MLB: 2015 American League Preview

It was another terrible winter in Boston, and now that the 83 weeks of spring training are just about over, it’s time for my annual American League preview! I’ve been doing this in some form since 2005 and I hope you still enjoy reading this as much as I enjoy writing it. I know spring is either just around the corner or has arrived whenever I put this together.

As I’ve done the last few years, I stay away from specific predictions with where teams will place in the coming season and instead just offer a general outlook on each club. If nothing else, it makes me look like less of a doofus at the end of the year when I get things wrong.

Clubs are presented in alphabetical order by division, going east to west. I welcome your critiques in the comments.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the real games when they start Sunday night.

AL EAST

BALTIMORE: It appeared 2014 would be the year these Orioles made it to the World Series, before running into the Royals October buzzsaw. After the offseason soap opera around Dan Duquette’s aborted attempt to flee to Toronto, Baltimore will be mostly the same team with one significant difference: gone will be Nelson Cruz and his 40 HRs. They’ll fill the gap with Travis Snider, Delmon Young, Matt Wieters (when he’s healthy) and Chris Davis (when his suspension ends). Buck Showalter’s pitching remains in tact, so I expect the O’s to be in it all year.

BOSTON: The biggest question: Will the pitching match the offense? No question Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval add firepower to John Farrell’s lineup, while young guns Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts won’t be relied on as much to produce. Yet no one knows if this rotation will hold up all season and we may be whistling past the bullpen’s graveyard. But, Ben Cherington has more than enough trade chips to fortify his core of arms. Given just how much talent Boston has, a trade or two seems inevitable anyway.

NEW YORK: I can only imagine what Yankees fans thought when Brandon McCarthy signed with the Dodgers for $48 million and Brian Cashman said, effectively, he was too expensive for them. Meanwhile, they’ll spend $98.5 million this year on five veterans (Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann) who won’t play up to their contracts. The Yankees’ quiet offseason may be a harbinger of what’s to come as they wait for albatross contracts to clear. Fans will have to be patient as a result.

TAMPA BAY: A wind of change blew through Tampa this winter, starting with Joe Maddon opting out and Andrew Friedman fleeing for Chavez Ravine. Will the Rays still be the Rays with Kevin Cash and Matt Silverman in charge? When healthy, they likely have the division’s strongest rotation, yet health is the big concern. By mid-season, however, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly and Jake Odorizzi could make the Rays the most dangerous team in the league. But all the pieces have to fall into place and we’ve never seen Cash at the helm.

TORONTO: It’s been a long, long time since I’ve believed in the Blue Jays and once again, I don’t believe in them. Spending lots of money on Russell Martin was OK and Alex Anthopolous pulled a terrific trade for Josh Donaldson. No doubt Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista will form a deadly mid-lineup force. But their pitching may be worse than Boston’s, with R.A. Dickey and Mark Buerhle entering their twilight years, Marcus Stroman devastatingly blowing out his knee in spring training and no clear dominant bullpen piece. It won’t be their year, once again.

AL CENTRAL

CHICAGO: The Pale Hose went from also-ran to legitimate AL favorite in the course of one offseason. They added a bonafide closer in David Robertson, a solid #2 starter to pair with Chris Sale in Jeff Samardzija and some great lineup compliments in Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche. Combine those guys with the existing infrastructure of Sale, bomb-hitting phenom Jose Abreu and strong supporting cast members like Adam Eaton, Avisail Garcia and Jose Quintana and it’s easy to see why there’s so much hype around the White Sox. This is a stacked division, but Robin Ventura’s team in positioned to win now.

CLEVELAND: Raise your hand if you saw Corey Kluber’s dominant Cy Young season coming at this time last year. No one out there? That’s what I thought. It goes to show you never can tell when it comes to pitching and who qualifies as an “ace.” Terry Francona has one now with Kluber and his presence gives stability to a developing rotation that will rely on younger guys like Carlos Carrasco and the perpetually-underwhelming Trevor Bauer. With few other changes besides the addition of Brandon Moss, it should be a good year in Cleveland.

DETROIT: The Tigers’ super-rotation is no more with Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello gone, yet David Price, Anibal Sanchez and a hopefully-healthy Justin Verlander remain. Those guys should be enough to prop up another playoff-worthy edition of the Tigers, but the issues in their bullpen should scare the crap out of anyone who thinks they can sail into October again. Joe Nathan was abjectly terrible last year and I can’t imagine much faith in Joakim “Two Tommy Johns” Soria exists. Detroit may need some luck, given the Central’s strength.

KANSAS CITY: Man, what a fun ride that was for the Royals last October. They were the Cardiac Kids, winning in dramatic fashion until Alex Gordon was (correctly) held at third base in World Series Game 7 and their impossible dreams for a title were dashed. While baseball may be revitalized in KC, its team didn’t improve much for 2015. James Shields is gone, replaced by Edinson Volquez. Billy Butler and Nori Aoki departed for Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios. But everything else remains in place, including that devastating bullpen.

MINNESOTA: The weak link in the AL Central, once again, is in Minnesota. With Paul Molitor now at the helm, the Twins will struggle to be relevant with a lineup bereft of elite talent (unless you still think Joe Mauer is elite, which is quite debatable) and a rotation that will be without Ervin Santana for half the year thanks to a steroid suspension. Phil Hughes may continue his bounce-back and Glen Perkins is a decent closer, but it seems very likely the Twins will top 90 losses for the fifth straight year.

AL WEST

HOUSTON: For once, the Astros have some hope. Guarded hope, but hope nonetheless. A solid core is growing thanks to George Springer’s dynamism, Jose Altuve’s electricity, Chris Carter’s power and the unexpectedly strong pitching of Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh. They’ve fortified their bullpen with Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek, added Evan Gattis, Jed Lowrie and Luis Valbeuna to their lineup and have future pieces like former top picks Carlos Correa and Mark Appel. Houston may not be great yet, but the rise is coming.

LOS ANGELES: Mike Trout is the best, their rotation should be great when healthy, Huston Street gives them an excellent bullpen, Mike Scioscia is excellent, blah blah blah…I’m having a hard time thinking positively about the Angels right now in the aftermath of their shameful handling of Josh Hamilton winning his drug suspension appeal. Hamilton clearly has personal issues to deal with and for the team to pile on like it did was inexcusable in every way. I sincerely hope Hamilton gets help and never has to play for this team again.

OAKLAND: The Athletics had one of the strangest offseasons of any team I can remember. They dealt off Jeff Samardzija just months after giving up a prized shortstop prospect to get him and puzzlingly sent Donaldson away for Brett Lawrie, but also added Billy Butler, Ben Zobrist and Tyler Clippard. So while the A’s may be solid once again, it’s anyone’s guess what Billy Beane will do during the season. It doesn’t matter if they’re bad or good, Beane could deal anyone at anytime. It makes predicting how they’ll be this year very difficult.

SEATTLE: It seems like every year folks jump on the Mariners’ bandwagon and 2015 is no different. It’s hard not to be drawn in thanks to the AL’s best pitcher, Felix Hernandez, the new big bat addition of Cruz and Robinson Cano coming off a strong first year in Seattle. I’m just not sure they’ve added enough to really be a threat to the Angels. They’ll need healthy and productive campaigns from Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton while asking a lot of 38-year-old closer Fernando Rodney. Right now, I don’t see a big year in Seattle.

TEXAS: Yu Darvish became the latest major casualty of the Tommy John epidemic running through baseball these last few years, and man does that suck for him, the Rangers and baseball in general. Texas will attempt to make due with what’s left around including Derek Holland and newly-acquired Yovani Gallardo. The Rangers were inundated with injuries last year and will look to get a full season out of Prince Fielder in 2015. They should be competitive if their rotation and bullpen hold up.

Advertisements

MLB: 2014 American League Preview

Given the winter we’ve had in the northeast, baseball is coming at the most welcome time possible. With that comes my annual preview of the American League, which marks my 10th year doing it.

Once again I’ll be staying away from specific predictions (this approach was a good one for me as the only team I was truly wrong about last year was Chicago) and just going with my general feelings about all 15 clubs going into the season.

Clubs are presented in alphabetical order by division going east to west. Feel free to critique me in the comments.

Enjoy and pray for spring.

AL EAST

BALTIMORE: After his meddlesome owner forced him to back out of more than one deal this winter due to medical concerns, including one with closer Grant Balfour, Dan Duquette finally opened the Orioles’ checkbook and landed compensation free agents Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez for market-value-or-under deals in late February. But it’s unlikely the Orioles improved themselves enough to jump back in the playoffs after missing them in ’13, with Chris Davis and Matt Wieters a year closer to free agency and Manny Machado opening the year on the DL.

