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Baseball 2006 preview, Part Six

Keith Olbermann blogs: “Thank goodness for Barry Bonds. You heard me.”

April 13, 2006 | 10:15 a.m. ET

What I did on my spring non-vacation, or: Baseball 2006 preview, Part Six (Keith Olbermann)

NEW YORK - Thank goodness for Barry Bonds.

You heard me.

Face it, were it not for the race-against-time (“which will give way first? Aaron’s record? The Mitchell Committee’s Mandate? Barry’s knees? Barry’s alibis? Barry’s ability to summon tears on cue for television?”), what would we have to watch in the National League West? Four teams desperately struggling to earn the right to get swept in the N.L. Division Series again - possibly without scoring a run?

It’s pretty pathetic there. The Padres might be able to watch 6’10” righty Michael Young or ex-Devil Ray Dewon Brazelton turn into a star. Dodgers’ fragile newcomers Sandy Alomar, Nomar Garciaparra, and Kenny Lofton could combine with Eric Gagne, J.D. Drew and other veterans to exhaust trainer Stan Johnston. The Giants can boast of five outfielders so ancient that, when he turns 32 in June, Randy Winn will still be the baby of the group. And the interchangeable Diamondbacks and Rockies have, as usual, produced an entire team of can’t-miss-prospects to replace last season’s entire team of can’t miss-prospects (out with Vazquez, in with Vizcaino; out with Jamey Wright; in with Jaime Cerda), and between them return exactly two pitchers who won more than eight games for them last year.

The division is so sour (although the Dodgers could be significantly better than the rest, and if first baseman James Loney, catcher Russell Martin, and outfielder Andre Ethier emerge this year or next, they may develop a mini-dynasty) that it is almost worth exploring if four of its members couldn’t swap places with two-thirds of the N.L. Central, thus allowing the Brewers and Astros to fight it out in that grouping, and the Cardinals and Cubs to try to keep Cincinnati and Pittsburgh at bay in the West.

None of the 2006 N.L. West teams would even be a bona fide Wild Card contender in any other configuration. It’s startling-- nearly as startling as a possible outcome to the Bonds drama that we never considered: the prospect that his first week's goose egg in the homer department would project out to leaving Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron untouched on the all-time home run list. If Bonds' power drain were to get worse, in fact, he might have to give a lot of his homers back -- a perfect solution to the conundrum of what to do with his tainted totals.

The N.L. West (acknowledging it doesn’t much matter, and one trade or injury could make or break any of these teams): Padres, Dodgers, Giants, Diamondbacks, Rockies.

N.L. MVP: Ryan Howard, Philadelphia (unless you want to take the easy choice of Albert Pujols). Cy Young Winner: Chris Capuano, Milwaukee (safety: Andy Pettitte, Houston). Rookie Of The Year: actually, this’ll be a better race than the N.L. West: Fielder of Milwaukee; Zimmerman of Washington; Hermida, Jacobs, Ramirez and Willingham of Florida - go with the safety, Jeremy Hermida.

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April 12, 2006 | 11:24 a.m. ET

What I did on my spring non-vacation, or: Baseball 2006 preview, Part Five (Keith Olbermann)

NEW YORK - It has finally come to this. Mike Maddux will have a greater influence on the National League pennant race, than will his kid brother Greg.

That’s right: Greg - the guy with 319 career wins, still going strong with the Cubs - and Mike, who pitched for 21 different teams and only once won more than five games in a big league season.

Mike happens to be the pitching coach for the Milwaukee Brewers, and if he gets every drop of the pitching staff that he, manager Ned Yost, and GM Doug Melvin have assembled, the Brewers’ unexpected fast start will be no April Fool’s - it’ll be a N.L. Central title. And don’t accuse me of front-running here: I made this prediction on radio last Tuesday (and picked Maddux’s prize student, lefty Chris Capuano, to win or share the N.L. Cy Young Award).

