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Early Thoughts on the AL With Karl Ravech

by Photo of Ross Bernhardt

The host of ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” talks Bobby V, Andy Pettitte, parity, the Angels, and more from the American League.

Early Thoughts on the AL With Karl Ravech

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 American League so far.

One of the bigger stories in early American League play has been the poor start of the Boston Red Sox.  Boston obviously fell apart last season, and it cost manager Terry Francona his job.  They lost Jonathan Papelbon, Marco Scutaro, Tim Wakefield, and Jason Varitek in the offseason, and brought in Bobby Valentine to replace Francona.  New closer Andrew Bailey got hurt in spring training, and the Sox have stumbled out of the gate again going 1-5.  The hitting and bullpen have been a problem, as Alfredo Aceves has already blown a save.  Ravech assessed the situation in Bean Town.

“They are going to have to kind of piece it together. They’re going to have to figure out roles and responsibilities for players. The Bailey thing was a surprise, obviously, and they’re going to have to understand that if they are going to use Aceves, they’re going to use Aceves. If [Daniel] Bard’s going to be a starter, you kind of have to commit to it.

“I know on Tuesday night, and even after Bailey went down, there were a lot of people who seemed willing to go back to ‘Let’s put Daniel back in the bullpen.’ I don’t think organizationally, that that’s the right message to send. If you’re going to commit to somebody and allow him the opportunity to be a starter, and that’s what he wants to do, he puts everything into it and the results during spring are fairly successful, if not successful, then he should be given that chance.

“It wouldn’t be fair to Bard to say ‘Hey Bailey went down, we know you were going to be a starter, we need you to close,” when they have other alternatives that, in my opinion, are equally as good as Bard. Plus they are a little short when it comes to starting pitching. I don’t have a problem with Bard starting.

If Boston wants to look to the dangers of the consistent starter/reliever debate, they should look no further than their rivals in New York.  Joba Chamberlain hasn't been the same pitcher since his flip-flopping between the pen and the rotation (and injuries have played a role in that as well).  These are different circumstances, but Boston really has to stick with this decision.

Ravech noted that Boston's 1-5 record is obviously not the most ideal start, but it does make his World Series pick look a little shaky.

“I guess last year there was an ESPN poll of all the analysts and experts, and 40-something of us picked the Red Sox to win the World Series. This year, one of us did, and I was the only one who did. So I figured that they had as much talent as they had last year, that Bailey could fill the role of [Jonathan] Papelbon. From April 14 or 16 for the next, I don’t know 120 games they were basically 80-40. They were the best team in baseball for two or three months. There wasn’t enough change for me to jump off the bandwagon. But I will say this: when I looked around and saw I was the only one on it, it felt a little bit lonely.

“I’m not giving up the ship. I have great admiration for Bobby Valentine. I think he’s really sharp. I do grow tired of hearing about personality conflicts and all that stuff. And I’ll be honest with you. I’m from there, it seems with Bobby there, there’s almost kind of a perverse need to see this thing fail and I don’t understand that at all.”

The question I hear a lot is "How long will Bobby Valentine last in Boston?"  It seems weird to be asking questions like that of a manager that just got the job and is a mere six games into the season.  Ravech thought so to.

“As opposed to, ‘Let’s see if this will work out.’ There does seem to be a fatalistic attitude about the whole thing from the get-go. I guess experience tells you that for some reason, Bobby creates that type of response, whether he was with the Mets or with us at ESPN or now in Boston. I think I know the guys as well as most, and I don’t ever get that feeling. I think a lot of people are uncomfortable with themselves that he makes them uncomfortable. That’s more their stuff than his stuff.”

The Red Sox weren't the only AL East favorite to get off to a poor start.  The New York Yankees were swept by the Tampa Bay Rays in their opening three-game set.  New York scored enough, but Mariano Rivera blew a save and the starting pitching was subpar.   The Yankees will get an unexpected boost to their rotation when Andy Pettitte returns to the team in April.   He surprised a lot of people by un-retiring, and after a year off I asked Ravech how much the Yankees can expect from the lefty.

