National League East

Because the Phillies' staff isn't as good as good as the hypemeisters claim!

If you believe the hype, you can skip the season anoint the Philadelphia Phillies right now and save the aggravation of actually playing the games. Yeah--they said that last year and it took a Braves collapse and a Phils surge to even make the playoffs. On paper the Phils staff is unparalleled, but excuse me for saying that the only ace I’m 100% certain of is the magnificent Roy Halladay. For all the Cliff Lee hype, I’m not sure he’s a $9 million-dollar-man. Since his Cy Young year in 2008 he’s all of 26-22 and he looked awfully mortal in the playoffs. Likewise, Roy Oswalt needs to convince me he’s healthy and Cole Hamels is starting to look like a left-handed A. J. Burnett. And do we trust Brad Lidge in the pen? The Phils infield is awesome--Howard, Utley, Rollins, Polanco--but Domonic Brown was a bust before he broke his hand. Unless Ben Francisco takes his torrid spring north, the Phils will really miss Jayson Werth.

The Phillies must be the favorite, but I’m going to go out on a limb and pick the Atlanta Braves to defy the odds-makers. Their staff doesn’t have a stud like Halladay, but it’s very deep (Hanson, Hudson, Jurrjens, Lowe, and several kids on the brink). Grabbing Dan Uggla and Alex Gonzalez were major coups, Martin Prado can flat-out hit, Jason Heyward is a superstar waiting to happen, and the Braves play good defense. If they can squeeze more from Chipper Jones, and if Nate McLouth breaks out, the Braves could be this year’s San Francisco Giants.

The Florida Marlins won’t be a Cinderella team this year. Once again they’ve offloaded talent. Any team with Josh Johnson, Mike Stanton, and Hanley Ramirez is worth watching, not that anyone will in Miami. But this is a team that thought Cody Ross and Dan Uggla were too expensive yet shelled out $11.5 million for Javier Vazquez?!!! Would anyone shed a tear if the Fish went bankrupt and forced MLB to move the team and bring in real owners?

Those who piss and moan about how money buys championships should look at the New York Mets and shut up. This was the U.S.S Titanic of the high rollers even before Bernie Madoff broke into the safe. 2010 won’t be any better than 2009. Who do you want for $12 million, “Where’s Homeplate” Ollie Perez or “Rap Sheet” Frankie Rodriguez? Add “Arm Trouble” Johan Santana to the list and the Mets begin the season with Mike Pelfrey as their number one. That won’t get it done. And neither will an anemic lineup of expensive underachievers (Reyes, Castillo, Beltran, Bay), and host of castoffs and no names. You gotta like David Wright and Ike Davis, but the rest look like wreckage that settled when the Titanic broke apart.

The Washington Nationals are a sexy dark horse, but that’s just plain foolish talk. Maybe the kids will gel in a few years, but a franchise pining its hopes on an 18-year-old catcher isn’t going far right now. The Nats are Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and spare parts. If Strasburg doesn’t make it back from Tommy John surgery, the Nats may be rebuilding into the 22nd century.


1. Braves

2. Phillies

3. Marlins

4. Mets

5. Nationals


National League Central Preview

The best of a so-so division.

Experts are ready to hand the division crown to the Milwaukee Brewers after they made the trade for Zack Greinke. I’m not so sure about Greinke or the rest of the staff once you get past the reigning number one: Yovani Gollardo. Randy Wolf is the number three and that ought to raise alarm. The catching isn’t impressive and though Fielder, Hart, Braun, and Weeks can mash the ball they can also whiff enough to cause whitecaps on Lake Michigan.

Lest we forget, the Cincinnati Reds ran away with this division last year and a lineup with Brandon Phillips, Scott Rolen, Jay Bruce, Johnny Gomes, and 2010 MVP Joey Votto is going to score runs. The Big Red Question Marks are whether Edinson Volquez is healthy, if Johnny Cueto is ready to blossom, if Homer Bailey can pitch above AAA, if Bronson Arroyo keeps his head into the game, and how they’re going to groom Aroldis Chapman.