Much like the resurgent Tigers, the Brewers will need a few other breaks. Youngsters like Cecil Fielder’s kid Prince, and second baseman Rickie Weeks will have to prove their major league mettle, and closer Derrick Turnbow will have to prove himself more than a one-year wonder. But the Brewers’ rotation might be deeper than anybody else’s in the division (Capuano, Doug Davis, Tomo Ohka, Dave Bush, Jose Capellan, and, whenever he’s healthy, Ben Sheets). Bush and Ohka - two talented righthanders who have yet to blossom - are the keys, and Maddux’s prime responsibility.

The idea that the Cardinals are going to walk away with this division is a classic example of standing too close to the trees. MVP Albert Pujols, plus Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter, and the return of Scott Rolen - how can you beat that? Easily. Though Mark Mulder and Jeff Suppan follow Carpenter in the rotation, you move quickly into Sidney Ponson territory. And the line-up, save for Pujols, Rolen, and the aging Jim Edmonds, has taken some significant steps backward from last year. Aaron Miles and Hector Luna at second instead of Mark Grudzielanek? Juan Encarnacion, Skip Schumaker, So Taguchi, and (whenever he returns) Larry Bigbie, replacing Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders in the outfield? The vaunted Cardinal offense boils down to two stars, one guy nearing twilight, and five very ordinary others.

The Astros show a similar uncertainty in the rotation. Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte can be spectacular (Pettitte was my other Cy Young pick), but the absence of Roger Clemens forces Phil Garner to use Brandon Backe and Wandy Rodriguez in some very big games - and the results may not be pretty. One can only speculate as to the long-term effects of Brad Lidge’s post-season nightmares on his status as the league’s top closer. And despite the potency of the offense, as the World Series showed, it can be halted. Only some return to form of new acquisition Preston Wilson - who talked and fielded his way out of Florida, Colorado, and Washington in a hurry - might change the dynamic.

The Cubs’ top hope appears to be some sort of cleaning out of Karma that dictates the Red Sox, White Sox, and Wrigleymen end their World Series pathos in consecutive seasons. With Mark Prior and Kerry Wood slowly moving into being categorized as gifted pitchers whom we never truly saw healthy, the Cubbies are left with the “other” Maddux (13-15 last year), Carlos Zambrano, and a lot of surprise starters. Ryan Dempster is an unconvincing closer,  the outfield is a big collective question mark, and Dusty Baker - while one of baseball’s all-time great persons - is not the best manager around.

With nearly all of the teams contenders, and all of the contenders flawed, this is the one division that could open a door to an extraordinary longshot like the Reds or Pirates. Cincinnati’s next star is third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, but its next pitching ace is anybody’s guess. Pittsburgh may add a star novice closer in Mike Gonzalez to genuine young heroes Zach Duke and Jason Bay, but their optimum hope is probably an exciting summer and a .500 finish if one of the top four falter.

The N.L. Central: Brewers, Astros, Cards, Cubs, Pirates, Reds.

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April 11, 2006 | 10:52 a.m. ET

What I did on my spring non-vacation, or: Baseball 2006 preview, Part Four
(Keith Olbermann)

NEW YORK - Early on the afternoon of Sunday, March 5th, Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies broke from first base. The burly left-handed hitter at the plate waited until Rollins had run and Houston pitcher Dave Borkowski had delivered, then slid his hands up the bat slightly and plopped a poke - a mega-bunt, really - over the third baseman’s head into left-field. It was a hit-and-run and he’d not only executed perfectly, but he’d kept it hidden until the last second.

A half-inning later, a left-handed Houston hitter named Brian Gordon sent a screamer several feet above the head of the same hit-and-run expert, now playing first base. He leapt upwards and snared it. I can’t think of another big league first baseman who would’ve made the catch.

That was my eyewitness introduction to Ryan Howard of the Phillies, who had been described to me anecdotally as a 260-pound paperweight who had hit 38 homers last season, 48 the year before, and 37 the year before that, but was basically useless otherwise. It was a calumny of the highest proportions. Howard is an all-around player - with reflexes and intelligence both offensive and defensive. And while age may come quicker for him than for other, less gargantuan, contemporaries, it probably will not do so before he’s won a couple of MVP awards.

