Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Buehrle adds consistency to Marlins rotation

BY David Villavicencio

The most active team at the Winter Meetings landed another big name today as the Marlins came to terms with free agent pitcher Mark Buehrle on a four-year contract worth $58 million.

The left-hander provides an immediate upgrade to a Marlins starting rotation that is headlined by ace right-hander, Josh Johnson. Buehrle was arguably the second best free agent pitcher on the market this winter behind C.C. Sabathia.

Buehrle had no shortage of potential suitors but ultimately settled on joining Heath Bell and Jose Reyes as the newest Miami Marlins. The veteran lefty also joins his old manager, Ozzie Guillen, in Miami.

“This kid is special,” Guillen told reporters in Dallas. “Very happy to have this kid. One of my favorite players.”

Buehrle has been the definition of consistency over his career and that is something the Marlins clearly value. Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and Anibal Sanchez have all had injury issues and periods of inconsistency in their young careers. The addition of Buehrle provides the Marlins with someone they can count on to take the ball every fifth day and pitch quality baseball.

Looking at Buehrle’s numbers, it is easy to see why he is considered one of the most consistent pitchers in the game today. Over his 12-year career, Buehrle has gone 161-119 with a 3.83 ERA.

Delve deeper and you will find that Buehrle has won 10 or more games in each of his 11 full seasons in the big leagues. He has made 30 or more starts and thrown over 200 innings every year since 2001. Buehrle has also thrown two no-hitters, including a perfect game in 2009.

Are there concerns about Buehrle’s age?

Possibly, but the Marlins believe he is the type of pitcher whose track record shows he can be counted on.

Giving this deal to a power pitcher at the same stage of his career as Buehrle would be far more questionable because that type of pitcher relies on his big arm to succeed and that big arm typically starts to fade with age.

But Buehrle’s success is centered on command and mixing up pitches so he should be effective as he ages as long as his command stays sharp.

The Marlins active winter is not expected to end with Buehrle’s acquisition. The team is still looking at several free agents including C.J. Wilson and could still make trades to improve their club as well.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Marlins agree to terms with Heath Bell

BY David Villavicencio

The Miami Marlins have landed their first marquee free agent.

According to Jayson Stark, the Marlins agreed to a three-year deal worth $27 million with closer Heath Bell. Ken Rosenthal reports there is a vesting option for a fourth year worth $9 million. The three-time All-Star is expected to take a physical Friday.

Bell was considered one of the top free agent closers available this off-season after saving over 40 games in each of the past three seasons with the Padres. The right-hander went 3-4 with a 2.44 ERA while saving 43 games and striking out 51 over 62 2/3 innings in 2011.

On the surface, the Bell signing seems like a good one. It fills a need and appears to be a major upgrade over Juan Carlos Oviedo. But if you look deeper you will find a lot of concerns with the Marlins newest addition.

Age: Bell Just turned 34 at the conclusion of this season. This new contract has the Marlins on the hook for $9 million a year until Bell is 37. That is typically not the prime years of any player’s career. Mariano Rivera is the rare exception of a closer pitching at an elite level so late in his career and he is the best closer in the history of the game. Heath Bell is not on that level.

Ballpark: Bell found success in San Diego’s spacious PETCO Park.  Before heading west, he was a pretty bad reliever with the Mets, posting ERAs of 5.59 and 5.11 in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

It seemed like everything turned around for Bell when he joined the Padres. He never posted an ERA higher than 3.58 in his five years there and has and ERA below 3.00 in four of his five seasons in San Diego. There is no telling how the new Marlins ballpark will play but it certainly will not be as pitcher-friendly as PETCO Park.

Budgeting: The Marlins are committed to increasing payroll and building a better ballclub but is this the best way to spend their funds? Coming into the off-season, the Marlins had needs in the starting rotation and question marks surrounding third base, center field, closer and their bench.

Adding Bell solidifies the closer spot but is adding a top closer the main priority for the Marlins? The team had hovered around .500 from 2008-2010 before their disastrous showing in 2011. Most people know the Marlins are not as bad as their 2011 record but they are not more than a .500 team either. As a team with so many needs to address, it may not be wise to allocate so much money to a player whose main job is to close out wins. If you were a team like the Cardinals, I could understand the move because they have deep starting pitching, a potent lineup and an unreliable closer but the Marlins have issues that need addressing throughout the roster. With a free agent market flooded with potential closers, they may have been better off signing someone else for a few million less annually and using the money they saved to improve some of their other holes.

Diminishing statistics/performance: Bell’s numbers have dropped of dramatically lately. He struck out just 51 batters last season after striking out 86 the year before. Bell had struck out 70 or more batters every year since 2007 before last year. The major drop is strikeouts is a big concern. Closers that need to pitch to contact are only as good as their defense. They’re also not worth a huge payday because they are not the type of pitcher to come in and shut down an offense by themselves.

In fact, check out some alarming numbers from Bell’s 2011 campaign

-        He saw his strikeout rate decline to a career worst 7.32 K/9 (11.06 K.9 in 2010) His strikeout decline was not an aberration, as his swinging strike rate decreased from 10.6 per nine innings in 2010 to 8.3 per nine innings this past season.
-        His dramatic drop in strikeouts did not come from a decrease in velocity. His average fastball speed of 94 miles per hour in 2011 was identical to 2010. It actually can be attributed to an inability to get opposing hitters to swing and miss at his curveball. He had a swinging strike rate of 18.2 percent with the pitch in 2010 compared to a 10.3 percent rate in 2011.
-        His 2.44 ERA last season was helped by his .261 BABIP, which was extremely low, especially considering his 21.3 percent line drive rate. Additionally, he has been able to keep his home run rate down, helped by the fact he has pitched in PETCO Park for the last five seasons.