BOSTON: With the improbable World Series run behind them, questions loom over the Red Sox chances for a repeat. Can they count on unproven Jackie Bradley, Jr. or Roy Hobbs impersonator Grady Sizemore to replace Jacoby Ellsbury in center field? Will wunderkind Xander Bogaerts stick at shortstop? Will the starting pitchers and relievers bounce back after a short offseason? Is Will Middlebrooks going to produce? After an improbable title, is an improbable repeat possible? With David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester leading the way, it’s hard to deny any possibility.

NEW YORK: The Yankees didn’t take losing lying down after ’08 and they didn’t take missing the playoffs in ’13 lying down either. After a dizzying offseason of signings including Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Masahiro Tanaka, the Bombers have pieces in place for a successful year. But they also have as many questions as any team in MLB. There’s no guarantee Mark Teixeira or Derek Jeter will perform after injury-plagued years. Their rotation has no sure things, David Robertson has massive shoes to fill and who exactly will play second and third are up in the air.

TAMPA BAY: There were at least two really surprising things about the Rays offseason: first, they didn’t trade David Price, who with two years left seemed a lock to be moved; and second, they actually spent some money in free agency, bringing back James Loney for $21 million, Balfour for $12 million, extending David DeJesus for $10.5 million and picking up $4.5 million for reliever Heath Bell‘s deal. There’s absolutely no reason to expect the Rays to be anywhere besides the playoff race again this year and going all the way isn’t out of the question.

TORONTO: File this one under “ho-hum.” The Blue Jays had as quiet a winter as any team, changing up their catching situation by fetching Dioner Navarro and shedding J.P. Arencibia but really not doing much else. They were linked to several free agents, including Jimenez and Ervin Santana before each signed. It was perplexing Alex Anthopoulos didn’t bite on either since their first two picks are compensation-protected. Their lack of action could lead to an in-season fire sale if they once again disappoint, possibly undoing many of their big moves last year.

AL CENTRAL

CHICAGO: For once, it really seems like the White Sox have a plan. All it took was Rick Hahn to take over the GM chair from now-team president Kenny Williams. Yes, there is a plan, but that plan probably won’t involve a lot of winning right away. Paul Konerko‘s likely final year in the Majors will represent the last vestige of a bygone Pale Hose era. The new era is likely to be marked by hitters like Avisail Garcia, Matt Davidson, Adam Eaton and Cuban phenom Jose Abreu. Will Chris Sale remain in place as the ace they’ll build around, or will they cash in on a big package now?

CLEVELAND: The feel-good story of ’13 took place in Cleveland, where Tito Francona came out of his one-year hiatus and led the Tribe to a berth in the Wild Card game. They didn’t make a ton of changes heading into ’14, adding John Axford as their likely closer and David Murphy as a spare outfielder. Carlos Santana is poised for a real breakout as he moves out from behind the plate and Danny Salazar has ace potential. The health of veterans like Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher will determine if the Indians make that next step to a real contender.

DETROIT: GM Dave Dombrowski seemed to have a grand scheme when he traded Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler early in the winter, but little materialized outside of a curious trade of Doug Fister and adding a real closer in Joe Nathan. The Tigers have a huge question at shortstop with Jose Iglesias on the shelf for the year; my guess is Stephen Drew signs a one year deal. With Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera all here, their challenges could be overcome quite easily with great years from their superstars and supporting players.

KANSAS CITY: No question the Royals are suddenly the hot sleeper team in the AL, with pundits tripping over themselves to declare them a division favorite. I’m not ready to go that far, but coming off a surprisingly good season and adding Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki to plug their lineup holes, getting to the playoffs for the first time since 1985 (whoa) is within grasp. James Shields is a contract-year strike-throwing badass, Greg Holland might be the game’s best closer, Yordano Ventura is a stud, their bullpen is stacked and their lineup is balanced. Why not this year for the Royals?

MINNESOTA: Hope is in the pipeline for Minnesota with Byron Buxton, the game’s best prospect, possibly close to patrolling center at Target Field. That’s the most positive thing I can say about this team’s future. Their chronic inability to develop pitching resulted in laughable contracts for Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, guys just mediocre enough to lift the team above the White Sox in the standings. Still, Joe Mauer‘s career and numbers should see a boost with a full-time move to first base and the dynamic talents this moribund franchise needs could be around the corner.

AL WEST

HOUSTON: This June, the Astros will be the first team in MLB history with the top pick in the draft three years running. It’s likely they’ll break their own record in ’15 after another “rebuilding” season. These top picks will eventually pay off because Carlos Correa and Mark Appel are bonafide studs along with budding superstar outfielder George Springer. But after a winter of puzzling moves like signing Scott Feldman, trading for Dexter Fowler and pointlessly bringing in veteran relievers Chad Qualls and Jesse Crain, it makes me wonder if there’s really a plan here at all.

LOS ANGELES: I like the Angels to have a big bounce-back year. There’s too much talent here for anything else. Mike Trout continues his reign as the best player on Earth while Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols could see comebacks worthy of their past glory. Healthy and effective years for Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson will make a potent right-left rotation punch with the flame-throwing Ernesto Frieri at the end of wins. Don’t be surprised if Kole Calhoun, Peter Bourjos‘ outfield replacement, creates some serious head-turning early in the season.

OAKLAND: I’m a little dubious on the Athletics having the horses in their rotation for another postseason run unless they can pull a trade. They’ve lost Jarrod Parker to TJ, A.J. Griffin is already hurt and Scott Kazmir is, well, Scott Kazmir. Their two best remaining starters, Sonny Gray and Dan Straily, are unproven over 162-plus. Their lineup remains excellent anchored by rain-bringer Josh Donaldson, beastly Yoenis Cespedes and a parade of ex-Red Sox and they’ve got a deep bullpen with new closer Jim Johnson. But I’m not sure it’ll be enough without more moves.

SEATTLE: Let’s not mince words here: the Mariners wil regret giving Robinson Cano a 10-year contract sooner rather than later. Before that happens, there’s a window of Cano’s prime where Seattle can capitalize and win. While Felix Hernandez remains an elite ace, they’ve got question marks throughout the rest of the rotation and bullpen, plus they clearly didn’t add enough offense to support Cano. I don’t see ’14 being the M’s year as a result, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen for them before Cano’s deal becomes cringe-worthy if the right moves are made.

TEXAS: The injury bug bit a huge chunk out of the Rangers’ rotation during winter and spring training, with Tanner Scheppers of all people earning the Opening Day start. Yu Darvish will be back soon and that’s a great thing as he continues his development as an ace. But how they piece together these first few months with their rotation will be important in determining if they’ll have enough in the tank for a postseason run. Fielder is in, Cruz is out as the Rangers enter a new era without Nolan Ryan as an important franchise decision-maker.

MLB: Thoughts on Fielder for Kinsler

371px-Prince_Fielder_on_July_13,_2012

On Wednesday night, veteran baseball writer Jon Heyman of CBS Sports bucked his longtime trend of simply confirming the work of other sportswriters and did some actual reporting of his own, breaking the biggest star-for-star trade in Major League Baseball in years: Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler, pending physicals and Fielder’s expected waiving of his no-trade clause.

This trade has so many implications, so many ripple effects and so many facets I decided to buck my own longtime trend of only writing about such things in 140-character bursts and actually fire up the blog to get my many thoughts about it out.

All of this comes with the caveat that the thing could blow up at any second. But without further ado, here’s how the deal affects each of the major players involved:

TIGERS: Yahoo’s Jeff Passan is reporting the Tigers will be kicking in $30 million of the remaining $168 million on Fielder’s deal. Kinsler is owed a guaranteed $62 million, which could get as high as $69 million if the Tigers exercise a 2018 player option.

Kinsler, 31, has a .262/.341/.438/.780 line over the last three seasons, averaging a 107 OPS+, 21 HR, 159 H, 104 R and 149 games played over that stretch. Even though his numbers the last two years haven’t been as good as his stellar 2011 campaign (when he hit 32 HR and posted an .832 OPS), Kinsler is easily still a top 5 AL second baseman and should hold up well enough at the position to stay there through the end of the deal.

It seems likely the Tigers will move Miguel Cabrera back across the diamond to first where I imagine he will split time with Victor Martinez in a 1B/DH timeshare. That leaves an opening at third, where top prospect Nick Castellanos could find himself, although he moved from third to left field for 2013. There could also be a return engagement for Jhonny Peralta, as he profiles better for a corner at this point in his career.

Regardless, first-year manager Brad Ausmus now has a remade infield that should be much better defensively than the one that lost in six games to the Red Sox in the ALCS. The reduced wear-and-tear on Cabrera could make an already historically-dangerous hitter more dangerous. The Tigers are losing a lot of offense by dumping Fielder (more on that to come), but the Red Sox proved just how important run prevention can be.

Perhaps more importantly, this trade gives the Tigers financial flexibility. The savings should allow them to make longterm pacts with Max Scherzer (who’d been rumored to be on the block) and, after next season, Cabrera, who can be a free agent after 2015. The possibility that Cabrera could spend the last years of his career at 1B/DH with the Tigers makes Detroit an even more enticing option for him.

