Farewell to the Phillies

If he can hit above .253, put him in the lineup!

If you hate big-spending baseball teams you ought to be in Hardball Heaven right now. Numbers one and two, the Yankees and Phillies, are gone and numbers 3 (Red Sox) through 9 never made the postseason. Left standing are the Tigers (10th), the Cardinals (11th), Rangers (13th) and Brewers (17th).

One of my baseball maxims is that the playoffs expose weaknesses of top teams that get overlooked during the season. Nearly every “expert”--except me!--had the Phillies in the World Series. I picked them to finish second and might have been right if the Braves hadn’t choked on the chicken bone. (Why is no one calling for Fredi Gonzalez to get the axe?) The Phillies were overrated from the get-go. Forget their 102 victories; this was inflated by playing in the NL East. If you play bad teams like the Nationals, Marlins, and Mets 58 times and beat them two of three (which you should), you’re 40% of the way to 100 victories. Fixing the Phillies’ dysfunctional roster will be easier than repairing the Yankees, but not much.

The Phillies do, at least, have very good pitching, including MLB’s best: Roy Halladay. I’m not as sold on Cliff Lee, though he seems perfectly suited for the National League, and I find Cole Hamels such a flake that he drives me crazy, but a person would have to be nuts not the want these two guys. The Phils should, however, part ways with Roy Oswalt, who looks done. He was 9-10 and batters hit a robust .280 off him. Vance Worley proved he’s ready and the Phils should move in that direction. Say adios to Brad Lidge too; Ryan Madson is the closer.

The Phillies didn’t win for the same reason the Tampa Rays didn’t get out of the first round--they can’t hit. Their roster consists of guys who once were, but aren’t any more--Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Placido Polanco, Raul Ibanez.... If you think I’m being overly harsh, look at the numbers. The Phils ran away with the NL East, but they were 15th in team batting average, 11th in on-base percentage, and 17th in slugging. Carlos Ruiz led the team with a .283 average. For all the ink he gets, Ryan Howard had a year like that of Mark Teixeira of the Yankees. He hit a lot of homers (33) and drove in 116 runs, but he hit just .253. He had a gaudy .993 fielding percentage, but don’t be fooled--he’s a one-dimensional player who simply doesn’t get to a lot of balls that his competitors sometimes muff. Utley and Rollins have been wonderful players, but Utley only got into 103 games and Rollins fought off injuries all season. They are breaking down and the Phillies need to consider moving on. If it’s my team, I don’t resign Rollins, who is a free agent. The two guys you want to build around are late season pickup Hunter Pence and scrappy throwback Shane Victorino. I also look to move Domonic Brown, a guy who keeps showing up on the future superstar list and proceeds to play like the next coming of Lastings Milledge. In all honesty, I’d also give serious thought to trading Howard for some guys with a higher on-base percentage; his .346 is so-so for a guy making as much as he.

I’ll be shocked if this roster doesn’t look very different in April of 2012. The Phillies got some talent in the minors--including shortstop Kevin Frandsen, pitcher Michael Schwimer, and first base stud Matt Rizzoti--and a youth movement would not be a bad idea. The pitching is so good that the Phillies will be competitive even if the kids make a few mistakes. They should resist the temptation to trade minor league talent (other than Brown) in the search for a quick fix.


No Easy Fix in the Bronx

Yankees fans not likely to see one of these next year either.

I may be a Yankees fan, but I’m no Pollyanna. I wasn’t surprised when the Tigers knocked the Yankees out of the playoffs; I’m still trying to fathom how this team won the AL East. I had them slated for third or fourth, which is where I’ll pick them for 2012 barring a major roster makeover.

Here’s what the Yankees won’t do, but should: call 2012 a rebuilding year and develop the young talent in the minors. Both Manny Banuelos and Dellin Bettances have major league talent, but next year is too soon. To toss them into the rotation in 2012 would be 2007 all over again (when Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy were rushed). They need time at AAA and the Yankees also need to wait on promising arms such as Adam Warren, Jose Quintana and David Phelps. They should admit that Andrew Brackman is a bust and see if the can offload him.

I’d rebuild this team around Ivan Nova, Robinson Cano, Eduardo Nunez, David Robertson, Curtis Granderson, and Jesus Montero, and be patient as kids such as outfielders Slade Heathcott and Zoilo Almonte develop. Dante Bichette Jr. looks like he’ll be the third baseman by 2014 and Gary Sanchez will be the catcher. But the Yankees wont be patient because they and the Red Sox are like the US and USSR during the Cold War; each will spend big money even if it makes little sense. And it won’t this year: once one gets past Albert Pujols and Jose Reyes, free agent quality drops dramatically.

The Yankees have three big problems--their starting pitching is awful, they don’t hit well, and the infield leather is shaky other than Mark Teixeira, who is the best fielding first baseman in MLB. (Spare me the Adrian Gonzalez routine; he has half of Tex’s range.) There are no ready fixes to any of these problems.