Marlins fans will argue that they have had enough of Juan Carlos Oviedo and his 25 career blown saves and that is understandable. But Bell has actually blown 26 saves in his career so it is not like they are picking up someone who will be lights out when he enters a game in the ninth inning.

Adding Bell does a lot for the Marlins. It brings in an established closer with a track record of success and adds a marquee name in an off-season focused on making significant improvements to the roster.

But Bell’s signing does not come without some big concerns. The Marlins and their fans may not know it yet but they could be regretting this contract a year from now.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Urban Myth adds a new chapter

What things will look like at this afternoon's press conference
BY David Villavicencio 

The rumor has become reality. 

After weeks of speculation, Urban Meyer has accepted an offer to be the next football coach at The Ohio State University. 

Most people will not think twice when they hear that news but I am not most people. 

I remember Meyer quitting on his Gator teams TWICE! Both times he cited health concerns and a desire to spend more time with his family as his reasoning behind the decisions to “retire”. But his return to coaching just one year after “retiring” proves how much of a lying, coward Meyer really is. 

In 2009, Meyer’s retirement lasted literally a day but he really did quit following an embarrassing 2010 season. The Gators lost four games in their first season without Tim Tebow and Meyer’s program appeared to be in shambles. 

Now it seems like the suspicions were true. Meyer did not want to be around for Florida’s collapse and that is exactly what has happened. His players just finished a 6-6 regular season in their first year under Will Muschamp yet Meyer will not take any of the blame for their failure. 

Meyer in his days as a Buckeyes assistant
Urban saw the signs that Florida would fail in 2009. That’s why he “retired”. But the proud coach also has the typical ego of a successful coach. He thought his greatness as a coach would push Florida past the inevitable decline that was coming. But after the Gators lost four games in 2010, he knew he had to get out and he did. 

Now Meyer is jumping at the chance to build a new dynasty. Ohio State has sanctions looming but they must not be too bad because Meyer would not take the helm at a doomed program. We’ve seen that he simply will not have his name or legacy associated with failure. Serious sanctions would all but assure that any coach at Ohio State would be destined to fail. 

Ohio State also is historically one of the best programs in the overrated Big 10. The Buckeyes had won six consecutive conference titles before their disastrous 2011 season. They’ve won 34 Big 10 titles and will always be considered the class of the conference along with Michigan. 

Miller is the QB Meyer needs
The Buckeyes also have Braxton Miller. The freshman quarterback just led the Ohio State in rushing and passing yards. He scored 18 total touchdowns and is expected to only improve with experience. He is also built to play quarterback in a system like Meyer’s. Miller is definitely a factor in Meyer’s decision to head to Ohio State as he has his quarterback in place for at least the next two years. 

Meyer brings a lot to Ohio State. He is the big name coach with two national championships under his belt. He is a former Buckeyes assistant, an Ohio native and a person with ties to the Florida speed that every college in the country covets. He is also a shady character that may have already committed a recruiting violation. 

The Buckeyes mysteriously received the commitment of Ricquan Southward yesterday. A talented and speedy receiver from Lakeland High in Florida, Southward was committed to play at Miami next season. But then things got interesting. 

Southward abruptly decided to decommit from Miami and commit to the Buckeyes. 

"I just feel like Ohio State has more of my playing style. I feel like I will be a much better wide receiver up there instead of at Miami." 

Everyone is entitled to their opinion and he can choose to play football where ever he likes. The Buckeyes were likely going to relieve Luke Fickell of his duties at the end of the year and plenty of changes were likely to come so knowing how he would fit into the next coach's system is impossible to know but maybe Southward just really liked it in Columbus. That's fine but this is where things get interesting. 

"My main recruiting coach is Coach (Stanley) Drayton. He will be my coach up at Ohio State. Although we aren't very close right now, I believe I will look to him as a father-figure by the time I am done up there." 

Pardon me for being skeptical but Southward cites Drayton as a reason why he is interested in going to Ohio State yet there is no certainty that he will even be on the next staff. New coaches tend to bring in their own coaching staff. Only Drayton worked for Meyer at Florida and may have leaked word to the Lakeland receiver about who the next coach would be.

Meyer might have even been recruiting Southward himself. After all, Lakeland High was one of his pipeline schools while he was coaching at Florida and he has an excellent relationship with their head coach, Bill Castle. For all we know, Meyer could have sold Southward on becoming "the next Percy Harvin" like he did to so many recruits while at Florida.

Looks like his daughter was wrong
While the potential recruiting violation cannot be proven yet, I know Meyer has proven once again that he is a shady, untrustworthy, cowardly person.

The man who wanted to take care of his health concerns and "put my focus on my family and life away from the field” is casting his family aside and heading for Columbus where he will once again chase the glory of winning a national title. At least until things don't go his way.  

Then I am sure Urban's head will start to hurt, his blood pressure will rise and his family will become important again. All so he can make a clean break until the next hot opportunity presents itself.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Potential trade could bolster Marlins rotation

BY David Villavicencio

The Marlins are on the verge of upgrading their starting rotation.

A source close to Gio Gonzalez reports the Miami native could be joining his hometown team soon.