Also, don’t be surprised if the flexibility also leads to the signing of an outfielder to replace some of Fielder’s bat. Carlos Beltran is the name to watch.

Mike Illitch wants that World Series ring before he dies. He’s taking a big gamble by green-lighting this, but it’s got a great chance of paying off.

RANGERS: Texas is getting a Texas-sized bat from a Texas-sized man in Fielder. He has few peers over the last three years: .297/.396/.515/.911, 145 OPS+, averaging 31 HRs, 35 2Bs and 175 hits. Despite his size, Fielder has been exceptionally durable as the active consecutive games played leader at 505. He’s missed just 13 regular season games since the start of 2006.

It’s still a long commitment of seven years left for Fielder, 29, and who knows how he’ll age. There’s a bad track record for overweight sluggers in their 30s (look no further than his lineage). But the Rangers could be getting a superstar offensive player in the middle of their order in a hitter’s park at a shade under $20 million a season.

For a team with many solid building blocks already in place, it could be a steal when you consider how much the likes of Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols are being paid and how much you can expect Robinson Cano to make this winter.

There are reports Tigers people were down on Fielder for his on and off-field performance in the 2013 playoffs, after he hit 4-for-22 in the ALCS and did, well, this. I think Fielder was injured but wouldn’t admit it or take himself out of the lineup. The Tigers’ willingness to move him was more about clearing salary and trying to remake the team more than anything else.

The Rangers no longer have to think about trading entrenched shortstop Elvis Andrus or prospective second baseman Jurickson Profar now that they’ve moved Kinsler, and Profar will finally get the shot he deserves at second base in 2014. A couple years ago, Profar and Mike Trout were similarly touted as prospects, but Profar has a paltry .644 OPS in an admittedly small sample of 94 MLB games.

Profar had to assume a super-utility role for the Rangers in 2013, seeing time at short, second, third, left field and DH. That probably wasn’t the best way to use a prospect who’s still only 20 years old, but the trade of Kinsler provides a clear path for Profar to play everyday at one position.

The Rangers are also still in a position to add more offense, but it will probably be in the outfield or behind the plate. They’ll also be a player for Beltran as well as Brian McCann.

After this trade, the Rangers are better positioned to leapfrog over the Athletics in the AL West and get back to the World Series, where they were in 2010 and 2011.

FREE AGENT/TRADE MARKET: I’ve touched on this a bit already, noting the likes of Scherzer, Andrus and Profar won’t be on the trade market anymore, if they ever were at all. But there are important implications for the free agent market too.

For the Red Sox, there’s a potential positive in their pursuit to keep Mike Napoli. The Rangers were viewed as competition for the Napster and now that seems pretty unlikely, unless their plan is to play either him or Fielder at DH, which again seems unlikely with Mitch Moreland under team control.

It also saves the Rangers the unintentional comedy of giving up Napoli without getting a draft pick back for 2013, then giving up a draft pick in 2014 to get him back. Oh well.

On a lesser note, Omar Infante won’t be going back to Detroit now and he appears to be the fallback option for any of a number of teams who will lose out on the Cano sweepstakes, including the Yankees themselves.

This is the first major domino of the offseason to fall. Usually, it takes until the Winter Meetings for something like this to happen, and those meetings still aren’t for a couple more weeks.

With expected free agent prices to be astronomical, that could set the stage for more trades than normal this year. It should make for a very interesting winter.

Overall, I think this trade could be a win for both teams. The Tigers make their team a bit better by reshuffling the deck and getting a fantastic second baseman while the Rangers add a major bopper and a lot more payroll.

Baseball trades are awesome, especially the blockbusters. Here’s hoping for many more this winter to keep us entertained until spring arrives once again.

MLB: Ryan Braun’s Trail of Lies

800px-Ryan_Braun_2008-1

It all makes sense now.

I would count myself among the defenders of Ryan Braun since word leaked in December 2011 that he’d failed a drug test and was appealing a 50-game suspension from Major League Baseball.

At every step, it appeared he had a case. Not necessarily that he was 100 percent innocent, but that he wasn’t being given the measure of due process owed to him by the Joint Drug Agreement.

But I didn’t think he could beat Bud Selig, Rob Manfred and the MLB. They don’t get beat. They aren’t in the business of getting beat. They have a legal monopoly for Pete’s sake.

After his suspension was overturned by an arbitrator, I was flabbergasted. I could not believe he’d won.  And similarly, I could not believe MLB had gone out of its way to tarnish the reputation of one of its biggest stars for seemingly, ultimately, nothing.

When MLB issued a biting statement about how they “vehemently” disagreed with the ruling, it appeared like sour grapes and nothing else.

Then Braun got up in front of the Arizona microphone and proclaimed his innocence, decried the haters, swore he’d never done anything to result in a positive test, denounced a system that showed its flaws and, of all things, trashed the tester he blamed for thwarting the process and possibly tampering with his urine.

So why had MLB done this? Why did MLB go to such great lengths to go after Braun? And why, when his name popped up in a relatively tangential fashion in the Biogenesis case, did they seem hellbent on making Braun fall?

It all makes sense now.

Because Braun was a cheat, and, worse so, a liar, who made MLB look like fools. MLB knew who Braun really was. They weren’t going to lose this time.

I found myself, over this last year and a half, always feeling like Braun had been seriously wronged by MLB. In some ways, that is still true.

His argument about how Dino Laurenzi may have mishandled his sample clearly had some merit, especially if it was convincing enough to lead an arbitrator to overrule his suspension.

In addition, someone from MLB obviously leaked that initial information regarding Braun’s 2011 positive test and suspension to ESPN, which is and always has been a violation of the testing program. It would make no sense for anyone in Braun’s camp to leak that information.

The Players Association has to take such breaches seriously. This is especially true after someone leaked names of players with positive tests on the 2003 survey that led to mandatory testing.

It was collectively bargained, between the union and the league, that no one would ever learn the identities of those who tested positive. Someone broke that contract, hence breaking the law. As far as I know, no one was ever held accountable for that.

MLBPA even has a case this time, since virtually all the names of players in the Biogenesis case are out there and details of the investigation have been widely reported.

Someone has a big mouth over at MLB, and it’s not because steroids made their head too big. It’s something that needs to be fixed.

I always hated it when people said Braun “got off on a technicality.” MLB’s drug testing system, like the U.S. criminal justice system, is based on a series of rules, regulations and procedures to ensure fairness to all involved.

If those procedures are broken in any fashion, the accused cannot get a fair hearing. They can’t. To me, that’s a little bigger than a technicality. That’s the way these systems have to work.

So perhaps Braun deserved his initial reprieve from discipline. Apparently this time, however, with no chain of custody issues at hand, Braun had to cut a deal. All things considered, maybe he got off a little easy this time, missing the rest of a lost season for the Brewers.

When this first broke, my initial feeling was Braun’s reputation in Milwaukee would survive, and maybe it will. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if that will be the case.

See, it’s not so much that he cheated. Over the last dozen years I’ve accepted that cheating is part of sports, after so many people lauded as heroes have come crashing back to Earth as disappointments. I don’t get let down when this happens because I don’t let myself get let down anymore.

It’s that he lied. And was so damn convincing at it, too.

It’s that he pulled a Rafael Palmeiro on us. It’s that he did what Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds did to us. It’s that he did what we’re probably going to find out Alex Rodriguez did to us.

Could Braun have come right out in 2012 spring training and said, “I was on the juice but my due process was breached”? Of course not.

But his outright, steadfast denials? His righteous indignation? His defiance of the entire episode? The fact he lied to his own teammates, who were reportedly furious Monday? That’s where Braun enters into a different category.

We’ve mostly given passes to players like Mark McGwire, Andy Pettitte and Jason Giambi because they contritely admitted the truth about their PED use.

None of them lied like Braun, nor did any of them go out of their way to publicly disparage a participant in the process like Braun did with Laurenzi.

If I were a Brewers fan, I could handle rooting for a cheater. Hell, David Ortiz was supposedly on the 2003 list, and it doesn’t stop me from cheering every time he comes to the plate. But someone who did what Braun did? That’s a tougher sell.

Time will be the determining factor here.

I have more thoughts about the turning tide in baseball among the players, the ones who feel wronged by the cheaters and liars. They are clean, but they can’t be above suspicion, because of jerks like Braun and A-Rod. And they no longer want the likes of Braun and A-Rod to be protected by their union. They are pissed off and they should be.

I’ll offer those the next time a star gets suspended. Which you can guarantee will be soon.

MLB: Lester, Buchholz Bouncing Back

clay-lester

It was not my plan to write on Red Sox-related topics every week when I re-started by blogging career this season. But I feel like the best thing about the 2013 season to date, for me at least, has been the resurgence of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.

