18 October 2005

King Albert

With Eckstein and Edmonds batting, it was as though two servants were clearing the way for the king- giving themselves up, bypassing smaller glory so that the Big Man could stride to the plate, zero in, flick his wrists and everyone could shut up and watch- staggering power both physically and emotionally jarring loose from those wrists, through his arms and onto his bat, taking a pitch delivered by one of the premier pitchers of his generation and thinking nothing more of it than "crush," or "obliterate," or more importantly, "win." Albert Pujols is royalty among other baseball men, someone those who follow the game so religiously should make their idol- DO make their idol.

What a remarkable game- well pitched on both sides, including specifically strong starts from Chris Carpenter and Andy Pettitte. After holding on a 2-1 St. Louis lead into the 7th, Carpenter allowed two base runners before ceding a remarkable opposite-field HR to Lance Berkman, a shot that allowed the Houston crowd- one that's never witnessed an NL pennant- to begin to believe "it" would happen. With a 2 run lead, FOX began the Last Rites on St. Louis' season in the 9th with the brilliant Brad Lidge on the mound- FOX player of the game, Lance Berkman (John Rodriguez strikes out swinging); Busch Stadium has seen it's last game, as the placed will be torn down at the end of the Cardinal run (John Mabry is blown away by a fastball); shots of Drayton McLane pumping his fists with expectation (Eckstein has a seeing-eye 2 out single); closeups of Craig Biggio, 18 year old veteran, waiting quietly (Edmonds walks on five pitches).

Then slowly, like nothing was happening, He strode to the plate. Flipping his bat like it was meant to be, taking what was probably Lidge's flattest slider in years and hitting it 500+ feet, smashing it remarkably high off the back wall of the stadium, just south of where the Minute Maid Park toy train rides back and forth all year. From thunderous death knells on the Cardinal season from the Astros faithful not 5 minutes earlier- what broadcaster Thom Brennaman called "the loudest park in major league baseball-" to painful, disbelieving silence- the kind that must be common at executions or in the moments right after a terrible mass transit crash. Maybe one or two people moan without control or reservation- but the rest can only sit and watch because no noise can express what is being felt, no sound can register the disbelief, or the pain, or even (a little) the shame. Moments removed from a child-like emotional investment that happens few times in life, the rug was yanked, the loyalty almost mocked.

And there went Albert, like he expected it of himself, like this was what he did, and this is what he does. Maybe an extra slow step of admiration- but maybe ten people in this game's history have hit HRs that extraordinary, and that meaningful, and watching it should be the least of his spoils. He is even humble- offering only a faint, knowing smile to John Mabry (after saying what was likely something on the order of "you're like our savior!") after the game's final, victorious out.

What an absolute giant of a human being.

Every year I pick a National League team, and by the middle of the year, I've pretty much forgotten who it was, and I just watch Met games.

Well, not this year Jack. I've decided to really apply myself, and to actively follow and chronicle my NL team this year along with the Red Sox (understanding I won't hang on every W/L like I do Boston's). The team I'm picking? My 2006 sleeper MLB team... the Milwaukee Brewers.

GM Doug Melvin has done an absolutely fantastic job. Taking a look at their roster, their youth obviously jumps out at you. The best part? Take a look at their pitching staff- the two oldest players on it Doug and Kane Davis (no relation) are... drumroll... THIRTY! Everyone else is in their 20s! And, as it happens, pretty good. Consider the rotation:

BEN SHEETS________26______3.33_____156.2___141_____1.07______8.10____5.64
DOUG DAVIS________29______3.84_____222.2___208_____1.29______8.41____2.24
CHRIS CAPUANO_____26______3.99_____219.0___176_____1.38______7.23____1.93
TOMOKAZU OHKA_____29______4.35_____126.1____81_____1.35______4.89____1.78
VICTOR SANTOS_____28______4.57_____141.2____89_____1.50______5.65____1.48

Now, a couple of notes- first, Santos chose (much like Mark Bellhorn), to become a free agent instead of report to Triple-A. This leaves open the possibility of Gary Glover starting, or Milwaukee could bring in a free agent- someone like, maybe, Brett Tomko- to bottom up their rotation. Also, these numbers from Ohka are in his Milwaukee games only. Tomo can give you 200 IP, and is, ahem, a former Red Sox (he was the centerpiece of the Oogie Urbina deal in '01).