The 26-year-old is coming off the best season of his young career. Gonzalez won 16 games and struck out 197 batters while posting a 3 .12 ERA and representing the Oakland A’s in the All-Star Game. He has won 31 games and struck out 368 over the past two seasons with Oakland.

Gonzalez would be interested in joining his hometown team if a trade can be agreed on between Oakland and the Marlins. The left-hander is hoping for an extension should he get moved to another team and the Marlins appear to be interested. He will not become a free agent until 2016.

Upgrading their rotation is a priority for the Marlins and they have been connected to several pitchers this off-season. The Marlins hosted free agent Mark Buehrle last week and have been rumored to have interest in Gonzalez and Tampa Bay’s James Shields.

Adding Gonzalez would give the Marlins a formidable duo at the top of their rotation. Ace right-hander Josh Johnson and Gonzalez would form a tandem that would rank behind only Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain and Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter in the National League.

But adding a player like Gonzalez comes at a price. The lefty is young, performing at a very high level, affordable and under team control through 2015. A’s general manager Billy Beane could expect to get a nice package in return for the left-hander. He is also certain to receive plenty of calls from fellow GMs should word get out that Oakland is actively looking to move him.

The source says three different players have been discussed as potential pieces for the deal. All three players played significant time with the Marlins last season. It is unlikely that all three would be involved in the deal.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Canes self-impose bowl ban

 BY David Villavicencio 

Al Golden will have to wait at least one more year before he coaches Miami in a bowl game for the first time.

The University of Miami has decided to self-impose a one-year bowl ban one day after becoming eligible for post-season play. Miami has now self-imposed any other penalties.

"We understand and share the disappointment that our student-athletes, coaches, staff, supporters and fans are feeling," the university said in a statement. "But after lengthy discussions among university leaders, athletic administrators and outside counsel, it is a necessary step for our university."

The bowl ban does not come as a surprise as the Hurricanes are currently under NCAA investigation for their connection with rogue booster Nevin Shapiro. It seems like the right decision and could ultimately help the football program when the NCAA decides to rule on their situation. By self-imposing sanctions, the Hurricanes could find themselves receiving a more lenient penalty from the governing body that oversees collegiate athletics.

There are downsides to skipping a bowl game.

First, the Canes could use the extra practice time as they continue to develop under Golden and his staff. Extra practice is never a bad thing but it is especially helpful for a team in transition like Miami. Also, more practice could help some of the younger players accelerate in their development as they look to fill in for the departing seniors and any early entry candidates for the NFL draft.

Second, Miami has not won a bowl game since 2006 when they survived against Nevada, 21-20, in the MicronPC Bowl. That streak will live on at least one more year. This year’s senior class will finish 0-3 in bowl games for their career.

Speaking of the seniors, it means their season and collegiate careers will come to an end next Friday as the Hurricanes host Boston College. I am guessing that is now the way they imagined things would end for them when they signed with Miami four years ago.

But it was a group of seniors that played a role in putting the Hurricanes in the mess they are in with the NCAA. Jacory Harris, Sean Spence and Travis Benjamin were all suspended for receiving improper benefits from Shapiro.

Maybe it is fitting that these seniors will have their final bowl opportunity snatched away from their grasp because of something they did. Unfortunately, their teammates will also miss out on playing in a bowl this year despite having nothing to do with Miami’s pending investigation.

So the Canes will miss out on playing in the Music City Bowl or the Sun Bowl or any other lower tier bowl with ACC ties. The seniors will see their career end without a bowl win and Coach Golden will have to wait another year to add a bowl win to his legacy at Miami.

Sounds like a lot of negative but this is the best thing that could have happened to the Canes.

Golden has a plan for success
Miami will grow from this. Golden won’t let them do anything but persevere. The rumors of the self-imposed bowl ban have lingered from the minute the Shapiro scandal made national news.

Canes fans should be disappointed that their team’s season will end in November. That is not what Miami football is about.

But they should also remember that missing out on a lower tier bowl this year means Miami could be eligible to play in a bowl game next season. As long as the NCAA does not add to the bowl ban, Miami could be playing for the right to represent the ACC in the Orange Bowl next season.

The Canes are 6-5 heading into their final game and have been headed for another disappointing season for a while now. At Miami, you don’t play for finishing with a winning record. Hurricane Nation sets its sights much higher than that.

Golden does too. He is all about rebuilding this program the right way. The man has a plan to get the Canes back to national prominence and this bowl ban is just a speed bump in the road to greatness.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Marlins unveil new "Miami chic" look

BY David Villavicencio

The Florida Marlins are history.

Team owner Jeffrey Loria officially announced his ballclub’s rebirth as the Miami Marlins last night and I was on hand to cover it.

The Marlins put together a first class event to launch their new era that the 500 VIPs in attendance will never forget.

Along with a performance by Miami’s own, Pitbull, the Marlins unveiled their new logo, had the team’s biggest names modeling the new uniforms and hosted a big party that showcased all of Miami’s flavor and energy. Check out my story that I wrote for for more on how the team kicked off the Miami Marlins era with a bang. 
Hanley Ramirez, Josh Johnson and Omar Infante show off the team's new look

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Marlins free agent targets are not perfect

BY David Villavicencio 

The Marlins are currently one of the most active teams in MLB free agency and that is expected to continue throughout the winter. 

The Fish have already hosted Mark Buehrle and are hosting Jose Reyes today. Marlins executives will travel to the Dominican Republic tomorrow to see star Cuban defector, Yoenis Cespedes. 

