Category Archives: preseason

Predicting the 2012 Baseball Season, part 3

Predictions are a dime a dozen; for a wild and disparate collection of them, check ESPN’s roundup. Here are mine for the NL.

Miami
Philadelphia
Washington
Atlanta
New York

The NL East has had a clear marching order for the last several seasons, but all you really have to do to shake things up in baseball is wait for time to pass. In this instance, it’s time for the Marlins to combine some free-spending (on Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell, and Jose Reyes) and renewed commitment to fans, in the form of a new ballpark. Whether new manager Ozzie Guillen helps build a Latino fan base or infuriates players and customers alike remains to be seen, but the team taking the field includes an almost ideal mix of rising stars and proven talent with a little bit more to prove. This is a buy low-sell high pick.

It is age that will unseat the Phillies. The rotation remains formidable, and I have no trouble imagining 20 wins from either Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, but they need some runs to drape the W’s on. With Chase Utley and Ryan Howard struggling with injuries that defy return timetables, the lineup has guys like mighty Ty Wigginton in for placeholder duty. The full season may allow an offense to gel, but age and decline haunt nearly every Philly hitter now.

What would Nat Fever look like? Please don’t describe it in detail, but it might include a lot of enthusiasm for a rotation that could be remarkable. Imagine Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, and new acquisitions Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson all having great seasons at the same time. It’s not only possible, but likely. There’s less to be enthusiastic about on the offense, and Bryce Harper can’t fix all that on his own, if he’s called up at all. But Washington goes above .500 for the first time in the curly W era.

The Braves can curse all they like about the massive missed opportunity that was 2011. They not only fell during that amazing day when the season ended in a wave of upsets, they may have used up their bullpen getting as far as they did. But even if Craig Kimbrel and Johnny Venters aren’t plagued by the results of overwork, the rotation may show some cracks, staring with Tim Hudson missing much of April from injury. Atlanta’s fate may turn on Jason Heyward’s ability to bounce back from a sad sophomore season and Chipper Jones’ ability to rally himself, and his mates, to a fine finale for his long career.

They’ve moved in the fences at Citi Field, but that is not going to keep the Mets from sinking to the bottom of the NL East. David Wright, Lucas Duda, and Ike Davis may pound along, but don’t expect Johan Santana to come back from a lost season.

Cincinnati
St Louis
Milwaukee
Pittsburgh
Chicago
Houston

In this division, it’s a matter of the last man standing, since every team took some hits in the offseason—mostly from AL plunderings. Cincinnati has the best returning squad, which may even have learned a few lessons about overconfidence from last year’s finish. Joey Votto and Brandon Philips lead the offensive charge, while new arrival Mat Latos may click along with Johnny Cueto to handle defense. The loss of Ryan Madson in the bullpen could have serious repercussions, but recent baseball history is littered with surprise closers stepping up. Aroldis Chapman could be the next one.

It’s safe to bet against World Series winners repeating unless they happen to live in the Bronx. The Cardinals still have some solid offense post-Albert, but there are serious stamina questions about the rotation. I always admired Mike Matheny as a catcher steering a game, but I’m afraid St Louis has given him an impossible managerial job, spent in a season-long contrast with Tony LaRussa’s success. It’ll be too bad if Matheny is a pawn in a little “don’t blame me”/”what did you expect” experiment by the Cards top management.

The Brewers still have too much talent for the loss of Prince Fielder to deflate the balloon entirely. All eyes will be on Ryan Braun, who may be asked to pee into a cup by the fans when he rounds third base. I think we can all see a stats falloff coming. But the pitching crew features five double-digit winners, two of whom—Zack Greinke and Yovanni Gallardo—could easily top 20 this year.

The Pirates flirtation with first place last season was always described as a freak accident, but look again. This is a young, exciting team that seems to need some coaching and some goals to convert its raw talent into wins. But there’s also a good case for regression—not only is “fluke” possibly the best explanation for 2011, the addition of Erik Bedard and AJ Burnett does not look like the solution to the rotation’s numerous holes. Bedard has been tried in a host of contexts and the luster is wearing off (though I retain stubborn optimism about him); Burnett is most probably the wrong kind of diva for this squad.

