National League Central Preview

The Reds will win or Dusty Baker will be unemployed.

This is another wide open division. Three teams could win it, two will battle for fourth, and one has less of a prayer than the American Atheists Society. In order of last year’s finish--

Milwaukee Brewers:

Good: Losing Prince Fielder will hurt, but with Braun, Hart, and Weeks the Brew Crew can still mash the ball. Aramis Ramirez was a good pick up and will solidify a scary middle lineup. Gallardo, Greinke, and Wolf are a good 1-3—beyond them, though, the pitching thins out.

Bad: Losing the guy who has led the team in homers and RBIs can’t help. George Kottaras as the everyday catcher? I don’t think so. Losing Yuniesky Betancourt may be worse than losing Fielder.

On the Hot Seat: Asking Mat Gamels—he of the .115 average after he was called up—to take Fielder’s position is asking a lot. Shaun Marcum needs to be consistent, which he’s never been. Can Axford save 40+ again? Number one on the list, though, is Ryan Braun. Most people think he beat a banned substance suspension on a technicality. If he slumps, he’s going to get an earful everywhere he goes.

Prognosis: The Brewers will be decent, but I don’t see them repeating as NL Central champs.

St. Louis Cardinals:

Good: It’s always nice to start the season by collecting your World Series ring. Most teams would happily trade their 1-5 staff for Garcia, Wainwright, Lohse, Westbrook, and the magnificent Chris Carpenter. They’d also love to have players with the heart of David Freese and Yadir Molina.

Bad: Albert Pujols is the best player in baseball and he’s now an Angel. That’s as bad as it can get. Wainwright may not be fully recovered from arm trouble.

On the Hot Seat: Matt Holliday and newly acquired Carlos Beltrán have to replace King Albert’s production, and Lance Berkman has to take his position. Can Berkman duplicate his back-from-the-dead 2011? Is Allen Craig more than a pinch hitter? Does Furcal have anything left?

Prognosis: Repeating is hard and it’s not in the Cards.

Cincinnati Reds:

Good: Votto, Phillips, Bruce, and Rolen (when healthy) can flat out murder the ball. Adding Ryan Ludwick makes them even more dangerous. Trading for Mat Latos and signing Ryan Madson were superb moves.

Bad: The pitching staff is maddeningly inconsistent, especially Bronson Arroyo.

On the Hot Seat: The Reds were the best team on paper in 2011 and finished third in a weak division. Dusty Baker is on a short leash and could easily get an early axe if the Reds falter. The entire pitching staff except Matos will be trade bait if it underperforms. Chapman has a fabulous arm, but they’ve said the same thing about lots of guys who never figured it out. Homer Bailey? He’ll either be a number three this year or he’ll be out of baseball.

Prognosis: It’s now or never for the Reds. I think this may be their year.

Pittsburgh Pirates:

Good: Neil Walker, Clint Barnes, Nate McLouth, Jeff Karstens… if by “good” you mean “decent.” I expect pitcher Daniel McCutchen, lifted from the Yankees, to add his name to the list. Not allowing Garrett Jones to go to the Yankees was also good.

Bad: The Pirates are, simply, mediocre at best. Barajas as the starting catcher? Ugh!

On the Hot Seat: Even though the Yankees are paying most of A.J. Burnett’s salary, he needs to show he’s more than a jerk. Bedard and Morton need to prove they’re not broken beyond repair. The entire outfield—Jose Tabata, Andrew McCutcheon, McLouth—has worn the “hot prospect” label beyond its sell-by date.

Prognosis: It’s been 19 years since the Pirates had a winning record. Call it an even 20.

Chicago Cubs:

Good: Addition by subtraction—dumping head case Carlos Zambrano. With Garza, Dempster, and Samarzija the pitching won’t stink. When healthy, Kerry Wood will prevent Carlos Marmol from having the close games and that’s a very good thing.

Bad: Everything else not named Geovany Soto will stink. Opposing pitchers will beg to face this lineup on short rest. Losing Aramis Ramirez makes it even worse.

On the Hot Seat: Alfonse Soriano has his mail forwarded to the hot seat. I’d be shocked if he’s not traded for salary relief and Cracker Jacks before the All-Star break. Sonnastine and Maholm need to prove they can pitch at a level higher than AAA. Reed Johnson must be more than a spare part and Anthony Rizzo needs to mature fast.

