August 11, 2012

MLB '12 Dread News

I waited a little later in the season than usual to do my report this year because I wanted to be sure I wasn't seeing a mirage. When I checked the standings at the All-Star break (which is the time I've done this report in previous seasons) listed among the teams leading their divisions were the Pittsburgh Pirates (huh?), the Chicago White Sox (what?), and the Washington Nationals (you cannot be serious!) - and it was kind of hard to believe. It's now four weeks later and I'm thinking that maybe this is not a mirage. Maybe all three really are going to finish in 1st place. Indeed the first 4 months of MLB 2012 have been very enjoyable - even though the number of players with dreads has dwindled to a precious few. But there's plenty of time (2 more months) for things to take a turn for the worse, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed. It'd be nice to see some October baseball featuring some times I like for a change.

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PARTY LIKE IT'S 1994

Remember the episode of the old TV show Dragnet where Gannon (the character played by Harry Morgan) got dealt the best pinochle hand he'd ever had but then never got the chance to play it because the game kept being interrupted and eventually had to be called off? Well, for someone whose favorite teams in each league were the White Sox and the Montreal Expos, 1994 left me with the exact same helpless feeling that Gannon had that night on Dragnet. Ah yes, 1994, the last time the White Sox and Expos/Nationals were both in 1st place this late in the season. It was at about this time in August in '94 that the players went on strike. And with neither they nor the owners particularly interested in coming to an agreement quickly, the rest of the season was cancelled, with the World Series not being played for only the second time in baseball history.

To this day I still feel the pain. Because 1994 was the year both the White Sox and Expos arguably had their best teams ever. And although the Yankees, Indians, and Braves were formidable obstacles, the White Sox and Expos were the favorites to meet in the World Series. In case you have forgotten, allow me to refresh your memory. Through 113 games in 1994 Frank Thomas already had 38 HR and 101 RBI; and Julio Franco, playing his only season in a White Sox uniform at the young age of 35, already had 20 HR and 98 RBI (totals that ended up being his career highs). The Sox were in 1st place in the AL Central at 67-46 when play came to a halt, were 4th in the AL in runs scored, and led the league with a 3.98 team ERA. Over in the NL, led by stars such as Larry Walker, Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom, and a 22-year old pitcher by the name of Pedro Martinez, the Expos were rolling toward the East Division crown, in fact pulling away from the mighty Atlanta Braves. A 20-3 tear had boosted their record to a MLB best 74-40, moving them from 2 games behind to 6 games in front of the Braves. They had just completed a 6-1 road trip and were set to begin what would have been their best-attended homestand in many years.

When the strike began I figured the two sides would get an agreement done in time because they always had done so in previous work stoppages. When the announcement came in mid-September that the season was over, I wasn't real angry, just tremendously disappointed. The White Sox would go on to provide my lifetime best MLB highlight 11 years later when they won the 2005 World Series. But for the Expos, that strike was like a knife in the back. The franchise suffered a slow, painful demise, culminating with it having to be relocated to Washington in 2005. I've always wondered what would have happened if the Expos had gone on to win the World Series in '94. I believe a championship would have been the impetus to get a (desperately needed) new stadium built, allowing the team to stay in Montreal. But we'll never know, will we?

Maybe now, 18 years later, we'll finally get that White Sox-Expos World Series, if it'll be played in Washington and not Montreal. The 2012 editions of the White Sox and Nationals aren't anywhere close to the juggernauts they were in '94; but they've gotten the job done so far. I mean, I never thought I'd see the day that the Nationals, who btw have never had a winning season since moving to DC, would be 18 games ahead of the Phillies. Wow. I'm still not yet ready to bet that the Sox and Nats will face each other this October. But who knows, maybe it'll be their year.

MVP? AND CY YOUNG TOO?

If it's not going to be a White Sox-Nationals World Series, then of course my next choice would be to see some dreads in the Series. And there are several possibilities, not the least of which are a couple of players on teams in the NL Central. Last year we got the chance to see Rickie Weeks in the playoffs with Milwaukee. This year the NL Central's other two dreadheads are playing starring roles in an effort to get their teams into the playoffs. Hopefully they'll both make it.

In Cincinnati ..... after missing almost two months of the 2011 season, P Johnny Cueto has been able to avoid the injury bug so far and has been the ace of the Reds' staff. No, he was not picked for the All-Star Game, but that was only because NL manager Tony LaRussa, responsible for choosing the team's pitching staff, decided to get his revenge on Cueto for his involvement in that crazy brawl between the Reds and Cardinals a couple of years ago by not picking him. But make no mistake, Johnny is and continues to be one of the better starting pitchers in MLB. He has slumped a bit lately but still has a very respectable 2.58 ERA, 3rd best in the NL. But what I really like about his numbers is the W-L record: 14-6. The 14 wins, already his career high, have put him in the middle of the race for the NL Cy Young Award. But to win it, he'll need to break out of a slump that has seen his ERA rise from 2.23 to 2.58 in his last three games. 