Chicago gets a break this year. Instead of crushing fans’ hopes by ladling out the dollars for a ill-fitting group of costly free agents, the teams gets to call it a rebuilding year while Theo Epstein attempts a second big magic trick. Let’s step aside, give them time, and settle for a Starlin Castro bobblehead day.

When a team loses 100 games, they do so at an average rate of 17 a month. The Astros are a team fully equipped to lose at just such a clip. The only curiosity about this team is how bad they can be in their final turn as a member of the National League.

Colorado
San Francisco
Arizona
Los Angeles
San Diego

Let’s just allow for the usual wackiness in advance, shall we? The Rockies always sneak up on us, and this time I want to be ready. They have a powerhouse in Troy Tulowitski, a potential lefty gem in Drew Pomeranz, and what could be a bounce-back year for Carlos Gonzalez. Yes, there’s an oversupply of creaky veterans, almost as if the GM thought a mentoring program for the triple A squad was key to victory. This pick assumes a few implosions for the other teams in the division, but I’m standing behind it.

It’s a little scary how precisely San Francisco conducted its experiment concerning the value of Buster Posey. Add him in as a rookie, World Series win. Subtract him with a nasty leg fracture, nuthin’. As awesome as the rotation of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner may be, they didn’t get the job done without Posey. He’s added back into the mix this year, so we’ll now complete the next phase of Posey-testing.

Arizona might have seen the best season Ian Kennedy can produce in 2011, but the 21-game winner and the other worthies in the rotation will keep the Diamondbacks in the race. The problem? Counting on Justin Upton to be responsible for nearly all the offense.

Clayton Kershaw may be just the kind of pitcher to match his gorgeous 2011 (a sub-one WHIP, 21 wins, and a Cy Young). Then again, it’s a tall order. And he’ll need Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier to contribute enough runs, which perhaps deserves 50-50 odds. Shaking off Frank McCourt’s ownership drama may alone be worth 10 wins. But the Dodgers have demonstrated a firm ability to resist seeing themselves as a cohesive team.

San Diego fans, brace yourselves for another season at the bottom of the standings. This time, you can lean back and watch Cameron Maybin grow.

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Predicting the 2012 Baseball Season, part 2

Here’s my kindling for the fire—how they’re finish and a few words about why. I’ve got no great pedigree as a pickster, but it’s not really about getting it right, is it? It’s about having an opinion and enough preconceptions to rouse you to hone your counterarguments. Today, the American League; tomorrow the National.

Tampa Bay
Yankees
Toronto
Red Sox
Baltimore

The Rays are a neatly balanced team, with power, speed, and a great pitching rotation. David Price, James Shields, and Jeremy Hellickson should combine for 50 wins, and if rookie Matt Moore meets expectations, Tampa Bay can capture the East for the low, low price of a $62 million payroll, or about a third of what New York will spend.

The Yankees are too old to be inevitable this season. The addition of pitchers Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda improve the rotation over last season, but the inevitable ageing of the offense will make the summer feel very long. Yes, I’ve heard about Derek Jeter sprinting to first base in spring training, in terrific condition, but every All-Star on this team is over 30—well, Robinson Cano only turns 30 in October. That’s during playoffs, which will not last past the Sudden Death phase of the wild card for the Yankees this year.

I see Toronto mashing and smashing behind proven Jose Bautista and unproven but promising Brett Lawrie. Their pitching pretty much begins and ends with Rickey Romero and Brandon Morrow, plus the potential of Henderson Alvarez, but there are a lot of RBI in those bats.

The Red Sox could spring right back up after the managerial and GM changes, but I’m not sure that the zombie trance of September will be so easily expunged. The Sox haven’t looked like a cohesive team in several years. They’re a great collection of talent, but you never sense they want to win anything, even with Dustin Pedroia contorting in personal agony through every at-bat.

Finally, the Orioles continue to shuffle pitchers in and out while fans (at best) wring their hands about the untapped potential of Nick Markakis and, now, Matt Wieters. They don’t make nearly enough wild card slots for a team like this.

