2016 MLB: NL East--The Mets Do it Again

The Mets surprised a lot of people last year, me included. Can they sustain it and make a dent in the Big Apple’s fixation on the Yankees? I think so, but they are another team on whom I’d not bet the farm. I pick them to win the NL East, but mainly because the division is weak.

Predicted order of finish: Mets, Nationals, Marlins, Braves, Phillies

The Lineup is so-so but the Pitching is Amazin'
It starts and ends with pitching and 1-5, the New York Mets stand above the pack—Harvey, deGrom, Syndergaard, Matz, and the ageless Colon. A lot depends on whether the Mets can score runs. A healthy David Wright would help, Neil Walker was a good pick up, and Luca Duda drives the ball well. They will need help from chronic underachievers Granderson, D’Arnaud, and Cespedes, the latter of whom is a quieter version of Yasiel Puig in his ability to be brilliant or a complete ass. Granderson simply never was as good as the Stat Heads claimed he was. On paper, though, the Mets should repeat.

Most MLB analysts are picking the Washington Nationals. I get it; they do have (depending on who’s talking) either the best or second-best player in baseball, Bryce Harper, and a guy capable of giving Clayton Kershaw a run as best pitcher: Max Scherzer. I’m not a Nats fan, though, because the supporting cast isn’t consistently strong. Ryan Zimmerman, if healthy, can contribute but it’s been a few years since he was. Then it’s last year’s postseason wonder Daniel Murphy (who the Mets wisely let walk) and enigmas and low OBP guys such as Ramos, Espinosa, and Rendon. And I’ll say it—Ben Revere is terrible and Jayson Werth only a paper cut above. I like Gio Gonzalez as a pitcher; I don’t like Stasburg who has enormous talent but is as fragile as crystal in a hammer factory. Then who? Papelbon as closer? Sure—if this were ’06 instead of ’16. The Nats strike me as a club that’s a few injuries or a clubhouse dust-up closer to third than first.

The Miami Marlins are easy to hate but too talented to ignore. If they’re not already, these will soon be household names: Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, Justin Bour. Add them to a lineup with Giancarlo Stanton, Martin Prado, and Dee Gordon and the Fish can match any lineup in the NL. Pitching? Is there any team that wouldn’t make room for Jose Fernandez? Wei-Yin Chen should do better in the NL. Others need to improve—Koehler, Cosart—for the Marlins to contend, but if the Marlins surprise people in 2016, I won’t be among the startled.

There’s not much immediate hope for either the rebuilding Atlanta Braves or the can’t-wait-to-dismantle Philadelphia Phillies. The Braves still have a gem in Freddie Freeman but, for the most part the team that will wear Braves uniforms in 2018 are in the minor leagues right now. You can build a staff around Julio Teheran, which they are trying to do.

Teheran is way better than anybody the Phillies will stick on the mound, though Aaron Nola is an arm to watch. Jeremy Hellickson as the ace presumptive? That’s the definition of “dire.” As for the hitters one can only ask, “What?” I like the upside of shortstop Freddy Galvis, but the Phils are going nowhere until they shed Ryan Howard’s albatross contract. At least the Phillies wised up to the idea that Domonic Brown really is the bum I’ve claimed for the past five years and cut him loose. Call it addition by subtraction. The Phils will feature a lot of unproven kids this year, which means they’ll be more fun to watch, but don’t expect a lot of W’s for a few years.    


Let Mother Nature Do Her Job: Rattlesnake Island a Bad Idea


Why do wildlife officials think rattlers are needed?
I admit that the idea of stocking an island in the middle of Western Massachusetts' Quabbin Reservoir with endangered rattlesnakes gives me the willies. I hate snakes of all sorts. We occasionally get a grass snake in our basement and we don't reach for rubber gloves and a bucket—it's baseball bat, dustpan, and newspaper. I've joked about buying a mongoose to patrol the yard, but I'm only half kidding.

As any hiker knows, there's little as disconcerting as coming upon a rattler on the trail. I know the island where wildlife officials want to release dozens of adult timber rattlers. I've often stood on the New Salem side of the reservoir and admired its majesty on a clear autumn day with the fall colors reflecting off the water. Rattlers can swim, so if the island is stocked, I may indeed buy that mongoose and take it with me on future hikes at the Quabbin.

But even if I weren't squeamish about snakes, the idea of populating an island with them is simply a bad idea. Call it where micro managing, bad science, and starry-eyed ecological blindness meet. The two stated reasons for the program are that timber rattlers are an endangered species, and that they would consume rodents. The second is patently silly. In my time at the Quabbin I've yet to see field mice spiriting away small children into the woods, nor has my car ever been attacked by mohawked, leather-clad, chain-wielding chipmunk gangs. There are already plenty of critters feasting on rodents, including myriad hawks and owls, and resurgent bald eagle populations.

