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Because baseball is such a long, grueling season, it's practically impossible to find real meaning in anything that happens during the first week or two. Players and teams start hot, but then fade. Inversely, some players are notorious for starting the season terribly (think Mark Teixeira) and then heat up as the weather gets nicer. Baseball truly is a sport of ebbs and flows, streaks and slumps, and you can't really get a good sense of what's what until a month has passed. But just because it's difficult doesn't mean we can't try.
Earlier this week, I spoke with Karl Ravech, host of ESPN's “Baseball Tonight” about the early happenings in Major League Baseball. Ravech has worked for ESPN since 1993 and has been a host on “Baseball Tonight” since 1995. We spoke about a wide variety of topics that spanned both leagues. Here's Ravech's take on the National League so far.
The biggest story in the NL early on has been Ozzie Guillen's controversial statements on Fidel Castro. The Marlins suspended their manager for five games, and he interrupted the road trip to return to Miami and apologize. But that still hasn't quelled the anger from the residents of Little Havana and even the state legislators who want Guillen out. It's a very messy situation, and here's how Ravech assessed it all.
“My sense is that he certainly seemed sincere. You know Ozzie of course has a track record of saying things that border on the offensive, occasionally cross the line. I think for the first time in his life, he recognized that words have the ability to do significant damage.
“I think it plays out, in Ozzie’s life, that he is somewhat more sensitive to people’s reactions to the things that he says and the opinions he has. But again, Ozzie’s trying to rewrite history that he’s been creating his entire life, and I think that’s just going to take a long, long time. There have to be a lot of examples of how he changes.”
Any change in Guillen's personality or style won't happen overnight. It's difficult to completely overhaul your personality and style like that, especially if you're as bombastic as Guillen is. Ravech also noted that this free-wheeling style is what made Ozzie so successful in the first place.
“And you also run into that fine line of taking what has made him so successful and so popular and eliminating it. I think that’s a balancing act that Ozzie’s going to have to figure out: where he can go and where he can’t go.”
As far as baseball goes, Ravech didn't think this would have an impact on the players or have much connection with their results on the field.
“I don’t anticipate a major change. I think that they’ll be fine. The players play regardless of what the manager is involved in. So I think that from a Miami Marlins perspective, everything’s going to be okay. I guess the next kind of thing to see is Tuesday night when he returns and what the response is going to be from the people in the Little Havana area and where that ballpark is. But I think it’ll all kind of move forward, and there will be someone else doing something that’s going to focus the attention on them in the next 24-48 hours. That’s the way society works.
“Nope. I don’t think there is any connection between the baseball performance and Ozzie. I think what he does, in the minds of his ownership group, perhaps, is shorten his own personal leash so that if the team doesn’t do well, their patience for him will wear a little bit thinner. They have to dictate the balancing act of ‘this is a business, and if we’re winning and putting people in the seats that’s really important to us’ but ‘if we’re not, why should we have to deal with the potential headache that Ozzie brings again?” And hopefully he doesn’t.
“But I think that’s the only pressure that the organization will feel. I don’t think the players are going to feel any more pressure. I don’t really think Ozzie is going to feel that much more pressure. But surely, an ownership decision that if this continues, and obviously the White Sox had a great deal of patience for it, if this continues, which I hope it won’t, they’ll have to make that call.”
The Marlins are currently at the bottom of the NL East after seven games, and with the talent on that roster there's still plenty of time to turn the season around. One of the teams on top of the division has surprised everyone to start the season. The Mets won their first four games before dropping a pair to the Nationals. Ravech noticed a couple of things going right for the Mets early on.
“Well they kind of had David Wright playing like David Wright has the ability to. They have gotten very good pitching; Santana came back and I think emotionally that was huge. And in speaking with Terry Collins during the spring, he kept insisting that their biggest issue was they couldn’t get players on the field. They would hurt themselves in drills in the morning; they couldn’t even get them on the field to play in spring training games. But he was convinced that once they got them on the field and they were healthy, that they had a chance to compete.
“A lot of that was rooted in Wright. A lot of that was rooted in comeback seasons. A lot of that was rooted in guys like [Daniel] Murphy and [Ike] Davis, who had good years, improving on those years. And look, early on, they’ve got a little lightning in a bottle. Any team that pitches well, any team that has good pitching and decent bullpen work, and they’ve certainly bolstered their bullpen, has a chance to succeed.
“Where they’re in trouble is they just don’t have the depth that other teams do and there’s no margin for error. So far there’s been very few error.”
David Wright was injured after our conversation, and their lack of depth has been highlighted in the two games he's missed. They've dropped the last two since he's been out of the lineup, and it showed that the Mets might not be ready to compete just yet. Ravech thinks that they should be able to hang around long enough to make things interesting, though.
“I think they have a legitimate shot at hanging around. I’m not sure that they’re going to be able to compete. Even given health for the Mets, assuming the Phillies don’t ever recover from where they’re at, whether Utley ever comes back, that the Mets are the equal of the Nationals. I don’t think they’re as the Miami Marlins. I don’t think they’re as good as the Atlanta Braves.
“I think they can hang around. I think they can make it interesting. But again, over 162 games, when you’re as thin as the Mets are, it presents more problems than other teams are going to have to deal with.”
Even if they aren't in it for the long haul, it's fun to see the Mets starting strong like this, especially with the turmoil this franchise has had to endure in recent years. It's been a rough ride for the Mets and their fans.
