After C.C. Sabathia and Jake Westbrook, the Indians have an unproven rookie (Jeremy Sowers), a journeyman with a ballooning ERA (Paul Byrd), and a replacement fifth-starter with one career win to his name (Fausto Carmona). Cliff Lee can’t return to the rotation soon enough. Joe Borowski was a great addition as closer, though it remains to be seen if he can maintain his production as closer that he showed in 2006 (36 saves in 43 opportunities with Florida). Andy Marte is a subpar option at third base, but the only viable one at this time. Betancourt and Hernandez are great set-up men, but aging and weary. The offense is solid and should produce this year, especially with the additions of Barfield (San Diego), Nixon (Boston), and Dellucci (Philadelphia).

Detroit Tigers
A largely unchanged offense from 2006 will deliver on its big promises in 2007. Granderson will need to cut down on the strikeouts (174 last year) in order to develop further his effectiveness as a leadoff hitter. The addition of Gary Sheffield as full-time DH will add another dimension of power to this solid lineup. Jose Mesa joins an already deep bullpen featuring Todd Jones, Joel Zumaya, Fernando Rodney, and Wil Ledezma. Chad Durbin has a lot to prove in order to remain with the club as the fifth starter. Bonderman, Maroth, Robertson and Verlander have evolved from joke of the league to class of the AL. This is truly an exciting team to watch and one of the teams to beat in the AL.

Kansas City Royals
A roster of parts has no unifying figure to lead them, and it will show glaringly in 2007. Mike Sweeney, Mark Teahen, David DeJesus, and Alex Gordon all post consistently solid offensive numbers, but without a true superstar among them, there will be no one there to help them string together the hits they need to win games. The pitching rotation is also a number of parts, with a number of solid pitchers but no true ace among them. Gil Meche comes over from Seattle to anchor a rotation that is growing and learning. Meche and Odalis Perez must teach the younger pitchers how to work deep into games. Zach Greinke has the stuff to be a 20-game winner but needs to work on his command within the strike zone. Bullpen lacks depth – no consistent relievers beyond Octavio Dotel (closer) and Todd Wellemeyer (set-up).

Minnesota Twins
The Twins always seem to be around when the season wraps up. This year might prove to be their most difficult year yet, as the rotation is as thin and unproven as it has been in the past five years. Beyond Johan Santana, who is easily the best pitcher in the AL (if not the entire MLB), the other starters will have their work cut out for them. Boof Bonser will need to do better than one game over .500 this year (7-6 in limited 2006 action), and Ortiz, Silva, and Ponson will need to improve from last year (all three posted sub-.500 records in full-season action). The bullpen can get the job done in the late game, and the offense will keep the team in any game (the lineup is largely unchanged from last year’s roster), but if the starting pitching cannot keep the game close, the bats will falter more often than not.

Predictions:
1. Detroit
2. Chicago
3. Cleveland
4. Minnesota
5. Kansas City

Predictions, part V: National League Central preview and predictions

And the season gets underway in earnest today, so live from downtown Chicago, the first of the final two previews – the NL Central.

Chicago Cubs
Let me first say: I do not -hate- the Cubs, I simply don’t follow them with the fervor that I follow the White Sox. So this preview is probably more impartial than you would like to admit.

A retooled rotation looks to be the strongest for the team since 2003. Carlos Zambrano anchors the rotation, and if he and Wade Miller can stay healthy, look for a team that can get many games to the bullpen either in the lead or close to it. The biggest questions linger in the lineup – the corner infield positions are strong but the middle infield (Cesar Izturis and Mark DeRosa) could be the difference between wins and losses. LF Cliff Floyd returns to his hometown and likely will be starting at the first sign of trouble from Matt Murton. Jacque Jones needs to improve his defense or the Cubs could end up having problems at both corner outfield positions. The lineup needs to provide offense for the pitching or the starting arms will simply tire and shut down late in the season, when the Cubs figure to need the push of wins the most.

Houston Astros
An infield that has been largely untouched for the past three years figures to be productive again this year. The outfield will be the big question for the offense – can Carlos Lee stay in shape and continue his streak of 30-HR seasons? Can Luke Scott handle full-season outfield duties? Can Jason Lane pick up the slack if someone is injured or not producing?

The pitching is a different story. A retooled rotation looks decidedly weaker than in previous seasons, with Roy Oswalt the only true ace of the rotation. Woody Williams had a nice comeback last year from an unproductive ’05 campaign and looks to continue said resurgence. Matt Albers posted some nice numbers in a late-season audition with the club last year. Brad Lidge continues to be the closer, despite an obvious drop in production during last season – attributed to walkoff home runs given up in both the 2005 NLCS and World Series.

Milwaukee Brewers
A young team looks to make some noise up in Wisconsin this year, with Bill Hall and Prince Fielder coming off stellar seasons with the club. Geoff Jenkins is a mainstay in left field but power numbers have declined steadily the last four years. J.J. Hardy and Rickie Weeks will need to improve their numbers as the new everyday middle infield – last year’s numbers for both in limited action were less than impressive. Kevin Mench and Tony Graffanino continue to be two of the most underrated utility players in the NL.