Johnny Cueto has been much better under the sun than under the lights, going 9-0 with a 1.72 ERA in day games.

As you can see, Cueto has added some color to his dreads, getting the tips dyed about a month ago. And as you can also see, those dreads are getting kind of long. Of course I'm all for letting your dreads grow as long as possible; but it's different when you're on the mound and have to throw 100+ pitches every game. You constantly have to worry about keeping your cap on and keeping your dreads out of your face. Johnny has managed to do it OK so far. But if those dreads keep getting longer .... I don't know. Hopefully he'll be able to continue to let them grow. but I wouldn't be surprised if he has to get them cut a bit shorter (just a bit).

In addition to having our first Cy Young winner with dreads, we also could have our first league MVP with dreads. That's because CF Andrew McCutchen has got it going on this season for the Pirates. I still remember McCutchen's first game after being called up to the Pirates in June 2009. He singled and scored his first time up in the bottom of the 1st and ended up scoring 3 runs for the day. After seeing that first impression, you knew he had a chance to be a very good player. But I had no idea he was capable of doing what he's done so far in 2012. I mean, he's just 25 years old and hasn't yet reached his prime, but we may be witnessing his career year right now. A ridiculous hot streak in July, which boosted his BA to as high as .374, not only moved him into serious contention for MVP honors, it also had me thinking about a possible triple crown (which hasn't been done in MLB in 45 years). But as we all know Cutch will never win the triple crown because he's not really a home run hitter. So it wasn't surprising when he finally cooled off and dropped off the pace in HR and RBI. But his BA is still setting the pace, currently standing at .365. Prior to this season the highest average McCutchen had in any full season was the .310 he hit in his first pro season in 2005, when he played 58 games in the rookie league and Class A. He's never hit over .300 since coming to the majors; so this season is a big time pleasant surprise, and I'm enjoying every moment of it.

Andrew McCutchen: .365 BA, .425 OBA, 78 runs, 22 doubles, 5 triples, 23 HR, 69 RBI, 14 SB

Although the personal numbers are nice, the numbers McCutchen really care about are the wins. And the Pirates, 63-49 at this point, seem certain to finally end their horrible streak of 19 consecutive losing season and might even be playoff bound. Like Cueto, Andrew added some color to his dreads too, getting the tips dyed during the offseason. Those dreads are the longest in baseball, but unfortunately we never get a good look at them anymore because he plays every game with them bunched together into a ponytail. But I'm not complaining because they look a lot better than they would if he were to get them reduced (like Manny Ramirez did).

PRINCE AND JUNIOR

Another player with dreads we might see in the playoffs (hopefully not!) is 28 year old Detroit Tigers 1B Prince Fielder. Now I'd like to say that the dreads make a difference. But honestly, the Prince Fielder playing his first season with dreads is pretty much the same dangerous hitter as the Prince Fielder who didn't have dreads for most of his 7 seasons in Milwaukee. When Fielder left the Brewers as a free agent at the end of last season and signed with Detroit, the Tigers instantly became one of the favorites to win the World Series, which would be their first title since 1984. Of course, since the Tigers are in the same division as the White Sox, I'm finding it impossible to enjoy watching Prince help the Tigers win. But I'm dealing with it. At 5-11 and 275 pounds, Prince can hit ball just as far as his father, Cecil, did when he was starring for the Tigers in the 1990's (twice leading the AL in home runs). But along with the power, Prince is a better hitter for average than his dad and is on pace for a career high BA. He continues to be an RBI machine (never finishing with fewer than 81 and topping 100 in four of the last five seasons), but I have to say that it must be nice to come up to bat with men on base almost every time. After batting behind Ryan Braun during most of his time in Milwaukee, Prince now follows Miguel Cabrera, one of baseball's best hitters, in the Tigers' lineup.  

Prince Fielder: .315 BA, .400 OBA, 63 runs,23 doubles, 1 triple, 20 HR, 84 RBI

Eric Young, Jr. stands about the same height as Fielder but weighs nearly 100 pounds less. So not surprisingly he's all about speed. And that speed was on display in the top of the 8th on Opening Night in Houston when he entered the game as a pinch runner and came around to score to go-ahead run without the next batter even putting the ball in play, helping the Rockies win 5-3. Click on the link to see how he did it:

http://mlb.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?content_id=20411621&c_id=mlb ..... After seeing that I was thinking that, damn, Eric doesn't even need to bat; he can be an asset to the team exclusively as a runner. Of course, there haven't been many more moments like that for Young. The Rockies' pitching has been so lousy that the team usually needs more than just one run during the late innings of their games. Supposedly not a good enough hitter to break into the starting lineup, EY has spent most of 2012 as a pinch hitter - and hasn't done too badly at all in that role. However, in just the last 10 days or so, with the injuries starting to pile up, Young has been starting - and had 8 hits in a 3-game series at Dodger Stadium. So maybe this is the start of something. At this point, with the Rockies already out of playoff contention, Eric should be starting every game for the rest of the season. The Rockies might find out he can be much more than just a sparkplug coming off the bench. I mean, if he ever becomes a consistent, above average hitter, he can make himself a very dangerous leadoff man. 

