National League East Preview

The NL East belongs to the Phillies.

This may be the closest thing to a sure bet as baseball provides. On paper the Phillies are the class the division (and league) by a mile. The only way they are dethroned is if they suffer catastrophic injuries or meltdowns. In order of last year’s finish:

1. Philadelphia Phillies: If they had managed to keep Cliff Lee while adding Roy Halliday, the Phils would be overwhelming favorites to win the World Series. If Cole Hamels gets his head out of his butt, they’ll still have the best 1-2 in the NL, J. A. Happ is poised to bloom, and they’ve got ageless wonder Jamie Moyer, Joe Blanton, Kyle Kendrick, and some almost-ready kids on the farm. Question marks? I can’t see that Jose Contreras adds anything and it’s time to hand the closer role to Ryan Madson and forget about Brad Lidge.

If Placido Polanco can play third, add him to a mix of Howard, Utley, and Rollins.; only the Yankees have a more potent infield. The Phils’ outfield—Ibanez, Victorino, and Werth—doesn’t get enough credit. It too is one of the best in MLB. Catcher Carlos Ruiz isn’t flashy, but gets the job done. It’s hard to see how this lineup doesn’t blast its way to a division title.

2. Florida Marlins: Let’s get this out of the way: I hate this cheapskate franchise and would love to see it moved or folded. Twenty-four of its forty-man roster make the MLB minimum, not because the team is losing money, but because its owners use revenue-sharing dough to pay off their purchase price. Once you get past Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla, and Jorge Cantu the lineup is a bunch of “who?” guys, and all three—plus fine young outfielder Ross Cody, who beat the team in arbitration—are available for cheap prospects and cash. I want the Marlins to fail. They won’t, however, because there’s cut-rate talent on this club. Pitcher Josh Johnson is a stud. If Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez recover their form, their staff will be strong. If not, though, the Fish might stink. People forget that if you subtract the Marlins’ 11-1 start to the 2009 season, they were a sub-.500 team the rest of the way.

3. Atlanta Braves: The Braves’ mix of not-quite-proven kids and maybe-past-their-prime vets makes this one of the hardest teams in baseball to call. Young arms Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens look really good and there are more promising kids on the cusp. Also looking good is catcher Brian McCann and a youthful outfield of Matt Diaz, Nate McLouth, and Melky Cabrera, the latter of whom should feast on weaker NL pitching. The infield won’t dazzle anyone, but Escobar and Infante are steady. But there’s much about the Braves that is problematic. Billy Wagner? Toast. Is oft-injured Tim Hudson worth $15.5 million? Nope. There’s no way that over $12 million should be wasted on Troy Glaus and, painful though it may be, the wonderful Chipper Jones may be past his sell-by date; in any event, Jones needs to do better than .264 with 18 homers and 71 RBIs to justify his massive contract. This team could contend for a wild card or be lost in the wilderness by All-Star break.

4. New York Mets: Let’s not mince words—there are only two guys on this team you’d want in a New York minute: lefty Johan Santana and third baseman David Wright. You might take a flier on closer Francisco Rodriquez, but not for what he’s getting paid. Most of the rest is hype over hope. Shortstop Jose Reyes ought to be another Jimmy Rollins; instead he’s a head case—just like Jeff Francoeur. Carlos Beltran is making $19 million to drive in 48 runs, and at $6.2 million Luis Castillo is the most overpaid second baseman in baseball. After Santana, the pitching is a nightmare. Mike Pelfry’s stats are ugly, but they’re better than those of Oliver Perez, the biggest stiff since John Dillinger was mowed down in Chicago. Oh yeah, there’s $10 million invested in Kelvim Escobar, who had exactly one decision last year. “Brilliant” (gag!) offseason maneuvers include being suckered-punched into picking up the bloated contract of uber-bum Gary Matthews. Jr. and bidding against themselves to overpay Jason Bay, with his bad shoulder. I hope that David Murphy and Fernando Tatis get traded; they play with heart and deserve to be on a team with a pulse.

5. Washington Nationals: If the kids develop quickly the Nats might get out of the basement, but this is basically a “who cares?” franchise that should have never left Montreal. Pudge Rodriquez will have his work cut out with a staff anchored by retreads such as Scott Olsen and Jason Marquis, rehabs like Chien-Ming Wang, and projects such as Tyler Clippard. Stephen Strasburg is being looked upon as the savior but, let’s be honest, how many “can’t-miss” guys have? A franchise tag is a lot of pressure on a kid who has never hurled an inning in MLB. The Nats have too many players expected to perform miracles. Ryan Zimmerman is a very good player, but he’s not the superstar the Nats hype him to be. Christian Guzman is decent, but not for $8 million, though he’ll do more to earn that amount than Adam Dunn, who always has more Ks than hits. Elijah Dukes can poison a clubhouse and this is probably his last shot—vote him most likely to end up in the penitentiary. Good pickup in Josh Willingham, though.

