Friday, June 30, 2006

Sheets-Wood: A Rebuttal

Josh Flickinger

If you scroll down the page a piece, you will see my esteemed colleague Ben Godar profer the opinion that Ben Sheets has turned into Kerry Wood. While the injuries to the Milwaukee Brewers staff ace have been well documented, the statement that Sheets’ woes rival that of the fireballing righty from Chi-town are mistaken.

Sheets has missed 28 starts in his six seasons in the big leagues. In eight seasons, Kerry Wood has missed 87 starts. Comparing the two doesn’t do justice to Sheets, at least not yet.

Wood came into the league as a flat-out phenom. After being drafted fourth overall in the 1995 draft, Wood dominated the minor leagues, and made his debut at age 21. His rookie season was little short of spectacular, as he went 13-6 with 233 strikeouts in 166 innings. He garnered Rookie of the Year honors, had a 20-strikeout game against the Astros in just his fifth career start and helped lead the Cubs to their first playoff berth since 1989. It appeared as though a Cubs prospect had actually lived up to their considerable hype.

However, after the magical ’98 season, Wood was bitten by the injury bug. He missed all of the 1999 season after he suffered a ligament tear in his elbow. He came back in May of 2000, and made 23 starts and ended with an ERA of 4.80. The following year, he missed a month of action with shoulder tendonitis, but was solid overall, winning 12 of 18 decisions, and compiling a 3.36 ERA.

2002 and 2003 were the halcyon days of Wood’s career, at least in terms of durability. He didn’t miss a start in those two years, and averaged 212 IP and 241 strikeouts. Impressive to be sure. However, in the two-plus years since then, Wood has made only a total of 45 starts, with his next turn in the rotation being completely unknown.

The Ben Sheets story also began in the first round, as he was the 10th overall selection by the Brewers in 1999. Sheets also worked his way quickly through the minors, and lead team USA to Gold in a heroic performance against Cuba in the 2000 Summer Olympics.

After making two starts to begin the year in AAA, Sheets made his big league debut in April of ’01, and made 25 starts that year for the Brewers, winning nine games in the first half and securing a spot on the National League All-Star team.

For the next three years, Sheets didn’t miss a start, becoming one of the most dependable pitchers in the league. Over the course of those three years, he averaged 224 IP, and over 11 wins for three truly terrible teams. He was one of the top hurlers in the league in 2004, with a WHIP under 1, and a K rate of 10.3/9 IP.

He signed a huge four-year extension before the 2005 season, and missed 12 starts throughout the season. He had a freak incident with vestibular neuritis, an inner ear infection that sidelined him for two months. When he did pitch, an impressive 3.33 ERA was the result.

So far this season, Sheets missed two starts at the beginning of the season, as he was still rehabbing from a torn muscle in his shoulder suffered at the end of 2005. He came back and made one mediocre start, two terrific starts, and one start where he showed he had nothing left. Following that start, he went on the DL with shoulder tendonitis, and has been there ever since. Sheets is currently getting closer to his return, throwing to hitters in Milwaukee, and should return in about three weeks.

While he won’t be the cure to what ails the Brewers, his return would certainly help to stabilize the rotation. And when Ben Sheets is at the top of his game, there are few pitchers that are better.

A Pennant Race? What's that Like?

Josh Flickinger

As a long-suffering, and I mean that literally, fan of the Milwaukee Brewers, there are a few things that I've gotten used to. Dissapointing rookies. Underachevieng veterans. Disastrous free agent signings. The staff ace going 11-11. Stuff like that. This year, thanks to an improved team, and more acutely the general malaise that has fallen over the National League, just might be different. Don't look now, but the Brewers are riding their mediocrity straight into the thick of not only the Wild Card race, but the NL Central crown as well.

Most hardcore baseball fans can recall the last time the Brewers were in the World Series: 1982. They lost a terrific seven game series to the St. Louis Cardinals. What people may not realize is that 1982 was also the last year the Brewers were in post-season play. That's right, 24 years ago. Since then, the team had only a couple of years in which they were true contenders: 1992, when they finished four games behind eventual World Champion Toronto, and 1988 when they two games behind Boston. They had their first non-losing campaign since the aforementioned '92 season last year, when they finished even at 81-81. Hopes were high coming into '06, and a 5-0 start only further buoyed fans' expectations.

However, injuries to ace Ben Sheets and solid starter Tomo Ohka left the Brewers scrambling for spots in the rotation. The next guy in line was Rick Helling, a veteran who pitched great down the stretch last season. He went down as well, leaving the Crew to call up two young starters, both of whom fell flat on their face. The injuries and subsequent failures by the youngsters contributed greatly to an eight-game losing streak that left Milwaukee on the outside of the race looking in.