Detroit
Kansas City
Cleveland
Minnesota
Chicago

It’s tempting to buck the bandwagon and ask whether bringing in Prince Fielder might be oversolving a problem. There are plenty of busts in the history of “sure thing” acquisitions, Adrian Gonzalez notwithstanding. And in this case, Detroit must make room for his majesty by shifting Miguel Cabrera to third, with backfire potential rippling through the lineup. But in the end, the remarkable and well-conditioned Justin Verlander could well come close to last year’s stunning stats (those 24 wins were based on a 0.92 WHIP), while the lineup can do every form of baseball damage to opposing pitchers. Case closed for the top o’ the AL Central.

Kansas City is replete with little-known players equipped with soon-to-be-known talent. Their future starts this year. The heartbreak of losing catching prospect Salvador Perez to injury will be offset by the second year exploits of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas.

Last season, Cleveland refused to match expectations. They outplayed ’em at the beginning of the year, then fell far short when the trades that were supposed to yield a playoff push went awry. The main acquisition, Ubaldo Jimenez, proceeded to have nothing in common with the 19-game winner he was in 2010 for the Rockies. Hard to know which season was the aberration for Jimenez, but it’s easy to imagine a breakout year for catcher Carlos Santana and a return to form for Shin-Soo Choo. But what this team needs is the madcap hope and fervor they showed through last July.

Baseball fortunes change quickly. The Twins will spend 38% of their 2012 payroll on Joe Mauer, a noble soul who can hit a lot of singles for a catcher but who won’t be playing catcher all that often, and Justin Morneau, a spectacular player whose career was cruelly cut short by a concussion in 2010. Morneau is going to try again to shake off injuries and lingering concussion symptoms, but it’s looking like a long shot. Worse, he and Mauer aren’t surrounded by much of a team after trades gutted the roster. Fans could spend the entire season actively missing Delmon Young, Michael Cuddyer, and Jason Kubel.

Sorry, Chicago. Sorry, bold managerial choice Robin Ventura. Adam Dunn is not going to become a glorious AL hitter, and Paul Konerko can’t keep carrying this team on his back.

Los Angeles
Texas
Oakland
Seattle

The Angels are insatiable shoppers but somehow come off more lovable than the Yankees do on their spending sprees. Owner Arte Moreno is keen to plant butts in seats, and his attraction this season is the incomparable Albert Pujols. There’s no point in fishing for superlatives; Pujols will perform and he joins a way-above-average squad.

Which means Texas’ brief reign will end after two straight World Series losses. New potential ace Yu Darvish might help the rotation gel, but it’s not clear that Neftali Feliz will make the transition from bullpen to starter. Every source of power in the lineup is susceptible to age, and this team could easily drop to third place.

Each year I turn with curiosity to see what Oakland has assembled. This season they’ve gambled some real dollars on a high-risk/high-reward player in Yoenis Cespedes. He comes from Cuba to join the usual gang of oddballs, castoffs, and diamonds-in-the-rough which will include Manny Ramirez for at least a few weeks of the season.

The suspense surrounding the Mariners runs along the lines of, Exactly how bad will they be? A few years ago, they tried a Moneyball variant in trying to field their way to a championship. Well, Franklin Gutierrez remains impeccable in the outfield and there are other fine glovemen on the team, but nary a .300 hitter. And the defensive prowess only helped Felix Hernandez to 14 wins. Now that the Yankees have abducted Michael Pineda, who formed a 1-2 punch with Hernandez, there’s little to fear from Seattle.

Predicting the 2012 Baseball Season, part 1

The impulse to predict has two sides to it, one arguably inimical and the other thoroughly benign. The dark side of prediction is foreclosing on the event itself by outrunning it—trying to have something to say about it that elevates the speaker above the participants. Because we are otherwise dwarfed by those with baseball talents, we preempt them by reducing their exploits to a story we can tell without them.

So a fair bit of the baseball appreciations we read in March are all about the ability of the author to reduce 2,430 games and thousands of at-bats to a plot that satisfies certain emotional and analytical assessments. They are not so much about the games to come as about lodging an I-told-you-so with the earliest postmark.

The sweeter side of predicting is the plain old inability to refrain from doing so. Because the preseason is the last time of pure hope, we can collect our evidence to argue for the basis of a long whoop of joy to come in October. With a little care about scouring up some of the nutty precedents that do dot our game, we can make a convincing case.