I’d have picked the St. Louis Cardinals this year until Adam Wainwright went under the knife. Now it means that they have a fragile Chris Carpenter, Jake Westbrook, and a host of unanswered pitching staff questions. David Freese looks to be a budding star at third, Matt Holliday proved that he can hit (in the NL at least), and Ryan Theriot adds energy. Assuming the Cards don’t trade MLB’s best player, Albert Pujols could win the division all by himself. On paper the Cards appear to be several arms short, but there is no dominant team in this division, which gives (thin) hope.

Assuming Pujols doesn’t get traded to the Chicago Cubs, not even the emergence of Jeff Samardzija and the addition of Matt Garza will be enough to ends the Cubbies’ serial misery. Why anyone would throw $12 million at Carlos Pena is almost as big a mystery as why a player with Alfonso Soriano’s raw talent is so friggin’ mediocre. Look for the van to back up in July and the contracts of Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano to leave when it does. The only thing that will prevent the Big Z from becoming a Yankee is…

… if Wandy Rodriguez of the Houston Astros goes to the Bronx instead. Hate to say it, but that’s about the only mystery there will be in Houston this summer. Houston summers are always miserable, but this one will be more so. And then there’s the Pittsburgh Pirates……. Sorry, I fell asleep. There simply aren’t enough synonyms for ‘pathetic’ to bother discussing the Pirates.

Predicted Finish:

1. Reds

2. Brewers

3. Cardinals

4. Cubs

5. Astros

6. Pirates (though they could reach .500 if moved to the International League)


There But for Fortune Makes Us Long for Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune (2010)

Directed by Kenneth Bowser

First Run Features, 98 mins.

* * * * *

If you need more confirmation that life is unfair consider this: the guy who didn’t give a shit, Bob Dylan, became the most famous “protest” singer in American history, and the guy who did, Phil Ochs, evokes scarcely a nod of recognition from anyone under the age of fifty. Kenneth Bowser’s tight, well-paced documentary will drive home the pity of that. It will also make you wonder where the new Phil Ochs might be lurking. Alas, the material Phil Ochs was singing about in the 1960s--military adventurism, corporate fat cats, racism, crooked politicians, injustice, hypocrisy--remain stains on the flag. As Jello Biafra observes in the film, all he had to do was change a few names and “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” became as fresh as when Ochs recorded it in 1966.

Phil Ochs (1940-1976) was a complicated man. He was an unlikely rebel who was born in Texas, loved country music, went to a military academy as a youth, and never even heard of folk music until he hit Ohio State and met Jim Glover in 1959, who introduced him to the music of Woody Guthrie, The Weavers, and Pete Seeger. Ochs dropped out of OSU, moved to Greenwich Village, and began to think about the world. From 1962 through 1968 Ochs was a veritable musical newspaper, the latter providing most of the source material of the songs that ceaselessly flowed from his pen. As a parade of people attest in the film--including Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Ed Sanders, Christopher Hitchens, and siblings Michael and Sonny--Ochs hoped that music could help change the world by speaking truth to power. His 1967 street theater “The War Is Over” prank will remind contemporary audiences of what a flash mob could be, if it had politics. Watching the first half of this film is like taking a musical tour through the Sixties--JFK, the civil rights movement, LBJ, the Rev. King, RFK, Vietnam, Chicago 1968…. There was little that Ochs did not document in song and as astonishing number of his crank-‘em-out efforts are as poetic as anything Dylan wrote. Is there a better song about the Kennedy assassination than “Crucifixion?”

Bowser does more than just give us a soundtrack, though. We see Phil Ochs warts and all, the biggest blemish being an unfilled desire for acceptance. An alcoholic father whom died young led Ochs to see President Kennedy as a substitute parent. He also sought friendship with Dylan, whom he adored, only to be rebuffed and insulted. He married, fathered a daughter, but was too restless and disillusioned for domestic bliss. (His wife, Alice, and daughter Meegan make moving remarks in the film.) Above all Ochs wanted the public to adore him, but his admirers remained a small circle of friends rather than Dylan’s legions. Singer Judy Henske asserted that Ochs became “as famous as he should have been” with his material and talent. You may disagree with Henske (who?) after watching the film, but there’s little denying what happened after 1968: Ochs slowly unraveled.