However, thanks to solid starts by rookies Zach Jackson and Carlos Villanueva, the Brewers have slowly but surely crept right back into the race. With the Cardinals, Reds, and about everyone else in the NL faltering, the team finds itself 3.5 games out of the Wild Card, and 4.5 out of first place. While catching the Cardinals is certainly not a reasonable expectation, staying squarely in the wild card fray shouldn't be out of the realm of possibility. The Brewers have Ohka headed out to his first rehab start on Sunday, and expect Sheets back in around a month. Barring a trade of John Smoltz, it would be quite a challenge to match Ben Sheets as a trading deadline acquisition, which is essentially what he would become.

While there are still questions surrounding the depth of the bullpen, the effectiveness of Sheets and Ohka upon their return, and how their many young players would respond to the pressure of the race, this is indeed an exciting time to be a Brewers fan.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Cardinals fans search for, press panic button

Ben Godar

Two nights ago, I listened long to KTRS, the flagship radio station of Your St. Louis Cardinals, as caller after caller voiced the kind of confusion and despair usually reserved for a Suicide Hotline. Redbird fans have been a pampered lot this millennium, so an 8-game losing streak looks vaguely like the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

But the weak of mind and spirit will always panic, and I'm not swayed by their reasoning. What staggered me were the callers and talk radiobuffoonss who believe nothing is wrong, Walt Jockety has it under control, we're in good hands. These people have truly drunk the red Kool-Aid.

KTRS post game goon John Hadley cut off every caller with criticisms of the team by solemnly repeating the mantra, "trust in Walt, trust in Walt"

I'll defend Cardinals fans every day of the week and twice on Sunday, but if we're guilty of one thing it's smugness. Chalk it up to the annual division title, great personnel moves and that tired "best fans in baseball" tag.

The point is, there's got to be some reasonable middle ground between hysteria and walking calmly off the cliff.

The biggest knock on the Cardinals coming into the season was that they didn't fill holes in left field and at second base. The biggest misconception about the team now is that those positions are the reason for the slide. A rotating cast of Hector Luna, Aaron Miles, John Rodriquez and So Taguchi is producing numbers right on-par with last year's regulars, Mark Grudzialanek and Reggie Sanders.

The biggest change I see in the Cardinals lineup is in Center Field and at Third Base. It's not that we haven't seen Jim Edmunds flailing at the plate before, but at age 36, hitting under .270 with only 7 homers, it looks like his career may have taken the steep decline. Rolen's skills haven't so much deteriorated as shifted. It's hard to criticize a guy hitting .343, but he's suddenly a guy who hits doubles instead of home runs.

During the Cards run of the last several years, that middle trio of Pujols, Rolen and Edmunds had power to rival the mouth-breathing mashers of the American League. Now, it's been reduced to an aging slugger, a contact hitter and the greatest player in baseball. Still, not too shabby.

Yes, the pitching's been abysmal the last few games. But pitching is more fickle than hitting. Jason Marquis is more capable of rattling off a series of quality starts than Jim Edmunds is capable of shaking off 15-years of crashing into the wall.

Part of me thinks these recent struggles aren't all bad. Cardinals fans are nothing if not loyal, but no doubt these last few years have brought some fair weather types into our ranks. If this thins them out, I say good. And we all have to keep this in perspective. Even after dropping eight straight, we're still talking about a first place team.

But after years of climbing the hill and not quite reaching the summit, it's getting harder to believe this will be the team to make it all the way to the top.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Good to see you again

Dr. Uetz

The celebratory mood in Boston last night must have been something to experience. Watching it on TV, I expelled a half chuckle. I slowed my attack on the cocktail in my hand and thought for a moment about 1986 and the appropriateness of Boston's choosing to honor them before game 1 of their series with the Mets (albeit a meaningless series, not like the 7 gamer twenty years ago). And as the game ended and the Red Sox faithful cheered and jeered, I couldn't help but smile. Because the Mets still won the 1986 World Series. Gary Carter still got his two out single. Ray Knight still skipped down the third base line. A boy named Paul Lo Duca jumped up and down on his bed as the Mets wrapped up the forgotten seventh game.

Yes they were all there last night - "Oil Can" Boyd, Wade Boggs, Jim Rice, Marty Barrett, Bruce Hurst, etc. etc. "We still know what happened," Hurst said. "We know how the whole thing ended."

So it seemed strange to me to celebrate before playing the team that stole your pixie dust and your dreams. They should have celebrated before playing the Yankees. Why the Mets?