The desire to do so is not only to hunt hard for all the good omens, but to imagine. This is both a powerful, creative act and quite a rewarding one—what if . . . what if! And finally there is the happiness of looking, dispassionately or otherwise, at all 30 teams, savoring their prospects.

The folks who try hardest to predict with accuracy are still stuck using some pretty feeble facts. We have this year’s lineups, last year’s stats, and vivid ideas about the rookies. With fantasy baseball beckoning us all toward the assembly of an idealized roster, it’s no wonder that the Tigers look like a lock in the AL Central, and the Phillies’ pitching rotation appears impregnable. Don’t get me started about the Yankees. Look long enough at the lineups and you will quickly be reduced to an almost surreal certainty about where the pennants will be flown.

But these case-closed reviews of rosters are the product of last year’s stats. Highly informative, but not in the least predictive. Will the Royals’ Eric Hosmer build on a .293/.334/.465 debut, with 19 homers over 128 games? I watched him raptly last season and you can sign me up for the fan club. He’s composed, possessed of a solid stroke, and he’s playing for a team that hasn’t felt pressure—playoff or otherwise—since 1995.

From what I saw, he’s more likely to have his first (of many) years over .300 than a sophomore slump. It’s a good story, the facts at hand back it up, and any look at the guy shows you he’s loose enough to enjoy the game and focused enough to park quite a few balls past the left-field fence. But there is a but, and it could be injury, a mechanical flaw that surfaces under the heat of expectations, or the wild wear and tear that is a long season in a team sport. The default position? It’s impossible to know.

If Hosmer is hard to peg, how about Bryce Harper? We don’t even know when, or if, he’ll crack the lineup, but he is one of the most mouth-watering rookies walking in from the mists of the minors. There is a plausible scenario in which he’s called up in June, galvanizes the team, whacks the cover off the ball, successfully completes the career-prolonging transition from catcher to outfield, and has the Nationals doing their first actual damage in the NL East.

There is also an equally likely story in which Harper darts in and out of focus for a few September games, and melts under the X-Ray eyes of big league pitchers. But then again, which story is more interesting to believe?

You can play this game all night, and it really amounts to putting the spinner on every player whose fate fascinates you. It only gets interesting when you rub your chin especially hard and find it impossible to accept that, say, Albert Pujols is going to descend to some ugly, new plateau with an Angels’ A on his hat. It’s just so unreasonable! Possible, yes, but King Albert’s trajectory just doesn’t seem to admit of mediocrity. Not age, not a switch to AL pitching, not a brand new team and manager can displace Pujols from each season’s best-of lists. That is how it seems, now.

And it may be how it will be, but predicting is not knowing. The pleasure of prophesying is the immersion in both possibility and sheer admiration for the players themselves. What I use to project happy outcomes for Hosmer and Pujols is the wonderful memories I already have. Imagining the future is, ultimately, relishing your memory.

That’s what it means to make predictions for yourself, but the predictions worth reading need to educate and provoke. You can develop them from mathematical models, with a solid pedigree, as Bruce Bukiet of the New Jersey Institute of Technology does. (The two biggest surprises for 2012: he projects Boston to hang 4 games back of the Yankees and no one else to make a peep in the AL East; he shows Arizona claiming the NL West, but Philly, St Louis, Detroit, and Texas all repeating. The model has its reasons, which reason knows not of.)

You can toss them off, breathlessly punching out best case/worst case storylines, as ESPN’s on-air pundits or fast-paced websites do. It’s quite arresting to watch them wrestle stats and player personalities into submission. This tends to result in bouncing ‘round the room pairs like this one from Baseball America on the Mariners:

Best-Case Scenario: C Jesus Montero and 1B Justin Smoak show why Seattle traded Michael Pineda and Cliff Lee to get them, and they team with 2B Dustin Ackley to form the heart of a productive lineup.

Worst-Case Scenario: The offense remains a laughingstock and finishes last in the league in scoring for a fourth straight year.

In the end, I really can’t wrap my mind around either eventuality, though only the worst case has a real ring of truth. This is proof that the best-worst axis is not always a winning skewer for barbequing up the truth.