Prognosis: Good enough to stay out of the basement, but Theo Epstein needs an act of God to make this team competitive.

Houston Astros:

Good: Not much. Quintero looks like he’ll be a good catcher. The ‘Stros unloaded Hunter Pence and Michael Bourne; they were about all that qualified as good on this team.

Bad: Let’s not mince words—the Astros are horrible. Wandy Rodriquez is their ace, a guy no contending team would extend to acquire last year because he’s a number 3 starter at best. Red Sox castoff Kyle Weiland will probably make the staff. Jed Lowrie will be the shortstop. Jack Cust is on the roster. Oh dear!

On the Hot Seat: The Astros tried dearly to offload Carlos Lee and failed. He will (unfairly) be the target of fan frustration. J.A. Happ wanted to be a starter and was 6-12. Ouch! But the guy who will really be in the maelstrom is General Manager Jeff Luhnow. This team will be horrible in the NL Central. Just imagine how bad they’ll be when they shift to the AL West in 2013.

Prognosis: The Astros lost 106 games last year. Consider each game less than that to be a blessing.


1. Reds

2. Cardinals

3. Brewers

4. Pirates

5. Cubs

6. Astros


National League West Preview

Pick anyone except the Padres.

Raise your hand if you picked the D-backs to win the West last year. Now uncross your fingers hidden and tell the truth! It’s baseball’s weakest division, and the Diamondbacks just might win it again this year. Or they might finish fourth. The truth is that anyone, except the Padres, could win it.

Arizona Diamondbacks

The Good: They got fabulous years out of Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson. Justin Upton emerged as an everyday star (.289, 31 HR, 88 RBI). Miguel Montero appears to be an on-the-verge stud.

The Bad: It’s hard to imagine Kennedy duplicating his 21 wins from last year, the bullpen looks uncertain, and the D-backs will struggle to put up runs. The only upgrade to the offense is Mike Jacobs, and he’s more serviceable than savior.

On the Hot Seat: Aaron Hill, solid or washed up? Stephen Drew (.252 isn’t exactly superstar territory.) The bullpen.

Prognosis: In theory lightening can strike the same place twice. But odds are low.

San Francisco Giants

Good: Affeldt, Baumgarner, Vogelsong, Cain, and the magnificent Tim Lincecum…. Is there a better 1-5 staff in MLB? Pablo Sandoval is a beast.

Bad: This team needs to pitch because it simply doesn’t hit. Aubrey Huff led regulars last year with a pathetic .242 BA. The Giants lost Carlos Beltrán to free agency and didn’t try all that hard to retain him. If Buster Posey and Freddy Sanchez don’t bounce back from injuries, the Giants will lose a lot of 2-1 games.

Hot Seat: Brian Wilson, super closer or one-year (2010) flash-in-the-pan? General Manager Brian Sabean has done a terrible job of assembling the lineup. He gave away Cody Ross, who is a fourth outfielder on most teams, but was an offensive threat in this anemic lineup. And there’s no other way of saying it: the Giants had excess pitching, but trading Jonathan Sánchez for Melky Cabrera is a terrible trade.

Prognosis: The same as it’s been for the past five years: If the Giants make it to the postseason they’ll be dangerous. If.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Good: Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley are a fine 1-2. Ted Lilly remains decent. And how about Matt Kemp (.324 39 HR 136 RBIs)?

Bad: Ownership remains in limbo. Subtracting Kuroda and adding Harang to the staff is a net loss. When your middle infield is Adam Kennedy and Mark Ellis there’s lots of hope for kids down on the farm.

Hot Seat: Owner Frank McCourt has his name engraved on the chair. He may have to share it with two guys in the put-up-or-shut-up parts of their career: James Loney and André Ethier, players making stud money and putting up role player numbers. The closer is Javy Guerra. Who?

Prognosis: The Dodgers are a mess, but a mess in the West might just be the best.

Colorado Rockies

Good: Troy Tulowitski–perhaps the best shortstop in the game. Carlos González continues to dazzle. Adding Casey Blake should add some punch.

Bad: Anyone not named above. The pitching staff’s ace last year after Jimenez was traded was Jhoulys Chacin, with 11 wins. Enough said.

Hot Seat: Todd Helton looks to be done. Jorge De La Rosa is coming off injuries and has a $10 million contract. If he doesn’t win immediately, I’d keep a bag packed.