There were times last year when both guys seemed so lost, so out of sorts that I wondered if they’d ever regain the form that made them so formidable not that long ago.

Buchholz, 28, was horrendous from the outset of 2012, got sick but then came back strong. By the end of the year he was the most consistent pitcher on the team, but it’s still hard to call it anything but a lost season for him (4.56 ERA). He did make a career-high 29 starts, however.

Lester, 29, for reasons I still don’t understand, went from being one of the most consistent starters in baseball, and one of the finest left-handed pitchers in the game, to astounding mediocrity. He went over 200 innings but his 4.87 ERA and drop in strikeouts (225 in ‘09 and ‘10, 182 in ‘11, 166 in ‘12) were definitely alarming for a starter Lester’s age. Brian MacPherson has a good comparison of Lester to other elite AL lefties here.

But that’s all different now. Through three starts each, Lester sports a 1.42 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 18/3 K/BB while Buchholz has a microscopic 0.41 ERA, also an 0.95 WHIP with 23/10 K/BB.

Each guy has made hitters look silly with the best of their stuff, making all of their pitches work and without much fear of using any pitch in any situation. I always felt like Buchholz may have better stuff than Lester, and that’s borne itself out so far this year.

Most importantly, the Red Sox have won all six of their starts, all coming against AL East opponents.

Some of the renewed success of Buchholz and Lester must be attributed to the return of John Farrell. Since the start of 2010, these guys have worked with five different pitching coaches (Farrell, Curt Young, Bob McClure, Randy Niemann and now Juan Nieves). It seems working with Farrell and Nieves, and the idea there will hopefully be some stability in those positions going forward, has helped significantly.

With Josh Beckett gone, Lester and Buchholz have taken it upon themselves to be leaders and positive influences for the pitching staff. It’s easy to be positive when you’re actually pitching well.

For Buchholz, the key will be remaining healthy and on the mound. His dominating performance Sunday against Tampa where he took a no-no into the 8th inning was an important statement for what he can be. But he’s never made 30 starts in a season and can, once and for all, shed the title of “fragile” if he can keep it together.

Lester has corrected whatever mechanical or mental issues that plagued him a year ago. He’s thrown a lot of pitches in his starts so far, but on Saturday, while I was sitting in the right field grandstands, Lester got stronger as the game went on. Being efficient will be his biggest test in 2013.

Thanks in no small part to these two, the Red Sox have a 2.07 ERA for their starters through 11 games. With enough offense to go around and a deep bullpen, there’s no reason this team won’t compete all year as currently constituted.

And with Lester and Buchholz pitching like this, it’s not hard to imagine the Red Sox being more than just competitors in 2013.

***

I don’t have much more to offer on the topic of Carlos Quentin than what’s already been said ad nauseum, but it’s clear his rage was in the wrong place this week when he charged the mound and knocked Zack Greinke out for at least two months. Was eight games enough for Quentin’s suspension? I say no. As much as I’d like to see Quentin have to sit as long as Greinke will be out, that’s probably a bit too punitive. I still wish MLB would factor in the severity of the opposing player’s injury in determining discipline as the NHL does.

Fair or foul? D’backs owner Ken Kendrick forced some Dodgers fans sitting behind home plate at Chase Field to change their shirts Friday night, or move to a different location. The Dodger blue was apparently uncouth in such a high-visibility area of the park. If you plunk down $3,000 for a suite, should you be allowed to wear whatever you want, within the boundaries of good taste? What I find funny is the fans seemed so willing to don the gear of an opposing team to keep their seats. I can’t imagine ever doing something like that, even if it came with free booze.

Hopefully by now you’ve learned the story of Evan Gattis, the Braves’ catcher who’s overcome incredible personal adversity and is presently tearing the cover off the ball, including this truly insane homer off Stephen Strasburg. My favorite thing ever: he went to Venezuela to play winter ball and the fans called him “El Oso Blanco,” or, “The White Bear.” Gold.

Buster Olney tweeted Sunday the Rangers are “doing early reconnaissance and prep work” on a possible trade for Giancarlo Stanton. Later Sunday, Peter Gammons tweeted that the Rangers, Mets and Red Sox are among the teams to inquire on Stanton, but the Marlins aren’t making a deal now. As with all the Marlins’ best players, the question isn’t if Stanton gets dealt but when. He’ll be arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter, will continue to get more expensive and probably wouldn’t mind getting the hell out of South Florida. The Rangers seem well-positioned to make any kind of big trade they want, be it for Stanton or David Price, given their wealth of prospects and younger players. The question, as it was with the Justin Upton sweepstakes over the winter, is whether they really want to pull the trigger.

It seemed like most people had the Rays pegged to be either first or second in the AL East this year on the strength of their pitching alone. But watching them this weekend, it really struck me how poor their offense is. Going into Sunday, they ranked dead-last in team OPS at .601 so far this year. You wonder how long they wait to call up Wil Myers, the prized outfielder who clubbed 37 homers in the minors last year and came over from KC for James Shields over the winter. But even Myers might not be enough.

My music recommendation for the week: “Wakin on a Pretty Day” by Kurt Vile. Until next time.

MLB: Get Over It, Blue Jays Fans

john-farrellIt takes a lot for anything in sports to surprise me anymore. But I can honestly say I met the reaction of the fans in Toronto to the return of their old manager John Farrell with a healthy dose of bewilderment.

Farrell was showered in boos, cat calls and obscenities from every corner of Rogers Centre during the Red Sox’ weekend series with the Blue Jays. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why.

Sure, Farrell didn’t leave under the best of circumstances. The 2012 Blue Jays had many problems and Farrell was criticized for his handling of the clubhouse.

But while I’m not privy to exactly how the negotiations went down, I feel certain no one held a gun to Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos’ head Luca Brasi-style and told him he had to let Farrell go.

Just a year before, the Blue Jays refused to allow Farrell to flee to Boston unless the Sox ponied up the exorbitant price of Clay Buchholz.

That the Blue Jays were willing to let Farrell walk 12 months later for Mike Aviles (whom they’d later trade to Cleveland) speaks volumes about how they valued Farrell. After all, he amassed just a 154-170 record and dealt with the aforementioned issues last year.

Farrell has paid the city of Toronto, its fans and the people he worked with there nothing but compliments since leaving, and that graciousness continued this week in the face of so much disrespect.

Fans seemed to focus their venom on one comment by Farrell where he called his current position in Boston his “dream job.” Did he realize what kind of backlash that kind of sincere comment would make? Probably not.

But let’s take inventory of some irrefutable facts. Farrell spent four seasons as the pitching coach in Boston, where he built strong relationships with people throughout the organization. He was still highly-regarded and clearly highly-valued by important Red Sox figures even after he left for Toronto.

Since the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993, they have not been back to the postseason once. They have one second-place finish to their name, never winning more than 88 games. Few times have the Blue Jays been truly terrible (their 67-94 season in 2004 was the worst), but they are almost always mediocre and never really relevant.

Since 1994, the Red Sox have nine postseason appearances, two World Series titles, two AL East titles, two years where they came within one game of winning the pennant, just three losing seasons and one year that was an abject failure (2012). Farrell himself was pitching coach on three playoff teams, including the 2007 World Series Champions.

So forgive Farrell for having the outrageous idea the Boston job might be better than the one in Toronto.

Neither he, nor the Blue Jays, nor the Red Sox could have foreseen the circumstances under which Terry Francona would exit Boston and the ensuing debacles that would lead to Farrell eventually getting his “dream job.”

So why can’t the fans let this go? Farrell didn’t want to be in Toronto. The team didn’t want him to be there that badly anymore, either. The Blue Jays pulled several major moves in the offseason and have their best team in years on paper.

Part of me thought the ferocity of their hatred came from all their years of frustration coming to a boil. Their team has been fighting for relevancy for 20 years.

To wit: Roy Halladay’s prime was wasted on middling team after middling team; J.P. Ricciardi’s tenure as GM was mostly a disaster; they gave B.J. Ryan $47 million, for which they got two decent years; they had a manager in the late-’90s who lied about serving in Vietnam, eventually leading his his dismissal; after two incredible years they traded Roger Clemens for pennies on the dollar; Chris Carpenter had a 4.83 ERA in six years there before blossoming into one of baseball’s best pitchers in St. Louis; I could go on, but you get the picture.

I liken this to how Montreal Canadiens fans boo Zdeno Chara at every turn over the Max Pacioretty hit even years later. I’d be hard-pressed to believe Habs fans would care remotely as much about Chara this long after the hit if their team had won anything in recent years.

But then, Friday night, it hit me. When Jose Iglesias got plunked on the arm with a pitch and started writhing in pain, the fans booed. The booing got louder when Farrell emerged from the dugout. But they were booing the simple act of an opposing player getting hit with a pitch and reacting in pain.