The NL Central received a major makeover in the offseason with a pair of first basemen heading over to the American League. The St. Louis Cardinals lost Albert Pujols to the Angels, and the Milwaukee Brewers lost Prince Fielder to the Tigers. So far, it the loss hasn't hurt St. Louis. They are 5-2 and on top of the NL Central. They lead the Major Leagues in hits, home runs, RBI, and they lead the NL in batting average and runs. Obviously something is going right for them, and Ravech has a few ideas.
“I think Beltran’s health is huge. David Freese is looking like he’s going to hit 80 home runs and drive in 200 runs. When they went out and got Beltran after Pujols left, I think a lot of people, myself included, figured that they were still actually the team to beat in the NL Central. The Reds were good, but not quite as good as St. Louis. Freese let everybody know in the postseason that he was really a great player.
“Pujols had one good game in the World Series. Other than that, he didn’t have any good games. If they win the World Series and Albert has one good game, some other players are helping out. Berkman couldn’t get out in the postseason. Freese was the MVP of everything. Their catcher [Yadier Molina] got a huge contract, and not only is he the best catcher but can hit the ball. They’re just in a really good spot and they had two of the probably five best starters in the league, one of them is obviously hurt now in Carpenter. But you have Carpenter and Wainwright, and Lohse looks really good.
“They’re just good. They have a team, I guess like the… I’m trying to think of a team that doesn’t necessarily have superstars on it but they’re all good players. That’s what they are. They are all just good players. And Freese may be on the doorstep of becoming a superstar.”
Freese's play sure is making people forget about Albert Pujols. Through seven games, he's leading the NL in batting at .429 and has chipped in 3 home runs and 10 RBI. The combination of Beltran, Berkman, and Freese has the chance to be very formidable in the NL Central. The Brewers, on the other hand, might be left behind after losing Fielder. Ravech thinks the Brewers have taken a step back this year.
“I think the Reds, to me, are going to have a better year than the Brewers. I think [Aramis] Ramirez, as much as people like him, is a significant drop-off from somebody like Fielder if that was the guy they thought they were going to replace him with. You know Weeks is really good, I don’t think Braun has a huge drop-off, but it just doesn’t feel the same there without the big guy in the middle. They look different; they feel different.
“Given the success that they’ve had over the past couple of years, it’s difficult to do that. If you consider Aramiz Ramirez and Carlos Beltran as the substitutes for Pujols in St. Louis and Fielder in Milwaukee, that’s a win for St. Louis. I think overall St. Louis was better to start with, so they win that sort of battle of Beltran over Ramirez, and they win the rest of the team that they are just better overall. I think Cincinnati is better, or was as good last year, and the Brewers aren’t. I think Cincinnati’s the second-best team and I think Milwaukee is third-best.”
The Brewers have the front end pitching in Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo plus a tough bullpen with Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford to help offset Fielder's loss, but it will be difficult to offset the loss of Fielder's production and his presence in that lineup.
Out west, the Arizona Diamondbacks are trying to build on last year's terrific season. Ravech thinks that the Diamondbacks remind him of the Cardinals in a couple ways.
“Arizona is really good. Their starting pitching is outstanding. I think my prediction was Arizona and Boston in the World Series. Based on their starting pitching, which to me is like the Angels’ starting pitching, they are just solid. Their bullpen is deep and really good. And they also I guess are like St. Louis in that they don’t necessarily have superstar players, but jeez they are all really good. They kind of got on a wave last year with their ownership, and their management team, and their players, and I don’t think there’s any reason to think that they are going to go anywhere but up. They are showing that early in the season.”
Justin Upton is the closest thing they have to a superstar, and he's definitely right on the cusp of superstardom. He had his finest season last year, batting .289 with 31 home runs, 88 RBI and 21 stolen bases. He's got 30/30 potential, and if he continues to improve, the Diamondbacks are in good shape.
It's hard to believe the San Francisco Giants are almost left behind just a year removed from their World Series run, but injuries and an inability to score crippled them last year. Ravech says there is only one thing San Francisco has to do to be successful: score.
“If San Francisco scores runs, they are going to be really good. That’s all San Francisco has to do. [Brandon] Crawford catches the ball at short as well as anybody, but Buster Posey is one guy. They need other players to hit. Melky Cabrera is Melky Cabrera. Are you getting the Kansas City version or a light version? If they score, they’ll be ok, but I think a lot of people are discounting the Dodgers too quickly. The Dodgers are pretty solid, and they have the best pitcher in the league by far in Clayton Kershaw.”
At this stage of the season, hitting and scoring hasn't been the problem in St. Louis. Tim Lincecum has gotten roughed up in his first two starts, including the shortest start of his career recently against the Rockies. His velocity is down and his location has suffered early, and San Fran needs their ace at the top of his game if they want to compete with Arizona.
I certainly overlooked the Dodgers this year, and while it's no excuse, I think the sale of the team may have overshadowed anything that they've done on the field in my eyes. Last year wasn't great for them, but they have the Cy Young award winner (Kershaw), the player I think should have been the MVP (Matt Kemp), and a bunch of talented young guys, including shortstop Dee Gordon. The Dodgers could definitely make some noise out west under Don Mattingly's watchful eye.
Based on the early action, the National League should be a wild ride filled with a lot of unexpected results and new teams in the mix.