One of those could come as early as this season. The Phillies, despite their embarrassing winless start, probably have the best pitching in the National League East, and with three behemoth offenses likely to battle it out inside the division all summer, pitching will out.

The Phils were so deep in the rotation (Jon Leiber, Cory Lidle, Brett Myers, Gavin Floyd, Ryan Madson) that they had to unexpectedly send free agent signee Ryan Franklin to the bullpen. Ultimately, if Randy Wolf comes back, the Phils may tap into this excess to solve a problem that hasn’t happened yes - Madson and not Flash Gordon will probably end the season as Philadelphia’s closer.

This is the season, of course, for the Phils to take whatever they can get. They are beginning to age in key spots (catcher Mike Lieberthal is 34; third baseman David Bell, a creaky 33; rightfielder Bobby Abreu 32) and will probably spend the next few seasons looking up as the younger Mets and Braves dominate the division.

But not yet.

The Braves do have an amazing collection of young position players. If Jeff Francoeur, Ryan Langerhans, and Brian McCann didn’t make your jaw drop last year, consider that their best prospect is still in the minors - extravagantly-named switch-hitting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. But the Atlanta pitching is just as young, and the words “young” and “pitching” do not mix well in a contender. That by the season’s fourth day new pitching coach Roger McDowell was calling on Kenny Ray to pitch to Barry Bonds, says it all. Kenny Ray had not pitched in the majors since 1999. He had wandered through not one but three Independent Leagues (including stints in Yuba, and with the Long Island Ducks). Most tellingly, he hadn’t even been in camp with the Braves a week before.

The Mets are the supposed insider’s pick for the division and there is not a lot on paper with which to argue against them. But it needs to be remembered that dating back to the day they traded two bums (oops, one of them is Jeff Kent) for Carlos Baerga (what do you mean he’s 86 years old?), seemingly two out of every three well-planned, anybody-would-make-them, Mets acquisitions, have gone horribly wrong. Hell, I think they still keep Mo Vaughn in a big room under the stands somewhere, periodically throwing him the contents of an entire McDonald’s.

That would point the fickle finger at fate at Carlos Delgado, Paul LoDuca, or Billy Wagner - probably the latter. That Wagner broke in in Braden Looper fashion by giving up a titanic home run to Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman should serve as a reminder that with his health, his age, and his small frame, Wagner must be viewed as a question mark.

Xavier Nady may be a pleasant surprise in rightfield and David Wright is a future NL MVP. But the current second baseman, Anderson Hernandez, really doesn’t need to bring a bat with him to the plate, the rotation still relies on Steve Trachsel and Victor Zambrano, Carlos Beltran is moodier than ever and might yet get booed out of town, and reliever Jorge Julio should be saved for exhibition games and batting practice.

The rest of the division exists solely as backdrops for the two most exciting pure rookies of the season: Florida rightfielder Jeremy Hermida, and Washington third baseman Zimmerman. The latter cannot yet play the position but will (as opposed to, say, teammate Alfonso Soriano), but it is hard to say if his development will be enough to sustain the feel-good atmosphere from last year in D.C., given that the Nats will lose 90 games or more. As to the Marlins, they’re back to just auditioning, either for individual careers with other teams, or an entire franchise shift (and even those prospects look no more appealing than a season of watching Sergio Mitre get lit up like Christmas).

The N.L. East: Phillies, Braves, Mets (all three, close); Nationals, Marlins.

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April 10, 2006 | 9:58 a.m. ET

What I did on my spring non-vacation, or: Baseball 2006 preview, Part Three
(Keith Olbermann)

NEW YORK - My silliest memory of covering Spring Training in the West takes me back to what must’ve been 1986.

Bob Boone, the then-catcher of the then-California Angels, strode towards me at Mesa, Arizona. “Hey, Keith,” he almost barked. “You know, I don’t like your work.” I mumbled something, as I calculated if I could out-run him. “Well, I’ve got a favor to ask of you, and if you don’t want to do it, I’ll understand. But, for some reason, my son, my youngest, is a big fan of yours. Can I bring him out to meet you?”