“I think they can expect the same thing they expected a couple of years ago from Andy Pettitte. Andy is healthy. Andy’s arm hasn’t given him any real problems. Andy knows how to pitch. He knows how to succeed there [New York]. And he has an offense that will score a lot of runs for him. Barring injury, I would have every expectation that Pettitte would literally fit right in behind Sabathia and Nova in that rotation. He could be the third best and most effective pitcher on that staff, which is a blessing for the Yankees and Cashman and Girardi to have somebody like that kind of come out of nowhere. So I expect Andy to succeed. He wouldn’t come back if he didn’t expect the same thing, and I think the team expects that too.”

The Yanks could have used him against the Rays' lineup.  Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, and Jeremy Hellickson all had their way with the Yankees during the series.  I asked Ravech which team this result revealed more about: the Yankees or the Rays.

“I think we all know the Rays are really good. I think the Yankees are as good as any team in the league when they’re all healthy. Jeter is off to a good start. I wouldn’t put too much stock into the Tigers sweeping Boston, and I wouldn’t put too much stock in Tampa sweeping the Yankees only because all four of those teams can make the postseason.

“From a confidence standpoint, it’s great for Tampa that they were able to do that. But the Yankees are so veteran-laden that that’s not going to bother them. Rivera’s going to be fine and close games out.

While it's fun to try and infer meaning out of the series, it is just three games out of 162 total.  Sure enough, the Yankees recovered just fine by sweeping the Baltimore Orioles this week.  Rivera recorded two saves and looked fine.  Baseball teams aren't going to look great every single game.  Over that long of a season, it's impossible to.  But these early series did show Ravech something about the nature of the league that he hasn't seen in a while.

“I’ll be honest, there does seem to be a level of competition in baseball that wasn’t necessarily present in recent years. I know that parity’s a great word that everyone likes to hang their hats on. But I do sense that there is a greater level of individual game competitiveness than perhaps you would see in year’s past. That doesn’t mean that the cream’s not rising in 162 games. But there are series where the Royals are going to beat the Yankees. There are series where the Orioles will beat the Red Sox. There are series in which the Blue Jays can beat any team. And we’re seeing that with the National League. There are series now where obviously the Marlins can beat the Phillies, where the Astros can be a pain. There seems to be a greater level of competitiveness on a short series than I recall.”

That's an interesting point, and it does seem to me that games in the early going have been very competitive for this stage of the season.  The Blue Jays and Indians played two straight extra inning games to open the season.  The next week, the Yankees and Orioles play two straight in extra frames.  The level of play just appears to be elevated across the board.  Could it be the extra wild card spot inspiring teams to try and get out to hot starts?  Whatever the reason, the competitive play can only be a good thing for the league and fans alike.

While we've established that we can't look too much into these early series, it was hard to watch Detroit over the last week and not be very impressed.  Detroit, from top to bottom, looks like one of the more complete teams in baseball.  Justin Verlander and Doug Fister (who was put on the 15-day DL) anchor the rotation, and Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera are in the middle of a potent lineup.  But a big difference at the start of this season has been the explosive start for young center fielder Austin Jackson.  Ravech has noticed some differences in Jackson's approach at the plate.

“Yeah he changed, we talked about it on Baseball Tonight. He changed his approach a little bit. His front leg is not nearly as pronounced when it comes to sort of stepping up and stepping into the ball. He doesn’t have a high leg kick or as high as it was before."

More impressive to Ravech than Jackson's hot start is how potentially challenging this Detroit lineup is from top to bottom.

“But I’ll say this. When you watch the series that Boston played against them, and I did a spring training game with them, Brendan Boesch hasn’t hit yet. He hits the ball further than Fielder and Cabrera do when he gets a hold of one. When you go through that lineup, and you’re dealing with the Peralta’s and the Laird’s and Avila's of the world, as soon as you get past them, providing they get on, as a pitcher you’re like, ‘Man, here we go again.’

"It seems like Fielder and Cabrera are up every inning, and Austin Jackson is getting on base at the clip he’s getting on. I think his OBP is like .650 this year and it was .300 last year. He’s obviously off to a red-hot start. But there is just relentlessness to that offense that makes every inning feel like you have got to go 1-2-3, or death is knocking at your door. The Rangers have been trying to do that to teams for years, but Detroit certainly has that lineup right now given their health.”