The Marlins are also looking at Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and a host of other big name free agents. Fans are excited about all the big names associated with their team and are anxious to see who ultimately signs with the soon to be Miami Marlins.

But most of these fans are so excited about potentially signing a group of superstars that they have overlooked the risks associated with each player. This post will help bring some of those concerns to light.

Jose Reyes
Reyes is just 28 and a dynamic player that can instantly bolster the top of someone's lineup. But at just 28, he has already developed a history of leg problems. That is not a good sign for a player whose value comes largely from his legs. Everyone knows about Reyes' speed but leg problems also will limit his range defensively and his power at the plate. The Marlins are rumored to have offered Reyes a three-year contract worth $60 million. That would not be a bad deal for the team as Reyes would be 31 when it ends and likely starting his decline as a player. However, Reyes is probably looking for a contract that is at least five years in length. That is something that a team may ultimately regret giving him given his injury history.

Mark Buehrle
Buehrle is arguably the second-best free agent pitcher available this off-season and it is with good reason. The 32-year-old has been consistently productive, winning at least 10 games while making at least 30 starts every year since 2001. A move to the more pitcher friendly NL should benefit the four-time All-Star. Buehrle would be an excellent addition to the Marlins rotation but he is a hot commodity. Buehrle could command a four-year deal worth $15 million a year. That is concerning as he will be 33 at the start of the upcoming season and would be 37 in the final year of that deal. Committing that much money to an older pitcher over that many years is concerning but Buehrle is probably the safest bet of all the Marlins' potential signings.

Albert Pujols
Pujols is the biggest free agent available and the best player in the game today. There is no need to list his accolades because everyone in America knows how complete of a player he is. The 31-year-old would instantly upgrade the Marlins lineup, defense and clubhouse. But signing Pujols will not be easy as he is looking for a huge contract. I get the feeling it would take a substantial overbid to get him to leave St. Louis and that is something that could cripple the Marlins in the long run. Pujols is likely to be a great player for many years to come but will he be worth the massive salary he is going to get when he is 37? That would be the fifth year of his contract and he is probably looking for at least six years. 

Edwin Jackson
Jackson is another name that has been associated with the Marlins and the right-hander joins Buehrle near the top of the list of available starting pitchers. Just 28-years-old, Jackson possesses a mid-nineties fastball and solid secondary pitches. He has long been considered a promising pitcher and continues to draw interest from teams. However, Jackson has not stuck around a team for long, playing for six teams since breaking into the Majors in 2003. So despite all his upside, no team has been willing to stick with him for a long time. Also, Jackson is 60-60 with a 4.46 ERA over his career. Not bad but not something to be overly excited about. Signing Jackson could be an overpay for a middle of the rotation starter.

C.J. Wilson
Wilson entered free agency as the top starter available but his poor showing in the postseason could have soured some potential suitors on him. The left-hander went 0-3 while allowing 18 earned runs over 28 innings this October. Despite his rough postseason, Wilson has been good in his two years as a starter. He was an All-Star in 2011 but he will be 31 when the season starts and is looking for a five-year deal worth around $80 million. That is a lot of money and years to commit to someone who is not exactly an ace. Wilson is probably best suited as a third starter but was the Rangers ace by default in 2011. Paying him like a top of the rotation arm is probably not a good idea. The Marlins might be better off investing their money elsewhere.

Prince Fielder
Fielder is the second-best free agent available and some might favor him over Pujols because he is four years younger. But Fielder has his share of issues that should be concerns to anyone looking to sign him. There is no question that Fielder can hit. He has hit 116 HR over the past three years and driven in over 100 runs in four of the last five. He is a career .282 hitter and has posted an OBP over .400 in each of the last three seasons. But Fielder is in terrible shape. He is listed at 5-foot-11 and 275 lbs. Having seen him up close many times, I'd say it's closer to 5'10" and 300 lbs. That is a concern for any team looking to sign him to a lucrative, long-term deal. Also, he is not exactly the best defender but that concern is minor because you are paying him to hit.

Yoenis Cespedes
Cespedes is a major wild card in free agency this year. The 26-year-old is supposed to a be five-tool prospect that is big league ready right now. The Marlins are rumored to be the favorite to land Cespedes. He is expected to get a contract worth about $30 million which would not appear to be a terrible investment on the surface. If Cespedes is as good as advertised, he could be in the Opening Day lineup when the Marlins open their new ballpark. However, it is hard to know exactly how these international prospects will do when they come to the United States.  For every successful defector there are a handful that have been total busts. It is not limited to Cuban players as several Asian imports fall into this category as well. Ultimately, this is a matter of risk vs. reward. If Cespedes lives up the the hype, the Marlins will have one of the top outfields in the Majors. If he flops, they will have thrown away $30 million.

Aramis Ramirez
Ramirez is the top free agent third baseman and the Marlins have a glaring need at third base. Seems like a match made in heaven, right? Not quite. Yes, Ramirez has had a very good career and is coming off a strong season but he is a 33-year-old that was not so great in 2010 and is looking for a multi-year deal at a fairly sizable annual salary. The Marlins might be better off putting Emilio Bonifacio at third or signing a lower profile player to compete for time at the position than investing a lot of money into an aging, declining player.