I told Bob, of course. “Hey! Aaron! Come on out.” There emerged a gangly 13-year old, hiding, as I remember, behind a brick building of some sort. He croaked a hello, I thanked him for watching, and before the conversation had hit the minute mark, the elder Boone interrupted. “OK, that’s enough. You wanted to meet Mr. Olbermann and you have, so don’t bother him any more.” As his son whispered some thanks, Bob said, “Kids! I don’t get it. But thanks, that was good of you. By the way, my older boy, Bret, he’s going to make the majors, but so’s this one. And he can do what I can’t - he can really hit.”

I didn’t see Aaron Boone again until 2002. By that time, his father had come to appreciate my work and was always a friendly face for me to see on a ballfield. But when I began to ask Aaron if he remembered our meeting in Mesa, he interrupted: “Every embarrassing second of it.” We had a good long laugh, and it added a lot to my appreciation of the two great triumphs of Aaron Boone’s career - his epic home run to end the 2003 American League Championship Series, and what was to me his far more impressive honesty about the injury he sustained the following winter. He could have lied and insisted he’d been hit by a dune buggy or something, but, no, he told the truth - he’d been playing basketball (in violation of his contract). The Yankees were thus able to void the deal, costing Aaron a couple of million dollars. When he returned to the majors with the Indians last year, I told him I was far more proud of his honesty than his home run.

We could use a lot of that right now, during the steroids investigation. We won't get it; there aren't many Aaron Boones out there.

At the same time Bob Boone took a long time to warm up to my local sportscasting style of 20 years ago, his opposite number on the Dodgers pretty much felt the same way. Like most Los Angeles players, Mike Scioscia wasn’t used to seeing criticism or sarcasm, and he made it clear he didn’t appreciate it. He too softened, and he too became a big league manager, and, in fact, the builder of one of the better machines in the baseball with the Angels.

On the radio last week, I picked the A’s to unseat the Angels as A.L. West Champs and I’m already regretting it. I’ve seen nothing of these teams except on television, but I don’t know that adding Milton Bradley, Esteban Loaiza, and Frank Thomas is a net plus for Oakland, and I’m not sure that losing Bengie Molina from behind the plate is a pennant-costing choice in Los Angeles.

The primary difference between the two teams is in the bullpen. In Oakland, Justin Duchscherer and Kiko Calero are solid set-up men, but they are mixed in with Juan Cruz and Jay Witasick. Scioscia brings out quality relievers in waves, and has finally added a lefthander to his group in J.C. Romero. I’m not convinced Barry Zito is going to rebound from last year’s .500 season and the idea - which was voiced on a national television sportscast - that A’s shortstop Bobby Crosby will be the American League’s MVP this season might have been part of some kind of April Fool’s Day gag.

Still, it certainly will be the A’s if it isn’t the Angels. Unless Adrian Beltre returns to his Dodger form, Seattle will not be a factor. And despite shoring up the rotation with Adam Eaton and Kevin Millwood, I have no doubt that Texas is ready to implode - when Buck Showalter left in knuckleballer R.A. Dickey to absorb a record-tying six home runs last week against Detroit, it suggested that the sand may have run out of Buck’s hourglass yet again. A managerial change might be an early-season event there (Bobby Jones?).

To give you an idea just how much punishment six homers is to a pitcher, the only guy in history who gave up seven (in the mean old days of 1886), Charlie Sweeney, was regularly accused of giving up hits out of pique at his manager, and wound up dying in prison after a manslaughter conviction. Good luck, Mr. Dickey.

The A.L. West: Angels, A’s, Mariners, Texas.

The A.L. Most Valuable Player: Alex Rodriguez, Yankees. The Cy Young Award Winner: Jeremy Bonderman, Tigers. The Rookie Of The Year: Kenji Johjima, Mariners (but when are we going to correct this unfortunate, slightly insulting ethnically, situation, and declare that five or more years in the Japanese Leagues disqualifies a player from North American rookie status?)

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What I did on my non-vacation, or: Baseball 2006 preview, Part Two
(Keith Olbermann)

NEW YORK - I don’t think Todd Jones of the Detroit Tigers will mind being publicly identified as a nightly viewer of “Countdown.”