But I'm glad they won. They needed it, at least Wade and Jim and Marty perhaps. Maybe it made them feel a little better. But it probably still falls short of getting Mookie out at first.

BTW, Mets are up 12. Cubs are 20 under .500. But only 2 more years and the Cubs can celebrate the 100th anniversary of their last World Series championship. That must feel good. Perhaps they can kick off the celebration by moving back to the West Side Grounds.

Here's to a speedy and full recovery

I just wanted to post a quick note to express well wishes for Peter Gammons, who suffered an aneurysm yesterday.

Even if he does often feed the misconception that there are only two teams that play professional baseball, Gammons is consistently one of the few voices of reason, knowledge, and journalistic commentary in the din of hyperbole-spewing ex-jocks and anchormen that is TV sports coverage.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The dark days of interleague play are upon us

Ed McElvain

Here we go again. Just when the weather is heating up, players have shaken off the rust or are proving to be a bust, position battles have been decided or platoons put in place, just as teams are settling into their grooves and baseball is in full swing and the standings start to mean something....thud.

Interleague play destroys the natural momentum of the season. It makes the All Star Game even more of a pointless lark and, worst of all, it tarnishes the shine on the World Series.

So, the Cardinals and the White Sox are facing off this week in what tells us could be a sneak peak at a possible World Series matchup. They should be good games, but you'll forgive me if I forget to "whoopdeedoo!" during this break in the action when teams could be playing against rivals from their own league in games that matter twice as much in the standings.

You know what would be fun, though? If the best team from the National League and the best team from the American league were to face each other without having had a "sneak peak," if two champions of their respective leagues were thrown into the arena to test their mettle against an unfamiliar opponent, an opponent that rose to the top without having even played against the same teams.

That would be exciting. That would lead to all kinds of speculation about which team was better based all sorts of apples-to-oranges know, the kind of thing that sports fans love. That's what made the World Series such a novel idea in 1903 when the upstart American League proved it was worthy of being considered a second major league. That's what could bring interest back to what used to be the most exciting series of the year for what used to be America's National Past Time.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

WBC and the World Cup

We all think of unemployment as a bad thing. Sure, having no cash and nothing to do makes for boring days. But I would have to say that I’m unemployed at the right time. That’s right, baseball fans, I’m watching the World Cup, and unlike most Americans, I have seen nearly every game. Most Americans are busy at work (and apparently Americans are the only ones in the world going to work this next month ), and while they commute to their jobs, I just commute to the living room.

So what does the World Cup have to do with baseball? Not much, since baseball players don’t fake injuries or flop around on the field as much as soccer players. (Well, except for this guy.) Soccer has given me something to watch other than the Local Losers play baseball, and has made me realize the beauty of international tournaments. Specifically for baseball, the World Baseball Classic, which was a good start in bringing a similar World Cup feel to baseball.

Can the WBC ever rise to the level of the World Cup? I highly doubt it. But it could use more support from fans, players, and team personnel. And it needs to change its format. Spring training is not the ideal time to have the tournament. While I’m skeptical of players and managers blaming slow regular season starts on the workloads during the WBC, it is a little weird having a major baseball tournament end about twelve hours after the official end of winter. So here are some suggestions, and things the WBC could learn from the world of soccer/football.

The WBC needs to happen in the middle of the season. This would make it better for players, who would be in prime condition, and better for fans, who would be more into baseball at that time of the year. Plus, attendance would be better due to the weather, and game locations could be all over the U.S. and other countries instead of just in warm-weather locations or indoor stadiums. Besides, isn’t baseball supposed to be a summer game?

Since baseball and soccer, unlike, say American football, do not require a week between games, the tournament could take place within a few weeks around the all-star break. Hell, if it requires getting rid of the All-Star Game (sacrilege!) I’m for it. Any “all-star” competition that had Lance Carter in the bullpen deserves to be moved out of the way for a much more exciting (and star-filled) tournament.

And the last thing—the players need to participate. This is another place where a soccer-type mentality comes in. All of the major soccer players participate in international competitions. Why can’t baseball players do the same? Hopefully, by the next WBC (2009), players will realize just what this competition is and what it means for The Game.

--And speaking of tournaments, watch out for the Owls. Hoot Hoot Hoot!

Friday, June 16, 2006

Fair Weather from the Northeast blows through AL Ballots

Ben Godar

The American League has been catering to mouth-breathers for some time, but the Junior Circuit may have reached a new low: Every player (save one) leading the AL All-Star ballot is either a Red Sock or a Yankee.