Predicted Order of Finish:

(1) Phillies, (2) Braves, (3) Marlins, (4) Mets, (5) Nationals. (If the kids develop, the Nats have a chance of beating out the Mets!)


Coffee is Good for You and Unions Can Win!

Will someone please pour me a cup of medicine!

Not all the news is bad these days. First comes the news that we devoted caffeine hounds have been dreaming of hearing: coffee is good for you. Drinking coffee cuts the risk of heart disease, dementia, cirrhosis, gallstones, stroke, and several types of cancer. On top of this come recent studies that indicate that you can drink up to four cups a day without permanently raising blood pressure, and a newly released report from the American Heart Association indicates that coffee significantly lowers chances of having heart rhythm problems. Get me an espresso. Stat!

On a more serious note, unions representing 36,000 Stop and Shop workers across New England averted a planned strike and settled on a contract favorable to employees. Not only did they get a raise, but they avoided cuts in their pension plans and higher health care premiums. Somehow or other the company just couldn’t make the argument that it needed concessions at a time in which it had increased sales by over ten percent. Hooray for the good guys at Stop and Shop!

Yes, unions can still win. There are lessons in the Stop and Shop negotiations that could become templates for other unions, the biggest being that unions can still be players if the jobs can’t be outsourced, moved, or eliminated. Organized labor needs to forget some old history and study recent sociology. Blue-collar unions are facing a losing battle­—a company can simply pull up stakes and move production elsewhere. Given clever advertising it can even sell its products to the workers it displaced. Labor federations would be wise to shift their focus to work that isn’t going anywhere: supermarkets, schools, fire departments, police…. In the old days industry set the standard for a fair day’s wage; in the future perhaps key service sector employees can do the same.


Oscar Couture, Courage and Outrage

Carey Mulligan is a better actress sound asleep than Sandra Bullock is wide awake!

George C. Scott
won an Oscar in 1970 for his eponymous role in the film Patton. He refused to accept it and sent a curt note to the Academy saying that he considered awards ceremonies, especially the Oscars, trite. He’s right, of course. The Oscars honor “movies,” not “films.” The difference is that of surface and depth. Films make us think and probe the human psyche; movies are gauzy little entertainment moments whose impressions vanish before the credits finish rolling. As for Oscar night, I often don’t make it past the second cheesy dance number before I turn off the television and, as a guy whose idea of a fashion designer is Leon Leonwood Bean, I couldn’t care less about who’s wearing who. But, by God, it’s our God-given right as Americans to argue over who won and who lost, even if we didn’t watch a glitzy second of the broadcast.


Let’s start with what Oscar got right. It’s hard to dispute Mo’Nique as Best Supporting Actress. It was a fine performance in an important film (to use the distinction made above). Oscar also got it right in not heaping honors on Avatar, a movie that’s really little more than an expensive video game. It got geek-tech awards, which is what it should have gotten. The Best Original song, “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart, was an Oscar rarity—a song that can actually be sung! And I was shocked when The New Tenants won for best Live Action Short Film. It deserved to win but I thought it would be way too snarky and cynical for Oscar. And that goes doubly for the brilliant Logorama as Best Animated Short. It so incisively skewers shallow materialism that it’s almost an act of self-loathing for Hollywood to honor it.

Can Live With It

The best "films" are never nominated, let alone win. With that in mind I can live with The Hurt Locker carrying off Best Picture and Best Director. Neither is true, but Hollywood could have (and has done) done worse. Christoph Waltz apparently was superb in Inglorious Basterds, a movie I won’t see because I can’t abide Quentin Tarantino. I would have preferred honoring the wonderful Christopher Plummer, but quality is quality. Congratulations to Waltz. I can live with Up as Best Animated Feature as well, even though it was saccharine in places and killed off its only interesting female character. That said, it was a visual feast and magical. I’m also fine with The Hurt Locker for Best Screenplay simply because it faced no serious competition. I was happy it beat out the grossly overrated A Simple Man.

They Wuz Robbed

There are always snubs and flubs. Flub number one was ten Best Picture nominees. Hollywood doesn’t make ten great movies per year; this strictly every-child-is-an-honors-child fluff. Actually, it’s a naked ploy to boost the box office by allowing more movies to advertise as having been an “Oscar nominee.”