First came the disillusionment of Bobby Kennedy’s death, the election of Richard Nixon, and an odd foray into highly orchestrated songs--dubbed by one wag as “baroque folk.” In 1970 Ochs pulled a gold lamé suited Elvis spoof that no one got and which alienated many. (It was eerily prescient of Joaquin Phoenix’s I’m Still Here mockumentary.) Then a trip to Chile to find a new hero to replace Dylan: singer/activist Victor Jara, followed by several years of writer's block, a 1973 mugging in Tanzania that left him with damaged vocal chords, descent into the bottle, and paranoia real and imagined. (He was right that the CIA was complicit in Jara’s murder, and out to lunch in the belief that it also engineered his assault in Africa.) By the time the Vietnam War actually ended, Ochs was joyless, spent, and delusional, which is how he spent his remaining days before his suicide in April of 1976.

Kenneth Bowser’s faithful and honest portrayal of the Phil Ochs narrative is dramatic, poignant, and tragic--a portrait of a principled artist who found it difficult to live up to his own high standards in a world in which all his heroes were felled by the forces of evil. But what wouldn’t we give for such a voice today? Ochs had a hair-trigger Bullshit Meter and one can only salivate to contemplate what he would have written about nitwits like Limbaugh, Palin, Boehner and, yes, faux liberals such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I long to hear someone sing: “It’s always the old that lead us off to war/It’s always the young to fall/Tell me what we’ve won with a saber and a gun/Tell me was it worth it all…. “ (Phil Ochs, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”)


National League West Preview

Can they repeat? Yes they can!

Everyone is writing about how the Phillies have one of the greatest pitching staffs in MLB history and that only the Red Sox stand between them and a World Series championship. Last time I looked the San Francisco Giants were the reigning champions and I would submit that their top four of Cain, Alfedlt, Sanchez, and the magnificent Tim Lincecum remain better than the Phillies staff, the addition of Cliff Lee notwithstanding. And I’ll take Brian Wilson over Brad Lidge as a closer any day of the week.

If the Giants get back to the playoffs they could break hearts everywhere except San Francisco and win another World Series. Winning their division may be the hardest part. Once again, they’ll pitch well but they need Buster Posey to mature, Freddy Sanchez to return to form, Aubrey Huff to hit, and Miguel Tejada to have gas left in the tank. If not, Cody Ross and Pablo Sandoval won’t get much to hit.

If the Giants stumble, the Los Angeles Dodgers are good enough to dethrone them, now that divorce court and Mannyworld diversions are over, and assuming that Don Mattingly knows how to manage. The staff--Billingsley, Lilly, Garland, Kuroda--isn’t spectacular, but it’s solid and if Loney, Blake, Ethier, and Kemp play to their potential and Furcal rebounds, they’ve got more firepower than the Giants. The catching sucks, though, and the Dodgers often play disinterested baseball.

The Colorado Rockies top two pitchers, Ubaldo Jimenuz and Jorge De La Rosa, are sweet. Alas, it falls off pretty quickly from there. Troy Tulowitski and Carlos Gonzalez are fun players, but unless Chris Ianetta hits a ton and Todd Helton finds the Fountain of Youth, it’s hard to see the Rockies getting as close as they did last year.

You can forget the San Diego Padres this year. They still have Mat Latos and Heath Bell, but in the offseason they pretended they were the Kansas City A’s and that the Red Sox were the ’56 Yankees. (How could they not insist on Clay Bucholtz in the Adrian Gonzalez deal?) Aaron Harang at $12.5 million? Say what? No pop, thin staff, and slim hope.

But they’ll be better than the Arizona Diamondbacks. The D’backs added Zack Duke, Aaron Heilman, Juan Miranda, and Xavier Nady. Need I say more?


1. Giants

2. Dodgers

3. Rockies

4. Padres

5. Diamondbacks