Decision one is whether to pony up for C. C. Sabathia, who can opt out of his contract. They’ll probably have to pay him as: (a) the Red Sox will make a run at him, and (b) there is no better option on the market. This is a huge--as in C.C.’s portly body--risk; his late season numbers have been very bad two years in a row. Anyone who throws big money at him ought to write a conditioning clause into the contract. The Yankees will undoubtedly make a big run at C. J. Wilson, but he’s truly a number 3, not an ace. It might make some sense, though, to let C. C. walk and sign a package of threes for less dough: such as some combo of Wilson, Mark Buehrle, Bruce Chen, and Joel Pinero. Frankly, if the Yankees don’t get more arms to go with Nova, it won’t matter if Sabathia is there or not. They could make a run at Chris Carpenter, but his injury history makes him risky, plus he likes it in St. Louis. Smart money also says Freddy Garcia comes back. Send Bartolo Colon a retirement card; he had a fine first half but he’s done. Next year is the time for Phil Hughes either to live up to the hype or forever be the guy the Yanks wouldn’t trade for Roy Halladay. A. J. Burnett is the most self-destructive loony since Oil Can Boyd. He simply must go, even though the Yanks will have to pay part of his contract. I still say Burnett for Lackey, but it won’t happen.

The bullpen is still strong with Mo Rivera and superb young arm of David Robertson. They’re probably stuck with Rafael Soriano; anyone who offers him more than the Yankees are paying next year is just plain nuts. They don’t need him, though, especially if Joba Chamberlain and Pedro Feliciano recover from surgery. Please, please waive goodbye to Damaso Marte, Scott Proctor, and Boone Logan. Cory Wade, Luis Ayala, and Aaron Laffey pitched well enough to earn a return. Fill in with spare parts.

The everyday lineup lives and dies by three-run homers and that won’t get the job done in the playoffs. Cano led the team in hitting at just .302, Derek Jeter was second at .297, and no one else hit above .262. The Yanks desperately need high on-base-percentage guys, but they’re saddled with albatross contracts that it unlikely they can retool. By the way, I’m not talking Jeter, who hit for the fifth highest average of all MLB shortstops. The biggest drain on the lineup is Alex Rodriquez, who is injury-prone, aging, unloved, and unproductive. For $30 million you need more than 99 games 16 homers and 62 RBIs. Remember when this guy was going to set the homerun record? He’s sitting at 629 dingers; he won’t catch Ruth, let alone Aaron or Bonds. Frankly, Eric Chavez is a better third baseman and could be as productive. It’s harder to dump on a guy who knocked in 111 runs, but Teixeira’s .248 batting average is a disgrace; he needs to move down to the five slot and Granderson and Cano should bat 3-4. The Yanks also need another outfielder. Dump Andruw Jones and look for help. I like Nick Swisher, but not as an everyday player. But when Michael Cuddyer, Nate McLouth, and David DeJesus top the free agent list, you may have to resign Swisher. Russ Martin isn’t a great catcher, but he’ll do and Francisco Cervelli will back up until Sanchez is ready; Montero has DH written all over him. (A formidable DH, though.) Austin Romine is trade bait, not the answer.

Overall the lineup needs tinkering. Here’s the lineup card I write (in order): Brett Gardner, Jeter, Granderson, Cano, Teixeira, A-Rod, Montero, Martin, Swisher (or other). I’d prefer “other” in the nine hole--preferably someone speedy. Again, though, it matters little unless the starting pitching improves. So long and thanks for the memories to Jorge Posada, whose numbers warrant a Hall of Fame sniff.

It won’t be easy to fix the Yankees, unless they do something radical such as sign Pujols and Reyes to contracts giving them Central Park and the Lower East Side and moving Teixeira for a starter. Won’t happen. Neither will a championship in 2012.


Driving Guide for Bay State Residents

The mystery of the triangle revealed!

I just got back from an out-of-state trip and was astonished to observe drivers paying attention to traffic laws. I live in Massachusetts, a land in which hockey players experience less physical contact than motorists. We’re so feared that other New Englanders refer to us as “Massholes.” I once thought that was true--like the day I had to jump out of the way to avoid a speeding car. That wouldn’t be unusual, except that I was walking in a field at the time. I’ve since come to understand that Massachusetts drivers are just ill informed. What follows is a driving guide for Bay State drivers, though I’m pretty sure folks in Connecticut, New Jersey, California, and metro New York can also use some of these tips.

Yield signs: The word “yield” derives from the West Saxon word gieldan. I mean, come on, who speaks West Saxon any more? It’s hardly their fault that Massachusetts residents grow up thinking that the term translates “Get the hell out of my way.” It actually means that others have the right of way and you must wait for them before proceeding.

Speed limit: Once again Bay Staters are being stigmatized because some smarty-pants is being pedantic (as is anyone who uses the word pedantic in a sentence). In this case the word limit comes from limitare. That’s not only French, it’s 14th-century French for Gawd’s sake. For those whose 14th-century French is weak, the word limit means maximum, as in you can’t drive a cah fastah than this. Some folks think it translates “suggestion.” That is incorrect.