You can confine yourself to predicting player performance for the fantasy baseball world, which incidentally allows readers to link the data to the actual teams that employ the players. But the meat of the matter is intelligently combining statistics, performance factors like park effects, and mathematical or mental insights about the arc of a player’s career. Among those sharing their ideas without a fee, Matthew Berry, billed as The Talented Mr Roto, has a look at fantasy drafting on ESPN.com.

Finally, you can just mouth off, as I intend to do, and scores of others will in blogs and Bleacher Report and Sports Illustrated. On April 1st, I will try to convince you of the wisdom of my picks. Tonight, I am enjoying the process of extrapolating from what I learned watching baseball unfold in 2011. Maybe I’ll see the future; the only thing I’m sure of is that I’ll be looking through the lens of the past.

[game 72] Wild Pitch

The Twins started a 9-game road trip tonight, in which they face three of the most dominant teams in the Midwest: the Brewers, Cardinals, and Royals. Milwaukee is now a single game behind the Cardinals in the NL Central, and they have the bonus regional rivalry incentive to foil the Twins. They also have the memory of being swept in their 3 game series at the Metrodome in May to fuel them.

The Brewers generally aim to win by mashing. Prince Fielder is the obvious slugger, but Ryan Braun, Mike Cameron, and Corey Hart are a pure power outfield, and infielders JJ Hardy and Rickie Weeks can clobber too. Weeks is out on the DL, so I see Casey McGehee at second base. I am braced for a Brew Crew wrecking ball.

We have Francisco Liriano on the mound, and I have officially reached the stage of assuming the worst. Liriano still shows flashes of talent and he may yet come to fulfill the promise of his rookie year, but I expect he won’t flower until he has a new season, new team, or new pitching coach.

With Denard Span still on the DL, Ron Gardenhire has shuffled the lineup back to a more conventional order. Instead of moving up Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau into second and third, he has them at three and four. Carlos Gomez leads off, followed by Brendan Harris. Both Gomez and Harris have sleepy batting averages, though they have been improving lately. In other words, I have yet another reason to fear the worst.

So I start the game like one of those desperate fans who can only bear to watch his team by drenching himself in cynicism. This is not, I assure you, my usual mode. I just want to root and enjoy the exploits of my squad. But there’s something about nearly three months of staying stuck at .500 or below that’s wearing me down. A win tonight and we’re back at .500; a loss and we’re two games below.

The Brewers start Jeff Suppan. I don’t have long to stay gloomy or guarded—Gomez leads off with a hit. It’s a little dunk job, spooned into center off the very end of the bat. A lucky Texas Leaguer is all, but Gomez is making contact. He had some similar hit-lets in the Cubs series over the weekend, and perhaps he’s got himself a little hitting plan. Go, Gomez.

Suppan settles down to get two outs, but Mauer makes his out count by advancing Gomez to second. The Brewers then get all careful with Morneau. When he won’t nibble outside the strike zone, Suppan finishes him off with an intentional walk.

Michael Cuddyer is up. And Suppan strikes him out. He does indeed—Cuddyer flails at the pitch. But it’s a wild pitch that catcher Jason Kendall can’t grab and lets roll far to the backstop. By the grace of baseball, Cuddyer has the right to run to first and try to beat the throw, which he does handily.

Two outs, bases loaded, but the inning should be over. Joe Crede cracks a double to center—a far more authoritative hit than Gomez’s little poke—and three runs score. Two hits, three runs, poor Suppan. But happy Twins.

Liriano lets Brewers leak onto the bases every inning, but holds them to 3 runs over 5 innings. After allowing two runs in the first, Liriano has a rocky second inning, highlighted by a hit from pitcher Suppan. Suppan will score from first on a double from McGehee, but the following two hitting thoughtfully prolong the inning to allow their pitcher some rest on the bench.

Suppan also has all his trouble in the first three innings. After the tragic wild pitch the prolonged the first, he faces Gomez again in the second. With two out, Gomez doubles to center. His hitting style is all elbows and knees, but when you wind up this elastic young player, sometimes he spins. Harris follows him with an RBI single.

In the top of the third, the Twins take advantage of another Brewer failing. With one out, Cuddyer singles. We’re in classic double play territory, and Suppan tries to coax one from Crede. It’s picture perfect, right at the shortstop, but Hardy can’t close his glove cleanly around it and the balls flops onto the infield dirt. Cuddy and Crede are safe.