The worst travesty was Sandra Bullock as Best Actress. She’s a celebrity, not an actress, and Carey Mulligan was flat-out robbed. So was Meryl Streep. Bullock didn’t even belong in this company let alone win the hardware. I wasn’t fond of choosing Jeff Bridges as Best Actor either, though I predicted his victory. But to see a performance that is superior in every way to that of Bridges, see Colin Firth in A Single Man. I’ve not seen Foreign Language winner The Secret in Their Eyes, but its victory was an upset that hasn’t played well in the international community, where The White Ribbon has been hailed as one of the finest pieces of cinema in the twenty-first century. Many also feel The Cove was a rather slight film vis-à-vis its competitors in the Documentary Feature category. Best Costume Design for The Young Victoria? Since when is dressing people like a BBC horse drama creative costuming? Avatar for Cinematography? How did CAD become cinematography?

George C. Scott was right: Oscar is trite. So let the debates begin!


American League Central Preview

The AL Central should be the Twins territory; it's theirs to lose.

In order of last year’s finish:

Minnesota Twins: Good riddance to the Baggie Dome. It wouldn’t shock me if the Twins inaugurate their new park with a World Series title. It also wouldn’t shock me if they finished third in the AL Central. It all rides on pitching as the Twins are going to pound the ball like last year’s Yankees. Joe Mauer is the best player in baseball not named Pujols. Justin Morneau is a stud, and the Twins outfield of Michael Culdyer, Denard Span, and Delmon Young is one of the best about which you hear little. Ditto solid players such as Jason Kubel and Nick Punto. The Twins added J. J. Hardy, Jim Thome, and Orlando Hudson.

Pitching is where the dream could turn into a nightmare. Baker, Blackburn, Slowey, and Perkins don’t strike fear into hitters, every night is fireworks night when Carl Pavano pitches, and closer Joe Nathan has too many outtings in which things get more interesting than they should. The Twins need Francisco Liriano to be healthy. This staff could weave magic like the 2008 Rays, but it’s also a sore arm or two away from meltdown.

Detroit Tigers: Last year’s epic collapse ought to lay to rest that Jim Leyland as genius nonsense. The Tigers are hard to fathom. On paper a pitching staff of Verlander, Galaragga, Bondeman, and Porcello looks formidable. On the mound all but Verlander get slapped. The Tigers may have scored gold in stealing Max Scherzer from Arizona and closer Jose Valverde is a massive upgrade, but Zach Miner continues to disappoint and Dontelle Willis looks to be a total flameout.

Johnny Damon will probably replace Curtis Granderson, but he doesn’t have the wheels to hit leadoff any more and he’s not going to duplicate last year’s power numbers in cavernous Comerica Park. Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez need to return to form, Brandon Inge must remain indestructible, and Miguel Cabrera has to stay svelt and sober, or this lineup will struggle and Leyland will be given the gate by All-Star break.

Chicago White Sox: Should the Twins falter, the ChiSox might be poised to pounce. If Jake Peavy and Freddy Garcia are injury-free, they will join a staff with Mark-Perfect-Game-Buerle, Floyd Galvin, and John Danks that will be the class of the division. Their Achilles’ heel is an uncertain lineup and a manager who can go supernova at any time. Once you get past Carlos Quentin and the steady A. J. Pierzynski it’s filled with question marks. Are Paul Konerko and Omar Vizquel done? Will Gordon Beckham continue to grow? The ChiSox also have candidates for the Underachievers Hall of Shame: Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones, Alex Rios…. I like the pickup of Mark Teahan, though. I also think the Sox would be a whole better if they fired Ozzie Guillen. His act has grown boorish.

Cleveland Indians: This team imploded last year and backed up the van. This year’s Tribe will be competitive, but the talent on the farm needs some seasoning. The starting pitching core—Carmona, Laffey, Sowers, Westbrook—is decent, but not much more. Closer Kerry Wood is always a slip away from the DL, and no one can quite figure whether Justin Masterson will be a major league pitcher or a Boston-sent sucker-punch in the Victor Martinez deal. The lineup is shaky once one gets past the talented Grady Sizemore. Who will catch? Can Russell Branyan cut down on strikeouts and knock in more runs? Does 49 RBIs justify Travis Haffner’s massive contract? (No!) And guys like Andy Marte and Jhonny Peralta are in their make-it-or-find-a-day-job year. There are more kids in the wings like the delightful Shin-Soo Choo, but the Indians probably won’t be in the hunt this year. Look for a few more bodies to leave town soon.

Kansas City Royals: Theory—the Royals and the Pirates are the same team and the “players”—qualifying quotation marks needed—just change uniforms. Okay, not fair; the Royals do have Zack Greinke. Gil Meche and Robinson Tejada are serviceable, and maybe Brian Bannister will finally become a decent pitcher and Alex Gordon will grow up. Maybe. This is a team that needed a lot of help over the offseason. Major acquisitions? Josh Fields, Jason Kendall (for God’s sake, why?), Scott Podsednik, Chris Getz, and Rick Ankiel. You’ve got to be kidding me! The best thing that could happen to this team is a new owner.

Predicted Order of Finish:

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