Eric Young: .292 BA, .362 OBA, 29 runs, 4 doubles, 2 triples, 2 HR, 9 RBI, 12 SB

Just like Fielder, EY is also the son of a former MLB player. And Eric occasionally gets to be on the field at the same time as his dad because Eric Sr. is the 3rd base coach for the Diamondbacks. Eric, Sr., who hit a leadoff HR for the Rockies in their first game in franchise history on Opening Day in 1993, played 15 MLB seasons. I can hardly wait to see what Eric Jr.'s dreads will look like if he can hang around as long as his father did.

WEEKS OF MISERY

I suppose the lowest point came near the end of May, when Brewers 2B Rickie Weeks' BA had plummeted to .152, while at the same time Athletics 2B Jemile Weeks was struggling just to keep his BA from falling below .200. Indeed the 2012 season has included more than a few weeks of misery for the Weeks brothers. In my report last year I mentioned something about wanting to see both of them in the same All-Star Game. But neither one has resembled anything close to an All-Star so far this season. 

Rickie went from Apr. 18 until June 1 without getting more than 1 hit in a game, an astonishing 'feat' for someone with his talent. His average stayed below .200 from Apr. 29 all the way until July 8. Ouch! Jemile has been a bit better (but only a bit) but his BA hasn't climbed higher than .229 all season, and he did not have his first 3-hit game until July 28. Of course, things haven't been all bad. They both draw enough walks to keep their OBA better than .300; and although neither is a Bill Mazeroski out there, they both certainly are more than adequate defensively. But I was hoping for more. And no doubt they both were too. Some have claimed that the Rickie's woes are the result of a slow recovery from that nasty ankle injury he suffered about a year ago. And that may be true, because he has been coming on strong lately, presumably as his ankle gets healthier. But even if he does finish strong, it's too late now. The Brewers are already out of the playoff race. The A's have been very patient with Jemile, hoping (against hope?) that he'll regain the form of his rookie season in 2011, when he batted .303. But after a red-hot July suddenly has the team in contention for the playoffs, the games are more important now. Jemile better step it up or he might be stepping out of the starting lineup.

Rickie Weeks: .218 BA, .330 OBA, 49 runs, 24 doubles, 2 triples, 12 HR, 39 RBI, 7 SB

Rickie's dreads have grown long enough that, like Andrew McCutchen, he bunches them into a ponytail. Jemile, on the other hand, still (and this might be the last season he does) has his dreads loose.

Jemile Weeks (sliding into 3rd on May 20 for one of his AL-leading 8 triples): .221 BA, .305 OBA, 50 runs, 13 doubles, 2 HR, 18 RBI, 14 SB

YOU ARE NOW FREE TO GROW YOUR HAIR

It was the trade that made everybody happy. The Florida Marlins - players, staff, and fans - were glad to see him go. And Hanley Ramirez was glad to go. You've heard the expression, 'don't let the door hit you on your way out.' Well, that was no issue here because Hanley couldn't get out the door fast enough. I'm not going to lie - Hanley Ramirez is a prima donna (you might want to use an adjective harsher than that, and you'd still be accurate). He's also a very talented player; so you keep hoping that at some point he'll get it. But the Marlins finally got tired of waiting and tired enough of his act to trade him, with the last straw coming about a month ago when he injured his hand while punching a cooling fan in the dugout and then let the hand get infected when he didn't bother to take the medication prescribed to treat it.

Actually I think the Marlins brought this upon themselves. If you recall, Hanley showed up with beginner dreads for spring training in 2009. But then after letting him keep the dreads throughout March, all of a sudden the team decided they would have a no dreads policy - to be in effect once the regular season began. Being the baby he is and being used to getting his way all the time, Hanley was furious. And I believe it was then that the Marlins 'lost' him. Or at least began to lose him. After finally playing his way off the team three years later, Hanley is now with the Dodgers. And now that he has escaped the Marlins, no doubt you'll see a better effort and better performance. There's no no dreads policy in LA, where you might remember someone else by the name of Ramirez had fans wearing dreadlock wigs a couple of years back. So don't be surprised if Hanley brings back the dreads in time for next season. In fact, I'll be disappointed if he doesn't.