 - Closers: No picture for these guys but there are a host of big to fairly big names available to teams looking for someone to close out games. The Marlins happen to be one of those teams. They might think bringing back Juan Carlos "Don't call me Leo Nuñez" Oviedo is not worth what he could cost in arbitration and look elsewhere for a ninth inning arm. Jonathan Papelbon is available but he is going to cost a boatload of money and probably isn't worth it. Heath Bell is available but it will take at least $10 million a year to get him and he would prefer to stay in San Diego anyway. Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez is available and is an intriguing option at the right price but he is also not the same guy who set the single-season saves record a few years ago. Jonathan Broxton is out of shape and coming off of a terrible, injury-plagued season. Francisco Cordero is 36, out of shape and won't come cheap. Joe Nathan, Brad Lidge, Frank Francisco, Joel Zumaya and Jon Rauch are other potential options with closing experience but they all have their issues too. The Marlins will settle on someone to close games for them in 2012 but there aren't many overly attractive options.

Monday, November 7, 2011

America, meet Yoenis Cespedes

Cespedes passes the eye test
BY David Villavicencio

Yu Darvish is the hot international free agent on the market this winter but there is another talented player with a “Y” name that will garner a lot of interest.

Yoenis Cespedes is six feet and 215 pounds of impressive baseball talent. The 26-year-old defected from his native Cuba to the Dominican Republic and is expected to be granted free agency soon.

Cespedes recently set the single season home run record in Cuba and was the starting centerfielder for the Cuban team in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. The five-tool prospect shined in the WBC, batting .458 with a double, three triples, two home runs, five runs scored and five runs batted in over six games.

“El Talento” or “La Potencia”, as Cespedes is known in Cuba, is widely considered the best position player in his native land. He is being advised by Edgar Mercedes and is officially represented by Adam Katz.

Cespedes has big league power
Cespedes has a tryout on Friday in the Dominican Republic and is rumored to be looking for a contract worth $30 million once his hits the open market. There are rumors that the Yankees, Nationals, Marlins and Phillies are all interested.

Personally, I think he would be a great fit for the Marlins.  He would fill the void in centerfield and give them one of the best young outfield trios in the game.

Want to see what Cespedes is all about? Check out the scouting video Mercedes put together to showcase his skills. It is a little ridiculous and doesn't show as much baseball skill as you'd like but you should definitely watch it. I have to warn you though, there is foul language in some of the songs chosen for background music.
Yoenis Cespedes: The Showcase

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Cardinals beat the odds to become champions

BY David Villavicencio 

Boy, was I wrong.

After Game 5, I wrote that the series was essentially over. The Rangers had a 3-2 lead heading into Game 6. The Cardinals would have to win two straight games to come away as champions and Texas had not lost consecutive games since August.

Texas seemed to have all the momentum and luck on their side but the Cardinals kept fighting. Their resilience paid off as the Cardinals’ improbable postseason run culminated in a 6-2 Game 7 win over the Rangers to give the club its 11th championship in franchise history.

Last night’s game was the clincher but getting there seemed almost impossible.

The Cardinals and Rangers were tied at 4 heading to the seventh inning of Game 6. St. Louis had mustered just three hits to that point but still managed to stay in the game.

Then Texas got hot.

The Rangers opened the top of the seventh with back-to-back homers from Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz. Ultimately, Texas would score three runs in the seventh and the feeling everywhere was that the Rangers would win their first championship.

But the Cardinals had other plans.

Down to their final strike on two separate occasions in Game 6, the Cardinals delivered a key hit to even the score and stay alive.

”Sometimes when opportunity is in your presence, you certainly can’t let it get away because sometimes it takes a while before it comes back,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said. “If there’s one thing that happened in this World Series that I’ll look back on is being so close, just having one pitch to be made and one out to be gotten, and it could have been a different story.”

For as much as I tore into Cardinals manager Tony La Russa after Game 5, I have to give him credit for instilling this resilient attitude in his team.

”It was overwhelming,” La Russa said. “We were on the edge game after game after game. You might lose one, but as it got closer, elimination games, the character on this club is off the charts. And we are more talented I think than some people realize, especially as we got healthy. But you play with that urgency, it’s a little scary at times and it takes a lot out of you, but it’s really fun to compete that way.”

Plenty of clubs would have given up after making three errors and putting themselves in a hole but the Cardinals persevered and it paid off. World Series MVP David Freese clubbed an 11th inning walk off homer to even the series at 3 and force a decisive Game 7.
Freese's bat was too much for Texas

The 28-year-old St. Louis native was the Cardinals postseason hero. Freese set a record with 21 RBI in a single postseason. His two-strike, two-run triple in the ninth inning of Game 6 gave the Cardinals life. His solo homer to lead off the 11th might have been the dagger that killed the Rangers.

”We all know we lost the Series yesterday,” Beltre said of Game 6. “We shouldn’t have let it slip away. We came back today to try to win it, but the momentum just took them and they won it. It’s not a nice feeling.”

Heading into last night’s game, the Cardinals seemed destined to win the series. Their Game 6 heroics made a Rangers victory in Game 7 almost unfathomable.

But Texas showed their ability to spoil the fairytale ending when their potent lineup scored two runs in the first inning before a stunned Busch Stadium crowd.
But that would be the last of the Rangers’ postseason magic as Freese’s hot bat came through again, tying the game with a two-run double in the first.

Carpenter has never lost a World Series start
Texas starter Matt Harrison would last just four innings, allowing three runs, while Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter settled in to pitch six strong innings and earn his ninth career postseason win.

La Russa, whose mismanagement of the bullpen in Game 5 made headlines, was masterful with his relievers on Friday. Arthur Rhodes, Octavio Dotel, Lance Lynn and Jason Motte were brilliant, holding the Rangers hitless over the final three innings to seal the win.

The Cardinals did what few thought they could.