Early in the season, their lineup has been extremely potent.   They lead the American League in batting average (a sizzling .304) and runs scored (40) and are showing no signs of slowing down, especially if Jackson stays hot and Boesch joins the party.

The Tigers are clearly the class of the AL Central, but the rest of the division is in a bit of a transition period.  The Minnesota Twins aren't the consistently good team they have been in years past and look to be close to rebuilding.  The Indians made moves last year and could get in the picture if they stay healthy.  The White Sox are no sure thing either.  That leaves room for the Kansas City Royals, who have slowly been developing some great talent in the minor leagues.  Are the Royals ready to compete?  Ravech thinks so.

“It’s funny, the thing about the Royals and that extra wild card team is that if you assume that there are four good teams in the AL East, and they’re going to crush each other, and there are at least two really good teams in the AL West and two maybe really bad teams in the AL West in Seattle and Oakland, there’s a chance that Kansas City wins enough games to get in the conversation for that wild card position. I don’t think that they’re championship ready yet, but Duffy pitched really well Tuesday night and there’s obviously a heck of a lot of young talent. Hosmer could very well be an All-Star at first base in the American League, which basically says that you’re one of the top five or six players in Major League Baseball because every good first baseman is basically in the American League. He may be an All-Star.

“To me, that’s one of the possible surprises of this year, if the Royals compete for that extra wild card spot given the Central Division and the fact that the other divisions have teams that are going to hammer each other. I think that they’re competitive and that they have a chance to compete for a wild card spot."

Kansas City hasn't made the postseason since they won the World Series back in 1985.  The city deserves a competitive team, and this year's bunch might be able to give that to them.

"It would be cool, it’s a great baseball city, and it seems every time a city hosts and All-Star Weekend, the team is in it at the break. I certainly believe that the Royals will be in conversations at the break. Then it becomes what are they willing to trade for, part with, and spend.”

In the west, the two front runners made big moves this offseason. The Angels made the biggest splashes, signing Albert Pujols and then stealing away Texas starter C.J. Wilson.  Texas made moves of their own, bringing over Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish.  I asked Ravech about this "arms race" out west and which team came out on top. 

“I guess the way I’ve looked at it, and we’re early, but if Neftali Feliz pitches the way he did on Tuesday night, and Darvish who was obviously inconsistent and probably nervous, shows a little bit different than most Asian pitchers, Texas is loaded.

“Personally, I think Los Angeles is the best team out west. I think overall, their starting pitching is outstanding. I’m a little worried about their bullpen, but offensively I think that they can become the same relentless group that the Rangers and Tigers are. I love Scioscia, they’re going to run and they are going to be creative. To me, the Angels are a better team.

“But the arms race, whether it’s Wilson or Darvish, I think Feliz is kind of an x-factor guy because with the Angels you obviously know who’s starting. Feliz looked great Tuesday night, and if he can become that pitcher, then Texas really doesn’t lose much by adding Darvish and losing Wilson. That’s a plus for them. I guess the answer is, if I use Feliz, they won the arms race because they have a guy that can clearly do it and Wilson and Darvish are a push.”

I had never considered Feliz as part of the equation, but Ravech puts it in great context.  All of the pitchers involved are sort of wild cards because Wilson hasn't shown the consistency as a starter.  But if the arms pan out in Texas, combined with their lineup, this could finally be the year for the Rangers.

But if it isn't, Los Angeles will likely be the reason.  Adding Pujols to that lineup immediately bolsters it, and the rotation is terrific.  I asked Ravech who the most important player for the Angels is besides Pujols.

"I think [Kendrys] Morales is. The same way that Feliz is kind of returned and now can be a very good starter, Morales was as good a hitter as there was in baseball before he suffered that bizarre injury. I think his presence is going to be critically important. The Wells and Hunter thing, I’m not as overboard as others to think that they’re just done. I think they can be productive, and if not they certainly have enough guys coming that can develop. To me it’s Morales. He’s a tremendous power hitter. Trumbo had a great year last year, so they can just be an absolute force if they all stay healthy."

It looks like this will be a fun season in the American League, especially with more teams hopefully competing for playoff spots.   The early action has given us just a small taste of what's to come.

Let CHARGED.fm get you tickets to see the Boston Red Sox this season.

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