Prognosis: The Rockies have a habit of being a Jekyll and Hyde team. Last year they were Jekyll and Jekyll. Others will have to stumble for them to rise.

San Diego Padres

Good: Not much. Carlos Quentin might rebound out of Chicago. He might also stink. The Padres seek to be the next coming of the 2003 Miami Marlins as they fill their roster with low-wage no-names. It’s hard to see this team jelling this year.

Bad: When the faces of the franchise are Jason Bartlett and ageing Orlando Hudson, the line between optimism and blind faith is obliterated. I know that Cameron Maybin had a good year last year, but I still say he’s the latest can’t-miss prospect who will. Ryan Ludwick led the team with 64 RBIs last year and he wasn’t brought back.

Hot Seat: Edinson Vólquez needs to bounce back or he’ll always be the player the Pads got when they “gave away” Mat Latos. General Manager Josh Brynes might be skating on thin ice as well.

Prognosis: A 100-loss season is not out of the question.


Call it a weird hunch, but I think the Dodgers are the best of a mediocre harvest. But I have no more confidence in the order of my top four picks than if I had drawn them from a hat.

1. Dodgers

2. Giants

3. Diamondbacks

4. Rockies

5. Padres


A Separation a Masterful Work in Any Language

Things are seldom as they seem!


Directed by Asghar Farhadi

PG-13, 123 mins. In Farsi with English subtitles.

* * * *

The winner of the 2011 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture is the only film from Iran ever to do so, A Separation. I’ve not seen all of the foreign language entries, but I can report that the winner is certainly worthy of being honored. It is a complex and taut human drama about how easily things can spiral out of control.

The first thing that strikes you about this film is wonderment about how it got past Iran’s strict censors. There’s nothing racy or salacious in the film, but it is not a flattering portrait of modern-day Iran. It opens with an informal hearing in which Simin (Leila Hatami) has been given preliminary denial to her divorce petition from Nader (Peyman Moadi). She admits that he is a good man, but he refuses to leave the country with her. It’s never explained why Simin wants to leave, but you see it her eyes every time she tightens her head scarf: Simin doesn’t want to live under the rule of the mullahs, nor does she wish her 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) to do so. Nader ostensibly refuses to leave for just one reason: he is the caregiver to his father, who has Alzheimer’s.

The judge refuses the divorce, but he cannot force Simin to stay with Nader; she moves in with her equally feminist-minded birth family and leaves Nader to fend for himself. Termeh stays with her father with whom she bonds, but also as a bargaining chip to keep her mother from emigrating. Domestic unhappiness leads to tragedy when Nader hires a caregiver, the devout chador-wearing Razieh (Sarina Bayat), to care for his father when he’s at work. Nader is so desperate that he hires her before consulting with her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), as is customary of patriarchal Iran under the mullahs. Nor does he pay the slightest attention to her concerns about low pay, her long commute, or being asked to perform duties that could conflict with her religious principles. She is also five months pregnant, which Nader may or may not realize. This fragile situation unravels when Razieh needs to leave the apartment, ties the old man into his bed for safety, and Nader returns home early. He blows his stack and pushes Razieh out of the apartment.

What ensues is a series of court cases that are as labyrinthine and continuous as Bleak House. Those who think the US courts are screwy will feel better after checking out the twists and turns of Iranian justice. I will reveal no more than to say that simultaneous hearings take place for a murder charge, contempt of court, elder abuse, and Semin’s marital status. This is far more than a he said/she said case; it also involves social class, sexist presumptions that male rights supersede those of women, Koranic versus civil law, blood money customs, child custody, and a cultural ethos that encourages public brawls between hot-tempered males such as Nader and Hodyat. No one’s motives are quite what they seem. Is Nader being setup, or is he a liar? Is his father really the reason he won’t leave Iran with Semin? Is Razieh a victim, or a false accuser? Is Hodyat a wronged husband, or an extortionist? Termeh loves her parents, but does she trust either of them?

It takes considerable skill to make comprehensible a movie with this many loose threads. Luckily director Farhadi and his talented cast are up to the task. This film is subtitled, but it’s as gripping as anything you’ll see in English. Call it tragedy becomes Farsi, laugh at my bad pun (please!) swallow your reservations, and revel in a gripping story and superb filmmaking.