The doubts started in Spring Training when Adam Wainwright tore up his elbow. The 2010 NL Cy Young runner-up would need Tommy John surgery and miss the entire season. Immediately, the Cardinals went from pre-season contender to afterthought.

“[Losing Wainwright] was a bad hit in Spring Training, and Tony was great,” Cardinals owner Bill Dewitt, Jr. said. “He said it’s not fair, but we’re not going to give up. This is a good club and we’ve got a shot. We’ll just do everything we can to win with what we’ve got.”

It got worse once the season started as All-Star closer Ryan Franklin imploded. The typically effective veteran reliever was blowing save after save. Franklin lost his closer role in April and eventually his job.

Then there was Albert Pujols’ uncharacteristic start to the season. The best player in the game hit just .245 in the first month of the season and dealt with injuries throughout the year. In June, he broke his left wrist on a tag play at first and appeared to be looking at a long stay on the Disabled List. But The Machine missed just two weeks when most players would have missed six.

Finally, the Cardinals faced an uphill battle to even make the postseason. On August 24, the team was 10½ games behind the NL Wild Card leading Braves. They had just been swept by the Dodgers and the season seemed lost but the Cardinals continued to fight and pulled off a minor miracle.

St. Louis went 23-9 the rest of the way and snuck into the postseason when the Braves completed their catastrophic collapse with a 4-3 loss to the Phillies on the final day of the regular season.

”We had a 5 percent chance (to reach the playoffs) with 35 games left in the season,” Pujols said. “We knew we had to play great. The first five months of the season were pretty bad. But it doesn’t matter. We’re world champions.”

The Cardinals would face a loaded Phillies team in the first round and were considered major underdogs. Philadelphia sported a starting rotation filled with aces while the Cardinals were running on fumes. But St. Louis silenced the doubters and advanced to the NLCS thanks to a complete game shutout from Carpenter in a decisive Game 5.

Next came the division rival Brewers. The two teams went 9-9 against one another in the regular season but a lot of experts had the Brew Crew ticketed for their first trip to the World Series since 1982. But Freese and his teammates mashed their way past the Brewers and into the World Series after six games.

The final obstacle was the Rangers. They matched up well with the Cardinals. Both teams had potent offenses and suspect pitching staffs. Many expected a series that tilted towards the offense but the teams combined to score just eight runs over the first two games.
Pujols hit just .240 for the series but came up big in Game 3

The slugfest finally came in Game 3 as Albert Pujols joined Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as the only players to homer three times in a World Series game. The Cardinals’s 16-7 victory gave them a 2-1 series lead and a chance to clinch their championship in Game 5.

But Rangers’ lefty Derek Holland made sure the Cards wouldn’t be able to celebrate their championship on his team’s field. The 25-year-old was nearly flawless as he silenced the Cardinals bats in Game 4. Holland allowed just two hits over 8 1/3 shutout innings to help Texas even the series at 2.

Then came the disaster that was Game 5. The Cardinals seemed to fall apart in what many had pegged as a crucial game. Mike Napoli, who was the Rangers’ version of Freese this postseason, delivered a game-winning two-run double in the eighth that put his team one victory away from their goal.

Rain forced Game 6 to be pushed back a day and the postponement benefitted the Cardinals a bit. Not only did it force the Rangers to keep their champagne on ice a little bit longer, but it slowed some of the momentum Texas had heading into Game 6 and made Carpenter available on three days rest should the Redbirds force a Game 7.

We all know what happened after that as Freese, Lance Berkman, Allen Craig, Pujols, Carpenter and the rest of the Cardinals did the improbable. They overcame their biggest obstacle, beating Texas on consecutive nights to become world champions. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

La Russa outthinks himself as Cardinals drop Game 5

BY David Villavicencio 

Tony La Russa has won a World Series in each league. He has the second-most victories in managerial history, won Manager of the Year four times and is considered by many to be a baseball genius.

He also just cost the Cardinals their 11th World Series title in franchise history.

Sure, the Cardinals stranded 12 runners on Monday night.

Yes, they did fail to get a big hit in multiple key situations.

Of course, the Rangers deserve some credit for executing in big moments.

But I am putting this disastrous loss squarely on the shoulders of the man making the decisions in the Cardinals dugout.

I am sure many of you reading this are saying, “Anyone can second-guess and look smart.” This is not second-guessing. I can’t prove it but I was predicting all these failures as he was making the moves, some of them even before he actually called for them.

Where do I begin?

How about the disgusting collapse in the eighth?

La Russa pulls starter Chris Carpenter to open the inning in favor of Octavio Dotel. The game is tied at 2 and La Russa is going to one of his better relievers.

Nothing wrong with that.

Carpenter pitched seven solid innings and deserved a better fate but his offense could not come up with the big hit to extend their lead. Dotel is devastating against right-handed hitters and the Rangers had Michael Young, Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz due up in the eighth.

The move makes all the sense in the world.

Young shocks everyone by opening the inning with a double off Dotel. Yes, he is a good player but it was still a surprise as righties have hit just .154 against Dotel on the year.

Next up is Beltre, the man who crushed the game-tying homer off Carpenter in the sixth. Dotel strikes him out on three pitches. One out, man on second.

Now is where Tony and I begin to disagree.

Cruz is up with the go-ahead run on second. Tony decides to intentionally walk Cruz, who struck out 116 times this season.

Never mind that Dotel absolutely kills right-handed hitters. Don’t worry that he felt Dotel was clearly capable of retiring Beltre just minutes before.