In that moment, I realized how amateurish Blue Jays fans at that game truly were. And I guess it’s hard to reason with, or understand, such absurd behavior.

***

Nick Cafardo offers his take on the nonsense in Toronto, calling the fans’ antics “silly.” Cafardo makes a good point about how college basketball coaches change jobs all the time under similar circumstances, however I’m not sure that comparison makes Farrell look better.

Like Farrell describing his “dream job,” does it really make a lot of sense for Texas fans to get on John Hamilton for calling Dallas a “football town?” Really? Are we somehow doubting that football is the most important sport in Texas? Hamilton, meanwhile, has bigger fish to fry, including really unfortunate treatment of his family in Texas. It’s just a game, people.

I suspect when the Braves spent greatly in money and players this winter to get B.J. and Justin Upton in their lineup, they were hoping for results like what happened in Atlanta Saturday night. In case you missed it, this was pretty damn cool.

You know what’s not cool? A 16-year-old Japanese pitcher who was forced to throw 772 pitches in a week during the Koshien national baseball tournament. Jeff Passan takes a closer look at the culture that creates such astonishing abuse.

In honor of the start of the season, Jay Jaffe wrote this thoughtful piece for SI on 20 ways baseball can be improved. It’s a good read and while some are far-fetched (I highly doubt we’ll see Opening Day declared a national holiday, as much as I’d love it), many are very practical. You may see me tackle some of these in this space soon.

I’ll end these blogs every week with a YouTube video of a song you should be listening to. First up are Local Natives, whose sophomore album Hummingbird has been among my favorites of the year so far.

Like this blog? Hate it? Want to ask me something or have an idea for a future blog? E-mail me at jakeodonnell21@gmail.com or tweet me @jaketodonnell.

MLB: The Pride of The Valley (And, A New Promise)

lockejpg_originalWith the return of the greatest game on Earth comes a commitment from me, to you.

I blogged on a regular, nearly-weekly basis for at the end of high school and the first couple years of college. I’ve decided it’s time to get back to that and share my thoughts on baseball with you every week.

Each Monday throughout the season there will a blog on baseball in this space. I’m attempting to model it somewhat after Buster Olney’s daily blog on ESPN.com (a big-picture take, followed by links), except that I’ll be doing mine weekly.

This is for real, people. I’m going to do this, even if it kills me. You will get fresh takes from me every week. If I don’t, get at me about it.

In case you missed it, here is my annual American League preview, which doesn’t contain many predictions but just a general feel for each club.

For my first edition, I figured I would share something very few people have seen that seems particularly timely given some recent happenings.

As many of you know, I played baseball from T-ball through my senior year at Kennett High School in Conway, N.H. During my last three years at KHS, I played with Jeff Locke, one of the greatest baseball talents to ever come out of the Granite State.

Last Wednesday, news came down that Jeff, who made his MLB debut in September 2011, had won a spot in the Pirates’ starting rotation after a spring training competition.

I can only imagine how proud people were up in North Conway following the news, especially for his mom, dad, two sisters and all of his immediate and extended family.

Jeff was certainly born with talent, but I can tell you from experience he worked so hard from an extremely young age to live out his dream. To see him get rewarded for that work is nothing short of exhilarating.

Jeff and I were very close those three years, and the year after when I was a part-time coach at the high school. Although I didn’t have anywhere close to Jeff’s ability on the field, we shared a fierce, intense passion for baseball that we didn’t see in many other people around us.

I slept over his house countless times, gave him rides to school before he had his license and trekked with him all over the state to play the game we loved. More often than not, we won, and won big.

There was a weekend, several weeks before the start of one of our seasons, when Jeff wanted to play catch. His boyhood home was feet from the car dealership where his dad worked. We walked over to a back lot behind the dealership and amidst tall snow banks and a dusting of snow on the pavement, I tossed the baseball back and forth with a future big leaguer.

Over the years, when people would ask me if I thought Jeff would make it to the Majors someday, I’d tell them I didn’t think he’d make it, I knew he’d make it. How did I know? Because of days like that January or February morning in Redstone, when our footsteps left snowy impressions on cold pavement, when no amount of snow or cold would keep Jeff from working to attain his dream.

After Jeff’s made the Pirates’ rotation last week, I dug out a paper I wrote for my creative nonfiction class during my freshman year of college. From what I can tell it was written in April 2006, just as Jeff’s memorable senior season at KHS got underway.

I can’t recall specifically what the assignment was, but I interviewed Jeff and one of his fellow players for it. It’s interesting to look back on that time now, a few months before he’d be drafted in the second round by the Braves, a few years before his trade to the Pirates, a few more years before his MLB debut and more years still before Wednesday’s great news.

I present, in full, the paper I wrote about Jeff as he stood on the precipice of a professional baseball career. Enjoy. I’ll be back with the first regular edition of this blog next Monday.

***

           It is just another day, another game, and another inning for Jeff Locke. Staked to a fairly decent lead by his Kennett High Eagles teammates in this baseball game, Locke, the tall, slender senior with raven-black hair and a very serious demeanor at the moment, heads out to the pitcher’s mound for the bottom of the fourth inning. His opponents today, the host Oyster River High Bobcats of Durham, New Hampshire, send up their first batter to face Locke. The sun beams down brightly, the way it should on an April day meant for baseball. The wind blows dusty swirls from the infield dirt into the faces of a few hundred onlookers, admittedly not a typical amount for a regular season high school baseball game anywhere in New Hampshire. Many on these sidelines are friends and family of those playing in the game today, while others are there just to see the boy on the pitching rubber: Locke. About a dozen middle-aged men in windbreakers and slacks stand behind the backstop, holding up radar guns as Locke gets set to throw his first pitch of the inning. They’ve been sent here to watch this kid they have heard so much about, and they cannot miss a second of the show Locke is putting on.

           The first hitter for Oyster River seems horribly overmatched, a common sentiment for many of the hitters having to face the left-handed Locke on this breezy Wednesday afternoon. He winds up and releases the ball with incredible force, yet it almost seemed effortless. The baseball darts through the air and over the strike zone, into the glove of his catcher, Rob Knox. Bewildered, the hitter doesn’t move his bat as the home plate umpire signals “strike.” This exact scenario is repeated on the next pitch, the scouts clocking Locke’s velocity as his pitch comes in. With the count no balls and two strikes, Locke fires a fastball outside the strike zone that the hitter flails hopelessly at with his bat, followed by a long walk back to his bench. The second batter fares only slightly better, actually making contact with Locke’s second offering by fouling it back and later lifting a lazy pop fly, landing safely in the glove of center fielder Matt Fall.

           Expressionless, Locke walks off the back of the mound after the play, and licks his fingers so he can gain a better grip on the ball for what he hopes to be the final hitter of the inning. Kennett’s shortstop, Chris Donovan, yells words of encouragement from behind, “Stay up, Jeff!” After a couple of pitches, the batter hits a weak dribbler down the first base line, fielded cleanly by first baseman Sam Glynn. He touches the bag to end another easy inning for Locke and the Eagles. They stream off the field and back onto the bench for the top half of the fifth, each of them knowing their huge advantage because of the lefty with the number 11 on his back.

           Everyday is a test for Jeff Locke. Life as a teenager in a small northern New Hampshire town would seem to be simple enough, but not for Locke. The senior from Redstone, New Hampshire was born with an innate power that separates him from everyone at Kennett High School in Conway, and just about every young man in the state. Locke has played baseball his entire life; it’s what he eats, sleeps and breathes. And the combination of his love for the game, his dedication to hard work, and his natural talents have afforded him the ability to throw a baseball 90 miles per hour, which a good majority of current Major League Baseball pitchers cannot do. As a result, Locke is the only student athlete in New Hampshire’s high schools that is being heavily considered for entry into the professional ranks of sports.

           Last summer, Locke was named the New Hampshire High School Baseball Player of the Year by Manchester’s Union Leader, the most prominent newspaper in the state. He’s been contacted by 29 of the 30 Major League teams, and has had over a dozen representatives from those teams visit his small home in Redstone. Locke already has an agent, one that represents Major League stars Dontrelle Willis and Scott Rolen amongst others. Everyday, Locke takes and fields phone calls from scouts, journalists, and his agent concerning when next he will pitch for the Kennett Eagles, and how he feels about his prospects for the MLB Free Agent Entry Draft this coming June. While all this is going on, Locke has to try and live out his long-anticipated senior year at Kennett, and maintain some semblance of a normal life. He feels invariably that he has handled the pressure well, and he relies so much on his parents and family to bring him along.