Back on their own
The presence of eagles is the best case not to allow zealous wildlife officials to tamper with the Quabbin's ecosystem. Eagles have come back to Western Massachusetts and here's the role state game officials played in their recovery: none. The raptors aren't the only species for which this is the case. In the early 1970s there were allegedly fewer than 100 black bears in the entire Commonwealth; now you can see them munching birdseed just about everywhere. Wildlife officials estimate there are 4,000 bears in Massachusetts now, a figure those who spend a lot of time in the woods find a risible understatement How about moose? Two decades ago a purported moose spotting was on par with seeing a unicorn–and invited about as much derision. Now our highways are dotted with moose crossing warnings and there may be as many as 1,000 of those tank-sized ungulates snorting around—roughly one for every ten square miles of the Commonwealth. For the record, there are already several small rattlesnake colonies in the Bay State, including one in the Blue Hills near Boston and another on Mount Tom near Holyoke.  

Eagles, bears, moose, and even rattlers have thrived or survived with no assistance from the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. That's because it's not about stocking—it's about habitat .Put another way, wilderness is not supposed to be an open-air zoo; its wild animals thrive when there is an ecosystem that sustains them and Mother Nature knows when that is.

There are a handful of restocking success stories in North America, most notably grey wolves in Yellowstone and the rebuilding of bison herds. These give hope, but they aren't real tests. Yellowstone is, in fact, a big zoo–and a heavily patrolled one at that. Any fool with miles of barbed wire can raise buffalo, which are just shaggy, weak-eyed cows on steroids. There are tens of thousands of empty grasslands acres out West where the buffalo can roam. Their recovery was simple: we just stopped shooting the poor dim beasts.

Atlantic salmon: multi-decade. multi-million dollar flop
But let's look at a spectacular failure in Massachusetts: the effort to reestablish Atlantic salmon in the Connecticut River. It was a noble idea, but after tens of millions of dollars and 45 years of trying, the effort was abandoned in 2010. Salmon might return to the river someday, but the ecosystem has to be friendly first. That effort will involve more than just improving water quality—a badly needed task to be sure; it would also entail demolishing  dams. That effort will pit consumer needs and business interests against those of a small number of sports enthusiasts and some literal small fry. Would you bet the farm on the latter? Connecticut River salmon are simply not sustainable as long as there are 54 dams in place.

Good intentions and good ideas are not always the same thing. Ecosystems are more complex than simplistic release and repopulate schemes. Let those timber rattlers continue to slither in a Rhode Island zoo. If the Quabbin ecosystem needs them, Mother Nature will provide on her own and in her own time.


2016 MLB : NL Central--Cubs Poised to Pounce but not to the World Series

The division maybe, but the World Series, nope!
The Chicago Cubs are both the sentimental and the odds-on favorite to win the World Series this year, but they get no such love from me. The Cubs will struggle to win the NL Central and I don’t  see them getting to the October Classic. I will pick them to win the Central, but you can flip-flop any of my top three.

Predicted order of finish: Cubs, Pirates, Cardinals, Brewers, Reds.

The Chicago Cubs have outstanding young players, the key word being “young.” Anthony Rizzo has established himself, but many  others—Fowler, Bryant, Russell, Schwarber need either to sustain or live up to their promise. Getting Ben Zobrist was a smart move, but Jason Heyward is a ne’er do well tease whom they vastly overpaid. If the Cubs prevail in the Central, pitching will prevent the Cubs from exorcising the Billy Goat curse. Jake Arrieta is the reigning Cy Young, but is he due for a Corey Kluber-like letdown? Then it’s Jon Lester—the ten-million dollar arm with a ten-cent brain—a declining John Lackey, and two serviceable but underwhelming arms (Hammel, Hendricks). This doesn’t spell championship to me.

The Pittsburgh Pirates, a so-called “small market” team (with a filthy rich owner) has let some talent walk, but I actually think the everyday lineup—Polanco, McCutchen, Marte, Kang, Cervelli—will keep pace with the Cubs, and don’t be surprised if Gerrit Cole takes away Arrieta’s Cy Young crown. If—and this is admittedly a big qualification—Liriano still has gas in the tank and guys like Locke, Niese, and Vogelsong return to normal form, the Pirates could out-pitch the Cubbies. And I’ll take the Bucs’ Melanchon over the Cubs’ Rondon as a closer.

The St. Louis Cardinals always seem to be in the chase even when you look at their lineup and wonder how. This time, though, injuries to Peralta and Molina, plus free agency loses leaves the Cards looking pretty thin once one gets past Matt Carpenter. Holliday needs to earn his contract and they will need career years from folks like Matt Adams, Kolten Wong, and Steve Piscotty, or this team’s offense will look like San Diego’s. There’s hope in the pitching staff if Adam Wainwright is sound, as Wacha, Leake, Garcia, and Carlos Martinez are very good. Watch Martinez; I think he’s poised for a breakout. The Cards are always well-managed, but they are among the year’s biggest question marks. First? Fourth? Either could happen.

Fourth is unlikely for the Cardinals simply because both the Milwaukee Brewers and the Cincinnati Reds will be terrible—as in the potential to lose 100 games. I give the Brew Crew a slight bump in the standings simply because I think their best hitters---Lucroy, Braun, Hill—are more consistent than Reds’ streaky bashers Phillips, Votto, and Phillips. Which team finishes above the other could boil down to which 2015 disappointment improves: the Brewers’ Chris Carter or the Red’s Billy Hamilton. (Hey, Billy—you can’t steal bases if you can’t get on base.) Neither team has much pitching, though many see Milwaukee’s Wily Peralta as on-the-cusp of something special, and I don’t think Matt Garza will be as awful in 2016 as he was last year.