Clearly, Cruz needs to be walked to set up the double play and bring up lefty David Murphy. After all, La Russa has lefty specialist Marc Rzepczynski ready to go in the bullpen.

La Russa, who is all about the match-ups, was throwing away his best match-up for a situation that could have led Rangers manager Ron Washington to go to his bench. Wash could have brought in right-handed hitting Craig Gentry to face the lefty, thus rendering La Russa’s lefty-lefty pitching change useless.

But Washington sticks with Murphy and the Rangers catch a break as he hits a ball off Rzepczynski that leaves the bases loaded for Mike Napoli.

TLR doing his favorite sign, "New pitcher, please"
Now the master of specialization and king of pitching changes decided to ignore playing the matchups he so dearly adores and sticks with Rzepczynski against the lefty-killing Napoli.

Are you baffled yet? I know I am!

Of course, Napoli rips a two-run double that ultimately leads to the Rangers 4-2 victory. But La Russa’s managerial blunders are not done yet. Not by a long shot.

Rzepczynski strikes out lefty Mitch Moreland to record the second out. Is anyone sensing a pattern here? The lefty specialist is retiring left-handed hitters while right-handers are crushing balls into the gaps. Never mind that though. Must be beneath a genius like La Russa to see it.

Back to the action!

La Russa goes back to his bullpen as right-handed hitting second baseman Ian Kinsler heads to the plate with two outs and a runner on second. Tony signals for hard-throwing rookie Lance Lynn to enter the game from the bullpen to face the dangerous Kinsler.

Some may have gone to Jason Motte in that spot but La Russa went with Lynn. No big deal. Maybe he was saving Motte in case the Cardinals tied it in the ninth? Maybe he felt Lynn could handle Kinsler and pitch the ninth as well in case the Cardinals made up the deficit but did not surpass it.

Apparently La Russa went with door number 3 and here is where my blood pressure starts rising again. Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina stands up and calls for an intentional walk. Few things drive me crazy more than changing pitchers and immediately issuing an intentional walk.

Why not have the departing pitcher walk the guy so the new pitcher can come in and hopefully pound the strike zone? Guess decisions like that are left to the geniuses like La Russa. I can’t possibly be competent enough to see the benefits of having the new guy walk the hitter instead of the old guy. But I digress.

So Kinsler is walked and Elvis Andrus is coming up. Lynn is on the mound with a force out set up and a ground ball hitter at the plate.

The kid is a talented rookie pitching in a big spot and the Cardinals… wait a minute, what? Why is La Russa walking out to the mound? Must be going out to give some words of encouragement to the kid as he is set to pitch to the most important batter of his career.

Did he just ask for the ball? Holy crap, he’s pulling him! Tony La Russa just brought in a pitcher to issue an intentional walk and he is removing him from the game in favor of someone else!

My disgust has now multiplied exponentially and I am doing everything in my power to not go nuts in front of the family members and guest watching the game with me at my house.

Jason Motte came in and struck out Andrus to end the inning but that is not the point. How can anyone justify the move La Russa made?

He claims it was “too loud” and the bullpen heard “Lynn” instead of “Motte” over the phone because clearly those two names sound so similar. I think Tony just loves to change pitchers and he couldn’t help himself. Why use three pitchers to complete an inning when you can use four!

But La Russa’s managerial mishaps did not end there. Sure, he made plenty of questionable decisions throughout the game. I just outlined what felt like 40 of them in the eighth inning alone but things continued in the top of the ninth.

The Cardinals caught a break when Rangers closer Neftali Feliz hit Allen Craig with a 1-2 breaking ball. That brought the tying run to the plate in Albert Pujols. This is the same player who crushed three homers two nights ago and is widely considered the best in the game. There is no one better for the Cardinals to have up than Albert.

Pujols works a full count and Tony gets that itch inside him that drives him to needlessly tinker.

On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Pujols fouls off a pitch to stay alive but something interesting happened. Craig, who had been thrown out by about 87 feet earlier in the game, was on the move. I immediately turned to my dad and said something like “why would he be running? That run is meaningless.”

It was probably to avoid the double play but this is Albert Pujols at the plate. Almost everything he hits is a rocket that would be tough to field unless it is hit right at someone. I think you take your chances that Albert finds a hole somewhere as your defense of a potential double play instead of starting a runner who is not the swiftest but that’s just my opinion.

Here comes pitch number seven of the at-bat. Again Pujols fouls it off and again Craig was running. Now I am really starting to get angry at this ridiculous decision by La Russa and say something about how that move is going to cost them.

Sure enough, Pujols swings through the next pitch and Craig is gunned down by about 17 football fields at second. That, my friends, is your World Series.

The momentum swung completely back in the Rangers’ favor as the biggest threat was eliminated and they were two outs away from a 3-2 series lead.

Matt Holliday worked a walk to give the Cardinals a glimmer of hope but Feliz squashed it quickly as he struck out Lance Berkman on five pitches to seal the victory.

The Cardinals head back to St. Louis to play Game 6 on Tuesday. If they should manage to win that game, they will play in a decisive Game 7 the next night. Anything can happen in a Game 7 but I am telling you what will happen if it gets to that point.

The Rangers will win.

How do I know this?

Because they have not lost consecutive games since they lost three in a row from August 23-25. I also know this because the Cardinals are scheduled to start Kyle Lohse in that game and he hasn’t been able to get anybody out lately.