           Locke was born on November 20, 1987 in North Conway, New Hampshire to his parents, Pam and Alan. He has two grown sisters, Corie and Cindy, both with young children. “I guess I better get a move on it,” Locke sarcastically remarked in regards to his own prospects for having kids. It didn’t take long for Locke to fall in love with baseball after he started playing, which he estimates happened around the age of four or five. “I would wake up early and head to the field and not step off it until dinner was ready or if the sun went down.” Locke starred on his Little League team, the North Conway Royals, for four seasons. Observers and fellow players from surrounding towns and teams began to take notice of the young lefty that was doing things no one else his age, or even years older, was doing.

           “Other people realized I had special talents before I actually did myself,” recalled Locke when discussing that earliest stage of his baseball career. “I think that the special talents were realized in my first and second years in Little League, when I was throwing progressively harder than everyone in the league, and younger than most of them.” After continuing to develop both on the mound and at the plate during two dominating years for Kennett Junior High, Locke made Coach Bob Burns’ Kennett High School varsity squad as a freshman, which Locke described as a “rush.” Locke continued to be a dominant force for Kennett, and has amassed an incredible 28-2 win/loss record through his junior season, and also leading his team in average and homers last year. Last June, he was named co-captain for the 2006 campaign, which for most high school players is the pinnacle of their baseball efforts. But for Locke, the honor he is most proud of was being named “New Hampshire Player of the Year” for 2005 by the Union Leader.

           As Locke’s ability and talent expanded as his body continued to develop and mature during his high school career, so also grew his stature and reputation as something special in baseball. All his life, Locke dreamed of being a Major League player, so he began to take steps towards turning those dreams into reality. Knowing the small confines of the Mount Washington Valley were not going to be enough to help him realize his Major League dreams, Locke accepted an offer from the Plymouth American Legion team to play summer baseball after his sophomore year at Kennett. Getting a chance to play alongside the best young talent from all of northern New Hampshire allowed him to show off his considerable abilities to a much more sizeable audience. “The ‘getting major attention’ thing started after my first summer playing in Plymouth,” meaning that professional and college scouts began to come knocking on his door after seeing this young lefty strike out established hitters three and four years his senior. “Everybody wanted to know [me] and it has only gotten worse.

           “Directly, as in at my house, I have met with the Red Sox, Yankees, Braves, Brewers, Reds, Phillies, Royals, Devil Rays, Marlins, Blue Jays, White Sox, Indians, and the Twins,” said Locke when addressing what teams have shown the most interest in his services. Representatives from every Major League team except the Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics were present at the first Kennett game of 2006 alone. “The Braves, Yankees, and Red Sox have impressed me the most.” According to Locke, the Braves seemed most impressed with his talents, compounded by what he called an “infatuation” that the franchise has with high school pitchers.

           Along with all the attention, Locke has to face difficulties everyday in regards to protecting himself and his family. “Everybody says something about you now,” Locke pointed out emphatically when describing his current situation, “to the point where you will hear five different things about you a day and none of them are true. Everybody wants something but the problem is that everybody wants something for free. And nothing anymore is for free.”

           The pressures and expectations that Locke faces all the time have been tenuous, but by pacing himself he has not allowed it to consume his life. “I’d be lying if I said there was no pressure 24/7,” he said. “It sucks sometimes. It does get overwhelming sometimes but for the most part you just have to tuck it under your hat and do your job. I love pressure, though. Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and say ‘What’s going on?’ It’s really tough sometimes, but you know what? I’m having the time of my life.” To him, with all that is going on, being a senior in high school is “the easy part,” because of a reduced workload and is excited to see where the rest of the year takes him.

           When talking about his success and his drive to be a Major League pitcher, Locke never fails to mention his parents as the most important people in helping make his dreams into reality. “My parents have been as supportive as anyone could have been,” he said. “They’ve been there for me every step I’ve taken during my process to complete the unbelievable dream. I would have nothing right now if it was not for the support of my parents. They deserve as much credit as I do… My biggest influences in baseball have been my father and mother. They want me to make it more than anyone in the world.”

           Having his parents there for support has been terrific for Locke, because what he has gone through to this point and is still ahead will certainly not be easy. It is the general consensus, after many years of trials and research, that a majority of high school pitchers drafted by Major League clubs either never make it out of the minor leagues or do not have success once they get to the Majors. Today, many teams avoid high school pitchers in the draft and look towards more seasoned college players, ones that have faced a better overall sample of baseball talent compared to what Locke faces each time he takes the hill. But the scouts know what real talent is when they see it. Despite the fact that Locke has done most of his work against other public school players, these scouts would not have paid so much attention to Locke if they did not feel his talent was Major League-appropriate now.

           The player closest to Locke right now and over the years is his battery mate, Rob Knox. Knox, who has been playing with and catching Locke for the better part of the last ten springs, sees the tall lefty as not just a ballplayer and a friend, but as someone that carries the complete package to be a fine professional player. “He’s such an athlete,” said Knox. “He gives it his all, and he’s a real competitor. Jeff’s also a good kid and teammate.” Knox will himself be playing football and baseball at Norwich University in Vermont next year. “I hope Jeff succeeds. He’s got the ability, and I think he has qualities that would fit at the next level.”

           Locke is trying to focus right now on being the best player and leader he can be for the Kennett Eagles. “Kennett Baseball in 2006 will be a solid year,” he said when talking about the team he has given his heart and soul to for four years. “As for a state championship I’d like to hope so, but the past three years I’ve called on and never made it out of the 2nd round. But what I can promise you is that every player on the field will give it 110% all the time or they’ll find somewhere else to play.” Locke will be preparing for another playoff run when Draft Day rolls around on June 6, when he hopes to be getting that long-awaited call from an MLB team.

           “On June 6, I’m not looking for anything I don’t feel I’m worth,” Locke said when thinking about his expectations for the draft. “I think that it hopefully will be a great day for me and my family and friends. If I do not get chosen I am going to go to Chipola College in Marianna, Florida for a year and then hop back into the draft. I want to play professional baseball.” Chipola College, located on Florida’s Panhandle, is a nationally-renowned junior college for young baseball players, and has been the proving ground for dozens of Major League draftees like Adam Loewen (currently the top pitching prospect in the Baltimore Orioles organization) and Russell Martin (currently the Los Angeles Dodgers’ top catching prospect). By creating this safety net, Locke knows that should his foray into the Draft not work out this time around, the path towards his goal will go on.

           “My long term goal is to make it to the Show,” said Locke, referring to the glamorous spotlight of playing in the Major Leagues. Despite his talent, Locke also is aware of the work he’ll still have to do in order to get there. “I know I’m going to have to bust my ass everyday and do everything I can, because I have talked to a lot of ex-MLB’ers and they say it’s an everyday-every second process. All that I know is that I want to go to the place where little boys never grow up: The Bigs.”

           The Show doesn’t seem to be of the greatest interest to Locke as the game against Oyster River wears on. With a man on in the top of the sixth, and with a big lead in the game already, Locke is at the plate facing a pitcher throwing a good 15 mph slower than what he himself has dealt all day. After trying to work around the intimidating left-handed hitter, the Oyster River pitcher makes a grave error and tosses Locke a fastball right in the middle of the strike zone. Locke swings unmercifully and drills the ball deep over the right fielder’s head. There is no fence at this field, so the ball rolls almost onto Coe Drive, perhaps close to 500 feet from home plate. By the time the Oyster River fielders can reach the ball, Locke has already sped to third base and can jog home, a rare sight for an inside-the-park home run.

           This incredible show of strength affirms the fact that whenever Locke takes the field, he is on a totally different plane than his any of his colleagues. This is why the scouts are here, and why baseball people from coast to coast know the name Jeff Locke, the kid with a big smile, a big heart, and a big fastball from a small town of a couple thousand people. This is why baseball franchises, wanting so badly to field great teams people will watch, will go to the farthest reaches of America, and the world, to find any baseball talent, because that one player they might not pay attention to could beat them in Game 7 of the World Series. When a ballplayer can throw more than 90 mph, or can hit a baseball near 500 feet, people who pay those players money will, and must, take notice. This is why Jeff Locke knows he can be a professional baseball player; as long as he keeps his talents in tact and continues to be blessed with good health, Major League teams will continue to court his services. And if Locke gets what he feels he is due, one of the 30 teams in the Majors will have Locke in their farm system perhaps as early as this summer.

           After setting down the Bobcats in the bottom of the sixth, Locke is relieved for the seventh, the last inning for high school games in New Hampshire. The final pitching line for Locke on the day seems incredible but is only ordinary for him: six innings, one hit, one walk, one run allowed and eleven strikeouts. But when reflecting on his outing afterwards, the genial and gregarious Locke deflected the credit off himself and towards the people around him.

           “I felt good,” Locke stated simply, “I felt good and strong, and confident with my defense behind me. This year we have a lot of seniors, and the truth is that there are three outfielders that know what they are doing out there. We look good, but now I guess all I have to worry about is my next start.”

***

MLB: 2013 American League Preview

I’ve been doing an American League preview for as long as I’ve been blogging, which means the first year I did it was 2005. It’s taken various forms through the years, with it happening in audio form in recent times.