Now, that said, with the exception of Sheets, the major issue with the staff is control. Doug Davis got by on his K/BB ratio by striking a ton of guys out, which is OK, but 90+ BBs is a recipe for a lot of lopsided losses. Same goes for Capuano, who walked a ton but didn't strike out as many.

Other than that, however, this looks like a good rotation- young at the top (Sheets/ Capuano/ Davis), Ohka adds depth (if a somewhat troubling K rate) and there's chance for improvement. Of course, Sheets looks to be a better bet in 2006 with the inner ear-infection that ate so many of his starts behind him. He turned in another stellar year in limited time, however.

The lineup is solid, and looks better moving forward- Rickie Weeks, at 22, showed definite leaps forward, and while a 727 OPS isn't what he'll settle for in years to come, for now, at 2B, it's actually quite productive. Arguably the most promising aspect of the Brewer roster is it's depth and flexibility. Because of Junior Spivey and Bill Hall, Milwaukee is able to let JJ Hardy struggle at SS with someone to back him him, give Weeks days off, and still have an effective platoon at 3B with Russell Branyan. Spivey has since been traded, but now Weeks is likely less in need of time off, and so you have three players (Hall, Branyan and Hardy) able to cycle effectively through 2 positions.

Geoff Jenkins was solid once again in RF, leading the team in OPS+ (131), hitting 25 HR and playing really good defense. Carlos Lee was a great story early on, but unfortunately he tanked hard in the second half, and will obviously have to avoid that going forward. That being said, Lee is the perfect guy for Milwaukee- a big strong corner OF with lots of power that can take a lot of the pressure for production off the young hitters. In essence, they're a huge part of the team, but they're not carrying it.

The brightest spots, to me, for Milwaukee are the 1B situation and Brady Clark in CF. Right now, the Brewers have the luxury of Lyle Overbay (816 OPS, 113 OPS+) as a fixture at 1B, with Prince Fielder in the wings. They can stick with the 28 year old Overbay and trade Fielder for pitching, or they can gamble with the upside of the 21 year old Fielder, and trade Overbay for, well, some young pitching. It's a great spot to be in.

Brady Clark meanwhile, played gold glove defense, had great plate discipline, and showed some decent power. One of the older starters, Clark is a fairly sure bet for a decent OBP, and if you can get anything resembling a 450 SLG from him, you have a really, really valuable player for rather cheap. Add to that Damian Miller- a veteran catcher who is very strong defensively and, as seen here, can hit above replacement level for catchers, you have a strong core of young guys and a few veterans for depth.

The bullpen is full of young power arms, including of course Derek Turnbow, Matt Wise and old friend Jorge de la Rosa.

Speaking of de la Rosa... let's take a look at that Sexson trade that Melvin completed before the 2004 season:

ARZ gets:
Richie Sexson, 1B
Shane Nance, RHP
Noochie Varner

MIL gets:
Chris Capuano, SP
Lyle Overbay, 1B
Craig Counsell, IF
Junior Spivey, 2B
Chad Moeller, C
Jorge de la Rosa, LHP

Arizona got Sexson for 90 ABs before he signed with Seattle, and Milwaukee turned Spivey into Tomo Ohka, their 4th starter. Capuano is their number 3, Lyle Overbay their starting 1B, and Chad Moeller their backup catcher. Counsell signed back with Arizona via free agency prior to 2005.

That's a fleecing, straight up.

So, it's settled- I'm picking Milwaukee as my NL team for 2006, I'll update their transactions/ progress, and I'll wear my 1982 Brewers Cooperstown hat a little more often too. This should be fun. Also, I'm predicting a 20+ HR season from Rickie Weeks with a SLG over 470. Breakout time for the kid.

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