I’m just putting this out as a caveat that my unlikely support of the Tigers as contenders in the American League Central Division has no ulterior motive. I do not appear to be good luck for Detroit; Jones and I talked before the Tigers’ final exhibition game at Tampa Bay last Saturday, and three hours later he was walking slowly off the mound with a 2-1 count on the third batter in the 9th inning, having aggravated a hamstring injury.

But Jones is a key to one of baseball’s most intriguing long shots. If he’s healthy and performs to his usual, low-key, high-end standards, and the Tigers get good starting pitching, they could win the American League Central, or challenge for the Wild Card.

No, I’m not kidding.

The offense is without holes. Centerfielder Curtis Granderson may be the A.L.’s breakout player of the season. The Tigers have already purged malcontent first baseman Carlos Pena (giving the job to a hard-working overachiever named Chris Shelton) and may yet off rightfielder Magglio Ordonez (to promote prospect Brent Clevelen). And to inspire the moody Pudge Rodriguez back to his defensive and staff-handling heights of the ‘90s, the Tigers have an ex-catcher manager (Jim Leyland), an ex-catcher third base coach (Gene Lamont), an ex-catcher bullpen coach (Lloyd McClendon), and an ex-catcher hitting coach (Don Slaught).

Rodriguez needs to be in top form. He’s got starting pitchers Jeremy Bonderman on the verge of greatness, the irascible but useful Kenny Rogers, the on-the-edge Nate Robertson and Mike Maroth, and prime prospects Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya.

A lot has to go right for the Tigers, but then again, think of all that went right for the White Sox. Chicago was 69-35 last August 1st, and proceeded to come within a week of one of the greatest gacks of all time, going 25-28 through September 27th. Then they won 16 of the last 17 to claim the World’s Championship. Other than Frank Thomas, they had no significant injuries, and they rode a rookie closer to the crown. Then they traded their most impactful defensive player (centerfielder Aaron Rowand) for a 35-year old DH who hit .207 last year (Jim Thome), and added one of the least clutch pitchers of the last decade, Javier Vazquez.

Then there’s Cleveland, which almost overcame Chicago’s 14-game lead. They may have stepped back slightly - Jason Michaels does not compensate for Coco Crisp and I wouldn’t rely on pitcher Jason Johnson at gunpoint. But the Indians are the early front-runners for the team likeliest to improve from within during the season. 3rd Baseman Andy Marte, who came from Atlanta via Boston, was the most impressive young hitter I saw in Florida. They sent him down - Aaron Boone is the incumbent - but either they’ll move Boone to fill a need, or work Marte into a DH rotation. The Indians also have a great young manager in Eric Wedge.

The Twins are the least easy to forecast in the Central. They’re thrilled to have added second baseman Luis Castillo - but the Marlins were planning on dumping him even before the fire sale began. If catcher Joe Mauer and 1st Baseman Justin Morneau blossom into stars, the Twins could be favorites, but those variables are no wider than asking Bonderman to win the A.L. Cy Young (my longshot pick there).

Kansas City won’t be a factor, not with Scott Elarton as the opening day starter.

I’d love to pick the Tigers first, but I’m going to play it safe and pick Cleveland with Detroit second, the White Sox third, Minnesota fourth, and Kansas City fifth. But this could easily be a four-team race, and a revivified Detroit franchise would be a sight to see.

In the next entry I’ll pick the A.L. West - none of whose teams I got to see in the spring. In the interim, I’d like to thank Alex Rodriguez by rewarding my on-air prediction that he’d repeat as AL MVP by touching Barry Zito for an opening-night grand slam in Oakland.

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What I did on my non-vacation, or: Baseball 2006 preview, Part One
(Keith Olbermann)

TAMPA - It was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen at a professional baseball game.

The Toronto Blue Jays finished up their exhibition schedule by playing two five-inning games with their top farm team, Syracuse. On Friday, though admission was free, the actual attendance at Dunedin’s Knology Park - by turnstile count - was 410 people.