With the 2013 MLB season upon us in just a few days, I decided to slap together a few thoughts on each of the 15 (yes, it’s 15 now) teams that will comprise the Junior Circuit.

I won’t be making predictions about where each club will finish in the standings this year because I pretty much always get them wrong. I was the same guy who boldly predicted the Orioles would come in last in the AL East last year. No more egg on my face, please.

Instead, each team is presented in alphabetical order by division, working east to west. Feel free to critique me in the comments if you think I’m way off base. Enjoy.

AL EAST

BALTIMORE: It’s probably safe to say the Orioles played a little over their heads last year. Nearly every pitcher had a great year and their lineup came together really well for once. But Dan Duquette didn’t really add anyone this winter. Will Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen really produce at that level again? Adam Jones and Matt Wieters are stars and they have truly insane pitching depth. But I can’t seem them repeating 93 wins this year.

BOSTON: After their worst season in 20 years, the Red Sox set out to remake everything about their club this winter. Success in 2013 will be predicated on their five starters and the health of their position players. The bullpen appears to be their strength, but that’s not enough to be successful for 162 games. I’m banking on John Farrell making the right adjustments and getting strong years from Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey.

NEW YORK: The problem the last few years for the Yankees has been their age. They did literally nothing this winter to address that and in fact got older by bringing back most of their 2012 team save Nick Swisher. Now they are battling significant injuries with so many veterans. They still have CC Sabathia, a solid offense and Mariano Rivera’s farewell tour. But this will certainly be Joe Girardi’s toughest test yet as a manager.

TAMPA BAY: It’s a major testament to what Andrew Friedman has built that he could lose BJ Upton, trade away James Shields and still be a favorite to win a division title. I don’t know if Fernando Rodney can do it again, but their rotation (which will probably be entirely homegrown once again) is the absolute class of the league and their offense should be great with a full healthy season of Evan Longoria. Even adding a malcontent like Yunel Escobar won’t derail the Rays.

TORONTO: Fighting for relevancy for years, the Blue Jays finally made some big moves to grab baseball’s attention. They added three new starting hurlers, an All-Star at shortstop and are taking a chance on Melky Cabrera. But I heard one interesting theory on these new-look Jays: They essentially combined two last-place teams for their 2013 squad. Will that equal success, with a manager in Jon Gibbons who always seemed overmatched his first time in Toronto?

AL CENTRAL

CHICAGO: It won’t be surprising to see the White Sox contending once again, thanks in no small part to their solid if still fragile rotation. The top three in their rotation is gangbusters but health is usually a concern for Chris Sale and Jake Peavy. Adam Dunn is back to his old ways, Paul Konerko remains ageless, a very good OF of Dayan Viciedo, Alejandro de Aza and Alex Rios has formed. There’s no reason why this club won’t be in it all year.

CLEVELAND: The Indians are trying to win now. You don’t go out and hire Terry Francona, give up high draft picks for Swisher and Michael Bourn and trade for the likes of Drew Stubbs and Trevor Bauer without making an attempt to make the postseason for the first time since 2007. But it remains to be seen if their starting pitching will carry them to October. They’ve created a surplus of outfielders, one of whom could be dealt off for a starter if needed.

DETROIT: Despite some improvements to other teams in the division, it’s hard for me to see how the Tigers don’t win the Central again. They have the division’s best pitcher and best hitter, added a still-relevant Torii Hunter and are getting Victor Martinez back as another acquisition of sorts. The bullpen is an area of concern but they have enough talent back there I’m confident it’ll sort itself out. My money is on the insane Phil Coke taking the closer job.

KANSAS CITY: Like Toronto, KC finally realized they needed to do SOMETHING to be relevant. Wil Myers is totally legit and I don’t think the Royals got the better of that trade, yet Shields is a strike-throwing, bad-ass mofo ace. They have a dangerous lineup and a fine back-end of their bullpen with four legit closing options. But past Shields they have no one in the rotation they can rely on. That will keep them from finishing in the top half of the division.

MINNESOTA: The Twins have hit a rough patch after many years of consistent success. The reason? Their usually solid starting rotation has dried up in terms of talent. Their ace was supposed to be Scott Diamond and he’s starting the year on the shelf after elbow surgery. That their next best starter is probably Vance Worley doesn’t bode well for their chances of losing fewer than 90 games. Does Joe Mauer go to bed at night wondering why he signed that extension?

AL WEST

HOUSTON: I am not going to get used to the idea of the Astros being in the AL for a long, long time. But for now, it doesn’t really matter. There is absolutely, unequivocally no chance the Astros lose fewer than 100 games this year. In fact, they’ll defy expectations this year by losing fewer than 120 games. That’s how bad they truly are. Yet, strangely, it’s a franchise that’s headed in the right direction overall after so many years with no hope.

LOS ANGELES: With the signing of Josh Hamilton, the Angels can now sport three of the greatest baseball talents of the last decade-plus in one lineup. The best days of Hamilton and Albert Pujols are probably in their rearview, but that can’t overshadow the best days of Mike Trout that hopefully lie ahead. After not retaining Zack Greinke, their rotation has question marks. I’m not sure if there’s enough here to overtake the other two strong teams in this division.

OAKLAND: The 2012 A’s defied all the odds, pulling off a miraculous comeback to get to the playoffs, winning a round before bowing out to Detroit. Billy Beane did not rest, remaking his middle infield and adding the underrated John Jaso to catch. Oakland has a tremendous bullpen and a potentially devastating starting rotation. Yoenis Cespedes will be a super-duper star this year. They should not need another miracle to contend all season.

SEATTLE: It’s always the same story with the Mariners: so much pitching prowess but nowhere near enough pop to be a real threat. I can’t see the story changing much this year. Felix Hernandez remains the best pitcher in this division and Tom Wilhelmsen is the best closer you’ve never heard of. But unless the likes of Jesus Montero, Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley find their way at the plate (all had sub-.300 OBPs last year), they won’t get out of the cellar in 2013.

TEXAS: I feel like people are sleeping on the Rangers this year, and probably with good reason after dropping Hamilton and Mike Napoli, trading away Michael Young, losing the Greinke sweepstakes and with Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz coming back from surgery. But Ron Washington seems expert at getting the most out of his guys. There’ll be excitement when Jurickson Profar, the sport’s top prospect, gets regular playing time at some point this year.

“It Is Designed To Break Your Heart”

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped and summer was gone.” – A. Bartlett Giamatti, MLB Commissioner 1989, Die-Hard Red Sox fan

Just like that it happened.

Just like that it ended.

Just like that, I was stunned.

Wednesday night is the kind you dream of as a baseball fan. The kind you long for when winter grips you, when spring arrives in earnest, when the summer drags on, when fall brings these potential contests. In both leagues, so many things regarding the Wild Card races were unresolved. This was a night that so many millions of fans will never forget.

I won’t ever forget this night. As much as I might like to.

The phrase I keep coming back to is it never should have come to this. When Papelbon came in to get three outs to ensure at worst a 163rd game, it never should have come that. The Red Sox started the season 2-10 and ended the year 7-20. In between they went 81-42, had a high-powered offense, deep starting pitching and a tough bullpen. They played smart, they played hard, they had a good manager, they stayed mostly healthy and had a nine game lead on Sept. 1.

It never should have come to this. Had the Red Sox won one more measly contest not just in September but at any time during the season, none of this would have happened. But throughout September, everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. They lost to good teams. They lost to bad teams. They lost to teams with nothing to play for. Their starting pitching, even key cogs like Lester and Beckett, couldn’t get people out. So many players got hurt and couldn’t contribute. The bullpen was overtaxed. The offense could not come through in key spots. They made incredibly stupid plays on the basepaths. Beat writers were talking about the team getting way too comfortable at the worst possible time.

Outside of Ellsbury, Pedroia, Aceves, Scutaro and Papelbon, it barely seemed like this team had a pulse for a whole month, at the same time a red-blooded crew with a $40 million payroll in Tampa was rolling off win after win and killing the Red Sox head-to-head. After weeks of crazy games, it all came down to one night.

Right now it’s hard to remember everything I just watched. The Yankees took a 7-0 lead and appeared to be cruising to an easy victory while parading out meek arm after meek arm. Pedroia went deep, Scutaro gunned down a runner at the plate, and pulled one of the sickest double plays of the season to keep the game at 3-2. Lester gave everything he had on three days rest and kept the team in the game. Meanwhile, I knew deep down that score in Tampa would not stick.

In Baltimore the rains came. Right at that time, the Rays finally started making noise, finishing with a homer from Longoria in the 8th. OK. The Yankees still have a one run lead. All they have to do is get three outs and it makes everything else easier. The Sox would at least be guaranteed of a game tomorrow.