St. Louis Cardinals
One of the most powerful lineups in the NL also sports one of the weakest rotations, where Kip Wells is the second starter, following ace Chris Carpenter. The aim for the rotation will be to survive five or six innings nightly and turn the game over to the improving bullpen, and resurgent closer Jason Isringhausen. Izzy, despite an ugly early season, came back to save 33 games and also close down the Tigers in the 2007 World Series. Randy Flores and Josh Hancock will be expected to handle the set-up duties and will have to keep games close as the Cards let the lineup go to work. Pujols, Edmonds, Spiezio, and Rolen cannot afford any long-term power outages this season as offense will be paramount in 80% of the games for the Redbirds this season.

Pittsburgh Pirates
The most beautiful thing about the Pirates this season will continue to be the view of the skyline from PNC Park. Jason Bay is a key in left field but the weaker pieces in the other two outfield positions (CF Chris Duffy and RF Xavier Nady) may find themselves overmatched at the plate much of the time. 3B Freddy Sanchez begins the season on the DL and may be rushed back, hampering him for most the season. Adam LaRoche is a good addition at first. The rotation is anchored by Zach Duke, who regressed in his first full season last year after a promising limited audition in 2005. No clear-cut closer has emerged in the bullpen, where Salomon Torres (12 saves in 15 opportunities in 2006) looks to cement himself in the role. Set-up man Matt Capps had a better record than some starters last year (9-1) but lefty set-up Damaso Marte continued his long string of inconsistency and inability to hit the strike zone in tight games.

Cincinnati Reds
Another year, another question mark in right field. Griffey continues to confound, often having long streaks of great hitting before going cold or getting injured. Adam Dunn and Ryan Freel hope to build on 2006 successes and post themselves as the top outfield in the NL Central. The Reds rotation could be the most distressing and confounding in the NL in their own right – Harang, Arroyo, and Lohse are all known for their extended periods of streakiness. Scott Hatteberg continues to be an anchor at first base but an untested infield will need to work deep into counts and raise opposing pitchers’ pitch counts to ultimately be successful this season.

Predictions:
1. St. Louis
2. Cincinnati
3. Houston
4. Chicago
5. Milwaukee
6. Pittsburgh

Predictions, part IV: American League West preview and  predictions

Part four, and I’m already bracing for the backlash of Yankees fans who think their team is far better than a fourth-place finish…

Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim, or parts nearby, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…)
The long name notwithstanding (and I enjoy poking fun, mainly because the squabble was so petty and yet took up so much of my computer screen), the Angels have a strong team for the upcoming season. John Lackey has finally come into his own and will anchor the Angels’ rotation, whose only question mark seems to be a rookie fifth-starter (Dustin Moseley, who gave up 11 ER in 11 IP last year in a late-season audition). The lineup is a little shakier in appearance, with a center fielder (Gary Matthews, Jr.) surrounded in controversy, as well as a quasi-rookie 2B (Howie Kendrick, with a promising start last year in limited action) and a loose cannon at DH (Shea Hillenbrand, whose problems with Toronto Blue Jays’ management last year are well-documented). The lineup questions notwithstanding, the bullpen appears solid, including key acquisition Darren Oliver (6 IP without giving up a run in the 2006 NLCS).

Oakland Athletics
An essentially unchanged Oakland A’s team will take the field looking to repeat as AL West champions. Barry Zito departs the team, leaving Rich Harden as the top pitcher in a deceptively deep rotation. Five star outfielders will rotate among the three positions leaving the A’s as the deepest outfield in the American League. Dan Johnson is the main question mark, batting only .234 while seeing only limited action in 2006. The A’s bullpen will be hard-pressed to duplicate the successes of 2006, but will need to do so in the event the relatively unknown rotation names cannot deliver. Third-starter Esteban Loaiza needs to return to his form of 2003 and 2005, where he posted more than 170 K’s in each campaign. While Mike Piazza (acquired from SD) will be asked mainly to DH (with Jason Kendall and Adam Melhuse the staff catchers), it would not be a big surprise to see Piazza behind the plate at some point this season.

Seattle Mariners
Seattle could be the surprise, or the bust, of the 2007 season. Felix Hernandez is quickly becoming the new face of this franchise and has the stats to match. Jarrod Washburn and Jeff Weaver are the other cornerstones of a rotation that must improve in order to have any shot at contesting for the division crown against the two giants of the division, Oakland and Los Angeles. A largely disappointing bullpen from 2006 will be asked to improve in order to get to the team’s breakout closer, J.J. Putz. The infield corners are mainstays of the Mariners; the middle infield will have to play strong and protect CF Ichiro Suzuki as a hitter in order to produce runs. Jose Guillen is the only weak outfielder in the starting lineup – an improved batting average might be the difference between wins and losses in key games.

Texas Rangers
The story of the year might be Sammy Sosa making the team, but the Rangers have a lot of other bright spots in their lineup. The entire infield might be one of the best in the Majors, with four potential All-Stars in Blalock, Young, Kinsler, and Teixeira. The outfield is slightly behind the star power, with RF Nelson Cruz only on tenuous footing after spring training (and Sammy Sosa waiting in the wings should Cruz falter early in the season). Brad Wilkerson will need to bat better than .222 and Kenny Lofton will have to lead an outfield unit that could make or break this Rangers squad.
Acquisition of Brandon McCarthy is a definite upgrade for the rotation, but Texas will still need production out of pitchers other than Vicente Padilla. Akinori Otsuka has proven that he can hold down the fort while the Rangers wait for Eric Gagne, but if Gagne falters, Otsuka could easily be the full-season closer.

Predictions:
1. Los Angeles
2. Texas
3. Oakland
4. Seattle