But mostly, I know the Rangers will win because La Russa will continue to do everything he can to show off how brilliant he is. He will double-switch and play the matchups with his bullpen but only when he feels like it. He will continue to trot out automatic outs like Nick Punto when his team needs to score runs against a team that can outslug anyone. And lastly, he will find a way to snatch the 11th World Series title in franchise history away from the Cardinals and instead hand the Rangers their first ever World Championship.

Thanks, Tony.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Baseball Goes Beyond the Diamond

BY David Villavicencio
October 19, 1986 is not a historic day in baseball history.

The Red Sox clobbered Dwight Gooden and the Mets that night. Boston beat New York, 9-3, to take a 2-0 lead in the World Series that the Mets would eventually come back to win in seven games.

But this post is not about Bill Buckner, Mookie Wilson or anyone who actually played in that World Series. This is about how that World Series was literally the beginning of my love affair with the game of baseball.

Game 2 of the 1986 World Series started at 8:30 PM in New York and all eyes were on Shea Stadium that night. Roger Clemens and Gooden squared off in a battle of young aces that ended up a slugfest.

Regardless of the result, the anticipation heading into the game was great and baseball fans everywhere found a way to tune in. For Osvaldo Villavicencio, it meant watching from a hospital delivery room as his wife, Omaira, was about to give birth to their first child.

As excited as my dad was to meet me, he was just as excited about the World Series.
From what I have been told, he was as passionate about the game then as he is now and he hated the Mets because of their division rivalry with his beloved Cardinals.

My parents have told me that he spent most of the night running in and out of the delivery room to check the score or watch a couple of pitches. He was even updating my mom’s doctor on what was going in the game.

Three hours and thirty-six minutes after Game 2 began, it was all over and the Red Sox had won. About 15 minutes later, my dad knew his first child was also going to be his first son. 

My mom had given birth to me at about 12:20 AM on October 20, literally minutes after the conclusion of a World Series game. From the very beginning, baseball was a part of my life. It even was involved in my birth and I take that as a sign that I was destined to be connected to this game that I am so passionate about.

A huge part of that passion came because of my dad. He is one of the biggest baseball fans I have ever met. My dad is knowledgeable and passionate about baseball. He passed that knowledge and passion on to his son from the very beginning.

I can still remember him buying me my first baseball set. Of course, it was Cardinal red. I still have the wood bat with the Cardinals logo, along with my first pair of Cardinals shoes and my first Cardinals hat. I wish I still had my Cardinal red glove!

I will never forget playing catch in the yard and going to Marlins games with him as a young boy. I will always remember sitting next to him at the 1997 World Series games and travelling all over the country to watch games in different ballparks.

I will also never forget the trip we took together to St. Louis in 2006. It was our first time ever seeing the Cardinals in their home stadium. I have to thank my mom for that trip because it was her idea and it was one of the best three days of my life. I hope to share something special like that with my son one day.

My Dad and I at Busch Stadium in 2006
We do not get to watch games together as much as we used to. Over the past three years, I have been watching from the press box while he is in the stands or watching at home. But we sit together and watch whenever we can, like we did Wednesday night. It was just like when I was a kid again. He was in a seat and I was next to him. When the Cardinals finished off the Game 1 win, we hugged and high-fived. It was perfect. Father and son sharing another special moment thanks to baseball.

So as I write this exactly 25 years after Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley retired Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez to clinch a Game 2 win, I want to say thank you to my mom for allowing my dad to watch the game that night and for embracing how my dad and I have bonded so much over a game we both love.

I also want to thank my dad for taking the time to introduce me to the game. Without him, I would have never developed a love for baseball and sports in general. Because of baseball, we have built a special bond that we will share forever. 

Lastly, I want to thank all of you for reading my work. You make it possible for me to do something I love and I appreciate your support.

Who ever would have thought that a random World Series game 25 years ago would have made such a profound impact on a person’s life?

I am certainly glad that it did.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Potential Marlins playing in World Series

BY David Villavicencio 

Shortly after the World Series starts tonight, Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols will step into the batter’s box in the bottom of the first inning to face Rangers ace C.J. Wilson.

Rangers fans will be hoping for an out while Cardinals fans will be looking for a big hit. But what will Marlins fans be looking at? Possibly future teammates.

The Marlins are expected to be major players in free agency this off-season and Pujols and Wilson figure to be two of their main targets.

Could Pujols be a Miami Marlin?
Baseball sources have told me the Marlins are very interested in the 31-year-old Pujols and will be heavily involved in the bidding for his services.

The Marlins currently have Gaby Sanchez at first base. Sanchez is coming off an All-Star season and played hurt for most of the year. He will likely continue to improve as he heads into his third full season in the big leagues.

Even with a solid player like Sanchez on the roster, it’s hard to blame the Marlins for being interested in a player like Pujols. The all-everything slugger is the best player in baseball today and instantly vaults their team into relevancy.

Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria wants to make a big splash as his team moves into their new ballpark next season and no splash would be bigger than the one created by luring a gargantuan free agent like Pujols.

Wilson could strengthen rotation
Wilson is not as big a name as Pujols but he will be the best free agent pitcher not named C.C. Sabathia this winter. The fact that he is left-handed makes him even more appealing to the right-hander heavy Marlins.

While Wilson is not a true ace, he has earned consecutive All-Star selections and would be an excellent number two starter behind Josh Johnson.  

Signing Wilson will not be easy or cheap. The pitching market is barren and Wilson is expected to garner a lot of attention when he hits free agency in a few weeks. The Marlins figure to be one of the teams showing interest.