Building Trends… Ten Year Baseball Outlooks Are Relevant

Matthew Cerrone linked my post, the True State of I-95 Baseball, on metsblog.com.  There were a couple of comments on that site that got my attention.  They thought looking ten years ahead was, quite frankly, getting ahead of myself.  Perhaps forecasting to 2021 is a little pie-in-the-sky crazy.  But in the context of looking at success and failure, sports pundits and bloggers tend to judge by the decade.  Ten years may seem like an eternity but this isn’t football, baseball careers and each club’s rebuilding efforts are far longer in scale.  A decade in baseball is equivalent to five years in football.  The myth of competitive balance in baseball and the reality of parity in football illustrates that predicting the pigskin ten years from now is largely impossible while prognosticating the cowhide is easier.

Yankee Playoff Drought: Yes, It Is Possible.

I believe I may offended a Yankee fan or two when I suggested that there could be peril once Jeter retires or leaves.  The objective evidence says that could be the case.  George Steinbrenner was will to pay up the nose for talent in the 2000s.  That strategy kept the Yankees playoff-worthy but resulted in just one championship after the 2000 season.  The Boss’s sons are now in control, Cashman’s ability has been stymied and let’s face it, the every Yankee is a year older.  It’s not hard to see the writing on the wall: Changes are coming to the Bronx.

I know what this is though.  The high and mighty Yankees fans are getting restless.  They tried to hold on in the mid-60s too as they watched Mantle disintegrate.  Building a team takes more than talent.  Chemistry is important and with the Core Four Three aging rapidly, the days of 1996 look like a millenium ago, not 15 years.  Wait, but I thought looking ten years out was ludicrous but that is how Yankee fans judge their dynastic success.  Isn’t it?

Since the Mantle era ended, the Yankees have had two significant, decade-long playoff droughts, from 1965-1975 and from 1982-1993 (I’ll give you 1994 as a playoff year despite the strike).  When CBS ran the Yankees, they were terrible and it wasn’t until Steinbrenner bought the team in 1973 that their fortunes began to turn.  And Mattingly’s time was equally disappointing, where the Yankees could never reach baseball’s pinnacle, nor win the division.  This is a precarious time for the Bombers.  Cashman’s influence is obviously waning.  The Steinbrenner boys are asserting themselves differently as their father would.  Transitions are messy.  If it occurs while the team’s players are aging and their skills deteriorating, then that could be a disaster.

Phillies and Red Sox: Dynasties in Waiting?

If injury doesn’t strike at the heart of Philadelphia’s starting rotation, they will be good for quite a while.  Maddox, Glavine and Smoltz were together for quite a while, and although they won a single title, they prospered.  Fifteen years worth of October baseball says something about historic rotations.  The Phillies can make a similar statement with their current core.I cannot say for certain that Philly will continue seeing success a decade from now.  This rotation will not exist ten years from now.  In my estimation, the Phillies organization intends on contending for the foreseeable future.  I’m not necessarily saying the Phils will make the playoffs every season for a decade but I expect their core group to keep them relevant for some time.

The Phillies today, are similar to the Yankees of the late ’90s.  They are generally the consensus favorites to win the National League each season.  Who would displace them?  The NL East has huge question marks, even the resurgent Braves (who have a new manager this year – see how that pans out).  Pujols may hold the key to where the NL’s power base will be the next five years, if he stays in the Senior Circuit.  Without question, despite the Giants winning, Philadelphia, with that starting five, will dominate for a time and could retool with whatever pieces leave over the next ten years.

The Red Sox are naturally tied exclusively to the Yankees.  Any Bronx loss is New England’s gain and vice versa.  If there are revolutionary-type changes in New York, Boston will benefit.  But let’s not forget, management matters.  The Red Sox have been skillful at evolving since 2004.  After 86 years of championship futility, Boston has solidified its AL East position.  Their front office staff was able to reestablish its footing after many pieces of the 2004 team left.  Three years later, they won again with new players.  The Sox are at it again, buying new talent in their prime.  They are now the favorites in the American League again.

Establishing a dynasty may be an outlandish concept for a team that was once “cursed.”  It’s not out of the realm of possibility.  Tell me New Englanders, could you have ever imagined the Pats in that situation pre-Brady?  Of course not.  The Patriots were dreadful, with two notable exceptions.  If the Yankees falter, the Red Sox will fill that void entirely.  The Rays, now depleted of their past talent, are a joke without a new ballpark.  Toronto has made a continuous effort but has never had enough to break the 90-win mark since 1993 (the second of two consecutive title seasons).  And we’ll get to the Orioles later.

The Yankees and Red Sox are in a symbiotic relationship.  What happens to one affects the other.  Whichever team doesn’t embrace new ideas and evolve within their own division will not win.  There are numerous questions where Ruth once hit, but there are strong signs of success where he own pitched.

Mets: Distraction to Danger to Disaster

David Wright commented that the Madoff stuff will be a distraction.  How much of a distraction depends on how well the Mets play?  If they play badly, every other question from reporters will be whether the lawsuit and ownership problems are the causes.  Ownership issues can destroy franchises.  Financial meltdowns have caused long-term damage to teams.  The McCourt divorce in Los Angeles makes the Dodgers situation look like a short-term blip compared to the Mets mess.  There won’t be many prospective buyers, especially for a minority share, if it appears to those buyers that Mets ownership is financially crippled or completely incompetent.  This lawsuit could drag on for years if the Wilpons dig in.