Hanley Ramirez signs autographs before an exhibition game in 2009, before he was ordered to cut off his dreads. Now that he's no longer with the Marlins, we'll soon find out if still interested in having dreads.

7/8

Dread power? ...... It was July 8, a Sunday afternoon, the last day before the All-Star break. MLB's official home run derby was scheduled for the next evening in Kansas City. But on this day MLB's dreadheads staged their own version of home run derby. Prince Fielder hit a 3-run HR in Detroit. Andrew McCutchen hit a pair of 2-run shots in Pittsburgh. Then Rickie Weeks chipped in with a solo HR at Houston. And then I could hardly believe my eyes when Eric Young of all people hit a HR in Washington (his first HR since 2009!). After EY went deep, I was like Vince Lombardi: "What the hell's going on out here?!" And then I thought, OK, so who's going to hit a grand slam (you know, to complete the HR cycle)? Jemile Weeks? No way Johhny Cueto!? Never in a million years. Well, as luck would have it, Rickie Weeks did come to the plate with the bases loaded in the top of the 10th. No doubt he was satisfied with an RBI single to increase the Brewers' lead to 5-3. But damn, I wanted that grand slam bad.  

I haven't been keeping track, but July 8 probably has been the highlight of the season for one day. Fielder's HR helped the Tigers defeat the Royals 7-1. McCutchen's two blasts came in a 13-2 rout of the Giants. Young's long ball in the 8th began the Rockies' comeback from a 3-1 deficit in their 4-3 win over the Nats. Rickie Weeks went 3 for 5 with the 2 RBI in the 5-3 win over the Astros. Jemile Weeks went 2 for 4 with 2 walks and scored the winning run in the bottom of the 13th as the A's defeated Seattle 2-1. And Cueto picked up his 10th win of the season in a 4-2 win at San Diego. Nice!

Andrew McCutchen likes the view of his 418-foot HR to right-center during 1st inning. He would hit another 2-run shot in the 7th.

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After his 3-run shot on July 8, Prince Fielder shows off his dreads as he takes a swing during the official Home Run Derby the next night in Kansas City. Prince won the competition with a total of 28 home runs.

EX-DREADS/NEW DREADS

I usually save the best for last, but not this time. There are now only 6 players with dreads currently on MLB rosters. And that's because four times in the last 14 months I've had to add a name to the ex-dread list. I've already written about the demise of Edinson Volquez's and Jose Reyes' dreads. I was eagerly awaiting for Michael Martinez to recover from the broken foot he suffered during spring training. But when he finally made his 2012 debut with the Phillies in early June, the dreads were gone. While the decision by Martinez to lose his dreads made me sad, what happened to Darnell McDonald made me downright mad. McDonald finally ran out of time. And as a result, so did his dreads. For the last two seasons McDonald had held a tenuous spot on the Red Sox roster. That is, the main reason he was on the team was due to a seemingly endless string of injuries to the Red Sox' other outfielders. You knew that at some point everybody would finally get healthy. But I had hoped that by the time we got to that point that Darnell would have played well enough to at least make the Red Sox think twice before letting him go. Darnell had every opportunity to secure a roster spot but sadly just did not get the job done often enough. He was released on June 30, and to make matters worse, he was then claimed off waivers by the Yankees. You know, the you-can't have-long-hair-if-you're-gonna-wear-our-uniform Yankees. Now, the Yankees didn't really need McDonald. And you knew they weren't going to keep him for long, so why bother signing him at all? Hell, they probably got him just to make him cut off his dreads. After playing in all of 4 games for the Yankees, he was sent to the minors. Sorry about that D-Mack. Your dreads deserved a better fate.

Darnell McDonald's dreads were just starting to get to a decent length, but those damn Yankees put an end to that.

Not much is happening on the new dreads front. Of the four possibilities I mentioned in dread gallery #124, only one has begun growing dreads. Jason Heyward and Jose Arredondo have shown no signs of starting dreads. In fact, Arredondo has gone back to short har. Neftali Feliz wants to do something with his hair; but it might not be dreads. During one of the few times I've seen him since he went on the disabled list in May, he had his hair in braids with beads on the ends of them. I'm still holding out hope for dreads. But whatever Feliz does, we won't know until next season because he has undergone elbow surgery and will not be able to pitch until sometime in 2013. After at first having his hair braided at the beginning of the season, Emmanuel Burriss quickly changed over to beginner dreads. But after seeing regular playing time in April and May, he spent most of June and July on the bench and is now playing in the minors. Hopefully he'll be back in the majors next season, and maybe by then his dreads will be long enough that we'll be able to see them.

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