Caging the Tigers? AL Central

What is it they say about spring and eternal hope? Can the Royals or Indians cage the Tigers? Of course not!

The Tigers should go to the Series. Call it addition by subtraction–the highly overrated Jim Leyland yields to Brad Asmus as manager, and they suckered the Rangers into swapping Ian Kinsler for the one-dimensional Prince Fielder. The Tigers have MLB’s best hitter, Miggy Cabrera, and its best pitcher, Justin Verlander. Surround Cabrera with Avila, Hunter, and V-Mart, and the rest just need to get on base occasionally. I’m not sold on Rajal Davis, though his OBP will be better than Austin Jackson’s. The staff? Verlander, last year’s Cy Young winner (Scherzer), plus Smyly, Sanchez, and Porcello. Nathan gives them a real closer for a change. It says here that Smyly will be dominant, that Iglesias’ average comes back to earth, and that Joba and Coke will still stink.

The Indians have Terry Francona, one of MLB’s best managers. He’ll get the best out of Swisher, Kipnis, Bourn, Brantley, Santana, and Murphy. Asrubal Cabrera is now the league’s best shortstop. Masterson and McAllister head a staff with so many question marks that the Tribe signed Aaron Harang, which can’t be encouraging. Who’s on third? They need a big bat. Jeff Francoeur says he’s rejuvenated. I’ve only heard that for a decade.

The Royals are a sexy pick for a wild card. They certainly have fewer holes than the Indians and a nice stable of pitchers with Shields, Chen, Guthrie, Brooks, and Davis. They always hit well, though seldom timely enough, and seldom with high OBP. It starts with Gordon–who must stay healthy–and then it’s Moustakas, Hosmer, and the useful Butler. Infante should help, Perez is rising as a catcher, and Bonifacio looks like he’s ready. Lots of unproven guys, though.

The White Sox never seem to find the right chemistry. The pitching should be good, though Sale was hurt a lot of last year and Danks and Axelrod were terrible. Highly regarded rookie RHP Erik Johnson will get a shot at this team. The lineup has two guys, Dunn and Konerko, born to be DHs–a problem as Jose Abreru, Flowers, and Eaton aren’t enough sticks. Keppinger is a nice player; Beckham not even close to his projections. Their closer, Nate Jones, never has done so.

Call the Twins the Cubs of the AL Central. Mauer goes to first, Willingham is decent in left, Suzuki is steady behind the plate and then everything is up for grabs. Prospects like Buxton (OF), Sano (3B), and Myer (RHP) are on the way, but how far can kids take the Twins? Probably further than a staff headed by Nolasco, Hughes, and Pelfry–candidates for the All-Star Major Disappointment squad. Perkins and Duensing, who were supposed to the answer, are in the bullpen.

1. Tigers: They have a shaky pen, but too many swords to lose the Central.
2. Royals: Hope in KC, but still not enough to win the division.
3. Indians: Francona will get the best from a squad that’s not good enough.
4. White Sox: Might lose 90 games.
5. Twins: Wait until 2016. 


The Goldfinch is a Masterpiece

The Goldfinch (2013)
Donna Tartt
Little Brown 9780-03160-55437, 784 pages
* * * * *

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius
Until I read The Goldfinch would have said that the best post-9/11 novel was Jess Walter’s The Zero (2006). (Sorry, but I found Jonathan Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to be pretentious.) Donna Tartt hasn’t just written an amazing 9/11 musing–it’s not even about 9/11 directly–it’s among the best books of the century and might well be a certifiable masterpiece.

The book’s central character is Theodore Decker, but its star is Dutch painter Carel Fabritius (1622-54). I doubt that name rings bells. He was Rembrandt’s prized pupil–one so gifted that several paintings once attributed to Rembrandt are now thought to be his instead. Alas, only a handful of Fabritius’ works still exist because he and over a hundred others died when a gunpowder magazine exploded in Delft. A quarter of the town, including Fabritius’ studio, burned. Among the works that survived is the delicate namesake of Tartt’s novel.

The novel is narrated by Theo and covers his life from ages 13 to 27. You might first think that Theo’s troubles began at 13, but he doesn’t believe that, and maybe you shouldn’t either. He and his mother, Audrey, are on their way to meet with school officials on a day Theo would normally be in class, were it not for some unsettling trouble that he and a classmate got into. Being that they are consummate New Yorkers, their trip to the school begins with a trip to a café and, to escape a vile taxi and get out the rain, a short stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view The Goldfinch, on loan from a museum in The Hague. Theo is very bright, but he’s also 13 and there’s just so much culture a boy can take. What really attracts his eye is a comely redhead about his age. When his mother decides to take in another gallery, Theo stays behind in the gift shop in hope of getting another glance at the girl. And then it happens––a massive terrorist-planted bomb explodes sending debris, dust, and body parts flying. Hundreds die and numerous priceless artworks are lost. Is The Goldfinch among them?