December 2011: Say, taking an example from before, Albert Pujols doesn’t sign an extension and becomes a free agent.  Concurrently, the Madoff lawsuit is in a holding pattern but it looks like the Wilpons are predicting a marginal victory for them.  So they throw a ten-year, $300M contract at him.  He accepts and becomes the Mets starting 1B.  Meanwhile, his numbers, over the next few years, begin a steady decline.  Reyes has left, leaving a gaping hole at short.  Beltran’s quad (and his curveball looking) follows.  Johan, who sat out half of 2011, also suffers from Pedro-like injuries and doesn’t perform like he did in Minnesota.  David Wright, protecting Pujols, performs well but with no one around him, the Mets finish around .500, again and again.

Meanwhile, the Wilpons miscalculate their advantage and lose the suit completely.  They appeal but hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake.  They dig in even more but drastically cut back.  In the meantime, they have a huge payroll and nothing good is happening.  After years of appeals, they finally lose the suit.  They are forced to sell the team at a reduced rate because of the constant negative press and awful ball play.  The year is 2017.  That’s how fast a bad situation goes from distraction to danger to disaster.

After watching the Mets my entire life, I can say for certain that this hypothetical scenario could occur.  It is a worst-case scenario but a realistic one.  Mets ownership and its front office have shown they are incredibly inept.  If circumstances in Flushing spiral out of control, the Amazins could be looking forward to a decade of despair.

Orioles: Stopping the St. Louis Browns Redux

I constantly say that Baltimore’s management cannot use the Yankees and Red Sox as scapegoats for its awful performance the past decade.  And blaming Jeffrey Maier isn’t going to fly either.  The Orioles front office has made horrible moves and gutted its farm system.  Two major prospects remain, and Zach Britton is the only one close to playing at Camden Yards.  But there are signs of life in Baltimore.

Last year, Showalter came to town.  They are signing free agents, putting together a “competitive” team.  Vlad Guerrero just signed a one-year, $8M contract.  Andy MacPhail is trying to change the culture.  Hiring a skipper that can mesh the vets and rooks definitely made waves.  Buck Showalter is a managerial genius and gets guys to play ball his way.  The Orioles will make tremendous strides in 2011 and into 2012.  The team, as currently constructed, should aim for 82 wins.  The Orioles were 34-23 after Showalter arrived.  If Baltimore can find its footing in the AL East, they could compete for a wild card a few years down the road.

Baltimore should look west, mirroring the acts of Midwest success stories like Minnesota.  A decade removed from contraction rumors, the Twins have since succeeded year in, year out.  Now, they have a new ball park.  So much for being wiped off the face of baseball.  MacPhail is trying to emulate the Twins in certain ways, even getting J.J. Hardy from there.

The Orioles had a winning tradition.  If MacPhail and Showalter can maintain what they have started, it could be a fun decade in Maryland.  They have a gorgeous park and a hungry fan base.  If the Ravens and the other 31 NFL teams are sitting at home this September, it would be worth it for the Orioles to profit from the Ravens absence and win some fans back.  From my angle, I have a hard time seeing them sustain this, even if the Yankees tank.  But I will reserve judgement on them another year.

Washington: First in War, First in Peace, Last in the American National League

Thank God for the Pirates.  Sorry, Pittsburgh.  Our nation’s capital’s baseball team, for some reason, has never flourished.  The first version of the Senators won just one World Series and three pennants in sixty seasons.  The second version, from 1961 to 1971, did absolutely nothing, having one winning season, finishing 23 games behind 109-win Baltimore in 1969.  This DC version has been equally dreadful (except its first year) as they finished with 90-plus losses four of the last five years.

Ownership and management are making strides to improve the club.  Unfortunately, those efforts have been thwarted by bad luck, or minor league pitching coaches not protecting a major asset.  Yes, I’m talking Strasburg.  What possible good comes of him sitting out 2011?  None.  He won’t be 100 percent in 2012 so the Nats won’t reap the rewards of the kid until 2013.  By then, Bryce Harper will be hitting monster round-trippers and all will be well at the old Navy Yard.

The Nationals and Orioles have the same problem.  They are bottom-dwelling teams looking to distinguish themselves as alternatives to powerful franchises.  Baltimore has Boston and New York.  Washington has Philadelphia.  Additionally, they need to pass other teams in the process of at least making the wild card.  The Nats need to compete with the Braves, Marlins and Mets.  The Braves were a 91-win ward card team, the Marlins will have a new park next year and well, the Mets are the Mets.  It seems to me, the Nats need to beat the bad karma of being Washington’s baseball club before they can be a factor in NL East.  Paradoxically, good karma comes with winning.

Caveat: Baseball Divisions Could Look Completely Different in a Decade

I believe Major League Baseball needs a major shakeup.  Although I will hate it, it will be a reality this decade, probably before its end.  Baseball is unsustainable with a few teams having a legitimate chance to win.  Certain divisions are not competitive, others are full of horrible teams.  Sports has become regionalized and will thrive that way.  If baseball’s owners decide to radically realign the league, the paths of all six of these teams will change considerably.  If the Red Sox, Mets, Phillies, Yankees end up in the same division, what a bloodbath it will be.

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