Two days earlier, with the Philadelphia Phillies having taken the short bus ride from their camp in nearby Clearwater, 3612 had paid their way in to see the Jays, none forking over less than $10, some as much as $27 - American.

On this brilliant afternoon in the Dunedin sunshine, they literally could not give baseball away. Yes, it was a short game against minor leaguers (most of whom had been wearing Toronto uniforms, in the same stadium, just days before). But it was free.

As if to punctuate the absurdity of the moment, in the bottom of the 4th Inning, the Blue Jays made a defensive substitution, bringing a former starting catcher for the Mets and Dodgers in behind the plate. This is literally what rang out over the public address system - and I’m leaving out no cheers, no murmurs, no noises of any kind: “Now catching for the Blue Jays, Number 47, Jason Phillips… clap… clap… clap…clap.

One woman applauded. Four claps, and that was it.

The Blue Jays are thus as good a place as any for this combination Spring Training diary and seasonal preview to begin. They spent the winter buying more letters than a contestant on “Wheel Of Fortune”: A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan, signed by G.M. J.P. Ricciardi to strengthen the Toronto B.J.’s - to say nothing of Bengie Molina, Lyle Overbay, and Troy Glaus.

The sound of just two hands applauding Jason Phillips is an unfortunate augur. With a capable manager in John Gibbons, the Blue Jays might coalesce quickly into a rival for the Yankees and Red Sox, but it seems unlikely. Burnett is already hurt, Ted Lilly is nagged by injuries, Roy Halladay has yet to show his pre-injury command, and Ryan is unproven as a closer. The offense is gaudy, but would not be able to carry the team alone.

I saw the Red Sox only once, and only early. That the Stockings even reached the post-season last year seems, in retrospect, the height of improbability, and testimony to the solidity of manager Terry Francona. There is an assumption that the Sox are improved with Josh Beckett, and perhaps even with Coco Crisp replacing Johnny Damon; both these assumptions are debatable. The bullpen is a little deeper, but might yet unravel depending on Keith Foulke’s health. And the infield is a fog of Mike Lowell, Kevin Youkilis, J.T. Snow, Hee-Seop Choi, Mark Loretta, and Alex Cora.

The Yankees clearly have the most talent, and the most potential problems - but also seem to have made the most provisions for disaster. Johnson, Mussina, Wang, and Chacon front-end the rotation, and anybody from Jaret Wright to Aaron Small to this year’s sleeper of sleepers Scott Proctor could be the fifth starter (the Yanks have been force-feeding the strong-armed Proctor tapes of Halladay at his prime, and were cheered last week when in five innings against the Phillies he gave up only a homer and one fly ball out). Mariano Rivera has a bewildering variety of set-up men (Farnsworth, Dotel, Myers, Villone, Small, Sturtze) from whom two or three reliables should emerge. And the offense has few holes; Johnny Damon’s arm may not be much of an improvement over Bernie Williams’, but his spark will be much needed here.

The Yanks’ chief vulnerabilities are age (Jorge Posada turns 35 in August) and the George Mitchell Commission (what on earth would they do if Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield were suddenly suspended at midseason?). They will have ups-and-downs, but unless Boston or Toronto jells early, they should not be far from the lead all season long.

Were good intentions base hits, the Devil Rays would win the World Series. Tropicana Field has been brightened, the employees who survived the regime of the nickel-and-diming Vince Naimoli all look like they’ve just been commuted by the governor, and the promise of investing in talent is on the horizon. But for 2006 there won’t be much to look at beyond Jorge Cantu, Carl Crawford, and pitcher Scott Kazmir. There is no closer and nothing resembling a rotation.

Yet there are scenarios in which Tampa Bay could beat out Baltimore for 4th place. The Orioles are a mess; their lone impact off-season acquisition was pitching coach Leo Mazzone. He and manager Sam Perlozzo might make stars out of Chris Ray, Daniel Cabrera, and Rodrigo Lopez, but simply getting close to the pennant race might be worse than bottoming out and starting all over again.

The A.L. East: Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles, Devil Rays.

In the next installment, the scenario in which the defending World Champions finish 4th in their own division.

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