Theo pulls himself out of the rubble in time to encounter the only other living soul in the gift shop, a mortally wounded elderly man who was with the redheaded girl. Before he expires, he presses a ring of cryptic design upon Theo and gives him a Greenwich Village address to which he should deliver it. But first, it seems, Theo has to find a guardian––as he learns several days later, his mother is among the dead. The Goldfinch has drawn Dickens analogies, and there are certainly Oliver Twist parallels in the way orphan Theo will be bounced around, starting with the upper crust Barbour family, which takes him in temporarily because he was among the only kids who was ever nice to their nerdy son, Andy. Thus begins a saga that will next take Theo to Las Vegas, where the father who walked out on him and his mother resides with his ditzy dye-job girlfriend Xandra. Larry Decker is better at being a small-time gambler trying to swim with big fish than being a caregiver, and largely leaves Theo to his own devices. Among those devices is Boris, the worldly son of a rich Russian. Or is he Polish? Or Ukrainian? Or something else? The two boys experience a misspent adolescence that involves very little that’s healthy or wholesome.

Tartt’s novel is long and sprawling, but nothing is wasted. Everything you encounter early will come back into play. Circumstances send Theo back to New York, where he meets “Hobie,” the man to whom he delivers the ring and who teaches Theo one of his future occupations: antiques, though suffice it to say that Hobie’s restoration work is more on the level than some of Theo’s pursuits. The red-haired girl comes back into play, as will the Barbour family, Boris, and vice. We’ll also detour to Amsterdam, go inside European crime syndicates, experience New York snobbery, and plumb the depth of despair before the book comes to a denouement that is, at once, concluding but not conclusive. And what ties it altogether is the fate of the Fabritius canvas. Think you know where it is? You’re probably wrong.  

This is not just a great story; it’s also a profound book about loss, desire, and obsession. It asks us to take a hard look at what we value, why we want those things, and why we sometimes pass on the things we want above all else. It also asks us to ponder what we are willing to forgive in the name of some greater love, and the things for which can and cannot forgive ourselves. Perhaps most of all, it forces us to consider that in the battle between nature and nurture, apples might not fall as far from rotten trees as we might hope they would. Can we change our essential natures? Are we the architects of our own misfortune? I’ve called this a post-9/11 novel not just because of the terrorist/bomb/wrecked lives parallels, but also because of the aforementioned big questions over which tragedy has a way of making us muse. Kudos to Donna Tartt for a novel that is at once provocative and profound. --Rob Weir 


The Cards are Still Stacked: NL Central Preview

Conventional wisdom says that the Cardinals will miss Carlos Beltrán and won’t have enough firepower to repeat as NL West champs. CW is, as usual, wrong, though scoring runs might be a problem if Craig slumps, or if Holliday slides into his too familiar bad-year-after-a-good-year routine. Bourjos won’t replace Beltrán, though his defense will be better. Peralta will probably hit better in the NL and Matt Carpenter is poised to become a major star. The good news is that the Cards don’t need to score much with a staff headed by Wainwright, Wacha, Lynn, Garcia, and Kelly. There are more power arms in the high minors.

The Reds always look awesome on paper–Votto, Phillips, Bruce, Ludwick, and the speedy Hamilton–but they never quite live up to their hype when it matters. Latos is currently injured, and he’s down for any length of time, Bailey will need to be the ace that Cueto looks like he’ll never become. Chapman closes because he flopped a starter, which I still say he should be if he’s really going to help this team.

The Pirates were Cinderella last year, but will the carriage revert to a pumpkin this year? It could, though McCutchen is a stud and Sanchez, Alvarez, and Walker are very good. Then you have the “who knows?” inconsistency guys: Martin, Marte, and Tabata, the latter in a make-it-or-pack-it year. For the Pirates to continue to rise, the pitching has to be there. Cole should get even better, but how confident are we that Liriano will stay healthy, or that Rodriquez, Morton, or Volquez will live up to their promise? Nice bullpen, though, headed by Grilli and Melanchon. Young shortstop Jody Mercer is on the cusp.

The Brewers are hopeful. There is firepower with Braun, Lucroy, Ramirez, and Weeks. Lohse, Garza, and Gallardo are good. This, in a nutshell, is what I think of the Brewers: good, but not good enough.

The Cubs are the Cubs. Need I say more? One legitimate star, Castro, and lots of guys who might be serviceable–Rizzo, Scherholtz, Lake, Valbuena, Ruggiano–and some minor leaguers you’ll probably see before the year is out: Javier Baez (ss) and Kris Bryant (3B). The staff is Samardzija, the perpetually disappointing Edwin Jackson, and huh? The Cubs haven’t been to the World Series in 68 years. It will be a while before it has a prayer of happening again.


1. Cardinals: Too much pitching to lose the Central. Not enough hitting to win it all.
2. Reds: New manager (Bryan Price) and a team that gels or is disassembled. 2nd or 4th.
3. Pirates: Good vibes and big holes. could contend, could disappoint.  
4. Brewers: Can Braun hit without ‘roids? Are three pitchers enough? Don’t think so.
5. Cubs: Wrigley Field is a nice place to see a game when a major league team visits.