Sure, Jermaine Dye and Vernon Wells might be on-pace for 40 homers, but Johnny Damon is New Yorky! And Victor Martinez may be a superior baseball player, but Jason Varitek wears a "C" on his jersey and is on TV a lot!

Which brings me to another indictment: ESPN. Based in Bristol, Conn., the network is at the epicenter of the Yanks/Sox rivalry. Which seems to have convinced them that the rest of the country gives half a shit about these overpaid, underperforming teams. We don't. But over the last five years, I've seen national baseball coverage degenerate into a New York to Boston circle-jerk. Surely, an all BoYanks All-Star team would be a crowning achievement.

On the practical side, I don't mind seeing the AL put the worst team possible on the field. Maybe then the NL can win one of these damn things. But as a fan of The Game, it hurts me to see a fanbase so drunk on celebrity and hype.

I think there should be a minimum competency test required before a fan is allowed to vote. I'm not talking about answering obscure baseball trivia, just something along the lines of "name a player who retired more than two years ago." Or maybe, "name a team that isn't located in New York or Los Angeles."

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Ben Sheets is the new Kerry Wood

Ben Godar

I've spent a lot of time bagging on Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. One reason is that, as a Cardinals fan, I drink Cubs futility like sweet nectar. But it's not fair to single the Cubs out when there is another epic Bum just up the I-94 corridor. I'm talking, of course, about Ben Sheets.

Okay, Sheets isn't in the same league as Wood and Prior. At least, not yet. Wood and Prior have been ostensibly MIA since 2003. And since Prior came into the league in 2002, Sheets has logged 220 more innings - equal to one full season.

But like Chicago's dynamic duo, Sheets carries a reputation that far outweighs his production. He was healthy from 2002 through 2004, but '04 was the only season in which he logged 200+ innings and an ERA under 4.00. That's hardly the resume of a #1 starter.

This season, Sheets started only four games, lost three and posted an ERA north of 6.00. Then, in early May, he went onto the same nebulous disabled list Wood and Prior always seem to be on. No clear indication of what's wrong with Sheets, just that he hurts and doesn't know when it will get better. Hey Bucky, everybody hurts.

Brewers fans, we've seen this movie before in a city near you. Few things pull a team under faster than penciling in a supposed ace who just can't get it done. The Brewers have already used 25 different pitchers this season, and you still hear Homers saying it will all work out once Sheets returns. It's just like die-hard Cubs fans who still envision playoffs when Wood and Prior come back, as if that's ever going to happen.

When we've seen a player do great things, it's alluring to think that once they "get healthy" it will all be the same. But just like Shane, once these pitchers walk off into the sunset, they aren't coming back.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Fans 1, Game 0

Dr. Uetz
Baseball has changed a bit over the years. Okay, so call me Captain Obvious. But it's a role we all play from time to time. And that should be okay.

So the game has changed a bit, or the world of the game. And I know that all things change - ever hear of manufacturing jobs with pensions and benefits? - and baseball is not immune. But that doesn't mean I can't bitch about it.

As a fan of the National League (aka, THE League), I have a natural hatred of the designated hitter and a healthy distrust of anyone who claims to be a "true fan" and defends the DH. I agree with Crash Davis that their "ought to be a Constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf." (We've already covered the DH.) Even though it might be intriguing to have interleague play when it comes to the Cubs/White Sox, Mets/Yankees, etc, interleague play sucks balls. This weekend the Mets and the Orioles will meet. But they shouldn't. They met in 1969 via the only means they should ever meet, the f'ing World Series (I have Game 5 on tape if you want to come watch it - just bring a bottle of Maker's Mark).

The latest thing is fans voting for the All-Star rosters. Okay, I can see the fun in that. But are fans necessarily the most qualified? Is it really the best way to select All-Stars? It's debatable, at best. I love the game of baseball. I read box scores every morning (at least every morning the piece of crap Des Moines Register decides to actually print box scores). I discuss the game and its players with my friends. I try to educate myself on who's who and what's what. But I'll be the first one to tell you that I am not qualified to select the All-Star team.

And now it's gone even farther, with fans voting on Minor League Baseball's All-Stars. Seriously. I'm not kidding. Real quick, name 5 minor league players. Now quick, give me a reason they are All-Star worthy. How did you do? Exactly.

I'm all for getting fans involved. I'm all for trying new things. But baseball is not the Rubik's Cube of sports. It's America's game. It's a tradition. It's been around since before the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869(The Cincinnati Red Stockings went entirely pro the same year; that's 100 years before the Amazin' Mets took the O's in 5 games). And it will still be here after rail travel in America is nothing but a one day chapter in US History classes. Let's not cheapen it the way we have let corporations and television cheapen everything else that could be great about this country.