Delmon Young seizes his opportunity and uncorks a double, scoring Cuddy and moving Crede to third. And now we have a little scene that can pretty much only unfold in a National League park. I hope Nick Punto keeps a good souvenir from this game, because our ultra-light-hitting second baseman is intentionally walked.

This masterwork is designed to fill the bases with Liriano coming to the plate. A fine strategy if you can get the pitcher to oblige with the wobbly groundball that ends the inning in a double play. Not so perfect if Liriano follows orders and stays wooden at the plate, accepting a strike three call.

This leaves it all up to Gomez, who is having a bright night. The Brewers have seen him single and double, and really should be fearing him by now. Over the weekend, the Cubs were showing him some respect as Gomez starts solving all his hitting woes by visiting the National League.

Now, I know Gomez well. I know that he needs to be reminded there are two outs. I know that bunting is still his strong suit, and it won’t avail him here. I know that going 3-for-3 is nearly out of the question.

Well, snap—doesn’t he wheel the end of the bat around just in time to slap another hit to center? His sloppy single scores two, and puts the Twins up 7-3.

That’s where they stay. For the next six innings, both teams stay off the scoreboard, though baserunners scratch and peck from time to time. The Twins trot out three relievers. Luis Ayala has been released, so we see steadfast RA Dickey handle the sixth and seventh, and Matt Guerrier resolve the eighth.

Joe Nathan doesn’t add any suspense to close the game. Though the Brewers have the best part of the order up, Prince Fielder sends the second pitch he sees to shallow left, and Corey Hart and Mike Cameron strike out. Twins win.

The victory is legitimate in all baseball respects, but it hinges entirely on two mistakes from the Brewers that have outsize consequences. The wild pitch that Kendall couldn’t corral opens the door to three runs, and a missed double play leads to another three.

Baseball, perhaps more than other sports, lends itself to imaginary reconstructions. If Kendall had made the throw to first in time to make good on Suppan’s strikeout, would the Brewers have won the game? And don’t even begin to rebuild games by correcting missed double plays. Bill Lee still relives the missed DP in the World Series against the Reds, as do all Red Sox fans. Because baseball plays are such defined little increments, we like to add and subtract them to imagine different outcomes.

It’s not always intellectually sound, but it’s how we experience the game. And some what ifs aren’t small speculations—everyone knows what would have happened if Bill Buckner had fielded that ball that dribbled between his ankles. Tonight, we can’t subtract the two Brewer blunders, but we know this win rested on them.

The Real Thing

In a bittersweet ritual, I just bought two fantasy baseball magazines while in New York this week. Without a broadband connection, I can no longer have a fantasy team, but now it seems I am fantasizing about fantasy. How tissue-thin can this get?

Still, I enjoy imagining picking my players and creating the perfect team. As I’ve learned through losing (and sometimes winning!) fantasy contests, my version of perfection isn’t precisely mainstream. I have trouble whipping up sufficient enthusiasm for monochromatic sluggers. I’m just not too interested in Adam Dunn and Matt Holliday launching another long ball. Even Josh Hamilton’s story isn’t remarkable enough to counterbalance the tedium of at-bats that consist of a homer or not. So my fantasy teams have always been, shall we say, a tad unbalanced.

I miss constructing a team and tussling through the draft to make it come true, but it’s possible that life without broadband is shielding me from the dark consequences of fantasy baseball. When I first ventured in, I had trouble initially disconnecting myself from rooting for a team and investing myself exclusively in individuals. Soon enough, though, I was swept up in wanting Brad Radke to pitch one more ill-advised inning in pursuit of the additional points, or hoping Edgardo Alfonzo would get batted in from second. I craved stats and only stats, and often couldn’t tell you which team won or lost, only that Fernando Tatis hit a double.

Without a fantasy team, I have to go back to the real thing—actual teams that invariably have glaring weak spots. The Twins have a goodly number of them this year. The third base sinkhole is distressing, and hope as I might that Brian Buscher and Brendan Harris will somehow congeal into a single useable player, I know our batting order is going to be eerily quiet for long stretches. The Twins have quite a few players that wouldn’t even be reserves on fantasy teams, and the urgent wish for pleasant surprises may be especially futile this season.