Two quick outs for Corey Wade. Then Dan Johnson pinch hit for Fuld. Two strikes. One strike away…and he drilled it off the foul pole. I doubled over.

The Yankees had tapped out all options. Michael Kay said the remainder of guys available included Scott Proctor and that was it. Proctor, who blew the game against the Sox on Sunday night, has long been the butt of jokes about how Joe Torre abused his arm during his first stint in New York. Now Joe Girardi was going to abuse him until the game ended, i.e., until the Rays walked off with the win. After being down 7-0.

The Sox came back on. Between a few hiccups, Aceves and Bard got the job done. As has been the case all month, the hitters left men on base in key spots. Scutaro should have just kept running. Gonzalez was intentionally walked three times tonight because apparently Buck Showalter figured out Ryan Lavarnway, who went 0-5 and nine of the team’s 18 LOB tonight were his responsibility.

Meanwhile Proctor was actually getting people out in Tampa, although by the 11th he was clearly running out of steam. In the 12th, the Yankees put a couple guys on base with no outs and appeared poised to go ahead. This was happening right as Papelbon was entering the game, the Red Sox a whopping 77-0 before tonight when leading after the 8th inning.

In that moment, I felt good. Papelbon got two outs quick. It looked like Game 163 wouldn’t happen. Then Greg Golson got thrown out at third trying to score on a ground ball. And Chris Davis laced a double down the right field line in Baltimore.

One pitch away. So many times.

The Rays got out of their inning. Yet again, Proctor returned to the hill.

I watched each pitch of each game with crazy intent. Papelbon has been a rock this year. Just before these last few difficult appearances, he went a solid three months without a truly bad outing. The kind of contract year players dream about. But he got worked hard Sunday. And he got worked hard last night. Now tonight they needed him to come through again and he seemed up to the task.

Did the workload catch up to him? I don’t know. He gave up a ground rule double to Reimold to tie the game then Robert Andino, the kind of faceless villain who always seems to crop up season after season, drove a sinking liner to left field.

Everyone will want to point to Crawford’s inability to come up with the ball as a microcosm of a first season in Boston I’m sure he’s already tried to forget. But it wasn’t an easy play. It dropped in. Reimold scored. And it ends.

It could not have been more than three minutes. Just long enough to watch the long stares of everyone in the Red Sox dugout. Even though the scoreboard hadn’t been updated, people in Tampa knew. It would just take one run and their comeback would be complete.

Longoria. Who else could it have been? Line shot. Ball game. Jubilation in Tampa.

Stunned silence everywhere east of New York.

Stunned.

You live each day with your team in sports. It doesn’t matter what sport, although baseball elicits the most emotion for me at least. Baseball is the longest of all the regular seasons. Each day you go about your life but come home at night and the game that means nothing of true significance becomes your personal respite. For me, I eat and drink it every day. Every aspect. I’m not as hardcore as I was before bills and jobs and responsibilities. But baseball is still a huge part of my life.

I have watched my team reach the highest of highs twice. I have watched my other three teams reach the highest of their highs a total of five times in just the last 10 years.

But as I’ve said before, you don’t think about that in these moments. The moments when you feel like everything you just invested so much time and energy in was a waste.

All year I believed this team had greatness in them. I still believe they did. September was an astounding amalgam of suck for the Red Sox. I have never seen anything like it, and I sure as hell hope I never see it again.

The 2012 version of this team could be different in about a zillion ways. We could have seen the final games in Boston for so many heroes, including Wakefield, Varitek, Ortiz, Papelbon, Drew and potentially others. Francona could go. Theo could go. The whole training and medical staff could (and probably should) go.

This horrible collapse is compounded by the unknown, especially since the looming free agent season is paltry at best unless you need a first baseman, which the Red Sox don’t.

The Boston Red Sox, perhaps the strongest franchise in professional sports over the last decade, have not won a playoff game since 2008 and have missed the playoffs two years in a row. I know a lot of teams would kill for what I just described. But this isn’t acceptable.

I feel tremendous for Tampa Bay. They have a fantastic young team and they deserved to go to the playoffs. I will root for the three non-New York AL playoff teams. I don’t begrudge the Yankees for the way they managed the series against Tampa. I do begrudge the fans who basked in their own team losing so the Red Sox wouldn’t get into the playoffs. Way to show your true colors.

It all comes back to the games, to the incredible evening of baseball I just witnessed. Had I not been a fan of one of the teams involved it would have been much more enjoyable. When Ken Burns updates “Baseball” once again in 2025, this night should serve as its opening.

It will be an amazing story.

But I’m not sure I’ll be able to watch.

Because it will break my heart.

It is designed to break my heart.

MLB: A Sox Fan’s View of Derek Jeter

Robert Sabo/NY Daily News

While my stathead brethren would probably find a way to disagree, the true essence of baseball is the base hit. It’s what every hitter who’s ever picked up a stick of ash or maple (or aluminum, yecccchh) has tried to do at the plate. It’s what every pitcher on the mound and every fielder on the diamond has tried to prevent.

Some years ago it was decided 3,000 hits was the gold standard by which hitters in Major League Baseball would be measured. Before Saturday, just 27 men in history had reached that plateau. Derek Jeter blew the number away on Saturday, collecting five hits and notching 3,000 on a third-inning dinger off David Price.

Jeter made his MLB debut on May 29, 1995, a month after I turned nine. I’m now 25 with a job and bills to pay, but Jeter is still hitting, maybe not at the same clip as during his peak years of the late ’90s and early ’00s, but he’s still Jeter.

As a Red Sox fan for the last 20 years, I’ve watched Derek Jeter’s entire career from the other side. I’ve watched thousands of his at-bats, hundreds of those 3,003 hits and innumerable plays from his perch at shortstop for the last 16 years.

Immediately after he got his 3,000th hit, I tweeted a congratulatory message, but I couldn’t resist throwing in a barb about how Jeter is the most overrated player in baseball history. I believe this to be true: considering the attention paid to Jeter and the Yankees for the entirety of his career, the team and city for which he plays, his position on the field and the adherence so many baseball observers still hold to “intangibles” like leadership, class and “being a true Yankee,” Jeter’s play has been significantly inflated by media and fans through the years.

If Jeter had done the same things in Houston, or Kansas City, or Pittsburgh, there’s simply no way he’d have received the same accolades and pronouncements of immortality. Sure, Jeter is an all-time great shortstop. But he’s not the greatest, and he might not be in the top five, either.

The fact that Jeter is overrated isn’t his fault. And it could just be my anti-Yankees bias that informs this opinion. Really, I wish I could hate Derek Jeter. I wish I could have hated everything he’s done these past 16 years. I wish I could say he’s a jerk and an asshole and someone I despise with every fiber of my being.

But I can’t. Because none of that is true. It’s because of who Derek Jeter is that I sit here, having watched more of him than any non-Red Sox player in my two decades following this game, that I sit here in praise, and awe, of his accomplishments.

I define Jeter by his excellence in October (and November). Jeter has missed the playoffs just once in his career and sports an .850 OPS in 679 postseason plate appearances. I’ve seen so many of his playoff triumphs that it’s hard to remember them all: the Jeffrey Maier homer; the single most heads-up defensive play in baseball history; when he became Mr. November; his double that touched off the rally against Pedro in 2003 ALCS Game 7; and every time they won the World Series over the last 15 seasons, every time I was in the fetal position because of the Yankees’ successes, Jeter has been at the center of each moment.

I wish I could hate him for those moments. I do. But I can’t. And I know I’m not the only Red Sox fan that feels this way.

Jeter is a throwback. Every one of his 3,003 hits have been collected in the same uniform. George Brett can say that. Cal Ripken can say that. So can Robin Yount, Tony Gwynn and Craig Biggio. Those are five of my favorite players of all-time, and five guys who were loyal to one city and one group of fans during an era of rampant free agency. Jeter can now etch his name among them. The Yankees had the foresight to lock up Jeter to a 10-year pact during his absolute prime and they’ll probably wind up regretting his current deal based on the kind of performance they’ll get.

But I realized early in Jeter’s career that he would be a Yankee for life. He will never play for another team. He’ll quit before that happens. And that’s what I respect about him the most. I might hate the team he plays for and the fans he adores, but I love his devotion to that team and those fans. It’s palpable in everything he does.

In 16 years, I’ve never seen Derek Jeter give up on a play. In 16 years, I’ve never seen Derek Jeter not run out a ground ball or a pop up. In 16 years, I’ve never seen Derek Jeter show up a teammate or another player. In 16 years, I’ve never seen Derek Jeter disrespect anything except a hanging slider or a belt-high fastball.

If I ever have a son, and that son were to play baseball, there is no player that I’d want him to emulate more than Derek Jeter.

As a Red Sox fan, it’s a hard thing to admit. But as a baseball fan, it’s the highest compliment I can pay to any player.

Warning: NSFW language in video.