COLUMN: The Boys of Summer have finally returned
Saturday, March 29, 2014 12:00 AM
For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone
The flowers appear on the Earth
The time of singing birds is come
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.
For decades, legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell would recite those lines from Song of Solomon 2:11-12 to begin the first Detroit Tigers broadcast of the spring. With a winter as long as this one has been, baseball season can’t get here soon enough.
Finally, five full months after Koji Uehara struckout Matt Carpenter to end the 2013 World Series, Opening Day will arrive on Monday.
Well, Opening Day for most of the teams, anyway. Never mind those two games the Dodgers and Diamondbacks played on a cricket field in Australia last week. Those 4 a.m. Eastern starts aren’t exactly ideal for American viewers, I’d guess. In case you missed it, the free-spending Dodgers are already 2-0 this year and will play the Sunday night regular season game against the Padres, which mean L.A. will have already played three games before 27 of the 30 big league clubs have played their first of the 2014 campaign.
There are plenty of new faces in new places this season, as there always is. Dusty Baker is gone in Cincinnati, replaced by former pitching coach Bryan Price. For years, Baker has been regarded as a manager who rides his pitchers too hard and has been blamed, frequently, for “ruining the careers” of guys like Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. The Reds don’t have Baker to blame this time, however, as they’ll open the season with injuries to four pitchers, including Mat Latos and three late-inning relievers, including Aroldis Chapman, who took a line drive to the face during Spring Training.
While none of the injuries are expected to keep the player off the field long-term, it’s a less than ideal way to open the season.
Of course, the Reds are also opening the year with another big question mark: how will speedster Billy Hamilton adapt to the major league game?
Hamilton electrified the Reds and their fans late last season. As a September call-up, Hamilton stole 13 bases in 14 tries for the Reds last season. He owns two seasons of better than 100 steals in the minor leagues, including a record-breaking 155 in 2011.
As the saying goes, however, you can’t steal first base, and Hamilton struggled to a .308 on base percentage at Triple-A Louisville last year. If Spring Training stats mean anything (they don’t), Hamilton has performed well during camp this year (.381 OBP), but 63 at bats is hone heck of a small sample size.
Cincinnati lost one of the best leadoff men in the game when Shin-Soo Choo departed via free agency. If Hamilton can get on with any consistency, they’ll be fine. If not, Cincy could have as many as three gaping holes its everyday lineup (the pitcher, Hamilton and shortstop Zack Cozart). Even with healthy pitching, that’s tough to overcome.
In the Northeast corner of the state, Cleveland comes into the campaign with plenty of optimism. Gone is Ubaldo Jimenez, who, while he struggled for a couple of years after the trade that brought him from the Rockies, was outstanding last year. The Tribe didn’t do anything to replace him or lefty Scott Kazmir, with the exception of getting a full season from Danny Salazar and bringing in oft-injured righty Shaun Marcum.
Salazar looks like the real deal and he should be able to continue his development into a front-of-the-rotation-type starter, but if you’re counting on anything from Marcum, you’re probably asking for trouble. The Tribe will need guys like Carlos Carrasco to finally live up to the hype if they want to duplicate last season’s playoff appearance.
Even with strong pitching, getting back to October will not be easy for Cleveland. Kaunas City is a team on the rise and most “experts” are picking the Royals to break their 29-year playoff drought in 2014.
The Tigers are still the team to beat in the AL Central, however, with what should be the league’s best starting rotation yet again, anchored by righties Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. All those two have done is win two of the past three AL Cy Young Awards to go along with an MVP.
Speaking of, two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera just landed new contract that will keep him slugging in Detroit for the next 10 years. Yes, deals this long for players his age (Cabrera will be 31 next month) are almost always a very bad idea, as evidenced by the Albert Pujols contract, the Alex Rodriguez deal and even the nine-year contract the Tigers signed with Prince Fielder before unloading him (and $30 million) on the Rangers this winter.
That said, Cabrera is and has been the best right handed hitter in baseball, maybe the best pure hitter from either side in the past 50 or so years, and he almost never misses time due to injury. If anyone deserves a contract like this, and I’m not saying they do, it’s him.
After all, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is 84 years old and has a net worth of $1.7 billion. If he’s not worried about Cabrera’s contract, why should I be?
There has been plenty of grumbling around baseball, as anonymous general managers have complained about the new contract, but rest assured that if Cabrera would have hit the open market, all of those same guys would have been lining up to say him at least as much.
Baseball has adopted an instant replay system that will review force-out and tag plays in addition to the old homerun calls, but there still will be no challenging balls and strikes. I’m personally happy that some of the obvious calls that have been missed can now be gotten right. It means that some of the best umpires in baseball, like Jim Joyce (Armando Galarraga’s “perfect” game), can go back being somewhat anonymous instead of living in infamy. They deserve that much.
Guys like Angel Hernandez, however, well, I’m not sure there is anything that can help him.
So, it’s prediction time. A tradition unlike anything except the Masters, every spring hundreds of thousands of know-it-alls (like me) proclaim this team the best or that team to win it all. Inevitably, most of us are wrong about most of our picks. Nevertheless, for the sake of putting it on record so the public can rightfully humiliate me come late September (when you really should be back at school), here are mine:
I like the Orioles in the AL East, with the Tigers and A’s winning their divisions and the Rays and Red Sox taking Wild Cards. In the NL, I have the Dodgers in the West, the Nationals and the Reds winning divisions and Atlanta and Pittsburgh the Wild Card teams.
I’ll take the Tigers over the Dodgers in the World Series, 30 years after their last one.
Regardless of what happens, it’s time again for sunshine and green grass. As Bill Veeck once famously said, “there are only two seasons - Winter, and baseball.”
Baseball is back.