Last year, we had several novelty factors. Would Delmon Young reclaim his titanic potential? (Um, nope.) Will Carlos Gomez make up for the Santana trade, as the only item of visible value obtained from the Mets? (Actually, kind of—he was a ton of fun to watch as he slowly acquired various life lessons about how to conduct a big-league at-bat and the all-too-real limits of bunting skills.) And can this new guy, Denard Span, replace the injured Michael Cuddyer? (Well, if you don’t mind little more than decent second baseman contact stats from your right fielder, this is your guy, but he does show nice clutch potential.)

Last season featured a fairly large overhaul of the lineup, but now we’re looking at sophomores and vets at nearly every spot. Curiosity remains, because many players are poised to advance their careers or watch them fizzle. Alexi Casilla, for example, might evolve into an excellent second baseman. Or he might sputter and stall. And the entire starting pitching crew consists of players twitching with some upside but little proof they can harness it. Some will, but to what degree?

So this will be reality baseball: if Mauer is injured, the reserve is the doughty but statistically meaningless Mike Redmond. If Morneau has one of those long RBI-less stretches, I won’t be slotting in Mark Teixeira to replace him. And I’ll be sticking with all the pitchers as they fall and rise and tire and strengthen. There will be inexplicable gusts of bad luck and good, but the team will all wear one uniform and sit in one dugout. I might wish I could have run them and made some trades, but instead I will be their fan and nothing more. I still like saying it: Twins win.

Why the Minnesota Twins?

Why the Twins, I hope you ask. It’s a purely aesthetic rooting decision, really. The Twins have no geographical claim on me, but they are one of five or six small market teams that have been forced to be resourceful with a puny payroll. Of course, it’s only puny by comparison with the otherworldly levels of compensation for those who strive for the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, and Dodgers, but in baseball, the gap between what’s called rich and poor is acute.

Most every year, the Twins are forced to dispatch two or three great players to the rich, hungry teams that harvest Minnesota’s superior player development system. From the 2007 roster we had to give up major jewels: Johan Santana and Torii Hunter. The 2008 team hasn’t lost anyone of significance, but should one of our promising pitchers actually bloom, he’ll be plucked at free agent time. That magical, delicate moment when a small-market team has just enough top players to win the World Series before free agency sets in hasn’t quite happened for the Twins.

Right now, the team is pulled by two opposing forces. They’ve signed their mightiest men, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Joe Nathan, to deals that will keep them in place for the first few years after the new stadium opens in 2010. They have real (and costly) anchors in the lineup. At the other extreme, they’re forced to churn up odd-lot third basemen from various discount centers, and the dugout is home to plenty of third-tier journeymen. For the Twins, fielding a full squad is a bit of a strain. We have exciting young talent bubbling up in the form of Carlos Gomez and Denard Span, but both enter their sophomore year in 2009 and there’s no telling how they’ll do. We’ll need another crop of rookies to make up for our desultory hunt for a real-deal infield.

I am a true fan, which means I have disproportionate affection for the scrappy, hard-working Nick Punto at short. I cheer for Brendan Harris and Delmon Young. I forgive them, well, everything. But the harsh truth is that many of the Twins pitchers and hitters will not be lured away by big money from the Red Sox because they aren’t quite worth it. These are our baseball players, though, and we have to root as hard for Kevin Slowey as those Yankee fans will for CC Sabathia.

So, I root for the Twins because I root for baseball craft. They (usually) can’t win by overpowering the other team with an individual pitching or hitting performance. They have to win as a team. They need to sprinkle baserunners around, salt in some hits and steals, and score them one by one more often than in grand slam bunches. The pitchers need to labor away inning by inning, from starter to mid-reliever to closer, and if it’s working right, the other team doesn’t quite know why they haven’t scored enough runs.

I root for the Twins because most of the players appear to lack the towering ego and sense of entitlement that either precedes or immediately follows a big salary. I root because there is this faint possibility that these men really like playing baseball and find a pretty challenge right in doing so, not in keeping financial score. And I root because I want my heart right out there, capable of being broken, yet always ready for joy.