Right turn on red: This is legal, but where it says “right turn on red after stop,” it means that each car has to stop and they must stop at the light before turning even if they’ve already stopped once. It does not mean you can keep on going if you have stopped your vehicle at any time in the past month. Bad news: You have to yield (see above) before you turn. The other cahs have the right-of-way. The road must be clear of traffic and that’s an absolute--a better than 30% chance of not getting hit is not good enough. More bad news: Current law allows only right-hand turns.

Some individuals do not know left from right. Here’s an easy way to learn. Take a two-digit number such as 25 and look it with the numbers in an upright position. The last number is the one on the right. In my example, the 5 is on the right. If you don’t like 25, choose any two-digit number you like as long as the two numbers are different; 11or 44 will cause confusion, as will a single or three-digit number. The last number is always on the right. Without crossing your wrists, place your hands by the numbers and take a (washable) marker and write an R (for “right”) on the back of the hand that corresponds with the last number. Now when you drive you’ll be able to glance down and refresh your memory as to which is right and which is left. (Hint: The left will be the hand without a letter on it.) It is imperative that you learn this because, in North America, right is also the side of the road on which one is supposed to drive.

Pedestrians: Mass residents are victims of their culture (cultcha) on this one. We love candlepin bowling up hear (heah) and the object of the game is that you take a round object and knock down as many pins as you can. Is it our fault stupid cah companies made the steering wheel round and the human race evolved bipedalism? I can only caution Bay State drivers to notice that steering wheels are larger in circumference than bowling balls and that most pedestrians are taller (tallah) than candlepins. Sharpen your observational skills and you’ll get the hang of it.

Lines on roads: There are no signs telling you this, but lines on the side of a road and in the middle are not decorative motifs; they designate a “lane,” a word meaning the boundaries in which you are legally allowed to operate your vehicle. Lanes are also for moving vehicles; under no circumstances are you allowed to park in them.

Special instruction for Northampton drivers: There are two lanes on Main Street, except at some lights where there is a special third lane restricted to those who are turning. I understand that the latter can be confusing, but let’s start with the 2/3 rule; 17 is just wrong.

Special instruction for New Jersey drivers: There is a very skinny lane on the right side of many roads that is relatively free of vehicles. This is called a “break down lane” and is meant only for cars that have become disabled. It is not a special commuter lane in which one is allowed to drive at Warp Nine.

Turning lanes: I alluded to these above. It is important to understand two complex factors when using turning lanes. First, you must look for signs telling you if it is for a right-hand or a left-hand turn. It will usually say something cryptic such as “Left Turn Only.” The second and more difficult thing to keep in mind is that it’s implied that you will make an immediate turn at the very juncture where the sign appears. It does not mean you can use this lane if you have the intention of turning in that direction at some point during your current journey.

Turn signals: The flashing light array you observe on cars in front of you is called a “turn signal.” It is not an advertisement for a Japanese animé film. The lights indicate that the driver intends to swing his vehicle out of the current “lane” of traffic and into a new one. You can tell which direction the driver will turn by which side of the car has flashing lights. To know this, however, you will need to master right and left. See “Right turn on red” for tips on doing so.

Special instruction 1: If the driver indicates a turn and doesn’t make one, check to see if the motorist is over the age of 109. If so, the driver is probably unaware of who he is, why he’s in a car, where he’s going, or why he’s hearing a constant clicking noise. Be kind.

Special instruction 2: It is important to make sure that the signal on the back of the car is flashing on and off in a constant pattern. If a red light comes on and stays on, that’s a “brake light” indicating that the vehicle has stopped. It is also a warning for you to stop your car, lest his trunk become your new hood ornament. The latter will interfere with your car’s performance and it is best to avoid altering factory design.

Special instruction 3: You too should get in the habit of using turn signals. Don’t worry; you will not prematurely wear out your car through overuse. The turn signal is usually a small level that’s attached to the steering column. Experiment with pushing the lever up and down to see if the little lights on the back of the car will flash as described above. Do this in your driveway before attempting it in highway conditions.

Primary colors: I do not know who decided on these colors and I agree that they don’t accessorize with all wardrobes, but the following rules apply: red = stop, as in a complete standstill; flashing amber or yellow = proceed with caution. Most people think it means, “Whoo hoo, baby, let’s see how fast this puppy can accelerate!” but that is incorrect. Green = go, but conditionally so. You must first check to make certain that no color-confused drivers or candlepins--sorry, pedestrians--are in your lane of travel. A flashing blue light means you need to pull to the side of the road and speak with the nice police officer. Either that or a K-Mart special.

Emergency vehicles and school buses: You have to pull over to the side of the road for fire and ambulance vehicles and you are not allowed to pass a school bus with flashing lights, even if you’re on the other side of the road. Mr. Nice Police Officer will ask you to contribute to the Commonwealth general fund if you violate these rules. He will not be amused if you say, “Oh what the hell; that guy in the ambulance is going to die some day anyhow.”

I could go on, but we’ve covered a lot of new ground. Master these and we’ll move on to more difficult concepts such as the rules of rotaries, the etiquette of driving in school and nursing home zones, how fast you should drive on entrance and exit ramps, advanced geometrical shapes (including the octagon), the importance of leaving space between you and the car in front of you, and why it’s a bad idea to text, shave, or iron while driving.